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the mortifying ordeal of being known

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August

Eliot is dicing a red pepper into small, even chunks when he hears Quentin slump onto the couch, bag thudding to the floor a second later.

“Just in time, come help me with dinner.”

He doesn’t expect Quentin to quickly extricate himself from their couch - it’s absurdly comfortable, particularly when you have other places to be - but it’s a long enough time before Quentin shuffles to the door of the kitchen that he’s beginning to consider retrieving his boyfriend himself.

“Mmm,” Quentin finally says, leaning against the doorway. He scrubs one hand over his face. Eliot pauses in his work.

“Do you want squash in the spaghetti? We probably need to use it up in the next couple of days.”

“Yeah, that’s fine.”

Quentin sounds very, very tired, and Eliot takes another moment to scrutinize him. Quentin catches his gaze and looks at the ground, suddenly bashful.

“I think I’m getting a cold,” he admits, then coughs into the elbow of his flannel.

Eliot puts his knife to the side, then goes to his partner, frowning. “Oh yeah?” He settles the back of his hand on Quentin’s forehead. “You were coughing some last night.”

“Was I?” Quentin winces, touching at his throat with what almost looks like embarrassment. “Sorry.”

“You don’t feel warm,” Eliot admits, brushing his hands on his jeans. “But do you want me to make you some tea or something? You’re definitely off cooking duty for the night,” he adds, watching Quentin’s gaze drift to the cutting board. “I love you, but I don’t want your germs in our food.”

Quentin colors, shoulders curling in, and Eliot mentally slaps his own wrist. Don’t make fun of the sick boyfriend, noted. To make amends, he steps closer and tucks Quentin to his chest, settling his chin on top of his head. He can feel Quentin melt into the embrace, tension and anxieties sliding from his frame. Quentin’s face is nestled somewhere near his collarbone, and now that Eliot is paying attention he can feel the soft flutters of breath as Quentin tries not to sniffle. Poor boy’s probably had this brewing all day.

“How’s your throat?” Eliot murmurs. It’s an odd thing, their relationship. Quentin hasn’t been ill in the time that they’ve been dating, yet they share fifty years of memories together from the Mosaic timeline. He knows from history that Quentin’s colds usually start with a sore throat and irritating cough and progress quickly to debilitating sinus pain and congestion if he doesn’t take the time to rest and let his body recover.

At least in this timeline they don’t have the urgency of the Mosaic nipping at their heels. Quentin can take a day or two off and let Eliot care for him. Well, he can, which doesn't mean that he will. Eliot knows that Quentin will probably find that much focused attention embarrassing and shameful, but as history has shown once the cold wears him down he’ll be more receptive.

Quentin sniffles again and tucks himself deeper into the plane of Eliot’s chest. His voice is muffled. “Kinda hurts. Tea sounds good.”

“Okay.” Eliot strokes his thumb along the curve of Quentin’s skull, soothing. “Go lie down on the couch, and I’ll get that ready.”

Quentin clearly doesn’t want to leave the hug, but he obliges. “Kay.” As he’s pulling away he scrubs at his nose and murmurs another apology before slinking back to the living room.

Eliot washes his hands thoroughly before retrieving the kettle and the small box of tea that they really only use when Julia is around. He boils enough water for two -- he’s not really a fan of tea, but it’s supposed to have like antioxidants or immune boosting properties or something, right? -- and by the time he enters the living room with mugs in hand, Quentin has curled into a sorry little ball on the couch, half-buried in a nest of blankets and pillows despite the fact that it’s 80 degrees outside. When Eliot sets the tea on the coffee table, Quentin coughs and peers out of his nest like a small creature tucked into its burrow for the winter.

“Thanks, El.” He coughs again. “I’ll wash these blankets, sorry. I don’t want to get you sick.”

Eliot gently ruffles Quentin’s hair. “We’re sleeping in the same bed, babe. I think that ship has sailed.”

Quentin doesn’t seem to like that answer, and he twists away from Eliot with a heavy, congested sneeze. Do Julia or Kady know any Healing magic? Eliot doesn’t believe that Hedge Witches haven’t come up with a way to alleviate the common cold by now.

Eliot presses a kiss to the top of his head. “I’ll go see if we have tissues.” Quentin murmurs something in return, thick and muffled through congestion and his nest of blankets, and Eliot pulls out his phone to send a text to their friends.

