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Maybe This Time

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"Quentin Coldwater?" Eliot says, twisting the name up in his mouth like an insult.

Give him a break - it's a weird fucking name, for one thing. And besides, the off-putting demeanor is an intentional scare tactic.

Making nice with prospective new first years isn't exactly his favorite activity in the world, so Eliot finds ways to entertain himself on the rare occasions when he’s made to interact with someone who might not be sticking around. He likes to discomfit the nervous little things, get 'em all riled up before they go to take the test. It's not cruel, Eliot tells himself. Not unduly so, anyway. It's not like it matters much. If they're too weak to take the pressure, they'll fail and forget about him anyway. And if they're strong enough to get into Brakebills, they're certainly strong enough to put up with a bit of hazing.

This one, for example, is stuttering and stumbling and so very clearly lost, and Eliot almost writes him off before he even gets a good look at him.

But he does get a good look, after all, and finds himself suddenly hoping the kid makes it through. God, the things he could do with that mouth…

“I’m Eliot. You’re late.”

~~~~~

Back at the Physical Kids’ Cottage, Eliot finds Margo attempting to do Sunderland’s first homework assignment of the year, while visibly and incredibly stoned.

And by ‘attempting to do Sunderland’s homework,’ Eliot means ‘has a textbook open next to her on the couch.’ A for Effort. It’s only the first week of classes; Eliot doubts if he’ll be cracking the spine on a book until the week before midterms.

“El!” she says, way too excited to see him, her eyes wide and her mouth cracking into a wide smile. “Eliot’s back!”

“Eliot’s back,” he agrees, flopping down next to her on their favorite cushy loveseat and accepting a wet smacking kiss against his cheekbone. “And Bambi’s blazed.”

“Hoberman made brownies.”

Ugh. “Those things make you sick,” he reminds her, bopping her on the nose in admonishment. He’s practically sitting on her textbook, and he nudges it carelessly with his knee until it flops over onto the floor.

“They made me sick that one time,” Margo says, frowning at him. “You’re sober, that’s boring, go eat a brownie.”

“I’m trying to watch my figure,” Eliot says with an eye-roll. He’ll probably end up eating one the next time he wanders into the kitchen, but for now he’s content to lounge against the armrest with Margo leaning into him, watching as she giggles at nothing and stares with blank eyes all around the room like she’s never seen it before. Josh Hoberman’s shit is potent, even for a couple of experts like Eliot and Margo. It’s the middle of the day, it’s perfect weather outside as always, and the Cottage is deserted - just a little bubble of paradise for two.

“Oh!” Margo says suddenly, sitting up straight and turning to look at him with a gasp. “How was the little baby first year?”

Eliot shrugs, but he feels a smile tug at the corner of his mouth, an automatic reaction he doesn’t feel like fighting. “Cute.”

“Did you fuck him?”

“Bambi, I was only gone for like half an hour.”

“So you’re getting rusty,” she says. Because Margo, even when wide-eyed and dopey and high as a kite, is still annoyingly quick.

“It’s likely a moot point, I’m afraid to say,” Eliot says with a performatively dramatic sigh. “I doubt the poor thing makes the cut.”

“Aww you look wistful. How cute is cute?”

“Cute enough to remember,” Eliot says, with a raise of an eyebrow. That says it all, and Margo nods at him, solemn in the face of such a serious topic of discussion.

“Well maybe he’ll surprise you. You need someone to get you out of your rut.”

Eliot darts a quick glance around the room to make sure they really are still alone, and then sighs, raising an arm so Margo can snuggle more fully into his side. She’s right, but she shouldn’t say it.

Eliot’s been having - a strange couple of months. It didn’t help that the collection of third years that he had been occasionally fucking had graduated and vanished to wherever it was people went when they finished magical grad school. And then most everyone else had left for the break, leaving the Cottage in a state of near abandonment. He’d exchanged a couple of uninspired fucks with this Natural student named Seth, one of the only people he knew who’d stayed on campus for the whole break, but… that was honestly just two extremely bored people looking to get off, and they both knew it. It’s been a couple of weeks since he’s even bothered swinging by the dumb hippy treehouse where the Natural Kids live. The pickings have been slim recently, that’s all.

That’s not all.

Eliot Waugh, self-proclaimed hedonist and lover of leisure... is restless. It’s been driving him slowly mad during the long hot months of summer. He’s supposed to enjoy the nothing of it all, but he can’t quite manage it for some aggravatingly unclear reason.

“Maybe,” Eliot says. “Maybe Quentin Coldwater has arrived to save me from the slow death of boredom. Or if not him, some other baby magician. I’m getting desperate.”

“Quentin Coldwater?” Margo sputters out a laugh, repeating the name in much the same way Eliot had said it to Quentin. “That’s his name? The poor guy’s already got a lot working against him, doesn’t he?”

“You shouldn’t make fun, it’s unbecoming a lady,” he tells her, and then smiles into her hair when she giggle-snorts and scoots back into him, pressing her cheek against his collarbone.

And yet even here with Margo curled against him, there’s a hint of unwelcome ennui stirring low in his gut. Eliot has been having this feeling, the feeling where you’re sure you’ve forgotten to do something, left something important behind, and it’s getting worse and worse as the weeks go on. There’s an unsettled atmosphere to the air, like Brakebills itself is holding its breath in anticipation of something. But - of what? He knows, despite the fact that they’ve never really talked about it, that Margo is feeling it too. Despite her reputation, it isn’t actually typical to find her stoned out of her mind in the middle of a Monday afternoon. Unlike Eliot, she almost always attends all of her classes.

“Why did Fogg pick you to fetch him, do you think?” Margo asks, tilting away from him for a moment to scoop her textbook up from the floor. She snaps it shut on the crinkled pages and tosses it towards the coffee table. She is, as has been established, high as shit, though, so she misjudges the distance. Eliot catches the corner of the book with his telekinesis and nudges it up through the air to thud gently on the surface of the table, where it sits, an ugly reminder of schoolwork and responsibility on the otherwise bare surface.

“He wanted to fuck with me?” Eliot says, shrugging broadly as Margo wiggles back against him.

Fogg’s an odd duck, and for all that he clearly doesn’t think much of Eliot, he’s also been noticeably… around, the past couple of days. Earlier that week, he’d stopped Eliot out on the Sea to ask how his summer was, and if he’s considered taking on any independent study for his second year at Brakebills. Innocuous chit-chat, sure, but strange coming from a man who hadn’t given Eliot the time of day during his entire first year on campus. Hell, maybe Fogg gets lonely, too. It’s a thought. The Dean had come around to the Cottage yesterday, which is practically unheard of and definitely annoying, and had declared in no uncertain terms that Eliot was to meet a new prospective student and guide him to his exam.

It hadn’t felt worth it to argue. Boredom made you do strange things.

“You’re not exactly the logical person for the job,” Margo says. Which is true. And a compliment, thank you very much. The faculty has no reason to want Eliot Waugh to be the face of their organization, the first impression on the impressionable.

And for that matter, Eliot has no desire to be the Brakebills Poster Boy. He wants to throw insane parties and learn all the different types of sex magic, wants to go to class just enough to graduate, and most of all, wants to learn how to control the power inside of him, as an alternative to letting it fester and turn to darkness in his soul. (Damn, maybe he does need one of those brownies).

Long story short, Eliot is not the type of guy you bring home to mom and dad, or, as the case may be, put forward as an exemplar of Brakebills’ dedication to academic excellence. And yet, Fogg had been insistent that Eliot be the one to meet the new guy.

“Maybe he’s trying to be my wingman,” Eliot suggests. “Give me a shot with a promising hookup prospect before anyone else discovers him.” (It had been Eliot’s own idea, of course, to lounge on the Brakebills sign like the goddamn snack that he knows he is, lying back to present the long lines of his body to their best advantage. Just in case the new arrival was worth impressing).

Margo giggles again, more than the joke deserves. “That does sound like Dean Henry Fogg. He’s a bro like that.”

Eliot joins Margo in a cackling laugh, allowing her good spirits to infuse his own mood. Margo is a healing balm, as always. The generalized unease he’s felt for weeks now is no match for this particular beautiful woman in his arms, the one who knows him better than anyone and loves him anyway.

This, right here, is all he really needs.

~~~~~

Quentin Coldwater passes his exam. Eliot is probably more excited about it than he should be. But honestly, a criminally adorable new boy to show around campus and teach the ways of the magical world is exactly what the doctor ordered to get him out of his funk.

"He's not that cute," Margo says when she meets Quentin, and Eliot rolls his eyes, exasperated.

He's surprised to notice a twinge of actual embarrassment pinging through his chest. He finds that he doesn't want Quentin Coldwater to know that he ran and told Margo that he thought he was cute - it makes him seem kind of pathetic, like he's got a crush.

Which he does not. Obviously.

But he likes Quentin. He likes him automatically, as a matter of course. There's a natural affinity there, and Eliot already knows that he wants him around. And besides, Quentin comes equipped with Best Friend Julia Wicker, who seems like the kind of person he and Margo will both enjoy. She’s nearly as quick-witted as Margo, but kinder, which is something Eliot can admit he needs a little more of in his life.

He and Margo don't make a habit of befriending people; usually any polite conversation is a prelude to a decision regarding sexual prospects. But he doesn't think Margo's angling to fuck Julia. Or Quentin, of course, but that might be because Eliot has most certainly called dibs. And to be honest, as classes get under way and the campus fills back up around them, Eliot isn’t feeling any urgency on the Quentin matter. He’s not actually angling for a quick fuck, precisely. He finds himself wanting to draw this one out a little. Quentin seems skittish, for one thing, and it wouldn’t do to blow his chance by coming on too strong.

Eliot is in luck, as it turns out. It’s only a week into the semester when Quentin gets assigned to the Physical Kids’ Cottage, along with other first year Physical Kids Kady Orloff-Diaz and the legacy Alice Quinn. Attachés to these new arrivals include Julia Wicker, who’s a Knowledge Student but who spends most of her free time with Quentin, and Penny Adiyodi, a Psychic who’s apparently already managed to hook up with Orloff-Diaz.

And now, instead of occasional glimpses of Quentin around campus, he gets to live in the same house with him, impress him with his wide array of customizable magical cocktails, and eventually cook him breakfast in the morning. (He’s working on it, okay?).

It surprises him one night, as he lounges in the living room with Margo, Quentin, and Julia, to find that he’s having a good time, doing just this part of it. The sitting around and joking and laughing with people, without ulterior motives. This is usually a Bambi-and-El activity, but it's nice to do it in a bigger group, too. There are other groups scattered around the Cottage, as well - from the corner of his eye, he can see Alice and Kady in conversation, while Penny lounges nearby, talking to Todd and a couple of other second-year students. It’s cozy. It’s uncomplicated. It’s… nice. He's allowed to have nice things, as Margo is always reminding him.

They're about three drinks in, discussing disciplines. Julia had been automatically placed in her discipline after her apparently astonishing entrance exam, while poor darling duckling Quentin had been marked "undecided" and shuffled off into a spare room of the Cottage. The best place on campus, Eliot rushes to assure him, because while Quentin’s dejected expression is cute as fuck, Eliot already hates seeing him like that.

Margo is sprawled across a cushy chair like the queen that she is, and Julia is curled up on one cushion of the love-seat closest to Margo. That leaves Eliot and Quentin together on the couch, and Eliot had taken the excuse a few minutes ago of pouring more drinks to scoot closer to Quentin, so they're practically sharing one cushion, leaving a broad expanse of couch empty to one side. It's not subtle. Eliot is comfortably buzzed and Quentin's cheeks are getting pink.

"The thing about Knowledge Students," Eliot confides to him in a mock whisper, shooting furtive glances in Julia's direction. "Is that they're all about free access and the dissemination of information. Which sounds all well and good on the surface, but in actuality, they’re a bunch of pretentious socialists. You don't want to let them get their claws into you."

"Oh, excellent advice," Quentin says, nodding solemnly back at him. Julia drops her jaw and gives a little hiccup of indignation.

"I'm pretentious?"

"You said it, not me," Eliot says, grinning at her. Margo cackles.

"You don't know us all that well yet," Julia says, pointing a finger at Eliot and flicking it over to Margo too, jabbing hard through the air. "But there's something important you should really know. The laziest of my detractors have sometimes labeled me pretentious, which is their way of saying they're intimidated by my intellectual prowess." She pauses and raises her eyebrows for emphasis before continuing on - "But even my staunchest enemies agree that I'm nothing compared to my friend Q over here. Ask him about the Fillory novels as compared to the Narnia ones, and the biblical allegories therein. You'll see what I mean."

Quentin tries to do the fake-indignant thing too, but then just shrugs, falling back against the couch and turning his face in Eliot's direction, smiling and rolling his eyes at himself. "It's true. I'm a complete intellectual snob, and I've decided to own it. The socialism too."

Margo smiles bright and happy at the both of them, and declares - "I think we're going to keep you."

Eliot thinks so too. Even if he doesn't get to fuck Quentin, he's pretty sure he wants to keep him.

For a while the conversation dissolves into a mock fight between Julia and Quentin about which niche interest is the most snobby, which undergraduate degree indicates the highest levels of collegiate douchery, and Eliot sits back and smiles, conducting a silent conversation with Margo over the tops of their heads. Margo is smiling at him, and it's 5% predatory, 95% genuine and excited. Oh, yeah. They're keeping these little cuties, for sure.

And then the conversation loops back around to the Fillory novels, and Eliot gives a groan and flops back into the couch, conveniently letting himself scoot inches closer to Quentin as he does so. Quentin doesn't pull away, which is lovely. The groan is performative, actually - he's okay with the conversation moving away from him for a while. He'll ride the waves of the lovely little high he's still coasting on from earlier that day, and get wine drunk on a Wednesday night with Margo and with his new friends. Perfection.

"Which book is your favorite?" Quentin's asking Margo, his eyes bright with excitement. Quentin and Julia had both lit up like Christmas Trees upon the discovery that their super cool new friend Margo is a secret nerd with a hard-on for Fillory or whatever the fuck, and Eliot is content to let the ebb and flow of conversation pass over him, enjoying the fact that these people he enjoys are enjoying things, even if he doesn't share in it.

He forgets to listen to Margo's response, because he's staring at Quentin. Oops. But he really can’t be blamed.

Because - like - damn - Quentin is the kind of attractive that sneaks up on you. The kind of hot that your eyes might pass over at first, because Quentin has perfected the art of hiding himself away from scrutiny, but once you catch on, once you realize... fuck. He has pretty eyes. They're warm and brown and they crinkle up into slits when he smiles, which doesn't happen too often, Eliot has noticed. He wants to make it happen more. He's got a broad chest, a compact frame, one he usually hides under layers, but Eliot can sense the strength of him resting beneath the flannel and the messenger bag that he wears around campus like armor. He's got the most perfect jawline Eliot has maybe ever seen. His fingers itch to touch it. He likes watching the way it stretches and bunches when he talks, the way he bites down on the bow of his bottom lip, chewing there like he's thinking about something important, like the pink of his mouth is candy, and god Eliot would kill for a taste of it -

"El?" Margo's voice sounds far too amused and Eliot snaps a suspicious look in her direction, pre-preemptively defensive. "What do you think?"

"Are we still talking about children's fantasy novels? Because my brain filters out irrelevant information to make room for more cocktail recipes."

“Okay, we officially can’t be friends,” Quentin says, and Eliot is amused to note that there is at least a part of him that’s serious about that. “You haven’t read the Fillory novels?”

“Not big on reading in general,” Eliot says. “I’m a goddamn genius, of course, but my brain doesn’t like the actual - reading part.”

He blinks at himself after he says this, because - why had he said that? He has just the slightest, teeniest tiniest bit of dyslexia, something nobody really knows other than Margo (stupid trials, dredging up smaller secrets before forcing the main course out of him). But he actually is a goddamn genius, thank you very much, and it’s none of Quentin’s business that he got diagnosed with anything as mundane as a learning disability back in his pre-magic, pre-Brakebills existence. He’s just trying to decide how to walk back that little confession when he catches the expression on Quentin’s face.

He looks earnestly regretful, like he’s worried he’s hurt Eliot’s feelings in some way. “Oh. Well, you know, there are audiobooks? You want to make sure you get the unabridged ones, though. Um. But I guess we’re not supposed to have like - technology here? But um. If you wanted. I mean, they’re good books. Great books. And if you wanted - ”

Oh, Christ. He’s so cute.

“You’re so cute,” Eliot says. Because, you know. He’s not not angling for something here.

Quentin blinks at him, his mouth falling open. “Oh. Um. Thank you?”

“You’re quite welcome.” He smiles his most winning smile at Quentin and does a mental victory dance when he sees Quentin’s pupils dilate in the muted light of the cozy evening. If Julia and Margo are still talking, he’s ceased to notice it. “So, what is it you like so much about Fillory?”

To his surprise, and somewhat to his displeasure, Quentin frowns at that, his eyes flicking down and to the side in uncertainty. “It’s okay, we’ve been talking about my dumb shit for a while now, you don’t have to indulge me.”

Huh. Well, that just won’t do. Anyone who has ever dismissed Quentin while he was talking about his interests should be drawn and quartered forthwith. “Quentin, darling, I don’t ask questions to which I am uninterested in an answer. Please believe me.”

Quentin blinks at him and smiles, a quiet, pleased thing. And he tells Eliot about Fillory, about how it saved his life. About the narrative of escape and earned responsibility that granted him permission to want things for his future, even at moments when that seemed almost impossible. Eliot does not give a single flying fuck about Fillory, or really any fantasy fiction he’s ever come across, but he finds himself enraptured all the same.

Later, when Margo gets up to fetch more booze, and Julia follows her to the drink cart, Eliot hardly notices them leave.

~~~~~

Mere weeks into the semester, Eliot is having trouble remembering what he’d done all of last year to keep himself occupied. It had been him and Margo against the rest of the world. They hadn’t bonded with a single other Brakebills student, really. Not beyond the manufactured affection that comes with booze and drugs and dance music and sex. In the harsh light of day, it had always come down to just the two of them, and he’d liked it that way.

Now, he finds himself suddenly with - friends. A friend group. He’s never had that before. Not in undergrad, beyond the tenuous bonds of the other theatre kids, which always dissolved as soon as a project was over, and certainly not in high school. It’s not just Margo, now. It’s not just Margo and Quentin, even. Julia goes where Quentin goes, and apparently Julia and Kady have become fast friends, and that means Penny’s always hanging around, and even Alice Quinn, although pricklier than most, has started joining them for drinks on occasion.

Of course, being friends with this particular batch of first years isn’t all sunshine and daisies. Mostly because a lot of them are huge fuckin’ nerds who need to be corralled away from their studies and be instructed to relax every once in a while. Eliot magnanimously offers this service to Quentin on a Saturday afternoon, just three short weeks into their acquaintance.

“We’re barbecuing,” Eliot says, looking down at Quentin in affronted distaste. “We’re barbecuing, outside in the magically-regulated perfection of late summer. I made cocktails. And Bambi is manning the grill. Womaning the grill, rather, as she would rightfully insist. And I, expert host that I am, have invited you. A great honor, in case you were somehow unaware. And you are just - declining said invitation?”

Quentin looks up from the heavy book in his lap, his eyes wild and distracted. “I’m busy.”

“It’s the third week of school, Quentin,” Eliot says. “How is it possible that you’re already behind on homework?”

Quentin looks like some sort of burrowing small mammal, all tucked up in oversized flannels, lodged firmly into a reading nook in a poorly lit corner of the Cottage. In addition to the book on his lap, he’s got two others spread out in the scant space on either side of him, and a notebook with scratchy, hasty handwriting wedged between his feet. “Lipson says that the entire class is proving to be a disappointment the likes of which she’s never encountered in all her years of teaching, with very few notable exceptions.” He blinks up at Eliot, owlish and panicked all at once. “And do you know who the notable exceptions are? Well, I’ll give you a hint. They’re not me. They’re Alice fucking Quinn and Julia fucking Wicker, and I’ve just - I’ve got to study, okay?”

The poor dear actually looks legitimately worried, and Eliot sighs, biting his lip and then nudging Quentin’s calf with his foot until he gets the idea and scoots over to make room for Eliot. Feeling daring, Eliot slides an arm around Quentin’s shoulder, delighting at the press of his anxious little body against his side. “Quentin. Lipson says that to every first year class. I’ve seen your magic, you’re going to be fine.”

“But - ”

“No buts. You’ve been inside all day. It’s gorgeous outside.”

“It’s always gorgeous outside,” Quentin mumbles, his eyes skittering briefly over Eliot’s face and then sliding back down to the dense block of text open on his lap.

“How would you know that if you’re never outside?”

“Smartass,” Quentin snaps, but he doesn’t protest when Eliot snatches the book away from him, slamming it closed and tossing it on top of the stack of yet more books at Quentin’s feet.

“Come outside with me, please.”

“Why do you care?” Quentin asks. It’s not a cruel thing, not the biting wit of banter, but a genuine inquiry, like the thought that Eliot might just enjoy his company is outside of his scope of possibility.

Ouch. That actually, legitimately, hurts Eliot’s heart a little bit. Quentin seems to have this strange idea that he’s not fun to be around, which is just… insane. Quentin’s one of the smartest, funniest people Eliot has ever met. And he’s barely gotten to know the guy. He can just sense that there’s more to uncover, more to peel away. And he wants to do the work of getting to it.

He also wants to bite him. A lot. All over. But that’s a different impulse, one he’s trying to regulate and suppress, until the time is right. It’s best to approach probably-straight boys with caution. A head-on proposition often goes sideways.

This is what Eliot is telling himself. It’s as good an excuse as any as to why he hasn’t manned up and pinned Quentin to the nearest flat surface already. He finds himself strangely reluctant to know for sure with him, one way or another. Living in the in between is better than a flat-out rejection.

He clears his throat and looks down into Quentin’s earnestly questioning expression, and schools his own face into a look of teasing solemnity. “I care because I made cocktails, and I want you to try one. You’ve proven excellent thus far about stroking my… ego.”

This, for the record, is true. Quentin has been vocally appreciative of everything Eliot has made for him to drink. But it’s not the real reason he wants Quentin to come outside. He just said it so he could appreciate the flush of red dusting across those gorgeous cheekbones. He stands, pulling Quentin with him, and gives himself the luxury of keeping his arm around Quentin’s shoulder all the way outside, where he passes the unsuspecting boy over to Margo for a lecture about the unsexyness of his hermit-like behavior.

“If you’re angling to catch the attention of the ladies, Quentin,” Margo scolds, “You can’t hide yourself away like a secret. It doesn’t matter how cute you are if nobody ever sees you.”

“Not just ladies,” Quentin says, flicking his eyes over to Eliot and then back to Margo. “I’m bi. For the record. In this - hypothetical scenario where I’m seeking companionship, of course.”

“Hypothetical?” Margo says, eyebrow raised. “Oh, please. You have needs to get fucked written all over your face.”

“I - what? I do not have - what does that even mean?” Quentin sputters, turning to look at Eliot for help. Eliot’s heart has started beating too fast, and it takes him a moment to unstick his jaw so he can answer.

“Don’t scare the child, Bambi,” he chides, continuing the teasing energy on auto-pilot as he hands a drink over to Quentin. So he’s bisexual. That’s an interesting piece of information. Not, strictly speaking, relevant, as Eliot has been prepared to make a move in any case. But just. Um. Nice to know.

“So we’re looking for sexual prospects beyond just women, then,” Margo muses, flipping a chicken breast over on the grill. “Noted.”

“We’re not looking for - ” Quentin protests, small bright spots appearing high on his cheekbones. “I don’t need you to find me…”

“You’ve been here three whole weeks and you haven’t even gotten laid once,” Margo says. It is, frankly, a tragedy. But Eliot can’t bring himself to join in with Margo’s ribbing. He’s trying to decide whether he’s annoyed with her for pushing the subject. She’s not an idiot. She knows he has designs on their new friend. She’s obviously trying to clear the path for him, test the waters, so to speak. As if Eliot needs help. As if Eliot isn’t a master at enticing young and willing men to his bed. As if Quentin wouldn’t be grateful for the opportunity.

Or something that sounds less conceited and sociopathic. Whatever.

“How would you know?” Quentin says, a feeble jab against Margo’s perfection. “If I’ve gotten laid or not?” His mouth twists up in distaste around the words, like he can’t bring himself to say them without irony. Quentin is probably one of those people that calls it making love. He probably likes missionary. He probably likes kissing while he’s fucking someone, soft hands and gentle endearments whispered against skin. He probably likes cuddling. He’d make an excellent little spoon, he’s practically begging for someone to hold him.

Eliot blinks away the image and swallows hard, shaking his head and inserting himself back into the conversation.

“Please regale us with details of your latest conquest, then,” Eliot says, smile sharp and precise.

Quentin turns to look at him, then seems surprised to actually meet his eyes, darting them down again to stare at the drink in his hands. He’s settled himself into one of the deck chairs, hunched over and sheepish. It’s just Eliot and Margo today, the other first years in their shiny new gang of pals are off doing something boring. Maybe studying, like Quentin was trying to do before Eliot stole him away.

“I - I’ve been - busy,” Quentin says, his voice cracking. “I’m not just running around - like - hooking up with - I just got here.”

“Listen, kid, if you’re a virgin you have to tell us. It’s the law,” Margo says, poking at a burger patty to assess its readiness, and then taking a sip of her drink, all fluid motion and sharp angles.

“I’m not a virgin,” Quentin says, and he sounds genuinely annoyed, to the point that Eliot decides to step in before Margo’s claws can come out.

“Of course you’re not,” he interjects, sitting down in the chair closest to Quentin. “Margo’s just trying to get to know you. It’s her way of being friendly.”

He glances over at Margo in time to see her stick her tongue out at him. “Don’t explain me to people.”

“You’re a difficult nut to crack, my dear,” he says, and ignores her eye-roll to turn back to Quentin. “I’d say she’s all bark and no bite, but I don’t lie to my friends.”

Quentin laughs, and Eliot feels like the king of the world.

“Her name was Rachel,” Quentin says, sighing and slumping back into the chair again. “The last person I hooked up with. It was - nice. Or whatever. I’d sort of been - in a not great place? And she’s a friend of James, someone I kind of knew, and it was just like - tipsy casual sex or whatever. Stress relief is what she called it. I’m not usually so uh - spontaneous, I guess? But it was. Nice.”

It’s such a sincere answer to a flippant question. It’s adorable, and earnest, and honest, in a way Quentin 100% did not have to be in this moment. God, this boy is too much. Eliot is so, so jealous of some random woman he’s never going to meet. For having “nice or whatever” sex with Quentin. For knowing him longer. For being there for him when he was in a not great place, looking after him. Comforting him, maybe. Odds are, she’s not worthy. Maybe nobody is.

Eliot pulls in a breath sharply through his nose and shakes the weird, out of place possessiveness out of his mind, gifting Quentin with what he hopes is a casual grin. “Well, I know you just got here, but try not to be a total hermit, Coldwater. There are eligible bachelors and bachelorettes waiting around every corner, and with the right branding, your whole high-strung super nerd aesthetic could garner plentiful results.”

Eliot’s worried for a moment that he may have just made an oblique offer to be Quentin’s matchmaker, which is really not the goal here. But Quentin is smiling at him again, which is - distracting. “I really want to defend myself against the ‘high-strung super nerd’ thing but I’m aware that in this case, offering a rebuttal in and of itself reinforces your claim.”

“Oof,” Margo says, flipping the patties off the grill and onto a plate. “You might just be the high-strung-iest in all the land.” She picks the plate up in one hand, her drink in the other. “Burgers, gentlemen?”

~~~~~

Kady Orloff-Diaz and Penny Adiyodi are fighting in the Cottage living room in the middle of a Friday afternoon. They’re keeping their voices down, which means that Margo and Eliot, who are shamelessly watching the argument from across the room and wishing for popcorn, can’t actually hear what the fight is about.

Apparently, according to the gossip from Julia Wicker, Kady and Penny are the Ross and Rachel of Brakebills Academy, minus the slow-burn. It’s been about a month since they met for the first time, and they’ve already been on, and off, and on, and now seem to be teetering back towards “off,” if the infuriated hand-waving and sotto voce screaming match are anything to go by.

“Place your bets,” Margo says. “I say he accidentally read her mind and found out she’s lusting after a professor.”

“Which professor?” Eliot asks.

“Eh, take your pick.”

“Nah, Kady’s got ‘hedge connections’ written all over her, you’ve seen her battle magic. No way she doesn’t have strong mental shields.”

“Okay, so then what are they fighting about?” Margo asks, narrowing her eyes and leaning forward on the couch, as if that will make Kady and Penny’s fight easier to hear.

Eliot deliberates, tapping a thoughtful finger against his chin and glancing around the rest of the room for inspiration. “Maybe they got into a competition over who gets to be the bigger asshole to Quentin.”

“Oh my god, you have got to let that go,” Margo says, turning her attention away from Penny and Kady in order to gift him with an exaggerated eye-roll. “Coldwater’s a big boy, he can take care of himself.”

“They’re mean to him,” Eliot says, petulant. He’s fully aware that Margo is right and he’s being ridiculous, but Quentin is too nice, and Kady and Penny take far too much glee in mocking him at every opportunity. Just the other day, Penny flat-out yelled at him for the song he had stuck in his head, and Kady had been condescending as fuck when she’d shown him how to fix his shields. Eliot had been about 0.1 seconds from charging over and flinging them both across the room. Julia had gotten there first, and Quentin had chastised her for jumping to his defense.

And Quentin and Penny are fine, they’re all friends, it’s so not a big deal. But lately, Eliot’s been fighting against the strangest instinct to shield Quentin from any and all harm, like it’s his job, somehow. He’s never felt so protective over anyone before, and it’s not that he thinks Quentin is weak or pathetic or in need of rescue, it’s just - he likes him. He’s important, somehow, in a way Eliot doesn’t know how to define.

“You’re getting weirder about this by the day,” Margo informs him, poking him hard in the side to jar him out of his reverie. “Maybe Kady found out that Quinn’s got the hots for her man, and that’s what they’re fighting about.”

“Wait, Alice wants to fuck Penny?”

He’s expecting Margo to slip straight back in to that gleeful gossiping tone as she shares more of her brilliant insights, but when he turns to look at her, she’s frowning slightly, deep in thought. “Maybe. Jury’s still out.”

“Wait, do you want to fuck him, or something?”

Margo snaps a glare over to him, and just as Eliot is about to congratulate himself for picking up on the subtext, she sighs and slumps forward to rest her forehead against her knees. “No, it’s Alice, actually.”

“Alice wants to fuck Penny?” Eliot repeats, confused at the cyclical nature of this conversation, and then he raises an eyebrow as it hits him. “Oh. You want to fuck Alice.”

“Say it louder, why don’t you.”

“You want to fuck - ” Eliot starts, in a loud enough voice that Penny and Kady actually stop whisper-fighting and look over at them. Margo claps a hand over his mouth and glares at him, in actual anger.

“I’m undecided,” she hisses.

“Bambi’s got a crush.”

“Do you seriously want to play this game with me, Waugh? Because if the gloves are coming off, the gloves are coming off.”

Margo has already been teasing him mercilessly about his weird puppy-dog crush on Quentin, and he suddenly doesn’t want to see what it looks like when she stops holding back. “Mea culpa,” he says, hands up in surrender. “So then, are you making a move?”

“Are you?” she shoots back, automatic and harsh.

Eliot is about to say ‘I will if you will,’ but he stops himself. If Margo wants to fuck Alice, more power to her. Frankly, Eliot kind of gets it. Alice is buttoned-up and severe, and his Bambi always did enjoy a challenge. It’s just that knowing Margo as well as he does, he’s fairly certain any lust she feels for Alice Quinn is going to be intense and short lived. Margo will, as Margo does, get it out of her system if she feels like it.

Eliot… doesn’t think it’s going to work that way with Quentin. Thinking about him sometimes gives him a stomach ache. It actually fucking sucks a little bit. And he has the uncomfortable feeling that it’s not something he’ll be able to get over after a few quick tumbles in bed. He wants the tumbles, though. He jerked off last night imagining fucking Quentin, pinning his arms above his head and looking into his eyes, those strong legs wrapped around him, the way his voice would sound, all pitched low and wobbly with desire, and -

Without meaning to, his eyes have slid away from Margo, away from Kady and Penny’s squabble, and over to where Quentin is sitting in his favorite reading alcove, face creased in concentration. Julia is talking to him about something, her eyes bright and hands waving in front of her face, all the signs of a Knowledge Student in the middle of a nerd rant. Quentin seems to be tuning her out. He’s really very pretty.

“Are you?” Margo repeats, jabbing him in the ribs with her elbow. “Because if you’re not going to take Coldwater for a spin, maybe I’ll do the kid a favor.”

Eliot snaps his head around to look at her so fast that his neck actually cricks. He pins her with a furious glare, too late recognizing the calculated lilt to her words. “Margo,” he growls.

“Ha. Gotcha,” Margo says. “Now go away, Eliot, your sad-sack pining is harshing my buzz.”

Eliot is torn between obeying her every command, as the universe requires, and settling in for more playful bickering. On the one hand, if he gets up and walks away now, he’ll be letting the ‘sad-sack pining’ comment slide, granting it tacit legitimacy. On the other hand, if he tries to defend himself from the claim, he’ll lose. Because it’s Margo.

And also, she’s not entirely wrong, which is fucked up on a whole other level that Eliot doesn’t really want to think about right now -

“Uh - Eliot?”

Literal goosebumps pebble over Eliot’s arms at the sound of that soft, hesitant voice. Goddamn, he’s in so much trouble. He turns to see that Quentin has abandoned the reading nook to come stand near him and Margo on the couch.

“Hey,” Eliot says, smiling up at him. “Join us, we’re placing bets on why Kady and Penny are fighting this time.”

Quentin waves a dismissive hand and stays standing. “Penny found out about the hedge thing, I guess.”

“The - what?”

Quentin blinks at him in surprise, then turns to look at Margo. “The hedge thing? Kady’s whole - deal, with her mom?”

“We’re going to need more information, stat,” Margo says, literally snapping her fingers and straightening her spine to attention. She makes a grab for Quentin’s arm, meaning to tug him down to the couch, but Quentin takes a step back, a hint of amusement lighting his features.

“Oh shit, so I like - know more about school gossip than you guys? This is - wow, this is - a moment for me, I gotta let it sink in.”

Margo emits a quiet but still potent growl from the back of her throat. Quentin, with more wisdom than Eliot expected, takes another tiny step back.

“Did you want something?” Eliot says, with a regal raise of the eyebrow. “Or did you just come over here to dangle juicy bits of info in our faces and gloat about it?”

“It’s unbecoming,” Margo agrees, as Quentin rolls his eyes at the both of them.

“It’s not a big deal. Kady was involved in some kinda scary shit because of her mom, but it’s all been resolved. I guess - ” he frowns, looking over at Kady and Penny, who have migrated over towards the foot of the stairs now, “I guess Dean Fogg intervened? Helped Kady’s mom out of a tight spot. I don’t know, you’d have to ask Jules for the details.”

“I think I fucking will,” Margo says loudly, jumping to her feat and skipping away from Eliot and Quentin without a backwards glance. She’s making a bee-line over to where the unsuspecting Julia has taken Quentin’s spot in the nook, spreading her own books out for some study time.

“Uh, bye,” Quentin says, sardonic and bitchy. Eliot’s heart glows.

“But seriously, did you need something?” Eliot asks, genuinely curious this time. Quentin had clearly come over here with some purpose. Quentin immediately stiffins, his generally anxious aura sharpening to the next level of worry.

“Um. Yeah, I - I - wanted to - ask you something.”

Eliot’s unhelpful brain is inordinately charmed by the stutter. And also, turned on by the polite deference in the words. It’s not news that he finds shy boys hot. Quentin Coldwater checks off every single one of his boxes; it’s honestly scary. Eliot clears his throat, and when it becomes obvious that Quentin isn’t going to sit down, he stands instead, moving into Quentin’s orbit. “What can I do for you, Quentin?”

He’s close enough to see Quentin’s eyelids flutter. Is he just nervous about whatever he’s about to say, or has he picked up on the insinuation in Eliot’s words? Does he want -

“Could we go somewhere alone?” Quentin asks, straightening his shoulders and tilting his head up so he’s meeting Eliot’s eyes head on.

Yes. Yesyesyes.

“Yes, sure. My room?”

Quentin nods, a small, uneasy jerk of the head. His mouth flattens into a determined line, and he follows Eliot up the stairs.

~~~~~

Quentin Coldwater is probably not asking to talk to Eliot alone in order to seduce him. Rationally, Eliot knows this. But there’s still something undeniably affecting about being alone in his room with him. This hasn’t happened before. They’ve been alone together, more or less, hanging out just the two of them downstairs or out on the Sea, but never for long, and never in more than a casual - oh, fancy seeing you here - kind of way.

But this is different. Eliot’s door snaps shut, and the silencing wards activate automatically. There’s a stirring in Eliot’s gut, like a pavlovian response. Generally, when he brings boys up here, he closes the door, and then he pushes them up against it. He thinks about doing that to Quentin, caging his smaller body close, lining them up, letting Quentin feel him through their pants, thinks about getting a hand around the back of his neck, breathing in the scent of his hair.

Quentin is the annoying type of hot that doesn’t even know he’s hot, which makes him hotter. Therefore, he doesn’t appear to have any idea (thank god) of what’s going through Eliot’s head right now.

“So. Um. That - the thing is, I need to ask you - ”

“Do you want to sit down?” Eliot interrupts, gesturing smoothly to the edge of his bed. He’s a good host. And he wants Quentin in his bed. Just very slightly.

Quentin does so, practically tripping backwards to sit on the corner. And then he looks up at Eliot, a little helpless, and pats the spot next to him. Like he’s inviting Eliot into his own space, giving him permission to sit on his own bed.

Eliot smirks at him, and Quentin huffs out a breath, clearly amused with himself, maybe even slightly embarrassed. It’s a whole little conversation without words, and it makes Eliot inordinately pleased to think that they already know each other well enough for things like that.

So Eliot lets his smirk morph into a true smile, and with a slightly mocking half-bow, he accepts Quentin’s invitation and sits next to him, closer than necessary. He honestly can’t help himself.

“I wanted to ask you for help with an assignment,” Quentin says, his voice pitched low and uncertain.

What? Okay. What? That was - Eliot’s not sure what he expected, but Quentin had insisted they go somewhere private. Asking for homework help doesn’t exactly seem worthy of this level of discretion.

“Okay,” Eliot says, drawing the word out. “Sure?”

“Yeah?” Quentin says, sounding surprised. He turns to look at Eliot, and Eliot wonders if sitting so close to him was a mistake. He can see his eyelashes. He thinks about brushing his thumb along the strip of skin under Quentin’s eye, curving it up to trace the shell of his ear. “Really? Because it’s okay if you don’t want to.”

“No, I can - sure, I can help you, but - look, Quentin, why the fuck would you want my help with school? You’ve got a genius-level Knowledge Student practically glued to your hip.”

Quentin groans and tips his head back, the column of his beautiful throat suddenly unburied from the strands of his perfect hair.

Focus, Waugh.

“Yeah, I could ask Julia. But like - Julia is smart and I’m - book smart too, I guess, and growing up, we had this like - competitive thing going on, and she gets annoyingly gleeful whenever I ask her for help with anything.”

Eliot frowns at that. “That doesn’t sound like best friend behavior.”

“Oh, no, it’s not like - ” Quentin looks at him, eyes gone big and round and earnest. “It’s not like she means anything by it. She’s also just kind of… shitty at explaining things to people? I think I’m actually okay at it, at teaching, you know, on the rare instances when I get something that Julia doesn’t. But she - she can’t do it, she can’t get me to understand. Or at least I can’t keep up with her.”

“You know I skipped like half of my classes last year?” Eliot asks, just to be sure. He’s still not totally following Quentin’s train of thought, here. So he doesn’t want to go to Julia for help. Eliot can think of several other people who should be on the list of potential tutors before Eliot himself.

Maybe Quentin just wants to spend time with him?

Eliot is going to pretend that the thought doesn’t make his chest grow warm, his fingertips tingle. Because he is not actually fourteen years old, and this is getting seriously out of hand.

“Yeah, well - see,” Quentin sighs again, scratching his head and slumping his shoulders. “Julia’s not a good teacher, and when I work on stuff with Alice she makes me feel like an absolute idiot, Penny’s just as lost on this assignment as I am, and I think Kady might snap my neck if I try and ask her for help, honestly, so - ”

“Oh, yeah, fuck that noise,” Eliot agrees instantly. “Kady’s not exactly the warm and fuzzy type.”

“Do you not like her?” Quentin asks, looking up at him with a single raised eyebrow.

“I don’t like Kady,” Eliot says, automatic and true. “But I like having her around.”

Quentin laughs, surprised, but doesn’t ask for further clarification. It’s true enough, in its way - Eliot is enjoying belonging to a community, more so than he’s enjoying the individual members of said community. Quentin comes with Julia comes with Kady comes with Penny comes with Alice etc. etc., and it’s fun to be around that, even if Kady sometimes looks at him like he’s a disgusting piece of unidentifiable sludge stuck to the bottom of her combat boots.

But that’s not the point of this conversation.

“More importantly, I’d be happy to help you with your homework, Q.”

Quentin smiles at him, bright and wide, and Eliot realizes it’s the first time he’s allowed himself the intimacy of Quentin’s shortened name. He doesn’t have the chance to feel nervous about crossing a line, because -

“Thanks, El,” Quentin says, and oh high holy hell, it feels better than it should. Lovely and personal and intense, somehow. As if Margo doesn’t call him ‘El’ all the time. As if Eliot hasn’t heard Julia call Quentin ‘Q’ every single day since he’s known them.

But then the smile fades from Quentin’s face, and he scrunches his eyebrows together, studying Eliot intently, like he’s trying to decide something. “The thing is, you don’t make me feel like an idiot. And you don’t make me anxious. I don’t know why.”

Eliot swallows hard, his brain fizzing out as he stares down into those kind brown eyes. He is bowled over with the thought that he really, really needs to kiss Quentin right now. Right the fuck now. Bite that plush lower lip between his teeth, hook an arm around Quentin’s waist and pull him in close, slide him up, into Eliot’s lap, tangle his fingers into his hair, tug just a little bit - damn this boy is gorgeous and also what he’s just said is maybe the nicest thing anyone’s ever said to Eliot - ever? So that’s - a lot.

He doesn’t do it, though. He just sits there like a moron staring at Quentin, and is surprised when he continues, the rest of the thought falling haltingly out of his mouth. “Because I - uh. Have some - bad brain stuff. Depression. And the thought of flunking out of Brakebills is literally paralyzing to me? I think it might kill me, if that happened. No joke. And I know rationally I’m doing okay in most of my classes but shit can catch up with me in a bad way sometimes, and I’m trying to be better about asking for help when I need it? From - from my friends?”

“Okay,” Eliot says, croaky and off-kilter. “Okay, yeah.” He understands now, why Quentin wanted to go somewhere alone for this conversation. This particular confession may have been his main objective all along. Eliot is absurdly, hugely honored that Quentin has chosen to tell him this.

“If it’s an imposition - ”

“I said I’d help,” Eliot says. “I - I want to help you.”

He means it more than he knows how to articulate. And he can’t quite stop himself from asking - “Are you okay, though?”

“Oh. Yeah, no, I’m fine,” Quentin says, breathy and seemingly relieved now that the worst is out of the way. He straightens his spine, tilting sideways to nudge their arms together. “I just wanted to tell you.”

“I’m glad you did,” Eliot says. “Thank you.”

“It’s just… I know myself, and things have been going really great for me this last month, obviously, but sometimes there can be a bit of a crash and burn after a big change? And Dean Fogg told me to stop taking my meds, so - ”

“What?” Eliot interrupts, his heart thumping hard in his throat. “Q. God, tell me you’re still taking them.”

Quentin huffs out something close to a laugh. “Yeah, don’t worry. I’m - I mean, I can see what Fogg was getting at, but it’s more important for me to stay healthy.” He frowns, a wrinkle appearing between his eyes. Eliot’s hand twitches against the comforter on his bed. He wants to thumb away the line, leave Quentin’s face smooth and peaceful again. “It’s just that - so, when I can’t get a tut right or I don’t understand the theory behind something, this stupid little voice in the back of my head asks me if I’d be better at magic if I was - ”

“That is stupid,” Eliot says, trying not to snap. “You know it’s stupid. What if you had asthma, and Fogg told you your magic would be stronger if you threw away your inhaler?”

This time, Quentin’s laugh is more fulsome, eyes bright and forehead smooth once more. “That’s what Julia said, only she said diabetes and insulin.”

“Well, you should listen to us, we’re very smart.”

“I know, that’s why I’m asking you to help me with my homework,” Quentin says, biting down on his lip like he’s trying to hold back a smile. “I get it, though. I mean, my brain is always gonna tell me things that aren’t true, and I’m always gonna have to deal with it. Even if it means I’m a less powerful magician or whatever… it’s not worth the risk.”

Eliot isn’t really sure what to say to that. He’s having a bit of trouble disentangling the potent cocktail of emotions swirling through his chest. He’s more scared than he has a right to be, to learn this about Quentin, to realize for a certainty that his new friend’s moroseness, the sadness lingering in his eyes and then downturn of his mouth, is more than just a light melancholy. That it’s dangerous, that Quentin gets sick sometimes and there’s no magic fix for it. But at the same time, Eliot is also feeling a sense of determination, of purpose. Because he can help. Quentin trusted him with this information, and asked him for his help, and Eliot will do that. He’ll make it his most sacred mission.

But also, it’s time to lighten the mood, before Eliot caves in to the overwhelming desire to pull Quentin into his arms. Time enough for that later.

“So - you’ve wisely turned to Brakebills Academy’s most eminent and studious resident for assistance. What seems to be giving you trouble?”

Quentin ends up leaving to fetch his books and his notes, and then comes back to get Eliot’s help in understanding one of Professor March’s theoretical problem sets. The end-goal is a simple, small flight spell, the kind of thing Eliot knows Quentin can already do. But doing it this way, building it up from the basics, is tripping him up. It’s like using long division instead of a calculator.

So they sit on Eliot’s bed together and Eliot works through it with Quentin. He gets to touch Quentin’s hands to mold the poppers for him, gets to encourage him by pointing out how he has part A and part B already perfect, and it’s only the bridge between them that’s causing him issues. He gets to feel smart as Quentin drinks in his every word, nodding along and jotting notes, until finally Quentin spins his fingers around, snaps his wrist, and sends his pencil zooming around the room, bumping against the ceiling before it makes a slower controlled descent back into Quentin’s hands.

The smile Quentin gives him when he gets it right is a thing of true beauty.

And then, better than any of that, Quentin stays. They end up just hanging out in Eliot’s room for the rest of the afternoon, the last hours of September light fading away outside the window. Quentin lies diagonally on Eliot’s bed, his legs dangling over the side, and Eliot lays beside him, ignoring the squirming in his gut that’s urging him to roll over onto his side, roll over on top of Quentin, nose a line along his jaw, pry open his lips with his tongue. It’s a steady thrum of want, one that doesn’t go away no matter how long they lay there, talking about everything and nothing, bickering over Quentin’s shitty taste in music and Eliot’s ‘woefully inadequate exposure’ to classic science fiction.

Eliot argues for the supremacy of Dear Evan Hansen over Next to Normal when it comes to contemporary pop musicals; Quentin presents him with a diatribe against the damaging theming in Rent and how it fails to comment meaningfully about the AIDS epidemic in 1980’s New York. Eliot’s palms tingle with the want of touch.

Quentin describes what his entrance exam was like, the burst of magic, the cards flying through the air, the sense of belonging; Eliot tells Quentin about conning his first year professors into giving him passing marks. Eliot’s tongue aches with the want of taste.

Quentin declaims a passionate defense of the Marvel Cinematic Universe while simultaneously decrying the evils of Disney’s growing monopoly; Eliot riles him up by declaring Wonder Woman his favorite of the Marvel movies. Eliot’s stomach jumps and tumbles and soars at the sound of Quentin’s indignant, sputtering reaction.

Eliot tells Q about Margo, about finding her and loving her and how it saved him; Quentin skirts around a description of his darkest times as a teenager, explains how Julia’s constant, steady presence saved his life in both a metaphorical and literal sense. Eliot’s soul vibrates with the desire to comfort, to pull him in, to kiss and touch away every bad feeling he’s ever had.

But even as he wants to taste Quentin on his tongue, swallow his sounds, trace the skin of his shoulders, his ears, the crook of his knees, his neck his ass his thighs his pretty, pretty face… he’s also having so much fun just talking to him. He lets the spark of arousal crackle and fade along his skin as Quentin tells Eliot all about his dad, and his somewhat shitty mom and also his mom’s even shittier wife. Eliot even manages to make some oblique references to his own childhood, about the challenges of growing up queer and unsupported. Heavily edited, of course, but not a lie, because Eliot finds himself wanting to share the intimacy of trust with someone good and true like Quentin.

And eventually, when Quentin’s stomach lets out an audible grumble in the quiet peace of their sanctuary, Eliot gets up and drags Quentin to the kitchen to make him dinner. It’s not quite the same as making him breakfast and bringing it to him in bed after a night of rigorous and passionate sex.

But it’s definitely a start.

Chapter Text

Quentin likes strawberries and maple syrup on his pancakes. No whipped cream. And nothing worked into the batter, no blueberries or chocolate chips.

Eliot discovers this on a late Saturday morning, two weeks into October. He does not have the honor and privilege of bringing said pancakes up to Quentin in bed, but it’s still nice to sit in the Cottage’s spacious dining room, just the two of them, and munch down on an excessive amount of carbs while the other denizens of the Cottage stumble about through their weekend morning routines.

“Eat up, my friend, we have some adventuring to do,” Eliot says, passing over the syrup when Quentin gestures wordlessly for it, his mouth already full.

Quentin answers on a swallow. “You mean the adventure you’ve already promised me will be an epic disappointment?”

“You’re the one who’s insisting we go. I have more important things to do than go traipsing around the abandoned lower levels of the library.”

You are full of shit,” Quentin informs him. “If I wasn’t making you take me exploring, you’d just end up in the library anyway, pretending to do your homework and distracting me from mine.”

He is not wrong, the adorable dickhead. Margo has been making inroads with Alice Quinn, spending her weekend trying to coax the buttoned up little nerd out into the open. Which means that Eliot’s options for companionship are limited to Quentin, or to some rando he doesn’t give a shit about. His priorities have been shifting, of late. He’s trying not to think too hard about it.

Because… Eliot and Quentin have become ‒ friends. Good friends. Improbably good friends, considering Eliot has never managed to make one of those before, other than Margo. Quentin Coldwater ‒ anxious, jittery, grumpy Quentin ‒ is just so fun to be around.

They study together, Quentin bugs Eliot to stop cutting classes, they bicker-flirt, Eliot pretends to be Quentin’s benevolent mentor and Quentin huffs and flips him off and ignores all of his sage advice. Eliot finds every excuse he can think of to wrap an arm around Quentin’s shoulders when they’re out and about, and Quentin never pulls away. They go on long and circular walks around campus, Eliot taking Quentin to little corners and nooks and crannies in the various academic buildings that he’s discovered just so they can sit around and talk about nothing, talk about life.

It’s like they’re dating, kind of.

It’s the goddamn best, and Eliot hasn’t even kissed him yet. But he’s going to. Shortly. Probably. It’s just… hard to find an opening, for some reason. He feels like a middle schooler around Quentin. Not the fucked up traumatized middle schooler he’d actually been, but some stereotype of an adolescent boy, all sweaty palms and sheepish, darting looks over at his crush, half hoping he’ll be looking back, half dreading being caught staring.

He’s not a kid anymore, though. He’s actually smooth as hell. Eliot’s sure he’s going to remember that any day now, and the proper wooing will commence.

After brunch, Eliot takes Quentin to the library basement, where an old rickety ladder in the back corner leads to a sub-level that at first looks hardly bigger than a cubicle. But if you know where to look, there’s a door hidden behind some wall paneling. It’s not a very sophisticated disguise, and as far as Eliot is aware, this small secret alcove hasn’t been used for anything but clandestine hook-ups in several decades. Nothing of import at all. He’s only bringing Q down here because when he’d mentioned it, Quentin’s face had done that lighting-up-from-the-inside thing that always makes Eliot’s mind go blank, his heart tumble over in his chest.

(“A secret room?”

“More like ‒ an abandoned dusty basement covered in unseemly fluids and the ghosts of hookups past,” Eliot had said, but Quentin had not been deterred.)

Now, down here among the dust and few large crates, Quentin notices a couple of nearly melted tapered candles tilted awkwardly in their holders, and a few musty folded blankets, and he bursts out laughing. “Oh shit, you weren’t kidding. This is a sex room.”

“I told you.”

“How many people do you think know about it?”

“Not very many,” Eliot says, shrugging. “I mean, I can’t be sure. The guy who showed me said he’d stumbled on it by mistake, but he could have been full of shit.”

Here, in an enclosed, low-lit space hardly more than five feet square, with Quentin mere inches from him, Eliot can’t remember a single thing about the boy he’d been here with, about what they’d done or what they’d talked about. Nothing important. Nothing as important as this.

“So that’s the end of the day’s agenda.”

“You were right,” Quentin says, deadpan. “I’m terribly disappointed.” He snaps his hands in front of him and an orb of light appears, floating up to hover over the room and cast down on the enclosed space. Eliot climbs a few rungs of the ladder and reaches up to swing the door shut, so Quentin’s light is the only thing illuminating them.

There really isn’t very much to look at. Old wooden floors, bare walls, a couple of folding chairs rusting away in the corner. And yes, there are blankets and candles and a single limp pillow, the remnants of some tryst long past. Eliot’s one and only hook-up down here had been for the novelty of it. Generally speaking, people on campus had their own rooms, far more comfortable for any sort of sexual activity. But it was like hooking up on the catwalk in the theatre or fucking someone in that weird dead-end corridor in the Humanities building, back in undergrad. Something to do, something different and therefore exciting. A requirement for any adventurous soul.

He recalls, vaguely, pushing the random guy against the wall and dropping to his knees. He wonders what Quentin would say, how his face would look, if Eliot did that to him now, stalked closer in the confined space, pressed him up against the wall, chest to chest, ducked his lips down to trace along his ear and then slid ‒ lower ‒ fuck. Maybe it’s what Quentin wants. Maybe it’s why they’re down here.

Eliot’s pulse jumps, thready and eager, in the hollow of his throat.

“What is this stuff?” Quentin asks. He’s not looking at Eliot, and he’s clearly not fantasizing about receiving a blowjob either, damn Eliot’s luck. There’s something eager in his voice, though, and Eliot follows his gaze to see what he’s talking about. Stacked against the back wall are nine or ten wooden crates, and Quentin, already lifting the lid off of the first one, is staring down at the books inside with avid interest. Because of course it’s books. What else does one find in a hidden room in a library? They look old, and Quentin being the nerd that he is, immediately settles down on the floor cross-legged, and starts pulling the dusty tomes out one after the other. “I wonder what these are doing here? I mean ‒ like ‒ if they’re not on the shelves, and they haven’t been donated or destroyed…”

“It’s just extra storage,” Eliot says, laughing at him but settling down beside him all the same. He knows Q well enough to know they’re not going anywhere until he’s looked his fill.

“But they’re books about magic,” Quentin says, eagerly flipping one over and blowing the dust away from the cover. “About magic, and they’re down here in this secret room nobody knows about. There could be ‒ like ‒ forbidden shit in here, or ‒ or ‒ like, dangerous secrets ‒ ”

“Okay Indiana Jones, slow down,” Eliot says, barely managing to stop himself from reaching a hand up to ruffle Quentin’s hair. He’s feeling embarrassingly fond. Quentin is, as it bears repeating, so damn cute.

The object of Eliot’s pathetic affection actually looks up from the book grasped in his hands to gift Eliot with a sardonic smile. “Hey, that was ‒ an almost appropriate cultural reference. You’ve seen those movies?”

“Harrison Ford,” Eliot explains.

“Ah,” Quentin says, nodding. Queer solidarity is the best. “Have you heard the theory about how in Raiders, the character of Jones doesn’t actually matter for the plot? So ‒ if you think about, at the beginning when he ‒ ”

“Quentin,” Eliot says, and he turns around to lean back against one of the unopened crates, laughing. It’s times like these that he wishes he had carte blanche permission to shut him up with a kiss. “I’ve seen the movies, but I’m not on the forums or whatever, you sweet little dork.”

“Hey, yesterday I listened to you explain the entire plot of Les Miserables to me, even though, as I told you, I’ve read the book.”

“But you haven’t seen the musical,” Eliot snips, falling back into their mock-argument from the day before. “Sure, many of the story beats are the same, or so I’m told, but until you’ve experienced the story in a live environment, set to ‒ ”

Quentin cuts him off by pointing straight at his face, his eyes bright in the somewhat dim light of the dusty hideaway. “See, that is what I like to call a geek check, you giant nerd. I’m allowed to rant about Raiders of the Lost Ark if you’re allowed to rant about the wonders of live theatre.”

“Hmm,” Eliot says, tapping a finger against his chin like he’s considering this. “Counter-offer: we finish going through these crates because I know you’re not going to be able to think about anything else until we do, and then you repay me for showing you this secret enclave of magically potent texts by coming to our party tonight.”

Quentin… attends the Cottage’s parties, more or less, but he keeps to himself and usually ends up leaving early. Eliot’s already had to stop himself from following Q up the stairs a number of times, much more interested in a quiet evening alone with him than he is with the glamour and glitz of his own decadent extravaganzas. He hasn’t shared that little thought with Margo, of course, and he hasn’t actually left a party early to be with Q. Yet.

Here in their present solitude, Quentin sighs and tips his head back like Eliot is asking him a huge damn favor. But then he ruins it by smiling bright and wide and wrinkling up his nose in triumph. “Joke’s on you, Waugh, I was already planning on attending. Margo went with the stick instead of the carrot and threatened to steal all my shit if I hid in my room again.”

“And you caved to Bambi’s tactics?” Eliot asks, tsking in mock disappointment. “That’s how she gets you, Q, you’ll never be able to say no to her again.”

“Can you say no to her?” Quentin asks, raising an eyebrow even as he reaches behind him to pull another crate of books forward.

“Well, no. But she’s always right, so why would I want to?”

They continue that way, all teasing and banter and joy, as Quentin pulls each and every book out of the crates, examining the titles and fluttering through the pages. They develop an unspoken system as they chat mindlessly, Quentin handing his discarded finds over to Eliot, who stacks them neatly to the side, to be put back in the crate when Quentin has finished an entire box.

Eliot isn’t quite sure why he’s bothering to clean up after their snooping. It’s just ‒ nice, the rhythm and normalcy of it, almost domestic. That general sense of ennui he had felt all summer is nowhere to be found when he’s with Quentin. He’s beginning to wonder if he’s ever really been at peace, before now. If he has, it hasn’t felt like this. (The peace flickers and jolts inside of him if he thinks too hard about what that means. So he doesn’t think about it).

Occasionally, Quentin’s eyes light up in real excitement when he grasps onto a book, and he sets it behind him in a separate smaller pile. (“Oh, look at this one, it’s an older edition of that Light-Bending book Alice has been reading, I wonder if she could learn anything from the older versions of the spell work?”) and (“Julia’s probably already read this one, but maybe I should bring it to her just in case…) and (“Jackpot, a Traveler’s guide to ‒ oh, no, it’s just an actual travel book. Probably won’t be any good to Penny. Weird, I wonder how this got in here.”)

Eliot imagines reaching across the stacks of ancient books between them, scattering the musty pages and pulling Quentin into him, onto him. He’s so lovely, sitting there and finding books he thinks his friends will enjoy, marveling over out-of-date school texts that had probably been dumped down here and forgotten because there’s nothing at all special about them. But Quentin finds something special in everything. It’s like his superpower.

The scary thing is, if Eliot indulges in the fantasy, if he interrupts Quentin right now by pulling him close for a kiss, Q will probably let him. All the time they’ve been spending together, all the flirting and the touching…

But after entertaining the thought for a moment, Eliot lets it slip away, smiling at Quentin’s unbounded enthusiasm and mocking him at irregular intervals, just to keep the kid on his toes. He likes this more than the quick and easy gratification of fucking. He wants ‒ well, he wants both. He can’t imagine sacrificing this for just sex, though.

It’s almost like he’s growing up. Perish the thought.

“Oh my god, El, look!” Quentin gasps and holds a book out to Eliot, fingers folded around the edges with a reverent gentleness that has Eliot receiving the offering with careful hands.

The Flying Forest,” Eliot reads, squinting down at what he’s holding. “Looks old.”

“I think it’s a first edition,” Quentin says, eyes bright. “These are really rare. You can find a lot of the first and second book, and the fifth, but ‒ yes, look here ‒ ” he pulls more books out of the crate, treating each one with awed care, like he’s afraid they’ll disintegrate if he grips them too hard. “The whole Filloy series. This is so ‒ this is so cool, do you think I can take ‒ ”

“Why the fuck not?” Eliot says. “You should have them. There’s nobody who would appreciate them as much as you.” He wants to tell Quentin that he can have anything his heart desires, that Eliot will find a way to get it for him, whatever it is, no matter how impossible.

“What the fuck are they doing here with all these textbooks?” Quentin wonders.

“I don’t know. What’s A Traveler’s Guide to Affordable Eats in Eastern Europe doing down here?” he picks up the book Quentin had discarded earlier, setting it carelessly on top of others in one of the crates they’ve already gone through.

Quentin, meanwhile, picks up another one of the Fillory tomes, with matching type-set across its sturdy cover. He flips it open and traces his fingers over the cover page, then turns over the leaves and starts scanning the words at the beginning of the first chapter. And Eliot just sits there and watches him read, fascinated by the way his teeth come out to worry at his lips, how his hair falls in a curtain, obscuring part of his face as he curls over the book like it’s a sacred thing, his eyes scanning the words hungrily even though Eliot would bet he has them memorized.

“How many times do you think you’ve read these books?”

Quentin hums, considering this, not lifting his eyes from the text. “Uh, the first one? Probably twenty times, easy. The whole series, maybe a dozen?”

Eliot picks up another one and flips it over, reading the title ‒ “The World in the Walls. This is the first one, right?”

That gets Quentin to glance up from the text, shaking his head at Eliot in wonder. “I keep forgetting you haven’t read them. My whole life is like ‒ built around these books. I know it’s pathetic, but I literally can’t imagine who I’d even be if…” he trails off with another shake of his head and looks back at the dense block of words on the yellowed paper. Reading gives Eliot a headache, even now that he’s learned charms to keep the words steady and clear on the page. He’s never liked doing things that didn’t come easy to him. He figures a therapist would probably have a lot to say about his allergy to effort, but what the hell. Most things aren’t worth effort.

Quentin is.

Unthinking, not entirely sure what he’s doing until he’s done it, Eliot holds out The World in the Walls to Quentin, and stares him straight in the eye. “Read it to me.”

For a moment, time freezes as Quentin stares back at him, his eyes wide and his mouth parted ever so slightly. Eliot can practically taste him through the air. He knows, somehow, exactly what kissing him would be like, how his lips would feel, the pliant give of his mouth. How his skin would smell, sweaty with exertion and passion and wanting. He has the feeling he’s going to get to experience it for real, before too long. It hadn’t been his intention, exactly, but he’s pretty sure he just seduced the hell out of Quentin Coldwater.

“Okay,” Quentin says, breathy, taking the novel out of Eliot’s hand and brushing his fingers along the spine, a caress Eliot can feel like a phantom against his own skin. He wants it. He wants it so much, but he can be patient.

They shift wordlessly around for a moment to get comfortable, sitting with their backs up against some of the still unopened crates. Quentin doesn’t ask him why. He doesn’t ask him why now or question his motives in any way. Eliot doesn’t have an answer for him in any case. He just knows that he wants to share this with Quentin, and that they’re both aware, in some undefinable way, that this matters. That Eliot asking and Quentin saying yes is important.

It’s kind of a heavy way to think about it. The reality is basically just Quentin reading a children’s story to him, in a dusty room underneath the school library when they should probably both be doing homework or whatever.

The World in the Walls,” Quentin says, his voice pitched low and even. “Chapter One: Jane Looks into a Grandfather Clock.”

Eliot is somewhat surprised to learn that Quentin is good at reading aloud. With someone else’s words in front of him, his stutter vanishes entirely, the rhythm of his speech cool and smooth and ‒ and Eliot is in trouble. It’s hot, that Quentin is good at this. His voice and demeanor have taken on an almost professorial air, in all the best ways, which is distracting to the point that Eliot has to look away from Quentin’s lips in order to actually process the story being read to him.

They sit down there for over an hour as Quentin reads the first three chapters to him, their spines relaxing against the crates and their heads tilting closer to one another as time goes on. Quentin’s voice gets raspy and quiet the longer he reads.

Eliot doesn’t care that the floor is dusty and hard. He doesn’t care that he doesn’t have his flask, or a cigarette, or anything to do with his hands. He doesn’t care that he doesn’t care about Fillory. He’s been swept up in a spell of Quentin’s making, the words swirling in the air around and through them, their arms brushing every time Quentin turns the page. Jane and Martin discover Fillory, and their wonder becomes Quentin’s wonder becomes Eliot’s.

Later, Jane and Martin learn about Fillory’s strange and sinister gods, the ones who push and pull at their created universe and treat their subjects like puppets, and Eliot lets himself slump down, his posture folding into a full curve. His head tilts, his hand brushing along the edge of Quentin’s leg, not with intent, just ‒ to feel him near. Quentin keeps reading, only the tiniest hint of a waver in the words as Eliot shifts even further, so he can fit his head against Quentin’s shoulder. It shouldn’t be comfortable ‒ he’s so much taller than Quentin; his head is turned at too much of an angle. But Eliot fits there, Quentin straightening up and tilting slightly so the expanse of his chest provides a broader resting place. It’s calming, peaceful.

Eliot closes his eyes.

~~~~~

Quentin doesn’t tease him about falling asleep, he just quizzes him on the last thing he remembers so he’ll know where to pick up next time.

“If ‒ If you want to hear more, obviously, it’s not like it’s a big deal either way,” Quentin tacks on, a spark of his usual jittery nerves flickering back into place.

They’re walking back to the Cottage together. They took a couple of the books with them when they climbed their way out of the hidden room (Eliot had let Quentin go first, like a gentlemen, and only kind of used it as an excuse to check out his ass), but left the Fillory ones down there to come back for later. Outside the bubble of that small enclosed space, the spell has been lifted, that strange sense of intimacy and perfect understanding harder to grasp. Eliot compensates by winding an arm around Quentin’s shoulders as they walk, pulling him in close. If he were just a little braver, maybe he would have taken his hand, but ‒ but not yet. Soon.

“I want to hear more,” he says simply, leaving it at that. “I remember those horny fuckwads explaining their shitty god rules to the kids, and Martin getting pissed off about it.”

Quentin nods, his eyes squinting as he makes a mental note. Then his arm comes up to curve around Eliot’s waist, his hand resting on his hip.

Like that’s a totally normal thing that’s ever happened before this exact moment.

Fuck.

Eliot’s heart starts going double-time. He almost stumbles over nothing as they traipse across the grass of the Sea. He swallows around a building nervous giggle, squeezing Quentin’s shoulder and looking down to meet his eyes. They share a private grin, and it feels like there’s nobody else in the world.

And so naturally he coughs and averts his eyes, the intensity just this side of too much. “You sure you don’t want to bring the Fillory books back too? Show them to Julia?”

“I will,” Quentin says, an odd note in his voice. “Eventually. But ‒ but not yet.”

Because he wants them to go back down there. He wants to read out loud to Eliot again. Maybe next time Eliot can curl up with his head in Quentin’s lap, stretch himself out like a cat. They can bring provisions and blankets and hide away from the rest of the world, and Quentin can pet a hand through Eliot’s hair while he reads.

The image is so strong and specific in Eliot’s mind that he blinks, startled, and shakes his head slightly to dispel it. He feels hungover, climbing out of that dreamy closeness and back into the harsh light of reality. “So the theme of tonight’s party is transformation,” he says, sniffing airily and lifting his face to the sky in order to regain mastery of himself. “Keep that in mind when you decide on your ensemble for the night.”

“What the fuck kind of theme is that?” Quentin says, predictable and grouchy. “Transformation? Like ‒ ”

“From summer to fall, from day to night, from sober to spectacularly smashed, darling. We’re attempting to create an atmosphere of change, of life in flux.”

“And I’m supposed to suggest that, with my outfit. Made out of clothing that I, Quentin Coldwater, currently own.”

It’s not a bad point. “Okay, fine, wear whatever you want ‒ but you have to show up and you have to mingle, and you can’t leave early. I mean it.”

“Yes, sir,” Quentin says, and he’s being an insubordinate little brat about it, and yet... Quentin calling him sir is ‒ well, it’s not unpleasant, alright?

They keep their arms around each other all the way back to the Cottage, too. All in all, a successful adventure, not even a little bit disappointing.

And to top it all off, Quentin obeys Eliot’s commands. He’s at that evening’s party right on time, which is unfashionable of course, but he’s wearing clothing that actually fits him, so Eliot will forgive him anything. He’s also actually enjoying a drink and talking to people, which feels somehow to Eliot like a personal victory.

Unfortunately, he can’t congratulate Quentin on his basic social competency just yet. At the beginning of every true party at the Cottage, he and Margo have to set the scene, calibrate the atmosphere. It’s demanding work, and it wouldn’t do to get lost in Quentin’s eyes before the evening has even properly begun.

Not every Physical Kids’ party is a Capital P Party. Most nights things run on autopilot, glitz and glamour and good times flowing freely without much active direction from the masters of decadence themselves. But approximately twice a month, he and Margo dedicate themselves to putting together something special.

The Cottage looks nigh unrecognizable tonight, with the furniture rearranged and the air subtly infused with a blend of perfumes meant to simulate the emergence of sunlight after a heavy rain. Pretty basic mood-scenting, but the whole effect is topped off by the incredible light refraction painting the walls. Alice had helped Margo with it, actually. One end of the room is bright enough to suggest the tail end of daylight, and then in gradual gradient, the room transforms through a colorful sunset into the black of a star-strewn night. It makes the entire Cottage feel alive, like it’s part of the larger universe instead of the static (albeit cozy) house it truly is in the light of day.

“It looks beautiful, Alice,” Eliot had said in true appreciation once the spell had settled and the room had started to fill with people. Some of the attendees had taken advantage of the theme to wear bizarre outfits to match the vague idea of “transformation”. Todd arrives wearing a tuxedo jacket with a pair of ratty old jeans, to signal his transformation from a complete dork to a complete tool, Eliot can only assume. Most people, Alice, Margo and Eliot included, have merely dressed in something that makes them look hot. Actual costume parties are for people who need help grabbing the attention of prospective mates.

“Thank you,” Alice had said, gifting him a genuine smile and then turning to Margo. “But it’s all her, really, I just helped set the parameters.”

“You shouldn’t sell yourself short,” had been Margo’s immediate response. Bambi was no-nonsense even when giving praise.

At the moment, Eliot and Margo are together, surveying their kingdom. It looks good from Eliot’s perspective, everything flowing in exactly the way they’d discussed. Things are in full swing now, right on schedule. He looks down at her to share in a moment of triumph, and finds her frowning at something across the room, huffing out an impatient breath. “Someone moved the futon. Do people have no appreciation of the natural flow of the space?” She storms off to deal with this egregious misstep and Eliot follows her, passing by Alice as she wanders over with a fresh drink in hand to join Kady Orloff-Diaz and a couple of first year Naturalists whose names Eliot hasn’t bothered to learn.

“So,” he says, catching up to Margo. “You and Quinn spent the day together, coming up with fancy light magic...” he pauses, putting a hand on her elbow and squeezing. “And she’s wearing your dress.”

“All true,” Margo says, blinking up at him and then turning to kick the futon back to its proper spot in the corner, ignoring the protests of the people she knocks aside like bowling pins on the way. Then she whirls back to face Eliot, her eyes tragic and plaintive. “But unfortunately my progress ends there.”

“A tough nut to crack?” Eliot says, cloying sympathy.

“Oh please, I’ll give you a million dollars right now if you tell me Coldwater’s already sucked your dick.”

Her voice is majestic and far too loud in the crowded space. Even as Eliot’s stomach lurches at her words, he tugs furiously on her arm to pull her back into a window seat, bathed in the dim light of an illusory setting sun. “Keep your motherfucking voice down.”

“That’s what I thought.”

“I ‒ I’m working on ‒ we’re ‒ tonight,” Eliot says, angry at himself for the uncharacteristic stutter. “I’m gonna kiss him tonight. I just have to do it, this is getting ridiculous.”

“Agreed,” Margo says, unforgiving and flat. And if she hadn’t already confirmed it, Eliot would have been able to guess she hadn’t gotten anywhere with Alice. His Bambi was always marginally more patient with him when she was getting some. “Go do it now, you’re already driving me crazy.”

“What did I even do?”

“Nothing. You’ve done nothing, that’s the point,” Margo says. “I set up this whole damn event by myself, El. You’re so worked up for him you barely even listen to me when I talk.”

Underneath Margo’s tough-as-nails exterior, there is the tiniest tremor of real hurt. Eliot can’t even be certain he’s really heard it, but he squints his eyes at her, and softens his hand on her arm, sliding it down so he can tangle their fingers together. “I’ve been distracted,” he says, going for gentle. “I’m sorry if I’ve neglected ‒ ”

He may have made a slight miscalculation. Margo slaps him hard on the chest with her free hand, tugging her other away from him. She pins him with a glare and then changes the subject. “Alice is still pining for Adiyodi. I might have hit a dead end.”

Oh. “Oh, I’m sorry,” Eliot says, meaning it.

“I don’t need your sympathy. I’m not half in love with her the way you are with Quentin.”

“Excuse the fuck out of me,” Eliot hisses, his voice low. “Can you not shout your slanderous speculation out loud for the whole world to hear?”

On instinct, he swivels his head around to look for Quentin, and finds that he and Julia have joined Alice, Kady, and Penny in the opposite corner of the room. Q has just handed Alice the book he found for her down in the secret storage room, and she’s smiling up at him and practically bouncing on her feet, Margo’s slinky dress doing nothing to hide her considerable curves. Julia is smiling too, looking over Alice’s shoulder at the book and pointing to a bit of text. They’ve all gravitated to the sunniest part of the light scheme, of course, all the better to read with. Becuase that’s an important thing to be doing, at a fucking party on a Saturday night. Eliot’s lip twitches. They’re so endearing. All of them, really, but Quentin especially, with the way his eyes are shining, happy to have made Alice happy, and ‒

“Dear God,” Margo sighs, flopping back against Eliot hard enough that he nearly falls over on the lightly cushioned bench. “And again, with the puppy-dog eyes. Slanderous speculation my ass.”

Eliot decides yet another change of topic would be prudent. “Okay, so if Alice is a no go, we seriously need to find you someone else to fuck.”

“Mama doesn’t need your help,” Margo snaps back immediately, even as she snuggles affectionately into Eliot’s side.

“Obviously,” Eliot agrees. But he finds suddenly that he wants to do this, curl up in the corner with his best girl and find her a treat to help settle her impatient mood, and his own slightly frayed nerves.

He is possibly stalling, just a little bit. Because yes, he’s going for it with Quentin tonight. It’s going to be fine, obviously. He’s good at reading people, and he and Quentin have practically been glued to each other over the past couple of weeks. But it’s still terrifying, because this matters to Eliot, a lot more than anything has mattered in a long while. It’s nice to take a beat, to focus on Margo for a minute before gearing himself up for the big moment.

Internal rationalizations commenced with, he clears his throat and starts scanning the room. “What are you in the mood for?”

He and Margo make a careful study of the party, each pointing out prospects and discarding them one after the other. Margo rejects one tall, lanky fellow for a known lack of interest in pussy, and a striking six-foot tall woman in a red dress is taken out of the running when some anonymous Knowledge Student wraps a possessive arm around her waist, tilting her into a sloppy kiss.

Margo pouts for a moment at that missed opportunity but then continues to swivel her head, hunting, until: “Oooh, what about what’s his face?” she says. “That guy who I almost hooked up with last year, but then you totally clit-blocked me like a bitch.”

“What? Oh, Seamus? He was okay.”

“Just okay?” Margo scrunches her nose at him. “He better have been a lot better than okay. You knew I had my eye on him and then you totally swept in ‒ ”

“Bambi, trust me, you wouldn’t have had the patience for him,” Eliot says, shaking his head and thinking back to the serviceable but not spectacular sex he’d had with the sandy-haired Californian the previous spring. “I kept trying to get my dick in his mouth but he’s like the chattiest guy I’ve ever met in my life.”

“Chattier than you? Perish the thought.”

Eliot waves a hand in her face, smacking her in the nose (mostly) unintentionally. “No, really, he kept talking to me about his favorite boardwalk haunts and surfing and ‒ I don’t know. I really wasn’t listening. You know when you’re just trying to fuck someone and instead they want you to try and like ‒ get to know them?”

“Ugh, the worst,” Margo agrees, but Eliot gets the strange sense that she’s laughing at him.

“No, I’m being serious. If I’m trying to find someone to fuck at a party, I’m not looking to memorize their entire family tree first.”

“Right, because you’re so famously taciturn,” Margo says, and then she looks behind Eliot with a wicked, razor grin. “Eliot’s the stoic, silent type, wouldn’t you agree Quentin?”

Eliot swivels around to find Quentin standing directly behind him, his eyes narrowed as he tries to decide how to react to Margo’s Margo-ness.

“Hey!” Eliot says, his chest bursting with fireworks. It’s been less than an hour since he and Quentin have spoken, but Eliot has actually missed him. He’s so fucked. “You don’t have a drink in your hand. That is unacceptable.”

He’s on his feet with his fingers curled around Quentin’s elbow, magnetized, before he remembers Margo. He turns and shoots her an apologetic smile. “The duties of a host…”

“No, no, go on,” Margo says. “I suppose that means you’ll let me have a turn with surfer boy this time?”

Eliot rolls his eyes at her and then turns to Q. “In the mood for anything special?”

“Um,” Quentin says. “No, whatever.”

“You okay?”

Quentin hadn’t responded to Margo’s quip about Eliot’s vociferous habits, and he’s usually not one to miss a chance for some good-natured ribbing. Especially at Eliot’s expense.

“I’m great,” Quentin says, but he sounds a little bit off. Eliot tilts his head, trying to coax Q to meet his eyes, but Quentin keeps his gaze on his own feet all the way over to the drink cart.

He seems to ease back in to normalcy while Eliot fixes him a cocktail, though, regaling him with the details of Alice and Julia’s reactions when he’d gifted them their books. “I thought Alice was going to insist we go put it back where we found it, at first. She worried about possessing stolen goods.”

“That’s darling,” Eliot says, refraining from the observation that he’d been slightly startled at Quentin’s own willingness to pilfer from Brakebills, no matter how insignificant the theft.

“Well, and it’s not like we can’t put them back later,” Quentin reasons, the precious little rule follower, as he takes a sip of his new drink, humming in satisfaction. “Damn, that’s good.”

Eliot contemplates licking the taste of the liquor out of Quentin’s mouth until he gets to his natural flavor underneath. Soon. He can feel the anticipation of it pooling in his stomach. Mostly excitement, with just a giddy dash of fear.

“So ‒ ” Eliot starts, with no idea what he’s about to say, but Quentin speaks at the same time.

“Who’s surfer boy?”

“What? Oh ‒ Margo and I were examining fuckable prospects.” He waves a hand, dismissing Seamus from memory. The words hey, speaking of fuckable... crowd up to the tip of his tongue, but he swallows them back. Quentin, despite his (adorably) limited wardrobe and (fixably) unrefined cultural tastes, deserves a bit of class.

“Should we go sit?” he says, infusing his voice with all of the considerable warmth he feels when he’s around Quentin. Q looks up from his drink to meet Eliot’s eyes.

“Okay,” he says, a touch flat. He doesn’t move, though. “Is he?”

“What?”

“Fuckable.”

Why are they still talking about this?

“Sure,” Eliot says, shrugging in indifference. “I mean, nobody’s good enough for Margo, but she usually gets what she wants.”

Quentin narrows his eyes like he’s searching for the missing piece of a puzzle, then nods broadly and takes a larger gulp of his drink. “Right.”

Eliot coughs, planting his feet firmly to stop himself from rocking backwards, a nervous, imprecise habit he doesn’t want to indulge right now. He’d abandoned Margo without a second thought to go off with Q, but now it’s hitting him that this is really happening ‒ the next logical step is that he and Quentin go find somewhere comfortable to be alone, and then…

He places a hand lightly on Quentin’s back and begins steering him across the room. No time like the present.

“Hey, what’s your read on the Alice situation?” Eliot asks (because he’s a good friend, not because he’s a coward looking for a neutral topic of conversation). And he is actually curious if Quentin, unwitting though he often is, has managed to pick up any gossip that might be helpful to Margo.

He leads Q over to a spot on the couch, deep into the ‘night’ portion of the Cottage’s current light scheme. There are already a few other couples over here using the cover of darkness to begin more amorous pursuits. Eliot watches two women he’s never seen before as they kiss, slow and languorous and dripping with the promise of more to come.

It’s time to set the goddamn mood and just do the goddamn thing he’s been thinking about since the literal goddamn minute he saw Quentin Coldwater for the first time. Eliot’s spine straightens, the hairs on his arms standing on end.

“The Alice situation?” Quentin asks, as he flops gracelessly down onto the couch. Eliot sits down right next to him, their bodies pressed together along thighs and arms. He notices Quentin’s gaze flicker to the women across from them and then away. The light is too dim to tell if he’s blushing. “You mean ‒ with Kady, or whatever?”

“Or Penny,” Eliot says, and he reaches forward to take Quentin’s half-finished drink from him, setting it carelessly on a side-table. He wants Quentin to have his hands free. For reasons.

“Yeah, maybe him too. I think Penny and Kady are together again. Or at least they’re being awfully friendly towards each other right now.” “Margo says Alice is lusting after Penny. Not that I can blame her, precisely, but the dude seems pretty set on Kady for whatever dumb reason.”

“Oh please,” Quentin says. “I know women aren’t your area of expertise, but you can’t pretend you haven’t noticed that Kady’s good looking. She and Penny together are like a scary kind of hot.”

“Area of expertise?” Eliot says, gleeful. “Are women your area of expertise, Quentin?”

“Oh my god shut up,” Quentin says, tilting his head back with a smile and leaning slightly into Eliot. “You know what I mean.”

“Hmm, sure,” Eliot says, lifting a hand up and curving it around the back of Quentin’s neck to card through his soft, lovely hair. He’s expecting Quentin to shiver, to lean even further into him, to continue the trajectory and promise of their entire relationship up to this point. Quentin always responds so warmly, so automatically, to Eliot’s touch. It’s straight out of a wet dream, every time.

But instead, Quentin goes stiff. He doesn’t move away, but he doesn’t lean in, pliant and warm, the way Eliot had been waiting (hoping) for. Frowning, Eliot lets his hand linger for a moment, squeezing the pads of fingers into the tense line of Quentin’s neck, and then moves his hand, setting it against the more neutral territory of Quentin’s shoulder. He clears his throat, trying to regain equilibrium. “Point being, whoever Alice is interested in, I think she’s got an uphill battle ahead of her. Poor dear.”

“She’s not ‒ ” Quentin says, huffing in unexpected frustration. “She’s not a doe-eyed charity case, you know.”

What? Where the fuck had he gotten that from?

“I never said ‒ ”

“It’s just ‒ ” Quentin throws his hands up in the air, a spasm of uncoordinated, tetchy limbs. “Margo’s tiptoeing around her like she’s going to break. I’ve seen her do it, it’s annoying as shit. If Margo wants to fuck her, she should just say so. Just because we’re first-years, just because we’re new, doesn’t mean we’re not capable of ‒ you know, maybe if you just talked to ‒ ” he cuts himself off on a swallow, eyes going wide as he looks at Eliot and then rapidly away, his gaze catching on the women across from them again.

Eliot, in an effort to collect his thoughts and will his pounding heart to calm down, follows his gaze.

One of the women, the smaller one, has clambered up into her partner’s lap. They look like they’re enjoying themselves. It’s more or less what Eliot has been hoping to replicate with Quentin ‒ a nice thorough public make-out and a bit of over-the-clothes groping, as an appetizer for the true feast upstairs, in the privacy of his own bed.

Now, he’s slightly anxious he’s missing a piece of the puzzle. Because whatever that little outburst was, it clearly wasn’t about Margo and Alice.

“You’re saying straightforward is the best method, here,” Eliot says, the words spitting out of him without nuance, without room to backtrack or equivocate. He turns away from the women to look Quentin dead in the eye. “I can do straightforward.”

There is a palpable silence between them for a moment, as Quentin meets his stare. The sense of anticipation is heady, mixing with the perfumes in the air and the low bass of the music on Margo’s carefully curated playlist. Eliot watches Quentin’s jaw bunch up, his eyelids flutter a few times before they slam shut, and he jerks his head away. “I’m sorry,” he says. “I’m in a weird mood.”

“Yeah,” Eliot says, gentle and breathy. “I’d kinda picked up on that.” He risks lifting a hand to place a strand of Quentin’s hair behind his ear. Quentin doesn’t pull away from the touch, but he doesn’t soften at it either. “Do you want to tell me what’s wrong?”

“It’s absolutely not even a little bit important. I’m overreacting. It doesn’t matter.”

Uh oh. It’s never good when Quentin repeats himself like that. Eliot clears his throat, proceeding with caution.

“I don’t believe you,” Eliot says. He drops his hand back to his lap, trying to find his footing. “Do you ‒ want to go upstairs, Q? We could ‒ talk about it?”

It’s not what he’s been hoping for, not the way he’d intended on inviting Quentin back to his room tonight. And besides that, the night is still so very young ‒ he honestly isn’t ready this time, to say goodbye to the beautiful party that Margo has put together, a cherry on top of their already solid reputation. But if Quentin needs to talk...

“I don’t think that’s a good idea.”

“Q, you’re being weird,” Eliot says, keeping his voice kind. “If something’s bothering you ‒ ”

“It’s just not who I am, El,” Quentin says, and there’s a finality to the words that shocks Eliot into silence. He doesn’t even know what Quentin means by that, but he shifts at the impact all the same, putting slightly more distance between them.

“What’s not who you are?” he asks.

“This,” Quentin says. And then he waves a hand between the two of them, before letting it flop back down into his own lap, listless.

Eliot’s heart falls down into his stomach, abrupt and painful, a thud that jars through his bones.

“This isn’t ‒ I think it’s best if ‒ ” Quentin cuts himself off with an impatient puff of air, but that’s just fine, Eliot really doesn’t need ‒ doesn’t want ‒ him to finish the sentence.

“Okay,” he says, mechanical. What else is he supposed to fucking say?

He tries to remember the last time he’s been rejected like this, and then nearly laughs at himself because he’s never been rejected like this. He hadn’t even made a move yet. Quentin has just cut him off at the pass, taken his knees out from under him. It’s out of the blue, and he has no idea what the fuck happened, and it fucking hurts

“Maybe Margo struck out with that guy,” Quentin says, shooting for casual and missing the mark. Eliot can’t feel his fingers. They’ve gone numb, resting against his own legs. “You could swoop in and ‒ ”

“Thanks for the tip,” Eliot says. He can’t listen to this. “But I think I’ve proven myself up to the task in that department.”

He stands up, jittery, trying to figure out why he’s not holding a drink, patting haphazardly at his vest pocket for a cigarette. “El,” Quentin says. “I can’t. You get that, right? I’m not built for it, we’re not ‒ ”

Built for what? Eliot wants to yell at him. But he just coughs and offers Quentin the tightest and briefest of smiles. “I’m going to go check on Bambi and man the bar for a while.”

He turns to leave, his heart and mind a maelstrom of confusion and hurt. But his eyes catch at the last second on the shadow of misery crossing Quentin’s face. His posture, less than ideal on the best of days, has now devolved into a full-on crumple, his body curling up like he’s hoping to fold himself smaller and smaller until he’s compacted straight out of existence. Eliot doesn’t understand what Q is feeling ‒ clearly, he’s not as good at reading him as he’d thought. But he doesn’t have it in him to storm off and leave him looking like that.

Because Quentin doesn’t owe him shit, obviously, but he’s clearly upset about something. And Eliot owes it to him to stop being such a horny bastard and actually offer support to a friend.

“Listen, Q,” Eliot says, squaring his shoulders and darting his eyes over Quentin’s perfect face. He hopes Quentin can’t tell how badly this is affecting him. “If ‒ if there’s ever anything that’s bothering you, you know you can talk to me about it, right?”

“That might be a little weird,” Quentin says, but he straightens slightly and smiles up at him, kind and ‒ and pitying, maybe? Eliot feels like he’s going to be sick. “But thanks.”

And that, effectively, is the end of Eliot’s night, in every way that really matters. He doesn’t leave the party, though. He hangs around and mingles, makes drinks, even talks to Quentin a bit more about nothing important, later that night when their whole group ends up sprawled over the couches together. They lounge in varying degrees of comfort, Margo side-eying Alice while Alice side-eyes Penny, Quentin and Eliot sitting next to each other but with the chasm of several inches separating them. Julia keeps trying to meet Quentin’s eye and he keeps avoiding it. They just ‒ they chat and drink as the evening simmers down to its natural denouement; it’s nothing special, nothing out of the ordinary, nobody’s talking about anything that matters. It’s an evening like any other.

It’s just that every tingling bit of anticipation that Eliot has been carrying with him since the first day of the school year… it’s been drained away. That hollow, uncertain, aching feeling, the nagging thought that something is off, something is missing… it’s back. It’s back with a vengeance.

And it shouldn’t matter. It’s not like anything has really even happened. He thought maybe ‒ but he’d been wrong, and that’s the end of it. It’s fine.

It’s fine.

It’s ‒ fine.

Eventually, he goes upstairs to his room alone, ignoring Margo’s quizzical glance as he does so. He very purposefully doesn’t look at Quentin before he leaves, trying his damndest not to think about how he’d imagined this evening would end. How he would have stood up from the couch and held out his hand to Q, how Q would have taken it and followed him up the stairs. How everyone still at the party would have known exactly what they were going upstairs to do. Quentin would have been flustered about it, Eliot would have teased him. Then the door clicking shut, and then the rustle of fabric, the beating of hearts pressed up against each other, the feeling of skin

Eliot closes his bedroom door and flops down face-first on the bed, fully dressed. He thinks about nothing.

~~~~~

Quentin is aggressively normal with him the next morning. It’s Sunday, so the Cottage is slow to awaken, and the two of them end up alone together in the kitchen with their coffees. Quentin asks him if he’s actually planning on getting any work done that day, or if he’s written off the whole weekend once again. Eliot quips back on auto-pilot about the boundless expanse of his own intellect and the futility of restrictive study schedules being made to contain his genius.

Quentin smiles at him, really smiles, with his eyes all crinkled up, and Eliot almost wants to cry. He hates how much this is affecting him. He has to keep reminding himself, as Quentin comes over to bump their shoulders together companionably while he’s cleaning out his coffee mug, that nothing has actually happened. Yesterday, he and Quentin were friends. Today, he and Quentin are friends.

It fucking sucks. He’s wondering how weird it would be to ask Quentin for a breakdown on his reasoning. Maybe if he found out why Q didn’t want him, he could ‒

But that, ladies and gentlemen, is what creepers who don’t know how to take no for an answer would do. Q wants to be his friend? Cool. Eliot can do that. He loves being Quentin’s friend. He loves spending time with him. He loves learning about him, and telling him about himself. He loves arguing with him. Loves flirting with him. Loves studying with him, loves ‒

Fucking fuck shit goddamn.

It has been a weird six weeks.

“Margo and Alice went upstairs together last night,” Quentin says, jolting Eliot out of his reverie. “So it looks like they got their shit together.”

Eliot leans back against the kitchen counter-top, scrutinizing Quentin’s face and digesting those words. Was that some sort of a dig? He’s not really sure what he’s trying to get at with it, so he just clears his throat and nods. “Good for them.”

“Yeah.”

Quentin is hovering in the kitchen doorway, looking a little uncertain, and something in Eliot shifts. Damned if he’s going to let this be weird. Q’s a good friend, and, as previously emphasized, nothing even happened.

“I’ll come to the library with you if you promise to actually take breaks for food.”

Quentin brightens in obvious relief. “And I’ll let you come to the library with me if you promise to actually finish an assignment.”

“You drive a hard bargain, Coldwater.”

They have a completely perfectly normal, very pleasant, not at all devastating day together. Eliot doesn’t wrap his arm around Quentin’s shoulders as they walk to the library. He doesn’t kick at Quentin’s ankles to get his attention when he becomes immediately bored with his studies. He doesn’t ruffle Q’s hair or lean into his space or find a thousand excuses to touch him even as they sit in companionable silence reading their respective books.

But he does pester Q to take a break around midday and go to the cafeteria for some food, and they do bicker over whether Eliot is being too snobby about the menu options therein. Normal normal normal.

And things continue to be normal for the rest of the week. On Tuesday, Eliot walks with Quentin to drop him off at class before heading to his own lecture. He’s been attending more than his usual number of classes lately, and he’s too tired to lie to himself about the reason why. Any fucking excuse to spend time with Quentin. Anything to make him happy. It’s turned into a bit of a habit, so even now with his hopes dashed, he finds himself following routines.

After class, and decidedly not in line with routine, he runs into Dean Fogg pacing outside in the hallway. “Ah, Mr. Waugh. May I have a word?”

Um. “Sure?” He agrees without thinking, some ingrained instinct towards politeness kicking in.

Fogg doesn’t take him back to his office, thank god, since nothing good ever comes of being asked to go there. Instead, he gestures Eliot wordlessly into an empty classroom, and without preamble, hands a book to him. “I thought this might be of interest to you, given your area of study.”

It’s a offensively large, blocky textbook with real heft to it. Eliot stares down at the bland black lettering on a maroon background. Advanced Telekinetics Vol. I.

“Okay,” Eliot says, completely bewildered. This, along with Fogg’s strange questions about his interest in independent studies, and, frankly, just the fact that Fogg had been waiting outside his classroom to talk to him, compels him to ask: “Okay, but ‒ what the fuck?”

Fogg’s face tightens and he lets out a huff of air. “I’m attempting to take an interest.”

“Why?”

“Because you have real talent.”

“And you care because ‒ ”

“Eliot,” Fogg says, and the use of his first name is surprising enough that Eliot snaps his jaw around whatever blasé insubordination he’d been in the middle of. “There are the students that I help because they want to be here and they want to learn. Julia Wicker has already approached me about taking on extra lessons, did you know that?”

Eliot did know that, actually. Quentin had been trying his damndest not to be jealous about it. Adorable. It had pissed Eliot off, actually, that Julia had gone to Fogg, a flash of protectiveness that lights up inside of him whenever he sees Q leave to take his meds at the end of the day. Still, it wouldn’t do to be openly hostile to the man in charge of one’s elite magical education, so he offers a tight nod. “Julia’s always eager to learn.”

Fogg continues, clearing his throat and looking down at his hands. “And then there are the students who are full of boundless potential, but wouldn’t give me the time of day unless I forced the issue.”

“You’re standing here talking to me about my potential,” Eliot says. This is the weirdest conversation he’s had in ‒ maybe ever. It’s distracting him, though, from his other bullshit, so he decides to roll with it for a moment. “So, what, are you asking me to take on extra work?”

“I hardly think that would be a prudent use of my time or efforts. I do know you.”

Does he? Based on what, exactly? But Eliot is still more bewildered than angry, so he coughs and opens the book, fluttering through the pages at random. With just a glance, he can tell it will probably be actually useful, which is sort of annoying, all things considered. “Okay,” he repeats. “Okay, thanks for the book, I guess.”

“Read it, will you? Take an interest. Invest in yourself.”

There’s nothing to say to that, so Eliot doesn’t, just gives an awkward nod and starts to make his way towards the door.

“You shouldn’t give up,” Fogg says, raising his voice just as Eliot’s hand touches the doorknob. “You should ask for what you want.”

The first thing he thinks of, absurdly, is Quentin. Obviously ‒ obviously ‒ the Dean of Brakebills Academy is not telling him to take another chance on romance or whatever. That would be insane and frankly enormously creepy on several different levels. Most likely, Fogg is undergoing a midlife crisis and he’s decided to make Eliot Waugh, Problem Child, some sort of pet project. It’s the most logical explanation for the sudden uptick in interest.

“Right,” Eliot says, because he’s run out of all of his usual eloquence. “Okay, can I go now?”

Fogg raises an eyebrow at him, and then gives him a completely inscrutable nod, waving a hand at the door.

Q is waiting for him outside the building, another unbroken routine, another sign that everything is fine. Eliot’s heart warms to see him, because he is a whole-ass sucker.

“Hey, did you come out of an academic building with an additional book in your hands?” Quentin says, as soon as Eliot approaches. “I’ll make a scholar of you yet.”

“You or apparently Dean Fogg,” Eliot says, scoffing in bewilderment. He repeats his odd exchange with the Dean to Quentin as they make their way back to the Cottage, holding the new text under one arm.

“Well that’s a good thing,” Quentin says when he’s finished. “It means Fogg has noticed you and thinks you’ve got something special.”

“Okay, I should be talking to Margo, not you,” Eliot says, only half joking. “She’d back me up on this being extremely fucking weird.”

“Oh, no argument there,” Quentin says. “You’d think that if Fogg wants a mentee, he’d pick someone who gives a shit.”

“Ouch,” Eliot gripes, knocking their elbows into each other. It’s the first time he’s touched Q today and he hates that he knows that. “Don’t hold back.”

“No, I mean, you’re obviously the smartest person I’ve like ‒ ever met,” Quentin says immediately. He’s always doing that, throwing a joking insult one moment and then turning around and just flattening Eliot to the ground with these over-the-top, sincere compliments the next.

“Don’t let Julia hear you say that,” Eliot manages through a suddenly tight throat. “Or Alice, for that matter.”

“We’ll call it a three-way tie, then,” Quentin says, smiling at him. “My point is, Fogg’s never struck me as the nurturing type. He’s got that whole aloof professional vibe going on.”

“Yeah, and he’s a fucking dickhead who told you to stop taking your meds,” Eliot says. “Like I’d spend any extra time around that prick than I have to. I’m surprised Julia tolerates him.”

“Julia’s all about change from the inside out,” Quentin says, repeating the philosophy that Julia had already explained to Eliot, when he’d snapped at her over this very thing. “She thinks she might be able to get Fogg to recognize the injustice and error in some of his administrative methods.”

“Good fucking luck to her,” Eliot says, already tired of the conversation. He holds the front door of the Cottage open for Quentin to enter, and runs up the stairs to his room, passing by Margo and Alice who are giggling together, their heads tilted close in loaded anticipation.

He examines the book in his hands again, frowning in contemplation, and then sets it down on the corner of his bureau. His feelings towards Dean Henry Fogg could be described as indifferent at best, livid on Quentin’s behalf at worst. But for whatever reason, he decides to hold onto the textbook. At least for a little while.

~~~~~

Things continue to be fine.

Seriously. Eliot has had so much fun over the first month and a half of the school year, getting to know Quentin, and Julia, and the other new kids. The Margo-and-Eliot duo has become a squad of four or more a lot of the time, and he likes it much more than he would have imagined. It's been lovely to expand his circle of friends, lovely to realize that he's capable of forming relationships with people without instantly fucking it up.

But the thing is. The thing is.

Eliot hadn’t really appreciated what it would be like here, in the aftermath of disappointed hopes. He’d been cautious with Quentin, made skittish by the strange intensity of his attraction, by the knowledge even from the beginning that he didn’t want to fuck things up with this person. And here’s the rub ‒ he’d played everything exactly right. He’d been as sure of himself as it was possible to be, and then Quentin had stopped him in his tracks. That moment, Quentin’s quiet and apologetic ‘it’s not who I am’ had re-written everything Eliot had understood about the two of them, about who they were and where they were going together.

