There is a boy leaning against a tree on the far side of a veritable sea of a lawn, smoking, when Quentin Coldwater stumbles out of a dreary and dripping November day into the heavy heat of late August. There is a boy leaning against a tree and watching him as he picks his way across the grass, shedding first his coat and then his jacket too, until Quentin stutters to a stop in front of him in his shirtsleeves, nowhere else to go.
“Uh,” says Quentin. “Where am I?”
The boy takes a drag of his cigarette and stares at him with his sharp eyes and dark hair and careless ease, like he knows the ways and workings of the world, like he knows how to make it fit around him, and Quentin Coldwater is transfixed when he answers,
“Upstate New York.”
“How did I get here?”
“How do you think?” asks the boy, flicking away his cigarette, and it sails out into the grass but Quentin is only watching him as he smiles, sly and bright. “Magic.”
And Quentin Coldwater stares and stares, and he thinks, Oh.
“Who’s that?” Quentin asks, eyes tracking the boy in the vest and tie as he drapes himself over his friend, the two of them entirely enveloped in their own bubble, deaf to the drab world around them.
Josh Hoberman follows his gaze. “Oh, them. Eliot Waugh and Margo Hanson. Physical kids. Don’t even bother.”
“They’re on a whole ‘nother level,” Hoberman tells him. “They don’t mingle with the likes of us.”
“Oh,” says Quentin, watching them sail past. As he stares, the boy turns a little, catches his eye, smirks, and Quentin goes hot from his ears all the way down to his toes. He swallows hard and looks away. Hoberman, completely oblivious, sighs forlornly.
“They throw the best parties.”
“Yeah, um. Cool.” He tries to keep his gazed fixed on something––anything––else, but his eyes turn back towards the pair of their own volition. The boy has turned back to his friend, who is laughing, back in their private sphere, safe again in their own world.
Quentin, staring, can't help but wonder what it might be like in there with them.
“I don’t know why you care,” Alice Quinn says, frowning at him––at them––over her textbook.
Quentin shrugs, a little too hopeful, a little too desperate. Heart on his sleeve, and all that. He can’t seem to put it anywhere else. “We just want to help.”
“Do we?” asks Margo, clipped, and Eliot leans into her.
“Of course, Bambi,” he soothes. “We’re making friends.”
Margo’s expression says how she feels about making friends. Eliot smiles, pleased.
“See? Look at us getting along.”
“I don’t think we are,” Alice says doubtfully, and Margo returns with a whip-sharp, “What gave it away?” and when Quentin meets Eliot’s eyes over the two of them he finds Eliot’s expression saying, Well, you can’t win ‘em all.
Maybe that’s a funny thing to be so fiercely grateful for, a shrug and wry acceptance, but Quentin’s grateful all the same. It settles under his breastbone and burns merrily along as he watches Eliot wrap a loose arm around Margo’s shoulder, following the argument like a tennis match, and Quentin watches him, and––
Afterwards, Eliot leans back on an elbow and lights a cigarette, because of course he does. He takes a few cursory drags, head tipped back, utterly mesmerizing, then offers it to Quentin, which Quentin thinks is… nice, sort of. Like he cares. Like it matters.
“You know,” Eliot says, smoke spilling into the air as he speaks, softening the edges of the room, “you are full of surprises, Coldwater.”
“Yeah?” ask Quentin around the smoke, strangely pleased that he’s managed to surprise Eliot Waugh, king of his own strange kingdom.
Eliot hums an affirmative, smiling slow and lazy, and when Quentin passes the cigarette back he leans over to kiss him slow and lazy too, and Quentin’s heart thuds double time in his chest, and he hazily thinks, It does matter; it is nice; I want this.
And then he thinks shitfuckohno, but that stomach-churning moment of realization will have to be set aside because Eliot does this thing with his tongue and Quentin's ability to think anything besides jesusfuckyes goes out the window.
“I think I really like him,” he says, brow furrowed, feeling out the words as she says them. Julia snorts.
“No shit, Sherlock.”
He turns his frown to her. It’s more of a pout, actually, but he’d like to think it’s a frown. “You said you wouldn’t laugh.”
“I'm not laughing.” She kisses his cheek. “It’s pretty obvious, though.”
“Is it?” He considers that. “Shit.”
Julia does laugh this time. “Don’t worry, Q,” she tells him, brushing his hair out of his face. “I think he really likes you too.”
“Oh.” He pauses. “You think so?”
“Pretty sure, yeah.”
Quentin considers that. “Oh,” he says again, and wonders if Julia can all see that his whole body is glass, glowing, shot through with light.
“You ever think some people were just meant to meet?”
“What, like, destiny?”
“Yeah.” Quentin rolls his glass idly between his palms. It’s good––Eliot, he has discovered, is a uniquely talented tapster. But he’s not ready to blur the edges of the night, not yet. “Or, y’know, fate or whatever.”
