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Not Always Folly

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Brakebills University, September 2015
(One Year Prior to Our Fabulous Story)

 


 

Eliot Waugh hated three things: Todd, “Soak Up the Sun” by Sheryl Crow, and fucking Welters. 

There was no rational reason he should be in the large stadium on a bright Sunday morning. By all measures, Eliot should have been tucked into his luxurious duvet while some fey little first year sucked his dick. Instead, his head throbbed as drums pounded a shrieking and ominous beat. The crowd was hushed and the uniformed players were tense with anxious anticipation. It was like they were all shipping off to ‘Nam or some shit, rather than playing a tedious game with no discernible point or inherent fun. 

With a harsh grip of frustration, Eliot hid his eyes behind his Ray-Bans, groaning as loud as he could, desperate for the cigarette behind his ear. But before he could resign himself to his hellish fate and sink into mindless oblivion, sharp red fingernails dug into his forearm. He startled right before his sunglasses ripped from off the bridge of his nose.

“Rude,” Eliot said, less than a murmur. He glared down at the intruder without any heat. The tiny woman who glared back up at him—with all the heat of a nuclear reactor—was sex and poison personified. He loved her more than magic, more than blow jobs, more than champagne.

But she really was rude. 

“Get your shit together,” Margo spat out, pinching him once again for good measure. She thrust his sunglasses back at him. “Are you actually fucking hungover right now? Goddamn lightweight.”

“Not from alcohol,” Eliot said, gruff. He perched the black glasses in front of his tired eyes once again. “You try smoking the venom of a tiger snake and then tell me how much you want to play stupid Magic Chess the next morning."

“It’s not chess and you’re stupid.”

“You’re stupid.”

Margo silenced him with another glare, right as the Dean concluded his opening remarks. Blah blah time-honored tradition the best and fucking brightest whatever blah. Then the Knowledge team stepped forward, bright blue outfits ill-fitted and sad. Eliot recognized all of them. They were nerds. 

Knowledgers were good at determining the correct formations, but they sucked at the actual competition part. Which was why Margo’s smile was so particularly smug that horrible bright morning; the Physical Kids’ team had it in the bag. She was happy about that because she gave a shit for some goddamn reason. So Eliot mustered up as much enthusiasm as his screaming and clanking brain would allow.

All for his Bambi. 

…Honestly, it still wasn’t much. He really didn’t care about fucking Welters.

But just as the game was about to start in earnest and bring them all closer to sweet release and his duvet, Margo’s brassy voice rang out, clear and true and pissed.

“Wait, wait, wait the fuck up. Who the shit is that?”

Eliot blinked, his eyelids heavy. But sure enough, standing dead center of the other team was a new player. Eliot didn’t recognize her. Surprising, since he knew everyone worth knowing. 

He discerned her appearance quickly and efficiently, as he always did. She was tiny. Even tinier than Margo, barely over five feet. She had long brown hair pulled up into a high ponytail and she was pretty, in a basic kind of way. The one thing she really had going for her was the tailoring of her uniform, which was cropped above her stomach, pants tight like leggings. Cute. Sporty. 

Margo didn’t give a shit about any of that though. “You can’t bring in ringers, assholes.”

“I’m Julia,” the girl said, with a tiny Renaissance painting smile. “I’m not a ringer. I’m a first year.”

Kelsey the Knowledge Captain (huge fucking nerd) shrugged, “She got her discipline early. We didn’t think you’d care if we let her try out the ropes.”

Margo snorted. They were right. She wasn’t concerned about a first year.

“I can step out, if that would make you more comfortable?” Julia offered, jutting her thumb towards the crowd. But Margo simply waved her hand and smiled, simpering and mocking.

“It’s fine, honey,” she said. “I’m sure you’ll learn a lot. Sorry in advance for knocking your little team out early.”

Margo blew the new girl a kiss, before turning around and forgetting all about her. At the same time, Julia shrugged and her lips quirked up.

“Great,” she said, eyes sparking. “May the best team win.”

 


 

 

For the second time, New Bitch Julia took three squares at once and Margo was completely losing her shit.

I said no fucking ringers,” Margo snarled, growled, screamed. Her hands were buried against her scalp, tugging and pulling at the perfect curls until they were a mess of frizz. Eliot tried to hand her a surreptitious spritz of serum, but she just pushed him away. Rude.

“So you know in Harry Potter?” Julia said, tossing the silver globe back and forth between her hands with a shit-eating grin. “How Harry was made Seeker right off the bat and blew everyone’s minds? I never thought it would be so relatable."

“What’s a Seeker?” Eliot asked Margo, who was incandescent and pacing. “Wait, there’s Welters in Harry Potter?”

“Throw the goddamn globe,” Margo shot out at the snarky first year, ignoring Eliot. Rude. “And if you’re fucking cheating somehow, I will straight murder you. No flourish. Pure death. Mark my words, you fucking twat.”

“Aw, honey buns,” Julia said with a tinkling laugh, the tip of her pink tongue between her teeth. “And here I thought we were bonding over our mutual love of the game.”

She blew Margo a kiss, exactly mirroring the one from earlier. Eliot snorted.

“She’s got your number, Bambi,” he said, eyebrows waggling. 

“I’m numberless, dickhead,” Margo said, angry over her shoulder. She refocused on the game, hands on her skirted hips. “Throw the fucking globe. Now.”

With a smirk, Julia finally did throw the globe... and it landed on the infamous bitch of a black middle square. She hissed through her teeth, frozen. Margo let out a tiny huff of relieved breath and relaxed. Based on historical precedent, the game was basically over and the Physical Kids’ were back in the advantage.

But the first year player seemed to be a tenacious sort, as she narrowed her eyes and stepped forward. She was determined, considering and focused.

“Go Julia!” A deep feminine voice called from the crowd through the tense silence. “Kick their ass!”

Eliot followed the voice up to the third row. There, a woman with dark curly hair—big and bouncy, in a severe side part—lounged with her arms back against the next row of bleachers. She made a loud whooping sound and laughed, before glancing to her left. The space beside her was occupied by a pair of untied Converses and a black hoodie, overtop a boy with long mouse-brown hair.  

He was reading a book.

The woman elbowed the kid hard and he jumped out of his skin. She ticked her head towards the tournament and Julia, in particular. The boy squirreled back into his neck and raised his hand in a tiny little cheer, reluctant as all hell. Then he averted his eyes and buried his nose right back into the pages, scooting away from Eighties Hair.

Eliot smiled. What the fuck?

But Margo always had a sixth sense for when Eliot was distracted by a cute boy and she slammed her wedges down onto his white tennis shoes. Welters was literally the only time he wore something so informal. Yet another reason why it was the fucking worst, the fucking worst, the fucking worst.  Still, Margo wasn’t fucking around and he sighed, adjusting his sunglasses as he waited for the new girl to completely embarrass herself.

Meanwhile, Julia’s eyes had also drifted to the boy in the crowd and she was studying him with a mischievous twinkle. He didn’t notice at all, on account of having his head stuck deep into the book. That didn’t last long though. The tiny sprite of a Knowledge thing used simple telekinesis to whip the book out of the kid’s hands and catapult it down to the square.

Which was—fine. Simplistic. Eliot could have done the same move in his sleep, so there was no way it was going to get more than half a square at best.

(Full disclosure: Eliot wasn’t sure if taking half squares was actually a thing in Welters. One time he’d asked Margo and she’d gaped at him, called him an idiot, and changed the subject. So.)

Upon a belated realization that his book was now part of the show, the kid’s cheeks turned a delectable shade of red. He crossed his arms in front of his chest, grumpy and crouched. His hair fell in front of his face and he set his jaw—a very, very nice jaw, Eliot noted—and made a loud harumphing sound.

Julia blew a raspberry at him and focused ahead. She took three short steps toward the black square, her eyes closed. She muttered under her breath and brought her hands together, flat and prayerful. Her fingers moved swiftly, beautifully. A tiny spark lit in Eliot’s gut as he watched her prepare to cast. Her magic was primal and stunning. 

A wave of humidity coursed outward from her palms. All the pages of the book flew out in a spiral, enveloping the hardcover shell in a frenzy. The movement sunk deep into the ground and the board quaked, cracking open with golden light. 

From the center of the black square, white stones started to form, stacking one on top of the other. The stones grew and grew, rising into the air like a fortified tower. Criss-cross patterns of shining marble grew from nothing, twirling into barbicans. Diamonds twinkled above, spinning and refracting light all around. The newly formed palace shimmered with pure magic. The sky above them dimmed into night and two moons shone above.

Eliot’s throat was tight with a bittersweet nostalgia. Déjà vu, he supposed. For reasons he didn’t quite understand, he glanced upward to seek out the boy in the crowd. And for reasons he really didn’t understand, he felt heartened and almost vindicated that the kid’s mouth was open, bewildered and stunned, and that his eyes were glowing with a layer of unshed tears. Eliot’s stomach swooped with something unfamiliar and ancient all at once, heart fluttering in the still, precious moment.

He blinked and shook his head, turning away. 

He was clearly still a little fucking buzzed.

In the end, it wasn’t a surprise when Julia’s spell took the final two squares without issue. The drums announced the win. But the entire room remained quiet in the dual moonlight. Mesmerized.

Of course, Bambi was the one who broke the silence.

“Is—is that Castle Whitespire?” Margo asked, swallowing. 

She caught eyes with Julia, who grinned and nodded, bright as anything. Margo’s hand twitched at her side, almost imperceptible. The ethereal haze over the dreamlike castle was gentle and soft, as though the auditorium breathed in unison. Even Margo’s lips melted into an uptick of wonder.

Their eyes met again, something unspoken passing between the two women. Eliot’s chest tugged toward their moment, unbidden and inescapable. Then Julia fluttered her eyelashes down and silently moved her hands in an intricate pattern. As she did, the whole world was still undisturbed, still at peace.

She breathed in.

The castle disappeared. 

...And it was immediately replaced by gleaming strobe lights and a buoyant and catchy beat, echoing through the stadium at full volume.

PARTY PEOPLE!

Julia popped her gaze right back up, wide and mocking. Her arms flew up high over her head and she twisted her tiny hips, dancing and bopping all over. She waved her hands victorious through the air, high-fiving each of her classmates and even letting Kelsey smack her ass. The whole team erupted into loud whooping sounds, jumping up and down in celebration.

As the Knowledge Kids danced raucously, Margo hardened into stone. Her brown eyes blazed lightning gold and fury. Her slender jawline trembled along with her fists. She stormed toward Eliot, knocking her shoulder into him like the loss was somehow his fault. 

Rude.

Julia pumped her arms in and out in wide circles from her chest in a classic victory dance. She waggled her flat butt like it was going out of style. The dark haired woman from before had jumped down to the field and was hip-bumping Julia with a big wide grin under red lips. And Margo was still shaking next to him, her molars grinding like a fork caught in a garbage disposal.

“Whoomp, there it is!” Julia yelled without grace but all joy, as she jumped up and down. She bobbed her head back and forth, snapping her fingers right at Margo. “Whoomp, there it is!”

But like everything to do with Welters, Eliot didn’t really care about any of that. 

Instead, his eyes slid back to the boy in the bleachers. He laughed when he saw that he had managed to bunch himself all the way down between the stacks, knees near his mouth and his shoulders up to his cheeks. Oh my god, the kid silently mouthed to no one, as Julia kept hollering smack talk at Margo as loudly as she could, twixt doing The Robot. 

But Julia didn’t let the nameless boy get away with it for long, as she ran over to him and grabbed his hand. She wrapped an arm around him and spoke low in his ear, before laughing at something he said and shoving his shoulder for good measure. Then, gathering her things and swaggering as much as any nerd could, Julia made brief eye contact with Eliot and then Margo, who was still pacing.

“Good game, suckahs,” Julia yelled over to them with a wink and a corny sign of the horns. Her other arm was still casually draped around the boy from the crowd, whose cheeks were in turn still red in secondhand embarrassment. “Don’t sleep on it next time.”

Ugh. Next time? Fuck a next time. He was done with Welters for at least a goddamn year.

“Next time?” Eliot asked aloud, lightly. “Go fuck yourself with that drudgery.”

He rubbed his aching temples, gritting his teeth against the pain. He needed to find Josh Hoberman. Or an ibuprofen and some hair of the dog. Old school shit.

“If you can’t take the heat, get outta the kitchen,” Julia shouted (like, fucking shouted, ow) and laughed again, giving the boy under her arm a noogie. He looked unamused. Eliot couldn’t blame him.

Eliot held his hands out in a blithe What can you do? “Gladly. Enjoy your victory pretzels and soda, or whatever it is you Knowledge Kids do.”

“Wait, did you even play, man?” The black haired woman stopped and scoffed at Eliot. “Seemed like you were there to stand around and look pretty.”

Eliot touched his hand to his chest, clicking his tongue once. “Thank you.”

She furrowed her brow. “Wasn’t a—“

“Enough chit-chat, assholes,” Margo said, cutting Eighties Hair off. She gave them all the finger with an extra emphasis towards Julia. “I know your tricks now, so enjoy your illegitimate win while you can. Buh-bye.”

“See you around, Margo,” Julia said with a tiny grin. Margo hadn't technically introduced herself, Eliot noted. But really, everyone knew who she was. So the pointed name drop wasn't surprising, even if it was a little...interesting.

From behind his sunglasses, Eliot watched Julia pull the silent boy’s head closer into her cheek. “And you owe me a victory drink, mister. Since you didn’t even watch the fucking game.”

“I watched parts of it,” he protested. His voice was soft, low, baritone pitched. He was also lying.

Julia knew it too. “Mhmm. Which parts?”

“Uh. The parts where you played, like, really well?” The kid almost smirked. “So impressive, Jules. You’re a natural.”

“You’re a dick.”

“Fine with that,” he said, flipping the back of her ponytail into her face. She spat the hairs out of her mouth, tongue dipping to her chin. “So can I have my book back or what?”

Julia laughed, patting his cheek. “Oh. Yeah, no. That’s gone.”

“Fucking seriously?” The kid was actually mad. “Julia.”

Eliot couldn’t hear her gleeful and teasing response though, because they were walking out of the stadium, out of range. And he wasn’t even aware that he was staring off after them, until he felt Margo’s weight shift against him, her cute little body snuggling into his torso.

She was staring too.

“Jesus, have you ever seen a more obnoxious bitch?” Margo asked, like her pupils weren’t as wide and black as a moonless midnight. Eliot patted her arm.

“Let’s go get drunk until we forget all about this stupid game,” he offered gently. 

And he did her the kindness of neglecting to mention that it was clear the real game may have only just begun.

 


 

Fate intervened a week later. 

Julia was a tough cookie to track down, in spite of Eliot’s expert reconnaissance skills. She didn’t seem to attend any important parties and her class schedule was erratic. At least, none of her afternoon classes lined up with Eliot’s. And what, was he supposed to get up at nine in the fucking morning and be seen on the quad by one the professors he regularly dodged? So Margo could get laid? Who the fuck was he, Joan of Arc?

But it turned out, there was another and actually much more interesting conduit at his disposal.

Before the lightbulb went off, Eliot slumped his way out of his terrible Horomancy elective. He perched against a tall tree, cigarette in hand. He offered brief head nods to a few of his classmates—ones from parties, or random fucks, or drug deals, or whatever—but kept to himself, letting the smoke and nicotine wash over his too-loud mind. 

Quiet and Eliot were normally a dangerous combination. But noise could be claustrophobic too, in a different, more insidious way. He’d learned early in his life how to trade one evil for the other, in any given moment, to aid in that constant, futile reach for equilibrium. Smoking helped.

But what never helped was goddamn Todd.

“So because of the spell, she kept mixing up the word Monday with the word Tuesday. Every Monday she’d always be like, It’s Tuesday,” the grating voice carried from the other side of the tree trunk, honking with unearned laughter.  “And everyone would be like, No, Shelly, it’s Monday. And she’d be like, That’s what I just said. It’s Tuesday. And everyone would be like, No, Shelly—“

“Um,” a much softer, newly familiar voice responded. “That’s great. I mean, it’s, uh, interesting? Or it’s funny. I guess. But again, my dorm’s being cleaned so can you point me to the nearest bathroom or—?”

The grin that overtook Eliot’s face was wider than the sky.

He put out his cigarette and swooped around the tree, grabbing the crook of the boy’s elbow without a word. The kid yelped and stumbled over his own shoes. But Eliot kept a tight grip and tugged him into a fast lockstep. The first year’s eyes went wide and he darted his gaze behind him, to the blithely waving Todd.

“Hope you find a bathroom!” Todd yelled. The kid kept blinking and Eliot huffed out a laugh. He couldn’t have orchestrated it better himself. 

“This,” Eliot said with no room for argument, walking ahead, “is the interruption you’ve been waiting for.”

“Um. Hey. Um,” the boy said, darting his eyes everywhere and anywhere now, but not pulling out of Eliot’s grasp. “Who—who are you?”

Eliot grinned all the more, turning his gaze forward and pulling them around the corner toward the Cottage. “I’m Eliot.”

“Oh,” the first year said, dumbfounded. But then he relaxed and complied, like he knew it wasn’t worth the effort to protest. Smart man. “I’m, um, I’m Quentin.”

“Lovely to make your acquaintance, Quentin,” Eliot said, without glancing backwards. “Let’s chat, okay?”

“Uh, okay.”

And that was that. 

 


 

Eliot took great pride in his painstaking party planning. He also took great pride in throwing painstaking out the window as soon as the party crested into ecstasy, whether by pills, magic, sex, or metaphor. And as usual, the current party was perfect. 

Undulating between the writhing Margo and a tall, nameless second-year, the pounding music flowed through the Physical Kids’ Cottage in surging beats, carrying their dancing forward and free. Margo’s hair flew about in slow motion, the golden glints of her highlights reflecting in dizzying patterns under the enchanted lights and her painted red lips parted in a blissed out trance. The man behind him—Ben or William or whichever boring Anglo-Saxon name—kept his grip firmly on Eliot’s ass and the drinks and the drugs and the magic would keep them all upright, long into the still infant night.

The Cottage was pitch dark, except for the enchanted spinning glow sticks, and the shining splattered paint thrown in spiraling joy by the increasingly fucked up partygoers. It was a risk to expose the Cottage to black light, certainly, but that’s why one had a diligent clean up crew of first years at their disposal. 

Eliot’s white suit and glowing turquoise drink sang out bright into the purple-dark room. He maneuvered his way through the heady atmosphere, grabbing sips of drinks and tongue-kisses with every step. He was in his element, thrilled and electric in the adoration, the careful planning, and the unexpected falling apart in the heat of debauchery. Standing at the base of the staircase, Eliot leaned one elbow against the bannister and breathed in his success.

And it only got better, he realized as the front door opened and a recently familiar figure slouched its way into the entry, awed and awkward as ever. Beside him was Julia the Hot Knowledge Girl, as promised.

“Quentin!” Eliot tipsily bubbled out, reaching his long arm over the bobbing heads of the otherwise nameless crowd. He landed his palm right on his hunched shoulder. “You’re here! Let’s get you nice and drunk.”

“Oh, uh, okay,” Quentin said, his teeth glowing faint with his hesitant smile. Eliot tugged him in closer to his chest. He handed Quentin a bright purple drink. “Is this—how is this different than what I had earlier?”

Eliot had plied his cooperation with several Signature Drinks earlier that day. It had worked flawlessly, as always.

“It’s the same,” Eliot said, grabbing his own from one of the floating trays. “It’s a glamour. Bottom’s up, new friend.”

“Cheers,” Quentin said, humming with gentle excitement. Briefly, he turned back to his friend, but she had already disappeared into the crowd. He twitched his lips once and shrugged up at Eliot. Her absence was a tragedy, really.

So left alone together, they drank and walked around, while Eliot explained the ins and outs to the quiet first year. He was an excellent listener and so Eliot liked him more and more with each silent moment. After doing a round, he brought Quentin over to the bar—still tucked under his arm—so they could do a few glitter tequila shots before painting the walls.

“Uh, Julia’s here too,” Quentin said. Eliot tilted his head in confusion. “My friend? The one you said you wanted me to bring? 

Oh. Shit. Right. “Yes, yes, yes,” Eliot said quickly, nodding and snapping his fingers. “I saw. Good work.”

Proving himself once again to be less of a social rube than he seemed, Quentin raised his eyebrows with a knowing grin. “She’s over there, talking to Margo.”

Eliot followed Quentin’s pointer finger, off to the corner. Indeed she was. Two lithe bodies were leaned into each other, like magnets. Exactly as he planned. He smirked down at Quentin.

“Good work,” he repeated, squeezing his shoulder. Quentin brightened, pleased at Eliot’s attention. Oh, sweetheart. They’d have fun.

It was going to be a goddamn great night.

(And it was. For Margo.

“Now I get why you were hanging around with super nerd over there,” Bambi said, breathless and drunk, lips grazing his ear. She giggled as her big brown eyes stared endlessly at the laughing Quentin and Julia, off in the distance. “Thank you for your service, kind sir.”

Which. Hmm. Yes. Sure. Because spending time around fidgety, flittering Quentin Coldwater with the sharp jaw and cute ass was such a terrible burden. But he liked when people owed him favors, especially Margo. So.

“Go enjoy yourself and Obnoxious Bitch’s belly button ring,” he said, kissing her on the forehead. “You can make it up to me later.”

Kissing the hinge of his jaw, Margo smirked at him and twirled away, right into Julia’s arms.)

 


 

The next day, well after Hot Knowledge Girl should have been fully out of Margo’s system (twice), the strangest thing happened.

They were walking to class, in comfortable silence and Margo looked down at the ground.

She smiled. 

One of her rare, bright, easy smiles. Out of nowhere.

“What?” Eliot asked. He blew out smoke and wrinkled his brow. She shook her head and cleared her throat.

“Nothing,” Bambi said. She straightened her lips to their usual annoyed and glamorous scowl. 

But then she smiled again.

“What?” Eliot repeated, laughing. She bit her lip and tucked her hair behind her ears. She shook her shoulders out and her steps quickened.

“Nothing!” Margo said with the smallest squeak in her rough voice, walking ahead of him.

 


 

It wasn’t the first time either of them had fucked someone more than once. 

Eliot had a rotation of a few friends that worked well for him—and for him and Margo as a pair, on fun if increasingly uncommon occasions. As much as the chase of the strange and new was an intoxicating endeavor, there was a certain practical advantage to teaching someone your tics and tells over time. That way you could get your rocks off more efficiently and effectively. Basic science, really.

Still, though, it might have been the first time one of Margo’s fuck buddies became her study buddy. Or her lunchtime at the cafeteria buddy. Or her Hey-Let’s-Paint-Our-Toenails-and-Giggle-Even-Though-Some -People-Are-Trying-to-Take-a-Goddamn-Nap-on-the-Couch buddy. 

Or, as the case was that particular Saturday morning, her new yoga buddy. Because apparently Margo was into yoga now, of all activities. Out of fucking nowhere.

“Q,” Julia said with a wave at the squirrelly first year as he made his way down the steps. He’d moved into the Cottage a week before. It had been the best day of Eliot’s life, with only some hyperbole. He was still very cute. “You should join us.”

“At—yoga?” Quentin tilted his head back and forth like a tiny confused kitten. “With you... and Margo?”

“Stretching, breathing, all that shit,” Bambi said, tossing her mat bag over her shoulder. “Lord knows you could fuckin’ use it.”

“Um, wow, yeah. I don’t think hard pass conveys the severity of my opposition nearly enough so I’ll just say—“ Quentin started to snark at them, but honestly Eliot didn’t really hear the rest of their conversation.

Because. 

Well.

Quentin in yoga pants.

“—Eliot?” 

He blinked, and blinked again when he saw Quentin slowly waving his hand in front of his face. Bambi and Julia were nowhere to be seen.

“You okay?” Quentin asked, looking adorably concerned. In response, Eliot smiled in that way he knew always dazzled first-year boys in particular.

“Always,” he said, smoothing down his vest. “Where’s Bambi?”

Quentin frowned, eyebrows screwing together. “Uh, at yoga? She—they literally just left? Are you sure you’re okay?”

I’d be better if you were blowing me.

“Peachy keen, jelly bean,” Eliot said because why the fuck bother trying at that point. Quentin pretty much thought everything he said was brilliant. It was one of his favorite things about him. He wrapped his arm around Quentin and smiled down, enjoying the opportunity to get his current favorite first year to himself.

“So what are Quentin Coldwater’s plans on this beautiful Saturday morn?” Eliot asked, already directing both of them toward the sliding door out to the patio. Quentin’s shoulder shrugged under Eliot’s arm.

“I was thinking about going to the library to, uh, do some extra reading on binding enchantments?” Quentin’s eyes brightened with excitement at the idea of homework. “I’m struggling with how—how to, you know, incorporate the Turkish and the Arabic for—“

Eliot cut him off with an eye roll and a more directed pat on the arm. “Wrong answer. No, you’re going to drink champagne and gossip with me all day.”

“Oh,” Quentin blinked backwards in that way he always did. But then he gave Eliot his favorite tiny smile and said the two best words. 

“Uh, okay.”

 


 

From then on, the world began to shift.

 

 

 

~**~

 

 

 

Brakebills University, February 2016
(Six Months Prior to Our Fabulous Story)

 

There was a gentle knock on the door as the sun streamed through the translucent white curtains. Eliot flipped onto his back, naked under his sheets. He let out a long breath and shuffled his head back and forth, willing the cobwebs away. Beside him, a warm body kept sleeping, snoring with even breaths. Long strands of soft hair reached his shoulder and Eliot hummed contentedly.

It had been a good night.

“Come in,” Eliot said, nuzzling his nose into his silk pillowcase. The boy next to him shifted and stretched, waking up at his words. 

The door squeaked as it slowly let in air and sound from the hallway. A soft voice said, “Hey El, uh—oh shit, sorry!”

Eliot let a sleepsoft smile melt across his face and he levered himself up on his elbows. His hair was unkempt and falling across his brow. But under the ringlets obscuring his vision, he could still see Quentin Coldwater dancing at his doorway, hand over his eyes and jaw set.

“Hi there, Q,” Eliot said with a chuckle. “It’s fine. Lachlan was just leaving.”

The boy next to him, Lachlan, blinked into the sun and scratched the top of his head. His long black hair was terribly mussed and he had cheap eyeliner smudged all along his face. Apparently, the disaffected pretty boy artist aesthetic didn’t translate to the morning time. Shock of shocks. Eliot cleared his throat and kicked his hookup’s calf with his big toe.

“Lachlan was just leaving,” he repeated, firmer. The boy furrowed his brow.

“I’m naked,” the first-year said, sexy when he was put out. “I’m not even sure where my clothes went.”

But not sexy enough.

“Guest robe is on the nightstand,” Eliot flicked an elegant wrist to the small cherrywood table beside the bed. The white robe was pressed and folded, tied with a silver bow. With a big sigh, Lachlan threw it on, muttering things like Unbelievable under his harsh breath. 

Eliot pursed his lips, unmoved. “You can keep it. I have a stash.”

Lachlan stood up and flattened his palm down the front lapel of the Egyptian cotton. Despite his initial annoyance, he twirled once, the fabric around his knees fluttering with the spin.

“This is nice,” he marveled. Eliot dipped his head back, growing bored.

“I know,” he said, cracking his neck. “Have a lovely day now.”

Lachlan twisted his lips like he was going to say something, but seemed to think better of it. He had keen instincts. Eliot offered the Healer a quick air kiss and wave as he walked out of the room, tugging the robe tie as tight as he could.

But apparently, he was easily distracted. Eliot resisted the urge to flop onto the bed as Lachlan stopped at the door, to make goddamn small talk.

“Hey Quentin, do you know what page we were supposed to read to for PA?” He asked Q, who was still covering his eyes and burning red.

“I don’t know, Lachlan,” Quentin said, throwing his other arm up in the air into a frustrated shrug. “Maybe we can, uh, talk about it when you’re actually dressed.”

Eliot smirked. Prude.

Rebuffed again, and this time by the second most beautiful man in the room, Lachlan sighed and patted down his hair in vain. Then he finally left, leaving Eliot alone with Quentin. 

In all, not a terrible turn of events.

“What can I do for you, Coldwater?” Eliot asked, only a touch lasciviously. He was still waking up.

Quentin opened a slot between his middle and index finger, peeking through. Satisfied that Lachlan had really left, he smoothed his hand back over his hair and down to scratch his neck. He frowned.

“He, uh,” Quentin said, looking down the hallway where Lachlan had just walked, “he kind of looks like Criss Angel.”

Eliot had no idea who the fuck that was. “Who?”

“A magician. Lowercase.”

“Christ,” Eliot said with a disturbed shudder. “Please keep that kind of observation to yourself.”

“Sorry,” Quentin said, not sounding apologetic at all. He took one tiny step into the room and turned red all over again the sight of Eliot’s languishing form. He didn’t blame him. He looked good, and the sheet barely covered his hip bones. Q glanced away firmly, swallowing and balling his hands into fists at his side.

Eliot slowly grinned.

Oh baby, it’s okay, you can look, his hindbrain helpfully supplied.

Quentin shuffled on his feet and cleared his throat. “Do you wanna, like, put a shirt on or—?”

“No, I’m good,” Eliot said, the embodiment of broad grins and cheek. “Thanks though.”

Quentin rolled his eyes and his tension dissipated. Eliot wasn’t sure if he liked that or not.

“We’re doing a bagel run and Margo said to get your order,” Q said. He puffed air into his cheek. He shrugged exaggeratedly. “So?”

“Toasted poppyseed with cream cheese,” Eliot said and Quentin nodded, turning around. He laughed at the presumption. “Excuse me. Not done.”

Quentin closed his eyes and banged his forehead against the doorframe. “Eliot.”

“The next ingredients should be layered in the following order: Jamon Iberico de Bellota, though prosciutto will do in a pinch. Heirloom tomato. Four slices of avocado. Drizzled lemon juice and extra-virgin olive oil. Salt, pepper, cilantro. No onion.”

“I’m pretty sure Joe’s Upstate Bagels is going to have exactly none of that shit, El.”

“Never hurts to ask, Q.”

Quentin shot him a look. “Is that all, Your highness?”

“No,” Eliot tucked his knees up to his chest and rested his chin in the groove between them. “Pick up a bottle of Perrier Jouet on your way back.”

“Only one? Are you on a cleanse or something?”

“Excellent point. Get five.”

With a light chuckle and a Yeah, yeah under his breath, Quentin raised his eyebrows and walked out, knocking twice on the door upon his exit. Eliot fell back into his pillows and closed his eyes, relishing the warmth and calm light of the enchanted sun as they moved across his lashes.

It was a good morning so far.

 


 

And the good morning continued in its lazy splendor. 

Eliot was showered and dressed, wearing his favorite gray linen blazer, pink waistcoat, and gold lapel pin. His hair was parted, ringlets falling in the precise cascade his magic fingers deftly perfected over years of practice. His shoes were shined, his breath minty, and his attitude steeled toward the seeking of all pleasure. Whistling down the stairs, he shot a quick wave over at a few vaguely familiar and friendly faces at the couches, before making his way into the kitchen. He grabbed a tiny espresso cup from the highest cabinet and turned around just in time to see the bright and shiny faces of his two favorite people on campus. His lovely, delicious Bambi and—

Quentin slammed a small white bag against Eliot’s chest. “This is all they had. Don’t bitch about it.”

“Aw, honey,” Margo air kissed at Eliot, tortoise shell sunglasses still obscuring her perfect doe eyes. “Don’t listen to him. You can bitch as much as you want, about anything, always.”

“You are a wonderful friend,” Eliot said, skipping the air to simply kiss her, full on the cheek and then on the mouth. Nipping after her grin as she walked away, he sighed contentedly and unrolled the bag. 

Inside was a sad little plain bagel with cream cheese and one watery tomato slice. 

He glared at Quentin. “You, on the other hand, are a worthless friend.”

Quentin huffed indignantly. “It’s literally all they had.”

Eliot crossed his arms. “The bagel place didn’t have poppyseed?”

Quentin’s jaw ticked and his lip dipped between his teeth. It almost looked like he was trying not to laugh, but Eliot knew he’d never be so goddamn brazen.

One of Quentin’s fingers went up into the air and his voice trembled with, indeed, brazen laughter. “So I may have forgotten you wanted poppyseed.”

Eliot’s eyes narrowed. “It’s also not toasted. Did the toaster break? At the bagel place?”

“Yeah, no, uh,” Quentin scratched the back of his head. He grimaced, slightly embarrassed. “Uh, sorry?”

“Worthless,” Eliot said again, lightly. He glanced over at the bag in Quentin’s hand. “Well, what did you get? Anything I can steal?”

Quentin shot him a cheeky grin. “Onion bagel with extra raw red onion.”

“Brat.” Eliot poked his shoulder once, tipping him off-kilter onto the balls of his feet. But Quentin looked scandalously unrepentant, eyebrows up and grin widening.

“Okay, Beatrice and Benedick—emphasis dick,” Margo waggled her own bagel at Eliot, who nuzzled back into her temple. “We have big plans today, so let’s get cracking. Julie’s getting back from the retreat in the next few minutes, so obviously I’ll be ocupado for the next few hours. But when I return? It’s picnic time, duck fuckers.”

“Duck fuckers?” Quentin’s voice was flat as Kansas. “Seriously, Margo?”

“I said what I said.”

“What can I do to help?” Eliot asked, holding his hand out to her. She clutched it and sighed, pressing her lips to his knuckles and gazing up at him with fluttering lashes.

“Plan the entire thing from minute detail to overarching vision?”

“Done.”

“Why does a picnic need an overarching vision?” Quentin asked, around a bite of his own bagel. It was definitely not an onion-palooza as described, so Eliot plucked it out of his hands and tossed him the other bag. Q accepted this as he should. “A picnic is, like, a picnic.”

“Always a philosopher, Q,” Eliot said, stroking Margo’s cheek. “I’ll take care of it, Bambi. Go get thoroughly fucked.”

“I plan on it,” Margo said, eyes twinkling. “Make sure you get some of that really good cheese Julia likes. The Camembert.”

“Done.” 

“What about me? What can I do?” Quentin asked, despite his initial reluctance, ever the Boy Scout. Margo laughed, a derisive sound. Also par for the course.

“You can grab the utensils or some shit,” she said with a wave of her hand. “Whatever El tells you to do. I’m delegating.”

Eliot laughed in turn. “Yeah and I—ah, I don’t need your help.”

Quentin shrugged. “Fine by me. I have some work to catch up on anyway.”

“Boring,” Eliot said. Needlessly.

Margo plucked at Quentin’s flannel shirt, pursing her lips. “So when you say you’re going to do work—are you talking about hard manual labor? Or is it more like you’re attending a conference for twinkish lumberjacks with self-esteem issues?”

“No,” Quentin said, twisting his eyebrows. “These are just my clothes. Like always.”

“Hmm,” Margo sighed, letting her long fingernails trace down his buttons. Then she smiled, patting his cheek. “I have an inexplicable amount of affection for you, Coldwater. Cherish it.”

Quentin’s eyebrows crawled up and down and all around. “Uh, okay? Thanks?”

Margo smiled all the wider and spun back into Eliot’s arms, as the muses intended. She kissed him once more and waved her hand, light as air. “Well. I’m going to go get my clit licked. See you duck fuckers later.”

Quentin threw his hands up. “Seriously, why would you call us that?”

 


 

Planning a picnic was an entirely different beast than planning a party. It was closer to planning a dinner party, except it was typically more intimate, less elegant. One could even say picnics were more casual, though Eliot personally only used that word in relation to sex. 

In any case, it wasn’t any less intensive or intricate, nor any less worthy of Eliot’s considerable attention to detail. His favorite part of the Trials that year had been setting up the decadent outdoor soiree for one—all white linens and lace, silver candlesticks, floating chandeliers, and the most elaborate cream brocade duster he’d ever worn. Not to mention the red wine, champagne, pink roses, plum chrysanthemums, and perfectly applied eyeliner, frosting to the airiest angel food cake he’d ever put together. And a squirming, pissed off Quentin to watch all the while? God, it’d been perfection.

(The sandwiches definitely had too much dill though. He’d never make that mistake again.)

On that day, even beyond the enchanted weather, it was unseasonably lovely. There was a delightful confection of clouds and light, lending itself to a gentility and grace that inspired Eliot almost as much as raucous debauchery grinding deep into the night. So for the pleasure of his two closest friends in the world (and, he supposed, Julia), he kept it relatively simple. Enchanted blankets with perfect softness and size, fruit and cheese layered on delicate crystal platters, and more champagne than anyone could reasonably imbibe. But they were valiant and righteous and would do their damnedest to please Dionysus. 

Stretching his long legs out into the crisp and warm air, Eliot basked in the glow of the sunlight and the lucent sky. Quentin sat across from him, already picking out strawberries and cheddar onto his small white plate, looking quite pleased for someone who didn’t understand the need for planning a picnic. On the one hand, he was ridiculous. But on the other, having it all appear effortless was part of what Eliot strived for—in a way, it was a compliment to his abilities that Quentin still didn’t seem to appreciate the sheer amount of effort he put into everything. It meant he was succeeding.

Though a small amount of gratitude from Q wouldn’t be the worst thing either. Every now and then.

“What the fuck makes these strawberries so good?” Quentin asked, mouth full. Eliot sighed and shrugged, raising his eyebrows.

“Magic,” he said, twirling his hand in the air. He wasn’t about to give away his tricks to ungrateful Philistines.

Quentin’s dimples made an appearance and his eyes lit up. “Magic is the fucking best.” 

Eliot’s heart did a tiny and painful little thump at his words. But luckily, he didn’t have to consider its meaning for too long, because Margo and Julia chose that perfectly timed moment to make their grand, giggling entrance. Bambi floated down onto the blanket with an air kiss and pulled Julia down next to her, smiling into her cheeks as their hands remained entwined. 

“Julia,” Eliot raised his hand in a salute at the tiny brunette, briefly capturing her attention away from Margo. “How’s the life of a staid and rigid Knowledge Kid?”

“Wonderful. Intellectually thrilling and academically challenging,” Julia said, busying herself with flute glasses in the picnic basket. “I’m pushing the boundaries of my power every day. How goes wasting your potential on frivolous parties and drunken stupors?”

“It’s going fantastically,” Eliot smiled. “Thank you for your sincere interest.”

Julia thrust up on her arms to kiss Eliot a pop of a kiss on the cheek. She was sweet. 

Sometimes.

“Hi Q,” Julia said, scrunching her nose toward her best friend. He rolled his eyes.

“Yeah, yeah,” Quentin said, waving her off. “I see how it is. Bottom of the list now.”

“Save the best for last,” Julia said blithely, scouring over the food platters with keen interest.  “Ooh, Camembert!”

Margo glanced over at Eliot and mouthed Thank you with a wink. He nodded over his wine glass, before taking a long and luxurious sip. It was a light, acidic Syrah. Underrated. 

He let the conversation wash over him, only half paying attention, especially as Julia kept talking on and on about living in the library. From the way she told it, you’d think it was goddamn Versailles. Or whatever the nerd version of Versailles was. But Quentin and Margo were both held in rapt attention. Q was interested in anything and any place that introduced him to more magic, more magical theory, more power and more information. And Margo? Well, Margo seemed to just like to hear Julia talk. As she did, Bambi’s eyes blazed, cheeks rosy and lips wet with anticipation. 

In a manner of speaking.

“—And it always smells like old books,” Julia said, scrunching her shoulders tightly to her ears with a bright smile. “It’s amazing.”

With a jumping startle, Eliot was pretty sure he heard Margo murmur You’re amazing. But, well, that couldn’t be right. No. Never. 

The wine and his brain were making strange bedfellows, that’s all.

“Best smell in the world,” Quentin said, breaking through the static air. And Eliot rolled his eyes so hard he slumped over.

“Anyone who says that is full of shit,” he declared, popping the champagne. “It’s the stench of decay. Who the fuck prefers that to the scent of life?”

“Didn’t you once say your favorite smell is cocaine?” Quentin deadpanned. Eliot leaned back on his hands and smiled up into the sun, eyes closed.

“Exactly. Joie de vivre.”

Quentin bit the inside of his cheek. “Oh, and I’m the one who’s full of shit?”

Margo rolled onto her stomach and poked Eliot’s thigh. “Not to preemptively interrupt your whole Han-and-Leia thing, but can you pass me some fucking champagne before I literally die? Goddamn.”

With a bright and accommodating smile all for his most perfect Bambi, Eliot poured the fizzing drink into the elegant flute and the rest of the day whiled away in kind.

 


 

The only silver lining to Bambi’s intense fuck buddy situation with Julia was that Quentin Coldwater also lost his most reliable source of socialization in the same fell swoop. 

Initially, if he were honest, Eliot had hoped to recreate a similar situation with Q, mirroring Margo and Julia. To an extent, anyway. Maybe less giggles into the night and about tenfold the amount of moans. Even if his rotation of first year boys didn’t have an obvious vacancy, he would have made one in a heartbeat for Quentin, were he interested.

But. Well.

Q never showed interest. 

Not...really. Not really.

Not beyond a few shy smiles and occasional lingering eye contact. And the more they got to know each other, the more even that disappeared, replaced with sly comments and eye rolls. Which was of course enjoyable in its own way—more like they were friends. Real friends, who actually enjoyed each other’s company and preferred to shoot the shit, rather than exchange lingering, heated glances each other’s way.

Which was great and Eliot was definitely very happy with that turn of events. 

Truthfully, he’d never really had a platonic male friend before. Not since Taylor, at age fourteen. Obviously that had gotten fucked up and then after that, Eliot literally fucked anyone who even got close to some kind of deeper, philos sort of connection. So it was novel, at least. Eliot liked novel. And as they both mourned the loss of the constant presence of their other halves (in its quantity, if not entirety), they’d somehow almost become that for each other. It was kind of nice. Kind of precious. Almost. Or it would be, if Eliot ever thought that sort of thing. 

Which he didn’t.

Still, slowly, with time, Q was just—well, he was Q. He was Quentin. A near constant presence at his side and somehow the second best friend he’d ever had in his life. Conversation between them followed easily, the silences were comfortable, and Eliot could even be physically affectionate in the way he liked without Quentin being weird about it.

Their friendship was...nice. It was a truer connection than the frantic hook-up he’d once envisioned. It was solid and consistent, things Eliot only knew he valued in the theoretical or in regard to Margo. Honestly, he’d forgotten all about his jawline or soft eyes or deliciously perfect cupid’s bow lips.

Or more accurately, Quentin’s good looks were only a small facet of a much bigger and more important picture. He could still hold a superficial attraction to Quentin while ultimately prioritizing their friendship. He wasn’t an animal.

And as the weather started turning nicer and nicer, even beyond the enchantments, they’d started taking their drinking outdoors, to the woods around Brakebills. Or sometimes they’d even walk around sober, just to get their mutual restless energy out.

It was another thing they had in common. The sleeplessness, the frenetic and kinetic anxiety, the occasional haunted dark circles under their eyes. They didn’t talk about it in so many words. But it was there, like a constant undercurrent. It was understood.

(Unlike with Margo, the words Fucking hell, Eliot, suck it up never even crossed Q’s mind, let alone his lips. It was appreciated. Not because it was better, necessarily. But it was certainly different. And sometimes he needed something different, it turned out.)

That day was a Sunday, and Eliot crunched down on a dead twig as he walked, regaling Quentin with his tales of glory.

“—and each night I scaled the heights of the divine, particularly on ‘Bring Him Home,’” Eliot said, sighing into the sky. Then he looked at Quentin quite seriously, educating as always. “It’s a particularly difficult feat, if you know anything about the score.”

“Wow,” Q said, his eyes widening. “That’s—”

Eliot nodded. “I know. Impressive. I have a vast array of talents.”

“Oh, uh, no,” Quentin swallowed. He bit his lip. “No, that’s not quite—I was actually going to say—”

“What?” Eliot smiled, cocking his head. 

Quentin’s mouth widened into a slow grin.  “I was going to say that’s nerdy as shit.”

Eliot stopped shock still. He traced only his eyes to Quentin.

“Excuse me?” He whispered. He bit back something that felt like his own smile. Because that would be ridiculous. “Did you just have a stroke? Forget who you’re talking to here, kiddo?”

“I dunno. I thought it was Eliot Waugh, Hedonist Extraordinaire,” Quentin swung his arms out in the forest air. Loopy motherfucker. “But now all I see is six feet of pure goddamn nerd.”

“I’m six-two,” Eliot shot out. But Q ignored him. He jumped on a log and walked it like a balance beam.

“I mean, honestly? Musical theatre?” Quentin bit the inside of his cheek, eyes shining. “Plays with random singing and dancing? What’s the point. Everyone should just read a book. It’s much more efficient.”

“It’s an art form, Quentin,” Eliot said, fully aware of how much of a little shit his friend was being and exactly how much he was enjoying it. Asshole.

Q sputtered out a laugh. “Art? Uh, beg to differ. My parents dragged me to see Cats when I was a kid. All I need to know. All anyone needs to know. Check and fucking mate.”

“Jesus Christ. No. That is not all you need to know,” Eliot said with a rush of defensiveness. “Weber is entry level shit for the masses. You’re ignoring the history of Porter, Gershwin, Rogers and Hammerstein, all the old-school greats. Bridged by Leonard Bernstein, then brought to gorgeous fruition by the sheer revelation that was Stephen Sondheim—“

“So the thing about Babylon-5?” Quentin jumped down from the end of a log and snapped his fingers. His smile was wide and bright and Eliot kind of wanted to die from his cuteness. What a way to go. “Straczynski attempted to change the fundamentals of the television landscape, even beyond the science fiction model, right? And it, uh, ended up influencing even his contemporaries in real key ways. You can see it in the work of Whedon, Abrams, The Wachowskis, even arguably Lucas. Though that’s—“

What a little shit.

“Point made.” Eliot kept his face as impassive as possible. “I’m still not a nerd.”

“Uh-huh. Whatever you say, nerd.”

“Don’t test me,” Eliot lightly threatened, not revealing that his punishment of choice would be to hold Quentin down on his bed, bare skin under his lips, moving agonizingly slowly until he begged Eliot for release. Jesus fucking Christ, he was delicious. And he still had no goddamn idea, which was even more—

Fuck.

Okay. 

So, yes, he definitely still had occasional moments of weakness when it came to Quentin Coldwater.

However, in his experience, it was best to acknowledge them as they came and then let them go. That way, it wouldn’t upend the gentle equilibrium Eliot’s life had somehow started to find, despite all rationale to the contrary. Eliot was a fuck up, but that didn’t mean he would go out of his way to fuck things up. His attraction to Q and his friendship with Q existed in two separate boxes and generally, they didn’t overlap. But when they did? For a few moments? Here and there?

Well.

Weakness acknowledged.

He breathed in. He let go.

Quentin took a few steps ahead of Eliot before glancing back at him over his shoulder. “You know, while I’m not such a nerd to be into the musical—

Eliot bit back another small smile. “Watch it.”

“—I have actually read Hugo’s novel,” Quentin said, with a side-grin, like that wasn’t way nerdier. “Gotta say, I’d actually see you as more of an Enjolras. You know: Antinous, wild.”

His heart caught in his throat. Eliot wasn’t totally sure what to do with that. That Quentin would ever think of his that way.

So instead of pondering it too deeply, he cleared his throat and rolled his eyes, disaffected as ever.

“In terms of charm, energy, and likely dick size, I agree,” Eliot said, arm looping around Quentin’s shoulders for the hell of it. “But in terms of stage time, you can go fuck yourself with that suggestion.”

“Noted.”

 


 

Shit turned a real corner around Valentine’s Day though. It even hit the proverbial fan.

“Ooh, luscious flowers, Bambi,” Eliot said, sticking his face in the nearest orchid as he walked into the Cottage dining room. “For Genji, I assume? I heard she has an open slot in the summer retreat. Riding your fuck buddy’s coattails, are we?”

He plucked the card out from the topmost bunch and read Margo’s recognizably pristine and sharp handwritten script inside. As the words started to sink in, Bambi let out a primal scream and jumped on his back, ferocious in her scramble to wrench the card out of his hand.

But it was too late.

The card read—

For My Jewel, 

Happy National Fuck Day.
I’ll murder you in your sleep if you tell anyone about this, specifically with cyanide.
But let’s definitely fuck later ;)

Kisses always, 
Margo

It fluttered out of his hand to the floor. 

He was slack jawed. 

“For My Jewel?” He asked aloud, incredulous, stunned. That was. What? No. What. “Kisses always? A goddamn winky face?”

“I can explain, El,” Margo said, hands shaking and eyes wide as she slid off him. She wrapped her arms around herself. Eliot glanced back down at the card, face down on the hardwood. Then looked back up at his Bambi. Then back down.

“Bambi,” Eliot laughed out breathlessly. Her lip trembled and he took her hand. “Margo.”

“Okay,” Margo said, shaky. She stepped away from him with tiny steps. Her hands were buried in her hair at her temples. “Okay. It’s just that—she’s smart, okay? She’s so smart. She’s almost as smart as me and you know I don’t say that lightly.”

Eliot blinked. What the fuck was happening?

Margo started wringing her hands, swallowing audibly, “And she’s tough and she doesn’t take shit. She’s a leader. Which is so hot. She’s hot, El.”

Eliot opened his mouth to respond, but she cut him off with gritted teeth and an erratic, explosive hand motion outward from her chest. “But I know I don’t need to tell you she’s hot! You may like dick but you’re not fucking blind.”

His lips tugged into a small smile he only barely felt.

“Margo.”

“But she’s also funny. She’s stupid funny. And maybe even more importantly? My anger doesn’t alienate her. It’s like—like she thinks my rage is a worthy and powerful part of me that I don’t need to hide. That I’m worthy and powerful.”

Eliot’s heart flipped over. 

“Margo,” he whispered.

“And she does this thing with her tongue,” Margo shuddered, biting down on her lower lip. “Her discipline is metacomp and she wrote a spell and it lasts for hours. Waves of orgasms for hours, El. Hours.”

“Well, uh, can you write it the fuck down?” Eliot lowered his brow. “What the hell, Bambi?”

“Sorry, yeah, I was going to. I will,” Margo said, holding her hand to her chest. She was breathless. “Also, she smells like goddamn cinnamon all the goddamn time. You know this bitch loves cinnamon. What the fuck.”

“What the fuck indeed,” Eliot folded his arms over his chest. He tilted his head. “So what? Are you saying you’re in—”

“Don’t,” Margo swallowed, hard. She pointed at him, eyes wild. “Don’t you goddamn dare, Waugh.”

“But it sounds like you lo—”

Margo sputtered in her rage, sparks flying from her fingertips. “It’s—I do not—fuck you.”

Eliot twisted his tongue in his mouth and bit down on the edge. He narrowed his eyes and slumped his shoulders. Bambi won. As always.

“Okay,” he said, shaking his head and hiding a laugh. “Fine. It sounds like you...tolerate her.”

Margo’s eyes lit up. “Yes. I do. I tolerate her.”

“That’s not a bad thing, Margo,” Eliot said, quiet and gently touching her hand. She didn’t move away which he took as a minor victory. But she didn’t reciprocate either.

“It’s a horrible fucking thing and you know it as well as I do,” Margo snorted. Eliot smiled. It really was and he did know it. “But.”

“But?”

Margo’s lip trembled. It would have been imperceptible to anyone else. “But I really, really tolerate her, El.”

In that moment, he had twin instincts. The first, to wrap Margo in his arms with all the protection and adoration he carried in his heart. The second, to spit on the name Julia Wicker for all eternity. They warred fiercely in his chest. But instead of giving into either, Eliot simply cleared his throat, stood tall, and placed his hands behind his back.

“Then I tolerate her too.” He nodded once, curt. Margo swallowed and linked her pinky against his. Her eyes softened and she smiled up at him, fierce as ever.

“Thank you.”

 


 

It was the Ides of March and Eliot dragged Quentin out of the Cottage to go on a long walk. They’d ended up deep in the woods, far outside the wards. The cold was bitter, especially compared to the enchantment to which they’d grown accustomed. The wind whipped their cheeks red and fingers blistered. 

But Eliot had to do something. He had to at least try to help Quentin be anything other than the fucking zombie he’d turned into over the few past weeks. So they walked. And walked. In silence, with only the wind and the faraway screech of an unpleasant bird as their soundtrack.

Two hours in, Q finally started talking. The harsh wind restored Eliot’s breath all at once—sweet balmy relief in contrast to their environs.

“It’s just, like, sometimes my brain breaks,” Quentin said, perched on the rock. His eyes had deep lines around them. Eliot handed him his flask. It was refused. “And the—the books, they were my lifeline. So when I’m—when my brain gets extra fucked, I read them. Kind of obsessively. No matter what’s happening around me.”

“Here I thought you just hated Welters, like me,” Eliot smiled, lighter than he felt. “Our whole friendship is based on a lie.”

“Yeah, well.”

Eliot stared up at the dwindling light between the leaves. “What are they about?”

“Four siblings who find another world,” Quentin dug his fingernails into a patch of moss, dirtying them. “Standard portal fantasy narrative.”

Eliot raised his eyebrows and one shoulder at once. He hadn’t been much of a reader as a kid. His mother believed most children’s stories were based in witchcraft or the occult. More than even his terrible brothers, she worried that Eliot was susceptible to the devil’s influence. Hence, both his innate magical power and even more innate preference for dick were the most smugly joyful conclusions in his whole goddamn life. 

Still, he wasn’t sure what was standard or not in most children’s books. He didn’t know what a portal fantasy even was, let alone the typical narrative structure of one. But that didn’t matter.

Quentin’s eyes met his, wide and glowing. He smiled. “But. Uh. But it’s the best world.”

That mattered.

 


 

“Never have I ever,” Quentin furrowed his brow, biting his lower lip, “had sex on a beach.”

He was perched on their favorite rock, taking the game way too seriously, as always. From below, stretched out on a patch of enchanted grass, Eliot took a long chug from the flask they passed between them.

“You’re just trying to get me drunk at this point, right? Amateur hour, Q.”

Quentin glared and kicked at his ankle. Dirt kicked up as he did. “Getting the other person drunk is the point.”

Eliot took a stick and drew circular patterns in the ground. He glanced upward. “We can change that one next year, you know. When you come to Encanto with us. Find you a cute surfer girl to have her way with you in the waves.”

“Or surfer guy,” Quentin said with a shrug. 

Eliot tightened his brow. Q’s bisexuality belonged firmly in the box that didn’t overlap with their friendship. Otherwise, that tiny, pitiful voice that screamed Why don’t you want me? would never shut the fuck up.

“My turn,” he said, clearing his throat and brain. He forced a chuckle, looking up at Q through his lashes. “Honestly, I’m running out of things I’ve never done.”

“Think like a nerd. Should be your forte,” Quentin said with a full-faced smile, and Eliot’s heart thudded. 

Quentin looked particularly good that day—wearing a blue button-down and dark jeans that actually fit him for once. His long hair was tied back in a loose bun. He was smiling more than usual and holding himself straight, eyes wide and visible, with his stance almost confident. His attractiveness was harder to resist than usual. 

So. Weakness acknowledged.

“Fine,” Eliot said out loud, rolling his eyes. “Never have I ever fucked a Dungeon Master.”

Quentin grabbed at the flask and chugged. He held a firm middle finger in the air. 

“Never have I ever used face moisturizer.”

“Never?” Eliot’s widened his eyes. “Seriously?”

How the hell did his skin look like that then? Fuck him, honestly.

Quentin chuckled, “I mean, I’m the guy who buys the bargain pack of combination shampoo and conditioner. This shouldn’t shock you.”

“Ugh, it’s all to your own detriment though,” Eliot lied. Because that was what his hair looked like after using a 2-in-1? Honestly, fuck him. He pointed the tip of the flask right at Q before taking a chug. “But fine. Never have I ever finished a book by Dostoevsky.”

“I still think you’d like Brothers Karamazov if you gave it a chance,” Quentin said, after chugging. But Eliot simultaneously stuck his tongue out and his finger down his throat, miming gagging. “Fine. Never have I ever—” 

 


 

They were drunk. Really drunk. In the fucking woods and it was dark and everything was terrible. It wasn’t supposed to happen but it did, so what the fuck could Eliot do.

He shouldn’t have gotten this drunk. It shouldn’t have been possible for him to get this drunk.

But. Well. Here he was.

“Indiana?” Quentin asked with a quiet frown. Eliot brought his flask up to his lips. Missed.

“Indi-fuckin’-ana,” he confirmed, with a well placed hiccup. The ground was spinning. He fell back against a tree. “Tell anyone and I’ll leave you for dead on the side of a highway.”

“Um. Yeah. Uh, okay.”

 


 

Then there was the Kady shit. But Eliot didn’t like to dwell on the Kady shit.

So he didn’t.

 


 

“Any bank worth robbing uses one of a handful of security systems. All the usual bells and whistles,” Bambi said, stretching her long legs into the golden sun. It was setting over the trees and the air was heavy with sweet humidity. Unfinished finger sandwiches rested on tiny ceramic plates and several bottles of wine laid demolished beside. The gentle edge of summer was creeping toward them, slow and welcome and promising.

Margo continued with a gentle and genuine smile, belying her teasing and boastful voice. “But what most idiots don't know is those companies are all owned by Magicians.”

“Shut the fuck up,” Julia said with a hidden smile. She sat right behind Margo, hands weaving braids into her hair. “You are so full of shit.”

Bambi glanced coquettishly over her shoulder. “More like full of cash money and gold. That I stole. From a bank.”

Eliot poured another round of champagne and chuckled. “I believe it.”

He slid the flutes across the way to the giggling girls and then to the side. The taciturn Quentin took it with a slow nod of acknowledgement. He rested on the picnic blanket on his elbows and his face was inscrutable as he listened to Bambi regale them all with her larger-than-life claims. He gave no indication whether he believed what she was saying. Maybe it was because he knew, like Eliot, that truth wasn’t really the point. It never was with Margo.

“Nope. Bullshit,” Julia said. She kissed Margo on the cheek with the final syllable. “You’re seriously telling me that at seventeen, you were so in touch with your powers that you were able to successfully break through magical security and sneak past Battle Magic practitioners?” 

“Oh, don’t worry,” Margo turned around and entwined their fingers. She smiled into Julia’s mouth, their foreheads coming together. “Just because it takes some people longer to find their latent energy doesn’t mean they’re inherently inferior Magicians.”

“Oh my god. Dead. You’re totally dead,” Julia said, laughing and digging her fingers in Margo’s sides, tickling her as Bambi shrieked with an unfamiliar, unbridled laughter. They fell over, curled into each other with their laughter ricocheting through the woods. And because he still wasn’t a particularly evolved human, Eliot wasn’t sure if the sight made him want to smile or sob. So he went with his old standby in cases of emotional complexity.

He drank.

Finishing his glass in a large gulp, he poured more for himself and another for Quentin. But when he went to hand it to the still silent man next to him, Eliot was taken aback by the burning intensity under Q’s furrowed brow. He kept his gaze focused tightly on the basking Margo and Julia. His lips alternated between quirking up and down, and his Adam’s apple bobbed repeatedly in time.

Something sharp, unfamiliar, and aching twisted in Eliot’s gut. With a swig of his flask followed by his wine glass, he sank down into the quilt next to Quentin. He laid down, splayed artfully and casually, relaxed and unbothered as ever. He nudged Q with the tip of his elbow.

“You have to know you never stood a chance if Bambi was in the running,” he said quietly, hopefully light in his teasing. 

