Brakebills University, December 17, 2016
(Part Six of Our Fabulous Story, Entitled: “Actions” Have “Consequences”)
But First, A Remembrance,
Early May 2016
Eliot found the last shard of broken glass on the piano keys.
Sitting down at the bench, he swept his hands across the yellowing ivory, preparing to play something soft, something melancholy. Something that would fit the quiet late night-early morning air, to commemorate finishing his task at long last. Instead, the jagged point surprised him with a prick at the side of his middle finger . With a low curse, he snapped the wound up to his lips, a shallow but stinging puncture. Sucking at the pain for a few seconds, he took a breath and reached down, plucking the piece of purple glass up to the dim light.
It was from one of the painted mosaics, ready to be reunited with its family.
Closing his eyes, Eliot sent it off to the side and it melded in with the swirled patterns from whence it came, closing with precision. Exhaustion overtook him at the spell’s finish and his chin fell to his chest, disheveled curls falling like a wave. His forearms slammed on the keys and the clanging music filled the sleeping Cottage, a loud and dissonant startle . Oh well.
(“I can actually play something, you know,” Quentin once said, in the middle of the night. He sat down and stretched his fingers out, like a virtuoso preparing his masterpiece. He only received Eliot’s wry eyebrow raise as a response.
Still, Q smiled up, the lines of his dimples making him impish as ever. “It took me forever to learn.”
“Is that so?” Eliot leaned against the side of the instrument, his heart aching at Quentin’s excitement.
Well, if he was honest, his heart always ached with something about Quentin. But that time, he really felt it. He imagined it was a similar sensation to chronic pain. The symptoms were always there, sometimes almost neutral or numb. You learned to live with it as background note, even as it slowed everything down, made you a little less discerning, a little less able to stay focused. But every now and then, the acuteness caught you off-guard and rendered you to your knees, defenseless .
That was Eliot, that night. Weakness acknowledged.
“Sure is,” Q said in reply, trying to lift his own single eyebrow and spectacularly failing. It wasn’t a skill everyone was capable of, but Eliot would kill a man who told him that. “Wanna hear?”
“ Obviously ,” he said, only allowing a half-smile to creep out. “Rock me, Amadeus.”
Without another word and with every ounce of seriousness in his moody body, Quentin placed his hands on the keys and sat up straight, form not too bad . He worried his lip between his teeth for a few moments, pensive, before he banged out several low, staccato notes .
Then he hit a few chords of all black keys. Then he returned back to the staccato white notes. He went back and forth with more intensity and fervor, as the song turned more melodic and even more recognizable . His deft hands, the ones capable of more beautiful magic than he ever gave himself credit for, moved across the keys with purpose, if not finesse . At the crest of the song, his eyes closed and he smiled, and Eliot felt like he was going to die, happily breathless.
Quentin was playing the Darth Vader theme song from Star Wars, and with every dark and spry note, Eliot’s heart ached, ached, ached . He wanted to wrap himself behind him, brush his lips against his ear, and say, Stay with me, sweetheart. He couldn’t really remember what was stopping him.
“Shit-goddamn,” Quentin’s loud swear broke his thoughts and the moment, as his fingers stuttered against the keys in a fucked up chord. He shook his head as he stopped abruptly , laughing with a careless shrug. “Well, that’s all I remember. Not too shabby though, right?”
And Eliot had just smiled, rolling his eyes and grinning at him, before changing the subject .)
Everything was too cold.
The low lit and sleeping Cottage always reminded Eliot of Quentin, even when his every waking moment wasn’t plagued with thoughts of him . Most nights, or mornings, perspective pending, creatures may not have stirred, but Coldwaters sure did . The pacing shuffle of thick socks and loose-fit pajamas, the screech of a tea kettle, the obsessive muttering of spells under anxious breaths—that was the true soundtrack of the Cottage, after hours . The parties couldn’t hold a candle.
Of course, Eliot personally cleaned up the Cottage, from top to bottom, in the days after.
Fogg had tried to send a group of professional amateurs to do the work, but Eliot had negotiated them away. He had been insistent that he was going to be the one to care for his own goddamn home . But he hadn’t totally thought the decision through, it turned out, since it hadn’t been as easy as he hoped. He was kind of shitty at detail spells, which was the majority of the work. Go figure. At the same time, he would have rather served all the pieces of broken debris as garnishes in his next signature cocktail than have a single part of their home be out of place when Quentin was released from the infirmary . So he stuck with it, piece by painful piece.
Either way, it was done , all of it, but his fingers still itched to mend. To take what was broken and fix it. He knew it wasn’t his strong suit, but he also knew that he had to fucking try, for once in his goddamn worthless life. He owed that to the Cottage, to his home. He owed it to Q, who deserved exactly none of this.
But with a lack of better options to fill the void at his disposal, Eliot stood up and walked over to the bar. He grabbed as many glasses as he could and arranged them in a perfect line, good little soldiers. Next, he pulled out three shakers and called over a selection of bitters, a bottle of good vodka, and his favorite bourbon. After he set them all to work, automatically pouring in perfect lines, he went about the selection of mixers and garnishes, citrus and herbs, all preserved and ready for his expertise, his magic, his—
The stairs creaked tell-tale, and a vision in a long white robe rested her hand on the railing, sleepsoft and barefaced . Her big eyes were dark and concerned when they landed on him and he felt her sigh as much as he heard it.
“El, honey, it’s four in the morning,” Margo said, raking her hair back and using her fingernails to extract a tangle. She yawned. “You need to go to bed.”
He didn’t look up from his thyme, painstakingly separating each dried leaf. “Almost done.”
Margo slowly wrapped her way around the quiet corners of the walls and tables and couches, all fixed, all the same . She put her hand on his cheek, trying to get him to look up. “It looks great. Better than before. Time to rest.”
“ Obviously it looks great,” Eliot said, not giving into her implicit request. He let out an airy laugh, because that’s what he did. “But I also realized I’ve been remiss in not planning some actual fun too. So we’ll have a soirée tomorrow.”
Margo groaned, a frustrated little sound.
“A party?” She said, her hands going onto her hips, their natural habitat. “Eliot.”
He smiled up at her, catching his second wind. He held his hands aloft, as the concept came to him in broad strokes. “I’m calling it We’re Glad You’re Not Dead: A Celebration of Quentin M. Coldwater .”
Her lips slid down into a straight line, pulling her eyes into exasperation. “Jesus, El.”
“Too dark?” He brushed the pieces of herb into his hand and gathered them in the crease of his palm, before sliding them into a shot glass . He’d save them for later. “I was going for cheeky irreverence.”
But Margo wasn’t interested in talking about his party ideas. Instead, she took his hand and led him away from the bar and over to the couch. Sitting down at his Bambi’s command, he still managed to roll his eyes when she started to cover him with a blanket. He wasn’t an overtired toddler. If he wanted to go to bed, he would have gone to goddamn bed.
“You haven’t slept in a week,” Margo said, cool hand laying flat on the crook of his shoulder, exposed as his silk robe started to slide down . She rubbed at a spot of tension and he had to admit it felt good. It had been burning for awhile. “Q will understand if it’s lowkey here when he gets back. I doubt he’ll even be up for—“
Eliot set his jaw and looked away from her. She didn’t get it. “I have to do something.”
“You’ve done enough,” Bambi pleaded, scratching at the hairs at the nape of his neck. “He knows, sweetie.”
He shook his head, quick and tight. She didn’t get it. She’d never get it. But her hands kept rubbing his back and his eyes closed despite himself. He really was tired. It had been the longest week of his life, but he wasn’t sure he deserved—
“Okay, dead end, I guess,” Margo said, her voice shifting from concern to brass tacks. “Fine. What’s your plan then?”
Eliot frowned and craned his neck to look at her, genuinely not following. “Plan?”
She said it like he was supposed to know what the fuck she was talking about. His heart hurt for a moment with how out of sync they had become. He once knew what every tiny shift on her face meant, but now? It was like a foreign language put through a shitty translator, at best. Sometimes, anyway.
“Look around, Bambi,” he said slowly , indicating the cleaned up Cottage and the streams of alcohol pouring into shakers . Her face fell, unamused.
“So we’re just not gonna talk about it?” Margo asked, her eyes wide and ironic.
A spike of panic shot his heart rate up. He growled more than spoke and he snapped his eyes away from her. “Talk about what?”
“Cut the crap, asshole,” she said, finally sounding like herself. Her lips twisted into a characteristic scowl and he could have kissed her, if she wasn’t talking about, well. “You told me a week ago that you quote-unquote lo— “
Whoa. Whoa, whoa, whoa.
“Good god, Margo,” Eliot laughed out, half-hysterical. He pushed off the couch, blanket falling in a heap where his feet were. “What the fuck? Friends do not throw friends’ drunken nonsense back in their face. It’s the eleventh commandment.”
But Margo gave no quarter. “Sure, when it’s actually nonsense. But your head has been so far up your own twat for too fucking long. Time to ovary up.”
Eliot snarled and reached in his pocket for a cigarette, without other response. Bambi pulled her legs up on the couch and tucked them under her, all yoga flexibility and rare heartbreaking earnestness gazing up at him . He kind of hated that his instinct was to seek and destroy it, so that she gave him nothing but her cool cynicism. That was what he was comfortable with. That was what he wanted. And he was who he was, and she knew that.
She just kind of wasn’t acting like she knew that, at the moment.
“Sweetie, why wouldn’t you—?” She closed her mouth quickly , changing tactics. “Do you trust Quentin?”
What a stupid question.
“With my life,” he said, finally lighting the tip of his cigarette and letting the smoke burn. “But that’s irrelevant.”
“Your life,” Margo repeated, folding her hands on her lap. “But not your heart?”
She really didn’t fucking get it. She would never get it. It wasn’t about Q. It would never be about Q. Even if Quentin were insane enough to want him—which, by the way, he didn’t. T here was literally no indication that he saw Eliot as anything more than a good friend, as he was acutely reminded every day . But even in that mystical if, if, if, it wouldn’t be so simple. Never could be, never would be.
Of course, he said none of that. Instead, he blew a cloud of smoke her way, no party tricks. Just frustration.
“Who the fuck are you?” Eliot narrowed his eyes at her, shaking his head. “Like, what the fuck is this conversation?”
Margo leaned forward on her palms, stretching out like a tiger ready to pounce. Her whispered words were more terrifying than the many times a day she screamed. “Excuse me for giving a shit about your happiness.”
He actually laughed at that, no pretense. The laughter grew so strong that tears started pricking at his eyes, hot and wild. Maybe he was too tired for this. Maybe he really should go the fuck to bed and approach the day with semi-refreshed eyes. Because right now, all he could see was the fucking audacity of her and he hated her for it.
“My happiness. Good one,” Eliot said, smoking and smoking. Margo’s face was stone. “If you really give a shit about my happiness , you will drop this like an album on a Tuesday, got it?”
Her lips barely twitched but otherwise her expression remained unmoved. “Do you love Quentin?”
He ran his tongue over his teeth and stared off at the bar. He should just drink the whole bottle of bourbon. “Goddammit, Margo.”
“Do you?” Her eyes were so wide and so bright. They hurt to look at. So he didn’t.
“You’re going to force me to talk about this?” Eliot could barely hear his own words. “ Really ?”
“Yes.” She was a stone-cold bitch. He chuckled out the side of his mouth, even though nothing was funny. Smoke rose from his lips, wisping outward and up into the ceiling, where it wouldn’t stain. Hooray for magic.
“This reeks of Julia’s influence,” Eliot said, aiming for archly nonchalant. It came out more strained and sour. “For the record.”
“Tough shit,” Margo snorted, not a denial. “Answer the question.”
Eliot licked his dry lips and smoked, pacing in a circle. He fussed with the tie around his waist, scratched his chest hair. Looked down at his shoes, frowning at a small scuff he’d have to take care of later. His jaw muscles were so tight they were about to snap. He sympathized with Raymond’s TMJ for the first time. But as much as his jaw hurt, the silence across the Cottage was even more painful to his nerve-endings. Margo had much more patience for empty space than he did.
So he broke first, always terrible at chicken. His exuded calm was the most flimsy of his facades.
“I—care a lot about Quentin,” Eliot said, quiet and slow, monologuing to the scuff. “He is a good friend of mine and I also happen to sometimes think he’s the tiniest bit fuckable. In an especially tense situation, it evolved into some unseemly emotional vomit. But I’m… mostly sober and level-headed now, and I’m telling you I didn’t mean it. So back off, okay?”
