Cala Jondal & Ibiza Town, Ibiza, Spain, Mid-November 2016
(Part Five of Our Fabulous Story, Entitled: Eliot and Quentin are Really Good Friends! Shit Happens! Encanto Oculto, Baby!)
(Alternate Title: You’re Having a Meltdown.)
The first boy Eliot ever fell for was Taylor Delatolas. He was the local pharmacist’s son. He was his only childhood friend. He had a loud laugh. He had long eyelashes. He was straighter than an Indiana highway.
Spoiler alert: It didn’t work out.
Eliot was... never good to him, not in any way that mattered. Which, in retrospect, really sucked because Taylor had always been a genuine soul. He was gentle. He loved Saturday Night Live and Superman comics. He was a track star in high school and patiently tutored an impatient Eliot in Trig, by far his worst subject. And sure, he was a bit simple-minded and far too religious almost all of the time. But he was a lifeline when Eliot had nothing outside his own bloody-handed clawing to the surface, so the feeling—the fall—was inevitable.
They became friends in sixth grade, mostly because Eliot was already an outsider, good and targeted as the queer kid. Taylor, on the other hand, was of Greek and Filipino descent, with a lovely olive skin tone and ridiculous dark green eyes. But all that meant was the geniuses in the aptly named town of Whiteland called him “Osama Bin Laden” more often than anything else, give or take a few other crude slurs. They first bonded in the boy’s bathroom, on the first day of middle school, when a bunch of hicks had beaten the shit out of Taylor and written TERRERIST [sic] on his forehead in permanent marker.
Because humans were truly so good, deep down.
Still, even through their years of friendship, Eliot didn’t recognize his feelings for what they really were. Emotional literacy had never been his strong suit, even back then. Fuck, especially back then.
He definitely didn’t recognize it for what it was when he was kicking the shit out of him, in that stark and unlit gymnasium, the Whiteland Tigers’ credo overhead in blood red, like a threat. He didn’t recognize it when he stormed into the locker room and tore off Earl Jr.’s hand-me-down gym clothes, the usual taunts in the background nothing but white noise. He didn’t recognize it when he slammed the door to his prison of a farmhouse, the smell of manure and cow’s blood strangling him as he ran up the stairs two at a time. He didn’t recognize it as he curled in the fetal position on his twin bed, all scratchy bedding and a Bible on the rickety nightstand, sobbing until snot poured out his nose. He didn’t recognize it when he dragged himself to school the next day and Taylor forgave him, like it had never happened. He didn’t recognize it even as Taylor forgave him, every time, over and over and over again.
(Well, almost every time.)
He didn’t recognize it when he started stealing both his dad’s whiskey and his middle brother Ethan’s truck in the middle of the night, chugging and spinning out circles and thinking about Taylor’s eyes.
He didn’t recognize it when Taylor would bring ice packs to school for him and quietly tell him that he was always welcome at his family’s home. He didn’t recognize it when Taylor’s only response to Eliot’s arch insistence that he didn’t need his fucking pity was a sigh and, “Okay, but the offer always stands, Eliot.”
He didn’t recognize it when Taylor didn’t show up for opening night of Les Mis and he ended up passed out in a cornfield, covered in his own vomit.
He didn’t recognize it when he showed up at Taylor’s house a week into senior year and a day after his dad’s first heart attack. He didn’t recognize it as he begged Taylor to run away with him. He didn’t recognize it when Taylor’s eyes went soft and he took Eliot’s hand and told him that he loved him, but not like that. He didn’t recognize it when he spat on Taylor’s foot and pushed him back, insisting that he wasn’t a… well, you know.
He definitely didn’t recognize it when he refused to ever speak to Taylor again, when he didn’t say goodbye before he left for New York and magic and Eliot Waugh .
No. See, the fucked up thing was that he only really recognized it after he met Quentin.
Of course, Q wasn’t the impetus for reckoning with the memories altogether. Eliot had talked about Taylor before to Margo, during The Trials, by necessity. He told her all about his only childhood friend, about how he had given and given to Eliot, who only took and threw back without fail. Tears in his eyes, he admitted to her that he had never learned how to be a friend or even a good person, and how he always pushed away the people he cared about, because it was easier than admitting his own frailty.
He told her that Indiana had been a hellhole, fire and salt to every gaping part of himself and he couldn’t— wouldn’t —forgive any of it, even himself. He told her that the person she was drawn to wasn’t real. That he was layers and layers of artifice, covering nothing. Air and dry bones and a brittle heart, pumping poison through everything good that ever came his way.
But Margo—God fucking wish to be her—caressed his bare knees and stared into his eyes to say, “That’s the biggest load of self-involved bullshit I’ve ever heard in my life and I’m from Los Angeles.”
It made him laugh, a shocked sound, and she kissed him once before telling him that he was good and worthy of love. She said that his heart was the most incandescent sight she had ever seen. It was dramatic as hell and every word out of her beautiful mouth was an absurd thing to say to someone she still really barely knew.
Nonetheless, it was when he fell in love with her.
Though at the same time, Eliot also never had the heart to tell her that the ropes actually unraveled the second he said, I destroy everything I touch. He had mixed feelings about magic, but he knew it didn’t lie. If the ropes fell off, then that was his highest governing internal circumstance, his utmost truth. His cross to bear and to never burden anyone else with, ever. The only real acknowledgment he made was to privately promise to never drag his perfect Margo down along with him. And then he made the same promise again, just as quiet, a little more than a year later.
Anyway, the point was that Eliot still never realized that he had fallen so hard for Taylor back in his adolescence. He had always thought of his feelings in abstract terms, like observing a Greek tragedy of his own making from a distance. It wasn’t until that one otherwise inconsequential day, after he had done the thing he regretted most in his life and he was still walking to class with Quentin, still friends with Quentin, still with Quentin, and Q was babbling on about some nerdy bullshit and Eliot wasn't feeling well but he was happy and—
A seagull cawed in the distance. The sand under his fingertips burned as morning solidified above his half-asleep form.
Eliot was avoiding reality with his introspective bullshit. Again.
His eyes peeled open, mostly against his will, retinas shocked. He had a terrible headache, and it was only partially from the hangover. As his body adjusted to the equilibrium of wakefulness, he took a sharp breath, the salt air stinging his lungs. Fuck.
The sky above him was muted, a billow of flying cranes in concentric circles, swooping between unseasonable snowflakes. The tiny white sparkles dotted the slowly brightening sky. Against the dark line of the horizon in the distance, the filtered light of the sun shimmered across the water, hearkening morning. Eliot shifted on the blanket under him, lying on his back with an arm tucked up under his head. His other arm was completely detached from sensation, a mess of pins and needles. But the rest of his body was profoundly, achingly aware of a warm Quentin Coldwater curled up on his chest, drooling on his shirt and clutching at him like he would never let go.
With a shuddering breath, Eliot ran his tongue along the grainy surface of his unbrushed teeth. The sickening sweet taste of alcohol burned sharp and putrid in the crevices of his dry mouth. His head thudded, matching the heavy rate of his unsteady heart. His eyes were crusty and gooey, the edges stinging. He felt like shit. Everything was shit.
Well, except Q’s arm wrapped tight across his chest, fingers gripping Eliot’s shirt like an incapacitated koala. Every nerve ending in his body assured him that was assuredly not shit. Not even close, if the gentle flips of his heart and the tingling in his giddy feet were any indication, even if they were in stark contrast to the scolding of his rational brain.
In truth, it wasn’t a particularly sexy sight. Quentin’s face was pressed into the corner of his armpit, smushed and red-streaked. He snored, a gurgling sound, and his forehead was soaked in hangover sweat. It was equal parts sweet and ridiculous, a classic drunken fallout of a wild night. It could have been brushed off as such too, if Eliot squinted hard enough. But not really.
Because there was also the matter of how fucking beautiful Q was. The way the sunrise illuminated his perfect cheekbones, the shadow of his brow reaching down to his lashes, those fucking lips of his, sending a rush of electricity through his exhausted body at just the smallest glimpse. Last night had doomed him in so many ways and that was what he would have to carry with him, from then on.
So, helpless, Eliot just closed his eyes and breathed him in, giving in for a moment, his nose brushing along his soft hairline.
Honestly, Quentin smelled terrible, he thought with a short laugh. Like stale smoke and sweet sweat and spoiled whiskey, which shouldn’t have been a thing but somehow was. But fuck him if it wasn’t the best thing in the world. Quentin was the best thing in the world, he thought, punch drunk and pressing his lips to the top of his head again and again. The words he fought every single goddamn day floated to the front of his mind and, selfishly, he let them stay there. He let himself feel them. He let them be real. He let them mean something.
For exactly two seconds.
Then Eliot blinked them away, as he always did, and opened his eyes. Cracking his neck as slowly as he could manage, he found himself wishing for a freak tsunami, so he would be washed away with the tide, deep into the sea, forever out of his misery. Running his hand through his thoroughly frizzy and disheveled hair, he pinched the bridge of his nose and took a deep breath. They couldn’t wake up together like this. Not after everything. He needed to get Quentin off him. Now.
So very carefully, he shifted, with Q’s hair bunched against his nose. His angular face slid down against his chest, mouth open along the line of his heart. Eliot breathed in harsh through his nostrils, chest tight. With a rough final kiss to the top of Q’s head, he extracted himself quickly, rolling away, free and bereft at once. His chest was cold and hollow, but it was the right thing to do. It was what he had to do. He settled with a half-satisfied huff, throwing his hand over his eyes.
It was done.
A breeze passed overhead and Quentin’s arms jerked with a shiver and a displeased snore. Eliot looked away. They needed to face the morning on the same page—the right page—and being cuddly and close would blur the lines of what needed to be done, to preserve that which actually mattered. It was the right thing to do, he reminded himself again, his brain ever stronger and louder than his weak and foolish heart.
But then the breeze changed to a gust without warning. Eliot’s skin raised into gooseflesh and as soon as he could count them on his forearm, Quentin sat up like a shot. He let out a strangled sound as he heaved forward, his hands splaying out beside him like he was on unsteady ground. He coughed, almost a gag, and Eliot’s heart picked up its speed as reality sunk low.
“What—?” Quentin started to say, sniffing and halting, head swiveling every way it could. But then his crazed eyes softened into light confusion when they fell on him, with a half-smile. “Oh. Um. Hey. Uh—what the shit? Where are we?”
Unfortunately, he would remember. The pills he took had a slight slow-release confusion charm that dissipated after a few minutes upon waking. It was built in as part of the recovery. Eliot wasn’t that lucky.
“Good morning,” he said, quiet. He gave Q a closed-lipped smile toward the sea and took a deep breath through his nostrils. “We’re on the beach. Still in the Encanto wards.”
“I—” Quentin said, lips quirking down. He shook his head hard, like a wet dog. “I—uh? What? Um. Okay. Wow.”
Eliot stared over at his shoes, still thrown off to the side of the blanket. “How’s your head?”
“Fucking not good,” Quentin said, with a moan, burying his face in his hands. “Shit. Um. Okay. Give me a second to get my bearings, okay?”
A soft laugh escaped Eliot without permission. “Sure. Take all the time you need.”
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Quentin rub the heels of his palms into his temples. He scratched at his nose and shook his head again. He licked his lips once and—
Quentin blinked again, with more intent. He licked his lips again and brought his fingers up, running them along their length. He blinked. He shook his head. He startled backwards, scooting back so the blanket rumpled under his movement. His hand clasped entirely over his mouth and his eyes went wide.
“Oh my god,” Quentin whispered. He slammed his eyes shut, both hands gripping in his hair. “Holy shit. Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god.”
“Q,” Eliot said warningly as Quentin scrambled about, looking everywhere but at him. But Quentin ignored him, his mouth wide and wheezing, before he slammed his forehead to his knees and dug his fingers against the side of his head.
Eliot sighed and tapped him with his index finger. “No. Don’t do that. No turtling.”
Quentin groaned and his forearms trapped his head in a vice. “Yeah, uh, nope. Gonna turtle.”
“Look at me, Coldwater.” Eliot slid his hand along the crook of his neck, gentling his rocking. God, his skin was soft and warm. Shit.
“Just let me turtle,” Q said, groaning and rolling his head back and forth. The words pierced Eliot somewhere deep in his gut.
“Quentin,” he said, patience getting thin and about to snap. He shook his shoulder harder. “Come on.”
“Oh my god,” Q groaned ever the more, wrapping the whole of himself around himself until his voice was muffled and limbs twisted every which way. “I fucking mauled you, Eliot. Oh my god.”
“Well, I’ll always choose a lion to this,” Eliot said, forcibly pulling Quentin up by his arm. He hung lax in his grip, but didn’t fight it. “Q. Seriously. It’s fine.”
But Quentin’s mouth widened into a maw and his head shaking, palm flat on his forehead. “I am so sorry.”
A pained thud ricocheted through Eliot’s core, over the last bleeding wound. “Nothing to be sorry about, Q. Come on.”
“You don’t have to—” Quentin brought his fist to his mouth and bit at his knuckles. He rested his chin on his knees, eyes blazing toward the horizon. “I made an idiot of myself. The first fucking night. Jesus.”
Eliot closed his eyes and swallowed, scratching at the space between his brows. “No, you didn’t.”
Quentin made a high-pitched scoffing sound. “I literally overdosed on magical dancing pills, Eliot.”
The tension in his jaw almost broke his face, but he forced a slight smile. “The spirit was true, even if the flesh was unwilling.”
Q scrunched his face up, confused. “Uh, what the hell does that mean?”
“I don’t fucking know,” Eliot said, sighing and scrubbing his face with his palms. “I haven’t been this hungover in a long time. My quips aren’t at their most piquant.”
“Well, maybe don’t quip then,” Quentin said quietly, his jaw tense. “Just, like, talk.”
Eliot touched the tip of his tongue to the roof of his mouth and stared up at the false sky.
“What do you want me to say?” Please tell me what to say.
He swallowed again. He wanted the sand to swallow him whole. But Quentin didn’t answer. Instead, his eyes closed, trembling under his long lashes. He wrung his hands together and hugged himself closer. Fuck. They were a couple of fucking messes and the elephant was going to crush them alive. But all Eliot wanted was to pretend and pretend and pretend. He couldn’t do that though.
It was Q.
It was Q.
“So you,” Eliot gulped, “um, so you wanna talk about it then? All of it?”
Quentin nodded, eyes darting along the line of the sky and sea. “I think we have to, right?”
Shit. “Okay.” Fuck. “That totally makes sense.” Goddammit. “It’s the right thing to do.” Motherfucker.
“You sound thrilled,” Q said, a hint resigned under the wryness. Eliot rolled his lip around, before affecting an airy laugh.
“I guess,” he said, choosing each word precisely but without his usual ease, “I don’t think there’s much to talk about.”
Quentin’s wide eyes were going to kill him. “Not much to talk about? Eliot, we—“
“—had a fully-clothed drunken makeout session,” Eliot finished quickly, not at all equipped to hear the end of the sentence from Quentin’s lips. He ran his hands down his face and smiled, tight. “As far as Encanto stories go, it’s pretty tame.”
Quentin’s eyes shuttered, face falling into something too still. “I mean, I guess that’s an interpretation.”
“But a valid one, I think,” Eliot countered, the words forceful as he thought them through. “There’s no reason this needs to be anything more than it was. Let’s really think about the facts, okay?”
A second wind inflated his lungs, as the spark of rationale flowed through his veins. Really, it was inevitable that this would happen at some point, right? That they would fall into each other’s arms, drunk and out of their minds, when the circumstances allowed for it. And the night before, well, frankly, the circumstances demanded it.
They were two attractive men who were both attracted to other men. They were close friends who spent so much time together, had a natural chemistry between them, and even an occasional flirty dynamic. They had both imbibed a spectacular amount of alcohol, lowering their inhibitions past the point of no return, and they were at Encanto Oculto, where sex magic literally permeated the air.
In the end, when one looked at it objectively, the only surprising part was that it took as long as it did, not that it happened at all. But it didn’t have to mean anything, not unless they gave it that power. They didn’t have to acknowledge it as anything more than a quirk of a charged atmosphere, and the novelty and relaxation inherent in a vacation. Because ultimately, if it were more than that, it would have happened at home, where the variables were consistent. Ergo, chalk it up as a fluke and continue on with their lives, right?
“Right?” Eliot beseeched the stoic Quentin with his eyes, after he made his argument all in one breath. It was sound and compelling, but Q was silent for a few more moments. The speech rested between them, slowly sucking out the oxygen more and more, the longer he went without speaking. But then he ran his tongue between his lips, nodding as he stared off into space.
“Okay,” Quentin finally said, clipped and quiet. But then he cleared his throat and his voice was strong. “I mean, right. Well put, El.”
But he still wouldn’t meet his eyes and Eliot hated himself, so fucking much. Quentin had been drunk out of his mind and now felt like he was… what? An idiot? That seemed to be the resounding theme, upon waking. He clenched his hands into fists, like they could grasp onto the right thing to say, the thing that would make this better between them. The thing that would make Quentin look at him again.
“Hey, come on,” Eliot said, as gently as he could. He put his hand on Quentin’s shoulder. The warmth of him burned. “We’re good. I promise. This isn’t a big deal, okay?”
“Okay,” Quentin said again, still not fucking looking at him. Eliot squeezed and ran his thumb against the soft fabric of his T-shirt.
“Hey,” he said again, ducking his head. Quentin twisted his lips and sighed, staring him right in the eyes, maybe a touch defiant. “What’s going on? I feel like I fucked up? All I’m trying to say is—“
Quentin’s eyes softened as he cut him off, shaking his head. He bit at the air and pinched his nose. “No, El. Shit. No. Sorry. You didn’t—you didn’t fuck up. You didn’t do anything wrong. I’m just, uh, going to be… embarrassed for a little, that’s all.”
Eliot took in a sharp breath through his nostrils and nodded, thoughts swirling nonsensically. Then he smirked, licking his lips as an idea percolated. He slung a casual arm around his shoulder and rested their temples together. Q stiffened, but Eliot pushed through.
“Did I ever tell you about the time I drank an entire bottle of whiskey, first year? And did four lines of magic coke?” He slid his eyes over, rolling the words around his mouth expertly, sly and sharp in all the right places.
He felt Quentin roll his eyes more than he saw it. “That sounds dangerous.”
Eliot waved him off. “Yeah, yeah. Point is that once I was good and blacked out, I ripped an upstairs tub out from its stronghold and down to the middle of the dance floor.” He snorted a little at the memory. “Then I stripped naked, filled it several bottles of gin, got into said tub, and only spoke in seal noises for the rest of the night because I wanted to be one with the ocean. Did I ever tell you that?”
Quentin blinked, a quirk of a smile lifting up his face. “Uh. No. It’s never come up.”
“Hm,” Eliot said, stroking his jaw, performative and cheeky. He bit his lip to hide a growing smile. “What about the time I was so high that when I was walking through the quad, I ran up to the guy I was fucking, wrapped my arms around him from behind, and whispered, Blow off class and blow me instead... and then it turned out to be Fogg?”
That cracked Q’s veneer, eyes jumping at him. “No. No fucking way. That’s bullshit.”
Eliot’s eyes crinkled at the edges and he flashed his most dazzling smile. “If you ever want to make Margo completely piss her pants laughing, just say, Unhand me, Mr. Waugh.”
Thank fuck, Quentin let out an honest-to-god cackle, a cheerful sound against the brightening sky and Eliot’s soul. “Oh my god. You’re ridiculous.”
“My real point is,” Eliot said, grinning into the ground, “that you’ve got a long way to go until you can come close to embarrassing yourself in front of me, alright? And last night was—“
He cut himself off again, his mouth dry and heart pounding. He smiled, ignoring the screaming in his gut, the way his arms ached to hold Q right against his chest, to drown in him. But it wasn’t about what Eliot wanted right now.
“Last night was really good,” he said, softly. He kind of wanted to die, but it wasn’t him about him. It wasn’t about him. Quentin’s eyebrows came together and his muscles tensed under Eliot’s arm. “It’s not like I wasn’t... into it, okay?”