“Oh,” Quentin startled with a laugh, a small sound. He raised his eyebrows, eyes going wide. “No, that’s not—are you talking about me and Jules?”

At Eliot’s slow nod, Quentin smiled and shook his head. “Ah, no. No. I’m totally over all of that. Why would you even—?”

Eliot shrugged, pushing down the dumb and irrelevant relief he felt at Quentin’s words. He sipped his wine again.

“You looked pensive and pining.”

“Oh,” Quentin said, surprised. He let out a small huff of air. His smile was tiny and sly. “Well, that’s just because I suffer from Resting Pensive and Pining Face.”

Eliot’s lips smirked around his glass. “Fair enough. Rare condition.”

He wasn’t going to push Q if he didn’t want to talk about it. Not his role. Not his interest.

“I don’t know,” Quentin said leaning back on his hands, strands of hair falling in his face. Eliot resisted the urge to push them back. “I think I was more thinking that it’s, um, it’s nice, you know?”

He frowned, not really understanding where Q was going with that. “What’s nice?”

“Julia and Margo. It’s nice,” Quentin said. He scooted closer to Eliot and their knees touched. “They like each other.”

“Well. Yeah. I’d hope so,” Eliot rolled his eyes. But Quentin shook his head.

“I mean, they enjoy each other’s company,” he sighed. “They really get along. On top of—you know, the sex and romance shit. They get to have both. At the same time. And—and that’s what it’s about, right? That’s it.”

Eliot’s eyebrows twitched and he focused his eyes on his shoe. “I guess.”

“That’s what I want at least,” Quentin said. He ran his fingers through his hair and darted his eyes. Eliot’s throat was tight and dry. He took a full sip of his red wine, letting the smooth and heady acid and oak roll around his tongue for several long minutes.

“How’s Abbie anyway?” Eliot asked, eyes closing against the question. “Or is it Gabbie? Denise? Bernice?”

“You know it’s Caitlin.” 

Except Eliot really didn’t. Quentin was certainly more of a monogamist than he, but his dalliances were few and far between. They rarely lasted longer than a few weeks. Learning names was hardly worth the effort.

“How’s she then?” Eliot asked, hopefully not too pointed. He popped one eye open at Q. He wasn’t amused. Oh well.

“Uh, I’m sure she’s fine,” Quentin said, raising his glass a little and ticking his lips down into a backwards grin. Eliot snorted. Of course. “Avoiding me now. After. She said our auras were out of sync and attacking each other’s life force. So apparently it’s best for us to never cross paths ever again.”

“Your fault for fucking a Naturalist more than once.”

“She’s a Psychic.”

“So much goddamn worse.”

“I’m taking a break from all that anyway,” Quentin said with a sigh, rocking his head back onto one of the several large colorful pillows Eliot had placed throughout the picnic space. “You know dating’s never been my strong suit. Either I push people away or I get—obsessive. Piney. As aforementioned.”

Eliot’s chest tightened.  “I didn’t mean it like—”

Quentin swallowed and quickly glanced away. “No. It’s fine. It’s whatever. Anyway, I’m just going to focus on school. Developing my discipline. The important stuff.”

Eliot perked up. “You got your discipline?”

Q rolled his eyes but still looked quietly pleased. “Repair of Small Objects.”

“Flashy.” Eliot hoped his own smile was tempered. Not too bright. That definitely wasn’t a given though. He was happy for Q, who’d been depressed about his lack of discipline since he’d known him. He would even say that he was proud, if that wasn’t patronizing as shit.

But Q must have taken it in the spirit it was intended because he simply nodded and dipped his head down, grinning wider. “Yeah.”

They clinked glasses and sat in comfortable silence, with Margo and Julia’s laughter joyfully carrying the day along.

 

 

~**~

 

  

Brakebills University, August 31, 2016
(One Day Prior to Our Fabulous Story)

 

When Eliot once said that he enjoyed the beautiful nothing of summertime, he never anticipated it could mean a conspicuous absence of Bambi. But then again, he’d essentially spent most of the past year getting used to the conspicuous absence of Bambi. Her deciding to summer with Julia—Venice, Madrid, then Mykonos, last he’d heard—was a natural conclusion of the year that had somehow both broken and solidified their intense bond all at once.

And for the most part, Eliot was...okay. He wasn’t falling down a hole of depression and latent abandonment issues, so he figured that’s what okay had to look like. Margo was the single most important friendship, relationship, connection that he’d ever had in his entire life. But he wasn’t so emotionally underdeveloped to know that honoring that meant honoring change and what the other needed. While Julia wouldn’t have necessarily been his first choice for Bambi (Yeah, but who would be? A little voice asked, sounding far too much like Quentin), Julia was who Margo chose. 

Eliot knew that and therefore, he loved that. He loved both of them. For Margo.

(Of course, it also helped that before they two lovebirds left, Bambi had hugged Eliot for what felt like hours.

“Remember, baby,” she’d whispered against his pink shirt. “No matter what, I tolerate you most of all.”)

Of course, speaking of Q, it absolutely helped that Eliot’s favorite little nerd had stuck around instead of fleeing back to the magical hills of Jersey, as he was fond of saying. He had no illusions that Quentin had hung back to spend time with Eliot—they were close, but come on—and Q definitely sometimes ended up lost in a quagmire of spell theory and musty books. But for the most part, they were each other’s consistent go-to for meals, relaxation, walks, cautious adventures, and any activity that didn’t require solitude or, like, studying.

And if occasionally his idle brain conjured up other activities he and Q could do to pass the time, such as, oh, you know, wrapping around each other as they fucked into a mattress or the couch or outside on a picnic blanket or any number of places that he really hadn’t thought about it all that much? Well, then, ah. 

Well. 

Weakness acknowledged and all that.

But on that particular day, the last before his final year at Brakebills, Eliot was grappling with a different kind of weakness altogether.

“Do you ever wonder,” Eliot slowly spilled out, his legs stretching long on the couch and into Q’s lap, “if there’s more to life than parties and booze and merriment?”

“Nope,” Quentin said, jotting down notes in his book. He didn’t look up. “You should know my motto by now. Let the good times roll.”

“Charming.”

“End of summer blues?” Quentin asked, stretching his arm over his head. It lifted his shirt to reveal a sliver of torso. His light brown hair trailed downward. Eliot glanced away.

“More like end of life,” Eliot sighed, hand on his forehead like he was fainting. “I’m dying. Of boredom. Makes brain talky-talk.”

“I’ll send Margo a condolence card.”

“Please,” Eliot said, leaning his head back against the arm of the couch. “You’d be devastated if I died. You’d cry so hard.”

Quentin smirked and returned to his work. “Eh. I mean, at first, sure. But then with all the newfound peace and quiet? I think I’d get by.”

Eliot kicked his thigh. “I’m actually being halfway serious here.”

“Jesus,” Quentin huffed, pencil squeaking against the paper. “Yes, El. I’d cry if you died.”

“No, you brat,” Eliot glared half-heartedly. “I’m halfway serious about trying to find more purpose. Or something like that.”

“Halfway like, you actually want to talk about your future and respect my opinion on the matter?” Quentin asked, strangely quiet. He looked up at Eliot under his curtain of hair. “Or halfway like, you already have a point you’re barreling toward?”

“Sometimes I worry that I’m too self-focused,” Eliot said, in lieu of a direct response. “That my only aim is my own interests. Maybe that’s not as—maybe I’m selfish sometimes.”

“Really? Selfish?” Quentin smirked. “You?”

Then he glanced up at the boy feeding Eliot mixed nuts. Honestly, he’d forgotten he was there. The nuts seemed to appear from nothing.

“Now, now. Jasper here is very happy,” Eliot insisted, lazily petting the boy’s dark brown hair. It was coarse and wavy, wiry and staticky to the touch. Quentin rolled his eyes.

“Yeah, uh, I’m pretty sure his name is Jason,” Quentin said, looking directly at the new second year. “Isn’t it?”

“Technically,” Jasper said, hesitant. “But Eliot said that sounded like I belong in a 90s skateboarding Pizza Bagels commercial. So he—we changed it.”

“Doesn’t fit the aesthetic,” Eliot grinned around a cashew. He crunched it down to nothing. “Walnut please.”

Jasper pressed a walnut against his lips. The tips of his fingers smelled like cheese and vinegar, for some reason. He wrinkled his nose as he slid the nut between his teeth and chomped down, exaggerated. Jasper looked delighted but Quentin narrowed his eyes, unimpressed. Which, like, Eliot wasn’t sure what his problem was? It was all copacetic. He’d even said please, for Christ’s sake.

“So you were saying you’re trying to be less self-centered?” Quentin prompted, his voice monotone in that dryly insinuating way of his.

“That’s oversimplifying,” Eliot said, spitting out the Brazil nut Jasper tried to feed him. He glared upward and Jasper averted his eyes, guiltily. Damn right. He knew better than that. But he was also talking to Q right now, which was slightly more important.

Eliot continued, admonishing Jasper with little more than a sharp flick on the wrist. “I was thinking about what you said at the beginning of the summer. How you’re focusing on the important stuff this year. Less dating, more studying. How you have a goal.”

Quentin raised his eyebrows. “Is this you telling me you’re taking a vow of celibacy?”

Eliot laughed. Hard.

“What I mean is that I see how happy Margo is now, right? And Julia?” Eliot tapped his hands on his legs. “Well, their happiness weirdly makes me happy. It’s the strangest thing.”

Quentin shook his head, raising his eyebrows. “Yeah. That’s called empathy.”

“Sure. Whatever. In any case, I feel like, technically, I had something to do with that. So maybe I should consider continuing down that path? Helping others find happiness?” Eliot sighed wistfully, wrapping his hand around the back of Jasper’s neck. It was sweaty.

“You’re definitely saying words right now, huh?”

Eliot cocked his head with narrowed eyes. “Watch it, Sassafras.”

Q responded with nothing more than a shit-eating grin, replete with those dimples and crinkled eyes. Warmth spread from Eliot’s chest out through the tips of his fingers. For a splash of a moment, he wished Quentin always looked like that. And for half a splash of a moment, he wished he could have something to do with Quentin always looking like that.

“Excuse me, Eliot?” A jarring voice shattered his thoughts and Eliot swallowed his heart back to earth. “The nuts are gone. Do you want me to get more?”

“Go away, Jasper,” Eliot said, wiggling his fingers toward the stairwell. Jasper immediately jumped off the top of the couch, relieved to be relieved.

“See you around, Jason,” Quentin said pointedly, eyes burning right into Eliot’s. The air crackled, and he swallowed around that more and more present dry lump, down into his constricted, thudding chest. He breathed. 

Weakness acknowledged.

Weakness acknowledged.

Weakness acknowledged, goddammit.

He breathed again.

“Later, Quentin,” Jasper called from behind his shoulder. Eliot flipped his head around and raised his eyebrows, expectant. Jasper’s hand faltered on the bannister. “And, uh, it’s—it’s Jasper.”

Quentin rolled his eyes. Jasper sent them another quick, meaningless wave and Q watched him disappear up the stairs with a strange look on his face. He sighed and turned back to Eliot, tapping the end of his pencil on his book three times before laughing.

“Honestly?” Q said, biting his lip. “I’ll believe you can be charitable when I see it.”

Eliot frowned and crossed his arms. “Well, that’s kind of dickish.”

“Don’t mean it to be dickish,” Quentin said with another sigh. “Just that, like, I kind of believe people are who they are, you know? And—and who you are is good, El.”

Dry throat. “Oh.”

Quentin smirked. “But the day you start giving a shit about other people’s general happiness without any self-interest is the day I, like, join a gym because I care about getting physically fit. Or sell my Fillory first editions because I want to expand my horizons. We can all talk about these things, but that doesn’t mean they’ll actually, you know, happen. We are who we are, good and bad.”

Eliot swallowed down a rough anger and simply smiled, blithe and lazy. “Well, then I’ll just have to prove you wrong.”

Q’s lips quirked up. “Which is a form of self-interest in and of itself.”

“Oh no, that’s sheer pettiness and tenacity,” Eliot said, all stiff-upper lipped. “Very different.”

“Then God help us all,” Quentin mumbled, still smiling but turning back to his work. Eliot sat up and flopped his body as close to Q as he could get. He tossed his arm around him.

“Oh, Q. That’s the exact idea.”

Quentin rolled his eyes. “Christ.”

“Yes?”

“Okay, no. Stop that.”

And as they joked into the brightening morning, Eliot spared a glance away from Q’s lovely face. The sun streaked through the window just so, like a painting. 

It really had been a surprisingly good summer.

And just as he looked outward onto the quiet campus, a Canadian goose flew silhouetted against the pale sky, before descending right to the ground. It landed gracefully, its black webbed feet stark against the green grass. Briefly, he thought that it seemed a touch early for migration. But what did Eliot know?

Paying the creature no more mind, he turned back to the laughing Quentin, with a grand smile.

 


 

tbc.

Chapter Text

 

 


Brakebills University, September 2016
(Our Fabulous Story Finally Begins)

*

(Entitled: How Eliot Saves the Day With His Wit and Grace,  No Matter What Quentin Says, He’s a Nerd Anyway)

* 

 (Alternate Title: Why is Eliot Only Friends With Rude People?  That’s the REAL Page-Turner)

 

 


 

 

Here’s the thing about Todd.

Eliot intellectually understood why he “wasn’t so bad.” Or how certain people could think Todd “always had good intentions.” Or why the affirmative answer to “Jesus, did he really deserve to have I AM TACKY magically tattooed on his forehead because he whistled Cotton-Eyed Joe?” may be seen as “autocratic as shit.” 

He knew Todd was an amiable boy. His simpering smile and vacuous wide eyes always graced the Cottage denizens without fail. Literally. Every single goddamn morning, he stood at the bottom of the staircase, bound and determined to wish each person well. He did it whether they wished for his well-wishes or not.

Some people called it charming. Eliot had other words, not fit for polite company.

By all accounts, though, he was a true blue Physical Kid. His discipline had to do with the transmutation of mineralogy particles, which verged on Natural but came out Physical in the end. More to the point though, he was the biggest cheerleader for their lifestyle. He loved the parties, Welters, their inherent superiority, and all. No one was more likely to boast about the Signature Cocktail. No one more likely to praise Eliot’s finesse. No one more likely to cower at Margo’s ferocity. And no one more likely to sing hymns about how the Physical family had a cohesion that no other house emphasis could touch. He was cheerful and thoughtful, and he had a decent alcohol tolerance belying his frail and concave body. 

Some overwrought psychologist would have a field day with why Eliot held such strong negative feelings against the idiotic dweeb. From behind a smoke-billowing pipe and tweed jacket, they’d declare it based in “childhood trauma compounded by an early loss of innocence, resulting in a visceral discomfort when faced with earnest and unafraid vulnerability.”

Groundbreaking analysis, really.

But what psych quacks would never understand was the one simple, truest fact. Which was that...Todd? Was so fucking annoying. Like, scalp-burning, eyes-watering, boner-killing irritating as all hell. It was a truth not many people liked to acknowledge in a Kumbaya world, but some types would never mesh even in light of good intentions. 

Todd would never, ever mesh with Eliot Waugh.

But on that day, the first day of classes, Todd’s sycophantic brightness served a vital purpose, for the first and last time. See, sports connotations aside, Eliot believed in going big or going home. And what would be a bigger opening entry in Operation: Prove Quentin Wrong than having a voluntary conversation with his least favorite person on campus? It was simple and genius, certain to impress.

Spring in his step, Eliot shot his handsome face a quick wink in the hallway mirror before descending the stairs. He looked divine—oxblood blazer, gray vest, gold tie, tumbling curls, Hallelujah. Perfect for the sweet wide-eyed boys who were certain to fill the Cottage in a short manner of time, all lost and confused in a new world of magic. Thank goodness there was such a beautiful, wise Third Year to help them along their journey, no?

Pulling out his trusty enchanted thermos, Eliot almost forgot the hellish mission he’d signed himself up in his lustful reverie. That is, until he nearly crashed right into Todd’s eager waving.

“Have an awesome first day, Valerie!” The dork hollered at the slamming front door. “I know you’re gonna crush it! I believe in you!”

Ugh. Grant him strength.

“Todd,” Eliot said, voice tight through his teeth. He hissed in a breath. “Volume control is a virtue.”

“Hey Eliot,” Todd said, mouth falling open wide. “Wow. It’s so nice to see you. You look amazing on this finest of mornings.”

Ugh.

But fine.

“I know. Thank you. How—“ Eliot cleared his throat with a grunt and ticked his head to the side. He could do this. “How are you?”

Todd shook his head, comically large eyes falling into sadness. “No bueno, hombre.”

Correction: He couldn’t do this.

But just as he was about to tell Todd to fuck off as usual, Quentin stumbled down the stairs, hoodie twisted behind his back. He was trying to fit his left hand through the right arm sleeve.

“Shit, shit, shit, shit,” Q’s staccato voice punctuated each step he took, limbs squirming valiantly. “Shit.”

His chest twirling with a fond affection for his most hapless friend, Eliot smiled a little before turning back to Todd. He held his posture high and put his own hands into his elegant waistcoat pockets.

He could do this.

“Sorry to hear that, Todd,” Eliot said, magnanimous in his head tilt. “What’s troubling you?”

“I’m a numbskull and a half,” Todd said with a sigh and oh, god, no, he couldn’t do this. “I promised Dean Fogg I’d be a guide for a special circumstance student at ten, but I totally read my schedule wrong. I have my first lecture with Sunderland at the same time and attendance is five percent. I’m in a classic jam sandwich, Eliot.”

Jesus Christ. “What the fuck is a special circumstance student?”

“It’s a student who comes to Brakebills under special circumstances,” Todd explained, without a drop of condescension. Eliot wasn’t sure if that was better or worse than if it’d been witless sarcasm. “In this case, Alice Quinn is a returning second year. Exchange student, I guess.”

“Brakebills doesn’t have exchange programs,” Eliot said. It was like he was speaking to a particularly stupid preschooler. But then his eyebrows twitched as his brain whirred in recognition. “But—ah—did you say… Alice Quinn?”

“Sure did,” Todd said, bright. “Do you know her?”

Eliot slid right over that question. He wrapped an arm around Todd just as Quentin brushed past the two of them, muttering to himself under his breath. He disappeared into the other room. 

“You and I are friends, Todd,” he said and Todd immediately choked into a coughing fit. Eliot thumped his back once. “So I’ll help you out, okay? It’s really the least I could do.”

Todd let out a small gasp of gratitude, but his next words were cut off by—

Has anyone seen my fucking bag?” Quentin’s voice called from the dining room. Eliot sighed and rubbed the bridge of his nose.

It’s by the entryway where you goddamn left it,” he called back, eyes right on the leather monstrosity. Quentin was such a disaster. Not an original observation by any means, but a necessary one. Shaking his head with a chuckle, Eliot turned back to Todd, who was gazing up with sunshine in his eyes.

“You mean, you—you’ll be Alice’s student guide?” Todd asked, awed. “For me?”

“Absolutely,” Eliot said, tipping his chin up. “We Physical Kids need to stick together. Do you have the name card?”

“Yes, right here,” Todd said, digging into his pocket. He handed over a small white card that read Alice Quinn in formal script. Eliot’s eyes sparked. Perfect. “Man, you’re a lifesaver. Really.”

“It’s no trouble,” Eliot said. But then he paused. “Of course, you’ll owe me.”

“Of course,” Todd said, holding his hands up and taking one step backward. “Anything you need.”

“Excellent.”

Todd put his hands in his pockets and rocked back and forth on his feet. He was still staring at Eliot. It was awkward.

“This is the single nicest thing anyone has ever done for me,” Todd said, big brown eyes almost black in their devotion. “Thank you so much. From the very bottom of my heart.”

Eliot rumpled his brow and cleared his throat.

“Ah,” he said. He pursed his lips. “Well. Okay then. You’re welcome.”

Todd bobbed his head back and forth with his signature dumb grin. He started to open his mouth to say something else, but thankfully he was cut off again by Quentin’s reappearance. He was shaking his head and zipping up his hoodie, well-dressed as ever for a momentous day.

“Morning,” Q said, eyes glancing back and forth between Eliot and Todd. He bent over to finally pick up his bag as Todd waved enthusiastically.

“Good morning, Quentin!” Todd said as he darted toward the door. “I have to scoot, but I hope you have a great day! I believe in you!”

Quentin smiled at that and his eyebrows disappeared into his hairline. “Wow. That’s—that’s nice. Thanks, Todd.”

Todd nodded brightly and gave them both a thumbs up, before finally disappearing into the morning. Eliot let out a breath he didn’t know he’d been holding and turned his attention entirely to Quentin, fussing with his bag strap. He grinned, sly.

“I believe in you too,” Eliot said, eyes narrowed lasciviously. “For the record.”

“Fuck off,” Quentin said, eyebrows raising again along with a middle finger. Eliot shrugged. 

“My, my,” he said, leaning against the bannister on one arm. “Someone’s a Grumpy Gus. Back-to-school jitters?” 

Q sighed and slammed his hands against the sides of his head, overwhelmed already. “Yeah, uh, I guess. Hey, so if you’re waiting for me, you can head out. I’m running super late and my coffee’s still brewing. Somehow. Even though, like, it’s suppose to be fucking magic? I don’t know.”

“Here.” Eliot rolled his eyes, taking pity on the child. He handed Quentin his thermos. It was his second serving, so honestly, he didn’t really need it. “For you.”

Quentin’s eyes popped up and he let out a loud huff of breath. He took it greedily and unscrewed the lid to chug the French roast.

“Shit. Thanks, El,” Q said, tone finally soft. “How do you always have stuff like this waiting for everyone?”

His eyebrows ticked up quickly, in time with his lips. “Just a good host, I guess.”

Quentin’s eyes caught his for a barely discernible moment, gentle and singing. But then they shuttered into their usual wryness.

“You know I live here, right?” Quentin asked, his teasing inflection lifting each word. “I’m not a guest. And it’s not, like, technically your house either.”

“The world is my house, Q,” Eliot said, ushering him out the front door by the small of his back. “Now, before we go, did you get your first day of school picture taken? Hold up that adorable little sign that says Second Year? Daddy’s so proud.”

“Yeah, uh, Daddy’s a dickhead.”

 


 

 

Quentin was much less bowled over by Eliot’s selfless good deed than anticipated. 

As they walked down the long path into the heart of campus, Q squinted his eyes in disbelief , rather than smiling and saying things like, Mea culpa! I underestimated you, El. By the way, impeccable pocket square fold. Instead, he scratched the back of his neck and tilted his head over and over again, like he was trying to solve an incomprehensible puzzle.

“Did you hit your head in the shower?”

“Jesus, Q,” Eliot said with an affronted glare. “He was in a bind. I helped. Is that so unbelievable?”

“I mean, yeah,” Quentin said, half his mouth tugging upward. “Historically, epistemologically, psychologically—“

Eliot elbowed him hard enough that he tripped over to the side. He felt no remorse. Quentin was used to stumbling though, so he straightened himself back out quickly. Within seconds, he rematched Eliot’s stride, staring up with a still suspicious smirk.

“So to reiterate,” he said, putting his hands in his pockets. “You’re doing this to be nice? To Todd? There’s no other reason?”

Hmm.

Okay. 

So that definitely had the potential to blow up in his face if he held firm to the line. Eliot bit the inside of his cheek and tracked his eyes over, weighing his options. He sighed.

“That…” he said slowly, with a squinted eye and a scrunched nose “…and the girl in question also might be Genji Quinn’s niece?”

Quentin snorted. “There it fucking is.”

“Well, I’m not trying to be a goddamn saint, Coldwater,” Eliot said as he tucked his notebook under his arm. Look at him. Bringing a notebook. He really was taking his responsibilities seriously. He tried to angle his body so Q would notice it. 

He didn’t.

Instead, Quentin took another sip of coffee and looked up at Eliot from under his brows. “But I didn’t think you even cared that much about your career?”

“God, no. I don’t,” Eliot said, sticking out his tongue in a dance across his teeth. “But the retreat’s associated parties are legendary decadence. Think Caligula. Besides, bonus, could you imagine the look on Margo’s face if I got to go and she didn’t?”

“I wouldn’t hang your hopes on that. You wouldn’t even be able to appreciate it,” Quentin said, shaking his head. He grinned. “You know, between all the stabbing.”

Eliot laughed, a light bubbling in his chest. Sometimes it struck him as a shame that more people didn’t get a real glimpse at Q’s dry-witted sense of humor. It was often sharp, usually on the edge of dark, and always more clever than most would give him credit for. But unlike Eliot, if Quentin was able to craft a well-placed barb, it meant he was relaxed. Bon mots weren’t part of his armor; they were what his cloak of anxiety suppressed.

He was a selfish man though.

So more often than he saw it as a shame, Eliot liked that he was the one who got unguarded Quentin to himself. He liked that it was a given at that point in their friendship. He liked the unspoken trust it communicated. Being real friends with Q was like… finding a secret garden. Most people only saw the drab stone wall, passing by without another thought. Only a precious few—maybe only the worthy—got access to the wondrous truth and flora within. And Eliot really, really liked being one of the precious few who had the key. He liked being one of the only ones who could unlock the beauty, intricacies, and copious dick jokes within the heart of Quentin Coldwater. 

“You had a student guide, right?” Eliot asked as they turned along the path. It was more to change the subject of his own mind, because, uh, what the fuck was that, Waugh. “Who was it again?”

“Sam. My ex, remember?” Quentin said. Eliot immediately rolled his eyes, hard. 

First of all, ex was putting it a bit generously. They’d dated for a whole long weekend. A life-changing affair, he was sure, but history would remember it as a rightful blip. Second of all, Eliot had actually been friends with Quentin when this Sam had made an unwelcome appearance. Not to mince words, but he hadn’t been impressed by the slow-witted, Pokémon-obsessed spectacle of Q’s hook up. He wouldn’t have known what to do with himself if it hadn’t ended as quickly as it began. Eliot would have truly loathed having to find a place for such an uninspired guest at his dinner party tables.

Scowling, Eliot huffed. “Right, the annoying Naturalist with—“

Q set his jaw and glared. “He did not have—“

“—halitosis.”

“His breath smelled fine.”

“It’s like on Hoarders,” Eliot said, lighting a cigarette. “When the hoarder thinks their hoarding den smells, you know, ‘fine.’ But it actually smells like dog shit because of all the literal dog shit.”

Quentin’s lips pressed into a flat line. “Am I the hoarder in this scenario or is Sam?”

“You’re the hoarder. He’s the dog shit.” 

Duh.

“Yeah, you’re an asshole,” Quentin said with a side-glance, though without any real annoyance. He knew Eliot was teasing. Not about the halitosis part (that had been fucking true), but Q knew that Eliot respected his past little relationships. At least, when they were actually happening. He was nice enough to Quentin’s fuck buddies. He’d always borne their nerdy, milquetoast chatter, like any good friend would.

More or less.

“Mmm, indeed,” Eliot said before he grinned and patted Q on top of his head as they reached the cluster of classroom buildings. “On that note, have a good day, honey. Don’t work too hard.”

Instead of an actual goodbye, Quentin walked away, signature middle finger high in the air. Eliot chuckled and plastered himself against a tree, cigarette perched between his lips. He had an hour to kill and he planned on looking damn good while doing it. Eyes fluttering closed, he breathed in smoke and daydreamed of Genji, Margo screaming for blood, and a few other fleeting, unimportant dalliances, too silly to name.

 


 

The instructions on the back of the name card appeared exactly fifteen minutes before the appointment time. Eliot was to meet Alice Quinn at the sculpture garden. She'd arrive at the space between the tall trees and manicured shrubbery. The area served as the unofficial separation between the classrooms and the living space. His stated goal was to take her to the Cottage, where she’d be living. Eliot assumed that meant she was a Physical Kid, but the notes gave no indication of any personal details. That was standard—it wasn’t like Dean Fogg was Mr. Forthcoming 2016. 

The sun dappled through the Spanish moss and Eliot maneuvered his way over to the statue of Gregor Alowitz. He had no particular affinity for Gregor Alowitz—one of the donors for the Brakebills’ Consciousness Building, psychic nonsense—but the base of the statue was the perfect height to jump onto and stretch out, languid and picturesque. It was crucial that he make an excellent first impression on this particular student, since she held the keys to the proverbial castle.

If she was anything like Genji, Eliot wasn’t concerned that they would get along. Genji Quinn was a work of art. Round sunglasses over matte makeup and an array of brightly colored Chanel. She always wore stunning turbans adorned with antique brooches, each worth more than the entirety of Eliot’s own considerable wardrobe. Her full-length dresses swished and sang, all overtop cheeky black combat boots. She spoke softly, carried a big stick, and probably fucked every soporific bourgeois magic asshole with it nightly. Twice on Sundays.

He’d meant what he said to Quentin. Eliot truly didn’t care much about his career. He was more interested in the intoxicating extravagance in the slow motion masquerade balls of the retreat than any networking connections he could glean from it. But there was a promise in someone like Genji—that someone like him, someone who cared about aesthetics and pleasure in his magic—could still succeed and wield power. That someone like him could find something to do with his miserable life, in a way that wasn’t quite so sad and empty. That maybe he wouldn’t be totally alone once he turned around the corner of graduation, especially if Margo’s focus was still going to be on Julia along with conquering the whole damn universe. 

But Eliot was being a touch sentimental. Terrible for the affectation. There were times when a wistful gaze in his hazel eyes attracted the right kind of boy, for the right kind of mood. The Tell me your secrets as we fuck dirty in the moonlight type he was marginally fond of, on a rare occasion. But today, he was aiming for vivid and keen, larger-than-life in his beauty and boldness. If this Alice was Genji’s darling niece, it would take even more than his usual panache and zing to get in her pants.  

Then, the clock tower struck ten and all was well.

Like a teleportation, a young woman was standing in front of him. Of course, she hadn’t actually teleported. She probably wasn’t a Traveler. The volatile, sexy Indian guy and Josh’s ex were the only two he knew. Before Victoria graduated, they mostly kept to themselves in a strange little queer cabal with a few other psychics. If Alice was a Traveler, she would have been immediately folded into Penny’s odd group, rather than sent Eliot’s way. Instead, her fast appearance came from her she short, piercing steps. Her thick-heeled Mary Janes clacked against the concrete.

She wasn’t… exactly what Eliot had pictured.

Alice was blonde, very blonde, with stick-straight hair that reached her shoulders. Her dark brows were groomed but angry under red framed glasses that did little to flatter her cream-pink skin. Her lips were pinched in automatic distrust and her slender jawline was set at an angle, though she were steeling herself. She wore a sharp and rigid babydoll dress, with a lumpy gray sweater. Her arms were crossed over a pair of giant tits. 

“Alice Quinn?” Eliot asked, incredulous. He jumped down and stared down at the card. He needed to make sure he’d gotten the name right. Because, like fuck this uptight nerd was related to Genji, right? But Alice nodded, curt and disinterested. She looked Eliot up and down in tandem with the end of his own once over. 

She cleared her throat. “You’re the student guide, I presume?” 

Eliot offered her a wary salute and smile. She scowled.

“This is unnecessary,” she said, brushing past Eliot without a proper greeting.

He blinked and snorted, falling into step next to her. “Why, enchanted to meet you too.”

“I’m a second year who has been working with Mischa Mayakovsky at Brakebills South. I am at a level of magical adept that allowed me to forgo even The Trials,” she said, moving forward with tiny steps. Her eyes set blazing ahead under those firm brows. “No offense, but I don’t need anyone’s guidance. So take me to my room and you can check your little box, okay?”

“Okay.” Eliot suppressed a smile. He could switch tacks. He was flexible. “Understood, ma'am. I’m sure you’re tense after such a long journey today.”

Her frown deepened and she stared back at Eliot like he was the biggest idiot she’d ever met. “I arrived yesterday. I’ve been in acclimation chambers and signing paperwork. Did you seriously not read my file?”

Genji’s niece, Genji’s niece, Genji’s niece.

“Oh, I definitely didn’t. Couldn’t be assed,” Eliot laughed smoothly. He was hardly shamed by this pretty little cave troll and he had a mission. “If everything you’re saying is true, though, then why the fuck do you even need a student guide? Feeling pretty expendable here.”

She honked a laugh of her own, still sounding like a goose. “Tradition, I suppose. Congratulations on being a glorified bellboy.”

That was almost funny. Eliot smirked her way, a signal of gentle camaraderie, and Alice slightly slowed her pace at his interest. She kept half a glance on him as they turned the bend toward the student living corner of campus.

“Lord knows I’d look rakishly handsome in one of those flat top hats,” Eliot said with a smirk and a waggle of his flask. He downed a sip, ignoring Alice’s now darkening watchful eye. “You’re a Physical Kid then, hm?”

Alice pursed her lips and shook her head. “Listen, Todd. You seem like a nice enough person, but—“

“Jesus. Fuck. Nonono. Take it back. I’m not Todd,” he said, lighting a cigarette. He gestured toward her with his silver case, the top flapping up and down on its hinges. “Want?”

“Of course not,” Alice said, snarling her lip. Eliot shrugged and took a long drag. When he blew out the smoke, she coughed into her hand without breaking eye contact, a pointed sound. Eliot rolled his eyes. One of those.

They walked in tense silence for a few more moments before Alice couldn’t help herself. She whipped toward her, arms crossed.

“But I was told I’d be meeting a Todd Bates?”

“Nope. Lucky day for you.” Eliot gave one more attempt at a warm smile. It was again rebuffed and his patience was growing thin.

“Well, if you’re not Todd, then who are you?” Alice demanded, hands on her hips. “And where exactly are you taking me?”

“I’m a serial killer,” Eliot drawled, arms wide and indicating the Cottage in the distance with his cigarette. “That’s my lair.”

“Original,” Alice said, with a massive eye roll.

But his hilarious joke must have at least convinced her that arguing would be futile. In terse silence, she followed him down the path, ready to greet her reluctant new home. Eliot grimaced as he opened the door, making a mental note to Kill Todd once again. He should have known better.

Fucking Todd.

 


 

Alice’s room was on the far end of the hallway, a brand new door that appeared from nothing. It was painted in blocks of pastel blues and bright yellow. Garish, not to Eliot’s taste. His door was a mosaic of stained glass jewel tones, which was much more fitting of the Cottage’s painstaking aesthetic. The one that he, of course, had set, but that was neither here nor there.

(When he moved into the Cottage as a first year, the whole thing had been done up in a horrifying Scandinavian Industrial style. The IKEA curves, colorless palette, and fucking concrete coffee table still haunted his nightmares.)

As they walked through her door, Eliot was surprised to see that everything had been already meticulously unpacked. Her walls were adorned with Kinkadesque framed drawings—domestic and muted and blah. Chinese lanterns with butterflies hung from the ceiling. There was a fuzzy pink robe hanging from the closet hook and a dusty pink couch was streaked with sunbeams. The curtains were lace and there were several small glass horse statues throughout the available surfaces. It was uninspired decor, but he didn’t expect anything else after a single look at the girl.

What was curious was that there was decor put up already at all.

“Have you been here?” Eliot asked, turning around once and tilting an amused look her way. Because if she had, then he really had no point to being there. But she shook her head.

“They set it up for me. It’s in the school’s interest to keep me happy,” Alice said, simple and clinical. Eliot grinned at that.

“Well, now you’re saying things I halfway give a shit about,” he said, perching on her bed. He crossed his legs and rested his chin on his palm. “Tell me the deets. What do you have on our dear illustrious institution of magical pedagogy? I love a good skeletons-in-the-closet tale.”

But Alice ignored his questioning. Instead, she glanced up at him, eyes wide and mocking. 

“Thank goodness you halfway give a ‘shit,’” she said, brittle and airy. “All I’ve ever wanted is the approval of a drunk manchild who cares more about style than substance.”

Eliot sneered a small laugh.

... Oh, she thought she was clever?

He’d show a bitch clever.

“Watch your step,” Eliot said, slow and poised as she began aggressively putting her books away. “I think the acclimation chamber may have missed the rather large icicle slowly fucking its way up the cavern of your—“

Alice’s hands went right to her hair and she let out a loud, frustrated noise. “Why are you still here? Is this about my family? Because trust me, wrong tree.”

“Now, now,” Eliot said, shoulders sliding forward, though he were a panther toying with food. “You have a new family. We’re a scrappy rag-tag team of underdogs, but love and magic carries us through.”

Of all things, that was the line that brought out a loud laugh from Alice Quinn. But it was bitter, spitting, and harsh. She slammed a book on the ground, snapping her neck toward him. Her hands tightened into tiny fists at her side.

“What, because magic is so wonderful?” Alice’s eyes sparked, somehow ill-equipped to pick up on sarcasm despite her own penchant for it. “Please. You have no idea what it can do. Your blasé attitude makes that clear enough.”

What a presumptuous twat.

“Poor little magic girl,” Eliot said, cutting her off with a dripping laugh. “Why, everyone knows she’s the only one who was ever fucked over by an incomprehensible force of nature.”

Her mouth clenched. “I’m not saying that.” 

But Eliot didn’t care what she was saying. “At least I have fun with it. All it’s worth really. Better than wallowing in self-pity.”

“Magic isn’t fun,” Alice growled. 

“No shit,” Eliot said, thisclose to snapping. “At best, it’s a tool. At worst, it’s a soul-sucking burden.”

“I agree with you,” Alice said, bursting out. She sounded angry, but her eyes were darting, like the conversation wasn’t going exactly like she’d anticipated. “But most people are too moronic or weak to handle it. Brakebills doesn’t stress that enough. Too many people go in far too blind. That’s what makes it especially dangerous.”

Eliot pursed his lips and set his face into a neutral mask. “And now I agree with you.”

He actually did. Only a few people knew about his own history with magic—Logan Kinnear, the breakdowns in undergrad, the way he used alcohol to dull his hair-trigger instincts as much as anything else. And by a few people, he really meant exactly two. To the rest of the world, he still projected the model of the carefree playboy, whiling away in telekinesis and glittered champagne like it was where he was born. He had no intention of changing that with this little bitchy mouse of an ice dork. 

But there was something about the way she paced angry and lost around her room. Something about the way she threw as many pointed words at Eliot as she could, barely leaving any room for breath. Something about her buzzing hysteria that evoked the slightest amount of...

Ah, what was that word Q used again?

Oh, right. 

Empathy.

Not that he felt so much empathy for Alice that he could ignore how unpleasant he found her. But if there was anything he understood, it was the way magic could twist itself through your soul and ventricles, and ruin everything you once thought was stable. Everything, including your own sense of worth, sense of decency, and sense of bare equilibrium in an already fucked up and chaotic world. He knew it could even destroy a fundamental sense of self, if left too forgone to its own devices.

So Eliot shrugged up at her, giving the smallest and only gift he could muster: His agreement.

“Oh,” Alice swallowed. She stood shock still, chewing on her bottom lip like a piece of gum. “Oh.”

“Oh,” Eliot repeated, standing up to walk toward her door frame. He sighed and leveled her with what he hoped was a disinterested stare. “Anyway, this was a real delight, Alice, but I’ll let you have at it. Good luck and all.”

“Goodbye is more appropriate,” she said, staring down at the ground. Eliot snorted. Jesus, Livejournal about it, why didn’t she? No one had time for that kind of emo horseshit. They were goddamn adults.

“Dramatic. It’s not that big of a campus,” he said, twisting his lips. “But I’ll be more than happy to pretend I don’t know you.”

But Alice shook her head, eyes turning to stone. “No. I mean, I won’t see you. At all. Ever again. I’m leaving. Today.”

Something small and sharp pierced at Eliot’s gut. His mouth was ready to saunter off with a Cheerio then, love, don’t let the door hit your ass, but his feet wouldn’t let him. Instead, they rooted him to the spot and all his heavy tongue could manage was: “What?”

“This—this was obviously a mistake,” Alice said, and began pacing around her room. She grabbed haphazard at her tchotchkes and started throwing them on the bed. Her hand faltered around one of the horse statues, before she cradled it to her heart.

“I got what I wanted from this place. It was stupid to come here.”

Eliot remained frozen for a few minutes. He watched her move frantic and wild, piling clothes and books and more horses in an unparalleled frenzy. He’d never met someone who so embodied whiplash. Cool and collected one second, biting bitch the next, skittish fawn the third. And like a paradox, through all seconds, she was also everything at once.

“Well. Ah. Alright,” Eliot said, his hand wavering over the doorknob. He could feel his eyebrows moving up and down. She didn’t look at him. “Hope you find what you’re looking for.”

“Bye then,” Alice said, monotone and futzing with a fuzzy sweater. Her eyes were shining and Eliot realized they were filled with unshed tears. Fuck. Goddammit. He needed a smoke. And a nap.

But instead—

“Jesus Christ, sit down,” Eliot said, hating himself as he grabbed the yelping Alice and forced her onto the bed. She glared up at him and wrenched her arm out from his hand. “Explain.”

Alice clenched her jaw. “Why do you care?”

It was a fair question. They hadn’t exactly bonded. He stared down at her for a long moment before letting out a stream of air through his nostrils, rubbing his temples.

“Look,” Eliot said, kneeling down and placing his hands on her knees. Her face twisted through a thousand complicated emotions at the touch. “We don’t know each other. I’m definitely not sure we’ll ever like each other. But you can’t just leave. What the hell would you do?”

Alice swallowed, the line of her delicate throat spasming. “Brakebills has this program, where they set you up with a—an office job. You retain knowledge of magic but you enter civilian life seamlessly.”

“Okay,” Eliot said, ducking his head to capture her eyes. “Let’s logic through that for a minute. You say Sayonara and Fuck you to Henry Fogg. I understand that impulse. Point to you.”

Alice’s lips twitched like she wanted to laugh, but refused to let herself. Encouraged, Eliot pressed his fingers firmer into her knees. 

“Then you get a job in publishing or PR or whatever it is the overeducated do these days,” he said. He cocked his head. “Now, do you really think your energy will just—go away?”

“No. But it doesn’t have to be an interference,” Alice said, lip tucking between her teeth. Eliot laughed. What he was about to say wasn’t funny, but laughter still came out. Defense mechanism against the harsh truth of the world.

“Sure, that’s one possibility,” he said, flat. “That you’ll have magical power swarming inside you, but you successfully ignore it and everything goes hunky-dory. You wind up with a 401k, a nice husband from Michigan, and your happily ever after. Ta-da.”

“Or?” She asked, but she already knew.

Eliot’s eyes grew heavy and jagged in their focus. “Or it eats you alive and attacks everything true around you, without your input or permission. It gnaws at your synapses until your mind doesn’t exist anymore, not in any recognizable form.”

Alice closed her own eyes tight, her whole body shuddering for a moment. Her jaw continued trembling after she pulled herself together and stared him straight on once again. She wasn’t easily cowed. He had to give her that.

“It’s your call,” Eliot said, quiet. “But which one do you honestly think sounds more likely?”

“Maybe it’s still the lesser of two evils. Taking the chance for normalcy,” Alice said, her voice high-pitched and on the brink. “Magic is—Magic has destroyed so much. It ruined my life.”

“I know,” Eliot said, levering himself up to sit next to her. He didn’t know. But he knew. “Here’s the thing, though. I was being a shithead when I said we’re all one big happy family earlier. But I wasn’t totally bullshitting either. Because what’s actually useful about Brakebills isn’t the fucking classes or Henry Fogg’s eminence or the Valium-dulled mentors. It’s finding your people and knowing that you’re all in the shit together, yeah?”

“What an adorable sentiment,” Alice snorted, pushing her glasses up the bridge of her nose. “Shall we hold hands and sing This Little Light of Mine now?”

Eliot smiled, surprisingly soft and fond. “I changed my mind. I like you very much.”

Alice’s eyebrows twisted together along with her hands and she cleared her throat. Her eyes averted.

“Oh,” she said. “Um. Thanks?”

She sounded exactly like Quentin. His heart grew another size for her in that moment.

“Take it from me, a perennial fuck up,” Eliot said softly, ducking his head to look her in the eye. She allowed it. “Whatever it is you’re running from? It’s going to fucking find you wherever you are, wherever you go. At least here, everyone may be toxic and messy and shitty, but they get it. In some small measure, we all get it, Alice.”

Alice sniffed and wiped one surreptitious tear away from her face. Eliot did her the courtesy of pretending not to notice.

“Okay,” she said, straightening her posture from her torso.

“Okay?” Eliot asked, coaxing. 

Alice cleared her throat and held her head high. “Fine. I’ll stay. On a trial basis.”

She said it like she was doing him a personal favor. That made her sound more like Margo. Eliot’s lips quirked up.

“I’m glad,” he said, chuckling. “Henry would have been very cross with me if you’d left. He’s such a worrywart.”

Alice squinted at him, slightly thrown. “You’re on a first name basis with the dean?”

“What can I say?” Eliot leaned back on his hands, cracking his neck. He grinned. “He insists on it.”

Alice blushed, like it had just occurred to her that jokes exist. Eliot grinned wider.

They sat in silence.

“Thank you,” Alice finally said quietly. “I really appreciate that you would—even after I was so—Anyway, thank you.”

“It was nothing,” Eliot said, waving his hand in an airy twirl.

She paused and furrowed her brow at him. “Sorry. But you actually still haven’t told me your name? Not-Todd?”

Eliot laughed, squeezing her shoulder once. She tensed, so he released her. But he continued to smile down. “Eliot.”

“Alice,” she said automatically, pointing to herself. Then she blushed again. “But, well, you already knew that.”

“I like the idea of us reintroducing ourselves,” Eliot said, truthfully. He leaned back on his hands. “Fresh start.”

“I like that too,” Alice said with a tiny smile, the most genuine he’d seen yet. She was endearing when she allowed herself to be. “I’m sorry I was so—”

Eliot waved her off. “Trust me, darling. You’re speaking to the King of Character Defects. I’m working on it. Ostensibly.”

“I’m working on some too,” Alice said, the shading in her bright blue eyes glinting dark for a brief moment. “Maybe we can work on them together. In parallel form. All for one, right?”

“Leave no man behind,” Eliot said, briefly nodding at her. She returned it, tentative smile growing.

Still relaxing on her bed, he stretched his arms back further, releasing his tension. What a weird morning, he mused as he stared up at her ceiling. She had solar system decals plastered throughout the expanse above along with, more unusually, a neon periodic table. With a weary and warm sigh, he started to press his fingers outward, moving to make some sort of graceful exit. But his rings clinked against one of the small horse statues. Twisting onto his side, he picked it up and held it up to the light. It glinted rainbows, like a prism.

“Horses are majestic creatures,” he said, trying to be polite. But Alice blossomed like a flower at his words.

“Thank you for saying that, Eliot,” she said, twisting her seafoam bedspread in her delicate hands. She smiled at him, bright and genuine. Her face was lovely and still. “I agree. Obviously.”

“Sure,” Eliot said. He felt his features twitch in a combination of amusement, confusion, and endearment. “Nothing like a palomino on a misty morning, right?”

The conversation was taking a too close to home turn. But the brightness in her posture and the melting ice around the crinkles of her smiling eyes was almost worth it. She nodded.

“It’s funny you say that. Palominos are actually my favorite,” Alice said, soft and warm. “They’re such delicate beauty, but you just know their hearts are wild. I feel the thrum of life each time I see one. How it’s supposed to be anyway.”

Eliot opened his mouth to respond, but found nothing but dry air. His chest hurt. So he gave her a tight smile and dipped into his vest pocket to pull out his flask. He took a long chug, never taking his eyes off Alice. Her blonde hair fell in front of her face. Impulsively, Eliot brushed it behind her ear. She blushed.

“Are you hungry?” Eliot asked, without really meaning to. “Feel like joining my friends and I for lunch?”

Alice smiled again.

 


 

Reaching the picnic clearing was a relief. It turned out having an intense conversation about the danger and hopelessness in magic juxtaposed with the beauty of human connection still didn’t exactly give Eliot and Alice a huge array of topics in common. They chatted about horses a bit more before Eliot couldn’t stomach it any longer. Then they talked about classes (one of which Eliot had skipped, oops.) And finally they fell into silence, with even his renowned social skills unable to entirely close the gap.

But Eliot had put the picnic enchantments on default, and he sighed with contentment at the sight before them. Big soft blanket, hanging twinkle lights, all of Margo’s favorite colorful pillows, and decadent brunch food. That, and the beautiful boy sitting cross-legged in the brightening sun and he was certain it was one of the best tableaus he’d set forth yet.

“Take a seat anywhere,” he said to Alice, catching Q’s attention at the same time. He sat up and shifted his palms under his legs, brow furrowing in curiosity and caution at the newcomer. “Afternoon, Q. How’d you beat us here?”

“Uh, hey,” Quentin said, raising himself up on his knees. His growing confusion was vivid. “My PA class was just a Welcome to Second Year, gird your loins speech from Fogg and then early dismissal. So. Um—?”

Eliot smiled as he followed Q’s gaze to the awkwardly shifting Alice, who had sat down on a purple and green patterned Marrakech-style pillow. But she still looked like she was considering bolting into the forest and making like Nell. 

“Q, Alice,” he said, gesturing back and forth between the expert eye contact avoiders. “Alice, this is Quentin. He’s a second year too.”

“Hey, uh, nice to meet you,” Quentin said sitting on his palms. Alice offered a tepid little smile back and cleared her throat.

“When you said picnic, I definitely wasn’t picturing this,” Alice said, smoothing her skirt down. “It’s—elaborate.”

“Thank you,” Eliot said blithely, though he wasn’t certain she meant it as a compliment. Didn’t matter. He slid down and wrapped his arm around Q, offering him a brief smile as he did. Quentin raised his eyebrows in fast acknowledgement, though his wary eyes never quite left Alice.

She cleared her throat, looking between them. “So are you Eliot’s—?”

Q blanched adorably. Eliot sighed, nuzzling into his temple.

“Alas, ours is a forbidden love,” he said, squeezing closer. “Me, a prominent member of the landed gentry. He, a devout clergyman—”

But Quentin pulled away. “We’re not together. We’re friends.”

A storm cloud settled atop Eliot for the blink of a dark moment, but he batted it off with a languid smile. They weren’t together. They were friends. Both statements accurate. No reason to get pissy over facts, even if Q was a touch more ornery about it than fucking necessary in front of Alice.

Eliot lounged back against the soft blanket and twirled his hand in the air.

“I’ll never be tied down,” Eliot said, blithely plucking a grape off a cut vine. Quentin shifted again, staring down at his boots. Awkward as ever. New people always put him in a foul mood. To offset Q’s... Q-ness, Eliot gave Alice a warm smile.

“Please help yourself to the spread. More than enough to feed all of Luxembourg here, as I like it.”

Alice gave a curt nod and grabbed a plate, putting two crackers and a single block of cheddar cheese on it. It was a start.

“You do all this for just a few of your friends?” Alice asked as she sat back down, legs tucked prim under her knees. “That’s very thoughtful of you.”

“Eh, thoughtful, self-indulgent,” Quentin said with an equivocating head bob. He had chocolate around his mouth. Eliot rolled his eyes and handed him a napkin. “Tomato, tomato.”

Eliot shot out a quick pointer finger. “Never besmirch indulgence in my presence again.”

Alice stared at Quentin though her wide-rimmed glasses. She sniffed. “You seem to be enjoying it nonetheless.”

Quentin scrunched his brow together. “I mean, yeah? That’s not in question?”

He said it like it was a given, which sent a jolt of pleasant surprise through Eliot. Quentin often said kind things—kind and true and often more intense than a situation called for. But he rarely noticed the little things. To the point that it was actually in constant question. Vexing even. Because while he at least enjoyed the parties enough to attend each time, with his semi-permanent place by Eliot’s side, there was little indication of how much he appreciated the particulars. With his moody eyes, lined frowns, and complicated mind, it really wasn’t surprising that Quentin was hardly quick with a light compliment. 

But it was still nice when it happened.

“So, uh, where are you from, Alice?” Quentin asked, moving past the sharp moment. At least he was trying to be somewhat polite now, even if his eyes were still averted. But that went to hell when Alice sneered and her shoulders tensed.

“I don’t see how that’s your business.”

He held his hands up in surrender and backed his neck into his shoulders. “Yup. Okay.”

But when Alice glanced down, jaw trembling, Q shot Eliot a look and mouthed What the fuck? He sighed and shrugged in what he knew was a vague, unhelpful response. He received a rightful glare back. But then Alice shuddered and swallowed.

“I’m sorry,” she said quietly, looking back up at Quentin with a shy frown. “Habit. I’m—I’m from Chicago, Illinois.”

Eliot was oddly charmed by the inclusion of the state in her answer. She valued precision. For a second, he almost lost himself enough to tell her that Chicago was the first major city he’d ever visited, unless you counted Fort Wayne, but who did? He almost told her that it had changed his life. Maybe saved it. But that would have been an entirely insane thing to say to new girl Alice Quinn of all people. So instead he refocused on the actual conversation at hand, which was going—

Well, it was going.

Quentin’s eyes brightened in that nerdy way they did sometimes. “Did you know that Chicago is called the Windy City because the politics are so ever-changing? And not because of the weather?”

Alice ticked her eyebrow. “Like I said, I’m from Chicago. So yes, I’ve heard that. Though there’s actually several potential points of origin for the nickname.”

“Oh. Right. Uh, yeah. That makes sense,” Quentin nodded. Too hard and too quickly. 

“Chicago is actually fairly windy,” Alice said, twisting her hands. “Especially through the buildings.”

“You know, I read once that, uh, that Boston is actually the windiest major city. Like, around 12 miles per hour. Um, per year,” Quentin said, twisting his hands. “Do—do you know what Chicago’s average annual wind speed is?”

Eliot leaned forward with his chin propped up, staring at Quentin with wide eyes.

“No,” Alice said with a queasy smile. “I don’t. Sorry.”

With that, blessed silence fell upon them. Alice cleared her throat and tucked her hair behind her ears. Quentin sucked his lip in and out from between his teeth, shooting Eliot pleading little looks. To be a shit, he scrunched his brow up and tilted his head, like he was confused. Quentin darted his eyes meaningfully to Alice and raised his eyebrows, firm. And Eliot shook his head, like No comprendo

The silence stretched on and on, until he couldn’t take it anymore. Taking pity on the poor, poor nerds around him, Eliot opened his mouth to speak, but found his words stolen by the most marvelous intrusion.

“How the hell are my favorite bitches on this most glorious first day?” The brassiest, bossiest voice in the world broke through the heavens. Eliot whipped his face upward, to the glorious light.

“Julia and Margo are here,” Quentin said, scrambling on to his feet. And then under his breath: “Thank god.” 

“Took your sweet time, Bambi,” Eliot drawled out, still staring into her golden queenly face. She and Julia were laughing to themselves as they came closer, but as soon as Eliot was fully in her line of vision, Margo’s face broke into the adoration. He lived for it.

As always, Bambi was resplendent, dressed in spectacular red and fuck me heels. She contrasted boldly against her girlfriend’s usual alternating tight and drapey blah black uniform. Much the same, Margo had a special order Birkin bag tucked under her arm, while Julia had some old ratty tome. It was what it was, he supposed.

“Well, some of us actually go to class every now and then,” Julia said with a smirk, charming as ever. She plopped down on the blanket across from Q, greeting him with a wink and a kick at his ankle. “Instead of sipping on bottomless alcohol all day.”

“Cheers to you too, Wicker,” Eliot said, tipping said flask her way. She rolled her eyes.

It always pissed her off that he charmed his flask to be everlasting instead of, like, a bunch of wells in Pakistan. Every time, he responded with a quip, rather than the fact that the charm only worked with small energy reserves. A million times over, he’d prefer someone like Julia think he simply didn’t give a shit. Always easier that way.

At the thinly veiled contention between the love of her life and Julia, Margo let out a laugh and squealed as she jumped in his lap, straddling over his hips. She kissed him full on the mouth and Eliot could practically feel Alice’s bewilderment radiating off her. It was one of his favorite things on earth, to confuse the hell out of anxious straight girls vis-a-vis Margo Hanson.

“So are you Eliot’s—?” Alice asked, crossing her arms. Margo didn’t seem to hear her, so Eliot cupped Bambi’s face and sighed.

“She’s Eliot’s everything.”

Margo giggled again, biting his appled and smiling cheek. He bit back at her, laughing, and Alice let out a strange, high-pitched little sound. It instantly provoked Margo’s eyes to fully land right on the blushing new girl.

Bambi smirked.

“What’s this?” She asked, gesturing in a circle with her hand, resting her chin on top of his head. “What’s happening?”

“This—“ Eliot gestured with one arm at the blonde, who looked like she was going to throw up “—is Alice.”

Margo rolled off him and scrunched her nose. “What the fuck?”

“Hi,” Alice said, with a tiny wave. Margo cocked her head entirely to the side and put her hands on her hips.

“What the fuck?” She repeated. Quentin cleared his throat.

“Alice Quinn,” he said out the side of his mouth with a frankly bratty emphasis on the surname. Eliot glared at him—he was being kind of a dick. But true to the script, it had the intended effect of brightening up Bambi.

“Hello, Alice Quinn,” Margo said, crawling toward her on her hands and knees. “I’m Margo. You’re very pretty. Has anyone ever told you that?”

Alice opened her mouth to respond, but only a squeak came out. Standard. Margo slid around her like a snake and ran her fingers through her blonde hair with a low chuckle.

“Ease up, Regina George,” Julia said, smacking her girlfriend’s thigh; Margo pouted, exaggerated. But Julia ignored her and reached out to Alice in an handshake offer. “Hey, I’m Julia. Nice to meet you.”

She took it. “Nice to meet you too, Julia.”

Julia smiled and Alice returned it. Quentin had always said she had a remarkable talent for making the vulnerable feel comfortable. It was apparently true.

“I actually know your Aunt Genji pretty well,” Julia said, brushing her long curled brown hair off her shoulders and over to one side. “I’ve done two of her retreats.”

The comfort dissipated instantly. Alice swallowed and shifted awkwardly on her legs. She stared off into the trees.

“Oh,” she said, her mouth trying to smile. But it came out like a disgusted grimace. “That’s nice. I guess. I don’t really know much about—That is, Genji and I haven’t really—”

But Julia was perceptive and she winked. “Not a favorite topic. Got it. No worries.”

“My family is kind of...” Alice swallowed and glanced down. She didn’t continue. Her grimace tightened and Eliot was moved to quickly change the subject. But the same impulse ended up coming from a different source.

“Hey, so, uh, um, how—how did you end up at Brakebills South exactly?” Quentin asked, stumbling more than usual. Alice seemed to appreciate it though, because she turned her full and blazing attention to Q. “And, like, why don’t I remember seeing you there?”

“I was shipped off right after my exam,” Alice said, taking a deep breath. "Phosphoromancy is a rare discipline and one Mayakovsky needed, so they didn’t waste time.”

“What’s Phosphoromancy?” Q asked with his mouth full of bread, because apparently the question was just that urgent.

Julia elbowed him. “Work out the root of the word, Q.”

He glared at her sidelong. “Are you an elementary school teacher now? What I mean is—“

“Well, I didn’t realize a literature and philosophy major had such an elementary grasp on language,” Julia said, pursing her lips and tilting her head. “Now, what’s the Greek phōs?”

Before Quentin could retort with a bite, Alice sighed and casually made her hand disappear.

“I bend light,” she said with a shrug. Quentin surged forward on his palms, staring at her reappeared hand with wide and wild eyes.

“Holy shit, how did you do that?”