He met her eyes again on the last word, begging her from the deepest pit of his cold and dead heart to just fucking listen for the first time in her life . But based on the sharp spark of annoyance in her eyes and the low growl of frustration from the back of her throat, he was in for no such luck .
“Satan on a goddamn saltine, the fucking mires you twist your brain into,” Margo said, leaning back on the couch into a seated power stance, crossing her legs and her arms . She flashed her face up at him, doom and gloom. “This shit is going to catch up with you, sooner or later.”
With a haughty and curt flourish, Eliot turned to her and bowed, arms stretched wide and cigarette smoldering . “I’d like to see it try.”
Point made, he strode away from her, all confidence and swagger. But Margo’s voice—his favorite sound in the world—froze him where he stood.
“You’re better than this, El.”
“No, I’m not,” Eliot said, turning on his heels and snapping his neck at her. He sucked down the last of the smoke and stabbed it into a nearby ashtray, not bothering with magic. “This is who I am. Sorry if it’s not enough for you.”
She didn’t stop him after that.
(Later, at the party, Margo would drape herself all over him and they’d giggle over a joint filled with Hoberman’s weed. Because that’s what they did and that was who they were . Then even later, Eliot would wrap his arm around a still too-pale Quentin and ask him what he thought of the party’s name—if it was too macabre—and Q would shrug and say, “I mean, I'm a cynical bastard deep, so it takes a lot to shock me . I like it.”
And Eliot’s heart would ache, ache, ache .)
Where One Should Remain Focused
Eliot wasn’t sure who said, “One cannot have too large a party; a large party secures its own amusement,” but he wholeheartedly agreed. The coming together of people, music, spectacle, energy, potential —all of it brewed together for an ineffable chemistry that set his veins alight, with anticipation and good humor. Outside of the bedroom, nothing excited him more than the hope and suspense of a huge party, one where he was the elegant ringleader, the puppetmaster of delight. As far as he was concerned, it could cure any ill. Hence, it was especially pertinent to throw a party during times of crisis, when general amusement was most threatened.
And, uh, well…
Things weren’t great.
To be fair, they also weren’t necessarily bad .
Everything was—fine. It was normal. Mostly. At least, it seemed as though life was going on automatically. There was absolutely nothing out of the ordinary occurring, even within the context of their definitionally extraordinary lives. There was nothing to write home about, but nothing worthy of complaint either. It was—fine. Fine. Totally fine.
But Eliot knew, down in his quaking bones through years of honed instincts, that it was an eerie level of fine . It was like when the clouds were forming in the far off distance, even though the sun was still shining on the cornfield. It glinted everything in a haze of gold, serene and almost beautiful, if you were into that pastoral Wyeth shit. Butall the while, lurking on the edges, the asshole farm cat—yellow tabby, scrawny, and feral—would walk around in crazed, frantic circles, hissing at nothing with its haunches raised.
Storm was brewing and everyone should take heed.
Thankfully, again, due to his well-developed intuition for that sort of thing, Eliot also knew where the danger was most acute and where he needed to watch his step. The storm, if it seemed to originate anywhere, was radiating in waves off Alice Quinn. She was deep in a gross and giddy honeymoon phase with Kady Orloff-Diaz, yet painted a stark and terrifying figure every time she met eyes with Eliot. The bright blue was dark and stern, almost feline in their slanted fury. He hadn’t yet worked up the courage to speak to her, because he didn’t totally trust her not to blast his synapses out with laser sharp look.
Rightfully so, perhaps.
But still, it had been almost three weeks since Ibiza, with no sign of improvement. Guilt had made its home in his heart, for so many reasons. But the cold front with Alice was the worst of it.
(Well, almost. But he wasn’t thinking about the other thing if he could help it. He needed to function.)
In any case, something had to give and so, Eliot decided it would be him and that his gift would be: a perfect party. Not necessarily only for Alice—again, valuing the sanctity of life and limb—but also to smooth over the sharp edges that had crept up and made things too uncomfortable, for everyone. It was no way to live.
Muddling a syrupy mix of mint and sugar, he nodded to himself from the bar area, temporarily turned to face his friends. The two of them were sitting together on the couch, not quite cuddling, both reading scholarly analyses of the failures of alchemy and occasionally speaking in low tones to one another. Glancing away before either of them caught him staring, he calcified his belief that he was focusing his energies in the right place.
What else could he do, really?
After the julep’s base was settled in a crystal glass, Eliot got to work crushing the ice. He always liked to give every party a signature drink to complement the Signature Cocktail. It was a silly novelty maybe, but people enjoyed it. Meanwhile, from the couch, his friends stirred, speaking louder and louder, drawing more attention to themselves. He kept his focus for as long as he could, until his eyes finally lifted up just under his lashes, gaze like a magnet.
“You’re misremembering,” Julia said, a quiet little smirk reaching all the way up to her eyes as Quentin leaned back against her knees. As she expected, he made a loud noise of protest and dipped his head back, glaring at her upside down. Her eyes sparked as she giggled at him.
“Uh, no,” he said, affronted, with pulled down lips. “I’ve never misremembered anything in my whole dang life.”
Eliot’s heart fluttered and he swallowed, looking back at the ice. Dang. Goddamn.
“Well, you just popped your cherry then,” Julia said, pulling Quentin’s hair into her hands and twisting it into a topknot, “because I am ten-thousand percent certain that Rupert’s favorite tree was a maple, not an elm.”
“Except elms in and around Cornwall were way more common during that point in history than fucking maples,” Quentin said, sitting up and shaking his hair loose. He pushed at her shoulder, like an annoyed little brother. “At least they were, until they all disappeared because of a plague.”
“Wait, what?” Julia scrunched her nose. “All the elm trees disappeared in Cornwall?”
Quentin sat up and took a sip of his tea, before hissing and jolting backwards. Burnt tongue. “Yeah.”
“ All of them?” Julia said, again. She shook her head, like it was overloaded. “From a plague?”
“Yeah, all of them. Well, all of the Cornish Elms, at least,” Quentin said, waving his hands in the air as he processed through the information. “It was, uh, back in the late sixties, early seventies, give or take. From a beetle-carried fungus, uh, called Dutch elm disease.”
Eliot never thought that his heart would feel like falling out of his chest at the words beetle-carried fungus , but that was apparently where he was at in his life. A real low point.
On the other hand, it was also the most he’d heard Quentin’s voice in weeks, so...
“Seriously? That’s really sad,” Julia tucked her hair behind her ears and frowned, a distant look in her eyes. But then she grinned, eyes sliding back over at Q. “I still think you’re misremembering.”
On cue, Quentin threw his hands in the air. “I’m not fucking misremembering, Jules.”
Just as Julia started to let out a bright laugh in earnest, the Cottage door swung open. Margo strutted her way in, dressed in fur and velvet, her favorite way to celebrate the upcoming holidays. She gave a tiny wave and flounced her hair back, as she stood on her tip-toes to plant a quick kiss on Eliot’s cheek.
“Focused,” he said, indicating the cocktail materials, as he pressed an even quicker kiss to the side of her mouth.
Amused, she waved him off, before finally turning toward her girlfriend and Q. But before she could say anything, Julia sat up straight and put her hands on her knees, urgent.
“Margo,” Julia said, half breathless. Bambi pouted her lips and leaned over, a modern Marilyn Monroe.
“Julia,” she said, in the same tone. But Julia didn’t play along, biting her lip, eyes wide and fervent.
“Did you know that in the sixties, all of the elm trees disappeared from Cornwall because of a plague?” She said quickly, pointing at Quentin. He gave a quick wave at Margo, as a hello, and a nod in acknowledgment at what Julia was saying. “Isn’t that the most awful thing you’ve ever heard?”
Shocking no one except maybe Julia, it was not the most awful thing Bambi had ever heard. She snorted and rolled her eyes, flopping down in the armchair closest to Eliot and arching a brow right at Julia.
“Oh, no,” Margo said, deadpan. “Dead trees. Boo-hoo.”
“Mmm, you’re so tough ,” Julia purred, stretching her leg out to lightly kick against Margo’s ankle. “You’re like Clint Eastwood in a movie directed by Clint Eastwood.”
“Aw, babe,” Margo pouted, hands to her heart, before her lips curled into a smile. “Don’t get sappy in front of the boys.”
Julia winked and blew her a kiss because they were the absolute fucking worst. Eliot poured an ounce and a half of the good bourbon into the glass. Then he frowned, remembering that juleps were supposed to go in stainless steel cups, not crystal. Shit. He was distracted—off his game.
Meanwhile, Julia was going full-blown Quentin, bouncing her feet as she spoke, to Margo’s equally exasperated and pleased tiny smile.
“But really, Margo,” she implored, “think about the history, the beauty, in this one tiny place, in this freak occurrence—“
“Actually, it’s not freak,” Quentin said as he finally swallowed a gulp of his tea, one pedantic finger in the air. “It’s pretty widespread.”
Julia’s face fell and she crossed her arms over her chest. “Seriously?”
Margo groaned and launched a throw pillow right at Quentin’s face, which bounced off his confused nose with a thud onto the ground. He frowned, big wide eyes blinking owlishly at Margo, surprised and maybe not a little hurt.
Eliot chugged his whole failed creation, vowing to start over. Not like he was going to waste perfectly good booze.
“Q, you gotta stop telling her depressing facts,” Margo said, slowly, like she was speaking to a toddler. “You’re killin’ me, man.”
“But it’s not depressing, it’s interesting,” Quentin said, face brightening as he held his hands out, twisting around in the air. “See, the fungus comes in sacs that attach to—”
“Don’t say fungus,” Margo said, sticking her tongue out.
“But you should always say sacs,” Eliot interjected before he could stop himself, while beginning the muddling process all over again. Quentin froze and looked up at him, brows pinching with an unfamiliar uncertainty.
Eliot’s hands stopped over his work as he remembered that, oh, yeah , they were kind of on a Strained Small Talk basis at the moment, and not so much a Teasing Banter one.
To smooth it over, he shot Quentin a quick and unsteady smile. It only served to twist Q’s face into more confusion, laid bare on his always heart-sleeved face. But with a lick of his lips, he turned his focus back on Margo and his nerdy rant.
“Well, uh, the things attach to beetles that feed off the elm tree bark, specifically , and then the—the things attack the—”
“Look, that shit? It’s about as interesting to me as this—” Margo slammed open a magazine from the side table, displaying a picture of Jennifer Garner and Reese Witherspoon in sliced photos next to each other, in very similar blue dresses “—is to you. Tell me, Quentin, who wore it best?”
Q squinted at the photos and then frowned, eyes filled with all the sincerity in the world. “They both look nice.”
Eliot wanted to pin him against the wall and fuck him until they both passed out.
Bambi was less besotted. She rolled her eyes, gagging, “No. Wrong. Reese.”
Quentin tapped on the page. “I mean, the printed box says that only 23% of readers agree with you.”
“Because people are stupid sheep who don’t know tacky accessorizing when they see it,” Margo said with a scowl. She tore the magazine away and held it up in the air, glaring sourly at Q. “God, you never listen to me.”
“Their accessories look the same,” Quentin said, all academic seriousness, yet with the smallest blink of coyness. Without expertise, it was easy to miss.
Margo wasn’t an expert.
She froze and then spun around to look right at Eliot, wide eyes desperate and pleading. “El. Help.”
“That’s a lost cause, Bambi,” Eliot said, crushing ice over and over again. It was basically water. “Besides, you know I think Jen Garner’s a dish.”
“Whole damn buffet,” Quentin said quickly, nerdily, sending a ripple of sparkling tension down his back. His eyes snapped over to Q’s, which were smiling up at him, tentative but true. Eliot’s mouth fell open and he tried to think of something to say, but his words came up empty.
Did this mean they were—talking now?
Was that all it took? A dumb double entrendre about ballsacks and suddenly, all was well? He started to fill the cup with bourbon and he spilled it on the table. He was in uncharted territory. He was ill-equipped to deal with it. He should pour the bourbon down his throat.
But his thoughts were cut off by Bambi making a small simpering noise his way. She leaned over and patted his free hand, her chunky bracelet bouncing against his cufflinks with a dinging chime.
“First of all, gross,” Bambi said response to Q, before turning to Eliot, gently cooing. “And yes, I know you like her, baby, but that’s your Alias bias. We’re in a post-post-Affleck world now.”
“I’d still do Ben Affleck,” Eliot admitted with a wince.
Margo gasped, her face screwed up with horror. “ What? ”
Eliot shook his head, deeply apologetic. “I know.”
