0. THE BASEMENT
Penny-40 shut the ledger with a business-like snap, capped his pen, and placed it on top of the cover at a jaunty angle-- like a lock.
“All right then,” he said, adjusting his tie with equally crisp movements. “ We are all set here.”
All set . That was a tidy way to put it, Eliot thought as he waited in vain for his insides to stop sloshing around inside his ribcage. He’d naively assumed that once the words were actually out of him, surrendered to the Library, he’d feel at least somewhat less queasy. But if anything, he was more seasick now-- and getting worse every time he stole a glance at the closed ledger, trying to ignore the way the pages seemed to be thumping in time with the rushing in his ears.
Maybe that ’s what had been pumping the blood through his body these last few weeks, since his heart --
His stomach gave another abrupt lurch, and he pressed his boots into the too-gray floor, half-expecting to feel the planks of the Muntjac under his feet instead.
Maybe this will be like getting to have that boating quest after all, love , he thought, then immediately regretted it when the nausea surged harder still.
Beside him, Julia reached out and gave his arm a quick but thorough squeeze. “You got this,” she said, nodding once at her own words.
Eliot got the distinct impression that she expected him to nod back, so he did, even as he focused on not losing whatever he’d eaten the last time he’d gotten around to eating anything.
Brave , he reminded himself.
Across the desk, Penny-40 looked as dubious as Eliot felt. And when exactly had Eliot started thinking of him as Penny-40, anyway, instead of just ‘Penny’? That was a development he would have to make sure and never tell 23 when he--
When they --
Penny-whatever reached into the top drawer of his desk and pulled out an arm-length sheet covered in miniscule text, with yellow and pink carbon copies below.
“If you’d like to review the full terms and conditions of your deal, you can have as much time as you need to read--”
Eliot shook his head, still not quite used to the way his hair curled below his chin, now, since he hadn’t been around to keep it properly groomed for the last-- however long it had been. God, he hadn’t even bothered to ask .
“You get my deep, dark, never-told secret, and I get the opportunity to try and Orpheus-and-Eurydice Q the fuck out of this place,” he said, cutting through Penny’s bureaucratic power-trip. “I got it the first twelve times.”
“I would strongly advise--”
“I’m ready .”
The corners of Penny’s mouth went up, but it would have been a stretch to call the expression a smile. “No, you’re really not. But your choice, man. Regardless, I’m required to remind you that this is a one-time deal, no warranties, no guaranties. You fuck it up--you look back at any point to see if he’s following--and you don’t get a second shot. And no one else does, either. It’s strictly one attempt per Underworld resident.”
Eliot’s stomach gave another dangerous lurch, but he nodded.
Penny kept watching Eliot’s face, too calm in his Cary Grant suit, like he was waiting for some kind of reaction that Eliot was supposed to know to produce. “Same deal if Coldwater chooses not to follow you,” he said after a moment. His middle-manager-face actually looked like he was trying to be delicate or gentle or whatever-the-fuck, which was even more disconcerting than the power trip, frankly. “They do that sometimes,” he added unnecessarily.
“Reassuring,” Eliot gritted out.
Penny studied him for another excessive pause, during which Eliot willed his eyes to neither rage-twitch nor do something truly unforgivable, like burst into tears in the middle of the Underworld Branch. Then, like a switch being flipped, Penny was on his feet. Holding the ledger and pen protectively against his suit, he strode to the door.
“All right then. I’ll give you two a moment to wrap up here. Julia--” he paused to hold an arm out like some kind of asshole flight attendant, “--when you’re done, the elevator on your right will take you back to your . . . dragon. Nice job with however the fuck you two managed that one, by the way.”
‘However the fuck’ was putting it mildly, although Eliot knew he had only been even moderately useful for a fraction of the effort.
Penny turned to Eliot again and gave him another too-intense look. “I’ll be back for you in five minutes.”
He turned to slip out the door, but stopped when Julia called “Wait!”
“Something else?” he asked Julia.
This time it was Julia who studied him too long. “Isn’t there anything you want us to tell Kady?” she asked.
Penny’s eyes dropped to the dismal linoleum. “Yeah,” he said, finally sounding a little bit like the secret-romantic asshole they used to know, “there is . But it probably wouldn’t be fair to make her hear it again.”
He cut a glance over to Eliot. “Not everyone chooses to go back,” he explained with a shrug, before disappearing behind the door for real.
“Huh.” Julia broke the silence following the click of the lock. “He’s even more of an asshole than I remembered.”
Eliot swallowed hard. “Well,” he made himself say, reaching hard for classic, shit-stirring, above-it-all, not-on-the-ragged-edge-of-falling-apart-or-if-so-then-only-in-secret Eliot, “you’re the one who’s on the verge of fucking his AU doppelganger.”
Julia opened her mouth to protest, but please . “Even I can see it,” Eliot said, “and I haven’t been even remotely clear-eyed since--”
His bravado failed him halfway through whatever stupid fucking offhand thing he’d been about to say about his heart being clawed from his chest. He reached out blindly and grabbed onto the first thing he caught--the edge of Penny’s desk--and leaned on it heavily.
“ Whoa , you’re okay.” Julia rubbed small circles on his shoulder as he labored to catch his breath. He wondered if she even realized how much she’d been treating him the way she always used to treat Q, since--
“We’re going to get him back,” she said, fierce and certain. “ You are.”
Eliot looked over at her, and he knew his eyes were probably desperate and needy, but if he could be her Q stand-in, she could be his-- in this, at least.
“ Am I?” he asked, laughing without any perceptible humor. “Because this really seems like the kind of thing that I inevitably fuck up, Julia.”
Julia raised an eyebrow but said nothing.
“Maybe you should be the one,” Eliot went on. “I mean, the only reason we have any plan to speak of is you.”
That much was undoubtedly true. Since the moment-- oh God, he got dizzy even thinking about it--
The sky blue above Eliot and real in a way he couldn’t describe, but which his memories definitely hadn’t been, and maybe that should matter, but it didn’t, it didn’t, not even slightly, because-- because of--
Because of him -- too-short hair matted with blood, sweet brown eyes empty, and his mouth that Eliot had sworn to every memory-incarnation he could find that he would kiss and tell that he was sorry and he’d gotten it wrong and--
“--wake up. Wake up. Baby, wake up. Please. Q. Wake up wake up wake--”
Since that moment, when Eliot had come back to his body--no door this time, no warning, just a blink and then he was himself again, just in time to learn what the cost had been-- he’d been little better than useless. But while he had worked on drinking himself deep enough inside his own consciousness that he could at least go back and live in the memories again, Julia had been working her Our Lady Underground contacts. Hard. Scouring for any breadcrumbs that could get Q back .
When she’d finally gotten confirmation from Persephone’s people--and from a few very slightly kidnapped librarians--that the Eurydice contract was a real thing on offer in the Underworld Branch, she’d shown up in Eliot’s room, snatched the bottle from his hand, smashed it to the floor, and told him that he was going to sober up and hold her purse while she fought a dragon, because they were going to the fucking Underworld. She had been adamant, from the very start, that it would be Eliot who made the deal and gave the secret that the Order demanded as payment, Eliot who would lead Q back to the light on blind faith that Q would choose to follow.
The others’ reaction to Julia’s executive decision had been . . . mixed. Kady and 23 had backed her up on instinct, but Alice-- well. She’d had an alternative view.
“Oh, sorry, were you volunteering for this quest? Maybe you misunderstood. We need someone to actually lead Q all the way out of the Underworld, not decide two steps from the surface that he should stay down there after all because the Great and Mighty Alice Quinn thinks it’s best.”
Julia, every inch the goddess, hands on hips. Alice, bristling.
“I said I was sorry for that. And this is different; it’s Q’s life. I would never--”
“Even if I believed that, do you really think that you’re the right person for this job? Literally every source we’ve consulted has said it has to be the person who loves Q the most in the world who does it. Were you and Q that happy even once in the five minutes you were together, or the literal years you’ve spent bitching at each other about how it ended?”
Kady’s muttered “damn, Julia, cold .” The poisonous glint in Alice’s eye as she looked over to Eliot, still prostrate on the couch.
“Right. Whereas Q and Eliot ’s relationship has always been --”
Even Margo had suggested, delicately--
“I love him to death, but let’s be real-- he’s a fucking choke artist where Quentin is concerned”
--that Julia should be the one to complete the challenge, instead. Eliot himself had been caught somewhere between nausea, terror, and the inability to hold any idea in his head beyond the incandescent impossibility that Q could be alive again, that he didn’t have to be lost in the Underworld forever, the price for Eliot’s own worthless freedom.
The same place he still was, actually.
Julia just watched him grabbing at Penny’s desk like it was a life raft, with cool eyes. No reassurances, no bullshit.
“You didn’t see him these past six months, Eliot,” she said. “The person who does this-- you remember what everyone said. The person who loves Q the most in the entire goddamn world. If you think that’s me -- or fucking, Alice -- then tell me now. I’ll get Penny back in here, because I’m not taking chances with his life .”
She crossed her arms over her chest. “ Do you think it’s me?”
Eliot’s phantom heart throbbed, painfully, and he shook his head.
“Do you think it’s Alice?” she pressed, unyielding.
He shook his head again, eyes pinching shut for a second as he did.
“ Good .”
Her serious mask cracked, then, and a sly smile touched one corner of her mouth. Her soft hand grazed his cheek, gone as fast as it had landed. “Then go get him, Tiger.”
She dimpled, and Eliot understood viscerally how a lonely preteen Q had fallen ass-over-feet in love with her. Then she stood up and walked to the elevator with as much purpose as Penny a moment before, hitting the up arrow and stepping inside.
Eliot made himself straighten up and follow her over to the elevator door, standing by on unsteady legs as she jabbed the button that would take her to the surface. He said nothing as she give him a dorky wave. But as the steel doors began their slow slide shut, panic gripped him and he caught the door in his hand.
“What if I’m not the one he wants to follow?” he asked, sounding ragged even to himself.
Julia raised her elegant eyebrow again. “Yeah, I really wouldn’t worry about that.”
The elevator door didn’t give a single shit about Eliot’s crisis of confidence and began to close again, forcing him to pull his fingers back before he lost them.
“See you on the flipside,” Julia said lightly, giving him one more trademark Mona Lisa smile. “ Both of you.”
And then she was gone from view.
Eliot watched the floor numbers light up, one after the other, as Julia ascended. The last one chimed and went dark, and then it was just him, by himself, responsible for Q’s entire fucking life.
Before the sea inside him could begin churning again, two knocks sounded on the door and Penny leaned his head in.
“Mr. Waugh? We’re ready for you now.”
Mr. Waugh ? Seriously ?
“I’ve known literal monarchs who get off on power less than you do,” Eliot muttered as he made his way to the door. “Present company very much included.”
“Just doing my job,” Penny said with that same bland not-smile.
Was that what this place did to people who came here? Make them specters of the people they’d once been on the surface? Eliot thought of Quentin’s unquenchable fire for the people and things he loved-- the one that not even the very worst days of his depression could snuff out completely, and felt a renewed desperation to get Quentin out of here, whatever it took.
“Okay, enough with the lackluster banter,” he said, papering over his nerves with energy he didn’t quite feel. “Let’s just-- do this.”
Penny raised his eyebrows and beckoned Eliot into the antiseptic hallway. “Okay, then. When you walk through that door down there--” he pointed, again, at the fire door at the far end of the hallway, “--Quentin will be behind you. You won’t be able to see, feel, or hear him. Not even a psychic could. You will be able to sense him if you look back, but if you do, he’ll be sent back to where he was before. Instantly. Game over.”
Eliot summoned his bravest face. “Do not pass go, do not collect two hundred dollars. Got it.”
“You should also be aware that you will encounter . . . let’s call them visions, as you make your way up the stairs. They are designed to prey on any . . . insecurities you may have. You should do your best to ignore them.”
Right. Easy. Eliot gave Penny his most exasperated look, and Penny’s veneer relaxed ever so slightly. After a glance over his shoulder, the librarian leaned in closer.
“Look. Just-- remember this is a library , okay? Stories are the coin of the realm, yeah?”
Eliot tried to digest his conspiratorial tone and nodded, the nod he’d used when someone had come into this court--back when it had been his court--to register a complaint that had more words Eliot didn’t understand than did. “How helpfully . . . cryptic. Thank you.”
