Part I: Theory.
Back in the summer, when Quentin had first been about to get out, Fogg had turned up with a fresh set of Brakebills paperwork. "You can come back to the Cottage if you want," Fogg had said. "We haven't reassigned your room yet, but you need to refile your waiver before the start of the semester if you want to keep yourself on academic leave; we burnt the old one": and Quentin had just—blinked at him, feeling—disoriented. Confused. "Does he have to do this now?" Alice had asked, voice sharp; and Fogg had looked at her, very evenly, and asked, "It depends on where he's going, tomorrow morning," which had been—a question that Quentin couldn't answer.
And then Eliot had asked him, "How do you feel about Spring Lake?"; and Quentin had tilted his head up.
"What's in Spring Lake?" he'd asked; and Eliot had paused, and then said, "Well, there's a lake."
So Quentin had spent the back half of July and most of August in a house on the Jersey Shore with Alice, when she was home from the Library on alternate weekends, and Kady, who'd used their Airbnb as her unofficial Hedge-on-the-lam hideout whenever things got too hot in Manhattan, and Eliot, who'd gone for a lot of walks with Quentin and caught him up on what'd happened on Star Trek: Discovery—"You watched Star Trek? Like, voluntarily?" "I was patching in a hole in my torso, shut it"—while Quentin had been dead. Then—
Then he had had to make a decision, so—so he'd refiled his waiver, and asked Fogg for another semester of leave.
It—it had made sense. He'd thought. Alice had dropped out to run the reorganization of the Library: he figured an Earth masters degree would seem pretty flimsy, when you were sitting on the universe's greatest repository of knowledge. Margo was still technically on academic leave, too, but had bigger fish to fry: in January, she and the FUBARs (Fillorians United For Better Animal Representation—"I didn't name them," Margo'd muttered) had retaken the Castle That Isn't There, and started lifting the spells on the prisoners in the central courtyard ("Fantasy authors should never be granted actual power," Eliot had interrupted; and Fen had thumped him and said, "Sorry, Margo—go on, tell him about the river-beasts") and now Margo and Fen and the FUBARs were working on retaking Whitespire, while Josh was with the centaurs recuperating from having his leg broken off while they were still statues. 23 and Kady had gone full Hedge, at least half as a political statement. Julia was the only one of them still at Brakebills, just starting her second year: in the thirteen months since Quentin had died, Eliot had, somewhat implausibly, filed a change of topic he's still weirdly cagey about, written his thesis, and actually graduated: "I had a lot of time on my hands," Eliot had explained, standing out by the grill one evening in August, and then plunked another hot dog onto Quentin's plate. Quentin had eaten a lot of grilled meat, over the summer.
But it turned out that even dying didn't get you out of decisions forever, and around the same time that Kady had told Quentin he was always welcome in the penthouse, taken all of her extremely multidisciplinary weaponry, stolen a bright purple 2004 Thunderbird from a couple down the street, and gone to take on Irene McAllister after a safe house had been quietly disappeared outside Vancouver, Julia had come to ask Quentin whether he was coming back to Brakebills for fall semester. Then, thirty-six hours later, Quentin had gotten a letter by certified mail informing him, bizarrely, that while he was dead and all the muggles in his life had just assumed he was a self-centered millennial asshole who never replied to his email, his dad's probate had finished working its way through the courts, and Quentin now had the dubious honor of officially inheriting about $3,000 and a three-bedroom two-bath in suburban New Jersey.
"Jesus," Quentin had muttered, dropping the letter on the table. "Three grand won't even cover the next property tax bill—and no, I'm not living on the money you scam out of Atlantic City casinos forever. I need to pack it up and sell it."
Eliot had just shrugged and said, "Want a hand?"; so the next morning Quentin and Eliot had left the Airbnb and moved back to Montclair.
At first—at first. The first few days back Quentin feels like a ghost, or like the house is a ghost, but who would they be haunting? Eliot? Eliot, who'd just—been around, through the whole—awful fucking—transfer from the Library infirmary to the centaurs in Fillory to Brakebills, very briefly, before a cripplingly silent Uber from the Manhattan portal back to the Midtown Mental Health Clinic, like the rest of the world was just catching up to the last five years of Quentin's life playing in reverse, except that this time Eliot came to visit him every day and brought him sudoku books and street tacos and told him scandalous—and, Quentin suspected, largely untrue—gossip about everyone they knew. It had been. Harder, for Alice—Quentin didn't blame her, for taking off—but Eliot was the only person in the world who'd made him feel real, half the time. When they'd first walked into the house, at the end of August, Eliot had meandered towards the guitar like it'd had its own gravity: "Your dad's?" he'd asked, and Quentin had hesitated. "Mine, actually," he'd admitted. "But I haven't played since high school." Eliot had looked over at him and hummed the first couple bars of "Wonderwall," eyebrow raised, just to be a dick; so Quentin had—picked it up and fumbled his way through it, perched on the edge of the sofa, because—what else was he going to do, not let Eliot laugh at him? Except—Eliot hadn't: he'd just. Sung along, in a soft warm voice, eyes dancing, and looking up at him Quentin had thought—
They start with the kitchen, because it's the easiest, and Quentin—goes to his therapy appointments and then spends the whole ride home watching Eliot's hands on the wheel of his dad's blue Prius and has—a lot of warm, complicated feelings about Eliot's fingers while Eliot is singing along to the radio, and if late in the day Quentin sometimes, you know, picks out something dumb, as best he can, from tabs on the internet or with Eliot, who is about a thousand percent more musical than he is, helping him out by ear—well. It beats binge-watching another half a season of Supernatural, that's all. Quentin likes Eliot's singing voice in the same way he likes Eliot buying them bagels on Tuesdays and Thursdays or Eliot teasing Julia when—in her ongoing quest to not let his magical education slide—she comes to visit every Friday with stacks of new spells to share with Quentin; the way he likes Eliot asleep in the guest bedroom, just the other side of his bedroom wall. "Are you two," Julia asks, very quietly; and Quentin clears his throat and—and nudges the notebook back towards her, saying, "I, uh. Haven't been doing much magic, lately. Do you know what you're doing your thesis on yet?"
Julia gives him a look, but lets him get away with it.
The thing is that—it's a question that Quentin probably at some point is going to have to ask Eliot to answer but—but he doesn't want to. He doesn't want to. He doesn't want to go through that again, and—and this works, doesn't it? He's not lying to himself about it or anything, he knows what he wants, but he spent all that time his first couple months back trying to tell himself that stuff would get better with Alice as he got better but—but with Alice, they just didn't have anything in common anymore. Alice is up to her eyeballs in Library bureaucracy and esoteric spells and Quentin spent half of last Saturday fixing a wobbly nightstand with a tube of wood fill and a screwdriver. Eliot's willing to hang out with him in Montclair and limit himself to the little incidental magics (lighting Quentin's cigarettes before Quentin can ask, waving over a cup of coffee when he's left it on the other side of the kitchen counter) that just go along with meandering through an ordinary day, not because Eliot doesn't love magic but just because Quentin has no place at Brakebills and can't bring himself to go back to Fillory and feels sick when he thinks about the penthouse: Quentin knows that Eliot loves him. It's enough, isn't it? It just seems like—everywhere they could go away from that just feels really dangerous. And—it's not like—it's not just the two of them, shacked up or whatever: Julia comes off-campus most weekends to look at Quentin with sad eyes and have a lot of conversations that uncomfortably go nowhere, and Margo and Eliot are as close to living in each other's pockets as you can get when one of you still needs twice-weekly physical therapy and sometimes walks with a cane and the other spends most of her time leading a magical multi-species army on an alien world. 23, too: he and Eliot are working on Fillory-Hedge informational exchange program for Fen and Kady that as far as Quentin can tell mostly consists of 23 throwing crumpled up sheets of paper at Eliot when Eliot offers suggestions; and Kady always swings by whenever she's on the right coast, mostly because she's inexplicably fond of the avocado toast from the Corner. Alice, for her part, comes by about as often as she can manage, more if he emails asking her to: usually hauling a massive tote bag of books and paperwork, sharp and biting about everything in a way that—that makes Quentin relax, for some reason. He always knows where he stands with Alice, and mostly where he stands with Alice right now is "directionless magic school dropout."
