Quentin wakes up, two weeks after the break-up with Alice, feeling like there’s someone wearing stilettos standing on the dip at the base of his throat. Someone in the kitchen is wreaking havoc, absolutely slamming about pots and pans and destroying any chance of falling asleep again, so Q shoves his duvet away and swings his legs around to sit on the side of the bed. A check of the time shows it’s only just past 6, daylight barely creeping around the edges of the blinds.
Q scrubs a hand down his face and tries to take a deep breath, chest feeling like it might implode. He’d known this was coming, eventually, some type of losing his shit situation – he just hadn’t known exactly what form it would take. More often, it was being stuck in bed for three days, and he’d even taken precaution for that, this time, stocked up on granola bars and bottles of water by the side of his bed, but –
This time, he’s just afraid.
Fear is Eliot’s bag, not his. Sadness is supposed to be Quentin’s thing. Sadness comes easily to him, sits like a pit in the bottom of his stomach that sucks everything from him. But that’s fine. He knows how to deal with that, or at least how to compartmentalise aggressively enough that he can function regardless, most of the time. Fear is Eliot’s thing, anger is Margo’s, Sadness is Quentin’s.
Except it turns out human beings are fucking emotionally complex creatures. Go fucking figure.
He’d scoff at himself, if he felt less like his heart might be about to beat its way out of his chest, but as it is he slides off the bed to the floor to sit with his knees tucked up to his chest.
And he knows he’s working up to a truly spectacular panic attack, but he can’t stop it. So – he hyperventilates – and hyperventilates, and hyperventilates – until the room is spinning, and then presses his palms flat into the rug beside him and tries, again, to take a deep Goddamn breath, come on, Q, this isn’t your first time at this rodeo.
He manages, eventually, shaky but breathing, stretching out his legs in front of him and tipping his head back to rest on bed behind him. The clanging in the kitchen has finally stopped, so Q decides breakfast, and begins the slow process of peeling himself off the floor and getting down the stairs without sending the room spinning around him again.
Reaching the kitchen, he drops heavily into a chair, feeling wrung out. He stretches to flick on the coffee machine, just within reaching distance, and ignores the way his hands are still shaking. Then he folds his arms on the dining table and rests his forehead on them, closing his eyes, because Jesus, fuck, how is this still his life. He’s 22 and at literal magic school and he’s still losing days of his life to being totally disconnected, floating through days like he doesn’t exist, because a girl broke up with him.
God. Depression would have made sense. It had been the reaction after the first rejection from Julia, and after the ghosting from that boy in undergrad, and the boy after that. But this time –
Alice had just got increasingly snippy with him, like she just didn’t want him around. God, Quentin, we don’t have to spend every minute together, and God, Quentin, I can do it myself, I don’t need your help, and finally – I don’t think this is working, Quentin. I think we need some space. From each other.
He can picture the way her eyebrows had gone all pinched, at the top, the same expression when she was worried as when she was frustrated. And that was something, wasn’t it, that she found it frustrating to have to worry about him. Because she was worried about him, after Brakebills South, but that very quickly became something like a burden that she didn’t have the patience to bear.
I think we need some space from each other, she’d said, and then spun on her heel and click-clacked away, back straight, chin up. The picture of collected and precise, not a hair out of place. Quentin had watched her go, not altogether surprised, sagging back against the bookcase in the library and feeling like maybe he was dreaming. He’d spent the two weeks since feeling not totally human, maybe underwater, everything around him hazy and distant.
But now – now he’s awake, real and present and afraid. Because of course she wanted space from him. She didn’t need his help, but he needed her, and that was – that was definitely the problem.
That’s always been the problem, hasn’t it, that he’s just – needed too much. He’s been too needy, too intense, too much for anyone to be expected to handle since he was four years old and cried when his favourite toy snapped in two and his mother had said, exasperated, for goodness’ sake, Quentin, get over it. It’s just a toy, stop crying. You’re too old for this kind of behaviour, and then gone right back to arguing with his dad.
The coffee machine beeps, and Quentin starts, raising his head to stare at it blankly.