Penny rolled his eyes and Eliot felt almost nostalgic. “Just remember what I said and use your head. And don’t forget .” He punctuated his final warning with a finger to Eliot’s chest. “That secret you gave the Library is ours now. It can never be revealed on the topside, or to anyone headed topside.”
“Yes, I figured that’s what ‘secret taken to the Underworld’ entailed,” Eliot said, firmly ignoring the stab of regret.
“I mean it,” Penny said. “You can never tell him, no matter what. If you do, the deal will be broken and he’ll be sent back.”
Eliot let himself close his eyes for just a moment, allowing one final goodbye to the dreams he’d held onto so tightly while he’d waited to be rescued from inside his own head. The ones where he fixed what he’d fucked up. Just-- said the words he’d never said, probably completely inarticulately. Either that or tried to be way too smooth, furiously pretending that it wasn’t the single most important thing he’d ever done. Either way, Q wouldn’t care. Or, he would . He’d think that Eliot was an idiot , but he wouldn’t really care. He’d look at Eliot, and not away, not have to wipe away a tear when he thought Eliot wouldn’t notice. He’d smile that smile of his instead, and maybe just let the tears fall openly. Maybe they both would, sappy and gross and Margo would threaten to banish them both until they could get their shit together--
Then Eliot thought of him that last time, again, the broken-doll weight of him in Eliot’s arms.
Some sacrifices weren’t really sacrifices at all.
“I know what I agreed to,” Eliot told Penny.
Penny just sighed. “We’ll see.”
And on that final note, Eliot was fully done with Penny’s cryptic bullshit. He shouldered past and walked down the hall, eyes focused on the door until it was six feet away, then three feet, then--
I. FLOOR THE FIRST
Eliot braced himself as he pushed through the door, even though he knew --even though he’d been told no fewer than seventeen times--that there would be no sign of Q on the other side. Still, some part of him had assumed--naively--that he’d be able to tell , somehow.
Maybe Julia or Alice would have been able to sense Quentin, he considered, before pushing the thought swiftly aside. He needed to make it through God only knew how many floors of this-- Penny had declined to give an exact number. No sense in starting out on the ledge.
Instead, he closed his eyes and took a deep breath in and out. In his mind, he imagined Q-- the shape of him, short and always slouching, with his hair tucked behind his ears and cuffs pushed up to reveal his weirdly sexy hands and forearms-- standing just behind Eliot, past his right shoulder.
“Hey, stranger,” he said out loud in the silent stairwell. “Been a while.”
His voice nearly broke when he added, “ Missed you .”
In his imagination, Q raised his eyebrows in that ‘who me?’ way he had whenever Eliot just couldn’t stop himself from imposing his affection. Eliot felt his mouth stretch into the unfamiliar shape of a smile, so soft it almost hurt.
Centered, or as close to it as he would ever pass for, he opened his eyes.
Then immediately jumped back.
“ Shit !”
Julia was standing inches away from him, her perfect blowout a mess, face red like she’d been running. Her hands reached up to grip his shoulders, hard .
“Eliot!” she gasped. “Listen, I know what I said before, but I thought about it on the elevator, and you’re right. This is too big a deal to leave to you and Q’s on-and-off thing. I’ve known him since we were kids; he’ll follow me anywhere.” She spit the words out in a rush then bit her lip, looking guilty but determined. “You were right the first time. It should be me.”
Eliot tried to process the scene in front of him. “How-- how did you even get here?”
“I got off the elevator halfway up and ran back,” she said. “I had to get to you before it was too late.”
“But . . . the elevator went the whole way up,” Eliot said, still gaping like an idiot.
“Yeah, it went up. I wasn’t on it.” Julia let go of his shoulders and tugged his wrist. “Come on. Come back with me, quick. Your foot hasn’t touched the first step yet, so it’s not too late.”
She pulled at his arm more forcefully as she made her way down the last steps to the landing. She had dragged him almost a quarter-turn, so that he was standing sideways on the landing facing the stairwell wall, when he went rigid, feet digging for purchase on the smooth tiles.
“Stop!” he yelled, not that his wishes had any power here.
But Julia did stop. She dropped his arm, even, and gave him another slow-curling smile-- this one colder than the real Julia’s. She didn’t say anything more, just watched him with semi-curious eyes, standing beside him, an inch or two away.
“ Visions my ass,” he finally muttered, rubbing at this wrist.
Not-Julia’s smile widened. “Huh. Maybe you won’t be completely awful at this after all,” she mused. “But you should know-- the others aren’t all pushovers like me.”
Then the space beside Eliot was empty again, between one breath and the next. With the vision gone, the burst of adrenaline that had flooded his whole body as he fought against Not-Julia ebbed, and he collapsed against the wall, taking care to keep his eyes front. One hand came up to pinch the bridge of his nose.
“Just-- gimme a second,” he said, as he waited for his heart to stop skipping like a messenger bunny. He removed the hand over his face to press against his sternum-- just the spot where Q’s face would press --
“Okay,” he said weakly. “Okay, back to our regularly-scheduled programming.” He pushed himself away from the wall and made his way back to the base of the steps. “And-- when we make it out of here, if you could be a dear and refrain from telling our friends that I nearly fucked it up before the literal first step?”
If Q was behind him, he’d probably recognize the show of blithe unconcern for the thin attempt that it was, but whatever, Eliot needed something to fuel him up that first step. The second step came easier, and the third after that.
When he reached the turn in the first flight, he caught himself listening for shuffling footfalls behind him. There was nothing-- of course , there was nothing. The disappointment coiled heavy in his throat all the same.
This wasn’t going to work.
He cleared his throat once. It would have been almost comically affected, except for the fact that he actually did need to clear the choking lump that had formed if he was going to get a word out. “The thought occurs,” he said, keeping his voice deliberately casual, “that if we’re going to make it up however many stairs are in the Underworld Branch without me losing what’s left of my mind, the whole ‘ascending in silence’ thing isn’t going to cut it. I know there’s not much you can do about that at the moment--”
He grabbed the bannister to cover the tremor in his hand, “--so you’ll just have to suffer through my sparkling conversation. Fortunately, I’ve cultivated a real gift for speaking to imaginary versions of you recently. And on the off chance you’ve bailed on the whole enterprise already, we’ll just-- chalk this up to the stage of the grieving process where I go full season 5 - season 6 hiatus Spike.”
Eliot actually could feel Q, then, but he knew it wasn’t coming from behind him, but inside him, the shard of Q that was a part of him, always, even all the months Eliot had repressed him. The part that was always watching Eliot with disappointed (but unsurprised) eyes as Eliot pretended every little thing about Q didn’t make him want to carve a shelter out of his body for this reckless little stormcloud of a man, with his awful clothes and embarrassing earnestness and the eyelashes that Eliot honest-to-God couldn’t not kiss every. Single. Time. he’d watched them flutter while Q flew apart with Eliot’s name in his mouth.
“Sorry,” Eliot said quietly, letting out a sigh. “I told myself that I was going to be better--” braver “--if I ever . . . saw you. Again. Ever so slightly less full of my own bullshit. But this is--”
Nothing like he thought it would be , for starters. In his relentless planning for what he’d do when he was free, he’d imagined what he’d say if Q was happy, if Q was furious, if Q had already fucked off and married Alice and they had 2.5 magical prodigies and Q hadn’t even thought of Eliot in thirteen years of however the fuck much time had passed. But never had he considered coming back to find Q-- gone . It hardly would have been conducive to maintaining his sanity. Nor had he considered what it would be like to find Q but to have lost the words . To be too chickenshit to say them, sure. To fumble them, abso-fucking-lutely. But to have mortgaged them away?
“-- it’s hard, Q,” he finally settled on. “It’s just-- really hard.”
He could imagine the Q behind him, and the Q inside him, both furrowing their brows.
“Oh stop it,” he shushed, in the familiar way born of having the time to learn every one of a person’s textbook moves. “You know you’re always worth it. To me.”
Thinking of the decades he remembered spending in Quentin’s pockets, even though he had never really spent them there, or had spent them and then got them back, brought back a memory, and he huffed out a laugh.
“This whole thing is kind of like the Quiet Game,” he said, the memory tugging a smile out of him in spite of the fairly fucking dire circumstances. “Oh my God, do you remember the Quiet Game, Q?”
He paused out of good form more than anything else.
“I really, really thought that you and Teddy were going to kill each other that day,” he went on.
The thought of Quentin’s-- their --son made his heart ache a little, as it usually did. But not in a bad way. Eliot remembered him, fifteen and mouthy-- the spitting image of Q, but cocksure in a way that Eliot categorically refused to take credit for.
“He was such a sweet little boy. And he grew up to be a good man. But dear God , the teenage years. The teenage years were hell .”
The memory was as fresh as the spring day in Fillory when it had taken place--
It was still a good forty-five minutes’ walk into the village, which would have been fine, given that the skies were clear and Eliot had a surprisingly decent constitution when he’d had access to no intoxicant except borderline-unpalatable fermented produce for literal years, but if Q and Teddy sniped at each other one more time , he was going to resort to desperate measures .
“-- of course, because you know everything at the ripe age of fifteen, how could I have--”
“-- at least I’m not old as fuck and still don’t know how to fix an axle--”
“--your language , smartass--”
“Okay, enough! Enough!” Eliot put down the hand-drawn cart-- carefully , because Teddy really had done a nice job fixing the axle that morning, but he wasn’t taking any chances. “From here on out, we’re playing the Quiet Game. Not a single word from either of you until we get to the village. I will enjoy the rest of this walk in peace. Then I am going to get Dad drunk at the tavern and Teddy is going to sneak off and get to first base with that girl we’re all pretending your dad and I don’t know about--”
“First . . . base? Is that another dumb Earth thing--”
“Quiet! Game!” The edge of hysteria creeping in, scaring off a robin or whatever the Fillorian equivalent was. “Once we’re done in the village and you’re both in much better moods, you’re going to apologize and hug it out and we’ll have perfectly civil conversation on the way home, but until then: Not. A. Peep.”
He turned back around and picked up the handles to the cart, smiling to himself as two identical sets of sullen footsteps followed behind without another word.
In the present, Eliot was also smiling into the middle distance. “You know, I don’t even remember what set you two off that day--”
His reminiscing was cut off when a book suddenly zapped into existence just ahead, from nowhere he could identify, landing on step in front of him-- the last one before the landing of what he guessed was the second floor.
Eliot lifted an eyebrow and kneeled down to examine the text. It was slim and shiny, bound with a bright glossy page and stapled twice in the center, like a playbill or a tiny magazine. To the cover was paperclipped a small card reading “APPENDIX: file with Coldwater-Waugh, Theodore (Ted) Rupert (Fillory, years unknown [aborted timeline]).”
Frowning, Eliot opened the cover and looked at the first page of text, recognizing the words with a jolt: “It was still a good forty-five minutes from the village --”
“Q?” he called out, knowing he’d get no response. “I’m thinking we’re not in Kansas anymore.”
II. FLOOR THE SECOND
A twinkly voice sounded just above Eliot’s head, as he kneeled on the step, trying to make sense of the pages from nowhere. The unexpected response almost made him lose his balance-- even though he knew without looking up that it wasn’t Q. There was nothing like Q in the sound.
Sure, enough he looked up to see the head bitch librarian, on-brand as ever with her cat-eye glasses and finger waves.
“Sorry,” he said, not particularly meaning it. “I was talking to someone else.”
She tilted her head in a way that irked Eliot to realize was sympathetic . “Of course. That’s-- understandable. Unfortunately,” she went on, in a voice that sounded fully committed to gnawing off its own arm to remain pleasant, “I’m afraid you’re not authorized to be in this area.”
She smiled in a way that conveyed that the fact was as painful for her as it was for Eliot-- which, doubtful . But he was willing to play along . . . to a point, anyway.
“Is there any chance that if I told you I was here under a Eurydice contact, that would clear this whole little misunderstanding right up?”
The librarian gave another grimace-smile. “Of course, Mr. Adiyodi informed us of your contract, and the Library certainly wishes you the best of luck in your completion of the bargained-for quest.”
“Yeah, I’m really feeling that.”
“Be that as it may,” she began-- then stumbled when Eliot drew himself up to his full, not-inconsiderable height.