“Okay, point made. Not interesting,” Quentin said, clearing his throat as he stood. He darted a fast look at Eliot one more time before running his hands through his hair and sighing. “I’m heading out to the library.”
“Speaking of boring , “ Margo said with a groan, throwing another pillow at Quentin’s face. He blinked in surprise, again, like he couldn’t have possibly predicted it. “It’s Saturday, be fun.”
“The library is very fun,” Julia said brightly, obviously just to piss Bambi off. She received a middle finger for her efforts. Quentin bent down and grabbed his leather bag, shrugging it on.
“Van Der Weghe is making me do a meteorological demo for my final and I extra suck at Nature magic,” he said with a wane grin and a tuck of long hair behind his ears. “I’ll be buried in thunder resonance books until break.”
Huh. Literal storms were brewing too. That boded well.
“Want help? Julia asked, bouncing her hand on her knee. She smiled, too wide. “Or hey, maybe just some company? We could go get some coffee and chat, hang out, just the two of us—”
“God, again?” Margo asked, rolling her eyes theatrically. “You’re like obsessed with him right now.”
“Quentin is my best friend in the world,” Julia said, too intense. Quentin’s jaw ticked and Eliot’s eyes narrowed. “Spending time with him is a joy I would never give up.”
Jesus. Okay. Eliot decided to drink the cup he was making too. Always good to taste test in the proper settings.
“Yeah, yeah, whatever,” Margo said, waving Julia off with a pout before slumping back in the chair, slouchy and sweet. “But, like, be obsessed with me. I’m much more obsessable.”
“Hey Q,” Julia said, straightening out her long neck and clapping her hands together. Quentin took a deep breath through his teeth and raised his eyebrows, a cracking veneer of patience over the tense lines of his muscles. “How’s this for a plan? We go work on storm magic, or maybe even just get a nice breeze going. Then we head to get some hot cocoa and talk about Fillorian allegories before getting dinner and—“
“No, thanks,” Quentin said, a little tightly. But then he smiled easily, so Eliot was probably reading into things again. Julia deflated and looked at him intensely, unreadable. But Quentin must have seen something there, because he responded with his own intense and unreadable look. She volleyed it back. He returned. Her eyebrow arched. His eyes blinked five times fast.
Anyway, it went on for an awkwardly long time and so Eliot turned away, having grown bored. He cleaned out the cup and started over on his cocktail.
Third time would definitely be the charm.
“I think I can manage, Jules,” Quentin finally said aloud as he waved to the room’s empty space, rather than anyone in particular. “See you all when I see you.”
“Coldwater!” Julia called out over the back of the couch at his retreating form. He slumped his shoulders and turned around, long-suffering. She pursed her lips at him. “Eat. A. Good. Lunch.”
“I’m. Not. A. Child,” Quentin said back, in the same staccato cadence. But at Julia’s firm gaze, he took a deep breath and shook his head, looking up at the ceiling. “But yeah, okay, I will.”
Her finger jutted out at him. “Not grilled cheese!”
“It has protein,” Q said, head tilting like a pup.
“Cheese is the worst protein, Q.”
“There is no good or bad protein,” Quentin countered, crossing his arms. “Protein is protein.”
“Yes, technically,” Julia said, putting on her Cool Health Teacher face while her hands went to her hips. “But cheese has so much saturated fat and sodium that it’s basically—“
That in and of itself was enough to get Quentin fully through the door, waving a middle finger in the air behind him as he stomped out. “Bye everyone!”
Eliot smiled into his chopped mint.
But a sharp sigh called his attention, followed by the sound of Julia’s arms thumping against her chest and into a defensive stance.
“What?” She demanded at seemingly nothing. But Bambi stood up and walked over to Eliot, grabbing a glass, some ice, and a bottle of vodka. She poured and cocked an eye up.
“You know what,” Margo said, slow and even. As she took a sip of her liquor, Julia clicked her teeth together and shook her head.
“You have to respect my dynamic with—“
“You have to ease up, Smother Hen,” Margo said, not unkindly. “You’re pissing him off.”
Unexpectedly, Julia laughed, sputtering her lips. “Oh, he can be pissed. I don’t give a shit. Whatever it takes so he takes care of himself.”
Eliot frowned, fully disengaging from his work for the first time. “Q seems okay to me.”
It was true. He knew the signs of a depressive Quentin almost as well as Julia did now. Despite not talking much, he had certainly been observing Q plenty.
He seemed stressed about school as usual. But in general, it seemed like he was sleeping fine, eating as well as he ever did, and even being social. He’d been to every Cottage party since Ibiza, a record as far as he could remember. Every time, Q stayed most of the night, happily bobbed his head to music, and chatted with people to the side of the bar. Near Eliot but not with him.
There were none of the usual signs of danger, at least from where he sat. But apparently, that wasn’t the case from Julia’s vantage point.
“I’m sure he does,” she said, cutting out a harsh laugh. She refused to look at him. “You always see what you want to see when it comes to Q.”
Ah, it was Little Miss Passive Aggressive. That had been another change since Ibiza.
It hadn’t been cute.
Eliot licked his lips once. Then before he could think it through, he slammed his hand down on his cutting board, startling even Bambi into spilling her drink.
“Okay, what the hell is your problem?” Eliot demanded. Julia still wouldn’t look at him. “Any particular reason you’ve been such a—?”
She looked at him now. Julia smiled under her dark eyes, tilting her head in false confusion. “Such a what, Eliot?”
He chuckled low and lit a cigarette. Then widened his eyes at her, all sardonic innocence. “A cuh -rankypants.”
“Well, at least you have your shitty jokes to keep you warm at night,” Julia said with a big, cheeky, dangerous grin. “Help you sleep too?”
He bit into his filter and narrowed his eyes. “If you have something you want to say to me, Wicker, then say it.”
Julia’s eyes lost all mocking as they went cool. She snorted and shook her head, looking away. “What would be the use in that?”
A vicious retort spiked at the edge of his tongue, but Bambi’s icy grip on his forearm stopped its launch. She glared up at him with fierce eyes before flashing them over to Julia, as she snapped her other fingers for attention.
“No,” Margo said, pointing between the two of them. Her meaning was clear, but she still bared her fangs and spoke through her teeth, hissing and wild. “I will literally murder you both where you stand, got it?”
Eliot shook his shoulders out and blew out a puff of air, already surrendering. But Julia tightened her jaw and faced down Margo head-on.
“No,” Julia said, laughing out in barely a whisper. She pointed at Eliot without looking at him, eyes burning at Margo. “He has been such a fucking dick —”
“I don’t know what the fuck is going on here lately,” Margo whispered, in that croaking and pointed way of hers. Her cheeks grew red and her neck muscles popped. “But I don’t actually give a shit. You two are friends. We’re all best fucking friends and we’re gonna fucking act like it or so help me god, do you understand?”
Julia stared down at the ground, trying to keep her temper in check. “You can’t order around us around like we’re your soldiers or some shit.”
“I am in a goddamn thesis hole, Julie,” Margo said, screeching as she grabbed at her hair. “I do not have time for anyone’s interpersonal bullshit, least of all you two massive pains in my ass. Get along or ignore each other. Only two options.”
But before Julia could respond, the Cottage door flew open and Quentin stormed back in, eyes set straight ahead and fists clenched at his side. He slammed the door shut and walked into the living room, panting.
“I’m back,” Q said, unnecessarily. Then he nodded once as he stared off into space, before focusing all his attention on Eliot. “Uh, hey, El, what are you doing right now?”
Trying to revive my heart into normal functions , Eliot didn’t say. But he did say, eloquently: “I’m—this?”
Quentin nodded again, before averting his gaze, embarrassed. “Wanna get lunch with me?”
Eliot blinked, his numb body turning to painful pins and needles at the sudden flare of hope in his gut. “That’d be great.”
(How long had he been that numb?)
Julia snorted. “Jesus Christ.”
“Okay, well,” Quentin shifted on his feet, shooting Julia another one of those unreadable looks. Then he smiled back up at Eliot, still tentative. Still true. “Uh, I do have work, so can we—?”
Eliot nodded, putting out his cigarette and wiping his hands on a white rag. He blinked over and over, clearing his throat, before he forced his most natural smile at Q. Their eyes met and the world’s color started to slowly ease its way back in, the Cottage turning gold and green and red right before his very eyes.
(How long had everything been in grayscale?)
“Yeah. Yeah,” he said, smiling turning real. “I’ll clean up later. Okay.”
Meeting eyes and grins again, they started to make their way out the door and all of Eliot’s grounding and focus started to come back in happy waves, when the best voice in the world stopped them.
“Q, sweetie, before you go, I have a question for you,” Margo said, resting her chin on her fist, lips curling down into a thoughtful frown. At Quentin’s waiting eyebrows, she took a deep breath. “If I murdered Julia and Eliot, do you think we’d grief-bang about it or would you be too mad at me?”
“I—what?” Quentin startled backward, eyes so damn confused. “What the fuck?”
“It’s a thought experiment,” Margo said, sighing and put-upon.
Quentin rolled his eyes, adjusting his bag. “I don’t think you know what a thought experiment is.”
“Answer the question,” Bambi said, cracking her neck. Quentin bit his lip and stared straight ahead, before opening his mouth and closing it. He nodded, holding his hand in the air, on the edge of a thought.
“Okay, but, like, why did you murder them?”
Julia threw the pillow that time.
The Brakebills cafeteria was a dreary place.
The air was always chilly. Its architectural lines stretched out long and unforgiving, with blue and pink windows that cast a gloomy purple pall over the uniform wooden tables. Sure, there were lamps over most of them, with shitty edison bulbs and round shades that added an unappealing white-yellow to the atmosphere. But for the most part, it was like one of the professors had decided to see if they could create a room that best triggered Seasonal Affectiveness Disorder on a campus with controlled weather.
Weirdly, despite what was probably good for him, it was one of Quentin’s favorite places on campus.
Since they met, Q was always pestering Eliot about joining him there. He’d suggest they meet for a coffee or food they didn’t “have to” cook (as though Eliot had ever complained about cooking, ever in his life.) He even want to go to just hang out, like it was a fun change of scenery rather than set dressing for a horror movie. The handful of times Eliot had indulged him, Quentin would find the furthest back corner he could and prop himself up in some absurd way, like he was the comfiest frog on the strangest lily pad. It was sweet of course, in the usual Qish way. Though he had to admit it was one of the Quentin quirks Eliot really didn’t understand.
But for once, he had never been happier to be seated in his least favorite alcove of the school, with Quentin’s dirty boots a little too close to his BLT. Eliot’s lips quirked as Q settled against the wall, cross-legged with a fresh grilled cheese plopped in the lap of his acid-washed jeans. He was cute.
“Don’t tell Julia,” Quentin said, lowering his brow like he had a real secret.
“See, I’d go the opposite tack,” Eliot said, waving a particularly crispy french fry before popping it in his mouth. “Full blown social media campaign. Your grilled cheese now has its own Instagram account.”
“That would be a good way to stick it to her, if not for one major issue,” Quentin said, setting his jaw upwards, brattily. “Which is that, as always, we are not allowed—“
“—to use technology on Brakebills property.”
The first real, full smile Eliot felt in days, maybe weeks, crossed over his face as he studied Quentin’s earnest and stern expression. “Rules are meaningless to you every other context, but that’s the hill you die on?”
“Fogg says it interferes with the current,” Q said with a shrug, digging into his own fries. “I’d feel terrible if I fucked up someone else’s work.”
Eliot rolled his eyes. “Fogg’s full of shit.”
“The fact that I use my phone daily,” Eliot said, waving it proudly in the air and pointing out that he was, in fact, on his data and not airplane mode. “It’s never caused an issue.”
“Sure,” Quentin snorted. “QED.”
The glow of another smile stretched wide, but just as he was about to give his friend (his friend ) even more shit for being such an inconsistent goody-goody, barring a better term, Quentin’s brow pinched. He looked up at an approaching figure, fingers twitching around his food. Curious, Eliot turned around in his chair and caught sight of the impending doom. He propped his elbow and frowned.
Penny Adiyodi stalked his way over. He wore a threadbare green shirt unbuttoned down to his navel, all for Eliot’s viewing pleasure.
God, he was hot.
But so fucking hot.
Now, to be sure, Penny was a total dick—cruel and spiteful, with alpha male syndrome galore. Not appealing. Plus, obviously, he had tortured Quentin for months, for no discernible reason beyond not liking Q’s personality. Which was not only an insane position, but a hurtful one. Eliot wasn’t a fan, to say the least.
