I stay in the castle. It’s a fair deal.
Quentin’s words spread through Eliot like a fever. He downed the last of his scotch and then he poured himself another. The fire was warm at his feet but he could hardly feel it. The words just looped and looped.
“You might wanna go easy on that,” came Quentin’s voice from behind. “We leave for Fillory in a couple hours.”
Eliot watched as Quentin took the seat next to his in front of the fire. The cottage was quiet as a house in mourning, or maybe like a tomb. There were no footsteps and no voices, nothing save for the popping and crackling of the logs in the fireplace, and the steady ticking of his own traitorous heart. Eliot didn’t have to wonder why. The words refused to leave him.
I stay in the castle. It’s a fair deal.
I stay in the castle.
“I’ve done plenty of drunken adventuring in my day, Q. Don’t worry about me.”
“I always worry about you,” Quentin said, and then the silence stretched on long enough to become awkward. He shifted in his chair and Eliot could feel his eyes on him.
Eliot’s tongue was feeling whisky-loose. “That’s cute, considering,” he said, shooting back half the contents of his glass in one gulp. “I mean really, what am I supposed to say to that?”
“El.” The way Quentin could draw out a single syllable and hold it in the air like an incantation was an art form in itself. Eliot felt the weight of it heavy on his shoulders.
“You’re going to stay in the castle.”
Eliot downed the rest of his drink and set the glass neatly down on the floor. He sat back in his chair and gazed into the amber glow of the flames. “And how is that any different than killing yourself?”
Quentin sighed. “Because I’ll be alive.”
“But none of us will ever see you again. You’ll never see any of us. You’ll—” Eliot forced his mouth to shut, his body trembling with a bitter laugh. “Maybe that’s part of the appeal, hm?”
“El.” There it was again. How did he always do that? Eliot made a mental note to ask him one day before the words looped back again and he remembered. “It’s our best shot and you know it.”
Eliot looked over at him, their eyes meeting in the dim orange haze. He could only stand it for a moment before he had to look away. “I need another drink.”
Days at the mosaic had gone from quiet to chaotic once Teddy came along, but Eliot didn’t mind. Not even on the mornings when Arielle was away at her father’s and he could hardly place a tile without having to jump up and wrangle a chattering three-year-old to keep him from skipping away into the forest.
Eliot looked up at Quentin where he was perched on the ladder lazily doling out the pattern and smiled. “Why is it that I’m always the one down here before it’s time for his nap again?”
Quentin shrugged. “You’re better at catching him than I am.”
“Yeah, well, he is his father’s son.”
Quentin laughed. “I agree. He does have your eyes.”
Eliot shot him an incredulous look but before he could think of anything clever in response the wail that rang out from over in the garden had him on his feet at once. Eliot made it to Teddy before Quentin was even halfway down the ladder.
“Papaaaa,” Teddy was choking out in between his red-faced sobs, standing by the open door of his rabbit hutch. His pet rabbit was lying lifeless inside. “Wabbit won’t wake up.”
Eliot looked to Quentin as he rushed over and then knelt down to pull Teddy into his arms. “Oh, my love.” Eliot pressed a kiss to the top of Teddy’s head. “Shhh, it’s all right. Papa’s got you now.”
Quentin reached his hand into the hutch and nudged the rabbit with the tips of his fingers. Even from his obscured vantage point Eliot could see that it was stiff as a board. Definitely dead.
“Hey.” Quentin knelt down next to them in the patchy earth, running his hand along the top of Teddy’s head and shooting Eliot a look that said, What the hell are we supposed to do?
“Okay. Come on.” Eliot hoisted Teddy up into his arms and carried him over to the daybed that sat alongside the mosaic with Quentin following close behind. By the time they sat down and settled in Teddy’s sobs had quieted, but he clung to Eliot like a lifeline.
“So,” Eliot said, rubbing soothing circles into Teddy’s back, “your rabbit won’t wake up, huh?”
Teddy shook his head, his little face buried in Eliot’s shoulder.
“Do you wanna sit with daddy?” Eliot asked. “Or do you wanna stay with papa?”
“Papa,” Teddy’s muffled voice mumbled sadly, and beside him Eliot could feel Quentin’s body trembling with a momentary laugh.