Julia narrowed her eyes and cocked her head, suddenly taking her own deeper interest in Alice. “Well. No wonder Mayakovsky wanted to work with you.”

But Alice snorted. “You’re flattering him. He’s not that discerning. He needed literal laser precision for a battery. In exchange, he helped with—a family problem.” 

She said helped like she meant took a massive shit all over, which tracked with what he knew about the Siberian. Eliot himself had quite the time at Brakebills South. He definitely understood how and why many had such contentious relationships with Mayakovsky, or even hated him. But in his experience, it was mostly bluster. At his core, the professor really cared. It had been a tough week, but in the end, he and Mayakovsky had truly grown to respect each other, and parted with a handshake. As men.

Just kidding.

Less than two hours into the first day, Eliot had led something of a mutiny in retaliation for Mayakovsky referring to him as Gay boy with giant nose. The stand-off came to a head when the professor trapped him in his office and forced him to drink a potent toilet vodka. It sapped his energy in waves, rendering him a puddle of entropy. Then the two of them played multiple rounds of actual Russian Roulette with a .357 Magnum. No pun intended. A bullet had actually pierced Eliot’s skull at some point, but there must have been Horomancy involved because he survived. He still remembered the taste of exploded arteries and the smell of bone shards.

(Also, he shrunk Mayakovsky’s dick by two inches.)

“A family problem?” Margo asked, nosy as always. “What the fuck kind of family problem could that frozen cumstain help with?”  

But Alice’s face darkened. For a spine-tingling moment, she looked like the most dangerous person Eliot had ever seen. “I don’t want to discuss that. It’s in the past now and I’m ready to move forward with my life.”

“Fine,” Margo said, raising her eyebrows. “Jeez.”

“But didn’t Mayakovsky—?” Julia bit her lip. “I don’t mean to overstep here, but I heard rumors about him and a female student.”

Alice sighed—her eyes flashing again—and she nodded. “Yes. That’s certainly accurate. And because of his history, he wasn’t allowed to be alone in a room with me. I mostly worked in isolation. That’s why I never saw anyone during your course last year.”

“Are you fucking serious?” Quentin asked, his mouth falling open with a wide frown. 

“That’s abuse,” Julia said, eyes dark and lips trembling. “It’s no different than solitary confinement. That’s inhumane—”

“It was my choice,” Alice said, her head held high. Her blonde hair dazzled under the sunlight like crystalline white sand. “The information I gleaned was invaluable. And the solution, while painful, was inevitable and brought me closure. I don’t regret my decision.”

“Fuckin’ respect,” Margo said, leaning back on her hands. Eliot was inclined to agree. But Quentin and Julia kept shooting each other furtive little glances.

“So after all that, you just…returned?” Julia asked, eyes wide and baldly concerned. “Today?”

“No, I spent time in the infirmary overnight,” Alice said, her tone warming slowly yet surely. “Most students only spend a week in Antarctica and deal with far less invasive magic. So Professor Liston wanted to make sure everything in my physical and metaphysical states were running as they should.”

“Lipson,” Eliot gently corrected. Alice snapped her fingers and nodded.

“I guess that all makes sense. But Jesus,” Julia said with another shudder. “You’d think they’d at least try to get you in a comfortable space right away after such a harrowing year.”

“Actually, the infirmary has, like, super soft pillows,” Quentin corrected. He grabbed at the strawberry jam and smothered a biscuit within an inch of its life. “And pretty glass windows for walls. Not terrible. Worse places to be.”

Eliot poured several glasses of champagne, passing them around. It had been far too sober of an event. He downed his own first glass in a single chug and poured another. It was a touch on the sweet side, meaning Bambi would hate it. He poured her red wine and switched the glasses quickly, which she accepted without even glancing his way.

“Ah, yes,” Margo said, stretching out into the sun. Her bare legs shone, lithe and lustful. “Not Terrible—Worse Places to Be. The Brakebills credo.”

Alice snorted a loud laugh. She smiled, shy yet wide. “That’s funny.”

Bambi nodded with a yawn. “I’m hilarious.”

“You really are,” Alice said, a touch too intensely. Margo rolled onto her side, honey slow smile spreading. “I mean—it’s just—women aren’t complimented often enough for their senses of humor, so…”

“Yeah huh,” Margo said with another bite in the air. She giggled. “You’re adorable. I kind of want to eat you.”

Alice’s eyes went wide and she sputtered, making Margo laugh and laugh. But before she could say more—teasing and batting about her new plaything—Julia firmly patted the tops of her girlfriend’s thighs and smiled. She was changing the subject.

“So. Alice,” Julia said with a sip of her champagne. “If you’re a Phosphoromancer, you must be familiar with the work of Rita Ramirez, right?”

Like a lightning rod, Alice straightened up and practically shimmered with excitement. “Yes. Yes, absolutely. I find her approach endlessly fascinating. You’ve read Light and Shadow: An Exploration?”

“It’s practically my bible,” Julia said, giddy and scooting closer. “She was a Knowledge Student so she sometimes does lectures for our house. I could bring you as a guest, if you’d like.”

“That would be wonderful,” Alice said, gasping and clapping her hands together once. “I have to admit, I was disappointed not to be placed with the Knowledge emphasis. But my psychic powers are nil. Unfortunately.”

Now it was Margo’s turn to sit upright on a dime. “Unfortunately? Okay. No. Fuck that. Drink your bubbly and let me tell you all about why you’re the luckiest bitch on the planet to be part of the Physical family—”

As Bambi extolled the virtues of Physical Magic to a befuddled yet polite Alice, Eliot took the opportunity to scoot back toward Quentin. After tutting a quick muffling spell, he kicked his foot and raised his eyebrows impatiently.

“So?”

Quentin held his hands out, throwing biscuit crumbs everywhere. “So—?”

Eliot rolled his eyes. “Alice. What do you think?”

Quentin frowned, like he was confused. “Um, she seems fine? Sucks about Mayakovsky for sure.”

“I like her,” Eliot mused, resting back on his hands. He crossed one over Quentin’s, matching his pose, so their shoulders touched. That way they could speak in relative privacy, even under the enchantment, while the girls chatted on the opposite side of the blanket.

“Yeah, I can see that. Even beyond the Genji thing, huh?” At Eliot’s genuine nod, Q frowned deeper. “Why?”

“What do you mean why?” Eliot smiled, tilting his head. Quentin shrugged.

“She doesn’t seem like your type.”

“And what, pray tell, is my type?”

Quentin snorted. “Definitely not Alice.”

Eliot jostled into him with a smirk. “Some people might say you’re not my type.”

“Sure, but, uh,” Quentin grinned. Dimpletown. “I’m a transcendent force of nature. Can’t really count it.”

Eliot hummed a small laugh out his tight throat and pulled his shoulder away. God, he was cute. He was so fucking cute. The urge to tip Q’s jaw up and kiss the cheeky smile right off his face was too much. Touch made it worse. 

Weakness acknowledged. Fuck.

“I’m taking her under my wing,” Eliot declared, reaching out to his toes in a long stretch. He blinked away the last of his pounding heart. “So get on board, bucko.”

Quentin laughed again and bent over on his own torso, trying to meet Eliot’s eyes. “Under your wing? Uh, I think she’s probably good, El.”

He shook his head, curls bouncing. “At best, she has potential.”

“Potential for what? And, um, how strong is this muffling charm?”

Eliot ignored both questions. “Poor thing’s been traumatized by all the subzero temperatures and Russian asshat bullshit. She needs guidance to the land of frivolity.”

Quentin frowned and brushed his hair back with his wrist. “I guess. But is she interested in that?”

“She’s here, isn’t she?” Eliot countered, tilting his flute high into the sky, finishing his champagne. His profile was certainly elegant in the overhead light. “Like I said, I like her.”

Quentin scratched at his ear and pinched his face, sighing. “Okay, yeah, but, like? I mean, you’re not exactly someone who becomes friends with people.”

Eliot rolled his eyes and pursed his lips. “Says someone I became friends with a year ago.”

“But you didn’t actually want to be my friend.”

Eliot’s blood stopped moving.

His mouth fell slightly open, and his extremities were tingling hot. He was acutely aware of the heavy thud in his cracked chest. He blinked. He blinked again, maintaining composure. Was this—was this something they were actually going to acknowledge? And talk about? Here? Now?

“Um,” Eliot said, swallowing a gulp of too dry air. He swallowed again. He cleared his throat and shook his head, like there were cobwebs in his eyes. “What? Why would you—what?”

Quentin angled his head, eyes wide and earnest and confused.

“We’re only friends because you wanted to hook Julia up with Margo,” he said slowly. It was like he was placing down a precise code that could set off a bomb with one wrong move. “Because of the Welters tournament? It was literally the first thing we ever talked about?”

The world was in color again and Eliot laughed, dizzy. Right. Fuck. Right.

He pulled out his flask and took a long, long sip of the much harder alcohol. “Sure, of course. But what’s your point?”

“Guess I’m just wondering what the angle is here, if not Genji,” Q said with a shrug. He didn’t seem to notice anything weird as he swirled his champagne. The bubbles fizzed up angrily into a white foaming head. “Like, why is Alice so special? Compared to the tens of others you can’t be bothered with?”

Eliot considered the question, tapping his bottom lip with his flask in a metronomic motion. Calling his interest pity seemed unbefitting someone as forceful as Alice. There was a charm about her, a hidden softness that intrigued him as much as her clear capacity for biting meanness. But there were lots of people like that at Brakebills. They were all fucked up messes, like he’d said to Alice. But the vast majority still bored Eliot, even if he sometimes enjoyed getting drunk with them at parties. His inner circle was tiny and Quentin wasn’t off-base to question even a minor new inclusion, based on historical precedent.

“Proximity and opportunity for one thing,” Eliot answered slowly, drinking from the flask again. Alice’s cheeks flushed in pleasure at something Julia said and her nose scrunched in that snorting laugh. “I had a rare chance to talk to her in a private setting and liked what I had to hear. But also…”

He trailed off and felt the warm heat of Q’s eyes on him. “Also, what?”

Eliot took a deep breath, his lungs expanding wide in his rib cage before glancing sidelong at Q. “Alright, two minutes of realness?”

Quentin smiled, soft. “Sure. I’ll even allow three.”

“Magic fucked her up in some way,” Eliot said, speaking fast, not wanting to dwell more than he had to. “Not sure how, why, what, any of that Sherlock Holmes shit. Don’t really care about the details. But I have some experience in shitshow and I guess I feel compelled... to help.”

“Help?” Q was nothing but curiosity. Eliot was grateful for the lack of either judgment or adulation. He was always good at that.

He laid down on the blanket, back of his hand resting delicate on his brow. “I’ve learned some coping mechanisms along the way and—and no shit from you about whether they’re healthy or not, okay? What matters is they work.”

Quentin held his hands up and mimed locking a key over his mouth.

Eliot closed his eyes. “And life is bullshit and misery and all that melancholy nonsense I never talk about. Magic usually serves to make it that much worse.”

He could trace the outline of the sun in the blacks of his eyelids and could feel Q’s gentle, silent breaths beside him. Quentin didn’t respond, even though his usual defense of magic was probably swirling in his gut. He seemed to understand that Eliot needed more time than usual to get his point out. Again, grateful.

His chest thudded as he continued.

“But there’s small magics that—that can make the bullshit more bearable. Frivolous magics, party magics, if you want to call it that. My specialties,” Eliot laughed, a little sardonic, a little self-mocking. “And Alice—Alice seems like she needs that, more than most. More like how you or me or Margo need it, you know?”

There was no response except the rustling of the breeze against the papering leaves. They weren’t ready to descend yet, but the edges were curled and brittle. Margo made a butt plug joke in the background and Alice blushed scarlet. Julia cracked up.

Eliot swallowed again and levered himself up on his elbows, shrugging one shoulder in a faint movement. “That’s all.”

Quentin looked at him under a lowered brow, squinting. He ran his finger around the edge of his champagne glass and nodded, before finishing it in a single gulp. He put the flute down and it fell on its side. But instead of righting it, Quentin scratched the back of his neck and stared off, looking at Alice.

“That’s all,” he repeated with a low and incomprehensible chuckle. “That’s—yeah. Okay. Okay. I get it.”

Their eyes met and Eliot wasn’t sure if he was on land or at sea. Quentin smiled, nothing more than a muted upturn of his lips, and Eliot’s stomach swooped with something bittersweet and heady. It rose up his chest and into his throat, burning. He would have sacrificed his first born to know exactly what Q was thinking in that moment.

Suddenly desperate to liven the mood, Eliot sighed and tossed his head back. “Besides, we need a blonde. Too monochromatic right now.”

The effect was instant and as desired. Quentin rolled his eyes and blew his hair back from his face with a huff.

“Sure, Eliot.”

Just as he was about to dazzle with a retort, Margo broke their ward and grabbed at Eliot’s arm, pulling him close and into her latest story.

“Whenever you two hens are done clucking,” she said, sticking her tongue out at Q for good measure. He flipped her off with a grin. “You can come join the real goddamn party, okay?”

Eliot smiled and wrapped his arms around Margo from behind, sighing into her hair. “Anything for you, Bambi.”

She kissed his cheek and widened her eyes, excited. “Ooh. Let’s tell Alice about that time we created a bag of actual working dicks. She’ll love it.”

 

 


 

 

~**~

 


 

Three Weeks Later

 

Alice loved the story about the dicks about as much as Eliot loved the arrival of Welters season. But they all had to endure indignities now and again.

“Team,” Margo said, commanding and perfect in her pressed captain’s uniform. She huddled them in, pulling into a tight circle. She wrapped her arms around as many shoulders as her tiny wingspan could manage. She stared down each of them individually—Eliot, Q, Alice, nameless boy, nameless girl, Melanie (?), and the worst bitch on the planet, one Kady Orloff-Diaz. "Motivation time. Let's get settled."

"Go team!" Alice said, rollicking her hand up in the air. Kady looked at her like she was out of her mind. But Eliot winked at her and she smiled, pleased.

Margo's next words came out like Dilophosaurus spit. “You know the fucking drill. If any one of you goddamn anal leaking sons-of-bitches embarrasses me, I will roast your innards in each others’ blood. I do not believe in mercy. There is victory or there is a new circle hell, made for you. Capeesh?”

With a loud groan of boredom, Eliot took a swig of his flask. Margo slammed it onto the floor.

“If you’re drunk, you’re worthless,” she snapped. Eliot pulled a face, but dutifully tucked it into his waistband.

Kady cocked her head and put one hand on her hip. She popped her eyes, incredulous and rough. “We kicked ass and took names for the past four matches. Aren’t you supposed to, like, inspire us for the final win?”

Margo bared her fangs. “If the threat of displeasing me doesn’t inspire you, then I don’t know what the fuck would.”

Quentin frowned and nodded, like Fair point. Alice chewed on her lip, shooting her eyes up at Eliot like he could somehow protect her. Ha. At the same time, Nameless boy shifted on his feet and leaned in. 

“But the last team is the Knowledge Kids,” he said, namelessly. “Everyone knows they choke on the tough stuff. We should be good.”

Margo touched the side of her head like it was in pain. “Yeah, until my motherfucking girlfriend became their captain. Do you really think I would ever fuck someone who sucks at Welters? This is the fight of our lives, people. Get in line.”

With a collective sigh and another earnest Go team cheer from Alice, who was trying so hard, they all walked to the edge of the board. Their arms were crossed and energy coiled in their guts. Once Margo was out of view, Eliot took another sip of his flask.

She had way too much power over him. 

("I have exactly the right amount of power, dickweed," he could hear her reply in his head. He blinked, reminding himself she wasn't psychic.)

(…Er?)

(No. Of course not. She wasn't.)

The game was about to start, but there was still no sign of the Knowledge Kids. Normally, they paraded in, happily cheering and waving at the spectators in the bleachers. But as each minute passed by without their presence, the more the stadium buzzed and murmured. Margo tapped her wedges impatiently, glaring up at the clock.

When it struck noon exactly, the stadium went black.

“What’s happening?” Alice asked, blue eyes barely visible and flitting in concern. Margo sighed, loudly. 

“My personal hell,” Bambi answered. She ran her hands down her whole face, pulling the skin of her lower eyelids down, down, down.

Slowly, the familiar opening strands of “Eye of the Tiger” played louder and louder in the dark, growing into a crashing crescendo. When the power chords finally blasted out—firm, clear, and shifting electric guitar—the squares on the board lit up in alternating patterns of neon. Pink. Blue. Yellow. Green. Orange. Criss-crossed. Chess board. Starbursts.

Each time a new section lit up, another Knowledge Kid appeared. And once they were all there? They began dancing. In unison. Like a flash mob. Throughout their terrible middle school choreography, they held their hands out like tiger claws and shuffled their feet side-to-side.

It was the nerdiest goddamn thing Eliot had ever seen in his life. He was way too fucking sober.

Finally, the music crashed into a grand climax and the newly appointed Knowledge Captain Julia appeared. Two black lines were painted under her eyes and her fist was in the air, pumping to the beat. As the chorus began, she slid to the front on her knees, slamming an air guitar. She bit at Margo, who was shaking with either reasonable rage or weird desire.

Either way, Eliot twisted off the top of his flask and chugged heartily. A gentle hand tapped his shoulder. With a grin, Eliot passed it to a stunned Q. They passed it back and forth, wordless, as the song kept going on, and on, and on, and—

“Jesus Wilson Phillips Christ,” Margo hissed out through her teeth. Julia started running around the board, hands flying in the air, screams and whoops ricocheting. “Can we get fucking going? Tick-tock, assholes.”

Julia wrapped up the song with a smirk and a bow. The crowd went wild.

It was game time.

Hooray.

 


 


Margo took a square. 

Julia took two. 

Julia took a square. 

Margo took two. 

And so on and so forth, their vicious foreplay on display for all to see. No one consented to be part of it. It was indecent.

Julia slammed her fist against her chest, as Margo put out a valiant effort, took a square, and handed the globe over to Melanie (?) with a feral yell. She was officially required by the Welters guide book to share space on the board with her teammates. Melanie threw and it landed on a square that required midnight, at sea level, on the solstice. She took the square, and a little less than half the board was gone.

“Any last words, you shit-gobbler?” Margo snarled out at Julia, in lieu of praising her teammate. 

“Please, bitch, I eat Margos,” Julia said, tongue between her teeth. “For breakfast.” 

“Hey, uh, I thought smack talk wasn’t supposed to be true?” Quentin murmured into Eliot’s ear. For a second, he was unsteady, a low heart curling at his spine. But he blinked it away with a huff of half-amused laughter.

“Right?” Eliot nudged him. Then he sighed, resting his elbow on Q’s shoulder. “God, I hate Welters.”

Quentin nodded, focus intense on the game. “I mean, it’s definitely a sport, with all the shitty tribalism associated. But at the same time, the exploration of circumstantial theory is actually kind of—“

“I hate Welters,” Eliot whined over whatever boring shit he was saying.

“Poor baby,” Quentin deadpanned. Eliot kissed his forehead, tender in his deep mockery.

“You always get me, sweetheart,” he said, chuckling as Q shoved him off with a grumble and a blush. He wished he were a better man not to indulge in flustering Quentin, but he absolutely was not. Less than a beat later, though, Margo cut off his enjoyment and thrust the globe into Q’s chest. He clutched at it in shock.

“Look alive, Coldwater,” she said, eyebrows high. “Don’t fuck it up.”

“Uh, no promises,” Quentin said, lifting a hand in preemptive surrender. Eliot adjusted his sunglasses with a smirk. He was definitely going to fuck it up.

Julia stood at the very edge of the board, hands on her knees. She stared at Quentin, unblinking.

“Stop it,” Quentin said, low and mumbling. Julia’s eyes stayed wide, though her lips turned down.

“Stop what?”

“Stop staring at me.”

Julia laughed before mock-yelling behind her shoulder. “Hey, could everyone please turn around so Q can get it up?”

Margo stepped forward, all intimidation directed at her girlfriend. She spared Q an exasperated glance. “Ignore her. Do it.”

“I will drink your spinal fluid as my victory champagne,” Julia growled at the concentrated Quentin. He widened his eyes.

“Jesus, Jules,” he said, globe hand faltering. “It’s just a game. I’m your oldest friend.”

She was unyielding. “This is Welters, bitch.”

“You were never this intense about, like, Monopoly.”

“Throw it now,” Margo said through her teeth, pointing at the timer. With a big sigh, Quentin tossed the globe and it landed on a middling level circumstance, toward the left side of the board. He tried to create a fountain of electricity, which was respectable. But he just barely fucked it up and the square remained. And by just barely, Eliot meant totally. He totally fucked it up.

Margo smacked Q upside the head.

“You’re a dick,” she said, entirely meaning it as Julia cackled and clapped her hands high in the air. Quentin rubbed the back of his head, long strands of hair bunching and tangling. He stumbled over back to Eliot’s side.

“You have heard of the Pleiades, right?” Eliot asked, unable to help himself. Quentin rolled his eyes, dramatic and bratty.

“Fuck off.”

The never-ending game continued on.

 


 

Eliot was often pithy. He talked big game about loathing things like weak pinot noirs, Todd, the majority of Quentin’s wardrobe, Todd, giraffe patterns on furniture, Todd, saxophones, Todd, and corn as a side dish like they were second nature. But in truth, he didn’t care enough about any of those things to truly hate them. At the end of the day, they were jokes more than anything. He joked. He liked to joke.

That is, except about Kady Orloff-Diaz. He never joked about Kady Orloff-Diaz.

Because Kady? She was an actual problem. She was the rare person to earn the full weight of his ire, the rare person who he thought on with more than light disgust and indifference. She was a fuck up of the worst kind and it was incomprehensible to him that he still had to look at her hooligan face, day-in and day-out. Not after that everything that had gone down. After everything she’d done. After everyone she’d—

It didn’t matter.

But as much as she was The Worst Bitch on the Planet, Kady was a helluva Welters player. That didn’t mean Eliot had to like her inclusion in the stupid game, his hands clenched into fists. He watched as Kady scowled and stomped her way to the front line through the slits of his eyes. Her letterman’s jacket uniform was longer than her tiny shorts and her severe side-parted big black curls were bouncier than ever. 

She tossed the globe in a perfect arch, but it still landed in the shittiest position after the black hole center. It was on the line between two squares. When that happened, the rules clearly stated the call for an impromptu cooperative spell with a chosen teammate. And it had to be with someone who had yet to cast in the course of the current game. 

So that left Kady with only two options: Eliot or Alice.

She cursed aloud and crossed her arms tight across her chest, lines between her eyebrows deepening into her skull. For a brief second, Kady’s eyes flitted over to him. It wasn’t a stupid thought on the outset. Much as he hated Welters, he didn’t actually suck at it when forced to contribute. Except—

“Oh, I fucking dare you,” Eliot said with a laugh, jutting his hip out defensively. His flask glinted in the light and he could feel Q’s wary eyes on him. Interactions between Eliot and Kady hadn’t always gone smoothly. But this time, she wisely chose not to escalate too much. Instead, she only sneered and held a middle finger high in the air, nails short and painted black. Most importantly, she turned away.

Finally, her eyes traced over to Alice, who had been wringing her hands throughout the game. Throughout the tournament, really. When forced to play, she did little more than a tepid one-square light bendy tricks. Not exactly the big money moves anyone expected from a Mayakovsky protege, but competent enough.

“You’re up, Blondie,” Kady said, resigned. Alice squeaked, but moved forward. Her eyes never left Margo, who was miming slitting her throat with one finger and squirting blood from the veins with her other hand 

“Just send out a wave of telekinesis after I set the circumstances, okay?” Kady said, setting herself in position. “Can you handle that?”

Alice’s face flickered. “Yes.”

“Then do it on my mark,” Kady said, stretching her arms and giving Alice a lazy wink. “For the record, I’m no Margo, but I do give a shit. So try to get it right, okay?”

Alice’s eyes narrowed and she grimaced, sickly sweet. But she set herself into position.

“Yeah, Alice!” Quentin kind of yelled in a muted cheer, fist half-heartedly in the air. “You got this.”

...Oh, Q.

Alice shot a glance back at the rest of the team. In particular, she took in Quentin’s gentle encouragement, Margo’s violent threats, and Eliot’s sheer indifference in two quick beats. Her face flickered again, sharper and wider. She set her jaw and pursed her lips, turning back to Kady with something like determination.

“Wait,” she said, placing her hand on her forearm. “You’re a Battle Mage, right?” 

At Kady’s slow nod and furrowed brow, the start of a tiny smile graced Alice’s lips. “Can you break down a Fergus’s Missile Animation so that it’s a particle Möbius strip?”

Eliot and Quentin caught curious eyes. Margo’s lips puckered into a satisfied smirk, while Kady let out a coarse laugh and cocked her head, sucking in her cheeks. Alice blinked up at her innocently.

“Uh. Sure, Blondie,” Kady said, with an edge of more laughter. “I can do that. But you know if you fuck that up—"

“We’re all dead,” Alice said, matter-of-fact. She shrugged. “Don’t worry. I can handle it.”

Kady blew air out her mouth and held her hands up with a grin. “Fuck it. At least it’d be a dope way to go. Casting in three.”

In three...two...one, Kady sent out a shock wave from her hands. Alice stepped forward and paused the shimmering magic in the air with delicate conductor’s hands. She stretched the chemical composition over the board like it were glittering taffy. With a sharp downturn, the loop went into the board, shaking the stadium like an earthquake. 

For a few long moments, Alice stood there, breathing in the energy. From across the room, Julia stalked her way closer, eyes narrowed and mouth turning up into a reluctant but sure smile. Eliot put his hands on his hips and felt his own breath still, as Alice slowly stretched her arms out, wide, like a diver.

She slammed her hands together. Every particle of light bent and burst into a thousand spinning halos, blinding and dizzying and denser than the universe.

“Holy shit, what the fuck?” Quentin’s voice carried over, drowning and falling apart in the cosmic gravitational collapse around them. 

It wasn’t a black hole. It was something brighter, more star-like, densely packed with atoms and neutrons and more power than any of them had ever seen. On instinct, Eliot stepped forward and slammed his arm out, palm firm on Q’s chest behind him. Beside him, Margo stepped forward, casting hands at the ready for back-up.

“Alice!” Eliot shouted, but his words were lost in the soundlessness. 

But the glowing Magician (fuck, what a Magician) started moving her hands, elegant, precise, and calm. If Julia’s magic was primal, Alice’s was a symphony, harmonizing and swelling and dipping in accord with the structure. With art and skill and untouchable, unfathomable talent.

The shining white, blue, purple, infinitely colored light swirled outward. It spun over itself like a giant nucleus, tens of thousands of revolutions in each passing second. They all should have been dead in its presence, but Alice’s hands and steady breath kept it at bay, bending the gravity and the light beams to stabilize it. It could have been her small, loving pet. Finally, she nodded at Kady, who sent a final burst at the star, where it exploded into several fireworks. Each of them fell on a respective remaining square, entirely clearing the board.

Julia’s jaw dropped and she fell to her knees.

The drums obviously announced the win. But again, like with Julia exactly a year prior, no one moved. No one spoke. This time though, the mood was starkly different. Where there had once been childlike wonderment, there was now astonishment and not an insignificant amount of fear.

Quentin was the first to shift.

He gently slid out of Eliot’s tight grip and inched his way toward Alice with wide eyes. He stared at her for a moment and swallowed, his throat shaking. He glanced up at the ceiling and then back down to the floor, before finding Julia, who was still gaping and kneeling.  The silence was a heavy thing, cloaking them all as the enormity of what they’d just witnessed—the absurd, terrifying amount of power Alice had been keeping close to the vest—sunk into their cell structure.

But then Q’s face broke out in a rare, wild grin and he grabbed Alice’s hand, holding it up in the air.

“Phosphoromancy, bitches!”

One full second later, the Physical Kids and the crowd erupted in cheers. Alice turned bright red and looked over her shoulder at Eliot, who offered her a quick bow and a golf clap. Kady, in an adrenaline rush, was yelling feral and wrapped her arms around Alice, screaming Who the fuck are you? Goddamn! before dashing off to the crowd to meet whoever the fuck was her friend these days. The nameless kids and Melanie (?) started chanting Alice’s name. Even Julia, defeated and humbled, hopped to her feet in a standing ovation.

(Meanwhile, in an elegant display of sportsmanship, Margo was running along the edge of the board pointing at each of the Knowledge Kids, jumping and screaming, “You can suck my dick! And you can suck my dick! And you can suck my dick twice, motherfucker! And you can—“)

It had been the best game any of them had ever seen. Bar none. It was electrifying and exhilarating. Eliot was going to throw the party of the century to toast the feat. Because even if it was Welters’ based, he was happy for Alice. Shy and cautious as she was, he knew it always felt good to make a mark. Searching across the board, he smiled when his eyes landed on her once again. She jumped up and down, laughing and holding onto Quentin’s arm. They kept trying to high-five but missed each other’s opposite hand in their excitement, over and over again. In turn, Q grinned breathless at her, bright and thrilled and dimpled.

Eliot swallowed and his eyebrows twitched.

With a steadying breath, he took another drink from his flask. The burning whiskey filled the inexplicable dark hole, fraying at the edge of his gut. He rationalized the sensation with another swig. It happened sometimes—ennui in the face of joy. It was especially prevalent through the fast and hard type of happiness, like a sports win or a thirty minute sitcom or a quickie. Like his body knew it was whiplash, rather than solid ground.

It was fine.

Just one of those moods.

 


 

The party descended into the Brakebills evening and a smoky, lush haze faster than usual.

Upbeat music thrummed through the Cottage. Margo stood on a coffee table, surrounded by her usual awed audience, yelling things like But she'll remember, with advantages, what feats she did that day. She was roaring victorious and stomping her feet into the wood and her fists into the air. Behind her, Quentin and Julia passed a joint back and forth. They were half-hidden in the reading nook by the fireplace, giggling to themselves. They blew obscene smoke rings, with Julia favoring Georgia O’Keefe style labia. In every other nook, the rest of the world danced in pulsating waves, hopped up on adrenaline and slowly cross-fading into drunken stupors.

Even Eliot was feeling the buzz more than usual and decided to kill two birds with one stone. He’d make a caffeine-infused cocktail and check on the skittish Miss Quinn, who had long disappeared to the relative quiet of the kitchen. He'd watched her dash off from the traditional Throne of Pillows, like she'd realized exactly how much attention she’d called to herself. Her discomfort wasn't surprising, but he felt compelled to reassure her and get her back in the more important game. That is, the social one. 

But after he twisted his way through the house, stopping to chat with acquaintances and nibble a few ear lobes along the way, he stopped cold as he entered the kitchen. It was usually the quietest place during the most raucous parties and the best place to grab some alone time.

Only, Alice wasn’t alone.

“Guess you can probably do a simple telekinesis spell then, huh?” Kady’s stupid voice let out a rough chuckle. Eliot gripped the door frame, hatred flowing cold. “Sorry I was such a condescending asshole.”

“You said it, not me,” Alice’s light voice replied. She was bent over in front of the refrigerator, pulling out baby carrots, raw broccoli, and ranch dressing.

“No wonder Mayakovsky kept you to himself for so long,” Kady said as Eliot stepped fully inside. She was sitting on the counter and her eyes were zeroed in on Alice, who fixed herself a small snack plate. She offered to Kady who gave a disbelieving snort in response and a firm head shake. Alice shrugged and took a snapping bite of the raw vegetables. 

Kady slinked forward and smirked. “To be honest, when I saw you, I kinda assumed it had to do with your tits.”

For a second, Alice froze, half-eaten carrot in hand. She whipped around toward Kady, looking like she was going to smack her right across the face. A reasonable instinct. But at Kady’s teasing smile, with just a hint of solidarity rather than mocking, Alice relaxed and raised an eyebrow.

“He’s a complex man,” she said, slyer than Eliot had heard her yet. “Perfectly capable of dual motivations.”

Kady almost choked on her drink and then laughed, surprised.

“You’re interesting,” she said, lips twisting with approval. “Can’t figure you out.”

Alice tucked her hair behind her ears and the tips of her cheeks flushed. “Not sure why you’d say that. What you see is what you get.”

“Uh-huh,” Kady said, leaning in even more. She was almost parallel with the floor. “Yeah. That’s total bullshit and you know it.”

But when Alice’s face flared with defensiveness, Kady cocked her head to the side and gave her something like a warm smile. If such a succubus were capable of warmth.

“Not a bad thing, by the way,” she said, finishing her drink and grabbing the bottle of gin next to her. “Keep ‘em on their toes.”

Alice bit her lip and then smiled, their eyes meeting in newfound kinship.

Which. Hmm. Enough of that. Eliot cleared his throat, finally announcing his royal presence. Alice gave him a sweet smile and Kady arched a brow.

“Alice, would you be a dear and indulge Bambi?” Eliot said, taking her hand in his and kissing it. “You’re the belle of the ball and she’d like to show you off a bit.”

Not entirely inaccurate, though Margo had certainly not asked for Alice and never would. She definitely would be happy to see her. And she'd be even more happy to publicly take credit for the game winning move, referring to Alice as her mentee. Still, anything to get Alice the fuck away from Kady was a good thing. White lies made the world go ‘round.

“Fine,” Alice said, sticking her tongue out a little. "If I have to. O Captain, My Captain, I guess."

With a chuckle at her sour tone, Eliot ran a quick hand over her hair, tracing his thumb across her jawline.

“I’ll meet you out there with a cocktail to save you soon, I promise.”

At that, Alice brightened and she smiled, more resolute in her acceptance of Eliot's request. She stopped at the door and turned around with a polite smile. “See you around, Kady.”

Kady raised the whole bottle of gin in a salute. “Later, Blondie.”

Eliot wanted to tell her to fuck off. But he refrained from engaging at all. Maturity, thy name was Eliot Waugh.

After Alice disappeared into the dense crowd, the thrumming beats of the living room music pounded dull. They stretched over the otherwise chilling silence in the cavernous space. Eliot shot Kady snide smile and turned his back on the intruder in his home. He didn’t have any time for her bullshit. But Kady was never one to leave well enough alone.

“Sup, douchebag?” She asked, hitching a boot onto the counter, right where people prepared food.  She rested her arm—lazy and dominant—on her knee. 

“Never let anyone tell you that charm school wasn’t worth the investment, darling,” Eliot said, refusing to look at her as he scoured the cabinets. He found his favorite mug, hidden away from the grubby hands of the plebeians. “You shine.”

“Doesn’t your whole Wildean schtick get exhausting after awhile?” Kady asked between swigs of gin, right from the bottle. “I promise I won’t tell if you feel like chilling out and wearing sweatpants one of these days.”

“See, that’s what I love about our bond,” Eliot said. He whipped up his famous frothed Irish coffee with Italian roast, bourbon, and inherent magical energy. He smirked up at her, glare as dark as he could manage. “Nothing but trust. How we can just be together, you know?”

“Blah blah,” Kady said, hopping onto the floor. “Snark as a defense mechanism is kinda played out, man.”

“No snark,” Eliot said, flourishing tuts over his mug. Steam rose in perfect curls. “I adore you and your whole crude Juvenile Delinquent-meets-Second Rate Joan Jett barbarian thing.”

Kady winked. “Joan Jett’s a fuckin’ singular badass. Compliment accepted.”

Eliot took a long sip of his coffee, leveling her with the full power of his distrust and disinterest. No more games.

“How’s Marina?” He asked, lips curling upward like knives. “That’s her name, right? She still pegging you—sorry, begging you for scraps of inconsequential magic?”

Pins dropped like nuclear bombs.

Kady’s jaw worked and her fingers twitched. “Go fuck yourself.”

“Now, now,” Eliot chuckled, smooth as his best drink. “Watch those hands. I had this whole place cleaned. Don’t need any more messes.”

“Then I’d recommend walking away,” Kady said. But she crossed her arms into herself nonetheless, like a straightjacket on an uncontrollable child.

“You’re the one in my kitchen,” Eliot said, looming. Kady scowled, swallowing hard. She stalked her way toward him until there was barely a foot of space between them.

“Here’s what it is,” she said, snapping her face up at Eliot’s. Dangerous game. “I live in the Cottage. I go to school at Brakebills. And I don’t actually owe you shit, bud. I’ve paid the Piper. You should move the hell on.”

“I don’t give a shit what the school’s stance is on your nonsense. You fuck with mine, you fuck with me,” Eliot said, even and calm. “I say when your debt’s out.”

But Kady had the audacity to laugh.

“Huh. Did I really fuck with yours? Sure about that? Because from where I’m standing—“

Eliot growled from the back of his throat and sneered his lip. “Get out of my sight. Now.”

Kady’s biting green eyes met his and she raised her hands in double-barrel middle fingers, backing her way out of the kitchen. Eliot stared her down, until she disappeared in the crowd. And once she was totally out of sight, he let his eyes close and ran a hand through his hair, shaking with his ragged breath.

He poured more bourbon in his mug.

 


 

True to his word, Eliot brought Alice a cocktail and rescued her from Margo’s clutches.

He started with a simple Pimm’s cup and she drank it way too fast. Then he gave her a Signature Cocktail, which she raved about for two minutes straight. Before he knew what was happening, the two of them ended up sprawled on the couch, shoes kicked off, and downing more alcohol than was strictly responsible, in a glittery, giggly haze. Eliot lit a cigarette and blew her Möbius strip rings, in honor of her glorious victory. For once, she had nothing snide to say—she clapped over and over again, laughing and shimmying deeper into the couch.

“I’m not,” Alice held her fist to her mouth and hiccuped, “I’m not an experienced drinker.”

It was unfairly endearing.

“Thank god you found me then,” Eliot said as he smiled down into her hair. She was now on her third Manhattan, after they’d joyously discovered her new love of whiskey and her abiding love of maraschino cherries. “Fate certainly brought us together.”

Alice giggled into his chest. “You’re the most handsome man I’ve ever seen in my entire life. How do you exist?”

Now it was Eliot’s turn to laugh. He patted her hair with all the fondness in the world.

“Didn’t take you for such a sweet talker, Quinn,” he said, squeezing her in tight. “Keep it up.”

Alice snorted out an unladylike giggle again and fixed him with an intense stare behind her Daria glasses. She pursed her lips like she made a decision.

“Lemme try,” she said, reaching up to his mouth and grabbing his cigarette. Staring down like it was her final challenge, Alice gave a curt nod and brought it to her mouth. She inhaled once, frowned, and immediately handed it back. She coughed, gagging her neck out.

“That’s horrible,” she said, conclusively. “You shouldn’t smoke.”

Eliot meant to retort with something witty, but his eyes caught into the corner of the room. He’d assumed Margo and Julia had long disappeared together upstairs to get their battle energy out. So he was surprised at the unexpected sight of Julia and Quentin, sitting together on the daybed, deep in what appeared to be an argument.

Julia whispered forcefully, her hands gesticulating through each of her likely points. In response, Q tensed up and shot his arms out, pushing the relentless and intent Julia off him. But she curled her legs under herself and nudged her nose into his cheek, poking his side with a firm index finger.  In response, Quentin snapped his face away and set his jaw into a tremble. He was adept enough at both lip-reading and their interpersonal dynamic to know he said Fucking let it go, Jules.

Eliot frowned and considered going over, to see what the hell had crawled up their craws this time. But as he shifted, Quentin cursed again and stormed away, arms crossed and legs shuffling in his low, angry stride. Julia stared off into space, hand pressed against the top of her head. But before curiosity and concern got the better of him and wrenched him in the same direction as Q, Alice tapped his knee and stole his attention.

“So,” Alice said. She giggled, bringing her face slightly too close to Eliot’s. She was very drunk. “So, like, can I ask you a weird question? It’s super weird. So stupid.”

Forcing any thoughts of Quentin out of his head, Eliot rested his cigarette on an ashtray. He grinned and put an arm around her shoulders. “Hit me.”

“Do you—do you know any hot single people?” She asked, way too loud in his ear. “That would maybe wanna—I was in Antarctica for a year.”

He stared at her for a long beat as the meaning behind her words hit him. He blinked. Then, before he could help it, he sputtered out laughter that cascaded from his chest and out his mouth.

“Wait. I’m sorry,” he held his hand to his mouth and huffed out several shaking laughs. “Are you—are you asking me to help you get laid?”

At her stern expression and short nod, Eliot fell over onto his lap, tears streaming down his cheeks as he kept laughing, and laughing, and laughing.

“I’m serious, Eliot!” Alice said, hitting his leg once. He snorted several more laughs before taking a deep breath and biting his lip, facing her head-on.

“Honeylove,” he said, kissing her hand and pulling it to his chest. He snorted again, unable to keep the giggles at bay. “Pumpkin pie. You are a hot woman. Shake what the good Lord gave you, render an unsuspecting dolt with acute cardiac arrest, and go to town, yeah?”

But Alice shook her head. “I’m not good at that.”

“Give it an ol’ college try,” Eliot said, wiping under his eyes. He cackled again. “You may be shocked at your own hidden talents. Fish in a fucking barrel.”

God, he was laughing all over again. What the fuck. It was so funny. He was a little drunk too.

“Eliot.”

He kept laughing. Maybe he was more than a little drunk.

Eliot.” Alice pinched at his side, rather hard. He made a displeased sound and met her eyes. They were wide and earnest, and he actually felt a little bad. “Look, I know myself, okay? Casual sex and I—it would be a disaster.”

Eliot cleared his throat and he sniffed, taking a sip of his drink. He cleared his throat again, shaking off any residual laughter.

“Okay, okay,” he said. He pursed his lips and looked down at her. He tried to take her as seriously as she was asking him to. “Then I’m not actually sure what you’re looking for from me.”

Alice clenched her hand around her glass, frustrated. “Look, I know I’m not easy to like, okay?”

Oh. Oh. His heart squeezed and he felt a protest rise in his throat. But it died in his mouth. She was too smart for any patronizing bullshit.

“You can be a bit—defensive, off the bat,” he said instead. He touched her hand, a soft caress. “Your guards are up. I get that.”

“But everyone likes you,” Alice said simply, like water was wet. Eliot laughed at that and took a sip of his drink. She was sweet. "Everyone likes you. I've analyzed this fully. That's why you can help me."

“Except your hypothesis is invalid,” he said, with a good natured smile. “Plenty of people dislike me. Even more would love to see my grand fall from social grace. Trust me.”

Alice narrowed her eyes and stared around the party, though she were searching for potential offenders. “Because they’re jealous.”

Jesus. Thank fuck Q wasn’t around for this conversation. He’d never hear the goddamn end of it. The slack-jawed groans of Oh, holy fuck, don't say shit like that to him rang clear as a bell in his minds' ear.

Eliot patted her knee and sighed. “You’re being very good to my ego.”

Alice smiled lightly and ran her pink fingernails up and down her skirt. “Here's my thought process. Many people like you. You...like me. So maybe you could—you could introduce me to someone who would give me a chance because you like me. I’ve been alone for a long time.”

Damn if that wasn’t almost the most heartbreaking thing Eliot had ever heard. He sighed, running his hand through his hair with little thought toward his meticulous styling.

“You mean, like, a boyfriend or something? Love or some shit?”

Alice’s nose twitched. “Or something. Or some shit.”

Eliot clenched his jaw and shook his head.

“I’m not really—“ he cleared his throat and stared off at a fixed point in space, a strange darkness weighing heavy on his chest. He chuckled, sardonic. “Monogamy has never historically been my thing. I’m not sure I’m your best bet here.”

“Look, if you help me? If you set me up on one date with a friend of yours?” Alice said slowly, twisting the pleat of her terrible skirt in her hands. “Then I’ll introduce you to my aunt. As a recommendation. For her winter retreat.”

Eliot considered it for a long moment. He could already see himself shipping off to the Canary Islands, with untold magic and champagne showers both at his easy disposal. It would be decadent, lewd, ecstatic—everything he wanted out of his deep thrusts towards the heights of all life had to offer. Really, he’d be a stupid, stupid man to refuse, especially when so politely and freely given.

But.

Alice sniffed again, looking straight down into her glass. "I've been alone for a long time."

Shit.

“How about a counteroffer?” Eliot said, placing his ringed hand over Alice’s fidgeting. She shot her eyes up under her worried brow and through her big-rimmed glasses. “How about I help you because we’re friends? And friends help each other?”

Her face burst into sunlight.

“That would be really nice, Eliot,” Alice said, scrunching her shoulders up to her ears. “I don’t have a lot of… Or really any… Well. That would be really nice.”

Goodness. What a love dove she really was underneath it all. He traced his finger across the line of her jaw and chuckled. Then he set his face quite seriously and looked down at her from his full height.

“If we do this, though, we do it my way, understood? No compromises,” Eliot said, only half-joking. Alice took it as entirely earnest though because she sat up straight and nodded. She was eager and ever the consummate student. Eliot liked her so much more than he thought he would.

He put on thoughtful face and tapped his chin. “What kind of people have you dated in the past?”

“Um, it’s been mostly—men, I guess,” Alice said, snuggling into Eliot, though her eyes darted. Intriguing. “Men with sweet smiles who do their homework every night and take me on dates.”

“That sounds nice,” Eliot said before he could stop himself, something sharp catching between his ribs. Alice rolled her eyes.

“I guess,” she sighed again. “But really, Eliot, I trust your judgement. Whoever you think I might like. Or who might like me. I'd appreciate it so much.”

Oh. Well. Um. O...kay. Eliot shook the drowning water out of his ears and decided to bypass over that. Instead, he nodded and entwined their hands, ideas percolating wildly in his fast mind. A vision of a soft-spoken, nice smiled boy-next-door with a Brakebills' degree danced in his head. Oh. That could be...perfect? Eliot ran his tongue over his teeth and smirked.

“I think,” he said, with a disbelieving laugh, “that I actually may have someone for you.”

And Alice smiled, yet again. He could get used to that. But just as he was about to say as much, he noticed her tense slightly and glance up above them, her eyes and lips frowning. Eliot followed her gaze upward at the intrusion. His own reaction was the exact opposite—he smiled. Warmth swirled in the base of his stomach, fuzzy and cozy, like a hearth steaming mulled wine.

“Hey stranger,” Eliot said lazily to Quentin, who waved back with an unlit cigarette resting between his fingers. Alice frowned deeper. “Where have you been all night?”

Q sighed and gesticulated around the room, frustrated. His eyes were wide and endless. “You know. Here and there. Talked to Julia for awhile and she was being—well, Julia. You know.”

Eliot grinned. “Fuckin’ Julia.”

Quentin raised his eyebrows and rubbed at his nose with the back of his wrist. “Anyway, I was going to see if you wanted a smoke break, but you’re, uh, busy, so—”

But before Eliot could jump up and say that yes, yes, he wanted to take a smoke break with Q, Alice beat him to the punch and abruptly stood up, her hands on her hips.

“Quentin, you shouldn’t smoke!” Alice yelled in his face. Her cheeks were bright red. 

Oh.

She was extremely drunk.

“Uh, I mean, what?” Q glanced back and forth between Eliot and Alice, with particular interest at the ashy cigarette dangling from Eliot’s lips. He shrugged.

“You really shouldn’t,” Eliot said, just to be a dick.

Quentin rolled his eyes and brought the unlit cigarette up to his ear, about to tuck it there for safekeeping “Yeah, okay, sure.”

But Alice slapped at his forearm with the same ferocity. His cigarette bounced out and onto the floor, and Q bent down to pick it up with a muttered Shit.

“You should listen to Eliot more!” Alice shouted down at his crouched head before settling back against him with a huff. "And be nicer to him!"

“You're my dream girl,” Eliot said, smiling down at the steaming, lovely, charming, incredibly intoxicated Alice. “We are going to have a great time.”

She giggled, breathy and completely folded over onto Eliot’s lap. It was so very, very charming. His own tipsiness tickled his pleasure center and he was overwhelmed with the desire to pull Q into their cuddle pile. But instead, Quentin sighed and rolled his eyes, stepping out of reach.

“This is hell,” Quentin said, putting the cigarette back in his mouth and shaking his head as he walked away. “I died and now this is hell.”

Laughing hard, Eliot leaned into Alice conspiratorially and spoke just loud enough for Q to hear, “He’s so dramatic.”

His middle finger went up right on cue and he disappeared toward the patio. About to bid her adieu and head out to Quentin's side, Eliot stroked Alice’s hair, twining the soft strands between his fingertips. In response, she snorted and buried her face against his collarbone, giggling at nothing and nonsense.

Okay.

Q could wait a few more minutes.

 


 

tbc.

Chapter Text

 

 

Brakebills University, October 2016

*

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

 


 

 

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

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

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

Eliot didn’t give a shit about his birthday.

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

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

It was for Alice.

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

—and Mike McCormick.

“Mike McCormick? Are you fucking joking?”

Quentin’s voice had no inflection except unimpressed. 

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

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

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

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

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

Eliot shrugged. “Pretty trumps interesting.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“For, like, the well-adjusted.”

“For people who eat their vegetables every day.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah. I guess. Sorry?”

Alice shrugged. “Try mixing it up sometime.”

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

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

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

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

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

Eliot grinned.

 


 

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

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

Eliot startled at that. “What? Never.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh god.”

 


 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He smirked. “Constantly.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I like my glasses.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There was a long beat of silence.

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

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

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

“It’s weird, El.”

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

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

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

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

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

“So you’re a fuckin’ Yenta now?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Don’t play dumb. You know.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

He furrowed his brow. “What?”

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

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

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

Despite himself, he relaxed into her embrace.

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

His molars hurt. “You started it.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Margo smacked his ass. It stung. 

She was perfect.

 


 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She kissed his cheek. “Total babe.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

She was also still very much Alice.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He fucking loved her so much.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


 

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

 

 

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

 

thank you, i am extraordinary
who is this?

 

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

 

oh no
bad mike

 

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

 

oof yuck

 

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

 

ok

 

Excited to see you! :-)

 

aww

 


 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

St. Marks Place. 

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

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

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

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

Anyway. 

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

Anyway.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


 

 

Mike was a really good hugger for a straight guy. 

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

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

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

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

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

“Mike, of course you remember Margo—”

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

“And her girlfriend, Julia—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yup. Several paragraphs. Jesus, Q.

kingoftheeyesores92 • 2m

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

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

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

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

Quentin fully frowned. “Why is it unexpected?”

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

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

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

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

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

She flushed. Success.

 


 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jesus.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She wasn’t wrong. It was sentimental garbage. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Weaknessacknowledged. Fuckfuckfuckfuck.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


 

Shots got them drunk. 

Drunk.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Of course snakes piss.”

“Are you sure?”

“All animals piss, El.” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What the fuck is Sambuca?”

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

Pretty lights for a pretty boy. Fuck. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh. Fuck.

Alice

Where the hell was Alice?

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

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

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

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

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

Or maybe she was just going to the bathroom.

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

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

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

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

“What the fuck, Eliot?”

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

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

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

“Apparently, I’m fine.”

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

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

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

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

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

The sober charm was a stupid idea.

 


 

 

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

 

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

 

Hello, Mike.

 

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

 

Yes.
I would rather not discuss it.

 

OK :-)
Nice meeting you last night!

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

I would enjoy that.
Eliot is an excellent bartender. 

 

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

 

Thank you, Mike. The same to you.

 


 

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

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

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

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

Her pretty face fell. “That bad?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why not?”

She sputtered, “For obvious reasons!”

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

“Oh my god, Eliot.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He winked. “I’m not familiar.”

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

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

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

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

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

“El.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

All in due time.

 


 

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

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

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

“Matchmaking? Are you fucking joking?”

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

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

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

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

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

Didn’t matter.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Precisely.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jesus fucking Christ.

Anyone who would have him?

Would have him?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“He’s smarmy.”

“Of course he is.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yeah, yeah, fucking yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, wow, thank you, Eliot—” 

His sarcasm wasn’t always so adorable.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I know she fucked up the Cottage—“

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

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

“We are done talking about this.”

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

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

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

Right.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Because you don’t want it?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“At least you aren’t hyperbolic.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


 

 

tbc.

Chapter Text

 

 

Brakebills University, October 2016

*  

(Part Three of Our Fabulous Story, Entitled: According to Julia, “Gaydar” is Nothing But Confirmation Bias, So Let’s All Calm the Hell Down)

 

 


 

“The answer isn’t always penis, Eliot,” Alice said, stern. He chuckled over his drink. 

Ice clinked against crystal as he brought it up to his lips. Brakebills had scheduled a rain day on a fucking Saturday, because Fogg had neither decency nor shame. The one silver lining was that he had the excuse to concoct several glasses of a warm whiskey, mezcal, and cacao blend. Not to be outdone even by himself, he topped it off with the tiniest hint of a scalp-tingling charm in a single ice cube for an extra zing and a hint of contrast. The drinks were coziness in a glass and strong as hell, getting his two yellow-haired companions pleasantly tipsy in short order. Currently, they were sitting together on the couch, knees touching. Perfection.

Of course, less perfect was that the afternoon’s low-key and slow moving festivities had somehow led to them telling each other... riddles? For some goddamn reason? They were like a couple of geriatric sentimentalists. Awful. Disgusting. Boring, boring, boring.

They were made for each other.

Hence, Eliot rested his arm on the back of the couch, bored out of his numbed skull, but silent. He considered a solemn truth: Sacrifice in the name of love was man’s greatest gift. Shakespeare said that. Or maybe it was Phil Collins. Honestly, that would have been a lot more tonally consistent with the whole affair. God, it was boring.

Bringing him unwillingly back to the dull reality, Mike clapped his hands for attention. He gave Alice a small smile. “Let’s try another. I swear, I’m going to stump you at some point, young lady.”

She cleared her throat and glanced away. “Maybe.”

Wagging a mock-chastising finger at her with a wink, Mike held himself high and spoke in a false English accent. It was corny. 

I'm offered to the loved, and also on the sick bed. I come in varied hues, most notably red. Twelve of my full heads lead to tender words said. What am I?”

“Okay, but that one has to be dick,” Eliot said, flat and serious. He only broke into laughter when Alice sent a quick magical zap at his wrist.

“A rose,” she said with a tiny smile at Mike, not sparing Eliot even half a glance. Mike bowed, inclining his head with an impressed shine in his eyes. Jesus, things were going really fucking well. Every single one of Mike’s dorky riddles had been thematically linked in the language of l’amour and directed entirely at Alice. He couldn’t have planned a better chaste slow burn courtship if he tried. Not that he would ever try for that bullshit. But the victory was sweet, even if roundabout.

“Okay, okay. You’re good,” Mike said, nudging Alice with the tip of his elbow. He winked at Eliot over the top of her head. “Definitely getting more of them right than Mr. El over there. Sitting so far away.”

"This is the best spot to keep abreast of the goings-on," Eliot said with a gracious head nod. He was on the couch perpendicular from them, curled against the furthest arm. Giving them space was crucial but he couldn't say that so directly. "The host's burden and pleasure."

“I also don’t think he’s really trying. These have all been pretty easy,” she said with a frown. Eliot cleared his throat and gave her a hard look. She squeaked and attempted a smile. “Fun though! If you have any left, I’d love to hear some more, um—riddles?”

The shift happened before Eliot could stop it. The 1930s radio drama dun-dun-DUN musical cue rang loud.

Within seconds of the word spoken aloud for the first time, there was a roaring vroom and a flash cartoon swirling blue flannel, ugly brown leather bag, and nerd. Tangled limbs landed on the couch next to him, staring at Mike and Alice with way too intense eyes. 

Eliot sighed and palmed at his aching temples. His fault. He should have seen this coming. Tactical error.

“Wait, you guys are telling riddles?” Quentin asked. His hands tapped on his bouncing knees and his homework was left abandoned on the daybed behind them. “Is that—is that what’s happening? I didn’t realize.”

“How’s your work going, Coldwater?” Eliot asked, glaring down at the top of his head. “Wouldn’t want to lose your concentration.”

He refused to pour him a drink.

Quentin ignored him. Or rather, he slid his terse eyes over once and then back to Alice. “Not to brag, but I was crowned Riddlemaster of the Month twice in undergrad. What school are you focusing on? Logic, word play, mathematics? Enigma, conundra?”

Jesus Christ. Fucking Quentin. Eliot sucked his lower lip in between his teeth and bit at his poison ring. “Yeah. No world where that’s a brag.”

He snorted, smug and mocking. “Except I think you’re maybe underestimating how big the riddle community is at Columbia, Eliot.”

Fuck. He was cute. It was obnoxious how cute he was. He bit back a smile and focused on his drink. His hairline tickled itself.

“Mike was sharing a few. Nothing particularly, ah, formally categorizable,” Alice said, smoothing down her skirt fabric. “You’re welcome to join, of course.”

Oh boy. Nononono. Eliot shook his head, clicking his tongue. “Now, I’m sure Q is very busy and—“

“Never too busy for a riddle,” Quentin said, staring intently at Mike. He smacked both of his knees at once. “Hit me.”

Mike’s face filtered through several shades of irritated before he sighed. He plastered on a polite smile. “I have one more. You can use me to say hello, and to say goodbye. I'm no good when I'm too dry. I can be quick or I can be slow. What am I?

Uh.

“You’re fucking with me now, right?” Eliot asked, actually a touch incredulous. But Quentin was staring at Mike like he was a third-grader who ate the wood shavings from the bottom of the class hamster cage.

“Oh, wow, okay,” he said slowly, quirking his lips down. “But like—do you have any riddles that didn’t come from a Brain Quest flashcard set?”

God, he could be such an ass. It was kind of hot. 

But that aside, he was undermining Mike in front of Alice. To prove the point, she let out a nasal and high-pitched laugh that she quickly covered into a cough. In retaliation for his unnecessary rudeness, Eliot slammed down on the tips of Quentin’s toes with his heel. Q kicked him off, but his tiny eye roll indicated that he got the message.

Mike’s nostrils flared at Quentin, poison in his eyes. “Do you know the answer then?”

“Maybe, um, a kiss?” Quentin said with a sigh and a lazy wave of his hands. “Unless I’m missing some clever layer.”

He said it like that was an utter impossibility. Again, it was kind of hot. But unproductive.

Alice looked apologetic, nervously biting her lip at Mike. “I was actually going to guess kiss too.”

Mike smiled at Alice and ignored Q. “Correct.”

“I guessed it first,” Quentin said, thumbing at his bottom lip. He bit down on the edge of his nail, brows tightening over his burning eyes. “Alright. Enough child’s play. I’ve got a real riddle for you both.”

Eliot scratched at the inside of his nose and pinched the bridge. But Mike nodded politely. With permission granted, Q smiled, all sly. 

“Okay. So. There’s a Japanese soroban with fifteen rods. Standard six beads valued at one-to-five and four-to-one—”

Quentin,” Eliot said with a yelp. He slammed his hand on his thigh, digging in his fingers enough to bruise. “Would you be an absolute dear and grab us a carafe of sparkling water?”

He shot him annoyed look. “No, you can do it. This isn’t your thing anyway.” Quentin turned back to Mike and Alice, excitement returned. He licked his lips and rubbed his hands together. His eyes lit up. “So as I was saying, there’s a fifteen rod soroban—”

“Quentin. No. Wait. Stop,” Alice said. Eliot could have kissed her. She leaned forward. “Do we need paper for this? It sounds like it might involve calculations. Or is mental math the point?”

Motherfucker.

“Shit, yeah. Definitely need some paper, sorry,” Quentin said, nodding and reaching into his messenger bag. He rustled through his notebooks for blank pages. “If you could do it in your head, you’d be the Emperor of Math.”