… But goddamn , he still wore the fuck out of a flowy shirt and a scarf . Overall, Penny was neatly categorized into Eliot’s Paisley, Patchouli, and Pain brand of fantasy. Not a common dip, but there when the itch arrived.
Not that he’d ever tell Quentin that anytime soon.
(Or at all. Because why would he? It would be weird.)
(Just because he wanted to tell Q everything didn’t mean he should.)
As usual though, Penny was completely uninterested in Eliot and pressed his palms on the table next to Q, tilting his head menacingly.
“Even though I fuckin’ love that circus music sound mixed with screaming about Hobbits or some shit—”
Under his breath, Q muttered, “ Dwarves ,” and Eliot’s heart ached.
Penny glared harder, opting to ignore the interruption. “—I figured I’d let you know your wards are slipping. Again.”
“Sorry,” Quentin sighed, scratching the back of his neck. “I’ll adjust.”
Penny nodded slowly, his eyes bulging out his head as he stared and stared at Quentin. Hot as he was, it still sent a rush of defensiveness through Eliot, who hadn’t yet made his illustrious presence known.
“Hey Penny,” he said, mostly casual. But he figured the psychic would pick up on the edge he wanted to convey. He’d never know if it worked though, since Penny didn’t even look at him when he jutted his chin out in that standard Male Greeting Nod that had always evaded him.
“Sup, Eliot?” He said, like he didn’t give a shit. Then he narrowed his eyes back at Q. “I don’t know how you function.”
Quentin pressed his lips into a line and held his hands out. “Mediocrely.”
Eliot was used to his little self-jabs, but that didn’t mean he had to like them. His throat twisted with the urge to spit out compliments, thousands of compliments, all assuring Quentin that he was the kindest, bravest, most generous, beautiful, wonderful—
He bit his tongue into blood.
Penny stood up straight, his face growing softer. He kept his dark brown eyes on Q, who was fully recoiling under his scrutiny.
“Stop torturing yourself,” Penny finally said, his voice low and almost gentle. He crossed his arms over his mostly bare chest—which, like, seriously, bravo for the bold style choice—and let out a short breath. “Man the fuck up and do something about it. Better to know. Trust me.”
“Your unsolicited advice is, as always,” Quentin smiled, but his sparking eyes gave his sarcasm away, “unappreciated.”
This had the unforeseen effect of making Penny Adiyodi laugh.
Eliot paused over his sandwich, fingers tightening around the seeded bread. He wasn’t sure that he had ever heard Penny Adiyodi laugh before. He felt a bit like Steve Irwin must have felt when he saw new animal behavior for the first time. You know, before the whole unfortunate stingray thing.
Anyway, it was exhilarating.
“Yeah, yeah,” Penny said, before he fucking clapped Quentin on the shoulder, definitely friendly and borderline affectionate. “Take care of yourself, man.”
What the fuck?
What the fuck?
Almost exactly one year ago, Penny had said I hope you get stabbed in the spleen, you fucking pussy , when Quentin had wished him a happy winter break. So to say that it was a slight change in tone between them might have been understating things. A tad.
Eliot leaned back on his arm and slowly tilted his head at Q, who wasn’t paying attention to him. Instead, he gave Penny a small wave before popping a fry in his mouth, like all of this was really normal.
“You too,” Quentin said, without much inflection. “Say hey to Victoria and Oscar.”
“Will do,” Penny said as he rapped his fist on the table before nodding once more, curt. “Later, Eliot.”
“Bye, Penny,” Eliot called out in a singsong voice to his retreating figure. He swiveled around to watch him walk away and—as soon as he was out of ear or mindreading shot—he let out a sharp laugh and looked Quentin right in the eyes.
He smirked. “What in the actual mother loving shit was that?”
“What do you mean?” Q asked it so sincerely. He was so ridiculous.
“You and Penny are, what,” Eliot grinned despite himself at the absurdity, “buds now?”
“Yeah, sure, we have slumber parties all the time,” Quentin said with an eye roll. He pulled out the bun Julia made and let his hair fall loose, almost reaching his shoulders. “We gossip about boys and chat about music and rehash all the ways he’s casually threatened to murder me.”
Eliot was a complete fucking dumbass who read way too much into Q saying gossip about boys instead of gossip about girls . But he also refused to be deterred from his mission.
“Nope. There was an almost fondness right there between you two,” he accused, putting his elbow on the table and propping his chin on his palm. “Are you almost fond of Penny now?”
“That’s an overstatement,” Quentin said, finally taking a bite of his forbidden melted cheese. “But I guess we’re cool.”
What the fuck. “Cool?”
There had never been anything about any of Quentin and Penny’s interactions that had predicted anything but maybe reaching the point where they could grudgingly ignore each other. And that mostly depended on Q finally getting his psychic wards down pat, which…
Well, he adored his friend ( friend ) with all his heart. But there were a few things more likely than that to happen.
Like Margo announcing that she was joining the Peace Corps.
“I know. But I mean—the thing about Penny is, uh,” Quentin picked at his fries again, looking for the crunchy bits, and snorted. His big brown eyes looked up at Eliot with a hint of humor he couldn’t quite translate. “He was a huge asshole.”
“I know, Q,” Eliot said, with a tilt of his lips. The smiles kept coming. “That’s my point.”
Quentin nodded, throwing a tiny crisp in the air and catching it with his mouth. He held a finger up as he bit down, his brow low but his eyes wide. It was as performative as he got.
“Like, a massive asshole. To everyone. He was erratic and vicious and, like, dismissive, all at once, all the time, over shit he never bothered to explain,” Q said, blowing a stray hair out of his face. “So, yeah, hypothetically, I know he fucked up a lot, and that there are definitely people who wouldn’t blame me if I said Fuck that guy forever, you know?”
“What the hell are you talking about hypothetically ?” Eliot frowned under a laugh. “Please recall that if we had lockers, he would have stuffed you in them.”
Q smiled into his food. “But despite everything, I know he’s—god, he’s such a good person, even if he doesn’t think so—“
“You have too much faith in people,” Eliot said with a sigh and not for the first time.
“—and he’s, like, my best friend in the world,” Quentin finished, meeting Eliot’s eyes full on. “And I missed him. A lot. So I wasn’t going to spend any more time avoiding him, because it sucked too much.”
Eliot swallowed, the muscles of his throat spasming as they registered Quentin’s meaning.
His perfect Q was such a crafty motherfucker, wasn’t he?
He huffed out a breath, not exactly a laugh, and glanced away, his eyes burning and heavy with unwelcome wetness. He sniffed once and blinked the embarrassment away before schooling his face into a placid smile.
“I suppose Penny was certainly—maybe a little much, when you all went on vacation together,” Eliot said slowly. “He didn’t always make top notch choices.”
Quentin’s lips twitched, almost teasing. “Yeah, that’s one way to put it.”
“But you’re right. Now that you mention it, I can tell Penny is—” Eliot lowered his gaze to his hands along with the tenor of his voice. “I can tell he’s sorry and that he really, really missed you too.”
He raised his eyes again, his heart thudding in his fragile chest as the dark curl of his lashes blurred the precise emotions swirling across Quentin’s face. For a few beats, he stared down at Eliot, eyebrows tight and eyes endless, everything raw and too messy to fully comprehend. But then he cleared his throat, smiled privately to himself and took a deep breath, before shrugging at Eliot.
“Hence why we’re cool,” Q said, simply. Then he took a huge bite of his grilled cheese and munched. Like Forrest Gump before him, that was apparently all he had to say about that.
(Whatever, anyone who said they didn’t like that movie was a liar.)
Eliot drummed his fingers on the table and let out his held breath. “Thank you for explaining.”
Thank you for giving me another chance , he didn’t say. He always felt like he was low on chances with Q. He knew he never even deserved the first one. He hoped his real meaning was clear. He always hoped his real meaning was clear.
But so far, if he was being honest, his average on that wasn’t great.
Quentin offered him a small, tentative grin and kept eating, the silence finally making its way to comfort for the first time in too long. But after a few minutes of quiet, his face tensed up again and he put his hands on his knees.
“But, uh, you know,” he said in his most stilted voice and Eliot’s muscles froze, doom settling in. Quentin worked his jaw and looked away, fidgeting his fingers. “Penny’s not cool with everyone, from what I understand. I think he was kind of an especially huge asshole to someone else. Someone who, uh, really didn’t deserve it.”
Flashes of Alice Quinn’s angry and devastated eyes taunted him, under the ominous soundtrack of his own stupid words. He clenched his fists and sighed, rubbing them into his eyes until he saw stars. He really was a huge dickhead and a massive asshole. He deserved every bit of ire she wanted to throw his way. He had just been too much of a coward to face it.
“I know,” Eliot said, low as he could. But Q heard him. His warm eyes glowed down and he chewed on his lower lip.
“He should apologize to her, El,” Q said, still keeping up the ridiculous facade of a conversation like a champ. But Eliot didn’t have the patience for that anymore.
He breathed down any shame to ask directly, “You know what I said to her?”
Quentin regraded him quietly for a second before he licked his lips and nodded, shorter. “Uh, yeah. She told me.”
Eliot closed his eyes against the growing guilt. Then he squeezed them even tighter against the growing anger. That she had any right to be pissed at him , that she was the one who got to give him shit about his choices, even considering—
He let out a shaky laugh, sucking his lower lip in between his teeth. Then he simply nodded and smiled at Quentin.
It wasn’t as real as before.
“I’ll talk to her,” Eliot said, before biting into his sandwich. That was all he had to say about that. But it was worth the strenuous effort to be calm, flimsy as it was and would ever be, at the tiny grin that crossed Quentin’s face. Like he was pleased. Like he was proud of Eliot. It made stomach swoop.
He was pathetic.
With an exaggerated swallow of his food, Eliot pointed over at Quentin’s half-finished grilled cheese with a wider smile. Still false, but at least far more fun.
“So, what filter are we going to use on this bad boy?” Eliot waggled his eyebrows as he opened his phone, to a nonexistent Instagram app. He wasn’t on social media. “I think we want one that will highlight the processed orange the most, no?”
Quentin rolled his eyes and grumbled, “Please don’t take stylized pictures of my sandwich to spite Julia. I just wanna eat.”
“You never let me have any fun,” Eliot said, throwing a french fry into Quentin’s hair. The teasing middle finger he got back sparked wider, happier, and more delirious smiles on both their faces, traded back and forth before conversation started to flow with ease.
It was like it had never gone away.
Disposable coffee cups in hand, Eliot and Quentin walked the quad, taking the long way toward the library.
The trees were still, with only a small breeze passing through. The sun shone bright on them, without a hint of the freeze overtaking the rest of the world in that moment. He’d never admit it aloud, but sometimes Eliot missed the change of seasons. It was why he was so insistent on quarterly parties celebrating the passage of time, even if Brakebills itself was about as temperate as Southern California. They did have more rain, he thought absently, staring up at the green leaves overheard. It kept the grounds lush throughout the year.
Quentin, meanwhile, was struggling with grasping some unrelated, yet very basic concepts.
“So it’s a Christmas party,” he said, bringing the black lip of his cup to his mouth, smile forming stubbornly. Eliot sighed.
“No, it’s a winter party,” he said, poking Q on the shoulder once for emphasis. He stood tall as they walked, dragging his usual cigarette up to his lips. “I’d never be so gauche as to celebrate Christmas, my god.”
Quentin’s big eyes frowned, childlike. “Even secularly?”
“Especially secularly,” Eliot said, shaking his arms out like he needed to get the idea off his person. “It’s so gauche.”
“Gauche things are fun,” Quentin said, surprising Eliot not with his words but by taking the cigarette from his hands and smoking it. “You’re missing out on so much.”
His eyes floated down and watched Quentin’s lips wrap around the place his own lips had just been. Everything was a little too hot and dry, his chest too tight. He wondered if he’d ever forget what it felt like to have Quentin’s body under his hands. Ever forget exactly what that mouth felt like, soft and gasping against his. How his pulse raced when they touched—
Shit. Quentin was still talking. He needed to focus.
“You could have, like, candy canes and mistletoe,” Quentin said with a big smile and bright eyes, blissfully unaware of how Eliot’s gaze dropped, again, ever briefly to his lips. But maybe he had a point. “And—and a gingerbread decorating contest? You have to like gingerbread. It’s the law.”
Eliot snorted, a choreographed thing, and took his cigarette back. He tilted it skyward and breathed out smoke like a languous cloud.
