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My Words Will Be Your Light

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“There’s little and less I can offer you, sorceress, in your fight against the great Beast. For I have a fumbling wit and a clumsy tongue and everything I have ever touched I leave broken worse than when I found it.”

 

Vix regarded the Fool with cool eyes, watching the spill of his lank hair over his unremarkable face. “Yes, I can see all of that.”

 

As she turned swiftly to leave the tavern and return to the swirling storm outside, however, he grabbed her arm. “I do have one gift that may prove useful to you, though.”

 

The sorceress’s eyes narrowed. “I hunt a monster that thirty-nine before me have tried and failed to kill. I have no need for--” 

 

She glanced at his too-long sleeve. 

 

“--card tricks,” she finished.

 

“No-- no, not that,” the Fool stumbled to say, his eyes on the toe of his boot. “It is only-- you seek to defeat a creature that thrives in darkness. I have spent much time in the Darkness myself. They say the only things that light the darkness fully are stories. Well, love and stories.”  

 

“And which would you offer?”

 

The Fool’s mouth only pulled into a sad, small curve. “Which would you accept?” 

 

--Quentin M. Coldwater, The Magician (Book 1 of The Forty Circles Trilogy (Chapter 23, “Enter the Fool”)) (Brakebills Press, ed. J. Eliza Chatwin, 2014)

 

*

 

“You know,” the lighter-haired boy purrs at me, “moving shit with your mind like you do means that you’ve been touched by the devil.” 

 

Okay, quick pause. Dearest reader, I get that “the devil” is a pretty Judeo-Christian concept and this is a full-on pantheon-of-elemental-trickster-goddesses kind of setting, but roll with it-- I’m translating for your benefit. He actually says something like ‘touched by the forces of some ooh-scary-weird hybrid-animal-demon thing’ that you wouldn’t have heard of. Does that feel more authentic to you? Great. Moving on. 

 

The point is that he thinks that I’m bad and wrong because of something that I didn’t choose to have but frankly fucking enjoy all the same. The point is that his dick’s up, regardless. The point is that all the times I thought about this, I was pitifully naive enough to imagine kind eyes and fumbling hands that I could pretend to be more confident than, while relishing every stumble. The point is that the idea that I could deserve something that good or true is the real fantasy-- not the elves that (spoilers) I’m fully going to bone once this story moves out of my father’s bumblefuck village and on the road. 

 

The point is that I take off my pants for this jackass anyway. Breeches. God(s), whatever.

 

--Eliot Waugh, Dicks, Daddy Issues, Dragons (Chapter 6, “Virginity is a Sexist, Heteronormative Construct, and I Still Cried Afterwards, in an Appropriately Medieval Way”) (Brakebills Press, ed. H. Fogg, 2019)



* * * * *

One

* * * * *



Brakebills Press, Inc. @BrakebillsPress Dec 15

@HarrietFuzzBeat @SpectacularEliot Don’t mind if we do!

 

Harriet Schiff @HarrietFuzzBeat Dec 14

Stuff your stockings with dicks . . . daddy issues and dragons. Twelve ways that @SpectacularEliot’s debut novel from @BrakebillsPress redefines the fantasy genre. #dicksdaddyissuesdragons

 

Eliot Waugh @SpectacularEliot Dec 15

@HarrietFuzzBeat @OfficialHighKingM says they make ok chew toys too, in case someone on your list is more abt that oral fixation than getting stuffed. 

 

Brakebills Press, Inc. @BrakebillsPress Dec 17

Here’s your chance to meet @SpectacularEliot (and @OfficialHighKingM)! Book tour dates for January just announced! #dicksdaddyissuesdragons

 

Pete @LoveLadyTree Dec 17

ok @BrakebillsPress, seriously enough with @SpectacularEliot. REAL FANTASY FANS WANT TO KNOW WHEN @QMColdwater IS GOING TO PUBLISH BOOK 3?!?!?!? #waitingforbook3 #morelikefortyCENTURIEStrilogy

 

Quentin M. Coldwater @QMColdwater 

[No recent activity]

 

*

 

“Quentin. Quentin, darling?” 

 

Jane is talking, but Quentin is mostly focused on the stack of books on her desk. Well, the stack of books closest to the phone. Closest to the speaker on the phone. 

 

It’s a publishing company. There are kind of a fuckton of books around.

 

The stack that Quentin is looking at are new releases-- they have to be. Nothing else looks that, well, new . Not even new prints of old books look that new. And new , as Jane is constantly reminding Quentin, is what matters. New, and next . What comes next. 

 

What comes after

 

The top book in the stack must be important, Quentin thinks, running as fast as he can from the question of what the hell does come after. Important to Jane, that is. Quentin thinks so because the book beneath it in the stack is about as thick, but is a solid half-inch smaller across, and Jane always stacks her books in pyramids, smallest on top, unless she has a specific reason to deviate. 