“Ooh, I like the sound of that challenge,” Alice said, pointedly sitting back with her arms crossed. Her eyes glowed with the heady anticipation of academic glory. “What are you waiting for?”

Quentin held out a ripped spiral bound page and wagged it at Mike. “Do you want?”

“Ah, sure,” Mike said, taking it and shaking his head a little. “I am definitely not the Emperor of Math. Not even a minor oligarch.”

“This might be a little hard for you then,” Q said, brow furrowed. “If you’d rather watch Alice give it a try—”

Mike’s eyes glinted with an unusual touch of sharpness. “No. I’ll play. I can hang with the smart kids.”

Alice smiled, a little forced. “We could solve it together?”

Mike patted her shoulder. “That would be great, Alice.”

“I guess if you need your hand held,” Quentin said, like an asshole. Mike clenched his jaw. “Anyway, the soroban is already set with the following digits: Four. Nine. Two. Five—”

Eliot stood abruptly, kicking Quentin’s shin as he did. Oops.

“Since it looks like you’re all settling in, I’m going to get our happy band of riddlers a round of drinks,” he said with a cheerful laugh. He squeezed Q’s shoulder and dipped down. He hissed in his ear. “Wrap this up fast or I will poison you in your sleep.”

Fuck off, Eliot,” Quentin shot back, low and out the side of his mouth. He smiled again, continuing. “Eight. Nine. Nine. Two—”

 


 

Eliot rounded the door frame of the kitchen in search of water and some hidden specialty cocktail ingredients. But he was blessed with something even greater—his heart soared at his favorite sound in the world. The brassy notes ricocheted from every surface deep in his soul and it all burst into light when he finally saw her. His beautiful Bambi, biting harsh into an apple and leaning her hip against the counter. 

Also, Julia was there. Hooray.

“That’s cute that you were a cheerleader,” Margo said, not noticing him yet. Her perfect eyes were zeroed in on Julia. She sucked in a pouty lower lip. “I was head cheerleader.”

“Of course you were,” Julia said with a laugh. Then she bit her own lip in turn. “I could have been. But I was also Class President, Model U.N. chair, the top scoring Debate Club champ—“

“Aw, baby. You think all this is impressive, but it only speaks to what a huge dork you were,” Margo said, giggling into Julia’s cheek. She kissed once and then pulled back, simpering. “Let me guess? You were Homecoming Queen too.”

Julia flushed. “That’s not relevant.”

Margo’s face broke out into the widest grin and Eliot cleared his throat, trying to call attention to himself. They either didn’t notice him or they ignored him. Unacceptable either way. He cleared his throat again, all the louder.

Still nothing.

“So cute,” Margo said to Julia with a sharp intake of breath. “And with Quentin following you around, carrying your sash and purse while you made out with your strapping date. Lap dog extraordinaire.”

Julia snorted. “Oh, yeah, Q definitely went to Homecoming. He definitely didn’t spend the whole night at home in a solo protest of the status quo, playing Devendra Banhart’s version of “Little Boxes” on repeat.”

Eliot swallowed a laugh. He wouldn’t give Julia the satisfaction. He was annoyed at them. So he cleared his throat, again

… They were jerks.

“Which was still the cooler choice,” Bambi said, all shit-eating-grin. She narrowed her eyes and held the tip of her tongue between her teeth. “Quentin was cooler than you.”

“Take it the fuck back!” Julia’s fingers tickled into Bambi’s side and the two of them shrieked in laughter against the counter. 

Eliot rolled his eyes. Bored now.

“Afternoon, Bambi,” he said, fully crossing the threshold. He dropped a kiss on the top of her head, but she didn’t so much as glance at him. Her eyes were still locked on her stupid girlfriend.

“Hi honey,” she said, half-aware. Julia nuzzled into Margo’s neck. They were gross. “Excited for our plans today.”

Reaching for the pitcher on the counter, Eliot poured a glass of water and wished it was vodka. Still, it was good. Artisan sparkling was always worth the money. When he turned back to the girls, though, Margo tucked into Julia, both of their pupils wide like dolls.

“Mmm, but maybe we could both wear our old uniforms sometime. And I could be like, Your moves are good, sweetie, but I’m not sure you’re ready for the squad,” Margo said in a breathy whisper. She pulled her close so their chests touched. “Then you could, you know, convince me otherwise.”

“Or we could be rival captains, after the same quarterback,” Julia said, eyes twinkling. She entwined their fingers. “But when we do a striptease cheer off for his affections, we realize we wanted each other all along.”

Eliot let out a strangled sound and stuck his tongue out. His blood rushed hot and frustrated, and he hated both of them, deep in his soul. He pushed past Margo’s shoulder, dramatically, and pulled a disgusted face. 

“Holy shit, get a fucking room.”

Margo glared a thousand knives right into his head, but he persevered. He needed tequila. Now. He swung open one of the cabinet doors, looking for his special stash of Patron. And apple brandy. And maybe some grenadine, and bitters, and some Campari, and lime. Go fucking hog wild, with no elegance. Bold and inventive, and above all, apathetic.

“What’s up your butt, Mr. Sex Positive?” Julia asked, a class act. She searched through the Cottage fruit bowl, frowning at the selection even though she didn’t live there.

“Not nearly enough,” Eliot said with a lewd wink. He passed it off as a joke. But it wasn’t inaccurate. 

Truth be told, he hadn’t had sex for a hot minute. He retired his latest round of first years out of boredom and hadn’t found many or any suitable replacements. It was a temporary dry spell (always was), but it probably wasn’t helping anything. It certainly wasn’t helping his mood.

Julia laughed, though, kicking his leg and waggling her eyebrows. Ugh, she was charming. 

He grimaced and took another sip of water. “But I’m also frustrated because Quentin turned Mike’s flirting love riddles with Alice into math. Wet blanketed all over the damn place.”

“Christ. Yeah. That bitch needs to get laid yesterday” Margo said, nodding solemnly. But Julia simply shook her head and pointed right at Eliot.

“Definitely your fault for letting riddles happen within a ten mile radius of Q,” she said, munching on an orange. The juice dripped down her chin and she wiped at it with the back of her hand. “No pity here, dude.”

Touche. He knew that. Still.

“I don’t know. I actually might be Team Cockblock,” Margo said, tapping her chin. “‘Cause on second thought—what the fuck is a love riddle?” 

“Riddles where the answers are romantic in nature,” Eliot said, knowing her likely response. As expected, she scowled.

“That’s dumb. Mike’s dumb. I hate Mike.”

Eliot rolled his eyes. “I know you do, Bambi. But Alice doesn’t.”

“Mike’s a cock.”

“I know, Bambi.”

“He’s probably anti-choice.”

“I know, Bambi.”

“Quentin and I talk shit about him all the time. I do this hilarious thing where I grunt and say,” Margo affected a slumped over posture and pounded her chest. “Me Mike, me don’t think women deserve basic autonomy. It makes Q laugh and laugh, and then he says Me Mike, me have stupid hair. Which is funny because he does, in fact, have stupid hair. We have a theory he frosts the tips.”

Bambi sighed dreamily and twirled her hair. “It’s by far the most fun we have together.”

A dark storm cloud of jealousy settled over Eliot’s head. Why didn’t they invite him to these sessions? He could contribute. He would have gone with Me Mike, me have pointy eyebrows and talk too much about the national debt. But he took a steadying breath. He reminded himself that he liked Mike well enough. That he really liked Quentin and Margo’s independent friendship. And that none of it was relevant to the issue at hand.

“Goddammit, Bambi, I know,” Eliot said, still a touch impatient. Predictably, Julia laughed in the corner, always delighted Bambi’s stubbornness. “But we want to help Alice get laid. Remember?”

“I only want her to get laid so she doesn’t snap like a goddamn rubber band,” Margo said with a lazy shrug. “Otherwise, holy shit, I don’t care.”

Julia kissed her cheek and smiled up at Eliot.

“Well, I’m about to be Alice’s guardian sex angel,” she said, glancing up at the kitchen clock. “Because Q and I have to get the fuck out of here if we want to make our movie time. I have to reopen the portal, which is such a bitch.”

Eliot winced in support. Portals were indeed a bitch. “Sorry. Mike could actually help with that, if you want.”

She sputtered her lips. “I don’t need no goddamn man.”

“You’re a dream,” Margo said, light and soft, as they made their way out the kitchen. Eliot’s stomach squirmed and he glanced away, his jaw working against his molars. He was ready to have Bambi all to himself. But when they finally reached the stairway, the three of them froze to the spot. 

Kady Orloff-Diaz stood between Alice and Mike. She smiled at Quentin from behind the couch. She stood there talking to them, like she belonged. Like she was a casual part of the group. Just—hangin’ out. In particular, Alice tilted her head upward and smiled at her. Her cheeks were pink and here blue eyes shone with stars that danced beside the moon Kady hung.

With a tiny gasp, Julia reached backwards and clutched Eliot’s hand, fierce and firm. He clutched back. He felt the heavy weight of Margo’s worried eyes on the side of his face, burning like a noontime sun.

“The value is eighty, and the duchess took the final bead from the knight,” they heard Kady say, leaning against the couch in a leather jacket. Her arms were folded and her lips ticked up in smug self-satisfaction. Quentin dropped his pencil and clapped his hands.

“Holy shit, Kady is the Emperor of Math,” he said with a laugh and a bow. Kady’s cheeks flushed and she looked down at the floor. “Gotta be honest, wouldn’t have guessed that. Mea culpa.”

She hugged her arms tighter and her eye twitched. She cleared her throat and painted on a smile. “Well, that’s because you’re—secretly kind of an asshole, Coldwater.”

“Fair enough,” Quentin smiled. Mike laughed a bit too loud.

What the fuck? What the actual fuck?

Eliot swallowed and held the back of his free hand to his brow. He felt Bambi’s cool fingers grip his wrist and Julia’s fingers at the same time, but he couldn’t register much sensation beyond it. Alice and Kady tittered over the notes and Mike smiled at them, all while sending annoyed glances Q’s way. It appeared to be a normal tableau. But all Eliot felt was the force in the palm of his hand rev up. Good. Good.

“Who the hell does she think she is?” Julia asked, breaking through the moment, whisper harsh. She started to push her way forward. “Who the fuck does she think she is?”

But Margo’s arm flew out in front of her, like an immovable parking lot gate. “Julie. You are going to ruin your whole damn day if you charge in there guns blazing.”

Eliot blinked, long and slow. Once again— 

What the fuck?

He cast his wary eyes right at Margo. “Wait. What the fuck? You’re advocating for not guns blazing?”

For a flash, Bambi looked like a toddler caught in the forbidden candy jar. But then it was gone, steel in her eyes. She scoffed and ticked a signature eyebrow.

“You know I like playing Poke the Nerd as much as anyone,” she said, with an air of false indifference. “But Q is fucking exhausting when he’s self-righteously indignant. It’s a public service.”

She wasn’t wrong about that. But it was still unnerving from Margo’s lips.

“It’s not about Q’s reaction, though,” Julia said, pushing forward into Margo’s arm. Bambi didn’t budge. “It’s about the audacity. And I’m sorry, but he doesn’t stand up for himself. He’s so fucking desperate to be liked that he’ll even—“

“Give him more credit than that,” Eliot couldn’t help but interject. But Julia stuck her tongue out, annoyed.

“I know you two have been on your, like, epic bromance for the past year—“

Bromance?” Eliot laughed, the sound disintegrating into ashes on his tongue. Speaking of audacity.

“—but you still can’t possibly understand how much he needs to be pushed, how little he values his own—“

Eliot’s teeth seared together. Bambi laughed. 

“No, we do. We’ve met him. He’s not that fuckin’ mysterious,” she said, firm yet still softer than Julia deserved. “But take this as a gentle reminder that Q is a grown ass man. He’s not that kid anymore. He doesn’t need you to superhero shield him all the fucking time.”

“You say that like it’s so simple. Like it wasn’t just six months ago that—”

“Hey, fuck you, we were there too. But you have to let him live his life without being a mama bear at the drop of a hat.”

“But he needs it, Margo. Can you seriously not understand everything I’ve experienced for fifteen years?”

“Can you not understand that our perspective might be more fucking objective? You infantilize the shit out of him, Julie.”

“No, I take care of him. Someone has to and I’m the only one who—“

Eliot cut his hand in between them, like a karate chop. He snapped his fingers. “As much as Q would be deeply flattered by all this whispering about him, can you two wrap it the hell up?”

Julia and Margo stared at each other for a long moment, a silent standoff. Out of the corner of his eye, he watched Kady wave a short goodbye and send a rare full smile Alice’s way before heading out the door. Mike turned to Alice himself then, grabbing her attention away from Q and talking to her in low tones. Her eyes lit up and she nodded, excited as he’d ever seen her.

It was all moot now anyway. 

Julia seemed to realize it too, as all the wind deflated right out of her sail. She slumped into herself, exhausted.

“Fine,” she said, tense. Margo let out a breath and rubbed her back. “Fine. But if you’re getting on the pro-Kady bandwagon—“

“When the fuck have I ever been pro-anyone?” Bambi sounded actually annoyed. “Jesus Christ, Julia—“

“Well, it certainly sounds like—“

“Want me to kill her? I will. I don’t give a shit. But then you can deal with—“

But whatever else Bambi or Julia were going to say  was cut off by Quentin perking up in his seat and waving at Julia with a buoyant greeting, sweetly earnest and completely unaware of everything that had just occurred. Lucky him.

“Ready to go?” Q asked, smiling. She grinned back, bright. Too bright.

“Sure thing, slugger!” Julia said, walking over to punch him on the shoulder. Quentin blinked and frowned.

“Uh, okay. Weirdo. Let me just grab my bag,” Quentin said, shaking his head a little. He glanced over at Mike and Alice. “Hey, nice work. Both of you.”

“That was fun, Quentin,” Alice said, cheeks wide and smiling. Bless her. Mike grunted. 

Bless him too.

 


 

His lips were open and pink and trembling. Flushed red cheeks, wide brown blown-out eyes, and mussed hair, jawline sharp and shoulder muscles broad in the starlight. He was stunning. And hard under his hand.

“That for me, baby?” Eliot asked, hoarse and low. 

Q’s throat flexed and vibrated as he swallowed, nodding. He whined, eyes closing and head falling back, as Eliot unbuttoned his pants and pulled him out, slow and painstaking. He kept one hand on him, moving, as he crawled up his body, placing soft kisses on every space of skin he could find. Quentin whimpered again and Eliot surged up, finally capturing his lips under his. 

Fuck, he was the most beautiful man he’d ever seen in his whole stupid life. He wanted every part of him. He wanted to share every part of himself. He would never let anything happen to him, not ever.

“El—Eliot,” Quentin panted out against him. They were outside, in the grass, on the Sea. His eyes darted, anxious and shy and delectable. The crease between his brows deepened. “Eliot, what—what if someone sees us?”

“Then they’ll know you’re mine.” He scraped his teeth against his stubbled throat, tightening his grip below. Quentin squirmed under him, breathless and patchy hot. His hands traveled down Eliot’s body, digging into his hips and reaching as far as he could, desperate to cup his ass. Fuck.

“Eliot, holy shit, oh my god,” Q moaned out, lifting his head enough to fuck his tongue into his ear. He bit at his earlobe, and Eliot stroked him, harder, longer. “El, fuck. I want you.”

He kissed him, deep and slow. “You mine, baby? You’re all mine, aren’t you?”

“Fuck. Yes. Only yours.” Quentin’s hips bucked. He was close. He was getting so close, so soon, so quickly. From Eliot, because of Eliot.

“Q,” he whispered, biting and sucking at his lower lip. He got a low moan in response and he was alive for the first time. “You belong with me. Be with me, baby. Please.”

Quentin nodded, thrusting into his hand, voice staccato and groaning in a mournful hymn. “Yes. Yours. I’m—that’s. Me, El. I’m yours. Wanna stay.”

Eliot smiled into his mouth, increasing his speed. Quentin gasped and slipped his fingers into his hair, tugging. “El, I’m gonna—too hot for you, if you don’t stop, I’m gonna—“

He’d give him anything. He nuzzled the hollow of his throat, kissing up and along his jaw. He spoke as fast as his rhythm. “Come for me, baby. That’s it, my sweetheart, my Q. You’re everything to me. You know that, right? God, Quentin—I—I don’t know what to do about it, baby. So please—come for me, okay? Please come for me, please come—“

“Eliot, oh my god,” Q squeezed his eyes tight shut, gripping his whole body around him, heart bursting. Eliot kissed his hairline, holding him tight to his chest, prolonging the sensation, the pleasure, the contact. “Fuck. Eliot. Eliot, I lo—“

Dreams were a bitch. 

Stretching out his frustrated jaw, Eliot slipped out of bed and into his discarded dress pants. He threw on his red silk robe, tied loose around his waist. He scrubbed at his face with his hands. 

He needed to snap the fuck out of it. 

He was still high. 

He would give his left nut for a dreamless existence.

Eliot flew down the stairs. He was awake, even in the late evening hours. He and Margo had passed out around six after eating weed brownies, deep conditioning their hair, and making out while they cuddled. It had been great. But it also meant he already slept more that day than he did on an average night and he was itching for something to do. A distraction. But unfortunately, the Cottage was quiet. Most people were at some godawful psychic party. Horrible.

But when he turned the corner into the side living room, Eliot  perked up when he saw his favorite nerd, reading by the firelight. Not exactly a productive distraction. But. Well. Annoying sex dream aside, Q was still a welcome sight. Always was.

“Hey,” Eliot said, with a small wave. Quentin glanced up and returned it. He closed the pages of his thick book on his fingers. “When did you get back?”

“Awhile ago,” he said, tucking an errant hair behind his ear. “Jules and I had dinner in the city but that was it. She said you and Margo were, like, totally passed out.”

“High as fuck,” Eliot said, shameless. He walked around the second chair and went to slide into it, when he was greeted by a sleeping Todd Bates. Fuck. He sighed.

“Did he talk himself into a stupor again?” Eliot asked, lifting his arm and letting it drop with a heavy thud. Todd growled in his sleep and bit at the air, before curling in deeper on himself. He snored.

“Something like that,” Quentin said, with a gentle smile into his book. “He’s out like the dead, so you might want to pull up another chair.”

“No,” Eliot said with a lofty sigh. All the other chairs were uncomfortable as shit. “We’ll share.”

Quentin pulled his book over his face in pretend concentration. “No. Get another chair.”

“Scoot over, Q.”

“No.”

“Scoot the fuck over,” Eliot laughed as Q grunted, holding up a proud middle finger. He didn’t move his cute butt one inch. “I’m too tall to sit in your lap, Coldwater, but I will to make a point. Move.”

Quentin laid his book on his chest and swept his hand out. “As an alternate, the floor is right there and expansive.”

Brat, brat, brat. He reached over to push at Quentin’s shoulder and it bounced back against the chair. He laughed, stubbornness breaking. He slid over, creating enough space for Eliot to sit close, tight, and almost entirely pressed up against him.

“Hi,” Eliot said with a grin. It was nice. Really nice. Quentin rolled his eyes.

“Happy now?”

“Happier. You could always sit on the floor.”

“Fuck you, I was here first,” he aid without heat. Eliot smiled in victory. Giving in, Quentin dropped his book to said floor and stretched his neck. “So you got your Margo fix then?”

“And how,” Eliot said, curling himself back into the comfort of the chair. It really was the best in the house. “Plus, some bonus excitement: Alice and Mike spent all day cooped up tight in the library together.”

“Thrilling update.”

Eliot smacked him. “They were working on Horomanic portals. One of her many seminar extras and he was the perfect white knight. The porno writes itself.”

“Homework,” Quentin said, still flat. “Yeah, super romantic. You’re a real fairy godmother.”

Eliot knocked his knee against him, passing over the more obvious yet tired joke, and instead shined a playful glare down at him. “Please. Like that isn’t your absolute dream date, you fucking nerd.”

“Well, considering I’ve never been on any date, your guess is as—”

Eliot shook his head, hard and fast. He let out a slight laugh and nudged Quentin. “What the fuck? What do you mean, you’ve never been on a date? You’re an adult man.”

“Well, not in, like, the traditional kind of way,” Quentin said with a shrug. He didn’t seem concerned about it, but Eliot was flabbergasted. “Just never had the opportunity. Didn’t date much in high school and then it hasn’t been my thing since.”

“Never took Jenna to the Times Square Chevy’s?” Eliot smirked, waggling his eyebrows. “Or a special occasion Cheesecake Factory anniversary date? I heard there’s a great one in Yonkers.”

Quentin flicked his ear with his index finger. “My taste isn’t that pedestrian.” Eh. Debatable. “I’m sure I would have at least tried to plan something nice, if I’d ever taken her out.”

“But you didn’t?”

Quentin frowned and Eliot felt bad for pushing the issue. It wasn’t important. He was only curious.

“Uh, well, it’s just—Janie and I mostly, like, hung out in our dorm rooms and fucked when our roommates weren’t around,” he said, thoughtful and remorseful.  “And we did D&D campaigns together. That was the height of our romance.”

“Ah. Well, poor Janie,” Eliot said, smiling and light. “Never even got a free meal outta the arrangement.”

“Trust me, that was the least of her complaints. I was a shitty boyfriend.”

Eliot both believed and doubted that at once.

Quentin peered over at him, inscrutable. “But what about you? You don’t exactly seem like the wine ‘em and dine ‘em type.”

“Excuse you, I plan impeccable dates,” Eliot said, cuddling in closer. More to get more space on the chair—Quentin was smaller than him, but he was dense as fuck. Move over. “Half the guys who fuck me are more hoping for the chance to experience the city through my vision.”

“Yeah, I doubt that,” Quentin said and Eliot’s heart stopped. But then Q continued like nothing, reviving all normal functions. “So then, what? You take first years out on the town? When the fuck do you do that?”

That made him laugh. “Brakebills boys? God, no. They don’t know the difference between Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc. It would be a worthless endeavor.”

“Fucking morons,” Quentin deadpanned.

“Sometimes you have to scratch an itch, Coldwater,” Eliot said, unrepentant. “But I also like to have my fun with older city sophisticates, so why not eat some cake?”

The first date Eliot had ever planned was at the end of his first year of undergrad. He’d been seeing a boy named Johnny Peterson for a few weeks. It had been eighty percent shy kisses at parties. Ten percent sloppy blowjobs. And ten percent sitting together cross-legged on a bed and listening to The Book of Mormon on repeat. Eventually, he decided he wasn’t going to hide from the world anymore and properly asked him out. Johnny had been enthusiastic, to say the least.

So Eliot wore his best pressed button-down and made a reservation at Sardi’s, like a good goddamn theatre kid. They sat in a giant and shiny red booth, with drawings of Billy Crystal and William Shatner staring them down. They ordered crab cakes as an appetizer and chicken scallopini as a main, sharing to save money. Most notably, the evening was also the first time Eliot felt the heavy jitter of Bored bored bored I’m fucking bored

He avoided Johnny for the rest of his college experience. The kid was a bit heartbroken, which made him feel bad. It was the first of many though, and much easier that way. It was for the best.

The first good date Eliot ever planned was his senior year of undergrad. He was fucking a performance artist named Byung, no last name. His work emphasized sexuality in the grotesque and fractal algorithmic variability. He was extremely hot. 

So after a gallery performance, Eliot decided on a whim to whisk him away for a night of decadence. He lied their way into Restaurant Daniel. They ordered the most extravagant tasting menu and a bottle of Cristal. Then they dashed before the check came. After, the two of them good ecstasy and danced all night at the Boom Boom Room. They fucked in the bathroom and did some decent coke with a lesser Kardashian. He hadn’t been bored for a second.

He also never saw Byung again. 

Still. Dates were great. He loved going on dates. It sucked that Quentin had never been on a real date. So he said so.

“Well, I mean, I’m sure I’ll go on one. Someday my prince will come or whatever,” Quentin said. He rolled his eyes with forced casualness. He was terrible at forced casualness. It made Eliot smile. 

But.

It sucked that Quentin had been so sequestered for most of his young adulthood. Eliot was hardly sentimental, but a good date was a timeless and universal sort of fun. Quentin was wonderful, but he had his struggles and it—sucked. He deserved a nice date, with a nice date, more than anyone he knew.

Not that Eliot thought there was any world where Quentin would enjoy, say, Eleven Madison Park. His anxiety over the formality would tank the night alone. But for someone capable of getting him over the It’s Time to Get Out of the House, You Hobbit hump, he could see Quentin enjoying a fun and quiet gastropub. Hearty food, good wine and cider. In the West Village? Q would complain that the environs were bougie, but he’d secretly love it. Much as Eliot joked, Quentin was actually more a clumsy and obvious elitist than mundane. Think The Spotted Pig instead of Planet Hollywood.

Anyway, after, the two of them could walk southeast to find some hipster dive bar with a rooftop. One with a great view over the river, but less than $20 cocktails. The holy grail. They would share cigarettes outside. They'd talk for hours about nothing, while they got giggle drunk on shitty whiskey gingers. And Q would stand with his hair blowing in the night wind and smile out into the world, relaxed and happy. Just—fucking happy. Like he should always be. 

And maybe then, Quentin would realize that he and his date had something special between them. Something real and terrifying, yeah. But also sort of beautiful and worthwhile and even, fuck, hopeful. Which was definitely something neither of them exactly expected in their lives. Maybe the two of them would finally say fuck it. What the fuck are we doing? This is worth taking a chance on. This is worth trying. This is worth—

“Uh, hello? El?” Quentin nudged him, teasing eyes reflecting the flickering fire. “Earth to asshole?”

Eliot blinked. He shook his head and cleared his throat. 

Shit. 

Shit.

He grabbed the half-drunk green bottle from its precarious position between Q’s torso and a throw pillow. “Stop being a wine hog.”

“You disappeared for a second there,” Quentin said, face folded in amusement. “Where’d you go?”

Eliot forced a laugh. Shitfuckgoddamn. Things were weird. Things had been weird. It was all catching up with him. Like Margo said it would. Fuck you, Margo.

(He needed to get laid.)

“I’m still high from earlier,” Eliot said instead of any of that. Of course. Also, it was true. “Hoberman left Bambi with a ton of the good shit last time he was here.”

Quentin gave a disinterested nod and Eliot remembered his manners. He knew the answer, but offering was key. “Would you like some? Plenty left.”

“No thanks,” Q said, stretching his whole body out like a cat. “They fuck with me more often than not.”

Quentin kicked his legs up and over Eliot’s knees, resting his ankles on the chair arm. It was the kind of casual ease they always had with each other. It made Eliot feel like he was going to choke. But Q continued, like there was nothing going on. Because there wasn’t. 

“I don’t think his shit plays well with Zoloft.”

Eliot pulled the wine bottle to his mouth. Genuine curiosity tugged his thoughts to the present. “I thought you were on Abilify?”

“Switched,” Quentin said, dropping his head back. His jaw cut upward like an arrowhead. “I was having trouble sleeping again. Plus, the psychosis stuff isn’t—I don’t think I’m—I’m not, uh, dealing with that anymore—I mean—”

“It’s fine, Q,” Eliot said, soft. He pressed his hand down on his knee, stroking the bony ridge with his thumb. Not to soothe, but to cut off his spiral. “Doesn’t matter. It was an idle inquiry.”

But Quentin sat back up, intense and intent as he stared off. “Fogg and Lipson think my brain chemistry is stabilizing because of access to magic—”

“That’s horseshit,” Eliot said, cutting him off. He couldn’t help it. He also didn’t want to hear it.

“I know,” Q said, like he didn’t know but didn’t want to argue. “Whatever it is, I really have been more stable lately. Not exactly happy. But it’s better. I guess.”

“That’s great.” What else could he say? He wasn’t a psychiatrist.

Quentin directed his intensity at the fire. “Are you happy?”

No. “Yeah.”

He cut a glance at him. “Yeah?”

Eliot rolled his eyes, wide and for effect. “Yes, mother.”

Q let out a breath and his eyes twitched, too knowing. But he didn’t say anything more, opting instead to take the bottle back and nurse a long sip. For a quiet while, they sat there, together and drinking. Eventually, Quentin reopened his book. It was a sci-fi novel with a too-long title. And Eliot zoned out, lost in blissful nothing. The fire died as they crossed over the midnight threshold.

“The octopus ate all the Oreos!”

Fucking Todd jolted awake with a nonsensical holler. His hands reached everywhere for stable ground. His hair was mussed and he panted for breath.

“Morning, Todd,” Q said, droll and not looking up from his book. Eliot chuckled, leaning back against the chair and lolling his head over to look at the silly boy beside them in full.

“Wow. Whoa. Hey, you two,” Todd said, scrunching his brow and shaking his head. “Is it really morning?”

“Uh, technically,” Quentin said, looking down at his dorky little Timex. “But you’ve only been asleep for about three hours.”

“Feels like three weeks,” Todd said, stretching his arms up in the air. He smiled and sat up. “How’s it going, Eliot?”

Everything he said was so obnoxious. “I’m fine.”

“That’s good!” He said, all bright and ugh. Then he rubbed his stomach in a circular motion. “Boy. I’m kinda hungry. If I made some nachos, would you want in?”

Eliot sneered. “Of course not.”

But at the same time, Q perked up and said, “I could go for some nachos, yeah. Thanks.”

Todd gave Quentin a thumbs up and stood. “Cool. I’ll heat some up for you.”

Eliot sighed, put upon and annoyed. He thrust himself out of the chair and Quentin’s legs fell to the ground with a thud. Everyone was always forcing him to do everything. 

“Fine,” Eliot said, snappish. Todd’s face circled through several emotions, landing on little bewildered. “I’ll help you. You’ll fuck it up otherwise.”

Todd’s uncanny valley eyes went extra wide. “Can you fuck up nachos?”

“What type of peppers were you going to use?” Eliot asked, a challenge. If the answer was anything other than a combination of jalapeños and red bell, he was ill-equipped. As expected, Todd stuttered.

“So I was going to, like, melt some pepper jack on tortilla chips and then maybe add some bottled salsa, sour cream, and cilantro?“ He frowned at Quentin. “Unless you have the cilantro-tastes-like-soap thing?”

“I don’t think so. It, uh, tastes like cilantro—“ Q started to say, but Eliot scoffed over him.

“Wrong answer,” he said to Todd, rolling his sleeves up. “Come along then. If you’re going to be using my kitchen—”

“It is not your kitchen, Eliot,” a traitor said.

Eliot shushed Quentin and glared down at Todd from his full height. To his credit, he cowered and nodded.

“Super happy to have your help,” Todd said, swallowing nervously. At Eliot’s darkening stare, he blanched and shook his head. “No, I mean, I’m happy to help you. Of course. I’m sure you can teach me a lot. You’re, like, so smart and good at things.”

“Very well,” Eliot said, relatively pleased. He ignored Quentin’s soft little Oh, come on, Todd and looked the sad boy up and down. He would hold him back from making ideal nachos, but technically it was his idea. So. “You can grate the cheese.”

“Well, actually, there’s pre-packaged—”

“You can grate the cheese, Todd.”

As they made their way to the kitchen and Todd babbled stupidly about the time he accidentally portaled to Oaxaca, Quentin coughed. It was a loud, barking sound. It was at once sharp-pitched and guttural, like it came deep from his bronchial cavity and bounced off his diaphragm. It also sounded suspiciously like Control freak

But that couldn’t be right. Poor thing must be getting sick. He would have to make him some tea.

 


 

SMS with  “ Q (cute face w long hair + flannel)
10/31/16, 8:32 PM

  

how’s your daddy?

No

no what?

 

No, Eliot
You’re fucking gross

jeez sorry for caring
gutter brain

Uh-huh

 

fine
how was dinner w your dearest father
the incomparable ted coldwater
on this the day of all hallow’s eve?

My dad is fine, dickhead
You in the city?

 

here and queer
last chance to be cool

That ship sailed years ago

 

i know
but there’s a portal from montclair 
right into port auth & then easy train to bk

 

Not easy unless Mike lives in Bed-Stuy

shit, williamsburg 
ugh he’s so basic

Williamsburg’s nice

 

no accounting for taste
come to the party

 

I don’t have a costume

 

kurt cobain’s nerd brother
done

Har har
I’m not going

come ON

 

This is a once in a lifetime opportunity
The Cottage will be empty tonight

so?

 

Being home alone at the Cottage is like… 
My ultimate fantasy
Reading, tea, music, bliss

quentin
i am a renowned purveyor of earthly delights 
and you say that shit to me? 

Renowned?
By who?

whom
p.s. you’re banished

K.

don’t you dare

K.

brat

 


 

Eliot didn’t love ceding hosting rights. 

He especially didn’t love the idea of ceding hosting rights to Mike McCormick and his shitty Brooklyn apartment complex. He also especially, especially didn’t love giving up Halloween, once the true ruling party night for the Physical Kids. But it was the Illusionites year, a tenuous truce brokered by the dean after too many years of in-fighting. So he couldn't throw his own party and they had a multiple exclamation point texted invite to Mike’s extravaganza. The choice was obvious. At least the four of them were in the city, brimming with possibility and costumed adventure.

And getting laid. Dear motherfucking god, getting laid.  It was still Eliot’s longest dry spell in—

Fuck.

It was Eliot’s longest dry spell.

It was his own fault. It was brought on by his complete lack of interest in the available Brakebills boys. They were all too dull or too tall or too annoying to catch his interest, even for a quick mouth fuck. Normally he wasn’t so discerning, but he also couldn’t get it up if his stomach was churning at the very notion. So heading into the city, with the chance to meet new people was exactly what he needed. Because it was getting untenable. All of it.

Before heading into Mike’s brick-and-warded Magician building, Julia built out small pocket portals. That way they could each change into their costumes rather than walking through the city, too cold and too tacky. Done well before the rest, Eliot lit a cigarette and waited, taking in the crowd. So far, nothing and no one interesting. He took a long drag and let the smoke settle in his lungs, harsh and unforgiving. Lung cancer was worth it.

The portal swooshed and Julia and Margo stepped out. They looked delightful and delicious in the traditional ‘Hot Girls in Lingerie on Halloween’ style. In particular, Julia wore a pink silk negligee and held an oversized cigar between her fingers. Eliot tilted his head.

“Okay, I’ll bite,” he said, looking her up and down. “What’s with the cigar?”

“Here’s a hint: Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar,” Julia said, chuckling like she was clever. He shook his head. She sighed and then grinned. “I’m a Freudian Slip.”

“I hate you,” Eliot said, without missing even the microsecond of a beat. She reached up and patted his cheek, murmuring Don’t be jealous

As if.

Meanwhile, Margo, dressed in a black corset and thigh-highs, came up behind her and bit at her neck. Not because she was wearing a vampire costume. She just really liked biting necks. “Let’s go get drunk and dance, nerd.”

Julia smiled and nuzzled Margo’s cheek. “Lead the way, hot mama.”

Bambi slid her eyes over to Eliot and pouted. “Meet us in there, El? Once Elsa gets done taking her sweet damn time?”

Eliot lifted the collar of his slinky sequin suit jacket, adjusting the fit against his bare chest and back. The array of necklaces clinked and pulled at his chest hair, in contrast to the smooth silk of his long scarf sliding all the way to his visible hip bones. He bit at the filter of his cigarette, the smoke filling his mouth in a dizzy haze. 

“How’s my hair?” Eliot asked her. She looked him up and down, and gave him a tiny smile.

“You know it looks good,” she said, puckering her lips. He grinned and pulled a drag. It was true. It was full and curly and luscious. Atop his sultry drawn eyes and thigh-high riding boots, it was obvious he’d get to fuck his pick of the litter that night. At least, once he got Alice situated. 

Fucking finally. Jesus Christ. 

“It looks damn good,” he corrected with a purr. Margo kissed his cheek and dragged her girlfriend toward the door, cupping her ass with her bright red fingernails. Julia shrieked and giggled. They were gross.

Finally, the portal swirled one more time and Alice appeared. She wore her ubiquitous pink fuzzy sweater and a large poodle skirt. Her hair was pinned up in retro curls and she traded her usual glasses for rhinestone studded cat eyes.

Goddammit.

“What happened to the costume Bambi picked out?” He asked, demanding. Her eyes flew open wide and she stuttered.

“It was obscene, Eliot,” she said, pursing her lips. “I looked like—I looked like a lady of the night.”

“A what?” he asked, innocently tilting his head over. “I don’t know that term.”

Alice widened her eyes and leaned in, hissing through her teeth. “A sex worker, Eliot.”

“What’s wrong with being a sex worker?”

“Nothing!” Alice squeaked, skin pale. “I’m not—I’m not saying there’s anything—I just don’t want to dress like—oh my god.” 

He grinned and beckoned her into his side, popping a short kiss on the top of her rambling head.

“Come on, you misogynist,” Eliot said, much to Alice’s immediate protest. “The night awaits.”

 


 

The inside of the party was green foaming punch and small bats flitting around. Otherwise, the most elaborate illusion was a bloody-mouthed chupacabra Hillary Clinton. It stomped through the maze-like room, yelling Where's... Monica? Hunnggrryy!

Yeah. That was all anyone needed to know about the decor.

(Margo and Julia would set it aflame by the end of the night. Guaranteed.)

But Eliot was spared the need to think too deeply about it as an amiable Mike walked toward him and Alice with a giant wave. He dressed in all black with two electrode bolts coming out the side of his neck. The top of his head was magic’d flat and his skin magic’d green. It matched the punch, which seemed to be a dubious mix of Malibu, green Kool-Aid, and a mystery liqueur. 2/10.

“Eliot! Eliot, Eliot, Eliot,” Mike said, throwing his arms around him in a giant hug. He grinned and returned it. He really was a great hugger. Mike pulled away and looked him up and down, shaking his head. “Outdoing yourself again, sir. Best costume of the night.”

“It’s not of anything though,” Alice mumbled into her drink. She made a tiny disgusted face at the taste and put it down gingerly on the plastic covered table. Finally hearing her voice, Mike took a short breath and smiled, tentative. He was still a little shy around Alice. 

“Alice,” he said, taking her hand. Her cheeks turned pink despite herself. “As always, it’s a pleasure to see you.”

“Thank you, Mike,” Alice said with a tight smile. “Your costume is well-done. It’s a classic take. I like that.”

“Costume? What costume? ‘Tis I,” Mike spoke in a loan groan, with his his hands held out in front of his chest, “Fearsome Frankenstein.”

Alice’s cheeks sucked into her teeth like she’d eaten an extra sour lemon. Eliot squeezed her shoulder. She could keep it together. Mike laughed and chuffed under her chin, before looking around. A small smirk crossed his lips.

“So, ah—no Quincy tonight?” Mike asked, arms around both Eliot and Alice.

“Quentin,” she quietly corrected.

“Q’s being antisocial,” Eliot said with a sigh.

“Well, that’s a shame,” Mike said, though he smiled wider with more than a glint of unadulterated joy. “I like Quincy. He seems like he’d be a really good friend.”

“His name is Quentin,” Alice said again, firmer. Mike laughed and squeezed them in tighter to him.

“My mistake. Of course. We’ll have a drink for him later,” Mike ushered them through a spun illusion of cobwebs and the dulcet tones of Monster Mash. “Come this way, and enter Fearsome Frankenstein’s lair. Dance floor is to the left—”

As Mike kept talking and giving them the grand tour of the beige apartment, Eliot grabbed Alice’s arm and pulled her in close. It was time for a pep talk-slash-real talk. A jangling skeleton boogied above them, singing Restore America now, before she looks like me, to the tune of "The Yellow Rose of Texas."

“Two things. One, he thinks Quentin is competition,” Eliot said, leaning into Alice’s ear. “So he’s pretending to get his name wrong.”

But Alice frowned. “Well, that’s petty.”

“Two, don’t correct him.”

She averted her gaze, all innocent. “About Quentin’s name?”

“No. The other thing.”

“But—“

“Alice. Don’t correct him.”

She bit her lip. “I want to correct him.”

“I know you do, honey. Don’t.”

“Quentin would have corrected him immediately,” Alice mumbled, pouting. Eliot laughed.

“He sure would have,” he said, maneuvering her by the lower back toward the bar. “As a general rule, if you can figure out what Q would have done, go with the opposite instinct.”

She considered it and then nodded, taking his hand. “Okay. That’s reasonable.”

With a laugh and a twirl into the red and orange lights, Eliot and Alice bopped their way to Bobby Pickett. Aggressive Republican shit or not, the party still swallowed them whole.

 


 

Later, Mike asked him if he wanted to go outside for a cigarette. 

At the time, Alice was dancing with Margo and Julia, so it seemed a suitable course of action. They could shoot the shit and get a nicotine fix, then head back toward their separate nights.

As he always maintained, he liked Mike well enough, even with the shitty Republican stuff. He could get over it for the sake of a friendly acquaintance. He imagined they would chat about Brakebills and then run out of things to say to each other like they usually did. So they’d smoke in silence and then do the bro head-nod back into the party. 

All good. All swell. All fine. All to say—

Eliot certainly had not intended to end up plastered against a wall with Mike’s hands down his pants and tonguing laving up and down his throat. 

Really. 

But the best laid plans of mice and hot men often go awry.

Which—shit—Mike was really, really hot and Eliot was really, really horny. And he fucking hated that word under most circumstances. That night though, he was so keyed up and live-wire charged that he felt like a teenager. Ready to burst and just fucking—horny

“Damn,” Mike said, his deep voice extra rough as he kissed at Eliot’s collarbone. Eliot let his head fall back against the brick and his eyes fell back into his head. “You are the sexiest man alive.”

Fuck yes.

“Is that so?” Eliot breathed out, laughing. He pushed Mike’s head down a scooch. You have to buy the lottery ticket after all. “What do you wanna do to me, Mikey?”

Mike squeezed his ass. “I will do literally anything you want me to do, Eliot.”

Well, wasn’t that a motherfucker? Hunger roared in his chest and he snapped his face into Mike’s, kissing him hard. He was a strong kisser and matched Eliot beat for beat. His tongue moved swift and firm, sweeping around like it was on a mission. 

There was no tenderness or joy in his movements. It was pure animal instinct and fuck, if that didn’t scratch a goddamn itch better than anything most days. It wasn’t like he wanted to date Mike. Someone else could sit through his boring stories about Texas or his long spiel about whatever the fuck the Cato Institute was. No, all Eliot wanted was to take what was offered and leave the rest to—

Oh. Shit.

To Alice. 

He was supposed to leave the rest to Alice. If she wanted it. Because Mike was kind of dating Alice, his newest friend who he had promised to help. And what he was doing was not exactly helping so much as actively fucking over.

Shit.

“Mike—“ Eliot said. He pulled away, lightheaded and spinning. He was so stupid. He was so fucking stupid. “Shit. I can’t believe I’m saying this. But, uh, I—I actually can’t do this.”

With an authoritative scoff, Mike grabbed at Eliot’s hips again, face in his neck. That seemed to be his main move, but he wasn’t complaining. He expertly sucked at the delicate skin there and Eliot saw stars. He forgot why he had protested to begin with. It was fine. It was good. It was really fucking good. It was—Jesus, it was awesome.

At least, it was awesome. Until Mike whispered the most boner-killing sentence known to man, hot and breathy in his ear. 

What Quincy doesn’t know won’t hurt him.”

Eliot jerked backwards, lips falling open. His arms tensed as they pushed Mike away. His heart flipped over.

What?

“Wait, what?” Eliot’s voice staggered. He laughed. He was unsteady. His sight darted everywhere and he rubbed his nose. “You’re talking about—Quentin?” Holy shit, he did not want to think about Quentin. “No, I’m not—this isn’t—”

Mike stepped in closer again and nipped at Eliot’s earlobe. “God, you could do so much better than that twerp.”

The heat from Mike’s lips on his face made Eliot’s stomach sour. He was a Republican dickbag. He was supposed to be making out with Alice. He had pointy eyebrows.

“Get the hell off me,” he growled, pushing Mike away with a firm hand. “I mean it. This isn’t happening.”

“Hey,” Mike said, reaching up and stroking his thumb against Eliot’s sideburn. “Don’t get me wrong. I kind of get it. He’s a pretty twerp with a cute ass, but—“

Eliot pulled out another cigarette and lit it. The flame burst into Mike’s face and he stepped back, blinking away the spark. Eliot took the opportunity to move away from the wall and paced between the alley, glaring at Mike. “I said no. That’s pretty basic consent shit, McCormick.”

Mike swallowed and took a deep breath. He smiled at Eliot, though he were approaching a feral toddler. It wasn’t helping anything.

“Here’s my elevator pitch,” he said, tugging Eliot in close by the waist. Fuck, he was pretty, even with green skin. His eyes were navy blue on him and slanted in the ghoulish light. “I don’t know anything about wine, or music, or art. But I don’t think Quincy does either.”

Quentin knew nothing about wine. 

But Quentin knew much more than most people about music and art, at least from an academic standpoint. He didn’t necessarily give a shit about any of it, but he knew it. He knew it better than most people. He absorbed things so easily and read so much, even beyond his Fillory obsession. In fact, his careless and encyclopedic knowledge never failed to make Eliot feel like a hillbilly in a tux. Every single fucking time.

None of that was relevant.

“And I’m also pretty sure,” Mike continued, laughing as he brushed his lips back against Eliot’s ear. “I'm sure that I’m hotter, more interesting, and much more eager to learn than him.”

Not even by half on any of those accounts. But again, irrelevant. Q was irrelevant. He was turning Mike down because of Alice, not because of Q. He didn’t owe Q anything. Q didn’t want Eliot to owe him anything.

“Mike,” Eliot said, blinking down his lust as Mike started kissing his jaw. The skin-on-skin contact felt so damn good. But he couldn’t do this. He wouldn’t do this. “Mike, this isn’t happening.”

He traced his tongue around Eliot’s skin. His warm breath puffed air into his ear drum. It reverberated. “Please listen to me. Quincy doesn’t deserve you. You are so much better than him.”

Eliot’s stomach twisted like a cold rag. He pushed Mike off again, with less fervor but more surety. He held Mike by the shoulders and looked him dead in the eye.

“Please listen to me, asshole. Quentin and I aren’t together. We’re just friends.” He cursed the waver in his voice with his whole soul and he cursed the quick brightness in Mike’s eyes even more. “But you and I still aren’t doing this.”

“Because you’re not attracted to me?” Mike asked, licking his lips. He shot his eyes downward at Eliot’s tight pants. “Someone would beg to differ.”

Eliot clenched his jaw and thought about baseball. “I mean because of Alice.”

Mike finally looked caught off-guard. He frowned, every feature tensing. “Alice? What? I mean, she’s a very nice girl—“

Eliot scoffed. “A nice girl? You’ve been spending every week with her—”

“No,” Mike said slowly, blinking. “I’ve been spending every week with you. She happens to be there. A lot. A fucking lot. Honestly, she was getting almost as tiresome as Quincy.”

What the fuck? Eliot blew smoke out harsh. “No, I happened to be there. The whole point was—”

“The only reason I didn’t complain?” Mike said with a laugh, holding his hands out and shaking them. It was like he trying to physically rid himself of the implication. “I figured she was your newest fruit fly. I was trying to be welcoming. If I had known that you thought she and I were—I would have made it very clear that I—”

Eliot’s nostrils flared. “I’m sorry. My newest what?”

Mike waved his hand and sputtered his lips. “You know. Fruit fly. Cute girl who hangs around with gay guys. Kind of a blonde Margo. But nicer than Margo, thank god. Bitchy hags are out. Good to mix it up with the straight chicks.”

Holy motherfucking shit.

“Are you guest starring in an episode of Sex and the City?” Eliot crossed his arms. “What the fuck are you rambling about?”

Mike tilted his head, all soft condescension. “I mean it as a reclamation. A term of endearment wrapped in a power shift. Sorry if it’s not your thing, but—“

“Yeah, straight boys?” Eliot pointed at him with his cigarette. He flared the tip. Pyromancy for the dramatic point. “Don’t get to say shit like that, Mike.”

He laughed. “Straight boy? My tongue was down your throat, Eliot. I was touching your dick.”

“If I had a nickel.”

“Eliot,” Mike said with a small laugh. He shifted back and forth on his feet. He sighed and ran his hand through his flat hair. “You, uh—you know I’m gay, right? I’m very gay.”

What.

“What?” Eliot dropped his cigarette. He called it back up to him and took a long drag. His brain was shorting out on him.

Mike chuckled again and put his hands in his pockets. “I’m talking Kinsey Six gay.”

“What?” 

There was—that was—what? Eliot shook his head over and over again. That in no way computed with anything he knew about Mike. He thought over every interaction he had with him. He thought about everything he had ever learned about him. He thought of every conversation they’d ever had, every passing look, every lingering touch. There were so many things he could say to refute, so many obvious ways in which Mike had misled or at least not been as obvious as he thought. But out of his mouth came only one thing—

“You’re a Republican.”

Mike sighed. “I can be a proponent of well-structured small government and sucking cock at the same time.”

Eliot squinted his eyes and tilted his head. “Can you though?”

Mike held his hands up like a surrender and smiled too wide. “Look, I’m not opposed to marriage equality, okay?”

“High bar,” Eliot shot out. “Not opposed.”

“I’m a Texan politician, Eliot,” Mike said, biting each syllable out. “Change isn’t going to happen overnight. I could try to do as many mass brain-control spells as I want to get into office, but—”

“Jesus, that crossed your mind?”

“It crosses every Magician politician’s mind and most of us are Magicians. The literal bloodbath wouldn’t be worth it,” Mike said, huffing. He pulled out his own cigarette and lit it. “But there are certain ways I have to live my life to get the results I want. I make no apologies for that."

Eliot swallowed down a stinging bile and clenched his fists. His fingers popped everywhere, a goddamn nervous tic. “So what—Courtney was your beard then?”

Of course she was. Jesus Christ. Holy shit. What the fuck.

“Court’s a great girl,” Mike said with a fond laugh. “It was nothing so shameful. She’s also very gay. But our arrangement was no longer helpful for either of us. It wasn’t polling well.”

Eliot shook his head, still in shock. “Polling well?”

Mike took a long drag on his cigarette. “I can’t get into it too much, but I’m considering a mayoral run in Lubbock. So my probability spells have been working overtime to see where I’m landing.”

“And?”

“And—politics are getting so extreme as of late,” Mike said, taking Eliot’s hand and stroking his knuckles with his thumb. All he could do was stare down, perplexed more than intrigued. “I need to win hearts in other ways. Lonely boy-next-door looking for love and fiscal responsibility is the new angle. Work the narrative well before the big run. Otherwise, my reasonable Libertarian perspective is a hindrance.”

He could hear—he could hear—Quentin’s derisive snort and Uh, reasonable Libertarian? Are we listing oxymorons now? Jumbo shrimp. Silent scream. Microsoft Works.

But that was definitely not relevant.

“Why didn’t you broach this two years ago then?” Eliot asked, jaw working overtime. He didn’t give a shit about anything Mike was saying. His answer hadn’t changed. But it still wasn’t making sense to him and he hated that off-kilter feeling.

“I wasn’t sure if I could trust you,” Mike said through a plume of smoke. He looked as though he was stating facts. Sky was blue, grass was green, Eliot was untrustworthy. “I mean, come on. You know you don’t exactly scream discreet.”

Oh. Scratch that. Eliot was reckless and too queer. Got it. 

He sucked on his cigarette hard. It was a stub. He was ready to go. But motherfucking Mike was still talking.

“But I don’t know. It’s like you’ve mellowed in the past year or so. You seem more grounded. I thought it was Quincy’s influence—“

Quentin,” Eliot snapped, patience on its last fucking tether.

“—and that made me so jealous, so I knew I had to go for it. Take a risk on the fun guy, you know?”

What a poet.

Eliot laughed and stared down at his feet. “Sure.”

“And then I figured that my lifestyle and goals might even be a perk for you,” Mike said, hand running up and down Eliot’s chest. “No commitment, no pressure. Fucking in portals and planes and hotel suites, no breakfast in the morning. That’s why Quincy being your boyfriend surprised me so much—“

“His name is Quentin and he is not my boyfriend,” Eliot spat out, shaking with anger. He had a headache. He had a terrible headache.

“I know that now. It makes way more sense,” Mike agreed, dopey smile on his stupid slack-jawed face. Eliot responded with a sneering smile of his own. “So what do you say? Should I go grab some lube and a rubber? Do you switch? I exclusively top.”

Eliot’s mouth fell open and he let out a soft, wet sound. “Um. I’m gonna pass. But thanks anyway.”

Mike waggled his eyebrows. “My friend down there seemed to disagree.”

“Yeah, my cock was hard when you were sucking on my chest,” Eliot said, firm and unapologetic. “But I’m not an animal and I’m not interested.”

“Mmm, but I’ll bet you’re a total animal in the sack—”

“Jesus Christ, Mike,” Eliot said, edging on real fury. “Are you incapable of taking no for an answer? Because that’s my answer. It’s not fucking happening. Do you understand?”

Mike stepped back like he was slapped. His pointy eyebrows quirked down and a flash of remorse went across his face. “Sorry. Sorry. I thought we were doing, like, the witty banter thing.”

“Witty banter?” What the fuck? What the fuck? Eliot needed a thousand cigarettes.

“I misread it,” Mike said, ducking his head down and putting both hands up in the air. “I’m sorry. I thought you were interested. But I get that you’re not and I will let this go.”

Eliot closed his eyes and brought his hand to his head. It ached, tense and dull. “Okay. Good.”

Mike clapped his hands and looked back and forth. “So I can get a portal set up for you, if you’d like.”

“Well, I—uh—wait, what?” Eliot threw his cigarette on the ground and stubbed it out. He didn’t have the energy to send it to the Island of Used Filters at the moment. “I wasn’t planning on going home yet.”

Mike smiled but it looked and sounded more like a wince. “Might be kind of awkward now though, right?”

Eliot stood still and ran his tongue over his teeth. He grimaced, cold. “Are you kicking me out of your party?”

“I think it would be for the best if you found somewhere else to spend the evening,” Mike said crossing his arms. “I know you don’t get it, but this is actually a big disappointment for me. So seeing you here would be—”

“Yup,” Eliot popped the consonant. He adjusted his jacket and cracked his neck. “No, I fucking got it, Mike. No need to do me any favors, I can find my own way.”

“I like you, Eliot,” Mike said, his voice quiet. He couldn’t bring himself to give a shit. “So I’m sorry. But I think this is for the best.”

Eliot closed his eyes for no more than three seconds. 

In that moment, he let him feel all the inadequacy, all the rage, and all the worthlessness he knew he held within him. Some people contained multitudes. Eliot contained nothing. But then he opened them and willed it all away. He was so much more capable than any of this bullshit.

“It always is, Mike,” he said, with a tiny salute. “Have a good fucking life. Hope you lose to an avowed communist, in any race you may run.”

Mike laughed. It sounded a little wet. “Wow. Okay. If that’s how you want to leave it, that’s your choice.”

It certainly was his choice. It wasn’t quite how he wanted to leave it though.

“Oh, and by the fucking way?” Eliot spun around on his heel and held his head high. “You’re not Frankenstein. You’re Frankenstein’s monster. Good night and thank you.”

Mike chuckled and stuck his green hands back in his pockets. He gazed off into the distance, looking at once like a pastoral painting and a complete buffoon. 

“Mature, Eliot.”

He lit a cigarette and held his middle finger high in the air, walking away. “What can I say? First star to the right and straight on ‘til morning. 

“Eliot—“

"Go fuck yourself.”

 


 

 

SMS with  “ Q (cute face w long hair + flannel)
11/1/16, 12:04 AM

 

hey can you open a portal for me
without your usual barrage of questions
please

quentin
answer your phone

oh my god
answer your phone

live a little
break a rule
answer your phone

seriously?
goddammit q

 


 

Two hours later—with no fucking thanks to goddamn anyone—Eliot stumbled through the Cottage front door. World weary but alive.

He slammed it shut and pressed his back against the cool wood. He panted, rocking his head backwards. He stood there for a few minutes, steadying his breathing and gathering his bearings. 

It was already two in the morning, but he assumed he would come back to a dim and quiet house. The Halloween parties usually lasted full-blown until at least four. He thought at most he’d pass Quentin asleep in the reading nook. He couldd slip past and not have to deal with his judgy eyes until at least the true morning. Lights low, no creatures stirring, easy to slink off to bed. He needed the rest.

But that… was not exactly the case.

Every single light in the house was on. There were several books strewn around and Chinese takeout containers rested on both the coffee and dining room tables. There was an old-timey projector playing Charlie Chaplin movies in one corner and an elaborate fort built over one of the couches. It looked like the Iron Throne, if the Iron Throne were made of fleece blankets and throw pillows. Playing cards were swirling and jumping through the air to a melodious rhythm. Specifically, blasting-loud Taylor Swift. It was the pious hymn and victory chant of the Thinks He’s Home Alone-r. And sure enough, when Eliot cocked his ear just so, he heard warbling from the kitchen. It was the telltale sound of an off-key nerd, wide awake and joyful.

Moving toward the terrible singing with a chuckle, Eliot opened his mouth and held up his finger. He was preemptive as he rotated through a series of potential quips, certain to startle and shame. Fucking awful as the night had turned out, at least he would have that. Catching Quentin red-handed, doing all the shit everyone knew he did. Poetic justice la creme. 

When he actually arrived at the kitchen though, his plans disintegrated into dust. His hand fell against his side, heavy.

He knew he should burst the bubble with a biting comment. He knew he should have relished it. But all his wit curled itself into a ball, right in the center of his chest. In that moment, he could barely move, let alone speak.

“‘Cause the players gonna play, play, play, play, play,” Quentin half-sang with a cracking voice. His hair flew around as he banged his head up and down, like he was in a mosh pit instead of listening to a pop princess. “And the haters gonna hate, hate, hate—

He drummed along the counter, twisting his feet along the linoleum and smiling as the tea kettle announced itself with a squeal. He jumped up and down as he levitated a mug over to the stove, using his own rarely seen telekinetic abilities. He flipped off the gas with a surprising amount of panache. The music kept playing as Quentin popped his hips back and forth, pouring the hot water over a tea bag. 

Eliot leaned his head against the wooden frame, still unable to take his eyes off Q. His heart was tight in his chest. He wondered what it would take for him to always be like this. 

“I’m lightning on my feet,” Quentin spoke-sang out, holding his mug in one hand. He slid forward, like Tom Cruise in Risky Business, before spinning around. “And that’s what they don’t—oh, fuck.”

He staggered backwards, his eyes wide on Eliot. He spilled a shock of his boiled water on his foot. He jumped with a sharp intake of breath through his teeth, as it hit his bare skin. Every muscle in Quentins’ body tensed and hunched. Eliot pushed the disappointment down, down, all the way fucking down.

“Jesus Christ,” Quentin said, heaving with his hand on his heart. “Wear a bell.”

“Sick beat,” Eliot smirked.

“Yeah, well,” Quentin crossed his arms and darted his eyes around the kitchen. He clapped the music off and Eliot ignored the pained thud in his chest. “What are you doing here?”

“Nice to see you too.”

Q met his eyes again and he frowned at Eliot’s terse and annoyed tone. “Just didn’t expect you back. Figured you’d end up staying in the city.”

He shook his head, eyes flying open in the motion. “Yeah. I know. Sorry. Tried texting you, actually. Needed a portal.”

Quentin looked like he was going to argue about the texting rule, but instead sighed and wiped down his pant leg with a kitchen towel. “Why did you need a portal?”

“Just did,” Eliot said, stretching his arms out. He chuckled, though it didn’t sound particularly good-humored. “Weird night.”

