Brakebills University, September 2016
(Our Fabulous Story Finally Begins)
(Entitled: How Eliot Saves the Day With His Wit and Grace, No Matter What Quentin Says, He’s a Nerd Anyway)
(Alternate Title: Why is Eliot Only Friends With Rude People? That’s the REAL Page-Turner)
Here’s the thing about Todd.
Eliot intellectually understood why he “wasn’t so bad.” Or how certain people could think Todd “always had good intentions.” Or why the affirmative answer to “Jesus, did he really deserve to have I AM TACKY magically tattooed on his forehead because he whistled Cotton-Eyed Joe?” may be seen as “autocratic as shit.”
He knew Todd was an amiable boy. His simpering smile and vacuous wide eyes always graced the Cottage denizens without fail. Literally. Every single goddamn morning, he stood at the bottom of the staircase, bound and determined to wish each person well. He did it whether they wished for his well-wishes or not.
Some people called it charming. Eliot had other words, not fit for polite company.
By all accounts, though, he was a true blue Physical Kid. His discipline had to do with the transmutation of mineralogy particles, which verged on Natural but came out Physical in the end. More to the point though, he was the biggest cheerleader for their lifestyle. He loved the parties, Welters, their inherent superiority, and all. No one was more likely to boast about the Signature Cocktail. No one more likely to praise Eliot’s finesse. No one more likely to cower at Margo’s ferocity. And no one more likely to sing hymns about how the Physical family had a cohesion that no other house emphasis could touch. He was cheerful and thoughtful, and he had a decent alcohol tolerance belying his frail and concave body.
Some overwrought psychologist would have a field day with why Eliot held such strong negative feelings against the idiotic dweeb. From behind a smoke-billowing pipe and tweed jacket, they’d declare it based in “childhood trauma compounded by an early loss of innocence, resulting in a visceral discomfort when faced with earnest and unafraid vulnerability.”
Groundbreaking analysis, really.
But what psych quacks would never understand was the one simple, truest fact. Which was that...Todd? Was so fucking annoying. Like, scalp-burning, eyes-watering, boner-killing irritating as all hell. It was a truth not many people liked to acknowledge in a Kumbaya world, but some types would never mesh even in light of good intentions.
Todd would never, ever mesh with Eliot Waugh.
But on that day, the first day of classes, Todd’s sycophantic brightness served a vital purpose, for the first and last time. See, sports connotations aside, Eliot believed in going big or going home. And what would be a bigger opening entry in Operation: Prove Quentin Wrong than having a voluntary conversation with his least favorite person on campus? It was simple and genius, certain to impress.
Spring in his step, Eliot shot his handsome face a quick wink in the hallway mirror before descending the stairs. He looked divine—oxblood blazer, gray vest, gold tie, tumbling curls, Hallelujah. Perfect for the sweet wide-eyed boys who were certain to fill the Cottage in a short manner of time, all lost and confused in a new world of magic. Thank goodness there was such a beautiful, wise Third Year to help them along their journey, no?
Pulling out his trusty enchanted thermos, Eliot almost forgot the hellish mission he’d signed himself up in his lustful reverie. That is, until he nearly crashed right into Todd’s eager waving.
“Have an awesome first day, Valerie!” The dork hollered at the slamming front door. “I know you’re gonna crush it! I believe in you!”
Ugh. Grant him strength.
“Todd,” Eliot said, voice tight through his teeth. He hissed in a breath. “Volume control is a virtue.”
“Hey Eliot,” Todd said, mouth falling open wide. “Wow. It’s so nice to see you. You look amazing on this finest of mornings.”
“I know. Thank you. How—“ Eliot cleared his throat with a grunt and ticked his head to the side. He could do this. “How are you?”
Todd shook his head, comically large eyes falling into sadness. “No bueno, hombre.”
Correction: He couldn’t do this.
But just as he was about to tell Todd to fuck off as usual, Quentin stumbled down the stairs, hoodie twisted behind his back. He was trying to fit his left hand through the right arm sleeve.
“Shit, shit, shit, shit,” Q’s staccato voice punctuated each step he took, limbs squirming valiantly. “Shit.”
His chest twirling with a fond affection for his most hapless friend, Eliot smiled a little before turning back to Todd. He held his posture high and put his own hands into his elegant waistcoat pockets.
He could do this.
“Sorry to hear that, Todd,” Eliot said, magnanimous in his head tilt. “What’s troubling you?”
“I’m a numbskull and a half,” Todd said with a sigh and oh, god, no, he couldn’t do this. “I promised Dean Fogg I’d be a guide for a special circumstance student at ten, but I totally read my schedule wrong. I have my first lecture with Sunderland at the same time and attendance is five percent. I’m in a classic jam sandwich, Eliot.”
Jesus Christ. “What the fuck is a special circumstance student?”
“It’s a student who comes to Brakebills under special circumstances,” Todd explained, without a drop of condescension. Eliot wasn’t sure if that was better or worse than if it’d been witless sarcasm. “In this case, Alice Quinn is a returning second year. Exchange student, I guess.”
“Brakebills doesn’t have exchange programs,” Eliot said. It was like he was speaking to a particularly stupid preschooler. But then his eyebrows twitched as his brain whirred in recognition. “But—ah—did you say… Alice Quinn?”
“Sure did,” Todd said, bright. “Do you know her?”
Eliot slid right over that question. He wrapped an arm around Todd just as Quentin brushed past the two of them, muttering to himself under his breath. He disappeared into the other room.
“You and I are friends, Todd,” he said and Todd immediately choked into a coughing fit. Eliot thumped his back once. “So I’ll help you out, okay? It’s really the least I could do.”
Todd let out a small gasp of gratitude, but his next words were cut off by—
“Has anyone seen my fucking bag?” Quentin’s voice called from the dining room. Eliot sighed and rubbed the bridge of his nose.
“It’s by the entryway where you goddamn left it,” he called back, eyes right on the leather monstrosity. Quentin was such a disaster. Not an original observation by any means, but a necessary one. Shaking his head with a chuckle, Eliot turned back to Todd, who was gazing up with sunshine in his eyes.
“You mean, you—you’ll be Alice’s student guide?” Todd asked, awed. “For me?”
“Absolutely,” Eliot said, tipping his chin up. “We Physical Kids need to stick together. Do you have the name card?”
“Yes, right here,” Todd said, digging into his pocket. He handed over a small white card that read Alice Quinn in formal script. Eliot’s eyes sparked. Perfect. “Man, you’re a lifesaver. Really.”
“It’s no trouble,” Eliot said. But then he paused. “Of course, you’ll owe me.”
“Of course,” Todd said, holding his hands up and taking one step backward. “Anything you need.”
Todd put his hands in his pockets and rocked back and forth on his feet. He was still staring at Eliot. It was awkward.
“This is the single nicest thing anyone has ever done for me,” Todd said, big brown eyes almost black in their devotion. “Thank you so much. From the very bottom of my heart.”
Eliot rumpled his brow and cleared his throat.
“Ah,” he said. He pursed his lips. “Well. Okay then. You’re welcome.”
Todd bobbed his head back and forth with his signature dumb grin. He started to open his mouth to say something else, but thankfully he was cut off again by Quentin’s reappearance. He was shaking his head and zipping up his hoodie, well-dressed as ever for a momentous day.
“Morning,” Q said, eyes glancing back and forth between Eliot and Todd. He bent over to finally pick up his bag as Todd waved enthusiastically.
“Good morning, Quentin!” Todd said as he darted toward the door. “I have to scoot, but I hope you have a great day! I believe in you!”
Quentin smiled at that and his eyebrows disappeared into his hairline. “Wow. That’s—that’s nice. Thanks, Todd.”
Todd nodded brightly and gave them both a thumbs up, before finally disappearing into the morning. Eliot let out a breath he didn’t know he’d been holding and turned his attention entirely to Quentin, fussing with his bag strap. He grinned, sly.
“I believe in you too,” Eliot said, eyes narrowed lasciviously. “For the record.”
“Fuck off,” Quentin said, eyebrows raising again along with a middle finger. Eliot shrugged.
“My, my,” he said, leaning against the bannister on one arm. “Someone’s a Grumpy Gus. Back-to-school jitters?”
Q sighed and slammed his hands against the sides of his head, overwhelmed already. “Yeah, uh, I guess. Hey, so if you’re waiting for me, you can head out. I’m running super late and my coffee’s still brewing. Somehow. Even though, like, it’s suppose to be fucking magic? I don’t know.”
“Here.” Eliot rolled his eyes, taking pity on the child. He handed Quentin his thermos. It was his second serving, so honestly, he didn’t really need it. “For you.”
Quentin’s eyes popped up and he let out a loud huff of breath. He took it greedily and unscrewed the lid to chug the French roast.
“Shit. Thanks, El,” Q said, tone finally soft. “How do you always have stuff like this waiting for everyone?”
His eyebrows ticked up quickly, in time with his lips. “Just a good host, I guess.”
Quentin’s eyes caught his for a barely discernible moment, gentle and singing. But then they shuttered into their usual wryness.
“You know I live here, right?” Quentin asked, his teasing inflection lifting each word. “I’m not a guest. And it’s not, like, technically your house either.”
“The world is my house, Q,” Eliot said, ushering him out the front door by the small of his back. “Now, before we go, did you get your first day of school picture taken? Hold up that adorable little sign that says Second Year? Daddy’s so proud.”
“Yeah, uh, Daddy’s a dickhead.”
Quentin was much less bowled over by Eliot’s selfless good deed than anticipated.
As they walked down the long path into the heart of campus, Q squinted his eyes in disbelief , rather than smiling and saying things like, Mea culpa! I underestimated you, El. By the way, impeccable pocket square fold. Instead, he scratched the back of his neck and tilted his head over and over again, like he was trying to solve an incomprehensible puzzle.
“Did you hit your head in the shower?”
“Jesus, Q,” Eliot said with an affronted glare. “He was in a bind. I helped. Is that so unbelievable?”
“I mean, yeah,” Quentin said, half his mouth tugging upward. “Historically, epistemologically, psychologically—“
Eliot elbowed him hard enough that he tripped over to the side. He felt no remorse. Quentin was used to stumbling though, so he straightened himself back out quickly. Within seconds, he rematched Eliot’s stride, staring up with a still suspicious smirk.
“So to reiterate,” he said, putting his hands in his pockets. “You’re doing this to be nice? To Todd? There’s no other reason?”
So that definitely had the potential to blow up in his face if he held firm to the line. Eliot bit the inside of his cheek and tracked his eyes over, weighing his options. He sighed.
“That…” he said slowly, with a squinted eye and a scrunched nose “…and the girl in question also might be Genji Quinn’s niece?”
Quentin snorted. “There it fucking is.”
“Well, I’m not trying to be a goddamn saint, Coldwater,” Eliot said as he tucked his notebook under his arm. Look at him. Bringing a notebook. He really was taking his responsibilities seriously. He tried to angle his body so Q would notice it.
Instead, Quentin took another sip of coffee and looked up at Eliot from under his brows. “But I didn’t think you even cared that much about your career?”
“God, no. I don’t,” Eliot said, sticking out his tongue in a dance across his teeth. “But the retreat’s associated parties are legendary decadence. Think Caligula. Besides, bonus, could you imagine the look on Margo’s face if I got to go and she didn’t?”
“I wouldn’t hang your hopes on that. You wouldn’t even be able to appreciate it,” Quentin said, shaking his head. He grinned. “You know, between all the stabbing.”
Eliot laughed, a light bubbling in his chest. Sometimes it struck him as a shame that more people didn’t get a real glimpse at Q’s dry-witted sense of humor. It was often sharp, usually on the edge of dark, and always more clever than most would give him credit for. But unlike Eliot, if Quentin was able to craft a well-placed barb, it meant he was relaxed. Bon mots weren’t part of his armor; they were what his cloak of anxiety suppressed.
He was a selfish man though.
