Quentin arrived home from work and flung his coat at the hook in the hallway. It stuck there. He'd probably flicked magic at it without noticing. He missed Alice. He went to the counter in the kitchen where the whiskey was, and poured himself an Eliot-measure. He missed Alice. He took his drink through to the living room, where he sat on the couch and turned on the fake-flame fire with a click of his fingers, because it amused him. This was what magic was good for. Keeping your jacket off the floor and turning the fire on without having to pick up the remote.
He missed Alice. He missed Alice. He missed Alice.
He took a gulp of whiskey and remembered how amazingly straight her hair was. Like each strand had its own individual and highly committed relationship with gravity. Like a sheet of glass. He remembered trying to muss it up once, give her bed-hair (Jesus, he was the fucking expert in bed-hair, after all) but it just wouldn't. Maybe she enchanted it. Maybe it was Maybelline.
He drained his glass, then fetched the bottle from the kitchen. He returned to the couch, poured another whiskey and missed Eliot.
There was this one time with Alice, in her room. It was warm, a blast of summer heat flowing through the open window. They'd been having sex for hours, and then lay on their backs on the bed, fucked-out and blissful. The covers had made a bid for freedom ages ago and lay in a mess on the floor. There was just one sheet left, tangled somewhere around their feet. For once Alice didn't seem to care about nudity. He tickled her nipple with his hair and she swatted at him, smacked his arm. She didn't apologise, she just said 'serves you right' and laughed at him, while he pretended it didn't really hurt.
He remembered her calling him a whore, and how he pretended that didn't hurt either.
He missed Eliot, and Margo.
He felt guilty.
He missed Alice.
He remembered the sting of her slap. He remembered the moment he realised he didn't know who he was any more, or why she was with him, only that he couldn't ever live without her. At all.
And yeah, okay, in one of the darkest corners of his dark, dark soul, he wondered what if. What if they hadn't split up. What if he hadn't been high on emotion magic or whatever the fuck that was. What if he and Alice had faced the Beast together, properly together. What if that had made them as fucking invincible as they felt they were that night at Brakebills South, nothing but fur and teeth and mates for life. What if he could have ripped the Beast's throat out while Alice got the spell together and then...
Quentin put down the glass, and picked up the bottle.
Yeah. Karma's a fucking bitch, Quentin Coldwater.
Emily wasn't in work the next day. That made three days she'd taken off since they did the spell in her shower. He thought about calling her, but he was honestly relieved not to see her. Quentin had experienced a lot of shitty feelings in his life - he occasionally thought of making a colour-coded chart of their unique characteristics and how they related to each other - but this new specialty in shitty feelings that stemmed from waking up next to the wrong fucking person was a whole new kind of hell. He'd made his share of mistakes in college, obviously. One spectacular low when he'd been glad this girl liked to be fucked bent over her kitchen table, because that way he could run his fingers through her long, dark hair and forget that her face looked nothing like Julia's. But Julia never knew. Emily knew. Worse still, Emily understood.
He sat at his desk and turned on the computer to find an email from Alice's parents. Given the generous sprinkling of Latin phrases, he assumed her father had written it. There would be a memorial in three weeks' time. He was invited.
Quentin ran his fingers through the bits of hair that refused to stay tied up, and leaned back in his chair. He tried to imagine it. There wasn't a body for them to bury. Eliot and the others had taken care of that, thank fuck. (And, hey, there was the stab of 'I wasn't there for her burial' guilt. Great.) Quentin hadn't visited her grave yet. He liked that she was close to the castle. He hated that she was in the ground. He wanted her here. He wanted to dig up her bones and touch her. To make her real again.
What the actual fuck was he thinking?
Quentin cleared his throat, closed the email from Alice's parents and tried to make sense of a pie chart. He wasn't sure what it represented, exactly. The data labels were written in some jargon language so impenetrable they may as well have been in ancient Etruscan. Actually, he knew a few words of Etruscan. He knew no business-speak at all. Fortunately, though, he did know math and he knew how to analyse the shit out of stuff. And because, for some reason, it mattered to Quentin that he did at least a half-assed job of work here, even though he was pretty sure nobody would care if he did nothing at all, it distracted his brain and gave him a break from the constant ache of Alice, Alice, Alice that was the backdrop of his life now.