Unfortunately neither of them turn out to be very helpful. Kady’s initial response is “wow just tell him to suck it up,” though she backs off and suggests “idk maybe there’s a tea for that?” Julia admits that Healing magic is not one she’s spent a lot of time studying, but it’s “probably very complicated” and may cause more issues than it solves. She does remind him that Q tends to sleep a lot when he’s sick, and it takes Eliot a significant amount of willpower to keep from snapping back that yes, he knows.

So Eliot putters through making dinner, checking his phone for replies from the girls and ducking his head out into the living room to check on his boyfriend, who has curled even deeper into his den and only has several wayward tufts of his hair visible. True to Julia’s words, Quentin falls asleep sometime after Eliot delivers the tea and tissues (he found a single, half-empty box in the back of a cabinet and also discovered they had zero cold medicine on hand, which means he’ll definitely have to go out for supplies tomorrow). Eliot can hear the soft, snuffling snores over his low-key cooking playlist.

The spaghetti sauce has been simmering on the stove for almost an hour when Eliot hears Quentin moving with a series of deep, congested coughs. A few moments later, Quentin staggers into view, hair in disarray and eyes tired and puffy. He coughs into the back of his wrist, wincing, and Eliot winces along with him.

“Ouch.” He puts a lid on the sauce and goes to Quentin, cupping his face gently with his hands. “You okay?”

“Mmf. Definitely feel like shit now.” Quentin turns his cheek into Eliot’s palm, seeking his cool, familiar touch. His face feels warmer than before, though he has been buried in layers of blankets for the last hour.

“I’m sorry, babe.” Eliot draws a thumb across Quentin’s cheekbone. No pain response, so the cold hasn’t settled in his sinuses yet. “Do you feel like eating something? Dinner’s basically ready.”

“Not really.” His voice is a sad rasp that cuts straight to Eliot’s heart. “Think I’m just gonna turn into a couch blob.”

“Okay.” Eliot kisses his forehead. “I’ll make you some more tea.”

He doesn’t know why making tea is such an immediate instinct when he’s faced with a sick boyfriend, but in the absence of Nyquil and Sudafed it at least feels like something he can do. Quentin has retreated to his blanket nest when Eliot emerges from the kitchen with a new mug in hand, but as Eliot settles on the couch next to Quentin, Quentin frowns over at him.

“El, I’m all gross.”

“We already had this discussion, honey-love.” Eliot reaches his arm around Quentin’s shoulders and pulls him in close. Quentin resists at first but quickly caves and nestles himself close, tucking his feverish cheek against Eliot’s shoulder with a yawn.

“You can go back to sleep.” Eliot cards his fingers through Quentin’s hair, nails scritching gently at his scalp. “I’ll be here when you wake up.”

“Yeah?” Quentin murmurs, his voice already slurring as sleep starts to creep back into the periphery of his consciousness.

“Yeah.” Eliot resettles him so he won’t wake up with a stiff neck. “Promise.”

---------

November

Quentin hasn’t seen Eliot in two days.

That in itself isn’t always concerning. Eliot likes his space sometimes, particularly when he’s feeling broody or working through An Emotion. And even though their communication is still a work in progress, Quentin is getting more comfortable calling Eliot on his bullshit.

(However Eliot also had years of repressed trauma to work through even before he was possessed by a murderous deity that tried to kill Quentin on multiple occasions, so...yeah, work in progress.)

But the penthouse has been very quiet these last forty-eight hours, and Quentin misses him. So he sucks it up and does a very scary thing that he’s been putting off.

He calls Margo.

What?” She snaps, picking up nearly immediately. Quentin is so startled he nearly drops the phone.

“Margo, hi! Sorry about that, um, are you busy?”

Always.”

“Oh.” Quentin bites at his lip. “Is Eliot at your place?”

A shuffle of fabric against the line on the other end. “I’m not at my place, I’m in California. Has he gone AWOL?

“Y-yeah, not too badly. I just haven’t heard from him in a few days and wanted to make sure he was okay.”

He expects a sharp report from Margo, some comment about letting Eliot lead his own goddamn life, but surprisingly she falls quiet for a moment. “I’ll call him.

“He hasn’t been, um. Picking up his phone.”

He’ll pick up if it’s from me.” It’s closer to a threat than a brag, and Quentin finds himself smiling.

“Thanks, Margo.”

Give me five.

And the line goes dead.

It’s five minutes later on the dot when his phone pings with a text.

HIGH KING M: sending his dumb ass your way

QUENTIN: oh awesome, thank you
QUENTIN: is everything ok?

