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The Way a Fool Would Do

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You never really know what you’re getting into, when you choose to take a soulmate. Before Quentin had bound himself to Eliot, he’d been forced to endure the normal barrage of questions from the Fillorian Soul Council, and then a separate barrage of questions from his cousin Julia, who had nitpicked his choice down to the marrow, pouring concern after concern into Quentin’s already terrified brain.

He’d been so frustrated with her at the time, but in retrospect he can’t blame her for her caution. The fact is, no matter how much you prepare, no matter how much you think you’ve thought it all through, binding another soul to your own is unlike anything else in the world. It is impossible to know how it will feel until it’s already too late to turn back.

When Quentin thinks about those first couple of days, the overwhelming swell of emotion, the elation and devastation, the knowledge, seeping into his bones, that he’d never be alone again, all the good and the unforeseen pain of such a thing… he and Eliot had been unable to bear the slightest disconnection for over a week, weepy and clingy and loving each other and hating each other so very much, the sinews of their inner selves entangling until Quentin had worried he’d forget who he was supposed to be on his own, without El there to define him. And Eliot had worried about the same thing back. Quentin knows, because Quentin had felt that worry echoed back inside his head.

They’d been warned it would be that way, but there are no words that could ever prepare someone for it. And after the settling, after they’d learned to moderate and control the elastic limits of the bond, it became, as Quentin had known it would be, the most precious truth of his whole world. Eliot Waugh, his soulmate. Quentin Coldwater, with a soulbond, the tattooed rune stark and black against the skin by his left hip bone. The power, the status, the comfort, the peace, it was all more than Quentin had ever thought he’d be lucky enough to enjoy.

He almost hadn’t agreed.

Now, the thought of not being Eliot’s soulmate is horrifying to him, in the very real sense of the word horror. But when El had asked him, he’d hesitated, because even at the tender age of fourteen, he’d been well aware of the way his heart and body reacted to Eliot’s very presence. He’d wondered, painfully often, what it would be like to place his hands along the expanse of Eliot’s ribs, how it would feel to press their lips together. And doing what they had done, binding themselves together forever more… it meant he’d never get to find out.

Ultimately, it was a stupid reason to hesitate over saying yes to the best and most precious relationship in his whole life. It’s not even like he was giving anything up that he already had—the whole hypothetical depended on Eliot wanting to kiss him back, after all. And El loved him, obviously, but it had never been like that for him, not even as a fleeting adolescent thought.

So Q had said yes, and Julia had smiled and supported him, and he’d emerged on the other side more happy than he’d known it was possible to be.

In the old days, as Q knows from reading history books with his tutors, soulmates were arranged like political marriages. Important Fillorian families matched up their young ones, bonding them at incredibly young ages and tying the fates of entire political factions to one another through the soulrune, emblazoned upon youthful skin.

Nowadays, modern society balks at such callous and profane treatment of something so fundamentally life-altering. Children have to reach the oh-so-wizened age of fifteen before they’re allowed to create a soulbond, and many people wait until they’re much older, despite some evidence that this dilutes the power of the bond. In addition to this, the two would-be soulmates must undergo vigorous compatibility testing and affirm their devotion to the bond over a period of months before it can be approved by the council.

Lord Eliot Waugh of Broken Lineage asks Lord Quentin Coldwater of the Third House of the Crashing Sea, to be his soulmate at age fourteen, a full year before they’re allowed to actually create the bond.

Quentin agonizes over the decision for two full days, returning to find Eliot pale with lack of sleep, desperate for a response. Saying yes is one of the happiest memories of his life. He can still close his eyes and see the way relief and elation had bloomed across El’s young face, the way they’d jumped into each other’s arms and laughed in unmitigated joy like a couple of loons, until one of Q’s family’s stewards caught them jumping on the couches in the sitting room and had frowned at them censoriously until they’d calmed down.

And they get all the pesky testing and affirmations and council debates out of the way, so that by the time Quentin turns fifteen, a full seven months after Eliot, they’re ready to make the commitment. It’s the greatest thing that’s ever happened to them both, after the first few impossible, unspeakable days of adjustment. They walk around Castle Whitespire for months with an extra bounce in their step, enjoying the looks of awe and fear that follow them wherever they go, as they luxuriate in the full golden glow of magic’s most sacred gift.

Quentin likes to think he didn’t know he was in love with Eliot when he bonded with him.

Or certainly he hadn’t known when he first agreed. He likes to think that his desire to belong to Eliot had been as pure as everyone always says soulmates are supposed to be. That at the tender young age of fourteen, he’d been genuine when he’d turned to his dearest friend in the world, held his hands tight, and promised to stay with him forever. That if he had once briefly thought of Eliot’s body in a less than brotherly way, it was nothing more than a consequence of puberty. Insignificant, in the face of what they are to each other now.

Never mind that eight years later, he still can’t imagine himself loving anyone else. Never mind that the thought of his more-or-less required marriage to an eligible member of the Fillorian nobility makes Quentin’s stomach hurt so bad he keeps waking El up in the middle of the night with the pain of it. Never mind the shameful times he’s built up the walls extra high around his mind, blocking his soulmate from seeing into him, as he touches himself picturing the graceful lines of El’s hands, bucking and coming at the thought of letting the mental walls slip, letting El know what Q’s doing on the other side of the barrier...

But maybe Quentin had known. Maybe, despite the desperately strong joy he carries with him every day, merely knowing his soul belongs to Eliot, he did something wrong, in agreeing all those years ago. Maybe it was deceitful, maybe Eliot would be horrified to know he’d bound himself forever more to a man who can’t stop lusting after his soulmate, the deepest and most forbidden taboo there is.

It’s a moot point, either way. Attraction is fleeting, or so he’s been told. Love is fickle. Even marriage need not be permanent or restrictive, if spouses prove to be less than compatible. There’s nothing permanent under the sun, with one exception.

Soulmates are forever, and forever with Eliot is exactly what Quentin has always wanted.

*****

Eliot wakes up slowly, his head fuzzy with strange dreams. As is his habit, he reaches first inside his mind to find the thread of the bond, searching for Q along the length of it, reorienting his waking consciousness to the presence of another. In sleep, things can get blurry between them, and it always takes a minute to remind himself of who he is, and who Q is, and the boundaries that must exist between those two things.

Today, there is no murkiness. Quentin has attempted to keep his side of the bond blocked, so Eliot can feel only the baseline fact of his presence and nothing more. But something unpleasant and miserable is leaking through Quentin’s shoddy protections.

Eliot frowns, sighs, squirms into his comfortable mattress for another minute, and then stands up, making his way to the door that connects his chambers directly to Quentin’s.

He nudges at Quentin through the bond, a gentle caress. Sometimes, if they’re close to one another physically and concentrating really hard, they can pass complex thoughts directly into one another’s minds, and have almost entire conversations without saying a word. This is considered extremely rare and the sign of a particularly strong bond, but Eliot and Q don’t go around bragging about such things, for obvious reasons. Usually, sensations, feelings, general impressions and inquiries can pass between them easily. This morning, Eliot lets a gentle inquisitiveness pass through the bond, a tentative let me in.

He feels Quentin’s hesitation, and then a mournful acceptance, and Eliot swings the unlocked door open between them.

“Hey, Q,” Eliot says out loud, his voice a practiced balance between cheerful and commiserating. His soulmate is not a fan of condescension, but it’s simply a fact that sometimes the poor boy requires some coddling.

“Four,” Quentin says, before Eliot can ask.

The scale of Quentin’s Melancholy is from one to ten, with one being his baseline everyday tendency towards pessimism, and ten being… well, Eliot has only seen Quentin at a ten one time, and it’s not a memory he’s keen to revisit first thing in the morning.

“You know what that means,” Eliot tells him firmly, squatting down next to the lump of Quentin on the bed. He reaches a hand out and brushes hair out of his squished face, fingers tracing the creases of linen against his skin. Eliot’s heart lurches with the familiar wish that he could climb into the bed beside Quentin, fold their bodies together. He wants to have woken up here, beside him, instead of in the next room over. He ignores the longing. He’s long since gotten used to it.

“I don’t wanna,” Quentin says, petulant.

“You’re the one who said four.”

“That’s because you won’t let me get away with lying,” Quentin says. Eliot tugs on his elbow and Quentin sighs, sitting up with apparently extreme effort. Four means he feels like garbage, but actually leaving his room, getting some food, and forcing himself through normal routines will probably make it better. Five means he gets to stay in and be treated like an invalid, at least for a day.

“Here’s what you’re going to do,” Eliot says, slipping affection and sturdiness along to Quentin through the bond, lending him whatever mental strength he can. “You’re going to freshen up, get dressed, come to the breakfast room, and I’ll have all your favorites waiting for you before we’ve got check-in.”

Quentin squints at him, frowning, but his own walls are slipping even further, and Eliot can feel his reluctant acquiescence, his gratitude. “What did I ever do to deserve you?”

Eliot smiles, pretends his heart isn’t constricting painfully in his chest. Breathe through it, and it’ll go away. “A question not even the gods can answer.” He tilts his head, quirks an eyebrow, and pulls Quentin to standing, tugging him forward to place a kiss against his forehead. “Now hurry up. Your gloominess made me sleep in.”

Quentin gives him the mental equivalent of an eye-roll, his face remaining passive and innocent. Eliot quirks a mental eyebrow at him right back, a silent try me, Coldwater. Quentin sighs dramatically, then turns to get ready for his day.

*****

After breakfast, which does indeed seem to perk Quentin up a bit, to Eliot’s delight, they head together for the Magician’s Hall. This full wing of Castle Whitespire is dedicated to the noble-blooded magic users of Fillory, and has been decorated with an austere grandeur that equals that of the Chatwin’s royal residence elsewhere in the castle, but still maintains its own unique flavor. This part of the castle feels utilitarian, like people use the space for useful things instead of merely to awe visitors with the splendor of noble riches.

It is here that they will get their assignments for the day, from their boss, Henry Fogg of the Sixth House of the Crystal Lake. He’s been in the position for nearly two decades now, and spends his days wrangling the magically gifted members of all of Fillory’s most noble houses. It’s not a job Eliot envies. He knows for a fact he was a nightmare to handle when he’d first arrived, aged ten, grieving and angry, lashing out at anyone who tried to offer him a kind word.

(And Henry Fogg is not much for kind words to begin with.)

These days the Master of Magical Operations is forced to treat Eliot with some measure of respect. Eliot’s a fully adult Lord of Fillory now, after all, despite his broken lineage. He’d once been of a Fourth House, before losing it, and even those who no longer retain their house’s title still often carry the imprint of prestige their absent house would have granted them. And more important than the unwanted remains of his family’s honor following him around, Eliot is in possession of a soulmate. He’s bonded, in fact, to a member of a Third House. Fogg, while nominally a member of a Noble House, is only a Sir, and not a Lord. If it rankles him, his relative unimportance compared to his students, Fogg never shows it.

“Good morning, gentlemen,” Fogg greets them when Eliot and Quentin enter the room. Julia Wicker of the Third House of the Razed Forest is already there, as is Alice Quinn of the Second House of the Eagles’ Roost. They’re missing a few of their usual number, but Fogg explains their absences before Eliot and Quentin have even found their seats.

“I’ve sent Penny and Kady out early this morning,” he declares, and Eliot feels a stir of confusion and alarm zing along the bond from Quentin. He echoes it back automatically, settling down on one of the uncomfortable stone benches around the perimeter of the room.

They all come here every morning for an assignment, but it’s been months since there’s been anything at all to do. Usually they get perfunctory instructions to maintain their regular patrol and report back with anything unusual, and the rest of their time is their own. Eliot has gotten used to the luxury of the rich and titled, has almost come to view his duties as an appointed member of the Magician’s Court as nothing more than a symbolic role.

“What happened?” Quentin asks, leaning slightly closer into Eliot’s space, for comfort. Eliot can feel the urge in his soulmate to go burrow under blankets and hide himself from the world. It’s a bad day for something unusual to be happening, something that might throw Quentin’s shaky equilibrium further out of alignment. Eliot tries not to let himself be irritated with Fogg for this. He’s only the messenger, after all.

“Some strange activity, in the Orchards,” Fogg says.

The Southern Orchards is a large and sweeping forest, so named because in the ancient days of Fillory the land there was cultivated, only to later grow wild and untamable. There are still patches of the forest where the trees grow in oddly uniform lines, or where fresh fruit swings invitingly low on hanging branches. It’s a deeply magical place, but usually benign, as long as the local folk don’t upset the balance by taking too many creatures for food, or felling too many trees for fuel.

It’s also too close to Castle Whitespire for comfort, if indeed something more sinister is making itself known.

“Strange in what way?” Julia asks, biting her lower lip.

“Strange in…” Fogg tilts his head, as if trying to decide how to put it. “A human way.”

There could hardly have been a more alarming answer to Julia’s question. Eliot shifts in his seat, grabbing Q’s wrist in his hand without looking. His anchor, through anything and everything. “The Beast?”

Fogg gives Eliot a shrewd look. Eliot’s early interactions with the Beast are not spoken of in polite company, but they’re hardly a secret. He can feel every eye in the room turned to look at him. Except Q, who doesn’t have to look to know exactly the mix of emotions rocketing through him at the very thought. It’s been thirteen years since the Beast… but why would he turn up now? And why in the Orchards?

“No,” Fogg says. Then, after a pause, “well, I should be more precise. Early reports suggest not. But the magic is foreign and powerful, and we cannot identify the caster.”

Every magician in Fillory is known to the Crown. There are so precious few of them, it seems impossible that anyone could have slipped through the cracks. An unknown caster can only mean a caster from somewhere else. Loria, maybe, or the Wandering Hoard. In any case, not good.

“And you sent Kady and Penny out there alone?” Alice asks, managing to straddle the line between a genuine question and outright chastisement of their de facto boss. She is of a Second House, the highest ranking person in the room. She can get away with speaking to anyone however she wishes, and has become an expert at deploying the privilege selectively.

Fogg raises an eyebrow at her. He’d hardly have maintained his position without standing firm in the face of the nobility’s caprices. “No, indeed I did not. I sent them to scout the perimeter. They are not to enter, and not to engage, but to come straight back here to report their findings.”

Eliot’s unease only grows. He knows Pen and Kady about as well as he knows anybody. If something dangerous tries to poke its nose out of the shelter of the trees, their curiosity and lust for a good fight will get the better of them. They’ve been itching for conflict for weeks, now.

“And then what?” Julia asks, but Fogg hardly needs to answer.

“Then, pending their report, we’ll send in our best.” He lifts an eyebrow in Eliot and Quentin’s direction. “Unless the two of you have any objections?”

A frisson of fear passes between the two of them, and Eliot can’t even tell if it originated with himself or with Quentin. They’re used to strange magics, to threatening animals and plants that would kill you as soon as look at you. But human threats… the idea of fighting a fellow human magician, one of the few granted the mysterious and bounteous gift of the Chatwins… well, they’ve trained for it. But short of the Beast reappearing at last, it had always seemed a hypothetical consideration.

“No objections,” Quentin says, a little too loudly. “It’s our honor to serve.”

Eliot disagrees, and he lets Quentin know without moving a muscle. It’s hardly an honor, no matter the titles and how they dress it up for the masses. It’s more like the only work men like them are likely to get.

But this is an old argument.

“Want to go warm up?” Eliot asks his partner in everything. “You can come watch,” he continues, turning to Alice and Julia and quirking his lip up at the corner. “If you’re looking for some combat pointers.”

“His ego truly astounds,” Julia says to Alice with an eye-roll. And then she turns to Quentin. “Keep that soulmate of yours in his place, Q.”

Q and Eliot stand together, moving in fluid harmony towards the door. “Oh, he’s in his place,” Quentin says, teasing reassurance in every word. He curls a hand around Eliot’s elbow, like he’s staking a claim.

*****

Sparring with Eliot is one of Quentin’s most treasured daily activities. It is exquisite torture, of course, to move his body in rhythm with El’s, to touch him, to pin him to the ground, to be pinned to the ground, to smell the sweat of his exertion. But it’s also the only way he gets to have any of it, and he tries, he really tries, not to be a pervert about it when at all possible.

It’s not just his overactive imagination that makes the activity fun for him. There really is something so pure and exalted and freeingly physical about the action, an art to their magic and their bodies, proof positive to the world of how perfectly they fit together. Whenever visiting noble children come to the castle, especially those who are considering soulbonding for themselves, Eliot and Quentin are asked to put on a little exhibition of their combined talents.

They’re stunning together, their instincts and their minds working always in uncanny unison. Eliot throws knives over his shoulder and Quentin catches them between his hands without looking. Quentin allows Eliot to trip him up so he can roll into a full flip and land on his feet. He blocks blows before Eliot has moved to make them. When they’re fighting one another, it turns into a performance, more often than not. Good exercise, a fine honing of skills. A system in perfect balance.

Quentin remembers the first time he and El had ever sparred. It was only a week or so after they had first met, two children with no idea what they would become to each other.

Eliot had shown up at the Coldwater estate, a wiry tall youth ten years of age, declared himself of Broken Lineage, and all but demanded sanctuary as the old laws of Fillory required. Lord Theodore Coldwater, Head of the Third House of the Crashing Sea, would have granted him sanctuary even if he’d been a nobody from nowhere, and in fact at first, both young Quentin and his father had assumed that was exactly what he was.

It hadn’t mattered—they’d taken him in, gotten him food and warm water and a place to sleep, and then the next morning, allowed him to unburden himself of his story.

It had been… quite the story. It had started with a dramatic bang, with the loss of Eliot’s parents, the Lord and Lady of a Fourth House of Fillory. Eliot, even as frightened and shaken as he had clearly been, had been thorough in describing the strange and terrible Beast who had cut them down right in front of Eliot. And then his miraculous escape, the way he’d run, and hadn’t stopped running until he’d found somewhere he thought he might be safe.

Quentin remembers hearing the story, and finding that kind of strength miraculous. He’d been in awe of this strange half-starved boy, the way he’d appeared out of nowhere to take up all the space in an estate otherwise gloomy and uninteresting. And he’d never met someone of Broken Lineage before. He’d always been warned that such people were ill luck, having lost the protection of their house, but Eliot had seemed as noble and honorable as anyone else Quentin had ever met.

And just a couple of days later, Eliot had found Quentin in the gymnasium, working on his battle magic and physical fighting technique with his Master. Eliot had insisted on a duel. Quentin, startled at his vehemence, had said yes. And then had been summarily destroyed.

Quentin knows now, of course, why Eliot had insisted on fighting him. It had been a power play, a way to assert some form of dominance in a situation where he felt unmoored and without a single advantage. But at the time, Quentin had been dismayed at this stranger’s fierce skill and violent behavior.

Sparring was one thing, but Eliot had done something else when he’d slammed Quentin’s sturdy body to the ground, ignoring the boundaries of the safety mats, and forcing him to tap out his defeat against the floor. Quentin hadn’t minded losing to a worthy opponent, but he couldn’t believe the uncouth and ungentlemanly way that some random refugee of a nearly destroyed fourth house had dared to behave in such a way to the future master of the house where he’d claimed sanctuary.

Eliot had been proud of his victory at first, but then uncertain and afraid when Quentin had informed him that Theodore Coldwater wasn’t going to take kindly to a stranger entering his home and doing physical damage to his only son and heir.

Quentin had in fact been quite sure that if he told his father what Eliot had done to him, Eliot would be sent away. He’d wanted to do it, run to his father, take back some measure of the authority that Eliot had stripped from him in battle. But he didn’t. He didn’t, because even at the very start, even despite his humiliation and anger, Q hadn’t wanted Eliot to go away. Eliot was the most interesting thing that had ever happened to him, the first spark of life he’d managed to find since his mother had died. So instead, Quentin had kept quiet, he’d used clumsy magic to heal up his split lip, and he’d won Eliot’s loyalty from that moment forward.

Nowadays, Eliot would probably rather ritually flog himself than cause Quentin even a twinge of unnecessary pain. The point of their sparring is no longer who wins, although Eliot is still usually the one who comes out on top, due to what he would describe as a “scrappy childhood”.

Instead, working together in this way is more about refining their technique, preparing themselves for the rare occasions when they have to fight something else, for the protection of Fillory and the Crown.

Alone on the practice mats on the training hall, and without the need for a single word between them, they slip into a familiar formation. A few hand-to-hand rounds ending with Quentin on his back, El’s hands pinning his shoulders to the mat. Then they add some force magic, then introduce practice blades. Quentin actually gets one in under Eliot’s guard towards the end of the session, although Quentin suspects El is going easier on him than usual, given his fragile mood.

(He lets Eliot get away with the gentleness, knowing exactly how much he scares his soulmate whenever his own mind gets in his way.)

“I’m worried about Pen and Kady,” Quentin admits when they’re done, sitting side by side against the wall of the gym.

“I was trying to get your mind off of that,” Eliot says, nudging their shoulders together.

“Maybe you shouldn’t have pulled your punches, then,” Quentin retorts, but there’s no real bite to it. He’s too tired, pleasantly sore from hitting the ground, muscles tingling and blood singing with adrenaline.

“You think you’re funny but you’re not funny,” Eliot says, poking him in the chest with a single admonitory finger. “Penny and Kady are fine. They’re the best in the field. Well, besides us, of course.”

That goes without saying, and Quentin doesn’t even try to suppress the feeling of smugness that Eliot’s words cause. He lets the pride filter through so Eliot can feel it, and Eliot answers him with a surge of confidence and joy. They’re soulmates. The only bonded pair currently in residence in Whitespire’s Magician’s Court. Everything they do is amplified between them, Quentin’s strength becoming Eliot’s, and the other way around. The rest of their team is fantastic, incredible, but none of them have a soul-rune.

“I think we’ve all gotten complacent,” Quentin says, bringing the conversation back to the issue at hand. “I woke up this morning with the weirdest feeling.”

Well, Eliot already knows that, doesn’t he? He’d entered the room practically on tip-toe, concern radiating off of him in waves. He thinks he’s good at tamping it down, but he never is. Still, if Quentin isn’t too far down into the abyss of his own mind, Eliot’s concern helps quite a lot. It reminds him that there’s someone in the world who literally wouldn’t survive it if he…

It’s not always the healthiest motivation to keep him trudging through his days, but it’s undeniably effective in a pinch. Besides, this morning wasn’t… that. Quentin knows what it feels like when his own mind attacks him for no good reason at all, and this had felt different. He’s getting the strangest sense, from magic itself, like the air around them is trying to send messages. Something is coming. Some sort of reckoning. A change bigger than any they’ve weathered before.

Quentin can’t say everything in his life is perfect. But he can say that generally speaking, he’s pretty happy with it. The thought of a change, a change in the shape of some alarming human threat in the Southern Orchards, has him on edge more even than usual.

“Tell me,” Eliot says, generous as always with his attention.

“There are things in my life I couldn’t stand to lose,” Quentin says. You’re at the top of that list. This fact is also implied, existing tangibly between them, humming along the strands of the bond. He doesn’t have to say it out loud. In fact, he’s not sure he can say it out loud. “And I get the strangest feeling that those things are at risk.”

“It’s been too quiet for too long,” Eliot says. “Until this morning I’ve been taking it for granted, the fact that magic has been behaving itself.”

“No unnatural monsters to slay, no energy disturbances throwing the world out of order.”

“It’s been a nice break,” Eliot says, wistful.

“It’s been a biding of time,” Quentin corrects.

“Who’s doing the biding?”

“That,” Quentin says, “is what I’m so afraid of.”

*****

The Southern Orchard Forest is one of Quentin’s favorite places in all of Fillory. From a distance, or along the outer edges of its dense growths, the trees have a cheerful, inviting look, ripe with fruit and edible leaves to eat, low branches perfect for relaxing with a good book. Before he and El had come of age and joined the Magician’s Court as full members, they’d sneak off with the help of their friend Penny Adiyodi of the Second House of the Silver Moon, who was able to use his traveling magic to take them straight to their favorite tree for an afternoon of leisure, then pop back to whisk them home again before anyone could miss them for the evening meal. Asking for Penny’s help in this sort of getaway always came with a price, however, and as they got older he became less and less willing to be their personal means of escape.

So it’s been a while since Quentin has looked up into the inviting sturdy bows of the orchard trees, or stared into the gloom of the dirt path twisting away from warmth and into shadow. It feels a bit like a homecoming, but there’s a sense of foreboding, staring into the gloom. Something’s in there. Something that shouldn’t be.

Eliot’s mental voice echoes in his head. Ready?

Stay close to me, Quentin thinks back and Eliot shifts a bit closer, in reassurance. The fact that El had decided not to speak out loud tells Quentin everything he needs to know. They’re both scared.

Penny and Kady’s information had been alarming and yet annoyingly vague. Based on their diagnostic spellwork, they were almost certain it was a single entity inside the woods. They were also certain that whoever it was, they were generating a magical field of incredible strength and power, far more than should have been possible for a single caster.

On the more reassuring side of things, Penny and Kady said the magic didn’t feel like the Beast’s work. They’d all gotten more than used to that sickly, angry signature, weaving through the land, corrupting otherwise ordinary creatures into puppets of the Beast’s will. This, whatever it is, doesn’t have that same tangy taste of blood and rage.

Well… maybe there is some rage. Quentin shivers as he and Eliot step into the shadows under the trees, winding their way down a footpath that becomes narrow and snarled with roots only a few dozen feet past the tree line. Whoever is casting, there is anger there. Desperation. Grief, maybe. It sits heavy on the back of Quentin’s tongue, weighs his heart down into his stomach.

Eliot takes his hand, squeezes it, and Quentin lets their fingers tangle together. It’s an indulgence they probably wouldn’t allow themselves inside Castle Whitespire, but here it’s safe. It’s necessary.

Quentin feels a nudge in his mind, a more direct vision passing from Eliot through to him. The fingers around his own squeeze harder, as an image of an angry crocodile, eyes blazing with an orange glow, snaps forward at Quentin along the bank of a muddy river. It’s Eliot’s memory of an event that had taken place three years ago, another dangerous solo mission assigned to the bonded pair.

Quentin sends back an image of what he remembers happening next, Eliot swooping down out of the air, dropping on the creature from above, giving Q the time he needed to prepare a killing blow. Quentin gives a mental nod of understanding. Eliot will get up in the face of whoever is casting the magic, and Quentin will bring them down.

Non-lethally, Eliot reminds Quentin. Unless absolutely necessary.

Then don’t get too close, Quentin says back. If you’re in any danger…

They’re getting closer, and the air around them is filled with static, magic building beneath their feet and pressing between the trunks of trees surrounding them on all sides. There’s really no path left to speak of; they’re merely trusting to their instincts, to the pull of the spell being cast somewhere deeper in the forest. It’s occurred to them both that the spell itself is not exactly subtle. Whoever’s casting, they don’t mind being found. Which means there’s every chance they’re walking straight into a trap.

“El, promise me,” Quentin says as they creep their way closer.

“It’s not the Beast, Q,” Eliot says, which is as good an answer as any. “I’d feel it if it was.”

“Alright, but—”

“Risking myself is risking you, and you know I won’t do that,” Eliot says.

It’s reassuring, but maybe not as reassuring as Quentin wants it to be.

Ahead, Quentin sees light, a strange icy pink emanating out of the gloom of the forest. They’re almost there. He squeezes Eliot’s hand once more for good measure, and then disentangles their fingers, bringing his hands up in front of him, ready to cast.

Eliot gives him a brief glance, and then his strides lengthen, as he steps out in front of Quentin, ready to loop around and try to approach the threat from another angle. Quentin closes his eyes and centers himself before creeping forward, allowing his mind to slip into that inbetween place, the bond wide open between him and Eliot. He can’t see precisely through Eliot’s eyes, but he can sense him, know when he’s moving and when he’s standing still, the give of the dirt and foliage under his feet. Silently, Quentin casts a muffling charm on himself to further mask his own approach, and he gathers his power inside of him, ready to burst forth and subdue the unknown threat.

And then…

He gasps, a sudden shock of pain ricocheting through his ribs and down to his toes. His knees nearly buckle, but he catches himself on the rough bark of the nearest tree. He swallows, barely stopping a strangled yelp from escaping his throat. The pain hadn’t been his own. Which makes it even worse. Godsdamnit.

He tugs harder on the bond in frantic worry, and propels himself forward, abandoning stealth in favor of speed as he rushes towards Eliot’s last known position. The pain is already fading, leaving the sting of tears in his eyes but also the knowledge that whatever’s happened to his soulmate, it’s not fatal. It almost feels like someone shoved him, hard, knocking all the wind out of him. But where—

Q, don’t come any closer, Eliot says inside Quentin’s mind, but Quentin ignores him entirely. It’s not a strategic command: it’s laced with fear, like he wants to warn Quentin back from walking straight into trouble. But Quentin doesn’t have a choice, does he? It’s not like he can leave without El.

It’s not really a clearing, that he steps into. Or at least, it wasn’t a clearing until very recently. He can see flattened bushes and fallen trees, their trunks still firm with recent life where they lay scattered on the forest floor. It seems impossible that they hadn’t noticed the devastation earlier, but something about the caster’s magic must explain that. There’s an aura to the woman standing in the middle of the clearing, like she’s simultaneously calling Quentin towards her, but also obscuring all detail of what exactly she’s doing. Her hands don’t appear to be moving. Whatever she’s set in motion, it’s happening all on its own.

Eliot is pinned against one of the trees still standing, right on the edge of the woman-made clearing where this unknown magician has caused such destruction. He’s straining against invisible bonds, his face pinched tight in fear. But he’s not in pain anymore. Quentin would know if he were.

“Hello,” Quentin says, approaching with as much confidence as he can muster. There’s no plan of attack anymore. She has Eliot trapped, which means diplomacy is his only choice.

The woman, whose eyes had been on Eliot, turns to face him instead. She’s floating several inches off the ground, Quentin sees, and in one of her hands she clutches a bright, smooth stone, the size of a clenched fist. It emanates a pale pink glow, lighting up the woman’s veins and turning her eyes a strange watery red as she focuses on Quentin. “Who are you?” she asks, her voice echoing strangely in the clearing, amplified by power.

“My name is Quentin. Could you maybe… stop whatever you’re doing?”

She blinks at him, clearly not having expected the simple request. “I’m searching,” she says. “I have to find—”

She blinks, and the red in her eyes flicker. She looks down at the stone in her hand as if seeing it for the first time. Then she looks over to Eliot, frowns, and twitches her free hand in the air. Eliot collapses, breathing hard, at the base of the tree.

I’m okay, he projects to Quentin, before Q can ask. Keep talking to her.

“Uh. Who are you, then?” Quentin says, trying to pretend he’s met an interesting stranger while exploring the market, instead of encountering a woman with an incredibly powerful magical anchor stone in the middle of a wild forest.

The woman sways in the air, her hair standing up in the static of the magic she’s created. He still can’t identify the spell, but Penny and Kady had been right about one thing: it doesn’t feel malicious, or anything like the Beast’s power. There’s almost a yearning to it, a sadness that resonates with Quentin all too well.

“I’m…” the woman can’t seem to take her eyes off the stone in her hand. Slowly, her feet drift towards the ground until she’s standing firm. The long strands of her dark hair descend to lie in tangled waves around her face.

Then she closes her eyes, and her hands drop to her sides. The stone goes dull, the magic in the air fading away into nothing but the usual ambient buzz. It’s only now that the spell is fading, that Quentin realizes how little control its caster had over what was happening. When the woman looks up, she takes in the dead plants around her with keen interest, almost disbelief, walking in a tight circle to view the devastation. She looks back at the stone, then to Eliot, who has pulled himself to his feet, then over to Quentin.

“Under the authority of Castle Whitespire,” Quentin begins, but she holds a hand up, and magic curls his tongue back in his throat, forcing him silent.

“Hey,” Eliot snaps, and he rushes forward to Quentin, turning his back on their unknown enemy with the same recklessness that had sent Quentin rushing into this clearing without a plan. “Don’t touch him.”

The silencing charm fades almost at once, and Quentin breathes, opens his mouth, unsure. She’s not making any sort of threatening moves, really. Not right now. Without being sure of where she got that anchor stone, or what she meant to do with the spell she was casting, Quentin’s not even sure if this woman has broken any laws, in the strictest sense. Still, he knows for a fact that the king and queen will want her to be brought in.

“You’ll have to come with us,” Eliot says, his body angled just slightly in front of Quentin’s.