By lunchtime Quentin had proved that the commoditization deliverable ratio exceeded the deliverable operationalizability factor by two point one zero seven per cent.
And Emily was back at work.
She hovered in the kitchen while he poked at a tub of rehydrated noodles full of additives, and wished she'd go away. Or that he hadn't been such a dick. Or she hadn't been such a dick. Or something. Maybe he just wished that they'd drunk themselves insensible and had sex they couldn't remember afterwards, like normal people. That would have been cool.
Anything but this.
"I took a couple of personal days," she said. "They're pretty cool with that round here."
"Great," he said, and stuffed noodles in his mouth.
Sauce splashed on his shirt. She noticed. He looked at her, and the possibility hung between them, an invitation to another mistake.
He put the noodles down and went to the sink. Attacked his shirt with wet paper towels. It would leave a stain, but hey.
Better that than plunge down a rabbit hole of co-operative magic again.
That night he curled up under a blanket and watched TV. He missed the soft couch in the Cottage. He missed there being so many books around. TV felt irrelevant.
He missed Eliot.
He woke up at four in the morning gasping for air, his heart trembling in his chest like a mouse in a trap. He knew panic as intimately as his own racing pulse, but this was something different, off the charts, like someone had ripped the world away and vomited it back at him in a swirl of unreadable chunks. He fought his way out of the covers and fumbled for the light switch. Couldn't find it. Stood up. Knocked over the empty wine bottle by the side of the bed. Found the switch. Light filled the room, showing the dust in the corners, the wrinkled spines of the books on the bookcase.
He told himself this was his life. On Earth. In an apartment he didn't have to pay rent for. The books weren't his. They were spy novels and historical fiction and a six volume set on the engineering of great world railways. They were here when he'd moved in, part of the furniture. He lived in a world of grey concrete and pie charts and missing- oh, fuck, Alice. Alice was dead. His friends were, quite literally, a world away.
None of it felt real, and in that moment Quentin longed for reality more than anything. To know that he was really here, he existed, he had a choice.
He hadn't had a choice. If he hadn't killed Alice, she would have...
He slumped back on the bed, the pain welling up in him like a fucking volcano. It had nowhere to go. He couldn't cry, he couldn't scream. Fear and grief consumed him, wracked his body with soundless, tearless sobs. Quentin pulled at his hair, the short, sharp shock of it reassuring, like an anchor.
And then there was a shivery, clammy sort of calm. Quentin scrunched a corner of sheet in his hand and pulled it to his chest, rocking gently back and forth. Things were slow and quiet and very, very clear. Okay. Okay. He wasn't completely powerless. He did have a choice. He knew how worthless his life was. Enough was enough.
It was time.
Eliot, High King of Fillory, squinted at the centaur, and let the words 'what the fuck?' slip from between his lips.
"King Quentin left some weeks ago," the centaur said. "We thought he must have returned to Whitespire. His recovery was quite remarkable."
"He did not return to Whitespire," Eliot said.
"We would have noticed," Margo said. "He may look like an unassuming nerd-boy, but he has a habit of making himself conspicuous."
"He left with his friend," the nurse at the centaur's side told them. The centaur wandered off without another word, and she stepped into the space he had vacated. Her face was a carefully constructed blend of compassion, politeness and knowing-what's-best that Eliot found oddly unnerving.
"What friend?" said Margo.
"The tall one with the, um, curse problem." The nurse gave them a burst of jazz-hands."
"Penny," said Eilot. "Why would he go off with Penny?"
"Who knows?" said Margo. "Well, they did both fuck Alice. So there's that. Maybe they forged some kind of soul bond." She shrugged her shoulders.
"He fucked us, too," Eliot said. "You'd think that deserved at least a note."
"I believe he was on a quest," the nurse said, waving away what was undoubtedly unwanted information with a single gesture. "To find the White Lady."
"I left him a note," said Eliot, petulantly.
C'mon El," said Margo. "A quest is right up Quentin's alley. What we need is a locator spell."
They went back to the castle. Not to the throne room, with its incessant drama, but a little room off the Long Corridor where they'd stashed a trunk full of supplies. Eliot sealed the door, while Margo got things together.
