Any hope that moving into the Cottage might help with the insomnia goes out the window approximately three nights in.
It’s better than his old dorm room, of course––it’s nice, actually, to not have to make himself scarce every time Kady stops by, or Penny’s in a mood, or Penny’s around in general––but it’s still… Well, turns out discovering you can do magic doesn’t immediately clear up every other sort-of terrible thing about your life, no matter how much you want it to.
Shit’s fucked like that, apparently.
And it’s not that his room in the cottage isn’t nice or anything, because it is, really. It’s a tidy square of a room, small but cozy in the way he’s pretty sure campus living isn’t supposed to be. There’s a neat little dormer window that looks out over the back lawn, and it’s even got a window seat, which is the sort of thing he’d geeked out about when they’d given him the room assignment. The bookshelves are spacious enough to fit all his things without looking pathetically empty or overcrowded, which he’s sure has got to be some kind of magic because he’s suffered through enough dorm living to know that space never works quite right in dorm rooms. And there’s even a full bed with a real mattress, not that plastic crap, but––
But, well, when his mind won’t shut the fuck up and let him sleep, he finds tossing and turning in bed is absolutely useless. So he takes one of his books––he’s got forty pages of Livingston due anyways, and why put off til tomorrow, etc.––and pads down the stairs to the common room.
So begins his routine.
He likes the common room at night, see. It’s comfortable, cozier than the library at the House, lived in but in a well-loved way. Margo likes to talk about what a good party space it is, about old wards and enchantments that make the interior actually slightly larger than the exterior, which is some cool Doctor Who shit, but at night it doesn’t matter that you can stuff half the campus inside. At night it gets all soft around the edges, like a common room at a magical school should be, and he can curl up in front of the fire in one of those big deep chairs, or wedge himself into the curve of the couch, or stuff himself in the little reading nook in the bookshelves. Better yet, no one will bother him unless he accidentally falls asleep and someone startles him on their way to class.
But that only happened once, and it was Margo, who’d cooed about it like some dowager aunt until Quentin had blushed under her babying and retreated to his room, her laughter following him up.
Except, he’s apparently not the only one to drift through the common room in the small hours of the morning. It happens one night when he’s folded up in his chair, mindlessly picking at the edge of one page with his thumb because he likes the way it makes a tiny little clicking sound as he mouths along to the truly mind-numbing passage of Kaminsky he’s pretty sure doesn’t even pertain to the unit they’re covering, which is long-term enchantments, but hell, what does he know. So he’s sitting there, muddling through something about energy flow, and––
“Wow,” says Eliot, gunshot loud in the cozy dark of the Cottage, and Quentin falls out of his chair. “And I thought I was the only one who stayed out this late.”
“Jesus, Eliot,” says Quentin from the floor, page lost and concentration shattered. He twists his head around, but Eliot’s a shadow against a shadow, a narrow cut of darkness in the kitchen doorway. “What the hell?”
“Cramming?” Eliot asks instead of answering in any way, but he comes forward a little at least so Quentin can finally actually see him. He’s got a bowl in his hands, and his vest is unbuttoned and shirt untucked, which is maybe the closest to disheveled Quentin’s ever seen him. He promptly averts his gaze.
“I–– what? No.” He goes for his book, which has helpfully landed spine up, creasing the page he’d been reading. He smooths it out as best he can. “Couldn’t sleep.”
Eliot hums and comes a little closer, seeming to consider him. Quentin in turn considers getting up, but. Well, he’s already made an ass of himself.
Besides. It’s Eliot.
Eliot leans down next to him and offers the bowl. It’s pasta. Spaghetti. Quentin tilts his head back against the seat of the chair, mostly because he has to anyways to get a clear view of Eliot’s face, which is doing an interesting little thing where he seems to be dead serious and laughing at Q at the same time.
“It’s good,” he assures Quentin, who stares a moment longer and––oh, what the hell––tries some.
He’s right. It is good. The sauce is smooth and creamy, and a little spicy. He coughs. Eliot grins, bright and shining in the firelight.
“Did you make this?”
“Of course.” Of course. Quentin can’t even muster surprise. Of course Eliot can cook.
“It’s good,” he says. Eliot hums again. He knows it’s good. He doesn’t need Quentin to tell him.
Quentin tips his head back against the seat cushion again and closes his eyes. He’s got a headache building at his temples, from the not sleeping or the small text or maybe just because he has a headache; he doesn’t know. Above him, Eliot says, “Mind if I join you?”
Quentin waves in the direction of the empty chair. He feels drunk, a little. That’s the sleep deprivation. “Mi casa, su casa.”
“Aw, Q,” says Eliot, words almost lost amid the shuffling of cloth and cushions as he settles. “You don’t have to use the formal with me.”
When Quentin cracks an eye open, Eliot’s on the floor too, mile-long legs fold under him, bowl cradled in his lap. He twirls up pasta on a fork. Quentin gives up on his reading.
“Is that permission to like, tutoie you?”
Eliot hums around a mouthful of pasta. Quentin figures it’s a yes. Or oui, as the case may be. He offers the bowl back to Quentin.
Q takes it. It really is unfairly good. Eliot’s smile is a crescent moon in the dark. He passes the bowl back.
