Brakebills University, September 2015
(One Year Prior to Our Fabulous Story)
Eliot Waugh hated three things: Todd, “Soak Up the Sun” by Sheryl Crow, and fucking Welters.
There was no rational reason he should be in the large stadium on a bright Sunday morning. By all measures, Eliot should have been tucked into his luxurious duvet while some fey little first year sucked his dick. Instead, his head throbbed as drums pounded a shrieking and ominous beat. The crowd was hushed and the uniformed players were tense with anxious anticipation. It was like they were all shipping off to ‘Nam or some shit, rather than playing a tedious game with no discernible point or inherent fun.
With a harsh grip of frustration, Eliot hid his eyes behind his Ray-Bans, groaning as loud as he could, desperate for the cigarette behind his ear. But before he could resign himself to his hellish fate and sink into mindless oblivion, sharp red fingernails dug into his forearm. He startled right before his sunglasses ripped from off the bridge of his nose.
“Rude,” Eliot said, less than a murmur. He glared down at the intruder without any heat. The tiny woman who glared back up at him—with all the heat of a nuclear reactor—was sex and poison personified. He loved her more than magic, more than blow jobs, more than champagne.
But she really was rude.
“Get your shit together,” Margo spat out, pinching him once again for good measure. She thrust his sunglasses back at him. “Are you actually fucking hungover right now? Goddamn lightweight.”
“Not from alcohol,” Eliot said, gruff. He perched the black glasses in front of his tired eyes once again. “You try smoking the venom of a tiger snake and then tell me how much you want to play stupid Magic Chess the next morning."
“It’s not chess and you’re stupid.”
Margo silenced him with another glare, right as the Dean concluded his opening remarks. Blah blah time-honored tradition the best and fucking brightest whatever blah. Then the Knowledge team stepped forward, bright blue outfits ill-fitted and sad. Eliot recognized all of them. They were nerds.
Knowledgers were good at determining the correct formations, but they sucked at the actual competition part. Which was why Margo’s smile was so particularly smug that horrible bright morning; the Physical Kids’ team had it in the bag. She was happy about that because she gave a shit for some goddamn reason. So Eliot mustered up as much enthusiasm as his screaming and clanking brain would allow.
All for his Bambi.
…Honestly, it still wasn’t much. He really didn’t care about fucking Welters.
But just as the game was about to start in earnest and bring them all closer to sweet release and his duvet, Margo’s brassy voice rang out, clear and true and pissed.
“Wait, wait, wait the fuck up. Who the shit is that?”
Eliot blinked, his eyelids heavy. But sure enough, standing dead center of the other team was a new player. Eliot didn’t recognize her. Surprising, since he knew everyone worth knowing.
He discerned her appearance quickly and efficiently, as he always did. She was tiny. Even tinier than Margo, barely over five feet. She had long brown hair pulled up into a high ponytail and she was pretty, in a basic kind of way. The one thing she really had going for her was the tailoring of her uniform, which was cropped above her stomach, pants tight like leggings. Cute. Sporty.
Margo didn’t give a shit about any of that though. “You can’t bring in ringers, assholes.”
“I’m Julia,” the girl said, with a tiny Renaissance painting smile. “I’m not a ringer. I’m a first year.”
Kelsey the Knowledge Captain (huge fucking nerd) shrugged, “She got her discipline early. We didn’t think you’d care if we let her try out the ropes.”
Margo snorted. They were right. She wasn’t concerned about a first year.
“I can step out, if that would make you more comfortable?” Julia offered, jutting her thumb towards the crowd. But Margo simply waved her hand and smiled, simpering and mocking.
“It’s fine, honey,” she said. “I’m sure you’ll learn a lot. Sorry in advance for knocking your little team out early.”
Margo blew the new girl a kiss, before turning around and forgetting all about her. At the same time, Julia shrugged and her lips quirked up.
“Great,” she said, eyes sparking. “May the best team win.”
For the second time, New Bitch Julia took three squares at once and Margo was completely losing her shit.
“I said no fucking ringers,” Margo snarled, growled, screamed. Her hands were buried against her scalp, tugging and pulling at the perfect curls until they were a mess of frizz. Eliot tried to hand her a surreptitious spritz of serum, but she just pushed him away. Rude.
“So you know in Harry Potter?” Julia said, tossing the silver globe back and forth between her hands with a shit-eating grin. “How Harry was made Seeker right off the bat and blew everyone’s minds? I never thought it would be so relatable."
“What’s a Seeker?” Eliot asked Margo, who was incandescent and pacing. “Wait, there’s Welters in Harry Potter?”
“Throw the goddamn globe,” Margo shot out at the snarky first year, ignoring Eliot. Rude. “And if you’re fucking cheating somehow, I will straight murder you. No flourish. Pure death. Mark my words, you fucking twat.”
“Aw, honey buns,” Julia said with a tinkling laugh, the tip of her pink tongue between her teeth. “And here I thought we were bonding over our mutual love of the game.”
She blew Margo a kiss, exactly mirroring the one from earlier. Eliot snorted.
“She’s got your number, Bambi,” he said, eyebrows waggling.
“I’m numberless, dickhead,” Margo said, angry over her shoulder. She refocused on the game, hands on her skirted hips. “Throw the fucking globe. Now.”
With a smirk, Julia finally did throw the globe... and it landed on the infamous bitch of a black middle square. She hissed through her teeth, frozen. Margo let out a tiny huff of relieved breath and relaxed. Based on historical precedent, the game was basically over and the Physical Kids’ were back in the advantage.
But the first year player seemed to be a tenacious sort, as she narrowed her eyes and stepped forward. She was determined, considering and focused.
“Go Julia!” A deep feminine voice called from the crowd through the tense silence. “Kick their ass!”
Eliot followed the voice up to the third row. There, a woman with dark curly hair—big and bouncy, in a severe side part—lounged with her arms back against the next row of bleachers. She made a loud whooping sound and laughed, before glancing to her left. The space beside her was occupied by a pair of untied Converses and a black hoodie, overtop a boy with long mouse-brown hair.
He was reading a book.
The woman elbowed the kid hard and he jumped out of his skin. She ticked her head towards the tournament and Julia, in particular. The boy squirreled back into his neck and raised his hand in a tiny little cheer, reluctant as all hell. Then he averted his eyes and buried his nose right back into the pages, scooting away from Eighties Hair.
Eliot smiled. What the fuck?
But Margo always had a sixth sense for when Eliot was distracted by a cute boy and she slammed her wedges down onto his white tennis shoes. Welters was literally the only time he wore something so informal. Yet another reason why it was the fucking worst, the fucking worst, the fucking worst. Still, Margo wasn’t fucking around and he sighed, adjusting his sunglasses as he waited for the new girl to completely embarrass herself.
Meanwhile, Julia’s eyes had also drifted to the boy in the crowd and she was studying him with a mischievous twinkle. He didn’t notice at all, on account of having his head stuck deep into the book. That didn’t last long though. The tiny sprite of a Knowledge thing used simple telekinesis to whip the book out of the kid’s hands and catapult it down to the square.
Which was—fine. Simplistic. Eliot could have done the same move in his sleep, so there was no way it was going to get more than half a square at best.
(Full disclosure: Eliot wasn’t sure if taking half squares was actually a thing in Welters. One time he’d asked Margo and she’d gaped at him, called him an idiot, and changed the subject. So.)
Upon a belated realization that his book was now part of the show, the kid’s cheeks turned a delectable shade of red. He crossed his arms in front of his chest, grumpy and crouched. His hair fell in front of his face and he set his jaw—a very, very nice jaw, Eliot noted—and made a loud harumphing sound.
Julia blew a raspberry at him and focused ahead. She took three short steps toward the black square, her eyes closed. She muttered under her breath and brought her hands together, flat and prayerful. Her fingers moved swiftly, beautifully. A tiny spark lit in Eliot’s gut as he watched her prepare to cast. Her magic was primal and stunning.
A wave of humidity coursed outward from her palms. All the pages of the book flew out in a spiral, enveloping the hardcover shell in a frenzy. The movement sunk deep into the ground and the board quaked, cracking open with golden light.
From the center of the black square, white stones started to form, stacking one on top of the other. The stones grew and grew, rising into the air like a fortified tower. Criss-cross patterns of shining marble grew from nothing, twirling into barbicans. Diamonds twinkled above, spinning and refracting light all around. The newly formed palace shimmered with pure magic. The sky above them dimmed into night and two moons shone above.
Eliot’s throat was tight with a bittersweet nostalgia. Déjà vu, he supposed. For reasons he didn’t quite understand, he glanced upward to seek out the boy in the crowd. And for reasons he really didn’t understand, he felt heartened and almost vindicated that the kid’s mouth was open, bewildered and stunned, and that his eyes were glowing with a layer of unshed tears. Eliot’s stomach swooped with something unfamiliar and ancient all at once, heart fluttering in the still, precious moment.
He blinked and shook his head, turning away.
He was clearly still a little fucking buzzed.
In the end, it wasn’t a surprise when Julia’s spell took the final two squares without issue. The drums announced the win. But the entire room remained quiet in the dual moonlight. Mesmerized.
