Eliot cuts his hair. He’s alone, for the first time in forever, in the glass steel bathroom of the penthouse apartment that seems to be their base of operations now. No one has explained whose apartment it is, or how they wound up here, and he doesn’t care. It’s different, and different is good. He said he wanted to wash up, but splashing some water on his face isn’t enough. His reflection in the mirror still doesn’t fit right.
He rummages through the drawers looking for scissors, or clippers, or something helpful but it’s all dark lipsticks, and tampons, and a bottle of ibuprofen hidden behind a stack of towels. He takes some, even though he couldn’t say exactly what hurts. No scissors, no problem. He’s a magician, and vain enough to have learned a haircutting spell. It’s delicate, and he has power he isn’t used to coursing through his hands. He fucks up some, and the sides are shorter than he planned, but he evens it out, and no one will know this isn’t what he meant to do all along. This is still a look that he can pull off. Things will be fine.
Quentin knocks when he’s half way through, and really, it’s amazing that Quentin has held back his worry that long. Q has been non stop hovering since yesterday. Probably before yesterday too, but Eliot wasn’t himself before yesterday, so he can only speculate. Eliot doesn’t mind Q hovering. He kind of likes it, which is something he will never admit. Right now it doesn’t matter, because he isn’t done fixing his hair, so Q will have to wait.
“Just another minute,” he yells through the door, continuing his trimming. You can’t rush perfection, but he shouldn’t dawdle either. Poor Q is probably worried sick, thinking that Eliot is having some sort of freak out when all Eliot is doing is cutting his hair.
He looks in the mirror, and it’s better. Not good, but better. He doesn’t entirely look like himself, and that’s better.
He hates this shirt, so he takes it off. He hates how pale he is, (he always hates how pale he is), and he doesn’t know where these bruises came from, but it’s better. It’s just his skin. His skin. All his now.
He looks acceptable enough to face his friends. This will have to be acceptable.
He opens the bathroom door.
Quentin is there, looking at him, always looking at him. Q doesn’t even know he’s doing it, and Eliot won’t tell him, he likes it too much.
“You, um, you...” Quentin doesn’t know what to say. Adorably tongue-tied — that was Eliot’s first impression, and time has proven that true.
“I cut my hair,” Eliot says.
“It looks good,” Q says, but Q’s judgement on these things cannot be trusted.
“It looks better,” Eliot says, because it does. Better, but maybe not quite good. Better is a start.
“Was bad,” Eliot says. That is all there is to say. It was tacky, and bloody, and nothing he’d chose to be seen in in a million years.
“We can find you something else,” Q says, like it matters. Maybe it matters to him. Maybe he finds Eliot’s skin distracting. Maybe he knows how Eliot got these bruises.
It’s socially acceptable to wear clothes when you’re doing something important, like trying to kill a monster, and generally, historically, Eliot has enjoyed wearing clothes. So alright. He follows Q down a hallway into a bedroom, which must be Q’s bedroom, based off how the floor is covered in Q’s clothes.
“Sorry about the mess,” Q says, sounding honestly apologetic, as if this in any way matters. “Things have been busy, and even on a good day executive function isn’t my strong suit, and I didn’t think anyone would be in here, in my bedroom, even though I hoped, I wanted it to work, um, and it did, and...”
Quentin can’t seem to find a way to end the sentence. Eliot would like to climb into Quentin’s unmade bed and sleep for a year.
“Can I help you find something?” Quentin asks, and starts digging through the clothing. “Or maybe something of Penny’s would be better, I know you don’t think much of my sense of style. Half of this isn’t even mine, it’s Brian’s — that’s, um, the fake identity Fogg gave me. But Brian wasn’t very stylish either, so, um...”
Eliot picks a navy blue sweater up off the floor. It’s soft, and he thinks he remembers Quentin wearing it Before. It looks like something Quentin would wear. He pulls it over his head, and it doesn’t fit him quite right, but that doesn’t matter.