“You know what would be good with this?” Quentin asks him when it’s nearly finished, the two of them trading it like a blunt. The burn of the spice is nice against the roof of his mouth, and the warm food has him feeling sleepy in a rounder, more comfortable way than the gritty exhaustion of working himself to a stupor.
“Next time,” Eliot agrees, which makes something embarrassingly bright flare in Q’s chest. He blames the spice, and the fact that it’s easily past two in the morning, and is saved the indignity of mustering a response by a jaw-cracking yawn. Eliot’s face does something he can’t quite parse.
“I think,” Q says, a little bashful, “I should probably go to bed.”
“If you say so.”
He doesn’t want to, though. Even though he’s finally tired, and full, he can’t unhook himself from the peaceable quiet of the common room when it’s just the two of them sitting in front of the low-flickering fire. So. “It’s late,” he says.
“Yeah,” Eliot agrees.
Neither of them moves, and they sit there in comfortable silence for a long while after.
“Do you ever actually sleep?”
Quentin doesn’t look up from the textbook open in his lap, not even when Eliot throws himself into the chair next to him. He’s busy; his lips move silently over the High Alemannic, fumbling around the consonants. There’s a pulsing headache behind his eyes.
It’s about three in the morning. Quentin is the last one up.
Or he’d thought he was, anyways. He usually is, just him and the soft edges of the common room at night. But turns out Eliot’s a night owl too, or an insomniac, or has a propensity for being the last one up, party or no, like there’s some sort of competition he’s determined to win. Maybe he hates being alone in his room as much as Quentin does on nights like these. Quentin’s never asked. He’s not sure Eliot would answer if he did. For all that he’s always the shining center of attention, there’s a big black hole where any and all of Eliot’s personal stuff is concerned, like all they ever get to see is the accretion disk. Then something will pass the event horizon and poof, gone.
Tonight, he’s come in the front door sporting a hazy look, like he’s not all present––which isn’t entirely unusual, not when it comes to Eliot and nighttime activities and getting back after two in the morning––and a bottle of wine. Quentin glances at him briefly, then back to the text. The thick black font twists and curls across the page, and honestly he’s not sure if that’s the sleep deprivation or actual magic. Some of the books are weird like that. Eliot cranes his head to get a better look.
“Test,” Q answers. Then, “God. I’m going to fail.”
Eliot’s shrug is a flicker of movement out of the corner of his eye. He’s still staring at the old High Germanic, even though the letters have stopped forming coherent words. “You’re not.”
He doesn’t even know what the test is. Quentin’s hands twitch in his lap. “March––”
“Is insane, yes, but his tests aren’t that bad. Besides, it’s one class. It barely matters. It’s not like the Trials or anything.”
“What’s the Trials?”
“Nothing. Don’t worry about it.”
That does absolutely nothing to stop the worrying, but ninety percent of his mind is too busy freaking out about midterms and that constant, numbing fear that he might somehow lose Brakebills. He’ll find time to freak out about the rest later. He’s pretty good at that. Why else would he be up alone in the common room at two in the morning?
Well. Almost alone.
“Christ,” he mutters, sliding forward out of his chair. The floor is comfortably stable, which he appreciates right about now, since everything else seems to be spinning around him. He leans forward and presses his forehead against the carpet. It smells faintly of old beer, and beneath that the lavender-scented cleaning charm pressed into nearly every inch of the Cottage, because God knows nobody’s going to actually clean anything up themselves.
“Seriously, Q. You’re not gonna fail.”
Quentin doesn’t say anything. Eliot sighs, and moves, and then there’s the pressure of another knee against his. He twists his head to look over at Eliot, sitting on the ground with one leg cocked and the other stretched out, staring back at him. He’s got his arms up on the couch cushion, lounging like it’s the most natural thing in the world.
“I hate magic,” Quentin mutters. Eliot laughs. It’s a good look for him.
Most looks, Quentin has discovered, are good looks for Eliot. It’s about how he wears them––like, yeah, sure, he knows he looks good, but you don’t have to make a fuss about it. Quentin can’t imagine confidence like that in a million years. He turns his face back into the carpet. It makes his nose itch.
“Here’s something that’ll cheer you up,” Eliot says to Quentin’s right. “I brought refreshments.”
“Like what?” he asks the carpet.
“Wine,” he replies. “As promised.”
Quentin sits up.
“El, I’m studying. I can’t get drunk.”
Eliot waves a hand at his protests like dusting away cobwebs. “One,” he says, holding up a finger. “It’s not getting drunk, it’s just a little wine. Second, think of it as a way to help.”
“How’s getting–– having a drink supposed to help?”
“It’s like speaking another language. It’s always better to be a little tipsy. Then you don’t have to think so hard about it.”
“Really not sure that’s how it’s supposed to work,” he says, but he doesn’t argue when Eliot produces two glasses and pours him a healthy portion, and then pours himself a healthier one. They tap rims.
He’ll say this––Eliot definitely knows his wines.
“Now we’re just missing the pasta,” he sighs, sitting up a little straighter. Eliot snorts, indelicate.
“One of these days we’ll do a real dinner party.” He considers. “Maybe after midterms.”
“That sounds nice.”
“It is. I throw a great dinner party.”
Q thinks Eliot probably throws a great any-type-of-party party. Eliot probably thinks so too.
