I. Alice Quinn vs. The Great American Road Trip
“didn’t the night end, wasn’t the earth
safe when it was planted
didn’t we plant the seeds,
weren’t we necessary to the earth,
the vines, were they harvested?”
The fire spits sparks up towards the stars, making Alice think of dying lampreys and the cold, comforting oblivion of being a niffin, and it’s enough to send her staggering to her feet. The rest of them are watching her, silent now except for Eliot who hasn’t stopped mumbling to himself since his last note ended, in a choked off sob. She wants to hate him, for being alive when Quentin isn’t, for being the one thing Quentin refused to give up on….for being so fucking heartbroken that it physically hurts to look at him. Which is exactly why she can’t, and never will, hate him.
But what she can do is leave, which is exactly what she does. She picks herself up and walks away. Walks away from the fire and into the darkness, until her mind is blank enough for her to realize what she needs to do next.
She steals a car. Well, the nice man at the sketchy dealership thinks that she handed over an abhorrent amount of cash for a red 2009 Dodge Journey, but by the time the bills turn back into monopoly money she will be long gone. It’s been awhile since she’s driven for any length of time, but she hears it's just like riding a bike. Which, incidentally, she also hasn’t done in awhile. Alice decides to save her overthinking for another time.
Instead, she’s going to focus on the open road because that sounds like something a normal person dealing with something normal like, say, soul-consuming grief and guilt would do so she picks a direction and starts driving. She takes back roads and side streets until she finds her way onto I-78 W.
Driving on the interstate is strange. It’s always made Alice feel like she’s been split in two, one part of her watching the road, making her hands move to change lanes or switch the radio station and foot to press down on the brakes or the accelerator while the other part of her sinks into herself, goes to that strange, quiet place in her head that only seems to exist when faced with endless miles and only the other cars and the same seven Top 40 songs for company. She hasn’t done anything like this since she was an undergrad and Charlie had dragged her out to “see the world”. They’d driven to Chicago, sneaking out of the house before sunrise like teenagers, lugging a never-been-used cooler full of capri sun and bacon sandwiches.
That was the summer before Charlie left for Brakebills.
Alice turns the radio up.
As it turns out, the pile of monopoly money she left with the car salesman might actually be worth more than this shitty car with its even shittier gas mileage. Alice pulls into a Chevron, starts the pump, and stomps into the attached mini mart to buy a fucking Capri Sun and something bacon flavored.
When she returns to the car, the nozzle has been returned to the pump, her gas is paid for, and Dean Fogg is sitting in the passenger seat. She almost drops the maple-glazed bacon jerky she’s holding. She approaches the driver’s side carefully and pulls the handle; its open. After a beat, she slides into her seat, shoves her drink and her snack into the cup holders next to her and starts the car.
“You know,” she says slowly. “If I’d known you were going to be here, I would have at least cracked a window for you.”
He glances at her, then goes back to staring out over the dashboard. “Your offer, though insincere, is appreciated. Now, Alice, where are we off to next?”
“I’m sorry, Dean Fogg, but what— .”
“Former Dean, actually, Alice. I’ve found myself taking a rather unplanned...sabbatical.”
“Oh my God, they actually fired you.”
“Not quite, but close enough, it seems for the board request that I get some distance, for the time being. Luckily, news of this road trip of yours reached me just in time and I thought I’d join.”
And that, apparently, is all the explanation Alice is going to get right now as Fogg settles back in his seat, settles a pair of sunglasses on his nose, and pulls a flask out of his vest.
Alice takes a deep breath and unclenches the death grip she has on the steering wheel. She puts the car in reverse.
“Fine. But you’re paying for the gas.” She balls up her receipt and throws it in his lap.
II. Julia Wicker Thinks Her Thoughts (And Breaks Some Shit)
“Summer after summer has ended,
balm after violence:
it does me no good
to be good to me now;
violence has changed me.
Daybreak. The low hills shine
ochre and fire, even the fields shine.
I know what I see; sun that could be
the August sun, returning
everything that was taken away —
You hear this voice? This is my mind’s voice;
you can’t touch my body now.
It has changed once, it has hardened,
don’t ask it to respond again.”
The first time Q showed Julia a magic trick, they were eight years old and the card got stuck in his hair. She remembers giggling, pulling it out for him, and practicing with him until he got it right. Later, they fall asleep under the table, drawing their map of Fillory together.
Fuck Fillory. And fuck Brakebills and fuck magic and fuck every last fucking god in the multiverse because Q is dead and it's their fault. Brakebills and Fillory, gods and magic; she’d trade it all for him, alive and safe and next to her again.