He loved watching Margo do magic. It was elegant and sassy and had far more finger-clicks than any other magician he'd ever seen. She finished the spell with her usual flourish, and they both scanned the map of Fillory for the little light that would mean Quentin.
"Shit. Where the fuck is he?" Eliot stroked the parchment, as if he might be able to feel what he couldn't see.
"He's either warded the shit out of himself-"
"Our Q? Come on, Margo, we know he's not capable of that."
"-or he's on Earth."
"But why would he go back to Earth? He's dreamed of Fillory all his life. More than any of us, he wanted... he wanted...."
Their eyes met, and Eliot's heart sank. "Oh no. What if he's doing the thing? Do you think he's doing the thing, Margo?"
"Nah. Not our Quentin. He wouldn't do that. Turn his back on everything just because...."
They looked at each other for a long moment.
"He's totally doing the thing," said Eliot.
"Not on my fucking watch," said Margo.
For most of his life, Quentin had been a coward. It had, in fact, kept him alive through some of his darkest days. He had made many meticulous plans to end his life. He had a top five that he was ninety nine per cent confident were foolproof. The only reason he wasn't one hundred per cent sure was that he'd never had the courage to try any of them.
But Alice had given him courage.
The irony of that made a laugh bark out of him as he took the elevator to the top of the Plaxo building. His mind (the cowardly, squirrely part) started to bargain with him. If anyone got in the elevator and spoke to him, he wouldn't do it. If the lift got stuck, he wouldn't do it. If the stairs to the roof were behind a locked door, he would...
... No. This was it. This wasn't a fucking cry for help. This was a plan. This was how the pain would stop.
The elevator soared, uninterrupted, to the top floor. Quentin stepped out onto the plush carpet of the directorial level, and walked past the glass walls of expensive offices plunged into darkness. At the end of the corridor was a fire door, and beyond that, stairs down to the fire escape - and up to the roof.
The stairs ended in a door so small Quentin had to bend over to step through it. Excitement fluttered in the core of the ball of anxiety in his stomach. This was it. He was finally going to-
Quentin put one foot on the thin gravel of the roof and walked slam into a magical field.
"What the fuck, Quentin?" said Margo.
Margo was there, on the roof, with Eliot. What?
The field faded to nothing and Quentin blinked and stammered. "Wh-what are you... Why, um, I don't-"
"Hello, Q," said Eliot. He looked really worried about something.
"We're here to take you back to Fillory for your own safety," Margo said. "Which, okay, doesn't sound like us, but we're maturing, okay? Come on. Get your idiotic little self back down those stairs before you get death wish all over me."
He blinked at her.
"Best do as she says," Eliot said. "She's cranky because I was the one who worked out the wings."
Quentin noticed for the first time that Eliot had something on his back. Eliot gave him a little smile and huge, luxuriant white wings spread out behind him. "First year project," said Eliot. "Theatrical and fabulous, but sadly unpredictable."
As if on cue Eliot's wings - holy shit, Eliot's wings - shivered and glittered and winked out with a pfft sound. A single white feather fluttered to the ground at his feet.
"It's fucking cold up here," Margo said. "Stairs, Q. Now."
Quentin was still stunned, his world view switched from calm-but-deadly to what-the-fuck-guys in a split second. But there was this thing about Margo and Eliot. Quentin found them practically impossible to say no to. And not just because Margo was scary.
"This way," Quentin said, backing awkwardly down the narrow stairs. "Um, welcome to Plaxo, I guess."
"Delightful," lied Eliot, as they stepped out onto the thick grey carpet. He took Quentin's hand, and gave it a little squeeze. "Let's go back to your apartment, Q. You have one of those, right?"
"Yeah, it's over on-"
Eliot sighed. "Just take us there, sweetie? There's a good boy."
Quentin sat on his couch, staring at the realistic-flame fire with a glass of whiskey in his hand, and tried to work out what just happened. Margot had made him take a shower - probably so she could plan something with Eliot, he wasn't an idiot and he could hear them shouting while he was in the bathroom - but it had felt surprisingly good to stand there under the hot water while his friends argued about what to do with him. Like he'd relinquished control. They could make all the difficult decisions, and he'd just do as he was told. He could stay numb. He finally came out of the bathroom wearing a fluffy robe that sort of came with the apartment (all linens and household equipment provided), to find Eliot waiting for him with the words, "Margo's gone to bed. Let's get drunk."
