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nothing less than a work in progress

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“So, what did you do with your morning?”

He’s swinging his legs slowly under the open counter when the question is asked, soaking in the warmth of the room, and it startles him a little, because he’d started to sink into the ambiance of the space — the smell of thyme and lemon and chicken, of vanilla and citrus — the chalky feeling of pastels and ingres paper under his fingers, lines and swipes of color coming together to capture movement — the companionable sounds of Alice and Eliot, sharing a space, bickering lightly as they worked over their separate counters. 

He’d been relegated to the island almost as soon as he’d walked in, Eliot saying his name in that fondly exasperated way he’d perfected a lifetime ago, Alice tilting her head to rest her cheek on his shoulder before her hands — small and sure — had turned him away from their preparation space and pushed him gently toward the island. 

It was the same every week, but offering to help was practically part of the routine, now. He knew they appreciated his offering, even if they never took him up on it. It was nice, in a way that he was learning to recognize: the understanding that the effort, more than the act itself, was what they appreciated.

It’s okay to let them decide what they want from this relationship , Varsha had told him, weeks ago. And to trust them when they tell you what that is.

He was working on the trusting part.

“Oh, I, uh. I went — went to the park, actually,” he says, looking up from the pad of paper in his lap.  Neither of them is looking at him, which is fine. Part of him prefers that, most of the time. Being the whole focus of anyone’s attention is. A lot. And Eliot and Alice, in their own ways, are two of the most intense people he knows.

“Mhmmm,” Eliot says, and Quentin watches him reach over to test the skillet’s heat, drizzle olive oil from a cruet into the pan, and rub generous pinches of a spice mixture into the chicken breasts he’d sliced open. “Did you draw all the dogs again?”

Eliot’s tone was light, and teasing, his shoulders loose, and the lilt of the words didn’t sting the way they might have.

“You love it when I draw the park dogs, asshole,” he gripes playfully, and sketches: Eliot’s shoulders, since they’re there; his curls, just dusting the nape of his neck, styled carefully out of his face; his hands, suspended on the paper (while in real life they’re deftly moving through a sequence of almost-tuts as he floats the chicken into the heated pan on the stove, each piece landing with a sizzle that brushes like a soft cloth against Quentin’s face).

He breathes through it, hands moving over the paper as the six-burner oven begins to take shape under his fingers, and feels a hit of pride. A few weeks ago, the sound would have been enough to chase him into a bedroom until the cooking was done.

“I do love your sketches,” Eliot agrees amiably once all the chicken is settled in the pan, and he’s washing his hands in the sink. 

Alice is grinning over the orange peel she’s zesting, and Quentin watches her for a minute before she, too, comes alive in his sketchbook. She moves with a different confidence than Eliot. He’s projected insouciance, and she radiates careful control: her shoulders thrown back, feet planted firmly, forehead tilted toward her work with careful focus. 

They’re like a set of scales, he thinks, not for the first time. As if what they’re weighing is Quentin, balancing carefully between the order he needs and the impulsivity he craves.

“Actually, it was, uh, the mosaic,” he says, and sees Alice’s quick, questioning glance over her shoulder, smiles at her curiosity. She’s taken in the stories of their other life like a sponge, and it makes something warm and fluid overflow in his chest when she’s included in a joke, or able to discuss a memory with them. “I can show you, after dinner, if you want?” he asks, and her curiosity melts into fondness.

“I’d love that, Quentin,” she says, turning her attention back to her bowl of orange zest, weighing it out on the small scale next to her.

“I still think you should splash some Cointreau in there,” Eliot says from the oven where he’s melting butter and adding herbs to the egg noodles he’s had boiling in a pot, and this is — Quentin has heard this disagreement twice already since he came home, but it’s obviously been going on longer than that, if the way Alice rolls her eyes is any indication. 

“It’s not in the recipe, Eliot,” she says again, patiently, as she measures out sugar exactly in a measuring spoon before she reaches for the cream.

“Oh, live a little.” Quentin can practically hear Eliot’s eyes rolling from here, and he decides to focus on the grain of the wooden cabinets instead of the zing of tension he feels along the back of his throat.

“I’m living perfectly well. There’s nothing wrong with following the instructions,” Alice sniffs. “If you want something to drink, why don’t you just have a glass with dessert?” She’s carefully tilting the container of orange zest into her mixing bowl and sets it on the counter, sighing when she turns back to her station to find the bottle has floated over to settle next to her.

“Because the point is to enhance the flavor of the dish. If I want a glass of triple-sec, I’ll have a glass of triple-sec, Alice. The point is to make the cake taste like it marinated in orange liqueur.”

“It’s going to change the consistency of the icing,” Alice grumbles, and Eliot’s whole face lights up before he schools it into something better resembling the tone of their bickering, like he doesn’t want to clue Alice in on the fact that she’s finally given in.

“All you have to do is add more sugar. It cuts the alcohol and thickens the glaze.” She raises an eyebrow at him, and he sighs. “I don’t have a precise measurement. Start with a teaspoon and add it in at halves from there until it’s the consistency you want.”

Alice glares at him while he hefts the pot of noodles off the stove carries if over the sink. Even so, once his back is turned, she selects a measuring spoon and carefully pours out some amount of the liqueur, dumps it in the bowl. Her lips purse thoughtfully while she stirs, and the cap from the bottle rises next to her, twists back into place.