Of course, Bambi was the one who broke the silence.
“Is—is that Castle Whitespire?” Margo asked, swallowing.
She caught eyes with Julia, who grinned and nodded, bright as anything. Margo’s hand twitched at her side, almost imperceptible. The ethereal haze over the dreamlike castle was gentle and soft, as though the auditorium breathed in unison. Even Margo’s lips melted into an uptick of wonder.
Their eyes met again, something unspoken passing between the two women. Eliot’s chest tugged toward their moment, unbidden and inescapable. Then Julia fluttered her eyelashes down and silently moved her hands in an intricate pattern. As she did, the whole world was still undisturbed, still at peace.
She breathed in.
The castle disappeared.
...And it was immediately replaced by gleaming strobe lights and a buoyant and catchy beat, echoing through the stadium at full volume.
Julia popped her gaze right back up, wide and mocking. Her arms flew up high over her head and she twisted her tiny hips, dancing and bopping all over. She waved her hands victorious through the air, high-fiving each of her classmates and even letting Kelsey smack her ass. The whole team erupted into loud whooping sounds, jumping up and down in celebration.
As the Knowledge Kids danced raucously, Margo hardened into stone. Her brown eyes blazed lightning gold and fury. Her slender jawline trembled along with her fists. She stormed toward Eliot, knocking her shoulder into him like the loss was somehow his fault.
Julia pumped her arms in and out in wide circles from her chest in a classic victory dance. She waggled her flat butt like it was going out of style. The dark haired woman from before had jumped down to the field and was hip-bumping Julia with a big wide grin under red lips. And Margo was still shaking next to him, her molars grinding like a fork caught in a garbage disposal.
“Whoomp, there it is!” Julia yelled without grace but all joy, as she jumped up and down. She bobbed her head back and forth, snapping her fingers right at Margo. “Whoomp, there it is!”
But like everything to do with Welters, Eliot didn’t really care about any of that.
Instead, his eyes slid back to the boy in the bleachers. He laughed when he saw that he had managed to bunch himself all the way down between the stacks, knees near his mouth and his shoulders up to his cheeks. Oh my god, the kid silently mouthed to no one, as Julia kept hollering smack talk at Margo as loudly as she could, twixt doing The Robot.
But Julia didn’t let the nameless boy get away with it for long, as she ran over to him and grabbed his hand. She wrapped an arm around him and spoke low in his ear, before laughing at something he said and shoving his shoulder for good measure. Then, gathering her things and swaggering as much as any nerd could, Julia made brief eye contact with Eliot and then Margo, who was still pacing.
“Good game, suckahs,” Julia yelled over to them with a wink and a corny sign of the horns. Her other arm was still casually draped around the boy from the crowd, whose cheeks were in turn still red in secondhand embarrassment. “Don’t sleep on it next time.”
Ugh. Next time? Fuck a next time. He was done with Welters for at least a goddamn year.
“Next time?” Eliot asked aloud, lightly. “Go fuck yourself with that drudgery.”
He rubbed his aching temples, gritting his teeth against the pain. He needed to find Josh Hoberman. Or an ibuprofen and some hair of the dog. Old school shit.
“If you can’t take the heat, get outta the kitchen,” Julia shouted (like, fucking shouted, ow) and laughed again, giving the boy under her arm a noogie. He looked unamused. Eliot couldn’t blame him.
Eliot held his hands out in a blithe What can you do? “Gladly. Enjoy your victory pretzels and soda, or whatever it is you Knowledge Kids do.”
“Wait, did you even play, man?” The black haired woman stopped and scoffed at Eliot. “Seemed like you were there to stand around and look pretty.”
Eliot touched his hand to his chest, clicking his tongue once. “Thank you.”
She furrowed her brow. “Wasn’t a—“
“Enough chit-chat, assholes,” Margo said, cutting Eighties Hair off. She gave them all the finger with an extra emphasis towards Julia. “I know your tricks now, so enjoy your illegitimate win while you can. Buh-bye.”
“See you around, Margo,” Julia said with a tiny grin. Margo hadn't technically introduced herself, Eliot noted. But really, everyone knew who she was. So the pointed name drop wasn't surprising, even if it was a little...interesting.
From behind his sunglasses, Eliot watched Julia pull the silent boy’s head closer into her cheek. “And you owe me a victory drink, mister. Since you didn’t even watch the fucking game.”
“I watched parts of it,” he protested. His voice was soft, low, baritone pitched. He was also lying.
Julia knew it too. “Mhmm. Which parts?”
“Uh. The parts where you played, like, really well?” The kid almost smirked. “So impressive, Jules. You’re a natural.”
“You’re a dick.”
“Fine with that,” he said, flipping the back of her ponytail into her face. She spat the hairs out of her mouth, tongue dipping to her chin. “So can I have my book back or what?”
Julia laughed, patting his cheek. “Oh. Yeah, no. That’s gone.”
“Fucking seriously?” The kid was actually mad. “Julia.”
Eliot couldn’t hear her gleeful and teasing response though, because they were walking out of the stadium, out of range. And he wasn’t even aware that he was staring off after them, until he felt Margo’s weight shift against him, her cute little body snuggling into his torso.
She was staring too.
“Jesus, have you ever seen a more obnoxious bitch?” Margo asked, like her pupils weren’t as wide and black as a moonless midnight. Eliot patted her arm.
“Let’s go get drunk until we forget all about this stupid game,” he offered gently.
And he did her the kindness of neglecting to mention that it was clear the real game may have only just begun.
Fate intervened a week later.
Julia was a tough cookie to track down, in spite of Eliot’s expert reconnaissance skills. She didn’t seem to attend any important parties and her class schedule was erratic. At least, none of her afternoon classes lined up with Eliot’s. And what, was he supposed to get up at nine in the fucking morning and be seen on the quad by one the professors he regularly dodged? So Margo could get laid? Who the fuck was he, Joan of Arc?
But it turned out, there was another and actually much more interesting conduit at his disposal.
Before the lightbulb went off, Eliot slumped his way out of his terrible Horomancy elective. He perched against a tall tree, cigarette in hand. He offered brief head nods to a few of his classmates—ones from parties, or random fucks, or drug deals, or whatever—but kept to himself, letting the smoke and nicotine wash over his too-loud mind.
Quiet and Eliot were normally a dangerous combination. But noise could be claustrophobic too, in a different, more insidious way. He’d learned early in his life how to trade one evil for the other, in any given moment, to aid in that constant, futile reach for equilibrium. Smoking helped.
But what never helped was goddamn Todd.
“So because of the spell, she kept mixing up the word Monday with the word Tuesday. Every Monday she’d always be like, It’s Tuesday,” the grating voice carried from the other side of the tree trunk, honking with unearned laughter. “And everyone would be like, No, Shelly, it’s Monday. And she’d be like, That’s what I just said. It’s Tuesday. And everyone would be like, No, Shelly—“
“Um,” a much softer, newly familiar voice responded. “That’s great. I mean, it’s, uh, interesting? Or it’s funny. I guess. But again, my dorm’s being cleaned so can you point me to the nearest bathroom or—?”
The grin that overtook Eliot’s face was wider than the sky.
He put out his cigarette and swooped around the tree, grabbing the crook of the boy’s elbow without a word. The kid yelped and stumbled over his own shoes. But Eliot kept a tight grip and tugged him into a fast lockstep. The first year’s eyes went wide and he darted his gaze behind him, to the blithely waving Todd.
“Hope you find a bathroom!” Todd yelled. The kid kept blinking and Eliot huffed out a laugh. He couldn’t have orchestrated it better himself.
“This,” Eliot said with no room for argument, walking ahead, “is the interruption you’ve been waiting for.”
“Um. Hey. Um,” the boy said, darting his eyes everywhere and anywhere now, but not pulling out of Eliot’s grasp. “Who—who are you?”
Eliot grinned all the more, turning his gaze forward and pulling them around the corner toward the Cottage. “I’m Eliot.”
“Oh,” the first year said, dumbfounded. But then he relaxed and complied, like he knew it wasn’t worth the effort to protest. Smart man. “I’m, um, I’m Quentin.”
“Lovely to make your acquaintance, Quentin,” Eliot said, without glancing backwards. “Let’s chat, okay?”
And that was that.
Eliot took great pride in his painstaking party planning. He also took great pride in throwing painstaking out the window as soon as the party crested into ecstasy, whether by pills, magic, sex, or metaphor. And as usual, the current party was perfect.
Undulating between the writhing Margo and a tall, nameless second-year, the pounding music flowed through the Physical Kids’ Cottage in surging beats, carrying their dancing forward and free. Margo’s hair flew about in slow motion, the golden glints of her highlights reflecting in dizzying patterns under the enchanted lights and her painted red lips parted in a blissed out trance. The man behind him—Ben or William or whichever boring Anglo-Saxon name—kept his grip firmly on Eliot’s ass and the drinks and the drugs and the magic would keep them all upright, long into the still infant night.