Quentin had meekly followed Eliot, wondering whether this meant he'd lost or won the argument with Margo, and here they were, now, sat on the couch together, drinking.
"If you feel you really must bare your soul to me," Eliot said magnanimously, "you may. Or not. As you wish. It's your call." He sipped at his drink and Quentin could see the flutter of pleasure run through him. He'd guess the brewing industry in Fillory had yet to fulfil Eliot's dreams.
"You're not you, right? You're the, what, the Elgolem?"
"I'm me in my golem, thank you. Which means I have to go back in the morning. If I stay away from my body too long, bad things happen, apparently. Still. It's worth it, for emergencies."
"I'm an emergency?"
"Jesus, you were about to throw yourself off the top of a fucking building, Quentin, what do you think?"
"I might not, I, um...." Quentin looked down at his drink, ashamed. He supposed he'd been hoping they hadn't worked out what he was doing on a roof in the middle of the night. After all, he might have been going up there for the view, right? But clearly in Eliot's mind there was no doubt, and thus probably no point in Quentin denying it.
"Believe me," Eliot said, "I have quite enough things to worry about in Fillory. I have no wish to add losing another monarch to the list. Besides, seriously, a magician committing suicide, it's too cliché to contemplate."
"I see. Well, I'm sorry my miserable agony is an inconvenience to you."
Eliot shot him a look of such pain and anger that it made Quentin back up the couch a bit. Shit.
"Just, don't." Eliot took a savage gulp of whiskey.
It was like the shock of diving into cold water, or the moment the sun comes out and the world looks real again. The full consequence of what he'd planned to do hit Quentin square in the chest and stole his breath. Panic tore through the numbness he'd carefully wrapped himself in and made him cry out.
There were warm arms around him, holding him, not from the front where it would have felt suffocating, but from behind, propping him up. Eliot wrapped one arm loose over Quentin's chest, the other around his belly, leaving room to encourage him to breathe but keeping him still and safe. Soft lips at his ears whispering, shhh, shhh, shhh...
Quentin forced the air into his lungs and held it there for as long as he could. When he let it out a whimper escaped with it, and then the tears came. He hadn't cried, since Alice. Not properly. It had hurt too much when he'd come close, safer to shut it all down, but now.... Now, he cried. Eliot nuzzled his face into Quentin's neck and held him as he sobbed and rocked himself. Warm and comforting. And of course, it reminded him of that day, when he'd been clawing his way to Alice and Eliot had held him back, saved his life by holding him still when he would have torn himself apart to touch her dead, empty body.
Save me, El. Please. I can't do this by myself.
"Ugh. I never had you down for a snotty crier, Q. Here."
Quentin laughed, despite everything, and took the handful of tissues El shoved at him. He blew his nose and wiped his face and, yeah, gross.
"Better?" Eliot said.
"Honestly?" Quentin let himself relax a bit, head lolling back on Eliot's shoulder. "I have no fucking idea. Everything hurts, El."
"Well." Eliot cleared his throat. "That's a start, insofar as I understand these things. So, d'you want to have sex? Because that's totally what would happen in a movie right now. No? Too soon?"
Quentin laughed, they both laughed, and Quentin was almost completely sure Eliot had been joking, even when he added, "It's always on the table, Q, just so's you know," and laughed again.
And Quentin would be lying if he claimed he didn't want it. Sure, he'd learned his lesson (again) from the night with Emily, and there was still the shit ton of guilt from the last time with Eliot and Margo. But there was also the memory of how easy it had been, and how Eliot's body fit with his like two parts of a puzzle which ever way they lined up, and now Quentin's dick was hard, but his mind was screaming at him that the world was spinning and please, please, could he avoid fucking up long enough for everything to just stop.
"So," said Eliot. "What's it like, having a job? I always wondered."
Quentin relaxed a smidgen, aware of Eliot's arm around his middle and really liking it there. "It was kind of dull, I guess. Actually, really dull."
Eliot retrieved Quentin's glass and refilled it. "Good to know I'm not missing anything."
"You have a job. You run an entire kingdom. That's about as big as it gets."
