Frost glittered on Margo’s cheek: you could see the crystals forming, spreading, and then melting as the infirmary’s spell hit them. Traces of blue came and went across her skin. The glass case in which she lay heightened the impression of Snow White, or Rapunzel, a princess trapped in ice, though the leather trousers and barely-there top slightly ruined the effect.
“So how the fuck do we fix this?” said Eliot.
Quentin looked up. One of Eliot’s hands was spread out on the case, he was, as they all were, staring down at Margo, at her closed eyes, her slow breathing. Quentin could tell from his tone that he was either furious or deeply upset. Or both, which would be reasonable. The first-year whose spell had gone so horribly wrong, just as Margo happened to bang open his door to complain about the chanting, had been summarily expelled. Though Quentin still wasn’t sure this would stop Eliot from hunting him down and shredding him to bits, maybe literally as well as metaphorically.
Professor Lipson sighed. “We’re running out of options, I’m afraid,” she said. “We’ve only located one further possibility in the archives, in one of the scrolls you brought us from Fillory, and it’s rather – dubious. It’s a charm called the Vorsten Principalis, reportedly only passed down in oral form, by,” she peered at the manuscript she was holding, “‘making a pilgrimage to the Temple of the Twin Falls’, where ‘ye will learn of this spell from the devotees and Abbot thereof.’”
“But we have no idea if this is still true,” said Alice. “Or even if the spell will work.”
“Well, it does say, hmm, ‘to restore the life from frost or ice, whether caused by magic or by nature’,” Lipson said. “The usual spells are generally adequate, but whatever that little – idiot – accidentally hit upon, they haven’t worked here. We can keep her in stasis indefinitely, but…. We’ll keep trying, of course.”
“It’s definitely in Fillory, right?” said Eliot. “This temple. Q?”
“Umm,” said Quentin. “Not in the books. But lots of places might not be, you know, smaller temples, places of worship. In book four, there’s something about temple devotees at one of the big celebrations, I think it’s – “
“Skip the lecture,” said Eliot. “I’m going. You’re coming with. Do the fucking pilgrimage, get the spell, cure Margo, back for cocktails at six. Penny?”
“It says – “ said Alice. Eliot glared at her and she quailed. “ – that it takes three days to walk the pilgrim’s route. I think. And you haven’t told them about - ”
“Yes, yes, let me just find the – ah, here,” said Lipson. She cleared her throat. “’The seeker of this charm must start from the hamlet of Darn in the remote North, and follow the trail on foot from the rising to the setting of the sun for three days, before descending the Myrtle Steps to the most glorious Temple of the Twin Falls.’ Er – this bit is tricky, something like ‘Having acknowledged and fulfilled the pattern, they will gain the knowledge they seek.”’
She looked up from the manuscript expectantly.
“Our translation of Old Fillorian’s not quite right,” said Alice, pushing back her hair, and looking round them all. “I went through all the texts we brought back from Fillory, and I think ‘pattern’ means something like, when you start the pilgrimage it triggers a spell and you have to kind of – work out what it is. You find the pattern and then you solve it. Or something. And that makes the spell… end. And then you’ve won? I guess? It’s not – we don’t exactly know what it means.”
“In other words, walking into a randomly dangerous situation with no clue, about to get shafted by magic that we don’t really understand? Sounds like every day in fucking Fillory,” said Eliot. “Damn it.”
He looked at Margo, and his hand smoothed over the glass, as though over her hair.
“The things I do for you, baby.” He took a deep breath. “Right. All the more need to get a fucking move on. We’ll stock up, meet you at the cottage in thirty, Penny. Q, get some clean underpants and all the gold and shiny things you can carry, I’m not sleeping in the dirt for three nights. Are we good?”
He met Quentin’s eyes. Quentin had been thinking about backing out, suggesting Alice, Penny, anyone really; but Eliot, for all his words, was clearly terrified. And not for himself, either.
“Yeah, I guess,” he said. “Count me in.”
“Okay,” said Eliot. He swallowed. “Penny?”
“Guess I can find it,” said Penny, shrugging. “We brought a couple of maps back.”
“I’ve got the button,” said Alice. “Here.” She passed it to Quentin, carefully not touching him or even really looking at him. Despite the fact that he might well be going to his death, or at least to something unknown and unpleasant.
“I’m not sure that letting students – “ said Lipson, frowning.
“Oh, we’re not students in Fillory, remember,” said Eliot. “In Fillory, we’re kings. And queens.” He smiled at Margo, sleeping. “And no-one fucks with us.”
They blinked into existence in some kind of overgrown clearing, surrounded by piles of stone and – walls, maybe? As always, there was the rush of being in Fillory, still not fully dimmed. The air seemed richer and clearer at once, scented with trees and flowers; the light was always bright yet slightly hazy; so that things blurred at the edges. Quentin took a step forward and stumbled over a rock, barely keeping himself upright.
“I think this is an ex-hamlet,” said Eliot, behind him.
“No shit,” said Penny, also looking about. “This is definitely the right place though, check it out.” He pointed. Just to their left, in front of one of the piles of ruins, a trail of white flowers ran off towards the forest, about half a kilometre or so away. Quentin could see the trail disappearing into the trees.
“I was at least hoping for an inn,” said Eliot. “Well. Needs must, I suppose. Let’s get this over with.” He visibly straightened up, putting on what Quentin thought of as his High King face. “Penny. If she – if anything – will you be able to find us?”
Penny looked uneasy. “Dunno. Maybe. Look, you heard them, she’s in stasis, nothing bad’s going to happen in three days, so no problems.”
“Yes, because I always find that trusting the Brakebills authorities works out so well,” said Eliot. “If anything doeshappen, come for us. Yes?”
“I’ll try,” said Penny. “And – good luck, I guess.” He half-raised a hand, and then blinked away.
Eliot’s shoulders slumped a bit. Quentin thought about saying something reassuring, but Eliot was already striding off to the start of the path, and Quentin had to hurry to catch him up. There were two erratic lines of flowers, small, star-shaped, white with yellow centres; Quentin had no idea what they were, but they clearly marked a grassy path between them, slightly smoother and lighter in colour than the rest of the meadow.
As he stepped onto it, he felt a fizz of magic, raising the hairs on his arms, searing quickly through him and away.
“You felt that, right?” said Eliot, wary.
“Yeah,” said Quentin. “Must have been the spell, like Alice said. I don’t feel any different though, do you?”
“No,” said Eliot. “But if you feel even the tiniest bit like you’re getting high, going insane, plotting my immediate demise or about to turn into a, a fucking talking goat or something, tell me immediately.”
“Ditto,” said Quentin.
“Here.” Eliot took his hip flask out of his pocket, took a slug, and then passed it to Quentin. Quentin raised it to his mouth and took a more cautious sip. Just as well, it seemed to be very neat and very strong brandy.
“To the Vorsten Principalis and its priestly owners,” said Eliot. “I – we – are on a fucking mission here, and we’re going to get this done.” He gestured imperiously, Quentin passed him back the flask, and he stowed it in his pocket, all while maintaining an impressive air of stoic determination.
Then he started walking. Fast. Quentin shouldered his backpack and followed after.
When it hit the forest, the path simply carried on, exchanging grass for soft leaves, sometimes almost covering the flowers. Sunlight slanted onto them. Birds sang and occasionally whirred past. There were deer footprints, and other, stranger, footprints, in the wetter parts of the track. Small bright streams crossed their path.
It was all very beautiful and peaceful, though the effect was spoiled somewhat by Eliot marching through it as though he was trapped in the Sahara under the blazing sun.
Quentin sighed a little, and kept following: Eliot clearly didn’t feel like talking, and that was fine. Actually it was kind of – restful. Since they’d defeated the Beast, there hadn’t been much time off. Alice hadn’t woken up for three weeks after Quentin got out of centaur rehab, so nearly two months had been written off to start with. And when she’d finally opened her eyes, and Quentin felt he could leave her bedside for more than an hour at a time without her dying, he’d been greeted with the news that the four of them would be kicked out of Brakebills if they couldn’t pass their finals. In two weeks.
Admittedly, the Dean had been apologetic. He’d even shown them the college regulations, which apparently were certified unbreakable. Only death got you out of finals. So Eliot and Margo, who both worked extremely hard when no-one else was paying attention, promptly disappeared to some arcane corner of the library. Quentin had tried to study with Alice in the infirmary, but Alice was tired and pale and awkward around him. They hadn’t even needed to have a painful talk about their relationship: there was no relationship, as if blowing apart the Beast had also shattered whatever was left of Quentin and Alice, the couple.
Maybe one day there would be Quentin and Alice, friends, though. Quentin thought about this, as he walked. He loved Alice. He liked Alice. It had been hard work, being Alice’s boyfriend, he’d spent most of the time thinking he was doing it wrong, and probably he had been. She’d been the only real girlfriend he’d ever had, though, so maybe it just always was really fucking hard to be in a relationship. Or maybe he was shit at it.
And the other problem, which was really juvenile but he couldn’t help it, was that having a steady girlfriend got you used to steady sex, and now it had been three months and he really fucking missed it. He’d thought maybe, a couple of nights ago, at the end of exam party, maybe there’d be strangers there, maybe someone….but then the thing with Margo had happened, before the party had even started.
