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Not Always Folly

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Brakebills University, October 2016

*

(Part Two of Our Fabulous Story, Entitled: He’ll Catch You a Motherfucking Catch)

 


 

 

Eliot would rather die than wax his chest hair. He preferred Basquiat to Delacroix. The best sex of his life had been in a piss-soaked Metro station. He was sublime with many interruptions.

He was a debauched hedonist who valued meticulous planning. He was witty and charming, angry and aloof. He was larger than life. He was subtle. He was a diplomatic tyrant. He made his home in the margins of society and he thrived at the top of the food chain. He was a genius who never read. He was an aesthete who fucked shit up. He looked good in both silver and gold. He found Oscar Wilde a touch overrated.

He reveled in shock and awe, and in righteous fuck you’s to any and all assumptions, especially about himself. He liked to surprise people, to catch them off-guard. “Eliot would never” was his cocaine. Gasps were his heroin. There was nothing better than flipping expectations on their cherry red little heads. It was poetry dunked in champagne. It was a fistfight in finery. So in the same vein—

Eliot didn’t give a shit about his birthday.

Every year, Bambi threw herself the blow out of all birthday blow outs. Most recently, she'd orchestrated a true bacchanal, complete with sex ritual wine and mandatory nudity. Between the two of them, Eliot was the more theatrical and decadent, so the clear expectation was for his celebration to always outpace hers. But honestly, Eliot would always be content to let his life anniversary pass by without any notice at all. Well, except with a single glass of midnight champagne and a slow hand job. Anything else was a nice bonus, but inconsequential. Appreciated, but more endured than enjoyed. 

But for his 25th birthday, Eliot made specific plans to celebrate. True to his lack of interest, he still didn’t want a big fuss. Instead, he planned a simple sojourn into the city for edomae sushi and great sake. Though he still made sure he found a restaurant that served, like, salmon rolls or whatever. Goddamn Q was so unadventurous and bitched for a week after trying uni that one time ("It tastes like fucking ammonia, Eliot"). Never again. Then, the small group would head to his favorite bar in the city, for copious drinks and dancing. Tame, maybe. But the evening wasn’t actually for him.

It was for Alice.

No one liked an actual blind date—even the best ones were so very awkward. But a small birthday gathering was the perfect excuse for the right atmosphere. Intimate and casual, with tucked away corners and more than enough potential for alchemical sizzle. For two weeks, Eliot planned and maneuvered, getting every detail suited for that exact goal. And now, the day had arrived. October 8th in all its World's Greatest Blessing glory. He made himself a morning gin martini and took an extra long hot shower. Then he sent a forbidden on-campus email, re-confirming the addition to the tiny and exclusive guest list. It officially included only himself, Bambi, Q, Julia, Alice—

—and Mike McCormick.

“Mike McCormick? Are you fucking joking?”

Quentin’s voice had no inflection except unimpressed. 

Eliot shot over an unamused glare and refilled their martini glasses with a tetchy sigh. He hadn’t expected claps and hoorays, but he at least expected Q to see the fucking logic in the idea. Plopping a couple of extra olives in Q’s drink, he took a long sip and raised his eyebrows.

“Mike McCormick,” Eliot confirmed with a smile around the chilled rim. It was perfect. The vermouth in particular was magic without magic. The mid-morning Saturday air was crisp with enhanced autumn. The breeze smelled like nutmeg and the leaves were fire-orange against the brilliant sky. It was a lovely morning and sourpuss friends weren't going to ruin a damn thing. 

Quentin squinted, frown moody in the golden light. “What would Alice have in common with Mike McCormick? She’s smart.”

Eliot mock-gasped and swirled his cocktail. “Snob. Coastal elite.”

“The last time I saw him, he talked my ear off about the Texas Revolution,” Quentin said, bone dry. “It was so fucking boring. I considered memory-wiping everything I know about the Alamo, out of spite.”

Eliot shrugged. “Pretty trumps interesting.”

“Jesus. He’s not that pretty,” Quentin said, grumbling into his fingernails. Eliot rolled his eyes. Mike was that pretty and Q knew it.

Mike McCormick was a Brakebills alumnus, about two years out from graduation. He’d been a third year when Eliot was a fresh-faced dorm dweller, wide-eyed and dick-starved. But more importantly, Mike was a broad-shouldered, homespun Texan hunk. A beer drinker with a love of jean jackets, the Dallas Cowboys, and Dave Matthews Band. Since graduation, he had worked in some Magician public relations shit with a political science slant. Probability and governance magic. Mike's discipline was actually portal creation, which proved helpful for his personal ambitions. He spent all his time back and forth between NYC, DC, and Lubbock, in open secret preparation for a muggle Senatorial run in 2024.

Apropos of nothing, Eliot had desperately wanted to fuck him the first time they met. 

He was hot—actual hot-hot, unlike the majority of the sweet yet potato-faced boys that populated Brakebills. But alas, Mike had dated a squeaky-voiced mascara commercial named Courtney for years. After the disaster that was the Brett incident—involving a diving board, some ketamine, and a pissed off drag queen, oh my—Eliot had decided the thrill of fucking other people’s boyfriends wasn’t worth it anymore. Not that Mike had ever shown any interest anyway; he was monogamous at best, entirely hetero at worst. So friendly acquaintances it was then, and they had circled each other's social lives ever since.

Last Eliot had heard though, Mikey and Court's romance was kaput, along with the "joint" part of their joint five-year political plan. Poor, poor Mike was heartbroken, reportedly desperate and terrified that he’d never find love again. It was dramatic, but Eliot liked dramatic. And in particular, Alice seemed like exactly the kind of sweet, smart, beautiful, and blonde Girlfriend 2.0 upgrade that Mike was seeking. He’d be on his knees thanking Eliot for years, if only for the opportunity. 

But even after explaining his perfect rationale and plan to Quentin twice, the nerd was unmoved. Instead, he rolled his eyes and set his jaw at its usual pettish angle. He tapped his fingers against the wooden arm of the patio chair and kicked his feet up onto the edge of the table.

“Like, just because you’re into beefcakes doesn’t mean Alice is,” Quentin said, averting his eyes. 

Eliot nearly spit out his martini, like a choreographed lampoon. He cough-laughed and patted at his chest, rings clinking against his waistcoat buttons. “I’m sorry. Beefcakes?”

Q sighed and slunk down in his chair. “You know what I mean.”

“No, please elaborate." Eliot sat up straighter and loomed with twinkling eyes. He felt like the cat who got the cream. 

Quentin shook his head, palms over his brow. “I mean, like, maybe Alice would prefer someone she can actually talk to. Or has a personality other than Don’t Mess With Texas. Or, I don’t know, can make her laugh.”

The cream was a touch rotten. He swallowed, lips sharp along his glass. “Well, she’ll decide.”

“Yeah, but did you consider any of that or was pretty your only criteria?” Quentin asked with a shock of bitterness. Eliot chuckled over his own tiny niggle of anger. He cleared his throat and smirked.

“Of course not, Q,” Eliot said, fluttering his lashes. He tilted his head. “I also factored in his massive cock. See, we all went skinny dipping one time and Mike is, wow, he’s a real salami sandwich and a beefcake to boot. Fucking huge and—“

Quentin held up his hands. “Yup. Fine. Sarcasm registered.”

He narrowed his twitching eyes. “Sarcasm? I’ve never heard the word—“

“El,” Quentin cut him off again, smiling a little. “I got the message.”

Eliot dipped his head and put his glass down. He crossed his legs and wrapped his hands around his kneecap, leveling him with a serious look. The round knees of Q’s jeans peaked like mountains behind the tips of his black boots, still pushed into the table. His navy henley was disheveled and soft. His long hair was all askew and his smile grew. It was hard to stay annoyed at him for long.

“I wouldn’t throw Alice to the wolves, vicious or boring, okay?” He said, leaning back on one arm and lifting half his mouth into a smile. “I’m not saying Mike will be the love of her life. But she wants to get her feet wet, among other things, and they’re both—nice people. That’s a start, right?”

Quentin grinned full and droll. He shrugged. “Yeah. Sure. Fine. Nice is underrated, I guess.”

Eliot sighed, airy and dramatic. “For some people.”

“For, like, the well-adjusted.”

“For people who eat their vegetables every day.”

“For less fucked up fuck-ups than us,” Quentin said with a flourish, declarative and laughing. He held his glass aloft and Eliot cheers’d him, delighted. 

But then Q’s expression turned thoughtful. “Though I wouldn’t say nice is the first way I’d describe any avowed Republican. Even, like, a so-called economic conservative wants to—uh, you know, dismantle social programs, right? And that leads to the inevitable disenfranchisement of vulnerable—“

Eliot pierced him with a playful glare. “I will throw my martini in your face if you make me talk about politics.”

“Yeah, right,” Quentin scoffed, eyes shining. “Like you’d ever waste the booze.”

“For the sake of punishing your brattiness?” Eliot smiled bright. “Try me, Coldwater.”

Q sat up, slow and suggestive onto his elbows. He waggled his eyebrows. “Hey, by the way, how’s your thesis going?”

Eliot laughed, loud and strong. “You are such a fucking shit.”

But as Quentin kept grinning that perfect grin and playing with too many kinds of fire, Alice skittered her way out the sliding patio door. He was spared a gin and vermouth shower for her presence alone. Lucky bastard. Tucking her hair behind her ears and adjusting her glasses, she cleared her throat to announce her presence.

“Hi,” she said, nodding at Eliot. He sent her an air kiss. Then she tensed, eyebrows twisted in knots as she noticed Quentin was there too. “Oh. Hello, Quentin.”

“Hey Alice,” he said, hand waving and eyes kind. “How are—“

“I need to steal Eliot away,” she said, the words tripping over themselves in her haste. Quentin chuckled and shook his head.

“Well, uh, you can’t steal what’s given,” he said, nose scrunched in Eliot’s direction. Alice smiled, tepid in her nonverbal response. She glanced back and forth between them. But Eliot licked his lips and exhaled a laugh.

“Baby, you’re so good to me,” he said, flashing a smile at the sky. Quentin retorted with an inevitable middle finger and an even bigger grin than before. He was so damn cute.

“You flip people off a lot,” Alice said, cutting into the silly and unhelpful thoughts brewing in Eliot’s brain. She was monotone, tilting her head like she was studying him. Quentin shrunk down into himself. 

“Yeah. I guess. Sorry?”

Alice shrugged. “Try mixing it up sometime.”

Quentin blinked three times. “Oh. Okay. Thanks for the feedback.”

Eliot muffled laughter into his rings and stood up. He patted Q’s dejected head as he nodded at Alice.

“You’re the hero we deserve,” he said, extending his hand to her. She took it with a smile. “I’m at your leisure, my dear.”

With a sharp, curt nod, Alice tightened her grip on his hand and tugged him inside, determined.

“Uh, bye?” Quentin’s voice followed them, his hands almost certainly flying up in exasperation.

Eliot grinned.

 


 

Alice clicked her door behind them and walked her tiny toe-first strides to the center of the room. She took a deep breath and pressed her palms down on her skirt, like she was steadying herself.

“I didn’t want to ask this in front of Quentin,” she said, hesitating a little. “I’m sure he already thinks I’m the most pathetic person on the planet, so no need to add fodder.”

Eliot startled at that. “What? Never.”

Alice gave him a disbelieving look and huffed as she paced in a small circle. “Don’t patronize me. It’s obvious he thinks so.”

“No, I’m serious,” Eliot said, quiet and firm. He lowered his brow. “You’re pathetic isn’t part of Q's vocabulary. Least of all directed at you.”

He didn’t hesitate for a second. Quentin “Thanks for the Feedback” Coldwater would be devastated that talented and kind Alice ever worried that he thought something so harsh about her. For all his mousiness and frown lines, Q was a champion for the true and decent beating heart of all humanity. His was the most open and hopeful soul Eliot had ever known, even if he hid it wrapped in layers of cynical flannel. He believed in people, maybe as much as he believed in magic.

(Of course, Quentin didn’t always extend the same courtesy to himself. But that was an issue for a different day.)

“Well, either way, this is a private question,” Alice said, swallowing to ease her shaking hands. “I need your full attention and sworn confidence.”

Eliot sat on her bed and crossed his legs, curious and concerned. “You have it. What’s up?”

She frowned and popped her eyes open, wide and trembling. She bit her lip again, a nervous tic he’d have to try to break her of once they knew each other better. She sucked in a high-pitched breath.