She shakes her head at him, looks up, and the last bit of dazed confusion finally leaves her eyes. They’re wide, beautiful, brown, fierce and resentful and imploring all at once. She meets Eliot’s stare head-on, and then she speaks. Her voice is stilted, formal, almost like she’s memorized these words and doesn’t want to mess them up now that she’s finally found someone to say them to.

“My name is Margo Hanson of Broken Lineage. I require your help.”

Chapter Text

Margo Hanson of Broken Lineage is short and petite, but somehow the exact opposite of small. In fact, just being near her makes Quentin feel small, and not entirely in a bad way. She takes up space in the world the way Eliot does, sucking all the attention and energy towards herself, so that Quentin can find room for himself in the gaps leftover, the inbetween where he’s always been most comfortable.

Even before they all make it back to Castle Whitespire, Margo proves herself to be a woman without an ounce of shyness in her, and no proof of humility, either. Despite the fact that she’s one woman against two arguably more powerful men, despite the fact that she’s asked them for help, has put herself under sanctuary protections, she somehow still gives off the aura of being in charge of the whole situation. In other words, despite the scare she’d given them all, she’s a bit difficult not to like. Quentin is surrounded by people with conviction and pride; he’s always gravitated towards them like a person aware of his own lack, desperate to grasp onto their purpose for his own.

And as her story starts pouring out of her, with very little prompting from Eliot or Quentin, he starts to feel a strange sense of déjà vu. Eliot had come to Quentin once, only a boy, and shared his own tale of woe. Margo too has run to the inner sanctum of the most protected interior of Whitespire, fleeing tragedy and desperate for refuge. She too seems equal parts pissed off and terrified, the enormity of an unknown future stretching out before her, a broken lineage yanking her expected path right out from under her feet.

And she too brings tidings of the Beast.

As the three of them walk together, Margo in the middle, Quentin and Eliot acting as somewhat awkward guards for a prisoner they’re no longer sure they have any reason to arrest, Margo describes the man who appeared in her family’s home, the obscure magics covering his face, moths fluttering out like a warning before the violence erupted. The corruption and overwhelming power of his magical ability, the way it had all happened out of nowhere and how there had been no time to stop it. Blood, heat, panic, death.

It’s hard not to stop in the middle of the woods and pull Eliot aside, into his arms, sooth the building stress he can sense in his soulmate at this recitation of his own personal trauma. But they have a job to do, so they keep walking instead, balancing two conversations between them simultaneously. The first is simple enough: they coax further information out of Margo, grilling her on how she managed to escape, on where she found the stone she’d been using to power that spell back in the heart of the forest, what exactly she’d been trying to do with so much magic unaided. They gather some information, like the fact that the stone has belonged to Margo’s family for years, but Quentin gets the very real sense it’s only the information Margo has decided she’s willing to part with.

The second conversation is happening in total silence, between Quentin and Eliot, and exists mostly in impressions. Things like: what if the Beast followed her? Can we trust her? Should we try and take the anchor stone from her before she does anything else crazy? Is she telling the truth?

It’s mostly for the sake of comfort, really a precursor for a conversation they’ll have to have later with the rest of their friends, once they’ve got privacy from this strange new arrival on the scene. There’s solidarity, to knowing that whatever they decide, they’ll decide together. Almost like a backlash against Margo’s obvious isolation. Quentin and Eliot will never have to know that kind of individual terror again. Quentin will stand between Eliot and the loneliness of loss, bat it away with a stick if he has to.

Once they’ve reached Penny on the outskirts of the Orchards and he’s traveled them back to the castle, Margo has to repeat her story to Fogg. And then, as Quentin had suspected would happen, Fogg suggests she be given an audience with the king and queen so she can explain it all to them in her own words. This, whether Margo is aware of it or not, is a big deal. Her arrival is virtually unprecedented in Fillory. It feels rude to keep peppering her with the same essential inquiry: but where did you come from? And yet that’s the crux of it—how did Whitespire not know about a fully adult Fillorian magician, one untrained, unassigned within the Court?

“A girl could get tired of repeating herself,” Margo says as they lead her to the monarchs. “Luckily, I don’t mind the sound of my own voice.”

And so it is that Quentin finds himself in the king and queen’s audience chamber, along with El, Fogg, and the rest of the Court, listening to Margo’s story for the third time.

Queen Jane and King Rupert listen to Margo with the same amount of attention and respect they show to all their subjects, despite Margo’s somewhat confusing and unclear claim to Fillorian citizenship. And not even Margo, seemingly staunch in her desire to tell her own story in her own damn time, can avoid letting a bit more information leak out.

It starts when Queen Jane offers her condolences for the loss of Margo’s family. “I’m afraid I do not recognize the name of Hanson, my dear. But the loss of a Fillorian Noble House is a tragedy indeed. To whom did you once belong?”

Margo quirks a confused eyebrow at this question and then her face goes smooth as she understands. “Oh, because I said Broken Lineage? No, my old Fillorian House isn’t dead.”

What?

Eliot, standing next to Quentin, tilts so their arms are brushing, mentally repeating the astonished question.

“I’m afraid I don’t quite…” the queen begins delicately, waiting for Margo to fill in the missing information.

She does, although she acts like she’s doing them all a favor by deigning to speak. “I left them. Six years ago or so. As far as I know they’re still alive, but I certainly haven’t bothered to check.” She looks around the room, noting their shock, and seems to steel herself, to pull the brash, no-nonsense attitude she’s been displaying tighter around herself, like armor. “You shouldn't feel too bad for them, they were truly evil people who certainly didn’t deserve the honor of my continued presence.”

Quentin catches a mental guffaw of amusement from Eliot, and surreptitiously elbows his soulmate in the ribs. It’s not funny. Okay, maybe it’s a little funny, but it’s also… well, it’s also something else.

Margo does not seem at all in awe to be face-to-face with the Immortal Monarchs of Fillory. Quentin, who lives in the same castle with them and has been known to say a polite, casual “good morning, Your Majesty” to Queen Jane when they pass in the halls, can’t say he’s ever managed such a level of ease and comfort around his sovereigns. They’re… well, they are majestic, in the truest sense of the word. As much as Quentin admires Margo’s stalwart bravery and sense of purpose, he’ll admit that her lack of deference irks him, just the smallest amount.

King Rupert takes the new information in stride, his face not so much as twitching at this revelation. “So then this villain you speak of, the one we know as the Beast… who exactly did he attack?”

Margo’s jocularity falls away at once. “My… my chosen family. The people I’ve lived with for the past several years.”

“And the Beast killed them?” Jane asks, kindly.

Margo hesitates for a second, like all the words have gone out of her, and then nods once, like admitting this is almost too much for her.

Quentin feels terrible for her. It’s impossible not to. But he’s also remembering Margo in that clearing in the woods, the power coming off of her in arcing waves. She’d been doing something. Searching for something. I have to find… He communicates his skepticism to Eliots silently, and Eliot agrees, although his sympathy towards Margo is strong as well. Gods, the similarities between them… El’s going to fall apart over this once they have a chance to be alone, where he can safely let it all catch up with him.

“Well, that is no less a tragedy,” Jane says, picking up the thread with ease. It doesn’t escape Quentin’s notice that Margo hadn’t answered the question about which house she’d once belonged to. He supposes it doesn’t matter, any more than El’s former house matters to him now. Breaking with your House isn’t the kind of thing a person does on a whim, and it can’t really be walked back. “May I ask where you found that anchor stone, Lady Hanson?”

Margo is still holding the smooth pink stone in her hand, gripping it like the only thing she has left to keep her safe. Quentin knows why the queen has asked. He’d tried asking any number of ways on the journey back to Whitespire, and Margo had dodged him neatly every time. It’s a rare magical item. There are exactly six of them in Fillory, all accounted for, all carefully in use. This isn’t one of those: they would know if one of the existing stones had been disturbed. An unknown Fillorian magician and an heretofore undiscovered anchor stone showing up on the same day… it stretches believability to the breaking point.

Margo holds the stone forward so the room can see it better, but she makes no move to hand it over as she speaks. “Without wishing to offend, your majesties… you must know that there are other magically inclined people who live in Fillory, outside of the Nobly Housed. Sure, they don’t have a stranglehold on the magical resources but you can’t expect every little bit of it to remain under your sole control.”

Without wishing to offend? Quentin bats away his continued resentment at Margo’s tone. She’s been through a lot, and it’s not like she doesn’t have a point about the Chatwins’ policy surrounding magic. Even Quentin, who respects his king and queen to the utmost, doesn’t like to think about the necessary evil of their magical control.

The king and queen continue to take Margo’s unorthodox manner of address completely in stride, and Quentin watches them exchange a glance, clearly deciding that pushing Margo for more information now will only antagonize her. They wind the audience to a close with a courteous offer to protect Margo for as long as she wishes to stay, and Margo gives a proper bow and accepts.

Quentin wishes he could go somewhere to be alone right now. Well, alone with El. There’s a lot to process. But he knows his day is about to get even more crazy from here. The others will want his and Eliot’s full account of what happened in the woods. They’ll all dissect every bit of information Margo has shared, and decide if any of it requires action on their part. They’ll think of more questions for Margo. He tries not to think about where it all might lead. If Margo has concrete information about the Beast’s current whereabouts… does that mean they should… go after him? Gods, after so long, Quentin has accepted the threat of the Beast as almost a permanent state. His looming, invisible presence has shaped the very lives they lead.

But he’s getting ahead of himself. He knows he is.

Quentin thinks back to waking up that morning. The dread in the pit of his stomach, the way his own magic had seemed to be warning him that something was coming. Something bad.

He looks at Margo, and he doesn’t want to believe that bad thing could be her. But what else does he have to go on?

*****

On an ordinary day, Eliot would want some downtime after a mission, no matter how mundane. On an ordinary day, after trekking into the middle of a sinister forest and arresting-slash-rescuing a strange woman who’s clearly only telling half-truths right to the faces of the sovereigns of Fillory, Eliot would perhaps indulge himself with a nap.

Or at least he’d go to his chambers, maybe with Q, maybe alone, and flop down on his bed, enjoy a drink or two to unwind from the stresses of actually having to make a godsdamned effort. Even the most mundane assignment, a patrol that yields nothing new, can be mentally exhausting. Eliot is always hyper-aware that he and Quentin are sent on the most dangerous jobs because of a choice they made almost a decade ago, to bind themselves together and strengthen their magic in the process. They get the risky tasks, and Eliot never lets himself forget what that could mean, that his choice to ask Quentin to be his soulmate all those years ago could inadvertently lead to injury or death for the both of them.

Quentin tells him he’s being extremely dramatic whenever he ruminates on the cause and effect of this potential future disaster. But is it really so different from the way Quentin’s own brain spirals in on itself during his moments of deepest depression? When he’s convinced that the act of binding his soul to Eliot’s was a monstrous one, because now he’s dragging El down into the depths right alongside him, forcing a good soul to combine with a tainted one?

Eliot can acknowledge that perhaps he and his dearest friend both have the tendency to catastrophize. He can add it to the list of all the ways that somehow, miraculously, they’re perfect for each other.

But in any case, today is not an ordinary day. Eliot doesn’t get to unwind from the excitement of the morning, doesn’t get to rest after being slammed forcefully into the bark of an ancient tree by a diminutive woman with magic literally leaking out of her eyeballs. Instead, Fogg immediately tasks him with showing Margo around the sanctioned, public parts of Castle Whitespire, and making sure she settles in comfortably to the guest champers that are being provided for her.

Quentin offers to come with, but then Julia pulls him aside, wanting to hear the whole story from his point of view, and so they separate, agreeing to meet up for a midday meal in an hour. Before they splinter away from each other, Quentin gives him a pointed squeeze on the arm, and a silent, be careful, as if he’s worried that Margo might turn on him and attack the second they’re alone in a dark hallway.

It’s a little bit annoying, but Eliot can’t do anything but love him for it. It’s Quentin’s job to worry about Eliot more than he worries about himself. The same is very much true in reverse.

“I’ve never been to Whitespire before,” Margo says, as Eliot takes her through one of the enclosed courtyards. He likes to start tours with the gardens.

“Not even as a kid?” Eliot asks, surprised. Most noble children come along on visits at a young age.

“Sixth House,” Margo says. “Unimportant, far away. We’re right near the Lorian border. We could have come, but my delightfully frugal parents didn’t want to foot the bill for the journey.”

“I’m sure the king and queen would have helped,” Eliot says. He’s not exactly Jane and Rupert’s biggest defender, not like Quentin is, but he does know that the monarchs take care of their own. Even minor nobility is treated with courtesy in Whitespire.

Margo quirks a conspiratorial eyebrow at him as they begin to wend their way through the meticulously organized flower beds. “The real reason I wasn’t allowed to come up here was that my shitty mom was worried I’d see how good other kids had it, and start to realize I was being raised by monsters.”

Ah. Eliot doesn’t actually know how to answer that. Luckily for him, Margo seems to be doing fine on her own.

“Not to shock your own sensibilities,” she continues, “but a person doesn’t leave a noble house of Fillory without good reason. And in any case, my mom was right to keep me away. She managed to hold me under her sway for years, unaware of what I was missing.”

“I’m sorry,” Eliot says. It’s the best he can manage.

“You’re broken too, huh?” Margo asks, like this is a casual thing to say to someone, and not socially inappropriate to the extreme. Despite his escalating discomfort as the conversation wanders further down the path of abusive parents, Eliot can’t help but like her for her bluntness. It can be exhausting, talking in circles around the important stuff, letting social niceties dictate what must be said and what must be winked at in the shadows.

“Yes. They’re dead.”

Margo is quiet for a moment, looking out at the garden, the clear sky overhead, the majesty of Whitespire, so carefully guarded, so meticulously maintained. “I’m sorry,” she says, almost an afterthought. “Did you love them?”

Who is this woman? Gods, the questions she asks, the way she talks. She’s a study in contrasts. The way she holds herself, her accent, it all speaks of a noble upbringing. But the way she’s behaving speaks of someone who’s managed to leave it all behind.

“That’s not the kind of question I can answer with a yes or a no,” Eliot says. And then, feeling in the mood to be honest: “But mostly no.”

Margo nods, like his disrespect for his dead parents is not in the least bit shocking to her. “Thank you for taking me here,” she says. “I know I came on a little strong.”

It is, Eliot realizes with a strange mixture of amusement and disbelief, her way of apologizing for slamming him up against a tree, and silencing Quentin in the forest. He should resent her more for it, but he’s worked hard to forgive himself for the feral mess he’d been in the aftermath of his own encounter with the Beast. It feels right to extend Margo Hanson the same courtesy.

“We’re here to help,” he says. “That’s our job.”

Margo’s silence tastes like skepticism, and even Eliot can hear the hollowness of those words. The truth is obvious to them both, that if Margo had continued to pose a threat, if she’d lifted a hand towards Q with intent to harm, Eliot would have killed her without thinking twice about it. Fogg hadn’t sent them to the Orchards to help a fellow magician in distress. He’d sent him to neutralize a threat, in whatever form that happened to take.

The two of them reach a fountain in the middle of the gardens and without discussing it, take a seat on one of the benches nearby. There’s a comfort between them that Eliot can’t quite account for. He’s half worried he’s being played. It couldn’t be any more obvious that Margo wants something from him. From Whitespire in general. Maybe it’s simply protection from the Beast, but somehow Eliot doesn’t think so.

“It’s funny, thinking I might have ended up here if I hadn’t gotten away,” Margo says with a musing look at the castle walls across the way, her eyes scanning windows like she’s searching for the one that might have been her bedroom. “A member of the Magician’s Court. Gods, I would have hated that.”

“It’s not so bad,” Eliot says. “The people here become your family.”

“I have a family,” Margo says, snappish. “And anyway, I don’t need my magic caged up and turned into a weapon under the Chatwins. I can’t imagine a comfortable bed and good food being worth that.”

As Eliot so often does when Quentin is not by his side, he finds himself wishing for his soulmate’s presence. Eliot is not the right person to make an impassioned defense of Whitespire, the Chatwins, the Magician’s Court, all of it. He really does love his life, but he loves it because he loves Quentin, because he’s found community among his fellow magicians. If Q told him he wanted to leave, Eliot wouldn’t hesitate to follow. He doesn’t love this place the way Quentin does. But he also doesn’t hate it the way Margo seems to.

“We make our own choices,” he finally settles on. “Look, believe me, I understand the reality that most of Fillory resents Whitespire. There are a lot of good reasons for that. But you have to admit that the Chatwins have kept the realm safe—”

“Tell that to my foster parents,” Margo says, cutting him off. “You people have no idea what it’s like out there.”

Eliot shouldn’t say it, shouldn’t leverage an old, stale grief against a fresh and bleeding one, but he doesn’t like being talked to like that. “The Beast killed my parents too.”

Margo’s rage dispels instantly, but it’s not into shame or sheepishness. Instead, she sits up straight and spins to face him head-on, eyes wide and curious. “Are you serious? You didn’t say. When was this? How did it… what exactly happened?”

Eliot tells her. Somehow he can’t help himself. Her very presence here has unlocked a door inside him that he normally keeps welded shut. She hasn’t been entirely honest about her purpose, about the anchor stone, now tucked into a pocket of her satchel. About anything, really. But she was honest about the Beast, about her own fear, about her grief, and Eliot can only return the favor.

Margo listens with avidity, no room for condolence as she grills him on the specifics. She is, Eliot realizes, desperately hunting for information, for any little thing she can add to her arsenal of knowledge on the Beast. And with a growing feeling of worry, Eliot starts to understand why.

Their conversation takes them through the public parts of the castle, Eliot narrating as they go, while Margo shows a passing interest in their surroundings and a more than passing interest in everything Eliot’s just told her about the Beast. Eliot even manages to do Fogg proud, fulfilling his actual purported mission while on this tour, by teasing out additional information on Margo’s family situation.

She really hates her parents, that much is clear within minutes. She’s not even shy in talking about them, and when Eliot finally asks outright for the name of her House, she just shrugs and names it, the Sixth House of the Frosted Wilds, an unimportant little estate that Eliot’s never heard of. Gods, Eliot had hated his own parents too, but he’d been ten years old when they’d died. He’s often wondered, with a guilty twist to his stomach, if his hatred had been entirely warranted, or if the caprices of youth had made the memories uglier than they really were. He tries to imagine how he’d feel if he knew the Waughs were still out there somewhere, and honestly can’t.

“Were they really so awful that you won’t even…” Eliot asks at one point, while showing Margo the hall of tapestries leading off towards the kitchen stairs. But he trails off before he can form the full thought, memories of his father’s hand, bruise-tight on his arm, the stink of his breath as he loomed over him in the dark. He’d been about to ask her why she hadn’t returned to an abusive household in a time of desperate vulnerability and need. But he doesn’t need to hear the answer to that question, does he?

Technically, Eliot has every right to call himself by the name of his House. The deaths of his parents did not destroy the House in its own right—El remains to carry on its name. But he abandoned the person he’d been with the deaths of a mother and father who had never been good to him. He’d cast off his title but retained his nobility.

It’s just… it had been different for him, because they’d died. It’s not uncommon for orphaned nobles to take on the stigma of broken lineage, because it gives them more freedom to move through society without the rigidity of a specific rank weighing him down. It had worked out for him. He’d been from a relatively unglamorous Fourth House, and he’d managed to bond himself to the head of a Third House in the very heart of Whitespire’s inner sanctum. The Coldwaters had long had favor with the Chatwins themselves. By any measure, Eliot Waugh of Broken Lineage had taken a huge step up by casting away an old title and making a play for new connections.

But what Margo had done… it’s unheard of. It makes Eliot almost love her, in an intense, wild sort of way, the reckless bravery of walking away from nobility entirely. She’d gone from a life of comfort and prestige to something else. She’d walked from cold comforts to warm hardship, and from the affection in her voice when she talks about her foster family, it seems she’d made something beautiful out of the wreck.

And then she’d fucking lost it. The comparisons between them end there, because Eliot had run from tragedy more or less directly into Quentin’s arms, and he… he hasn’t lost that, the comfort of his chosen home. If he ever did, he doubts he’d have one tenth of Margo’s continued fortitude. It’s hard to imagine fighting for his own life, standing strong in the face of his grief, if he lost Q.

Fuck, that’s not something he needs to be thinking about, even in hypothetical.

“I just want him dead,” Margo says, matter of fact, just as they’re passing a couple of servants on their way towards the dining hall. She speaks loudly, not caring who hears, but the servants are professionals, barely glancing up at the mysterious new stranger, who Eliot is certain the whole castle already knows about. “I don’t really care beyond that. I just want to find the Beast, and I want to make him pay.” She stops walking for a second, and puts her hand on Eliot’s arm. When he turns to look at her, she’s very close, staring up at him with those big brown eyes. “And I want you to help me do it.”

*****

“I don’t trust her,” Julia says, coming to sit down beside Quentin in the dining hall. The full-fledged adult members of the Magician’s Court almost never eat in here. The castle chefs can easily bring the food anywhere else, and they usually gather instead in one of their personal chambers, the six of them crowded around a single table. But Margo is not supposed to have access to their living quarters. Apparently it’s a security risk. And so here they are, mingling with the younger magicians of Fillory, the students who still attend daily classes to hone their skills in service of Whitespire’s protection.

Julia and Quentin are sitting alone for now, waiting for the others to fetch their meals and join them around one of the large circular tables. Julia hadn’t bothered with niceties after Margo’s audience with the king and queen, just pulled Quentin aside and grilled him for all he was worth, dissecting each new piece of information as she managed to extract it. Her assessment of their new guest had been obvious before she’d said it outright.

“Who said anything about trusting her?” Quentin replies.

“Well, we’re letting her walk around unsupervised, aren’t we?”

“El’s with her,” Quentin says, resentful of the implication. “What, now you’re saying you don’t trust him?”

Julia waves a hand, brushing the absurdity of this away. “Of course I do. I’m just saying, her sob story seems practically designed to garner sympathy with the Chatwins, and with Eliot specifically, does it not?”

“She didn’t do a lot of sobbing,” Quentin says. “But sure, I take your point. Broken Lineage, Beast attack… maybe she’s full of shit. But… but I believe in her desperation, even if she’s hiding some of the details. We should still try and help her, if we can. Isn’t that why we’re here?”

“Oh, Q,” Julia says. “That heart of years is going to get you in trouble one day.”

It’s already gotten Quentin in the worst kind of trouble he can imagine, of course. He pokes at his mental wards, makes sure they're secure, and then glances across the room at the line by the food, where Eliot and Margo are standing. Quentin gives himself the rare indulgence of letting himself feel it, the full extent of his love, his lust, his want. Because Quentin is the kind of selfish man who can have everything in the world and still want more. At the moment, Eliot is leaning in close to Margo, focusing on her words. He tilts his head back and laughs at something, the long line of his neck on display, hair flying back behind him. They seem to be getting along quite well.

“Yeah, well,” he says, turning back to Julia. “What else is new.”

“But do you believe it?” Julia asks. “I mean, everything she told you about the Beast?”

“It sounds pretty similar to the story El told all those years ago, but I don’t think that means it’s a lie. If anything it’s independent confirmation, right? We know the Beast has been… active, recently, don’t we?”

Do we?” Julia asks.

“Well, sure. I mean, the corruption in the land…”

“We have very little evidence it’s all coming from the Beast,” Julia says. The way she says the word is in itself skeptical. Julia likes her evidence, and when it comes to the Beast, the figure who has been plaguing the Chatwins’ immortal and unbreakable rule for two centuries, all they really have are the whispers. Stories from the sovereigns themselves of the strange man, mysterious and sinister, who began to threaten their authority all those generations ago. He moves in darkness, he strikes swift and wherever he’s least expected. Tangible information is thin on the ground. But Eliot’s seen him. Eliot nearly died by his hand before Quentin ever got to know him. And they all recognize the acrid taste of his magic in the air. As far as belief goes, Quentin is comfortable believing in this particular monster.

“The Beast,” Quentin says, unwilling for the moment to argue back, “is an imprecise term, I’ll grant you that. But there is some force, some unified force, whether it be a single man or a collection of sinister collaborators, that means Fillory harm. Can we at least agree with that?”

“Look at you,” Julia says, smiling at him fondly. “Very scientifically minded, Lord Coldwater. And yes, I will accept your premise.”

“So if that’s the case, and Lady Margo Hanson is bringing us additional information about our adversary, I think it only makes sense to take that seriously.”

“I agree,” Julia says, like she’s pleased with him for seeing her side of things, even though this has been his position all along. “But the Beast hasn’t breached Fillory’s inner circle in almost two hundred years, right? This Margo Hanson of Broken Lineage is the only new factor to have arrived in our lives at all recently. I’m just saying, her information might not be reliable.”

“You think she’s a spy?” Quentin asks, trying to say it like it’s funny, like it’s impossible. He likes Margo, or he feels like he will like her. It bothers him, that his life, his role on the Court, means he has to approach unfamiliar people with suspicion instead of generosity.

Julia shrugs. “The pentagram holds. You know that. Not even breaching El’s family home broke through the defenses thirteen years ago, and that was a significantly close call. If the Beast really did kill this woman’s family, then that’s a tragedy, but does it actually change anything about our mission?”

The pentagram, five Noble Houses arranged in a star with Whitespire at its center. Each one contains an anchor stone, not unlike the one Margo has, that generates a magical forcefield. Connected, and in connection with the sixth and most powerful stone housed in the castle itself, it protects Whitespire from magical attack.

It… is a controversial aspect of the Chatwins’ rule. Quentin is ashamed of it, but most of the time he tries to ignore the fact that it exists, because he doesn’t exactly know how to deal with the guilt. His own family estate, a place run now by a skeleton staff and hardly ever visited by Quentin, is in fact one of the corners of the pentagram. His own family has been a willing participant for many generations, in keeping Castle Whitepsire safe.

At the expense of… well, at the expense of Fillorian magic as a whole. The Beast’s initial appearance and attack two centuries ago had thrown magic out of alignment all throughout the realm, and the pentagram had been a way of consolidating power in the center, keeping Whitespire safe. The logic being, if Whitespire fell, then… well, then the rest of Fillory had no hope, right? Channeling so much magic for the protection of only a small portion of the kingdom means accepting that the Beast’s ongoing corruption of magic is free to run wild in other parts of the realm, and certainly abroad. The Magician’s Court does what it can to help those who are left outside of the borders, but there are only so many of them, and there are problems enough closer to home.

Jane and Rupert had already been on the throne for a century, a peaceful and prosperous time for Fillorians of all sorts, before the Beast had begun his sustained attack. Quentin’s history books tell him of the joy of this time, progress unlike anything Fillory seen before: equality initiatives that better integrated talking animals, that allowed women equal opportunity, that did away with some of the more archaic precepts of the older ruling families of the time. In other words, the ancient prophecy from the gods themselves had come true. The Children of Earth had arrived, and had been everything Fillory could have hoped for and more. The fact that they’ve had to leave some of their subjects out in the cold for two hundred years, to protect their continued rule… well, it doesn’t sit well with Quentin, he cannot lie about that. But if they defeat the Beast, then maybe things can be better again, like those bygone days of the Chatwins’ early reign.

“But she has an anchor stone,” Quentin points out, shaking off his own misplaced guilt for his position of relative privilege. “That, you have to admit, is new information.”

“That,” Julia says, “seems like the motive for the Beast’s attack, does it not?”

Quentin is embarrassed not to have put this together, but once Julia says it, it seems obvious. Thirteen years ago, the Beast attacked the Fourth House of the Hale Heathers, former House of Eliot Waugh. That house forms another corner of the pentagram.

At the time, and indeed for all of these years, it had seemed obvious why the Beast had attacked this location. He needed the pentagram to break, in order to gain access to Whitespire itself. He wanted the throne, he wanted to rule Fillory and suck up all the power for himself. Everyone knew that. But what if his motivation hadn’t been simply breaking the pentagram of protection, but acquiring the anchor stone itself? And if Margo’s foster family had another anchor stone, somehow, then the Beast going after them would explain that as well.

“What would he need the stones for?” Quentin asks.

“Well, they’re powerful conduits in and of themselves. I’m sure there are other uses for them, beyond protection. In the wrong hands…” Julia trails off, biting her lower lip as she thinks it through.

Quentin turns to see Eliot and Margo approaching, with Alice and the others coming in from the opposite side.

“Play nice,” Quentin tells her, snapping her back to the present and out of her analytical musings. “You’re right not to trust her blindly. But distrusting her on principle is just as biased.”

Julia ruffles Quentin’s hair as Margo, Eliot, and the others come within hearing distance. “Yes dear. I’ll be on my best behavior, just for you.”

Eliot slides onto the bench beside Quentin, and Margo slips in on the other side, as comfortable as if she’s known them all her life.

Quentin can’t decide how it makes him feel.

*****

Eliot holds the door to his bedroom open to Quentin, inviting him inside. It’s the end of a long day, a strange day, an oddly exhilarating day, and being alone and safe with his soulmate is exactly what he knows they both need to reach some kind of equilibrium. In fact, it’s been hours since Eliot’s thought to check on…

“Q, how do you feel?” he asks, a hand on Quentin’s back as he steers him towards the chaise lounge on the far wall. The question is basic enough, but here in the privacy of his own space he allows all the walls to fall away from his mind, like taking off restricting clothing before bed, so he knows Quentin can sense the full question: you woke up feeling down this morning, and then we got a series of alarming pieces of information all stacked on top of each other, with hardly a pause between to digest any of it. Tell me you’re okay?

“I feel…” Quentin says, sinking onto the cushion and turning his body into the curve of Eliot’s, his head resting on El’s shoulder. “I don’t know. Overwhelmed? How do you feel?”

Quentin’s mental walls are down too, their consciousnesses swirling together, easing the strain of keeping two magnets apart. What he means by his half of the question is something like: looks like the thing that murdered your parents and altered the trajectory of your whole life might be preparing to come back and finish the job, and there’s another newcomer from a destroyed house showing up to remind you of exactly how scared and alone you felt when you first arrived thirteen years ago, and since I know you generally like to repress all memories of that time, this must be a rude awakening. Tell me you’re okay?

“I’m… I like her,” Eliot says. He’s not bothering to hide from Q the fact that this is a deflection. But he lets him know as best as he’s able that he is okay, that he will be, in any case. That talking to Q makes everything in the world better. “I want to help her.”

“Me too,” Quentin says, which surprises Eliot a little. He’s felt an undercurrent of mistrust and fear beneath Quentin’s thoughts all day long. Mistrust is the responsible reaction to Margo’s odd appearance in their lives, and Quentin is definitely the responsible one of the two of them. “I mean… she reminds me a lot of you, El.”

Eliot doesn’t want to talk about that right now. Dead family, Beast attack, running to Whitespire for protection… the similarities stack up, and thinking too hard about where he’d come from always makes him feel like he can’t possibly belong where he’s ended up.

“She’s resilient, focused. Unafraid,” Quentin continues, in a voice firm with purpose and a hint of chastisement. Quentin can sense Eliot’s self-doubt, and is intent on cutting it off at the pass. Gods, Eliot loves him beyond all imagining. He lets Quentin feel that, too, or at least the parts he’s allowed to show. “She’s insanely powerful and yet seems to only want to use that power to help the people she loves.” Quentin pauses. “She’s got trust issues.”

“She’s incredibly attractive,” Eliot says, adding to the list of similarities before Quentin can follow up on trust issues. Quentin squirms next to him and smacks him on the chest. “And has a great sense of fashion.”

“She’s irreverent, inconsiderate,” Quentin puts in. “Perhaps one might even say immature. Maybe a little full of herself…”

“Hey,” Eliot says, “I don’t know what I’ve done to deserve such treatment from you, other half of my very soul.”

“What?” Quentin says, all innocence. “We were talking about Margo.”

Eliot spills his laughter through the bond, lighting up the connection between them with amusement and familiarity. They know each other better than breathing, to the point where any hint of discord, any small piece of grit in the smooth flow of connection is immediately noticeable.

Eliot senses one of those now, just the smallest disharmony in the chord, although it takes him a while to figure out what it is that Quentin’s said that’s put him ill at ease. Then he gets it. She’s insanely powerful and yet seems to only want to use that power to help the people she loves. That was meant to be a compliment for Eliot, but he can’t help wondering if it’s actually true when it comes to Margo Hanson. I want him dead, she’d said, and Eliot hadn’t even hesitated to agree with her. They all want the Beast dead. It’s more or less the Magician’s Court’s whole reason for being, isn’t it?

But Margo… probably doesn’t care so much about protecting the Fillorian Nobility. Not if the way she’d talked about her Noble House is any indication.