“Okay, here’s how this going to work,” he said, interrupting her tactful bullshit. “I get that I’m not exactly in fighting form right now, what with the several-ish months of possession and then the drowning myself in any and all substances while mourning-- my friend .” He caught himself before he could say the love of several of my lives . “But if you know the story--which I’m guessing you do--you know that I’ve died protecting Q before and I’ve killed to do it, too, so . . .”
“Oh, I assure you, I have no intention of fighting you, Mr. Waugh! And I’ve read all about your prowess with a sword--”
The librarian made a sound that Eliot was working very, very hard to classify as something other than a giggle.
“--it’s just that you, regrettably, are not cleared to pass through this level. Not without paying the necessary application fee, anyway.”
Eliot’s fingers twitched instinctively against the pages in his hand, as Penny-40’s parting confidence came back to him. The coin of the realm, huh?
Everything in him rebelled against handing this little piece of he and Q’s history over to the Order, even though he knew, rationally, that they almost certainly knew all about the mosaic and their family already. Still, he made himself reach forward and push the little booklet from nowhere toward the librarian. Sacrifices . Bravery .
“Would this cover the fee, by any chance?” he asked.
“Oh!” The librarian’s fingers fluttered to her chest before coming to gingerly take the pages from Eliot. She handled the book delicately, as if it was the baby Teddy had once been. It made Eliot feel unreasonably relieved to see the care with which she held his imaginary ( no, not that-- never that ) son’s memory.
She skimmed over the few pages quickly, breaking into a delighted smile when she reached the final one. “Oh, how charming! Yes, I think that would make a lovely appendix to Young Teddy’s book. Slice-of-life vignettes are so popular these days.”
Eliot’s mouth suddenly went dry and he fought the urge to reach back for the hand he hoped was behind him. “Teddy’s . . . book?”
The skin over the librarian’s nose crinkled. “Well, of course. I know it may seem odd to collect additional stories when we already have the book. But the books, while comprehensive, can’t fully describe every moment, you understand. The printing costs alone--”
“Right, right. Cliffs Notes-- trust me, I’m familiar,” Eliot said, rushing past the look of distress that crossed the librarian’s face at the mention of Cliffs Notes. “I mean-- Teddy -- he-- he has a book.”
He tried his best to make it not sound like a question, but the librarian’s eyes softened in a way told him his best had, once again, not been remotely good enough.
“No one who had a story goes unrecorded in the Library,” she said gently. She reached out and Eliot was dismayed to realize she was reaching for his hand, even more dismayed that he actually felt comforted when she gave it a soft squeeze.
“Your son is very much alive to us, Mr. Waugh. Even if--” She stumbled, but righted herself. “--even if your child is lost to you.”
Eliot closed his eyes against a rush of emotion. It had pricked at him more than he’d wanted to deal with, in the quiet moments between quests and crises, the nagging doubt whether, despite what he’d assured Q, Teddy had actually been real . Whether he and his Esmela (who had been of three girls he had hooked up with on the day of the Quiet Game, they later learned-- he was so Quentin’s son it was unreal, sometimes), and all the grandkids, and even the little great-grandbaby who Eliot had never met but who had been on the way when he had died, were just-- figments of a path not taken. A path that he and Quentin had decided against taking, without realizing it, the moment they stepped away from that clock. The assurance that they were all real-- that it was all real . . .
After one more too-careful squeeze he felt the librarian’s hand slip from his, and he knew without opening his eyes that she had vanished like the last vision, taking Teddy’s story with her.
He took the moment of quiet darkness to cast his mind to where he imagined Q standing just behind him-- hopefully with cheeks as wet as Eliot’s own, or he’d never live it down.
“I really, really hope you stuck around long enough to hear that, Q” he said quietly. “For a lot of reasons.”
When he finally opened his eyes, he wasn’t all that surprised to see that there was a new set of pages in his hand, transcribing another memory--
“-- you just have to make sure to support his head, like-- um, yeah-- yeah, you got it.”
Quentin took his hands away, leaving Eliot to support the lolling, hairless head on his own. Eliot’s pulse thundered as he looked down at the little red-faced creature squirming in his hands. He was afraid to take his eyes off it, in case he dropped it or it rolled away or something, but he risked a glance over to Arielle, exhausted and overjoyed, her auburn hair a riot around her on the pillow.
“Is this . . . okay?”
She rolled her eyes weakly. “If you think that you’re going to make me manage another Coldwater on my own, you’ve got another thing coming,” she said.
Another Coldwater , he thought, heart thumping in a new way now as he looked down at the little bundle again and noticed--
“Oh my God, Q-- that’s-- that’s your nose . Oh, come here to Eliot you poor little thing . . .”
Eliot pressed the pages to his chest. They weren’t a substitute for their son’s tiny body, not even close, but he tucked them carefully inside his vest, over his heart, all the same.
The fluorescent lighting was harsher than it had seemed before, or at least that was the story he was going with. He took a moment to swipe at his eyes, before taking a deep breath.
“Come on, old man,” he said softly to the space behind him. “Let’s get a move on. Quiet game. You know the drill.”
VI. FLOOR THE SIXTH
“You know, if you didn’t want to play the Quiet Game anymore, I wouldn’t be offended.”
Another set of steps, another single set of footfalls.
“Yeah, well, it was worth a shot.”
XIII. FLOOR THE THIRTEENTH
The visions had taken it easy after Eliot paid the fare, excepting an improbable and awkward run-in with his high-school gym teacher. But the silence in the visions’ absence was taking a toll of its own. The fuzzy euphoria of remembering their little family had distracted Eliot for a while, but even that joy was eventually dampened by the deafening silence of the void behind him.
Eliot had resorted to breaking out reminiscences that he knew would get a reaction out of Q, and was, as a result, currently carrying transcribed editions of The Centaur Incident and The Time Quentin Actually Danced -- both jammed into his pockets with a great deal less care than the memory of meeting Teddy for the first time.
Q hadn’t reacted to any of Eliot’s purposely embarrassing storytelling, of course, and Eliot had to remind himself very sternly that that was just how this game worked. It wasn’t because Q wasn’t there. To his credit, Eliot had managed to keep most of those reminders in his head, where Q wouldn’t hear them if he was, somehow, there.
Eliot tried to make himself envision Q behind him, making an apologetic little shrug, but even his imagined Q was beginning to feel like it was fading away.
“Oh, that’s just sad .”
Eliot paused between one step and the next, confronted with an all too-familiar voice.
He looked up. The vision was fastidiously appointed, slacks pressed, suspenders just so, curls hydrated, eyes so fucking bloodshot blinking felt like a sandpaper rubdown.
Eliot remembered the feeling distinctly.
“Oh goodie,” he said without enthusiasm, “I was wondering when we’d get to the Ghost of Christmas Past part of this story.”
“Bitch, no one here believes you actually read that book, either.”
A vision of Margo popped into existence beside the vision of Eliot’s younger self. He’d gotten so used to the eyepatch and the Bob-Mackie-Does-Game-of-Thrones ensembles that the sight of both of her namesake doe eyes and the micro-mini was jarring.
If Eliot knew himself--which he did, regrettably well, after being imprisoned with only his own memories for company for a seeming eternity--then this was Brakebills Eliot and Margo, after Mike, shortly after--
--the emotion bottles.
Eliot’s stomach dropped. This was going to be even more unpleasant than anticipated.
“Right, because you’re such a barrel of laughs,” his younger self scoffed. “ This --” he fluttered one hand in a gesture that seemed to simultaneously encompass and reject the whole of Eliot, from the lank hair to the boots he’d never bought and that he was guessing the Monster probably hadn’t bought either-- “is making my whole grief spiral look positively tame.”
The way the vision allowed nothing in his face or voice to waver at the word ‘grief’ might have fooled someone else, but to Eliot it was a dead giveaway. He raised one eyebrow and the vision frowned.
“Anyway, as I was saying ,” he continued, voice dripping with manufactured disdain, “ Quentin . He’s not there. Obviously.”
Eliot felt only the briefest temptation to turn his head and check, but even that moment of weakness filled him with shame and anger and disgust for himself-- all versions present. His own face must have been as easy for his counterpart to read as vice versa, because his past self’s smile went positively delighted . Eliot fought the urge to wipe it off his face.
“ Easy , you two.” Not-Margo placed a manicured hand on past-Eliot’s hip. “If you assholes are going to start whipping out your dicks in here, it’s not gonna be because you’re measuring them, you follow me?”
She turned her attention to Eliot. Real -Eliot. And, swear to Umber and Ember and whoever else, he had had just about enough of having to distinguish between the real version of himself and all the other shitshows walking around with his face .
“Listen, we don’t know if the puppy’s following you or not,” Margo said. “They don’t tell us shit. But-- honey-- real talk? The odds aren’t exactly good .”
Eliot looked between the pair of them-- Margo pretending that she wasn’t trying to let him down gently, and his past self barely able to see straight but still unshakably convinced that there could be no happy ending and a-ha-ha-ha-ha wasn’t it just a laugh . He suddenly felt exhausted , and for the first time in weeks, it wasn’t only because of the weight on his empty chest, that threatened to crush him with every breath.
“You two get that he’s dead , right?”
The rush of bile was almost worth it, for the spasm of real emotion that tightened his younger self’s jaw.
“I’m trying to lead him back to his life . You really think he’s so allergic to me that he’d rather stay in the Underworld for eternity than follow me up a couple of steps?”
Margo and past-Eliot turned to look at each other, then back to face him.
“It’s Quentin,” Margo drawled. “I’ve known people with stronger wills to live.”
Eliot suppressed a scream.
“ Sweetie .”
Not-Margo reached for his hand and he flinched back. Her eyes went sad, just like the real Bambi’s, just for a moment, before taking on a toughness that Eliot himself was only ever able to play at.
“You wanna do this the hard way? Fine .” Both hands went to her hips. “You can play out whatever tortured-hero emo- bullshit fantasy you want down here. Just don’t get your hopes up.”
She looked over at the other vision, mouth twitching into a grimace. “I don’t want to see you disappointed .”
Vision-Eliot attempted a casual toss of those perfect curls, and only narrowly avoided losing what was left of his balance. Actual-Eliot sighed.
“Q’s . . . not the one who’s done the disappointing,” he admitted after a moment, avoiding their eyes.
Margo’s impeccable eyebrows shot up. “ Seriously ? Mr. Let’s-Blame-Margo-and-El-for- where-I-Chose-to-Stick-My-Own-Dick is the heartbroken party here? What the fuck happens in the future?”
“ A lot ,” Eliot shot back.
This was getting nowhere.
“Look,” he tried again. “I know that Q hurt you both--”
“Hurt me ? No . That one--” Margo gestured at her compatriot-- “may be going full tragi-gay, but--”
“Actually, that one is trying to decide whether I’m more impressed or disappointed that my--” past-Eliot gave actual-Eliot another discerning up-and-down-- “I’m going to go with considerably older self is still fetch-him-from-the-Underworld levels of fixated on our little Q. On the one hand, the word ‘pathetic’ does come to mind. But on the other hand, the commitment to my whole Brideshead Revisited , unrequited-longing aesthetic is-- Oh. Hello.”
At the word ‘unrequited,’ Eliot’s memories flared up, unbidden, and another shiny booklet materialized in his past self’s hands. Past-Eliot’s eyes flew wide in spite of himself as he started to read the words Eliot knew were printed on the page--
“--now, now. Oh, God, El-- just do it--”
Outside under the two Fillorian moons, naked as they days they were born, the hard tiles of the mosaic digging into his ass even through the old quilt.
Quentin above him, straddling his lap, writhing against his raging erection, literally begging for it, ruining Eliot’s life.
Eliot grabbed Quentin’s hips to keep him still and said-- something-- fuck , what even were words at this point, seriously-- and Q looked down at him, eyes melting, and-- and kissed him . Again. Kissed him like he needed--
Gasping, forcing himself to pull back. “You’re sure?” His hand gripping the too-long hair, making Q look, ignoring the ragged moan when he tugged. “ Q. Are you sure?”
Eyes clamped shut, breathing labored. “I swear to God, El, if you don’t right nngggh hh--”
His ‘now’ collapsing into a groan as Eliot gave him what he-- what he asked for-- begged for--
“Ohhhhh- ohmigod. Ohmigod. Oh my God, El--”
“Oh my God is right!” Margo fanned herself as she peeked at the pages gripped too tightly in past-Eliot’s white hands. “Someone tell Zelda she’s gonna have to shelve this one with the Fabio covers.”