Quentin nodded, a quick movement. “It seemed like you were and then you weren’t.”
Eliot dodged that a bit by sighing, “I’ve never pretended I’m not attracted to you. You have to know that.”
“Right, I do,” Quentin said, shoulders slumping. “But not, like, seriously attracted to me. I get it.”
Eliot let out a soundless laugh, not sure how to respond to that. He knew it didn’t really matter. But at the same time—
He sucked his lips in and cracked his neck, letting his arms fall down by his side. “At the end of the day, I just don’t think it’s worth fucking up our friendship for an anomaly, even if I’m pretty damn sure it would feel—I think we both know it would be really good. But.”
Quentin swallowed, eyes meeting his for a brief moment before averting again. His voice was hoarse. “Yeah. But. ”
A hot spark of anger flared in his gut. He was trying to make this easy, and his approach had been masterfully done. Quentin was the one making it hard. Eliot’s head hurt and his mouth was dry and his heart felt like it had been kicked in by a goddamn donkey, and he just wanted to go get a shower and forget that the night ever happened. Why couldn’t Quentin give them that? Even if he thought—even if he was still thinking that they could be—he was smart. He had to be reasonable. They both had to be reasonable about this and think beyond one or two days, or a fleeting romantic whim.
Even if it wasn’t a whim, the idea of trying for real with Q and then slowly watching the affection in his eyes sour into inevitable contempt was a nightmare. He had seen it before, with Taylor and they hadn’t even been together, not even close. But the way his green eyes turned to stone and forgiveness become an unreachable plateau had been unbearable. And the way Eliot had felt about Taylor was a molecule compared to—compared to—
He let out a ragged breath and shook his head.
“You’re... too important to me, Q. Your friendship is too important,” Eliot laughed up at the sky, stretching his legs out. “I know that sounds like bullshit, but—“
Quentin held up his hand and smiled, the edges ripping against his cheeks. “You’re important to me too, El. I get it.”
Eliot didn’t feel like Quentin got it.
But he also didn’t want to push it. He didn’t want either of them to say something they couldn’t take back, now that they were in the harsh light of day. Eliot wasn’t sure he could survive it. So he took a deep breath and tucked Quentin’s hair behind his hair, forcing normalcy, forcing their natural intimacy. Fake it ‘til you make it.
“Um. Right. So you’re good then?” He hated his voice. He was so tired. “We’re good?”
Quentin was silent again, the waves in the distance deafening. But then he grabbed his hand, fierce and firm. Eliot jolted back, shocked, but gripped back, not about to look a gift horse in the mouth.
“Yeah. Yeah, El. Of course we’re good,” Q said, turning those wide eyes on him. They were soft and sincere. Eliot breathed. “Always.”
On that day, the day he realized that shy and troubled dreamer in Indiana had once wanted Taylor, in all ways, Eliot made a quiet promise to himself... and to Q, albeit unbeknownst to him. He intended to keep it. It was the one good thing he could do. It was all he could do. If there was anything he could give Quentin, it was that promise.
I destroy everything I touch.
Eliot would rather free-fall into the Underworld for a thousand eternities than destroy Quentin.
So it was time to get up and move forward. Semper fi. Or something.
(He was really fucking hungover.)
“Okay then,” Eliot said, with loud sigh and a shake of his head. He kept Quentin’s hand in his and tugged him upward, pulling them into a standing position. Quentin staggered a bit and Eliot’s heart pinched, swooping with instinctive worry. But he pushed past it. “Now that that’s out of the way, we can deal with the most pressing issue: We smell like death.”
Quentin snorted and nodded. “Yeah.”
Eliot braced his hands on Quentin’s shoulders, the light of day haloing over them, soft and pastel. “We need showers.”
“A hangover potion.”
Quentin winced. “Agree to disagree.”
Eliot smirked, opting to ignore his stubbornness for now. “So let’s walk our asses back to the damn house and leave our drunken whatever here on the blanket. What happens in Ibiza, stays in Ibiza. Fair?”
Again, Quentin just looked at him, inscrutable as ever, before offering back tilted smile. “Fair.”
Eliot returned it, running his hands down the length of Quentin’s arms and taking a single step into his space. He felt his brow pinch, like his heart. Time to ask the most pertinent questions, much as they panicked him.
“How are your legs?”
Quentin swallowed and blushed, rubbing the back of his neck. “Fine. They feel fine. I’m—they’re fine.”
Eliot couldn’t think about it more than that. His bones felt numb in thinking about it. So he smiled, and focused on moving forward. Moving forward, like a song or whatever. He was really hungover. So he clapped him on the back, not too hard, and literally and physically moved them forward.
“If you need to lean on me when we walk,” he offered, keeping his voice light, “don’t hesitate, okay?”
Eliot was happy to provide anything Quentin needed, always. Obviously, though, that would have been a confusing thing to say right then. Everything he thought and everything he felt was confusing. No need to put that burden on Q.
“I won’t. Or I will,” Quentin closed his eyes, telegraphing headache pain. “I mean, I will lean on you and I won’t hesitate.”
Eliot laughed, because he couldn’t help it. He still didn’t let go of Q’s hand. All in time. “Good. Then come on. Allez.”
But Quentin didn’t move. He stared down at feet, Adam’s apple bobbing like the slow tide of the Mediterranean. His hand was limp in Eliot’s and his hair blew in the breeze, mussed and layered in an artless tangle. He licked his lips and shook his head.
“Eliot. I—I, uh, I’m—“ Quentin clenched his jaw once and let go of his hand, leaving everything cold. He brought his palms up to his eyes. “I’m really sorry if I scared you.”
Yeah. He didn’t want to talk about that. “It’s fine. Let’s go.”
“I shouldn’t have taken so many pills.”
Eliot let out a frustrated grunt without meaning to. He threw his hands up and laughed. “Obviously, Q. It was dumb as shit. But there’s nothing more to say about it, so let’s go.”
On cue, Quentin’s face fell and he wanted to scream. Honestly, sometimes the kicked puppy bit got fucking old. But guilt crawled its way up his sternum regardless and Eliot closed his eyes, pursing his lips. He counted to three and opened them again, smiling.
“Q. It’s fine,” he said, touching his shoulder ever so gently. Quentin relaxed. “Just—not again, okay?”
“Yeah. No, lesson learned,” Quentin said, hands up in surrender. “Promise.”
Eliot meant to smile and beckon him forward. But looking at Quentin, standing there, wobbling on his legs and face pale, eyes red and unfocused and all he could think about was—
He couldn’t escape it. It was closing in on him. It was catching up with him .
(Fuck you, Margo.)
There was a storm brewing in his chest, all the fucking time, and he always kept it at bay, he always kept it all at bay. But in the enchanted air and the fucking weird tension between them and his desperation for everything to be okay, always okay, it was right there. He was frozen. He was still. His breath was shallow and he couldn’t feel his fingers. He couldn’t feel anything.
Eliot took one step forward and staggered, and warm hands were on him.
“Hey, whoa.” Quentin’s voice was so far away, even as he could feel his heart, right there. “You alright, El?”
Eliot spoke aloud, but he couldn’t hear it. “What did you just say?”
“You alright, El?” Quentin leaned on the bar table, holding his face between his knuckles, eyes crinkled devilishly. Eliot put down his paring knife with an affected sigh and glared at the intruder.
“I’d be better if you let me focus,” he said, squeezing a freshly cut orange slice so the juice flew in a perfect arc onto the brat’s grinning cheek. “Never interrupt a master at work.”
But Quentin was in curious toddler mode, picking up all of the bar tools and holding them to the light, thoroughly wrecking the perfectly organized system. He was damn lucky he had that face of his or Eliot would have been very cross. Instead, he just sighed again, louder and long-suffering. But he let himself smile, small and hidden, as Q futzed about, shockingly bull-in-a-china-shop for someone whose whole thing seemed to be sleight of hand and other small magics.
“Why the fuck do you have tweezers?” Quentin narrowed his brows to a single point and picked the delicate pincers up, clacking the ends together. “Can’t you use magic?”
Eliot couldn’t believe he had to explain it again. But he apparently did, as he bent back over the glass, squeezing two tablespoons of juice as a finishing touch. “If I use magic, then I can’t call it a handcrafted cocktail.”
“Ah. Right, sure, and disappoint the clamoring masses.”
Eliot’s hands paused over his work, Quentin’s smirk burning him whole and alive. His heart rate sped up and he ran his tongue over his teeth, a flush rising high on his cheeks. He could practically feel his pupils expanding, like anti-drug commercial.
“You know what,” Eliot said with a low chuckle, pinning the far too self-satisfied Q with all the weight of his considerable gaze, “I don’t think I asked for any commentary.”
But Quentin’s grin just got bigger, his eyes crinkling at the corners. “Drunk grad students, pounding the door down, begging for more handcrafted cocktails that take eight minutes to make.”
“Would you like to be a drunk grad student?”
“Sometime in this century, yeah,” Q said with the world’s most innocent, buoyant head nod. He was in a fucking mood. It was adorable. It was terrible.
“Then stop distracting me,” Eliot said, like there was any world where that was a possibility. Ah, well. Such was life. Such was being friends with Quentin. Weakness acknowledged, two separate boxes, et cetera, all that.
He had his shit on lock.
Eliot scanned the room, keeping an eye out for Jasper or Ronald or one of his to-be-named boys. He was definitely going to have to blow off some steam, at some point. But for now, the pickings were slim and the whole side of his body burned with the delicious closeness of Quentin, who had decided to busy himself with his paring knife, throwing it up in the air and spinning it around, with some slight magical assistance. He vaguely registered that it was a bad idea and a responsible bartender would put a stop to it. But, well, no one had ever accused him of being responsible.
Besides, the drink was ready and perfect. Placing a small curled fiddlehead fern on top, he shook it lightly toward the literal Peter Pan toddler holy shit who was now juggling three of his eggs that were actually meant for the pisco sours, not his entertainment. The ice clinked and clanked against the crystal and Quentin blinked up, with a tiny smile.
“Drink it, you ungrateful little shit,” Eliot said, leveling him with his coolest glare. Quentin’s fingers brushed against his as he took the glass, which wasn’t something that affected him at all. People touched. He raised his eyebrows once in a dull facsimile of a toast, as Q took a long sip.
He licked his lips, face sheepish. “Okay, it’s really good.”
“Mhmm.” Of course it was.
“Sorry,” Quentin said with a lazy shrug. He took another sip then and nodded his head back and forth, like he was reconsidering. “Kind of a cold medicine aftertaste though.”
“Bullshit. Give it,” Eliot said, pride roaring in his chest. He snatched the drink back and took a precise gulp, letting the liquid roll over his tongue. Fuck. There was definitely a piercing and sweet edge of mint and myrrh, definitely unappealing to the virgin palate. “It’s the Fernet. It’s slightly unbalanced.”
Quentin jutted his chin up and clicked his tongue, a huge fucking brat. God. “I really expect more from this establishment.”
“It’s fine,” Eliot said with a bright, poison smile. He kept the drink just out of reach, high above his head. “I’ll restart.”
As expected, quick hands started reaching up the length of his arm, broad shoulders pressing into his. His stomach flipped, but he laughed as Quentin kept fighting upward, as though Eliot didn’t have a good half-foot of height on him, not even considering his arm span. He was such a little engine that could.
“Holy god, no,” Q said, hair flopping everywhere. “I was just giving you shit.”
“Nonsense,” Eliot said with a sniff, rattling the drink high in the air. “I refuse to serve my Little Q a second rate cocktail.”
“Fuck you, I want alcohol,” Quentin grunted, starting to jump up to grab the drink, which just made Eliot laugh more. “Here, at least lemme chug it before you get all obsessive again.”
The laughter died and the drink went higher in the air. “That’s blasphemy —“
“Oh my god, would you quit—“
“Just let me remake it, it’ll take me five minutes. Ten, tops—”
But when Quentin finally caught a good jump and caught his wrist in his grip, they struggled for a few moments before the hindsight inevitable happened, and Eliot’s bright white silk shirt and light gray vest were drenched in an orange-amber-green liquid.
He popped his lip out from his teeth and glared down from his nose, eyes burning. “And you’re dead.”
Quentin looked genuinely remorseful, at least. He sighed and ran his hand through his hair, before readying his hands into a tut. “Shit. Sorry. I’ll get it.”
“No, no magic,” Eliot said, sighing for real, pulling his shirt out from his chest with meticulous fingers. “Silk’s too fine.”
“Okay, uh, then here—” Quentin said, after he reached to the side and grabbed a cocktail napkin. He dipped it in a carafe of water and stepped closer to Eliot, making small, wet circles on the vest.
It was so absurd that Eliot actually laughed again, stopping his motions by resting his hand on top of his. “Do not rub it into the fabric, you madman.”
Quentin folded his face into a thoughtful frown, before looking up at him, mere inches away, all wide-eyed and earnest. “Well, it was my fault. What can I do?”
Kiss me, Eliot’s hindbrain unhelpfully supplied as his heart sped to a gallop. Fuck, he was so lovely. Why was he allowed to be so lovely? His hand reflexively curled around Quentin’s fingers and he could have sworn Q’s eyes darkened when he did, pupils wider and lashes hooded.
So he did what he always did. He blinked past it. He pulled Quentin’s hand off his chest and rolled his eyes, shaking his head with a click of his tongue. Like he was deigning to accept help from a plebeian, he hand waved toward the small cooling system behind him, shucking off his vest as he did.
“Club soda’s down there,” he said, laying the vest out on the flat surface of the prep table. It was one of his favorites. Simple gray with a hint of white dotted embroidery. Quentin was damn lucky he had a soft spot for him. “Get me one of the mini bottles.”
“Aye, aye, captain,” Quentin said, voice wry and unaffected. As he bent down and opened the container with a pop-fizz , Eliot stared down at his red suspenders and white shirt with a discerning laser focus. The suspenders had been out of the splash zone at least, but the shirt was a mess, possibly unsalvageable. Quentin was fucking goddamn lucky he had a soft spot for him. Jesus.
As he was considering stripping down shirtless right then and there—you’re welcome, everyone—the door to the front of the Cottage slammed, and the sound of clunky boots stomping on the hardwood grabbed his attention upward. He rolled his eyes at the sight of Kady Orloff-Diaz, with her raccoon eyeliner, eighties hair, and always unpleasant attitude. Usually, he liked when people wore bitchiness like a perfume, but she had no style, no finesse. She was angry and coarse, more bitter than biting. Not his cup.
Plus, she had fucked Julia the second she and Margo had taken a break before Encanto Oculto. Not that he ever judged sexual exploits, but it had honestly been kind of slimy. That, and she and Penny were always dicks to Quentin, for no goddamn reason. It had been too many years of too much bullshit for him to put up with that, especially when it came to one of the best people he’d ever known. So in all, Kady wasn’t actually a welcome sight and never would be. He made sure she knew it too, in every small way he could, all the way down to her ridiculous booty shorts.
Unsurprisingly, she ignored Eliot. But more surprisingly, she turned her frantic eyes toward Quentin, fingers tapping arhythmic on the sides of her thighs. She cleared her throat and rubbed the top of her head.
“Um, hey,” she said, scratchy-voiced and jittery. “Coldwater.”
Quentin had been standing and watching Eliot, holding the club soda until he was tapped in. But at his name, he blinked and stared at her, bald confusion on his face. “Hey, uh… Kady?
She cleared her throat again, like she was nervous. “Can I talk to you for a second?”
“Me?” Quentin literally squeaked. Eliot kept working, like the conversation wasn’t happening. But he was attentive.
“Yeah. I need—um,” Kady sniffed and looked anywhere but at Q. “I need some help."
He could literally feel Quentin jumping up into Helpful Rescue Pup mode. “From me? Is everything okay?”
Kady nodded, then shook her head, then nodded again. “Look, I know we’re not friends.”
Okay, he was in. Eliot let out a harsh little laugh and blazed his eyes up, putting his clothes over to the side. He folded his arms and stared down at her from his full height.
“Understatement,” he said, the words fierce behind his teeth. Who the hell did she think she was? At his intrusion, Kady snapped a glare at him, like she wanted to say something cunty, but instead she dipped her eyes down.
“Maybe,” she conceded. Then she looked back at Q, eyes rapidly jumping around and lashes getting wet. “But I think you might be the only who will—I need someone who understands—who won’t fucking—who won’t—“
Of course, Quentin was a sucker. He rounded his way past the bar table and wiped his hands on his pants legs and stepped closer to her, eyes warm and concerned. “Whoa, Kady, hey. Yeah, of course I’ll help you. What do you need?”
Eliot was not a sucker. There was something off about Kady, and so he snapped his fingers together, twisted them once, and stretched them out into a frame. As he looked through, he wasn’t sure whether to be pleased or disappointed. God, it was such a burden to be brilliant and right all the goddamn time.
“What the shit is going on with you?” Eliot sighed, laborious and overwrought. The miles they must walk, honestly. “You’re all warded up.”
Kady snapped, roaring way out of proportion. “Don’t push this, Waugh.”
“Push what, exactly?” He smirked, lips twisting. Her face fell, every line twitching and spasming. Her arms were shaking.
“Just leave it alone,” she said, voice cracking over a whisper. She was a terrible actress. “Please.”
“God, what bullshit chaos magic did you use to patch this together?” He was still looking through the frame and he meant it. The colors burned and the math barely made sense. Numbers swirled around her head, laughing like a hatter. “It hurts to look at.”
Luckily, bullshit magic was easy-to-dismantle magic. He twisted his hands up and around, and Kady’s eyes widened into what actually seemed like sincere panic.
“No, please, don’t—“ Kady begged, holding her hands out. Quentin stumbled back as Eliot broke the ward, and immediately, a cascade of books—at least fifty fucking books, all the ones Fogg had accused Eliot of stealing—fell in heavy sheets of fluttering pages and thudding leather around them.
Eliot snorted, slitting his eyes like the insult he was about lodge.
“You little snake.”
Eliot was shaking and Quentin’s hands were on his face when he blinked back to the beach, and he almost leaned forward in his delirium. But he didn’t because despite what most people believed about him, he could always rely on his self-control. No matter what else the world ripped from him, it could never take that away. It could die trying. The whole damn world could burn.
But Q’s fingers were still moving softly against the grain of his stubble and he felt his resolve start to crumble, unraveling like a spool deep in his heart.
He leaned into his touch, so slightly, and his knees sunk into the slopes of dry sand. It was only then that he realized he’d fallen down at some point. Shit. Embarrassing. He stole a glance up at Q, whose eyes were glued on him and wrecked with worry.
He almost laughed. They were quite the fuckin’ pair.
But whatever sound he actually made obviously didn’t register as amusement, because Quentin’s eyebrows fell further.
“El,” he said, brushing his thumb along his jawline and it took all his strength not to hum out an even more embarrassing moan at the touch. Fuck, his hands were perfect. “What’s going on?”
Eliot forced himself to jerk back and finally formed that smile he’d been aiming for from the start. He shook his head and a few stray curls obstructed his vision. Jesus, he had forgotten what a wreck his hair was. So much for the aesthetic. Fuck.
“Dehydrated,” he said, shaking his head to fully bury the memory back where it belonged. He scratched at the side of his mouth and stood, brushing off his pants. “Did I mention that I’m hungover?”
Quentin rose in tandem with him. He didn’t totally look like he believed what Eliot said, but he also didn’t push it. He was a good friend that way.
“Yeah, me too,” Q said, stretching his tongue out. “I think after a shower, I’m going to hole up with a computer and read Fuzz Beat all day. Dire straits.”
“Eh, I think it’s a great idea,” Eliot said with a wink as they finally started walking forward, the ease of conversation carrying him more than his leaden feet. “Then you’ll finally solve the burning mystery of which Friends character is your soulmate.”
“I never take the quizzes,” Quentin said, affronted. “It’s obvious data mining.”
He rolled his eyes over a fond smile. “Sure.”
“Wait, do you take the quizzes?”