"Well, that's true, I suppose. If you call 'stumbling from one disaster to another' running something."
"I think that's pretty much how it works, El."
"Hey, Q. Here's an idea: you should come home and help."
Quentin's instant response was yes, and it even came with a flicker of the old excitement he'd missed so much. But he'd given all that up for a reason. A Fillory without Alice wasn't worth living in. He didn't deserve to live there, not after she'd given everything and got nothing and he remembered, on the beach, Eliot putting the crown on her head. She'd been Queen for, what, a day? The hurt stung him, hot and familiar, and he quickly doused it with a mouthful of fiery, golden scotch.
"Unless," Eliot added, "you are still committed to living here in a hell of your own making. In which case Margo was right and we'll just have to tackle it another way."
"No," said Quentin. "No intervention, please, El, I just... I...." The alcohol wasn't working. He let the empty glass drop onto the plush carpet. Tears prickled at his eyes and despair surged through him. This time, Eliot kissed him.
He tasted of liquor and his mouth was so damn soft. Eliot kissed like Quentin deserved it, like it was what was supposed to happen. All the self-assured confidence that Quentin had always wished he'd had but never would. And Quentin kissed him back. Kissed right through the guilt and the grief because, fuck it, Eliot was his life raft and he wasn't about to let go.
He crawled into Eliot's lap, straddling his thighs. He fumbled at the buttons of his vest and Eliot didn't stop him, just kept kissing him, his mouth so warm and gentle and Quentin melting under it. Finally he managed to get a hand under Eliot's shirt, to touch his skin, his tight, fluttering belly, and then Eliot helped, wriggling out of layers of shirt and vest so Quentin could run his fingers through the soft hair on his chest, then up to his collarbones, his jaw, his ear. Eliot's ears were sensitive, Quentin remembered through the fog. He stroked and nuzzled and nibbled on Eliot's earlobe until he made him gasp. Quentin liked that. He liked knowing what Eliot liked.
Then Eliot pushed Quentin back to arm's length. For an instant it felt like rejection, but Eliot was looking at him with unmistakable and reassuring want.
"Your turn." Eliot pinched his fingers softly in the air, just by Quentin's head. He moved the gesture to the right, and Quentin's robe slid slowly off his shoulder and down his arm. Then the other shoulder. Then with a more complicated twist and a flick, the belt came undone, and the whole thing was a puddle around Quentin's hips.
Eliot raised an eyebrow.
"Okay, so." Quentin cleared his throat. "That's hot. I've never, um. Magic's amazing, huh?"
"Glad you remembered." Eliot kissed him again, running his hand down Quentin's naked back. "You're pretty fucking amazing yourself, you know."
Quentin ignored that, focusing his attention on how soft Eliot's hair was and how good it felt when Eliot's clever, confident hand swept over the curve of his ass. He had a sudden flash of memory: of sinking into Margo's pussy while Eliot licked at his balls and... other places. He wanted that again. All of it.
"Well, hello," said Eliot, wrapping his fingers around Quentin's cock. Quentin looked down and watched him.
"You have a really pretty cock, you know that?"
For some stupid reason Quentin felt all squirrely-pleased inside to hear Eliot say that. "It's not as big as yours."
"Oh, honeybun, very few are." Eliot delved into his pants to get his own dick out. It sprang up, every bit as hard as Quentin's and, yes, bigger. Eliot held them both together, and thrust up. God, that felt good. So good. Quentin braced a hand on the back of the couch, and as Eliot set a rhythm, Quentin caught it. It was so damn easy. They kissed, and fucked Eliot's fist together, and Eliot was making these amazing happy gasping noises, and it felt just as right as fucking Emily-Alice had felt wrong and for once in his life Quentin's brain was too short-circuited to overthink that. He just fell into it. Into pleasure. Fell into Eliot. Even when they'd been going a while and it chafed a bit he didn't care. He could tell Eliot was close, so he kissed his way up Eliot's neck and flicked at his ear with his tongue, took the lobe between his lips and sucked, and then Eliot was whispering, "oh, shit, Quentin," and coming all over them both. Quentin glanced down to watch everything get wet and sticky, Eliot's firm grip milking out the last few spurts. It was one of the most erotic things he'd ever seen in his life.