But past-Eliot just looked through real-Eliot, cold and nearly wraith-like. “Is this supposed to prove something?” he asked. “Because, in case you forgot, everyone in this stairwell already knows all about how prettily Quentin Coldwater takes your cock .”
He spit the word out, like it burned.
“He said the same things to me , remember?” It was painfully familiar, the way that past-Eliot actually looked happier the more he acid he spewed at himself. “You and me? As far as Q is concerned, we’re good enough for a good time, but only when there are no better options. And you know exactly what I mean by--”
No , Eliot thought. But it was too late--
“--do you want me to tell you, El?” Q was picking his loose, gone-native pants off the floor. “That I’m a fucking-- Kinsey two? Will that finally put this bed after eight fucking years?”
He hopped around trying to pull his pants back on, and it would have been funny, except for the fact that Eliot was all kinds of guilty and irrationally angry and still low-key horny. The problem with being parents in a one-room cabin was that the few nights they convinced their pretty neighbor to watch Teddy so they could remember each other’s bodies were also the only nights they could yell out all the shit that they had to not-in-front-of-the-baby every other day of the year.
“You want to know what will put it to bed?”
“ No , El, I’d rather fight with you about how much I miss girls while I’ve literally got my hand down your pants. Again.”
Heaven preserve him from a Quentin Coldwater that was convinced he was the reasonable one.
Eliot tried to shove past, but Quentin followed him.
“Where are you going?”
“To give you some space,” he gritted out.
Quentin actually rolled his eyes and Eliot snapped, crowding into his space, using every inch of his height advantage to loom over Q.
“I don’t give a shit how many women you do or don’t sleep with, Quentin Coldwater,” he lied. “Neither of us put a ring on the other’s finger. You can go be a Kinsey 200 if you want.”
Quentin crossed his arms, chin going stubborn in the way Eliot could draw from memory. He should try a mosaic of that.
“Great,” Q said, shrugging like none of it mattered. “So when we pick up Teddy from Umbra’s tomorrow, you won’t mind if I make you two wait outside while I catch up on all that pussy I’ve been missing.”
He wasn’t serious. His modest-proposal schtick was one of his go-to argument moves and he never meant any of the fake-casual bullshit he spouted to prove how ridiculous he thought Eliot was being. But this one was so close to all the things Eliot thought in his most insecure center, the part of him that had come to love Arielle-- may she rest in peace, wherever she was-- with as much of his heart as Quentin hadn’t already claimed, but would never forget that the second he told Q to get serious about their life in FIllory, Q had put his ring on someone ’s finger. The same part that knew it was so much easier to accuse Q of preferring women to men than it was to wonder whether it ever could have been Eliot ’s finger, if Eliot had had the strength to offer it, or whether--
“Eliot?” Q asked, eyes going tender and confused in a way that threatened to pull out words Eliot had no intention of saying, tonight or ever. So he dropped to his knees and gave his mouth something else to do instead, until Q threw his head back and forgot about anything (anyone) else, and Eliot could pretend that wasn’t the whole reason he had done it.
And then, a few weeks later, after not talking about it ( why did they never talk about it ?)--
Quentin’s arms wrapping around Eliot’s waist from behind, as Eliot stood pondering a blank spot on the mosaic. Teddy was off playing behind the cabin, making an absolute mess, by the sound of it.
“Just so you know, this is what I want,” Quentin said, muffled against the back of Eliot’s probably-sweaty shirt. His voice going almost inaudible, as he smushed his face even tighter against Eliot’s back. “If, uh. If that works for you.”
Eliot lunged for the fresh booklets that appeared in his younger counterpart’s hand. He couldn’t stand the idea of hearing himself pick those stories apart-- again . He’d lived that mistake already, re-watched it in slow-motion a thousand times in his memory palace.
But his past self was suddenly sitting heavily on the steps, like his strings had been cut, still high out of his mind and wearing that look that meant he was pretending not to wonder how it was that some people managed to touch the things they cared for and not destroy them.
Not-Margo picked up the pages on the floor beside him and looked sadly at Eliot-now. “I’ll take care of these,” she said, talking about the stories and also not. “You should get going. You paid your fare.”
Eliot met her gaze and nodded. He moved to step onto the next landing, but before his foot landed, his younger self spoke again, hollow-voiced and bitter.
“He didn’t have a choice, then. If he had the choice--”
It was a bullshit argument. Eliot had spent enough time in the so-called happy place deconstructing it, reminding himself again and again that there had been other people in Fillory. He wanted to tell his younger self that, to shake him and make him see that this exact thinking would destroy everything that mattered to him. But the not-presence of Q beside him was suddenly clear in his mind again, eyes narrowed, waiting to hear what he’d say.
And all the things that Eliot had planned to say, the things he’d taught himself to believe, were too close to the thing he’d agreed never to say. The thing that he’d signed away the right to say, for the sake of the only reason he’d wanted to say it in the first place.
Instead, Eliot shut his eyes, reached out a hand and remembered .
The pages appeared in his hand instantly, as he knew they would. He didn’t bother to read them; he knew what they said--
“-- so I get that you may not be thinking clearly--”
Eliot closed the pages in his fist and tossed the wreckage at his past self. “Congratulations,” he sneered. “I’m glad you think so, because you get to tell him so yourself in a few years. Or fifty.”
And you will never get to take it back , he didn’t say.
But his past self seemed to hear the last part anyway, and he looked up to meet his own eyes. “No,” he said, his voice shaky, poisoned and poisonous, even as he faded from view. “Well, I guess that’s one more thing we have in common.”
XXII?. FLOOR THE TWENTY-SECOND (PROBABLY)
“Any time you want to chime in, Q?
“Okay, then. Back to The Centaur Incident. Or maybe we should revisit your dance moves. They really were a little bit cute. I can’t believe I never got to see--”
Never got to see them again. The words lodging in his throat. Crumpling the pages into a ball. Throwing them on the ground. It was marginally less embarrassing than crying, in case--
Collecting the pages. Smoothing them out. Tucking them back inside his vest. In case.
XXX??. FLOOR THE THIRTIETH (MAYBE)
Eliot cleared his throat. “So I was thinking--”
The truth of what he’d really just been thinking popped into his hand--
“--but that’s not me, and that’s definitely not you-- ”
--and he tucked it away, into a now-bulging pocket.
“--I was thinking that. . . I’m not sure that I ever-- apologized to you. For all the digs about you and . . . women. I’ve had . . . kind of a shocking amount of time to think about it, actually, and in that time I’ve realized that I may have had some issues with . . . erasing your . . . bisexuality. If you call it that.”
“That’s not me questioning that it is that . I just don’t want to put a label on it, if you don’t-- You never actually said--”
“Probably because I wasn’t really listening. Look -- I just. I’m sorry for being shitty to you about it, okay? Because I was. I know I was. It came from a place of--”
Having no fucking clue how to ask you to love me (just me) , when I’ve never even known how to tell you that I love--
“Okay? You know what? Nevermind. Let’s just-- Quiet Game.”
XXXIX???. FLOOR THE THIRTY-NINTH (ISH)
“Q? I’m really starting to hate the Quiet Game.”
???. FLOOR THE EVEN HIGHER
“Anyway, in conclusion, you should think seriously about Fillorian clothing all the time when we-- you know, after . This. Even if you don’t live on Fillory full-time-- not that you would, necessarily. I’m not expecting-- Just-- Oh, shit. ”
Eliot nearly tripped over his feet. He probably should have been grateful to the cumbersome boots the Monster had picked out, for saving him from that death-spiral of a conversation. Well, ‘conversation,’ anyway. But his feet were killing him, his knees were killing him, his thighs were killing him, and that was just the pain that he could think about without passing out or vomiting.
He bent down to inspect the boots and sighed when he saw the snapped shoelace. He took the boot off and instantly regretted his choice, as the blisters that had been forming for the last-- what had it been? Couple hours? Millennia? Did time even exist here?-- announced themselves with fanfare at last. The idea of putting the boot back on, of having to deal with something as stupid as an ouchie on top of everything else was infuriating. Because, of course, of course , he couldn’t even do something as minimally functional as wearing fucking sensible shoes to go resurrect his-- Quentin . Quentin. His friend , Quentin.
“Hey! Watch your shit.”
The boot--which he had, in fact, flung wildly in front of him-- had landed an embarrassing four steps ahead, crashing beside Kady, who was perched on the step, one leg in front of her, the other drawn into her chest.
“Is that seriously as far as you can throw?” the vision asked, eyes rolling.
“I haven’t been doing a lot of conditioning lately.” He tucked his hands inside his crossed arms, hoping it might make the withdrawal-shakes running through them pretty much non-stop at this point a little less obvious. “So, do you have something specific to demand from me, or are you just here to channel my high school P.E. horrors, because, I hate to break it to you, but you’re about forty floors late for that party.”
Kady just lifted an eyebrow in response and took a drag from the cigarette in her hand.
“You really think he wants to leave this place?” she asked, only a little curious, as if it didn’t even matter. “This is probably the first time in his life that Quentin’s experienced peace .”
It’s not, Eliot wanted to say. But--
“I don’t know, Not-Kady; he hasn’t been particularly forthcoming. I hope he does,” he said instead, rubbing his forehead with his knuckle, missing the feeling of Q’s fingers in his hair after a long day, missing--
Not-Kady flicked her cigarette onto the step beside her. “Yeah. Well, I hoped so, too.”
Her cigarette stayed, smoldering, on the linoleum, long after she disappeared.
Eliot left both boots beside it.
???. FLOOR THE SERIOUSLY WITH THIS SHIT?
“Do you remember the time I threatened to get a tattoo?”
Eliot’s voice was going rusty and hoarse, but his now-wandering stories still managed to trigger whatever magic fueled this place: with a familiar pop, fresh pages settled on whatever landing it was ahead of them. Eliot was long past pretending to guess at what number floor it was, or how many there were to go. Maybe this whole thing had been a trick, after all. Maybe what he’d bartered for had just been this-- not the chance to take Q back to the surface, but simply an eternity climbing this stairwell, with Q not really by his side.
“Still worth it,” he mumbled. He bent over to pick up the pages, but his legs were more than a little numb at this point, and-- shit .
In retrospect, Eliot was prepared to admit that going barefoot had been a sideways move, at best.
He landed hard on his knee, and found himself torn among the competing urges to grab his knee, soothe his maybe-broken toes, or hate himself for even registering such trivial pain, when Quentin-- oh, God, Q --
Eliot heard a rustle of skirts, and then Fen--or, rather, a vision of Fen--was kneeling one step ahead of him, facing him. “Oh, your poor feet!”
She reached out to baby him in some way, devoted even as a Hell-Library projection, but--just as he had with Vision-Margo--he flinched away. Not-Fen took it in stride, more used to his rejection, apparently.
“Sorry,” she said, letting her unwanted hands settle in her lap, looking so much like the real thing.
Eliot pinched his eyes closed. “ Fen ,” he found himself saying, “you don’t have to apologize for being the very nice wife of a very shitty husband.”
“You’re not a--” she started, but Eliot opened his eyes and fixed her with a look .
“You leave something to be desired,” she amended. “But that’s not what I’m here for!” She darted a calculated glance all around them, then leaned in to speak lower. “Look, I’m not supposed to tell you anything, but Eliot-- you’re doing such a great job.”
Her smile was genuine and contagious-- or, it would have been if Eliot was capable of a smile at this point.
“You’re so close!” Fen went on. “Well, you’re closer anyway. Well, more than half-way. Well, I guess it depends on how you define ‘half’--”
“ Fen .” Eliot looked at her-- fierce and sweet with her long brown hair, in his corner even when he gave little to no reason to stay there (not that he had a type or anything)-- and in a moment of weakness held out his arms to the vision. She scooted forward against him immediately, and he actually breathed out a modicum of tension, against all odds.
“Oh!” Not-Fen shifted, reaching beneath her skirt and pulling out the newest pages, which were now a little worse for the wear, having been crumpled beneath her knees when she’d accepted his embrace.
“Sorry,” she said again, taking the pages between her hands to try to smooth them out, peering at the words as she did--
Quentin’s bare back, skin still touch-warm as Eliot ghosted a finger over the dark lines of the ‘Q’ etched there.