“I should live in Madrid, I’m a nice hunk of rich and nutty gruyere, I’m a combination Slytherin-Hufflepuff,” Eliot nudged him, relishing his frowny face, “and my soulmate is Rachel.”
Quentin glared, huffing condescendingly. “You probably have so many third-party trackers on your ass now.”
“Oh, no!” He gasped, hand on his chest. Quentin smacked his arm and Eliot laughed, warmth blossoming in his chest. They were fine. It was all fine. Thank god.
But as Q opened his mouth to retort, his words disappeared with a soundless and complicated shift of emotions across his face. He smiled, stretched across his face, and cleared his throat before stepping slightly ahead of Eliot.
“Let’s get going,” he said, voice perfectly normal. But his legs moved too quickly, his back toward Eliot. “If I don’t lay down soon, I’m gonna barf.”
It was all fine.
Eliot sat at a white linen covered table, nursing a glass of ‘96 Dom. The stars sparkled on his tongue, as they were wont to do. Lost in his own quiet mind, he watched the tiny fizzing bubbles dance upward to their own oblivion. Most didn’t know, but the original monk had never actually said that, the famous quote associated with the brand (“Come quickly, I am tasting the stars!”) It was just a great marketing line, which sincerely made him admire the turn of phrase even more. All the world was nothing but marketing. Eliot was nothing but marketing.
He drummed his fingers along the embroidered edge of the tablecloth, pristine and intricate. He twisted his neck to check on his date, still pacing on his cell phone a few meters away. Fuck, he was bored. He was itchy. Everything was still off-kilter. He stretched his arms out, his muscles still tired from his shitty night’s sleep and still aching, too heavy and wanting.
He took another sip of the drink, putting it back down with too much force. The glittering gold sloshed about and the bubbles tried their escape act all over again, exploding at the surface, gasping against the air. He could relate.
Eliot filled the inside of his cheeks with air and tugged his phone out of his pocket, scrolling through his messages. He stopped and started several times, rereading the ones that led him there, fingers trembling over the touchscreen. He had done nothing wrong, he reminded himself. It was the smart decision. It would have been stupid not to go, for so many reasons. It was fine. It was all fine.
He opened the message screen again and the words looked like a language he didn’t speak, until his brain rearranged them into something sensible. But they still didn’t really make sense. He didn’t recognize them as belonging to him, even as they stood stark against the white backlight.
SMS with “Idri (encanto, good shoulders + ‘beefcake’ :p)”
11/19/16, 12:01 PM
Buenas tardes, Eliot.
Are you free for a late lunch today? Around 2?
There’s a break in my schedule.
I hoped to spend it with you.
Nice to hear from you, Idri
Sad to say, but I have a prior engagement
You strike me as a busy man.
For you, I could manage to cut out early
Meet at 3? Champagne fountain?
It’s a date!
Of course, Eliot hadn’t had a prior engagement, but he knew the game.
(He fucking hated the game, he realized as he ran his finger around the flute’s delicate stem. When had that happened?)
(Don’t answer that.)
To be clear?
Eliot did not agree to a lunch date with Idri because of what happened in the breakfast nook that morning. That would have been petty and Eliot was never petty.
Besides, he and Quentin were fine. They were great. They were best friends. There was no reason to be petty or upset or feel like his heart was going to fall right out of his chest, because that wasn’t how you felt when it came to your best friend. They were moving forward and this was what that looked like. They were both entitled to moving forward and so they were moving fucking forward. End of story.
So what if Quentin had barely spoken to him again on the walk home, claiming to be too nauseated. Eliot had been nauseated too. It made sense. He probably just felt like shit. God knew Eliot had felt like shit and he hadn’t done half the dumb shit Quentin had the night before, so it was probably all catching up with him, like things apparently did. That was all. Nothing more.
In the present, Eliot finished the champagne and poured more. Finished that glass too. Hair of the dog always worked like nothing else, even better than a potion. Or maybe that was just his alcoholism.
(Ha, ha !)
When they arrived at their lovely thatched hut along the water’s edge, they stepped onto the stretching patios over the shallow water, before pulling out the glass and stone door. When he did, magic poured into his veins. The small, rustic hut transformed into a lush, modern suite, ideal for recovery. And so they kept walking in and Quentin kept silent, but just as Eliot had started to rationalize the world into equilibrium again, everything screeched to a halt.
Sitting at the quartzite kitchen island, dressed in her silk black dress and soaked to the bone was Alice, with her hands folded in front of her and blue eyes dazed as she stared straight ahead. She looked like one of those creepy Madam Alexander dolls, unmoving and porcelain.
“Alice,” Eliot said, another wave of nausea hitting him. Or maybe it was guilt. Or both. He had completely forgotten about Alice. “Holy shit, are you okay?”
She startled, like she wasn’t expecting anyone. But her eyes lit up and she scrambled off the stool, walking toward them at her most serious click-clack pace. She smiled and reached out toward them, her hands almost flailing in their excitement. A smile formed on Eliot’s lips, but as he reached for her—
She completely bypassed him, like he wasn’t there, and grabbed Quentin by the bicep.
“I’ve been waiting up for you, Q,” she said, voice low and gravelly and what the actual fuck? “I really, really need to talk to you. Now.”
Quentin blinked, his face twisting in surprise. “Um, okay? Is everything—good?”
Her face was like sunshine. “Yes.” Then it fell. “I mean, no. I mean, I don’t know.” Sunshine again, glowing and burning bright, right on Q. “I just—before I can know, I need to talk to you.”
A cold dread twisted Eliot’s chest and his fingers ached for his flask. He rubbed his lips together, dry like kindling. He reached for a smart comment, something to involve himself. But his fuzzy, jumbled brain failed him.
“Can it wait?” Quentin said, running his fingers over the bridge of his nose. But Alice tightened her hold on him. “It’s been a long night and—“
“No. It can’t wait. I’m too—everything is too—“ she bounced her knees and let out a little squeal, tugging him along. She still didn’t look at Eliot. “Please, Q.”
He sighed, his resolve physically wavering as his body fell forward, like a wobbling Jenga tower. “Look, okay, just let me—“
“No, it can’t wait ,” Alice said again, pulling him forward as he yelped. Eliot was frozen, everything happening in slow motion. What the fuck? “It won’t take long. Well, actually, it might, but I don’t care.”
“Jesus, Alice, let go,” Quentin said, trying to free himself in vain. “You have a goddamn viper grip.”
“Don’t be a baby.”
Eliot leaned against the island and watched her pull Quentin into the hallway, speaking in rambling nonsense. Q tried to pull back, protesting every step of the way. But then, something changed, when Alice stopped and looked him dead in the eye, as they stood in profile. She leaned up and whispered in his ear for what felt like an eternity, and his face circled through a hundred emotions. Her hands never left his arms, her fingernails sliding against his bare skin.
When she pulled away, she stared up at him, big-eyes and pleading, biting her lower lip. For a half second, Quentin’s eyes darted over to Eliot’s and the eye contact would have staggered him backward if he weren’t already propped up. But before Eliot could catch his breath, it was over and Q stared back down at Alice, serious as anything.
Then he nodded and led Alice to his bedroom, with his hand on the small of her back.
Which was also around the time Eliot decided his flask was a child’s plaything—because bottomless or not, it was filled with a goddamn cocktail, with mixers —and so he stormed over to the liquor cabinet and drank gin straight from the bottle.
Anyway, long and truly irrelevant digression aside, the only reason Eliot agreed to a lunch date with Idri was because Idri was an attractive man and he was single and he offered to talk about his work and they were at Encanto Oculto. Hedonism and debauchery and lust and informational interviews. Encanto Oculto, baby. Et cetera. All of them could do whatever the fuck they wanted, including Quentin and definitely including Eliot. So he did and they could all suck on that.
(Yes, he was being dramatic.)
(Yes, he knew Quentin wouldn’t—that there was no reason to believe that he and Alice were—that it wasn’t characteristic. He knew there was probably something else going on, maybe even something he should wonder about beyond the screaming in his brain.)
(But shit was weird right now, okay? It was fucking weird.)
In any case, no matter how he had ended up on his date, the reality was: He was getting restless. Idri had been on the phone for the past twenty minutes, pacing in circles on the edge of the seating area. Eliot understood as much as anyone that duty occasionally called, especially when it came to the question of hospitality and soirees, a most important burden to bear. But at this point, honestly, the King of Encanto Oculto was being a bit rude.
So Eliot adjusted his collar and stood, the chiavari chair clinking against the invisible barrier above the sand. Plastering on his most charming smile—without a hint of impatience—Eliot walked over to Idri and tried to grab his attention, with a tiny wave. But instead, he was greeted with a hunched over back and a desperate sigh, completely unacknowledging him.
“Please don’t use that tone with me,” Idri said, quiet and deep into his phone as he spun around. His face was crumpled in pain and Eliot faltered back onto his heels. “This is not—what do you want from me? You always do this. You always do this.”
Oookay. Eliot grit his teeth and sucked in a sharp breath, wincing. That sounded like... not his business.
“It’s my work, I can’t just—” Idri’s large palm plastered over his face. “Yes. Fine. Go. I’m busy myself. I have a date.”
Idri spat the last word out before he pressed down on the red circle, thrusting his phone into his pocket with a snarl. For a moment, he stood there, shoulders heaving and Eliot contemplated slowly backing away, and maybe leaving Idri to whatever the fuck was going on with him that he didn’t really want to touch with a ten foot pole. But then, the Encanto King straightened up, took a deep breath, and looked up at him with warm brown eyes, nothing but light and kindness.
It was infectious, he had to admit.
“Eliot, my deepest apologies,” Idri said, a gentle smile crossing his handsome face. He pressed his hand on his lower back, guiding them back to the table. “That was unbecoming.”
“It’s fine,” Eliot said with a hand wave. Who the fuck was he to judge? “I hope everything’s okay.”
Idri let out a rueful laugh as he pulled out Eliot’s chair for him, quite the gentleman. “Do you have any extended family?”
“Hm, I suppose,” Eliot said, slow and slender. Something about Idri made his language stand tall, with good posture. He sat down, keeping his gaze steady. “But I speak neither to nor of them.”
Idri’s smile was like a crescent moon. He poured them two more glasses of champagne and held his glass high. “To sound policies.”
They clinked and drank, and Eliot convinced himself there was nowhere else he’d rather be.
“So how was your first full day?” Idri asked, placing his napkin on his lap, far in advance. It was elegant. “Everything you hoped?”
“It was certainly eventful,” Eliot said smoothly, smiling primly. He swallowed another sip of champagne and snorted at his own private little joke. “Surreal.”
“I hope you mean that in a good way,” Idri said, full lips twitching into a slight frown. Eliot pressed his hand to his heart and clicked his tongue.
“Why, that goes without saying,” he said, all gentility. Then he tacked on a teasing: “Your Grace.”
Idri’s face melted back into that gentle warmth, and he beckoned over a waiter, to order another bottle. He asked for a special offering of shipwrecked champagne with a wink, because he was a man of both style and flair. As they drank, Eliot noticed his hand was covered in artful rings, all with precious gemstones, and quickly learned that they all had a story. He was a fantastic story teller. He made Eliot laugh, for real, more than once. He was gorgeous. He was the perfect man.
You know, on paper.
His eyes closed and a dull headache loomed behind his brow.
(He couldn’t believe it. It was Quentin, laid underneath him, pupils blown wide and smile wider as he tangled his fingers in his curls and surged up, kissing him.
“Eliot,” Q breathed against his lips. He pulled on his shirt, desperate, until they were both on their sides, curled into each other, every part of them touching. “God, Eliot. Don’t stop. Never stop, please. Please, baby—”)
“—does that sound like something you’d be able to handle?” Idri asked, his very nice face smiling genially.
Eliot drank deeper.
(Fucking god, fucking hell, fuck everything, fuck.)
He wasn’t even sure they were memories or fantasies at that point. The two were doomed to be blurred forever and that was—not a great reality for his social life. So he did what he did best in an emotional crisis, and drank, and drank, and drank.
And then, because his life was so goddamn fucking fantastic, he of course saw Quentin and Alice walk into the vicinity, speaking quietly together, their heads almost touching. Still together. Sitting down for lunch, eyes locked on each other.
Eliot hands jittered at his sides and his knee bounced so hard under the table that it almost knocked over the glasses. But he kept his face cool and calm, even as he couldn’t quite manage to take his eyes off Quentin. The tips of his ears burned as Idri kept talking about the menu and explaining to the way it worked (all the food was actually blocks of cheap tofu, with a strong illusion magic and physical charms to make them look and taste like anything desired, blah, blah, basic shit) but all he could see was Quentin.
And then Quentin’s big wide eyes right on him, burning away from Alice and suffocating him. His heart slammed against the back of his throat and he remembered everything.
He wanted to remember.
Kady was crying and sputtering nonsense, as the small crowd started to form around her, curious murmurs providing the white noise soundtrack.
Behind her, Margo and Julia kept respectively hard and cautious eyes on her, making sure she didn’t beeline for the door. Next to Eliot, the rubberneck Todd Bates bounced on his feet, inappropriately excited by the spectacle. The only person who could get anywhere near Kady was Quentin, who was doing his best to hear her out. Because he was a sucker, as previously established.
“Jesus. Here, have a drink,” Eliot finally said, as Kady kept clutching at Quentin’s arm, sobbing at him nonsensically about how she hadn’t meant it and she didn’t have a choice and something about her mom, for some fucking reason. But even the King Rambler himself couldn’t parse it, if the confusion in his eyes was any indication.
Not one to be ignored, Eliot impatiently shook the high ball in her face. She didn’t even look at him when she grabbed it, but at least she did. She chugged the whole thing in two long swallows, her throat expanding and spasming as she did. Then she wiped the back of her mouth with her hand and stared down at the floor, the effects settling with ease.
“Calm now?” Eliot asked with the gentlest look of concern he could muster. She nodded and he leaned on his elbows toward her, cocking his head just so. He smiled. “Now, tell me why you did this, hm?”
Kady sucked in a breath and started speaking without hesitation. “I’ve been secretly working for a Hedge Witch coven leader named Marina Andrieski, a former Brakebills student. I’ve been providing her with books and other materials for the past year, with increasing levels of complexity in what she wants.”
She said it all quickly, smooth and easy as anything. But as expected, as soon as she was done, she slammed her hand over her mouth. Her eyes opened and closed once, before sliding over to the now-smirking Eliot. She swallowed, heavy, and her lips twitched. Anger burned in her eyes and she choked out a fierce growl. She threw the glass at the wall, shattering it, before she rounded on Eliot, eyes furious and hands sparking.
“You fucking asshole ,” she snarled, pushing his shoulders back once. Static electricity lit up his skin but he just smirked all the sharper.
“What’s going on?” Quentin asked, head bopping back and forth like a bird. He frowned and grabbed the crook of Kady’s elbow as she started charging at Eliot all over again. “Whoa, okay. Just—uh, tell us more about Marina.”
“She’s the Head Bitch in Charge, the most powerful Hedge Witch in the city, maybe the state,” Kady said, easy breezy again. Her jaw clenched and she punched Eliot’s arm. It would leave a fucking bruise, fucking bitch. She laughed like another sob. “She’s a sociopath and a psychopath and—goddammit, Eliot!”
Overdramatic, Kady threw herself into a ball on the floor, trying to rip her hair out of her head unsuccessfully. At Quentin’s wildeyed look of confusion, Eliot merely shrugged and sipped his own drink.
“No mixologist worth their vodka has a bar stocked without truth serum,” he said, wiping his hands. In an instant, Q’s wild eyes went hard.
But behind the disapproving Quentin, Julia nodded her wholehearted approval. “Smart. Quick thinking. Nice work.”
“Um,” Todd laughed, high-pitched. He held a finger in the air. “Isn’t truth serum, like, super illegal?”
Everyone ignored him.
“I’m not saying I’m opposed to using it on her, because fuck a bitch,” Margo shot out, crossing her arms. “But isn’t it kind of a drastic step? Just send her to the dean so he stops blaming us for this shit. It’s not our problem.”
Quentin’s eyes flew to Margo, harder still. “The dean? Are you kidding? That’s the drastic option, Margo.”
“It was her choice,” Bambi argued brilliantly, rolling her lip around between her teeth. “She knew the risks when she got into the black market spell biz. Pretty easy math.”
“She just said it wasn’t a choice—”
Margo shook her head, curls bouncing everywhere. “We always have a choice, Q. But some people are weaker than others.”
“Fuck you, you unbelievable cunt,” Kady snapped, still not getting up from the floor. Her argument was incredibly well thought out. It made Margo smile.
“Bambi, I’m with you,” Eliot said, turning on his most authoritative voice. It made Quentin’s jaw tick, but he’d get over it. “But I figured it’s better if she’s compliant.”
“That’s—that’s so fucked up, Eliot,” Quentin said, turning his wide eyes on him. “It’s not like she killed someone.”
“Hedges are no fucking joke, Quentin,” Eliot said, not wavering. “You know I’ve met them. The high level ones are corrupt as shit. I wouldn’t be surprised if people have died or worse because of the information she provided, even indirectly.” He let out a barking laugh and glared down. “Is that right, Kady?”
Kady wrenched herself up and stood. Her eyes were red and her face pale. “I don’t know. Give me an antidote, now.”
“Yeah, okay,” Eliot said with a laugh and a bright smile. Then he turned away from her and looked back at his other friends. “Let’s just get her in a bind.”
“Ooh! I’m really good at those!” Todd said with a happy grin. Everyone ignored him.
“No,” Quentin said, stepping in front of Kady. “No, we figure something else out. We talk to her first, but after the serum wears off.”
Eliot stared at him like he’d grown a penis out the side of his face, and not in the sexy way.
“What possible purpose would that serve?” God, Quentin was the fucking worst sometimes. “Then we can’t trust anything she says. I’m telling you, the books are not the end game here. The more accurate information we have to give the dean, the better.”
“Why do you give a shit about this?” Quentin shot out, asking maybe the first relevant question. He even noticed Margo’s eyes falter for a second, like Q had pointed out something to her too. But Eliot ignored it. He was on a roll.
“Do you know how often the dean has called me into his office to talk about the missing books?” Eliot pursed his lips. “He thinks it’s me, Q.”
“So this is about revenge?” Quentin snorted, disbelieving. “Because you were mildly inconvenienced a couple times? They wouldn’t kick you out and you know it.”
Before he could respond to that, Julia raked a hand through her hair, shaking her head. She stepped forward and took her best friend’s arm. “Q, Eliot’s right. It’s probably not just the books. That’s foundational shit. So what we need to do is go to the dean, so he can find this Marina person—“
“No,” Kady said, wrenching out a sob. “No. You can’t. She’s a psycho.”
Margo sneered. “You’re the one who was working for her.”
“Quentin,” Kady said suddenly, turning the force of her green eyes to the now silent Q, who was standing with his hair in his face, frowning in thought. “Quentin, please. You know how important Brakebills is. It saved me, Quentin, I didn’t think I would ever find—“
“Don’t fucking talk to him,” Margo snapped. She turned a sharp finger back toward the wavering Quentin. “And don’t fall for it, Q.”
“I mean, but she’s on truth serum,” Quentin said, more to himself than Bambi. “She can’t lie. It’s real.”
Julia tightened her grip on his arm. “She may very well feel that way, Q, but what she was doing was… who knows what kind of shit she unleashed out into the world?”
“Yeah, I know, but—“ Quentin worries his brow and stared upward, clearly torn. Julia shook her head and put her hand on his face, tilting his chin down so he looked at her.
“Hedges are basically junkies, with no mastery or control,” she said, unyielding. She tucked a stray piece of hair behind Quentin’s ear and sighed. “They could hurt themselves or others, Niffin out, create untold chaos. We have to cut it off at the head, okay?”
“Untold chaos,” Kady laughed, harsh and biting. “You always had a penchant for dramatics, Julia.”
Julia ignored her and beseeched her best friend with her dark brown eyes. “Bigger picture, Q. It’s part of our responsibility as classically trained Magicians.”
