Chapter 1: phoenix, a prologue
When I was young I happened across a copy of Peter Pan in the attic. I had already read every other book in the house, as far as I knew, and I was delighted to find new material. It fell in easily among the fantasy titles I had already devoured: Alice in Wonderland, Lord of the Rings, The Secret Garden.
Unlike those, however, Peter Pan had a Voice; not the character himself, but the voice telling the story. Of course, every author has their own voice, but not all of them speak to you. Peter Pan was the first book I remembered that spoke to me.
There is a part early in the story in which Mr. and Mrs. Darling rush home from their party to try and catch the children before they are taken off to Neverland (possibly forever) with the reckless, immortal spirit of Peter. Looking back at it from an adult’s point of view, this is quite terrifying, to have your children snatched away from you in the middle of the night. However it is a children’s book, and the Voice adds this reassurance:
“Will they reach the nursery in time? If so, how delightful for them, and we shall all breathe a sigh of relief, but there will be no story. On the other hand, if they are not in time, I solemnly promise that it will all come right in the end.”
Dearest reader, I regret to inform you that this is not a children’s book, and I can make you no such promise. If you decide to proceed, much of your journey will be arduous and dark.
Best of luck in your travels.
Jane Chatwin stands in a sea of blood. It coats the polished maplewood floor and clings to her ankles in a fine spray where they’re exposed beneath her skirt. There are even a few droplets on the huge old grandfather clock that remains, miraculously, intact. She lets her eyes flutter closed for a moment and then immediately reopens them.
She does this every time. She makes herself look at the carnage, at the consequences of her failure. Reminds herself, in the most effective way possible, of the suffering and heartbreak and simple, aching pain.
It’s usually quiet, at the end. Mercifully quiet, after the dying screams and sobs and the triumphant roar of the beast.
Of her brother.
This time, though, Jane can hear a faint sound, if she concentrates hard enough. Breathing. Coming from somewhere else in the building. Or possibly just outside. She lifts her skirt above the carnage and sweeps away from the bodies, finally turning her eyes gratefully away from the bloodbath inside.
The breathing--it’s closer to hyperventilating now--gets louder as she nears the entryway of the physical kid’s cottage, and even though she opens the door as gently as possible the boy on the other side still springs up, startled.
There’s an awful, heartbreaking hope on his face for a few moments, and when he recognizes her it crumbles away into full-bodied sobs.
It’s not the first time someone has survived the Beast’s wrath (she thinks of Alice, timeline 23) but it is fairly rare and Jane finds herself wishing, horrifically, that it hadn’t happened.
“It’s all over now,” she soothes, and reaches out to perform the memory spell (more of a mercy than anything, really, the clock will do its work whether he remembers or not) but he seems to know what she’s about to do and holds up a hand.
“Wait--” he gasps. “Don’t. Please.”
Jane draws her hand back, fixes him with a severe but not unkind stare.
“You can’t possibly want to remain like this?” she asks.
“No,” he says. “God, no. But. Let me...just let me say goodbye. I’ve.” He drops his eyes to the ground, but not before Jane catches the guilt and shame burning in them. “I’ve been too afraid to go inside.”
Jane bites her lip. “I suppose,” she says, and stands aside so he can enter the cottage.
Chapter 2: a brief history of eliot waugh
Eliot is, in his own words, the greatest creative project in his life. It wasn't exactly a solo project, either.
It's taken me a while to get back to this because, well. I was pissed. To be quite honest. Originally I was planning to write this as kind of a cathartic, super angsty, heartbreaking worst case scenario fic.
But honestly fuck that. I have not changed the plot or my notes one bit and I STILL would've preferred this ending to whatever garbage the writers came up with.
Eliot is a motherfucking god.
He’s finally done it. He’s finally found the precise combination of alcohol, drugs, sex and spells that will keep him afloat forever--or for the rest of his life, whichever comes first. At the moment he’s not sure that they’re entirely different. Forever is probably the next few minutes. Whatever he survives.