“Slippery slope may be a fallacy,” he said, anticipating the shithead off the bat. He was rewarded with a Quentin eye roll and smirk. “But if I allow even a single strand of tinsel into the Cottage, I’m certain I’ll wake up wearing K-Mart cargo pants. I’m sorry, but it’s how it has to be.”
Quentin threw his coffee cup into the magical void and shrugged. “Cargo pants are great.”
“I’m sure they are,” Eliot said, placing a condescending hand on his shoulder. “For you.”
At the real first touch between them in weeks, Quentin jolted, muscles tense. The blood drained from Eliot’s face and his stomach shuddered with uncertainty. But just as he was about to snatch his hand back, like he had touched a burning oven, Q relaxed in toward him with a happy little hum, their hips touching.
A wave of warmth coursed through his body and every color went blinding bright. He swallowed and pushed his luck, sliding his arm across the expanse of his firm back and wrapping his fingers around him, like a hug. He brushed his thumb up and down the soft fabric, imagining the soft skin underneath.
Then Quentin smiled up at him and the world disappeared.
But in cold reality, the library loomed ahead and it took all his willpower not to gather him into his chest and steal him away, so he never left his sight again. The only consolation was that Quentin also obviously in no hurry to get to work, shuffling his feet and angling even more toward Eliot, his smile turning to a tease. Flirtatious, an annoying back part of Eliot’s brain whispered, stupid and hopeful against all good reason.
“You’re missing out on the pocket space,” Quentin said, quietly. His eyes popped up at Eliot from beneath his lashes. “I can carry, like, all my keys and a book and, uh, you know, anything else I might need that’s also, um, pocket-sized.”
He was so cute. Eliot wanted to devour him, to rip his clothes off and get drunk on his skin. Sharing his atmosphere was exquisite torture. Eliot was such an idiot. He was such a fool.
By then, they were standing on the juncture where the pathway met the library step’s concrete. But they may as well have been on another world altogether for what Eliot gave a fuck about in the moment, with Quentin’s big eyes looking up at him, steady and true. His chest squared toward him, the scent of his cheap minty shampoo and stale smoke wafting in the breeze. His cheeky little expression. Fuck, Eliot had missed every part of him. Still missed too much of him.
( “Eliot,” Quentin breathed against his lips, thumb tracing against the grain of his stubble. “El, you feel so good.”
He kissed him again and again, tongue curling with his. Eliot’s palms traveled up his sides, relishing the lines of his muscles, the soft fabric of his shirt, how even the sand and the seabreeze was nothing but Quentin Quentin Quentin... )
Emboldened without cause, Eliot took another step into his space, watching Q’s eyes darken and heat with wonder. It was a terrible idea, to stoke these fires again. But fuck.
He was just a man.
“You could also carry cutlery,” Eliot said, nonsensically but who gave a shit. His voice was little more than a murmur. “In your pockets.”
Quentin’s breath hitched and his smile went soft. “Good example.”
“I’m chock full of good examples,” he said with a swallow, probably audible, gulping. Wanting. He let out a shaky breath and his heart sped up as Quentin took another step in, making the space between them even smaller. Even closer.
“Yeah?” Q’s eyes didn’t move from his and Eliot couldn’t remember what oxygen even was.
“Yeah,” Eliot croaked out, seeing nothing but Quentin. Quentin, Quentin, Quentin . With a jerky and unsteady motion, his hand reached out and lightly touched the corner of his elbow, a tingling burn on his fingertips. “Hey, blow off studying.”
The shutter closed back over Quentin’s eyes. Shit. He averted his gaze and licked his lips, and Eliot wondered if he could claw his words back with his bloodied hands.
“I shouldn’t,” Quentin said quietly, not backing away, but brows pinching with another hint of hesitation.
Eliot tightened his grip, not too much, but enough to keep him where he was. But when his fingers wrapped around his arm, Quentin’s eyes fluttered shut and delirious Eliot almost dipped his lips down on his.
He was pretty sure he could have, that it would have made his point, that Q would have responded the way he wanted (wanted, fuck, he wanted.) At the same time, it wasn’t actually what he was going for, no matter how much all his instincts were screaming at him to follow through, follow through, fucking follow through. He wasn’t actually totally stupid, contrary to most evidence. Deep down, he knew was the easy path to losing Quentin, forever. Not worth it.
… But you know, he was still pretty stupid. And stubborn.
“Do it anyway. Come on,” Eliot said with a cajoling grin. His thumb found another rounded groove under the worn fabric of the trusty sweatshirt. He pressed into it. “We could go for a walk?”
Quentin’s eyes lit up with something unfamiliar before they dipped down to the brick pathway, his hand curving up to rest on his own neck. He shook his head. “El, I—”
Urgency ripped through him like a lion’s claw. He forced a nonchalant and breathy laugh, lightly shaking his arm with a too-big smile. “Oh, come on —”
But the moment wasn’t meant to last, as a booming laugh and a commanding voice interrupted from overhead, calling out with geniality. The greeting wrapped around them like a lasso that pulled and separated.
Quentin blanched, withdrawing immediately. He snapped his arm away from Eliot and took three large steps backwards, hugging himself. Eliot didn’t even have the time to be concerned when a large, warm hand rested on his shoulder.
“Eliot Waugh, as I live and breathe,” the familiar voice laughed and it only took him a moment to turn his head and register the handsome face of Idri, the King of Encanto Oculto. The one he had definitely, totally planned on fucking but had never, well...
Gotten around to fucking.
“Idri,” Eliot said, blinking in surprise. He wasn’t overly fond of surprises, but this one was pleasant at least. He smiled and offered the man a quick, tight hug. “What are you doing here?”
Pulling away as fast as Eliot had reeled him in, Idri’s nuanced eyes—bright and deep as he remembered—looked him up and down, before laughing again, like he remembered a joke. He was dressed in a blue and gray suit, looking far more the competent professional he naturally exuded than the absurd (and sexy) furs he wore in Ibiza.
He really was a fine looking man, he mused absently. With that thought though, Eliot swallowed tightly, suddenly acutely aware of Quentin again.
Q had opened his bag and was shuffling through his mess of papers, like he was looking for something. Eliot highly suspected it was a ruse, borne of social anxiety and maybe—just maybe—something else. A stone of guilt fell into his stomach, when he realized that a tiny and petty and fucked up part of him hoped Q’s sudden retreat was from jealousy.
Really tiny. Practically minuscule.
Eliot shook his head to clear his thoughts and painted on a soft smile. He was being stupid again. No time for that.
Luckily, if Idri picked up on the change in his mood, he didn’t let on. Instead, he smiled with his bright white teeth and pointed back toward the admin building.
“Henry Fogg and I are good friends. We have some business to attend to, nothing interesting,” Idri said with a shake of his stately head. His eyes finally moved from Eliot to smile gently at Q, who was still neck deep in his bag and shifting on his feet. “Good to see you again, Quentin.”
“Yeah, same,” Quentin said, flat and without looking up. Then he sighed and closed his bag, fortress eyes meeting Eliot’s. “Hey, so, uh, I’m gonna head out.”
The panic exploded in his gut. “But I thought we were—?”
“I really shouldn’t,” Quentin said, his face impassive and chuckle forced. He gave Idri a quick line-mouthed smile. “Plus, this way, you two can catch up.”
Chest wrenching in and out with labored breath, Eliot was a crazed half-second from grabbing him tight and begging him to stay. But all he could manage was a creaky, unstable: “Q—”
“Hope your meetings go well, Idri,” Quentin said, placidly enough as he turned around and walked away. He didn’t look at Eliot again. “I’ll, uh, see you both around.”
The air was colder when the library door slammed and Eliot was certain that he fucked up again.
But left alone with Idri, he forced himself to be sociable. He at least had that. He always had that. Eliot raised his eyebrows, holding his hands behind his back as he met his friend’s eyes again. They were a little more puzzled now and maybe a touch exasperated. They stared through Eliot with a look that belied more knowledge than he intended to share.
“He’s a nervous one, isn’t he?” Idri said, though it sounded like it wasn’t all he meant. But he didn’t elaborate when Eliot frowned with a question in his eyes. He just adjusted his tie and smiled at the ground, before turning his head in profile to gaze upon the campus, unperturbed.
“Occasionally,” Eliot responded vaguely, not wanting to dwell on the topic. Then he smiled, shifting course like a pro. “Now, if I had known you were in town, I would have invited you to lunch.”
He would have. Idri was a good connection, in many ways.
“And I would have had to decline,” Idri said, matching his expression. He always mirrored people. It was a good social tactic. “Far too much going on in my corner of the world. But a late dinner perhaps? Tonight?”
Eliot offered a small wince, a polite sadness. “I’m hosting, at the Physical Kids Cottage.”
“A party?” Idri sounded more intrigued by a grad school drinking fest than a middle-aged man should, but Eliot judged no kinks.
“If you’re not opposed to fraternizing with the underlings, you should join us,” he offered, not really expecting him to take him up on it. But surprising him, Idri brightened and eagerly nodded.
“Why, of course, Your Majesty,” he said with a small bow, one arm pressed firm behind his back. His eyes danced up at Eliot and a small wave of attraction ran through him. Gentle, pleasant. Dull. But it was enticing, in its relative safety.
Idri stood straight again and laughed, “From what I understand, I’m on the uncontested sovereign land of the Prince of Brakebills.”
“Ah,” Eliot said, finally putting out what was left of his cigarette. He threw over a shit-eating grin. “So you and Henry have talked about me.”
Prince of Brakebills was probably not the first descriptor Dean Henry Fogg would use in regard to Eliot.
A few of the more relevant turns of phrase included the A+ alliterative, Arrogant adolescent alcoholic . There was also, Biggest pain in the ass this school has ever seen . One time, Too damn smart and so damn stupid at the same goddamn time . Oh, and his personal favorite, the time Fogg had been talking to Sunderland in a hallway, pointed at a passing—and truly innocent—Eliot, to say, Don’t get me started on that asshole .
Idri let out a booming laugh and fixed Eliot with a wry and winking look. “He certainly feels strongly about you, I can say that.”
“True love, baby,” Eliot quipped and Idri rewarded him with another full laugh. It was nice.
“Well, I would never get between the two of you, but I would be honored to attend a true Eliot Waugh party,” the Encanto King said, before taking one step closer in. His cologne smelled nice, like rosewood and myrrh. “Maybe after, we could… talk. Just the two of us. There’s something I want to propose.”
His eyes were low, fixed on his neck and Eliot’s heart pounded with dread more than desire. It was a weird fucking day. But he knew how to play the game—he was a master at the goddamn game—so he smiled, dazzling, and lowered his own voice, enticing.
“By all means,” Eliot said, before sliding his hand around Idri’s shoulder and walking them through campus, the conversation light and easy and dull and nice.—
Hours later, preparations were in full-swing, one of Eliot’s favorite states of being. The fizz of magic in the air. The fizz of champagne in glasses. Telekinesis whirling and whirring about. Bottles and lights and music and streams of liquor all dancing like fountains, all moving toward a joint goal of pleasure.
The heady anticipation of a good party—the spark of potential in the air—always made Eliot’s veins run hot, ready to unwrap the mystery of the night. Yet still… always, always wanting to hold off, ever so gentle, ever so subtle. That way he could prolong the sweet release in the build-up, the chaos, the order. The shock wave of fulfillment would come in good time and all the better for the delay, with rapture and bliss taking over all senses.
Eliot took a quick shot of tequila, another taste test.
He was half-hard in his pants.
There was maybe a slight chance he was still slightly sexually frustrated.
It was fine.
Obviously, of course, duh, it would be better if he could get it up for his usual array of willing and eager first year boys or even Idri, who had been pretty fucking obvious about his intentions, or really, anyone who wasn’t—
He bit down on his teeth, almost snarling. Eliot didn’t like to dwell on what should have been. It was always better to exist in what was. And it was fine. It was fine.
It was fine.
It was going to be a great fucking party. That was what mattered.
Anyway, in more pertinent matters, he had gotten so caught up in observing the glory of his own work, that he’d forgotten all about Alice Quinn. That is, until she was storming down the stairs, fire blue eyes focused on him in her enraged fury. As always these days, she looked like the most dangerous person in the world.
Her Mary Janes stomped on the hardwood and she stood in front of him, looking at him dead in the eyes for the first time in almost a month. She glared stone cold, and the ticking clock of the bomb grew louder in his ear. He hoped he hadn’t just sped things up.
Mostly because it would be kind of inconvenient. With the party and all.