Quentin stood there, with the weight of every eye on him. He frowned, staring off into space as he calculated the circumstances. Then he nodded to himself, extracting his arm from Julia. He took two steps forward and stood next to Kady, like a human shield. He cleared his throat and tipped his chin up, stalwart.
“If you want to bind her and take her to the dean,” he said slowly. Then his eyes met Eliot’s, ablaze. “You’ll have to go through me.”
Eliot gripped the table and stared down at his perfect fingernails. That wasn’t exactly what he was going for, in terms of remembering .
“Eliot?” A big hand covered his and he jumped. Idri’s eyes were concerned and his eyebrows were pulled together. “I asked if you had any questions?”
Eliot licked his lips and cleared his throat. “About?”
Idri laughed, but it was humorless. “I’ve lost your attention. Are you serious about wanting to learn about my work? I’m only bringing the subject up because I took a look at your Regalo and it was… truly masterful work. But if it’s only a passing fancy, then I’m certainly happy to socialize, but—“
“Yes. I mean, no. I’m very interested,” Eliot said quickly, shaking cobwebs out of his head. He was sincere, even if his head was way too fucked up to be thinking about something as stressful as his goddamn career right now. Fuck, of all the times. “Yes. I’m sorry. I’m very interested. After effects from a wild night, that’s all.”
Idri grinned at that and restarted his spiel, telling Eliot all about the lush, glorious work he did with the most important socialites all over the world. And Eliot nodded where he was supposed to, and laughed where it was prompted, and pretended with all his might that he couldn’t still feel Quentin’s eyes on him.
(He drank more.)
SMS with “Margo”
11/20/16, 9:22 AM
Get up fucker
I’m at the beach
&making us waxing appts
reminder in my phone, set to go off in 2 hrs:
“bambi needs waxed”
LOVE the initiative baby
Fucking Julie said Brazilians are “unfeminist”
So I’m getting one
Then rubbing my pussy in her face
that’ll show her
mimosas + sunbathing first pls?
shit is weird, need margo time
What the fuck?
ugh no talky
hey you there?
Ok sounds good <3
are you in the gold bikini?
want to match
The lights in the house were all off when Eliot stumbled in from the Bacchanal. It was the only other event that Bacchus hosted, typically in his own skin rather than the human form he usually wore. Large horns jutting out from the side of his head, draped in grapes and vines. Nude, obviously, with a total horse dick as the centerpiece, down to the fur growing out like bramble. His sprite-like face was covered in a beard and he had hair down to his shoulders, teeth gnarled into their original state, from aeons ago. His fingers were longer, his body harder, his voice like music from an enchanted lyre. It was grotesque and enticing all at once, awe-inspiring in its wrongness to human sensibilities.
All the better to revel with, my dear.
In years past, Eliot had been a main attraction in his own right, chugging from his own enchanted porcelain carafe, laid out on the banquet for any and all who wished to take. He and Margo, holding each other and laughing, letting the night flow over them like a river of magic and booze. They were some of the most pleasant memories in his entire life, if not strictly the happiest. But then, it had only been recently that he had ever even considered happiness as something to… consider.
(Whatever. He was drunk.)
In any case, that night was different than the other years. Margo and Julia had stayed to the side, by themselves, laughing and whispering. Alice wasn’t there, because she seemed to be avoiding Eliot for some goddamn reason, off on her own adventures that no one would tell him about. Which, whatever. He didn’t care. At least that time, she hadn’t dragged Q off with her.
But then, at the same time, Quentin had looked like a terrified rabbit the whole time, wringing his hands with wide eyes as he chatted with an unamused satryr, who was clearly trying to fuck Q, even though Q had no idea or inclination. That image had implanted itself into Eliot’s brain like an angry mosquito, sucking blood and rational thought without letting go, until he was drained and unable to have any fun at all. There was a time he would have found it all so funny. He missed that time with all his heart.
Hence, a quick stop back home, for some happy pills and a flask filled with something potent, before he returned in all his glory, a fool proof plan. But mice and men and all that, because just as he was mixing up his most special concoction, the main door slammed and a skittering figure wove its way through the darkness, huffs of frustrated air pouring out as a leather messenger bag hit the floor.
Pausing over his work, Eliot let the spoon clang against the metal shaker. Quentin stood in the hallway, face pale and eyes dark, almost haunted. Eliot’s heart started crawling his way up his throat, hands twitching at his sides. He cleared his throat, a soft friction of sound, so he didn’t startle the rabbit in front of him.
True to form, Q jolted, but stared up, eyes adjusting in the darkness. He frowned, a million complicated things crossing his face. They hadn’t talked much, since…
But here they were now.
“Hey,” Quentin said, wrapping his arms around himself, like a hug. Like comfort. The edge of Eliot’s eye twitched. “What are you doing here?”
“Oh, you know,” Eliot said, indicating his drink prep. He picked his tools up again and resumed his work, blithe smile on his face. “Just getting ready to go out. Again. Needed more supplies.”
Quentin stretched a smile across his own face. It looked painful, his face still not regaining its color. He scratched at the side of his eye with his thumb and shook his head, hair falling haphazard.
“Right,” he said, hoarse. He laughed, strained and faltering. “Yeah. Well, I won’t keep you.”
He gave Eliot a false little grin and turned on his heels, heading toward his room. And Eliot… Eliot wanted to fucking scream at him. This was ridiculous. They were friends. There was no reason for anything to be this fucking difficult between them. They had cleared the air. They were good.
“Hey,” Eliot called after him, just as Quentin started to walk away in earnest, shoulders slumped almost to the ground. “You okay?”
Q’s hands went up into his hair, tugging hard. He shook his head and his shoulders started to tremble. And Eliot’s spidey senses went off, focused in on every movement he made. Suddenly, he wasn’t so convinced that his weirdness was about him at all.
“Yeah,” Quentin said, still turned away, completely unconvincingly. “Yeah. I’m fine. It’s nothing. Not a big deal.”
Eliot sighed, entirely abandoning his work. He took a few slow steps toward Quentin, approaching carefully, until his hand was softly wrapped around his shoulder. At the touch, Quentin stopped shaking, but his eyelashes went wet and oh, god, Eliot would kill anyone who put that look on his face. But in his experience, it usually wasn’t anyone . It was brain chemistry.
“You can talk to me,” Eliot said softly, rubbing his thumb back and forth along the edge of his shoulder blade. “What’s up?”
Quentin stared down at the ground, his flittering hands wrapping around each other in a soft frenzy, like if he kept touching every inch of skin there, he would find grounding. It took everything in Eliot not to wrap them in his own, to bring them to his lips and quiet their movements with all the feeling in his heart.
He probably wouldn’t have helped anyway.
So instead, he waited. He gave Q the space he always needed, more than he ever needed anyone’s touch. Certainly more than he needed Eliot’s touch, especially now, of all times.
Finally, Q swallowed and glanced up at him, his brown eyes rimmed in red and far too flat.
“I just—I had to leave the party early,” he said, bringing his thumb up to his lips. He bit at a jagged part of his fingernail and sighed. “Um, my headspace isn’t good— and I just—I kind of made an ass of myself. It’s whatever. Don’t worry about it. Not your problem.”
Eliot gave him a soft smile, like Q hadn’t just pierced a knife through his heart. “I’m sure you were fine.”
“No, I really wasn’t,” Quentin said with a wet laugh. He deflated under Eliot’s hand, like a spent party balloon. “I’m—I’m just gonna go lay down.”
Yeah, except that was the last thing he needed right now.
“Q,” Eliot said, tightening his grip. “Come on.”
“You’re heading out,” Quentin said, shaking his head, darting his eyes away again. “You don’t want to deal with my bullshit.”
That’s all I want , Eliot thought violently, shocking himself in its ferocity. He didn’t say it though. Obviously.
“You’re my guest,” he said, settling on the stupid rules he created for himself. The easy answer. The easy out. But when Q tensed, he sighed, aiming for something closer to the heart of the matter. He ducked his head and glued his eyes on Quentin’s, not giving him space to run away. “But besides that, you’re my friend and I won’t be able to have a good time if I know you’re locked away in a depression hole. Now, will you fucking talk to me? Please?”
Quentin’s tense jaw nodded and he licked his lips. “Yeah, uh. I mean. It was fine, at first. I was drinking wine and talking with, um, Kevin? I think his name was?”
“The sartyr?” Eliot clarified and Quentin nodded. “Yeah, Kevin.”
He also had a twin brother named Darryl. They were good guys, if a bit overeager.
“Right,” Q said, snorting. Eliot wanted to bottle his tiny smile before it disappeared. But Quentin’s face went sour and morose all over again, faster than he could even blink. “Anyway, as we were talking, I, uh, kind of spaced out and then I started thinking about the fleeting nature of our time on this earth, like, even if or especially when you’re, uh, having an amazing time and you feel untouchable, right?”
Eliot nodded slowly, right as Quentin threw his head back, staring up at the ceiling. He rolled his eyes up to his brow, sarcastic and self-loathing. “So—so—so, uh, then fucking naturally, I started thinking about Cocoanut Grove.”
Not the worst thing. Palm trees and rolling hills. Eliot grinned. “That sounds nice.”
But his smile made Quentin let out a laugh, a pained and harsh sound. He slammed his eyes closed, ticking his neck like it was about to snap. “Um, not really. I don’t mean, like, an actual coconut grove. I’m talking about the Cocoanut Grove nightclub.”
“Okay?” Eliot asked, his brow pinching. Quentin sighed, running his hands down his face.
“Yeah, uh, it was a nightclub in Boston, way back in the 40s,” he said, pulling away and starting to pace in a small circle. “So, basically, one night, a young soldier unscrewed a lightbulb in his booth so he could kiss his date, in mood lighting.”
What the fuck was he talking about?
“Okay…?” Eliot narrowed his eyes and pursed his lips, really trying his best to follow. Quentin blew his hair out of his eyes and laughed again, entirely without humor. He kept pacing, circling. It made Eliot dizzy.
“Anyway, the soldier left without replacing the bulb and a sixteen-year-old busboy was told to screw it back in. It was his job, you know, that kind of thing,” Q said, like that helped explain anything. “But the lights were dim and he struggled to make it fit, because he couldn’t make out the details of the, like, mechanism or whatever. So, uh, he lit a match to see and then—”
Quentin turned around and stared at him, eyes watery and hands flying in the air. “And then five hundred people died.”
“Okay,” Eliot said, pulling himself up to his whole height. Take charge time. “That’s very sad. But not actually relevant to anything. You know that, right?”
But Quentin was caught in his cycle, staring down at nothing. “And—and so then I started talking about the Cocoanut Grove nightclub fire and everyone told me that I was bringing the vibe down and I just… kept going? And it was not, um—”
Oh, sweetheart. Eliot’s heart tightened and he stepped into Quentin’s space, forcing his mess of feeling and affection into something like friendship.
“Come here,” he said, wrapping his arm around Quentin and pulling him close. “Q, it’s okay. Let’s go sit down, yeah? I’ll get you a drink and some food.”
“No,” Quentin shook his head. He laughed into his hand, wet and too high-pitched. “Can you just—like, talk to me?”
“Of course,” Eliot answered automatically. He pulled him in tight, ready to sacrifice his first born to take this burden away from Q. He would do it. He didn’t give a shit. Fuck a first born. “Let’s navigate to the couch then, yeah?”
Quentin buried his face against Eliot’s collarbone, mumbling into his fabric. He tried really hard not to enjoy it, especially when he sounded despondent and lost. “So many people died, El. They were just trying to have fun. The soldier was in love and happy and trying to capture a moment of joy, and he—he had no fucking idea what he was setting in motion, right? And, god, that poor kid, the guilt , I can’t even imagine the fucking guilt—”
God, he felt things so intensely. It was beautiful, except when it did this shit to him.
Heart hurting, Eliot ran his hands through Quentin’s hair and softly said, “It was a long time ago, Q.”
But that made Quentin snap his head up again and snarl, “Just because something happened a long time ago doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter, Eliot.”
Noted. New tactic needed.
“Okay. Okay. I hear you,” Eliot said, placating. “But we need to move right now, okay? Get you out of this spiral. Let’s go.”
Nodding and limp, Quentin let himself be maneuvered, until they were settled, flopped on the giant pink couch. For what felt like hours, he was silent, staring down at his knees. Eliot knew Quentin had asked him to talk to him, to say something, anything. But because he was fucking worthless , Eliot was at a loss. He didn’t trust himself to say the right thing. He didn’t trust himself not to say the absolute wrong thing, in his desperation.
He hated that it was Q who ultimately broke the silence, and he hated what Q had to say even more.
“I think I’m just gonna head back home.”
Eliot startled, fingers tensing like the back of a haunched cat.
“What?” He demanded, sharp. “Why?” No.
Quentin shrugged, inward and sad, in that way he could be. He closed his eyes and his voice came out monotone. “There’s just—there’s nothing here for me.”
You fucked up, you fucked up, you fucked up.
It wasn’t an unfamiliar mantra, beating steady against the hollow parts of his skull, bouncing around like a child’s ball. It regularly mocked him. But this time, as he watched Quentin—head-to-toe in black and looking so small against the grotesque magenta of the ostentatious couch—Eliot thought it may strangle him.
You fucked up.
“We’re all here. Your friends are here,” he said, pushing past his whining, vicious internalized horseshit. This wasn’t about him. It was about Quentin’s broken brain and goddammit, he had a responsibility to try to do right by him. “There—there’s a lot to do. It doesn’t all have to be the bacchanal, Q.”
“Sure, because that’s what everyone wants to be,” Quentin said, not opening his eyes. “The depressive in the corner who needs special You’re Great Just the Way You Are activities, so he doesn’t have a fucking breakdown. Real fun.”
He rolled his eyes. Couldn’t help it. “That’s a bleak interpretation.”
“Maybe. But Margo was right,” Q said, still not moving. “I don’t belong here.”
“Okay,” Eliot said sternly. “Margo never fucking said that.”
“She may as well have.”
With a repressed groan of frustration, he raked his hand through his hair and sat up, shaking at Q’s shoulder. Enough.
“Quentin, look at me,” he said. And Quentin, stubborn asshole that he was, firmly opened his eyes and looked in the opposite direction. Jesus. “Look at me, Q.”
Cooperating only to be pointedly uncooperative, Q snapped his eyes over with grit teeth. “What, Eliot?”
He looked at him for a few long moments, running the metal of his warm rings along the edge of his chin. Quentin’s brain was fucking with him. Of course there was no easy fix, but Eliot knew he could help snap him the fuck out of it enough that he didn’t run home with his tail between his legs. Quentin had once told him that he was always trying to find secret doors, to escape when shit got too rough, too raw.
And Eliot—Eliot knew exactly what that felt like, even if he didn’t have the balls to admit it at the time.
But he could help now though.
(Well, he could at least try to help now.)
He let out a slow breath and put his hands in his lap, folding them delicately. He brushed off an imaginary piece of lint from his trousers, looking down as he spoke. “Do you remember what my one unshakeable policy is?”
That alone jolted Quentin out of his anger and into confusion. He scrunched his nose, eye cocked. “Uh. Always accept an offered mint?”
“No. Well, yes,” Eliot said, frowning a little and rocking his head back and forth. “Okay, I have two unshakeable policies.”
“Never answer a cop knock ?” Now Q was smirking. Thank god.
Eliot glared at him half-heartedly, unable to help the gentle smile that gave him away. “Do you want my sage wisdom or not?”
“I mean,” Q sighed, undulating his hand in an On with it motion, his own face softening into Eliot’s favorite wryness. “I guess it can’t hurt.”
Fuck, his was the brattiness that launched a thousand ships. Eliot’s heart lurched and bent, in a reverent bow. But outwardly, he clicked his tongue and ruffled his hair.
“When I get like this,” he said indicating Quentin, who immediately rolled his eyes and shot him an incredulous glare. “I’m serious. When I get like this, I ground myself in what’s actually happening around me. So my policy is that when life fucking sucks the goddamn life out of you: Focus on your senses.”
“‘Focus on your senses,’” Quentin repeated, monotone. Then he chuckled. “Yeah, uh, that’s actually a pretty common—you know what, never mind.” He cleared his throat and snorted, eyes sliding back over. “For the record, that’s definitely not something you’ve ever expressed before.”
“I assume everything I think and feel manifests itself automatically in others,” Eliot said, leaning back and stretching his arm along the length of the couch. He gave Quentin a quick wink. “You know, through osmosis.”
Quentin scrunched his face up and nodded, holding back a laugh. “Yeah, that makes sense.”
“Seriously though,” Eliot said, sliding his hand down to squeeze his shoulder tight again. “Go through the five senses. Right now. What do you see?”
“El,” he said, with a raspy intake of air. “The thing is, I’ve done shit like this before and it’s not—”
“Oh, just indulge me,” Eliot said, nudging him.
Quentin blinked up at him, eyes unreadable. But then, his face fell into a slow smile.
“Yeah,” he said softly. He rolled his eyes and fell back against the couch. He sighed like he was giving into something he’d been fighting for a century. “Yeah. Alright. Fine.”
“What do you see?” He asked again, but then quickly put his hand up when Quentin’s face furrowed into overthinking mode. “First thing that comes to mind.”
“A dark room,” Q said, a little bratty. But not entirely.
Eliot elbowed him. “More specific than that.”
Quentin frowned, looking down and to the side. He ticked his eyebrows up, running his hand along the velvet surface below him. “Um, this fucking ugly pink couch?”
“Before we continue, thank you for saying that,” Eliot said, deathly serious. “It’s hideous and whoever designed it should be tried for war crimes.”
“Why does it exist?” Quentin looked sincerely baffled.
“A philosophical question for the ages,” Eliot said with a grin. “But the practical answer is that the house takes all our tastes into account. I think this travesty is Alice’s doing.”
That made Quentin smile, wide and genuine. “It does have kind of a, uh, Lisa Frank vibe.”
Eliot’s stomach tightened, cold and sick. The words Hey, so, speaking of, what’s going on with—? danced mockingly on the tip of his tongue, ramming their angry heads against the back of his front teeth. It would be the perfect transition. Quentin would probably be happy to let go of this activity. He would probably answer honestly, because Quentin almost always answered honestly. He’d find out everything, if he wanted to know. But he didn’t really want to know.
(Bawk, bawk, bawk. Et cetera.)
So instead, Eliot cleared his throat and licked his lips once. He focused. “Okay. Good work.”
“Thanks, it was really difficult,” Quentin said with a low eye roll.
Eliot flicked the back of his head, but ignored him otherwise. “What do you hear?”
“A blowhard who thinks he’s a therapist?” Quentin said, all flat sarcasm, with only the tiniest hint of an impish twinkle in his eyes. Brat.
“Well, I did revive your surprisingly mean sense of humor,” Eliot said, head tilted. Then he smiled, shiny as he could. “So you’re welcome.”
The twinkle grew to real mischief. “It’s why you like me.”
“Eh,” Eliot lifted his lip, while waving his hand as he looked away. But when Quentin elbowed him back for his troubles, he broke and laughed, eyes catching on Q’s before he could stop himself.
For a moment, the world fell away and all he could see was the gentleness in his eyes, and that tiny teasing smile, and those parentheses dimples, and just, fuck, Quentin . A rushing heat, sparkling electricity, bubbled from his core up to his heart. It felt like the first time he realized he could fly—terrifying and unnatural to everything he had ever known before, to everything that should have been, yet so undeniably right, down in his soul.
(What the hell was he doing? Why was he fighting this?)
(He couldn’t remember.)
Quentin broke the moment though, looking down at his hands and clearing his throat. In an instant, it all came back. He was fighting it because He’s a fuck up and Quentin deserves better. Right. Of course. Duh.
“No, um, I guess,” Q said, pushing his hair back, “I hear the ceiling fan? Is that a good answer?”
Eliot tucked his hands into his pockets. “No good or bad answers.”
Quentin glared back up. “You literally told me I gave a bad answer, like, two minutes ago.”