Eliot snorts. “No. It’s all bullshit.”
Quentin hums. “No, yeah, totally.”
Eliot stares at him slantwise, and Quentin stares down at the soft blue of his whatever-it-is and lets it go, takes a long drink until he can feel the bite of the alcohol at the back of his throat, until the little huffing laugh from Eliot draws him out of it.
“Sometimes you get lucky, though,” Eliot says quietly, and Quentin rolls his drink between his palms again and pretends the twisting in his gut is only the booze and not something else, not the terrifying possibility that he’s gotten lucky, somehow, out of the whole world, he’s gotten lucky enough to find something worth having.
“Yeah,” he says, voice rough, and Eliot’s hand squeezing his shoulder thrums through him, down to his core. “I guess, yeah.”
It’s just: sometimes he could swear he knows the steps to this dance, and he knows he’s doing it right.
“I mean, hell,” says Margo. “Have you seen his ass?”
“Yeah,” says Quentin. Margo snorts, then does a double take.
“At the–– We were–– Um.” He’s aware that his face has gone burning red. Margo gives him a once over that’s almost approving.
“Well, hell, Coldwater. Maybe you’re not too bad after all.”
It’s the nicest thing she’s ever said to him. He does his best not to ruin it by not saying anything at all.
He’s saved the inevitability of sticking his foot in it by Eliot’s arrival. Margo tips herself back against the armrest, legs stretched out in front of her, and drawls, “Ears burning?”
“Talking about me, are you?” He swoops in to kiss her briefly on the cheek, then lifts her legs so he can settle between the pair of them, arms draped over the back of the couch as Margo drops her feet back in his lap. “Good things, I hope?” That he directs at Quentin, who goes pink again, and Eliot smiles that slow, curling smile of his. It matches Margo’s expression perfectly.
“Um,” he says.
“Very good things,” Margo assures him. “Quentin was admiring your assets.”
Eliot’s hand finds the back of his neck, thumb stroking just behind his ear. “Aw, Q. How sweet of you to say. You’re welcome to admire them any time, you know. You only have to ask.”
“I hate you,” he mutters, face and chest and ears hot, and Eliot laughs, warm, and even though Quentin is damn near curdling with embarrassment he can’t help but think how much he likes it here, Eliot pressed up against his side, Eliot’s hands on him, Eliot laughing.
And he realizes–– Oh. Oh, no.
“I’m–– Sorry, um.” He stares up at the man––the admittedly very handsome man––standing in his doorway. “Do I know you?”
“I’m keeping a promise,” he says, which doesn’t answer the question at all. Quentin almost thinks he recognizes him, but–– “Mind if I come in?”
“No, um.” He’s stepping out of the way before he finishes processing the question, and way before he processes that probably the answer should be Yes I mind very much go away before I call the police. Instead he holds the door open and says, “Go ahead?”
The man grins, slow and pleased, and it’s entirely possible he’s going to murder Quentin right the fuck now, but honestly––
Hell. What a way to go.
“I’m gonna…” Quentin waves a hand at the fire, indicating a sort of I’ll stick around a little longer that he's pretty sure more or less translates. It’s a testament to Penny’s alcohol-softened state that he just shrugs and says, “Yeah, whatever man.”
Quentin almost feels fond of him for a moment, and then Penny ruins it by adding, “Kady’s coming over,” and that warm swell of not-hatred pops.
“Oh, uh. Alright.”
Penny smiles, sickly and saccharine, and winks as he leaves. Quentin gives his retreating back a slightly blurry finger.
“That’s alright,” Eliot says with his strange, fond brand of patience he seems to parcel out when he’s in the mood for playing the host, or being owed a favor, or a little honest kindness. He runs a hand through Quentin’s hair. “You can stay here.”
“Thanks, El,” Quentin mumbles, and thinks in that moment that he really loves him.
And then he thinks a moment later with the icy wash of sudden clarity, Oh, shit.
“Did you even know them?” Julia asks when she finds him shaking apart in a dim corner of the library. She isn’t cruel as she asks it, only curious. Quentin splays his hands flat on the table and stares down at them, waits for the trembling to stop.
“Yes. No. Not–– Only in passing. It’s just––”
“Fucked,” she says for him, gentle-like. “I know.”
“It’s gone, Q.”
“What if it comes back. What if it’s, like–– I don’t think it’s from here, not really, I mean, if you really looked at it, and how it casts, I mean–– No one’s seen anything like that, I overheard Fogg talking to Sunderland and they think––”
“But it’s gone.” Julia lays her hands over his; they’re warm still from her drink. Slowly he lets out a breath and then another. Julia’s hands are warm. The table is cool. His palms are sweaty. His hair is tickling his face. The library smells of old vellum and mothballs. Julia’s hands are warm.