But she can’t. And all she’s left with is her grief and her anger and nowhere to put either of them down. So, she wishes her spine into steel and walks back into the Cottage. It’s empty, for the most part, but she knows Eliot is here somewhere which means Margo is as well. Julia isn’t avoiding them, exactly. Just like all of them aren’t avoiding each other, exactly. But losing Q shattered them, and now they’re like debris, the aftermath of an explosion, floating through space, directionless but away from each other.
And Julia, who is barely holding herself together, doesn’t have the strength left to do it for them as well. So they drift. Alice is already gone, barely even waiting for Q’s memorial to be over before bolting off into the night. It isn’t fair, being upset with her, but it’s easier than being upset with Eliot, who she remembers, pale and trembling and feverish after the five hours of non-magical surgery he’d endured, begging deliriously for Q until the drugs finally pulled him back under.
Since then, he’s stopped making eye contact with anyone other than Margo. She wants to help him. Even though she is very much not a goddess anymore, she feels his pain, feels all of their pain. After all, she’s still fucking human .
And that, she supposes as she makes her way up the stairs, is a big part of her problem. She’s human and she’s hurting and everyone else is just going to have to look after themselves from now on. The goddess has left the building. She almost smiles, imagining how Q would have groaned at her bad joke and accompanying eyebrow waggle.
She turns the corner, and Eliot is standing, well, more like leaning, in the hallway between her and what used to Q’s room here. She knows he didn’t have much here, but the thought of someone else touching his things, throwing them in a box or a dumpster, made her physically ill so she’s forced herself to collect what she can. Eliot, though, has gotten there first. He’s holding a t-shirt, black and soft-looking and very Q, clenched in one, white-knuckled and shaking fist; his other hand braced against the wall, barely holding him upright.
“I’m taking this,” he says, his voice rough and almost unrecognizable, and pulls the shirt to his chest, in a gesture that is somehow both child-like and possessive.
“Yeah. Yeah, of course.” Julia takes a step down the hall and Eliot pushes closer to the hall. He’s a tall man, formidable in his own way, and seeing him like this, shrinking in on himself, is unexpectedly painful.
She takes a few more steps, passing him, before something makes her hesitate.
“Eliot, if you want— .”
“ No .” It’s a harsh, guttural sound, barely even a word. “I can’t. Julia, please.” His voice breaks, and Julia closes her eyes.
“Yeah, okay,” she says softly. “I got this.”
She turns away so she doesn’t have to watch his slow, painful progression down the stairs.
Everything Q had left at the Cottage fits into a single box, and Julia can’t figure out if that makes her want to laugh or cry so she does both. Then, she calls Penny and he takes her and her one box back to Kady’s apartment.
Penny asks if she wants him to stay and she almost says yes. But she doesn’t because she knows already that this is going to be so much worse than the Cottage. This is the place where Q had actually lived recently. It’s where he fought and planned, snatched moments of sleep and ate a lot less than she would have liked. There are remnants of him everywhere, the little spaces he carved out for himself: the last book he’d been reading, an obscure text about gods and monsters, propped open on the coffee table, the hideous yellow throw that was too small for him, but that he curled up under without fail every time it was within reach, the cereal he’d left out on the counter.
Julia stares at the book, the throw, the cereal, and her heart pounds in her ears.
This isn’t over.
Yes, it is.
She should have known. She should have never let him out her sight after that, forced him to talk, to her, to anyone. She should have hugged him more, and longer. She should have told him she loved him, everyday. There is so much she should have done, and now there’s nothing she can.
Julia can feel the magic humming beneath her skin, scuttling like ants along her veins, and for a second, she wants nothing more to let go, to unleash everything she has left inside her and burn it all to the ground. Brakebills and Fillory and gods and magic. Herself.
Instead, she runs and throws up in the sink. After an upsetting amount of dry-heaving, she straightens up and wipes her mouth. She ties her hair back. Don’t cock out now, Wicker. She touches the top of the cereal box almost reverently.
“Well, this is awkward.”
Julia spins around, snatching up a kitchen knife as she does. There’s a man standing in the middle of the living room. He’s tall, well-dressed, and handsome. She tightens her grip on the knife.
“Who the fuck are you?”
The man holds up his hands, and smiles.
“Ah yes. No, I suppose we haven’t been properly introduced yet, have we? I’m Hades. I do believe you’ve met my wife?”
III. Eliot Waugh and the Terrible, Horrible, No-Good, Very Bad Day
“It does me no good; violence has changed me.
My body has grown cold like the stripped fields;
now there is only my mind, cautious and wary,
with the sense it is being tested.
Tell me this is the future,
I won’t believe you.
Tell me I’m living,
I won’t believe you.”