Touché. He shrugged as he dug around his pockets for a cigarette. Couldn’t find one. Shit. So instead of responding directly, he just continued, not looking at him as he considered all his options for obtaining nicotine without walking away.
“What do you smell?”
(He could call a cigarette or his case from his room. But he couldn’t quite remember the path of the hallway, which meant he’d end up with a lot of soldiers littering the ground after they inevitably slammed into the walls. Pain in the ass.)
(But fuck, he wanted a smoke. Needed a goddamn smoke.)
(Maybe Q had a cigarette? Would that be weird to ask?)
“Um, I smell your cologne,” Quentin answered, softly, threading his hands together. The cigarette was forgotten as the hairs on the back of Eliot’s neck stood up.
All brain functions halted, like a screeching subway that lurched the passengers forward. His heart restarted, fast and jittery, like he’d been hit with the paddles. He stared straight ahead, forcing himself into composure. His fingers tingled.
“Which smells like citrus,” Quentin said, still soft. But now was looking up at Eliot through his lashes. “Like, a musky citrus. Is that dumb?”
Eliot ran his tongue over his teeth and swallowed. His throat was dry. “Ah, no. Not dumb. It’s, um, a special blend for tropical—doesn’t matter. But, yeah, you have, um, a strong olfactory system.”
“There’s, like, um, jasmine or sandalwood or something?” Quentin said, leaning in closer to Eliot’s neck, murdering him. He sniffed in a soft line up from his collarbone to the nape, without touching. “Both, maybe. Plus, orange, of course.”
Eliot’s pulse pounded, and he tried not to swallow again. It would be too deafening. But his throat was so dry and all his nerves were shaking, overheating. He nodded, like his head was detached from his body, floating in its movement.
“But it also smells unique, I think,” Q said, pulling back just enough to catch Eliot’s eyes. They were dark in the angled light, but something glimmered there. “It smells like you.”
His breath hitched “Which is what?”
“I couldn’t describe it,” Quentin said with a smile, eyes hooded. He reached up and grazed his fingers against the line of Eliot’s jaw. Automatic, he shifted closer to him, his nose grazing Q’s forehead.
Eliot whispered, unthinking, dipping his head down. “What do you feel, Q?”
Their foreheads touched and his eyes closed. He felt Quentin’s hand travel slow up his chest and rest over his heart. Which, god—fuck.
Yeah. He wasn’t strong enough to resist that.
So Eliot tilted his head down and captured his lips under his own. In less than a beat, Q made a choked off sound and threw himself into Eliot’s lap, parting his lips and sliding his tongue against his. His hands frantically wrapped around his face, knocking him back with his intensity. Eliot caught himself on his arm, like a lever, but Q kept kissing him harder, pushing him down with all his strength. He whispered his name against his lips once (“God, Eliot,”) and straddled him, hands fumbling for the buttons on his shirt.
Baby, Eliot thought, slow and desperate and delirious. He slid his fingers through Quentin’s hair, gentling him and pulling him closer, softer. They sunk into the couch and each other at once, Quentin on top of him, still undressing him. He heard that same vague, underwater protest from his rational brain, but he kept moving, kept feeling, without taking heed. One hand slid up and under Q’s shirt, palm splaying wide and desperate over the lines of his back muscles. The other got to fast work on Quentin’s belt, tugging it off with precision, without ever taking his lips away from him. But then Q started kissing down Eliot’s now-bare chest, with intent, and the world disintegrated in a universe-expanding inferno.
His eyes closed and his head rocked back against the ornate couch arm. Holy motherfucking goddamn shit. He tangled his fingers into his hair and smiled under his fluttering lashes at the trail of perfect fire. He even gasped when Quentin lightly bit at the soft space above his hip bone, his perfect hands getting to fast work on his belt and buttons, palming slowly at the tight seam of his pants like it was something they’d done a million times before.
“Fuck, baby,” Eliot said, out loud, wild and trembling. He slowly opened his eyes and stared down the line of his body, at Quentin tugging down his trousers and reaching for the top of his briefs, like every movement was precious, sacred. “Fuck.”
Q’s eyes pierced up at him, pools of heat and something… terrifying and beautiful and— fuck . He smiled a little and Eliot’s heart jumped up into his mouth, full of all the longing he had felt for so fucking long. He couldn’t feel anything but Quentin. He didn’t want to feel anything else ever again, for his whole life.
But of course, because the world was a terrible place that hated him with every turn, that was when the worst hit him.
Eliot was done.
He was fucking done with idealistic bullshit. He was done with Quentin’s stubborn bullshit. He was certain there was more going on in the room around him—he could still hear Margo and Julia, could still feel Todd’s mouth breathing, could still see Kady trembling—but his tunnel focus was all on Q.
Stupid, stupid Q.
“Sweet Christ, Quentin,” he growled, snapping his fingers once. “Get out of the way. She’s dangerous.”
But Quentin didn’t budge, arms folded, and he repeated the same annoying question again. “Why do you care?”
“Because of everything Julia said!” Eliot shouted, ready to use his telekinesis to knock him out of the way. This was getting ridiculous. They had all made a decision and Quentin thought that his ill-conceived principles meant that he could unilaterally derail it? That wasn’t how it worked. That wasn’t how any of this worked.
“Bullshit. You’ve never been a moral authority ever,” Quentin accused, eyes still firm and stance firmer. “How the fuck is this different?”
Was he serious? He knew better than anyone. “Because I know how exactly dangerous magic is without—“
But Quentin shook his head, cutting him off by shaking his hands out. He was obviously just as agitated with Eliot as Eliot was with him, but he sucked at keeping it composed.
“That’s what I’m saying. It’s why sending Kady off to get her memories erased or worse with this—this energy still in her is messed up and—and dangerous in its own right, in bigger ways,” Quentin said, his forehead creasing into a frown. “Do you really not see that?”
“I see a clear danger here and now,” Eliot said, with a lackadaisical little shrug. He brought his drink up to his lips and finished it. “I’m not bothered about some hypothetical.”
“Well, fine, that’s your choice.” Quentin licked his lips and stared off to the side, tucking his hair behind his ears. “But I’m not going to—“
Eliot’s patience snapped, like a glowstick. He lit up, red and bright. “Why are you being so fucking stupid about this?”
He definitely expected the kicked pup look, the retreat, the Okay, um, sorry, okay, forget it, sorry . Eliot had taken advantage of that expectation, planned to use it to get the shit done and over with. Yeah, yeah, he was a bad person, whatever. Ends justified means; if not by charm, than by force; all that. But Quentin didn’t fulfill that expectation. Instead, he met Eliot measure for measure, his hands at sides in tight fists, relentless.
A strange, unfocused backdoor part of Eliot was incredibly, inappropriately turned on.
“Why should we get to choose?” Quentin’s voice was a whisper, but not delicate. “Why should Brakebills get to choose?”
The heat of the moment dissipated in his frustration and Eliot nearly laughed. “Because that’s how it works , Quentin.”
“So question it, Eliot,” he retorted, precise and hard, eyes widening and jaw setting.
Okay, yeah, it was still hot. But for once, there were actually more important matters at stake.
“You want to change things structurally, fine. Write up petitions to your little heart’s content,” Eliot said, voice low and pointed. “But you don’t do it in the midst of shit like this. There are already systems in place, Q. Maybe they’re imperfect, but now is not the fucking time.”
Quentin gentled then. He sighed and held his hands out, looking to the ceiling like it would have the answer for him. Meanwhile, Kady was turning gray, her lips hard and white and her eyes so bloodshot, it looked like she hadn’t slept in over a week. She looked like a fucking zombie, and not in the sexy way.
“Look, Kady made a mistake. But people make mistakes, that’s, like, what we do , as a species,” Quentin said, shaking his head and pushing his hair back. He pressed the heels of his palms into his temples and started pacing in a small circle. “We fuck up and we do shitty things to each other, but, uh, mistakes—mistakes are how people can actually learn do better, El. But they can’t do better if they’re not even given the chance to. Taking away Kady’s memories, taking away her agency, is not the answer.”
A tiny pulse of light traveled into his ventricles, nearly rendering them apart in Quentin’s incandescent hope. It was intoxicating, even in the worst of circumstances. But closing his eys to its power, Eliot snuffed it out, remembering himself.
He bit his lip and laughed, airy, before his voice hissed out hard. “That’s a very sweet, very fucking naive sentiment.”
There was the kicked pup look. He had almost missed it. Normally, nothing made him feel more like shit, but Eliot was done. Quentin stuffed his hands into his pocket and nodded, over and over again. He laughed, high-pitched.
“Right. Anytime I disagree with you, it’s because I’m fucking naive.” Quentin’s voice was as sharp and off-kilter as his was low and grounded. “Not because I could actually—”
Enough. Eliot looked past Quentin, like he wasn’t speaking. This wasn’t Debate Club.
“Kady, tell us what else Marina asked you to do,” he demanded of the walking corpse. She was shaking. “Let’s see how deep these adorable little character-building mistakes actually go, shall we?”
Kady’s mouth opened, a dry and cracking sound. She coughed once and closed her eyes, croaking out a single, entirely irrelevant sentence.
“Fuck… you… Eliot.”
Quentin’s eyes went wide and he flipped around, hand on her shoulder. “Hey, uh, don’t fight it. You can’t—you can’t fight truth serum.”
She coughed again. It was supposed to be a laugh. “Watch… me…”
Kady sneered and held her middle fingers up right at Eliot. They shook so hard, they would barely stand upright. But he got the message. She really was quite the charmer.
“Listen to Quentin. You could Niffin out,” another voice said from behind them. It sounded like Julia. Again, Eliot had tunnel vision, so he wasn’t totally sure. “Kady, come on.”
Kady cough-laughed again and her hands covered her eyes, trembling and trembling. She was whiter than a sheet of paper, than Eliot’s shirt once was. “Fuck... off… Julia.”
“Should we maybe take her to the infirmary?” Another voice asked. It was annoying one. “She doesn’t look so good.”
“Shut the fuck up, Todd.” That was one was Bambi. He knew that. “She’s fine. The grown-ups are talking.”
He loved her. But he couldn’t snark with her right now. His focus was elsewhere. Namely, on how Quentin was wrapping his arm around Kady and trying to make gentle eye contact with her, searching for her cooperation in that stumbling, disarming way of his.
“Kady, please,” Q said, brow wrinkling a thousand times over. “Just answer Eliot and then we can figure this out.”
She shook her head, death white and almost translucent, and shaking harder and harder. “I’m not giving... this asshole… anything.”
“I get that. I really do. But you could hurt yourself,” Quentin said as he took a deep breath and swallowed, trying to find the right words. “No matter what your answer is, Kady, I promise you, I will—“
That was when something shifted. Kady’s whole body went still and Eliot could feel magic vibrating off her in waves. It pricked fear in the deepest part of his gut, but Kady just took a single step forward, right out of Quentin’s grasp. Of course, because it was Quentin , he reached out again and she stormed around, her movements stiff and labored, but determined.
“Stop touching me,” Kady said, suddenly clear, suddenly urgent. Then, like she used all her strength, she threw herself away from him, toward the daybed, eyes dancing all around the room. Her hand went up to her chest. She breathed like she was hyperventilating.
“Okay, I’m sorry,” Q said with his hands in the air. “But Kady—“
Her hands were sparking again. Small yellow trails of lightning. It was twirling, blurring. She didn’t even seem aware that it was happening. Eliot brought his eyebrows together and reached out to tap Q on the shoulder.
“Quentin,” he said, keeping his voice low. “Get behind me.”
But Q was still mad at him, so he glared and stepped further away from him as he stepped closer to Kady. “Fuck off. No. She needs help, Eliot, and you’re obviously not going to do anything to make it better.”
“Q, do you see what I’m seeing?” Julia’s voice asked, urgent. “I think we all need to take a minute here and calm down.”
Quentin ignored her, stepping closer to Kady again, nearly touching her. “Kady, please, if you just answer, the energy will dissipate and then—”
Kady growled, an inhuman sound. The sparks got brighter and brighter. Her core glowed, red and yellow and piercing cold. “I won’t. I can’t. Fuck truth serum. Fuck you. Fuck off.”
He held his hands up and moved one toward her shoulder, about to touch her again. “Hey, I get it, I do, I really do, but—”
Eliot realized what was happening as it was happening. None of it mattered. He hated himself. He hated Kady. But it didn’t matter. None of it mattered. His hand reached out, strong and desperate, along with the terror in his voice.
“Quentin, get behind me now! ”
But it was too late.
“Fuck,” Eliot winced, hissing and scrambling upward, knocking Quentin back. Fuck. Fuck . “Um, I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”
“Are you okay?” Quentin’s quiet voice asked, and Eliot could feel his hands on his arms. He couldn’t bear to look at him. And he had no idea how to answer that or how to begin to talk about it because—
Because Eliot had seen a lot of harrowing shit in his short life, but nothing would ever haunt him quite like those thirty seconds. He had tried to hard to block it out, more than anything else. Quentin rag-dolling in the air and slamming against the Cottage wall, a wide streak of blood trailing as his body slumped down its length. Julia screaming and sobbing his name, but unable to move, trapped under a table. Margo reaching him first, cradling his bleeding head in her lap, her eyes wide and hateful and—worst of all—almost grieving, checking frantically for a pulse. Kady sinking to the ground, her eyes and mouth flying open, destroyed with the horror of what she’d done.
And Eliot standing frozen, feeling nothing except the reverberation of magic in his palms. Feeling nothing… until Kady whimpered a pathetic Oh my god, I’m so sorry . Then his neck snapped toward her and the lost souls of the River Styx cried in their fury. After that, he didn’t remember much else, except Todd Bates binding Eliot to stop him from attacking Kady. Probably for the best, he was sure. Even though sometimes—
Eliot let out a sharp breath, remembering where he was.
He opened his eyes and swallowed, everything slow and heavy around him. Beside him, Quentin was curled in on himself, tinier than before, which was exactly what he fucking needed. What either of them needed. Fuck. Fuck.
He was such an idiot. He knew he was an idiot. He could feel the idiocy settling on his shaking arms, pushing his face down into his palms. He could feel it wrap around the whole of his body, but he couldn’t do anything to stop it.
“Q—” he said, shaking his head. He didn’t know how to finish his thought. How could he say—? When it was all so—? When they never talked about —? He licked his lips and stared up at him, every emotion he’d ever felt concentrated in a knot in his chest. He was certain his stupid heart was drawn all over his face.
But Quentin’s was shut down, gray and darting.
“No. Um, shit,” Q said. He broke away further away ( Nonono, don’t go, don’t go) with a breathy laugh and rubbed the inner corners of his eyes. “Shit. No, I’m the one who’s sorry. That wasn’t supposed to happen again. Fuck. Sorry.”
“Q,” Eliot said, breathing hard. His arms were hugging himself around his waist and black spots jumped in front of his eyes. “Um. Look. Maybe we should have another talk about this?”
Everything and nothing was clear. But his heart glowed in the dark, a calling beacon to a part of himself he had buried so long ago. Maybe. Maybe, maybe, maybe. Once upon a time, he had almost lost Quentin and it wasn’t—it wasn’t exactly not his fault, okay? He fucking knew that. He knew his piece, his part, everything he had done. He knew what he deserved, but he had always, always been selfish. That wasn’t going to change. So now, sitting there in front of Quentin, heart in his hands and all the words jumbled on his tongue as he held his breath, a forgotten and unfamiliar sensation clawed its way through him. Maybe, maybe, maybe. Maybe he could do this. Maybe he could try, for once, for his Q, for himself. Maybe it wasn’t—
But before he could say anything, Quentin pulled further away, leaving nothing but the enchanted cold air of the fan billowing between them. He heaved a heavy sigh and shook his head again.
“No, that’s not—I know, okay? Being attracted to each other doesn’t mean we—you were right,” Quentin said quickly, sliding back down onto the couch. He slapped his palm on top of his eyes. “You were right. This isn’t worth fucking up our friendship.”
Well, of course he was right. He was always right.
As Eliot processed, his brain a dull whir, Quentin smiled dimly and let his hand fall. “Sorry. Um. Sorry. I’m kind of fucked up right now.”
Right. Broken brain. Of course. Eliot was both an idiot and an asshole. What the fuck was he doing? He needed to get away. He needed to go far, far away. But he just closed his eyes and shook his head, landing firmly back in reality.
“You’re fine, Q. Or, even if you’re not, we’re fine,” Eliot said, swiftly pulling his pants back up. He buttoned his shirt, ignoring the burning red blush on his cheeks. “We’re—it’s weird, okay? I know it is. But we’re just... in the worst possible place to be dealing with this.”
“Yeah, I know,” Q said, rubbing the back of his neck. He stared straight ahead and nodded, reflexive. “We’ll be okay. I know.”
There was nothing more to say to each other. Nothing more they could say. Eliot’s muscles froze and he nodded, a reflexive motion too. With that, they both sat there for far too long, not moving, not looking looking at each other. Not moving. Rationally, he knew he should get up, but he couldn’t.
So he didn’t.
Neither did Q.
Days Who Gives a Shit? and Fuck Off.
Growing up in Indiana, Eliot always loved the word moonshine . When his brothers would talk in the downstairs hallway about making their particular brew out back—gnarly, nasty shit with an almost improbably high proof—he would rest his cheek along the wooden railing of their stairway and dream about slanted light across the cornfield, guiding a path out and away from the hell of his home. He would doodle the word in the margins of notebooks and stare up at the sky every night, hoping against all hope. Moonshine. It was lovely.
Of course, even when he was little, he knew it wasn’t actually so wholesome. He wasn’t stupid.
But young Eliot liked to think that maybe someday, somehow, he’d be able to reconcile all of it, and that something beautiful could come out of it anyway, improbable as it seemed. But then, the first time he got fucked up on his brothers’ most potent batch, he had gotten so sick, shaking in sweats and struggling to breathe. At least his brothers took good care of him though, giving him water and electrolytes, propping his head up with a pillow and gently ribbing him all while assuring him that he was never alone. That they’d all been there and they would help him get through in one piece.
No, obviously, they called him a pussy and kicked him in the head, leaving him lying face down in the barn and not even bothering to throw a scratchy blanket over him. After that, He never dreamed about the moon again.
In the present day, though, Eliot wasn’t fucked up on moonshine. That was for hicks. No, he was in the hookah lounge, on a gorgeous cosmopolitan island in the Mediterranean, covered head-to-toe in silk. A nubile and clean-shaven boy fed him grapes from above, like he was an exalted demigod. How the mighty had risen.
But he was definitely fucked up.
(Quentin wasn’t talking to him.)
(Well, he was. But it was small talk bullshit, which was so much worse.)
Eliot sighed and leaned his head back on the couch-thingy. He needed another drink, but the bar was really far away. He blinked and stared around the ornate surroundings. Lush reds and golds draped everywhere, but he was alone. Everyone else had gone off to get lunch or join an orgy or do something actually fun , rather than staying in with a sad sack drunk. It made sense. But the ice cold grip of loneliness would have staggered him backwards if he hadn’t already been on the ground.
So… fuck it.
He could do what he wanted. He just had no idea what that was. But he didn’t have to think about it that long, because a svelte shadow crossed the lamp-lit patterns around him, hip jutted out like perfection. He would have known the silhouette from anywhere and his intoxicated heart leapt with muted joy.
“There you fuckin’ are,” the best voice in the world greeted him and he didn’t even care how annoyed she sounded. “This is—this a new one, El.”
“Margo,” Eliot said, smiling wide. Margo was here. All was well. But she didn’t smile back. She stepped further into the light and sighed, pointed and irritated. Her hair was down and curled around her bare shoulders. She wore a pink tube top. She was such a teeny bopper at heart. He loved it.
“Eliot, what the shit? Is this where you’ve doing?” Her face scrunched up, like she was angry and disbelieving. “You haven’t answered my texts in over a day. I couldn’t find you.”
“Been busy ,” Eliot said, with a hand wave. “I’m a big boy.”