It’s like he’s been in free fall, waiting to hit the ground, and then instead of feeling the impact he’s just ‒ not falling anymore. He just ‒ he’s there, on the ground, and it’s not the ground he thought he was falling towards. He’s had a crush on Quentin since day one, had been charmed by him immediately. But now? Now that crush has started to hurt, in new and annoying ways.

At the beginning of the year, Eliot would look at Quentin and he'd imagine what it would be like to pin him against a wall and kiss him until he was a quivering mess, and he'd smile at the thought, titillated at the idea. And he'd flirt with Quentin a little bit and Quentin would be awkward at him right back, which was basically how he flirted, and then Eliot would go on with his day. If he felt motivated, he’d find a prospect to bring upstairs for the night, or if he came up empty he'd jerk off and entertain himself with thoughts of Quentin's pretty brown eyes and strong sturdy hands. Just standard stuff for a guy with a healthy libido and a working set of eyeballs who's been spending a great deal of time around Quentin Coldwater.

And then as time went by, as summer transitioned properly into fall, he'd imagine the same thing, pinning Quentin to the wall, and the idle fantasy of it would turn to an itching in his fingers, a needing instead of a wanting. He’d thought he’d made that clear to Quentin, and he’d thought he’d been reading Quentin’s behavior correctly, he’d thought he’d get to know what Quentin sounded like with Eliot’s mouth on him, instead of just imagining it...

It was supposed to be a crush, harmless by definition. It doesn't feel that way anymore. The fact that Quentin doesn't seem to be on the same page is not merely a minor disappointment, but instead a persistent ache behind his breastbone, a painful confusion that's thrown him completely off of his game.

He doesn't just want to bend Q over the nearest surface and have his wicked way with him ‒ of course he does want to fuck him, quite badly, but it's actually a lot more complicated than that.

He really wants to hold Quentin's hand. Like he really wants it. So bad that it's getting harder to touch Quentin in an innocent, platonic way without giving in to all the wanting. It's getting physically painful to see him walk into a room without having the permission to walk up to him and kiss him, slip him a little tongue as a form of hello.

Margo picks up on it, of course. She’s been nagging him since the night of the Transformation Party, after Eliot had quite clearly not followed through on his plans. Margo and Alice, on the other hand, are in the midst of an annoyingly successful little affair. Getting fucked is doing wonders for Margo’s mood and Alice’s stress, and he kind of hates them both for it.

Especially because Margo has decided that her own success story makes her the expert on Eliot’s clusterfuck.

“Why haven’t you just had him already?” she grouses to him one day when she catches him making moon eyes at Quentin from across the living room. He wants to pretend not to know what she’s talking about, but Margo doesn’t take well to being insulted.

“He’s my friend,” he says instead, shooting Margo a glare. He pulls her a few yards back and sits them both down in a window seat, further across the room from where Quentin is working on his homework and chewing on the end of his pencil. He hadn’t even heard Margo approach, truth be told, too busy studying Quentin’s mouth to hear the clack of her heels as she came down the stairs.

“Yes, sure, but you like him, moron. I thought you had big plans last weekend, but now we’re right back to whatever this pining bullshit is. I’m just trying to understand why you haven’t gone for it already.”

“I scoped out his level of interest and he seemed ambivalent,” Eliot says, in a rush, like ripping off a band-aid. This isn’t quite admitting defeat, but it’s something close to it. He risks a glance down at Margo’s face and catches the flicker of surprise before she smooths it away.

“You did go for it, then?”

“No…” Eliot says, hedging. “I ‒ he didn’t even let me get that far, he basically said he wasn’t interested.”

“Okay, this is Quentin Coldwater we’re talking about here,” Margo says. “Are you sure he knew what you were getting at? The boy isn’t exactly a master class at social cues.”

“He’s not an idiot,” Eliot says, snappy and defensive. “I flirt with him all the time, it’s not like he doesn’t know I’d be up for it. We were ‒ I thought we were on the same page and then we weren’t.”

He attempts a casual shrug, but Margo is not to be fooled.

She raises an eyebrow at Eliot, squaring her shoulders and jutting her chin out. “You’re way too hung up on him to give up based on ambiguities. Seriously, El, why don’t you just go over and ‒ ask him on a date?”

Okay, what the what now?

“Excuse me?” Eliot looks down at Margo, genuinely incredulous. “A date? I can’t do that, Margo.”

“Why not?”

“Because I like him, duh. Are you not listening?”

“Oh my god,” Margo says, throwing her head back and wiggling her arms at her sides like a toddler throwing a tantrum. “You are the most exhausting motherfucker ‒ ”

“Margo, he’s my friend, I fucking care about him. I’m not about to ruin that by not taking no for an answer. This isn’t even a big deal.”

It really isn’t. It’s nothing. Nothing happened.

“But it sounds like he didn’t even say no. It sounds like you didn’t even ask him. I’m just saying, clear communication is often the key to ‒ ”

“Oh, for fuck’s sake,” Eliot says. “Is that what you did with Quinn, then? Asked her out on a date, took her to a fancy restaurant with white tablecloths and tapered candles, serenaded her with music magic, tucked her hair tenderly behind her ear as you told her of your passion and love and ‒ ”

“Hey so, is this 100% sarcasm, or the aborted draft of a planned outing with Quentin?”

“You can be a real bitch sometimes, do you know that?” Eliot says.

“Aw honey, you say the nicest things.”

“Margo, I’m telling you, whatever I thought was going to happen with Q, it’s not. Can you please just drop it?”

Margo isn’t going to drop it, he knows that perfectly well. For as long as Eliot continues to stare like an idiot at Quentin from across the room, Margo is going to keep calling him on it.

So Eliot is going to have to move the fuck on, that’s all. Shouldn’t be a problem. Because, in case it hasn’t been said enough, nothing happened. Everything’s fine.

And everything continues to be fine, all the way up to Halloween night.

Chapter Text

As previously established, Eliot does not do costume parties.

But he’s also not an unreasonable man, and last year he’d found it impossible to live on a campus with a bunch of horny twenty-somethings, and let Halloween pass by entirely unremarked upon. So he and Margo have devised a compromise: they host a party, refuse to endorse or support the wearing of costumes, and turn a blind eye whenever someone doesn’t get the memo.

Julia calls them ‘party poopers’ when she hears about this policy, but they find an unexpected ally in Quentin.

“You mean I don’t have to spend weeks in the leadup to the party fucking dreading it because I don’t know what to wear?”

“You’ve had great costumes in the past!” Julia protests, ever supportive, ever full of shit.

“Sure, when you pick them out for me,” Quentin grouses.

It’s another one of those entirely normal, perfectly fine evenings, the four of them drinking and talking around the fire, the murmur of other unimportant conversations a lovely backdrop for the tableau. It’s peaceful. It really is. Eliot’s heart still flips over every time Quentin laughs at one of his jokes or shoots him a conspiratorial grin at Julia’s ridiculousness, but it only hurts a little bit. They’re sitting together, close and casual, with Eliot’s arm slung across the back of the couch. Not technically touching, beyond the occasional brush against each other as they shift.

So he didn’t get everything he wanted. What else is new? He still has this, the very thing that had so surprised and delighted him at the beginning of September. Friends, a community, people to talk to about real shit, should he ever feel so inclined. Trust and comfort. That’s a hell of a thing.

“So you still decorate the place for Halloween, right?” Julia asks Margo, twisting her lip around in her teeth like she’s trying to solve a particularly difficult puzzle.

“Of course we decorate,” Margo scoffs. “But if I see one motherfucking pumpkin ‒ ”

“Or bat ‒ ” Eliot adds.

“Or witch ‒ ”

“Or ghost ‒ ”

“Or skeleton ‒ ”

“The party is canceled on principal,” Eliot concludes, meeting Margo’s eyes and nodding in tandem with her. They write the rules in this house.

“You two are dorks,” Julia says, rolling her eyes. “Okay, I suppose I might be persuaded to attend your completely joyless Halloween extravaganza. I will, however, be bringing fun-sized candy bars, and you can’t stop me.”

“Who says you’re invited?” Margo pouts.

“I do,” Quentin says. “I live here too, in case you’ve forgotten.”

…Eliot hasn’t forgotten.

Some nights, the knowledge that Quentin is sleeping just down the hall is enough to have him shivering with want, aching with the loneliness of his own cold bed. He’s... having a bit of a problem, you might say. It’s just ‒ it’s weird now that he knows Quentin doesn’t want him, to jerk off to the mental image of Quentin’s pretty lips stretched around his cock. It feels invasive and inappropriate, in this new reality where it’s never going to happen for real.

But Quentin keeps sneaking into his brain without his permission. Eliot can’t actually remember the last time he’s gotten off without thinking about him, which is ‒ not great, all things considered. He’d woken up just that morning, in fact, hazy from a vague impression of a sex dream, and had started palming at his morning wood, pulling gentle and slow, before he’d even been fully conscious. And even once he realized what he was doing, he couldn’t stop, his chest rising and falling, his breath shallow and stuttering ‒ chasing the feel of Quentin’s skin, the urgent press of his hands, fingernails digging into Eliot’s back as they surged and moaned together. He’d felt the cresting wave of desire, heard Quentin’s voice, hoarse with sleep and passion in equal measure, calling his name. The air in the dream had smelled of chalk and pollen and a smoaky hearth, and Eliot had come with a shout muffled into the crook of his elbow, white light bursting behind his eyes.

But that was ‒ he was getting over it. Handling it, as it were. No fucking pun intended.

Damn it.

“First years don’t have any authority around here,” Margo says in answer to Quentin’s bratty comment. Eliot has to shake his head and clear his throat to remember what they’d been talking about. He catches Quentin raising a quizzical eye at him and intentionally glances away. He’s a little afraid of what Q might see in his face if he gets a good look.

“From what you’ve told us, the two of you had all the authority in the world during your first year,” Julia counters.

“We’re special,” Margo says.

“And we had to take our lumps like anyone else,” Eliot adds.

Margo leans across the space between them and smacks him on the arm. “Trade secrets, El.”

Before Julia can gleefully ask Eliot for more details, they’re interrupted by Alice. She comes up to the group and nods at Quentin, Eliot, and Julia each in turn, before taking a seat next to Margo and kissing her hello. “Did you finish Sunderland’s practice quiz?” she asks without preamble, looking at Julia and then over to Q.

“Yeah, how did you feel about the third problem set?” Julia asks. “I’d love to go over your solution for the alternate circumstances ‒ ”

“Honey,” Margo interrupts, syrup-sweet and deadly. She wraps an arm around Alice’s waist and snuggles in close. “Did you just come over here and interrupt our very important conversation with homework talk?”

Very important conversation,” Quentin repeats with a scoff. He rolls his eyes in solidarity with Alice. “They were talking about the Halloween party.”

To Eliot’s considerable surprise, Alice perks up a bit at that. “I have a poodle skirt and a jacket that I think I can enchant to look like a Pink Ladies jersey. What do you think?”

“Abort, abort,” Julia says, staring with wide eyes at Alice and jerking a hand in front of her neck.

“It’s okay,” Margo says, patting Alice on the head. “You’re new, you’re still learning.”

“What ‒ ”

“Apparently costume parties are only for the truly desperate,” Julia fills her in, with yet another eye roll to the heavens.

“And since you’re already getting some…” Margo puts in delicately, wagging her eyebrows at Alice. Despite the fact that she’s pretty much sitting in Margo’s lap, Alice goes a bit red at that.

“Okay, fine, no costume. I guess I didn’t realize you were all allergic to fun.”

Julia snickers at Margo’s mock-affronted glare, and congratulates Alice on being the only one with an ounce of holiday spirit left.

As the conversation devolves into more sparring between the three women, Quentin sighs and sinks himself further back into the couch, the back of his head brushing against Eliot’s arm. Q tilts up to look up at him, one corner of his mouth lifting.

“What about you?” Quentin asks, his voice soft and rich and warm. He’s got the most kissable lips Eliot has seen in his whole stupid life.

“What about me, what?”

“Holiday spirit. You don’t seem the festive type, somehow.”

“I’m an extremely festive person,” Eliot says, shifting his arm lower so it’s resting more firmly against Quentin. It’s a stupid thing to do. He feels really nice.

“Uh huh. So if you were going to dress up...”

“Sexy vampire?” Eliot says, uncaring. He’s distracted. Quentin’s hair is tickling along the underside of his arm.

“That’s so uninspired.”

“I told you, I’m not a costume person,” Eliot says.

“Besides, ‘sexy vampire’ is redundant. You could just say ‘vampire,’ The other part’s implied.”

...What?

Eliot looks down at Quentin’s glass of wine, resting right next to a coaster on the coffee table. It’s still half full, and it’s only his second drink of the evening.

“What?”

“Oh, don’t fish for compliments, it’s undignified,” Quentin says, like it’s two weeks ago, and they’re still friends who flirt with each other constantly. Like they’re not living in the aftermath of Quentin’s rejection.

“Thank you?” Eliot says, a little wobbly and off-kilter. He has to say something.

Because that was Quentin hitting on him. He’s almost entirely sure. There’s not really any other explanation, and even if Eliot’s been a little off his game lately, it’s not like he’s completely oblivious.

He hates the spark of hope, lighting up in his gut. He’s almost angry at Quentin for it ‒ because he said no, and Eliot needs to get the fuck over it, not keep wondering and waiting for Quentin to change his mind.

Quentin sighs, seemingly oblivious to the hailstorm of thoughts he’s just set off in Eliot’s buzzy brain. “Jules and I used to dress up as the Chatwins all the time when we were younger. It was sweet, and also pathetic because we were Jane and Martin, sister and brother, and I had such a crush on her, you know?”

“You’re in a reminiscing sort of mood,” Eliot remarks, and he stretches slightly, using the excuse to put just an inch of space between himself and Quentin. It’s just better that way, for right now.

“I think I’m just ‒ a lot’s happened, you know, in the past two months. A lot has changed in my life, so quickly and so intensely, and sometimes it’s like I can’t even remember anything from before. It’s like it happened to someone else.”

Eliot understands the feeling. Everything before Brakebills and Margo feels unreal to him a lot of the time. And everything before Quentin is muted, made less somehow, by the awareness of what he was missing.

Jesus. Eliot himself is only on his third glass of wine. It’s only nine-thirty.

He shudders out a breath, focusing on the possible undercurrents of Quentin’s words, the worrying shape of them. “You’re feeling okay?” he asks. He doesn’t think he’s crossing a line, but he can’t be sure.

Quentin shrugs, and then tilts fully over to rest his head against Eliot’s shoulder. God, it’s nice. God, it sucks. “Some things about my life are better than I ever hoped they’d be,” Quentin says. Eliot can feel his warm breath even through the fabric of his shirt. “And other shit is just the same. I don’t know what I expected, honestly.”

Eliot’s been getting better about sincerity recently; it’s an emotional muscle he’d wanted to strengthen, for Q. And he supposes he’d be the world’s worst dickhead if he went back on that progress just because Quentin doesn’t actually want to fuck him afterall.

But still. He is Eliot Waugh, and disappointing people is baked right into the contract. Quentin should probably learn what he’s signed up for.

So instead of pulling Quentin in close the way he maybe wants to, instead of gently asking him what he needs, what he can do to help... he lets out a false laugh, pulling away from Quentin to ruffle his hair. “Your life won’t really have changed until you get the full Physical Kids’ party experience. No more lounging around in corners with your friends, Q. This Halloween, you’re getting trashed and you’re gonna dance.”

“Trust me, you don’t want to see him dance,” Julia cuts in, having caught the tail-end of their quiet exchange. Eliot startles, nearly having forgotten that the girls were there.

Margo and Alice are making out now, which explains why Julia had jumped ship to join Eliot and Quentin’s conversation instead.

“You were at least as embarrassing a dancer as I was,” Quentin says, indignant, and just like that, they’re back to the pop-pop-pop of innocent banter, Julia demonstrating some of twelve-year-old Quentin’s signature moves while Quentin splutters and denies, Alice and Margo surfacing from the face-sucking just long enough for Margo to deploy a few cutting remarks before she drags her ‒ girlfriend? fuck buddy? Eliot has to remember to ask ‒ upstairs and to bed.

Eliot stands up to go fetch a fresh bottle of wine for their diminished group, separating himself fully from Quentin as he does so. He’s half regretful that he’d broken the quiet mood between them, even as he knows it’s for the best. When he returns to the couch he sits next to Julia, under the pretense of pouring her a fresh glass, and then looks over at Quentin, helplessly drawn as fucking always. If he sees a flicker of disappointment in Quentin’s eyes about the new seating arrangement, it’s gone before Eliot has time to feel like shit about it.

~~~~~

“So who are you supposed to be?” Eliot asks Kady Orloff-Diaz, twisting his face up into the evillest of smirks.

She’s wearing a leather jacket and a pair of black skinny jeans. It’s very clearly not a costume.

“Fuck right the hell off,” is all she says in answer, snatching the drink Eliot had lovingly prepared for her, and gulping down a swallow with absolutely no appreciation for the flavor profile.

“I can’t leave, I’m manning my station,” Eliot says, smiling poison-sweet. (He doesn’t actually have a real problem with Kady, if he’s being honest with himself. She’s just delightfully fun to antagonize, mostly because she gives as good as she gets).

“Okay, bye then,” she says, almost a snarl, as she turns back to the party at large. But before she walks away, she does give a slight nod towards the drink, and her lip twitches up. A thank you if Eliot has ever seen one.

He lets her leave and takes a drink order from the next already-tipsy partier, the rhythm of his own skill and creativity creating a bubble of satisfaction in his chest. Eliot finds himself able to enjoy this giant blow-out party a lot better than the last one ‒ for one thing, he’d actually stopped shirking his duties and helped Margo with the details, so he feels a real sense of pride in the extravagant results. And for another, the nauseated feeling of hope and fear he’d been carrying with him a few weeks ago has vanished in a cloud of unfulfilled dreams. It’s nice, in a way. He’s free to enjoy himself without worrying about Quentin. In theory.

At the moment, Quentin is over in the corner of the room talking to Julia and Alice. He’s aware of this, even though he’s trying his damndest to focus on bartending instead of falling back into his usual past-time of staring at Q wherever he happens to be in any given room. It’s not a habit he wants to have. It’s not one he’s been great at breaking thus far.

His next glance in Q’s direction pulls him up short, though. Whereas moments before, Quentin and the two ladies had been chatting, casual as anything, there now seems to be a new sharpness to their conversation. Alice is leaning in close to Quentin, a hand gripped urgent on his arm. Julia, dressed in what Eliot assumes is a Jane Chatwin costume, is frowning, her arms crossed, her lip pinched between her teeth. And Quentin ‒

Quentin looks a little sick, visibly pale even in the low light. His shoulders have hunched over, a sure sign of discomfort and unease. Eliot tightens his fist around the shot glass he’d been fingering absentmindedly, pushing away the already-ingrained instinct to fly to Quentin’s side at the smallest sign of trouble. He has no hope of hearing what they’re talking about over the music and the crowd, but whatever it is, it doesn’t seem like an appropriate topic of conversation for a night of revelry.

“Uh ‒ Eliot?” a voice calls his attention back to the task at hand. It’s Todd, equipt with a dopey grin and even dopier Han Solo ensemble. God, the fact that Todd thought he could pull that off… a tragedy for the ages.

“What can I do for you?” he says, already bored.

“Oh! I thought maybe you’d be able to make me a drink! If it’s not a problem. I like pretty much whatever. As long as it’s sweet. I don’t like it to taste too alcohol-y, ya know?”

Eliot’s eyelid twitches. “Uh huh. Sure.” He reaches for the cheapest bottle of vodka he has condescended to include in tonight’s supply, and then looks back over in the direction of Quentin’s intriguing conversation.

The tableau has changed slightly. Julia is still frowning, but she’s taken a tiny step away, the lines of her face fallen into resignation rather than resistance. Alice’s back is to Eliot, so he can’t see her face, but Quentin ‒ the discomfort seems to have eased from him; his posture has straightened, and although he’s still a little washed out, there’s a happy glint to his eyes, the slightest uptick to the corners of his mouth.

Wordlessly handing Todd the most generic and uninspired drink he’s made all evening, Eliot abandons his post, to the audible groans of the peons lined up to go next. “Make your own drinks, it’ll be good for you,” Eliot calls over his shoulder with a genial wave. He’s approaching Q and the others before he’s decided if it’s a good idea. (He’s getting better, but sometimes it’s hard to resist.)

“You three look like the life of the party over here,” he says, smiling big and bright and sliding his arms around Julia and Alice as he steps up to them.

They both seem slightly startled by his affection, but neither pulls away. “Hi, Eliot,” Alice says. “Margo’s out on the dance floor, I’m supposed to join her there.”

“It wouldn’t do to keep Bambi waiting, as I’m sure you’ve learned by now.”

“She can be demanding,” Alice says, prim and proper. “But I think it’s admirable that she knows what she wants.”

“Lucky you,” Quentin puts in, nudging her arm.

“You’re not doing too bad yourself,” Alice says, and she raises a very significant eyebrow over the top of her glasses. Quentin purses his lips and shoots her a glare.

“Yeah, thanks,” he says, through clenched teeth.

Interesting.

Not Eliot’s business.

Interesting.

“Maybe you should go, then, if your girlfriend is looking for you,” Quentin continues, and the two of them stare at each other for a moment, each stubbornly trying to convey something with their eyes alone, before Alice finally sighs, giving Quentin’s shoulder a final friendly squeeze.

“I’ll catch up with you later, Q.”

“So ‒ girlfriend. Is that the official word?” Eliot asks, once Alice is gone. He drops his arm from around Julia’s shoulder and wordlessly ushers both her and Quentin back towards the drinks. Julia is still nursing her cocktail, but Q is dry.

“Margo and Alice?” Julia asks, surprised. “I’d think you would have talked about that with Margo.”

Eliot keeps forgetting to ask her, which makes him feel just slightly guilty. From what he can tell, it seems like Margo and Alice are having fun together, if nothing else. He reaches for Quentin’s glass automatically, and he hands it over so Eliot can refill it for him.

“Alice says jury’s still out,” Quentin cuts in before Eliot can say something defensive to Julia. “She’s not as good as Margo at knowing what she wants.”

“It’s a skill only a few can truly boast,” Eliot says airily. Like he’s not thinking about the fact that for the first time in his life, he’d known exactly what he wanted, and had failed to get it. Life’s a bitch.

“Yeah, well, I think it’s cool that they’re giving it a shot,” Quentin says, an odd note to his voice. When Eliot turns away from the drink cart to look at him, he finds Quentin staring directly into his eyes, something undefinable shining through his lovely thick lashes.

“They seem to be on the same page,” Julia puts in, an edge to her voice. “That’s important in any relationship, no matter the parameters.”

“Yeah thanks, Jules, I fucking heard you the first time,” Quentin snaps, unexpected and harsh. She sniffs at him while Eliot swivels his head between the two of them, trying to figure out why his heart has started beating faster. He doesn’t like not knowing what they’re talking about. He especially doesn’t like that they’re talking in code; it makes him nervous, like maybe it has something to do with him. Or worse ‒ maybe it doesn’t.

“Shots, anyone?” Eliot says, clapping his hands once and then sliding them together in a show of enthusiasm he’s struggling to feel.

“I’m going to go catch up with Penny,” Julia says, offering Quentin and Eliot both a tight smile before turning away and vanishing into the crowd.

And then there were two.

“Yes,” Quentin says. “Shots.”

~~~~~

An hour later, Eliot finds himself with Quentin, the two of them settled in close and intimate in his favorite alcove in the Cottage. It’s the same recessed bench where he and Margo have snuggled up on many an evening together, a comfortable perch from which to survey their kingdom.

He’s not surveying shit at the moment, of course, far too caught up in Quentin. They’re both the perfect amount of giggle-drunk, buzzy and fun and light, and it’s the most relaxed and normal Eliot has felt around Quentin in weeks. They’re being flirty and touchy like they used to ‒ Quentin is curled up against his side, his fingers tracing lazy patterns on the legs of Eliot’s pants, and Eliot wants nothing more in the world than to bury his lips in the fine strands of his hair, run the hand he has wrapped around his shoulder down lower, to rest familiarly against the curve of his hip.

He’s considering whether it’s worth taking the chance. People change their minds, after all. It’s a thing that happens. And if Quentin hasn’t changed his mind, then what the fuck is he supposed to make of all of this? Q’s not the type to tease. He’s open and honest and lovely and he wouldn’t be touching Eliot like this if he didn’t want him.

Right?

“El, you know, I think maybe I’m being stupid,” Quentin says, his head resting companionably against the curve of Eliot’s arm. “Like maybe it’s just stupid to pretend that I ‒ because obviously I’m shit at lying about it, even to myself, you know, and then at some point, even if I’m wrong ‒ all I’m doing is denying myself what I want, which is ‒ it’s self-destructive, is what it is. And I thought I was being pragmatic, but ‒ but now I don’t know. You know?”

“Quentin,” Eliot says, biting back on a smile as he listens to Quentin’s tipsy ramble. “Perhaps you might be so kind as to provide me with a touch of context. Something I can work with, here.”

Quentin looks up at him, frowns, and blinks several times in apparent bewilderment. “No, you know. You get it, El, why I’m scared of stuff, because you really get me, right? Which is really nice. But I’m trying not to be, you know, such a chickenshit about this. I’m trying to go after the things that matter.”

“Okay,” Eliot says, placating. Quentin looks deadly serious, his big brown eyes wide and earnest, his lips parted slightly as if he’s seeing something astonishing in Eliot’s face.

God, maybe he’s more drunk than Eliot thought.

“Okay?” Quentin repeats, like the word has special meaning. “Is it?”

“Everything’s okay,” Eliot says, forever compelled towards the instinct of reassurance. He himself is just tipsy enough that it’s hard to read Quentin’s mood. He doesn’t seem morose, and he’s not caught up in his head all the way; Eliot has already gotten pretty good at recognizing a true thought spiral. It’s more just the rambling of a person who has a point and is taking his sweet time getting to it. To be honest, Eliot has no desire to rush things along. He wants to sit here with Q, just like this, until the sun comes up.

“Everything’s okay,” Quentin parrots again, and then he shifts, pulling slightly away from Eliot, which is exactly what he doesn’t want, and ‒

And then Quentin kisses him.

For all of Quentin’s disjointed ramblings and uncertain, jittery movements in the build-up, the kiss itself is smooth as hell. Q’s hands have come up to cup his face, and his lips are just the right amount of firm, pressed dead center against Eliot’s own unsuspecting mouth. For a moment it’s all Eliot can do, to analyze these details, to notice the press of each fingertip into his face, the curve of a thumb near his chin, the stroke of a pinky finger by his ear. His brain has gone completely quiet, all of the sound and air and light sucked out of the universe as he tries to get himself to process, to understand

And then ‒

Oh my god.

Yes.

Yes.

Just before Quentin pulls away, Eliot gets it together enough to surge forward into him, pulled by a force stronger than gravity. He opens his mouth to Quentin, swallows the gasp he makes when their tongues touch. His entire body is vibrating, electric currents of elation jumping along his nerve endings. He moves forward without thinking, crowding Quentin back against the seat, even as Q’s hands slip further back and tangle in his curls and oh my god yes fuck yes.

He deepens the kiss, plunging his tongue into the depth of Q’s mouth, as Quentin tilts to meet him, his chest bowing up, his hands gripping tight. Eliot wraps his arms entirely around Quentin’s waist to pull him even closer, shoving forward with very little elegance until he’s essentially pushing Quentin down onto the bench, bending him over so he can kiss him deep and thorough and wet, all the things he’s dreamed about, all the things he’d thought he’d have to live without…

“El,” Quentin gasps when they’re forced to break apart for air, and Eliot lets out an embarrassing little moan, ducking to press his lips under Quentin’s jaw.

“Q,” he says, helpless, smelling the sweat of his skin. He drags one hand up along Q’s back so he can grip the back of his neck, give his head support as he ducks down to lick and nibble at the exposed column of his throat.

This time it’s Quentin who moans, a quiet sound that Eliot feels rumbling beneath the surface of his skin. Something desperate and overwhelming barrels its way through Eliot’s body ‒ he doesn’t know why this is happening, he doesn’t know what Quentin is thinking, and he should care about that, he really should, but at the moment the fear and longing under his skin is buried under an onslaught of relief ‒ that this is happening, that he hadn’t been deluding himself, that Quentin wants him, Jesus god, thank fuck

Quentin’s hands unclench from his hair and he brings them down to smooth over Eliot’s back, dipping under his shirt and scratching along the skin he finds there. Eliot’s body jolts, electrified by the contact, and he slips forward, into the cradle of Quentin’s thighs (god, when had he spread his legs like that? It’s the hottest thing that’s ever happened ever in Eliot’s whole damn life), and presses Q down so Eliot is lying entirely on top of him ‒

“Fuck, Quentin,” Eliot says, breathless, pressing down into him and reconnecting their lips. Quentin gasps right up against his mouth again and rolls his hips upward, and Eliot can feel him, hard and fucking perfect, through the layers of fabric. “Fuck.” Q’s mouth is hot and slick, his tongue silk against Eliot’s own; Eliot pulls it into his own mouth and sucks hard, and Quentin’s whole body shudders, his hips grinding flush up against Eliot’s.

They’re in the middle of a crowded room, tucked up in a corner but fully visible to anyone who chooses to see, but this isn’t the first time someone’s gotten hot and heavy at a Cottage party. It’s not the first time, or the second time, or the third time, that Eliot has done so. And maybe he expected something a little more private, a little more intimate with Quentin, but ‒

But ‒

Oh Jesus, Quentin. He’s not a good enough man to put a stop to this now.

They sink into each other, surging up and grinding down, everything mindless, incandescent relief and the heady intoxication of anticipation, too, because this is going somewhere, and it’s going there fast. Quentin paws at the front of Eliot’s chest, his hands struggling to find room between their bodies to work at the knot of Eliot’s tie. They’re pressed too close together for him to quite manage it, and he lets out a growl of frustration against Eliot’s lips, nipping at his mouth and then giving up and sliding his fingers back into Eliot’s curls, tangling and tugging in tandem with the slow, measured grind of their hips. Quentin’s ankles have locked around Eliot’s shins, holding them flush together.

Eliot bunches the back of Quentin’s button-up in his hands, pulling up and then getting one hand under it to trace the knobs of his spine, press the whole of his palm into the dip of his lower back. Smooth and warm, so soft, mother of god ‒ he wants to kiss the spot his hand is touching, and then keep moving lower, wants to take Quentin apart using just his mouth, maybe more than he’s ever wanted anything.

It’s the cruelest injustice in the world that they’re not already upstairs in Eliot’s bed, but they’re undoubtedly going to relocate very soon, just as soon as they can stop trying to climb inside of each other right here in the middle of this entirely irrelevant party. And then they can do this without clothes on. Eliot’s cock jerks at the thought and he circles his hips, pulling the skin of Quentin’s sensitive neck in between his lips, mindless, almost suckling. Quentin whines in his ear and god the sounds he’s making, for Eliot ‒ because of himfuck.

Nothing has ever felt like this. Eliot can’t remember the last time he’s been this worked up while fully clothed ‒ a little making out and dry-humping shouldn’t be doing this to him, but he supposes he should have long since accepted the fact that nothing works as expected when it comes to Quentin Coldwater.

And despite the lamentable, unavoidable fact that they are very much not in private right now, Eliot is sincerely starting to wonder how they’re going to stop. Quentin whimpers and licks at the seam of his mouth, and it’s so good that he starts to shake. He feels feverish, his hands kneading at the flesh of Quentin’s back, sliding up to stoke and pull through Quentin’s hair with a desperation unbecoming a man of his highly cultivated skill.

Forcing himself to slow down just for a moment, he holds himself up on one forearm so their chests aren’t pressed together, and rests his forehead against Quentin’s, squeezing his eyes shut and attempting to slow his breathing. “Quentin,” he says, and his voice sounds hoarse and brittle and wrecked, even to his own ears. “Quentin, maybe ‒ ”

But he can’t finish the sentence, can’t slow this train down, because Quentin is still jerking up into him, his breath catching on every inhale, his hands brushing along Eliot’s stubble and then down the front of his chest, hunting for skin wherever he can find it. What man is strong enough to say no to that wordless pleading, implicit in every shaky press of Quentin’s sturdy hands?

Eliot groans in surrender sets himself to work on a thorough exploration of Quentin’s mouth, delving in deep and then easing off to pepper slower, sweeter kisses against the bow of his gorgeous lips. Both of their hands are moving non-stop, sliding through hair and curving around hips, tracing the muscles of arms and the delicate shell of ears ‒ Quentin grows bold and palms Eliot’s ass in both of his hands, lifting himself up and pressing Eliot down at the same time. “God. Fuck, fuck ‒ ” Eliot stutters his hips forward into the pressure, feeling out of control in the best way. Would it be the worst thing in the world to just keep doing this forever, until they both shook apart in each other’s arms?

Quentin moans his name again, and everything is fire and relief and sensation and perfect, perfect, perfect

“Oh, thank fuck,” a loud, brazen voice says from just above them. “Finally.”

The rest of the world reappears, snapping back into existence with a resonant, unwelcome boom.

It’s Margo, of fucking course. Eliot knows this without looking. And he doesn’t look, in fact. Tearing his lips from Quentin’s mouth with the greatest reluctance, he settles instead for pressing his face forward into the hollow of his neck, letting out a deep, frustrated sigh. His heart is galloping. “You’re interrupting,” he growls at his traitorous best friend, the words pressed directly into Quentin’s skin.

Q’s hands are not quite on his ass anymore, but they’re still resting against his lower back. At the rumble of Eliot’s words against him, he squirms and sucks in a breath, his fingers convulsing and his hips hitching upward again like he can’t help it.

Fuckfuckfuck why hadn’t they gone upstairs?

“Well carry on,” Margo says, sugar and spice and everything nice. “I just wanted to lodge my formal stamp of approval for this long-overdue development.”

“Um,” Quentin says, and his own voice is pitched low and rough in the way Eliot had always imagined it would be in this exact scenario. Eliot tightens a hand on the back of Quentin’s neck, trembling with the effort of keeping his own hips still. He’s blanketing Quentin, covering his body from scrutiny. He likes it, caging him in, keeping him close and hidden from prying eyes. Mine, the animal part of his brain supplies, and okay, yeah, he seriously needs to calm down, but he can’t quite stop himself from letting his mouth fall open against Quentin’s pulse point. Yum. Quentin squeaks and his hands tighten again. “Okay, bye Margo,” he says through clenched teeth.

But then a second voice sounds unexpectedly, and Eliot groans, shifting his weight off of Quentin and sitting up to scrub a hand over his face. Having an audience isn’t necessarily a deal-breaker for him, but come on.

“Q,” Alice says, caught between embarrassment and amusement. “Really sorry to interrupt. I mean, I actually am, unlike Margo who’s clearly enjoying herself…” she coughs delicately and Quentin sits up too, with a sigh. Eliot can see he's tenting the front of his pants, his breathing coming out in sharp gasps. “Julia says she needs to talk to you.”

“You’re fucking kidding,” Quentin groans, throwing his head back and shifting his hips uncomfortably. He brings a hand up and rubs it against his own thigh, clearly barely refraining from pressing the heel of his palm onto his trapped cock to ease the pressure. Eliot licks his lips, as Q turns to look at him. They catch each other staring, and for a second it’s like a crackle of actual electricity between them, the air heavy with promises not yet fulfilled. Oh Jesus motherfucking Christ how is it fair, in any universe, that Eliot can’t just pull him forward and take him right here, right now?

“She says she saw something else and she needs to discuss it with you,” Alice says with another regretful twist of her lips. “And that you’d know what that means?” Now that Eliot has forced himself to stop looking at Quentin, he can see that while Alice’s chagrin is clearly mixed with amusement, she has the grace to be genuinely apologetic. Margo, on the other hand, is doing a legitimately awful victory dance right in front of them, popping her hips and throwing her hands in the air like she just doesn’t care.

Eliot is going to commit a murder. He’s still so hard he’s actually lightheaded.

Fine,” Quentin grimaces. “Where is she?”

“Outside.”

“Q ‒ ” Eliot says, a spike of adrenaline shooting through his chest. He doesn’t want Quentin to leave. Not now, not ever. An interruption at this point feels like a bad omen, like if they can’t get back to that perfect togetherness, the chance will float away again, leaving him desolate and unfulfilled.

“I’ll be right back, okay?” Quentin says, his voice wavering. A look of determination flits across his face, and he leans in to press a chaste kiss against Eliot’s lips, pulling away before Eliot can tilt into him and start the whole thing over again.

And then he stands up, adjusts himself with a glare straight at Margo, who’s doing jazz hands, and storms away.

Eliot discovers that his own hands are shaking.

“I think I’m going to go upstairs,” he says, fighting to keep his voice even. “Can you tell Q to ‒ ”

“Nuh uh,” Margo says, the dance falling still as she jabs a finger directly at his face. “You’re not abandoning this shindig early, just because you decided to pussy up in the middle of your hosting duties.”

“Actually, Q kissed me,” Eliot says, dazed. As defenses go, it’s not his best. He’s floating. He can’t feel his toes.

“Well you just sit there and calm yourself the hell down, and then go back to making drinks for our grateful subjects,” Margo says. “I’m sure your brave little toaster will be back in no time at all to complete his very public seduction.” She raises an eyebrow at him, then turns it on Alice. “I didn’t know he had it in him, honestly.”

“Something had to give,” Alice says, a conspiratorial edge to her words. Eliot narrows his eyes at her even as his chest continues to shudder, his heart continues to pound. Quentin had kissed him, and it had been better than a dream. He’s having trouble thinking straight.

“And what does that mean, exactly?” he manages to ask Alice, standing up on wobbly legs.

She smiles at him, placid and unyielding. Margo puts a hand on her own chest, right over her heart, and answers for the both of them. “We’re just so happy for you two crazy kids.”

Eliot tells them to fuck off so he can actually commence with the calming down, and then he sits down on the bench again, still warm from his body and Quentin’s. He holds a hand in front of his face and studies it until it stops shaking, pulling in deep breath after deep breath.

It had all happened so fast, like some sort of glorious catastrophe, like the inverse of a trainwreck ‒ an entire world, suddenly bursting with color and feeling and everything bright and good and worthy in existence. He shouldn’t be falling the fuck apart like this, but he can’t help it ‒ the whiplash from expectation to disappointment to realized happiness has crashed violently into him, set his heart on fire and turned his mind to static.

Quentin.

Quentin.

Eliot huffs out a breath of laughter and runs a hand through his thoroughly ruined curls. Their enthusiastic efforts have destroyed the perfectly pressed lines of his outfit, but he doesn’t care ‒ every place he’s disheveled is a place Quentin’s hands have been.

And now he has to hang around this party like he still gives a damn, and wait for Quentin to deal with whatever best friend emergency Julia had needed him for. He flashes back to their tense exchange earlier that night, Julia’s coded words and Quentin’s pinched expression... and then shakes his head, sending the errant thought on its merry way.

Because Quentin had promised him he’d be right back. He clings to the thought like a talisman and spends the next half hour making drinks, laughing with acquaintances and with people whose names he doesn’t know and will never bother to learn, as the party stretches forward into deepest night.

He has no idea what is going on. He has no idea why Quentin has changed his mind. And he’s sure, when the natural high of fucking his tongue into Quentin’s mouth has died down, when the buzzing intoxication of Q’s hands on his skin has faded to the background... he’ll have the wherewithal to ask him a question or two.

~~~~~

Quentin finds him still at the drink cart a while later. He seems to have sobered out somewhat. Eliot literally stops in the middle of preparing a drink to talk to him, abandoning his precious supply to the crowd of bedraggled, horny, drunken Brakebills students. They’re immaterial; their shouts of protest fade away the moment they begin, as Eliot takes in the sight of Quentin, his hair slightly mussed, lips still swollen enough that Eliot has to resist the urge to swoop back in and bite him immediately.

“Hey,” he says, trying not to smile too big.

“Hi,” Quentin says back, twisting the fabric of his sleeves up in his hands. “Um. Can we go somewhere?”

“Anywhere,” he says, like a fucking sap, but Quentin doesn’t seem to notice the breathless adoration in his voice. His eyes are downcast, the twist of his hands anxious. Eliot is still riding the most intense natural high of his life, so he doesn’t let Q’s obvious embarrassment get to him much. As soon as they’re alone, he’ll reel him back in. He’ll have him shivering and moaning again in no time, and ‒

“Can we sit?” Quentin asks, and Eliot, distracted as he’s been, had hardly noticed that Quentin wasn’t leading them upstairs where they could be alone, but rather back to the same alcove they’d been in before. Also, his tone is all weird and off. Eliot ignores the tremor of uncertainty. Quentin is a twitchy sort of guy. They’ll be fine, they just have to find that rhythm again, that perfect sense of togetherness.

“Okay,” Eliot says, keeping his smile soft and sincere. Once they’re sitting he goes for broke, brushing a strand of Quentin’s hair back, tucking it behind his ear. “Are you alright?”

“I ‒ ” Quentin blinks and swallows, tilting away just enough to remove Eliot’s hand. Eliot snatches it back like he’s been burned, suddenly skittish. “I’m ‒ sorry. For. For kissing you like that.”

Eliot’s heart swoops down low, low, low into his stomach. Fuck. What?

Fuck.

“You’re sorry?” he hopes his voice doesn’t sound as wrecked as he suddenly feels. He blinks, fast and frantic, trying to hold back a potent outpour of emotions he doesn’t know how to define.

Because ‒ this can’t actually be happening again, can it? How? How in hell could he have misinterpreted what just happened? Quentin warm and pliant and moaning underneath him ‒ Jesus what the fuck is wrong with him, is he really such a greedy asshole that he’s misread the signs so badly? “You’re... sorry.” Eliot repeats it, this time not a question, staring bleakly at Quentin.

Quentin’s eyes jump up to meet his and then dart away. “No! I mean… I’m not sorry that we kissed, I’m sorry that I ‒ kissed you. Like that.”

Eliot stares at him. “With tongue?” The joke lands sideways and uncertain. His brain is fuzzing, his body held frozen as he waits to understand whether or not his heart is being broken right now. God, does Quentin have that sort of power over him? It’s probably pointless to deny it.

Quentin laughs at him, a strained, pained sound. “No, I mean ‒ I just like… threw myself at you, and I ‒ I don’t know what I was thinking. I’m not the um. Making out with friends at a party type of guy. I was going to talk to you first, but ‒ I got caught up, which was stupid.”

“You were going to talk to me,” Eliot says, hollow. His lips are fucking tingling, the pads of his fingertips throbbing like they’ve been burned. “About ‒ ”

“About us, yeah, um. After what Alice said, because Margo had talked to her, or whatever? But then I don’t know… you were right there, and everything felt so ‒ ” he coughs, his eyes still darting every which way. “I got caught up,” he repeats finally, swallowing and nodding, like this is supposed to explain everything.

“Okay,” Eliot says, fighting for calm. “So you don’t ‒ I ‒ what about Alice? Quentin, I’m kind of lost, here.”

“Right,” Quentin says, laughing nervously again. “Of course you are, because I’m an idiot who can’t have an actual conversation to save his life.”

“Q,” Eliot says, swallowing back on a lump in his throat. He really doesn’t want to say what he’s about to say, but… “Q, it’s okay, if you just ‒ just wanna forget it, or ‒ it doesn’t have to be ‒ ”

Quentin’s hand lurches out and he grabs at Eliot’s wrist, squeezing hard. “Holy shit, I’m fucking this up.”

“Fucking what up?” Eliot asks, his wrist burning white hot under Quentin’s touch. He has never, not once in all of the time he’s known Quentin, been legitimately frustrated with him until right now. He wishes he’d just fucking say what he’s trying to say, so Eliot can start strategizing on how to handle the aftermath. His mind is already racing. Does he need to recategorize what happened between them as a one-time thing? A solitary, lonely memory to cling to, just something to make it even more impossible to move on? Because that is ‒ Eliot can be a glutton for punishment sometimes, but that is just shitty on so many levels.

“I like you,” Quentin says. It comes bursting out of him without grace ‒ harsh, frustrated words that he’s clearly having to force out through clenched teeth and a strangled throat. “I really like you, okay?”

Eliot just gapes at him for a moment, adding another piece to the complex jigsaw in his mind. “Really?” he finally asks. It’s the best he can manage in the moment, and he honestly doesn’t think asking for confirmation is unreasonable. He’s fairly sure he’d find a picture of Quentin Coldwater in the dictionary right now if he looked up the phrase ‘mixed signals’.

But Q huffs out a breath, dropping Eliot’s wrist and crossing his arms over his chest in a defensive posture. “Yes, really. Like that was ever a question.”

“Um, it was for me,” Eliot says, too loud. He stands up, tugging a hand through his hair again. He stares down at Quentin. “You turned me down!”

“Because I thought ‒ ” Quentin stands too. “Shit, El, I thought you only wanted ‒ ”

What?” Eliot says. And then something occurs to him, about what Quentin has just said and what Eliot has failed to say back. He laughs at himself, a pained sound, and forces an ounce of his own bravery out from his shaky, tender heart. “Fuck, Quentin. I really like you too. You know that, right?”

Quentin takes just a beat too long to answer, surveying his face like he’s waiting for a secret to reveal itself. Like maybe Eliot’s about to scoff and take it back. Eliot’s stomach is squirming, his arms shaking. Words are not his thing, not really. Not when it comes to this. He was looking forward to showing Quentin exactly how he felt, all the parts of it he can’t even admit to himself yet.

And then finally, Quentin looks him directly in the eye, setting his jaw once again. “Can we go upstairs?”

~~~~~

Eliot steers them to his own room, out of some innate need for the familiar, something steady, something that feels like his own. Quentin has been in here before of course, plenty of times, but he still looks around when they walk in, studying the art on the walls and the comforter across the bed, his eyes darting all over the place in an effort to avoid Eliot’s eyes again.

Eliot’s throat has gone dry, but he swallows a few times and forces himself to talk first. “Q. Are you okay?”

It’s all he can think to say. There are all of these puzzle pieces in front of him, and they look easy enough to connect… and yet the picture has come together wrong, somehow. He and Quentin had just kissed each other like the world was ending, and then they’d been interrupted, and then Q came back from talking to Julia looking like a kicked puppy, but then he’d said I really like you, and Eliot had said it back, so… so yeah. Where did that leave them?

“I think I was maybe being stupid,” Quentin says.

Okay? Okay. He’d said that earlier, too, before they’d kissed ‒ that he was being stupid. Eliot can work with that as a starting point, even if he vehemently disagrees.

“You’re not stupid.” Important to establish a baseline. “But please ‒ um. Elaborate.”

Quentin laughs at that (fair enough), and takes a few steps deeper into the room, slumping down on the edge of Eliot’s bed. Every time Eliot has ever seen him sitting there, he’s had to fight the shaking in his hands, the impulse deep in his animal brain telling him to smother Quentin with his body, burrow through his clothes, lick every inch of his skin until he reaches the soft center of him. The instinct is still there, buzzing just beneath the surface, but Eliot ignores it, waiting with as much patience as he can muster to understand where Quentin’s head has run off to.

“So,” Quentin says, staring down at his hands. “So I thought like ‒ we were getting along really well and I thought maybe we ‒ but then a ‒ a couple of weeks ago, you know, that night? The party?” He looks up at Eliot like he thinks Eliot might not understand what he’s talking about. Eliot nods, biting back on a laugh, because yeah, thanks, he remembers the experience of being emotionally sucker-punched quite well. Quentin continues ‒ “I saw you and Margo picking people out? Um. ‘Fuckable prospects,’ you said. And I don’t know ‒ I got all caught up in my head and I started thinking ‒ what if he’s just trying to fuck me?”

He says the last part all in a rush, the words clearly mortifying to him, but Eliot feels like he’s just been slapped with the truth, understanding flooding in, hope lighting up his ravaged insides even as he struggles to form a response. He’s still standing, the space between him and Quentin helping him, ever so slightly, to keep his composure.

“Oh,” Eliot says. “No. Nope. Uh. I wasn’t.”

“You weren’t trying to fuck ‒ ”

“No ‒ absolutely I was,” Eliot says. Because again, important to keep the basic facts of the case straight. “Shit, obviously I want ‒ but no, I wasn’t trying to ‒ ”

“Yeah,” Quentin says, and even though he’s still looking down at his hands, Eliot can see that he’s smiling, sheepish. “I tend to interpret things in the most pathetic way possible, so suddenly I started recontextualizing all the flirting and touching and stuff as like ‒ you just trying to ‒ like ‒ land me. Or whatever. Which sounds so stupid when I say it out loud, because I know you’re not a total dickhead.” He bows his head further, suddenly dejected. “I’m sorry.”

“No,” Eliot says. He’s so relieved he’s giddy. He kind of can’t understand why they’re still so far apart. “It’s okay. I am kind of a dickhead.”

“You’re not,” Quentin says, fierce at the drop of a hat. He snaps his gaze up to meet Eliot’s eyes, bright and sincere. “You’ve been nice to me from minute one.”

“From minute two, maybe,” Eliot says, thinking back to his posturing when he’d first seen Quentin approach him beneath the big Brakebills sign. He finally risks crossing the room to sit beside Quentin, the bed dipping under their combined weight until they lean just slightly into each other. “But you thought maybe I ‒ what, was just trying to ‒ and then I’d drop you, or something?”

“I can’t risk our friendship,” Quentin says, soft. “I think that’s ultimately what it boils down to, you know? Because if you ‒ if it was one or the other, for you, I can’t give up what we have. It means too much.”

“It’s not one or the other,” Eliot says. It’s aggravating, talking in circles like this, when Quentin is so soft and lovely and right next to him, and they like each other and they want to fuck each other ‒ but also… “Hey, you said something about Alice?”

Quentin snorts, shrugging and letting his arm brush against Eliot’s. Less than an hour ago, Eliot has been grinding himself down onto Quentin’s cock through their pants, but even so, the lightest brush of him, just this tiny, innocent touch, still feels electric and overwhelming.

And then Quentin answers his question, and he gets a little distracted. “Alice came to me tonight, and she told me that you’d been talking about me. To Margo.”

He says it so casually, like it’s nothing, an irrelevant piece of minutiae in an otherwise important discussion.

“What the fuck?”

Quentin flinches slightly at the harshness of the words, and Eliot swallows back on another curse. For a moment, his anger towards Margo is a blinding thing, a stabbing sense of betrayal ‒ he hadn’t bothered to hide his pathetic crush very well when he was around his Bambi, because he didn’t think he’d had to. It’s humiliating, to think of the gossip wending its way through their friend group, to realize now for a certainty that Alice and Julia and Quentin, standing in the corner of the party earlier, had been talking about him. Probably laughing over the pitiful way he couldn’t stop mooning over Q even after he’s been told off in no uncertain terms ‒

But then it hits him, of course, that apparently the terms were uncertain. He’d accepted Quentin’s refusal with all the grace he could manage, and yet here they are, sitting in his room together while Quentin looks down at his hands, his body warm and mostly relaxed next to Eliot on the bed. He huffs out a breath, the anger draining mostly (but not entirely) away, leaving him unclear on how he’s meant to feel. “Fucking Margo.”

“Don’t be mad at her,” Quentin says. “Or Alice. I get the sense that Margo didn’t ‒ I mean, Alice said she couldn’t be sure, but Margo had hinted, and ‒ and honestly I think Alice was betraying Margo’s trust by saying anything to me, but she saw how miserable I was, and ‒ ”

“Miserable?” Eliot asks. His voice cracks embarrassingly on the word. He doesn’t like to think of Quentin being miserable in any context, of course, but he’d be lying if he said the thought of it wasn’t slightly encouraging, given the circumstances.

“Yeah,” Quentin says, shrugging a little sadly. He looks up and meets Eliot’s eyes, tired but smiling. “I thought I’d gotten my hopes up for nothing.”

You ‒ ” Eliot says, oddly affronted. “I’ve been miserable, Q. I’ve been ‒ ” heartbroken feels loaded. He swallows back on the word. “These past two weeks, I ‒ I thought you didn’t ‒ ”

“I’m an idiot,” Quentin says. “As has been previously established.” He stands up abruptly and takes a few steps towards the door, and Eliot flinches, somehow afraid, even after everything they’ve just said to one another, that Quentin is going to keep walking, leave the room, storm away and close the door on this forever.

But he doesn’t do that, of course. He wouldn’t. Instead he wheels back around to face Eliot, his face twisting up and around and through so many emotions that Eliot doesn’t even know which one to focus on, which one matters most.

“I can be kind of intense,” Quentin says finally, blunt. He’s staring right at Eliot as he says this, so Eliot fights to school his face into something polite and accepting. He doesn’t think laughing would be appropriate at this juncture. It’s just… it’s cute that Quentin thinks this is new information.

“I know,” Eliot says, gentle.

“I tend to overthink things, and ‒ and go from zero to a hundred without a lot of room in between, all at the same time. It’s like I jump to conclusions right away and then even though I know I won’t change my own mind, I still spend way too much time thinking in circles, and I end up talking myself into this spiral where I have trouble finding the rational truth of things. And because of that I inadvertently made you think that I didn’t want you, when really the whole problem was that I thought I wanted you too much. More than you wanted me, and I ‒ I just ‒ I was trying to avoid setting myself up for pain later on, even though I wanted ‒ ” He scrubs a hand across his face, his forehead wrinkling in concern. Abruptly, in the middle of everything, Quentin seems to have hit a wall. “Does ‒ does that make any sense?”

Eliot stands up, slowly, like he’s afraid of startling a skittish animal. Quentin is standing ramrod straight, his hands bunched at his sides, but some of the tension bleeds out of him as Eliot steps closer. Fighting every instinct, Eliot doesn’t reach for him. Doesn’t slide his fingers down his face, doesn’t curl a hand around his waist to pull him in. He just stands there, close enough to see the various shades of Quentin’s hair, but not too close to crowd him. He looks at him, and Quentin looks back.

“It makes sense,” he begins, tentative and joyful in equal measure. “Alice told you I’ve been pining for you.” He smiles softly around the words like they’re a joke, like it hasn’t been tearing him apart from the inside out. “And you realized you didn’t have to stay away.”

Quentin swallows audibly, looking up at him. “Pining,” he repeats, nearly wistful. “Yeah. I ‒ I realized that even though I’m a neurotic mess like ‒ 100% of the time, in this case I really know what I want, El.”

God, that’s a hell of a thing. Better than any drug Eliot has ever tried ‒ knowing what he wants. Being the thing that someone else wants. The thing that this someone wants. Eliot stops trying to fight his growing smile, lets it overtake his face, and takes a small step forward, closer to Q.

But Quentin isn’t quite done yet. He takes a big breath, like he’s bracing himself for something difficult, and bites his lip. “And you ‒ you want what I want?” It’s only barely a question. Q raises his hands as he steps forward, right into Eliot’s space, tilting his head up and placing his hands against the expanse of Eliot’s chest. Everything in him his angled for a kiss, and Eliot’s own face turns down on instinct, muscle memory that he shouldn’t have but does. They both hold still at the precipice, their lips not quite touching. Q has given as much as he can, and Eliot needs ‒ Eliot needs to make this happen for them both, now. But first, he needs to find a way to answer Quentin’s question.

He thinks about saying I’ve wanted you since the day we met, but that feels like a cop-out. It’s little better than tacit confirmation of Quentin’s fears, that what Eliot is really after here is just sex. Because sex, as it turns out, is the thing Eliot’s wanted from the beginning. It’s the thing he knows how to talk about, how to contextualize within the boundaries of his own life experience. The rest of it… the rest of it is scary to even think about, in concrete terms. But Eliot wants that too. God, he wants it all. It turns out Eliot is pretty good at lying to himself, but he doesn’t have it in him to lie to Quentin.

So he reaches for Q’s right hand, already placed lightly over his chest, and curls his own fingers around it. In silence, he shifts Q’s palm downward until it’s directly over Eliot’s pounding heart.

Quentin inhales audibly, and presses his palm harder against him. Eliot stares, mesmerized, as Q’s liquid-dark eyes dilate, his eyelashes fluttering as he swallows. “Your heart is racing.”

There’s wonder in his voice, disbelief and awe. Eliot nods, and then lifts his other hand, the one not holding Quentin’s against him, and cups his own palm gently around Quentin’s neck. Q sways forward into the touch, his head falling forward, eyes sliding shut again. It takes a second for Eliot to feel the answering thrum of Quentin’s pulse, but when he does, he swears he feels his own heart adjust slightly, to match pace. Fuck. It’s heady, the feeling of power, the thrum of Quentin’s life against his hand. “Yours is too,” he says, barely able to form the words. He’s getting lightheaded again.

Quentin makes a soft humming sound that shoots straight down to Eliot’s dick, and he peels his eyes open once more, to meet his stare head-on. “It always is, when I’m with you.”

And yeah.

Yeah.

Okay.

Eliot kisses him.

Chapter Text

Eliot lets the boys he fucks stay the night. Sex for him is usually casual, but it's not cold. He remembers back in undergrad, how after he'd gone to bed with a guy, no matter how transactional, no matter how clear they had both been about the circumstances, how fucking wretched it felt to be kicked out afterwards, to be denied the uncomplicated intimacy of falling asleep with the weight and warmth of another body beside his own. He doesn't do that to people. He's clear about what he wants, tries not to lead anyone on, but he lets them stay the night.

Sometimes, he gets a blowjob in the morning for his troubles, and everyone parts happy and well-satisfied. Other times, it's the slightest bit awkward, the other guy made hopeful by Eliot's concession, and Eliot is forced into sternness to re-establish boundaries. He likes to touch people, though. Not just in the context of sex. It's probably a fucked-up childhood thing, like he wasn't hugged enough growing up or some shit, but whatever the reason, he enjoys cuddling. Or not even cuddling, just ‒ two men, warm and sated, animal urges overcome, lying side-by-side on a soft bed, maybe with their arms touching. A point of connection in a sea of isolation.

When he wakes up in the morning with Quentin, they are tangled together, touching everywhere, and Eliot's heart unfolds, grows in size, encompasses Quentin Coldwater into it so inextricably that he knows right there in that moment that there's going to be no going back.

He just stares at him for a while, poleaxed by the complicated thing that's happening inside his chest, the way he's feeling the process of falling in love while it's happening to him. He hadn't known it would be like this.

Quentin is his friend. He really, really likes the person lying next to him. He likes listening to him talk. He likes being the one Quentin wants to talk to. He takes pride in knowing little things about him, the kinds of drinks he likes best, which classes he enjoys and which ones he's struggling with. The story of his awkward first time and the way he can't carry a tune to save his life. He likes Quentin so much, and last night they had really, really good sex, and then they'd fallen asleep wrapped up in each other and if anything they'd moved even closer in their sleep.

And now Eliot is staring at Quentin's sleeping face and he really can’t bring himself to look away. He is a work of art, dear god. He should probably be freaking out, but he’s too happy to feel anything else.

Q nuzzles his way out of slumber, turning his face further into Eliot's chest and breathing in deep, like he wants to imprint the smell of Eliot into him. Eliot, who has been aware in a tangential sort of way that his dick is hard, feels it give a twitch against Quentin's hip, something warm and deep and animal curling its way up and out of him. He wants to tip Quentin onto his back and blanket him, cover every inch of his body, cage him into the mattress. Touch him everywhere. Quentin's eyes flutter a few times as he tilts his head up, looking straight into Eliot's eyes. "Hi," he says, simple and smiling.

He is astonishing. A revelation.

"Hi," Eliot says back, dumbstruck. And then he kisses Quentin, because it's been hours since he's done that and that's too long. He thinks, despite his urges, that he initially meant it to be a soft kiss, a good morning kiss. Intimate but chaste.

But Quentin opens to him, not just his mouth but his whole body, stretching up like a plant in sunlight. His skin is warm. He smells like sleep and sweat and toe-curling sex. One of Q's hands comes up, brushing along Eliot's jaw, just the softest of touches for a moment, but then, as Quentin's tongue dips forward to meet Eliot's, he presses the hand more firmly against the line of Eliot's face, tilting him to deepen the angle, to direct the kiss. It's hot, having Q take what he wants from him, from his body.

"Can I fuck you again?" Eliot asks, the second he's forced to tear his lips away from Quentin's to take a breath. It's not smooth, but that's okay, because Quentin likes honesty. Quentin is a rambler and a stutterer but he's also a straight shooter and ‒

"God, yes," Quentin breathes, like he's the one who's getting everything he's ever hoped for.

It’s different now, in the light of day, than it was last night. Last night had been heat and sweat and bodies and lust, one long, overwhelming, release, the relief of letting go of the tight coil of tension inside of him. Last night he’d fucked Quentin until he’d screamed.

This morning, they make love. There’s really no other way Eliot can think of it, no other way to describe what happens between them during the pre-dawn hours of November’s beginning. Eliot spends minutes just kissing him, rubbing his hands over every inch of his skin, pressing him into the mattress and drinking in the sounds he's making, delighted at how readily Quentin responds. He kisses him through the prep and he kisses him when he enters him ‒ kisses him, in fact, the whole way through it. Brushes his hand along his jaw, into his hair, down his shoulders. Holds his arms above his head and tangles their fingers together as he moves. In the brief moments when they’re not gasping and moaning into each other’s mouths, they make motherfucking eye contact and Eliot tries not to cry.

It’s a lot. Maybe too much. Less frantic than the night before, more… languorous. No less intense, for all that.

This, Eliot is realizing, is what people mean when they say life-changing sex. He's never going to be able to come back from this, from knowing what this is like. He doesn't want to.

And afterwards Quentin curls into him again, just like he had the night before. Eliot holds him close. They’ve both lost the ability to speak, but they don’t really need words.

The night before, there had been... a lot of talking. That had been good too.

Really fucking good.

~~~~~

“You’re a damn good kisser, Q,” Eliot says, swaying in place as he tilts forward into Quentin, the two of them still standing in the middle of his room. The bed is like ‒ two feet away but neither of them have managed to move towards it yet, too caught up in their embrace to contemplate logistics. They’ve just been standing there for the past several minutes trying to swallow each other whole, squirming and pushing into each other’s space. Their hands are still tangled together, right over Eliot’s heart. Eliot can hear the whoosh of blood in his ears, feel the thumping of his own pulse and Q’s as well, mingled as much as their breathing.

“I’m a novice compared to you,” Quentin says, peppering kisses along Eliot’s jaw, the only place he can reach since Eliot has straightened up, his neck sore from leaning down into Q. Again, they really should be on the bed.

Eliot ignores his own practical consideration and ducks down to bite at the lobe of Quentin’s ear. “You shouldn’t slut shame,” he murmurs, and then laughs in genuine glee when he feels Quentin shiver, his whole body trembling as he moves in closer to Eliot.

“Okay that’s obviously not what I meant,” Quentin breathes, and then, because he’s a menace and Eliot is in so much trouble, he brings both of his hands down to Eliot’s hips, pulling him forward so Eliot can feel Q, hard against his thigh. “I meant ‒ if I’m a good kisser, you’re a fucking gold medalist.”

“Cheesy,” Eliot coos, nibbling his way lower, to Quentin’s neck. He’s too tall for this. Quentin’s too short for this.

“Bed,” Quentin says, reading Eliot’s mind.

When they manage to sit together on the edge of the bed, the way they had been before Quentin had begun his rambling and pacing, something in the mood shifts, ever so slightly. It’s like they’re both aware, in this crystalizing moment, that they’ve reached the point of no return. Until right this second, they’ve been making out like a couple of lust-addled young adults at a party. But now? If they don’t stop right now, they won’t stop. They won’t want to. Not tonight, maybe not ever. Eliot can feel the weight of it coalescing between them. It’s terrifying, but Quentin is right there with him, and that makes him strong.

Quentin can be so nervous, sometimes, but in this moment he puts Eliot to shame with his open vulnerability, sitting there with his messy hair and his flushed face, his eyes on Eliot, frank and waiting, as if to say ‒ this is it, this is me. It’s all I have to offer.

He’s so goddamn beautiful that Eliot actually needs to take a beat. He restrains himself from diving back in, from scooping Quentin up and throwing him further onto the bed so he can crawl on top of him and rip off all of his clothes. Instead he waits, breathing steady and letting the heat between them cool, ever so slightly.

And then Eliot trails a hand down Quentin’s arm. Quentin’s own hand is flat on the bed, and Eliot reaches for it, dusting his fingers over his knuckles, tracing up over the bones of his wrist and along his forearm. He’s mesmerized by the feel of the skin under the pads of his fingers, feels like he could spend hours doing just this, just touching him like this, despite the glowing ember of urgent want that’s waking him up from the inside. And then there’s the fact that he can also hear Quentin’s breathing grow louder, sense the heat of his eyes on his face. There’s no real chance he can resist that for long.

Eliot turns to him, and then Quentin is kissing him again, slow, searching kisses that burn through Eliot’s veins, coalescing into molten fire low in his gut. They move naturally further onto the bed, kicking off shoes and socks and making themselves comfortable, side by side, their lips ghosting over one another, hands skimming over and then under clothing, seeking skin.

“Um, Quentin,” Eliot whispers, resting their foreheads together. “What you said, about being a novice ‒ have you ‒ is this ‒ ”

“I’m pretty sure we covered the fact that I’m not a virgin,” Quentin interrupts on a laugh. He kisses the corner of Eliot’s mouth and it’s so smooth and so hot that for a moment Eliot loses his train of thought, his brain whirring to a stop at the feel of Quentin pressed against him everywhere.

He blinks, getting himself back to the point. “With a guy,” he says. It’s all he can manage, inelegant and incomplete.

“Yes,” Quentin says. “Yeah, there were ‒ yeah. Not a lot, but ‒ yeah. I ‒ ” he cuts himself off, trailing his nose down Eliot’s jaw and then pressing his face into the crook of Eliot’s neck. He huffs out a breath, and Eliot interprets it as embarrassment even as his cock twitches at the feel of Quentin’s mouth open and wet against his pulse point.

“What?” he manages, bringing a hand up to pet it through Quentin’s hair. God, how often had he dreamed about doing that? His hair is so fucking soft.

“The first guy I was with, he ‒ he sort of taught me ‒ and he seemed to think I was pretty good at it, and ‒ and I’d like to, if you want ‒ I mean, I could, if ‒ if ‒ I’ve been thinking about ‒ ”

“Use your words, Q,” Eliot says, and he nudges at Quentin’s cheek with his nose until he lifts his head up for another kiss. Eliot spends a moment licking and sucking at Quentin’s lips, too caught up in the feel of it to realize that Quentin kind of needs his mouth free to answer.

It’s goddamn worth it, when Eliot finally manages to disconnect them again, because Quentin makes a strangled sound and then says ‒ “I wanna blow you.”

“Jesus. Okay,” Eliot says, and Quentin’s eyes crinkle up at the corners. Eliot is being laughed at, for the eager, almost childish way he’d acquiesced to Quentin’s insanely hot offer, but honestly he can’t even bring himself to care. “I’d like that.”

And then after that ‒

Well ‒

There’s a part of sex that’s ‒ logistical. Practical, pragmatic, not-the-fun-part. It’s the part where you give up on trying to sexily undress each other and just take your own clothes off instead; the part where words are needed to communicate where everyone should be sitting or laying or standing in order to line up the requisite body parts. Negotiations and awkward questions about hygiene and health. Time to overthink what’s about to happen.

Eliot, connoisseur of casual sex, has had more first times with new partners than he cares to count. He’s rarely gotten familiar enough with any sex partner to be able to skip past these negotiations, to have sex like they do in the movies ‒ all ferver and desperation, no pauses whatsoever.

What he’s not expecting is that even this part of it, the part where Quentin and Eliot separate in order to pull their own clothing off, where Quentin instructs Eliot to scoot up and rest his head on the pillows, where Eliot asks him if it’s okay if he performs a couple of spells he knows ‒ spells to leave them both clean and protected ‒ it all feels ‒ well, it feels wonderful. It’s heady, the trust Quentin is showing him, his willingness to strip bare without a hint of self-consciousness. Eliot might have expected him to be bashful, but he’s not ‒ if anything, it’s Eliot who feels his face growing warm once he’s naked. A strange vulnerability fills him to the brim as Quentin makes a survey of his body.

And all the while they talk like two friends who are truly comfortable with each other. Quentin barely stutters at all as he explains frankly his level of experience, how he likes sucking cock but hasn’t done it in a while, and Eliot tries to answer him with the same level of coherence while he feels his brain leaking out of his ears. The fact that Quentin wants this, that he’s the one asking to get his mouth on Eliot’s dick… it makes everything about this feel almost unreal, too good, too much to process. He’s grateful for the time it’s taken them to undress and position themselves, but even with a few moments to calm himself down a little, he knows he’s going to have to work hard to avoid ending this too early.

Quentin is very cute, the way he talks. The way he explains what he wants and asks Eliot the same. He’s also unbelievably hot, and once Eliot has arranged himself to Quentin’s specifications, (propped up on two pillows with his legs spread, on display), he takes a moment to do his own survey of the marvel that’s in front of him.

“How the fuck is this what you look like naked?” Eliot says, almost offended. “Jesus, Q.”

“I… thank you? I think?” Quentin says, blushing and scratching a hand through his hair.

“I’m going to buy you a new wardrobe,” Eliot informs him seriously, eyes scanning over the taut lines of his body, the musculature of his arms. He’d felt it through his clothes, earlier, that Quentin was fit, but it’s another thing altogether to see him. The flat plane of his stomach, the broadness of his shoulders; dusky, pebbled nipples and his perfectly proportioned dick, fully hard.

“You’re what?” Quentin chuckles, lying down in the V of Eliot’s thighs, squirming to make himself comfortable. Eliot has a lovely view of the swell of his perfect little ass against the dark of Eliot’s comforter. God, will wonders never cease?

“You’re hiding all of this,” Eliot says, shaking his head, “under all those baggy pants and jackets, and that will just not do.”

Something a little insecure darts over Quentin’s eyes, and he laughs, his eyes skittering around the room like he’s trying to find something other than Eliot’s cock, inches from his face, to focus on. Some other time, Eliot is going to write a goddamn sonnet in honor of Quentin’s physical beauty. He’s going to argue and debate that flash of uncertainty right out of Q’s brain. But not now ‒ not when Eliot is laid out fully nude on his bed, above the sheets, with Quentin on his stomach, the warmth of his breath tickling the inside of Eliot’s thigh, the anticipation building more and more the longer they talk.

“Okay,” Quentin says with an eyeroll. “But no make-over montages. And Margo’s not allowed to come with.”

Eliot has a retort on the tip of his tongue, but it dies away instantly when Quentin looks up at him and gifts him with a rare full smile, eyes crinkling, even a hint of teeth showing before he tightens his lips around them.

“I think there was something you said you wanted to do,” Eliot says, nearly a whisper. Negotiations are over. He’s about to get his dick sucked, and he doesn’t really care if Quentin’s good at it or not. The fact that it’s happening at all is better than every filthy fantasy he’s been indulging for two full months.

Quentin seems nearly as eager. He keeps his eyes on Eliot’s for another moment, and then slides them down. He’s staring at Eliot’s cock like he’s trying to memorize it, hoping to capture it on canvas in all its glory, going off of memory alone.

Eliot reaches a hand up and brushes it lightly through the strands of Quentin’s hair that have fallen down in front of his eyes, and Quentin looks up to meet his gaze again, giving him one more small smile. Then he huffs out a breath, shuffles a bit more like he’s setting up shop to stay for a while, and ‒ something happens, to his face. He’s still smiling, but he’s gone from nervous and sweet to something more calculated and hot and confident and ‒

Quentin opens his mouth slowly, making a show out of it, and mouths, wet and slow, at the head of Eliot’s cock.

… Suffice it to say, fuck.

Eliot tries not to be embarrassed by the sound that punches its way out of his chest. It’s a sound of astonishment, maybe something close to a whimper. It’s just that it feels so damn good, and Eliot has been thinking about this for so long, and ‒ in any case, he doesn’t really have time to contemplate the strength of his reaction for long, because before he can really process the actual reality of it ‒ Quentin Coldwater is sucking my dick ‒ Quentin lowers his mouth and starts bobbing his head in earnest.

“Oh my god, Q,” Eliot breathes out, laughing a bit shakily and resting his hands gently against Quentin’s head. Q is ‒ Q is really goddamn fucking good at this, holy shit. Quentin hums and brings his hands up, pressing them to the insides of his thighs to encourage him to spread his legs further, and for whatever reason, the sight of Quentin’s forearms braced against his legs like that, his hands resting in the divot of Eliot’s hips, is the most absurdly erotic thing he’s ever seen in his life.

“Your hands,” he chokes out, his stomach muscles jumping as he tries to keep his breathing even. “Jesus, what the fuck, how are you ‒ what the fuck, Quentin ‒ ”

By the time Quentin has even set up a proper rhythm, Eliot is already done for, his mind blank, a feeling so purely good it’s almost panic filling up his chest, cascading along every inch of his skin. He's babbling, hardly aware of what he's saying, but Q's mouth, his mouth ‒ "your mouth, Q, baby, fuck, I ‒ god you're so good, you ‒ " Quentin moans around him, obscene, and Eliot jerks up into the wet heat, his head rolling back against the pillows, one hand white-knuckled in the sheet and the other curled around the base of Quentin's neck.

It’s about then that he notices how much Quentin is loving this, too ‒ he’s grinding himself down into the bed as he swirls his tongue around Eliot’s cock, and it's so gorgeous Eliot feels like screaming. He tries to keep his breathing steady, tries to pull himself back from the edge but everything is moving so quickly, everything is too intense, he feels his balls pull up tight, the muscles in his thighs and ass tensing as he begs his body to wait, just wait

Quentin pulls off of him, gasping for breath, and licks a stripe down the underside of his cock, rolling his balls along his tongue. "You can ‒ " he gasps, voice thready and thin ‒ "you can pull my hair, I like it when ‒ "

"Oh fuck," Eliot says, and he very nearly comes just from hearing it. "Oh my god, Quentin, you have no fucking idea. Jesus Christ."

Quentin slides his tongue into the slit of Eliot's cock and then sucks for a minute on just the head, and Eliot actually, really, starts to be afraid he's going to come down Quentin’s throat and end the whole evening way, way too soon. Which would be embarrassing, but he can see the look in Quentin's eyes, and somehow knows Q is just as wrecked as he is. It's the most heady, intense, wonderful feeling in the world. "Q, I'm gonna come if you don't stop that and I don't ‒ ah ‒ I don't want this to be over ‒ "

Quentin sits up and away from him and Eliot's entire body screams at him, wants his mouth back, wants to fuck up into it, pull Quentin's hair, like he said he wanted ‒ "Eliot," Quentin said, voice lower than usual, eyes dark and intense. "Eliot, it doesn't have to be. I ‒ I want this, I want you ‒ "

“God, I can’t,” Eliot says, insensate. He isn’t even sure what he means ‒ he can’t handle something this good, can’t process feeling so much? He tugs on Quentin’s arms and pulls him up, Quentin crawling over him and into his lap. The feel of their cocks, both hard and slick, trapped between their stomachs, has him shaking all over. “Oh my god, fuck.” It’s all he can say ‒ he grips at the back of Quentin’s neck and kisses him hard.

He can taste the saltiness of his own precum in Quentin's mouth and he delves in, sucking on Quentin's tongue, licking the taste of himself away until he can get to the flavor of Quentin underneath.

“Okay,” he says, when he can calm himself down enough to speak. “Okay ‒ okay, Q, my turn. Fuck.” He grabs for Quentin’s arms and Q moves with him, rolling over until Eliot is on top of him, their cocks trapped between their stomachs as they kiss, both groaning loud and uninhibited.

“Fuck, you’re gorgeous.” It takes a moment for Eliot to realize that Quentin had been the one to speak; it so perfectly matches the incredulous, giddy thought running in a loop in his own mind. But Quentin’s not done talking. Even as Eliot ducks his head to lick and bite down the column of Q’s throat, he speaks again, his voice high and hoarse. “You’re the hottest person I’ve ever seen ‒ fuck ‒ I’ve been wanting to do that since I saw you, I wanted ‒ I imagined you pushing me to my knees ‒ ”

Eliot groans, nearly a sob, and then latches on to one of Quentin’s nipples, gratified to hear the keening sound he gets in response. Quentin’s hands come down to tangle in Eliot’s hair, to hold him in place as he laves and bites at first one nipple and then the other. He can feel Quentin’s cock hard and leaking, crushed between them, and he wants to get his mouth on it, but he also wants ‒ he wants ‒

“Q,” he says, the words muffled against Quentin’s chest. “Q, what do you ‒ what do you want, I ‒ tell me what ‒ ”

“What you to fuck me,” Quentin says immediately. “So much, El, you have no ‒ ”

“Turn over,” Eliot says. He wasn’t aiming to command, he’s just having trouble finding the mental capacity for complex sentences. But before he has time to berate himself for being such a caveman, Quentin groans in what sounds like relief and surges up into him, burying his face in Eliot’s shoulder for a moment like he needs the time to brace himself. And then he does as he’s been told, relaxing his arms from their grip and rolling over until he’s on his stomach, the lines of his back and ass on display for Eliot to behold.

“Shit,” he says, awestruck. “I don’t even know where to fucking start with you.”

Quentin laughs, a small, nervous sound, his face buried in his arms. “Just touch me, El. Feels so good.”

So Eliot touches him. He traces his hands along his back, across his hips, squeezes his ass and dips a finger down to circle over Quentin’s hole, just a dry tease of what’s to come. Q makes a delightful and charming squeaking noise at that, so Eliot repeats the motion, smiling in wonder at the intricacies of Quentin’s body. And then he replicates the journey of his hands with his mouth, peppering kisses along Quentin’s shoulders, down his spine, kissing each and every vertebrae, dipping his tongue into the divot of Q’s lower back.

And lower.

Lower.

“Eliot,” Quentin breathes. “God…”

Eliot wants to tease him, but finds himself all out of patience. Instead, he gets his hands on Q’s ass and buries his face into him. When he finally swipes his tongue over him, Q makes a sound that Eliot is going to jerk off to for literal months. Highly gratified, Eliot gets straight to work, and Quentin pushes his ass back against Eliot's face, moaning and gasping and ‒ oh he loves this, he's already so worked up, and Eliot's having to concentrate very hard not to hump the bed. He has plans for Quentin. He has plans for this pretty little ass, and if he gets any direct pressure on his cock right now he’s not going to last.

"Jesus, Eliot," Quentin calls out, as Eliot brings his thumb up and slides just the tip inside of Quentin, barely an intrusion. "God, fuck ‒ fuck ‒ "

Eliot pulls away and takes a shaky breath. Things are ‒ spiraling. Moving fast. Quentin is shuddering. Eliot wants to be inside of him when Quentin comes, wants to push him over the edge with his cock, but he's a lot to take, and he can't hurt Q, so he needs to slow this down. Or. Or.

"Will you let me make you come?" Eliot asks, surprised by how wrecked his own voice sounds. His thumb is still making circles against Quentin's hole and Q has been pushing back into the light touch, asking for more, but at Eliot's words, he slumps forward onto the bed, barely catching himself on shaking arms.

"Um. Yeah," Quentin says, maybe just a hint of amusement mixed in with the lust. "Yeah, I think I could let you do that."

"No," Eliot says, because he's just realized he hasn't finished the thought. He pushes on Quentin's shoulder to roll him over onto his back. "No, will you let me make you come twice? Now, and then ‒ then again when I'm inside you."

He's so fucking glad he made Quentin turn over for this, because he wouldn't have missed the expression on Quentin's face for the whole stupid world. "Are you even a real person?" Quentin asks, lifting a hand up to brush his fingers along Eliot's jaw.

"Last time I checked," Eliot says, laughing. Smooth.

"Okay," Quentin says, nodding his head just shy of frantic. "Yes. Yes. I want you to do whatever the hell you want to me."

"Oh my god," Eliot says, genuinely floored. "That is a dangerous fucking thing to promise me right now, Quentin."

"Believe me, I've thought about you, I've jerked off thinking about this, like ‒ an embarrassing amount. So. Seriously. Whatever you want."

Eliot's going to lose his mind if he thinks about Quentin touching himself and ‒ "Oh, Christ." He drapes himself over Quentin and kisses him hard. Hard. "You thought about me. What did you think about, Q?"

"Um," Quentin says, sheepish. "Your ‒ um. Your hands. Your hands are ‒ oh fuck." Eliot, never one to miss a hint when it's poking him in the stomach, brings a hand down between their torsos and wraps it around Quentin, swiping a thumb over the head before setting a steady, fast rhythm. "El."

"What else," Eliot says, working his teeth into Quentin's neck. He wants to mark him up, but that's the kind of thing you talk to someone about first, and he's not sure he's capable of slowing this train down.

"Your mouth," Quentin gasps. He's lifting his hips up into Eliot's hand, with the unintended consequence that Eliot's getting pressure on his own cock too, against Quentin’s thigh. It's blindingly good. Unfairly good. "Your mouth on me, on ‒ "

"You want me to eat you out, baby?" Eliot asks, "You seemed to like that ‒ "

"You don't have to," Quentin says, and Eliot brings their mouths together again, sucking on his tongue. He wants to pull every bit of sheepish insecurity right out of him. None of that. Q can have whatever he wants. Fucking anything.

"I want to. I want what you want," Eliot promises, and Quentin is shaking so hard now that he decides to take pity on him, squeezing his cock once in farewell and then sitting up, reluctantly taking some of his weight off of Quentin. He scoots back down the bed. "Jerk yourself off," he says, takes a moment to memorize the punched out, astonished expression on Quentin's face, and then leans back down to continue the sacred fucking task of getting Quentin Coldwater off using his tongue.

It does Not. Take. Long.

Quentin makes a lot of noise, pulls frantically on his own cock, and tightens his thighs around Eliot's head, which basically constitutes a religious experience, as far as Eliot is concerned. "El. El El El now, I'm ‒ gonna ‒ I'm ‒ "

Eliot sticks his pointer finger inside of Quentin, just to the first knuckle, and Quentin chokes off mid-moan, his breath suddenly catching in his chest, and he shudders apart, dissolves back into the mattress.

Watching Quentin completely fall apart is even hotter than Eliot had imagined it would be, but something about the effort of it has calmed him down, pushed him into a head space where he can ignore his own need and focus instead on Quentin. It feels like yet another gift in an endless line of gifts to hold him close as he trembles through the aftershocks, to cast a spell that cleans them both off and leaves the skin between them dry and warm, to stroke his hands down Quentin's sides, leave them settled comfortable and familiar against the swell of his ass as he comes down from what Eliot is pleased to note was a particularly intense orgasm.

"Holy shit," Quentin breathes, his first real words in afterglow. "That was ‒ ”

"So fucking hot," Eliot finishes for him. "You're unreal, Q."

Quentin shoots him an incredulous look and Eliot kisses him again, intent on imparting his sincerity. He doesn't think he's ever kissed anyone this much during sex. He likes kissing well enough, but it had always felt like an appetizer, never the main course. Now, he thinks, if Quentin told him he just wanted to make out for hours and nothing else, he'd count himself blessed by the fucking gods.

Q is a dedicated, thorough kisser. He pulls Eliot fully on top of him and for a while they just make out like the lust-addled healthy young adults they are, Quentin biting at his lower lip and then laving at it with his tongue, delving deep and then backing off and teasing soft kisses across the arch of Eliot's cheekbones, before reconnecting their lips an opening wide for him. He's got one arm wrapped firm around Eliot's back to hold him in place, the other tangled in his curls. Eliot's hands are trapped between Quentin’s back and the mattress, his arms long enough to go all the way around Quentin's smaller frame and hold him in close. It feels ‒ it's indescribable. Eliot is floating.

"You still wanna fuck me?" Quentin asks at some indeterminate point later, and the words send a zing through Eliot's body. He'd been more or less ignoring his own erection, but Quentin has reminded him about it quite effectively, and he pushes himself down into Quentin's body, his cock sliding hard and hot against Quentin's thigh.

"Yes," Eliot said. "If you'll let me."

"I think I might actually die if you don't," Quentin informs him. He sounds completely sincere. Eliot shudders and kisses him again, wet and deep and endless. This boy is going to ruin him and he doesn't even care.

Quentin takes his fingers easily, readily, opening to him like he's a natural for it. "Q, have you," Eliot says, strained, as he sticks in a second finger and swirls them around, searching ‒ "have you done this before?"

"I told you," Quentin says, and there's a spark of irritation in it, even as he grinds himself down insistently on Eliot's fingers.

"About blowjobs. About ‒ about ‒ oh fuck, look at you, Q, you're gorgeous like this."

Quentin whines and wriggles at the compliment, but then brings his hands up to frame Eliot's face, pinning him with a stern look. "Are you asking me if I've gotten fucked before?"

"I don't want to hurt you," Eliot says. This is true. He also wants to know. He also needs to know if he's the first ‒

"Sorry to disappoint," Quentin says, "but yeah, I have."

"Oh," Eliot says, frowning at the tone in Quentin's voice. He leans down to kiss him on the nose, crooks his fingers inside and smiles, predatory, as Quentin shouts, arches up. There we go. "Okay, good. So then you know what you like." He kisses him on the mouth then, soft, an apology for the wrong-footed way he’d asked the question, and Quentin sighs and smiles up at him.

He's trembling under Eliot's touch, and Eliot smooths a hand down Q's stomach, soothing him even as his other hand continues its ceaseless motion, opening Quentin up as gently as he can manage. Quentin is such a sweetheart. So good and lovely, and Eliot will give him whatever he asks for, will thank his lucky stars for this chance.

"What I like?" Quentin repeats, and then swallows hard. "I ‒ I'm flexible. Fuck, El, you're good at this. Um. I'm ‒ flexible. I like all of it. But right now I kind of want you to put me on my knees and just ‒ like ‒ fuck me until we both collapse."

Eliot's skin goes hot and blotchy. He feels like he's on fire. "Jesus Fucking Christ, Quentin."

"But like I said, I want you to do whatever you want to do," Quentin says. His smile has turned just a little bit evil, like he suspects what his words have done to Eliot.

Eliot had been expecting ‒ maybe even looking forward ‒ to rocking slowly into Quentin's body, face to face, so he could kiss that perfect little mouth and card his fingers through Quentin's hair until they both came. But honestly ‒ Quentin just asked him to ‒ and Eliot is ‒ his brain is breaking and ‒ they can do the whole tenderness thing later. They will do it later, because once they go through with this Eliot is not going to be able to let him go ‒ not ever. He’s too frantic, too worked up, for the thought to freak him out. This is good. This is everything, this is ‒

"How are you feeling?" Eliot asks a while later, crooking three fingers inside of Quentin, and what he means is ‒ are you ready? Because I'm about to fucking wreck you and probably destroy myself in the process.

“I ‒ yes. Ready. Yes, Eliot please ‒ ”

“You losing the ability to speak in full sentences is actually literally the hottest fucking thing,” Eliot says, aware somehow that he’s babbling but unable to stop. He pulls his fingers out of Quentin and reaches up to kiss him again, throwing his whole body into it. Quentin writhes and squirms against him, trying to get closer, and Eliot bites at his lips, swallows his moans, then forces himself away just enough to give Quentin room to move. “On your knees.”

“Fuck,” Quentin says, blinking at him for a moment in surprised lust, but then he shakes his head, pecks Eliot one final time on the lips, and does as Eliot has asked.

Eliot’s brain breaks at the sight of Quentin, ass in the air, ready and waiting for him. “You have no idea how you look right now, Q,” he says, solemn and worshipful. “God, I’m going to make it so good for you.”

And despite Quentin’s instructions ‒ fuck me until we both collapse ‒ he forces himself to start slow. Another spell, first, a quick series of motions that guarantees they’re safe to do this without a condom. The first of many sex spells Eliot has learned since coming to Brakebills. He wants to try them all out on Q, one after the other. But first thing’s first.

He nudges the head of his cock against Quentin and slides in, just the head, past the tight ring of his opening, and then freezes, his veins lighting up, his heart pounding in his chest, his throat, his ears. “God, Q.” He hardly recognizes his own voice, high and pained and reverent.

Quentin moves his hips back, and Eliot slips further in. Eliot ducks to kiss along Quentin’s shoulder blades, mouthing aimlessly at his smooth skin as he sinks and sinks into Quentin until his hips are flush against his ass, pressing Q down flat on the bed.

Fuck,” they both say together, and Eliot pauses to bury his face fully in the back of Q’s neck, gasping out the heady, intense pleasure right into the softest part of him.

“Move,” Quentin says after a moment, and Eliot rolls his hips forward, slow and deepdeepdeep.

“You feel so ‒ you can’t imagine ‒ ” Eliot says.

“Nngh,” is all Quentin says in response, and Eliot ‒ well, same, honestly. Ngghhh. Higher brain functions are out the window. He kind of can’t process what’s happening right now; if he thinks too hard about it, he’ll lose his cool entirely.

“I’m gonna move now, okay?” Eliot says, breathless. Make it good for Q. That’s priority number one.

“Please,” Quentin says, a touch impatient. And god, if he’s as bratty in bed as he is the rest of the time...

Eliot’s so fucking lucky. That’s what he thinks about, as he finally lifts himself up off of Quentin to get leverage, sliding out slow and back in even slower, just a few times to make sure Q’s really okay, that the stretch and fullness of it isn’t too much. Quentin does make a pained sound, but he’s not in pain ‒ he just wants this as badly as Eliot does, has been waiting and wanting and needing it. Eliot knows this to be true. Doesn’t know how, but knows it for a certainty.

So. Fucking. Lucky.

“Eliot, for fuck’s sake,” Quentin groans into the pillow, grinding back onto him. “Fucking move.”

And finally, gloriously, Eliot does.

It’s intense. It’s hard and fast and urgent, and Eliot feels like he’s exploding out of his skin with every thrust into Quenitn’s body. Before long, he’s making sounds in the back of his throat that are almost animal, a primal urging, an answering call to Quentin’s own whimpering. Fuck, he’s so goddamn beautiful. And he’s too far away like this, laid out on the bed as Eliot looms over him ‒ he needs to be closer, could never, ever be close enough. Eliot drapes himself over Quentin’s back, pressing Quentin deeper into the bed, and then slides a hand down Q’s arm so he can tangle their fingers together. Quentin moans, loud and lost and it’s so much, Eliot can hardly process the array of emotions coursing through him. He wants to bite, and scratch, and consume, wants Quentin to feel this for days afterwards.

But it’s all translating in his mind somehow, into tenderness, into joy, into the desire to keep Quentin here with him forever, keep this moment implanted in the deepest parts of himself. It’s catching up with him, the fact that this is Quentin, this incredible person who he likes so much, this gorgeous, perfect man moaning and jerking back against him like he’s completely lost control of himself, and Eliot is ‒ he’s ‒

“God, Q, I’m gonna ‒ ”

Eliotfuck ‒ ”

“Can I ‒ ”

“I want you to come inside me, El, I wanna feel you, I want ‒ ”

Jesus motherfucking ‒ Eliot comes so hard and sudden he’s actually afraid he might have pulled a muscle, pulsing and groaning and jerking into Quentin, the pounding in his ears so loud he almost misses it when Quentin shudders and jerks and practically screams his name, coming all over the sheets below him.

“Holy fuck,” Eliot croaks, as soon as he’s able to catch his breath. He’s practically smothering Quentin to the bed, but he knows on instinct that Q wants him there, wants to feel him close. He has the oddly hysterical thought that it’ll kill him, if he has to stop touching Quentin right now, but luckily for him they are very much on the same page. “I think I went temporarily blind,” Eliot says. “I fucking needed that.” And then he remembers exactly how hard his fingers had dug into Quentin’s hips at the end, and he asks ‒ “Are you okay?”

“Better than,” Quentin says. His voice is hoarse and well-fucked, and Eliot’s stomach muscles contract. And then Quentin laughs, the vibrations of it transferring through Quentin’s skin into Eliot’s bones. “God, we could have been doing that for weeks.”

Eliot laughs too, everything that had been devastating only a day ago suddenly made hilarious by the giddiness of relief. He kisses Quentin on the shoulder and finally, with the greatest reluctance, pulls out, his softening cock oversensitive with the intensity of his orgasm. Quentin lets out a little moan, and Eliot is forced to flip him over and kiss him again, tongue plunging deep. There’s an animalistic desire to stay inside Quentin’s body in some way, and Quentin opens for the kiss like that’s what he wants too. They slide against each other, every part of them touching, groping for skin like they both need it, like they’re both still worked up and desperate, instead of sated and boneless.

“Quentin, goddamn.”

“Yeah,” Quentin says, nonsensical, nuzzling his nose into Eliot’s cheekbones. “You were fucking amazing, El.”

Eliot huffs out a laugh, sliding a hand down Quentin’s spine. “Me? Jesus, Q, you were ‒ ”

“Okay, we were amazing,” Quentin says. “I think I’m going to pass out now, so if you want me to do that in my own bed, speak now or forever hold your peace.”

“Stay,” Eliot says, immediately. Because as many times as he’s fantasized about having Quentin in his bed, he’s also imagined this part of it, the part where he gets to hold Quentin to him and sink into slumber with this perfect, perfect man safe in his arms.

“Okay. Good,” Quentin says, and then he squirms around to make himself comfortable, while Eliot performs a spell that cleans them up, leaving them warm and dry.

Eliot knows Quentin well enough to be on alert for a freak-out. He’s slightly worried that once his brain comes back online he’s going to start spiraling, wondering what exactly this means. If Eliot is being honest, he’s wondering the same thing. But Quentin doesn’t appear to be troubled about it at the moment. He hums in contentment, rests his cheek against Eliot’s bare chest, and sighs, his body relaxing entirely into the mattress.

And Eliot lets himself follow, resting their heads together and counting the beating of Quentin’s heart pressed against his side. Within moments, they’re both asleep.

~~~~~

The following morning, after they’ve both come again, after they’re warm and dry and sated once more in each other’s arms, Eliot waits for it to be weird.

Everything about the last twelve hours feels surreal to him, perfect in the kind of way that doesn’t actually happen in real life. Sure, there had been ‒ obstacles, on the way to this perfect peace, but really, it’s kind of remarkable how well everything’s worked out, how happy he is, when a mere sixty days ago he hadn’t even known Quentin Coldwater existed.

“What?” Quentin mumbles into his shoulder, and Eliot realizes he’d let out a huff of incredulous air, loud enough to draw attention.

“Just ‒ ” he swallows, tightening his arms around Quentin. “God, I’m so glad I met you.”

Quentin giggles ‒ there’s really no other word for it ‒ and turns his face to press a kiss on Eliot’s chest, just a dry brush of lips against the dusting of chest hair. There’s such a sense of familiarity to it, intimacy, like Quentin feels entitled to the touch. “I’m glad you met me too,” he says. “I can’t imagine what a sad, empty existence you might have had to look forward to otherwise.”

You think you’re joking.

Eliot doesn’t say that. Turns out he still has a few self-preservational instincts left. “And your life, mister, would have been nothing but a dull march towards complacent mediocrity without me there to light the way.”

Quentin hums, his face still buried against Eliot. “Pretty sure that was the magic, El, not just you. Although you’ve played a significant supporting role thus far.”

Eliot’s whole body goes warm. What a darling little nerd he’s found for himself. “I’m always the leading man, sweetheart. Don’t get it twisted.”

They’re silent for a couple of minutes, drifting on shared peace and quiet joy, and then Quentin says ‒ “Tell me it’s the weekend.”

“It’s a Tuesday.”

“Nooo.”

“You don’t have class until eleven,” Eliot reminds him. Because yes, he has Quentin’s schedule memorized. Whatever. It’s not a big deal.

“Right,” Quentin says, squinting up at Eliot from under his eyelids. “And what time is it now?”

Eliot doesn’t want to tell him, because Quentin will probably insist on getting some homework out of the way beforehand, as is his infuriating ritual on the mornings when he has no early classes. He narrows his eyes, trying to think of a cunning strategy to get Q to stay put, at least for a little while longer.

And then it hits him.

“Q,” Eliot says, infusing his tone with every ounce of his considerable adoration. “There’s something I’ve been wanting to do since pretty much the day I met you.”

He pushes lightly on Quentin’s arms to move him, easing him onto his back so he’s looking up at him, all long-lashes and parted lips. Eliot balances himself on one elbow to enjoy the view.

“What?” Quentin asks.

And then Eliot ducks to kiss him again, because he can. Holy shit, he can just ‒ do that now. It’s so lovely. So soft and warm and friendly and sweet. Quentin speaks right up against his lips, the words mushy and muffled. “What?” he repeats.