Eliot finds an apartment in Manhattan, replaces his entire wardrobe, and buys three sets of Brooklinen Luxe bed sheets because he doesn’t have anything better to do. Margo insists that everyone, including him, has their own way of coping, but he’s calling bullshit because this isn’t coping. This barely qualifies as living. He’s going through the motions, meeting all his cues and reciting his lines, but it's all a facsimile, and a pretty poor one at that.
But he has his body back. Every movement he makes is his own: he walks where he wants to and his hands hold what he chooses. The thing is, his mind and his heart haven’t quite caught up to the fact that what he wants to walk to and who he wants to hold isn’t here anymore.
Eliot doesn’t want to think about Q, but the truth is that who Eliot is now is so wrapped up in who Quentin was that not thinking about him isn’t really possible anymore. So, he thinks about him every day. He thinks about how he’d feel about Eliot’s new apartment, if he’d like the soft leather chair-and-a-half in front of the fireplace that Eliot hasn’t been able to sit in once because it’s the perfect size for two people already used to living in each other’s pockets to curl up in together, nor has he used the fireplace because the thought of fire now makes the taste of burning peaches rise in the back of his throat like bile.
There’s a bar two blocks from his building called The Talking Bear, which, in addition to a name that made him smile for the first time in what felt like months, also has a hideous, animatronic bear head just inside the entrance that greets guests. Eliot likes occasionally enchanting it to say increasingly terrible come-ons until someone runs out from behind the bar to beat it into submission with a cooking utensil. He spends a lot of time there getting spectacularly drunk. Eliot used to be utterly fantastic at being drunk, just the right mix of loud and charming. Now though, he fears he’s become rather maudlin, but he’s way beyond caring about that. The alcohol makes his thoughts go hazy, and if he chases that feeling long enough, it almost feels like he’s back in the happy place, safe from the memories that haunt him most.
(Waking up in the hospital and seeing Julia and Margo, arms wrapped around each other so tightly he can’t tell which one of them is shaking harder. He knows it then, before either of them have to tell them, before they have to say the words and speak the truth into existence because there is only one person in the world who could ever bring his Bambi and Julia Wicker together like that.)
(The time he opens his eyes in the middle of the night to see Margo, strong, beautiful, unbroken Margo, bent over the tiny sink in Eliot’s hospital room, full body sobbing into her hands. He wants to call out to her, to say her name and offer her the comfort she herself has been trying so hard to give him, but he lets his own pain overwhelm him instead and unconsciousness overtakes him again.)
Eliot finishes his whiskey and stands, gesturing for the bartender to close him out. Predictably, the room tilts slightly before he finds his feet, but Eliot is a well-practiced and functioning alcoholic, and he manages it with grace. He pays for his drinks and leaves, grateful when the rushing, random beat of the city replaces the warm, rhythmic chatter of the bar’s patrons.
It’s not quite four, but Eliot’s been drinking since noon (he prefers to beat the post nine to five crowd if at all possible) so he starts the two block walk back to his apartment. Before he’s taken more than a couple of steps, he hears something that sounds like a whimper, or maybe a whine, coming from beneath a pile of damp cardboard. Curious, Eliot shoves at the cardboard with the toe of his boot. The cardboard shoves back, and he yelps, stepping back as the ugliest dog he has ever seen shuffles out and tries to bite his ankle. Eliot hisses and moves back again.
“Fucking New Yorkers,” he mutters, and the dog whines and tilts its head. God, but that’s an ugly dog; smallish with matted, dark hair, and only one eye and where the other one should be there’s a nasty looking scab. Oh, and it has three legs and stinks more than a frat boy’s jock strap.
“You’re a mess, my friend,” Eliot tells the dog. The dog barks. Eliot sighs. “Good luck,” he says solemnly and starts walking again.
The dog follows. For fuck’s sake.
As he’s about to cross the street, he notices a little store he hasn’t seen before, which is odd for a couple of reasons: a) he literally walks this route every day and b) the place is called Gifts from Elysium and appears to exclusively sell old, shitty looking mirrors and that is one hundred percent something he would have noticed.
Something makes Eliot hesitate, but then shakes his head and steps off the curb.
Sunlight glints off one of the mirrors in the shop’s window and a flash of something catches his eye. Eliot stops cold, then turns around far too quickly for someone who’s had as much dark liquor to drink as he’s had and is also currently standing in traffic.
Over-long hair and an achingly familiar hoodie. A half second glimpse of wide brown eyes and that soft, frowning mouth.
It was a second, maybe less, but it was him. Quentin. Eliot would know him anywhere, even in an undersized and likely overpriced, 19th century gilded wall mirror in an antiques store in Manhattan. Eliot stands, dazed, in the middle of the crosswalk, heart pounding and his mind spinning with possibilities, potentials, hope .