Forever is the tumbling lights at the edge of his vision, and the feeling that he’s floating--is he floating?--and the warmth wrapping around him and warming him to the tips of his fingers; forever is the tight feeling in his chest that he’s holding his breath but doesn’t know how to stop, and the disconcerting thought that gravity has stopped working.
Someone is calling his name.
He ignores them.
He wants to savor this moment for as long as humanly possible. He can’t remember a time when he hasn’t been working up to it, to this perfect equilibrium that allows him so much bliss that it shuts out the misery.
From the time he’d killed Logan Kinear at the ripe old age of 14 to the time he’d been accepted into Brakebills, Eliot has had to contend with a unique problem; the uncontrollable, unpredictable release of magic upon anyone and anything in his immediate vicinity. He shattered glasses, made small plants burst into flames, garnered suspicion in a wide range of animals, wild and domestic, and generally infuriated and frightened his family members. When he’d stumbled into the Brakebills exam, his initial reaction had been one of immediate, aching relief.
However, his problems only seemed to intensify once he enrolled. Finally being severed from his family was a freedom that Eliot didn’t quite know what to do with and apparently, the magic that lived and coiled and writhed inside him didn’t either.
While the magic had to be coaxed or poked or shocked or frightened out of other students, magic just sort of...sneezed out of Eliot. It was a struggle for most of the first years to nurture and cultivate their magic; for Eliot, it was a struggle to contain it. It snapped and sparked and exploded out of him at the slightest provocation. Everyone handled him carefully, like a bomb that might go off at any time, and he truly might’ve been. He tended to leave a trail of broken objects and injured people in his wake, and before long the only people who would even so much as look at him were faculty members, and Margo.
Margo was the only person who didn’t handle him like a glass statue. She cottoned to magic faster than any of the first years, quickly mastering and manipulating her powers to serve her own wants and needs. She made it quite clear that she intended on staying at the top of the class.
The fact that the most talented magician in their year hung around with someone like Eliot did nothing to improve his social standing. He had the general uncomfortable, crawling feeling that most of the class was jealous and resentful. Still, after they had been partnered together for the secrets trial, it felt as though nothing would ever come between them.
He remembers that night quite clearly; the warmth of the air despite their lack of clothing, the chafe of rope around his wrists. He’d spilled truth after truth in front of her, imagining that he could see them fall from his lips and crash against the perfectly manicured lawn like glass bubbles.
It's harder than he'd thought it would be--not because his truths are particularly grotesque but because there are so very many of them, and quite frankly it's exhausting to drudge up all the "shocking" bits of darkness and pain in his life. It gets...mundane.
He pours secret after secret out, and yet the ropes stay tight as ever. Margo tried her luck and her secrets were much the same; embarrassing school stories, fights with her family, things she’d stolen. She had no more luck than he did.
So they sit on the lawn, frustrated and shivering, and begin to trade other stories, meaning to entertain each other, keep the long night staved off. Eliot started to tell a story about one of his older brothers, and paused. It needed context. Background...setting.
And so it came out that he was raised on a farm, and he hardly noticed the ropes drop away. Margo gasped, laid a hand on his bare wrist, and he flinched away at the feel of her sharply manicured nails on the sore skin. Just like that, he was free.
If he’d really wanted to, he could have got up and left right then, but this only occurred to him years later. Eliot had never--has never--abandoned Margo, just as she’s never abandoned him. It’s a good thing, too, because they were only minutes left before sunrise when Margo’s ropes had dropped away and Eliot had tentatively reached out to rub her shoulder as she angrily wiped tears out of her eyes.
They anchored each other, rising above the chaff and dust of lesser students and creating a magic completely their own in the form of dazzling charisma and parties that left you stumbling away in the morning, not quite sure what had happened the night before but full of wistfulness and strange joy and, more often than not, the beginnings of a terrible hangover.
Eliot and Margo completed each other in the best way. They were everything, pure and simple; best friends, legends, heroes. They know each other better than anyone else. And nothing will ever change that. Nothing had ever changed that. Right?