There’s a mirror hanging over Quentin’s bed, and he doesn’t look like himself in this sweater. It’s too plain — a soft navy blue sweater isn’t fashion. He built himself out of fashion, out of vests and suspenders and prints that shouldn’t work together but do. He used clothes to tell everyone what he was, used his vests as armor against anyone who didn’t like that. Wearing Quentin’s blue sweater doesn’t say much at all. It says that he’s allowed to wear Quentin’s clothes, which says something good about him, about the two of them, about how they work. Maybe that won’t be obvious to anyone who sees him, not the way that his impeccable tailoring told the world what kind of man they were fucking with, but he looks in the mirror, and sees someone who gets to steal Quentin’s sweaters, and have Quentin look at him like that, and that’s someone he can stand being.
“This is fine,” Eliot says. He runs his left hand down his right arm, from shoulder to wrist, feeling the soft fabric which is probably some sort of acrylic blend, not cashmere, because this is Quentin’s sweater, not something Eliot would buy for himself. When this is over, if this is ever over, if it ever stills long enough for them to have something resembling a normal life, he will dress Quentin in cashmere and linen, and silk boxers, just silk boxers, nothing else. If the continuing crisis ever ends. Eliot isn’t holding his breath for that.
Eliot cuts his hair. Quentin leaves him alone for ten minutes in Marina’s monster-proofed hall bathroom, and Eliot manages to make a dramatic and worrying fashion statement, which is worrying, but also so perfectly Eliot. Everyone responds to trauma differently, and the past few days have been pretty fucking traumatic. Quentin was mostly coping by not sleeping and only eating plain tortilla chips because the idea of real food made him nauseous, and now he’s mostly coping by not letting Eliot out of his sight. Which had been working, until fifteen minutes ago, when he pretended that he would be fine if Eliot washed his face with a door between them, and now this happened. Which, Quentin shouldn’t judge. Eliot only cut his hair. There’ve both dabbled in way less healthy coping mechanisms than that.
It looks good? Quentin knows that his judgement can’t be trusted, he is in no way an objective observer, but it’s a good haircut. It’s shorter on the sides than it was when they met, but longer on top. Quentin has always known that Eliot is good looking, and at some point that ticked over into something else, where his brain registers Eliot as the most devastatingly handsome person possible, because he’s Eliot. Which is unhelpful, but not the worst thing his brain does to him, and also, true. This version of Eliot, standing in front of him with a new haircut, confusingly shirtless, is devastatingly handsome. He’s holding himself like Eliot, somehow careless and regal at the same time, and Quentin can never let him out of his sight again.
They need to get Eliot a new shirt. Because the body gets cold if it doesn’t wear enough clothes, and if the body gets too cold it won’t work right anymore. Which is not something Eliot should need to be reminded about. Eliot understands human bodies. (God, does Eliot understand human bodies.) Eliot knows the body needs clothes, he just couldn’t stand having that shirt on his body for another minute, which isn’t shocking. It was an ugly t-shirt with a bad pun, and this is Eliot. Eliot can’t wear ugly t-shirts with bad puns. Of course not. So Quentin will have to find him something else, because this is Eliot, it really is.
He leads Eliot into the bedroom he’s been using before he remembers what a disaster it is, and instantly regrets it. He took the smallest bedroom because he doesn’t really sleep here — he hasn’t really been sleeping. It’s just a room where all of the things from his dad’s house, and all of the things he was able to rescue from the cottage, and all of the things of Brian’s that he kept wound up exploding over everything. Fuck, he’s such a mess. Eliot shouldn’t have to see this. They should go steal something of Penny-23’s, Eliot would probably like one of Penny’s shirts better, Penny has cooler clothes than Quentin, or at least it seems like he puts some sort of conscious thought into what his clothes look like, which Quentin doesn’t, hasn’t in years. This is horrible.
Eliot, former high king of Fillory, and the pickiest dresser Quentin has ever known, calmly picks a sweater out of Quentin’s depression floordrobe and puts it on. Very calmly. Too calmly.
“This is fine,” Eliot says.
“Are you sure?” Quentin asks.
It doesn’t seem fine. None of this seems fine. It all seems like a big fucking disaster.
Eliot shrugs. “It’s soft.”