“What’s wrong?” Quentin asks, sensing the thread of discomfort.

“Weird day,” Eliot says, and it’s the truth, after all. “I don’t like this, Q.”

“No shit,” Quentin says. He tilts his head up to meet Eliot’s eyes, close to him in the gathering dark. “Say you’ll stay close to me, okay? Whatever happens, with… with the Beast, or any of the rest of it, just… stay close.”

“Always,” Eliot says, automatic. He knows why Quentin is asking, knows the spectre of Eliot’s past is as terrifying for Q as it is for Eliot. And Eliot has no problem agreeing to Quentin’s request, since staying close to Quentin is what he wants most in all the world. Especially if the thing that murdered his family is preparing to storm the castle, quite literally. Losing a family he hated was bad enough; he won’t survive losing a family he loves.

And gods, he loves Q. He loves him in all the ways he’s supposed to love him—as a fellow warrior, a brother in arms, a dear friend, a sometimes-protector and sometimes-protectee. And he loves Q in all the ways he’s not supposed to, coveting his touch, aching for his nearness as if he doesn’t already have the bounty of Quentin’s near-constant time and attention. He has more of a right to keep Quentin by his side than anyone else, and somehow it’s not enough.

Eliot knows it’s wrong, and spends most of his days very staunchly pretending he’s not thinking about it at all. But sometimes, in moments like this one, with Q a soft warm weight tucked against him where he fits so perfectly, he can’t stop himself from noticing how easy it would be, to put a hand under Q’s chin, tilt his face up, and kiss him.

He wants it all the time, pretty much every second of every day of his life, and like a chronic headache he can usually pretend the yearning is only a minor nuisance, instead of an all-consuming inferno of shame and guilt. How could he ever, for one second, regret the strength of their bond? The fact that in the eyes of the law, of their society, Quentin Coldwater and Eliot Waugh are as one? It’s the greatest gift of his life, the most treasured aspect of his existence. The world is designed to protect them, would never separate them for any reason, big or small.

Unless… unless Eliot did kiss him, did cave to the secret shame of his feelings, and someone found out about it. Then, they’d be stolen from one another. The connection that warms and nurtures Eliot’s very soul, torn away. It hasn’t happened in many generations, the breaking of a soulbond by any means other than death, but they’ve all heard the stories. Sometimes, it kills the former soulmates outright. Honestly, if such a thing were to ever happen to them, that outcome feels like the best case scenario.

Quentin’s eyes drop closed, his mouth parting slightly as his breathing evens out. It would be easy for Eliot to let himself slip into slumber as well, stay the whole night with Q beside him. It’s not like anyone would ever know. And there’s nothing wrong in it. There’s something almost chaste, childlike, to the way Q has found the release of sleep curled up beside the other half of himself. Even if someone walked in on them like this, it wouldn’t even matter. And nobody would walk in to the bedroom of a Lord Magician unannounced in the first place.

It’s one of Fillory’s cruelest little jokes, truly. Soulmates are granted as much private intimacy as they want. There’s nothing weird about Quentin and Eliot spending unlimited time together, just the two of them. They could probably even get away with sharing a bed sometimes. They had, in fact, in those first weeks after Ted Coldwater’s death, when Quentin had needed someone to hold him together, physically, mentally, spiritually, and Eliot had been so grateful that in the onslaught of his soulmate’s grief, at least he could feel the tangible success of his attempts at comfort. At least he could hold him tighter as the grief spiked upwards into utter, seemingly endless despair. The despair had ended, and Quentin says it’s only because of Eliot that he’d managed to emerge from it.

It’s customary for soulmates to have adjoining rooms, to be physically close to one another. To train together, eat together, spend their recreational time in each other’s presence. Even if—when—either of them gets married, the soulmate is an important part of the ceremony, and harmony between a soulmate and a prospective spouse is taken extremely seriously.

The point is, nobody would blink an eye to see them sitting here now, Q’s head tilted against Eliot’s shoulder, breathing each other in as the light fades outside the window, casting the room in gentle shadow.

Eliot wants to allow the indulgence. In fact, he wants it so fucking much that he knows he shouldn’t let himself have it. “Q?” he says, as gently as he can manage. It almost breaks his heart to wake him, to pull away from his warmth and separate for the night. “Hey, wake up.”

Quentin mutters and groans and nuzzles his face in beneath Eliot’s neck, and Eliot bites the inside of his cheek. He hates his whole life sometimes. “Q,” he says again, this time a little louder.

“Shit, I fell asleep,” Quentin says, lifting his head up and blinking at Eliot. “Sorry.”

“It’s okay. I just didn’t want you to be uncomfortable.”

“I wasn’t,” Quentin says, like he can just say things like that and it doesn’t mean anything, doesn’t claw Eliot’s insides into a bloody, ruined pulp. “I should go… lie down, I guess.”

“I’ll wake you up early,” Eliot says. “Margo wants to explore the grounds, and I figured you’d like to be there to chaperone.”

Quentin gives him a suspicious expression, trying to work out if he’s being insulted, and then sighs and pats a clumsy hand across the side of Eliot’s face, stretching and turning towards the door to his own bedroom.

“Sounds good. Sleep well, okay?”

“Only if you do,” Eliot says, and he employs every bit of his strength to let Quentin walk away, to not catch his hand as he turns away, to not spin him around and back into Eliot’s arms, where he so obviously belongs.

Chapter Text

Over the next couple of days, Quentin tries to keep his head above water as the castle undergoes a weird, aimless flurry of activity. Margo is being treated with the respect due to a visiting foreigner-slash-possible Fillorian noblewoman under sanctuary protections, with a healthy dose of skepticism as the court works to verify her remarkable story. A messenger is sent to her former house, against Margo’s wishes, to inform the Hansons of their daughter's safety in Whitespire.

There’s an odd stasis to Margo’s presence. Her arrival marks an undeniable change, a reinvigoration of the fight against the Beast. But at the same time, nothing really happens. Margo is not shy about her desire to track down the Beast and end him once and for all, and the Chatwins promise her that she will be included in any and all missions to that effect. But instead of any of that, the Chatwins seem content to tighten security and stay put, a strategy that’s worked for them for two hundred years.

So they send out patrols, to make sure the anchor stones in each corner of the pentagram are still being properly protected. They increase guard rotations around the borders of Fillory’s inner sanctum. They run maintenance on personal protection charms inside the castle. Run extra drills on what to expect should an incursion occur. For a couple of days, the added presence of Margo, the thought that they might actually have to fight the Beast, adds an intense, exhilarating energy to proceedings. Margo seems satisfied to see the people around her taking it all seriously, doing what they can to protect themselves.

But she also seems… restless. As Quentin gets to know her, shares meals with her, spars with her in the gym and goes on walks with her and Eliot around the grounds, he begins to recognize the tight-lipped fury hiding behind Margo’s every sardonic phrase. She praises the Chatwins’ efforts publicly while icy impatience builds behind her eyes. She wants action. She wants progress. She wants something other than more of the same, and after a week in Whitespire, she’s starting to understand that the Chatwins aren’t going to give her that.

“It just feels like a waste,” she says one afternoon, while she, Quentin, Eliot, Julia, and Alice are all having a picnic out in the gardens. “This place, the power you all possess… you have a soul-bonded pair right here, with enough magic built between the two of you to land an attack that might send even the Beast back on his heels.”

“The problem with that,” Julia says, not unsympathetic, “Is that Quentin and Eliot aren’t a weapon we can just point in whatever direction we please.”

“Even assuming we knew exactly where the Beast was, sending them in would probably amount to killing them both,” Alice continues.

“Funny enough, we haven’t been keen on volunteering for such a thing,” Eliot says. He doesn’t sound angry that Margo made the suggestion, though. He understands her desire for the Beast’s death in a way maybe none of the others ever could.

A full assault, some miraculous end to centuries of stalemate, doesn’t seem to be imminent, no matter how much Margo clearly wishes it. Quentin is half worried that she’ll go from snarky comments on the slow-moving wheels of the monarchy, to outright chastising the Chatwins for their inaction. But she seems to be good at toeing that line, reminding Quentin that despite the baffling and brave decision she made to walk away from an intact house, she did grow up among the nobility.

Quentin can’t blame Margo for bringing up the soulmate-fueled magical strength, either. He knows people look at him and El as a weapon, a last resort, some sort of miracle held in reserve for the moment of judgment. Mostly he tries not to think about what that might mean, that as the only full members of the Court with soul-runes, they might be called upon in a situation of true desperation, might be asked to sacrifice themselves for the good of the kingdom. They’d agreed to such a thing, on the day they’d bonded, but they’d been kids then. Neither of them had known what it would really mean. Neither of them had thought it would ever come to that.

In any case, despite Margo’s intensity, Quentin… likes her. He likes her on her own terms, he thinks she’s funny and smart and brave. He also likes her for Eliot’s sake. He can see what having her around is doing to his soulmate, and it’s complicated, and painful sometimes, to see Eliot reliving childhood memories through the prism of Margo’s more recent experience, but it’s also healing. He’s watching the person he loves best in all the world, the person whose very soul he treasures as the greatest gift of his life, get some long-needed closure.

There is, and he won’t lie to himself about this, a twist of resentment that Margo seems to be providing something for Eliot that Quentin himself could never manage, but he bats away the uncharitable thoughts before they can catch hold. Nobody can be everything to everyone. There are things Quentin could share with Eliot, but chooses to share with Jules or Alice instead. And Eliot hasn’t really had that, hasn’t had someone else that he could be close to, who Quentin hadn’t known first and better.

Eliot and Margo are bonding as outsiders, and it’s impossible not to feel a bit morose at the thought that a part of Eliot still feels that way, like he’s on the outside looking in. But Quentin is happy, as unambiguously happy as he can manage, that Margo is providing something Eliot clearly needs.

And so it goes for the first week of Margo’s stay. Quentin spends a lot of time with just her and El, but he also lets the new friends have time to themselves, occupying himself with reading up on the Beast in the library, or going through training drills with Kady and Penny, or relaxing with a glass of wine with Julia after dinner. Things are different, things are tense, and he knows they’re all waiting for a second shock to follow quickly on the first, for Margo’s appearance in their lives to presage something new, something serious, something that will rip apart their routines and leave carnage in its wake.

But it doesn’t, and so Eliot and Quentin resume their normal patrol, check in on various Fillorian citizens who seek an audience with the Court. They take their midday meal with some of the younger magicians, help in training them in combat. They spar, showing off for Margo, who is gratifyingly impressed with the strength and skill they’re able to demonstrate together.

Life maintains its equilibrium by just the tiniest thread, the thinnest line separating Quentin from the upheaval of real change.

And then, Eliot doesn’t come home one night.

Quentin can pretend he doesn’t notice it, but of course he does. It’s not a rule, a standing date, or anything, but virtually every night of their lives since they were ten years old, they’ve ended their days together. In fact, Quentin is acutely aware of the only other times when this hasn’t been the case—when either he or Eliot had plans to spend the night in someone else’s company. It had once happened semi-regularly, Eliot letting Quentin know with forced casualness that he had plans down in the village, and that he’d come back in the morning. Quentin would lie awake on those nights, stubbornly keeping the walls in his mind as tight as a fortress, unwilling for even the smallest hint of his distress to leak through. Eliot didn’t deserve his nonsensical, inappropriate reaction. Eliot deserved to go have a good time. To fall in love, if he felt like it, to take a husband or a wife, to have babies…

But that was years ago, when Eliot had been going through what he himself had admitted had been a bit of a rebellious streak. He hadn’t been seeking for appropriate companionship, he’d been looking for attractive people to fuck, people he’d never be allowed to consider marrying even if that was something he’d been interested in in the first place. And he’d told Quentin as much, because they told each other everything.

They told each other, for example, when they weren’t planning on sleeping in their own beds for the night.

It’s ridiculous to be worried, and if Quentin is honest with himself, he’s not. Not really, not in a El-might-be-in-danger kind of way. For one thing, if even the smallest part of him thought that, he’d already be hunting down his soulmate and checking to make sure. The fact that he hasn’t moved from his own bed, sitting up with arms wrapped around his knees, proves that he’s not actually concerned for Eliot’s safety.

There’s also the fact that he’d feel it, literally, coursing directly into his veins, if Eliot were scared or hurt or in any danger whatsoever. When he pokes at the bond, light enough so El won’t feel, all he can sense is warmth, contentment, sleepiness, mixed in with the slightest hint of excitement.

He’s with Margo, and Quentin knows that because he knows the flavor of Eliot’s moods around her already, has already catalogued the different ways she can make him feel. Amused, awed, happy, conflicted, solicitous, energized, cautious but brave in the face of all doubt. She’s good for him. Margo’s good for Eliot. Which means Margo’s good for Quentin. That’s how it fucking works.

He repeats this to himself over and over again, trying to make it fit, make it uncomplicatedly true, until sleep finally takes him under.

*****

In the morning, just as Quentin had known would happen, Eliot bursts into the room almost without knocking, apology and embarrassment already shooting across their connected souls before he says a single word.

Quentin’s already awake. Which, of course, Eliot would have known when he himself woke up, groggy and with a sore neck, having slumped over to sleep in a chair in front of the fire in Margo’s room. Quentin can almost see it, exactly how they’d been positioned, Margo’s body curled up in the exact center of her bed, on top of the covers, Eliot stretched with one leg resting on the corner of the bed, head flopped against the back of the winged chair. They’d fallen asleep in the middle of a conversation, neither of them intending it.

He’s picturing it that way because he can’t picture it any other way, that maybe Eliot crawled into the bed beside Margo, that maybe they slept in uncomplicated repose by each other’s sides, close and comfortable in each other’s presence. Quentin knows what it is to fall asleep next to Eliot in this way. Of course, his own experience is always tinged with shame. Shame he shouldn’t even have to feel, if it weren’t for the forbidden depths of his own dangerous feelings.

“I’m so sorry,” Eliot says, crossing the room at once to where Quentin is sitting at the small round table by the window, munching on toast for breakfast. “I’m horrible.”

“You’re not horrible,” Quentin says automatically. He turns to face Eliot head-on, sees the sleep-mussed hair and rumpled clothes from the night before. He looks endearingly, attractively, disheveled. It’s infuriating, as always.

“I am, though. I should have come back, or at least, I should have—I didn’t realize how late it was.”

He looks and sounds so damn sincere that Quentin’s halfhearted plans to remain aloof and cold crumble immediately. “I was going to come up and say goodnight…” Eliot rushes on, sounding awkward and uncomfortable, and Quentin can’t abide that for even a second. They can’t be uncomfortable with each other, or else they’d be uncomfortable with their very selves. Which… well, maybe it’s a little less clear cut than that, but in any case, Eliot and comfort are synonyms in Quentin’s mind. He won’t let that change, whatever else does.

“Hey, it’s okay,” Quentin says, he stands up from his seat, waving a hand like it’s really no big deal. Because, he reminds himself firmly, it’s not. “I get it.”

“We were up late,” Eliot says, “talking about our childhoods. Horrifying to contemplate, I know, but it’s just…”

“El,” Quentin says, and this time it’s a little easier to smile genuinely, because underneath all his own bullshit, he’s truly delighted that Eliot’s opening up to someone new. It’s good for him, and Quentin always wants what’s good for him.

“It’s like I’m drawing poison up out of a wound,” Eliot says, the words quiet like he’s confessing something distasteful or embarrassing. “It hurts like you wouldn’t believe, Q, but I think it’s helping.”

Quentin comes forward and hugs him, knowing he’ll never have to wonder if his touch is welcome. He wants to say you know, you can always talk to me about this, too, but he doesn’t, because Eliot has talked to him about it, many times. He’s even opened up the bloody insides of his deepest, darkest, most shameful feelings regarding the deaths of his parents, the way a part of him almost wants to thank the Beast for forcing him into a life where he’s happier than he ever would have been if he’d stayed with the Waughs.

But telling someone who can truly empathize, who knows how it feels on her own terms… that’s got to be different.

Eliot sinks into the hug and places a lingering kiss to the crown of Quentin’s head. Quentin has a flash of memory of the first time El had ever done that, pulling him forward and digging his chin into Quentin’s hair before tilting down and pressing his lips there. He can almost hear the teasing glee in Eliot’s voice when he’d pointed out how much taller he’d gotten.

Quentin, grumpy and young and still holding out hope for a growth spurt, had warned him to take his chances while he could, because one day… and thank the gods, truly, that that day had never come. Quentin loves being short enough to slot his head under El’s chin, to slip into the space of him like he was meant to be held there.

“I’m proud of you,” Quentin tells him, speaking the words directly into the skin of his neck.

“Ugh, gross,” Eliot says, but there’s so much fondness, and relief, and gratitude, and love singing between them that Quentin can’t even bother to continue the banter.

“I’m serious, El.”

“Yes, I know,” Eliot reminds him, bringing a hand up to cradle the back of Quentin’s skull for a moment. “You’re always so serious, so thoughtful. The very best part of me, Q. You know that, right?”

Gods, Margo really is helping him, isn’t she?

“Did you eat dinner last night, or are you and Margo trying for a liquid diet?”

“I could probably eat,” Eliot confesses, and Quentin hooks his arm through Eliot’s, bringing him to the door between their bedrooms.

“Get changed,” Quentin says. “Or people will stare.”

“I like it when people stare,” Eliot retorts. It’s a little forced, the spark of humor, the familiar teasing, but Quentin ignores that and lets it make him laugh.

*****

Eliot probably overreacted to the impromptu sleepover thing. He realizes it later in the day when the last of the fuzziness leaves his brain, when he’s outside with Q on patrol and things between them are as normal and solid and beautiful as they ever are. When he’d woken up next to Margo and realized he’d accidentally spent the whole night in her lavish guest chambers (she’d requested upgrades, and been granted them immediately), he’d panicked a little bit.

And not because he’d done anything wrong, or even particularly inconsiderate. He and Quentin didn’t share a bed, a room, a life, in the way usually meant by such a word. He is under no obligation to ever tell Quentin where he chooses to spend his time, if he doesn’t feel like it. It was just that they always had before, and Eliot, projecting hard, imagined how sick to his stomach he would have felt if he’d woken up in the morning and realized Q hadn’t spent the night next door.

He remembers the months when Q had stayed most nights in Alice Quinn’s chambers, just down the hall. He’d barely slept, could hardly keep down his food. Forced himself to be as normal as it was possible to be, when the reason for his misery was linked to him, body, heart and soul. And when the reason for his misery could never, ever be allowed to know that he was the cause of it, or that it even existed in the first place.

But of course it’s not the same in the other direction. Q doesn’t feel that way, Q isn’t forced to remind himself constantly of what he is and isn’t allowed to have. For Q, Eliot’s failure to return to his usual chambers might have passed unnoticed, or at the very most might have engendered some curiosity, the concern a friend feels for a friend.

It doesn’t matter either way, because Quentin forgives him instantly. He’s too good for Eliot. Always has been, always will be.

Eliot is careful, in the following nights, to come up to bed with Quentin as usual, to spend time with just him before they both retreat to their own space. He’d rather be with Quentin than any other person in the known universe, and that’s been the case since the day they met. Whether he’s making too much out of it or not, he never wants Quentin to doubt that.

And the days continue to slip into something approaching a new routine. The same as always, with patrols, with long and serious and ultimately pointless strategic conversations about the Beast… but the whole thing now comes with the added bonus of Margo Hanson.

Eliot’s never made a friend as an adult, before. Realizing this is sort of embarrassing, like this whole part of his life has been stuck in a frozen stasis and he’d just never noticed it was missing, but having her around makes him realize that he doesn’t meet new people. Not for anything beyond a passing acquaintance or a brief carnal interlude, and even that he hasn’t been able to stomach for months, not when he can’t touch anyone, can’t get hard, can’t kiss another man’s lips without aching for the person he’s forbidden to desire.

Margo… well, maybe it’s that she’s a woman, and Eliot’s desire for women has always been shaped differently than that he’s felt for men. He can imagine, if he’s honest with himself, touching Margo, can imagine it bringing him pleasure, and he gets the feeling she’s contemplated the same thing in return. But it’s only because they like each other so much. There’s this physical, undeniable, joy that buzzes under his skin whenever he gets to be around her. It’s different from how he feels around his other friends, the warmth and familiarity of a lazy night in with Q and Jules and all the others. It’s fresh and exciting and it stings, almost enough to hurt, but Eliot relishes it all the same.

It’s not the same as what Quentin feels for his other friends, either. Eliot knows exactly what Julia and Alice and Penny and Kady make him feel, and he knows what they make his soulmate feel, too. There’s warmth and affection and so much love there, but it’s not the same. Maybe something about knowing people from childhood makes it different. Maybe this is what happens when two people find each other and have to prize out the truths of their formative years over long conversations, peppered with trauma and with mirth in equal measure. Something about the effort of it makes the whole experience invigorating in a way Eliot never would have expected.

Eliot likes Margo. Specifically her, not just the fact of her novelty. A lot. Something in him had been repelled and attracted by her all at once, from the first moment they’d really gotten a chance to talk. The repulsion comes in the flavor of his own garden-variety self loathing, because Margo reminds him of himself, more than a little. She’s ostensibly confident but it’s obvious that she’s hiding a deep pain, one that comes not only from suffering the mundanity of normal loss, but also the trauma of excising herself from a past she couldn’t otherwise have survived.

By the end of the second week, it almost feels like Margo has always been there. A thorn in their sides, a companion in moments of bleakness. She seems buoyed by Whitespire’s serious response to her information, the checks being made on the castle’s security protocols, the increased patrols, but also frustrated by the lack of tangible progress.

In public, she’s pushy but not too disrespectful. In private, when it’s just the two of them, Margo starts to get a bit more… direct.

“Did you ever consider,” Margo says, “that the Chatwins have no good reason to bother defeating the Beast?”

“No,” Eliot says, almost entirely honest. “But that might be because what you just said was practically treason.”

They’re in Margo’s chambers again, spending a lazy afternoon unwinding after Eliot’s patrols and Margo’s dozenth interview with Fogg and some of the other senior council members.

“Are you not allowed to speak what you feel around these parts? Or is that another decree of the almighty immortal Chatwins?”

“Hush,” Eliot says, but he grins at her. Quentin would never dare to speak of the monarchs with such irreverence. Q isn’t sycophantic, exactly, but there’s a freedom to Margo’s brashness in comparison to the rest of Eliot’s friends. “I’m allowed to say how I feel. And how I feel is that Queen Jane and King Rupert have everything to lose. Caution is logical.”

“Caution has given them personal comfort and protection, and enough resources to bring in a chosen few into the circle of that peace. It’s given Fillory centuries of strife, of chaos.”

“Margo…”

“If they want to lead, shouldn’t they care about all of their people?”

“Yes,” Eliot says, wondering as he often does with her why he’s been cast into this reluctant role of the Chatwins’ defenders. “Yes, they should. But Margo—”

“So why don’t all of you just do something about it?” Margo cuts him off, and there’s a hint of accusation in her voice, aimed at Eliot this time. It hurts, more than he would have expected it to.

“What exactly are you proposing I do?”

“You, your soulmate, Kady, Penny, all of you are powerful, and trained, and… and you have every advantage. You could track the Beast down and end this today, and the only reason it hasn’t occurred to you to do it is that your king and queen have—”

“They’re your king and queen too,” Eliot says, interrupting in his own turn. He’s been lounging back on one elbow on Margo’s bed but he sits up now, narrowing his eyes. “Whatever you think of them, that’s not something you get to toss away.”

“I know that,” Margo says, not at all chastened. “I’m just saying, don’t you ever think about it? About getting this over with, once and for all?”

The answer, and suddenly it seems an utterly inadequate one, is no. Margo seems determined to take matters into her own hands, and Eliot… well, it had taken all of his fortitude to escape from the Beast all those years ago. He’d run to the inner sanctum and he hadn’t left since. He’d been content to let the adults around him make the decisions. Content to do what was required of him in order to keep his place here, in comfort and safety. Going after the Beast seems like the kind of thing that could upset the equilibrium of the life he loves permanently. He has as much to lose as Jane and Rupert do.

Not to mention, Quentin would never go for it. Margo won’t be able to understand this, but the entire hypothetical is moot if Q is not included. It’s not like he could ever make a decision, a real decision, without his soulmate’s input and approval.

“Margo,” Eliot says. “I want to help you. I want what you want, I do. I just… I don’t know if I think your expectations are reasonable.”

“Well,” Margo says, frowning at him in disappointment. “That may be the case. But nobody ever got anywhere with reasonable.”

*****

Eliot asks Quentin’s permission the next time he’s planning a late night with Margo, which is weird and kind of humiliating.

In fact, Eliot invites Quentin to join them, and Q gets the weirdest feeling that the invite is only out of politeness. Not that he believes El would rather be with Margo than with him, precisely. But Margo is giving something to Eliot that Quentin can’t, and…

“Quentin?” Eliot asks, raising an eyebrow. “Did you hear me?”

“You should go,” Quentin says. “Obviously. I mean. Not like you needed to ask.”

Eliot’s eyebrows shoot down, into a furrow. “What?”

“Like. You and Margo. You don’t need to check in with me if you want to spend time with her.” He’s making it weird. What else is new.

There’s a pause. They’re in the hall outside of the gym, where they’d just gotten done with an evening training session. They both smell like sweat and exertion. Quentin’s been in a difficult mood all day and the strain of trying to hide it from Eliot has been getting to him. His filters are brittle. He wants to lick the sweat on Eliot’s neck. Wants to tell him he’s not allowed to go get drunk with Margo and talk about fashion or the castle’s decor or whatever it is they’re always giggling about when they’re not unburdening their souls over shared trauma.

That’s uncharitable. This is an inconvenient time to descend into a depression, so Quentin has decided that’s not what’s happening. Can’t be. Eliot deserves some fucking time to himself for once.

“I know that,” Eliot says. “I was inviting you.” The expression on his face grows even more concerned. “Q… what…”

Quentin forces a smile, knows it won’t fool Eliot for a second. “I’m worn out. Just a little—off-kilter, I guess. I think I’ll just—”

“Okay, now I’m worried,” Eliot says, predictably.

When Quentin’s feeling like this, possessive and angry and disgusting for feeling possessive and angry, Eliot’s worry only makes it all worse. His distress is leaking out of him, and he grasps it and pulls it back in, firm. He doesn’t want Eliot to feel it. Not tonight.

“I’m just like… restless and exhausted all at once, I guess?” It’s not a lie, but he says it with a shrug and a grin, like it’s not eating him up inside.

“Do you want—”

“I think I just need to go get some rest.”

They’re out of alignment, Quentin realizes. He’s being purposefully obtuse, because he wants Eliot to come to his room with him and hang out with him until he’s sleepy enough to actually close his eyes, but he doesn’t want Eliot to know that that’s what he wants. It makes it worse to know that if he asked, El would come with him without hesitation, without resentment.

“You’re acting weird,” Eliot says, and his tone comes out somewhere between teasing and sincere, like he can’t decide on his best tactic. “But if you insist on getting rid of me, I’ll oblige you.” He comes up to Quentin and wraps a companionable arm around Quentin’s shoulder. “Cheer up, kiddo, okay?”

Quentin suppresses a wince, tries not to tighten up or shy away from Eliot’s touch. He’s being ridiculous. Ridiculous. Isn’t the whole point of having a soulmate knowing you never have to be jealous? Even thinking the word makes him feel like such an idiot.

“We’re the same age.”

“Are you saying we aren’t kids anymore?” Eliot says, swaying into Quentin’s side, dropping his voice low. “Because you know I refuse to grow up until forced.”

Eliot had grown up at ten years old, when he’d had to learn to fend for himself. Quentin knows that. He wishes sometimes that El would just admit it too.

“I’m tired, seriously,” Quentin says, slipping out from Eliot’s arms. “Have fun with Margo.” He turns his back and heads for the door. There’s a stronger sting of worry and uncertainty from El’s side of the bond, a rushing tingle of hesitation, but Quentin bats it away, letting Eliot know without words that now isn’t the time to get into it. It’s really not a big deal, it’s really not, and what Quentin needs at the moment is to be alone so he can convince himself he actually means that.

“Okay,” Eliot says, answering Quentin’s mental message more than his actual words. “Goodnight, Q.” But I’m coming back tonight.

The words come through to Quentin with intention, firmness, and Quentin knows better than to argue with them.

“Goodnight, El.”

*****

Quentin dreams that Eliot is touching him. It’s not even a sex dream at first, just… warmth, and comfort, and Eliot’s hands stroking along his skin, petting through his hair. The tingles of pleasure radiating through every inch of him don’t feel strictly erotic, just like, like everything in the world is right, for once, like he’s as comfortable and as safe as it’s possible for a person to be. In the dream, Eliot is talking to him, but he doesn’t know what the words are. It doesn't matter. He can feel breath warm on his neck, the warmth of a body pressing him down into the mattress. Eliot’s lips tickling under his jaw. One of his hands, curling around his hip, tracing his fingers over the soul-rune. His touch against the symbol, the circular swirl of power inked dark into him, sends shivers of joy running through Quentin’s veins.

Eliot is asking him if he remembers the day they bonded, how happy they both were, how it had seemed like the rest of forever was stretched out in front of them, how nothing would ever be bad or wrong ever again, because they’d have each other, and that was everything. Eliot’s hand traces lower, gripping into his thigh. His lips are wet, mouth open against Quentin’s pulse point.

They’re both hard, and Quentin knows this because how can he not be hard when Eliot is touching him like this, touching him everywhere? They’re not wearing any clothes. This hadn’t seemed important earlier, but now Quentin notices it, feels the thickness of Eliot’s cock pressed into his hipbone. He wants it. Wants it like breathing. Pressed inside him. In his mouth. Rutting against the crease of his thigh. Anything. All of it.

The best part is that here, in the dream, he’s not afraid at all of what it means, that Eliot seems to want him back.

Then, Quentin wakes up.

It takes him a moment to figure out why. It’s cold in his room, colder than it should be, like the environmental controls have failed some time in the night. But it’s not the cold that wakes him, it’s…

Panic. Fear. Anguish.

It’s coming from Eliot.

Quentin is on his feet and racing, shirtless and disoriented and still tingling from his dream. He makes it to the door between his and Eliot’s room just as it bursts open. Eliot is on the other side, his hair in disarray, eyes wide.

“Q,” he says, voice hoarse with sleep. “It’s him. The Beast. I—”

“What?” Quentin says, still half asleep, trying to pull himself out of the warmth of where his mind had taken him in slumber. “El, are you—” he reaches for Eliot as Eliot reaches for him, instinctive.

“Can’t you feel that?” Eliot says, his voice rigid with fear and far too loud in the stillness of deep night. “He’s—I can feel him. We need to leave. Come—”

“Eliot, hold on—”

But even as Eliot grabs Quentin’s hand and starts tugging him towards his bedroom window, Quentin does feel it. Or, he feels something. He’d thought it had just been a chill in his room, spellwork that needed to be redone after too many weeks of lazy neglect. But the iciness has a flavor to it, permeating the stone of the walls, the rug beneath his feet. It’s sour, like burning but cold, like rotten acid. It’s a flavor of magic, a buzzing along the skin, that Quentin has experienced many times over the years, fighting back the Beast’s corruption.

“Fuck,” Quentin says, fully awake at last.

“Yes, exactly, thank you,” Eliot says, still tugging on Quentin’s arm. “Gods, Q, move.”

“What are you doing?” Quentin asks, surprised to find that he’s standing still, resisting Eliot’s urgency. He decides that for the moment, he needs to keep doing that. Eliot’s eyes are wild, his whole body trembling. Quentin’s never seen him like this before, never felt such utter terror from the other side of the bond. It scares him, but it also bolsters him, aware as he is that he’s the only one capable of rational thought right now.

“We need to leave,” Eliot repeats, and he sounds close to tears now.

“Let’s go get the others—” Quentin says, but Eliot shakes his head, frantic.

“No time.”

And then…

There’s a voice. It’s not coming from a person, or at least not a person in the room. Quentin hears it vibrating from the walls, ceiling, floor, the very particles of air swirling around him. At the sound of it, Eliot lets out a cry like he’s been stabbed, and he yanks hard enough on Quentin’s arm to hurt. Quentin stumbles forward, gripping at Eliot just as fiercely. Eliot’s terror has suddenly bled all the way into him, so he can’t separate it from his own. He’s paralyzed with it.

JANE,” the voice says, echoing unnaturally, reverberating and twisting around itself. It’s so loud that Quentin wants to cover his ears, but Eliot won’t let go of his hand. “JANE. RUPERT. LET. ME. IN.”