Eliot backs off but keeps their foreheads together, their noses nuzzling. “You stay here, okay? I’m going to go make you breakfast.”

~~~~~

Margo teases him mercilessly. For, like, a long time, laughing and laughing and pouring him more drinks, and then laughing at him some more when he waxes poetic about Quentin's floppy hair and ill-fitting clothes and god-awful taste in pop music. "You told me you wanted to fuck him, El, not marry him."

Eliot must pretend, for form’s sake, to be offended by the notion. Even though Margo will know he’s full of shit.

"Oh, fuck right off,” he says, smiling way too wide. “It’s been one night.”

"My point exactly! You took him to bed, and the next morning you fucking made him breakfast and brought it up to your room. Don’t think I didn’t notice. It's fucking adorable, is what it is."

"You take that back," Eliot says, a little scandalized for real this time. "I am not adorable."

"Quentin is," Margo says immediately. And, yeah. Eliot's not going to argue that point. He thinks about the way Q had looked that morning when he’d woken up, his face scrunched from where it had been burrowed into Eliot's chest through the night, the way he had blinked up at him, bleary and still mostly asleep, a smile softening his face.

Margo's loud cackle interrupts his reverie. "If you could see your face right now, El. You are so seriously fucked."

And he is. He seriously, really, is. But if he’s supposed to be frightened of it, if it’s supposed to make him run scared, he’s not. It doesn’t. He has no idea why this is the time in his life when he’s allowed to get his shit together and be happy, but he’s choosing not to look a gift horse in the mouth.

So he shrugs and accepts his best friend’s gleeful teasing, and finally remembers to actually ask her how things are going with Alice. He enjoys spending a long evening drinking with Margo, catching up now that he’s done being a “miserable sad sack” and is able to focus on other people’s lives again. He enjoys the evening even more when Quentin and Alice come to join them (no sign of Julia, strangely), and enjoys most of all leaving before it’s even dark to take Q back upstairs to his bedroom.

And that becomes the new routine. Eliot gets to have the thing he wanted. He gets to be happy, and he gets to make someone he really cares about happy, too.

When Quentin walks into a room, he smiles so big his jaw hurts, a completely involuntary reaction. Quentin spends every night in his bed after brain-breaking, life-altering, spine-tingling sex, and yet he still misses him when they're forced to separate for classes. And also when Julia drags Quentin off for some 'best friend' time, gifting him with somewhat resentful looks, probably at the fact that she’s seen a lot less of Quentin since he and Eliot had started sleeping together.

He gets it, at least a little bit ‒ he wishes he could have a monopoly on Quentin's time. But that's probably an unhealthy desire, one he should work on managing even as he rides the waves of the best goddamn honeymoon phase in the world. He wants to never not be touching Q. Sometimes it's a frantic, aching wanting, a disbelieving agony of lust and passion that batters against him and through him. And other times it's a gentler thing, the comfort of a warm body pressed against his while lounging together on the couch, the ease of a hand skidding familiarly against his hip as Quentin approaches him in a crowded room.

For a week, Eliot floats along in a cloud of endorphins, going to all of his classes because Quentin always looks worried when Eliot skips too much, and then plastering himself to Quentin's side in the evenings, going up to bed with him early so they can spend hours touching each other. The most remarkable thing about it is that everything is the same, but also more. He didn't have to lose a single thing about his friendship with Quentin just because he's sleeping with him now. In fact, it's a feedback loop, the friendship making the sex better, obviously, but the sex making the friendship better too, in a way Eliot hadn't anticipated. Is this what relationships are supposed to be like? No wonder everyone's got such a hard-on for this whole commitment gambit.

He and Quentin still spend a lot of their time just talking about everything and nothing, laughing and flirting, getting day-drunk on the weekend with Margo, swapping stories with one another, competing over the most outrageous adventures they can think of from their pasts, debating big ethical questions and also petty nothings with equal fervor.

But it's different now. Because when Eliot tells a ridiculous story about Encanto Oculto, listing the participants of a truly spectacular orgy he and Margo had joined the previous year, he can watch Quentin's eyes grow dark, and recognize the expression as lust. And instead of aching with the effort of not touching him, he can just fucking do it, lean forward and nose his way into a kiss, smile into Quentin's mouth when Margo starts heckling, and then tug and push him up the stairs so he can demonstrate his hard-won sexual expertise on a most willing and eager student.

And when Quentin tells a joke that makes Eliot laugh, and then gets that surprised and pleased look on his face like he's proud of himself for having managed it, Eliot doesn't have to curtail the urge to lift a hand up and brush his fingers through Quentin's hair, just because he wants to. Just because he knows the touch makes Quentin feel safe and cared for.

And he can kiss Quentin whenever he feels like it. Which, for the record, is a lot.

"I want to take you on a date," Eliot announces, ten days after their first night together.

"Oh," Quentin says, blinking up at him with sleepy surprise. Eliot feels smug at the sight of the dazed expression. It's only nine o'clock in the evening, there's a party just starting to pick up speed downstairs, but Eliot had squirreled Quentin away into his bedroom an hour ago and the result is a messy and warm and thoroughly fucked out boy in his bed, legs tangled in the sheets, sweat shining on his brow. "Oh, okay. That sounds nice."

Eliot narrows his eyes, leaning down to kiss Quentin on the nose. "It doesn't sound like you think it sounds nice."

"No, no, I do!" Quentin says, earnest and lovely. He pushes himself up on one elbow so he can reach Eliot's mouth, kissing him firm and wet and deep. Eliot's stomach gives a pleasant little lurch. He feels insatiable, unstoppable, and like he's going to be ready to go again very, very soon if Quentin keeps doing that thing with his tongue. "I just ‒ um. Haven't been on very many dates in my life."

Oh, honey. "Neither have I," Eliot confesses. "Although I'm thinking your lack of experience was maybe less of a preference than mine." Of course, Eliot thinks privately, he'd decided that he didn't want to go out on dates in large part because he'd never thought he'd get the chance. It was easier to pretend it was all intentional, wasn't it?

"Well. Me and Amy, we used to go out sometimes. I'd take her to dinner or whatever." Amy, the undergrad girlfriend. "But mostly we just like ‒ hung out in her dorm room?" Quentin shakes his head, dismissing the fleeting memory. "I'd love to go on a date with you. It'll be my first time going out with a man."

Eliot tries and fails to pretend that this doesn't make him ridiculously happy. "You never went on any dates with Robert? Or Oliver?" he says the names with a hint of primness, wrinkling his nose up like he has a reason to know and personally dislike these two faceless figures from Quentin's past.

"Robert was nothing more than a couple of lackluster hand-jobs in stranger's bedrooms at parties," Quentin says, flapping a hand dismissively. "Oliver... he wasn't the um. The relationship type."

Neither was I, Eliot almost says. But. Well. He's asking a boy out on a first date right now, not declaring undying love. Even though he ‒ well. Whatever, there's time enough for that later. "Oliver's an idiot," he settles on, and Quentin smiles up at him, sees right through him, and kisses him again, this time filthy and enthusiastic. "I'm so very honored to be your first at something, at least."

"Your deflowering kink is actually not sexy," Quentin says, but he's giggling right up against Eliot's lips, so Eliot decides not to take him seriously. At the same time, he should be honest with himself ‒ Eliot had felt an actual punch of jealousy when he'd first learned about Quentin's sexual history. He'd perhaps entertained an errant fantasy or two, when first getting to know this perfect man, of initiating him into the world of sex with a male partner, of entering him and being the first (and fucking only) to get to do so. But he got over himself pretty quick, because Quentin had seemed legitimately annoyed at Eliot's reaction.

Luckily for Eliot, because Quentin is maybe a literal angel, crafted to be perfect for Eliot in every way, Quentin thinks his jealousy is kind of hot. (In moderation, and when not tinged by biphobia). So he scoffs and groans when Quentin mentions any of his exes, even though ninety‒nine percent of any ill will towards them had vanished the first time he'd had Quentin's mouth on his dick. Because ‒ holy hell ‒ there's something to be said for experience, and Quentin is a grade‒A, gold‒medal, revelation of a cocksucker, and Eliot supposes he probably owes the shadowy figure Oliver a fucking fruit‒basket or something.

"So where do you want to go?" Quentin asks, trailing his mouth down Eliot's neck. At some point without Eliot noticing it, Quentin has flipped them over in the bed so that Eliot is lying on his back and Quentin is above him, his hands carding in the messy tangle of Eliot's curls, his lips exploratory and sweet across his face and neck and collarbone. Eliot floats on the feeling for a while before answering.

"I know you're not big on elaborate surprises," he says, and then bites down on his lip hard when one of Quentin's hands trails down to tweak at a nipple. "But you've got to let me spoil you a little bit, okay?"

"Hmm," Quentin says, like he's considering this. He ducks his head lower to suckle the other nipple into his mouth, and Eliot's whole body starts to shake. He has the most ridiculous, oversized reactions to everything Quentin does to him in bed, like the physical sensations have all been dialed up to a new number Eliot hadn't known existed before. "Okay, I think I can let you do that," he says, biting down and then smirking into Eliot's chest at the sound that punches its way up from Eliot's sternum. "But right now I was thinking maybe I'd spoil you."

Quentin isn't a particularly confident person. In general, or in bed. He tries, for Eliot, though, and the slightest tremor of nerves in Quentin's voice when he says this actually makes the whole thing hotter. Because Quentin wants to make him happy, make him feel good. Eliot's instincts when it comes to Quentin and sex are to pin him down and do all of the work, press every inch of his devotion and affection into him. He's a meticulous lover and he's proud of how good he is at it, and he goddamn loves making Quentin, specifically, lose his actual entire mind.

But even after such a short time together, Eliot has learned that Quentin needs to give as much as he receives. It's not exactly a hardship to give that to Q, of course, and so he resists the urge to grab Quentin by the arms, flip them over again, and give him a repeat performance of the brain‒melting sex they'd had before this whole conversation had started.

He can let Q have his fun. He can attempt to let go of a bit of that control. He can, because it's Quentin and he already trusts him more than he's ever trusted anyone else he's had in his bed, other than Margo. And again, with the exception of Margo, trust has never really been a component of sex for him before. He’s surprised by how good it feels, to know that Q knows him, knows what he wants, what he likes, what punches all of the air out of his body and what makes his skin start to tingle.

It probably cannot be emphasized enough that Q is indeed very, very good with his mouth. Eliot had been right about that from the start.

~~~~~

Over the next few days, as Eliot brainstorms plans for a date with Quentin that will satisfy his own deeply ingrained urge to spoil him rotten, while not sending the poor socially maladjusted lamb running for the hills, he becomes aware of the one and only dark spot in the glowing atmosphere of newfound bliss.

Julia’s not happy.

He might have noticed it earlier had he not been so overwhelmed with joy himself. Sure, Julia had missed a couple of late‒night hangouts with Q, Margo, and Alice, but he had sort of figured she might be spending her time elsewhere so as to avoid being a fifth wheel. And maybe there had been an errant glance or two that struck Eliot the wrong way, but these days one smile from Quentin could erase the rest of the whole universe from his mind, so he’d never been able to linger on Julia’s strange behavior for long.

It’s actually Penny who first enlightens him to the situation, an errant comment when they run into each other in the Cottage living room on Tuesday morning. Penny had clearly just come downstairs from Kady’s room, which, Eliot supposes, answers the question about where the two of them are on their eternal merry-go-round.

Penny is not a skilled conversationalist, and thus far most of Eliot’s interactions with the man have been comprised of little more than a companionable nod, an acknowledgment that they’re connected along the same string of friends, even if they themselves don’t have any real reason to spend time together.

In order to fill the silence while Eliot waits for Quentin to join him from the kitchen so they can go on a walk around campus, and also because Eliot is a total gossip whore and can’t really help himself, he says ‒ “If you don’t have a toothbrush at the Cottage yet I’d be happy to procure an extra one for you. You know, if you’re going to be spending more time here.”

Penny gives him a look, which ‒ fair enough. They don’t really have a teasing sort of relationship. “I have one.”

“Oh, good,” Eliot says, landing somewhere close to sincere. “Happy to hear things are going well.”

Penny makes a noncommittal sound in the back of his throat, but Eliot can’t tell if it’s ambivalence about Kady, or just a lack of desire for this conversation in specific. But then he raises a quizzical eyebrow at Eliot and surprises him by asking ‒ “And you and Coldwater? I assume that the whole Julia thing sorted itself out?”

Eliot, who had been preparing to make a banal response and then excuse himself to track Quentin down, pauses, frowning. “Julia thing?”

Penny nods and starts to answer and then seemingly catches up with Eliot’s reaction, choking on the words. “You know, because ‒ ” His eyes widen. “Shit.”

“What Julia thing?” Eliot repeats, and Penny brings a hand up to scratch at the back of his neck, more uncomfortable than Eliot has maybe ever seen him.

What Julia thing? Eliot wracks his brains, ready to demand that Penny start talking. But Penny, lucky for him, is saved by the bell.

“What about Julia?” Quentin asks, his voice carrying across the room as he rounds the corner. Alice is with him, and Eliot spares a fraction of attention for the fact that Penny’s eyes widen at the sight of her, like he hadn’t wanted to run into her, and had somehow forgotten she might turn up here, in the house where she lives. Eliot might have latched on to whatever drama is going on there, if not for the fact that he’s got a more pressing mystery on his hands at the moment.

“You tell me,” he says to Q, raising an eyebrow even as he lifts an arm for Quentin to slide under. “Penny just asked me if ‘that whole Julia thing’ had sorted itself out.”

Quentin snaps a look over to Penny, wrapping an arm around Eliot and relaxing into his side, automatic. Like he’s always supposed to be there. It warms Eliot straight through to his toes.

“Sorry, man,” Penny says. “I figured you talked to him about shit.”

“Right,” Quentin says with an eyeroll. “Because you’re the master of healthy communication. Have you told Kady about the whole thing with ‒ ”

“You’re a dick sometimes, you know that?”

“Takes one to ‒ ”

“Okay,” Eliot says brightly, squeezing his fingers into Quentin’s shoulder. He has no idea what the fuck is going on here, and he doesn’t like that at all. “I think we’re going to put a stop to this fascinating display, unless there are any objections?”

Penny shrugs and makes fleeting eye‒contact with Alice, who darts her eyes away. She hasn’t said anything since coming into the room.

Things are fucking weird, and Eliot is supremely uncomfortable to realize he is very much not in the know.

“Let’s just go,” Quentin murmurs to him, placing a hand on his elbow. And so on that awkward note, Eliot ushers Quentin out of the Cottage with a hand pressed into the small of his back, leaving a surly Penny and awkward Alice in their wake. It’s dawning on him that Quentin is, somehow, improbably, more up-to-date on the gossip than Eliot himself.

“Hey, it’s dawning on me ‒ ” Eliot starts to say, but Quentin stops walking and turns, placing both of his hands flat on Eliot’s chest.

“I don’t want you to think it’s a big deal.”

Eliot’s own hands come up to cover Quentin’s, an automatic instinct to return the touch. It feels as lovely as it always does to have Q near to him like this, but the tremor in his voice, the apprehension in his eyes, have put a bit of a damper on Eliot’s chipper morning mood. “What’s a big deal?”

“It’s not,” Quentin says, strangely vehement. Leaving one hand on Eliot’s chest, he reaches the other up to cup his jaw, standing on his tip-toes and bringing Eliot down towards him, into a gentle kiss. He separates their lips by just a millimeter, and speaks right up close. “It’s not a big deal.”

“Okay,” Eliot says, his eyes sliding closed, his lungs filling with the scent of Quentin. He’ll never be sick of it. “Okay, what’s not a big deal, then?”

Quentin takes a step back and lifts his hands off of Eliot.

Not good.

“Julia ‒ she has some ‒ apprehensions. About ‒ about us.”

Really not good.

“What the fuck?”

“I don’t want you to worry!” Quentin says hurriedly, catching one of Eliot’s hands in both of his own. Eliot had been about to tug said hand through his artfully arranged hair; he’s grateful for more reasons than one that Quentin has a hold of it instead. “I told her she’s being ridiculous. Obviously I’m not about to believe her weird feeling over ‒ over us, over how we feel.”

Eliot’s throat has gone dry. He’s trying to decide how to respond. It’s hard to give a name to the emotion swirling low in his gut. Quentin telling him not to worry several times in a row is obviously worrying, so there’s a pinprick of fear at the base of his spine. Julia is Quentin’s best friend. If she doesn’t support them... it’s hard not to imagine that becoming a problem.

But underneath the burgeoning worry is a sense of ‒ hurt. Of betrayal. Eliot likes Julia. He thought Julia liked him too ‒ has sincerely no idea what he might have done to damage himself in her eyes. “So ‒ ” he says, swallowing to suppress the most volatile of his emotions. “She thinks we shouldn’t be together.”

Quentin doesn’t rush to deny it, but he does bite his lip and shake his head, stormy eyebrows furrowed low on his face. Wordless, he takes the hand he’s still holding and tugs Eliot along. They start to make their way towards their usual path, a routine stroll that wends its way through the most aesthetically pleasing parts of campus. It’s little more than a circuitous route to their first classes of the day, but it gives them an excuse for a few extra minutes together. Eliot wishes he could enjoy it.

“I wouldn’t say that,” Quentin says finally, his voice low and gentle. “Julia ‒ she’s had ‒ she was working on a probability spell for her independent study with Fogg.”

Jesus. Quentin’s lucky he’s so goddamn cute, because sometimes, the way he communicates is ‒ Eliot swallows down on his impatience and squeezes his fingers harder around Quentin’s own, a grounding touch as they make their way through campus.

“That is a nonsequitur if I’ve ever heard one, Q.”

“Right,” Quentin says, huffing out a breath. “Apparently it’s giving her weird dreams or something. Like ‒ some sort of glimpse into a probability matrix that shows different outcomes of significant events. She saw some freaky shit about Kady, apparently, and that really rattled her. But then she saw ‒ ”

Quentin cuts himself off on another swallow, and Eliot bites his lip hard, keeping his eyes on the path in front of them. He waits for a beat, then another. “Quentin ‒ ”

“She saw us together, and then ‒ then apart, and ‒ she thinks you’re going to hurt me.”

Eliot stops walking. Quentin doesn’t notice for a second and takes another step, grinding to a halt when Eliot keeps a grip on his hand, swinging him around so they’re face-to-face.

“Quentin,” he says, this time harsher.

“I told you, it’s not anything to worry about. The probability magic ‒ I don’t ‒ I mean, it’s so far above my head I can’t really understand how it works, but from what I can gather, it’s like ‒ the multiverse? All these endless scenarios of what could happen. So Julia saw you uh ‒ breaking up with me, or whatever ‒ ” he rushes through the words like he’s not sure he should be saying them. Eliot’s head is swimming. “And she got ‒ concerned. She’s really overprotective.”

“Yeah,” Eliot croaks, fighting against the disconnected urges to pull Quentin against his chest, and also to turn around and flee. “Yeah, I’ve noticed that.”

“But it just means in some possible universes, things don’t work out between us and ‒ and that sucks for me, for obvious reasons. It doesn’t mean ‒ ”

“Okay,” Eliot says, biting back on a hysterical bubble of laughter. “What the fuck does Julia want me to do, then? How am I supposed to reassure her about what hypothetical other versions of me may or may not have done in worlds that never actually existed? God, this is like getting mad at someone for something they did to you in a dream.”

“That’s what I said!” Quentin says, smiling at him. It’s charming. It’s sweet. It’s so precious. Eliot could never hurt him. How the fuck could Julia even think that? Quentin continues, while Eliot tries to blink away his adoration, at least for the moment. He needs to focus. “I told her she was being ridiculous. She’s not actually mad at you, I think she’s just a little unsettled by some of the things she apparently saw.”

“Like what?”

They’ve come to their impromptu stop in the middle of a narrower pathway that winds its way between a few of the academic buildings. Quentin’s first class of the day is to the right, Eliot’s to the left. Their routine says Eliot should kiss Q goodbye and they should separate, each off to a morning of study, before meeting back up for lunch (and a quickie if Quentin gets his way ‒ Eliot much prefers to take his time).

That routine has grinded itself to dust here in this moment, as Quentin looks up at him with stormy eyes, biting his lip. Eliot brings a hand up and tugs, freeing Quentin’s lower lip from his teeth, then thumbs at his chin for a moment before dropping his hand back to his side. “Like what?” he repeats, gentle. “What does Julia think is going to happen?”

“I get wrapped up in things. In people ‒ in ‒ in relationships, and I can go overboard with how I’m feeling,” Quentin says, quiet and calm, like maybe he’s rehearsed saying this. “She worries we’re not on the same page, that I’m throwing myself all in to something and you’re going to disengage and it’s going to leave me ‒ ”

Heartbroken. Shattered. Destroyed.

Quentin doesn’t finish the sentence, but Eliot can fill in the gaps. It’s about how he’d feel, if Quentin tried to walk away from this right now. If Julia convinced him to. “Q, I think we’re on the same page,” he says, a little desperate, a little ashamed that this is apparently the best he can do at the moment.

“I think so too,” Quentin says at once, a sad little smile tilting the corner of his mouth. “I want this. Us. For real, you know?”

“Yes,” Eliot says, and it’s remarkably easy to say. “I don’t suppose there’s any way Julia’s going to trust that, other than just ‒ ”

“Giving it time,” Quentin says with a shrug. “And ‒ just to be clear, she isn’t trying to get me to put a stop to this or anything. She actually likes you, you know. She just keeps telling me to be careful over and over again.” A familiar eye-roll transforms Quentin’s face, and Eliot feels the ground tilt under him, pulling him inexorably towards Q. “It’s annoying as shit, honestly.”

“She cares about you.” Eliot can be charitable. He’d do everything he could to stand between Quentin and any potential harm, which is what Julia, misguided though she is, thinks she’s doing.

You care about me too,” Quentin says, confident. “Julia will get over it.”

Eliot smiles down at him and then raises his hands again to chafe them along Quentin’s arms. “I do care about you. Kind of a scary amount.”

“Hmm.” Quentin tilts up and presses a soft kiss against Eliot’s jaw, the easiest spot for him to reach. “See? Same page.”

This is turning in to the talk in a way that Eliot hadn’t exactly prepared for, but he finds in this moment that he’s not scared. From the second he and Quentin kissed for the first time, from before that, even, he’s known that this is what he wants. That this is what’s right. Why would he want anything or anyone else? What the fuck could be better than this?

And standing there, both of them nearly late for their first class of the week, with a rush of endorphins suffusing his veins, he says all of that out loud to Quentin. Q responds with the kind of hungry look that is normally followed by him dropping straight to his knees, but settles instead for lunging forward and kissing Eliot until they’re both gasping into each other’s mouths and giggling like lovesick fools. And then they separate and go to class, and Eliot doesn’t think about Julia for the rest of the morning.

Eliot is so fucking happy. It's nauseating and he doesn't even care, because ‒ against all odds, against what he would have said he wanted mere months ago, he’s in a relationship. He has a boyfriend. He’s found someone.

He’s found Quentin, and that’s better than he’d even known to hope for.

Chapter Text

Eliot figures he has two main options in dealing with the Julia situation.

Option one is confrontation. He can go up to her and he can demand that she give him the shovel talk that’s so clearly on the tip of her tongue at all times, and Eliot can tell her point-blank that he’d rather cut off his own arm than do anything to hurt Quentin, and they can move the fuck on.

Option two is to pretend everything’s fine and dandy. He can be pleasant to Julia, smile at her and joke around when they find themselves in the same group, pass her drinks and pretend not to notice the tightness to her jaw, the rigidness of her spine, and eventually she’ll either explode and force him back up into option one, or she’ll get over herself without the need of a real conversation at all.

Confrontation isn’t really his bag.

Accordingly...

“Hey, Julia.” He gifts her with a big, sincere smile when he sees her sitting in the living room.

Everything’s fine.

He’s a bit surprised to see her in the Cottage, truthfully. She’s been spending less time here of late. But here she is on a Saturday morning, lounging about on the couch with her hair in a sloppy bun. From behind, Eliot can’t be certain, but he thinks she might not be wearing a bra under her oversized t-shirt. An overnight visit? Intrigue.

“Oh. Hey, Eliot,” she says, smiling distractedly. And then she frowns, looking behind him with narrowed eyes. “Is Q not with you?”

Despite everything, it warms Eliot just a little to know that she expected to find Quentin by Eliot’s side. These days, they’re hardly ever apart. “He went to get coffee.” Then he takes a chance ‒ “I told him to get decaf, he’s wound up tight enough as it is.”

It works ‒ Julia sits up, twisting around to look at him more fully over the seat. Eliot comes naturally around to lean a hip against the back of the couch so they’re facing each other. “Wound up why?”

“I’m taking him out tonight. He’s gotten himself all in a tizzy because I won’t tell him where we’re going.”

At that, Julia squints and twists her lip up in her teeth again. It’s a Quentin-ish expression, and Eliot finds himself wondering which one of them picked it up from the other.

“And where are you going?” she says, blunt and almost accusatory. “Because Quentin’s not really in to elaborate fancy restaurants, and he doesn’t like surprises.”

If that’s how it’s going to be...

Eliot blows steam out his nostrils and forces his face into placid calm. “I’m well aware, Miss Wicker. Don’t you worry about a thing, I promise not to frighten the darling little introvert.”

“Quentin hasn’t even left campus since he arrived, it’s a big adjustment for him to be ‒ ”

“I know,” Eliot says, a little less calm this time. He wants a cigarette. It’s 8:30 in the morning. “I know him, Julia.”

It’s pointed, and she definitely gets the point. Her eyebrows contract, and she takes a big breath, opening her mouth to say who knows what, but they’re interrupted by Alice’s clomping footsteps down the stairs. For such a tiny thing, she makes a lot of noise.

“Hey Julia. Sorry if I kept you waiting,” Alice says, tossing a friendly nod at Eliot and coming around the couch to sit next to Julia. “So this is the thing I was telling you about.” She thrusts a notebook in Julia’s direction, and before Eliot can realize he’s been dismissed, they both have their heads bent over it, pointing and chattering in hushed tones at whatever nerdy bullshit the pages contain.

Eliot clears his throat and stands up, heading aimlessly to the kitchen. That could have gone better, and it could have gone worse. He’s not the kind of person who wastes time seeking approval from people who don’t want to give it to him; he’s learned that lesson the hard way, over many fruitless and traumatizing years. And yet ‒ this is Julia. Quentin loves her. He doesn’t think Q is going to break up with him if Julia never comes around, but even if he doesn’t, Q would be happier if they got along. That by itself makes Eliot want to put in the effort.

Before he can get himself too thoroughly caught up in a spiral of worry and confusion that would put his boyfriend to shame, said boyfriend enters the Cottage through the side door and rounds into the kitchen, a cup in each hand. His whole face brightens when he sees Eliot, and Eliot’s heart squeezes tight in his chest.

It’s been roughly half an hour since they’ve seen each other.

“Hi,” he says, tilting down to kiss Quentin automatically as he comes close, sighing at the familiar press of lips. He takes one of the proffered coffee cups out of Q’s hand. “I still don’t get why you wouldn’t just make coffee here.”

“They’ve got fancy shit in the cafeteria.”

“There is nothing fancy about the Brakebills cafeteria,” Eliot admonishes. Quentin pouts at him and Eliot nips his lower lip because ‒ well, how the fuck can he not? “You need a crash-course in the finer things, Q. You’re so lucky you found me, I’m an exceptional teacher.”

“I don’t suppose that means you’ll tell me where you’re taking me tonight,” Quentin says, predictably whiny even as he takes a sip of his ‘fancy’ caffeinated beverage. Eliot’s is black with just a smidge of sugar; he’s almost afraid to ask what’s in Quentin’s own lidded cup.

“I solemnly promise you that you’ll be able to handle it,” is all Eliot tells him. And this is true, for the record. He’s not actually aiming to overwhelm his boyfriend with the most decadent outing that money (or magical favors) can buy.

Instead, he’s picked out a quiet restaurant in the city, something expensive but hopefully intimate, with live music later in the evenings, the schedule perfectly timed to let them leave if they feel like it, or stay and enjoy the performance if the meal drags on. Eliot half hopes the night will drag, and is also somehow already impatient for the date to be over so he can bring Quentin back to bed. They’re still insatiable for each other, and it’s the goddamn best.

Here in the present, Quentin takes another inelegant gulp of his drink and narrows suspicious eyes at him, knocking their arms together. “I know I can handle it, I just think I’d be able to prepare better if you didn’t insist on the mystery.”

After dinner, Eliot has prepared myriad potential options for evening entertainment, in case the live music doesn’t strike their fancy. A broadway show, a simple moonlit stroll, or a magician’s-only dive bar, if he can get Quentin to relax enough to actually enjoy such a thing. Best to prepare for all contingencies.

And speaking of that ‒ “If you really want me to tell you,” Eliot says, keeping his tone carefully neutral, “I will. If ‒ if the secret part is actually stressing you out.”

He glances down to see a flicker of surprise crossover Quentin’s face. “I’m fucking with you,” he says at once. “Yeah, I don’t like surprises, but that’s because most surprises are like ‒ giant crowds of people shouting at you when you’re just trying to come home after a long day or whatever. You know me, I know you wouldn’t do something like that.”

To cover the fact that Eliot’s heart is literally growing three sizes in his chest, he coughs and takes a sip of his coffee, leaning back against the counter. “Have you ever actually had a surprise party?”

“No, thank god,” Quentin says, shivering in dramatic horror at the very thought. “Point is, I don’t mind you planning a date for me. I ‒ I want you to spoil me. Because ‒ because I know you like doing it.”

“I certainly do,” Eliot says, lowering his voice and setting his cup down behind him on the counter. He takes a step forward into Quentin’s space and smiles in victory when Quentin looks up at him, his tongue darting out to wet his lips, eyes widening ever so slightly. Q has his own cup clutched tight in both of his hands, and when Eliot glances down he sees his knuckles going white, the disposable receptacle buckling slightly under his grip.

Wordlessly, Eliot reaches out and takes the cup from him, setting it beside his own without looking and then swooping forward to pull Quentin into a kiss.

Quentin takes it the way he always does, like every second of his life that he’s not kissing Eliot is spent in breathless anticipation of it, like this is the only thing he’s ever wanted. His lips part, his body sags forward, arms wrapping automatically around Eliot’s waist to pull him in close. Eliot licks into his mouth and groans, swept up instantly in the taste of him, sugar and coffee and caramel from his drink, and then Quentin underneath all of that, better than anything.

He manages, by the skin of his teeth, to stop himself from backing Quentin up against the countertop so Q can hop up and wrap his legs around Eliot’s waist. They’d been caught in just that position a few mornings before by a very unamused Kady. Half-way to undressing each other in the middle of the brightly lit cottage kitchen, they’d been interrupted by Kady’s declaration that the common areas of the cottage ‘don’t belong just to you two horny assholes.’

She’s not actually wrong.

And there’s a comfortable bed right upstairs, anyway.

Quentin chases Eliot’s mouth when he pulls away, eyes dilated and expression hapless as he lurches after him. Eliot tucks Quentin’s head beneath his chin and hugs him, afraid he’ll give in on the spot if he keeps looking at Q’s lips. “We should eat breakfast.”

Q pulls slightly away, his chin resting against Eliot’s chest as he blinks up at him and then smiles, his eyes going wide and teasing. “I am hungry…” he bites his own lip between his teeth and grips his hands against Eliot’s hips, pulling them flush. “Just not for food.”

“I feel like I’ve been transported into a terrible porno,” Eliot jokes. Even though ‒ okay, so yeah, that intentionally horrible line had still kinda sorta worked on him. Honeymoon periods make fools of even the most experienced of sexual savants. Apparently.

“Mmm, well, in the porno you would definitely be bending me over the table already.” Quentin’s eyes dart over to the kitchen table, the gleam in his eyes still mostly joking, but maybe slightly contemplative, too. Oh Jesus, this boy. Eliot’s dick twitches in his pants, even as Quentin sighs, continuing. “But unfortunately that would be violating the consent of the other innocent Cottage residents who might actually want to use the kitchen this morning.”

“I’ll pay them all to leave,” Eliot says, bringing a hand up to grip in Quentin’s hair, cupping the back of his skull in the palm of his hand. “Just say the word.”

Quentin goes up on his toes to kiss him again, but just as he does, a loud voice from the living room startles them apart.

“You told me you wanted to help!”

It’s Alice, her voice pitched high and rough all at the same time. Quentin lifts a quizzical eyebrow at Eliot and they both turn to go see what’s up.

Julia’s voice is just as loud, just as tense. “I’m trying to!” she says. “But you have to know this is the kind of risk you shouldn’t be taking, Alice. You’re smart enough to understand that.”

“You don’t get it.” Alice’s feet clomp towards the kitchen. She passes by Eliot and Quentin without a word and makes her way to the side door, throwing it open and marching out, a book held in front of her chest like a shield.

Alice,” Julia snarls as she follows her. “You can’t do this alone ‒ ”

The door slams behind them both, and Eliot’s jaw twitches. He has the strange thought that he should follow them, that this matters, that this is a moment that he’ll look back on later and regret. Alice had looked so angry, and Julia… Julia had been scared. That by itself is enough to set alarm bells off in Eliot’s mind.

“Shit, what do you think that’s about?” Quentin asks, and when Eliot looks at him, he sees his face pulled into an expression of anxious concern. “She sounded really rattled.”

Eliot’s not sure if he means Alice or Julia. Both, probably.

“I ‒ don’t know,” he says slowly, still staring at the door where both of the women had just vanished. “Probably not our business.”

“Right,” Quentin says. He turns back to Eliot and thunks his forehead against his chest, sighing. “I’ll make Jules tell me later, if it’s anything serious.”

“Julia does seem like the kind of person who likes to talk about her feelings,” Eliot says wryly, and Quentin’s face shoots up to look at him, a discerning glint in his eyes.

But after a moment he shakes his head, clearly deciding the subject isn’t worth pursuing in the moment. “Breakfast?” he says instead, bringing a hand up to arrange a piece of Eliot’s hair. “And then maybe you can persuade me to go back upstairs for a bit, before I hit the books.”

Eliot kisses him again for that, slow and searching. Just a warm-up. Just something to leave them both wanting while Eliot fries some eggs and Quentin attempts toast without burning the bread to a crisp. They lock ankles under the table while they eat, because apparently they’re those people now, and Eliot forgets to think about Alice and Julia for the rest of the morning.

~~~~~

They don’t end up going on the date.

After Eliot kicks Quentin out of his room late in the afternoon so he can get ready in peace, after he spends way too long picking the perfect outfit and arranging his hair, despite the fact that his boyfriend has no appreciate for the finer details of his aesthetic, after he bemoans Bambi’s absence during the sacred preparation ritual, wondering absently where she’s run off to, he comes downstairs to find Alice Quinn sobbing on the couch, surrounded by Julia, Quentin, and Kady.

Alice is not an elegant crier. With her glasses off and her hair pulled back, she looks terribly young, her face blotchy and red, her eyes murky. Her normally pristine clothing is crumpled as she folds in on herself, Quentin and Julia bracketing her with hands on her arms.

Kady is sitting on the floor in front of her, a hand on Alice’s knee, looking up into her face with an expression of mingled panic and sympathy, like she’s fighting the urge to flee while at the same time desperate to help.

As for Eliot ‒ he surprises himself, with the strength of his reaction. Before he’s made a decision, he’s crossing the room and coming around to kneel next to Kady, crowding into Alice’s already crowded space, his heart in his throat. “Alice?”

Alice sniffs and turns her face to press it into Julia’s shoulder. “Hey,” she says, small and weak and oh, Eliot wants to hold her, wants to take whatever bad thing that’s happened to her and vanish it from the universe.

“What ‒ ” he starts to ask, but one of Quentin’s hands leaves Alice’s arm and comes to grip around Eliot’s forearm instead. Wordlessly, Quentin jerks his head back and gently disentangles himself from Alice, guiding Eliot back around to the foot of the stairs. Eliot looks over his shoulder to see Kady spring up to fill the space Quentin has just vacated, wrapping an arm around Alice’s waist.

“Is she okay?” he asks as soon as they’re out of earshot, heart pounding in his throat.

“Yes,” Quentin says. “Well ‒ no, but ‒ but she will be.” Q takes one of Eliot’s hands between both of his own, absentmindedly fiddling with the rings as he talks. “I feel weird, us leaving when she’s like this.” He looks up at Eliot, a worried twist to his mouth. “I ‒ I’m sorry, I know you planned this whole ‒ ”

Eliot waves his other hand, pushing Q’s apology aside. “Please. It doesn’t matter. What happened?”

Quentin looks at him and shakes his head, wordless for a moment, before he manages to answer. “It’s her brother.”

“Her… brother? Her dead brother?” Eliot’s twists his hand around to tangle his fingers up with Quentin’s, squeezing.

It sends a pang through his chest when he recalls Alice’s quiet words, confessed to them all late one night when their whole group had been drinking around the fire. She’d made some errant comment about her brother and then when Kady had asked about him, the truth had spilled out of her. Her loss, her loneliness, and then worse than either of those things: the greater pain of unanswered questions.

Quentin’s chin drops to his chest and he lets out a long sigh. “Not dead, exactly,” he says. And then, so quietly that Eliot almost doesn’t hear it ‒ “Niffin.”

Fuck.

Fuck,” Eliot says, and because he knows Quentin likely needs the comfort as badly as he does, he pulls Q forward into his arms, tucking his head beneath his chin. They stand that way in the hallway next to the stairs, wrapped in each other, Eliot’s words quiet against the crown of Quentin’s head. “She just found out?”

“She talked to him. Summoned him, I guess. I didn’t get the details, I guess Penny and Kady helped her.”

A bolt of shock strikes him straight in the chest.

“Oh god, and she’s still alive? That was so incredibly fucking dangerous ‒ ” Eliot cuts himself off, realization dawning. “This morning ‒ that’s what Julia wouldn’t help her with?”

Quentin nodded, the motion brushing his nose against Eliot’s sternum. “Julia just gave me the basics, we were all too worried about Alice to get into it…”

“But what happened? I mean ‒ where is it? The Niffin?”

Underneath the horror and the sadness for Alice’s sake, a new emotion has started to crowd its way up beneath Eliot’s breastbone. It takes him a moment to identify it as blinding terror. If Alice summoned a Niffin, if it’s still out there somewhere, it might want to find her. And if it does, it might come here, to this place containing everyone and everything Eliot cares about most in the world.

And then Eliot will have to fucking run ‒ he’ll have to take Q and Margo and get the hell out of dodge, because they can’t fight off a Niffin, they have no idea what that thing might be capable of…

“It’s ‒ contained,” Quentin says. “I think that’s part of why she’s so devastated, she thought she could… help him, I guess.”

Eliot slumps forward to lean a bit more of his weight against Quentin, unaccountably relieved to know that the danger has passed. He still feels awful for Alice of course, but at the same time ‒ “She could have gotten herself killed. And not just her, what about Kady and Penny? And ‒ and all of us, frankly, if that thing had started running rampant throughout campus. Letting it in through the wards to begin with... Jesus, she’s fucking lucky this didn’t go a lot worse.”

Quentin pulls away from him slightly, and Eliot forces the muscles of his arms to relax, allowing the distance. Q’s expression is unreadable as he looks up at Eliot. “I get it, though. Right? If ‒ if I lost someone I loved like that, having the chance to talk to them again…”

“Not if it’d put everyone else in danger,” Eliot says immediately.

Quentin just raises an eyebrow at him, as if daring Eliot to point out the blatant untruth in what he’d just said. When Eliot keeps his mouth shut, his throat strangling him, Quentin continues, soft and calm, brushing a thumb across Eliot’s cheekbones. “If you lost ‒ Margo. You wouldn’t…?”

Eliot would let the rest of the world burn for Margo, and Quentin fucking knows that.

And so yes, Eliot is a hypocrite of the highest order, because he doesn’t know Charlie Quinn, he has no reason to want to risk anything for him, and Alice had gone ahead and risked her own safety, and Margo’s safety, and Quentin’s safety, anyway. He can’t abide that.

But also, she’d looked so sad. Does he really have it in him to stoke the fires of righteous indignation? She lost her brother, her best friend. If anyone has an excuse...

“El,” Quentin says, a gentle prompt. The voice of Eliot’s conscience in a way that should make him squirm, should make him want to run, but never does.

“Yeah,” Eliot says, his voice hoarse like he’s been crying. He does feel a little choked up, truth be told. A part of him thinks this might be a disproportionate response, but something about the word Niffin, still ringing in his ears, has set him on edge in a way he can’t quite describe. It’s like he can taste it, how badly this might have gone, what the consequences might have been, if things had gone slightly different.

“How is it contained?” he asks. “I mean ‒ we’re sure we’re safe?”

“Kady was able to contain him ‒ it ‒ in a box or something. Julia found out and insisted they bring it to Dean Fogg.”

Eliot does relax at that. He might not have many kind things to say about the man, but Henry Fogg is a master magician, and he knows what the fuck he’s doing. “And Alice,” Eliot says, his brain starting to catch up with him. “She’s okay? I mean, she’s fucked up, but she’s ‒ okay?”

“I guess she did a lot of yelling,” Quentin says. “I don’t know. Julia will probably tell me more later… but Jules and the others just kept telling her it was okay to cry, until she… did. Fuck, I know it makes me selfish, but I’m glad I wasn’t there. I don’t know what the hell I would have said to her.”

“I’m glad you weren’t there, too,” Eliot says, firm. “I make it a policy to keep the people I care about far away from inhuman psychopaths made of pure magical energy.”

“A sound policy,” Quentin says, standing up on his toes and tilting his head for a kiss. Eliot gives it to him, grateful in a crystalizing sort of way that he’s allowed this, that Quentin is his to hold. And then Quentin falls back to his feet with a sigh, hands gentle on Eliot’s shoulders. “I know Alice has a whole army of emotional support back there, but I still want to be there for her, you know?”

“Yeah,” Eliot says, understanding at once. As the fissure of fear and anger washes away, he finds himself similarly inclined. Alice wouldn’t necessarily strike him as the type to crave company when in distress, but the way she’d sheltered herself between Julia and Quentin on the couch earlier had told a different story. “Yeah, we should go back over there, offer her ‒ I don’t know. Whatever she needs. God, that sounds so stupid.” What could any of them possibly say? And then a thought strikes him ‒ “Where’s Margo?”

Quentin’s eyebrows pull in, his expression concerned and confused all at once. “I haven’t seen her. She knows, though. Julia told me.”

Eliot glances up the stairs, then back over towards the couch, where he can see Alice’s blonde head surrounded by the darker hair of Julia and Kady. “You go back over there,” he says, pressing a kiss to Quentin’s temple. “I’ll fetch Bambi.”

~~~~~

Eliot finds Margo in her room, staring with glazed eyes down at a textbook. Her eyes aren’t moving, and Eliot would bet anything she hasn’t turned the page once since she opened the book. He walks in after a perfunctory knock; he and Margo tend to co-opt each other’s spaces with something like sibling-like familiarity. Even though sister is not exactly the way Eliot would describe her. Family might be closer.

“Hey,” he says, tilting his head as he takes in the slope of her shoulders, the nervous hunch of her body. “So ‒ Alice is downstairs.”

“Yep.”

“Crying.”

“Yep.”

“Margo.”

Margo sighs, slamming the book shut and flopping backwards on the bed in one fluid motion. Eliot wordlessly closes her bedroom door and joins her on the bed, pushing the book out of the way to make room. The second he’s beside her, Margo curls into him, wrapping all of her limbs around him and pressing her face into his shoulder.

There’s a lot of shit Eliot could say. Clearly Margo knows the basics of what’s happened, and has decided to recuse herself anyway. Is this where Eliot is supposed to give her relationship advice? A pep talk?

Luckily for him, Margo is generally not the type to keep her feelings bottled up. Not when it really matters.

“I didn’t sign up for this,” she says quietly, her voice muffled into his shirt front. “She’s fucking devastated and I’m like ‒ supposed to be on the front lines? I’m supposed to hold her and tell her everything’s going to be okay? I didn’t ‒ I don’t know if I have it in me.”

For a second, Eliot feels an unaccountable sense of... loss. It takes him a moment to find the origin of the strange emotion, to contextualize it, but before too long his brain supplies the explanation. Margo and Eliot are usually in lockstep about everything, but this particular crisis of hers is something he can’t quite understand.

Margo’s girlfriend, if that’s even what you’d call her, is in pain, and Margo can’t bear to be near her. And Eliot can’t ‒ he can’t empathize with that. If Quentin were going through something similar, he’s not sure he’d be able to tear himself away, not even for a second. And that’s not him being brave or selfless or anything of the sort. It’s just a logical progression. Quentin in pain equals Eliot in pain. And nothing makes Eliot feel better than being with Quentin. Nothing is more important to him than making sure Q is safe and happy. Ergo…

But he can’t exactly explain any of that to Margo. This situation isn’t really about him. So he clears his throat and brushes his fingertips gently through her hair. “Kady and Julia and Q are all with her. I think Kady said Penny was coming over too.”

“That’s supposed to make me feel less shitty?” she says, her tone ice-cold.

“I just meant she’s not alone, you don’t have to worry about having failed her or anything.” God, Eliot is so not good at this. Maybe Q would be better. But also, there’s no way in hell Bambi would let anyone else see her like this.

“I like Alice,” Margo says. “As a person, a lot. And we have so much fun together, and ‒ and everyone has their painful shit, and I want to be supportive, but like ‒ the way you and Quentin are together? That’s not something I know how to replicate. I don’t know how to be that kind of support system for another person.”

There’s an obvious problem with Margo’s logic, here. “Yes you do,” he says, tightening his arms around her. “You’ve done it for me.”

Margo wouldn’t be Margo if she didn’t scoff at that. She unclenches her fist from the fabric of his shirt in order to slap him lightly on the shoulder. “That’s different.”

“In what way?”

Margo is silent for a moment, her tiny body one long line of tension next to him. “I don’t know. I love you?”

“I love you too,” Eliot says, even though that’s not the point. It’s just ‒ good to say it, sometimes. He strokes a hand through her hair, wishing he knew the thing to say, the way to make this better for her. Margo has picked him up out of so many drunken stupors; she’s kicked his ass when it needed kicking, and coddled him when he needed that too, albeit in her own pragmatic way. He’d like to say he knows how to return the favor, but Margo’s always been impressively self-sufficient.

“I should be down there with her,” Margo says finally, an obvious truth she’s known from the start.

Eliot knows his priorities, knows whose side he’d be on if Margo and Alice split up ‒ but at the same time, the image of Alice, tiny and shaking in grief, is enough to make him answer Margo with honesty. “Yes, you should be.”

It takes them a few more minutes to gain the motivation to get up, to untangle themselves from the warmth of each other and go back downstairs.

Back in the living room, Alice has stopped sobbing, leaning listlessly into Julia’s arms. Penny has appeared, too, close by with Quentin and Kady, but seemingly awkward, unsure how best to offer comfort.

Eliot reaches down to squeeze Margo’s hand in reassurance as they approach, and when he sees that she still seems off-balance herself, he walks over to the couch and reaches out for Alice. She gets up immediately and Eliot folds her into his arms, offering his own warmth and support in the only way he knows how. “We’ve got you,” is all he can think to say, and while it feels inadequate coming out of his mouth, Alice seems to appreciate it, squeezing him tighter for a moment before stepping away and offering him the tiniest of watery smiles. After that it’s the work of an instant to usher Alice over to Margo, who wraps her own arms tight around her. Alice seems only half-aware of who she’s with, content to be passed around like a ragdoll.

Alice says goodnight to the rest of the group and allows Margo to lead her upstairs, and Quentin reaches silently for Eliot’s hand, tugging him away as well. They leave Kady, Penny, and Julia in the living room; Eliot hopes they’re all able to draw comfort from somewhere, if not each other. He feels lucky, even more so than usual, that he gets to be with the one person he needs most, at a time like this.

“She’s calmed down a little bit,” Quentin says, when they’re undressed and under the covers in Eliot’s room. They both sleep naked most nights, the skin-to-skin contact better than Eliot would have thought, even outside the context of sex. “But god, she was ‒ it was like something in her had just ‒ broken.”

Eliot pulls Quentin into him, the touch for his own comfort as much as for Quentin’s. “I can’t even imagine.”

“I’m an only child, but if I lost ‒ I mean, if something happened to Jules, I ‒ ”

“It’s like she had to lose him all over again,” Eliot interrupts. He doesn’t want to hear Quentin finish the thought. And he’s not going to think about losing Margo. He’s not going to go there. He can’t.

“And to know,” Quentin says, shuddering and pressing his forehead tight against Eliot’s arm. “To know that he’s not ‒ resting peacefully? The platitudes we tell ourselves about what comes after death, just ‒ she can’t even rely on that anymore.”

“It might be worse not to know at all, though,” Eliot muses, uncertain himself which way he’d fall if he were in a similar scenario. His hands are tracing patterns over Quentin’s skin, the touch skimming from his fingertips through his arms and directly into his heart, a shock of warmth that’s keeping the worst of the despair at bay.

In truth, they’re only sort of talking to each other, more just ‒ talking, saying the words out loud as if that will make it easier to understand. Eliot had brothers once. He has no idea how he would feel if he found out something happened to them. Probably nothing, as fucked up as it is to contemplate. But he does have people he couldn’t stand to lose. He can’t even think it. He has Margo, he has ‒

“El,” Quentin says, so soft that Eliot’s not even sure he’s heard it at first. “I am sorry, you know, about tonight.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Eliot says, and he means it. “We’ll go another time.”

Quentin squirms around under the covers, gets both of his arms wrapped tight around Eliot so they’re face to face, hugging while lying down, their faces tucked into each other’s shoulders. One of Quentin’s legs has slipped in between his own. It all feels so good. It reminds Eliot, in a strange way, of earlier with Margo, just lying there with perfect understanding between them. Even when things objectively suck, he has this. They have this, a cocoon away from everything else, where words are unnecessary, where comfort can be sought. That Eliot can have that, not just with his Bambi but now with Quentin too… it's the kind of gift he promises himself he’ll never take for granted.

Eliot rests his lips against Quentin’s shoulder, not quite a kiss, just breathing in the scent of his skin.

“Are you going to tell me, then, where you were planning on taking me?” Quentin asks, a hint of intentional levity in his voice. Eliot smiles, and then bites him, right on the crook of his neck.

“Go to sleep, Q.”

~~~~~

Julia and Quentin both have plans to join their families for Thanksgiving, which means that for the first time since they got together, Eliot and Quentin are going to spend time apart. Eliot tries to put a brave face on it ‒ they’ve only been dating a couple of weeks, it’s not like he’s ready to meet Q’s father. And it’s sweet, that Q has a good enough relationship with his dad to actually be looking forward to spending some time with him.

“It’s just three nights,” Margo says, staring at him like he’s grown an extra head when he bemoans the upcoming separation. “You know you’ll have to be away from him for weeks when Brakebills South comes calling.”

“I’ve been trying not to think about it,” Eliot says, instantly gloomy. He tilts his head to rest it against Margo’s shoulder, relishing in a rare moment of solitude between them. Any minute now, Q and Alice will be back from wherever they’ve sequestered themselves to finish their homework for the evening. “But you’ll be here for Thanksgiving, and Alice says she’s bailing on her folks too ‒ she’s not exactly keen on seeing them right now, for obvious reasons.”

Alice has been ‒ improving, but she still wanders around the Cottage like a ghost a lot of the time, drifting from room to room like she’s not sure where she’s supposed to be. Margo’s been better about being there for her, but Eliot’s noticed that it’s Kady, more than anyone else, who has been helping her through it, steering her towards her schoolwork when necessary, and making sure she’s never alone with her thoughts for too long.

“Kady’s spending the weekend with her mom,” Margo says. “But Penny’s here. Maybe the four of us could have our own dinner.”

“You, me, Penny, and Alice?” Eliot asks, dubious. “At that point why don’t we just do the whole overeating ritual a week early when the others are still around?”

“You just want an excuse to commandeer the kitchen,” Margo accuses. “And spoil us all rotten.”

“I am at a loss as to why you’d be complaining about that.”

Margo pauses and purses her lips. Then she snuggles further back into her favorite spot in the living room, shimmying her shoulders against Eliot’s. “Fair point. But you know, if we do a big dinner at the Cottage this weekend instead of next, that means Todd is going to want to join.”

Ugh. That’s almost enough to call the whole thing off.

“And,” Margo says, continuing ominously, “he’s going to want to call it ‘Friendsgiving.’”

“You wash your mouth out with soap, young lady,” Eliot says, shuddering in sincere horror. Fucking Todd.

Margo is right, of course. Margo is always right. But even though Eliot feels in danger of grinding his molars to dust when he hears Todd excitedly discussing the dinner with Quentin and Julia a few days later, he’s still glad they’re doing it.

Thanksgiving is a completely arbitrary holiday anyway; he and Margo hadn’t done anything at all to mark the occasion the year before. They’d simply gone about their business as over half of the students vanished back to wherever they came from to spend a day with families who probably loved them, or at least had the grace to pretend.

Margo and Eliot were good at pretending, too ‒ pretending not to notice the holiday, the thinning of the student population around campus; pretending to be happy in a little world all their own. This year is different. This year they have other people. This year, they’ve both decided it’s okay to be earnest.

… Also, Eliot gets to spoil his favorite people, gets to spend two full days in the kitchen pulling out all the stops, making comfort food but also a few more adventurous dishes, sure to dazzle and delight. He’s not going to pretend that playing host isn’t one of his greatest pleasures in life.

Everyone who matters, and a few people who really don’t, will be attending the dinner, to be held the Friday evening before the week of actual Thanksgiving. There will be turkey, and stuffing, sweet potatoes, etc., and he’s even generously allowed Josh to provide the rolls, which he’s apparently making from scratch.

On Thursday, Eliot sends Quentin off to his afternoon class with a kiss and a swat to the ass, insisting that meal prep is an adequate excuse to skip his own seminar. Quentin gifts him with narrowed eyes but doesn’t argue, and Eliot sets to work preparing some of the side-dishes and desserts, things that can keep in the magically enlarged refrigerator overnight.

In a childhood filled with shit, the one positive association he still has with his youth would be the kitchen in his family home. Sometimes, when he was very young, he could get away with helping his mother with dinner. They hadn’t really talked much ‒ even as a kid, Eliot had had nothing at all in common with his parents. But there had been a zen-like ritual to it, fetching ingredients and handing them over, rinsing out dirtied dishes, feeling a warm breeze from the open window brush his hair away from his brow as he bent his head to his task. Cooking had been the one thing in his life where he took real pride in the results, where he’d felt like his attention and effort were worth the final outcome.

He’s working on an apple pie when his peaceful reverie is interrupted by a quiet shuffle from the doorway.

Glancing away from the cutting board, Eliot sees Julia standing there, her arms crossed and her eyes narrowed in contemplation.

“Shouldn’t you be in class?” she asks him.

“You sound like Q,” Eliot says, and damn it if the thought doesn’t make him smile. “Shouldn’t you be in class?”

“Independent study with Fogg.” She shrugs, then straightens up and takes a step further into the room. “We finished up early. Can I chop something?”

It’s Eliot’s turn to narrow his eyes, but finally he nods, stepping aside and gesturing towards the apples and knife set up on the cutting board. Julia picks up the knife and studies it in a sinister, contemplative sort of way, like she’s wondering what kind of damage it could do. Eliot is too dignified to gulp, but he does turn away, busying himself with pulling out a glass pie plate from the cabinet.

They work in near silence for a while, and it’s nothing like the peace of working with his mother. There’s an unspoken tension building up between them. Eliot knows for a fact that he’s the only Physical Kid in the Cottage right now, which means Julia didn’t show up to hang out with anyone else. She’s got something to say, and Eliot is just petty enough to hold out and make her get to the point on her own.

It happens while Julia is mixing together the pie filling and Eliot is molding the crust. She clears her throat, closed-mouthed, and Eliot tenses, focusing on his work and deciding not to look over his shoulder. He feels like a skittish animal, ready to pounce and run at the smallest hint of provocation.

(But he’s not petty enough to get into a screaming match with Q’s best friend. He won’t do it, because he’s not going to fuck this up.)

“So,” Julia says, even-keeled and a touch too loud, “I’ve decided ‒ you’re okay. You can stay.”

She says it with a touch of affable good humor in her voice, like she thinks this is sufficient, and for a moment Eliot really wishes it was. Relief and indignation have both sprung up fully formed inside of him, battling for supremacy. He’s not sure how to respond, other than ‒ “Excuse me?”

“I ‒ you’re good to Quentin. And you know if you ever hurt him I’d rip you apart, so ‒ ”

“Insert shovel talk here, I get it,” Eliot says, turning around to face her, his hands braced behind him on the counter. “I am good to Quentin. Glad you’ve decided to catch up.”

“I’ve been perfectly nice to you,” Julia says, turning as well to jab a finger in his face. “Watch it.”

“Perfectly nice?” Eliot says. “I thought we were friends, Julia. And then what, you have a bad dream and suddenly I’m nothing but Quentin’s barely tolerable boyfriend?”

His carefully controlled mood has rocketed straight out of control, to his considerable surprise. He thought he’d settled on keeping his cool, for Quentin’s sake, but that seems to have flown inconveniently right out the window.

“I don’t have a problem with you,” Julia says, but it sounds pathetic coming out of her mouth, and she clearly realizes that, wincing and crossing her arms protectively across her chest.

“Look,” Eliot says, breathing through his nose and wiping his hands clean on a dishtowel. “I get why you’d look at me and think ‒ I get why you’d assume I’d be a fuckup.”

Her eyes widen. “No,” she says. “I was ‒ at first I was all for it, Eliot, when I thought you two were going to be a thing. I was happy for him, for both of you, but then... you just ‒ you didn’t see what I saw, okay? It got in my head, it felt so real, and seeing him in pain like that…”

The genuine distress behind her eyes thaws Eliot out just as quickly as he’d turned to ice. He’s been reminding himself again and again recently, that Julia is only looking out for Quentin’s best interests. In that, they will always be allies.

“But now?” he prompts, turning slowly, intentionally, back to the pie crust on the counter. Out of the corner of his eye, Eliot watches as she turns mechanically back to her task as well. He hears the squelch of pie filling turning over around the wooden spoon she’s using to stir, as he waits for her to answer.

“What I saw… it’s not real, but it looked real and it felt real, and my heart broke for him, Eliot. I’ve always been the only one who really had his back. The only one who really understood him.”

Eliot bites his tongue to hold back on a retort. He gets what she means. Julia is incredibly important to Quentin ‒ they’ve shared so much with one another and she is quite literally the reason Quentin is still alive, in many ways. Eliot can be nothing but grateful for her. But at the same time… he understands Quentin. He wonders what Julia would say if she could hear the way Quentin talks about her, the good and the bad of their friendship, his feelings of abandonment when she’d first started going out with James, or the resentment he sometimes feels at her coddling. The self-loathing he still carries around with him, for the way he’d treated Julia when he’d thought her love was the solution to all of his problems.

None of that is Eliot’s shit to tell, though.

“I get that,” is what he says instead. “But that doesn’t mean you’re the only one who cares about him now.”

“I knew from the beginning that it was stupid to get worked up over something that hadn’t really happened,” Julia says, and Eliot somehow knows that this is as close to an apology as he’ll be getting from her. He finds that he really doesn’t mind. It’s a familiar song and dance; he and Quentin have similar taste in best friends, after all.

“I’m sure if I’d had a ‒ vision, or whatever it was, of you hurting Quentin, I’d feel some resentment,” Eliot says. “It’s hard not to be overprotective.”

Understatement. He glances over his shoulder to find Julia giving him a half-smile, another moment of solidarity. Quentin is actually quite capable of taking care of his damn self, as he’d doubtless remind them if he could hear this conversation. But Eliot has never felt a stronger urge to protect and shield someone in his whole life, and he kind of thinks that’s just the response Quentin engenders in most people. The people who get the chance to really see him, that is.

Julia hums, tilting her head back and forth, and then sighs. “Anyway. I just ‒ wanted to tell you I’m over my bullshit. I’m happy Quentin’s happy. I’m happy you’re happy, too.”

And that really could be the end of this exchange. Once again, Eliot almost lets the moment slip on by, harmony restored.

But he can’t quite stop himself. He’s always been curious by nature.

“Am I allowed to ask what, specifically, changed your mind?” Eliot asks.

Julia laughs, shaking her head. “Honestly, it’s dumb. As much as I worry about Quentin overthinking things, I have the exact same problem. I get caught up, and I’m so sure I’m right, and then ‒ I don’t know. Q said something to me once, about how you get him out of his head. How you make him calm.”

Eliot tries not to smile at that. It’s the biggest fucking compliment in the world, and they both know it, because they both know Q. But Julia’s not quite done.

“It wasn’t even that, though. I could tell from minute one that he was like ‒ obsessed with you.” She rolls her eyes, like she can’t possibly understand why. “It was you I was worried about. You don’t exactly wear your heart on your sleeve.”

“I’m going to take that as a compliment.” He clears his throat, his hands going automatically back to their work, deftly shaping the pie crust into the mold. “In any case, Margo would definitely disagree with you on that one. I couldn’t shut up about him. Hand me that bowl?”

Julia hands over the pie filling and wordlessly goes to the sink with the dirtied measuring cups, rinsing them out. “But the other day, I came over to check on Alice, and I saw the two of you on the couch. You were watching something on Kady’s laptop.”

Julia comes over to hold the pan in place while Eliot tilts the filling forward. It’s nice, doing this with someone. He knows he could do it by himself, might once have resented even the most unassuming offer of assistance. He’s not the person he used to be. (Thank god). “Or, I should say, Quentin was watching something on Kady’s laptop,” Julia continues. “You were watching Quentin.”

Eliot glances down at her. She shakes her head, eyes bright and a little bewildered. “He was just sitting there, resting against you, and your eyes were glued to him, and ‒ and I thought ‒ that’s how people look at each other in movies, you know? It just ‒ seemed stupid to lean in to the worst case scenario when any idiot can see that you adore him.”

There’s a part of him that’s uncomfortable with the thought, that how he feels about Q is that obvious, just from a quick glance. He wants Quentin to know how he feels; he’s not sure about everyone else. But this is Julia, and as much as her opinion shouldn’t matter, it does. He likes her ‒ for Quentin’s sake, yes, but also for her own.

“I love that he has you looking out for him,” he says finally, as he smooths the filling down so it forms an even layer in the crust. Then he hands the completed pie to Julia, nodding his head at the pre-heated oven. It’s a peace offering just in case one is still needed. It’s easy to be kind, to be generous, when he’s doing it for Q.

Julia smiles at him, full and bright, in a way he hasn’t seen directed at him in weeks. “Right back atcha.” And then she looks around the messy kitchen with a discerning sweep of her eyes. “Should we leave the dishes to Todd?”

“Oh, I knew there was a reason I liked you.”

(The dinner is a big success, of course. Todd notwithstanding.)

~~~~~

The night before Quentin is due to leave to visit his father for the long weekend, he lets Eliot touch him for hours. Q has homework to do, but Eliot has a deliciously easy time of convincing him to leave it for the long weekend, pulling him into bed and unwrapping him slowly, like a present, until he’s naked and trembling atop the dark grey of Eliot’s comforter.

Quentin keeps trying to undress Eliot too, but Eliot won’t let him, plucking his hands away whenever he reaches for Eliot’s sweater, pressing them back against the mattress as he ducks to lick and bite along the column of his throat. Eliot is aiming to frustrate, to find the line between genuine annoyance and tingling anticipation. He plans on taking his damn time about it, too. It’s probably fruitless to try to stockpile something as incendiary as sex with Quentin Coldwater, but he’s not above giving it his best efforts. Three nights seems like an unbearably long time to go without this.

When Eliot ducks to pull a nipple into his mouth, Quentin’s whole body bucks up, a strangled sound punching its way out from his sternum. “Let me go,” he says, rough and low, and Eliot moans, tightening his hands around Q’s wrists where he has them pinned above his head. He licks at first one nipple and then the other, relishing in the squirming and refusing to relinquish his grip for a long while.

He can feel himself already unraveling from just the sight of Quentin flushed and hard and gasping while Eliot presses kisses across his chest and lower over his stomach, then back up again to the hollow of his throat; the rigid line of Quentin’s cock pressing against the fabric covering Eliot’s thigh is erotic enough that Eliot is tempted to stay just like this, to leave Q exposed and fuck him while fully clothed.

But eventually he caves to Quentin’s breathy demands, releasing his hold on Q’s wrists and laughing when his hands fly to Eliot’s face like they’ve been magnetically drawn there. He yanks Eliot up by the hair until their foreheads are touching and then kisses him like it’s the last time he’ll ever be allowed to do it, mouth open wide and tongue plunging deep. Eliot melts into it, sliding further up so he can slip into the cradle of Quentin’s thighs, the friction heavenly even through the fabric of his pants.

“God, I could do this forever,” Eliot says when they’re forced to part for air, burying his head again into the sweaty warmth Quentin’s neck, kneading the skin of his back between his hands.

“Go ahead, if you’re trying to kill me,” Quentin retorts, his own fingers massaging Eliot’s scalp as he turns his head and curls his tongue around the shell of Eliot’s ear. Eliot’s arm nearly buckles; he has to work to stop himself from smothering Quentin entirely.

“I’m trying to give you something to remember me by,” Eliot says, the seductive tone he was going for partially ruined by Quentin’s wandering hands, one of which has traced a line down from his head, following the path of his spine until he can grab a handful of Eliot’s still-clothed ass, pressing him down and pushing his own hips up at the same time.

Quentin laughs, breath hot against Eliot’s cheek. “You’re unforgettable, Waugh, believe me.”

And then Quentin pulls what might just be his smoothest ever move, hooking an ankle around Eliot’s leg and swiveling his hips, using the momentum of his lower body to flip them over. Eliot finds himself abruptly on his back, with Quentin straddling him.

It’s a lot. Eliot can feel the blood rushing downward, his already hard cock growing harder, now painfully confined against the front of his pants. “What the fuck,” he says, and Quentin smiles down at him, almost evilly.

“I was thinking I’d let you lie there while I do all the work,” Quentin says, curling forward to press an oddly chaste kiss to Eliot’s nose.

“I wasn’t done touching you,” Eliot protests, trying to keep his tone light, his breathing even.

Quentin bites his lip like he’s considering this, swiveling his hips and grinding his ass down into Eliot. “Okay, you can get me ready, and then ‒ can I ride you?”

“Can you ‒ ” Eliot coughs, stunned, and tries to stop himself from rutting up into Quentin, his body quaking with need. “What the fuck. What the fuck. Yes. Do that. Let’s do that.”

Quentin laughs at him a little, but Eliot doesn’t mind. He manages to take control back once he’s finally undressed, sitting up and holding Quentin tightly in his lap, Q’s legs wrapped around his waist as Eliot reaches behind him to finger him open.

Quentin goes nearly limp and insensate, soft groans vibrating along Eliot’s shoulder as he takes first one lubed finger, then two, then three. Eliot alternates between pressing kisses and words directly into his neck (“look at you, Q, look at you, you’re so good to me, letting me do this ‒ letting me see you like this ‒ ”) and tilting back so he can study the expression on Quentin’s face ‒ heavy-lidded and astonished, always so easily undone when he has something inside of him.

The slide of skin against skin feels better than it has any right to. As hot as it had been to keep himself buttoned up while Quentin was bare, this is better. This is always better ‒ the freedom of it, the closeness, touching each other with no barrier between them. It’s times like this that Eliot has to remind himself that he’s known Q for less than three months; it feels so right, so ‒ true that they should be like this, like they’ve somehow always belonged to each other.

“El, if you don’t stop ‒ ah, fuck, Eliot ‒ ” Quentin whimpers against Eliot’s throat, then latches his mouth to his pulse point, sucking ‒ “I want you in me when I come ‒ please ‒ ”

Eliot crooks his fingers against Quentin’s prostate one final time, just to hear the keening sound it elicits, and then pulls his hands away. Quentin groans and then sits up, taking on his own weight instead of leaning it against Eliot. He pushes at Eliot’s shoulders until he gets the idea and lays back, looking up at Quentin sitting on top of him.

They’ve had kind of an astounding amount of sex in the three and a half weeks they’ve been together, but they haven’t done it like this yet. Eliot’s hands itch to grab Q, to flip him over and slam into him, to make him fucking scream the way he knows he can ‒ but he wants this too. Wants it more than he can put into words, because Quentin asked for it.

“Q,” Eliot says, just to say it, to feel the shape of Quentin’s name on his tongue. Quentin smiles down at him, his eyes shining and his cock so hard it’s standing stiff against the flat line of his stomach. He lifts himself up and grabs Eliot’s cock, stroking it a few times to get him wet with the lube he’s summoned using the spell Eliot taught him. It shouldn’t be hot, to recognize his own casting technique in the movement of Quentin’s hand. It shouldn’t be, but it is. Everything about this boy drives him wild, and it’s only gotten worse with time. And then Quentin’s hand moves lower to circle around the base of Eliot’s cock, holding him still as he positions himself above it. “Oh god, Quentin,” Eliot says, fighting to keep his eyes open and his hips still as Quentin lowers himself down. “Oh fuck.”

Quentin moves slow, sliding down bit by bit until he’s fully seated, his breathing coming out in catching gasps, mouth open, lips red and wet and swollen. “God, you’re so ‒ deep ‒ ” he says, and Eliot lets out a full-throated moan in lieu of an actual response. Every inch of his skin feels like it’s on fire.

“You’re so tight, you feel ‒ I can feel you ‒ ” It feels important to articulate somehow, that Quentin knows how this feels, knows how thoroughly he’s ruined Eliot, that this right here is the only thing he wants for the rest of his natural born life.

And then Quentin starts to move, rocking his body up and down but never lifting too far, keeping up a shallow grind that’s pushing Eliot deep inside him. Oh my god. “Oh my god ‒ ” Eliot says, throwing his head back and closing his eyes. He can’t feel this and watch it too, watch Quentin ride him, bounce on his cock ‒ it already feels too good, it’s too much, there’s no way he’s going to last ‒

Eliot,” Quentin groans, and he lifts himself higher, slamming down with greater force. “God, fuck, you’re so ‒ I ‒ I ‒ I’m already close, I ‒ ”

“Jesus, thank god, me too,” Eliot says, fluttering his eyes open and looking up to find Quentin staring right back at him. Eliot’s earlier plan to drive Quentin slowly out of his mind has backfired somewhat ‒ they’d both worked themselves to the edge before they’d even gotten themselves to the main event. “Fuck, baby, you’re unbelievable, you have no fucking idea ‒ ”

Quentin picks up the pace, levering himself up and down with measured, even movements. He adjusts his position slightly, tilts the angle and then shouts, his body convulsing as he grinds down, using Eliot’s cock to bring himself off ‒ it’s the best thing Eliot has ever seen in his entire life. Q’s fucking himself down onto Eliot's cock with the same single-minded focus he brings to everything in his life that he really cares about, and Eliot can't even find room in him to be ashamed at how close he is to coming, how fast Quentin is bringing him there.

"You feel ‒ " he gasps, biting the inside of his cheek hard. “So fucking ‒ good.” It bears repeating. A thousand times. “So good, Q, Jesus. Excellent work, Coldwater, top marks."

Quentin laughs but it turns into a loud groan when Eliot levers his hips to thrust shallowly up into the clutch of Quentin's body, meeting him as he grinds down. "Yes, fuck, yes, right there," Quentin says, his stomach muscles quivering, his eyes hooded and mouth dropped open.

Oh shit, it’s so hot. It’s too hot.

“Yeah, c’mon Q, come on my cock, I want you to, I want you ‒ ”

Eliot’s hands come up to grip Quentin’s hips, slamming him down harder until they’re both groaning in tandem, loud and hoarse. Quentin has one hand braced on Eliot’s chest, and the other comes down to fist around his own cock.

By this point, neither of them are capable of coherent speech, just panting, desperate breaths and low, continuous moans, until Quentin shouts out, his ass clenching down hard on Eliot, and spills over his own hand, come splashing down hot on Eliot’s heaving, sweat-slick stomach and chest.

Fuck,” Eliot says, pressing the tips of his fingers into Quentin’s hips and thrusting up frantically into him. Quentin has gone nearly boneless, his upper body folding gracelessly in towards Eliot, near collapse, but his hips continue to move, twitching through aftershocks of his own orgasm and drawing Eliot nearer to his own.

“El,” Quentin moans, quiet and longing. “Let me feel you, let me have it ‒ ” his hand comes down to cup gentle around Eliot’s jaw, and Eliot is gone, jerking up and holding still, pulsing and coming and so swept up in it that he’s pretty sure he doesn’t even make a sound, his throat locked around all of the things he’s not quite ready to say. Bright colors flash before his eyes, the rest of the world gone still in a rush of dizzying, perfect silence.

And then it’s over, and Quentin is whimpering as he lifts himself gingerly off of Eliot’s cock, flopping down half on top of him and burrowing his face in his shoulder, his breath hitching and his hands clutching for purchase against Eliot’s back.

“Fuck,” Eliot repeats, dazed. He does the clean-up tuts on instinct, his brain buzzing and incoherent. Then he wraps his arms tight around Quentin and pulls him in close so they’re touching everywhere. “I’ve lost the ability to speak.”

“Seems like it’s coming back to you,” Quentin says, grinding his nose into Eliot’s chest, his breath hot and sweet against his overheated skin. “Thank god for that.”

“You think you’re funny,” Eliot says, turning his head and breathing in the scent of Quentin’s hair. “It’s fucking cute.”

You’re fucking cute,” Quentin says.

“Devastating retort.”

Q makes a happy, sleepy sort of sound and pushes on Eliot, arranging him the way he wants, so he can curl fully into him and rest his head more comfortably on the plane of his chest. Something stirs deep within Eliot, some dormant feeling he hadn’t even known existed, coming online to welcome yet another facet of Quentin Coldwater into him. They’ve spent every night together, since the very first one, but it’s right in this moment that Eliot is realizing how at home Quenitn feels here ‒ how easy it is for him to make himself comfortable in Eliot’s space. It warms him right through, every fucking inch, and he hides his smile in the crown of Quentin’s head, pressing happy kisses along his hairline.

“Wake me up before you leave,” Eliot says, a gentle whisper through the darkness.

“I have to get up at like five,” Quentin says, nuzzling his nose into Eliot’s skin and breathing deep. He’s practically sleeping already, and Eliot feels just the slightest bit smug about it.

“I know. Wake me up anyway.”

That gets him a big smile, teeth and all, and a kiss right against his collarbone. “Okay. Goodnight, El.” He pats one of his hands aimlessly around on the bed until he finds Eliot’s forearm, sliding down to tangle their fingers together, squeezing hard for a moment and then relaxing, leaving their hands still clasped.

“Goodnight,” Eliot manages to say, through a once again restricted throat. He squeezes his eyes shut and lets the endorphins rush through him and settle over his skin, ready for another night of dreamless, perfect sleep with Quentin warm and close where he belongs.

Eliot is right on the verge of slumber when he realizes he hasn’t brushed his teeth, or taken a piss, or done any of the things he’d normally do before bed. Quentin tends to be ‒ distracting, in all ways both good and bad. He considers ignoring the needs of his bladder and suffering the consequences in a few hours, but finally sighs, shifting in the bed and gently untangling his fingers from Q’s.

Quentin lets out a small sound of distress when Eliot pulls away from him to ease him down onto the pillows. Eliot pauses to catch his breath at the sight of him, warm and sated, just on the edge of sleep. He’s just so ridiculously fond of this person, in a way he hadn’t known was possible. It almost hurts, or it would if it weren’t for the fact that it feels so damn good. He slides his fingers through the perfect soft strands of Q’s hair. “I’ll be right back.”

“But you’re comfortable,” Quentin mumbles, his face mushed up into the pillow. “And warm.”

Eliot hums in agreement and leans over to press a kiss into Quentin’s forehead. Q’s brow smooths out and his face goes slack. Sometimes he really is too easy.

When Eliot re-enters the room, he leaves the lights off so as not to wake Q, feeling along the perimeter of the room to work his way over to his side of the bed. (His side of the bed. Holy shit, that’s a thing now.) He’s nearly there when he stubs his toe against the edge of his bureau, not hard enough to really hurt, but just hard enough that he loses his balance, bringing a hand down to steady himself on the top of the small dresser. His fingers skid over the corner and then there’s a muffled thump as something heavy topples over onto the ground.

Very fucking graceful. He probably should have just turned the light on, or levitated himself across the room and into bed.

“El?” Quentin asks, still mostly asleep.

“I’m being clumsy,” Eliot whispers back at him. “Trying to understand how the other half lives, you know.”

Quentin responds with something that’s definitely not actually a word, more just a mushed-up mouth sound as he shifts and shuffles around in his sleep to find a comfortable position. So fucking cute.

Eliot sighs and leans down to pick up the fallen object, realizing as he does so that it’s the Telekinetics textbook Fogg had given him a couple of weeks back. He hasn’t glanced at it once in the intervening time, of course. The book has landed face-down, the pages splayed and bent under the weight of the binding. When he picks it up, a loose sheet of paper falls away.

He’s not really sure why, but something compels him to take a closer look. Reaching up to put the textbook back on top of the dresser, he flips the single page over, squinting in the nearly non-existent light. With a quick glance over his shoulder at the sleeping lump on the bed, Eliot waves a lazy tut that causes the air right around his hand to light up in a faint glow.

The page is ‒ a spell, of some sort, written out long-hand. The words swim on the page, and Eliot has to squint to bring them into focus, but that hardly helps matters. It’s nearly incomprehensible; it looks like Physical magic for the most part, but it’s collaborative, requiring multiple different pools of energy, and some sort of psychic neural connector… It's lightyears ahead of anything he’s been taught at Brakebills, and the sight of it pings something thrilling deep within him. This is constructed magic, unsanctioned and very probably unsafe. A hand-written spell, the kind of thing hedges would give almost anything to obtain.

But what does it do?

Eliot can’t be sure. And did Fogg know this was in here when he’d handed Eliot the book? He must have, right? The Dean of Brakebills Academy didn’t go around handing textbooks to students on a whim; it had been weird as shit that he had done that to begin with.

And ‒

Eliot freezes, tracing his thumb over an annotation on the corner of the page. It’s an adjustment to the spell’s circumstances, a way of adding in another caster so there are eight in total. He’s not sure what made him notice it ‒ there are several different people’s handwritings on the single page, all intermixed in varying styles and thickness of pen-strokes.

But for a moment, as Eliot stares down at the corner in the dim light he’s created, he could swear he recognizes the handwriting as his own.

Chapter Text

Real Thanksgiving passes without fanfare. Margo spends most of the time with Alice, and Eliot spends most of the time creating specialty cocktails and forcing Penny and the girls to taste test them. And before he knows it, before he’s had a chance to be truly miserable about Q’s absence, he and Julia are back on campus.

Eliot greets Quentin’s return with a sloppy and enthusiastic necking right in the Cottage entry-way, ignoring Margo and Julia’s wolf-whistles until Bambi gets actually annoyed and hits him hard enough in the back of the head that he nearly bites Quentin’s tongue.

It’s partially for show, or so he tells himself. Honestly, he’d really, really fucking missed his boyfriend during the three nights they’d spent apart. And now he’s having to face the fact that looming just around the corner are the Trials, and that means Q and the rest of the first years will be off to join Mayakovsky for three whole stupid weeks, returning just in time for winter break. And winter break means Q will doubtless be leaving for Christmas at home with his dad, leaving Eliot behind once again. (They haven’t discussed it. It’s not like Eliot’s ready to meet Q’s father or anything ridiculous like that).

The point is, Eliot feels justified in yanking Quentin up the stairs before he’s even had a chance to take his jacket off. He needs to make the best of the time he’s got.

Eliot can't warn Quentin about Brakebills South, of course. He's not allowed. It would break every tradition of the school, and it would break Eliot's own personal code of conduct which says that if he has to suffer through some serious bullshit for the sake of his magical education, everyone else should have to suffer through it too. Quentin doesn't get a break just because Eliot fucking adores him and would give him anything in the world and would foresake all thought of custom and ritual just to make him happy, and… well. Anyway. Rules are rules, and sometimes that has to mean something.

It's... difficult, to say the least, not to spill the beans. For one thing, Eliot is going to miss the ever-living fuck out of Quentin in a way that he doesn’t quite know how to contain. For another, he and Margo are supposed to be planning the Trials, which means manufacturing reasons to spend time away from Quentin without telling him why.

He absolutely fucking hates it.

And Margo has a zero tolerance policy for his bitching, unfortunately. It seems he’s used up his quota for the year. “You don’t hear me whining about Alice, do you?” Margo says, not even looking up from her carefully crafted list of Trial plans. They’re lounging together on Margo’s bed, backs up against the mountain of pillows that cover over a third of the mattress.

“Maybe you’re just stronger than I am,” Eliot says. He butts his head against Margo’s shoulder, an affectionate nuzzle, but she swats him away and jots down another note in her precise handwriting.

“I am definitely fucking stronger than you,” she counters. “I’m also not obsessive. I’ll miss Alice when she’s gone, but she’ll come back and we’ll have bangin’ reunion sex. Focus on that part of it.”

Eliot gets the distinct impression that Margo doesn’t actually understand what she’s talking about, and the thought makes him just a touch melancholic.

He’d been delighted, in an abstract sort of way, to think that he and his Bambi had both found a partner at the same time, someone new to fold in to their private little club. But Margo and Alice… they’re… not Quentin and Eliot. It’s not like it’s a competition, of course, it’s just ‒ if it were, he and Q would be winning by default.

Alice and Margo don’t spend every night together. They don’t walk around campus holding hands. Eliot hasn’t had the opportunity to tease Margo even once about making moon-eyes at Quinn, because she… doesn’t. Sure, they make out on the couch sometimes, or just lounge around in each other’s arms. And Margo has been more graphic than Alice would probably appreciate, in telling Eliot about the awesome sex they’ve been having. But if Margo has changed from having Alice in her life, it’s not the way Eliot has changed because of Q.

Every couple is different, and Eliot is not one to judge. He’s just mourning a bit, the fact that his feelings when it comes to Quentin aren’t something he can explain to Margo. It’s not something she’s fully able to understand.

“Do you think we could make them prance around naked for the whole thing?” Margo asks, bringing Eliot back to the present. She’s clearly moved right on past Eliot’s somber mood. (Fair enough.) “I mean, it doesn’t seem fair that they only strip down for the end, when we’re not even there to appreciate it. I kind of want to see what Adiyodi’s working with.”

“I kind of think most of them would try to murder you if you suggested it,” Eliot says, “And I’d miss you too terribly if you died.”

“Puh-lease, I could take ‘em,” Margo says. Then she sighs. “Alright, fine, they can stay dressed. But we’re pulling them out of their beds in the middle of the night, no matter their attire.”

“Of course,” Eliot says. He himself had been wearing nothing at all when he’d been pulled out of bed on the night of his own trials, but the benevolent second-years had allowed him and his partner-of-the-night to throw on pajama pants before exposing themselves to the elements. Honestly, Eliot had been a little disappointed in their charity. Nobody appreciated the art of a good hazing anymore.

Margo clicks her tongue, studying her checklist one final time before nodding and folding the paper along a crisp line. “Planning session over,” she declares, and Eliot isn’t about to argue with her.

But then her satisfied smile twists around on her face as she turns to look at him. “You are not spilling the beans, Eliot. You are not saying a word to Quentin about this. Not a hint. Understood?”

“Yes,” Eliot hisses, irritated with the command in her tone. He knows. He’s already made his decision. “Fine, yes. But I’m not going to Ibiza.”

Margo’s jaw clenches hard, her eyes going wide. This has been another ongoing argument between them, one Eliot is sure Margo assumed she’d win. Even Q had said he was okay with Eliot going ‒ he’d even expressed a vague interest in coming along, as long as he could have his introvert time.

And if Quentin could have come with him, if Eliot could lounge about with him in a tropical paradise and fuck him in the middle of the day right out in the open for all of magic’s most decadent denizins to drool over… yeah, he’d be there. He’d definitely be there.

But Q is going to be in Antarctica. And Eliot isn’t fucking anyone else. Which Margo knows, but has been choosing to ignore for the sake of her insane fantasy that nothing’s actually changed in the past few months, which they both know is ridiculous, and ‒

“Fine,” Margo says, with a lofty tilt of her nose. “But I’m going. And I’m going to come back and describe all the ways I’ve fucked and been fucked in excruciating detail until you’ve got a case of blue balls so bad you’ll be chartering a plane to Antarctica just to get your dick sucked.” She glares, standing up from her bed to stand in Wonder Woman pose, hands on hips and chin tilted up.

(If Eliot thought he could get away with it, he would so go to Antarctica with the first years. He’d put up with Mayakovsky’s bullshit for the gift of being Quentin’s bed warmer and nothing else. He’s not saying that to Margo, though. She’s irritated enough as it is).

“I hope you have fun,” he says to her, and he means it. “You certainly don’t need me to have a good time.”

“I know that,” Margo says, regal and splendid. But then her lower lip pops out into a pout. “I still wish you were going.”

Eliot sighs, sympathetic but firm. “There’s no reason for me to be there.”

“You’re going to be sitting around the Cottage bored and alone. Why can’t you just sit around in Ibiza, bored and alone and warm? You can be the aloof sex god that everyone wants and nobody can have, and be there for me to hang out with when I need a break from being fabulous.”

“You’re always fabulous,” Eliot says, automatic. The vision she has conjured is not an unpleasant one, but he won’t be swayed. “Bambi, come on. Don’t try to guilt trip me here. You know exactly why.”

(Because the first years will be getting back from Antarctica two whole days before the scheduled return from Encanto Oculto, and Eliot intends to be waiting. That’s why.)

“You’re no fun when you’re whipped,” Margo says, but she’s smiling at him. “Happy Eliot is kind of disturbing.”

Eliot gives a little bow, still sprawled out on her bed. “Mixing it up is important. I aim to shock and amaze. ”

“Is the sex really that good?” Margo asks, scrunching up her nose at him.

Eliot nods, solemn, and she huffs out a reluctant laugh. “And speaking of…” he says, “I have just three nights remaining to fuck Quentin into a coma before he heads off to the depths of winter and abandons me entirely.”

Eliot shimmies himself over to the edge of the bed and springs up, ready to find Quentin and pull him away from his dumb study circle with the other first years.

“How is he supposed to fly to Antarctica if he’s in a sex coma?” Margo asks.

“Ah, see, you’ve uncovered my secret master plan,” Eliot replies with a raise of his eyebrows. He places a kiss on the top of Margo’s head as he passes by, heading for the door and for Q.

~~~~~

The night of the trials, Eliot has to find a reason not to head upstairs to bed with Quentin. It’s difficult, with him all warm and soft and perfectly positioned for snuggling. They spend a little time making out on the couch as evening fades to night ‒ unmotivated, syrupy kisses that exist just for the sake of themselves, but eventually Quentin stands up and tugs on his wrist, trying to usher him up to bed. Dear god, he wants to go. But all of his Trial things are waiting for him in Margo’s room. His job is to get Quentin to leave without him, so he can begin preparations in earnest. So he gives Quentin a regretful glance, stands up to kiss him again, and then, trying not to overthink it, goes with a simple ‒ "I just need some Bambi time."

Because his boyfriend is a saint who actually gets him and Margo, he just nods and goes upstairs alone, to curl up in Eliot’s (their) bed.

All things considered, the Trials go great. He and Margo don their fabulous outfits, achieve perfection with their hair and makeup. There’s nobody else who has the artistic eye to appreciate the effort to the full extent it deserves, but that’s why they have each other. They laugh like loons and strut around, hitting their rehearsed beats and making their grandiose declarations. Margo goes for razor-sharp, specific insults, while Eliot remains more aloof and generally disdainful.

The first years all react pretty much as expected. Alice and Julia snap to attention and remain studious the whole way through. Kady pretends to be bored while quietly worrying her lip between her teeth. Penny looks pissed off. Quentin just looks confused, but game to participate in whatever nonsense magic has in store for him this time. He’s always up for an adventure, the precious little dear.

There’s a brief moment, when Eliot, high off the energy of his own performance, declares the punishment for failure: expulsion from Brakebills. He catches Quentins’ full-body wince and has to swallow back on the instinct to reassure. Quentin is not going to fail. And if he does, for some inexplicable reason, Eliot will just have to cheat the system to keep him around. He’s not above doing that. (Rules are rules, and sometimes that has to mean something. To a point).

It’s strange, playing this role, when his boyfriend is among his… victims, so to speak. On the one hand, it’s fun to poke at Penny, to try and spook Julia, to dangle answers in front of Kady’s face and then whisk them away at the last second. He can’t quite be mean to Quentin, though, beyond a few lingering, unimpressed stares every time Q catches his eye. Even that is hard to pull off. Margo has to do a lot of the heavy lifting there, and she keeps shooting him glares whenever she catches him slipping up, staring across the room at Quentin when he’s supposed to be harassing someone else.

He’d been excited to do this since the day of his own Trials, a year ago. It’s a role he and Margo are both made for. And ‒ and he’s having fun, in all honesty. He’s having fun, as long as he doesn’t think about what comes next. (Three weeks. Three weeks without him.)

And then the moment comes, and the first years are about to undergo their last test, the baring and revealing of their utmost truths. And Eliot… well, he breaks a little. The persona, arch and distant, has kept him going through the rest of the experience, but as Quentin and Julia start to walk out of the room, paired up for the final hurdle, he can’t quite stop himself from calling out ‒ “Q.”

Quentin turns to him, and Eliot, ignoring Margo’s growl of warning, takes a few quick strides forward, pulling on Quentin’s wrist and tugging him into a kiss. Quentin sinks into it, surprise and then relief suffusing his whole body as he goes up on his toes to wrap his hands in Eliot’s hair. When they part, Quentin keeps their faces close together, smiling wide and true. “Hi. It’s you.”

“Hi, it’s me,” Eliot parrots. “Who else would it be?”

Quentin shakes his head, laughing and then pressing in again for another brief kiss. “Fuck, is it weird to say I missed you tonight? Not that the whole regal task-master thing isn’t uh ‒ working for you. Or whatever.”

“Noted,” Eliot says, a nervous giggle building in the back of his throat. Fuck. Fuck, he’s going to miss him so much. “You’re gonna do great, okay? You’ve got this.”

Quentin narrows his eyes at him, a playful glint lighting up his whole face. “Hey, you’re showing favoritism.”

“Well, you’re my favorite,” Eliot responds. He’s joking. He’s not joking. They both know that, but there’s a comfort in hiding behind a jocular, teasing tone of voice.

In fact, Quentin knows him really fucking well, just ‒ in general, which makes him very dangerous in this particular situation. Q bites his lip, tilting his head and smoothing a hand through Eliot’s hair. “Are you okay?”

Eliot can only nod, and swallow around the lump in his throat. He leans in and kisses him again.

His mind has started to running calculations ‒ he wants to kiss Q like he fucking means it, but also doesn’t want him to realize something strange is going on. No need to stress him out before the hardest challenge of all. He’s also desperately curious of what Quentin will have to say, what his essential governing circumstance will be. He’s glad for him, that he’s got Julia to help him through the worst of it. And he wishes he had a right to hear it, whatever it is. Maybe Q will give that to him, someday. Maybe Eliot will give Q his secret, in return.

Quentin makes a happy humming noise right against his lips, which effectively shuts his brain up for a moment. He chases Q when he breaks the kiss, placing another, and another, and another against his soft, perfect mouth. “Okay, you should go,” he says, trying to quell a tremor in his voice. “Clock’s ticking.”

Quentin smiles, kisses him one more time, then breaks away. “Wait up for me?”

He’s turning away before Eliot can even respond, clearly taking his answer for granted. Eliot’s heart squeezes tight tight tight in his chest.

When Quentin vanishes around the corner to join Julia, Eliot slumps, running the palm of his hand down his face. He might be smearing his makeup. Not that it matters anymore ‒ his job is done.

He doesn’t hear Margo approach, still chasing the feel of Quentin pressed against him. (Three weeks. Fuck.) So he has no warning, just the sudden pain of a shoe stomping down hard against his foot, and the jab of a finger against his side.

“Ow,” he says, finally turning away from the door and looking down at Margo, annoyed.

She gives no quarter, crowding up into his space with a sneer. She hadn’t said goodbye to Alice, Eliot suddenly realizes.

“Real fuckin’ subtle, El,” is all she says. Then she sighs, relaxing and grabbing his hand. She tugs him towards the door. “Now come on, let’s go home. You can make me a drink.”

~~~~~

The first ten days aren’t so bad, honestly. He has Margo, he has the comforts of home. It’s almost like a redux of summer, but this time the sense of ennui is less. He isn’t confused, isn’t twitchy, wondering what’s missing from his life. He knows what’s missing. He knows it’s coming back to him, if he can just wait things out in the interim.

He and Margo spend all of their time together, like the good old days, when it had just been the two of them who mattered, and nobody else. Eliot doesn’t want that time back. Truthfully. It’s still nice, though, to take a vacation of sorts, to something simple and true and safe.

And then Margo packs an outrageous number of clothes (“you’re going to a beach, and you should be naked at a minimum of 83% of the time, Margo. Why do you need six sundresses?”) and she kisses him twice on each cheek, and she leaves him.

Which, yeah, that’s probably a melodramatic way to frame it. Eliot knows he’s welcome to come along. He could have been packing his own bags, obsessing over his own over-large ensemble. He’s pretty sure Quentin wouldn’t have minded, as long as he refrained from the strictly sexual parts of the proceedings. Despite the rumors, there are actually other things to do there. One of Eliot’s fondest memories of the year before had been taking shrooms with Bambi, a large group of Brakebills alums, and a couple of young women who Eliot could have sworn had green skin and pointy ears (he’d never been able to find them again afterwards, when sober). Nobody in that group had so much as touched each other, beyond a few platonic, grounding cuddles. It had been nice.

(The orgies had also been nice, of course).

The point, buried underneath all of the reminiscences and doubts, is that Eliot could have gone to Encanto Oculto. He could have escorted his beautiful Margo into the heart of the glitz and glamour and grandiosity. He might have even had a grand old time, without any real risk of being unfaithful to his boyfriend.

But at the same time…

He hadn’t really wanted to go and stand on the sidelines. Maybe there’s a part of him, a conflicted, scared, part, that didn’t want the reminder of how much things have really changed.

And things… things have really changed. The person he used to be, the person he’d been only months ago, is not someone he’s sure he recognizes. Finding Quentin had been a wakeup call he hadn’t known to expect, but now that it’s arrived, there’s really nothing else in the world he wants to prioritize.

Which is ‒ a lot. Lest he freak out and ruin everything, he decides not to think about it.

As the Bambi-less days stretch on, Eliot tries his hardest to remember what it is to appreciate nothingness. To crave repose, to luxuriate in the absence of motion and activity and people and responsibility.

He manages it, fleetingly, on occasion. But mostly...

He misses Q. He misses Margo, he misses Alice and Julia and Penny and even Kady, honestly. He misses the babble of inconsequential conversation filling up the living room every evening, misses cooking extra food at every meal and watching it all mysteriously disappear within the hour, the sight of clean plates more than enough to compensate for the fact that Alice and Q are pretty much the only two people to ever thank him.

He tries to find things to do, pretending not to regret, despite all of the perfectly rational reasons he’s chosen not to go, the fact that he’s not on a nude beach with a bunch of decadent strangers admiring his physique.

He cleans the entire Cottage, top to bottom. First with magic, then manually.

He does all of his homework.

(He stares at the piece of paper he’d found in the Telekenetics book from Fogg, puzzling over the mystery of the intricate spellwork. He hasn’t told anyone about it, and he can’t quite explain why, even to himself, beyond the fact that just looking at the page gives him the strangest sense of foreboding.

From what he can tell, it’s some sort of strength-siphoning spell, imbuing a focal point with more power than one magician should be able to contain. Like a hypothetical work-around to the Niffin problem, allowing a single caster great strength without a risk to their soul. He should probably throw it away. Burn it. Obviously it’s far too risky to ever contemplate attempting.

But he keeps it).

Usually, he doesn’t really miss the use of a cell phone or internet when at Brakebills. Sure, there’s contraband, and Eliot has been known to watch Netflix on Kady’s secret laptop from time to time. It’s an old machine and runs slow, but it has basically become community property since Kady first showed it to the rest of them. But Eliot doesn’t really like watching TV. Or rather, he likes it as a social activity, likes laughing with Margo during reality shows, likes listening to Quentin ramble about a Star Trek episode he’s already seen a dozen times. But for the most part, he has the whole world at his fingertips at Brakebills, and he doesn’t really need technology to enhance that.

And yet ‒ he’d fucking murder someone for the ability to send a text right now. To Margo, to Q, to Todd ‒ who fucking cares? He’s so stupid bored. That fun summer redux he’d been enjoying with Margo has transformed back to the worst parts of itself ‒ the long hours of nothingness, that should be bringing him peace but don’t. It’s back, that buzzing of unease and discomfort and longing. Nothing feels right anymore, without Quentin. If he tries to think about it, confront exactly what that means, the level to which his happiness has grown to depend on this relationship…

Well, once again, he’s not dwelling on it. He’s happy, Q’s happy. The rest is bigger than he wants to deal with.

To distract himself, he spends a great deal of time imagining what he’ll do when Quentin gets home. He imagines kissing him, of course ‒ the smooth pressure of his lips, the scorching curl of his tongue. But he also imagines touching his hair, just a soft skim of fingers along the long strands. Rubbing his thumb on that spot behind his ear. Curling a hand around the back of his neck. Pressing his lips to the center of his forehead. God, he just misses the sound of his voice honestly, the little crinkles next to his eyes when he really smiles, the hair on his arms, the pressure of his teeth biting into the skin of Eliot’s shoulder, because Quentin gets bitey when he’s in the throes of passion. And it’s such a delightful, precious, hot little detail, that Eliot could cheerfully spend hours fantasizing about that small point of pressure and pain when Q bites down, the way it signals his body to push faster, harder, to give Quentin everything he needs…

Eliot has gone back to spending a lot of time alone with his right hand. He pictures Quentin doing the same, half a world away in his miserable little bunker bedroom, trying to keep quiet to avoid waking anyone else with the sound of his whimpering.

Eliot isn’t counting the days. He’s counting the hours. Minutes.

And when the day finally arrives, it’s not entirely the way he imagined it.