So more often than he saw it as a shame, Eliot liked that he was the one who got unguarded Quentin to himself. He liked that it was a given at that point in their friendship. He liked the unspoken trust it communicated. Being real friends with Q was like… finding a secret garden. Most people only saw the drab stone wall, passing by without another thought. Only a precious few—maybe only the worthy—got access to the wondrous truth and flora within. And Eliot really, really liked being one of the precious few who had the key. He liked being one of the only ones who could unlock the beauty, intricacies, and copious dick jokes within the heart of Quentin Coldwater.
“You had a student guide, right?” Eliot asked as they turned along the path. It was more to change the subject of his own mind, because, uh, what the fuck was that, Waugh. “Who was it again?”
“Sam. My ex, remember?” Quentin said. Eliot immediately rolled his eyes, hard.
First of all, ex was putting it a bit generously. They’d dated for a whole long weekend. A life-changing affair, he was sure, but history would remember it as a rightful blip. Second of all, Eliot had actually been friends with Quentin when this Sam had made an unwelcome appearance. Not to mince words, but he hadn’t been impressed by the slow-witted, Pokémon-obsessed spectacle of Q’s hook up. He wouldn’t have known what to do with himself if it hadn’t ended as quickly as it began. Eliot would have truly loathed having to find a place for such an uninspired guest at his dinner party tables.
Scowling, Eliot huffed. “Right, the annoying Naturalist with—“
Q set his jaw and glared. “He did not have—“
“His breath smelled fine.”
“It’s like on Hoarders,” Eliot said, lighting a cigarette. “When the hoarder thinks their hoarding den smells, you know, ‘fine.’ But it actually smells like dog shit because of all the literal dog shit.”
Quentin’s lips pressed into a flat line. “Am I the hoarder in this scenario or is Sam?”
“You’re the hoarder. He’s the dog shit.”
“Yeah, you’re an asshole,” Quentin said with a side-glance, though without any real annoyance. He knew Eliot was teasing. Not about the halitosis part (that had been fucking true), but Q knew that Eliot respected his past little relationships. At least, when they were actually happening. He was nice enough to Quentin’s fuck buddies. He’d always borne their nerdy, milquetoast chatter, like any good friend would.
More or less.
“Mmm, indeed,” Eliot said before he grinned and patted Q on top of his head as they reached the cluster of classroom buildings. “On that note, have a good day, honey. Don’t work too hard.”
Instead of an actual goodbye, Quentin walked away, signature middle finger high in the air. Eliot chuckled and plastered himself against a tree, cigarette perched between his lips. He had an hour to kill and he planned on looking damn good while doing it. Eyes fluttering closed, he breathed in smoke and daydreamed of Genji, Margo screaming for blood, and a few other fleeting, unimportant dalliances, too silly to name.
The instructions on the back of the name card appeared exactly fifteen minutes before the appointment time. Eliot was to meet Alice Quinn at the sculpture garden. She'd arrive at the space between the tall trees and manicured shrubbery. The area served as the unofficial separation between the classrooms and the living space. His stated goal was to take her to the Cottage, where she’d be living. Eliot assumed that meant she was a Physical Kid, but the notes gave no indication of any personal details. That was standard—it wasn’t like Dean Fogg was Mr. Forthcoming 2016.
The sun dappled through the Spanish moss and Eliot maneuvered his way over to the statue of Gregor Alowitz. He had no particular affinity for Gregor Alowitz—one of the donors for the Brakebills’ Consciousness Building, psychic nonsense—but the base of the statue was the perfect height to jump onto and stretch out, languid and picturesque. It was crucial that he make an excellent first impression on this particular student, since she held the keys to the proverbial castle.
If she was anything like Genji, Eliot wasn’t concerned that they would get along. Genji Quinn was a work of art. Round sunglasses over matte makeup and an array of brightly colored Chanel. She always wore stunning turbans adorned with antique brooches, each worth more than the entirety of Eliot’s own considerable wardrobe. Her full-length dresses swished and sang, all overtop cheeky black combat boots. She spoke softly, carried a big stick, and probably fucked every soporific bourgeois magic asshole with it nightly. Twice on Sundays.
He’d meant what he said to Quentin. Eliot truly didn’t care much about his career. He was more interested in the intoxicating extravagance in the slow motion masquerade balls of the retreat than any networking connections he could glean from it. But there was a promise in someone like Genji—that someone like him, someone who cared about aesthetics and pleasure in his magic—could still succeed and wield power. That someone like him could find something to do with his miserable life, in a way that wasn’t quite so sad and empty. That maybe he wouldn’t be totally alone once he turned around the corner of graduation, especially if Margo’s focus was still going to be on Julia along with conquering the whole damn universe.
But Eliot was being a touch sentimental. Terrible for the affectation. There were times when a wistful gaze in his hazel eyes attracted the right kind of boy, for the right kind of mood. The Tell me your secrets as we fuck dirty in the moonlight type he was marginally fond of, on a rare occasion. But today, he was aiming for vivid and keen, larger-than-life in his beauty and boldness. If this Alice was Genji’s darling niece, it would take even more than his usual panache and zing to get in her pants.
Then, the clock tower struck ten and all was well.
Like a teleportation, a young woman was standing in front of him. Of course, she hadn’t actually teleported. She probably wasn’t a Traveler. The volatile, sexy Indian guy and Josh’s ex were the only two he knew. Before Victoria graduated, they mostly kept to themselves in a strange little queer cabal with a few other psychics. If Alice was a Traveler, she would have been immediately folded into Penny’s odd group, rather than sent Eliot’s way. Instead, her fast appearance came from her she short, piercing steps. Her thick-heeled Mary Janes clacked against the concrete.
She wasn’t… exactly what Eliot had pictured.
Alice was blonde, very blonde, with stick-straight hair that reached her shoulders. Her dark brows were groomed but angry under red framed glasses that did little to flatter her cream-pink skin. Her lips were pinched in automatic distrust and her slender jawline was set at an angle, though she were steeling herself. She wore a sharp and rigid babydoll dress, with a lumpy gray sweater. Her arms were crossed over a pair of giant tits.
“Alice Quinn?” Eliot asked, incredulous. He jumped down and stared down at the card. He needed to make sure he’d gotten the name right. Because, like fuck this uptight nerd was related to Genji, right? But Alice nodded, curt and disinterested. She looked Eliot up and down in tandem with the end of his own once over.
She cleared her throat. “You’re the student guide, I presume?”
Eliot offered her a wary salute and smile. She scowled.
“This is unnecessary,” she said, brushing past Eliot without a proper greeting.
He blinked and snorted, falling into step next to her. “Why, enchanted to meet you too.”
“I’m a second year who has been working with Mischa Mayakovsky at Brakebills South. I am at a level of magical adept that allowed me to forgo even The Trials,” she said, moving forward with tiny steps. Her eyes set blazing ahead under those firm brows. “No offense, but I don’t need anyone’s guidance. So take me to my room and you can check your little box, okay?”
“Okay.” Eliot suppressed a smile. He could switch tacks. He was flexible. “Understood, ma'am. I’m sure you’re tense after such a long journey today.”
Her frown deepened and she stared back at Eliot like he was the biggest idiot she’d ever met. “I arrived yesterday. I’ve been in acclimation chambers and signing paperwork. Did you seriously not read my file?”
Genji’s niece, Genji’s niece, Genji’s niece.
“Oh, I definitely didn’t. Couldn’t be assed,” Eliot laughed smoothly. He was hardly shamed by this pretty little cave troll and he had a mission. “If everything you’re saying is true, though, then why the fuck do you even need a student guide? Feeling pretty expendable here.”
She honked a laugh of her own, still sounding like a goose. “Tradition, I suppose. Congratulations on being a glorified bellboy.”
That was almost funny. Eliot smirked her way, a signal of gentle camaraderie, and Alice slightly slowed her pace at his interest. She kept half a glance on him as they turned the bend toward the student living corner of campus.
“Lord knows I’d look rakishly handsome in one of those flat top hats,” Eliot said with a smirk and a waggle of his flask. He downed a sip, ignoring Alice’s now darkening watchful eye. “You’re a Physical Kid then, hm?”
Alice pursed her lips and shook her head. “Listen, Todd. You seem like a nice enough person, but—“
“Jesus. Fuck. Nonono. Take it back. I’m not Todd,” he said, lighting a cigarette. He gestured toward her with his silver case, the top flapping up and down on its hinges. “Want?”
“Of course not,” Alice said, snarling her lip. Eliot shrugged and took a long drag. When he blew out the smoke, she coughed into her hand without breaking eye contact, a pointed sound. Eliot rolled his eyes. One of those.
They walked in tense silence for a few more moments before Alice couldn’t help herself. She whipped toward her, arms crossed.
“But I was told I’d be meeting a Todd Bates?”
“Nope. Lucky day for you.” Eliot gave one more attempt at a warm smile. It was again rebuffed and his patience was growing thin.
“Well, if you’re not Todd, then who are you?” Alice demanded, hands on her hips. “And where exactly are you taking me?”
“I’m a serial killer,” Eliot drawled, arms wide and indicating the Cottage in the distance with his cigarette. “That’s my lair.”
“Original,” Alice said, with a massive eye roll.
But his hilarious joke must have at least convinced her that arguing would be futile. In terse silence, she followed him down the path, ready to greet her reluctant new home. Eliot grimaced as he opened the door, making a mental note to Kill Todd once again. He should have known better.
Alice’s room was on the far end of the hallway, a brand new door that appeared from nothing. It was painted in blocks of pastel blues and bright yellow. Garish, not to Eliot’s taste. His door was a mosaic of stained glass jewel tones, which was much more fitting of the Cottage’s painstaking aesthetic. The one that he, of course, had set, but that was neither here nor there.
(When he moved into the Cottage as a first year, the whole thing had been done up in a horrifying Scandinavian Industrial style. The IKEA curves, colorless palette, and fucking concrete coffee table still haunted his nightmares.)
As they walked through her door, Eliot was surprised to see that everything had been already meticulously unpacked. Her walls were adorned with Kinkadesque framed drawings—domestic and muted and blah. Chinese lanterns with butterflies hung from the ceiling. There was a fuzzy pink robe hanging from the closet hook and a dusty pink couch was streaked with sunbeams. The curtains were lace and there were several small glass horse statues throughout the available surfaces. It was uninspired decor, but he didn’t expect anything else after a single look at the girl.
What was curious was that there was decor put up already at all.
“Have you been here?” Eliot asked, turning around once and tilting an amused look her way. Because if she had, then he really had no point to being there. But she shook her head.
“They set it up for me. It’s in the school’s interest to keep me happy,” Alice said, simple and clinical. Eliot grinned at that.
“Well, now you’re saying things I halfway give a shit about,” he said, perching on her bed. He crossed his legs and rested his chin on his palm. “Tell me the deets. What do you have on our dear illustrious institution of magical pedagogy? I love a good skeletons-in-the-closet tale.”
But Alice ignored his questioning. Instead, she glanced up at him, eyes wide and mocking.
“Thank goodness you halfway give a ‘shit,’” she said, brittle and airy. “All I’ve ever wanted is the approval of a drunk manchild who cares more about style than substance.”
Eliot sneered a small laugh.
... Oh, she thought she was clever?
He’d show a bitch clever.
“Watch your step,” Eliot said, slow and poised as she began aggressively putting her books away. “I think the acclimation chamber may have missed the rather large icicle slowly fucking its way up the cavern of your—“
Alice’s hands went right to her hair and she let out a loud, frustrated noise. “Why are you still here? Is this about my family? Because trust me, wrong tree.”
“Now, now,” Eliot said, shoulders sliding forward, though he were a panther toying with food. “You have a new family. We’re a scrappy rag-tag team of underdogs, but love and magic carries us through.”
Of all things, that was the line that brought out a loud laugh from Alice Quinn. But it was bitter, spitting, and harsh. She slammed a book on the ground, snapping her neck toward him. Her hands tightened into tiny fists at her side.