"I'm not pressuring you to go back," Alice says, after pressuring him to go back.
"No," Quentin says.
"You don't have to do it right away," she says. "But—I mean, Quentin, you can take however long you need, but—at some point you're going to need to do something that's not—hanging around with Eliot selling your dad's plates on eBay, or whatever—"
"Actually, I'm keeping most of his plates," Quentin says, "I'll need something for the apartment," and reaches across the coffee table for another chip. With guac, this time: it's too cold to grill, so he and Eliot have been branching out to things they can prep in bulk and eat all week: turkey taco meat, this week. Roast chicken, last. A single ill-fated lasagna the week before.
"The apartment," she says, after a minute.
"Yeah," he says, and takes a breath. "I'm not going back to Brakebills. Like—like ever," he says, and can feel his ribs. Loosening, a little. Eliot is out of the house, taking the car around for a slightly overdue tune-up: "We're driving up for my stuff this weekend."
She pushes her glasses up, mouth twisting. "Quentin," she says, "you're—you're so smart, and you're—powerful, you're not just—you don't have to do it right away, there's not—a time limit on getting better, or—"
"Alice," he says; and then laughs, a little. "That's—look, I'm not. It's not because I'm sick." Breathing in. "Not anymore. I—I'm not unsure, about Brakebills, okay? I don't want to go back to Brakebills. I know that. And—and I emailed you because. Because—well, I wanted to see you, but—I also wanted to ask if. If you could take a look at something for me."
Alice sets down her taco. "Quentin," she says, and then, "I—of course, of course I can"; and Quentin nods, and goes upstairs to his bedroom.
He's been having kind of a half-argument with his therapist about living out of a suitcase, but—he's not, really: it's more like it was his first semester at Columbia, where he didn't really have any stuff—not on campus, at least. Almost everything he owns—his books, his schoolwork, most of his clothes—is still at Brakebills. What he does have here, he actually did put in his dresser, thanks, and then there's his laptop and his dad's old inkjet printer and the usual detritus of pens and papers spread out all over the blond wood desk he'd used back in high school: he grabs the stack of stapled stuff he'd flagged for Alice and brings it downstairs with a pen for her to borrow, if she wants it: she glances down at the first one—the prompt in italics up top, and below it, his response—then looks back up at his face, silent.
He shrugs, a little awkward.
"Q," she says, voice rough. "You're applying to grad school?"
"Yeah," he says; and then clears his throat. "I—I've been thinking about, um." He sits down again, facing her, cross-legged on the floor: most of the downstairs furniture has already been sold. "So okay, Eliot and I—talk, you know, and—therapy, too, I have—the only thing I've ever done that I really liked—like, actually enjoyed doing, was—a puzzle, basically, so like. Maybe. I should think about that? So I thought about that. And I thought—you know, if there's ever a right time for a change in direction, it's—."
He stops. He can feel his face reddening.
"Do you want to do this?" she asks; and Quentin sighs, leaning his elbows on the table. Eliot'd asked the same thing.
"I don't not want to do this," he says, to Alice. "And—right now, that counts for a lot? This is a solid option. I'm not expecting it to be my favorite thing ever, okay?"
She doesn't answer. Turning the top page over, for the next prompt-and-response.
"I—I know you said you applied to a bunch of physics programs," Quentin says, "before you snuck into the Brakebills exam, which—didn't seem a million miles away from engineering, so. I was hoping—"
"That I would read your essays," she says, quiet; and Quentin hunches up a little inside Eliot's purple cashmere sweater, and nods.
"Yeah," she says, after a minute, "of course." She turns the page, then looks up. "Princeton?" she asks. Quizzical: Quentin can feel himself turning red.
"Fogg went there for undergrad too, you know," he explains. Shifting. "He said he'd write me a letter of recommendation."
"Okay, just steer clear of Dr. Bakshi, he's unbearable," she says, and then. Clears her throat. "I—I can bring these back over the weekend? To—Brakebills, even, if that's easier, I've been meeting with Julia most weeks anyway, we're working on the plan for opening up the Library, she's been talking to some law school friends about—"
Quentin's shoulders are—curving in. Tense.
"Anyway," Alice says. Clears her throat. "Brakebills?"; and he nods. Forcing his shoulders to—to relax. They're staying in the Cottage Saturday night and moving him out muggle-style: Quentin probably owes Eliot about a case of wine for not making him deal with the portals.
"The puzzle," Alice says, after a minute. "You mean—the Mosaic. You told me you solved it for Jane. In another timeline."
Quentin shifts, a little. "Yeah." Feeling—
"And—you died." She ducks her head. "You remember it."
Quentin looks down at his taco, half-eaten. "Yeah," he says, finally.
Alice doesn't say anything for a while. Then, very quietly, she says, "You and Eliot."
Don't, Quentin thinks; and then takes a breath. Lets it out. "I—um." He laughs, a little. "Yeah."
Alice takes another chip. "Are you ever going to tell me about it?" she asks; and—there. There, Quentin is thinking.
There it is.
He picks his taco up. Sets it down. "I, um." His chest—hurts, still. When he thinks about it. About—about Eliot turning away from him in the throne room in Fillory, pushing up to his feet and saying, Listen, could we—just maybe. Sort of keep this to ourselves? Laughing, a little: his back tense—it was a long time ago, Quentin knows that. But. He'd promised, hadn't he? Eliot had asked him not to say anything to anyone and so Quentin promised he wouldn't and then didn't, through that whole long, painful final spring of Eliot not looking him in the eye.
And ever since.
"I can't, right now." Quentin takes a breath. "But—at the weekend, maybe? I, um. I have to do something first."
After a moment, Alice says, "Of course." Her voice careful, and light. "Take your time."
They finish their tacos and do the dishes and then Alice kisses Quentin on the cheek and takes her giant bag of books and his essays and leaves, and Quentin—Quentin just doesn't. He doesn't know what to do with himself, so he gets the guitar, works on "Blackbird" for a while, which he'd been relearning and actually can get through pretty well, at this point, and then—then he starts picking at "Space Oddity," because—because Eliot's a sucker for Bowie and Quentin's a sucker for Eliot, basically, and when practically the first thing out of Quentin's mouth when Alice'd dumped him in July had been I'm not exactly in a place to be with anyone right now, anyway Margo had sighed, but Eliot had just looked at him and nodded. And that—it had meant so much to Quentin, it means so much to Quentin, that—that he had him. That Quentin has Eliot, in exactly the way he has Eliot, and that Eliot can give him that space, but Quentin—he still feels it, doesn't he? All the fucking time. He's never stopped feeling—the rest of it: that fucking—hole. At the core of him, where a tiny, petulant part of him keeps telling him—
"Hey," Eliot says, quiet, just behind him: Quentin lifts his face off the side of the guitar, Eliot's fingers sliding through his hair. "You okay? Was Alice mean to you?"