“Okay. Come on. Look at me.” Eliot peeled Teddy away from his shoulder and wiped at his damp face. “Teddy, do you know why your rabbit won’t wake up?”
Teddy sniffled. “Why papa?”
“Well, my love, do you remember when mommy brought him home from grandpa’s farm last year? Do you remember what she told you?”
Teddy frowned and shook his head. Quentin stroked his hand down the side of Teddy’s face gently as Eliot spoke.
“She said he was very old, remember? And that he might not be with us for very long?” When a little sob worked its way out of Teddy’s chest Eliot pulled him near and kissed his forehead. “It’s all right. It’s all right. Mr. Rabbit just got very old and very tired.”
Quentin rested his head on Eliot’s shoulder and soothed a hand down Teddy’s back. “Mr. Rabbit’s body just got too old to work anymore, okay? But he had a nice long life, and he knows you loved him very much.”
They really should have given the poor old rabbit a name, Eliot thought, it only seemed proper now that their son was in mourning, but he’d only ever wanted to call the thing Mr. Wabbit and at a certain point they’d just given up trying to get him to choose. Eliot sighed and plopped Teddy down in Quentin’s lap.
“We can all say goodbye to him, okay?” Eliot wiped gently at Teddy’s wet face with his sleeve. “I know it hurts, my love. But this is perfectly natural. Sometimes in life we lose those that we love the most, and it’s okay to be sad and to cry.”
Teddy stared up at him with his round, wet eyes, his little lips quivering, and then he buried his face in Quentin’s shirt and started to wail all over again.
“I thought you would be okay with this,” Quentin said, his words coming after several minutes of agonizing silence.
Eliot spit out a bitter laugh. “You thought… I’d be okay. With you… sacrificing your life. For this.”
“We’re the only ones who know.”
“I don’t know what that means.”
“The purpose of the mosaic. What do you think it was?” Quentin’s words were quiet and careful. “Other than the key, I mean. Why do you think we remembered?”
Eliot had shoved it all down weeks ago, swallowed it like some bitter pill and let the poison bleed into him, erasing what it could. But here it was all over again, a single memory of regret threatening to pull him under.
When Eliot didn’t answer—couldn’t answer, his body for a moment paralyzed—Quentin continued. “All that wisdom, think about it. It was preparing us for this. We have more knowledge and… and life experience. We’re the strong ones, Eliot.”
Eliot wanted to laugh but he couldn’t. “Life experience. Right. That’s what those memories gave us.”
“Well I don’t know what they mean to you if not that.” Quentin was all but whispering now.
Eliot shook his head, gripping the arms of the chair tightly. “You don’t get to do that.”
“I don’t get to what?”
“You’re… leaving. For forever. You don’t get to put that on me now.”
“I’m not putting anything on you, Eliot. You said we wouldn’t—”
“I know what I said.” It was a terrible struggle to keep the tears from coming. He knew if he looked over at Quentin it would be all over. “Don’t you think I know?”
“It has to mean something. It had to have been for something.” Quentin sighed. “I know that you don’t feel… the same. The way that I feel. They were just memories for you, and I’ve tried to accept that, El. I have. But then what was it all for if not… to make me strong. So that I could finally do something right. Just this once.”
Eliot looked over to Quentin, the tears already forming in his eyes.
They let Teddy pick the spot in the garden where they were to lay Mr. Rabbit to rest. This resulted in Quentin having to dig up a rather sizable patch of carrots before their time, but they didn’t dare push back on his suggestion when they’d only just then gotten him to stop crying.
Eliot formed a makeshift shroud for Mr. Rabbit out of a square of linen and the three of them knelt down in the dirt together. “Now, my love,” he said, holding the stiff bundle in his hands, “it’s time to say goodbye to Mr. Rabbit. Are you ready?”
Teddy shook his head, and Eliot knew he had to tread carefully. He looked to Quentin, who was looking back at him, and gave him a little nod.
“It’s hard to say goodbye to the people and… the rabbits that we love, my sweet boy, I know.” Eliot leaned forward and placed the shrouded animal into the hole. “We’re all going to miss Mr. Rabbit very much. But there’s a time for everything. And right now is the time to let Mr. Rabbit go, okay? He’ll be right here in the garden. And you’ll always have your memories.”
Quentin gave Eliot one last look and tossed a handful of dirt into the shallow grave. “Go on. It’s okay,” he urged Teddy to mimic him. “Do it just like daddy.”