“Is this okay to wear tonight?” Alice asked, words flying with spittle. She twirled in a short and anxious spin. 

Alice was in a black and white high-necked baby doll dress with a Peter Pan collar. She buttoned her lacy sweater with tiny embroidered beads from top to bottom. Then she finished the look off with opaque tights and her signature Mary Janes. Eliot sighed. 

She bit her thumbnail, working at a jagged edge. “I think this is the nicest outfit I own.”

“It is nice,” he said, stretching one edge of his lip down toward his chin in a slight wince. “You know. For a business casual brunch.”

“So that’s a no,” Alice puffed air out her mouth. Then she searched his face with her big blue eyes, beseeching. “Can you help?”

“I’m afraid that my expertise on fashion mostly-slash-only extends to myself,” Eliot said, stretching his long arms to put his hands on her shoulders. “It’s my worst quality as a Gay Best Friend.”

“That’s not—” Alice’s mouth pouted into a perfect circle. “I don’t think of you like that. I think you’re wonderful for many—”

“Breathe,” Eliot chuckled. Wonderful. She was sweet. “I’m teasing. Except that I don’t know any useful shit about women’s wear.”

She flopped down on the bed, face falling in frustration. “Then I’m out of options.”

“Well, no. Not necessarily,” Eliot said, scooting closer to her. Taking her hand, he opened his mouth wide and chose his next words with care. “I happen to know someone who knows everything about dresses, hair, makeup, you name it. And they would be more than willing to, ah—help. If… you’ll allow.”

He slid his eyes to her, ripe with intensity and meaning. Alice’s shattered and widened in fear. She made a tiny gulping sound when she swallowed. 

“Oh god.”

 


 

Margo sunk to the floor on her knees, hands catching Alice’s face like a vice. Her pink tongue darted between her lips as she ran her thumbs along every groove she could find. It was like she was sculpting clay.

“I’ve been waiting for this day, Alice,” Bambi said, pursing her lips, eyes bright and maybe a little turned on. Alice shuddered out a breath, jaw tightening.

“Let me guess, I’m your Everest?” She spoke deprecatingly, nervously, bunching the fabric of her skirt fabric in her palms. But Margo narrowed her eyes and let out a sharp laugh.

“No,” she said, chin tilting up. “Quentin is my Everest. You’re a minor Rockie at best.”

Alice twisted her mouth to the side. “I’m—not sure if that was a compliment or an insult.”

Margo ignored her. She flicked her fingers at Eliot in a command. “Put on Material Girl.

“Really?” Eliot pulled a face, taking a swig of his flask. “Isn’t that a bit on the nose?”

She whipped back at him. Her big brown eyes widened, glamorous and potent. “Do I fuck with your processes?”

He smirked. “Constantly.”

“Then you know how annoying and disruptive it is,” Margo said, matter-of-fact. She snapped her fingers and turned away from him, the unwelcome servant. “So Madonna. On repeat. Now.”

He was always a sucker for his Bambi. Eliot obliged with a clap of his hands and Margo slid into self-satisfaction. She got to work cleanly and quickly, holding different outfits up to Alice. She rejected each one with the decisiveness of a practiced world leader. She tutted her way through so many makeup looks so quickly, it almost literally made Alice’s head spin. And Eliot enjoyed the show from Margo’s bed, legs stretched out, shoes kicked off, and flask perched permanent between his fingers.

Putting the finishing touches on a winged eyeliner… thing, Margo twisted her fingers down the blonde hair before her. She sighed, mewling and heated. Alice turned pink. “Now then, let’s get these poor neglected strands into a buoyant wave, hm?”

“My hair doesn’t hold curl,” Alice said and Margo snapped out an exasperated face.

“Not even under a charm?” She asked, hands on her hips. Alice raised a tiny edge of her lip.

“I’ve never tried,” she said, sitting up straight. “I prefer endeavors of worth.”

Margo ticked an eyebrow. “You’re testing me.”

“Sorry,” Alice said, chastened. And terrified. Mostly terrified. Margo kept her eyes cool, burrowing down under Alice’s skin and into her blood. She tilted her head and ran her tongue over her teeth. Then she smiled, perky and girlish.

“So Mike McCormick, huh?” Margo said, affecting a sweet and exaggerated lilt. She flicked her eyes up at Eliot. He shrugged. “I can see that, I suppose. Excited?”

“Are you asking me or Eliot?” Alice asked, dry. Margo actually laughed at that, before swirling the blonde tresses into perfect loose ringlets with zen like focus. “I’m trying to be open-minded. I’ve considered it from several angles and determined there’s no reason not to at least meet the guy.”

Margo smirked. “The passion in this room is so heady. Did I step into a Harlequin?”

“You don’t strike me as a romantic,” Alice said, twisting her head around to look at Margo. She received a forceful neck snap in response, keeping her facing forward. “Even with Julia you’re fairly—“

“Vicious? Apathetic? Disdainful of monogamy?” Margo nodded. She pinned up the curls on the side of Alice’s temples with a quick swooping popper. She looked stunning. “Relieved to know I’m keeping the brand alive.”

That she was. In, you know, a Terri Schiavo sort of way. 

Bambi was so desperate to pretend it had a fighting chance. As though occasionally fucking some trembling first year with Julia’s wholehearted and cloying support was the same as her glossy dick-eating glory days. But Eliot didn’t care. If Margo was happy then Eliot was happy and then they were all fucking happy. The end.

“I, for one, appreciate Quinn’s pragmatic approach,” Eliot said, downing his flask. The weight of it refilled against his palm and it was a visceral comfort. “If she’s not going to get her rocks off with randos, then it’s better to go to another extreme. Ice queen discerning.”

Alice’s lips twitched. “I’m not an ice queen.”

Eliot waved her off with a coo. “I know, darling, it was for effect.”

Margo pulled Alice up into a standing position and circles her around. With three tuts, Alice’s face and hair was back to its original blank slate. Bambi squinted, like an artist to a canvas that had a tiny smear of shit on it. “Glasses. How crucial?”

“Depends on where you rank working eyesight in your priority list,” Alice said, crossing her arms over her chest. She worked her jaw several times and glared the cold blue of her steely gaze into Margo’s endless golden brown inferno.

“Not that fuckin’ high,” Bambi said, taking three steps back and holding her hands up in a frame, determining Alice’s angles. “Glasses make some girls hotter. They make you look like a bitchy snow owl.”

“I’d look incredible in glasses,” Eliot mused aloud. Partially to cut the tension. Mostly because it was true. It grabbed Margo’s attention—she gasped and nodded, slow and fervent. But Alice’s face still darkened, spine-tingling. 

“I like my glasses.”

“Do you want my help or not?” Margo snapped. Madonna kept crooning nasal over a pounding beat in the background. ‘Cause the boy with the cold hard cash is always Mister Right. “You’re hot, but you’re determined to make sure no one knows it. Doesn’t give me much job satisfaction.”

Alice flushed hot, squeezing her fists tight. “I’m not determined—” 

“How opposed are you to push-up bras?” Margo asked with a sigh, like she already knew the answer. Alice ground her teeth, eyebrow ticking up.

“Entirely,” she said, firm. But when Margo opened her mouth wide to wail I told you so, albeit in some vicious translation of the cliche, Alice cut her off. “Not because I’m a prude about my body, but because they hurt. Comfortable bras are a nonnegotiable for me. Sorry.”

Margo pinched her lips tight. “Even with a spell?”

Alice shook her head. “Principle of the thing.”

“Ugh. Fine. We’ll make due,” Margo said, rolling her eyes. She snorted, incredulous. “And FYI, you’re a total prude about your body.”

Alice swallowed. “Well, it’s my body.”

“I said fine,” Margo spat, sticking out her tongue all temper. With a complicated tut over her own hands, several pieces of clothing popped into her arms. She held out a loose and skimpy black jumpsuit and thrust it into Alice’s hands by the hanger. 

“Here. This is the one. You’ll look like a dish,” Bambi said, leaving no room for argument. She held her head like she had a migraine with her eyes closed. “Report back at T-minus-one hour for hair, makeup, and accessories, got it? And you choose right now: No glasses or a fucking push-up bra.”

Alice shifted on her feet and swallowed, pride a visible ball in her throat. “Very well. I’ll wear my contacts.”

Margo’s eyes popped wide open, wild and furious. “You have contacts? Get the fuck out.”

“I don’t like them much,” Alice started to protest. “They’re itchy and—”

“No, I meant that literally,” Margo pointed at her door, shaking. “Get the fuck out of my room and don’t come back until you’re ready for hair and makeup. Jesus Christ. Contacts. You’re going to give me a fuckin’ hernia, Elsa.”

Alice jerked her nervous eyes to Eliot. He simply shrugged and blew her a kiss. He didn’t make the rules. With one last furtive look at an entirely not-fucking-around Margo, Alice sighed and shook her head. She held the outfit close to her chest as she stomped out of the room.

There was a long beat of silence.

Bambi dragged herself—elegant and slinky—across the length of her room, smoothly closing the door behind Alice. She set a privacy ward and looked back at Eliot over her shoulder. She was wearing an off-the-shoulder sweater and minuscule skirt, lips full and pouting and painted. She was the sexiest woman alive. She spun all the way around and leveled him with the full weight of her doe eyes, hands on hips.

“So,” Margo said, in that dangerously casual voice of hers. Her head cocked. “When are you gonna tell me what the shit all this is about?”

Eliot snorted, but avoided that fire gaze. “Can’t we enjoy a makeover sequence for the sake of it anymore? What have we become?”

“It’s weird, El.”

He said the most devastating thing he could think of. “You sound like Quentin.”

“Broken clocks,” Bambi said with a shrug. But she narrowed her eyes. “Are you trying to turn her into a little Margobot or something? I know I haven’t been around as much—“

“Jesus,” Eliot said with a scoffing laugh. He looked up at her, serious. “Contrary to popular belief and admittedly most laws of the universe, not everything is about you.”

“Then what is it about?” Margo demanded again, collarbone jutted. “Because it sure as fuck isn’t Alice.”

“What the hell?” Eliot crossed his arms. His flask fell with a soft thump on her comforter. “It’s not that sordid. She asked me to set her up, I did. The end.”

“So you’re a fuckin’ Yenta now?”

Eliot sat up and narrowed his eyes. “Why is this pissing you off?”

Margo’s face softened, nearly imperceptibly, and she sucked her cheeks in between her teeth. She held her hands in front of her and stretched her fingers out and in, out and in.

“I’m not pissed off,” she said, keeping her eyes firm on his, like a challenge. She swallowed once and charged onward. “Honestly, El? I’m—worried. You seem a little aimless right now, baby.”

She may as well have taken a piss in his hair pomade. 

He threw himself off her bed and stormed over to her wardrobe. He slammed open the top of her jewelry box and set to work on her necklaces. She always threw them haphazard in the top drawer, with absolutely no care as to whether the delicate strands tangled together. He worked his long fingers over each of them, releasing the knots and levitating each one up and over, before dropping them in their proper place. She never gave a shit about anything’s proper place.

“Okay,” Margo said slowly, taking methodical steps up behind him. Her cool hand rested on the nape of his neck. “Okay. Honey? It’s never a good sign when you start rage organizing. Talk to me.”

“If you actually took care of your shit, I wouldn’t have to,” Eliot snarled back. He flicked his index and middle finger over a gold and ruby Tiffany heart pendant. “You have so many beautiful pieces, but it’s like you don’t take pride in them, like you take it all for granted—”

“Jesus Christ, Eliot,” Margo laughed, but her fingernails dug into his curls. “Cut the fucking histrionics and tell me what’s going on.”

“Nothing is going on,” he said, swallowing. His throat clenched and his eyes darted all along her jewelry. “You’re the one reading into shit.”

“Sweetie,” Bambi pulled on his arm and tried to spin-drag him around to face her. He didn’t budge. Undeterred, she twisted her body to force eye contact. “You can bullshit everyone else, but I know things have been different. You’ve been different. Ever since—”

“Finish that sentence.” Eliot snapped up, glowering over his shoulder. She wanted eye contact? She got it. “Let’s see how it goes for you.”

Margo laughed, creaky like an old wooden rocking chair. “Who the fuck do you think you’re talking to?”