Who was he kidding anyway. There was no chance he would have met someone. He was basically a freak. And so was Alice, in her own way, which was why they could have worked. But as it was, no self-respecting woman in her right mind would come anywhere near Quentin. Even if they did, how could he explain what he’d been doing over the last few months?
But Eliot and Margo wanted you, said another part of his brain. They may have been off their heads, but not for the whole night. Eliotwanted you.
Quentin looked at Eliot’s back, a couple of paces ahead of him, at Eliot’s long legs in jeans and high boots. He only remembered that night in a few flashes. The one that, if he had been honest, he would have had to admit that he’d thought of every day since, involved Eliot sliding down Quentin’s body, catching his eye and saying, low, “I’ve been waiting to do this since the first day of term,” before taking his cock in his mouth.
Unfortunately Quentin didn’t recall a great deal after that one searing instant. It still made him prickly with heat, though, thinking about it, wondering if Eliot, who had been pretty out of it, had meant it. Had really thought about it – about Quentin – had looked at him, knew him, and still wanted him.
Of course, Eliot probably thought exactly the same about tens of other people. Hundreds, maybe. It didn’t make Quentin anything special.
He sighed again. Maybe this wasn’t restful, walking through these woods. Maybe it was a terrible mistake for him to be left to his own thoughts. He especially hadn’t thought about that night with El and Margo, because he still felt so guilty about it, and because, while he was being honest, part of the guilt was because he also felt – self-congratulatory. Like, the two most attractive people he knew had both slept with him, and they were still speaking to him the morning after.
Quentin pushed his hair back. This was not an – appropriate – train of thought, given Margo’s situation and the fact that he was off on a quest alone with Eliot. He needed to get his mind out of the gutter and onto the job. Also, he should be – he should be a good friend to Eliot, not fucking standing behind him lusting after him.
Eliot stopped abruptly, and Quentin, lost in these thoughts, nearly walked into him.
“We should take a break,” said Eliot. He slung his bag off his shoulder and sat down on the side of the path, not even brushing the leaves away.
Quentin blinked at him. He took off his pack and rummaged in it, bringing out some water and a couple of brownies someone had left in a tin in the cottage kitchen. They seemed like ordinary brownies. He hoped, anyway.
“Here,” he said, sitting down and handing them over. Eliot looked almost surprised, but he took a swig of water, passed it back, and then started crumbling the brownie into small pieces.
“Are you OK?” Quentin said, after a few minutes of eating in silence. “I mean, obviously, you’re not OK, but are you just – not going to talk? Because that’s pretty weird.”
Eliot looked up at him and half-smiled. “I get it,” he said. “I know I’m putting the drama into drama queen today. It’s just – it’s Margo.”
“I know,” said Quentin. “We’ve been through this before, though. None of us should have made it out alive from Fillory last time, but we still did.”
“Fuck knows how,” said Eliot. He stretched. “Christ, these boots are killing me. How much further do you think we need to go today? Are we aiming for the average Fillorian’s daily mileage?”
“No idea. If this is a pilgrimage route, though, won’t it have, I don’t know, waystations? Like, places everyone stopped.”
“Everyone?” said Eliot. “That village had been in ruins for decades. Minimum. Maybe more like centuries.”
“This path’s still here. It must go somewhere.”
“If we have to sleep in the open, I’ll – Well. It will not be pretty.” Eliot stretched again and stood up. “Come on. I’d rather not be in these woods after nightfall, would you? I swear I’ll be more conversational on the next leg.”
A thought struck Quentin, and he frowned up at Eliot.
“It’s not magic, is it? I mean, do you feel, like, unnaturally quiet?”
“No,” said Eliot. “It’s me, being a dick. Quitting smoking. Thinking too much. You know.”
“Yes,” said Quentin with feeling. Eliot reached a hand down, and he pulled himself up, trying to ignore the slight frisson at the touch of Eliot’s skin. God, he had to get a hold of himself.
“There is some stuff I’ve been wanting to ask you,” said Eliot, looking intently into Quentin’s eyes.
”Oh?” said Quentin. Eliot’s eyelashes were really long. It wasn’t the first time he’d noticed this.
“Starting with Fillorian kinship systems,” said Eliot. “I can’t quite figure out where cousins sit in the hierarchy, and cousin marriage seems to be a really big deal, so – ”
“Oh,” said Quentin.
What with Eliot grilling him on all things Fillorian, the second half of the day passed faster, though not perhaps more pleasantly. By the time the path left the woods, as the light was fading, Quentin had dredged out every last shred of knowledge or speculation from every message board he’d ever lurked on. And he was beginning to think that Eliot knew twice as much as he did anyway, and was using him to test it out.
It shouldn’t be a surprise that Eliot was this interested. Quentin couldn’t say any of them had been thinking strategically about Eliot’s fitness as High King. But in the time Quentin had been healing, Eliot had managed to arrange a series of formal magical contracts that allowed him to graduate from Brakebills before taking up the throne and appointed some high-up in the Fillorians United as regent in his absence. He’d also got engaged both to the Lorian king, which had nipped a potential war in the bud, and to the knife-maker’s daughter, which made all the ordinary Fillorians happy. Penny and Margo had dropped in to check out the gossip a week after Eliot’s return to school, and apparently the dramatic public farewell ceremony he’d arranged was being discussed as the most exciting event Fillory had witnessed in centuries.
“Lights, look,” said Eliot. He pointed ahead. Quentin peered through the gathering gloom. Much to his relief, a substantial set of twinkling lights were visible, maybe a mile or so down the hill from where they were.
“Must be a village,” he said. “Told you so.”
“Thank the gods,” said Eliot, fervently.
Quentin hadn’t really believed Penny and Margo’s reports about High King Eliot’s celebrity status. It came as a bit of a shock, when they passed through the main entrance into the central square of the village, bustling with a market packing up for the day, to find that there was a crude statue facing them, stone glistening with newness, with ‘Eliot I’ inscribed in the plinth. Torches burned beside it, illuminating the inscription and a large heap of flowers at its base.
“Shit,” said Eliot, staring at it.
Quentin looked at him. Over his jeans he was wearing some kind of loose flowing shirt, which was about as much of a concession to hiking gear as Eliot would ever make. His curls were artfully dishevelled. He didn’t look kingly, but he didn’t not look kingly, either. The knee-high boots definitely weren’t helping.
Quentin tugged him back into a dim archway. Eliot was still staring at the statue, his mouth slightly open.
“My chin does not look like that,” he said.
“Have you got a hat, or, like, a scarf or something?” said Quentin.
“They’re not going to recognize me from that monstrosity.”
“Yes, but if anyone does recognize you, we’re fucked,” said Quentin. “Look at that thing. You’re like the fucking Beatles or something.”
“You mean, we’re like the Beatles,” said Eliot. He bit his lip. “Now is perhaps a good time to tell you that I had a set of photos of the four of us circulated to every place with more than ten residents in Fillory. Since they don’t have photography, as such, apparently they were – rather a hit with the locals.”
“Great,” said Quentin. “You didn’t think to mention this?”
“Though the sculptor clearly wasn’t working from the photo,” said Eliot. “Relax, Q, it’ll be fine.”
“We could go back to the path and – “
“Uh-uh,” said Eliot. “No, no and no.” He gave Quentin’s clothes an appraising look. “You look reasonably Fillorian. Just put on one of the vile hoodies you’ll have in that bag and you could be any random hobbit.”
Quentin made a face at him. It wasn’t a terrible idea though. He had brought his old grey hooded sweatshirt, which wasn’t totally unlike the stuff some of the market people were wearing. He fished it out of his bag and pulled it over his head.
“What about you, though?” he said.
“I’ll…loiter,” said Eliot. “While you go into that inn over there and get us rooms. And food sent up to them. Oh, and baths, if they can cope with that. Here.” He fished in his own bag, and handed Quentin a leather bag, chinking. “That’s all my Fillorian cash, so you might want to haggle.”
Quentin sighed pointedly, pulled up his hood and set off across the square, dodging the carts and the small boys scavenging for scraps.
The inn was called the Green Dragon, but the innkeeper was shaking his head before Quentin even got his request out.
“Market day, lad,” he said. “You’d best try the Flying Fox, over the square.”
The Flying Fox sent him to the Three Pigeons. Quentin looked for Eliot as he crossed the square, again, and could barely make him out, still propped in the doorway. It was surely only a matter of time before someone accosted him.
The landlady at the Three Pigeons shook her head too.
“Is there anywhere else in town?” said Quentin.
“Only the three of us as is in this square, my love,” she said. “Market day we’re full by noon.”
“Do you have anything at all?” said Quentin. “Please. We’ve come a long way.” He set the purse on the counter, with a jingle.
The landlady eyed it. “I do have the one room,” she said. “I keep it for the barber from across the river, but he never showed today, and my second cousin’s wife says he’s took with the gripes. If you don’t mind sharing - ”
“We’ll take it,” said Quentin.
It really was a small room. Quentin and Eliot stood in the doorway and contemplated it.
“Only one bed,” said Quentin. “Figures. I’ll sleep on the – “ He looked around. The bed filled nearly all the available space. There was a small table squeezed between it and the window on one side, with a bowl and a jug of steaming water. A platter of food and two mugs of something, probably beer, were on the bed itself. There wasn’t even a chair.
Eliot sat on the edge of the bed, and then let himself fall backwards.
“Watch the – “ said Quentin, picking up the platter and holding it defensively in front of him. Eliot sat up to tug off his boots, awkwardly, and then flopped back down again.