Quentin laughs, thick in his throat, and then wipes at the side of the guitar with the sleeve of his borrowed sweater: Eliot tsks at him and passes him the Kleenex from the arm of the loveseat, instead. "No, she was fine," Quentin says. Mopping the guitar off: jeez, he's—a disaster. "I just—it's been a long day," he says, finally. Eliot perched next to him. Eliot's hands warm on his forehead. His back. "I think I need to sleep."
"Yeah, of course," Eliot murmurs. Stroking his bangs back: Quentin closes his eyes, and lets Eliot, very gently, dry off his face.
But Quentin doesn't sleep. Quentin lies awake staring up at the ceiling and listening to Eliot in the bathroom across the hall, washing off his eyeliner, brushing his teeth; next door in the guest bedroom, puttering around, watching—Quentin closes his eyes, listening: The Great British Bake Off, he thinks. On his phone, probably: tinny, even with the volume turned low. Quentin rubs at his forehead. It—it never shuts up, does it. That little voice going, it's supposed to be you, it's always going to be—you, Eliot, I'm always going to want you: even though everything Eliot had said to him, after, was true. Quentin knew it was true, he knows that it's true, but—he can't just—put it away, can he? That—that life, that partnership, their family: fifty fucking years of loving someone, and then—
"So, uh, I think we need to talk," Quentin says, the next morning, after a deeply antsy half-hour sitting waiting on the loveseat for Eliot to get back from his perpetual Tuesday-Thursday post-PT bagel run: about seventeen incredibly complicated expressions pass over Eliot's face, but he just says, "Sure, of course—take your decaf, you heathen," so Quentin tucks the bagels under his arm and takes the coffee carrier over to the table while Eliot's sliding out of his coat.
"Want yours toasted?" Quentin asks, heading into the kitchen.
"Please," Eliot calls after him, so Quentin nods and slices both of the bagels. Sticks them into the toaster, and then fishes out plates and a knife for the cream cheese—or—they'll need a second one, if— "Okay," Eliot says, right behind him; Quentin turns: "so—I don't know what you want to talk to me about but I've been sitting on this for like a year and a half because I was trapped in my head and then you were dead and then you were in the hospital and then it seemed like I'd be super pushy if I brought it up while you were like ten seconds out of your relationship with Alice and worrying about leaving Brakebills and dealing with your dad's shit but I'm going to kick myself forever if I don't get a chance to say it so: I'm in love with you, Q, I was a cowardly selfish jerk when we got our memories from Fillory and I never should've told you no and I've regretted it every second since, will you go on a date with me?"
Quentin blinks. "I," he says, and then— "Uh—did you bring chive cream cheese?"
"Yes, I have met you," Eliot half-cries, his voice wound up tight; and then, "Quentin—"
"I—no, sorry, I—of course I'll go on a date with you." Quentin takes a breath. "This is weird. I was going to ask if it was okay if I told Alice about the Mosaic, even if you didn't still want to be with me—"; and gasping Eliot bends down to cup his face in both hands and kisses him, which is how the first time Quentin has sex with another person in two and a half years it winds up being on the floor of his dead dad's half-empty kitchen.
"That was really not how I meant to do that," Eliot says, later, voice thick and groggy.
"Hngh," Quentin says, and then lifts up his face up out of Eliot's bare armpit, blinking. "I think the bagels are probably ruined."
"God, you have to at least let me take you to breakfast," Eliot says, looking—almost comically wounded, as he's petting Quentin's hair off his forehead; so they shower and then Eliot buys him eggs benedict and sits so close to him Quentin can feel his body heat all over, clinging to his hand under the table.
Alice finally calls him back Saturday morning, after he'd sent her like five increasingly frantic emails because he knows their friends and he knows the combined Hedge/Brakebills/Library rumor mill and he he also knows that Eliot mirror-called Margo Thursday morning, while Quentin was still drying his goddamned hair, and the last thing in the world he wants is for Alice to come back with all his admissions essays red-penned and find out how he spent the last forty-eight hours. They're nearly to campus, honestly, not far outside Stewart Airport: the windows cracked despite the cold so that Eliot can smoke while he drives. Quentin has, totally shamelessly, spent most of the past forty-five minutes with his head on Eliot's shoulder and his hand on Eliot's upper thigh, but he sits up to talk to Alice, feeling his face getting hot.
"I liked your essay for Stevens the best," Alice is already saying, "but I think the Princeton responses need more work. I can tell you're not—really there for this, Quentin, and—I mean, if this is really what you're going to do, if you really want to go—"
"Uh—hey," Quentin says, "can we—maybe table that, for a second?"
She stops. He can hear her breathing. "Uh oh," she says, finally, and then sighs. "Is this where you tell me you finally slept with Eliot?"
Quentin rubs at his forehead. Not looking over at Eliot, who he can just-see grinning hugely anyway, out of the corner of his eye. "How has this already gotten to you?"
"Ohh, it hadn't," she says, and then sighs again. "Just. Logical deduction, Quentin": and Eliot, who isn't even trying to pretend he's not listening to the conversation, starts to snicker.
Quentin drops his head back against the headrest, trying not to smile, but—okay, not that hard. "So—yeah, I—I asked, so—I can tell you about the Mosaic, now," he tells Alice, finally; and she says, "I—okay, I'm just outside the wards, when're you getting to campus?"
"Um—," he starts, and looks over at Eliot; and Eliot says, "Couple hours," and Quentin repeats, "Couple hours?" and then, when it actually registers, after Alice has already said she'll see him then and hung up, "Wait—El, a couple hours?"
Eliot grins at him, quick, before looking back at the road. "Up for a scenic detour?" he asks, and then slides them a lane to the right.
Quentin takes a breath. "So—okay," he says.
Laughs, a little.
She's just watching him. Eyes sharp.
"When we said we solved the Mosaic for Jane Chatwin and died, in an alternate timeline," he says. "What—what we've been kind of cagey about is that it took fifty-seven years."
Alice crosses her arms. Fidgeting. Silent.
"I—for about fifty of those," Quentin says. Fifty years, eight months, four days: minus that first year, and—and then Arielle. Quentin looks down at his feet. "For about fifty of those, Eliot and I were together. Like—together-together, like."
"Like sleeping together," Alice says. Even.
"Like functionally married," Quentin corrects, and then hunches his shoulders together, back prickling. "For—not the first few years," he explains. "We—we got together, for a few years, and then we—uh, we split up, for a while." He scrapes a hand through his hair. "Eliot dumped me," he says, baldly. "I—wanted more than he was ready for." He takes a breath. Lets it out. "And I—I got together with someone else, and she—we got married, and she moved in with us, and we had a baby. And then—when our son was four, she got sick and died. And after that it was just me and Eliot and Teddy."
"Jesus, Q," Alice mutters, and then sighs. Turning: but Quentin touches her shoulder. Quick.
"Please don't think I've been lying to you," Quentin says. "I just—I didn't ever bring it up because Eliot—it was hard for Eliot, it was—a lot harder for him than it was for me, he—wanted to move on, and I—."
"Didn't," Alice says. Flat. "You didn't want to move on."
Quentin is quiet, for a while.
"I go back and forth on this," he says, finally. "Like—in my own head. With Valerie, too, in therapy, I mean—I was pretty gutted, actually," he admits. Swallowing. "But—I didn't want to be gutted, I wanted to be—fucking normal about it, it wasn't—it wasn't even a break-up, Alice, it never happened, not to me, not to him, before—before Thursday the only time he'd even actually kissed me was—uh, back in first year, so—and then—and then there was so much going on—"
"Whatever," she says, and then takes a deep, slow breath, and reaches over, and takes a leaf out of his hair, golden and autumnal. Quentin doesn't have to say anything: he can feel himself blushing, as Alice's mouth twists, and she touches his cheek, and then steps back. Starts walking back up towards the main part of campus.