HIGH KING M: eh
HIGH KING M: in a manner of speaking
HIGH KING M: he’s not on a bender or anything
HIGH KING M: you may need to smack him around a little bit though, in both a sexy and non-sexy kinda way

QUENTIN: how are you so fucking good at making me worry MORE

HIGH KING M: it’s a talent, baby q
HIGH KING M: text me if you need, but mama’s having some fun in the sun so use your minutes judiciously

QUENTIN: have fun be safe i guess

--

Half an hour or so later he hears Eliot’s key in the door. He knows it’s Eliot, because Eliot is the only one of the penthouse’s various occupants that remembers to shove his shoulder into the frame to get the door to open without sticking. Quentin looks up from his place on the couch, trying not to look like a puppy waiting for its owner to get home from work.

“Hi!” He says, then immediately chastises himself for sounding too chipper. “Uh, hi, I mean.”

Eliot looks okay...ish? He looks like he hasn’t slept for a week, and he’s wearing the same clothes that Quentin last saw him in on Monday. They’re wrinkled all to hell, which is more of an indicator of Eliot’s mental health than just about anything else. But he’s still standing and all his limbs are intact, which is a definite plus. So Quentin pops up from the couch and goes to meet him, to kiss or hug him or at least to take his coat and bag like some kind of butler.

Something in Eliot’s weary expression shifts when he sees Quentin, and he locks the door behind him with slow stiffness. Are his hands bothering him? Quentin’s eyes flick up and down his partner, cataloguing, itemizing.

Hair: mussed, flat, hasn’t been combed or moussed. Eyes: dull, shadowed, exhausted. Posture: slumped, deflated, but as Quentin draws closer Eliot sharpens and draws himself up into something that he must think is more put together.

“Hey,” Eliot says. His voice is low and raspy, like he’s nursing a wicked hangover, but as Quentin watches, he turns into the shoulder of his coat to muffle a set of coughs. He sounds unmistakably ill.

Oh. Oh. Quentin can taste the flood of memories rushing in. They’re made fuzzier by distance and years and alternate timelines, but Quentin very clearly remembers the first time Eliot caught a cold when they were working on the Mosaic. It was during their first winter together in Fillory, and Eliot had ventured into the chilly rains for days on end to try and make progress on the puzzle when they could. On the fourth morning, he’d stayed in bed, and when Quentin had gone to check on him, he’d found his friend feverish and headachey with a painful, barking cough.

Living a life of manual labor meant that minor injuries were bound to happen, and back at Brakebills they’d helped each other through shared hangovers at least two or three times. But there was something different about being laid low by a head cold that triggered all of Eliot’s defenses and drove him to withdraw as fully as he could in their tiny cabin. It took days, but Quentin finally chipped enough of his walls away so that Eliot would let him fetch tea and medicine and lay cool cloths on his forehead.

The Eliot standing shivering in their foyer is a different Eliot than the one he grew old with. He’s sharper and darker, but also softer in a way that Quentin knows in his heart of hearts is because of the love they share.

Great. Margo’s cryptic messages suddenly are making a lot more sense.

Quentin steps towards Eliot and takes his bag, then catches his lapels and rises onto his toes to give his partner a kiss. Predictably, Eliot shrinks away.

“Sorry, I’m…” He gestures vaguely at his nose and sinuses. “Sick. Got a cold.”

Freely admitting it is a good step. Quentin kisses him on the cheek instead and takes his hand. Eliot’s skin is cold to the touch, and Quentin fits himself into Eliot’s side. Eliot’s other hand settles on top of Quentin’s head.

“Margo called you, I’m assuming.”

Quentin glances up. “Um, yeah. I actually texted her because I, um. I was worried about you? I know it was only like two days but -- ”

“‘S fine,” Eliot exhales. He takes his hand from Quentin’s head to pinch roughly at his nose. His nostrils are red and chapped looking, and his nose twitches once, insistently, before he pulls away from Quentin and turns his back to catch an irritated sneeze into his cupped palms. He sounds congested and miserable, and as Quentin moves to touch his shoulder, Eliot sneezes again. When he straightens he looks exhausted, and he steps carefully away from Quentin before going to the nearest bathroom to wash his hands. Quentin follows.

“Is it okay if I ask where you were?”

The water turns off. Eliot leans over the sink, arms braced as he watches the suds spin languorously down the drain. “Margo’s,” he finally says.

Quentin furrows his brow. “I thought she was in—”

“Yeah,” Eliot cuts him off, quiet but firm. “She is.” He combs his fingers once through his limp curls, locked on his own gaze in the mirror as he attempts to tame his hair back into order. It’s not very effective.