Quentin furrowed his brow and nodded once. His mouth was in a thin line and he cleared his throat, turning back to the burners behind him.

“Do you want tea?” He asked, indicating the kettle. His voice was quiet and gentle. Eliot smiled. He never wanted tea. But it was a sweet offer.

“Sure. But you could pour some whiskey in the hot water instead?” He called over a mug for himself and wagged it at Quentin. He nodded, so Eliot pushed his luck. “With a touch of honey. Lemon juice. Cinnamon stick. Oh, and a quarter teaspoon of vanilla extract but—”

“So you want a hot toddy,” Quentin sighed, barely smiling. “Make it yourself.”

“You offered.”

“I offered tea.”

But despite his bluster, Quentin was already unscrewing the red lid off the Maker’s Mark. Eliot shimmied his shoulders at him, quite pleased.

“So you look, um—“ Quentin started to say with a swallow, eyeing his costume. Eliot lifted his mouth into a lascivious half-grin. He looked good. It was okay, Q. “What—what are you supposed to be, anyway?”

“Margo and I go as the same thing every year,” he said, resting his palms backwards against the counter. “Hot.”

Quentin groaned and rolled his eyes, but smiled like he couldn’t help it. “Yeah, okay. I actually remember that now. Last year is still kind of hazy.”

Eliot’s own smile faltered. 

For the Brakebills’ 2015 Halloween Physical Kids Spooktacular (Todd named it, it stuck, Eliot didn’t want to talk about it), Quentin wore his old sad little suit and had magically grown a mustache. He claimed he was "Quentin’s Evil Twin." It had been equal parts groan inducing and cute, like most things he did. Though he almost looked cool compared to Julia’s Virginia Woolf costume that—yes—included a wolf mask and a “Virginia is for Lovers” crop top. She was the worst.

That all was fine.

But it had also been the night Quentin started “dating” Halitosis Sam. He had proclaimed Q’s low effort costume the funniest thing he’d ever seen and chased after him all night. He had hearts in his eyes, full Pepe LePew style. Emphasis pee-ew

Eliot had thought it was funny at first, worth at least teasing his new friend about. He never once registered Halitosis as any kind of threat, in all his jittery short stature and wiry buck-toothedness. That is, until he had gone looking for Quentin with a fresh drink in his hand. He stumbled on the two of them making out in a corner, with Quentin’s hands gripping tight in Halitosis’s wavy brown hair. And that had been—

Eliot’s eyebrows and jaw twitched at the same time.

It was a sour memory, much like the other man’s eponymous breath. Not only because Eliot had felt like his rib cage was punched and then vacuumed out of his chest. But also because it was the direct prelude to the worst and only real fight they had ever gotten into. The one where Eliot learned exactly how much Quentin hated the rhetorical question: “Oh, sweet Little Q, who among us isn’t a touch bicurious?”

Which was, for the record: A fucking lot.

It was a shitty thing to say. Quentin wasn’t wrong. But Eliot was stubborn and a master condescender, and things... escalated. It didn’t help that Margo interjected with, “Ooh, kitten’s got claws” and “Woof, woof, li’l pup” throughout the proceedings. It was all kind of a mess.

(Though after Quentin had yelled a final Fuck you, Eliot and slammed his door, Margo turned to him. She clucked her tongue and said, “You know what? I changed my mind. I like him.”)

It all settled anticlimactically. The next day, Quentin had stormed downstairs and threw himself next to Eliot on the couch. He called him an asshole and said he was “a bisexual man”, and that Eliot “needed to fucking accept that.” And so, Eliot did. He did.

Fuck, the only reason he had even pushed back at all was because—

Because it complicated things. For him.

Quentin’s attraction to men made it harder for Eliot to see him as nothing but a guilty pleasure fantasy. So even though he kind of hated himself every time he thought that it would have been easier if Q was straight, it was true. It would have been easier. And he still thought it, every day.

Like he realized he’d poked a sore spot, Quentin took a long audible breath of his own and blew his hair out of his face. It broke Eliot out of his reverie and he projected cool ease. Quentin smiled and got to quick work on the toddy.

“Where’s the cavalcade?” Q asked as he reached to grab a lemon, slicing it in half. He cut a single round, as a garnish, because he’d learned that giving Eliot a drink without an attractive garnish never went well. “Bringing the party back here?”

“Not exactly,” Eliot said with a sigh. “Kind of a fucked up night. Shit with Mike went sideways.”

“How do you feel about the phrase I told you so?” Quentin juiced the lemon into Eliot’s mug, before pouring the whiskey. “Positive? Neutral?”

“Yes, well. You were right,” Eliot said, gripping the counter with a sigh. He averted his eyes away from Quentin, who stopped his movements to stare at Eliot.

“Shit,” Quentin folded his eyebrows down. “Okay, I don’t think you’ve ever actually said that before.” 

He snorted, catching Quentin’s eyes again. “Sometimes lightning strikes.”

“What the fuck happened?”

“It appears Mike isn’t exactly—” Eliot clicked his teeth together. “He made a pass at me.”

“Oh,” Quentin shrugged. He turned back to his work. “Yeah, sure. I can see that.”

“Seriously?” Eliot’s mouth popped open and he laughed. “What?”

Quentin shrugged again, firmer. He cut another lemon round. “He’s always been, like, obsessed with you. Which I know people tend to be but it was—-more, I guess. Didn’t know for sure, but I had my suspicions.”

“And you never thought to mention it because—?” 

“Right. Because you would’ve been like,” Quentin pulled himself up straight and sniffed haughtily. “Why, yes, my dashing Q, your celebrated social awareness is, like, utterly splendid and shit.”

Eliot bit the inside of his cheek. Hard. 

“Is that—“ He cleared his throat, glee bubbling up and voice a whisper. “Is that what I sound like in your head?”

Quentin blushed all the way down his neck. “I’m not good at impressions.“

“Now, why would you say that? You’re, like, a most perspicacious parodist, dearheart.”

He glared. “But you wouldn’t have believed me is all I mean.”

Eliot widened his smile. But then took pity on him and changed the subject back to the matter at hand.

“Well, you should have at least tried to tell me,” he said, keeping a watchful eye as Quentin stirred the bourbon into the water. “Especially since my stubborn ass actually did want to fuck him. Ship’s sailed now though.”

“Well, uh, you’ll get the next one,” Q said, attention on slicing the rest of the lemon. His voice didn’t have much inflection. “You always do.”

Eliot passed over that bitchy little implication with a sigh. He scrubbed his hands down his face. “Not sure how I, of all people, missed it.”

“Eh. Happens. Poor Alice though,” Quentin said, topping off Eliot’s drink with his requested cinnamon stick and the lemon round. He handed it to Eliot, twisting the mug so he could take it by the handle. “Careful, that’s hot.”

“Thanks, Q,” Eliot smiled over the rim as he took a sip. It was bitter and the proportions were off, but he didn’t care one bit. “Tastes great.”

“Shit,” Quentin reached toward the drink, his fingers brushing against the back of Eliot’s hand. “I forgot the honey.”

He laughed, stepping away from his touch. “I’ll add it. I appreciate the unnecessary effort as it is.”

Quentin gave him a quick, unreadable look before turning to his own tea. He blew into the mug and the tag fluttered against the white ceramic.

“But like, why has the ship sailed?” Quentin asked, leaning back against the counter. His hair fell like a curtain over his eyes. “Are you that loyal to Alice now?”

“Yes and no,” Eliot said, tutting honey into his drink. He took a delicate sip and deemed the concoction serviceable. “It sailed for me. He told me to leave his party after I said no thank you to his dick offering.”

Quentin snorted. “What a baby.”

“Right? Took his balls and went home,” Eliot said, amused with himself. But then he took a longer gulp of the toddy and it burned down his throat. “I don’t know. He said all this shit about how I didn’t used to be discreet enough for his political goals. I assume he meant about my preference for dick and, uh, I guess flamboyance, which is—yeah.”

Quentin’s eyes flashed up and his lips tightened as he crossed his arms. His foot tapped.

“He also said that I’m the fun guy that he could take a risk on and—“ Eliot closed his eyes and swallowed “—and he framed it like a compliment, but I—I don’t know—“

“He’s a total shitbag,” Quentin said, the words slashing through the air, vicious. Eliot smiled, rueful and touched.

“Something like that,” he sighed, opening his eyes and jerking his mouth into something unaffected. “The point is, I’m no one’s dirty secret. Those days are behind me. Been there, fucked the professor. Not worth the hassle.”

“Yeah,” Quentin said, looking down into his mug. “Besides, I mean, Jesus, anyone with you should be proud as fuck. He’s a dickhead. Good riddance.”

Eliot’s heart caught in his throat and he couldn’t feel his hands. Bratty and sullen and fucking goddamn moody as he was, Quentin could also be—he could be so—

Kind. So kind. In a way Eliot had never been in his entire life. It always stunned him.

“Well, one thing we can agree on is that I am indeed magnificent,” Eliot managed to get out, with a smirk. Or at least, he hoped it was a smirk. Whatever it was, Quentin wasn’t fazed by it. He pushed his hair back and shrugged, smiling down at his crossed arms.

“Your magnificence aside, he’s an asshole,” he said, simple. “That’s all.”

Eliot smiled at him, wide and closed-lipped. But genuine. “Thanks, Q.”

The pressure in the air increased, like a heavy invisible weight spanned between them. Quentin's eyes crinkled for a second as he took a long look at Eliot, eyes expressive and obscure at once. He took one step forward.

“Hey. Um, Eliot. Hey.”

Eliot took a sip of his drink and cocked a brow. “Hey?”

Quentin stared down, mouth pulled in lines. He took a deep breath. “Um. So. Uh, maybe this is weird timing, but there was something I wanted to—“

The soft whoosh and white flash of a closing portal interrupted him. They both snapped their heads over to the door frame. A tiny blonde vision in Pink Lady gear ticked her way in on sensible Mary Janes.

“Eliot!” She said, hand on her heart. “There you are. Hello, Quentin.”

“Hey Alice,” Q said, waving his tea mug in the air in greeting. His voice sounded resigned and relieved at once. She looked him up and down, nodded, and returned her gaze to Eliot.

“Mike told Margo that you left,” Alice said, wrinkling her facial features. “She said not to worry about it, but it didn’t seem like you to disappear. I’m glad to see you’re okay.”

“You came to look for me?” Eliot asked, surprised. Alice nodded, big-eyed and determined.

“Of course,” she said, crossing her arms. “I was worried. You’re my friend and you—disappeared out of nowhere. I did a special locator spell with my prism. It works like a one-way mirror, so I was able to see you walking toward the Cottage.”

Quentin snorted and spoke softly. “Yeah, uh. That coulda been awkward for you, Alice.”

Eliot shot him a glare. It was true that Alice was slightly naive. But there was no reason not to gently neglect to mention that—yes—he could have been fucking someone. It didn’t happen so it didn’t matter. So instead, Eliot gave her a warm look and touched her arm. 

“You’re a sweetheart. But you should have stayed and continued your fun. I’m a big boy.” 

Alice jutted her chin upward toward him, resolute. “Leave no man behind.” 

There it was. 

Eliot stared down at her, a lump in his throat. He took one step forward and tilted his head at her. 

She was blinking brightly under her absurd 1950s glasses. She probably thought it was a sweeter and kinder time, bless her little heart and not in the Southern way. Her lips quivered in unwavering loyalty, far more than he deserved from anyone, least of all someone who barely knew him. And far more than from someone who trusted him not to make out with Mike after a year stuck in a frozen wasteland with a drunk psychopath.

It was all on him.

He glanced back at Quentin, but he had decided to busy himself in the intricacies of his tea mug like a good awkward boy. 

“Q, was there something you needed?” He asked, half-hoping for an excuse and half actually curious. But Quentin shook his head, hair flying. He laughed.

“Uh, no. Definitely not. Not important.”

Eliot smiled to himself for a second before sighing, true and deep. Great. No way to put off the inevitable any longer.

“Hey Alice,” Eliot said, softly. He wrapped his arm around her shoulders and squeezed. “Let’s go to the fireplace and chat, okay?”

 


 

Eliot knew to expect the tears. 

He even knew to expect the ones flowing down and the way her hands wiped at them, haphazard and stumbling. The sheen in her eyes, as more and more came in waves. He sighed, clenching his jaw as Alice sniffed and sputtered, shaking with wet, painted cheeks. He knew it was coming. He knew it.

But it didn’t make it easier, as he sat there, mortified. They sat in the two leather chairs and the fire roared orange and gold, the only light in the room. Eliot closed his eyes and ran his tongue over his lips, pouring more wine for both of them. They were going to need it.

“Okay,” Eliot said, frowning and shifting. He ran his fingers through his curls, pinky catching. “But like—it’s not that funny.”

Alice burst into another cackle, slapping her knee. She howled, teeth shining in the firelight. Her wine glass vibrated in her hand, the liquid jumping around though it were in an earthquake.

“No, it is,” Alice said, eyes shining and amusement in every syllable. “You did say you’d be bad at this, but my god.”

“To be fair,” Eliot said with a finger in the air, “his last public relationship was with a woman. He never gave me any sign that he was—”

She fell into giggles again and shook her face in her hands. “God, it makes so much more sense now. Do you know what our date at the library was like?”

Eliot frowned. “No, we never got to talk about that.”

“It was terrible!” Alice said, laughing harder and harder. “We did my homework! The whole time! He kept asking if you’d want to join us!”

“He thought I’d go to the library?” Eliot felt his own smile break through. “On a Saturday? Boy was barking up so many wrong trees.”

“The only ‘move’ he made was kissing my hand at the end of the day,” she said, curling into the chair and wrapping her legs around her wine stem. She smiled, all teeth. “It was sweet but—”

“Not heterosexual?” Eliot said, a touch self-deprecating. Alice slapped her hand over her mouth as another laugh squeaked out.

“No. Actually, um, I was starting to think he was really religious or something?” Alice said, her head bobbing as she chuckled. “Like he couldn’t kiss me because his Lord and Savior Jesus Christ was watching?”

Eliot bit into his knuckles, smiling. 

“I’m sorry,” he said, rough and staccato over his own laughter. “I can’t believe I missed it. I have no excuse. I was probably drunk. Actually, you know what? That’s my excuse. I’m sorry for being so drunk.”

He should get monogrammed stationery with that printed on it.

But Alice gave him a tiny look, almost shy behind her glasses. She took a languid sip of wine and raised her brows.

“It doesn’t surprise me at all that you missed it,” she said, scrunching her nose up over her glass, mouth obscured by the rich red liquid. “You make a habit of assuming people are one thing or another. It’s quite, ah, heteronormative of you.”

Eliot rolled his lip between his teeth and jerked his head. He considered what she was saying but then laughed.

“Not sure what you’re talking about. I think all my friends are somewhere along the line of the sexuality spectrum.” He paused and bobbed his head back and forth. “Well, except for you.”

She glared at him.

… Oh. 

Shit.

“Oh, shit,” he said aloud, scooting towards her. “Shit. But you said—you said you date men.”

Alice cocked her head. “I believe my precise drunken words were that I mostly date men.”

Shit. Yeah. That was right. Shit.

“I’m—an asshole,” Eliot said, raising his eyebrows. He closed his eyes and shook his head. “Sorry.”

“Nothing terrifies my horrible mother more than me ending up in a monogamous heterosexual marriage,” Alice said. She smiled down into her wine. “But for better or worse, I’m definitely not straight.”

“I’m such a dick,” Eliot laughed, rubbing his eyes with the heels of his palms.

Alice glinted her bright blue eyes up at him. She was amused. “Magicians are generally much more open to broader sexual mores. My interest in women is tame compared to my parents’ polyamorous creature orgies.”

“Ah, yes,” Eliot chuckled, half-joking. “The mythic pansexual paradise.”

“I’d hardly call it that,” she said, with a sudden bitter laugh. “No matter what, your identity can fuck you up. More open societal spaces or not.”

He’d never heard her say fuck before. He liked it in her mouth. 

“My parents had me start working with a sex therapist when I was thirteen,” Alice continued, shuddering. “It was—anyway, I was already an awkward kid but that was when I buttoned up. Figured it would be the best way to stick it to them.”

Eliot shook his head. “Naturally.”

“They aren’t the best people,” Alice sighed. “I suppose my father tries, in his own way. But they both wanted me to be something bolder, something less rigid. So that’s why I started dating sweet boys, one at a time. You know, awkward fumbling at parties and study dates until it petered out. Closed my eyes and thought of Stephanie, angry about how I was limiting myself. Worked.”

“So hetero fuck buddies have been your—rebellion?” Eliot blinked and then let out a slow stream of whistling air. “Fascinating.”

“Not all of them,” Alice conceded, curling her knees up with a tiny smile. “But the day I come home with a thousand year old vampire on one arm, a sexy redhead on the other, and a Lamia rubbing their mouth into my cleavage? That's when Stephanie Quinn would finally declare she had a daughter.”

Eliot fell over laughing. Alice giggled into her hands, eyes alight with pleasure.

“That was funny,” he said, holding out his wine glass toward her. Game recognize game, as Bambi would say. “Cheers, doll.”

Alice’s face flickered in the firelight. Her eyes cast downward and she frowned, watery and wavering. She put her glass on the floor, not toasting him. Eliot was overwhelmed with the feeling he did something wrong.

“My brother used to call me that,” she said, laughing like it pained her. “Allie Doll. I hated it. I always told him I wasn’t an inanimate object. But now—now I’d give anything to—“

Eliot closed his eyes, and he imagined the flames caressing every inch of his skin. The warmth almost burned. They were so close. They were intoxicating. He wasn’t the best at grief. He could recognize it anywhere. That was as far as his skill on the subject matter went.

“I’ve been lonely, Eliot,” Alice said, placing her soft and small hands in her lap. She stared into the fire, the flames reflecting in the ice blue. “I’m so lonely. All the time. Even before South. Sometimes I can’t breathe.” 

Me too. It’s killing me. How the fuck do we get out of bed?

That’s what he wanted to say.

Instead, he said: “Oh. I—uh—oh.”

“And I’m so tired of people insisting that I’m any less smart or competent if I want to find love in my life,” Alice said, grabbing her wine glass and chugging it. The fire was within her now. “That I can’t be a powerful woman and also have a partner. As though I’m falling into a conventional trap instead of thinking for myself. It’s sexist garbage.”

Eliot couldn’t help himself. “I mean, it is conventional. By definition. But I think I understand your point.”

She frowned. “Is it so bad that I want it? Conventional or not?”

Eliot sighed. “I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that whatever you’re dealing with about your brother might be fueling all this?”

Her face shuttered. “That’s none of your business.”

So, yes. But also, fair enough.

“I don’t like airing my shit either,” Eliot said, stretching his legs long and out toward the brick of the fireplace. It glowed golden red and shadows told endless tales on the jagged ridges. “But you’ve reaffirmed your conviction and pointedly mentioned that you’re interested in women. Is there—are you interested in someone specific, Alice?”

He didn’t want to hear the answer. But he also needed to hear the answer.

“Kady Orloff-Diaz and I have been getting along well,” Alice said with a blush and there it fucking was. He had to give him credit—Q was picking up more social cues than usual. Or maybe Eliot had lost his touch. Either way, it was time.

He sipped on his wine and stared into the fire.

“What do you know about her?” He asked, keeping his voice even. Alice adjusted her glasses.

“She told me that she had a tough year last year,” she said and Eliot wanted to laugh. Kady’s year was fucking fine. “She also told me that you hate her.”

“I wouldn’t say hate.” Wasn’t strong enough. Alice didn’t need to know that though. “I don’t trust her, after everything that happened. Did she tell you what happened?”

“No,” Alice said, the word dropping low from her lips. It stretched slow and into a whisper. “She said it was in the past.”

Eliot rolled his ankles and stretched the balls of his feet out and in. Out and in. Out and in. He spoke with exact precision. He was a surgeon. He was an Impressionist. He was going to land the crashing plane with only one casualty.

“Last year, she was stealing materials from the school and passing them onto the leader of a Hedge Witch coven,” he said, starting slow. “From what I understand, the woman was someone who had been kicked out of Brakebills a few years prior and was on a scorched-earth campaign.”

Alice frowned deeper. “Oh. Why did Kady—?

“Your guess is as good as anyone’s. For kicks seems to be the prevailing theory.”

“That doesn’t sound like Kady,” Alice said with a wrinkle on her nose. “She’s very—she’s conscientious, once you get to know her.”

Eliot laughed, hollow. Get to know Kady. Fucking adorable.

“Well, Miss Conscientious even took sentient books from our library. Separated from their mates, from their home bases, from the climate control they needed. Tantamount to torture.”

Alice was a living and breathing PETA campaign, except that she liked bacon with her waffles. She and Margo had gotten into it over the cruelty of foie gras production one time. Eliot needed to get her where it hurt, early on. He didn’t need to tell her everything—wasn’t going to tell her everything. But she needed to get the picture.

“Wow. Okay. Wow,” Alice swallowed. She shook her head, like she was working through a logic puzzle. “But wouldn’t all that be grounds for expulsion?”

Eliot dipped his head back, exposing his long throat. “You’d think. But that wasn’t even the worst of it.”

As he continued the story, he made sure to keep his tone light and disaffected. He pulled out his flask and took a lingering sip. 

“She’d been up to her villainous shit all year, but she didn’t actually slip up until closer to the end of last semester. She was at the Cottage and she had all these goddamn books hidden away under some shitty cache spell. No finesse, just desperation.”

Alice was brimming to interject, but when Eliot wanted to, he could command any floor. She wouldn’t dare interrupt him.

“Anyway, we tried to stop her and she tried to claim she was returning them, which was bullshit,” Eliot spat out, with a grit of his teeth. “And then she—lost her shit and her goddamn mind, all at once.”

“What do you mean?” Alice asked. She was tiny, like a little girl finding out Santa wasn’t real.

“She wanted to have her cake and eat it too. Learn magic, but fuck up the system in the process,” Eliot clenched his jaw and ground the hatred down into particles. “But you can’t serve two masters. Once she realized we were planning on turning her over to Fogg, she was Ms. Brakebills 2016. Going on and on about how being here gave her meaning, gave her focus and strength, all kinds of manipulative horseshit.”

Eliot ran his fingers along the edge of his glass and swallowed a bitter pill. “But uh—some people fell for it. Wouldn’t let us bind her up to take her to the dean. Physically stopped us.”

Echoes of Why are you being so fucking stupid about this? rang in his ears. He drank.

“So that prolonged her presence in the house, which then—”

He closed his eyes. More for dramatic effect than an actual emotional response. He’d mostly numbed himself to this part with practice, but he needed it to land. He sighed and opened them again, peering at her with all the weight in the world.

Alice chewed on her lip and cocked her head. “What happened?”

“She let loose an energy surge,” Eliot said, rough and crackling like the fire. “It was the Hiroshima of Battle Magic inflections. The interior of the Cottage was destroyed, as bad as Cat 5 hurricane damage. It was a total fucking mess.”

Understatement of several millennia. But by the look of Alice’s wide and scandalized lashes fluttering all over the place, she had gotten the message. Her quickness on the uptake was a small blessing.

“I had no idea,” Alice said, still small and quiet. She wrung her hands together. “Was it voluntary?”

Eliot snorted, joyless smile stretching wide. “I don’t know. Personally, I think so. She was pissed. Different people have different theories though.”

“But why didn’t she get expelled?” Alice asked again. It was like her to be stuck on the result and not the journey.

Eliot slumped into the chair and airily waved his hand in the air. “From what I hear, Kady licked Fogg’s asshole into an inch of his life, splayed out over his desk like a starfish.”

Alice barked out a gasp. “She what?”

He pushed himself back up by his palms and cocked his head, smiling. He was so charmed by her.

“That was a joke, kitten,” he said, soft. She visibly relaxed. Remarkable. “I have no idea how she convinced Fogg to let her stay on, except that Brakebills is a fucked up place with inconsistent terms of service.”

“My goodness,” was all Alice said. She took a gulp of her wine, culling it. Eliot reached over and touched her knee.

“I’m not telling you what to do,” he said, gazing at her through his lashes. “But it would be wrong of me not to at least warn you. She’s dangerous. She’s fucking dangerous.”

Alice swallowed, her throat trembling. She took a sip of wine and didn’t say anything more. There wasn’t much to say. He understood. The quiet draped over them, still and velvety. It wasn’t exactly comfortable, but it had weight and thoughtfulness. It was pleasant.

That is, until a rustling and a brief crash broke through, behind them.

“Shit,” Quentin’s voice said and they both turned around, staring over the backs of their chairs. “Sorry, guys. I’m, uh, looking for a book? I thought it was in here but—it’s not. I must have misplaced it.”

“The Cottage is a mess, Quentin,” Alice said, the disappointed school marm. Deliciously, he went beet red.

“I know, sorry,” he said, scratching at his neck. “I was gonna—I’ll clean it up.”

“See that you do,” Eliot said, authoritative and narrowing his eyes. Quentin rolled his. He had no respect.

“Anyway, uh, sorry,” he said, arms up and shoulders scrunched to his ears. He shuffled in front of them and tripped over the rug. He shook his legs out one at a time and kept inching his way across the fireplace. “Shit. Sorry. I’m not here. Continue like I’m—like I’m not here.”

“We’re only drinking wine,” Alice said. But she also did not invite Q to join them. The omission wasn’t lost and he huffed a breath.

“Okay, um,” Quentin cleared his throat and saluted them. “Well, then. See you both. Later. See you both later and bye.”

“Bye, Quentin,” Eliot said, flat voiced. He received a brief glare for his efforts and then Q was gone, squirreling his way back to the main living room.

Alice’s eyes followed his bumbling across the top line of her black-and-rhinestone rimmed glasses.

“He’s odd,” she concluded, pouring herself more wine. She offered to Eliot and he happily accepted. But to her statement, he shrugged one shoulder up.

“Eh. He’s Q,” Eliot said. Then he smiled and shook his head. “So yes. Good eye.”

“You two are a bit of an odd couple,” Alice said, light. Eliot tensed.

“We’re not a couple.”

Alice cut a curious glance to him, with only her eyes. “I know. You’ve both made that clear. But how did you become friends?”

“He was the 2015 inductee into my Adopt-a-Nerd program.”

She laughed, “I actually believe that.”

“Margo started dating Julia about a year ago,” Eliot explained, more seriously. “Julia and Quentin are something of a package deal.”

Alice’s eyebrows shot up. “Really? He seems closer to you than her.”

“They’ve been best friends since they were kids,” Eliot said rather than agreeing that, well, yeah. He and Q went together more often than anyone these days. But that was a path no one wanted to follow, for too many reasons. His heart ached for Bambi.

Alice nodded, but pursed her lips. Her eyes cut back over at him, considering. Then she shrugged and took a deep gulp of wine, like she decided something. She tucked her legs under her giant skirt, surrounding her tiny torso like a fluffy petals.

“I know you’ve said you aren’t a couple. But—is there anything between you two?” Alice asked, blunt as fuck. “Because it seems like there might be.”

Eliot schooled his face. He gazed regally into the fire, a sardonic and disbelieving twist to his lips. “What on earth do you mean?”

“You’re always together and you’re very affectionate with one another,” Alice said, pinning him down with her ice blue eyes. “There’s a certain way you look at each other too. I can’t quantify that aspect, but it’s there nonetheless. All that, combined with the fact that you’re both interested in men? It seems like a logical conclusion.”

Eliot shot up, surprised. “How did you know that Q—?”

“He referenced an ex-boyfriend. Seemed like he wanted me to know,” she said with a shrug. Eliot rolled his eyes. Halitosis was not an ex. 

Alice must have noticed a shift in his demeanor. “Look, if this is a painful subject—”

He laughed, light. He adjusted his necklaces, busying his hands. “No, darling. It's not a subject at all.”

“Really?” Alice asked, unconvinced. 

“To give you credit, you’re right on most accounts. Q and I are close friends and spend a lot of our free time together. We’re both tactile people,” Eliot said, throat dry but voice clear. He sighed and swirled his wine, grand. “Sure, yes, there’s overlap in who we find attractive. But your logic doesn’t see itself through because—it’s not actually about logic. We’re friends and that’s all. Nothing more, but also nothing less.”

Eliot wasn’t lying to her. Facts were facts were facts. Still, he was excellent at putting on a convincing show. She looked at him for a moment longer and then nodded.

“Okay,” Alice said. It was like that was that. “I believe you.”

It seemed like she did. Remarkable. So different from his Bambi. He rested his head against the soft green leather and smiled, watching the sparks float up to the ceiling. He made them dance. 

But it appeared the conversation wasn’t wrapped up quite yet. Alice was still staring off where Quentin had been, eyes thoughtful and eyebrows clenched together.

“He loves magic. I can tell that much. His excitement radiates off him,” she said, quiet and almost to herself. “I haven’t decided if it’s admirable or terribly stupid.”

“Admirable,” Eliot said, without hesitation. “Quentin can be naive, but he’s never—he’s not stupid. It helps to be around. At least, it helps me remember that it’s not all shitty.”

She nodded slowly. Unconvinced. She drank more of her wine and let out a soft, nasal laugh.

“He reminds me of Charlie. More awkward, less sparkling. But there’s still—he’s still like Charlie,” Alice said, lip trembling. Eliot tilted his head, coaxing her for more detail. “My brother.“

“I’m sorry, Alice.” He was. He wasn’t sure for what exactly. But he was sorry. But she shook her head, though she were dispelling any softness from her soul. She straightened her shoulders back.

“Everyone has their shit.”

Eliot swallowed. “Cheers to that.”

Their glasses clinked, half-hearted.

She sighed, leaning back. Her lips lifted into a playful smile, the air filling with a dusting of glitter from her eyes.

“So,” she said, curling her knees into her chest. “Any other gay men in your Rolodex you want to try to set me up with? Or I could go on several dates with a Catholic Priest in plainclothes, who thinks he’s converting me?”

“Leave the sass to the professionals,” Eliot said, wry smirk over his glass. She giggled again. “I may retire as a matchmaker. Best to quit while you’re ahead.”

“Quentin was right. Mike’s riddles were stupid,” Alice said, as though that was the real issue. He laughed.

“Sure.”

“But even though it was terrible, you’re the most fun person I’ve ever met in my life. So it was at least worth the experience,” Alice said, eyes shining. The way she said fun was so different than Mike had. He felt a strange warmth overtake his chest and he swallowed. 

She was lovely.

He also had an idea.

Eliot ran the edge of his thumb nail against his lip and leveled Alice with an intense gaze. “No more matchmaking. But I have a—crazy thought, let’s say. Bit more my natural style. If you’re game.”

Alice laughed and twisted in her seat, almost a dance. “Okay. Sure. I’m trying to be more game. What is it?”

Eliot leaned forward, pressing his palms into his thighs. He smiled and asked the question, even though he already knew the answer.

“Have you ever been to Ibiza?”

 


  

tbc.

Chapter Text

 

 

Brakebills University & Cala Jondal, Ibiza, Spain, November 2016  

*

(Part Four of Our Fabulous Story, Entitled: Bambi Wants Everyone to Know That Her ‘Nick and Nora’ Reference is From The Thin Man Series, Not Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist)  

*

  (Alternate Title: Eliot Wants Everyone to Know That He Would Totally Fuck Michael Cera)

 

 


 

The Encanto Oculto Council of Elders required three things in a proper Regalo: Ingenuity, magical proficiency, and above all, concupiscence. Their word, not Eliot's. Obviously.

His first time, the Regalo had been a disappointment. As a newcomer, he wasn’t directly involved in the creation and the rube that led their cohort at the time went with a crass, insensitive version of boner pills. It caused quite the scandal, sparking deep offense among the Elders without either male or any genitalia. The only reason the Physical Kids were even allowed into the wards that year was because, on the spot and desperate, Eliot made a drink so perfect, Jesus wept. Hence, the birth of the Signature Cocktail. 

Wink.

Unfortunately, his second time, a certain amount of hubris caught up with him. He could admit now that his indisputable reign over Brakebills had gone to his head. Instead of treating the gift with the precious attention and detail it deserved, he was too clever. The Elders allowed them in because they understood the acidic irony in the working bag of dicks. But the disappointment in their eyes was clear. It was the first time in his life he felt compelled to better himself in the future.

And he did. Because finally, Eliot got it right for their third Encanto Oculto when they presented the Elders with…a Djinn.

Like, an actual Djinn.

Who granted wishes.

Unlimited wishes.

… Hello?

Anyway, it was perfect. It was a real fuckin’ Regalo.

Naturally, Eliot had needed to test out the Djinn first. For research purposes. So before giving him over to the Elders, he had updated his entire wardrobe. He also enjoyed some newfound masturbation techniques. He traveled to another world to swim in an ocean of nonaddictive champagne and opium. He received the answers to every exam for the rest of the year. And he totally—

“Yeah, uh, that all sounds unethical as shit. Remind me how it’s not just straight up slave labor?”

Mid-sentence, he paused and cut a glare over to Quentin, the rudest interrupter. 

To the casual observer, Q was the picture of concentration. His hair was in need of a trim, so the long strands slid against his notebook page as his pencil scratched furious. He was doing Nature homework, the worst of the homeworks. But a tiny smile peeked its way out, like he trying he was being a little shithead in response to Eliot’s very interesting and informative story. First time Encanto attendees should lap up every tiny bit of detail they could glean, so he was obviously far too spoiled on the fruits of Eliot’s previous kindness. So he blew smoke in a perfect arch over Bambi’s head to smack him right in the face.

The clear message did nothing to deter him. Quentin smirked wider, far too amused for his own good, and rested his chin on his knee. “But seriously, isn’t that literally the plot of Aladdin?”

“Don’t say shit like that in Ibiza,” Margo said, affronted. She punctuated her message by smacking his thigh with her sharp fingernails. Quentin rolled his eyes.

“I mean, for the record, you two were the ones who badgered me into even going in the first place. You have no room to complain about any of my shit,” he said. He closed his notebook with a sigh and stretching his arms up toward the ceiling. “Jules was the one opposition vote. Still is.”

But Margo puckered her lips and shook her head, blinking rapidly. “Huh? Us? Want you to come to Encanto Oculto? ¿Qué? No me lo creo.”

Eliot cocked his head to the side. “That was a dream you had.”

“A wet dream.” Margo fluttered her lashes.

Quentin snorted. “You two should have a comedy revue in Vegas.”

“We’d be sold out every goddamn night,” Margo said, leaning back to snuggle onto Eliot’s lap and entwining their hands. With a contented sigh, he kissed the top of her head. She was right. They would be, and it could be wonderful.

Rubbing his chin along her hairline, he considered the logistics. Maybe they could drop out before graduation and skip the whole thesis nonsense altogether. Committed to the act and nothing else. Go full Gypsy Rose Lee, Vaudeville Supremes. Because, fuck, even the skeleton concept sounded worlds better than his current working title of The effect of telekinetic inducement on magical and physical properties of the nervous system, via the application of Wolfsbane and ethanol to

Ugh. Goddamn. Eliot was so fucking bored. So Vegas it was. Decision made. 

How do you like them egg rolls, Dean Fogg?

“But my point, Quentin,” Bambi said, giving Eliot’s hand a quick tap to bring him back to earth, “is that while you should definitely not listen to my overbearing girlfriend—”

“Thank you. Jesus. She’s, like, so fucking overbearing sometimes,” Q moaned out.  His head fell back against the couch cushion and his legs splayed everywhere as if in catharsis. With a small snorting giggle, Margo stretched forward to fist bump him in solidarity. He returned it awkwardly, more like a brush of knuckles. It was an unnatural movement for him. He was cute.

Bambi settled against Eliot and tilted her head. “But Ibiza is the big leagues, kid. So my point is that—“

“Her point is that you’ll be fine, Q,” Eliot said, pinching Bambi’s arm hard. She elbowed backward into his gut in annoyance. He didn’t care. She was about to be a bitch. “Trust me, if Alice is going and will be fine, as I know she will be, then you'll be great.”

With that, he killed two birds with one swift sentence. He had officially told Quentin that Alice was coming and they could all move on. The end.

“Wait, Alice?” Q jolted upward, incredulous. He wasn’t sticking to the script. “As in Alice Quinn? What? Are—wait, are you serious?”

“Apparently,” Margo said, flat and unamused. He’d already been read the Riot Act twice from her.  She could be so unreasonable. “Inex-fucking-plicable.”

Quentin’s eyes blinked wide like a doll. “She’s going to have a terrible time, El.”

Eliot rolled his eyes. “No, she’s going to have an amazing time because I will ensure she has an amazing time. That’s what I do, Q.”

“But why the fuck would you spend your last Brakebills Encanto worrying about that?” Margo’s head landed backwards against his chest with hard and purposeful force. “It’s going to take too much of your time and effort, sweetie.”

“I mean, yeah,” Quentin said with a frown. “That’s a valid question and point.”

“And we can’t yell at her to get in line like we can with this dummy,” Margo said, jutting her thumb toward Q. “She’ll cry. I’ve actually matured past making girls cry for sport, El.”

“Also fair,” Quentin agreed. But then he squinted and looked at Margo. “Though the last part is dubious. What about Lilah last week?”

“That cunt got what was coming to her,” Bambi waved her hand and scoffed. She refocused, fiery and firm. “But Alice is going to drag everyone down. So blah.”

“Uh, that’s not my concern,” Quentin said quickly. Margo rolled her eyes, stretching her hand up to look at her nail polish. “But I do think she doesn’t know what she’s getting into. She couldn’t, if she agreed to go.”

Eliot took a deep breath. He willed the defensive tension in his chest away. “You two are being a touch over-the-top in your concern.”

“But what’s there for her?” Q asked, pushing the point, as he did. “The binge drinking? The excessive drug use?  The goddamn orgies?”

“To be fair, are you going to join the orgies, Q?” Margo asked, a laughing challenge. Quentin pulled an undeterred face.

“No, but I’m a true neutral so I don’t care about being around it,” he said, tapping his pencil against his knee. “But Alice? Alice is as lawful good as I’ve ever seen and—“

“Don’t. Say. Shit. Like. That. In. Ibiza.” Margo snapped her eyes shut and pointed at her head. “Migraine. Fuckin’ migraine, Coldwater.”

“Leave him alone, Bambi,” Eliot murmured into her hair. She flipped her head to glare at him and he kissed the tip of her nose.

“He’s our guest,” she said, not fucking around. “His inadequacies reflect on us.”

“No, he’s my guest. Your lustrous reputation will remain intact,” Eliot promised. He slipped his free hand through her hair, soothing and firm at once. He wasn’t fucking around either. “I’ll take the heat if it comes to that.”

Quentin slumped deeper into the couch cushions, almost disappearing. “Your confidence is overwhelming.”

“Again, you’ll be fine. I’m not worried,” Eliot said, stretching to ash his cigarette on the coffee table. He let it rest, plumes of smoke rising all around them. “There’s something for everyone. The festival bends to your desires. But you know Bambi here gets off on being bossy as shit.”

“I make it look good,” Margo said with a wide smile, ever unrepentant and resplendent. He loved her so. With a low laugh, Eliot bit at her cheek, a soft scrape of his teeth against the corner of her mouth. She giggled and batted him away.

When he glanced back up, Quentin was looking at them, softer than before. His big eyes glinted in warm amber light of the Cottage and his frown was gentle, like he was lost in thought. Eliot caught his eyes and tilted his head, questioning the expression. But Q just huffed a laugh and smiled. He looked down at his hands, and Eliot’s heart did a pathetic little flip in his chest.

But then Quentin scratched the space between his brows and lifted up his discerning gaze once again. “Seriously, though, are you sure bringing Alice is a good idea?

Hm.

“I’m not chaining her up, Q,” Eliot said, the first pricks of annoyance forming in his gut. But then he smiled, upbeat and assured. “Unless she requests it, of course. Daddy’s more than happy to indulge.”

With a small Pfft sound, Quentin rolled his eyes again. “Jesus Christ.”

Eliot winked and licked his lips, but he still hoped his real meaning resonated. Alice was strong, sensible, and scary competent. Just because she was a bit green when it came to partying didn’t mean she needed someone to white knight her. Least of all Quentin, who wasn’t exactly old hat himself at doing lines of cocaine off a pixie’s dick himself. If Q was so certain he could handle Encanto Oculto, then he should extend the same courtesy to Alice.

So Eliot stated it simply, to drive the message home: “She’s an adult capable of her own decision making.”

“I know that,” Quentin said, in a tone that was on the placating side. He wasn’t fond of it. “But I’m not convinced you always recognize the power of your own… persuasiveness, let’s say.”

Considering the notion, Eliot rested one arm behind his head as Bambi purred into his lap. He smiled beatific at his conclusion. “I could be a cult leader.”

“Well, okay, maybe you do,” Quentin said, flat. He pulled his legs under his ass, sitting cross-legged. “But I’m serious, El. I mean, come on—“

The anger hit all at once.

What Alice did was none of Quentin's business. It wasn’t anyone’s business. If she wanted to follow Eliot to the ends of the world, if she wanted to drink his Kool-Aid, if she wanted to murder Gerald Ford for his interest? That would be her prerogative. She was a grown woman who had complete and full knowledge of what she was getting into. More or less. Enough.

Bitter words chipped at his teeth, fighting for release.

Quentin had no problem always presuming Eliot had reckless and selfish intentions. It was like it never occurred to him that maybe Eliot knew things about Alice that Quentin didn’t. That he had made a decision not from his own dumb party boy desires, but because he thought it would be something that could be fun or even good for her. That he was being careful and considerate. God, that he was trying.

“Can’t you just fucking trust me for once?” Eliot let out a strangled breath as the words fell out, rough and harsh. “Jesus Christ, Quentin.”

After a long and uncomfortable beat of silence, Q’s eyes shot wide open and he curled inward like a kicked puppy. He hugged his knees to his chest and his hair fell over his eyes.

Shit.  

“Trust you for once? El. I—” Quentin started to say, shaking his head. But he cut himself off and looked down. “Uh, yeah. Sorry. Of course. Sorry.”

Shit.

Eliot licked his lips and bit at a piece of dry skin, tugging at it with his teeth. It ripped from the edge and the tiny wound pulsed and stung. He took a quick glance at Quentin, whose face was still dark and sad, but he had picked up his book again, now a picture of false concentration. Shit.

It was fine. It would blow over. All he had to do was say something clever and charming to smooth over the tension. But before he could, Bambi’s leg stretched out and kicked Quentin’s hand.  

“Ow, Margo,” he said, voice tiny. She kicked him again until he looked up, moody and morose. “What?”

“Come here,” she said, patting at her stomach and lap. He rolled his eyes and his jaw tensed. He flipped a page.

“No. I’m working.”

“Come here,” Bambi insisted, patting all the harder. She hooked her foot into the crook of his elbow and pulled with her strong ankle. “Come here.”

He sighed and tried to resist her, a vain effort. “I need to get this done.”

“But I wanna play with your hair,” Bambi whined, finally leaning forward to pull him over with her hands. With performative reluctance, he sighed and rolled into her, resting his head in her lap.

The three of them were layered on top of each other, like nesting dolls. Eliot smiled down at the tops of their heads, kissing Margo’s once before leaning back into the coziest corner of the couch, chest quelling. Meanwhile, Margo’s hands dipped in and out of Quentin’s layered hair, twining the ends around her fingers like a cat’s cradle.

“You must condition a lot,” she said idly. Eliot’s fingers twitched at his side and he dug into Margo’s arm. He watched as Q’s lashes fluttered closed when Bambi started massaging his scalp. He cuddled fully into her and Margo let herself smile. It was almost a perfect moment, except that Eliot’s lower lip still tasted like blood.

“Are you braiding my hair?” Quentin looked up at Margo from under his folded and suspicious brow. Eliot remained silent, watching the two of them from above, resting the crook of his arm over his head.

“No,” Bambi lied, tugging several strands into a rather elaborate French twist. He looked so pretty. Eliot’s fingers ached, but he held back in a Herculean effort.

“So El, um, what’s the Regalo this year?” Quentin asked, angling his chin over and up so he could meet his eyes without leaving his coveted place on Margo’s lap. There was no hint of wet, cold kitten anywhere. “How are you going to do better than a Djinn?

It always blew over.

“They aren’t looking for something bigger every year,” Eliot said, stretching his neck back and forth. “It’s like a song. Dips and crescendos.”

“Which means you’re doing—what, exactly?” Quentin smirked, having caught onto the fact that he was stalling. 

Eliot reached his arm down and flicked at his flannel covered shoulder. Then he let his arm rest there, hand caught between the couch cushion and Q’s forearm. The warmth of his soft shirt fabric tickled his knuckles.

“I’ll figure it out,” he said, all confidence. “I work best under pressure.”

“Do you wanna, like, brainstorm?” Quentin asked, all earnest. It made him laugh, genuine and loud. He was such a Boy Scout.

“Oh, Q,” he said, fondness swelling in his chest. “No offense, but do you take sex tips from virgins?”

The grump returned and he crossed his arms across his chest. Eliot’s fingers fell to rest around Q’s jean waistband and hip bone. His mouth went a little dry and his heart picked up its pace. But Quentin reached one arm up past Margo’s face to smack him near his collarbone. 

“For the last time, I’m not a virgin.”

He was ridiculous. “That was a metaphor, you so-called lit major.”

“I’m just saying, I’m not a virgin.”

“Hm, but that’s exactly what a virgin would say,” Eliot said, slipping his thumb into Quentin’s empty belt loop, because he wanted to. “Wasn’t it Phil Collins who said, The lady doth protest too much?”

“Nah, I think that was Peter Gabriel,” Quentin said, surprisingly quick, eyes glinting under his lashes as he smiled. Eliot grinned right back.

“You two are so fucking weird,” Margo said, gathering Quentin’s hair into two sections. “Q, I’m gonna Princess Leia you, okay?”

“No, that’s dumb,” Quentin frowned in a weak protest. But Bambi kept up her work without comment and Q sighed, closing his eyes. “Whatever. Fine.”

Margo leaned forward and kissed him on the forehead. “I was gonna do what I wanted anyway.”

As Quentin's hair piled into two distinct buns and Bambi chattered on about whether she wanted to debut the blue or the green bikini at the first bacchanal, Eliot smiled and rested his eyes, a rare contentment blooming in his chest.

 


 

Eliot always exactly packed two pieces of luggage to Encanto Oculto. His bags were were vintage and boxy, dark green with a chestnut silk inlay and a distressed leather trim. They were gorgeous and vintage, requiring efficient packing, since the leather was too fine to withstand magic. They were his babies. He would take a bullet for them.

Every year, he slipped in folded colorful shirts and pants, and an array of swim briefs and robes. He also placed carefully selected special occasion suits and his many accessories were cradled in their own precious packaging. And of course, the coup de grace: All his curated sex toys and lube, warming and scented to perfection. Simple, to the point, and compact.

In contrast, Alice Quinn was bringing four different huge bubblegum pink bags, all categorized and labeled down to terrifying detail. They were all from Target. 

She was frantic, biting her lip like a chew toy and fretting over whether she’d brought enough, if she had accounted for every possible scenario. She had even packed some actual Lycan shit, “in case of magical emergency.” He was only vaguely aware of the properties of creature shit, but as a general rule, they weren’t used in many people’s lifetime. But he certainly wasn’t going to say shit to those crazy eyes. He had some amount of self-preservation after all.

“But it doesn’t make sense,” Alice said, ever the multitasker and somehow fixated on a secondary vexation as she slammed her bag shut. 

Beside her, Julia sighed and patted her hand. She was bringing a sensible selection of three black bags, filled with necessities and clothes. Because she was nothing if not sensible. All the fucking time.

“It’s a rabbit hole,” Julia said gently. “We’ve all been down it, to no avail.”

“But it doesn’t make sense,” Alice repeated, more vehement. “They’re third years, right?”

  Julia sat primly on the couch. “Correct.”

“And Encanto Oculto coincides with Brakebills South every year?” Alice threw her arms across her chest, face stern and pensive.

“Also correct.”

“Did they repeat a semester at any point?”

Julia smiled, sliding her lower lip into her mouth. “No. They did not.”  

Alice’s eyes glazed over, calculations flying across the pretty blue. “How often does Encanto Oculto occur per year?”

“Once,” Julia said, catching Eliot’s eyes. He winked.  

“Okay.” Alice rubbed the bridge of her nose, two sharp lines between her eyebrows. “That means they would have missed it their first year, because they were in Antarctica. Which means last year should have been their first time.”

Reasonable and logical and wrong.

She stamped her foot down, hands flying in the air. “Yet they claim this is somehow their fourth time going? How—?”

“Magic,” Eliot said, lips popping off his flask. He was straddling a dining room chair, applauding Alice’s breakdown with glee.

“But what kind of magic?” Her voice was high-pitched and desperate. But then she pointed right at him and sunk into a dangerous lower register. “Don't you dare say Horomancy. That’s impossible.”

He smiled, bright and mischievous. “Just… magic.”

“But it doesn’t make sense, Eliot.”

At her hair-pulling yelp, Quentin popped his head around the corner. He had one overstuffed and lumpy army green duffel bag over his shoulder and apparently nothing else. But before Eliot could comment, Q blanched, lips sputtering.

“Jesus, are you talking about how the fuck they’ve been to this stupid festival so often?” He didn't wait for Alice’s nod to continue his favorite little rant. Eliot preened, smile lighting the sky. “Don’t bother. I—I have tortured myself for hours trying to figure that shit out. It’s my white whale.”

“So dramatic, Ishmael,” Eliot said, squaring his shoulders and sticking his tongue out. 

Quentin shook his head, grabbing several spellbooks off the shelves, stuffing them without strategy into his already untidy luggage. Eliot pulled his flask to his lips and watched shamelessly as he squatted down to place his duffel bag on the floor. Ah. Yes. Three cheers for Quentin’s cute ass.

“Anyway, it haunts me,” Q said to Alice, getting back to the silly subject at hand. “But it’s also futile. I’ll never figure it out and god knows they’ll never tell me.”

“No,” Eliot said, solemn. He bit at his wrist with a hidden smile. “We won’t.”

“Maybe they’re lying,” Alice said, placing her own new tiny pink suitcase next to Quentin’s in the pile. “They seem like people who lie a lot.”

“Once again, correct,” Julia said with a grin. Eliot nodded happily in support and Alice gave him a tiny, cheeky smile back, with sparkling eyes. “But I’ve seen photos. Trust me, they’ve been.”

“For the record, all men, women, and pixies signed waivers consenting to the distribution of their image,” Margo said, descending the staircase like a goddamn queen. Eliot stood to bow and kissed her hand as she reached the final step and she twirled in his arms.

She clapped twice and two dull and unattractive second year boys rushed down the stairs. They held her enormous bags, all filled to the brim with lingerie and string bikinis. She was perfect.

“Does this mean we’re set and ready to go?” Julia asked, gliding in and cutting off Eliot’s grip around Margo. He frowned, but Bambi allowed it. “Since you’ve finally made your grand entrance?”

“Mmm, it’s not up to me,” Margo said, snapping her teeth at Julia’s lower lip. She ran her hands up and down her sides, pulling their hips together. “The portal appears when the portal appears, baby.”

“Well, that’s vague as shit,” Quentin grumbled in the background. Alice nodded at him in solidarity. 

(Most nerds loved structured schedules. It made them feel secure amidst an unforgiving landscape.)

The whiny complaints were cut off at the head, when a vine of roses slowly started rising from the floor. And as the Cottage shook, the vibrations rushed straight to Eliot’s dick.

A warm heat pooled in the bottom of his stomach, like the crest of an approaching orgasm. He bit his lip to hold back a moan and rested his hand against the back of the chair he’d been sitting in, finding a semblance of balance. The roses bloomed into a full archway and a golden light shone bright amongst the lush petals. The heavy magic wafted through the room. 

It was… a lot.

Still breathing hard and tingling with sensation, Eliot managed to glance about, delighted at the varied reactions. Julia was taking long and slow breaths in and out her mouth, gripping Margo’s hand and swallowing, over and over again. Bambi had actually orgasmed, legs trembling as she bit Julia’s shoulder. Alice crossed her legs and held her arms around her stomach. Her eyes stared straight ahead, unblinking. The tips of her cheeks flushed.

And Quentin sat down on the couch, panting heavily. His pecs were tight with pebbled nipples under his thin shirt, cheeks and neck lined in fire red stripes. His hands gripped at his knees and the tip of his tongue trailed along his cupid’s bow, eyes wide and blown out and holy god, he was delectable and Eliot wanted to ruin him and make him scream his name until his throat was raw and—

He closed his eyes and took a deep breath.

Weakness acknowledged and thrown in a garbage can.

Alice stood first, clearing her throat and smoothing down her skirt. She shook her shoulders in almost a shimmy and nodded, once. Twice. She cleared her throat. 

“Okay then,” she said, voice surprisingly even, considering the adrenaline that was still pumping up and down Eliot’s spine. She let out a steady stream of air from her pursed lips. “Okay. That’s the portal then?”

“Sure is,” Bambi said, whisper-hoarse. She kissed up Julia’s neck with abandon and her girlfriend whimpered, keening. “It always makes the most fabulous entrance.”

“A little warning would have been nice,” Quentin said, strained and breathy and come the fuck on. He grabbed a throw pillow and threw it over his waist. “So do we just—like, walk through?”

“After we send our luggage,” Eliot said, tightening his grip against the chair. Q’s eyes fell on him for a second before they glazed inscrutable. He looked back down at his own hands, taking deep breaths.

The magic sucked the pile in through the vacuum and everyone was silent, willing equilibrium back into their trembling bodies.

“Hey, so, uh, you decide on a Regalo then?” Quentin asked, in a high-pitched voice, hugging the pillow all the tighter. Eliot nodded, head spinning.

“Uh-huh. It’s, ah—a spell that takes you to a pocket portal world and, uh,” he laughed a little, not wanting to test out his own regalo for the first time ever. Sometimes ignorance was bliss. “Uh, it lets you live out your greatest sexual fantasy.”

“That’s some VR shit,” Quentin said, groaning as he tilted his head back against the couch. Alice closed her eyes and pinched her lips. She kept fluttering her lashes open and glancing over at the lost-to-all-but-themselves Margo and Julia, then sighing and closing her eyes all the tighter.

“Yeah,” Eliot breathed out, sliding his hand up and down his outer thigh. He was craving touch. “Had to work with the Illusionist cohort, but it’ll be worth it. Pleased Elders, so to speak, lead to a better experience for all.”

Everyone murmured halfhearted acknowledgments as the tension increased. Eliot bit his lip and closed his eyes, warmth and pleasure curling all around him. It was relentless, without release. A sweet kind of torture.

But as the last luggage (one of Alice’s) was floated away, so went the charged atmosphere in the room. The air was crisp again and they could all breathe, their brains stabilizing in a flash. Julia and Margo burst out into cackling laughter, Eliot slumped onto the chair, and Quentin slammed his forehead onto his knees and shuddered. Alice stayed shock still.

“What the actual fuck was that?” Q asked, voice muffled and anguished.

“The Encanto experience,” Eliot said with an airy laugh, giving Alice a wink. Her eyes were still wide and unblinking. “Just a taste for you all.”

“Oh my god.  This is a horrible mistake,” Quentin said, popping up and brushing his hair out of his face. Eliot rolled his eyes.

“Don’t be a prude,” he said, automatic. But at the same time, Julia pulled away from Margo and snorted, dipping backwards from her torso and twisting to stare straight at him.

“That’s what I’ve been telling you, Q.”

Quentin’s grumpy fire returned without a stutter. “Don’t take this the wrong way, but fuck off, Jules.”

Eliot grinned, feeling like his strongest self once again and always there for a Q-sassing-at-Julia session. He was unfettered and alive. He clapped his hands and stared around the room, taking in the final moments.

It was the last time he’d be taking the portal from Brakebills, which deserved some kind of acknowledgment. But, well, he didn’t want to think about it. And neither did Margo, by the way she was walking toward him, smiling wide and nodding toward the portal, fierce and stunning. Without even a single word, he knew she was right. It wasn’t the time for any bittersweet moping.

So he placed his hands on her bare shoulders and reeled her in for a sweet, closed mouthed kiss. She smooched his lips back and hugged him once, before pulling them forward. The roses crowned them in splendor and their toes and hands were bathed in a golden sheen, caressing.

“Ready, baby?” Margo whispered in his ear. He nuzzled her temple and nodded. They were ready.

Except.

Oh. 

But then the craziest thing happened. 

Before they disappeared into the Ibizan sun, Julia, Quentin, and Alice tried to follow them through the portal. They walked right toward it, happy and spry and so full of hope. Honestly, it was actually really remarkable how confidently they walked toward it, as though they truly believed it was as much their portal as it was Eliot and Margo’s.

… Silly rabbits.

“Oh, no!” Margo squealed and fell over into Eliot. He laughed, loud and tilting his head back. Bambi’s eyes flowed with hysterics. “Oh, no. There’s been a miscommunication.”

Julia smiled a little and laughed, though she was unsure. Perfect Margo hadn’t prepped her one tiny bit. “Um, what? What do you mean?”

“What’s going on?” Quentin asked, harder and firmer. He was such a little cynic, my goodness. Eliot smiled wide at him, before his eyes traced back down to Margo. They laughed and laughed and laughed. 

Meanwhile, Alice was still mute and taking deep breaths.

“My sweetest honey bunnies,” Margo said, pouty and delicious. “This is the portal for Eliot and me, only. I’m so sorry you didn’t realize.”

“Are you?” Julia asked, lips twitching. 

Anger engulfed those dark brown eyes of hers so delightfully. She and Quentin exchanged an unamused glance that set Eliot and Margo off all over again. Alice started wringing her hands together, and clustered in closer to Julia.

(When Bambi looked down, he shot her a quick wink and she relaxed, slightly. But he did not extend the same courtesy to Julia or Quentin.)

Eliot spoke with authority, gravity, poise. “First-timers to the left.”

At his verbal cue, the three of them followed Bambi’s perfect finger flick. The snap landed on the shit covered Port-a-Potty portal that hadn’t been there even a moment earlier. It was rusty and creaking, and a horrific smell emanated off it, hot and burning in the nostrils.

They liked to have fun.

“Seriously?” Quentin‘s eyebrows dipped down over his eyes and he blew out a puff of air from his lips. Alice and Julia slammed their hands over their noses, gagging. In response, Margo giggled louder, and Eliot simply nodded at Quentin’s sharp and blazing stare, grave and ceremonious.

“Margo, come on,” Julia said, tapping her hands against her legs.

“Oh, I will, baby,” Bambi said, stepping forward and resting both her hands on her cheeks. She kissed her once, soft, and Julia melted into it, despite herself. Eliot glanced away, a sharp pain sticking in his side. “You will too. I promise. But until then, rules are rules, and you’ll be traveling with the sexless wonders.”

Before Julia could protest again, Margo surged up and kissed her, firm but a final answer. Eliot grabbed her arm and pulled her away, bowing grandly at Quentin and Alice, both still shellshocked.

“Au revoir,” he said, full of grace. He smiled at their blank faces. “See you kids on the other side.”

Margo wrapped her arm around his and stepped through the light first. Right before she pulled him in with her, Eliot glanced behind his back, catching Quentin’s eyes. They were lighter than before, sweet and almost smiling at him. He raised his eyebrows and waved, a small thing at his side. Eliot found he couldn’t quite breathe. 

Alarm bells blared in his chest.

Before he could think about it more, a cool hand pulled him through the light. He stepped onto soft sand, sinking his leather shoes into a featherlight sparking electric current. Hands tugged at every article of clothing, stripping him down with caresses and mouths and nothing but sensation. He fell onto a pillow thick blanket, surrounded by writhing bodies and Margo’s perfect scent. She straddled him and kissed him once on the side of his mouth.

“Welcome back to Ibiza,” she whispered in his ear, before she rolled off him and someone else took her place, a perfect stranger with perfect abs and a crooked smile. Eliot closed his eyes and let the warmth overflow his ruinous thoughts.

Encanto was exactly what he needed.

 


 

 

The post-orgy glow had settled to a dim veil of light, and the wards opened full across the white sand beach. Cala Jondal was a secluded part of the Ibizan island, stunning and serene. It was Eliot’s favorite place on earth.

Shaped like a clam shell with pebbled beaches, the enclave was surrounded by jagged white cliffs and green pines. Above, an arching mountain sloped downward toward the greenblue sea, resting high and wide like queen’s crown. And during Encanto Oculto, the whole beach disappeared from earthly reality, floating in its own plane of existence.

Eliot slipped into silk pants and a robe, a wave of inexplicable ennui settling over him again like a velvet curtain. For a crazed moment, he didn’t want to be there. He wanted to be home. Wherever the fuck that was. But then it passed as it came. Like always.

Hundreds of Magicians came from all over the world to attend Encanto Oculto each year. The most interesting and beautiful, the heathens and the hellraisers. As he stretched into a floating white chair with a cigarette and a glass of absinthe with magical LSD, he stared upward. He let the smoke rise above him in circles. There was no real sense of time at Encanto Oculto, and the sky was art. At the moment, it was a painting of deep blues and burgundy, sparkling into clouds and stars. It was gentle and melancholy, soothing and sad.

Eliot let the drugs wash over him.

The edges of the world turned bright yellow and silver, and waves of heat shimmers rose from the ground. He could taste the drums blaring in the distance and he could feel the writhing dancers course across his skin. His legs were pins and needles, but he glided to the water’s edge. A boat sailed in, with fireworks above.

“There you fuckin’ are,” Margo’s voice came from his side and he tucked her under his arm. She was wearing her pink bikini and gold chain bodysuit from the previous year. What a sentimental old broad she was. She smiled up at him with more pupil than iris and rested her chin on his collarbone. “Missed you.”

“I love this place,” Eliot said, tilting his head onto hers. She smelled like lilacs and sugar and euphoria and rainbows. He pointed a long white finger ahead toward the shining vessel in the sea, and it giggled. It all giggled. “What’s happening out there?”

“Does it matter?” Bambi asked with a breathy sigh. It was a valid question.

So they stood with the growing crowd as the ship sailed closer and closer, and with it came loud music, eurotrash techno with live drums, pounding firm and steady. The boat jumped into the sky and landed on the shore, flattening into a golden stage with a long runway and a tiered podium.

Atop the highest point stood a handsome black man, dripping in white furs. He was bald and refined, at least thirty-five years old. He was symmetrical, from his cheekbones to his asscheeks, and he stood tall in both height and regality. His smile stretched across his face, broad as his shoulders and joyful in its worldly delight. He held his arms out as he spoke deep and resonant into the crowd, intoning a welcome chant in Spanish.

“Well, now, that is a strapping man if I’ve ever seen one,” Eliot said low into Margo’s ear. His eyes widened infinite times and he laughed, high-pitched. The man kept talking, rumbling like a light breaking through clouds. “I’m gonna fuck him.”

“He’s hot as shit,” Margo said, shrugging with far too much nonchalance considering the sight in front of them. Eliot watched how he moved. Like a dancer, like a fencing champion. His thighs were thick and sinewed, visible under tight white riding pants. His eyes were warm and gentle, and peered into the crowd like he was seeing each person, down to their souls. It was like enjoyed each of them. He was smooth and elegant, never angled and awkward.

“He’s perfect. He’s perfect,” Eliot said twice, with a hint of hysteria. He was perfect. The air tasted like sun beams and Skittles. The water was swirling the wrong way, but it was the right way at long last.He’s exactly right.”

Nothing else had yet sated him, but someone like that would do the trick.

Margo hummed a beautiful tune and kept resting against him, swaying in the sultry and lemon meringue air. The man continued speaking to the crowd, words like Why not seize the pleasure at once? pouring out him with a grip of his large fist. He stood before them, impressive and at ease, and he sang other beautiful words of hedonism, lust, and indulgence.

“Who is he?” Eliot barely knew he’d breathed the words until an accented voice answered.

“He’s Idri. They call him The King,” the boy, named Stefan said, wrapping himself around Eliot from behind. His hands pressed into his chest, lips on his neck. Eliot pulled one hand lower still; it wasn’t a cuddle party. He got the picture, but kept talking to him and Bambi, their eyes never leaving the man in furs. He was surrounded by fire dancers now and booming a laugh into the crystalline sky.  

“They say he’s from another world,” Stefan whispered, tightening his grip. Eliot bit his lip and Bambi pursed hers, staring down at the handiwork. Pun intended. She rolled her eyes, unimpressed. “They say he breathes magic, like air.”

“What the fuck else would he breathe?” Margo asked, patience lost with the Belgian. She grabbed Eliot’s arm and pulled him away from the very serviceable handjob to stalk off in the distance, huffy and majestic. She was lucky she was the most beautiful woman alive.

“I wanna go to him,” Eliot said, eyes drying in the air from refusing to blink. What if the man disappeared if he blinked? But Margo sighed, seemingly sober, somehow, and pulled him over to the flowered feast near the shoreline. The first-timer portal was buzzing and shining.

Oh. Right. Julia, Alice …and Quentin.

His heart sped up.

“Our little ones are about to arrive,” Margo said, holding his hand. She held out a tiny red bottle and shook the liquid inside. “Wanna restart?”

“Yeah,” Eliot said, nodding. He was nervous. Nervous and hallucinogens didn’t play well, so he drank it. Immediately, his body warmed and grounded, almost melting. Reality righted itself, but he remained tipsy and dancing and everything was perfect. In a lucky twist of fate, the mental clarity liquid took care of his pesky nerves too, right as the portal spat Julia out onto the ground.

For a moment, she laid there, face down in the sand. Pushing herself up into a plank, she wrenched her head up and spit out the sand, her lips vibrating in disgust. Then she jumped to her feet and brushed her hands down her dust-covered clothes. Her right eye twitched.

“Hey baby,” Margo said, smiling and sliding over in a figure-eight hip thrust. She let the metal of her bodysuit clink together as she went to wrap an arm around Julia. “I missed you.”

But Julia stepped away from her, finger in the air. “Ah, nope. No. You and I need to go have a discussion, Margo.”

Seemingly sober Bambi touched her hand to her chest and stared at Julia for a shocked moment. Then her eyes went wide and wet, and her lower lip trembled.

“Are you mad at me?” Margo whimpered out. The tears started flowing, hard and fast. “Oh my god. No. No, Julie. Please don’t be mad at me!”

“Shit,” Julia said, low. She wrapped her arm around the shaking and wailing Margo’s shoulders. “Shit. Honey, what are you on?” That made Margo cry harder and so she glanced over furiously toward Eliot. “What is she on?”

“Don’t know, but you have to fix that,” Eliot said in a singsong voice. “Or I will mur-der you.”

Don’t be mad at me!” Bambi sobbed into her hands. “I’m sorry I did drugs!”

“I’m not mad at you, Margo,” Julia said, half-soothing and holding her tight. She glared at Eliot. “A little help?”

“Get her a red bottle. They’re everywhere, she’ll be fine,” he said, bored and stretching his arms out over his head. He looked back at the portal. Still nothing yet. “Q and Alice on their way or—?”

Julia laughed harsh, between pressing tender kisses to a sobbing Margo’s head. “Uh, yeah, you lost any right to act concerned the second the three of us dropped into that desert. See you later, asswipe.”

Margo spun around in Julia’s arms and gripped them, eyes wild and horrified and leaking. “Are you calling me an asswipe?”

“No, no,” Julia murmured, pulling her tight as they walked away, temple to temple. “I was calling Eliot the asswipe. I can always promise you that I’m always calling Eliot the asswipe, okay?”

Sniffling as they disappeared into the crowd, Bambi let out one more mournful cry before he lost sight of them altogether. For a few more moments, the portal was silent and Eliot felt the tiny rumbles of fear stirring in his gut.  But then it buzzed and shone, and Quentin tumbled in, hair sticking up every which way and face coated in a hefty layer of dirt. He breathed in through his nose and searched around the beach, dazed, until his bloodshot eyes landed on Eliot.

His lip sneered and his eyes darted into poison, nostrils flaring like a bull.

Quentin held his hands up in the two fiercest middle fingers the world had ever seen. He conjured all the smoke from the tapestry adorned hookah den nearby him in an angry flash. The smoke swirled into tiny spirals, and they all turned into a hundred smoke hands, also all giving Eliot the finger. And in case that wasn’t clear enough, he also took the time to spell out FUCK YOU ELIOT above his head in crude and smoky sky writing.

He was adorable.

So Eliot smiled, mouth turned toward the dotted and shimmering sky. He beckoned Q toward him with his head. Reluctant, but without much other choice, Quentin stomped over and opened his mouth—

Just in time for for Eliot to cut him off with a series of tuts over his face and body, cleaning him up to his usual sweet and shiny state. Then he fixed his hair by hand because, well, he wanted to.

“There he is,” he said, smiling and tucking Quentin’s hair behind his ears. Q rolled his eyes and glared, yet still softening into something more teasingly mad like he couldn't help it.

“You owe me, like, a truck full of wine,” he said, mumbling rough and ragged. But his lips ticked upward.

“Think bigger, baby,” Eliot said with a laugh, wrapping his arm around him and kissing the top of his head. Fuck, his hair was soft. Fuck, he loved Encanto Oculto. But before Q could respond and Eliot could get lost in his voice and quiet wit and the playful glint in his big brown eyes and never want to leave, ever, ever, Alice scurried her way out of the portal too. She gulped, grabbing onto Eliot’s forearm.

“Alice,” he said, laughing. It was a relief. He ducked his eyes and pouted out his lower lip. “Are you angry with me too?”

“No, I get it,” she said, voice jittery, but eyes cool and roving around the beach. She seemed unimpressed. “Initiation rituals have been a part of our society’s cultural fabric since time immemorial.”

Q’s eyes popped out. “Are you appealing to tradition as a defense of hazing?”  

“It’s not about what should be, Quentin,” Alice said with a shrug. She grabbed a tall drink off a diamond floating platter. The foam glittered and reflected the natural sky above the artists’ display. “It’s about what is. There are prices to entry.”

“But I mean, like,” Quentin frowned and slumped into Eliot, snaking his arm around his waist. Taking advantage of the proximity, he buried his nose in Q’s hair. He smelled like sweat and firewood and ugh, god, maybe this was a very, very bad idea. “Sometimes it should be about what should be, right?”

“If you want to live in a fairytale land,” Alice said with a shrug. Quentin frowned, brow rumpling.

“I mean, that’s kinda my whole thing—” he started to say, but Eliot pressed a single long finger to his lips.

“Let’s save the philosophizing for another, much more boring vacation, hm?” He said, smiling down at Quentin’s reluctant and huffy agreement. Eliot called over three shots that hung in the air. They were layered translucent white, green, and deep purple, in long and twisted hand-blown glass tubes. “You both made it, in one piece, after that nasty yet necessary simulation—”

“Simulation?” Q snapped his head toward him. “Are you fucking serious?”

“Of course it was a simulation,” Eliot said, disbelieving and more than a bit condescending. Silly, silly rabbit. “We wouldn’t put you in actual danger. This isn’t Brakebills.”

“Jesus. Fair enough,” Quentin said with a shake of his head. He watched the drinks dance and stared up at the sky. “Worth it, I guess. It’s beautiful here.”

“Mmm, and it’s only the beginning,” Eliot promised, twirling his drink high into the air and calling it back down. It looked like a shooting star. “Welcome to Encanto Oculto. Age, I do abhor thee. Youth, I do adore thee.”

“Hey,” Quentin said, before chuckling low. “That’s my favorite Rod Stewart quote.”

Eliot’s heart skipped as he turned to look at him, surprised. His face was in serious lines, except for twinkling eyes. For a second, Eliot saw nothing else.

Alice rolled her eyes. “No, that’s from a Shakespeare sonnet.”

Quentin smiled and looked at Eliot before glancing away, amusement breaking through his voice. “Thanks, Alice.”

Okay. Fuck. Maybe it was a really bad idea to bring Q to Encanto Oculto.  

He swallowed around a tight lump in his throat and adjusted the tie of his robe. That way, it slung justso across his hips, projecting cool and power and poise. He raked a hand through his curls, disheveling them with purpose. He was the Prince of Brakebills. He was the Regalo Architect. He was Eliot Waugh.

Weakness acknowledged.

Weakness destroyed via arson.

Eliot cleared his throat and plucked his drink out of the humid air. It bubbled at his touch and he smiled, wicked and beguiling at his two little nerds.

“Bottom’s up,” he said, downing it at once. Alice followed, eyes wide and delighted at the bubbling effect and proving herself as game as she promised. But Quentin held it between his fingers, rolling it back and forth.

“Um, what’s exactly in—?” His voice was low and he looked up at Eliot with those endless, swallow-you-alive eyes.

“Don’t worry,” Eliot said, giving Q’s hair a soft pet. He smiled at him, a reassurance. He forced himself not to break eye contact, even as every nerve ending in his body screamed Run run fucking run at the warmth that rushed through him. “Anything I give you is pre-certified Quentin-friendly.”

“Yeah, but—” He started to say, his eyes dropping down, and Eliot took a step toward him.

“You’re my guest, Q,” he said, touching his shoulder. He gave him a half-grin when those eyes tilted back up, gentle. “I’ll take care of you, okay?”

Quentin gave him a strange look at that. He wasn’t quite smiling or frowning as his eyes narrowed and his head cocked to the side. It was more like he was… searching. But whether he found anything of interest was up to someone else to determine. Because then he laughed and poured the drink down his throat.

“Well, in that case, then,  uh, cheers, guys,” he said, holding the empty tube high into the sky.

It refilled. And with it, the night began.

 


 

Encanto Oculto
Day One

 

The next morning, with a Tinto de verano in one hand and a Vogue Hommes in the other, Eliot was in near bliss.   

The sun warmed him from bare chest to swim briefs to bare toes as he sat poolside. It was serene and lovely, the one place at Encanto that allowed natural light, with no magic. Their large cabana was luxurious, and gorgeous Magicians in various states of undress frolicked about the water in front of them. Really, the only thing better would have been a cute boy giving him a foot massage, but Q had assumed he was joking when he asked.

Oh well.

The five of them sat in a quiet row. Alice was working on her Poppers and nursing a mudslide on the far end of Margo, who was sunbathing. Julia was eating spicy chicken wings for some goddamn reason and Quentin, of course, read Fillory for the thousandth time. And Eliot flipped through the pages of his magazine, almost meditative, as he considered the model’s faces with passing interest.

His brain baked and heat danced on his cheeks under his lucite sunglasses. It almost lulled him to sleep until he heard the telltale crackle of Pyromancy and the twirling scent of fresh tobacco smoke wafting his way. He rolled his head toward Quentin and snapped his fingers at him softly, until the sound was replaced by his own lit cigarette. Good boy.

Julia kicked Quentin’s ankle with a grin. “I thought you quit.”

Quentin shrugged and ashed into the tray next to him before bringing the cigarette to his rounded mouth. “That’s a relative term. I’m on vacation.”

“Not judging,” Julia said, stretching her legs. She put her disgusting bird carcass bones to the side. “Margo’s being good and I was being good in solidarity. But now I’m questioning my instincts.”

Bambi yawned and stretched her jaw. “Smoking gives you wrinkles and makes you smell bad.”

Alice frowned and paused her hands delicate in the air. “It’s also the leading cause of respiratory disease and presents a major public health risk.”

“I will never get wrinkles, bitch,” Eliot said, ignoring Alice altogether and pointing at Margo with his cigarette. “And I always smell incredible.”

“I’m talking about lesser mortals, El,” Bambi said, gracefully moving a silk hand fan in from nose to lip. “For instance, Quentin here can’t really afford to be a smoker. He’s already going to be combating major frown lines as it is. No offense, Q.”

“Offense,” Quentin said, lazy and sleepy. He tucked his book into his side and yawned. Placing his cigarette between his lips so it dangled, he shifted on the lavish lounger. He stretched his arms over his head so the lines of his bare chest pulled upward. Humming to himself, he scratched at the smattering of dark brown chest hair around his pecs. And as he settled deeper into the cushions, his loose hair mussed in several different directions, the ends grazing the rounds of his sunburned shoulders.

Eliot’s lips twitched and he poured his drink down his throat. He let the glass rest on the side table with a clang, the ice clinking agitated in the forceful motion. Margo gave him a slow smirk before snapping her sunglasses onto the top of her head to reveal her mischievous eyes.

“On that note, it’s margarita time,” Bambi said, reaching her arm over to the blonde next to her. She patted her thigh twice. “Alice, go get me one.”

“Excuse me?” Alice said, looking up from her diligent sunscreen application. It had been exactly forty minutes since she’d last slathered herself in the white paste. Of course, that was the  recommended time span on the bottle. Really, she was cutting it a bit close. She should have gone with thirty-five minute intervals, to be safe.

Margo snapped her fingers twice.

“You’re nearest to the bar,” she said, both inaccurate and impatient. “Extra salt on the rim. Extra shot of Añejo. Fresh lime juice. No sweet and sour mix. Never sweet and sour mix. I will cut off a random dick if I get sweet and sour mix. Got it?”

“Maybe. What’s Añejo?” Alice asked. Quentin sighed and sat up.

“I’ll go,” he said, putting out his cigarette and throwing his hair into a messy bun. “I need to piss anyway. What does everyone else want?”

“I want a Sex on the Beach,” Julia threw her hand in the air, with a delighted grin. Quentin glared at her.

“Seriously?”

“He’s right. They’re sweet as shit,” Margo said, scrunching her nose. “Ew. You’re embarrassing.”

“But it means Q has to say he wants a Sex on the Beach. Out loud. To a human person.” Julia’s grin grew and grew. “It’ll take him ten minutes to order it. Guaranteed.”

“You’re my dream girl,” Margo said, blunt. Julia scrunched her nose and giggled. Quentin sighed and pushed a stubborn strand of hair out of his face.

“Yeah, fine, whatever. Would anyone else like anything?” He sniffed and shot Eliot a quick and inexplicable look before turning away. “And by anyone, I mean, Alice?”

She glanced up at him, though she continued working through her tuts now that her sun protection was intact. “I’ll take a club soda on ice with lemon, please. But only if it’s not too much trouble.”

Quentin shook his head, wry. “It’s not. I promise.”

And Alice smiled at him, a warm and shy and tiny thing. “Thanks, Q.”

Eliot’s stomach bottomed out with a rush of cold, though he’d jumped into the pool without warning. He blinked and his mouth fell open, his chest punched inward.

— Q?

Uh.

Since the fuck when was he “Q?”

He had always been Quentin to Alice.

He was supposed to be Quentin to Alice.

Eliot took a long gulp of water from his chilled Pellegrino and he took a releasing breath upon his swallow. He closed his eyes under his sunglasses.

It was fine, he reminded himself. First of all, lots of people called Quentin “Q.” Eliot called Quentin “Q” almost exclusively sometimes. It was his most common nickname.

Second of all, because it was his most common nickname, it wasn’t a… it wasn’t like a pet name or anything so sentimental or meaningful. It meant nothing.

Because not everyone was so precious about what they were called, right? Just because Eliot hated when unfamiliars called him El didn’t mean that Q felt the same way. And—and Quentin and Alice were kind of (?) friends now, so it made sense that she would evolve to calling him Q, like all his friends did.

Which led him to the fucking third of all, which was that Eliot really, really liked when his friends got along. Quentin getting along with Alice was no different than him getting along with Margo, and so Eliot fucking liked it. He liked it. He really liked it.

Why the fuck wouldn’t he?

“Well, if that’s all then,” Quentin said quickly, throwing his sunglasses on top of his head, “I’ll go over to the bar and—”

The priority of the moment shifted. Eliot sat up straight and shook his glass. The melting ice made a tiny tinkling sound, the sweet high notes of a piano.

“Perdón, I’m dry too, mister," he said, patiently.  I’ll take a—”

“Nope,” Quentin said, cutting him off. His hands flew everywhere and his jaw rippled like water over rocks. “Nope. Nope. I’m not memorizing your complicated bullshit. You can order your own.”

Eliot popped his mouth open and laughed, soundless. Genuinely, all he was going to order was a negroni, a common cocktail, perfect for a hot Mediterranean day. Bitter and chilled and luscious, as he preferred.

But now? Oh.

Oh.

He pursed his lips and ticked his head to the side. “Well, if you wrote down what I want like I always suggest, then—”

“If you want a drink, you’re coming with me and ordering your own shit.”

He sighed, very put out by Quentin’s insolence and vulgarity. “All I want is a frozen highball glass with one ounce gin, one ounce bourbon, half tablespoon honey, half ounce lime juice, a teaspoon and a quarter of grated fresh ginger, lemon zest, and egg white, shaken together for approximately—”

“Oh my god, Eliot.”

“It’s rude to interrupt. Shaken together for approximately forty-five seconds—”

“That’s absurd.”

“Again, if you wrote it down, it wouldn’t be that difficult,” he said with a patronizing click of his tongue. Quentin remained unamused. “As I was saying, shaken together for approximately forty-five seconds and poured over shaved ice, garnished with two thinly sliced cucumber rounds in the shape of a flower, if you know what I mean, wink-wink, and—”

Frustrated, Quentin blew air into his cheeks, puffing them out like a fish, and crossed his arms over his hot little unfair goddamn body. He made it way too easy.

“You’re the most ridiculous person alive,” Q said, pulling his aviators over his eyes. They slipped down his nose.

“Sure,” Eliot said, before grinning wide. “Hey, unrelated, but is that a Fillory branded swimsuit?”

There was a small golden Ember’s seal next to the pocket, almost obscured. The fact that Eliot could recognize Ember’s seal on sight wasn’t important. What was important was that Quentin’s whole body flushed red down to the elastic edge of those very swim trunks.

Thank you, weird British eBay specialty goods seller, for your noble service.

“That’s not—I’ve had these for a long time—“ Quentin stammered and Eliot smiled and smiled, blowing smoke in his face. Q huffed. “But my ridiculousness doesn’t negate your ridiculousness.”

“Au contraire, sweet baby Q,” Eliot said, holding his cigarette in one hand and rolling his lip between his teeth. “My so-called ridiculousness is more like... stylish eccentricity, whereas you, my dearest yet most hapless friend, are—“

“Excusez-moi, Nick and Nora?” Margo cut them off, fluttering her vicious eyelashes. Her middle finger pressed hard against the arch of her eyebrow. “I’m losing wood and my ideal BAC level. Shut the fuck up and go get my goddamn drink.”  

Quentin blushed again and cleared his throat, chastened. “Sorry, Margo. I'll head out now. Sorry.”

This reaction pleased the queen. She smiled brightly and stretched her long leg out and kicked the back of his knees. “Your ass looks great in those trunks, Coldwater.”

Unable to resist Bambi’s charm, he kicked her back with a disbelieving grin and a clear eye roll that reached up to the sky. They were cute. He could watch them be cute at each other all day, every day, for the rest of his life. Maybe Q could be their manager in Vegas.

But then Quentin broke the spell by sighing and turning to Eliot. “Seriously though, if you want a drink, you’re coming with me.”

He stuck out his tongue, but nonetheless slid his way out of his comfortable chair. He put out his barely smoked cigarette, tutted out a fix to tighten Quentin’s aviators because it was annoying as shit to watch the minor mender ignore it, and wrapped his white and gold-embroidered robe around his shoulders. He was so long-suffering, it was absurd. But with a final tussle of his curls, he smiled at Quentin, who pinched his face at his attire.

“How the fuck are you overdressed even at the pool?”

“Overdressed is a nonsense term,” Eliot said as he stretched his arms wide. He landed one around his friend, walking them toward the glittering bar in the distance, as Quentin kept muttering about how he didn't realize there was a dress code and how he should have brought his designer flip-flops and other grumpy nonsense.

He was such a brat. It was great.

 


 

Of course, Quentin made Eliot order all the drinks.  

As soon as they reached the bar, he turned to him and said, “So, uh, you remember what everyone wanted, right? Because I really have to pee and you’re, like, so much better at this than me anyway, so gonna go, bye.”

Then he backed away from Eliot’s protests with a series of pew-pew-pew sounds and finger guns, as one did. It was ridiculous. He was ridiculous. His ridiculousness absolutely negated Eliot’s ridiculousness.

And Eliot was absolutely not smiling to himself like an idiot after the order was put in and he stood at the bar, scrolling mindless through his phone. And he definitely was not still smiling to himself like a goddamn idiot when the sound of trotting hooves announced themselves, surreal and regal.

A chestnut horse whinnied and every eye turned in awe. Astride the Friesien was Idri, the King of Encanto Oculto.

Idri slowed the stallion to a walk, and patted his side until he stopped right beside Eliot. He let out a deep sigh and wound himself off the horse, landing with grace beside the bar. The collective held breath released and the world spun back on its usual axis. The man dusted off his tight pants and smiled over his beautiful, defined, shirtless chest.

Eliot’s smile turned from an idiot’s to a predator’s.

He positioned himself so that Idri wouldn’t be able to help but notice him, and it worked in an instant. Catching Eliot’s gaze with a small smile, Idri bowed and laughed. With a snap of his fingers, the horse disappeared, to wherever magic horses lived.

“Pardon me,” Idri said, standing back at his full height. His eyes trailed up and down Eliot’s robe and bare chest. He licked his lips. “I should assure you that I’m aware how of how absurd that was. The Elders like their pomp and circumstance, on occasion”

A horse walks into a bar,” Eliot said, flicking his eyes upward in mock-thought. “With such iconic imagery, how could I find it absurd?”

“I’ll take your teasing in the light-hearted manner I’m sure it's meant,” Idri said, smile broadening and Eliot clicked his tongue.

“Always, sire,” he said, inclining his head. Idri laughed, loud and cheerful.

“My reputation precedes me once again, I see,” he said before  heheld out his hand. Eliot took it, sliding their fingers together, slowly. Their eyes met. “I’m Idri, Elder liaison.”

“Eliot, Regalo Architect and Brakebills third year,” he said, taking a single step closer. So Idri could hear him, of course. “May I order you a drink? I’m esteemed for my mixology knowledge.”

“By all means,” Idri said, with a sweep of his large hand. “I prefer a strong, sturdy libation myself.”

“A man after my own heart,” Eliot said, thumping his chest once. He twisted around and leaned sultry along the glowing counter. The bartender was at immediate attention. “A Boulevardier for the gentleman, if you will. With Pappy’s, Dolin Rouge, and the charmed orange oil.”

“Now, this is why Encanto Oculto is such a special event,” Idri said, sliding into the space right next to Eliot. His shoulder brushed his, highlighting that they were the exact same height. Not ideal, but workable. “You meet the most interesting people.”

Eliot smiled and handed him his drink, which came up in record time. Perks of royalty, he supposed. “You’re being modest, your grace. After all, the rumor mill says you’re a visitor from another world.”

He meant it as a joke, but Idri paused over the rim of his glass. His deep brown eyes glinted and he pursed his lips. He pressed his hand over Eliot’s and stared at him, fervent and secretive.

“That’s because the rumors are true,” he said, gravelly. Eliot’s eyebrows shot up. “I am from another world.”

“Oh,” Eliot said, surprise stuttering in his chest. Huh. Magic had tricks up its sleeve yet.

“I’m from a corner of the multiverse the likes of which none here have ever seen.” Idri dipped his head low, speaking in a hushed tone. Eliot’s heart sped up, intrigued. “A land strange and unfamiliar, a land cloaked in magic and mystery, a land that is incomprehensible to the human mind.”

He looked back and forth to check for spies before he beckoned Eliot closer with his finger, hooking in. Bated breath, he stepped toward him, until he could feel his breath on his neck.

Idri whispered in his ear, “A land called—Cincinnati.”

It had been a long time since a stranger’s flirting had yielded a genuine laugh out of him. But that actually did it.

“Cheers,” Eliot said, finally getting his own drink from the bartender and clinking their glasses. Piled in front of him, Julia's tacky drink sat beside Alice's water, which sat beside Bambi's margarita and Q's dark and stormy. But he couldn't bring himself to care much about that, not with Idri’s smile so warm and friendly on him. His attention and obvious interest felt good. Really good.

Eliot grinned, thinking of the boring gray of Ohio contrasted with the sparkle of the man in front of him. “I’m sure you bring it much needed panache.”

“Quite the opposite,” Idri insisted. He took a sip of his cocktail and leveled Eliot with an intense look. Then he brought his fingers to his lips in a chef’s kiss and rested his hand against his heart. A silent compliment that reached Eliot's toes. “After all, they don’t call it Cinci-naughty for nothing.”

“Emphasis on sin,” Eliot said, missing no beats. Idri laughed, a booming sound.

“Beautiful and clever is a rare combination,” he said, bright white teeth gleaming against the blue and purple jeweled awning. A sparkling jolt zinged through Eliot’s spine and he stood taller.

“Like knows like,” Eliot said, trailing his eyes up and down Idri. He received a lazy, charged half smile for his effort. Fuck yes.

But his victory lap, so to speak, was cut off by a loud guttural sound, a throat clearing behind him. Eliot glanced over his shoulder to see Q standing with his arms crossed and face scrunched. He tapped his foot impatiently. When their eyes met, he widened his lips into a large, false smile. Ever the charmer.

“Ah, yes. Idri,” Eliot said, slowly and stretching the name out. He looked back and forth between the two men. “This is my friend, Quentin. Quentin, Idri.”

“Nice to meet you, Quentin,” Idri said, inclining his head and stretching out his long arm and large hand. Quentin’s brow wrinkled for a second, but he accepted the handshake.

“Uh, yeah. Hey,” he said, before quickly letting go and running his hand through his hair. He looked at Eliot. “Are the drinks up?”

“Right there, but I need a couple minutes,” Eliot said, pointing at the sweating glasses. Quentin sucked his cheeks between his teeth, like a fish. He drummed his fingers over his crossed arms. Idri smiled.

“Are you at Brakebills as well, Quentin?” He asked, leaning against the counter on one elbow. He nursed his drink, sipping it like it was a precious ambrosia.

Quentin slid his eyes over to Idri and nodded once. “Yup.”

Jesus Christ.

“Q’s a second year,” Eliot filled in, showing him how the fuck you were actually supposed to do this. “We’re both Physical Kids. I’m a kinetic and he’s in the mending discipline.”

“I was an Illusion Kid myself,” Idri said, twisting his hand to bring up a fast spinning constellations, to prove the point. “Large-Scale Projections.”

“Ah, that tracks,” Eliot said, sweeping his hand around to indicate the splendor around them. Idri bowed a little. Quentin craned his neck to see what the bartender was doing.

“I envy you both,” Idri said, trying to catch Quentin’s eye to no avail. “My days at Brakebills were some of the best of my life.

“Uh, so that must have been awhile ago then, right? Like, awhile ago,” Quentin said, having apparently found his voice. He shouldn’t have.

Idri responded with far more grace than deserved. “I graduated in the late nineties.”

“So now, what do you do? Are you one of the Elders or—?” Q asked. One of his eyebrows lifted upward as he said it, his not-so-hidden meaning stark. Eliot cut Quentin off with a loud laugh and gripped at his forearm.

“Quentin’s not actually a rude person,” Eliot said with a tight smile. He also kicked his ankle for good measure and relished the tiny Ow as he did. “He just plays one on TV.”

“It’s fine, Eliot,” Idri said, so very poised. Unlike someone. “To answer your question, Quentin, I’m actually a liaison to the Elders. Most of my job is coordinating the ins and outs of the festival’s logistics. I organize all the artists, the musical acts, varying illusions, et cetera. You name it, I’ve lost sleep over it.”

“Cool,” Quentin said, low and monotone.

Then he swallowed and averted his eyes. Eliot gripped his forearm hard again to grab his attention and shot him a dark look. Something frustrated and undefinable passed over Q’s eyes and he set his jaw. But then he cleared his throat and stuck his hands in his swim trunk pockets, softening.

“Um, that sounds like interesting work,” Quentin said, still staring down at his feet. But at least it was slightly better.

“It does sound like you have an exciting career,” Eliot said, turning back to Idri. He was surprised how much he meant it. “How does one even get into that?”

“Well, it’d be against the spirit of Encanto to talk shop at the pool bar,” Idri said with a wide grin. Before Eliot could stop him, he tipped the bartender on their behalf with a wink. Quentin suppressed an eye roll, because he was some kind of alien that didn't recognize kind gestures.

“But I’d be happy to chat with you about it in a more intimate setting,” Idri said, smiling and looking Eliot right in the eye. "Over dinner one night while we’re here?”

His insides coiled with pleasure. “Absolutely.”

Quentin crossed his arms and tapped his foot. “The ice is going to melt in these drinks, El.”

“There’s a fucking cooling charm on them, Q,” Eliot said out the side of his still-smiling mouth. Jesus, could he not give him five seconds?

“But everyone’s waiting—”

“And I will never keep revelers waiting,” Idri said, clasping Eliot’s shoulder under his warm hand and handing him a small slip of paper in the same movement. He glanced down—it was his phone number. Victory rushed through him all over again. Idri smiled, wide and bowing. “Enjoy the rest of your day, gentlemen. Please let me know if I can be of any service."

With another incline of his head, he brought his lips to Eliot’s ear and smiled. “I especially hope to hear from you soon.”

“Bye,” Quentin said, harsh tone of voice not yielding. But when Idri looked up at him with happy eyes, he softened and shifted on his feet. “Um, I mean. Hope you have a good day too.”

With a final squeeze of Eliot's shoulder and a last lingering look, Idri was gone. Quentin cleared his throat, grabbed one of the plentiful ice waters, and took a long sip. With a releasing Ah sound, he craned his neck to stare off after the departed Idri and snorted.

“That guy's a tool,” Q said, rolling his eyes.

“What the hell is your problem?” Eliot snapped. At the same time, he separated the drinks out so they could gather them in their hands. He was too irritated to float them. One might find itself dumped over Quentin’s head.

“He just seems like a tool,” Q said with a shrug. “I mean, Jesus, if I’m even talking about Encanto Oculto when I’m his age? Fucking kill me.”

Oh. Right. 

Eliot's jaw clenched.

Because Quentin was so much more evolved than the all silly people with their silly parties. Because only a frivolous idiot would be interested in that kind of bullshit. Because only morons liked social events and people and pretty lights over philosophy or literature or quantum metaphysical magic theory. Because someone like Idri—a dumb asshole who only cared about aesthetics and cocktails—wasn’t mature enough or interesting enough or good enough for the moody and book smart enigma of Quentin fucking Coldwater.

Eliot’s face was pinprick hot and he elbowed his way back toward the girls, while Quentin walked a few feet ahead. A storm cloud formed in his chest, wrapping his ribcage in a vice. He swallowed, and swallowed, heart pounding out his sternum and eyes burning.

“Oh, and by the way?” Quentin said, turning around and walking backwards. Eliot almost snarled something truly vicious at him. But with a shit-eating  grin and a loud hissing whisper, Q pointed a free finger to the space behind them, where Idri had been. “Beefcake.”

Eliot rolled his dark eyes with a scowl, signaling all his frustration in a single sharp glare. He wasn’t going to give him an inch. He didn't deserve it. So it was only when Q shrugged and turned back ahead that Eliot took the opportunity to let his traitorous, unhelpful smile slip loose. It really was hard to stay annoyed at him for long.

And his ass really did look great in those trunks.

 


 

SMS with  “ Q (cute face w long hair + flannel)
11/12/16 4:12 PM  

Eliot
Where are you

quentin
no punctuation what have you become

Where are you, asshole?

nice comma

Boat leaves in 30
Margo’s phone is dead but she says, and I quote,
“[She’ll] rip [your] perfect dick off if [you] [make her] late.”

you fucking dweeb
is this the new york times?
off the record: it is perfect

Seriously, where are you?

scratch that: on the record
publish it, mr. editor

She’s really mad

oh tell her to ice her twat
get her nips licked
& calm the fuck down

Yeah, I’ll say that
For sure

kissy face
be there in 5

Uh-huh
So we should leave without you, right?

oui oui, ami

NOPE GET THE FUCK OVER HERE
Say goodbye to the rando cock, dickbag

casse-toi

Sweetie if you aren’t here in ten mins?
I will BURN all your beautiful clothes

omg relax

They will call it “A Song of Paisley and Fire”
TRY ME A S S H O L E

jesus christ fine
omw

Hey, sorry
Margo grabbed my phone

whatever you say, liar

 


 

Four hours later, Eliot had definitely missed the boat to travel to the outer island for the banquet feast, but the hook ups had been worth it. God bless Encanto Oculto.

Even better, in a minor miracle, Margo was all bluster for once and his wardrobe was intact. Not that he had been genuinely worried, but he had been genuinely worried. So after Huey, Dewey, and Louie finally left, Eliot tugged on a too-tight white polo and buttoned his floral pants. He tutted out a few flame resistant spells on his remaining clothes (to be on the safe side), and then stepped out into the communal area of the house. He was ready to dazzle.

It was almost time for the first big blow out of Encanto, a raver-style club party-slash-literal bacchanal, across the whole beach. It wasn’t actually his style; he preferred his debauchery candlelit and sweaty. But it was crucial to see and be seen early on, to establish yourself as a worthy participant. So he wouldn’t miss it for the world, and neither would his friends under his tutelage.

Speaking of, his mood brightened at the sight of Miss Alice Quinn. She sat alone in the center of a giant magenta couch (?) and was enjoying a bowl of Lucky Charms. She was already dressed for the evening, in a black silk dress. Her smile was tiny around her big spoonfuls and he felt a rush of affection for her.

“Careful,” Eliot said with a half-grin, fussing with his collar. Flipped up? Down? Preppy confidence or relaxed cool? Both, neither? Such was his life. “Those might literally be charmed for all you know. Always assume magic.”

“I’ll take my chances,” Alice said with a tiny snort. She dipped her spoon in and let the milk fall in a stream back into the bowl. “So far everything I’ve seen has been interesting, but not particularly advanced. I don’t think I’ll be bested by sugar cereal.”

He hummed a noncommittal sound and slid next to her on the absolute monstrosity of a furniture piece. Jesus. Ignoring that, he wrapped an arm across the length of the couch  and focused all his attention on her. He hadn’t been great about that yet.

Alice smiled at him. “You smell good.”

He did. New cologne.

“You look lovely,” Eliot said in return and she blushed. He placed a warm hand on her knee. “How has the first day treated you? I’ve been remiss in checking in.”

Her eyes brightened. “Oh, it’s been wonderful. I’m having a nice time.”

Eliot shouldn’t have been surprised, but he was. He smiled as bright as her eyes. “Really?”

“Yes. I'll admit I’m not much of art person, generally,” she said, taking a final bite of her cereal. It left her with a slight milk mustache. She put it to the side and curled onto her legs so she could face him. “But Q and I spent almost a lot of last night wandering the galleries and trying to work out the magic and meaning of all the pieces. It was both fun and educational.”

Eliot’s smile dimmed. “Right. I noticed you two have been quite the pair.”

He hated it. He fucking hated it. He didn’t want to examine it, but he hated it. Hated it. Hated it.

“I think he’s worried I’ll be overwhelmed by all the sex and drugs, so he's trying to be a buffer,” Alice said with a smirk. She stretched her fingers out, creating tiny sparks without even meaning to. “One day I’ll invite him over to meet Stephanie and Daniel. Then politely let him know about all the dried egg on his face.”

Fuck. She was wonderful. She didn't deserve an ounce of his petty ire. It was irrational. He was being a dickhead. And he desperately wanted to meet Stephanie and Daniel. Quentin would have to get in line.

“He means well,” Eliot said, instead of any of that. He pulled his flask out and took a sip, before offering a nip to Alice, more perfunctory than anything. But she surprised him and took it from his hands. He smiled.

“I know he does,” she said, making a face at the scotch. Laphroaig was a hell of a place to start. But she still took another pull, valiant. “I see now why you like him so much. To be honest, I didn’t get it at first.”

“You weren’t a fan?” Eliot asked softly. He knew Quentin was an acquired taste to some people, but he personally didn't understand that. There had never been a second he didn’t like Q.

Alice shrugged. “I thought he was okay. But once I realized that sometimes he’s being funny on purpose, his appeal started to click into place.”

“It’s about forty, sixty,” Eliot said, grinning. “Purposeful, not.”

Alice looked both ways before leaning in with a toothy smile and whispering, “That might be a little generous, Eliot.”

He laughed at that and took his flask back. “Perhaps. But now you’re on my turf, my dear. No more Quentin's Learning Journey, I'm not sorry to say. I hope you’re ready for the time of your life.”

But Alice snorted again, all the louder. “Margo already gave me the rundown about this particular party. She may as well have had a PowerPoint presentation called Ways Elsa Might Embarrass Me and How I’ll Murder Her if She Does: A Three-Point Prevention Plan.

“You’ll be fine,” Eliot said wrapping an arm around her. “Bambi loves a good threat and turning good clean fun into a violently structured hierarchy, that’s all.”

Alice laughed. “I hadn’t noticed.”

“What matters is that, tonight, I’m all yours, okay?” Eliot said, popping a kiss on Alice’s cheek. She scrunched her nose back at him, undeterred by Bambi. She was much tougher than she looked. “Promise. At least, once I herd these cats and we actually get going.”

“Q and Julia are getting ready in his room,” Alice said, jutting her thumb over her shoulder. “But I think they’re fighting. I heard raised voices and then a ward went up.”

Ugh. Great.

With a sigh and a quick pat on Alice’s pretty head, Eliot pushed himself up off the couch by his palms. Time to do the worst part of his job.

Moving through the honestly absurdly decorated apartment, he stopped in front of Quentin’s door. There was definitely a ward, so he  looked through a frame to see what he was working with. It was shoddy, hastily thrown up.  Q’s work.  Without even thinking about it, Eliot waved his hands up and down, breaking it so they would hear his knock. But as he raised his fist to pound on the door so they would move their asses, he paused his hand in the air as the voices became clearer.

“It’s magical orgy week,” Julia’s voice said, exasperated. He could hear her hands on her hips, the little lines between her brows. “Why the hell did you think this would be a good idea?”

A book thudded against the floor. Eliot could tell it was a book because he could hear the flutter of pages.

“Terrible ideas are kinda my M.O.," Quentin responded, wry and dry as ever.

“I’m not sure what you expected here,” she said, unbending and harsh. “You’re going to get hurt. Over and over and over—”

“I’m a masochist,” Quentin’s voice said, cutting her off. He was trying to chuckle, but it came out strained. “Important to stay consistent. Principle of the thing.”

“You say that like it’s a joke—“

“Jules. I’m fine,” he said, sounding distinctly not fine, but that was none of Eliot’s business. “I know what I’m doing.”

Her foot stomped down, audible. “Historically, that hasn’t been the case.”

“I knew what I was getting into,” Quentin sighed and another book thudded at the wall. He cursed under his breath and the pages fluttered upward.

“There’s a difference between theory and practice—“

Yet another book thudded to the floor, bouncing off the wall. “Whoa, no shit?”

“Quentin.”

“Hey, uh, have I ever told you how much I love when you make that face and use my full name at the same time?” Oh, no. Bitchy Q was coming out to play. Danger, Will Robinson. “It always means great things for the conversation.”

“Excuse me for giving a shit about you,” Julia’s voice said, venomous fire.

“Do you give a shit about me,” he was getting more and more tinny and frustrated, “or do you give a shit about the care and keeping of your high horse?”

She scoffed, “Right, because you’ve never been reckless or obsessive when it comes to—“

“Yeah, well, you’d know about that, wouldn’t you?”

“Don’t you dare throw that in my face,” Julia said, and another book hit the wall even harder. What the hell was he doing? “We are fucking past that—“

“Obviously, but you think it’s the same when it’s not. It’s different because—“

“It is the fucking same! It’s exactly the same. No, actually, you know what? You’re right. It’s not. It’s worse. Because you’re an adult now.”

“Then treat me like one and let this the fuck go.” That time, it sounded like he straight up threw a book at the wall.

“Just... don’t torture yourself, okay?” Julia's voice said, so much softer than before. “Move on, Q.”

“Because you’re so certain that would be the result?" Quentin let out a bitter laugh, with a tinge of sadness at the faltering edge. "That I'll have to move on?”

“If I’m wrong, I’ll be glad for it,” Julia said, laughing a little herself. But then she let out a long breath and he heard someone move off the bed, with quick and determined steps. “But come on. The Scorpion and the Frog, okay?”

Another book slammed at the wall. “Jesus fucking Christ, Julia. You've made your feelings clear, alright? I get it. I get your fucking perspective.“

"Don't shoot the messenger, Q. All I care about is—"

Yeah, okay. Eliot had probably listened longer than he should have.  He was being rude. And creepy. Definitely creepy. Which was why his heart was racing like it'd been shocked with a taser, he was sure. So Eliot blinked once, hard, to reset himself and took a deep breath. Then he knocked too bright, shave-and-a-haircut. Two snips.

“Q, I broke your shitty ward,” he called into the wood, too loud and too sweet. “Because it’s time to get fucking moving. Coming in now, so if you’re jerking off, you have five seconds to—“

“I’m in here too,” Julia said with a loud sigh, the ruse complete. Eliot smirked to himself and turned the handle. When he stepped into the room, Julia was hugging herself against the dresser. Quentin was spinning his Fillory books in the air, practicing telekinesis. Only the most astute could have picked up any tension. Thus, for Eliot, it was rife, but he pretended otherwise.

“You kids finally ready to head out? Our first full night awaits,” he said, blithe and unbothered, looking back and forth between them. Julia was in a yellow sundress with fringe and Quentin was in khaki cargo pants under a plain black T-shirt. “Hm. Well. I suppose as much as you’ll ever be.”

Julia scrunched her face. “Fuck you, I look good.”

Eliot held his hand out and pulled her into his chest. If she seemed unusually tense in his arms, he pretended not to notice. “Of course you look lovely, darling. I was more speaking to your buddy pal here.”

“But this is my best T-shirt,” Quentin said with a grin, standing up from the bed and flying his books into a small pile on his nightstand. “The tag says it’s mostly polyester, but it has some wool too. I got it at Macy’s. Forty percent off.”

“Stop talking,” Eliot said, sighing fondly.  But Q elbowed him, leaning into his other side, arm wrapping around his waist. On instinct, Eliot brought him in closer, so he could feel the full line of his body against his. It was pathetic, but he would take anything Quentin would give him.

At the same time, Julia pulled away, to fix her hair in the mirror over Q’s dresser, lips pressed down in concentration.

“You look good,” Quentin said without preamble, glancing him up and down with a tiny smile. Eliot snapped his eyes down at him, heart pounding. His throat seized up, dry and aching. “Very tropical. It’s nice. Suits you.”

Eliot could count on his hands the number of times Quentin had complimented how he looked. And he could count on zero hands the number of times Quentin had directly complimented how he looked. He licked his lips and his brain whirred.

What was different about this outfit? Why did it—how did it—had he been choosing wrong all this time? He suddenly hated every single piece of clothing he owned, except for the ones currently on his body. His hands tingled and he fought his usual urge to pin Quentin down to the nearest soft surface, roaring stronger than ever. God.

Fuck.

Shit.

Eliot schooled his face into a vaguely amused twinkle and smiled at Quentin with a scoff. But his heart continued slamming itself against his ribcage as Q angled his face up at him, sweet and genuine and open. Too open. Too dangerous.

He wanted to kiss him.

But even more than he wanted to kiss him—which was a fucking lot—everything inside him wanted to whisper back something true, something kind, something real. He wanted to say something like, Thank you, Q. I hope you know I’m only teasing. I think you look very handsome. 

You always look so handsome.

You’re beautiful, Quentin.  

And in another world, he might have. In another world, he would have said all that and more, tucking his loose hair behind his ears before pressing his lips soft against his, warm and gentle and full of everything he felt. Maybe then he’d understand. Maybe then he’d know.  He’d have to know.

But in this world, in reality, the only thing Eliot knew was who he was. Nothing had changed. So he winked and elbowed him back, all while directing him and Julia out the door and toward Alice and the night ahead of them. He patted Quentin’s back and kissed Julia’s head, detached and cool as ever, ready to take on whatever glory came their way.

And so Eliot merely chuckled, haughty and aloof, and spoke behind his shoulder.

“Well, someone has to make the effort.”

 


 

Eliot should have known that the reveal of Bacchus, the actual Roman God of Revelry, wouldn’t impress Alice Quinn.  

He had thought she would at least be interested in the academic nature of his existence. That she would be fascinated by what it meant for the epistemology of the natural order of things, that the Greek and Roman gods were actual entities. But instead, as they stood on the warded, bass-vibrating beach, Alice rolled her eyes. She took a shot when Eliot pointed him out, tall and wearing a silver thong and a green feathered top hat.

“That guy’s an ass,” she said, sticking her tongue out and shuddering her whole body for effect. The beat dropped behind them and the revelers hollered in sweeping unison. “Stephanie and Daniel summoned him when I was sixteen and he spent the whole time talking about how he wanted to motorboat my tits.

Hm. Okay. That tracked.

“That’s kind of—“ Eliot cleared his throat, feeling awkward. “Sorry.”

Alice shrugged. “Age of consent is a human construct. He was an ass, but not acting outside his own ethical structure.”

“You’re assuming he has one,” Eliot said with a disbelieving snort. He knew Bacchus pretty well. He was not particularly concerned with any ethical structure, let alone an internal one that guided his own actions.

But she just hummed and stared up at the sky, painted in Romanesque frescoes. “He was also really into Trivial Pursuit? Every time the orgies stopped, he pulled out a different version and insisted on everyone playing. It was weird.”

Eliot both laughed and grimaced over his glowing lilac drink and finished it in a gulp. He needed to refocus his strategy. Even though Bacchus was the worst, the first big party was always classic. He always completed the details with go-go dancers, glittering strobe lights, insane MDMA, and live polar bears in stasis. For some reason. Better than that, everyone fucked everyone, on every available space, and the dance floor stretched into the sky. So while the concept may not have screamed “Alice Quinn,” but he was still determined to ensure she had a good time. It was his job, and he tok it seriously.

Luckily, she was already tipsy enough right off the bat to make that a possibility. Her cheeks were pink and eyes dancing, and she wrapped herself around him, giggling despite herself. Once they reached the dance floor, her breath hitched and her eyes were immediately drawn to a group of dancing women. They were all Irish, from what he could tell from their accents and the path forward became clear as a beacon.

Twirling her into the music, Eliot dipped her twice, all Astaire. Then, he gave her a devlish grin and spun her out toward a beautiful red-headed woman, who smiled and gently kissed her on the lips once. Alice let out a high-pitched squeal, before pausing against the woman, flushed in her arms. Then, like she was possessed with newfound inner fire, she kissed her back in earnest, open-mouthed and urgent. Pride swelled in his chest and he could have cried.

What a beautiful moment.

But before she disappeared into the crowd, Alice flitted her eyes over to Eliot once, questioning. Like, Is this okay? Like she was worried he would feel abandoned or some ridiculous nonsense. She was always such a sweetheart.

Bowing to her once, he backed away, hands wide open with the world he was giving her. Out of the corner of his eye as he left, he saw her wrap her arms around the woman's neck and pull her down into another fervent embrace. His work done—and shockingly easy—Eliot skulked off in search of his own fun, be it drugs or boys or ideally dancing betwixt both.

So as he slid and swerved his way through the crowd, he kissed and was kissed at least eight times, all tongue and teeth and meaningless want. He popped something purple on his tongue that made the world move slower, shimmering with the beat. Everything honeyed and his arms swam through the gauzy air, his eyes closed and his skin vibrating. Bodies pressed into him like a trance and his chest was bereft, wondrous and light, all at once. Everything was perfect and full and the night was the Milky Way, carrying him outside of himself.

The best place to be.

But when his eyes opened and the light of a thousand stars and fireflies wrapped themselves around his spine, tickling his soul, he found himself at a bar, in the dark. But a lighthouse was at the outer edge, bringing ship to shore. It wrapped into itself, moody and dour and the most beautiful thing he had ever seen in his whole goddamn life.

It was Q.

So Eliot walked over to him and touched his hair, and it was beautiful.

Quentin had beautiful hair. He didn’t tell him that enough. Or ever. He tell him, at some point. Because Quentin had the softest hair and he loved playing with it, anytime he could. And Q was so cute, like a sweet little nerd who was just... so... fucking cute with his dumb clothes and his silly Fillory books and his fidgeting hands, that all just made him all the more endearing, really. And fuck, the way he listened to The Smiths, all the time, which should have been a terrible cliche. But on Q, it worked. He made it work, somehow, because he was so sweet and earnest, underneath it all. He was such a good person and Eliot was lucky to know him.

Q was smiling at him now and blinking, confused. “Uh, El?”

Cutie.

Anyway, the thing about Quentin was that he could be such an ass sometimes, but at his core, he was kind and he was hopeful, and he always tried so hard. Q always tried so hard, and Eliot admired that so much about him. Haven’t had a dream, in a long time. And god, he had beautiful hair. So fucking beautiful—

“Yeah, okay. You might want to take this,” beautiful Q said, handing him a red bottle. He sucked his lips inward, like he was trying not to laugh but no one told a joke. “You’re talking out loud.”

Huh.

Eliot registered that he should be embarrassed, but he couldn’t feel it. Besides, it wasn’t like Q would judge him. If anyone understood the need for escape, it was Q. Q with his dumb, adorable books and cute hair and flannel that never fit him right—

“El, seriously,” Quentin said, shuddering out that held in laugh. “Drink the fucking potion. I need to put a stop to this, much as it pains me to give up the blackmail material.”

Ugh. He was cute but he was still a dick.

“Back at you. Drink the potion.”

Quentin was a cherubic, obnoxious little brat, but truly just fucking adorable. Much cuter than he gave himself credit for. He was also kind and dependable, so if he said to drink the potion, Eliot should probably drink the potion. So he unscrewed the top, let the red liquid rest under his tongue for faster absorption, and then—

“Shit,” Eliot said, shaking his head. He stretched his jaw. He blinked. Shit. “Shit. What the fuck?”

"Welcome back," Quentin said, feasting on shit through his wild grin. Oh, Jesus.

Shit.

He blinked and took in his surroundings. He was by one of the bars, in the quietest corner. Q was sitting by himself, nursing an Old Fashioned on a stool, staring out over the stretch of the party. It was very on-brand. Also, thank fucking god, Eliot wasn’t talking out loud without realizing it anymore. Jesus.

“It was like you were narrating the most embarrassing thoughts you’ve ever had about me,” Quentin said with another laugh, unconcerned. Which, uh… sure. They could go with that. So Eliot raised his eyebrows, wry, and grabbed Quentin’s drink to take a sip.

Shit.

Quentin nudged him and snorted. “For the record, you have beautiful hair too.”

Eliot bit the inside of his cheek and pierced the far-too-entertained Q with a devastating glare. “Fuck you.”

“Also, cherubic?” Quentin’s smile widened into those impish bracketing dimples. Good god. “What do you think that word means?”

“It’s a synonym for 'childish asshole,'” Eliot said, snapping his fingers at a bartender. He wanted something fun and sweet, not all depressing and For Whom the Bell Tolls. He ordered a couple of mojitos before huffing a breath and turning back to Quentin.

“So. Are you having fun, in this dreary little corner by yourself?” Eliot asked, deftly changing the subject. His mouth reached up one side of his face. Quentin at least had the decency to blush and rub the back of his neck.

“I mean, it’s—“ he gestured out toward the crowd. “It’s a lot.”

The drinks came in record time and Eliot handed one to Quentin. They clinked their glasses together, rote. “Mind if I give you some advice, Little Q?”

“I hate that nickname,” Quentin said with a grumble, glaring over his mint sprig.

“I know,” he said, ruffling his hair. Quentin glared all the harder from under the strands that fell along his strong brow and delicate nose. “But I’m speaking as your mentor right now, not your friend.”

“A condescending as fuck mentor?”

“I know crowds make you nervous, but it’s Encanto Oculto,” Eliot said, ignoring him. He wrapped a signature tight arm around his shoulders. He was still buzzed enough to feel tingly from the hot line of Quentin’s taut and dense body against his. “A feast for the senses and the id. If you want, you can usually take. You just have to figure out what you want.”

Quentin’s jaw tensed. “Oh, is that all? Thanks, El.”

“I’m sensing sarcasm, sir.”

“You know it’s not that simple,” he said quietly, as he traced patterns in the condensation left by the cold glass. Eliot’s heart squeezed and he sighed, placing his hand on the nape of Quentin’s neck. Sometimes he wanted to shake him, to bring him into the present moment where things were good and they could be good for him too. Bu like he said. Not that simple.

Still, he had to try.

“Q, darling, let’s logic this out,” Eliot said, leading him along the bar, in search of the platters of shots. Quentin’s hunched shoulders relaxed under his touch, which was something at least. “Do you want to stand in the corner alone?”

He got a twisted smile in response. “Kinda.”

“Wrong answer,” Eliot said as he grabbed a neon orange shot and handed it over. “You are a fun and worthwhile addition to any social situation and I’m not going to let that brain of yours tell you otherwise, hm?”

Quentin was looking at him strangely again, eyes glittering in the moving lights. Eliot pushed past his racing heart to continue.

“Listen, if you want to head back to the house and read or watch porn or whatever, I don’t care but—“ He cut himself off and took a shot. No use in lying to the man. “Well, no, I would care if you did that. I’d—we’d all miss you. But I do want you to have a good time, whatever that looks like.”

“I am having a good time,” Quentin said, though he gave a sad smile and licked his lips when Eliot leveled him with a disbelieving stare. He raised his eyebrows, acquiescing. “Generally, I’m having a good time. I’m just... in my head tonight. I got in a fight with Jules before we came here and I can’t shake the funk.”

“First of all, fuck Julia,” Eliot said automatically, sliding his hand down and around Quentin’s waist to tug him close again. “Second of all, that’s what alcohol is for, baby bear. It’s like I’ve taught you nothing.”

“El, I—” Quentin swallowed and glanced over to the crowd. “I’m fine, okay? I don’t need you to take care of me. I’m not going to be responsible for bringing you down.”

“God, you couldn’t if you tried,” Eliot said with a laugh. But then he softened, hand tangling gently in Q’s hair. “But most of all, that’s nonsense. I want this to be good for you, Q.”

As soon as the words slipped unwelcome from his lips, he was overwhelmed by how much he meant them. By how much he wanted everything to be good for Q. His legs were unsteady, so he leaned against the bar and extracted his hand, casual and definitely not trembling. Gathering his poise and control, he kinetically raised two of the shots in the air and winked at his friend, who was still staring and staring at him.

Enough of that.

“Courage, dearheart,” Eliot said, with a smirk. Quentin rolled his eyes. It was the exact reaction he anticipated.

“Yeah, I’m going to pretend you didn’t quote C.S. Lewis at me,” he said, though he finally took shot, jaw tilting upward to the sky. His eyes widened at the flavor and the tingle on his tongue. But then he smacked his lips and pretended to glare. “You’re supposed to be my friend.”

Eliot chuckled. “Friends don’t let friends read Narnia?”

“No,” Quentin said, eyes dark. “That’s for mortal enemies. Everyone can fuck off with their Christian bullshit. Fillory or bust, forever.”

God, he was such a fucking nerd. He was so fucking cute. His mouth went dry all over again and the only solution was to drink more. More and more and more.

“My apologies,” he said, as the booze flowed into his veins, gliding over the hot ball of fire that Quentin always sparked in his core. But Eliot would have to keep drinking to prevent it from flaring up again, because Q’s eyes stayed dark as he looked straight at him, the spinning strobe lights silhouetting his frame against the Mediterranean. 

“And uh, well, you’re definitely not my mortal enemy,” Q said, voice hoarse and burning Eliot to a crisp from the inside out. He took another shot and shook his head, clicking his tongue against the roof of his mouth.

“I mean, I should hope not,” he said, airy and arch to contrast his snarling, hot interior. There was a siren somewhere, in the distance, maybe. “Otherwise, I’ve been reading the signals wrong.”

Quentin took a step closer and his smile quirked. “Signals?”

He widened his own smile expertly as Q took a sip of his mojito, no longer abandoned. “You know. Of our epic bromance.”

The spit take came exactly as choreographed. “I’m sorry, our what?”

“That’s what Julia calls it.”

Quentin’s eyes widened and his mouth opened in a drawn laugh. “Jesus Christ.”

“Right?” Eliot sighed, leaning his head against Quentin’s and patting his arm. “She’s the goddamn worst.”

“You know, tonight,” he said, settling in against him and oh, it felt too right. Abort. Abort. Eliot pulled away, supposedly to grab another drink. If Quentin noticed the abruptness, he didn’t let on. Instead, he kept sipping his drink and sighing, that infamous Coldwater sigh.

“Tonight, I’ll agree with that,” Q said, sad and resigned and still fucking sighing. Honestly, it was a sigh that did not portend good things. So Eliot snapped his fingers in front of Quentin’s face and tapped the mojito. Dutifully, Q gulped at it.

“You know I’m always happy to talk shit about Julia,” Eliot said, and relished the annoyed grimace he got back as a reward. “But the world is your oyster, my friend, with all the aphrodisiac implications I can muster. And frankly, I’d be a terrible wingman—“

Wingman? What the fuck?”

He ignored that and continued “—if I didn’t encourage you to get out there a bit.”

Quentin’s hair fell in front of his face. Another sigh. “El.”

He nudged him and kicked his ankle at the same time. “Come on. Go dance, go get tantric with a nymph, go down on a cute surfer girl, or, like, even go talk about Star Trek with literal Roman god. I wasn’t kidding when I said there’s something for everyone.”

“Yeah, I know, but I just—”

“No, none of that,” Eliot said, more serious than he’d been yet. He smiled softly at Q, still endlessly fond of him no matter how obstinate he was being. But this was good for him. “There has to be something you want, Q.”

“Sure, but—”

“And as your friend and mentor,” he said, chuckling but not joking, as he put both of his hands on Quentin’s shoulders, “I want you to at least try, one time, okay? Then you can fuck off and do whatever isolationist bullshit you think you want.”

“Introversion isn’t the same as isolation—“

Eliot ducked his head and stared him right in the eyes. “But you deserve to get what you actually want sometimes, Coldwater. I'm serious.”

Q worked his jaw for a second, looking away from Eliot. He stared out at the crowd, unmoving and unblinking. Then, fast as anything, he grabbed another neon shot from behind him and downed it.

“Yeah. You’re right. Okay. I, uh,” he cleared his throat, eyes darting around. He grabbed yet another shot and twisted it between his fidgeting fingers before staring ahead, resolute. “No, yeah. I know what I want.”

Triumphant, Eliot smiled and licked his thumb, dabbing it over Quentin’s sexy little chin. “Then go get ‘em, tiger.”

 


 

Alice’s arms went up over her head and she shrieked in victory, the high-pitched sound laughing bright over the pounding music. Her blonde hair shone like a diamond against the inky night.  

Eliot snaked his way over, the same writhing bodies now falling drunkenly into him as he landed next to her, curling an arm around her shoulders. She startled at the touch—engrossed in the game—but her eyes lit up when she recognized him and she giggled an excited Eliot! as she melted into his side.

“Celebrity shot?” He asked in her ear. Alice was standing at the far end of a long and ornate silver table, with six remaining champagne flutes arranged in a diamond in front of her torso. On the opposite side, the three glasses in front of two good looking—and frustrated—Asombro students were in a small triangle.

It was champagne pong. The bougiest of the pongs.

“Only if you’re good,” Alice said, arching an eyebrow. “I’m kicking butt.”

She hiccuped. He adored her. But still, asking if he was good at tossing small objects into cups was insulting. So he scoffed, shooting the small mother-of-pearl ball upward without his hands and twirled it around in the air, to prove a point. But of course, the action was met with immediate angry protests in annoyed Catalan.

Sense telekinesi, gilipolles,” one of the guys said, snapping his fingers and sharpening his brow.

Jesus. What, no room for showmanship? Pissy babies, embarrassed in a drinking game by a sweet little nerd. But before he could respond for himself, Alice spit fire.

Merda, no és estúpid,” she replied, stilted in her Catalan but getting the message across.

But the men continued glaring through their bruised egos until Eliot exaggeratedly plucked the ball from the air. He tossed it in a perfect spin and arch. Alice pumped her fist to her chest and jumped in the air as it hit the liquid. Eliot licked his lips lasciviously at the Spaniards, with no intention of fucking either of them. He only fucked winners.

Which was exactly what he told them at the end of the game, much to Alice’s screaming delight.

Once they thoroughly embarrassed the two gentlemen, Eliot floated the remaining champagne over to a small table. That way, they could drink Alice’s spoils as they pleased, congratulating each other on their unadulterated prowess. It must have been how Gengis Khan felt.. Only without, you know, the raping and pillaging, and more cuddling and whispering with a new good firend at a party. Details.

He drank a glass of champagne like a shot. He’d lost count of how much they’d all had to drink. Oops.

Eliot was thrilled to see Alice again, especially holding her own version of court and having a good time. She was certainly hiding in no corners, far exceeding his own perhaps unfair expectations. And she also definitely had glitter lip gloss on her neck, which was an extra little thrill all its own.

So they drank and talked and laughed, and pointed out cute boys and cute girls. Then they moved to the dance floor, finding Margo and Julia, and more neon orange shots filled their minds with fuzzy sensation. The three women danced together, equal parts goofy and sensual, and Eliot swayed to the music, watching and listening and feeling. Soon, another young woman wrapped herself around Alice and Eliot briefly wondered if he should check in on that, to make sure Alice wasn’t too drunk. That she wouldn’t regret anything come morning.

And he was going to do that. He really was. He was even making his way over to her, resolve on his lips far more than anything else.

But then a warm hand grabbed the crook of his elbow and all linear processing disappeared in a flash.

“Hey you, dance with me.” Quentin’s voice was low and raspy against Eliot’s ear, his hand tugging at his waistband.  A spiderweb of heat cascaded across his whole body and the world was in spotlit tunnel vision. Eliot repressed a swallow and dipped in toward him, automatic, his nose almost touching Quentin’s neck. For a second, he couldn't breathe.

Then he hitched a sharp breath, forcing himself to logically evaluate what was happening. Because… oh, boy. If Q was drunk enough not only to dance, but to request dance partners? Then he was drunker than drunk. Eliot risked a look at his face and found his eyes, wider than the open sky, looking at Eliot like he was the only thing in the room.

Yup. Mr. Drunky indeed.

So Eliot chuckled and wrapped an arm around Quentin, letting himself be amused by the turn of events and nothing else. Nothing else.

“Well now. Who am I to deny my drunk Little Q anything?” Eliot said, voice softer than he wanted, even as he twisted them out onto the dance floor, exaggerated in his moves. But with a happy sigh, Q’s hands traveled up Eliot’s arms and landed on his shoulders, just as a madcap grin landed on his sweaty, bright face.

He was—

Um.

Eliot closed his eyes and focused on the music. He laughed, performative, and spun Quentin out from him. A clamorous, unruly beat had taken over the smooth and deliberate pulsing from before. Whenever Bacchus was really wasted, the vibe always shifted from hip and cutting edge house and trance music to truly obnoxious pop hits. And then when he got really wasted, he played his absolute favorite song in the multiverse on repeat, his most prized hymn, at full volume so that the heavens would part in its splendor.

T-t-t-tasty, tasty!” The crowd hollered out breathily, screaming into the verse with swelling joy. “Fergalicious, def— Fergalicious, def— Fergalicious, def-def-def-def-def—

Which, thank god, because the music’s turn to the terrible helped keep him grounded. It helped him remember where he was, who he was, and what this was. Two friends having fun. That's all.

It helped when Quentin laughed, exhilarated and uncharacteristic, and Eliot’s own grin widened with unadulterated glee. It helped as the music kept playing, and he and Q twirled each other around, stumbling in their graceless dance moves. The sheer number of drinks they’d each had were catching up with them in the best way. They kept each other upright through each verse and Eliot cackled when Quentin loudly complained about the misspelling in the song (“There’s no fucking E!” he hollered through the cup of his hands), until they were both red in the face and falling over each other.

The world moved in surreal flashes.

At some point, Margo and Julia joined them too, hands graceful in the air and harmonizing laughter filling his sparkling veins.

The room was spinning around them and throughout it, the warm press of Quentin’s hands on his back or tight around his waist kept him afloat, his familiar scent of drugstore soap and laundered clothes and toasted piñonr wrapping around him like a blanket.

But they were in Ibiza, so all that mixed with the sticky sweet smell of pink melon and sunscreen and fuck, he was intoxicating.  

It was lucky that he had to breathe to laugh or he would have fallen to a puddle on the floor, dizzy and delirious.

After awhile, Margo and Julia disappeared like they were never there, and he and Q were yelling lyrics at the top of their lungs, arms around each other’s shoulders, falling over like drunken sailors in a shoreline pub.

Eliot was light and drifting on air, even as his center of gravity kept pulling him down to the floor and into Quentin.

Closer and closer and closer into Quentin.

The loud music pounded and he was lightheaded. One of his legs slotted between Q’s thighs.

His hands raced up and down his arms, tight muscles defined under his soft shirt and goosebumps rising on his soft skin with every touch.

Their chests were touching and Eliot’s lips were against Quentin’s temple, laughter dying and something hotter and sharper taking its place. His fingers gripped at empty belt loops, palms settling on hips as they moved together. 

He didn’t know the song anymore. He didn’t care.

All he could feel was Quentin, moving against him. His eyes were closed and long hair tickled his nose, and his stomach bottomed out when Q gathered him even closer, hands sliding up his chest and wrapping around his neck. Their lips almost touched before Quentin hummed out a laugh and settled his cheekbone against his.

“You’re a good dancer, El,” he whispered against his ear lobe and holy shit, Eliot could feel it. His toes curled, delirious from the strobe lights and the waning night.

“At least, I really like dancing with you,” Quentin continued, turning around in Eliot’s arms—god, why wasn’t he always in Eliot’s arms?— tilted his head upwards to gently brush his nose against the underside of his jaw.

The strobe light blinded Eliot, weakening his legs into jello shots.

Fuck.

He swallowed everything building up inside and he blinked, reminding himself exactly where he was and who he was and what this was.  

“Hm, someone’s tactile this time around,” Eliot said, gruff and spinning Quentin away and back, yet at a safer distance. “I thought drunk you is more into Margo.”

The number of times he had come across Quentin making moon eyes at Bambi after a round of drinks had never been lost on Eliot. It wasn't now either.

“Yeah, Drunk Quentin might be,” Q said, his warm brown eyes tracing up and down Eliot’s face, with a sly sparkle. “But Quentin-Quentin is—”

“Is what?” Eliot pulled him closer when he stopped talking. Quentin-Quentin is what? Quentin is what?

But instead of continuing down that terrifying path, Q laughed, smiling down at the ground. Then he glanced up, those fucking eyes glowing at him with something sweet and heated in equal measure.

“Let’s—um, hey, you wanna get out of here?” Quentin asked, but he was already pulling Eliot's hand toward the quiet bonfires further down the beach. His feet followed without any input from his brain. “We could, like, go for a walk?”

Eliot smiled over the tocsin in his chest. Warning. Warning. Alert. “Us? A walk? How novel.”

Speeding up and holding his hand firmer, Quentin stumbled over his own feet as hiccuped. “I mean, those walks are, like, the best part of my whole life.”

Holy shit.

He breathed out his mouth, heart in tremor like an aftershock. Okay. Okay. Quentin was drunk, he reminded himself. Drunk people say stupid shit all the time. It's kinda their thing. So instead of letting the sentiment crawl its way into his stupid heart, he chuckled and wrapped his arm around Q’s shoulders.

“Alright, drunkard,” he said, only barely rolling his eyes at Q’s immediate I’m not that drunk. He smiled down at him with all the friendliness he could muster. “Walk it is.”

With a quick hit of unexpected worry,Eliot looked behind him to see if he could catch a glimpse of Alice in the crowd. But she was gone, sheathed into the twisting and jolting crowd. His eyebrows twitched with a second's concern, until Quentin’s entwined their fingers and his thumb brushed gently along his skin.

She was probably fine.

 


 

Eliot always hated his feet. They reminded him of macabre accordions, a skeleton’s playthings.

Not that he would ever admit such a poetic insecurity aloud. But as much as he enjoyed a good foot massage like anyone with a working nervous system, he was always painfully aware that his feet were too long. He had thin bird bones that jutted out of his pale skin with every step. His second toe was taller than his big toe, a Morton's foot. Honestly, if he could always avoid being barefoot, he would. He would wear brogues to the pool.

So that meant one of his favorite small details about Encanto Oculto was the walking paths on the enchanted beach. Though they were invisible to the eye, the space was unblemished by the rough grains of the tiny, irritating stones that made up sand. Thus, wearing shoes was easy and comfortable. Easy to wear shoes and you could avoid the disgusting feel of wet sand even at high tide. Double win.

But god help him, when Quentin kicked his own flip-flops and giddily charged toward the bonfires, in the uncharted sand, Eliot lost himself. They charged together barefoot, still stumbling and laughing, toward the nearest bonfire, as Eliot explained the ins and outs of the nighttime beach charms. The bonfires and blankets were of particular interest to those seeking escape or privacy, a place to relax away from the crowds. As soon as the blankets sensed weight or warmth, an invisibility shield went up over it, like a cloche on a candle. It was a neat trick.

“So Phosphoromancy then?” Quentin asked, eyes matching the reflection of the moon on the sea. “Like Alice’s discipline? She's such a badass at that.”

Eliot grimaced, heart sinking. “I suppose.”

But Q didn’t seem to notice the shift in tone as he flopped down on a patterned blanket, quilted in reds and oranges, mimicking the fire beside it. In the warmth, he dipped his head back, his skin golden and dreamy.

“That’s too fucking cool. All of this is. Nothing is better than magic,” Q said, sighing with drunken delight. Eliot raised his eyebrows and snorted, shifting back and forth on his feet.

“As always, agree to disagree,” he said, a touch snottily. The muscles in his jaw were tense. He was drunk. He needed to drink more, to recalibrate. But when he started to reach for his flask, Quentin smiled up at him, eyes crinkled and warm.

“I like disagreeing with you more than I like agreeing with anyone,” he said, palms behind him and digging into the blanket. Tension broken, Eliot laughed and lowered himself down to a seated position.

“What is ‘Things Q Would Never Say Sober,’ Alex?” Eliot quipped, sitting folded on the back of his heels. Quentin let out a loud laughing hiccup.

“That was nerdy,” Quentin stage-whispered at Eliot, giggling through every syllable. “You’re such a fuckin’ nerd.”

“Hm,” Eliot said, compelled by the booze to move forward until their knees touched. He smiled, tilting his head and wobbling with their eyes locked. “But even if I admitted it, no one would ever believe you. You'd go mad.”

Without warning, Quentin surged forward. His hands were on his forearms and his warm breath tickled his ear. Eliot could feel his smile and his body rushed with a shudder.

“Yeah, well," Quentin said, lips too close. "Personal satisfaction is all I’m after.”

The bonfire snapped and roared. Eliot closed his eyes and forced a smile over his tight chest, still temple to temple with Q. His heart was racing, hands twitching at his side. He was drowning.

“If I didn’t know better,” he said, catching and hoarse, missing the aim for light by a mile, “I’d say that almost sounded like a line, Coldwater.”

Quentin didn’t respond to that. Instead, he pulled back and squinted, like he was seeing through Eliot, down through his skin, down into his soul. Eliot wanted to run screaming into the water. But he didn’t move. He couldn’t move.

“I always like when you wear short sleeves,” Quentin said, out of fucking nowhere, inching even closer. The pads of his quick and gentle fingers trailed fire along Eliot’s arms. “Makes you seem more human.”

His lungs weren’t totally working, but he managed to wheeze out, “Human?”

“Yeah,” Q said, tiny smile flickering in the moonlight. He was so fucking beautiful. “It’s like… you seem more real to me. Like you’re actually here, instead of starring in some fever dream I’m having.”

“Um,” Eliot said, all other language failing him. Quentin scooted closer again. His fingers circled wide and always returned to the pulse point, almost tickling, but too reverent to be such. And he was certain Q could see the relentless pounding of his heart. How could he not?

“It’s like you’re—“ Quentin swallowed and glanced up, pupils vast as the sky above them “—like you’re a little less untouchable, you know?”

With that, he fell forward on his knees, his hands grazing up and over Eliot’s shoulders, until they were cupped around his face. His deft fingers danced across his cheeks in soft touches, untethering Eliot from everything tangible except Quentin's touch. It felt amazing, but it was too much, and he closed his eyes, the world swirling and tingling and nothing but—

“Q,” Eliot gasped out, desperate. “Q. What—what are you doing?”

Of course, the real question should have been Eliot, what are you doing? What the fuck are you doing this is dangerous you know he’s dangerous what the fuck are you doing? But the drugs and the night and the line of the moon on the sand made that self-preserving voice garbled and distant, though it were speaking underwater.

And Quentin’s thumb brushed over the line of Eliot’s cheekbone, lips a hair's breadth away. He let out a small laugh, broken and wonderstruck, before he whispered, “God, you’re so gorgeous, El.”

Surf obliterated sand.  

Eliot's face dropped into the crook of his shoulder, unable to stay upright any longer. “Oh my god.

It was desolate. He didn’t care. His hands trembled as hard as his voice. He sounded as wrecked as he felt, but he didn’t fucking care. Because Quentin wanted Eliot.

He finally wanted Eliot.

His hands clutched the thin fabric of his shirt, smooth and warm under his rings. Quentin, Quentin, Quentin. His nose grazed the hot skin of his neck.

“Eliot,” Q’s voice was low and rough, lips on his earlobe. Eliot’s hands found their way to Q’s soft hair and high holy fuck, if he didn’t kiss him soon he was going to die. “El, please.“

Eliot closed his eyes and pressed his lips against the salt-sweet of his neck. He kissed upward, along his favorite groove. His hands slid up Quentin’s back, relishing the feel of his firm muscles and the heat of his body. He traced his thumb over his cupid’s bow once, tingles pouring into the centermost point of his palm. Quentin whimpered, breathing hard and clutching at Eliot’s knees.

The words came out before he could stop them, husky and adrift. “Jesus. You can’t know how much I’ve wanted this, Q.”

It was like he had issued a challenge. Quentin let out a strangled sound and tilted his face upward, almost defiant. He brushed the tip of his nose against Eliot’s, and his hands stretched over and across his incandescent chest. Eliot tightened his arms around his waist and his senses went haywire. Then Q’s soft brown eyes fluttered shut, and he erased the distance between them. It was a soft touch of lips, in a shy dance. Sharp stubble above, soft parting underneath.

Eliot was frozen still, his brain unable to catch up with what was happening. He couldn’t move, he couldn’t breathe. At least, until Q’s tongue slipped light against his, seeking and gentle and snapping the entire universe into place.

Repeat the sounding joy.

He kissed him back fiercely, pulling him in as close as he could. He gripped at his neck with one hand and twisted the back of his shirt with the other. He poured everything he’d ever wanted into it, hands moving upward to his fucking incredible hair. He was the most beautiful, the most perfect, the most—the most—

“Quentin,” Eliot breathed out, between tilting kisses. He cupped his face between his hands. “Quentin.”

Q made a low whine from the back of his throat as he clutched deeper into Eliot’s arms. They fell on their sides, legs tangled together and lips desperate. Fuck. He’d thought about this moment so much. Too much. And it was so better than he imagined. 

He smiled into Q's mouth and kissed down his neck. Quentin arched his back and made a small choked off sound, eyes closed. Eliot scraped his teeth along the contour of his throat, probably marking him, definitely not caring.   Mine. He was perfect. It was all perfect. Random. But perfect. He laughed against Quentin's skin, the absurdity hitting him.

"Where the fuck did this come from?" Eliot asked, joking, delirious, between messy touches of lips and soft moans.

The question was rhetorical. He didn’t actually care. It was happening and that was all that mattered.

“I just—” Quentin answered, because of course he did. He was breathless and Eliot ran his fingers up his sides. He pulled him seated onto his lap, not willing to stop touching him for one goddamn second. " I thought maybe it was time we did something about this.”

“About what?” He still didn’t care about the answer. He wanted Quentin to stop talking. They had talked to each other enough. So much fucking talking. He kissed him, hard.

Q pulled away, panting. He only went barely an inch, their lips still tingling together. “About us. Between us. There’s always been— I mean, I’m not crazy, right?”

Eliot rested his forehead against his, breathless for a moment. “No. Never crazy. About anything.”

Still hesitant, Quentin held his fingers above his face and stared at him, wide-eyed and serious. “But you feel it too, right? Um, this—do you—do you feel the same? As me?”

Eliot didn’t really know how to answer that. He wasn’t ready to answer that. He didn’t presume to know what Quentin felt and right now he couldn’t—

It wasn’t time to think about that. Not yet.

So instead of an answer, he bit at the bare crook of Quentin’s neck and Q gasped, palms flat and urgent against his chest. 

“Don’t overthink it,” Eliot said, mouthing at his jaw. He tasted like stars. “The night is young, baby.”

Quentin's breath hitched at the endearment and he pulled Eliot to him by his shirt, kissing him like he meant it. They slid back down into the blanket, soft and deep. He stretched their hands over their heads, fingers entwined. He was beautiful. He was perfect. Everything was perfect. 

His hands moved desperate over Quentin's body, relishing the feel of his shoulders, back, his perfect ass. Eliot wasn't sure how long they stayed there, kissing like teenagers under the Encanto sky. It may have been hours.

He would have been fine with forever.

But then Q started talking again. Because it was Q and talking was what he did. He wasn't sure if he felt more fond or frustrated at his babbling and how it interrupted all the ways his lips intended to stay occupied. It was a heady combination of the two, an intoxicating shot right in the solar plexus. He was so fucking cute. He was perfect. Eliot adored him.

He was saying something about the house and Eliot tried to pay attention. He really did. But where Quentin would usually say um or uh or like, he kissed Eliot instead and that was... His chest cracked open and he gently pulled him closer. The words washed meaningless over him.

He brought them heart to heart, to quell the sting of his raw nerve endings. Eliot offered his own featherlight kisses with every breath. He was floating. This was a dream.  

“—think?”

Shit.

He half-opened his eyes and smiled at the sucker punch sight of Quentin looming over him, by the dimming golden fire. The magic was fading. He tucked his tangled hair behind his ear.

“Hey,” Eliot said, voice thick. By the softly exasperated look on Q’s face, that wasn’t the expected response to whatever the fuck he had been saying. But he still kissed Eliot again and rested his forehead against his. So it was alright.

“Were you listening to me at all?” He smiled like he knew the answer.

Eliot laughed and kissed the tip of his nose. “Not a damn word.”

“Well, I was saying that, uh—”

Eliot kissed him again. None of that. Not here. Quentin shivered and smiled.

“I was saying that as much as I’d love to fulfill my Never Have I Ever destiny, maybe we should head back to the house? And to a bed? I have some stuff there. Though, uh—” Eliot kissed him, holding his face. Quentin smiled. “Though from what I can tell, my condoms might be a little tight on you, so it might be—”

Holy shit. His arms wrapped around Quentin’s waist, hands sliding up the smooth skin of his back under his shirt. He might have gasped out loud, which would have been embarrassing, except—holy shit.

God, he was going to make it so good for him.

Eliot kissed him again, stumbling into it in desperation, pushing him back on the blanket. It was going to be so goddamn good. He would put his mouth on every inch of him. He would take him apart as long as he could bear, until he was spent and shaking in his arms. He would make him forget everything in the cruel world except how much Eliot wanted him and how much he cared for him. Then he'd know. God, he'd have to know.

“So it might be better to go to your room? I don’t know. All I want is—” Quentin brought Eliot’s palm to his lips. He closed his eyes and tucked his cheek into the warmth. “But what do you think?”

Eliot answered honestly, eyes closed. “I’m not sure I’m capable of real thought right now, baby.”

Baby,” Quentin murmured into his hand. He could feel him smile as he brushed soft kisses against his fingers. Their eyes met again. “I’ll make it simple then. Eliot, I want you. Do you want me?”

His heart hammered. “Q. Come on.”

Quentin wrapped his hands into his hair. He trailed kisses along his jawline. “I hope you do. I think... I think we’ve maybe both wanted this for a long time. I know I have.”

Eliot whimpered, head falling backward. “How long?”

How long how long how long how long

But Quentin didn’t answer. He dug his nose into the space under Eliot’s cheekbone and gripped his arms. “Do you want me, El? I—I need to know. Please.”

“I told you I do,” Eliot said, pushing Quentin’s hair back, something cold swirling its way along the ridges of his spine. He clenched his jaw against it and reeled him back in for a fierce kiss. None of that. Not there. Not now. Not yet.

“Yeah, but—“ Quentin’s voice was muffled against his lips, and Eliot needed him to shut the fuck up. He didn’t want to think about the implications, the consequences. Not now. Not yet. Not when he had him, in that perfect moment. Not when thinking about the ramifications would—

“But Eliot,” Quentin put a hands length distance between them, breathing hard through his swollen lips. “I think, um—I mean, I know we’ve both had a lot to drink, so—“

Stop. Fucking. Talking.

“So I need to know that you understand what I want here,” Quentin finished, a death knell. He held his hand to Eliot’s heart and rested his forehead against his. His eyes shut, tight and hopeful. “And—and I need to know that you want the same thing, baby.”

Eliot sighed. He wasn’t stupid. He knew what Quentin was saying. What Quentin thought he was saying.

He knew it wasn't Let’s fuck tonight and then forget about it. He knew exactly what Q was trying to convey. About his feelings, about the two of them, about the assurance he wanted. He was saying that he thought it was—  

That all of it was—

That Eliot was—

Yeah. Fuck. He knew.

In that moment, he wanted what Eliot wanted. There was no uncertainty and no hesitation. In that moment, they were on the exact same page, drunk and wanting each other more than air, in every way.

But moments? Ha.

Moments were bullshit.

In that moment, in that drunken night, in the stasis between time, Quentin looked at Eliot like he was everything. Like they felt the same. Like he saw in Eliot what Eliot saw in him. Like he maybe even—  

Didn’t matter.

The point was, he knew better than anyone that mornings told a different story. And days told an even worse one, harsh and flooded with too much revealing light. The reality was stark: Nothing had changed between them. Eliot was the same. Quentin was the same. What each of them wanted, what each of them deserved hadn't changed just because they were both apparently attracted to each other. When drunk, at that. So. Yeah.

Nothing had changed. Not really. But Quentin was too much of an idealist to see that, to not get swept away in a goddamn moment.

So Eliot clenched his jaw and looked away.

“... Let’s take a beat, Q.”  

The words were whispered, but they may have been a gunshot with how fast Quentin tensed in his arms.  

After a torturous long moment, he slid backward off him as the words landed in the cold space between them. Eliot swallowed again, the chilled breeze strangling him. All his muscles tightened as Q’s eyes searched him, dark and unreadable in the dimming firelight. He was doing the right thing, but his body was screaming.

“Okay. We can take a beat,” Quentin finally said. His voice was even, like he was trying to sound collected and calm. As always, he was terrible at it. “What are you thinking?”

Eliot’s mouth stretched against his face, wide and cracking. Painful.

“I think—I think we’re drunk. You’re drunk,” he said, cursing how hoarse he was. He cleared his throat and touched Quentin’s now-limp hand. “It’s late.”

It wasn’t that late. Not by any standard. Certainly not by the Encanto Oculto standard. But.

But.

“Oh. Okay. So you don’t want to—?” Quentin’s eyes were guarded and hollow. Eliot forced another smile. It hurt even more.

“You know I care about you, so much,” Eliot said, methodical. He scratched his eyebrow. “But we have to be practical here. We can’t treat this like a random hook up, not without—" he grit his teeth and rubbed his temples. "So let’s not—let’s not do anything we can’t take back, okay?”

“Uh, okay. Okay. So… a hook up,” Quentin’s voice was low, verging on a dangerous sharp edge. “That’s how you see what just happened? That's how you see me?”

“Quentin. No. Obviously, I think you’re—”

The most beautiful and kind and generous and honorable man he had ever known.

Eliot huffed a sharp breath. “I think you’re great. But this isn't worth fucking up our friendship. Not when push comes to shove.”

“But maybe it wouldn’t—“

“Q,” Eliot said, firm. He hugged himself and stared down at the cool sand in the distance, dark blue and outside the glow of the moon. “Come on. You know I’m right.”

He was right. They were too important to each other to let a momentary lapse, a fleeting want, screw anything up. It was good that they'd taken a breather, that Quentin checked in. It was good that Eliot stopped it. It could have gone too far, past a point of no return. One that Quentin would regret and Eliot wouldn’t survive.

Behind them, the waves lapped quiet and steady, and Q shifted. The distance between them widened. 

“Yeah, okay,” he said, barely audible He closed his eyes and nodded. He smiled, a sad but true thing. “Alright. You’re—you’re right. Uh, okay.”

Uh, okay. Eliot squeezed his eyes shut tight. His head and chest ached. He hated the world.

“So let’s get up, get some sleep and get sobered up,” Eliot said, clearing his throat. The world wasn’t changing. Nothing was changing. He had to get the fuck up and get the fuck on. “We’ll see where we’re at in the morning.”

In response, Quentin drew his knees in close to his chest and nodded, staring down at his feet. His throat bobbed and he rubbed the inside of his eyes, nodding again. He gave Eliot another small smile, eyes flitting about, all while sighing, like he was resigned. He pushed his hair back and looked out to the nightdark sea. The moon was behind a cloud and the horizon disappeared.

And Eliot—Eliot pushed down everything he was feeling. He grit his teeth against the way his soul screamed at him, the dark stinging in the back of his brain calling him a stupid motherfucker, an asshole, the dumbest person who had ever lived—you could have had him, you could have touched him, felt him, you unbelievable idiot, you shithead, you—

But everything disappeared when Quentin tried to stand and his legs buckled under him.

“Q!” Eliot dashed across the blanket and wrapped his arm around Quentin’s waist, all preceding activities be damned. A cold shot of fear electrified his heart. It was too familiar, it was too much, too much like when—

“What happened?” Eliot focused on what he could control. He tilted his jaw up to him, checking his pupils.  “Are you okay?”

“My legs,” Quentin said, moaning and rubbing his knees. “Something’s wrong with my—shit.”

He tried again to stand, but he melted back into the blanket like goo. Eliot moved fast, forgetting all the other bullshit in an instant. His own buzz disappeared. Quentin was having a bad reaction to something. Eliot knew his way around that, if nothing else. It was time to focus.

“Hey, hey, hey,” Eliot grabbed him around his shoulders, stabilizing him against his frame and the earth. Eliot had only given him alcohol with superficial charms, gone after they danced on your tongue. No drugs. Nothing should have—

Cold dread twisted his gut.

“Q," Eliot forced his voice to stay calm and even. "Q. Did you take anything from someone else tonight? Someone other than me?”

“Uh.”

Goddammit. “Quentin. What did you take?”

“So this guy named Maurice had these pills?” Quentin swallowed, like he was ashamed. Eliot held his breath, trying to remain steady despite the growing inferno in his brain. “I figured I needed… if I was gonna… you know. Stupid now though. Fucking stupid. Shit.”

Bitterness boiled on his tongue. He clicked out a laugh against his teeth, looking out at the horizon. “Do they increase your confidence or something?”

Of course. Of fucking course. Jesus Christ, Q.

But Quentin frowned. “No. That was the alcohol, I think. He said the pill was supposed to, uh—“ even in his drunkenness, he flushed deep red “—make me a better dancer. He showed me the spell and ingredients, and they shouldn’t have fucked with my brain chemistry. So, um, I took a little more than recommended?”

Eliot couldn’t deal with the implications of any of that right now. He rubbed his nose and up into his eyes, thinking through what he knew about that particular drug. Thankfully, he did know it. Quentin was right that it was physical only, imbuing muscles with flexibility and agility. It also gave you a shot of energy, like cocaine-meets-super caffeine. Part muscle relaxant, part upper. Generally, newbies took a quarter of a pill until they knew how they reacted. No one at Encanto would recommend more than that.

He took a deep breath and bent Quentin’s thumb backwards. It slid back unnaturally. Shit. “Okay. Alright. So, what, you took a whole pill or something?”

“Um. More like—three whole pills,” Quentin said, with the self-awareness to look away and embarrassed. Eliot’s heart caught in his throat and he almost laughed at his sheer audacity, except that it really wasn’t fucking funny.  Goddammit. Goddammit. Thank god they didn’t fuck. Among other reasons, Q's limbs would have failed midway. He could have gotten seriously hurt. His lungs might have given out. Or his heart. Or both.

Fuck, he was so goddamn reckless sometimes, and for what? For what? He wanted to shake his shoulders, he wanted to scream at him. But a lot of good that would do. So he stuck to what he knew. He stuck to the tangible.

“Okay. We'll deal with that decision making process later. But can you listen to me for a few seconds? Focus on me,” Eliot said, laying Quentin down with a pillow propping his head up. He clapped at his face when his eyes started to circle around. “You’re going to be okay. Okay? I know this effect. You’re going to be fine.”

He wasn’t sure who he was reassuring.

“It’s like a version of the spins that affects your extremities. It’s the most common side effect,” Eliot continued, leaving out the part about how his crucial organs could collapse. As long as he didn’t exert himself, that wasn’t a risk. There was no need to spike his anxiety on top of everything. “But because you took so much, you're going to have a shitty time physically until it wears off.”

Quentin’s panicked eyes blinked up at him. “Red bottle?”

“No, honey,” Eliot said, trying to soothe over his pained heart. He cupped his face, stroking his thumb back and forth along his sideburns. “Those only clear your mind. This is physical. So the best thing you can do is let yourself fall asleep and run its course.”

The anxiety spiked without his help. “Oh my god. Am I—am I dying?”

“No,” Eliot said, firm. “It sucks, but it’s not dangerous. I promise.”

White lies made the world go ‘round.

Quentin’s shallow breathing into his hands was all he could hear. He moaned, shaking his head. Eliot wanted to sink into the ground, let the sand bury him alive. He wanted to go the fuck to bed. But Quentin couldn't move. Not on his own.

“We can get you back to your room, Q,” Eliot said, touching his shoulder. “I can carry you or I could use, ah, kinesis or—“

He hated the idea of using major telekinesis on Quentin. He fucking hated it. But if he had to, if it was the only way to help him, he’d do it without hesitation.

“No. I won’t make you do that. I’ll stay here,” Q said, so quiet and so soft. “I don’t think I can—I don’t want you to—“

“It’s okay,” Eliot started to say, but Quentin shook his head, firmer.

“I’ll stay here,” he said, with no room for argument. The tension in Eliot’s chest released, falling apart in pieces, and he let out a long breath. But his heart got caught in the mess, his hand refusing to leave Quentin's cheek as he started to lay down. Above them, the sky unfolded into waves of texture, like an oil painting in midnight blues and bruise purples.

“I’m gonna freak out in the morning, El,” Quentin said, curling into himself, the fetal position. “I think I’m gonna totally freak out.”

Oh, god. His heart, his goddamn heart. He sniffed back all his feeling and rubbed the nape of his neck. “Yeah, Q. Probably.”

“I’m really drunk too, El.”

Eliot bit the inside of his cheek, hoping to puncture it. His eyes burned as he managed to speak. “I know, Q. I know. Get some rest, okay? I’ll check on you before dawn.”

He pressed his palm into his cheek one more time. But as he shifted to stand, Quentin stopped him, a light touch on his knee. It may as well have been an avalanche, rocks and ice pinning him in place.

“Can you stay?” Q asked in a whisper, free hand running down the length of his face. “Not like—I mean. I get it, okay? You’re not—wrong. You’re not wrong.”

Eliot tucked his heartache away and took Quentin's hand, squeezing it. Of course he would stay. But he was still talking and Eliot never liked to interrupt his thought process. Not when it mattered. Right then, it mattered.

“But I mean, like, can you still stay?” Quentin wrenched it out, like there was any doubt. “As friends. It's just— I’m just—I’m gonna freak out and if you’re gone, that’s gonna be—“

He cut himself off, but Eliot understood. His fingers slid into Quentin’s hair. Soothing. He hoped.

“Of course I’ll stay,” Eliot finally said, quiet. It was fine. They were friends. That was what friends did. “I’ll always stay.”

Quentin nodded and curled into him, trusting and seeking comfort. His head rested on his chest and Eliot draped his arms under and around him, shifting onto his back. He pressed circular patterns into his hair with one hand, and rubbed up and down his arm with the other. The sky swirled above him and he closed his eyes, too content. Having Quentin in his arms still felt too good, despite everything. He hated the world.

The now-roaring waves and the distant house music almost drowned out Quentin’s gentle voice. " You’re my best friend, El.”

His closed eyes burned and he sniffed. They'd never said that before, not to each other. They felt it, he knew that. But they never said it. Because Julia was Q’s best friend. Margo was his.  And yet.

He let the moment rest, for several long minutes. Finally, Eliot pressed his lips to his forehead. Heart swelling, his next words fell against Quentin’s skin, coming without any permission, desperate and ineloquent.  

“You’re mine too. You’re mine too, Q,” he said, holding back a sob and staring up at the false sky. “Whatever else I feel doesn’t—I can’t lose you. I can’t. But—”

But it didn't matter what he said. Quentin had already passed out in his arms.  Eliot gazed down at his gentle face, mouth dropped open and breath hot on his neck. He brushed Q’s hair back and his fingertips tingled, his heart seized. With a sudden and overwhelming rush of ardor, he desperately wanted to say a hell of a lot more.

He was drunk.

So instead, he closed his eyes and gathered Quentin on top of him. He wrapped his arms around his waist and shoulders, tight as he could. Sleep started to weigh heavy on him, enveloped by the waning and the beautiful man who would never really be his. Because nothing had changed. Not really. The morning would still tell its own story, and the day too. He knew that.

Still, when Quentin’s lips brushed his throat, involuntary in his sleep, the space behind his eyelids turned white. God, he was selfish. He was so selfish.

But he could hate himself in the morning.

 


 

tbc.

Chapter Text

 

 


Cala Jondal & Ibiza Town, Ibiza, Spain, Mid-November 2016

*

(Part Five of Our Fabulous Story, Entitled: Eliot and Quentin are Really Good Friends! Shit Happens! Encanto Oculto, Baby!)

*

(Alternate Title: You’re Having a Meltdown.)

 


 

The first boy Eliot ever fell for was Taylor Delatolas. He was the local pharmacist’s son. He was his only childhood friend. He had a loud laugh. He had long eyelashes. He was straighter than an Indiana highway. 

Spoiler alert: It didn’t work out.

Eliot was... never good to him, not in any way that mattered. Which, in retrospect, really sucked because Taylor had always been a genuine soul. He was gentle. He loved Saturday Night Live and Superman comics. He was a track star in high school and patiently tutored an impatient Eliot in Trig, by far his worst subject. And sure, he was a bit simple-minded and far too religious almost all of the time. But he was a lifeline when Eliot had nothing outside his own bloody-handed clawing to the surface, so the feeling—the fall—was inevitable.

They became friends in sixth grade, mostly because Eliot was already an outsider, good and targeted as the queer kid. Taylor, on the other hand, was of Greek and Filipino descent, with a lovely olive skin tone and ridiculous dark green eyes. But all that meant was the geniuses in the aptly named town of Whiteland called him “Osama Bin Laden” more often than anything else, give or take a few other crude slurs. They first bonded in the boy’s bathroom, on the first day of middle school, when a bunch of hicks had beaten the shit out of Taylor and written TERRERIST [sic] on his forehead in permanent marker.

Because humans were truly so good, deep down.

Still, even through their years of friendship, Eliot didn’t recognize his feelings for what they really were. Emotional literacy had never been his strong suit, even back then. Fuck, especially back then. 

He definitely didn’t recognize it for what it was when he was kicking the shit out of him, in that stark and unlit gymnasium, the Whiteland Tigers’ credo overhead in blood red, like a threat. He didn’t recognize it when he stormed into the locker room and tore off Earl Jr.’s hand-me-down gym clothes, the usual taunts in the background nothing but white noise. He didn’t recognize it when he slammed the door to his prison of a farmhouse, the smell of manure and cow’s blood strangling him as he ran up the stairs two at a time. He didn’t recognize it as he curled in the fetal position on his twin bed, all scratchy bedding and a Bible on the rickety nightstand, sobbing until snot poured out his nose. He didn’t recognize it when he dragged himself to school the next day and Taylor forgave him, like it had never happened. He didn’t recognize it even as Taylor forgave him, every time, over and over and over again. 

(Well, almost every time.)

He didn’t recognize it when he started stealing both his dad’s whiskey and his middle brother Ethan’s truck in the middle of the night, chugging and spinning out circles and thinking about Taylor’s eyes. 

He didn’t recognize it when Taylor would bring ice packs to school for him and quietly tell him that he was always welcome at his family’s home. He didn’t recognize it when Taylor’s only response to Eliot’s arch insistence that he didn’t need his fucking pity was a sigh and, “Okay, but the offer always stands, Eliot.” 

He didn’t recognize it when Taylor didn’t show up for opening night of Les Mis and he ended up passed out in a cornfield, covered in his own vomit. 

He didn’t recognize it when he showed up at Taylor’s house a week into senior year and a day after his dad’s first heart attack. He didn’t recognize it as he begged Taylor to run away with him. He didn’t recognize it when Taylor’s eyes went soft and he took Eliot’s hand and told him that he loved him, but not like that. He didn’t recognize it when he spat on Taylor’s foot and pushed him back, insisting that he wasn’t a… well, you know. 

He definitely didn’t recognize it when he refused to ever speak to Taylor again, when he didn’t say goodbye before he left for New York and magic and Eliot Waugh

No. See, the fucked up thing was that he only really recognized it after he met Quentin. 

Of course, Q wasn’t the impetus for reckoning with the memories altogether. Eliot had talked about Taylor before to Margo, during The Trials, by necessity. He told her all about his only childhood friend, about how he had given and given to Eliot, who only took and threw back without fail. Tears in his eyes, he admitted to her that he had never learned how to be a friend or even a good person, and how he always pushed away the people he cared about, because it was easier than admitting his own frailty. 

He told her that Indiana had been a hellhole, fire and salt to every gaping part of himself and he couldn’t— wouldn’t —forgive any of it, even himself. He told her that the person she was drawn to wasn’t real. That he was layers and layers of artifice, covering nothing. Air and dry bones and a brittle heart, pumping poison through everything good that ever came his way.

But Margo—God fucking wish to be her—caressed his bare knees and stared into his eyes to say, “That’s the biggest load of self-involved bullshit I’ve ever heard in my life and I’m from Los Angeles.” 

It made him laugh, a shocked sound, and she kissed him once before telling him that he was good and worthy of love. She said that his heart was the most incandescent sight she had ever seen. It was dramatic as hell and every word out of her beautiful mouth was an absurd thing to say to someone she still really barely knew. 

Nonetheless, it was when he fell in love with her.

Though at the same time, Eliot also never had the heart to tell her that the ropes actually unraveled the second he said, I destroy everything I touch. He had mixed feelings about magic, but he knew it didn’t lie. If the ropes fell off, then that was his highest governing internal circumstance, his utmost truth. His cross to bear and to never burden anyone else with, ever. The only real acknowledgment he made was to privately promise to never drag his perfect Margo down along with him. And then he made the same promise again, just as quiet, a little more than a year later.

Anyway, the point was that Eliot still never realized that he had fallen so hard for Taylor back in his adolescence. He had always thought of his feelings in abstract terms, like observing a Greek tragedy of his own making from a distance. It wasn’t until that one otherwise inconsequential day, after he had done the thing he regretted most in his life and he was still walking to class with Quentin, still friends with Quentin, still with Quentin, and Q was babbling on about some nerdy bullshit and Eliot wasn't feeling well but he was happy and—

A seagull cawed in the distance. The sand under his fingertips burned as morning solidified above his half-asleep form.

Eliot was avoiding reality with his introspective bullshit. Again.

Fuck.

His eyes peeled open, mostly against his will, retinas shocked. He had a terrible headache, and it was only partially from the hangover. As his body adjusted to the equilibrium of wakefulness, he took a sharp breath, the salt air stinging his lungs. Fuck.

Fuck.

The sky above him was muted, a billow of flying cranes in concentric circles, swooping between unseasonable snowflakes. The tiny white sparkles dotted the slowly brightening sky. Against the dark line of the horizon in the distance, the filtered light of the sun shimmered across the water, hearkening morning. Eliot shifted on the blanket under him, lying on his back with an arm tucked up under his head. His other arm was completely detached from sensation, a mess of pins and needles. But the rest of his body was profoundly, achingly aware of a warm Quentin Coldwater curled up on his chest, drooling on his shirt and clutching at him like he would never let go. 

With a shuddering breath, Eliot ran his tongue along the grainy surface of his unbrushed teeth. The sickening sweet taste of alcohol burned sharp and putrid in the crevices of his dry mouth. His head thudded, matching the heavy rate of his unsteady heart. His eyes were crusty and gooey, the edges stinging. He felt like shit. Everything was shit.

Well, except Q’s arm wrapped tight across his chest, fingers gripping Eliot’s shirt like an incapacitated koala. Every nerve ending in his body assured him that was assuredly not shit. Not even close, if the gentle flips of his heart and the tingling in his giddy feet were any indication, even if they were in stark contrast to the scolding of his rational brain. 

In truth, it wasn’t a particularly sexy sight. Quentin’s face was pressed into the corner of his armpit, smushed and red-streaked. He snored, a gurgling sound, and his forehead was soaked in hangover sweat. It was equal parts sweet and ridiculous, a classic drunken fallout of a wild night. It could have been brushed off as such too, if Eliot squinted hard enough. But not really.

Because, well…

Because there was also the matter of how fucking beautiful Q was. The way the sunrise illuminated his perfect cheekbones, the shadow of his brow reaching down to his lashes, those fucking lips of his, sending a rush of electricity through his exhausted body at just the smallest glimpse. Last night had doomed him in so many ways and that was what he would have to carry with him, from then on.

So, helpless, Eliot just closed his eyes and breathed him in, giving in for a moment, his nose brushing along his soft hairline. 

Honestly, Quentin smelled terrible, he thought with a short laugh. Like stale smoke and sweet sweat and spoiled whiskey, which shouldn’t have been a thing but somehow was. But fuck him if it wasn’t the best thing in the world. Quentin was the best thing in the world, he thought, punch drunk and pressing his lips to the top of his head again and again. The words he fought every single goddamn day floated to the front of his mind and, selfishly, he let them stay there. He let himself feel them. He let them be real. He let them mean something.

For exactly two seconds. 

Then Eliot blinked them away, as he always did, and opened his eyes. Cracking his neck as slowly as he could manage, he found himself wishing for a freak tsunami, so he would be washed away with the tide, deep into the sea, forever out of his misery. Running his hand through his thoroughly frizzy and disheveled hair, he pinched the bridge of his nose and took a deep breath. They couldn’t wake up together like this. Not after everything. He needed to get Quentin off him. Now. 

So very carefully, he shifted, with Q’s hair bunched against his nose. His angular face slid down against his chest, mouth open along the line of his heart. Eliot breathed in harsh through his nostrils, chest tight. With a rough final kiss to the top of Q’s head, he extracted himself quickly, rolling away, free and bereft at once. His chest was cold and hollow, but it was the right thing to do. It was what he had to do. He settled with a half-satisfied huff, throwing his hand over his eyes. 

It was done.

A breeze passed overhead and Quentin’s arms jerked with a shiver and a displeased snore. Eliot looked away. They needed to face the morning on the same page—the right page—and being cuddly and close would blur the lines of what needed to be done, to preserve that which actually mattered. It was the right thing to do, he reminded himself again, his brain ever stronger and louder than his weak and foolish heart. 

But then the breeze changed to a gust without warning. Eliot’s skin raised into gooseflesh and as soon as he could count them on his forearm, Quentin sat up like a shot. He let out a strangled sound as he heaved forward, his hands splaying out beside him like he was on unsteady ground. He coughed, almost a gag, and Eliot’s heart picked up its speed as reality sunk low.

“What—?” Quentin started to say, sniffing and halting, head swiveling every way it could. But then his crazed eyes softened into light confusion when they fell on him, with a half-smile. “Oh. Um. Hey. Uh—what the shit? Where are we?”

Unfortunately, he would remember. The pills he took had a slight slow-release confusion charm that dissipated after a few minutes upon waking. It was built in as part of the recovery. Eliot wasn’t that lucky.

“Good morning,” he said, quiet. He gave Q a closed-lipped smile toward the sea and took a deep breath through his nostrils. “We’re on the beach. Still in the Encanto wards.”

“I—” Quentin said, lips quirking down. He shook his head hard, like a wet dog. “I—uh? What? Um. Okay. Wow.”

Eliot stared over at his shoes, still thrown off to the side of the blanket. “How’s your head?”

“Fucking not good,” Quentin said, with a moan, burying his face in his hands. “Shit. Um. Okay. Give me a second to get my bearings, okay?”

A soft laugh escaped Eliot without permission. “Sure. Take all the time you need.”

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Quentin rub the heels of his palms into his temples. He scratched at his nose and shook his head again. He licked his lips once and—

He froze. 

Quentin blinked again, with more intent. He licked his lips again and brought his fingers up, running them along their length. He blinked. He shook his head. He startled backwards, scooting back so the blanket rumpled under his movement. His hand clasped entirely over his mouth and his eyes went wide.

“Oh my god,” Quentin whispered. He slammed his eyes shut, both hands gripping in his hair. “Holy shit. Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god.”

Go time.

“Q,” Eliot said warningly as Quentin scrambled about, looking everywhere but at him. But Quentin ignored him, his mouth wide and wheezing, before he slammed his forehead to his knees and dug his fingers against the side of his head. 

Eliot sighed and tapped him with his index finger. “No. Don’t do that. No turtling.”

Quentin groaned and his forearms trapped his head in a vice. “Yeah, uh, nope. Gonna turtle.”

“Look at me, Coldwater.” Eliot slid his hand along the crook of his neck, gentling his rocking. God, his skin was soft and warm. Shit.

“Just let me turtle,” Q said, groaning and rolling his head back and forth. The words pierced Eliot somewhere deep in his gut.

“Quentin,” he said, patience getting thin and about to snap. He shook his shoulder harder. “Come on.”

“Oh my god,” Q groaned ever the more, wrapping the whole of himself around himself until his voice was muffled and limbs twisted every which way. “I fucking mauled you, Eliot. Oh my god.”

“Well, I’ll always choose a lion to this,” Eliot said, forcibly pulling Quentin up by his arm. He hung lax in his grip, but didn’t fight it. “Q. Seriously. It’s fine.”

But Quentin’s mouth widened into a maw and his head shaking, palm flat on his forehead. “I am so sorry.”

A pained thud ricocheted through Eliot’s core, over the last bleeding wound. “Nothing to be sorry about, Q. Come on.”

“You don’t have to—” Quentin brought his fist to his mouth and bit at his knuckles. He rested his chin on his knees, eyes blazing toward the horizon. “I made an idiot of myself. The first fucking night. Jesus.”

Eliot closed his eyes and swallowed, scratching at the space between his brows. “No, you didn’t.”

Quentin made a high-pitched scoffing sound. “I literally overdosed on magical dancing pills, Eliot.”

The tension in his jaw almost broke his face, but he forced a slight smile. “The spirit was true, even if the flesh was unwilling.”

Q scrunched his face up, confused. “Uh, what the hell does that mean?”

Yeah. Fair.

“I don’t fucking know,” Eliot said, sighing and scrubbing his face with his palms. “I haven’t been this hungover in a long time. My quips aren’t at their most piquant.”

“Well, maybe don’t quip then,” Quentin said quietly, his jaw tense. “Just, like, talk.”

Eliot touched the tip of his tongue to the roof of his mouth and stared up at the false sky. 

“What do you want me to say?” Please tell me what to say. 

He swallowed again. He wanted the sand to swallow him whole. But Quentin didn’t answer. Instead, his eyes closed, trembling under his long lashes. He wrung his hands together and hugged himself closer. Fuck. They were a couple of fucking messes and the elephant was going to crush them alive. But all Eliot wanted was to pretend and pretend and pretend. He couldn’t do that though.

It was Q.

It was Q

“So you,” Eliot gulped, “um, so you wanna talk about it then? All of it?”

Quentin nodded, eyes darting along the line of the sky and sea. “I think we have to, right?”

Shit. “Okay.” Fuck. “That totally makes sense.” Goddammit. “It’s the right thing to do.” Motherfucker.

“You sound thrilled,” Q said, a hint resigned under the wryness. Eliot rolled his lip around, before affecting an airy laugh.

“I guess,” he said, choosing each word precisely but without his usual ease, “I don’t think there’s much to talk about.”

Quentin’s wide eyes were going to kill him. “Not much to talk about? Eliot, we—“

“—had a fully-clothed drunken makeout session,” Eliot finished quickly, not at all equipped to hear the end of the sentence from Quentin’s lips. He ran his hands down his face and smiled, tight. “As far as Encanto stories go, it’s pretty tame.”

Quentin’s eyes shuttered, face falling into something too still. “I mean, I guess that’s an interpretation.”

“But a valid one, I think,” Eliot countered, the words forceful as he thought them through. “There’s no reason this needs to be anything more than it was. Let’s really think about the facts, okay?” 

A second wind inflated his lungs, as the spark of rationale flowed through his veins. Really, it was inevitable that this would happen at some point, right? That they would fall into each other’s arms, drunk and out of their minds, when the circumstances allowed for it. And the night before, well, frankly, the circumstances demanded it. 

They were two attractive men who were both attracted to other men. They were close friends who spent so much time together, had a natural chemistry between them, and even an occasional flirty dynamic. They had both imbibed a spectacular amount of alcohol, lowering their inhibitions past the point of no return, and they were at Encanto Oculto, where sex magic literally permeated the air.

In the end, when one looked at it objectively, the only surprising part was that it took as long as it did, not that it happened at all. But it didn’t have to mean anything, not unless they gave it that power. They didn’t have to acknowledge it as anything more than a quirk of a charged atmosphere, and the novelty and relaxation inherent in a vacation. Because ultimately, if it were more than that, it would have happened at home, where the variables were consistent. Ergo, chalk it up as a fluke and continue on with their lives, right?

“Right?” Eliot beseeched the stoic Quentin with his eyes, after he made his argument all in one breath. It was sound and compelling, but Q was silent for a few more moments. The speech rested between them, slowly sucking out the oxygen more and more, the longer he went without speaking. But then he ran his tongue between his lips, nodding as he stared off into space.

“Okay,” Quentin finally said, clipped and quiet. But then he cleared his throat and his voice was strong. “I mean, right. Well put, El.”

But he still wouldn’t meet his eyes and Eliot hated himself, so fucking much. Quentin had been drunk out of his mind and now felt like he was… what? An idiot? That seemed to be the resounding theme, upon waking. He clenched his hands into fists, like they could grasp onto the right thing to say, the thing that would make this better between them. The thing that would make Quentin look at him again.

“Hey, come on,” Eliot said, as gently as he could. He put his hand on Quentin’s shoulder. The warmth of him burned. “We’re good. I promise. This isn’t a big deal, okay?”

“Okay,” Quentin said again, still not fucking looking at him. Eliot squeezed and ran his thumb against the soft fabric of his T-shirt.

“Hey,” he said again, ducking his head. Quentin twisted his lips and sighed, staring him right in the eyes, maybe a touch defiant. “What’s going on? I feel like I fucked up? All I’m trying to say is—“

Quentin’s eyes softened as he cut him off, shaking his head. He bit at the air and pinched his nose. “No, El. Shit. No. Sorry. You didn’t—you didn’t fuck up. You didn’t do anything wrong. I’m just, uh, going to be… embarrassed for a little, that’s all.”

Eliot took in a sharp breath through his nostrils and nodded, thoughts swirling nonsensically. Then he smirked, licking his lips as an idea percolated. He slung a casual arm around his shoulder and rested their temples together. Q stiffened, but Eliot pushed through.

“Did I ever tell you about the time I drank an entire bottle of whiskey, first year? And did four lines of magic coke?” He slid his eyes over, rolling the words around his mouth expertly, sly and sharp in all the right places.

He felt Quentin roll his eyes more than he saw it. “That sounds dangerous.”

Eliot waved him off. “Yeah, yeah. Point is that once I was good and blacked out, I ripped an upstairs tub out from its stronghold and down to the middle of the dance floor.” He snorted a little at the memory. “Then I stripped naked, filled it several bottles of gin, got into said tub, and only spoke in seal noises for the rest of the night because I wanted to be one with the ocean. Did I ever tell you that?”

Quentin blinked, a quirk of a smile lifting up his face. “Uh. No. It’s never come up.”

“Hm,” Eliot said, stroking his jaw, performative and cheeky. He bit his lip to hide a growing smile. “What about the time I was so high that when I was walking through the quad, I ran up to the guy I was fucking, wrapped my arms around him from behind, and whispered, Blow off class and blow me instead... and then it turned out to be Fogg?”

That cracked Q’s veneer, eyes jumping at him. “No. No fucking way. That’s bullshit.”

Eliot’s eyes crinkled at the edges and he flashed his most dazzling smile. “If you ever want to make Margo completely piss her pants laughing, just say, Unhand me, Mr. Waugh.”

Thank fuck, Quentin let out an honest-to-god cackle, a cheerful sound against the brightening sky and Eliot’s soul. “Oh my god. You’re ridiculous.”

“My real point is,” Eliot said, grinning into the ground, “that you’ve got a long way to go until you can come close to embarrassing yourself in front of me, alright? And last night was—“

He cut himself off again, his mouth dry and heart pounding. He smiled, ignoring the screaming in his gut, the way his arms ached to hold Q right against his chest, to drown in him. But it wasn’t about what Eliot wanted right now.

“Last night was really good,” he said, softly. He kind of wanted to die, but it wasn’t him about him. It wasn’t about him. Quentin’s eyebrows came together and his muscles tensed under Eliot’s arm. “It’s not like I wasn’t... into it, okay?”

Quentin nodded, a quick movement. “It seemed like you were and then you weren’t.”

Eliot dodged that a bit by sighing, “I’ve never pretended I’m not attracted to you. You have to know that.”