To say the least.

~~~~~

The first arrival is, of all people, Penny. Who doesn’t even live at the Cottage.

“You don’t even live here,” Eliot informs him, as Penny stomps in through the front door. He’s scowling, but Eliot can’t tell if it’s in response to the rudeness, or just his default setting.

“Thanks for the reminder,” he growls. “A bunch of my shit is upstairs, I’ve been told to collect it.”

“Trouble in paradise?” Eliot says. He’s being snippy, and he knows it but he can’t stop. His neck hurts from craning it towards the front door, waiting for it to open again.

To his surprise, Penny smiles, an evil glint to his eyes. “You might want to get your own house in order, before you step to me about mine.”

And he clomps away up the stairs before Eliot can ask him what the hell that means.

Kady comes in next, followed immediately by Alice. Both of them are grim-faced and clearly exhausted, their expressions and postures telling stories Eliot almost doesn’t need to hear. Alice has a hand on Kady’s arm ‒ not guiding her, not holding her back. Just ‒ there, like a reminder, like maybe Kady needs to know she’s not alone right now.

Sounds like Brakebills South wasn’t kind to Kady and Penny’s relationship. Which makes sense, in a weird way. Mayakovsky isn’t exactly keen on fostering a safe and nurturing environment, and Penny and Kady can’t seem to get their shit together no matter how many times they try. He feels a little bad for them, honestly. That kind of volatile back-and-forth is fun to observe from a distance, but likely painful to endure from the inside.

And maybe Eliot would give a bit more of a shit about that, honestly ‒ he’s been stretching out an unused muscle called empathy recently ‒ but at just that moment, Quentin walks in through the door.

Accordingly, the rest of the world pretty much ceases to exist.

“Quentin.” It’s all he says, all he can think. He’s on his feet and racing his way over to Q before he’s made a conscious decision to do so, and then he’s touching him, finally, wrapping his arms around him and ducking his head to burrow it in the warmth of his shoulder. “Quentin.”

Quentin reacts to the hug automatically, his arms snapping up to grip fierce around Eliot’s waist. His entire body sags forward into the embrace, his face nuzzling in to the curve of Eliot’s own shoulder, so they’re buried in each other. Quentin’s hot breath on the skin of his neck, the spasm of his fingers digging in to the fabric of his shirt, the perfect smell of him, the feel of every part of his body ‒

But after a few moments, just before Eliot starts to think maybe he should pull back far enough to connect their lips, something happens. Quentin’s grip against his back freezes. The warmth and welcoming of his body is gone, replaced by a single long line of tension, vibrating as Quentin holds his frame still in the circle of Eliot’s arms.

“Q,” he says, breathing the name directly against Quentin’s pulsepoint. “What ‒ ”

Quentin backs up. He breaks out of the hug, and he looks up at Eliot with blazing, dark eyes. “We need to talk.”

At first, Eliot ignores the pinprick of trepidation, of fear, at the back of his neck. Quentin is leading him upstairs to be alone. And that, at the end of the day, is what he wants more than anything.

They make their way, more or less on autopilot, to Eliot’s room. If it weren’t for the fact that Quentin’s spine is ramrod straight, if it weren’t for the way he’s twisting the sleeves of his Brakebills South sweater around his fingers, Eliot might have smiled at the thought of Q marching up the stairs with so much purpose, leading them straight to privacy and to bed. Christ, he’s missed him.

But something ‒ something’s wrong.

“So,” Quentin says, the second the door swings shut behind Eliot. He takes a few steps towards the bed, then whirls around to stare Eliot down, freezing Eliot from taking another step into the room. He can’t read the expression on Quentin’s face exactly, but everything about his posture is warning him to keep his distance. It’s the last thing Eliot wants to do, but he just stands there, facing his boyfriend, wishing he could pet his fingers through Quentin’s hair. He’s missed doing that. “So,” Quentin repeats.

“Are you okay?” Eliot asks. Déjà vu. It’s what he’d asked on Halloween night, facing down an equally determined, nervous Quentin Coldwater. The night they’d gotten together.

“Am I ‒ ” Quentin blinks at him, then huffs out a breath. “I was just in Antarctica.”

“Yeah...” Eliot says. “Yeah, I know that.”

“For three weeks,” Quentin says, like Eliot is unaware. “With Professor Fuckface Mayakovsky.”

“It’s a good nickname,” Eliot says, but he can’t make himself smile. Wrongwrongwrong. Something is so wrong.

“And you ‒ ” Quentin says, jabbing a finger at him in apparent fury. “You said nothing!

Oh.

Oh, okay. That’s ‒ huh.

Right.

Maybe Eliot should have been prepared for a bit of ire. “I know,” he repeats, sighing and offering Quentin what he hopes is a placating smile. “Stupid rules, Q, but it’s ‒ part of the tradition, as it were. You get it.”

Quentin stares at him, like he’s waiting for more, and then his mouth drops open, an incredulous laugh filling the room with its harsh, unnatural sound. “Uh, no, actually, I don’t get it. You got hazed so you just had to pass the buck along? To me?”

“Q,” Eliot says, fighting a growing sense of impatience. It’s been three fucking weeks. Can’t they have this conversation after orgasms? “It sucks, I know. But Brakebills is a fucking shitshow. This kind of thing can’t possibly surprise you.”

“I’m not ‒ it’s not Brakebills, Eliot, it’s ‒ I ‒ ” Quentin swallows, clamping down on the end of the sentence and tugging a hand through his hair. Eliot’s fingers itch. He wants to smooth out the newly ruffled strands, but he’s still getting the very strong vibe that he shouldn’t try. Not right now.

“Quentin,” he says, putting up a placating hand. “Everyone goes through it. It’s ‒ a rite of passage. You can agree with the philosophy or not, but it’s how it’s been for ‒ I don’t know ‒ forever.”

“Right,” Quentin says, shaking his head and crossing his arms in a tight band in front of his chest. “Right, it’s tradition. That’s ‒ uncharacteristically complacent, coming from you, isn’t it? You just ‒ what, you just ‒ do whatever you’re told, because it’s the way it’s always been?”

“No,” Eliot says, and now he does take a step further into the room. He has this sense that if he can just get Quentin to look at him, things will be okay. He feels like he’s sliding down a shallow slope, his movement taking on momentum the longer this goes on, the longer it takes for this weird, unnatural little tiff to smooth itself over. There are better things they could be doing, than tumbling down this hill together. Eliot needs to course-correct. “No, Quentin, but ‒ ”

“But what?” Quentin interrupts, his voice high and pained. “That ‒ that fucker ‒ El, he was awful, he was ‒ was ‒ and you just ‒ you knew, and you didn’t…”

This isn’t like Halloween night. This isn’t jittery, uncertain Quentin Coldwater trying to figure out how to communicate. This is ‒

Eliot has never seen Quentin like this, so visibly, obviously distraught. Every inch of him hates it. He can feel his body and mind gearing up, his adrenaline pumping as he searches Quentin’s face for an answer, for something he can do or say to put him at ease. “Q,” he says, with no idea how he’s going to finish the sentence. “I know he’s a bastard. I get that. But you have to understand that I couldn’t just tell you ‒ ”

“You knew,” Quentin repeats, and he sounds like he’s holding back tears. “You knew that that son of bitch was going to hurt us and you said nothing.”

Eliot’s room is carpeted, but at those words, he’s pretty sure he’d be able to hear a pin drop. All of the air whooshes out of his lungs, and his stomach swoops with dramatic alarm.

“What?” Eliot says, when he can force his jaw to unclench. “Q ‒ what do you mean he hurt you, what did he ‒ ”

Please. Don’t give me that shit,” Quentin says, and he still sounds like he’s on the verge of crying ‒ angry crying, but also pained crying, and Eliot ‒ feels like he might throw up. “You did this a year ago, you know what he’s like! And you threw me into ‒ you just let me walk in blind.”

“What the fuck did he do?” Eliot repeats, a demand this time. His mind is racing. He thinks back to his own time at Brakebills’ satellite campus ‒ the hurled insults, the hard conditions, the creepy, snide comments ‒ all reasons to hate Mayakovsky. All reasons to never want to see him again. But he’s not ‒ dangerous. He wouldn’t just ‒

But if he did, and Eliot just let Quentin go there… oh god. What the fuck. This is so fucked up.

“What did he do?” he says yet again, because he needs to know. His eyes are scanning Quentin ‒ his flushed face, the way he’s holding himself stock-still, like he’s prepared to run, or fight, at any second. Eliot can’t find any evidence of injury, but what does that even mean? What if Eliot was just waiting around and mooning over their imagined reunion, and Quentin was lying there in pain somewhere? What if ‒

“We were foxes,” Quentin says. His voice is so quiet Eliot almost misses it at first, caught up in a frantic spiral of contemplation and guilt.

Eliot blinks at him, takes a step forward, then remembers they’re not touching right now, and falls still. “Foxes?”

“Me and Alice,” Quentin says, his throat strangled. “Mayakovsky ‒ he tried to make us… we almost…”

Oh. God damn it.

Understanding rushes through him, a sick, tight feeling stretching his skin over his bones. Mayakovsky had been oddly, pervertedly interested in Eliot’s own sexual proclivities, too. He hadn’t forced him to do anything, precisely, but… he and Margo had… and it had been ‒ well, they had gotten past it. At least neither of them had had anyone waiting back home for them. At least it hadn’t been their first time together.

Fucking ‒ fuck.

“God, Q,” he says, and he’s just so desperately sad for Quentin all of a sudden, in a way he can’t quite account for. “It ‒ it’s okay, if you did. I mean ‒ it’s ‒ fucked. That he did that to you, to both of you, but it’s not your fault ‒ I ‒ are you okay?”

Suddenly he’s wondering if the distance between them is coming from a place other than frustration. Maybe Quentin feels guilty. Maybe Eliot should be jealous. He’s not. He wants to strangle Mayakovsky, of course. But he wants to wrap Quentin and Alice up in blankets and make them soup.

God, he’s gotten soft. A year ago he would have told any complainers to buck the fuck up. He did tell some of his classmates that, in fact, at the time of his own Trials. He and Margo had been fierce and unconcerned and fabulous. They had buried any trace of pain and anger they had felt so quickly that Eliot had forgotten it had ever been there.

Life is shit. Suck it up. Magic comes from pain.

All that jazz.

But Quentin’s not like Eliot (thank god). Quentin is a good person, more or less healthy when it comes to feeling his feelings, and Eliot had sent him to the wolves, completely unsuspecting. Sure, Brakebills can be a screwy, cruel place, but the majority of their professors don’t even approach the level of fucked up meanness contained within one Mischa Mayakovsky. No wonder Quentin is on edge. No wonder he’s so upset.

“We didn’t,” Quentin says finally, and now his voice is cold, flat. “Me and Alice. That sick fuck wanted us to access our ‒ our imperitive carnal desires or whatever. But we resisted it.”

“Oh,” Eliot says. “Okay, good. I’m glad.”

He’s a little at a loss for words, but it does feel better, in a perverse kind of way, to understand the origin of Quentin’s mood. And he’s relieved to know that the worst hadn’t happened. Eliot steps forward to lay a hand on Quentin’s arm, ducking his head to meet his eyes with what he hopes is a reassuring glance.

But Quentin jerks away from him like he’s been burned. “Don’t touch me right now.”

“What ‒ ” Eliot starts, his mouth starting to speak before he’s decided what to say. Quentin rejecting him, rejecting his touch, is more painful that he could have prepared for. He holds both hands up, placating, uneasy.

“God, I’m such an idiot,” Quentin says suddenly, snarling out something close to a laugh. He bursts his hands out, frenetic and uncoordinated, and paces in a sharp, short line across the length of Eliot’s room. “I thought something had gone wrong at first, you know? When we showed up in Antarctica. We were ‒ we were all geese, which should have been kind of ‒ cool, right, because it’s a total body transformation and holy shit how does that work ‒ but the whole time we were on our way there? All the way through the first night when we’d landed, when we were people again, I thought ‒ something must have gone wrong. This can’t be what was supposed to happen. Everyone else kept telling me we were fine, this was just part of the fucking Trials, or whatever ‒ but I thought something was wrong. Do you want to know why I thought that?”

He stops pacing, stops rambling, and pins Eliot with a furious glare. Eliot can’t move, can’t speak.

“I thought that,” Quentin begins, through clenched, seething teeth. “Because I knew you’d never let me go without telling me. I knew you’d never fucking do that. I trusted you. I can’t fucking believe I was wrong.”

“Oh, fuck,” Eliot says, a new awareness slamming into him like a sledgehammer. “We’re having a fight right now.”

“Uh, yeah,” Quentin snaps back, not a hint of tenderness in his voice or his posture.

“An actual ‒ like ‒ fight,” he says, still trying to process.

“Catch the fuck up, Eliot.”

Shit. Shit. Okay. Damage control.

“Right,” Eliot says. Suddenly, he can’t feel his tongue. How do people have fights? How does this work? “You’re ‒ right, Q, I’m. I’m sorry, I should have told you. I shouldn’t have ‒ I wasn’t thinking, I fucked up, okay? I should have told you. I’m sorry.”

He can hear the words as they’re coming out of him ‒ plodding, inaccurate, hitting and reverberating in the space between them. He’s missed Quentin so much. Too much, for less than a month apart. He’s an idiot for not realizing ‒ for not knowing to be afraid of this. And god, he still wants him so much ‒ kind of can’t process the fact he’s not allowed to kiss him right now. Because Quentin is mad at him, he’s really mad, and Eliot should have known ‒

“Eliot,” Quentin says, suddenly quiet, wary. “El, are you okay?”

“What?” he startles, jerking his head around to meet Quentin’s eyes. He wonders what Quentin is seeing in his face, to make him ask that. “I ‒ I don’t know. We’ve never fought before.”

The blaze of anger is still burning, though, behind Quentin’s new hesitance. “First time for everything,” he says, clipped. “You fucking fucked up.”

“How bad is this?” Eliot asks, and he’s not even sure if he’s talking to Quentin, really, it’s just that his brain is still trying to make sense of reality, of the fact that he’d had very specific plans for tonight, plans involving pinning Quentin to the bed, of rimming him until he screamed, of fucking him until they both collapsed, and now they’re ‒ having a fight. Which is a thing that couples do, he knows that ‒ he just hadn’t ever thought about it in a concrete way before.

“What do you ‒ what are you talking about?” Quentin sounds worried, and impatient, and still angry. His arms are crossed in front of his torso, like he’s trying to contain something from bursting out from him.

“Are ‒ ” Eliot swallows hard. He needs to get a goddamn grip. He needs a drink. “I’m ‒ sorry, Quentin, but I’m going to need you to tell me what’s happening right now. How ‒ bad is this?”

What he wants to ask, what he means to ask, is if Quentin is about to break up with him. But he doesn’t really know how to form those words. It all feels very middle-school, and also at the same time like the end of the world.

“Jesus, Eliot,” Quentin said, eyes wide. “I’m fucking angry with you and now, what, you need me to placate you about our relationship? That’s my responsibility right now?”

Eliot wants to take a step towards him. Takes a step back instead. It’s nearly a flinch. His back is practically against the door. “Sorry.”

“Yeah, so you keep saying. But do you get why ‒ I mean, fuck, Mayakovsky is an abusive prick, and you knew what was going to ‒ ”

“Sorry,” Eliot repeats. His vision is going blurry. He feels so goddamn small. He’d thought ‒ he’d been looking forward to today. He’d spent sleepless nights waiting for today. “Quentin, please.”

Something in the tone of his voice catches Quentin’s attention. He blinks, frustration warring with reluctant concern on his face once again. Eliot knows, in an abstract way, that he’s not making this easy on Quentin. That he’s acting like a lunatic, bouncing around from emotion to emotion without time to settle on any given one. “Please what?” Quentin asks, huffing out an incredulous breath.

“Please just fucking do it if you’re gonna do it.”

A ringing silence fills the room for one beat. Two. Three. Eliot can’t feel his toes.

There’s those wide eyes again, Quentin’s mouth slightly agape ‒ “You’re serious.”

“You’re fucking furious with me,” Eliot says. It comes out as a whine, and he winces at the sound of it, swallowing and lowering his voice. “I don’t blame you. I wouldn’t blame you.”

The thing is, Eliot wants Quentin to have everything and anything he wants. The other thing is, Eliot wants Quentin. In that order. So if the thing Quentin wants isn’t Eliot anymore, then ‒

(He might stop breathing. His heart might stop beating.)

“Eliot I’m not breaking up with you,” Quentin says, sounding flabbergasted. Sounding horrified.

It’s ‒ probably not good that Eliot nearly collapses when he says it. He’s so relieved. He’s lightheaded. He’s ‒ “You’re not? Fuck. Okay. Okay, good.” He leans back against the door, needing the support.

“How the fuck did this become the conversation we’re having?” Quentin says, clearly unimpressed. His arms are still tight across his chest. His lips are pursed, his eyes bright and dark all at once. “I’m trying to express to you that you fucking fucked up, and suddenly, what, you’re all scared about the future of our relationship? Jesus, I’ve never thought of you as selfish before, but ‒ ”

Fucking ouch.

“I’ve never fucking done this before,” Eliot interrupts, snapping and then wincing again. He hates feeling off-kilter, hates not knowing how to behave. “I’ve never had a boyfriend, not really ‒ I’ve never fought with someone before ‒ I ‒ I fucking missed you, Q, I’ve been sitting around for weeks just moping about like a complete loser because I missed you so damn bad, and now you won’t even look at me.”

“I’m looking at you,” Quentin growls back, pinning him with a furious stare. Eliot just blinks at him, mortified to feel his eyes filling with tears. They’re supposed to be naked already, they’re supposed to be kissing each other until their lips are raw. Everything’s wrong. This is wrong.

Q appears to be waiting for him to respond, but Eliot has hit a wall. He doesn’t know what to say. He’s so bad at this. Fuck.

Finally, Quentin takes pity on him, sighing deeply and tugging a hand through his hair. “You’re not usually the type to catastrophize.” He sounds more curious than anything else. “That kind of seems like my role.”

He’s right. It’s out of character. But then again, his entire relationship with Quentin is out of character. Q knows that. Eliot’s trying to change, to be better.

And there’s something else ‒ Eliot can’t find words for it, exactly, but he knows somehow that there’s a slightly different version of events, where things fall apart right here and now. Where Quentin is just that much angrier, and Eliot takes just that much longer to realize it. There’s a version where Quentin and Alice didn’t manage their near escape, where Quentin is genuinely distraught and taking it all out on Eliot, half furious and half guilty for a moment of coerced passion with someone else. There’s a version of this conversation where they walk away from each other and they can’t fix it.

He’s grateful he’s here instead, where Quentin’s face is still flushed red with anger, his muscles still taut and strained. But he’s staying. He’s pissed off, but he’s staying.

“I don’t want to lose you,” is what Eliot manages to say, in answer to Quentin’s not-a-question.

He isn’t saying it to try and get brownie points or anything, but he’s relieved when Quentin’s expression softens, the anger still simmering in undercurrent, but no longer on the surface.

“Well.” Quentin coughs, wiggles his fingers and tightens them into fists. “You’re not losing me. Just. Just give me some time.”

“I fucked up,” Eliot says. “I should have told you.”

“Yeah,” Quentin says. “Yeah, you really fucking should have.”

He takes a step forward and touches Eliot then, grabs his hand and squeezes it hard. Eliot tries to swallow past the sudden lump in his throat in time to say something, anything, but Quentin is too fast for him. He removes his hand and steps around him, is out of the room before the heat of the touch has faded from Eliot’s skin.

When Quentin closes the door behind him, Eliot takes a few plodding steps forward and drops to the edge of his bed, scrubbing his hands over his face. He’s not scared anymore, that Quentin’s about to leave him, but he is miserable, achy, uncertain and alone. It’s almost comical, how different this night was supposed to go. The things Eliot had thought might happen ‒ the things he’d thought he might say.

On top of feeling miserable that Quentin is angry with him, Eliot is also starting to form a horrifying, crystal-clear picture of his own behavior in his mind. How the hell had he not seen this coming? How the hell had he let Quentin walk away from him, let him go to fucking Antarctica, without a word of warning, without a word of farewell? And how had he not realized it for the mistake it was? He’s supposed to be in a relationship. He and Quentin are supposed to be partners.

Jesus, he’s fucking lucky Quentin is such a good person. It’s a goddamn miracle he might get a second chance.

He shouldn’t have listened to Margo. He shouldn’t have leaned in to his worst instincts, petty and vapid and devoid of real feeling, the ones that told him that the Trials were all in good fun, that life is shitty and there’s no point in trying to fight against the worst of it. He should have broken all of the fucking rules for Quentin, because in what universe is a stupid school policy more important than the man he ‒

Before Eliot can think it through, he finds himself on his feet, snatching a piece of paper off of his desk, tearing away a corner. On it, he scrawls a message to Margo. There’s a messaging spell they both know ‒ highly inefficient, a huge energy suck, and limited in that the message usually shows up to the intended recipient tucked into a pocket or fold of clothing, or slipped into a bag with no visual sign. Messages often get missed. He normally wouldn’t even bother.

But he wants her, and so he tries anyway, spinning his fingers around and watching the slip of paper float off of his hand, vibrate, and then vanish.

The second he’s sent it, he almost wishes he hadn’t. He’s not actually sure, in this moment, if talking to Margo is going to help. But it’s out there now, and if Margo gets it, she’ll be here:

Come home. Need you.

~~~~~

Of course, Margo comes home to him.

She shows up the next morning, wild and anxious, holding Eliot’s note aloft. Apparently, it had appeared tucked under the strap of her bikini top just as she was about to take said bikini off. Margo is a good person, underneath all the bluster, so she actually manages to hide her impatience pretty well, when she finds out that Eliot hasn’t suffered some sort of fatal wound in her absence. That she probably could have stuck around in Ibiza for another day or so, without the world burning to the ground. But Eliot had asked for her, and she had come. From her perspective, Eliot probably seems mostly ‒ fine. After a sleepless night of tossing and turning, Eliot has actually managed to calm down somewhat. Things are strained, but despite the worst of the thoughts that had plagued Eliot’s thought during the small dark hours... Quentin isn’t actually avoiding him. They have breakfast together, careful and stilted, and while Eliot hates the distance between them, he’s mostly just relieved they’re talking at all.

And as has been established, things have changed. Margo can’t (or shouldn’t) actually drop everything and fly to his side. She tries, at first, when she storms into the Cottage still dressed in a tiny scrap of a bathing suit, large sunglasses perched atop her head. She runs right to him, all concern and fear, but Eliot doesn’t actually let himself take the comfort he’d asked for the night before.

Instead, he fills her in on what happened, on what to expect from her own partner, and then she’s flying off to Alice. Which is how it should be, of course. Still, Eliot sees the flash of regret and uncertainty in Margo’s eyes as she turns away from him to talk to her girlfriend instead.

The rest of the day is… odd. All of the returning first years are in a somber, twitchy sort of mood, clearly working through the last of whatever drama (and trauma) they’d gone through over the past few weeks. Penny is around, and so is Julia, the two of them as much a part of the atmosphere as the people who actually live here. Quentin, Penny, and Julia spend most of the morning together. After Alice’s conversation with Margo, she glues herself to Kady’s side. Eliot watches Penny watching the two of them, eyes dark and stormy and uncertain, and wonders if Penny might feel as wretched right now as Eliot does. Assuming Quentin still wants to speak to him after today, he’ll have to ask him for the details there.

Eliot and Margo end up kind of… spending the day together, good-ol’-days-style. They make drinks, they cuddle and they talk about nothing, or sit in silence. They watch the strange interplay of their five first year friends, the way Kady gives Penny a tentative nod when they cross paths, the way Julia places a companionable head against Alice’s shoulder, the way Quentin and Penny sit by each other, heads low in what looks like remarkably friendly conversation.

To Eliot, it almost ‒ almost ‒ feels like he’s being left out of the cool kids’ group.

Which is patently ridiculous. He and Margo are elite members of a club, to which the others should be grateful to have been invited. Not the other way around.

“I need to talk to Quentin,” Margo says at one point, when the two of them are ensconced together in their familiar favorite reading nook. The Sunday afternoon light is fading quickly to blackness, as the longest night of the year approaches. “And you need to talk to Alice.”

As soon as Margo says it, Eliot is ashamed not to have realized it already. Q and Margo are friends. Eliot and Alice are friends. The degree to which a betrayal has taken place might be… debatable. Alice certainly doesn’t seem as bent out of shape as Quentin, for example. But a conversation is definitely warranted, after everything that’s happened.

Margo waits until Quentin leaves to go upstairs, probably to fetch a book or something. Eliot stares after them both as they vanish, fighting the urge to get up and follow, to hear their conversation, to know if Quentin is ready to forgive Margo ‒ ready to forgive him yet. The one and only thing Quentin has asked for is time, though, and Eliot is going to have to figure out a way to give him that.

Instead, he approaches Kady and Alice, and asks if he can speak to Alice alone.

Kady just shrugs, gets up, and punches him (really really hard) in the arm. “Antarctica? Seriously? You’re on my list, Waugh.” Eliot shrugs, waits for Kady to turn the corner, and then rubs his arm.

“Ow.”

Alice lets out a little laugh, which Eliot takes for a good sign.

“Can I join you?” he asks her, and at her nod, he takes a seat beside her on the couch. “So how pissed off is she?”

“Kady?” Alice shrugs. “She’s fine, I think. She’s used to magical fuckery at this point.”

Fuckery does not seem like it should be a word in Alice’s vocabulary. Hearing her say it is oddly endearing.

“And you?” he asks, taking a risk and scooting over so their shoulders brush together. “Am I on your list too?”

“I know Quentin told you,” Alice says, cutting straight through Eliot’s implications, delving right down to the pinprick of pain in his heart. “It’s okay, I’m not mad at you. Or Margo.”

Eliot wishes he could feel more relieved. Of course he doesn’t want Alice to be mad at him, but it all feels a little hollow, given the fact that Quentin hasn’t touched him all day. Hasn’t talked to him, really, beyond the bare minimum required to say he’s not technically giving him the silent treatment.

“I am really sorry,” Eliot says, and he means it. “I’m glad you’re not angry, but ‒ I am sorry, Alice.”

Alice shrugs, a hint of a grimace on her face. “It’s okay. I talked to Margo about this when she showed up this morning. Thank you, by the way, for asking her to come back early.” Eliot hadn’t been summoning Margo for Alice’s sake but he doesn’t say so. He’s pretty sure Alice knows that.

Alice continues, staring down at her hands in her lap. “Margo told me about what Mayakovsky did to you two last year, but honestly… that was ‒ sort of different, wasn’t it? So ‒ the way I see it, you didn’t warn us, and maybe you should have. But you also didn’t know. If you’d realized what he was going to do…”

“Oh, I would have gone to Antarctica and killed him with my bare hands,” Eliot says at once, completely serious.

Alice actually laughs, which is an odd response. “That’s what Margo said. Verbatim.”

Eliot smiles, and loves Margo more deeply with every beat of his heart. “So we’re okay, then?”

Alice bites her lip, and tilts her head back and forth, considering. “I guess we are, aren’t we?”

And now the relief does come, more potent than he might have expected, even with everything so wretched and uncertain with Quentin. Somehow, the thought of being at odds with Alice is especially distressing. They’re better off on the same side. And speaking of ‒ “You and Q,” Eliot says. “You two are okay? I mean…”

“We’re great,” Alice says, and it’s so simply put that Eliot has no choice but to believe her. “We’re all actually ‒ well, Kady and Penny aren’t in the best place.” She frowns. “But what else is new? I just mean that… you go through something like that with people, you put up with a bit of torture…”

Eliot bites his tongue at the word torture. She’s not wrong, it’s just ‒ hard for him to hear it that way. Hard for him to ignore the fact that he’d sent his friends off into the belly of the beast without so much as a significant glance as a warning.

“Yeah, I get it,” Eliot says. “Margo and I were close from the day we met, but… but we were closer, after.”

“In more ways than one, from what I hear,” Alice says, waggling an eyebrow.

Eliot lets out a surprised laugh. “We’d ‒ uh ‒ already, actually ‒ it wasn’t our first ‒ Margo and I, we ‒ ” Shit, he’s pretty sure he’s blushing.

Alice takes pity on him, her smile turning from amused to sincere. “I know, Eliot. Margo loves you more than anything.”

She doesn’t sound even a little bit resentful about it, and for the first time Eliot regards her as a match for his Bambi ‒ as someone who might be good for her in a real sense, the way Quentin has been for him. He can’t get a sense of them, in the long-term, but… Alice is a good egg. A generous, forgiving, good, good, egg.

“And I love her,” Eliot says. Then he takes Alice’s hand and places a kiss against her knuckles. “You are a kind person, Ms. Quinn.”

“I get the sense you might not believe me if I return the compliment,” Alice says, her hand turning over in Eliot’s to clasp it tight. “But you’re kind, too.”

In his mind’s eye, Eliot can see the expression of hurt and anger on Quentin’s face ‒ the accusation behind his words: I trusted you. I can’t fucking believe I was wrong.

So yeah, it is a little hard right now to believe that anyone could look at him and think ‒ kind. Alice, as it turns out, is a good egg, and a smart cookie.

~~~~~

And Quentin is, in case it hasn’t been reiterated enough, the best person Eliot has ever known. He proves it once again by not leaving Eliot hanging very long.

Despite Q’s request for time, it’s later that same night, when the whole group of them have gathered in their typical spots in the living room, that he tentatively reaches his foot across the space between them on the couch and nudges Eliot’s leg with it. “Hey, do you want to go upstairs?”

Eliot is standing in a flash. “Please.” He holds a hand out to Quentin, then worries he shouldn’t have. But Q takes the proffered hand and lets Eliot pull him to his feet. He disentangles his fingers from Eliot’s before they can really latch together, but he gives Eliot a gentle smile as he does so. That’s okay, then. Not perfect, but okay.

They leave the others with murmured, perfunctory goodbyes, and head upstairs again, back to Eliot’s room, where all their serious conversations tend to happen.

He’d been afraid he’d lose his nerve, or swallow his tongue, but now that he’s being given the chance, Eliot finds he has so much to say. So much he needs to put on the table.

“I know I already apologized, but I feel like I need to say it again.”

Quentin opens his mouth, as if to interrupt, so Eliot rushes on, because he needs to. “I’m sorry. You were right, I was acting like ‒ like things hadn’t changed for me recently. Like our relationship wasn’t a priority for me. And that couldn’t be further from the truth.”

Quentin’s jaw closes, gently, around whatever he’d been about to say. He nods. He’s not smiling, but he’s not frowning either. Finally, his mouth opens again. “I appreciate that. And ‒ I know you didn’t… you didn’t know how bad it would be.”

“That’s not an excuse,” Eliot says. “But you’re right, I didn’t know. And ‒ and even not knowing, it still ‒ it sucked, Q, not ‒ not being able to tell you. God, the night before ‒ knowing I wouldn’t see you for twenty-one days, and knowing you didn’t know that…”

Quentin’s face does pull into a frown then, and he looks down at his own feet, his shoulders hunched. “I missed you,” he whispers. “I was so pissed off, but I also ‒ I missed you, El.”

Eliot takes a risk, stepping forward and placing his hands on Quentin’s shoulders. To his considerable relief, Quentin steps forward immediately and circles his arms around Eliot’s waist, letting out a deep sigh and resting his head right under Eliot’s chin.

In the deepest parts of himself, Eliot makes a vow to do better. Quentin comes first, from this point on. He takes a deep, centering breath, and then another. He presses his chin hard to the crown of Quentin’s head, seeking equilibrium.

“And maybe I took it too far,” Quentin whispers, before Eliot can think of what to say. His voice is so soft, but Eliot can feel the warmth of his breath against his neck. God, it really has been an unpardonable length of time since he’s gotten to touch him. His hands, gentle against Quentin’s back, are shaking. “I had a lot of time to sit around and be angry at you, so it’s possible I’m overreacting.”

“You’re not,” Eliot says. “You're allowed to feel however you feel, Q. I should have realized…”

“I think there’s also the fact that I felt ‒ um. Guilty? A little bit?”

At this, Eliot stops the gentle, unconscious motion of his hands, petting and smoothing down Quentin’s spine. “Guilty?”

Quentin steps away from him, and Eliot is ashamed of the brief moment of hesitation, the way his hands convulse in Quentin’s shirt in an instinctive refusal. Don’t go.

But Quentin doesn’t move far, just enough to look up and meet Eliot’s eyes. Sometimes Quentin is bad at that, at eye-contact. But other times, he’s unflinchingly brave ‒ whenever there’s something important to say, Quentin says it to your face.

“So ‒ ” Quentin huffs out a breath, his eyes darting all over Eliot’s face before locking straight onto his eyes again. The next words come out jittery and fast. “Alice isn’t exactly unattractive, and I’m not going to pretend I haven’t ‒ noticed that, okay? And ‒ and ‒ and nothing happened, I swear, but there was this moment, El, this ‒ this moment where I ‒ wanted it to? Just ‒ purely on a physical level. And it didn’t ‒ nothing happened, really, but it got in my head, and ‒ ”

Baby,” Eliot says. He hadn’t meant to interrupt. But he’s suddenly full, full to the brim with an unutterable tenderness that he doesn’t know how to contain. Quentin’s jaw snaps shut with a hollow click. “Baby, it’s okay. Even if something had happened, it would be ‒ I ‒ ” he swallows, and forces himself to keep looking directly into Quentin’s worried face. “I’d pretty much forgive you anything, okay?”

Quentin’s big brown eyes get bigger at that, wide and plaintive and so heartbreakingly open. He’s so fucking terrifying. Eliot never wants to stop looking at him.

“Have you ever…” Quentin shakes his head, bewildered, searching for words. “Have you ever felt like you were forgetting something important? Have you ever felt ‒ more about ‒ about something than you think you should?”

Eliot feels more about Quentin than he knew it was possible to feel about anything.

But somehow, this doesn’t feel like the right thing to say. Not now, anyway. It’s not ‒ precise enough, it’s not the whole truth, and so it’s less than Quentin deserves. “I think so,” he says instead. “Yeah, sometimes. Like it’s bigger than you, somehow. Like the very idea that you could be in control of how you feel and why is ‒ is ridiculous, because it’s all just too much for any one person to ‒ ”

“Yeah,” Quentin interrupts, and now he sounds relieved, and maybe Eliot is too ‒ he’s not sure that what he’s just said even means anything, but it’s somehow nice to say it out loud. “Yeah, I ‒ didn’t cheat on you, Eliot. Not that ‒ that being forced to ‒ obviously it’s not the same thing as cheating, but you know what I mean. It’s just that the way I felt after not cheating on you… I imagine it’s how I’d feel if I had. It’s like I know what it would have been like, to be with ‒ almost like I remember, if me and Alice had…”

“It’s okay,” Eliot repeats, because there doesn’t seem to be anything else to do. He wishes he didn’t know what Quentin was talking about. Wishes he hadn’t had the same sense of déjà vu, the same sensation of heightened emotions, events made more significant by an absent reality that shouldn’t exist anywhere within actual awareness. But he gets it. He doesn’t understand it, but he gets it.

Quentin nods, a little distracted, and then the motion of his head pivots into a shake instead.

“I ‒ I think another part of the reason I got so upset,” Quentin says, his words measured and careful, “is that you not telling me, letting me go in blind like I was any of the other first years… It made me feel like ‒ like we aren’t ‒ like maybe you don’t really ‒ ”

love me. The end of Quentin’s sentence is so obvious it’s almost like he’s said it out loud.

He doesn’t.

(Soon. Not here, not now, tainted by the last wisps of discord between them).

“It’s not like that,” Eliot says, to fill the silence where those words sit. “I swear, Q ‒ I just wasn’t thinking of it in terms of ‒ and ‒ ”

Eliot is usually so eloquent. He had been, once, before this infuriating and incredible person had swept into his life and rewritten everything he thought he had known about himself. About what he wants, and what he thinks he deserves. (Those are two very different things).

“I get it,” Quentin says, soft. “Tell me it won’t happen again.”

“I solemnly swear there are no more nasty surprises from Brakebills waiting around the corner. Or if there are, I’m in the dark just as much as you are.”

Quentin raises an eyebrow at him, then tilts his head forward so his forehead thunks against Eliot’s collarbone. He sighs, the warmth of his breath obvious even through the fabric of Eliot's shirt. Eliot tries not to shudder. “That’s not what I meant.”

“I know,” Eliot croaks, his chin resting on top of Quentin’s head. He knows. “No more secrets, Q. I promise.”

It’s simple, after that.

Or ‒ maybe not simple, but… inevitable. They’ve said all they’re going to say with words. Instinctively, in some part of his body that goes deeper than thought, Eliot understands that they’ve weathered a storm. A first fight, a right of passage. And it had been awful, but they’ve made it to the other side, and now the sun is shining on the waves, the sky is bright and blue, the ship steady under their feet.

In other words… Eliot is learning that there’s a hidden upside to the whole wretched experience of a real actual fight with his boyfriend: the heady rush of joy that comes from reconciliation. Eliot has never been in a relationship long enough before to have make-up sex, but now he understands the appeal.

Everything is just as spine-melting as usual, but at first, there’s a bite to it, an unfamiliar flavor of urgency. He can physically feel Quentin using him to work through the last vestiges of his anger ‒ nipping at his mouth, digging his fingertips hard into the skin of Eliot’s back up underneath his shirt ‒ and maybe it shouldn’t turn him on so much, but it does.

And it’s been twenty-two days since Eliot has gotten to touch him like this. He’s ravenous ‒ almost embarrassingly so. It’s only the fact that Quentin is in similar condition that stops it from being mortifying. They don’t even manage to get undressed, for round one ‒ Quentin straddles him on the bed and they somehow manage to stick their hands down each other’s pants ‒ no finesse, no real room to move ‒ and within minutes they’re both sticky and sweaty, coming all over each other’s fingers and gasping into a kiss.

After that, things slow down, as Eliot continues to burn up from the inside out. He strips Quentin out of every piece of his clothing, and trembles, forcing himself to hold still while Q does the same to him. Then, Quentin licks him ‒ licks into his mouth, licks the sweat on his neck, his nipples, his belly, his soft cock ‒ just ‒ licks him, heedless of the way Eliot is shaking, the sounds pouring out from his mouth as he slowly starts to grow hard again under the ministrations of Quentin’s mouth and hands.

There really isn’t a need for words, but Eliot says them anyway, when Quentin finally cedes control and allows Eliot to flip them over. True words, gentle and aching and dripping with how much Eliot really means them. “I missed you,” he says as he brackets his arms next to Quentin’s head, lowering his body so he’s blanketing the smaller form beneath him. “I thought about you constantly,” he promises as he works his teeth into Q’s jaw, then crawls lower, sucking a bruise into his neck. “Nobody has ever made me feel as good as you’re making me feel right now, Q,” he confesses, bringing a hand down to stroke Quentin back to hardness. He’s forced to kiss Quentin again at this point, to swallow the mewling sound he makes in response to Eliot’s whispered declaration.

When they come a second time, it’s together, with Eliot buried deep in Quentin’s body, Quentin’s hands and legs clamped tight and desperate around Eliot to hold him in place.

Eliot loses all sense of time. Maybe he says something when he comes, maybe he unburdens the deepest parts of himself to the sweat-slick skin behind Quentin’s ear. He can’t be sure. He can’t remember anything but how it feels, how it should always feel. This, right here ‒ an eternity of just this. It’s what he wants. Maybe he says that. He should say it. He will say it, just as soon as he can remember how words are supposed to work.

“Okay,” Quentin says afterwards, when they’ve been lying in sated, syrupy silence together in the darkness of night. The word startles Eliot out of a state of near-slumber, and he makes an interrogative humming noise, tightening his arms around Quentin, pulling him deeper into his chest. All that precious soft skin, pressed up against him. Heaven. “Jesus. Okay,” Quentin repeats. “I think I forgot how good ‒ um. Look, I’m not saying orgasms are a get-out-of-jail-free card, just ‒ like ‒ for future reference. But god, El… I forgive you.”

Eliot laughs so hard he nearly cries.

And then they fall asleep.

Chapter Text

Kady and Penny hook up again on New Year’s Eve, officially making their relationship into a parody of itself.

(“How many fucking times is that?” Eliot laughs, but Julia gives him the stink-eye for his blasé attitude.

“Give them a break, you don’t understand the shit they’ve been through.”

“It’s just that they’ve been through so much of it, so quickly,” Eliot responds, exasperated.)

But other than that, the end of the year pretty much proceeds without any surprises. December transitions into January, and the proper start of a fresh term at Brakebills. Routines re-establish. The Cottage throws its parties, the nerds among them dive back in to their schoolwork with inexplicable fervor. Eliot can’t keep his hands off of Quentin, and Quentin never seems to get sick of it. Equilibrium.

Sort of. Things have definitely changed, but for the most part Eliot is inclined to think it’s for the better.

Brakebills South had clearly sucked for the first years in a way that still makes Eliot feel like shit when he thinks about it too hard. And yet coming out of the other side of that, their little group has become an even stronger unit. They’ve all banded together, Penny and Julia all but living at the Cottage with the rest of them a lot of the time. The brief feeling of being an outsider that Eliot had felt during his and Quentin’s fight has all but left him. He and Margo are so naturally a part of the group, they fold in so easily, draped around Quentin and Alice respectively, that the seven of them have become a social force few would dare challenge.

Eliot has to admit, it’s nice to have some numbers, for once.

When he thinks about his own time at Brakebills South, he mostly remembers clinging to Margo, and Margo clinging back. They really had gotten closer after their experiences during the Trials and everything Mayakovsky had put them through, loath as he is to attribute any part of his relationship with Margo to the actions of that prick.

It means Eliot has to share Quentin with other people sometimes, but he can hardly resent Q’s closeness with Alice, with Penny, especially with Julia, not when he sees how happy it makes him to be a fully functioning adult with friends he actually likes, and who like him back. (Penny can still be a bit of dick, from what Eliot can see, but Q doesn’t seem to mind. Eliot is working on curbing his more overprotective tendencies).

It doesn’t stop him from hogging Quentin all to himself when he can get away with it, though. It’s easy to let the rest of the world fall away when Quentin is there, easy to ignore everything and everyone else in favor of drinking in the perfection that is his boyfriend’s unfairly attractive face. Eliot is so happy every single day ‒ too happy to even remember to be scared of it, most of the time.

A typical evening a week into January settles into place with the two of them curled up together on the couch, the rest of the gang arrayed around them, nursing drinks and relaxing after a day of work. Eliot knows for a fact that Alice wants to be working on a school project right now ‒ it’s warming to see her throw herself into her studies with a passion that feels genuine, instead of tinged with desperation like it had been at the beginning of the year. Quentin had had homework on the brain too, like he often does during the week, but between Eliot and Margo’s nagging, the neurotic members of their little gang have been coaxed into leaving their work for later.

Eliot relaxes back into the couch with Quentin all but on top of him, and presses dry, soft kisses along Quentin’s hairline while Quentin runs his hands up and down his back under his shirt. The continuous touch is hypnotic enough that Eliot nearly drifts to sleep like that, despite the fact that the people around him are having an animated conversation, Kady and Penny debating the merits of a particular school of battle magic, with Alice and Julia jumping in to offer support to opposing sides (Alice is with Kady, and Julia with Penny). Margo also interjects, mostly to wreak havoc when the argument starts to simmer down.

Quentin turns his face to nuzzle his nose against the line of Eliot’s neck. One of them should probably suggest going upstairs so they can be alone, but Eliot is too comfortable to move, to speak, and he can sense that Quentin is entering in to that same dazed, half-awake state. They might fall asleep right here, with the soundtrack of their friends’ conversation lulling them to their rest.

It’s what had happened the night before. And the night before that too. Saturday there had been a Cottage party but they’d ended up making an early night of it then, too. (Quentin had worn Eliot’s favorite jeans and Eliot had gotten so worked up just looking at him that they’d ended up upstairs in bed together inside of an hour, Quentin crying out and wriggling beneath him while Eliot ground them together through their pants…)

Eliot squirms, the memory warming him even more than the fire burning cheerfully in the fireplace. But something else makes him squirm too, the knowledge that even as he settles himself firmly into the warm and cozy cocoon of a relationship with Quentin Coldwater, he doesn’t actually relish the thought of becoming complacent.

So, mustering up the last vestiges of wakefulness, he ducks his head so his lips graze the shell of Q’s ear. “You know what I just realized?”

Quentin hums an interrogative, turning his face so they’re tucked neatly into one another, blocking out the rest of the irrelevant world.

“I realized,” Eliot continues, purposefully brushing dry lips against Quentin’s delicate ear with every word, “that we’ve still never been on a date together.”

Quentin huffs out an immediate breath of laughter. “Holy shit, I guess you’re right.”

Thanksgiving, and then Brakebills South, and then the holidays… between everything else that had been going on, and what with the fact that they’d fallen so deeply and so immediately into ease and comfort with one another... it was sometimes strange to realize how little time they’d actually been a couple ‒ how many milestones they’d never actually hit.

“So you have to let me remedy that. You deserve to be pampered, Q,” Eliot says, and he tugs Quentin’s earlobe between his teeth, just for shits and giggles. Quentin hums again, this time not a question ‒ just a happy, pleased sound that sends shooting bolts of anticipation down to Eliot’s fingertips. They really should relocate.

“If you two make us watch your sappy foreplay one more time, I’m gonna find a spell that locks you in your room.”

The rest of the world snaps back into place, bursting the bubble, and Eliot groans, burying his face in Quentin’s hair to try and block it out for one final moment.

… Penny’s a dick.

“You and Kady were literally making out against my bedroom door last night,” Quentin grouses. “I had to clear my throat like seven times before you even heard me.”

Unfortunately, Quentin has decided that arguing with Penny is reason enough to lift himself up off of Eliot, separating their warm bodies from one another and letting a phantom chill seep in to the space between. Eliot keeps one arm stubbornly around Q’s waist, but reluctantly sits up as well, rolling his eyes at Penny’s frown.

“Seven times?” Kady puts in before Penny can respond. “Sounds like you were enjoying the show, Coldwater.”

Quentin predictably sputters at this, while Julia and Margo burst out laughing and even Alice and Penny smile.

“The point is,” Quentin continues, stubborn as always, “stones and glass houses.”

“At least we were in a hallway, en route to privacy,” Penny says.

En route to privacy is nothing,” Quentin argues. “Being on the way to privacy is no different than ‒ ”

“Q, I don’t know why you’re arguing,” Eliot interrupts, affecting a tone of mock bewilderment. “Penny just promised to lock us up together in a bedroom. Sounds like a reward more than a punishment.”

Margo pretends to gag. “Ugh, no, I’m with Penny on this one, the shmoopy romance shit is henceforth a private affair. I don’t care what you do behind closed doors ‒ ”

“Oh, yes you do,” Eliot interrupts at once, and Quentin sighs, turning his face to hide it in Eliot’s shoulder. “You know you wanna watch ‒ ”

Okay,” Alice says, loud and bright. “I think it’s getting late. Margo?” she stands, her face slightly flushed from the warmth of the fire and the conversation.

Eliot will take that out. He’s on his feet and tugging Quentin up as well, before Margo can argue with her girlfriend. The group scatters, the couples taking off to various Cottage bedrooms. Eliot spares a brief thought for Julia, newly a seventh wheel once again, since Kady and Penny are back together. When he glances back at her, he sees she’s staying on the couch, idly finishing up a glass of wine. She doesn’t look sad to be abandoned, but maybe he should ask Quentin about it ‒ see if they need to be mindful of her single lady status amongst a group that’s becoming more couple-y by the day.

He opens his mouth to broach the topic as they make their way upstairs and to bed, but Quentin speaks first. “So when’s our date? And where are we going?”

Eliot grins, a bloom of warmth filling his chest and then coalescing low in his stomach. “No dice, Q. You’ll be informed of the pertinent details when I’m good and ready.”

Eliot can tell right away that Quentin wants to argue with him, wants to coax out the answers. His posture straightens up, his hands flying into the air ready to accompany whatever stellar argument his brain is cooking up at high speed. Eliot is not to be moved: he likes making Quentin wait sometimes. But he’s certainly not opposed to Quentin trying his very, very, best to persuade him otherwise.

It’s hardly a surprise that they don’t manage to get a lot of sleep that night.

~~~~~

Eliot decides right away not to reschedule the same date he’d had planned for them back in November. They’ll go out on the town some other time, he’s sure, but for now he’s focused on something else ‒ another thing they haven’t managed to do together yet, despite earlier plans to the contrary.

It’s a simple affair, honestly, not the kind of thing he’d normally spend too much time with, but with Q he’s always willing to sweat the details. So he tells Q their date will take place on Saturday night, and he sets about his modest but still meticulous preparations.

The day of, he enlists his friends’ help in keeping Quentin occupied while he sets everything up, and then he fetches a complaining Quentin from his room and begins to guide him easily across campus.

“ ‒ all I mean is, if you gave me, like, a category of where we’re headed, I could have dressed for ‒ ”

“You look beautiful,” Eliot says honestly. Q is dressed simply but nicely, in a dark blue sweater that feels divine under Eliot’s fingers as he walks with his hand curled casually around Q’s shoulder. He’s also put some effort into brushing his hair out, so it’s even softer than usual as it tickles along Eliot’s bare wrist.

“Okay, but,” Quentin says, blowing straight past the compliment as they continue walking. “But am I underdressed? I mean, fuck, I’m pretty much always underdressed around you, but on campus that hardly matters, and ‒ ”

“I prefer you significantly more underdressed than you are right now,” Eliot says. His brain is programmed to take advantage of these setups ‒ he hasn’t changed that much. He himself isn’t dressed up more than he normally would be. Vest but no tie, the tiniest hint of charcoal around his eyes, his hair artfully tangled and falling just slightly over his forehead. He may have picked out the specific outfit and accessories that are most inclined to turn Quentin feral in bed, and he is delighted to note that Quentin has definitely noticed.

“You’re not funny,” Quentin says, worrying his teeth between his lips. And then, as if he’s only just realized where Eliot is steering him… “Wait, where are we going? The portal is ‒ ”

“I never said we were taking the portal,” Eliot points out, and he manages to lean over to press a kiss to Quentin’s temple without breaking their stride.

Quentin falls silent when they reach the library. Eliot can feel it when he realizes where they’re going. Some point of pressure inside of him unspools, his body resting soft and warm in the curve of Eliot’s own as they make their way towards the staircase in the back, leading down.

“Eliot,” Quentin says, looking up at him and shaking his head, the tiniest of smiles lifting up one corner of his mouth.

“Quentin,” Eliot responds, gifting him with a smile of his own and then gesturing him forward with one hand.

He lets Quentin walk in to the secret room first, to take in the view. Eliot had been down in the small hidden hideaway for most of the morning while Q was working on a school project with Penny and Alice right above his head, unknowing.

He’d been thorough, using both spells and manual methods to clean the room from floor to ceiling, filtering the musty air, putting subtle warming spells into the walls to combat the basement draft and lack of insulation. Instead of a lantern or one single bulb of lighting spell, Eliot (with some helpful advice from Alice) has created smaller lights with a diffused pattern built into them, and placed them strategically over the ceiling. It’s mood lighting, much more controlled and less messy than the candles that previous inhabitants of the room had used.

And speaking of, all evidence of previous guests has been erased. The partially melted candles, the ratty blanket, the folding chairs, are gone. Eliot has brought his own comfortable dining chairs and a small round table down here, placed against one wall. The crates of books are stacked up along the opposite wall, the one containing the first edition Fillory books left on the top for Quentin’s easy access, because there’s no way in hell he’ll be able to resist taking another look at them now that he’s down here.

There are blankets, enchanted with padding so they’re even more comfortable to rest upon than they appear. There’s a basket, containing an entirely homemade meal that Eliot had prepared this afternoon, trusting in their friends to keep Quentin away from the Cottage while he worked in the kitchen.

“Holy shit,” Quentin breathes, taking in the cozy sanctuary. “This is…”

“We never came back down here,” Eliot explains with a shrug, coming up behind Quentin and chafing his arms between his hands. He presses his chest up against Quentin’s back, and Quentin rests against him comfortably, automatic. “I don’t know why. I always wanted to.”

“El,” Quentin says, turning to look up at him with shining eyes. “This is so incredibly cheesy. Thank you.”

And then Quentin kisses him, soft and gooey and full of feeling. Eliot balls his fingers up in fists at his sides, to avoid tugging Q in close, crowding him against the wall. He really has put a lot of work into making them dinner, and he’d like to get to that before anything else.

The evening goes incredibly well. Eliot shows off with a small music charm that fills the space with quiet jazz, and he displays each one of the dishes he’s prepared, delighting in Quentin’s appreciative reactions as he samples each thing. Eliot spends so long watching Quentin enjoy the food that he almost forgets to eat anything himself. Quentin has to wave a fork in his face to get him to try a bite of his own lemon farfalle. It tastes fucking perfect; the warming spell in the basket having kept it heated to just the right temperature.

For dessert, there’s peach cobbler. Peaches are out of season, but they’re one of his favorite fruits to cook with, and magic does have its perks, after all. Eliot scrapes his chair around the table so he and Quentin are sitting right next to each other, their ankles locked under the table, their arms brushing and their voices low in the quiet space. Maybe it’s just that he’s alone with Quentin, in a private place he’s worked on making special just for the two of them. Maybe it’s the way Q is looking at him, all shining eyes and soft, grateful smiles. But for whatever reason, the cobbler is maybe the best thing Eliot has ever tasted.

It feels conceited to say that, though, considering he’d been the one to make it, so instead he says something else. “You know, Q, coming down here with you that first time, it was… it meant a lot to me.”

Quentin smiles at him over a final bite of cobbler, then shakes his head, a gleam of amusement lighting his face in the soft glow of the light spells. “You weren’t taking me down here to seduce me, then?”

“I’m taking you down here now to seduce you,” Eliot assures him, grabbing at one of Quentin’s hands and bringing it up to his lips. “But then, I was ‒ honestly, I don’t know why I brought you down here. But it was ‒ that day was when I knew ‒ ”

It’s hard to articulate, but it feels important to say, so he takes a deep breath and kisses Q’s hand again for strength. “I was already so attracted to you. I already liked you so much. And then we came down here and you read to me, and I was so ‒ I think that was when I knew, you know? How ‒ how right we were together. How important you were to me.”

To his surprise, Quentin frowns a little at that, pulling his hand away from Eliot. “And then I ruined it. That night, at that party, you wanted ‒ and I shut you down.”

“That doesn’t matter,” Eliot says, honest and easy. He holds his hand out for Quentin again and tugs him to his feet, away from the table. “It doesn’t matter, Q. I’m so happy with you. Do you ‒ you know how happy you make me?”

Quentin shakes his head, not a denial but simply an expression of wonder. “I didn’t know I was capable of making anyone happy. Not before I met you.”

A sensation of longing, of adoration, so strong it’s painful, hooks into Eliot’s chest and tugs. “Am I making you happy?” he asks. It’s probably stupid to want the reassurance. He knows he is. But he’d never thought he could make someone happy either. Not really, not in a way that counts.

Quentin nods, automatic. “Of course you are. Every day, El. Happier than I’ve ever been.”

The urge to kiss him, to be inside him, right the fuck now, is so strong it’s almost frightening. Eliot flinches away from it slightly, wondering at the desperation coiling low in his gut. They’ve got time. There’s no reason to think they don’t have all the time in the world. So instead of guiding Quentin down onto the blankets he’s provided for just such an eventuality, he simply brings a hand up to cup around Quentin’s face. Q turns his head and presses his lips into Eliot’s palm, sending sparks and tingles shooting along Eliot’s arm, straight down into his heart. “You want to read to me again?” Eliot asks.

A wide smile breaks across Quentin’s face like the sun. “You know, Eliot Waugh, you’re my dream man.”

Quentin is briefly concerned at first, as they settle down together on the blankets and pillows Eliot had provided, that Eliot isn’t going to remember the story well enough to continue on. “Maybe I should start from the beginning?”

Eliot bites down on a laugh and manages to convince Q that he can start where they left off. Eliot remembers enough. He remembers the important things ‒ the lilt of Q’s voice, the warmth of his body, the smell of his skin. How that nearness had bonded them together, how it had made Eliot more certain than anything else that this was where he was supposed to be. And sure, as Quentin had said, there had been a small blip on their road to happiness, later that same night. But honestly, it really doesn’t matter anymore. Nothing can erase that memory of closeness.

They recapture it now, with Quentin leaning back against a crate, a pillow below his lower back. Eliot sprawls out, one of his long legs underneath the small table, and rests with his head on Quentin’s thigh. He pays attention to the story, of course ‒ Quentin wants to share this with him, and that’s reason enough to put in the effort.

Quentin takes them through a couple of chapters, as the Chatwins start to learn about Fillory ‒ all of the good, all of the bad, all of the ‒ well, frankly, creepy. It’s certainly not a knock-off Narnia, the way Eliot had maybe, privately, been thinking of it. (He’d never say as much to Quentin, though ‒ he likes his boyfriend’s face and really doesn’t want his head to explode).

Q is just turning over the page to start a new chapter when a piece of paper floats down from between the later pages, and lands halfway on Eliot’s face.

He flickers his eyes open and reaches out to grab for it. “Did a page fall out?” he asks, holding it up above him so he can see the contents.

For a brief flash of a second, he thinks about the strange spell he had found in his Telekinetics textbook; a dangerous piece of paper that had seemingly showed up where it didn’t belong.

But this isn’t that ‒ there aren’t words on the page at all, just a strange grid of small colored smudges, creating a pattern in pastel chalk that forms a square, covering the majority of the page. Above him, Quentin’s voice trails off and he glances down too. “What is that?”

“I don’t know, it ‒ fell out of the book.”

It’s hard to describe what happens after that. Really, nothing happens at all.

It’s just that… well ‒

Eliot, for no discernible reason, feels suddenly as though he’s under water. His stomach is churning, his movements slow and smooth through strangely dense air. He sits up, staring at the pattern on the page. He squints, rubbing the edge of his thumb along the roughness of the paper.

“Huh,” Quentin says, staring down at it. Eliot scoots around so they’re sitting side by side and then holds out the drawing, the two of them gazing down at it. “Weird. I like the pattern, though.”

Eliot studies it, tilting his head. It doesn’t really look like much of anything. A lot of it is in gradient, the shades growing darker from top to bottom, but around the rim are darker smudges, and something maybe approaching a… sun? Blocky and abstract, with rays extending to the corners, made out of lighter colors in the center. The paper itself looks like it came out of an ordinary spiral notebook. Eliot can see the faint lines of college-rule underneath the small blocks of color.

“Someone’s doodle?” he suggests.

“That’s a lot of work for a doodle, switching the colors like that,” Quentin says, and his hand comes forward to brush a thumb along one of the color smudges. “I think it’s a… a map or a guide or something. A chart, a… a key to a puzzle.”

For no discernable reason, Eliot knows he’s right about that. And then a low stab of dread hits him in the stomach. He’s not a fan of moments like these, where he feels a sense of iron-wrought certainty about something he has no right to know at all. Whenever they happen, he does his damndest to stop thinking about whatever he’d been thinking about, post-haste.

But he can’t stop looking at the piece of paper. Somehow, it belongs to him. Or maybe to Quentin. Maybe to them both.

Shit.

“Was that in the book the last time we were down here?” Eliot asks.

“I didn’t see it,” Quentin asks. “It’s big enough that the edges should have been sticking out…” he swallows, audible in the silence. “It’s like the mosaic, in… in the book.”

The word rings hollow in Eliot’s chest. Mosaic. He’s not even sure what he’s feeling. “What do you mean? What’s… uh...”

“Uh,” Quentin looks away from the page and up at him, a wry smile on his face even as his eyebrows scrunch anxiously together. “Uh, spoilers for the rest of the series, I guess, but Jane has to ‒ there’s this puzzle, you have to solve, with like ‒ the beauty of all life? Someone solves it, before Jane gets there. And ‒ I don’t know. It doesn’t matter, it just ‒ made me think of...” Quentin trails off, while Eliot tries to pretend he’s not slowly losing his mind. He knows, again, annoyingly, intrusively, that Quentin is ‒ right, which makes no sense, because he’s talking about a fantasy novel, and this piece of paper is real, it’s...

He kind of wants to get out of here. He kind of wants to rip the piece of paper in his hands into tiny little pieces until it can’t hurt him. He kind of wants to pull Q into his chest and hide away from the rest of the world forever, because that’s when they’re happiest. That’s when nothing can come along and ruin

“Do you feel…” Quentin says, and Eliot nods, because it doesn’t matter how Quentin finishes the sentence ‒ his answer is yes. Sad, happy, freaked out, horny (?), desperate, overjoyed, devastated? Yes.

“Yes,” he says, breathless and uncertain. “What do you think ‒ ”

Quentin shakes his head to interrupt him, a frantic, jittery movement, and then with a certain amount of reverence, he takes the piece of paper out of Eliot’s hand and he places it between the pages of the book, where he left off. “I ‒ don’t know. I don’t know ‒ like ‒ nostalgia? It feels too simple to say that I feel like I’ve seen it before. It reminds me of something, and not just ‒ not just from a book.”

Eliot both does and does not want to look at the page again. He’s worried he’s going to start panicking for no good goddamn reason, so he sits silent, waiting for the strange sense of longing to dissipate, waiting for the world around him to start making sense again. “I feel it too,” he finally manages to say, when Quentin doesn’t continue.

“El.” Quentin’s voice is wobbly, like he might be on the verge of crying. “El, I ‒ I ‒ please kiss me.”

Honestly, Eliot isn’t sure why he hadn’t thought of that already. It’s really the only thing in the world he wants ‒ needs ‒ to be doing. So he does, turning into Quentin and cupping a hand around his jaw, connecting their lips in a way that feels vital and hot and imperative right away.

That pattern, that sketch, that artwork, whatever it is, it’s nudging at a corner of Eliot’s brain that he doesn’t want to look at. The corner of his brain that starts knocking for attention whenever he shares a knowing glance with Julia over something they’ve never actually discussed, or finds a picture of himself and Margo he doesn’t remember taking, or feels a flash of misplaced guilt when he watches Alice smiling at one of Quentin’s jokes, or wakes up disoriented in the middle of the night reaching for an extra warm shape in the dark, the phantom touch of someone who doesn’t exist.

He doesn’t know what he doesn’t know, and he doesn’t want to know it.

All he knows now is the feel of Quentin’s skin beneath his hands, the hot wet inviting give of his sweet little mouth. It doesn’t take long before they’re naked, with Eliot pressing Quentin deep into the cushioned blankets, his hands flying along skin, through hair, desperate for every inch of him all at once. He doesn’t have the mental capacity for a specific plan right now ‒ can’t decide if he wants to fuck him or suck him off or maybe just hold him down and rut against him until they’re both screaming ‒

But darling, enterprising little Quentin seems to have found the wherewithal to come up with a plan of his own. “Want you,” he whimpers into Eliot’s ear, his breath fanning out hot over already sweaty skin. “Want you in my mouth, El.”

“You always want that,” Eliot says, awed by the truth of it. Good, this is good, this is normal, this is them ‒ “God, how are you real, how did I find you ‒ ”

Quentin pulls and tugs and pushes, small impatient huffs of air falling out of his mouth as he flips them over, grabs a pillow, and guides Eliot down on it, making him feel absurdly like a virgin on her wedding night, being gently man-handled into the proper position for a good dicking down. Quentin cups both of his hands around Eliot’s face and looks at him through the curtain of his hair, his eyes wide and darting like he’s trying to reassure himself that Eliot is really there, like he’s trying to memorize every inch of his face.

Eliot understands the impulse. That aching, desperate feeling that nothing gold can stay, that whatever they’ve managed to capture here, together, must by definition be a fleeting thing. “Q,” he says, to fill the silence, to push the thoughts away. “Q, touch me.”

Quentin does.

He starts slow, starts to map Eliot’s body with his hands his lips his tongue, but in true Quentin Coldwater fashion, he loses patience before too long and slides himself down Eliot’s body to get his mouth wrapped around his cock.

“Always so eager,” Eliot says, and he means it as a tease but it comes out breathy and astonished. It’s always astonishing, the way Quentin licks and sucks and swallows him, starved for it, hot for it, so good, always so much, so perfect ‒

It lasts long enough for Eliot to lose all sense of himself, to let himself float on the purest sensation and nothing more, one hand tangled in Quentin’s hair, the other braced against his own forehead like he can hold himself still, prevent his entire mind from unspooling. Eventually Quentin speeds up, bobbing his head in earnest, and Eliot has the presence of mind to notice when Quentin’s other hand, the one that had been splayed across Eliot’s stomach, suddenly disappears.

Then there’s the sound of a dry fist moving over flesh, and Quentin moans around Eliot, his hips jerking forward into the pressure of his own hand.

But that’s not ‒ that’s not what Eliot wants ‒ Eliot wants to touch him, needs to ‒

“Don’t touch yourself,” he manages to get out, the words strangling as they force their way out of his throat. “Don’t, Q, don’t, I ‒ I wanna make you come, baby ‒ I want you to ride my fingers until you’re begging ‒ ”

Quentin moans around his cock again, the vibrations shooting through Eliot like lightning. Quentin’s hand comes up and away, resting again against Eliot’s stomach. He’s obeying Eliot instructions, but Eliot can sense the trembling of tightly-wound need working its way through Quentin’s body. He’s close. He’s close because Eliot’s cock in his mouth turns him on so bad he can hardly stand it. Which in turn is so hot Eliot can hardly stand it. His hips have started to work up into Quentin’s mouth, small thrusts with absolutely no control or finesse. He’d stop, but Quentin very clearly doesn’t want him to, his hands gentle on the curve of Eliot’s hips, guiding him further up into the warmth and heat of him.

“Nothing ‒ ” Eliot starts, then hisses when Quentin lifts off to suckle at the head of his dripping cock for a moment, before sliding back down ‒ “Nothing feels as good as making you feel good, Q. I could do it all day, the look on your face, your fucking ‒ your fucking sounds, I ‒ ”

He’d meant to spew filth, to talk dirty until he tumbled over the edge into Quentin’s eager mouth. He’d meant to flip them over, force that perfect mewling sound out of him, drive him wild. But as with so much else, Quentin’s very presence has turned him into some sort of a romantic. He’s having to bite back on every other word, afraid he’s about to tell him he loves him for the first time in the middle of sex.

If ‒ when ‒ he says those words, he wants Quentin to know he means it, that it’s not just some throw-away sentiment in the throes of passion.

‒ What the fuck. He might as well lean into it at this point.

So he brings a hand down to tangle it in Quentin’s hair, and he undulates up into his mouth until he’s groaning on every breath, until his legs are trembling and his stomach is clenching and there are dark spots growing in front of his eyes. His chest is tight, his head is light, his body is one long, vibrating string of want and adoration and Quentin is plucking that string like a virtuoso.

And Quentin doesn’t let up, when Eliot tries to warn him he’s close. He just hollows out his cheeks and lowers his head and swallows him down deep, until Eliot comes so far down Quentin’s throat he’s pretty sure he can’t have even tasted anything.

“F-fucking. Hell. Quentin,” Eliot says when Quentin finally lets him slip from his mouth. “God.”

Sometimes, Quentin is smug after blowjobs. He knows he’s good at them, which should maybe be obnoxious but honestly, Confident Quentin is such a rare breed that his occasional appearances do nothing but turn Eliot on even more.

Other times, like today, he’s too far gone inside his own headspace of lust and need, to applaud himself for his performance. Instead, Quentin sits up and stares down at Eliot, panting and glassy-eyed as his eyes dart over Eliot’s spent cock, his still heaving chest, his flushed face. “El,” he says, nearly a whimper. “El, I ‒ ”

“You need me to take care of you?” Eliot says, reaching a hand out to draw Quentin down to him. It’s imperative that he make Quentin feel good. His entire body feels like jello, his nerves still sparking and tingling from the intensity of his orgasm. But Quentin is shaking in his arms, his hips working in small, frantic thrusts as he pushes his cock up against the crease of Eliot’s hipbone. “I’ve got you, baby. I ‒ I’ve got you, Q.”

Eliot finds the strength to wrap his arms fully around Quentin and guide him over onto his back. He presses Quentin into the blanket below him, kisses him wet and deep and sloppy just the way he likes, and reaches his hand down to jerk him off. Slow, firm, in tempo with the deep plunging of his tongue into Q’s mouth.

Quentin lets out one long, continuous moan, his hips moving to work his cock forward into the channel of Eliot’s fist. Eliot keeps it measured and slow for a moment but finally speeds up, jacking Quentin off using nothing but the wetness leaking out of him at first, then twisting his fingers around in a tut and smoothing the ride with conjured lube.

“You’re so gorgeous, Q, you have no idea ‒ no idea what you do to me,” he says, shivering with it, aching with a sense of desperate wanting, like even here, with Quentin’s blood-warm, pulsing cock in his hands, his compact little body wriggling and shivering in his arms, he’s not close enough ‒ could never be close enough. Not ever. He wants him so bad. He wants him so much.

He’s wanted him forever. For too long, for longer than he’s known him. It’s impossible and yet it’s true, and there have been so many ‒ so many mistakes, so many heartbreaks, so much loss in his life, and it’s a miracle, isn’t it, that they’re here now. Together. A miracle he needs to protect and nurture and love love love until the universe implodes again, because it will, it does, it’s never enough, there can never be enough of this ‒

Eliot,” Quentin groans, his voice hoarse, his body shivering and shaking and pushing inelegantly against every point of Eliot’s own. “Eliot, please ‒ ”

“Come for me,” Eliot says, alarmed at the wobble in his own voice, the way he’s not sure if he’s about to burst into tears of joy or grief-filled laughter. “Q, come for me, I want you to, I wanna make you come, I wanna make you feel so good, baby, every fucking day, I want it ‒ ”

Quentin chokes off mid-groan and comes, spilling over Eliot’s fist and shuddering as he jerks up, chasing the friction and the feeling of it. He comes hard and hot and a lot, and Eliot strokes him diligently through every second until Quentin flinches away from the touch, his hips pulling away from Eliot’s hand even as his arms tighten, holding Eliot close to him. “Fucking perfect,” Quentin says, a barely audible whisper. “You’re perfect, Eliot.”

No, you is probably not a sexy or eloquent or sufficient thing to say, but it’s about all Eliot’s brain can conjure. He does the tuts to clean them up and then pulls Quentin against him, burying his face in his neck. A blow job, a hand job, the same kind of intense, otherworldly, oh fuck so good sex they’ve been having since the first time, but tonight is… more. Tonight is sacred. Eliot blinks back on the beginning of tears, too moved to even be horrified at the thought of crying after sex.

Because it’s all so... good. It’s too much good for any one person to ever deserve, nevermind a person with a track record and personality like his own.

In the peace of afterglow, they don’t talk about the weird pastel artwork they’d found in the book. The jittery sense of panic, of loss, that had accompanied its discovery seems to have dissipated in the aftermath of passion, but Eliot knows that if he thinks about it too hard, it’ll come back. So he doesn’t. They don’t. He’s gotten very good about not thinking about the shit that only hurts and confuses him.

Instead, they curl into each other, and Eliot finds himself talking. He fills in the gaps, finally says the things he’s implied but never confirmed ‒ about his upbringing, about Indiana, about blood and violence and beatings and slurs, and it hurts to say it all, it always hurts to say it, that’s why he never does, but Quentin holds him and pets him and stops him from flying apart at the seams. When he’s finished, when he’s said all he knows how to say, Quentin presses a long, lingering kiss to Eliot’s forehead, and takes his own turn. He tells Eliot about hospitalizations, and attempts, and letters written, and sneers of contempt from people he’d thought he could trust, when he’d tried to share the broken, bruised parts of himself, tried in his own inadequate, plodding way, to ask for help.

It hurts to hear of Quentin’s pain, more than it hurts to speak of his own. But it’s also cleansing for the both of them, and Eliot can feel it, the relief of saying things out loud, the knowledge of support and trust waiting on the other end of a difficult remembrance.

They stay down there talking late into the night, touching each other and kissing and loving one another in a way that seems bigger than Eliot knows how to contain. The Fillory book sits unacknowledged but not forgotten off to the side, and Eliot knows instinctively, with no need for discussion, that they won’t be back here. Q will have to finish reading him the book from one of his own copies. This place is precious, this place is cursed. There’s a wound here, and they can’t poke it, or everything else will come crumbling down, and Eliot really doesn’t know how to handle the idea of that. He can’t look directly at it, whatever it is. He wouldn’t even know how to try.

As the hours pass, Eliot lets the light charms he’s placed around the edges of the room dim, their already subtle effect fading until the room is filled with nothing but the remnants of soft yellow light, and barely audible instrumental music, and the distant smell of sugar and peaches.

~~~~~

Margo is the fiercest, most gorgeous, most competent bad-ass in the whole known and unknown universe, and Eliot worships at her feet every single day of his life, grateful for the honor of her esteem.

Margo is also a hoarder.

She objects strenuously to Eliot’s use of this term, and in some ways she probably has a point. Hoarder conjures a certain image of uncleanliness and crowded, dark spaces, filled to the brim with decades-old newsprint.

Margo’s room, by contrast, is bright and clean and meticulously organized. At least, it appears to be, at first glance. But when you’ve spent enough time in there to start soaking in the ambiance, something starts to become clear. Her room positively vibrates with magical energy, an overabundance of ambient force being pulled in to a number of small but potent charms she has placed in virtually every corner of her space. They’re called Poppins charms ‒ just a basic enchantment to enlarge a container for storage. (Quentin has taken to calling them TARDIS charms, which Eliot barely understands but Margo thinks is cute).

It’s definitely one of Margo’s most-used spells. By the time she’d been at Brakebills a month, she’d made herself a magically enlarged closet, endlessly deep dresser drawers, a jewelry box with magically enhanced capacity, mason jars, and decorative wicker baskets, and the hollow bench at the end of her bed, all of which never get full… and in these containers, Margo stores all of her belongings.

More clothes than she could possibly ever wear, some of them a decade out of fashion. A collection of strappy sandals and razor-sharp stilettos worthy of the worst clichés about women and their shoe obsession. Books ‒ worn paperbacks and pristine hardcovers alike, thrown pell-mell into the bottom drawer of her dresser. You could pull the novels and essay collections and memoirs and art portfolios out of that drawer for hours and never reach the end. Scarves. Seventy-two of them, at Eliot’s last count. And jewelry. So much fucking jewelry.

“And you don’t even wear much of anything, day to day,” Eliot says, pawing his way through a pile of silver chains, fighting to disentangle the knots. “I wear more accessories than you do.”

“One need not embellish perfection,” Margo says. She’s sitting across the room from him, sorting her insane collection of nail polish colors. Even though she almost always uses magic or a professional to paint her nails these days.

“I resent the hidden implication,” Eliot says carelessly, picking a knot out of a chain and setting it aside with the others he’s already untangled on the desk. He wiggles his hand in the air, admiring his myriad rings. “But you’ve reinforced my point ‒ you don’t need all this shit if you’re never going to use it.”

“It’s not shit,” Margo hisses. “I have some really lovely pieces in there.”

Delicately, Eliot fishes what looks like an ornate red and gold eyepatch out of a pile of miscellaneous junk that had been hiding in the bottom drawer of the endless jewelry box. He waves it at Margo until she looks up and scrunches her nose at him. “That can go in the costume pile.” She gestures to a pile of junk on the center of her bed.

“Oh, is that what that is?” Eliot says, tossing the eyepatch over to it. “I thought it was the trash pile.”

Margo throws a nail file at him.

They love giving each other shit, of course, but in all honesty Eliot had volunteered for this task. He figures that if Margo is going to be neat and organized on the outside, she might as well keep her things in good order across the board. He likes the calming and meticulous task of untangling the chains, sorting Margo’s accessories into categories, placing them back into the newly wiped out jewelry box with loving care. None of it means that Margo will actually wear her pieces more often. None of it means she should be keeping any of it. But Margo changes for nobody and nothing, and that’s the way Eliot likes her.

“At least you can see the carpet in here,” Eliot muses with a sigh. “Quentin has my floor completely covered with clothing I’m pretty sure he hasn’t even worn. I don’t know how he does it, I swear he only owns like three shirts.”

Margo shakes the bottle of maroon polish in her hand and sets it lovingly in its box with the other reds. “And… fourteen minutes,” she says, glancing at her bare wrist with a cheeky grin.

“What?”

“Since you mentioned Quentin. A new record, baby, I’m so proud.”

Eliot frowns at her, trying to ascertain her tone, but she looks relaxed and teasing, not at all resentful. “I was only talking about him in order to pay you a compliment,” he points out. “I’m just saying, even with all your dreadful magpie-ish habits, you’ve still got him beat for cleanliness.”

“I was in his room the other day,” Margo muses. “And it looks completely clean to me. Although that might be because all of his shit is in your room, hm?”

“Your point?” Eliot says, trying not to smile too wide. He loves that all of Quentin’s shit is in his room. Fucking loves it.

“My point,” Margo says, raising an eyebrow and enunciating each word, “is that you’ve been with the guy for two months and you’re already living together.”

"Two and a half months," Eliot corrects her, and Margo must hear the hint of pride in the words, because she gifts him with a serious look, her lips pursed as she scoops up a few clear polishes and starts placing them in a separate compartment.

“That’s only if you count it from Halloween night,” she points out. “Which is suspect, considering you two weren’t official right away. And you spent most of December apart ‒ ”

“We’re counting it,” Eliot says with an easy shrug. “Halloween is a good anniversary. Easy to remember.”

That shuts her up, the way Eliot had hoped it would. Just the idea of it ‒ the concept of an anniversary, of still being with the same person after a year. And the thought that they’d discussed it ‒ that they’d decided together to mark their relationship from that date. All of it imparts Eliot’s seriousness to Margo maybe better than anything else could.

Well, almost anything.

"So this is the longest relationship…” Margo starts.

"Yes," Eliot says. Really, the only one that counts.

"And he knows that?"

"Yes. He's ‒ he knows it. He knows everything."

"Even ‒ "

"Yes," he says a third time, his effervescent mood dampened slightly at just the hint of that thing that Margo is not allowed to mention, not even allowed to allude to, no matter what, not ever. But in a way, Eliot wants her to know this. He wants her to understand all of it. He doesn’t know what the hell he’d do if he didn’t have Margo, and if he didn’t have Quentin. He needs them both to be on the same page about that, so… Margo needs to know.

She needs to know that Eliot has told Quentin the most secret parts of himself. The ugly, blackened parts of his damaged, shriveled soul. He’s begun to believe, maybe for the first time in his whole stupid life, that those parts of him don’t ruin the whole. That he might have something more to offer in this world than fleeting pleasure and lasting pain. But even with this tentatively healthy outlook peeking its way up from the weeds after years of denial and neglect, the dark parts of Eliot are still there. They still encompass so much of who he is, of how he thinks and how he interacts with the world.

He’s chosen to tell all of this to Quentin Coldwater, and he’s done so entirely voluntarily, in a way he never has before, not with any other boy he’s dated (if you can even call it that) and not even with Margo.

“Okay,” Margo says, clacking two bottles of nail polish against each other in a rhythmless, distracted fashion. “Okay, then.”

“It is okay,” Eliot says, and Margo smiles at him, still contemplative and far away.

The thing is, Margo has been on board with the idea of Quentin from the start. She’d set about mocking Eliot mercilessly for the intensity of his crush from day one, after all. She’d encouraged him to go for it when he’d briefly lost hope. And once they’d gotten together, she hadn’t uttered a peep about Eliot’s newly divided attentions, and had offered only a surprisingly brief argument against his decision not to go to Ibiza.

And yet despite all that, in some ways Margo had still been acting like Quentin was another first year boy, a distraction or an interlude or an infatuation. She had accepted him as a friend, accepted him as Eliot’s friend, but the idea of it being ‒ more ‒ of it being a permanent alteration to the status quo… maybe she just needed an extra minute to wrap her head around it. Hell, it’s hard for Eliot himself to process most of the time.

“Damn, I’m like ‒ really happy for you, El,” she says, sounding surprised at herself. “I don’t get it, exactly, but I am happy for you.”

“He’s…” Eliot swallows, trailing off and twirling the charms around on one of Margo’s tacky bracelets (she’d never be caught dead wearing this ‒ he wonders if she’s had it since high school). “He’s good for me. I’m ‒ I think I’m good for him too.”

“He’s a lucky son of a bitch,” Margo says, fiercely loyal as always. “I know Julia put you through your paces, so ‒ do I need to go scare Quentin straight?”

“Oh god, please don’t,” Eliot laughs. “Straight is the last thing I want him to be.”

“I will, you know,” Margo says. There’s a certain amount of wicked glee in her voice, but at the same time, Eliot knows she’s dead serious. “Give him a stern talking-to, enforce curfew, threaten to tear his balls off if he impinges upon your precious virtue…”

She would, too. Eliot knows that very well. She’d do it because she loves Eliot, but also because she’d think it was fun. Margo is one scary motherfucker.

“He couldn’t hurt a fly,” Eliot says, ignoring the fact that Quentin currently has custody of his whole heart. If anyone in the world is capable of tearing him to pieces, it’s Q. But that’s okay. Who better to trust with something like that?

Jesus. What a way to be thinking, sober in the middle of the afternoon. “Margo,” he says, searching for an appropriate out for this conversation. Margo looks up at him, and her eyes widen at the look on Eliot’s face. Grave. Serious.

“What?” she asks, biting her lip between her teeth.

He waits a calculated beat, to let the tension grow, and then says: “Let’s throw away just one load, hmm? I won’t even Poppins it, just one standard-issue Glad bag, I swear.” He holds up a gaudy ring with a surprisingly realistic-looking emerald glued into its setting, waving it in her face to impress upon her the direness of the situation.

But Margo just sniffs at him, rolling her eyes and turning away to continue her sorting, scooping up various clippers and nail files and cotton balls, and slotting them into their spots along with the polishes. “My room is a magical fortress of glamor and materialism. Get on board or jump ship, sailor.”

~~~~~

Quentin hasn’t gotten a haircut since arriving at Brakebills. Eliot loves how long his perfect soft hair is getting, cascading around his shoulders, perfect for tangling around his fingers and tugging to guide Quentin right where he wants him.

But Margo and Julia have become an annoying duo, allies in declaring that it’s time for Quentin to go in for some personal grooming. Margo threatens to cut it off while he’s sleeping, but Eliot promises to guard Quentin’s innocent sleeping body with his life, and then Julia giggles at his use of the word innocent, and Quentin says he’ll just cut his hair himself, which ‒

Well, Eliot is all about letting people make their own choices, but even he has to draw the line somewhere. “Q,” he says. “You do whatever you want to do, but maybe it would be fun, huh? We could go out to the city, a group of us, and pamper you the way you deserve.”

“Uh, that kind of sounds like my own personal nightmare?” Quentin says. He and Julia are sprawled on the floor in Eliot’s room, while Margo and Eliot lounge up on Eliot’s bed. Alice had been on the bed for a while too, but she’d left to go talk to Penny about something, leaving an inviting empty space where Quentin could easily fit up on the comforter. Eliot frowns, trying to decide how to entice him to abandon Julia and come cuddle him.

“Oh come on,” Julia says, sitting up and bouncing her hands against her thighs in excitement. “We could get your hair done, and get manicures, and ‒ hey, remember when I made you come with me to the nail salon in high school that one time? We got pedicures ‒ you said you liked that.”

“I was trying to get you to fall in love with me at the time,” Quentin reminds her, with surprising nonchalance. “I don’t like people touching my feet. People who do that for fun are sadists.”

Julia huffs. “Fine. Just the haircut, then, and maybe some shopping for the rest of us? We could make a day of it, go into the city!”

Margo looks at Julia, thoughtful. “Feeling a bit cooped up, little ickle first year? Maybe we could all go. Alice could use some wardrobe updates.”

“I like the way Alice dresses,” Quentin says thoughtlessly, staring down at the notes he had been studying before this whole haircut conversation had begun.

“Sexy librarian, always a classic,” Eliot agrees. Margo bites back on a private grin, and Eliot catches it with a knowing wink. Margo’s got a thing for debauching the buttoned-up. “But hey, variety is never a bad thing.”

“Maybe I could even get Penny and Kady to pop the fifth-times’-the-charm honeymoon bubble and come join us,” Julia says, looking more excited by the minute. “When is everyone free?”

Eliot peers over the edge of the bed, half expecting to see Julia pull out a fucking palm pilot and start coordinating calendars. “We’re all free, all the time, Julia, we live on a college campus together and never leave.”

“That’s manifestly untrue,” Julia says, holding a pointer finger up in the air. “For example, I know this weekend won’t work, because I’ve got extra independent study with Fogg.”

“Blow it off,” Margo says immediately, flopping over backwards so her head is dangling off the bed.

“No,” Julia says. “But next weekend, maybe, Saturday ‒ ”

“Nope,” Quentin puts in. “That’s the day they’re recalibrating the wards, the whole campus is shut down, nobody in or out ‒ remember?”

“Well then Sunday ‒ ”

Eliot tunes out the conversation for a while, as various potential dates are suggested and then rejected for the new outing. He can’t pretend the idea of it doesn’t excite him ‒ it’s been far too long since he and Margo have had a shopping day, and Quentin needs to be coaxed out of his shell a little more. Eliot should probably be helping him with that, no matter how lovely their relationship hibernation has been.

“Okay, fine then ‒ the weekend after that is early February…” Julia is saying, looking at the calendar on her (illegal) cell phone. “How about Saturday, February eleventh?”

“I can’t, I’m visiting my dad that weekend,” Quentin says immediately.

This is enough to catch Eliot’s attention. He turns over on the bed to get a better view of his boyfriend. “You didn’t tell me that.”

“We just decided the other day. I ‒ uh. Called him.” Quentin legitimately looks around the room like he thinks the Brakebills Police are going to come bursting out from the closet to arrest him for his tacit admission of contraband. Eliot wants to eat him alive, but he’s mostly used to feeling that way, and he ignores it, storing it up for later. “I guess…” Quentin continues. “I guess my dad has something he wants to talk to me about. I told him I’d come for dinner and stay over.”

“Hmm.” Julia taps a finger against her lip, clearly frustrated. “Well between the four of us, plus Alice and maybe the others, there’s got to be at least one day in the next month we’re all free. Eliot’s right, we’re just a bunch of students who sit around on campus all day. Our social calendars are a joke.”

Margo glares at Julia, so Eliot doesn’t have to. Julia should count herself lucky to be included in Margo Hanson and Eliot Waugh’s social calendars, thank you very much. It might be technically true that they’re a bunch of twenty-somethings who haven’t actually left school for anything other than family-related holiday trips home in months, and Eliot had even skipped out on his one shining chance at debauchery by staying home while Margo went to Spain. Still, some of them have images to maintain.

“Well,” Quentin says, his eyebrows coming together into a line. “Um. If ‒ if the eleventh works for everyone else, maybe ‒ maybe ‒ I mean ‒ I suppose we could ‒ go together?” his eyes are darting around uncertainly, flickering over to Julia and then across to Margo, finally looking askance at Eliot ‒ who realizes, belatedly, what Quentin is implying.

“We could do lunch in the city, and some shopping,” Eliot suggests, swallowing delicately and fighting to keep a totally ridiculous tremor from his voice. “And then, since I know you’ll burn out before the rest of us, maybe ‒ maybe we could let the others keep going, and you and I could ‒ um.”

“Go meet my dad?” Quentin finishes for him.

Eliot is hyper-aware of Margo and Julia watching this timid exchange like a tennis match, their heads on a swivel as they wait to see what will happen next.

Eliot gulps. “Uh huh. We could. Go. Meet your dad.”

Quentin stares at him with narrowed eyes for a moment, clearly assessing. Eliot offers him a tight-lipped smile. He’s not about to pretend the idea doesn’t terrify him, but… but he wants this. Not just because it will make Quentin happy, but because he genuinely wants to know everything about him. Genuinely wants to be a part of his world.

Whatever Quentin sees in his face, it seems to satisfy him. The crease between his eyebrows vanishes and he smiles, going to the effort of standing so he can come over to the bed and lean down to press a too-brief kiss against Eliot’s lips. “Okay.” He turns around, to look at Margo. “Okay, fine. I’ll get a damn haircut.”

“And you have to let me buy you one outfit,” Margo puts in fiercely, stabbing a finger in his direction.

“You can’t just tack things on to the deal ‒ ” Quentin protests, but Eliot could have told him it was pointless. He pulls on Q’s arm to slide him down to the bed, wrapping an arm around him.

Margo lifts her nose into the air, regal. “If Eliot has to face down his fears on this little weekend adventure, someone’s got to torture you a little bit too.”

“What fears?” Julia says, laughing and shaking her head fondly at all of them from her spot down on the floor. “Ted Coldwater? He’s harmless.” She looks at Eliot, gifting him with as bright and true a smile as he’s ever seen from her. “And he’ll love you, Eliot. Right Q?”

“Well,” Quentin says, with a shrug and a smile, snuggling in close to Eliot. “People do say we’re a lot alike.”

Eliot spends the rest of the day constantly looking down at his feet, just to make sure he’s not literally floating.

~~~~~

That night, they go upstairs to go to bed, and despite how much Eliot always wants Quentin with every molecule in his body, they don’t even manage to make it to sex. This happens sometimes, where instead of instant gratification they wind up in bed together, kissing. Just kissing, endlessly, their bodies pressed close, Eliot feeling Quentin growing hard against him, and it’s the best fucking feeling in the world. Because he knows ‒ he knows he could tip Quentin over onto his back, peel him out of his remaining clothes and kiss every inch of his skin, could blow him or rim him or fuck him, and Quentin would let him do all of that.

But they don’t have to, because they have time. There is no urgency to any of it, just the feel of this ‒ Quentin’s hands skimming over his spine, the small sighs and groans of contentment he makes as he squirms his body as close as he can get to Eliot’s own. And Eliot cards fingers through Quentin’s hair, tugging just enough to feel Quentin shudder. He places his other hand, possessive yet soft, against the curve of Quentin’s hip, and he just focuses on sliding their lips together, on peppering kisses across the bridge of Quentin’s nose, of nipping at the line of his jaw and suckling the base of his throat. It feels like the kind of thing Eliot could genuinely do forever.

“You know, this is like ‒ my favorite activity,” Quentin says, breathless, when Eliot eases off from his mouth and sets up shop against his neck, sucking a mark where people will be able to see.

Eliot detaches his lips for a moment to laugh into the sweat of Quentin’s skin. “Your favorite activity?” he says, teasing but also just embarrassingly fond.

“Oh yeah,” Quentin says, mock-serious. “I ‒ ” his breath hitches and he cuts himself off as Eliot bites down on the spot he’d just been suckling, simultaneously tightening his dual grips on Quentin’s neck and hip. “Fuck. I ‒ I just love this. Being here with you, being ‒ close like this.”

Eliot had been ready to continue the teasing, but decides against it when he hears the genuine breathless wonder in Quentin’s voice. Q likes to babble sometimes, when they’re making out. It should be annoying, but it’s really, really not. “I was just thinking,” Quentin continues, squirming forward so Eliot can feel his hard-on pressed up against his own stomach. It’s just an incidental feature, not a request or demand. “I was thinking about how for most of my life, the only time I’d ever really feel safe and happy was when I was alone? Like ‒ curled up somewhere with a book or something. My brain would shut up, I could be somewhere else that wasn’t my own fucked up consciousness. But now, it’s different, because… well. This is like that for me, but better.”

Eliot stops kissing him, pulls back just enough to look down into Quentin’s eyes. He keeps his hands where they are though, holding Q warm and close. Quentin blinks up at him. “I’m killing the mood.”

He’s not.

“You’re not,” Eliot says. “You’re ‒ I don’t even ‒ ”

Eliot swallows, trying to regain his customary eloquence. Because he understands what Quentin is telling him. That he feels safe and comfortable with Eliot, in a way he’s never been able to with another person. That this, here with him in bed, is a place where he can let go of his anxieties and be at peace. It’s actually staggering, the amount of trust Quentin has placed in him. Eliot is overwhelmed by the gift of it. He searches for the words to express this, and then finally shakes his head with a soft laugh, ducking down to kiss Q on the mouth again.

“This is my favorite activity too,” he says, and then rolls Quentin onto his back so he can be on top of him. Not for sex. Not to escalate anything at all. Just to be as close to him as he can be, because that’s the only thing that’s really essential.

If there’s a small zing of discomfort darting along his spine, if sometimes he worries about the depth and desperation of feeling that exists between them, it’s usually easy enough to ignore it.

Later that night, Quentin falls asleep folded up in his arms, and Eliot thinks about being Quentin’s comfort. Being a person he can lean on when he’s down, come to when he’s up. He waits for the idea to scare him, maybe, or to make him feel impatient and smothered. Quentin has taken to falling asleep practically on top of Eliot most nights, his head pillowed on Eliot’s chest, an arm thrown across his waist and a leg tangled up between both of Eliot’s own. This is physically, definitionally, clingy behavior, and Eliot is ‒ grateful for it. The truth is, he doesn’t feel smothered or scared or annoyed or anything like it. Maybe a little overwhelmed, sometimes. Mostly just ‒ proud. Proud that he can be this for Quentin, that he can have something so precious in his life and that he hasn’t been fucking it up. Quentin is actually happy with him, because Eliot is doing a good job of being his partner.

And Quentin, who is a gift to Eliot simply by existing, is also a good partner right back. He knows when to push Eliot to get his shit taken care of, and when to leave him be. He gives him freedom to keep loving his Margo the way he always has, without fear of judgment or jealousy. Quentin listens when he talks, works hard to understand and care about things that Eliot cares about, even if Q doesn’t fully get why. He can fill a silence with chatter about anything, and often does, but can sense when Eliot needs to be with him without words, too. He can be gentle and warm and tender in bed, and then also sometimes absolutely feral, both on the giving and the receiving end of things.

Eliot, who has never counted himself lucky in anything before, counts himself lucky that this is the man who he has chosen to love.

It’s not the first time he thinks the words like that, quietly to himself. Sometimes, when he forgets to monitor his own wandering mind, he finds himself thinking that he’s loved Quentin for decades, for lifetimes, even though nothing about that makes sense. Here, he keeps himself focused on the now, and he feels the sentiment settle into his bones fully formed, a gentle and uncomplicated certainty in his mind. I love you. He thinks it as he presses his lips into the crown of Quentin’s head. It’s obvious, it’s true, and it’s perfect, and one of these days soon, he’ll get around to saying it out loud.

Chapter Text

“Hey, so, are we Valentine’s Day people?” Quentin asks him one day while they’re still lying in bed together, after lazy early-morning sex. It might be Eliot’s favorite kind of sex with Quentin. The softness of it, the slow, syrupy way they move together, the way he wakes up sometimes to feel the pull of pleasure already low in his gut as Quentin moves against him, unconscious and automatic. Of course, there’s also mid-afternoon sex, rough and intense and always supposed to be quick because they have places to be, but Eliot is pretty much incapable of rushing through sex with Quentin ‒ and there’s sex before bed, too, a routine of sorts but not in a way that Eliot finds tiring, just ‒ safe, and comfortable, and so good every single fucking time ‒

Yeah, so maybe sex with Quentin is his favorite thing, specifics be damned.

“What are Valentine’s Day people?” Eliot asks, already pretty damn sure he doesn’t want to be one.

“You know,” Quentin says, flapping an airy hand in the air and then landing it against Eliot’s chest. “Like ‒ are we the kinds of people that give each other chocolates and flowers and ‒ greeting cards?”

“No to the greeting cards,” Eliot says, sure about that part of it, at least. “Would it really be so awful, if I brought you flowers?”

Quentin huffs out a breath that almost sounded embarrassed. So fucking cute. “Uh ‒ no, it wouldn’t be so awful,” he mutters, squirming in somehow closer to Eliot, placing a kiss against his shoulder. “But uh ‒ if you do, and I didn’t know you were going to and then I’m standing there like an asshole with nothing to offer ‒ ”

“Q, I don’t need gifts from you,” Eliot says. “You’re my present this year.

“Did you just quote a Folgers commercial at me?” Quentin asks, sitting up in bed and smiling down at him with crinkled eyes. “I guess it’s true what they say, millennials can only communicate through memes.”

“Come back down here,” Eliot says with a frown, tugging on his arm until it bends and Quentin is resting back against him. “Do you want a present? Because I can give you a present.”

“I don’t. I don’t not want a present, I ‒ ” Quentin huffs, kissing Eliot’s shoulder again, clearly trying to gather his thoughts. “The point is I want to know if we’re doing anything or not. Because if we are, then I need to have time to get you something too.”

Eliot pretends to contemplate this for a moment, petting a hand lazily down Quentin’s spine. “I’m getting you flowers,” he says decisively. “If only to see the look of utter horror on Bambi’s face.”

Quentin laughs, this time easier, more relaxed. “Julia might be worse than Margo,” he warns. “She’ll be positively merciless with the sarcastic cooing.” And then, after a thoughtful pause, he continues: “I’m buying you chocolate. Fancy gourmet shit.”

“You know, I think we may have just defeated the purpose of the holiday,” Eliot says. “Presents are supposed to be a surprise.”

“I hate ‒ ” Quentin starts, predictably, but Eliot gets a hand under his chin, tilts his face up, and kisses him quiet. The way he’d once dreamed about, in a world before he’d gotten to have everything he wanted.

Turns out, shit actually works out for the best sometimes. Funny, that.

“I’m getting you sunflowers,” Eliot murmurs against Quentin’s lips.

“Those are my favorite,” Quentin says, smiling into another kiss, shifting so the lines of their bodies are pressed together from thigh to chest. Eliot hadn’t been angling for anything more. He isn’t even sure he’s up for it, so to speak. But he doesn’t stop Quentin from shoving at him until he’s laid out fully on his back. He doesn’t stop Quentin from climbing on top of him and peppering kisses over every inch of his face.

He needs the distraction, honestly.

Sunflowers hadn’t been a guess. He’s almost positive Quentin’s never mentioned it to him, but… he’d known anyway.

~~~~~

For Eliot, going to class regularly like the good, responsible man Quentin seems to think he is, has a lot of hidden perks. They’re not the kinds of perks that he would ever admit out loud to anyone, least of all Quentin, but they are there.

When he spends nearly 100% of his time hanging around the Cottage, that means he’s almost never without either Quentin or Margo by his side. And this is, of course, how he’d prefer things forever and always, but it also means he doesn’t spend much one-on-one time with any of the other people in his life that he ostensibly gives a shit about. Now that he’s, you know, a person with a friend group.

The gaps between classes have become his opportunity for just that, though. On Mondays, Penny and Julia have a class that lets out at the same time as Eliot’s, and they head in the same direction for their next lessons as well. Tuesdays and Thursdays, he and Q always spend their breaks together, but Wednesdays he winds up getting out of class late in the afternoon right around the same time that Alice leaves her practical magic lab. She has the habit of staying until she’s the last student in the class, going over some special project or other with Van der Weghe. That usually lines the two of them up to leave the building together and head back to the Cottage.

“Alice, hey,” Eliot says, falling naturally into stride with her as they make their way towards the building exit.

“Hi Eliot,” Alice says. They really have gotten to become very good friends, but there’s a certain level of formality baked right in to Alice’s personality. Proper greetings, not a lot of extraneous touching. Eliot supposes it’s one way that Margo and Alice are good for each other. Opposites attract, and all that.

“Are you ever going to tell us what you’re working on in there after class? Q says you’re being mysterious.”

He leans over, as if to knock shoulders with her, as they reach the double doorway and head outside into the fresh air. Of course, being so much taller, he basically just ends up hitting his elbow against her upper arm.

Alice rolls her eyes with a smile. “I’m afraid I’ll disappoint you. Just working on expanding some ideas I started in Antarctica. That wasn’t exactly the best environment for inspiring creativity, and I like to have a nice workspace to spread out and think my thoughts.”

Think your thoughts? You’re painfully adorable, Alice, did you know that?”

“Oh, were I a single woman…” Alice says, surprising Eliot enough that he lets out a full, unrestrained laugh, the sound loud and freeing in the crisp outdoor air.

“How’s that going, by the by? You’re taking good care of my girl?” Eliot asks. He follows automatically as Alice heads for one of the footpaths, instead of cutting across the grass like everyone else. She really is endearing.

“Does Margo know you call her that?” Alice asks, with a wry twist of her lips, and Eliot thinks it might be prudent to change the subject.

“Margo knows everything,” he replies, flippant. He catches Alice trying to bite back on a smile, and grins at her. “You excited for this weekend?”

The highly anticipated shopping-slash-haircut-slash-come-on-Q-you-know-you-want-a-manicure trip. Also, the Eliot-meets-his-boyfriend’s-father-for-the-first-time trip. But he’s not talking about that part right now.

Alice’s reply to the casual question is a dramatic sigh, and a forlorn glance up at the unnaturally blue skies of a weather-regulated late winter. “I like shopping.”

“Oh, yeah, you really sound like it.”

“I’m not sure I’m going to like shopping with you and Margo,” she says. “And I’m not sure Q is going to like it either.”

She might have a point, actually, and Eliot works to stop himself from bristling. Truth be told, he’d already talked it over with Margo. They had plans to surprise their respective blushing nerds with at least one bookstore as a treat, between the other more essential pampering. Eliot and Margo aren’t actually heartless, vapid, fashion-obsessed monsters. Not all of the time, anyway. But before he can reassure Alice of his intentions to make the outing fun for everyone, they’re interrupted.

“Mr. Waugh.”

Just a few yards along the footbath, Dean Fogg appears, turning to intercept them. It’s almost spooky, how silently and swiftly he had approached. Eliot hadn’t even noticed him coming.

“Mr. Waugh, may I have a word with you?”

The last time Fogg had cornered him for a word, he’d given Eliot a book containing illegal magic, a single piece of paper that Eliot is constantly trying to pretend he isn’t thinking about all the damn time. So honestly, no, he isn’t really sure he wants to have a word with the dean at this particular juncture.

“Is it something that can wait?” Eliot asks. “I’m meeting someone.”

Technically true. Quentin is back at the Cottage right now, and Eliot expects to meet him there. It’s not plans, per se, but still. Fogg doesn’t know that.

“I’m afraid it’s rather urgent.”

Eliot looks down at Alice, to see her examining her fingernails, trying to pretend not to be desperately curious. She’s terrible at it, which makes Eliot smile again, despite the roiling of foreboding deep in his gut. “Okay. Okay, let’s talk. Alice, I’ll see you at home?”

She nods and gives an awkward wave to Fogg, and then walks off, back towards the Cottage.

Eliot really, really wishes he could go with her. He realizes very quickly that this nonsequitur of a conversation with Fogg is going to be much worse than the last time. Fogg doesn’t lead him into the shade of a nearby copse of trees, or back into the academic building he and Alice had just departed. Fogg leads him towards the administrative building. Towards his office.

Yikes.

“Is everything alright?” Eliot asks, feeling unaccountably awkward as he walks side-by-side with a man he barely knows, one who spent the first year of their acquaintance virtually ignoring him, and the past six months observing him with keenly narrowed eyes whenever they crossed paths. Being the subject of Fogg’s attention is… unsettling.

“As this is a private matter, I’ll wait until we’re indoors,” Fogg says, his voice even more structured and formal than usual.

Again… yikes.

By the time they walk into Fogg’s office, Eliot is failing the fight to remain calm. He’s pretending his palms aren’t sweating, pretending he believes Fogg just has a question about his undergraduate transcript or his course selection or his mentor. He doesn’t believe any of that, of course, but the answer to the question what is this about? is unknowable and therefore frightening. He has no fucking idea what’s about to happen. Fear seems like overkill, but he can’t control his response.

“Please, have a seat,” Dean Fogg says, gesturing at the high-backed chair across from him, as he circles around to his own chair. The expanse of the desk between them is an oddly comforting buffer. Eliot can hide the fact that his knee is jiggling, his hands wringing around one another. Apparently, the specific terror of being sent to the principal’s office is something that doesn’t fade with adulthood.

Fogg watches as he settles into his chair, and then waits just long enough for Eliot to wonder if the dean is trolling him or something. Then, he speaks. “Eliot, there is something very serious I need to discuss with you.” He looks straight at Eliot, searches his face for… something, and then sighs, looking away. “No matter how many times… it’s always difficult to know where to begin.”

Okay, now that’s sinister, right there.

“Um. Am I being expelled or something?” Eliot means for the question to be a joke, but it comes out a bit more wobbly than he was intending. Even worse, Fogg doesn’t answer for a moment. Just long enough for Eliot to start panicking, to start wondering where the fuck he’s supposed to run to, so as to prevent his entire fucking mind from being wiped ‒ they can’t take magic from him, he’s known about that for far too long. But... Brakebills, and the Cottage, and Margo and Quentin, holy shit, no thank you ‒

“No, you’re not being expelled.”

“Well, shit,” Eliot says, letting out a breath. “Way to scare a guy.”

“I’m afraid it’s worse than that.”

“Okay,” Eliot says, swallowing. “Okay. Is someone dead?”

He can’t think of anyone from the outside world he’d particularly care about. Not enough to account for the grave expression on the dean’s face. But Fogg doesn’t know everything about him. Maybe he thinks Eliot will break down crying if he hears his old man finally managed to drink himself to death.

“No. Nobody is dead,” Fogg says.

Then what the fuck is going on? Eliot wants to snap. He doesn’t, just narrows his eyes at Fogg and tries to convey lackadaisical impatience instead of tense anticipation.

“Listen,” Fogg says, placing both of his hands flat on his desk. “I’m going to put you out of your misery and just say it, Eliot, but it’s important for you to understand that…” he swallows, then levels Eliot with an oddly sincere, sympathetic expression that does nothing to put Eliot at ease. He feels his heart rate tick faster. “What I’m about to tell you is going to change your entire life. It is complicated, and difficult, and you are going to have many, many questions for me. I only ask that you let me talk first. You let me finish what I have to say, and then I promise you, I’ll do my best to answer all of your queries.”