Sharp teeth sink into his shin. Eliot shouts and stumbles forward, out of the way of a cab that flies through the spot he’d just been standing in. Well, shit. He straightens up and looks down at the dog, who sits on his foot and looks very proud of itself.
“Thanks, dog,” he says and goes to buy that hideous mirror.
When he finally gets back to his apartment, all he can think about is calling Margo and getting a closer look at the mirror and Quentin . He barely even notices when the dog darts inside his apartment before he can get the door closed.
“Jesus fuck. I will deal with you later.” Eliot tries to sound stern, but he’s feeling almost giddy and he doesn’t think it works.
The dog barks and jumps up on the sofa.
Margo picks up after the second ring.
“Hey, El.” She sounds less tired than the last time they spoke. Which was yesterday.
“Margo, I saw him.”
“Q. In a mirror in Midtown. Which I bought, even though it is truly horrendous. Bambi, I need you to— .” Come over here, to find Alice and Julia and everyone, and tell them that this isn’t over. That they never should have given up, that Quentin is out there and needs them and how could they have been so fucking stupid to believe for even a second that Quentin Coldwater would ever be really gone?
“Eliot, stop.” Margo’s tone hits him like a slap in the face. She sounds hard, but tender, like she thinks he’s out of his mind and she’s trying to talk him down. “He’s dead. You know that. Alice and Penny saw— .”
“And I know what I saw, Margo.” It explodes out of him, desperate and angry and certain because he has to be. He needs to be. “It was him and it was just for a second, but I know Q when I fucking see him!”
“You’re grieving !” she yells back, and Eliot clenches his jaw so hard his teeth hurt. “I know you think you saw him, but that’s not that unusual. You have to process your shit, Eliot. He’s dead, but you aren’t and you can’t keep doing this to yourself. You’re drunk and in pain and I’m trying to fucking help you. You need to talk to someone. Now, Josh told me about— .”
It hurts. Every fucking word that leaves her mouth draws blood and maybe she knows it and maybe she doesn’t it, but she just gave him an opening and something dark flares to life inside of him. A low, derisive snort escapes him. He hears Margo take a sharp breath.
“You have something to say?” She asks tightly.
This is the moment when Eliot should back down, let her get it out of her system, and then cajole her into doing things his way anyway, but he doesn’t. Or he can’t. Because his best friend is supposed to believe him, and support him, but she isn’t and it hurts. Eliot is so fucking tired of being hurt.
“Oh no, please, if Josh says, then by all means.” He pours every ounce of bitchy, condescension into his voice that he can.
“What the fuck is that supposed to mean?” Her voice is stone cold now. He’s surprised there isn’t frost forming on his phone.
“It means I don’t give a flying fuck about what Josh has to say, and honestly, I don’t get why you do . He isn’t—.”
And there it is. The moment he goes too far.
“Goddamn you, Eliot, he was our friend, too !” Her voice cracks like a whip, like glass breaking. “You don’t get a fucking monopoly on missing him.”
Laughter bubbles up his throat like vomit. Miss him? No, Eliot doesn’t miss Q; he fucking aches for him. It is so much more than simple missing. It’s knowing what fifty years could feel like, of holding a lifetime in his hands and watching it turn to smoke. It’s waking up in a world that has the gall to take Quentin from him. Before him. It’s knowing that this isn’t how they were supposed to end, while Margo doesn’t because Eliot never told her. Not about the mosaic, or Teddy, or the life Q let Eliot built with him. It hurt too much then, and now, even thinking about it is pure fucking agony.
None of this is Margo’s fault, but he’s taking it out on her anyways.
“Really, Margo? Because you won’t even say his name! It’s Quentin, remember? Quentin Coldwater. We both fucked him once.” He needs to stop, he knows he needs to stop, but he’s always been so goddamn good at breaking things and he wants someone, anyone, even Margo, to hurt more than he is. “But he always liked it when you called him Q. Made him feel like you actually gave a shit about him.”
Margo’s breath catches harshly, and he waits for her to come at him, to wound him all the ways only she can, to draw blood and lick it from her teeth. Anything, anything to make him feel a different pain then the one he’s been drowning since he woke up.
But she doesn’t do any of those things. Instead, she lets her breath out in a long, shuddering sigh.
“Fuck you, Eliot.”
And she hangs up on him.
Eliot takes his own shaky breath and looks at the dog, who stares up at him with big, sad eyes.
“I think that went well.”
If he cries later, there’s no one but a weird, ugly dog and a shitty mirror to see anyways.