The Cottage was pitch dark, except for the enchanted spinning glow sticks, and the shining splattered paint thrown in spiraling joy by the increasingly fucked up partygoers. It was a risk to expose the Cottage to black light, certainly, but that’s why one had a diligent clean up crew of first years at their disposal.
Eliot’s white suit and glowing turquoise drink sang out bright into the purple-dark room. He maneuvered his way through the heady atmosphere, grabbing sips of drinks and tongue-kisses with every step. He was in his element, thrilled and electric in the adoration, the careful planning, and the unexpected falling apart in the heat of debauchery. Standing at the base of the staircase, Eliot leaned one elbow against the bannister and breathed in his success.
And it only got better, he realized as the front door opened and a recently familiar figure slouched its way into the entry, awed and awkward as ever. Beside him was Julia the Hot Knowledge Girl, as promised.
“Quentin!” Eliot tipsily bubbled out, reaching his long arm over the bobbing heads of the otherwise nameless crowd. He landed his palm right on his hunched shoulder. “You’re here! Let’s get you nice and drunk.”
“Oh, uh, okay,” Quentin said, his teeth glowing faint with his hesitant smile. Eliot tugged him in closer to his chest. He handed Quentin a bright purple drink. “Is this—how is this different than what I had earlier?”
Eliot had plied his cooperation with several Signature Drinks earlier that day. It had worked flawlessly, as always.
“It’s the same,” Eliot said, grabbing his own from one of the floating trays. “It’s a glamour. Bottom’s up, new friend.”
“Cheers,” Quentin said, humming with gentle excitement. Briefly, he turned back to his friend, but she had already disappeared into the crowd. He twitched his lips once and shrugged up at Eliot. Her absence was a tragedy, really.
So left alone together, they drank and walked around, while Eliot explained the ins and outs to the quiet first year. He was an excellent listener and so Eliot liked him more and more with each silent moment. After doing a round, he brought Quentin over to the bar—still tucked under his arm—so they could do a few glitter tequila shots before painting the walls.
“Uh, Julia’s here too,” Quentin said. Eliot tilted his head in confusion. “My friend? The one you said you wanted me to bring?
Oh. Shit. Right. “Yes, yes, yes,” Eliot said quickly, nodding and snapping his fingers. “I saw. Good work.”
Proving himself once again to be less of a social rube than he seemed, Quentin raised his eyebrows with a knowing grin. “She’s over there, talking to Margo.”
Eliot followed Quentin’s pointer finger, off to the corner. Indeed she was. Two lithe bodies were leaned into each other, like magnets. Exactly as he planned. He smirked down at Quentin.
“Good work,” he repeated, squeezing his shoulder. Quentin brightened, pleased at Eliot’s attention. Oh, sweetheart. They’d have fun.
It was going to be a goddamn great night.
(And it was. For Margo.
“Now I get why you were hanging around with super nerd over there,” Bambi said, breathless and drunk, lips grazing his ear. She giggled as her big brown eyes stared endlessly at the laughing Quentin and Julia, off in the distance. “Thank you for your service, kind sir.”
Which. Hmm. Yes. Sure. Because spending time around fidgety, flittering Quentin Coldwater with the sharp jaw and cute ass was such a terrible burden. But he liked when people owed him favors, especially Margo. So.
“Go enjoy yourself and Obnoxious Bitch’s belly button ring,” he said, kissing her on the forehead. “You can make it up to me later.”
Kissing the hinge of his jaw, Margo smirked at him and twirled away, right into Julia’s arms.)
The next day, well after Hot Knowledge Girl should have been fully out of Margo’s system (twice), the strangest thing happened.
They were walking to class, in comfortable silence and Margo looked down at the ground.
One of her rare, bright, easy smiles. Out of nowhere.
“What?” Eliot asked. He blew out smoke and wrinkled his brow. She shook her head and cleared her throat.
“Nothing,” Bambi said. She straightened her lips to their usual annoyed and glamorous scowl.
But then she smiled again.
“What?” Eliot repeated, laughing. She bit her lip and tucked her hair behind her ears. She shook her shoulders out and her steps quickened.
“Nothing!” Margo said with the smallest squeak in her rough voice, walking ahead of him.
It wasn’t the first time either of them had fucked someone more than once.
Eliot had a rotation of a few friends that worked well for him—and for him and Margo as a pair, on fun if increasingly uncommon occasions. As much as the chase of the strange and new was an intoxicating endeavor, there was a certain practical advantage to teaching someone your tics and tells over time. That way you could get your rocks off more efficiently and effectively. Basic science, really.
Still, though, it might have been the first time one of Margo’s fuck buddies became her study buddy. Or her lunchtime at the cafeteria buddy. Or her Hey-Let’s-Paint-Our-Toenails-and-Giggle-Even-Though-Some -People-Are-Trying-to-Take-a-Goddamn-Nap-on-the-Couch buddy.
Or, as the case was that particular Saturday morning, her new yoga buddy. Because apparently Margo was into yoga now, of all activities. Out of fucking nowhere.
“Q,” Julia said with a wave at the squirrelly first year as he made his way down the steps. He’d moved into the Cottage a week before. It had been the best day of Eliot’s life, with only some hyperbole. He was still very cute. “You should join us.”
“At—yoga?” Quentin tilted his head back and forth like a tiny confused kitten. “With you... and Margo?”
“Stretching, breathing, all that shit,” Bambi said, tossing her mat bag over her shoulder. “Lord knows you could fuckin’ use it.”
“Um, wow, yeah. I don’t think hard pass conveys the severity of my opposition nearly enough so I’ll just say—“ Quentin started to snark at them, but honestly Eliot didn’t really hear the rest of their conversation.
Quentin in yoga pants.
He blinked, and blinked again when he saw Quentin slowly waving his hand in front of his face. Bambi and Julia were nowhere to be seen.
“You okay?” Quentin asked, looking adorably concerned. In response, Eliot smiled in that way he knew always dazzled first-year boys in particular.
“Always,” he said, smoothing down his vest. “Where’s Bambi?”
Quentin frowned, eyebrows screwing together. “Uh, at yoga? She—they literally just left? Are you sure you’re okay?”
I’d be better if you were blowing me.
“Peachy keen, jelly bean,” Eliot said because why the fuck bother trying at that point. Quentin pretty much thought everything he said was brilliant. It was one of his favorite things about him. He wrapped his arm around Quentin and smiled down, enjoying the opportunity to get his current favorite first year to himself.
“So what are Quentin Coldwater’s plans on this beautiful Saturday morn?” Eliot asked, already directing both of them toward the sliding door out to the patio. Quentin’s shoulder shrugged under Eliot’s arm.
“I was thinking about going to the library to, uh, do some extra reading on binding enchantments?” Quentin’s eyes brightened with excitement at the idea of homework. “I’m struggling with how—how to, you know, incorporate the Turkish and the Arabic for—“
Eliot cut him off with an eye roll and a more directed pat on the arm. “Wrong answer. No, you’re going to drink champagne and gossip with me all day.”
“Oh,” Quentin blinked backwards in that way he always did. But then he gave Eliot his favorite tiny smile and said the two best words.
From then on, the world began to shift.
Brakebills University, February 2016
(Six Months Prior to Our Fabulous Story)
There was a gentle knock on the door as the sun streamed through the translucent white curtains. Eliot flipped onto his back, naked under his sheets. He let out a long breath and shuffled his head back and forth, willing the cobwebs away. Beside him, a warm body kept sleeping, snoring with even breaths. Long strands of soft hair reached his shoulder and Eliot hummed contentedly.
It had been a good night.
“Come in,” Eliot said, nuzzling his nose into his silk pillowcase. The boy next to him shifted and stretched, waking up at his words.
The door squeaked as it slowly let in air and sound from the hallway. A soft voice said, “Hey El, uh—oh shit, sorry!”
Eliot let a sleepsoft smile melt across his face and he levered himself up on his elbows. His hair was unkempt and falling across his brow. But under the ringlets obscuring his vision, he could still see Quentin Coldwater dancing at his doorway, hand over his eyes and jaw set.
“Hi there, Q,” Eliot said with a chuckle. “It’s fine. Lachlan was just leaving.”
The boy next to him, Lachlan, blinked into the sun and scratched the top of his head. His long black hair was terribly mussed and he had cheap eyeliner smudged all along his face. Apparently, the disaffected pretty boy artist aesthetic didn’t translate to the morning time. Shock of shocks. Eliot cleared his throat and kicked his hookup’s calf with his big toe.
“Lachlan was just leaving,” he repeated, firmer. The boy furrowed his brow.
“I’m naked,” the first-year said, sexy when he was put out. “I’m not even sure where my clothes went.”
But not sexy enough.
“Guest robe is on the nightstand,” Eliot flicked an elegant wrist to the small cherrywood table beside the bed. The white robe was pressed and folded, tied with a silver bow. With a big sigh, Lachlan threw it on, muttering things like Unbelievable under his harsh breath.
Eliot pursed his lips, unmoved. “You can keep it. I have a stash.”
Lachlan stood up and flattened his palm down the front lapel of the Egyptian cotton. Despite his initial annoyance, he twirled once, the fabric around his knees fluttering with the spin.
“This is nice,” he marveled. Eliot dipped his head back, growing bored.