“We can serve duck,” he muses, warming to the idea. “I have a Sangiovese I’ve been saving.”
“Yeah,” says Q, who doesn’t know what that is. “Sounds great.”
Eliot sighs again, a theatrical whole-body huff. “Good taste is wasted on you.”
“What? No it isn’t.”
Eliot gives him a long, assessing look that says yeah, right with a languid sort of disbelief, but he lets Quentin’s protest hang. “Want me to quiz you?” he asks instead.
The shift in conversation catches him off guard, and it takes him a moment to parse the offer. Then that sparks a quieter, brighter flash of surprise.
“Do you–– I don’t want to keep you up.” It is, after all, three in the morning, ticking towards half past. Eliot rolls out his shoulders.
“Trust me, you’re not.”
He stretches––there it is again, that languidness, all coiled something––and holds a hand out. It takes Quentin a moment to realize he means the book. He fumbles with it, and then flushes, and Eliot watches him through it all with his eyebrows raised, mouth twisted in something that could almost be a smile.
The thing about Eliot is that he doesn't like studying. Quentin wouldn’t even think that he did, except once he’d been allowed a glimpse into Eliot’s room and seen the teetering stack of books tucked in one corner, dog-eared and stuffed with a riot of multicolored post-it notes, before Eliot had crowded him out into the hallway again.
Maybe that’s what he does up at three in the morning. Quentin’s not one to judge.
“Oh,” says Eliot, looking over the text. His lip curls. “It’s Drechsler.” His accent is impeccable. “We’re definitely going to need more wine.”
“You don’t have to––”
“Don’t worry about it, Coldwater.” He tops up their glasses. “Tell me: What’s the optimal Circumstance and materials for casting Drechsler’s Farsight?”
He means to insist Eliot can go about his own business; Quentin can study perfectly fine on his own. But, well, the wine goes down easy and Eliot’s voice prodding him not to forget the variations between silver and aluminum mirrors when it comes to factoring in the third and sixth step of this particular scrying variation is a far cry nicer than his own gritty-eyed attempt at covering the material, so he buries his protests and lets Eliot quiz him until neither of them can keep their eyes open any longer. After that they sit there a while longer. Quentin’s mind feels like putty, but in that comfortable, well-stretched sort of way.
Most importantly, he doesn’t feel quite as terrible about the test.
“Seriously, Q,” Eliot says somewhere to his right. “Don’t worry about it. Did you know Margo failed March’s first year seminar?”
He cracks his eyes open just enough to see that Eliot has stretched both legs out towards the fire, eyes closed. The wine bottle sits at his elbow. It’s three quarters empty.
“Mmm.” He nods once, twice, a little unsteady, and cracks an eye in Quentin’s direction. His expression sobers. “You cannot tell her I told you that.”
“I’ll take it to the grave.”
Eliot’s eye closes. Apparently he trusts Quentin on that.
Or, more likely, he trusts that the fear of what Margo will do to Quentin if he lets it slip will keep his mouth shut. It’s definitely one of those.
Eliot tips his head back. Quentin keeps watching him. Rests his head on the seat, but keeps watching. It’s like seeing Eliot without the armor, a glimpse of the boy beneath it all. It feels immensely precious. Private. He doesn’t want to waste it.
Then Eliot knocks the near-empty bottle over with a stray elbow and sits bolt upright just in time to keep it from spilling its dregs out over the nice carpet. He stretches. Quentin looks away.
“Coming up?” he asks as he stands, and when Quentin glances up at him he winks. Quentin flushes.
“I’m just gonna. Um.” He picks up the book again, even though the words are doing that thing where the warp across the page. “Go over this one last time.”
“There’s such a thing as over studying, you know,” Eliot says. He doesn’t wait for Quentin to answer. He stands and stretches––and his shirt rides up there, just a little, and Quentin stares furiously at the book instead of on that little sliver of skin, and––
Eliot’s hand settles on the top of his head. “You’ll be fine,” he repeats. Quentin swallows.
“Get some sleep.”
Eliot sighs above him, short and sharp, and then the pressure vanishes, and when Quentin finally dares glance up from the page in front of him he sees only Eliot’s legs disappearing up the stairs.
Quentin drapes himself forward over the book and groans into the carpet. Then he collects the bottle and the glasses and his book, and––stopping only briefly in the kitchen to leave it all where someone else will take care of it, probably, if the house doesn’t get to it first––makes his way up to his own room.
It takes him a while to fall asleep.
The party winds down eventually, as all parties must. Even the Physical Kids, who can and do go all night, tap out around four. Something about the promise of the imminent sunrise, and also maybe the fire that was briefly started on (with) the dining table.
That had cleared people out pretty quick. Now only a handful of them are left, Margo and Kady and Alice and Eliot and Quentin. The locals, as it were, too wired to sleep and too tired to move on, and a bit beholden to putting the Cottage back together, what with being the hosts and all.
Quentin doesn’t want to. Quentin wants to sink into the fabric of the cushion and become one with his chair.
God it’s been a long night.
“I guess we should clean up,” Alice suggests, since they’re all thinking it. Kady snorts. Quentin hums a halfhearted agreement and tries to move, and succeeds only in spilling out of his chair onto the floor. Nobody comments on it.