“It has nothing to do with that anyway,” Eliot said, flipping around and looming over her with his full height. She squared her shoulders. “I’m bored, Margo. Like you said, you’re never around anymore, always off with your little—“

“Don’t you dare give me shit, asshole,” Margo snapped from behind her teeth, pushing him into her dresser. The scalloped edge bit into his lower back. “Not about Julia. Not now. Especially not when you could be happy too and you’re choosing not to be. I’ve given you a lot of time and space, but my patience is getting pretty fuckin’ thin with your pity party.”

Eliot laughed, hollow. “What the hell are you talking about?”

“Don’t play dumb. You know.”

He didn’t dignify that with a response. Instead—

“So now you equate happiness to being in a goddamn relationship?” He laughed, dark, knowing exactly how to carve Margo’s particular quick down to its shivering entrails. “How ordinary of you.”

But Bambi didn’t bite. “Eliot. I know. You know I know.”

Eliot worked his jaw and slit his eyes over to her. “Here’s what I know, Margo—

But Margo didn’t let him finish. She let out a loud strangled scream and put her fingers to his lips. For a few seconds, she trembled, swallowing like she was about to gag out every cruel word she’d ever thought up in her quarter-century of life. Her fingers twitched and clenched at her side and against his mouth. They clawed without scratching, a feat of remarkable self-control. Finally, she stepped away and brought her fingers to her own lips. She sighed. 

“You know what?” Margo closed her eyes and pressed her hands to her chest. She breathed in through her nose, out through her mouth. Summoning calm. Like goddamn yoga. “Nope. Nope. We are not doing this.”

He furrowed his brow. “What?”

Margo shook her head, eyes still closed. She breathed again.

“No. We’re not—no. We’re not doing this. Stop.”

Eliot opened his mouth, ready to Mortal Kombat her bitchy New Age ass. But she shook her head, firmer. She gazed up at him, eyes warm where there had just been ice. After a single heavy beat, she wrapped her arms tight around his waist and pressed her cheek to his heart. 

Despite himself, he relaxed into her embrace.

“Eliot. El. Honey. Okay. I’m— Let’s not say shitty things to each other. Not today, okay?” 

His molars hurt. “You started it.”

“I know. I’m—” Her big eyes flashed right up at him, pleading and gentle in the way only he ever saw. “I’msorryokay? It’s your birthday and we’re going to have a fun night and I’m just being overprotective, so—let’s forget it. I shouldn’t have fucking brought it up.”

Eliot sighed and the frozen butter melted around his soul. He kissed her forehead. “Fine. But you really should treat your jewelry with more respect. It’s annoying.”

Bambi snorted, but she went along with the mirage. Things hadn’t really changed that much between them. Thank god.

“You do such a good job taking care of them for me though,” she said, rolling her neck and smiling, sly. “It’s your second best quality.”

He arched a brow. “What’s my first best quality?”

Margo sucked her lower lip between her teeth, slow, and winked as she pawed a hand over the front of his trousers. She gripped, hard. Eliot laughed and gasped, mock-scandalized, dipping his lips to her ear.

“Naughty,” he chastised, brushing his lips against her temple. She giggled and threw her arms around his neck, pulling him into a tight hug. Closing his eyes, he let himself enjoy her touch in earnest, burying his nose into the sweet, familiar smell of her hair.

“Hey,” Margo said, pulling away and stroking his face once. “I miss you. And I’m glad you’re finally celebrating your birthday. You deserve it.”

He missed her too. He missed her all the time. Sometimes he couldn’t stand it. Quentin was—he was such a good friend and dear to Eliot, but he would never be Margo. Never be his Bambi. But he couldn't say that. He couldn't put that on her. She deserved his full-throated support, after fucking everything. Even if it sort of killed him sometimes.

So Eliot chuckled, spinning her around once and dipping her like Astaire. He kissed her forehead again, a spark of electricity zapping between them.

He squeezed her hand and pulled her up to his chest. “Don’t get soft on me, Bambi.”

Her eyes lit up and her lips puckered. “I’d burn a motherfucker down first.”

Eliot tucked her hair behind her ear and sighed, “Nothing but a blaze of glory for my girl.”

Margo smacked his ass. It stung. 

She was perfect.

 


 

Much as Eliot was severe and precise about his wardrobe, his dirtiest secret was that he usually got dressed on autopilot. He knew his combinations well and his charmed closet would often rearrange itself with new ideas and surprises. He had his hair routine down to an efficient science and he was usually fully dressed in under ninety minutes. A remarkable feat to anyone in the know. 

That night though, Eliot indulged in good old fashioned styling, taking his time and care in selecting the perfect look for the evening. It was a celebration, so it had to be dressier than usual. It was in the city, so he needed to be seen. Margo was wearing purple, so he needed to incorporate something complementary. And he was helping Alice find love—or at least a good dicking—so he needed to evoke hopefulness, joy, levity, and passion. 

Naturally, Eliot ended up in a fully lined amber-gold silk cocktail jacket with a wide satin shawl collar. Black trousers in wool mohair grain de poudre. Peach pink evening shirt, slim fit plisse with a spread collar. Italian silk black scarf and bowtie. Rose gold collar pin. Jaguar print silk pocket square. A child could have picked out the combination, but he looked damn good. 

With a final tut of charcoal around his eyes and a rake through his messy curls, Eliot shot himself a customary wink in the hallway mirror. He descended the stairs, ready for Bambi’s adoration and praise. But when he reached his tiny group of friends at the bottom of the steps, Margo was indisposed. All her attention was focused on Quentin.

“Oh my god,” Margo said, her eyes luminous and hands running up and down his chest. “Oh my god. Did you buy a new shirt? And a new jacket? It almost fits you. It almost looks good.”

Indeed, Quentin was dressed up, in a pressed navy shirt with white chalk stripes. He would probably call them “pinstripes,” but they weren't. Over the gentle slope of his shoulders, he wore a gray tweed blend sports jacket. And for once, his pants weren't too baggy around the waist. He'd pulled his hair back, clean and tight in a bun, save the few stubborn tendrils that always framed that fucking jawline. He looked put together and grown up in a way Eliot had only seen a handful of times since meeting him.

(He knew Q had mentor interviews and dressing the part was a big part of the second-year rotation. He knew that. He knew it wasn't like Q went out of his way to buy something for Eliot's birthday. That would be silly.)

“Almost,” Q repeated, all Sahara and smirking at Margo. “Wow. Thanks.”

“Suck it up, Coldwater. That’s as good as it’s gonna get,” Margo said before sighing and flicking her eyes back at Eliot. “Not like you’ll ever live up to my dream man. El, baby, you’re perfection as always.”

“Likewise, Bambi,” Eliot said, taking her hand and kissing the palm. She was more than perfection. She was resplendent in a delicate lilac confection, better suited to the French Riveria than their undeserving company. She cupped his face and brushed her thumb across his cheekbone. Next to them, Quentin frowned and crossed his arms. His eyes narrowed, all sour.

“That’s an impossible standard, Margo. I'll never look as good as Eliot. Ever. In my whole damn life. Jesus.”

Under the rambling grumpiness, there was a compliment buried and it tingled down Eliot’s spine right to his toes.

Turning to look directly at Q, Eliot squinted his eyes, though he were sizing him up and determining whether he found the attempt worthy. But it was really an excuse to drink him in, unabashed, without calling too much attention to his interest. Because. Well, fuck. Fuck

He was always at least low key aware of how cute Quentin was. An adorable nerd with a great smile when he let it out, and all the better when it was because of something Eliot said. But he could often let himself forget exactly how handsome he was too. With his thick brows, glittering eyes, and parentheses lined mouth, Quentin's delicate strength and sweet sharpness was overwhelming.

It was a mercy that he didn’t have to live with it every day.

Eliot noticed his lapel was askew, and he jumped on it, starved hands reaching on instinct. He made sure to let out a rush of exasperated air as he ran his fingers down along the length of the fabric, resigned in his pursuit of perfection. It was his duty and burden to ensure he was presentable, never his pleasure. Quentin’s throat bobbed, a whisper of a movement, but otherwise he sighed along, playing his role of the long-suffering friend with aplomb.

“Up to code yet?” Q asked, looking up at him through his long lashes.

“Almost,” Eliot said, biting his lip in concentration. He slid his hand around the inside of his collar, evening out the creases. His knuckles brushed the warm skin there and he wondered if his hand could just, like, rent that space. Sublet or something.

For good measure, Eliot smoothed down a couple stubborn flyaways in Quentin’s hair once, twice. Then he ran his hands along the length of his broad shoulders and down his arms. His heart jumped into his throat at his firm, well-built muscles. With a tiny shake of his head, he let go and swallowed the traitor back down where it belonged.

“There,” Eliot said, meeting Q’s eyes to prove he could. They both smiled. Fuck. “Perfect. Though I would have worn a tie with this ensemble.”

He pronounced it the French way, which made Q roll his eyes in a satisfying sort of way. But the very tips of his cheekbones flushed too and that was even more satisfying, in a the-world-could-fucking-end sort of way.

“I hate ties,” Quentin said, half-grumbling, half-apologetic. 

Eliot couldn’t help his smile widening. “I know.”

“Well, I for one, think you look like a babe,” Julia said, stepping forward and smiling at Q. She wore a short hunter green dress. It was somehow both drapey and tight at the same time, as per usual. Before she said anything, Eliot hadn’t noticed she was there. Oops. 

She kissed his cheek. “Total babe.”

No shit. Jesus fucking Christ, Julia. But Quentin snorted and stuck his tongue out, like it was the most unbelievable thing he’d ever heard. Like it was a joke.

“Speaking of babes,” Eliot said, needing the subject to change. Now. “Where is the loveliest Ms. Quinn?”

Margo yawned. “I made her wait upstairs so she could do a full She’s All That entrance.”

“But, like, what time is our reservation?” Quentin furrowed his brow, glancing down at his watch. “We’re running kinda late—“

“Calm down, Boy Scout,” Bambi said, gliding over to the stairway. She angled her face upward and cupped her mouth like a megaphone. “Alice! Get your cute ass down here right the motherfuck now!”

There was a telltale quiet squeak of a ward enchanted door. The hallway echoed with the uneven clicks of someone unused to stilettos. After a few moments of awkward shuffling sounds, Alice appeared at the landing. And, wow, Bambi hadn’t lost her touch. The black jumpsuit gave Alice an air of loungey ease. Her smoky makeup was precise and the huge waves of her curled blonde hair perfect. She was gorgeous, like the best version of what Eliot knew she could be.

She was also still very much Alice.

She clomped down the stairs, arms folded over her chest. She pushed her small silver bag up and under her armpit, dangling like it could slide out at any time. She blinked twice, hard, and her hands twitched like they wanted to rub into her eyes. When she reached the bottom of the stairwell, she pressed her lips together into a flat line and rolled her eyes.

“Am I supposed to twirl now?” Alice asked, pissy and embarrassed. She tugged at her pants legs and frowned. Margo narrowed her eyes and pinched her shoulder.

“It wouldn’t hurt,” Bambi growled. But Eliot stepped between them and took Alice’s hand, kissing the small delicate silver rings on her index and middle finger. It was Margo’s homage to Eliot. He was certain.

“Divine,” he said, meaning it. Alice smiled and darted her eyes away. “Mike won’t know what hit him.”

"Happy Birthday, Eliot," Alice said, opening her purse and handing Eliot a bright pink card. "You can read it later. There's a small gift as well."

He tucked it into his jacket pocket and smiled, soft. "Thank you, Alice."

"Oh, shit, it's your birthday," Quentin said, panicked and awed, like it had actually only then occurred to him. He reached forward and patted Eliot on the elbow. "Uh, Happy Birthday, El. Hope it's a good one."

Eliot rolled his eyes and spoke sharp over his shoulder. "Touching, Q."

"But, uh, like, were we all supposed to get you a present or—?"

Bambi slipped her arm around Eliot's waist and blinked at Q, all coquettish. "Instead of a present, I blew him earlier. You could follow my lead. Make it a twofer."

He fucking loved her so much.

Quentin sputtered. He scrunched his brow, shifting back and forth on his feet. "Yeah, right, okay. Sure, Margo. I'll—I'll get right on that. Jesus."

It was a terrible idea. But it also wasn't a terrible idea. Friend in need, right?

Julia leaned into the horrified looking Alice. "She's joking. She didn't give him a blow job. But it would be okay if she did. We don't subscribe to the fiction that monogamy is the only valid relationship model."

"That's nice," Alice squeaked. “My parents are—I mean—um. Okay.”