“Relax, Q,” he said, peering up from under his fringe. “Here.” He patted the bed beside him. “Sit, eat. I swear by all that’s holy that I have no intention of molesting you.”
“Oh, for – ”, said Quentin. He sat down, carefully at a distance, and cross-legged on the bed. He picked at the stale-looking bread and cheese they’d been given. Eliot rolled up onto his elbow and took a slice.
“You still look nervous,” said Eliot, after a while. “Bear in mind that it would lower my dignity. As Eliot I, godlike ruler of this nation. To be seen with a – a peasant such as yourself. I am obliged to restrain myself.”
“Oh, fuck off,” said Quentin.
“Though it could be droit de seigneur, I suppose,” Eliot said, thoughtfully. The corners of his mouth curved up. “You caught my eye in the fields, your family, desperate to please the king, sent you to my chamber – “
“Seriously, fuck you,” said Quentin. His mouth had gone dry. He bit into the bread and cheese and tried to chew it.
Eliot cocked his head a little, half-smirking. Quentin looked away.
“Well,” said Eliot. “I don’t know about you, but I am shattered. I don’t even want more food or whatever that disgusting liquid is, I’m going to pass out. In preparation for another full day of glorious hiking tomorrow.” He started unbuttoning his shirt.
“Umm, me too,” said Quentin. The bread was hard. He shifted the platter to the table. Eliot’s shirt was almost unbuttoned.
“I’ll just – find the bathroom,” Quentin said, and fled the room.
By the time he returned, Eliot was under the sheets. Quentin washed quickly – Eliot had taken most of the water – stripped off his clothes, and crawled into bed in his underwear. He couldn’t tell if Eliot was asleep or not. Probably he was: his breathing was regular and even. At the cottage he napped like a cat, in odd corners, on the sofa, on his friends’ shoulders; sleep seemed to come naturally to him.
Whereas Quentin, like now, found it virtually impossible to shut off his brain. Eliot was inches away from him, curled on his side, facing the wall. Quentin could feel the heat from his body. If he reached out even a little he would be touching Eliot’s naked back. If he turned on his side, slung an arm over Eliot, what would Eliot do? Would he shift to tug Quentin closer, sleepily? Would he turn towards Quentin, pulling their mouths together, their legs tangling? Eliot was bigger than Quentin, and for all that he was thin, he was strong; if he wanted to, he could roll on top of Quentin, brace himself there, holding Quentin trapped, as Quentin tried to rise up to meet him.
If Quentin were that boy from Fillory, and Eliot was his king, maybe he’d lie still, waiting to see what the king would do to him. Knowing he couldn’t escape, and not really wanting to. Maybe he’d always been curious about what it would be like, to be with a man. Maybe he’d stared at Eliot, walking through his field, and seen someone blazingly bright, someone he didn’t dare to want. Maybe he would be terrified, and desperate, and longing, and Eliot would see that and take care of him, know what he wanted without being told…
Quentin swallowed, and then worried that Eliot had heard him. All his muscles were tense. He wanted to touch himself, but there was no space, it would be immediately obvious – Eliot would wake up, he would hear, he would hear Quentin jerking off to thoughts, to fantasies, of Eliot rubbing against him, teasing him, opening him up -
Quentin rolled onto his side, as far away from Eliot as he could get, which wasn’t very far. He was getting hard. He squeezed his eyes shut and tried to think of the least arousing things he could contemplate. Dean Fogg. The Beast. The hurt in Alice’s eyes. Margo, in her glass case. Fillorian kinship systems. He timed his breathing. He counted backwards from 200. And eventually, the ache faded, and he fell into an uneasy sleep.
He woke up warm and drowsy. He was in bed with Alice, in the cottage. No – his brain cleared slightly – he was in Fillory. On a mission with Eliot. Who was – who was tucked up against him, spooning him. It felt odd. And good. Alarmingly so. Eliot’s chest was warm and broad, his long legs were curled into Quentin’s, one arm was slung over Quentin’s side. Quentin took a breath and forcibly stopped himself from shifting against Eliot in a way that could only be suggestive.
“You’re awake,” said Eliot, low, in his ear.
Quentin cleared his throat. “Yes,” he said.
Eliot sighed. Quentin felt it through all his body. “I swore, didn’t I,” he said.
“Mmm,” said Quentin.
Eliot sighed again, louder. His arm moved, and there was space again between them. Quentin shivered.
“Mission,” said Eliot. “Margo. Mustn’t – get sidetracked. I apologize, Q, I’m not generally this. Hmm.”
Quentin rolled over to look at him. Eliot pulled himself up so that he was sitting, rubbing a hand over his face. Quentin blinked at him.
“You know,” said Eliot, frowning, “I think we’re forgetting something.” He made a set of lazy, sketching gestures with one hand, then lightly touched Quentin’s arm. Quentin looked at it. There was a light, shimmering tracery running up and down his arm, glinting very slightly.
“Magic,” said Eliot, somewhat unnecessarily. He touched his own arm, and held beside Quentin’s, a matched pair.
Quentin had stopped thinking about what to say to get Eliot to lie down again. He stared at his arm.
“We have no idea what this is doing, right?” he said.
“No,” said Eliot. “Do you feel any different?”
A variety of responses to this went through Quentin’s mind, mostly related to ways of saying that lusting pathetically after Eliot wasn’t precisely different, as such.
“No,” he said. “You?”
“No,” said Eliot. He swung his legs over the side of the bed, with determination. “The sun’s up,” he said. “I’m starving now, let’s see if this godforsaken place has breakfast.”
The inn did serve breakfast, and it was much better than Quentin had expected; heaps of good bacon, fresh eggs, butter. They sat in a dark corner, discussing a plan for the day which basically involved walking and more walking. The inn was already busy, people coming and going, talking and laughing. He was finishing his last egg, regretfully, when Eliot touched his arm.
“Q, I think that maid has noticed me,” he said. “No, don’t turn around. I think maybe we should just – leave. Quietly.”
They did, moving between the tables, ducking between groups. Quentin glanced towards the maid and saw her talking animatedly to another man, then they both turned and looked directly at him; he lowered his head and sped up.
They made it back to the room. Eliot started shoving things into his bag, pulling on his boots. Quentin looked out of the window. There was a knot of men on the street, and several of them were pointing up at him.
“Don’t panic, but they might know you’re here,” he said.
“Fuck,” said Eliot.
Quentin looked back at the street. The knot of men had grown into a small crowd. As he watched, the maid came out and said something to them, gesturing towards the window. Quentin hastily moved back.
“We need to go,” he said. “Right now.”
“On it,” said Eliot. “Is there a back way?”
They left the room and turned left rather than right, down a flight of stairs. At the next landing, though, voices were audible, steps coming towards them.
“They’re up there – it’s definitely him,” said a woman. “On my mother’s life, it’s the High King and King Quentin, you all saw them.”
Eliot gripped Quentin’s arm and silently turned him down a corridor. He tried a door, locked, and then the opposite, also locked. The footsteps had nearly reached the landing. Eliot tried a third door, which opened, pushed Quentin into it, and then followed and shut it behind him, plunging them into darkness.
Quentin tried to shift backwards, hit his head and tangled his feet in something, and fell forwards instead. He would have fallen into Eliot if Eliot hadn’t caught him by the shoulders, steadying him. His eyes adjusted to the gloom, and he looked around.
“What is this?” he said, in a whisper.
“I think,” said Eliot, “that it might be a Fillorian broom closet.” There was an odd tone in his voice.
“Are they gone?”
“Shh,” said Eliot. They listened. The voices were coming back, and clumping feet, immediately outside, in the corridor. Quentin, frozen, waited for someone to pull on the door. He caught Eliot’s eyes, gleaming in the darkness. Eliot still had his hands on his shoulders, warm. They were standing uncomfortably close, but the cupboard was full of stuff, if Quentin moved again he’d knock something over. He concentrated on breathing steadily and quietly. If he moved forward even slightly, he would be pressed fully against Eliot. If he reached up a hand, he could curl it round the back of Eliot’s neck, he could pull him down -
The footsteps clumped back again, past their hiding place, and receded. Quentin let out a breath. Eliot dropped his hands.
“I think we can go,” he said, still sounding slightly off.
They cautiously sneaked down the stairs, out into a back alley, and made it unmolested to the village gate. Probably because, from the direction of the noise, most of the townfolk had run to the square to see if they could bag two kings for the price of one.
The pilgrimage trail had veered off a few hundred feet from the village, it was easy to find again, and luckily it took them behind a small rise which hid them from view. Quentin didn’t breathe easier, though, until they were a good half hour’s walk away, through the meadows and at the side of a river, where the path widened and curved along the bank under shading willows.
“I think we made it,” said Quentin.
“Mmm,” said Eliot. He was being uncharacteristically subdued, again.
“No magical side effects?” said Quentin. “I mean, I don’t feel anything, but – “
“I’m – not sure,” said Eliot.
“That’s not – the most reassuring I’ve ever heard you be,” said Quentin.
“If you want reassurance, I’m sorry but you’re fucked,” said Eliot. “We need to keep calm and carry on. We don’t even know if the spell is – activated, or whatever. Let’s just get to the temple.”
“OK,” said Quentin, holding up his hands. “No need to snap, we’re on the same page.”