(Busy, like Alice, who wouldn’t even fucking look at him. She hadn’t talked to him in days, except for quick hellos and goodbyes, rushing off everywhere but to hang out with him. Rushing off with Quentin.)
(Who, by the way, was barely talking to him. Except small talk bullshit. Did he mention that?)
“Everyone’s been asking where you are,” Margo’s lips trembled as she hugged herself tighter. “Did you put an anti-locator spell on yourself?”
“Sure as fuck did.” He did. He could do whatever the fuck he wanted.
“That was stupid,” Margo said, eyes flashing and teeth gritting. She always went from zero-to-super pissed. “Why would you—?”
Eliot hiccuped and pulled himself up halfway, his elbows resting on the couch-thingy behind him. He cocked a rakish grin at her and winked. “Now, now. Let’s not focus on drab and dull details. You seem far too sober, my love.”
“I’m a normal amount of vacation drunk, thanks,” Margo said, nose curling up. She held her hands out at the gorgeous and definitely not totally fucked up and messy tent. “But this? This is—”
“Ah, ah, ah,” Eliot laughed, shaking a finger in the air. “All I’m hearing is that you need to catch up, Bambi.”
Margo slammed her eyes closed and pinched her nose. “Eliot—”
“Daddy’s on drink numero cinco,” Eliot held out his hand as he spoke over her buzzkill bullshit, stretching all the fingers wide. Then he hiccupped. He thought very hard. Held up two more fingers. “Siete.”
“Pretty sure you’re rounding down, dick,” she said, folding her arms and arching an eyebrow. Eliot shrugged.
“I may also be on some drugs. Yay drugs,” he said, lifting his hands in the air and razzle-dazzling them at her. She bit the inside of her cheek and pursed her lips.
“Sweetie,” Margo said, stretching herself along the length of the chaise lounge across from him. She reached forward and touched his knee, her big eyes warmer than before. “You know I don’t like to judge, but—“
Eliot let out a loud, snorting laugh, shaking his shoulders. Margo’s eyes narrowed back to burning slivers.
“Sorry, that wasn’t a joke?” He kept laughing, curls bouncing against his sweat-slicked forehead.
She tilted her chin up, staring down at him from her nostrils. He could see the gears shift as she sneered up her lip, eyes like stone. “You look like a cigarette that’s been floating in beer can. Get the fuck up.”
“I’m just trying to have a little fun ,” Eliot spat out, hand messing up his hair and sliding down his face. He could feel his eyeliner smudge, but whatever. Louche as fuck, baby. “That’s the point of this place. F-U-N.”
Bambi lost all her patience then. She reached over and smacked him upside the head, without an ounce of gentleness. It hurt.
“What the hell is going on with you?” Margo demanded, bending down and staring him right in the eyes. She really wasn’t fucking around. And for an insane half-second, he thought about telling her the truth.
“I may be… it’s stupid,” Eliot laughed, light as anything. He scratched under his eye a little too hard. It stung. He needed to cut his nails. He cleared his throat and licked his lips. “I’ve been having a slight disagreement with, uh, the Marquis, if you will.”
It was true.
(But it was more of a symptom than a cause.)
It landed with Margo just as he expected it would though. He watched the understanding and sympathy blossom across her face. Her eyebrows came together, calculating and empathetic. She was the best friend in the world, and he only felt a little guilty.
“Ah, shit,” Bambi said, eyes trailing downward and landing on his crotch. Her lips tilted sideways and she clucked her tongue. “Ah, honey. Okay. I get it.”
“It’s a minor performance issue,” Eliot said, mumbling. He forced himself to sit up more. He was in it now. “I’ll be in tip-top shape in two shakes of a… well, you get it.”
But Margo immediately went into problem-solving mode. She was a goddess. “Magic Viagra?”
He didn’t deserve her.
Eliot gave her a rueful grin. “Doesn’t do shit for me anymore. Overuse immunity or some other nonsense.”
“How about a new location?” She tapped her chin and then pointed at him, excitement sparking in her eyes. “Creature sex?”
“Tried and tried,” Eliot said, low and rough. He chuckled. “Failed spectacularly. I think I just gotta ride it out.”
“Shit,” Margo said, her eyes genuinely sorrowful. He loved her for it. He really didn’t deserve her. “I’m so sorry, El. Of all the fuckin’ times.”
Eliot waved her off and reached for his flask, somewhere in his robe. He took several long gulps and relished popping the top out of his mouth. He smiled at her and took her hand, kissing it once.
“Life is bullshit and everything is misery,” he said, easy as anything. Bambi frowned a little, but she let it go. He loved her for it. Eliot clapped his hands and plastered on a fake grin. “So how are the kiddos? Alice doing okay? Julia?”
Margo snorted, rolling her way down onto the ground to sit next to him. She curled her head onto his shoulder and took his hand in hers. He kissed the top of her head, the cracks in his soul mending slightly. She cuddled in closer, laughing again.
“They’re fine. Alice is boring but not hopeless,” she said, an unusually kind admission. “Been off on her own dumb little adventures. Julie’s outside waiting for me. She’s the same as always.”
“Sure, sure,” Eliot said, nodding. Then, he affected the most casual voice in his arsenal. “And, uh, hey, how about Quentin? How’s Q? Is he embarrassing the hell out of you?”
But he must have failed, because Bambi tensed, her face snapping up at him. Shit.
“Honey,” Margo said, peeling off him. Her eyes were wide and glued on him, like she was seeing him for the first time. “Oh my god. Is that what this is about?”
Eliot pulled himself up and dug a cigarette out of his robe pocket. He lit it and smoked, head tilted upward, regal.
“Whatever do you mean?” He didn’t look at her. He was nonchalance and grace.
Margo smacked him again, even harder. He grimaced. She was obnoxiously violent sometimes. “Oh, we’re still playing that game, I see.”
It wasn’t a fucking game. It was his life. He didn’t have to share every goddamn thing with her, especially when she hadn’t been around like he needed. She had a lot of fucking nerve, honestly, to make any assumptions about him and especially any assumptions about him and Quentin. What the fuck would she know about it? She hadn’t been there. She didn’t even seem like she wanted to be there, not more than she wanted to hang on Julie’s every boring word.
But he didn’t say that.
(Why would he say that?)
“No,” he said instead, rolling his eyes. He smoked harder. “I just can’t even talk about him without you reading into it now. It’s annoying.”
“Come on, El,” Margo said, gentler than usual. If he didn’t know better, he would think she looked a little hurt. But of course, he knew better. They didn’t hurt each other. They bantered and bitched, but none of it actually touched them. Never could, never would.
“I asked about everyone else,” Eliot said, growling. He offered her a drag and she shook her head. Oh, right. She quit or whatever. “Why wouldn’t I also ask after Q? He’s my guest. I’m doing my job.”
“Whatever. He’s fine too,” Margo said, cutting the words out behind her teeth. She laughed, harsh and baldly sarcastic. “Living it the fuck up.”
“Well.” Eliot popped his flask into his mouth and grinned, wide as he could. Flask in one hand, cigarette in the other. Everything was grand. “Good for him.”
Even though everything was grand, something in Margo’s face softened, barely perceptible. She sighed, stretching her arms long and loose above her head. She stuck out her tongue, a perfect show of disgust.
“You know, I mean, living it up the way Quentin does,” she said, rolling her eyes with flair. “Reading in the shade and babbling about the art and shit. He and Julia geeked out over some giant installation that featured, like, Lord of the Rings crap? It was boring. He’s boring. That’s my official stance.”
She was full of shit. Margo loved Q. She also definitely loved Lord of the Rings. A flutter of warmth revived his stupid heart and he sighed, leaning back against her. Without hesitation, she curled into him again. That was what they were like. That was how they’d always be.
But Margo was also relentless, to a fault. She smiled and patted his thigh. “Anyway, hey, come get lunch with Julie and me.”
“Margo,” he said, rolling his head toward her. He smirked. “I’m a little busy.”
The bar really was calling him and the last of the Chocolate Sunshine was wearing off. He wasn’t totally sure he was ready to face the world yet. Or the people in the world, even in the sweet comfort of Encanto Oculto.
“Not a request, dickhead,” Margo said, cutting into his thoughts without quarter. She stood and tugged his arm up. Because he was a weak man, he followed, scrambling up on his lazy bones. “Come on. Move that hot ass. Sunlight and socializing awaits you, you fucking creature of the night.”
He kissed her forehead and wrapped his arm around her as they walked toward the light. “Anything for you, Bambi.”
(Lunch was fine. They ate lobster. They drank wine. He flirted with a waiter.)
(And if Julia seemed stilted as she looked him up and down, smile tight as she spat out, “Hello, Eliot ,” and then barely acknowledged him again, he was sure it was all in his head.)
But the tide turned on the final day.
A dark gray seatbelt bit into Eliot’s shoulder and he white-knuckled against his knees, genuine panic churning in his gut as the car stuttered along the unfamiliar road, likely to a fiery crash.
He had tried being patient. He had tried being calm. He had even tried coaxing and positive reinforcement, only to receive grunts and a cold shoulder in return. He understood to an extent, since shit was so tense. But when the revs increased like the harbinger of death, he knew he couldn’t take it anymore and the frantic orders started flowing out of him.
… It didn’t go well.
“Shift the fucking gear, Quentin!”
“Do you really think yelling at me helps, Eliot? Do you think yelling is the key here?”
“I don’t care, shift the goddamn gear !”
“I’m shifting it! I am currently shifting it! What more do you want from me?”
“Oh my god, downshift!”
“Downshift, Q. Downshift!”
“I don’t know what that means! Vary your language!”
Synapses firing and nerves screaming, Eliot summoned all his commanding calm and pounded his words out, never taking his eyes off Quentin’s shaking face, in case it was the last time he would ever see him.
“Push the clutch in and go to the fucking lower gear,” he snarled out. With unsteady hands, Quentin did so and the god-awful sound finally stopped. He breathed easier, but didn’t let up in his forcefulness. “Now hit the gas—no, goddammit, the gas —there, right.”
He did it. Okay. They would probably survive the next few minutes. Eliot leaned back and closed his eyes, relief washing over him. But he could still feel Quentin’s tension beside him, like an electric current.
(He resisted the urge to cover his hand with his.)
Instead, he let out another slow breath and said, “Now slowly release and add—yes, you got it. You got it.” Finally, they were cruising at a lower speed down the backroad, safe and sound. Jesus. Fuck. Jesus. “Okay. You’re good. Jesus.”
Quentin swallowed, face pale and knuckles paler as they clutched the steering wheel. He stared ahead, steely and stern.
“Thank you,” he mumbled out, reluctant as hell, ticking his head toward Eliot in bare minimum acknowledgment.
Eliot offered back a closed-lipped smile that Q definitely didn’t see. He really didn’t sound particularly grateful, even though Eliot had literally just saved their lives, or at least the car’s life, for sure. But he was actually speaking to him now, outside of panicked yelps, which was an upgrade. But in their brush with death, Eliot realized he had been remiss in the most important question of all, because he had made assumptions based on other pieces of irrelevant information. Rookie mistake.
So he slid his eyes over, careful yet probing. “Do you actually know how to drive stick, Q?”
“Yes,” Quentin said, like a strong punctuation mark. Then he wavered, clearing his throat and ticking his shoulder up once. “Well. Kind of.”
“What does that mean?” He was all innocence and curiosity, truly. “ Kind of ?”
The blush hit Quentin’s cheeks like splattered tomatoes.
“I, uh,” he licked his lips, not taking his blazing eyes off the road. He shrugged again, like it wasn’t a big deal. “I read a Wiki How before we left.”
Eliot let himself look at Quentin for two very, very long beats before setting his jaw forward. “Pull over.”
“I’ve got it now,” Q said defensively. He gripped the steering wheel tighter, as though that projected Confidence and Skill. “I just forgot how to decrease speed.”
“Kind of an important part,” Eliot said, but then sighed when Quentin’s brow came together, morose and mulish. “But be that as it may, just let me drive. It’ll be easier.”
The mule revved up to kick and Quentin sucked his cheeks into his teeth. “No.”
“Don’t be a dick.”
That was obviously the wrong thing to say, considering everything. But he was totally being a dick. What, was Eliot supposed to pussyfoot around it? From what he could tell, Quentin could probably barely drive an automatic car, as he originally suspected. He must have bribed someone or used unwitting mind-control to get his license. Seriously. But regardless, the words pissed Quentin off as soon as he heard them and he let out a frustrated scoff.
“ You’re telling me not to be a dick right now?” He slammed his eyes over at Eliot for a half-second before gluing them back on the road. “Seriously?”
Eliot pulled his lips together and smiled, airy and with just the right hit of condescension. “Okay. I know you’re pissed at me, but that doesn’t mean—“
“Because you shouldn’t even be here, Eliot,” Quentin said, releasing his hands from the steering wheel just enough to hit it once. Then he gripped it all over again, like penance for forgetting himself. “This isn’t any of your business—“
Now it was Eliot’s turn to scoff. “Well, I certainly wasn’t going to let you get into a fucking car with—“
“Let me?” Quentin’s eyes ripped over again, angrier than before. “ Let me?”
“Jesus, you know what I mean,” he said quietly, staring down at his hands. He didn’t mean it like—he knew Quentin was perfectly capable of—he just didn’t want—
“No,” Q said, cutting off his train of thought with a small, hysterical laugh. “Explain. What do you mean, Eliot?”
He ignored that. Quentin knew. He was being an ass.
“I should drive. Seriously,” Eliot insisted. When Quentin made a low, frustrated sound all over again, he bit down on his lip, forcing his patience and composure. “It’s a safety thing and there’s also no fucking way this is a pleasant experience for you. So come on.”
But Quentin shook his head, something small shifting in the lines of his face. He coughed. “That’s a bad idea.”
“In what possible way?” Fuck, he was such a stubborn asshole sometimes. God. To prove the point, Quentin kept staring ahead, unmoved. Eliot poked him on the shoulder once with a firm finger. “I’m serious. How is my driving a bad idea compared to this chaos?”
He stared at the taciturn Quentin, whose jaw muscles rippled over and over again. Running his tongue along his teeth, he glanced over at Eliot, eyes softer than before, but no less serious.
“How many drinks have you had today?” He asked it quietly, patiently even, which was way worse. A cold front settled on Eliot’s chest and he stared out the windshield. His silence was obviously the answer Quentin was looking for and he chuckled softly, humorlessly. “Yeah, that’s what I thought.”
He didn’t know why he felt like he had to justify himself. He didn’t. But still—
“I’m on vacation.”
“Right,” Quentin said, nodding. Silence spanned over them, unmovable. It said enough.Then Q refocused on driving, and the two of them didn’t speak again until they reached Ibiza Town.
Thankfully, the drive was only fifteen minutes long, which was why Alice hadn’t built a portal. She would probably come to regret that decision, Eliot thought, as he stared out the window from the winding hillside onto the wide and glittering sea. Silently beside him, Quentin pulled into a decent parallel park, proving that he always had surprises up his sleeves.
“Don’t forget the handbrake,” Eliot said quietly, not looking over. Quentin nodded and applied it, pulling the car to a complete stop along the brown and beige cobblestone, dusting the red car in a fine layer of gold. The sun was lowering already, gentle over the stark cliffs and stunning aquamarine. It was lovely, but it wasn’t important.
He glanced over at the paper map in Quentin’s hands. A tiny blue dot pulsated on the top of the hill and he calculated the fastest path in his head, quick and with ease. Clicking open the door and storming out, he barely checked to see if it had closed behind him as he started his long, full strides up Dalt Vila, faster than Q could catch.
“Eliot!” The voice behind him called angrily, but he didn’t stop for a second.
He had a mission.
He had a fucking party to break up.
It had all started innocently enough.
Eliot had stumbled in from a night out with Margo—boozy and blissful, if still not to his usual, ah, physical standard—and promptly passed out on the ugly couch. Then, he woke up at two in the afternoon, poured himself a few hangover cures and a pitcher-for-one of mimosas, and treated himself to solitude on the porch, feet dipped in the cool water and listening to nothing but the sound of cawing gulls. Also, he popped out a quick mind-clearing tut made it so he didn’t think about certain things or certain boys or anything at all, if he didn’t want to. Face to the sun and liver sated, it was the perfect way to relax on a perfect day.
But then a certain boy interrupted him and god fuck it all, if nothing made him happier.
Quentin stuck his head out the patio door with a quick knock and a furrowed brow. “Hey, uh, El? Can you do me a favor?”
Anything. “Sure,” Eliot said, rolling his head backwards to stare at him upside down. “What’s up?”
The first sign that something was off should have been then, but he was pretty tipsy. So he chalked up Quentin’s shifting feet and eyes up to his usual twitchiness. Quentin was a twitchy person. Just facts.
“I need to get to, uh—shit, my Spanish is rusty, Es Xarcu?” He pronounced it like EX-arcu , which was close enough. Well, okay, not really. By whatever. Meanwhile, Quentin ran his hand through his hair over and over again. “It’s a restaurant outside of the wards and I’m having a bitch of a time getting through the northeastern lock. Could I borrow your key?"
Eliot spun around, like a cat, so he laid on his belly. He propped his chin on the back of the lounge chair and lowered his sunglasses to smirk up at Q. “No. I told you, it’s like alumni keys. I can’t just hand them out.”
“Ah, shit, right,” Q said, hand still plastered to his head. He waved up and into the air, with a sigh. “Never mind then. I’ll figure something else out.”
“But I can go with you,” Eliot said slowly, patiently offering the really fucking obvious solution. Quentin tensed, like he hadn’t predicted that. He cleared his throat and licked his lips, looking everywhere he could, like he would find something to save him.
“No, no,” Q said, too casual. Way too casual. His voice squeaked like a pubsecent boy’s. “Um, don’t worry about it.”
Eliot’s eyes narrowed, suspicious. “I don’t mind.”
“No,” Quentin said again, that time a little too forcefully. He cleared his throat and softened, terribly falsifying nonchalance. “No, it’s fine. I’ll figure it out. Thanks though.”
“Q,” Eliot said, before pressing his lips into a line. Who the fuck did he think he was talking to here?
“El,” he sighed, rubbing the back of his neck. “It’s fine.”
“Drop it,” Quentin said, dropping his own act. He spat the words out, eyes flashing. A pang of worry hit Eliot and he stood up, leaning his weight against the chair and giving Q his most Mentorly gaze.
“What’s going on?” Eliot reached out to tap at his shoulder, to remind him that they were all friends here.
“Nothing. I just—I have to go pick up Alice,” Quentin said, eyes closing. Which was lucky because who the fuck knew what Eliot’s face did at that piece of information. Probably nothing dignified. “She’s stranded in Ibiza Town without cash and she asked me to, uh, grab a rental car that... she left at the restaurant.”
Any residual gnarled jealousy dissipated into confusion. Eliot frowned. “I have so many questions.”
“That’s why I wanted to drop this,” Quentin said, staring upward and shaking his head. Eliot sucked his lower lip into his teeth and brought his hands together. He had to ask.
He had to ask.
Eliot cocked an eye at Quentin and gave him his best sheepish look. “Most pertinent of which is: Do you know how to drive?”
“Of course I know how to drive,” Q said, eyes meeting his for the first time. He looked thoroughly insulted. It did nothing to inspire confidence.
“Hm,” Eliot said, astutely.
Quentin crossed his arms and blazed his eyes. “I know how to drive, Eliot!”
He laughed and patted his arm, moving past him and into the living room. His mind was made up, though he still had to make it seem like Quentin was in on the end result. He shucked off his robe and grabbed his shirt from the coffee table, buttoning it up. He still had his seersucker shorts on, so if he just found the right pair of shoes, he’d be ready for a quick adventure into town.
“Well, now I’m coming with you out of sheer morbid curiosity,” Eliot said with a twinkling laugh, as he bent down to grab his boat shoes and striped socks from their precarious position by the kitchen island. “To see these alleged driving skills of yours.”
But Quentin wasn’t budging.
“El, you can’t come, okay?” He sounded so wrecked and it sent a wave of nausea through his whole nervous system. “Please drop this.”