She gave Julia a big thumb’s up, her face frozen in a clumsy grimace. Julia lifted her brows once and patted her on the arm, a gentle and motherly touch.

“And on that note,” Eliot said, his long arms wrapping around his Bambi and Alice, popping a kiss on the top of both of their heads. “Onwards to glory.”

 


 

SMS with “ 8067957123”
10/8/16, 8:18 PM

 

 

Eliot Motherfucking Waugh! Happy Birthday! 
How are you doing so far?

 

thank you, i am extraordinary
who is this?

 

Oops! :-) New phone! Mike McCormick
I am so sorry but I’m running late
I won’t make dinner

 

oh no
bad mike

 

I know, I know! My boss is being a douche
Still got my nose to the grindstone
#werk

 

oof yuck

 

I KNOW! The worst!
I promise I’ll be at the bar with bells on

 

ok

 

Excited to see you! :-)

 

aww

 


 

 

Eliot didn’t know New York as well as he wanted everyone to think he did.

He’d gone to undergrad in Westchester County, about an hour north of Manhattan. SUNY Purchase. Attending the Conservatory of Theatre Arts had been his original dream, starry-eyed and fanciful back on the shitfucking farm. But unsurprisingly—like everything Eliot had ever actually tried to achieve in his life—he didn’t get in. But he was still accepted to Purchase College academically. His high school grades actually hadn't been a total mess, loath as he was to admit it.

Whatever. Everyone had skeletons in their past. Eliot was more than adept at dusting off the bones and shoving them deep in the closet, switched out with his unashamed love of rimjobs. Fair trade.

So even though Purchase wasn’t Fordham or NYU or—ha—Columbia, it also wasn’t the Ivy Tech Community College of Central Indiana. It was still a way out.  He promised himself early in his life that he would get away, towards something, anything else, at any cost. And he did, with no fucking thanks to anyone but his own will and determination. 

Well, and the financial aid committee who gave him a full ride, including room and board. But he was certain that was his second successful use of magic anyway. Somehow.

So one early morning in August of 2010, eighteen-year-old Eliot moved swift down and away from his childhood front porch. The rotted wood sunk with each step and the peeling paint flapped in the humid breeze. All his paltry belongings were stuffed in one small bag, slung over his shoulder. He had sold everything else he could get his hands on. Adjusting his aviators and steeling his soul, he stormed his way toward the honking taxi, parked in the mud all the way from Fort Wayne. A chicken clucked in the distance and he didn’t turn around. Not once. Then, one plane ride from Indianapolis later, he arrived in not-quite-suburban New York in not-quite-style.

Once there, he studied individualized Liberal Arts. That equated to him learning how to drink and throw parties that dazzled, even before magic. Of course, he hadn’t become Eliot Waugh yet, not in the way people at Brakebills knew him. Not in the way he was meant to be. But he still made the tiny hamlet his resounding bitch in a short period of time. Big fish, small pond, no shit. It was the perfect training ground. By senior year, he was every bit the glamorous megabitch his destiny foretold. It was only then that he was ready to welcome Margo Hanson (and magic or whatever) into his gorgeous and aloof arms. He rarely if ever looked back.

… Except for one indulgent rush of reminiscence, that he usually tried to downplay even to himself. But he could never fully avoid it, such was it so deeply ingrained in his psyche. Because going into the city? During those years? He’d yet to chase a high, magical or otherwise, that quite compared. 

None of his “friends” (a small group of insecure queer boys, a smattering of fetishizing straight girls looking for shopping gays, and some other hangers-on) had a car. So as many weekends as they could, they would take the bus to the train station and head straight into Harlem, bright-eyed and thrilled in their awkward anxieties. And from there, young Eliot only ever wanted to go one street, every single time: 

St. Marks Place. 

The East Village was a whirlwind of grit and style, queer and rock history that tantalized him, despite all the times those “friends” would try to insist on going to newer hipster hotspots in further reaches of the island and outer boroughs. But even before he was Eliot Waugh, he was a commanding figure people didn’t fuck with, so he usually got what he wanted. His favorite bar had been a speakeasy dive, hidden away in the corners of the street. It was camouflaged by a garish souvenir shop and a 24-hour dim sum joint. It was there he spent hours soaking in the real world. There, he cultivated himself and survived the worst of the mid-tier shit, hunkered in a booth with ripped leather and an extra strong whiskey ginger. As always, people could fuck off with their assumptions.

Above everything though was the most prescient twist of fate, one Eliot found out five years later. That the same obscure, unassuming bar in the rowdiest part of the East Village had been the exact same favorite bar of two sweet-faced and innocent Ivy Leaguers: A young Julia Wicker… and Quentin Coldwater. Somehow, that felt more right than almost anything else in his entire fucking life. In a way that was private and real, and tucked deep into the silent hideouts of his heart.

One time, it hadn’t been silent. Eliot had mused to Quentin that they could have seen each other there. That they probably had. Lost ships passing in the night, both terrified of the storm brewing inside them. Neither knowing they were both sailing forward, on course, toward their magical mooring and something like a home. 

He’d been drunk. No shit. But Q had been drunk too and so he’d laughed and said, “If I ever saw you there, El—God, I’d definitely remember.” Then he smiled at him, eyes shining and cheeks tipsy red and Eliot’s arms had trembled for not carrying Quentin up to his room and fucking him for hours that night.

Anyway. 

(Shit. This was another reason why Eliot didn’t like birthdays. Too much opportunity for bittersweet, reflective nonsense.)

Anyway.

Dinner had been uneventful. Great food, good conversation, best people. Bambi chose the sake. Alice told everyone about her trip to Kyoto. Quentin piled his Sad Little Salmon Roll with pickled ginger, even though everyone knows it's a palate cleanser, not a topping. Julia talked about school way too much. Bambi spoke with the chef in perfect Japanese and scored them incredible off-menu courses. Alice fretted about her lack of political science knowledge, in preparation for meeting Mike (“Of course I’m familiar with de Tocqueville and Locke, but what if he’s more of a Humean thinker?”) Quentin declared that all sake tasted like white wine mixed with cat piss; Margo almost hexed him. Julia led a short toast, not once mentioning birthdays. They all drank and ate and made merry. It was great. It was nice. It was fine.

After, the five of them piled together, tipsy and without outerwear, and walked for ten blocks. Margo rode on Q’s back, bitching nonstop about her heels. Alice tutted out warming spells over their hands. Julia snuggled in close to Eliot and he felt bad that he’d been an asshole in his head earlier that evening. Or for many evenings. Or pretty damn often. She was a good egg.

Finally, they arrived at his favorite old bar. Even though it wasn’t a Magician bar—no special illusions or psychedelic herbalism shots of liquid glitter and free-falling fancy—it was the only place he wanted to ring in his birthday.Ushering his friends in through the tinted glass and steel paneled door, he gave Margo a pointed glare when she immediately twitched her nose. The narrow entryway was postered with local punk band flyers and scratched graffiti.

“It’s cozy,” she said, dry as chalk. She tossed her hair behind her shoulders. “Hope it’s worth the nostalgia or what-the-fuck-ever. But I’m telling you right now that if they throw sawdust on vomit, I’m out of here.”

Eliot kissed her on top of her head. “You’d be following my fastidious stride, Bambi.”

“This is a one time exclusive, asshole,” she said, leaning her cheek against his shoulder. “And if we ever make it to LA, we do it my way. Elite Magician clubs only.”

“Fuck LA,” Quentin said on autopilot, like a good little New Yorker who was actually very much a bridge and tunnel kid. Margo growled a quiet No, fuck you, but he ignored her, jumping past them and bouncing on his toes. “Back booth is open. Best spot in the house. I’ll grab it.”

“And I’ll grab the first round,” Julia said, with a quick kiss to Margo’s temple. Bambi hummed, pleased. “I know what’s good. Come with?”

“I’m not carrying shit,” Margo said, draping herself around Julia’s waist. “I’ll bet I can get more free drinks than you though.”

Julia’s eyes sparked. “Oh, it’s fucking on, Hanson.”

Watching them go, Eliot sighed. They were gross. Also, he  doubted that Julia actually knew anything about what was good to drink. He suspected she’d come back with nothing but lemon drops and whiskey shots. But one of the most difficult, yet crucial, parts of being a gracious host was letting others contribute in their own little ways. Even or especially if their contributions were an inconvenience that set one’s own personal vision back a step or two. He’d order his own cocktail for the next round. His selflessness was underrated.

Besides, he needed to focus on the next phase of the evening. Rubbing his hands together and turning to Alice, Eliot smiled and licked his lips.

“Mike is on his way,” he said, glancing back down at the text that had came through (On the 6! BIRTHDAY TIME! :-) ) and then back up at her. “Need a last minute pep talk?”

Alice shook her head so that her blonde curls flew out from her head. “No. Let’s get this over with.”

Eliot laughed and wrapped his arm around her. She tensed again. He dropped it and winked. “That’s the spirit.”

 


 

 

Mike was a really good hugger for a straight guy. 

He wrapped his full body into it, long and sturdy arms around the shoulders and stubbly blonde cheek pressed warm against the temple. He rocked side-to-side. He ended with a thump on your back and pulled away with a wide smile, squeezing biceps as looked up and down.

“How do you always manage to look so amazing?” Mike laughed, admiring the shining fabric of Eliot’s suit jacket. “I feel like every time I see you, I’m like, wow, that’s gotta be the end-all, be-all. But then somehow you outdo yourself all over again the next time.”

“Please,” Eliot said, airily waving his hand in the air. Mike was a good guy. They really should hang out more often. “You’re a darling.”

“Really good to see you again,” Mike said, thumping Eliot’s back one more time. He was very strong and muscly. Eliot beckoned him back toward the back table as they talked, moscow mule and beer in their respective hands from the bar. “Been too long. How’s the old alma mater?”

“Exacting and homicidal,” Eliot said, sliding into the giant round booth beside Q and slid his long arm out behind him. He was buried in his phone, typing away, and so Eliot kicked his foot a little. He grunted. Eliot rolled his eyes and continued being a polite member of society.

“Mike, of course you remember Margo—”

Bambi raised a single eyebrow. Mike smiled and laughed, a strangled sound. He was intimidated. Bambi looked away.

“And her girlfriend, Julia—”

“Hey Mike,” Julia said, leaning across the table and reaching her hand out. Mike took it with a smile. “Nice to see you again.”

“You too, Julia,” Mike said with a big smile, pumping their hands up and down once. 

“—and you’ve met Quentin,” Eliot said, indicating the boy next to him with his head. He still didn’t look up, still typing furiously, all thumbs. He cleared his throat and dipped his lips closer to his ear. “And you’ve met Quentin.”

Q jumped and his phone flipped onto the table, blinding at full brightness. “Wait, what? Huh?”

Eliot stared down at him, impassive and cool. “Say hello to Mike.”

Quentin blinked and brought his face up, like he was still orienting to the surroundings. It was easy to get lost in a phone when given the opportunity. Technically, technology was banned at Brakebills. But he had probably been on fucking Reddit or some shit, arguing with an anonymous neckbeard about children’s fantasy literature. To confirm his hunch, Eliot slid his eyes over to the still open phone screen, glaring up and bright from beside his index finger.

Yup. Several paragraphs. Jesus, Q.

kingoftheeyesores92 • 2m

Despite AragornIsMyBitch’s claims, the facts bear out as such: Critics familiar with both oeuvres praise the F&F series as having richer prose, more fully realized characterization, and even stronger world building than LOTR (I know, I know - blasphemy! But please see Lin Carter, “Plover: A Look Behind the Fillorian Mythos,” 1975 for common understanding, it’s a quick read.) For one example, let’s look at the Old Fillorian formal language vs. the contextual tribal communications of the Dwnadian Dwarves. Their linguistic—

It wasn’t cute. It wasn’t cute. It wasn’t cute.

“Hey Mike,” Quentin said, dragging Eliot’s attention back up and to the conversation. His voice was low and just on the other side of unfriendly, eyes cautious. He tugged his lips downward and raised his eyebrows in tandem. He stretched his five fingers up into the air and then slammed his palm against his thigh. It was supposed to be a wave. Close enough.

“Good to see you,” Mike said, squinting his eyes and running his tongue over his smiling teeth. He looked back and forth between the two of them and cleared his throat. “Again. An unexpected treat.”

Quentin fully frowned. “Why is it unexpected?”