“Are we, though,” Eliot said, arching an eyebrow. Then he made a face. “Sorry, sorry again. Why don’t we – hey, have you ever heard the story about how I met Margo?”
“No,” said Quentin.
“Well, there we were in the test room and – “
Quentin had heard the story from Margo, several times. He smiled at Eliot and his animated gestures, laughing at the right moments. And when that story ended, it was easy to prompt another one. Eliot had seemed tense, earlier: as he talked he unwound. Occasionally he touched Quentin’s shoulder to emphasize a point, or their hands brushed as they walked. It was cool by the river. The starry path wound round bends and through marshy patches. Waterbirds and rats scuffled in the reeds. Time passed, pleasantly.
It was late afternoon when they reached a bridge. The path carried on on the other side, through a field filled with large, bright golden flowers, unlike any Quentin had seen or read about in Fillory. They seemed to grow in a substantial patch, right up to the river for some distance on each side of the bridge, and into the distance. Butterflies fluttered over them, and you could hear the humming of insects. Quentin had been aware for the last few minutes of a scent on the breeze, honey or coconut or both mixed, something wild and heady, and this was clearly where it came from.
“Wow,” he said. “This is amazing.”
Eliot was looking at the field speculatively. “Do you know anything about these?”
Quentin shrugged. “The Chatwins weren’t much into botany. Mostly the books just say stuff like ‘carpeted with golden flowers, the like of which they had never seen before.’”
Eliot snorted. “Please tell me that’s not a real quote and that you don’t know what chapter it came from – or on second thoughts, don’t say anything, this is exactly why I brought you along.” He tapped his fingers on the rail of the bridge, scanning the fields. “Alright. Let’s get on, time’s a-wasting.”
Eliot strode ahead into the meadow and Quentin followed slowly, taking his time, looking around with pleasure. He breathed in deeply. God, it really was fantastic. It was like wine, that scent, it was going straight to his head, filling his lungs, making his whole body tingle. He stopped walking, so that he could breathe it in, and took a couple of steps away from the path, turning round slowly, surrounded by flowers. Then he knelt down the better to bury his face in one, to get as close as possible to that scent.
“Quentin?” Eliot was saying, somewhere. “Quentin. I think you should get up.”
“God, El,” said Quentin. “C’mon, come down here, this is great, I feel like I’m high.” He let himself fall face forward into the flowers, laughing, rolling over and seeing blue sky, and Eliot’s face, leaning over him, looking absurdly concerned.
“Q?” said Eliot.
Quentin grasped a handful of petals in one hand and brought them up to Eliot’s face. “Don’t you feel it?” he said. He brushed the petals against Eliot’s mouth, his lips. He shivered. He did it again, more slowly. Then he dropped the flowers and traced Eliot’s lips again, with a finger.
Eliot’s lips parted, perhaps to say something, and Quentin pressed his index finger just a little inside. He was very warm, all of a sudden. Scent surrounded him in waves. Eliot’s mouth was hot. Eliot was hot.
Eliot swallowed, and gently pulled Quentin’s hand away. Quentin heard himself make a noise, of need, of desire. It was so beautiful here, among these flowers – he wanted – they needed – He twined his hand in Eliot’s and sat up a little in order to reach him. Eliot should come down with him, he had to, Quentin wanted him so badly; Eliot was lined in gold, shimmering like waves.
“Q,” said Eliot again, and he was somehow – pushing Quentin away, gently. Which was wrong. “Fuck. I think we’re drugged. Q– “
Quentin groaned, wrapping his arms around Eliot, burying his face in Eliot’s neck. God, Eliot smelled so good, just like everything around them. Quentin licked at his neck and Eliot hissed.
“Please,” said Quentin. “Your skin, I need – “ He was, he realised, desperately aroused. Every part of him ached with the desire to get closer, closer than should be possible. He had to get Eliot naked, he had to – it hit him in a moment of clarity – he needed Eliot to fuck him. Right here, right now, nothing could be more entirely right.
“I cannot actually believe how noble I’m being right now,” said Eliot beside him, incomprehensibly, as Quentin tried to kiss his way down his neck. “Up, come on, come with me, Q, it’s fine – “
“No – “ said Quentin. “Just fuck me already, El, I know you want to.” Eliot was standing, pulling him up, holding him close; Quentin pulled them together and could tell that Eliot was in the same state he was, so why was he holding back, why was he still upright?
“My god, do I want to – “ said Eliot. “But how about we just – “ He broke off on a gasp. Quentin had slid a leg between Eliot’s thighs, and ground against him, which felt amazing, except that there were too many layers between them, he had to feel Eliot’s skin against his or he would combust.
“God damn it,” said Eliot. He put his arms around Quentin, under his hips, and lifted him up bodily. Quentin wrapped his legs around Eliot’s waist and leaned forward to kiss his neck again. He still didn’t understand why they were standing, though this position had its advantages.
Eliot staggered forwards, Quentin opening his mouth to protest – and then he was falling backwards, still holding Eliot, with a crash, into freezing cold water.
Quentin’s mouth opened in shock, he swallowed, choked – drowning, dying - and something hauled him up to the surface. He gasped in air, coughing, and finally getting his feet under him. The current was fast, but the water was only up to his waist. Eliot was standing beside him, equally soaked.
Quentin kept gasping. He had no idea what had just happened.
“Come on,” said Eliot. He towed Quentin, unresisting, through the water, and then helped him to climb out on the opposite bank. The flowers glowed alluringly at them from across the river, scent drifting over.
“Further,” said Eliot, and he dragged Quentin up from the bank, to the path. Then he collapsed onto it with a groan.
Quentin sank down beside him and maybe blacked out for a moment. When he opened his eyes, he saw branches above him, heard the sound of the river. The sunlight was warm; his clothes were steaming slightly, and he was shivering. He looked sideways and Eliot was lying beside him, his eyes shut and chest heaving.
“El – are you OK?” said Quentin. His voice sounded shaky. His throat hurt from swallowing water. “What – was that?”
Eliot made an odd, suppressed sound, and Quentin dragged himself up onto his elbows, panicking, seeing Eliot’s chest heaving before he identified the sound as laughter.
“Eliot?” he said.
“Fuck my life,” said Eliot. “No, really, just fuck it all. This is it. I have had it.”
“Umm – “
“What was that?” said Eliot. “You really want to know? That, my dearest Q, was sex pollen.”
“What?” said Quentin. He looked through the branches towards the meadow, alarmed. “Sex – pollen? That’s a thing? In Fillory.”
Eliot’s chest was still shaking, and it was alarmingly hard to tell whether he was laughing or crying. He put a hand over his eyes for a minute, gesturing vaguely at Quentin, and then visibly took a couple of deep breaths.
“It’s certainly a thing,” he said. “Just like – the fucking broom closet, the fucking room, the fucking – everything. You. This. This whole. Fucking. Plot”
“What?” said Quentin. “What plot? El, I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“I’m talking about the fucking spell,” said Eliot. “I’m talking about patterns – I’m - oh, never mind, you really are this fucking clueless. And if I enlighten you – God, I wish I knew what that fucking translation really meant.”
“Hey,” Quentin protested. “You’re saying we got roofied by those flowers, I get it, believe me. And I’m sorry for, umm, the way I – “
“The way you leaped on me and demanded that I fuck you right there and then?” said Eliot. It was impossible to read his tone.
“That’s - a little fucking unfair, “said Quentin. “It got you too.” Had it? The last few minutes were already very hazy. He shook his head, to clear it. “The spell. You mean, the pilgrimage spell. You’ve worked it out?”
Eliot seemed to have gained control of himself. He looked up at Quentin, frowning a little.
“You haven’t?” he said. “You really – nothing that’s happened seems…suspect?”
Quentin shrugged. “That was pretty intense, those flowers. I felt – God, I don’t know. If you hadn’t got us into the water, I’d have – “ He stopped himself, hastily. “But I’ve been drugged by stuff in Fillory before. Like, by nature. Penny and I, there was this one time we were exploring a forest, and stuff got really weird.”
“You had sex with Penny?” said Eliot, sitting up a bit.
“No!” said Quentin. “Not that kind of weird. Sort of – similar idea though. To those.” He waved across at the meadow. “I don’t see the pattern, though. Literally all we’ve done the last two days is hike and sleep, and nothing else has happened.”
“Hmm,” said Eliot. He shut his eyes again, and screwed up his face, frowning. “I have no fucking idea what I’m meant to do in this situation.”
Quentin sighed. “I’m soaked,” he said. He pulled his bag over, and felt inside it. “Thank fuck not everything in here is, though. We should change into something dryer.”
“No,” said Eliot. “We’ll have to go round this, and we should stay on this bank until we do. If there isn’t another bridge, we’ll have to wade across.”
“Fine, whatever,” said Quentin. He was feeling much more like himself, though he thought that with this might come hideous embarrassment. Thank God his memory had gone misty at the edges. Hopefully Eliot’s was the same.
It took all the rest of the day to cross the river again at a safe spot and then skirt cautiously round the edge of the flower meadows. They went on for miles. By the time they picked up the path again, Quentin was exhausted and starving. He was dismally aware that the path was heading straight towards a set of hills, with no signs of life there or on the horizon. Also, he had eaten all his chocolate, there were rain clouds creeping across the sky, and Eliot had gone quiet again.