The whole castle rumbles, quaking, the floor under them roiling like the sea. Quentin’s stomach lurches, Eliot says his name, a plaintive plea, and pulls him firmly into his arms, turning his back to the door like he’s trying to cage him in, shoving them both towards the window. Quentin realizes, through the chaos of Eliot’s panic, what he’s intending, and he digs his heels in.

“El, fuck, stop. We can’t jump out the window—”

They’re far too high up. Eliot can fly, Quentin can… maybe hover, in an ideal setting. There’s no way, with his weight—

“I’ll fucking carry you, I’m not leaving you here—”

“I’m not suggesting—Eliot! Calm the fuck down!”

The voice comes again, shivering through the room, clanging through their shared terror.

JANE. I KNOW YOU CAN HEAR ME.

There’s a whimper, and Quentin doesn’t know if it’s coming from him or from Eliot. It’s taking every ounce of Quentin’s remaining calm to stop Eliot from literally throwing the both of them out the window. But he takes in the words, the Beast’s words, ricocheting across the room, through the whole castle, as the voice booms out for a third time:

LET. ME. IN.”

“Hear that, El?” Quentin says, like he’s talking to a skittish toddler. “Hey, hey, look at me. Do you hear that? He’s trying to get in, which means he’s not here. El? He’s not here. It’s a spell, it’s just intimidation, it’s—”

“He can’t have you,” Eliot says, and he sounds dazed, like the reality he’s living is displaced from everyone else’s, like he’s living in a universe several steps ahead of where they really are. The aftermath of carnage that hasn’t happened. That won’t happen.

“He’s not here,” Quentin repeats, and he takes his free hand and grasps the back of Eliot’s neck, forcing his head around so they can look at each other.

There’s another tremor through the floor and then silence, the ice in the air crystalizing along Quentin’s skin. Eliot has broken out into a cold sweat, his breath coming out in tight little gasps. “Quentin,” he says, almost a moan. “Please. We need to go.”

The whole room, the whole castle, seems to be holding its breath. Quentin thinks about Jules, down the hall, and all the rest of his friends, then he looks up into his soulmate’s terrified face. There’s really no other choice. If El needs him to run— “Okay,” he says, voice cracking. “Okay, we’ll go. But we’re not jumping out the window. Let’s just—”

Something in the air cracks like a whip. For a second it causes another spike of fear inside them both, but then there’s a rush of warmth through the air, ice cracking over a pond of water, summer rushing in. Quentin knows, as surely as he’d recognized the Beast’s presence moments before, that whatever just happened, it’s over now.

“It could be a trick,” Eliot says, in response to the relief he must feel from Quentin’s side of the bond. “I’m not—I can’t—maybe we should still—”

Quentin shakes his head, too many thoughts and emotions swirling through it. They’re coming from Eliot, more than from him. There’s an imperative singing in his very blood, demanding that they flee, but Quentin, the part of Quentin that is still grasping onto the corners of rationality, knows that the Beast couldn’t really have breached the inner sanctum. He’s out there somewhere, and he found a spell, a frightening, intimidating spell, designed to rattle them, to send them running.

The smartest, the only, course of action is to stay put. Strength in numbers. It wouldn’t do to run scared and right into the Beast’s waiting arms—

The knock at the door makes them both yelp and grip each other harder, even though the Beast wouldn’t… obviously the Beast wouldn’t be knocking, but in that moment logic is hard to come by, and all Quentin can think is that if they’re about to die, maybe he should just throw caution to the wind, out the window, as it were, and find out what Eliot’s lips taste like before they both cease to exist.

“Hey, you guys okay?”

It’s Penny.

“It’s Penny,” Eliot says, like he can’t believe it. “It’s—”

“Yeah,” Quentin says, taking in the biggest breath he can manage, letting it out.

“Open up,” Penny says. “He’s not here, the protections held firm. Come on, we’re convening, the king and queen have asked—”

That gets Quentin to move, some latent desire to obey his sovereigns. He unwraps his arms from around Eliot’s waist, unclenching the dig of his fingernails into El’s bare skin. He keeps his hand tangled up with Eliot’s, though, and meets resistance when he reaches the extent of their arms.

Eliot’s still frozen to the spot, skin blotchy and pale, thin chest heaving with exertion. He’s staring at the door with mistrust, with suspicion, and still with so much fear. “It’s Penny?” he says again, this time like he’s asking, like it might be a trick.

“It’s Penny,” Quentin says, as firm as he can manage. Gods, he wants to burst into tears, the way Eliot looks, the terror still pouring off of him in waves. It breaks his heart to do it, but Quentin exerts as much focus as he can manage and builds up a wall in the bond, cutting off Eliot’s emotions so they don’t cloud his own perceptions. Eliot needs him to be the strong one right now.

Eliot must feel it happening, because he blinks, taking a step back like he’s been shoved, and then, still gripping hard to Quentin’s hand, he shakes his head and something unlocks within him, like his mind is finally catching up with his body. “Oh, shit. Fuck. I’m sorry. Shit.”

“I’m going to break the door down if you two don’t—” Penny’s voice calls from the hall. Quentin moves forward again, and this time Eliot comes with him, hand slippery with sweat but still gripping on with the strength of desperation.

They swing the door open to find Penny, sleep in his eyes but at least fully dressed. “Come on,” he says. “The others are waiting.”

“Let us put shirts on,” Quentin says, and he widens his eyes significantly at Penny, trying to communicate with him silently the way he can with Eliot. He’s not okay, and I need to make sure he’s okay.

Penny nods, but he doesn’t move, so Quentin turns and guides Eliot back inside, to his wardrobe. Then he tugs him along to his own room, unwilling to disconnect them, and gets his shirt on as well.

By the time they’re out in the hall with Penny, Eliot seems like he’s shaken off the worst of it. He’s tracking, he’s aware, he’s asking questions that Penny doesn’t have the answers for. Eliot is at last in the present and not in his own specific past.

But he still won’t let go of Quentin’s hand.

Chapter Text

They gather in the Magician’s Court hall, everyone disheveled from sleep and a rude awakening. Eliot looks down at himself as he enters the room and is somewhat surprised to find himself wearing a shirt. He has only disjointed memories of the last several minutes, feels like even now he’s still trying to pull himself out of a nightmare.

Quentin is trying to calm him down, but Eliot’s own distress has distressed his soulmate so much that all they’ve really done is create a feedback loop, Quentin’s worry obvious through the thin veneer of peace and reassurance. But Quentin is trying—Eliot hates that Quentin’s in a position where he has to work so hard just to keep Eliot on his feet and more or less in the grip of his own mind. In and of itself, Eliot’s intense dislike of being a burden is forcing him to shake off the worst of the panic. He can fall apart later, when it’s safe, when he can be alone again with Q.

“We’ve confirmed that the perimeter is secure,” Fogg’s voice booms out in the long, echoing room. It’s not like the Beast’s voice, that higher, colder, more calculating resonance, the way it had emanated from the very air, but Eliot still has to fight hard to avoid flinching, swaying into Quentin’s side. Q’s still holding his hand, both of them gripping hard enough for the muscles to cramp. “And we think we’ve identified the spell the Beast performed this evening.”

“First of all,” Jane’s voice breaks in, precise and crisp and full of authority. It’s strange to see her and Rupert. They look out of place anywhere outside of their more lavish wings of the castle, their authority ringing strangely hollow here, where Fogg is usually the master. “Is everyone well? I’ve heard reports of some minor injuries—”

“I may have banged my elbow getting out of bed,” Julia says, with a raised eyebrow. “But I think I’ll survive.”

Just the word injuries makes Eliot’s pulse skyrocket, and he can feel the clamminess of cold sweat on the back of his neck. He scans the room quickly, taking in Alice, hair in disarray, oddly young-looking in her baggy sleep clothes. Penny, who had led them into the room. Julia, cradling her elbow in her hand. But then he sees Kady, allowing one of the medics to patch up a thin scratch along the side of her arm, and one of the younger magicians, still in training, already has an impressive bruise blooming across the side of his face.

“A few minor incidents from the quakes,” Fogg says. “All have been reported and looked at—”

“Is everyone accounted for?” Eliot hears himself ask, and it’s like the voice comes from somewhere else, someone else. He can’t feel his body properly, just little disconnected patches of it. The hand clasped around Quentin’s is going numb, but he squeezes tighter anyway.

“Yes,” Fogg says, more gentle than he ever is, and that’s how Eliot knows he must look just about as wrecked as he feels.

It’s only then that he thinks to look for Margo, and he finds her quickly, before he can be too worried. He meets her eyes from across the room, and something flashes between them, something like I knew this would happen, and what happens now? So much seems to depend on what Jane and Rupert say next, on what’s decided, now that the Beast has made his intentions clear. He gets the uncomfortable feeling that the two of them are the only ones who understand what this moment means, what must happen now. It has to end. They have to end it.

“We’re safe for the night,” Rupert says, standing with his hands behind his back, surveying his most elite subjects, the magicians who protect him, who allow him to sit back in his power with the confidence he now displays. “We have good systems, good protections, and they have not failed us on this night.”

“The castle was shaking,” Margo says, jaw clenched. There is some shifting from the palace aids in the room, uneasy glances. Margo really has no right to speak directly to the king without invitation.

“Yes,” Rupert says, “and I have already tasked Henry with discovering the details of the Beast’s message. Clearly there is more we can do to protect ourselves—”

“And what about making it stop? For good?” Margo says.

Margo really has no right to interrupt the king while he’s speaking. The titters around the room grow louder. Eliot falls a little bit in love with her. Quentin is a statue at his side.

“Rest assured, Lady Margo,” Jane answers for her brother, “we are well aware of the dangers posed by the Beast, and desire an end to his violent attempts at overthrowing our rule. You cannot possibly wish for this to end any more than we do.”

“Oh, you wanna bet?” Margo says, crossing her arms and staring the queen down.

Okay. Now even Eliot feels like maybe someone should intervene, diffuse. He admires Margo, but there’s a time and a place, and—

“In any case,” Fogg says, cutting through the tension of the room, releasing air back into everyone’s lungs. “Even minor injuries, second hand though they might be, here inside Castle Whitespire, are causes for alarm. The Beast might not have a way to get to us, but his display tonight betrays a level of boldness that he has not shown in the living memory of any mortal soul.”

“He has been helpless for many decades,” Jane says, an immortal soul who can remember a time when this wasn’t the case. “It’s possible that this most recent ploy is born out of desperation, or even… even boredom. None of you understand him as Rupert and I do. There is every reason to think that nothing more will come of what happened tonight.”

It’s cold comfort, and nobody, not even the queen herself, seems to believe it for real. But there’s not much else to say. Fogg gives instructions to a few people, sends the rest of them to bed, and promises that they’ll create a more robust, official response to the Beast’s latest assault come morning.

And then, surreal though it seems, people go back to bed. All of them trailing out of the room, still in shock. Penny wraps an arm around Kady’s shoulder and herds her off, head tilted towards her, solicitous in his concern for her arm. Margo looks at Eliot like she wants to cross the room and speak with him, but her eyes flicker over to Q, still standing by his side, and she seems to change her mind. Slowly, the room empties around him. Eliot knows he should move too, that he and Quentin can go back to their chambers now, where it’s safe.

Where it was safe, until Eliot was wrenched out of a deep, pleasant slumber to the overwhelming conviction that the nightmare of his youth was back to destroy all the goodness in his life once again.

Eliot only realizes Quentin is talking to him when he feels the hand clasped in his trying to tug away.

“What? Sorry.”

“You’re scaring me,” Quentin says, eyebrows drawn tight in concern. “El… will you come sit down, please?”

He allows himself to be guided to one of the benches on the edge of the room, and sits, worried he’s about to be subjected to a lecture, or maybe to intense questioning, or… or perhaps worst of all, Quentin will just look at him with his perfect brown eyes, keep looking, nudge the bond open between them, slip reassurance and compassion and worry along the threads of it, wait and wait and wait until Eliot decides he’s ready to talk.

It works every time, damn him. Eliot will never be able to express to Quentin what it means, just to have him here, to be the recipient of such patience.

“I just…” Eliot sighs eventually, trying to find the words. His skin still feels icy cold. He wants to keep his mouth shut, lock his jaw around the truth, but this is Quentin, and all he can do is his best. Q deserves more, but at least Eliot should give him what he can. “I thought I knew how to handle it. I thought training would kick in or… or something. And instead when I thought… all I could hear was the sound my mother made, this—this horrible scream, and then he ripped right through her. All I could think about was myself, was—was getting us out of there. Nothing kicked in. No training, no heroism.”

“El…”

“After all this time, if he’d really been there, that might have been my chance to… and I just wanted to run.”

He stands up, unable to remain still for another second. Quentin follows, keeping himself close, moving in perfect unison.

“It’s perfectly understandable,” Quentin says, and he sounds (and feels) like he really means it, but how can he? When Eliot had just—when he’d failed so obviously, so entirely, to do what he’s meant to be so good at?

“Q, I’m… I am ashamed.”

Quentin is silent for several heartbeats. Eliot thinks about what it would feel like to lose him. The Beast, ripping through his body, leaving Eliot behind. He can’t think about it, not really. It’s all a blankness, a void of disbelieving agony. It’s like trying to imagine walking around without a heartbeat, or air in his lungs. Pain isn’t even the half of it.

“I know you are,” Quentin says finally, and he brings a hand up to cover Eliot’s heart. One of Eliot’s hands moves before he can decide if it’s a good idea, pressing Q’s palm closer over his chest. To keep him there, where he belongs. Where Eliot has asked him to stay. “I can feel you, remember?”

And then Q takes a deep breath of his own, closes his eyes, and lets the bond slip wide open between them. Eliot closes his eyes on instinct, a startled sound escaping from his throat. He can feel all of Quentin, in a way he almost never gets to. A total release, the swirling of their thoughts and their emotions and their deepest truths, so intermingled that it becomes difficult to separate the threads of Eliot from the threads of Quentin. The way it used to happen in the earliest days, before they’d known how to stop it.

It’s hard to talk, hard to remember where they are, where they’re standing. Alone, but in a place where anyone could walk in. Quentin’s hands come up to frame Eliot’s face, and he brings Eliot down closer to him, tilting their foreheads together.

“I know you’re ashamed,” he repeats, voice hushed. “But am I ashamed of you?”

Eliot squeezes his eyes tighter shut, letting a tear fall. “No. No, you’re not.”

“Could I ever be?” Quentin asks.

Eliot swallows, throat tight. All he’s getting from Q is love, love, love. Enough to satiate even someone as greedy as himself. “No. You never could be.”

“Okay, then. That’s settled.”

A huff of incredulous laughter. Eliot can’t feel his body, other than the places Quentin is touching him. Hands framing his face, forehead and nose brushing against each other. Gods, they’re so close, never close enough. “You would have run with me,” Eliot says finally, as Quentin pulls back on the bond enough so Eliot can open his eyes without the room going dizzy from two competing perspectives.

“Of course,” Quentin says, stepping a few inches away but sliding his hands down so they rest on Eliot’s arms, still an anchor point. “That’s never been in question.”

Eliot shakes his head. It’s all unbelievable. It’s like a dream has shattered to reality, like everything he once believed can no longer be true. He’s been worrying about the wrong things, all these years. That Q might get hurt in an accident, or get sick like his father did. That his mind might swallow him up, take him somewhere even Eliot can’t find him. Eliot has never really worried that his own past might come up out of the darkness and strike down the better part of his very heart. It seems insane, not to have worried about it more.

“If he does break through,” Eliot says, ashamed all the more to give voice to the thought, but Q is… Q is standing there, a vulnerable human in a vulnerable human body. The Beast could cut through him like nothing, and then where would Eliot be? “If he does, Q, and it’s not looking good, you have to…”

“You want me to abandon the people under my protection,” Quentin says. It’s not accusatory, merely a statement of fact. “And get out alive at all costs.”

“Yes,” Eliot says, blinking back another round of tears. He has to pull himself together. Quentin doesn’t deserve this. “I’m sorry, but yes.”

Quentin takes a deep breath, lets it out through pursed lips. “That’s a lot to ask of me, you know.”

“Yes,” Eliot says again. He does know. But he won’t back down from asking it. Quentin’s life is too important to trifle with. What they have is too precious to risk for the sake of honor or duty or anything else.

“I made a promise to the Magician’s Court when I turned eighteen years old,” Quentin says, and Eliot bites his tongue, arguments already building. “To protect the people of Fillory, and its sovereigns, with my life, if I had to.”

“I made that same oath,” Eliot says, when Quentin pauses, clearly waiting for a response. “But, Q—”

But,” Quentin cuts him off, “I made a promise to you first, didn’t I?”

It’s a little bit treasonous, and Eliot finds a way to fall even more in love with him, just hearing it. Quentin’s right, but he’s also not right. Soulmates are made under the purview of the Chatwins. They wouldn’t have been allowed the sanctity of their bond without royal decree. Their loyalty is supposed to come to the crown first.

But they did promise to follow each other everywhere, even unto death.

“Thank you,” is all Eliot can say, and he pulls Quentin forward into a hug. It’s enough, to touch him like this. It’s always been enough, and it will always have to be.

Between them, Eliot can feel the skin where his soul-rune rests, slightly hotter than everything around it, pulsing like a heartbeat in concert with Quentin’s. He remembers the way his hands had been shaking, when it had come time to draw the rune onto Q’s skin, all those years ago. The way Q had gripped their hands together and just breathed with him, until they’d both been calm enough to continue. Quentin thinks that he’s a burden, sometimes, that the dangerous darkness of his own mind is an unfair weight upon Eliot’s shoulders. But Eliot knows the truth. He knows Q is the caretaker, Eliot the broken object in need of repetitive repair. Q doesn’t even have to try; he holds Eliot together just by existing.

“Someday,” Quentin says, and he’s shaken but trying to sound assured, just for Eliot. “Someday, this will be over.”

Deep in the most subtle, subterranean parts of their bond, Eliot catches a fissure of discord between them. Quentin means it, but what he means by over is that someday they’ll go back to things the way they were, before Margo arrived. Their lives an endless parade of missions and assignments and stop-gap measures that keep them safe but leave the Beast out there somewhere, roaming the world, waiting for his next chance. Hurting other people.

Eliot wants it over. For real. He wants the Beast dead. And after that, he wants… something else. Putting a name to it is too terrifying for the moment, but recent events have broken open something inside of him. He knows now, that even if the Beast never bothers them again, this is no longer a life he knows how to live.

*****

The thing Quentin has been dreading—the thing they’ve all been dreading—has finally arrived. Over the next several weeks, the Beast, though he doesn’t appear in person, makes his presence known. Corrupted creatures born from the darkest parts of magic start appearing with alarming frequency, and the Magician’s Court is forced to abandon some of its more diplomatic duties, turning full-time instead to beating back the excesses of the Beast’s powers.

Villages find their water supply corrupted, all who drink from the wells sickening and dying in short order, but not before a burst of strength and rage turns them into rampaging temporary soldiers for the Beast’s assault. Vines reach out from the walls and strangle passers-by on the estates of Noble Houses just outside of the pentagram’s protections. Rabid animals, made grotesque in their speed and strength, with glowing ice-blue eyes, run raids through terrified citizens of Fillory, or attack outposts, cutting off the flow of news into and out of the castle.

It is utter chaos, it is hard work, and Quentin drops into bed each night and sleeps the dreamless sleep of the truly exhausted, aware somewhere in the back of his mind that they’re all operating on borrowed time, that something needs to change, something needs to make it all stop. But he’s too exhausted to give it proper thought, his body sore from the exertions of each day.

He’s more on edge than he’s been in years, since his father’s death, as various incursions from the Beast send he and Eliot into increasing danger. He suffers small wounds and suffers Eliot’s hurts as well, anxiety and protectiveness making it both easier and more difficult to do what needs to be done. He cuts down talking animals knowing full well that the Beast has done something to their minds, that their free will has been stolen from them, and has no time to wonder if the action makes him a monster in turn.

He cannot wonder if there was a way to save the village that the Beast’s minions had decided to overtake; Eliot receives a deep cut to the thigh and the best they can do is raze the Beast’s corruption to the ground, fleeing from burning homes along with as many survivors as can still manage to move. He’ll feel guilty for the destruction of their homes, for the inevitable fatalities later, but in the moment he can feel the sting of pain in Eliot’s leg and all he experiences is panic, the imperative to get him to safety, to get him somewhere he can rest, and Eliot’s voice echoes through his mind as they hobble away—sorry, Q. I’m okay. Don’t be scared, I’m so sorry—like he’s the one who needs to be apologizing for any of this.

It’s an unfathomably stressful couple of weeks. Quentin finds reserves of inner strength and fortitude he hadn’t thought it possible for himself to possess. In fact, he has his suspicions that Eliot is lending away more of his strength than he should, just to keep them both on their feet.

And on top of everything else, at completely unpredictable times, the Beast repeats his spell. He speaks to the castle at large, to the settlement at the bottom of the hill where many of the day laborers of Whitespire reside. His voice echoes ominous warnings and threats. He demands that the king and queen grant him entrance, grant him his place on the throne. He speaks with such authority that whenever it happens, Quentin almost wants to fall still, to drop to a knee, to allow that power to sweep over him and take control, release him from the yoke of responsibility.

But when the Beast’s voice does ring out, its booming calls of JANE…. RUPERT… YOU CANNOT EVADE ME FOREVER… Quentin has a very specific job to do.

And that job is to drop whatever he’s doing and run to Eliot as quickly as possible. So far, luckily, it hasn’t happened when they’ve been in the middle of a fight. Quentin doesn’t even like to think about Eliot in that state, fighting for his life and the lives of his friends, suddenly bowled over by a trauma that rips through his composure unlike anything Quentin’s ever seen from him.

It’s bad enough in moments of quiet, like the time it happened during breakfast and Eliot had stood up so fast he’d knocked his chair over and nearly tripped. Quentin had been there in a flash, touching him, holding him in the present, refusing to let the past come for him. But it’s never easy, seeing his soulmate in such a state. It’s even worse, when Eliot inevitably apologizes for it afterwards. The reactions are not consistent. Sometimes he powers through like nothing’s wrong and then collapses later. Sometimes he freezes entirely, and seems to forget where he is. Quentin can see the ten-year-old boy he had been, shining forth whenever the Beast speaks.

It makes sense, why Eliot really, really wants the Beast dead. It’s not about his parents, not really, although Quentin imagines that trauma has touched him more deeply than he’d ever want to admit. No, it’s about his conception of who he is, at the very deepest level. He was a child in peril who managed to save himself and run to safety. He made a life for himself, created a family that suited him far better than the one the Beast had destroyed. He found a soulmate, and, despite Quentin’s lack of self-confidence, he knows he makes Eliot proud just by existing.

In other words, Eliot is happy, and he’ll do whatever it takes not to lose the things that make him happy.

Gods, as nervous as it makes him to think of it, it’s not as if Quentin doesn’t understand. He just hopes they find a solution that doesn’t crumble the rest of their world around them in the process.

*****

The one good thing that could be said about the Beast’s recent assaults is that it’s brought Eliot closer to the other people in his life. Just through sheer necessity—there’s no time to be precious about privacy or decorum when you’re hiding in a hovel on the outskirts of a nearby town, and Kady is covered in her own blood and the blood of her enemies, ripping open her shirt so Quentin can try and staunch the bleeding while they wait for Penny to come and travel them to safety.

They spend their days together, constantly running from danger or even more often running towards it, focusing on their dual purpose: protect as many innocent lives as they can, and find information on the Beast.

They’re up at all hours of the day, find themselves taking naps whenever they can steal a spare moment. He’s walked in on Alice and Quentin both head-down on a table in Julia’s quarters, sleeping, while Julia lays like a cat at the bottom of her own large four-poster. He’s nudged a slumbering Penny up off one of the benches in the cafeteria, steering him to his room and then accidentally falling asleep in Penny’s armchair instead of making it back to his own chambers one hall over.

They all exchange bleary-eyed theories on the Beast’s tactics and possible whereabouts, based on the convoluted intel they manage to extract from the addled minds of the Beast’s followers and victims.

And then one day they get a lucky break. After Eliot nearly loses his mind watching Quentin disappear under an entire mob of possessed and red-eyed badgers down by the bank of the Burnt River, his soulmate emerges covered in lacerations and gripping one of the badgers by the neck.

“El!”

Penny and Julia help to draw the remaining feral animals away from Quentin, while Eliot and Margo rush to assist Quentin in holding down the wriggling creature he’s managed to restrain.

Moments like these test Eliot more than any other. Their research and efforts have led them here. They know this contingent of badgers have been acting as spies for the Beast. They know they report back to him directly, meaning they have information they could really, really use. Eliot should be focusing on that.

Instead, he sees the world through a filter of red, tracing his eyes along a cut that runs along Quentin’s cheekbone, up towards his left eye, another deep gouge of a bite on his forearm. He wants to let it all go, give the badger up to Margo or some of the others, pull Quentin away and treat every single cut on him individually, sooth the minute aches and the stronger stings, bandage him from head to foot and cradle him in safety.

It’s distracting, the dual intensity of his purpose. He lets his worry and solicitousness spill over to Quentin, and Q reaches out to grab his hand for a moment, squeezing in understanding. I’m fine. Nothing bad.

It’s true. Quentin wouldn’t be able to lie about something like that. It doesn’t make it any easier, to see him streaked in blood.

In any case, Margo and Quentin both agree that the injuries were more than worth the information they provided. The truth serum they’ve modified to work on Beast-addled minds proves effective at long last, after many earlier failed attempts in the field. They learn first of the Beast’s instructions to his servants, both willing and coerced, the tactics he’s employing to try and draw the Chatwins out of their safety: death by a thousand cuts, atrocities bad enough that the people of Fillory will have no choice but to rise up against the very sovereigns who have left them to this grim fate.

They also learn his whereabouts. The Nameless Mountains, not all that far away, although well out of the pentagram’s protections. A specific valley, a stronghold easy to defend because of limited pathways into it. The Beast has built himself a small fortress there, and rarely leaves, letting his followers be hurt and killed in his name. It is there that he uses magic to enchant his voice, flinging it across the land and rattling the nerves of all who hear his promises: I will come. I will make you pay for your insolence. I will unmask you for what you are, Jane Chatwin

It’s the most exciting piece of news they’ve had since… well, since Margo had shown up unexpectedly in their lives, a warning that the Beast was about to bring an end to their false peace. Eliot isn’t in the room when the others report their findings to Fogg and the Chatwins: he’s in the infirmary with Q, fussing over him while Lipson applies salves to the deeper of the cuts and bites, driving Quentin crazy with his fussing.

“If I plan on letting a couple of badger bites kill me, El, I’ll be sure to let you know.”

“I appreciate that,” Eliot says, ignoring Quentin’s implied calm the fuck down. “Well, doc? Will he live?”

“The lack of trust,” Quentin grouses. “Truly discouraging.”

“What will you ever do with him,” Lipson says, but she’s distracted, casting her hands over one of the bites on Quentin’s neck. Eliot looks at it, swallows, tries to find the whole thing funny, tries to pretend his fussing is as ridiculous as Quentin seems to think it is.

He can’t help it, though. Ever since the Beast’s voice had rung through the very walls of the Castle, shaking the air and the solid ground under his feet, Eliot has been more afraid than ever before of losing the things he can’t survive without. Their jobs are dangerous. There’s never been a second of his life, since before they were even bonded, that Eliot hasn’t worried about Q, but this is different. It’s more. The threat is far from hypothetical. Something has to be done. Something needs to end it before Eliot loses his mind entirely.

Later that night, after reports have been made and Quentin has been deemed well enough to go lie down and get some rest, Eliot finds himself heading to his chambers with Quentin and Margo, the discussion of the day’s events still top of mind for them all. Margo hasn’t actually been in his room before; he usually spends time with her in her own guest chambers. He doesn’t have a reason for this. Or at least not a reason he’d ever be able to articulate without destroying his entire life.

Quentin doesn’t bring girls home to his room, and thank every god in Fillory for that simple fact. Margo’s not… well, it’s different, of course, but Eliot didn’t want to open the door to the idea of late night visitors in the safety of their shared space. Hence, this is Margo’s first visit.

“This is your room?” Margo asks as she walks in, taking in the decor with a discerning eye.

“It’s El’s,” Quentin says quickly, at the same time as Eliot says:

“It’s mine.”

Their words echo over each other with something that probably sounds, to an outsider, defensive. There’s a reason why the two of them have always gone elsewhere when they’ve spent the night with other people. This space is theirs. It’s… sacred, the site of their closeness.

They look at each other, and then away. Margo raises an amused eyebrow. “Okay, then.”

Eliot is not a person who blushes. He refuses to become a person who blushes. But Margo is giving him a look like she knows something, which is ridiculous, because there’s nothing to know. Nothing except his own fucked up deepest shame, that is, but a man is still allowed some measure of privacy, is he not?

But in all actuality, it’s nice, to have them both here together. Margo lounges back in one of the chairs by Eliot’s breakfast table, and Eliot and Quentin take up familiar spots on the chaise across from her.

Eliot is thinking of the earliest months of his time with the Coldwaters. The trips to the Castle from the estate, meeting the king and queen for the first time, Quentin taking him around and introducing him to all the people that made up the daily rhythm of his life. Folding Eliot into it, making him a part of Quentin’s world. Eliot had been such an angry kid, starved for affection but wary of anyone who seemed to be offering it. And yet Quentin had somehow managed to thread that needle, guide him through the darkness.

Now, Eliot bringing Margo here to visit with him and Quentin, is almost like returning the favor. It makes no real sense, of course, given that Quentin and Eliot had met Margo at the exact same time. And yet undeniably, Margo is Eliot’s person more than she is Quentin’s. It’s his job to bridge a gap, to make them a part of each other’s worlds, the way Q had done all those years ago, introducing him to Jules and the others.

And they’re good together, the three of them. There’s an ease to the way Quentin squirms under Margo’s teasing, and how despite his discomfort he’s able to give back as good as he gets. And Eliot can tell Quentin’s a little attracted to Margo, can sense his appreciation for her undeniable beauty, and can appreciate it himself, both on his own account and on Q’s. And yet it’s Margo, and so Eliot’s not jealous of the thought that Quentin might desire her. She feels like something else, something different, something that could only strengthen what they already are to each other, instead of driving a wedge between them.

Maybe it’s only wishful thinking, but the past couple of weeks have taught him the accelerated intimacy of fear and battle. Margo is a part of them. Margo is Eliot’s family now, and it means more than he can possibly express, to see her and Quentin together, laughing and comfortable and a part of each other’s lives.

But nothing gold can stay, as King Rupert Chatwin sometimes likes to say.

The evening takes a different turn entirely when Margo circles back to the one issue that currently dominates all of their lives.

“When we told the Chatwins about what we heard on that latest raid, about the Beast’s stronghold in the Nameless Mountains?” Margo starts without any additional preamble. “They fucking ignored it, as I suspected.”

Eliot is more or less used to Margo talking this way in private by now, but Quentin’s eyes widen, his lips pursing in disapproval.

“They didn’t,” Quentin says. “It was in our debrief with Fogg.”

“And did that debrief say ‘now that we have concrete information on our adversary’s whereabouts, we’ll be creating a plan of attack’?”

Quentin swallows, and does a thing with his face that means he’s trying not to glare, or say something he might later regret.

It’s adorable, of course, but Eliot also finds himself wanting to hear Quentin’s answer.

“They’re privy to more information about the Beast than you or I could possibly imagine,” Quentin says, and Eliot winces internally, trying to hide it from Q. He’s not sure that answer is exactly inclined to win Margo over.

“Yes, I know,” Margo says. “That’s why I’m here.” Out of the satchel she keeps slung around her waist, she removes the coral-pink anchor stone that she always keeps by her, running it between her hands, feeling the smoothness of its surface. “I came here because if anyone can defeat the Beast once and for all, it’s the Chatwins. And then I get here, and…”

“And what?” Quentin says. “You wanted them to bow to your whims? The situation is complicated. Your personal vengeance is only one small aspect of a much larger problem.”

Eliot nearly reaches for the bond to tell Quentin to back off, but he catches himself before he can open the mental link between them. Quentin’s allowed to have his own opinions. It’s not the end of the world if they think differently on this.

It’s only… Q never watched his family die right in front of him. Quentin’s never even seen the Beast in real life. How could he ever understand?

“I appreciate that not everything is about me,” Margo says, “as much as Fillory might be a better place if it was.”