“What, because magic is so wonderful?” Alice’s eyes sparked, somehow ill-equipped to pick up on sarcasm despite her own penchant for it. “Please. You have no idea what it can do. Your blasé attitude makes that clear enough.”
What a presumptuous twat.
“Poor little magic girl,” Eliot said, cutting her off with a dripping laugh. “Why, everyone knows she’s the only one who was ever fucked over by an incomprehensible force of nature.”
Her mouth clenched. “I’m not saying that.”
But Eliot didn’t care what she was saying. “At least I have fun with it. All it’s worth really. Better than wallowing in self-pity.”
“Magic isn’t fun,” Alice growled.
“No shit,” Eliot said, thisclose to snapping. “At best, it’s a tool. At worst, it’s a soul-sucking burden.”
“I agree with you,” Alice said, bursting out. She sounded angry, but her eyes were darting, like the conversation wasn’t going exactly like she’d anticipated. “But most people are too moronic or weak to handle it. Brakebills doesn’t stress that enough. Too many people go in far too blind. That’s what makes it especially dangerous.”
Eliot pursed his lips and set his face into a neutral mask. “And now I agree with you.”
He actually did. Only a few people knew about his own history with magic—Logan Kinnear, the breakdowns in undergrad, the way he used alcohol to dull his hair-trigger instincts as much as anything else. And by a few people, he really meant exactly two. To the rest of the world, he still projected the model of the carefree playboy, whiling away in telekinesis and glittered champagne like it was where he was born. He had no intention of changing that with this little bitchy mouse of an ice dork.
But there was something about the way she paced angry and lost around her room. Something about the way she threw as many pointed words at Eliot as she could, barely leaving any room for breath. Something about her buzzing hysteria that evoked the slightest amount of...
Ah, what was that word Q used again?
Not that he felt so much empathy for Alice that he could ignore how unpleasant he found her. But if there was anything he understood, it was the way magic could twist itself through your soul and ventricles, and ruin everything you once thought was stable. Everything, including your own sense of worth, sense of decency, and sense of bare equilibrium in an already fucked up and chaotic world. He knew it could even destroy a fundamental sense of self, if left too forgone to its own devices.
So Eliot shrugged up at her, giving the smallest and only gift he could muster: His agreement.
“Oh,” Alice swallowed. She stood shock still, chewing on her bottom lip like a piece of gum. “Oh.”
“Oh,” Eliot repeated, standing up to walk toward her door frame. He sighed and leveled her with what he hoped was a disinterested stare. “Anyway, this was a real delight, Alice, but I’ll let you have at it. Good luck and all.”
“Goodbye is more appropriate,” she said, staring down at the ground. Eliot snorted. Jesus, Livejournal about it, why didn’t she? No one had time for that kind of emo horseshit. They were goddamn adults.
“Dramatic. It’s not that big of a campus,” he said, twisting his lips. “But I’ll be more than happy to pretend I don’t know you.”
But Alice shook her head, eyes turning to stone. “No. I mean, I won’t see you. At all. Ever again. I’m leaving. Today.”
Something small and sharp pierced at Eliot’s gut. His mouth was ready to saunter off with a Cheerio then, love, don’t let the door hit your ass, but his feet wouldn’t let him. Instead, they rooted him to the spot and all his heavy tongue could manage was: “What?”
“This—this was obviously a mistake,” Alice said, and began pacing around her room. She grabbed haphazard at her tchotchkes and started throwing them on the bed. Her hand faltered around one of the horse statues, before she cradled it to her heart.
“I got what I wanted from this place. It was stupid to come here.”
Eliot remained frozen for a few minutes. He watched her move frantic and wild, piling clothes and books and more horses in an unparalleled frenzy. He’d never met someone who so embodied whiplash. Cool and collected one second, biting bitch the next, skittish fawn the third. And like a paradox, through all seconds, she was also everything at once.
“Well. Ah. Alright,” Eliot said, his hand wavering over the doorknob. He could feel his eyebrows moving up and down. She didn’t look at him. “Hope you find what you’re looking for.”
“Bye then,” Alice said, monotone and futzing with a fuzzy sweater. Her eyes were shining and Eliot realized they were filled with unshed tears. Fuck. Goddammit. He needed a smoke. And a nap.
“Jesus Christ, sit down,” Eliot said, hating himself as he grabbed the yelping Alice and forced her onto the bed. She glared up at him and wrenched her arm out from his hand. “Explain.”
Alice clenched her jaw. “Why do you care?”
It was a fair question. They hadn’t exactly bonded. He stared down at her for a long moment before letting out a stream of air through his nostrils, rubbing his temples.
“Look,” Eliot said, kneeling down and placing his hands on her knees. Her face twisted through a thousand complicated emotions at the touch. “We don’t know each other. I’m definitely not sure we’ll ever like each other. But you can’t just leave. What the hell would you do?”
Alice swallowed, the line of her delicate throat spasming. “Brakebills has this program, where they set you up with a—an office job. You retain knowledge of magic but you enter civilian life seamlessly.”
“Okay,” Eliot said, ducking his head to capture her eyes. “Let’s logic through that for a minute. You say Sayonara and Fuck you to Henry Fogg. I understand that impulse. Point to you.”
Alice’s lips twitched like she wanted to laugh, but refused to let herself. Encouraged, Eliot pressed his fingers firmer into her knees.
“Then you get a job in publishing or PR or whatever it is the overeducated do these days,” he said. He cocked his head. “Now, do you really think your energy will just—go away?”
“No. But it doesn’t have to be an interference,” Alice said, lip tucking between her teeth. Eliot laughed. What he was about to say wasn’t funny, but laughter still came out. Defense mechanism against the harsh truth of the world.
“Sure, that’s one possibility,” he said, flat. “That you’ll have magical power swarming inside you, but you successfully ignore it and everything goes hunky-dory. You wind up with a 401k, a nice husband from Michigan, and your happily ever after. Ta-da.”
“Or?” She asked, but she already knew.
Eliot’s eyes grew heavy and jagged in their focus. “Or it eats you alive and attacks everything true around you, without your input or permission. It gnaws at your synapses until your mind doesn’t exist anymore, not in any recognizable form.”
Alice closed her own eyes tight, her whole body shuddering for a moment. Her jaw continued trembling after she pulled herself together and stared him straight on once again. She wasn’t easily cowed. He had to give her that.
“It’s your call,” Eliot said, quiet. “But which one do you honestly think sounds more likely?”
“Maybe it’s still the lesser of two evils. Taking the chance for normalcy,” Alice said, her voice high-pitched and on the brink. “Magic is—Magic has destroyed so much. It ruined my life.”
“I know,” Eliot said, levering himself up to sit next to her. He didn’t know. But he knew. “Here’s the thing, though. I was being a shithead when I said we’re all one big happy family earlier. But I wasn’t totally bullshitting either. Because what’s actually useful about Brakebills isn’t the fucking classes or Henry Fogg’s eminence or the Valium-dulled mentors. It’s finding your people and knowing that you’re all in the shit together, yeah?”
“What an adorable sentiment,” Alice snorted, pushing her glasses up the bridge of her nose. “Shall we hold hands and sing This Little Light of Mine now?”
Eliot smiled, surprisingly soft and fond. “I changed my mind. I like you very much.”
Alice’s eyebrows twisted together along with her hands and she cleared her throat. Her eyes averted.
“Oh,” she said. “Um. Thanks?”
She sounded exactly like Quentin. His heart grew another size for her in that moment.
“Take it from me, a perennial fuck up,” Eliot said softly, ducking his head to look her in the eye. She allowed it. “Whatever it is you’re running from? It’s going to fucking find you wherever you are, wherever you go. At least here, everyone may be toxic and messy and shitty, but they get it. In some small measure, we all get it, Alice.”
Alice sniffed and wiped one surreptitious tear away from her face. Eliot did her the courtesy of pretending not to notice.
“Okay,” she said, straightening her posture from her torso.
“Okay?” Eliot asked, coaxing.
Alice cleared her throat and held her head high. “Fine. I’ll stay. On a trial basis.”
She said it like she was doing him a personal favor. That made her sound more like Margo. Eliot’s lips quirked up.
“I’m glad,” he said, chuckling. “Henry would have been very cross with me if you’d left. He’s such a worrywart.”
Alice squinted at him, slightly thrown. “You’re on a first name basis with the dean?”
“What can I say?” Eliot leaned back on his hands, cracking his neck. He grinned. “He insists on it.”
Alice blushed, like it had just occurred to her that jokes exist. Eliot grinned wider.
They sat in silence.
“Thank you,” Alice finally said quietly. “I really appreciate that you would—even after I was so—Anyway, thank you.”
“It was nothing,” Eliot said, waving his hand in an airy twirl.
She paused and furrowed her brow at him. “Sorry. But you actually still haven’t told me your name? Not-Todd?”
Eliot laughed, squeezing her shoulder once. She tensed, so he released her. But he continued to smile down. “Eliot.”
“Alice,” she said automatically, pointing to herself. Then she blushed again. “But, well, you already knew that.”
“I like the idea of us reintroducing ourselves,” Eliot said, truthfully. He leaned back on his hands. “Fresh start.”
“I like that too,” Alice said with a tiny smile, the most genuine he’d seen yet. She was endearing when she allowed herself to be. “I’m sorry I was so—”
Eliot waved her off. “Trust me, darling. You’re speaking to the King of Character Defects. I’m working on it. Ostensibly.”
“I’m working on some too,” Alice said, the shading in her bright blue eyes glinting dark for a brief moment. “Maybe we can work on them together. In parallel form. All for one, right?”
“Leave no man behind,” Eliot said, briefly nodding at her. She returned it, tentative smile growing.
Still relaxing on her bed, he stretched his arms back further, releasing his tension. What a weird morning, he mused as he stared up at her ceiling. She had solar system decals plastered throughout the expanse above along with, more unusually, a neon periodic table. With a weary and warm sigh, he started to press his fingers outward, moving to make some sort of graceful exit. But his rings clinked against one of the small horse statues. Twisting onto his side, he picked it up and held it up to the light. It glinted rainbows, like a prism.
“Horses are majestic creatures,” he said, trying to be polite. But Alice blossomed like a flower at his words.
“Thank you for saying that, Eliot,” she said, twisting her seafoam bedspread in her delicate hands. She smiled at him, bright and genuine. Her face was lovely and still. “I agree. Obviously.”
“Sure,” Eliot said. He felt his features twitch in a combination of amusement, confusion, and endearment. “Nothing like a palomino on a misty morning, right?”
The conversation was taking a too close to home turn. But the brightness in her posture and the melting ice around the crinkles of her smiling eyes was almost worth it. She nodded.
“It’s funny you say that. Palominos are actually my favorite,” Alice said, soft and warm. “They’re such delicate beauty, but you just know their hearts are wild. I feel the thrum of life each time I see one. How it’s supposed to be anyway.”
Eliot opened his mouth to respond, but found nothing but dry air. His chest hurt. So he gave her a tight smile and dipped into his vest pocket to pull out his flask. He took a long chug, never taking his eyes off Alice. Her blonde hair fell in front of her face. Impulsively, Eliot brushed it behind her ear. She blushed.
“Are you hungry?” Eliot asked, without really meaning to. “Feel like joining my friends and I for lunch?”
Alice smiled again.
Reaching the picnic clearing was a relief. It turned out having an intense conversation about the danger and hopelessness in magic juxtaposed with the beauty of human connection still didn’t exactly give Eliot and Alice a huge array of topics in common. They chatted about horses a bit more before Eliot couldn’t stomach it any longer. Then they talked about classes (one of which Eliot had skipped, oops.) And finally they fell into silence, with even his renowned social skills unable to entirely close the gap.
But Eliot had put the picnic enchantments on default, and he sighed with contentment at the sight before them. Big soft blanket, hanging twinkle lights, all of Margo’s favorite colorful pillows, and decadent brunch food. That, and the beautiful boy sitting cross-legged in the brightening sun and he was certain it was one of the best tableaus he’d set forth yet.