“You know--” his own voice a rumble, a tease, a purr. And then the column of Q’s spine moving beneath skin as he twisted to look back over his shoulder. Those big brown eyes--
Fen’s cheeks went pink as she quickly handed the pages back to Eliot. “I’m sorry-- again. Those are-- private, I think.”
Eliot dropped his eyes to his lap, fighting-- if not a blush of his own, then at least an appropriately sheepish look. “ I’m sorry--”
But his wife was shaking her head. “Don’t apologize. I-- I could see how things were-- are , sorry-- between you two.”
She did, too. She’d proven that, Eliot remembered--
He’d been lying on this bed for . . . who knows? His entire life, maybe. Maybe everything except lying here in the dark had been a dream. He wasn’t sure if that was more or less painful than the truth.
Fen’s cautious voice as she tiptoed into the room. Their room . That’s right. They’d taken him to Fillory at some point, after-- after--
[“El. Honey .” Margo’s voice, breaking. “You have to let him go now.”]
Fen perched delicately on the bed beside him, careful not to touch.
He sighed, closed his eyes again.
“Fen, I’m not really--”
“I know you and Quentin weren’t married,” she interrupted, speaking quickly, as if she was afraid of losing her nerve.
Eliot shut up.
“But I-- I also know that Children of Earth think about marriage . . . differently than we do. Less . . . technically, I suppose,” Fen continued. “Anyway, what I’m trying to say is that we have . . . rituals, on Fillory. To help with grieving the loss of a spouse.”
She breathed in once, resolute. Eliot truly had no idea where she was going with this. Margo had mentioned that Fen had grieved, for him. When they thought-- Was she trying to undo whatever rituals she had done, in some way? Was there some backwards ceremony they needed to do, now that he was, unjustifiably, alive? Did she really think that he could--
“Would you like to try some of them?” she asked, cutting through his spiralling thoughts. “The mourning rituals, I mean. For Quentin?”
Eliot didn’t say anything for a long time. Didn’t even blink.
“I’m sorry, this was presumptuous of me. Margo told me that our customs aren’t--”
“Did they help?” Eliot asked suddenly, as Fen gathered her skirts to leave. “The rituals?”
Fen looked at him a long time. He knew he hadn’t bathed in days. He probably hadn’t eaten, either. She shook her head.
“Not really,” she said. “But I think-- it’s more for the person you’ve lost than for you. To prove that they’re remembered .”
Eliot couldn’t seem to make his throat work. But he nodded, just once. And Fen nodded back.
When she came back a few minutes later with all of Q’s clothing from his almost-never-used bedroom in the castle, and silently arranged it over Eliot like a burial, so that it was dark and quiet and almost-- felt like Q, rumpled and soft, even though Q hadn’t spent enough time in Fillory (this Fillory, at least) for it to smell like him--
Well. She was right. It didn’t feel better.
But he let a few of his stored-up burning tears go anyway, thinking Quentin, Quentin, Quentin.
Fen was speaking with such determination that she didn’t even seem to see the new shiny booklet that appeared on the step beside them.
“--and I want you to know that I won’t stand in the way of you two, if you-- I mean when! When you get back--”
“Fen,” Eliot grimaced, trying to cut of her well-meaning but so very unnecessary speech.
“--not after everything you’ve been through--”
“ Fen .”
“--you deserve the opportunity to be together. And, frankly, I’ve been thinking about it, and I deserve--”
“ Fen !”
That last, nearly shouted, effort finally got her attention. She stared at him wide-eyed, mouth still open.
Gently, Eliot took one of the vision’s hands in his. “It’s not--”
Like that , he needed to say. It’s never going to be like that again. But the thought of Q behind him-- if he still was-- hearing that. Again .
“What’s not?” Fen asked, face a puzzle.
Q would hear it eventually, he reminded himself. He had made sure of that the moment he’d signed on the dotted line.
He’d do it again .
“Q and I,” Eliot made himself say. “We’re not together. Not that way.”
Fen actually looked disappointed by the news that her husband wouldn’t be running off with his best friend, after all. “I know,” she said slowly, carefully, “but-- but you can be, now. You can have a second chance! You can do it right this time, just like you--”
Out of the corner of his eye, Eliot saw another, too-familiar set of pages cover the story of Fen and the mourning ritual--
“--if I ever get out of here, Q, know that when I’m braver --”
Eliot took a deep breath. “I’m not going to do it differently,” he said, to whoever was listening. “I-- I don’t want to.”
It wasn’t even a lie, from the right--the only -- angle.
Fen stuck out her bottom lip. “But I don’t understand- -”
Eliot sighed and reached for the stack of pages beside him. He shook off the latest copy of That Day in the Throne Room , and pressed the other booklet into her hands, the mourning ritual. Recognition spread across her face as she read their shared memory.
“Some things are more important,” he told her, keeping his voice carefully even.
One thing, anyway .
Not-Fen’s mouth made a perfect little O of realization, before she disappeared, taking the pages with her.
Eliot managed to keep his head up, neck straight, staring forward for a breath, two breaths, then brought both hands to cover his face and let himself slump forward over the landing where Not-Fen had perched moments before.
I would have done it differently, Q , he didn’t say. If there were any other way, I would have been so much braver.
Through the cracks between his fingers, he saw one glossy black Mary-Jane step into view, then another.
“That was actually really beautiful,” their owner said above him, a whole world of wary apprehension crammed into that little-girl voice. “Too bad it was all bullshit.”
???. FLOOR THE ALMOST-THERE
Eliot took his hands away from his face and made himself look up, past the lacy tights and the flared skirt and the little sweater tied just so at the neck, to the sad blue eyes that had made Q want to play hero, and the stern no-smile that made everyone around Q wonder how he had ever imagined that she needed one.
“Not-Alice,” he greeted, resigned.
She looked down on him, literally. She was every inch the first-year he’d met a lifetime ( two ) ago, who had been scared shitless of her own raw talent and brittle to the point of breaking over it, right down to the barrette in her fine, moonglow hair. Then her lips twisted and she dropped one hip into a pose that he frankly couldn’t and didn’t want to imagine on the real Alice, who--as far as Eliot knew--had never voluntarily revealed so much as a collar bone to anyone but Q.
“I don’t know,” she said, “I think I’m a pretty good facsimile.” Her smile went even more wicked at the edges, crackling with niffin-blue sparks. “Maybe we should ask Q.”
Her eyes darted over Eliot’s shoulder to the space-- the space --behind him, just for a second, and Eliot’s heart raced.
“If he’s here,” Eliot said, voice shaking shaking slightly around the sudden kick of adrenaline, “you can ask him anything you want.”
Not-Alice turned her attention back to Eliot. “What if I asked him to stay here with me ?” she asked. “Instead of going back up there .” The curl of her lip revealed exactly what she thought of the surface, with all the imperfections that seemed to torment the real Alice, too.
“It’s awful up there,” she went on. “Nothing he tries ever works out. It just breaks even worse. Down here, it’s different. We could be different.”
The image of Q that had eluded Eliot for the past several thousand stairs burned bright and fierce again, but this time in his mind it was the Q that had crawled across the magic-scorched ground in front of the wellspring for Alice, heedless of his own injuries, wearing that peculiar desperate-Romeo expression that he’d never worn for Eliot, not even during the decades of their for-all-intents-and-purposes marriage. Eliot had actually been proud , sometimes, that Q never looked at him that way-- like it was proof that they could care for each other in a way that was more about mending buttons and hoodwinking Teddy into eating carrots than burning themselves alive on the altar of their most reckless tendencies.
Eliot made himself meet Not-Alice’s eyes squarely.
“I’d tell him that if it’s Alice he wants, he can have the real thing.” He could ; the real Alice’s almost-radioactive defensiveness as they’d plotted this rescue mission was a more obvious tell than she ever seemed to realize. “I’ll help him pick out the ring myself. He just has to come back .”
Not-Alice sneered. “You’d love that, wouldn’t you?”
The phantom ache in his clawed-out chest disputed that characterization, but he kept his mouth shut.
“Of course you would,” Not-Alice said anyway, rolling her eyes behind her shy-girl glasses. “It’s your favorite game: throwing Q at pretty girls so that you can feel like the injured party.”
She took a step forward into his personal space, so that they were as close as he could ever remember being to the real Alice.
“You don’t want to be the hero of this story,” she said, matter-of-fact. “Not really. You want me and Q to be the star-crossed lovers. That way you can stay the suspiciously devoted friend, who I’ll always be a little bit jealous of.”
She crossed her arms, acknowledging that jealousy, even as she was obviously annoyed by it, before continuing. “Eventually,” she said, pausing to snort, “--and let’s face it, not super far down the road--you’ll end up sacrificing yourself for him once and for all, thereby clearing the final obstacle to me and him riding off into the sunset, while affirming the purity of your feelings for him in one fell swoop. It’ll be narratively efficient, and, yeah, you’ll get to be the fan-favorite. But most of all--”
She stepped in even closer, so that they were nose-to-nose. And all at once they were, truly, nose-to-nose, because it wasn’t Alice talking anymore, but himself. Not his past self, either, but the image of him now , tired and barefoot with curled-up magazine pages falling out of his vest.
“--most of all,” his mirror said, “you’ll never have to risk finding out if you’re worth an actual happy ending.”
The irony, the absolute worst part ( no, the second-worst part ) was that up until the moment that his memory of Quentin stood in front of him in front of a chalkboard and spoke so easily about sacrificing for the people you love, it had all been true. Eliot’s love for Quentin had been omnipresent, elemental, unshakeable, almost from the moment he’d been handed an index card bearing the new kid’s name. But most important of all, it had been unrequited . And he’d never truly wanted it to be any other way. Even during their life together in Fillory, when he’d stroked Q’s back as Q held their first grandbaby-- who carried both of their names -- in his arms, Eliot had taken comfort in the barely-plausible deniability that this was convenience. Friendship taken to a logical extreme by the exigencies of another characteristically batshit Fillorian set-up. He’d seized on the idea like a drowning man when they were in the throne room, and Eliot was suddenly twenty-something and fucked again, wading through impossible-feeling memories of growing up to be someone almost worth choosing-- someone vulnerable and calm who could nag and cherish Q in equal measure, until his body literally gave out.
That Eliot would have relished the devil’s bargain he’d made with the Library: Q alive, but forever out of his reach. The whole arrangement would have been safe and perfect-- a jagged edge to punish himself with when he sat too-close to Quentin over a bottle of wine, listening to him fret about his efforts to woo Alice or Julia or whatever not-Eliot person he’d decided to throw his giant heart at next, secure in the knowledge that giving that heart to Eliot himself had never even been an option.
Eliot would have been happy , in that he would have been miserable and that’s what he was most comfortable being.
Now, the only reason he could stay upright thinking about that future was that a world without Q in it made everything else seem bearable by comparison.
He’d lived his entire life never wanting to be anything like brave with his heart, and the moment he’d finally let himself see that, actually, he wanted that more than ( almost ) anything, he’d had to give it up.
And, of course, he couldn’t say any of that while the ghost of Q was maybe, possibly ( please ) close enough to hear it.
In front of Eliot, his mirror-image shifted back into Alice again, who gave a long-suffering sigh.
“You’re going to break his heart, you know,” she said.
Eliot swallowed. “I can live with that.”
Her eyes narrowed. “We’ll see.”
And then she was interlacing three fingers and twisting , so that the endless stairway behind her shimmered like a mirage and melted away to reveal a single unassuming fire-door, like the one that had led him to the stairwell in the first place.
Eliot’s heart stopped. “Is that--”
“Not quite,” Not-Alice answered. “One more test to go.”
Eliot reached out for the push-bar, but stopped when Not-Alice put her hand on his arm.
“You really should have read the full terms and conditions,” she said gravely, before winking out of existence.
With the restraining weight on his arm gone, Eliot pushed -- both the door and his growing dread. The former gave more easily than the latter.
When the opening was large enough to see through, Eliot wasn’t even surprised.
Of course . It was always going to end up there .
It took a moment for Eliot’s eyes to fully adjust to the dim lighting of the space behind the door, after spending hours or centuries in the relentlessly fluorescent stairwell. When they finally did, all was exactly as he remembered it-- the empty thrones, the half-finished wedding arch, and--
And there . On the steps, curled into himself with his chin on his knees, because he could never fucking sit like an adult, and he never would, not even when the arthritis in his knees limited him to flopping across his chair instead of folding himself into his usual tuck, hair in his eyes, and alive, alive, alive --
Oh, oh . That voice .