“What if it comes back?” he asks again, quieter, miserable. The table is cool. Julia’s hands are warm. When he closes his eyes, he can see the blood and the––
“Then we’ll, I don’t know, we’ll fight it. Or deal with it. Or, whatever.”
“Yeah.” He swallows. When he closes his eyes, he–– “Okay.”
“Okay,” she says. She takes her hands away. The table is cold.
When he closes his eyes, he can see the blood and the still-warm bodies of Margo Hanson and Eliot Waugh, right where they fell, and he thinks, wildly and without understanding, that he has lost something important without ever having it to begin with.
“So, he’s called, like, the Beast, and he wants to kill us, specifically, I think.”
“Well,” says Margo. “Shit.”
Penny stares. “Fucking… why?”
Quentin’s hands twist together, coin tricks without a coin. Nervous habit. “I don’t know, but, um, he was pretty clear––”
“We’re gonna deal with it, though,” Julia interrupts, arms folded, daring anyone to disagree with her. Alice’s frown deepens and Kady’s eyebrows go up, but no one disagrees.
“Alright,” Penny says. “Fine. How?”
“I’m. Still working on that.”
“We’re still working on that,” Alice corrects. Kady snorts.
“Yeah, well, maybe we want to work faster.”
“If you have any ideas––”
“We’ll figure it out,” Eliot interrupts, placating. “We’re all genius magicians. We’ll make it work.”
Quentin nods. “We think… we think maybe we can, um. There’s a professor who used to teach here, Bigby, and he might know–– He’s supposed to be good with battle magic.”
That earns him a blank stare, three looks of consideration, a scoff from Penny, and a, “You’re an idiot,” from Kady, which is actually better than he anticipated it going. He lets out a breath.
Penny grabs his bag first. “Yeah, well. Good luck with that,” he says, and waits only long enough for Kady to join him before he leaves. Alice stands abruptly once the door closes, and when she mentions a book Julia follows her up the stairs. Margo sighs and sinks deeper into her chair. Eliot goes in search of the liquor cabinet. Quentin, hands still working through simple little magic tricks, follows.
“That could have gone better,” he mutters while Eliot busies himself with something besides their almost certain doom.
“Most likely,” he agrees.
“I just,” Quentin says, forcing his hands to go still. “I really don’t want to like. Lose anyone.”
“You won’t,” Eliot shrugs. “We’ll figure it out.”
“Yeah.” It would be nicer if he believed it.
Eliot hands him something reddish-amber. “Here. Drink up. You’ll feel better.”
Eliot doesn’t let go, though, and for a moment they’re both holding the tumbler, fingers brushing. Quentin swallows, stares up at him.
“We’ll figure this out,” he says again, firmer. “I promise, Q.”
Quentin thinks, fierce and unexpected and subsequently a little overwhelming, I don’t want to lose you.
Quentin says, with the soft edge of a distant hope, “Yeah, okay. Thanks, El.”
And he takes his drink, and sits down, and thinks in time with the beat of his heart, Please, please, please.
Henry Fogg steeples his fingers and stares at the student sitting across from him. He says, "I need you to greet someone."
Eliot Waugh frowns.
“Oh, God. Why?”
“Are you otherwise occupied, Mr. Waugh?”
“I could be.”
“I need you to greet this student,” says Henry Fogg with his characteristic patience––which is to say, very little, and that which he manages to scrounge up is biting and tenuous––”because for some reason I cannot divine, but I am sure is a joke of cosmic proportions, the fate of the world may very well reside upon it.”
Eliot, slouched in the chair across the desk, frowns, mouth opening to counter with some inane, falsified explanation. Henry forestalls him with one open hand.
“And I would be willing to look the other way in matters pertaining to the after-hours activities at the Physical Cottage.”
The addendum does the trick. Eliot sits up a little straighter, eyes going mischief bright––good God, thirty-nine lifetimes and it still strikes a niggling fear into Henry’s heart. Or maybe it’s because of the thirty-nine previous experiences he’s had with this particular young man.
Time, as they say, will tell. Assuming they survive this cycle.
“Alright,” Eliot says, leaning forward. “Who’s the kid?”
Henry sighs and passes him the name card. Eliot reads it, brow furrowing. “Quentin? What kind of a name is Quentin––”
“Uh,” Quentin says, staring at the boy lounging above him. “Uh huh.”
The boy cocks his head a little, giving him an unenthused once-over. He jumps down from his perch, landing lightly before him. He’s tall, and narrow, and there’s something curiously sharp about him, about the glint in his eyes and the crook of his mouth and the cut of his suit.
He says, with disarming ease, “I’m Eliot. You’re late.”
And Quentin Coldwater stares at him and thinks, for the fortieth time and the first: