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Not Always Folly

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Brakebills University, December 18, 2016

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(Part Six of Our Fabulous Story, Continued, Entitled: “Consequences” Spur “Actions”)

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(Alternate Title: Would You Hold Eliot’s Champagne, Please?)

 


 

Eliot waited a whole hour before going to find Q. He was the most patient man alive, he was the most pathetic man alive.

How Dickensian.

Unfortunately, the safety of the mountain had disappeared.

It faded into a cloud of smoke, wisping away as he stabbed his spent cigarette into his favorite ashtray. The jade ceramic clanged against the kitchen counter as the force spun it out and into the tile backsplash. The sound jolted his nerves and sent a rush of overwhelming sadness-despair-fury around his glass heart, squeezing until it cracked. 

With a steadying breath, Eliot turned on the faucet and cupped his hands under the cool running water, splashing his face once. He closed his eyes and let the droplets fall down his lashes, with small rivers zig-zagging down the contours of his face.

He should have been drunker.

Truly, Eliot wished he was drunker. But upon his arrival back to earth, everything was haywire. From his aching gut to his rushing blood to the relentless taunts of his perfectly cruel mind, he was too keyed up to feel the effects of alcohol. He couldn’t sink into that twinkling calm, where everything blurred and eased and disappeared. 

Instead, his fingers twitched and danced, no matter how much he willed them to stillness. His chest vibrated with the strength of his heart rate. He knew that meant he should call it a night and try to sleep. Or, if sleep were evasive, he should lay the hell down and watch Dirty Dancing on his contraband laptop until his eyeballs were glue and his tongue was numb from repeating all the lines into the darkness, like a deranged person.

But the relentless buzzing on his skin and the itch along his scalp and the pools of hot sweat in the center of his palms weren’t going to go anywhere. Not unless—

Not unless he found Quentin and dealt with this , right the fuck then.

Solid plan. 10/10.

(Who gave a shit?)

The living room was mostly empty, save a few blacked out stragglers making their way upstairs and a few final spent glasses scattered about. It was embarrassingly early for a party to fizzle, but he didn’t care. He was even grateful for it, considering. But in any case, as Eliot walked with purpose past the pristine bar and clapped the remaining lights low, he didn’t even bother looking anywhere but the one place he knew he’d find Q. 

Quentin claimed he hated how predictable he was, but he rarely did anything to actually change how fucking predictable he was. Normally, Eliot found it adorable. Right now, though, he wasn’t sure if he found much about Q adorable, least of all his whiny refusal to change. ( You’re a terrible liar , his traitor heart mocked.) But he appreciated the ease of the search regardless. It meant he wouldn’t have to waste any unnecessary time before getting into it.

Beside a roaring fire, the Cottage’s reading nook was mostly closed, save a sliver of light between the patterned double doors. The tiny peek revealed the bunched up edge of a bright green blanket and the tip of a scuffed black boot, scrunched into the line awkwardly. 

Bingo.

Gathering himself up, Eliot floated over and held his fist over the doors, ready to offer a polite knock and lightly announce his presence, so not to startle. Quentin was jumpy on a good day and this was decidedly not a good day. Better to be careful. Better to be gentle. It was always better to be gentle with his Q.

But with an unexpected shock of fury, Eliot’s jaw tightened and his molars clenched into each other. His palms tingled and broke into a cold and clammy burst of frustration. 

Yeah, no. 

On second thought, fuck that.

So before he could think three times, he ripped the door open and the boot scrunched back, as alarmed as expected. Eliot glared down at the elaborate red and gold pattern of the built in cushions. He breathed in through his nose and out through his mouth, just like Margo’s goddamn fucking yoga. He closed his eyes and nodded, not daring to look at Quentin’s face quite yet. He bit his tongue so hard it punctured and a low stream of copper flooded around his teeth. His whole body was resisting, but still he ducked his head in, mind made up.

Eliot slid into the nook with crouched shoulders and feet before settling next to the tense lines of a hunched back. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Quentin curled in on himself around his book, the first of the Fillory series. His face was stony and eyes darting, but he didn’t vocally protest his presence.

Always so generous.

“So,” Eliot said, stretching the vowel and cracking his neck. He looked straight ahead and closed the little doors with telekinesis. He kept staring, but not at Q. “Wanna have a chat about whatever the fuck that was?”

“Right,” Quentin said with a barking laugh. He flipped his page too hard, the sound more of a rip than a flutter. “Because it must be something deeper, not just that you were a total fucking asshole.”

With a low chuckle, Eliot swallowed all his vicious first instincts about how to respond to that. Then he swallowed the second ones too.

He reminded himself that Quentin was like this sometimes. He circled back to his original thesis, which was that it was important to stay calm. Cautious even, and not make any sudden sharp movements or words, lest Q dash off into the night. Eliot had already pushed his luck with his dramatic entrance, so now he had to at least try to be delicate. Even if he didn’t exactly feel delicate at the moment.

Time to tap dance on some goddamn eggshells.

“Pretty frankly, Q, I’ve said way worse shit in front of you before,” Eliot said, methodical and quiet. He still didn’t look at him. “I don’t think it’s a huge stretch to say this isn’t about your deep kinship with Todd.”

Quentin went audibly still at that. Then Eliot’s pulse skipped when a hint of his Q came through, just the tiniest little sighing sound of guilt. But it cut off, like Quentin caught himself, and he shifted away from Eliot, a scrape of a boot against the thin wall. It was enough to make him finally glance over, to take in Quentin’s tense and crumpled form in the low yellow light. His eyes were dark, over patchy red cheeks. Like he might have been crying.

Well. Shit.

Shit .

Heart pulsating in his throat and choking him until he couldn’t breathe, Eliot slammed his head backward. He was so stupid. He was so weak. 

Eliot closed his eyes and pushed back his truly fucking stupid desire to gather him on top of his chest and murmur even stupider words into his soft hair—words like It’s okay, sweetheart, we’ll figure it out, I’ve got you —and instead laced his own hands together in his lap. He kept his eyes on his interlocked knuckles for another long beat, debating how quickly and gracefully he could get the hell out of there.

Except—

He couldn’t do that, if only from being too exhausted to run anymore. So he sniffed up all his courage and patience, paltry as they were, and spoke.

“Q, what’s going on?” Eliot lolled his head against the wood paneling and forcing a sad smile. He hoped it would remind Quentin that they were friends. That at the end of the day, they were on the same side and the same team. That they both still cared about each other and wanted to get to the other side, even if shit was raw right now.

But his gentle attempt at disarming fell flat.

Quentin snorted, derisive, and buried his face in his pages. “That’s a dumb question, Eliot.”

The litany of drums pounding You fucked up, you fucked up, you fucked up beat ever more relentless against the hot column of his spine, growing louder. It made his ears hot and his mouth taste like metal. But Eliot just turned the volume down and moved forward, breathing and keeping calm. Still, with a violent snap, the light in the nook flickered and Eliot wondered if he’d done it. He wasn’t sure. It was possible. 

Things were haywire.

Quentin lifted his eyes up at the intrusion, shoulders jolting in a hint of jumpy surprise before swallowing. One hand on his heart, he slammed his book into his lap and pinched the bridge of his nose. 

“So, like, shouldn’t you be with Idri right now?” As he spoke, Quentin stared at one of the nook’s empty corners, like it was the center of the universe. Eliot resisted the urge to laugh, wide and harsh, at his fucking audacity. 

He wasn’t going to make this easy, huh?

“Idri left,” Eliot said, factual and outwardly unmoved. “You were there.”

“Sorry if I cockblocked you,” Quentin said, flat voiced over a petulant shrug. He still stared at the corner, though the muscles between his eyebrows spasmed.

Eliot ran his tongue along his teeth and spat out a clipped, “Still in a charming mood, I see.”

“Well, gosh,” Quentin spat right back, eyes unnaturally wide but still not fucking looking at him. “We can’t all be Eliot Waugh now, can we?”

Honey, you could never be.

That was the earth scorching retort on the tip of his tongue. 

It would have shut him down, that was for damn sure. Because Eliot knew— he knew —that there was a part of Quentin that desperately wished he was more like him. He wished he had Eliot’s ease, practiced and perfected as it was. He wished he could be one draped over Margo, the one with the quick joke, the one who was fun and sparkling and well-dressed, the one who could manipulate magic without even thinking about it and who always just let out a languid sigh about how it was such a bother . Even if they never spoke of it, it was absolutely there and Eliot absolutely knew it. 

It would have been easy. So easy. 

Too easy. 

Breath shuddering, Eliot rolled the words around his mouth and stretched them wide into a pained smile. They sunk into his skin and disappeared, obviously for the best. But then there was nothing he could say, nothing that wouldn’t destroy everything left to destroy. So he shut his mouth tight and stared, itching for his flask.

The strangling silence didn’t last long though. Quentin had even less tolerance for quiet than he did, for better or worse.

“People take their cues on how to treat Todd from you,” he burst out, hands and pages flying. “You know that, right?”

Eliot’s furrowed brow and sputtering lips came before he could stop them, capped off with a decadent eye roll.

“Please,” he said for further emphasis. “Like I’m some overlord? We’re all adults. Todd’s fine, living his best hapless life.”

But that made Quentin pull his knees into himself and shake his head. His eyes were unfocused, but he reopened his book nonetheless, balanced on the divot between his legs. Like there was any chance he was still reading. Ridiculous.

“You can’t—you cannot have it both ways,” Q said, pushing his hair back. He slit his eyes over with a piercing snap of anger. “Are you top alpha dog of Brakebills or not?”

Once again, Eliot couldn’t help it. He tucked his lip between his teeth to stop a smile. “ ‘Top alpha dog?’

Wrong move.

“Yeah, let’s poke fun at Quentin’s nerdy idioms instead of dealing with the—the—the question at hand,” Q said, a pained stutter slipping out. Frustrated, he curled into himself even more and shook his head so hard that his hair tie fell out. “God, sometimes I think you’re so fucking emotionally stunted that—”

“Obviously I’m emotionally stunted,” Eliot cut in, because, like, duh. This wasn’t new information for anyone, least of all Q. “Have you met me?”

Quentin snarled his lip and huffed his arms across his chest. “Sure, but, uh, I think you use that as an excuse not to delve into anything that, um, actually matters.”

... No shit, Q.

“That’s the definition of being emotionally stunted,” Eliot said, his eyelashes flying up. He tried speaking Quentinese to drive the point home. “One can’t use emotional stuntedness to excuse emotional stuntedness. That’s just—what being emotionally stunted is. Snake’s tail feast, et cetera.”

Didn’t work. Didn’t help.

“Yeah, don’t try to out pedant me,” Quentin said, unnervingly cool. “You’ll lose, asshole.”

Eliot bit the inside of his cheek and faced away again, not able to bear that feelingless expression. “Ah, so we’re back to petty insults. Lovely.”

“Maybe you could try not being an asshole,” Q suggested helpfully. “Then I won’t have to call you one.”

Eliot was so tired.

He pressed his palms into his eyes, wishing they were cucumber slices. He wished he was sipping a gin drink out of a long straw, warm breeze all around. He wished he was floating on a pink raft in a blue infinity pool on a Greek island, without a single goddamn soul anywhere near him. 

Eliot dug his hands in harder, like maybe if he just fucking willed it, it would come true. If he just wanted it enough

Ugh. 

No dice.

He was still in the goddamn nook, with his goddamn best friend who was acting like a total stranger. Great. What the fuck was the point of magic, anyway? Worthless. He wanted a refund.

“I’m not trying to be an asshole, Q. I’m trying to make this better,” Eliot said, low. He was certain his face was cracked open and desperate when he looked back over, pleading. “Can you please talk to me?”

Quentin didn’t give him a damn thing. “I am talking.”

“I mean for real,” Eliot clarified unnecessarily. His fingers jumped along the seam of his trousers and his throat was dry. “You’ve never reacted like this to anything since I’ve known you. Gotta be honest, it’s fucking unsettling.”

Quentin stared at him for a beat before he sighed, a promising sign. His shoulders slumped and he slid a hand down his face, fingers smoothing out the hard, tense lines of his jaw. Eliot didn’t reach out and touch his arm, a herculean task. He just waited.

“Maybe I’m—sick of not reacting to you, El,” Quentin finally said, so quiet it was barely audible. But Eliot heard it and it made him smile, even if it shouldn’t have. Because that he could work with.

(Well, that, and Q had called him El, a spark of hope in an abyss.)

“Now we’re getting somewhere,” Eliot said, turning toward him, inches away but still not daring to touch. “Can you expand on that for me?”

Quentin laughed. It wasn’t real and his heart sunk.

“You are not my therapist,” Quentin said, shuffling forward on his ass and kicking open the doors. Shit. “You’re not a therapist.”

He pushed forward and his feet hit the ground, ready to walk away. Shit. Shit. Eliot panicked and grabbed the crook of his elbow, gentle as he could while keeping him in place. 

“I know I’m not,” Eliot said, speaking to Q’s clenched jaw because he was refusing to look at him again. “But I’m your friend and I’m trying to figure out what the hell is—”

At that, Quentin let out a sound that could only reasonably be described as half-laugh, half-owl screech. His angry eyes flashed backwards at Eliot, hiding no insignificant pain. His jaw worked as he sniffed and he roughly pulled his arm away, leaving Eliot shaking behind him.

Fuck , El, if you don’t get it then—then just leave me alone,” Quentin said, voice cracking as he hugged himself. “Please.”

Eliot hit the cushion as he fell back and watched Quentin shuffle away. Chest caving in, he was certain the nook was going to swallow him alive, until there was nothing left but a puddle of magical energy and a gorgeous silk vest. The cold numbness started to spiderweb up his arms from the tips of his fingers. He wanted a cigarette. He wanted his flask. Where the hell was his flask?

But his body apparently had a mind of its own.

Against all odds, a hot flare in his gut fueled him forward, bold and crazed. Before he could second guess himself, Eliot jumped out into the living room. He grabbed Quentin by the shoulders and ignored his surprised yelp, rounding on him until Q was pressed against the nearby bookshelf.

“No,” Eliot said, with one hand trapping Quentin where he was. His index finger painfully stubbed against a book called Magnets and Magicians: The Metaphysical Mystery , but he kept his eyes pinned down, all determination. His chest heaved in and out, looming and furious.

“Eliot,” Quentin sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose. His hand dropped and his sad, red-rimmed eyes met his. “Come on. Let this go.”

Sad Quentin was a special form of kryptonite, Eliot had to admit. Over the rapidly forming lump in his throat, he sighed and tilted his head, running his free hand up and down the rough fabric of Quentin’s rumpled sports coat. He ducked his head down, trying to soften, trying to soothe. But his skin was still vibrating, gut still burning with tenacity.

“No,” he repeated and he couldn’t even be embarrassed by how it wobbled out. “No, I’m not going to do that.”

“God,” Quentin snapped, blaze back in his eyes as he bit his teeth up at him. A glower spread across his whole face, pissed off again. “You are so fucking —you are—”

“I’m what, Q?” Eliot dipped in closer, beseeching. His chest rose and fell with uneven breaths. “Tell me.”

“You’re an asshole,” Quentin said again, nostrils flaring. But his Adam’s apple bobbed and if it wasn’t completely insane, completely out of context, Eliot would have sworn his darkened eyes flicked down to his lips. 

Which. 

Oh.

Oh , no.

Eliot cleared his throat and shook his head, taking a deep breath. Focus. Focus . He had to focus. He wasn’t an animal. Things were haywire, but he wasn’t an animal. Focus.

“Yeah, I got that,” he said, swallowing and keeping his voice steady. He did pretty well, considering. But Eliot tightened his hand on the edge of the bookshelf, sending any lingering tension into his knuckles. “Because I was such a meanie to poor Todd—”

Quentin slid the tip of his tongue along his teeth. Oh, no. “Come the fuck on, Eliot. Don’t—don’t be—you’re being purposefully disingenuous.”

Projecting calm, Eliot chuckled, murmuring over his thundering heart. “Makes two of us then. Good to be on the same page at least, no?”

“You’re an asshole ,” Quentin shot out again, screwing his eyes shut tight, hands fidgeting at his sides.  “You’re—you’re—you’re—”

Oh, no. For real.

Not giving a shit about the situation, Eliot wrapped his hand around Quentin’s arm and stepped closer, “Hey. Hey, it’s okay. Breathe.” 

Eliot moved his thumb in circles, firm enough to feel through the sports coat. He made a low shushing sound and almost touched their temples together, because Eliot was always willing to be there, no matter what. Whenever Quentin started twitching like a short-circuiting electronic, he usually needed a physical interruption. He needed something to gently let him know to stop, that he didn’t need to keep trying to speak. And it didn’t matter how pissed off or hurt or whatever the fuck they both were—there was no world where Eliot was going to let him flounder. 

Sure enough, even in his agitated state, Quentin’s shoulders soon slumped and his chin fell to his chest, powering down. With it, the tension in Eliot’s chest unspooled, feet finding solid ground again. Now, they could fight, he reminded himself, even as tenderness threatened to drown him.

“God, you’re an asshole,” Quentin muttered into his shoes, heatless. But his own hands had found Eliot’s lapels, fingers running up and down the velvet edges. With a fond snort, Eliot nodded. 

“Be that as it may,” he said softly, speaking into his ear and still rubbing his arm. “I’m not letting you walk away until we talk. We have to talk , Q.”

For several long beats, the only sound was the crack-snap-pop of the burning wood and the mingling of their labored breaths. After awhile, Eliot thought maybe Q wasn’t going to answer at all. Maybe Quentin would just keep staring at the ground, threading the velvet fabric between his hands, over and over, until dawn. If he were honest, he wouldn’t mind. He was warm and blurred, standing over Quentin, almost holding him, in an almost beautiful in-between. 

Eliot swayed a little, breathing in the same air as Q.

But with an audible swallow, Quentin finally raised his head and stared up through his lashes, soft brown eyes almost black. The yellow-orange firelight dappled against the angles of his face, so close to his own. His lips parted, twisting up into a soft wisp of a smile. Under his dark and heavy brow, their eyes met and the whole world diminished to Quentin’s irises.

“Talk?” Even with a breathless voice, Q managed to sound almost amused. His tongue darted out to wet his lips and he let out a small laugh. “You really wanna talk?”

The ground under Eliot’s feet lurched and he was lightheaded. He was seeing stars. His swooping stomach wrapped around the flare of heat and rushed downward, disloyal. He let out a long slow breath, bit the tip of his tongue and forced himself to nod, even as everything was floating out of reach.

“Yeah, I do,” he said, swallowing the rough dryness away. He schooled his face, forcing seriousness and gravity, intent on seeing this through. “I want to talk.”

But Quentin’s mouth softened further and his eyes glinted, glued on his, and holy shit, Eliot was fucked

Heat spread like wildfire down his whole body, his cock calling way too much attention to itself. It never like being ignored, and when it pointed out how close they were—the mere inches between them, the body heat, the tickle of Quentin’s breath—it was being petulant. But oh , it wasn’t wrong.

Unable to take it for another second, Eliot closed his eyes and turned his face away, taking a centering breath. Focus. “Quentin. I—we really need to hash some shit out. We need to talk.”

A warm hand cupped his jaw and nimble fingers grazed the line of his cheekbone, light and feathering, a reprise from an earlier act. He swallowed, leaning into the touch because he was so fucking weak. He heard a hitching breath, so close to him, and then a soft brush of lips moved along his jaw, up to the sensitive skin by his ear. 

One trail of fire later, everything crashed

Eliot let out an involuntary gasp and dragged half-lidded eyes back down, ready to face surrender. He staggered forward, pressing the whole line of his body ahead, fingers finding soft hair and the warm nape of a neck. His skin thrummed and his cock hardened and the Earth shattered.

We need to talk ,” Q repeated, with only a hint of mockery under a rough chuckle, tongue lightly tracing the shell of his ear, warm and wet and oh, god . Then he whispered the death knell. “Since the fuck when has that mattered to you?”

The broken world moved at lightspeed, and Eliot’s lower lip was between Quentin’s teeth.

They rocked back against the bookshelf, texts tumbling down with their fierce kiss. Everything set on fire at once and Eliot grabbed at Quentin's hands, wrapped in his curls, and pinned them back against the books. He was rewarded with a delicious open mouthed groan, and so he smiled, a sharp movement of his lips. He traced just the tip of his tongue around the sounds Quentin made, slow and light, a tease to promise.

Quentin surged upward, fighting against the hold and beautifully losing, nipping at him like he was crazed. Eliot took pity and lowered his head, so their lips could meet again. He kissed him once, mockingly soft, before diving back in—all tongue and teeth and weeks of build-up, of jacking off to nothing but the rhythm of Quentin Quentin Quentin , of too many dreams and way too many memories. He had never wanted anyone more. He had never wanted anything more.

“This what you want, El?” Quentin obviously got the picture, panting and almost smug when they broke apart. Pressing frantic kisses to the side of Q's face and down his jawline, Eliot’s blood sang Yesyesyes . He slotted their legs together, so Q could feel exactly how much he wanted it. He sucked at his pulse point, grinding into him, beyond words.

But bratty goddamn Quentin wasn’t. He was reinvigorated, a study in contrast from the broken sadness from before.

He rolled Eliot’s earlobe between his teeth and laughed, hot against his skin. “You wanna fuck me? Maybe right here?”

Quentin’s arms fell with a thud, all so Eliot could grip back at the nape of his neck and kiss him with crushing force. “Don’t play with fire.”

“Aw, c’mon,” Q snapped out, taunting, free hands moving everywhere . Eliot was going to rip him to shreds. “You said it’d be good.”

“It would be the best you’ve ever had,” he whispered, hot and messy against his throat, pushing him back and sliding into him, all sensation and no thought.

“Yeah?” Those fucking hands wrapped around his tie and yanked him down. “Prove it.”

Pathetic at his core, Eliot’s knees buckled and he braced his arms on either side of him, ducking down to kiss him again, frenzied and fevered. Q fisted at his shirt and pulled up toward him like he was trying to crawl him and fuck , he tasted like booze and smoke and something unique that had haunted him for weeks, torture without any end in sight.

Quentin broke away to bite and suck at his neck, one deft hand sliding down until it palmed and wrapped around Eliot’s cock, the fabric between them suddenly the worst shit on the planet. Sliding his hand down the wool inseam, Q hummed in appreciation and Eliot was gone. Gone, gone, gone with the wind, dead and buried and alive for the first time, all at once.

“Fuck, you’re big. Wanna get my mouth on you, El,” Quentin whispered into his pulse. He swirled his tongue around as a preview and tightened his grip below. “Please?”

Everything went white and firework starred, and if Eliot didn’t get him on a flat surface he was going to rip the world apart with his bare bloody hands.

“Upstairs,” he heard himself rasp out, teeth sliding down Quentin’s cheek and hips gravitating closer, with purpose. “We need—we need to go upstairs.”

Quentin didn’t need to be told twice and he pushed him back, again with that surprising strength. Eliot obliged, pulling him close as they moved, fingers tangled in each other’s hair.

They maneuvered blind through the living room, lips not parting and hands already undressing what they could. His elbow hit a table and his tie loosened. The back of his knee slammed against the couch and See ya later , blazer. He tripped backwards over the first step, his vest opening and belt flying over the bannister. It would be a veritable hookup easter egg hunt later and the thought alone made him groan into Quentin’s mouth.

When they finally ( finally ) reached the closer door, a wardbreaker was hastily muttered and they stumbled into the warm room, walls covered in Fillory posters and floor littered with scattered notebook paper. With a brief yet world-ending separation, Quentin shucked his tweedy sports coat off onto his floor and toed his boots off, while Eliot got with the program and did the same. Then Q fell backwards onto his bed and pulled Eliot on top of him, kissing like they would never stop again.

The blanket beneath them was navy blue, quilted soft and scented like Quentin , and Eliot was losing his mind. He covered him with his longer body, surrounding him, settling between his legs. Quentin made a thrilling sound of want, lifting his hips to chase friction between their hard cocks. Eliot gripped at him—wholly fucking gratified—and rolled forward, biting his neck for good measure. The hot grind between them sent sparks up his spine, looping around the clenching pool of desire at the pit of his stomach. Fuck, it was already so good. So good.

Gasping up for air, Eliot pulled roughly at Q’s very annoying shirt.

“Get this off,” he demanded, pressing a hard kiss to his lips. “Now.”

“You too,” Quentin said, somewhere between breathy and rough, scratching his fingers up and under Eliot’s dress shirt, sliding into his chest hair. “Shit, you always wear so much fucking fabric. Drives me crazy.”

Head spinning, he nosed at Q’s throat, smiling through the haze. “What else drives you crazy?”

All at once, Eliot’s buttons flew open and he slid the shirt and vest down his arms, throwing them in a heap on the nightstand. They stripped each other of the rest of their clothes until they were in nothing but boxers and briefs. Hands racing up his chest, the buzzy thrill of bare skin under his hands burnt him alive.

“Literally everything about you,” Quentin hissed out, roughly pulling Eliot back up for another kiss. “You are the most infuriating person I’ve ever met in my life.”

Eliot slid his fingers into Quentin’s hair and tugged, sparkling nerves zinging at the moan he got in response. 

“Be more specific,” Eliot said, low against his throat.

As Eliot pressed his tongue against Q’s fast and intoxicating pulse, his hand moved even lower, through the downy softness of his chest hair and across the smooth skin over his stomach. Quentin trembled under his touch, breath coming quick. So Eliot traveled lower still, until he started stroking him featherlight through the thin fabric of his boxers.

“You’re a smug son-of-a-bitch,” Q said, arching his back and panting. As a reward for looking so pretty, Eliot kissed him and Quentin fucking growled, holy fuck. “You’re a snob. You’re a control freak. You don’t like Taylor Swift—“

“Not a fan of milk with my toast,” Eliot said sharply, egging him on. Quentin kissed him furiously.

Yesyesyes , the choir sang and what else could Eliot do but kiss him and touch him, forever?

“You insist on your meals all having a bitter note for contrast even though no one likes bitter food, for chrissake,” Quentin continued, grinding into him with a soft sound, his annoyance a shoddy facade over how much he obviously wanted this. “And, like, you talk way too much about your dream journal. No one fucking cares , El, unless they’re in it.”

Eliot spun them up to a seated position, with Quentin straddled on his lap.

“If you want to hear all about the dreams you star in,” he said, kissing the slope of his shoulder and speaking low into his skin ( skinskinskin ), “you only have to ask, Coldwater.”

But Quentin just growled again, hands around Eliot’s face, fingers digging in a shade too hard. “I’m not done telling you how much you piss me the fuck off.”

“Mmm, my apologies,” Eliot said, curling his tongue once into his mouth, smug as Quentin clearly liked. “By all means, continue.”

Quentin wrapped his legs around his waist and every part of them was touching as they explored each other’s bodies, inhibitions chucked all over the room with their clothes.

“How clever you think you are when you mix up Star Wars and Star Trek. Shocker, people have made that joke before, you’re not original.” Quentin kissed him hard between each bullet point, tangling his hands back in his curls. “How vain you are. That you named your cologne Roi du soir .”

Eliot had enchanted his signature scent with the sharp and sweet notes he imagined stardust smelled like. It was one of his greatest creations. So he squeezed Quentin’s ass and tugged him in closer, not fucking around.

“It’s a good name,” he said, low and guttural, his palms slowly riding up his back, igniting with the feel of him. He was breathless, heart gone.

“It’s a terrible name,” Quentin said, placing one kiss on the hinge of Eliot’s jaw before dipping down to unabashedly smell him and fuck , that shouldn’t have done it for him but it really did. 

“Clearly a thing for you though,” Eliot teased, nipping once at his pouty lower lip. “So it can’t be that bad.”

Quentin snorted and bit back, metaphorically and literally. “You are so fucking cheesy.”

Some tiny rational part of him took issue with that, but his body was in the driver’s seat and his body wanted Quentin on the bed, squirming under him, naked and screaming his name. So Eliot pushed him down, their legs tangled together, cocks rutting through their underwear. 

… Why the fuck did they still have underwear on?

Eliot forced his eyes open and looked down, ready to lodge his formal complaint. But the vision under him stopped him in his tracks.

Quentin was already a ravished mess. His pupils were blown out and his lips were pink and swollen, kiss-bruised and debauched. His long hair splayed out, tangled and jutting every possible way. His skin was splotchy, gradients of pinks and red, and Eliot could count his heart beats from how his throat spasmed.

Eliot swallowed, heart catching with sudden longing, and he cupped his cheek, brushing his thumb against the grain of his stubble.

He was so fucking beautiful.

His beautiful Quentin.

“What else, Q?” Eliot murmured, resting their foreheads together for just a second. Just a short moment, so he could find his breath again. Fuck.

Under him, Quentin made a keening sound, tilting his head to press a featherlight kiss to his lips. Then another, and another, until they were melting together, hot and slow and languid, a slide of lips and warm bodies.

“Your voice, saying my name,” Quentin whispered when he broke away, breath warm against his cheek. He steadily rocked into him, chasing pleasure and friction and something else, something Eliot wouldn’t dare name. “The way you say Q.”

Eliot could die and it would be okay. “That pisses you off?”

Quentin’s eyes found him, dark and angry and filled to the brim with that indefinable something , humbling and bone terrifying. He cupped Eliot’s face in his hands, almost tenderly, but not quite. Then Q brushed his thumb along the bow of his lip, tingling in his wake, and Eliot could feel him swallow.

“Of course it pisses me off,” he said, voice low and thick and shaking. “It pisses me off every fucking day, you asshole.”

Eliot stilled, letting out a short huff of breath, drowning in Quentin’s big eyes. Slowly, he brushed his lips down his cheek, his jaw, nosing at the contour of his throat. He smelled like sweat and mint and a grass-paper-sage note that haunted his waking dreams. He kissed under his jawline, with all the feeling his yearning heart would allow.

Done with teasing, Eliot dipped a hand under the waistband of his boxers, fingernails scratching through the smattering of hair he found there. Quentin’s breath hitched and Eliot smirked, so he didn’t sob.

“Q,” he whispered, just below his ear. Moving in slow motion, he tilted his head to kiss just below his other ear. “Q. God, Q—

He kept murmuring his name as his hand traveled lower and lower, and Quentin shook under him, kissing him and kissing him, and making tiny little gasping sounds that Eliot would never forget, would never stop playing on an endless loop in his head, even after this was inevitably over, inevitably a huge mistake. A low voice in the back of his brain—or maybe his heart, weak fool that it was—scolded him, scoffing and judgmental and hissing, You’re doing this wrong .

But Eliot shut it the fuck down, to finally take his beautiful boy in hand.

Immediately, Quentin moaned, levering on one arm and dipping his head back. He was the most beautiful man in the world. 

Overwhelmed with the urgent need to make it as good as fucking possible, Eliot muttered under his breath to pull out one of his best party tricks. When he finished speaking, his hand was warm and silken and slick. He curled his fingers around Quentin’s cock and stroked root to tip, painstaking and deliberate. It was the task he was born for.

“Is that good?” Eliot asked, quieter than the mood, lips sliding along Q’s bare chest, up his neck to his lips. He stroked his hand slow as he could, intending to take his god given time, all against the rhythm of his galloping heart. “Does that feel good?”

“Fuck, it does,” Quentin whimpered, sounding almost mad about it. His rolled his body toward him, urging him to pick up the pace. “Fuck, El.”

“You’re so hot , Q,” Eliot said with a breathy laugh. “Do you have any idea what you do to me?”

It was an understatement. Quentin was glorious, beautiful, masculine. He was wiry, with sharp angles and soft hair, bowed lips and smooth skin, perfect ass and girthy thighs. He fucking astonishing in every detail and deserved to know it. But Eliot’s brain was as enraptured as his body already felt and he couldn’t pull out anything more poetic than that.

But the words still did something to Quentin too.

He gasped, endless eyes locking on his and turning the world over in his intensity. He jolted up and wrapped his arms around Eliot’s chest, pulling him down so they laid beside each other, foreheads touching. Quentin threw his leg across Eliot’s, so he could thrust into his hand as he kissed him, along his lips, his jaw, his neck. His hands moved all along the lines of Eliot’s chest, his shoulders, his face, urgent and wild, as though he might disintegrate at any moment. Overwhelmed, Eliot closed his eyes and let himself sink into bliss, never letting up his pace, determined to make Quentin feel as good as just his presence made him feel, every day.

Then, like something out of a fever dream, Q started moaning his name, over and over again— Eliot, Eliot, Eliot— like it was the only word he knew, like it was the only prayer he ever wanted answered. And Eliot’s heart swelled, painful between his ribs, with that broken open tenderness.

“Q,” Eliot breathed out, free hand coming up to cup his face. He gave into himself, kissing Quentin soft and slow, gentling them into a languid slowness, a world where they could take their time, a world where they had time. He kissed him as though his heart was free to love him the way he wanted to. Because, fuck, he loved him.

Eliot loved him so much.

He panted, mindless, and full of everything in the world as he opened his mouth against the side of his face, taking all he could. “Q, baby , sweetheart, I need you to know you are—to me, you are—”

He couldn’t finish his sentence though, because a firm hand pushed him back as reality crashed cold.

Then everything came into sharp focus when Quentin’s voice growled out, dangerous this time.

“Don’t do that,” he spat out, scooting away just enough to make his point. Eliot’s hand slipped down and fell numb against the bedding. “Don’t act like this more than what it is.”

The overhead light was stark and bright, illuminating the scene in a way he didn’t really want to see. Eliot was dizzy, blood rushing to his ears.

They were both nearly naked, ankles wrapped together, both breathing hard on Quentin’s double bed. They were in his room, his nerdy sanctuary. Every surface was covered in dark blues and reds, with fantasy creatures and concept art and perfect replicas of Fillorian flags imbuing the space with more joy and coziness than Eliot could dream up for any interior decorating project he ever attempted. 

He knew this place well and not-so-secretly loved it. 

Eliot had been in Q’s room more times than he could count, to talk late into the night with a bottle of wine, to get ready for a party, to study, to randomly hang out without aim. Before that night—before Ibiza —Eliot had walk-in access. He never had to knock. He knew he was always welcome.

But with a sharp hiss of breath, Eliot realized that now he was an intruder. Even as they were closer than they’d ever been, they had really never been further apart. Because god, Quentin looked halfway to fucked, rumpled and gorgeous and achingly touchable, with his oiled cock still jutting out, red and beautiful. But his eyes were guarded and angry, clouded stones except at the blood-shot edges, spilling over with the smallest hint of vulnerability. 

Of distrust.

So yeah, Eliot kind of felt like he was going to be sick.

But if Quentin picked up on that, it didn’t stop him from pulling him back into a bruising kiss, dragging Eliot on top of him. He was desperate for it... and fuck, Eliot was too. But even as he plunged right back in, unable to help himself, the ripple of conscience roiled ever harder under his skin, hissing and nipping Wrong, wrong, wrong, this is wrong, you know this is wrong , this isn’t how you do this, you moron, with every frantic press of their lips.

But Quentin’s soft hair was between his fingers and Quentin’s cock was sliding against his stomach and Quentin’s lips were parting for him, pliant and soft and everything he had ever wanted and Eliot just was a mess of want , the world fuzzing into white noise . So he ignored. He ignored it like he always did, ignored it because he was selfish—fundamentally selfish—so why should this be any different? It wasn’t like Quentin didn’t want it too. They wanted each other and he was fucking sick of noble self-denial. He wasn’t cut out for it.

So Eliot nosed at Quentin’s jaw, palming his hand down his side until he gripped his hip. God, he needed to be inside him. He needed to move in him, fuck him, love him before the world ended. Because it had to be ending. There couldn’t be anything after this, don’t be absurd. 

Time to go for broke.

—But shit, Quentin had said he wanted to blow him. Which was—fuck. 

Fuck. 

Okay, well, that obviously had to happen. 

It had to, he realized, sinking Quentin into the mattress and kissing him with even more intent. It had to, it had to, it had to . It would be a declaration of war against nature, against every god in the multiverse, not to let that happen.

Fuck.

Shit, but then it only took a fraction of the thought for Eliot to realize that he needed to blow Quentin more than he needed to breathe . And he wanted Q to come in his hand. Also, he wanted him to come while riding his cock. Up against a wall, in a shower. Oh, and by his fingers alone, of course. By touching him everywhere, by not touching him at all. Eliot even wanted Q to fuck him, to fill him, stretch him just right. He let out a choked sound just at the thought, hands gripping at the sheets in agony. He wanted all of it, over and over again.

God, he wanted.

Eliot wanted so much, he wanted anything he could get, and he wanted to give Quentin everything

Q .” The name tumbled out, broken and anguished. Eliot kissed him, messy and fierce and filled with too much. Too much. His shaking hand held his jaw and he kissed him again, helpless. “Q. Quentin, I—”

I love you.

… Shit.

Well, of course that was what he wanted to say.

It was every breath, every movement, every stutter of his fragile heart. It was a deluge, an undertow ready to take him down. The world would crack open, cities would fall, and all Eliot would think was I love you, I love you, I love you , selfish and cowardly and weak. He was such a moron. He was such a fool. Because nothing had changed.

Abruptly, dread sucker punched him and he gulped down air, trying to abate panic. Despite the screaming tantrum from his hindbrain, Eliot rolled away, off Quentin. Because he couldn’t do it.

He shouldn’t do it.

Eliot’s chest rose and fell quickly, filling with shallow breaths. Laying flat on his back, he held his hand to his forehead and tried to make sense of the world. Eliot had to be better than his instincts. He had to fucking try. If he owed Quentin nothing else, he at least owed him that.

“I think we need to stop,” Eliot said, quiet into the empty space of the still room. He felt the line of arm muscles tighten beside him. The harsh staccato laugh followed, tearing out of Quentin’s mouth, was like a bullet to the spine.

Eliot forced his eyes to stay open, even though he wanted to shutter them, maybe forever. He wanted to hide. But he had to try. He had to try. Trying to do the right thing was all he had at this point. So he steeled his soul, sat up, and dragged his eyes over, ready to face whatever was coming with clear eyes. 

Not surprisingly, Quentin was also sitting now. But his hands were buried in his hair and his eyes were squeezed tight.

Without anymore preamble, he snarled, “Are you fucking serious right now?”

Eliot felt his mouth fall open in a vain attempt to explain himself. But it was no use. Quentin was gone , and in his place was a furious force of nature, still raw and jumbled and hurting like before. He stormed off his bed, grabbing his clothes. He threw on a random shirt from the floor and slid-jumped into his jeans, leaving the fly unzipped and top unbuttoned as he started to pace around, his tangled hair sticking up in every awkward angle possible.

“So your reputation is just, like, straight up bullshit, huh?” Quentin threw out, an attempted lash. Mediocre effort, in truth. 

But then, as always, it turned inward, with one of Q’s most painful smiles. “Or is it just me? Fuck. Yeah, it’s gotta me. But I didn’t think I was so—I thought you’d at least want to fuck me.”

That one landed. 

Eliot’s eyes closed, like he was offering a prayer to his own self-loathing. He had tried. He really had.

“No, Q. Of course it’s not—“ he sucked another breath, scrubbing his hands down his face. Fuck. Fuck. “It’s definitely not you, okay?“

But Quentin let out a short sob, wrenching Eliot’s eyes open to stare at him, to see and feel all of it. There were tears gathering at the corners of his eyes. Fuck. Fuckfuckfuck fuck .

“If you don’t want me, that’s—“ Q paused in the middle of his room and swallowed, his red face twitching. “That’s, um, fine. But El, you have to stop jerking me around.”

Eliot was famously not a good person. He was mean. He always chose the easy quip, the bon mot, the clever irony over the emotionally vulnerable moment, every time.

Every damn time.

So that’s exactly why it should have been no fucking surprise that his brainless response was: “No pun intended, I’m sure.”

The smile spliced his face before he could stop it and Eliot felt his hand wave in the air, la-di-da , as he spoke against his will. It was an out-of-body experience, his defenses engaging without a failsafe. Korean pop music started playing and the world was a disco ball.

But he wasn’t actually a sociopath, so it didn’t take long for horror to pit in his gut. Everything tilted violently as Eliot realized himself, seconds too late. The world moved in slow motion. His words hit Quentin one by one, and an almost fascinating array of emotions clicked through his expressive face.

Anyway, the ice cold anger that settled on his sharp and tense jaw wasn’t a total shock.

“What the fuck?” Quentin’s teeth clacked on the consonant and his hands flew high into the air, like they were hit with a taser. “What did you just say?”

Rightfully, Eliot winced and broke one of his cardinal rules, running a shaky hand through his own hair. “Yeah, no, I’m—that was—“

His balled up shirt smacked his face at the same time Q’s next words did. “What the fucking fuck is wrong with you?”

The most valid question ever posed.

“I’m not good at this, Quentin,” Eliot hissed, one hand still wrecking his hair as he launched off the bed, into a pace. He threw on the shirt and tugged on his pants, definitely not willing to have this particular conversation mostly nude.

“At having meaningless sex with a willing guy?” Quentin lodged his next weapon with surprising skill. “I thought that was your discipline.”

The word meaningless banged around his skull like a tension headache, far more hurtful than the actual slutshamey jab Qwas going for. Eliot breathed in sharply through his nostrils and focused his hands on buttoning up his shirt, looking at each small piece of mother of pearl like meditation.

He forced himself to stay in the moment, without retreat.

“Okay, you wanna yell at me? Tell me what a fuck up I am?” Eliot threw his hands up in the air, not even caring that half his buttons were in the wrong holes. “Tell me how I’m a shitty friend and a shitty person? Go for it. Not like I don’t already know. So if it’ll make you feel better to get it off your chest—“

Quentin snorted, unmoved. He crossed his arms over his chest and his eyes were too intense as they narrowed in a glare.

“Boo-hoo, poor Eliot,” Q snapped, sounding entirely unlike himself again. He was taking cues from Julia. “It’s him against the world, forever and ever, Amen.”

“Okay, that’s a little arch,” Eliot said, taking his own cue from his own better best friend. His chest squeezed tighter,. “Chill.”

“Chill? Chill? You want me to chill? ” Quentin repeated his words like a madman, punctuated with unhinged laughter. “Are you joking?”

Still laughing and twitching, he didn’t know what to do with his hands and all his energy, Quentin stormed over to his nightstand and tossed his hair up into a high bun, grunting manically every step of the say. He looked completely fucking ridiculous and beautiful and why the hell hadn’t Eliot just fucked him, Jesus Christ. 

“I am done chilling,” Quentin snapped, words falling into an eerie flat line “Do you know what you’ve put me through? Do you even care?”

Frustration coiled in his gut and Eliot wanted a cigarette. “Maybe I would know if you would fucking talk to me —“

“Don’t give me that horseshit.”

Eliot blinked and sputtered out a laugh. “It’s not horseshit, Q. We went from—“

“Yes, it is,” Quentin said, face screwed up and fists tightly gripping at his hair. Instinctively, Eliot reached a hand out toward him, but Q flinched away, shooting him a truly devastating and bewildered glare. “Oh my god, don’t touch me. Read the room.”

“Well, don’t pull your hair,” Eliot said, low. But at Quentin’s deepening glower, he held his hands up and backed away, “Okay. Sorry. Your body, your business.”

“I’m not a child,” Q shot out. Eliot clenched his jaw.

“I know that,” he said, seriously. Then he furrowed his brow, keeping his feet planted, but bowing forward him, just a little. He came in peace. “But—seriously, you really don’t see how this all has been a little out of nowhere?”

“Sure,” Q said with a big, sarcastic nod. “Zero fucking impetus. Definitely.”

Eliot buried a groan in his hands and spun around, shaking his head. “Come on, this isn’t—“

“You say that I should just talk to you . But, I mean, shit, like I didn't try? On the beach?” Quentin cut him off, face falling and voice returning to something familiar, something sad and lost. "I tried, Eliot."

Eliot’s heart ripped apart in his gentle hands and all his words dried up. 

Q sighed and sat down on his bed, hunched. “That’s really—not only is implying that I didn’t try very shitty of you, you also know you don’t make it easy in the first place.”

There was a long moment of cold and restless silence between them. Wild and broken, Eliot wondered if it would be uncouth to just curl up on Quentin’s bed and breathe in the smell of him until the heavy ache and regret went away, soothed by the gentle feel of his soft blankets all around him.

… Probably.

“We talked on the beach. We reached an understanding,” Eliot said slowly. He tried to remember what happened, if there was anything he did that was particularly egregious. His mind came up blank. “I asked you multiple times if you were—“

“No, you just bulldozed in like you always do,” Quentin said, filling in the blanks without looking at him. He stared at the ground, face pale and jaw quavering. “You didn’t even let me get a word in edgewise until you had totally buried anything meaningful I possibly could have said.”

“Because you were being so forthcoming,” Eliot said, wrapping himself in a shield and looking away, everything too bright. “Excuse me for not being able to parse your monosyllabism.”

He didn’t even have to look at Quentin to know the kicked puppy face was there. He could feel it. He was a piece of shit. All facts.

“I need longer to process,” Q said, monotone and voice bouncing off the floor. “You know that and you took advantage. You lectured me, like I was a dumb kid. I could see the white board and the bullet points. Curriculum entitled, Why Quentin’s a Dumbass For Thinking —“

Eliot swallowed and kept his voice calm. “I thought it would be helpful to go through it in a way that resonated with—“

“Bullshit. You saw the out and you took it. Which is—it’s your prerogative, I know that,” Quentin said, a little helpless. He shook his head and bit his lip, staring upward. “But I’m allowed to react to it. I’m allowed to feel things about it, without us having to be hunky dory best buds in the next goddamn second.”

“Feel things about what?” Eliot’s chest constricted and filled with a painful heat as he whispered. Because it sounded like—

In spite of his erratic state, Quentin’s eyes met his head-on at the question, filled with a dull fire. He let out a shaky breath and shrugged, a small jerk of his shoulders.

“That I wanted a relationship and you didn’t.”

The world stopped spinning and Eliot lurched forward, his knees buckling under him. He caught himself on the edge of Quentin’s dresser, hand sliding against a dragon figurine. It tumbled over against his fingers, pointed edges surprisingly sharp. Everything swayed again and he patted his chest, searching in vain for a flask that he knew wasn’t there.

His heart and his mind screamed at once, battling for superiority in a dissonant cacophony.

In the end, neither won out more than his survival instincts. So even though his hands shook, Eliot placed them behind his back, to hide. All his emotions vortexed in his chest, compacting so tight that no light could pass.

“You never said shit about a relationship,” Eliot said, rougher than he would have liked. But finding any words at all was a victory in and of itself. Quentin didn’t seem to want to celebrate it though.

“Yeah, you’re right, I never literally said that word,” he snapped, slamming his arms across his chest. Oh, goodie, the sniping derision was back. Lucky Eliot. “Not like tthe most socially aware person I’ve ever met could have picked it up any other way.”

“Not that you’d know,” Eliot retorted, and oops, there that cruelty was, but god, he couldn’t even function. “Being good with people doesn’t mean you’re a mind reader.”

Kicked puppy, lather, rinse, repeat. A goddamn merry-go-round of terrors. 

Meanwhile, Eliot’s bones were rattling loose under his skin as the words Relationship, relationship, you didn’t want a relationship mocked him from the inside out.

Everything he had ever wanted was right in front of him. Waking up next to Q every morning, taking him to bed every night, loving him every waking hour without pretending it was anything less than what it was. Being his person—and Quentin being his—in the ways that worked for them, uncovered through their joyful discovery of one another. 

It was the fairytale he never acknowledged. It was the fairytale that consumed him. And he wasn’t sure what was worse—the idea that it could never be real or the idea that it could, but he would inevitably fuck it all up, because that was what he did. How could he explain that? How could he say that to Q, without getting anger or—worse— pity thrown back at him? How could he do fucking any of this?

Anyway, Eliot was not at all equipped for this. Not for a single part of the endeavor. 

Obviously.

“Cool,” Quentin finally breathed out, reminding him that, oh, right, they were fighting. They were in the middle of a fight. Q stuck his hands into the pockets of his still open jeans and stared away. “That was, like, really mean for no reason.”

Against his better judgment again, Eliot slammed his hand onto his forehead, patience snapping.“Jesus, no, you don’t get to snark at me all night and then act wounded when I push back.”

The one sensible voice in his arsenal scolded him, Fall to your knees and beg for his forgiveness now, you moron , but he ignored it. Because since when had Eliot ever done what was good for him or others more than, like, twice in a row, max? He was tapped out.

At the same time, Q scoffed. “Yeah, well, the way you ‘push back’ is fucking mean , Eliot—“

“You just said my magical discipline is random fucking ,” Eliot reminded him, brow arching. “So let’s not throw stones at glass, Q.”

Their back and forth broke as Quentin’s face faltered, the reminder of his own words making him flinch like a side sticker. He let out a deep breath and stared at his hands.

“That was—yeah, okay. I’m sorry,” Quentin said, sounding more ashamed than Eliot had meant to illicit. He buried his face in his hands. “I didn’t mean that.”

“I know you didn’t,” Eliot said, leaning harder against the bureau for support. He gestured around, heavy eyes following the airy movement of his hand. “And I didn’t mean—“

“I know,” Quentin said quietly, He raised his head up and pinned Eliot with his most earnest stare. “But—“

He couldn’t breathe. “But what, Q?

Those goddamn eyes softened, swirling with warmth and hurt, more powerful than they had any right to be. Out of his mind, Eliot really did want to fall to his knees, to swear his undying love, to suck his cock until he screamed and the whole conversation was forgotten, to fucking propose or something equally insane, anything to quell the waves of overwhelming longing and guilt.

He was defenseless under those eyes. Always had been. Always would be.

But Quentin mercifully averted them, face drawn in sad and serious lines. Eliot wanted to kiss every one of them away, but he was as frozen as he was weak.

“But can you really look me in the eye and tell me you had no idea how I felt?” Quentin asked, so earnest, twisting his hands in his lap as his soft eyes back gazed up at him. “That you didn’t do everything in your power to stop me from saying it?”

Under the resignation in his eyes was the tiniest spark of hope, the kindling for the inferno that threatened to burn down everything that made Eliot feel safe and everything that made him so fucking miserable in one fell swoop.

But it turned out, Quentin was right. 

Eliot couldn’t look at him. 

His own line of sight shifted fast from the endless warmth of Quentin, ready to swallow him whole, down to the safety of the ground.

From the bed, he heard Q sigh. “Yeah. That’s what I thought. It was answer enough.”

“Maybe I needed some time to process too,” Eliot said, whisper soft. He wasn’t even sure who the confession was really for. He looked down at his bare feet and remembered how much he hated his bare feet. How much he hated even the most insignificant part of himself.

Eliot was still processing. He hadn’t even begun processing. He was so tired. He was standing on quicksand and his heart was the first casualty. There was no way he’d get out of this on solid ground. He knew an inevitability when he saw one.

“So what, now you want to be with me?” Quentin asked, still moving his hands, still looking at Eliot with That Look, the one that murdered him standing every time. “You want us to be together?”

Of course he did. 

He wanted all of it. Eliot was made of nothing but want. He wanted and he took. He wanted and he made it, from nothing. He wanted and he wanted and he forced the world to bend to his whim and will. Fuck the consequences. Fuck the hurt he caused, the pain he sowed. He was Eliot Waugh, hedonist extraordinaire and his pleasure was all that fucking mattered .

Except when it came to Margo. And Q.

God, especially Q.

He made a promise, once. He intended to keep it, shitty of a job as he’d done so far. And from his vantage point, the song remained the same. Nothing had changed. Nothing had changed. So Eliot pulled himself up to his full height and told the only truth he knew.

“It’s—not that simple, Quentin,” he said, kindly. Lovingly. He hoped. He really hoped Q saw that. That he knew. How the fuck could he not know?

Quentin’s eyes went glassy and he nodded, slow, way too slow. “Um, yeah. Okay, Eliot.”

Eliot’s heart dropped to his feet. He didn’t know. He didn’t understand.

His fault.

“I’m not—you think this is—but you don’t really—“ Eliot started to say, eloquent as ever, but Quentin held his hand up.

“Don’t you dare tell me what I do or don’t want. I’ve known what I want for a long time,” he said, spitting the words out in a too-even monotone. “I’m asking what you want.”

You , Eliot’s soul screamed. But his beautiful facade twisted its lips into a passive smile and let out a shaky breath.

“Q, you are—“ Eliot knelt down in front of him, gingerly placing his hands on his knees. “You so important to me and I—“

Quentin pinched the inner corners of his eyes and shook off a layer of tears, swallowing as he steadfastly stared down at his hands, his perfect hands.

They were shaking.

Eliot hated himself. But he was frozen.

“You know, there are times when I look at you and all I can think is— Holy shit, how does this person even exist ?” Quentin spoke softly , but his words rang loud. “He’s so—he’s amazing and beautiful and warm and open and smart and clever and beautiful and fucking everything I’m not, but he still chooses to spend time with me? He chooses me? Like, um, how did I get so lucky, you know?”

Eliot shook his head, even though he knew Q didn’t see it, wasn’t looking at him now. God, he loved him. He was the lucky one. He was the lucky one. The words tried to force their way out but they were trapped in his throat, caught on all the edges he never managed to shave down . Well, never even really tried to soften, because it would be so weak.

Sometimes he was tired of being strong.

“But other times?” Quentin laughed, a joyless sound. He set his stare into the corner. “God, other times, I don’t know. I just—I don’t fucking know.”

Eliot’s grip on his knees tightened and he whispered, “Q.”

“Do you remember what you said to me—“ Quentin’s eyes flashed up at him, knocking the wind out of him “—the first week week we met?”

He remembered everything.

But Eliot slowly shook his head, giving Q the space he needed. Especially since he wasn’t totally sure where this was going.

“You said that the most important thing to know about you is that you don’t care about things ,” Quentin spat the last few words out, swallowing like they left an acid trail in his throat. His eyes never left his. “Remember that?”

Yeah. He did. But he kept his response vague. “Sounds like me.”

“Yeah, you specifically said, uh, Things aren’t really worth caring about, Little Q. So instead of worrying your pretty head until it spins off, let’s go get fucked up ,” he said, wringing his hands. Eliot forced himself not to flinch, to stay steady as Q got his thoughts out. 

Because there was no chance this was a random stroll down memory lane.

Quentin licked his lips and shivered, closing his eyes, “At the time, I just obsessed over you calling me pretty because I’m, uh—pathetic. But I’ve thought about the whole thing a lot since. Like, a lot.”

That was a lot to process, so Eliot didn’t even bother. He gripped onto Quentin tighter, like he might plummet if he didn’t.

Eliot gently prompted, “What’s your point?”

“That I—I think you’re full of shit,” Quentin said, with another wet and mirthless laugh, eyes still shut. “I think you care about things so much you can’t stand it. But I also think you’re too much of a scared little boy to ever do anything about it or to—to change, and so that’s why I’m done.”

With that, Quentin slowly extracted Eliot’s tense fingers from his knees and he stood, as ominous music started playing everywhere. Or maybe that was just the sound of Eliot’s blood rushing to his ears, whooshing his fate—the promise the world gave him—like a grateful chorus. He slid back to rest against his bare heels, panic rising.

“Quentin,” Eliot said, his voice outside himself. It was unrecognizable—sharp and unsteady and young and scared. He tried to scramble up but he couldn’t. “Q, no. No, sweetheart, please just let me explain—“

“Eliot,” Quentin said, firm but without further inflection. His own name thudded to the ground, dead. “I said I’m done.”

The door creaked open and slammed in one motion, and he was gone.

 


 

Interesting fact about Lord Byron.

Once, during one of his parties, after toasting the denizens with his monk skull cup, as he did, he proceeded to imbibe two bottles’ worth of wine in less than an hour, before running out onto the streets of London, stark raving nude and fully erect, swinging and swining his dick about like the Bacchus he didn’t know existed. In the end, he fucked the first willing person—people—he found, in the depths of a dirty sewer. Mary Shelley found him later, atop a heap of garbage, and bodily carried him home, as he sang sweet hymns into the night. 

Later, he wrote a poem about it, dripping with romanticism. Something about the beauty soaked night or some shit. Boring, sentimental garbage. Besides, it didn’t matter. Eliot didn’t read. He was functionally illiterate, hadn’t you heard? 

Julia loved that joke.

Anyway, that anecdote meant that sitting in a heap on the dirty ground, still barefoot, eyeliner smudged, and frizzy hair in disarray, while chain smoking and nursing a wholeass bottle of scotch? 

Totally part of the aesthetic. 

It was the essence of the aesthetic even. It was the alpha and omega of the aesthetic. His commitment to the aesthetic was unparalleled. He was a star. Watch him shine bright. Sing the fuck out, Louise.

Eliot sucked down another cigarette and threw it on the ground. He’d clean it up later, along with the rest of the nicotine carcasses littered around him. Pulled out another and lit it, brought it to his lips. It helped.

His fly was down.

Anyway, as a full disclosure to no one, that anecdote may not have been so much a “fact” as something he “pulled out his ass” to make himself feel “better.” 

Oops.

It worked. He did feel better. Playful fancies of the mind, always a treat. Eliot was good at that shit. He’d taken an improv class once. Kicked ass, but then his brother told his dad and that was the fucking end of that. Never did improv again, even in college. Wasn’t interested. 

Quentin once said it was probably from PTSD, but Quentin thought everyone had PTSD. Sometimes shit just sucked and that was it, you know? But Quentin wanted to be able to fix everything, because Quentin was good and kind and—

What was he talking about? 

Shit.

Anyway, the story sounded like something Byron would do, right? Dirty old dog. 

Eliot took another swing of scotch. It wasn’t a swig drink, but he was nothing if not a tastemaker and trendsetter. Right? Right.

Here was a real fact.

Byron died young, fevered, probably drunk, and alone. He was pulled along by nothing but delusions of grandeur, fancying himself a military leader in the Grecian revolution for no reason but his own overinflated sense of self. He was Eliot’s hero .

Another swig. It burned on the way down. Good.

Clunking his head against the brown facade of the Cottage, Eliot closed his eyes and refused to stare up at the stars. He didn’t deserve it. 

But just as he was about to fully marinate in the sweet familiarity of his own invidiousness, he heard the slightly less familiar but no less sweet clack-clack-clack of shuffling Mary Janes along the brick. Rubbing one eye with the cool bottom of the Lagavulin (Distiller’s Select, the good shit wasted down a drunk gullet) and the other with an ashy knuckle, Eliot sighed. 

With a terse wave, he stared up at Alice’s confused face, tilting back and forth at him like she was studying a particularly intriguing yet distasteful magical paradox. She wore a pink babydoll dress and her hair was pinned at the sides, like she had gotten dressed up without any help. But her bright eyes were concerned, blinking rapidly as she stared at his top form. Her face was paler than usual, he noticed, but the light was dim. So he was probably projecting.

“Eliot, are you—are you alright?” Alice pursed her lips and looked around. He watched her disapproving eyes take in the crushed red solo cups and a million cigarette butts graceless lingering in puddles of spilled booze. “Did we miss the party?”

Despite himself, Eliot laughed a little at that and squinted up at her. “Alice, it’s three in the morning.”

“You told me that I needed to stop showing up at the start time,” she said, lips lifting tightly. Eliot’s heart turned over with a shock of affection. “I was trying to be fashionably late, so I—I spent some time at the library first. Got a little caught up, I guess.”

Her eyes darted away for a second, before cautiously flicking back to him. She did this a few times before Eliot took another hissing sip of scotch and leaned forward, scratching his forehead on his knee. Then he rested his chin there and tried to focus.

Eliot tilted his lips up, soft. “Slight overcorrection, darling.”

Alice offered a tiny little smile in response, along with an even tinier shrug. It was almost shy. It was adorable. She was lovely. But from behind her, a low and scratchy voice chastised him in the darkness.

“Don’t talk down to her.”

Eliot hissed a sharp breath. Then he took another gulp of the liquor, so large that it stretched his throat painfully, almost not sliding down, almost forcing him to cough or vomit. But it burned down his trachea and stung along his ribcage before falling into his stomach, filling the pit. Good.

Kady Orloff-Diaz emerged from the shadows, army jacket rolled to the elbows and raccoon eyes glaring smug down at him over her folded arms. He traced a single finger along the rounded lip of the bottle and smirked, a bitter twist of his lips.

Bad timing, bitch.

“Why, aren’t you such a good girlfriend?” Eliot drawled, popping his eyes up to match her fire with his effortless cool. “Alice is so lucky.”

Alice’s eyes flickered. “Well, we haven’t actually had a discussion about labels—“

But Kady spoke over her, a hypocrite. She ticked an eyebrow, her eyes twinkling at Eliot with delight. “You look like shit.”

He did. He hoped she enjoyed it while it lasted.

Look upon my works, ye mighty and despair ,” Eliot said, holding his hands out, as he sharpened his tongue. “Better a fallen pharoah than a glorified junkie with a shitty perm. No wonder Penny dropped you like the bad habit you were.”

His ability to find and poke everyone’s most sensitive spot should have been classified as a deadly weapon. Kady’s snarl and snap toward him—any and all pretense of collectedness dropping like a shattered shield—was so instant, it was embarrassing.

Well, for her. He was doing great. Really fucking great.

“At least I have someone,” Kady said tightly, as though her petty insults could touch him. Then she spat on the ground next to him, ever a class act. “At least I don’t follow her around like a stray dog begging for scraps.”

His throat tightened but he forced out a laugh. “Don’t kink shame.”

“Would never, dickhead,” Kady sneered, sticking her tongue out. Then she puckered her lips and narrowed her eyes, a little twitch of a motion. “But I’m pretty sure there’s nothing kinky happening between you and Quentin, so—”

The world turned red and Eliot didn’t let her finish her boring insult. “Get his name out of your fucking mouth.”

In the background, Alice grabbed onto the top of Kady’s arm with a soft plea, but it went ignored as she stormed closer into Eliot’s space, staring down at him like he was trash.

“You have no ownership. Because guess what? He doesn’t hate me,” Kady said, sharply ticking her head to the side, an obvious challenge. Then she laughed, sour and biting. “If anything, he thinks you’ve been, ah, direct quote, ridiculous about the whole thing .”

Alice blinked back an unknown emotion and grabbed her arm harder. “Kady. Enough.”

Eliot pulled himself up, shaking on his legs, just so he could glower down at her, six-foot-two even in bare feet and regal as fuck even on his worst hour. She could throw her best at him and it would never take him down. She was nothing.

Kady obviously didn’t feel the same way though, her nostrils angling up at him under loathing eyes. His lip twitched into a snarl and their face-off turned cold, a vast tundra of freeze between them, uncrossable.

Except for Alice. 

She ran her hand down the length of Kady’s arm, twisting her slender fingers around the green folds of fabric, a soothing presence.

“You promised you wouldn’t do this,” Alice said gently. “Remember what I told you?”

Kady’s eyes refused to yield from their decimation of Eliot. “He started it.”

Alice frowned, “That doesn’t mean you have to antagonize him.”

“I hate to break it to you, darling,” Eliot said with a tiny quirk of a false small, “but you’re dating The Antagonist. She can’t help it.”

“You think that’s helpful?” Alice flipped around to face him with a scrunched up face. She sounded liked Quentin. 

She sounded far too much like Quentin. 

At once, world came back into dizzying focus, as he remembered everything.

Shit.

He leaned back against the wall, eyes turning glassy. His sight dipped in and out. Shit.

“God, you are that much of a narcissist, aren’t you?” Kady laughed, running her tongue over her teeth. She glared hard, stalking forward out of Alice’s soft hold. “In Eliot’s world, only Eliot gets to fuck up.”

She had some nerve.

“It was more than a fuck up,” he said, low and dangerous. She needed to tread lightly. “You almost murdered him.”

Kady’s eyes faltered for a second, giving her away. But she hardened them again just as quickly. “What, and your hands are clean?”

“My penance, my way,” Eliot said with a shrug, even though he didn’t have to explain shit to her. “What do you have to show for yourself?”

“I don’t answer to you. Not after what you’ve done. You’re nothing,” she said, throwing his own thoughts right back at him, in more ways than one. “You’re no one. You’re not even anyone to Quentin, not really—”

“Do not say his name.”

“Quentin, Quentin, Quentin, Quentin —”

“You callous fucking—”

“Like you have any goddamn right to tell me—“

“Do you even give a shit about what you did?”

“I didn’t do anything that you didn’t—“

“Fuck, I really should have—“

“Should have what? Killed me when you had the chance?”

“Your words, honey.”

“Hey, no time like the present. Great way to prove to all of them what you really are, if you even have the—“

“You’re not worth it. You’re not worth anyth—“

As their faces met in a vicious clamor, a flash and crack of lightning cratered a hole in the brick between them. Electric sparks spun out of control, flying in both of their faces and singing their hair. With undignified yelps, both Eliot and Kady jumped backwards, springing apart, panting and thoroughly freaked out.

Between them, the most dangerous person in the world held out crackling hands. Alice’s eyes were narrowed and her pink lips set in a line, clearly ready to blast both of them out of the wards if they so much as moved an inch toward each other again.

“Stop it,” Alice said, guttural and still. “Right now.”

“Shit,” Kady said through hard breaths, hand to her chest. “You could have really hurt us. What the hell?”

Honestly, Eliot highly respected Alice's dramatic choice. Words were cheap. But he nodded in stunned agreement anyway. His heart hammered with adrenaline and his palms tingled because, if anything, he could have reacted badly to that.

“You want the hard truth, from an objective observer?” Alice asked, her big blue eyes shining behind her glasses. She crossed her arms over her chest. “ Both of you fucked up. You both hold shares of the blame.”

Kady’s eyes went crossed for a second and she shook her head violently.  “Uh, did you forget the part where he drugged me?”

True. But he still had the ace in the hole. “She literally almost murdered Quentin.”

Kady snapped her head toward him. “Because you drugged me.”

“It wasn’t a fucking roofie. If you had just answered the questions—“

“I shouldn’t have been put in that position in the first—“

“If you had nothing to hide, then—“

“Oh my god, that’s what fascists say, you know that right? Shit, you are—“

“Stop it!” Alice screeched, stomping her foot and holding her electric hands high. She meant business and so they obliged, both more than a little terrified of her. 

Alice took a deep breath and cast her bright and angry eyes between them. “Eliot, drugging someone with truth serum is a serious violation. It absolutely created the circumstances that allowed the incident to happen. You not only owe Kady an apology, you need to get rid of your stash or I’ll tell Fogg about it.”

He laughed. Like he didn’t fucking know. Like he was still just drowning in his least favorite potion now. Jesus. He ashed his cigarette with a hard flick and dug his molars into his tongue.

“Couple steps ahead of you, kiddo,” he said, flat and without looking at her. “Burned that shit the same night.”

Not literally. 

Well, actually, he did try literally. 

Margo stopped him so he didn’t quote-unquote explode everything . In retrospect, it was probably for the best, much as he had wanted a cathartic bonfire. He rubbed the heel of his palm against his eyebrow and briefly looked down at his feet, hoping for a freak sinkhole.

Once again—no luck.

But just as Kady started to widen her dumb face into a smug smile, Alice turned to her with a serious expression.

“And you still almost got an innocent person killed,” Alice said, eyebrows pinching. Kady turned to face her with a scoff, even her eyes wandered frantically. “From what I understand, you didn’t remove yourself. You didn’t give in for even a second, even when Q was standing right next to you and you knew what was happening. You said yourself, part of you let it happen, for the sake of—“

“Look, I warned Quentin,” Kady said, a pitiful argument. Eliot returned it with a scathing huff of smoke.

“Barely,” he said, wishing his voice had more of an edge to it. Something he could hide behind. “There was no way he could have gotten away in time and you knew it.”

Kady’s eye twitched once but otherwise she didn’t acknowledge him, keeping her focus on Alice, who still stood stony faced between them. With a long swallow, Kady set her face into determination, serious and hard.

“Coldwater and I talked about it. I apologized and he accepted, end of story,” she said, flying her hands out into a deep shrug. “He even went to bat for me with Fogg.”

Eliot smoked. He just—

He just smoked, okay?

“Because Quentin has a hero complex,” Alice said, incredulous and also accurate. “He probably pictured himself wearing full chain maille and riding a stunning white horse—“ her eyes closed for a moment, reverent “—just truly stunning , lilac flowers in the braided mane, at least sixteen hands high, and with a gorgeous saddle in detailed silverwork.”

Eliot and Kady exchanged rare, wary glances.

Alice cleared her throat and turned serious once again. “Anyway, he also probably saw himself brandishing a sword and shield as he made his big speech to the dean. There was a big speech, right?”

The details about the horse were weird, but she still made a good point. It even resonated with Kady, who combed a hand through her hair—no wonder her curls were so frizzy all the time—and sighed.

“Yeah, it was pretty speechy. Stammery, but speechy,” Kady said, with a short snort of laughter. It almost sounded genuine. “Fogg told him to chill with the eye contact and that he’s not allowed to use the phrase the magic of self-determination anymore. Like, ever again.”

Something warm in Eliot’s chest twitched and so he drank more scotch to quell it.

“Well, he’s definitely said that since I’ve known him,” Alice said with an eye roll. It was true. “But my point is that just because Quentin thinks it’s fine that you almost broke his entire central nervous system doesn’t mean that it actually is. I know you’re doing the work for yourself, but can’t you understand how his friends feel?”

Kady sucked in her lower lip and popped it back out. “Yeah, except I didn’t hurt them.”

Alice blinked owlishly and then put her hands on her hips, emulating Margo and coming surprisingly to her natural ferocity. Bambi would have cooed in her private pride.

“Not physically. But they love Quentin. They were scared,” Alice said, her sharp and nasal voice wavering with an almost inhuman amount of empathy. “What happened affected people in ways you’ve consistently not been willing to own up to and that’s—disappointing.”

Kady’s body flinched like Alice lodged a bomb, but Eliot couldn’t bring himself to sympathize. Poor baby.

“I didn’t hurt Eliot,” Kady said, stubborn. “I’m not going to apologize to him because there was collateral damage to his actions.”

The bottle of scotch exploded.

Tiny pebbles of piercing glass and a streams of amber brown liquid flew in the sky like sparks, hovering over the patio like a dome held in suspended animation. Then it all rained down, a thundering storm, clinking and splashing to the ground in torrent waves. With her catlike reflexes, Alice threw her hands up and shielded the three of them from bodily harm, shooting Eliot a withering glare in the meantime. Kady squatted down and held her arms over her head, breathing hard.

And Eliot just stood there, feeling nothing.

When the deluge finally slowed and stopped, Alice clicked her heels together and pivoted to jut her chin at him, everything eerily calm in its wake.She snapped her teeth and growled at him, low and cold. “If you can’t control yourself—”

“Oh, no, that was controlled and purposeful,” Eliot said in harsh clarification. Then he pointed at Kady, who was standing up again and wiping her jeans, face impassive. “Did you hear what she fucking said? Collateral damage? She’s talking about Quentin .”

Kady took a breath and only looked at Alice. “I didn’t mean it like—”

Finally, Alice’s cold glare was turned on Kady, where it always should have been. “Kady, shut the fuck up. You’re disregarding trauma that you were a major part of, whether you want to face it or not. Maybe that avoidance alleviates your guilt in someway right now, but it should actually add to it, if you had a sympathetic bone in your body.”

“I mean,” Kady bit her tongue and clenched her fists, the last semblance of patience fading, “you weren’t even there, Alice, so this is a little—”

Alice set her jaw away, trembling. “You’re reminding me of Mayakovsky.”

Kady’s eyes widened, staggering backwards. “What? I’m nothing like—”

“He told me that it was a shame that he fucked the wrong student and that he wouldn’t make that mistake again,” Alice spat out, eyes dark. She swallowed, shaking her a head, a minute motion. “But he believed, ultimately, that my brother made his own choice and therefore, he felt no personal remorse. Do you agree with his logic?”

For a moment, Kady was silent. Then she opened her mouth and a small, breathy sound escaped as she glanced up at the sky, obviously equivocating. Alice’s face turned into the storm she could command.

“Wow. No. Don’t answer that,” she growled. She looked away from Kady again, hugging herself. “I take the question back. I don’t want to know.”

Kady took one step forward, her hand jerking and eyes wet. “Alice—”

“No, your silence said enough,” Alice said, before turning completely away. Then her face turned into a sneer, focused right on Eliot. “And as for you—”

Oh, Jesus. Eliot slumped his spent body against the wall. Thanks for playing, but he wasn’t going to do this now.

“Can we save the guilt and recriminations?” His voice was dry and resigned. He needed more scotch. He hadn’t thought that part through. “You can’t say anything to me about my role in what happened to Quentin that I haven’t already burned into my brain, okay?”

To his surprise, Alice nodded and waved him off.

“I believe that. I do think you know,” she said, before snorting, lips tilting up derisively. “You’ve certainly spiraled enough since I met you to make that clear.”

Eliot took the low bow he earned. Bravissimo.

“Right. So then,” he said, using his lowered stance to pick up his pack of cigarettes and shake it aloft, “back to the toilet flush if you don’t mind.”

Alice cocked her head, like a bird. “Did you know that you were my first friend, Eliot?”

He squinted, thinking. It made sense. She probably hadn’t had time to meet anyone else at Brakebills before him, since she was swept away during her first year. He had never really thought about it in those terms, but it must have been true.

So Eliot said as much. “Well, I was the first person you met, so that makes—”

“No,” Alice said, cutting him off quietly and staring down at her hands. “That’s not what I mean.”

Oh.

Jesus.

Over his suddenly gaping chest, Eliot opened his mouth to respond. No words came though, so he clicked his teeth shut and rubbed the back of his neck, an overwhelming sense of shame resting on him like a strangling cloak. Beside him, Alice laughed, stretching out her fingers like they fascinated her. She wore a slight silver ring on her right hand. It was delicate and lovely.

“I never really learned how to be around people. Charlie was the closest to a positive relationship I had and after he died—well, I became obsessive. It consumed my every thought,” she said, by way of explanation. She voice was tear choked. Oh god. “I went to college and kind of drifted my way through, pushing everyone away who tried to get close to me. Not that many people did. I’m not exactly charming.”

“Fuck anyone who tells you that,” Kady shot out, briefly breaking her pouting in the corner. It was accusatory, as though Eliot was the one who said it. As though Eliot wasn’t endlessly charmed by Alice Quinn, in all the ways no one would have expected, least of all himself.

Ignoring Kady, Alice gave Eliot a watery smile. “I know I’m not as important to you as you are to me.”

He let out a strangled breath, like he was punched in the gut. That probably would have been less of a painful shock. A bullet would have been.

Eliot brought his eyebrows together and shook his head. “Alice—”

“But I thought I at least mattered, somewhat,” Alice continued, chewing on her lip. “That I was more than just your cute little doll, your fun distraction. That was stupid though.”

Shit. “You are more than that. I’m sorry if I ever made you feel like you weren’t.”

“I think you believe that. I think you want to believe that,” she said, smiling with her teeth but not her eyes. She sniffed. “But it’s not true. You’re too—preoccupied, for that to be true. It’s okay, I guess, but it doesn’t mean that I—“

Eliot braved a step closer to her, dread circling his heart. He touched her arm. “What are you getting at?”

Alice stood up straight and held her head high, cool and resolved. He always knew her as the passionate inner battle between the sweet darling and the poison rage, ripping each other apart until they finally worked in cohesion. Eliot admired that about her, the way she was neither one nor the other, and so rarely apologized for the dichotomy.

But this? This Alice was more imposing and impressive than anything he’d seen from her yet. Strangely, wildly, he felt the urge to kneel before her, to pledge his fealty.

Long live the queen.

“I’m saying that you—honestly, both of you have so much... shit to deal with,” she said, a little wry, but mostly pained, “and I’m not convinced that either of you can be a good friend or a good partner until you do.”

Kady shot up, muscles taut and frozen. Her eyes were bloodshot. “Wait. Alice, what the hell are you saying?”

“That I’m taking myself out,” Alice said, dignified. Eliot’s heart sank, but in a way, he understood. “I’ve been through enough in my life and all this is—way too much. I’m sorry. I can’t.”

Kady was slightly less understanding.

“Because of him?” Teeth bared, she pointed a razor-sharp black fingernail toward Eliot. She hissed, voice shaking. “I didn’t even want to go to this stupid party, Alice.”

Alice laughed, the regality breaking for a sharp second. “Yes, I know, you made that very clear.” 

But Kady’s eyes widened, hand going to forehead. “But now you’re—?”

“It’s not about Eliot or you, individually, not really,” Alice said, pushing her glasses up and not quite meeting her intense and desperate stare. “But I don’t need to get embroiled in even more mess. I’m sorry.”

“Alice, wait—” Kady rushed at her, trying to take her hands. “Please, let’s just—“

“I’m sorry,” Alice said softly, voice thick and final. Then she looked at both of them in the eyes once, before nodding and turning on her Mary Janes.

She clack-clack-clack’d away and Eliot had never respected her more, and he already respected her so goddamn much. But Kady stood where Alice was, slack jawed and hand to her chin, breathing heavily. 

Then she spun around and pushed Eliot back against the wall of the Cottage. 

He let himself fall.

“Thanks a lot, jackass,” Kady said, her voice rough and alien, with a fragility he had never heard. As quickly as her arms launched against him they jumped back onto her hair as she paced in an angry circle.

Of course, Eliot immediately had a scornful retort on his tongue. But as he rubbed at his scratched elbow, the words died at the devastation sketched on her face, staring up at him, so young and so heartbroken. She wore it plainly, that same feeling he lived with and hid under his booze and his clothes and his wit. The raw power of her was shocking and almost humbling. Her vulnerability was real, even in the face of her defenses. He had to give her that. 

If nothing else.

Nothing else.

And so he said—nothing, except to clear his throat and avert his eyes. It was the least he could do. It was all he would do. Kady huffed out a breath and pushed him again, rocking him back on his heels. Then she sniffed and turned away, stalking off without another glance backwards.

“Stupid. So stupid,” she muttered to herself, hugging her arms and shaking her head as she retreated out of sight. “ You’re so stupid . Stupid, stupid, stupid—“

As she disappeared, Eliot’s heart cracked. It was only at its quietest edge, along with an unfamiliar wave of sympathy washing over him like hangover nausea. It was about as pleasant too. The quiet left in their wake only served to highlight the absurdity, the drama he once lived for, and the relentless ache of his dull and thumping heart.

What a fucking night.

His head hurt. The ground was cold under his feet. The shattered glass was still everywhere and his fingers itched to lift the pieces, to discard them, to make the world a bit more orderly. Not mend it. There was nothing worth mending. But he could clear away. He could clean up the mess he made and he wanted to. But his discipline—his gift , as Fogg insisted on calling it—didn’t fit the mold in so many ways. Sure, he could kill children with buses, but the easiest way to use his power in the day to day was to make things neater, make them more precise, more efficient.

Except Eliot was none of those things.

He was a wreck and he was verbose and he always took the long way, the laziest and most conniving coward’s path. Anything else was for people better than him, people who knew what the hell they were doing at any given time.People stronger than him. People who actually made the world something worthwhile. People who made the world better and brighter, through their sincere effort.

People like Quentin and Margo, the two strongest and bravest and brightest people he knew. And Alice—sweet, wise, brilliant Alice—who had never asked for any of this bullshit. Yet she saw something in Eliot that first day, something that made her stick around, much as she regretted it now. The three of them tried, so hard, all the time. He was so unworthy of them.

God, what bravery it took to look at a mess and say, I can make this better, no matter how small the effect. I can help. I will help. What bravery, when it was so much easier to let things be and let them lie, forever unchanged. To not give a shit; to give up and stand down. It was what he had always done, once he left Indiana. He had blown his load early on and never looked back, telling himself that he deserved the repose, that there was nothing more he ever needed to do. Nothing else he ever had to live up to.

Eliot took a deep breath and stared at the stars, beautiful and fading into the cloudy night. Then he left the broken glass as it was, for now, but walked back into the house.

It was time to clean up.

 


 

When Eliot knocked on the door, he knew he may get no answer. He knew he may even be unwelcome, at the ungodly hour and with all the shit that had gone down. But his skin was on fire, electric and charged, and there was no way he could wait until the morning to do this. If he was going to do it, he had to do it now.

He’d lose his nerve otherwise.

His knuckles stung after he knocked again, rapid and anxious. He lowered his hand and swallowed, his fingers sliding against each other as he bounced on his feet, waiting. The roof of his mouth was heavy, like it was about to shutter over his shallow breaths. He wasn’t sure if he was hoping the door would open or not. He flipped back and forth, yesnoyesnoyesplease

When the thin line near the ground turned from black to a soft glow of yellow, his brain screamed, telling him to get the fuck away. But his heart whispered out an anchor, rooting him to the spot. After a few moments of soft shuffling, the doorknob turned and Eliot straightened up. 

His pulse raced as the light spilled out into the hallway and the sleepy face that greeted him squinted up in confusion. His words rushed out, not allowing for even a hair of a chance that he’d back out, that he’d be a coward again. Eliot held his hands along the open door frame and leaned in, desperate.

“I’m sorry. I’m—fuck, I’m so sorry. You were right,” he choked out, for once not fighting the tears forming under his lashes. “You were right, about everything. I know I didn’t react well and I know I said all the wrong shit, at every turn, but I’m saying now that you were righ t.”

Eliot was met with silence, a fair response, He sighed, eyes closing. “I’ve been such an idiot. I know I needed to hear it. I needed to hear everything you said to me, hard as it was. I know that I’ve made shitty decisions and said shitty things, and hurt you and everyone else because I couldn’t—I wouldn’t—”

He licked his lips. Why was this so fucking hard? It shouldn’t be this fucking hard. Christ, he was the defective one.

Mournful and ashamed, he ripped the rest of the words out with his soul. “But I—I promise I’m here now, baby. Because you were right .”

His arms fell to his sides and he let out a strangled breath, out of steam. 

That was all he had. 

He just hoped it would be enough. His heart was outside his body, beseeching and imploring. And fuck, hoping , even though he knew hope was a fool’s exercise. But he couldn’t help it. He couldn’t forget how to hope, no matter how hard he tried.

From the other side of the door, a perfect eyebrow arched.

“No shit I was right,” Bambi said with yawn. She stretched her svelte, tiny arms up high, then let her elbows fall around the crown of her head. She cocked one eye up at him over a frown. “But remind me what the fuck you’re talking about? How high are you?”

Eliot would never fall out of love with Margo Hanson so long as he lived.

“I’m not high,” he said, slumping against the open door and sniffing. “This is sincerity. I’m being sincere.”

All the color drained from her face and her eyes went unnaturally wide. “Oh, fuck.

He laughed a little, rueful, and rolled his eyes at himself before taking another deep breath and pinning her with his most serious gaze.

“Is Julia here?” He kept his voice soft. No need to waken sleeping dragons. Thank god, Margo shook her head.

“No, I was at her place, but ended up leaving because—” she stretched again, arms straight out in front of her. But then she paused, like something hit her. Her big eyes went from sleepy to way too understanding.

Margo pursed her lips and crossed her arms, hip jutted out. “Because Q showed up all weepy, again, and I was unceremoniously booted from her bed. Again.

As much sympathy as Eliot usually felt for Margo getting pussyblocked, his brain was too busy shorting out over the image of a crying Quentin. A relentless pounding of Your fault, your fault, your fault filled his mouth along with a deluge of thick saliva, the kind that proceeded puking your guts out.

He stared down at the ground, jaw trembling. “So you know then.”

But Margo just snorted.

“I don’t know shit. See, her best friend actually fucking talks to her,” she said with a playful poke at his elbow. He smiled as much as he could and she sighed, sobering. “But I have noticed Quentin’s been kind of a needy asshole with her lately.”

“Yeah, ah,” Eliot cleared his throat and took a shaky breath. “Yeah. I might have had something to do with that.”

No ,” Margo said, eyes cloying wide and lips dripping with sarcasm. “You don’t say.”

His jaw tensed and he snapped, “Can we not? With the bullshit? For once?”

Hypocrisy, thy name was Eliot Waugh.

He really was a dick. He sighed and knowingly met her cool stare, the unamused downturn of her lips. She scoffed, running a hand through her bed head.

“That’s up to you, honey. You wanna talk, my door’s open,” she said in her brassiest, baddest bitch voice. “But I’m not holding your hand. You gotta get there on your own.”

She set her jaw forward and put her hands on her hips, obviously expecting a challenge back. He couldn’t blame her. He’d never given her reason to expect anything less. Well, anything more.

But hey, at least Eliot could still surprise her.

He crumpled.

Eliot hugged his arms around his torso and shook his head, short and fast. He couldn’t look at her, but he felt Margo shift closer, felt the shock radiate off her.

“But, like—” he swallowed, eyes darting. His voice was driven gravel. “Could you? Please?”

Her heard her tiny gasp, the growing uncertainty in her voice. “Could I—what?”

Eliot closed his eyes again, eyelids stinging. “Hold my hand. I’m—I’m not—things aren’t—I’m not—”

A cool hand cupped his chin and he melted. Even more so when her rarest, gentlest voice came out. “Sweetie, what happened?”

“You saw,” Eliot said with a sniff. He braved a glance at her and she frowned.

“What, Quentin’s little hissy fit?” Margo sighed and shook her head. “You know that happens.”

It didn’t. Not really. Not the way she thought. Sure, Quentin got pouty and stompy, would snap over something stupid, like whether someone ate his goddamn strawberry pop-tarts when really, he misplaced them. But what had happened that night was uncharted territory. Margo just wasn’t an expert.

For better or worse, Eliot was.

He couldn’t find the strength to say all that quite yet though, and he blurted out the first mangled garbage that came to mind. “The ropes fell when I said I destroy everything I touch.”

Bambi’s nose turned up. “Huh?”

God love her bluntness. He almost laughed, but he knew he would end up curled on the floor sobbing if he took too shallow a breath and, well, he didn’t want to totally kill her boner for him. So instead, Eliot forced himself to speak, as dignified as he could manage. It wasn’t his best performance, but considering the obstructions he was under, it should have ranked higher than it seemed.

“During The Trials. It wasn’t—it wasn’t about Indiana,” Eliot said, filling his lungs, in and out. He could smell her magnolia shampoo and it settled his stomach, still nauseated. “It was about me. I destroy everything I touch.”

Without any lead up, Bambi reached out and wrapped her arms around his waist, pressing her tiny head to his chest. She could certainly hear his erratic heart and she hummed, running her hands up and down his back.

“It’s almost four in the morning, sweetie. I’m still kind of buzzed,” she said into his shirt, before tilting her face up at him, chin to his collarbone, and smiling, soft and sad. “You need to be clearer for me.“

Eliot nosed at the top of her head, tangling his hand in the soft strands of her hair. Breathing her in and surrounding himself with nothing but Margo, he let the words he needed to say flow.

“I almost got him killed, and now I was trying so hard not to lose him that I think I lost him,” he said, throat tight. Margo blinked up at him in confusion and he shrugged, a tiny little motion. “Um, Q and I fought. It was bad. He said he’s done with me.”

“I’ll fuckin’ believe that when I see it,” Margo interjected. But he shook his head, silently begging her not to speak. For once in her life, she gave in.

“Alice doesn’t want anything to do with me anymore, can’t fucking blame her.” His mouth was filled with her hair and his tongue was dry. “Julia thinks I’m a piece of shit. And you and I are—who the fuck are we anymore? You’re here, but you’re not. And I’m here, but I’m not .”

Margo’s hands gripped him tighter and he felt her own breathing come less steady. She sniffed once and buried her face into him, like she was hiding. He was overwhelmed with longing for her, even as she held him. He kissed the top of her head, a messy brush of his lips.

“I destroy everything I touch,” he said, whispering. “Everything, Bambi.”

She stayed still in his arms for one moment longer. Then she pushed back, keeping her hands on his chest as she blinked her glassy eyes into focus. She swallowed heavily, brushing a piece of lint off his shirt and fixing his askew collar, dark brows pinched in concentration. His cracked armor unraveled further under her sweet attention and in the way she was obviously trying to hold herself together.

Finally, she looked back up at him and patted his cheek once, a bright gesture in a black night. She smiled, cool and no nonsense, and his chest warmed with an almost unbearable fondness for her.

“Come on in,” Margo said, with her usual casual and competent air. She looked him up and down, then nodded like she had deemed him worthy. “We’re gonna figure this shit out, okay?”

She spun on her heels, hair flying behind her in a perfect spin. Her hips moved in their natural figure eight, ready strut into problem solving mode, always in heels even when barefoot. But before he could follow her in and flop down face first on her big bed like the dramatic bitch he was, Margo sighed, fully annoyed. Then she thrust her arm back impatiently, stretching her fingers wide, in and out, traffic signaling.

With a small smile to the ground and not daring to breathe a word...

Eliot took her hand.

 


 

Eliot never called Margo Bambi until he saw her room in the Cottage.

They had been friends since the exam day, bound together as the only two people on campus who knew how to moisturize, party, and talk down to the peons without missing a beat. They spent hours lamenting the shitty, dreary cinder block dorm rooms and the lack of available space to define themselves, through the visual mediums they were both drawn to. 

It had bonded them, the time sitting in the quad and drinking champagne, giggling days into fucked up nights. There was an innocence about that time, a superficiality that every now and then—Eliot missed. But it was still better once they really knew each other. He knew that, even if it took occasional reminders to his worst self.

Anyway, once they’d finally settled into the Physical Kids realm (something both of them could have told Brakebills from day one, but that was neither here nor there), Eliot had been so excited to see her room in all its glory. He thrilled in anticipation at the inevitable vampy glamour that was sure to adorn the living space of Queen Margo Hanson, all draping reds and Irving Klaw prints. She was the midnight black to his royal purple, the cutthroat to his cool.

But instead, the first time he walked in as she announced the grand reveal, Eliot laughed out loud. It had been a sparkling sound and more out of surprise than humor. Because Margo’s room was, well…

It was cute.

She had a mauve comforter, with several throw pillows—one of which actually read LOVE (?!) in block letters—all gently lit from a novelty lampshade, printed with New York City scenes, including the goddamn Statue of Liberty . Even more shocking, there were pictures everywhere , all of her and even more of Eliot, in sweet frames of varying colors. She had a pastel blue Polaroid, waiting to capture even more precious moments beside her crowded vanity. There was nothing sleek, nothing dangerous, nothing even sexy about her room. It was like a gentle hug from a teenage girl, one who had just learned even the slightest thing about interior decorating.

Seriously, she had floral curtains. Floral. Floral. Margo.

It was the most adorable thing Eliot had ever seen. And that remained true, even when he received an angry smack to the arm when he said as much.

“It has to be an inviting space, so that my fuck friends let their guards down,” Margo said by way of explanation, but her cheeks were darker than before. “It’s an artistic decision, you condescending dick.”

He was condescending. He also wasn’t wrong. It was a peak at the smallest, sweetest part of her heart, and he was going to relish every second of it.

“Okay, Bambi,” Eliot had said softly, pushing a strand of her silky hair behind her ear. She glared, red lips puckering.

“Bambi was a boy, you dummy,” she said, only slightly defensive. She had been younger then, in all ways.

To disarm her, Eliot had smiled, clicking his tongue and flopping down on her bed like he owned it. He reached one long arm out and pulled her into his chest, curling around her like a large cat.

“Exactly,” he cooed, kissing her forehead. “It’s like you said. Mixing up expectations. That’s the definition of my Bambi.”

At that, Margo had snorted, a soft and disbelieving sound and she melted into him for barely half a moment. Then she rubbed her chin along his silk vest, thoughtful and affectionate, before turning her face up at him with a wicked grin.

“You’re so full of shit,” she accused, gleeful. She kicked at his ankle and he chuckled, low and acquiescing, into the crook of her neck. He had been totally full of shit. But she loved him for it, it seemed. And thus, he had loved her too, slowly but surely until it was far, far too late to go back.

It was one of his favorite memories.

But in the present, their roles were reversed. Margo was the one curled around him and his ear was pressed to her ever steady heartbeat. Her fingers delicately spun his curls, murmuring the spells to put them back in place. They were the ones he had taught her. They were tiny little love letters, each of them.

“Okay,” Margo said quietly, after they had relaxed for a few sleepy moments. “Start from the beginning for me. I’m assuming Encanto Oculto is where we lay our scene?”

Of course she knew more than she was letting on. 

Eliot felt her tiny chest rise and fall under his cheek and he let his own breath match her rhythm. It was the only way he would get through this—following her lead.

“Did Julia tell you?” If Julia had actually given Margo any amount of information, it was important to know. He was pretty sure by now that Julia knew everything or nearly everything. If she was passing her interpretation on, he would probably have to correct the record a few times. 

Julia’s take would probably be—uncharitable.

Not that he deserved charity, but Eliot wasn’t a mustache twirling villain either. He had fucked up, but he had done his best with what he had. He knew Margo would understand that, more than anyone, but—

But.

He still worried.

It didn’t matter though, because Margo “I Don’t Like To Repeat Myself” Hanson gave his arm a gentle punch from above. A mostly gentle punch. Gentle for her.

“Once again, that bitch hasn’t told me anything,” she said, before sticking her tongue out. “She says It’s private between Quentin and me, part of our sacred fucking bond, blah blah blah .” 

Her impression of Julia’s low pitched vocal fry was really good. 

Eliot looked up at her and grinned in appreciation. Margo winked.

Then she made an annoyed sound from her throat, digging her fingernails deeper into his scalp. “Which, like, why even be in a relationship if you don’t get each other’s gossip?”

Eliot smirked, still feeling inappropriately twinkly. “Oh, and it’s good gossip too.”

Objective fact.

Margo lodged a sour and kittenish glare at him. He smiled, biting the air up at her and she scrunched her nose down at him, teasing. For a flash, he forgot the world. But then she sighed again, tilting her head, back to business.

“It’s not that big of an island, El. I saw you two,” she said, sending his stomach plummeting. “I’m just tactful as shit so I never mentioned it.”

She didn’t say anything more, playing with his hair. His heart pounded and he decided not to make any assumptions.

“What—exactly did you see?” Eliot asked, slow and methodical.

Margo paused her movements in his hair, hand stilling dangerously. He turned away from her again, not able to bear the look on her face. A good call, because it wasn’t long before he heard her tiny and foreboding chuckle, the sharp suck of her lower lip between her teeth.

“You two dancing up on each other like the world was going to end,” she said, slow and methodical right back. Then Margo pushed him off her and crossed her arms, looming over him. “Was there something else I could have seen?”

Eliot sat up and slumped over on his torso, like a rag doll. He pushed his eyes into his palms, somehow having forgotten that talking involved— talking . Ugh. “There might have been—ah. Well. It was all very high school.”

“Eliot.”

He spoke as quickly as he could, ripping the bandaid. “We made out and fell asleep on the beach together.”

Margo shoved him and he fell over on his side. “ Eliot.

“It was nothing,” he lied and he knew that she knew it was a lie. She pinched his arm to prove it and he winced, since she always aimed for actual pain, not just a point. “Fine, it wasn’t nothing. But it was—we were both really fucked up. I mean, Quentin even overdosed on goddamn pills—”

“What the motherfucking shit?” Bambi’s eyes went wide and terrified, and oh , right. That had different connotations sometimes. Always. “What the fuck? You didn’t tell us?”

He shook his head and took her hands, squeezing them tight. “No, sorry, fuck. I meant he took, like, three of those dancing pills. You know, those ones Maurice is always hocking?”

“That still could have been bad,” Margo said, crossing her arms. “Is he fucking stupid?” 

“I mean, you’ve met him,” Eliot said in lieu of a more precise answer. He closed his eyes. “His legs did give out, but he was fine. Slept it off.”

Margo deflated, head falling down. She swallowed audibly and squeezed his hands back once, before putting them to her chest.

“Jesus,” she said, calming. “Give me a fucking heart attack, why don’t you? That went from deliciously idiotic to fucked up , you dick.”

“Sorry,” Eliot said again, closing his eyes. “I was just trying to say that it wasn’t—it wasn’t like we were in the right place to—you know. It wasn’t—it was just a dumb hook up.”

Margo’s hand pet his cheek and he heard her sigh again. “What, you’re trying to say it didn’t mean anything? Come on.”

Eliot laughed, wet and cracking open. He stared up at her ceiling, energy draining with every word he spoke. “What happens in Ibiza stays in Ibiza, right?”

Wrong. It had decidedly not stayed in Ibiza. He knew that. And he knew she knew that. So a small but strong hand yanked his chin down and fierce brown eyes met his.

“That’s for, like, when we do bath salts and then ride the bull and the matador at the same time,” Bambi spat out, not letting him move from her grasp. “Not for tender moonlit kisses and waking up in our best friend’s arms as the sun rises over the hazy horizon.”

Eliot glared, couldn’t help it. “Editorializing, are we?”

“If it was you and Quentin, it had to have been tender as shit, dickhead,” she said, smacking his leg. She spoke her words slowly, patronizingly. “You two are in love with each other.”

The words rang loud in his ears and cloaked Margo’s adorable room in a heavy perfume, invading every pore. His usual instincts bubbled to the surface, the ones that brushed off or joked. But for the first time, he took a deep breath and thought the most impossible thought. Which was…

Yeah. Maybe. 

Maybe .

But nothing had changed. 

Eliot was still Eliot. He had proven that tenfold, hadn’t he? Had he done anything that made being with Quentin something he was worthy of, something that didn’t belong in the realm of fever dreams and fever dreams alone? Anything that proved him to be anything more than a weak coward? Anything that didn’t foretell anything but disaster and heartache?

The questions were rhetorical, but only because the answer was so goddamn obvious.

“Not that simple,” he said, lacing his fingers together on his lap. He stared down at them, everything else too much like the sun. His retinas were scalded forever, just from the night alone. He needed to breathe and take his time.

But Margo waited for no man.

“Lay the complexity on me then,” she said, a clear challenge. She leaned back against her headboard with her arms crossed and eyebrow arched. “Sleep’s not happening tonight, so I’ve got some fuckin’ time.”

Eliot groaned and wrapped his arms around his head, fully blocking his eyes. This was going to be the worst. But he knew better than to resist and so he started talking, without much regard for sense.

“First of all, I’m the guy you sleep with on your tropical vacation because you think I’m—“ You’re so gorgeous, El “—um, hot or whatever. But I’m not the guy you’re actually with in the light of day. So there was already that working against us.”

He heard Margo shift and hum, as though in thought. Then she patted him on the head, bright and sharp. “Yeah. You’re right.”

Okay, ouch.

“Okay, ouch,” Eliot said, lowering his arms and shot a scathing look at her. True or not, best friends weren’t supposed to agree with shit like that. What a bitch.

In response, Margo twisted her shoulder in front of her coquettishly and let out a melodic purr, fluttering her eyelashes and pouting her lower lip.

“What can I say?” Bambi let the words drip from her lips, saccharine and ready to destroy. “You’re talking about the infamous Fuck-‘Em-and-Chuck-’Em Coldwater. It’s how it goes.”

“You don’t get it,” Eliot snapped. Margo shrugged.

“No, I do,” she said, rubbing circles on his back and dropping a kiss on his cheek. “I get it because I know you’re making shitty excuses. Try again with a little feeling this time, sweetcakes.”

Eliot felt an intense rush of bittersweet appreciation for her. On the one hand, she always met him where he was. He had literally knocked down her door, almost sobbing about the Kady—incident and how he always destroyed everything meaningful and even how he felt he had lost her, his Margo, his Bambi . He was a mess.

Yet she didn’t push him, fulfilling her threat and promise.

She let them volley bullshit back and forth, buoyant and light and dazzling. He was Gene Kelly, tap dancing through the acid rain, and she, his muse. She was his enablement and his salvation, all wrapped in one. He loved her, but he knew that this—just like all the ones he had already botched with Q—was a moment that truly mattered. He could brush it off and focus on the superficial shit, and she’d let him. Or he could be real, and she would welcome him. But it was up to him and no one else. This was where she wouldn’t hold his hand. Couldn’t, maybe.

“He’s my best friend, Margo,” Eliot said, throat strained and aching. The words trembled out. “Both of you are my only—you know I don’t have any family. I’ve already fucked up enough.”

Bambi rested her cheek on her shoulder, eyebrows furrowing. “Fucked up, how?”

She asked but she knew. He knew she knew. So he twisted his moonstone ring and stretched out a false smile, anything to shield.

“I drugged Kady, just to be a dick,” Eliot said softly. They’d had this conversation before, but not sober. “He almost died, because of me.”

“I’m still not sure how you figure that,” Margo said with narrowed eyes. “I’m missing a few steps there.”

“Come on,” he shot out, done with her revisionist bullshit. “The sequence of events was clear. The impetus was clear. If Kady hadn’t fought the truth serum—”

“You have no idea what would have gone down,” Bambi said, laying her hand over his. She stared at him with all the love and ferocity in her heart, both considerable. “That’s the truth, El. For all we know, Kady could have freaked out about something else and the same shit would have happened. Or, fuck, she could have taken Q hostage, she might have—”

Eliot snorted and rubbed his ring against his lip, hiding a smile. “That’s a reach.”

“I’m saying that we don’t know, you dick,” she clarified, smacking his hand down. “We’ll never know. Was the truth serum a good idea? Probably fuckin’ not. But she made choices too. So did Q, frankly.”

His heart lurched angrily into his throat and he looked away from her. “ Don’t.

Margo took a deep breath and in his peripheral, he saw her resigned lips press down into each other. She took his hand and stroked his callouses under her thumb, the ones that had never gone away.

“If you aren’t letting yourself be with Q because of what happened in April?” Margo spoke as cautiously as he had ever heard, each word precise and slow. “You’re not only punishing yourself, honey. That boy loves you, Eliot. The way you see what happened, the way you see yourself is not—”

Nope. He wasn’t ready for that. 

He grabbed his hand and withdrew, crossing his arms over his chest and huffing out breaths, telegraphing for all the world and Margo that he was not going there. Not yet. 

Maybe not ever.

Fortunately, Bambi picked up what he was putting down almost immediately. Unfortunately, she obviously judged the shit out of him for it, with a tetchy shake of her head and eye roll.

“Fine, you big baby. Let’s stick to the timeline then,” she said, like it was a huge and painful concession. She flopped back against her love pillow and stared up at her ceiling. “So after your sexy rendezvous on the beach, you guys, what, just acted like it never happened and that’s what blew up in your face?”

Eliot sucked his lower lip between his teeth and cleared his throat. He squinted, embarrassed. “Well, uh—”

If she hadn’t been lying on a bed, Margo would have stomped her foot. “Goddammit.”

“It was only two other times,” Eliot argued, rationally. It didn’t help.

“Fucking Christ, El,” Bambi said, kicking his knee with serious force. She was terrible at only using her words. He knew that, but had never been quite so subjected to her physical reactions in such fast succession. 2/10, wouldn’t revisit the establishment.

“It’s not like we slept together,” Eliot said, slumping to the side and peering up at her, imploring her understanding. “We just—made out a lot. And, like, maybe half a handie, if that.”

But Margo’s eyes just widened, horrified. “That’s so much weirder .”

Yeah.

“I know,” he sighed, rolling onto his belly and burying his face in her comforter.

“If you want the dick, get the dick,” she said, passionate and true. “But that cockfooting bullshit?”

“Cockfooting?” Eliot lifted his head to frown up at her. “Yeah, that’s not your strongest.”

She flicked the side of his head with a her index finger. “Don’t try to piss me off to change the subject. You are goddamn better than—“

“I know , Margo,” Eliot said, voice muffled by the down again. He wanted to sink into it and never return. “But if I actually fucked him, things would be worse.”

“Can’t imagine how,” she countered, fairly. “At least you would have gotten your rocks off and not been a fucking middle schooler about it.”

“The average middle schooler gets more action than I did,” Eliot said mournfully, flipping over. He scratched his hand along his stomach. “But it was the right call. You just have to trust me on that.”

“Then you should have kept your hands to yourself.”

He laughed, the sound ricocheting off the ceiling and filling her whole room.

“Quentin wanted me. He made it clear that he wanted me, three times,” he said, shooting his eyes over to her, all serious. “I should get several Presidential Medals of Honor for keeping it in my pants as much as I did.”

“Yeah, you’re definitely up there with war heroes,” Bambi said, rolling her eyes and lying down next to him. They were facing each other in the fetal position, knees slotted together. “So, okay, tell me about the Alice shit then.”

“Not much to tell,” Eliot admitted truthfully. “She kinda got caught up in my bullshit. But she was too smart and realized she got caught up in my bullshit, ran for the hills. But it sucks because along the way, I shocked and horrified myself by actually—”

“Growing to care about her. A lot,” she finished for him, with a soft and sad smile. At his slow nod, she groaned and closed her eyes. “Yeah, I know the feeling.”

Eliot blinked and his brow crumpled. “You care about Alice?”

“Um, I mean, she’s fine?” Margo laughed, before rocking her head back with a deep sigh. “No, I was actually referring to your boy.”

He was going to get premature wrinkles from how hard his brow was crumpling. “Wait, Quentin?”

“Yeah,” Bambi breathed out, shaking her head like she was ashamed. “He’s a sneaky bastard.”

That didn’t make sense. “You’ve always cared about Quentin.”

“I mean, yeah,” Margo said, eyes flashing. “He’s my stupid little brother and if anyone ever breathed on him wrong again, I’d gouge out their eyes with a dull nail file.”

Eliot’s heart bloomed. “Sure.”

“But come on, do you really think that was automatic?” Margo jostled her knee against his, shaking his whole leg. “That I was naturally drawn to Quentin ? Of all people?”

“You come on,” Eliot countered, slightly indignant. “You two have more in common than he and I do. You have Fillory and Buffy and—”

“I let myself care about Quentin because of you,” Margo said emphatically. She glanced away, the reveal too much. “Because of Julia too, to an extent. But that was back when I thought she was a flavor of the month, at best. I really made an effort with him because I saw how you were around him from day one .”

His stomach cratered in. “That’s an exaggeration.”

“It’s not,” Margo said, scrunching one cheek up to her eye and laughing. “Can’t fool me, honey. You were Lady Gaga-pants about him from the first time you saw him.”

She wasn’t wrong. She was never wrong. He quirked his lips up into a faint smile and rubbed a hand down his face. 

Talking was exhausting.

Luckily, because misery loved company, it seemed to be draining Margo too. She flipped onto her back, back of her hand plastered on her forehead. But she kept her knee looped around his and tugged him in, so he was hugging her.

They were like a much hotter John and Yoko.

“So I thought, well, either this kid will take Eliot away from me forever,” Bambi said, voice wavering despite herself. Eliot would rather die than comment on it. “Or I decide now to stake my claim and stake it smart. So I made myself important in his eyes too.”

He stroked his thumb across her elbow. “You know Quentin adores you.”

She huffed out a breath and almost choked on it. She buried her face in his hair, and he would have rather died and gone to hell than comment on the wetness he felt along his scalp.

“That was actually the fuckin’ rub. He ended up being the least possessive person I’ve ever met,” Bambi grumbled, still fucking pissed about it. “He always wants everyone to have everything, wholeheartedly. It’s disconcerting as fuck.”

Eliot sighed, understanding her frustration. “He has that effect, yeah.”

“Don’t get me wrong,” she said, popping up to meet his eyes, all fury, “he’s also a shit-for-brains who cries too much.”

“Obviously,” he said, gently. He cupped her cheek with his hand and she leaned into his touch, a quick grounding. She closed her eyes and her eyelashes tremored, emotions shaking under her hiding place.

“But honestly, for awhile,” Margo said quietly, almost like a confession, “it kinda made me hate him for how much I ended up—loving him, even independently of you.”

“Bambi,” Eliot said, a gentle imploring. She kissed his palm once and looked up at him, a stark clarity in those doe eyes.

“I had Julia to process that all with though. You didn’t have anyone, not really,” she said, each word thudding against his stomach like blank bullets from a gun. Painful, if not lethal. “I’m sorry for that. That I couldn’t be that person for you, because of all our shit.”

He clenched his jaw and bit his lip, almost to bleeding. Dry flakes of skin flapped against his tongue and he had a sudden urge to ask for her sugar lip exfoliant, the kind that tasted like watermelon.

But that was a deflection.

No kidding.

Eliot was still a piece of shit though. So he couldn’t help the bitter bile in his throat as he spat out, “So which self-help books did Julia recommend then?”

Instantly, Margo’s eyes slit and her nostrils flared. “El.”

Cuddle time was over, folks.

He rolled onto his back and sat up, leaning his forehead against his palms. Then he burst them outward, laughing. It was hysterical. Angry. Probably petty as fuck. It was what it was.

“What do you want me to say?” Eliot demanded, glaring over at her.

“You said you loved her if I loved her,” Margo said, still lying in repose. Her voice was carefully calm. “I’ve yet to see that in action, asshole. You haven’t even tried.

Eliot sniffed his nose in the air and sneered, haughty. “Technically, I think the word we used was—”

“Don’t be a shithead,” Margo said, shooting up and leveling the whole damn earth under the fire of her gaze. For a suicidal moment, he opened his mouth to retort, but it died at the shaking hint of her vulnerability, glinting like broken glass at the edge of her expression.

So he clicked his teeth shut and rubbed his eyes, white squiggles and bursting blood painting the blackness.

“Julia and I have nothing in common,” Eliot said, lightly. 

Another Margo smack didn’t surprise him. But he still set his jaw at her and opened his eyes, menacing and annoyed. She cocked an eyebrow and snorted, openly laughing at him. She was only person in the world who could do that and live to tell the tale.

“Sure, except both of you love the same two people with your whole fucking hearts,” Bambi hissed, hugging herself. She looked down then. “But that obviously doesn’t mean shit to you.”

The pang of remorse hit right in the solar plexus and took his breath away. He fussed with his rings, brain whirring and gut churning.

“Look, it’s not personal,” Eliot said, aiming for nonchalant. His voice was too tinny for that though. “It’s more that I can’t get over how she’s just not always—good for Q.”

It was true. It really was part of the issue. And it was something he could speak to, at least, more than his petty jealousy and resentment.

Margo sighed and pressed her thumb against her temple, calling patience. “What the hell does that mean?”

“She puts him in a box,” Eliot said, irritable, imagining her dumb singsong voices and too-sympathetic smiles plastered Quentin’s way. “She doesn’t let him grow outside of the perception she’s held for way too fucking long.”

Margo regarded him for a moment, reading every line of his face like a dense yet intriguing text.

“Yeah, duh, that’s true,” Bambi said, quiet. “Honestly, you’re kinda preaching to the choir about that. She patronizes the shit out of him.”

“So then we’re on the same page,” Eliot said, flopping back again. “Goodie.”

But Margo opened her mouth, like she was going to say something. But then she licked her lips and looked away, swallowing. She dipped her head down and her brows furrowed, uncharacteristically cautious.

Eliot’s eyebrows jumped up. “Getting shy on me, Bambi?”

That grabbed her attention. She flipped him off as she snapped, “Never.”

He held out his hands, ever the host. “Then the floor is yours. You obviously want to say something.”

“You’re not gonna fuckin’ like it,” Margo said, tilting her head at him. He frowned as he laughed.

“First of all, I don’t like any of this,” Eliot said, just as a wave of exhaustion and heartache almost swallowed him whole. He pushed past it. “Second of all, whether someone likes what you have to say has never been a concern of yours ever before. Why start now?”

She pursed her lips for another long beat, before raising her eyebrow. She licked her lips and breathed out, nodding.

“Fine,” Bambi said, an almost hissing taunt in her voice. “In that case, I’ll ask this: Has it ever occurred to you that Julia feels that exact same way about our relationship?”

Huh.

Wow.

Okay.

She was right.

… He didn’t fuckin’ like that .

Eliot’s blood turned to stone. “She’s wrong.”

“Is she?” Margo ran her tongue over her teeth, rubbing her eyes. “How many times have you said implied something catty about me sounding like Julia? Or outright said, Well, that’s not what my Margo would do ?”

Defensiveness rushed an ocean of blood into his ears and his fingers itched and twitched for a cigarette. He chewed on the inside of his cheek instead, molars finding a particularly soft spot until it was raw.

“That’s not fair,” he finally spat out, lacking any other thoughts.

“You’re goddamn right it’s not fair,” Margo said, a royal proclamation. She held herself high on her knees. He couldn’t help but be awed. At whatever she saw in his eyes, peering up at her in wonder, she softened, falling against his shoulder and speaking into his shirt.

“Yeah, okay. So I’ve changed being with Julia. But I changed from being your friend too, dick,” she said, grabbing fistfuls of fabric and looking up at him through her lashes. “Same way you’ve changed because of Q.”

Eliot scoffed, even over the rush of truth up his spine. “Not that much.”

Margo peeled off him and fixed him with a fond gaze, her thumb stroking back and forth along the divot in his chin, the one she knew he fucking hated.

“Ah, yeah, newsflash?” She smirked, like she was about to reveal a great scandal. “ My Eliot wouldn’t have spent hours walking around the fucking woods with a twitchy little nerd in grunge gear who wasn’t even sucking his dick.”

Touche. But he didn’t go down that easily. He scooted backward to lie against her metal headboard and inexplicable green paisley scarf tied behind it, gathering her into his arms once again. She went happily, nosing at his jawline and wrapping an arm across his waist.

“Now, now, I very much wanted him to suck my dick,” Eliot said, academically, lips against her hair and professorial finger in the air. “I even wore many a phallus emphasizing pair of pants—“

“Those are all your pants,” Margo said, tilting her head up with an adoring half-smile.

He smiled. “Still, does that count for nothing? Have the mighty fallen so far that my efforts can’t even be appreciated?”

She gave him a weak smile at his weak attempt at banter, before curling back into him with a pained and gentle sigh. Her arms clasped even tighter around him and he rested his chin on top of her head, waiting for whatever she was struggling to say.

“You opened your heart to someone new and it changed you,” she said, repeating herself the way she hated. But Eliot had always been her exception. “I think that’s what happens, honey, in healthy relationships. And the way you’ve grown? It’s not all bad.”

When her eyes met his, they were so sincere, it was blinding. He couldn’t quite accept it, so he chuckled, wet and sorrowful and full of love. But he leaned back on his crutch, teasing her. Still, he hoped she felt the appreciation in every syllable to come.

“Not all bad,” he said, gently making light. Her eyes brightened and she sputtered her lips, waving her hands in the air.

“Well, come on, the woods? What?” Her voice was all brassy performance and fuck, he loved her. “You hate everything about nature. You once said your dream was to live on the fuckin’ International Space Station, not for the adventure or scientific discovery, but so that you’d never be inconvenienced by fresh air again.”

“That, and my astronaut kink,” he reminded her with a giant grin. She rolled her eyes, but it was good humored. “So I stand by it.”

Unwelcome against his attempt at levity, his mind’s eye flashed to sitting on a mossy log with soft brown hair resting against his knee, quietly intimate and wholly centering the universe in a single point of contact. Eliot’s mouth went dry and everything was numb before his senses crashed, and then everything hurt too much, all over again.

He squeezed his eyes shut. “You know. Mostly.”

“It’s okay. That’s what I’m saying,” Margo whispered into his chest. She held his hand, her tiny fingers tangling with his. He held on like a lifeline. “But I wish it was okay for me too, in your eyes.”

You’ve always been my perfect girl , Eliot thought helplessly. But he was trying to stop putting his own bullshit on others, so he kissed her forehead and sighed, holding her close.

“Well. I guess if you really like yoga,” he said quietly, seriously. “I can like Margo liking yoga.”

It wasn’t much, but it was a start.

But to his surprise—always to his damn surprise with her—Bambi let out a honking laugh and shook her head, intense and emphatic as he’d ever seen.

“Oh, no, fuck yoga,” she said with a gasp for breath and Eliot’s heart leapt. “Jesus.”

He sputtered out his own laugh, “What? I thought you were living that Namaste life now.”

“Hell no,” Bambi said vehemently, before erupting into another bout of giggles. “Breathing is the goddamn worst!”

“I’ve been saying that for years,” Eliot said, poking her arm for emphasis, an undeniable sparkle rushing through his veins. She laughed more and nipped at his earlobe, like an affectionate kitten to another affectionate kitten.

“It’s so boring,” Margo confirmed with a final snort. Then she sobered, glancing away. He understood. “But it makes her happy when I go. So.”

She tightened her jaw muscles and stared off into space, like she was abashed at the words that tumbled out of her mouth. But Eliot knew. He knew better than she even knew he knew. Because, fuck, Eliot was at the point in his life where he would go to San Diego Comic Con if Quentin even jokingly asked him to and they weren’t even together , so.

So.

The thought crashed down on him like a rough wave and he let out a harsh laugh, totally out of context. Jesus.

His first year self really would be horrified.

Then again, his first year self would have happily been Mike McCormick’s fuck boy. So perhaps character development wasn’t entirely mortifying. Just, you know—

Mostly mortifying.

Ladies and gentlemen: Growth.

Meanwhile, Margo stiffened at his laugh, thinking it was directed at her moment of quiet vulnerability. Shit. He made a quick shushing sound and pulled her into him, giving into his almost constant desire to wrap his arms fully around her, a feast for his famine.

“I get it. I’m sorry,” Eliot whispered to the soft hair at her temple, a promise. “I’ll try harder.”

Bambi went boneless against him and nodded, obviously unwilling or unable to say anything more. For awhile, they laid there, resting together. The lights in her room twinkled, not from magic or electricity, but from his perception. His exhaustion was starting to take over again, his heart slowing to a pitiful thud in his chest. He was dizzy without movement and he knew he should have given into the dark cloak of sleep that was numbing all his extremeities.

Instead, he spoke again, his own pit of hope and despair growing ever wider, all at Margo’s mercy. When he swallowed, his Adam’s apple bumped up and down against her nose, stirring her to look up at him.

“But can you—” Eliot bit the tip of his tongue and closed his eyes. He wasn’t exactly sure what he was asking for, but he knew he had to ask it. “Can you try a little harder for me too?”

His hindbrain, his first year self, the boy who once spat on the ground in front of Taylor Delatolas all screamed in unison, You’re so fucking weak, you clingy asshole, who do you think you are ? No wonder they never loved you, you’re too much all the goddamn

—Eliot forced them all to shut the fuck up. He also forced his eyes open, so he could look at Margo. He owed her that. Hell, he owed himself that.

But at her face, he snorted, a soft and affectionate laugh. Predictably, she was a little frozen, a little thrown, maybe a little horrified. She was about as equipped for this kind of conversation as he was. He imagined from the outside, they probably looked like two toddler squids, rolling around each other and trying in vain to talk like humans do.

Margo opened and closed her mouth several times before she finally spoke, clearing her throat and ripping eye contact away as fast she could.

“Yeah. Yeah. I thought—” Bambi let out a shuddering breath, like they were the four most painful syllables ever spoken. She cleared her throat again and shook her head. “Yeah, I thought giving you space would help you get your ass in gear. I thought you needed it.”

Everything in the world settled into a pure calm, as he ran his hand down the length of her arm and took her hand in his. He kissed her knuckles and sighed.

“I need you , Margo,” Eliot said, without a drop of hesitation.

Bambi gasped and her eyes darkened for a second, glassy and wandering. She sniffed and closed her eyes, wading in the words for a moment. Then she surged forward to give him a bright peck on the cheek. When she pulled back, she wiped her eyes with the back of her hand and laughed, staring up at him.

“Jesus,” she said, pushing her hair back and rolling over, to give them both some much needed breathing room. “You’re definitely spending way too much time with Q. Earnest motherfucker.”

Eliot didn’t miss a beat. “Now you know how I feel.”

“Yeah, yeah, asshole,” Margo said, sitting up and stretching out to her toes. Then she let out a small laugh, glancing over at him like she had a secret. Which was probably why she said: “Since we’re sharing our deep, dark secrets, like how much we enjoy each other as people—”

“Ugh, let’s move on,” he said, shuddering performatively. “Give our dignity some time to recover.”

She laughed and elbowed him, a gentle ribbing, before piercing him with something still more serious than ever before. “You know what really bonded Q and me?”

Eliot frowned. “Fillory?”

“Nah,” Margo said, sitting up and tucking her legs under her. Slight dark circles were forming under her eyes, but her hands were twitching, like she was shocked with adrenaline. “That’s superficial stuff.”

“Then tell me,” Eliot said, tilting his head and offering a gentle smile. In turn, Margo smiled down to herself and took her hair in her hand, twisting the ends over to one side of her shoulder. She played with it for awhile, twisting and sliding, unreadable thoughts painted over her eyes.

“Well, one night, you were off with some city twink and Julia was studying, so Q and I went to town on some tequila and—“ she chuckled, but wiped away a tear at once, and oh, shit, this was another real thing. “Normally, I’d literally rather die than tell you this, but, well, uh, he and I—“

Oh my god.

Eliot’s eyes almost popped out of his head. “You two fucked ?”

It wasn’t—it was—it wasn’t really—

Huh.

Honestly, he wasn’t even mad about it? It was just weird? He just needed to process that. It was fine. It was totally fine. Margo could do what she wanted. Quentin could do what he wanted. Neither of them were beholden to anyone, and you know, hey , it wasn’t like he could judge—

—Anyway, thank fuck, Bambi cut off his jumbled thought process by letting out a shrieking laugh.

“Holy shit, no,” she said, sticking out her tongue. “Fuck no. God.”

That sent a sudden ripple of defensiveness through him because, well, she could do worse than Quentin Coldwater. Her reaction was kind of uncalled for.

(It was a weird night.)

“First of all, I would’ve shouted that from the rooftops, just to embarrass the kid,” Margo clarified, lifting her mouth into a half-smirk before laughing again. “Second of all, I’m dating his best friend. We’re open, but not that fucking open. Third of all, duh? You obviously loved him. I wouldn’t do that.”

Sour feeling settled in the pit of his stomach, but he didn’t make any denials. “Then—?”

Margo slumped forward and groaned, wiggling her toes. “It was actually way more embarrassing. We just—” she cringed, squinting her eyes up at Eliot from over her shoulder, like she was about to admit a major federal crime, “cuddled and watched old Paul Newman movies, on the projector. And then, when we were snuggling under a blanket  and eating popcorn—“

He blinked hard, brain entirely overwhelmed with disbelief at the toothache sweetness of the imagery. 

What?

“I am—genuinely devastated that I wasn’t a part of this,” Eliot said with a breathy laugh. He was teasing. Half-teasing.

A quarter teasing.

… Okay, fine, not teasing. He would have dropped Nameless Nelson to be there so fast, every head in the world would have spun in unison, happy? It was bullshit that Margo hadn’t gotten word to him, immediately. As he pouted privately, Margo must have seen one or several shifts on his face because she laughed at him, before lying down with her arms draped over her eyes. She sighed, back to whatever serious shit she was trying to get through.

“Anyway, Quentin told me that he has always—he always felt like he was doomed to be forever off to the side, you know? Julia’s sidekick , as he put it,” Bambi said, voice clipped. “That it was the only way anyone ever saw him or would ever see him.”

Eliot snorted because he couldn’t help it. It earned him a vicious glare from between her forearms. But come on.

“That was your big friendship catalyst?” He rested back on his elbows, a vision in incredulity. “Q’s rampant self-esteem issues? Hate to break it to you, but that's a 'just wait five minutes' thing.”

With a frustrated sigh, Bambi set her jaw and dropped her arms, staring doll-like up at the ceiling.

“I understood what he meant, okay? I got it. I—sympathized,” Margo said quietly, eyes still unblinking. She looked tinier than Eliot had ever seen her. “Because I’ve always felt like people think, you know, that I’m your—

Blinding ferocity ripped through him and he gripped at her arm, wild and serious. “Margo. No.”

But she just smiled at him and sat up slowly, unbothered. “Chill. I’m not Quentin. I don’t internalize that shit.”

Heart pounding in his mouth, Eliot narrowed his eyes. “You just said—“

“Difference is, I know I stand on my own,” Margo said coolly, tossing her hair back. “I know that I’m fabulous in my own right and that anyone who sees me as nothing but your… whatever can suck my dick .

“Damn right,” Eliot growled and Margo cupped his cheek, gazing at him with heartstopping adoration.

“But I don’t think you realize that the first person to really see that, without me having to prove it by clawing tooth and fucking nail to relevance, was—“

He sighed, nodding solemn and true. “Q.”

Of course it was Q. He always saw the best in everyone. Their truth, their light. God, the kind way he approached the world reflected back from everything he touched, without even meaning to. That was just—who Quentin was. Fuck.

They were all so lucky to know him.

He gave her a sad smile, taking in her blank expression, save her squinted and calculating eyes. But then after a beat, Margo laughed again. 

It was loud and wet, still filled with her well-hidden tears, but the cackling sound filled the air like an electric charge. At his confused jolt back at her unexpected reaction, she smiled and clicked her tongue against her teeth, shoulders still shuddering with silent giggles.

“No, you lovesick dummy,” she said as she reached up to brush his curls back from his brow. “Julia.”

“Oh.”

… Okay, yeah. That kind of made more sense. He opened his mouth to say as much but couldn’t find the words. So he looked away instead, biting his lower lip. He felt weirdly exposed, even in light of everything else he had admitted that night.

“Fuckin’ dummy,” Margo repeated, affectionately. She twisted a single curl around one finger and smirked.

“Well, you were talking about your grand, life altering, leave-Eliot-out-in-the-cold bonding moment with him,” Eliot said, slightly annoyed. She rolled her eyes and the skin under his collar was hotter than before. “So I extrapolated.”

“Uh-huh,” she said, nodding with an infuriating and condescending scepticism. Then she slumped against him, cheek to his shoulder. “Anyway, you know you’re that person for him, right?”

He craned his neck to look down at her, with a confused frown. “What do you mean?”

“The first person who didn’t make him feel like a sidekick,” Margo said, with her smallest smile, angel face aglow in the magic light. “The first person who actually saw him.”

Eliot’s heart went dark and free fell down in his chest. He glared away from her. “Yeah, ah, that’s a hell of an assumption.”

“No. It’s not,” Margo said, each word heavy with meaning. She pressed her lips together, wane. “I told you, we bonded.”

The world got blurry again and his heart sprung back to its usual place, though his stomach did a cartwheel on a tilt-a-whirl. 

It was a miracle that Eliot managed another strangled, “Oh.”

Margo’s kissed his shoulder once. “What happened tonight, El?”

He was so tired.

“We fought,” he said again, quietly. Then he closed his eyes, everything too shaky. “He told me he wants—that he wanted us to be together. But I couldn’t—I couldn’t. So he left, said I’m full of shit but wasn't capable of change.”

“So he was half-right,” Bambi said, a gentle teasing. Eliot tried to smile in acknowledgement but he couldn’t feel his face muscles. Couldn’t say anything more. So he just stared straight ahead, barely breathing.

Thankfully, Margo seemed to understand, patting his arm with a new kind of finality. “Chin up, buttercup. You’ll fix it. I’m not fuckin’ psychic, but I’ll sacrifice my Birkin to the fire gods if this is the end of the road for you and Q.”

“Nothing’s changed,” Eliot reminded her, wobbling the words out and lacing his fingers together. “I’m still not—I still don’t deserve him.”

“Shut the fuck up,” was all Margo said, closing her eyes as she rested back against him. She was running out of steam. So Eliot pulled down her comforter and her cool linen sheets, rolling her into the soft blankets. She hummed and he stripped down to his briefs, before cuddling in with her. She curled away and he traced his hand up and down her back—still covered in her robe—and he painted gentle patterns between her shoulder blades.

“I will go find him though. Talk to him, for real, to clear the air,” Eliot said with a quiet sigh. “In the morning. So maybe I won’t actually lose him altogether. Gotta try, right?”

Always.

But Margo made a resigned sound, shaking her head.

“Honestly, sweetie,” she said through a yawn, “I wouldn’t risk getting between a mama bear and her cub just yet.”

Knowing exactly what she meant, anger electrified him, like a jolt of caffeine. “God, he’s not a—“

“El, this is me gently telling you that based on what you’ve said, Julia will hex your face off if you go anywhere near Q before his finals,” Margo said, sleepy and not turning toward him. She was still no nonsense as fuck, as always. “When’s his last one?”

“Tuesday,” Eliot said automatically, not even knowing how he knew it. But he knew it.

“So talk to him then. Give everyone a chance to breathe, clear their head,” Margo said, before rolling around to touching her forehead to his and dipping her voice low, teasing. “You can pass the time by working on your fucking thesis, you layabout.”

“I do deserve punishment,” Eliot said, aiming to joke. But it choked him and he turned his face into her pillow, desperate to hide. He heard her sad breaths as she ran her fingers up and down the nape of his neck, too silent. Too thoughtful.

“I wish you had just gone for it with him, early on. That’s what I thought you would do,” Margo whispered. “Why the fuck didn’t you?”

“I didn’t think he wanted me,” Eliot swallowed. But that wasn’t quite true. 

Well, it was. He genuinely hadn’t believe Quentin ever wanted him. For so long, his mind’s refrain when he saw Quentin had been the same: Why don’t you want me? Why don’t you want me? Why don’t you want me?