“I’ll do it,” Eliot volunteers, and everyone’s eyebrows go up at that, Eliot’s included. His expression skews more towards challenge than surprise, though.
“Okay,” Margo says, every single inch of her radiating skepticism. Alice stares at him for a moment, and her mouth turns down at the corners. She disappears up the stairs in short order. Quentin should go after her. He should check on her. He likes her. He should make sure she’s doing okay, because he likes her and her mouth had turned down and she’d disappeared up the stairs in short order.
But everything about him feels so heavy right now. Getting up seems a momentous task, a herculean effort. So… later. He’ll check later. In the morning, maybe.
Eliot and Margo are talking. Eliot and Margo are talking and Kady has disappeared––probably to find Penny, he assumes; usually when she disappears this late it’s to find Penny, if she’s not with Penny already––and Eliot mutters something Quentin doesn’t catch or care to catch. Margo laughs.
“Uh-huh. Night, boys.”
“Goodnight.” Eliot kisses her on the cheek, and her hand trails across his as she goes, like a lover’s last farewell or… something. Quentin knows she does it mostly for show, and because Eliot grins at her with something he’s pretty sure is love. It’s strange how easily it sits on Eliot’s face. Quentin wouldn’t have expected it from him.
Margo blows them both kisses, and winks. Quentin flushes––she grins––and turns back towards the fire. For a moment there’s the halfhearted clink and clatter of glasses as Eliot picks at the mess, and then he slumps in the chair next to his. Quentin swallows.
“Yeah,” Eliot agrees, impossibly fond. “That’s Bambi.”
“How did you meet?”
“Oh, you know how it is. First year, a bunch of overachieving know-it-alls tossed together. We were bound to find each other eventually.”
It isn’t an answer to the question, but Quentin latches onto–– “Overachieving know-it-alls?”
“What? You disagree?”
“I just… You’re not exactly…”
“An overachiever?” He glances significantly down at himself––he’s got this brocade vest on tonight, with a pocket watch and all the other trappings––and then back at Quentin and ok, yeah, maybe he’s got a point.
“A know-it-all,” he swaps out. There’s something brittle to Eliot’s expression, but Quentin can’t put his finger on what. It hangs there for a fraction of a moment.
“Well, we can’t all be nerds,” he says airily, and the moment vanishes. “Drink?”
“Sure.” The party may be over but he wouldn’t mind prolonging the night. The cozy interior of the Cottage seems to settle around him twice as thick after the noise and crowd of the party, like everything has faded and left the Cottage in its wake, land sighted through a fog.
The fog could well be the alcohol, but he doesn’t mind. It makes everything feel familiar and soft, like it could be home. Like coming down from a high and settling into the warmth of the afterglow. He likes that.
Eliot passes him something rosy pink and sharp-sweet. Their fingers brush. It’s nice. Eliot doesn’t say anything else, and neither does Quentin, and that’s nice too. He sits there with his sharp-sweet drink and Eliot and the warm, hazy edges of the Cottage. His head feels like it’s floating. So does his body. All of him, actually, like he could drift away. That would be nice too. They’re supposed to be able to fly, right? Magicians can fly? He’s pretty sure flying was mentioned somewhere in his unofficial orientation.
Flying away sounds a lot more exciting than running away, even if it’s maybe the same in theory. Like, maybe if you’re flying it’s more of a noble thing, or adventurous. Running away is just… well, running.
Plus, if he could fly away he wouldn’t have to worry about stuff like Professor March’s midterms, or whether or not Alice likes him, or Julia throwing her life away, or the Beast coming to kill them all.
“Eliot,” he says conversationally, eyeing the rosy bottom of his glass rather than Eliot himself. It’s almost empty. Funny. When had that happened? “Do you think the Beast is going to kill us?”
“It’s just, like––”
“Can we not?”
That brings him up short. “What?”
“Talk about our imminent deaths. Please.”
Quentin shuts up. Eliot is staring at him like he’s grown two heads. Has he? No. He’d have noticed that, definitely. He’s not that drunk.
“What happened was fucked up, okay? But everyone survived, and no one got kicked out, and we haven’t heard anything for, what, months, right?”
“So.” Eliot draws it out. “Why bring it back up?”
“I just. I dunno.” He just worries. He just thinks about it all the goddamn time. He’s just waiting for the other shoe to drop. He just thinks it would be nice to leave that all behind.
The afterglow fades pretty fast after that, soft edges of the growing uneven, uncomfortable. Eliot scrubs a hand down his face. “I’m going to pick up.”
“Did you… Do you want help? Cleaning up?”
“It’s nice of you to offer.”
“I mean… we should right? Since it’s our party?” He stumbles over our but pushes through. It really isn’t his party at all, but he feels bad now, all sharp and at odds with the haziness of the Cottage and the night. The least he can do is help.
“Sure,” Eliot says, but he doesn’t get up. Quentin doesn’t get up either. “In a minute.”
Quentin eyes the last of his drink, then knocks it back. It settles in his stomach in a way that makes him think tomorrow morning is going to be very unpleasant, but he doesn’t entirely care right now.
He says, “Sorry.”
“Jesus,” Eliot says again. “It’s alright.”
“I just–– It’s a lot.”
“I didn’t mean to… sorry.”
