As usual, the first thing that hits Quentin is the smell: that distinctive admixture of diesel, garbage, hot dog steam, piss, wet concrete, cheap pot, cheaper incense, and—blessedly—a hint of rain. Getting his bearings, he lets go of Eliot’s hand, and immediately is nearly run over by a speeding businesswoman.
“Probably, we should get out of the crosswalk,” says Julia.
It doesn’t help much: they've popped up near Herald Square, at what appears to be the middle of morning rush hour. Quentin shrinks back against the nearest solid wall and attempts to blot out the cacophony by burying himself in his phone. Julia joins him.
“Where’s Penny?” he asks.
“He…disappeared. As he does. Where’s Eliot?”
Quentin gestures vaguely. “I think he went to go find a paper.”
“You’re kidding,” Julia says.
“Yeah, he’s actually pretty analog. I think he’d have a manservant iron his newspaper every morning in Fillory, if they, like, had newspapers. Or irons. My phone’s being really weird right now.”
“You, too? Mine’s always fucked up on re-entry. Last time, my texts were all in Old Church Slavonic, and Google Maps kept showing up as something called ‘Inscapes.’”
Eliot comes up behind them, bearing a rolled-up Times and a pack of Dunhills. He offers one to Julia.
“I thought you and Q were in Brooklyn,” he says around a cigarette.
“I’m in the Slope. I think Penny thought he was taking me home. I told him it’s fine, I can totally take the subway, but it was kind of…awkward. Don’t smirk.”
“I’m not,” says Quentin. “Oh—I’m not anywhere—well, we’re not anywhere.” He looks at Eliot. “I mean, obviously we can’t go to Brakebills.”
“Right,” says Eliot. “Shit. Even the Cottage? I thought we were independently owned.”
“We can’t risk it,” says Quentin.
“You can always stay with me,” says Julia. She looks from Quentin to Eliot. “Do you—do you both need a place to crash?”
“Well,” says Eliot. Quentin realizes after a moment that they're both probably looking at him, but he's distracted.
“I have over 300 new messages,” he says.
Eliot unfolds his newspaper. “Guys.” He taps the date: October 4.
“Shit,” says Julia. “I knew that happens in the books, but did any of us run into it before? You’ve gone back and forth a lot more.”
“Occasionally,” says Eliot. “In my experience, it’s been fairly synced up. I thought it was unseasonably tolerable for July.”
Quentin is barely listening. “There’s a lot from my mom,” he says. He looks up at Julia. “The last one’s from yesterday.”
“Oh,” she says. “…Oh.”
“Transcribe isn’t loading,” he says, “and I can’t hear anything here. Um…”
He stares blankly into the madding crowd. There seems to be some kind of demonstration going on at the far end, with police in the mix. He can't tell if that's actual smoke drifting in their direction, or just drizzle. Nearby, an elderly man feeds bits of his salted pretzel to the cockatoo perched on his head.
Out of the corner of his eye, he catches Julia mouthing “his dad” in response to Eliot’s querying look.
The voicemail transcription loads. He reads it. Closes his eyes.
Julia's lightly touching his arm, guiding him. Eliot’s hand, strong and solid with the cool weight of rings, rests on the back of his neck.
Somehow, they’re now squeezed into a diner booth, Eliot next to Quentin; Julia, across. A bowl of soup is in front of him. He pokes a spoon into its watery yellow depths, extracting rice and shreds of chicken.
“I thought soup might be easier,” says Julia.
He swallows. “She wants me to come help her with the house. As soon as possible.”
“Want me to come?”
He shakes his head. “You’ve just been through a lot, Jules.”
“Honestly, I’m fine,” she says. “I want to help.”
“You are helping. But, I already missed the funeral. I missed everything leading up to it. There’s nothing you can say to my mom that’ll change that.”
“I could say that it’s not your fault,” Julia says.
“I mean, no offense, Jules, but…”
“But she already hates me and won’t trust anything I say anyway?”
He grins a little. “Seriously, though, I’d feel better if you take care of yourself right now.”
“All right, so we’ll go,” says Eliot.
Quentin looks at him. “What?”
“Mothers love me. I’m sure they would. No one’s actually brought me home to meet one before; new experiences. We’ll be out of your hair,” he says to Julia. He touches Quentin’s hand. “And you won’t have to do this alone.”
“I, um,” says Quentin. He's aware of Julia blinking mildly at them across the table. “Are you sure? It’s not going to be, you know, a fun trip…”
“The last thing you need to worry about right now,” says Eliot, “is providing me with fun.” He smiles. “I’ll manage.”
A harried looking waitress piles more food on their table. Quentin helps himself to a fistful of Julia’s home fries and ordered a plate for himself; he suddenly realizes that he's ravenous. He focuses on his breakfast, head down, letting Eliot and Julia’s light chit-chat patter pleasantly around him.
Eliot gets up to use the bathroom. Quentin looks up at Julia.
“Jules, I…thank you.”
“Of course,” she says. “My God.”
“No, I mean…for everything. What you gave up.”
“Oh,” she says. “That. You know? I’m not ready to talk about it. Sorry.”
“Okay,” he says. “Sorry. Whatever you need. I just…I hope it’s okay to say this. I know it’s selfish, but I, um. Am really glad you’re still around?”
The table swims in front of him. She squeezes his hands in hers, silently.
“I am, too,” she says, very quietly. “Now, anyway.”
He fumbles for a napkin; she passes him a handful. They look at each other, both watery, and laugh.
“So,” she says, inclining her head in the direction of Eliot’s departure. “When did this happen?”
Quentin's just taken a mouthful of toast. That actually isn’t a simple answer, is it? He ruminates.
“Been coming on for a while,” he says finally.