When the sun set, they’d hit the hills and were walking through them, in a narrow valley beside yet another stream. It had started to rain. Quentin would have protested their circumstances, except that there really hadn’t been anywhere suitable to stop for the night, and if Eliot was up for enduring grimly, then so was he.
“There – ” said Eliot, stopping. “Is that?”
Quentin came up beside him and looked. The valley opened out into a wider space, and there was some kind of building, a wooden hut or something, with a few stone animal pens beside it.
“Jesus,” he said, “It’ll have to do. This fucking rain.”
“No shit,” said Eliot. ‘I thought Fillory was like Camelot, you know.” He cleared his throat, “‘The rain may never fall till after sundown,/By eight, the morning mist– ”
“Kill me now,” said Quentin. “Stop singing, you’re scaring the –” he looked around at the entirely empty valley – “the wildlife. Anyway, it is after sundown.”
They walked over to the building and surveyed it. Eliot was still humming. Quentin glared at him, on principle.
“Would you say this was a shack?” said Eliot, breaking off.
“Hut?” said Quentin. “Shed? I don’t know, what difference does it make?”
“Nothing,” said Eliot. “No reason. It pains me to say it, but if it has a roof, we’re staying in it.”
Quentin pushed open the door and peered around. To his relief, the hut, or shack or whatever, was floored with wood and seemed reasonably clean. The fire was even laid, and there were rough wooden beds against each wall. A low table in front of the fire had candles, a bag of some sort on it, and what looked like a piece of paper. Quentin went over and lit the candles, with a brief flare of magic. Eliot followed, sighing noisily, and went to light the fire.
Quentin picked up the paper. “Welcome, wayfarers and pilgrims,” he said. “May your stay be refreshing and fruitful.’ Fruitful?” He looked in the bag. “Oh, thank fuck, this is food.”
It wasn’t much, slightly stale bread, apples and some kind of dark salami stuff. There was a flask of harsh red wine, too, which Eliot promptly commandeered.
“Half of that’s mine, you know” said Quentin, as Eliot swigged it, his long legs stretched out to the fire.
“You jumped me in a flowerbed,” said Eliot. “All this wine belongs to me. I’ll be in therapy for decades as it is. Oh, fine, here - ” He passed the bottle over, and Quentin hesitated for a second before taking a cautious mouthful.
The hut wasn’t warm, and rain dripped through cracks in the ceiling, but it was considerably better than outside. After they’d eaten enough that Quentin wasn’t quite so starving, he set his wet clothes to steam by the fire, carefully not looking at Eliot as he stripped them off, and wrapped himself in a rough blanket from the bed, shivering. The hearthrug seemed relatively clean; he sat down on it, warming his hands.
“Good plan,” said Eliot. He stood up and pulled off his shirt, unselfconsciously. Quentin didn’t mean to look, but he couldn’t quite help himself. Firelight was kind to Eliot, he looked alarmingly handsome, slim and muscled. Quentin bit his lip, watching Eliot’s fingers unbuttoning his jeans.
Eliot coughed, and Quentin looked up to see Eliot watching him back, his mouth curved a little.
“I wasn’t – ” said Quentin, “I mean, I’m sorry – ”
“For God’s sake stop apologizing,” said Eliot. He tugged his boots off, and then pulled his jeans down. Quentin tried to stare resolutely into the fire, though he couldn’t help flicking his gaze sideways. He already knew that Eliot was wearing some of his fancy expensive underwear, boxers that would probably feel like silk, against Eliot’s skin, against Quentin’s face, if he could summon up the nerve finally to make a move –
“It’s cold,” said Eliot, moving away. “Ugh, this blanket’s disgusting, it probably has fleas in it.”
Quentin shifted, tucking his hair behind his ear. “I’m not sure Fillory has fleas,” he said.
“Fleas are everywhere,” said Eliot, sitting down beside him. The blanket didn’t really cover his legs. “Like cockroaches. There is no universe without cockroaches.” He sighed. “Do we need to talk about this?”
“About what?” said Quentin, reflexively.
“Don’t push me,” said Eliot. He sighed again. “Look, I’m going to try one thing, just to test a theory.” He moved closer, and before Quentin could really process what he was doing, Eliot kissed him, gently. Then he drew away, as Quentin reached for him.
“What – ” said Quentin. Eliot was frowning. Quentin licked his lips.
“No change,” said Eliot. “I don’t think.” He flicked his fingers and showed Quentin the tracery on his arm.
“You thought that if we – if you kissed me, it might…?”
Eliot shrugged. “Like I said, a theory. Which was wrong.”
“Eliot,” said Quentin, a little desperately. “What is going on here.”
Eliot rubbed his forehead, making an exasperated sound.
“I’m not entirely sure,” he said. “So I don’t think you – we – should trust what we might – ” he waved a hand towards Quentin, expressively, “ – what we might be feeling. Or thinking. Until we get to the temple and get some answers from the devotees, we shouldn’t do anything – rash.”
“Right,” said Quentin. “You don’t want to tell me? Fine.” He stood up, aware he was being petty, and really not caring. “I’m going to bed.” He stomped across the room and arranged himself on one of the beds, which was extremely hard. He tried to wrap the blanket around himself and ignore it.
Eliot made a sighing sound, by the fireplace. After a while of lying sleepless, Quentin heard him moving around, putting more wood on the fire. The candles blinked out.
“Good night, Q,” Eliot said, softly.
Quentin ignored him, resolutely pretending to be asleep.
Some time in the night he woke up, shivering. A drop fell on his face and he shuddered. The fire had clearly burned down, and the temperature seemed to have dropped sharply; cold draughts stole round the edge of the blanket. He groaned, and tried to roll over, but the drip caught the side of his head. He swung his legs over the side of the bed and sat up, bleary. He needed to relight the fire.
“Eliot?” he said quietly.
“I’m awake,” said Eliot’s voice, not from where Quentin had expected. “I’m by the fire. The former fire. We’re out of fuel.”
“Oh,” said Quentin. He stood up, pulling the blanket round him more tightly, and stumbled over to the hearth. The fire was embers, but they were still warm. Eliot was stretched out on the hearthrug beside them.
“The roof on that side is essentially a sieve,” he said, his voice rough from sleep. “Water was coursing down my neck. And did I mention I hate spiders? This place is hell.”
“Yeah, but we could be outside in this,” said Quentin. “I knew I should have brought a tent.”
“That would be worse,” said Eliot.
Quentin tried to sit down beside him: Eliot’s legs were in the way.
“Shift, can’t you,” he said. “You’re hogging the fire.”
“The defunct fire,” said Eliot. He extracted an arm from the blanket, flicked a soft light into being at the tip of his fingers, and peered up at Quentin, his hair all over his face.
“Look at the state of you, you’re such a tiny waif in that blanket. Lie down here before the violins start playing.” He pulled at Quentin until Quentin gingerly edged down beside him. It was certainly warmer, and the floor wasn’t any harder than the bed had been.
Lying beside Eliot did feel as though it was starting to become a recurring – thing, though.
Eliot yawned beside him. “I can literally feel the thoughts churning in your head,” he said. “We only have a day to go, though. Just – think about all the things you miss. Hot showers. Ice-cream…” His voice trailed off into another yawn.
I don’t miss anything, Quentin thought, with a startling clarity. This is where I want to be.
Eliot’s breathing had already evened out. Quentin curled into him, and promptly fell asleep.
In the morning, Eliot was gone. Quentin went out to look for him and found him half-naked by the stream, shaving awkwardly in the morning light. Hs jeans were roughly pulled on, and his feet were wet, he must have stripped and washed in the cold water.
“With luck we’ll be meeting the temple priests today,” said Eliot. Water was dripping from his hair, drops sliding down his chest. “Got to look respectable.”
“You missed a bit, here,” said Quentin. He touched Eliot’s cheek, quickly. “Can I borrow the razor?”
Eliot nodded, concentrating. Quentin went over to the stream himself and washed quickly, grateful for the freezing water.
It was still early when they set off, sunlight and reasonably good spirits restored. Eliot was full of questions about Fillory’s geography today, perhaps not surprising as they walked further up into the hills, and the mountains began to surround them. They were walking down a rocky glen, which rose and then descended, sharply, between two peaks. The path was fainter, only the odd flower marking it, weaving in and out of rocks and eventually skirting the higher edge of the glen, as the stream buried itself in a gorge.
They rounded a corner and stopped. Before them the landscape opened out, dropping steeply towards a forested, and apparently uninhabited, plain, bordered by more mountains.
Eliot seized Quentin’s arm. “There, look,” he said, pointing down. At the foot of the mountain, almost directly below them, was a complex of white-painted buildings. One rose higher than the other, crowned with a flashing gold symbol.
“We’re nearly there,” said Quentin, half disbelieving. He smiled at Eliot, who put an arm round his shoulders and hugged him, smiling back.
“Rest, and then the final leg,” he said, determinedly.
The last section of the path was steep and treacherous, until it took them to a long series of stone steps that curved into the mountainside. It was hard going. As they descended, the noise of the stream grew louder, until, in the final stretch, it poured over a lip of rock as two separate falls.
Quentin looked at Eliot, and they nodded.
The temple, or temple buildings, had a beautifully worked iron gate, which was standing open. Nobody was visible. They went cautiously through into a courtyard lined with white stone, with carvings of people and animals on the walls.
“Do you see a doorbell?” said Eliot. “Tell me this place is inhabited.”