Eliot laughed and squeezed his shoulder, telegraphing him to shut the fuck up. There was an end goal they were working towards and it wasn’t parsing off-the-cuff small talk. Mike started to open his mouth to answer and Eliot leaned across the table, sweeping his hand to the empty place on the other end of the booth.

“And you, good sir, are lucky to have the absolute best seat in the house,” he said, winking at Alice. She looked like she was going to choke on her lemon drop as she guzzled it down. “Next to my newest and loveliest friend, Ms. Alice Quinn.”

“Hi,” Alice said, putting her drink down and attempting a smile. 7/10. “Nice to meet you, Mike. Eliot has said so many great things about you.”

Mike let his gaze linger on Alice for a moment before slipping into the booth. He took her hand, kissing her knuckles. 

“Any friend of Eliot’s is a friend of mine,” he said, voice rougher than before. He smiled up at Eliot and winked, before turning back to Alice. “Tell me about yourself, Alice.”

She flushed. Success.

 


 

“So then Rick—who’s great, by the way,” Mike said, brandishing his golden-brown beer bottle around the table. Eliot nodded. Rick was great. “Rick says, well, fuck me, but that’s a Polaski’s Mending, not a Polaski’s Fending. Which was why the security guard was even stronger and completely undeterred.”

“Classic,” Eliot said, smiling and twirling a quarter on the table. He suspended it in the air with telekinesis, then dropped it before a muggle saw. 

“So Rick’s an idiot?” Alice asked, eyebrows pulled together. Quentin snorted and brought his wrist up to his lips, hiding a laugh. His shoulders shook. Eliot elbowed the shit out of him. But then he wrapped his arm around him because it was birthday and he could do what he wanted. Even better, Q was tipsy enough to lean into his side, a solid warm weight from knee to shoulder.

“Intellect isn’t everyone’s strength,” Bambi said, happily sipping on her fourth free drink. She winked to a neanderthalic baseball cap in the corner and licked her lips in a long slow circle. “Rick’s is more along the lines of having a crooked dick and an underdeveloped amygdala.”

A black-clad server brought over Margo’s fifth drink. Julia slumped onto her hand, pouting at her paltry second cider. She took a shot of whiskey, one she’d sadly had to buy for herself.

“You fucked Rick?” Eliot asked Margo in an aside. She nodded over her drink and made an equivocating so-so sign with her hand, with a sneer of vague disinterest. That tracked. 

“Okay,” Mike said, pressing his hands on the table. “I know this is a very, very  low-key celebration. But I think a fucking toast is in order.”

“Julia did one earlier,” Alice said, running her finger along the rim of her glass. “Though I suppose you weren’t there for that.”

Eliot cracked his neck and smiled at Mike, wide and false. “Thank you, but that’s not necessary.”

Mike stared right into his eyes and tipped his bottle. “Nonsense. You only turn twenty-five once.”

Jesus.

Quentin harrumphed, “Well, if anyone should do another toast, it’s Margo.”

Bambi tossed her hair behind her shoulder. “I’d rather make out with him and then portal us the fuck to Barcelona than say a bunch of cheesy bullshit in front of you unworthy peons.”

“You know what? I respect that take,” Quentin said, lifting his cider toward Margo. She lifted her own random cocktail with a rare bright smile. Their odd but sincere friendship clinked soundly as glass met glass. Eliot could have lived in that moment.

Mike ignored all of that and lifted his beer. “I’d like to start with a little story.”

“Oh, Jesus.” Margo slumped back in the booth. Julia ran her hand through her hair soothingly, but also made a soft shushing sound in her ear. In the past, if some bitch had actively tried to quell Bambi’s pouty protests, she would have woken up in a hospital bed with a Louboutin stabbed into her ear canal and her eyebrows ripped off. Shit changed, he guessed. 

Mike ignored her again. “It was the day after my third-year fall midterms and I was walking back to the Physical Kids’ Cottage, feeling pretty good about life. When suddenly, a fucking fireball slammed down in front of me, exploding the path into what appeared to be a shockwave of glitter and—I think—sugar cubes?”

Eliot waggled his eyebrows. “It was for the giant absinthe fountain by the sculpture garden.” At Alice’s shocked face, he fluttered his lashes her way. “It was Wormwood Wednesday, darling. A landmark occasion.”

Mike gave him a two-finger salute and a low chuckle. “Anyway, that was my official introduction to the glory that is Eliot Waugh. Since that day, there’s been no one in my life who has surprised me more or inspired me more. Eliot is always the life of the party, the best looking guy in the room, and the one who absolutely knows all the very best people—” he twisted in his seat and smiled at Alice, who turned her face into the palm of her hand “—because he only draws the very best to him. And so I think we’re all really lucky to know him and to be chosen by him. Happiest of Birthdays to the best among us. To Eliot.”

“To Eliot! Yay!” Alice said, thrusting her glass upward.

“Ew,” Bambi said, pecking at her phone. 

She wasn’t wrong. It was sentimental garbage. 

But Julia elbowed her, hard. She raised her glass and repeated the sentiment, firm and in Margo’s ear more than for Eliot’s benefit. Much as he hated it admit it, it was the correct response. Mike meant well in that hapless straight man way of his. And even better, it made Alice shine bright as the moon, so it was doubly worth it. 

But next to him, Quentin narrowed his eyes and his lips turned up, coy and wry. 

“That was really special, Mike,” he said, low and almost-but-not-quite clipped. His ability to be an asshole hiding in plain sight was truly the eighth wonder.

“Thanks,” Mike said, looking right at Eliot. He held his glass up one more time. “Meant every word.”

Quentin nodded, earnest and sweet. But under the table, he kicked the shit out of Eliot’s ankle and it sent a bloom of heat and exhilaration up through his calf muscles. He kicked him back once, hard, and then tugged him closer into his side. Q’s wide brown eyes danced up at him, the wicked glint too subtle for almost anyone else to catch. Fuck.

With a grin of his own, Eliot took a final sip of his cocktail—a concoction of whiskey, courvoisier, and grapefruit, with matcha powder on the rim. It was more creative than it was delicious. But one couldn’t support the endeavor of inventive mixology without occasionally ordering a failure or two. He sent Mike an obligatory wink and Thank you, before resting his cheek against the top of Quentin’s head. Mike shifted oddly in his seat, clearing his throat. 

“Okay,” Eliot said, putting his wide-rimmed glass in the middle of the table with a flourish. He ran his fingers up and down Q’s arm. “I’m dry. Someone get the birthday boy some shots.”

It was clear as vodka that he meant for Quentin to do it, but he didn’t move. If anything, he cuddled deeper into him, head rolling into the crook of his neck. Which, like, he wasn’t going to complain, but he wanted shots and it was Q’s turn to get a round. Eliot cleared his throat and tilted his head downward, eyes glaring into his big drunk brown ones.

(Weaknessacknowledged. Fuckfuckfuckfuck.)

He clacked his teeth. “Someone get the birthday boy some shots.”

“Me?” Quentin frowned. Then squinted his eyes. “But the bar is, like, really far away.”

It was barely across the room. Fifteen feet max. He was such a shit.

“Hey, I’m on it,” Mike said, fingers pinching at the crook of Eliot’s neck. He smiled at Alice, who blushed. Eliot felt another rush of triumph. “For everyone. Ah—Quincy, what were you drinking again?

Quentin’s lips turned up slightly. “It’s Quentin. And I’m actually fine, thanks.”

“No, you’re not,” Eliot waved that absurdity off. He turned to Mike, all serious. “Get me three Chartreuse shots and get Q here three flaming tequila shots. It’s on the secret menu.”

“I don’t want flaming tequila shots. And I definitely don’t want three flaming tequila shots.”

“You don’t know what you want,” Eliot said blithely before turning to the real blonde of the hour. “Alice, why don’t you go help Mike with the drinks, hm?”

“Oh,” she said, jumping. She frowned and then nodded, like she was taking on an epic quest. “Yes. I can do that.”

“A lovely assistant all for me?” Mike gasped and put his hand to his chest. With his free hand, he pulled her up toward him and smiled at her. “Be still my heart.”

Alice went bright red and gleeful, and the two of them wandered off, smiling and talking. She had been particularly interested in Mike’s political goals: what his platform was, what the Texan political landscape looked like, where and how magic came into play, all that boring shit. Mike ate it up and barely took his eyes off Alice all night, except to occasionally chat with the guest of honor himself (to be polite, really.) Feeling smug and snuggly, he leaned back and gave Q a slow smile.

“Tell me I’m a genius,” Eliot demanded, carding his hand through his fucking ridiculously soft hair. He rolled a few strands between his thumb and forefinger. “Tell me I was right.”

Quentin yawned and closed his eyes, leaning his head into the touch. “No.”

 


 

Shots got them drunk. 

Drunk.

Not that they weren’t drunk before. But all of them (save maybe Alice, couldn’t tell) were giggly and warm and everything was sparkling on the edges, so it was a good night. It was a really good night, even for a birthday. It had only gotten better as the air got warmer and their lips got looser, even if there was way less making out than Eliot wanted. He would have made out with all six of them at that point. All at once. The world’s tamest but most satisfying slumber party orgy.

Mike and Alice were sitting together, turned into each other and talking about whether Libertarianism was a valid political philosophy or some shit. Alice’s cheeks were pink and Mike’s eyes were smiling, so it must have been working. Margo was telling a story about the time she had a threesome with Antonio Banderas and a stripper, and Julia was calling her a bullshit artist. And Q—perfect fucking Q—was talking quietly in his ear about... something.

It wasn’t that Eliot didn’t care. But god, his voice was sandpaper calm, lilting up and down the curve of his spine. His warm breath was on his neck and his cheek on the ball of his shoulder. Under the table, their ankles hooked together. In, like, the way friends do. You know. Drunk friends.

“—so to me, it feels like magic is limitless. So even though it’s fucking hard—and I know, you think too dangerous—but, like, there’s something really beautiful about how its the truest infinity we can approach, you know?”

God, his eyes were so beautiful. Lucid and glowing right at him, like Eliot was the only person in the world. For a second, he may as well have been. He slumped down in the booth with a tiny sigh and rested his temple against the tufted leather, and nodded. He didn’t know what he was agreeing to. Didn’t care.

But then Quentin reached for a goddamn beer bottle and that was unacceptable. Eliot cut off whatever else Quentin was saying by wrapping his hand around his, stopping the movement. “How can you drink that swill?” 

“It’s not swill,” Quentin said, resting his temple against the booth, mirroring Eliot. He grinned and didn’t move his hand. Eliot squeezed his fingers. Still didn’t move his hand. “It’s from a local microbrewery.”

“Snake oil.” Their knees knocked together. “Snake piss.” He pulled his eyebrows together. “Do snakes piss?”

“Of course snakes piss.”

“Are you sure?”

“All animals piss, El.” 

He hummed in vague acknowledgment and scooted closer, their foreheads whispering together. “You should be drinking a gin and tonic, like me. Much better than snake piss. Which is a real thing.”

Quentin smiled then, soft and strange in the dim bar light. His brown eyes were gentle and endless. “Yeah.”

Eliot’s skin vibrated. His fingers moved off the bottle to find Q’s face, tucking his hair behind his ear. He traced his thumb along the shell of his ear. It was kind of big and sticky-outty, and the grooves in the edges matched his smile dimples. Asymmetrical, but adorable. Eliot thought about saying all that out loud, but Q would take it the wrong way. He took things the wrong way sometimes. 

But any words disintegrated when Quentin’s eyes fluttered shut under his touch. Eliot’s stomach clenched and soared. All his focus dropped down to his lips, like spotlit tunnel vision. All he could see was that perfect pink and wide cupid’s bow with a dangerous dusting of light brown stubble. His lips were always in a thin frown, always a little sad. They begged to be lifted up, with a joke or the brush of a thumb. They begged to be kissed. 

Maybe if Eliot just—if he just tried, just once, just for that night—it didn’t have to be more than that night, he wasn’t stupid—he knew who he was and what he deserved, but Q was so beautiful and it was his birthday and—

Quentin’s eyes opened, laughing. He dropped his head down, chin to chest. Eliot’s hand fell with it. “Holy shit, I’m drunk. What the fuck was in those shots?”

“A shitton of tequila and Sambuca,” Eliot said with a wicked grin. He drummed the table and his rings reverberated. His heart was arhythmic but he projected steady calm. The facade of composure in the face of Quentin’s quiet, riotous pull. He blinked and scratched his eyebrow. Q groaned and rested his forehead in his palms, elbows on the table. He shifted his face so Eliot could see one playful open eye and half a cheeky smile.