“Take a seat anywhere,” he said to Alice, catching Q’s attention at the same time. He sat up and shifted his palms under his legs, brow furrowing in curiosity and caution at the newcomer. “Afternoon, Q. How’d you beat us here?”
“Uh, hey,” Quentin said, raising himself up on his knees. His growing confusion was vivid. “My PA class was just a Welcome to Second Year, gird your loins speech from Fogg and then early dismissal. So. Um—?”
Eliot smiled as he followed Q’s gaze to the awkwardly shifting Alice, who had sat down on a purple and green patterned Marrakech-style pillow. But she still looked like she was considering bolting into the forest and making like Nell.
“Q, Alice,” he said, gesturing back and forth between the expert eye contact avoiders. “Alice, this is Quentin. He’s a second year too.”
“Hey, uh, nice to meet you,” Quentin said sitting on his palms. Alice offered a tepid little smile back and cleared her throat.
“When you said picnic, I definitely wasn’t picturing this,” Alice said, smoothing her skirt down. “It’s—elaborate.”
“Thank you,” Eliot said blithely, though he wasn’t certain she meant it as a compliment. Didn’t matter. He slid down and wrapped his arm around Q, offering him a brief smile as he did. Quentin raised his eyebrows in fast acknowledgement, though his wary eyes never quite left Alice.
She cleared her throat, looking between them. “So are you Eliot’s—?”
Q blanched adorably. Eliot sighed, nuzzling into his temple.
“Alas, ours is a forbidden love,” he said, squeezing closer. “Me, a prominent member of the landed gentry. He, a devout clergyman—”
But Quentin pulled away. “We’re not together. We’re friends.”
A storm cloud settled atop Eliot for the blink of a dark moment, but he batted it off with a languid smile. They weren’t together. They were friends. Both statements accurate. No reason to get pissy over facts, even if Q was a touch more ornery about it than fucking necessary in front of Alice.
Eliot lounged back against the soft blanket and twirled his hand in the air.
“I’ll never be tied down,” Eliot said, blithely plucking a grape off a cut vine. Quentin shifted again, staring down at his boots. Awkward as ever. New people always put him in a foul mood. To offset Q’s... Q-ness, Eliot gave Alice a warm smile.
“Please help yourself to the spread. More than enough to feed all of Luxembourg here, as I like it.”
Alice gave a curt nod and grabbed a plate, putting two crackers and a single block of cheddar cheese on it. It was a start.
“You do all this for just a few of your friends?” Alice asked as she sat back down, legs tucked prim under her knees. “That’s very thoughtful of you.”
“Eh, thoughtful, self-indulgent,” Quentin said with an equivocating head bob. He had chocolate around his mouth. Eliot rolled his eyes and handed him a napkin. “Tomato, tomato.”
Eliot shot out a quick pointer finger. “Never besmirch indulgence in my presence again.”
Alice stared at Quentin though her wide-rimmed glasses. She sniffed. “You seem to be enjoying it nonetheless.”
Quentin scrunched his brow together. “I mean, yeah? That’s not in question?”
He said it like it was a given, which sent a jolt of pleasant surprise through Eliot. Quentin often said kind things—kind and true and often more intense than a situation called for. But he rarely noticed the little things. To the point that it was actually in constant question. Vexing even. Because while he at least enjoyed the parties enough to attend each time, with his semi-permanent place by Eliot’s side, there was little indication of how much he appreciated the particulars. With his moody eyes, lined frowns, and complicated mind, it really wasn’t surprising that Quentin was hardly quick with a light compliment.
But it was still nice when it happened.
“So, uh, where are you from, Alice?” Quentin asked, moving past the sharp moment. At least he was trying to be somewhat polite now, even if his eyes were still averted. But that went to hell when Alice sneered and her shoulders tensed.
“I don’t see how that’s your business.”
He held his hands up in surrender and backed his neck into his shoulders. “Yup. Okay.”
But when Alice glanced down, jaw trembling, Q shot Eliot a look and mouthed What the fuck? He sighed and shrugged in what he knew was a vague, unhelpful response. He received a rightful glare back. But then Alice shuddered and swallowed.
“I’m sorry,” she said quietly, looking back up at Quentin with a shy frown. “Habit. I’m—I’m from Chicago, Illinois.”
Eliot was oddly charmed by the inclusion of the state in her answer. She valued precision. For a second, he almost lost himself enough to tell her that Chicago was the first major city he’d ever visited, unless you counted Fort Wayne, but who did? He almost told her that it had changed his life. Maybe saved it. But that would have been an entirely insane thing to say to new girl Alice Quinn of all people. So instead he refocused on the actual conversation at hand, which was going—
Well, it was going.
Quentin’s eyes brightened in that nerdy way they did sometimes. “Did you know that Chicago is called the Windy City because the politics are so ever-changing? And not because of the weather?”
Alice ticked her eyebrow. “Like I said, I’m from Chicago. So yes, I’ve heard that. Though there’s actually several potential points of origin for the nickname.”
“Oh. Right. Uh, yeah. That makes sense,” Quentin nodded. Too hard and too quickly.
“Chicago is actually fairly windy,” Alice said, twisting her hands. “Especially through the buildings.”
“You know, I read once that, uh, that Boston is actually the windiest major city. Like, around 12 miles per hour. Um, per year,” Quentin said, twisting his hands. “Do—do you know what Chicago’s average annual wind speed is?”
Eliot leaned forward with his chin propped up, staring at Quentin with wide eyes.
“No,” Alice said with a queasy smile. “I don’t. Sorry.”
With that, blessed silence fell upon them. Alice cleared her throat and tucked her hair behind her ears. Quentin sucked his lip in and out from between his teeth, shooting Eliot pleading little looks. To be a shit, he scrunched his brow up and tilted his head, like he was confused. Quentin darted his eyes meaningfully to Alice and raised his eyebrows, firm. And Eliot shook his head, like No comprendo.
The silence stretched on and on, until he couldn’t take it anymore. Taking pity on the poor, poor nerds around him, Eliot opened his mouth to speak, but found his words stolen by the most marvelous intrusion.
“How the hell are my favorite bitches on this most glorious first day?” The brassiest, bossiest voice in the world broke through the heavens. Eliot whipped his face upward, to the glorious light.
“Julia and Margo are here,” Quentin said, scrambling on to his feet. And then under his breath: “Thank god.”
“Took your sweet time, Bambi,” Eliot drawled out, still staring into her golden queenly face. She and Julia were laughing to themselves as they came closer, but as soon as Eliot was fully in her line of vision, Margo’s face broke into the adoration. He lived for it.
As always, Bambi was resplendent, dressed in spectacular red and fuck me heels. She contrasted boldly against her girlfriend’s usual alternating tight and drapey blah black uniform. Much the same, Margo had a special order Birkin bag tucked under her arm, while Julia had some old ratty tome. It was what it was, he supposed.
“Well, some of us actually go to class every now and then,” Julia said with a smirk, charming as ever. She plopped down on the blanket across from Q, greeting him with a wink and a kick at his ankle. “Instead of sipping on bottomless alcohol all day.”
“Cheers to you too, Wicker,” Eliot said, tipping said flask her way. She rolled her eyes.
It always pissed her off that he charmed his flask to be everlasting instead of, like, a bunch of wells in Pakistan. Every time, he responded with a quip, rather than the fact that the charm only worked with small energy reserves. A million times over, he’d prefer someone like Julia think he simply didn’t give a shit. Always easier that way.
At the thinly veiled contention between the love of her life and Julia, Margo let out a laugh and squealed as she jumped in his lap, straddling over his hips. She kissed him full on the mouth and Eliot could practically feel Alice’s bewilderment radiating off her. It was one of his favorite things on earth, to confuse the hell out of anxious straight girls vis-a-vis Margo Hanson.
“So are you Eliot’s—?” Alice asked, crossing her arms. Margo didn’t seem to hear her, so Eliot cupped Bambi’s face and sighed.
“She’s Eliot’s everything.”
Margo giggled again, biting his appled and smiling cheek. He bit back at her, laughing, and Alice let out a strange, high-pitched little sound. It instantly provoked Margo’s eyes to fully land right on the blushing new girl.
“What’s this?” She asked, gesturing in a circle with her hand, resting her chin on top of his head. “What’s happening?”
“This—“ Eliot gestured with one arm at the blonde, who looked like she was going to throw up “—is Alice.”
Margo rolled off him and scrunched her nose. “What the fuck?”
“Hi,” Alice said, with a tiny wave. Margo cocked her head entirely to the side and put her hands on her hips.
“What the fuck?” She repeated. Quentin cleared his throat.
“Alice Quinn,” he said out the side of his mouth with a frankly bratty emphasis on the surname. Eliot glared at him—he was being kind of a dick. But true to the script, it had the intended effect of brightening up Bambi.
“Hello, Alice Quinn,” Margo said, crawling toward her on her hands and knees. “I’m Margo. You’re very pretty. Has anyone ever told you that?”
Alice opened her mouth to respond, but only a squeak came out. Standard. Margo slid around her like a snake and ran her fingers through her blonde hair with a low chuckle.
“Ease up, Regina George,” Julia said, smacking her girlfriend’s thigh; Margo pouted, exaggerated. But Julia ignored her and reached out to Alice in an handshake offer. “Hey, I’m Julia. Nice to meet you.”
She took it. “Nice to meet you too, Julia.”
Julia smiled and Alice returned it. Quentin had always said she had a remarkable talent for making the vulnerable feel comfortable. It was apparently true.
“I actually know your Aunt Genji pretty well,” Julia said, brushing her long curled brown hair off her shoulders and over to one side. “I’ve done two of her retreats.”
The comfort dissipated instantly. Alice swallowed and shifted awkwardly on her legs. She stared off into the trees.
“Oh,” she said, her mouth trying to smile. But it came out like a disgusted grimace. “That’s nice. I guess. I don’t really know much about—That is, Genji and I haven’t really—”
But Julia was perceptive and she winked. “Not a favorite topic. Got it. No worries.”
“My family is kind of...” Alice swallowed and glanced down. She didn’t continue. Her grimace tightened and Eliot was moved to quickly change the subject. But the same impulse ended up coming from a different source.
“Hey, so, uh, um, how—how did you end up at Brakebills South exactly?” Quentin asked, stumbling more than usual. Alice seemed to appreciate it though, because she turned her full and blazing attention to Q. “And, like, why don’t I remember seeing you there?”
“I was shipped off right after my exam,” Alice said, taking a deep breath. "Phosphoromancy is a rare discipline and one Mayakovsky needed, so they didn’t waste time.”
“What’s Phosphoromancy?” Q asked with his mouth full of bread, because apparently the question was just that urgent.
Julia elbowed him. “Work out the root of the word, Q.”
He glared at her sidelong. “Are you an elementary school teacher now? What I mean is—“
“Well, I didn’t realize a literature and philosophy major had such an elementary grasp on language,” Julia said, pursing her lips and tilting her head. “Now, what’s the Greek phōs?”
Before Quentin could retort with a bite, Alice sighed and casually made her hand disappear.
“I bend light,” she said with a shrug. Quentin surged forward on his palms, staring at her reappeared hand with wide and wild eyes.
“Holy shit, how did you do that?”
Julia narrowed her eyes and cocked her head, suddenly taking her own deeper interest in Alice. “Well. No wonder Mayakovsky wanted to work with you.”
But Alice snorted. “You’re flattering him. He’s not that discerning. He needed literal laser precision for a battery. In exchange, he helped with—a family problem.”
She said helped like she meant took a massive shit all over, which tracked with what he knew about the Siberian. Eliot himself had quite the time at Brakebills South. He definitely understood how and why many had such contentious relationships with Mayakovsky, or even hated him. But in his experience, it was mostly bluster. At his core, the professor really cared. It had been a tough week, but in the end, he and Mayakovsky had truly grown to respect each other, and parted with a handshake. As men.
