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Firsts, Seconds, Thirds, Etc.

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The first time they kiss, or the second time, or the third or seventh(?) or twelfth(?) — or the second-first time, some unclear number they’ve designated a fresh start —

(Because the real first time, that night they don’t talk about directly, was also the second and third and fourth time, the nth, the et-cetera-th, god, there had been a lot of kissing. Q had loudly, wordlessly demanded there be a lot of kissing.)

— it’s their anniversary.

Eliot, for his part, is planning to get good and drunk on the rhubarb wine they found at the market just for tonight. It tastes like hell (he suspects he could do better himself, given some time) but it serves its purpose well enough as long as you can accustom yourself to the flavor in order to drink in sufficient volume. Eliot is nothing if not determined in the pursuit of hedonism. He can say that much for himself, at least.

So they’re huddled on the quilt laid flat on the mosaic, cups in their hands, when Quentin suddenly sets his down and says, “Hey.”

And Eliot says, “Hey.”

And later Eliot tries to tell himself that it all just happens so fast, that it’s a bit of a blur, really, but it isn’t. He’s barely had any of the wine, they haven’t even made it through their first cups of it, when Quentin presses his mouth to Eliot’s, quick but careful, the way you touch any skittish thing, gentle and sure and brief so as not to overwhelm it.

It’s overwhelming all the same.

Eliot forgets his wine. It tastes better on Quentin’s mouth, anyway.

And, well, it does happen fast, only it happens with this stark certainty in his head, frame by frame like a spool of film, every image captured and catalogued. He couldn’t distort it if he tried. And now he’s huddled on Quentin laid flat on the mosaic, their clothes unfastened or shoved aside or discarded entirely, skin pressed to hot skin. Eliot is out of his mind, a little, his insides light and tender like he’s pleasantly high, and he can barely remember what words mean except for the ones — El, god, Eliot — that Quentin is gasping into his ear. Hand in hair, hands on hips. Eliot’s hand moving between them. Quentin’s mouth sliding over whatever he can reach, sucking at sweating skin, teeth in Eliot’s neck or ear or shoulder when he twists his wrist; shock of shocks, he’s got an oral fixation.

Holding each other, after, over the blanket and under the stars, torchlight painting them soft and shadowed. Chiaroscuro, Eliot thinks, watching the dusky darkness pool in the lines of Quentin’s body, lapping at his skin like gentle waves. And they kiss again, second-second, and second-third, and second-et-cetera times, bare skin swathed in the sultry night air.

So. That is, if not the true start of it, if not the point of origin for the necessary context, at least a good place to pick up in the middle.

~

He tells Quentin not to overthink it, because it’s all he can think to say, or because he loves to talk to brick walls, or because he’s a hypocrite. Possibly all three. Possibly he’s just hoping to salt the earth before there’s anything yet to burn.

Possibly.

Sue him if he’s had enough pain, if he wants to contain the inevitable everything-up-in-fucking-smoke inferno.

And Quentin has never once taken the safer path in the time Eliot’s known him, not since he stumbled ass backwards out into the sun and immediately tried to summon the dead because a pretty girl told him to. He’s going to argue, it’s right there in the turned-down edges of his mouth, of his eyes, but he — stops. Before he starts.

Eliot lets out a breath. And they return to the task at hand.

“Only,” Quentin starts, later, minutes later. Long enough that Eliot looks up at him, confused. Only? “Um, I don’t think I am. Overthinking it,” Quentin clarifies.

Eliot raises his eyebrows.

“Shut up,” says Quentin, “I know how that sounds. But really, for once I’m not overthinking this. Just, like, regular-thinking it.”

“Regular-thinking it,” Eliot drawls. He’s familiar with Q-Speak, of course, but this is a new one. Probably because it’s an entirely new concept for Quentin. “Okay. And what are you regular-thinking?”

Q shrugs. “I’m thinking... I like this. Whatever it is. This thing that you don’t wanna overthink. It’s good.” His hands flutter haphazardly about, an odd-angled gesture toward the scope of the thing and then he sets them down with finality, like that’s that. Like he’s outlined a hypothesis and a conclusion and a suggested course of action, all in that one stilted non-explanation.