Quentin has owned that sweater since undergrad, and was shocked to find it in the back of a drawer in his childhood bedroom. He knows it’s very soft. Before yesterday, finding that sweater back was the best thing that happened in his life for months, but now Eliot (actual Eliot) is standing in front of him, so there’s something better.
He can’t believe Eliot wants to wear his stupid sweater, but compared to the fucking ugly monster shirt, it’s worlds better. Eliot always has opinions about clothes, and if Eliot says Quentin’s sweater is fine, then it must be fine, even if Quentin doesn’t understand why. He needs to trust that Eliot knows what he’s talking about, that this sweater is good enough, that he’s good enough. There’s a monster-killing meeting strategy session in the living room they’re supposed to be paying attention to, any further sartorial concerns will have to wait.
Eliot cuts his hair. There are two reasons for this. The first is that he’s prone to dramatic statements, and delineating his life into distinct aesthetic phases. Cutting his hair was the easiest way to announce to himself and everyone else that something was over, that something new has begun. The second is that he feels terrible, horrible, broken, fragmented. He doesn’t know what to do, but is desperate to do something. He doesn’t know how to pull himself together, how to be the sort of man that can move on, help finish the fight they’re in, and go on and live. These two reasons come together, and Eliot cuts his hair, with a vague subconscious thought that maybe if he cuts his hair he’ll be a different sort of man. That isn’t great logic, but there’s where he’s at.
It’s something. It’s an action he can take, and that feels so good after an eternity spent waiting, trapped, inside his own head. He raises his hands, and dark curls start falling into the sink. He works steadily, methodically. For a moment this is the only thing there is, and that feels good. Eliot cuts his hair, and it is simultaneously inconsequential, and the most important thing there is.
On the other side of the door Quentin paces, not the full length of the hallway, just three steps in either direction, back and forth, staying close in case Eliot needs him. He can’t tell if he’s having a very good or a very bad day. Eliot is back, but there’s still a monster to kill. Eliot is back, and it hasn’t solved everything. Life is still very hard, and scary, and it’s been too long since he’s gotten a good night’s sleep.
Today would be easier if he had gotten a good night’s sleep the night before last, when the plan was that they’d all get a good night’s sleep, and then in the morning Margo would stab the monster with her magic spear, and hopefully the monster would be dead and Eliot wouldn’t be. Getting a good night’s sleep was a good plan, and Quentin tried, but mostly he thought of all the things that could go wrong, and what he wanted to say to Eliot if things went right, and how selfish it was of him to try to save Eliot instead of simply putting a stop to the monster when they had a chance. It wasn’t a good night. But in the morning their plan worked, mostly, and they have Eliot back, and they’re going to come up with a way to kill the monster, and they have Eliot back, and he thinks he should be fine now, but of course he isn’t.
Nothing is going to fix him. No matter how well life is going, sometimes he will feel bad. Sometimes he forgets this, which makes his life harder, which makes him feel worse. Having Eliot back, to stare at, and worry over, and surprise him, is better, but nothing is fixed.
The lesson Quentin is learning, that they all are learning, very slowly, a piece at a time, is that you don’t fix things. You can’t fix things. All you can do is keep going, and hold onto the people that make the world better. Today Quentin understands this just enough to believe that he should never let Eliot is out of his sight.
It’s been too long. He’s spent more than enough time waiting and worrying about Eliot already. He doesn’t want to seem needy, but knows it’s unavoidable, that’s what he is. He knocks on the bathroom door.
“Just another minute,” Eliot yells. It will be more than another minute. He’s barely halfway done. Quentin would wait forever. They both know this.
Quentin tries not to worry. He goes back to pacing. It doesn’t make him feel better, but if he stands still and closes his eyes that’s it, he’ll be done for the day.
Eliot’s hair gets more symmetrically shorter. He wishes that he was doing this the right way, juggling scissors and a cigarette and a glass of whisky, which is what he did when he was a poor undergrad and resorted to cutting his own hair. Those weren’t the worst haircuts he’s ever had, because at least they were honest to his aesthetic. In the other room, their friends aren’t missing them yet.