Eliot can’t think of what to do. He has no idea how to describe the way he’s feeling. He squeezes his fingers together in his lap hard enough to hurt. He forces his spine straight, plants his feet firmly on the ground, and takes a deep, centering breath. Then he nods. “Okay, then. Hit me.”

And then Dean Henry Fogg tells him about the time loops.

According to Fogg, Eliot has lived dozens of lives. He has found Brakebills, and his friends, and a community, over and over again. Sometimes he’s happy, sometimes he’s not. Sometimes he flourishes, sometimes he flounders. But no matter how he responds to Brakebills, to the introduction of new people into his world, people who matter, people who want to stick around, it doesn’t last. Because evidently, after finding those things, he loses them. Again and again, to the machinations of a villain known as the Beast.

While Fogg talks, Eliot can only sit, and stare, and blink, and experience the slow creeping sensation of numbness, starting in his hands and spreading up his arms, creeping down his spine and solidifying his heart into a ball of ice right in the center of his chest. It takes a great deal of time for any other emotion to permeate the numbing chill, and Eliot is grateful for it ‒ grateful for this brief moment of respite from the fullness of his own reaction.

He knows, as Fogg talks, that this isn’t the first time he’s heard this. Maybe he should have known this was coming, all along. And maybe a part of him did. That particular thought is horrifying enough to thaw the numbness, so banish it, blinking and swallowing and focusing hard on every word out of Fogg’s mouth. He wonders if he should be taking notes.

“After forty loops,” Fogg says, clearing his throat and then continuing on in the smooth, calming, nearly academic tone he has adopted, “the Beast was defeated. The cost was great, but the deed was done. And that, I believed, was the end of my own involvement with time manipulation. It’s dangerous, after all. Inadvisable in the extreme. But then… things turned sour. People died. People who should not have died. Evil forces gained in prominence. More than one world turned to chaos. And I thought… why not at least try to fix it? Why not go back, and do it again? It had worked to defeat the Beast. And so I made arrangements.”

Fogg continues to explain ‒ the way he found the woman named Jane, the one who had begun the loops in the first place ‒ the way he had plucked her magical stopwatch right out of the rivers of time and began the loops again, and Eliot ‒

Well, Eliot feels… horrified, at first. And then, gradually, angry. Some piece of him, some small attempt of his overwhelmed brain, had been trying to contextualize Fogg’s story - had been trying to turn it in to a puzzle to solve, a Groundhog’s Day scenario. He’d thought, somehow, the part of him that was capable of thought, that Fogg had brought him in here to… what, ask for his help? Alert him to a problem that needed fixing? In a way, Eliot supposes that’s why he’s here. But the problem Fogg is presenting him with isn’t how do we stop the loops from happening, but how do we get it right this time?

The loops themselves? Those are on purpose.

“I became convinced there was a better way, a better outcome,” Fogg says, speaking right through Eliot’s uncomfortable mounting indignation. “Unfortunately, I could do nothing to change the point in time at which the loops were set. We had already created a groove in the very fabric of the universe. So I had to take us back here. The Beast having been defeated once, it wasn’t terribly difficult to manage it again. Nowadays, we manage to kill him most of the time, but… the cost is always too great. Things never work out the way they’re supposed to. And so…” Fogg shrugs, as if he sincerely believes he’s given Eliot an adequate explanation, “I continue on.”

Fogg falls silent.

Eliot stares at him.

He’s waiting for ‒ well, he’s not really sure. For Fogg to smile, maybe, say psyche? But no, not that. Eliot isn’t actually having a problem believing what he’s just been told, or processing it. It’s more just the reality of having his entire life upended by a man who he barely thinks about, barely acknowledges as a background figure in his life. Just the thought of Fogg walking around this whole time, knowing all of this, orchestrating all of this, setting the wheels in motion to defeat some great evil, making Eliot and the others the pawn in some game…

This is why he’s felt so strange since last summer, that unaccountable sensation of knowing something was missing. This is what was missing. Battles against a great evil, pain and hardship and entire universes. Lives lived and lost.

There’s really only one rational reaction to something like this, and so ‒

Eliot laughs.

Nothing has ever been less funny to him in his entire life, but he laughs, shaking his head and staring at Fogg and waiting for the ramifications of his words to settle over him. It’s happening in fits and starts, and also all at once, like silt trying to settle on the bottom of a pond while wind rocks it back up and through the murky waters.

“You find this amusing?” Fogg finally says, when Eliot’s absurd nervous chuckles refuse to die down.

“No,” Eliot says, huffing out one final breath of laughter and then scrubbing both of his hands hard over his face. “No. Fuck. It’s just ‒ I was going to say I can’t believe this. But that’s not true, I ‒ in some ways, this is ‒ ”

“The easiest thing in the world to believe?” Fogg finishes, raising an eyebrow.

“Exactly. It all makes ‒ wait, hold on.” Eliot pauses a finger in the air, new thoughts occurring to him faster than he could possibly examine them. “Did you know what I was going to say? Like ‒ because ‒ we’ve had this exact conversation before?”

He’s not even sure how the thought makes him feel, other than creeped the fuck out.

“Well,” Fogg says, frowning a bit. “It’s not scripted or anything, but yes. You and I have had this conversation many times. You get to know a person’s speech patterns. You get to know their mind.”

“That’s creepy as shit.”

“See, I knew you were going to say that,” Fogg says. It’s an honest-to-god joke. He looks odd when he smiles; it makes him seem almost ‒ relatable, like a person Eliot wouldn’t mind knowing, someone he could maybe talk to.

The brief feeling of camaraderie doesn’t last, though. Eliot is starting to find some order in his mind, some way to process the rapidly growing list of questions, and he manages to find the wherewithal to spit one out ‒

“But what happens to all the other realities? Do they just ‒ poof out of existence when you restart things?”

“No,” Fogg says. “They… continue on. A multiverse, but instead of being a probability matrix, splintering off from various points, each one is real, distinct, and begins in the exact same way. There are ways to reach between them, but we haven’t messed with that in a long while. Too many unpredictable factors that way. The odds of success are never increased with interference from the other loops.”

He’s not sure if he’s relieved to hear that, or not. The thought of other Eliots, other Quentins and Margos and Alices, ceasing to exist, is a terrible one. But the thought of a multiverse where other versions of himself are walking about making choices and living a life he doesn’t remember… it’s just about the most unsettling thing Eliot can imagine.

Fogg is unsettling too. Everything about him right now, the way he’s focused yet relaxed, leaning back slightly in his chair with his elbows resting on the arms, hands laced casually in front of him. His head tilted slightly to one side, brow ever-so-slightly furrowed as he studies Eliot’s face, cataloging the minutiae of his expression.

And god, the way he’s talking. The way he’s saying all of this, like it’s an interesting thought experiment, like Fogg is trying to get a perfect score in a video game or something, restarting every time he makes an error. It’s more bewildering than it is infuriating, although maybe that’s just because Eliot’s brain is fried past the point of complex emotion. He’s so scared right now. He’s so scared and confused and tired, and it’s pushing every other emotion to the back burner, where he knows it’ll explode later on, and probably take him all the way down.

And also. Also. Something familiar has just pinged in his brain. He searches for it among the chaos of his thoughts, and plucks it out, looking at Fogg to ask ‒ “Probability matrix?”

Why is that phrase familiar? Something from one of Q’s geeky shows (oh fuck, Q is going to fall the fuck apart when he hears about this), or something he’s learned about in class, maybe?

“Yes. Julia Wicker has indeed seen some of the events of the other time loops,” Fogg says, nodding his head as if this is an answer to Eliot’s question.

Which, Eliot realizes with the most intense rush of dizzying horror yet, it is.

Because that’s where he’d heard that phrase. Julia, working on her independent study with Fogg. She’d looked into…

“So she knows?” Eliot asks, and he can hardly recognize the sound of his voice. He can’t imagine a world in which Julia could know something like this and not share it with Quentin, and he really can’t imagine a world in which Quentin could know something like this and not share it with him.

“No,” Fogg says, quiet and calm. “She believes that what she saw was merely… a glimpse of potential outcomes, different scenarios of how things could go. She has no idea that what she saw really happened, in other loops.”

What the actual fuck.

“But ‒ why did you show her ‒ why are you telling me, and ‒ ”

“I need her to hate you,” Fogg says. It’s blunt, it’s unfeeling, it’s heartbreaking, because it doesn’t surprise Eliot to hear. Everything coming out of Fogg’s mouth is like that. Shocking at first, and then familiar. Because they’ve had this conversation before.

Goddamn it.

Why?” Eliot asks, his voice shaking. “Why would Julia hate ‒ why would you want that?”

There’s really no avoiding the thought, is there? It’s rushing at him, and Eliot is helpless to do anything but let it come, like a deer in headlights.

Because the thing Julia saw in those other loops was Eliot breaking up with Quentin.

“Why?” he repeats again, his throat closing up, his hands shaking, his scalp tingling.

Fogg breaks eye contact with him, sighing and looking off to the side. Eliot’s whole body is vibrating, a coil of tension about to go off. He’s not sure what will happen when it does.

“Well,” Fogg says, nodding his head and clapping his hands together in a business-like manner. “As I mentioned, the time loops all feature an adversary, a very bad creature who was once a man, but now is something… both more and less than that. We commonly refer to him as the Beast, as I’ve said. Regrettably, it’s time for you to do your part to take care of the problem.”

“And how,” Eliot says, fighting fruitlessly for calm. “do I do that?”

He knows what Fogg is about to say ‒

“I’m going to need you to break up with Quentin Coldwater.”

‒ and yet it still hurts like a motherfucker.

~~~~~

A couple of nights before, tangled up together in bed, Eliot, compelled as always to speak his devotion into Quentin’s skin, had started to talk. Just the usual things, the things that make Quentin shiver all over no matter how many times Eliot says them ‒ you’re beautiful, it’s like you were made for me, god, I never want to stop touching you, you’re so good, Q, so perfect, I wanna fuck you for hours, baby

But that night, something about that last mindless statement of desire had made Quentin pause, tugging his hands in Eliot’s hair to pull his head away from his chest, where he’d been sucking a line down to his stomach.

“Uh ‒ can we do that?” Quentin asks, his voice trembling.

“What?” Eliot asks, dazed and overwhelmed as always by the glassy-eyed, flushed expression of desire on Quentin’s face. Doing this to him is the greatest joy of his life.

“I want you to ‒ I wanna try ‒ ”

Oh. Yes. Yesyesyes.

Eliot has no idea what Quentin is about to ask for, but the answer is always yes. His brave little Quentin, taking advantage of his boyfriend’s more extensive sexual repertoire to learn what he likes, what he wants. That same enterprising spirit had led Eliot to tie him to the headboard the other night. It had been so insanely good ‒ all Eliot has to do is think about it and he gets so hard he can’t breathe. Everything Quentin asks for has been an unmitigated success, so Eliot is already eager, already acquiescing, before Q can even form the full thought.

“Um ‒ like ‒ the moment right before, you know, it’s so good, and sometimes I just wanna ‒ stay there. Like. Live in that beat, that rush of silence, right before it’s over.”

“That was almost poetic,” Eliot says, grinning into Quentin’s chest and biting him again, just because he can. “But I think what you’re asking is for me to edge you until you’re crying for it, yeah?”

“Hmm,” Quentin says, tugging his hands mindlessly through Eliot’s curls. “Yep. Yeah, that, please.”

So Eliot takes the errant, lust-fueled thought ‒ I wanna fuck you for hours ‒ and they make it a reality.

They try, anyway.

It’s intense; they don’t last quite as long as maybe they both want to, but god, it’s so good, Quentin all pale and shaking and whimpering in his arms, squirming to pull away and push closer all at once. By the time Eliot lets Quentin come, they’re both crying, just a little.

They have plans to try it again. They’d discussed it in the afterglow, both of them still heaving for breath. Eliot kisses the tears off of Quentin’s face and pets him, soothing. Gets him to drink some water. He can’t get his own hands to stop shaking.

Eliot has tried everything under the sun with sexual partners in the past, and Quentin hasn’t. But somehow, everything with Q feels like the first time.

When he tells Quentin that, Q lets out a sleepy laugh and nuzzles his nose into Eliot’s collarbone. “Well believe me, it doesn’t show. God, El, you’re like ‒ insultingly good at sex, did you know that?”

“Insultingly?” Eliot laughs, pressing kisses against Quentin’s forehead. “If I’m good, it’s because you’re good, Q. You respond to me so pretty, you know?”

You’re pretty,” Quentin mumbles, barely understandable, and after that there’s not a lot more in the way of coherent conversation. They fall asleep that way, naked, still on top of the covers, dazed and content and perfectly at peace.

Back in the present, Fogg is looking at him, his eyes grave yet sincere, waiting for Eliot to respond. As if he hasn’t just asked Eliot to take a sledgehammer to that same peace. To look at the trust in Quentin’s eyes and obliterate it to dust.

Eliot tries to say something, but there aren’t words for his rage, his terror, his disgust. Instead, he stares at Fogg for a beat, then two. And then he stands up, turns, and strides for the door.

He doesn’t have to listen to this shit.

Too impatient to turn the knob, Eliot sends a blast of magic towards it, intending to swing it open, but the energy surges up against the wood and bounces back, sending him stumbling away. He lets out a wordless snarl and reaches for the doorknob, but it doesn’t budge.

“Let me go.”

“No, not until you let me explain,” Fogg says. He’s still so calm, so casual, like any of this makes any goddamn sense at all

“Go right ahead, see what good it does you,” Eliot says. It doesn’t matter what Fogg says, it doesn’t matter what the explanation is. He won’t do it.

“I have made it the work of several lifetimes to defeat the Beast with minimal collateral damage,” Fogg says, and he’s raised his voice just slightly. It’s not anger, Eliot doesn’t think ‒ he’s still far too in control for anger. But passion, maybe. Fogg believes whatever bullshit he’s spewing, that much is clear. “I have tried every possible combination of factors, but there are some things that are immutable. The first is that the Beast will come after Quentin, and that as a consequence, all of you will get tied up in this mess.”

Why?” Eliot asks, horrified. “Why does it want Q?”

He can’t remember the Beast, not really, but there’s an accompanying feeling of dread with the thought of him, some residual fear from lives he can’t remember. The thought of something as scary and evil as Fogg has described, targeting Quentin

But Fogg is waving a hand, dismissing this question like it’s not important. Like he’s the one who gets to decide that, even now.

“The second thing I know is that magic comes from pain.” Fogg pauses to let those words sink in, and Eliot swallows, his mouth dry.

“It has been the work of dozens and dozens of loops to get everything just right, do you understand?” Fogg continues, imploring. “I must hurt you ‒ hurt all of you, but not too much, or you lose control. Keeping Julia out of Brakebills sends her down a dark path, too dark, but making her watch her best friend’s heart break, making her suffer a betrayal from you, someone else she thought she could trust…”

“Why does the Beast want Quentin?” Eliot repeats, his voice hoarse. His ears are ringing. Fogg ignores him.

“Alice Quinn loses her brother. That happens before the loop begins, I can’t do anything about that. But I can let her find a family, a community, people to help her through the loss. I can regulate her pain to something manageable. Kady Orloff-Diaz nearly gets expelled, stealing from the school to give to a Hedge coven ‒ ”

“Jesus ‒ what?” Eliot says, a reflex. He should probably care more about that, but right now his brain just keeps circling back to ‒ a big bad evil monster wants to hurt my boyfriend. And also, the dean of Brakebills Academy wants me to break up with my boyfriend.

“But I stop it from happening,” Fogg says, ignoring Eliot’s interjection again. “I saved her mother, but Kady still must live with what she has done, with the way she betrayed Penny to obtain information ‒ the cracks in the foundation of their relationship might never heal ‒ ”

“Stop,” Eliot says. “Shut up for a second. What the fuck does ‒ why would any of this ‒ ”

To Eliot’s surprise, Fogg actually does stop talking. For a moment the only sound in the room is Eliot fighting to control his breathing, gulping in big gasps of air like he’s just run a marathon. He’s still standing by the door.

In a way, Eliot is angry with himself for even entertaining this conversation, for allowing himself to be talked to in this way. He should kick and scream at the door until Fogg lets him go, and then he should run to Quentin, to all of his friends, and tell them everything he’s found out.

But at the same time, he can’t afford to walk away until he’s sure he understands what the fuck is happening here. He hates every word coming out of Fogg’s mouth right now. But that doesn’t mean he thinks he’s lying.

And so Eliot gathers up the last vestiges of calm within himself, and he asks: “So ‒ breaking up with Quentin. Is supposed to ‒ hurt us enough to fuel our fight against the Beast?”

“Precisely.”

“But you can’t make me,” Eliot says, before he can think it through. He sounds like a toddler. He really can’t find it in himself to care about that. “You can’t go around dictating people’s personal lives like ‒ ”

“I wish I didn’t have to,” Fogg says, sounding more exhausted than he has yet. “The day I realized that the key to success was moderating and arranging the dramatic love lives of my students was… well, it wasn’t exactly a fun epiphany. Believe me.”

“Okay,” Eliot says. He says okay a lot, especially around Fogg. It’s like a nervous tick, one he’s only just noticing that he has, and he hates it. “Okay, so ‒ riddle me this. Why ‒ why not tell me, tell all of us, about the Beast from minute one, and then we all plan some grand way of stopping him?”

“I’ve tried that,” Fogg says. “Every suggestion, every possible plan that is popping into your head right now ‒ every argument about how the best chance of success is if I lay out all of the information for everyone… I’ve heard it. I’ve tried it, Eliot. The Beast is ‒ he’s smart. He’s strategic. He can’t know that Quentin knows about him until he chooses to reveal himself. And the path to defeating him doesn’t work if I haven’t pushed you all just far enough to ‒ ”

“But why ‒ ”

“Eliot Waugh,” Fogg says, his voice suddenly booming. “Do you want to sit in here with me for hours on end while I explain myself? Do you want me to go through every one of the myriad ways I have tried and failed to save all of our lives? I need you to look me in the eye. I need you to trust that I’m telling you the truth.”

“I’m going to need more than that,” Eliot says, his voice wavering. His back is up against the door, in some fruitless attempt to put as much distance as he can between himself and the thing that’s hurting him. “I can’t just walk away from him. If you know me, if you know us, then ‒ you know that.”

“It was seventeen loops ago,” Fogg says, “that I first came upon this strategy. A spell was discovered ‒ ” he waves his hand. “But we’ll get to that later, when it’s needed. The point is, once I had the spell, once we had already defeated the Beast using it once, with significant carnage… I knew I had finally found a reliable strategy. A way to minimize casualties and defeat the evil. A way to contain this thing, to Earth, to Brakebills, to just us, so it couldn’t spiral out of all control. It all came down to getting Quentin into the right state of mind. The Beast comes for him, and Quentin harnesses the power. Simple. Neat. Or so I had hoped, in any case.”

“Seventeen,” Eliot repeats, hollow. “And that’s after the first forty… how many total? How many times have you done this?”

“I’d rather not say,” Fogg brushes right past this, as if the number really is of no consequence. “It might disturb you unduly. But seventeen loops ‒ ”

“So you’ve called me in here and asked me to break up with Quentin seventeen times,” Eliot cuts him off.

“Yes.”

“And I’ve done it?”

“No,” Fogg sighs, shaking his head. “We might have been done a few loops ago if you had just listened to me every time, but unfortunately you’ve been less than cooperative.”

“Well good for me!

Fogg probably has silencing wards on his office. Eliot hopes he doesn’t. He hopes some assistant or student or fellow professor is out in the hallway right now. He hopes someone hears Eliot’s angry shout, and opens the door, and lets Eliot go.

He’s so fucking scared of the reason why he’s still listening.

“You really want to risk being wrong about this?” Fogg says, pulling the thought from Eliot’s brain. He puts his hands on the table and levels Eliot with a glare. “I am the only person alive who has all of the information, here. I have made it the work of several lifetimes to get this right. If you don’t do as I say, I can’t help you, Mr. Waugh.”

“It sounds fucking insane,” Eliot says, feeling the unaccountable prickle of tears behind his eyes. “What the fuck does my relationship have to do with ‒ how does the fact that me and Quentin are together affect the outcome of some big cosmic fight...” he trails off, wishing he was sure enough to storm off. Wishing he couldn’t feel the pooling of dread low in his stomach.

Fogg presses a thumb into his own forehead, rubbing away an obvious headache. “You and I have had this conversation before. More than once. It becomes ‒ onerous, to repeat myself, but I suppose I should remember that it’s all new to you, as far as you’re able to remember.”

“You’ve made us do this before,” Eliot repeats, a hollow echo. He doesn’t know what to do with his hands. “Which means it failed before. So why ‒ ”

“Because the world doesn’t revolve around you and your little love affair,” Fogg says. He’s not snapping, or impatient. If anything, he sounds bored again. “All of the key players in this situation need to be calibrated, their emotional states adjusted to create the right combination of stability and despair.”

“You sound like a fucking robot,” Eliot says, livid on the turn of a dime. “Calibrated? What the fuck does that mean?”

“You’re the only person who is getting this particular speech, Eliot. The only one who gets to know everything straight from the source. You can’t tell Quentin. You can tell Ms. Hanson, if you wish. That doesn’t seem to affect the endgame, one way or the other. And you’re less likely to screw it up if you have her as a confidant.”

“But why?” Eliot asks, practically screaming in his frustration. He paces in a small line in front of the door, back and forth, back and forth, wishing he could rewind this whole stupid day and start it over, back to making Valentine’s plans with his boyfriend in bed, back before ‒

“Timeline forty,” Fogg says, his voice ringing with authority. “Do you want to know what inspired me to keep the loops going? What happened to make me decide the world was so unjust that we deserved a do-over?”

Eliot really doesn't. He doesn’t want to know any of this at all. But Fogg keeps talking, and Eliot keeps listening. His body already knows how bad it’s going to be ‒ his skin has gone clammy, a tension headache pounds through his skull.

“We defeated the Beast. The cost was ‒ complicated, but bearable. At the time, I didn’t even contemplate starting over again. I didn’t think of it as an option. Yes, Alice Quinn was dead ‒ turned to a Niffin. And yes, you were trapped on another world, made King of a people who hated you, forced into marriage with a young woman you didn’t know.”

Already, Eliot feels like screaming. Thinks he might collapse. He’s stopped pacing, his back up against the door again, bracing himself for things to get worse. God, Alice, a Niffin just like her brother…

“From there, things… improved,” Fogg says. “At least in some ways. I won’t bore you with the details, but Alice was saved. She was ‒ damaged, but returned to her natural state. The trauma you had all suffered is not to be dismissed, but for a while… things were…”

The dean trails off, looking into the middle distance like he’s longing for that simpler time, the one where Eliot was apparently married to a woman on another world, whatever the fuck that even means. Eliot wonders, but doesn’t ask, if he and Quentin were together then. If they’d had an arrangement with his wife and stayed with each other, or if they’d ended things.

“And then magic was taken from the land by a vengeful god. As you all entered a quest to bring it back, Penny Adiyodi died,” Fogg says, blunt, and both pieces of news are fresh lashes against Eliot’s heart. “Kady was never the same. But you all fought so very hard to return magic, Quentin most of all.”

Of course he did. Of course his brave Quentin would fight to the ends of the earth for magic, for the thing he loves more than anything. Eliot blinks several times in a row, waiting for the rest.

This time, when Fogg pauses it feels calculated, like he’s winding Eliot up for the worst blow of them all. Eliot can feel his pulse jumping, erratic, in his throat.

“In order to save Quentin’s life, you did something very foolish, Eliot. The consequence of which was that a very bad monster, one arguably worse than the Beast, possessed you. Quentin was psychologically and physically tortured by the thing controlling your body, and while he and your other friends were ultimately able to save you, Quentin died in the attempt.”

And there it is.

Eliot ignores possessed and psychologically and physically tortured because if he thinks too hard about that right now he’ll probably bash his head against the wall until he loses consciousness. He can’t block the other part of it out, though. It’s too big to be denied.

“Quentin dies?” Eliot asks, the horror choking him, closing off his airway. “Jesus, he fucking dies? How? Where was I when this happened? Was I still ‒ was I me? Was I there?”

It’s probably not the most important question, but it’s all Eliot can think of, because… well, honestly, he can’t imagine himself doing anything less than everything in his power, if Quentin’s life was on the line. He’s never considered himself the heroic throwing-oneself-in-front-of-a-bullet type, but if it’s Quentin, then ‒

“You were bleeding out in the infirmary,” Fogg says, dismissive, and Eliot bites back on a wordless, anguished shout. He is so not equipped for this conversation, and apparently, Fogg is still not finished. “From there, I had my idea to try again. Just once more, to replicate our results with the Beast but obtain a more favorable outcome. Set things on a better path. I regret to say I’ve failed many, many times to accomplish that, but our current strategy… it is working, Eliot. We are very close.”

“He dies?” Eliot repeats, his voice weak and thready. It’s like he’s caught in a smaller loop of his own, just hearing the words Quentin died over and over again, reverberating through the most tender parts of himself. And not just that ‒ Quentin died saving him. Quentin died because of Eliot. The worst part is, the flavor of this grief is familiar. Again, it’s like his body remembers this piece of information, and Eliot is feeling the shadow of it, of the pain that must have ended him, eviscerated him, when it happened for real.

“Mr. Waugh,” Fogg interrupts his tortured thought-spiral, and Eliot forces him to look up into eyes that are equal parts sympathetic and impatient. “I feel I may have failed to impress upon you the reality of the situation. Quentin dies in the timeline I am speaking of, yes. Timeline forty. But he dies in most of the others, too. So do you. So do your other friends. You don’t all die every time, but there is nearly always significant carnage where the Beast is involved.”

That’s too much to think about right now, so Eliot doesn’t, shaking his head hard and letting a few tears fall. He hadn’t noticed his eyes watering.

“And you think,” Eliot manages to gasp out through mounting grief and terror, “you think that you know how to fix this, and fixing it involves…”

“Yes,” Fogg says. “The method has been reliable in the past, but the spellwork involved requires an extremely deft touch. You must all be near the point of despair, but not too far gone to feel motivated to stay alive.”

Eliot thinks bleakly of the medicine sitting on the shelf in the bathroom nearest his bedroom, the way Quentin needs it to keep that despair from crowding in to his precious mind even on a good day.

“That’s legitimately sickening,” he says. He hates the person he’s talking to, more even than he hates himself for the way he’s already caving to it.

“I’m aware that you believe so,” Fogg says. “This is another part of the conversation we tend to have each time. But if you allow me my full explanation ‒ ”

“You’ve done quite a lot of explaining already,” Eliot says through clenched teeth. He grips onto the anger, hard, refusing to let it go. The sharp, clean flavor of fury inside of him is holding worse things at bay. “But hey, if you want to keep listening to the sound of your own voice, do you want to go ahead and explain why you decided to play god? Why you decided to make us all fucking dance for you, pawns in some sick fucking game ‒ hell, is any of my own life even real?”

It’s not something he’d realized was upsetting him until he says it out loud, but now, abruptly, he’s thinking about it. Everything about this whole wonderful, life changing year thus far ‒ it didn’t happen by chance. Fogg could have been behind everything. Maybe his entire goddamn life

“Of course it’s real,” Fogg says, and it’s the kindest, most genuine, he’s sounded in a while. “You’ve loved him every time, Mr. Waugh. Sometimes, he even loves you back. I didn’t do anything to make that happen but put you two in each other’s proximity.”

“Jesus,” Eliot says, pinpricks of disbelief traveling up and down his arms. Everything’s catching up to him. He wants a drink. He wants several drinks. He wants to black out and wake up and forget everything. He’d give almost anything for that right now. “Jesus, you’re serious, aren’t you? About all of this?”

“You said you believed me,” Fogg says, frowning censoriously over interlaced fingers.

“About the time loops, yeah,” Eliot says, sparing a microsecond to appreciate the fact that that revelation is actually not the most horrifying part of this conversation. “But you’re seriously convinced that me breaking up with my boyfriend is the key to defeating the Big Bad.”

“Please, let us refer to him as the Beast,” Fogg says. “I don’t know why you all insist on cute nicknames.”

Big Bad is a term he’d learned watching Buffy with Margo and Q. He wants them both to be here right now. He wants to hold their hands and let them do the talking. Eliot is not good at this. He’s eloquent, sure, quick with a witticism when the occasion calls for it. But this shit ‒ time loops and defeating great evils, planning for the end of the world… it’s not something he knows how to digest. He’s not the right person to be arguing this with a man who’s clearly had all the time in the world to put together his talking points.

But he does his fucking best.

“If you can’t fucking explain to me in a real, satisfying, concrete way, why breaking up with him is the right call, I’m walking away. I’m walking the fuck out of here and I’m telling Q and everyone else that our dean has lost his goddamn mind.” Eliot puts his hand on the doorknob again, ready to slam his body into the wooden surface, to force Fogg to release him. He means it, he really does. He wants ‒ needs ‒ to see Quentin right now. Needs to talk to him and tell him everything, needs to see him scoff at the very notion that breaking up is the right thing to do, in any fucking universe. Ever.

“You get more reluctant every time,” Fogg says, and he sounds weary. God, he really has had this conversation before. He sounds bored of ripping Eliot to pieces.

“Every ‒ time. You make me ‒ you make me leave him every time. Seventeen ‒ seventeen loops ago, you said ‒ ” Eliot doesn’t really know what he’s saying anymore. He’s just remembering the way Julia had talked to him while they made apple pie together ‒ it all seemed so real ‒ and he feels sick. He’s broken up with Quentin. More than once, he’s done it. Not every time he’s been asked, but even one time is too much ‒ how could he ‒

Fogg seems oblivious, or uncaring, of his distress, sighing again and tapping his fingers against the surface of his desk, without rhythm.

“Eliot, I hate having to do this, but sometimes it becomes necessary. It seems this time around, I’ve caught you late enough into your infatuation that you’re more reluctant to walk away. The two of you are increasingly difficult to disentangle.”

Infatuation? Fuck him.

“What ‒ ”

And then comes yet another blow. Eliot is frankly surprised he has the capacity to feel any worse than he already does, but sure enough...

“If you don’t do as I say, I will wipe Mr. Coldwater’s mind. I will remove all memory of you, of Brakebills, of magic, and I will send him on his merry way.”

Eliot takes several steps forward before he means to, and slams his hands down on the edge of the desk. “Fucking try it and I’ll kill you.”

The thought is horrifying for too many reasons to count. It’s not even ‒ it’s not even about them, about Eliot. Taking magic away from Quentin is about the cruelest thing he can imagine. The mounting fear and disgust inside him spills over. He can barely stand to look Fogg in the face.

The man in question seems to still be entirely unaffected, as he raises an unimpressed eyebrow. “You’re fond of death threats, but you’ve yet to follow through. Well, barring that one time, of course, but we’ll chalk that up to an anomaly. You were hardly in your right mind.”

It takes a moment for him to realize the full ramifications of this, but then ‒ “You’ve done it before? You’ve ‒ fucking ‒ taken him from me?”

Fogg leans back slightly in his chair and nods, like a man who has time to run in circles around this thing all day. Eliot, by contrast, has already reached the end of his rope. The rope is so far away he can’t even see the damn thing in the distance.

“How does that serve your purpose?” Eliot asks, trying to trap him, trying to find the hole in his logic that will make the whole thing unravel. “You said Quentin was instrumental to defeating the Big ‒ the Beast ‒ so how does erasing his memories work?”

“It doesn’t,” Fogg says with a shrug. “If I can’t get you to cooperate with me at this point, the timeline’s a bust anyway. It’s only happened exactly that way once, truth be told. Seven loops ago. It seems you’ve learned your lesson, even if you can’t remember it.”

Eliot opens his mouth to ask what happened seven loops ago, even though he’s pretty sure he doesn’t want to know. But Fogg anticipates him, before he can say a word. Again.

“The Beast found him within a day. Ripped his heart out of his chest. You didn’t even know he’d been wiped at first; by the time you found out and left Brakebills to find him, he was already dead. Kady Orloff-Diaz was the one who found his body, actually. She was the one who told you he was gone. You lost control of your magic, slammed her and a few other people against the wall with a potent telekinetic blast. Landed three people in the hospital. The Beast probably killed the rest of us after that, or maybe we managed to defeat him somehow without Quentin… I don’t know. I haven’t checked in on that loop since I abandoned it for the next one.”

Eliot stares at him for a moment, the words ringing hollow in his hazy, overwhelmed brain. He takes a step back, and practically collapses back into his chair.

“You killed him,” Eliot says, numb. “You killed him.”

“You’ve killed him too,” Fogg says, bland. “Inadvertently, yes, but still. He’s killed you. You’ve both become Niffins. Together, separately... you’ve watched him die. He’s watched you die. You’ve held Margo Hanson in your arms as she bled out. You’ve dived in front of Julia Wicker to save her life, only to watch Alice Quinn perish attempting to pull you out of harm’s way.”

“Okay,” Eliot says. That damn fucking word again. Nothing has ever been less okay in this world or any other. “Okay, just fucking stop. I get it.”

“Do you?”

“Fine. Fine, I’ll do whatever the hell you want, I’ll do as you say, just ‒ fucking let me go. I can’t sit here, I can’t listen to this anymore, you ‒ you did this, I ‒ ”

He stands up and marches towards the door, trying the handle again, but it’s still locked. He wheels around. “I said I’d do it, Fogg. Let me fucking go.”

“Eliot,” Fogg says, pinching the bridge of his nose. “You do recall that we’ve been through all of this before, yes?”

“What’s your point,” Eliot says, and he can’t even make it into a question. His jaw is clenched to the point of pain. His hands are in fists at his sides.

“The brilliant plan you’ve just devised, where you run and tell Quentin everything and pretend to have ended your relationship with him… don’t try it.”

Eliot just swallows. Can’t speak.

“Four timelines were wasted that way. It was enormously aggravating for me,” Fogg says, like he has any right to be aggravated by anything. “I couldn’t figure out what was going wrong, why Quentin’s emotional state was so out of line with what I needed. And then I realized you’d been lying to me. Seeing him in secret. It won’t work, you know. He’ll die, Eliot.”

Because of you, Eliot thinks. Because you won’t let it go, you keep bringing us back to play your games again and again

“How am I supposed to believe anything you fucking say, you psychopath?” Eliot says. At some point in the last few minutes, he’s started to cry in earnest. He can’t even find the energy to reach up and wipe the tears away. “You’re insane, do you know that? Insane.”

“I’ve been called much worse,” Fogg says, and then he stands up, taking the time to straighten out the lines of his clothing. He walks around the desk, towards Eliot, standing once more by the door.

At first, Eliot is too busy trying to decide whether to try escaping through the window or punch him in the jaw. But once Fogg is close enough, he sees what’s in his hands. It’s a small vial of clear liquid, shimmering in an odd sort of way, as if bright lights are bouncing off of it without source. Fogg holds the bottle in the palm of his hand, tilted towards Eliot, and gifts him with a contemplative look. “I could give you this, and you would remember everything.”

Eliot freezes, his heart in his throat. So many of the things he’s known without knowing, so many truths he doesn’t know how to contemplate. He and Quentin, together through lifetimes. But not every time a voice whispers in his ear, and he knows that for the truth, too. Sometimes, he even loves you back, Fogg had said. He has no desire to know if his happiness is the pattern or the anomaly.

“I don’t think having you drink this right now would be a good idea,” Fogg continues when Eliot doesn’t respond. “It would definitely serve to impart the gravity of the situation. I’ve done it before, but it tends to leave you ‒ shaken. You can’t handle it for long.”

“You’re handling it,” Eliot bites out, bitter. He’s not sure why he’s arguing. He’s not sure why he’s standing here like a lump letting himself be talked into this. He can’t. He can’t. He won’t, it’ll kill him to do it, but if he doesn’t...

“Well, yes, but it’s not easy ‒ it takes significant preparation before each loop,” Fogg says off-handedly. “And I am a master magician.”

“So then ‒ ”

“So then instead, I’d like to share one of my own memories with you, Eliot. From the last loop, the one right before now.” He stares Eliot straight in the eye, waiting for acknowledgment, and Eliot gives him a tight, jerky nod. Probably a mistake. He really doesn’t want to know. (He needs to know).

“The last loop,” Fogg continues, “was similar to this one in every respect. As I mentioned, the last seventeen times have been about honing in on the current strategy. This was the fifth time in a row that we defeated the Beast. It was also the fifth time in a row that we were unable to do so without collateral damage.”

Fogg is standing in front of him now, and he holds his hands up, palms facing Eliot. He tilts them into a frame, and Eliot flinches in automatic response to a spell being cast mere inches from his face. But Fogg isn’t trying to see into his mind, or do anything to him directly at all. Instead, Fogg’s fingers flutter around in a combination of tuts that Eliot doesn’t recognize, and his hands widen, leaving a gossamer patch of air in between them. He lets his hands fall but the screen remains.

And Eliot is looking at the Sea. The grass, stretching out, green and idyllic under a blue cloudless sky. Eliot glances behind the screen to Fogg, eyebrows scrunched together.

“Just watch. This is from my perspective, so I don’t want you to be alarmed when you see ‒ ”

Eliot turns back to the window, and he doesn’t need to ask why he would be alarmed.

In the distance, coming ever closer as the Fogg in the memory appears to run towards it, there is a large patch of smoldering dirt, an ugly scar in the midst of lush green. And scattered around this patch of dirt are people. The closer they come, the easier they are to recognize.

He picks out Alice first, as she screams and runs towards a lump on the ground, a dark-haired woman curled into a ball. It’s Margo, Eliot is almost sure, but he can’t quite bring himself to look closer. Instead, his eyes catch on another figure, on the ground.

It’s Eliot.

He’s injured.

It’s fucking bad, and Eliot can see that from a distance. It’s even more clear as the Fogg from this memory moves closer. It’s more disturbing than he would have imagined, to see his own body twitching on the ground before him, but for a long moment Eliot can’t really look away.

The memory-Eliot is on his stomach, sliding with uncoordinated limbs across the ground, pulling himself slowly, painfully along. Based on the volume of blood soaking in to the charred earth beneath him, Eliot guesses abdominal wound. (He hates that it feels familiar, that even as the horror builds within him, he also knows he’s bled out from a wound to the stomach more than once. Not the same body, but some part of him knows it).

Eliot on the ground is making sounds, horrible whimpers of pain, but he’s still moving. Eliot watching doesn’t understand why, at first. He must know he’s badly hurt, he must know moving is making it worse. He should stay still, wait for help, pray he doesn’t lose too much blood in the meantime...

Fogg’s office has all but disappeared.

Eliot is aware of nothing but the view in front of him, the mounting sense of dread, the way he knows what he’s about to see just before he sees it. Memory-Fogg is moving forward, crouching over another figure on the ground. It’s Julia. She appears to be injured but not fatally so ‒ blood is soaking through her pants but she’s conscious and clear-eyed; Fogg is helping her to sit up. Eliot strains to focus on the figure in Fogg’s periphery instead, as injured-Eliot keeps pulling himself, inch by inch, along the ground, towards ‒

Quentin.” Both Eliots say it together, ravaged and disbelieving. Injured Eliot reaches Quentin’s body, pushes on it to turn him over, to look at his face. Quentin’s not bleeding. There’s no visible wound at all. But it’s not Quentin. Not anymore. It’s just a body. It’s a corpse.

Eliot, the real Eliot, the current Eliot, flinches back from the window and tries to look away, but he can’t. Memory-Fogg is helping Julia to walk on her injured leg, the two of them making their way towards Eliot and Quentin on the ground.

On the magical screen, Eliot is saying Quentin’s name. Over and over, just his name, curled over the body, waiting to fucking die, waiting for the pain to stop

Quentin,” Julia’s voice, filled with more anguish than Eliot knows what to do with. “Oh god, Q.” She more or less stumbles to the ground, ignoring the bleeding, moaning, sobbing Eliot next to her as she reaches for her friend ‒

“Stop,” Eliot says. The real Eliot. The now-Eliot. He finally tears his eyes away from the screen and faces the door, pressing his forehead hard against it. “Please stop.”

The sounds of the scene behind him fade away, and when Eliot forces himself to turn around, the window of shimmering air is gone.

“Margo died too,” Fogg says, his voice horribly gentle. “A few hours later, in the infirmary. The rest of you ‒ survived. More or less.”

In an abstract, detached sort of way, Eliot is certain he doesn’t last long, in this other world, this other time, where he loses Quentin and Margo both in one day. Odds are good he drinks himself to death within the year.

“What went wrong?” Eliot says.

“A couple of small things,” Fogg responds, shrugging and walking back over to his desk to resume his seat. He gestures to the chair across from him again but Eliot doesn’t acknowledge it, stays standing. “A minor miscalculation in Penny’s development. I’ve already corrected that. And you. You broke up with Quentin, everything was going according to plan… but you caved. I’m not sure when, but at some point you couldn’t handle the strain any longer and you told him everything. Quentin is the center of my strategy to defeat the Beast ‒ but the magic didn’t take root in him the way it was meant to. He killed the Beast, but it destroyed his body in the process.”

So it’s Eliot’s fault.

No, it’s Fogg’s fault, and the part of Eliot still capable of rational thought knows that. It’s just ‒ he’s never going to be able to unsee it, Quentin’s unnaturally still, cold, pale face, his body a jumbled tangle of inanimate limbs.

And Eliot has the power to stop that from happening. That needs to be the most important thing, more important than how he feels, even how Quentin feels. So Eliot clears his throat, and he accepts his fate.

“So, how do I do it? I mean ‒ what do I say, how am I supposed to ‒ ”

“The details are up to you,” Fogg says. His voice is kind, like he’s doing Eliot a favor by allowing him creative control over the shattering of his heart and Quentin’s. “But you must make him believe it. He cannot suspect it’s anything less than sincere.”

The sharp taste of acid is creeping up Eliot’s throat. His skin feels very cold. He has run out of arguments. He knows ‒ his mind knows, his soul knows, that he’s going to do as he’s told. Anything. Anything at all to save the lives of the people he loves, to prevent the carnage waiting for him at the end of another failed loop. And even as he knows the inevitable, the denials keep building up inside of him. Impotent, insistent, irrelevant but imperative.

"But what if I can't?" Eliot asks, panic closing around his throat. "I ‒ he's ‒ " How the hell is he supposed to explain it to Fogg? He can't exactly say that he's become addicted to the smell of Quentin's skin after sex, the sleepy sounds he makes in the morning, the way his eyes light up every time Eliot tells him he's beautiful. From the dean’s perspective, those things probably seem small, but to Eliot, they’ve become everything.

"You must," Fogg says, his voice grave. His eyes are not unkind, but there is no hint of compromise or relenting in his expression. "The fate of the world as we know it depends on it."

He sounds like a supervillain.

Fuck, maybe he is one, no matter what he says he’s trying to do.

When Eliot turns to the door this time, he knows it will open for his touch. Fogg is done with him. Whatever bigger plan the dean has in the works, he’s confident that he’s prepared Eliot for his part of it ‒ for now.

“And he’ll live,” Eliot says, hand on the doorknob again. He doesn’t turn back to look at Fogg. Doesn’t want him to see the tears still spilling down his cheeks. “If I do this, if we all follow your little puppet-master plan… he’ll live.”

“We’ve come so close,” Fogg says, and it’s not the word yes, but Eliot lets him continue, keeping his breathing as steady as he can manage. “I really do believe this might be the one, Eliot. And then we can all rest, the way we deserve.”

Eliot can’t think of a response to that. He waits a beat, to see if Fogg has anything more to say.

And then he leaves the room, numb all over, and starts to plan for the end of the world.

Chapter Text

The first thing Eliot does upon leaving Fogg’s office is find an empty room in the administrative building. He thinks it might be an overflow classroom; there’s still a desk sitting up at the front in front of a blackboard, and a few stacks of dusty chairs piled in a corner. Maybe this room was used in a bygone generation when there were more magicians to teach, but today it only serves one key purpose for Eliot. He can be alone here, and nobody will think to look for him anywhere near this place.

He heads to a corner ‒ not the one with the chairs, but the one opposite, furthest away from the door, and he sits down on the ground, wraps his arms around his legs, and buries his face against his knees.

And then he tries ‒ he tries ‒ to cry.

He’d been crying during his conversation with Fogg. Intermittent, angry tears, a valid reaction to the onslaught of information being thrown at him like a series of knives to the gut. But now that he’s alone… the tears won’t fall.

He’s not even hoping to cry for the catharsis of it. He’s not sure any amount of sobbing is going to make him feel better, or help him process his emotions in any way. It’s just ‒ if he cries now, if he cries enough to wear him down to the bone, to push his body past the point of exhaustion… maybe he won’t cry while he’s talking to Q.

He can’t cry while he’s talking to Q. Quentin’s life literally depends on it. Bambi’s life. His own life, maybe, and maybe… more than that. The world, in some cases, if things spiral out of all control.

God, he’s not meant for this. He’s not the fucking protagonist of this type of story. He wishes desperately that someone else had to bear the brunt of this knowledge. Quentin would be good. Or Julia. They’re both primed for hero status. If Quentin had to break up with Eliot for the sake of the world, he’d do it. He’d find a way to be kind about it. And Eliot would fall the fuck apart, limp away like a wounded animal. It’d be easy, probably, for Quentin to convince him that he doesn’t actually want him anymore. Maybe too easy.

But Eliot is so terrified that, in contrast, Quentin is going to fight him on it. Despite his bashful, self-deprecating tendencies, Quentin might be too confident in their relationship to take it lying down. He’ll know. He’ll have to know that something weird is going on. He’ll poke and prod and fight Eliot on it until Eliot cracks. And he can’t allow that to happen.

And if it doesn’t? If Quentin sits there and takes it? That’s hardly better. Eliot thinks his heart might just curl up and die in his chest, if Quentin believes him too quickly. If his trust shatters without a fight, Eliot will know he’s failed, that their relationship isn’t as strong as he’s tried to build it.

It doesn’t fucking matter, honestly. Every scenario is more painful than Eliot knows how to confront. It’s going to hurt beyond compare, no matter what. And Eliot needs to prepare for any contingency, needs to map out his response to any possible reaction Quentin might have.

The tears still won’t come. Eliot sits in the classroom for a long time, and he starts to plan his strategy. He forces himself to picture the way Quentins’ face is going to look when Eliot ends things. He scripts some dialogue in his mind, pictures what he’ll say, makes himself hear Quentin’s tremulous voice responding. Disbelieving, devastated. He plans for the most heart-rending of scenarios ‒ what he’ll say if Q cries, if he begs, if he yells or if he falls silent, curling into a ball to protect himself from Eliot’s cruelty.

Eliot is honestly not sure he can do this.

He’d been working so hard to be a good partner to Quentin. Well, not working, precisely. It had never felt like work, not in the way Eliot had imagined it, before Q. He’d heard relationships take effort, and he’d always interpreted that to mean that you had to get through some inconvenient, annoying shit to get to the good parts of being in love. And he’s always been allergic to effort. Effort means you give a shit, and that means things can hurt you.

Q has been the exception to that, from day one. He’d accepted the risk that Quentin might destroy him, because the joy of being with him was good enough to make up for it. And he trusts him and Quentin trusts him right back, and right now his boyfriend is sitting around somewhere with absolutely no idea that Eliot is about to throw everything they’ve built together into a goddamn dumpster like it means nothing, and how can he

God fucking damn it. This is officially the worst day in a life filled with a lot of shitty days. He can’t understand how he’s still not crying. There’s something buried deep inside of him and it’s going to wake up eventually, once the shock wears off, once it all finishes sinking and seeping into his pores. And once it’s awake, Eliot’s probably going to scream and throw things and cry until he throws up. And he can’t afford to do that at the wrong moment. He just can’t.

As little as he wants to think about what he’d seen back in Fogg’s office, he forces himself to close his eyes and pull the image up in his mind. Quentin. Dead.

Not just once, but over and over and over again. And other Eliots have had to watch it, have had to live on. There are other versions of himself out there, ones he can’t remember, but ones he feels, ones he’s been feeling all along, and he knows that now. All those other Eliots either die young or lose everything that’s ever mattered. He can’t do anything about that. He can cry, he can rage against the universe, he can march back into Fogg’s office and try his best to kill him for what he’s making him do... but none of that will undo the past.

The only thing he has left now is this loop. This future. And the tiniest glimmer of hope that if this works, if Fogg is right and this is the time they defeat the evil coming for them, without losing anyone… maybe Eliot can fight and claw his way back to some measure of happiness. Maybe Quentin will be waiting for him at the other end of this.

It’s not impossible.

And not impossible is about all he’s got to work with right now. So he stands up, brushes dust off of his pants, and he leaves the room, eyes dry.

Eliot keeps it together as he exits the building. He keeps it together as he walks across the Sea towards the Cottage, affecting a leisurely gait. If anyone who knows him sees him, he needs to look mostly-normal, with maybe a dash of trepidation. Fake-Eliot, the persona of himself who’s about to break up with his boyfriend, isn’t so much of a prick that he’s looking forward to it. That’s the person Eliot needs to be now ‒ the guy who doesn’t love Quentin, but who cares for him. The guy who isn’t ready to be in such a serious relationship, but still regrets the pain he knows he’s about to cause.

Eliot keeps it together as he steps up to the Cottage door, and he keeps it together as he heads through the entryway and sees Margo, Alice, and Kady chatting together on one of the couches. He keeps it together as he walks by them with a nod and finger-wiggle of acknowledgement, and heads instead towards the window seat, where Quentin is curled up with a book.

“Hey,” Eliot says, still keeping it together. He’s modulated his voice perfectly, in just the single syllable. Mostly calm, with a dash of hesitation.

And then...

Quentin does what he always does when Eliot walks into a room: he tilts his head up for a kiss hello.

Eliot’s stomach swoops, his entire soul going into the freefall at the sight of his lovely, open, trusting face.

It’s muscle memory, an automatic reflex, to walk closer to him and bend down to give him what he’s asking for. He’s barely able to catch himself in time, shifting his lips and placing a kiss to the tip of his nose instead. Not that he should be doing even that much.

It’s just ‒ god, he hadn’t known that his last kiss with Quentin would be his last kiss with Quentin.

It’s time to focus. It’s time to rip off the fucking band-aid and do what needs to be done to save Q’s life. He closes his eyes and lets the memory of what he’d seen back in Fogg’s office wash through him again, a grotesque talisman to guide his path. The pale, unnaturally still, awkwardly crumpled form on the ground swims before his mind’s eye, horrifying enough that he has to brace himself against a full-body shudder.

And then he opens his eyes to find Quentin alive and smiling and already reaching up a hand to pull Eliot back down into a real kiss.

Eliot resists it, taking a step away, trying not to flinch at the way Quentin’s face falls. He doesn’t look hurt, because he doesn’t know he’s being rejected. Instead, he looks worried, which is not much better. “Are you okay?”

What a fucking question. The only thing less okay than what’s about to happen is the reality waiting for them if it doesn’t.

“I’m ‒ yeah, I’m fine,” he says. Too much wobble, too much pain in his voice that time. He’s got to dial it back. He needs to find regret, not devastation.

“El…” Quentin stands up, eyebrows scrunched together. He bites on his lower lip the way he does when he’s anxious or thinking hard or when he’s trying not to come too fast while Eliot sucks him off ‒

Fuck.

It’s a bad idea, but Eliot suddenly finds himself thinking about the night before, the way they had been together. They’d fucked back to front, Quentin tucked up in his arms while Eliot jerked him off, cooing praise into his ear, letting the pressure build between them. He remembers the moment when his control snapped, when he stopped being able to think only about Quentin’s pleasure and had let his own need slam into him. And then he’d slammed into Quentin, demanding and sharp and hot. He remembers how Quentin had pulled him in impossibly closer, hands grasping and desperate. How Eliot had plastered himself up against Q's back and buried his face in his neck when he came, biting and sucking at the skin there while Quentin bucked back against him, voice hoarse and fervent as he called out Eliot's name.

If Eliot had known then that it was their last time, he'd have fucked him face-to-face. He'd have gone slow. He'd have said everything to Q, told him exactly how beautiful and brilliant and lovely he was, how much Eliot wanted ‒

He bites his tongue hard enough to hurt, and looks past Q, staring at the wall instead. He’s afraid to look at him right now, but after a moment he forces his eyes back down, to find Quentin looking back at him, his eyes gone wide at whatever he sees on Eliot’s face. Something bad, probably. He needs to get a grip.

"What's going on?" Quentin asks. "What happened?"

Jesus, he’s already messing this up.

“Um,” he says, swallowing. No. No no no. He feels like death. Nauseated and terrified. But he has to do this. He has to do this right fucking now, he can’t put it off, he can’t spend one more second than necessary lying to Quentin. “Q, I need to talk to you.”

“Where were you?” Quentin asks, and he lifts a hand up to brush it along the side of Eliot’s face, concern pulling his eyebrows in, his big brown eyes guileless and loving and compassionate. Eliot’s going to die. This is going to be the thing that kills him. “You didn’t come back after class.”

“Yeah, sorry, I ‒ ” Eliot coughs, offers Quentin a tight smile, and places a hand against his shoulder. “I had some things I needed to think about. I wanna talk about them with you.” This is prepared material. It’s the way he’d planned on starting things: draw Quentin off to the side, start in with something more abstract, wind his way slowly to the main event. He figures that if this were real, he’d probably be a coward about it. He’d probably be too much of a dickhead to say the words outright, he’d probably force Quentin to do all of the emotional labor, to coax the truth out of him. That’s how this would go, if it were real. And it’s so very important that Quentin thinks it’s real.

“Alright,” Quentin says, sliding a thumb along Eliot’s jaw and then letting his hand fall. As Eliot guides him towards the stairs, Q squints up at him, still worrying his lower lip between his teeth. “You’re okay, though? You’re not in trouble or anything?”

Because yeah, of course that’s where Quentin’s brain would go. Eliot’s acting weird, so Eliot must be in trouble.

It’s the truth, of course. Quentin is good at reading him. And also, Quentin has no fucking idea what’s about to happen to him. Eliot is about to take the floor right out from under him, because Quentin has no reason to suspect this is coming. Eliot hasn’t exactly been hiding his devotion lately. If anything, he’s been even more obvious than usual, ever since that whatever-it-was that happened between them down in the secret room. He’s never felt about anyone or anything the way he feels about Quentin, and he’d wanted Q to know that.

How is this ever supposed to work? How does Fogg expect him to…

He sucks in a subtle breath of air and guides Quentin to Eliot’s room. (Their room).

“I’m not in trouble,” he says, finally answering the question. “I ‒ I’m okay, or I will be, it’s just…” he allows a nervous chuckle to bubble up from his throat, and it almost sounds real. “I need to talk to you, and it’s not exactly a conversation I’m looking forward to, so…”

Quentin sits on the edge of Eliot’s bed and then pats the spot next to him. It’s an echo of the first time they were alone together in Eliot’s room, and they both know it.

That had been the day Quentin had told Eliot about his depression. He’d said big changes were especially hard for him, could send him spiraling.

“It’s about this Saturday,” Eliot says, quick and clipped. He’s got to stay on task. He can’t think too hard about what he’s doing or he won’t be able to do it. He sits down on the bed next to Q, but he puts just a sliver more distance between them than he normally would.

“Oh,” Quentin says, his posture relaxing suddenly. “Look, if you’re worried I’m going to be a grouch about it, I promise I’ll consent to a bit of pampering. I’m honestly more afraid of incurring Margo’s wrath than I am of spending actual money on a haircut.”

Margo. Eliot closes his eyes for a moment and conjures an image of her in his mind, a pillar of strength to hold up his crumbling infrastructure. The bleak, flickering light at the end of this conversation is that Eliot is going to go to Margo, and tell her everything, and force his amazing, beautiful best friend to share in the ugly burden of what he knows. Get through this conversation, and then run to Margo.

Focus.

“It’s not about that,” Eliot responds after a measured pause. This time he’s aiming to convey anxiety and maybe even a dash of regret. “It’s actually about ‒ after that.”

“After that?” Quentin echoes, and Eliot, who has been staring at his own hands, forces himself to turn his eyes on Quentin. He looks confused, and then a flash of understanding hits him. “Dinner with my dad?”

Jesus, every time he thinks he’s reached his limit, Eliot thinks of another unpleasant consequence of his new reality. Ted Coldwater is going to hate his guts after this. Eliot had been looking forward to making a good impression.

Focus, goddammit.

“Yeah. I’ve been thinking a lot about that. I don’t know if ‒ Q, it’s maybe not...”

(Step one, display some discomfort with the rapidly escalating seriousness of their relationship.)

“...maybe it’s not such a good idea.”

“Oh,” Quentin says, frowning in realization. “El, if you’re not ready to meet my dad, you can just say so.”

He’s so kind, so understanding. Eliot wants to be those things, too. He’s been trying so hard.

"It's just ‒ Q, I’ve been thinking about it, about what it means to meet him, the… the… implications of that, and I don’t think I want to ‒ like ‒ I just don’t think that’s who I am, you know?”

(Step two, suggest that he’s actually not cut out for serious relationships at all.)

The first pinprick of hurt appears on Quentin’s face at that, just the tiniest flicker, mixed in with the confusion and concern. Eliot knows he doesn’t understand yet, doesn’t see the fullness of the pain Eliot is about to inflict on him. But just this much, Eliot backing out, flaking on the plans that were supposed to mark a new development in their relationship… it’s hurting him.

Eliot is hurting him.

And now he has to go for broke.

“Okay,” Quentin says slowly, his hands twisting together in his lap. “That’s okay, El, I wasn’t… I hope you don’t think I was like ‒ requiring you to come with me. There’s no pressure, it’s fine if we’re not there yet, if you ‒ you want to wait. I get it.”

And now, Eliot steels himself, and lets an artful, intentional amount of impatience creep into his tone. “You say there’s no pressure, Quentin, but obviously there is. You invited me because you expected me to come with you. It makes it kind of hard to say no.”

(Step three, blame Quentin for Eliot’s own shortcomings.)

Quentin gapes at him. Which, fair enough. In the normal course of things, Eliot does not snap at Quentin, no matter what. It’s probably starting to dawn on him that something more is going on here. Eliot can’t decide if it’s better that way, or if he wishes Q could hold on to his ignorance for just a few seconds longer.

“Um,” Quentin says. “No, El, seriously, I didn’t mean to put pressure on you, and I’m sorry if I did. It’s seriously not that big of a deal.”

“But we both know why you asked me to go with you,” Eliot says, in a tone of increasingly thinning patience. “We both know ‒ look, things have gotten a little bit ‒ out of hand, don’t you think?”

“What does that even mean?” Quentin asks, mostly still guileless, with just the smallest dash of trepidation. “Out of hand? It’s just dinner with my dad, you don’t have to say yes just to make me happy.”

Anything in the fucking world to make him happy. Eliot would do anything in the

Jesus.

“Sometimes I feel like I do, like that’s what you expect, like I’m supposed to just go along with everything you ask for,” Eliot says, the words tasting like bile in his throat.

The script he’d prepared back in the administrative building is still serving him well. He’s a good actor, thank god. Still, talent for performance notwithstanding, he's certain that Quentin is going to call bullshit on this. Quentin knows him better than anyone has ever known him, and every word pouring out of him right now is a filthy, ugly lie, wrenched from the cruelest impulses he can find in himself. It has always been so natural to push people away, to cut things off before real intimacy can develop.

By contrast? Hurting Quentin is the most unnatural, grotesque act he's maybe ever committed, and that's saying a lot. The words twist forward from him like poison. He has to spit them out, has to force them through a trembling jaw and just hope he can ride it out long enough to make it convincing. He can fall apart later. And he will. He's going to lose it. It already hurts so bad.

But Quentin doesn't argue with him, just stares at him with wide glassy eyes for a long moment, and then swallows, audible and pained. "All I said was ‒ I’m just going to visit my dad, El, why are you making this in to this big thing, like ‒ ”

“Because it’s always a big thing with you, Quentin,” Eliot snaps. He is the worst person to ever live, in this world or any other. Quentin is folding in on himself now, his body gradually curling close like he’s trying to protect himself from the sting of the words. “Everything is always so ‒ there’s no casual with you, there’s no carefree. It’s always serious, it’s always important, and you could drown a guy under the weight of that, you know? I didn’t sign up for that kind of responsibility.”

There’s silence for a horrible, weighty moment, and then Quentin looks at him, anger stirring behind his eyes, along with the hurt. “Jesus are you on drugs or something?” he says. “What the fuck is happening right now?”

Eliot pauses. He pauses because he needs a minute to make sure he doesn’t burst into tears, but he also pauses because the persona he’s adopted for this sickening performance needs to take a beat too, to gather his patience around him like a shield. “Q, I’m not trying to snap at you, I’m sorry. That was uncalled for.”

“Tell me what’s really going on,” Quentin says, his voice wavering. “You’re being a real dick right now and I want to know what the fuck happened ‒ ”

“Everything just happened so fast, and I took a minute today to actually think about it all, and I guess it just made me realize…”

“What happened so fast?” Quentin asks. His arms are folded all the way across his stomach, his shoulders slumped, but he’s making eye contact. He’s making Eliot look straight at his face. “Are ‒ are you talking about ‒ us? Like ‒ is this you trying to ‒ ”

“Q,” Eliot says. Gentle, maybe a touch condescending. “I know this isn’t going to be easy, but ‒ ”

“No,” Quentin interrupts. It’s not a no of heartbroken denial, it’s more an emphatic statement of fact, like Quentin has studied his current reality and decided that no is the only correct response to it. “No, something happened. You don’t go from ‒ from this morning to now, and just ‒ decide you’re done. That’s impossible. Unless you’re like ‒ a sociopath and some kind of compulsive liar ‒ ”

Christ, it’s so endearing that even in the middle of being broken up with, Quentin’s analytical brain is running a mile a minute, trying to figure out the truth behind the bullshit. It’s endearing, and also very dangerous. Eliot buckles down, forces himself to continue on.

“Q, I wasn’t lying to you about anything, I just… I think you know the person that I am. The things I’m cut out for. And this isn’t one of those things.”

This meaning me,” Quentin says, flat. “Or no, I suppose you’re going to say it’s not you, it’s me, right? Seriously, Eliot, did you fuck up a psychic spell on yourself, or ‒ or ‒ ”

“God, Q, enough,” Eliot says, and he lets the last vestiges of regretful tenderness drop away. “I’m me, you’re you, and I’m saying that we’re done, okay? That’s the end of it.”

Eliot makes himself keep looking at Quentin while he talks, keeps his eyes steely and cold, and it is legitimately the hardest thing he’s ever had to do. Quentin’s face goes blank with shock, his eyes wide and unfocused.

"You're lying," Quentin finally says, small and uncharacteristically timid. "You don’t mean any of this. Why ‒ why are you doing this? What happened?"

It’s working, the war of attrition. Quentin’s defenses are weakened. He’s still holding firm, but Eliot has a solution for that. He’s planned for it. He knows how to strike the killing blow. (He really fucking needs a less violent metaphor).

"I got caught up. The thing is, Q, you're ‒ " he stops, because even dickhead Eliot who wants to break up with Quentin would feel kind of bad about saying this next thing, but he has to say it ‒ "Quentin, you're a good person, and you’re great in bed, okay? I won't deny that. I've had a lot of fun. And I really do like you, a lot. I think all of this is just maybe a little more than I was bargaining for. I don’t mean this as an insult, Q, but you can be very ‒ intense.”

Yeah, that did it. Killing blow accomplished. Eliot hates himself so fucking much.

Quentin's jaw snaps shut, the glassy look in his eyes shutters over, and he repeats himself ‒ you're lying ‒ but Eliot knows he doesn't believe what he's saying anymore. Eliot finds himself wondering if the pain in Quentin’s slumped posture or the anger in his eyes is going to win; he’s honestly not sure which is worse. Pain means Eliot has succeeded. Anger means Quentin still has hope.

"I'm sorry," Eliot says. He means it so much more than Quentin can ever be allowed to know. "I figured it was better to say something now, before we got in too deep."

"I'm already ‒ " Quentin says, hollow and choked, and then he shakes his head, breathing gone shallow. "This can't be happening.”

"I'm sorry," Eliot repeats, forcing his tone into something politely regretful. "I really do want to be friends, Q. I don't have a lot of those. I hope we can get back to that, but I'd understand if you want some space."

He hopes Quentin wants some space. It's going to be a while before Eliot will be able to look him in the face without ruining everything. Maybe a long while.

Quentin is shaking his head, a wordless denial, and Eliot feels that same denial crowding up behind his breastbone, a nonononono of pain and disbelief, because this morning he'd been happy, he'd been so happy, and how is this possibly fair, how can this possibly

Eliot clears his throat when Quentin keeps silent, and forces himself back into the role he's assigned to himself for this ridiculous farce. The role is this:

He is Eliot Waugh. He fucks gorgeous men, and he's clear about his boundaries whenever he can be. But sometimes, the poor things get a little confused, and Eliot, in his magnanimous role as sexual savant but also not-a-total-monster, does whatever he can to let the doe-eyed thing off easy, comfort him with platitudes about his performance in bed, and send him on his way to go cry on someone's shoulder who's maybe more 'boyfriend material.'

Eliot had loved being Quentin Coldwater's boyfriend more than he's ever loved anything in his life.

"Q, I think if you look at this with some perspective, you'll see it's for the best." He reaches a hand up and puts it familiarly on Quentin's arm, because that's what Eliot Waugh would do. Quentin jerks and shudders but doesn't pull away from the touch. The heat of him, even through the sleeve of his grey t-shirt, is making the pads of Eliot's fingers tingle. Maybe touching him was a mistake. He can't move his hand, it’s like it’s glued to the fabric.

"For the best," Quentin echos, hollow. And then he looks up, meeting Eliot's eyes head-on, and there's a blaze of anger still there, because Quentin isn't a lost little lamb. Quentin is strong. It's part of why Eliot loves him so much. "For the best? You think I don’t know what this is, Eliot? You think I don’t know you well enough to know when you’re running scared?” He stands up, wrenching away from Eliot’s touch. His hands are clenched in fists at his sides, his whole body vibrating with some combination of anger and devastation.

“I’m not,” Eliot says, gritting his teeth to convey his irritation. He’s so close. It’s almost over. “Quentin, it’s not about me being scared, it’s about me knowing what I want and what I don’t.”

“Just like that,” Quentin says, pinning Eliot with furious, devastated eyes, glassy with tears that are about to fall. Eliot clasps his own hands in front of him, hard, so Quentin won’t see that they’re shaking. “Just like that, after ‒ everything. After all of it, you’re just done. You’re out. No explanation, no ‒ no warning, just ‒ ”

“Quentin, I care about you,” Eliot says, and he’d been saving this line, hoping he wouldn’t have to use it, but he can see that Quentin is digging down deep, preparing for a fight, and he has to cut it off before his anger starts to take root. “I really do care about you, so much. Just… not enough.”

Quentin makes a sound then, almost a laugh, strangled and thready from his throat. “Wow, okay. That’s so clearly bullshit. You’re not actually that cruel, Eliot, no matter how much you pretend to be ‒ ”

“I’m trying my hardest to explain ‒ ” Eliot pushes through.

“You swore you’d never lie to me again,” Quentin says. “Damned if I’m going to stand here and just let you ‒ ”

“I’m not lying ‒ ”

“We’re supposed to be ‒ you’re supposed to be my friend if nothing else,” Quentin continues, taking no heed of the interruption. His voice is getting louder and louder, the pitch frantic and high. “So when you decide you’re ready to be honest with me, you just let me know. But don’t expect me to sit around forever waiting for you to feel like shit about this.”

And then he charges for the door, yanking it open without looking back. Eliot, still sitting frozen on the edge of his bed, has to bite down on his own fist to stop himself from calling after him.

~~~~~

Eliot isn’t sure how long he sits there, unmoving, in the wake of Quentin’s departure. He supposes he’s waiting, prepared for Quentin to charge back in, guns blazing, oh, and another thing on the tip of his tongue. He needs to be prepared to slam the walls back up if that happens. He needs to maintain some distance, and some perspective, to make sure this thing actually lands. He can’t fucking do it again. Quentin’s going to have to believe him, he’s going to have to interpret Eliot avoiding the shit out of him over the next couple of days, as tacit confirmation that he’s not going to cave and come running back.

The worst part is, Eliot knows Quentin would forgive him. Hell, Eliot probably wouldn’t even have to do very much in the way of begging. Quentin would let Eliot come back to him, would hold him in his lovely arms and kiss over the planes of his face. Quentin would call him an idiot, would look at him with wounded eyes, would crack open the final remnants of Eliot’s heart with soft-spoken words ‒ you really scared me, El ‒ god, Eliot can hear it, can picture how it would go…

And with a flash of sickening insight he wonders if he’s imagining a scenario or remembering an echo from a past loop. Other versions of Eliot had failed, had caved, had spilled the truth to the man he loves and had ultimately sealed Quentin’s fate.

He conjures the image of Quentin’s dead body again, forcing himself to linger on it. Any amount of pain is worth preventing that outcome. That’s what he needs to focus on now.

He wants Margo. He wants to go to Margo and cry and let her comfort him, and even this impulse is making him hate himself even worse because he's done this to himself. Sure, he’s not the mastermind, but he’d said the words. He's broken his own heart right along with Quentin's; he’d aimed to hurt and he’d succeeded masterfully.

And almost as badly as he wants Margo, he has the impulse to find Julia. He hopes Quentin has gone straight to her, because he shouldn't be alone right now. Not with the way he'd looked, the way the blood had drained from his face, the way his arms had curled around himself in a defensive posture, like he was trying to stop himself from flying apart.

He also hopes Q can hold on to the anger, even as he knows it won't last. It'll burn out and Quentin will be devastated and it will be Eliot's fault. Not for breaking up with him, but for ‒ for trying so hard to be good to him. For taking care of him, for making Quentin his singular focus in life. He'd been doing a really fantastic job, actually, and now it's all backfiring. If he'd been less attentive and devoted and so obviously besotted, maybe Quentin wouldn't have had the rug pulled out from under him.

It's a stupid thought, one that doesn't make any sense, because it's not like Eliot knew this was going to happen. It's not like he had any reason to suspect that things would all fall apart.

Other than, you know, a brief study of his own personal history. Precedence and all that.

Eliot would give an arm, a leg, his own heart to be the person to take pain away from Quentin. To be the one allowed to hold him close and grant him comfort, instead of the one who had put that look of desolation on his face to begin with. There is nothing in the world he wants less than to cause Quentin Coldwater pain. It is antithetical to the very heart of him. He's a monster for letting this happen, for forgetting that he's not allowed to have nice things, for dragging someone good and kind into his life just long enough to drain away everything pure and leave a husk in his destructive wake.

He needs his Bambi. He should get up. He should find her. But he doesn’t think he can move. He sits there for a long time, his heart pounding hard in his ears, until instead, Margo finds him.

Without preamble, without a courtesy knock, with virtually no warning, Margo appears in his room like a raging bull, her eyes wide and her hands flying wildly in front of her face. “What the fucking fuck just happened?”

And Eliot wonders what did happen, because Margo clearly already knows something’s wrong. Maybe Quentin had come rushing down the stairs in tears, or maybe he stormed by without saying a word. He wonders if he’d gone straight up to Margo and the others and told them everything, already poisoning the well against Eliot, the way he most certainly deserves.

Eliot opens his mouth to explain. He doesn’t know where to start. There’s so much to say, so much he needs to tell her ‒ there are time loops and there’s a Beast and Fogg has clearly lost his mind and I saw Quentin die and you’re going to die too if I fuck this up and I’m the biggest fuck up in the world and I’m so scared, Margo, I’m so scared ‒ but instead of saying any of that, he just lets the words fall out of his mouth, absurdly inelegant and grossly insufficient: “It’s over.”

And then he bursts into tears.

Through his suddenly blurry eyes, he watches Margo’s face as her jaw clenches, her eyes widen. She rushes towards him on the bed, a lurching, uncertain movement uncharacteristic of her normal smooth grace, but her instinct is sound. She wraps him up into a full-body hug, climbing practically into his lap to do so, as Eliot lets his face crumple, his body fold in on itself, his shoulders heaving with sudden, uncontrollable sobs.

Well, at least he’d managed to wait until it was over. At least he hadn’t done this in front of Quentin.

Margo holds on to him so tight that they tilt backwards onto the bed until they’re cuddled up together, lying horizontal so Eliot’s legs still dangle off the sides, while Margo squeezes him to try and hold him together in the only way she knows how. And Eliot just lets himself fucking cry.

He’s surprised to find that there is some catharsis in it. Not enough to make him feel one iota less miserable, but there’s a release in knowing he’s not alone now, that as soon as he can get his breathing under control he can share the load with someone else, confide in another soul.

Margo usually knows what to do. Margo will be able to help. This is allowed ‒ this doesn’t put anyone at risk, Fogg expects him to tell Margo, which is good, because that means it’s part of the master plan, that means that if Eliot falls completely apart and dissolves into a puddle of pain and fear, he’s still doing what he’s supposed to do.

He’s not sure how long he cries, but eventually he’s able to start talking through hitching breaths, trying to focus on the hypnotic gentleness of Margo’s hands through his hair, (and trying not to wish Q was here to comfort him too). Margo doesn’t ask a lot of questions, seemingly content to hum and murmur vague responses as Eliot gets the words out, tells Margo that it’s over, that Quentin probably hates him now, that Quentin’s heart is broken and it’s Eliot’s fault...

And then Eliot starts to provide some context, and Margo gets a hell of a lot more interested in the specifics.

“There’s a what and we’re supposed to what now?” She sits up away from him, taking away her warmth and her comfort but staying close, looming over him with horrified eyes. “We’re in a motherfucking groundhog day situation and you’re up here weeping about boy problems? What did Quentin say when you told him? He just fucking left?!”

Eliot rushes to defend Quentin, of course, and as the truth starts spilling out of him in fits and starts, and Margo gets more and more frantic, he finds that the effort of explanation is calming him down. It makes it easier to forget the sound of Quentin’s voice, tremulous and so breathtakingly confused, asking what happened? and saying you’re lying. It takes his mind off of the soul-destroying expression on his face when Eliot had crushed their relationship to dust.

Well. Sort of.

Mostly because Margo has a lot of actually really good questions, and Eliot starts to feel like just a little bit of a dumbass for not knowing the answers. “So what the fuck happens, then?” Margo asks, as the reality of the situation starts to hit her, as she starts to make sense of Eliot’s less-than-skillful retelling of Fogg’s story. “When does this fuckin’ two-bit time-loop baddie show up and start trying to kick our collective ass?”

“I don’t know.”

“But how do we stop it? Or how is Quentin supposed to stop it? And how the fuck does it make sense that keeping him in the dark is the winning strategy?”

“I told you ‒ ” Eliot starts to say, exhausted and annoyed all at once.

“Yeah, yeah,” Margo says, flapping a hand and pulling herself fully away from Eliot, unable to stay still. She sits on the edge of the bed, leaving him curled into a ball in the center of his comforter. “Fogg tried every other combination, this is the only way to win. I heard that. But he told you, which means he must have some gameplan. What happened the last time around?”

“You died,” Eliot repeats. “And so did Q.”

“Right,” Margo says, still remarkably even-toned, even as she stands up and starts to pace, snapping her fingers and narrowing her eyes like she’s trying to solve a complex equation in her head. “Right, you said that, but it almost worked, right? This Beast is like a harbinger of doom or whatever, capable of massacres and apocalypses and who knows what else, and the last time Fogg tried this, only two people died, so ‒ ”

“My two people,” Eliot says. “The only two people who fucking matter, Margo.”

Margo’s face briefly softens at that, and she comes over to the bed long enough to pet him on the side of the face. “I know honey,” she says, before taking her hand away and resuming her pacing. “But what I’m saying is, Fogg is narrowing in on a strategy, so ‒ what’s the strategy?”

“I don’t know,” Eliot repeats.

“But there’s a spell, or something? And Quentin’s ‘my-boyfriend-dumped-me’ pain is supposed to fuel it?”

“I don’t know.” This time, it comes through clenched teeth. Eliot hates the word dumped. It feels so trivial. The ending of something as precious and good and right as his relationship with Q is nothing less than a goddamn tragedy. It deserves its own measure of grief-stricken respect. Eliot is legitimately in mourning.

But Margo is somewhere else entirely.

“Stop saying I don’t know,” she snaps. “You didn’t think to nail down the details? This is apparently everyone’s lives on the line, dickhole.”

That’s probably uncalled for. But Eliot also knows that the snippish, sarcastic anger is Margo’s way of coping. He has to let her have this ‒ he’s just gotten snot and tears on her blouse, after all.

“Fogg ‒ he’s running this show, Margo,” Eliot says, patient and also so, so exhausted. “He told me what I had to do and I fucking did it. And I know this is a lot to take in but can we please remember that this conversation is supposed to be about the fact that Quentin is probably downstairs right now crying because of me and I’m not allowed to fucking do anything about it?”

“Quentin went to hang out at Julia’s,” Margo says. “Alice whisked him off to take him to her before he could even grab his coat. And honestly, El, he looked more pissed off than devastated.”

“That’s not going to last,” Eliot says, sitting up to swing his legs over the side of the bed again. The place he’d been sitting when he’d done the cruelest thing to the best person he’s ever known. “You and I both know that’s not going to last. He’s going to break and I have to stand there like an asshole and pretend it doesn’t bother me.”

“Eliot,” Margo says, and Eliot can physically see her take a pause, gathering her patience around her, before she takes a deep breath and continues on. “I’m very sorry. And I’m deeply sympathetic. I’m also trying to fit a lot of new info into my brain, here, okay?”

And that’s more than fair. Eliot knows that. In a sick sort of way, he thinks he might be holding the breakup with Quentin in front of him like a shield. It hurts worse than anything that’s ever happened to him, but at least ending a relationship with someone is the kind of thing that he has some sort of context for understanding. He’s done it before. Not with anyone he really loved, but still. And he’s watched it happen to all sorts of other people. As insurmountable as the pain feels right now, he knows, objectively, that this is the sort of thing people survive all the time.

The other stuff is incomprehensible on a cosmic level, and unfortunately right now he’ll take the lesser evil of thinking about Quentin sad and angry and confused, over the less immediate but still tangible idea of Quentin fucking dying because Eliot doesn’t know how to follow directions.

It’s a lot. A lot is going on. There’s a flask in his bedside drawer, but Eliot is very carefully staying sober at the moment. He’s never wanted to get blackout drunk so badly in his life.

“I get that,” he says finally, gifting Margo with the closest thing to an apology he can manage. “I get that. I should be giving you some time to process.”

Margo sighs, and scrubs a hand over her forehead. It’s a very un-Margo-ish thing to do, since it’ll disturb her flawless makeup, and the strangeness of the gesture is making Eliot oddly emotional. Anything in the world could probably set him off right now, though, so he doesn’t fight it when he feels his throat close up and his eyes start to fill with tears again.

“Oh, El,” Margo says, coming to sit by him on the bed. “Just ‒ try and focus on the big picture for me, huh? When this is all over, Quentin’s going to be the hero, he’s going to get to use his narratively appropriate man-pain to fuel his victory over the greatest evil in the land. He’ll love that.”

“Trying to make me feel better right now is really not your best play,” Eliot warns her quietly.

“It’s pretty fucked up,” Margo says, contemplative, as she rubs a hand against his back. “Fogg purposefully putting us all in painful situations to suit his strategy. Not giving us a say in any of it…”

“I guess when we have a say we keep fucking it up,” Eliot says. “He says he knows what he’s doing. It’s fucking sick, I agree with you, but I ‒ trust it.”

“Alice’s brother becomes a Niffin, and you and Quentin break up, and Julia feels betrayed or whatever, and Kady’s got weird Hedge shit going on and she and Penny keep hurting each other… what about me?”

“What?”

“What’s my painful shit that I have to suffer?”

“I don’t ‒ ”

“Jesus, El, what do you know?”

She’s back to snapping, in no time flat. It’s probably fair this time, though.

“I’ve told you ‒ ” Eliot says, and the sting of tears behind his eyes explodes into a cascading rush of shame down his spine. “I’ve told you everything I know, Bambi. Fuck, I’m sorry. I’ll ‒ I can go back and ask him ‒ ”

Margo huffs out a breath from her nostrils like a dragon, and leans over to kiss him on the cheek. “No, don’t. Fogg told you it was okay to tell me, which means I can ask him myself. Which should be fun, now that I’m thinking about it…”

The thought is enough to make Eliot smile, to lighten the miserable cloud of his mood for a nanosecond. He can picture it, Margo stomping in and demanding answers, demanding recompense for their suffering. He doesn’t think Fogg is going to cave, but he also can’t imagine the Dean having a good time with Margo screaming in his face. Maybe he should go and watch.

But that would mean confronting Fogg again, and he’s definitely not ready to do that right now.

“You’d put him in his place,” Eliot says, smiling at her. His eyes are still blurry with tears. Thank god he has her. Thank god he’s allowed to share this with her. He should probably feel guilty for forcing her to take on the burden, but he’s mostly just relieved. He knows for a fact he couldn’t pull it off alone.

And then he wonders if Fogg ever made him try. Jesus, he doubts he lasted a week without having a total mental breakdown.

“Damn straight I would,” Margo says, and her small arms have come around him again, easing him gently back down onto the bed. “I know you’re really sad right now, El, but we do have to come up with some strategy.”

“I’m going to need to cry myself to sleep first,” he says, utterly honest, utterly spent. “And then after I can start thinking about anything other than what I just did, we can strategize all you want.”

Margo sighs. It’s a little impatient, but mostly understanding. She scooches down and shimmies herself into Eliot’s body, the two of them face-to-face on the bed. Margo really is doing her best, and Eliot is so pathetically grateful. Still, he’s aware that she has a life, other people, other things she might want to do, to help her process what she’s just found out. She might not have it quite as bad as Eliot in this exact moment, but it’s a close second. The burden of knowing about the time loops is horrific all on its own, even setting aside what he’s just had to do to Quentin. He can’t let himself forget that.

So, reluctant though he is, he tries to be selfless. “Thank you, Margo, for ‒ putting up with me. But you don’t have to stay.”

In answer, Margo kicks each of her legs up in turn, pulling off her heels and sending them tumbling to the floor. She can’t possibly be comfortable fully dressed in scandalously tight pants and wrap-around blouse, but for the moment she leaves those on, cuddling her head snuggly underneath Eliot’s chin, where she fits so well. (Where Quentin fits perfectly, too).

And then she tells Eliot she loves him, in the language they share.

“Bitch, where the fuck else would I go?”

~~~~~

The big fun weekend trip gets cancelled, obviously. Well, not entirely cancelled. Julia and Quentin are still going to go, according to Margo’s intel. She and Alice could have accompanied them, but it feels way too weird now, and so the rest of the group backs out pretty much by default.

It’s okay, though. Q probably wants some time alone with Julia and his father. He’s not going to be in the mood to pretend to have a good time. Because Eliot broke his heart like a monstrous cad. Because Q was happy and had a boyfriend and was going to introduce said boyfriend to his father, and now he’s ‒ not.

Eliot knows, even though they never discussed it, that Quentin was really excited to bring someone home. He knows how often Julia was his date to family holiday parties, how much he wished he could show up with a real partner on his arms, some proof that he wasn’t broken beyond the point that someone could actually want to be with him. Some indication that all of his father’s patience and hard work was actually paying off.

Quentin had wanted to show Eliot off to the only adult who actually tried to make a home for him, and Eliot has managed to steal that moment from him, knock it away just when it was in reach. There are just so many things, so many reasons to feel terrible. Eliot finds new ones every few minutes, honestly.

For almost forty-eight hours, he can’t find the energy to eat more than an occasional piece of dry toast, or sleep more than a few fitful minutes in a row, or even take a shower. That might not seem like a long time for some people, but Eliot has always been fastidious, and now his hair is greasy and his body is sweaty and he has nobody he’s trying to impress anymore, nobody he’s sharing a room a bed a life with anymore, so it feels easy to just let himself become a slob.

Margo forces him into the shower on Friday morning, and then when he tries to crawl right back into the messy cocoon of his sheets, she stops him, a no-nonsense expression on her face, and tells him he has to leave his room.

Eliot isn’t sure he can do that. He fights Margo on it, weak from lack of food, his head pounding from all the stupid, pointless crying jags, until finally she huffs and grabs him by the arm, and says ‒ “Jesus, El, come on a walk with me. You need to get out of here for a minute so Julia can come in and get all of Quentin’s stuff.”

Well, fuck.

He hadn’t even thought of that. Another awful, terrible thing to feel like absolute garbage about.

Quentin probably wouldn’t notice if Eliot kept one of his hoodies, right? Just one, one that smells like him ‒

But if Quentin does notice, Quentin might die. It’s an effective mantra, to say the least, so Eliot decides not to squirrel away his favorite soft grey sweatshirt for later pining purposes. Instead, he pulls it reluctantly off of the bed where he’d spent the last two days cuddling it like a truly pathetic asshole, and tosses it halfway into the hamper in the corner, like it’s been there all along. And then he gets dressed like he’s a person who still cares about his appearance, and he leaves his room and gets some fresh air and then spends the rest of the day resenting the fresh air for kind of making him feel better. He definitely doesn’t deserve that.

When he gets back to his room and sees it clean for the first time in months, absent of Quentin’s various clutter, the pain of it nearly brings him to his knees.

~~~~~

On Monday morning, Eliot sees Quentin for the first time since ‒

Well, since.

He’d realized pretty quickly, with Margo’s help, that his strategy of never leaving his bedroom wasn’t actually going to work. Eliot is a social animal. Quentin would be bound to notice if Eliot started hiding himself alone in some sort of grief nest, and it wouldn’t take long for him to put two and two together.

And then knowing Q, his sweet, compassionate, forgiving Q, he would coax a confession out of Eliot with gentle hands and caring eyes, and then he’d end up dead, and Eliot would never survive it, so…

So he has to leave his room.

He stays cooped up in there all weekend while Quentin is off campus, steeling himself for the most important performance of his life, and stalls enough on Monday to miss his morning class. But he’s down in the kitchen around midday, catching up on some dish maintenance, when the side door opens and Quentin and Julia walk in together.

Quentin looks mostly ‒ okay, Eliot supposes. Maybe a little bedraggled. His shoulders are slumped. He looks like a Quentin who maybe spent most of the weekend in bed, but it’s a fine line between being lazy and cozy during a break from classes, and hey, Q won’t get out of bed, I’m worried. Eliot can’t really tell where he falls on that spectrum, just by looking at him.

If he were allowed to go over there, to touch him, he could gauge it by how easily Quentin melted into the embrace. If he were allowed to talk to him, he could measure it by the topic of a rant, or by the absence of one altogether.

He’s not allowed to do any of those things. He’s not even allowed to be caught visibly wanting to do those things. So he turns back to the drying rack and carefully examines the stem of a champagne flute for fingerprints, then lifts it telekinetically, setting it aside to go back in its glass cabinet with its fellows. Then he repeats the process with another flute, then a tumbler. He is focused. He is not looking at his ‒ at his ex-boyfriend, across the room. He is not ‒ he ‒

You.”

Eliot barely has time to register Julia’s voice before he feels a small hand on his arm, fingers gripping tight and wheeling him around.

“Julia ‒ ” he says her name without thinking, ready on instinct to plead for understanding.

“You fucking prick,” she shouts, way too loud. People are going to notice this, people are going to watch, and gossip about it later, not that it matters. Not that he cares about anything but ‒ “I fucking trusted you, you told me you wouldn’t ‒ ”

“Jules!”

And oh god, that’s Q, that’s Q’s voice, how had he not realized how badly he’d been missing it? Eliot squeezes his eyes shut and wills his pounding heart to slow down. He has to focus, he cannot fuck this up. It’s his first real test, and he’s utterly disgusted with himself for the panic coursing through his veins. He should have been more prepared for this.

Quentin is coming towards him and Julia, and he’s closer to him than he’s been in four days, and Eliot doesn’t know if he can stand it ‒ he tears his eyes away and focuses on the fury in Julia’s face instead.

“Jules, don’t, I told you I didn’t want ‒ ” Quentin starts as he approaches, but Julia isn’t done.

“I’m allowed to be angry on your behalf,” she says, dismissive and snippish, her eyes never leaving Eliot’s face. “He deserves a bit of grief for what he ‒ ”

“Please don’t,” Quentin says, sounding truly desperate now, and he has his hand on Julia’s arm, trying to pull her away. He’s so fucking close, Eliot could put a hand out and touch him. “Let’s just leave it.”

“You fucked up. You think you’re going to do better than Quentin?” Julia snarls, and Eliot almost laughs at the thought.

“Julia,” he repeats, forcing himself to remember the performance, remember the person he has to be now. “This really has nothing to do with you.”

“You are a genuinely disgusting person,” Julia spits. “I was so fucking wrong about you.”

It hurts, the venom in her words and in her eyes, it hurts, but it’s also what he expected, and probably what he deserves.

“El, it’s okay, she’s just being overprotective,” Quentin cuts in, and Eliot is turning to look at Quentin before he can stop himself. He’d called him El. It’s a soothing balm, despite everything.

Their eyes lock.

Which is really bad.

He wants to ask Quentin how his dad is doing. Wants to apologize for not being there. Wants to tell him that someday, maybe, when this is all over, they could… they could go and meet him, and Quentin could say Dad, this is my boyfriend Eliot, and maybe someday later on ‒ Dad, we have big news, we’re getting

“I told you not to hurt him,” Julia says, and Eliot tears his eyes away, forced unpleasantly back to reality. Some of her anger has drained away, but it’s been replaced with confusion and heartbreak, which is definitely worse. “I asked you…”

God, Eliot is really going to miss being Julia’s friend. The hits just keep on coming.

“I’m sorry ‒ ” he says, because he is, because how can he not, but Julia scoffs and turns away. And then she and Quentin are walking up the stairs, leaving Eliot standing there in the kitchen wishing more than anything he could follow them, could explain.

But he’s saving Julia, too, he reminds himself. He’s saving her from becoming that broken, devastated young woman who had crouched beside Eliot on the ground, reaching fruitlessly towards the body of her best friend. She can hate him, and Eliot can live with that.

At the end of all of this, when Quentin is still breathing, he can add her to the list of people he’s begging for forgiveness.

~~~~~

One thing Eliot wouldn’t have anticipated about being miserable and heartbroken is… it’s mostly just boring.

The pantomime helps, the way he has to walk through the graveyard of his happiness and pretend not to give a shit. It provides him with something to focus on besides the abject misery and loneliness and guilt and fear etcetera etcetera that fills him up to the brim pretty much every second of every day.

And Margo had been right from the start, obviously, about the whole Beast situation. They do need a strategy. They do need to start planning what to do, and they definitely need more information from Fogg to do that. He’s a coward, of course, so Margo has to go and harangue their dean and puppet-master by herself, and when she reports back, she’s less than thrilled with the results.

“He literally said ‘fuck off, it’s need to know’,” she grouses to him on returning from her clandestine trip to Fogg’s office.

“He literally said that?” Eliot responds, channeling the pedant in his head that sounds pathetically just like Quentin.

“Okay, he literally said ‘I will keep you apprised of the pertinent details as they become relevant’,” Margo admits, scrunching up her nose. “He’s a fucking asshole, El, how did I never realize how straight-up evil that dude can be?”

Eliot sighs, tilting his head back and staring up at the ceiling. They’re in their special nook in the Cottage. Eliot has been trying his hardest to reclaim the spot as his and Margo’s, which is what it was to him first, instead of thinking of it as the spot Quentin kissed him for the first time. It’s hard not to think about it. But then again, location doesn’t really play much of a role in how often he thinks about Quentin.

“I don’t know that I’d call him evil,” Eliot says finally. “He is trying to save our lives.”

Margo just stares at him for a moment and then shakes her head. “I don’t think I’m up for litigating this shit with you, Eliot. The man is trying to play God, which is fucked no matter your motivation.”

Eliot hadn’t shared every single detail of Fogg’s explanation with Margo. He hadn’t told her all the details of the timeline that had prompted Fogg to continue the loops again. Privately, he’s not sure he could have resisted making the same exact choice, if he’d known it was in his power. He’s self-aware enough to admit that he doesn’t really give a shit about the ethics of time manipulation. He just wants Q to be breathing at the end of the day.

“Maybe,” is all he says to Margo, tilting his head to the side to rest it on top of hers. He doesn’t feel like arguing either.

As the afternoon fades into evening, a run-of-the-mill party starts to spring up around the Cottage. It takes no prompting from Eliot or Margo to make it happen, which is a good thing, because Eliot has never been less interested in throwing a party in his life, and Margo is far too busy taking care of him to have the time.

But even as the booze starts flowing and the music grows louder, Eliot and Margo stay put, cozy and safe in their own corner of the room. The rest of their gang arrives at some point; Eliot’s heart squeezes in his chest when he sees Julia, Quentin, Penny, and Kady all sitting together on one of the couches, and he finds Alice in polite conversation with Todd across the way, near the back door. He’s not really sure where he stands with any of them. Other than Julia, of course. Other than Quentin.

“You should go save your girlfriend,” Eliot says eventually, as he watches Todd’s hands wave enthusiastically around him. Alice is nodding with a distinctly familiar glazed look in her eyes. He’d bet anything that she’d stopped following the train of Todd’s ramble several minutes ago.

“I don’t want to leave you all sad and pathetic over here,” Margo protests, frowning at him.

“I’ll be fine, Bambi.”

At this, Margo rolls her eyes. But like, in a loving way, maybe. “I know you will. I meant ‒ you’ve got to pretend you’re not sad and pathetic, and that’s harder to do if you’re curled up in a ball in the corner in the middle of a party. Your introverted soulmate is over there mingling with the best of them.” She waves a hand at Quentin, deep in conversation with his friends. “You need to be out there too, or else the jig is up.”

Soulmate. Margo probably meant that to be sarcastic, but it sends a bolt of lightning up his spine, curls his whole body into an involuntary wince. Jesus, everything hurts. Everything always hurts so bad, all the time, every second.

“Okay,” he says, hollow. “I’ll fucking ‒ mingle. Or tend bar or whatever. Go save Alice.”

When Margo leaves him with a wet smack of a kiss on the cheek, he stands up, does a sweep of the room, and then instead of joining the party, he goes outside to have a cigarette alone.

He’s trying his goddamn best, okay?

The burn of smoke is soothing, but the cool night air is even better. From behind him he hears the sounds of the party continuing on in his absence, and even that is comforting, in a weird way. Like it’ll always be there, no matter what else goes to shit. Like he can always go back to the meaningless void of decadence, if he really needs to.

He doesn’t want to, though, is the thing. He wants meaning. He wants to care, and he does care, and pretending that he doesn’t is… well, it’s a thing he should be good at, right? He’s pretended to not give a shit about so much, over the years. Going back to it now should, by all rights, feel like a return to his natural state.

The sound of the party swells behind him for a moment as someone opens the back door and then swings it shut. When a shape moves up out of the darkness next to him, he knows who it is without looking.

For a beat they just stand next to each other in silence, mere inches apart. Eliot’s heart starts beating double-time; every hair on his arms stand on end. It’s like his body is screaming at him ‒ this is the person we’re supposed to touch, please touch him, we need him, you’ll die without

And then there’s his voice.

“Is there anything you wanted to say to me?” Quentin asks. He sounds nonchalant, his eyes scanning the darkness of the Sea in front of them as he pulls out his own cigarette and lights it with a twirl of his fingers. A twirl Eliot taught him. Eliot allows himself the luxury of looking at Quentin’s hands as he raises the cigarette to his lips, but he glances away before his gaze can catch on the sight of those lips, the line of his jaw. Because he’s not looking at Quentin’s face, he has trouble identifying his mood. His words had come out flat, even, carefully controlled, like he’s bracing himself for any possible number of responses.

“I don’t think there’s much to say,” Eliot responds, just as measured.

“Right,” Quentin says. “Nothing at all to say.”

They stand there in tense silence for another moment, smoking, and then Quentin scoffs, turning to look at Eliot even as Eliot keeps his gaze steadfastly forward. “I spent all weekend planning, you know. Obsessing over what to say to you to get you to change your mind. Or ‒ or at least to talk to me like a human person about whatever’s going on with you. I thought I’d give you a couple of days to cool off and then I’d ‒ I’d fix it. I’d come up with the winning argument and I’d fix it.”

Eliot takes a couple of slow, deep breaths, his cigarette dangling from his fingers. He stares at the ember, and tries not to process the words still pouring out of Quentin’s mouth. He can’t think about it. He can’t focus on it. He’s drowning, he’s falling completely to pieces and it’s lucky that it’s dark out here, it’s lucky that Quentin can’t really see his face, because he’s ‒

“But at the same time, honestly, I think I expected you to break first,” Quentin continues, his voice cracking. “I thought I’d come back from my dad’s and you’d be ‒ you’d be waiting for me and you’d be so sorry, and ‒ you’d ask me to come back to you. And so I was also busy trying to decide how much I was going to make you work for it, you know, even though I think we both know if you told me right now you’d changed your mind, I’d ‒ ”

“Quentin,” Eliot says, just to shut him up. Eliot needs him to stop talking right the fuck now. Oh god.

“You wouldn’t have to work for it, El,” Quentin continues, flaying Eliot alive with earnest desperation in every word. “I’d forgive you anything. Do you remember when you said that to me?”

Jesus Christ. This has to stop. Eliot is holding on by a thread. He’ll die, he reminds himself, his heart strangling in his throat. He’ll die if you fuck this up.

“Quentin, I really am sorry.”

Don’t. Don’t do that, I’m ‒ ” Quentin interrupts with a click of his teeth, a quick intake of angry breath. His voice is deteriorating, wavering and pained the longer he talks. “I’m just ‒ you fucking blindsided me and it hurts like a motherfucker, Eliot. And I thought we trusted each other. I thought I ‒ I thought I’d found…”

Fuck. Fuck he needs to get away from this. He needs to run.

Instead, Eliot bites the inside of his cheek hard enough to taste blood, and he stays put. He should say something. He should be dismissive, or condescendingly sympathetic again, or something, anything to keep up the charade. It’s just that he can’t really think past hurts like a motherfucker. That’s the point. The point is to hurt him. Eliot knows that. Eliot hates that. If Fogg were to appear in front of him right now, he might actually put his hands around his throat and squeeze.

There’s nothing Eliot can say, and so he says nothing, and he hates himself so much for it. Another long pause, and then Quentin speaks, one final time.

“So this is really happening, then.” His voice is so soft, rough like he’s still holding back the worst of his feelings, like he’s feigning composure for Eliot’s sake.

Quentin should never, ever feel like he needs to hide his feelings from Eliot. Everything about this is more fucked up than he knows how to process. It feels fake, like a shitty script someone’s writing, specifically to screw him over.

“Yeah, Q, it’s happening,” Eliot says, reciting his lines dutifully. “It’s already happened. I am sorry, you know.”

“I still think you might regret this someday,” Quentin says, tiny-voiced and yet still so achingly brave. “I have to believe that I wasn’t making it all up, that we really were happy. I just really wish you’d tell me why.”

“I wish I could explain it.” And holy christ, sometimes the truth works as well as any lie, doesn’t it? “I really wish I could tell you why, Quentin.”

There’s silence between them for another long moment. In a strange way, it’s almost companionable, like they’ve come to stand silently together in front of a gravestone: here lies a love story. Like they’re both mourners at this funeral, lost in their own world of grief, but inextricably tied together all the same.

“Okay,” Quentin finally says, and there’s a deadness to his tone that Eliot despises. “Okay, I guess that’s all the answer I’m going to get.”

He turns around and walks away, letting his cigarette fall from his fingers as his other hand twists up, sending the burning remnants into the void. It’s another spell Eliot taught him months ago, when everything between them was heady anticipation and giddy joy. Eliot doesn’t watch Quentin walk away. He’s not allowed to do that. Instead he smokes his own cigarette, staring out at the darkness of the Sea, and closes his eyes.

He’d known Quentin, then. Back in September, back when he thought Q was just a cute first-year, back when he’d thought it was just a weirdly intense crush. He’d known, somewhere deeper than thought or even feeling, that he’d met the love of his life. That’s why it had been so easy. That’s why it had been so good. And that’s why it hurts so much now, almost as much as the tragedy Eliot has sacrificed their happiness to prevent.