“I know. It’s fine.”
Quentin thinks it probably it isn’t, but he appreciates the thought. He wishes he hadn’t said anything. He wishes things were still soft and good, instead of sharp and uncomfortable. He wishes the night weren’t ending like this.
He stands up, only a little unsteady. “Um, so what do we need to––”
“You can take those to the kitchen.” Eliot waves over his shoulder at the stack of glasses on the coffee table. “The cleaning spells will deal with the rest.”
“Okay. I, um. Okay.” It takes him three trips. Eliot stays sitting in the chair next to the fire, frowning down at his glass. Quentin almost says something each time he come back and then doesn’t. Afterwards he stands awkwardly in the middle of the room. Eliot looks over his shoulder and sighs.
“It’s alright,” he says with an edge of impatience. “God, you look like someone kicked your dog.”
Quentin winces. Sorry, he almost says again, but he doesn’t think Eliot would appreciate that. “I’m gonna go to bed.”
He stands there a moment longer, then crosses the room in a few long, slightly wobbly strides. Eliot looks up, almost surprised to see him still here. It softens the impatience. Or maybe the impatience softened all by itself.
“Need something, Coldwater?”
Quentin furrows his brow. It takes him two tries to get it out. “Thank you.”
Eliot blinks. “For what?”
If he tried to explain it he’d be here all night. Sometimes admitting defeat is half the battle. Or... something like that. “Just… thanks.”
Eliot stares at him a moment longer. His face does a funny thing: The expression on it tilts sideways from surprise to amusement. The soft kind, though. Like he’s smiling at Q, not laughing at him. None of that casual cruelty he wears like armor.
Quentin thinks maybe he looked at Margo like that, but he can’t be sure. It’s hard to tell from this angle, receiving instead of observing.
“Go to bed, Q,” he says, oddly gentle, and Quentin nods. The room tilts around him as he does.
God he’s so drunk.
“Yeah, okay. Goodnight.”
Quentin glances back just the once, as he reaches the top of the stairs. Eliot sits in the chair in front of the fire, glass held loosely in one hand draped over the armrest, head back against the seat. He’s a warm shadow in the red of the firelight and the damp golden glow of the party decorations.
He’s beautiful, Quentin thinks idly.
Then he turns back up the stairs, and climbs the last few steps, and makes his way to bed.
Quentin finds him in their usual spot.
Not that it–– Well, it’s a far cry from the Physical Kids’ Cottage, but there’s a fireplace, and a nice set of chairs, and Eliot’s sitting in one and staring into the fire, every inch the brooding king. There’s a bottle at his elbow and an empty glass in his hand. Night fell hours ago, and the castle is as quiet as it ever manages to be, and here Eliot is.
Well, here Quentin is too. The more things change…
Quentin clears his throat.
“I’m fine,” Eliot says, like it’s an automatic response. He doesn’t look up, barely even twitches. Quentin sighs.
“Yeah, okay. Can I join you, though?”
“It’s your castle.”
Which isn’t an answer, but when Eliot’s in a mood one takes what one can get. Quentin sits.
“What,” Eliot snaps. Quentin lets it go.
“Asleep.” Eliot should probably be asleep too. They’ve been up since dawn, and Quentin can see the circles under his eyes even in the dim of the firelight.
But then, he’s in to place to judge.
“She doing okay?”
“Yeah.” He sounds surprised, and that tempers the sharpness in his voice. “Honestly she’s handling it way better than I expected. Better than I am, anyways.”
“Well. I guess she was raised for it. We’re sort of… figuring it out as we go.”
“If you’d told me I was going to be high king of…” Eliot waves a hand around him, a look at this shit gesture that peters out along with whatever he was going to say. The fire crackles.
“Yeah,” Quentin agrees. “It’s uh. Pretty weird.”
Massively fucked might cover it better, but he’s trying for diplomacy. Kings are supposed to be good with that, he hears.
With a sudden, colossal groan, Eliot slides forward out of his chair. Quentin follows him a moment later. The flagstones are warm from the fire, and the thick cushions of the chair make a nice pillow. Q tilts his head back and sighs.
“Tell me I’m not fucking it up.”
“You’re not fucking it up,” Quentin replies, automatic. He shifts to see Eliot has taken up the same position, head tipped back against the seat of his chair, eyes closed, throat long and bare. Quentin swallows. “You’re not, El. I promise.”
“I feel like I might be.”
“We’d tell you if you were.”
He’s staring at Quentin, suddenly, eyes dark and sharp and pinning him in place. “Would you?”
“Yes.” God, but he can be a stubborn dick sometimes. “Trust me. If I didn’t, Margo would. Or Alice. Or, hell, Penny, I don’t know.”
Eliot’s brow furrows, some of that old schoolboy condescension. “Penny’s not even here.”
“When has that stopped him from starting a fight?”
Good point, Eliot’s expression says. Score one for Coldwater.
Quentin, letting his momentary victory hang in the air, reaches for the bottle. There’s a little set of glasses next to it, three untouched. The fourth, of course, is empty in Eliot’s hand.
He makes sure sure to fill Eliot’s glass before his own. It’s good manners.