He swallows. Falling into step beside her. Quiet.
"Do you think the Library can be better?" she asks; and he rubs at his forehead.
"I know you want it to be better," he says; and she laughs a little, shaking her head.
"I'm trying to make it better, Q," she says. "I'm trying—to fucking fix something, and I thought—I'd hoped eventually, you'd want—"
He stuffs his hands in his pockets. Feeling—knotted up, tense; and she stops.
They come up to the edge of the quad; and Alice stops. Eliot's still sitting down, sitting forward with his weight on his forearms on Sunderland's table, grinning while she—very obviously—shows him some dumb bullshit a student wrote on a midterm. Three more cups have materialized on the table while they were gone: he'd bet one of them is decaf, and another has about a third of a cup of sugar.
"If you hadn't died, would you've cheated on me again, when you got him back?" Alice asks, voice low; and Quentin swallows.
"If I had been in a place where I could entertain any part of that as a question," he says, finally, "I probably wouldn't've killed myself"; and Alice gives a sharp, frustrated sigh, and then reaches over, to take his hand.
Part II: Application.
"Happy birthday, Q," Alice says, and then clinks their glasses together: actual champagne, like from France, because Eliot's still waging his campaign to make all of Quentin's classmates think Quentin is Eliot's kept boy, because he is exactly that kind of asshole.
"Thank you," Quentin says, and sips; Alice sips, looking up at him, shifting, a little.
"How's ordinary life treating you?" she asks.
"Well, you'd know, if you ever replied to my emails," he says; and she rolls her eyes.
"I'm busy," she says; and he says, "I know"; and then Margo comes up behind them in a strapless red dress with a plate full of picnic salads and a beer and says, "The girl in the cat-eye glasses"; so Quentin says, "Uh—gay but mean"; and Margo scoffs and says, "Oh, like that's a detraction," and rolls off on her latest campaign of conquest.
When he looks back at Alice, the corners of her eyes are crinkling; and Quentin starts laughing. "I'd say 'the more things change,' but—"
"Yeah, no," she says. "Some things wouldn't stand changing." Smiling, actually.
He sips his champagne. "Did you ever get that problem with the mirror network fixed?" he asks.
"Yeah, but we probably shouldn't talk about it here," she says, and nods at the crowd: Eliot is having an argument with Rasheed by the grill, but since Rasheed lives in the apartment upstairs and shares their patio, that pretty much just means it's a day ending in "y"; Margo's chatting up Naomi and her cat-eye glasses, and Julia, David, Fen, and Bill are trying to set up Twister on the lawn: knots of Quentin's classmates and Siobhan and Marcus from work drinking and eating coleslaw with Josh and 23. Kady is lying out in an electric blue pool lounger, making out with Yolanda; the dog asleep in the shade.
"It's probably okay, honestly," he admits. "23 and Eliot did a little bit of work back in the winter to make it just—a little harder for people to notice, like—I wouldn't cast the Rhinemann Ultra or anything, but they're probably not going to think too much about it if you're just telling me about work."
She looks down at her glass. Not saying anything, for a minute. "Harriet found the problem, in the end," she says, finally. "Which is—a pretty good argument for opening the Library up." Her head tilts, a little. "I'm never sure how much you want to know," she says; and Quentin shifts.
"I mean," he says. "Eliot tells me about his work all the time, and I. Nod along"; and Alice looks up at the sky.
It's not—accurate, maybe. But—unsnarling Eliot's metamath just isn't the same. There's just—everyone else has dropped it by now; but Alice hasn't. Alice—won't, probably: she'd brought him her mirror problems in the first place, blipping in with 23 and Kady back in November: Kady'd brought pizza and 23 had brought beer and Alice had brought a tote bag full of grimoires and started unstacking them on their kitchen table, eyes bright behind her glasses, explaining the phosphoromantic underpinnings of the spell mesh they'd used when they'd tried to connect the Library mirrors through the Earth fountain to RCN. But there's a problem at the junctions, she'd explained, and Quentin's stomach had—started churning, when he'd realized why she was telling him. None of us have quite the right skillset, so we're seeing huge energy loss whenever the fountain opens—; and Eliot had said, Alice. Get to the point, so that if he wants to, he can shoot you down.
"Well," she says; and then laughs, a little. "We got it working. So—you know, now I get all my spam emails again, which is."
Quentin clears his throat. "Do you want another drink?" he asks; and Alice says, "Yes," sounding—hugely relieved.
"Really, though, Q," Alice says, as they meander over towards the ratty plastic chairs on the deck, just as Luke and Naila come in, bearing brownies and their four-month-old lab puppy. "How have you been?"
"I've been good," Quentin says. "I—really good, actually. I—we're sort of. Home base, I guess? Since Kady burned down the penthouse? I mean—Julia's staying the summer, the guest room's—more hers than a guest room, honestly, and Margo's here whenever she's back on Earth, and Kady obviously doesn't live here, but—you know. We dogsit. She comes by when things get too hot in Brooklyn and crashes on the futon and eats all our Doritos."
Alice shifts, a little, her face pink at its edges; and Quentin wonders, for a minute if that was tactless? He'd invited her too, at Christmas, but she hadn't come. It'd been—he'd tried really hard to not miss her, but—even 23 had come. He'd brought Frankie and two cases of Aecht Schlenkeria Rauchbier. Frankie had bought his weed, which was excellent, and his boyfriend, a 6'2" actor-model named Alessandro who volunteers at an animal shelter, and they'd both vanished upstairs with Rasheed for all of the 26th and the 27th, while 23 and Eliot and Kady were having a knock-down drag-out fight over Carcassone strategy and Margo was sprawled out on the sofa, with her feet in Julia's lap and her head in Quentin's. It'd been—really good weed.
"Anyway," Quentin says. "It's—it's nice. That—that they visit." He shifts, a little. "You could visit, too," he says. "Whenever. If you wanted."
"Uh—yeah, I—I just don't get away from the Library very often." Alice clears her throat. "You know how it is. There's always just—more to do."
Quentin shifts, sipping his champagne. "I mean," he says, after a second. "Not exactly? When I started, I—I sort of made the executive decision to. Be kind of a B+ student, so."
"Quentin," she says, sounding. Just appalled: and Quentin can feel himself smiling, rubbing at his face.
"It's fine, Alice," he says. "Honestly. I'm doing fine, I'm just—not willing to kill myself over it"; then he laughs, a little. "Again." She looks away; and he scuffs his flip-flop along the brick work, while Gizmo is scrambling over, sniffs Quentin's bare toes, then darts off again, wagging, to go rouse Elpis from under Kady's chaise. "I mean," he says, "it's—uh, first year, it's boring, it's nice, I'm, uh—I'm glad to be out of the classroom for the summer, though. Have I talked to you since I started my internship?"
She shakes her head. "No, I—I know I've been—bad at keeping in touch, I've been—swamped, sorry. Kady said you were doing something with—um." She stops, blushing. "Sorry," she says. "Was it—um. You make—toys? Or—"
"I'm building a glockenspiel," he says, and then laughs at her expression. "No, really, I am," he says. "It's a musical instrument manufacturing company, my supervisor has me doing a glockenspiel by hand to get a feel for how they go together."
Alice's brows scrunch together. "But—don't you just... know, though?"; and Quentin—
Looks up at the sky.