“I know,” he said, cracking his neck. “Have a lovely day now.”
Lachlan twisted his lips like he was going to say something, but seemed to think better of it. He had keen instincts. Eliot offered the Healer a quick air kiss and wave as he walked out of the room, tugging the robe tie as tight as he could.
But apparently, he was easily distracted. Eliot resisted the urge to flop onto the bed as Lachlan stopped at the door, to make goddamn small talk.
“Hey Quentin, do you know what page we were supposed to read to for PA?” He asked Q, who was still covering his eyes and burning red.
“I don’t know, Lachlan,” Quentin said, throwing his other arm up in the air into a frustrated shrug. “Maybe we can, uh, talk about it when you’re actually dressed.”
Eliot smirked. Prude.
Rebuffed again, and this time by the second most beautiful man in the room, Lachlan sighed and patted down his hair in vain. Then he finally left, leaving Eliot alone with Quentin.
In all, not a terrible turn of events.
“What can I do for you, Coldwater?” Eliot asked, only a touch lasciviously. He was still waking up.
Quentin opened a slot between his middle and index finger, peeking through. Satisfied that Lachlan had really left, he smoothed his hand back over his hair and down to scratch his neck. He frowned.
“He, uh,” Quentin said, looking down the hallway where Lachlan had just walked, “he kind of looks like Criss Angel.”
Eliot had no idea who the fuck that was. “Who?”
“A magician. Lowercase.”
“Christ,” Eliot said with a disturbed shudder. “Please keep that kind of observation to yourself.”
“Sorry,” Quentin said, not sounding apologetic at all. He took one tiny step into the room and turned red all over again the sight of Eliot’s languishing form. He didn’t blame him. He looked good, and the sheet barely covered his hip bones. Q glanced away firmly, swallowing and balling his hands into fists at his side.
Eliot slowly grinned.
Oh baby, it’s okay, you can look, his hindbrain helpfully supplied.
Quentin shuffled on his feet and cleared his throat. “Do you wanna, like, put a shirt on or—?”
“No, I’m good,” Eliot said, the embodiment of broad grins and cheek. “Thanks though.”
Quentin rolled his eyes and his tension dissipated. Eliot wasn’t sure if he liked that or not.
“We’re doing a bagel run and Margo said to get your order,” Q said. He puffed air into his cheek. He shrugged exaggeratedly. “So?”
“Toasted poppyseed with cream cheese,” Eliot said and Quentin nodded, turning around. He laughed at the presumption. “Excuse me. Not done.”
Quentin closed his eyes and banged his forehead against the doorframe. “Eliot.”
“The next ingredients should be layered in the following order: Jamon Iberico de Bellota, though prosciutto will do in a pinch. Heirloom tomato. Four slices of avocado. Drizzled lemon juice and extra-virgin olive oil. Salt, pepper, cilantro. No onion.”
“I’m pretty sure Joe’s Upstate Bagels is going to have exactly none of that shit, El.”
“Never hurts to ask, Q.”
Quentin shot him a look. “Is that all, Your highness?”
“No,” Eliot tucked his knees up to his chest and rested his chin in the groove between them. “Pick up a bottle of Perrier Jouet on your way back.”
“Only one? Are you on a cleanse or something?”
“Excellent point. Get five.”
With a light chuckle and a Yeah, yeah under his breath, Quentin raised his eyebrows and walked out, knocking twice on the door upon his exit. Eliot fell back into his pillows and closed his eyes, relishing the warmth and calm light of the enchanted sun as they moved across his lashes.
It was a good morning so far.
And the good morning continued in its lazy splendor.
Eliot was showered and dressed, wearing his favorite gray linen blazer, pink waistcoat, and gold lapel pin. His hair was parted, ringlets falling in the precise cascade his magic fingers deftly perfected over years of practice. His shoes were shined, his breath minty, and his attitude steeled toward the seeking of all pleasure. Whistling down the stairs, he shot a quick wave over at a few vaguely familiar and friendly faces at the couches, before making his way into the kitchen. He grabbed a tiny espresso cup from the highest cabinet and turned around just in time to see the bright and shiny faces of his two favorite people on campus. His lovely, delicious Bambi and—
Quentin slammed a small white bag against Eliot’s chest. “This is all they had. Don’t bitch about it.”
“Aw, honey,” Margo air kissed at Eliot, tortoise shell sunglasses still obscuring her perfect doe eyes. “Don’t listen to him. You can bitch as much as you want, about anything, always.”
“You are a wonderful friend,” Eliot said, skipping the air to simply kiss her, full on the cheek and then on the mouth. Nipping after her grin as she walked away, he sighed contentedly and unrolled the bag.
Inside was a sad little plain bagel with cream cheese and one watery tomato slice.
He glared at Quentin. “You, on the other hand, are a worthless friend.”
Quentin huffed indignantly. “It’s literally all they had.”
Eliot crossed his arms. “The bagel place didn’t have poppyseed?”
Quentin’s jaw ticked and his lip dipped between his teeth. It almost looked like he was trying not to laugh, but Eliot knew he’d never be so goddamn brazen.
One of Quentin’s fingers went up into the air and his voice trembled with, indeed, brazen laughter. “So I may have forgotten you wanted poppyseed.”
Eliot’s eyes narrowed. “It’s also not toasted. Did the toaster break? At the bagel place?”
“Yeah, no, uh,” Quentin scratched the back of his head. He grimaced, slightly embarrassed. “Uh, sorry?”
“Worthless,” Eliot said again, lightly. He glanced over at the bag in Quentin’s hand. “Well, what did you get? Anything I can steal?”
Quentin shot him a cheeky grin. “Onion bagel with extra raw red onion.”
“Brat.” Eliot poked his shoulder once, tipping him off-kilter onto the balls of his feet. But Quentin looked scandalously unrepentant, eyebrows up and grin widening.
“Okay, Beatrice and Benedick—emphasis dick,” Margo waggled her own bagel at Eliot, who nuzzled back into her temple. “We have big plans today, so let’s get cracking. Julie’s getting back from the retreat in the next few minutes, so obviously I’ll be ocupado for the next few hours. But when I return? It’s picnic time, duck fuckers.”
“Duck fuckers?” Quentin’s voice was flat as Kansas. “Seriously, Margo?”
“I said what I said.”
“What can I do to help?” Eliot asked, holding his hand out to her. She clutched it and sighed, pressing her lips to his knuckles and gazing up at him with fluttering lashes.
“Plan the entire thing from minute detail to overarching vision?”
“Why does a picnic need an overarching vision?” Quentin asked, around a bite of his own bagel. It was definitely not an onion-palooza as described, so Eliot plucked it out of his hands and tossed him the other bag. Q accepted this as he should. “A picnic is, like, a picnic.”
“Always a philosopher, Q,” Eliot said, stroking Margo’s cheek. “I’ll take care of it, Bambi. Go get thoroughly fucked.”
“I plan on it,” Margo said, eyes twinkling. “Make sure you get some of that really good cheese Julia likes. The Camembert.”
“What about me? What can I do?” Quentin asked, despite his initial reluctance, ever the Boy Scout. Margo laughed, a derisive sound. Also par for the course.
“You can grab the utensils or some shit,” she said with a wave of her hand. “Whatever El tells you to do. I’m delegating.”
Eliot laughed in turn. “Yeah and I—ah, I don’t need your help.”
Quentin shrugged. “Fine by me. I have some work to catch up on anyway.”
“Boring,” Eliot said. Needlessly.
Margo plucked at Quentin’s flannel shirt, pursing her lips. “So when you say you’re going to do work—are you talking about hard manual labor? Or is it more like you’re attending a conference for twinkish lumberjacks with self-esteem issues?”
“No,” Quentin said, twisting his eyebrows. “These are just my clothes. Like always.”
“Hmm,” Margo sighed, letting her long fingernails trace down his buttons. Then she smiled, patting his cheek. “I have an inexplicable amount of affection for you, Coldwater. Cherish it.”
Quentin’s eyebrows crawled up and down and all around. “Uh, okay? Thanks?”
Margo smiled all the wider and spun back into Eliot’s arms, as the muses intended. She kissed him once more and waved her hand, light as air. “Well. I’m going to go get my clit licked. See you duck fuckers later.”
Quentin threw his hands up. “Seriously, why would you call us that?”
Planning a picnic was an entirely different beast than planning a party. It was closer to planning a dinner party, except it was typically more intimate, less elegant. One could even say picnics were more casual, though Eliot personally only used that word in relation to sex.
In any case, it wasn’t any less intensive or intricate, nor any less worthy of Eliot’s considerable attention to detail. His favorite part of the Trials that year had been setting up the decadent outdoor soiree for one—all white linens and lace, silver candlesticks, floating chandeliers, and the most elaborate cream brocade duster he’d ever worn. Not to mention the red wine, champagne, pink roses, plum chrysanthemums, and perfectly applied eyeliner, frosting to the airiest angel food cake he’d ever put together. And a squirming, pissed off Quentin to watch all the while? God, it’d been perfection.
(The sandwiches definitely had too much dill though. He’d never make that mistake again.)