It’s not bad, Fillorian wine. Things don’t quite grow the same, not with all the magic in the soil, and some of that bleeds over into the wine. Still, anything fermented that long is eventually going to be something close. This vintage is round, and a little smokey, and it goes down smooth as anything.
“You know what I miss?”
Quentin glances over at him again. “Not being responsible for an entire country?”
Eliot’s expression says you’re not funny. His mouth says, “Pizza.”
Quentin hums as Eliot warms up to it. “Real pizza. Thick crust, mozzarella and provolone or–– mmm, goat cheese. Peppers. Mushrooms and olives. With a can of coke and an ice cream sandwich.”
“That sounds like an eight-year-old’s birthday party. A really pretentious eight-year-old.” It also sounds kind of terrible, but Quentin’s more of a cheese-and-pepperoni guy so he’s probably not one to judge.
“Hey,” Eliot protests. “I’m allowed to have kingly whims. It’s practically part of the job.”
“You want a bouncy castle too?” Quentin’s not sure he’d fit. He’d probably break it somehow. He entertains himself with that mental image for a moment, needle-sharp Eliot popping a bouncy castle like a balloon.
“You’re an asshole, Coldwater.” He sounds like he’s smiling though. Quentin stares at the fire.
“Next time we cross over,” he promises. “I’ll bring you back a pizza.”
“And I want one of those kits,” Eliot requests. “The DIY ones. For boring days.”
“Sure.” He’s not sure Fillory has boring days, but it’s easy to be magnanimous with hypotheticals. “And a bottle of coke too.”
“Bring an extra one for Tick and the unshod masses. That would really blow their minds.” He sounds pleased about it.
The fire crackles, popping and sparking and loud as it echoes through the chamber. Quentin reaches one hand out and lets it warm him, skin going tight with the heat. He switches hands. It’s kinda drafty, the castle. Their castle.
God. They have a castle.
Eliot shifts at his side, and sets his glass down. It clicks against the flagstones.
He says, “But what if I do fuck it all up?”
“Eliot.” Eliot doesn’t say anything. Quentin looks away from the fire. Eliot is regal in the dancing light, every sharp line of his face thrown into relief. He won’t meet Quentin’s eyes. Quentin sighs and moves closer.
It’s not such a hard thing to lean over, then, to prop his shoulder up against Eliot’s and breathe in time. It’s not such a hard thing to turn and stare at the fire instead of the man, and blame the ease of it all on the drink. It’s not hard at all.
“You will come back, right?”
“I’m a king of Fillory.” He swallows down the lingering thrill. “I’m pretty sure I have to.”
His hand finds Eliot’s for a moment: a brief squeeze, then he lets go.
“Yeah,” he says. Then, “I’ve gotta bring you a pizza, remember?”
“By royal decree,” Eliot agrees, and Quentin smiles, small and flashing, where Eliot can’t see it. They’re quiet a moment. Quentin wonders what Eliot is thinking. If he regrets everything already. Quentin regrets having to leave him here. Lone king with his fire and his big, heavy castle.
Once this is settled, he tells himself. Once this is all tucked away and they have the time for it, he’ll come back, and Eliot won’t be alone, and it will be the four of them, like it was, exactly like it was. It will be good. They can do good here.
“We’ll come back,” he says out loud, tasting the promise of it. Eliot sighs against him.
“I know.” He doesn’t sound it, though.
Quentin sits up to look at him. “El.”
Eliot stares at him for a long moment, frown pulling at his face. Quentin thinks maybe he’s going to say something, but he doesn’t. He smiles, like an olive branch or a peace offering, like I don’t believe you but I’ll try. Quentin knows that expression because he’s worn it himself. The familiarity doesn’t do much to help the way his heart twists in his chest.
But then Eliot leans against Quentin again, and says, “I know, Q.” So Quentin lets it go, trusts Eliot in that, and sits side by side with him as he finishes his drink.
Eliot sits down without a word, and Quentin doesn’t stir enough to look up at him. It’s strange to be back at Brakebills, back in the Cottage, after Fillory, but he likes it. Something familiar, even if Alice is doing God-knows-what when she’s not haunting him, if you can call it haunting, and even if Julia is half a stranger and hurting, and even if the Eliot sitting next to him is made from clay and magic and not the real thing.
It’s just. It’s nice to have something he remembers from before, is all.
A cigarette enters his field of vision like an offering, and he finally looks away from the fire long enough to give Eliot a long, searching look. Eliot accepts his gaze without a word, only holds his hand out a little further.
Quentin takes it, figures what the hell. He tucks it behind one ear.
Quentin makes a face. “When isn’t it.” He sighs. “No, I mean–– It’s fine.”
Eliot frowns. “If you need some space––”
He tried space. Space is no help. Space only leaves him alone with everything that’s going wrong.
Eliot’s face flickers through a rolodex of expressions and lands on something resembling concern. Quentin drags a hand over his eyes and lets himself slide out of his chair. The short fall jostles him enough to drag him out of a spiraling what-if of utter doom and destruction.
“I’d take March’s midterm over this,” he says, heel of his hands pressed into his eye sockets, elbows braced on his knees. “Hell, I’d take Mayakovsky.”
“Shit,” says Eliot. “It really is bad.”
He presses hard enough to see blooming stars, then shakes his head and drops his hands into his lap. “How the hell are we gonna get out of this, El?”