He’s seven years old and his parents are fighting, still, but now they’re fighting about him, because he’s come home from school in tears, again, and his mom doesn’t want to deal with it. He’s twelve on his first day of middle school mid-monologue about Star Trek and deserted in the hall, and he’s seventeen and in the hospital and his mom is outside the door, whispering about his episodes and a want for attention, and -
He pushes the chair back from the dining table to stand, legs scraping against the linoleum, and grabs the first mug that he can reach from the cupboard.
He’s 22 and Alice wants space, because he needs too much, and no one is ever going to love him. It slams into him all at once, the fear of it, blinding in its intensity. No one is ever going to love him.
Sipping at his coffee, and then – not sipping at his coffee, Q loses some more time staring at the whitewashed wall in front of him.
The sun is coming up in earnest, flooding the kitchen with light, when the first true signs of life start to stir in the Cottage. A particularly loud thud from upstairs, probably someone being shoved out of bed, brings Q back to himself with a blink.
The mug of coffee has gone cold, between his palms, and he sets it on the table and tries to think about what to do, now. He needs to – he has a class at 10. He needs to wear clothes and – go to class. He can’t – it feels like his stomach is in knots, and he can’t – he can’t think, God, what the fuck is this.
He’s still sitting there, mug of coffee gone cold on the table in front of him, when the door to the kitchen swings open, and Eliot strolls in. He pauses, mid step on the way to the fridge, as he sees Q, and then continues on, nonchalant, as though nothing happened.
“Hey, Q, what do you have today? I was going to bunk off Advanced kinetics and casting – on account of my mastering that at 14 – and go into the city. Care to join?”
“I – um, I have a class with Bax –” Quentin says, and then pauses to take a breath because he’s still fucking hyperventilating, dammit – “at 10, uh, Seasonal impacts” – breath – “on botanical circumstances?”
Eliot circles round the table and plants himself down on the seat opposite Q, a banana and jar of peanut butter in hand. “Yeah, that one’s bullshit for everyone except the herbalists. Come with me.”
And really, Q’s not about to argue with anyone over the importance of botany, but he also feels like he might crawl out of his skin, and it would probably be better to do that in his own room. But he doesn’t know what excuse to make, so what he says is -
“Uh, yeah, sure,” as he pushes jerkily to his feet to pour his coffee into the sink. “What are – when are you going? I’ll go change.”
Q turns to head for the door, but then Eliot is on his feet, too, stopping Q in his tracks with a gentle hand on his elbow.
“Bad day, Q?” he says, voice soft. “Anything I can do?”
And God, bad day is one way of putting it, and Q’s never been one for avoiding talking about his feelings if someone’s asking, genuinely, especially if that someone is El.
“Yeah. Or – no, just – the first day in weeks I’ve felt like a human who exists in the mortal realm, reminding me once again that that is a totally awful thing to be.”
Eliot’s expression flickers into something approaching recognition, as he nods, and Quentin – doesn’t feel riled by that, not the way he does when Julia tries to do the feelings talk. Eliot gets it, has spent his whole adult life chasing substance, drink and drugs and sex, for want of that same disconnect. Quentin’s brain, at least, sometimes gives it to him for free.
“Probably not the best idea to go into the city and get high, then?” Eliot asks, and Quentin snorts, because for all Eliot’s love of store-bought dissociation, he’ll be the picture of moderate drug use as soon as he thinks it would be a bad idea for Q.
“Honestly, I could do with getting high,” he admits, “but sure, if we’re being mature and responsible about it then – no, that might not be the best thing.”
“Right. No weed for us today. Let’s go out for brunch, yeah? There’s this cute café just on the outskirts that I’ve been meaning to try.”
And a café sounds doable, away from the hustle and bustle of the main city. There might even be a quiet spot for Q to tuck himself up in, for a while, read a book with a mug of hot chocolate in hand. Nodding, Q steps into Eliot’s space for a moment, presses his forehead into El’s chest and lets his eyes flutter shut. Eliot’s arms come up around him, automatic, and this is simple, easy. They’ve always been tactile, as friends, and Q – needs the comfort, just for a moment.
Breath in, breath out, and then he steps away, tries for a smile. “Okay. Meet you back here in twenty?”
“Excuse you,” Eliot says, and now he’s grinning, “I need at least an hour, to get to full fabulous.” He mimes a dramatic flick of curls over his shoulder. “This beauty doesn’t come easy.”
Q rolls his eyes, but there’s no heat to it. “Fine, fine,” he mutters. “Half past 10 then.”