Teddy reached his little hand into the pile and then let it fly. Most of the dirt landed somewhere off to the side, but Eliot kissed him on the top of his head and told him it was perfect before tossing in a handful of his own.
“Okay, Teddy, is there anything you want to say to Mr. Rabbit before papa puts in the rest of the dirt?” Quentin asked, and when Eliot looked at him looking at their son with such patience, such devotion, all he could think was, What did I ever do to deserve you? What would I ever do without you now?
Teddy sniffled, and with his small voice said, “Bye Mr. Wabbit. I miss you.”
“Hey. It’s okay.” Quentin pulled Teddy into his arms. “You did perfect. Daddy and papa are both so proud of you. And mommy’s going to be proud of you too.”
Quentin scooped Teddy up off the ground and stood back as Eliot picked up the shovel and piled in the rest of the dirt. He packed it down loosely, and then went over to one of the borders where wild Fillorian flowers were blooming in every color. He picked a handful, carried them over to the little plot, and laid them gently on the dark soil.
Teddy was fast asleep in Quentin’s arms by the time Eliot finished. He lay him down on the daybed softly and joined Eliot over on the mosaic.
“Guess he wore himself out. I’m not gonna complain about early nap time even if it’s because of a dead rabbit.”
Eliot smiled and pulled Quentin into his arms. “You’re a really good dad, you know that?” He punctuated his words with a kiss to the top of Quentin’s head.
“Yeah, so are you.” Quentin rested his head on Eliot’s chest and sighed. “Whatever happens, El, all of this… everything we have here. I don’t wanna lose it, okay?”
Eliot breathed in deeply and pulled Quentin closer. “Whatever happens, you’re stuck with me, Coldwater.” Quentin lifted his face, and Eliot took the opportunity to plant a gentle kiss on his lips. “Don’t you forget it.”
Eliot did his best to blink the tears away. “I never said they were just memories to me.” His voice was small and pitiful and Eliot hardly recognized it. “Just so you know. I never said that, Q.”
Quentin’s face was a mask of soft resolve in the firelight. “You said you wouldn’t choose me, El. You said enough.”
Eliot turned away, reached for the scotch where he’d set it on the floor and took a long swig straight from the bottle. He chose his words carefully as the whisky flooded into his veins. “What if I stayed with you. In the castle, I mean. There’s nothing that says you have to stay there with that monster all alone.”
“El, what are you—”
“This is me choosing, Q.” Eliot clutched the bottle so tightly it was a wonder it didn’t shatter in his hand.
“No, no you can’t do that, Eliot. You can’t—”
“And you can?”
“You have your entire life ahead of you, El.”
A sad little laugh trembled in Eliot’s chest. “And you don’t?”
Quentin didn’t have an answer for that. They sat there in silence watching the fire dance and time itself seemed to slow around them. Eliot looked over to Quentin and thought, I’ve done nothing to deserve you. But how am I supposed to live without you now?
Eliot said, “They weren’t just memories to me. They weren’t.”
But I’m a coward, Eliot didn’t say.
“You remember that day… Teddy’s rabbit died,” Quentin said finally. “It’s one of the clearest memories I have, and I’ve been trying to work out why. Why that day? There were so many other days. So many that I hardly remember. But then that rabbit… and you kneeling on the ground throwing dirt on top of it. ”
“Yeah. Yeah, I remember.” Eliot could practically smell the soil on his hands.
“You were good with him. And I know you think it’s because you didn’t have a choice, but that’s bullshit. You were a good dad. And you’ll be a good dad in this life too if that’s what you choose.”
Not without you, Eliot didn’t say.
“I stay in the castle. It’s a fair deal. The fairest one we’re going to get.”
Eliot’s own words echoed in from another life. I know it hurts, my love. But this is perfectly natural.
Quentin stood and Eliot’s eyes followed him as he crossed in front of the fire. “You should try and sober up before we leave,” he said with his back to Eliot. “We can’t afford to fuck this one up.”
“Right,” Eliot said absently, his eyes staying fixed on the fire as Quentin walked away.
He sat there for a very long time after Quentin had gone, only snapping back to reality when Margo came in nudged him out of his trance.
“So,” he said, looking up into her tired face. “About that god-killing bullet.”