At that point, though, a very old man, bent and leaning on a stick, emerged from a doorway and stopped, staring at them. He was dressed entirely in saffron yellow robes.
Eliot walked over to him and bowed, gracefully. “Hi,” he said. “I mean, good day. We are pilgrims on an, er, a quest for a healing spell. Might we speak to - umm, the head priest?”
“Pilgrims?” said the old man. He had sharp blue eyes, which scanned them. “It’s been many months such we had such. Children of earth too, eh? You’ll be wanting the Abbot.”
“Abbot!” said Eliot. “Exactly.” He gestured at Quentin impatiently to follow: Quentin had been trying to work out what the carvings depicted. They seemed rather…erotic, at least if his eyes weren’t playing tricks on him.
The man led them through another two gates, several doors, along a corridor and through a set of cloisters, until Quentin was thoroughly lost. After another set of stairs and corridors, he knocked on an imposing wooden door, bowed, and left.
“Come in,” said a low voice. Eliot squared his shoulders and pushed the door open. Quentin felt rather than heard his surprise: the Abbot was a woman, middle-aged, he thought, though her face was young and unlined, tall, handsome and dark-skinned. She was sitting at a long table, and several other men and women in saffron robes were with her. They looked as though they were mid-discussion.
“Pilgrims,” she said. She stood up, and everyone else rose with her. “Welcome to the Temple of the Twin Falls. What is your quest?”
“My – lady,” said Eliot, in his most kingly tones, with another bow. “Madam. We seek a charm known as the Vorsten Principalis. Not for ourselves, but to heal a friend on Earth.”
“It’s the High King!” said one of the men at the table. The Abbot turned her gaze on him and he immediately fell silent.
“We set little store by titles here,” she said. “We would be happy to grant your request: this charm is one of the secrets of this house, and we share it gladly with those who are worthy. But I see that you have not yet fulfilled the conditions of your pilgrimage. We can be forgiving, of course, since you are not of this realm and since mercy is one of the great virtues of this Temple, so I will waive the penalty providing this is achieved by sundown, as is ordained. Chaplains, you shall witness.”
She sat down again, regally. Five of the men round the table remained standing,
“Penalty?” said Quentin. Eliot shushed him.
“We are exceptionally grateful,” he said. “For, um, your wisdom. If you will excuse us further – what conditions?”
The Abbot frowned, and there was an audible intake of breath from the people around the table.
“You are under an enchantment,” she said. “For each pilgrim, it takes a different form. You must achieve the consummation it seeks. Indeed, you should not have entered our walls with the enchantment still in place.” Her gaze swept over them. “In your case, it appears to be of a most traditional nature, and that which befits our ancient worship, so fortunately I foresee no conflicts with our duty to Fillory or Earth.” She caught Quentin’s eye. “The penalty is, of course, death, should any pilgrim, once embarked, fail to bring the patterning to its rightful close, by sundown of the third day.”
Quentin closed his mouth. Eliot put a steadying hand on his shoulder.
“Naturally,” he said. “We deeply regret our limited Earth understandings of your customs. Are the, um, witnesses strictly necessary? Were we to assure you…”
“I have spoken,” she said. She waved a hand and the standing men came towards them.
Quentin wondered if he was supposed to fight – not that this would go well - but Eliot was gripping his shoulder, hard, and the men didn’t look threatening. Several were staring at them with open curiosity: they must come from all the nations of Fillory, by their skin colour and the tattoos.
One, a tall man with blond hair and ice-blue eyes, gestured towards the door, and Eliot nodded and followed him, moving his grip to Quentin’s hand and pulling Quentin along after him. They were led back down the array of corridors and stairs, off to one side, and into a large room. It had a cheerfully roaring fire, thick woollen rugs on the floor, cream and white, and low wooden stools and tables arranged around them. There were tall windows set in one wall, with large sills, looking out at the mountains.
Eliot made a sort of groaning noise. He turned to the men around him.
“Here,” he said, taking off his bag and passing it to them, and gesturing to Quentin to do the same. “Could you give us a private moment? It is customary for us to – mm – spend some time in prayer and meditation. Alone. If you don’t mind waiting here, we’ll be quick, I promise.”
The blond man bowed. “Of course, “ he said. “We honour this custom also. Though I would note that it lacks an hour until sunset.”
“Yes, duly noted,” said Eliot. “Thanks so much, see you shortly.” He pushed Quentin forward into the room, shut the door, and leaned against it.
Quentin looked around. He had absolutely no fucking clue what was going on here, and it was – it was infuriating that Eliot and those priests seemed to be in perfect understanding. He shoved his hair out of his face and turned to Eliot.
“Care to explain?" he said.
Eliot’s eyes were shut. He thunked his head against the door, hard.
“Fuck my life,” he said. “Have I already said that today?”
“Eliot,” said Quentin.
“Yes, I know,” said Eliot. “OK, listen up. I know you saw those carvings too. So when they say shit like ‘consummation’ and ‘fulfilling the conditions’, what that means for us is straight-up sex. With an audience, apparently.”
“It’s a sex spell?” said Quentin. “What, like those flowers and, and – ”
“Yes, and,” said Eliot. “We don’t have long so I’m going to keep the explanation quick and dirty. You might want to sit down.”
Quentin folded his arms. “I’ll stand, thanks,” he said.
“Then listen carefully. This all took off when we got to that village. Where, I remind you, there was only one bed.”
“Yeah, El, because it was market day.”
“No,” said Eliot. “No, no, no, no, no. It was – “ He pinched his forehead with one hand, in a theatrical gesture, “a trope. It’s a thing, OK? There’s only one room, you have to share a bed, overcome with lust – you see where this is going, right?”
Quentin thought about lying across the bed from Eliot, trying not to breathe.
“But – “
“Skip it – ” said Eliot, holding up a hand. “Let me finish. So there was only one bed, and then we were trapped in a broom closet.”
“Briefly,” said Quentin. “I don’t see – ”
“Do not argue with me on this,” said Eliot. “We were trapped. Together. In a closet. A very small, dark, closet. And then we were bombarded with sex pollen. And forced to huddle for warmth in a shack. And now, we have to fuck each other or the priests are going to kill us. So, we’re talking a minimum of five key tropes, and that’s before I even get started on the overarching storylines – ”
“I am just, you’ve completely lost me,” said Quentin. He spread his hands.
“Seriously,” said Eliot. “If you’re being coy about this, I will kill you slowly and creatively. In all your fanboy years, in all your heavy breathing over Fillory, you never once read fanfiction?”
“Fanfiction?” said Quentin. “There’s fanfiction about Fillory? I thought it was all, like, Star Trek and Harry Potter and gay porn, not children’s classics from the 1940s.”
“Not an unfair summary,” said Eliot. “Actually, I have no idea if there’s Fillorian fic, I just assumed you would know. But, alright, I accept that you’re a mostly heterosexual male, so, whatever, maybe not the primary audience; I’ll add your ignorance to the six impossible things I’ve got to believe before breakfast and move on.” He glared at Quentin. “I’m going to tell you this because I think I’ve got to. If you ever, ever, breathe a word of this conversation to anyone at Brakebills or in Whitespire, other than Margo, I will cut out your tongue and feed it to the sloth. Clear?”
“If ever drama was called for,” said Eliot. “You know I hate talking about my – formative years.”
Quentin shut up. When Eliot brought up his family or his childhood, which was only on exceptional occasions, his face went very still, and he stopped looking people in the eyes.
Eliot glanced at him and then away. “So. To recap. There I was on a farm in Indiana, and I didn’t know why I was so different to everyone else, except that I really was. And then when I was twelve we got reliable wifi for the first time, and my parents obviously had no idea whatsoever about online safety, they were using it for, like, wheatfields of the world and bulk ordering grain or whatever. And meanwhile, I was up in my room, letting the entire unfiltered internet tell me that the reason that no-one – very much including my family - liked me and I didn’t fit was because I was queer as fuck, and I would never fit. Because I liked boys. And that’s not even getting started on what it was like once I realised I could move things with my mind. And then,” he blew out a breath. “I was watching porn. And then I was reading porn, and then I was - reading porn about my favourite TV shows, and then I was kind of - writing it.”
Quentin made an indeterminate, encouraging noise. He had never heard Eliot say this much about his life before Brakebills.
“I know how fucking sad this sounds,” said Eliot. “Believe me, I know. But if I hadn’t been able to be someone different online, I don’t think I would have made it through. Do you know, my whole life, I never saw my parents read anything longer than a seed catalogue? There wasn’t even a fucking library in town.”
He looked over at Quentin, and something in his face softened, a bit.
“I was famous, in a way,” he said. “In my teens. Still am, I suppose. Translated into twelve languages. Thousands of people waiting on my next chapter. Of course, they mostly thought I was a twenty year old female college student in Boston called Anna, so there was that.”
“Umm,” said Quentin. “What was it that you wrote? If you don’t mind – my asking.”
Eliot’s mouth pursed. “Well,” he said. “Let’s just say – vampires. Gay vampires. Superheroes. Sherlock Holmes. I have – had – kind of a – thing for Robert Downey Jr.”
“Wow,“ said Quentin.
Eliot sighed deeply. “You are devoid of taste,” he said. “Anyway, by the time I finally escaped to college, I was – well. I took up some more unhealthy but also more real-world social hobbies, shall we say. And then – magic.”
“Okay,” said Quentin. “This makes more sense, then. The stuff that’s happening reminds you of fanfiction.”