 

Its cover is minimal and abstract-- all contrasting hot colors and bold lines, like the graphic designer was worried that someone somewhere might see it and not immediately make a Catcher in the Rye comparison. It’s playing that whole, is it fantasy? Or is it some kind of edgy, serious bullshit whose cover you don’t have to be embarrassed of on the subway? game. Like it would be too tragically uncool to just give in to the old-timey tarot-card-y illustrations and heavy serif-ed fonts that say, hey, guess what, yeah, this is a high-minded allegory featuring a whole catalog of complicated gestures that enable its characters to wield fantastical powers within narrowly drawn rules, all in a vaguely sylvan-England setting

 

Well, it would be tragically uncool, probably. It is , probably. But there’s something to be said for copping to what you really are anyway. There might be, at least. He’s kind of hoping. 

 

He can just make out the title on the hip new book ( people don’t say that anymore, do they? Hip? That’s-- Jesus, he’s not even thirty, how is he so fucking bad at this? ) from this angle, and-- ugh . God, it has to be Poppy Kline’s, because he can see “dicks” and “dragons.” He hopes it’s Poppy’s. Maybe. He’s not sure what possibility makes him feel worse, actually-- that she has a new book out already (she had just had one out last summer at SDCC, when they-- nope ), or that there’s two of her. At least this latest edition doesn’t seem to have any visible dragon genitalia on the cover.

 

Oh. 

 

That’s probably kind of a kink-shamey thing to think, which is shitty of him. It’s not the genitalia specifically or, like, the erotica generally that’s the problem for him, honestly-- although dragons aren’t, like, strictly within his preferences. It’s the way that Poppy and this, Poppy 2.0 , or whoever-- they don’t treat the genre seriously. They think that it’s just, like, a get-rich-quick scheme built off of flashing shiny things at a bunch of socially maladjusted people who can’t get friends or dates or laid. Like if you put in enough wish-fulfillment chosen-one bullshit, or pretty elves with big tits, or whatever-- not that, well. Not that that last one’s not in Quentin’s private browser history, honestly. But the point is that fantasy is about more than that. If it wasn’t, then Quentin-- Jesus, he honestly doesn’t even know where the fuck he’d be. It can be about more than that, when it’s good. When it matters to people. It should . It’s supposed to. He ’s supposed to--

 

There’s a responsibility, is Quentin’s point. This is the genre of Tolkien. Of LeGuin. Of-- well, he’s not going to say Plover, because honestly, fuck Plover for being so fucking disappointing, even if Quentin still owes the Fillory books his life in a lot of ways. The conventions of fantasy aren’t just-- window dressing, okay? They’re an opportunity to explore something real about people and how they work. And, yeah, you know what? Maybe some of the people who like fantasy are sad little fucks like Quentin, so is it so fucking wrong to want to build a place for them that’s better , that has some hope, he wonders, thinking of the string of unanswered emails from Jane’s “consultants” that are sitting in his inbox? Does everything need to be fucking-- cool, or edgy, or like darkness wins to matter?

 

“--smelling salts be at all useful, do you think? I was trained as an EMT, you may recall.”

 

Jane’s crisp accent finally breaks into Quentin’s spiral. 

 

“Ah, there he is,” she clucks, not sounding enormously concerned. She bends one arm at the elbow and props her chin on her knuckles, while Quentin blinks at her and works on getting his bearings back.

 

“Sorry,” he says, pushing loose strands of limp hair behind his ears. “Were you, um--”

 

But Jane is just shaking her head at him, the coppery curls around her ageless, heart-shaped face bobbing in time with the motion. “What’s happened to you, my dear?” she asks, in that way she uses on him sometimes, that doesn’t really invite or even accept an answer. “You used to be my little volunteer tomato. Every day you were popping up at my door with new chapters. At one point, I resorted to tipping the doorman downstairs to buzz when he saw you come in, so that I could pretend to be out to lunch by the time you made it up the elevator.”

 

She hadn’t been very convincing, even with the tipoff, Quentin thinks, remembering the way that Todd-- Jane and Henry Fogg’s shared assistant-- would smile in equal parts determination and pain as he insisted that Jane was at lunch, when Quentin could plainly see her perched on the corner of Henry’s desk, laughing as he tried to mark a draft, through the all-glass walls of their adjacent offices.

 

“Quentin?” Jane prompts again. 

 

“Sorry, I dunno,” he says, using the heel of his hand to push more of his hair back off his forehead. “It’s just-- book three, I guess. Finding the ending.”

 

He drops his eyes to avoid Jane’s, in case his evasion is as obvious to her as it feels to him. But she’s already nodding briskly. 

 

“You’ve spoken to the consultants I engaged? Talked to them about your ideas?”