Eliot frowns. He joins Quentin on the ground.
“Do you want to… talk about it?”
No. He wants it to be over, or to be someone else’s problem. He wants it to be fixed.
“I just want to know what to do,” he says, quieter than he’d like. More pathetic. Eliot’s concern doesn’t fade in the slightest.
“We’ll figure it out,” he promises. “We always do.”
“When it’s one thing going wrong.”
“Okay, well. We’ll just take it one thing at a time then. Yeah?”
“And if something else goes to shit?”
“We’ll triage. Q, come on. You can’t work yourself into the ground trying to fix every little thing.”
“I’d settle for fixing anything,” he mutters, sour and sullen. Alice, or Julia, or his dad, or magic, or––
“We will.” He says it so mildly, like it’s easy. Quentin grimaces.
“Alright.” Whether or not he believes that––and he’d like to, he really would––he can appreciate the conviction. He’d like to feel it himself.
Eliot sighs. “Do you want a drink?”
“I’m getting us drinks.”
He levers himself up, moves around the Cottage with practiced ease, nearly silent except for the intermittent tapping and clinking of glasses. He returns with a shallow glass of red wine and something amber. He passes the wine to Quentin.
“Working yourself to death won’t help anyone,” Eliot tells him. He doesn’t quite make it back to his own chair; when he sits down one knee knocks against Quentin’s. The contact steadies him. “Neither will worrying yourself into a fit. So just. Have a drink with me, and breathe a little, and we’ll figure it all out. Okay?”
“Yeah.” He says. He takes a deep breath and tries to mean it. “Okay.”
“Okay.” Eliot knocks the rims of their glasses together. “Salut.”
It is good wine. But then, it’s Eliot.
“Why are you being so nice to me?”
“When you’re being a sad loser nerd?”
Honestly he put it nicer than Quentin would have. He’d have stuck pathetic in there somewhere. Failure too. “Yeah.”
Eliot bumps his knee again. “You know why. You’re my friend.”
Quentin frowns down at his glass, then over at Eliot. “You’re my friend too.”
“I know,” Eliot tells him. His knee is warm, warmer than usual––that must be the clay, or the magic, or both––and when he smiles at Quentin the rest of him goes warm too. “You want me to stay?”
The apartment at night is a strange beast, sweeping and hollow; there’s too much space and not enough substance. It’s airy in the daytime, but the light fills it then, makes it bearable, liveable––if you can call what they were doing living, which, okay, maybe not, but it was close enough.
At night, in the dark, it’s all edges and shadows. Haunted. That’s alright. They were haunted too. Are haunted. Are working at being not-haunted, but that takes time, and they’re not there yet but they have time now, so. One day, he hopes. Maybe. If the world doesn’t go to shit again between now and then.
He sleeps no better here than he has anywhere, and he’s given up on hoping that might change. The strange, twisted shapes have become almost familiar by now at least, after countless nights of sleepless vigil. And he’s turned on a lamp so he won’t give the next person out of bed a heart attack to see him sitting hunched in front of the cold fireplace, which helps with the shadows, a little.
He’s not the only one up tonight, either. The distinctive three part rhythm of someone using a cane sounds through the apartment, and Quentin watches silently as Eliot limps from the gaping mouth of the hallway into the vault of the living room.
Quentin has a glass at hand, something deep amber, but he hasn’t touched it. Eliot doesn’t bother pouring himself anything.
He says, “Mind if I join you?”
Quentin says, “Not at all.”
“Good, because I’m not sure how much longer I can stay standing.” But he sinks down with only a brief grunt of effort, settled before Quentin can leap up to help him. His heart jumps anyways––it’s set itself to doing that whenever Eliot is around, or in pain, or both, so it’s always up and leaping like it has better places to be. (In the palm of Eliot’s hand, most likely; he can’t seem to help himself.)
Eliot shifts in his chair and sighs, long and heavy, like he’s set some burden down. Maybe he has; maybe that burden is him, his unwieldy injured body. He looks at Quentin. “Are you alright?”
“Shouldn’t I be asking you––”
“Please don’t.” Eliot scowls, fierce enough that Quentin stops short. He looks terrible: bruises beneath his eyes and a worrying pallor to his cheeks and uncomfortably underweight. He’s shaved since Then, and trimmed and combed his hair, but the sickliness clings to the edges of him, slow to fade. It doesn’t help that the too-small sweatpants and t-shirt he’s wearing make him look even more out of place in his own skin.
Eliot catches his eyes and relents, petulant almost. “Everyone keeps walking around me like I’m made of eggshells. I’m going to lose my mind.” He considers, then adds, like it’s a joke, “Again.”
Quentin swallows. It’s a bad joke. “Alright.”
“I’m… better.” That’s the important part: better. Sometimes you can’t fix something, can’t make it what it was again. But you can fix the little things. You can make it better.
He’s working on better.
“Yeah,” says Eliot. “Me too.”
Quentin doesn’t doubt that. Quentin’s pretty sure Eliot means better the same way he means better––something to work towards, something minor set back in its place each day in the hopes of eventually recreating something complete, something whole.
God. He’s so relieved Eliot is here to work towards it.
But that is far too delicate and bloody an admission to lay out right now, so instead he says, “Margo giving you shit?”