Her pink lips pressed down into a line and she crossed her arms. Two little creases formed between her brows and she shook her hips, the black skirt of her babydoll dress swishing as she did.
“Eliot, may I speak with you please?” Alice said, clipped. His throat closed over itself as his heart dropped.
But before he could collect himself enough to respond, she glanced over at the lovebirds on the couch behind him—wrapped up in themselves more than anything Eliot was doing. She softened, going hesitant herself.
She bit her lip. “Hello, Julia. Margo.”
Bambi’s response was bored, at worst. Nothing different than usual, with a yawn and a lazy wave. “Hey Elsa.”
But Julia glanced up at her and offered nothing more than an aggressive smile before looking away like no intrusion had ever impeded her. Alice deflated, but shook her head and turned her cautious eyes back on Eliot.
“May I speak with you?” She repeated, tapping her foot. She sucked her cheeks in and cleared her throat. “In private?”
Eliot stared down at his cranberry mint julep pitcher, as though it would anthropomorphically speak out in defense. Like, Sorry, Alice, but Eliot has to attend to me, a sentient drink that will be thoughtlessly devoured by blood-thirsty revelers, and whoa, this got dark, huh? But alas, his salvation never came. Traitorous cocktail.
So instead, he put down the shaker and nodded, a quick and confident thing before following her over to the nook of the hallway.
He let out a long stream of air from his lips as he walked the plank.
Earlier, he had sent her a small token of his affection and esteem. She wouldn’t talk to him, so it had been the only way to reach her. But by the stormy and enraged look on her face, it hadn’t necessarily been taken in the spirit it was meant. The sick pool of dread at the pit of his stomach grew and grew.
… She was probably going to murder-blast him into another world before the year was out. He should go kiss Margo once, as a bittersweet farewell.
The low light of the cramped corner played shadows off her face. Her lower lip was minced between her teeth by the time she stood still, facing him with tight fists.
“Did you use psychic magic on me?” Alice blurted out. It was the last question he expected. He should have been used to the strange nonsequiturs by now, but his eyebrows disappeared into his curls regardless.
Eliot frowned and responded the only way he could, no matter how much it made him sound like Q. “Uh, what?”
“For the flowers,” Alice clarified, stomping her foot once. Her face was lined in accusation. “Did you use psychic magic?”
A flare of defensive pride lit up in his stomach and he matched her crossed arms measure for measure. He snorted. “I can’t stress enough that I would never use psychic magic. Even if I was capable, it’s the principle of the thing.”
“Then how did you know that pink roses are my favorite?” Alice asked, jutting her chin upward, like she had finally caught him in his dark web of lies.
The cold tension in his body melted and his heart expanded with a rush of affection for her. He had missed her.
“Call it a lucky hunch,” he said, his arms falling to his side with a soft smile. Alice sniffed, her eyes flashing through a thousand complex emotions before she puckered her lips.
She sniffed again.
“They’re lovely. Thank you,” Alice said, brushing non-existent dust from her skirt. “I plan on using a preserving charm on them.”
“I’m glad, Alice,” Eliot said, risking a soft press of his hand to her bare arm. She flinched away like his touch was acid. Okay.
Her dark brows lowered over her neon eyes. “You were a huge jerk to me.”
Eliot swallowed down his instinct to say, Maybe you shouldn’t be sleeping with the enemy then . He closed his eyes and cracked his neck, taking a deep breath. It was time to turn over new leaves, grow whole new species of flora if he fucking had to.
“I know,” he said, with as much remorse as he could muster. He did feel bad for having hurt Alice. She was a good person and had been a good friend. Her piss poor taste in partners had nothing to do with anything.
Repeat, repeat, repeat.
Alice adjusted her glasses and peered up at him. “Is that your apology?”
“The apology was on the card,” Eliot said tight and through his teeth, refusing to say the words she wanted aloud. Come the fuck on.
“No, it wasn’t,” Alice said, her nose scrunching and lips twisting. “The card just said, To my favorite blonde. xx Eliot .”
He wanted a cigarette. But Alice always got pissy when he smoked cigarettes. His fingers twitched at his side.
“Exactly,” Eliot said with a shrug. Alice’s whole face narrowed to an angry point.
“That’s not an apology. It’s a nothing,” she said, heading ticking back and forth every other word. “At worst, it’s borderline objectifying.”
Eliot sighed, rubbing his hands down his face. “It was obviously implied.”
“Apologies aren’t something you imply.”
“Look, Alice,” he growled out, throwing a fist up to his temple. He gave her the most serious look he could. “You know how I feel about Kady and what happened. Or, at least, you understand in theory. Frankly, as someone who wasn’t there, I’m not sure you can totally, truly, honestly get it. But—“
But Alice frowned, cutting him off. “That’s fair.”
Eliot blinked, trying to hide his surprise at her agreement. He failed. “Wait, really?”
She nodded, eyes unfocused as though in thought. “Yes. It’s easy for me to come in months later, only hearing stories and knowing that Quentin is fine, and judge your lingering distrust as an overreaction.”
Eliot licked his lips, pulse thumping. “Yeah.”
Alice tilted her head, like a mechanical doll. “I’m sure actually experiencing it was harrowing. I’ve grown to care about Quentin too and the thought of someone hurting him, even by accident, is definitely—“
“I don’t want to talk about that,” Eliot spat out, nausea building from his stomach and reaching—scratching—up his throat. He averted his eyes and felt his jaw muscles pop arrhythmic. He started to pull away, when a gentle French manicured hand landed on his forearm.
“I’m sorry,” Alice said, quietly. Then she set her jaw again, eyes flashing with strength and resolve. “Not for dating Kady. I think you also need to understand that I am coming from a different perspective and it’s one that is just as valid as yours.”
He knew it was. He knew it. But he couldn’t—he couldn’t admit that. Not yet. Maybe not ever.
But he cared about her. Because for whatever fucking dumb reason he had allowed his heart to open again, since he truly was so stupid. So instead of choking out some meaningless platitude, he just nodded, not looking at her. It was the best he could do.
“But I don’t think I considered yours enough either,” she said, letting her blonde hair fall in front of her face, like a shield. So much like Q. “Because it was painful and confusing. I was finding happiness and your pain didn’t fit that. It’s a hard reality to face.”
Eliot’s chest tightened, though he wasn’t sure with what. “Alice—“
“I’m willing to let bygones be bygones, if you are,” she said, looking him in the eyes. The light in her was blinding, even as her fingers fidgeted. “I’ve—I’ve missed you.”
He could tell that was as hard for her to say as it would be for him. That sparked his own real smile and he tapped her hand with his, a gentle affirmation. She sneaked a tiny grin up at him in turn. She turned her palm over and held his hand, a firm pressure and promise.
She was so lovely.
(He ignored the angry screaming in his roiling gut, the cold rush of anger curling his toes. He was better than his worst instincts.)
(... He could try to be better than his worst instincts.)
“I’m having a party at the Cottage tonight,” Eliot said, hand squeezing hers. “If you… and Kady would like to attend, I would be happy to welcome you both.”
Alice twisted her lips, genuinely perplexed. “You can’t really invite us to a party held at our own home.”
“I’m trying here, Alice,” Eliot said, cupping her cheek with his free hand and sighing. Thankfully, it made her smile.
“Okay,” she said, almost shy. She nodded and squeaked. “We’ll be there.”
“Great,” he said, bringing her knuckles up to his lips and kissing once. “It’s a date.”
She smiled like the sun and Eliot ignored, ignored, ignored the bubbling fury building in his chest. This was a good thing. All was well. Or at least, the storm had passed.
... Sure, let's go with that.
As the music crested and the lights dipped low, the party thrummed around him as Eliot put the finishing touches on his first cocktail of the night, an edible holly leaf garnish enchanted to taste like winsomeness. He cast his gaze around, taking in the splendor.
Apropos of nothing, he definitely considered it a sign of personal growth that the snowflakes glittering down from the Cottage ceiling were one of his lovely illusion charms, rather than cocaine. Last time, that hadn’t gone so well and thus, he learned his lesson. Cause and effect, and all that.
Maturity, thy name was Eliot Waugh.
Because even without* nose candy, the party was a smash. It was perfectly raucous and glittering with magic, both real and from the inherent energy of a crowd. Laughter pealed out happily and beautiful bodies writhed as they danced, giddy and tipsy in all the best ways. He had pulled it off, again. Not that he expected less, but it still felt damn good.
(*Okay, more like without quite as easily accessible nose candy . Come on, it wasn’t the sixteenth century. No puritans in sight, thank you very much.)
He savored his victory and sipped his wintery julep. It was sweet and bitter to taste, with a magical firewood scent wafting off the top as the coup de grace.
But it wasn’t long until his gaze betrayed him.
Without conscious effort, Eliot passed over all the gorgeous details, the rising smoke and tricks of light. He looked passed the disco balls and the elaborate ice sculptures and the makeshift early orgy by the fire. He even only briefly stopped to look at his Bambi, who was decked out in black fur and thigh-high boots like a goddamn queen. Because even with that grounding sight, he was barely able to keep his own limbs steady as his synapses fired out, overwhelmed.
His party was an unprecedented success, but all he cared to look at was a sweet nerd in a tweed sports coat and blue button down, frowning up at the falling fake snow like it held all the mysteries of magic.
With his hands in a frame and a small notepad on his lap, Quentin looked at the spell from every angle, trying to solve it, even though he knew all he had to do was ask Eliot for the incantation, specifications, and circumstances. But that wasn’t Q. He had to figure it out himself, right there, squatting on a couch, the centered and studious calm in the middle of a rollicking party.
Eliot loved him.
Not a revelation or anything, but there it was.
He tore his eyes away, his heart reluctant but brain reasonable. Nothing had changed. If anything, everything had gotten way worse and proved his original point. But still. But still . It was there, no matter what he did.
Water wet, sky blue, Eliot cliched.
Sending his glass off to the kitchen, he took a deep breath and swallowed the feeling away. Weakness acknowledged, he thought, on autoplay. The words were more hollow than usual, but he shook it off. Really, the world had seen enough sentimental maudlin nonsense from him for the next good decade.
Time to buck the fuck up.
Thankfully, Eliot didn’t need to dwell on it much longer because a strong arm wrapped around his shoulder and a booming warm laugh filled his ear.
“Oh, Eliot,” Idri said, grinning at him without further adieu. He squeezed his arm tight. “This is well done . Well done, indeed.”
A bubble of happiness rose in his chest at the praise and Eliot pressed a quick kiss to the top of Idri’s bald head, a warm and grateful affection. “I live to serve.”
“Is this for a special occasion?” Idri asked, surveying the room with a keen gaze. “How long did you plan?”
“Spur of the moment,” Eliot answered honestly, calling over two new glasses. The men clinked happily before drinking. “I felt like the campus needed some cheering up, et voila.”
“Your reputation is well deserved,” Idri said, before ducking his head with serious eyes. “And well earned. Please know that at least one person recognizes your tireless work here.”
God, if that recognition didn’t feel good.
It always took so much out of him, to create these beautiful diversions. But he had so carefully perfected his effortless way, that all his work and care seemed lost on even the people closest to him. His throat tightened with feeling as he took a sip of his drink and nodded, forcing himself to stand tall. Idri deserved nothing less.
“I appreciate that,” Eliot said. Idri patted his shoulder and pulled away, twirling toward the dance floor.
“Join me for a spin?” Idri asked, holding out his hand. Eliot sighed and shook his head, hoping he looked regretful.
“A host’s work is never done,” he said, stretching his arms out wide. It was half-truthful. He did like to keep a close eye on things. But really, he just didn’t… want to dance with Idri. Couldn’t even imagine it.
His heart ached.
( Their lips almost touched before Quentin hummed out a laugh and settled his cheekbone against his .
“You’re a good dancer, El,” he whispered against his ear lobe .)
At Idri’s final laugh and wave as the crowd swept him away, Eliot finished his drink with shaky hands.
He placed the glass on a stone coaster, because he wasn’t sure he’d find the path to the kitchen at the moment. He rested his hip against the edge of the coffee table to catch his breath. He stood in his weakness, the tear and pull of his chest, before he gave into his temptation and stole a look over to what he always wanted to see.
But Quentin was gone.
No matter how raucous and debaucherous a party, once everyone was good and drunk, it was common for tiny pockets of friends to form along couches and floors.