Quentin shifts. “Why don’t you go take a hot shower? It’s freezing outside.”

That pulls Eliot’s attention, and he shrugs, a tiny jerk of his shoulders. “Okay.” He waits until he’s slid past Quentin and back into the hallway to give in to the coughs that have been building in his chest, and he stops to brace himself on the wall until the fit has finished with him. All Quentin can do is watch, his own chest aching in sympathy.

He knows he shouldn’t take it personally. It’s an old, familiar conversation between the two of them. Eliot fears that he doesn’t know how to be loved, that he’s lacking something that keeps him from being able to partake in the barter system of affection.

But it still hurts, knowing that when Eliot realized he was ill he fled to Margo’s apartment, preferring to wallow in an empty penthouse than to be in the warmth and light of the space he shares with Quentin.

Fuck. Quentin doesn’t realize he’s been holding his breath until lightheadedness begins to lap at the edge of his awareness. He forces himself to exhale, rubs his hand beneath his eyes - why are they wet? - and retreats to the kitchen to make tea. At least he can do that.

He can hear Eliot sneezing as the warm air and humidity of the shower go to work on his beleaguered sinuses - long, irritated-sounding fits that Quentin hopes are more satisfying than they sound. He briefly considers texting Margo again in a desperate plea for help - how do I make Eliot let me take care of him? - but as he begins to steep the tea another memory hits him, ushered in by the scent of the earl grey.

“I fucking hate tea,” Eliot says, sipping from a chipped mug with a look of pure spite. It’s such a silly moment that Quentin can’t help but laugh, and he lets his hand slide through his partner’s rain-damp curls.

“You don’t have to drink it if you don’t want,” he says. Eliot shifts, propping himself on his other elbow as he reclines across Quentin’s lap, barely vertical enough to drink his tea without choking. “I’m sure I can find something else in the village, or ask Arielle.”

Eliot grumbles, catching a cough in the loose sleeve of his Fillorian garb. “It feels good on my throat,” he admits, his voice rasping a little. “I can deal.”

“You just want to complain, huh?” Quentin teases gently. One thumb finds the base of Eliot’s neck, and he begins to trace a slow, easy spiral that has Eliot’s eyes immediately slipping closed.

“Well, yeah.” He yawns, scrubs at his nose with the sharp point of his wrist. Quentin has always appreciated Eliot’s nose and the proud, aristocratic swoop of it that matches the dignity with which he carries himself. But it always causes him such trouble when he catches cold, contorting his breath into shallow codas that more often than not end in an escaped sneeze and frustration. This cold is no different, he notes as he glances down to see Eliot’s eyes slit with the anticipation of an oncoming sneeze.

“Fhh--Fuck, that’s the worst,” Eliot sighs after a few moments, once the sneeze has slipped from his grasp once again. “Just let me sneeze and get it over with.”

Feeling brave, Quentin bends down and brushes a kiss to the tip of Eliot’s nose, warm and chapped feeling beneath his lips. It’s instantly effective, and Eliot curls further into his lap to muffle a sharp set of sneezes, half into his palms and half into the inside of Quentin’s knee.

“Gross,” Quentin says cheerfully. Eliot flips him the bird and sniffles, but he looks relieved.

“Your own damn fault.”

The shower shuts off, and Quentin blinks. The tea is probably done steeping, right? He wraps his hands around the mug, imagining that he’s drawing courage from the warmth of the ceramic, and walks it back towards the bedroom.

Their bedroom, he reminds himself, as he’s wont to do when he starts feeling insecure. There’s the succulent in the corner that’s the only thing they’ve managed to keep alive, the closet that is mostly Eliot’s but also has space for Quentin’s hoodies and jeans, the bed that they share. Quentin has a place in this penthouse, and it’s next to Eliot.

The bathroom door opens with a rush of steam and humidity, and Quentin perches on the edge of their bed with the mug clutched in his hands like a precious memento. Eliot has a towel slung low over his hips, and he’s using another to gently pat his curls dry. They’re growing so long, dark ringlets beginning to spill past his shoulders like a soft waterfall. Quentin is gripped with a sudden, aching desire to run his fingers through them.

“I made you tea,” he offers instead. Eliot’s face is flushed, whether from the shower or a budding fever he isn’t sure, but he looks significantly less exhausted than he did twenty minutes ago. His shoulders and jaw aren’t quite as tight, and he even smiles a little as he crosses to the bed.