~~~~~

Valentine’s Day comes and goes. Eliot buys a box of chocolates and splits it with Margo.

Chapter Text

Life goes on.

And honestly, Eliot kind of wishes it wouldn’t. He wishes he could freeze everything in amber. His pain, Quentin’s pain, the knowledge of what’s to come. He wishes he could keep it all the way it is, until he knows how the story ends, knows for sure they’ll succeed this time around.

Instead he’s forced to watch as Quentin keeps trudging along without him. He gets up and he goes to his classes and he talks to his friends and he’s not, as far as Eliot can tell, a fucking fall-down shattered shell of a human being, and Eliot is grateful for it. 98% grateful. The other 2% is shamefully mournful as he searches for signs that Quentin is even half as miserable as Eliot is. Even though wishing for that makes Eliot feel like the biggest monster in the universe. Being in pain like this is so isolating. He wishes he and Quentin could share in it, somehow. Q is the only person he wants to talk to about how he’s feeling.

And there are other consequences of the break-up too, ones Eliot had known about in an abstract sort of way, but is now getting to experience real-time. Namely, the shattering of that friend group he’d been so very proud of earlier in the year. Eliot had known he’d lose Julia over all of this, but he hadn’t known what to expect from the rest of their friends. Margo sticks close to Eliot but refuses to take sides, storming over to chat with Quentin like nothing’s happened, asserting her position as his friend like she has every right to it. Alice is much the same, although she is spending increasingly more time with Quentin as the weeks go by, offering him comfort and sympathy. Still, she’s friendly to Eliot too, gifting him with quizzical stares but never pushing him on what happened.

So a lot of the time, it’s Margo, Eliot, and Alice hanging out together while Penny, Kady, and Julia close ranks around Quentin. But everyone stays friends with Q. People are picking sides, and for what it’s worth, they’ve all picked Quentin’s. Eliot is grateful for that, too. He hopes Quentin understands now that he has a lot to offer; that at the end of the day he’s a good friend and a good man, and he deserves that support. He’s always been insecure about those things.

Eliot is so painfully lonely, all the damn time. He should be thinking about the Beast, about the coming conflict. He should be studying the damn spell Fogg slipped to him earlier in the year, now that he’s more or less certain it has something to do with the approaching fight. But it takes all of his energy, every ounce of his effort, just to pretend he’s not completely, abjectly devastated.

He goes to classes too. He struts around the Cottage like it’s his kingdom. He makes drinks, he cooks, he and Margo attend and orchestrate the parties that fill the space night after night. He coifs his hair and dresses to perfection, ever precise about his style.

He flirts with boys, sometimes.

But not much. And not when Quentin is around. He figures the Eliot Waugh who would be heartless enough to walk away from Quentin Coldwater would still have enough consideration not to rub it in his face. And that’s a good thing, because Eliot has never felt less like having sex with random men in his life.

He feels like having sex with Quentin, though. Heartbreak has not killed his libido, and he can’t decide if he’s happy about that or not.

The nights, alone in his bed, are the worst and the best. They’re the worst because there’s nothing to distract him from the ache of missing Quentin. They’re the best because he doesn’t have to pretend for anyone. He can let the pain and fear and loneliness wash over him in waves. He can think of all the things he’d wanted to say to Quentin over the course of the day, just normal small things like your hair looks good or I made lunch, do you need a break? He plays the imaginary conversations over in his mind and fantasizes about nothing more than brushing a familiar hand along Q’s jawline while his boyfriend tells him what he learned in class. There’s no end to the things he misses.

Also, just to add a new and exciting spice to his current reality, he’s starting to think his sex dreams might be memories, not fantasies.

It’s probably obvious. He probably should have put it together right away, the second Fogg had said time loops. Before he and Quentin had gotten together, Eliot had dreamed about him a lot. More than could reasonably be explained by a simple crush. He hadn’t given it a lot of thought at the time ‒ his focus was somewhat singular, after all. He’d been chasing the real thing. And after he’d had Quentin in his bed every night, the dreams had more or less gone away, replaced with the sharp and immediate pleasures of reality. He’d had a few more while Q was in Antarctica, just general impressions of sensation, hard to remember by the next morning.

But now? God. Now, he dreams of Quentin constantly. He dreams of them walking through a forest, hand in hand, smiling and giggly and stopping every few seconds to press each other up against trees, kissing and touching like they have all the time in the world.

He dreams of them together in a bedroom, an unfamiliar, opulent chamber covered in fine gauzy drapes. The bed is almost comically large, and they use up hardly any space in it, clinging tight to each other and touching, touching, touching, every press of hands and lips tinged with an odd sense of desperation, like this is a goodbye.

He dreams of them together in the Cottage, in his very same bed, but he dreams things he knows never happened. Not this time around. He dreams of Quentin fucking him. They never did that, and now Eliot regrets it. It’s just… Quentin is so deliciously needy, and Eliot had always been so eager to give him everything. They would have done it eventually, though, despite any hangups Eliot might have had about the thought. And they did do it, in other worlds, in other times, and Eliot knows that now. Eliot can feel it, in the hazy in-between of waking and sleeping, the press of Quentin inside of his body, the way he’d yielded to that perfect closeness. The way he’d cried, and felt safe, so safe, with Quentin to take care of him.

He always wakes up, and he always wishes he hadn’t. It’s torture, grasping at the edges of other realities. He wishes, in those first moments after waking, that he could remember more, could remember every second of togetherness he had with Quentin, in any world. And then he remembers the full truth of the situation, how each of those happy memories were twisted and distorted into pain and violence and grief by the end, and is grateful for his ignorance.

“You’re staring again,” Margo cautions him on a Saturday a few weeks after the breakup. She does that a lot, catching him in moments of weakness and bringing him back to focus. Sure enough, Eliot had been staring aimlessly across the room to where Quentin and Kady are working on homework together. He doesn’t think Quentin saw him, but he can’t be sure.

And that shit is dangerous. That shit is unacceptable. Quentin seems to have given up on trying to coax answers out of Eliot, but that doesn’t mean he’ll ignore the signs if he starts to suspect Eliot has regrets.

“Sorry. I’m listening,” Eliot says, turning back to Margo on the couch.

“That is a complete and utter lie,” she says with an eye-roll, but she doesn’t seem too perturbed. “I was just saying that I saw Fogg hanging out in one of the academic buildings today.”

“Oh?” Eliot says. “What was he doing? Was he talking to anyone?”

He and Margo have taken to some light stalking in their abundant free time. Since the dean has been frustratingly unforthcoming with concrete data, and since he’s the only one who knows anything about the Beast to begin with, they’ve decided trailing him is their best bet. It has yielded very little, but Eliot appreciates anything that feels like action.

“He was in one of the classrooms, but nobody else was in there. He went in, but I couldn’t follow him and see what he was doing without getting caught,” Margo says, a regretful pout turning down her lips. “I should have brought Alice with me, she’s dope at light bending.”

“It’s not like Fogg doesn’t know we’re desperate,” Eliot says, reaching a hand up to pet it idly through Margo’s hair. He’s gotten in the habit of touching Margo’s hair a lot more than he used to; some futile and unconscious effort at replacement therapy, probably. “But if he’s got all his stupid ducks in a row, maybe the best thing to do is wait for the ball to start rolling.”

“You’re mixing your metaphors,” Margo says, frowning at him. “And you have no excuse, because once again you’re tragically completely sober.”

“It’s the lesser of two possible tragedies, trust me,” Eliot says. He’s a little afraid of what he might do if he pours himself a drink, honestly. Not ‒ not that he can’t control himself, that he doesn’t know how to stop. Eliot is a man with many foibles, but that’s not actually one of them. It’s more that if he gives himself permission to become even the tiniest bit uninhibited, he’s afraid he’s going to wind up knocking on Quentin’s door at three in the morning.

And then Quentin will die.

So yes, he’s tragically sober for the foreseeable future. Sorry, Bambi.

“Well, okay, it’s your choice,” Margo says, with great magnanimity. “My point is, sitting around on our asses waiting for something to happen cannot possibly be our best strategy.”

“It’s the only strategy we’ve got,” Eliot says, dull. “Fogg’s done this at minimum dozens of times, Margo. He’s not going to tell us anything until he thinks it’s time for us to know.”

Margo doesn’t respond to that for a long moment, and when she does speak again, Eliot is surprised to hear the slightest tremor in her voice. “I hate this, El.”

Yeah, no shit, Margo. Eliot doesn’t say that, just squeezes an arm around her shoulder and loops a bit of hair around his fingers. Bambi’s hair is soft. She uses four different products to make it that way. Q’s hair is softer. He uses two-in-one.

“I hate lying to Alice,” Margo continues. “And Julia, frankly. All of them. Don’t you feel like…”

“Like they’d be better at this than us?” Eliot continues. Because yes, along with the obvious, devastating reason he despises the lie he is now forced to live, there’s also the practical considerations at hand.

Like the fact that Julia Wicker and Quentin Coldwater are a couple of little nerds who literally played make-believe when they were growing up, wishing for a quest, a mission, magic to come into their lives and make them prove their worth. And Alice Quinn, with her attention to detail and frankly astonishing reserve of magical energy, who seems like she’d be able to look at this whole Beast conundrum, tilt her head in concentration, and then come up with a winning plan on the spot. Hell, even Kady’s got mad battle magic skills that surpass any training Eliot has had with physical magic.

Eliot has always put Margo up on a pedestal, as is befitting a goddess of her power and beauty. But if he could have picked anyone to be in charge of the current situation, it wouldn’t have been her. And it certainly wouldn’t have been him.

“It goes against my personal credo to admit it,” Margo says, “but I’m in so far over my head, here.”

That much has been obvious from minute one, but Eliot wishes Margo hadn’t said it. He needs his security blanket, and as selfish as he knows it is, he likes the idea that he’s allowed to be a failure because Margo never could be. If that’s not true…

“We’ll get to tell them someday,” Eliot says. “We’ll beg their forgiveness and…”

Margo shifts against him, one of her hands coming up to tilt his head down towards her. “El, sweetie, you don’t need to beg for forgiveness. Quentin’s going to come home to you the second he knows the truth. You just have to hold on long enough for us to get there.”

That’s another thing Eliot wishes Margo wouldn’t say. The ember of hope deep in his gut is a dangerous thing. He’s got to put it out of his mind; he can’t be thinking of Quentin like a prize waiting for him at the other end of his suffering. It doesn't matter why he broke Quentin’s heart. He did it. That’s the truth, no matter the extenuating circumstances. Quentin is a forgiving person, probably to a fault, but that’s no guarantee. And keeping him safe is more important than anything else.

“Let’s just… keep focused,” Eliot says, squeezing his eyes shut so his gaze doesn’t wander automatically back over to where Quentin is still sitting. “Control the things we can control.”

“Which as far as I can tell is absolutely nothing,” Margo says, teeth clenched.

“Except the spell,” Eliot reminds her. The one Fogg had slipped to him, the one he’d shared with Margo as soon as he’d calmed down enough to start thinking about the bigger picture. They’ve researched it and copied it out and tried to analyze the tangled web of its many overlapping pieces, and they’ve made frustratingly little progress.

“I wanna murder that fucking spell,” Margo grouses back, but she stands and pulls on Eliot’s arm, urging him to his feet. “But if that’s our best play, we should get back to work.”

And now Eliot wishes he hadn’t said anything. He’d rather stay here, in the same room with Quentin, even if he has to pretend he doesn’t care that he’s there. Instead, he’s just subjected himself to hours of headache-inducing work. Margo is an annoyingly studious person, when she has reason to give a shit.

~~~~~

On a Tuesday morning, Eliot and Quentin run into each other in the kitchen. Eliot offers Quentin a cup of coffee, wordlessly. Quentin accepts it, wordlessly. Then they stare at each other for a while.

Eliot hopes to god his expression is neutral, even as he can’t help but analyze every minute detail of Quentin’s own features. He looks really sad, the corners of his mouth downturned, faint circles under his eyes. He usually looks like that now. Eliot tries not to notice, tries not to spend too much time looking at him, but he’s only a man. He can only avoid it for so long.

There’s really nothing for them to talk about, is the thing. He can’t do small talk with Quentin. He just can’t do that. Not now, not like this. God, in some ways this moment reminds him of the morning after what Eliot had planned on being their first night together. The night he’d decided to go for it and Quentin had stopped him in his tracks. On that morning, Quentin had bravely and stubbornly insisted that everything was normal, teasing Eliot right back into a friendship that had meant so much more to Eliot than any disappointed daydreams could ruin.

If only they could just do that again. It’s comical, to think of a time when Eliot had had permission to be around Quentin, to clap a friendly hand on his shoulder and have actual conversations with him, to spend the day together in the library studying, and to remember that at the time, he’d been miserable. Miserable, wishing for more. God, what a selfish bastard he’d been. What a selfish bastard he’s always been.

Quentin sips at his coffee and rocks back and forth on his feet, and Eliot knows he wants to turn around and flee but won’t. He’s being brave, he’s trying to show Eliot that he’s not a pathetic mess. Walking away would be like admitting defeat, so he doesn’t. His perfect, brave, darling Q.

And Eliot... can’t decide if backing timidly out of the kitchen is a good idea. What message does that send? He’s been trying to transmographize any hint of sadness or despair into guilt for the sake of Quentin’s interpretation. If Quentin notices a downward turn of his lips, or a skittish dart to his eyes, he’s hoping it will come across that Eliot feels like shit for hurting Quentin, instead of the truth, which is that he feels like shit because he’s madly in love with Quentin and can’t do anything to ease their collective pain.

And he is. He’s so, so, stupidly in love. God, he’d barely even gotten started, on loving Q. They’d been right at the beginning of things, and now…

What Eliot wants is to fall to his knees and bury his face in Quentin’s stomach and release the disbelieving agony of the past few weeks, wants to cling to him and tell him he is loved, more than anyone else could possibly ever have been loved before, in the history of every universe. Nobody has ever been so good and true and lovely, and Eliot is not worthy but he wants to try, and if Quentin would just let him, he’ll devote himself, he’ll make it his life’s work, he’ll try so hard

Instead he turns his back to Quentin and pretends to be fussing around with dirty dishes. He could clean them all with a wave of a hand, and Quentin knows that, obviously.

Eliot had said he wanted to be friends. During the breakup. He’d said that. It’s yet to be determined, if Quentin will take him up on the sincere offer. It’s yet to be determined if Eliot was an absolute idiot for keeping the door open even that much.

Should Eliot say something? What would he say in this situation, all things being normal, more or less? Maybe he should pretend he doesn’t even know Q is still standing there, sipping at coffee that’s probably still too hot to drink. How does one behave around one’s ex-boyfriend with whom you still share a kitchen? How does one stop oneself from crying, in the middle of the morning on a sunny spring day, when one is pretending that one’s life is not a complete trainwreck and that one actually enjoys getting out of bed in the morning and coming downstairs where one might run in to said aforementioned ex-boyfriend and be forced to pretend that one does not feel as if one’s insides are being skewered by a bunch of tiny, serrated, poison-dipped blades?

Even his inner monologue is starting to take on a distinctly Quentin-ish ramble.

It’s Kady who saves Eliot from melting into the floor in discomfort and mortification and desperate, desperate longing.

“Coldwater, you coming?” she barks from the entry to the kitchen.

Eliot turns around in time to see Quentin startle like a skittish deer and then nod his head, even though Kady is behind him and not looking. He takes an extra-large gulp of his coffee, and then takes a step towards the sink, startling again when he realizes Eliot is still standing in front of it, that he’ll have to get close to him in order to pour the remains of his coffee down the drain. His eyes dart, uncertain, as his body twitches, clearly undecided about how to proceed.

God, the whole thing would almost be funny, if it were happening to someone else. Eliot offers a polite smile and holds a hand out for the cup, and Quentin hands it over, nodding his head in silent thanks. Then he turns and follows Kady out the door so they can walk to class together.

The whole thing had taken approximately ninety seconds, and neither of them had spoken a word. Eliot obsesses over it for hours.

~~~~~

Eliot is half asleep on a Wednesday afternoon, stretched out in the sunlight on top of a blanket in the grass, right up against the side of the Cottage’s back wall. Margo is sitting up next to him, pouring over some notes for one of her classes. He wishes he could relax, but the fact that Margo is actually doing homework has him on edge, vaguely guilty when he thinks of his own pile of untouched assignments.

Also, relaxing is a thing he doesn’t really know how to do anymore. He knows how to be panicked, how to be devastated, and sometimes how to be bored, with an undercurrent of the other emotions also in play. He knows how to be frustrated, how to be furious, how to be miserable down to his very bones. That’s about the extent of it.

He’s just trying to muster up the energy to talk, to tell Margo to stop being a terrible bore and take a nap with him, when a loud, unwelcome intrusion interrupts his lackluster attempt at tranquility.

“Oh my god!!”

The voice belongs to Todd, breathy with excitement or astonishment or something else that Eliot doesn’t really care to analyze. Todd is background noise, as always, and so he doesn’t even turn his head to look at him when he hears footsteps, somehow loud and clunky even across the grass, turning the corner.

But then, Todd speaks again, and he quite instantly becomes the center of Eliot’s focus.

“Oh my god, did you guys hear? A first year class just got attacked, Van der Weghe’s dead!”

“What?” Margo says, her posture straightening instantly, as she snaps her eyes around to focus on Todd. Eliot sits up, giving himself vertigo from the abrupt change in position.

He still has Q’s schedule memorized, of course. Tuesday afternoons with ‒

Oh god.

“He was in the middle of teaching, I just heard my friend Delilah say, and I came to tell you in case you didn’t know!” Todd says.

God, that’s actually thoughtful. Later, when Eliot’s brain isn’t made entirely out of white noise, maybe he’ll remember to thank him.

“Attacked by what?” he manages to ask, and the words sound like they’re coming from somewhere else. Someone else. He barely exists in his own body anymore; the parts of himself he can still feel are awash in wave after wave of all-encompassing, blood-chilling panic. “What happened?”

“I don’t know,” Todd says, his face scrunched up, regretful. “I just heard there had been some sort of invasion or something. I ran straight here ‒ ”

“Was anyone else hurt?” Margo asks, and something about it shocks Eliot into movement again. He lurches to his feet, clamping a hand onto Margo’s shoulder as he finds his balance.

Was anyone hurt? What if someone ‒ what if ‒

“I don’t know,” Todd repeats, sounding worried. “I don’t think so, but I’m not sure.”

Eliot isn’t really conscious of deciding to move; the next thing he really knows is that he’s sprinting full-tilt across the Sea towards the building across the way, his heart in his throat, his hands gone ice-cold, Margo and Todd’s voices both ringing out behind him as they try to keep up.

QuentinQuentinQuentin. His throat is closing in on itself, he’s not sure if he’s breathing, he just ‒ god, Quentin was in that classroom, and he ‒ and what if this is it, what if this is the Beast, is this how it starts?

And what if Todd’s information is bad, what if Van der Weghe isn’t the only one dead, what if Fogg fucked up this time around too, what if it’s over and then it all starts again and Eliot won’t remember any of this ‒

No. No, he can’t do it again, he can’t survive it again ‒

But if Q’s dead he doesn’t want to know it, doesn’t want to remember… would it be better, to start over? To sacrifice the happiness of some future version of himself, just so he wouldn’t have to live with the pain now? Not again not again please not again

“Eliot, fucking slow down,” Margo screeches from behind him. “I’m in heels!”

He can’t focus on that. He can’t worry about Margo right now. And he certainly can’t slow down. His body is processing a shit-ton of grief he doesn’t actually remember experiencing, echoes of pain reverberating through the wave-lengths of time. It’s probably all in his head, but that doesn’t make it any less terrifying.

Before long, he can see tiny dots of movement outside of the building, people darting around on the stairs and the lawn in front of them. It’s impossible to identify anyone at this distance, so Eliot keeps running, his lungs burning, a background part of his brain vowing to give up smoking immediately so he’s not ever in the position of running out of breath when Quentin might need him ‒

Not that there’s anything ‒ not that he could do anything for him, if it is the Beast. They’re not ready. They know nothing. This isn’t supposed to happen yet, he’s sure of it…

And just as he’s about ready to fall to his knees and hope the ground swallows him whole, just as he’s about to spiral fully into the world’s most inconvenient, dramatic panic attack…

The world rights itself. Suddenly, miraculously, everything’s okay again. He can breathe, he can keep living, it’s all okay, because he sees Quentin.

The relief almost literally bowls him over, his feet catching under him as he stumbles over nothing, momentum propelling him forward.

Q is standing next to Alice, the two of them talking with their heads bent together, as Eliot approaches, slowing from a sprint to a stumbling jog for the last few yards.

Q,” he calls out as soon as he’s within hearing range, and Quentin’s head snaps around to find him. “Quentin, shit, fuck, are you okay?”

He reaches a hand out for him, automatic, the need for touch so all-encompassing that he almost misses the way Quentin’s eyes go wide, the way his posture shifts to convey discomfort. Eliot’s hand is already in the air, reaching to cup around the back of Quentin’s neck and pull him into an embrace, when the rest of reality catches up with him.

Something in his body takes over for him, the master programming that tells him do whatever you have to do to keep Quentin alive, overriding his otherwise powerful instincts. What he wants to do is pull Quentin into a deep, desperate kiss, and keep kissing him until the last of the panic recedes, until his heart starts hammering in his chest for an entirely different reason. What he wants is to pull Quentin forward and tuck his head beneath Eliot’s own chin, turn and shield him from everyone and anything else so he can hold him safe in a cocoon of his own making.

What he wants doesn’t actually matter.

He has a part to play.

So instead of lifting one hand towards Quentin, he raises two, one for Q and one for Alice. Instead of pressing the pads of his fingers into the skin under Quentin’s curtain of hair, he presses both hands, chaste, onto their shoulders, one for each of them. “Alice, Q, I ‒ are you okay?”

“We’re fine,” Alice says, but her voice is brittle with shock. “We ‒ I ‒ it wanted Quentin.”

Eliot’s hands convulse against their shoulders. Even having come somewhat to his senses, he’s still having to fight against the urge to crush Quentin forward into his arms. It’s like holding magnets apart. “What was it? What did it ‒ how do you know?”

“It said my name,” Quentin says, and the sound of his voice is magic, all on its own, even in its current shaky, hollow state. “It ‒ knew me. And I think maybe I ‒ it ‒ it ‒”

“It was a man,” Alice says. “But he had no face, or… his face was hidden… it tried to ‒ and then Fogg showed up, and ‒ ”

The mention of Fogg is about the only thing Alice could have said that would actually make Eliot take his eyes off of Quentin’s face right now. He lifts his head, keeping his hands on each of them as he looks for the dean. He finds him right away, rubbing away a tension headache and conversing in quick, urgent tones to Sunderland and a couple of students, including Julia. A part of Eliot wants to go over there, pull Fogg aside, and demand explanations. Demand confirmation that this is what was supposed to happen, that nothing’s gotten screwed up. And then he wants to shake him, and scream at him, and curse him for it, because if he knew the Beast was going to show up and attack Quentin, and he just let it happen

“Fogg stopped it?” Eliot asks instead, turning away from Fogg and looking at Quentin again instead. He has no control over what his face is doing right now. Quentin’s just going to have to interpret his desperate worry as a general panic over the scenario, instead of what it actually is. There’s only so much he can do.

Alice nods, her eyes big and round under her glasses. “Yes, he ‒ well, him and Kady, and then…”

“Alice!” Margo’s voice calls out as she runs up to them, panting. She slaps Eliot hard on the arm, once, in admonishment for leaving her behind, then pulls Quentin and Alice both awkwardly into her arms. Eliot lets his own hands fall away, shunted back away from the embrace. Maybe he should have hugged them too. Hugging is a thing friends are hypothetically allowed to do, right?

He’s just trying to decide if he should say anything, or do anything, when another voice interrupts the miasma of his thoughts.

“Quentin, Alice!”

Eliot turns to see Penny rushing up, his eyes huge as they scan over both of their faces. “Shit, are you okay? Kady just found me ‒ ”

“Yeah,” Quentin croaks, turning out of Margo’s arms and towards Penny like he’s grateful for the interruption. “We’re all fine.”

“Shit, the day I decide to skip…” Penny says, gripping Quentin and Alice each by a hand and pulling them forward.

It’s weird, Eliot thinks, his brain still filled with hazy static, the remnants of panic, to see Penny hugging people. Sometimes he hugs Kady, Eliot supposes… although he can’t quite remember ever having seen it. Penny is the prickly sort.

Eliot loves touching people. And he’s not allowed to touch Q; he’d sacrificed that right, in order to keep him safe. He should be glad Quentin’s receiving affection from someone, honestly, even if it feels like nobody could do as good a job with it as he could. Eliot has the practice. Eliot knows what Quentin needs.

The world is an unjust place, and Eliot would know. Even as Eliot keeps watching the friendly affection in front of him, Margo slips an arm around Eliot’s waist. She squeezes once, like she knows what he’d been thinking about.

Eliot is paralyzed by indecision. He can’t stand to look away from Quentin but he also doesn’t want to watch him relax with Penny’s arm around him. Not after seeing how he’d tensed up under Eliot’s brief touch. With difficulty, he tears his eyes away and scans the area, until his eyes catch on Fogg again. Sunderland isn’t there anymore; now he’s talking with Julia alone.

Abruptly, a prickle of shame runs down his spine, because…

He’d forgotten to care about any of them.

Quentin, Alice, Penny, and Julia are all here and accounted for. And Penny had said Kady had gone to find him, so that means she’s also okay. He should have cared about that earlier, back when his brain was all static and Quentin and paralyzing terror and Quentin and please, god, no, anyone but Quentin. He’s supposed to give a shit about all of them. His friends. His people.

His people. What a fucking joke. If Julia saw him standing here so close to Quentin she’d probably do battle magic right in front of the dean, rules be damned.

For a while, Eliot stands there feeling utterly alone, while the clamor of voices and chaos flows around him. Everyone is hugging everyone, the people inside the classroom running into the arms of friends who have shown up to see them. Margo releases Eliot to put her arms around Alice again. Kady shows up from somewhere, and then she and Penny and Quentin are forming a chain with their arms around each other in that order, Kady and Q talking over each other as they fill in the details for Penny.

Eliot’s hands are burning from that brief moment, the seconds his fingers had grazed the skin of Quentin’s neck before settling on the fabric of his shirt. He’s pathetic. He’s so relieved he thinks he might pass out.

Eliot doesn’t remember the Beast, not really. How could he? But this has to be him. This has to be it. It’s starting. The strange echo of emotion still filling him up tells him that this has happened before. Maybe not just like this, though, maybe worse. Maybe sometimes, in past loops, things go sideways, and everything ends. Right here, right now. Eliot can imagine it, the impression of terror a bitter aftertaste in the back of his throat.

And there’s someone who can tell him the truth. Someone has those answers.

He takes a final look over at Quentin, watching as his hands fly around his face while he describes the attack, and then he turns and marches straight for Fogg.

~~~~~

Julia had predictably glared daggers at Eliot when he’d approached. Luckily Eliot’s just as stubborn as she is, and it hadn’t actually taken long for Eliot to convince Fogg to fill him in on the details.

They make their way into an empty classroom ‒ not Van der Weghe’s, of course ‒ as soon as Fogg can make a graceful exit without drawing too much attention to himself.

“You know, it’s a risk, you approaching me in public and demanding answers like you have a special right to them,” is the first thing Fogg says, flicking a non-existent speck of dust off of his shirt-sleeve. He’s cool as a cucumber, like some sort of faceless, otherworldly being appearing on his campus doesn’t phase him in the slightest.

Well, Eliot supposes, when it’s not your first rodeo…

“So this is it,” he says, twitching with the effort of staying still, of keeping himself composed. “The Beast. A man with no face. You didn’t ‒ you didn’t tell me.”

“You’ll meet him someday,” Fogg says. “Best if you don’t seem too knowledgeable about the specifics.”

Eliot stares at him for a moment, nonplussed, and then something akin to a laugh bubbles out of his throat, inappropriate and without permission. “No, I mean ‒ you didn’t tell me the Beast was going to turn up and attack him.”

Fogg raises an eyebrow and doesn’t bother asking who Eliot means. He just tilts his head like he’s considering something, and then speaks, measured and slow. “I did, the first couple of times we enacted this particular strategy. I told you how it would begin. And you followed Quentin around like a pathetic little puppy dog, refusing to let him out of your sight. Not exactly conducive to making him believe you don’t care for him.”

A flush of anger suffuses Eliot’s face, his veins going hot with indignation. “You put him in harm’s way. You said ‒ ”

I knew when the Beast was going to turn up, because I let him. Please believe that had you known Quentin was going to be in even the tiniest, most hypothetical amount of danger, you would have screwed everything up. I’m speaking from experience.”

“You let him?” Eliot says, ears ringing.

God, a part of him wants to argue with Fogg’s assertion, that if he had more information, he’d fuck everything up. But fuck, he’s not wrong, is he? If he’d known that something that wanted to kill Quentin was going to turn up and try to do just that, would he have been able to act like everything was normal?

The answer to that is obvious, inherent in the way he’d run full-tilt for Quentin the second he knew about the attack, without a moment’s thought. His brain is hardwired to be near him, to keep him safe at all costs. And that, in and of itself, messes with Fogg’s sociopathic, unfeeling plan. In other words, the only plan that any of them have.

Eliot can’t think about that right now. There are plenty of other things to think about, though.

“You let him?” he repeats. “The Beast, you mean? You let him attack ‒ you let him kill a member of your own staff? On purpose?” He doesn’t actually give a shit about Van der Weghe, truth be told, but still. He needs to test Fogg, to see what level of humanity he has retained.

“He doesn’t always die,” Fogg says, dismissive. “That’s not an important detail. Frankly, I’ve given him several extra months, keeping the Beast at bay as long as I have.”

At the moment Eliot is too angry to be really afraid, but he can feel the beginning of trepidation zing up his spine, in a way he doesn’t want to look at too closely. He’d known Fogg was taking something of an academic, distant approach to the whole situation, but this level of callousness, the implication that he might have done something to prevent the loss of a human life and he’d chosen not to…

“But,” Eliot sputters, annoyed at himself for being so slow on the uptake. He’s going through some sort of adrenaline hangover. “But hold on, why would you let the Beast come here? Doesn’t that imply that you have the power to keep him away?”

Fogg gives him an odd look, one that Eliot has become unfortunately familiar with from their last mind-bending, life-altering conversation. It’s a look that says he’s running calculations, remembering things that have already happened, deciding how much to say and when to say it. Finally, he sighs, and quirks one corner of his lips down. “I knew where the Beast was, and where he was trying to go. Because of that, I was able to enact certain measures to keep him at bay. But his power is much greater than my own, and I could hardly continue to do so indefinitely.”

“But you had him contained somewhere, and then just let him out?” Eliot asks, partially to clarify, and partially to accuse. Fogg is annoyingly good at not saying anything he doesn’t want to say.

“I wasn’t strong enough, and he wasn’t contained,” Fogg says, nearly snapping. Eliot can’t tell if he’s genuinely annoyed or continuing to follow a script in his head. How many times have they had this conversation? “He was somewhere else, he was hurting other people, and he always planned on coming here.”

“But couldn’t you have done something…” Eliot says, frustrated in the face of what he sees as an obvious failure, “else? Something better? Let him come through where he couldn’t hurt anyone?”

“Trust me, it could have gone a lot worse. At least I still have both of my eyes,” Fogg says, with an odd sardonic twist to his words. Like Eliot is supposed to understand the reference.

What a dick.

“So this is really our best option. A man is dead, your students are terrorized, and our only solution is… what? What exactly is the plan, then?”

“You have the plan. The spell I gave you earlier this year,” Fogg says. “I hope you’ve been studying it. You usually start obsessing over it before this stage.”

The rebellious twinge inside of Eliot wants to tell Fogg where he can stick his stupid, impossible, complicated spell, but he takes a deep breath, reminding himself once again that they are allies in this. Allies in keeping Quentin and everyone else breathing, at the end of the day.

“That spell is a nightmare,” Eliot says. “It combines multiple different types of magic, the circumstances might take weeks ‒ months ‒ to achieve, and I still don’t even know what it’s supposed to do.”

Fogg nods, absentminded, and Eliot has to remind himself yet again that nothing he could possibly tell Fog would be news to him. He hates being at such an obvious, all-encompassing disadvantage every time they talk. “You’re not wrong,” Fogg says finally, examining his fingernails idly. “There are simpler ways of defeating the Beast, certainly, and I’ve tried many of them with your help. But they come with other unintended consequences, of course. Our first success was with the Leo Blade, but getting Fillory involved is never a good idea, it’s always best to isolate things ‒ ”

“Fillory? Like ‒ from the books, Fillory? What ‒ ”

“Forget I said that,” Fogg says, waving a lazy hand. “It’s not important at the moment.”

“No,” Eliot says, digging his heels in. “Jesus, no, are you trying to say Fillory is real?”

Fogg closes his eyes tight for a moment, then opens them. “Yes. Yes, I’m saying Fillory is real. I’m also saying that everything is on schedule. Everything is going according to plan. And if I tell you much more, that might no longer be the case. Do you understand?”

A small prickle of fear hits Eliot in the chest, a different flavor from the residual panic still coursing through him. “Wait ‒ I’m not supposed to know this yet? Does ‒ does that fuck up ‒ ”

Fogg gives him a smile that Eliot thinks he means to be reassuring. “You don’t need to worry, Eliot, I have everything firmly in hand.”

Eliot hates himself for it, but he does feel a bit reassured. It’s the permission to stop trying that does it for him, he thinks. He’s already been asked to do the hardest thing he’s ever had to do, and Fogg is telling him that he’s played his part, that he doesn’t have to worry about the rest of it.

“But please remember, Mr. Waugh, I don’t know any more about the Beast than you do,” Fogg says, with a quiet raise of his eyebrow, in a somewhat confusing contradiction to Eliot’s own thoughts.

“Excuse me?”

“For the purposes of the parts we must play, I know nothing about this.” Fogg pauses, then lifts the eyebrow higher, amending. “Well. That’s not entirely true. Let’s say I’ve been vaguely aware of a threat, but had no possible way of knowing when and how it would arrive.”

Fogg stares at him, as if hoping he’s said enough to put Eliot at ease, but Eliot still feels several steps behind. “Because…” he starts, trying to puzzle out the truth, “because the Beast will pick up on it, if it seems like you know too much?”

And now Fogg gives him a pleased nod, and Eliot’s spine straightens in some sort of instinctive response to the praise. He’s a little disgusted with himself, but positive reinforcement has been in short order these days, since he’d lost the one person who always made sure to tell him he was worthy of ‒

Which is Fogg’s fault, of course.

Eliot’s life is one tangled mess of allegiances and emotions and heartbreak and fear, and he feels seconds away from bursting into tears at any given moment. He clears his throat, and continues on. “So the Beast thinks he broke through on his own terms, even though you decided the timing,” Eliot says, determined to understand. “And we’re going with whatever your complicated spell idea is, because it’s the best way to minimize casualties in the long run.”

“Correct,” Fogg says.

“And I suppose now is the part where you explain the spell to me? Or tell me why you slipped it to me months ago instead of handing it to me along with an instruction manual?”

For the first time since Fogg ripped apart Eliot’s happiness and security, he looks a little bit unsure of himself. Frankly, it’s terrifying. Fogg is the closest thing to safety Eliot has left in this world right now. He needs him to be a dickish, condescending, master manipulator. He needs him to be a sure thing.

“I ‒ can’t explain the spell to you, because I don’t understand it,” Fogg says, and he clearly hates admitting that almost as much as Eliot hates hearing it.

There is a moment of complete silence, and Eliot listens to the whoosh of his own heartbeat in his ears, fighting for calm. “You ‒ said ‒ you’d done this before,” Eliot says. “You said you’ve had this strategy for seventeen fucking loops, how the hell do you not know how the spell works?”

“I know what the spell does, roughly speaking,” Fogg says, like this is supposed to be good enough. “It strengthens a caster and allows a powerful surge of magic, to combat the Beast’s own inhuman abilities. It’s… inelegant, but effective.”

“Is that what we did last time?” Eliot asks, folding his arms across his chest. “It killed Quentin.”

“Because the emotional circumstances were improperly calibrated,” Fogg says. “As we’ve been over. Exhaustively.”

“But you don’t know how the spell works,” Eliot repeats, flat. “You just know it gives a caster extra juice, and ‒ ”

“Study the spell, Eliot,” Fogg says, sounding bored again. “Study it with your friends. You’ll see what I mean. It requires the blending of different magical signatures, the knowledge of different magicians, different disciplines, affinities. I don’t understand it because no one person can understand it on their own.” He pauses, lifting up one corner of his mouth like he’s smiling at a private joke. “The only way to defeat the Beast is with the power of friendship, I’m afraid.”

Eliot stares at him, thinks about punching him in the nose, and then turns around and heads for the door. “Thanks a fucking lot for your goddamn help,” he hisses, and marches out of the room without a backwards glance.

~~~~~

With so much new information swirling around in his brain, Eliot finds himself once again hiding himself up in his room to process. It’s a little less intense, a little less overwhelming, this time around. Or maybe Eliot’s just gotten used to having his world turned upside down at this point. But for fuck’s sake, Fillory is real. What does that even mean? Is there an actual sci-fi bullshit multiverse and some people just know about it and say nothing? And has Eliot been there, to Fillory? To the magical land in his boyfriend’s favorite books? Under less objectively shitty circumstances, the idea might be exciting. But he’s not even allowed to tell Q about it. Setting everything else aside, he’s not sure Quentin’s ever going to forgive him for this particular part of the deception.

And then there’s the spell that Fogg slipped him months ago. Apparently it’s the key to everything. Eliot probably should have asked about his own handwriting on the original page, but there’s a part of him that doesn’t want to know the full story there. Evidently, Quentin is the one who usually casts the spell against the Beast, whatever it is, but if Eliot has any say in it, someone else will be taking on that burden this time around. He’ll do it his damn self, if there’s a risk of it killing the caster.

Obviously, he doesn’t share that particular resolution with Margo. He doesn’t want to deal with her outrage right now. Still, he’s more grateful for her than he knows how to express. He can’t stop thinking about what condition he’d be in right now, if he didn’t have her there to reign him in.

The fact that Quentin was just approached by an absurdly powerful monster hell-bent on destroying him personally, and Eliot is not allowed to touch him, not allowed to hold him and offer him comfort and kiss him on the forehead and smooth a hand through his hair, the fact that he has to hide up in his room to cry a little because if Quentin knew how badly shaken he was over the whole thing, that might lead to Quentin comforting him which might lead to Eliot breaking down and confessing his stupid, inconvenient, undying love which might lead to Quentin being dead

Anyway. Thank god for Margo.

Over the next couple of days, the two of them work together to make a set of clean copies of the cooperative spell, painstakingly re-organizing the marginal notes and making sure every word and diagram is legible. Eliot keeps the original back. He doesn’t know how it works exactly, but he’s fairly certain the piece of paper itself is from another timeline. He doesn’t know how that’s possible. He hadn’t been aware that physical objects could carry over. But Fogg had given him this, and Fogg had confirmed its importance.

After careful thought, Eliot decides that their best strategy is for Margo to share the spell with the others, claiming that Fogg found it and wanted to pass it along to Quentin. The spell is, as they’ve discovered through painstaking, mind-numbing research, incredibly cooperative. Meaning that Fogg, master magician though he might be, really can’t spoon-feed them the answers. “Not that he would if he could,” Eliot had grumbled, uncharitable, when going over the plan with Margo. He doesn’t really want to admit that Fogg is being as helpful as he can be.

The spell needs Quentin. That much is clear. Quentin is what the Beast wants, Quentin is who the Beast will go after. The reason for that, as far as anyone else is aware, is a big old question-mark. Even Eliot doesn’t quite understand it, beyond the fact that the Beast remembers something of the loops too. To what extent, he can’t be sure. It’s another thing about which he’s forced to trust Fogg.

Same story, different day.

In any case, Julia doesn’t hate Margo the way she hates Eliot, so she had been more or less receptive of Margo’s offer of help. She’d snatched up the copy of the spell and raced off with it to consult Alice, who already had her own copy, of course.

The two first-year Hermione-Grangers (Margo’s nick-name for them), have been pouring over the spell with evidently more success than Eliot and Margo had managed, and while Margo’s competitive spirit seems to be taking this somewhat personally, Eliot is just relieved he has uber-competent friends. Well, friend. Alice can still be called that. Julia, on the other hand, is just going to have to deal with the fact that Eliot’s involved in this thing. He can’t sit on the sidelines when it’s Quentin’s life in the balance.

And speaking of, it’s time to try and mend some fences there. Build a rickety bridge between them, so Quentin will understand that Eliot cares enough about him to want to keep him safe, if nothing else. Pathetic, in the face of what they’d once been, but better than absolutely nothing.

So when Eliot sees Quentin heading for the stairs in the Cottage one afternoon, he crosses the room to waylay him. “Hey,” he says, reaching a hand forward and putting it on Quentin’s shoulder. It’s meant to be a casual touch, just to get his attention. A normal thing that normal Eliot would totally, normally do.

It’s obviously a mistake. Quentin flinches away like Eliot’s hand has burned him, and the moment turns charged and tense between them. Then Quentin blinks, swallows, and responds. “Hi.”

“Um. How are you?” Eliot asks, like a dumbass.

Quentin raises an eyebrow, clearly unimpressed. But despite the coldly placid expression on his face, his posture has folded in on itself, the way it usually does when Eliot is around nowadays. Like he’s preparing himself for another devastating blow.

God, it hurts.

“I’m okay,” Quentin says, slowly and almost a question. “Is this like ‒ ‘a weird moth-faced man tried to kill you the other day’ sort of inquiry, or a more general one?”

Eliot bites the inside of his cheek, holding back on a smile or a sob. He’s not sure which. “Both, I guess. Q, I…”

“Well. I’m fine,” he repeats, staring at a spot over Eliot’s shoulder. Quentin can’t even bear to look at him. If Eliot had known where they’d end up, known the pain he’d one day be forced to cause… would he have let it come to this? Would he have been capable of resisting?

“I have to go,” Quentin says, his voice quiet, after a few awkward seconds of silence. He starts to turn away, and Eliot finally finds his voice.

“Wait,” he says, and he makes another grab towards Quentin, catching himself just in time and pulling his hand back to his side. “Wait, Q, I want to help.”

Quentin’s hunched posture straightens, and he turns around slowly, blank faced. “You want to…”

“Help. Yes,” Eliot says. “That thing was after you and it’s going to come back and I can’t just sit here, okay?”

And then Quentin does that thing where he studies Eliot’s face, his eyes darting all around like he’s searching for the truth of him underneath. It’s always been vaguely terrifying, from day one, but now it’s scary for a whole different reason. It doesn’t matter if Eliot wants to be seen by Quentin. He can’t let it happen because, hilariously, the fate of the world apparently depends on Eliot being emotionally unavailable. Ha fucking ha.

“Right,” Quentin says. “Of course you do.”

Eliot can’t quite interpret Quentin’s tone. It’s not skepticism, exactly, more like untrusting resignation. It makes Eliot feel very, very small. Unworthy. But this really is all he’s allowed to offer Quentin at the moment, and he’s going to offer it.

“No, really,” he says, trying to impart sincerity without letting all of his complicated, messy emotions spew out of him in a deadly outburst. “I ‒ I found a spell. Fogg gave it to me to pass along to you. I guess because the ‒ that thing knew you, Fogg figures he might try to come for you again. this might be a way to protect you.”

Eliot is proud of the way he manages to say all of that without a single crackle or tremor in his voice. The very concept of the Beast coming back for Q is terrifying, whenever he lingers on it for more than a second.

“I know,” Quentin says. “Jules and Alice have been working on it. I still don’t get why Fogg won’t just help, though. I mean, it’s his school that got attacked.”

“Because he’s a dick,” Eliot says, probably with too much venom. Quentin blinks at him, and Eliot clears his throat, trying to modulate his voice into something more nonchalant as he continues. “I mean ‒ he’s being Fogg, you know. Esoteric. I’m guessing he doesn’t really know what the spell does, and doesn’t want to admit it.”

“So he’s passing it off to a bunch of novices,” Quentin says with an eyeroll, and it’s almost like solidarity, like they can stand here and talk shit about the dean and be on the same side again.

(Maybe that’s a stretch, but Eliot is learning to live on crumbs).

“Well,” Eliot says, uncertain what to say next. “Well, have you looked at the spell? It’s ‒ uh. Weirdly cooperative. Like. More cooperative than cooperative spells typically are.”

Elegant. Smooth. Eliot’s not even really sure what he’d been trying to get at. Quentin smiles at him, a little quizzical, but it’s a genuine smile and so Eliot’s stomach promptly falls out the bottom of his shoes.

“Yeah, I get it. Fogg wouldn’t be able to tell us much anyway, it requires a bunch of casters to even make sense of it.” Then Quentin pauses and scoffs. “Besides, I’m just one student, he probably thinks that’s an acceptable loss, if it comes down to it.”

Quentin’s voice has taken on a resigned, uncaring cadence, like he too doesn’t really mind the idea of dying. Like it doesn’t really scare him all that much.

“It’s not just you,” Eliot says, the words tripping out of him before he can think them through. “You’ve got multiple human shields who would stand in front of you if it came down to it.”

He probably shouldn’t have said that, but he can’t stand hearing Quentin talk that way. There’s just really no great way to make the declaration of I’d die for you sound casual.

Quentin gives him another weird look, but he doesn’t call Eliot out on anything, so Eliot figures he hasn’t gone too far, fucked things up irredeemably. He’ll die. He’ll die if you care too much, if you show him you care too much.

“We’re having a meeting,” Quentin says, still oddly hesitant, like he expects Eliot to pull back now, say never mind, sounds like too much work, have fun fighting off the murderer alone. “If ‒ if you wanted to come.”

“Yes,” Eliot says, taking the olive branch with barely suppressed glee. “Yes, of course. Margo and I will be there.”

Quentin nods and starts to turn, to head up the stairs and away from what for him must be a painful, confusing conversation. “Hey, wait,” Eliot says, before he can think better of it. Quentin turns back and looks at him, dead on. “We’ll figure this out, Q.” He swallows back on the tremble in his voice. “I swear, we’ll figure it out.”

Quentin frowns, and he looks so small, so run-down, like he’s already worked himself to the point of exhaustion.

That’s Eliot’s fault. That’s Eliot’s mission. His stomach squirms within him, his body rejecting the necessity of it. He tries to keep his face placid, a reassuring, friendly, you’re-a-good-friend smile on his face. Finally, Quentin nods, and looks down at his shoes. “Yeah, okay. Thanks.”

And then he’s gone, and Eliot does not ‒ must not ‒ follow.

~~~~~

Their first meeting happens on Saturday afternoon. They’re calling it a “study group,” which is patently ridiculous, but Alice had explained the logic to him and Margo when it first came up. “The messaging we all received from the school was that this was some freak occurrence, never going to happen again. Obviously that’s a dangerously naive supposition to make, if not downright criminally neglectful, and we all want to protect Q. But if the school finds out we’re looking in to this, they might try to stop us.”

“Fogg’s on board,” Margo had pointed out. “He’s our lead on the spell in the first place.”

“Well, yes, but the dean is beholden to the board, and…” Alice had shaken her head, a contemplative frown flitting across her face. “I just know this is something we have to do. Does that make sense?”

And yes, of course it makes sense. Margo and Eliot can’t help Alice understand the full extent of her conviction, but they can fall in line, and go along with the plan, with the odd knowledge that if they’re doing anything they’re not supposed to, Fogg will find a way to course-correct.

So… study group it is.

Eliot finds himself wandering to the meeting by himself, taking the chance to meander in the magically regulated sunshine as he heads, voluntarily, to the library. It gives him a pang to remember the last time he’d been there, that night with Quentin in their own little paradise. And that page, with its tiny squares of color, whatever it is, that Eliot is now certain connects to something from a past loop.

Eliot has left Quentin to deal with that on his own, to try and reconcile the strength of their connection on that night, to the reality of their breakup just a couple of weeks later. There’s nothing Eliot can do about it, but that doesn’t mean he regrets it any less.

Add it to the endless list, and shake it off. All he can do now is move forward.

He walks in to the library study room to see that he’s not the first person there. Alice and Kady are standing intimately close, their foreheads nearly touching as they talk in low tones to one another.

It’s actually startling enough that some of Eliot’s general misery fades away, to be replaced with a burning ember of curiosity. The girls don’t exactly jump apart when he comes in, but Alice’s face does do something rather complicated, twisting up and around through embarrassment and anxiety before settling on a brittle sort of determination.

“Hi, Eliot.”

“Um, hi?” he says, like a question, raising an eyebrow. “Am I interrupting something?”

“No!” Alice says, just as Kady hisses, “yes.” They look at each other and then back to Eliot.

“Right,” Eliot says, vaguely wondering if he should be angry on Margo’s behalf. Is he supposed to tell her he saw Alice maybe-kissing someone else? That’s a thing he should probably keep her updated about, right? And it’s not just Margo, either. Fuck, what about ‒

“Penny and I aren’t exclusive,” Kady says, and the words come out harsh and guilty. The second she’s spoken, she snaps her jaw shut and crosses her arm, a furious look crossing over her face. “Not that ‒ it’s any of your business, I mean.”

Eliot tries to stop himself from smiling. This might be the first time he’s been legitimately amused in ‒ well, four weeks, and three days, if you want to get specific about it. “Okie dokie,” is all he says, and he takes a seat around the large square table, swinging his legs up so his feet are resting on the edge. “Just go back to whatever it is you were talking about, pretend I’m not here.”

Alice purses her lips and takes a couple of intentional, careful steps away from Kady, taking her own place opposite him. “Margo knows that ‒ ” she starts, and Kady scoffs loud enough that Alice actually jumps in her chair a little bit. “Um. Not that it matters.”

“Not my business,” Eliot says with a solemn nod. “Don’t worry, I heard your girlfriend.”

“She’s not ‒ ” Alice squeaks, and Eliot catches Kady’s mouth twitch into a scowl fighting with a smile.

And hey, that’s a solid thirty seconds where Eliot was actually swept up in thinking about other people’s romantic entanglements, instead of his own. It’s a breath of fresh air, all things’ considered. He’ll fill Margo in later, if she really doesn’t know about this. He’s sure it’s fine, though. He can’t really imagine timid little Alice doing anything against Margo’s wishes.

He’s a lot less certain about Kady and Penny. Their particular clusterfuck really doesn’t seem like it could support any additional participants at the moment. But seriously ‒ it really isn’t his business.

Margo is the next to enter. She places a casual kiss atop Alice’s head as she comes around the table to take her place by Eliot’s side, and Eliot tries to ignore the uncharitable squirm of jealousy that the casual intimacy has caused. Margo can kiss her girlfriend if she wants. And Alice and Kady can have weird secret staring contests that may or may not be endorsed by their respective significant others. Nobody should feel like they need to tiptoe around Eliot’s poor little feelings, just because he’s single now, and for the first time in his life he can’t pretend he wants to be.

(He must pretend he wants to be.)

Penny comes in, and goes to sit in between Alice and Kady, and Eliot wonders if he only thinks it’s weird because of what he’d seen earlier, or if they’re actually putting out a weird vibe. He must remember to consult with Margo later, once he’s ascertained if she and Alice are actually okay. It’s important to care about things. It’s important to remember that his personal tragedy isn’t actually the only thing on everyone else’s minds.

And finally ‒ Q and Julia. They are glued at the hip nowadays, for obvious reasons. Quentin’s eyes catch on Eliot’s and then dart away, uncomfortable, and Julia walks right past him without even a glance, which Eliot thinks might actually be a step backwards from the customary glaring.

When the seven of them are all settled around the table, there’s a beat of awkward silence, as everyone waits for someone else to start. Margo straightens up slightly in her chair, a look in her face that Eliot recognizes, and Eliot puts a hand on her knee, squeezing in warning. It’s natural for Margo to want to take charge, but Eliot knows it’s not a good idea. This is Julia and Quentin’s show; they’re the ones who organized it, they’re the ones taking on the quest, as is in their natures. Eliot is a mistrusted guest, and Margo is suspect by association.

It’s the way it is. Margo hates the taste of humble pie, but Eliot is just actually, genuinely, grateful he’s allowed to be here at all.

In the end, it’s Alice who starts things off.

“So. Um,” she says, in that brittle way of hers that indicates nerves or suppressed emotion. “We’re all here because we ‒ because we’re concerned.”

“And because we’re being failed by our betters,” Julia puts in. She’s taken Fogg’s apparent apathy pretty hard. Eliot wonders if the truth would help or hurt.

“Right, yes,” Alice says. “Brakebills would rather brush the incident under the rug, but we have reason to believe we haven’t seen the last of the… the…”

“Beast,” Margo says, firm. Julia glares at her, Quentin narrows his eyes in puzzlement. Margo looks around at all of them, an innocent expression on her face. “What? We need to call it something. It’s a man with moths instead of a face, I’m not going to call him Jason.”

“But does he have a face?” Kady asks. “I wasn’t close enough to see if the moths were ‒ um. Instead of, or just obscuring.”

“He has a face,” Quentin says, low voiced. Eliot looks at him, because if Quentin’s talking that means he has an excuse. He looks as run-down as he always does these days, but there’s a quiet strength to him too, a set to his jaw that tells Eliot he is determined not to take this shit lying down. Eliot adores him, is in awe of him. What else is new. “He ‒ when he got close, when he said my name, I saw his eyes.” Quentin closes his own eyes, like he’s trying to suppress the memory, and Julia rubs a comforting hand over his shoulder. Eliot tracks the movement, covetous.

“Well, man or beast, whatever it is,” Alice says, getting things back on track, “we think we have a lead on a way to fight it.” She picks up a stack of papers on the desk and starts passing them around. God, it’s kind of adorable. It really is like a study group.

One stapled document is the cooperative spell with accompanying notes from Eliot, Margo, Alice, and Julia. The other is a series of spells Eliot doesn’t recognize, but Julia quickly explains to the group that she’s gotten her hands on the security specs for Brakebills campus. She’s already found several potential weaknesses, and has a plan to set up a monitoring alert that will ping if the Beast’s unique magical signature appears on campus again.

It’s impressive work. It makes Eliot feel like a useless lump, just a little bit.

From there, it’s brainstorming time. Penny has an idea about incepting the Beast if it shows up again, Kady volunteers to teach some clandestine Battle Magic lessons. Julia and Alice take them through a comprehensive overview of the spell as they currently understand it, asking questions of the others to fill in the gaps.

And it’s actually kind of… nice.

It feels so good to be making progress, to be a part of a team. There are things Eliot can’t say, things he must hold back, but even having this much of the truth out in the open is soothing to his spirits.

Eliot can feel it settling over him, something in the air shifting as he relaxes into conversation, as everyone starts sharing theories and bouncing ideas off of one another. He can do this. He can be helpful, he can store up the knowledge he receives from Fogg and he can walk the fine line, preparing for battle without giving the game up entirely. He can sit in a room with Quentin and he can have a reason to talk to him, to be near him and see with his own two eyes that he’s safe. He can guard Quentin’s life with his own, let his misery be the bulwark preventing all harm.

This, right here, is going to be Eliot’s new normal. And god, honestly? It’s better than he had any right to expect.

Chapter Text

Eliot is in a place where nothing ever hurts, where everything is golden even in the darkness of night. In his own bed, in his own room, in his own Cottage at Brakebills. A home he can belong to, a home he claims for his own, where nobody who knows him from Before will ever be able to access the carefully constructed yet utterly real Now.

And even better than being safe in his own bed, is the fact that he’s not here alone. Quentin is a small warm weight in the dark, an anchor against all that might trouble him. Here, the bullshit of the outside world is easily dismissed, shadows to haunt another night. Not now, not here.

“El,” Quentin says, honey-sweet. Even his name sounds like a secret here, like something Quentin has discovered for himself, something spoken between lovers. It’s a gift, the truth of who Eliot is, somehow encapsulated in a single syllable. But only when Quentin’s the one saying it.

“Q,” Eliot says back, and he reaches for him. They fit together so easily, their mouths connecting in a slow, meandering sort of way, like neither of them had made a conscious decision to kiss but their bodies had known what they needed.

Eliot likes to keep the lights on during sex most of the time, because then he can see the way Quentin’s skin flushes, the blown-out look in his eyes. But this is good too, everything soft skin and warm lips and sensation as they sink into a languorous embrace, Quentin’s face an indistinct blur in the faint starlight through the curtains. They kiss for a long time, hands wandering, sheets rustling. Eliot is hard, of course he is, but he’s too distracted by dusting kisses along the bridge of Quentin’s nose to do anything about it at first.

“El, I need you,” Quentin says finally, and Eliot gasps, moving his lips to suckle against Q’s throat. He is overwhelmed, always, by the gift of Quentin’s trust.

Time doesn’t exist here, so Eliot can take as long as he wants to work Quentin open, placing feather light kisses against his slack mouth, his cheekbones, his nose, his forehead, until Quentin is making hitched sounds with every breath, his body squirming and pressing and seeking more.

And when Eliot finally slips inside of him, when he’s finally surrounded and safe and home in a way he can’t be anywhere but here, he can’t stop himself from saying “God, Q, I love you.”

Quentin moans, the small, simple phrase electrifying him like it always does. Such a basic thing, such an easy thing to give him. “I love you too,” he says, and Eliot licks the pleasure of those words right out of his mouth, moving in him slow and sure.

They’ve done this countless times, but Eliot will never stop being awed by it. He’s always astonished at how good it feels, how right it feels, to wrap his arms around Quentin and hold them flush everywhere, feel his body touching Quentin’s in every possible way. He keeps it slow until Quentin seems on the verge of hyperventilation, his eyes rolling back in his head, his body convulsing as he gasps out pleas for more on every other breath. His legs are wrapped around Eliot, his heels digging in to his ass to urge him on.

And when Eliot caves to the demand and starts to move faster, rougher, it’s so good that he shouts out, almost too loud, almost enough to shatter the illusion of solitude they’ve created for themselves. Silencing wards or no, there are other people sleeping under this same roof. It is so stupidly easy to forget that when they’re here together like this.

“Eliot, god, Eliot so good so I’m

“Love you,” Eliot chokes out, snapping his hips faster. “God, I love you. Love you so much, Q, you’re perfect, you’re a miracle, you’re

“Me too, me too,” Quentin groans, “El, please, I lo ” his breath chokes him off mid-word. He clamps down around Eliot and he thrashes his head back, the sound punching out of his chest something between a laugh and a sob and a gasp of astonishment. Eliot feels him come, the splash of warm wet between their bodies.

Q,” Eliot gasps, frantic, “Oh, fuck, Quentin, god yes

He hadn’t known. He’d never known what it was to be in love, to be in sync in such a way that they can almost always that without even trying, they can come together, because the sight of Quentin crying out his pleasure beneath him is always enough to set Eliot off as well. It’s so good. It’s the best there is. Nothing has ever been better.

“Quentin, fuck, Quentin, I love you ” he feels his balls clench up tight, his hips rutting frantically forward, the imperative need to come inside his body, to feel him all around, forever

Eliot wakes up gasping and shaking with his legs twisted up in the sheets, so hard it’s legitimately painful. “No,” he says out loud, in a stunned, aching sort of way, as he throws a hand out to feel the cool empty space beside him.

It’s wrong. Everything is so wrong.

He lies there in the pitch dark, trying to pretend he’s not crying, and waits for his body to calm down. He wants to reach a hand down into his pants and touch himself. It wouldn’t take long, just a couple of strokes, made slick by the amount of precum already staining the front of his sweats. His thighs are quivering, his dick pulsing hot and needy. But he doesn’t move his hands, he doesn’t roll over and rut himself forward into the bed like a teenager. He wants to, but somehow he just… can’t.

He can’t because… and it feels insane even thinking it to himself… it feels like a violation of their privacy. Of Eliot and Quentin’s privacy ‒ some version of them, some loop where Eliot is allowed to hold Q and tell him the truth of his heart. That’s not this Eliot. It probably never will be.

So Eliot lets the tears leak out of him, thinking about those people, whoever and wherever they are. He has no way of knowing what happened to them. Did they survive it? Did they defeat the Beast and both make it out alive? Fogg had made it sound unlikely, but Eliot hopes they did. He hopes there’s a loop out there somewhere where even if the rest of the world burned to ash, Quentin and Eliot survive together, and build something beautiful from the rubble.

He can’t fall asleep. He just lies there, trying very hard not to remember the dream, but it sticks with him in vivid detail, a punishing reminder of what he could have had. What he’d been so close to having. Their foreheads knocking together, noses nuzzling close, mouths gasping and sliding together in uncoordinated passion. Fingers entwined and squeezing tight even as Eliot surges forward into Quentin’s willing body, in worship, in love.

It had been so simple, in the dream, in the memory, to say it out loud to Quentin. God, why did he have to be such a coward, this time around? Why hadn’t he already said it? At least then, Quentin would have that, the words, as trite as they might be.

Would it have made a difference? Would Fogg have still made him end it?

Eliot doesn’t want to think about it, what he might have had to do to convince Quentin it was over, with those three tiny syllables between them. It had already been… even without that, Quentin hadn’t quite believed him. To this day, Eliot catches a look in his eye sometimes, contemplation mixed with sorrow mixed with frustration. There is a piece of Quentin still holding on to hope, waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Some days, that hope scares Eliot, and other days it’s the only thing keeping him going.

When the light outside his curtain windows starts to grow brighter, he gives up on finding sleep again, standing to get dressed and start another long day in the parody that his life has become. It might be easier to bear if he knew when the final confrontation was coming, if he could count down the days until the end of his torment. For obvious reasons, Fogg has kept his mouth shut on the specifics.

Eliot is the first one awake in the Cottage, it seems, and he vaguely considers making a big breakfast for everyone to share. And then he remembers that these days, Eliot wouldn’t really be welcome in any group gathering of the Cottage’s residents. Sure, Margo and Alice will eat with him, and Todd would probably be thrilled at the very suggestion of it. But it wouldn’t be the same without Q, without Kady, and Penny too, since he’s probably staying over.

Julia usually comes to collect Q first thing in the morning anyway, and Eliot really doesn’t want to be slaving over a stove when she stops by. The silent treatment is oddly effective, when Julia Wicker is the one giving it to you. She says so much without saying anything at all, and seeing her always makes Eliot think of that moment before Thanksgiving, when they’d come to an unspoken moment of solidarity, vowing each in their own way to protect Quentin however they could. That’s what Eliot is doing, of course. But it’s what Julia is doing too.

So instead of making something elaborate, Eliot fries a couple of eggs and sits down with a plate and a cup of coffee, eating without tasting while he thinks over the day’s objectives. He’s got at least one class he’s in danger of failing if he doesn’t show up, and then after that he’ll spend the rest of the day working on the dreaded spell.

The spell, the terrifying, huge, power-granting spell that’s supposed to be the key to defeating the Beast. Margo keeps trying to come up with a cool moniker for it, since it has no apparent official name. Lately she’s been trying the “Beast-Slayer Invocation,” which sounds incredibly stupid to Eliot, and which Kady and Penny have outright refused to say. Margo says she’s still workshopping.

In any case, the Beast-Slayer Invocation is really a series of smaller spells stacked together, interconnected in layers. Some of them are simple enchantments, things any one of the seven of them could do with ease. Others are doable but time-consuming, the circumstances relying on precise times of day and phases of the moon. And still others are mind-boggling and challenging and involve countless nights holed up in the library for Alice, Julia, Quentin, and sometimes some of the others, as they piece together what they can from the most esoteric of old texts.

It’s boring work, and often frustrating, but Eliot is glad to have it. The illusion of progress is a balm to soothe tortured spirits.

He thinks the work might be helpful for Quentin as well, which is something Eliot can appreciate. It hurts to look at Q, most of the time, the way the frown-lines beside his mouth seem to be growing more pronounced, the skittish uncertainty in his eyes whenever they run in to one another. Eliot still can’t really stand the idea of small-talk with Quentin, distant politeness a laughably poor substitute for what they once were to one another. But he also can’t resist finding ways to talk to him, in whatever ways he’s allowed.

But that day, for whatever reason, he and Quentin don’t cross paths at all. He doesn’t see him on his way to class (a walk they used to always take together). He doesn’t catch him back at the Cottage for lunch, and when he and Alice head to the library to gather a couple of needed reference books for the part of the spell they’ve been working on, he’s disappointed to find Quentin won’t be joining them there, either.

Eliot waits twenty whole minutes into his work with Alice before he caves to the insatiable longing and asks her ‒ “Why the hell haven’t I seen Q all day?”

Alice looks up from her clandestine bag of carrot sticks (her idea of a study snack), and gives Eliot a discerning look. Half the time they’re together these days, Eliot can practically read her thoughts. He knows she’s curious by nature, and she’d rooted for Eliot and Quentin’s success from the beginning. But she never asks any questions, just continues to maintain ties of friendship with them both, walking a tightrope that nobody else has really managed. “He’s visiting his father,” is the simple answer.

Oh.

“Ah,” Eliot says, nodding his head like the piece of information is of no real importance to him. He feels out of sorts, not having known that Quentin was leaving campus. He’s used to knowing where he is at all times. Not in a creepy way, exactly, it’s just that… especially now, given everything going on… “Um. Is that safe?”

Alice’s eyebrow lifts. “I suppose there’s no way of knowing for sure, but Julia went with him just in case.”

Fogg wouldn’t have let Quentin leave if the Beast was going to turn up and kill him just like that. Eliot knows that. Eliot has to believe that or he’ll actually have a nervous breakdown.

And yet he still walks around with an invisible hand constricting his airway for the rest of the day, until he catches a glimpse of Quentin and Julia’s return to the Cottage and can let the tension inside of him relax, just a fraction.

He’s copying down some battle magic notations with Kady at the time, another task in their infinitely long list of preparations, and manages not to say anything as the two of them march straight past and head for the stairs. Neither of them pauses to say hello. Not that Eliot expects that, exactly, but Kady’s sitting right next to him, so that seems a little rude, doesn’t it? Maybe they’re just dropping off Quentin’s things. Maybe they’ll come back down and join them at the dining room table, offer to help with the list of defensive poppers they’re working on. That would be nice. Eliot likes it when Quentin’s around while they’re working on Beast-killing preparations. It gives them a safe topic of conversation, and gives Eliot an excuse to just ‒ exist around him. Sometimes, when they’re deep into problem-solving mode, Eliot can almost pretend things are back to normal between them.

“You’re an idiot,” Kady says, unexpected and matter-of-fact. Eliot turns to look at her, realizing belatedly that he’s been staring in the direction that Quentin and Julia had just gone.

“Excuse me?”

Kady briefly tilts her head towards the stairs. “Whatever you did, just grovel and he’ll take you back.” She doesn’t even look up from her notes as she speaks, which is a good thing, because it takes Eliot a moment to get his reaction under control, and even then, he’s not as successful as he wants to be at keeping his own tone even and casual.

“If I’m not allowed to pry into your fucked up Penny problems, you’re not allowed to say shit about Q to me.”

Kady seems unperturbed. She glances up at him, then back down at the notes on the table between them, shuffling them around to find what she’s looking for. “I’m just saying, Coldwater’s a mess, you’re moping. You two were a nauseating couple, but at least you both seemed to be happy.”

“And that’s something you give a shit about?” Eliot asks, snappish and ungenerous. Coldwater’s a mess. Yeah, he knows that, but it always fucking sucks to hear.

Kady shrugs, pushing one piece of paper towards Eliot for his review. “I don’t know. I sort of thought we were all friends, or whatever. Not generally my bag, but I was giving it a shot, you know?”

Eliot doesn’t know Kady all that well, but he detects what he thinks might be the tiniest bit of hurt, underneath the bluster and the intentionally monotone declaration of friendship.

Because when Eliot had broken up with Quentin, he sort of broke up the gang, didn’t he? It’s not like they were all that strong a band of intrepid besties. They’re not the Scooby gang, the original or the Buffy varietal. If it weren’t for Quentin, Eliot probably wouldn’t have ever spent time with Kady or Penny or especially Julia, even though he likes them all well enough. And then there’s Margo, an automatic Team Eliot person if there ever was one. Sure, she and Quentin are still friendly enough, but when’s the last time Margo had a conversation with Penny or Kady? Probably before the breakup.

Eliot had drawn a line in the sand. It isn’t what he wanted ‒ hell, it isn’t even one of the consequences he’d pondered when he’d first executed his horrific mission. But it’s there, and it’s true, and now something that had only just begun to strengthen and grow is… dead and gone.

“Sorry,” Eliot mutters. It’s the best he can do, and he’s not sure Kady will tolerate anything sappy and sincere, anyway. “I’m frustrated and I’m exhausted all the time. And I want to say that Quentin and I ‒ that our shit has absolutely nothing to do with you so back the fuck off, you know?”

Kady quirks a lip, nodding in perfect understanding. “But you also know that’s bullshit. Your shit affects my shit and vice versa, whether we want it to or not.”

“Caring for other people is such a goddamn drag,” Eliot says, and Kady produces a carton of cigarettes from nowhere, tilting it in his direction.

They stand up in unison, abandoning their notes for the time being to go outside and smoke together, side-by-side and in silence.

Despite himself, Eliot has a nice time.

~~~~~

The following morning, Eliot runs into Quentin in the upstairs hallway. At first he thinks maybe Q is waiting for the bathroom, but he looks fully dressed and put together for the day, and he’s basically just standing at the top of the stairs, his arms hanging listlessly at his sides, staring at the wall.

“Good morning,” Eliot says, a cautious overture. They’ve gotten to the good morning stage, Eliot is pretty sure.

Quentin flinches like a startled deer and turns to face him, backing up against the wall like he’s expecting an attack.

Shit.

Eliot’s not sure if it’s just Quentin’s general skittishness, or a specific reaction to Eliot’s presence. Either way, it makes his bruised heart flutter painfully, a futile command from his soul to fix the problem, whatever it is. Walk forward slowly, give Quentin time to hold up a hand to fend him off, and then when he doesn’t, fold him into his arms, banish the spectre of whatever’s troubling him.

He doesn’t do that of course, just stands and stares and waits for Quentin to pull himself together enough for basic reciprocation. Quentin will say “good morning” back, and Eliot will give him a polite little half-smile and he’ll go downstairs and he won’t touch him at all but his palms will tingle with how badly he wishes he could. It’s the new normal and it sucks but it’s bearable because it has to be.

But Quentin doesn’t say good morning. Instead, he blinks up at Eliot with wide doe-eyes and slumps back against the wall of the hallway, tucked into the sharp corner at the top of the stairs.

“My dad has cancer?”

It comes out so much like a question that for a moment Eliot’s brain starts trying to find an answer for it.

And then the actual reality of those words sinks in, and his heart drops down to his stomach, horror blooming through him in waves. Fuck.

“Oh, Q,” Eliot says, taking an involuntary step forward. “Fuck. Fuck, I’m so sorry.”

Quentin nods at him, absently. “Yeah. Um. Brain cancer. Like. Not good, you know? He’s gonna die.”

Someone who doesn’t know Quentin as well as Eliot does might think the words to be callous, said out loud and so straight-forward like that. But Eliot knows his bluntness for what it is. He’s been pushed beyond his usual method of emotional expression, into a headspace he had once described to Eliot as an endless void. A place I go where I can be alone, where nothing can hurt me but… nothing can help either.

Fucking fuck.

“Quentin, I wish… I’m so fucking sorry.” It’s stupid and it’s not enough and Eliot is at a loss. Even if they were still together, he’d be at a loss. But at least then he’d be allowed to touch him. He’d be allowed to tell him he’s not alone, could never be alone with Eliot there to care for him. Here, in this reality, with so much at stake, all he can do is stand there and try to infuse his expression with all the sympathy and regret he feels.

Quentin’s eyes are mournful, a little lost, like he’s waiting for someone to tell him what he’s supposed to do. Eliot understands that feeling. It’s how he feels most days, wandering around looking for the answers, the steps he has to take to make it through the end of his torment. There’s no instruction manual for time loops or brain cancer.

“And he said,” Quentin continues, still dazed. “He said, El, he was going to tell me last time we saw each other.”

It takes Eliot a moment to realize the implications of that, and then it takes him another moment to suppress a visible wince. The last time Quentin had seen his father had been the day he’d planned on introducing him to Eliot. The look in Quentin’s eyes continues to be bewildered, but there’s a hint of accusation in it now, and Eliot braces himself for the further pulverization of his heart, surprised to find that it hasn’t already been ground entirely to dust.

“He was going to tell me, but he didn’t want to give me more bad news when I was such a mess,” Quentin says, staring at Eliot dead-on, his voice hoarse. “That’s fucked up. Isn’t that ‒ fucked up?”

“Quentin. I don’t even know ‒ what to say.”

This is true. He knows what he wants to say, and he knows what he can’t say. He doesn’t know… he’s not sure what possible words he’ll be able to find for this. It’s too much. It’s so ‒ it’s so sad, and…

“El,” Quentin says, and fuck, his eyes are filling with tears now, and Eliot can’t fucking take that. He simply cannot. “El, everything’s broken, everything was so good and now it’s all…” and then he steps forward and tilts his forehead forward until it’s resting against Eliot’s chest, his arms coming up around him in an embrace.

Eliot’s arms curl around Quentin’s shoulders before he makes the decision to move them. “Hey,” he says, swallowing back on a sob of his own. He steps closer, bringing their bodies in line with each other. “Hey, god, Q, I’m ‒ it’s gonna be okay, we’re going to make it okay.”

Quentin sniffs a few times, burrowing his nose into Eliot’s sternum, and Eliot closes his eyes tight, fighting the ache in his fingertips and keeping his hands still and soft against Quentin’s back. Eliot can’t duck down and burrow his face into Quentin’s neck, can’t card his fingers through his hair, can’t pet a hand gently down his spine and leave it pressed into the small of his back. But even so, it feels deliriously good to touch him again.

What kind of monster is he, that that’s what he’s thinking about right now? How the fuck can he make something like this about himself? The only thing in the world he should be thinking about is Q, and how to help him. How to take care of him. But god, he smells good, and his hair is soft, tickling against Eliot’s chin. It would be the easiest thing in the world to tilt his head down and press a soft kiss against his brow. Friends do that, right?

Fuck. Right now, Eliot hates himself almost as much as he loves the person he’s holding in his arms.

Quentin’s breath fans hot against Eliot’s neck as he lifts his head up, shifting slightly but staying close.

“Can we ‒ can we just ‒ go somewhere? Alone?” he asks, looking past Eliot down the hallway to his room. “Just ‒ I just need to talk to someone, I need ‒ and…”

He trails off, looking back at Eliot with his big, mournful eyes and quivering lip. Eliot takes a brief moment to indulge in what his instincts want him to do. Keep an arm around Quentin, tuck him more firmly into his side, usher him away to the sanctuary of his bedroom. Curl up together, get Quentin comfortable, hold him, pet a hand through his hair. Keep doing it until he feels relaxed enough to start crying in earnest. Hold him hold him hold him. Get word to Margo and Julia to bring supplies. Borrow Kady’s laptop if Q feels like being distracted. Ply him with water or tea or soup or wine if he needs it. Hold him.

And then Eliot closes his eyes, conjures the always-ready image of dead Quentin into the forefront of his mind, and banishes the instinct. He clears his throat, still keeping his hands carefully motionless against Quentin’s back. “I don’t know if that’s a good idea, Q.”

Quentin goes stiff in his arms but doesn’t move away, just opens his mouth in a little ‘o’ of protest or surprise or both. Eliot bites the inside of his cheek and keeps talking. He has to push through this, he has to finish it now. “I just think it would… you’re really upset right now, and I don’t want things to get… confused.”

Eliot had once prided himself on learning Quentin well. On knowing him, knowing his needs and his wants and how to keep him happy. It’s one of the universe’s cruelest jokes, that his vast array of knowledge must now be used in service of just the opposite. Eliot feels like the world’s biggest monster, for knowing exactly how to manipulate Quentin’s feelings. For knowing the best one-two punch to send him reeling back.

And Quentin does go reeling, pushing a hand against Eliot’s chest, right over his revealingly galloping heart, and pressing back against the wall again, his eyes still filled with so much hurt, but also ‒

“Right,” Quentin hisses, his jaw clenching tight in anger, expression shuttering closed. “Right, yeah, god forbid you do anything to confuse me right now.”

“Q ‒ ” Eliot starts, but there’s nothing to say and they both know it.

With a scoff, Quentin turns away, the flash of disgust in his eyes enough to freeze Eliot in his place. God, as much as he’s put Quentin through hell these past few weeks, he’s pretty sure this is the first time he’s actually fallen in Quentin’s estimation. That this, the cruelty of it, has convinced Quentin in a way that nothing else has, to put his last glimmer of hope aside.

Eliot’s eyes burn, his hands shake. His knees go wobbly when he tries to take a step.

Because Quentin’s father has cancer. Ted Coldwater has cancer. He’s so desperately sorry, for Quentin’s sake. That alone is enough to make him feel like shit. That alone should be the only think he’s thinking about right now.

But god, the look on Q’s face as he backs away and storms down the stairs...

The selfish part of Eliot, the part he wishes he could excise from existence for Quentin’s sake as much as for his own, is heartbroken all over again. Somehow, he’s still not used to how wretched it feels, to be the disappointment he’s always claimed to be. Especially in the eyes of the person whose opinion matters most.

~~~~~

Q has other friends, thank god. Friends who are allowed to love him. Eliot would thank Julia and Alice and the others if he thought they’d accept it, but Alice would just give him one of those distressingly discerning looks, and Julia might decide it’s finally time to murder him, so he keeps his mouth shut.

As the days go by, and everyone continues to work on plans to defeat the Beast should he ever return, Eliot notices the quiet ways that Quentin’s friends support him. Alice, never a natural with physical affection, starts putting a hand on his shoulder in friendly support when they sit together. Margo starts giving him things, like a magpie sharing her hoard ‒ a book she thinks he might enjoy, a copy of an essay she wrote last year for a class Quentin is struggling with, even a corded leather bracelet she thinks might look “nice or whatever” with his “bland as fuck attire.” Kady keeps plying him with booze and showing up with her laptop for binge-watches.

And Julia is of course Quentin’s most stalwart supporter, his constant shadow, petting a hand through his hair and reminding him to eat and shower, ushering him off to bed like a toddler who needs his bedtime reinforced. Eliot resents Julia’s coddling a bit, but mostly because he’s not allowed to offer it himself. He can tell from Quentin’s hollow eyes and unkempt appearance that he needs the extra caretaking.

Eliot is somewhat surprised to find Penny coming in as a close second behind Julia, when it comes to spending time with Q. The two of them had only ever really been friends by association, at least as far as Eliot had understood it. He wouldn’t have thought they’d have anything in common, but as everyone continues to work on their “assignments” for “study group”, Eliot notices that Penny and Quentin are not infrequently together, puzzling over an interesting bridge between the psychic framework of the spell and the physical energies that fuel it. They keep each other company whenever Quentin isn’t glued to Julia’s side. (Penny and Kady have been fighting again, Eliot thinks. It’s hard to keep track with those two.)

Eliot finds himself very intentionally not-staring at Penny and Quentin one morning while they work at the kitchen table, Quentin sketching in small detail spells to the larger framework of Penny’s psychic matrix. It’s intricate and complicated, and Eliot can see by the twitch of Quentin’s mouth and the furrow of Penny’s brow that they’re both frustrated. He wonders if he should go and offer them his help. He’s not sure if his brand of telekinetic magic would be helpful given their current task, but he could at least feed some of his energy to the spellwork when they get around to casting.

That feels like a good excuse to walk over there. Eliot has become very good at giving himself legitimate reasons to be around Quentin whenever he can manage it these days. Of course, since the revelation about Ted’s cancer, Quentin has been avoiding him even more than usual, his expression shuttering into blankness whenever Eliot is nearby.

Fuck, it’s hard to know what to do. Is he selfish enough to encroach on Quentin’s space, when he knows how much Quentin is hurting? Is he delusional to think that somehow his presence might still offer Q some measure of comfort, even after everything?

“Eliot,” a voice says from behind him, and he turns to see Alice and Julia standing at the foot of the stairs. He walks over to them, half relieved and half disappointed to have his vague musings interrupted. At the same time, the girls had probably just seen him staring at Quentin again, which is something he’s really, really trying to do less often.

Julia, to his considerable shock, had been the one to say his name. She continues now as Eliot approaches, her arms folded tight across her chest and her mouth pressed into a thin line. “We need your help with something. Got a sec?”

“Um,” Eliot says, staring at Julia for a moment and then flicking his eyes over to Alice, looking for… what, reassurance? Some evidence that this isn’t some sort of sneaky trap? Julia is scary and consistently furious, but he doesn’t actually think Quentin would let her attack him or anything.

“It’s the wards,” Alice says. “We finished setting up the alarm spell, but it takes three casters.”

So, giving himself no opportunity to chicken out, he follows them. Within minutes the three of them are headed across campus. Eliot wonders in a vague, uncaring sort of way if Julia has lured him out to the edges of the trees surrounding Brakebills’ outer perimeter in order to make it easier to hide his body. They could have asked Kady for help, after all. It’s a little weird that Julia, of all people, would have picked him.

They arrive at a nondescript copse of trees beside a dirt footpath. The closest building is the Natural Magic treehouse, the roof of which is just visible a couple hundred yards away. In the normal spectrum of sight, there is nothing particularly special about the place they’ve stopped, no natural or manmade landmark to identify it. Eliot puts up his hands and forms a window with his fingers, just to get an accurate read on what he knows is hiding in plain sight.

The Wards of Brakebills are ancient, and patchwork, and have been added to, altered, and just generally fucked with over the years, to the point that Eliot is sure no living soul actually has a firm grasp on the totality of their scope or power.

Julia and Alice, for what it’s worth, have put together a more comprehensive guide than any first-years, no matter how brilliant, should have been able to accomplish. (When they’d first shared their work with the group, Quentin had stared with wide and awestruck eyes at both of them, his expression half in love, whether with the magic or with the women, Eliot hadn’t been sure. When Q had offered a sincere compliment as to the thoroughness of their efforts, Julia had given him a tight, anxious smile and cupped a hand around the back of his neck. “Your life is on the line. We’ve been properly motivated.”)

Here in the present moment, Eliot takes the weight of that reality deep into him, and clears his mind of all irrelevant distractions. Quentin’s life is on the line, and this is just one small way they might be able to prevent the worst from happening.

Julia thrusts a piece of paper into Eliot’s hands and nods her head at it, grim-faced. “Study that for a second. It’s simple, we’re basically hijacking the existing wards and setting ourselves as the target for notification if that thing tries to get back through.”

Eliot stares at the tiny, neat handwriting for a moment, blinks and then performs a quick series of tuts that will make the words stop shifting and crawling around on the page. He’d normally never do something like that in front of anyone, embarrassed as he is by the need for it, but if there’s anything good to be said about the recent upheaval in his life, it’s that he’s definitely realized when something matters, and when it doesn’t. Julia and Alice don’t seem to register the movement, anyway, or at least they choose not to comment on it. They really do have far, far more important shit to be thinking about.

The spell itself is gorgeous, even in written form. He can see the flavor of Julia’s work in it, with an assist from multiple other magical signatures. Fogg’s mocking insistence on the power of friendship notwithstanding, there is something beautiful about the combined effort. Eliot’s interpersonal relationships are a shattered mess right now, for obvious reasons, but magic is something bigger than all of them, and it’s so satisfying to find a way to use that magic for good, for something worthwhile.

As Julia, Alice, and Eliot stand side-by-side facing the edges of the invisible wards, as the magic casts through them and out of them and binds their own consciousnesses to the protective enchantments encasing the whole campus, Eliot feels a sense of oneness he doesn’t want to end.

He can feel his own magical signature ‒ fueled by the all too common tragedy of his queer childhood and the sharper, more recent grief of his current fucked up life.

He can feel Alice, and the surprising depth of furious strength she keeps buttoned up and carefully contained. He finds himself thinking of the look on her face the day she met the Niffin that had once been Charlie Quinn, the way she had collapsed into grief as she mourned twice over for the loss of her brother, all while suffering emotional abandonment by parents who never even tried to understand her.

And then Julia ‒ god, Julia’s magic is otherworldly in its beauty. Every motion of her hands is textbook-precise, but the power inside of her is not to be contained by such rigidity. It is golden and it is pure and Eliot is honored just to stand in the presence of it, much less join with it in the service of protecting the person they both love more than any other.

This moment, right here, is the only way Eliot has left of staying connected to Julia. Even if she didn’t hate him now, with good reason, the pressure of the lie he is forced to live has created an insurmountable chasm between him and almost everyone else he cares about. He must live a life apart from the people he had only just started to fold into his heart. Eliot misses Quentin, of course, with every breath. But he misses Julia with a fierceness he hadn’t thought to expect.

All too soon, the spell is done, and the three of them look at each other for a moment as the remnants of that powerful, magical connection keep them tuned to one another. There is shared darkness and shared light, and Eliot grasps on to the final wisps of it, afraid of the cold loneliness of his own magic in comparison to what they had just shared. And then the magic fades away, and it leaves the three of them just as they were before. At odds and uncomfortable and angry and sad. Three separate young people, doing their pitiful best.

Wordless, they turn and start heading home. For a while, Eliot leaves the silence alone, lets it be awkward. But as he thinks about the magic they’ve just performed together, he can’t help but wonder at its efficacy. If there’s one place where they can all still find common ground, it’s keeping Quentin safe. And while this alarm spell is certainly better than nothing, it’s not exactly the solution to all of their problems.

“The thing is,” Eliot says, as the three of them continue the trek back towards the busier, populated part of campus, “this spell only lets us know the Beast is through the wards. He could pop up anywhere.”

“We know,” Alice says, “but when we’re done with ‒ um ‒ the Beast-Slayer Invocation ‒ ” (Eliot smiles, Julia rolls her eyes), “we’ll all be connected. If any one of us comes across the Beast, the others will know about it and will be able to act fast.”

“But that’s just it,” Eliot says, thinking hard. “Say the alarm goes off right now, and we’re all linked or what have you, and we find out the Beast has turned up all the way across campus? We can’t insta-teleport there, and we’ve got to assume the Beast has means we don’t know about, a way of finding Quentin specifically. Assuming ‒ you know ‒ we’re right about him being the primary target. Just knowing about it does us no good if we’re all separated.”

“We’re doing everything we can,” Julia snaps, uncharitable. “I don’t see you coming up with a better idea, and at least this way we have a hypothetical chance.”

“No, I know that,” Eliot says. “I’m not insulting your spell, Julia, it’s impressive as fuck and you don’t need me to tell you that. I’m just saying maybe we should be a bit more methodical about ‒ about Q, about staying with him. One of us should always be there, so he’s not alone if ‒ when ‒ ”

The thought of it is one of those things that haunts his nightmares. The idea that for all of Fogg’s meticulous planning and cunning manipulations, the Beast might slip through an unforeseen crack, find Quentin alone, and snuff him out before any of the rest of them even know something is wrong. Eliot holds on to Fogg’s confidence with both hands, trying as hard as he can to believe that the dean knows exactly what he’s doing, that he’s their best hope of success. But he’s still so scared. He can’t help it.

“You’re volunteering to be Quentin’s bodyguard?” Julia asks, an odd wobble in her tone. “You want to ‒ what, follow him around, come up with a shift schedule, stand vigil outside his bedroom door every night?”

Eliot kind of does want to do that, actually, but it’s probably not the right thing to say right now. He clears his throat. “I’m just trying to keep him safe.”

“That is not your goddamn job anymore,” Julia hisses, and the mocking in her tone is gone, replaced with instant white-hot fury. He probably should have seen this coming. Julia has not been receptive to any of Eliot’s suggestions, seeming to take it as a personal insult, like Eliot is implying something in Julia’s own efforts to keep Quentin alive are lacking.

Summoning up the persona of Eliot Waugh, heartbreaker and jackass, he speaks, keeping his voice casual with just a hint of impatience. “So just because I’m not sleeping with him means I don’t give a shit if he’s alive or dead? Get over yourself, Julia, I’m trying to help.”

“Guys, maybe let’s just ‒ ” Alice starts, but Julia isn’t in any frame of mind to listen to her.

She stops walking, puts a hand out, and snatches at Eliot’s arm to pull him to a stop as well, whirling around so they’re facing each other.

“You’re unbelievable,” Julia hisses.

“Thank you,” Eliot says, sneering. It’s disgusting, how easy he finds it to play-act casual, petty cruelty. Maybe he hasn’t changed as much as he’d hoped.

“God, you know, sometimes for like half a second you still seem like a decent person,” Julia says, laughing in wonder, eyes bright. “And I think ‒ god, maybe I’m being too hard on you, sometimes shit just doesn’t work out, you know? I’d be a hypocrite if I tried to force you into loving him, right?”

Alice takes a timid step to stand between the two of them, but Eliot hardly notices her, fighting to keep his expression blank. He bites the inside of his cheek, trying to decide how fake-Eliot-Waugh should be reacting to this little outburst. He settles on cool and aloof, and hopes it lands, because his insides are already burning up with shame and sorrow.

“And then I see Quentin,” Julia continues, vicious. “He’s losing weight, he’s not sleeping, he’s so fucking gone on you, Eliot, that he won’t let me say one bad word about you. His dad’s sick. Some crazy magical monster is trying to kill him and we have no idea why. And meanwhile you’re somehow still at the top of the list of things that are hurting him. Just back off and let me try and pick up the pieces. Understood?”

“Nice speech,” Eliot says, gathering up all of his considerable willpower. He needs it to stop his legs from buckling. To stop himself from sobbing out an apology. He keeps his face stony, his eyes dry. Somehow. “But you’re not his mother, Julia. Try and remember that for once.”

He turns and storms off, leaving Alice and Julia behind. He hears Alice say Julia’s name, soft and concerned, and there’s a tiny corner of his mind, the part not consumed with you’re at the top of the list of things that are hurting him, that feels irrationally betrayed that Alice hadn’t chased after him instead.

~~~~~

Margo finds Eliot in his room, sobbing into his pillow like the lead of a romantic comedy at the height of despair, before the dashing love interest swoops in to pick up the pieces. He doesn’t share this errant comparison with Margo, who would be horrified to be cast as anything other than the primary protagonist, even in Eliot’s spiraling thoughts.

Eliot is no stranger to crying these days, but he hasn’t had a full-on weeping jag since that first week, right after the breakup. Once again, he finds himself frustrated by the lack of obvious catharsis. Isn’t the one good thing about crying that it’s supposed to leave you feeling refreshed afterwards?

He’d barely made it back to his room with his composure intact, Julia’s words playing in an echo through his mind again and again ‒ he’s losing weight, he’s not sleeping

And not all of it is even his own fault. There’s also Ted’s cancer ‒ Eliot wonders if that’s a factor in Fogg’s considerations. The thought of his dad dying has got to be enough to make Quentin miserable all on its own, right? Instead of it just being yet another thing to pile on to the shit sandwich of Quentin’s new normal? How much is he meant to endure?

God, Q. Fucking goddammit. He knows Quentin’s in pain, knows he’s struggling right now. That, after all, is the whole goddamn point of all of this, isn’t it? And yet hearing it out loud, seeing the direct consequence of his own actions play out in front of him… he hopes Fogg’s guiding philosophy is right about magic coming from pain. If the Beast turned up right here, right now, Eliot could probably take him on single-handed.

“Eliot, sweetie,” Margo says when she finds him, entering the room without so much as a courtesy knock, as always. “What happened?”

“My whole life is garbage,” is all Eliot says back, and he can’t even find it in him to be ashamed of the petulant whine in his voice. He feels petulant. He feels about six years old right now, burying hitched sobs into his pillowcase.

Margo kicks off her shoes and climbs into the bed with him, rubbing circles on his back. “Do you want to talk about it?”

“Did Alice send you in here?” Eliot asks, dour. He doesn’t want Margo here. He doesn’t want her to leave, either.

“She may have mentioned that you and Julia got into it,” Margo says carefully. “Do I need to cut a bitch?”

“Margo, she’s right,” Eliot says, his breathing shaky. The tears are still falling, Margo’s entrance only a brief distraction from the worst of the hysterics. “Julia’s right, I’m a monster and I can’t be there for Q but I can’t leave him alone, and I just ‒ I’m scared all the time, every second, I’m so scared for him, Bambi, how do I do this ‒ ”

“Shhh,” Margo says, and for a while Eliot just lets himself cry again. Even with Margo there as a comforting anchor, it’s all too easy to dissolve into near hyperventilation. He wants Quentin like he wants a security blanket. If Q were here, he’d be able to calm down. He just knows it, the shape of him, the scent of him, close and warm here in the bed. It’s the most soothing thing Eliot has ever known. Margo does her best, but Quentin is supposed to be here, and now there’s nothing left of it, no chance of filling that void.

He misses Q, he misses Julia, he misses his life, the way he’d imagined it, the way he’d started to ‒ plan for it. Since when does he, Eliot Waugh, make lasting plans like that? He’d been so cocky and sure that things were going to work out. And why? Because he trusted that he’d actually stick with something for once? That he’d figured everything out and he was fixed now and he could be worthy of something good? He’s an idiot. He’s the world’s biggest idiot and asshole and ‒

Eventually, he wrests the tears back into something more manageable, breathing through his aching head and his puffy eyes and the tense muscles in every line of his body. He can’t be doing things like this. He can’t run crying to his room just because Julia yelled at him. He has to be better than this, he has to be okay.

And so naturally, a logical plan bubbles up to the surface of his devastated consciousness.

“Margo, we have to throw a party.”

There’s a pause, and then Margo resumes the calming circles of her palm against his back. “Okay, you want to walk me through that one, there? Because you nearly just cried yourself into a panic attack.” Her voice is quiet, and not without sympathy. “I wouldn’t think you’d feel up for revelry.”

“Things need to be normal,” Eliot says. When in doubt, this is the one imperative, the one thing he has to hold on to. A part of the mantra. Don’t fall apart, don’t show anyone how badly you’re broken. Or Quentin will die.

“Things aren’t normal,” Margo reminds him. “I’m not even talking about you and Quentin. There was an attack on a classroom. A professor is dead. Nobody would expect you to keep going on like nothing’s wrong.”

“But I have to,” Eliot moans, nuzzling his face into his pillow. He’s pathetic. He needs to make her understand. “Don’t you get it? I have to be fine. I have to be normal or ‒ they’re going to figure it out, okay? Kady already called me out on it, and I can’t ‒ they can’t know, Margo, or else what is this all for? I can’t be the reason he dies, I won’t survive that, I literally, actually, won’t survive it. I need you to throw a motherfucking rager to save my life, Margo, can you please ‒ please, just ‒ ”

“Okay,” Margo says, cooing and brushing a hand through his hair. “Okay, let’s not get all worked up again. I hear you, El. I hear you. I think you’re indulging in melodrama a little bit, but I get your point. Normalcy is important.”

Eliot nods, the smooth fabric of his pillowcase rubbing along his cheek. He wants Margo to put her hand there, brush the tears away from his eyes and kiss his forehead. (He wants Quentin to do those things, but Margo’s the one who’s here). “It’s what Eliot would do,” he says, miserable.

Margo shifts in the bed slightly, and Eliot can feel her judgmental stare burning into the top of his head. “I can’t hang out with you if you’re going to talk about yourself in third person.”

You do it,” Eliot says, mustering up the energy for a bit of indignation. “Mama needs this, Mama wants that. But anyway, that’s not what I meant.”

Eliot needs to remember that Margo is stretching past her own comfort zone to be his support system in these times. She does a remarkably good job of it, even as she lets out a little snort of impatience before she responds, her hand still gentle on the back of his neck. “Okay, so then what did you mean?”

“I mean Eliot,” Eliot says. “Like ‒ the Eliot that I’m pretending to be, the one who broke up with Quentin for like ‒ normal reasons. Because he’s a dick.”

“El…”

“No, it’s just… that Eliot would be freaked out by the whole Beast attack issue. That Eliot is still like ‒ a person, you know, with feelings, who ostensibly wouldn’t like the thought of his ‒ of his ex-boyfriend being slaughtered by a being of unspeakable power.” He pauses to swallow, to take a deep breath, and then another. He doesn’t want to start crying again. He doesn’t have the time. “But he’d also throw a party and get drunk and hook up with some random guy to try and push the fear aside. So that’s what I have to do.”

Margo’s fingers clench into the skin of his scalp. “You’re going to hook up ‒ ”

“Maybe not that part,” Eliot admits, squeezing his eyes shut. “But you get what I mean.”

“I do,” Margo says. “You want me to throw you a party to save the world. Kind of sounds like the job I was made for.”

“That might be pushing it,” Eliot mumbles, forcing himself up to a sitting position. His muscles are all achy. He can still hear he’s losing weight, he’s not sleeping, echoing again and again through his head. “I’m not saying it’s absolutely necessary right this second. I just meant more as a general rule, we should keep things as normal as possible around here, and that includes hosting. We don’t have to ‒ ”

“Nuh-uh,” Margo says, suddenly fierce. “Don’t take this away from me. I’m going to knock your socks off, mister. This party will be so good you’ll forget to be miserable for at least twelve consecutive minutes.”

“Twelve ‒ ” Eliot starts, bewildered at the oddly specific number.