 

Quentin narrowly avoids snorting. “Yeah, uh,” he says instead. “They were . . . helpful,” he finally manages.

 

Jane raises an eyebrow, but doesn’t comment further. “Well,” she says after a long beat to let him really feel her skepticism and disapproval-- as if there’s ever a minute of Quentin’s day that he isn’t marinating in someone ’s disapproval, usually his own. “Perhaps a change of scenery will put you back on the path.”

 

“Jane, no--” Quentin just barely begins to groan, his eyebrows pulling together in preemptive misery, but--

 

“We’ll try another book tour, I believe,” she’s already saying. She continues speaking over his groan, her eyes narrowing only slightly. “Don’t bother looking so tragic; the higher-ups were quite insistent. If there’s not going to be a new release in 2020, then you’ll have to retain audience interest some other way. There was talk of late-night shows, at one point.”

 

Quentin shudders at that, and Jane nearly cracks a smile.

“Yes, as you see, I intervened.”

 

“How long?” Quentin asks, resigning himself to another painful month or months of sleeping in too-anonymous hotel beds instead of his rickety little room in Montclair, and white-knuckling through flights, and scalding his tongue on tasteless Hedgebucks tea, and struggling to come up with a new answer every night to the question of when will book three be out ?

 

“One month,” Jane answers. Which, actually-- that isn’t awful, actually. A month could be--

 

 “--for the first one,” she finishes. 

 

To Quentin’s credit, he does realize he’s being a brat, probably, when he rolls his eyes and lets his head fall back against the chair. “How many--”

 

“Perhaps a reminder that no part of this can fairly be characterized as optional under the terms of your contract,” Jane interrupts, her light eyebrows high and even. She softens after a moment, and adds, “We’ll start with one. In January-- just for a month. Todd’s already put the itinerary in your calendar. After that, we’ll-- see where we stand, won’t we?”

 

Quentin blows out a long breath, but he nods. It’s not-- he knows that Jane looks out for him. In her way, at least. And that none of this would even be happening, if he could just actually-- finish book three. 

 

Or.

 

Well.

 

All the same, he can’t help but give one more despairing look to the ceiling. 

 

“They realize I’m shitty at these things, right?” he asks, mostly at the ceiling but mostly to Jane. “Like, if this is all supposed to be a P.R. move, it’s probably not going to help much.”

 

Jane sighs, but she’s looking at him in that, oh, look at the lost little duckling-- so fuzzy, so sad way. “You are, truly, one of our better public readers,” she says. “Your enthusiasm is infectious. And you even do the voices.”

 

Teachers used to say the same thing to Quentin when they called on him to read aloud in class. He did the voices then, too, which didn’t do him any favors with his classmates. He didn’t do it because he was, like, committed to the craft or anything like that. Or because he didn’t give a shit what people thought of him. He actually would have really liked to avoid yet another reason to get called a freak or, like, cross-checked in the hallway with the same general sentiment. It was just the casualty of having one freaking speed , as Julia always said (says). 

 

“The Q&A part, though,” he says, fidgeting in his chair, leaning forward to put his elbows on his jeans and his chin in his hand. 

 

“Yes, quite,” Jane agrees. “I had hoped at first that practice would make perfect. But after seeing you fail as miserably on go-round thirty-what-have-you as the first . . .” she says, trailing off. And, okay, Quentin knows he’s like, not charismatic or funny or even, like, just a normal-acting human at those events, probably, but fail miserably is maybe a bit much. He doesn’t mind talking about his books and the characters and the themes and the setting, and the way that magic works in the universe, and-- yeah. All of that. He can do all of that. It’s when people want to hear about him -- or, God , about what comes next -- that he-- Yeah. Okay. Maybe fails fucking miserably. 

 

Regardless ,” Jane is saying, shuffling Quentin through his self-hatred cycle with all the bustling efficiency of the boarding school prefect she must have been once upon a time, “we may have hit upon an improvement this time. A new approach.” 

 

Quentin raises his eyebrows.

 

“A partner ,” she finally says, clearly excited at her own solution. Quentin can’t quite muster her level of excitement for anything related to another fucking book tour, but--

 

“It’s a joint tour?” he asks, trying not to get his hopes up. 

 

She nods, still sparkling a bit around the eyes.

 

And-- okay . Yes. That-- that could definitely work. Combined events with another author mean half the questions for him to answer. Maybe even less than that if it’s someone really popular or long-winded, or if people just realize that they aren’t going to be able to squeeze any blood out of Quentin’s stone and stick to talking to the probably charming, gregarious, functional person instead. 

 

He’s almost smiling, he can tell-- at one corner of his mouth, anyway. Almost ready to ask who? , when he finally notices it. The way that Jane’s hand has migrated over to rest carefully on the cool-kid, Helvetica-font, dragon-dick, brand-fucking-spanking-new book that she decided to put out of size order on the top of her pile. 