It’s good, Q says (god, it’s good), and Eliot doesn’t know if he means the sex or the companionship or the conversation or the pattern they’re laying out, which is inspired by a painting Quentin saw one time and explained very poorly, waving his hands as if to illustrate it in the air before catching sight of Eliot’s expression and giving up so now they’re just kind of letting the tiles fall where they may. So, alright, Eliot does know what he means, because this pattern is nonsense, and this conversation? Is going down about as smooth as a straight boy who keeps forgetting to cover his teeth. It’s making Eliot feel twitchy. Fine, then. He knows what Q means. But he’d really like to pretend he doesn’t.

“A glowing review,” Eliot says airily. “I’ll be sure to clip that one out for the corkboard.”

Quentin rolls his eyes, but the corners of his mouth quirk up, and he returns to placing yellow tiles next to blue, looking pleased with the way they’ve settled things. Eliot wishes he knew what, exactly, they’ve settled.

~

Quentin is acting… strange.

Which is to say, he isn’t, particularly. God knows he should be. They’re in a hell of a strange situation; it would only make good sense to act accordingly. And they both have been, mostly, irritable and short-tempered over small things, sharing Eliot’s flask until they’re so sick of the taste of gin they can’t even look at the damn thing, cohabitating like a pair of sandpapered cats who are exceedingly fond of each other but are, nevertheless, cats who have been sandpapered. There are days when they’ll pick something stupid to argue over just for something new to do. They’re about due for one of those days soon.

Only it doesn’t feel like they are. Quentin has been in a bizarrely good mood lately.

Dinner burns beyond the point of salvation and Quentin sighs and shrugs and says they needed a new pot anyway. A stack of tiles falls and shatters and he gathers up the azure fragments without complaint, unsettlingly gentle where he should be frustrated. Eliot needles him and he laughs and needles back, the way he used to, the way they used to, before they stepped through a clock and found themselves with no space between them and nothing but space all around.

Eliot’s considering bugging him on purpose in the name of experimentation. Well… alright, so he’s already done that. So that stack of tiles didn’t topple over by itself. So he watched Quentin mend them each, one after another, fingers brushing over their edges with the comfortable certainty that comes only from practice. So he thought, dry mouthed, about how those fingers felt against his skin. How they would feel between his, for one fleeting, shameful, wondering moment. God help him if his illicit fantasies should warrant any rating below a PG-13; really, what has his life come to.

And Quentin sat there on the ground and touched each tile gently, pulling the pieces together into whole unbroken things, sealing the seams with a swipe of his thumb so no one would ever know that they had once been parted. A pile of perfect blue. And Eliot sat and stared the whole time, unaccountably entranced, not once offering to help. It wasn’t until afterward that he realized Quentin probably should’ve complained about that. Probably would’ve, a week ago.

All their problems aren’t solved; of course they’re not. The roof leaks and the bed creaks and Eliot would do truly terrible things just to hear Margo’s voice again, just for a moment. He’d commit acts of violence for it. He’d cut off a finger. He’d wear a lime velour tracksuit every single day until the zipper fell off, until he lost his mind, until the world froze and flooded and rose anew and they had solved this fucking puzzle and he could see her again. She’d wring his neck for wearing something so fucking ugly and he’d cry from joy.

It doesn’t… hurt quite as much, though. To think about. If he were here alone — well, he doesn’t really want to think about if he were here alone. And he doesn’t have to.

Quentin pressed the mended tiles into his hands and they stacked them back up together, wordlessly, in two shorter pillars this time so they’d be more stable.

And sometimes one of them says, “Do you ever...” and trails off there, not knowing how to finish, and not really needing to anyway. The answer is always yes.

~

It’s a hot, dry day, so they head down to the river to wash their linens and soak their skins. It’s been a while since they did laundry properly and, sure, cleaning spells are all well and good, but they just aren’t quite the same. Once, twice, three times in a row is fine. Make it to a dozen and you’ll find there’s a certain depth of funk that magic just doesn’t penetrate. They’re really going to have to come up with a better laundry system sometime soon, but until then the river will do.