It's a beautiful day. Bright blue. A couple puffy white clouds. Hot. Julia always says she likes coming to stay with them on term breaks because the actual weather helps her clear her head, refocus on her course prep. Across the lawn, Yolanda is sitting up so that she can take video of the dogs, Kady's chin resting on her shoulder: Yolanda's 100% muggle. Quentin knows Kady worries about it, even though—even though Quentin never does magic anymore, either. Eliot does. All the time. And all the rest of them: 23 traveled in with Julia and Margo took the portals; Kady lit the fucking grill with magic, since Eliot was catching up with her dog and Quentin sucks at doing it with a lighter, and now down at the other end of the patio, Margo is telling Rasheed, "Seriously, you just can't do that to a steak!" sounding broken inside, while Eliot just laughs and laughs and laughs. It's—nice. Ordinary. It's nice and ordinary the way that everyone has a stock set of jokes about their building's crappy 70s architecture and wall-to-wall carpets is nice and ordinary: everyone shows up when they need to go somewhere safe and eats all their snacks and uses the last of the toilet paper and vents to Quentin about their magic problems while he makes them coffee with a Moka Pot and it feels—nice, and ordinary, and precious: everyone, he is thinking, except Alice.
Don't you just—know, though?
"Yeah, I can still feel it," Quentin says, finally. "I—I do know, sort of, but that's—it's different to be, like, sitting there with seven thousand screws laid out in front of me, learning how they feel under my fingers, when they're seated right—it's just. Learning with a different part of me, I guess."
Alice doesn't answer for a second. Then she asks, hesitant, "And you... like it better?"
Quentin sips his champagne. Another life, he thinks, and then looks up, over at Eliot; who is watching them. Quentin smiles, a little; and Eliot winks at him, smiling back. This life, Quentin thinks: a petal-soft, warm feeling, blossoming open inside of him.
"It's easier?" he says, finally. Feeling—awkward. Unsure. "It's—more comfortable, I guess? I don't. Feel it, quite so much. It's just—a task."
"Oh," she says, "I—get that"; but Quentin is thinking that Alice has very rarely sounded less like she got something at all.
"Anyway," he says. Laughing, a little. "God, this is—come on, I haven't even—talked to you in months, how's work, how're the kids"; and she rolls her eyes.
"I—well, I'm assuming you mean the pathetic excuses for junior Librarians that Everett saddled me with," she says. "You'd think that after two years I'd've got them into shape, but—I mean, half of them just joined the Order for free access to magic, and the other half just joined so they could bully the Hedges—in the past six months I've forced ten of them out; another fifteen quit back when I offered the whole Order the chance to renegotiate their contracts; and even now, the rest of them are so recalcitrant I barely know what to do with them." She sighs. "Half the time I don't even think they notice. Like—did it just—not register for them? What we're doing? What we're trying to make the Library be?" She ducks her head. "Which makes it sound like I'm—engaged in some sort of—epic quest, or something, even though—honestly, all the information in the universe at my fingertips, and you know what I spend like eighty percent of every day doing?"
"Writing memos?" he guesses; and her mouth sets, bitter.
"Worse," she says, "reading them": and he says, "Well, I think I have like thirty-five unread work emails right now and it's two p.m. on a Saturday and I'm just an intern, so—," and then reaches his glass out, to clink again. She polishes off the last of her champagne, and Quentin reaches for the bottle in the ice bucket, and tops them both up again.
"Anyway." Alice shifts, a little. "I sort of—I don't—I didn't meet someone, exactly, but I—"
"You're seeing Penny," Quentin says, "I mean—Penny 40"; and when she looks up at him, he can feel his mouth curling up at the corner. He gestures at Kady. "Inside sources," he explains. "They still mirror-call each other all the time, you know. Don't let some jackoff break your heart again."
"Oh, no, I know." She tucks her hair back. "It's not serious or anything," she says. "It's just—he's the only person who gets it, you know? The Library's time scale is just." She sighs, blinking up for a second. "Different," she says. "It's different, and when—when you got to choose, when you all got to choose, it—changed things. Inside the Library." She looks back at him. "So now he works from the Neitherlands Branch a few days a week, we hang out, we—get drinks, it's not like. You and Eliot and your whole, uh, domestic bliss in a two-bedroom in Jersey thing—"
Quentin looks down at his knees.
"El's still commuting too, you know," he says, finally.
"He's finishing his postdoc," Alice corrects.
"He's helping Fen and Margo plan and implement trans-planar transportation infrastructure in Fillory," Quentin counters, and then scratches at his forehead, laughing a little. "He fucking loves it."
Alice rubs her thumb along the stem of her glass.
"Did I thank you?" he asks, after a second. "For helping me with my applications?"
She shrugs, a little. "You did. But—you're still welcome, you know." Ducking her head. "You seem so much better," she says, a rough, scratchy kind of note in her throat; and Quentin swallows the ache in his.
"You want to know something weird?" He nods at the huge, tacky 3-0 gold mylar balloons that Eliot had insisted on, beaming, when they were in Party City, because apparently when Eliot thinks "grilling" and "birthdays" and "suburbs" he really just. Goes all out. Quentin says, "Between the timeline shenanigans between Earth and Fillory and—and being dead for a year and the, you know, year and a half of Brakebills coursework I'm maybe not going to ever use and the whole—saving the world and everything, I'm one of the oldest students in my class."
She blinks. "Seriously?"
He waves a hand, indicating: Justine, Bill, Deshawna: half the class started their masters programs fresh out of undergrad. Yolanda is twenty-five; Rasheed, twenty-nine. Kenneth, at thirty-three, is the only student in their year who's older than Quentin: an Air Force vet with a wife and two kids, reconfiguring himself to fit into civilian life. He'd just assumed that Quentin was a vet, too, for some reason. Quentin still hasn't totally figured out how to correct him.
"I never thought I'd see thirty, so, this is exciting for me," Quentin says, and then clears his throat. "On a few different levels."
Alice's mouth twists, as she sips her drink.
"The kids keep coming to me with their fucking—interpersonal problems," he says, and then laughs. "And then—then the Hogwarts contingent all come and bitch to me, like—I'm the guy, here, who knows the right way to live?"
Alice doesn't answer. "I hear you have good coffee," she says, finally.
"23 brings it to us," he explains. "From—Costa Rica, I think?"
She rolls her eyes. "Yeah," she says. "I—it's probably not about the coffee, Quentin."
"Sorry," he says, after a second. "It's not like—I mind or something. I—like it, honestly." He shrugs. "It just strikes me as funny, that's all. Need life advice? Ask the dead guy!"
Jazz hands. She's smiling, in spite of her best efforts. "You're not dead, Quentin," she reminds him, and he pulls his heel up onto the chair seat. Sipping his champagne.
"I know," he says. "I know I'm not." His back warm. Gold mylar and sunshine; remembering Eliot pressed up behind him in the kitchen, mouth pressed right against Quentin's ear while Quentin was trying to chop tomatoes for the pico de gallo. Tucking Quentin's hair back, singing Beyoncé.
"Listen," Alice says, after a while. "You could come visit, if you wanted. In F—at Brakebills, or. Or the Library. We're doing—so much stuff, and it's—important, Quentin, and—the Hedges can get Library cards now, you know, you don't have to wait for us to come to you, you're not—an outcast, Quentin, just because you decided—Brakebills wasn't for you, or whatever—"
"Eliot asked me to marry him," Quentin says, and then looks at her.
She doesn't say anything for a second. "Like," she says, and then stops.
Quentin drinks the last of his champagne. "Yeah," he says.
She leans back. "What about Fillory?" she asks; which.