Less than two hours into the first day, Eliot had led something of a mutiny in retaliation for Mayakovsky referring to him as Gay boy with giant nose. The stand-off came to a head when the professor trapped him in his office and forced him to drink a potent toilet vodka. It sapped his energy in waves, rendering him a puddle of entropy. Then the two of them played multiple rounds of actual Russian Roulette with a .357 Magnum. No pun intended. A bullet had actually pierced Eliot’s skull at some point, but there must have been Horomancy involved because he survived. He still remembered the taste of exploded arteries and the smell of bone shards.
(Also, he shrunk Mayakovsky’s dick by two inches.)
“A family problem?” Margo asked, nosy as always. “What the fuck kind of family problem could that frozen cumstain help with?”
But Alice’s face darkened. For a spine-tingling moment, she looked like the most dangerous person Eliot had ever seen. “I don’t want to discuss that. It’s in the past now and I’m ready to move forward with my life.”
“Fine,” Margo said, raising her eyebrows. “Jeez.”
“But didn’t Mayakovsky—?” Julia bit her lip. “I don’t mean to overstep here, but I heard rumors about him and a female student.”
Alice sighed—her eyes flashing again—and she nodded. “Yes. That’s certainly accurate. And because of his history, he wasn’t allowed to be alone in a room with me. I mostly worked in isolation. That’s why I never saw anyone during your course last year.”
“Are you fucking serious?” Quentin asked, his mouth falling open with a wide frown.
“That’s abuse,” Julia said, eyes dark and lips trembling. “It’s no different than solitary confinement. That’s inhumane—”
“It was my choice,” Alice said, her head held high. Her blonde hair dazzled under the sunlight like crystalline white sand. “The information I gleaned was invaluable. And the solution, while painful, was inevitable and brought me closure. I don’t regret my decision.”
“Fuckin’ respect,” Margo said, leaning back on her hands. Eliot was inclined to agree. But Quentin and Julia kept shooting each other furtive little glances.
“So after all that, you just…returned?” Julia asked, eyes wide and baldly concerned. “Today?”
“No, I spent time in the infirmary overnight,” Alice said, her tone warming slowly yet surely. “Most students only spend a week in Antarctica and deal with far less invasive magic. So Professor Liston wanted to make sure everything in my physical and metaphysical states were running as they should.”
“Lipson,” Eliot gently corrected. Alice snapped her fingers and nodded.
“I guess that all makes sense. But Jesus,” Julia said with another shudder. “You’d think they’d at least try to get you in a comfortable space right away after such a harrowing year.”
“Actually, the infirmary has, like, super soft pillows,” Quentin corrected. He grabbed at the strawberry jam and smothered a biscuit within an inch of its life. “And pretty glass windows for walls. Not terrible. Worse places to be.”
Eliot poured several glasses of champagne, passing them around. It had been far too sober of an event. He downed his own first glass in a single chug and poured another. It was a touch on the sweet side, meaning Bambi would hate it. He poured her red wine and switched the glasses quickly, which she accepted without even glancing his way.
“Ah, yes,” Margo said, stretching out into the sun. Her bare legs shone, lithe and lustful. “Not Terrible—Worse Places to Be. The Brakebills credo.”
Alice snorted a loud laugh. She smiled, shy yet wide. “That’s funny.”
Bambi nodded with a yawn. “I’m hilarious.”
“You really are,” Alice said, a touch too intensely. Margo rolled onto her side, honey slow smile spreading. “I mean—it’s just—women aren’t complimented often enough for their senses of humor, so…”
“Yeah huh,” Margo said with another bite in the air. She giggled. “You’re adorable. I kind of want to eat you.”
Alice’s eyes went wide and she sputtered, making Margo laugh and laugh. But before she could say more—teasing and batting about her new plaything—Julia firmly patted the tops of her girlfriend’s thighs and smiled. She was changing the subject.
“So. Alice,” Julia said with a sip of her champagne. “If you’re a Phosphoromancer, you must be familiar with the work of Rita Ramirez, right?”
Like a lightning rod, Alice straightened up and practically shimmered with excitement. “Yes. Yes, absolutely. I find her approach endlessly fascinating. You’ve read Light and Shadow: An Exploration?”
“It’s practically my bible,” Julia said, giddy and scooting closer. “She was a Knowledge Student so she sometimes does lectures for our house. I could bring you as a guest, if you’d like.”
“That would be wonderful,” Alice said, gasping and clapping her hands together once. “I have to admit, I was disappointed not to be placed with the Knowledge emphasis. But my psychic powers are nil. Unfortunately.”
Now it was Margo’s turn to sit upright on a dime. “Unfortunately? Okay. No. Fuck that. Drink your bubbly and let me tell you all about why you’re the luckiest bitch on the planet to be part of the Physical family—”
As Bambi extolled the virtues of Physical Magic to a befuddled yet polite Alice, Eliot took the opportunity to scoot back toward Quentin. After tutting a quick muffling spell, he kicked his foot and raised his eyebrows impatiently.
Quentin held his hands out, throwing biscuit crumbs everywhere. “So—?”
Eliot rolled his eyes. “Alice. What do you think?”
Quentin frowned, like he was confused. “Um, she seems fine? Sucks about Mayakovsky for sure.”
“I like her,” Eliot mused, resting back on his hands. He crossed one over Quentin’s, matching his pose, so their shoulders touched. That way they could speak in relative privacy, even under the enchantment, while the girls chatted on the opposite side of the blanket.
“Yeah, I can see that. Even beyond the Genji thing, huh?” At Eliot’s genuine nod, Q frowned deeper. “Why?”
“What do you mean why?” Eliot smiled, tilting his head. Quentin shrugged.
“She doesn’t seem like your type.”
“And what, pray tell, is my type?”
Quentin snorted. “Definitely not Alice.”
Eliot jostled into him with a smirk. “Some people might say you’re not my type.”
“Sure, but, uh,” Quentin grinned. Dimpletown. “I’m a transcendent force of nature. Can’t really count it.”
Eliot hummed a small laugh out his tight throat and pulled his shoulder away. God, he was cute. He was so fucking cute. The urge to tip Q’s jaw up and kiss the cheeky smile right off his face was too much. Touch made it worse.
Weakness acknowledged. Fuck.
“I’m taking her under my wing,” Eliot declared, reaching out to his toes in a long stretch. He blinked away the last of his pounding heart. “So get on board, bucko.”
Quentin laughed again and bent over on his own torso, trying to meet Eliot’s eyes. “Under your wing? Uh, I think she’s probably good, El.”
He shook his head, curls bouncing. “At best, she has potential.”
“Potential for what? And, um, how strong is this muffling charm?”
Eliot ignored both questions. “Poor thing’s been traumatized by all the subzero temperatures and Russian asshat bullshit. She needs guidance to the land of frivolity.”
Quentin frowned and brushed his hair back with his wrist. “I guess. But is she interested in that?”
“She’s here, isn’t she?” Eliot countered, tilting his flute high into the sky, finishing his champagne. His profile was certainly elegant in the overhead light. “Like I said, I like her.”
Quentin scratched at his ear and pinched his face, sighing. “Okay, yeah, but, like? I mean, you’re not exactly someone who becomes friends with people.”
Eliot rolled his eyes and pursed his lips. “Says someone I became friends with a year ago.”
“But you didn’t actually want to be my friend.”
Eliot’s blood stopped moving.
His mouth fell slightly open, and his extremities were tingling hot. He was acutely aware of the heavy thud in his cracked chest. He blinked. He blinked again, maintaining composure. Was this—was this something they were actually going to acknowledge? And talk about? Here? Now?
“Um,” Eliot said, swallowing a gulp of too dry air. He swallowed again. He cleared his throat and shook his head, like there were cobwebs in his eyes. “What? Why would you—what?”
Quentin angled his head, eyes wide and earnest and confused.
“We’re only friends because you wanted to hook Julia up with Margo,” he said slowly. It was like he was placing down a precise code that could set off a bomb with one wrong move. “Because of the Welters tournament? It was literally the first thing we ever talked about?”
The world was in color again and Eliot laughed, dizzy. Right. Fuck. Right.
He pulled out his flask and took a long, long sip of the much harder alcohol. “Sure, of course. But what’s your point?”
“Guess I’m just wondering what the angle is here, if not Genji,” Q said with a shrug. He didn’t seem to notice anything weird as he swirled his champagne. The bubbles fizzed up angrily into a white foaming head. “Like, why is Alice so special? Compared to the tens of others you can’t be bothered with?”
Eliot considered the question, tapping his bottom lip with his flask in a metronomic motion. Calling his interest pity seemed unbefitting someone as forceful as Alice. There was a charm about her, a hidden softness that intrigued him as much as her clear capacity for biting meanness. But there were lots of people like that at Brakebills. They were all fucked up messes, like he’d said to Alice. But the vast majority still bored Eliot, even if he sometimes enjoyed getting drunk with them at parties. His inner circle was tiny and Quentin wasn’t off-base to question even a minor new inclusion, based on historical precedent.
“Proximity and opportunity for one thing,” Eliot answered slowly, drinking from the flask again. Alice’s cheeks flushed in pleasure at something Julia said and her nose scrunched in that snorting laugh. “I had a rare chance to talk to her in a private setting and liked what I had to hear. But also…”
He trailed off and felt the warm heat of Q’s eyes on him. “Also, what?”
Eliot took a deep breath, his lungs expanding wide in his rib cage before glancing sidelong at Q. “Alright, two minutes of realness?”
Quentin smiled, soft. “Sure. I’ll even allow three.”
“Magic fucked her up in some way,” Eliot said, speaking fast, not wanting to dwell more than he had to. “Not sure how, why, what, any of that Sherlock Holmes shit. Don’t really care about the details. But I have some experience in shitshow and I guess I feel compelled... to help.”
“Help?” Q was nothing but curiosity. Eliot was grateful for the lack of either judgment or adulation. He was always good at that.
He laid down on the blanket, back of his hand resting delicate on his brow. “I’ve learned some coping mechanisms along the way and—and no shit from you about whether they’re healthy or not, okay? What matters is they work.”
Quentin held his hands up and mimed locking a key over his mouth.
Eliot closed his eyes. “And life is bullshit and misery and all that melancholy nonsense I never talk about. Magic usually serves to make it that much worse.”
He could trace the outline of the sun in the blacks of his eyelids and could feel Q’s gentle, silent breaths beside him. Quentin didn’t respond, even though his usual defense of magic was probably swirling in his gut. He seemed to understand that Eliot needed more time than usual to get his point out. Again, grateful.
His chest thudded as he continued.
“But there’s small magics that—that can make the bullshit more bearable. Frivolous magics, party magics, if you want to call it that. My specialties,” Eliot laughed, a little sardonic, a little self-mocking. “And Alice—Alice seems like she needs that, more than most. More like how you or me or Margo need it, you know?”
There was no response except the rustling of the breeze against the papering leaves. They weren’t ready to descend yet, but the edges were curled and brittle. Margo made a butt plug joke in the background and Alice blushed scarlet. Julia cracked up.
Eliot swallowed again and levered himself up on his elbows, shrugging one shoulder in a faint movement. “That’s all.”
Quentin looked at him under a lowered brow, squinting. He ran his finger around the edge of his champagne glass and nodded, before finishing it in a single gulp. He put the flute down and it fell on its side. But instead of righting it, Quentin scratched the back of his neck and stared off, looking at Alice.
“That’s all,” he repeated with a low and incomprehensible chuckle. “That’s—yeah. Okay. Okay. I get it.”
Their eyes met and Eliot wasn’t sure if he was on land or at sea. Quentin smiled, nothing more than a muted upturn of his lips, and Eliot’s stomach swooped with something bittersweet and heady. It rose up his chest and into his throat, burning. He would have sacrificed his first born to know exactly what Q was thinking in that moment.
Suddenly desperate to liven the mood, Eliot sighed and tossed his head back. “Besides, we need a blonde. Too monochromatic right now.”
The effect was instant and as desired. Quentin rolled his eyes and blew his hair back from his face with a huff.
Just as he was about to dazzle with a retort, Margo broke their ward and grabbed at Eliot’s arm, pulling him close and into her latest story.