Eliot finishes cutting his hair, and goes back to staring at himself in the mirror, half admiring his handiwork, half taking stock of the state he’s woken up in. Most of the time he only hates who he is, not how he looks. Today he’s torn between hating absolutely everything, and being positively thrilled that he is who he is, wholly himself. What he knows for sure is that this t-shirt has to go.
He learned at a young age that how you look shapes what people think of you, and he has tried to use this to his advantage ever since. When he was a child there was danger in wearing the colors he wanted to wear, even in caring about clothes as much as he cared about them. He never got very good at pretending to be anything else, but he tried, for years, and hated himself and everything around him.
Then he left Indiana, and he was able to blossom. Clothes were important because he could dress a certain way and people with eyes would know that he was gay, and that he had good taste. The right clothes could make the right people want to talk to him, could even trick the world into thinking he comes from somewhere different (someplace better) than he does. That seems less important now. He doesn’t feel a need for his clothes to communicate so much right now — he just can’t wear this shirt that the monster put on him for another minute.
Eliot opens the door. Quentin stops pacing, turns to look at him, stops breathing for half a second.
The first thing Quentin thinks is, oh no, he’ll get cold, and he hates that. He wants to be stunned by Eliot’s bare skin, stunned by the possibility of touching Eliot’s bare skin. Instead he’s worried that the body will get cold, and there’s bile in the back of the throat, and he hates that the monster has taken some of the thrill of Eliot standing half naked in front of him.
Eliot isn’t worried about the cold. All Eliot wanted was to get out of that t-shirt, but now that he’s free, he knows that Quentin is going to look at him, which is a good thing. Quentin looking at him is still something he can enjoy, which means there must be hope left in the world.
They spend a moment looking at each other, in a hallway, in an apartment, in New York City. What matters in this moment is very small. It has nothing to do with monsters, nothing to do with magic. It’s a simple truth that they’re both dancing around — they’re in love.
Eliot loves Quentin. He wasn’t brave enough to say so, which was a mistake he plans on fixing, but not right now. Being that brave requires being more of a real person than he is right now. Eliot knows that for the statement “I love you” to have the appropriate weight there needs to be a coherent “I” speaking, and he isn’t steady enough to step into that role at the moment. He has promised himself that he’ll be that brave if they’re both alive next week. He believes it would be cruel to say anything now, when it feels like Quentin might lose him again at any moment.
Quentin, if consulted, would disagree.
Quentin loves Eliot. He has for a long time, in a lot of different ways. Recently, loving Eliot has only made his life more complicated and painful, but he couldn’t give it up. It’s an elemental part of him, one of his circumstances. He’s two parts apprehensive and one part excited about living in a world where Eliot can theoretically love him back, but mostly he’s too tired to reorganize their love into something mutual. For months loving Eliot meant protecting Eliot, believing that Eliot could be saved. Having Eliot, actual Eliot, the very frustrating man he loves, back will take some getting used to.
They know they’re in love, they’ve just decided not to talk about it right now, because sometimes stories don’t have time for grand romantic statements. Heartfelt confessions demand a lot from a tired magician. Passionate kisses require being able to use and relate to your physical body in certain way, on a level that neither of them are close to. That doesn’t mean they aren’t in love.
Quentin likes Eliot’s new haircut, and Eliot likes Quentin looking at him, and it’s something to be proud of that they’re still capable of liking things, that brief moments of pleasure are still possible. They have a terribly inane conversation about Eliot’s haircut, and the need for a new shirt, because they’re too busy looking at each other and being in love to come up with interesting words.
(In the living room, monster-killing has momentarilly halted for a snack break.
“What do you think is taking them so long?” Josh asks. He cares mostly because these muffins won’t be as good once they’re cold.
“Who fucking cares,” Penny says.
“I hope they’re boning it out in the shower, but they’re probably too sad for something so interesting,” Margo says, because she likes saying crude things, and because she wants her friends to be happy.
Alice aggressively turns a page. (She has not taken a snack break.)
“We should all give them some space to work things out,” Julia says.
“It doesn’t matter what their deal is,” Kady says. “Making sure the monster isn’t left running free is more important than their drama.”