On that day, even beyond the enchanted weather, it was unseasonably lovely. There was a delightful confection of clouds and light, lending itself to a gentility and grace that inspired Eliot almost as much as raucous debauchery grinding deep into the night. So for the pleasure of his two closest friends in the world (and, he supposed, Julia), he kept it relatively simple. Enchanted blankets with perfect softness and size, fruit and cheese layered on delicate crystal platters, and more champagne than anyone could reasonably imbibe. But they were valiant and righteous and would do their damnedest to please Dionysus.
Stretching his long legs out into the crisp and warm air, Eliot basked in the glow of the sunlight and the lucent sky. Quentin sat across from him, already picking out strawberries and cheddar onto his small white plate, looking quite pleased for someone who didn’t understand the need for planning a picnic. On the one hand, he was ridiculous. But on the other, having it all appear effortless was part of what Eliot strived for—in a way, it was a compliment to his abilities that Quentin still didn’t seem to appreciate the sheer amount of effort he put into everything. It meant he was succeeding.
Though a small amount of gratitude from Q wouldn’t be the worst thing either. Every now and then.
“What the fuck makes these strawberries so good?” Quentin asked, mouth full. Eliot sighed and shrugged, raising his eyebrows.
“Magic,” he said, twirling his hand in the air. He wasn’t about to give away his tricks to ungrateful Philistines.
Quentin’s dimples made an appearance and his eyes lit up. “Magic is the fucking best.”
Eliot’s heart did a tiny and painful little thump at his words. But luckily, he didn’t have to consider its meaning for too long, because Margo and Julia chose that perfectly timed moment to make their grand, giggling entrance. Bambi floated down onto the blanket with an air kiss and pulled Julia down next to her, smiling into her cheeks as their hands remained entwined.
“Julia,” Eliot raised his hand in a salute at the tiny brunette, briefly capturing her attention away from Margo. “How’s the life of a staid and rigid Knowledge Kid?”
“Wonderful. Intellectually thrilling and academically challenging,” Julia said, busying herself with flute glasses in the picnic basket. “I’m pushing the boundaries of my power every day. How goes wasting your potential on frivolous parties and drunken stupors?”
“It’s going fantastically,” Eliot smiled. “Thank you for your sincere interest.”
Julia thrust up on her arms to kiss Eliot a pop of a kiss on the cheek. She was sweet.
“Hi Q,” Julia said, scrunching her nose toward her best friend. He rolled his eyes.
“Yeah, yeah,” Quentin said, waving her off. “I see how it is. Bottom of the list now.”
“Save the best for last,” Julia said blithely, scouring over the food platters with keen interest. “Ooh, Camembert!”
Margo glanced over at Eliot and mouthed Thank you with a wink. He nodded over his wine glass, before taking a long and luxurious sip. It was a light, acidic Syrah. Underrated.
He let the conversation wash over him, only half paying attention, especially as Julia kept talking on and on about living in the library. From the way she told it, you’d think it was goddamn Versailles. Or whatever the nerd version of Versailles was. But Quentin and Margo were both held in rapt attention. Q was interested in anything and any place that introduced him to more magic, more magical theory, more power and more information. And Margo? Well, Margo seemed to just like to hear Julia talk. As she did, Bambi’s eyes blazed, cheeks rosy and lips wet with anticipation.
In a manner of speaking.
“—And it always smells like old books,” Julia said, scrunching her shoulders tightly to her ears with a bright smile. “It’s amazing.”
With a jumping startle, Eliot was pretty sure he heard Margo murmur You’re amazing. But, well, that couldn’t be right. No. Never.
The wine and his brain were making strange bedfellows, that’s all.
“Best smell in the world,” Quentin said, breaking through the static air. And Eliot rolled his eyes so hard he slumped over.
“Anyone who says that is full of shit,” he declared, popping the champagne. “It’s the stench of decay. Who the fuck prefers that to the scent of life?”
“Didn’t you once say your favorite smell is cocaine?” Quentin deadpanned. Eliot leaned back on his hands and smiled up into the sun, eyes closed.
“Exactly. Joie de vivre.”
Quentin bit the inside of his cheek. “Oh, and I’m the one who’s full of shit?”
Margo rolled onto her stomach and poked Eliot’s thigh. “Not to preemptively interrupt your whole Han-and-Leia thing, but can you pass me some fucking champagne before I literally die? Goddamn.”
With a bright and accommodating smile all for his most perfect Bambi, Eliot poured the fizzing drink into the elegant flute and the rest of the day whiled away in kind.
The only silver lining to Bambi’s intense fuck buddy situation with Julia was that Quentin Coldwater also lost his most reliable source of socialization in the same fell swoop.
Initially, if he were honest, Eliot had hoped to recreate a similar situation with Q, mirroring Margo and Julia. To an extent, anyway. Maybe less giggles into the night and about tenfold the amount of moans. Even if his rotation of first year boys didn’t have an obvious vacancy, he would have made one in a heartbeat for Quentin, were he interested.
Q never showed interest.
Not...really. Not really.
Not beyond a few shy smiles and occasional lingering eye contact. And the more they got to know each other, the more even that disappeared, replaced with sly comments and eye rolls. Which was of course enjoyable in its own way—more like they were friends. Real friends, who actually enjoyed each other’s company and preferred to shoot the shit, rather than exchange lingering, heated glances each other’s way.
Which was great and Eliot was definitely very happy with that turn of events.
Truthfully, he’d never really had a platonic male friend before. Not since Taylor, at age fourteen. Obviously that had gotten fucked up and then after that, Eliot literally fucked anyone who even got close to some kind of deeper, philos sort of connection. So it was novel, at least. Eliot liked novel. And as they both mourned the loss of the constant presence of their other halves (in its quantity, if not entirety), they’d somehow almost become that for each other. It was kind of nice. Kind of precious. Almost. Or it would be, if Eliot ever thought that sort of thing.
Which he didn’t.
Still, slowly, with time, Q was just—well, he was Q. He was Quentin. A near constant presence at his side and somehow the second best friend he’d ever had in his life. Conversation between them followed easily, the silences were comfortable, and Eliot could even be physically affectionate in the way he liked without Quentin being weird about it.
Their friendship was...nice. It was a truer connection than the frantic hook-up he’d once envisioned. It was solid and consistent, things Eliot only knew he valued in the theoretical or in regard to Margo. Honestly, he’d forgotten all about his jawline or soft eyes or deliciously perfect cupid’s bow lips.
Or more accurately, Quentin’s good looks were only a small facet of a much bigger and more important picture. He could still hold a superficial attraction to Quentin while ultimately prioritizing their friendship. He wasn’t an animal.
And as the weather started turning nicer and nicer, even beyond the enchantments, they’d started taking their drinking outdoors, to the woods around Brakebills. Or sometimes they’d even walk around sober, just to get their mutual restless energy out.
It was another thing they had in common. The sleeplessness, the frenetic and kinetic anxiety, the occasional haunted dark circles under their eyes. They didn’t talk about it in so many words. But it was there, like a constant undercurrent. It was understood.
(Unlike with Margo, the words Fucking hell, Eliot, suck it up never even crossed Q’s mind, let alone his lips. It was appreciated. Not because it was better, necessarily. But it was certainly different. And sometimes he needed something different, it turned out.)
That day was a Sunday, and Eliot crunched down on a dead twig as he walked, regaling Quentin with his tales of glory.
“—and each night I scaled the heights of the divine, particularly on ‘Bring Him Home,’” Eliot said, sighing into the sky. Then he looked at Quentin quite seriously, educating as always. “It’s a particularly difficult feat, if you know anything about the score.”
“Wow,” Q said, his eyes widening. “That’s—”
Eliot nodded. “I know. Impressive. I have a vast array of talents.”
“Oh, uh, no,” Quentin swallowed. He bit his lip. “No, that’s not quite—I was actually going to say—”
“What?” Eliot smiled, cocking his head.
Quentin’s mouth widened into a slow grin. “I was going to say that’s nerdy as shit.”
Eliot stopped shock still. He traced only his eyes to Quentin.
“Excuse me?” He whispered. He bit back something that felt like his own smile. Because that would be ridiculous. “Did you just have a stroke? Forget who you’re talking to here, kiddo?”
“I dunno. I thought it was Eliot Waugh, Hedonist Extraordinaire,” Quentin swung his arms out in the forest air. Loopy motherfucker. “But now all I see is six feet of pure goddamn nerd.”
“I’m six-two,” Eliot shot out. But Q ignored him. He jumped on a log and walked it like a balance beam.
“I mean, honestly? Musical theatre?” Quentin bit the inside of his cheek, eyes shining. “Plays with random singing and dancing? What’s the point. Everyone should just read a book. It’s much more efficient.”
“It’s an art form, Quentin,” Eliot said, fully aware of how much of a little shit his friend was being and exactly how much he was enjoying it. Asshole.
Q sputtered out a laugh. “Art? Uh, beg to differ. My parents dragged me to see Cats when I was a kid. All I need to know. All anyone needs to know. Check and fucking mate.”