 

Because it’s important .

 

“No,” he says. 

 

“He’s quite new, and he’s very good,” Jane continues, as if Quentin didn’t even speak. “One of Henry’s, actually. The higher-ups are expecting great things.”

 

And-- Jesus. Is she blushing ?

 

“Seriously-- the dragon-dick book?!” Quentin sputters.

 

“Oh, you know it then,” Eliza blinks. “It’s marvelous, isn’t it? A breath of fresh air in this fuddy-duddy old genre.”

 

Quentin, who he’s pretty much at peace with the level of fuddy in his duddy, has no answer for that, so he tries an alternate approach. “But I mean, do you think our fanbases are a good match? Enough to, like, share a tour?”

 

Jane appears to consider for a moment, then leans in like she’s sharing a secret, which is how Quentin knows he’s about to be played, because Jane has never volunteered to share a secret in her life . “Truthfully,” she says-- so, not , “we’re hoping that your fanbase will take a liking to him. He has so much promise, but this is his debut. And surely your fans have enough-- passion to share.”

 

Last Thursday, one of his fans had gone through his trash and pulled out a handwritten grocery list that he knows for a fact was beneath a not insignificant number of used teabags, so yeah , probably. (Whoever they were, Julia told him that when they’d eventually posted a picture of the list on tumblr, they’d blacked out the part that read lexapro refill . Which was nice of them, probably.)

 

“And what’s the real reason?” Quentin asks.

 

Jane doesn’t bother to play stupid, which is also nice, probably. Instead, she sighs and leans farther back into her swivel chair. “He’s extraordinarily charming,” she admits. “Active on social media. Cheeky on social media.”

 

“Quentin” has yet to tweet something from the nice account with the verified checkmark that wasn’t scripted by Brakebills’ P.R. team and actually typed and sent by Todd, and they both know it. Quentin doesn’t mean to start getting defensive, but he can feel it happening anyway.

 

Jane sees it happening, too, and has no time for it. “It wouldn’t hurt you to take a page from his book, as it were,” she says. “The way he writes-- it’s disarmingly open. Painfully honest. I think you’d like it quite a lot if you gave it a chance. You’re the one that’s always so adamant that fantasy is supposed to mean something.”

 

The “cks” of “dicks” is visible beneath where Jane’s hand still rests on the cover.

 

“Yeah, I bet,” Quentin grunts, crossing his arms.

 

“My God, you are a snob--” Jane starts to say.

 

“I am not a--” Quentin begins to-- yeah, okay, shout. But he stops himself because he recognizes, okay? That anything that a person shouts at their editor that they aren’t , with that little volume control, is probably exactly what they are. 

 

“I’m not ,” he says more evenly, after a moment, throwing both hands to the sides, then running them both through his hair, when that posture feels too exposed.

 

Jane just smiles like she’s positioned him exactly where she wants him. Which usually means she has.

 

“Excellent,” she says, already turning back to her computer, signalling that she’s quite finished with Quentin now, thank you. “You can tell him so yourself. He’s waiting for you downstairs at the Hedgebucks in the lobby. I thought it would be wise for you two to meet in person before your big tour.” 

 

Quentin can’t decide if he should be surprised or not. He doesn’t get the time to decide before Jane is waving him off with one hand, while putting on a pair of reading glasses with the other. “Chop chop! Off you go.” 

 

He sighs, but it’s for no one’s benefit but his own. It takes him a minute to gather up his messenger bag and his boxy old peacoat and the blue beanie that Julia knitted for him, and to make sure that his dad’s old driving gloves-- tan with the brown leather patches-- are still in his pockets, before he starts shuffling his way toward the glass door, which is entirely see-through except for the Brakebills Press insignia frosted on just below eye-level. When Quentin’s through to the other side, he finally sees Jane look up at him over the rim of her glasses, but she’s back to her computer screen almost as soon as he notices. 

 

Todd gives him a printout of the promised itinerary and also tells him “ Happy Christmas,” because he’s both the kind of person that genuinely wants other people to enjoy things, and the kind of person that starts repeating their boss’s ex-pat British-isms even though they’ve personally probably never left the tristate region. Quentin takes the pages with the hand that’s already holding his beanie. His other hand is busy holding the heavy wool coat by the collar, and also being inexorably dragged down by the messenger bag that’s still hooked over his elbow, because he doesn’t want to put it up over his shoulder yet, when he’s just going to have to take it off again to put the coat on. 