“Whenever you two hens are done clucking,” she said, sticking her tongue out at Q for good measure. He flipped her off with a grin. “You can come join the real goddamn party, okay?”
Eliot smiled and wrapped his arms around Margo from behind, sighing into her hair. “Anything for you, Bambi.”
She kissed his cheek and widened her eyes, excited. “Ooh. Let’s tell Alice about that time we created a bag of actual working dicks. She’ll love it.”
Three Weeks Later
Alice loved the story about the dicks about as much as Eliot loved the arrival of Welters season. But they all had to endure indignities now and again.
“Team,” Margo said, commanding and perfect in her pressed captain’s uniform. She huddled them in, pulling into a tight circle. She wrapped her arms around as many shoulders as her tiny wingspan could manage. She stared down each of them individually—Eliot, Q, Alice, nameless boy, nameless girl, Melanie (?), and the worst bitch on the planet, one Kady Orloff-Diaz. "Motivation time. Let's get settled."
"Go team!" Alice said, rollicking her hand up in the air. Kady looked at her like she was out of her mind. But Eliot winked at her and she smiled, pleased.
Margo's next words came out like Dilophosaurus spit. “You know the fucking drill. If any one of you goddamn anal leaking sons-of-bitches embarrasses me, I will roast your innards in each others’ blood. I do not believe in mercy. There is victory or there is a new circle hell, made for you. Capeesh?”
With a loud groan of boredom, Eliot took a swig of his flask. Margo slammed it onto the floor.
“If you’re drunk, you’re worthless,” she snapped. Eliot pulled a face, but dutifully tucked it into his waistband.
Kady cocked her head and put one hand on her hip. She popped her eyes, incredulous and rough. “We kicked ass and took names for the past four matches. Aren’t you supposed to, like, inspire us for the final win?”
Margo bared her fangs. “If the threat of displeasing me doesn’t inspire you, then I don’t know what the fuck would.”
Quentin frowned and nodded, like Fair point. Alice chewed on her lip, shooting her eyes up at Eliot like he could somehow protect her. Ha. At the same time, Nameless boy shifted on his feet and leaned in.
“But the last team is the Knowledge Kids,” he said, namelessly. “Everyone knows they choke on the tough stuff. We should be good.”
Margo touched the side of her head like it was in pain. “Yeah, until my motherfucking girlfriend became their captain. Do you really think I would ever fuck someone who sucks at Welters? This is the fight of our lives, people. Get in line.”
With a collective sigh and another earnest Go team cheer from Alice, who was trying so hard, they all walked to the edge of the board. Their arms were crossed and energy coiled in their guts. Once Margo was out of view, Eliot took another sip of his flask.
She had way too much power over him.
("I have exactly the right amount of power, dickweed," he could hear her reply in his head. He blinked, reminding himself she wasn't psychic.)
(No. Of course not. She wasn't.)
The game was about to start, but there was still no sign of the Knowledge Kids. Normally, they paraded in, happily cheering and waving at the spectators in the bleachers. But as each minute passed by without their presence, the more the stadium buzzed and murmured. Margo tapped her wedges impatiently, glaring up at the clock.
When it struck noon exactly, the stadium went black.
“What’s happening?” Alice asked, blue eyes barely visible and flitting in concern. Margo sighed, loudly.
“My personal hell,” Bambi answered. She ran her hands down her whole face, pulling the skin of her lower eyelids down, down, down.
Slowly, the familiar opening strands of “Eye of the Tiger” played louder and louder in the dark, growing into a crashing crescendo. When the power chords finally blasted out—firm, clear, and shifting electric guitar—the squares on the board lit up in alternating patterns of neon. Pink. Blue. Yellow. Green. Orange. Criss-crossed. Chess board. Starbursts.
Each time a new section lit up, another Knowledge Kid appeared. And once they were all there? They began dancing. In unison. Like a flash mob. Throughout their terrible middle school choreography, they held their hands out like tiger claws and shuffled their feet side-to-side.
It was the nerdiest goddamn thing Eliot had ever seen in his life. He was way too fucking sober.
Finally, the music crashed into a grand climax and the newly appointed Knowledge Captain Julia appeared. Two black lines were painted under her eyes and her fist was in the air, pumping to the beat. As the chorus began, she slid to the front on her knees, slamming an air guitar. She bit at Margo, who was shaking with either reasonable rage or weird desire.
Either way, Eliot twisted off the top of his flask and chugged heartily. A gentle hand tapped his shoulder. With a grin, Eliot passed it to a stunned Q. They passed it back and forth, wordless, as the song kept going on, and on, and on, and—
“Jesus Wilson Phillips Christ,” Margo hissed out through her teeth. Julia started running around the board, hands flying in the air, screams and whoops ricocheting. “Can we get fucking going? Tick-tock, assholes.”
Julia wrapped up the song with a smirk and a bow. The crowd went wild.
It was game time.
Margo took a square.
Julia took two.
Julia took a square.
Margo took two.
And so on and so forth, their vicious foreplay on display for all to see. No one consented to be part of it. It was indecent.
Julia slammed her fist against her chest, as Margo put out a valiant effort, took a square, and handed the globe over to Melanie (?) with a feral yell. She was officially required by the Welters guide book to share space on the board with her teammates. Melanie threw and it landed on a square that required midnight, at sea level, on the solstice. She took the square, and a little less than half the board was gone.
“Any last words, you shit-gobbler?” Margo snarled out at Julia, in lieu of praising her teammate.
“Please, bitch, I eat Margos,” Julia said, tongue between her teeth. “For breakfast.”
“Hey, uh, I thought smack talk wasn’t supposed to be true?” Quentin murmured into Eliot’s ear. For a second, he was unsteady, a low heart curling at his spine. But he blinked it away with a huff of half-amused laughter.
“Right?” Eliot nudged him. Then he sighed, resting his elbow on Q’s shoulder. “God, I hate Welters.”
Quentin nodded, focus intense on the game. “I mean, it’s definitely a sport, with all the shitty tribalism associated. But at the same time, the exploration of circumstantial theory is actually kind of—“
“I hate Welters,” Eliot whined over whatever boring shit he was saying.
“Poor baby,” Quentin deadpanned. Eliot kissed his forehead, tender in his deep mockery.
“You always get me, sweetheart,” he said, chuckling as Q shoved him off with a grumble and a blush. He wished he were a better man not to indulge in flustering Quentin, but he absolutely was not. Less than a beat later, though, Margo cut off his enjoyment and thrust the globe into Q’s chest. He clutched at it in shock.
“Look alive, Coldwater,” she said, eyebrows high. “Don’t fuck it up.”
“Uh, no promises,” Quentin said, lifting a hand in preemptive surrender. Eliot adjusted his sunglasses with a smirk. He was definitely going to fuck it up.
Julia stood at the very edge of the board, hands on her knees. She stared at Quentin, unblinking.
“Stop it,” Quentin said, low and mumbling. Julia’s eyes stayed wide, though her lips turned down.
“Stop staring at me.”
Julia laughed before mock-yelling behind her shoulder. “Hey, could everyone please turn around so Q can get it up?”
Margo stepped forward, all intimidation directed at her girlfriend. She spared Q an exasperated glance. “Ignore her. Do it.”
“I will drink your spinal fluid as my victory champagne,” Julia growled at the concentrated Quentin. He widened his eyes.
“Jesus, Jules,” he said, globe hand faltering. “It’s just a game. I’m your oldest friend.”
She was unyielding. “This is Welters, bitch.”
“You were never this intense about, like, Monopoly.”
“Throw it now,” Margo said through her teeth, pointing at the timer. With a big sigh, Quentin tossed the globe and it landed on a middling level circumstance, toward the left side of the board. He tried to create a fountain of electricity, which was respectable. But he just barely fucked it up and the square remained. And by just barely, Eliot meant totally. He totally fucked it up.
Margo smacked Q upside the head.
“You’re a dick,” she said, entirely meaning it as Julia cackled and clapped her hands high in the air. Quentin rubbed the back of his head, long strands of hair bunching and tangling. He stumbled over back to Eliot’s side.
“You have heard of the Pleiades, right?” Eliot asked, unable to help himself. Quentin rolled his eyes, dramatic and bratty.
The never-ending game continued on.
Eliot was often pithy. He talked big game about loathing things like weak pinot noirs, Todd, the majority of Quentin’s wardrobe, Todd, giraffe patterns on furniture, Todd, saxophones, Todd, and corn as a side dish like they were second nature. But in truth, he didn’t care enough about any of those things to truly hate them. At the end of the day, they were jokes more than anything. He joked. He liked to joke.
That is, except about Kady Orloff-Diaz. He never joked about Kady Orloff-Diaz.
Because Kady? She was an actual problem. She was the rare person to earn the full weight of his ire, the rare person who he thought on with more than light disgust and indifference. She was a fuck up of the worst kind and it was incomprehensible to him that he still had to look at her hooligan face, day-in and day-out. Not after that everything that had gone down. After everything she’d done. After everyone she’d—
It didn’t matter.
But as much as she was The Worst Bitch on the Planet, Kady was a helluva Welters player. That didn’t mean Eliot had to like her inclusion in the stupid game, his hands clenched into fists. He watched as Kady scowled and stomped her way to the front line through the slits of his eyes. Her letterman’s jacket uniform was longer than her tiny shorts and her severe side-parted big black curls were bouncier than ever.
She tossed the globe in a perfect arch, but it still landed in the shittiest position after the black hole center. It was on the line between two squares. When that happened, the rules clearly stated the call for an impromptu cooperative spell with a chosen teammate. And it had to be with someone who had yet to cast in the course of the current game.
So that left Kady with only two options: Eliot or Alice.
She cursed aloud and crossed her arms tight across her chest, lines between her eyebrows deepening into her skull. For a brief second, Kady’s eyes flitted over to him. It wasn’t a stupid thought on the outset. Much as he hated Welters, he didn’t actually suck at it when forced to contribute. Except—
“Oh, I fucking dare you,” Eliot said with a laugh, jutting his hip out defensively. His flask glinted in the light and he could feel Q’s wary eyes on him. Interactions between Eliot and Kady hadn’t always gone smoothly. But this time, she wisely chose not to escalate too much. Instead, she only sneered and held a middle finger high in the air, nails short and painted black. Most importantly, she turned away.
Finally, her eyes traced over to Alice, who had been wringing her hands throughout the game. Throughout the tournament, really. When forced to play, she did little more than a tepid one-square light bendy tricks. Not exactly the big money moves anyone expected from a Mayakovsky protege, but competent enough.
“You’re up, Blondie,” Kady said, resigned. Alice squeaked, but moved forward. Her eyes never left Margo, who was miming slitting her throat with one finger and squirting blood from the veins with her other hand
“Just send out a wave of telekinesis after I set the circumstances, okay?” Kady said, setting herself in position. “Can you handle that?”
Alice’s face flickered. “Yes.”
“Then do it on my mark,” Kady said, stretching her arms and giving Alice a lazy wink. “For the record, I’m no Margo, but I do give a shit. So try to get it right, okay?”
Alice’s eyes narrowed and she grimaced, sickly sweet. But she set herself into position.
“Yeah, Alice!” Quentin kind of yelled in a muted cheer, fist half-heartedly in the air. “You got this.”
Alice shot a glance back at the rest of the team. In particular, she took in Quentin’s gentle encouragement, Margo’s violent threats, and Eliot’s sheer indifference in two quick beats. Her face flickered again, sharper and wider. She set her jaw and pursed her lips, turning back to Kady with something like determination.
“Wait,” she said, placing her hand on her forearm. “You’re a Battle Mage, right?”
At Kady’s slow nod and furrowed brow, the start of a tiny smile graced Alice’s lips. “Can you break down a Fergus’s Missile Animation so that it’s a particle Möbius strip?”
Eliot and Quentin caught curious eyes. Margo’s lips puckered into a satisfied smirk, while Kady let out a coarse laugh and cocked her head, sucking in her cheeks. Alice blinked up at her innocently.