“Jesus Christ. No. That is not all you need to know,” Eliot said with a rush of defensiveness. “Weber is entry level shit for the masses. You’re ignoring the history of Porter, Gershwin, Rogers and Hammerstein, all the old-school greats. Bridged by Leonard Bernstein, then brought to gorgeous fruition by the sheer revelation that was Stephen Sondheim—“
“So the thing about Babylon-5?” Quentin jumped down from the end of a log and snapped his fingers. His smile was wide and bright and Eliot kind of wanted to die from his cuteness. What a way to go. “Straczynski attempted to change the fundamentals of the television landscape, even beyond the science fiction model, right? And it, uh, ended up influencing even his contemporaries in real key ways. You can see it in the work of Whedon, Abrams, The Wachowskis, even arguably Lucas. Though that’s—“
What a little shit.
“Point made.” Eliot kept his face as impassive as possible. “I’m still not a nerd.”
“Uh-huh. Whatever you say, nerd.”
“Don’t test me,” Eliot lightly threatened, not revealing that his punishment of choice would be to hold Quentin down on his bed, bare skin under his lips, moving agonizingly slowly until he begged Eliot for release. Jesus fucking Christ, he was delicious. And he still had no goddamn idea, which was even more—
So, yes, he definitely still had occasional moments of weakness when it came to Quentin Coldwater.
However, in his experience, it was best to acknowledge them as they came and then let them go. That way, it wouldn’t upend the gentle equilibrium Eliot’s life had somehow started to find, despite all rationale to the contrary. Eliot was a fuck up, but that didn’t mean he would go out of his way to fuck things up. His attraction to Q and his friendship with Q existed in two separate boxes and generally, they didn’t overlap. But when they did? For a few moments? Here and there?
He breathed in. He let go.
Quentin took a few steps ahead of Eliot before glancing back at him over his shoulder. “You know, while I’m not such a nerd to be into the musical—“
Eliot bit back another small smile. “Watch it.”
“—I have actually read Hugo’s novel,” Quentin said, with a side-grin, like that wasn’t way nerdier. “Gotta say, I’d actually see you as more of an Enjolras. You know: Antinous, wild.”
His heart caught in his throat. Eliot wasn’t totally sure what to do with that. That Quentin would ever think of his that way.
So instead of pondering it too deeply, he cleared his throat and rolled his eyes, disaffected as ever.
“In terms of charm, energy, and likely dick size, I agree,” Eliot said, arm looping around Quentin’s shoulders for the hell of it. “But in terms of stage time, you can go fuck yourself with that suggestion.”
Shit turned a real corner around Valentine’s Day though. It even hit the proverbial fan.
“Ooh, luscious flowers, Bambi,” Eliot said, sticking his face in the nearest orchid as he walked into the Cottage dining room. “For Genji, I assume? I heard she has an open slot in the summer retreat. Riding your fuck buddy’s coattails, are we?”
He plucked the card out from the topmost bunch and read Margo’s recognizably pristine and sharp handwritten script inside. As the words started to sink in, Bambi let out a primal scream and jumped on his back, ferocious in her scramble to wrench the card out of his hand.
But it was too late.
The card read—
For My Jewel,
Happy National Fuck Day.
I’ll murder you in your sleep if you tell anyone about this, specifically with cyanide.
But let’s definitely fuck later ;)
It fluttered out of his hand to the floor.
He was slack jawed.
“For My Jewel?” He asked aloud, incredulous, stunned. That was. What? No. What. “Kisses always? A goddamn winky face?”
“I can explain, El,” Margo said, hands shaking and eyes wide as she slid off him. She wrapped her arms around herself. Eliot glanced back down at the card, face down on the hardwood. Then looked back up at his Bambi. Then back down.
“Bambi,” Eliot laughed out breathlessly. Her lip trembled and he took her hand. “Margo.”
“Okay,” Margo said, shaky. She stepped away from him with tiny steps. Her hands were buried in her hair at her temples. “Okay. It’s just that—she’s smart, okay? She’s so smart. She’s almost as smart as me and you know I don’t say that lightly.”
Eliot blinked. What the fuck was happening?
Margo started wringing her hands, swallowing audibly, “And she’s tough and she doesn’t take shit. She’s a leader. Which is so hot. She’s hot, El.”
Eliot opened his mouth to respond, but she cut him off with gritted teeth and an erratic, explosive hand motion outward from her chest. “But I know I don’t need to tell you she’s hot! You may like dick but you’re not fucking blind.”
His lips tugged into a small smile he only barely felt.
“But she’s also funny. She’s stupid funny. And maybe even more importantly? My anger doesn’t alienate her. It’s like—like she thinks my rage is a worthy and powerful part of me that I don’t need to hide. That I’m worthy and powerful.”
Eliot’s heart flipped over.
“Margo,” he whispered.
“And she does this thing with her tongue,” Margo shuddered, biting down on her lower lip. “Her discipline is metacomp and she wrote a spell and it lasts for hours. Waves of orgasms for hours, El. Hours.”
“Well, uh, can you write it the fuck down?” Eliot lowered his brow. “What the hell, Bambi?”
“Sorry, yeah, I was going to. I will,” Margo said, holding her hand to her chest. She was breathless. “Also, she smells like goddamn cinnamon all the goddamn time. You know this bitch loves cinnamon. What the fuck.”
“What the fuck indeed,” Eliot folded his arms over his chest. He tilted his head. “So what? Are you saying you’re in—”
“Don’t,” Margo swallowed, hard. She pointed at him, eyes wild. “Don’t you goddamn dare, Waugh.”
“But it sounds like you lo—”
Margo sputtered in her rage, sparks flying from her fingertips. “It’s—I do not—fuck you.”
Eliot twisted his tongue in his mouth and bit down on the edge. He narrowed his eyes and slumped his shoulders. Bambi won. As always.
“Okay,” he said, shaking his head and hiding a laugh. “Fine. It sounds like you...tolerate her.”
Margo’s eyes lit up. “Yes. I do. I tolerate her.”
“That’s not a bad thing, Margo,” Eliot said, quiet and gently touching her hand. She didn’t move away which he took as a minor victory. But she didn’t reciprocate either.
“It’s a horrible fucking thing and you know it as well as I do,” Margo snorted. Eliot smiled. It really was and he did know it. “But.”
Margo’s lip trembled. It would have been imperceptible to anyone else. “But I really, really tolerate her, El.”
In that moment, he had twin instincts. The first, to wrap Margo in his arms with all the protection and adoration he carried in his heart. The second, to spit on the name Julia Wicker for all eternity. They warred fiercely in his chest. But instead of giving into either, Eliot simply cleared his throat, stood tall, and placed his hands behind his back.
“Then I tolerate her too.” He nodded once, curt. Margo swallowed and linked her pinky against his. Her eyes softened and she smiled up at him, fierce as ever.
It was the Ides of March and Eliot dragged Quentin out of the Cottage to go on a long walk. They’d ended up deep in the woods, far outside the wards. The cold was bitter, especially compared to the enchantment to which they’d grown accustomed. The wind whipped their cheeks red and fingers blistered.
But Eliot had to do something. He had to at least try to help Quentin be anything other than the fucking zombie he’d turned into over the few past weeks. So they walked. And walked. In silence, with only the wind and the faraway screech of an unpleasant bird as their soundtrack.
Two hours in, Q finally started talking. The harsh wind restored Eliot’s breath all at once—sweet balmy relief in contrast to their environs.
“It’s just, like, sometimes my brain breaks,” Quentin said, perched on the rock. His eyes had deep lines around them. Eliot handed him his flask. It was refused. “And the—the books, they were my lifeline. So when I’m—when my brain gets extra fucked, I read them. Kind of obsessively. No matter what’s happening around me.”
“Here I thought you just hated Welters, like me,” Eliot smiled, lighter than he felt. “Our whole friendship is based on a lie.”
Eliot stared up at the dwindling light between the leaves. “What are they about?”
“Four siblings who find another world,” Quentin dug his fingernails into a patch of moss, dirtying them. “Standard portal fantasy narrative.”
Eliot raised his eyebrows and one shoulder at once. He hadn’t been much of a reader as a kid. His mother believed most children’s stories were based in witchcraft or the occult. More than even his terrible brothers, she worried that Eliot was susceptible to the devil’s influence. Hence, both his innate magical power and even more innate preference for dick were the most smugly joyful conclusions in his whole goddamn life.
Still, he wasn’t sure what was standard or not in most children’s books. He didn’t know what a portal fantasy even was, let alone the typical narrative structure of one. But that didn’t matter.
Quentin’s eyes met his, wide and glowing. He smiled. “But. Uh. But it’s the best world.”
“Never have I ever,” Quentin furrowed his brow, biting his lower lip, “had sex on a beach.”
He was perched on their favorite rock, taking the game way too seriously, as always. From below, stretched out on a patch of enchanted grass, Eliot took a long chug from the flask they passed between them.
“You’re just trying to get me drunk at this point, right? Amateur hour, Q.”
Quentin glared and kicked at his ankle. Dirt kicked up as he did. “Getting the other person drunk is the point.”