Eliot is still pretending not to pay attention, and Quentin guesses — has seen him do this before — that this is his way of not making her acknowledge that she compromised. 

He thinks about the way the light frames them both — the setting sun from the wall of windows in the living room, and the static blue light from the long bulb under the overhead cabinets — and colors highlights into their hair, then shadows.

He thinks about how they’ve been since he came back. Like this. United in the big things: We love you. We’re here for you. We want to help. We’re not giving you up again, either of us. And fractured, interestingly, in the ways that are less important: Whose responsibility it is to buy the milk. If the towels go in the laundry basket or on the towel bar after you use them. What to watch at 1am on the nights when none of them can sleep. Whether or not you should put orange liqueur in the icing of a cake.

He knows they were friends once, in that last year before their lives unmoored. Before Fillory, before the emotion bottles and the threesome. And he knows that after — after he.

Well. After .

That it had been Alice and Eliot who had worked out the plan to find him, who had petitioned gods and cited ancient magics, who traversed the underworld and exploited loopholes and nearly — had nearly gotten themselves shoved through a doorway permanently for a chance to drag him out of eternal rest. He figures, most days, there’s no way to come back from that experience and not be changed.

He hears Alice before she makes her way across the room, tap-tapping at the smart device she only uses when she’s not at school. She pockets it, though, as she reaches him, and pauses. She gives him a moment to stop her before leaning into his side, gently.

“What did you do after the park?” she asks. They hadn't had a chance to talk earlier when she'd arrived through the coat closet portal from Brakebills with her arms full of paperwork just as he’d been putting his shoes on upstairs, with just enough time to take off her coat and brush her lips across his cheek on his way out the door. 

He shrugs with the shoulder she isn’t leaning on, looks down into her upturned face. 

She’s beautiful, he thinks, in the same abstract way he thinks of Eliot as beautiful, in that way that used to mean he wanted something from her besides just the reassuring presence at his side, might mean he wants something again someday, and leaves a vaguely unsteady feeling in his chest. It’s a lot to be feeling, really, so he shifts until his arm is around her shoulders instead and he can lean his chin on the top of her head.

“I got a, uh. A latte. And then I came back here — ” And fell asleep on the couch listening to an audiobook to fill up the empty space. But he doesn’t say that. “And took a nap. It was uneventful.”

“You drew us,” Alice says, unrelated to what he was thinking, and he looks down to see her finger, carefully hovering an inch over his paper, tracing the outlines of the two of them, immersed in their cooking and their chatter with each other. It feels cozy, and intimate. But not, he thinks, like the viewer is intruding. 

“I did.” He smiles, and she pulls her hand back, squeezes his wrist. 

“You’re really very good at that, Quentin.” 

“I was thinking — ” He starts, stops. Sits up a little straighter and then takes a deep breath to center himself before he finishes the thought. “I was thinking I might look into taking some art classes?” He’s looking at his sketchbook, and not either of them, but he can feel them both turn to him anyway, and picks at the corner of a page.

“It’s just — It’s too quiet. Here. during the day. I don’t like being alone, and I think. I think I could handle the other people, maybe, now? If I have some space from them and something else to focus on. It would be a little weird, too, I guess, drawing what someone else wants me to, but it would be nice to — to learn some new techniques? Maybe.” He makes himself stop fussing with the paper pad and drags his hand through his too-short hair instead. Realizes he’s been babbling, just a little. “Anyway, I had the thought, so.”

“I think that’s great.”

“Do you need any help finding some place for lessons?” Eliot asks, gesturing when a timer dings to move chicken from the skillet to a plate, his attention still focused on Quentin.  

The question isn’t meant to be overwhelming. He knows that.

He looks down at his sketchpad anyway.

 “I — I think. That I should probably do it myself,” he says, and manages somehow to make it not a question, thankfully. “Varsha thinks that, uh, ‘ regular exposure to a small group of people outside my current social circle will help with my reintegration into the world ’, or. Whatever.”

“And it gives you something to do, while we’re not here,” Alice says, and chews a little at her bottom lip.

“And it gives me something to do when you’re not here,” he agrees, because there’s not any point in hiding it, now that he’s told them.

“Well, I think it’s great that you and Varsha are making progress,” Alice says, and brings up her arms to squeeze, just a little, around his chest. He smiles down at her, because it is progress, isn’t it? And then she’s turning back towards the counters, and shooing Eliot away from the oven to check on her cake, so he joins Quentin at the island.

“If you ever need a model, I would be more than willing to offer my services.” He’s looking down at the sketchbook, but Eliot is so stupidly tall Quentin can see the edges of his smirk through his hair anyway. And he feels lighter, now that he’s made the suggestion and they’ve both supported it. He shifts his sketchbook, and takes Eliot’s smooth, clean hand in his own chalky one, just to see the face he makes as their fingers link together.

“Would you?” Quentin asks, and Eliot’s smile softens.

“Just say the word, baby. But dinner’s almost ready.” He tugs at Quentin gently, and he takes the hint, hopping down from the island while Eliot shifts their hands with a grimace.

“And nobody gets to eat with messy hands, so let’s get cleaned up.”