“Uh. Sure, Blondie,” Kady said, with an edge of more laughter. “I can do that. But you know if you fuck that up—"
“We’re all dead,” Alice said, matter-of-fact. She shrugged. “Don’t worry. I can handle it.”
Kady blew air out her mouth and held her hands up with a grin. “Fuck it. At least it’d be a dope way to go. Casting in three.”
In three...two...one, Kady sent out a shock wave from her hands. Alice stepped forward and paused the shimmering magic in the air with delicate conductor’s hands. She stretched the chemical composition over the board like it were glittering taffy. With a sharp downturn, the loop went into the board, shaking the stadium like an earthquake.
For a few long moments, Alice stood there, breathing in the energy. From across the room, Julia stalked her way closer, eyes narrowed and mouth turning up into a reluctant but sure smile. Eliot put his hands on his hips and felt his own breath still, as Alice slowly stretched her arms out, wide, like a diver.
She slammed her hands together. Every particle of light bent and burst into a thousand spinning halos, blinding and dizzying and denser than the universe.
“Holy shit, what the fuck?” Quentin’s voice carried over, drowning and falling apart in the cosmic gravitational collapse around them.
It wasn’t a black hole. It was something brighter, more star-like, densely packed with atoms and neutrons and more power than any of them had ever seen. On instinct, Eliot stepped forward and slammed his arm out, palm firm on Q’s chest behind him. Beside him, Margo stepped forward, casting hands at the ready for back-up.
“Alice!” Eliot shouted, but his words were lost in the soundlessness.
But the glowing Magician (fuck, what a Magician) started moving her hands, elegant, precise, and calm. If Julia’s magic was primal, Alice’s was a symphony, harmonizing and swelling and dipping in accord with the structure. With art and skill and untouchable, unfathomable talent.
The shining white, blue, purple, infinitely colored light swirled outward. It spun over itself like a giant nucleus, tens of thousands of revolutions in each passing second. They all should have been dead in its presence, but Alice’s hands and steady breath kept it at bay, bending the gravity and the light beams to stabilize it. It could have been her small, loving pet. Finally, she nodded at Kady, who sent a final burst at the star, where it exploded into several fireworks. Each of them fell on a respective remaining square, entirely clearing the board.
Julia’s jaw dropped and she fell to her knees.
The drums obviously announced the win. But again, like with Julia exactly a year prior, no one moved. No one spoke. This time though, the mood was starkly different. Where there had once been childlike wonderment, there was now astonishment and not an insignificant amount of fear.
Quentin was the first to shift.
He gently slid out of Eliot’s tight grip and inched his way toward Alice with wide eyes. He stared at her for a moment and swallowed, his throat shaking. He glanced up at the ceiling and then back down to the floor, before finding Julia, who was still gaping and kneeling. The silence was a heavy thing, cloaking them all as the enormity of what they’d just witnessed—the absurd, terrifying amount of power Alice had been keeping close to the vest—sunk into their cell structure.
But then Q’s face broke out in a rare, wild grin and he grabbed Alice’s hand, holding it up in the air.
One full second later, the Physical Kids and the crowd erupted in cheers. Alice turned bright red and looked over her shoulder at Eliot, who offered her a quick bow and a golf clap. Kady, in an adrenaline rush, was yelling feral and wrapped her arms around Alice, screaming Who the fuck are you? Goddamn! before dashing off to the crowd to meet whoever the fuck was her friend these days. The nameless kids and Melanie (?) started chanting Alice’s name. Even Julia, defeated and humbled, hopped to her feet in a standing ovation.
(Meanwhile, in an elegant display of sportsmanship, Margo was running along the edge of the board pointing at each of the Knowledge Kids, jumping and screaming, “You can suck my dick! And you can suck my dick! And you can suck my dick twice, motherfucker! And you can—“)
It had been the best game any of them had ever seen. Bar none. It was electrifying and exhilarating. Eliot was going to throw the party of the century to toast the feat. Because even if it was Welters’ based, he was happy for Alice. Shy and cautious as she was, he knew it always felt good to make a mark. Searching across the board, he smiled when his eyes landed on her once again. She jumped up and down, laughing and holding onto Quentin’s arm. They kept trying to high-five but missed each other’s opposite hand in their excitement, over and over again. In turn, Q grinned breathless at her, bright and thrilled and dimpled.
Eliot swallowed and his eyebrows twitched.
With a steadying breath, he took another drink from his flask. The burning whiskey filled the inexplicable dark hole, fraying at the edge of his gut. He rationalized the sensation with another swig. It happened sometimes—ennui in the face of joy. It was especially prevalent through the fast and hard type of happiness, like a sports win or a thirty minute sitcom or a quickie. Like his body knew it was whiplash, rather than solid ground.
It was fine.
Just one of those moods.
The party descended into the Brakebills evening and a smoky, lush haze faster than usual.
Upbeat music thrummed through the Cottage. Margo stood on a coffee table, surrounded by her usual awed audience, yelling things like But she'll remember, with advantages, what feats she did that day. She was roaring victorious and stomping her feet into the wood and her fists into the air. Behind her, Quentin and Julia passed a joint back and forth. They were half-hidden in the reading nook by the fireplace, giggling to themselves. They blew obscene smoke rings, with Julia favoring Georgia O’Keefe style labia. In every other nook, the rest of the world danced in pulsating waves, hopped up on adrenaline and slowly cross-fading into drunken stupors.
Even Eliot was feeling the buzz more than usual and decided to kill two birds with one stone. He’d make a caffeine-infused cocktail and check on the skittish Miss Quinn, who had long disappeared to the relative quiet of the kitchen. He'd watched her dash off from the traditional Throne of Pillows, like she'd realized exactly how much attention she’d called to herself. Her discomfort wasn't surprising, but he felt compelled to reassure her and get her back in the more important game. That is, the social one.
But after he twisted his way through the house, stopping to chat with acquaintances and nibble a few ear lobes along the way, he stopped cold as he entered the kitchen. It was usually the quietest place during the most raucous parties and the best place to grab some alone time.
Only, Alice wasn’t alone.
“Guess you can probably do a simple telekinesis spell then, huh?” Kady’s stupid voice let out a rough chuckle. Eliot gripped the door frame, hatred flowing cold. “Sorry I was such a condescending asshole.”
“You said it, not me,” Alice’s light voice replied. She was bent over in front of the refrigerator, pulling out baby carrots, raw broccoli, and ranch dressing.
“No wonder Mayakovsky kept you to himself for so long,” Kady said as Eliot stepped fully inside. She was sitting on the counter and her eyes were zeroed in on Alice, who fixed herself a small snack plate. She offered to Kady who gave a disbelieving snort in response and a firm head shake. Alice shrugged and took a snapping bite of the raw vegetables.
Kady slinked forward and smirked. “To be honest, when I saw you, I kinda assumed it had to do with your tits.”
For a second, Alice froze, half-eaten carrot in hand. She whipped around toward Kady, looking like she was going to smack her right across the face. A reasonable instinct. But at Kady’s teasing smile, with just a hint of solidarity rather than mocking, Alice relaxed and raised an eyebrow.
“He’s a complex man,” she said, slyer than Eliot had heard her yet. “Perfectly capable of dual motivations.”
Kady almost choked on her drink and then laughed, surprised.
“You’re interesting,” she said, lips twisting with approval. “Can’t figure you out.”
Alice tucked her hair behind her ears and the tips of her cheeks flushed. “Not sure why you’d say that. What you see is what you get.”
“Uh-huh,” Kady said, leaning in even more. She was almost parallel with the floor. “Yeah. That’s total bullshit and you know it.”
But when Alice’s face flared with defensiveness, Kady cocked her head to the side and gave her something like a warm smile. If such a succubus were capable of warmth.
“Not a bad thing, by the way,” she said, finishing her drink and grabbing the bottle of gin next to her. “Keep ‘em on their toes.”
Alice bit her lip and then smiled, their eyes meeting in newfound kinship.
Which. Hmm. Enough of that. Eliot cleared his throat, finally announcing his royal presence. Alice gave him a sweet smile and Kady arched a brow.
“Alice, would you be a dear and indulge Bambi?” Eliot said, taking her hand in his and kissing it. “You’re the belle of the ball and she’d like to show you off a bit.”
Not entirely inaccurate, though Margo had certainly not asked for Alice and never would. She definitely would be happy to see her. And she'd be even more happy to publicly take credit for the game winning move, referring to Alice as her mentee. Still, anything to get Alice the fuck away from Kady was a good thing. White lies made the world go ‘round.
“Fine,” Alice said, sticking her tongue out a little. "If I have to. O Captain, My Captain, I guess."
With a chuckle at her sour tone, Eliot ran a quick hand over her hair, tracing his thumb across her jawline.
“I’ll meet you out there with a cocktail to save you soon, I promise.”
At that, Alice brightened and she smiled, more resolute in her acceptance of Eliot's request. She stopped at the door and turned around with a polite smile. “See you around, Kady.”
Kady raised the whole bottle of gin in a salute. “Later, Blondie.”
Eliot wanted to tell her to fuck off. But he refrained from engaging at all. Maturity, thy name was Eliot Waugh.
After Alice disappeared into the dense crowd, the thrumming beats of the living room music pounded dull. They stretched over the otherwise chilling silence in the cavernous space. Eliot shot Kady snide smile and turned his back on the intruder in his home. He didn’t have any time for her bullshit. But Kady was never one to leave well enough alone.
“Sup, douchebag?” She asked, hitching a boot onto the counter, right where people prepared food. She rested her arm—lazy and dominant—on her knee.
“Never let anyone tell you that charm school wasn’t worth the investment, darling,” Eliot said, refusing to look at her as he scoured the cabinets. He found his favorite mug, hidden away from the grubby hands of the plebeians. “You shine.”
“Doesn’t your whole Wildean schtick get exhausting after awhile?” Kady asked between swigs of gin, right from the bottle. “I promise I won’t tell if you feel like chilling out and wearing sweatpants one of these days.”
“See, that’s what I love about our bond,” Eliot said. He whipped up his famous frothed Irish coffee with Italian roast, bourbon, and inherent magical energy. He smirked up at her, glare as dark as he could manage. “Nothing but trust. How we can just be together, you know?”
“Blah blah,” Kady said, hopping onto the floor. “Snark as a defense mechanism is kinda played out, man.”
“No snark,” Eliot said, flourishing tuts over his mug. Steam rose in perfect curls. “I adore you and your whole crude Juvenile Delinquent-meets-Second Rate Joan Jett barbarian thing.”
Kady winked. “Joan Jett’s a fuckin’ singular badass. Compliment accepted.”
Eliot took a long sip of his coffee, leveling her with the full power of his distrust and disinterest. No more games.
“How’s Marina?” He asked, lips curling upward like knives. “That’s her name, right? She still pegging you—sorry, begging you for scraps of inconsequential magic?”
Pins dropped like nuclear bombs.
Kady’s jaw worked and her fingers twitched. “Go fuck yourself.”
“Now, now,” Eliot chuckled, smooth as his best drink. “Watch those hands. I had this whole place cleaned. Don’t need any more messes.”
“Then I’d recommend walking away,” Kady said. But she crossed her arms into herself nonetheless, like a straightjacket on an uncontrollable child.
“You’re the one in my kitchen,” Eliot said, looming. Kady scowled, swallowing hard. She stalked her way toward him until there was barely a foot of space between them.
“Here’s what it is,” she said, snapping her face up at Eliot’s. Dangerous game. “I live in the Cottage. I go to school at Brakebills. And I don’t actually owe you shit, bud. I’ve paid the Piper. You should move the hell on.”
“I don’t give a shit what the school’s stance is on your nonsense. You fuck with mine, you fuck with me,” Eliot said, even and calm. “I say when your debt’s out.”
But Kady had the audacity to laugh.
“Huh. Did I really fuck with yours? Sure about that? Because from where I’m standing—“
Eliot growled from the back of his throat and sneered his lip. “Get out of my sight. Now.”