Eliot took a stick and drew circular patterns in the ground. He glanced upward. “We can change that one next year, you know. When you come to Encanto with us. Find you a cute surfer girl to have her way with you in the waves.”
“Or surfer guy,” Quentin said with a shrug.
Eliot tightened his brow. Q’s bisexuality belonged firmly in the box that didn’t overlap with their friendship. Otherwise, that tiny, pitiful voice that screamed Why don’t you want me? would never shut the fuck up.
“My turn,” he said, clearing his throat and brain. He forced a chuckle, looking up at Q through his lashes. “Honestly, I’m running out of things I’ve never done.”
“Think like a nerd. Should be your forte,” Quentin said with a full-faced smile, and Eliot’s heart thudded.
Quentin looked particularly good that day—wearing a blue button-down and dark jeans that actually fit him for once. His long hair was tied back in a loose bun. He was smiling more than usual and holding himself straight, eyes wide and visible, with his stance almost confident. His attractiveness was harder to resist than usual.
So. Weakness acknowledged.
“Fine,” Eliot said out loud, rolling his eyes. “Never have I ever fucked a Dungeon Master.”
Quentin grabbed at the flask and chugged. He held a firm middle finger in the air.
“Never have I ever used face moisturizer.”
“Never?” Eliot’s widened his eyes. “Seriously?”
How the hell did his skin look like that then? Fuck him, honestly.
Quentin chuckled, “I mean, I’m the guy who buys the bargain pack of combination shampoo and conditioner. This shouldn’t shock you.”
“Ugh, it’s all to your own detriment though,” Eliot lied. Because that was what his hair looked like after using a 2-in-1? Honestly, fuck him. He pointed the tip of the flask right at Q before taking a chug. “But fine. Never have I ever finished a book by Dostoevsky.”
“I still think you’d like Brothers Karamazov if you gave it a chance,” Quentin said, after chugging. But Eliot simultaneously stuck his tongue out and his finger down his throat, miming gagging. “Fine. Never have I ever—”
They were drunk. Really drunk. In the fucking woods and it was dark and everything was terrible. It wasn’t supposed to happen but it did, so what the fuck could Eliot do.
He shouldn’t have gotten this drunk. It shouldn’t have been possible for him to get this drunk.
But. Well. Here he was.
“Indiana?” Quentin asked with a quiet frown. Eliot brought his flask up to his lips. Missed.
“Indi-fuckin’-ana,” he confirmed, with a well placed hiccup. The ground was spinning. He fell back against a tree. “Tell anyone and I’ll leave you for dead on the side of a highway.”
“Um. Yeah. Uh, okay.”
Then there was the Kady shit. But Eliot didn’t like to dwell on the Kady shit.
So he didn’t.
“Any bank worth robbing uses one of a handful of security systems. All the usual bells and whistles,” Bambi said, stretching her long legs into the golden sun. It was setting over the trees and the air was heavy with sweet humidity. Unfinished finger sandwiches rested on tiny ceramic plates and several bottles of wine laid demolished beside. The gentle edge of summer was creeping toward them, slow and welcome and promising.
Margo continued with a gentle and genuine smile, belying her teasing and boastful voice. “But what most idiots don't know is those companies are all owned by Magicians.”
“Shut the fuck up,” Julia said with a hidden smile. She sat right behind Margo, hands weaving braids into her hair. “You are so full of shit.”
Bambi glanced coquettishly over her shoulder. “More like full of cash money and gold. That I stole. From a bank.”
Eliot poured another round of champagne and chuckled. “I believe it.”
He slid the flutes across the way to the giggling girls and then to the side. The taciturn Quentin took it with a slow nod of acknowledgement. He rested on the picnic blanket on his elbows and his face was inscrutable as he listened to Bambi regale them all with her larger-than-life claims. He gave no indication whether he believed what she was saying. Maybe it was because he knew, like Eliot, that truth wasn’t really the point. It never was with Margo.
“Nope. Bullshit,” Julia said. She kissed Margo on the cheek with the final syllable. “You’re seriously telling me that at seventeen, you were so in touch with your powers that you were able to successfully break through magical security and sneak past Battle Magic practitioners?”
“Oh, don’t worry,” Margo turned around and entwined their fingers. She smiled into Julia’s mouth, their foreheads coming together. “Just because it takes some people longer to find their latent energy doesn’t mean they’re inherently inferior Magicians.”
“Oh my god. Dead. You’re totally dead,” Julia said, laughing and digging her fingers in Margo’s sides, tickling her as Bambi shrieked with an unfamiliar, unbridled laughter. They fell over, curled into each other with their laughter ricocheting through the woods. And because he still wasn’t a particularly evolved human, Eliot wasn’t sure if the sight made him want to smile or sob. So he went with his old standby in cases of emotional complexity.
Finishing his glass in a large gulp, he poured more for himself and another for Quentin. But when he went to hand it to the still silent man next to him, Eliot was taken aback by the burning intensity under Q’s furrowed brow. He kept his gaze focused tightly on the basking Margo and Julia. His lips alternated between quirking up and down, and his Adam’s apple bobbed repeatedly in time.
Something sharp, unfamiliar, and aching twisted in Eliot’s gut. With a swig of his flask followed by his wine glass, he sank down into the quilt next to Quentin. He laid down, splayed artfully and casually, relaxed and unbothered as ever. He nudged Q with the tip of his elbow.
“You have to know you never stood a chance if Bambi was in the running,” he said quietly, hopefully light in his teasing.
“Oh,” Quentin startled with a laugh, a small sound. He raised his eyebrows, eyes going wide. “No, that’s not—are you talking about me and Jules?”
At Eliot’s slow nod, Quentin smiled and shook his head. “Ah, no. No. I’m totally over all of that. Why would you even—?”
Eliot shrugged, pushing down the dumb and irrelevant relief he felt at Quentin’s words. He sipped his wine again.
“You looked pensive and pining.”
“Oh,” Quentin said, surprised. He let out a small huff of air. His smile was tiny and sly. “Well, that’s just because I suffer from Resting Pensive and Pining Face.”
Eliot’s lips smirked around his glass. “Fair enough. Rare condition.”
He wasn’t going to push Q if he didn’t want to talk about it. Not his role. Not his interest.
“I don’t know,” Quentin said leaning back on his hands, strands of hair falling in his face. Eliot resisted the urge to push them back. “I think I was more thinking that it’s, um, it’s nice, you know?”
He frowned, not really understanding where Q was going with that. “What’s nice?”
“Julia and Margo. It’s nice,” Quentin said. He scooted closer to Eliot and their knees touched. “They like each other.”
“Well. Yeah. I’d hope so,” Eliot rolled his eyes. But Quentin shook his head.
“I mean, they enjoy each other’s company,” he sighed. “They really get along. On top of—you know, the sex and romance shit. They get to have both. At the same time. And—and that’s what it’s about, right? That’s it.”
Eliot’s eyebrows twitched and he focused his eyes on his shoe. “I guess.”
“That’s what I want at least,” Quentin said. He ran his fingers through his hair and darted his eyes. Eliot’s throat was tight and dry. He took a full sip of his red wine, letting the smooth and heady acid and oak roll around his tongue for several long minutes.
“How’s Abbie anyway?” Eliot asked, eyes closing against the question. “Or is it Gabbie? Denise? Bernice?”
“You know it’s Caitlin.”
Except Eliot really didn’t. Quentin was certainly more of a monogamist than he, but his dalliances were few and far between. They rarely lasted longer than a few weeks. Learning names was hardly worth the effort.
“How’s she then?” Eliot asked, hopefully not too pointed. He popped one eye open at Q. He wasn’t amused. Oh well.
“Uh, I’m sure she’s fine,” Quentin said, raising his glass a little and ticking his lips down into a backwards grin. Eliot snorted. Of course. “Avoiding me now. After. She said our auras were out of sync and attacking each other’s life force. So apparently it’s best for us to never cross paths ever again.”
“Your fault for fucking a Naturalist more than once.”
“She’s a Psychic.”
“So much goddamn worse.”
“I’m taking a break from all that anyway,” Quentin said with a sigh, rocking his head back onto one of the several large colorful pillows Eliot had placed throughout the picnic space. “You know dating’s never been my strong suit. Either I push people away or I get—obsessive. Piney. As aforementioned.”
Eliot’s chest tightened. “I didn’t mean it like—”
Quentin swallowed and quickly glanced away. “No. It’s fine. It’s whatever. Anyway, I’m just going to focus on school. Developing my discipline. The important stuff.”
Eliot perked up. “You got your discipline?”
Q rolled his eyes but still looked quietly pleased. “Repair of Small Objects.”
“Flashy.” Eliot hoped his own smile was tempered. Not too bright. That definitely wasn’t a given though. He was happy for Q, who’d been depressed about his lack of discipline since he’d known him. He would even say that he was proud, if that wasn’t patronizing as shit.
But Q must have taken it in the spirit it was intended because he simply nodded and dipped his head down, grinning wider. “Yeah.”
They clinked glasses and sat in comfortable silence, with Margo and Julia’s laughter joyfully carrying the day along.