 

Quentin’s still juggling his personal effects, and the now-wrinkled pages from Todd, when the elevator door closes behind him, and he realizes two things. First, that the one piece of information that neither Todd nor Jane gave him is the name of the person he’s on his way to meet-- which would be a problem (because Quentin may not be a natural people-person, but even he realizes that cheeky dragon-dick guy is probably not a workable thing to call another person), if not for the second thing. The second thing is that the guy’s name is, apparently, Eliot Waugh. Quentin knows this second thing because inside the elevator, on the opposite side of the door from the control panel-- which Quentin just barely manages to work, doing some more collateral damage to his print-out itinerary in the process-- is that same shitty magenta-orange-yellow book cover, this time with lots of fake-fawning quotes written up by the Brakebills P.R. team and attributed to the usual suspects, including-- yup, there she is. Poppy Kline. Of fucking course. 

 

(That was the one line-- the one -- that he’d been able to draw firmly with Jane: his name doesn’t go on endorsements for other authors, unless he actually agrees that they’re like, a defining new voice with the propulsive readability of George R.R. Martin , or whatever. Eventually she’d just stopped bothering asking him and stuck to using writers who didn’t seem to give as much of a shit. That was around the time she’d started using the word snob , come to think of it.)

 

Quentin’s saved from further rumination about, like, the line between snobbery and puristry, and how much easier it is to ruminate on petty shit like that than it is to think about the things that he’s actually unhappy about and desperately avoiding, by the elevator dinging and letting him off on the ground floor. He manages to shuffle-drag his shit to the Hedgebucks, which is packed, because why wouldn’t it be. He stands in line for as long as it takes to dubiously order a medium mint tea-- and yeah, he says medium and not grande , because-- because, crap, fine, maybe he really is a snob. 

 

He’s more than kind of hoping that in the time it takes to make his way to the front of the line and then wait for the harried teal-streaked barista to get to his order, someone in the shoebox-size Hedgebucks will have done something to signal that they’re waiting for Quentin to come join them. But everyone crammed around the four tiny tables and five barstools seems to be already talking to other people or buried in their laptops. Technically, he realizes, there’s no reason that Eliot Waugh-- who is apparently both cheeky-charming and a writer-- couldn’t be either talking to other humans while waiting for Quentin, or, you know, writing. But Quentin’s already thinking about what a relief it would be if Eliot just-- wasn’t here, for Quentin to have to try to make functional-person small-talk with, and how he could tell Jane that it wasn’t even his fault, he just got stood up. By the time the barista is calling out Mint Majesty for Kentin -- and seriously? Kentin? -- he’s already got his arms through his jacket and the beanie smushed down over his messy hair and Todd’s poor papers balled up in the outside pocket of the messenger bag.

 

He knows, even as he glides out the door onto the slush-covered sidewalk, that the sense of relief is going to be short-lived. That as soon as he gets on the A-C-E to Penn Station and then switches over to the Montclair-Boonton line, he’ll remember that he’s not actually running away from his problems by avoiding Eliot Waugh; he’s running away from the thing that’s distracting him from his real problems, the ones that are saved on the laptop he purposely didn’t bring with him today. 

 

The momentary sense of relief is powerful all the same. 

 

Or, at least it is until a figure propped against the front wall-window thing of the Hedgebucks, a pace or two down from the door, straightens up and steps into his space.

 

“Quentin Coldwater?” the figure-- the man-- asks. His mouth curls as he asks it, like the words-- Quentin’s name -- might taste bad, or might taste intriguing, or might just taste strange. 

 

Quentin knows because he’s looking at the man’s mouth. 

 

He should-- not be. He should stop. Looking. That much is-- yeah, that’s obvious to Kentin. Quentin . But it’s easier said than done, when the man lifts the cigarette he’s holding between two long fingers-- and, honestly, Quentin has never understood the point of fingerless gloves, especially when it’s this fucking cold out, but he’s not complaining, not right now-- and brings it to his lips for another drag. 

 

And all Quentin can think is--

 

Jesus . They should have put a headshot on the poster.

 

The man is smiling-- more like he’s thinking about smiling, really-- as he exhales smoke and steam both into the frigid, gray air. “I’m Eliot,” he finally says, unnecessarily. Because, yeah. Of course, this is Eliot Waugh. Quentin’s luck would allow for nothing less. 

 

“You’re late,” he adds, when Quentin remains silent. “Henry told me to be here at two.”

 

“There was-- uh-um, line,” Quentin is saying, ineffectually-- finally registering, as he moves his mouth to speak, that his jaw has apparently been hanging open this whole time, nice job , Coldwater . He clamps it shut, and it’s like the motion jolts something in his head that was short-circuiting, because he can feel his eyes narrowing suddenly, and his head shaking, the general fog of holy shit (of Eliot ) clearing away as he does. 

 

“Sorry,” he says, and his voice is more present this time, and-- oh yeah, that’s the other thing that Eliot Waugh’s imperious little smile is making him feel-- more than a little annoyed. “I assumed we were meeting indoors? Where it’s above freezing?”