Eliot strode over to the couch and slipped his socks on, pulling them up his calves one at a time. The fabric was a silk blend and it soothed him, reminding him who he was. Then he slid his feet into each shoe, before popping his polo’s collar just so and raking a hand through his hair. He was Eliot Waugh. He could do this. It was fine.
“Quentin, look, you don’t have to—” He cut himself off with a forced laugh and then grinned up at him, with all the ease in the world. “You don’t have to feel bad, okay?”
Q’s face went from fretting to puzzled, like he’d been jolted between two emotions. “What? Feel bad about what?”
“You know,” Eliot said, blowing out a puff of air. He stood and twirled his hand about, spinning away from Quentin. “If you and Alice are, you know—”
“I’m sorry, what?” When Quentin cut him off, he didn’t exactly sound puzzled. Eliot paused and turned back around, slightly startled to see Quentin’s eyes burning toward him. His jaw was set along with his stance, arms crossed and eyebrows folded down.
He smiled. “I’m just saying, you don’t need to feel like you can’t—”
“If Alice and I what, Eliot?” Quentin demanded.
“She’s cute,” he said with a quick shrug of his shoulder. He pulled out a cigarette, lit it. Smoked serenely. “I get it. You two would make a—”
Quentin literally stomped his foot on the ground. “Jesus Christ, are you serious right now?”
Fuck. Okay. Maybe this wasn’t the time. Eliot let out a slow stream of air, the smoke wrapping around his nose perfectly. He stared at the ground and slowly smiled, a fake thing, but a thing nonetheless.
“I’ve upset you,” Eliot said, gently. “Let me start over.”
“I’m not dating Alice, Eliot,” Quentin said, darkly quiet. Which, okay, sure, Eliot knew he probably wasn’t. But his actual point was that he didn’t need to try to hide things from him. If he wanted to date Alice, if he wanted to move on, he didn’t need to hold off just because of… some dumb hook up between the two of them. The whole point was that their friendship was more important. So they could be friends and they could both move on. Or Q could. Q should.
“Okay,” Eliot said, laughing around his cigarette. “Fine. So then, whatever it is that’s between you two—”
“Jesus fucking goddamn son-of-a-bitch,” Quentin shot out, rage spilling off him in waves. “Are you serious ?”
A seed of his own annoyance formed in his gut. “I’m trying to say that I’m your friend and I support you and you don’t have to be weird about this, Q.”
“Holy shit, Eliot,” Q was the one laughing now, palming at his eyes before slamming his hands down on his legs. “Alice is on a date with Kady right now.”
Quentin threw his arms up into a Are you happy? fake shrug, as though every vein in Eliot’s body hadn’t stopped moving at that completely unexpected name drop. His nostrils flared and his cigarette shivered between his fingers. His brain was short-circuiting.
Oh my god, I’m so sorry.
Oh my god, I’m so sorry.
Oh my god, I’m so sorry.
“What?” He didn’t even recognize his voice as it hissed out. It wasn’t lost on Quentin, who nodded and collapsed in the other loveseat in the living room, holding his face in his hands. His shoulders slumped and he rubbed his eyes, hard. Eliot couldn’t move. He stood as tall and as still as he could. His throat was closing in on itself.
“They went biking and Alice hurt her ankle, and I’m the only one who knows that Kady is even fucking here since everyone fucking hates her,” Quentin explained, playing with his hands. He cleaned out his thumbnail with his teeth. “So—so—so I’m trying to do the right thing by keeping their secret so they can actually, like, get to know each other, but now I’ve gone and fucked that up because you’re so—Jesus.”
Eliot didn’t care about any of that. All he cared about was: “Holy fuck, are you serious right now?”
“Do not start with this, El—”
… Which of course, had been the beginning of the end. It wasn’t long before Eliot had strongarmed his way into the car and into a stony detente with Q, who was still pissed at him but wasn’t sure how to actually fight back against him. Not this time. He hadn’t really, since—
Eliot closed his eyes and kept moving forward.
The point was, Eliot almost always got his way, no matter the cost. And now, he was walking as far and as fast ahead as he could, ready to pounce.
He couldn’t believe the fucking gall of Kady Orloff-Diaz.
His heart trembled and flipped with every step he took, his stomach churning. He ignored the voice in his head, the one that grew louder every day, the one that sounded like Margo ( Fuck you, Margo ), that told him he was being ridiculous and overreacting and that it had been an accident and a series of fuck ups and not any one person’s fault and—
And then Eliot saw them, sitting together on the top of Dalt Vila.
The fortified hilltop was golden in the late afternoon sun, with all its cobbled lanes moving down from their perch below the cathedral. The sight was majestic, tranquil and stunning, like an old painting. The crowds were thin that day, due to the chilled breeze in the air. But Alice and Kady sat together, like nothing else existed. Covered in a single blanket—quilted in blues and greens and violets—their shoulders were crunched together, shivering exaggeratedly at the cool breeze off the marine layer.
Meanwhile, his head was spinning, and his fingers clenched into his pockets. Maybe the world was spinning. His breath was labored, tight in his chest. He tutted out an amplification spell and their voices carried over in an instant, like they were right beside him under the stone archway.
“Not in a narc way or anything,” the deeper, scratchy voice said and the more nasal of the two let out an intent Hmm , as though she was considering the notion.
Blithely unaware of their impact on the invisible-to-them Eliot, the women stretched their legs out into the air, both grinning wildly. Kady tossed her hair back and took Alice’s leg into his lap, hand wrapping around her swollen ankle.
“But yeah, I think I really give a shit about trying to make the magical world safer,” Kady’s voice said, like she was clarifying. Eliot was still frozen, morbid curiosity lighting his veins on fire. “For everyone. Not only the classically trained.”
“Admirable,” Alice said, her smile cooling into a smirk he could barely see. Her head ticked to the side. “But I actually asked why you wanted to be a cop?”
Eliot snorted despite himself. Alice’s sarcasm was always a treat. Kady turned to look at her and Eliot could see half of a wide toothy smile creep up her face.
“Ouch, Blondie,” Kady said, leaning back on her hands, precarious on the ledge. “There’s something to be said for affecting change from the inside.”
“Something, sure,” Alice said with a nod. She bit her lip. “But nothing based on statistical success rates. I can send you a few well-sourced articles that bear out the actual facts, if you’d like.”
“ Ouch all over again,” Kady said as she dramatized falling to the side. Alice scrambled forward like she thought Kady would actually fall, but she just held her hand to her chest as she laughed. “Crushing my dreams. Cold-blooded mama.”
Alice’s face turned down and her fingers swished across the rocks behind her, in trailing, swirling patterns. “Sorry. I—I know I can be a little much sometimes. Sorry.”
But Kady just smiled again, softer. “Don’t be sorry. I like it. It’s refreshing. Too many bullshitters in the world.”
Alice lifted her face back up and the soft smile reflected back.
“Thank you. But the kind thing to do would be to ask why it matters,” she said, wringing her hands. “So why does safety matter to you? In terms of building your career off it?”
Kady bit the inside of her cheek, sucking in a tiny false dimple. She regarded Alice slowly, trailing her eyes up and down, searching and seeking. She smiled, huffed out a breath, and cleared her throat. She answered Alice’s question with her own.
“Do you know why I’m here right now?”
Alice frowned. “Well, it started because we ran into each other in the silly string room earlier in the week and then we decided to—”
“Thank you for the recap, but I actually meant,” Kady laughed into the crook of her elbow before biting her lip, eyes twinkling at Alice’s stern and confused face, “why do you think I’m here, in Ibiza at all? Do you really think Encanto Oculto is my scene?”
“I suppose not,” Alice frowned even deeper, the lines on her face stark in the light. “But it’s not necessarily mine either, so far be it from me to question.”
“You’ve got friends who are, like, way into it though,” Kady said, rolling her eyes. “So makes sense you’d be a forced tagalong.”
Alice’s face smoothed out, but her eyes narrowed. “No one forced me to do anything.”
Damn right. Tell her, bitch.
“Sorry, yeah, no,” Kady held her hand up, eyes hooded and sincere. “I didn’t mean it like that. Sorry. I more meant that I have even less reason to be here than you.”
“Okay,” Alice’s lips twitched, trying not to let out her impatience and failing. “So then why are you here?”
Kady closed her eyes and took a deep breath, stretching out her hands. She tutted out a few tiny wisps of cooling magic, curling around their exposed skin. “I’m here because a friend of mine struggles with addiction and she needed me to get her to a safe location. So I portaled in and got her the hell out. Then, once she was in good hands, I came back to tie up any shitty loose ends for her.”
Honestly, Eliot didn’t really have a way to snark on that.
It was a decent thing to do. And probably a really hard thing, for everyone involved, which was was an uncomfortable admission for him. Kady was the worst person in the world. That didn’t fit the narrative. But he supposed even villains patted the dog on occasion.
“Oh,” Alice said, a reasonable reaction. Her voice was tiny. “Is your friend okay?”
“She’s physically safe,” is all Kady said. She raised her eyebrows once and let out another long breath, scratching her hairline. “I’m not here to air dirty laundry or make myself look like pious or something. It’s not like I didn’t end up having a really fucking good here over the past few days, you know?”
Alice’s smile lit up the whole hillside. Kady’s eyes softened on her, and she let out a tiny laugh, staring down at her hands. If Eliot didn’t know better, he’d think the worst person on the planet was blushing over a cute girl.
“But I’ve seen a lot of shit and I’ve—you know,” she continued, her hands twisting into themselves, “I’ve also done a lot of shit. And I’m trying to figure out how I can use that to make a difference. How I can put what I’ve learned to good use.”
“It sounds like you already are,” Alice said, light and almost fragile. Then she bit her lip, suddenly sly. “And you’re obviously quite the code-cracker if you could break into Encanto Oculto .”
Kady’s green eyes blazed up at her, before they melted into amusement. She laughed, loud. Alice wrinkled her nose, far too amused with herself.
“Yeah, the wards are, like, really shitty,” Kady said with another full laugh and Alice snorted, face scrunching up with glee.
“You have no idea. They put us in this desert simulation to start,” she said, ducking her head down like she was revealing classified information. “The spell craftsmanship was like a videogame from the 1970s. So obvious to anyone who had even the smallest idea of what to look for. I could have demolished it in seconds.”
Kady gave her a tiny punch on the arm. “Why didn’t you?”
“Because no one likes an uptight, know-it-all, show off bitch,” Alice said, arching a wry eyebrow. But she gave herself away by averting her gaze at the last second with a wavering smile.
Kady stared at her again, seeking and searching, face rounding through several complicated things that Eliot wouldn’t have understood even if he had the inclination to try. But then she settled on a soft look, head cocking and eyes gentle.
“Speak for yourself,” she finally said, voice lower and clearer than he’d ever heard her. At Alice’s wide eyes, Kady lifted her chin up toward the horizon and pulled in closer, so they were cuddled into each other. It was a sweet, quiet moment, between a lovely ray of light and Beezlebub. Eliot caught a second wind, and his anger coiled again in his steel chest.
“I always do,” Alice said, with a small chuckle. She pushed her glasses up her nose. “Only person I would dare speak for, really.”
“People underestimate you, Quinn,” Kady said, twinkling. Alice slowly smiled.
“Wait, people? Underestimate me ? What are their names?” Alice sat up taller, bouncing. She faced Kady and held her face stern. “Because I’ll give them something to really fucking underestimate.”
She put way too much emphasis on the word fucking . But damn, if it wasn’t among the cutest things he’d ever heard, especially followed by her gleeful, snorting giggle. Kady was so fucking unworthy.
“Ooh, Blondie goes badass.” Kady held the tip of her tongue between her teeth and waggled her eyebrows. “Describe your first order of business.”
Alice huffed out a thoughtful breath, tapping her chin. Her pink lower lip slipped between her teeth, but there was no anxiety painted on her face. It was performance. It was flirtatious. Eliot was going to be sick.
“Army of enchanted and sentient horses,” she said, smiling wider than the horizon. She held her hand out, like she was sweeping an elaborate painting across the faraway water. “So I can free them and they can live their best lives through the multiverse.”
Kady snorted. “That—is not badass. That’s some Princess Sparklemoon shit.”
“Horses are inherently badass,” Alice said, falling into a frown. She crossed her arms and tited her strong chin up, a challenge. “Have you ever seen a horse?”
“Yeah, okay,” Kady said, nodding and raking her hand through her wild hair. Her smile was tiny, almost private, in its teasing. “You had those binders in middle school, didn’t you?”
Alice froze for a moment, eyes wide. But then she cleared her throat, eyebrows coming together. “Binders?”
“You know what I’m talking about.” Kady winked, lips curling up and up. “You fucking had them. Photorealistic mass print paintings, lush pastoral scenes, ring a bell?”
For a few moments, Alice stared straight ahead, like she wasn’t going to dignify Kady’s line of questioning. But then she sniffed and held her head all the higher. “They were more like pocket folders.”
Kady let out another loud laugh and Alice broke, her giggling a sweet and tinkling sound that harmonized with the deeper roar beside her. Eliot’s stomach did something strange and twisting, and his heart kicked up its speed for no reason. He couldn’t quantify and qualify what was swirling in him, and he was almost grateful for the feel of another shoulder brushing against his, breaking him out of the moment.
Quentin stood next to him, looking right ahead, a soft smile on his lips. Innocent looking, but hiding a natural smugness, Eliot knew. All in all, he knew him well.
“They’re cute, right?” Q said more than asked, his voice soft on the wind.
Eliot sneered and repeated Kady’s words, ironic even if Q wouldn’t get the reference. He stared daggers at them. “Speak for yourself.”
“They’re happy,” Quentin said, his voice losing the softness. He clenched his jaw and shook his head. “Or they could be happy, given the chance. They like each other and they want to be together. Simple.”
Eliot was so tired. It had been a long fucking week. Usually, Encanto revived him for the upcoming year. It gave him purpose and drive. It reminded him that there was marrow to suck from the world and that he was finally in the position to do so, without anyone getting in his fucking way. No Indiana, no Taylor, no brothers, no fathers, no Baptists, no bullshit.
Now, though, he was drained. He was tired. His eyelids were sandy and heavy, and he wanted to sleep for a lifetime. He kicked at the ground and cleared his throat, his lips tingling with so many unspoken words. Finally, he risked a glance over at Quentin, standing beautiful in the sunlight, so convinced he was doing the right thing. He always was. And even more remarkable, normally, he wasn’t wrong.
(Eliot was wrong all the fucking time.)
He kicked at the cobblestone and huffed out a breath. “Q, you know, right?”
“I know what?” Quentin blinked over at him, frowning.
“That my issue with Kady has nothing to do with the Cottage,” Eliot said, the words tumbling without grace. “You can’t—you know that, right?”
He stared up at him again, the back of his eyeballs burning and the world a little blurrier than it was before. He sniffed and swallowed the thick saliva down, forcing himself forward. He had to look at him for this, if they were going to do this. And for a second, Quentin’s face broke open, painfully bright and hopeful, his wide eyes looking at Eliot like he couldn’t believe he was real.
But then it shut down, and he tore his eyes away, everything going bleak around the edges.
“Let’s not talk about that, okay?” Quentin was monotone. “It’s ancient history.”
Eliot smiled, hollow. No, it wasn’t. But it also wasn’t Eliot’s business. None of it was. He knew that.
He knew that.
But all he could think about, in the insane golden light, while two women held each other in the distance and he couldn’t make sense of how he felt about it, was—
“El!” Quentin’s face broke into a dopey smile, all drugged out bliss. Eliot’s stomach flipped over and his chest tightened, but he smoothed his features out and slid onto the small sliver of bed. He had finally gotten his shit together. He wasn’t going to ruin the moment. Not now.
It wasn’t the first time he had seen him, of course. That had been when Lipson patiently—and then impatiently, at all of Julia’s questions—let them know that Quentin was going to be just fine. He had to be sedated for twenty-four hours for the healing spells to take place, due to the concussion, head wound, and the blood poison from a battle magic blast, but he was fine. He was fine.
Of course, Julia got the first shift, once he was awake, and she had taken up several very long hours. Obviously her prerogative, he supposed with a bitter stutter in his chest. But now it was finally Eliot’s turn and he was—ill-equipped. Quentin’s bright smile, like nothing had happened, like nothing had changed didn’t help matters, not deep down.
But Eliot wasn’t one to look a gift horse in the mouth.
“Glad to see you, kid,” he said, lightly ruffling his hair. It was slightly greasy and stringy. It was beautiful. “Gave us a scare.”
But Quentin didn’t directly respond, opting instead to close his eyes and lean into his touch. “My El is here.”
God. Eliot swallowed down a sigh and forced out a laugh, like Quentin had told a funny joke. He was his, he was his , how uproarious. Centering himself out of his own bullshit, he slid further onto the bed and waggled his eyebrows, all normalcy.
“I come bearing contraband,” Eliot said with a wink, patting his waistcoat pocket.
“I don’t think I can—“ Quentin blinked, looking both ways, fearful and intrigued. “I don’t think I can have a cocktail right now, El.”
Eliot dipped his lip between his teeth and tried not to laugh. “It’s not a cocktail, Q.”
He needed a cocktail, but that was neither here nor fucking there. This was important. So he forced himself to be grounded, to be present. For Q. For his Q. He was his.
So without further adieu, Eliot pulled out the playing cards and placed them on the tray with a flourish. And god, he wanted to live in how Quentin lit up like a nerdy little Christmas tree.
“Oh, damn!” Quentin said, marveling at the standard deck like it was the first time he saw magic. “Cards! I love cards!”
Eliot grinned over his aching heart and tapped at them with his pinky. “I figure in your current state, I actually have a chance.”
“Uh. Except you’re a bitch ass sucker,” Quentin said with a scoff, going from starry eyed to smack talker in zero to sixty, “and I’m a god.”
“Can you always be on whatever these painkillers are?” Eliot was serious. But also not. All versions of Quentin managed to intrigue and delight him.
Even the ones that shouldn’t.
He hated himself. Eliot briefly closed his eyes against the clanking memories of their last conversation, of how things could have—
Focus, dickhole , his inner Margo scolded, rightfully so. She was right. He needed to stay present. He needed to move forward. Always move forward, always.
Meanwhile, Quentin was still preening and laughing at his own train of thought, nary a care in the world.
“Not the pills. That’s pure Coldwater, baby,” Q’s giant eyes brightened and he put his hands behind his head, looking like a lamb in lion skin. “No fuckin’ Brita filter.”
Eliot snorted and shook his head. “Deal, hot shot.”
“I’m on some real good shit, El,” Quentin said, like he was revealing a secret. Eliot just smiled and resisted the urge to wrap himself around him, and never let go. It was herculean.
But then, without warning, Quentin slammed his eyes shut and swallowed, trembling. Eliot instinctively reached out to him, hands around his face. Q sighed and leaned into his touch, but didn’t open his eyes.
“Hey, um, I’m actually—I’m just gonna rest my eyes for two seconds, okay?” Quentin said this like he was worried Eliot was going to be mad. He hated himself so much. “Then we can proceed your humiliation. Promise.”
Nodding to himself, Eliot’s heart caught in his throat and he wasn’t sure if he would be able to move. But he finally did, and he moved closer against his better judgment. Because he knew Q wouldn’t remember, Eliot ran his fingers through his hair and kissed him on the forehead.
He whispered, lips still on his skin, “Whatever you need, sweetheart.”
His thoughts betrayed him like a barrage as the gentle sweet-salt of Quentin enveloped him, like a hug, like a strangle, like everything he didn’t let himself want. Eliot pulled away, clearing his throat. He needed to get a fucking grip. He would get a fucking grip. He owed Q that much, not his bullshit.
Meanwhile, Q was already half-asleep, but when Eliot tried to extract himself, his hand reached out and grabbed Eliot’s wrist, keeping him in place.
“You’ll stay, right?” His voice was muffled as he snuggled his face into the comfy looking infirmary pillow. “Gotta stay so I can kick your ass later and also ‘cause… ‘cause… uh, you just—you gotta stay.”