“What the fuck is Sambuca?”

“High-proof alcohol,” Eliot said, petting Q’s hair again. It was so soft. “Makes the pretty lights.” 

Pretty lights for a pretty boy. Fuck. 

Desperate for a distraction, Eliot cleared his throat and took a sip of his gin. He let the herbal sharpness roll around his mouth for a good few seconds. Reorienting himself to the group, he watched as Alice performed a series of quiet tuts over Margo’s head. She was already looking right at Eliot, eyes narrowed and glassy. She raised a slow eyebrow at him and tilted her head. It was a challenge he didn’t understand. To disarm her, he shot her a quick air kiss and purr. 

“You’re a beautiful idiot, El,” she said, apropos of nothing. She sighed and rested her head on Julia’s shoulder. Her very, very, very drunk girlfriend immediately giggled into her big curls.

All he heard was beautiful. “Thank you, Bambi.”

Alice stretched her hands out and glanced around the table. “Okay. Who else wants a sober charm?”

“Over my cold dead body,” Julia said with a whoop and another shot of whiskey held aloft in the air. Eliot reached across the table to toast her, the only true genius he’d ever known. Their glasses clinked and the liquid sloshed. They down their mutual liquor, laughter in their veins. Sometimes, he really did like her quite a lot.

But next to him, Quentin quickly agreed by saying, “Shit, yeah, I really need it before I do something stupid.” Of course, that made Eliot desperate to know what Q’s idea if something stupid was. Send AragornIsMyBitch his GPS location and a challenge to fisticuffs? Do karaoke to Taylor Swift’s “Teardrops on My Guitar?” Overhear someone say the word bemused and not share his dumb little rhyme (“Bemused means confused not amused”)? Or was he talking about—

Before he could continue down that messy and twinkling and horrible and hilarious line of goddamn drunken thought, Eliot felt Bambi’s cool hands on his and oh, thank fuck, it was time for dancing. It was time to dance. The best time of the night and he wrapped the whole of himself around her. He needed contact. He needed skin and movement and Margo.

Julia, meanwhile started chanting, “I hate sober charms! I hate sober charms! I hate sober charms!” and laughing and jumping, and before Eliot knew it, his arm was around her and they were singing, harmonizing, We haaaate sober chaaaaarms at the top of their lungs. Julia terribly, Eliot amazingly. And he barely registered Bambi’s annoyed yet fond, “Jesus Christ,” right by his ear. The music swelled into a steady, heavy beat and he had two gorgeous Magicians twirling and writhing with him. 

Three, actually. Mike was there and his hands were on Eliot’s arms and he was laughing. He had almost no rhythm, but he made up for it in enthusiasm and the way his sharp eyes never left his face. For a second, Eliot thought, Fuck, this guy wants me, but that was stupid, that was stupid. Really, he just wanted someone to want him, and since the someone he wanted to want him didn’t want him (because he knows you, Eliot, he knows you why the fuck would he want you when he knows you, you asshole cocksucking motherfu—), it was a fun fantasy to pretend that the even more unlikely someone—pretty, burly, straight, Republican-ass Mike—really did want him. But it wasn’t real. It was never real. And besides, the only reason Mike was even there was because of Alice and—

Oh. Fuck.

Alice

Where the hell was Alice?

“Sober charm me,” he whispered in Margo’s ear, gripping her hip. He ground into her a little and scraped his teeth against her neck. She hummed and leaned her head against his chest. “Just enough to take the haze off. Gotta get some business done.”

“Buy a girl a drink first, you smooth talker,” Bambi giggled with a sultry flutter of her lashes. But she raised her hands, tutting like she was still dancing. She may as well have been. But his mind was stabilized and his focus acute. Smooth, clean, seamless. Everyone always underestimated Margo’s magic.

He kissed her cheek. “Keep my spot warm.”

Shaking his arms out and steadying his walk, Eliot blinked and reoriented. Vaguely, he heard Mike call his name as he left the floor and Julia laugh, but he was a man on an official mission. 

Hopefully he hadn’t neglected Alice too much that night. It was hard to remember how much he’d been focused on his own drunken bullshit. Did he owe her an apology? He thought she was doing well, holding her own with Mike. But maybe he should have intervened more and kept everything flowing, so they didn’t get separated. Mike seemed to like her and she seemed to like Mike, so they should have been dancing together without question. If she got shuffled to the side, it would be his fault. Bar none.

Or maybe she was just going to the bathroom.

Squinting his eyes, he glanced around until he found the back booth, with all their jackets and purses strewn about. He also found a shock of blonde hair, sitting in the center of the round booth, hands folded on the table. She was smiling. At Q. 

They were talking animatedly, with Alice flipping through his omnipresent deck of cards with a tiny wrinkle of curiosity in her brow. But before she could squeak out whatever magic theory query was certainly on her lips, Quentin pulled a card out from the air behind Alice’s hair.  He held it out with a nerdy flourish—wiggling fingers, waggling eyebrows—and she nodded, smiling politely. Quentin gave a tiny bow and Alice clapped her hands. She laughed through her nose, glasses bouncing.

Hot annoyance ripped through Eliot’s stomach. Quentin knew the point was for Alice to get to know Mike. Jesus, he was such a cockblock. Eliot stormed over as quickly as his long legs would carry him. Quentin perked up at his presence and waved, while Alice smiled sweetly. Greetings all around.

“Fifty-two card pick up,” Eliot said brightly, using his telekinesis to scatter Quentin’s deck all around the booth and floor. 

“What the fuck, Eliot?”

He ignored him and grabbed Alice’s hand. “Dancing is a must, darling. Come along.”

But Alice tucked her lip between her teeth and pointed her brow at Q. “Do you need help, Quentin?”

Eliot shot him a violent glare. He blinked once in acknowledgment, sighed, and held his hands up. He ducked under the table, shaking his head.

“Apparently, I’m fine.”

Eliot tugged on her hand and smiled, pulling her to the floor. “He’s more than fine. He’s excellent. Let’s go have fun.”

The creases in Alice’s forehead deepened. She gave Eliot a sheepish look. “I think I’d have more fun cleaning up the cards. I’m not much of a dancer.”

“You’ll be fine,” he said blithely, spinning her protests right into Mike. The blonde man grinned and laughed, offering Alice a small shrug and his hand. She smiled back, shy, but willing. They danced chaste and in a swing formation, apparently going for the slow-but-steady courtship. Not his style, but to each their own. Most likely, it worked for Alice and that was the whole point. Mike lifted his head and nodded at Eliot, sending him another wink, mouthing Happy Birthday. And for himself, Eliot returned to his Bambi and found his rhythm again, all fast hips and glowing light. All was right with the world.

At least, until stole one glance back at Q. He expected see him glowering and pissy in the corner, as he deserved after that stint with Alice. But instead, Quentin was spinning his cards up into the same moving lights, quietly delighted and eyes shining. He pumped his fist to his chest in a private victory celebration when he landed a particularly difficult kinetic flight-switch. The cards fluttered out in a waving ring. Then he smiled, dimpled and perfect.

Heart dropping out of his chest, Eliot ripped his eyes away and back to Bambi, beautiful against his body.  She smiled up at him and stroked his cheek, whispering Happy Birthday, baby in his ear. He closed his eyes and let the music overtake everything.

The sober charm was a stupid idea.

 


 

 

SMS with “Mike McCormick
10/9/16 9:45 AM

 

Hello hello! Eliot told me to be sure to text you
So here I am :-)

 

Hello, Mike.

 

Didn't expect a response so fast!
Off campus this morning?

 

Yes.
I would rather not discuss it.

 

OK :-)
Nice meeting you last night!

 

Thank you. It was nice to meet you as well. 

 

Btw, the book I mentioned
“Norms of Liberty” by D. Rasmussen
Check it out :-)

 

Thank you again, Mike. I hope I can find time between my studies. 
Brakebills can be demanding, as I’m sure you remember.

 

Oh I definitely remember THOSE days ;-)
Well if you do manage to find time
Maybe we could get together to chat about it?
Cajole Mr. El into making us some drinks!

 

I would enjoy that.
Eliot is an excellent bartender. 

 

With such wonderful friends too :-)
Have a great day!

 

Thank you, Mike. The same to you.

 


 

“What do you think?” Alice chewed on her lip, eyebrows cocked and folded. The morning light filtered through the Cottage’s translucent curtains. He and Alice sat cross-legged on the couch, coffee mugs at the ready for a debrief. At her question, Eliot took a long, long breath and his eyes crossed toward the screen.

“It’s on airplane mode,” she assured him before he spoke, like he gave a shit. Brakebills was draconian, but technology interfered with magic about as much as it did, well, airplanes. Fogg instituted a blanket ban only because he could. Total power move. Only nerds actually complied.

No, his real concern had much more to do with the actual content of what she had sent Mike. Eliot glanced up from her phone and sighed, loud and for full effect. He handed it back to her, but didn’t let go even as she gripped it. He dipped his head and made unyielding eye contact.

“In the future, if Mike texts you,” he said, slowly, imploringly, “come find me before you respond, yeah? I will portal to you. I don't give a shit. Worth it to prevent this in the future.”

Her pretty face fell. “That bad?”

I’d rather not discuss it?” Eliot asked, tapping his finger against the offending message in question. Alice glanced away. “What the hell?”

“I told you, I had a family thing this morning,” she said, swallowing. “It seemed too much for an early conversation.”

“Okay, sure, but, like, just lie next time,” Eliot said, blinking and sipping his coffee. “Or don’t give details. The honesty police won’t come after you, I promise.”

“Fine,” Alice said, breathing sharp and glancing back down at the screen. “But how was it otherwise?”

“You were very polite,” Eliot conceded. But she read the subtext and puffed her cheeks out, falling back into the couch cushions in frustration.

“Well, what would you have said?” She asked, crinkling every feature that crinkled.

He rubbed at his chin in the performance of a serious ponder. “I would have started with something simple. Like, Here you are indeed, big boy.

Alice’s eyes were bigger than her glasses and her voice squealed like a dog toy. “I could never say that!”

“Why not?”

She sputtered, “For obvious reasons!”

“But you would’ve been sure to,” he waggled his eyebrows and smirked, “get a rise out of him.”

“Oh my god, Eliot.”

He laughed into his hands and patted her knee. “Try not to worry so much about being so—unobjectionable. It’s okay if boys object. They like objecting.”

“I’m not a shrinking violet,” she said, taking her glasses off and wiping them with the edge of her shirt. She perched them back on her nose. “I held my own last night.”

“Oh, more than,” he said, quick and true . She had. “But don’t be afraid to be flirtier, that’s all. A little bite never hurt anyone, much.”

She pinched her lips and sipped her coffee. “ It’s better if people think I’m nice first. I’m not so immediately alluring. It's different for you. You're sex on legs.”

He grinned bright as the sun. “There’s that sweet talk I love so much. Very alluring.”

Alice smiled. She circled her mug with her fingers and met his eyes. “I think I like him though. He knows a lot about political science and even more about Texan history. Even if I don’t share someone's passion, I always appreciate intellectual curiosity.”

He leaned back on one arm. “Does the Republican thing bother you?” He cleared his throat. “It would bother me a bit. So it’s okay if it bothers you. But also if it doesn’t.”

Alice shrugged, small, side-stepping. “He has kind eyes. I’m drawn to kind eyes.”

“Me too,” Eliot said, softer and more honest than he meant. It was an irritating effect she seemed to have on him. But Alice smiled at him with all her teeth, like they’d shared a secret sundae with extra sprinkles after bedtime. It was nice.

But then Quentin fell onto the couch next to them, startling Alice into a jump. He was fully dressed in a striped sweater and jeans. He was showered too, the tips of his hair still wet and smelling like spiced drugstore bergamot. Yet despite his lack of Fillory jammies and tell-tale dark eye circles, he moaned, covering his entire face with his hands.

“I thought sober charms were supposed to take away the hangover?” Q said, instead of Good morning, Alice and Eliot. You two look well today. He peeked through his fingers to glare at Alice. She frowned.

“It’s not a miracle spell,”  Alice said, crossing her arms. Defensive. “The safe ones sharpen your mental acuity but they don’t stop your physiological processing.”

In response, he just groaned all over again and Eliot rolled his eyes, laying his hand flat and patronizing on top of his head. Whiners never win.