“You’re cute,” he says, low and rough with congestion, and one hand returns to the top of Quentin’s head like a bird come home to roost. “And you know I hate tea.”

“I also know you drink it anyway,” Quentin counters. There’s a flicker of memory across Eliot’s tired eyes, and Quentin wonders if he’s recounting the same Mosaic days. “Especially when you’re coughing like that.”

“I’m not,” Eliot says, and coughs. Quentin raises an eyebrow at him, and he rolls his eyes. “Fuck off, I feel awful.”

It’s dramatic and catty, and it makes the tension in Quentin’s chest ease. He smiles and takes a pointed sip from the mug before holding it out, an offering.

“I even made sure not to oversteep it, Your Majesty.”

Another arch, half-hearted glare from Eliot, who steps into their closet to change. “I don’t think the sass works when you’re also a majesty, Majesty.”

“Yeah, well.” Quentin tucks his legs beneath himself, still balancing the tea. When Eliot emerges, he’s dressed in gray sweatpants and a long-sleeved henley, and he looks so soft and also sleepy and sick that Quentin wants to gather him in his arms and stroke his hair. He takes the mug from Quentin and takes an obliging sip, then immediately makes a face, but he doesn’t give it back.

“Revolting. You could have at least spiked it with bourbon.”

Quentin smiles. He doesn’t know why the shower changed everything, but this Eliot he can deal with. He knows how to take care of spoiled, petty Eliot who proves “high-maintenance” to be an understatement. At least this Eliot is present. At least he will touch Quentin and let himself be touched in return.

“We can do hot toddies later.”

A long, beleaguered sigh from Eliot before he sinks onto the bed next to Quentin. “I’m holding you to that.”

They sit in silence for a few moments, Eliot sipping his tea and Quentin slowly inching closer until he can lean his head onto Eliot’s shoulder.

“You feel warm,” he murmurs once their bodies are pressed together.

“I’m actually freezing,” Eliot admits. Quentin can feel a small shiver run through his frame.

“Why don’t we, like, curl up on the couch or something? Get some blankets, watch some trashy tv.”

“Say Yes to the Dress is not trashy,” Eliot sniffs. But he’s still looking worn out, and Quentin can hear the congestion weighing down his lungs as he breathes, so it’s not a huge surprise when Eliot sighs and adds, “Fine, but I’m not drinking any more tea.”

“I didn’t say you’d have to.” Quentin presses a kiss to the point of Eliot’s shoulder.

It doesn’t take long for Eliot’s eyes to start to droop once they’re situated on the couch. Quentin nestles deeper into the curl of Eliot’s body and gives a long, contented sigh. Eliot’s hand finds his back, rubs a loose circle.

“I’m sorry about earlier,” he says, quiet and raspy. Quentin thinks he may lose his voice for the duration of this cold if it continues on this way. “I was being a bitch, and it wasn’t fair to you.”

“It’s okay,” Quentin says, even though the sight of Eliot at the door, exhausted and haunted-looking, still sticks in his mind and makes his throat tighten. He can feel Eliot shake his head.

“No, it isn’t. I shouldn’t have run.” He covers a cough with his fist. “I just…” He stops, sighs. “I don’t know what I was thinking.”

Quentin twists, craning his neck to look up at his partner. “I mean, being sick sucks.”

“It does,” Eliot says darkly. Quentin can feel his breathing grow unsteady, and he peers up just in time to see Eliot twist his neck sharply to the side for a stuffy, shivering sneeze half-stifled into the couch cushions.

“Bless you.” Quentin presses a kiss to Eliot’s sternum. Eliot sniffles thickly, the back of his hand pressed beneath his nose.

“Thagks. Sorry, let me grab--” He sits up part way, reaching for the box of Kleenex on the coffee table. Quentin shifts, then repositions himself against Eliot’s chest as his partner tends to his nose with a wince.

“I know you, like.” Quentin stops, clears his throat, tries to gather his words. “I know you don’t love being fussed over.”

“Au contraire,” Eliot says softly. He’s carding his fingers through Quentin’s hair, and it makes it very difficult to think.

“Well yeah, but.” Quentin cranes his neck, trying to look up at Eliot. “You don’t, not really. But,” he says, cutting Eliot off. “You’re letting me do it anyway, and that means a lot.”

Eliot is quiet for a moment, then Quentin feels his hand slide to the side of his face, his thumb stroke across his jawline. “I’ll try to be less of an asshole about it in the future. No promises, though.”

Quentin huffs a laugh. He finds Eliot’s hand with his own, then entwines their fingers. “I can handle it.”