Eliot’s legs locked in place, even as all the buzzing parts inside of him strained against his skin, pushing outward until he wasn’t even a person but just-- blood, and adrenaline, and the tossing acid in his stomach, and too-fast breaths. All of it, spinning out, desperate to break free and be with--
“ Q ?”
Eliot’s voice was wrecked and falling apart at the seams, and it had nothing to do with the rasp he’d been developing since floor three of monologuing. If Q’s name was anything more complicated than a syllable--anything more fundamental than the actual beat of Eliot’s suddenly restored heart--it would have unravelled halfway through.
“They said--” he licked his lips and started again, not sure if the words were failing because of laughter or tears. “They said you’d be behind me-- I’m-- shit, I’m not supposed to see you--”
Q shook his head. “It’s okay. You didn’t do anything wrong. This is just the last part of it.”
“But--” he was definitely laughing now, even as tears began to spill down his cheeks-- “they said I wouldn’t be able to--”
“The library is full of shit. Alert the fucking media.” Q shrugged and raised his eyebrows, like ‘what did you expect?’.
Had Eliot really forgotten what a shade-throwing little shit he could be? He was a brat. He was perfect. Oh God, Eliot loved --
Eliot’s laugh died in his throat, although the tears didn’t have the courtesy to stop welling.
“Q,” he said, voice still shaky, “there’s something-- I have to-- that you should--”
But Quentin closed his eyes and Eliot noticed, at last, that Quentin hadn’t taken a single step toward him. Hadn’t even leaned in his direction. Was trying hard not to even look at him, in fact.
“Q?” he asked again, nerves filtering back in through the onslaught of emotion. Then, softer. “ Baby ?”
A grimace rippled across Q’s face and Eliot’s knees nearly buckled, but then Q was opening his eyes and looking at him so gently, extending a hand to him.
“Could you, um. Could you just-- come here, please?”
Q’s strained voice had its own gravity, and Eliot didn’t fight against it. He crossed the floor and when he got to the step where Q was sitting, he kneeled, just like he’d imagined so many times .
“Hey,” he whispered, and then Q’s whole face crumpled, and Eliot couldn’t stop himself, he was leaning in and pressing his forehead against Quentin’s, closing his eyes tight as Q bumped his nose against Eliot’s.
“ El ,” Quentin whispered, “ El .” And this would have been it-- the moment that Eliot’s whole world ended, except that it had exploded into powder already, when Eliot had come back from a Monster’s belly to realize that he’d never hear Quentin say his name--say anything --again. They were just living in the fallout now.
Quentin’s arms came to wrap around Eliot’s neck and Eliot lost the battle against a few more tears. Quentin didn’t seem to mind, pressing his cheek against Eliot’s wet one, rubbing like the cat that he half-was.
“El, I need you to do something for me, okay? It’s important.”
He sounded so worried. Eliot nodded without considering it. “Anything.”
Quentin pulled back just far enough to fix Eliot with the full force of those sweet, sad eyes. He blinked, once, then said, “Tell me that you love me. Please. ”
The droning hum of the air conditioning unit in Penny’s office was making the buzzing under Eliot’s skin even worse. Perhaps he should have spent more than 48 hours getting clean before coming down here. Perhaps he shouldn’t have spent the last two weeks in a drug-fueled haze in the first place. And why was there air conditioning in hell, anyway? The Underworld, whatever. Didn’t that sort of defeat the mood?
Penny, pen poised over his ledger, looked at him expectantly. “Whenever you’re ready.”
Julia nodded at his side. “You’re gonna be fine.”
“Eliot? Did you hear me?”
He took a deep breath in, then out. This wasn’t new. He’d told the not-really-Quentins in his head. Thousands of times. This wouldn’t be the first time.
It would just be the last time.
Quentin’s eyes , he reminded himself. The way he elbow-greased his way through every casting, impatient and heavy-handed, like he could only manifest his will if he channeled the full force of his wanting it. His hair when he first woke up and the way he couldn’t even form words when he crawled out of bed in the morning.
His blood, everywhere.
“I love him,” Eliot breathed out, eyes closed.
“Please, Eliot. Just say it, this time.”
Eliot cracked his eyes, when he didn’t hear the expected scratching of the pen.
“Why aren’t you writing?”
Penny adjusted his tie, looking uncomfortable. “Yeah, no offense, but that’s not exactly a secret.”
“Not a secret,” Eliot repeated, toneless.
“Not really, man. I mean, Julia already said that you’re the one doing the mission because it has to be someone who loves Quentin the most. It can’t be a secret if it’s something everyone knows.”
Penny his his pen aside, and Eliot felt his chance slipping away. The secret, Julia’s sources had been clear, had to be the deepest held. And Eliot knew what his deepest secret was because he’d already played this game, had the proof of concept to show for it.
“‘I’m in love with him,” Eliot clarified.
Penny cleared his throat. Even Julia shifted awkwardly in her seat.
“Pretty sure everyone knows that, too,” Penny said after an uneasy beat.
After feeling nothing for so long, Eliot was surprised to feel the sudden burn of fire in his veins.
“No,” he said, acidly. “They don’t .”
Penny opened his mouth, but Eliot didn’t have time for his color commentary.
“He asked me to be with him, once,” Eliot blurted out in a rush. “To really be with him. Not a quest-made-me-do-it thing. Not an ill-advised hook-up. And I--” he laughed, once, the unhappiest sound “-- I told him no . I told him I wouldn’t choose him.”
He leaned forward in his chair, flattening both palms to Penny’s desk. He probably looked desperate, but whatever. Accurate. “I lied to him,” he said, “and now he’s dead , and I’ll swear on however many forms you want that I will never say a word to him-- I will--”
He laughed again, and nevermind-- that was the unhappiest sound. “I promised myself every day when I was stuck inside my head that the second I saw him again, I would tell him, but I will give that up. I will give you people the words that I was supposed to give to him and I will never say them to him, if you can just make him-- not be--”
“El, c’mon . Don’t do this to me again.”
Penny’s eyes were all regret, even as his fingers moved toward his pen. “You don’t want to give us those words, man. I mean, you really, really don’t.”
Eliot just pushed himself back into this chair. “No, I don’t,” he spit out. “Now fucking write it down. ”
Penny sighed but picked up the pen. “Don’t say I didn’t try to warn you--”
Quentin’s eyes were as devastating as ever. Eliot let himself stare into them one moment more, then screwed his own eyes shut and shook his head.
“I’m so sorry, Q. I can’t .”
He wanted to keep his eyes closed, to not have to watch whatever happened on Quentin’s face as he got rejected here, again , after putting his whole heart on the line. But Eliot could be braver than that , even if he couldn’t be as brave as he’d promised to be. He opened his eyes just in time to see Q’s jaw drop. He let out a little, kicked huff of-- surprise , and pain that gutted Eliot.
And then suddenly Quentin’s familiar, hurt face rearranged itself into something totally foreign-- a cold, contented, reptile smile, that only grew as Eliot’s eyes widened.
“Well,” the now obviously Not-Quentin said, all traces of emotion gone from his voice, “ that’s going to be a problem.”
Eliot recoiled from the-- the vision -- sick to his stomach and pissed and feeling somehow like he was mourning all over again. “What do you mean?” Eliot could hear the shaky edge of panic in his voice, and tried to clamp it down, without much success. “I followed your rules. I didn’t--”
The vision just shook its head slowly. “You really, really should have read the full contract.”
Eliot remembered Not-Alice’s warning, and Penny-40’s, and felt the cold creep of not just fear, but dread , across his whole body.
“ Everyone said it,” the vision was saying. “All of Julia’s contacts. The contract must be completed by the person who loves the deceased the most in the whole world-- ”
Understanding washed over Eliot, even as he struggled against it.
“--and here you just admitted that you don’t love Quentin, after all.” The vision shrugged. “Sounds like a default to me.”
The blood stilled in Eliot’s veins, as the whole world contracted to the unconcerned face that was almost but not even close to the face he needed to see.
“It’s really too bad,” the vision said. “You know, he was right behind you the whole time. He kept reaching for your hand, everytime you started crying. He must have forgotten about the whole invisible thing. Or maybe he just didn’t care.”
“There has to be something else,” Eliot ground out, wracking his failure of a brain for some way out of this catch-22 of his own stupid fucking devising. Fuck Penny and his cryptic hints. And fuck himself , for always, always being his own worst enemy. He wrapped his arms around his chest, and heard the crunch of glossy pages.
Coin of the realm , he thought.
“What about these?” he pleaded, grabbing fistfuls of the pages and holding them out to the vision like the paltriest sacrifice. Not even little cakes. “Please?”
The vision raised its eyebrow. “Interesting thought, I’ll allow it.” He ripped the stories from Eliot’s hands, employing none of the tenderness that the vision-librarian had, as he flipped through them.
“Let’s see,” he said, tossing each booklet aside as he dismissed the memory within. “Quentin reaching out and you shutting him down. Quentin reaching out and you shutting him down, again . Quentin reaching out and you fucking him to shut him up-- ooh , variation. Nice.”
He paused and looked up at Eliot, holding the next booklet open. “Surprisingly, you’re not actually the worst father.”
But then the vision tossed that story-- Teddy --over his shoulder, too. “Nope, sorry but these aren’t going to cut it,” he said, extinguishing any flicker of hope. “Nothing in any of these says ‘I love you.’ ‘I get off on what a bossy bottom you are,’ and ‘I’m emotionally constipated in the extreme,’ and ‘you made a cute kid,’ sure. But not love .”
Eliot stood before the vision feeling exposed, naked , examined and found wanting. He knew it couldn’t have been any other way. He’d conducted the same examination himself, all that time trapped with the monster. This was the cost of being chickenshit enough to repress and devalue and hide the single truest thing he’d ever felt, over and over again, to pretend it wasn’t real in the hope that no one would take it away. He just--
He just wished it wasn’t Quentin who had to pay for Eliot’s shortcomings.
Eliot’s stomach suddenly lurched again. But he didn’t feel seasick this time. For the first time in ages, the ground actually felt sure and solid beneath him.
The vision was gesturing to the empty space-- no, to Q , standing just over Eliot’s shoulder, where he’d always been, always. Good, loyal Q. Eliot had died for him before. What was one more time?
“Take him away,” the vision was saying, but Eliot stepped forward, grabbing the vision’s wrists.
“ No .”
The vision rolled its eyes, inconvenienced but not interested enough to be mad. “Not how this works. You had your shot, now--”
“Take me instead.”
The words echoed in the high-ceilinged space, and even if this was just a facsimile, or an echo, or an overly elaborate set designed by a bunch of trope-obsessed librarians with frankly way too much access to his most intimate memories, Eliot didn’t hate the idea that this room would be the last place he saw.
“Take-- you?” the vision said, appraising. “Why would we do that?”
“What’s one soul versus another to you?” Eliot shot back, desperate. “You like stories, right? Well, I’ve got lots of them. I’ve orchestrated more debauchery than you can imagine. You’ll get all of that. You’ll keep your souls quota, and Quentin will be back here one day, eventually.”
A hundred years from now, he hoped. With a wife--or, fuck, a husband--and twelve kids and thirty-five grandchildren that he spoiled like the ridiculous soft-touch he was. With a life .
“Would you sign on it?” the vision suddenly asked.
Eliot didn’t hesitate. “ Yes .”
Holy mother of sloths, yes . The vision was actually going for it.
Eliot held his breath while the vision studied him for a long moment. Finally, the vision reached into the pocket of the black hoodie he was wearing and pulled out a pen. “Okay,” he shrugged, extending the pen to Eliot.
Eliot reached out for it, like it was the brass ring. But just before his fingers brushed the polished metal, something crashed with a hard thud into the vision’s chest.
The vision let out an “oof” that sounded so much like Quentin it hurt. He caught the object in his hands, and as he turned it over, Eliot could see that it was a book. Another book from nowhere. But unlike Eliot’s reams of shiny playbills, this one was a beat-up hardcover, with well-worn, dog-eared pages and old-fashioned cover art. It looked right in not-Quentin’s hands. It looked like--
As the vision perused the pages, its eyebrows knitted closer and closer together, until it flung the book to the side and shot a look of annoyance over Eliot’s shoulder.
“Seriously?!” it demanded.
If it got a response, Eliot didn’t know, because just behind the vision, in the same spot as before , a door appeared. Not one of the nondescript Library fire doors, but something that Eliot would recognize anywhere.