“Take a nap, Waugh,” Margo says. “You’re a mess and I don’t want you clashing with the decor. Mama’s got work to do.”

~~~~~

Margo does a fantastic job, of course. She manages to plan a party that is so standard, so exactly average, that even the generally anxious students of Brakebills get themselves pulled into it without realizing they’re supposed to be staying focused on more serious endeavors. There’s loud music and plentiful alcohol and party favors, and she’s imported just the right mix of students from multiple disciplines to set the mood right from the beginning. Nobody has time to protest, or to wonder if having a party in these trying, uncertain times is a good idea. It’s just suddenly happening, and it’s exactly the way Eliot imagined it.

Of course, Eliot can’t entirely enjoy it. He has a fleeting hope that maybe Quentin will stay upstairs in his room with Julia, hiding from the frivolity and from the possibility of encountering Eliot, but Quentin does not indulge this. Instead, he comes downstairs just as the party is entering into full swing, dressed in clothes that actually fit him for once, defiance blazing in every inch of his body. He pins Eliot down with a glare but then proceeds to circumvent the room in a wide path to avoid getting too close to him, which ‒

Well, it hurts, but what else is new?

Eliot deserves a fucking Oscar nomination for the performance he puts on, that of a person who wants to be at a party, who is having a perfectly lovely time, who doesn't want to sink into the ground and vanish from reality.

The origin of Quentin’s anger is easy to understand, especially with Julia always around to fuel the flames. Eliot really can’t blame either one of them. He feels sick to his stomach every time he thinks about Ted, a man he’s never met but one he feels he owes so much. Not a perfect father, as Eliot knows well, but one who stuck around, one who tried, one who at the very least did what he had to do to get help for his kid.

And of course he feels even more sick when he remembers the way he’d responded to the news, as necessary as it had been. The mantra, Quentin will die if you fuck this up is as effective as it always is, but it also doesn’t do anything to make him feel like less of a dick. What kind of person must Quentin think he is, to so callously refuse to offer comfort to him? What’s the story Q is telling himself now, about the time they had shared, the ‒ the love they’d shared? It’s all tainted, all turned to ash.

God, Eliot would give anything to let Quentin preserve it somehow, to still be loved by Q, even from a distance. Which is selfish, of course. He should want Quentin to hate him, probably.

Eliot smiles and nods at some random guy he doesn’t remember and probably fucked at some point, blinking his eyes and clearing away the hurt and pitiful longing. He is not going to follow Quentin around this party. He is not going to track him with his eyes, showcase his heartbreak, and risk making his already ruined life completely unlivable. He has a job to do, a performance to maintain.

Julia shows up before too long, never to be parted from Quentin, and joins in on what seems like a performance of her own. She and Quentin, lately of the “sit in the corner and talk quietly” variety, start drinking early, and a lot, and before long they’ve transformed themselves into the life of the party. It’s an easier role for Julia to adopt. For Quentin it comes less naturally, but he seems fucking determined to be seen having a good time.

Eliot knows him. He knows him so fucking well. He’s aware that in this moment, Quentin is lashing out at him. It’s subtle, it’s not an obvious snub by anyone else’s standards, but Eliot can still see it for what it is. Normally forgiving, Quentin’s pride has been bruised past the point of endurance by Eliot’s latest callousness, and that means he’s got to put Eliot in his place.

The sad thing is, it's actually working. Even as Eliot concentrates very hard on not watching Quentin all night, he can’t exactly avoid the sight of him downing shots, or laughing loudly with people he’s never even spoken to before, as if that is a thing that Quentin Coldwater would ever do. God, the even sadder thing is, if Quentin knew how badly he was eviscerating Eliot down to his very soul, he wouldn't be doing this. Q's after revenge, sure. But he thinks Eliot is indifferent. He doesn't know. If he knew, he wouldn't, because Quentin is a fundamentally kind person and he'd never want to hurt anybody. Not even Eliot, who fucking deserves it.

At some point Eliot actually loses sight of Quentin, swept up in his own charade. This is objectively a good thing, even as he itches to find him again in the crowd. Quentin is probably too drunk and angry to pick up on Eliot’s mournful staring anyway, but if someone else notices that he’s not exactly living it up in Party King fashion, they might put two and two together. And that might end up being just as dangerous.

So, in an effort to be authentic, Eliot becomes extra friendly with the drink cart, making other people fancy over-the-top cocktails that they’re just going to throw down their gullets without even tasting. Still, the effort is nice. He wishes he had someone to hang out with, of course, but Margo and Alice are off in the corner giggle-drunk and kissing, and he honestly can’t begrudge them that. Everyone’s stressed these days, everyone deserves a bit of release.

The closest Eliot can do, in that regard, is make himself a drink too. He’s not going to go overboard, but just a shot or two to take the edge off doesn’t seem like the worst idea in the world. After all, he’s got a reputation. Maintaining that is part of keeping Quentin safe, which is honestly all the justification he needs.

An hour in, Eliot decides that this party actually might have been a great idea.

Even outside their core group of seven, things have been tense ever since Van der Weghe’s death. There hasn’t really been a big proper Margo-and-Eliot blow-out since then, and with a bit of liquid courage Eliot finds himself able to lament, for the first time in weeks, the fact that he’s been neglecting his hosting duties.

Wandering around the Cottage, he actually manages a smile when he sees groups of students laughing without inhibitions, and he watches with detached fascination as various couples and larger groups melt into the perimeter of the room for some private time. The couches are being pushed out of the way by some enormously irresponsible drunken telekinesis, to create a dance floor.

It’s kind of fun, as long as Eliot just lets himself pretend that Quentin went upstairs to change or is in the kitchen getting something to eat, that he’ll be back at any second, placing a familiar hand around Eliot’s hip and leaning up to kiss him hello.

And speaking of the missing piece of his stupid, unworthy heart ‒ it’s been long enough that Eliot feels justified in doing a circuit of the room to find out where Quentin has gone. He can’t imagine, given that blaze of fury he’d seen earlier, that Q has given up and gone upstairs already. He and Julia had seemed in it for the long haul, for better or worse.

Eliot doesn’t find Quentin right away, but he does find Julia.

She’s with Kady, and the two of them are hanging all over each other much the way he’d seen Margo and Alice earlier. Before his very own two eyes, he watches Kady lean forward and bite at the lobe of Julia’s ear.

Jesus, Kady’s a legit player. He’s almost impressed.

But also, he feels a small squirm of… what, indignation? On Penny’s behalf. Not that he and Penny are the best of friends, but still. Is this sanctioned foreplay? Is Penny somewhere across the room watching this, ready to join in? Or are the two of them on the outs again?

Not his business, probably, but Kady had brought up a good point when she’d said that they’re all supposed to be friends, or whatever. So maybe it is his business? He needs to read the manual.

Eliot tries to picture what Kady and Julia might do to him if he tries to go over to them and interrupt, and shudders. His life seems pretty worthless to him a lot of the time these days, but he hasn’t lost all self-preservational instincts.

And he still can’t find Quentin, which is obviously more important.

He turns away from the sight of Julia reaching a hand out to guide Kady’s face around, oddly unwilling to witness how far they’re planning to go.

By now, the dancing portion of the evening is in full swing. The Cottage is filled with increasingly loud, pounding music that must come from one of Bambi's playlists because Eliot swears he doesn't recognize a single one of the songs. He hasn't been in much of a music-listening mood lately. As he idly scans the sloppy drunken dancing of his classmates, his eyes finally catch on Quentin, a surprising presence among the gyrating bodies moving to the music.

Eliot had never, not once, gotten Quentin to dance with him at a Cottage party, and it appears that Q wasn’t wrong when he’d insisted to Eliot with wide, terrified eyes, that he’s a disaster on the dance floor. He looks like a goddamn idiot, jumping around in the middle of the mass of happy bodies, but it’s so stupidly endearing that Eliot actually laughs to himself, feeding off of Quentin’s happiness like it’s his own. (Quentin’s probably not happy. Quentin is drunk and play-acting frivolity, and Eliot knows that. Still, maybe it’s good, in a way, that he’s letting off a little steam). Eliot, more than a little tipsy himself by now, avoids the crowd, hovering on the edges. He can't be in the press of that, the sweat and heat and promise of it, without gravitating towards Quentin and folding him into his arms where he's supposed to be.

And suddenly, with no buildup or warning whatsoever, Eliot feels like he’s going to fuck it up. He can just sense it. If Quentin looks at him at the wrong moment, he's going to see the expression on Eliot's face, see the way his longing is breaking out of himself. His fondness, his adoration.

Quentin is stubborn. He'll pursue it, he'll chase Eliot down and force him to confess. Eliot will be powerless to prevent it. He'll pull Quentin into him, tell him he's drowning without him, tell him about how he can't sleep through the night, how he closes his eyes and he remembers shadows of Quentin’s death, how scared he is of that happening, but also how scared he is of losing everything good about himself without Quentin there to remind him.

And then? They'll have to run. They'll have to leave Brakebills so Fogg won't take magic away from Quentin, so the Beast won’t be able to find him. Just the two of them, protecting each other, out there in the big wide world. He'd miss Margo. Maybe she'd come with. Would it be the worst thing? (What could be worse than this?)

Eliot is standing at the edge of the improvised dance floor, holding himself still so he doesn't fall into the sway of the music. He’d lost sight of Quentin in the crowd for a moment while he’d been fantasizing, but then his eyes catch on him again, and his cracked and stuttering heart swoops down to his stomach, because ‒

Q is making out with someone.

For a moment all Eliot can see is Quentin, his mouth parting under another set of lips, his body moving off-rhythm to the music, and the sight is almost hypnotic, almost appealing. He’d missed seeing Quentin blissed out with the simple promise of physical embrace, missed the way he became fierce and soft all at once at the touch of another.

And then, of course, his brain catches up to him, because Eliot is standing over here, and Quentin is over there ten feet away, they’re not touching, they’re not kissing, and that just does not compute. Eliot’s eyes take in the shape looming over Quentin, wrapping him in close for an endless, promise-laden kiss.

Q isn’t just making out with someone.

Q is making out with Penny.

What the actual ever living fucking fuck.

Eliot’s hands ball up into fists, his heart swooping back up from his stomach to lodge firmly in his throat instead. The words back the fuck off are on the tip of his tongue, and he realizes he’s taken two long strides forward into the tangle of dancers without meaning to.

He forces himself to come to a stand-still, and he stares, horror mounting in waves. Penny's hands are gripping Quentin's hips. Quentin's arms are thrown around Penny's neck. They are swaying to the music, mouths open, eyes closed.

The dark of the Cottage’s atmospheric lighting flashes bright, the music fades to a dull thrum, and Eliot stands, paralyzed, hit by lightning.

It hurts.

Oh, fuck it hurts.

It’s almost exhilarating, how badly the sight is affecting him, a shock of feeling Eliot has never experienced before. It shouldn’t matter. God, what the fuck could jealousy possibly do to him in the face of the rest of the shit he’s carrying with him every day? But he is, he’s jealous and the feeling is sharper and more cruel than he’d ever known it could be.

Stop touching him, he thinks about saying. He’s not yours.

It’s not even anger, really, that he’s feeling. It’s an absolute refutation of what’s in front of him. A denial of what should not be, of what goes against the order of the universe. That Eliot should be standing here watching his boyfriend, his partner, his Quentin, in the arms of another…

And Eliot is not actually a possessive lunatic. He’s sure that any second now, he’s going to remember that. But for now, he’s got to find a way to fucking get away from this, from the sight of ‒ oh, Jesus, and now Quentin and Penny are breaking apart, they’re both laughing, looking at each other, and they’ve got to be incredibly drunk, right? It’s the only explanation. Any second now they’ll both realize how insane this is and they’ll back off and it’ll be awkward and ‒

Except no, Christ, even as Eliot watches they lean in again, and they’re ‒

Fuck, Quentin loves being kissed. He loves it. Eliot knows that, how quickly he melts into it, how he throws his whole body into it, no matter how chaste or quick the actual embrace. And right now? He looks like he’s fucking enjoying himself. Eliot hopes, prays that this is part of Quentin’s revenge, that he’s doing this to hurt Eliot on purpose, that he knows Eliot is watching, that this isn’t real, it can’t be real ‒

Penny’s hands cup Quentin’s face, Quentin’s arms snake around Penny’s hips. They look ‒ good together, and that’s not ‒ that’s not right, it’s fucked, is what it is, and ‒ and ‒ Eliot thinks about committing a murder. He's done it before, hasn't he? What’s one more evil deed to his name?

Instead of giving in to the impulse to shove through the crowd and tear Quentin away, Eliot stumbles back. His legs are shaking so badly that it takes him way too long to make his way to the staircase. He practically has to crawl up the stairs when he gets there, his vision going blurry and his hands trembling. He stumbles into the bathroom, feeling like he might throw up. He can’t remember how much he’s had to drink. Probably not enough to be puking from it, even if he’s lowered his tolerance recently.

Luckily, he doesn’t actually throw up, which might have been vaguely humiliating in the morning. Instead he just sits for a moment on the floor of the bathroom and takes long, slow, breaths to keep himself calm, employing tricks that Quentin had once explained to him, about how to fend off a panic attack.

It’s your body recognizing your distress, so you just have to trick it into thinking you’re calm. Even breathing, in through the nose, out through the mouth.

Eliot can hear Quentin’s voice in his ear. Quentin, who is downstairs, making out with Penny Adiyodi right this second.

God damn it.

Eliot needs to go back down there. He needs to monitor the situation, make sure someone puts a stop to it before it goes too far, before Quentin leaves with Penny and then they realize they’ve got some odd-couple-opposites-attract chemistry going on and they fall madly in love and ‒

Why had this never occurred to Eliot? Why had his selfish, conceited brain never contemplated the idea that Quentin might move the fuck on? Eliot had prepared for Q to never forgive him, even after all of this was over. But he hadn’t once thought that he’d just get over it.

He wants to go downstairs and rip the love of his life out of Penny’s unworthy arms.

He doesn’t do that, of course. (Quentin will die if you fuck this up.)

Eliot drags himself to his room and sits alone on the floor, with his back against the door. He's waiting to hear Quentin's footsteps on his way up to his room. He needs to know if he goes to bed alone. He needs to know it. He waits for hours; the party dies down. Nobody comes to look for him. Eventually, Eliot hears Margo come up to bed, accompanied by a second set of clunkier footsteps that can only belong to Alice. He hears Kady say goodbye to a friend at the top of the stairs. He hears Todd’s distinctive, clomping gait climbing to his own room.

He never hears Quentin.

~~~~~

In the morning, Eliot finds Quentin in the kitchen nursing a coffee. It’s kind of startling to see him. Here. Home. He’s wearing a fresh set of clothes, no signs of a walk of shame, but he definitely hadn’t gone up to his room last night, so...

A night of sleepless heartbreak forces Eliot to speak before he can think better of it. "Have fun last night?"

"What's it to you?" Quentin says, dour. It’s stupidly fucking good to hear his voice, even like this, even in anger.

"I ‒ I'm being friendly," Eliot says. Quentin's eyes snap up to look at him, narrowed in suspicion. God, Eliot hopes his face doesn't look too exhausted or devastated. He'd forgotten how hard it is to pretend all the time. He had loved not pretending with Quentin.

"Right, because we're friends," Quentin says, raising an eyebrow and taking a sip of his coffee. "Apparently."

"I want to be," Eliot says. This is perfectly true. It kills him to be around Q without being allowed any of their former closeness, but it's infinitely worse to be without him altogether.

"I'm not there yet," Quentin says immediately. Everything about him is guarded, from the way he's standing as far away from Eliot in the room as he can get, to the way his shoulders are hunched, to the way his hands clench around his mug of coffee. He looks thin, Eliot notices with a desperate pang. Julia was right. He also looks tired. His hair is unkempt and rumpled.

Maybe he's tired because he was up all night with Penny, maybe they’d been ‒

But it's only been a few weeks, not even quite a month. No time at all, since their breakup. There’s no way Quentin could ‒ there’s just no way, right? Eliot needs more time to get his mind around the idea of Quentin with someone else.

(He knows, even as he thinks the thought, that no amount of time will be enough).

Did Penny fuck him? Eliot wants to ask. Wants to demand. He wants to know if Penny was good to him, if he took care of him, does he know how to ‒ Quentin’s not delicate but he’s ‒ you have to be ‒ he has needs, doesn’t he? Special, specific needs and Eliot knows them and Penny doesn’t, and, god, Q deserves ‒ he has to know if ‒ but he also doesn't want to know the answer, is afraid of what he might do if Quentin confirms it.

But asking about that is not something Eliot can do, whether or not they’re going to be friends.

Quentin’s not there yet.

"That's fair enough," Eliot says, nodding broadly, swallowing hard. "I get it."

"I really don't think you do," Quentin bites out, and he takes a gulp of his coffee, staring at him with expectant eyes.

Eliot grimaces, fighting for the correct response and landing on a lame yet somehow effective ‒ “I am so, so sorry about your dad, Quentin. I’m a dick.”

Quentin snorts out a breath of air, and lifts his mug to his face again before lowering it, frowning down into the empty ceramic. With deliberate and slow movement, he takes a step towards Eliot and sets the mug down near the edge of the sink, as close as he can get without brushing against Eliot accidentally. “Okay,” he says, like something’s been decided. “Thanks.”

There’s such meticulous caution to Quentin’s movement as he backs away, a hyper-awareness of Eliot’s body that hasn’t changed, even if the circumstances surrounding it have altered completely. Eliot swallows, and walks over to pull a mug of his own off of the drying rack, his back to Quentin so he doesn't fall into the trap of staring after him as he turns to leave. That's a thing that a heartsick, desperately sad and lonely person would do. And he can't be that person. For Quentin's sake.

"Eliot," Quentin says, just as the tread of his steps tells Eliot that he's reached the door. There's a hint of softness to his tone now, underneath the hard edges. Just a hint. Eliot closes his eyes, clutches his hands against the countertop to stop himself from turning around. "Eliot, I slept at Julia's last night. Just. In case that piece of information was relevant to you. For some reason."

Eliot doesn't turn, but god is it a very, very near thing. He blinks back against the burn of relief and waits to hear the sound of Quentin closing the door behind him.

Chapter Text

Julia’s alarm spell proves effective sooner than Eliot could have wished, nearly giving him a heart-attack when he feels it go off.

It’s about a week after that whole weird incident in which Quentin decidedly Did Not hook up with Penny, and Eliot is in his room alone; it’s late at night, late enough that he could justify going to bed, but instead he’s sitting up against the headboard fully clothed with a book open in his lap. It feels like a nod towards responsibility, as the book in question is actually a textbook for one of his classes, and he does actually need to read it.

But progress is slow. He’s basically just been reading the same paragraph over and over again while he tries fruitlessly to banish Quentin from his thoughts. It’s a laughable attempt, honestly, and he can already tell that tonight, he’s not going to be strong enough to resist it. Today had been no more awful than the day before or the day before that, but the stack-up of oddly devastating boredom and anxiety gets to a person after a while.

Tonight’s one of those nights when he feels like tearing his hair out at the injustice of the universe, moreso even than usual. Tonight’s the type of night where Eliot’s skin tingles and he wants someone to touch him so badly that he keeps closing his own eyes and stroking his own hand unconsciously down his own damn arm, across his own stomach, over his own thigh, just trying to simulate the comforting presence of another.

And so Eliot can’t stop himself, this particular night, from indulging in the phantom of a parallel realty. He imagines an identical evening of staring distractedly down at a mass of black squiggles on white paper, only this time Quentin is sitting up in bed beside him, his hair pulled back into a loose knot, reading a novel because of course he’s already finished his homework like a good little boy. Domesticity at its finest. Eliot’s distracted because the textbook is boring, but also because he and Quentin didn’t get to have sex that morning for some reason or other, and he’s not about to let twenty-four hours go by without touching him properly. He needs to plan his move, though, needs to decide just the right time to shift in the bed, set his book aside and turn to stare at the cozy sight beside him.

Quentin will keep reading, at first genuinely unaware of Eliot’s shifted focus, but then as his eyes flicker up and catch on Eliot’s, he’ll look back down at the page, stubbornly soldiering on, his eyes staunchly glued to the story even as his face heats up under Eliot’s relentless scrutiny.

And then Eliot will reach a hand out and cup it around Quentin’s jaw, turning his face, and Quentin’s book will slip unnoticed from his hands and onto the comforter beside him, and then they’ll be kissing. Maybe Eliot will pull Q up into his lap, or maybe Q will fall back on the bed and tug Eliot down on top of him. Maybe they’ll kiss and rub up against each other for a long time before anything more happens, or maybe one of them will grow impatient, a hand will slip beneath a waistband, and ‒

Eliot’s own hand has wandered downward, the heel of his palm pressing into the crease of his thigh. Maybe tonight’s the night he’ll actually be able to jerk off thinking about Q without crying about it halfway through. The thought is tempting, as it always is, and yet every time he caves to the needs of his flesh he feels unsatisfied and hollow after it’s over.

Just as he’s giving some serious credence to the thought, his fingers playing idly with his belt buckle, something happens.

It’s a… tug, somewhere in the back of his head. It’s like someone’s just said hey, focus to him, but quiet, a whisper in his ear, and it’s accompanied by a strange cascading of goosebumps down the back of his neck, like a warning. Like a warning ‒ like ‒

An alarm.

Eliot is on his feet in a flash, terror seizing him as a distinctive internal ringing starts sounding in his head. This is it ‒ the spell he, Julia, and Alice had tied to the campus wards. This means the Beast…

He pulls open his bedroom door, already calling Quentin’s name. Magic crackles along his spine, tightening the skin across his face and burning up in his palms. Please please please he begs the universe, taking long strides towards Q’s room.

He can see immediately that the door is already open, the lights on, and as he stumbles towards it, he also sees that the room is empty. The sheets on Quentin’s bed are rumpled, though ‒ does that mean he just didn’t make it from the night before, or had he been already in bed, and ‒ and ‒

What if the Beast fucking took him oh fucking christ.

“Oh fuck,” he says, the sound of his own voice rough and terror-laced. “Q?” he calls out, running back down the hallway towards the stairs. He nearly collides with Margo and Alice, who come bursting together out of Margo’s room.

Both of them are wild-eyed and disheveled. Margo is fully topless, a thin blouse clutched in her hand, and several of the buttons on Alice’s shirt are undone. “Quentin?” they both yell to nobody in particular, moving swiftly towards the top of the stairs. Eliot lets himself be herded in that direction too, his throat squeezing tight.

And then ‒

“I’m okay!” Quentin’s voice comes from downstairs and Eliot nearly falls over, missing a step in his haste to reach the landing at the bottom. Margo wrestles with her blouse in the stairwell, pulling it on just as the three of them topple through and find Quentin and Penny standing at the bottom, their eyes wide and postures straight as they look around the room, eyes seeking a threat that doesn’t appear to be there.

“What happened?” Eliot gasps out, putting a hand on Quentin’s arm and squeezing tight. Everything is so fraught that the gesture doesn’t even seem to spook him; he just shakes his head in bewilderment, hands up in front of him and ready to cast.

“I don’t know. I don’t ‒ I felt the alarm, and I felt ‒ I thought I felt…” Quentin trails off, his forehead scrunched together as he looks up at Eliot in confusion. Eliot can’t feel it anymore either. The ringing in his brain has gone quiet.

At this point, Kady crashes down the stairs as well, her eyes catching on Quentin and the panic in them lessening slightly, even as she moves to stand next to Quentin, hands mirroring his in a defensive stance.

“What the fuck,” Margo says, breathless and terrified. “Is he here? Is the Beast…” she trails off, like speaking the words might draw their enemy closer to them. Eliot, fear still buzzing through his veins, notices that everyone has started to form a loose circle around Quentin. He feels a swell of affection for all of them, for their willingness to put their bodies in between Quentin and this invisible and unknowable threat.

“I don’t know,” Alice says, holding her hands up and peering through her fingers, studying the warding far above them, past the Cottage roof, surrounding the campus like a dome. Then her eyes widen and she gasps, dropping her hands and spinning in a circle to look at all of them.

“What?” Eliot says, and he puts his hands up in the frame too, watches as everyone else does the same. It’s immediately obvious what Alice had seen to worry her. The wards are in place, but there’s a black spider-webbing directly above their heads, like someone had run straight in to the invisible protections at full-speed, and with considerable power to their name.

“He tried to get in,” Quentin croaks, the first to speak in the gathering silence. Eliot drops his hands and turns to look at him, terrified and heartsick. “Holy shit, he tried to get in right by the Cottage. He ‒ ”

“It’s okay,” Alice says at once, but her already pale face has gone even whiter, her lips pursed into a severe line. “It’s ‒ it’s okay, the warding held, we’re okay ‒ ”

There’s a sudden loud crash towards the entrance of the Cottage and the entire group spins around to face it. Eliot’s hands spring up, red crackling energy growing along his palms and between his fingers. It’s useless, and nothing he does will be good enough, but he will throw everything he’s got at this aberration who wants to kill the best, most perfect thing in Eliot’s life, he’ll throw his own body and soul at the threat and he’ll give Q every chance he can possibly manage...

“Quentin!”

Julia.

God, this is the first time Eliot’s been glad to see her in weeks. He slumps forward for a moment, resting his hands on his knees like he’s just finished running a marathon. His heart is galloping in his chest, fervent with relief.

“Quentin!” Julia repeats, her voice brittle with fear as she rounds the corner, coming up short at the sight of the six of them all clustered together by the foot of the stairs. She folds over too, heaving for breath, then lunges forward again and knocks Kady and Penny aside, throwing her arms around Q. “God, I felt the alarm, I was so scared ‒ ”

“He couldn’t get in,” Alice fills her in as Quentin pats awkwardly against Julia’s back. “He tried, he must have gotten close enough for the wards to register his magical signature, but the campus warding held.”

It’s not just the campus warding, though. It’s also Fogg’s warding. As some vestiges of panic start to fall away from his brain, Eliot wonders if Fogg knew about this close call the same way he knew about the attack on the classroom. He probably did, and probably didn’t tell Eliot for the same reason he kept him in the dark the last time around. Eliot doesn’t like to think of himself as a creepy stalker, but had he known the Beast’s plans on this particular night, he might very well have found himself pacing a hole into the carpet outside of Q’s bedroom door.

“So we’re safe?” Julia asks, pulling back from the hug and looking to Alice for reassurance.

“I think we’re okay,” Alice says, and she tries to smile, a flickering, brief thing. “This is good, it buys us time. It means that the current protections on campus are strong enough to keep him out.”

“Except for when they don’t,” Q points out, hollow. Eliot’s heart thuds painfully in his ribcage. He’ll never stop raving at the universe for this injustice, for the fact that Quentin is standing so close to him, and he’s in distress, and Eliot can’t kiss him calm. Can’t chafe a hand down his arm, can’t tangle their fingers together, can’t ‒ “The Beast got in once, and then Fogg strengthened the wards, but we have to work on the assumption that this thing will be able to outsmart us again.”

“Trust me, we are,” Penny says, and then he puts a hand on Quentin’s arm, curling his fingers familiarly over his shoulder the way Eliot had just fantasized about doing. “We’re not letting our guard down, Q, not while that thing is still breathing.”

The fierceness in his tone should comfort Eliot, the knowledge that Quentin has so many strong and staunch allies to protect him. It would be uncharitable to dislike Penny because of one drunken kiss, when he’s clearly such a good friend to Q. He’d been the first one downstairs with him, after all. It’s lucky he’d been here, really.

“So what do we do now?” Kady asks, and something in Eliot’s brain clicks into place, a queasy feeling squirming through his insides as he looks at her, then back at Q.

Penny and Q, downstairs first. And then Kady appearing later…

“I don’t know, I guess someone should go tell Fogg what happened,” Julia says. She’s the obvious candidate, given that she’s the one who spends most time with the dean, but she’s frowning thoughtfully at Quentin, clearly unwilling to leave.

Eliot knows the feeling.

“Yeah, that’s probably a good idea,” Alice says. “I’ll go. I just um. Need to grab a jacket or something.”

She looks down at the buttons on her blouse, which Eliot now notices have been done up unevenly, in her haste to re-dress herself. Now that the immediate danger seems to have passed, all of them are beginning to come back to themselves, aware of their various states of undress. Quentin’s not wearing a shirt. Neither is Penny.

Fuck. What?

Fuck.

“Let’s just go back to bed,” Quentin says, rubbing a tired hand through his hair. He’s looking at Penny as he says it, and he puts his other hand, warm and familiar, against Penny’s bicep.

Eliot’s eyes go crossed, his vision blurring. He takes a weird, stumbling step forward towards them, then jerks back instead, thinking better of it.

Quentin has already turned away, heading towards the stairs, but Penny catches Eliot’s odd behavior. “You good?” he asks Eliot, with a weird quirk of his eyebrows that Eliot can’t interpret. It seems ‒ gloaty, but that’s got to be projection, right? Eliot can’t look at him and he certainly can’t look at Quentin, so his eyes fall on Kady instead, in time to catch her frowning at her apparently-ex-again-boyfriend and Quentin, standing next to one another, clearly about to go back upstairs and to bed.

Where they had evidently been, together and shirtless, before the alarm had gone off.

Eliot looks around the room aimlessly, wishing there was a wall he could punch, or a glass he could throw. His hands have gone numb, he wants something to do with them. His face feels very hot, his throat incredibly dry.

“Um. Yeah. Yep. All good,” Eliot says, mechanical, and then he watches with disbelieving eyes as Quentin starts back up the stairs, with Penny right behind him. Julia follows, asserting her right to stay with Q no matter what, no matter what she might be interrupting

“Kady, are you okay?” Margo says, surprisingly soft-voiced.

Eliot stops staring at the now empty place where Quentin had just disappeared with Penny and Julia, and sees Kady’s vulnerable expression shutter into hardness. She snaps a glare over at Margo. “I’m fine. Goodnight.” And she storms off, ostensibly back to her own room.

And then there were three.

“Um,” Alice says, looking uncertainly at Eliot’s face. God, he wonders what he looks like right now. He feels like he’s just been slammed in the stomach by a heavy wooden club. “Um, so I’ll go talk to Fogg, then?”

“I’ll do it,” Eliot says. “I’ll go. You two go back to bed.”

He turns around and walks towards the coat rack without waiting for a response.

“Do you even know where Fogg sleeps at night?” Margo asks as he searches for a coat to wear over his shirtsleeves. It’s probably warm enough outside. It doesn’t matter.

“I’ll figure it out,” he says, distracted, selecting one of his favorites and swinging it around his shoulders. “Just go to sleep.”

“But ‒ ” Alice starts, but Eliot is striding towards the door, away from them, away from the place where Quentin and Penny have just gone upstairs to be together, the way they apparently want. His vision has gone blurry with rage.

“El, you’re not even wearing shoes,” Margo calls after him as he reaches the entry-way.

“I’ll float,” Eliot snaps, and he leaves the Cottage.

~~~~~

In this new world where Quentin and Eliot are hardly speaking, and certainly not about anything personal or emotional, information takes a rather circuitous route between them.

Quentin confides his true feelings to Julia, who might offer a hint of Quentin’s general state to Kady while the two of them are hanging out. Kady has gotten even closer with Alice recently, ever since Kady and Penny had called it quits for what seems like maybe the last time. Alice, reluctant to betray confidences, can sometimes still be persuaded to share vague generalities with Margo, who of course has no qualms whatsoever about telling Eliot anything he asks.

Eliot’s other way of obtaining information about Quentin is with his own two eyeballs, which means there’s not really any doubt about the Penny situation. Sure, he hasn’t caught them engaging in PDA, but they’re always, annoyingly, together, and Eliot has caught Penny coming out of Q’s room in the morning more than once. He can’t decide what’s worse ‒ the sight of a bleary-eyed Penny in the Cottage early in the mornings, or the nights when Q clearly sleeps elsewhere.

In short, Eliot is aggravatingly unable to deny that his ex-boyfriend Quentin Coldwater, the man he loves more than the breath in his own lungs, is sleeping with Penny Adiyodi.

What he doesn’t know is what exactly exists between them, beyond the physical. And that’s where Margo’s tenuous access to information comes in handy.

“What I don’t get is ‒ like are they just ‒ or are they like ‒ dating dating?” Eliot asks Margo, not even bothering to hide the desperation in his tone. Jesus, he sounds like a fucking middle schooler.

“Jesus, you sound like a fucking middle schooler,” Margo says. “I don’t know. They’re hanging out.”

She doesn’t even look at him, focused as she is on plucking her eyebrows in the ornately framed mirror she keeps hanging above her dresser. Eliot is sitting cross-legged on her bed, staring down at his folded hands. He feels very ‒ well, a lot of things. He feels very sad, mostly.

He knows it’s not fair of him to expect Quentin to just sit around and wait. Even if there’s a large part of him still hoping that once all of this is over… but that doesn’t actually matter. Just because he’s doing this for Quentin’s own good doesn’t mean he can expect forgiveness at the end of it. He’s been over this in his own head a thousand times.

“Hanging out how?” is what he says, instead of something mature or reasonable. “Like ‒ just sex, or ‒ ”

“Get a grip,” Margo says, but she means it kindly.

“I’m just ‒ trying to process. I thought he ‒ loved me.” His tongue trips over the word. “Or something. I don’t know, I guess I’m just surprised he’s already moving on, when ‒ ”

“You broke up with him.”

“But I didn’t want ‒ ”

“And the whole point of all of this is that he doesn’t know that,” Margo reminds him. She’s mocking him in that loving, condescending way of hers, and Eliot is letting her. It’s nice to have something familiar in these most trying of times.

“I know. It’s just, if he had broken up with me, I wouldn’t ‒ I mean, it just happened, Margo.”

(It happened over a month ago now, but who’s fucking counting.)

“Oh, please. If he’d ended it and the circumstances weren’t, you know, insane, you’d be getting your dick sucked by a whole conga line of eager and grateful Brakebills boys. But because you hurt him, you’re doing some sort of weird penance in the form of abstinence, and it’s making you cranky. And boring.”

A natural rebuttal springs to Eliot’s lips fully formed. He should dive in to the sparring as a distraction and let it carry him away, but instead he just sits there, staring at the wall. And he wonders.

He wonders how honest he should be. Quentin taught him that saying the shitty, difficult stuff out loud was sometimes the only way to make it stop hurting. So he contemplates, here in this moment, if he should say the true thing, the thing Margo already knows but has taken to avoiding for the sake of her own sanity, and Eliot’s. Being honest, being vulnerable, is the goddamn actual worst, and he knows his Bambi feels the same.

But fuck it. He has to say it out loud to someone, and he’s not allowed to say it to Quentin.

“I’m not doing penance.”

“I know you, Eliot,” Margo says immediately, gripping onto the pretense with all her might. “I know you haven’t fucked anyone since Quentin.” She pins him with a glare, daring him to contradict her, brandishing her tweezers in one hand.

“You’re right,” Eliot says, his voice heavy and low. “I haven’t. But it’s not penance.”

“El.” Margo makes a warning face.

“I don’t want anyone but him.”

“Eliot. Fuck, come on.”

“I know.”

Margo sighs, rubbing a tired hand through her hair. “I know you feel guilty, sweetie, and I know you’re in pain, but ‒ ”

“He’s the love of my life,” Eliot says, and then he almost wishes he hadn’t. Not because it’s not true, but because he’s sort of been saving those words for Quentin. It feels weird to say them to Margo when Q doesn’t know. When Q is probably somewhere holding hands with another person as they speak.

Is Penny the hand-holding type? God, Eliot wishes he’d paid more attention to his behavior when he’d been with Kady.

“This is some dire shit,” Margo says, solemn. She doesn’t look surprised by Eliot’s confession, just resigned to taking it seriously and helping however she can.

“That’s been true for a while,” Eliot says. His fingers itch for a cigarette or a drink or Quentin. Mostly Quentin. “I’m fucked.”

“Sounds like it,” she says, blunt. Margo clearly doesn’t want to do the whole melodramatic woe-is-me thing with Eliot right now, and he understands that, truly. But he suddenly finds he’s not done talking. Saying it out loud is helping, infinitesimally. Sometimes it’s too utterly impossible to hold it in, when all he wants to do is pull Quentin into his arms and tell him everything. Beg for another chance.

“You have no idea, Margo,” Eliot says. “You know when people say ‘I can’t sleep, I can’t eat,’ in movies, and it’s supposed to be romantic?”

Margo’s face twists up like she’s about to tell him to stop being such a baby, a natural instinct. But instead she just sighs, setting her tweezers down and coming over to him on the bed. She climbs up next to him and snuggles into his side, placing a kiss over his heart. “I’m sorry, El.”

“It’s not romantic,” Eliot chokes out. “I really can’t sleep, Bambi. I keep ‒ I wake up and I’m so cold. Every morning, I wake up alone in my stupid big bed and it’s just... he’s supposed to be there. He belongs with me. I was happy and I was making him happy. Do you have any idea ‒ ”

“I do,” Margo says. “I do have an idea.”

“How is it fair that I actually ‒ I mean, I was trying to be a good partner to him and I think I was actually pulling it off. I could have taken care of him for the rest of my life. I wanted to.”

“You can still have that,” Margo says, and she sounds so certain about it that Eliot almost hates her for a second.

“You don’t know that.”

“We’re going to kick this thing’s ass.” She’s so confident, even as she misses the point by a mile. “We’ll defeat the Beast, and then ‒ ”

“And then I’ll still have broken up with Quentin,” Eliot says. “God, do you have any idea how many times I’ve dreamed that when this is all over, and Q’s still standing at the end of it, I’ll be able to just run over and ‒ and ‒ you’d be horrified, Margo, and the end-of-the-movie sweeping romantic gestures I’ve imagined. It’s

not going to be like that, though. Even the best case scenario is not going to be like that.”

Eliot knows this for a certainty, even if he can’t quite say why. Obviously he’s never lived through a “best case scenario” in a previous loop ‒ this whole breakup strategy of Fogg’s hasn’t been successful yet, or Eliot wouldn’t be here in the first place. But he does know Quentin. He knows that Q needs time to process, that he has to talk things out, and that Eliot has wounded him deeply. Just the factual knowledge that Eliot hadn’t wanted to do it doesn’t change the fact that it’s been done.

The finish line, for Eliot, isn’t actually the Beast’s defeat. It’s the moment, as nebulous and unlikely as it might be, where he can make amends to Quentin, where he can earn some measure of his forgiveness and, if he’s very, very lucky… trust.

“I think you’re underestimating the degree to which that boy is obsessed with you,” Margo says, and despite the callousness of the word obsessed, she says it with sincerity and heat.

“He’s dating someone else,” Eliot reminds her, bringing them back around to the depressing origin of this whole conversation.

“But not dating dating,” Margo says, mocking his earlier question, even as she snakes an arm around his waist and squeezes. “Please. They’re just doing some rebound banging, El, it’s not the end of the world.”

“I’m a jealous monogamist,” Eliot laments, flopping back against Margo’s endless pillows and pulling her tiny body down with him. “I don’t want anyone else to touch him. Jesus, what happened to me?”

Margo smiles, a little wistful, a little bewildered, peering up at him with the big doe eyes that Eliot has adored from the start. “I think you fell in love, honey. It’s disgusting, I agree, but there’s really not a lot you can do about it right now.”

“That’s the problem,” Eliot says, wobbly-voiced and pathetic. “One hundred percent of my brainpower should be focused on the Beast, and on the fact that he tried to get through the wards the other night, that he could be strategizing on ways of getting through our defenses right this second, and we’re still not finished with the goddamn spell ‒ ”

“The Destroyer of Homicidal Fuckery,” Margo declares. “Try that one on for size.”

“It’s a mouthful,” Eliot critiques, and then continues on, ignoring Margo’s pout. “The point is, I should be worried about bigger picture shit. I should be focused on doing what I can, to protect the world from the Beast. But this morning I saw Penny hand Quentin the pepper shaker for his eggs during breakfast without even being asked, and I nearly ripped it out of his hands and bashed him over the head with it.”

“Penny’s not a bad guy, El,” Margo says, like that’s the point. Like that matters.

“I know,” Eliot bites out. “I’m aware. But he’s not right for Quentin. He’s not for Quentin, and Quentin’s not for him.”

Margo squints her eyes up at him, still snuggled firmly into his side. “So which is worse, the thought of Quentin being miserable because of you, or the thought of him being not miserable, with someone else?”

“Fuck you for asking,” Eliot says, with a snort of pained amusement. “I’m supposed to say I want him to be happy no matter what, right?”

“I think you’re supposed to say how you really feel,” Margo says, pragmatic. “It’s me you’re talking to, after all. You can be as selfish as you want and I’ll probably just egg you on.”

“You know how I feel,” Eliot says, the words heavy on his tongue. He swallows a few times, suddenly tired of talking, burnt out with no warning. “I don’t know how long I can survive this.”

“For as long as it takes,” Margo says at once. “You’ll survive it as long as it takes to keep Quentin alive, and then you’ll survive just a little longer, and you’ll win him back.”

Eliot hopes she’s right. In fact, he’s kind of banking on it. As far as Eliot is concerned, and as far as Fogg has told him… there is no plan B.

~~~~~

Finding the last piece of the Big Bad Annihilation Spell (copyright Margo Hanson) ends up being something of an anticlimax. Julia, Alice, and Quentin return bleary-eyed from the library one evening and announce that they finally figured out a solution to the weird balance issue, and that with a second Knowledge caster working on the binding, the math suddenly comes out golden.

In fact, they’ve already found their volunteer. The spell will be cast by Quentin, Eliot, Margo, Alice, Kady, Penny, Julia, and… Fogg. Apparently Julia has been discussing it with him during their ongoing independent study, which is just…

It’s weird. Sure, Julia hates Eliot now, but Eliot doesn’t hate her by any stretch of the imagination. And it’s just so strange to know that she and Fogg are friendly, are working together, when Eliot has this special insight that tells him that Fogg is likely to be manipulating Julia to his own ends whenever they’re together. Nothing Fogg is teaching her in their private lessons can be trusted, all of it is likely in service to Fogg’s Beast-killing obsession.

But that’s probably beside the point. Eliot trusts Fogg. He doesn’t really have a choice. And there is something comforting about his involvement, here. Yet another obvious sign that things are going the way they’re supposed to.

It’s a perfect day outside, at the start of the second week in April, when the eight of them gather together in the middle of the Sea to perform the spell. Already, Fogg’s presence is helpful, as he shoos away curious bystanders and even erects a basic privacy shield around them, encasing them in a large opaque dome. Eliot supposes the other students will probably just think Fogg’s doing something fucked up and dangerous with some of his students, which seems right in line with Brakebill’s general pedagogy anyway.

But on the other hand, Fogg’s presence among them is disconcerting in the extreme. As painful and strained as Eliot’s relationships have become with his friends, there’s still a certain rhythm to it, a predictability in Kady’s glances of miserable solidarity, in Julia’s aloof glaring, in Quentin’s heartbreaking expressions of mistrust and grief. Eliot knows what to expect with these people, even if he doesn’t exactly enjoy it.

Now, everyone is on edge, as if preparing mentally for an important exam that will determine their life-long fates. Being around an authority figure as severe and imposing as Henry Fogg will do that to a person.

“Everyone know their parts?” Julia asks as they sit in a circle facing one another. “Any questions, now is the time to ask.”

“The anchor,” Margo says, sticking a pointer finger in the air. “We’ve taken for granted that it has to be Quentin who takes the power for himself, but is that technically true?”

Quentin looks at her in surprise, but Eliot, sitting beside her, feels only gratitude. They’re his words coming out of her mouth. They’d discussed it ahead of time.

“I’m the one the Beast is after. He said my name, he knows me,” Quentin says, like this settles it.

“But why?” Margo asks. “I mean, just for the sake of argument, here, let’s say the Beast is fixated on you specifically, even though none of us have any idea as to why that would be. It doesn’t necessarily follow that you be the one to take him on. Why not use you as bait?”

Eliot shoots her a sharp, furtive glare. That last part is decidedly not part of what they’d discussed.

Julia scoffs, pinning Margo with an equally hateful look. “The Beast is after Quentin, and therefore Quentin needs the power to survive it. This makes sense. It’s the only thing that makes sense.”

“It’s a little late to be raising objections,” Fogg says, speaking up for the first time. He gives Eliot an inscrutable look, and Eliot interprets it as back the fuck off. But here, at the point of no return, he keeps remembering that in the last loop, they’d performed this spell with Quentin as the anchor, and Quentin had still ended up dead.

“So we’re sure there’s no other way to do this?” Eliot speaks even though he knows he shouldn’t, avoiding Fogg’s eyes, Julia’s eyes, especially Quentin’s eyes. “No way to... power up the spell without anchoring it right away? We could ‒ decide later, who gets the extra juice.”

“What would be the point of that?” Alice asks, an academic inquiry.

“I just mean…”

“He doesn’t think I can do it,” Quentin says, dull, sitting back and resting on his elbows. Eliot’s eyes catch on the line of his throat as he tilts his head back. “He thinks it should be someone more skilled.”

“That’s not ‒ ” Eliot protests, vaguely horrified at the way Quentin hadn’t even been able to say the words directly to him. “Of course you can do it, Q, it’s just ‒ incredibly fucking dangerous, and I don’t want you being tossed to the wolves here.”

“So someone else is supposed to risk their life because you’re afraid I can’t fucking handle the pressure? Jesus, Eliot, the Beast wants me, I’m not letting anyone else ‒ ”

“That’s some Grade-A bullshit and you know it. This is all of us or none of us, Q, you’re not doing this alone,” Eliot says, furious. He feels wetness gathering at the edges of his eyes and he blinks it back. He’s not surprised by Quentin’s attitude, by his insistence, but he is terrified by it. Quentin would throw his life away in a heartbeat to protect the people he cares about, and preventing that exact outcome is pretty much the only reason Eliot has left for getting out of bed in the morning.

“This is all moot,” Penny says, sounding almost lazy. He’s sitting between Quentin and Alice, and as he speaks he straightens his spine and folds his legs under him, cool and collected. “The anchoring part of the spell runs on emotional resonances. Personal connections. Whoever takes on the anchor needs to be someone the other seven of us feel personally close to.”

Penny lets that sit for a second as the implications settle over them all, and Eliot feels a burn of jealousy rush through him and then dissipate. Even in his irrational desire to disagree with everything Penny says on principle, he knows he’s right. Quentin is the glue that holds them together. He is the center of this. He’s the bridge between Margo and Penny, between Alice and Julia, between Eliot and Kady. They’re not a family unless Quentin is there to make them one.

Quentin looks predictably flustered at Penny’s words, offering him a tentative smile of thanks. Which pretty much makes Eliot want to maul him, smother him with the overwhelming amount of love that he’s forced to suppress each and every day. He wants to scream out ‒ how can you not see yourself, how can you not know what you are to me? To all of us?

In any case, there’s not much more to be said after that. A few last minute adjustments, as Julia hands out papers like she’s a ‘cool’ teacher who’s decided to have class outside on a nice day, and then everyone straightens up, sitting in the circle in perfect casting form, ready to begin.

The biggest burden of the spell falls on Penny, as the nucleus of the psychic link, and on Fogg and Julia, with their specialized and highly advanced Knowledge metaphysical mumbo-jumbo, supporting Penny and allowing for the Physical casters to fill in the rest of the spell with their raw power.

Penny takes a moment before he starts to make eye-contact with everyone sitting around the circle. It’s part of the prep, to be totally honest and open and vulnerable, to acknowledge and accept the link that’s about to be formed between them. Eliot swallows hard when Penny’s eyes swing from Margo’s face to his own, and he reminds himself viciously of the consequences for failure. He meets Penny’s eyes, he ignores the growing jealousy and invasive thoughts, and does everything in his power to meet him where he is, to accept his help and honor the work he’s put in to keep Quentin safe.

They’re on the same side.

They’re all on the same side.

When the spell starts, Eliot and the other physical kids watch for a moment as first Penny, and then Julia and Fogg, begin casting, and then they join in, their hands moving in rhythmic patterns, oft practiced but never performed together like this, with all the pieces falling into place.

At first it feels no different from the practice itself, and then ‒

Then

Eliot feels the psychic framework click into place.

It’s not like doing cooperative magic. Or rather, maybe it is, but it’s… more. Yes, he can feel the swirling flavors of other magical signatures, can pick out Julia’s precision and Quentin’s intimate awe and Alice’s brittle anger and Kady’s brashness and Margo’s over-confidence and Penny’s cerebral focus and, god, more powerful and knowledgeable than he’d known a magician can be, Fogg’s potent mix of experience and careful study, honed over multiple lifetimes.

But beyond the standard effects of casting cooperative magic, Eliot feels… them.

The spell shifts, folding in the more complicated feeding of energy, and Eliot’s hands move in practiced ease, in synchronous motion with Margo on his right, and Kady on his left.

And he can feel them ‒ his friends, his chosen people, the ones he loves and the ones he kind of hates right now. The ones who love him and hate him in return.

It is, heartbreakingly, the closest Eliot has felt to Quentin in months. It’s a chance, a surprising, out of the blue, undeniable chance, for Quentin to understand Eliot on a deeper level, to access the truth of him in a way that hasn’t been possible in so long. Dangerous, perhaps, but Fogg had pushed for this to happen which means it must be okay. Just as Eliot feels Quentin’s generosity of spirit and cleverness of mind, just as he delves into the broken, bruised pieces of his heart, and becomes awash in his core-deep sadness and hope, mingled together as always, he knows Quentin must be experiencing him right back.

The power of it is overwhelming enough that Eliot can feel tears welling up in his eyes. It’s okay, though ‒ everyone’s emotions and thoughts and souls are mixed together in such a potent array that nobody’s going to call him on it if he gets a little weepy. He’d be surprised to find a single dry eye in the aftermath of something so intense.

The chanting goes on long enough to become a rhythmic habit, spoken without conscious intent. As much as Eliot would love to grasp on to Quentin and nobody else, he knows he can’t do that. It’s important to sink into it, to not let the conscious mind catch too quickly onto the intricacies of the woven words. Eliot enters the desired trance-like state and because of Penny’s psychic matrix, can feel it when the rest of them settle into it as well. Becoming one, in the magical sense.

And then it’s time to give a piece of himself to Quentin. That’s the easiest part of the spell. He has no qualms about trusting Q with this, about feeding him an access line into his own well of magical power. It’s dangerous, of course, on a purely practical level. Quentin will have the theoretical ability to tap into energy reserves outside of himself. After today, he could suck the magic right out of Eliot, out of all of them at once, and become as powerful as a Niffin without losing himself in the process.

There’s a reason this spell is hedge work. There’s a reason it took Fogg so long to find.

There’s a reason why it has to be Quentin.

There are no fireworks at all when the spell ends, it just… stops, the humming of the ambient in the air around them reaching a fever-pitch, vibrating along Eliot’s arms, and then fading into the background, leaving them all settled and still and silent.

Eliot becomes aware that his eyes were closed only as he opens them. He looks at Quentin first, sitting across the circle from him, and catches Q staring back, his jaw clenched and trembling as a few last tears spill out of his eyes.

Eliot opens his mouth, anguished, nearly says something, although he’s not sure what. His hands are buzzing with the remnants of the spell but also with the familiar, agonizing desire to touch Q, to heal him with his hands in whatever way he can. But then he hears Margo let out an angry snort of air like a startled horse next to him, shaking her limbs out and gasping for breath, for equilibrium. He turns to her instead, a necessary escape.

“Jesus,” Kady croaks out on Eliot’s other side, and the group relaxes further, the seal of silence broken.

“Holy hell,” Penny concurs, his eyes darting around like he can’t decide where to look.

“That was beautiful,” Alice says, surprisingly earnest.

“That was kinda fucked up,” Julia says, but it’s in the same reverent tone of voice.

“Did it work?” Kady asks, and she’s not looking at Julia, the main architect of the spell, but at Quentin, its recipient.

Q is silent for a moment, eyes closed and face frozen into rigid lines, and then his expression smooths out, and he opens his eyes again, a hand coming up to brush clumsily at his tear tracks.

“Yeah,” Quentin says, his voice raw and blatantly emotional. “I can feel you all. It definitely worked.”

And Eliot carries that moment with him for the rest of the day, for the rest of the week. He’ll probably carry it with him for the rest of his life, come what may between him and Quentin. The knowledge that a piece of him is Q’s to care for once again. It’s not enough, but it’s what he can give.

Mission accomplished.

~~~~~

There is an unanticipated problem, though, with the mission being accomplished.

Which is that now, Eliot has nothing to distract him from how fucking miserable he is. Margo is horrified and astonished to realize that Eliot has deeper reserves of pathetic moping than already displayed, and Eliot too is having trouble wrapping his mind around the fact that yes, things absolutely can get worse than the worst he’s ever felt.

When he’d been working on the spell, he’d had a reason to get up in the morning, get dressed, go talk to people, work alongside his erstwhile friends. And now?

God, Eliot knows he has every reason to be relieved to have the spell done and over with. The only piece left now is the activation sequence, which Quentin can do at any time, and then the power will surge full-force, coalescing in Quentin as the focal point. They are as prepared as they can possibly be for the Beast’s attack, and Fogg in particular seems almost smug about the success.

(The dean has actually found Eliot smoking out on the Sea one morning, and under pretense of asking him about his mentor, had given him what Eliot supposed were meant to be reassuring words. “Everything is perfectly on schedule, exactly on script,” Fogg had said, his tone so genuinely excited that it had lost some of its sardonic edge. “I couldn’t have asked for better, from all of you.”

At the time, Eliot had considered asking Fogg about Ted Coldwater, about the amount of grief this stupid plan seemed to pile onto Quentin specifically. He thought about demanding answers for why someone else couldn’t have taken on the burden to begin with. Surely he, Eliot Waugh of the typical queer tragedy, has enough grief stacked up to his name? Surely he could have been poked and prodded and molded into a Beast-killer himself, to spare Quentin the burden of responsibility, and the risk that comes with it?

But for all he knows, Fogg already tried that. There are days, moments, when Eliot starts to doubt Fogg’s plans, starts to think hard about why he himself didn’t try more, to find another way back when he’d first learned the truth. But Eliot tries not to linger on such thoughts for long. His head will explode. His eggs are all in one basket and he will defend that basket to his dying breath.)

The point is, knowing that the plan is “on script,” doesn’t make it any easier to say his lines.

And honestly? While his mind should be occupied with the Beast, with wondering when he’ll appear, with wondering if Fogg knows when he’ll appear and is keeping it secret for his own esoteric reasons, Eliot is instead obsessing over something entirely else.

It’s just that watching Quentin and Penny together, without the power to do anything about it, is something akin to torture.

It might be easier if the two of them were obvious and blatant about the whole thing, making out on the couch, holding hands, talking in low, intimate whispers to one another in crowded rooms.

But they’re doing none of those things. They’re… being friends. They hang out, they practice some of the battle magic Kady has been demonstrating for them all, they work on their homework, they grab lunch together… nobody who didn’t know they were fucking would ever pick up on it, just from watching their behavior.

Which means Eliot is reduced to studying micro-expressions, obsessing over the way their arms brush against each other slightly as they walk side by side, or the exact meaning behind Penny’s smile when he looks at Q. Was that a you just said something genuinely amusing smile, or a I’m falling for you so everything you say is cute to me smile? Eliot doesn’t know Penny well enough to tell the difference.

Just days after they’d all joined together in a potent display of magical creativity and energy so beautiful it had made them all weep, Eliot finds himself glancing over the back of the couch in the Cottage, sneaking surreptitious, childish glances at the man of his dreams, and the other man who gets to have him.

Pathetic doesn’t feel like a strong enough word.

He does his best not to stare for too long or too often, but the textbook open in his lap is not nearly compelling enough to serve as a proper distraction. In an effort to avoid craning his neck backwards again to see if Penny really is leaning closer to Quentin than friendship allows, or if that’s just the jealousy filter distorting his perception, Eliot looks around the room, desperate for distraction.

Before long, his eyes catch on Kady Orloff-Diaz, and the strangest thing happens: he recognizes himself in the look on her face. The pinched nostrils, tight lips, narrowed eyes. She catches him looking, and looks away, a predictable glare transforming her features. Eliot scoffs to himself, turning back to his trembling hands, resting against the pages of his book. But then, to his surprise, he hears the soft thud of footsteps, and Kady appears at his side, looking down at him with determination.

“You too, huh?” she says, her lips twitching down into a slight frown.

“I’m sure I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Eliot says back, partially because he feels like being a dickhead, on edge as he always is when he witnesses Quentin and Penny together. But also because Kady’s not allowed to know that Eliot is a pining moron. That’s the kind of shit that gets around.

Kady doesn’t even bother responding directly to his snappishness, just gives him a contemplative look and then jerks her head towards the door. “Follow me.”

Eliot stands up, and he follows.

He doesn’t know why he follows, exactly, other than just a general sense that getting away from Q right now is probably the best move for everyone involved. And Kady… she’s straight-forward, she’s no-nonsense, she’ll stonewall him if he tries to feel sorry for himself. There’s something appealing about that, a nearly Margo-esque quality without being tempered by genuine and deep love.

“Here’s the deal,” Kady says when they’re outside, striding with purpose across the Sea. Eliot doesn’t know, or care, where they’re going. “We’re going to go blow some shit up, and we’re going to talk about our stupid hurt feelings if we feel like it, and then we’re going to pretend it never happened.”

“Kady ‒ ”

“Keep pretending you don’t give a shit that your ex and mine are fucking, and I’ll blow you up, Waugh. You’re stupidly obvious.”

Eliot feels the familiar trickle of fear that accompanies any indication that he’s fucking it up, that his love for Quentin is outgrowing his ability to contain and conceal it. If Kady says something like that in front of Q, and Q believes it…

“Don’t get all paranoid,” Kady continues, nearly reading his mind. “I know you don’t want Quentin to know you’re heartbroken for some inexplicable reason, and frankly I don’t care enough about your bullshit to push you on why.”

“So then why the impromptu therapy session?” Eliot asks. Kady walks incredibly fast. Despite the difference in their heights, Eliot is moving at full-stride to keep up with her. “I suppose I’m not allowed to ask you about Penny, either, hm?”

Of the long list of irrational reasons Eliot has to be angry, blaming Kady is one of the most shitty and unfair. Still, the voice in the back of his head keeps reminding him that if Kady and Penny had just sorted out their stupid goddamn bullshit, then Q wouldn’t be ‒

Unfair. That’s unfair. And Kady is… what, trying to reach out, here? Eliot should work on being slightly less of an asocial prick about it.

They’ve reached one of the older academic buildings on campus, one that Eliot has actually never entered before. He thinks the Knowledge kids have classes in here sometimes, but a lot of the building is clearly in need of repair. When they step into the hallway the lights are out, and Eliot waves a hand to produce balls of illumination without thinking about it, casting over a long narrow hallway with creaky wooden flooring.

“Did you take me here to murder me?” Eliot asks. There’s been an odd uptick in that particular fear as of late. Although he can’t imagine why Kady would have anything against him personally. Unless she too is irrationally blaming him for not keeping Quentin happy, leading to…

“That wasn’t the plan, no,” Kady says, walking down the dim hallway towards a door at the very back.

“Okay, good, just felt important to check.” Eliot follows.

When they enter the room at the end of the hall, Eliot freezes for a moment in surprise. He hadn’t really given much thought to wherever Kady was leading him, but the words we’re going to blow some shit up probably should have given him a hint.

“Is this a…”

“Battle magic arena?” Kady says. “Yep.” She pops the ‘p’ on the last word and stands with her arms crossed, satisfaction settling over her features. “Before the school stopped teaching it, this is where students would go to practice.”

Across the room are a line of pillars with lumpy balls of what look kind of like clay, sitting atop each uneven support. Kady flicks her wrists around and pushes, and one of the lumps shoots backwards off of its pillar and explodes into a bunch of tiny fragments. “I come in here sometimes, to let off some steam,” she says, nodding her head in invitation at the other pillars.

Eliot copies Kady’s motion, a basic battle magic spell. He’s right on target too, although the power of his blast isn’t quite as strong as Kady’s. This kind of magic pulls from a well different from the one he uses for most of his telekinesis. He’ll probably never be as good at it as she is.

Still, it’s fucking fun.

For a while the two of them are silent, making use of the various equipment in the room. Eliot pushes targets off of pillars and watches with satisfaction as they break apart against the far wall, while Kady spin-kicks magic blasts towards disks to twirl them around, the gonging sound ringing in Eliot’s ears and somehow heightening the experience.

They kick and punch and push and heave, until the whole room is sparking with waves of their combined magic. After a while, (Eliot has already lost track of how long they’ve been going) Kady lets out a feral scream and Eliot follows suit, past caring if the room is sound-proofed or not.

He’s so fucking angry that he’s not allowed to be Quentin’s boyfriend. He’s so fucking angry that someone else gets to touch him. He’s a selfish dickhead for caring so much about this. He’s a shitty friend for not caring about Kady until she showed up and forced the issue, reminding him that there’s actually someone else who has a chance of understanding just a fraction of what he’s going through. He’s angry at Margo for still dating Alice, when half the time she doesn’t even seem like she wants a girlfriend in the first place, and he’s angry at himself again for being such an uncharitable douche to his Bambi, albeit only in his own head.

Unlike the disappointing realization that crying doesn’t actually offer much in the way of catharsis, this all-out display of rage and property destruction and violence is deeply, thoroughly satisfying. Of course, that’s probably also fucked up, and Eliot should probably tack on just a bit more self-loathing for the fact that he’s essentially throwing a temper tantrum with magic right now, which is obviously dangerous, and ‒

And ‒

And for a while Eliot lets himself be swept away into his rage and his grief and every shitty, unkind, selfish, monstrous thought he’s been carting around with him for the last eight weeks or so, ever since Fogg guided him, an unsuspecting little lamb, directly into his office for the emotional slaughter of the century.

Eventually the blasts of magic pinging around the room start to come less frequently, and Eliot can hear the gasping harshness of Kady’s breathing in between the louder sounds of clay exploding and gongs being rung.

And then with a final, desultory clang of metal, Kady’s arms drop like lead to her side, and Eliot’s follow suit.

He feels like one giant bruise.

He feels better than he has in a long while.

“So,” Eliot says, coughing and taking a few unsteady steps in Kady’s direction. “Come here often?”

“I’m not sure I should say,” Kady says, with a wry twist of her lips. Her face is oddly radiant, flushed with exertion, and Eliot has the nearly hysterical impulse to hug her.

He doesn’t, of course, just takes a couple more steps and then slumps against the wall, near the door. Kady follows suit.

“So what did happen?” Eliot asks, still heaving for breath and accepting a water bottle that Kady has produced from seemingly nowhere. “Between you and Adiyodi.”

Kady shrugs, assuaging Eliot’s fear that he’s actually not supposed to ask. “You probably wouldn't believe me if I said I didn’t know, right?”

Eliot scoffs and doesn’t answer, and Kady actually smiles, a sheepish but seemingly genuine thing.

“I know why we broke up the first time,” Kady clarifies. “I was lying to him and ‒ well, I could have gotten a lot of people hurt.”

Eliot knows this already, or at least he knows the outlines of it. Fogg had told him during their first life-changing, heartbreaking conversation about the Beast. Something about Hedges, and Kady’s mother, and stealing from the school…

But Kady can’t know Eliot knows any of that, so he stays carefully silent, wondering how much confiding she’s actually going to do.

“I was into some bad shit, but that’s over now,” she says, and Eliot nearly laughs. That answers that question. “But I thought we’d… worked it out,” Kady continues, like she’s still puzzling through it. “We fought about it, and I groveled, and we got back together, but nothing was right after that.”

Ah, excellent, another one of Eliot’s creeping fears. That even once they get through this, and Eliot has permission to tell Quentin everything… they’ll still never be able to go back to what they once had. “In what way?” he asks, feigning nonchalance. He might be looking for pointers, a handy what-not-to-do checklist.

“We might not be cut out for monogamy,” Kady says. “But we’re both shit at talking about that, and keeping secrets is the thing that kept fucking us over, so…” she shrugs, and then something in her face shutters closed. Eliot knows she’s done talking now, despite the fact that several more questions have started to bubble up in his own mind. Questions about Julia and Alice, and Kady’s interesting habit of public flirting. Questions about Penny and Quentin, and to what degree Kady thinks Penny might just be trying to make her jealous.

“What about you and Quentin?” Kady asks. “Sharing is caring, Waugh.”

“The sad thing is, fucking nothing happened,” Eliot says, a blatant and necessary lie. “We were happy and then I got scared and ran. I don’t know. It seems pathetic when I say it like that but I don’t have a better answer for you.”

Kady nods, accepting this without prying, and Eliot is insanely grateful. For Quentin’s sake, as always, but also for his own. It’s nice to have someone take his words at face value, even if those words are a lie in service of saving the world.

“What would you say to him right now, if you could?” she asks, and Eliot responds before he can think better of it.

“Most days I feel like I’m going to die if I can’t touch you again.”

“That’s melodramatic as shit.”

“I’m a theatrical bitch,” Eliot says, taking a final swig of his water. “Doesn’t mean it’s not true.”

“So you’re really not going to tell me the specifics, then?” Kady asks, spinning the lid of her own water bottle in her hands. “I totally made myself vulnerable or whatever, and all I get in return is ‘I got scared and ran?’”

Privately, Eliot thinks that that’s not nothing. Even if it’s not the truth in this case, an admission of fear is about as vulnerable as he knows how to be with most people. But he’s got to stay in character, more or less, so instead he says ‒

“I thought you didn’t give a shit.”

“Okay, the secret truth is that everyone likes gossip about other people’s stupid relationships,” Kady says. “Even me.”

Eliot surprises himself by laughing. “I wish I could give you a simple answer,” he says. “I wish I could have given Q a simple answer. But it’s over. It really is ‒ it’s over and I can’t walk it back.”

“Well,” Kady says, staring down at her feet and then pushing up off of the wall. She starts heading for the door, and Eliot follows. “For what it’s worth, I’m sorry.”

They head together back out of the building and into the sunlight, particularly bright after the gloominess inside. In silence, they tread back towards the Cottage, back to the place where the people they love have been spending their nights together. Back to the only place either of them have left to call home.

“For what it’s worth,” Eliot says, “it is worth something.” And he means it.

~~~~~

Some days, Eliot is good at being aloof around Quentin. Or at least he’s tolerably believable at it. Other days, not so much.

Eliot is out on the Sea one morning, minding is own fucking business, trying to dredge up the energy to walk to class, when he sees Q and Penny standing together near a tree. They’re not standing close, they’re not even touching, they’re just talking to one another. But Eliot needs absolutely no actual evidence of intimacy between them to imagine it. Like a scene in a movie, he pictures Penny taking a step closer, bringing a hand up to cup around Quentin’s jaw. He pictures them kissing, a soft, gentle goodbye, before they separate to go about their days. He pictures Quentin smiling after him as Penny walks away, a private, giddy joy suffusing his face as he sinks in to the pleasures of new love.

Eliot is so good at picturing these things, in fact, that it takes him a moment to realize that he’s stopped walking to stare at them, and then another moment to realize that they actually are saying goodbye to each other and separating for their days. No kiss, just Q placing a quick hand on Penny’s arm and squeezing goodbye, and then it’s over. Penny calls something over his shoulder at Quentin as he walks away, and Q shakes his head and waves a hand at him in dismissal of whatever it was.

Eliot wishes he was closer, so he could hear.

Eliot wishes for a lot of things. Constantly.

By the time Eliot has unstuck his feet from the ground and started to walk towards class, he realizes that Q is heading in the same direction, and that unless he veers off or slows down, they’re going to fall into step with each other. The thought is distressing, and Eliot hates how much overthinking he manages to cram into the roughly fifteen seconds that pass between his realization, and the moment when Q does indeed fall in next to him along the path. Should he run? Is it weirder to avoid Q so blatantly, or will Q just interpret it as Eliot being kind to him, since obviously they both know Q doesn’t like to be around him, and ‒

“Hi,” Quentin says, and Eliot sucks in a tiny gasp of air, willing his racing heart to slow down.

“Hi,” he says back.

Success. Normalcy. Nobody’s crying or yelling, which is as much of a win as he can reasonably expect in these trying times.

“Um,” Quentin says, and Eliot braces himself for something heartbreaking, but Quentin just pauses for a moment and then says ‒ “How ‒ how are you?”

Oh.

“Oh, um. Good,” Eliot says. He hates conversations like this with Quentin, hates the inane politeness they’ve been reduced to. Would it be okay to ask him about Ted? Is that crossing a line? What the fuck else is he supposed to say? He can’t exactly talk about the weather, can he?

And then, out of the blue, something happens. In slow motion, and all at once.

First, Eliot risks a peek at Quentin, turning his head to gauge the expression on his face as he searches for a safe topic of conversation. And almost simultaneously, Quentin lifts a hand to brush his hair back from his face, and Eliot’s eyes catch on a faint yellow-green spot on his arm.

Without meaning to, without thinking the thought, Eliot’s hand snaps out and catches at Quentin’s hand, squeezing like a vice and pulling the arm closer to him. “Is that a bruise?” he demands, pulling Quentin to a stop.

Quentin yanks his arm back and Eliot lets it drop, startled at himself, at the fact that he’d just touched Quentin, just touched his hand, and his mind is too full of other things to even appreciate the fleeting sensation. “Q, what the fuck? Is that a bruise?” He makes a grab for Quentin’s other arm, but Quentin steps back again.

“Calm the fuck down,” he says, low-voiced and annoyed. “Yes, but it’s not a big deal.”

Eliot has heard the term rage blackout before and has never really understood what it meant, but he thinks he might be entering into one now. The rest of the world doesn’t exist, just the faint spots of color against Quentin’s skin, and he thinks of his mother for the first time in years, his eyes suddenly stinging with furious, outraged tears, as he speaks again. “Did he do this to you.”

The fury on Quentin’s face melts away slowly as he looks up at Eliot. He blinks, and his mouth drops open, and after a second he lets out a nervous yet incredulous laugh. “Oh, holy shit, Eliot, no, not like that. Of course not.”

Eliot swallows around a jack-hammer heartbeat, pulling air in through his nostrils like an angry bull. “Not like what?” he says. “What did he ‒ ”

“Okay,” Quentin says, all trace of irritation completely absent now. He holds both of his arms up in a placating gesture, but then jerks them back down to his sides as he realizes that he’s just putting the bruises on better display. “Okay, Eliot, listen to me, Penny’s not hurting me, I promise you. Okay, it was just an accident, it was just ‒ ”

“He squeezed your arms tight enough to leave a mark,” Eliot says, hollow, disbelieving. “That doesn’t happen by accident.”

He can’t believe he’s going to have to kill someone. Here, on campus. He can’t believe after everything, he’s going to have to do that, and then Fogg will try to erase his memory or throw him in magicians prison or something, and Eliot will have to run, and all their careful planning will just be out the window, and ‒

Eliot has the wherewithal, just barely, to see it when Quentin’s face flushes, and he looks down at his feet for a moment before answering. “I asked him to. Not ‒ not to mark me, just to hold me tighter? Um. We didn’t realize until the next morning?”

Eliot freezes, staring at him in numb incomprehension for a long while. And then his mind flashes unhelpfully to a night early in his relationship with Q when they’d woken up to discover bruising around Quentin’s hips from where Eliot had been gripping him the night before. Quentin had asked for it. He’d asked for it harder, more, please, harder, and Eliot had given it to him. Gladly. Ravenously.

He’d been half ashamed, half pleased with the evidence of his touch on Quentin’s body, and the shame had mostly vanished when Quentin had assured him with wide, honest eyes that it was probably the hottest thing that had ever happened to him, and also he’d be cool if Eliot wanted to give him bruises where people could see, which had led to Eliot launching himself at Q in the bed and sucking big black and blue marks onto his neck, which had led to Margo and Julia falling over themselves laughing and groaning, which had led to Quentin flushing red to the tip of his nose, pleased and humiliated and pleased by the humiliation, which had led to Eliot practically picking him up to bring him back upstairs, because holy shit they had to explore this more immediately

“Eliot?”

Oh god.

Wow. Okay.

Eliot doesn’t know if this is better or worse than he’d been picturing. For some reason, whenever he’d torture himself imagining Penny and Quentin together, he’d thought of it as gentle and loving and sweet, all of the things Eliot wanted back, all of the tenderness missing from his life without Quentin. But Quentin likes it rough, too. Eliot knows that. And now apparently Penny knows that.

Dear fucking god, Eliot thinks he might actually throw up.

“He did this to you during sex?” is all he can think to say, even though that much is already abundantly clear. His voice comes out all croaky and thready. His fight response is still pumping through his veins, fierce and all-consuming and nauseating.

“He felt bad about it,” Quentin says quickly, desperate to defend his lover from Eliot’s misplaced, inappropriate wrath. “He keeps bugging me to go see Lipson, but it’s seriously not even a ‒ a thing. I just ‒ we’ve ‒ I don’t know, we’ve gotten rough with each other a couple times.”

And then, despite everything, despite the fact that Eliot loves Quentin and never wants to hurt him, he finds himself lashing out, past the limit of emotional endurance. The words escape him quickly, and they ring in the silence between them, ugly and cruel, the second they’re spoken.

“Isn’t that a little fucked up, given your history?”

Eliot hates himself with an immediate ferocity that puts his general self-loathing to shame. He widens his eyes and clicks his jaw shut, reaching a hand out towards Quentin as if to catch the words before they reach him.

Quentin doesn’t back down and limp off like a wounded animal, though. Instead, he flares up at once, taking an angry step towards Eliot with his fists bunched up at his sides.

“What, my history with hurting myself? I don’t need to hurt myself anymore Eliot, apparently that’s what I’ve got you for.”

Eliot stumbles back, a literal, involuntary cringe as the words hit him like bullets.

He wants to grab Quentin’s shoulders and shake him, can feel the rebuttal building up in the back of his throat ‒ I would never hurt you, Quentin, I’d rather fucking die. But he can’t say that, because it’s ‒ because he has hurt him. So much. Too much to ever take it back, to ever fix it.

He deserves whatever Quentin wants to say to him. He deserves a lot worse.

But Quentin looks pale and regretful at once, clearly chagrined. “I’m sorry. God, that was ‒ an extremely fucked up thing to say. I’m sorry, Eliot.”

Eliot makes a sound that might, charitably, be considered a laugh. A bubbling, hysterical thing in the back of his throat. Quentin apologizing to him is so horrifying it’s nearly hilarious. “Yeah. Um. No, you’re pretty much allowed to say any fucking thing you want to me, Q,” he says, taking a few steps back so as not to be pulled in to Quentin’s orbit.

“No I’m not,” Quentin says, fierce. “No I’m not, just because you ‒ that doesn’t give me carte blanche to be an asshole. That’s not even what’s happening with Penny, I’m not hurting myself, I swear, and making stupid goddamn jokes about it is not an okay thing for me to do. I was being a dick ‒ ”

“You were protecting yourself,” Eliot says. “From your shitty ex who thinks it’s his business what you get up to in bed with your new boyfriend.” He pauses, shakes his head in bewilderment, because how is this actually his life, and then turns away. He just can’t. He has to get away from this right now. “We’re both late for class.”

“Eliot…” Quentin calls after him, hesitant and mournful, but Eliot can’t bring himself to look back.

~~~~~

Penny finds Eliot in the laundry room of all places. He’d been working diligently through his clothes for the better part of an hour, thoughts occupied by something other than Quentin for once. Well, sort of. As he’d separated the finer fabrics from his more salt-of-the-earth pieces, the ones he can machine wash without using charms on them to protect the fabric, he’d started off thinking about Quentin and Penny and wondering if the sex was good. Obsessing over it, in fact.

Because honestly, Eliot should have known right away that Penny wasn’t hurting Q. Any snippet, any tiny, subtle hint of that kind of behavior, and Julia would have blasted Penny off of the face of the earth. It’s just Eliot’s goddamn ruinous childhood rearing its head again, that had made him think about that as a possibility for even a moment. But it’s also the fact that he wants to think the worst of Penny, in some sick, deeply troubling way. He wants Penny to be the bad guy so Eliot won’t have to try and temper his newfound, intense dislike.

Penny holds Quentin’s arms above his head during sex, and squeezes tight enough to leave marks. Quentin asks him to. They both like it. And then in the morning Penny is contrite and checks in with Q and asks him to go see a healer. It’s so… relationship-y. It’s nauseating. Eliot hates everything and everyone, himself most of all, but Penny a close fucking second.

Jesus, it’s not like Eliot wants Quentin to be unsatisfied or anything, but it sure would be nice to imagine that maybe Penny’s not giving Quentin what he really wants, that nobody can really make him happy the way Eliot can. But what’s his evidence of that? Maybe the sex with Penny is unbelievably good. Maybe Quentin only thought Eliot was the pinnacle while they were together, but then Penny came along and showed him…

And etcetera. His exhausted mind never gets tired of this particular topic.

After thinking about that for long enough to get his hackles up, even alone in the little utility room tucked in the back hallway of the Cottage, he’d switched slightly to thinking about Kady. About the way he’d seen her with Alice and then with Julia, the weird interplay of drama clearly going on behind the scenes. Margo has been tight-lipped about any drama related to Alice, shrugging her shoulders and insisting everything has been smooth sailing, no matter how many times Eliot reminds her that he could really use the distraction.

But what the fuck is going on with everyone else? And how long has it been happening? It’s the kind of thing he would care about so much more if not for bigger considerations.

Eliot is so far into his musing and his laundry sorting that he doesn’t notice Penny approach until a familiar throat-clearing from the doorway alerts him to his presence.

“Hey, Eliot,” he says, low voiced and stern. When Eliot spins to look at him, he’s leaning against the door jam, arms crossed in front of his chest. “Do you have a minute?”

Penny doesn’t even live here. It’s so goddamn annoying that he’s always around. Eliot tilts his head, looking behind Penny to see the empty hallway beyond. The reason that Penny is always around in the Cottage is nowhere in sight.

“Where’s your ‒ ” Eliot starts, but his throat closes around the word boyfriend. Besides, he doesn’t think he can refer to Quentin, however obliquely, in that kind of cutting, snarling tone. It’s not Q he’s mad at. Not ever, no matter how badly everything hurts.

“On the phone with his dad,” Penny says, which disarms and chastises Eliot all at once. “He wants to go visit, of course, but the warding here is the only real protection he’s got at this point.”

“Right,” Eliot says. “Right. How ‒ how is he?” He means Quentin, and he means Ted, and he’s also seething at the fact that he’s been reduced to asking Penny for this information.

“Yeah, see, that’s what I wanted to talk to you about,” Penny says, eyes narrowing.

“What?” Eliot says. “Oh god, is it worse? Already? I thought ‒ Alice told me ‒ ”

“No,” Penny says, his eyes softening momentarily. “No, sorry, not that. I mean that,” he says, and he waves a hand in Eliot’s direction, before snapping it back to fold over his chest again. “You. With the concerned questions, always checking up on him, following him around.”

Oh honestly. How fucking dare he ‒

“Quentin and I are friends,” Eliot says, which is only sort of true, on a good day.

“You’re messing with his head,” Penny replies, blunt and uncompromising.

I’m ‒ ” Eliot says, indignant even though it’s so obvious that Penny is right. He doesn’t want to accept that right now. “What about you? You’re obviously still mooning over Kady, who seems to be trying to steal Alice away from Margo, by the way, and yet now you’ve decided to string Quentin along too? Add another sucker to your clusterfuck?”

“I shouldn’t even dignify that with a response,” Penny says, his jaw twitching as he bites down on the words. “Q and I are blowing off some steam, and it’s not your business, and it’s not Kady’s, and honestly fuck you for bringing up Alice. If she’s telling Margo shit she’s not supposed to ‒”

Eliot doesn’t care about that right now, aware as he is that he’s just stepped in another pile of juicy gossip, the shit he was just wondering about a minute ago. “You’re blowing off some steam?” he hisses, outraged. “You’re using him ‒ ”

“Oh my god,” Penny interrupts. “Just because I’m not in love with him ‒ what, that means I’m not allowed to care about the guy?”

“I am not ‒ ” Eliot says, the instinctive denial tinged with familiar fear. Fuck, how did he get bad at hiding his messy, pathetic feelings? He’d been a fucking expert at it once upon a time.

Penny rolls his eyes again. “Okay, whatever. If you’re not hung up on him, then stop acting like it and back the fuck off.”

And Eliot is back to hating himself so goddamn much. Holy fuck he’s the absolute worst. Sometimes he thinks if he could just know when this was all going to end, maybe he’d be able to hold it together, because the second he’s allowed, he’s going to make Quentin forget all about Penny, he’s going to make him remember ‒

But then why would Quentin actually want him back, after everything? That’s part of the problem, isn’t it? There’s nothing Eliot can do to fix what he’s broken. Even though he wants to, this time. Story of his life.

He can only stare as Penny storms off without another word, his message delivered.

And very much received.

~~~~~

Fogg shows up unannounced in the Cottage one day, with Julia in tow. He gathers the rest of their crew in the living room, stares placidly at Todd until he scampers off to leave them alone, and then calmly announces that he’s discovered the Beast’s current whereabouts: Fillory.

This causes an obvious stir, and Fogg has to stop and explain to an increasingly agitated Quentin that yes, the fantasy land he’s loved since childhood, the world that has saved him from himself in his darkest moments, is in fact a real place.

Eliot remembers his stab of alarm and incredulous joy on hearing the news, but to be honest, he hadn’t thought much about Fillory since, not as a tangible, actual place in the universe. It only mattered insofar as it’s the place where the Beast has been hiding out, where he gets his power, where magic runs deeper than anything magicians on Earth could ever imagine.

“I’ve known of the existence of Fillory for some time,” Fogg says, his voice grave, “but I hadn’t thought it relevant initially.”

Eliot stares at him, vaguely disgusted at how easily the lie comes out. It’s times like this that he wonders how much of what Fogg has ever said to him has been true. His obsession with defeating the Beast seems genuine, but what’s going on behind the scenes is a complete mystery to Eliot. He doubts he’d be able to get one over on the dean even if he wanted to. Fogg has probably told Quentin this piece of information dozens of times. He knows how to say it, has his explanation down to a science.

Quentin has no reason to suspect any of that, though. He’s still having trouble grasping the basic facts of the situation, and all of the others are looking shell shocked and bewildered as well. Eliot and Margo meet eyes, each tight-lipped and solemn as they feign their own surprise.

“I can’t believe it’s real,” Quentin says, choked and full of awe. He looks at Julia, and the two of them stare at each other with shining eyes and giddy wonder. Eliot wants to be a part of it. He wants Quentin to finish reading him the books, down in the hidden library room. He wants to have been the one to have told him the strange, terrifying, life-changing news. The look on Margo’s face when he’d told her had been something wondrous to behold, a childlike glee sufusing her normally brash features, and Margo, while a fan, can’t be said to hold Fillory in the same regard as Quentin, or even Julia.

“Can we…” Julia blinks in confusion, looking at Fogg. “Can we go there?”

Fogg smiles, but it’s a grim expression, not welcoming. “I hope someday you do get to see it, Miss Wicker,” he says, and Eliot wonders, like he always wonders when Fogg is talking, if the emotion in his voice is genuine, or calculated, or maybe both. “Right now, it’s far too dangerous, given that the Beast has been wreaking havoc on the people there for some time. In many ways, Quentin, the Fillorians are lucky the Beast has fixated on you as his target, as it draws some of his attention away from Fillory.”

“Is this why…” Quentin says, shaking his head, still processing. “Because I love Fillory? Is it something to do with that, with ‒ with my magic or something? Wait, hold on, is Plover a magician? Are the Chatwins real?”

Fogg clears his throat, and it’s such a professorial sign of displeasure that all of them shift slightly in their seats, straightening to attention. “There will be time for all of that later. The thing I must impress upon you is that knowing where the Beast is coming from, where he gets his power… it gives me more insight into his capabilities. With the Wellspring supporting him, with the ambient magic of Fillory at his beck and call…”

Eliot swallows down on his impatience as Fogg shakes his head, feigning dismay, like this really is all a new realization for him. “It’s a miracle the Beast hasn’t broken through Brakebills’ wards already.”

“Why hasn’t he?” Julia asks, clutching Quentin’s hand in her own. “What’s he waiting for?”

“That I cannot say. But one thing I do know…” Fogg trails off for a dramatic pause, and Eliot wants to throttle him. “Is that we must be on our guard. It will happen very soon.”

He nods his head at all of them, and then settles back slightly into the couch, prepared for an onslaught of questions he must know is coming. Eliot watches as Quentin, Julia, and Alice all trip over themselves to ask for clarifying information, feeling the familiar swirl of distaste and admiration deep in his gut.

Fogg is still playing them all like the puppet-master he most certainly is. The thing that scares Eliot more than anything is that even knowing that, knowing it’s all an act... still isn’t enough to make him immune.

Chapter Text

Eliot has stopped being surprised by the fact that he can still achieve boredom, given the batshit insane events of his life. It shouldn’t be possible ‒ a monster wants to kill Quentin, Fillory is a real place and Eliot was once its King, if he’s interpreting Fogg’s enigmatic statements correctly; Quentin and Penny spend virtually every night together now, Ted Coldwater has cancer, Eliot catches Kady coming out of Alice’s room in the morning, Margo laughs at him when he asks if she’s okay, Eliot is drowning in grief and fear, Eliot is in his own private hell, Eliot goes to class.

Rinse, repeat. Nothing new to report.

Eliot starts drinking again.

He hadn’t ever given it up precisely, except for in those first few days after the breakup, when he’d been a little scared that if he started he wouldn’t stop. Since then, he’s been trying to do the thing normal people do, which is, apparently, drink in moderation.

It has been a part of his penance, a part of the price he must pay for Quentin’s ultimate survival. For the phantom hope of his future forgiveness. Also, a tiny part of Eliot had been… relieved, to discover that he could stop drinking to excess without any particularly gruesome detoxifying side-effects. Just. Nice to know. He’s got enough shit to deal with as it is.

But as days pass, and the Beast makes no additional attempts to break through the campus wards, as Eliot walks around with Fogg’s warning ringing in his ears ‒ it will happen very soon ‒ Brakebills itself seems to need to let off some steam.

So it’s back to more parties at the Physical Kids Cottage. It’s back to manning the bar and picking a theme and dancing with Margo and Alice when he’s had a few, just enough to let the outside edges of his constant anguish fade a bit. The world goes buzzy, and he can compartmentalize most of the shitty stuff, let himself float on the little bits of contentment that remain.

On one such night, he actually manages to accept Penny’s tacit olive branch by making him his requested drinks at the bar, handing them over, and nodding politely to him as he proceeds to take one of the drinks over to Quentin. Eliot gets a private satisfaction at watching Quentin take an appreciative sip, closing his eyes and smiling at the flavor. Eliot knows what he likes. He’ll always have that.

With a few drinks in him, Eliot doesn’t even bother to curb his instincts all that well. If he stands over by the bar and keeps himself busy, he can scan the room at his leisure, can watch Quentin without being conspicuous.

Q is having quite the social evening, and Eliot is pleased. It’s not the frantic, in-your-face energy of the infamous Quentin and Penny are Kissing and Eliot is Going to Kill Someone party, but a more genuine enjoyment. Quentin is really knocking back the drinks, but he’s not forcing himself onto the dance floor, he’s just leaning against the back of the couch and talking to Julia and Alice.

Eliot takes a large gulp of his own drink. Not because looking at Quentin hurts (it always fucking hurts), but because he needs something to do with his hands. He’s slightly surprised, looking down at the glass afterwards, to see that it’s almost empty, and feels a moment of concern when he realizes he’s not sure if it’s his fourth or his fifth of the evening. But then someone comes up to him and asks for a refill, and he puts it from his mind, pouring himself a refill as well when he next has a free moment.

He’s becoming a positive lightweight by his former standards, which would maybe be embarrassing if he weren’t too drunk to care. Less than an hour after he makes Penny and Q their drinks, he finds himself sitting on the couch with Margo with no clear memory of arriving there. He lets himself float, blissed out and uncomprehending, as Margo tells him an important story about her shoes. He’s supposed to be making other people drinks, but at some point that had seemed boring, and he’d ended up over here instead, with his Bambi, and she’s so pretty when she talks, she gets so animated and intense when she’s having a good time, and he has no idea what she’s talking about but he nods in agreement anyway, because she can do no wrong, of course ‒

And then he blinks and Margo isn’t there anymore. He looks around, vaguely wondering where she’s got off to, but he has the strange feeling he’s maybe been sitting here alone for awhile now, letting the room spin and drift slowly around him… and it’s nice, the hum of noise, the smell of the scent charms that Margo probably put up… he should have helped her… he’s neglecting his duties again. The Cottage parties are fun and nice and he’s having a not-awful time right now. He should give more of a shit about setting up these things, probably. He used to give so many shits about so many things.

“Hey, you,” a voice says from right next to him, and Eliot jumps, startled, turning in his seat to see Quentin sitting beside him.

He’s sitting close.

Eliot smiles at once, can feel the as-of-late unfamiliar stretch of his lips across his face. He just can’t help it, Quentin’s so nice to look at. It’s so nice to see him. But he can’t say that, obviously.

Hard to remember why, right now.

“Hey yourself,” he says, shifting on the couch so he’s facing Quentin head-on.

Hi,” Quentin says. “You’re all alone over here.”

“No I’m not, you’re here,” Eliot protests, giggling and poking Quentin in the chest with a single finger.

Quentin gives him a look. Discerning, maybe, but also unfocused, distracted. “You’re drunk,” he finally says, like he’s glad to have figured out the answer to a puzzle.

“That,” Eliot says, “is most probably the case. But I should point out, Q, that you are also drunk.”

“Hmm,” Quentin says, considering this. “Yes, I’ll concede your well-researched point.”

Eliot laughs. He’s not sure if anything funny has actually happened, but he laughs because Quentin is smiling at him, and when’s the last time he saw that happen? It’s been too long. It’s been so long since anything at all has felt good.

“You know,” Quentin says, his head tilting to the side. “I think I’ve figured it out.”

“Oh yeah?” Eliot says, biting the inside of his cheek to stop his grin from growing. Quentin is the funniest drunk. He gets all serious and sincere and goes on these circular rambles about nothing and everything, and it’s very, very cute.

Although now that Eliot’s thinking about it, Quentin does the same thing when sober. But the logic tends to hold together a little less when alcohol is involved. The subject tends to meander from something mundane like a debate he’d had in class with Alice over the properties of illusory magic, over to bigger questions of what, in fact, an illusion even is in the first place, because like what is reality but our experiences, anyway? Are dreams reality? What about movies? It’s both real and a facade, which is its own kind of magic if you think about it and oh! El, speaking of movies, Margo says you watched Iron Man and that you liked it although she says you might have been high at the time, but the point is, the Marvel movies are the perfect blend of popcorn nonsense and actually impressive filmmaking, like we were talking about, you know, because you just want to watch your reality TV garbage, but superhero movies might be a good compromise, and we should watch all of them in a row, but like spaced out once a week, it could be a thing, we could all do it, Alice says she can bend light and project Kady’s laptop up onto a blank wall like a projector, which is so cool because again, like, it’s the blend of science and magic, which takes me back to

And on and on like that. They’d never gotten around to watching a single one of the Marvel movies, and the thought makes Eliot profoundly sad for a moment, before he remembers that here, in the present, Quentin is trying to talk to him.

“What did you figure out?” he says, proud of himself for remembering the thread of the conversation.

“What I figured out,” Quentin begins, sage and serious, with those big eyes blinking up into Eliot’s face. “is that you’re a dumbass.”

Oh my god so fucking cute.

“I’m ‒ what?” Eliot asks, and he’s moving without meaning to, shifting just slightly closer, into Q’s orbit. “That’s rude, Quentin.”

“No,” Quentin says, shaking his head earnestly. “It’s not rude, it’s ‒ see, because, you don’t like yourself, you know?”

Oh. Uh oh.

That’s maybe a little too real. The fog of alcohol and Quentin Quentin Quentin lifts ever so slightly. “I don’t like myself?” Eliot repeats, frowning. “Well, last time I checked, you don’t like me all that much either.”

But Quentin frowns back at him, uncomprehending. “Of course I like you. I like you best of everyone, El.”

It’s been a while. Too long. Eliot’s stomach is in knots, just from the sound of Quentin saying it like that, saying El like they still have something between them, still share intimacies.

“But you think you’re broken,” Quentin continues. “You think you’re a fuck up and so you fuck everything up to prove yourself right. You love to be right.” He nods his head, like this is all a statement of fact, like he’s reciting from the Book of Eliot Waugh or something. “And ‒ ” Quentin pauses, glaring. “It’s all very obnoxious and you end up hurting yourself over it, and ‒ and hurting me, which like ‒ really sucks and is completely not cool, Eliot.”

It is only now occurring to Eliot that he’s in serious danger. The alcohol has numbed his senses, dulled his mental reflexes. He shouldn’t have let himself get to this point, he shouldn’t have been drinking, because now he’s sitting here with Q and yes the room is full of people but they might as well be alone, because when it’s the two of them, nothing else matters. And Quentin’s drunken ramble isn’t a ramble at all, it’s a remarkably cogent interpretation of their breakup, which means Quentin has been thinking about him, has had this topic on his mind for a while, and has finally found an opportunity to bring it up. Quentin’s explanation for Eliot’s actions is wrong, but also… not wrong, in the fullness of things. Pushing someone away due to self-loathing does sound like a patented Eliot Waugh move.

“Quentin, you’re drunk,” Eliot says, which is not good enough, but it’s all he’s got.

Quentin shakes his head at him. “So what? So what if I am? I’m also right. I know you’re not happy, El, I can see that, and I’m not happy, obviously, so why the fuck are we ‒ I mean, what are we doing? What are you doing?”

It’s been a while since Eliot has been this physically close to Quentin, and he both loves and doesn’t love what he sees. He’s too pale, his eyes are a little too pronounced in a face that has gone pinched with one too many skipped meals, one too many sleepless nights. But he’s also as beautiful as he’s ever been, with his lovely eyelashes fanning out over his cheeks as he blinks up at Eliot, earnest and imploring, his face leaning in closer, his own eyes darting as he studies Eliot back just as intensely as Eliot is studying him.

Eliot needs to get out of here. Immediately. He clears his throat, forces a tight, awkward smile. “Quentin, come on, let’s not get into this right now ‒ ”

But Quentin is lifting his hand towards Eliot’s face, and Eliot can’t move. He’s frozen. He has to stop it. He has to stop this right now. But why? He can’t remember. He can’t remember why. He’s failing and he’s terrified of that, he can’t fuck this up, but then Quentin’s hand is on his face and it’s like… well, it’s like magic.

The good parts of magic.

Every inch of Eliot’s skin is tingling, in cascading waves from the single point of contact. He feels powerful, like Quentin is charging something potent and intense deep within him, something that has been sleeping since the last time they were together. Eliot knows it’s wrong, he knows he can’t, he shouldn’t, but his face is already turning into the pressure of Q’s touch, his nose nuzzling along the line of his palm. “Q,” he says, and Eliot’s lips brush against Quentin’s wrist.

There’s a gasp of relief, and Quentin slides his hand back further, tangling it into Eliot’s hair. “I think,” Quentin says, his voice much quieter and deeper than before, “that you still want me.”

“I think,” Eliot manages, swallowing tight over the onrush of longing. “That we’ve both had a lot to drink.”

“You think you don’t deserve me,” Quentin says. And holy shit, Eliot doesn’t deserve him, obviously, what the fuck is Q even talking about? That’s never even been in question. Eliot huffs out a laugh at this ridiculous, dear, perfect boy, but he doesn’t move away, he doesn’t stand up, even as Quentin goes up on his knees on the couch, so he’s looking down into Eliot’s eyes. “Which is the stupidest ‒ I mean, I’m the one who’s not ‒ ” Q bites his lip, his eyes bright with unshed tears. “You’re the best thing that ever happened to me, El.”

And then he leans in and kisses him.

Eliot loses his balance. He’s sitting down with his back against the arm of the couch, but somehow he still loses his balance, all of his limbs flailing in an uncoordinated jumble as he pushes forward into Quentin and tries to pull back all at once. Not his most graceful maneuver ‒ their teeth clack together, Quentin bites a little too hard on Eliot’s lip like he’s trying to keep him in place, but that doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter at all, because nothing in Eliot’s life has ever felt more perfect.

There’s no ramp-up, no soft, gentle caresses leading to gradual fervor. One second, Eliot is telling himself quite firmly in his own head that he must not, under any circumstances, kiss Quentin ‒ and then they’re just kissing.

Eliot opens his mouth, Quentin’s tongue dips forward, one of them makes a low moan, and Eliot can’t even tell who, the vibration of the sound is shared between them so perfectly. Eliot’s hands jump up to Quentin’s waist, and he pulls him in closer, gasping the air from Quentin’s lungs like it’s the breath he himself needs to keep living.

God, he can feel it, his heart stops beating and then beats faster, everything in him goes still and then frenzied, cold and then hot, inanimate flesh reawakening at last. Quentin is killing him. Quentin is bringing him back to life.

“Eliot,” Quentin says, after an indeterminate amount of time, pulling back from the kiss. He’s breathing hard, and he keeps their faces close together, foreheads knocking into one another. “Eliot ‒ why ‒ everything is wrong and bad and why did you ‒ ”

“I’m right here, I’m here, Q,” Eliot says, which is nonsense, but he can feel a tiny hint of self-control trying to grip hold of him again, and he’s not ready for that. He brings a hand up to cup Quentin’s face, trying to tilt him back into the kiss. It’s the only thing he needs to be doing. It’s imperative to keep kissing him at all costs.

“No,” Quentin moans, a frustrated plea. “No, you’re not here, you fucking left, why did you do that?”

“Quentin, I,” Eliot gasps out, fear and pain crowding their way into his chest along with relief and pleasure. He throws his head back, not sure if he’s trying to get away, or to give Q access, because now Quentin’s lips have fallen to his neck, and he’s biting and sucking a line down and oh christ, every drop of blood in Eliot’s body is rushing downward at a dizzying speed, everything is too good, too much.

“I know I can make you feel good,” Quentin says, breathing hot against Eliot’s neck. “Tell me I can, tell me I’m not remembering that wrong, I know we were good together, the best, El ‒ Eliot ‒ ”

It’s been weeks since anyone’s touched him like this. It’s been weeks since Quentin has touched him, period. It’s been weeks since he’s been able to fucking breathe. God, he’s missed him so much, he’s missed him ‒ he needs to tell him, opens his mouth to do it, pulls in a ragged gasp of air and submits to another searing kiss against his lips, his eyes fluttering closed, his body scrambling to find a way to touch more of him, “God, Q, I ‒ ”

But wait. No. He can’t do this. He can’t do this ‒ one of Eliot’s hands is under Quentin’s shirt and he has no memory of placing it there, but it feels so nice, Quentin’s skin under his palm, and he slides it down automatically, reaching for his ass to pull him forward. He wants Q in his lap, wants to touch him everywhere. God, they’re in public again, what the fuck is it with Eliot, letting Quentin make out with him at Cottage parties? It’s a nice echo to the way they’d started, like they’ve come full circle, looping back around to the happiest goddamn night ‒

“El, I miss you so much,” Quentin says, right up against his lips, and Eliot shudders, and ‒

Oh fuck, wait, no, Eliot actually can’t do this

Eliot pulls away, turning his face to avoid Quentin’s lips, gasping and shaking, trying to force his body to remember why something that feels so good is actually wrong

Quentin groans in his ear, and Eliot can feel him, hard against his thigh. He nuzzles his nose in below Eliot’s jawline and starts sucking against the sensitive skin there.

“Quentin, wait ‒ ”

“Please,” Q begs. “Please, El.”

There had been a time when Eliot had loved to make Quentin beg. Just fucking beg for it, drunk on lust, gasping, gagging for his cock. It always made Eliot so goddamn hard, the breathy desperation in his voice ‒ please, please, El ‒ he’d drink it in, he’d become the most powerful man in the world in that moment, the pleasure so intense it filled him to bursting, the honor and trust of it… so fucking hot he’d hold them both in breathless anticipation for as long as he could stand it, he’d leave Quenitn thrashing in his arms and then he’d give it to him and the sounds they made together, the slap of skin against skin, the unabashed groans and whimpers and moans and laughter ‒ god, they’d laughed during sex, all the time, so giddy and happy and perfect together, they’re supposed to be together, it’s the truest of truths, an imperative guidepost, the only way Eliot knows how to exist, and fuck Fogg for thinking he could stand in the way of that ‒

Oh no. Oh no no no.

The image of Quentin, lying still and cold on the ground, surfaces to the forefront of Eliot’s mind, unbidden, unwanted. His veins turn to ice, his heart starts thumping even faster. Oh shit shit shit he’s fucking it up, he’s going to kill Quentin if he keeps ‒

“No,” Eliot manages to say, gritted through his teeth. His fingers scrabble and convulse against Quentin before he manages to jerk his arms back and turn his head away. With every vestige of rational thought remaining to him, he throws himself in an uncoordinated lunge away from the warmth of Quentin’s body.

“What ‒ ” Quentin says, uncomprehending. He’s still on the couch, but Eliot has fallen off of it, landing in a heap on the floor. For the first time Eliot has the wherewithal to wonder about the other people in the room, but even as Quentin shifts into a sitting position and looks down at him in bewilderment, Eliot can see that their behavior has gone mostly unnoticed. There are other people sitting on the couch across from them, but they’re clearly engrossed in each other, and Eliot doesn’t see any of their friends nearby.

God, it couldn’t have been longer than a minute ‒ a perfect, crazed sixty seconds that never should have happened and that Eliot couldn’t have lived without ‒ and now it’s over and nobody even noticed.

“El,” Quentin says, and he slides himself off of the couch to sit down next to Eliot on the floor. “What the fuck ‒ what ‒ are you okay?”

“No,” Eliot says, which is the truth. Sometimes it helps to start with the truth before diving in to the lie. “No, I’m not ‒ I’m ‒ we’re drunk, Quentin, this was a horrible idea.”

Quentin blinks at him, his pupils dilated, his mouth open and swollen and Eliot has to scoot farther away from him, so as to avoid leaning in again. What the fuck is wrong with him? He almost ‒

“But ‒ ” Quentin starts. “But ‒ okay ‒ but… you want me. I’m not wrong, I’m ‒ you want this.”

More than anything in the whole world.

“No,” Eliot says. “Not ‒ not the way you want me, Q. I’m. Sorry.”

Standing up takes him a minute. Despite the sobering effects of what was very nearly a life-threatening kiss, he’s still quite drunk, wobbly from the alcohol and the phantom feel of Quentin’s hands and lips on his body. Dear god, he’s still rock hard in his pants, which is honestly kind of nauseating. He’s a disgusting animal, thinking with his cock when fucking Quentin right now might quite literally be signing his death warrant.

“Eliot,” Quentin says, looking up at him from his spot on the ground, and nothing about the sight of Q on his knees is going to help Eliot’s self control. “Just tell me what to do. Tell me what I need to do to fix it.”