Of course, Eliot was a dynamic creature at heart. But once he settled into a celebration, even he could admit the quiet joy of a group giggling over magical weed. And right then, the world was soft enough along the edges, in the Cottage’s golden light, that even he could admit that the urge to connect, human-to-human, was stronger than any drug or any dancefloor could ever hope to be.
It was equal parts tipsy bullshit and fundamental truth. His favorite.
Seated on the floor with his elbows on the couch behind him and beside Idri, Eliot took in the pink-flushed and happy faces of his friends—plus some randoms and Todd—as they argued over Bambi’s contribution to the latest drinking game.
“They’re all lies,” Julia said with a cackling laugh, doubling over onto her crossed legs. “You’re a fucking liar. You broke the game.”
Margo smirked and rolled her head back, smoking a joint between two perfectly straight fingers. “I’ll break anything I goddamn want, but two are true. I swear it.”
From beside her, Todd furrowed his stupid little plucked eyebrows and tapped his chin with an index finger. “Can you say them again? They were kinda long and I’m trying to form a calculation in my head, but—”
“No,” Bambi said, sliding her cool gaze over to him. Her red lips pursed and really, Todd should have seen this coming. “I don’t repeat myself.”
But from beside Julia, Quentin tucked his knees under his chin and frowned, staring off into the distance. “I think the lie is the one about the Russian circus. She always orders lattes at the coffee shop, so the detail about the semen in the macchiato throws the story off.”
He was right. The Russian story was total bullshit and Bambi had peppered in one small hint to give it away. Q was the Riddlemaster. Eliot tucked his lip between his teeth to hide a smile, swirling his melting ice in his glass as a distraction.
(There was still no sign of Alice, he realized, as he looked up and around the room. His chest clenched and winds blew in the distance.)
“Final answer, Coldwater?” Bambi’s face tilted into a sly serpent smile. Quentin stared into the abyss for two seconds before nodding.
“Correct!” Margo said with a bright yelp in the air, passing the joint over to Julia. She glared at her girlfriend, without heat. “I fuckin’ hate macchiatos. How do you not know this about me?”
“Well, to be fair, I genuinely thought they were all lies,” Julia said, relighting the tip of the joint with her tiny and quick fingers before puffing twice. Then she pulled her lips down into a sheepish, impish grimace, “But if that one wasn’t, I thought it was maybe, like, the origin story of why you hate macchiatos?”
That made Margo laugh, a true and happy sound, and she rested her forehead on Julia’s shoulder.
“No, they’re just bad,” she said. Her eyes twinkled when she looked up and scrunched her nose in Julia’s face, before she turned her slightly less warm eyes over to Quentin. “But okay, your turn, Q. Everyone else take a shot or a toke.”
Eliot opted for bourbon, courtesy of the small grouping of shot glasses next to Idri’s feet. He and Margo preferred drinking games that got everyone drunker sooner than later.
“Okay,” Quentin said, rubbing his hands together. His eyes brightened as he looked around, small smile on his face. He was always all in when it came to games. “I’ve got some good ones.”
“They have to actually be good, Quentin,” Margo said, exasperated. “Not whatever you think good is.”
He twisted his face and glared at her. “Uh, I understand the rules.”
“No, dipshit, I mean don’t be a boring nerd,” she said, leaning over and swatting at his foot. “At least two of them have to be personal and not your opinions on sci-fi and fantasy.”
It was an extremely fair restriction to put on him.
“Fine,” Quentin said with a deep frown, passing the joint to Eliot without smoking. The gears in his head turned and Eliot could see him recalibrating as their fingers brushed against each other. “Fine. Give me a second then.”
After a moment, Q took a deep breath and sat up, pulling his legs under him into one of his weird, uncomfortable looking squats that he loved so much. “Alright. So, uh, the first one is that despite my dating record, I consider myself a solid 2.5 or 3 on the Kinsey scale. The second is that my least favorite season of Buffy is season six—”
“That’s the only one, Q,” Margo warned, cutting him off. He flipped her off.
“—and the final one is that I once got stuck in a bowling gutter for three hours and now most of my nightmares are in some way or another, uh, bowling alley related.”
Ah. The Bowling Incident. Definitely a truth. Eliot popped the joint in his mouth and breathed in. He tried not to get too soppy at the idea of a tiny Quentin, sweet and melancholy and just so terrible at anything that required gross motor skills. He had probably been wishing he could play with his cards the whole time until someone forced him to take a turn, forever solidifying his hatred of anything even slightly athletic. It was too adorable. It made his whole body light up with affection.
Meanwhile, Julia played to win, so she snorted and kicked at Q, devious smile on her face. “Jesus, you made it too easy. Kinsey is the lie.”
“Final answer?” Quentin asked, impassive. He had the best poker face. It was hot. At his cool and expressionless face, Julia started to open her mouth, smug and wide, when words poured out of Eliot before he could stop them.
“I’m gonna contest that,” he said, and Quentin’s stare popped over to him, still not giving anything away. Julia frowned and crossed her arms. Eliot cleared his throat. “Ah, I think Buffy is the lie.”
“Explain your reasoning,” Julia said, annoyed. Eliot shrugged.
“Season six is his secret favorite,” he said through another puff of the joint before passing it to Idri. He could have sworn he saw Quentin’s lips quirk up. “He hates season four. He doesn’t even like Hush because of its ‘context.’ Which is bonkers, for the record.”
Idri frowned and tilted his head. “I think season four is underrated.”
“It’s not,” Quentin spat out, giving himself away. Julia deflated and gave Eliot a sharp, slightly too intense glare, before shrugging at Q and downing a shot.
“Guess I’m not up on my Quentin nerd facts,” she said, deceptively light. “I’ll have to do a refresher course.”
“El’s turn,” Quentin said, not quite looking at him as he smiled at his hands. “This should be good.”
“Except I’m not playing,” Eliot said with a long sigh. He kicked his legs out into the center of the circle, impervious to the jeers and boos around him. It had all been fun to watch, but he wasn’t up for spinning any stories.
But then a particularly devious thought hit him and he turned to his least favorite member of the group with an innocent glow in his eyes. “Todd, it’s a real shame that you haven’t gone yet. Take one for the team, hm?”
He had told Idri all about how ridiculous Todd was. It was time for him to see it in action, since he didn’t quite believe it. Apparently, Henry Fogg had raved about Todd as one of the brightest minds at Brakebills. He had even said he was a real possible successor to the deanship, somewhere down the road.
“Wow. Yeah, I’d love to. Thanks, Eliot!” Todd said with a big, bright smile.
Eliot caught eyes with Idri and snorted. The older man’s lips spasmed once, before he set his face forward, in a serious listening pose. Todd held his hands out excitedly and he bounced his knees, as he thought through his two truths and a lie, with every ounce of effort in his worthless brain.
Eventually, he took the last deep breath he would die quite some time… and Idri’s eyebrows raised higher and higher up his smooth head as the monologuing commenced:
“Okay, so my first one is that one time, I was super into this girl, right? Even though my mom was like, I’m not sure about her, Toddy, she seems like a not nice girl and I said, Mom, fucking chill, bro. Well, no, I didn’t say that, I’m a good son. But it would have been funny, right? Calling my mom bro ? Classic. Anyway, I told her that she didn’t need her to worry because Nina—her name was Nina, so sometimes I called her mi niña and she really hated that, like, a lot. Anyways, then she said she was, uh, in need of a kidney? Urgently? Like, she needed a kidney in two days, she said?”
One breath broke through.
“To be totally real with you guys, I gotta day she didn’t seem super sick, but I had recently learned that it’s ableist to assume that someone isn’t sick just because they don’t look sick. Important stuff, not making light of it. Truth to power. Anyway, so because I didn’t want to be ableist, I didn’t question it. Meaning, obviously, since I was in love with her and wanted to do her a solid, I magically extracted my kidney and gave it to her, uh, in a Disney’s Tangled themed cooler. It was pink with Rapunzel and a pretty good looking dude, for a cartoon, standing back-to-back with their arms crossed and her hair was, like, holding a bunch of shit and there was a frog on her shoulder or something? I’ve never seen that movie. Anyways—”
“What the hell?” Julia narrowed her eyes and coughed over the joint. “This is the lie, right?”
“It’s way too specific to be a lie,” Margo said, head tilted like she was observing a distasteful old timey freak show.
“—spoiler alert! She sold it,” Todd finished with big wide eyes and a laugh. Idri took a long sip of his drink and sparked a quick amused glance at Eliot as the absurd speciman of a human kept fucking talking.
“Anyway, my second truth or lie is that when I was five, I had, like, a major epidemic of warts. But it turned out, they were magical warts and it was really, uh, how I discovered that I had a reserve of energy within me, even though I couldn’t do magic until my second semester at Brakebills—”
“How the fuck did you pass The Trials?” Quentin asked, face scrunched in genuine confusion and interest.
“That’s a whole other story, way less interesting than my magic warts though,” Todd said, starting to take off his shoes. “Here, I’ll show you what I mean, because the leftover scars are a real befuddlement in and of themselves—”
“Todd,” Margo said, sharply. “What’s the thing I always say about you? You’re doing it again.”
His shoulders slumped and his smile dimmed a little. “That I say three boring things every time I open my mouth.”
“That’s right,” Margo said, purring. “So let’s be a little more efficient.”
Todd brought hands up to his lips, palms flat against each other like a prayer. He bowed once and quickly. “You’re very terrifying.”
Margo shimmied her shoulders. “I know. Be better.”
A hit of wit slammed into Eliot’s chest and he winked at Idri. He’d appreciate this, if the barely concealed laughter swimming in his tense muscles was any indication.
“Hmm, that works out. Because that’s definitely his lie,” he said, wrapping his lips around a newly appeared bong with perfect suction. He was well practiced. He breathed in, bubbling, before tilting his head back and letting the magic smoke course into his lungs. He blew fireworks out his mouth.
“He doesn’t say three boring things every time he opens his mouth,” Eliot clarified with a wicked grin. “Not at all.”
Todd shook his head, smiling sycophantically. “I really, really appreciate the kind words, but that wasn’t actually my final Truth or Lie story. It’s just something Margo makes me acknowledge whenever I—”
Rakish as he ever was, Eliot handed the bong over to the next set of hands, before fluttering his lashes right at Todd’s dumb face.
“But I know you would never limit yourself like, not when you obviously have such infinite boring stories to regale us with,” he said, leaning back on his palms and cracking his neck. His smile widened. “I believe in you, Todd.”
Idri lost it, the laughter tumbling out along with residual smoke. Across from him, Margo ran her tongue over her smiling teeth, giggling back. Todd’s eyes dipped down briefly, before popping back up at Eliot, good-humored as ever. He was such a chump.
“That’s a good one, Eliot,” he said, wringing his hands and nodding. He swallowed, looking off to the side. “I especially like how you brought in what I say to people in the morning. Extra clever. Kudos, man.”
Meanwhile, Idri placed his big hand on the space between his upper thigh and knee, and gave Eliot the biggest smile he’d seen yet, with an edge of desire in his eyes. “You weren’t joking when you said you perfected the art of the bite.”
Eliot gasped, holding his hand to his chest, the rush of flirting pumping blood through his veins. “I would never joke about biting, good sir.”
“Jesus Christ, do you always have to be such a dickhead?”
He rolled his eyes at the inevitable wet blanket words, from the other side of the circle. Eliot snapped his face over at Julia with a sharp retort of his own on his tongue...
… Until reality settled on his teetering bones.
It hadn’t been her voice.
Blinking back blurred confusion, Eliot slowly turned his head until he met the hot and flashing stone eyes of a furious Quentin Coldwater.
Blood rushed and thumped in his ears as all his confidence reserves failed him. His voice was pathetically weak as he let out a small, nervous laugh.
“What?” Eliot swallowed, one hand splaying on the ground for stability and the other dipping into his waistcoat for his flask. He had a feeling he would need it.
“You’re being a dickhead,” Quentin repeated, more vicious than Eliot even knew he was capable of sounding. “Again.”
Eliot blinked, looking around the circle at the people he gave even a slight shit about. He saw Todd’s face jump into shock. Idri looked passively amused and concerned, and Margo’s eyes sharpened like a hunter, ready to pounce as necessary. Only Julia remained unmoved, as though this was nothing extraordinary. She pressed her lips into a line and kept her dark brown eyes on Quentin, steady and only slightly cautious.
Eliot forced another laugh, to diffuse the tension. “It’s—not that serious, Q.”