Kady’s biting green eyes met his and she raised her hands in double-barrel middle fingers, backing her way out of the kitchen. Eliot stared her down, until she disappeared in the crowd. And once she was totally out of sight, he let his eyes close and ran a hand through his hair, shaking with his ragged breath.
He poured more bourbon in his mug.
True to his word, Eliot brought Alice a cocktail and rescued her from Margo’s clutches.
He started with a simple Pimm’s cup and she drank it way too fast. Then he gave her a Signature Cocktail, which she raved about for two minutes straight. Before he knew what was happening, the two of them ended up sprawled on the couch, shoes kicked off, and downing more alcohol than was strictly responsible, in a glittery, giggly haze. Eliot lit a cigarette and blew her Möbius strip rings, in honor of her glorious victory. For once, she had nothing snide to say—she clapped over and over again, laughing and shimmying deeper into the couch.
“I’m not,” Alice held her fist to her mouth and hiccuped, “I’m not an experienced drinker.”
It was unfairly endearing.
“Thank god you found me then,” Eliot said as he smiled down into her hair. She was now on her third Manhattan, after they’d joyously discovered her new love of whiskey and her abiding love of maraschino cherries. “Fate certainly brought us together.”
Alice giggled into his chest. “You’re the most handsome man I’ve ever seen in my entire life. How do you exist?”
Now it was Eliot’s turn to laugh. He patted her hair with all the fondness in the world.
“Didn’t take you for such a sweet talker, Quinn,” he said, squeezing her in tight. “Keep it up.”
Alice snorted out an unladylike giggle again and fixed him with an intense stare behind her Daria glasses. She pursed her lips like she made a decision.
“Lemme try,” she said, reaching up to his mouth and grabbing his cigarette. Staring down like it was her final challenge, Alice gave a curt nod and brought it to her mouth. She inhaled once, frowned, and immediately handed it back. She coughed, gagging her neck out.
“That’s horrible,” she said, conclusively. “You shouldn’t smoke.”
Eliot meant to retort with something witty, but his eyes caught into the corner of the room. He’d assumed Margo and Julia had long disappeared together upstairs to get their battle energy out. So he was surprised at the unexpected sight of Julia and Quentin, sitting together on the daybed, deep in what appeared to be an argument.
Julia whispered forcefully, her hands gesticulating through each of her likely points. In response, Q tensed up and shot his arms out, pushing the relentless and intent Julia off him. But she curled her legs under herself and nudged her nose into his cheek, poking his side with a firm index finger. In response, Quentin snapped his face away and set his jaw into a tremble. He was adept enough at both lip-reading and their interpersonal dynamic to know he said Fucking let it go, Jules.
Eliot frowned and considered going over, to see what the hell had crawled up their craws this time. But as he shifted, Quentin cursed again and stormed away, arms crossed and legs shuffling in his low, angry stride. Julia stared off into space, hand pressed against the top of her head. But before curiosity and concern got the better of him and wrenched him in the same direction as Q, Alice tapped his knee and stole his attention.
“So,” Alice said. She giggled, bringing her face slightly too close to Eliot’s. She was very drunk. “So, like, can I ask you a weird question? It’s super weird. So stupid.”
Forcing any thoughts of Quentin out of his head, Eliot rested his cigarette on an ashtray. He grinned and put an arm around her shoulders. “Hit me.”
“Do you—do you know any hot single people?” She asked, way too loud in his ear. “That would maybe wanna—I was in Antarctica for a year.”
He stared at her for a long beat as the meaning behind her words hit him. He blinked. Then, before he could help it, he sputtered out laughter that cascaded from his chest and out his mouth.
“Wait. I’m sorry,” he held his hand to his mouth and huffed out several shaking laughs. “Are you—are you asking me to help you get laid?”
At her stern expression and short nod, Eliot fell over onto his lap, tears streaming down his cheeks as he kept laughing, and laughing, and laughing.
“I’m serious, Eliot!” Alice said, hitting his leg once. He snorted several more laughs before taking a deep breath and biting his lip, facing her head-on.
“Honeylove,” he said, kissing her hand and pulling it to his chest. He snorted again, unable to keep the giggles at bay. “Pumpkin pie. You are a hot woman. Shake what the good Lord gave you, render an unsuspecting dolt with acute cardiac arrest, and go to town, yeah?”
But Alice shook her head. “I’m not good at that.”
“Give it an ol’ college try,” Eliot said, wiping under his eyes. He cackled again. “You may be shocked at your own hidden talents. Fish in a fucking barrel.”
God, he was laughing all over again. What the fuck. It was so funny. He was a little drunk too.
He kept laughing. Maybe he was more than a little drunk.
“Eliot.” Alice pinched at his side, rather hard. He made a displeased sound and met her eyes. They were wide and earnest, and he actually felt a little bad. “Look, I know myself, okay? Casual sex and I—it would be a disaster.”
Eliot cleared his throat and he sniffed, taking a sip of his drink. He cleared his throat again, shaking off any residual laughter.
“Okay, okay,” he said. He pursed his lips and looked down at her. He tried to take her as seriously as she was asking him to. “Then I’m not actually sure what you’re looking for from me.”
Alice clenched her hand around her glass, frustrated. “Look, I know I’m not easy to like, okay?”
Oh. Oh. His heart squeezed and he felt a protest rise in his throat. But it died in his mouth. She was too smart for any patronizing bullshit.
“You can be a bit—defensive, off the bat,” he said instead. He touched her hand, a soft caress. “Your guards are up. I get that.”
“But everyone likes you,” Alice said simply, like water was wet. Eliot laughed at that and took a sip of his drink. She was sweet. "Everyone likes you. I've analyzed this fully. That's why you can help me."
“Except your hypothesis is invalid,” he said, with a good natured smile. “Plenty of people dislike me. Even more would love to see my grand fall from social grace. Trust me.”
Alice narrowed her eyes and stared around the party, though she were searching for potential offenders. “Because they’re jealous.”
Jesus. Thank fuck Q wasn’t around for this conversation. He’d never hear the goddamn end of it. The slack-jawed groans of Oh, holy fuck, don't say shit like that to him rang clear as a bell in his minds' ear.
Eliot patted her knee and sighed. “You’re being very good to my ego.”
Alice smiled lightly and ran her pink fingernails up and down her skirt. “Here's my thought process. Many people like you. You...like me. So maybe you could—you could introduce me to someone who would give me a chance because you like me. I’ve been alone for a long time.”
Damn if that wasn’t almost the most heartbreaking thing Eliot had ever heard. He sighed, running his hand through his hair with little thought toward his meticulous styling.
“You mean, like, a boyfriend or something? Love or some shit?”
Alice’s nose twitched. “Or something. Or some shit.”
Eliot clenched his jaw and shook his head.
“I’m not really—“ he cleared his throat and stared off at a fixed point in space, a strange darkness weighing heavy on his chest. He chuckled, sardonic. “Monogamy has never historically been my thing. I’m not sure I’m your best bet here.”
“Look, if you help me? If you set me up on one date with a friend of yours?” Alice said slowly, twisting the pleat of her terrible skirt in her hands. “Then I’ll introduce you to my aunt. As a recommendation. For her winter retreat.”
Eliot considered it for a long moment. He could already see himself shipping off to the Canary Islands, with untold magic and champagne showers both at his easy disposal. It would be decadent, lewd, ecstatic—everything he wanted out of his deep thrusts towards the heights of all life had to offer. Really, he’d be a stupid, stupid man to refuse, especially when so politely and freely given.
Alice sniffed again, looking straight down into her glass. "I've been alone for a long time."
“How about a counteroffer?” Eliot said, placing his ringed hand over Alice’s fidgeting. She shot her eyes up under her worried brow and through her big-rimmed glasses. “How about I help you because we’re friends? And friends help each other?”
Her face burst into sunlight.
“That would be really nice, Eliot,” Alice said, scrunching her shoulders up to her ears. “I don’t have a lot of… Or really any… Well. That would be really nice.”
Goodness. What a love dove she really was underneath it all. He traced his finger across the line of her jaw and chuckled. Then he set his face quite seriously and looked down at her from his full height.
“If we do this, though, we do it my way, understood? No compromises,” Eliot said, only half-joking. Alice took it as entirely earnest though because she sat up straight and nodded. She was eager and ever the consummate student. Eliot liked her so much more than he thought he would.
He put on thoughtful face and tapped his chin. “What kind of people have you dated in the past?”
“Um, it’s been mostly—men, I guess,” Alice said, snuggling into Eliot, though her eyes darted. Intriguing. “Men with sweet smiles who do their homework every night and take me on dates.”
“That sounds nice,” Eliot said before he could stop himself, something sharp catching between his ribs. Alice rolled her eyes.
“I guess,” she sighed again. “But really, Eliot, I trust your judgement. Whoever you think I might like. Or who might like me. I'd appreciate it so much.”
Oh. Well. Um. O...kay. Eliot shook the drowning water out of his ears and decided to bypass over that. Instead, he nodded and entwined their hands, ideas percolating wildly in his fast mind. A vision of a soft-spoken, nice smiled boy-next-door with a Brakebills' degree danced in his head. Oh. That could be...perfect? Eliot ran his tongue over his teeth and smirked.
“I think,” he said, with a disbelieving laugh, “that I actually may have someone for you.”
And Alice smiled, yet again. He could get used to that. But just as he was about to say as much, he noticed her tense slightly and glance up above them, her eyes and lips frowning. Eliot followed her gaze upward at the intrusion. His own reaction was the exact opposite—he smiled. Warmth swirled in the base of his stomach, fuzzy and cozy, like a hearth steaming mulled wine.
“Hey stranger,” Eliot said lazily to Quentin, who waved back with an unlit cigarette resting between his fingers. Alice frowned deeper. “Where have you been all night?”
Q sighed and gesticulated around the room, frustrated. His eyes were wide and endless. “You know. Here and there. Talked to Julia for awhile and she was being—well, Julia. You know.”
Eliot grinned. “Fuckin’ Julia.”
Quentin raised his eyebrows and rubbed at his nose with the back of his wrist. “Anyway, I was going to see if you wanted a smoke break, but you’re, uh, busy, so—”
But before Eliot could jump up and say that yes, yes, he wanted to take a smoke break with Q, Alice beat him to the punch and abruptly stood up, her hands on her hips.
“Quentin, you shouldn’t smoke!” Alice yelled in his face. Her cheeks were bright red.
She was extremely drunk.
“Uh, I mean, what?” Q glanced back and forth between Eliot and Alice, with particular interest at the ashy cigarette dangling from Eliot’s lips. He shrugged.
“You really shouldn’t,” Eliot said, just to be a dick.
Quentin rolled his eyes and brought the unlit cigarette up to his ear, about to tuck it there for safekeeping “Yeah, okay, sure.”
But Alice slapped at his forearm with the same ferocity. His cigarette bounced out and onto the floor, and Q bent down to pick it up with a muttered Shit.
“You should listen to Eliot more!” Alice shouted down at his crouched head before settling back against him with a huff. "And be nicer to him!"
“You're my dream girl,” Eliot said, smiling down at the steaming, lovely, charming, incredibly intoxicated Alice. “We are going to have a great time.”
She giggled, breathy and completely folded over onto Eliot’s lap. It was so very, very charming. His own tipsiness tickled his pleasure center and he was overwhelmed with the desire to pull Q into their cuddle pile. But instead, Quentin sighed and rolled his eyes, stepping out of reach.
“This is hell,” Quentin said, putting the cigarette back in his mouth and shaking his head as he walked away. “I died and now this is hell.”
Laughing hard, Eliot leaned into Alice conspiratorially and spoke just loud enough for Q to hear, “He’s so dramatic.”
His middle finger went up right on cue and he disappeared toward the patio. About to bid her adieu and head out to Quentin's side, Eliot stroked Alice’s hair, twining the soft strands between his fingertips. In response, she snorted and buried her face against his collarbone, giggling at nothing and nonsense.
Q could wait a few more minutes.