 

Julia gives him a lot of shit for his whole, oh my God, Q, you’re so pissy sometimes, just say if you’re mad thing. There’s just a taste of that-- and Christ , does Quentin need to shut the whole world of mouth-related metaphors down-- in the twitch of Eliot’s dark eyebrow. But he only makes a little hmm , his lips pressing together tightly enough that they turn nearly white for a moment. 

 

It can’t even generously be interpreted as an apology, or even, like, a meaningful conversational entry, which makes Quentin briefly wonder if Jane’s definition of immensely charming might be skewed. 

 

“Can we, uh, go inside now ?” Quentin asks him. And if he still sounds-- yeah, probably pissy-- then, sue him. This is what happens when Quentin has to be the one to move a conversation along. Jesus, this tour is maybe going to be a disaster.

 

Eliot’s grimace at Quentin’s question comes a little bit closer to feeling like an apology. It also sends one of his artfully tousled curls falling across his forehead. And that description-- that’s not Quentin editorializing, okay? Because this guy is rocking the closest thing to, like, Heathcliff-on-the-moors-energy that Quentin has ever seen in real life.

 

“Can’t,” Eliot says, breezy as fuck, like it’s totally normal social behavior to just-- decline to go inside when it’s all of twenty degrees out and Quentin doesn’t have gloves on because there’s no way he can balance carrying his to-go cup of shitty tea and putting his gloves on, and there’s no way he’s going to risk spilling the shitty tea on his gloves, because the gloves aren’t his gloves at all, they’re his father’s , and even though Quentin lives in his father’s old house surrounded by his father’s things, he’s still painfully aware of every item of his father’s that he loses or ruins or fucking breaks , because eventually, one day, there’ll be no things left that were his dad’s, because it’s all a one-way ratchet now.

 

“Right,” he says, instead of any of what he’s thinking.

 

Eliot’s grimace returns, a little more exaggerated and also somehow a little more honest. “Sorry,” he says, finally, “it’s just-- they won’t let her inside.”

 

He nods downward, and for half a second, Quentin actually thinks he’s talking about the cigarette still smoldering in his half-gloved hands. But then Quentin finally notices that the retro-looking leather satchel that Eliot is wearing with his black trench coat and long purple scarf isn’t empty or filled with books or whatever. That, in fact, there’s a dog peeking out from under the flap. 

 

“This is High King Margo the Destroyer,” Eliot clarifies, angling his long, lean body so that the little face peeking out from the side of his bag’s leather flap is facing Quentin dead-on. She’s tiny and pretty much made of long, glossy brown fur, from what Quentin can see-- so much of it that a hank of it is tied on top of her head with what looks like a tiny crown. Also, it might just be the angle that her hair is falling, but she seems to only have one eye.

 

“Oh, um, hi,” Quentin says. He catches himself in the middle of waving with his free hand, before he realizes that waving is not, like, a standard greeting for dogs. He starts to turn the wave into a pet, but then he considers that not all dogs like being pet, or being pet by strangers. But the second-guessing ends up being for nought, because his hand is close enough that High King Margo the Destroyer-- which, seriously, must be, like, a fancy show-dog competition name or something, that would also explain why her hair is brushed better than Quentin’s-- catches his scent and leans farther out of the bag to bop the end of her nose against Quentin’s fingers, giving a sniff as she does. It’s quick, sharp, and followed by an unmistakably unimpressed yap. 

 

Quentin’s probably been as thoroughly dismissed before, but maybe never by a yorkie. 

 

“Hush, Bambi,” Eliot scolds, tapping a finger just above her black button nose. 

 

Quentin’s own nose wrinkles. “I thought you said her name was, uh, High King Margo the, um--”

 

“The Destroyer,” Eliot finishes. His easy grin goes a little Mona Lisa and faraway when he adds, "She's named for someone very important to me."

 

Quentin bypasses the obvious question ("You know many high kings?"), and jumps straight to, "And the, uh, 'Bambi' thing because . . ."

 

Eliot only hums. “She goes by many names. She’s not beholden to labels.”

 

“Right. Yeah,” Quentin finds himself saying, because he has no clue what else to say. He glimpses over his shoulder at the artificially bright light of the Hedgebucks and all the people inside who aren’t shivering. 

 

“Is she, um, a service dog?” Quentin asks after a moment, even though Eliot-- well, not that it’s Quentin’s place to try to judge, but from an outsider’s glance he seems to be, um-- but what does Quentin know? And anyway, emotional support animals are also a thing. God knows Quentin’s therapist has floated the idea enough times, and if Quentin were even marginally more convinced of his ability to sustain another life, he might have gone for it by now. Also, most important of all (well, not really, but the general grayness in the air is working up to general mistiness and then probably to some kind of freezing rain, Quentin can just feel it), the store can’t possibly bar a service animal. And, while Quentin may not be the kick-in-the-door-with-righteous-fury type by nature, it’s not like he hasn’t picked up anything from Julia over the years, and it’s fucking cold enough that he would gladly stand up for Eliot’s rights if it means being actually inside.