“Yeah, because nothing’s fucking serious to you,” Quentin said, spitting down into his fidgeting hands. His cheeks were burning red. “Do you understand that your words don’t exist in a vacuum? That they can affect and hurt people? I know in your head it’s always the fucking Eliot Waugh Show and we’re all supposed to act like we’re goddamn privileged to bear witness—”
Eliot was the master of self-berating, but he’d be damned if he was going to let one of his best parties be dragged down by this bullshit. He was sure he deserved whatever he’d done to spark this colossally cunty response from Quentin, and he fully acknowledged that. But it didn’t mean the others should have to put up with it.
“Quentin,” he said, keeping his voice low and firm. “Let’s talk in private, okay?”
But Quentin just laughed, a high-pitched and hysterical sound. Julia flinched, her hand reaching out to him, but he stood and pushed her away. He ran his fingers through his hair and glared down at Eliot, his teeth almost bared.
“No. Fuck that. I don’t want to talk to you,” Quentin snapped out, each word a lash against Eliot’s heart. He offered back a tight smile at Q, trying to keep his shit together, and he opened his flask. The liquor slid down his throat easily.
Which was good, because Quentin wasn’t done. “Everyone deserves better than your shit. Margo and Julia deserve better. Alice deserves better. Todd deserves better—”
At the siren call of his own name, Todd perked up. He walked over slowly, like he was approaching a scratchy cat in heat, and placed a tentative hand on Q’s shoulder. “Quentin, hey, I appreciate what you’re trying to do here, but it’s fine. Eliot and I are cool.”
“No, you’re not,” Quentin said, with a sputtering sound from the side of his mouth. “He fucking hates you, Todd.”
Todd recoiled like he was slapped, and that made Eliot want to slap the shit out of Quentin , mostly for making him feel sympathy for Todd of all fucking people . It certainly didn’t help that at Todd’s stricken expression, Quentin just threw his hands up in the air and shrugged like, Welp, what are you gonna do ?
Eliot narrowed his eyes and put on his best warning voice. “Q.”
“No, no. Eliot doesn’t—” Todd smiled, before it faltered, like he was thinking through the statement and reaching a brand new conclusion. He blinked and shook his head before turning mournful eyes right on him. “Wait, you—you hate me?”
Eliot wanted to say it was an overstatement.
He widened his eyes helplessly at Bambi, as though she could save him. “I—”
“Because I thought we were, like, friends,” Todd continued, his boyish face crumpling. “You know, friends who give each other shit. Or, well, where you give me shit, but I didn’t think—”
Quentin grabbed his drink from the floor and a finished all of it in a single gulp. He swallowed heavily and shook his head, finger wagging in the air. It was not a series of motions that portended good things.
“Oh, no, he hates you. I can personally expound on the many, many ways he hates you. And, uh, spoiler alert,” Quentin cupped his hands around his mouth and mock-whispered, “ all of them are really goddamn petty .”
“Oh,” Todd said, staggering backward. His face fell and Eliot felt like the biggest piece of shit.
… Well, the second biggest piece of shit, he thought pettily , glaring over at Quentin. But Q just stared him down, fully remorseless. The thick silence rang heavy in his ears and Quentin started to pace, snapping his eyes away from Eliot and wrenching his hand into his hair.
“But the real fucking problem—” he started to say, but a stronger presence cut him off, hard.
“Shut the fuck up, Quentin,” Margo said, flat and quiet. She stood without touching the ground, her eyes stabbing him. “You’re not accomplishing what you want to accomplish here.”
His shoulders slumped and he rubbed the space between his brows, sighing. Eliot felt an inexplicable rush of sympathy for him and an even more inexplicable urge to wrap his arms around him, to tell him that it was okay. But his pounding heart, furious and shell shocked, kept him grounded on the floor, drinking away the whole damn scene in front of him.
“I’m not trying to accomplish anything, Margo,” Quentin said, rough and low. “I’m—I’m just tired.”
“Then go to bed,” Bambi said, with neither warmth nor anger. Quentin didn’t give her the same courtesy.
“You know I meant existentially,” he snapped.
Margo’s most dangerous growl returned. “Go to bed anyway.”
“I don’t want to go to bed,” Quentin said, petulant as a motherfucker. It snapped Eliot out of his frozen numbness and a hot spike of anger ripped through him. He let out a cold laugh, expelling his freeze.
“Congratulations,” Eliot hissed up at him and Quentin’s face turned slowly toward him, uncharacteristically viper like. He didn’t care. “You’re as emotionally evolved as a toddler.”
Quentin smiled, a false and wide stretch of his mouth. He even showed his teeth, which was rare of an occurrence as anything. Somewhere deep in his chest, Eliot’s soul thrummed painfully, wishing he could have sparked a toothy smile from Q, for real, because he had made him so happy that he lost himself.
But that wasn’t reality. That wasn’t how the world worked. That wasn’t how it would ever work for someone like Eliot.
“There’s that award winning wit again!” Quentin said, clapping his hands like an actual shithead instead of the cute kind. He was manic. “Really, bravo, Eliot. You know, if you put even half that energy of yours into, I don’t know, not being a massive asshole —”
Eliot stood, looming over Quentin at his full height. He was no delicate flower, ready to lay down and take it. “I thought you said you were over that.”
“I guess you’re not the only practiced liar between us,” Q said, striding forward, angry heat rolling off him in tangible waves. Eliot ignored, ignored, ignored the arousal forming in the dizzy pit of his stomach and licked his lips, sharpening his eyes to a point so all he saw was fucking bratty, pissy, goddamn embarrassing Quentin Coldwater.
He kept his voice calm, with only the edge of an angry whisper. “What the fuck is that supposed to mean?”
The corner of Quentin lip twitched up toward his nose and his eyes set hard. But before he could spit out whatever bullshit was waiting on his tongue—the same tongue that had licked its way up the contours of Eliot’s neck, slid in and around his mouth like a tease, wrapped around his fingers as he sucked, eyes blazing up with a promise—Julia’s hand found its way between them. She tugged Q toward her, ripping him away from Eliot before either of them could do something stupid. And since Eliot was very, very ready to do something very, very stupid, it was probably for the best.
“Okay, Q. Here’s what we’re gonna do,” Julia said, taking exaggerated deep breaths in and out, like it might inspire him to breathe with her. “You and I are going to go upstairs and we’ll read some Fillory—”
“Oh my god, Julia,” Quentin threw his shoulders up to his ears and retreated, pacing away from her in a circle. “Back the hell off. I’m fine.”
Julia snorted, with the hint of an amused smile on her lips. “Yeah, you definitely seem fine.”
“I don’t need your patronizing bullshit right now,” Quentin said, flat and staring off at nothing. “I’m not your defective little pet.”
Her smile widened into a light warning. “Don’t lash out at me because you’re pissed at him.”
Behind her, Todd backed his way into the couch and sat down, arms wrapped around himself. Margo was pacing back and forth, glaring at everyone as intently as she could, like the sheer fury in her eyes would shut the world down. The only person who seemed to have no response at all was Idri. He was drinking and staring up at the ceiling, like he was listening to a half-interesting radio program.
“So is anyone ever going to tell me what the fuck is going on here?” Margo finally demanded, hands on her hips. Honestly, Eliot would have appreciated a primer himself, even if a small part of his trembling heart was whispering You know, you idiot . He didn’t know. Not really. And he wouldn’t know, especially if Quentin was going to keep refusing to talk to him, for real.
Quentin pressed his palms into his eyes and shook his head violently, smiling again, all teeth. It was unnerving.
“It’s nothing, Margo. I’ve just always been Julia’s little charity case,” Q said, with almost no inflection as he refused to look at anyone. “You know, her pathetic depressed friend that she gets to aggressively cheer up anytime he’s sad, which is always. It’s an easy way to get your do-gooder boner off. Right, Jules?”
Fuck, baby, stop , Eliot thought helplessly, taking a single step closer to him, like a magnet. Julia raked her hand through her hair as she nodded, eyes schooled on Quentin’s face. Her lips spliced into a hard smile before she reached behind her, grabbed her bag, and threw it over her shoulder. She stalked her way over to her best friend and turned her face up at him.
“Go the fuck to bed, Quentin,” she said quietly, before turning away and slamming the door behind her.
Margo muttered Shit under her breath and shot a quick apologetic look at Eliot, before disappearing hot on her girlfriend’s trail. Made sense. He was used to Margo running off after Julia by this point. It was the way the stage was set now.
(Quentin wasn’t the only one who was existentially tired.)
The silence was heavy and ringing again, but this time, a gentler voice broke it. Idri stood up and chuckled, that same warm sound thudding against the tension. He ran his hand across the back of Eliot’s shoulders and hummed, looking between the three remaining men, all in various states of distress.
“It appears we’ve reached that point in the drunken revelry where Queen Mab turns on our humors. Happens to the best of us, I know firsthand,” Idri said, brushing ash off his trousers. “So with that in mind, I shall bid you all adieu.”
Quentin finally lowered his hands from his eyes and blinked at Idri, still without expression.
“You know, you two really are perfect for each other,” he said, letting his mouth tilt down into an almost academic frown. “Neither of you can stand it if you’re not the center of attention for one goddamn second, huh?”
Eliot barked out a laugh. “Jesus, Q.”
But calm and collected Idri just smiled, slightly wane and fully sighing. “I sincerely hope all of your evenings improve. Especially yours, Quentin. Good night.”
“Bye,” Quentin said without inflection but certainly with a harsh wave in the air, eyes wide and unfocused. Because that kind of reaction helped matters so fucking much. But Idri just chuckled again. As he gathered his bag, he placed his hand on Quentin’s shoulder, causing him to nearly jump out of his skin.
“There’s no need for that,” Idri said, all kindness. He patted once, before lifting his hand like it had never been there. He leaned in toward Q and spoke so low that Eliot could only barely make out his words. “I truly hope you can see that I’m very obviously no threat, Quentin.”
“Um? Fine? All I said was bye,” Quentin said, a fucking goddamn brat. “It’s standard, culturally. Weren’t you leaving?”
Eliot ran his tongue along his front teeth and squared his whole body and all of his rage, and hurt, and fucking exhaustion right at Quentin. Idri had done nothing to him. If he had a problem with Eliot, that was fine. They’d work it the fuck out. They probably had to do that, for real, at some point, when Quentin wasn’t hiding behind cute little hypotheticals ( “Penny’s my best friend,” come on, Q ) or lashing out at his friends or dragging Fucking Todd into this shit. They needed to hash it out, for real. But Idri had never been anything but kind to Quentin and Quentin had never been anything but a total dick to him.
It was enough.
He sucked his cheeks into his teeth and regarded Quentin coolly. “Adorable as your pissy baby act is—”
“No,” Quentin whispered, whipping back to stare at Eliot. His eyes were watery and red and haunted. “You don’t get to look at me like that. Fuck you, Eliot.”
Fuck you, Eliot.
Yes. Well. That made sense, didn’t it?
A strange calm settled over him. It was like standing on a cold mountain, late at night. Snow toppling like a wave and plunging into the pines below. The frozen ground cracking like glass under his bare feet. He stood naked with winds whipping in the purple gloom. The sky was white-blue-black, shades of darkness toward the earth. The world smelling like everything and nothing, sensation rubbing his nostrils raw.
Eliot had never been to the mountains. He never intended to go to the mountains.
But there was an undeniable rush of nothing, a frost that solidified his blood but didn’t put him on edge. Didn’t rile him up further. He was disconnected from all his senses, except the chilled void around him.
It made it easier to calmly continue with his evening, which he appreciated.
What kind of host would he be otherwise?
“Well put, Quentin,” Eliot said, clapping his hands together. He ticked his head once and plastered on another one of his best smiles, to mix things up. Never bore them. “On that note, I’m going to go clean up. No rest for the weary.”
Quentin shuffled on his feet and scratched at his brow, as his eyes fluttered shut. “El—”
“Have a good night, everyone,” Eliot said, keeping his voice bright as anything, retreating toward the kitchen. He floated away, carefree and valiant. He spun on his heels once and bowed to his newest friend, never once looking over at Q. “Take care, Idri.”
Idri frowned and sighed, shaking his head. “Good night, Eliot.”
With a final salute to no one, Eliot strode over to the bar and started organizing. He drank from his flask. He cleaned the glasses, with two twists of his hand. He drank from his flask. He put the bottle tops back on. He drank from his flask. He halted the magic and reset the spirals, so the energy wouldn’t burn out. He drank from his flask. He wiped down an errant spill. He drank from his flask. He rearranged the garnishes, in their proper containers. He drank from his flask. He stacked the coasters neatly in the corner.
He drank from his flask.
It was enough.