When this is over, Eliot will be able to tell Quentin that he did nothing wrong, that he’s perfect in every way, that Eliot is the one who needs to fix it, that Eliot is the one who should be down on his knees, supplicating himself at Quentin’s feet.

“There’s nothing to fix,” Eliot says instead, and he watches Quentin’s face as he blinks up at him in incomprehension for a moment, and then he ‒ he crumples, raising his hands to cover his face. Eliot can’t hear the sound of crying over the rushing in his own ears, over the thump of the music, but he doesn’t need to.

There’s only one thing Eliot can actually do to help Quentin right now, and goddammit he’s going to do it. Eliot wrenches himself away from Quentin, every step forced and deliberate, and makes his way, wobbly-legged and gasping, over to Julia. She’s chatting with some nobody he doesn’t know if he knows, but that doesn’t matter ‒ he grabs clumsily for her arm and pulls her towards him, turning her around.

“Hey ‒ ” she says, indignant about being manhandled, but then she sees Eliot’s face and her eyes go wide, her mouth drops open. Whatever’s going on with Eliot’s expression right now, it’s enough that Julia actually looks worried about him, which of course makes Eliot feel worse because fucking god he doesn’t deserve anyone’s sympathy, especially not hers

“He needs you,” he croaks, his hand tightening on her arm. “He ‒ he ‒ Julia, he needs you.”

Her eyes widen even further and she looks over Eliot’s shoulder, her eyes scanning the room until ‒ Eliot sees it when Julia’s gaze latches on to Quentin, still sitting slumped over on the floor. She snaps her face back to Eliot and any hint of concern is gone, replaced with abject fury. “What did you do,” she hisses, and then storms away without waiting for an answer, yanking her arm out of his grasp.

Eliot doesn’t remember making his way upstairs. He also doesn’t remember finding Margo, but he must have, because when he wakes up the next morning she’s in the bed with him, fully clothed and above the covers, a hand placed in silent support on his arm.

~~~~~

Eliot is having a problem.

Well. Obviously. He’s having several problems. His entire life is nothing but problems right now. But at the moment, in the aftermath of his stupid fucking mistake at the party last night, he’s having a new problem. Bigger. Worse.

The problem is that the sight of Quentin, miserable and crying and crumpled on the floor after Eliot had callously abandoned him the night before, is a lot easier to conjure to his mind, than the nebulous possibility of future harm done to him by the Beast.

The more days that go by with no sign of attack, the more Eliot wonders if Fogg is just being paranoid, or if the Beast might have changed his mind and decided to abandon his unending quest to kill their merry band of adventurers. Eliot still doesn’t know exactly how much the Beast even remembers from past loops, so is it really that impossible that maybe he’d just fuck off, content with destroying Fillory and amassing his power there? Why would he keep trying to go after Quentin? What’s the actual benefit to him?

The Beast might show up, and might try to hurt Quentin again. But what is undeniably true right now is that Quentin is in a lot of pain, and it’s Eliot’s fault, and Eliot has it within his power to explain the situation and put a stop to it. His desperation is mounting. He can taste Quentin on his lips, he can feel his hot breath ghosting across his cheek. He can hear his words ‒ tell me what to do, echoing again and again in his head.

At this point, Eliot can’t deny that his resolve is slipping. He’s just waiting for permission from the universe, and then he’s going to do it. He’s going to tell Q everything, and they’ll face the consequences of that, come what may.

“You fucking can’t,” Margo says, when Eliot confesses this thought to her. “Absolutely not, El.”

“He’s miserable. He’s miserable, Margo,” Eliot says, like this is enough of a reason to abandon the whole plan, like Quentin’s misery isn’t the point in the first place. “You asked me what was worse ‒ Q being heartbroken because of me, or being happy with someone else, and I thought I knew the answer to that, but I didn’t. I was wrong. Quentin in pain is worse than anything, and I know how to fix it.”

“Eliot,” Margo says, breathing slowly and deliberately through her nostrils. “Eliot, Fogg showed you what happened last time you fucked up and spilled the beans. Quentin died. I died. And I really don’t want either of those things to happen, do you?”

Eliot glares at her, blinking away the reminder of what he’d seen on that awful day in Fogg’s office. “Obviously I’d die before I let that happen, Margo.”

“But ‒ ” Margo says, exasperated and alarmed. She glances around her nervously, but they’re alone, the only two in the Cottage not in class on a Monday morning. “But Eliot, you already know how to stop it from happening, you’re already doing it. Don’t fuck that up. Don’t do that to yourself. To us.”

“But we only have Fogg’s word for it that this is the only way,” Eliot says, excitement and desperation mounting. “I think I’ve been ‒ I think I’ve been an idiot to let this go on so long. I might already be too late, Bambi, what if he never forgives me?”

Next to the thought of actual harm coming to Quentin, that’s the thought that scares Eliot the most. That even if he caves now, goes back on his word to himself and tells Quentin everything, it won’t matter. Quentin had wanted him, had practically begged him to come back, and Eliot had rejected him. Again.

What if that’s it? What if the last spark of hope had been extinguished in that moment, when Eliot had stood up and left Quentin on the floor? What if there’s no strategy, no way forward from this, no way to earn his forgiveness?

He’ll never know unless he tries, and even a definitive no would be better than living in limbo.

“Talk to Fogg,” Margo says, and Eliot jumps at the harshness in her words. “El, promise me, go talk to Fogg before you talk to Quentin. Just ‒ tell me you’ll do that, okay?”

Eliot turns to look at her, startled by the waver in her voice. Her eyes are wide and a little frightened. “Margo ‒ ”

“Please, I just ‒ I feel it too, you know, sometimes I feel things and I know things that I shouldn’t know, and I just have a really bad feeling, okay? El, I don’t want to die, I don’t want to leave you, or Alice, or ‒ my life, you know? Please.”

Eliot moves closer to her on the couch at once, wraps her in his arms, and promises to give her anything she needs. How can he not? He’s never heard Margo sound like that before; it’s terrifying.

The next day, he goes to see Fogg.

~~~~~

Fogg has a disturbingly good poker face.

He listens with what appears to be disinterested politeness as Eliot speaks, as Eliot threatens, in fact, to blow up his entire plan, to run to Quentin and tell the truth and fight to repair the relationship he’s broken.

And then when Eliot has finally stopped talking, Fogg continues to look at him in silence, his face a smooth mask. Eliot fights conflicting urges to run away, and to get in Fogg’s face and scream at him until he displays some hint of emotion.

“Well?” Eliot finally says in the growing silence. “Tell me not to do it.”

“Is that what you want?” Fogg asks, lacing his fingers together under his chin. He leans back in his chair. “For me to stop you?”

“No,” Eliot says. “I’m here because Margo made me. I want this to be over. That’s what I want.”

“You cannot possibly want that more than I do, Eliot. You’re aware that if you tell Quentin, it will be over. It will all be over. Our chance for success.”

“I only have your word for it,” Eliot says, and Fogg raises an unimpressed eyebrow.

“That’s been true from the very beginning, hasn’t it?”

“Well, maybe that’s not good enough for me anymore.”

Fogg brings a hand up to pinch between his brows. It’s a frustrated move, but Eliot doesn’t trust it, the same way he can’t trust most of what Fogg chooses to show him. Is he really exasperated, or had he known that Eliot would come to him? Does this happen every time, and does Fogg know how to course-correct? One of the things Eliot refuses to think about too often is the stupid butterfly effect, the way at any moment he might be doing something that ruins Fogg’s plans, without even knowing it. Maybe kissing Quentin the other night doomed him. Maybe holding him for the briefest of moments when Quentin told him about Ted’s cancer. Maybe his protective rage and jealousy when he’d seen Penny’s fingerprints on Quentin’s arm. There’s no way of knowing if he’s already failed.

“Eliot,” Fogg says. “I had hoped it wouldn’t come to this, but I probably should have known.”

“What does that mean?” Eliot snaps, fear and anger warring for prominence in his heart. “Do I always come to you like this?”

“No,” Fogg says. “No, but you have before, and I managed to scare you into sticking to the plan.” Fogg stands up, a smooth, measured movement. “I hated to do it, though.”

“But it still failed,” Eliot says, blinking. “So how ‒ ”

“As I believe I’ve communicated to you on numerous occasions, you and Quentin are only part of the plan,” Fogg says patiently. “My miscalculation on this particular loop concerned Margo Hanson, actually. She told her girlfriend, who told Quentin, and ‒ well, in any case, things unraveled just before the Beast showed up to strike his killing blow.”

“Margo told Alice?” Eliot says, startled, as Fogg turns his back to him and begins rummaging through a cluttered shelf on the far wall. That’s not something he’d even thought to be worried about, truth be told. Fogg had said it was okay to tell Margo, and Eliot has never once imagined she would be the one to mess anything up.

“No, Julia,” Fogg says, distracted, and before Eliot can ask what the fuck he’s talking about, Fogg has turned back around, a small vial pinched between his thumb and forefinger. “You’re determined to tell Quentin you love him?”

Eliot’s brain breaks a little bit, part of himself still wondering about Margo and Julia, of all things, while a bigger part is startled to hear the words ‘you love him’ said so clearly in Fogg’s booming, impressive voice. It makes him uncomfortable, the same way it had when he’d told Margo: ‘he’s the love of my life.’ He’s not ashamed of loving Quentin, he just ‒ wishes, somehow, that the truth of it could stay a sacred, protected thing, something given as a gift to Quentin and Quentin alone.

That time has long passed though ‒ it’s one thing he won’t be able to fix, even if he does get everything else he wants. Everyone in Eliot’s life knows he loves Q, except Q himself. And maybe Julia. (Julia and Margo?? He can’t picture it).

“Eliot.”

Fuck. He needs to get a grip. Eliot straightens in his chair, clearing his throat.

“Yes,” he says, in answer to Fogg’s question. “I have to tell him. I can’t live like this with only your word as proof that you’re right. If you’ve given me a reason to trust you in the past, I no longer remember it.” He’d been proud of that line when he came up with it before, and Fogg looks grim at the words. He may have heard them before, but hopefully they still have an impact.

“Very well,” Fogg says, and he holds the vial out for Eliot. “I won’t physically stop you. I won’t harm you, I won’t lock you up. If you want to tell Quentin everything… that is your right. But I would just ask you first, to take this.”

Eliot reaches a hand out for the vial, almost afraid to touch it. He knows what it is. He doesn’t really need Fogg to say. But he does, staring Eliot straight in the eye as he speaks once more. “Take this, and remember.”

There’s really nothing left to be afraid of, is there?

Eliot takes the vial, uncorking it with a twist of magic and bringing it to his lips. He closes his eyes. He drinks.

He remembers.

~~~~~

***

Eliot meets Quentin Coldwater and somehow, improbably and inconveniently, he falls in love with the guy. It’s gross, and it doesn’t matter anyway, because Quentin is straight, and Eliot actually gives a shit about keeping him around enough that he decides not to seduce him anyway.

They’re friends, and Eliot ignores the pull in his chest that wants more than that. Friends is good. Friends is lovely.

And then one day, when he starts to lose consciousness, when he realizes he’s about to die young, an unglamorous, pathetic, addict’s death, Quentin reaches out and takes his hand. He squeezes hard, his eyes filled with fear and regret. Eliot wishes, for the first time in quite a while, that he could stay.

***

Eliot meets Quentin Coldwater, and he falls in lust.

He wishes, in an abstract way, that they’d had a chance to actually get to know each other better before the world starts going to shit, and then at some point when they’re all running for their lives, and fighting for Fillory, Eliot watches Quentin fall for Alice Quinn. And then shit goes even more horrifically wrong, and Eliot’s heart turns to ash in his chest as he watches the people he cares for crumple to the ground, one after another.

Quentin and Alice are holding hands, their bodies curled in towards each other. They look peaceful in death. He’s happy for them, that they went together. He envies it.

He has time to wish he’d gone first, so he wouldn’t have to live like this, in the aftermath of despair. And then his own end comes, and he has hardly any time to be grateful before the darkness takes him.

***

Eliot meets Quentin Coldwater, and they fall in love.

It takes them a while. Things get in their way. It’s a dangerous world out there, and Eliot can be a shitty person, and Quentin barely knows what he wants on a good day, and sometimes he doesn’t have very many good days to work with.

But they figure it out. They cobble something together, they walk around campus holding hands and Eliot admits to himself that this is something he’s been looking for. He gets to enjoy it, for a little while.

Margo dies on a Wednesday morning, struck down by a force he hadn’t even known to fear, and all he can do is hold her in his arms and wait for anything to make sense. He’s almost too shocked to feel the full extent of his grief, but it’s there, waiting underneath the numbness to unleash a torrent of unbearable agony on his soul. Margo is his heart, his light, the thing that saved him from himself, and now she is gone.

The thing is, he wants to die ‒ he wants to die except he can’t because Q’s still out there somewhere, Q still needs him. He has someone else now, to tether him to the world, and so he must do the most horrific thing he’s ever done in the entirety of his fucked up life. He has to leave Margo’s body lying there, alone and unprotected, and he has to go find his other best friend, the man with whom he’s starting to imagine a future.

He shouldn’t have bothered ‒ the minute he turns from her he sees the thing that killed her, and he’s dead long before he can find Q.

***

Eliot meets Quentin Coldwater…

And then later he meets Jane Chatwin. She’s patient, and she seems kind, and understanding, and yet what she’s saying is so batshit insane Eliot doesn’t know how to process it. Q’s too busy freaking the fuck out, stutttering out question after question about ‒ Fillory? Wait, Martin Chatwin is but how do you and how did you

All Eliot can do is stand there and look at him and wonder how it’s possible that he’s known him before. How it’s possible that he could have forgotten something like that, when knowing Q has opened his eyes to the possibility of happiness like nothing else ever has.

They don’t get a chance to be happy, though. There’s not enough time. He can remember giving Quentin the briefest peck on the lips goodbye, as Eliot ran one way and Quentin ran another, each on their own mission to collect their friends, to plan their attack, and they promise they’ll meet up later ‒

***

Eliot meets Quentin Coldwater and he loves him instantly.

“I swear I’ve been waiting for you. I swear I’ve dreamed about you,” he tells Quentin during their first night together, gasping fervent words of devotion into his skin, taking in the scent and feel of him. Quentin seems startled, skeptical of Eliot’s intensity, but it’s not a line, it’s the truth. Eliot knows Quentin. They can’t possibly have just met. He knows him, it’s deeper than mere knowledge, mere thought, it’s ‒

Quentin asks for help from the Brakebills professors, worried that Eliot is cracking up, and Eliot can’t even be mad at him. He’s just so glad to see him, so glad they’re both alive, that he can reach a hand out and Quentin will take it, squeeze it. And maybe Eliot knows that Quentin pities him, that Quentin is hardly more than a stranger, but Eliot also knows what he feels, he knows it’s true…

“Too much is bleeding through,” Fogg tells a woman that Eliot doesn’t recognize. Or maybe he does, a little bit, it’s too hard to tell. Memory is a nebulous thing at the moment. His life is no longer a linear experience, and fighting it hurts, so he mostly just lets it happen. “He’s remembering too much.”

“I don’t understand what went wrong,” the woman says, and she leans over Eliot, frowning into his eyes.

“Can you help him?” Quentin asks, and he sounds so worried, so scared. Eliot wants to reassure him. He’s glad he remembers, glad he knows how lucky he is.

In any case, Quentin shouldn’t worry. Eliot will stop remembering everything before too long ‒ the Beast will make sure of that.

***

Eliot meets…

Margo holds Eliot in her arms, screams at him ‒ don’t do this to me, don’t leave me ‒ and he has time, before he dies, to hear the skid of footsteps coming around the corner ‒ he hears voices, maybe Julia? Kady? And they’re cursing and running forward, and then a more hesitant tread follows behind them, and Quentin is slumping to the floor next to Eliot’s dying body. He has time to see the shell-shocked anguish on his face, and he wants to say something reassuring, but the world is going dark around him…

***

Eliot ‒

The Beast is dead, and Eliot survives, alone among a pile of rubble. He sees the arms and legs of his allies sticking out from the rockslide, a manicured hand that belongs to his Bambi, a bit of tangled curls that had once been Kady Orloff-Diaz… Quentin’s body isn’t here, he’s been dead for days now. Alice too. Penny might still be alive somewhere. Maybe Julia. He doesn’t know.

But it doesn’t matter anymore, he’s so far beyond any of his old, petty human concerns. He can see now, how small it all is, how much magic the world contains, how much power ‒ and there’s nothing left to hold him back, no tendrils of love to tie him to an old life that had never made him very happy to begin with. So he’ll go, he’ll take what he wants and leave everything pointlessly tragic behind ‒

***

Quentin and Alice look good together, in an aesthetic sense. Eliot can acknowledge that, even as petty jealousy makes him wish he’d gotten to Q first. He’d had an errant thought or two, when Quentin had first entered his life, that maybe they could…

But it’s okay. Straight boys can be a fun challenge on occasion, but Eliot actually likes the kid, beyond the desire to fuck him. So he’ll be nice to the cute little first year and his cute (terrifying) little girlfriend, and he’ll pretend that the wrongness of it isn’t bothering him. Why should it? They’re good together. Well-matched, if you think about it. Nerdy, intense about magic… maybe a little repressed, both of them, they kind of seem like they need someone to come along and show them how to relax, but hey ‒ maybe they can be that for each other. Who the fuck is Eliot to judge? Quentin isn’t his responsibility. Quentin is just some guy he’s only now starting to get to know.

The squirming feeling of unease deep in his chest is easy enough to ignore most of the time. He’s got other things to be thinking about, obviously. Weird moth faced people walking out of mirrors, cute boys named Mike who don’t appreciate his fancy cocktails the way Quentin does, but ‒ but Mike likes him, and that’s got to make all the difference doesn’t it?

And then the world goes to shit multiple times over, and for a long time Eliot doesn’t think about Mike at all. He doesn’t think about, doesn’t remember, the way it had felt, the way it had sounded, the snap of bone, the thud to the floor. He drinks away the memories and then he climbs his way out of the worst of it and honestly, before too long Mike is only a small blip on the much longer list of traumas he’s dealing with on the daily.

But then… maybe at some point he should have dealt emotionally with the fact that he murdered his boyfriend. Because Mike, for some strange reason, is who Eliot thinks of when he wakes up in a hospital bed with an abdominal wound and several months of missing time. Margo is leaning over him, her makeup streaked with tears and her hair a tangled rats’ nest, and yet Eliot thinks about Mike, about the beer he’d coerced Eliot into storing in the fridge, the way after it had happened, Eliot had found one of his sweaters on the floor in his room, and had been too afraid to touch it.

He thinks of Mike because he’d once thought he was falling in love with someone, and instead he’d never really known him at all. He thinks of Mike because this isn’t the first time in his life that he’s had to grapple with long-term possession by evil and powerful entities, and how fucked up is that, actually?

So, well, Eilot doesn’t think of Mike, precisely, because there really had never been a Mike ‒ not that Eliot had known. It had been the Beast. Eliot had been a monster fucker long before he’d become a monster himself. Symmetry, and all that.

But he does think back to that time in his life, back to a version of himself that had still been fighting for something like simplicity, something like a normal relationship with a boy he could care about. What a laughable idea it seems, now.

(Although, he’d had that once for real, hadn’t he? A boy he cared for more than anything, and a woman to love, and a child to raise… and when given the chance to do it all over again, he’d thrown it away).

This here is real life, he’s fairly sure. His happy place has never taken the form of the infirmary before, and he feels too much physical sensation to believe this is a continuation of the mental trap. He hurts. Everything hurts. His stomach, most of all, but the pain is a cascading thing, rippling over his entire body, down every extremity, up to his scalp. That’s not something his trapped little brain would have conjured. He’s almost positive.

And that means he’s back, and that means ‒

“Hey, what happened?” he asks Margo, and she tells him.

When Margo says that Quentin is dead, Eliot’s first thought is: oh. Well, that makes sense, doesn’t it?

And then he lurches up, trying to get out of the bed. He’s not sure why, other than some part of his brain screaming at him to do something, that if he can stand up and run out of the room, he’ll be able to ‒ what, fix it? Throw himself into a fight that’s already over? He’s still connected to tubes and wires and weird beeping devices, so when he tries to move, they pull him back, trapping him in the narrow confines of the hospital cot. And in any case, moving was a bad idea; the moment his stomach muscles contract to help him into a sitting position, he passes out from the pain.

Thank god for small favors.

***

“Am I allowed to play?” Teddy Coldwater-Waugh asks, staring down at the tiles strewn across the dirt in front of his feet. “Because Mama says I’m not allowed to play with you, she says ‒ ”

“We’re not playing,” Eliot says, reaching a hand out to wave Teddy closer. “It’s serious, boring, grown-up work, Teddy, and if you want to help, you have to be ready for the responsibility.” He holds out one of the tiles, his eyebrow raised to impart the severity of this.

“El,” Quentin says, rolling his eyes. “Yes, Teddy, you can play with us. You just have to be careful not to break any of the tiles, okay?”

Teddy totters happily over to Quentin and takes one of the rust colored pieces in his hands. It looks huge in his tiny grip. “Okay, how do we play?”

“How about…” Eliot considers, giving Quentin a smile over the top of their son’s head. “How about you collect the different colors for us, and bring us the ones we ask for?”

Teddy straightens up at once, giving a serious nod, and he’s so much like Quentin that Eliot’s heart squeezes tight in his chest. In joy, in awe, at the gift of having this tiny human in his life. At the gift of having Arielle and Quentin, too.

It takes them way longer to do the puzzle, with Teddy’s ‘help.’ They keep asking him to fetch tiles easily within their own grasp, and Teddy is deliberate and meticulous with each motion, crouching down to select a tile with both hands, lifting it carefully and walking it slowly over to one of his dads. There is great ceremony to the movement, and Eliot finds himself thinking that if the beauty of all life is to be found in a pattern of colors, what better way to find it than with the freely offered help of a soul as beautiful as Teddy Coldwater-Waugh?

It will be so, so much later that he’ll learn the truth of this errant thought. Teddy and Arielle will be long lost to him. He will be transported back to a younger man’s body, he will have the knowledge and the love of a lifetime of happiness planted deep within him, and he’ll have Quentin’s tentative words ‒ why the fuck not? ‒ ringing in his ears. And then after Eliot squashes the hope, blocks out the light, generous Quentin will keep sitting there, and he’ll keep talking, answering Eliot’s questions about what happened after he died, in a meek, embarrassed, rejected voice that Eliot will never be able to get out of his head.

Quentin will say ‒ it was us. You, me, Ari, Teddy, all the neighbors and friends and family. It wasn’t a pattern on the mosaic at all. We were the beauty of all life.

And Eliot will swallow around the lump in his throat, and he will let out a laugh he doesn’t feel. And he’ll say ‒ don’t you fucking hate trick questions? and pretend not to notice the disappointment in Quentin’s eyes.

***

The Beast is dead, and he cradles Quentin, injured but alive, against his chest. They did it. They’ve killed the bad guy, they survived, against all odds. Quentin is keening into his chest, Alice, Alice, Alice, and Eliot understands, because his heart is screaming for Margo, too. They’re both gone. Everyone is gone.

He still has Quentin ‒ bright, beautiful, gorgeous Quentin, the man he thought he might one day ‒ But that’s over now, there’s nothing left between them to nurture and grow, it’s all been cut away, excised by their trauma. They survived, but it was just an accident, some twisted turn of fate. They’ll cling to each other, Eliot knows in this moment, a flash of insight about the life they have to look forward to. They’ll cling to each other and maybe they’ll even fall in love, but it will be an impure thing, a shadow of what they once might have enjoyed. They will never recover from what they have lost. Their hearts will never mend ‒

***

Eliot meets a cute first-year boy named Quentin Coldwater.

Quentin is stumbling and blushing and clearly hot for Eliot’s dick, and the whole thing is shaping up to be a pleasant diversion indeed. And then some freaky moth-faced thing comes out of a mirror in a classroom, and Eliot feels his heart lurch with sympathy and the echo of true agony, to learn that his brand new little friend-slash-potential-hook-up has died before he could ever really learn the joys of magic.

The whole class is gone, except a badly shaken Kady Orloff-Diaz, who stalks around campus for days after the incident, jaw tight and eyes wild. She won’t answer questions, and eventually Fogg has her wiped and sent back out to the muggle world. Probably for the best. Eliot pretends the whole-sale slaughter of a bunch of first-year students isn’t getting under his skin. He drinks more even than is usual for him, and he looks away whenever he catches Margo’s concerned eyes on him. He pretends to not think about Quentin Coldwater. He pretends he’s not still wondering what his lips would have tasted like ‒

***

Quentin tastes like strawberries and champagne, because that’s what Eliot had been feeding him that night, out on a blanket, under the stars ‒ a horrible cliche, the most sentimental thing Eliot has ever done for someone he was trying to fuck. But Quentin isn’t just some boy he wants in his bed ‒ Quentin is special, and for some strange reason Eliot isn’t terrified by the very idea of something more. He can trust Q, he knows that already. He can trust this incredible person who has fallen clumsily into his life and into his heart without permission. Eliot thinks he sees the way to happiness here, with this soft-warm-lovely man leaning up and in to kiss him again, firmer this time, with tongue ‒ so sweet, so perfect, like the beginning of something true and good and ‒

It’s only a week later that the Beast punches his fist straight through Quentin’s chest, with Eliot there to watch it happen. His new boyfriend falls to the ground, dead before he lands, and the magic inside of Eliot explodes outward in a cascade of anguish and anger, like hitting a bully with a bus magnified a thousand-fold. More. Everything, all of him, it comes pouring out ‒ and he brings the world down on the thing that has done this to Quentin. He ignores the screams of terror from his allies as the magic warps and catches and kills, indiscriminate and violent and evil, straight from the core of what Eliot has always known he truly was. He lets the power rip him apart, too, but only after he’s confirmed his successful vengeance against the thing that has taken all the light out of the world.

***

Quentin kills the Beast. He goes Niffin in order to do it. Eliot ‒ Eliot won’t leave him alone. Margo begs him to stop, but he hounds Q, he finds ways to summon him, he follows him whenever he can. Quentin doesn’t kill him on sight, and that in and of itself is enough for Eliot to have hope. He has hope, hope, hope, until he doesn’t. Until he pushes the thing wearing Quentin’s face too far, and it grabs him by the throat, pins him against a wall. “What you’re doing,” Not-Quentin snarls, “isn’t noble.”

“I know that,” Eliot says. “I’m not the one of us who cares about that.”

“I’m not Quentin. I’m not your precious little boyfriend, I don’t care about you.”

“Okay,” Eliot says, putting his hands up in surrender. “Okay, I get it. But whoever you are now, Quentin or not… I want to help you.”

Not-Quentin huffs out an exasperated breath and Eliot’s heart flip-flops in the hollowness of his chest. He sounds like Q. His mouth is turned down in contemplation and irritation, like Q. The only thing not like Q is the total lack of affection in his eyes when he looks at Eliot.

“What could you possibly offer me that I can’t do better myself?” Quentin asks, flat and unimpressed, as he lets Eliot drop back to his feet, and takes a step back. “You can’t imagine the power I wield. You can’t imagine what I’ve learned, what I am, now. It’s no wonder that Alice resented Quentin for taking this away from her.”

Eliot blinks, confused. “What are you talking about?”

Quentin flaps an impatient hand, cold and severe. “Another time.”

Eliot wants to believe he means I’ll tell you another time, but somehow he doesn’t think that’s it. He hates the sound of Quentin’s voice, talking about ‒ about ‒ Quentin in the third person, as if Q is… is really dead. That’s what Margo keeps trying to tell him. Q’s dead. He’s dead.

But he’s right here, and how can Eliot accept anything else?

“I could ‒ I don’t know, I could go with you, Q. I could help you find more ‒ more magic, more knowledge. Whatever you want. Just let me go with you.”

The Niffin tilts his head in contemplation, something almost amused on its face now. “I remember Quentin would beg sometimes, during sex. It seemed to turn you on, but I can’t imagine why, now. Frankly, I find the sight of your sniveling desperation nothing short of nauseating.”

Eliot won’t let this get to him. It’s a performance. That’s not even how Quentin would talk if he were irredeemably evil. It’s campy and intended to wound. Q is putting on a show, he’s creating distance on purpose, because he’s scared he’s going to give in, scared he’s going to remember that he still cares. Eliot knows this to be true. No other reality is possible.

“You haven’t killed me yet,” Eliot points out, fighting to keep his own voice as even-keeled and calm as the Niffin in front of him. If Quentin doesn’t want him to beg, he won’t beg. He’ll use logic, the language of the being of pure magic in front of him. “You haven’t hurt me, because you can’t. Something’s holding you back, because you still ‒ ”

And those are his last words.

***

Eliot meets Quentin.

Eliot loses Quentin.

Ad nauseam.

***

Eliot knocks on Quentin’s door late one night, his heart in his throat, his palms tingling with sweat. And when Quentin opens it, he takes a lurching step forward, lets his face show the full range of his considerable emotion, and bursts out ‒ “I can’t do it anymore, Q, I’m sorry but I can’t do it. I love you.”

Quentin is predictably astonished and confused and angry and incredulous, but Eliot spells the truth out for him, tells him everything Fogg has confided, confesses the bizarre nightmare his life has become, and after a lot of talking, after so much talking that Eliot’s throat is hoarse and his lips are dry, Quentin finally seems to accept the truth of what he’s being told. And then he lunges for Eliot.

God, Eliot is a trembling mess, clumsy and frantic and whimpering. No finesse, no skill, just oh god, Quentin, Q, Q, let me touch you, please, I’ve needed you and Quentin is a mess right back at him ‒ El, I love you, I love you too, I thought I’d never be happy again, please touch me, fuck, Eliot ‒

“Do you think we’ll survive?” Quentin asks Eliot afterwards, sweat cooling on his skin, his body still buzzing and trembling everywhere it’s touching Eliot’s own.

Eliot squeezes an arm around him in desperate fear. He buries his face into Quentin’s neck, huffing out breaths of air as he comes back down to reality, to what he’s just done, to the mistake he’s just made. But how can this be a mistake? How can this be wrong?

“We have to,” Eliot says, pressing the words directly into Quentin’s skin. “We have to, Quentin, if you die because I fucked up and told you ‒ ”

“You saved me,” Quentin says, and the words sound so sure, so confident. “El, I was fucking drowning, okay, you saved me.”

“God, I’m so sorry,” Eliot says, bringing a hand up to grip the back of Quentin’s neck. “I was so miserable, every second, knowing you ‒ ”

“You already said that,” Quentin reminds him. “It’s okay, I get it now. I ‒ you were just trying to keep me safe.”

“I’m so scared, baby,” Eliot says. “I’m so scared that I failed. I broke my word to Fogg, I fucked up the whole plan, and now ‒ ”

“And now we can do this together, as partners. The way we should have from the beginning.”

Despite Quentin’s words of forgiveness, despite the gentleness of his hands skimming over Eliot’s naked back, there’s just a hint of reproof in his tone.

“I’m sorry,” Eliot repeats, opening his mouth and placing a lingering kiss right against Quentin’s pulse-point. “I should have told you from the start. I should have told you everything.”

Quentin tugs on Eliot’s hair to bring his face up, and he looks at him with that breathtakingly open expression, all of his adoration and trust and love spilling forth from him like he has no reason to be scared of it at all. How the fuck had Eliot survived even a day without this?

“We’re going to win,” Quentin says, firm as anything. “We’re going to win, okay? We’re going to defeat the Beast. The spell’s already in place, I’m ready for it, and fuck Fogg for his pessimism, honestly. I’m not going to let myself die when I have everything to live for.”

He is the most astonishing person ever to live. Eliot thinks about telling him so, but Quentin is kissing him again, and any remnants of coherence fly right out the window.

They get three days, and then the Beast comes. Quentin was partially right ‒ they do defeat him.

In the aftermath, recovering from his injuries while Alice tentatively shares plans for Margo and Quentin’s joint funeral, this fact does not console Eliot in the slightest.

***

~~~~~

“Stop. Stop. Stop stop stop stop ‒ ”

Eliot is on the floor in Fogg’s office. He doesn’t remember falling out of his chair, but he must have done at some point, because that’s where he finds himself when he’s next aware of the real world, of the current world, the one where he’s still got a chance to get out of this with his heart intact. The world where he’s still breathing and his friends are still alive, where god willing he hasn’t already fucked everything up beyond repair with his stupid, selfish yearning.

“Do you understand now?” Fogg asks him, and there might be sympathy in his voice, but Eliot isn’t sure. He can’t think. He keeps seeing it, all of it, too much, the memories are oppressive and heartbreaking and some of them were so lovely until they weren’t, until Eliot’s whole world is taken from him, again and again and ‒

“Take it out,” Eliot says, shaking and twitching on the ground in front of the desk. “Please, make me ‒ m-make me forget, I can’t ‒ ”

Quentin, splayed spread-eagle, eyes open, neck twisted unnaturally, bruising turning his face a mottled yellow-green ‒

Margo, stumbling towards him with blood spilling from her abdomen, trying to choke out his name before she dies ‒

Both of them, his Bambi and his Q, their eyes wide and devastated as they look down at Eliot, as they curl their bodies protectively over his own dying form, and he wants to tell them to run, he wants to say so many things to these two precious loves of his life but he can’t, he doesn’t have time for it, he can’t even tell them what he’s suddenly remembered, that they’ve been here before and they will be again, that he’s found them and he’s loved them, every time and ‒

Alice’s brittle, brilliant, beautiful face shattering into confused tears as she bleeds out in his arms ‒

Penny howling in anguish over Julia’s body ‒ over Kady’s body ‒ over Quentin’s body ‒ while Eliot ignores the blood dripping from his own wounds and scans the crowd, the bodies, the screaming, writhing, dying and dead ‒ searching for Margo, half-hoping he won’t find her, because maybe she got away, maybe she ‒ maybe there’s still something left

Quentin’s neck snaps, Quentin’s chest collapses, Quentin’s body explodes, Quentin is there when Eliot dies, Quentin is missing when Eliot dies, Eliot wakes up and Q is already gone. They are in love. Quentin loves Alice. They’ve just met. They’re best friends. They’re soulmates.

Every time, they meet and Eliot’s heart just ‒ something happens to him, even when it goes nowhere, even when he never gets to touch him, he just ‒ he changes, every time ‒ that’s what it is. Every time, Quentin changes him. And every time, it turns to sour, ashen pain and regret and death.

(And Teddy. Teddy, his son, his son, oh fucking god, please no ‒ he’ll never see him again, he’ll never have him back ‒ )

All of it is true, all of it is real, every single life lived. Eliot is going to throw up. He’s going to pass out. He needs it to stop stop stop ‒ “Please, fuck, this is ‒ I’m dying, it’s killing me ‒ make it ‒ ”

“Drink,” Fogg says, and Eliot hadn’t seen him walk around the desk, or kneel down, but he doesn’t question it, just grabs at the vial with shaking hands and downs it without hesitation. Fogg could be trying to poison him right now, and he wouldn’t care. Anything if it stops. Anything if he doesn’t have to see it anymore ‒

The potion, whatever it is, tastes like nothing. It might as well just be water, as far as Eliot is concerned. But in the aftermath, something strange starts to happen in Eliot’s mind.

He can’t ‒ forget, exactly. He can’t forget the anguish and the love, the grief and the hope. It’s a part of him, tied up inexorably in who he is now, who he’s always been. It’s all been there from the beginning, carried through each loop, no matter how much Fogg might wish for a totally clean start.

But the specifics tied to the emotions start to slip away.

At first, Eliot instinctively tries to grab hold of them. He doesn’t want to forget that one time that he and Q went out on a boat together, or the time Eliot sat on his throne in Whitespire and Quentin went on his knees to serve his king. He doesn’t want to forget the way Alice had looked when he had placed a crown on her head, or the sounds Arielle made when Quentin moved inside of her. He doesn’t want to lose the bittersweet memory of his thirtieth birthday, spent with Quentin visiting the graves of their friends, or the time he and Margo had forced Quentin into a movie makeover montage, gotten him highlights, and bought him thousands of dollars of new clothing using cash from a magically rigged ATM outside a department store.

But one mind isn’t meant to contain the memories of several lifetimes. Without Fogg’s assistance, Eliot never would have been able to grasp on to so much, so clearly. It’s a sad truth. There are so many things Eliot doesn’t want to lose. But there is so much he must forget, if he wants to be able to get through the day. And he needs to survive this. Maybe he doesn’t want to, right now, but he knows that feeling will pass.

God, it has to, right?

“Jesus motherfucking Christ,” Eliot says finally, still slumped over on the floor. He’s still devastated, still overwhelmed with the intensity of experience. And he can still remember some things, the shape of them, the way it felt to hold Quentin close in lust and love, and the way it felt to hold his ruined body in soul-crushing desolation. “What the fuck.”

“You needed to know,” Fogg says. “You needed to be convinced. To understand. Do you?”

Eliot blinks a few times, willing his body to stop reacting to things his mind can’t really remember anymore. “Yes. No. Fuck. I think I ‒ oh god. What the fuck, do you just walk around with this shit in your head all the time? Because that’s ‒ ”

Fogg nods, and for a moment Eliot suspects he’s seeing the true face of the dean ‒ weary and broken and ready to rest.

“Yes, Eliot. What I’ve just allowed you to forget, is something I carry with me. I don’t have the luxury of erasing the parts that are… difficult. But I also have the gift of remembering what is good. Remembering what we could have, if the pieces all fall into place.”

“But how ‒ how do you know this time will be different?” Eliot says. The horror is still a living thing, despite his fading memory. It burrows into him, never to be excised.

Fogg reaches a hand out to help Eliot stand, and Eliot takes it without thinking, instinctively seeking any sort of human touch. He nearly falls over once he’s on his feet, and he takes the chair Fogg offers him gratefully. Remembering back to how he’d felt the last time he’d been alone with Fogg in this room, he nearly laughs again, the reaction as inappropriate now as it had been two months ago.

Then, he’d hated Fogg with every fiber of his being. Now, he understands him. Who could experience horrors like these, and not take every opportunity to turn back the clock? Eliot tries not to think about the fact that the loops aren’t the same thing as time travel ‒ that the other realities, the ones he’s just remembered and forgotten in short order, are still out there somewhere in the multiverse. A majority of the other Eliots are dead, but some are alive, limping on without an essential piece of their soul.

Does a soul move through the loops? Does Eliot share a soul with other versions of himself, ones who have died and killed and died and killed, always grasping for some measure of safety and happiness for those he loves, never finding it?

This is the kind of shit that Julia and Quentin would be interested in. They’d have theories, they’d have ideas. Eliot feels like a child, lost and alone in a strange land with nobody’s hand to hold.

“Eliot,” Fogg says, and the word is soft but insistent. Eliot blinks and turns to look at him, standing on the other side of the desk with his hands splayed out across its surface. Eliot thinks that Fogg might have been trying to get his attention for a while now. And yet, there’s no impatience on his face, just… worry. “Eliot, I am truly sorry.”

“Are you?” Eliot asks, not sure if he can trust it, even now. “You made the decision. You decided… you decided not to leave well enough alone.”

Fogg smiles then, grim-faced but seemingly amused all the same. “Would you have had the strength to say no? To an opportunity to fix everything, return your loved ones to life?”

“I don’t know, Fogg,” Eliot says, exhausted. His eyes are stinging, his face feels puffy from crying. “Do I have that strength? Do I live on without Quentin? I can’t remember anymore.”

He can remember. A part of him. Sort of. Just enough to know that sometimes, he does. Sometimes, Q dies and Eliot survives it. It seems impossible, here in this moment. He doesn’t think this version of himself would be able to pull it off. But maybe in some world…

Fogg grinds his teeth together, his jaw popping, his eyes darting. “Yes,” he finally says. “But only because you didn’t know of a way of bringing him back without making the rest of the world worse.”

“And that’s not what you’re doing?” Eliot says. This is definitely an argument they’ve had before. He knows this because of the look on Fogg’s face, but also because of the strange calmness that has settled over him, the way he knows his lines somehow, ready and waiting whenever he must speak them. “Making things worse, again and again, trying to fix what can’t be fixed?”

“I’m making things better,” Fogg says, insistent. “You can’t know the work I’ve put into this, you can’t know how much better it already is from what it could have been. The Beast… the amount of harm he might inflict is immeasurable. It has been dozens of loops since he’s managed to kill more than two or three victims. I’ve already considerably limited the damage, this world is demonstrably a better place than the world of the earlier loops, when ‒ ”

“You haven’t eliminated the damage,” Eliot says, his voice warbling. “You’ve just ‒ contained it. You’ve contained it to me, to Quentin. Our friends. You made that call for us, you had no right.”

God, Eliot wishes he had the energy for indignation. He just wants to go to sleep, he wants to hold a warm body to his chest, he wants someone to pet a hand through his hair.

Fogg shakes his head at him, sadly. “You can stop it, Eliot. I won’t have to do it again, if you just stick it out for a little while longer. Then this can be over.”

“You need it to be over,” Eliot says, something occuring to him. It might be instinct, it might be memories bleeding through from what he’s just experienced. Either way, he’s going for it. “You need it to be over because it’s getting harder to keep going, isn’t it? Shit’s degrading, the loops are bleeding in to one another.”

“It’s manageable,” Fogg says, waiving a dismissive hand.

“Physical objects are coming through,” Eliot says. “Did you know that? Things from past loops are showing up here, where they shouldn’t be.” He’s remembering the artwork down in the library’s secret room, the mosaic, a word that sends a pang through him unlike any other, even if he can’t fully remember why. But he’s sure there’s been more ‒ other things he’s come across that belonged to lives long past. “It’s not just our memories that are leaking, it’s ‒ ”

“I know,” Fogg interrupts, clipped. “Yes, you’re right, we might be running out of chances. The longer we go, the harder ‒ ”

“Stop saying we,” Eliot says, pained. He’s so fucking tired. “Stop saying this like I’m your partner in this. You forced me. You forced me into this position. And maybe you’re right, maybe I would have done the same damn thing to save Quentin’s life, if I had known how. Call me a hypocrite for hating you, if you like. But I do hate you. And even if we get this right, that’s not going to change.”

Something in the set of Fogg’s shoulders relaxes, an odd response to Eliot’s words. “So you’ll keep quiet, then,” he says. “You’ll stick to the plan.”

Eliot hadn’t realized he’d made a decision, but… “Yes,” he says, gulping around a new lump in his throat. “Yes, I’ll do whatever you say. You know I have no choice, you bastard.”

He stands up and turns to leave, ready to leave it at that, but Fogg speaks just as he reaches the door.

“I do regret it, you know,” Fogg says. “Your hatred. You’ll never forgive me for what I’ve done, and I know that. Over the many years I have known you, Quentin, Julia, and the others, I have grown to care for you very deeply. I might not always show it, but… I am as deeply invested in your future happiness as it is possible for a person to be, Eliot. Please consider that you are not the only one making a sacrifice for the greater good.”

Eliot doesn’t respond, but as he walks back across campus towards the Cottage, he thinks about what Fogg has said. He thinks about loneliness, about how every night without Quentin by his side feels like a night wasted. What would it be like, to stand apart from the people you’ve worked so hard to protect? To know that neither success nor failure will reconcile you to them?

He can’t find sympathy for Fogg, but he can find understanding. All too easily.

“Well?” Margo says, when Eliot finds her in the kitchen making a sandwich for lunch.

He looks at her for a moment, awed by her beauty and her health and her very presence in his life. He loves her for being here, safe and relatively content. He also hates her for being right.

“The plan is still on. And I really don’t want to talk about it.”

Eliot turns around and marches upstairs to his room, closing the door hard behind him. For the first time in a very long while, he actually wants to be alone.

Chapter Text

In the dream, Quentin and Eliot are together.

They’re out on the Sea, laughing and bright-eyed and oh, they’re so in love. They’re so in love that it hurts, the giddy wonder of it, overwhelming and overflowing. Anybody who looks at them can see it from a mile away, and not just for the obvious reason that they can’t seem to stop kissing each other. Uncoordinated, messy kisses that they attempt to maintain even as they walk towards Quentin’s next class together.

“El, you’re going to make me late,” Quentin says, but he laughs and sways into Eliot, hands tugging him in closer underneath the fabric of his jacket.

“Mmm,” Eliot says, nosing at his jaw. “Well, if you’d just stayed in bed where I wanted you, I wouldn’t be forced out here in the cold to beg for your affections.”

“Are you saying you’d beg?” Quentin asks, his eyes suddenly a shy mixture of curiosity and excitement.

“Would you like that, little Q? I suppose that might be arranged, if you’re very, very good

“Get a fucking grip on yourselves,” a voice calls out from behind them, and Penny walks up, rolling his eyes in a way that, for him, is almost fond. “You’re giving everyone within a hundred yard radius cavities.”

“Only a hundred yards?” Eliot says, his eyebrows shooting up. “We’re losing our touch, Q. Quick, kiss me again.”

Eliot ducks and swoops into Quentin, kissing him thorough and deep, involved enough that they come to a halt, feet planted and bodies curving into each other with practiced ease. Quentin gasps against his mouth but sinks into the kiss with abandon, both of them ignoring Penny’s grumble of protest. Eliot has just gotten to the point where he’s utterly forgotten that this was supposed to be an annoy-Penny-for-the-hell-of-it sort of kiss, teasing Quentin’s mouth open with his tongue and tugging a hand through Q’s perfect, perfect hair, when something happens.

It’s another interruption, but this one isn’t just Penny with some good-natured ribbing, or Margo with her characteristic cat-calls of delight, or a member of the faculty shooing them out of an empty classroom, or any one of the other interruptions that Eliot and Quentin have suffered during this most ravenous of honeymoon periods.

This particular interruption is a horror show.

The portal materializes from nothing, making a rending sound in the air that vibrates along Eliot’s skin and sends him reeling back, tearing his lips away from Quentin so he can turn to face the source of the noise. His arms are still tangled around Q, Quentin’s hands are still clenched in the fabric of Eliot’s collar, when they see the figure walking through a shimmering patch of air. A figure in a suit, a figure with precise, inhuman movements, radiating power with an intensity Eliot has never before encountered. A figure with no face.

“What the fuck ” Quentin says, and Eliot, fear coalescing in his stomach, tugs on Quentin’s arm and positions himself slightly in front of his shorter body. He doesn’t know why, but he knows this thing is trouble. Knows it could take everything from him.

(It’s recognition, deeper than memory.)

“Quentin Coldwater,” a voice sounds, from the void of moths where the man’s face should be. “Finally.”

The thing’s hands spring out, and Eliot goes flying. He hears Quentin call his name as he hits the ground, the breath punching out of his lungs. For a moment he’s scared he’s broken something, but quickly he realizes he’s only had the wind knocked out of him. He scrambles to his feet as quickly as he can, eyes fixed on Quentin, and on the thing that’s facing him down.

Even without a face, it looks smug. It looks hungry.

And then

It kills Quentin.

Not quickly, no, that would be too much to hope for it slashes out, and that part is quick enough, and the well of blood across Quentin’s chest and stomach is quick enough, the way Eliot’s heart stutters and screeches to a halt in his chest in utter, abandoned horror, that happens immediately all at once, no pause for denial or confusion.

But Quentin doesn’t die right away. Eliot has time to scream, time to rush to him, time to realize for a certainty that there’s no fixing this, that Quentin has seconds left, minutes at most. He has time to beg him for the impossible anyway, please, please, please, the words the same yet so different from the begging Quentin had been asking for with teasing eyes, only minutes ago.

Minutes ago, in another world, back when things made sense and Eliot understood what it was to be happy.

And Quentin, before he dies, has time to look up into Eliot’s eyes, his face contorted in pain, and whimper out a warning “El, run

“It’s okay,” Eliot says, shaking his head. “You’re okay.”

It’s nonsense. They both know it’s nonsense.

“Eliot, he’ll kill you

Eliot knows he’s going to die any minute now. He hopes Quentin bleeds out before he has to see it. He wants to give him that, the gift of going first.

“Shh, Q, we’re okay. Everything’s going to be okay, now.” He pulls Quentin into his arms, his stomach lurching at the sound of pain Q makes at being moved. And he kisses him again, just kisses him, and Q kisses him back, his breathing shallow, lips wet and soft and tasting faintly of blood. Eliot breathes into him and cradles the back of Q’s neck to hold him in place, until Quentin’s mouth goes slack against his. And then he just buries his face into the still-warm neck of Quentin’s body, and he waits. He doesn’t look behind him, doesn’t even flinch when he hears Penny’s scream of outrage choke off into a gurgle of blood, the sound of a body thudding to the ground.

He’s next. He waits. He’s ready.

Eliot wakes up in a cold sweat, every line of his body taut and terrified. He can’t move for a moment, and when he finally unlocks the muscles in his body, they overcompensate for the stillness by shaking violently.

He’s out of bed on stumbling, unsteady legs and halfway down the hall to Quentin’s room before he realizes that he can’t do the thing he’d been about to do. He can’t open Quentin’s door uninvited and crawl into bed with him and kiss him awake and breathe him in and work him open and slip inside him and then just fucking stay there and count his heartbeats until every bit of the dream has washed away from him, until calm has taken over in the embrace of Quentin’s arms.

If he does that, he’s killing Quentin. And probably Margo, and maybe other people too, for all he knows. Maybe the whole fucking world.

So instead, he jerks himself to a halt a few feet away from Quentin’s bedroom door, and he slides in an unsteady heap to the carpeted hallway. Q’s silencing wards have always been a joke ‒ Eliot could tear them down with one hand, and then he could put a sound amplifier on for just ‒ for just a second, and maybe he could hear Quentin breathing, the rustle of sheets as he shifts in his sleep. Proof of life. And then maybe he could relax enough to take a deep breath, maybe his hands would stop shaking.

But that’s ‒ no. He can’t do that. That’s some Cullen-esque levels of stalker behavior and he won’t ‒ he broke up with Quentin, he can’t just disrespect all of his boundaries, he can’t be that creepy stalker ex, he can’t do anything that will jeopardize Quentin’s life.

God. That wasn’t a dream. Whatever just happened to Eliot didn’t feel like a dream. It was even less of a dream than some of the other memories that had come to him, unbidden, all the way back in September. It had felt sharper than that, more immediate, more true.

Which means it really happened like that, once. Quentin and Eliot had been innocent and in love and had had no idea of the danger coming for them, and then they’d been cut down at the height of their new happiness. Penny too.

Which loop was that? Recent, or one of the more distant ones, before Fogg had started to find ways to defeat the Beast with some degree of reliability? Was it a really old loop, back before Fogg had started them up again after the infamous timeline 40?

Does it matter?

Eliot is in a constant war with himself, caught between reaching for the wisps of memories hanging at the corners of his mind, and suppressing those memories as best as he can. Caught between wanting to know everything, and searching desperately for oblivion, all at once.

The past couple of days have been ‒ hard, to say the least. Eliot has been in mourning over a loss he can’t quite remember, and there are moments when he wonders if it would have been better not to forget everything after all, so as not to be hanging in limbo like this. Every dream of happiness turns in to a nightmare, and his certainty that it’s all real is tempered by his doubts of the full truth. Knowing for sure would have to be better than this, wouldn’t it?

And then he remembers curling into a ball on the floor in Fogg’s office, begging for it to stop, and he knows even imperfect ignorance is bliss.

God, it had felt so real, all of it. The sudden screeching shift from perfect joy to unceasing devastation. There are too many horrifying things to think about all at once, but the thing that keeps catching in Eliot’s brain is how quickly he’d given up, in the dream. In the memory. He’d just ‒ cradled Quentin to his chest and waited to die. He hadn’t even tried for revenge, or fought for Penny’s life, or anything.

If that loop was a more recent one, does that mean... had something in him been worn down by too many failures? Had his spirit given up, even if he couldn’t remember why?

Eliot doesn’t like to think about living on without Quentin, of course. The thought is paralyzing in its wrongness. But to just curl up like a wounded animal and let that thing snuff him out…

No. That he won’t do. Even if the worst should happen, he’ll go out swinging. It’s a promise he needs to make to himself right here, right now, sitting huddled up on the floor in the hallway, separated from Q by only a few measly feet, and a thousand miles of insurmountable grief.

He’s going to kill the Beast. And if they get it wrong this time, if Q falls in the attempt… well, Fogg will try again, won’t he? Eliot can pretend all he wants that the thought disgusts him. And it does, a little. But it also reassures him, in the deepest, most selfish parts of himself.

They’ll get it right, one of these days. There is no other option.

~~~~~

When Eliot feels the alarm spell tickling at the back of his mind, he tries not to let it bother him too much. It’s been… doing that, on and off, since the first time. The Beast seems to be poking meticulously along the wards, looking for a hole. From everything Eliot knows, one of these days very soon he’ll succeed.

But for now, Eliot merely grimaces around the rattling in his brain and keeps staring down at the same homework assignment he’s been looking at all night. Hell, all week. He’s been avoiding it, not because it’s challenging, but because focusing on anything as mundane as school work has become a herculean task for him of late. You’d think the school might give special dispensation to individuals living in constant fear that the love of their life might be struck down dead in front of them any day now, but Brakebills doesn’t have a fucking guidance counseler, and Fogg sure as hell isn’t going to give him a pass.

And it would suck, Eliot keeps reminding himself, to get through all of the pain and sacrifice of the past several months, only to flunk out of the damn school at the end of the day.

The alarm spell doesn’t let up, though. It stops for a moment, and Eliot closes his eyes in relief, and then it’s back, sharper and meaner and ‒

Oh no.

Eliot jumps off of the couch, turning in a wide circle with his heart hammering in his throat and the palms of his hands. “Q? Alice?”

They had been in the corner of the room earlier working on homework of their own, but they’re not there anymore.

Quentin?” he repeats, darting to the foot of the stairs. The alarm is ringing louder and louder and louder, and the beginning of real panic begins to tighten itself around Eliot’s heart.

Then the back door opens, and Quentin’s voice calms him. “Out here.”

He finds Quentin and Alice together, their brows furrowed and their eyes darting as they look around at the evidently empty field stretching out before them. No sign of an otherworldly entity. No sign of anything at all, except the now fading buzz of the spell resting in the back of Eliot’s mind.

It doesn’t take long for the rest of them to gather ‒ first Kady and Julia, who were evidently together up in Kady’s room, then Penny, who also comes from upstairs. Alice is studying the lattice work of the campus wards and biting her lip, wordlessly holding out a hand for paper and pencil, jotting down notes.

“Where’s Margo?” Eliot asks, anxious for a full quorum, but she appears a moment later, blinking sleep out of her eyes and brushing uncharacteristically disheveled hair out of her face.

“Napping. Damn spell woke me up.” She darts a look around at the rest of them. “Another false alarm?”

The ringing has stopped entirely now, the alarm fading into the back of Eliot’s head where it rests, dormant, waiting for the Beast’s next attempt.

Alice frowns at Margo, then back down at the hastily scribbled notes she’s been making, the paper held against Quentin’s back. “I don’t know. It felt different.”

“You don’t think he’s here somewhere, do you?” Penny says.

Eliot frowns. The Beast doesn’t seem like the kind of guy to hide around a corner and bide his time, but what does he know? He walks in a slow circle, eyes wide and searching, half afraid the Beast is going to come sauntering up out of the early evening shadows and enact his final attack.

But there’s nobody there.

“No,” Margo says, looking around as well. “I mean, probably not, right? If he were here, he’d just show up and start slaughtering, wouldn’t he?”

“We don’t know what he would do,” Kady counters. “We don’t really know anything about this thing except that it wants to kill Quentin.”

Even Eliot doesn’t know much more than that, damn Fogg and his enigmatic master plan. But Margo does seem to be right. They stand outside the Cottage in the gathering dark for a long while and nothing happens. Gradually, tensions start to ease from the sets of people’s shoulders, and the group disperses.

Julia tugs on Quentin’s arm and guides him back inside, and Margo yawns and announces she’s getting back to her interrupted nap.

“You’re going to fuck up your rhythms,” Penny tells her as they move towards the door. “It’s almost seven pm.”

Bambi flips him off, the dear, and saunters off to get the beauty sleep she doesn’t need but most definitely deserves.

“It’s fascinating stuff,” Alice says, mostly to herself, and Eliot looks around to find himself alone with her, as she stares down at her hastily scribbled notes. “Whatever he did to the wards, it’s… sophisticated. Almost ‒ beautiful, in a way.”

“Beautiful?” Eliot says, a little sharp. “Funny way of describing it.”

Alice looks up at him, distracted, then up at the sky, staring as if she can still see the magical signatures far above their heads. “I just mean… I think he’s coming through directly from Fillory. So he’s not so much breaking through the wards as creating a portal using the wards, and the magic of Fillory, creating a sort of tunnel between them. I can see why it’s taken him so long to do, but it’s undeniably effective.”

“Well maybe when he shows up to murder our friend, you can stop and ask him questions about his technique,” Eliot says, an unexpected surge of anger filling him up.

Alice looks back at him, this time with more attention, her eyes widening behind her glasses. “Eliot, I didn’t mean anything by it. I was just saying, the magic is interesting.”

Eliot swallows hard, takes a deep breath of the crisp evening air. “No, I ‒ I’m sorry, I shouldn’t be snapping at you. I think I’m just fucking exhausted.”

Alice raises a questioning eyebrow at him, and Eliot isn’t sure if she’s asking for more of an apology, or if she’s just curious about his tempestuous mood. Eliot isn’t really sure where the anger had come from either. He really is tired, of course. He’s always tired. But none of this is Alice’s fault, for fuck’s sake.

He coughs and tries again. “Alice, you’re brilliant. You and Julia ‒ the alarm spell, and the big sharing spell, linking us all ‒ the work you did on it is stunning. There’s nothing I wouldn’t trust the two of you with, when it comes to magic. I’m nothing compared to you when it comes to that sort of ‒ ”

“Except Quentin’s life,” Alice says, interrupting Eliot mid-sentence.

“What?”

“You said there’s nothing you wouldn’t trust me with. But it’s different, when it’s Quentin’s life, isn’t it?”

Eliot freezes, waiting to understand what Alice is talking about. (He knows what Alice is talking about, but they don’t usually come at it head-on like this. Alice gives him weird looks, she questions him with her eyes, but they don’t talk about the obvious fact that Eliot is stupidly in love with Quentin and has walked away from him for no apparent reason.)

But he’s had to lie to so many people, for so long, and he really is so very tired of it.

Trusting his gut, he allows himself to say: “Yes. Yes, it’s different.”

“I think I…” Alice trails off, her eyes unfocused. “Julia told me about these probability spells she was doing with Fogg.”

Dangerous change of subject. Maybe Eliot should have already gone inside. But he’s frozen, curious despite himself. He and Julia had never discussed Fogg’s “probability spells”, beyond their one conversation about Eliot breaking up with Quentin, the infamous Thanksgiving shovel talk. Eliot knows the truth now, knows that what Julia has seen isn’t what might happen, but what already has. What else has Fogg shown her? Has Julia seen the pain and destruction, the death and the devastation? Does Julia know all the ways they still might fail?

It would be nice to share it with someone. Nice to have someone he could really talk to, someone else who has experienced it in some form or other. But Fogg has taken that away, too.

So instead, Eliot schools his face into polite interest and waits for Alice to continue. She does, looking down at her own hands, fingers laced together in front of her. “She told me that there are all these worlds, all these things that might have happened, but never did, and my first thought was…” she trails off, looking up at Eliot as if asking for help.

“Your first thought was what?” Eliot prompts, at a loss.

“I really like Quentin,” Alice says, blunt and confident. “I ‒ I care about him a lot.” She swallows, then darts her eyes up to look at Eliot, hesitant. “But sometimes it’s hard to be around him because I feel… guilty.”

Eliot’s heart jumps up to his throat again, and he swallows it down to his stomach. “Guilty?”

“I can’t explain it,” Alice says, frowning, and Eliot knows that she hates not being able to explain things. Especially important things. “But I ‒ I feel like I failed him, or something. Or, I could have failed him ‒ somewhere else. Another time. Another version of my life that I can almost remember. I look at him and sometimes I think ‒ I should have done more to save you.”

The hairs on the back of Eliot’s neck stand on end. “Alice…”

“I know,” she says, waving a hand. “I know it’s stupid, I know it makes no sense. I guess the point I’m trying to make is ‒ I’d do anything to keep him safe. I feel like I owe it to him, and ‒ and to myself, you know?”

Yes, Eliot does know. And one day he’ll remind Alice of this conversation, and Alice will tell him he did good, that keeping the truth to himself was the best course of action. He’ll believe it, coming from her.

“I trust you,” Eliot croaks, a little overwhelmed. “Alice, I trust you with everything. Even with him, I swear.”

“And I trust you,” Alice says. She smiles, and the glow of the Cottage windows behind her gives her a softness that’s usually missing from the angular lines of her face. “I trust you with Quentin too, even though I don’t really… I mean, you haven’t exactly given me good reason for that.”

Ouch.

But Alice is still smiling, shaking her head with an odd look in her eyes now. “Some of those probabilities that Julia saw with Fogg… it’s just weird to think about how things could have been so different. I kind of can’t picture Quentin belonging with anyone but you.”

Alice is like Quentin in a lot of ways. She’s brave and a little broken, and she looks you in the eye when she says the important stuff.

And Eliot… Eliot can sort of remember what it was, to be in love with a Quentin Coldwater who was in love with an Alice Quinn. The thought doesn’t hurt him nearly as much as he might have expected. Frankly, he gets it. Quentin is generous with his heart, and Alice could use something like that in her life. They might have made it work, for all Eliot knows. Maybe she could have made him happy. Maybe if Eliot had stayed away this time around, Q wouldn’t be…

But he stops that thought right in its tracks. It’s pointless to try and go back, now. Eliot knows how to make Quentin happy. He also knows how to hurt him. He’s done both of those things, in fact. And he can only hope that he knows how to fix the hurt, and bring back the happy, when the time is right.

“Don’t say anything to him,” Eliot says, and it’s almost a whisper. He knows even as he speaks that he didn’t need to say the words, that although there is so much Alice doesn’t fully understand about what’s going on, she can be trusted to keep all of his secrets ‒ spoken and unspoken alike.

Still, she takes the request seriously, pursing her lips and giving a solemn nod. “You’re going to fix it, though, right?”

Eliot laughs, a tired, broken sound, and gives the gathering twilight one final sweeping look before turning to go back inside. “God, Alice, I’m sure as fuck going to try.”

~~~~~

In the dream, Quentin is on top of him, groaning directly into his mouth as he moves, lifting himself up and down on Eliot’s cock. He’s going slow, even as he devolves into whimpers and uneven jerks of his body, drawing it out like he never wants it to end. Eliot wraps both of his arms around him and holds him as tight as he dares. He doesn’t want this to end either. Who knows when they’ll see each other again?

“El,” Quentin says, pained and high and desperate, “El, promise me you

“I’ll wait for you,” Eliot promises, and he means it, even though he doesn’t quite know how it’s possible. He seals their lips together again, seeking solace in the warmth of Quentin wherever he can reach him. He moves, his body reacting to Quentin’s nearness, moving in him the way he knows so well, the way he’s learned, as his most sacred truth.

When it’s over, Quentin will leave, go back to Earth. Always another battle to fight, another day to save.

He’d offered to stay for the wedding, eyes watering and mouth trembling, and Eliot had said no. He knows he won’t go through with it, if he sees Quentin there.

***

In the dream, Quentin approaches Eliot at the drink cart, and stands there shuffling around until Eliot finally takes pity on him.

“What can I get you, sir?”

“Um,” Quentin says, hesitant.

Things have been a little strained between them lately, ever since Eliot had made the stupid mistake of asking Quentin if he might want to go out sometime, only for Alice to poke her head around the edge of Quentin’s door to ask him if he was coming back to bed.

Humiliating? Yes. But Eliot’s handling it like a champ. Q’s the one making the whole thing weird.

And it only gets weirder, but this time in a good way in a wonderful way, when Quentin clears his throat, takes a step closer to him, and says “We broke up, El. I’m I’m if you, uh. Wanted to ask me again.”

The bar closes early that night. Or maybe Todd takes over and starts creating his own monstrous cocktails and feeding them to Eliot’s unsuspecting guests. Eliot would have no way of knowing; he is otherwise occupied. And what does it fucking matter, anyway?

***

In the dream, Quentin is hunched over a shape on the floor when Eliot finds him. He’s not even crying, just staring with shock down at Julia’s peaceful, still face. When Eliot tries to get him to stand up, he asks if they can bring Julia with them.

Eliot has to tell him no, and in the days they have left together, he’s not sure if Quentin ever really forgives him for it.

***

In the dream, Quentin and Eliot are in bed together, Quentin has Eliot’s dick in his mouth, when the Beast

***

In the dream, Quentin is standing in front of him outside the coffee shop, an uncomprehending yet friendly look in his eyes. “Hi, can I help you?”

Eliot can’t stop staring at him. He’s so goddamn beautiful, and he’s safe, thank god, and looking at him like this, with polite confusion on his face and no hint of recognition or love, is the most painful thing Eliot has ever experienced.

But he made a promise, and so he smiles, brilliant and garrulous, and raises a hand in an artful flourish. “You can, yes. You could start by giving me your number.”

Quentin goes bright red, just like Eliot had known he would. “Um. What?”

“Your number,” Eliot repeats patiently. “So that I might call you, or text, or otherwise communicate with you so as to facilitate taking you out on a date.”

Quentin blinks at him, his eyes going wide and then narrow. “What do people actually do this?”

Eliot laughs, because Q is so funny and cute and also because if he doesn’t laugh, he’ll cry. He’ll say something that he can’t take back, and then Quentin will think he’s insane and won’t take anything else he has to say seriously. That could be deadly.

“Do people do what?” he asks instead, taking a small step closer to Quentin. Q doesn’t back away.

“Just like, ask strangers for their phone numbers? In the middle of the street?” Quentin asks, staring up at him skeptically. “That doesn’t seem like a thing people sincerely do in real life.”

“We’re not in the middle of the street, Quentin,” Eliot says with an affectionate eye-roll. Quentin starts at the sound of his name, and Eliot soldiers on. “We’re on a sidewalk. And we’re not strangers, I was in your Philosophy 101 lecture freshman year.”

This is a calculated lie, obviously, and someday when Q is familiar enough with him that Eliot can start telling the truth, he’ll apologize for the necessary deception.

“You what?” Quentin says. “You were? I don’t remember you.”

“Ouch,” Eliot says, with an affected wince. He places a hand over his heart. “Well, I remember you. Sitting in the back, rolling your eyes at Professor Andino whenever he said something straight out of the textbook and tried to pass it off as his own brilliant insight.”

Eliot is cheating up a storm, grateful that he’d been smitten enough with Quentin when they’d first met to actually pay attention to his stories about undergrad. Julia had helped too, reminding him of specific names and places to make the story believable. They both want this to work.

“I you’re sure?” Quentin says, squinting up at him in confusion. “You were in my class? I feel like I ” he cuts himself off with a throat-clear, looking down at his shoes. “I feel like I would have remembered you.”

Eliot lets himself be genuinely flattered by this admission. There is something soothing about the knowledge that Quentin finds him attractive, here out in the muggle world, without the glamor and wonder of a new world of magic giving him rose-colored glasses.

“I’m Eliot,” he says, holding a hand out. “Eliot Waugh. And I promise to forgive you for forgetting about me, if you’ll do me the honor of…” he trails off, watches as Quentin’s eyes dart all over his face and then down to his hand.

Q swallows hard, and then reaches a hand out to shake Eliot’s. His palm is warm and soft and Eliot has trouble letting it go.

“Uh. My number,” he completes Eliot’s unfinished thought. “You really you want my number? Like for

“When I saw you I knew I had to ask,” Eliot says, falling back on his practiced lie. “I always kicked myself that I never asked you out back then. I couldn’t stop staring at you, I nearly flunked the class.”

“You could have asked me for help,” Quentin says at once, earnest, and then he goes an even deeper shade of red. Eliot bites the inside of his cheek and just looks at him, unabashedly grateful that he’s really here.

“I should have,” Eliot says, smiling. “I wish I had. I guess all I can do now is make up for lost time.”

And Quentin stands there with his mouth open for a moment longer before fumbling in his pocket for his phone.

This, Eliot reflects, was the easiest and hardest it’s ever been to ask someone out on a date.

Lying to Quentin is the hard part. But keeping him safe is the simplest, most natural instinct in the world.

***

In the dream, Quentin and Margo and Julia are fighting off the Beast together when Eliot shows up with Alice and a handful of Fillorians who wanted to help.

Privately, Eliot is sure all of the non-magic users in the group are going to be slaughtered almost immediately, but he couldn’t find it in himself to turn down the genuine offer from these brave few warriors.

In any case, he doesn’t have time to think about it for long. Spells are flying every which way, Margo is holding one injured arm close to her side, her hand carefully tracing out tuts as she grimaces in pain. There’s a speckle of blood splashed across the side of Quentin’s face, and Eliot can’t tell whose it is.

He jumps into the fray, and for maybe thirty seconds that feel like an hour, he thinks they have a chance. It’s exhilarating, to work side by side with the people he loves best, to dart in front of Quentin, to throw up a shield to block an attack from hitting Alice, and to know that their own protections and attacks are keeping him safe all at once.

It’s almost choreographed. It probably looks incredibly bad-ass. Maybe they didn’t need the extra magic juicing them up after all. Maybe on their own, they

He has no time to hear anyone scream for him, no time to see if everyone else is still okay; Eliot dies with hope and adrenaline still pumping through his veins.

Eliot wakes up from being dead. For a moment he just stares up at the ceiling of his room and pats vaguely at his chest, his neck, down to his stomach, surprised to find himself whole. He swallows down the phantom taste of blood in his mouth, and tries to steel himself against the echo of pain and worry that’s telling him he needs to go check on the others, to make sure they made it out of battle unharmed.

Then he gets up and goes downstairs to get a cup of coffee.

~~~~~

After the latest alarm spell… alarm, Quentin is not allowed to be alone, at any time, for any reason. The group decides for him and Quentin, to his credit, doesn’t protest. Eliot knows the care and concern of his friends is overwhelming for Q, but at the end of the day, they all know it’s necessary.

If the Beast pops through a magical tunnel, as Alice had put it, and winds up right in front of Quentin, someone else should be with him to fend off the attack. Two against one is better than nothing, at least as a stop-gap measure while the rest of them hurry to assemble like the superheroes in those dumb movies that Quentin had loved and that Eliot had never gotten a chance to share with him.

The Beast’s potentially successful incursion into campus has put the group on edge again, so on top of Quentin having a new and rotating constant shadow, they’re back to meeting in the library for ‘study group’. They discuss strategy, refine their battle magic techniques, plan the ins and outs of how to corner the Beast, what spells to use to pin him down as Quentin fuels himself up for the main assault.

Fogg doesn’t come to the meetings, despite an invitation from Julia. The dean is involved in this too, although of course nobody but Eliot and Margo know exactly how much, so his absence is annoying and troubling. He merely says he doesn’t need to know the specifics ‒ he’ll show up when the time comes and he’ll shore up the attack as needed. Gifting the magical potency of a master magician to Quentin is enough of a contribution, he feels.

To most of the others, this seems like a heartless copout. To Eliot, it’s more worrisome still. If Fogg isn’t coming to their strategy sessions, that means he doesn’t think it matters if he knows the plan or not. Which means either they’ve used the same plan every time, and Fogg already knows it, or… or something is going to come along and make all of their meticulous preparations irrelevant.

Fucking hell. A couple of weeks ago, Eliot was dying for this all to be over ‒ to get to the main event so that at least in the aftermath, he’d be free to bare his soul to Quentin in the way he’s been dreaming of for months.

But now that all signs point to the Beast’s imminent attack, all he can think about is how fragile they are. How in the dark they remain, despite all the time and energy they’ve put into learning everything they can. Quentin is just one person. He’s brilliant and clever and he’ll have the magic of seven other Magicians at his back, but even so… is that enough? Fogg has failed, using this spell, using this basic strategy, seventeen times.

Every day, Eliot becomes a little less convinced that this is going to work. And every day, he reminds himself that he has nothing better to offer as an alternative.

“I’ll meet you there,” Margo’s voice interrupts his reverie. They’ve got a planning session in the library in less than an hour, but Eliot is already ready to go, jacket on, restless at being away from Q like he always is these days. “You’re making me crazy with all the pacing, just go already.”

Eliot looks down at her, lying full-length on the couch in the Cottage living room. He furrows his eyebrows. “Are you napping again?” “Maybe you’re just that exhausting,” Margo says with a yawn, cuddling further back into the couch. “But no, I’m not, I’m merely resting my eyes. All this anticipation makes me sleepy.”

When Eliot keeps staring at her, oddly frustrated, she rolls her eyes, sitting up and running a hand through her hair. “Go. I’ll meet you at the thing, Eliot.”

Eliot scoffs at her and turns to leave the Cottage. Margo can be so remarkably blasé about the imminent danger they’re all facing. Last week she was freaking out right alongside him, and now she’s acting like the Beast’s eventual arrival is little more than an inconvenience, doomed to interrupt her fabulous, mostly sedentary, lifestyle. It’s annoying. But in a way, Eliot is oddly comforted by her lack of fear. It’s hard to imagine someone as fierce and powerful as Margo being taken off her guard.

And so Eliot sets off without her, taking an unnecessarily long and winding path through campus to get to the library. He’d enjoyed his walks with Quentin so much ‒ back when they’d been new friends, and then later when they’d been together. But doing it alone doesn’t hurt him like he might have expected. There’s a comfort to the motion of his body, to the chosen solitude. He can think of Quentin and conjure the feel of him, safe and casual and walking by his side. And he can believe that he’ll get to have that again.

Eliot arrives in the library still lost in this fantasy of simple, silent togetherness, and makes his way to the study room, only to find it empty save for Quentin. He’d been so caught up in his head that he hadn’t been paying attention, so he’s already fully in the room by the time he realizes it.

Fuck. He can’t exactly turn around and leave now that he’s already here, can he? It’s just that he and Q haven’t really been alone together since Quentin had kissed him last week. He should have waited for Margo.

“Um,” Eliot says, because he’s an idiot. And then something occurs to him belatedly, and his eyes widen, looking around the empty study room. “Are you here alone?”

“Julia walked me here, she’s pulling some books from the stacks.”

“Oh. Okay, good.”

It speaks to how seriously they’re all taking this that Quentin doesn’t seem annoyed at Eliot’s question. He knows as well as any of them that it’s better to be safe than sorry.

“Hey, so,” Quentin says, standing up from his chair. He takes a half-step towards Eliot and then lurches to a stop, swallowing audibly and going pale. Eliot wonders if he should offer to leave until the others arrive, but then Quentin continues, knocking the breath out of him with his next words. “Hey, um, I’m actually glad you’re here.”

Eliot cannot imagine this to be true. “You are?” he asks, and the incredulity in his voice is so obvious that Quentin cracks a smile, gives an awkward little laugh, and turns away slightly, raising a hand to rub at the back of his neck.

“Um, yeah, actually. I ‒ uh ‒ like, I feel like I need to apologize to you. And I’m a chickenshit so it took me a while to ‒ to work up the nerve to like, talk about it, but. Uh. We’re here, and we’re both early, and like ‒ what the fuck is that about, you being early to shit all of a sudden? But uh. I saw you coming across the Sea through the window, and I figured ‒ like ‒ I should rip off the band-aid.”

Eliot feels the not-totally-unexpected sting of tears in his eyes, listening to Quentin ramble, his eyes darting around the room and flicking nervously across Eliot’s face every couple of seconds. He’s so adorable. He’s so sweet, and lovely, and when this is over ‒

Well. In any case, Eliot should probably stop him before he launches in to another half-coherent speech, no matter how fun it is to watch sometimes.

“You have nothing to apologize for,” he says.

“Of course I do,” Quentin says. “Shit, Eliot, I made a total fool out of myself at that party. I shouldn’t have done that, I ‒ I’m really sorry.”

Eliot summons up the required persona, and offers Quentin a tight-lipped smile. “Q, it’s no big deal. You were drunk, I was drunk. Let’s just ‒ forget about it, okay?”

God, Eliot can’t decide if he wants to forget about it or not. It had been torture, to touch Q for such a brief time and then deny himself anything more. But at the same time, he can’t regret getting the chance to feel his hands on his body again, even for such a fleeting moment.

“No,” Quentin says, shaking his head stubbornly. “No, I’m apologizing to you, and I want to know if you accept my apology.”

There’s something oddly urgent in his voice, and Eliot is powerless to deny him. Anything he actually can give Quentin right now, he’s going to. “Of course I forgive you. Always, Q.”

Quentin flinches at that, letting out a miserable little laugh and sitting back down in his chair, his form slumped over. “Yeah. Always.”

Eliot swallows, sways where he stands. He should walk further into the room now, take a seat a safe distance away from Q, and sit in awkward silence with him until the rest of the group arrives. But somehow he can’t stomach that. “Sorry,” he says. “Sorry, I wasn’t trying to be ‒ ”

“Ironic?” Quentin interrupts.

Eliot nods, because what else can he say? Always indeed.

It’s still what Eliot wants. But Quentin cannot know that, at any cost.

“Fuck,” Quentin says, harsh in the silence of the room. Eliot looks at him, then away. “I just ‒ I don’t get what happened and it’s really hard to walk around and just not ‒ get it, because ‒ fuck, Eliot, you wanting me in the first place made no goddamn sense, and I couldn’t trust it at first ‒ but then you did, you did want me, and you made me believe it, and then suddenly you didn’t, and I’m pathetic, I just ‒ can’t you try, El? Can’t you try to give me an honest explanation? Just ‒ like ‒ if you ever cared about me ‒ ”

“Okay, wait a second,” Eliot says, interrupting and letting a bit of an edge creep into his voice. It’s easy to do; Quentin’s words cut him to the quick, and his defenses spring up to protect him from the lash of fresh pain. Christ, is Quentin trying to kill him? “I thought this was an apology, not a guilt trip.”

Quentin glares up at him for a moment, a blaze of defiance, and then deflates again. “Sorry. I’m sorry, it’s just ‒ you’re confusing. I’m really confused and I’m ‒ tired.”

You’re confusing, too, Eliot wants to say, even though that’s not even a little bit fair. You and Penny are confusing. What does it mean? Does he make you happy? And if he does, why the fuck did you kiss me? Is he still holding your arms down while he fucks you? Is he a good kisser? Is any part of you still waiting for me, Q? God, please wait for me.

“I can’t be what you need, Quentin,” Eliot says. It’s what he has to say, but the words burn hot through his throat. I can’t be what you need. It is perhaps Eliot’s greatest fear in the world, made manifest in six words.

Well, no. Not his greatest fear. Not quite.

“But you were,” Quentin chokes. “You were exactly what I needed. You were everything I wanted.”

“It’s not who I am,” Eliot says, gritting his teeth and powering through. He can’t let himself think about it. He adores this man. Fucking worships him. Must hurt him for his own good. Fuck his whole stupid unfair fucking life. “It would have hurt worse, if I’d waited longer.”

“Hurt who? Me, or you?” Quentin says. He’s too insightful for his own good, even when he has no fucking clue what’s going on. Goddamnit Eliot needs a drink right now. “Because in case I haven’t made it clear, I’m hurting plenty as it is.”

“I ‒ ” God, he knows. Eliot knows that. Surely it’s not fair for Quentin to keep fucking bringing it up like that. Where does he get off, with all of his perfect, sincere, emotional vulnerability, in the face of Eliot’s brutal but necessary stoicism? How is Q brave enough to keep battering himself up against Eliot’s impenetrable wall? “I am really ‒ just ‒ I’m really sorry.”

Quentin makes a sound almost like a growl, scrubbing his hands across his face. “No, don’t. Don’t. I can’t even apologize right, I’m ‒ I’m being a dick. You didn’t actually do anything wrong, you’re entitled to your feelings.” Eliot feels every syllable brush against his skin. Fire. Torture. “I shouldn’t punish you for not wanting me the way I want you.”

Punish me. Eliot thinks, fierce. Fucking punish me for this, Quentin, it’s what I deserve.

The thing is, when Quentin’s mad at him, blazing defiance right in his face, Eliot flinches from it. But when Quentin is like this, dejected and worn down under the onslaught of Eliot’s supposed indifference, it makes him want the fire back.

“It’s like I said, Q, we were both drunk,” Eliot says again. He thinks fake Eliot Waugh would probably try to steer the conversation right back away from the emotional edge, if at all possible. It’s crazy that that’s not what the real Eliot Waugh wants anymore.

“Yeah, but I knew what I was doing. I fucking cornered you,” Quentin says, and the anger in his voice is clearly directed inward. “You have no reason to feel guilty… I’m the one ‒ I’m the pathetic asshole who can’t move the fuck on.”

And Eliot can’t quite help himself with that one, it’s too good of an opening. His curiosity is a living thing, trapped inside him and fighting bitterly for release.

“You and Penny...”

“Come on,” Quentin interrupts at once, smiling sadly. “You and I both know that whole thing was just pain management.”

Was?

“Was?” Eliot asks, and then bites his tongue hard enough to taste blood. He shouldn’t have said that.

Quentin looks at him, and then shakes his head again, bewildered. “Confusing,” he mutters, just to himself, and then he looks down at his hands. “I don’t know. Whatever. He and I were never like ‒ together, it was just ‒ I was sad and he was there.”

“And now?” Eliot says. He hopes he sounds like a sympathetic friend, and not a desperately curious and jealous asshole.

“And now he and Kady are talking again. I’m happy for him.”

It doesn’t sound like a lie. Eliot wishes he could cross the room and tilt Quentin’s chin up, study the look in his eyes to make sure he really is okay.

“I’m sorry,” Eliot says, and surprises himself by meaning it. He’d wanted Quentin and Penny to break up, of course, but now that it looks like it’s happened, Eliot regrets the loss of comfort for Q. He should have someone who’s allowed to care for him, someone he can lean on.

Quentin looks up at him and rolls his shiny, red-rimmed eyes. “Please. It seriously doesn’t matter. Someone should get to be happy around here.”

Quentin is good at a lot of things, including emotional vulnerability, and precise barbed attacks. He’s got the extra skill to do both at once, which Eliot can admire, in an abstract sort of way, even as he turns his head to the side and squeezes his eyes shut, fighting to maintain control of his reaction.

Eliot is half expecting Quentin to backtrack yet again, apologize for the pointed comment, but he doesn’t, and before too long Julia comes bustling into the room, ignoring Eliot and coming to take her place by Quentin’s side. The others file in before too long, and then they’re all business, conversation over.

He has the feeling he’s just participated in something of a relationship post-mortem with Quentin, and he can’t quite decide what it means for his chances.

“So ‒ Alice has something she wants to say,” Julia announces without preamble, yanking Eliot reluctantly into the present moment.

“I think the Beast knows how to get in now, and he’s biding his time,” Alice says at once, pulling her chair in closer to the table.

The certainty in her words is enough to jolt Eliot fully out of his Quentin-related angst at once, and he snaps his head around to look at her, anxious. “Explain.”

“It felt different because he got in,” Alice says. “He succeeded, he just… decided to wait. We haven’t felt him trying at all since then. I think he’s found his way in.”

“Right,” Eliot says. “Right, so he knows how to get in now, just like we thought, but ‒ ”

“No I’m saying he did get in,” Alice says. “The math all adds up. The wards were breached, and his energy signature entered the campus.”

“And then he left?” Kady asks, narrowing her eyes.

Alice bites her lip, looking around the room. “He must have. The energy signature is gone, and the wards have been repaired from where he broke through.”

“So he got in, and he didn’t just murder me on sight,” Quentin says, thoughtful. “I should be grateful but I’m actually a little disturbed. Is that ‒ fucked up?”

“Well, yes,” Julia says, covering Quentin’s hand with her own and giving it a squeeze. “But what about this isn’t? I get what you mean ‒ it’s weird that he’d get through to you and do nothing.”

For a moment the seven of them are silent, each lost in their own musings. Eliot keeps thinking about the fact that the Beast knows he’s in a time loop. He’s focused on taking out Quentin because Quentin has been identified for him as his biggest threat. And the only reason for that is that time and time again, Fogg places Q at the center of the conflict. Even before Fogg restarted the loops, back in a time when someone else entirely was running the show, Quentin always got involved. Always ended up in danger. If the Beast got through the wards, and decided not to attack Quentin on sight, he must have known it was best to bide his time. He must have some sense of how best to strike, how best to isolate Quentin and take him out. It’s a game of chess between Fogg and the Beast, and the seven people in this room are merely the pawns. How are they supposed to win, under those conditions? How are they supposed to trust that Fogg is the superior player, when he’s never been able to win without sacrificing too many pieces?

It’s Penny who speaks, his words echoing Eliot’s terrified thoughts.

“So if the Beast knows how to get inside the wards, if he can do it whenever he wants... what the hell is he waiting for?”

~~~~~

In the dream, Quentin and Eliot are running for their lives.

They’re in the Neitherlands, the muted world around them swallowing up the ambient sound and making every gasp for breath, every pounding footfall, sound unnaturally loud and hollow. But they can’t stop running. There’s nowhere to hide, and if they’re discovered, it will all be over.

“El,” Quentin says, and his hand jerks inside of Eliot’s own, slippery with blood from the wound on his arm.

Eliot had bandaged it as best as he was able, fingers shaking, before they had come through to this in-between place. But it’s bleeding a lot, and Quentin’s gasps for breath are strained with added pain that Eliot wishes he could take for himself.

“We can’t stop,” Eliot says, tugging on Quentin’s arm gently. “Baby, I’m sorry, but we can’t stop.”

“You go,” Quentin says, and his hand slips out of Eliot’s, his body folding over as he heaves for breath. “Just run, Eliot, I’m so sorry. You know I’m not going to make it. I think I cracked a rib, I can’t breathe, I

“What ” Eliot says, livid and heartbroken and horrified and scared. “No. No no no, Q, no. How can you even fucking ” he takes a step forward, pulling Quentin clumsily into his arms. “Don’t ever fucking say anything like that to me do you think there’s any universe where I leave you behind? Do you?”

Quentin starts crying, burrowing his face into Eliot’s chest. “I don’t want you to die. Please don’t make me responsible for that. Please. Please just go

“No,” Eliot says. “No, no, never, Q. Come on, you just you gotta keep going for me, okay? For me?”

Quentin nods miserably into Eliot’s chest, and starts stumbling forward again, his movements jerky and slow. He’s pulling in frantic breaths, trying to stop his crying, trying to hide his whimpers of pain from Eliot’s ears.

If they can just make it to the fountain for Earth, if they can just make it back, it’ll be okay. This mantra keeps Eliot more or less sane as he forces his injured, crying boyfriend to keep moving, taking on more and more of his weight until eventually he’s practically dragging Quentin along beside him.

The fountain is just ahead. They’re going to make it, Eliot can feel it. He doesn’t think about the others, scattered to the winds. He can only hope and pray they made their own way here, that they’re already back at Brakebills safe behind the wards. He can’t go looking for them now. He has to trust Margo to take care of herself. He has to help Q, it’s the only thing he has any measure of control over. Everyone else is okay, because they have to be. There’s nothing else that Eliot can accept.

And then, miraculously, they’re through, clambering out of the fountain onto the familiar, comforting campus where they started. Quentin collapses into Eliot’s arms when Eliot tries to hold him upright, barely conscious. His head lolls into the hollow under Eliot’s chin, his eyes flicker madly.

“We made it,” Eliot says to him, choked and overwhelmed. “Sweetheart. Darling, we made it, okay, let’s just get you some help, okay? Let’s just get you to a healer. Yeah? Q?”

Quentin moans in acknowledgment of his words, but he’s pretty much just a deadweight now, leaning fully against Eliot, the blood soaking through from his wound, staining the fabric of Eliot’s shirt and turning the skin underneath tacky. Eliot’s bandaging hasn’t done nearly enough to slow the precious fluid leaking out of Quentin’s body, and Eliot’s brain is buzzing with terror as he looks down at Quentin’s entirely drenched left side. “Quentin,” he barks out when he feels Quentin’s body slump further into his own.

“‘M not dead,” Quentin says, weak and thready but also undeniably annoyed. “You saved me, stop freaking out.”

Eliot laughs, shifting his arms so he’s holding Quentin more comfortably against him. “Okay, let’s just go a little further, huh? Just get you somewhere you can lie down.”

“I’ll bet that’s what you want,” Quentin murmurs, nonsensical, his lips tickling the underside of Eliot’s jaw. “‘S what you always want. Me. On my back.”

Eliot laughs again, the sound hysterical and bubbly and full of so much relief because even though Q is hurt, even though he’s really hurt, they’re here on campus and they made it and they’re alive and they’re going to stay that way, damn it.

“Yes, that’s right Q, let’s go stop you from bleeding to death so I can fuck you at the nearest opportunity. That is definitely my number one priority right now.”

Quentin hums, stumbling over nothing as they start to move, far too slowly, towards the distant infirmary. “I’m glad we’re on the same page,” he says. “I lost too much blood, though, I need more, or I don’t think I’m gonna be able to

“Oh my god,” Eliot interrupts, choking over another laugh. “Stop talking, honey, I think the blood loss is making you delirious.”

You make me delirious,” Quentin says, and his uninjured hand flaps vaguely upward to pat clumsily against Eliot’s chest.

From behind them, there is a sucking sound, like the plug being pulled out of a gigantic drain.

Eliot turns, his heart sinking, shoving Quentin behind him. He sees a shape emerging from the fountain, a human body containing the rage and the power of magic’s very source in Fillory. Everything they did, everything they tried against him, had come to nothing. And now even their last-ditch effort for survival has failed them.

In that moment, Eliot spares a thought for Margo. Alice. Josh. Poppy. Kady. Penny. Julia. All of the others who he’s met and fought alongside these past few months. He hopes they’re holed up safe somewhere. He hopes they make it out of this.

And then a tendril of water forms itself into a spike, and comes whirling in his direction almost too fast to see. He doesn't have time to move. He doesn't have time to think any further. He can only stand there in front of Quentin, shield him with everything he has left in him, and then

The water, transformed by the Beast’s clever magic, darts towards him like a spear, and impales itself directly into Eliot’s chest, solidifying to ice as it passes through his body, pulverizing his heart.

It’s interesting, because Eliot would have thought something like that would mean instant death. But he actually gets a solid half of a second of awareness before his consciousness blanks out.

Just long enough to hear Quentin let out a wail of anguish, in the shape of Eliot’s name.

And then

And then ‒

Eliot wakes up. He takes a shower. He gets dressed. He goes to class.

~~~~~

Eliot is the only one who isn’t taking shifts as Quentin’s designated bodyguard and magic buddy, and this is for the best. It makes him feel like shit, but it’s definitely for the best. Neither of them know how to talk to each other anymore. There are so many things, both mundane and profound, that Eliot wants to say to him ‒ they crowd up in his sternum and pound against his chest, waiting for release, but now isn’t the time. Now cannot be the time, and no amount of wishing will make it so.

It’s usually Julia who takes her customary place by Quentin’s side, but sometimes it’s one of the others. Alice and Quentin do a lot of their homework together these days, Kady takes Q with her to the old battle magic training room for practice, and Penny…

Well, Penny’s still undeniably around, a lot of the time. Eliot pretends he’s not obsessing over the two of them whenever he sees them together. He can discern absolutely no difference at all in their behavior, and if it weren’t for the fact that Penny has started coming out of Kady’s bedroom in the morning instead of Quentin’s, Eliot would have had no reason to believe things had really changed.

On the infinitesimally small list of positive things to come out of his breakup with Quentin, Eliot supposes acute emotional awareness might be included. He’s never been so in touch with how he feels, what he wants, as he is now in a world where he’s prohibited from accessing any of it. Some days it’s the haunting memories and dreams from past loops, which have increased in severity since he’d remembered, however briefly, the truths of all his past lives. And other times it’s petty shit about Quentin and Penny, or bruised feelings over Julia’s sneers of distaste whenever she happens to cross paths with Eliot in the Cottage. All he can do is hold on, whiteknuckled, to the promise of a better future, and prepare himself for a shitload of processing when he finally gets there.

On this particular morning, it’s apparently Margo’s turn to stay close to Quentin’s side, protecting him from potential harm should the moment finally come. Eliot watches vaguely as the two of them take final gulps of their coffee in the kitchen and head outside to go to class. He himself is in the mood for a walk, and while he’d like nothing better than to join his two favorite people in the world on a brief stroll, he gives them a couple of minutes before heading out, planning his own circuitous route along the most scenic parts of Brakebills campus.

The solitude soothes him, and he’s just vaguely wondering if he should invest in a pair of forbidden headphones so he can listen to music when he’s on these lonely little strolls, when he notes that Margo and Quentin are just ahead of them.

For a second the sight startles him, but then he realizes that Q and Margo have classes in different buildings that morning. They appear to be heading to Margo’s first, which is… odd. That means Q will be alone for the brief cut-across of the Sea while he heads to his own class.

That’s… not good, and it also makes no sense. Julia had made up a shift schedule, to Quentin’s chagrin, to avoid these gaps in coverage. And now that Eliot’s thinking of it, why would Margo be the one walking with Quentin to class? Shouldn’t it be Alice or Kady, both of whom should be heading in the same direction anyway?

Eliot pauses in his walking for a moment, looking at the two of them as they move casually towards one of the brick buildings looming across the expanse of green lawn. Everything seems normal. Quentin is talking about something with enough animation that his gesticulations are visible even from this distance.

Margo, in contrast, is walking with a careful grace, her hands clasped behind her back. It’s more… rigid than her usual flowing movements, and Eliot vaguely wonders if she injured herself or something. She’s not limping, but she’s walking… different. Something about the sight catches at Eliot’s brain, and he starts walking again, a little faster than before.

He doesn’t know why he’s doing it, at first. If he keeps going at this pace, he’s going to overtake them, and then he’ll need an excuse for running after them. Margo will be annoyed at him for being so obvious, and Quentin will probably think he’s being confusing again, which is definitely unfair to him. Eliot does usually have class with Margo on Friday mornings, but he’d been planning on skipping today; he doesn’t even have a book or notes to serve as believable props. But he keeps moving anyway, propelled by a strangle niggling in the back of his mind, studying the figures in front of him.

Margo’s hair is pulled back into a pony-tail and as Eliot continues his pursuit, he notices some bumpiness along her skull where she hadn’t brushed the strands back neatly enough before tying it together. Uncharacteristically sloppy of her. She’s dressed simply, in a pair of dark-wash jeans and a long-sleeved blouse, an odd choice for such a warm May day. She’s staring straight ahead, and appears to be largely tuning out whatever Q is talking about, which isn’t like her. Nobody finds Q’s rambling as charming as Eliot does, but Bambi takes her own amusement from it, all the same.

And then, just as Eliot is getting close enough that they would be able to hear him if he called out, Margo turns to look at him, and she smiles.

It’s a sharp, bright thing, triumphant and alien, and it sends a bolt of lightning along Eliot’s spine. A memory, or an instinct, or both, has slammed into Eliot so hard that he goes reeling, nearly falling over as he lengthens his stride and breaks into a run.

That’s not Margo’s walk.

That’s not Margo’s smile.

“Q!” he shouts, breaking into a dead sprint to close the distance. Margo’s hand moves in slow motion, reaching out to curl possessively around Quentin’s arm ‒ “Q, run.”

That’s not Margo.

Chapter Text

The awful thing is, there isn’t really time to be scared for Margo.

Eliot can only spare a fraction of a second to the horror of the situation; it rushes through his veins like acid, his heart breaking for her, self-loathing battering against and through him as he wonders how long Margo hasn’t been Margo, how many minutes-hours-days have gone by where Margo has been held prisoner inside her own body.

How many days has the Beast lived among them? Has Eliot cuddled with the Beast? Has he kissed the Beast on Margo’s forehead? Has he talked to the Beast about Quentin?

And can Margo hear him? Is she aware? Is she ‒ alive?

It’s enough to bring Eliot to his knees all on its own, enough to leave him a quivering mess of grief and anger. But he really cannot think about it right now, because the thing inside of Margo is curling its hand around Quentin’s arm, is tugging him around, even as Eliot bursts forward with frantic fear, calling Q’s name.

“Run!” he repeats, waving his arms wildly, pulling on the deepest well of his magic to propel him forward. He flies the last few yards, his feet lifting off of the grass and the air whooshing past his face, stinging his eyes, as he pushes himself forward with unnatural speed.

“Eliot ‒ what ‒ ” Quentin says, turning in bewilderment as Eliot charges towards them, and then Eliot is there, grabbing Quentin and yanking him back away from Margo, his feet thudding hard against the floor as he holds his arms out, shielding Q’s body.

The next logical step is to attack the Beast, to push the bad guy away and give Q time to start casting. The spell, the one that will let him pull magic from the link they all share, is a dangerous thing, but the trigger of Q’s casting shouldn’t take him longer than ten seconds. Eliot should lash out, should throw the battle magic he’d been practicing right at the Beast, send it stumbling back to give Q the precious moments he needs to gather the power into himself. It’s what they’d planned.

But he can’t really do that, can he?

It’s Margo.

Eliot thinks of the hours and hours of planning, the strategies they’d developed. Surround the Beast, use blasts of Physical magic to keep it contained so Quentin could line up his shot. Penny had a one-time use psychic weapon ready to deploy, a split second of pain that would have given Quentin his best chance.

All of it is out the window now. God, they’d been so stupid.

“Margo, can you hear me?” Eliot asks, as the Beast ‒ as Margo ‒ takes a step back, narrowing her ‒ his ‒ eyes.

“What the fuck?” Quentin asks, pushing on Eliot to try and get out from behind him. Eliot keeps his arm out, holding him back. “Eliot ‒ what the fuck ‒ ”

“Oh, what a relief,” Margo says, but it’s not Margo. It’s not her voice, not really. And then her eyes flash a brilliant, icy blue…

Eliot hears Quentin gasp of understanding behind him, and then before he has time to process it, Eliot is in the air, the pulse of magic hitting him and sending him reeling back. He hadn’t even managed to put up a token defense ‒ his body hits the ground hard, all of the air thudding out of his lungs.

“I was getting so bored of hiding in plain sight,” the Beast continues, and the smile stretching across Margo’s face is the unnatural, chilling smile that has haunted so many of Eliot’s recent dreams. He suffers the vertigo of a memory of a memory, staggering to his feet, even as the Beast takes a couple of lazy steps towards him.

“Let her go,” Eliot growls, terror clawing up his throat. His chest is tight, his hands tingling and shaking. In all this time, all the worrying and waiting for this moment, he’d hardly spared a moment to be scared for Margo. What a great friend he’s turned out to be.

“But she’s so terribly convenient,” the Beast drawls, holding a hand out in front of his face to observe Margo’s hand. “A fine instrument, if I do say so myself.”

From behind the Beast, Eliot can see Quentin moving forward, slowly and silently. His eyes are wide and filled with panic, but there’s a set to his shoulders, a determination in his eyes, and Eliot trusts him. He trusts him to know that hurting Margo isn’t an option, here.

Q’s next step is obvious ‒ he’s got to start the simple casting that will open up the wave-lengths of power between the eight magicians who have bound themselves for just this purpose. And all Eliot has to do is distract the monster using his best friend as a puppet, long enough for it to happen.

“You son of a bitch. What did we ever do to you?” Eliot snarls at the Beast, his hands in front of him, ready to cast if the Beast makes an unexpected move.

From the corner of his eye, Eliot can see other students out on the Sea, starting to realize that something is wrong. A nameless, wide-eyed redhead darts off and starts running in the direction of the administrative building, and Eliot can only hope she’s gone to fetch Fogg.

The minute Quentin starts to cast, the others will feel it. Penny and Julia and Kady and Alice and Fogg ‒ they’ll come running, and depending on where they are, they might be in time to stop the worst from happening.

It’s hard to think through the haze of panic, and Eliot can’t tell if his breathing is coming in sharp little gasps because of his fear, or because of the hard landing on the ground. He prays he hasn’t cracked a rib ‒ he’s useless to Q and Margo if he can’t even manage to breathe properly.

God. Q and Margo. It’s not supposed to happen like this.

“Back off,” Quentin’s voice snarls from just behind the Beast, and Margo’s head whips around to stare at Quentin. She ‒ it ‒ opens Margo’s m