Except that was bullshit.

He’d always fucking known it was a smokescreen, even to himself. Because there was another question, a truer one, that both plagued and answered all his worst thoughts . It wasn’t Why doesn’t he want me? Not really.

But rather—

Eliot tried for a laugh, but it was choked. “Why would he want me?”

Without a single pause, Margo grabbed his face and stared him dead in the eye. “Because that boy thinks you’re the greatest thing since the first time the sun shined on the Earth, El. And because you are good, and beautiful, and the most wonderful person I’ve ever had the privilege of knowing, so shut the fuck up with your defeatist garbage, you hear me?”

He blinked away his gathering tears and pressed his forehead to hers, just taking a moment to appreciate the power of Margo Hanson. Unable to dwell though, he fell back, letting the fluffy pillow gather like a cloud around him. Maybe he could float away, into the stars.

“Well,” he said slowly, “even if that first part was ever true, I’ve thoroughly proved him wrong by now.”

Margo was also a realist. She deflated, hand dropping on the pillow. “The last few weeks haven’t—been great.”

“Not like you to be that gentle,” he said with a yawn of his own. He glanced over at the clock. Shit, normally if he was up until six, he had a lot more to show for it. Now, all he had was the slow rebuilding of his broken spirit. Boring.

Meanwhile, Margo made a sharp sound with her tongue and twisted her lips at him.

“You want me to be honest right now?” It was a threat. “About your behavior?”

“No,” Eliot said softly. He knew.

“Didn’t think so. Anyway, you know,” she said, stretching and yawning, flipping back around and curling into him. She was telegraphing sleep and he obliged, spooning her. “Deep down, you’re more self-aware and empathetic than anyone.”

That made Eliot laugh. “Maybe really deep down.”

Margo’s cheek curved up into a devious smile as she closed her eyes. “Like, really, really, really…”

As her litany faded into dawn, sleep finally overtook them, even as their hands remained entwined.

 


 

 

~**~

 


 

 

Brakebills University, December 20, 2016

*

AKA… Tuesday

 

Eliot finished the draft of his thesis in less than three days.

Third years had a sporadic class schedule, especially leading into the second semester. Most of his classmates were already on their third or fourth revisions, working tirelessly with their advisors to reach perfection. Eliot, on the other hand, had opted out of both an “advisor” and “doing any significant work” prior to that point. But that was only because he knew he would be able to spin out gold from his bullshit, fueled by sleepless heartache and mania, while he waited for the second year finals schedule to complete. Waited for the stroke of the clock, so he could have one of the most enormously difficult conversations of his whole damn life with the most enormously important person in his whole damn life. The usual.

Eliot had holed up in the computer lab, surrounded by those ridiculous hanging crystals that Fogg commissioned to hold up the Technology is Bad ruse. For hours a day, he clacked his fingers relentlessly against the keyboard, pretending the rhythm wasn’t a clattering refrain of Quentin Quentin Quentin pounding in his eardrums. But in the end, after about ten hours of total sleep since Sunday, he had pulled a fully written defense and a well-designed practicum from the darkest trench of his ass. And it was good. It was really good.

He was damn good.

(Eliot especially knew his work was good because he had Margo read over it… and when she finished, she set her mouth in an annoyed line, threw it on the ground, and said, “I hate you.” It was her only feedback.)

But for once in his life, he mourned the lack of schoolwork as he paced around his room, hands fluttering and spasming against the wool of his pants. His eyes darted back and forth between the movements of his feet and the ticking clock on his nightstand. Well, it wasn’t actually ticking. It may as well have though, with how his body thrummed at every passing second, heart jumping with with that same clattering refrain of Quentin Quentin Quentin .

Avoiding Q had been easier than he even planned. 

Mostly because Q was staying with Julia and hadn’t been to the Cottage once in the days past. 

Eliot definitely didn’t know that because he had taken all his smoke breaks around the library, scanning his eyes toward the Knowledge Kid entrance with every inhale. And he also definitely didn’t hide behind a hedge and crouch into the dirt like a fucking stalker, all to watch Quentin walk to and from class with her every day. Nope. He wouldn’t do that.

Anyway.

He had promised himself—and Margo, more importantly—that he would wait until 4:30 PM on Tuesday to find him. It was perfect timing.

Quentin was only planning on going to his dad’s for Christmas Eve and Christmas proper, spending the rest of the time at Brakebills with the Misfit Toys. The way he had put it a few weeks earlier, Q loved his dad but two days in the same house was about the max he could handle. Of course, Eliot couldn’t relate to any that, so he had just nodded along empathetically. But it meant clearing the air sooner than later was important, so they could enjoy the lack of classes the way Bacchus intended. Made sense, right?

Right.

Anyway.

The minute hand moved to the six, and all the excuses to avoid the discussion rushed to the center of his chest. The tide was so strong, it almost knocked him backwards. But he closed his eyes and breathed, pushing down every doubt with what little strength he had. He let the refrain overpower him— Quentin Quentin Quentin —and nodded to himself, resolved.

Eliot slid his hands down his gray button down and put on a green blazer, feeling safe under the beautiful fabric. He stepped quietly into the hallway and walked four doors down, steadfastly ignoring the siren call of the mirror. He didn’t really want to know how he looked. He knew he would never be satisfied. 

Standing in front of Quentin’s room, he cocked his head, listening for signs of life. There was a chance he would have to go to the library to find him—worst case scenario—but his heart stuttered with relief as he saw a shadow move in the thin line under the door and heard a thump against the wall.

Licking his lips, Eliot didn’t let himself think anymore as he rapped his knuckles against the wood. His breath hitched as the doorknob turned almost instantly and the hinges creaked. He was on the verge of a heart attack as warm light spilled out and the quizzical face on the other side turned stern, staring up at him with growing recognition.

Correction.

This was the worst case scenario.

Julia’s intense brown eyes glared at him before she laughed, a harsh and breathy sound. She sucked her lower lip between her teeth with a long hiss and she shook her head, averting her gaze like she couldn’t stand to look at him a second longer. Then—

She slammed the door in his face, the force biting the tip of his nose.

Fuck.

Eliot clenched and unclenched his fists, jaw tensing and popping. But as he raised his hands up again to begin a pounding that even Julia Wicker wouldn’t be able to ignore, the door surprised him by swinging back open. 

Julia stood there, head tilted and muscles tensed into stone as she looked him up and down, like he was a pile of dead vermin. He opened his mouth to tell her to fuck off but the words died as he glanced down at her arms.

They were wrapped around his discarded vest, pocket square, and shoes, perfectly arranged, with a small white envelope nestled on top.

He hadn’t realized his heart was in his throat until he could feel it slide down until it thudded cold in his stomach. His eyes closed against his will and he leaned a long hand against the doorframe, to keep himself steady.

“Where is he?” Eliot lifted his head and eyes again, hoping for once she would be able to see the desperation in the question.

If she did, it didn’t move her. Instead, her cheeks widened into a falsely bright smile as thrust the pile into his chest, making him stumble back.

“Have a good break, asswipe,” Julia chirped without further answer, sparking fingers patting his shoulder with a series of bitter smacks. She slid around him in a single motion and stormed down the stairs, not turning back. 

The door was still open though and without thinking, Eliot walked in and sunk down on Quentin’s bed. He stared down at the paper beacon in the center of his clothes, the world narrowing as he did.

Because the surface, in familiar handwriting, read: “ELIOT.”

Chest tight and hands shaking, he turned the envelope over in his hands, trying to treat it with the reverence it deserved. He ran the edge of his thumbnail under the adhesive, popping the flap open. Two pieces of notebook paper slipped out, folded in the middle and stapled in the corner. They still had their curled and frayed edges, like they were ripped out in haste, the words far more important than the aesthetic. It was a very Quentin detail that made his eyes sting.

With a final deep breath and a prayer to someone for courage, Eliot unfolded and read.

Dear El,

Off to the Promised Land early, staying for a week or so. Maybe two. No hospital, I swear. But I need the mundanity of once familiar surroundings to parse through the jumble of my fractured mind . What else is new? Must be Tuesday. Etc., etc., etc.

The thing is, I’m sorry for everything.

Well, wait, let me restart. To be clear, you were a total dick. You’ve been a total dick, to everyone, for reasons I still can’t figure out. It’s been frustrating as hell, I’ll tell you that. Of course, as much as mysteries gnaw at my brain like termites, I don’t actually expect to get any answers. I know it’s just part of who you are. But it doesn’t make the impact of your dickishness any less shitty for the rest of us. So I don’t take that part back. You were a DICK, before, after, always.

But I also lashed out some internalized anger bullshit that I probably should have found a healthier outlet for awhile ago . Julia’s been trying to get me to do kickboxing, which I’m 100% sure would do nothing except make me look like a Yorkshire Terrier having a seizure . Not useful. But at the same time, considering how I just treated you, maybe an actual punching bag would have been a better call. Jules may be annoying as shit, but she’s not always wrong. (Don’t tell her I said that.)

Anyway, what I should have done doesn’t matter. What matters is what I did, how I acted, and how I treated the most important people in my life. I let my anger drive and thus, I was also a total dick. To everyone, but mostly to you. The worst part is that I knew what I was doing as I was doing it. For that, and more, I’m sorry, Eliot.

See, I thought I had it figured out, you know? I had the formula, the calculations, the fucking circumstances all aligned. My stubborn ass knew without a shadow of a doubt what the sensible outcome not only should be, but what it had to be . I had this concept in my head about what we were and who we could be, if only I could show you how well we worked, how good we were for each other . Fucked up in hindsight, but I was determined .

The way I saw it, the objective pattern was there, in our friendship and our chemistry, the way I feel around you. It was there in the way you make me a better version of myself and how I thought, maybe , I had a similar effect on you . It was there in the way the world was always brighter and more magical when we were together, even doing nothing at all . The way there was nowhere else I would rather be than on a walk with you and how sometimes when you looked at me, it was like you felt the same. Like I really wasn’t alone here . So I fell for you, and nothing else mattered, except finding the answer.

In short, I got tunnel vision and when you didn’t reciprocate, I freaked the fuck out.

Because who were you to ignore the evidence? Who the fuck were you to deny how right we are for each other? How could you see this mathematically cogent argument and still turn away? Maybe you were just afraid, I told myself. Maybe I just needed to wait longer, convince you more, prove it more clearly, over time . Then you’d see. Then you’d see and then you’d want me too.

Shockingly though, that’s not how relationships work. It doesn’t matter how intensely I feel something. It doesn’t matter if every analysis would point to the same conclusion. What matters is that you don’t feel the same way, because human emotions can’t be computed. Also, the hypothesis was brought forth by a heavily biased scientist/Magician from the get-go, so the results were inherently skewed. But that’s not actually here nor there. Tangent, sorry.

At the end of the day, these things are unquantifiable in a way I didn’t want to admit. I wanted the world to fit my conceptions, since otherwise, I’m all the more mired by my sense of pointlessness . But that’s not fair to put on you and so from now on, I won’t. And that’s what I’m done with, El. Not you. Not ever you.

I’m sorry I was selfish. I’m sorry I couldn’t accept all you’ve given me with an open heart, even if it wasn’t everything I want. Because, in case I’ve never told you, you’ve given me so much. More than anyone in my life.

So I accept your answer, fully and without further reservation.

Anyway, if you’re still with me here, I thank you for taking the time to delve into the longest non-required reading you’ve ever done . (Just a little levity. I know you read. Sometimes.) Really though, I hope I do see you before the new year, if I can get my shit together enough to manage it. Most of all, I hope we can rebuild in the next year too.

By the way, I’m working on forgiving you for your part. I know you’re sorry. You don’t have to say it. Just try to be better and I will too.

Take care.

Your friend,
Q

P.S. I’m sure you want to reassure me of our friendship ASAP. I mean, I do know you. But despite the concillatory tone herein, I’m actually still fucking pissed and need space. I’ll reach out when I’m ready, okay?

 

The pages fluttered to the floor, and Eliot couldn’t remember the last time he cried.

Actually cried. Not the light gathering of tears in the corner of his eyes, the blink of wet lashes, the beautiful pain kind of shit. That was all part of it.

No, realistically, the last time he really cried—sobbed—was probably in Indiana. Maybe it was after he beat the shit out of Taylor or when he killed Logan or maybe when his pastor blamed his queerness for his dad’s heart attack. Wasn’t really relevant, because they were ghosts of memories now. Not visceral, not affecting.

Which was why he had forgotten what it felt like to have your whole face soaked with tears. The way your lungs shuddered with violent breaths, shaking your shoulders. He’d forgotten how snot ran down your throat and out your nose at the same time, the tightness of screwed up eyes, the heat of the flush across your whole body. The way your eyes screwed up tight, the world tilting and sloshing around with the deluge of wet salt and overpowering emotions. The way it teetered you over on you side, knees tucked into your chest, trying to close in over the ripped pit of despair. It had been a long time, so it made sense that he didn’t remember. He couldn’t have remembered.

But after Eliot clicked Quentin’s door shut with a snap of telekinesis and curled himself into his pillows—not caring if that was an utterly insane thing to do or not—the foreman crossed out the huge number beside the words Days Since Eliot Sobbed His Guts Out and wrote a big fat zero. And so, he cried and cried, broken sounds escaping along with tears, sweat, snot, and saliva, nothing pretty about it, nothing suiting his lifelong cultivation. But he didn’t care. He couldn’t care about anything but that which propelled the force of emotions out in the first place.

Eliot cried for Q. He cried for how much he loved him and how much he had fucked everything up. He cried for Margo, who he had lost and found and was too good to him. He cried for Julia, who rightfully fucking hated him. He cried for Alice, who proved his heart could still open, could still grow, but who he had turned away because he couldn’t handle it.

He cried for Taylor and Logan and his awful brothers and he cried for Indiana and he cried for Oscar Wilde and he cried for the future. He cried for truth serums and Ibiza and his flask and the destroyed Cottage and every picnic he’d ever put together, every party he’d ever thrown. And then he cried for Quentin again, his sobbing unknown apology, for having failed him, for having almost lost him , over and over again.

Finally, Eliot cried for himself. The lost dreamer, the shy farm kid. The closeted teenager, the haughty undergrad. He cried for Eliot Waugh , and all that entailed. He cried, cried, cried. He felt like he would never stop. He felt like his heart was pulsating through his skin. He felt like the world had broken open. He felt everything.

Everything.

Anyway, it wasn’t as therapeutic as promised.

Tiny and pathetic, Eliot was officially a mess of splotchy skin and ruined fabric. Honestly, he wasn’t sure why people insisted on crying being helpful. He was still a total piece of shit, but now his face was puffy.

But at the same time—holy fuck.

Holy fuck.

God, Quentin was so brave.

He was so strong, and so good, and so gentle, and so fucking ridiculous with this shit, and so earnest, and loving, and kind, and everything Eliot wasn’t. Everything he wasn’t, but wished he could be, if only because Q taught him the value of it. Taught him that it was worth it to try in any small way, even if was an effort in futility.

And it was worth it, right?

It was worth it to want to be more, to strive for more, to look at the world and fucking hope for more. It was all worth it, to feel it. With a jolt of thundering wisdom, it was then that Eliot realized, with stunning clarity—

Loving Quentin wasn’t a weakness.

It was strength.

It had always been strength, from the first time his smile grew at his big wide eyes darting terrified around a Welter stadium, from the first time his heart skipped when Quentin lodged a smile at him and he had thought, Hmm, that's new. From the first time Eliot opened himself up to him, had grown to want to care for him, found more happiness in Quentin's happiness than anything else on the planet. It had never been weakness. That was the only thing left to acknowledge, because he knew the rest.

With a soft laugh, Eliot ran his shaking hands through his hair, certainly frizzing it, especially with how tear soaked they were. But he couldn’t help the slow smile that spread on his face, the sweet contentment unraveling through his chest regardless.

Holy fuck.

Seemingly tangential, Eliot had once told Margo that their relationship defied categorization. To make things easy, they had always bandied the words platonic soulmate around. It was only half-serious, because it was the only way they could describe the depth of feeling, the intensity of their connection. That wasn’t quite right though. He knew that now, as he traced his thumb across Quentin’s flannel sheets.

Margo was the beating heart of him. She moved his blood, she grounded him, she pushed him forward. She reminded him who he was, who he had always been, and how much she loved him anyway, how much he was worthy of that love, even with all his mountainous faults. He couldn’t exist without her because she had become such a part of him, a part would never and could never be extracted. Fuck, was he fortunate for that. He was so fortunate for his fierce and loving Bambi, who gave his spirit its vigor. She was his and he was hers, inextricable.

But Quentin was his soulmate.

No qualifiers, no distinction between romantic or platonic or whatever bullshit. He was his other half, the missing piece. Quentin challenged him and comforted him and made him better with efforts known and unknown. Quentin brought him happiness and Eliot lived to bring him the same. He learned from him every day, in ways he didn’t even know he could learn. Eliot wanted to know every part of Quentin and, perhaps most astoundingly, Eliot wanted Quentin to know every part of him, just the same. 

He was in love with him. 

He wanted to be with him. 

But his love was yet more than that, transcendent and full. Even if Quentin told him to fuck the hell off, he would never stop fighting for him, to be part of his life in any way he could. And miraculously, the feeling seemed to be mutual. And it was because Quentin was his soulmate, pure and simple.

Because it was simple.

Nothing had changed, but Jesus Christ, nothing had to change.

There was shit upon shit, and Eliot was broken, but Quentin was broken too. Maybe together they were whole. Or at least, they were broken together and wasn’t that fucking better? It had to be, right? There had to be purpose and hope in all the shit, or else what was the point?

Before, he didn’t really believe there was a point. But Q changed that.

Loving Quentin made him braver. It made him gentler and kinder. It made him try so much harder, even when he almost always failed. It made him more hopeful, more joyful, more true. Even if Eliot had lost his chance forever—certainly not out of the realm of possibility—he knew he was better for knowing Q, for loving him. And he needed to see that through, no matter what.

Sitting up on the bed, Eliot clutched at the pillow and breathed in the scent of Quentin , heart rate steadying and strumming. He would. He would do that. 

He would go to Quentin and tell him everything ( everything ) and lay his heart at his feet, a paltry offering with no expectation . He would be honest, open, sincere, earnest, and strong, even if it killed him. He would do that, he would be that, for Quentin. And for Eliot too.

Or at least, he would try. He would try so hard.

It was a moment that truly mattered, and a rush of faith wrapped around him. No matter what happened, it would be okay. Quentin would know and that was—that was all he needed. His palms and fingers tingled and for maybe the first time in his life, determination outweighed his fear.

Eliot was ready.



one more time: tbc.