“It doesn’t remind me,” said Eliot. “We are fucking re-enacting fanfiction. But is anyone – anything – in charge? Because I don’t believe in this many coincidences.”
Oh,” said Quentin. He thought about that for a moment. “Do you think we – or you – are making this happen? Does this kind of stuff happen in the stories you wrote? I mean, maybe that gives us a clue about what’s supposed to happen next?”
“Hmm,” said Eliot. “I think you’d better hope I’m not the author here. If this was written by fourteen-year-old me, we’d have another four hundred pages of tearful conversation, deeply emotional sex and painfully transparent plot devices to go, and also one of us would probably be nastily injured or sick and need taken care of. You, I imagine.” He swept his hair back. “On the other hand, if this was written by sixteen year old me, we’d still be fucking in the first inn, very creatively, for approximately forty chapters. Bondage would have been involved.”
“Ah,” said Quentin.
“Look,” said Eliot. “What happens next? Presuming we continue to follow the most motherfucking hackneyed storyline I could possibly have imagined, options are limited. We fuck: the end. We fuck and then declare undying love for each other: the end. We fuck and then one of us dies tragically: possible, but more unlikely in this time-limited set-up. We fuck and then ten chapters later we’re redecorating Whitespire together: also possible, though more likely as an epilogue. Just be grateful neither of us is pregnant. Yet. The important question, though, is, are we going to cure Margo?”
“And?” said Quentin.
“I think yes,” said Eliot. “It’s not going to be satisfying, otherwise. Also, fanfiction prefers happy endings.”
“Right,” said Quentin. “Okay. You’re saying we’re going to have sex.”
“I’m saying that when the Abbot talks about consummation, fulfilling the spell etc etc, that’s what she means,” said Eliot. “I’m not saying we ought to just – go along with this. There’s got to be a way to trick these guys, get the cure, and then get out of Fillory before anyone notices we left out the fucking.”
“Ah,” said Quentin. “El, I have to – look, I know it’s only been three days, I know you’re being – reasonable or something – but for the record I’m not, I mean, I really don’t mind if we – ” He broke off. He could hear himself sounding overly fervent.
Eliot was frowning at him, puzzled. “Q, it’s a spell,” he said, almost gently. “What you’re feeling. I can’t take advantage of you like that.”
“We already had sex,” said Quentin. “In case you forgot. And what do you mean, take advantage? I’m – I’ve been basically begging you for it ever since our first night here.”
“Due to magic,” said Eliot.
“No!” said Quentin, spreading his arms in frustration. “It’s nothing to do with fucking magic. I mean, all that stuff, yeah, fine, it made it worse, but it was there anyway. If you’d knocked on my door any time since we got back from Fillory, I would have – “ He swallowed. “I wanted you, OK? I still do.”
Eliot was still frowning. “We slept together once, when you were completely off your tits, and you were pretty much the definition of heterosexual panic the next day.”
“Because of what I’d done to Alice!” said Quentin. “And because I thought I’d fucked up being friends with you and Margo, just before we were all about to die. You know I think you’re – ”
“Devastatingly hot?” said Eliot. “Well, sure – but no offence, Q, a lot of straight guys look at me and think about it. It doesn’t mean they actually want to sign up for the full ride.”
“I’m pretty sure I’m not straight,” said Quentin.
“Christ, this is fucked up,” said Eliot. “I would really, really like to believe you mean all this, but you have no idea how many times I wrote that exact line.”
“Oh, for fuck’s sake,” said Quentin. He took a deep breath. “Fine, let’s look at it another way. We’ve got to fulfil the pattern or we’re most likely dead, yes?”
“Well – ” said Eliot.
“So we should do what it – they – want. And then we get the cure for Margo and we go home. I mean, even if I didn’t want to, I’d still fuck you if it meant saving Margo’s life. And you me, right? So let’s stop talking about it and do it, because talking about it clearly isn’t helping.”
“You’re saying you want me to fuck you in the ass in front of a bunch of priests,” said Eliot. “In about five minutes time. Because I’m pretty confident that’s the way this is meant to go.”
Quentin’s mouth opened and closed. Put like that – put like that, he still wanted to do it.
“Yes,” he said, though it didn’t come out very firmly. “Umm. I haven’t done this before, though.”
“Oh, Q,” said Eliot. “Come here.” He stepped forward and pulled Quentin into a hug. “You are such a fool.” He cupped Quentin’s face in one large hand and looked at him, seriously.
“You’re probably not going to like this,” he said. “I swear to you, I’ll make it up to you when we get home, though. If you want me to. You have no idea the things I’ve been wanting to do to you. And if you don’t want me to – no hard feelings, OK? What happens in Fillory stays in Fillory. We need never speak of this again.”
Quentin nodded. He was finding it hard to breathe. He wasn’t sure if he was having a panic attack, or –
Eliot bent down and kissed him, then pulled back a little, and breathed on Quentin’s ear. Quentin shivered.
“Try to relax,” Eliot murmured. “Focus on me. I’ve got this, Q. I’ve got you.”
For whatever reason, this phrasing hit Quentin like a shot of good whiskey, like the scent of those flowers; warming him all the way through. He heard himself gasp, and then Eliot’s mouth was on his and whatever he might have said in return was forgotten.
Eliot kissed extremely well; Quentin half-remembered this, the slide of their tongues together, the way that Eliot used a kiss as a tease, a promise. One of Eliot’s hands was curled into Quentin’s hair at the nape of his neck, keeping him in place, the other moved to his waist and pulled him in, flush against Eliot’s body. Quentin had to break off to take in a breath. He was moving against Eliot already, almost involuntarily. Eliot kissed him again deeply, and then stood back a step. He began unbuttoning his shirt, pulling it over his head
“I’d usually be more – suave about this, but we’re on the clock,” he said, muffled. “Take your clothes off.”
Quentin’s hands were shaking. He pulled off his sweatshirt, his T-shirt, kicked off his shoes and socks; began unfastening his jeans. Eliot’s hands were on his, stilling them. He looked up, catching his breath at Eliot’s nakedness, and Eliot caught his eyes, held them, and sank to his knees. He pulled Quentin’s jeans apart and pressed his mouth on Quentin, through his underwear. Quentin made a muffled noise.
“Do you want me to let our witnesses in?” Eliot said, looking up at him. His mouth was very red.
Quentin blinked: he had forgotten. They were just outside the door. Eliot simply had to call and they would be there, seeing this – watching Quentin fall apart; he wasn’t sure his legs were going to hold him up, seeing how Eliot drove him crazy, thinking about Eliot’s mouth and what it might do to them, what it was doing to Quentin –
Eliot was tugging his jeans down, urging him to step out of them. Quentin did, and Eliot peeled down his underwear, carefully, and then tossed it aside somewhere. Quentin fought the urge to cover himself. Eliot was staring – he was looking at Quentin’s cock, which was already hard.
“God, Q,” he said. He looked up. “OK, we’re doing this. But if it gets too – tell me to stop and I will, we’ll figure something out.”
Quentin wasn’t sure he could speak. He nodded. Eliot smiled at him, slowly and deliberately, and wrapped one hand around Quentin’s cock. Then he shut his eyes, bent down a little, and took it in his mouth. Quentin made a loud indeterminate noise, involuntary, and then glanced at the door, those guys were right behind it – He clutched a hand in Eliot’s curls, for balance. Eliot’s mouth was so hot, and he was moving his tongue in ways Quentin couldn’t even work out. He probably shouldn’t shove into Eliot’s mouth, but he couldn’t stop his hips thrusting, a little. Eliot’s other hand came up and held his waist, lightly, not stopping him. His mouth slid up, and down, and Quentin couldn’t help making more noise. Maybe it was something to do with the spell, but he couldn’t remember anything ever feeling this intense, so quickly.
“El,” he said, after some indeterminate time. “Oh, Christ. Stop, or I’ll – the time – ”
Eliot groaned, which made Quentin jerk forward, hissing. Then he pulled off, and back.
“Some time I want to suck you all night,” he said, low, and Quentin jerked again.
Eliot’s hand was between his own thighs, touching himself. He saw Quentin looking and smiled again, then deliberately leaned back, on one arm, so that Quentin could watch, watch Eliot tipping his head back, biting his lip, pleasure written all over him.
“You can let them in any time,” he said, meeting Quentin’s eyes. “I’m good with an audience.”
“Fuck,” said Quentin. He wrapped his arms round himself, though less because he was anxious, than because he thought that if he touched himself, or touched Eliot, he would come.
Eliot blew out a sharp breath, stopped his actions and stood up, unselfconsciously, though his cock was hard and bobbing in front of him. Quentin couldn’t stop looking at it, torn between unease and what felt like the purest lust he’d ever experienced.
“Q,” said Eliot. “Go and lie on those rugs, OK? Face up, face down, whatever’s comfortable.”
Quentin nodded. He walked across the room shakily and lay down, on his back. He felt that he needed to keep Eliot in sight. Eliot was opening the door, saying something to the guards – priests – in murmurs. Then he crossed over to Quentin, who was trying not to turn his head and look at the people filing into the room, arranging themselves on stools. He felt ridiculous, lying here spread out like a – like some kind of -
Eliot had clearly meant it about the audience, however. He straddled Quentin, bent down and kissed him, almost showily. Quentin, who had been feeling more and more tense, gradually began to relax. He shut his eyes. Eliot’s hair and his body were curtaining him; he felt his erection, which had been flagging, return. Eliot’s cock was pressing against him, which was strangely hot, and new.