 

But despite the growing hope in Quentin’s eyes, Eliot simply shrugs and says, “No.”

 

Quentin blinks. “So you just-- brought her anyway? To a store that doesn’t allow dogs?”

 

“Mm hm,” Eliot confirms. He punctuates the statement by tossing the remains of his cigarette right onto the sidewalk

 

Quentin’s free ( cold ) hand comes up to pinch the bridge of his nose, and he’s about to make some excuse to get out of here without flipping his shit on Mr. Next-Big-Thing, if only so that he still has some shit left to lose once this godforsaken book tour begins. But he’s interrupted by Eliot, whose brows are furrowing just slightly. 

 

“Tell you what,” he says, cheery in a way that feels forced. “You’re probably going to the subway, yes? Bambi and I will walk you there. It’s just a book tour, right? What’s there to be said that we can’t get through in a couple of blocks?”

 

Quentin can recognize that Eliot is probably trying to be polite, or maybe just professional, so he holds back the snort that wants to come out. It’s easier not to think of anything to replace the snort with, so he doesn’t.

 

“Soo,” Eliot ventures, after they’ve crossed-- in silence-- against the light, “Henry says your books are a big deal. Like, very . . . Game of Thrones -y.” 

 

Quentin stops. Eliot (and, by default, High King Margo) go another couple steps, before he notices and turns back. 

 

“You haven’t read them?” Quentin asks without thinking. “My books?” 

 

Eliot’s mouth immediately curves up into an amused smile, and it makes Quentin want to rewind the past fifteen seconds, because God, he sounds like a dick. He genuinely didn’t mean that to come out, like, as insufferably arrogant as it did. It’s just-- it’s been a long time since he talked to someone in their business that didn’t want to tell him in great detail everything they thought about Forty Circles -- and how it should end. 

 

“I didn’t--” Quentin starts, but Eliot cuts Quentin off with an, “Oh, but you totally did ,” his grin going even wider.

 

“Sorry, stud,” he adds, with a little lilt that almost makes Quentin choke, because it doesn’t sound one-hundred percent like sarcasm. “I promise once there’s an HBO adaptation with plenty of gratuitous full-frontal, I’ll be there for it.”

 

The idea of the premium-cable version of Forty Circles gets tangled up on a couple spots in Quentin’s brain. The one that sounds an awful lot like Jane, talking about options and pilots and licensing if only Quentin would write the bloody ending , for starters. But also the one that knows that, for all he tries not to, he still sees Alice in his mind, every time he writes about his heroine Vix rolling her eyes at the Fool, or gritting her teeth through his soft-hearted ramblings. He’s not sure he could take the version of Forty Circles that decides to toss the two of them in bed to do soft-core versions of all the things that Quentin and Alice (probably) ( definitely ) won’t ever do again.

 

Jesus ,” he huffs out. And it’s probably the combination of those two spots, both bruise-tender, that’s driving what he says next, but that doesn’t make it okay. “You know, some people in this genre aspire to write about more than just dicks .”

 

It’s the last word, really, and the emphasis that Quentin gives it, that makes it impossible for the bitchy aside to read as anything other than a dig. Eliot registers it. Quentin’s only spent about ten minutes in Eliot’s presence, and he can see that Eliot registers it. It’s clear in the way that, without a single muscle in Eliot’s face so much as twitching, the teasing smile he’d been wearing just a second ago-- because God , he’d been teasing Quentin, he’d been trying to be nice -- is suddenly a mask with no life behind it.

 

Quentin doesn’t know how to deal with how uncalled-for a bastard he just was, so he hides behind taking a sip of his tea. He realizes half a second too late why that’s a mistake, at which point the roof of his mouth is already burning, and the rest of the still-scalding liquid in the cup is about to pour down the front of his coat, while he spits and struggles.

 

He braces for the spill, but it never comes, because Eliot reaches out and plucks the cup easily out of Quentin’s hands.

 

“You okay?” he asks, as his free hand lands steady and strong on Quentin’s shoulder. The warmth may be gone from his eyes, but at least he’s not prepared to stand by while Quentin gives himself second-degree burns.

 

“Ugh, their tea is a lawsuit waiting to happen, I swear,” Eliot continues, without waiting for Quentin’s answer. He’s nodding as he talks, like a doctor making a diagnosis. “The hot water tap they use is basically boiling. You should tell them next time to fill it up four-fifths and then top it with the cold. A little pro tip from my barista days.”

 

“You were a barista?” 