“Feel like a truck hit me,” Quentin complained, dramatically.

“Oh, come on, you giant baby,” Eliot said, sending his empty mug off to the kitchen. He stood and tugged his arm in a single motion upward. Q made a displeased sound, but followed, pliant. “Let’s get you some fresh air, coffee, and hair of the dog, then you’ll be good as new.”

“Feel like I’m gonna die,” Quentin complained, dramatically. 

“The reaper comes for us all,” Eliot said, cooing as Q grunted. He pivoted back around on his heels and smiled at Alice. “Will you join, Ms. Quinn?”

Alice rolled her eyes and gave Eliot a scoffing smile. “No thank you. Some of us actually do schoolwork.”

He winked. “I’m not familiar.”

Alice rolled her eyes and waved him off. She reached beside her and pulled out a book, flipping to a marked page in the center. Her blue eyes focused intent on the words, her face a statue of concentration.

“I hate everything and everyone,” Quentin said, slumping forward by his shoulders. Eliot coaxed him closer to the door with a There, there and a slightly too hard pinch on his side. Turning around to offer a final wave to Alice, he froze as he realized his spot on the couch was already occupied. By a head of bigger, longer, darker curls than his.

“—spectral refraction is such a bitch,” Kady said, her ignoble face lifting into a smile. “Wanna join forces?”

Alice sat up straight, eyes twinkling. “Sure! I’d be happy to help. And—and learn from you too.”

“Love the tact, Blondie,” Kady said with a snort and a nose scrunch. Alice’s cheeks flushed, but her lips lifted like she was pleased anyway. Eliot’s hand twitched.

“El.”

Quentin’s voice was quiet and strange. Eliot flashed his eyes over and clenched his jaw. But Q’s eyebrows were low against his eyelashes and his arms were crossed, not fucking around.

“Wanna get going?” It was a demand more than a question. 

Eliot smoothed his features out and sighed, wrapping his arm around Q’s shoulders and opening the Cottage door at the same time. The sunlight burst through and Quentin squeezed his eyes shut, like it hurt. 

“Someone’s in a mood,” he said, keeping the lilt to his tone teasing and pleasant. “You should really drink more responsibly.”

Quentin cracked his neck and rubbed at his forehead with the heels of his palms in circles. “You’re a dick.”

Eliot chuckled and directed them toward the coffee shop, changing the subject to his plans for the week, re: fall decor strategy and a new mulled wine-cum-sex magic potion recipe he was hankering to try. Quentin nodded and Hmm’d at the right places, but mostly stayed perfectly quiet, letting Eliot fill the space with his fleeting and frivolous thoughts. It was one of the many ways he was a very good friend.  And Eliot purposefully didn’t think about Alice and Kady—working together, sharing smiles, bonding—as he talked and talked and talked. 

All in due time.

 


 

They walked out of the wards, once Quentin was caffeinated and halfway human again. 

The towering beech and maple trees were duller and drier than the enchanted bursts of autumn blaze on the campus grounds. The biting nip in the gray air smacked their faces. In the distance, smoke from a campsite rose cloudy into the overcast sky, making everything smell like burnt wood and charcoal. Eliot sipped on his flask before handing it to Quentin. Q was reluctant, but still took it. Hair of the dog worked, especially when your bottomless alcohol was charmed to work.

“I’m thinking of making a career out of it,” Eliot said, tightening his hands into the pockets of his blazer. Next to him, Q rubbed his hands together and blew on them. It wasn’t chilly enough for the energy in a warming spell, but the wind was a bitch.

“Matchmaking? Are you fucking joking?”

Of course he was. But Q’s incredulous response naturally provoked: “It would be a brilliant concept. Lovelorn Magicians from all over the world, seeking out my expert guidance. They’ll reach the heights of ecstasy and romance under my keen tutelage.”

“And yet, along the way, you’d be the one who really learns how to love,” Quentin, professional shithead, said. He stepped on an extra dry dead leaf with a satisfied smirk. Whether for the quip or the crunching sound was anyone’s guess.

“Only as part of the branding narrative, and after I shook ‘em down for all they’re worth,” Eliot said, taking his flask back and sipping through a smile. “I’m thinking I start at five-hundred an hour.”

“Yeah, sure, good luck with that, Eliot,” Quentin said, all eye rolls and snorts. Eliot bit down a smile. 

Quentin still hadn’t always fully calibrated when he was fucking with him. They’d be friends long enough that he usually knew, for the most part. But every now and then, he fell for it despite everything. Like some part of him inherently trusted what Eliot said, even when it was absurd. And that was—

Didn’t matter.

Still, fucking with Q was fun as fuck. So Eliot frowned, purposefully misconstruing his meaning. “Don’t worry. I’ll give you a friends and family discount.”

Quentin ignored him, instead focusing on wrapping his sweater around him as tight as possible. He pulled his sleeves down over his fingers and wrapped them into tight fists. He breathed on them, red-faced and lips puckered. His hair flew around, wisps hitting his cheek and lips in a choppy rhythm.

Eliot wasn’t sure why he asked it, but he did. Maybe he was curious. Maybe he was a masochist. Maybe he was still kind of drunk.

“What would be on your list anyway?” He asked, lighting a cigarette. He breathed out the first hit of smoke as he chuckled. “You know, in a world where you wouldn’t rather shit yourself in front of Christopher Plover’s ghost than go to a matchmaker. ”

He frowned, cocking his head. “I don’t understand the question.”

He waved his cigarette about, impatient. “In a mate.”

Quentin looked at him like he’d lost his damn mind. “You mean, like, what kind of qualities would I request? If you were going to set me up with someone?”

“Precisely.”

He made a light choking sound as his mouth fell open. “I—I don’t fucking know.”

Eliot shrugged. The tips of his ears burned. “Okay. Forget it.”

“I’m not that—” Q tightened his jaw and blew his hair out of his face. He stared off at the farthest tree in the distance, hugging himself. “I’m not that, uh, picky. I mean, definitely not that I’d have a list. Because, fuck, um, what’s the expression? Um. Beggars can’t be choosers.”

Eliot smirked into the ground. He wasn’t going to fucking touch that. “Don’t worry about it. Passing fancy.”

They walked in silence, passing the cigarette and the flask back and forth. Quentin’s eyes moved around and his shoulders hunched over as he stumbled forward without grace. Eliot walked gently, though he were gliding, and held his face neutral. But the cogs in Q’s brain were obviously snapping and steaming, about to spark into an inferno from the friction and pressure of his thoughts. He pressed the heel of his palm into his overworked jaw and shuffled ahead on the trail. 

He wondered if Quentin had a night guard. He could use one.

Silence reigned for a few more moments. Then Q made a short guttural sound and said, “I—I think I’d be with anyone I was even a little attracted to and who would, you know, have me.”

Jesus fucking Christ.

Anyone who would have him?

Would have him?

Would have him, as though he wasn’t one of the most—? 

Eliot huffed on his cigarette and closed his eyes. He willed his mind into calm static.

“Okay,” he said, cracking his neck. He pulled himself up, tall and imposing. He tracked his eyes over to Quentin, who was running his fingers through his hair and knotting the ends along his nails. His fucking gorgeous hair. “Well, what are you attracted to then?”

Why the fuck was he continuing this stupid fucking conversation? He didn’t feel drunk.

“I don’t know,” Quentin said, his shoulders sloping so far forward he looked like Richard III. His thin neck muscles tensed wiry and he let his hair fall fully in his face. “I don’t know. It’s not, like, a science. It’s circular. I’m attracted to anyone I find attractive, and I find people attractive because I’m attracted to them.”

Why don’t you want me? Eliot’s hindbrain hissed and screamed. It kicked its legs up and threw the jam jar all over the linoleum aisle floor, face red and spit hitting the weary nanny’s face. It was stupid. He knew it was stupid. But every time he thought maybe—well, he was wrong. Always wrong. And it was getting to be a little too much these days.

Outwardly, though, he made a simple sound of acknowledgment, ready to change the subject.

“Besides,” Quentin continued, huffing and puffing a well-read social cue for the first time, “I think you’re being premature with the wedding invites for Alice and Mike.”

Eliot smiled, light as anything. “I would plan them the most spectacular wedding. Ice sculptures of rearing stallions and bright white cowboy boots aplenty. Might be my worst nightmare, but one can’t deny their interests are thematically suited. Fate.”

Quentin wasn’t deterred. “I don’t trust him.”

Eliot rolled his eyes. “Of course you don’t.”

“He’s smarmy.”

“Of course he is.”

Mike was an aspiring politician. What else would he be? Genuine and salt of the earth? Come on.

Q pulled a hair tie off his bony wrist and wrapped his hair into one of his floppy buns. “That doesn’t bother you?”

Eliot waved his hand, ash flying off his cigarette. “Very little bothers me.”

Quentin snorted incredibly rudely. “Beg to fucking differ.”

“Mmm, Daddy loves when you beg,” he said, with a cheesy wink and a lick of his lips. Quentin pulled a face but also flushed, ever so slightly. So it was officially a good morning. 

Eliot took another drag on his cigarette. “Look, I won’t apologize for having standards. What I mean though is that people are basically shitty, so obviously Mike is shitty. But as long as he’s not a—serial rapist, then I don’t give a shit about his particular shittiness.”

“‘Not a serial rapist’ is the baseline?” Q looked genuinely distressed. “Seriously?”

Eliot twisted his lips and rocked his head back and forth. “I suppose corporate embezzlement isn’t great either.”

Quentin blew a strand of hair out his face, grinning. “You’re so full of shit.”

No shit, Q. He was cute. Eliot slung his arm across his shoulders, all older and wiser mentor.

“But if you were observant, you would have seen them and know what I mean. They were debating, all hot and heavy, leaned in toward each other. Cute as fuck,” he said and Quentin sighed, shrugging. “About something called The Virtue of Selfishness, which, by the way, wow, sign me up and—”

“Okay, no,” Q’s eyes flashed up at him, fierce. “If you become an Objectivist, we can’t be friends anymore.”

Ugh, philosophy. “I don’t know what that is.”

“It’s the Randian system, stating that reality is,” Quentin said, his eyes focusing straight ahead like they did when he was explaining a concept, “uh, well, objective, beyond consciousness, and so it’s our moral duty to orient our perceptions toward—”

“Oh, Q, I apologize,” Eliot laughed, ruffling his hair with one hand and perching his cigarette between his lips with the other. He spoke around the filter and smoke, muffled. “That wasn’t actually a request for more information, but I can see how it appeared that way.”

Quentin jostled his side and pulled away with a playful smirk, taking all his warmth with him. A true pity. But Eliot smoked and Q walked and the silence was only broken by the peppering of tiny bird chirps and rustling of wind. Eliot fucking hated nature, as a concept and a practicum, but their habit of walking was actually…nice. It was familiar, in a way he never thought he’d enjoy. But there he was, enjoying.

“Do you really think she likes him?” Quentin asked, breaking through without preamble. He wavered on the question and something pierced Eliot’s chest. He swallowed and ticked his jaw.

“Sure seems like it. Says she does,” he said, fast and firm. “Why? Is there someone else you think would be better suited?”

“I mean, yeah, kinda,” Quentin said, frowning. Eliot pretended he wasn’t frozen. “She—she really seems drawn to Kady.”

Somehow that was an even worse answer than the one he anticipated.

“Kady? Orloff-Diaz?” Eliot asked, slow and simpering. He was really saying Vermin? Disgusting vermin? “Come the fuck on, Q. First of all, Alice is straight—”

“You think everyone is straight,” Quentin countered. He smiled, false and especially sarcastic in the tree’s shadow. “You thought I was straight.”

Yeah, yeah, fucking yeah.

Eliot rolled his eyes. “To be fair, you were in love with Julia and devastated about her and Margo. Didn’t exactly scream I Love Cock.”

“That’s total bullshit. You know I was over Julia once I met you,” Quentin said, with a rush of forceful conviction. Eliot’s eyebrows shot up.

But then he lost it, sucking in a sharp breath and staring at the ground. He started stammering more than usual. “I mean, by—by the time I met you. And I wasn’t devastated about Margo, I love Margo, and—and I supported them from the—the start. You know that. Jesus. Or—or—or, like, maybe I had to do some minor processing—“

Sure. Minor processing. Or, you know, drunken obsessive whining with his face lodged between the couch cushion and the edge of Eliot’s shoulder. Either way.