Quentin’s careful hands scrub soap into their sheets and Eliot doesn’t think at all of how they must smell of sweat. How he’s lain on those sheets and — and not thought at all about a lot of things, perspiration rising on his skin, how Q has certainly done the same, how all that is bleeding through Quentin’s fingers and rushing downstream as they wade here in the shallows, clothes rolled up to their knees and elbows. Eliot doesn’t think about anything.

He takes the sheets when they’re clean, strings them up to dry in the sunshine. They’ll smell of clean herbs and wind and one of those fresh linen scented candles you find in the home goods section of a department store. Socks join them on the laundry line, and then pants, shirts, et cetera et cetera until they’re both stripped bare, efficient and businesslike. There isn’t an ounce of romance to it, they’re just hanging up the washing.

But still.

“Hey,” says Quentin. Eliot turns away from where he’s carefully arranging his vest to find Q has already wandered out, waist deep in the water, smiling up at him lopsidedly. Eliot lets his eyes trace the shape of him, softly distorted by the running water. Skinny dipping on laundry days isn’t new but it’s always a lovely picture to take in.

Quentin crosses his arms, apparently impatient. “What’s the point of going swimming if I can’t splash water in your face? Get in here.”

Well. The man has a point. Eliot complies, wading out to where he stands and looming pointedly over him. “Happy?”

Quentin steps toward him, inching in ‘til the tips of his toes brush Eliot’s. “Very.” It’s like an odd trick of perspective, standing this close to him. Things in the distance look smaller, that’s the rule, but Q is close enough to feel his breath, the warmth of the water surrounding his skin, and he seems smaller than he ever has. Well, at least since the early days of their acquaintance, when he might shrivel if you looked at him too hard. He’s learned to take up space since then, since they met, since he learned about magic, since Fillory and questing and getting their asses handed to them regularly by whatever accident of fate is threatening them this week. Since they came here.

This is a different sort of small, though. Not a frightened, prey animal thing. It’s a comfortable thing, his head the right height to rest a chin, a tuck-you-under-my-arm, fold-you-up-warm-against-me thing. Sturdy bones, right angles, soft edges.

Eliot feels gracelessly, clumsily large before him. He wants to apologize, though he doesn’t know for what. “What are you gonna do,” he asks instead, “now that you’ve revealed your evil plan prematurely?”

“Hmm?” Q’s grin falters for a second in confusion. Eliot watches his dimples fade, the wrinkle of his brow replacing them.

“The splashing. You’re supposed to catch me by surprise, that’s how it works.”

“Oh.” The dimples come back in full force, accompanied by a gleam in his eye. “I think I can still surprise you.” He snakes his arms around Eliot’s neck and — does nothing. Just holds him there, gentle, like he’s satisfied just with the touch, the closeness. There’s no anticipation here, no artifice. Just Quentin, naked and unabashed, and Eliot, feeling like his skin is splitting open, like the bones of him are peeking through. Like he could die of this.

He might.

He swallows hard, his stomach twisting. “How...” he clears his throat. “How do you intend to do that?”

Quentin blinks, that gleam going out, confusion returning for just a breath of a second. It’s so easy to see the light shift in his eyes, this close. Eliot couldn’t miss it if he tried. Then it shifts again, and the grin is back, and — ah, fuck — Quentin hooks a leg around the backs of his knees and sends him toppling into the water.

Eliot finds his bearings and stands again, shaking the water from his hair. He looks down at Quentin, who has taken up a leisurely backfloat, drifting in the gentle current. “I hope you know this means war,” he says gravely.

Quentin spits a stream of water at him.

Bastard.

~

A-year-and-a-couple-of-weeks into the quest, Quentin breaks out the rhubarb wine. They never finished it that night, too wrapped up in each other to remember anything else. So Quentin uncorks it again one breezy evening, shrugging nonchalantly when Eliot asks the occasion. It’s not a very convincing nonchalance, but Eliot can humor him. He considers humoring Quentin to be one of his skills at this point.

“Maybe I just feel like a drink,” says Quentin.

Eliot raises an eyebrow. “Well, enjoy,” he replies. He moves as if to stand.

Quentin rolls his eyes and drags him back down by the belt loop. “Maybe I feel like sharing, too.”

“Oh, well, in that case.”