Brakebills University, August 31, 2016
(One Day Prior to Our Fabulous Story)
When Eliot once said that he enjoyed the beautiful nothing of summertime, he never anticipated it could mean a conspicuous absence of Bambi. But then again, he’d essentially spent most of the past year getting used to the conspicuous absence of Bambi. Her deciding to summer with Julia—Venice, Madrid, then Mykonos, last he’d heard—was a natural conclusion of the year that had somehow both broken and solidified their intense bond all at once.
And for the most part, Eliot was...okay. He wasn’t falling down a hole of depression and latent abandonment issues, so he figured that’s what okay had to look like. Margo was the single most important friendship, relationship, connection that he’d ever had in his entire life. But he wasn’t so emotionally underdeveloped to know that honoring that meant honoring change and what the other needed. While Julia wouldn’t have necessarily been his first choice for Bambi (Yeah, but who would be? A little voice asked, sounding far too much like Quentin), Julia was who Margo chose.
Eliot knew that and therefore, he loved that. He loved both of them. For Margo.
(Of course, it also helped that before they two lovebirds left, Bambi had hugged Eliot for what felt like hours.
“Remember, baby,” she’d whispered against his pink shirt. “No matter what, I tolerate you most of all.”)
Of course, speaking of Q, it absolutely helped that Eliot’s favorite little nerd had stuck around instead of fleeing back to the magical hills of Jersey, as he was fond of saying. He had no illusions that Quentin had hung back to spend time with Eliot—they were close, but come on—and Q definitely sometimes ended up lost in a quagmire of spell theory and musty books. But for the most part, they were each other’s consistent go-to for meals, relaxation, walks, cautious adventures, and any activity that didn’t require solitude or, like, studying.
And if occasionally his idle brain conjured up other activities he and Q could do to pass the time, such as, oh, you know, wrapping around each other as they fucked into a mattress or the couch or outside on a picnic blanket or any number of places that he really hadn’t thought about it all that much? Well, then, ah.
Weakness acknowledged and all that.
But on that particular day, the last before his final year at Brakebills, Eliot was grappling with a different kind of weakness altogether.
“Do you ever wonder,” Eliot slowly spilled out, his legs stretching long on the couch and into Q’s lap, “if there’s more to life than parties and booze and merriment?”
“Nope,” Quentin said, jotting down notes in his book. He didn’t look up. “You should know my motto by now. Let the good times roll.”
“End of summer blues?” Quentin asked, stretching his arm over his head. It lifted his shirt to reveal a sliver of torso. His light brown hair trailed downward. Eliot glanced away.
“More like end of life,” Eliot sighed, hand on his forehead like he was fainting. “I’m dying. Of boredom. Makes brain talky-talk.”
“I’ll send Margo a condolence card.”
“Please,” Eliot said, leaning his head back against the arm of the couch. “You’d be devastated if I died. You’d cry so hard.”
Quentin smirked and returned to his work. “Eh. I mean, at first, sure. But then with all the newfound peace and quiet? I think I’d get by.”
Eliot kicked his thigh. “I’m actually being halfway serious here.”
“Jesus,” Quentin huffed, pencil squeaking against the paper. “Yes, El. I’d cry if you died.”
“No, you brat,” Eliot glared half-heartedly. “I’m halfway serious about trying to find more purpose. Or something like that.”
“Halfway like, you actually want to talk about your future and respect my opinion on the matter?” Quentin asked, strangely quiet. He looked up at Eliot under his curtain of hair. “Or halfway like, you already have a point you’re barreling toward?”
“Sometimes I worry that I’m too self-focused,” Eliot said, in lieu of a direct response. “That my only aim is my own interests. Maybe that’s not as—maybe I’m selfish sometimes.”
“Really? Selfish?” Quentin smirked. “You?”
Then he glanced up at the boy feeding Eliot mixed nuts. Honestly, he’d forgotten he was there. The nuts seemed to appear from nothing.
“Now, now. Jasper here is very happy,” Eliot insisted, lazily petting the boy’s dark brown hair. It was coarse and wavy, wiry and staticky to the touch. Quentin rolled his eyes.
“Yeah, uh, I’m pretty sure his name is Jason,” Quentin said, looking directly at the new second year. “Isn’t it?”
“Technically,” Jasper said, hesitant. “But Eliot said that sounded like I belong in a 90s skateboarding Pizza Bagels commercial. So he—we changed it.”
“Doesn’t fit the aesthetic,” Eliot grinned around a cashew. He crunched it down to nothing. “Walnut please.”
Jasper pressed a walnut against his lips. The tips of his fingers smelled like cheese and vinegar, for some reason. He wrinkled his nose as he slid the nut between his teeth and chomped down, exaggerated. Jasper looked delighted but Quentin narrowed his eyes, unimpressed. Which, like, Eliot wasn’t sure what his problem was? It was all copacetic. He’d even said please, for Christ’s sake.
“So you were saying you’re trying to be less self-centered?” Quentin prompted, his voice monotone in that dryly insinuating way of his.
“That’s oversimplifying,” Eliot said, spitting out the Brazil nut Jasper tried to feed him. He glared upward and Jasper averted his eyes, guiltily. Damn right. He knew better than that. But he was also talking to Q right now, which was slightly more important.
Eliot continued, admonishing Jasper with little more than a sharp flick on the wrist. “I was thinking about what you said at the beginning of the summer. How you’re focusing on the important stuff this year. Less dating, more studying. How you have a goal.”
Quentin raised his eyebrows. “Is this you telling me you’re taking a vow of celibacy?”
Eliot laughed. Hard.
“What I mean is that I see how happy Margo is now, right? And Julia?” Eliot tapped his hands on his legs. “Well, their happiness weirdly makes me happy. It’s the strangest thing.”
Quentin shook his head, raising his eyebrows. “Yeah. That’s called empathy.”
“Sure. Whatever. In any case, I feel like, technically, I had something to do with that. So maybe I should consider continuing down that path? Helping others find happiness?” Eliot sighed wistfully, wrapping his hand around the back of Jasper’s neck. It was sweaty.
“You’re definitely saying words right now, huh?”
Eliot cocked his head with narrowed eyes. “Watch it, Sassafras.”
Q responded with nothing more than a shit-eating grin, replete with those dimples and crinkled eyes. Warmth spread from Eliot’s chest out through the tips of his fingers. For a splash of a moment, he wished Quentin always looked like that. And for half a splash of a moment, he wished he could have something to do with Quentin always looking like that.
“Excuse me, Eliot?” A jarring voice shattered his thoughts and Eliot swallowed his heart back to earth. “The nuts are gone. Do you want me to get more?”
“Go away, Jasper,” Eliot said, wiggling his fingers toward the stairwell. Jasper immediately jumped off the top of the couch, relieved to be relieved.
“See you around, Jason,” Quentin said pointedly, eyes burning right into Eliot’s. The air crackled, and he swallowed around that more and more present dry lump, down into his constricted, thudding chest. He breathed.
Weakness acknowledged, goddammit.
He breathed again.
“Later, Quentin,” Jasper called from behind his shoulder. Eliot flipped his head around and raised his eyebrows, expectant. Jasper’s hand faltered on the bannister. “And, uh, it’s—it’s Jasper.”
Quentin rolled his eyes. Jasper sent them another quick, meaningless wave and Q watched him disappear up the stairs with a strange look on his face. He sighed and turned back to Eliot, tapping the end of his pencil on his book three times before laughing.
“Honestly?” Q said, biting his lip. “I’ll believe you can be charitable when I see it.”
Eliot frowned and crossed his arms. “Well, that’s kind of dickish.”
“Don’t mean it to be dickish,” Quentin said with another sigh. “Just that, like, I kind of believe people are who they are, you know? And—and who you are is good, El.”
Dry throat. “Oh.”
Quentin smirked. “But the day you start giving a shit about other people’s general happiness without any self-interest is the day I, like, join a gym because I care about getting physically fit. Or sell my Fillory first editions because I want to expand my horizons. We can all talk about these things, but that doesn’t mean they’ll actually, you know, happen. We are who we are, good and bad.”
Eliot swallowed down a rough anger and simply smiled, blithe and lazy. “Well, then I’ll just have to prove you wrong.”
Q’s lips quirked up. “Which is a form of self-interest in and of itself.”
“Oh no, that’s sheer pettiness and tenacity,” Eliot said, all stiff-upper lipped. “Very different.”
“Then God help us all,” Quentin mumbled, still smiling but turning back to his work. Eliot sat up and flopped his body as close to Q as he could get. He tossed his arm around him.
“Oh, Q. That’s the exact idea.”
Quentin rolled his eyes. “Christ.”
“Okay, no. Stop that.”
And as they joked into the brightening morning, Eliot spared a glance away from Q’s lovely face. The sun streaked through the window just so, like a painting.
It really had been a surprisingly good summer.
And just as he looked outward onto the quiet campus, a Canadian goose flew silhouetted against the pale sky, before descending right to the ground. It landed gracefully, its black webbed feet stark against the green grass. Briefly, he thought that it seemed a touch early for migration. But what did Eliot know?
Paying the creature no more mind, he turned back to the laughing Quentin, with a grand smile.