Eliot flopped back against the couch, his hand dripping jizz over his own dick. Quentin's balls gave a throb. His cock twitched, suddenly abandoned. Eliot laughed. "Needy," he murmured.
"Shut up." Quentin kissed his cheek, and sat up straight, stretched his back out.
"Hey, I made a mess," Eliot said. "Best clean up." He gave Quentin's ass a quick slap with his clean hand. Reluctantly, Quentin clambered off him and sat back on the couch. But Eliot didn't go to the bathroom, or even reach for the Kleenex. He lowered himself to the floor to kneel between Quentin's legs, and looked up at him while he licked the come off his own hand.
And then he took Quentin's dick in his mouth.
"Holy shit, Eliot...."
Eliot swirled his tongue around the head of Quentin's cock, and lapped at the slit. Then he sucked it in again, the warm-wet soothing his skin and making him absolutely rock-hard and embarassingly close to coming. Then Eliot cradled Quentin's balls in one hand and Quentin was done for.
"El, hey, I'm, um-"
His hips bucked up of their own accord, his head dropped back and he came, hard, over Eliot's tongue. Down his throat. God, just the thought of it was hot. The reality was incredible. And Eliot didn't move away. He slurped it all up, a reassuring hand on Quentin's hip telling him this was okay.
When Quentin was done, Eliot knelt back on his heels, and wiped his mouth on a corner of Quentin's robe.
"Sorry," said Quentin.
"I don't swallow for just anyone, Coldwater."
"I know. I mean, I imagined. Um, I'm sorry."
Eliot smiled. "I'm sure we can find a way for you to make it up to me.
Quentin smiled back. "C'mere."
Eliot raised an eyebrow.
"Cuddle me, you dick," said Quentin.
Eliot crawled up Quentin's body, and kissed him.
Quentin stuck his tongue in Eiot's mouth, tasted himself, just to prove he was a good sport and all. They made out for a while. Soft, gentle kisses, fingers tangled in each other's hair.
And then, as his body let the afterglow from one of the best orgasms of his life fade away, his mind woke up and the guilt and the sadness seeped back in. But Quentin was too tired, too fucked to think. The feelings rolled over him and he lay in Eliot's arms, and floated towards sleep.
"You should come back to Fillory," Eliot whispered. "Please, Q."
Longing surged in Quentin's heart. But this was his pennance. His escape. His chioce. How could he go back to Fillory, when Alice wasn't there?
"I can't, El. I'm sorry."
Eliot sighed, and kissed his temple. "Okay. Okay."
"This is so good, though," Quentin murmured, or perhaps he dreamed it, probably dreamed it, as he drifted into the sleep of the truly exhausted.
When Quentin woke up, Margo and Eliot were gone, and he was late for work. He showered quickly and went into his bedroom to find some clothes. The room smelled of coconut oil and the stuff Margo put on her hair. She hadn't bothered to make the bed. Quentin imagined curling up on it later, after work, breathing her in, laying his head on the pillow where hers had been. He missed her. He missed Eliot.
He missed Alice.
It felt different. Not better. Not worse, either, though. Different.
Shit. He really was late.
There was a note on the kitchen counter from Eliot, but he didn't read it. Last time he'd read a note from Eliot, his world had fallen apart. He grabbed his keys and some change for coffee on the way to the office.
He saw Alice.
A flash, a fraction, a split-second glimpse through the traffic. Poeple said that happened, when someone died. You saw them when they weren't there. Trick of the light, trick of the brain. Trick-of-the-light Alice stood in a second suspended for minutes and asked him for help. Quentin reeled. He couldn't go to work. He was done with Plaxo and this sad, grey life.
He missed magic.
Either Alice was out there and needed help, or he was seeing things. Either way (he was ninety-nine per cent sure it was the former) he had to do something. It was time to get moving again. Except, shit. Shit. He was trapped here, now. The button was with Margo and Eliot in Fillory.
Eliot had left him a note.
Quentin ran back to his apartment building, took the stairs two at a time, crashed through the door and into the kitchen. He ripped open the envelope with his initial on it.
In case you change your mind. One time only deal.
Please change your mind.
There was a spell underneath, and in Quentin's hand lay a single, white feather.
He was going home.