Quentin’s mouth twitches. Eliot can feel him struggling not to be amused.

“But the fact remains, Coldwater,” Margo says, kicking a foot up over the arm of the chair, “that if it were up to the king and queen, we’d be playing defense for the rest of our lives.”

“It is up to the king and queen,” Eliot reminds Margo, putting a touch of warning into his voice.

Margo flicks a dismissive eyebrow at him, and Quentin’s stomach lurches so hard that Eliot feels the echo of it.

Eliot doesn’t want to believe Margo, is the thing. He doesn’t want to go around doubting the king and queen, despite his less than worshipful attitude towards them. He grew up seeing the dark side of the nobility, and he’s never been one for blind loyalty to anything at all, except perhaps Q.

But even so, there’s always been comfort and stability and familiarity with the Chatwins. He can’t ignore the fact that while Theodore and Quentin Coldwater were the ones who granted him sanctuary, the Chatwins invited him into the castle, gave their blessing for his bonding, honored him with a position on the Magician’s Court. They’ve always treated him with respect, always listened to his opinions, or at least pretended to listen. They mean normalcy. They are a fact of the universe, and have been long before Eliot was ever born.

But Margo makes a compelling argument. They have information. Real, concrete information on the Beast’s whereabouts and goals and an idea on how to defeat him. And everything that’s happened recently proves that the Beast is intent on increasing his efforts to breach Whitespire. If their enemy is changing tactics, why shouldn’t they?

The Chatwins… they don’t seem interested. It’s getting past the point where Eliot can ignore the obvious. If the king and queen aren’t going to make a move, they’ll have to do it on their own.

“It’s up to the king and queen,” Margo says, “but has anyone ever put actual pressure on them? Does anyone ever challenge their authority? I’m not talking about a coup, here, I’m talking about a simple airing of grievances—”

“They’ve always listened,” Quentin says. “They’ve been more than understanding of your grievances, Lady Margo. A lesser ruler might have locked you up for the way you’ve spoken to them these past few weeks.”

“Quentin,” Eliot says, trying for reason.

“Don’t do your reasonable voice,” Quentin says, snapping in a way that is, unfortunately for Eliot, maddeningly attractive. “I’m just… listen, Margo, I am completely sympathetic to—”

“Don’t do that,” Margo interrupts with an eye-roll. “You’re sympathetic, the Chatwins are sympathetic, everyone’s so godsdamned sympathetic. But that gets me nothing. You understand that, right? Your sympathy doesn’t help me.”

“Helping you isn’t the end goal here,” Quentin says. She stares at him, unimpressed, and Quentin’s eyes falter, looking down at the floor like he’s ashamed of himself. Eliot feels a familiar twist of self-loathing from his soulmate, and wrestles within himself regarding his own response. Margo’s right. Quentin’s right. He hates that they’re opposed, and for the first time maybe ever, he resents the fact that there’s a predetermined answer to whose side he’s going to take, if forced to make a choice. He would give almost anything to have Margo and Quentin be friends. But he’d give anything to stay by Quentin’s side, his partner in everything. No almost about it.

“I didn’t mean it like that,” Quentin continues when nobody speaks. “I want to help you. You think I don’t want to kill the Beast?”

“I think you want the Beast to be dead,” Margo says. “It’s not quite the same thing, is it?”

“So what, at the end of the day, are you actually suggesting?” Quentin says, staring Margo down. “You want to march into the Nameless Mountains, wander around until you find where he’s hiding, and kill him yourself?”

No, Eliot thinks. That’s demonstrably not what she wants. If that’s what she wanted, she’d already be gone, heading into danger with the recklessness of bloody-minded revenge. She’s still here, because she wants to win. She wants them to help her win.

“I want the Chatwins to kill the Beast,” Margo says, echoing Eliot’s thoughts. “I want to be there. I want to help them do it. But I’m well aware of what it feels like not to get what I want.”

“That’s not unique to you,” Quentin says, with such a ferocity that even Eliot is surprised. That small niggling uncertainty that’s existed between them since the day Margo showed up rears its ugly head again. Eliot wants to smother it until it doesn’t exist. Or he wants to cut it open and out into the light of day, so they can kill it together. At the moment, all Eliot can do is wonder what exactly Quentin wants, that he doesn’t have.

“I didn’t say it was,” Margo says, arching an eyebrow. “Quentin. Q. Can I call you Q?”

Endearingly, she means it as an actual question, a respecting of boundaries. Eliot feels a kick of surprise from Quentin, and a disarming of tensions. Margo is charming, in the very real sense of the word. When she wants to, she can win people over.

Quentin rolls his eyes, but it’s more of a fond gesture than a cutting one. “Sure, you can call me Q.”

“Q,” Margo says. “I’m a stranger here. Even before I broke lineage, I was from an unimportant house with no real claim to influence with the sovereigns. I can yell and scream and pull my hair out all I want, but it seems clear that they’re not going to listen to what I have to say.”

“They listen—”

Really listen,” Margo says. “You know I’m right.”

Quentin doesn’t answer, which is answer enough.

“But you?” Margo squints at him, like she’s trying to determine his worth. “Alice Quinn? Julia Wicker? You all have pull. Your family houses are ancient and powerful and you’ve been in service to Jane and Rupert your whole lives. If you told them you were unhappy? That you wanted more to be done? Then maybe…”

“I’ll think about it,” Quentin says. “For the record, I do want more to be done, I just—”

“You trust the king and queen,” Margo finishes for him. “Yeah, I get that. I really do.”

Somehow, they manage to emerge on the other side of the choppy waters, the conversation steering itself into safer shallows. Margo stays late, and wishes both of them goodnight with a kiss to the cheek before she meanders off to her own quarters.

“You’re okay?” Eliot asks the second Margo has closed the door behind her. Quentin sits up and squirms his way closer to Eliot, like Margo’s absence has given him permission to do so.

Eliot opens an arm to him at once, so they can sit side by side, Quentin’s head resting against Eliot’s shoulder. “I’m tired,” Quentin answers. “Emotionally. Physically.”

“Mmm,” Eliot hums, resting his cheek against the top of Quentin’s soft hair. “Me too.”

“I’m worried I’m going to fall off the cliff, here, and then I’ll be useless to everyone.”

You could never be useless to me.

Some things are too important to say out loud, but Eliot makes sure he presses the thought firmly into Quentin’s own brain, impossible to avoid or deny.

I know, is all Quentin answers. Not defensive, just… a truth, the same as all the truths they share between them.

And then they go to bed, both knowing that tomorrow will be tough, like today was tough and yesterday was tough. Both knowing that things have changed, both swimming through the uncertainty, waiting to see the shore on the other side. The only question is whether, when it’s all over at last, they’ll be climbing back onto familiar banks, or else arriving on unexplored shores.

*****

The orders from the Chatwins come in a few days later. Not only have they definitively ignored the new information about the Beast’s stronghold; they’ve issued a directive that the Magician’s Court will be confined to the inner sanctum for the foreseeable future. No more information gathering on the outskirts of the pentagram’s protection. No more damage control in villages being razed to the ground by the Beast’s antics. They’re drawing together their power, they’re defending themselves against an onslaught that doesn’t even threaten them.

The news shakes Eliot down to his core. On the one hand, he sympathizes with the instinct to close ranks, hold everything that matters close at hand, and wait for the worst of the storm to pass. It’s what he wants to do with Quentin, every time his soulmate is in even the most infinitesimal amount of danger.

On the other hand, the people that matter to him all live in the castle. What about everyone outside the pentagram’s acreage? What about the people of Fillory at large, those the Chatwins are bound by duty and destiny to protect?

If Eliot is shaken, Margo is apoplectic. For once, she has nothing to say as the news is handed down that all missions outside the scope of the inner sanctum are henceforth to be disbanded. She just stares, white-lipped, at the wall, and Eliot can read her mind almost the way he can read Quentin’s, can sense the devastation, the scared little girl underneath the armor of fury. Her foster family is dead. She came here to make the Beast pay for that. And now, even with the array of resources the Chatwins have gathered around them for apparently just this purpose, it’s not going to happen.

Eliot doesn’t even know how to talk to Quentin about it. They exchange a shocked look, a fissure of anger and regret spiraling between them, but what would words do in this situation? They agree, and they disagree. They’re angry at the Chatwins, but neither of them can pretend that Quentin is as angry as Eliot. No one can pretend that Quentin is as traumatized as Eliot. Given that simple fact, whose opinion is meant to weigh more?

Margo’s suggestion that Quentin and the others take a stand with the Chatwins seems useless, now. They’ve more than clearly made up their minds. The rest of them are meant to just live with it.

It’s the middle of the night, mere hours after this latest decree, when Eliot hears shuffling outside of his bedroom door. For a bleary moment he thinks it’s Quentin, and reaches for the tangled threads of their thoughts, entwined in a dreamless, peaceful sleep, but then he realizes that the noise is coming from the outer door, the one leading to the shared sitting room, and not the door to Q’s bedroom.

He has a good guess of who it might be, but just in case, he creeps silently out of bed and makes his way to the door, leaning close to it until he can hear breathing on the other side. “Margo?” he whispers.

“Let me in,” she answers at once.

Eliot opens the door, to find her fully dressed and fierce on the other side. “El,” she says, with terrible solemnity. “It’s time.”

Eliot blinks at her, and has the urge to turn around and climb back under the covers, pretend for a few more blissful hours that he doesn’t understand what she means. But he doesn’t. He just nods his head, and opens the door wider to let her in.

A stalemate might be acceptable to the immortal king and queen. But Eliot’s ready to make a better future for himself, with or without their permission.

Chapter Text

Quentin spends his morning thinking about Eliot, ruminating silently over an uninspiring breakfast. He’s still swimming in a strange combination of dream and memory from the night before, reliving his bonding ceremony.

He’s been doing that a lot lately, remembering the day they vowed to belong to each other forever more. It’s probably because things are changing, and he’s never been good with change. Eliot has long been the one thing he could depend on, and so he clings to that in moments of upheaval, testing the outer limits of Eliot’s patience every time, he’s sure. Eliot never balks. Never reveals, not even for the tiniest fraction of a second, that Quentin is too much for him, difficult to manage, a burden.

But gods, Q had been so nervous that day, waking up shivery and exhausted, having spent the night before tossing and turning with anxious fears. The only person in the world he’d wanted to be with to ease his anxiety was Eliot, but he’d settled for his father and Julia instead, both of them calm in the face of the choice they knew Quentin had already made.

They were right, of course. He’d have rather died than turn his back on Eliot at that point. He just couldn’t stop the nagging feeling that maybe it wasn’t fair to El, maybe he was hurting him, doing this. That he’d be the first soulmate in history to drag his partner down instead of bolstering him through the connection. That something was wrong inside him, that the bond wouldn’t take, and he’d be disgraced in front of the whole Court, and he’d disgrace Eliot too by mere association.

Eliot asked for this, Julia kept reminding him as Quentin went through his morning routines, and as the individual spells of sanctity and protection and promise were cast over him by a series of older magicians, preparing him for the moment of truth. By the time he’d gotten to the ceremonial chambers, seen the small gathering of friends and Court officials in attendance, the king and queen on elevated chairs along one end of the room, Quentin had been past the point of nerves.

A calm had taken over him, his mind serene, his heartbeat slowed to a sluggish thump thump thump in his chest. He’d walked to the center of the room, into the intricate circle that had been chalked against the stone. He’d been wearing only linen trousers, no shirt, skin bare for the ritual casting of the bonding spell. Vulnerable, so Eliot could mark him as his own.

He’d been hyper-aware of the other figures in the room, his father and Julia and Alice and the king and queen, everyone he respected and wished to honor. He was doing this for himself and El, first and foremost, but he was also doing it for Fillory. He’d been proud of that, but also wished the rest of the room would disappear. He could feel their eyes on him. Curious, probing. He kept wondering if someone might dart forward, force him to swear in front of the sovereigns that he bore no lustful thoughts for the boy he was about to join in sacred platonic connection.

He’d practiced the lies he would tell, but knew they’d trip over his tongue. Knew that everyone would understand what he was. He’d be torn away from Eliot before they ever had a chance to begin...

And then Eliot had entered the chamber, and none of that mattered. Quentin’s heart sped up, pounding, like it knew its other half had finally appeared, knew that at last they would be one. He wouldn’t let anything stop it from happening. Certainly not the guilty desires of his own young body.

The ceremony itself is imprinted in Quentin’s mind like nothing else in his life could ever be. The most important hour he’ll ever spend. Promises spoken, in ancient tongues no longer known by anyone alive except in situations as ancient and special as this. Vows made, memorized during weeks of preparation and study for this very moment. And then Quentin kneeled, used the enchanted ink to trace a symbol against Eliot’s hipbone, a concentric circle with spikes and vines peeling away from it, that he’d practiced on parchment over and over until his hands could make the motion without conscious thought.

It was more language, in the same ancient tongue with which they’d spoken their vows. It translated, loosely, to something like and we go with one another, never to be severed, in life or beyond.

He’d stood up, met Eliot’s eyes, shining bright with unspeakable emotion. Then Eliot had dropped to his own knees, keeping his face tilted up, reverent, staring at Q like he couldn’t bear to look away. The room had gone silent, the faces of Quentin’s other loved ones blurred into the background. He was in his own universe now, and Eliot was the only other one who was there. The only one he wanted. Eliot’s hands shook as he lifted the brush to paint on the symbol. Quentin, acting from some depth of understanding he hadn’t known himself to possess, stayed Eliot’s hands, set aside the brush and the bowl, and tangled their fingers together, squeezing until Eliot’s breath fell into an even rhythm with Quentin’s own. Until his icy fingers grew warm, and the tremors shaking his body ceased.

It was as if they could already read each other’s minds. Just us. Forever. All either of us could ever need or want, from this day on.

Eliot had painted the corresponding symbol onto Quentin’s flesh, the touch intimate, private, sacred in every way an act could be sacred. Then he’d stood again, and they’d faced each other, and they’d performed the collaborative spell just the way they’d practiced, speaking the words they’d studied so hard to understand. Saying things in languages old and new, things that twined their souls together, never to be parted. If you go, I will follow. When you die, I will die. We give ourselves unto our community to honor this bond, to protect us. We vow to protect our people in return, with the strength our unity grants us.

Quentin has only hazy memories of what happened just after, when the bond had first taken hold. He’s pretty sure he collapsed, straight into Eliot’s arms. Pretty sure he lost consciousness. Pretty sure he cried. He’d never known anything so beautiful. Or so painful.

“Quentin?”

Q looks up from his untouched bowl of porridge and into Julia’s eyes. “Hi.”

“You look far away,” Julia says, in that way of hers that’s secretly a question. Or, not a question. More a demand for information, which shall be near impossible to deny.

“I was thinking,” Quentin says, which won’t suffice, but he’s having trouble pulling his brain out of that memory, when everything was just Eliot, and nothing else seemed to matter.

“About…” Julia prompts.

When Quentin doesn’t answer right away she sighs and flops down next to him, her eyes far too discerning for Quentin’s peace of mind. “I know you’re worried about him.”

Quentin shakes his head. “Worried isn’t the word I’d use.”

“Q, I know it seems impossible right now, but I really do believe everything’s going to be okay.”

The funny thing is, she really does believe that. It’s the miracle of Julia Wicker. Quentin has been blessed so many times in his life, and the fact that he has Jules as a friend is very near the top of the list.

“Is it bad that I just want everything to go back to normal?”

“It would be weird if you didn’t,” Julia says. “But Eliot loves you. You don’t need to worry about that.”

Quentin blinks, startled, because he hadn’t been worrying about that. He knows Eliot loves him. It’s unfathomable how much, sometimes. “Thanks?”

“I just meant… he’s on edge. And I know Margo riles him up. But he’d never do anything to hurt you.”

It’s spooky, how good she is at doing that sometimes. Quentin wouldn’t have been able to name the fear, to put it into such concise phrasing, but now that she’s said it like that, it occurs to him that he is worried about Eliot doing something stupid. He’s worried about Margo snapping, and Eliot getting caught up in it. Honestly, it seems like an inevitability at this point. Margo Hanson does not strike him as the kind of person likely to be deterred, no matter the obstacles in her way. And Eliot likes her. Would help her, if he thought he could.

“I think,” Quentin says, keeping his voice low, “that trusting the Chatwins is the only play we’ve got.”

Julia shrugs. “Agreed. But that’s not the same thing as approving of their every decision.”

“Believe me, I know.” Quentin pauses, takes a spoonful of porridge and eats it, ignoring the fact that it’s long since gone cold. “I don’t know what scares me more. The thought that the king and queen can’t stop the Beast, or the thought that for some reason they’re not telling us… they won’t.”

*****

Margo’s plan is terrifying in its simplicity. She knows the magic, knows what they need to accomplish it, and then… well, then that’s it. The Beast will be trapped, helpless, at least long enough for them to finish him off. Or at least long enough for the Chatwins to finish him off.

“I don’t understand how you could have found a spell like this.” Eliot shakes his head in wonder, looking down at the parchment Margo had handed him. They’re both sitting on his bed. It’s early morning. Quentin is at breakfast, but Eliot worries he’ll come back at any moment. He’s keeping his voice down, as if even now he suspects unwanted listeners.

Thinking of Quentin as unwanted, in any context whatsoever, is uncomfortable to say the least. But he needs to understand what Margo is saying, needs to make sure it’s worth the risk, before he brings it to his cautious soulmate.

“You Whitespire people,” Margo says, with an affectionate scoff. “Always so convinced you’re the only ones with any magical know-how.”

“You’re saying you found this lying around somewhere outside the pentagram? A spell of this power?”

Margo scrunches her nose up. “How much do you know about Fillory, pre-Chatwins?”

Eliot blinks. “Very little, but then I’ve never paid much attention to history.”

“Well,” Margo says, patient, as she takes the parchment back from Eliot. “Magic wasn’t always in the hands of the nobility. It was the Chatwins who decided to grant status to magical families, thus separating those with certain types of power from those without. But there are strands of magic everywhere. The Chatwins didn’t manage to force the strictures of the aristocracy on every single magical being in the known world.”

“Obviously,” Eliot says. He knows magic is possible outside of the known Noble Houses of Fillory. He also knows it’s rare—very few humans have the gifts the Chatwins themselves possess. And none so powerful as their immortal rulers.

So,” Margo continues, as if she’s annoyed by the very need to explain, “there’s magical knowledge out there, if you know where to look. When I was running from my House, I had no idea where I was going. But I kept my head down and I asked questions, and I found that there were people out there who still knew magical secrets. Who might have something to teach me that I never would have learned had I stuck with the Whitespire-approved trajectory of knowledge.”

Eliot frowns at her. “I thought you said your foster family were a couple of knifemakers. You’re telling me they knew deep secrets of magic, hidden from the Chatwins themselves?”

Margo gives him an enigmatic shrug. “Sharp pointy things have a magic all their own, my friend.”

Eliot suspects Margo isn’t going to say more. He shakes his head, getting back to the point at hand. “Setting aside how you managed to figure out a spell like this. Why haven’t you said anything about it until now?”

“I needed access to the Whitespire library,” Margo says. “I had bits and pieces, but I didn’t know it would work until I gained access to the resources that the Chatwins don’t like the little people to see.”

Margo’s bitterness towards the Chatwins could be catching. Her very presence had brought certain things to Eliot’s attention that he’d never truly noticed before. Things like resource hoarding and secret-keeping and short leashes for those who used their precious and rare magic in service of the crown. All things Eliot had maybe known about, but in a background sort of way, overshadowed by the comforts and happiness of his life in the castle. It’s impossible not to feel the sting of Margo’s resentments. And to wonder how he himself might have felt, if when he’d run from the Beast all those years ago, he’d fled not towards the inner sanctum, not into the arms of high nobility, but instead to the outskirts of Fillory, to a small village with kind and brave commoners, the way Margo had.

He can’t contemplate a version of his life where he’d never met Quentin. But that doesn’t mean he can ignore what Margo’s forced him to finally see.

“So you figured this out. And you don’t want to tell the king and queen because…”

“Because they’ll say no,” Margo says. “Better to ask for forgiveness than permission, don’t you agree?”

“Once we have the Beast well and truly cornered,” Eliot says, “the sovereigns won’t have any excuse not to end him once and for all.”

“Precisely.”

“Okay. When do we go?”

“We could leave now, if…”

“Q might take some convincing,” Eliot says.

Margo frowns. “You’re going to tell him?”

Eliot’s too startled to laugh. He looks at Margo, sure she must be messing with him. “Yes. Why? Did you expect me not to?”

“No offense, but he seems a bit too in love with Queen Jane to be comfortable with a plan that disobeys direct orders.”

If Quentin’s got a crush on one of the sovereigns, it’s definitely Rupert, but Eliot doesn’t feel the need to correct Margo. Her point is sound, if misinformed in other respects.

“He’s my soulmate.”

“I know that.”

“I don’t think you get what that means, Margo.”

“I know what soulmates are. You two might be rare but you’re not that special.”

“No, Margo, I mean… I can’t lie to him,” Eliot says. “Or… or I won’t, and it amounts to the same thing. I’d rather die than do anything to hurt him or disappoint him.”

“And if he says no?” Margo says. “If he refuses to help, and goes straight to the Chatwins and tells them everything?”

Eliot hesitates. He can’t be angry at Margo for not understanding, but the defensiveness boils up beneath his skin anway, the desire to explain, to push aside any implied slight to Quentin’s character. “He’d never do that,” Eliot says. “What we’re proposing here is treason. If Quentin turned me in, they’d lock me up. He’d never.”

“But you’ll come with me, even if he disapproves?”

The thought of it sends a shiver of dread down Eliot’s spine. Because he knows two things right now. He knows Quentin will disapprove. And he knows that he wants to do as Margo suggests anyway.

How does he reconcile that?

“I need to talk to him about it,” Eliot says, dodging the question. “I—he’s not going to be happy, but he won’t stop me if I tell him it’s what I need to do. If he comes with us it’ll be easier, won’t it?”

“Hypothetically,” Margo says, but she looks skeptical. “And your whole soul connection thing makes your magic stronger, doesn’t it?”

“Well. Yes,” Eliot says, reluctant, “but we’re not going to pull on the bond for this, I doubt it’ll be necessary.”

Margo frowns in incomprehension, and Eliot finds himself explaining. Most people know the basics of soul magic, but unless you’ve gone through the rigorous training in preparation for a bond of your own, there’s a lot the average person misses.

“It’s like permanent collaborative casting, most of the time,” Eliot says. “Every spell I do on my own is stronger because Q’s with me, and the other way around too. Magicians pull magic from the air around us, from magical objects, but from ourselves most of all. So every time I do anything, I’m pulling from Quentin’s strength alongside my own.”

“I can see the advantage,” Margo says, nodding. It’s another stomach-twisting thing to say, another way in which she doesn’t quite understand. There are strategic advantages to soulbonding. But Eliot didn’t make his choice because it would make him stronger. Not magically stronger, anyway.

“The bond itself,” Eliot says, continuing on because he can see that Margo is curious, even though it makes him feel oddly guilty to share the information. It’s not a secret, but it is something he shares with Q, something that belongs to the two of them. Nobody else in Whitespire understands, save the single retired pair of soulmates still living out their final years together, the ones who helped train them for their own bond a decade ago. “The bond itself is a magical source, too.”

Margo sits up a little straighter. “What do you mean? It can act independently of the two of you?”

“No,” Eliot says. “No, but it’s kind of like a magical object with its own aura. It comes from Quentin and me and the magic of the connection itself. There are spells…” Now he hesitates for real, wanting to yank the conversation back on the already rocky path they’d been walking before this little digression. “Spells that aren’t possible except when performed by soulmates. Dangerous stuff, for the most part. Not something you want to mess with lightly.”

“For example?” Margo prodded, as Eliot had known she would.

“It doesn’t matter.”

“It’s like you said, El,” Margo says. “If Quentin can be an asset to us in this, then—”

“Quentin’s not an asset,” Eliot says, snapping without meaning to. Margo looks at him, an unimpressed eyebrow raised. She doesn’t understand, he reminds himself again. She would have no way of understanding. “I just meant… it’s hard to talk about him like this.”

She nods, sympathetic, but still with an edge of anticipation, ready for him to give him the information she wants. Anything that might help her in her vendetta. It’s a vendetta Eliot shares, which is what makes him finally speak. “Powerful battle magic, for the most part. There’s… there’s something we could do, pulling on the strength of the bond itself that pretty much automatically knocks out any living consciousness.”

“Sounds useful. And relevant to our interests,” Margo says, cagey. Eliot knows she’s thinking of the Chatwins again. What happens if they get the Beast where they want him, vulnerable and alone, and the king and queen still refuse to make a move?

“Well, useful is one word for it,” Eliot says. “But honestly if we did it, it would probably kill both of us.”

“Ah. Less practical,” Margo says, although Eliot’s sure she hasn’t totally dismissed the idea from her thoughts. “Anything less extreme?”

Eliot shrugs. “Transportation magic. Theoretically I could use the bond itself to pull Quentin to me anywhere in the universe. I’m told it hurts like hell. There are other battle spells, things to immobilize, psychic control magic, all sorts of stuff that the most skilled battle magicians might be able to imitate, but not with the same amount of strength and security as what Q and I could do if we wanted.”

It had made him proud, back in those days of training, knowing what he and Quentin would someday become. But nowadays soulmates were not asked to make such choices. Not when the consequences could be so dire for the bonded pair. Soulmates had once been warriors more than anything else, their magic bent to a purpose. Their deaths, or the breaking of their bonds (an infinitely worse consequence), were acceptable risks, ones that soulmates knowingly signed up for.

Eliot and Quentin had made certain promises, when agreeing to bond. Promises to each other, but also to the crown. To come when called, to do what needed to be done. But the words were old, taken from a bygone age of savagery. It’s academic, these days. Not real.

“If this particular mission goes the way it should, we’re not going to need soul magic,” Eliot says, yanking the conversational thread back into safer, if still deadly, waters. “It’s just breaking a couple of protective wards, opening a portal…”

Margo nods in thought. “Three casters are better than two, to break the protections, take what we need. But if Quentin’s hesitant about it, he might only slow us down.”

The defensiveness spikes again. “He’s a good magician. He—he wants what we want. Margo, I can’t talk about him like he’s an outsider who needs convincing.”

“Not an outsider,” Margo says, and she sounds gentle now, clearly responding to the obvious distress in Eliot’s voice. “But he does need convincing, doesn’t he? He’s not like—” she cuts herself off, shaking her head like she’s changed her mind.

There’s a morbid curiosity building inside of Eliot’s gut. He knows what Margo had been about to say, and he also knows it’ll make him angry to hear it. But it’s Margo. And he already loves her in a way that makes him crave real honesty between them.

“Say it.”

“He’s not like us.” To her credit, she looks him right in the eye as she speaks. “He loved his parents. He grew up safe. He couldn’t ever really understand.”

She’s not wrong. But yes, the anger is there. Because he and Quentin are the same person. What Eliot understands, Quentin understands. That’s how it’s supposed to work. “I’ll talk to him,” is all he can say. “It’s me. He’ll listen, because it’s me.”

Margo doesn’t believe him, but then, she doesn’t have a soulmate, does she? There are things Quentin doesn’t quite understand about the Beast, about the burden of fear Eliot walks around with inside of him every single day. But there’s even more that Margo could never really understand, about Quentin Coldwater.

*****

Quentin knows it’s going to be bad long before Eliot opens his mouth. They’d sparred earlier in the day, feeling restless for something to do since they weren’t allowed to go out on assignment. They’d eaten a midday meal together along with most of the others. They’d spent as ordinary a day together as it was possible to spend, given the lingering tension of the Beast’s attacks and the Chatwins’ recent decision.

And Eliot had been quiet. A flavor of quiet which meant he felt wretched about something. A confession building, an uncertainty that needs to see the light of day before it can be smoothed away. It’s Quentin’s job to be there for him, to sooth his anxiety if possible. But it’s hard to do that with other people around, which means it’s not until the day has ended and they’ve made it to the privacy of their own chambers, that Quentin finally decides to coax it out of El before Eliot can torture himself too much over whatever it is.

Self-preservation is allowing Quentin to make light of it inside his own head. For as long as he can.

Once they’re alone… “Out with it, El.”

“Q. Margo has a plan.” The words spill out of Eliot so fast that Quentin knows he’s been walking around all day with the sentence on the tip of his tongue.

It’s exactly what Quentin had been most afraid of, but he clamps down on the fear. He has to hear Eliot out before he jumps to conclusions. “Okay,” he says, in his most ordinary tone of voice, wandering over to the familiar couch and flopping down, like this is any evening, like whatever Eliot is about to tell him is mundanity itself. “What’s the plan?”

Through the bond, Quentin feels a sharp, confusing wave of relief. He plays his own words back and hears the unintentional approval in them, like whatever Eliot says next is something Quentin has already agreed to. He frowns, but keeps his side of the bond as open and accepting and calm as he can manage, as Eliot goes to the foot of his bed, sits down, puts his hands on his knees and leans forward.

“There’s a spell that can trap the Beast. Hold him in stasis. Bring him where we want him, and keep him there for a while. Long enough to take a real chance at putting him down. Or long enough to let the Chatwins do that.”

Quentin waits, processes, waits some more, blinking. “And the Chatwins don’t know about this spell?”

There are warring loyalties, uncomfortable thoughts he wishes he weren’t having. If Margo has found such a spell, what are the odds that Queen Jane and King Rupert don’t already know about it? And if they do, then why haven’t they already done it? He doesn’t want to buy into Margo’s urgency, her mistrust and impatience with the Chatwins. But if what Eliot is saying is true…

“I don’t know,” Eliot says, and through the bond, Quentin knows that much is true. “It’s possible they know. If I’m being honest, I think they probably do know about it, but the thing is, the spell… there are risks.”

“Of course there are,” Quentin says, his voice hollow, a parody of the calm he’d promised he’d bring to this conversation. “Such as?”

“It requires anchor stones.”

That’s… not exactly what Quentin was expecting to hear. The words hit him with no fanfare, no understanding. Eliot’s entire body is radiating tension, leaning forward towards Quentin like he’s desperate for his approval, his understanding. Quentin wants to give it to him, whatever it is he’s asking for, but he doesn’t understand.

“Okay, so, you’re saying the spell… uses anchor stones. The spell Margo found. That you think the Chatwins might know about?”

Eliot nods a little frantically, hair flopping forward in front of his eyes. He styles it on purpose so that it does that. He has no idea, of course, that it drives Quentin mad. This isn’t the time to be thinking about that. It’s never the time to be thinking about that. But at least Quentin’s attraction is a type of mania he’s long learned to live with, to control. He has this feeling building in his gut, and he thinks the feeling is an echo of Eliot’s own through the bond, that another kind of insanity is about to barrel through and tear their lives to the ground.

“Right. Without the stones to anchor it, the spell doesn’t work,” Eliot says. He’s stalling. Quentin can feel that. “It traps him. You need three, I guess, to triangulate it, like a less sophisticated version of the pentagram.”

“So. Okay. So,” Quentin says, swallowing. He wants to pretend he doesn’t understand where Eliot’s going. “Where the hell would Margo get three anchor stones?”

“She already has one, remember?” Eliot says. He leans forward even further towards Quentin, his entire body vibrating with tension. “Fogg finished examining it, the pink one, and it’s legitimate. As good as any of the six used by the Chatwins. I know the crown would love to confiscate it, but they don't have any legal claim over it and they’re trying to play nice with Margo as best as they’re able. Which is a smart move, in my opinion.”

“Okay, and you’re saying there are other anchor stones just floating around for us to find?”

Quentin says that, knowing full well it’s not what Eliot is saying. Knowing that if there were really that many unclaimed anchor stones floating around in the world, the Chatwins would have had them rounded up long ago. Knowing that if that was really the end of the plan, Eliot wouldn’t be looking at him like he’s looking at him right now.

But no, Eliot wouldn’t… he can’t possibly… this is a dream he’s having, Quentin decides. A weird dream where everything is off-kilter, because Eliot must know how insane it sounds when he opens his mouth and says: “Well, we were thinking of… of borrowing the others.”

Quentin doesn’t even bother trying to hide his horror as it blooms through the bond, free at last from the last vestiges of denial. Fucking Margo. Dragging El into this, taking advantage of his desperation, of his desire to help... “What are you even saying?”