A Z-shaped bar slashing diagonally across and a wooden latch.
Warped planks that didn’t join up quite right and splinters in his back when Q decided to play at dominant and push him up against the thing and kiss him senseless on tiptoes.
He moved to it on instinct.
“Are you sure about that?” the vision with Q’s face demanded, just as Eliot reached for the handle.
Eliot looked at the book discarded on the floor, the obvious Fillory and Further knockoff of it, and at the door that felt like home . He cast his mind to the spot behind his shoulder, and it was like he actually could feel Quentin now, nodding spastically, yes, yes, finally, c’mon, El, get fucking on with it.
“No,” Eliot told the vision, maybe too honestly. “But I’m going to trust him.”
The earth --not linoleum, not the cold throne room tile, not even the murky dock where he and Julia (well, Julia) had hailed their dragon--was warm and grassy beneath Eliot’s still-bare feet. He didn’t have time to register more than that about his surroundings, didn’t even have time to register the sucking panic that maybe it hadn’t worked , when he heard a heavy door open and slam shut behind him, incongruous in the clearing, and lost the capacity to think about anything else.
Heart jackhammering, Eliot forced himself to turn around to face where he knew the door had been. The movement couldn’t have lasted half a second, but it felt like years. He told himself the whole time he spun that he shouldn’t get his hopes up, that it wouldn’t be-- But fuck that, because it was , he knew, in his heart , that it was .
And then Eliot was all the way around and how, how , could he ever have believed that the illusion in the throne room was the real thing. Because there was only one ( the only one), and there he was: his hair shorter than Eliot remembered, looking like he’d been tugging at it in frustration, wearing a surprisingly nice button-down shirt, the discarded book clutched in one hand. He was looking around wildly, and then he caught sight of Eliot and froze. They both froze, and then Quentin ( Quentin, Quentin, Quentin ) was launching himself at Eliot.
Eliot stepped forward to meet him, and Quentin ( Quentin ) was close enough to touch, and then Quentin reached forward and pushed Eliot, hard, in the center of his chest.
“Jesus Christ , El!” Q was craning up to stare him down, brown eyes absolutely livid . “I can’t believe you offered to trade yourself for me. What the hell were you thinking ?”
Q didn’t move his hand away after he pushed Eliot, kept it resting above Eliot’s heart, even as he yelled. Eliot felt the weight of each finger.
“--have any idea how hard I-- we worked to save you from that thing? And then you go and--”
Eliot pressed Q’s hand into his chest with his own two hands on top, let it cover the thump-thump that had been missing for so long. Q stopped, mid-rant.
“You’re alive ,” Eliot said, breathless and so purely happy it almost looped back around to sad.
Q’s mouth quirked up at one corner, and his eyes when he met Eliot’s were sweetly overwhelmed, as if the fact had somehow escaped his awareness, in his rush to berate Eliot for Eliot’s (totally justified) rush to sacrifice himself. “Yeah,” he breathed out, shaking his head like he almost didn’t believe it. “Guess so.”
Eliot reached out to touch the side of his face, which was-- there was no blood , anymore. Just Quentin. Q leaned into the touch, eyes sliding shut, and Eliot let his thumb stroke once over the soft eyelashes. “I don’t understand,” he said, quietly, almost afraid that saying it out loud would make it all not true. “The vision, it said you couldn’t come with me, unless . . .”
Q blinked his eyes open slowly and set his mouth-- his mouth --into a firm line. “It wanted proof,” he said, before shrugging one shoulder in that determined way of his, like being so fucking brave all the time was nothing special. “So I gave it to him.”
Eliot felt his brows pull in. That was impossible. He’d never even told Q, not once in more than fifty years. “What proof could you have--”
But Q was rolling his eyes, like he already knew what Eliot was thinking and was five steps ahead. He pulled his hand away, gently, and then pressed the book he’d carried out of the Underworld into Eliot’s empty hands.
“The Underworld Branch-- it transcribed your memories, when you thought about them, right?” Q was saying. “Well, these are mine.”
On closer inspection, the book really was just like Q’s old Fillory copies, right down to the hopelessly art nouveau cover. Eliot traced his fingers over the embossing but didn’t open it. “I don’t--”
“Would you just . . . actually read something?” Q scolded gently. “Just this once?”
Eliot looked back down at the book in his hands, cracked it open, and saw--
Quentin sat heavily at the sturdy tavern table, where his partner was already pouring him a glass of--oh God, was it really turnip wine ?-- from the pitcher.
“So am I allowed to talk again?” he asked, tugging at his sleeve nervously. “Or are we still playing the Quiet Game?”
Eliot’s eyes shot up from the page. “This is--”
Quentin just nodded at him. “Keep going. Please.”
Across the table, Eliot pretended to consider, rolling the bottom of his glass along the uneven wood. Somehow he still managed to play the coquette better than anyone Quentin had ever known, even with the silver at his temples.
“Depends what you have to say.”
Quentin gave him a look and Eliot smiled, the loose, easy, genuine smile that Quentin thought of as his regular smile now, but which he’d almost never seen in their old life.
“Fine,” Eliot sighed, long-suffering, then smirked. “I guess if Teddy is off sweet-talking whatever-her-name-is, then it’s only fair that you get to give it a shot, too.”
It was Quentin’s turn to roll his eyes then. “El, you cannot keep encouraging him to treat boobs as the answer to his problems.”
Eliot raised an imperious eyebrow. “He’s fifteen and your son. He doesn’t need any encouraging.”
Quentin tried to return El’s volley, but the words--your son--landed heavy in his ears. He brought a hand up to his forehead, bringing it down over his eyes as he remembered that morning, Eliot’s I-Am-Your-High-King-Even-If-It’s-Not-For-Another-Century voice demanding that Teddy quit bitching and fix the axle like he promised to yesterday, Teddy’s angry back-talk, almost all bluster, except for the the resentful grumble when Eliot’s back was turned (‘--not even my real dad--’), and Quentin seeing red.
Eliot’s voice now was worried. He fussed so, over both of his guys.
Quentin made himself meet hazel eyes. “El, there’s something you should know. About . . . why I was so mad at Teddy, this morning.”
He didn’t want to tell him. But he and El had promised each other, in the early days after Arielle, that they would never hide anything from each other about Teddy, not even to spare the other’s feelings. So Quentin steeled himself, trying to figure out how to tell Eliot that the little boy he doted over, who bore his name, had said that , how to make clear that there was no way Teddy could have meant it, not really. But before he could open his mouth to say it, a look of understanding passed over Eliot’s face.
“I know what he said, Q,” he said, softly. “I heard him.”
Quentin’s jaw went slack. “But you didn’t say anything.”
Eliot just shrugged. “He’s fifteen and pissed off. We’ve all been there. He says things he doesn’t mean sometimes.”
A shadow passed over Eliot’s eyes as he said it, though.
“He didn’t mean it,” Quentin insisted. “You know that, right? He loves you, El.”
Eliot shrugged again-- which wasn’t nearly good enough. “Sure,” he said. Quentin opened his mouth to interrupt, but Eliot continued. “That’s not the point, though.”
“Then what’s the point?”
Eliot met his gaze and smiled sadly. “It doesn’t matter, if he wants me to be his dad or not. Either way, I’m his.” He reached his hand across the table for Quentin’s, which Quentin couldn’t give quickly enough. “I’m both of yours,” he added gently.
Eliot’s breath hitched as he reached the end of the scene. He’d forgotten--
He looked over at Quentin, who nodded at him again, encouraging, so he turned the page with shaking fingers.
“--come here to Eliot, you poor little thing.”
Quentin eased back against the pillows, swallowing down the lump in his throat at the sound of Eliot--Eliot who didn’t even like baby animals --actually cooing at their child.
Beside him, Arielle leaned her head onto Quentin’s shoulder. She still rested her hand on her stomach, the way she had throughout the pregnancy.
“Figures it took all of two minutes for a boy with your eyes and nose to wrap Eliot around his little finger.”
Quentin laughed softly and pressed a kiss to her damp forehead. She closed her eyes and he nestled his cheek against her hair, watching with soft eyes as Eliot instinctively brought the baby in closer against his heart. Quentin let his own eyes shut and drifted off to the sound of--
“--and I’ll tell you all about fabrics. Don’t ever go to your dad about that. Your mom sometimes, but double-check with me, okay? Oh, and magic! I can teach you everything--”
There were more, too, all of the stupid anecdotes that Eliot had thrown out like a lifeline as he climbed the steps, trying to distract himself from the burning, painful, impossible hope that Q was actually following--
“Oh my God, Q-- your face ! It’s like you’d never seen one before . ”
Quentin rolled his eyes at Eliot, who was laughing so hard he was in danger of losing his crown, barely holding on to a glass of one of the apparently more successful champagne experiments.
“I’ve-- obviously, I’ve seen one.” Quentin thought back to the fucking-- insanely endowed centaur, even by his species’ standards, that had come into court for an audience that morning, no pants in sight. “Just not quite that-- big.”
Eliot’s laughter stopped abruptly. “Well, now I’m offended.”
“You’re ridiculous,” Quentin muttered, trying as usual to put aside the memories of that night with the emotion bottles, but unable not to respond to El’s charmingly out-of-control vanity, even when everything else felt so dark.
“And you’re actually smiling.” Eliot’s gaze went fond. “It’s a good look on you, Q. I’ve missed it.”
“--your moves are terrible !”
But Quentin was beaming, living for the fuschia cocktails Eliot had been mixing and the cast of thousands he’d somehow produced in the Physical Kids Cottage, just to celebrate Quentin’s non-expulsion. “Don’t care! I’m staying at Brakebills!”
“You’re staying at Brakebills!” Eliot repeated, pupils blown wide. He was drunk off his ass, which probably explained why he grabbed Quentin’s hips and pulled him in tight, making him rock in time with him , and the music. Didn’t explain why Quentin’s heart almost stopped, though. Or why Quentin let himself drape his arms around Eliot’s neck.
Eliot melted into the touch, bringing his sweaty forehead to Quentin’s temple. “I’m glad you’re not leaving,” he whispered, so open and honest that Quentin almost believed that he must have misheard him--
And there was that night, at the mosaic, their first (second) night, on their one-year anniversary, but from this angle--
Eliot was achingly hard underneath him, Quentin could feel him so close, not close enough. Oh God, he was begging and desperate and this was probably really embarrassing on some level, but he didn’t care because he was desperate, had wanted it, him , again, for so long now-- wanted him-- wanted him--
Eliot’s hands gripped his hips, hard, and oh wow, yeah, okay. That worked. That really, really worked. Quentin opened his mouth to say so, because why not, why not, he was letting it all spill out now, anything to make Eliot-- But then Eliot was pressing his face against Quentin’s throat, hiding those eyes, and muttering, “Just-- don’t hate me this time, okay?”
And then he did look up at Q, like he had that night, his eyes, his eyes, they were so pretty and so scared and Quentin just had to-- kiss him. Couldn’t not. Had to kiss him harder, too, because his hands in Quentin’s hair were actually trembling--
And then the other memories, the ones Eliot was still low-key ashamed of, except--
In most ways, Quentin knew he was nothing special, okay? The whole Beast/Chatwins/timeloop stuff notwithstanding. He was a good father, he hoped, and he’d tried to be an okay husband and partner, but the fact remained that he was a magical grad school dropout who had destabilized a kingdom, gotten magic turned off for several worlds, vowed to complete a quest to bring it back, and then sort of failed to make any meaningful progress on that goal to the tune of almost a decade at this point. Right? So, on paper. Not that impressive. But on nights like this?
On nights like this, Quentin was a god .
Because he hadn’t done anything , yet-- not really. He’d taken his own pants off, but he’d only managed to slip a hand down Eliot’s fly, and Eliot was already shaking like a leaf, and calling out “Q, Q” like it was the only word he knew.
Quentin almost had to laugh (except, really not) thinking of the Unofficial Prince of Brakebills, who’d had a literal line of over-confident boys waiting for the privilege, coming completely undone at Quentin’s awkward-angle handjob. Logically, he knew it was just because it had been so long, with Teddy at the age he was now and the cabin as small as it was. But logic wasn’t really at the forefront right now, with Eliot stretched out across his lap, arching up and moaning, letting Quentin get his hand on more--
Maybe the lack of logic was also why Quentin leaned over Eliot--his tall, strapping partner who liked to hold Quentin down and bully him against walls, all I-know-what-you-need and, yes, always, to all of that--but tonight, Quentin loomed over Eliot, and said against his mouth, “Tell me, El. Tell me you need this.”