Eliot agrees and they part ways. The extra time means Q can stand in the shower a little longer, temperature turned way up, steam curling into the air. The heat washes away some of the existential terror, too hot for him to think about anything else, and by the time he meets Eliot at the foot of the stairs an hour later, dressed in his softest hoodie, he feels less like chaos and more just tired, worn out.
He loops his arm through Eliot’s as they head out across campus to the portal that Margo and El had set up in their first year, in an act equal parts desperation and rebellion. They step out between trees with sunlight dappling across the grass in front of them, and then Eliot tugs him along the sidewalk to the little café set behind shrubbery, vines and ivy crawling up the brick.
It’s cosy, homely, and they end up tucked together on two squashy single sofas side by side, with their drinks on a little coffee table in front of them. Eliot puts his hand palm up along the arm rest of his couch in offering, seeming perfectly content to sip at his coffee and people watch, while Q gets lost in thought.
A waitress comes by to take their food orders, and they both get breakfast sandwiches, hot from the grill. Q takes a bite too fast, eager, burning his tongue as Eliot holds back a laugh, and then has to settle for setting the plate down and waiting for it to cool.
Q brings his arm up to rest beside Eliot’s, who seems to take this as the acceptance it is and slides their hands together. He rubs his thumb across Q’s, as Q takes a deep breath.
“Alice and I broke up,” he starts, and Eliot nods. This isn’t news – campus is small, and the Cottage is smaller, and pretty much the whole student body knew, at this stage. “She said – I don’t know, she said she wanted space. She thought I was – clinging, I guess? Which, like, whatever, I still kind of figure that it’s not too much to think we could, like, be nice to each other once a day, but. You know.”
“I think your definitions of closeness probably differ some,” Eliot says, a smile tugging at the corners of his lips. “Alice is – you know, she thinks smiling politely is an offer of eternal servitude.”
And he’s not wrong. Alice was just – so stern, always, nothing like Q’s constant outpouring of feelings and words and wanting. But –
“Yeah, but if I could just – want less, you know, be less to deal with, it might be easier for –” Q’s voice breaks, and he takes a breath, tries again – “easier for people to love me. Or whatever. No one wants to love someone who – like, just needs things all the time. I’m a lot of work, I get it.”
“It’s not your job to be – lesser, Q,” Eliot says, looking at Q with an unfathomable expression writing its way across his face. “To be less work or less to deal with or whatever. Like – people say, oh, I don’t want to be a burden, and we all want to say, no one’s hard work, everyone is easy to live with, but - everyone has their stuff, and even if people are hard work, that’s not – a bad thing, you know? It doesn’t make them a burden. It’s not like that means no one loves them. It’s that even though they’re maybe hard work, they’re worth that work. Loving them is worth that work."
Quentin swallows, looking away from Eliot, who’s still looking at him with that intense, unreadable expression.
Q sighs, shoulders slumping. “Yeah. I just – God, how do you be worthy of that, you know? It’s so terrifying, that I could just – never have anyone love me, because I’m so much that I’d never be worth it, I don’t –”
He cuts himself off with a shake of his head, toeing off his trainers and pulling his legs up to sit folded criss-cross on the sofa.
Eliot sips at his tea and then sets the mug down, stays quiet for long enough that Q begins to wonder if he’s said something wrong. Before he can speak again, though, to – apologise, or brush it off, or something, Eliot opens his mouth to talk.
“I think,” he says, voice careful, “that you’re worth every bit of the work that it might be to love you.” He brushes at an invisible bit of fluff at the lapel of his jacket, avoiding Q’s gaze. “And – I think more people love you than you realise, Q.”
Q blinks, finds suddenly that his eyes are wet. Scrubbing a hand down his face, he huffs out a breath. “God, sorry,” he gets out, tipping sideways to rest his head on Eliot’s shoulder. “I feel like – such a wreck. But – thank you. That’s – I mean, that’s really kind of you. I hope so.”
And God, he hopes so. He’s still anxious, still all cut up about the whole thing, but – Eliot rests his head on top of Q’s, and says “Q, trust me, I know so,” and – maybe he’s right. Maybe someday someone will love him. And in the meantime – he’s here, with good food and coffee and Eliot, and that’s pretty good, too.