The wine isn’t any better the second time around, but they manage to drink significantly more of it anyway. The difference, Eliot thinks, is owed mostly to Quentin’s unusual reservation. He sits across the quilt from him, quiet, dark eyes roaming Eliot’s face like they’re searching for something. By this time on their anniversary Q had already-

“What are you so afraid of?” Quentin blurts.

Eliot blinks, startled. “What? What are you-”

“Nothing, I just-”

They both fall silent.

“Never mind,” says Quentin. “Show, don’t tell, right?”

“Sure,” Eliot agrees, completely baffled.

The confusion must show on his face, because Quentin just grins like something is funny and scoots closer. “Don’t worry about it,” he says. He leans into Eliot’s side, the line of his body molding to Eliot’s. The lines between them blurring. “Don’t worry about anything.”

So… he doesn’t. They return to silence, but it’s a sweeter silence now, wine-warmed and close to each other. They break it now and again with idle chatter, more an excuse to hear each other’s quiet voices than anything else. Quentin speaks slowly, his head resting on Eliot’s shoulder, and Eliot feels every word in his bones.

“You remember the last time we were sitting here like this,” Quentin says. "Our anniversary."

Eliot tenses. Quentin doesn’t move, doesn’t speak, doesn’t even acknowledge the change in atmosphere. Eliot forces himself to relax. “Well, it wasn’t that long ago,” he points out. “I’d be hard-pressed to forget so quickly.”

“Right,” says Quentin, shifting slightly against him. One hand comes to rest on Eliot’s knee, light and heavy all at once. He just… sets it there, calmly. As if that’s where it belongs.

Eliot clears his throat. “Why? Are you, uh. Regular-thinking it again?”

“Oh, I regular-think about it regularly.”

Eliot snorts despite himself. “That’s good to know.”

“It’s good to think about.”

Oh. That’s. Eliot’s throat is very dry, suddenly. He reaches for his cup and downs what’s left of its contents. Quentin shifts away from the movement of his arm, sitting back to look at him with those same dark, searching eyes from earlier. Eliot thinks he’s getting a better idea of what it is they’re looking for. “Is it now,” he murmurs, angling himself toward Quentin. He lets his posture loosen, lets a hint of heat seep into his eyes. By all imaginable estimates, Q is going to kill him. But he can at least make the most of it.

And Quentin just… smiles. Softly. Like he’s not taken in at all, but he doesn’t really need to be. Like he already wants to be here. “Very.”

Very. "And when you think about it," he says, tucking a lock of hair behind Quentin's ear, letting his touch linger just a moment longer than necessary, "What. Exactly. Captures your attention?"

Quentin's breath catches. There we go. "I don't know," he says. "It's… a little fuzzy. My, uh, my memory's not as good as yours."

"Oh, no?" Eliot can feel his pulse in his throat. This is nothing, really, they've hardly even touched, he has no business feeling this intoxicated on rhubarb wine and a little coquetry. But they're so close, to each other, to something Eliot has been trying not to name. If you name it, he knows, you get attached.

"Maybe you could, um." Quentin's eyes drop to his mouth. "Remind me."

“Well, if you think it would help,” Eliot drawls, leaning in close with half a rakish grin that says you can play this off if you need to, that says play this off because I might need you to, and a shuddering heartbeat that says please don’t, please don’t, please don’t.

And whether or not Quentin hears what he isn’t saying (and Eliot can never tell; he’s a puzzling little pendulum that swings between oblivious and frighteningly perceptive without warning), he gleans whatever meaning he needs to and presses forward, lips to Eliot’s lips.

Please, please, please. Please don’t.

Quentin breaks the kiss after only a moment, swinging back as suddenly as he did forth. “Was that,” he says, and then swallows hard. “Was that okay?”

Eliot doesn’t really have the words to bridge the bottomless chasm between okay and the way he feels about Q’s soft-scratchy mouth on his — in either direction. So he doesn’t try. Instead he retreats to the more familiar territory of deadpan drollery. “‘Was that okay,’ he asks, ‘was that okay,’ as if I haven’t been trying to get a piece since he stumbled into my life with all the grace of a knock-kneed colt.” Eliot rolls his eyes skyward, spreading his hands grandly for the benefit of some invisible audience to his incredulity.

“Just a piece?” Quentin asks, and Eliot nearly startles at the way his voice is- it’s almost- husky, and then again when he meets his dark, unblinking eyes. They flicker softly in the torchlight, fixed on his.