“Listen,” Eliot says, his voice pitch lower, conspiratorial. He stands up off of the corner of the bed finally, approaching Quentin, who has frozen as still as a stone on the couch. He looms above him, his body angled downward, beseeching. “I know how it sounds, and I’m not suggesting… I don’t know, some sort of treasonous overthrow plot, I’m simply saying—”

“That you want to take matters into your own hands. You and Margo,” Quentin says, flat. He keeps hoping that if he projects his obvious disapproval strong enough, Eliot will cower in the face of it. It’s a futile hope. He can feel his soulmate’s burning need for action coursing through him stronger than ever. It’s terrifying, how much he knows Eliot wants this.

Us and Margo,” Eliot says, imploring. Quentin clenches his jaw so he won’t say something he can’t take back, but a growl escapes anyway, something like a laugh of derision. Eliot blinks at him, frowns.

“Q, come on.”

“Me? Me come on?” Quentin says. “Is this something you’re really asking me?” Please don’t be asking me this. Please, El. Please.

“Just listen to the plan, and then—”

“Oh, I heard the plan,” Quentin says. There are too many things going on inside his mind to properly process any one of them. Anger is one aspect, though. The sharpest, most prevalent. It’s irrational, but all he can hear is Eliot saying he wants to destroy it all. Their peace, their happiness. “The plan is to steal from the crown.”

“The plan is to—” Eliot hesitates, and right alongside his own frustration, Quentin can feel Eliot’s building as well. Which is just funny, isn’t it. The thought that Eliot has any right to be frustrated in this moment. Had he really expected Quentin to react any differently? “The plan is to borrow. Briefly. From the crown. Listen, the way Margo explains it—”

Quentin scoffs. He can’t help it. He can’t stand the sound of her name in this moment.

“Q, listen,” Eliot says, powering through. “Margo has a stone. We use the center stone as another point of the triangle. We don’t even have to move it or disrupt it or anything.”

“That still leaves one more.”

“We take it from one of the estates that form the pentagram corners—listen, Quentin—we take it, we bring it back to Whitespire, we do the spell. We can put it back when we’re done, but if this works, it’s practically a moot point, isn’t it? The Beast won’t have time to attack, we’ll be trapping him before he even realizes the pentagram’s been disturbed—”

“You hear how many things have to go right for this plan to not fall completely apart? You’re going to march into a guarded estate and take a stone—”

“Listen, Margo says—”

“And this spell, that traps the Beast? Say you get the stones arranged, say you use the center stone—are you really saying it’s not going to fuck with the stones? Competing magic spells? I mean, El, I don’t have the faintest clue how the pentagram actually works magically, not really, it’s so far above our heads—”

“Margo—”

Stop saying Margo,” Quentin says. “There’s no way Margo understands this shit any better than we do.”

“She’s smart, you know. Just because she didn’t grow up with a Chatwin-approved—”

“Oh gods, Eliot, did I say that?” Quentin snaps. “Stop with the defensive shit, stop pretending that anything you’ve said in the last five minutes makes any sense.”

The room goes quiet, and Quentin takes a deep breath before he speaks again, trying to make sure he won’t regret his words. “I want the Beast dead, El. I really do. But what you’re suggesting here isn’t a plan to make that happen. It’s a plan to make you feel better.”

“Excuse me?”

“You can’t stand sitting still, and this is a way for you to feel like at least you tried,” Quentin says. This is the obvious truth, isn’t it? Eliot’s not stupid. He’s not insane. But he’s scared, and he wants something to be done. Quentin gets that. He remembers when his father had been sick, how his impending death had stolen his rationality. He’d just wanted to act, to do something, perform a miracle, undertake a quest, anything at all that would help. Or that would feel like it was helping. So he could attend his father’s funeral and be able to say, truthfully, that he’d done everything he could think of, before the end.

Eliot had been the one to hold his hand through it all, and remind him that that’s not how it works. That death comes for people without reason. That the biggest things in life often cannot be controlled.

It’s up to Quentin to do the same for Eliot now.

But when he gathers the courage to meet his soulmate’s eyes, trying as hard as he’s ever tried at anything to project sympathy and understanding and support through his expression, through the bond itself, he’s met with stone on the other end.

“That’s not fair,” Eliot says. “This isn’t some irrational bullshit I’m doing because I don’t like sitting on my ass. I’m not a child.”

Quentin takes a deep breath, pulling on every reserve of patience he possesses. “I’m not trying to patronize you, but I think that’s exactly what this is. Try and step out of this for a minute. Try and see this from my perspective.”

“Your perspective,” Eliot says, and the pleading that was in his voice earlier has taken a turn, something sharper and angrier taking over, “is flawed, Q. Sheltered. Naive, even.”

“Well, fuck you,” Quentin says, trying for a joke. It reverberates through the air. It hits wrong between them, and belatedly he realizes the obvious. They’re really angry at each other. Quentin is furious at Eliot, and Eliot is furious at Quentin.

This doesn’t happen. Eliot doesn’t look at him with ice in his eyes, call him out for being sheltered and overly loyal to the crown. Quentin doesn’t throw Eliot’s trauma in his face, call him irrational for his very real concerns.

He’s going to panic any second now. Something under his feet, the thing he’s been standing on for most of his life, is starting to shift. Any minute now it will begin to crumble, and Quentin will fall down, down, down, and he has no idea what’s waiting for him there in the dark. Nothing good.

“El,” Quentin says, pitching his voice to something close to pleading. “Can you just—stop acting like a person I don’t recognize here? How am I—how am I the unreasonable one for pointing out that this makes no sense?”

“It makes sense,” Eliot says, cajoling again. He reaches a hand out, somewhat aimlessly, like he’s hoping Quentin will take it, and Quentin does, pulling himself to his feet so they’re standing right in front of each other, fingers tangled together. Like the day they became one. “It scares you, and it scares me, but Margo came here for a reason. Margo came here to help us.”

“She came here for herself,” Quentin says. Eliot opens his mouth to argue, but Quentin shakes his head, powering on. “It’s not that I don’t trust her. It’s not that I don’t believe what she’s saying, but you can’t pretend she’s prioritizing what’s best for you. For us. She’s hell bent on—”

“On killing the Beast, Q, which is exactly—”

“On revenge,” Quentin says. “That’s not the same thing.”

“The result is the same, isn’t it?” Eliot’s voice is pitched too high, wheedling, like he really thinks he’s going to be able to cajole Quentin into agreeing with this insanity. Quentin tries to imagine it, pretend it makes any sense at all. Sneaking out of the castle, out to the boundaries of the pentagram. Entering one of the five noble houses that protects an anchor stone. His own, perhaps. It would be easy enough to get in there. The spells to undo the warding are complex but not impossible to untangle. He pictures reaching out for the sapphire stone that lives in his own family estate, taking it into his hands. The crackle of that power. The knowledge of what he risks just by holding it.

It’s not a scenario he can imagine coming to pass. It’s nonsensical. Impossible. His place in the court would be forfeit. He and Eliot, the bond created and nurtured by the system that raised him, would be in terrible danger. Everything would fall to pieces.

“El,” Quentin says, because he can’t stand this. Can’t stand the way Eliot is still looking at him, like he thinks this is an argument with two legitimate sides. “Please, El. You’re really scaring me.”

It works, just like Quentin meant it to, Eliot’s eyes widening in distress, his arms coming up and folding Quentin into an embrace immediately. Quentin wants to talk Eliot down using logic. He hates the idea that Eliot would even consider something as insane as what Margo is suggesting. But he’ll settle for good old fashioned emotional manipulation if that’s what it takes. If he tells Eliot it will hurt him if he doesn’t drop this, Eliot will drop this.

That’s how it works.

He stands there in the circle of Eliot’s arms for a long moment, trying to pretend it’s as comforting as he wants it to be. This is his last chance to make this moment an ending instead of a pause. He knows, deep inside, that Eliot isn’t going to back off, but he can’t help but remember all those petty instances in their past, where just the mere fact of Quentin’s distress would bring Eliot to his knees, when El would do anything, tear himself inside out, rip the world to pieces, just to make Quentin happy.

Maybe it’s wrong, but Quentin had cherished every proof of Eliot’s devotion, somehow making it an inextricable part of his understanding of their relationship. Eliot comes when I call. Eliot would do anything. Anything. To make me happy. And it’s okay to think that way, because it’s true in reverse, too. Right?

“El,” he says, throat tight with fear and denial. “Let’s just—it’s late. Maybe we should go to sleep.”

Eliot’s arms tighten, and a wave of impatience and remorse sweeps through the bond, Eliot to Quentin, Quentin to Eliot, as he opens his mouth to speak. “This isn’t going to disappear in the morning, Q. Gods, I wish it could, but it’s—”

Quentin should be too tired for the anger to take hold again, but it’s still lit inside of him, and it takes over, forcing words out of his mouth even as he backs out of Eliot’s arms, away from warmth. Away from the last chance he thought he still had, to get through this without saying something he can’t take back.

“This is a problem you’re creating,” Quentin says ,tugging a hand through his hair. “There’s no wishing, it’s you, and you could stop this right now.”

“You’re overreacting. It’s an hour, Q. An hour, and all of this could be over.”

“El, everything you’ve said to me in the past ten minutes is literally insane,” Quentin says, arms folded in front of his chest. He’s buckling down, now. Eliot won’t do this if Quentin doesn’t let him. Right? That must still be true. It must be. “You’d be leaving the castle vulnerable.”

“Hardly,” Eliot says, standing firm. “The others would all be here to protect the castle, and besides, the Beast’s run to ground, he’s nowhere near.”

“You have no way of knowing that,” Quentin protests. Running in circles. Nothing he says is working.

“One of the stones is my property, isn’t it?” Eliot says, taking an angle Quentin never, ever would have believed possible of him. “In my family home? The emerald stone—”

“In your…” Quentin swallows, shakes his head. “You’re of Broken Lineage, El. You made that choice years ago.” There’s another thought threatening to escape, and he bites back against it, but he’s not quite quick enough. Eliot feels the flicker of it through the bond, and glares at him: did Margo give you this idea, too?

“I can think for myself, Q,” Eliot snaps.

Quentin swallows down a rush of bile. “You’re not supposed to do that,” he says, voice small. “I can’t control what I think, just what I say.”

Eliot’s cold expression flickers into regret, but the wall comes up far too quickly. “Q,” he says, in his most imminently reasonable tone of voice. “The Chatwins are dragging their feet on this. The Beast is killing people. They’ll come for us next, and this is the only way I can think of to protect all of us. You know I’m right.”

Quentin doesn’t know that. Maybe Eliot’s drugged or possessed or something. This can’t be him, the person he knows better than any other. The person who would never do anything to hurt him.

“The Beast can’t get into the castle,” Quentin protests. “Margo stays here, under our protection, and we don’t turn our backs on our whole fucking lives for no good godsdamned reason.”

“This place is your whole fucking life, is it?” Eliot says, surprisingly mean.

Quentin doesn’t even try and suppress the next thought, although he doesn’t say it out loud: you’re my whole fucking life, and you’re putting yourself in jeopardy.

Eliot grimaces, like Quentin’s the one being difficult, here. “If we take the stone from my family’s old estate, come back here, do the spell… we’re in and out, it’s done. Nobody even has to know. The Beast certainly doesn’t have to know—”

“And you really don’t think the Beast has spies patrolling the perimeter? Magic he uses to know if the pentagram ever crumbles? He’s been trying to break through for literal centuries, El. This is the only thing he’s after, and you want to hand it to him?”

“Okay,” Eliot says, and he puts his hands up, placating. It makes Quentin furious, his blood boiling, every negative and uncharitable thought he’s ever had coming rushing to the surface. “Okay, Q, maybe we should just take a step back and talk—”

“No,” Quentin says. “I said we should go to sleep, you said this wouldn’t go away in the morning, and you were right. Don’t coddle me, don’t try and act like I’m the one overreacting here. Just say it. You’re going to fucking do this, aren’t you? You want to betray the Chatwins—”

“I want to save the—”

“Bullshit.”

Eliot pinches the bridge of his nose, jaw clenched. Quentin can feel the distress, the building anxiety, the desperation, and knows it’s coming from Eliot. Know the kind of pressure he’s been under lately, how scared he is of the Beast and all that he represents. But right now, Quentin can’t find empathy within himself. He can’t take the lifeline. He’s too angry to think properly.

“Q,” Eliot says again, this time pleading. “I don’t know another way forward. I want there to be something, but the Chatwins won’t…”

“You don’t trust them,” Quentin says, and Eliot doesn’t answer directly, can’t seem to put a name to the building truth that neither of them will be able to avoid for long.

“We’re not talking about moving the center stone,” Eliot says at last, and it’s not even close to an answer to Quentin’s question. “Q, you and I both know this place is more than adequately protected. Even without the pentagram there are thousands of layers of calcified spellwork. We might not even have to break the pentagram to take one of the stones out of its alignment. We’ll run it back here, Margo will do her thing, and then we’ll—”

“You’re risking so much,” Quentin says. He’s never had to fight so hard to get Eliot on his side. His brain is running in circles in the background of this conversation, trying to find something he can compare it to, but they’ve never been at odds like this. Not ever. “And for what? For the tiniest chance that we might be able to end this now? When there’s no reason to think—”

“I just can’t live the rest of my life scared about when he’s going to show up. You’ve seen the way I freeze, I can’t protect—”

“We’re supposed to protect each other,” Quentin says.

“And if you came with me—”

“Then we’d both end up in the godsdamned dungeons, El!”

There’s a moment of silence after that, like maybe Quentin has finally gotten through, and so he pushes his advantage, taking a trembling step forward. “You have to know you’ll be caught. You and Margo both. And then what? You’ll be locked up, they’ll put you on trial, they might even…”

He can’t finish the thought, it’s too horrible to contemplate.

“And here I thought you were the Chatwins’ biggest supporter,” Eliot says. It’s almost a sneer, the expression that crosses his face. Quentin feels it like a slap. “You really think they’re going to, what, take my magic, all for trying to do their godsdamned jobs for them?”

“Do you fucking hear yourself?” Quentin says, close to tears now. “You’ll get caught, you’ll be locked up, and I won’t be able to protect you. They might not even let me see you, they might keep us apart—”

“Are you going to tell on me, then?” Eliot asks, and it’s like a nail in the coffin, a blow directly to the gut.

“The fact that you can even ask me that…” Quentin says, and he hates how small his voice comes out. The rest of the words tumble out of him. It’s the last thing he wants to say, but it’s all he can find within him, all that’s left. Maybe if he says it, Eliot will back down, will realize the foolishness of this whole conversation. “Maybe you should just go, then. You’ve clearly made your choice.”

There’s silence. One of the longest silences of Quentin’s whole life.

“I’m doing this to protect you,” Eliot says. There’s finality there, every word precise, unmovable. Quentin’s heart lurches in his chest. It’s going to crack under the strain. “I’m doing this to protect all of us.”

“I’m asking you not to,” Quentin says. It’s a desperate plea, and he can still almost believe it will work. Eliot’s never been able to refuse him anything.

In all honesty, and in a more objective frame of mind, Quentin would be able to admit that Eliot looks like the very idea of walking away right now might kill him. But he swallows, his hands convulsing in the air around nothing, like he wishes he could reach out for Quentin’s hand again.

“This is something I have to do. For you. For us. Even if you hate me for it—it’s… it’s worth it, to keep you alive.”

Quentin can’t find any more words. Eliot isn’t going to change his mind, and he can’t help but feel it as a rejection, a strain on his most precious inner sense of self. He stands frozen, and he stares, and he pulls the messy spill of his emotions inwards, building walls to keep it all contained. He’s afraid to let Eliot know exactly how much this hurts. Afraid, because he’s not sure if it even matters anymore. Even if Quentin crumpled to the floor, screaming in the very real agony he is now experiencing… would it be enough to turn Eliot back around to the side of reason?

And then he’s gone, and the numbness swallows Quentin up. He thinks about telling Eliot, through the bond, that he can’t see what’s so good about being alive if they aren’t united. But when he reaches for the bond, eyes blurring with tears, he can sense the link between them shivering, cowering, becoming something small. Quentin can’t even be sure which one of them is trying to hide.

Chapter Text

Margo has the portal spell ready, a satchel swung over one shoulder, hair pinned back out of her face. It’s the middle of the night, the perfect time for sneaking. Eliot tries to force his mind into an appropriate framework for what they’re about to do. He just needs to focus. Focus on getting the stone, getting back to the castle, doing Margo’s spell. Then he can crawl back to Quentin on hands and knees and beg for his forgiveness.

He thinks about the look on Q’s face as he turned to leave, and the temptation to take it all back is so strong that his jaw hurts from closing it tight on all the words he should have said. All the words he shouldn’t have said.

“Quentin’s not coming?” Margo asks, and she doesn’t look surprised.

Eliot can’t even speak. He just shakes his head, a jerky motion, and gestures for Margo to get on with the casting. She’s adept at portal magic, graceful in how she moves her arms, speaking the words in a quiet whisper. If Eliot were a better, smarter person, he’d ask her how the hell she knows how to open a portal that breaks through the castle’s warding. How she can stand inside the seat of Whitespire’s power, the very stones under her feet imbued with the protective spellwork of centuries, and perform magic that will let her slip away without anyone being the wiser.

Later, he’ll hate himself for his lack of curiosity.

But in the moment, he watches the portal open, the crackle of gold energy, and he walks through the doorway Margo has created out of magic itself, turning his back on the man he would die to protect.

Quentin will understand. What other choice does he have?

*****

Somehow, Quentin sleeps for a couple of hours. It happens entirely by accident. He drops into a stupor on Eliot’s bed, too weary in body and soul to walk the few steps it would take to get him through the door to his own sleeping chamber. His eyes close, and his mind, deploying some sort of defense that Quentin can only be grateful for, allows him to fall unconscious for an hour or two, blissfully dreamless.

When he wakes up, he’s forced to remember what happened all over again. It’s still the middle of the night. Pitch darkness surrounds him. He and El had had their life-shattering argument in the gathering gloom; neither of them had bothered to light the lamps when they’d come upstairs. And now Quentin sits up in the bed, back against the pillows, arms wrapped around his legs, and he tries to convince himself that it’ll all be okay, in the end.

He hates this distance between them. Hates that he doesn’t know exactly where Eliot is right now, exactly what he’s doing. He could check the bond, examine every minute twitch of Eliot’s feelings and thoughts. Distance tends to blunt their abilities, but Quentin would probably still be able to tell, if Eliot had really left, really gone all the way to…

It seems inconceivable, even now, that Eliot could have done it. Quentin’s half convinced that if he leaves the room and makes his way to Margo’s guest chambers, he’ll find Eliot there, pouring over plans with her. He’ll grab his soulmate by the hand, tug him from the room, and demand that he see reason once and for all. And it’ll work this time. Whatever had just happened between them… it’s a bad dream, a scenario of inconceivable conflict. Nothing else makes sense. It doesn’t fit into the pattern of their lives together, and that’s the scariest thing of all.

But it’s real. Quentin’s no stranger to feeling despair for no good reason, but he can tell the difference between hypothetical agony and the very real variety he’s experiencing at the moment. Even setting aside the most intense fight they’ve ever fucking had, it’s never… it’s never right, being away from El. Since the day they met, they’ve hardly gone a single day without seeing each other. Quentin can count, in fact, every exception to that rule, the sick twist of his absence, that yearning to have him near. It had started before they’d even created the bond, during their training for it. They’d had to practice being away from each other, had gone a full three weeks without being allowed to be in each other’s presence, or say a word.

They’d been desperate enough just to talk to one another that they’d resorted to passing notes through Julia and Penny. Quentin had lamented Eliot’s absence to his father, who had looked at him with fondness and said how happy he was that Quentin had found a brother in Eliot. Even then, the word was all wrong. Even then, young and yet old enough to know he was too young to be in love, he’d never thought of Eliot like a brother.

And since the creation of the bond, separation is even more fraught. They’d been taught, in all the classes and training they’d been forced to endure when they decided to become one, that soulmates came with very real advantages, and very real disadvantages, too. They read stories of soulmates who had been separated when one half of the pair was abducted and kept trapped by an enemy, how the prolonged distance distorted the bond, weakening both halves of it. How snapping it clean would have been the only way to save both of the bonded pair, and how neither had been willing to contemplate such a loss.

Eliot and Quentin haven’t been snapped in two. Even now, more distant than Quentin has ever felt from Eliot, there are so many strands tying them together. Regret and pain and anger and sorrow, but still an overwhelming surge of love. Desperate, unending love, made manifest. He knows, underneath his very real anger, that they’ll survive this, because there’s really no other choice about it. They can’t… they can’t take back what they did when they were fifteen years old. Quentin doesn’t want to take it back. He wants Eliot to not have left the fucknig castle, but short of that, he wants him to come back soon, and safe, and throw himself to the ground at Quentin’s feet and apologize.

There’s this tiny sliver of Quentin that feels guilty for not abandoning his principles and going with Margo and Eliot anyway. He’d told Eliot that he’d choose him over his duty. He’d made that promise, and even through his anger he’s worried somehow that his refusal to come along is a betrayal of that vow.

But no. Eliot’s the one who betrayed a vow. Eliot’s the one who stared into Quentin’s pleading face and then turned around and walked away anyway.

It’s the middle of the night, and Quentin is restless and angry. He thinks about going to Jules or Alice or even Penny, waking them up to bemoan Eliot’s behavior. There’s solidarity in numbers, and it really wouldn’t hurt to hear that he’d done the right thing.

He can’t do that, of course. He can’t tell anyone that Eliot is gone, on the off chance he and Margo actually pull off this insane scheme. Can’t betray Eliot to anyone, even though he’s convinced he’s going to get caught no matter what.

In the middle of this depressing spiral and tangle of thoughts, contemplating what will happen if (when) Eliot is caught, what they might do to him, and how Quentin can fix it, suddenly everything changes.

There are very few things that could have forced Quentin to stop thinking about Eliot at this precise moment, but the loud, strange yowling, sickeningly terrifying siren that suddenly fills the air around him manages to do the trick.

The sound is impossible. Booming and high simultaneously, enough to shake dust from the ceiling, to rip through the entire castle in a single hammer blow. It’s like all of the air has been sucked out of the windows, leaving icy chill in their place. A deafening, undeniable force somewhere distant but far too close.

Before Quentin can even move, the sound chokes off into a sudden and eerie silence.. The room’s temperature plummets unnaturally quickly. Quentin is on his feet. He wants to run to Eliot, instinct engrained, and the hopelessness he feels when he realizes that Eliot is far away, that whatever is about to happen, he must face it alone, nearly sends him crawling back into the bed, under the covers, to wait for whatever end is coming.

Quentin waits for the Beast’s voice to tear through the air again like it has so many times before, but this time is different. It’s not the same spell. Whatever’s happening now, it’s not the fearsome but ultimately distant threat of the Beast’s magnified voice. Without knowing how he knows it, Quentin is sure that something bad is inside the castle even as he stands there with his mouth open, frozen in confusion and pathetic indecision.

Quentin hears a crash, a window breaking somewhere several wings over in the castle. Then a shuddering thump, like something heavy falling to the floor, this time closer at hand. He hears a shout of horror, then a chilly, delighted laugh. All of it magnified, swirling through the magic in the air around him, painting a picture in sounds that Quentin can’t make sense of immediately.

As angry and tired and confused as he is, it takes him a few seconds to piece together the logical progression of thought. Eliot left the castle with Margo. To take a stone out of the pentagram. And if the pentagram is down, then…

Fuck me,” Quentin says, blinking the last of the confusion from his eyes and tugging open the door to the hall. Even as he goes, he checks the bond inside him, sends a message along it, something wordless and urgent and scared that he hopes Eliot understands as: get back here right the fuck now.

But wherever Eliot is, it’s too far for a real message to get through to him that way. Quentin is alone.

Out in the hall, still fully dressed from the day before, his brain still trying to find ways that this isn’t happening, he finds chaos erupting. Liveried castle servants are running up the hall, their feet thumping against the carpet, abandoning the light-footed stride they’ve all been trained to use when serving on the nobility.

There’s the sound of a spell, something bombastic and angry, then a muffled groan, and Quentin peers through the gloom with his heart in his throat, wondering about the identity of attacker and attacked, both—

He has his hands up to cast light so he can see better, when someone grabs him from behind. Quentin whirls, already reconfiguring the shape of his fingers into a battle spell, but then he hears her voice. “Q.”

“Jules. Gods. What the hell—”

“The protections are down,” Julia says, her voice a high, hissing whisper. “The castle is vulnerable. We think it happened a couple of hours ago, but they’re here now, and—”

“A couple of hours ago,” Quentin repeats, because that doesn’t sound right. If Eliot—if the stone—then he’d be back here by now, wouldn’t he?

“The protections,” Julia repeats, a hand waving in front of her. Quentin finishes the light spell, giving them illumination to stare into each other’s shocked and pale faces. “They’re down.”

“Yeah, you said that,” Quentin says. He feels an invisible hand grabbing his throat in a vice. Does he tell her? What the fuck does he say? How does he protect Eliot in this moment, and how can that still be his priority when the castle is…

“We’re under attack,” Julia says. She’s staring at him like she’s worried he hasn’t quite grasped the significance of the situation. “I ran into some of the guards on the way here, Q, they say the pentagram’s down, because—”

“Something must have happened,” Quentin says, stomach churning. “I mean—” he can’t lie to her. It’s Julia. Fuck Eliot for putting him in this position. What does he—how does he even—

“Something sure as fuck did,” Julia says. And then she pins him down with a stare, discerning even through her terror. “Q, the center stone is gone.”

Quentin’s world cracks open. The room rushes away from him. He stares at Julia as if they’re on either end of a long tunnel. She’s far away, unreal. This whole moment in time is unreal. Impossible that it could be true. No.

“No,” he says, surprised to find himself capable of speech. “No, that’s not possible.”

“Two of the younger guards, the magicians in training were guarding the chamber. It was her, it was Margo Hanson, she came and she took it. About three hours ago.”

But that’s not what El said. Quentin almost speaks the words out loud but swallows down on them, an impossible increase in fear blooming through him. Eliot wouldn’t lie to him. Eliot wouldn’t. It’s quite possible that Eliot wouldn’t even be physically capable of lying to Quentin. During their argument, Quentin had felt a whole onslaught of emotions coming through from Eliot’s side of the bond, even as they’d both kept their distances, arguing their sides. But he hadn’t felt any dishonesty from Eliot. Hadn’t sensed it at all.

Which means that Margo took… and Margo said...

Which means that Eliot could be in serious danger, even as they speak.

“Oh, gods.”

“Where’s Eliot?” Julia asks, harsh, and Quentin knows the truth must be written all over his face. He closes his eyes, turning away from her, the burning sting of tears already building. It doesn’t matter. None of it matters, he needs… he reaches for Eliot through the bond, and finds everything molasses and slow. They’re too far for each other for the quick, seamless slip of emotions and thoughts they can manage in the same room. They’re never fully disconnected, but Eliot has his side of the bond locked down, blocked off, like he wants nothing to do with Quentin.

Like he’s angry. Like he’s the one who has any reason to…

Quentin should have gone with him. He can’t protect him if he—

“Quentin,” Julia says, harsh enough that Quentin knows she’s repeating herself.

“I can’t reach him,” Quentin says, shame in every word. What good is he if he can’t even—

“The Beast’s followers have infiltrated through the kitchen,” a voice says, and Quentin turns to Julia before realizing it had come from Alice, running up the hallway towards them. “Fogg is down there with Kady and Penny but there might be more soon, and I don’t know how long we can hold them off—”

“They’re in the castle?” Quentin says. They don’t have time for his shock. He blinks, staring at the two women, at their twin looks of alarm and impatience, and then shakes his head. “Fuck. Fuck. They’re in the castle. Of course they’re—okay. Uh. How many?”

“Q, where’s Eliot?” Alice asks, and then before he can even answer she gasps, eyes going wide. “Oh gods.”

“Margo,” Quentin manages. Even through his panic, he needs to protect Eliot from whatever comes after this. “Margo did this, he didn’t know—”

“No, of course he didn’t,” Alice says, distracted, eyebrows furrowed. “But he went with her?”

Quentin nods automatically, a sickening wave of guilt sweeping through him. He has no reason to feel guilty. Eliot is with Margo. Against all reason. Against Quentin’s wishes.

Alice bites her lip, staring at Quentin. “But that means we might be able to use…” she trails off, looking to Julia. “Go to the king and queen. If the Beast himself is coming, that’s where he’ll go first.”

“Where are you going?” Julia asks, while Quentin is still trying to process the very idea of the Beast showing up, the Beast inside Castle Whitespire, all because of Eliot—

“I’ve had an idea,” Alice says, shaking her head and walking backwards down the hall. “An insane idea, but also maybe our only chance, if we’re quick about it.”

And then she’s gone, turning the corner, and Julia is grabbing Quentin’s arm, tugging him in the other direction.

“Q,” she says, even as they break into a run. “Are you okay?”

“No,” Quentin says back, and it’s the best he can manage.

They reach the sovereigns’ wing of the castle, and Quentin turns towards the throne room first, before Julia tugs on his arm and directs him down a side passage. He keeps forgetting when and where he is. It’s the middle of the night. Jane and Rupert will be in their own bedchambers.

They’re too late, and they know that before they’ve even rounded the last corner. They can hear Jane screaming, a loud crash, a rending in the air. Rupert’s voice, calling out his sister’s name. A door flying open.

And the Beast. His voice. Quentin’s never heard it in person before, just that magnified echo. Somehow, even now, even smaller and mundane and far more human than Quentin would have expected, the very sound of it sends shivers cascading up and down his spine.

“You’re making this harder than it needs to be,” the Beast says, and Quentin and Julia skid around the corner and see Queen Jane, disheveled, backed against the window in her chamber, and a figure in the doorway, the back of a head, the flickering of strange blue light crackling along its arms and legs. The Beast. In the flesh. Quentin has never seen him, had never thought…

Jane sees Julia and Quentin coming forward, propelled by momentum more than actual intent. Quentin’s sure that if his brain could catch up with his body, he’d be turning and fleeing in the other direction, but this is his queen, and she’s in danger, and—

No.”

Jane’s voice is a hoarse yell of fury and denial. She locks eyes with Quentin, then her hand blasts out. Not towards the Beast facing her, but towards Quentin and Julia, rushing to her aid. They fly backwards and skid along the stone corridor, and the door slams shut between them.

“Fuck,” Julia growls, scrambling to her feet and stumbling towards the door again.

“What was that?” Quentin asks, winded. He reaches for Eliot again through the bond without thinking about it, because he’s in the middle of a fight and he’s never been in a fight without Eliot right by his side, guarding him and there to be guarded in turn. He sends his panic and his fury out along the lines of himself towards Eliot, but he can’t tell if the message is being received.

Before they can reach Jane’s door, King Rupert crashes into their path. He stares at them, wild-eyed, hair mussed from disrupted sleep. “Are they in there?” he asks them, and then before they can answer— “My sister—is she—” And then he’s charging towards the door, banging it open with a force of magic that seems to come from his chest, his head, his hands, without command or intent. He whirls on them even as he steps into the middle of Jane and the Beast’s ongoing duel. “Go,” he says. “And that’s an order from your king.”

*****

The last time Eliot had been inside this house, his parents’ corpses had been lying on the carpet in front of him. He’d only managed to escape by swallowing down his scream, by jumping out the nearest window and flying away. His telekinesis had been a wild, uncontrolled thing at that stage. He might have killed himself in any number of ways. But the Beast… well, the Beast had seemed like a sure thing. In that panicked moment, he’d taken probably going to kill myself on accident over definitely going to be murdered. It had paid off, he’d gotten away, and he’d done his best to not think about it ever since.

It’s impossible not to think about it now, of course. It’s like the house is coming back into being due to his very presence, the mists of history rolling away as he swings open the high iron gates, walking up the gravel drive. He and Margo had portaled to the nearby village and made the long winding walk up to the estate, thus bypassing some of the basic protections that would have prevented direct teleportation onto the grounds. Every delay makes Eliot’s skin crawl, no less so because now he has all the time in the world to think about what he’s about to do. Where he’s about to be, where he hasn’t been in over a decade.

The front yard appears to be somewhat maintained, shabby but not entirely overgrown. The housekeepers and stewards have probably kept it up for the sake of appearances; the small village at the bottom of the hill still lives under the illusory protection of a house with no more members to hold it. For the first time since Eliot had fled the place as a child, he wonders if he should feel guilty for abandoning the people here. They’re within the pentagram, which means they’re safer than most of Fillory could ever hope to be. But the Waughs by all rights should have still been here, offering their guidance, providing employment and stability.