That's the twenty million dollar question, isn't it? What about Fillory. Because—because Quentin lives full-time in Jersey and puts glockenspiels together without magic; and Eliot is just—never going to stop being the best friend/occasional lover/ex-husband/most trusted advisor of and transportation minister to the duly democratically elected Joint Kings of Fillory.
"Yeah," Quentin says, finally. "Let's just say—this is not exactly the first time this has come up, as a possibility."
"Maybe I'm not the person to say this," Alice says, after a minute. "But—magic isn't all bad, you know? It—it can be so good, too, it—it can fix things, it can save things, it brought you back, and it's—it's still there, if you want it, you're—you're still a magician, Quentin."
"I know, Alice," he says, and then takes a breath, thinking: But I choose not to be.
He breathes out.
Scrubbing at his face.
"Did you say yes?" she asks. Low; and Quentin looks at her; she laughs, a little, and shakes her head.
"Okay," she says. "Stupid question."
"Mm," he says, and then sighs. "It's just—everything else, you know. That we still have to figure out."
After a second, she asks, "Are you happy? Really? I mean—out here, in Jersey?"
Quentin is looking at his balloons: 3-0, tied to the coffee can full of gravel that he and Eliot both use when they temporarily forget that they've quit smoking. Sweat is prickling all down his back under his t-shirt, blue skies and picnic salads and overdone burgers, people on every chair they could round up from three separate apartments and two dogs that aren't his: Eliot by the grill with his arm around Margo, searing her a fresh steak so she can eat her meat bleeding.
"Yeah," Quentin says, "I am," and looks at her. "Are you?"
"Yeah," Alice says, quiet. "I am. In the Library."
Part III: Theory and Application.
"Do you want to go?" Eliot asks Quentin, and then says, "Oh, that goes right in your mouth, huh? You get that from your daddy": reaching over to very gently tickle the bottom of Hannah's foot as she chews on one of her stacking rings, because of course Eliot can ask a serious question, violate all known principles of genetics, play with their daughter, and tease Quentin, all in one go.
Quentin sets the invitation down on the kitchen counter and goes over to sprawl out next to them on the carpet: "Grah," Hannah tells him, and Quentin lets her try to pull on his new short-again hair a little, before he bends down to kiss her forehead, then props himself up on an elbow to kiss Eliot.
"I don't know," Quentin admits, as Eliot puts an arm around him. Letting Quentin settle in, his back against Eliot's chest, while Hannah gives them a very judgy look—and that actually is Eliot—and pushes herself up onto her feet, abandoning her rings to wobble over to her little dragon-hoard of soft toys, while Eliot slides his hand up under the front of Quentin's shirt. It's a nice thought. Not very realistic, probably. But nice. "I—what do you even do," Quentin asks, "at a gala event, at the Library? I don't remember what you do at regular grown-up parties, even, the last thing I went to that was invitation-only was Cooper-from-playgroup's first birthday."
"Mm, and you don't think finger-painting's on the menu, for this one?" Eliot asks; and Quentin says, "Why thank you!" as Hannah lumbers back over to give him her lamb. It's wet, because—well, Eliot's not wrong. Quentin tucks it in against his chest anyway, and Hannah goes back to playing with her rings, apparently satisfied that she has solved all his awkward social problems.
"Well," Eliot says. "I'm pretty sure it's going to involve a lot of alcohol, and I'm definitely going to make you wear a tux. Which—I mean, both of those are strong recommending factors for me, but I don't know how you feel about it?"
"I don't have a tux," Quentin says, tipping his head up to look at him. "It didn't make it through Rasheed's wedding, remember?"; and Eliot leers at him.
"Yes," he says, "I do remember," so Quentin sticks his tongue out at him, because—because he's been spending too much time at the playground, maybe: fuck, maybe he should go: he scrubs at his hair.
"Hey," Eliot says. Quiet. "You don't have to do anything you don't want to, baby"; and Quentin sighs. Closing his eyes, Eliot's hand soft against the skin of his belly, Eliot's body warm and solid against his back.
"It's not that I don't want to." Quentin tips his head back. "Can I bring the lamb?" he asks; and Eliot's mouth twitches.
"Your emotional support lamb?" he asks.
"Well, I'd ask about bringing my emotional support baby, but somehow I feel like if I'm going to be wearing a tux and drinking a lot we don't really want her around after," Quentin explains; and Eliot starts laughing, and then bends in to kiss him, curling his fingers against the hair on—which—okay, maybe. Maybe it is realistic, if—
"She hasn't had her afternoon nap yet," Quentin offers. Licking over his bottom lip; and Eliot says, "Ohhh, this is definitely going to end in frustration, isn't it," but he's already pushing up to his feet; and Quentin scoops Hannah up on his way up to standing—"Da!" she says, briefly delighted—and Quentin says, "I mean, sure, I know it has like the last seventeen times, but maybe this time it'll be different—"
That said: it's also Sukkot, so on Thursday, Kady swings by to take Hannah up for one of her irregular-but-not-infrequent visits to the aunties in Brooklyn—two nights, this time, one for sleep and one for—everything else, meaning that Quentin is in a vastly improved frame of mind when Eliot takes him tux shopping Saturday morning. "So I take it this means you're going," Kady says, nodding at their bags, when they meet up with her at lunch. "I mean—to the Library party." She's drinking a grapefruit spritz and watching Quentin help Hannah with her breakfast: he's pretty sure he already has egg on his t-shirt, but Kady's seen way worse. Realistically speaking, they've all seen way worse.
"That's, um—the plan, anyway," Quentin says, "I'm not sure what we'll do about Hannah, though," as Eliot flicks a finger out, steadying Quentin's orange juice with magic, then reaches over to tug it out of baby range the regular way. Quentin tells him, "Thanks, hon," and coaxes Hannah back down onto her butt, nudging her grabby little hand towards another cut-up piece of French toast instead, and Eliot rests his palm on the back of Quentin's neck. Squeezes, just for a sec.
"Oh, please, you know Rachel and Mark'd jump to take her, and Hannah's used to sleeping at their place," Kady says. "Rachel actually cried over Hannah, this time—Ben just left for Caltech, so."
"Yeah, yikes, well." Quentin takes a breath. "I think—pretty much if they ever want a rental baby...," and then—hesitates; and Kady squints at him, a little.
"Are we talking—is this offer going to be open long-term, or just for now?" she asks, and Quentin looks at Eliot.
"I mean," Eliot says, shifting a little. "We're not going to take her away from them forever—they're your family, Kady"; and Kady holds up her hands.
"It's not like I'm her fuckin' mommy, El," she says. "Like—I'm always glad to trade beer and extremely low-effort babysitting for you loaning her out to get all my mom's relatives off my back—like, I roll up with her and then barely see her again for twelve hours, they're so excited—but if you want to relocate, you can relocate." She pauses. "I mean, I'll be pissed if you don't let me buy her that drumset—"
"Nooo," Quentin groans, while Eliot starts laughing.
"Hey." She jabs a fork at him. "You two need a rhythm section, okay?" and Quentin balls up his napkin and throws it at her; and Kady just ducks and then hands him her drink, grinning; so he steals a sip before handing it back.
So. Two weeks later, he and Eliot pack Hannah into the Prius and drive all the way up to Brooklyn to dump her with Mark and Rachel. "Um—she's just learned 'no'," Quentin explains, a little nervously, rubbing Hannah's back; but Rachel just laughs and says, "I did raise three kids, Q. Besides, I'm Kady's aunt, remember? I have some history, with kids who say 'no'"; and Quentin's like, "I—yes, I. Yeah. I know."