Eliot swallows. “How much are you offering?” he asks lightly.

“How much are you willing to take?”

And oh, he’s been a terrible influence, apparently, and he almost manages to spare a moment to feel proud — how adorably, delectably forward — before he is reaching helplessly for Quentin, hands grasping before they know where they’ve landed, clumsy and craving, and then Q’s mouth is opening hot and hungry against his and he doesn’t have room for doubt now, not when Q’s tongue is running over the roof of his mouth, wiping his mind clean, a blank slate. Not when he is empty of everything but sensation too large to contain.

God, he’s a mess for him. Like he’s kissing a boy for the first time all over again.

Quentin must not mind, though, because he pushes up against Eliot’s chest so enthusiastically that Eliot finds himself toppling onto his back, unsure whether that was Quentin’s intention or just the happenstance of graceless desire. Q crawls up over him, knees bracketing his hips, and looks down with achingly open eyes. His fingers pet at Eliot’s stubble, deadly tender, like he knows how Eliot needs. Like he needs too.

Needs and needs and needs.

And here it is: the answer to Quentin’s question. Here is what he’s so afraid of. He is giving too much of himself, he is certain, to recover from this. Q is cupping Eliot’s jaw in his hand but he might as well be holding his liver, his stomach, his lungs. Might as well be reaching up under his ribcage with that terrible, gentle hand, running his fingers through his goddamn viscera, parting his- his ventricles-

Eliot wants to scream, wants to run, wants to sob. He wants to pull Quentin down against his chest and beg him never to leave. I couldn’t afford it, you see. Too much of me would go with you.

He does pull Quentin down to his chest, or he makes a motion to do so and Quentin follows it easily, like bringing his mouth to Eliot’s is natural, inevitable, inexorable, like he’s never considered there may be another reason they both have the necessary parts for it. Quentin kisses him, and Eliot drowns.

“I think there was some discussion of,” Q mumbles into his skin a minute later. “Mm. Of ‘getting a piece.’”

Eliot is fucking lightheaded. He’s a goddamn helium balloon, full to bursting. “And which piece were you thinking,” he asks, voice only slightly less unsteady than the rest of him.

Quentin takes his hands, one from his hair and one from his back, sitting up astride him. He pulls Eliot’s hands to his shoulders, drags them down his chest, his stomach, around his hips, brings them to rest on his ass. “Take your pick.”

Jesus fucking Christ.

“Jesus fucking Christ, Q,” he says, apparently having lost control of his brain-to-mouth filter. “Holy hell. Who are you? Where did my sweet, guileless nerd go?”

Quentin shrugs. “He’s busy tonight. Or he’s trying to be, anyway, if you would be a little less difficult about it-”

“Shut up,” Eliot says, stop talking stop talking the more I want you the more dear you are to me the more it will hurt later, and uses his grip on Q’s ass to drag their hips together.

And then Q does shut up, or at least becomes a lot less coherent. It’s all the same to Eliot, really.

Or it will be, in the morning.

~

The first time (the second time) Quentin wakes up to find Eliot naked in bed beside him —

(Because he’s woken to find him naked on the mosaic, and he’s woken with him in bed fully clothed, and he’s woken beside him naked in bed the first time (the first time), and he’s spent more time and less effort than he knows how to quantify being as close to Eliot as possible — no effort at all, really, because with the two of them closeness is always, always effortless.)

— he finds himself staring. Smiling. Eliot’s face is soft in sleep, slack at all the points where tension is usually held, and Quentin wants, deliriously, to kiss each one in turn. To memorize him at peace.

(He doesn’t think of the first time. He will remember it later, two more bodies in bed, one curled up behind Eliot and another sitting stiffly at his feet, waiting. The memory will feel distant, and it will no longer be tinged with hurt. Just the soft sepia edges of things past. Huh, he will think.)

Quentin brushes his lips against Eliot’s chin, just lightly, not wanting to disturb his sleep, and folds himself into the crook of his arm. He thinks, this is good. He thinks, this is how it should always feel. He thinks, how did I go so long not knowing?

He shuts his eyes, pressing his smile to Eliot's skin. He goes back to sleep.