“Marrrrrgoooo,” Eliot singsongs, pleasantly buzzed, recently awake, leaning on the doorframe of her bedroom. “Lots to do today. Come on. Get up.”
The voice coming back through the door is muffled; whether by oak or magic, El isn’t sure.
“Go away, Eliot. We’ll do it tomorrow.”
Eliot raises an eyebrow, trails a finger lazily over the dark grain of the door. “You skipping today, baby?”
“Doesn’t matter. You can go to class or not. Find someone else to work on it with you. I don’t care.”
Eliot drops the playfulness from his tone. “Bambi. You okay?”
“Fine, Eliot. Now go the fuck away.”
He does...and then returns, twenty minutes later, balancing a plate of cheese and tomato omelet in one hand. A single sprig of parsley rests on top of it and he’s arranged avocado slices like flower petals. In the other hand he’s carrying a mimosa.
“Made you breakfast…” he murmurs through the door. “If you’ve changed your mind about me going the fuck away…”
The door opens and Margo emerges, fully dressed, perfectly groomed, arms folded. Her makeup, Eliot notes, is perfect.
“Thank you, Eliot,” she says through somewhat clenched teeth. She makes to take the plate but El moves it gently out of her reach.
“Mmm, and maybe we can talk?”
Margo rolls her eyes. “Fine. Whatever. Get in here.”
Margo’s room is also impeccable. Everything is impeccable. She sits in the middle of her bed, legs folded, and begins eating the omelet, slowly, maintaining eye contact with something just to the left of his face. El sits at the end of the bed and tries not to sigh.
“What’s up, darling?” he asks softly.
Margo pauses with the fork halfway to her mouth, sets it down, picks the mimosa up from the bedside table. Eliot raises an eyebrow.
“Nothing, it’s…it’s just one of those days.”
El frowns at her. “One of what days?” he presses.
“Just...the anniversary of something.”
El thinks. “Ah.”
“And?” he says, scooting close enough to rest a gentle hand on her knee.
“And nothing, Eliot. Thank you for breakfast, but I’m not an invalid. I’m not sick or anything. Go do your thing.”
“No can do,” El says flatly. “I need my best girl with me.”
Margo growls low in her throat. “Eliot.”
He glances at her sideways, trying to gauge how far he’s pushing her. “Yes, Margo?”
“I’d like it if you left now.”
He takes her in for a moment. She’s not looking at him (or anything, really), and her hands are folded neatly in her lap, recently painted, uncalloused. Her hair’s been just barely teased and her makeup is impeccable. And her eyes...her eyes are huge and fragile and wet, like the beginning of a probability spell. He tilts his head cautiously to one side and asks quietly, “will you hit me if I don’t?”
“Probably not,” she mutters into her lap.
“Then I’m staying,” he decides, “until you kick me out or feel well enough to come to the astronomy tower with me.”
Margo groans and flops back on the bed. El takes the opportunity to scoop up a piece of omelet and feed it to her. While she chews, he asks, “Is it...is it the secrets trial thing? Is that today?”
Margo half shrugs, which is enough for him. He leans forward to plant a kiss on her forehead, and then draws back reverently. “Well...if nothing else, I’m glad you’re here.”
She scoffs, but Eliot doesn’t miss the glint in her eye or the slight upward twitch of her lip. “Thanks, El,” she murmurs, and then adds, “bastard.”
He laughs and twines his fingers in hers.
Eliot and Margo are, simply put, unstoppable.
Unfortunately, El has temporarily forgotten this, deliriously high as he is. In his magically induced haze, everything has been solved, everything fitted into place, every need accounted for. He isn’t hungry or thirsty or tired; just so far removed from reality that he’s entirely unaware that food, or sleep, or, well, Margo, are things that he usually misses if he hasn’t had them for longer than 24 hours.
Someone is calling, and calling, and calling.
Eliot doesn’t hear.