Eliot choked back a sob and nodded. It wasn’t about him. It wasn’t about him. It wasn’t about him.
“Of course I’ll stay,” he said, tracing his thumb along the knobby bones of Quentin’s knuckles. He sighed. “I’ll always stay.”
(The truly fucked up thing was that Eliot hadn’t even hugged him after he’d woken up. Every time he saw Quentin, he’d just pat his head and joke around, sneaking him snacks and even a few cigarettes. He sat with him on the edge of the bed and they did play cards sometimes, but mostly chatted about nothing, laughing like they were on a couch in the Cottage.)
(But all Eliot had wanted to do was hold him and hold him, tight against his chest, lips murmuring nonsense promises into his hair, and hands pressing into his back, all telegraphing every ounce of burning affection he felt for him, until it was all okay again. And every day after, even after everything really was okay and everyone else seemed to just forget , like it didn’t matter, like it never happened, there was still a part of him that ached for exactly that.)
(At the time, ignoring those instincts seemed like the best course of action, but now…)
Eliot cleared his throat. The frog jumped. “Yeah. We won’t talk about it. Whatever you want.”
“Okay,” Quentin said, quiet. So fucking quiet. Between them, the sound of the sea was deafening, even from their great height. “Okay.”
Eliot popped his collar again, ticking his neck to the left and then to the right. He fixed his hair. He lit a cigarette. He bit down on the filter and steeled his gaze forward, as he took nice long steps ahead, with Quentin trailing him. Ahead of them the women kept chatting and laughing indistinctly, as he got closer and closer.
He was about a foot away from them when Alice caught sight of him in her periphery—and all the color drained from her sweet flushed face in an instant.
“Eliot,” she said, sitting up straight and stuttering her fingers along the blanket. Kady turned around too and her eyes set to stone, lips puckering into a fury. He didn’t even spare her a second glance. Instead, he zeroed his eyes into Alice’s blinking blue guilty ones and brought his cigarette up, a plume of smoke in the air like a dance.
“Not happy to see me, darling?” He asked, a rounded smile making his point. Kady let out a sharp laugh and looked behind him, to the scurrying figure that had just bumped up next to him.
“What the shit, Coldwater?” She snapped, while Alice tucked her hair behind her ears. That caught his attention and Eliot laughed, holding himself back from snarling at Kady.
“Yeah,” he said, with a click of his tongue. “You don’t talk to him. You have anything to say, you say it to me.”
“Fuck you,” Kady said, widening her eyes and holding up two middle fingers at once. “That good enough?”
Just as he was about to retort with more viciousness than she had in her poorly manicured black pinky nail, Quentin stepped on Eliot’s foot. Not too hard, but hard enough.
“You said you were going to try not to be a dickhead about this,” Q said, out the side of his mouth and stern, like a librarian.
Eliot smiled all the wider. “And I’m trying very hard.”
“Quentin,” Alice said quietly, bunching her skirt in between her fists. “What—you know—I—?”
“I know,” Quentin sighed, brushing his hair back. He indicated Eliot like he was a traffic jam. “It just—it happened. I’m sorry. It was my fault.”
Eliot snorted and rubbed at his temples, still holding his cigarette. He sighed and shook his head. He wasn’t in the mood for chit-chat. He wasn’t in the mood for excuses. He had made his point, if Alice’s darting and scared eyes were any indication. She knew that what she was doing was wrong. She knew what he had told her. There was no need to rub salt in it.
So he threw his cigarette on the ground and stomped, pressing it into the ancient stone with his heel. He ground it like a mortar and pestle, until it was nothing. Finally, he glared up at Kady, eyebrow arching. She burned fire back at him and sat up tall, arms crossing in her usual defensive stance.
“You know how to drive stick?” Eliot asked, even as he could. Kady rolled her eyes.
“Obviously,” she said, like he was a moron. “It’s my car.”
Using his telekinesis, he called the keys out of Quentin’s pocket and threw them right at her. She barely caught them before they flew over the edge. He could feel Quentin’s sullen glare right at him, but he was done. He was too tired for this shit.
“Then make yourself useful,” Eliot said, sparing her one more glance before spinning around and striding back down, far and away, and ready to disappear.
That night, the beach was quiet and empty. The sky above Eliot was flashing bright neon, but it didn’t blind him. The effect was diffused with magic, like watching a firework display from afar. Affecting and beautiful, but distant and untouchable. Almost like a dream. Curling his legs in toward his chest, he rested his elbow back and he smoked, staring up at nothing.
All in all, it hadn’t been his most successful Encanto.
Smoke surrounded him, white-gray and floating off into nothing. He wondered if there was magic that could change him into vapor, so he could join it, so he could disappear.
Oh, I wish I had a river / I could skate away on.
It really was coming on Christmas now, actually. In Indiana, they always put their tree up the day after Thanksgiving. It was a big event. Not nice or anything, nothing ever was. But they lit candles around the Nativity scene and his mother made truly horrible eggnog out of skim milk, cheap rum, and grocery store cinnamon, heated up in the microwave. Then they listened to choral versions of Silent Night on his dad’s old record player until the drunks passed out. Well, they did, until the year Earl, Sr. smashed it against the wall. Not much of a loss. In any case, they never listened to Joni Mitchell, that was for damn sure.
(Fuck Indiana. Fuck Christmas. Fuck everything.)
He was so trapped in another goddamn reverie (Q liked that word, he used it a lot,) that he didn’t even notice the soft figure slide into the sand next to him, with a flutter of fabric and a slightly nasal cough.
There was no preamble before she asked—
“Can I tell you how my brother died?”
Alice’s voice cut through the heavy night with precision. He turned his face toward her, chin resting against his shoulder. She looked pretty in the blinking light, in her soft pink dress and stick-straight hair. Her blue eyes were serious and sparking out toward the water, her fingers clasped against each other in her lap. Her knee touched his and he could almost remember why he had thought bringing her along to Spain had been a great idea. Why he had ever cared to begin with.
In reality, though, all he wanted was another drink. But conversations required reciprocity. He couldn’t very well ignore her. He couldn’t be rude.
Eliot offered back a hollow smile. “Your ice breakers are a thing of beauty, my dear.”
“I’m serious, Eliot. I’d like to share with you,” she said, still looking away from him and out toward the horizon. “If you’ll allow me.”
A bubble of affection burst in his chest and he sighed at his own weakness. Alice was—Alice was wonderful. She was kind. She had been a good friend. He was being a dick. She didn’t deserve to carry his bullshit. No one did.
(But that had never stopped him before.)
Instead of answering verbally, he waved her on and she started talking. She told him about a kind young man, the only one who guided her in a world of chaos. She told him about his mysterious disappearance, his first year at Brakebills. About how she had searched tirelessly, for years, promising herself she would never walk through the wards. About how she became so desperate that she skipped over the entrance exam to confront Fogg, only to find herself face-to-face with her brother’s indirect killer, a sexual predator who made his one student feel so awful that she took drastic measures to win his favor. About how Mayakovsky didn’t reveal this—or reveal that he absolutely knew all this—until she had done all his work for him, nearly a year into their working relationship.
Eliot couldn’t breathe.
“I lost the only person who loved me. The only person I loved,” Alice said, her voice coarse gravel. “He’s gone because of magic. It destroyed him. Worse than death. Mayakovsky said that his soul was fractured, that a fundamental piece is missing. Forever.”
“How?” Eliot asked into the firelight, off in the distance.
Alice clenched her jaw. “He became—do you know what a Niffin is?”
Eliot’s eyes burned and his teeth shook.
“Yes.” He managed to say. It was all he could say.
“I hate magic,” Alice said, trailing her fingers through the cool sand. “I hate it. But I have to learn to control it. I have to learn why I can’t—why I can’t let it go. Why it consumes me.”
“I understand that,” Eliot said, slow and careful. Dripping, but without his usual heat. His instinct to connect was overpowering and he continued without really even meaning to. “The first time I used magic, I murdered someone. He was crushed to death by a school bus that I telekinetically threw at him. Or maybe I threw him at the bus. Minor details, I suppose.”
“How old were you?” Alice asked, all clinical. She entirely skipped over the emotional aspect. Eliot was grateful.
“That’s relatively young for passive energy to turn active,” Alice said, cutting a glance at him. “You must be powerful.”
Eliot nodded, grave. “I am. But I—keep some of it at bay.”
He shook his flask and Alice’s understanding almost audibly clicked in place. Eliot wasn’t really sure why he was telling her this. He felt like it was important that she knew. That she knew that he understood, but that didn’t mean—
It didn’t mean he was okay with any of it.
“It’s safer that way,” Eliot said, still smoking. He wanted this part to land. “So I don’t ever hurt anyone ever again.”
Alice took a hard gulp of air and nodded. “Me too. So I never hurt anyone. I’d never forgive myself.”
“Then you understand too,” he said, leaning back on his hands. She didn’t answer that.
The sky above them was still too neon. With an urgent pull on his heart, he missed the stars. The night sky over Brakebills was always a thing of celestial wonder. He wasn’t a nature person, either in discipline or personal preference—like, fucking fuck camping, seriously—but he loved seeing the stars. Encanto Oculto wanted to keep everyone secluded, to make them forget reality. But wasn’t there beauty in reality too? Wasn’t there something even more precious in the found, rare beauty contrasted with all the difficulty, all the bullshit?
(He was way too sober.)
“There are—” Alice licked her lips and stared into the sea. “There are other ways to control it, Eliot. Instead of alcohol or drugs, you could—”
Nope. Fuck off. He held his hand up and spoke, monotone. “Thank you, but I’m not looking for advice.”
She took a long breath and steeled her eyes at him. “It’ll catch up with you, eventually, and you’ll need more and more—”
“Stop talking, Alice.” Eliot didn’t mean to be too harsh. But it was new lips, same shit. “This isn’t open for discussion. Do you understand?”
Alice stared at him for a few more moments before nodding her head terse. She brushed her hair back and sat up straight, pulling herself onto her knees. She let out a gentle huff of air and turned toward him, chest out and eyes serious.
“Kady uses meditation and martial arts training,” she finally said and Eliot’s chest roared in turn. But he simply smoked and smoked, lips twisting into something sharp and angry, even in their facsimile of a smile.
“I was wondering if you were going to address it directly,” he said, blowing smoke rings. “Good for you. Ballsier.”
Alice audibly ground her teeth and she snorted, unshaken. “I know you don’t approve.”
Eliot actually laughed at that. Like he was her father, standing at the door with a rifle. Wagging his finger at Kady and saying, You get my little girl home by nine o’clock sharp or there’ll be hell to pay! It was such an oversimplification of the situation. It wasn’t entirely her fault—Alice hadn’t been there, she hadn’t experienced it firsthand. But still, she was supposed to be better than this.
“Jesus. That’s—not how I would put it,” he said, putting out his cigarette in the sand. He sent it off to that mystical world of cigarette butts. Hopefully no one lived there. “Did you even listen at all to what I told you about her?”
“I took it under advisement. I asked her about it,” Alice said, clinical as ever. “She directed me toward Quentin. So I spoke with him and asked for his blessing.”
Inappropriately, Eliot laughed, a real thing. He couldn’t help it, his eyes sparkling over at her. “For his blessing ?”
“Yes,” Alice said, face pinched. She let out a heavy sigh and pressed her lips into a firm line. “He also thought the phrasing was humorous.”
Eliot snorted again and even smiled. He could picture Quentin’s baffled face slowly morphing into a grin, replete with his full dimples and discerning eyes as Alice stood in front of his him, hands clasped, lip worried between her teeth, and eyebrows wavering in her uncertainty. But the image passed as quickly as it came, and uncomfortable silence was all that remained. The waves were gentle and not nearly enough distraction.
“But he did tell me everything, in the end,” Alice said, softly.
“I’m sure he did,” Eliot said with a snort. Well, at least that explained that, he figured. They weren’t fucking so much as engaging in a share of information. Honestly, he wasn’t sure which one he preferred. At the same time, Alice licked her lips and took a breath.
“He also told me he has no problem with me dating Kady because he believes it’s our actions after we do stupid shit that define us, rather than the stupid shit itself,” she said, quickly and firmly, fists clenched in the sand. “Because everyone does stupid shit sometimes.”
Again, Eliot’s lips quirked up against his will. “That sounds more like a Coldwater original than a Quinn paraphrase.”
She nodded in confirmation. “He’s not the most eloquent person I’ve ever met.”
He wasn’t. Eliot liked it. Though sometimes, Quentin could surprise people. He liked that too.
“He also said he thinks she’s trying really hard,” Alice said, staring at him meaningfully, trying to let her words imply all that she wasn’t saying directly, “but that a lot of people can’t see it.”
Eliot lit another cigarette, staring out into the sea. It glittered with lights. “That’s great, but Q isn’t objective.”
Alice shrugged and smiled, more to herself. “He said the same about you. Well, he called you a stubborn ass which I think is about equivalent.”
Of course he did. He opened his mouth to retort, but the words disintegrated. He was so tired. He wanted to go home. He hated that he wanted to go home. Alice took a deep breath and took Eliot’s hand, her gentle fingers tracing over and around his many rings. He didn’t stop her, but he didn’t engage either.
He was so fucking tired.
“I know people aren’t all good, okay? I know they may not even be good at all,” she said, her voice thick with feeling. She sniffed and Eliot looked up at her red eyes. “I am operating under no illusions. I’m not—I’m not like Q, you know? I can’t always keep believing and believing. I don’t even know if I can believe to begin with, most of the time. I don’t know how he does it.”
A lump formed hot in his throat and he nodded, suddenly unable to look at her. She saw too much. Becoming her friend was a mistake.
“Me neither,” he said, croaking out his understatement. He smoked. His hand trembled for his flask and he pulled it to his lips, drinking as much as he could in a single pull. Alice tightened her grip on his hand, squeezing warmth and affection into his palm.
Becoming her friend was a mistake. But it was too late.
“But if I can’t—if I can’t try to make a connection with someone, if I can’t accept them for who they are, all of it, then I’m never going to live,” Alice said, tears falling in earnest. She wiped her cheeks with the back of her free hand and let out a wild, inappropriate laugh. “It’s not that I need to take chances on other people. Fuck other people.”
Finally, something relatable. He glanced over at her and nodded, with a sarcastic smile.
Encouraged because she was about as good at social cues as Quentin, Alice pulled herself up, eyes alight. “But I do need to take a chance on myself and what I want. Otherwise, I’ll stay static my whole life, Eliot. I’ll stay lonely my whole life.”
His sarcastic smile softened and he sighed, pulling her hand up to his lips. He kissed them once as his brain turned all around, uncertain. Then, decision made, he tilted his head and clicked his tongue at her, the silly little thing.
“Or you’re just making justifications,” he said, eyebrows raising with the corners of his mouth, like they were gossiping, “so you can get good and fucked.”
She dropped his hand cold. “That is not—“
He cut her off with a laugh, waving his hand in the air, blithe as ever.
“God. Please, no judgment from me, truly. Get yours,” he said, blowing more smoke rings and grinning at her fallen face. Then he sharpened his teeth, so slightly, without losing his air of Not Giving a Shit. “But let’s not kid ourselves with the high-minded horseshit, alright? We’re all smarter than that, Ms. Quinn.”
Alice sat there, stricken. Her face was paler than it had been on Dalt Vila, and she pushed her glasses up her nose, solely a nervous habit. She stood up, abrupt and kicking up sand in her movement. She brushed off her skirt and stared down at Eliot, her eyes dark and unreadable.
Once again, she looked like the most dangerous person in the world. Good for her.
“Have a good night, Eliot,” she said, barely above a whisper. But it may as well have been a shout across worlds. Obviously, he had made his point.
(He hated himself.)
Eliot offered a lazy wave toward her retreating form, but he knew she didn’t see. He kept waving, until she was but a dot in the distance, and he was left with nothing but his thoughts. His eyes closed as his head pounded.
“El, sweetie,” Margo said, smoothing her hand over his brow. He was sweating and pallid, run ragged from the exhaustion of fighting the telekinesis, the one he was going to use against Kady. He was going to use it against Kady. He was everything he promised himself he would never be. He was drunk too. Real, real drunk. Had to control it.
Margo was still talking. Why was she still talking? “El, they’re letting us go to the infirmary now. They have news about Q.”
No, no, no. God, no. He couldn’t. Please.
“Can’t go,” Eliot moaned, head rolling to the side. Dead weight. “Don’t wanna go. Gonna stay here.”
Margo’s nails were sharp in his arm. “You will hate yourself if you’re not there when he wakes up. Get your ass in gear. This isn’t about you.”
His face fell down, chin to chest. He wished his head would roll off and away, out of his misery. “Yes, it is. It’s my fault.”
“How the fuck do you figure that?” Margo wasn’t patient right now. She never was. But especially not now. Why couldn’t she ever be patient with him?
“I gave her the truth serum. I didn’t even really give a shit ,” he admitted with a sob, because Quentin had been right, he didn’t care, he didn’t care, he was just proving a dick point, “but I kept pushing her, even when I saw that she was getting agitated because—because it’s always felt like she wanted to hurt my only two people and—“
“—and I’m an asshole. And I was such an asshole to Q because I’m a dick and hurting people is what I do and—and what if that’s it? What if—? I just—it’s my fault, it’s my fault, I fucked up—“
“Eliot, look at me,” Bambi forced his chin into her hand, giant eyes blazing into his. “This is not your fault. Got it? Do not go down that spiral on me. It was an accident.”
She didn’t get it. She was there, but she hadn’t really been there. Not like Eliot had been. She hadn’t been involved.
“I’m the one she was pissed at, Margo,” he said quietly. His hands were bound. It had been Todd, who had done it without hesitation. He didn’t think he had it in him. “I’m the one who—it wasn’t supposed to be Q.”
“It wasn’t supposed to be anyone, El,” Margo said, softer than soft. He didn’t deserve her. He didn’t deserve anyone. He was such a fuck up. “It was an accident.”
He couldn’t breathe.
“But what if it’s bad news?” Eliot couldn’t feel his tongue. Margo’s hand was icy in his. “If I stay here and it’s bad news, then I’ll never hear it—I won’t hear it—and that’s better—it’s better—”
“Hey,” Margo said, cupping his face. His eyes were unfocused but he could almost see her. “I’ll be with you the whole time. No matter what. But it’s gonna be okay, El. I promise.”
He was shaking too much. Head, shoulders, legs. Hands too, even under the bind. “He’s my—”
“I know, sweetie.”
He stopped shaking. He stared straight at her. She looked awful. He probably looked awful too. Didn’t give a shit.
“No, you don’t,” Eliot choked out. He didn’t recognize his own voice. “You don’t know. He’s my— He’s my—”
“Eliot,” Margo said, pleading. Her eyes were filled with tears and she stroked his face like it was precious. “I know.”
Then the disembodied voice that sounded like his. But it couldn’t be.
“I love him, Margo. I love him so much. I—I don’t know what I would do if anything—I love him. I love him.”
“El. Honey. We gotta go.”
The voice kept talking.
“I’ve never—never, in my life, had someone like him, someone so—someone so everything. And I know I’m not—not for him. But. God, I love him.”
Bambi sighed. “I’m going to sober charm you once you’re on your feet, okay?”
“Margo. I’m trying to tell you—”
“Jesus, I know. Okay? I’ve known for awhile,” she barked out, impatient and giving the voice no space, no room. Maybe it didn’t deserve it. “We’ll figure it out later, but right now, I need you to stand the fuck up. That’s what Q needs too.”
He didn’t remember standing. He didn’t feel his legs. But Margo’s encouragement told him that he did, and that it was good.
“That’s it, baby, lean on me—”
With a trail of sparkling dazzle, the sky over Encanto Oculto broke and so did all of his thoughts, shattered over the beach with the remnants of his control. The crowd in the distance cheered and sparklers lit up the night, from the revelers paying homage. It meant the week was officially over, and all that remained were the muted stars, hiding away in clouds.
So Eliot put out his cigarette and stood the fuck up.