“So much shit,” Eliot says, words tumbling out in a rush, like he’s relieved to keep the conversation familiar, easy. “She’s such a bitch.”
“It’s cause she cares.”
“Are you going to lecture me too?”
“No.” He’s out here too, isn’t he? Pot, kettle, all that.
Eliot frowns. “Well… good.”
He shivers, brisk and sudden, and one hand flinches towards his midriff and the ugly, still-healing wound there. Quentin perches at the edge of his chair, sharp-eyed with worry.
“Are you alright?”
“Fine,” Eliot mutters.
“I’m fine,” he insists. “Just… cold.”
“Yes.” He sounds peeved to admit it. “The temperature control in here is terrible, okay? You’d think a bunch of magicians could do better.” He rolls his eyes at the hollow apartment around them and Quentin is suddenly, horribly, fiercely grateful that he’s here to complain, to bitch and moan and snap and be so Eliot about it.
“Do you want me to––” He moves towards the cool fireplace, fingers flexing. Eliot interrupts him.
“No. I’ll do it.”
Are you sure he almost asks, but. One thing at a time. That’s how minor mendings work. You might not get the whole chair fixed, but one leg at a time, each little piece put in its place, and eventually… Eventually something remembers how it’s meant to be, whole and entire.
People are kind of more complicated, but the theory is the same.
Eliot’s hand twists, fumbles through the positions of the spell. Quentin watches. It will pass, this coltish fumbling. It will get better. It’s just one more thing he’ll overcome as he relearns his body, as his body relearns him. Lipson assured them it’s temporary. It will take time, she had said, but you’ll get there.
They have that time, now.
So Quentin watches as Eliot sets his jaw, lips pulling back, and works through it again, slower, careful with each movement, dark eyes fixed intently on the cold and dark fireplace. He takes a moment. Then, smoothly––
Flick, roll, snap. The fire lights.
Eliot sinks back in his chair, pallid again, breathing heavily and unbearably proud. Quentin’s heart swells.
In this light, his eyes aren’t dark at all. They’re a striking green. How like him to be something completely new when you look closely.
Quentin reaches out for his hand. Eliot lends it without a word. Their fingers slot together.
“We’ll be okay,” Quentin says. It’s a question, but he says it like a fact, because maybe if he says it like it’s true it will be. Or it can be, anyways.
Eliot’s fingers are tight and steady-sure around his. “We’ll be okay,” he agrees.
They sit. The fire crackles, warm and bright. Fixing his eyes on the blinding light, he could almost believe them back in the Cottage, and that everything terrible had happened to someone else, or was a bad dream.
But then everything wonderful would have happened to someone else too, or would have been nothing but a dream. And he wouldn’t be sitting here hand in hand with the man he’s in love with.
So… Yeah. Maybe it’s okay that they’re not in the Cottage anymore, in the grand scheme of things.
A jaw-cracking yawn sneaks up on him, breaking the quiet and his musings. Eliot snorts. “Someone’s up past his bedtime.”
Quentin tugs his hand free. “Shut up.”
“Come on. I’ll tuck you in. Tell you a bedtime story.”
“Whatever, El.” But he levers himself to his feet anyways, and helps Eliot up despite the protests and grumbling that he’s not a complete invalid, Quentin.
Despite his protest, he lists heavily against Quentin as they move down the hallway, each step slow and laborious. Quentin kindly doesn’t mention it.
For all Eliot’s muttering, Quentin sees him back to his room first. It’s closer, first of all, and Quentin has the benefit of being able to lie down on his own. Eliot needs the help, which he accepts with as much grace as he can muster tonight. It isn’t a lot. Quentin weathers it all with a warm, fierce joy that he’s around to be so utterly graceless.
Once he’s settled in, Quentin stands and stretches.
“Hey,” says Eliot. “Where do you think you’re going?”
“You have to sleep too.”
“Is where you go to stare at the ceiling for hours on end. I know you, Q.”
There’s an edge to his voice, an uncertainty that stops him short. Like he’s taking a question and trying to make it a fact.
Eliot, propped up against the pillows, reaches a hand out for him. Quentin takes it.
“Are you sure?” They are getting better but there is so much left to fix, so much between them, he’s not sure if––
“Yes.” Eliot’s grip tightens. “Just… For tonight?”
At the end of the day, Quentin’s never been particularly good at denying Eliot what he wants.
“If it helps, I promise to keep my hands to myself. Mostly.”
“You’re a real gentleman,” he says, desert dry, and Eliot grins that self-assured I know better than you grin he wears when he’s getting his way.
Quentin holds his gaze a moment longer, then relents and stretches out next to Eliot. The room isn’t as hollow as the rest of the house. Maybe that’s because Eliot is here, filling the space, or maybe because it’s a neat little square that reminds him of the Cottage, and their cottage too, warm and comfortable and gentle around the edges. Eliot sighs next to him, full-bodied and deep, and sinks deeper into his careful nest of pillows. Quentin tucks one arm under his head and resigns himself to staring at the ceiling of Eliot’s room rather than his own, and is surprised to find himself drifting almost as soon as he settles.
“Thank you,” Eliot mumbles at his side, one hand stretched out towards him. Quentin shifts closer, and takes it, and sleeps.