Eliot's just coming back down from lugging Hannah's stuff up to the Rosenbergs' guestroom: he puts his hand on the back of Quentin's neck, squeezing a little, and Rachel's face softens.
"Is this your first weekend away?" she asks, boosting Hannah up a little when she whines; and Quentin swallows. "Yeah," Eliot says, "we have some separation anxiety," while Quentin is leaning in toward Hannah's grabby hands so that she can pull on his hair.
"It'll do you both good," Rachel tells him. "You'll see."
"Yeah," Quentin says, "I know," and gives Hannah a kiss, before he pulls away.
Six hours later he's standing on the Library Terrace, which has turned out to be a really inadequate descriptor for what is, in essence, a garden the size of a small city, studded with statuary. He's freshly shaved and washed and wearing a tux, holding a glass of Beaujolais with no one tugging on his pant leg, so like—it's weird. He kind of hates it, and kind of doesn't: he'd told Rachel and Mark to email not text, since the mirror network still doesn't carry SMS, but it just means that he keeps checking his phone every four seconds, and that until Alice came over and Eliot had made a tactful escape, he'd been coming by about every four minutes to make sure Quentin was extremely well-supplied with wine and only minimally freaking out about his fourteen-month-old baby being on another planet. The portals are still shimmering at the edges as people come and go, laughing and drinking; Eliot has moved onto showing Penny the latest seven thousand pictures of Hannah on his phone, while Quentin tries to come up with something to say to Alice. Fifteen feet away, Fen is consulting, head bowed, with a pair of Australian Hedges, about—as far as Quentin can tell—water management systems: Quentin is desperately, excruciatingly jealous.
"So," Quentin says. "Congratulations on the expansion."
"Thank you," Alice says, and then—nothing.
Quentin shifts. "How have you been?"
"I still can't believe you two made a new person," Alice says, sounding—well, slightly disgusted, honestly.
"Uh." Quentin laughs, a little. "I—if I'm involved in that, it's technically 'you three', so—"
"There's no way that kid is going to grow up thinking of Kady as anything other than her second-most-fun drunk aunt," Alice snaps; and Quentin shrugs, a little. Trying to tuck his hands in his pockets before he realizes that he's not exactly wearing jeans and a hoodie. He smooths his placket down instead. Trying not to scuffle his feet.
"I," he says; and then, "it's not like we're planning to lie to her"; and then, "and—and also that's kind of. Not your business, Alice"; and Alice flinches, turning half away.
Draining her wine.
Sorry, Quentin thinks. Doesn't say. He isn't, really, is he.
"So," he says instead. "Um. Are gala Library events what it takes for me to see you, these days?"
Alice rolls her eyes, but she doesn't quite look at him after, does she.
"It's just." He swallows. "That'd be kind of a drag, you know? I miss you": and she turns to grab another couple glasses off a floating tray, and then finally looks over at him.
"It's not like I'm willing to play incubator for you and Eliot's disgustingly handsome and well-adjusted children," she says, flat, and then hands him a glass. Champagne, this time.
"Uh," he says.
"Just saying," she adds.
"I—we would never expect you to?" he says, finally; then polishes off his first glass. Fumbles behind himself for the low stone wall, so he can set it aside.
"I'm just not sure what else you'd want from me," Alice says; and Quentin says, "I—Jesus, Alice, you're my friend."
She nods. "Like Kady's your friend": which is—
"Yes, Kady is our friend," Quentin says, finally. "And you are also our friend, but Kady's—a different person from you. And she—brought it up with us, in case you were wondering, because—she—she's still on Earth a lot, she knew we'd been talking about our options, and—" He takes a breath. "Look, I—this is. Also not your business, but—it's not a secret, or anything, so—Kady didn't want her family to die with her, but she also wasn't really interested in parenting. So. It made sense. We helped each other out. It worked for all of us. Okay?"
She doesn't reply; and Quentin sighs.
Sips, after a minute, his champagne.
"I don't get you," she says, finally. "I thought—you left Brakebills, and I thought—okay, fine. This isn't what he wants to do, I—I can understand that. He wants—to go to engineering school, and build stuff, which—that wasn't what I'd chose, but it didn't seem nuts, Quentin"; and Quentin rubs at his cheek.
Looking up at the sky.
Nighttime in the Neitherlands isn't quite like it was in Fillory, from a stargazing perspective, but it beats the hell out of Middletown, New Jersey. Against the purplish leakage of light from the fountains and the portals and the windows of the Library he can see entire blankets of stars: it makes him homesick, in a way that he's been getting more and more and more lately, ever since they started visiting everyone in Whitespire. Even Quentin knows he's not homesick for Fillory: with the Hedge/Library transit system and the mirror network both up and running, everyone's just so much less centralized. It's gotten even worse since Hannah was born: Kady had spent a month and a half with them right after, terrorizing her minions from their guest room via Skype and handing Hannah off between feedings while Eliot and Quentin got two hours of sleep apiece and tried not to wonder if they'd lost their minds, but then she'd peaced out because Julia needed her to go intimidate the Brakebills board some more and also she'd had to go knock some heads together in Los Angeles. 23 had blipped back to Earth one weekend in the spring, ostensibly for Eliot's birthday, but really mostly to mock Eliot's take on dad fashion sense and play airplane with Hannah; and Julia had just-managed to claw together two weeks, over the summer, and she'd mostly spent it reading to Hannah in the hammock out back, so that Eliot and Quentin could catch up on rest. Margo hasn't been able to get away from Fillory since March, and they haven't been able to get themselves together enough to visit her since June. Quentin hasn't seen Alice in two and a half years.
"And Hannah seems nuts," he says, "to you"; and then looks at her, while Alice's mouth is twisting. Her eyes bright.
"You getting a masters in mechanical engineering and spending fifty weeks interning at a company that begs to hire you when you graduate, that promotes you three times in five years, where your boss comes to your cook-outs and talks super intensely to your ex-girlfriend about how amazing you are, to drop out of your entire life again to play peek-a-boo while Eliot is redefining portal theory—that's what seems nuts, to me," she says; and Quentin.
"Eliot's brilliant," he says, finally; and Alice says, "I know."
"Do you, really?" he asks. Looking at her. He feels—hot, somewhere deep inside himself: "Because—half the time I think Eliot doesn't know it, while he's the person who fucking—pulled me out of hell, you know?"
"He didn't do that alone," she says, sharp; and Quentin says, "I'm not talking about when I was dead, Alice"; and she takes a deep, slow breath.
Lifting her chin.
He closes his eyes, for a second. "I'm not like you, Alice," he says, and then takes a breath. "I'm not—I'm not like any of you, except—except maybe him, because he wouldn't—I don't think he'd do—any of it, if it weren't so fucking personal, you know? He finished his thesis to figure out how to get me out of the Underworld and didn't let it go because he wants us to be able to have breakfast with Margo every morning, he wants—he wants us to get—exactly what we fucking want, he wants me to get what I want, and what I want is—I want a fucking family," he says, and then laughs. Wet. "I want to be a dad," he says. "I want my friends, I want my people, I want—my kid to grow up knowing the parents who'd do anything for her and the woman who gave birth to her and the design nerds who built her crib mobile and her—seven million cousins in Brooklyn and her royal alien aunts, all these people who—who gave me back my life and kept on saving it, I just."
He sighs. Turns, to sit on the stone wall by his empty wine glass, and sets his champagne down next to it. He'd loosen his tie, but—but Eliot had tied it for him: the corner of El's mouth curving up, with his face tipped down towards Quentin's. Looking so, so fucking happy.