Eliot shivers, just thinking about a version of his life where he still lived here, where maybe he only knew Quentin as an acquaintance from rare visits to Whitespire. Then again, if they’d never become bonded, maybe at least he might have had—

“Definitely spooky,” Margo says as they approach the door. Eliot, feeling as if he’s moving under water, lifts his hands and twists them in the opening formations, his family’s password to enter the seat of their power. He hasn’t thought about the code in over a decade. If someone had asked him, he would have said he couldn’t remember. But being here, it comes flooding back like everything else.

He feels very small, dwarfed by the door as it swings open to admit them. It’s eerie, the way nothing has changed. But the house is not stale; the building has clearly been aired out, dust kept off of the furniture in the grand entry. He walks in with Margo at his side, and fights the urge to take her hand, hold it tight in his. It’s what he’d do if Q were here. He’d never expected to be in this place again.

And in the chaos of the choice he’s made, the heartbreaking argument with his soulmate, he hadn’t even remembered to be nervous about this part of it. He sees the staircase to the right, leading up to where they need to go, but his eyes automatically sweep to the left, his feet taking him to the edge of the carpeted drawing room before he’s made a conscious decision about it one way or the other. To avoid it would be cowardly. To approach… what good does it do, really?

“This is where…” Margo’s eyes sweep the room as she comes up to his side, like she’s trying to determine just by looking, where Eliot’s parents had lain, where their corpses had rested. Eliot looks at her, to avoid looking at the room. He focuses on the mingled curiosity, revulsion, and pity on her face. He does not think about his mother. He does not think about how badly he wants Quentin to be here with him He closes his eyes, reaching for the comfort of the bond on instinct before remembering how unwelcome he is right now, in Quentin’s eyes.

In any case, Q’s side of their shared link is not exactly open to overtures at the moment. He can’t feel Q’s constantly reassuring presence, just the lowest, most basic hum of the bond itself, proving that Quentin is out there on the other end of it somewhere, shutting him entirely out.

“Yes,” Eliot says, too loud in the echoing room. “Right over there.” He points to the other side of the room. “He stood over my father’s body, and he looked… he looked right at me.”

“You couldn’t really see his eyes,” Margo says, “but you still knew he was staring at you.”

Exactly. She knows, a lot more recently than he does, what it is to face off with the Beast over the bodies of family members. Beloved or otherwise. He needs to focus on the reason he’s here, on finding the tools to end this once and for all. It will be worth it, and Quentin will forgive him. That’s the simple truth of it, the only outcome that Eliot can accept.

“Why weren’t you protected?” Margo asks. “Your house is a corner of the pentagram.”

“It’s—the wing of the estate,” Eliot gestures towards the stairs. “Everything inward from the point of the stone itself is part of the pentagram’s inner sanctum. Everything on the outside…”

When Eliot looks at her, he finds Margo staring in disbelief. “That’s horrific. That’s… you understand what that means?”

It’s hilarious, the fact that somewhere buried under a mountain of sharper, angrier, heartbroken feelings, there’s still this part of Eliot that wants to defend the Chatwins from Margo’s assumptions. “The house has other protections,” he says. “I—this all happened before I was born, I guess, but apparently Jane Chatwin came here personally to make sure the estate couldn’t be breached—”

“She didn’t do a very good job,” Margo says, sniffing and looking around at the furniture, covered with cloth to protect it from ruin. Eliot wonders if anyone will ever use these rooms again, or if they’ll remain closed up forever more, a monument to a life he’d hated, a life torn from him before he’d ever learned if he might have made something of it.

“It’s not…” Eliot swallows. “It’s supposed to be an honor. To hold one corner of the pentagram. I guess I never realized how messed up…”

“He probably wanted the stone itself,” Margo says. “That’s why he came here all those years ago. The Beast. It’s why he came after my foster family too.”

Eliot nods, distracted by ghosts of the past, and then shakes his head firmly. It will take them a while to undo the protections around the anchor stone. And he needs to get back to the castle as soon as possible.

“This way,” he says, leading Margo back to the entry, and then to the stairs. “The stone is in its own chamber, lined with glass. Something about the frequencies….” he’s never bothered to understand the magic. That was always Julia and Quentin’s thing.

Gods. He’s shouldn't be thinking about Quentin. There’s too much pain waiting for him there. He needs to focus, to be like Margo, like Fogg, like the Chatwins themselves, ruthless in doing what must be done.

They ascend the spiral staircase. Eliot is not thinking about Quentin. They go down the large hall. Eliot is not thinking about the window at the end of it, about bursting through it with his fragile body, about flying away, about showing up at the Coldwater estate with his hands and face cut up on shards of glass. They turn, entering a large chamber on the right, and find it dark, windowless, the only light emanating from the emerald green stone placed on a cushion atop a pillar, right in the dead center. The light refracts oddly against the mirrors positioned all around the room, echoing the darkness back at itself.

Margo takes a couple of quick steps toward the stone, bringing her hands up in a window in front of her eye, so she can see the protections surrounding it.

Eliot is not thinking of Quentin.

But Quentin is suddenly thinking of him. He can tell, there’s a pulse from the bond, distress and anger, the echo of a command—come home.

Eliot closes his eyes. The bond is faint, probably mostly due to the distance, but he can’t help but think that their fight has tainted it somehow. He tries to send something back, along the lines of: I’ll come home to you, always, but you know this is what I need to do.

He’s sick with the thought that it might not work, that Quentin will get only silence, will think Eliot’s ignoring him. His rational mind is telling him that what he and Margo are doing here is important. Essential, even. His heart, on the other hand, is in ruinous tatters, begging him to return to Quentin at once. What difference does the fate of the world make, if Quentin is disappointed in him?

“Let’s get this over with,” Eliot says, and Margo nods, determination incarnate, as they approach the stone, hands raised and ready to cast.

*****

There’s no time to think, but all Quentin can do is think.

He paces in a tight circle in Alice’s chambers, Julia sitting in a chair and tracking his movement with her eyes. They’ve had news from elsewhere in the castle, that the Beast’s supporters have been repelled, but a message from an outpost warns of a swarm of reinforcements. After being ordered away from the fight with the Beast, Julia had wanted to go and help where they’d known of other attackers. Quentin had wanted to find Fogg. Tell someone, anyone, that the king and queen are facing down the Beast on their own. That they’d quite literally slammed the door in the face of their prestigious Magician’s Court, rejecting assistance.

But as they sprint down a couple of hallways, finding other similarly aimless would-be combatants, Fogg finds them instead. “The Beast is dealt with,” he tells them, as Quentin and Julia both trip over themselves to explain what they saw. “And the attackers in the kitchen have scattered. Now if you’ll excuse me—” and he rushes off.

Quentin feels unwanted, useless. He turns to Julia, who shrugs and then takes off again, towards the kitchens.

The Beast has been dealt with, has he? What does that mean? Trapped, expelled, killed? Fogg hadn’t seemed inclined to say. And how would he know? Were the king and queen really alright? They’d seemed cornered, but if the Beast is unnaturally powerful, if he has access to magic the rest of the world can only dream of, then the Chatwins are the same. It’s two against one. Does that matter?

“Why wouldn’t they let us help?” Julia snarls, looking furious. “I wanted to take a stab at—”

“The Beast would have ripped right through you and I,” Quentin says, knowing this for the truth. “There’s nobody in the castle capable of stopping him, besides the Chatwins.”

He thinks of Margo’s insane plan. Trapping the Beast. Cornering him to be dispatched. Well, the Chatwins had had their shot. Had they taken it? Fogg probably would have said if the Beast had been killed. Dealt with doesn’t pack quite the same punch.

Quentin and Julia had run into Alice as well on their way down to the kitchens. She’d been the one to tell them about Penny.

“He’ll live,” she’d said, already hurrying past them carrying a stack of books in her arms. “Lipson says he’ll probably live, but—”

Quentin had felt all the blood draining from his body, had turned to run to the infirmary at once, but Alice’s sharp voice had directed him elsewhere. “Meet me in my room. I think I can fix this.”

It’s a very Alice thing to say. There’s no fixing this, or at least not without consequences.

But what else do they have to do? So that brings them here, to Alice’s quarters, Quentin pacing holes into the carpet while Julia sits on a chair, spine ramrod straight and leg jiggling up and down hard enough to wiggle her whole body around.

“Did Margo blackmail him or something?” Julia asks, and Quentin knows she’s been biting back on questions for the past several minutes. He should thank her for her restraint, probably, but he’s not in the mood.

“No,” he says. “I can’t, Jules. I just. He didn’t know this would happen.”

“Of course he didn’t,” Julia says. She sounds like she believes that much, at least. “I just don’t understand. Didn’t he tell you what—”

“He wanted me to go, I told him—I begged him to stay, he—”

“Where is he?”

“At the Fourth House of the Hale Heathers, I’d imagine,” Quentin says, acid creeping up his throat. He wishes he could lose consciousness and wake up when it’s all over. He keeps poking at the bond, but he can tell nothing much is getting through. His distress, sure, but Eliot has no reason to understand the boundaries of that distress. Eliot doesn’t know the castle has been breached. If Eliot knew that, then he’d be here. Of that, Quentin has absolutely no doubt.

“Fuck, Quentin.” Julia’s voice is not quite accusatory, but he can tell it’s taking her a great deal of restraint.

“Yeah, pretty much.”

“Well, what can we—”

Alice bursts in through the door before Quentin can begin to think of how he’s going to answer whatever question Jules had been about to ask. What can we do? Well, nothing. If there was something to do, Quentin would be doing it.

“What news from the front?” Julia asks with a raised eyebrow as Alice plops down in a chair, slamming a huge pile of books onto the small table in front of her.

Alice gives Julia a confused look and then shakes her head, lips pursed, totally focused on her own mission. “If we can get the center stone back in place quickly, that will take care of the second wave of attackers. And if the Beast tries to come back—”

“The stone is far away,” Quentin says. “Is Penny—”

“Stable,” Alice says, distracted as she flips through the papers in front of her. “Kady’s with him.”

“What’s the plan?” Julia asks.

“We get the stone back,” Alice says, like it’s simple. Like wanting it will make it so. She’s lived a charmed life. They all have, really. When have any of them not gotten what they wanted, when they wanted it?

“Margo took it,” Quentin says. “She and Eliot—”

But he still can’t find a way to admit the truth to himself out loud. It makes no sense in the ordered universe of his mind. The way things are meant to be. The way they have to be, in order for Quentin to keep moving forward.

“Eliot would never do anything to hurt you on purpose,” Alice says, a nonsequitur and also an exact answer to what Quentin had been thinking. She says the words like it’s a fact of the universe. It is. It was, anyway. She’s looking at Quentin with sympathy and confusion mingled on the sharp lines of her face. She’s discerning, quick, too smart for Quentin’s own good. But she’s also pragmatic, and now is not the time to dive into certain things that must not be spoken of.

Quentin sometimes has the uncomfortable idea that Alice knows exactly why the romance between them was doomed to fail. Not that either of them would ever dare say it out loud. The taboo is almost too grotesque to think. Alice has power. Her word wouldn’t be enough, on its own, but if she told someone, anyone, that she suspects Lord Quentin Coldwater of harboring impure thoughts about his own soulmate… just the rumor of impropriety would follow them around forever. And if anyone felt motivated to follow up on it, to employ the work of a psychic, to bring them up on trial…

That’s the trouble with soulmates as a general concept. There is great strength in unity, but there is also an obvious, unavoidable weakness. The wickedness inside of Quentin’s own mind could lead to consequences, and he has no way of turning those consequences only on himself. If he is cast out of the Magician’s Court, banished from Whitespire or from Fillory itself, El would have to come with him. If… if the Court judged that the bond must be severed entirely, then… well, Quentin’s punishment rebounds on Eliot, no matter what.

For someone who has never broken a single actionable rule with regards to his relationship to his soulmate, Quentin has spent a great deal of time worrying about what would happen if someone ever discovered him. And he’d never worried about it more than when he’d been with Alice. In bed with her, touching her, this beautiful, intelligent, sharp-edged woman, willing to offer Quentin closeness and pleasure. And he’d had to employ far, far too much of his attention on not thinking about Eliot.

It’s not as simple as saying he didn’t want Alice, and he did want Eliot. He’s not blind to the fact that Alice is gorgeous and generous and a bit of a hard-ass, that she’s powerful and even off-putting but kind when it really counts. But it would also be a lie to say that in a world where he and El had never bonded, where he’d never met Eliot Waugh at all, he and Alice would have been right for each other.

No, it’s… well, it’s simple, isn’t it? Quentin is afraid of being known. Of being understood to the degree that any sane person would turn away, decide he’s not worth the time and effort. With Eliot he’s never had to worry about that. Eliot’s love for him is a known fact, an impossible to refute certainty. Even now, with things more tenuous between them than they’ve ever been before, he can’t pretend he doesn’t understand Eliot’s devotion to him.

It’s wrong, it’s sick, it’s against everything he’s ever learned his whole life, to want to take the purity of their shared love and turn it into something base, physical, sexual, pleasurable. And knowing that the thing he desires is the thing he should not want… makes it hard to find simplicity and joy in the arms of anyone else.

Julia puts the failure for Alice and Quentin’s relationship down to basic compatibility issues. “You both wanted to please the crown. It would have been a good match, on paper, but it’s not what either of you needs.”

This is true, but in the same way that Quentin is wary of Alice’s discernment, he’s also sometimes afraid of the look in Julia’s eyes when she discusses his duty to marry, or at the very least, to name an heir for his House. If she knows the truth of why Quentin’s avoided getting serious about anyone, she’s never said it either.

Not that any of that fucking matters right now. He’s only thinking about it because the quaint little idea that he really wants to kiss his soulmate until they’re both sweating and panting and hard, seems like a nonissue in the face of what happened hours ago. Eliot turning his back on Quentin. Eliot leaving him. And everything that followed.

“Has anyone seen Jane and Rupert?”

Alice nods, distracted. “I didn’t, but Fogg’s spoken with them. The Beast is gone. Expelled from the boundaries of the castle and the outlying village. The king and queen have put up temporary shielding. It’s not something they can sustain forever, but it could be enough until we’ve got the center stone back in place.”

“And how are we meant to do that?” Quentin asks. The truth is unfolding in front of him even as he speaks, another wave of nausea roiling through his fraught innards. “If Margo took it, she’s not exactly going to come back here and hand it over.”

It’s so obvious, isn’t it? Margo can’t be stupid enough to think all will be forgiven if she pops back to the castle and enacts a spell to hand the Beast over. Even if that had been her plan at some point, she’d lied to Eliot about the center stone. Told him some story about bringing one of the pentagram corners back to Whitespire itself. Like nobody would notice. Like it could ever actually work like that.

“That’s where you come in,” Alice says. And she holds up a cracked leather book, presenting it to Quentin like an offering.

Quentin stares at the book, bewildered for several different reasons all at once. First, he recognizes it. Second, Alice should not know what that book is. Third…

“How did you get that?” he asks, staring at the worn cover like maybe it’ll change, turn into something that makes sense.

Alice’s face goes an interesting shade of splotched red and parchment-white. “I… there was a time when… I just wanted to look into it, alright?”

The book is one of the oldest Whitespire resources on soul magic. Eliot and Quentin had been given special access to it during their training, before their ceremony. They’d read of the bond, its magical properties, and the dangerous, awe-inspiring feats that a bonded pair might perform using the magic that held them to one another. It’s the kind of information that’s kept under special protections, for good reason. How Alice managed to sneak it past the warding is a question Quentin doesn’t have time to ask right now.

For the most part, this book is filled with magic that Quentin wouldn’t touch if someone paid him all the gold in the world. Dangerous stuff. Things that work only once and then tear the bond to pieces in the casting. Things from the days of warrior soulmates, back when the world was chaos and the Chatwins were but a prophecy, not yet arrived from the magical land of Earth.

“You’re not supposed to have read that,” Quentin says, numb, because if Alice brought that book, it means she wants Quentin to use it, and that’s…

“There’s no time for that right now,” Alice says, waving an impatient hand. “There’s a spell, a transport spell. You could tug Eliot back here, right now, using it, couldn’t you?”

Quentin blinks at her. “Excuse me?”

“It’s not one of the battle spells,” Alice says, wheedling. “Look.” She opens the book and turns it over so Quentin can read the words. For what it’s worth, it’s not a battle spell, not one of those one-charge nightmares that could change the course of a fight and rip the soulmates apart at the seams in the process. It’s still intense, more intense than any magic Quentin has done with the bond, but it’s…

“But how would this help?” Quentin asks, scanning the spell description hurriedly. “Getting El back here, I mean, Margo probably has the stone. Stones, if they’ve gotten to the one in the estate already.”

“Look,” Julia says, tapping at the edge of the page as she reads it over Quentin’s shoulder. It creates a forcefield—”

“—pulling everything in a ten-foot radius across space and to the caster,” Alice finishes.

“So if Margo is standing near Eliot…” Quentin says.

“Which seems likely, doesn’t it?” Julia says. “Q, this could work.”

“But I can’t,” Quentin says, still staring down at the page in bewilderment. “Look at this. I can’t do this kind of magic one-sided. Without even—without Eliot even knowing about it. Without his consent.”

A silence rings through the room, and when Quentin looks up from the page, it’s to find Alice and Julia having a silent conversation with their eyes. Julia turns to him, with a sympathetic tilt of the head. “Q, did El have your consent to leave the castle with Margo tonight?”

Quentin blinks at her. “That’s not even—you don’t understand.”

“Of course we don’t,” Alice says. “But—”

“This is really powerful magic. This is… like Traveling but without touch, it’s like portals without portals, it’s the kind of thing that shouldn’t even be possible,” Quentin says. “There’s no way of doing that without it costing something.”

“The Beast has corrupted hundreds—maybe thousands—of Fillorian humans and animals, Q. And our defenses are down.”

Alice is right. Julia is right. But—

“But it’s going to hurt,” Quentin says.

“We need you to be brave,” Alice says. “We don’t have a lot of time, here—”

“It’s going to hurt Eliot,” Quentin says, swallowing a lump in his throat. “You can’t understand—how can I do that.”

“Q,” Julia says. Her eyes are bright and wide and filled with the beginnings of tears. “The Beast will be back and he’ll kill anyone who stands in his way. If there’s even a chance this could work, we could save the castle. Save Jane and Rupert. Save all of us. Including Eliot.”

There’s a large part of his mind that refuses to accept the inevitable. But another part, buried underneath, knows he’s already made up his mind. Knows that he has an impossible choice in front of him. Eliot put him in this position. If you’d ask him yesterday if he’d have chosen the greater good over his soulmate, he’d…

Well, he’d made that choice a long time ago. And Eliot had made his earlier tonight, hadn’t he?

“Okay,” he says, his voice cracking pathetically on the single word. “We have to—act fast.” He looks down at the book, remembers glancing at this spell, like so many others, as a teenager. Remembers marveling at the totally hypothetical power he was about to possess. Remembers knowing he’d never have reason to actually use any of it.

“Eliot would agree that this is the right choice,” Alice says.

Which is funny, because Eliot and Alice have never understood each other at all, but Alice is… right, in this case.

“I know,” Quentin says. “That’s the only way I can make myself do it.”

The spell is monstrously simple. Quentin lies back in Alice’s bed, Alice and Julia on either side of him, ready to—well, Quentin doesn’t know. Help, he supposes, although what they’re actually meant to do is a lot less clear.

The reason these spells are so dangerous, practically taboo, never something Quentin thought he’d actually be performing, is that they don’t rely on language, or ceremony, or circumstances. They are magic fueled purely by the internal fact of the bond itself. All Quentin has to do is find the bond inside him, the sturdy, precious light of it, tangled around every strand of his mind and heart and soul, and he has to tug it. Tug Eliot to him. Command him with magic older than language to come forward.

“I might scream,” Quentin says, staring up into Julia and Alice’s frightened eyes. “And you might need to stand back. I don’t know how—how well I can aim. And if this thing brings back everything in a ten foot radius, there might be pieces of furniture, or… or parts of a building, or other people, for all I know, suddenly in this room with us.”

“Fogg said the second wave would come in less than an hour,” Alice says. “And that was thirty minutes ago.”

“Right,” Quentin says. He wants to block thoughts of Eliot from his mind, but that’s the opposite of what’s required. “Alright, then.”

And he closes his eyes, takes a deep breath, and reaches for the bond. He caresses it with metaphorical fingers, finds strands of Eliot and strands of himself, the ways in which they’ve strengthened aspects of one another, and created something wholly new in the center. If he follows the bond down to the very root, he finds the kernel of truth. The immutable fact that Quentin loves Eliot above all others, that he would do anything for him, anything to keep him safe. And that’s what he’s doing now. Getting Eliot back here, protecting them all from further attack. It’s for the best. For Eliot. For Eliot. He can do this, because at the end of the day he wants Eliot to come back more than he wants anything else. And this is a way of making that happen.

So he pulls. Hard.

And it hurts.

Hurts like the day the bond was created, turned inside out. Hurts like an ending, like someone’s taking himself away from himself and Eliot is with him and without him, inside him and far away, the very rules of the universe bending to bring them back together…

It’s too much. It’s not working, and Quentin can feel himself break out into a sweat as the spell ratchets higher. The bond is straining, creaking, splintering, and no, no he can’t—he pulls back, up away, from the magic, fleeing in fear of what could happen. Of what he might do if he keeps pushing just that much harder.

“Q?”

He hears a voice, can’t tell if it’s Julia or Alice or someone else entirely, far away and warped like Quentin’s under water. “Q, is it working?”

And then another voice, this one he knows better than his own. Eliot, panicked, the words choked out among uneven breaths. No! No! We have to go back! Margo, please

Quentin hears the pain laced through Eliot’s words and lets the magic go, releases it back into the bond. Ends the casting early, thwarted and ineffective. It doesn’t matter what happens after this. Quentin will defend the bond with every ounce of his rapidly dwindling strength. No magic in the world is worth risking it. It’s impossible to understand the version of himself from mere minutes ago, that could have made a different choice. That could have risked everything for the sake of anything else.

The spell has failed, but the pain doesn’t stop. All Quentin can think as it washes over him, pulling him into the unconscious depths, is that Eliot is the love of his life. He’s so angry that he left. So angry. So hurt. So sad.

And he should have gone with him.

*****

Far away, in the estate that would have been his if life had been different, Lord Eliot Waugh of Broken Lineage falls to his knees. Searing pain courses through his veins, a pulsing blunt trauma striking against the marking Quentin had once lovingly traced onto his skin.

Chapter Text

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.

Chapter Text

The walk to the dungeons is weighted with anticipation and revulsion. Never in a million years did Quentin think he’d be in this position, traveling down the steps into the depths of the castle he calls home, to visit Eliot. His soulmate. The person he’s pledged himself to in front of the entire Court, the king and queen. He’s never been anything but proud to belong by Eliot’s side. What does it mean now, that one of them is locked up and the other is not?

He has to admit to himself that there’s a sick little corner of his mind that wants to make Eliot wait. Let him squirm a bit, wondering exactly how angry Quentin is. Wondering what this means for their future, the same way that Quentin had waited in breathless agony the entire previous night. But being away from Eliot is just as painful as going to see him. More painful. Whatever happens next, they made a decision together when they were not yet men, and they have to see it through to the very end.

The dungeons aren’t exactly a place Quentin has had reason to visit lately. He’s been down here, of course. All the kids who grew up in or around Whitespire have sneaked off to see the grimy underbelly of the luxurious castle they call home. He’d brought Eliot down here the first time they’d come to the castle together, the same trip where El had been formally introduced to the king and queen, a half-feral 10-year-old with trauma in his eyes, already possessive of Quentin’s time and attention.

It’s honestly a bit of an anti-climax. Yes, the dungeons were once bare stone and flickering torches, where prisoners were left for years in dirty rags, fed stale bread and tepid water twice a day and nothing more. So the stories go. But that was before the Chatwins, and the Chatwins brought humanity with them from Earth. Now, those same cells are still dimly lit, but they’re more reasonably, if sparsely, furnished. Quentin steps into the slightly chilled air, not so cold it’s uncomfortable, and glances at the empty cells on either side of him. Small cot, table and chair, chamber pot. Extra blankets piled at the foot of the bed. An orb of magical light floating lazily near the ceiling.

Quentin swallows, trying to prepare himself to see Eliot in such a place. It’s still a dreary atmosphere to lay one’s head for the night, despite all improvements in recent centuries.

He hears them before he sees them, around a bend in the hall. Fogg’s voice, echoing and too loud for the gloomy setting. Eliot’s voice, just a little higher than it should be.

“You’re in no position to be dictating terms. You do understand that, right?”

“I’m not dictating anything,” Eliot says. “I’m asking—I need to see him. You have no idea what this is like for us. You don’t—”

“I don’t have a soulmate myself, but I am not ignorant as to the—”

“Look, I have to talk to him. You can keep me under armed guard, but I have to—” Eliot swallows, cutting himself off with an audible, wavering breath.

Quentin, approaching the corner that will bring him into sight, finds himself slowing down. Perversely drawn to the sound of Eliot’s pain, like picking at a scab until the wound reopens. He wants to erase the anxious energy, and he wants to drown in the proof that Eliot gives a damn, all at once.

“The last time I saw him, he was crying,” Eliot continues, his voice quieter now, hushed and pleading. “Do you understand what that means for me? I can’t fucking sleep, I can’t—”

“You’re not to leave this cell until decisions have been made about an appropriate punishment,” Fogg says.

“But you can’t keep us separated,” Eliot says, abandoning pleading and tipping straight into righteous anger. “That’s punishing him as well as me and he didn't do anything wrong—”

“Has it occurred to you that perhaps Quentin isn’t interested in seeing you?”

Quentin is more angry at Eliot than he ever imagined it would be possible to be, but he cannot let that stand.

“You don’t speak for me,” he says, rounding the corner.

Eliot’s eyes snap over to him at once, Fogg suddenly an irrelevancy. “Q. Are you alright?”

“Same answer as last time,” Quentin says, and Eliot’s eyes falter. He looks away, down at the floor, like he’s suddenly too embarrassed to meet Quentin’s eyes. Quentin hesitates, torn between his worst instincts and the overriding desire to take away any measure of Eliot’s pain.

“I—I got a couple hours of sleep, so…” he trails off. It’s hard to find words. “Um. I mean, I’m—I’m okay.”

Eliot nods, still not looking at him, so Quentin turns to Fogg. “Any news in the last couple of hours?”

“The Beast has run to ground,” Fogg says. “But of course we have no way of knowing how long that will last. Until he comes up against our newer and less adequate defenses, we won’t be able to determine their efficacy against him.”

“Q,” Eliot says, taking a deep breath. He looks up, meets Quentin’s eyes, then down again, like he can only stand it for a few seconds. “I didn’t know what Margo was going to do. You have to believe me.”

“Of course I believe you,” Quentin says, and he’s surprised by the look of relief these words cause on Eliot’s face. It’s as if he thinks that fixes anything, like maybe he doesn’t understand the problem at the heart of all of this. “But you knew she was going to steal one of the stones, and you helped her to do it.”

Fogg is still standing there, but Quentin can’t see anything but Eliot, the burning desperation in his eyes, the grief, the confusion. He looks like a caged animal, feral and uncertain whether to lash out or to flee. Quentin’s whole body aches. He wants to hold him, to crush them into each other, become one being, share the scouring, flaming pain of their shared heartbreak and disbelief, wash it all away and leave strength and love in the aftermath. But he can’t. He won’t.

“I was trying to help,” Eliot says, lips bloodless, eyes wide, skittering around, darting past Quentin and Fogg, never settling on any one spot. “I thought she could defeat him. I thought she could end it.”

“And so you went with her, even though I told you not to, even though—”

“Lord Quentin,” Fogg’s voice says, cutting through the charged tension in the air. “Are you saying you knew of the prisoner’s plan to take an anchor stone—”

No,” Eliot’s voice rings out before Quentin can respond, immediately panicked. “No, he didn’t know. He didn’t do anything wrong, it was all me.”

“Eliot,” Quentin says, fighting between an urge to roll his eyes and burst into tears again.

“No, you can’t hurt him because of my mistakes. That’s not—”

“Eliot,” Fogg says, and Eliot’s jaw snaps shut. “I have no intention of hurting anyone. The castle is still in upheaval from the recent attacks. You’re being locked up while we decide what’s to be done with you, but nobody is going to hurt you or Quentin.”

Eliot swallows, looks down at his feet and takes a deep breath. Even without the bond providing a free flow of emotions between them, Quentin can sense Eliot’s relief.

The guilt hits him like a hammer, the thought of Eliot down here for hours, pacing and terrified that punishment would be swift and brutal. That Quentin might get caught up in it more than he already had. Quentin should have been here, to reassure him. Keep him calm.

But he’s not sure he would have had the strength for that. Even now, his skin is squirming with competing needs. He wants to run, can’t stand to see Eliot here. Can’t stand the thought of leaving him like this, either.

When Quentin looks to Fogg, he finds the imposing older magician staring at him, discerning. Fogg probably knows that Quentin knew. He’s not stupid. But just with his eyes, he makes Quentin a promise: he won’t say anything. At least for now.

“I’ll leave the two of you alone,” Fogg says. “I expect Quentin can fill you in on the details of what happened in your absence.”

Quentin’s never been particularly fond of Henry Fogg, but suddenly he feels like a small child being tasked with something beyond his ability, watching as the only parental figure around walks out of the room. He thinks about asking Fogg to stay. To moderate this conversation, somehow. Gods, Quentin’s still not sure what he’s doing here. What he’s supposed to say. How can he explain to Eliot that of course he forgives him, and that he’s not sure how he can ever forgive him? That both of these things feel true? Alice had been right: there’s no point in pretending that Quentin is capable of keeping Eliot at arms’ length for long. But does that mean he can’t demand some form of payment, for his own suffering?

In the silence after Fogg’s departure, Quentin looks around for a place to sit. There isn’t one, of course, unless he were to be allowed inside of the cell with Eliot. It strikes him as funny, all of a sudden. Fogg should have let him inside. They could have sat at the table, had a meal together. Had something to occupy their hands during whatever’s about to happen.

“Will you?” Eliot’s voice says, very quiet.

Quentin looks at him. He can’t exactly avoid it for much longer. “Will I what?”

“Tell me everything that happened,” Eliot says. “Please. If I’m going to hate myself for the rest of my life, at least I want to know what exactly for.”

He looks utterly destroyed. His hair, normally so carefully styled, is lying limp against his head. He looks like he’s been in here for weeks instead of a single day, face puffy from tears. He looks ten years old again, and Quentin feels one hundred.

Quentin sighs and leans against the wall opposite Eliot’s cell. Taking the cue, Eliot grabs the chair from next to the small table and flips it around, sitting on it near the bars. Just three feet or so between them, now. Quentin could walk forward and touch his face through the bars.

He doesn’t.

But he does tell Eliot what happened.

He tries to find the balance between brutal honesty and cruelty, but he can’t lie, can he? Eliot asked, and Quentin will give him what he wants, despite everything. He describes his terror upon waking, Julia finding him in the hall. The way they’d rushed to aid the king and queen. The Beast, there in all his evil bravado. And then the way Jane and Rupert had rebuffed them, cast them out into safety to deal with their enemy alone. Hearing news of the infiltrations down in the kitchens.

Alice, coming to Quentin with the spell. Quentin’s panic, his uncertainty, his disbelief that it had come to this, and all so fast, when he hadn’t been prepared to admit just how broken things had gotten between them. The spell, the sweat on his upper lip, the ease of dipping his consciousness into the well of magic represented by the bond, then the sickening twist of the spell taking hold. Knowing it would work, knowing it would rip them apart in the process.

“If you’d done it,” Eliot says, very quietly when Quentin finally finishes speaking, “we’d have the stones.”

“Yes,” Quentin says, and nothing more. He lets it sit there in the air between them. The choice he’d made. A selfish decision, and one he couldn’t have survived any other way.

“I…” Eliot trails off, looking down at his hands and then up at Quentin, still leaning back against the wall. “Quentin, I don’t even know how to tell you how sorry I am.”

Obviously, the instinct is there to tell him it’s over now. That he’s forgiven. That they should be focused on what the fuck they’re going to do if Eliot gets banished for his treason. Or worse.

But Quentin can’t do that. He can’t set aside the messy tangle of grief and fury that’s taken up residence inside of him. He can’t excise the bond from the damage done to it.

“You’re only sorry because it went wrong,” Quentin says. His anger is a necessity. It’s the cleanest emotion he knows how to feel. The heartbreak will pull him under, and they don’t have time for that right now. In the back of his mind, even as he’d told Eliot everything he knew about the Beast’s attack, he’s aware that a second assault might come at any minute. They haven’t reached the limits of how bad this could get. “If you’d succeeded, you’d be standing here telling me I was crazy to worry so much.”

“I wouldn’t call you crazy,” Eliot says, voice raw. “Not ever.”

This, it occurs to Quentin, is true. And also not the point.

“Tell me I’m wrong, then. Tell me you realized it was a bad idea before Margo ended up being a traitor.”

Eliot flinches at the word, like Quentin’s thrown something in his face. But he’s got to accept it. They all do. They’d all liked her, at least a little, they’d all believed her, and…

“I regretted it the second we walked through the portal,” Eliot says. His side of the bond is blown wide open, sincerity and self-loathing dripping out of him in messy waves. Quentin wants to drown himself in it, but it’s like he’s forgotten how. “I don’t… I don’t know, Q, I thought I was right, but I should never have—I never should have gone against you, not in anything.”

Quentin sighs, thunking his head back against the wall. This is what makes it so complicated, what makes forgiveness tricky to contemplate, even though he knows he’d forgive Eliot anything.

“That’s not what I want to hear,” Quentin says.

Eliot takes a deep, audible breath, shaky like he’s trying to avoid a sob. “Tell me what you do want to hear, then.”

“I want to hear that you agree with me. I don’t want you to do things blindly because it’s what I want. What kind of partnership is that?”

Eliot swallows. Quentin peels an eye open, peeking at him through it and then letting it slip shut again as Eliot speaks. “I can’t lie to you, Q. I could never.”

“So what does that mean?”

“It means you’re right, I—if we’d come back with the stone and Margo had found a way to pinpoint the Beast’s location, if, if, it had all gone the way I wanted it to go? I wouldn’t be fucking sorry that I’d done it.”

“El…”

“But if it breaks us, Q. If I lose you because of this… nothing could be worth that. Nothing.”

You could never lose me. Quentin pushes the words through the bond, but they stick and catch on the strands between them. Nothing’s right. The bond tastes different. Stretches inside him different. He has to use his words, and he’s never been great with words. He’s never needed to be. Not with El.

“I’m right here,” he says, the pathetic sentence wispy and weak as it leaves his throat. “I’m—here.”

“On the other side of the bars,” Eliot says.

“Yeah, well.” Quentin shrugs. “If I could do something about that, I would.”

Eliot nods, and seems to accept the words for what they are. He doesn’t snap back at Quentin’s surly tone. He doesn’t look capable of being angry at Quentin ever again. It’s another infuriating thought, piled on top of the rest. He wants the fire back, not this dampened despair

Quentin leaves shortly after, promising to come back later in the day. Eliot lets him leave without argument, his eyes boring holes in the back of Quentin’s head as he walks away.

Being away from Eliot is torture, especially when so much is unresolved between them. But being with him isn’t a lot better.

*****

Three days pass. Eliot is treated as befits his status. It’s a cell in a dungeon, and there’s no denying that, but the temperature is regulated, the room itself is well-lit, and the mattress is decent enough to sleep on. Nobody is being cruel to him. In fact, nobody is being anything at all to him, and that’s the whole problem.

It’s the being alone part that kills him. He hasn’t seen anyone but Fogg and Quentin since he was brought down here. Fogg comes by every day and asks him questions about Margo. Eliot ignores the guilt that he shouldn’t be feeling, some lingering sense of loyalty for her, and tells Fogg every single thing he knows, any detail he can remember of what Margo had said to him.

Her last words to him, on the other side of the portal, play back to him in his mind constantly. He has someone I love. The Beast, of course. It sheds a different light on everything she’d ever told him. The Beast had killed her family. The family she cared about, anyway. Did she have some stray relative from her old life that still mattered to her? Or had the Beast failed to slaughter every member of her foster family, holding someone in reserve in order to keep Margo under control?

Or maybe even those last words had been part of the lie. Maybe Margo has worked for the Beast all along, and only apologized to confuse him, keep him off-balance.

He wonders if he’ll ever see her again. He thinks about it often, because it hurts enough to distract him momentarily from the bigger hurt of Quentin, that all-consuming chasm of fear and loss that could swallow him up entirely. Margo is—Margo is a manageable pain, in comparison.

He can’t believe it had all been a lie. He’d felt something with her. Some connection, some instant liking that weighs more than the word liking should encompass. He’d never had that with anyone before, other than Q. He’d known she would matter to him from the first day they’d met.

That day, the forest, Margo in the center of that power, anchor stone clutched in her hand. She’d been casting something. Looking for something, she’d said. Maybe more anchor stones, to deliver to her master. Maybe whoever the Beast had taken from her.

He has too much time to think about her, about Quentin, about Penny healing from a wound to the gut, about the king and the queen forced to confront the terrible monster who wants them both dead, all because of Eliot’s stupidity and lingering trauma. After all they’d done for him, letting a scared orphan boy of Broken Lineage join the Court, blessing his bond with Quentin…

The other thing is, he thinks he might be getting sick.

He’s too cold, and at first he thinks it’s the chill of the dungeons, but the temperature is regulated down here just as it is throughout the rest of the castle. And the chill gives way to a feverish warmth, and an ache through his entire body. It’s not bad, at first. Nothing he feels the need to complain about.

Quentin comes to see him every day, and his presence is enough to distract him. They talk in circles around what happened. Eliot apologizes, and knows it’s not enough. He knows Quentin well enough, even without the bond helping to ease the pathways of understanding, to identify his frustration for what it is. Quentin doesn’t want Eliot to be sorry for what he’s done. He wants Eliot to agree with him that he never should have done it in the first place. And Eliot does agree. He agrees it was wrong, because Margo was lying, because it didn’t work, because people got hurt and Quentin was scared, but—

But there’s that piece of him that remembers Jane and Rupert’s decision to lie low, to do nothing about concrete information as to the Beast’s whereabouts. To let the status quo remain unchanged. He can’t truthfully agree that taking action on his own was the wrong move to make. He’d be happy to prostrate himself at Quentin’s feet and agree with everything he has to say on the subject, but whenever he does that Quentin gets annoyed, because Quentin wants his honesty, too.

He wants Eliot to agree with him and mean it, all the way down to his bones. It makes Eliot crazy, to know that he can’t give him that no matter how hard he tries, no matter how willing he is to concede to his own guilt. The frustration from his bondmate is a stinging pain, a pinch along every bit of his body. When he hears Quentin coming down the hall and rounding the corner to his cell, his heart leaps up into his throat. His eyes start to water. He wants Q to come inside the cell and he wants to be able to hold him.

But at the same time, the bond shivers, twitching like it’s afraid of something. Afraid of Quentin. As if it’s not a part of Quentin, too. He doesn’t know how to talk about it, so he doesn’t. He just keeps waiting with bated breath every time he and Quentin talk, for Quentin to say the thing that Eliot won’t survive: I should have gone through with the transport spell. I should have broken the bond.

Or even worse: a request to break it now. Quentin could go to the king and queen and denounce Eliot for what he’s done. It’s a crime bad enough that they might consider stripping him of his magic and sending him away. Quentin would get what he wants, then. Freedom. A release from the sacred obligation they’ve held for each other for nearly a decade.

These thoughts aren’t fair to Quentin. Q wouldn’t. He’d never want that, he’d never do it. He couldn’t stand to live without Eliot any more than Eliot could stand to live without him. In his more lucid moments, Eliot knows that.

But as the days stretch on, approaching the end of his first week of captivity, it’s getting harder to remember it. Harder not to think that Quentin resents the fact of their bond, the necessity of further relationship between them. It would hurt Quentin, maybe even kill him, if their bond were to break. Maybe he wishes otherwise. Maybe he wishes he didn’t have this magical, physical, spiritual dependence on someone like Eliot anymore. Maybe Eliot was a villain for ever having asked him in the first place, all those years ago. He’s never been good enough.

He’s definitely getting sick. He can’t stay warm, he piles up the blankets, and Fogg has the magical maintenance teams turn the heat up in his cell at Eliot’s request, but then he wakes in the middle of the night sweating, burning up. It comes and goes in waves; sometimes he feels more or less normal, just the standard amount of wretched and heartsick that he has been since he returned to Whitespire. And then other moments he’s afraid he’s going to pass out or throw up. His muscles seize and his whole body aches.

He wants Q to come to him and hold his head in his lap and wipe the sweat from his forehead with a cool cloth.

He doesn’t ask him for that. Obviously.

But even so—

“Your symptoms could be explained by any number of illnesses,” Lady Eleanor Lipson of the Second House of the Coastal Waves says, leaning over to peer closely into Eliot’s eyes. “Nothing alarming as far as I can see, but if this continues for more than a few days we’ll have to reassess.” She gives him a discerning look, then pulls a vial of dark liquid out of the bag she carries with her, and passes it over. “This should help you sleep. It has magic in it, so I’m trusting you not to pull from it for some sort of daring escape.”

Eliot almost laughs. He’s a little feverish at the moment, but nothing more than that. Nothing more than the same all-encompassing dread he carries with him as a permanent weight on his chest. He can’t escape, because he’ll be in even more trouble if he does. He can’t escape, because then he’d have to leave Castle Whitespire forever, and never return, and he’s not a person who has the luxury, or burden, of making big decisions on his own. That’s what had got him into this mess in the first place.

The potion does help him sleep through the night, but when he wakes the next morning, he feels even worse. He feels so dreadful, in fact, that for a moment he doesn’t notice the two people standing just outside his cell, speaking in hushed tones.

It takes him longer than it should to focus, to identify the speakers. Especially since one of them is the person his soul is yearning for every second of every day.

“He didn’t tell me he was sick,” Quentin is saying, his voice pitched high in distress. “Why didn’t he—”

“You hadn’t noticed?” Fogg asks, and it’s not accusatory exactly, but it is curious, discerning. “Isn’t that something you’d be able to feel?”

“We—uh,” Quentin trails off, stymied for a moment, before he rallies and answers. “We haven’t been using the bond much. We’ve been—fighting. I mean. That’s a stupid way to put it but you know what I mean.”

Eliot sits up, then regrets it. His vision blurs, the room spins alarmingly.

“El?”

“Lord Eliot?”

Their voices overlap, and he can’t make his vision focus on either one of them. He wants to unstick his voice in his throat and reassure Quentin that he’s not dying or anything, but he can’t figure out how to make his mouth work.

“Are you alright?” Quentin asks.

Eliot manages a strained cough, a low moan. His throat is parched, but when he reaches for the pitcher of water on the small shelf by his bed, his arms are too weak to lift it. “Um,” he tries, but he can’t say anything more than that.

“I believe I might know what the problem is,” Fogg says, and now there’s trepidation in his voice, and Eliot feels a spike of fear. From himself? From Quentin, maybe, through the bond? He hasn’t been able to feel him directly in days.

“What?” Quentin says. “What’s—El, why the fuck didn’t you tell me?”

It’s stupid, but tears spring into Eliot’s eyes. Quentin’s mad at him again. Still. He hates that, and doesn’t know what he can do to fix it. Everything’s broken and he’s just slept through the night but he’s so tired, and his body hurts, and he wants it all to go away.

Eliot tries to stand up, but he’s not sure if his body is actually moving, or if he’s just imagining himself getting to his feet. He has words he would say, if he could. If I am dying, Q, I don’t want you to suffer. It’s okay. Let me go.

Which is just so dramatic, because he’s not dying, he’s just sick, and just because Lipson doesn’t know what’s wrong with him, and just because he woke up this morning with his head pounding and his stomach in knots and his whole body angry at him just for existing, doesn’t mean he’s going to die.

“What’s wrong with him?” Quentin’s asking Fogg. “You said—you know what this is?”

“I believe I’ve seen it once before,” Fogg says, hedging carefully. “I cannot be certain, you understand. But if there’s a chance I’m right, then you have a right to know—”

What?” Quentin snaps back, impatiently. “He was fine yesterday. I saw him yesterday and he—he said he was tired, but—”

Fogg looks at Quentin with a grimace of hesitation, almost chagrin, like he really regrets passing on the bad news. Eliot’s head is pounding, the nausea roiling through him. He can barely focus on Fogg’s words, just looking at Quentin’s face, just trying to imprint it on his memory. As if he could ever forget anything about it.

“He may be dealing with the symptoms of a rejected bond,” Fogg says, and Quentin makes a noise in the back of his throat.

“What?” he says again, an incredulous echo. His eyes dart between Fogg and Eliot behind the bars, mouth agape and eyebrows furrowed. “A rejected—what are you talking—” he seems to decide something, his fists clenching at his sides, his chin tilted up, the way he looks when he’s determined and righteous. Eliot would give him anything when he looks like that. Eliot would give him anything, period. “Let me in,” Quentin continues, voice ringing with quavery passion.

“Lord Quentin, I’m not sure—”

But Quentin is at the bars now, hands wrapped around them, staring at Eliot. “El, I’m—it’s okay. I’m going to—” he turns back to Fogg. “You have to open the cell.”

“I don’t have the authority to release him—”

“When then lock me up with him,” Quentin says, and now he sounds exasperated, like Fogg is being willfully obtuse. “I know my rights, you can’t keep me away from him when he’s like this.”

Eliot realizes he’s still sitting down on the edge of the bed, all plans of standing up and walking closer thwarted by his rebellious, ruined body. Realizes that Quentin is talking about coming in here, coming into the cell with him. He tries again to stand, finds his legs are shaking too bad for it to work. He wishes the room would stop spinning. Wishes he could process what was going on, make it all add up in his head…

“El?”

Quentin’s voice, close and gentle and yet somehow scared, also. Eliot blinks, trying to wipe away the blurred world, finds that Quentin is standing in the open door to the cell, eyes wide, skin pale. “Eliot.”

“Quentin.”

It’s all he can manage, but he tries to make the single word, the best word he knows, say everything. Please and I’m sorry and what the fuck is happening to me being the top three messages he hopes to impart.

And then… then Quentin is touching him, leaning in front of him like he teleported across the room. Hand on his knee, other hand reaching up, a palm over his heart, then sliding down, dipping under his shirt to press cold fingers against the soul-rune on his hip.

Eliot gasps, black spots appearing in front of his eyes. “Quentin?” he repeats.

“Is this okay?” Quentin asks, and now he’s sitting beside Eliot on the bed, now he’s tugging him down so they’re lying side by side. It’s only with Quentin’s cool hands on his skin that he realizes he’s burning again, body aches roiling through him like the height of a spiking fever.

“I—”

“Hey, I got you,” Quentin says, like he’s speaking to a child or a wounded animal, and then Eliot is lying in the circle of Quentin’s arms, Q is holding him, pressing a kiss to his forehead, to his nose, to his chin. “I’ve got you. Are you okay? El?”

“Yes,” Eliot says, blearily, not sure if it’s even true. “I—don’t know what’s happening.”

“The bond,” Quentin says. “What I did… El, fuck, I’m so sorry, that spell must have done something. But I’m fixing it, I’m getting it fixed, I just…”

“It’s not your fault,” Eliot says, because this is the mantra, this is so important, he’s the fuck-up, Quentin was right, and Margo’s gone, and—

“I think you need to go back to sleep,” Quentin says, his voice croaky like he’s trying not to scream. “Is it okay if I just stay here with you while you sleep?”

Is it okay? It’s a bounty beyond what Eliot thought he’d ever deserve again. Even having Quentin here with him now is making him realize exactly how out of his head he’s been. He wants Quentin to kiss him. Thinks about asking for it, just this once. They haven’t touched each other in days. The longest they’ve ever gone without—

“El, just sleep, okay? Just—here, hold on—” Quentin’s supporting his neck with one hand, guiding a cup of cool water to him with the other. Vaguely, he wonders if Fogg is still standing outside the cell, or if he’s gone to get help. Is he dying? He doesn’t want to die. He has so much he wants to do before he goes. So much that needs fixing. “El? Hey, just lie back here with me, okay? Just close your eyes.”

Eliot does, and the world drifts away to nothing but his soulmate, surrounding him inside and out.

*****

When Eliot stirs, murmuring and pressing his face into the hollow of Quentin’s neck, Quentin wakes up immediately. He’s not sure he was even entirely asleep, just dozing, thoughts drifting along the sinews of the bond, coaxing and healing and petting them back to health.

He’s been doing it for hours, searching along the length of the bond, dipping into his own mind and soul, and then following the strands over to Eliot’s. The spell he’d done to find Eliot, to transport him back against his will, hadn’t merely pulled on the strength of the bond. It had tried to pull on the source, to tug that power out by the very root. Quentin thinks back to his psychic training, the lessons he and Eliot were forced to endure both before and after getting bonded, to teach them how to use it, how to maintain its strength. He’d never paid it much mind. Being bonded to El felt natural. He didn’t need to learn how it worked, when it all happened automatically, a magical manifestation of their impossibly strong connection.

Now, he’s putting more effort into it than anything else he’s ever done.

The self-loathing is debilitating. He can’t stop seeing the look of naked fear and confusion on Eliot’s face as he watched Quentin approaching him across the cell. He’d looked so lost, so young, impossibly afraid. And Quentin had done that. He’d—poisoned them, with that godsdamned spell. And Eliot is the one suffering for it. Eliot, pacing the floor day after day in this tiny little cell, waiting for someone to tell him his fate.

And Quentin had been piling on the punishment. He’d come to visit him every day but he hadn’t given him absolution. Hadn’t forgiven him. Had just sniped at him over and over for the same thing, while Eliot apologized for it helplessly, waiting to learn if forgiveness would ever be granted.

In this exact moment, with Eliot sleeping safely in his arms, everything else seems so pointless. Irrelevant. So the Beast might come and attack the castle at any moment. So they might all be ripped to pieces. So the privileged and predictable life Quentin has always lived has been torn asunder. So it’s all Eliot’s fault.

So what?

“Q?” Eliot’s voice is terribly gentle, a whisper, as if he’s afraid Quentin might disappear if he speaks too loud.

“How do you feel?” Quentin asks, clearing the tightness from this throat with a cough.

“Comparatively? Amazing.”

“Fuck, I’m so sorry,” Quentin says, pulling Eliot in close and pressing his cheek to the crown ot Eliot’s head. “I didn’t know you were in pain. I wish you’d—I didn’t know, El.”

“What happened, exactly?”

Quentin opens his mouth to answer and then closes it again, suddenly realizing he has another way of explaining. Tentatively, exercising a muscle that’s been dormant for several days, he nudges the bond to life, and speaks through it. The bond was weakened. It was making you sick.

Eliot shivers, his entire body twitching as he feels Quentin’s words inside of him, a direct line.

Fuck, I missed you.

Eliot’s words in return are more a flood of feeling than a conscious, directed thought. Quentin’s guilt spikes higher as Eliot lets the full force of his relief and joy spill up and over, filling them both to the brim.

“I’m sorry,” Quentin repeats, out loud this time. “I don’t know how things got so bad.”

“It was me, I made them bad,” Eliot says back, and then they lie there in silence for several long minutes, both of them testing the elastic strength of the connection, sending apology and absolution along the threads of it.

Things aren’t all better now. Something has been lost. Quentin’s not sure how to name it, even, and he’s definitely not sure how to get it back. But the part of him that had strained against the simple fact of Eliot, of being his partner in all things good and bad, has fallen away. Quentin can still feel the pockets of anger and grief and disappointment inside of him, and they’ll bubble over again in time, he’s sure. But he and Eliot will be a united front in whatever comes next.

They eat breakfast together, the guard giving only a cursory glance at the odd sight of an innocent man locked behind bars with the guilty. Eliot asks him more questions about what’s been happening upstairs, asking after Penny’s recovery, the Chatwins’ plans, the castle’s defenses. And Quentin feels his guilt spiking along the bond, no longer sickly and twisted between them, but fully capable of processing the enormity of the healing that still needs to be done.

Quentin misses his morning assignment, staying with Eliot. He’s on strategizing with Kady and Alice today; they’ve been coming up with responses to hypothetical scenarios. The best evacuation routes should the Beast attack from any number of given avenues. The best places to make a defensive stand. Which scenarios demand a quick response, and which call for caution.

In other words, he’s had to put to the test the things he’s learned and studied and trained for all his life. He’d never really thought the Beast would be a direct problem for him or any of his friends. He’d been honored to help defend Castle Whitespire from the actions of evil would-be usurpers, but the honor had always been… academic. Distant.

Now it’s not, and now it’s considered even less acceptable to miss assignments than it would have been before any of this started. Eliot is, of course, more important than the possibility of Fogg’s disapproving glare, when he finds out Quentin didn’t show up in the war room after breakfast.

“You’re really feeling alright?” Quentin asks after they’ve eaten, taking Eliot’s face between his hands and looking into his eyes, like he might discover an extra secret hiding there.

Eliot nods his head, and Quentin’s fingers brush across cheekbones, one thumb briefly skidding over Eliot’s lower lip. It’s always more of a challenge to ignore how beautiful he is, after spending an entire night in uninterrupted proximity. At least the guilt is helping to override other, less appropriate, feelings.

“I owe you an apology,” Quentin says.

Eliot sits up a little straighter on the bed, where they’ve come to sit side by side. “Don’t be ridiculous.”

But Quentin ignores him, shaking his head mournfully. “No, I… I was punishing you. I’ve been punishing you. I made you sick.”

“You didn’t do that on purpose,” Eliot says, with a surety that he shouldn’t have. Quentin didn’t hurt Eliot on purpose. Of course he didn’t. But to pretend he’s not capable of it, to pretend he’s not, on occasion, petty and vindictive and quick to cause harm… Eliot is letting him off too easy. He’s always doing that.

“I should have realized,” Quentin says, staying firm. “I shouldn’t have done the spell to begin with, I—”

A sound from around the corner interrupts him. He turns his head to see Lipson approaching around the corner. At the same time, through the bond, Quentin can feel an odd, displaced spark of euphoria from Eliot, quickly quelled under a measure of hastily constructed control. Quentin plays back over his words, trying to understand the spike in Eliot’s mood, and another squirm of guilt hits him. He’s feeling Eliot react to the knowledge that he… that Quentin regrets the transport spell. That nothing that might have come from it would have been worth the pain Eliot’s been through on that account.

Quentin should have said that sooner. Should have said it from the start. Eliot thought… Eliot thought Quentin wanted out.

The revelation should have been obvious, but it hits him now with the power of a blow to the stomach. He turns away from Lipson and meets Eliot’s eyes, widening them in significance. Never. Never ever ever, he says directly into their shared link. I choose you over anything. He reaches out and takes Eliot’s hand, squeezing hard enough to restrict blood flow. He stares down at their entangled fingers as they go white with the strength of their shared grip, then back into Eliot’s eyes.

Eliot’s lashes flutter, blinking rapidly, and he swallows, mouth falling open as he looks at Quentin, face pale. “Q,” he breathes, and there is so much in the single syllable, so much more than Quentin can take in.

“Lord Quentin,” Lipson says, with a more or less polite nod as she approaches, key in hand. “If you’ll excuse us, I need to examine him.”

“That’s alright, I’ll be staying,” Quentin says at once, eyes still on Eliot’s awe-struck face.

Eliot bites back on a smile, and Lipson raises an eyebrow.

“Lord Eliot?” Lipson inquires. “I’ll be asking you a few personal questions.”

Eliot nods, distracted, so Quentin answers for him. “That’s fine. He’s feeling better, but—”

“I believe he’s capable of speaking for himself,” Lipson says, and Quentin’s face goes hot. He has the absurd urge to stake a claim, make Lipson understand that decisions about Eliot’s wellbeing are decisions about Quentin’s wellbeing too. But he swallows and gives Eliot an apologetic shrug, instead.

A flicker of amusement, from Eliot’s side of the bond. Like he’d felt that roil of possessive, uncharitable thought, and found it hilarious. Charming.

Quentin bites back on a smile as well, because things are bad but they’ve been so much worse. He can breathe again, as long as Eliot’s going to be okay. As long as this new understanding can last between them, the foundational understanding that even if it makes them selfish, the bond comes first for them both. They keep their hands tangled together, neither making the move to stand up.

“Lord Eliot?” Lipson prompts. “I’m going to run a couple of spells on you, check to make sure your illness has passed and it’s nothing we need to be alarmed about. It might be best if your protective partner here left the room—”

“I’m staying,” Quentin repeats.

Lipson sighs, ignoring him and speaking directly to her patient instead. Quentin tries not to let it annoy him. “If what Henry tells me is true about the circumstances of your illness, then... your status as a prisoner notwithstanding, Eliot, you’d be well within your rights to break the bond—”

Eliot’s body goes still, his hand convulsing around Quentin’s own. He glares up at Lipson with murder in his eyes. “Never.”

Quentin’s not going to pretend it’s not gratifying. Not that he’d thought—well, he deserves Eliot’s anger, maybe, and Eliot deserves his in return, but there can be no future where they are apart from one another. It is unthinkable. That much, at least, has been sorted.

“Very well,” Lipson says, and Quentin senses she’s suppressing an eye-roll as she lets herself into the cell. She does her tests, and determines that Eliot has recovered entirely from whatever had been ailing him all week. Quentin bites back on derisive words. He could have told her that himself. He can feel it, all of Eliot, healthy and hale and still sad and scared and uncertain, but well once more.

Quentin has been known to fuck everything up, but at the end of the day he takes care of what’s his.

*****

They move in circles, until finally they don’t. Quentin is contrite and anxious with Eliot for his next few visits, checking in on the bond constantly through the day, reassuring Eliot with the fact of his presence even during the long hours apart. When he comes to visit, they talk about what Quentin has spent his day doing, ignoring the strangeness of Eliot not having been there with his own job to do, his own stories of the day.

And things are okay, they aren’t broken, but they aren’t whole either. Some days Quentin tries to broach the topic, brings up Margo or asks Eliot another question about visiting his family’s old estate, and Eliot flinches from it instinctively, afraid of arguing with him again. Quentin always backs down at once, overwhelming concern and guilt overriding anything else.

But Eliot’s not stupid. He can sense the kernel of resentment underneath all the solicitous concerns. Until they can dig to the heart of this and pull that kernel up, toss it out, things between them will always be off. The bars that separate them will be metaphorical as well as literal.

Oddly, when it happens, when the cycle finally breaks, it’s because Eliot finds a kernel of anger inside himself, as well.

Now that the bond has healed from whatever was making him sick, it’s easier than ever to feel all of Q’s pulls and ties to the Chatwins, the way Quentin, even now, is finding it hard to budge on his initial stance. And it’s not like Eliot doesn’t regret what happened, it’s not like he wouldn’t do anything in the world to take it all back, given what’s happened in the aftermath, but at the same time…

“The Chatwins held a meeting today,” Quentin says on one of his visits, day ten of Eliot’s imprisonment. “I guess they needed to gather their strength after putting the new protections in place.” There, a tiny spark of reproof, reminding Eliot of another consequence of his folly.

Eliot nods, and doesn’t take the miniscule bait. “What did they say?”

“They want us to stay in the castle unless specifically ordered outside.”

This makes Eliot sit up a little straighter, stare at Quentin with renewed intensity. “What?”

“They’re worried about their people,” Quentin says, answering maybe a bit too quickly, like he has a reason to be defensive.

“All their people living in the castle, you mean. They seem a little less worried about the people outside the inner sanctum.”

Even as Eliot says the words, he wishes he could take them back. They stare at each other in mutually shocked silence. The first harsh words Eliot has spoken to Quentin since his imprisonment. The first sign of anything approaching defiance.

“The inner sanctum,” Quentin repeats, hollow. “You mean the inner sanctum that’s a hell of a lot smaller now, because of you?”

Eliot, amazingly, doesn’t cringe back from these harsh, undeniably accurate words. There’s a thread of something unnamable running through the bond, some urging that they’re both feeling in tandem. Draw the poison out of the wound. It’s the only way it’ll ever heal.

“Yes, that would be the one,” he says, carefully.

“They do their best,” Quentin says. “I’ve never said they were perfect, but—”

“But even before I fucked everything up, they left thousands of their own citizens out in the cold, to perish at the Beast’s whims,” Eliot says.

“You never once cared about that until Margo showed up and started whispering in your ear.”

“You hear yourself, right?” Eliot says. “That’s supposed to be a good thing? That I ignored other people’s suffering for years on end? Margo was—whatever else you can say about her, she wasn’t wrong, Q. The Chatwins have never done enough to protect—”

“They do what they can.”

“And to what end? To hold onto their seat of power at any cost?”

“You’d rather the Beast be in charge of things, then? Going to run off and join Margo on her mission?”

Eliot opens his mouth to snap back, then sees the glittering of Quentin’s eyes in the low light, the building tears. He’s sitting on the other side of the bars like he does most days when he comes to check in on his treasonous soulmate. So generous, to be here. To not give up on him, no matter what.

Why can’t Eliot just be grateful for that, and fuck the rest of it?

(Why can’t Quentin understand that not everything is black and white?)

“Q, the king and queen risk the lives of their own people every day, just to maintain their power. I cannot sit here and pretend that’s alright with me anymore. I’ve woken up.”

“And I’m still asleep,” Quentin says. He blinks, and a single tear rolls down his cheek. “That’s what you think.”

“I think you’re not willing to see what’s right in front of you, because it’s scary and it changes everything—”

“I’ve dealt with plenty of change over the past few days, El. Let’s not pretend I’m some fragile little idiot—”

“I’d never say that,” Eliot cuts him off. “I’d never even think it, and you know that.”

“And yet you walked out on me,” Quentin says, tears streaming down his face in earnest now. Eliot is in agony, knowing himself to be the source of his soulmate’s pain.

“I would never,” Eliot says. “Q, can’t you understand… why don’t you understand—”

“I do understand,” Quentin says. “That’s the whole problem. You liked her, you… you wanted to help her more than you wanted—”

“This isn’t even about Margo! I—yes, she’s been hurt, she’s been cast off by a family who doesn’t want her, she—”

“I get it, you identify with her,” Quentin says. “You think I don’t… I loved that for you, I loved that you had her, and I wasn’t suggesting throw her to the wolves—”

“The Beast fucking killed her family, Q!” Eliot says. “And if he’s doing that to random outcast Magicians who have only the most tangential relationship to Whitespire, what happens if he finds a way to get closer, huh? You know my history, what happens if he wants to finish what he started all those years ago, if he—if he goes after the people I love?”

Quentin blinks at him, and Eliot can feel the struggle inside of him, the anger and grief and burgeoning understanding.

“Q, if something happens to you, I don’t survive that. You know that. You know that if I’d had any idea that the Beast would—”

“I didn’t know the transport spell was going to hurt us like that,” Quentin interrupts, his voice very small. “I was desperate and everything was moving really fast, but I’d never. I’d never—”

“I know,” Eliot says, even though he hadn’t known, hadn’t been sure mere days ago, as impossible as it sounds now. “Fuck, I know, but you scared me. Gods, Q, I’ve never been so terrified in all my life.”

“You fucked up,” Quentin says, almost like he needs to remind himself.

“Yes, I did,” Eliot says, simply.

“You were so scared about me getting hurt, and what you did put me at risk. What you did nearly got me killed.”

Eliot stares at him, baldly accepting of this reality. He’s not even bothering to hide the fact that Quentin’s words are killing him, that he feels every one as a separate stab to the gut. He lets it all spill out of the bond. He wants to hide it, to spare him an echo of the pain, but he’s not hiding anything from Quentin. He’s been asked for honesty, and he’ll give it as much as he possibly can.

“So where do we go from here, then?” he asks. “Are you going to be angry with me forever?”

Quentin looks at him, like he’s seriously considering his answer.

“I think…” he says after a while, “that I’ll probably be angry for a very long time.” He swallows, gives Eliot a tight smile, like maybe that will make the words hurt less. “But not necessarily at you.”

Eliot huffs out a breath, nowhere near a laugh. “I don’t really know what that means.”

Quentin shrugs. “My mind is a mystery even to myself. You know that.”

And that’s it.

They have landed at an impasse, and it’s an impasse they can both survive. There is love within it, and compassion, and respect, but also lingering pain and uncertainty as to the best road forward.

Eliot is in limbo, a captive at the whims of his sovereign lords. Quentin is his soulmate, permitted visitation. They carry on, make something predictable and survivable out of the rubble of catastrophe. Both of them eager for and dreading further change, all at the same time.

The bond sings true and whole between them. Any remaining tension is entirely of the mundane, if no less devastating, variety.