And El babbled back “Need you, baby. Always.” But then as soon as the words were out of his mouth, his closed eyes snapped open and he gathered himself in and up, and Q kept stroking him, and Eliot didn’t stop shivering on every stroke, but he was being cool and coy about it again. And then he was being ironic, which was even worse, and then he was actually-- making jokes-but-not-jokes, again , about how ‘you know, for a straight guy--’
In the fight that followed, Quentin--well, he didn’t remember all of it, honestly--but he made some crack about their neighbor, which was ridiculous because (a) she was, like, 19, and (b) she wasn’t Eliot, and he waited for Eliot to toss some flippant bullshit back, but . . . he didn’t.
He didn’t do anything. It was like Eliot had just . . . stopped.
And Quentin knew other things, too, okay? He knew that, sometimes, in his past, he had . . . wandered. He’d done it to Alice, and--although he’d never, ever regret a minute with his fiery Arielle--he knew that, from a certain perspective, it might look, to some people, like him choosing her had been him rejecting Eliot, or, at least, him saying that just Eliot wasn’t enough , maybe.
But not to Eliot, surely-- Eliot, who’d encouraged him to go after Arielle in the first place, who’d insisted on it, actually. Eliot with his polyamorous royal family, a little dead-in-the-eyes, sure, but just super unconcerned about traditional rules. Eliot who had been so nervous once to go on a date with his boyfriend Mike, before they knew, that he’d asked Quentin for clothing advice. Eliot who had learned the hardest way that ‘it just felt like he was the only one who ever really . . . liked me, you know? Just me. And he was never even real. How fucked up is that?’
And in that moment Quentin’s heart just . . . ached . He let Eliot change the topic, got lost in the feeling of Eliot’s mouth, because he was only human, all right, and making Eliot actually talk about it would have been beyond cruel. But Quentin carried the bruise inside him, and a few weeks later, he tried to make sure Eliot knew , that there wasn’t any ambiguity about exactly what Quentin needed.
He wrapped his arms around Eliot from behind, letting them rest around Eliot’s waist, but then bringing his hands up to press against Eliot’s sternum when he mumbled the words into Eliot’s back. Which was why Quentin felt it, the hitch of Eliot’s breath, the way his heart stopped then raced, even as he tossed his head and said, airy and bored, “Well, obviously. Who wouldn’t want all this?”
There were others, too, even the stupid tattoo thing, which didn’t feel stupid, suddenly, reading--
“Ow, ow. Shit!”
“Lie still and stop being such a baby.” Eliot’s voice was as unsympathetic as his fingers were gentle. The wet Fillorian spring was absolute murder on Quentin’s wooden shoulder, he was learning, but Eliot’s hands were magic. He pushed and prodded at the joint, making Quentin lie on his stomach so that he could work into the tissue from all sides ( ‘among other reasons’). When he was finished, Quentin let out a long groan and buried his face in the patchwork quilt they’d found when they took over the cabin, which was getting a little threadbare, actually. Great. He’d have to add it to the mending pile.
He registered after a moment that Eliot’s hand, which had been soothing the joints he’d just massaged, had wandered to the center of Quentin’s back, tracing the ‘Q’ that was still hard for Quentin to think about, most days.
“I wish--,” Eliot murmured, as his fingers traced the old ink. “I wish none of that had happened to you.”
Quentin’s breath caught in his throat. He couldn’t think of anything to say, so he didn’t say anything.
Eliot, seeming to sense Quentin’s distress--like he always did, somehow--let his voice go husky and teasing, changing the mood of the room. “You know,” he said, “circumstances surrounding its acquisition notwithstanding, the tattoo is pretty hot on you. I’ve been thinking maybe I should get one of my own.”
Quentin twisted around to look at Eliot’s eyes, which were all mischief.
“Lemme guess,” Quentin said, “Mosaic tiles?”
Eliot barked out a laugh. “Uh, pass. No, I think I should get a matching one.”
“You want a full-back ‘E,’” Quentin said, letting his chin rest on the mattress again. “How has that not already happened, honestly?”
“Not an ‘E,’” Eliot said, pinching Quentin’s exposed side. Quentin definitely did not yelp, but he did roll onto his back. He looked up at Eliot, and pushed down the feeling in his gut, which was getting stronger every day after almost a year in such close proximity, that he liked the way Eliot’s forearms looked while he braced himself and the way his voice went soft when he teased.
“A ‘Q,’” Eliot went on. “That way we match.”
Quentin’s mouth went a little dry at the thought, in spite of himself. “On your back?” he asked, a little weakly.
Eliot just smiled. “No. Right over my heart,” and he patted his chest while he said it, exaggerated, but somehow it didn’t sound like a joke at all.
Quentin didn’t have a memory of Fen helping Eliot to bury himself in Quentin’s left-behind clothes, obviously, but he did have--
Eliot’s gray sweater, pulled as tightly around himself as his arthritic fingers could manage. It wasn’t the same, would never be good enough, still couldn’t make him feel as safe , and warm, and cherished as Eliot, Eliot, “Eliot--”
Teddy’s hands rubbing circles onto Quentin’s back; he’d grown up to be so much like his beloved Papa. “It’s okay, Dad. I miss him, too.”
Eliot’s eyes threatened to well over, again, reading about the way that Quentin and their little family had mourned for him . He hadn’t even asked Quentin how long he’d gone on, after Eliot had died, in their lifetime that wasn’t. Eliot hoped that it was ages. He hoped that Quentin had met their great-great-grandchildren. He hoped Quentin had gotten to have the most beautiful life-- and he must have, on some level. Because after it didn’t happen and the memories somehow came back, he had looked into Eliot’s eyes and asked to do it all again. And Eliot had--
Eliot’s fingers froze before he could turn the page, knowing, somehow, what memory he’d see next. He shook his head, not wanting to live it again, when there was nothing he could do to fix it, but Quentin reached out and circled his wrist.
“ Please ,” he said. And Eliot couldn’t say no, not after everything, not when there was so much he couldn’t say yes to, not anymore. He owed this to Q, so he--
The throne room, big and empty. Two figures on the steps, dwarfed by the cavernous space.
Quentin’s heart had been broken here, once-- a little, anyway. Maybe not in the biggest way, because he hadn’t lost anything, not really. Just a possibility, a memory of something that could be more. It had hurt, at the time, yeah. Hurt worse when Eliot had decided it wasn’t enough to just say no, he had to actually send Quentin away to go be life partners with someone else for a little while , hazel eyes tragic the whole time he said it, like he had forgotten that Quentin knew literally everything about him, knew when he was lying, when he was running away because his whole nothing’s-worth-caring-about-nothing-hurts-me act was just the biggest load of bullshit. Quentin had felt the way Eliot held him, okay? Way before the mosaic quest. It wasn’t-- it wasn’t a lack of caring that made Eliot turn him down . And it pissed Quentin off and beat him up inside a little, yeah, that Eliot wanted to go right back to pretending this was all just oh-friends-clasp-hands-and-longingly-stare-into-each-other’s-eyes-all-the-time, right?
It beat him up a lot, actually. It hurt , fine. But in retrospect, really not that big a deal. Because even when El was trying to hide from Quentin how much he was also dying a little inside, his eyes were still his eyes . And he was still alive and well and making shitty choices and Quentin would take that, he would so take that, now that he had known the alternative.
Right now ‘hurt’ didn’t even cover it. Because El , stupid, brave El, who gave himself way too much credit for dumb shit and none at all for the things that actually mattered, was just barely standing on his bare feet, watching this thing with Quentin’s face and eyes--and Quentin knew how that was, he really did--say that Eliot had never loved Quentin, and Eliot was just taking it.
Someone was coming to take Quentin away, and that part almost didn’t matter, because Quentin had known the risks when they started that ritual to free Eliot. He knew where it would end up, and it was beyond worth it, and he didn’t need to go back up top as long as Eliot was okay, and this way he’d gotten to see Eliot-- really Eliot -- one more time, which was more than he thought he’d get.
But then Eliot opened his mouth, and Quentin realized that nope, their story couldn’t end here, he was going to have do something to save this dumb bastard that he loved again . Because Eliot was fierce and raw and tender, and fuck everything he had said, no one, no one had ever loved Quentin this much, as he stood proud and falling to pieces and saying, “Take me instead.”
Eliot’s eyes searched out Quentin’s, but Quentin was already moving forward, taking the book out of Eliot’s hands and tossing it aside as carelessly as the vision had. He put his hand over Eliot’s heart again, the other sliding up to cup Eliot’s cheek.
“I don’t--” Eliot was saying, even though honestly, he wasn’t even sure what he didn’t at this point.
Quentin sighed and pushed against Eliot’s chest again, just a little this time, before sliding both hands up to frame Eliot’s face. Eliot leaned down into him, so that their foreheads could touch.
“I hate to break it to you,” Quentin said, firm, even though his voice was rough underneath. “but you’re really not as fucking-- cool and unknowable as you think you are.” He paused and swallowed. “You brought me back from the Underworld , El.”
Eliot half-wanted to shut his eyes, but that was impossible, because he was never going to stop looking at Q again. “But, the vision-- it already saw those memories, in my books. It said--”
“Yeah, well, I think he was dealing with kind of an unreliable narrator.”
Q held Eliot’s eyes and wouldn’t let go, and Eliot didn’t want to let go, either, not this time, not ever. It wasn’t the way he thought, he hoped, it would be, when he’d been fantasizing about getting free again, but it didn’t matter. The important part-- the only important part -- was exactly the same. He brought his own hands up to touch Quentin’s, his jaw, and the tips of his shorter hair, and--
“ Fuck yes. You better.”
And so Eliot leaned in and he didn’t close his eyes this time, because he didn’t want to stop seeing Q, even as their lips met, for the first time in fifty years.
He’d only meant for it to be a press, solid, reassurance, but then Quentin was kissing back, because-- because Q wanted him, truly, really, wanted him. In all the ways that he wanted Q . And so fuck reassurance and fuck restraint, Eliot was-- He used the hands framing Q’s face to tip his head back so that he could open his mouth and taste as much as Q would let him, which was everything . And Q was gripping Eliot’s wrists, hard enough to bruise, and pushing up to his tiptoes and making these sighing noises that Eliot was swallowing, greedy, wanting. And even though Q was the one that was being bent almost backwards at this point, somehow it was Eliot who was swaying on his feet, while Q stroked the tendons of his wrists, and only when Eliot was absolutely, absolutely sure that he could not go another second without air, he pulled back, dropping one more soft kiss to Q’s bottom lip even as he did.
Q was closed-eyed and dazed and a little breathless, fingers still rubbing at Eliot’s wrists. “Um, see,” he started, before catching his breath and starting again, “that was-- was kind of. Obvious.”
Eliot couldn’t stop the smile that spread across his face. But he had to check, had to make sure-- “Q, you-- The deal I made with the Library-- I can never say the words--”
“I don’t give a shit about the words,” Q interrupted him, eyes open again, and serious. “We went fifty years without the words. We’ll figure it out.”
Eliot nuzzled his forehead, entranced as always, since minute one. “But you deserve the words.”
Q pressed their mouths together again just once, short and so sweet. “You’re just going to have to trust me, okay? This is-- you’re what I want, El.”
Eliot wanted to say it back, with all his heart, so he did-- he just didn’t bother with the words.
When they pulled apart again, both smiling like idiots, Eliot finally allowed himself a moment to take in their surroundings. “Huh,” he finally said, registering the perfect lawn and the stately buildings and the stone sign where his cool-and-mysterious act had first started falling apart in the face of one Quentin Coldwater such a long time ago. “This is actually kind of poetic.”
Quentin looked around, too, before shrugging. “Well, they are a library. It stands to reason they know their symbolism, I guess.”
“Well, speaking of symbolism,” Eliot added, “our friends are actually waiting for us back at the Physical Cottage. You know, like old days.” He tucked a strand of hair behind Q’s ear, where it just barely reached anymore. “I think they’re really, really going to want to see you.”
Quentin took a deep breath in and let it out, before reaching for Eliot’s hand.
“Lead the way,” he said, smiling.
So Eliot laced their fingers together, and did.