"I have never, not for one moment, wanted to come back," Quentin explains. "I'm boring, Alice. Okay?" He laughs again. "I want to be boring, I want—I built a pedal steel, a couple summers ago, right? Just because—it sounded interesting, because it was probably—we were pretty sure it was going to be the last summer we had kid-free and El secretly likes country music, though he'll probably kill me if he finds out I told you that, so—please keep it to yourself, don't orphan my baby, but like—I built it so he'd sing Loretta Lynn for me, and I loved it because he did, and—what I do at work hasn't ever been like that. Not—any part of that." He takes a breath. She's watching him, with her mouth pulled thin and her eyes sharp and bright, while he says, "My job didn't actually matter to me, okay? And that's fine, I mean, it helped with our rent and that was good enough, but like—no, it hasn't escaped my notice that my husband is redefining portal theory, or that our best friends run the Library and the Fillorian army and carry messages for the gods and are deputy head of the East Coast's oldest and most distinguished school of magic and our baby's birth mom is probably the single best-known and well-respected Hedgewitch in both Northeastern America and the Underworld, like—I am definitely the Zeppo, in this crew, but that's okay with me."
He sighs, looking up at her.
"You always sell yourself so short," she says. In that odd, sore way her voice can get: it's—different, now, he thinks. Her expression is so—she's grown into herself, hasn't she? All the sharp, lovely planes and angles of her face from when they were kids solidified into someone who is so—so very much herself, so inescapably Alice Quinn: he wonders if he'd even recognize her, if he met her again as she was at twenty-three. Has his face changed, like that? Quentin doubts it. His face is just—a face. He scratches at his chin. He's been thinking about growing a beard, lately, but Eliot always protests and nuzzles at him, whining about Quentin's dimples.
After a moment, Alice sighs, and comes to sit next to him on the stone wall. Looking out across the terrace, at the milling crowds: he clocks Eliot first and always, laughing with a man Quentin almost-recognizes: one of Harriet's people, he thinks? Margo is in her Fillorian finest, obviously luring Roderick into talking about—oh, right, historical approaches to pixie property rights, most likely. Zelda and Sheila are nodding thoughtfully while Julia demonstrates her latest variation to Keller's Entropic Abatement. Kady is wearing a glittery mini-dress and swing-dancing with Penny. That is to say—Penny 40.
"You could—Q, you could do—anything," Alice says; and Quentin looks at her.
"You can too, Alice," he reminds her; and she rolls her eyes.
"I know that," she says, sounding frustrated. "I did. I am. I wanted—I want—to make the Library—actually worth something, Quentin."
He nods. "And you did," he agrees; and she sighs.
"I just don't know why you think—why you keep acting like you can't have any of that," she says. Voice scratchy; and Quentin.
"I do still go to therapy," he says. Folding his hands in his lap. "Don't you think—I'd have a lot of questions to answer, if that were actually what was going on?"
She doesn't say anything. Looking down at her drink.
"I want to be with the people who love me," Quentin says, really quietly. "I want to take care of the people I love. I don't—it's not different for me, Alice. It's just—not about the Library."
After a moment.
Lets out a long, slow breath.
And is silent.
Quentin sips his champagne. Tilting his head back, to look up at the stars.
"Okay," Alice says, finally. "I—okay."
Quentin swallows. "Yeah?" he asks. Looking over.
"Yeah," she says. Her face looks—tired. Just for a moment, worn thin: she sighs. "Jesus, Q. I'm sorry."
He looks down at his hands. "I'm sorry, too," he says; and then takes a breath. "Can you show me, tomorrow?" he asks. "Give me—a tour, maybe, of the Open Doors Center, Julia's been talking it up for months—years, maybe, when it was still under construction—."
He stops. Swallows.
"I probably should've come to see it sooner," he admits; and Alice looks at him.
"I didn't exactly make it easy for you to drop by, did I," she asks. Very quietly.
Quentin can feel his mouth twisting. "I think we maybe don't either of us have the best track record," he says. "On going easy on each other."
She nods. "Yeah," she says, quiet. "Maybe."
He thinks—I could kiss you, almost. It's—it's still a nice feeling. He smiles at her, and then looks back out over the terrace. All their friends are here, bathed in starlight and lamplight and the glow from the portals: they could go—anywhere, from here.
He sips his champagne.
"Did you mean it?" Alice asks, after a minute.
"Yeah?" He looks back over at her. "Which part?"
"That you missed me," she says, quiet; and he swallows.
"Of course I did." He reaches over. Nudging her glasses up. "I always miss you," he admits; and she nods.
"I missed you too," she says.
Lets it out, looking out over—over her domain, he thinks, feeling—full. Warm: she built this, didn't she? God, she really is incredible.
"You aren't the Zeppo, Q," Alice says, after a moment. Her arm is warm against his. "You're the heart of us," she says. "You're our home"; and then ducks her face down. Her beautiful shoulders hunching, under the straps of her navy-blue dress, as she nudges her glasses up to wipe at her cheeks.
"Hey." Quentin stands up, digging a hankie out of his pocket. "Hey. Vix": whispered, barely; and she laughs, wet and ragged, and then takes it from him.
"God, you really are a dad, aren't you," she says. Dabbing at her eyes. "Julia did my makeup, she's going to be—so fucking mad if I ruin it, an hour in—"
"You look great," he says, quiet; and she looks up at him. Mouth twisted, but her eyes are just—sharp. Relentless.
"I don't want kids," she says, and then laughs. Shoulders hunching, as her mouth twists. "I—Jesus, twelve years ago I thought I might've made an exception for you, and—I would've hated every second of it, Quentin, I fucking hate babies," she admits; and he can feel—this laugh, bubbling up out from—from this spring that he keeps—refinding, over and over and over again, inside of him.
"That's okay," he says. "She's—I mean, she's about to be a toddler, I'm probably kind of going to hate her too, so—"; and Alice starts laughing again, rough and wet but real. He takes her hand, and she squeezes so hard his bones creak.
"We're moving back to Fillory," he says, quiet.
"Yeah," she says. "To be closer to Margo. I know."
He lifts a shoulder. Drops it. "Since they started drawing up plans for the university, Kady and Julia are there more often than not, too," he says; and she smiles, a little. Lopsided.
"I know," she says. "It's a joint project, remember? Fillory, Hedges, Brakebills, the Library. Fen said—maybe together, we could actually build something, you know?"
He laughs, a little. "Yeah," he says, "because—revamping the Library's social bullshit and opening to the Hedges and connecting the worlds with what is essentially free public transit and high-speed DSL—I definitely. Have a lot of doubts. About your ability to build things, Alice."
Her mouth twists. She squeezes his hand.
"Technically I had to delegate the Fillorian university to Zelda," she admits. "I just—I don't have time to do everything myself."
He nods again. "But you could still come visit," he says; and she takes a breath. "We're going to be living a couple miles out, but—Whitespire's got a lot of guest bedrooms."
Alice nods. Looking over at—at Eliot.
"I already do," she says, finally. "I already do visit"; and then looks at him. "I don't want to play with your baby," she tells him; and he nods.
"Neither does Margo," he says. "That's fine. She doesn't exactly have a shortage of people to play with her. And we—I mean, maybe not very often, right now, but—we do do grown-up things sometimes, you know."
She looks away. Her hand still in his hand: he squeezes.
"You don't have to be a part of every part of my life to be in it, do you?" he asks, and she sighs. Looking over at him.
"Maybe not anymore," she says, very quietly; and then slides an arm around his waist, when he leans in to kiss her cheek.