“Hey,” said Eliot, quietly, pulling back a little, and Quentin opened his eyes, immediately having to think about not looking anywhere else.
“Remember what I said back at the inn? You liked that, didn’t you?” The corners of his mouth curved up. “Use your imagination, if it helps.”
Quentin did remember. It wasn’t exactly hard to imagine. He was a quivering mess, just as he might have been if he had been that Fillorian farmboy, and Eliot – Eliot was in control, he knew exactly what he was doing, and he didn’t care who was watching because he knew he could do it well.
Eliot was murmuring a spell, a brief glow, and then something warm dripped onto Quentin’s stomach, and over his cock. Eliot stroked him, with a slick hand, and Quentin arched up into it, desire flooding back in.
“Good,” said Eliot. “Like this.” He stroked the inside of Quentin’s thighs and Quentin spread his legs without really thinking about it.
“Touch yourself, said Eliot, and Quentin did: he didn’t know what spell Eliot had used, but the oil or whatever felt perfect. Eliot was touching him, stroking and pressing inside him, and he swallowed, closed his eyes again, and concentrated on what he was feeling. This wasn’t new, this was something he enjoyed, and better because it was Eliot, those beautiful long fingers opening him. Eliot shifted and Quentin groaned, out loud, and then again, as Eliot kept doing it. The urgency he had felt returned, building.
Eliot was muttering,"Alright, alright, fuck, I’ve got to – “ His fingers pulled out and Quentin made a noise. Eliot was moving him, hiking his legs up; Quentin tried to help, and felt Eliot’s cock brushing against him, God, he was really going to do this, and he wantedto.
Eliot was pushing against him, into him; Quentin opened his eyes and saw Eliot’s face tense, biting his lip. It felt uncomfortable and odd, a little painful but not bad. Eliot was trying to be careful and slow, because Eliot was going to take care of him; but Quentin was fine, he didn’t need slow. He pushed up against Eliot, trying to move, trying to get him inside, and Eliot made a broken noise, thrust forward and was all the way inside, suddenly.
“Jesus fucking Christ, Q, you’re –“ he said, and swallowed. He was shaking. Quentin had no idea what he was doing, but he wanted Eliot to sound like that again, so he wrapped his arms around Eliot, dug his heels into his back and tried to get leverage, to move.
“Fuck me,” he said. “Come on, El, I’m fine, it’s all fine.”
“God,” said Eliot, and he began to move, very slightly, in and out, still too cautiously, it seemed to Quentin. He didn’t need to fantasise: this was Eliot, who had been holding out on him for days, and now Quentin was going to make Eliot lose control, fuck the priests, fuck everything, nothing mattered except getting Eliot to the point where all his clever mind could think about was Quentin.
“Come on,” he said. “I want you to – “
Eliot made that noise again, and then he picked up the pace, fucking into Quentin harder and making a cut-off noise, almost like a sob, on each stroke. Quentin pushed up to meet him, urging him on; he had almost forgotten about his own desire, but Eliot was hot inside him, shocking and unsurprising at once, moving with an abandon that he couldn’t be faking.
Eliot sped up faster, then he stilled and groaned, shockingly loud in the room, and Quentin could actually feel him, feel Eliot coming inside him, feel him trembling. Eliot thrust a few more times, shakily, and then he slowly pulled out, Quentin winced.
Someone cleared their throat pointedly. Eliot was still braced over Quentin, breathing hard.
“I’m not done,” he said, clearly directed across the room, in a voice that didn’t sound quite like him, and then while Quentin was still trying to work out what was happening, Eliot had moved off him and shifted down to take Quentin’s cock in his mouth, hooking two fingers back inside him and pressing them, just so.
“God,” said Quentin: Eliot was sucking him relentlessly, nothing gentle, hard and fast, letting Quentin thrust up deep into his mouth. Quentin let himself fall back, empty of everything except pleasure, building and building, until he was coming, shuddering and crying out, into Eliot’s mouth.
He was vaguely aware that Eliot was stroking him, his chest, his sides, kissing his stomach, murmuring something soothing.
“My lords, if we may, it wants a few moments from sunset,” said someone, presumably the blond priest, “and I believe,” he coughed, “that we may witness to the Abbot alongside you that you have, umm…”
Eliot pushed himself up. Quentin simply lay there, limp. No power on earth was going to get him to move.
“I’ll go,” said Eliot. “Could you maybe – do you have a spare set of those robes about?”
There was some muttering and movement. Quentin closed his eyes. He felt incredible.
“Q?” said Eliot. “I’m going with the priests to sort stuff out.” Quentin cracked an eye and looked at him. He was draped in a set of the priest’s robes.
“Mmm,” he said.
“Look at you,” said Eliot, fond and with a thread of satisfaction. “I’ll be back soon, don’t go anywhere.”
Quentin would have laughed at that, if he’d had enough energy left. All the tension of the last few days – the last few months– felt as though it had been blown out of his body and mind. He heard Eliot and the others leave without even bothering to mind that he was lying on the floor naked, and probably broadcasting ‘well-fucked’ to the entire temple. He couldn’t care less. That had been the point, after all.
By the time Eliot got back, he had rolled some of the rug around him and fallen asleep. Eliot had to shake him by the shoulder to wake him up.
“Sorry to spoil the much-deserved afterglow,” he said. He held out a rough mug full of something. “But we did it. She gave me the words of the spell. We’ve got to get back asap – Margo.”
“Oh – sure, I’ll just,” said Quentin. He attempted to sit up, wincing slightly, taking the mug and sipping it. It was water, but with a faintly herbal taste.
Eliot was smirking at him.
“For the record,” he said, “that was the best compulsory sex I’ve ever had in front of a bunch of priests. Thank you.”
“You’re – ah – welcome. I guess,” said Quentin. “Are you laughing at me?”
“God, no,” said Eliot. “I’m laughing at me. There I am, all noble restraint for fucking days while you gaze at me with those eyes, like, ‘Take me now, Eliot’, except that I assume I’m seeing things because we’re both under an enchantment. And then I’m trying so hard to go fucking slow and not, like, damage you – and it turns out you were just – I don’t even know – lying in wait to wreck me. You have hidden depths, Coldwater.”
Quentin couldn’t help smiling. “Did we live up to your fanfiction, then?” he said.
Eliot sat down beside him, leaned over and kissed him, softly, and then harder.
“We did what we could in the time limit,” he said. “I could have been a bit – smoother. And another hour or so, those priests could have joined in – hey!”
Quentin thumped him again. Eliot was laughing.
“We have to get back,” Quentin said.
“Yes,” said Eliot. He stopped laughing, looking at Quentin more seriously, studying him. “Unless you have Oscar-standard faking skills, you were fine with this,” he said. “I meant it: what happens in Fillory stays in Fillory. But I would be – God, if Margo’s OK, if it works out, then I really, very much, want to fuck you again. Perhaps in a bed next time.”
“Yes,” said Quentin. He smiled at Eliot.
“And with no magic involved,” said Eliot. “We are certified all clear.”
“Mmm,” said Quentin. “When you say no magic, that lube spell – “
“You like?” said Eliot, his voice lowering. “Took me a long time to perfect. There’s still a few – kinks – I need to work out…”
Quentin swallowed. “We really need to go,” he said. “Maybe it would be a good idea if you went outside while I get dressed.”
“Going,” said Eliot. “Corridor, five mins.” He grabbed his clothes on the way out.
Quentin got up and got dressed, slowly. He could use a shower. It hadn’t really sunk in yet – but they had done it. They’d got the spell. He tried to keep his hopes down, but surely, after all this – As long as they didn’t have to tell everyone exactly howthey’d got it, of course.
The lounge in the cottage was empty when they flicked back there, thankfully. Eliot looked at him.
“You know the spell, I don’t,” said Quentin. “Go, run, I’ll be right after you.”
Eliot nodded. He kissed Quentin once, like a promise, and then took off. Quentin looked around. Everything in the room looked unfamiliar. Alice, Penny and Kady were probably in the infirmary, or the library, God knows where the other students were. He should go and – but if Margo did wake up, she should get to see Eliot, alone.
The news that Margo was awake came through by text barely ten minutes later, but Quentin gave them a couple of hours to catch up. By then he was showered, finally in clean clothes, and feeling more up to facing Margo’s wrath.
“You literally fridged me,” she said. She was sitting up in bed, glowering, the effect only slightly ruined by the fact that she was holding Eliot’s hands tightly in both of hers.
“To be fair, Bambi, the spell only started working after– “
“You told her?” said Quentin. “I mean, everything?”
“Eliot always tells me everything,” said Margo, smugly. “That’s the deal, Coldwater. I know every tiny fucking detail, from the exact measurements of your asshole to how much you love to be fucked in front of a bunch of creepy religious nutcases. Fucking take it or leave it.”
Quentin shrugged. “Aliens made us do it,” he said. “Also, I’ll take it.”
“You’ve been doing research?” said Eliot. “Watch out, Q. I’m beginning to think I might keep you.”
“Is this your lame-ass happy ending?” said Margo. “It’s not very fucking eloquent, is it?”
“On the contrary,” said Eliot. He met Quentin’s eyes. “I couldn’t have written it better myself.”