Josh nods in agreement, unable to agree with words, his mouth full of blackberry-basil muffin.)
Eliot follows Quentin down the hallway towards his bedroom, on their new quest, to find Eliot something different to wear. Quentin’s room in Kady’s apartment looks like someone’s life and closet exploded all over it, which is more or less what happened. The idea that it matters whether or not his laundry is put away is absurd, but of course Quentin feels bad about the mess. He specializes in feeling bad about messes that can’t be helped. He’s been running himself ragged trying to keep up with the monster’s demands, but his messy room still feels like a moral failing.
He’s wrong of course. No one else has done any more to pick up after themselves. The only reason why they aren’t all living in squalor is that Marina had automated cleaning spells built into her wards. Quentin should not have spent more of the last few months picking up — he should have spent more of the last few months sleeping, as impossible as that sounds.
Eliot doesn’t mind the mess. Eliot barely notices. Inhabiting real spaces, that aren’t memories or his mind’s recreation of the cottage is a novel experience that he appreciates very much. He wouldn’t say it, but he’s fond of messes when they’re Quentin’s messes.
Quentin babbles away, trying to distract himself from feeling bad, trying to make Eliot’s life easier. He hates the idea of Eliot wearing one of Penny’s shirts as soon as he says it, but he wants Eliot to know all of his options. (This was never an option, Penny would never have allowed them to raid his wardrobe, no matter how sad they looked.)
Eliot doesn’t listen, which sounds mean — shouldn’t you listen to the the person you love? — but isn’t, because Eliot can recognize when Quentin is talking to fill space, versus talking to say things, and also, Eliot has more important things to think about: what piece of clothing does he want to put on his body. He doesn’t just grab the first thing he sees. He notices, breifly considers, and decides againsts: a wrinkled white button down (buttons seem like too much work), a black hooded sweatshirt with a zipper in the front (the zipper would be cold against his skin, and he doesn’t want to layer), and one of Quentin’s thousand plaid flannels (lord no).
Eliot picks a navy blue sweater up off the floor, and puts it on. It pulls across the shoulders, and is too short at the wrist, but that doesn’t matter right now. It’s soft, and warm, and Quentin’s, and that’s what Eliot wants to wear next to his skin.
Quentin has owned this navy blue sweater so long, he doesn’t remember where it came from. (Thrift shopping with Julia, spring of their freshman year). He doesn’t remember losing it. (Packing up after a summer spent at home before Junior year). Finding it felt like some sort of miracle, a gift from the universe when one solitary thing that didn’t suck would mean everything. (It wasn’t, he had just forgotten it in the back of a dresser that never got cleaned out, it wasn’t destiny, just happenstance, but that doesn’t mean he shouldn’t be any less grateful).
“This is fine,” Eliot says.
Fine is one of those terrible meaningless words that people use all the time. What does fine mean? Not terrible? Good enough? Basically adequate? Who knows. Fine means an end to the conversation.
“Are you sure?” Quentin asks. He wants Eliot to be happy, for Eliot to feel good, for Eliot to be something more than fine. He knows this hinges on more than one sweater, and is probably outside of his control, but still, he has to ask. He wants to do anything he can. He’s desperately in love.
“It’s soft,” Eliot says, which is true, and easier to say than it smells like you, and will keep me warm like you keep me warm, and maybe if I wear it everyone will know I’m yours. Eliot pretends that all he wants is something soft to wear, because that’s easier, and he’s decided he doesn’t have to be brave unless they’re both still alive next week.
Even if Eliot doesn’t say all that, Quentin still understands, even if he isn’t quite ready to believe it yet. This is enough. They’re enough.
“Ready to go back to the strategy session?” Quentin asks.
Eliot shrugs. “I guess I have to be.”
Then he does one incredibly small, incredibly brave thing. He holds his hand out, palm up. Quentin looks at Eliot’s hand, his elegant fingers. Looks at Eliot’s wrists, bare below the too-short sleeves. He looks at Eliot, who’s actually Eliot, who’s offering him something that he wants very much. So he does something very brave as well. He reaches out, takes Eliot’s hand, and holds on. They walk down the hallway, hand in hand.