“—But you know what I mean. But—but that’s not, um, that’s not—that’s not even my—my fucking point,” Q growled, pacing forward. “I could have married Julia and still not be straight.”

“Can we save the repeat of Quentin is Queer: A Very Special Episode?” Eliot asked, irrationally annoyed. “It’s been absorbed. Promise.”

Q glared again, brown eyes golden and flickering. He swallowed and then rolled them. “Fine. Whatever. All I’m saying is that Alice and Kady seem like they actually get along, like they—”

He laughed. “Are my feelings on that insane hypothetical a mystery? Not to mention they barely know each other.”

Quentin shook his head. “No, Kady’s just not an idiot. She and Alice hang out a lot when you’re not around.”

Well, that was news to him. He pushed down the fury and swallowed, almost laughing. “Whatever. Fine. But come on. To say Alice could do better is insulting to the concept of better. That would even be fucking postulated—

“You let it go earlier,” Quentin pointed out, clipped. “You didn’t have to do that.”

“Kady Orloff-Diaz is a worthless piece of shit,” Eliot spat out. Quentin’s eyes widened, pooling into that spark of melancholy determination. “The only reason I didn’t destroy her in two words back at the Cottage was for your soft touch sake.”

“Oh, wow, thank you, Eliot—” 

His sarcasm wasn’t always so adorable.

“But let me be clear, Coldwater,” Eliot said, holding his hand up and cutting him the fuck off. “Even if Alice—who told me she likes men, for the record—suffered a hematoma and decided she wanted to fuck her, I’d put a stop to it. I’d stop it because she deserves better. And that’s the truth, regardless of how generous I was today.”

Quentin snorted again. Rhino style. “Generous? What the fuck happened to ‘anyone who isn’t a serial rapist is essentially fine?’ What we were literally talking about five minutes ago?”

Eliot shrugged, unapologetic. “Exceptions to every rule. Not sure if you knew, but I’m mercurial.”

Quentin shook his head, still stuck. “But you let it go today. No matter what you say, you wouldn’t have done that two months ago and—“

“I can evolve my tactics. I’m not Margo,” he said, taking a final drag on his cigarette before sending the stub off to the magical ether. “I’m aware that sometimes it’s better to caress before you crush.”

It was a play on Machiavelli. Of all people, Quentin would both recognize and appreciate it. But he didn’t comment on the allusion. Instead, he stopped walking, abrupt, faltering behind in the clearing. A smattering of dead golden leaves circled his black boots and his brow was wrinkled as their burnt paper texture. Eliot stared at him. He didn’t really want to do this right now. Not again.

“Side sticker?” He asked, sardonic. But Quentin sighed.

“For the last fucking time,” he said, low and gentle and avoiding eye contact. Apparently they were doing this right now. Again. “You need to cut Kady some slack. I’m serious, El. It’s been long enough.”

Well, it was Eliot’s fault. He responded instead of ignoring the topic. Opened the can of worms. Hardly appetizing.

“I’ve cut plenty. She’s alive, isn’t she?” Eliot meant for it to come out like a dancing quip, a stinging touch. It definitely wasn’t supposed to be guttural and furious. But you can’t win ‘em all.

Quentin shook his head over and over. “Yeah, she fucked up. I think she’s fully aware at this point. But, like, Jesus, if I ever fucked up, I’d hope—“

He sliced the words in half, dark and firm. “No. Stop. It was more than fucking up. You’d never do what she did. If it was only the energy surge, fine—“

It wouldn’t have been fine. But that wasn’t the point.

“—I wouldn’t be fucking thrilled, obviously, but fine. But she systematically, willfully—“

Q laughed, hand in his hair. “Are you a moralist now? Concerned about the integrity of the Brakebills program? You’ve literally traded spells for blow jobs, Eliot.”

“First of all, that was one time, first year,” he said, finger shot out, defensive. His chest clenched. “Second of all, teaching a bunch of eager tweakers some poppers is a little fucking different. She provided a psycho Safe House master with ongoing materials and strategy.”

“Yeah, sure, but like—“ Quentin tightened his jaw and bit his lip. “We can debate the right to magic all day. I know your stance and you know mine. But it doesn’t make Kady a bad person for—“

Eliot stormed ahead, twisting out his flask. “Yeah. You’re right. You know my stance. About everything. So we should drop this.”

“But she didn’t mean for what happened to, uh, happen and—“

“What happened was the inevitable fucking conclusion,” Eliot growled out over his shoulder. He kept walking. He drank. “You know it could have been a hell of a lot worse. And—and if it had been worse? Fuck, Q. The fact that you still don’t take that more seriously…”

“It wasn’t worse though. That’s what actually matters.”

Eliot rounded on him, snapping, “No, what matters is that it could have been. And so long as that fact remains, you will never convince me that Orloff-Diaz is redeemable.”

Quentin took a deep breath, like he was summoning patience. “I get why it upset you so much, but—”

“Yeah, this is why we have to drop this subject,” Eliot said, pressing the cool steel of his flask against his temple. He closed his eyes. “Because it is unclear to me why it didn’t upset you more. And—and that’s a rabbit hole we don’t need to follow.”

Quentin’s feet shuffled over the crackling ground. A twig broke with a tiny snap. His voice was smaller than the sound. “I guess I just think people deserve second chances. I believe in forgiveness.”

Eliot’s throat was burning hot. “You’re a better person than me. Everyone knows that. But you’re acting like she didn’t—“

“I know she fucked up the Cottage—“

Eliot’s eyes snapped open and the world was red. “You think that’s my problem?”

“Well, yeah, I mean, along with everything else too,” Quentin said, eyes and lips casting downward. “But you spent weeks cleaning it up and I know it’s, like, your baby—“

“We are done talking about this.”

Q swallowed and he sighed, rubbing his neck. “Look, no, I know the other shit was worse. But I’m just, like—I also know that maybe your concerns seemed inconsequential in light of everything else and I want to acknowledge that—“

“Quentin,” Eliot almost laughed his name out, hanging on the edge of hysteria. “I said I’m done, okay? We’re not going to agree. I don’t want to fight with you. Especially not about this.”

“I never want to fight with you,” Q said, swallowing and quiet. He blinked his gaze off toward the forest. Eliot went still. “Or, um, I don’t like fighting with anyone.”

Right.

The long strands that framed his face fell out of the bun and Quentin pushed them back, closing his eyes. “So we’ll change the subject. Sorry.”

“No need to be sorry,” Eliot said, lifting his flask to his lips. It was filled with whiskey that morning. Excellent match for the chill in the air and the weird vibe between them. “Obviously you should be able to talk about it. But if you want sympathy for the devil, I’m not your guy.”

“I get it,” Q said, with a sad half-smile. “We experienced it differently. It’s the same for Jules.” He paused. “She and Kady used to be close.”

Eliot nodded, turning his face into the wind’s sting. “I know. I remember.”

“I don’t know what I’d do if I lost my friends.” 

His voice was so quiet that Eliot could have pretended he didn’t hear him. He considered it. He also considered telling Quentin that it was an impossibility, at least where he was concerned. Both would have been stupid decisions.

So instead, he rolled his eyes and sputtered out a breath. “Don’t project, Coldwater.”

The silence that settled over them wasn’t as comfortable as earlier. But it wasn’t bad. The clouds parted and sunlight peeked through the brittle branches above. It slanted and refracted, cloaking the gray-brown earth with hints of gold. Royal embroidery on peasant garb.

“What would your list look like?” Quentin asked, out of nowhere. He sat on the same rock they always found when they were out of the wards. He hadn’t realized they’d walked so far. “If someone was going to set you up?”

Eliot was still too on edge to be anything but coarse. He considered digging out another cigarette. “Has a dick, won’t stay the night.”

The edges of Quentin’s lips quirked down. Then up. They settled in a straight line and he cleared his throat. “Right. Yeah. Okay.”

Eliot opened his mouth and closed it. He felt like all the oxygen had been sucked out of him in a single punch. “I don’t know, Q. I don’t think about that kind of thing. You know that.”

“Because you don’t want it?”

Eliot easily fought his first instinct, the one driven by his stupid heart, buried deep below the surface. The one that threatened to say something he couldn’t take back. Because what the fuck could he even do with that, if he acknowledged it? If he said it out loud? He could have as many private fantasies about domestic bliss as he wanted, but Eliot knew who he was. He knew where he came from. He knew what was reasonable to expect in his life. Wanting was second nature. Having was a fairytale.

But luckily, the fight was little more than muscle memory. He let out a breath and shook his head.

“Why have one thing when you can have everything?” Eliot said, arch and nonchalant. The words were frail on his lips.

Quentin shrugged, still smiling. Still sad. “I wish I was more like you.”

Eliot actually laughed, amused and bitter at once. “That—is the epitome of a genie wish that backfires and then destroys your whole life.”

“But you’re so laissez-faire about shit,” he said, scooting over so Eliot could sit next to him. He sunk down onto the rock without thinking about it, magnetic. “It would be good for me to be, uh, more like that. About everything.”

“You could stand to chill out a bit, sure,” Eliot said, though he smiled. “For your own sake.”

Quentin rang his tongue across his teeth and darted his eyes. “Yeah. I know. It fucks me over all the time but—it’s my doom. My curse.”

“At least you aren’t hyperbolic.”

That got a tiny smile out of him. Eliot felt like his heart stretched down the length of his ribcage, tingling into his stomach. 

“But I want to, you know, get married, have kids, eventually. Well, one kid,” Quentin said, sticking his tongue out. “Even if I’m too much of a mess to, like, get through a date without panicking right now. I still want it. But I’m sure you think that’s dumb.”

Eliot swallowed sawdust and nodded like a floating bobble head. He let out a tiny chuckle, breathier than he would have preferred. His fingers tapped, twitching against his will. He squeezed his index finger into a vice and brought his hands up to his lips.

“Doesn’t matter what I think,” he said, a heavy weight pressing and pressing on his sternum. “What matters is that if you want that, you’ll get it. One of these days.”

He hoped it wasn’t anytime soon. Holy shit, he hoped it wasn’t anytime soon. He knew they were old enough, whatever the hell that meant. He knew that any relationship Q had could turn into something long term. Something that would end up with Eliot standing at the front of some nondenominational church, by Q’s side. Passing rings with a supportive grin and a kind wink to the lovely woman in white. 

(Had to be a woman. It had to be a woman.)

Eliot knew that it was a matter of time. It was unavoidable. When, not if. And at the same time, he wanted it for him, because he—cared about Q, in a way he cared about almost no one else. But Eliot was a selfish man who didn’t like to share. He’d already compromised with Margo. He knew most of his connections were ephemeral, that he was gripping sand. And despite everything, the inevitability of being stylish Uncle Eliot in the city was crushing, much as he projected it as his chosen path. 

But Q was his best friend and he wanted him to be happy. He wanted him to be happy. So.

So.

He ruffled Quentin’s hair and grinned. He hoped it reached his eyes. “So don’t worry that pretty head of yours, okay?”

“Yeah, as discussed, I’m good at that,” Quentin said, snorting. “Not worrying.”

Eliot stared up at the sky. A plane trailed overhead. “Well, remember, Q. You can’t hurry love. No, you just have to wait. Love don’t come easy.  It’s a game of—”

Quentin flipped him off. He really had tried to cut back since Alice called him out on the frequency, but it was like he couldn’t help it. Eliot chuckled—he’d kind of missed his pencil-calloused old friend, Freddy the Fuck You Finger. He smiled back and relaxed, sighing into silence.

Shimmering in the flecked light, a sliver of a broken leaf twirled down. It landed soft in Quentin’s hair, next to his temple. Eliot brushed it away and let his thumb linger on the delicate skin below his hairline. It was an instinct. It sent shockwaves up and down his extremities.

Q’s eyebrows twitched and he glanced over, a mild question in his eyes. Eliot snatched his hand back.

“Sorry,” he said, in a whisper. He cleared his throat. His voice was normal again. “You had a leaf in your hair.”

Quentin smiled, unconcerned. He looked upward, squinting. “Starting to make their way down. Though the colors are less vibrant this year.”

“Too much rain,” Eliot said without thinking. He clenched his fist, fingernails biting into his palm. He was supposed to forget shit like that. He’d been remembering too much shit.

Q didn’t seem to think much of it. He smirked, glancing over at Eliot through his lashes. “Well, the signs are all pointing to only one thing—“

“If you say Winter is Coming, I will kill you.”

 


 

 

tbc.