 

Eliot shrugs as he hands Quentin back his cup. It feels impossible to imagine him in an apron and a baseball cap, doing the same. 

 

“Well, I had to live out the struggling writer cliche somehow, didn’t I?” 

 

And that explanation makes more sense to Quentin than anything else he could have come up with for how exactly someone who probably summers in places that use “summers” as a verb and who carries a probable show dog in his hip pocket, winds up working at a Hedgebucks.

 

“I’m pretty sure a non-trivial chunk of my book started out on Hedgebucks napkins,” Eliot muses, sounding, for a moment, almost confessional. But then he makes that little waving gesture with his hand that’s already becoming familiar to Quentin, and his expression shutters again. “But whatever. Like you said, it’s mostly just dick jokes, so.”

 

“Um,” Quentin says, stomach going tight. “I shouldn’t have--”

 

But Eliot only waves again. “It’s no big deal. You can do the whole smart, impactful high art thing,” he says-- and Quentin tries his hardest not to cringe, because smart and impactful , yeah, that’s just fucking him , isn’t it?-- “and I’ll stick to Fifty Shades of Gray-scaling a bunch of nerds out of their parents’ money.”

 

Eliot smirks when he drops the line. Which makes sense. Because it’s a fucking funny line. But then, of course it is, Quentin thinks, his stomach going tight again, and not with guilt this time. After all, it must be a real advantage when it comes to making jokes and-- and everything else, probably, when everything’s a joke to you to start with. 

 

“Right,” Quentin finally says, when he registers that he’s probably been staring in borderline-open disgust for too long. “Sounds-- awesome.” 

 

Eliot’s eyes-- that sparkle and flatten on command, apparently-- have narrowed again, but thank God, they’ve finally reached the entrance to the subway. Quentin’s so close he can taste it. To getting away from this effortless, gorgeous guy who has no fucking idea how it feels to care so much about things that it makes you awful. 

 

The freezing rain that Quentin predicted starts up as he ruminates, right on cue. A few icy drops spatter his neck, where the oversized collar of his coat gapes open. It makes him shiver.

 

“I should--” Quentin says, gesturing to the stairway behind him. He turns to go down, but he’s stopped by Eliot’s hand on his wrist, the same steady hand that had stopped Quentin’s cup from falling. 

 

Eliot lets those thick-lashed, black-lined eyes rove up and down Quentin quickly, shrewdly. Quentin only has a moment to wonder what measure Eliot’s trying to take and how disappointing the result must be, before Eliot’s hands move up to unwind the long knit scarf from around his own neck and drape it over Quentin’s. He loops it once, twice-- sure and gentle, almost motherly. On Eliot, the tasseled ends of the scarf had trailed nearly to the waist, and Eliot has at least six inches on Quentin. Eliot frowns and loops it once more, tugging on the end to center it when he’s done. By the time he’s finished, he’s standing close enough that Quentin can see the way the rain is starting to make his Byron-esque curls fuzz.

 

“What-- ?” Quentin begins to ask, his voice rasping in a way that it probably shouldn’t, over someone whose big, unfairly sexy hands might wind scarves and soothe puppies, but are also content to scribble trash down on coffee shop napkins and make fun of the people who cling to it, just because he can’t imagine what it’s like, to feel so goddamn alone that only people that live in a made-up world can reach you.

 

Eliot blinks. “You looked cold,” he says quietly, like that’s all the explanation that’s needed. 

 

Then he steps back and straightens to his full height. “We’ll see you in the New Year, I guess,” he says, with a nod toward High King Margo at his hip, his voice unconcerned once more. 

 

He-- and the dog-- are gone before Quentin can answer. 

 

The scarf is scratchy and warm. It smells like cigarette smoke and snow and some kind of spicy cologne, Quentin notices, as he walks down the stairway to the station, dazed enough that a woman carrying a hardcover suitcase nearly as tall as her passes him on the way down. 

 

He’ll take the scarf off later, he tells himself. Once he gets back to his dad’s-- to his house. He’ll take it off and fold it and pack it up to return to Eliot on the tour, like an actual professional. He’ll call Julia, and, if she’s not working on her campaign tonight, she’ll come to Jersey and they’ll order Indian and scroll through Eliot’s twitter feed for proof that he’s as much of an entitled asshole as Quentin thought. And then once Julia leaves, Quentin will sit alone in the empty house and finally open up his laptop and stare at it again, instead of sleeping. The manuscript for book three. Complete, like it has been for months. And he’ll worry then-- probably panic then-- about how much longer he can keep feeding Jane bullshit excuses about writer’s block, and about expectations and consultants and fools and whether they have a future at all. 

 

For now, though, he tucks himself into a hard plastic seat, pulls out his e-reader, breathes in the smoke and the spice and the winter air, deep , and lets himself gets lost in Fillory again.