“Right, I do,” Quentin said, shoulders slumping. “But not, like, seriously attracted to me. I get it.”

Eliot let out a soundless laugh, not sure how to respond to that. He knew it didn’t really matter. But at the same time—

Jesus.

He sucked his lips in and cracked his neck, letting his arms fall down by his side. “At the end of the day, I just don’t think it’s worth fucking up our friendship for an anomaly, even if I’m pretty damn sure it would feel—I think we both know it would be really good. But.”

Quentin swallowed, eyes meeting his for a brief moment before averting again. His voice was hoarse. “Yeah. But.

A hot spark of anger flared in his gut. He was trying to make this easy, and his approach had been masterfully done. Quentin was the one making it hard. Eliot’s head hurt and his mouth was dry and his heart felt like it had been kicked in by a goddamn donkey, and he just wanted to go get a shower and forget that the night ever happened. Why couldn’t Quentin give them that? Even if he thought—even if he was still thinking that they could be—he was smart. He had to be reasonable. They both had to be reasonable about this and think beyond one or two days, or a fleeting romantic whim. 

Even if it wasn’t a whim, the idea of trying for real with Q and then slowly watching the affection in his eyes sour into inevitable contempt was a nightmare. He had seen it before, with Taylor and they hadn’t even been together, not even close. But the way his green eyes turned to stone and forgiveness become an unreachable plateau had been unbearable. And the way Eliot had felt about Taylor was a molecule compared to—compared to—

He let out a ragged breath and shook his head. 

“You’re... too important to me, Q. Your friendship is too important,” Eliot laughed up at the sky, stretching his legs out. “I know that sounds like bullshit, but—“

Quentin held up his hand and smiled, the edges ripping against his cheeks. “You’re important to me too, El. I get it.”

Eliot didn’t feel like Quentin got it. 

But he also didn’t want to push it. He didn’t want either of them to say something they couldn’t take back, now that they were in the harsh light of day. Eliot wasn’t sure he could survive it. So he took a deep breath and tucked Quentin’s hair behind his hair, forcing normalcy, forcing their natural intimacy. Fake it ‘til you make it.

“Um. Right. So you’re good then?” He hated his voice. He was so tired. “We’re good?”

Quentin was silent again, the waves in the distance deafening. But then he grabbed his hand, fierce and firm. Eliot jolted back, shocked, but gripped back, not about to look a gift horse in the mouth. 

“Yeah. Yeah, El. Of course we’re good,” Q said, turning those wide eyes on him. They were soft and sincere. Eliot breathed. “Always.”

On that day, the day he realized that shy and troubled dreamer in Indiana had once wanted Taylor, in all ways, Eliot made a quiet promise to himself... and to Q, albeit unbeknownst to him. He intended to keep it. It was the one good thing he could do. It was all he could do. If there was anything he could give Quentin, it was that promise.

I destroy everything I touch.

Eliot would rather free-fall into the Underworld for a thousand eternities than destroy Quentin. 

So it was time to get up and move forward. Semper fi. Or something.

(He was really fucking hungover.)

“Okay then,” Eliot said, with loud sigh and a shake of his head. He kept Quentin’s hand in his and tugged him upward, pulling them into a standing position. Quentin staggered a bit and Eliot’s heart pinched, swooping with instinctive worry. But he pushed past it. “Now that that’s out of the way, we can deal with the most pressing issue: We smell like death.”

Quentin snorted and nodded. “Yeah.”

Eliot braced his hands on Quentin’s shoulders, the light of day haloing over them, soft and pastel. “We need showers.”

“Yeah.”

“More sleep.”

“Yeah.”

“A hangover potion.”

“Fuck yeah.”

“Food.”

Quentin winced. “Agree to disagree.”

Eliot smirked, opting to ignore his stubbornness for now. “So let’s walk our asses back to the damn house and leave our drunken whatever here on the blanket. What happens in Ibiza, stays in Ibiza. Fair?”

Again, Quentin just looked at him, inscrutable as ever, before offering back tilted smile. “Fair.”

Eliot returned it, running his hands down the length of Quentin’s arms and taking a single step into his space. He felt his brow pinch, like his heart. Time to ask the most pertinent questions, much as they panicked him.

“How are your legs?”

Quentin swallowed and blushed, rubbing the back of his neck. “Fine. They feel fine. I’m—they’re fine.”

Eliot couldn’t think about it more than that. His bones felt numb in thinking about it. So he smiled, and focused on moving forward. Moving forward, like a song or whatever. He was really hungover. So he clapped him on the back, not too hard, and literally and physically moved them forward.

“If you need to lean on me when we walk,” he offered, keeping his voice light, “don’t hesitate, okay?”

Eliot was happy to provide anything Quentin needed, always. Obviously, though, that would have been a confusing thing to say right then. Everything he thought and everything he felt was confusing. No need to put that burden on Q.

“I won’t. Or I will,” Quentin closed his eyes, telegraphing headache pain. “I mean, I will lean on you and I won’t hesitate.”

Eliot laughed, because he couldn’t help it. He still didn’t let go of Q’s hand. All in time. “Good. Then come on. Allez.”

But Quentin didn’t move. He stared down at feet, Adam’s apple bobbing like the slow tide of the Mediterranean. His hand was limp in Eliot’s and his hair blew in the breeze, mussed and layered in an artless tangle. He licked his lips and shook his head.

“Eliot. I—I, uh, I’m—“ Quentin clenched his jaw once and let go of his hand, leaving everything cold. He brought his palms up to his eyes. “I’m really sorry if I scared you.”

Yeah. He didn’t want to talk about that. “It’s fine. Let’s go.”

“I shouldn’t have taken so many pills.”

Eliot let out a frustrated grunt without meaning to. He threw his hands up and laughed. “Obviously, Q. It was dumb as shit. But there’s nothing more to say about it, so let’s go.”

On cue, Quentin’s face fell and he wanted to scream. Honestly, sometimes the kicked puppy bit got fucking old. But guilt crawled its way up his sternum regardless and Eliot closed his eyes, pursing his lips. He counted to three and opened them again, smiling.

“Q. It’s fine,” he said, touching his shoulder ever so gently. Quentin relaxed. “Just—not again, okay?”

“Yeah. No, lesson learned,” Quentin said, hands up in surrender. “Promise.”

Eliot meant to smile and beckon him forward. But looking at Quentin, standing there, wobbling on his legs and face pale, eyes red and unfocused and all he could think about was—

He couldn’t escape it. It was closing in on him. It was catching up with him

(Fuck you, Margo.)

There was a storm brewing in his chest, all the fucking time, and he always kept it at bay, he always kept it all at bay. But in the enchanted air and the fucking weird tension between them and his desperation for everything to be okay, always okay, it was right there. He was frozen. He was still. His breath was shallow and he couldn’t feel his fingers. He couldn’t feel anything.

Eliot took one step forward and staggered, and warm hands were on him.

“Hey, whoa.” Quentin’s voice was so far away, even as he could feel his heart, right there. “You alright, El?”

What?

No.

What? 

Eliot spoke aloud, but he couldn’t hear it. “What did you just say?”

“I said—“

“You alright, El?” Quentin leaned on the bar table, holding his face between his knuckles, eyes crinkled devilishly. Eliot put down his paring knife with an affected sigh and glared at the intruder.

“I’d be better if you let me focus,” he said, squeezing a freshly cut orange slice so the juice flew in a perfect arc onto the brat’s grinning cheek. “Never interrupt a master at work.”

But Quentin was in curious toddler mode, picking up all of the bar tools and holding them to the light, thoroughly wrecking the perfectly organized system. He was damn lucky he had that face of his or Eliot would have been very cross. Instead, he just sighed again, louder and long-suffering. But he let himself smile, small and hidden, as Q futzed about, shockingly bull-in-a-china-shop for someone whose whole thing seemed to be sleight of hand and other small magics.

“Why the fuck do you have tweezers?” Quentin narrowed his brows to a single point and picked the delicate pincers up, clacking the ends together. “Can’t you use magic?”

Eliot couldn’t believe he had to explain it again. But he apparently did, as he bent back over the glass, squeezing two tablespoons of juice as a finishing touch. “If I use magic, then I can’t call it a handcrafted cocktail.”

“Ah. Right, sure, and disappoint the clamoring masses.”

Eliot’s hands paused over his work, Quentin’s smirk burning him whole and alive. His heart rate sped up and he ran his tongue over his teeth, a flush rising high on his cheeks. He could practically feel his pupils expanding, like anti-drug commercial. 

“You know what,” Eliot said with a low chuckle, pinning the far too self-satisfied Q with all the weight of his considerable gaze, “I don’t think I asked for any commentary.”

But Quentin’s grin just got bigger, his eyes crinkling at the corners. “Drunk grad students, pounding the door down, begging for more handcrafted cocktails that take eight minutes to make.”

“Would you like to be a drunk grad student?”

“Sometime in this century, yeah,” Q said with the world’s most innocent, buoyant head nod. He was in a fucking mood. It was adorable. It was terrible. 

“Then stop distracting me,” Eliot said, like there was any world where that was a possibility. Ah, well. Such was life. Such was being friends with Quentin. Weakness acknowledged, two separate boxes, et cetera, all that. 

He had his shit on lock. 

Eliot scanned the room, keeping an eye out for Jasper or Ronald or one of his to-be-named boys. He was definitely going to have to blow off some steam, at some point. But for now, the pickings were slim and the whole side of his body burned with the delicious closeness of Quentin, who had decided to busy himself with his paring knife, throwing it up in the air and spinning it around, with some slight magical assistance. He vaguely registered that it was a bad idea and a responsible bartender would put a stop to it. But, well, no one had ever accused him of being responsible.

Besides, the drink was ready and perfect. Placing a small curled fiddlehead fern on top, he shook it lightly toward the literal Peter Pan toddler holy shit who was now juggling three of his eggs that were actually meant for the pisco sours, not his entertainment. The ice clinked and clanked against the crystal and Quentin blinked up, with a tiny smile. 

“Drink it, you ungrateful little shit,” Eliot said, leveling him with his coolest glare. Quentin’s fingers brushed against his as he took the glass, which wasn’t something that affected him at all. People touched. He raised his eyebrows once in a dull facsimile of a toast, as Q took a long sip.

He licked his lips, face sheepish. “Okay, it’s really good.”

“Mhmm.” Of course it was.

“Sorry,” Quentin said with a lazy shrug. He took another sip then and nodded his head back and forth, like he was reconsidering. “Kind of a cold medicine aftertaste though.”

“Bullshit. Give it,” Eliot said, pride roaring in his chest. He snatched the drink back and took a precise gulp, letting the liquid roll over his tongue. Fuck. There was definitely a piercing and sweet edge of mint and myrrh, definitely unappealing to the virgin palate. “It’s the Fernet. It’s slightly unbalanced.”

Quentin jutted his chin up and clicked his tongue, a huge fucking brat. God. “I really expect more from this establishment.”

“It’s fine,” Eliot said with a bright, poison smile. He kept the drink just out of reach, high above his head. “I’ll restart.”

As expected, quick hands started reaching up the length of his arm, broad shoulders pressing into his. His stomach flipped, but he laughed as Quentin kept fighting upward, as though Eliot didn’t have a good half-foot of height on him, not even considering his arm span. He was such a little engine that could. 

“Holy god, no,” Q said, hair flopping everywhere. “I was just giving you shit.”

“Nonsense,” Eliot said with a sniff, rattling the drink high in the air. “I refuse to serve my Little Q a second rate cocktail.”

“Fuck you, I want alcohol,” Quentin grunted, starting to jump up to grab the drink, which just made Eliot laugh more. “Here, at least lemme chug it before you get all obsessive again.”

The laughter died and the drink went higher in the air. “That’s blasphemy —“

“Oh my god, would you quit—“

“Just let me remake it, it’ll take me five minutes. Ten, tops—”

But when Quentin finally caught a good jump and caught his wrist in his grip, they struggled for a few moments before the hindsight inevitable happened, and Eliot’s bright white silk shirt and light gray vest were drenched in an orange-amber-green liquid. 

He popped his lip out from his teeth and glared down from his nose, eyes burning. “And you’re dead.”

Quentin looked genuinely remorseful, at least. He sighed and ran his hand through his hair, before readying his hands into a tut. “Shit. Sorry. I’ll get it.”

“No, no magic,” Eliot said, sighing for real, pulling his shirt out from his chest with meticulous fingers. “Silk’s too fine.”

“Okay, uh, then here—” Quentin said, after he reached to the side and grabbed a cocktail napkin. He dipped it in a carafe of water and stepped closer to Eliot, making small, wet circles on the vest.

It was so absurd that Eliot actually laughed again, stopping his motions by resting his hand on top of his. “Do not rub it into the fabric, you madman.”

Quentin folded his face into a thoughtful frown, before looking up at him, mere inches away, all wide-eyed and earnest. “Well, it was my fault. What can I do?”

Kiss me, Eliot’s hindbrain unhelpfully supplied as his heart sped to a gallop. Fuck, he was so lovely. Why was he allowed to be so lovely? His hand reflexively curled around Quentin’s fingers and he could have sworn Q’s eyes darkened when he did, pupils wider and lashes hooded. 

So he did what he always did. He blinked past it. He pulled Quentin’s hand off his chest and rolled his eyes, shaking his head with a click of his tongue. Like he was deigning to accept help from a plebeian, he hand waved toward the small cooling system behind him, shucking off his vest as he did.

“Club soda’s down there,” he said, laying the vest out on the flat surface of the prep table. It was one of his favorites. Simple gray with a hint of white dotted embroidery. Quentin was damn lucky he had a soft spot for him. “Get me one of the mini bottles.”

“Aye, aye, captain,” Quentin said, voice wry and unaffected. As he bent down and opened the container with a pop-fizz , Eliot stared down at his red suspenders and white shirt with a discerning laser focus. The suspenders had been out of the splash zone at least, but the shirt was a mess, possibly unsalvageable. Quentin was fucking goddamn lucky he had a soft spot for him. Jesus. 

As he was considering stripping down shirtless right then and there—you’re welcome, everyone—the door to the front of the Cottage slammed, and the sound of clunky boots stomping on the hardwood grabbed his attention upward. He rolled his eyes at the sight of Kady Orloff-Diaz, with her raccoon eyeliner, eighties hair, and always unpleasant attitude. Usually, he liked when people wore bitchiness like a perfume, but she had no style, no finesse. She was angry and coarse, more bitter than biting. Not his cup.

Plus, she had fucked Julia the second she and Margo had taken a break before Encanto Oculto. Not that he ever judged sexual exploits, but it had honestly been kind of slimy. That, and she and Penny were always dicks to Quentin, for no goddamn reason. It had been too many years of too much bullshit for him to put up with that, especially when it came to one of the best people he’d ever known. So in all, Kady wasn’t actually a welcome sight and never would be. He made sure she knew it too, in every small way he could, all the way down to her ridiculous booty shorts.

Unsurprisingly, she ignored Eliot. But more surprisingly, she turned her frantic eyes toward Quentin, fingers tapping arhythmic on the sides of her thighs. She cleared her throat and rubbed the top of her head.

“Um, hey,” she said, scratchy-voiced and jittery. “Coldwater.”

Quentin had been standing and watching Eliot, holding the club soda until he was tapped in. But at his name, he blinked and stared at her, bald confusion on his face. “Hey, uh… Kady?

She cleared her throat again, like she was nervous. “Can I talk to you for a second?”

“Me?” Quentin literally squeaked. Eliot kept working, like the conversation wasn’t happening. But he was attentive.

“Yeah. I need—um,” Kady sniffed and looked anywhere but at Q. “I need some help."

He could literally feel Quentin jumping up into Helpful Rescue Pup mode. “From me? Is everything okay?”

Kady nodded, then shook her head, then nodded again. “Look, I know we’re not friends.”

Okay, he was in. Eliot let out a harsh little laugh and blazed his eyes up, putting his clothes over to the side. He folded his arms and stared down at her from his full height. 

“Understatement,” he said, the words fierce behind his teeth. Who the hell did she think she was? At his intrusion, Kady snapped a glare at him, like she wanted to say something cunty, but instead she dipped her eyes down.

“Maybe,” she conceded. Then she looked back at Q, eyes rapidly jumping around and lashes getting wet. “But I think you might be the only who will—I need someone who understands—who won’t fucking—who won’t—“

Of course, Quentin was a sucker. He rounded his way past the bar table and wiped his hands on his pants legs and stepped closer to her, eyes warm and concerned. “Whoa, Kady, hey. Yeah, of course I’ll help you. What do you need?”

Eliot was not a sucker. There was something off about Kady, and so he snapped his fingers together, twisted them once, and stretched them out into a frame. As he looked through, he wasn’t sure whether to be pleased or disappointed. God, it was such a burden to be brilliant and right all the goddamn time.

“What the shit is going on with you?” Eliot sighed, laborious and overwrought. The miles they must walk, honestly. “You’re all warded up.”

Kady snapped, roaring way out of proportion. “Don’t push this, Waugh.”

“Push what, exactly?” He smirked, lips twisting. Her face fell, every line twitching and spasming. Her arms were shaking.

“Just leave it alone,” she said, voice cracking over a whisper. She was a terrible actress. “Please.”

“God, what bullshit chaos magic did you use to patch this together?” He was still looking through the frame and he meant it. The colors burned and the math barely made sense. Numbers swirled around her head, laughing like a hatter. “It hurts to look at.”

Luckily, bullshit magic was easy-to-dismantle magic. He twisted his hands up and around, and Kady’s eyes widened into what actually seemed like sincere panic.

“No, please, don’t—“ Kady begged, holding her hands out. Quentin stumbled back as Eliot broke the ward, and immediately, a cascade of books—at least fifty fucking books, all the ones Fogg had accused Eliot of stealing—fell in heavy sheets of fluttering pages and thudding leather around them.

Eliot snorted, slitting his eyes like the insult he was about lodge.

“You little snake.”

Eliot was shaking and Quentin’s hands were on his face when he blinked back to the beach, and he almost leaned forward in his delirium. But he didn’t because despite what most people believed about him, he could always rely on his self-control. No matter what else the world ripped from him, it could never take that away. It could die trying. The whole damn world could burn.

But Q’s fingers were still moving softly against the grain of his stubble and he felt his resolve start to crumble, unraveling like a spool deep in his heart. 

Quentin

He leaned into his touch, so slightly, and his knees sunk into the slopes of dry sand. It was only then that he realized he’d fallen down at some point. Shit. Embarrassing. He stole a glance up at Q, whose eyes were glued on him and wrecked with worry.

He almost laughed. They were quite the fuckin’ pair.

But whatever sound he actually made obviously didn’t register as amusement, because Quentin’s eyebrows fell further. 

“El,” he said, brushing his thumb along his jawline and it took all his strength not to hum out an even more embarrassing moan at the touch. Fuck, his hands were perfect. “What’s going on?”

Eliot forced himself to jerk back and finally formed that smile he’d been aiming for from the start. He shook his head and a few stray curls obstructed his vision. Jesus, he had forgotten what a wreck his hair was. So much for the aesthetic. Fuck.

“Dehydrated,” he said, shaking his head to fully bury the memory back where it belonged. He scratched at the side of his mouth and stood, brushing off his pants. “Did I mention that I’m hungover?”

Quentin rose in tandem with him. He didn’t totally look like he believed what Eliot said, but he also didn’t push it. He was a good friend that way.

“Yeah, me too,” Q said, stretching his tongue out. “I think after a shower, I’m going to hole up with a computer and read Fuzz Beat all day. Dire straits.”

“Eh, I think it’s a great idea,” Eliot said with a wink as they finally started walking forward, the ease of conversation carrying him more than his leaden feet. “Then you’ll finally solve the burning mystery of which Friends character is your soulmate.”

“I never take the quizzes,” Quentin said, affronted. “It’s obvious data mining.”

He rolled his eyes over a fond smile. “Sure.”

“Wait, do you take the quizzes?”

“I should live in Madrid, I’m a nice hunk of rich and nutty gruyere, I’m a combination Slytherin-Hufflepuff,” Eliot nudged him, relishing his frowny face, “and my soulmate is Rachel.”

Quentin glared, huffing condescendingly. “You probably have so many third-party trackers on your ass now.”

“Oh, no!” He gasped, hand on his chest. Quentin smacked his arm and Eliot laughed, warmth blossoming in his chest. They were fine. It was all fine. Thank god.

But as Q opened his mouth to retort, his words disappeared with a soundless and complicated shift of emotions across his face. He smiled, stretched across his face, and cleared his throat before stepping slightly ahead of Eliot.

“Let’s get going,” he said, voice perfectly normal. But his legs moved too quickly, his back toward Eliot. “If I don’t lay down soon, I’m gonna barf.”

Right.

Yeah.

It was all fine.

 


 

Encanto Oculto
Day Two

 

Eliot sat at a white linen covered table, nursing a glass of ‘96 Dom. The stars sparkled on his tongue, as they were wont to do. Lost in his own quiet mind, he watched the tiny fizzing bubbles dance upward to their own oblivion. Most didn’t know, but the original monk had never actually said that, the famous quote associated with the brand (“Come quickly, I am tasting the stars!”) It was just a great marketing line, which sincerely made him admire the turn of phrase even more. All the world was nothing but marketing. Eliot was nothing but marketing.

He drummed his fingers along the embroidered edge of the tablecloth, pristine and intricate. He twisted his neck to check on his date, still pacing on his cell phone a few meters away. Fuck, he was bored. He was itchy. Everything was still off-kilter. He stretched his arms out, his muscles still tired from his shitty night’s sleep and still aching, too heavy and wanting. 

He took another sip of the drink, putting it back down with too much force. The glittering gold sloshed about and the bubbles tried their escape act all over again, exploding at the surface, gasping against the air. He could relate.

Eliot filled the inside of his cheeks with air and tugged his phone out of his pocket, scrolling through his messages. He stopped and started several times, rereading the ones that led him there, fingers trembling over the touchscreen. He had done nothing wrong, he reminded himself. It was the smart decision. It would have been stupid not to go, for so many reasons. It was fine. It was all fine.

He opened the message screen again and the words looked like a language he didn’t speak, until his brain rearranged them into something sensible. But they still didn’t really make sense. He didn’t recognize them as belonging to him, even as they stood stark against the white backlight.

 


 

 

SMS with  “Idri (encanto, good shoulders + ‘beefcake’ :p)”
11/19/16, 12:01 PM

 

Buenas tardes, Eliot.
Are you free for a late lunch today? Around 2?
There’s a break in my schedule.
I hoped to spend it with you.  

Nice to hear from you, Idri
Sad to say, but I have a prior engagement

Not surprising.
You strike me as a busy man. 

Indeed
For you, I could manage to cut out early
Meet at 3? Champagne fountain?

It’s a date!

Excellent 

 


 

Of course, Eliot hadn’t had a prior engagement, but he knew the game.

(He fucking hated the game, he realized as he ran his finger around the flute’s delicate stem. When had that happened?)

(Don’t answer that.)

Anyway.

So.

To be clear? 

Eliot did not agree to a lunch date with Idri because of what happened in the breakfast nook that morning. That would have been petty and Eliot was never petty. 

Besides, he and Quentin were fine. They were great. They were best friends. There was no reason to be petty or upset or feel like his heart was going to fall right out of his chest, because that wasn’t how you felt when it came to your best friend. They were moving forward and this was what that looked like. They were both entitled to moving forward and so they were moving fucking forward. End of story.

So what if Quentin had barely spoken to him again on the walk home, claiming to be too nauseated. Eliot had been nauseated too. It made sense. He probably just felt like shit. God knew Eliot had felt like shit and he hadn’t done half the dumb shit Quentin had the night before, so it was probably all catching up with him, like things apparently did. That was all. Nothing more.

In the present, Eliot finished the champagne and poured more. Finished that glass too. Hair of the dog always worked like nothing else, even better than a potion. Or maybe that was just his alcoholism.

(Ha, ha !)

When they arrived at their lovely thatched hut along the water’s edge, they stepped onto the stretching patios over the shallow water, before pulling out the glass and stone door. When he did, magic poured into his veins. The small, rustic hut transformed into a lush, modern suite, ideal for recovery. And so they kept walking in and Quentin kept silent, but just as Eliot had started to rationalize the world into equilibrium again, everything screeched to a halt. 

Sitting at the quartzite kitchen island, dressed in her silk black dress and soaked to the bone was Alice, with her hands folded in front of her and blue eyes dazed as she stared straight ahead. She looked like one of those creepy Madam Alexander dolls, unmoving and porcelain.

“Alice,” Eliot said, another wave of nausea hitting him. Or maybe it was guilt. Or both. He had completely forgotten about Alice. “Holy shit, are you okay?”

She startled, like she wasn’t expecting anyone. But her eyes lit up and she scrambled off the stool, walking toward them at her most serious click-clack pace. She smiled and reached out toward them, her hands almost flailing in their excitement. A smile formed on Eliot’s lips, but as he reached for her—

She completely bypassed him, like he wasn’t there, and grabbed Quentin by the bicep.

“I’ve been waiting up for you, Q,” she said, voice low and gravelly and what the actual fuck? “I really, really need to talk to you. Now.”

Quentin blinked, his face twisting in surprise. “Um, okay? Is everything—good?”

Her face was like sunshine. “Yes.” Then it fell. “I mean, no. I mean, I don’t know.” Sunshine again, glowing and burning bright, right on Q. “I just—before I can know, I need to talk to you.”

A cold dread twisted Eliot’s chest and his fingers ached for his flask. He rubbed his lips together, dry like kindling. He reached for a smart comment, something to involve himself. But his fuzzy, jumbled brain failed him.

“Can it wait?” Quentin said, running his fingers over the bridge of his nose. But Alice tightened her hold on him. “It’s been a long night and—“

“No. It can’t wait. I’m too—everything is too—“ she bounced her knees and let out a little squeal, tugging him along. She still didn’t look at Eliot. “Please, Q.”

He sighed, his resolve physically wavering as his body fell forward, like a wobbling Jenga tower. “Look, okay, just let me—“

“No, it can’t wait ,” Alice said again, pulling him forward as he yelped. Eliot was frozen, everything happening in slow motion. What the fuck? “It won’t take long. Well, actually, it might, but I don’t care.”

“Jesus, Alice, let go,” Quentin said, trying to free himself in vain. “You have a goddamn viper grip.”

“Don’t be a baby.”

Eliot leaned against the island and watched her pull Quentin into the hallway, speaking in rambling nonsense. Q tried to pull back, protesting every step of the way. But then, something changed, when Alice stopped and looked him dead in the eye, as they stood in profile. She leaned up and whispered in his ear for what felt like an eternity, and his face circled through a hundred emotions. Her hands never left his arms, her fingernails sliding against his bare skin. 

When she pulled away, she stared up at him, big-eyes and pleading, biting her lower lip. For a half second, Quentin’s eyes darted over to Eliot’s and the eye contact would have staggered him backward if he weren’t already propped up. But before Eliot could catch his breath, it was over and Q stared back down at Alice, serious as anything. 

Then he nodded and led Alice to his bedroom, with his hand on the small of her back.

Which was also around the time Eliot decided his flask was a child’s plaything—because bottomless or not, it was filled with a goddamn cocktail, with mixers —and so he stormed over to the liquor cabinet and drank gin straight from the bottle. 

Anyway, long and truly irrelevant digression aside, the only reason Eliot agreed to a lunch date with Idri was because Idri was an attractive man and he was single and he offered to talk about his work and they were at Encanto Oculto. Hedonism and debauchery and lust and informational interviews. Encanto Oculto, baby. Et cetera. All of them could do whatever the fuck they wanted, including Quentin and definitely including Eliot. So he did and they could all suck on that.

(Yes, he was being dramatic.)

(Yes, he knew Quentin wouldn’t—that there was no reason to believe that he and Alice were—that it wasn’t characteristic. He knew there was probably something else going on, maybe even something he should wonder about beyond the screaming in his brain.)

(But shit was weird right now, okay? It was fucking weird.)

(Fuck.)

In any case, no matter how he had ended up on his date, the reality was: He was getting restless. Idri had been on the phone for the past twenty minutes, pacing in circles on the edge of the seating area. Eliot understood as much as anyone that duty occasionally called, especially when it came to the question of hospitality and soirees, a most important burden to bear. But at this point, honestly, the King of Encanto Oculto was being a bit rude. 

So Eliot adjusted his collar and stood, the chiavari chair clinking against the invisible barrier above the sand. Plastering on his most charming smile—without a hint of  impatience—Eliot walked over to Idri and tried to grab his attention, with a tiny wave. But instead, he was greeted with a hunched over back and a desperate sigh, completely unacknowledging him.

“Please don’t use that tone with me,” Idri said, quiet and deep into his phone as he spun around. His face was crumpled in pain and Eliot faltered back onto his heels. “This is not—what do you want from me? You always do this. You always do this.”

Oookay. Eliot grit his teeth and sucked in a sharp breath, wincing. That sounded like... not his business.

“It’s my work, I can’t just—” Idri’s large palm plastered over his face. “Yes. Fine. Go. I’m busy myself. I have a date.”

Idri spat the last word out before he pressed down on the red circle, thrusting his phone into his pocket with a snarl. For a moment, he stood there, shoulders heaving and Eliot contemplated slowly backing away, and maybe leaving Idri to whatever the fuck was going on with him that he didn’t really want to touch with a ten foot pole. But then, the Encanto King straightened up, took a deep breath, and looked up at him with warm brown eyes, nothing but light and kindness.

It was infectious, he had to admit.

“Eliot, my deepest apologies,” Idri said, a gentle smile crossing his handsome face. He pressed his hand on his lower back, guiding them back to the table. “That was unbecoming.”

“It’s fine,” Eliot said with a hand wave. Who the fuck was he to judge? “I hope everything’s okay.” 

Idri let out a rueful laugh as he pulled out Eliot’s chair for him, quite the gentleman. “Do you have any extended family?”

“Hm, I suppose,” Eliot said, slow and slender. Something about Idri made his language stand tall, with good posture. He sat down, keeping his gaze steady. “But I speak neither to nor of them.”

Idri’s smile was like a crescent moon. He poured them two more glasses of champagne and held his glass high. “To sound policies.”

They clinked and drank, and Eliot convinced himself there was nowhere else he’d rather be.

“So how was your first full day?” Idri asked, placing his napkin on his lap, far in advance. It was elegant. “Everything you hoped?”

Er. 

Uh.

“It was certainly eventful,” Eliot said smoothly, smiling primly. He swallowed another sip of champagne and snorted at his own private little joke. “Surreal.”

“I hope you mean that in a good way,” Idri said, full lips twitching into a slight frown. Eliot pressed his hand to his heart and clicked his tongue.

“Why, that goes without saying,” he said, all gentility. Then he tacked on a teasing: “Your Grace.”

Idri’s face melted back into that gentle warmth, and he beckoned over a waiter, to order another bottle. He asked for a special offering of shipwrecked champagne with a wink, because he was a man of both style and flair. As they drank, Eliot noticed his hand was covered in artful rings, all with precious gemstones, and quickly learned that they all had a story. He was a fantastic story teller. He made Eliot laugh, for real, more than once. He was gorgeous. He was the perfect man. 

You know, on paper.

His eyes closed and a dull headache loomed behind his brow.

(He couldn’t believe it. It was Quentin, laid underneath him, pupils blown wide and smile wider as he tangled his fingers in his curls and surged up, kissing him.

“Eliot,” Q breathed against his lips. He pulled on his shirt, desperate, until they were both on their sides, curled into each other, every part of them touching. “God, Eliot. Don’t stop. Never stop, please. Please, baby—”)

“—does that sound like something you’d be able to handle?” Idri asked, his very nice face smiling genially. 

Eliot drank deeper. 

(Fucking god, fucking hell, fuck everything, fuck.)

He wasn’t even sure they were memories or fantasies at that point. The two were doomed to be blurred forever and that was—not a great reality for his social life. So he did what he did best in an emotional crisis, and drank, and drank, and drank.

And then, because his life was so goddamn fucking fantastic, he of course saw Quentin and Alice walk into the vicinity, speaking quietly together, their heads almost touching. Still together. Sitting down for lunch, eyes locked on each other.

Together.

Eliot hands jittered at his sides and his knee bounced so hard under the table that it almost knocked over the glasses. But he kept his face cool and calm, even as he couldn’t quite manage to take his eyes off Quentin. The tips of his ears burned as Idri kept talking about the menu and explaining to the way it worked (all the food was actually blocks of cheap tofu, with a strong illusion magic and physical charms to make them look and taste like anything desired, blah, blah, basic shit) but all he could see was Quentin.

And then Quentin’s big wide eyes right on him, burning away from Alice and suffocating him. His heart slammed against the back of his throat and he remembered everything.

He wanted to remember.

Kady was crying and sputtering nonsense, as the small crowd started to form around her, curious murmurs providing the white noise soundtrack. 

Behind her, Margo and Julia kept respectively hard and cautious eyes on her, making sure she didn’t beeline for the door. Next to Eliot, the rubberneck Todd Bates bounced on his feet, inappropriately excited by the spectacle. The only person who could get anywhere near Kady was Quentin, who was doing his best to hear her out. Because he was a sucker, as previously established.

“Jesus. Here, have a drink,” Eliot finally said, as Kady kept clutching at Quentin’s arm, sobbing at him nonsensically about how she hadn’t meant it and she didn’t have a choice and something about her mom, for some fucking reason. But even the King Rambler himself couldn’t parse it, if the confusion in his eyes was any indication. 

Not one to be ignored, Eliot impatiently shook the high ball in her face. She didn’t even look at him when she grabbed it, but at least she did. She chugged the whole thing in two long swallows, her throat expanding and spasming as she did. Then she wiped the back of her mouth with her hand and stared down at the floor, the effects settling with ease.

“Calm now?” Eliot asked with the gentlest look of concern he could muster. She nodded and he leaned on his elbows toward her, cocking his head just so. He smiled. “Now, tell me why you did this, hm?”

Kady sucked in a breath and started speaking without hesitation. “I’ve been secretly working for a Hedge Witch coven leader named Marina Andrieski, a former Brakebills student. I’ve been providing her with books and other materials for the past year, with increasing levels of complexity in what she wants.”

She said it all quickly, smooth and easy as anything. But as expected, as soon as she was done, she slammed her hand over her mouth. Her eyes opened and closed once, before sliding over to the now-smirking Eliot. She swallowed, heavy, and her lips twitched. Anger burned in her eyes and she choked out a fierce growl. She threw the glass at the wall, shattering it, before she rounded on Eliot, eyes furious and hands sparking. 

“You fucking asshole ,” she snarled, pushing his shoulders back once. Static electricity lit up his skin but he just smirked all the sharper.

“What’s going on?” Quentin asked, head bopping back and forth like a bird. He frowned and grabbed the crook of Kady’s elbow as she started charging at Eliot all over again. “Whoa, okay. Just—uh, tell us more about Marina.”

“She’s the Head Bitch in Charge, the most powerful Hedge Witch in the city, maybe the state,” Kady said, easy breezy again. Her jaw clenched and she punched Eliot’s arm. It would leave a fucking bruise, fucking bitch. She laughed like another sob. “She’s a sociopath and a psychopath and—goddammit, Eliot!”

Overdramatic, Kady threw herself into a ball on the floor, trying to rip her hair out of her head unsuccessfully. At Quentin’s wildeyed look of confusion, Eliot merely shrugged and sipped his own drink.

“No mixologist worth their vodka has a bar stocked without truth serum,” he said, wiping his hands. In an instant, Q’s wild eyes went hard.

“Jesus, El.”

But behind the disapproving Quentin, Julia nodded her wholehearted approval. “Smart. Quick thinking. Nice work.”

“Um,” Todd laughed, high-pitched. He held a finger in the air. “Isn’t truth serum, like, super illegal?”

Everyone ignored him.

“I’m not saying I’m opposed to using it on her, because fuck a bitch,” Margo shot out, crossing her arms. “But isn’t it kind of a drastic step? Just send her to the dean so he stops blaming us for this shit. It’s not our problem.”

Quentin’s eyes flew to Margo, harder still. “The dean? Are you kidding? That’s the drastic option, Margo.”

“It was her choice,” Bambi argued brilliantly, rolling her lip around between her teeth. “She knew the risks when she got into the black market spell biz. Pretty easy math.”

“She just said it wasn’t a choice—”

Margo shook her head, curls bouncing everywhere. “We always have a choice, Q. But some people are weaker than others.”

“Fuck you, you unbelievable cunt,” Kady snapped, still not getting up from the floor. Her argument was incredibly well thought out. It made Margo smile.

“Bambi, I’m with you,” Eliot said, turning on his most authoritative voice. It made Quentin’s jaw tick, but he’d get over it. “But I figured it’s better if she’s compliant.”

“That’s—that’s so fucked up, Eliot,” Quentin said, turning his wide eyes on him. “It’s not like she killed someone.”

“Hedges are no fucking joke, Quentin,” Eliot said, not wavering. “You know I’ve met them. The high level ones are corrupt as shit. I wouldn’t be surprised if people have died or worse because of the information she provided, even indirectly.” He let out a barking laugh and glared down. “Is that right, Kady?”

Kady wrenched herself up and stood. Her eyes were red and her face pale. “I don’t know. Give me an antidote, now.” 

“Yeah, okay,” Eliot said with a laugh and a bright smile. Then he turned away from her and looked back at his other friends. “Let’s just get her in a bind.”

“Ooh! I’m really good at those!” Todd said with a happy grin. Everyone ignored him.

“No,” Quentin said, stepping in front of Kady. “No, we figure something else out. We talk to her first, but after the serum wears off.”

Eliot stared at him like he’d grown a penis out the side of his face, and not in the sexy way.

“What possible purpose would that serve?” God, Quentin was the fucking worst sometimes. “Then we can’t trust anything she says. I’m telling you, the books are not the end game here. The more accurate information we have to give the dean, the better.”

“Why do you give a shit about this?” Quentin shot out, asking maybe the first relevant question. He even noticed Margo’s eyes falter for a second, like Q had pointed out something to her too. But Eliot ignored it. He was on a roll.

“Do you know how often the dean has called me into his office to talk about the missing books?” Eliot pursed his lips. “He thinks it’s me, Q.”

“So this is about revenge?” Quentin snorted, disbelieving. “Because you were mildly inconvenienced a couple times? They wouldn’t kick you out and you know it.”

Before he could respond to that, Julia raked a hand through her hair, shaking her head. She stepped forward and took her best friend’s arm. “Q, Eliot’s right. It’s probably not just the books. That’s foundational shit. So what we need to do is go to the dean, so he can find this Marina person—“

“No,” Kady said, wrenching out a sob. “No. You can’t. She’s a psycho.”

Margo sneered. “You’re the one who was working for her.”

“Quentin,” Kady said suddenly, turning the force of her green eyes to the now silent Q, who was standing with his hair in his face, frowning in thought. “Quentin, please. You know how important Brakebills is. It saved me, Quentin, I didn’t think I would ever find—“

“Don’t fucking talk to him,” Margo snapped. She turned a sharp finger back toward the wavering Quentin. “And don’t fall for it, Q.”

“I mean, but she’s on truth serum,” Quentin said, more to himself than Bambi. “She can’t lie. It’s real.”

Julia tightened her grip on his arm. “She may very well feel that way, Q, but what she was doing was… who knows what kind of shit she unleashed out into the world?”

“Yeah, I know, but—“ Quentin worries his brow and stared upward, clearly torn. Julia shook her head and put her hand on his face, tilting his chin down so he looked at her.

“Hedges are basically junkies, with no mastery or control,” she said, unyielding. She tucked a stray piece of hair behind Quentin’s ear and sighed. “They could hurt themselves or others, Niffin out, create untold chaos. We have to cut it off at the head, okay?”

“Untold chaos,” Kady laughed, harsh and biting. “You always had a penchant for dramatics, Julia.”

Julia ignored her and beseeched her best friend with her dark brown eyes. “Bigger picture, Q. It’s part of our responsibility as classically trained Magicians.”

Quentin stood there, with the weight of every eye on him. He frowned, staring off into space as he calculated the circumstances. Then he nodded to himself, extracting his arm from Julia. He took two steps forward and stood next to Kady, like a human shield. He cleared his throat and tipped his chin up, stalwart.

“If you want to bind her and take her to the dean,” he said slowly. Then his eyes met Eliot’s, ablaze. “You’ll have to go through me.”

Eliot gripped the table and stared down at his perfect fingernails. That wasn’t exactly what he was going for, in terms of remembering .

(Shit.)

“Eliot?” A big hand covered his and he jumped. Idri’s eyes were concerned and his eyebrows were pulled together. “I asked if you had any questions?”

Eliot licked his lips and cleared his throat. “About?”

Idri laughed, but it was humorless. “I’ve lost your attention. Are you serious about wanting to learn about my work? I’m only bringing the subject up because I took a look at your Regalo and it was… truly masterful work. But if it’s only a passing fancy, then I’m certainly happy to socialize, but—“

“Yes. I mean, no. I’m very interested,” Eliot said quickly, shaking cobwebs out of his head. He was sincere, even if his head was way too fucked up to be thinking about something as stressful as his goddamn career right now. Fuck, of all the times. “Yes. I’m sorry. I’m very interested. After effects from a wild night, that’s all.”

Idri grinned at that and restarted his spiel, telling Eliot all about the lush, glorious work he did with the most important socialites all over the world. And Eliot nodded where he was supposed to, and laughed where it was prompted, and pretended with all his might that he couldn’t still feel Quentin’s eyes on him.

(He drank more.)

 


 

 

Encanto Oculto
Day Three

 

 

SMS with “Margo”
11/20/16, 9:22 AM

 

Get up fucker
I’m at the beach
&making us waxing appts

reminder in my phone, set to go off in 2 hrs: 
“bambi needs waxed”
LOVE the initiative baby

Fucking Julie said Brazilians are “unfeminist”
So I’m getting one 
Then rubbing my pussy in her face

that’ll show her

I know
11?

 

mimosas + sunbathing first pls?
shit is weird, need margo time

???
What the fuck?
Weird how?

ugh no talky
more drinky
all bambi

hey you there?

Yeah
Ok sounds good <3

are you in the gold bikini?
want to match

Duh bitch

 


 

The lights in the house were all off when Eliot stumbled in from the Bacchanal. It was the only other event that Bacchus hosted, typically in his own skin rather than the human form he usually wore. Large horns jutting out from the side of his head, draped in grapes and vines. Nude, obviously, with a total horse dick as the centerpiece, down to the fur growing out like bramble. His sprite-like face was covered in a beard and he had hair down to his shoulders, teeth gnarled into their original state, from aeons ago. His fingers were longer, his body harder, his voice like music from an enchanted lyre. It was grotesque and enticing all at once, awe-inspiring in its wrongness to human sensibilities. 

All the better to revel with, my dear. 

In years past, Eliot had been a main attraction in his own right, chugging from his own enchanted porcelain carafe, laid out on the banquet for any and all who wished to take. He and Margo, holding each other and laughing, letting the night flow over them like a river of magic and booze. They were some of the most pleasant memories in his entire life, if not strictly the happiest. But then, it had only been recently that he had ever even considered happiness as something to… consider. 

(Whatever. He was drunk.)

In any case, that night was different than the other years. Margo and Julia had stayed to the side, by themselves, laughing and whispering. Alice wasn’t there, because she seemed to be avoiding Eliot for some goddamn reason, off on her own adventures that no one would tell him about. Which, whatever. He didn’t care. At least that time, she hadn’t dragged Q off with her.

But then, at the same time, Quentin had looked like a terrified rabbit the whole time, wringing his hands with wide eyes as he chatted with an unamused satryr, who was clearly trying to fuck Q, even though Q had no idea or inclination. That image had implanted itself into Eliot’s brain like an angry mosquito, sucking blood and rational thought without letting go, until he was drained and unable to have any fun at all. There was a time he would have found it all so funny. He missed that time with all his heart.

Hence, a quick stop back home, for some happy pills and a flask filled with something potent, before he returned in all his glory, a fool proof plan. But mice and men and all that, because just as he was mixing up his most special concoction, the main door slammed and a skittering figure wove its way through the darkness, huffs of frustrated air pouring out as a leather messenger bag hit the floor. 

Pausing over his work, Eliot let the spoon clang against the metal shaker. Quentin stood in the hallway, face pale and eyes dark, almost haunted. Eliot’s heart started crawling his way up his throat, hands twitching at his sides. He cleared his throat, a soft friction of sound, so he didn’t startle the rabbit in front of him.

True to form, Q jolted, but stared up, eyes adjusting in the darkness. He frowned, a million complicated things crossing his face. They hadn’t talked much, since…

Well, since.

But here they were now.

“Hey,” Quentin said, wrapping his arms around himself, like a hug. Like comfort. The edge of Eliot’s eye twitched. “What are you doing here?”

“Oh, you know,” Eliot said, indicating his drink prep. He picked his tools up again and resumed his work, blithe smile on his face. “Just getting ready to go out. Again. Needed more supplies.”

Quentin stretched a smile across his own face. It looked painful, his face still not regaining its color. He scratched at the side of his eye with his thumb and shook his head, hair falling haphazard.

“Right,” he said, hoarse. He laughed, strained and faltering. “Yeah. Well, I won’t keep you.”

He gave Eliot a false little grin and turned on his heels, heading toward his room. And Eliot… Eliot wanted to fucking scream at him. This was ridiculous. They were friends. There was no reason for anything to be this fucking difficult between them. They had cleared the air. They were good.

“Hey,” Eliot called after him, just as Quentin started to walk away in earnest, shoulders slumped almost to the ground. “You okay?”

Q’s hands went up into his hair, tugging hard. He shook his head and his shoulders started to tremble. And Eliot’s spidey senses went off, focused in on every movement he made. Suddenly, he wasn’t so convinced that his weirdness was about him at all.

“Yeah,” Quentin said, still turned away, completely unconvincingly. “Yeah. I’m fine. It’s nothing. Not a big deal.”

Shit.

Eliot sighed, entirely abandoning his work. He took a few slow steps toward Quentin, approaching carefully, until his hand was softly wrapped around his shoulder. At the touch, Quentin stopped shaking, but his eyelashes went wet and oh, god, Eliot would kill anyone who put that look on his face. But in his experience, it usually wasn’t anyone . It was brain chemistry.

“You can talk to me,” Eliot said softly, rubbing his thumb back and forth along the edge of his shoulder blade. “What’s up?”

Quentin stared down at the ground, his flittering hands wrapping around each other in a soft frenzy, like if he kept touching every inch of skin there, he would find grounding. It took everything in Eliot not to wrap them in his own, to bring them to his lips and quiet their movements with all the feeling in his heart. 

He probably wouldn’t have helped anyway. 

So instead, he waited. He gave Q the space he always needed, more than he ever needed anyone’s touch. Certainly more than he needed Eliot’s touch, especially now, of all times.

Finally, Q swallowed and glanced up at him, his brown eyes rimmed in red and far too flat.

“I just—I had to leave the party early,” he said, bringing his thumb up to his lips. He bit at a jagged part of his fingernail and sighed. “Um, my headspace isn’t good— and I just—I kind of made an ass of myself. It’s whatever. Don’t worry about it. Not your problem.”

Eliot gave him a soft smile, like Q hadn’t just pierced a knife through his heart. “I’m sure you were fine.”

“No, I really wasn’t,” Quentin said with a wet laugh. He deflated under Eliot’s hand, like a spent party balloon. “I’m—I’m just gonna go lay down.”

Yeah, except that was the last thing he needed right now.

“Q,” Eliot said, tightening his grip. “Come on.”

“You’re heading out,” Quentin said, shaking his head, darting his eyes away again. “You don’t want to deal with my bullshit.”

That’s all I want , Eliot thought violently, shocking himself in its ferocity. He didn’t say it though. Obviously. 

“You’re my guest,” he said, settling on the stupid rules he created for himself. The easy answer. The easy out. But when Q tensed, he sighed, aiming for something closer to the heart of the matter. He ducked his head and glued his eyes on Quentin’s, not giving him space to run away. “But besides that, you’re my friend and I won’t be able to have a good time if I know you’re locked away in a depression hole. Now, will you fucking talk to me? Please?”

Quentin’s tense jaw nodded and he licked his lips. “Yeah, uh. I mean. It was fine, at first. I was drinking wine and talking with, um, Kevin? I think his name was?”

“The sartyr?” Eliot clarified and Quentin nodded. “Yeah, Kevin.”

He also had a twin brother named Darryl. They were good guys, if a bit overeager.

“Right,” Q said, snorting. Eliot wanted to bottle his tiny smile before it disappeared. But Quentin’s face went sour and morose all over again, faster than he could even blink. “Anyway, as we were talking, I, uh, kind of spaced out and then I started thinking about the fleeting nature of our time on this earth, like, even if or especially when you’re, uh, having an amazing time and you feel untouchable, right?” 

Eliot nodded slowly, right as Quentin threw his head back, staring up at the ceiling. He rolled his eyes up to his brow, sarcastic and self-loathing. “So—so—so, uh, then fucking naturally, I started thinking about Cocoanut Grove.”

Not the worst thing. Palm trees and rolling hills. Eliot grinned. “That sounds nice.”

But his smile made Quentin let out a laugh, a pained and harsh sound. He slammed his eyes closed, ticking his neck like it was about to snap. “Um, not really. I don’t mean, like, an actual coconut grove. I’m talking about the Cocoanut Grove nightclub.”

“Okay?” Eliot asked, his brow pinching. Quentin sighed, running his hands down his face. 

“Yeah, uh, it was a nightclub in Boston, way back in the 40s,” he said, pulling away and starting to pace in a small circle. “So, basically, one night, a young soldier unscrewed a lightbulb in his booth so he could kiss his date, in mood lighting.”

What the fuck was he talking about?

“Okay…?” Eliot narrowed his eyes and pursed his lips, really trying his best to follow. Quentin blew his hair out of his eyes and laughed again, entirely without humor. He kept pacing, circling. It made Eliot dizzy.

“Anyway, the soldier left without replacing the bulb and a sixteen-year-old busboy was told to screw it back in. It was his job, you know, that kind of thing,” Q said, like that helped explain anything. “But the lights were dim and he struggled to make it fit, because he couldn’t make out the details of the, like, mechanism or whatever. So, uh, he lit a match to see and then—” 

Quentin turned around and stared at him, eyes watery and hands flying in the air. “And then five hundred people died.”

Jesus Christ.

“Okay,” Eliot said, pulling himself up to his whole height. Take charge time. “That’s very sad. But not actually relevant to anything. You know that, right?”

But Quentin was caught in his cycle, staring down at nothing. “And—and so then I started talking about the Cocoanut Grove nightclub fire and everyone told me that I was bringing the vibe down and I just… kept going? And it was not, um—”

Oh, sweetheart. Eliot’s heart tightened and he stepped into Quentin’s space, forcing his mess of feeling and affection into something like friendship.

“Come here,” he said, wrapping his arm around Quentin and pulling him close. “Q, it’s okay. Let’s go sit down, yeah? I’ll get you a drink and some food.”

“No,” Quentin shook his head. He laughed into his hand, wet and too high-pitched. “Can you just—like, talk to me?”

“Of course,” Eliot answered automatically. He pulled him in tight, ready to sacrifice his first born to take this burden away from Q. He would do it. He didn’t give a shit. Fuck a first born. “Let’s navigate to the couch then, yeah?”

Quentin buried his face against Eliot’s collarbone, mumbling into his fabric. He tried really hard not to enjoy it, especially when he sounded despondent and lost. “So many people died, El. They were just trying to have fun. The soldier was in love and happy and trying to capture a moment of joy, and he—he had no fucking idea what he was setting in motion, right? And, god, that poor kid, the guilt , I can’t even imagine the fucking guilt—”

God, he felt things so intensely. It was beautiful, except when it did this shit to him. 

Heart hurting, Eliot ran his hands through Quentin’s hair and softly said, “It was a long time ago, Q.”

But that made Quentin snap his head up again and snarl, “Just because something happened a long time ago doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter, Eliot.”

Noted. New tactic needed.

“Okay. Okay. I hear you,” Eliot said, placating. “But we need to move right now, okay? Get you out of this spiral. Let’s go.”

Nodding and limp, Quentin let himself be maneuvered, until they were settled, flopped on the giant pink couch. For what felt like hours, he was silent, staring down at his knees. Eliot knew Quentin had asked him to talk to him, to say something, anything. But because he was fucking worthless , Eliot was at a loss. He didn’t trust himself to say the right thing. He didn’t trust himself not to say the absolute wrong thing, in his desperation.

He hated that it was Q who ultimately broke the silence, and he hated what Q had to say even more.

“I think I’m just gonna head back home.”

Eliot startled, fingers tensing like the back of a haunched cat.

“What?” He demanded, sharp. “Why?” No.

Quentin shrugged, inward and sad, in that way he could be. He closed his eyes and his voice came out monotone. “There’s just—there’s nothing here for me.”

You fucked up, you fucked up, you fucked up.

It wasn’t an unfamiliar mantra, beating steady against the hollow parts of his skull, bouncing around like a child’s ball. It regularly mocked him. But this time, as he watched Quentin—head-to-toe in black and looking so small against the grotesque magenta of the ostentatious couch—Eliot thought it may strangle him.

You fucked up.

“We’re all here. Your friends are here,” he said, pushing past his whining, vicious internalized horseshit. This wasn’t about him. It was about Quentin’s broken brain and goddammit, he had a responsibility to try to do right by him. “There—there’s a lot to do. It doesn’t all have to be the bacchanal, Q.”

“Sure, because that’s what everyone wants to be,” Quentin said, not opening his eyes. “The depressive in the corner who needs special You’re Great Just the Way You Are activities, so he doesn’t have a fucking breakdown. Real fun.”

He rolled his eyes. Couldn’t help it. “That’s a bleak interpretation.”

“Maybe. But Margo was right,” Q said, still not moving. “I don’t belong here.”

“Okay,” Eliot said sternly. “Margo never fucking said that.”

“She may as well have.”

With a repressed groan of frustration, he raked his hand through his hair and sat up, shaking at Q’s shoulder. Enough.

“Quentin, look at me,” he said. And Quentin, stubborn asshole that he was, firmly opened his eyes and looked in the opposite direction. Jesus. “Look at me, Q.”

Cooperating only to be pointedly uncooperative, Q snapped his eyes over with grit teeth. “What, Eliot?”

He looked at him for a few long moments, running the metal of his warm rings along the edge of his chin. Quentin’s brain was fucking with him. Of course there was no easy fix, but Eliot knew he could help snap him the fuck out of it enough that he didn’t run home with his tail between his legs. Quentin had once told him that he was always trying to find secret doors, to escape when shit got too rough, too raw. 

And Eliot—Eliot knew exactly what that felt like, even if he didn’t have the balls to admit it at the time. 

But he could help now though. 

(Well, he could at least try to help now.) 

He let out a slow breath and put his hands in his lap, folding them delicately. He brushed off an imaginary piece of lint from his trousers, looking down as he spoke. “Do you remember what my one unshakeable policy is?”

That alone jolted Quentin out of his anger and into confusion. He scrunched his nose, eye cocked. “Uh. Always accept an offered mint?”

“No. Well, yes,” Eliot said, frowning a little and rocking his head back and forth. “Okay, I have two unshakeable policies.”

Never answer a cop knock ?” Now Q was smirking. Thank god.

Eliot glared at him half-heartedly, unable to help the gentle smile that gave him away. “Do you want my sage wisdom or not?”

“I mean,” Q sighed, undulating his hand in an On with it motion, his own face softening into Eliot’s favorite wryness. “I guess it can’t hurt.”

Fuck, his was the brattiness that launched a thousand ships. Eliot’s heart lurched and bent, in a reverent bow. But outwardly, he clicked his tongue and ruffled his hair.

“When I get like this,” he said indicating Quentin, who immediately rolled his eyes and shot him an incredulous glare. “I’m serious. When I get like this, I ground myself in what’s actually happening around me. So my policy is that when life fucking sucks the goddamn life out of you: Focus on your senses.”

“‘Focus on your senses,’” Quentin repeated, monotone. Then he chuckled. “Yeah, uh, that’s actually a pretty common—you know what, never mind.” He cleared his throat and snorted, eyes sliding back over. “For the record, that’s definitely not something you’ve ever expressed before.”

“I assume everything I think and feel manifests itself automatically in others,” Eliot said, leaning back and stretching his arm along the length of the couch. He gave Quentin a quick wink. “You know, through osmosis.”

Quentin scrunched his face up and nodded, holding back a laugh. “Yeah, that makes sense.”

“Seriously though,” Eliot said, sliding his hand down to squeeze his shoulder tight again. “Go through the five senses. Right now. What do you see?”

“El,” he said, with a raspy intake of air.  “The thing is, I’ve done shit like this before and it’s not—”

“Oh, just indulge me,” Eliot said, nudging him.

Quentin blinked up at him, eyes unreadable. But then, his face fell into a slow smile.

“Yeah,” he said softly. He rolled his eyes and fell back against the couch. He sighed like he was giving into something he’d been fighting for a century. “Yeah. Alright. Fine.”

Eliot smiled.

“What do you see?” He asked again, but then quickly put his hand up when Quentin’s face furrowed into overthinking mode. “First thing that comes to mind.”

“A dark room,” Q said, a little bratty. But not entirely.

Eliot elbowed him. “More specific than that.”

Quentin frowned, looking down and to the side. He ticked his eyebrows up, running his hand along the velvet surface below him. “Um, this fucking ugly pink couch?”

“Before we continue, thank you for saying that,” Eliot said, deathly serious. “It’s hideous and whoever designed it should be tried for war crimes.”

“Why does it exist?” Quentin looked sincerely baffled.

“A philosophical question for the ages,” Eliot said with a grin. “But the practical answer is that the house takes all our tastes into account. I think this travesty is Alice’s doing.”

That made Quentin smile, wide and genuine. “It does have kind of a, uh, Lisa Frank vibe.”

Eliot’s stomach tightened, cold and sick. The words Hey, so, speaking of, what’s going on with—? danced mockingly on the tip of his tongue, ramming their angry heads against the back of his front teeth. It would be the perfect transition. Quentin would probably be happy to let go of this activity. He would probably answer honestly, because Quentin almost always answered honestly. He’d find out everything, if he wanted to know. But he didn’t really want to know.

(Bawk, bawk, bawk. Et cetera.)

So instead, Eliot cleared his throat and licked his lips once. He focused. “Okay. Good work.”

“Thanks, it was really difficult,” Quentin said with a low eye roll.

Eliot flicked the back of his head, but ignored him otherwise. “What do you hear?”

“A blowhard who thinks he’s a therapist?” Quentin said, all flat sarcasm, with only the tiniest hint of an impish twinkle in his eyes. Brat.

“Well, I did revive your surprisingly mean sense of humor,” Eliot said, head tilted. Then he smiled, shiny as he could. “So you’re welcome.”

The twinkle grew to real mischief. “It’s why you like me.”

“Eh,” Eliot lifted his lip, while waving his hand as he looked away. But when Quentin elbowed him back for his troubles, he broke and laughed, eyes catching on Q’s before he could stop himself. 

For a moment, the world fell away and all he could see was the gentleness in his eyes, and that tiny teasing smile, and those parentheses dimples, and just, fuck, Quentin . A rushing heat, sparkling electricity, bubbled from his core up to his heart. It felt like the first time he realized he could fly—terrifying and unnatural to everything he had ever known before, to everything that should have been, yet so undeniably right, down in his soul.

(What the hell was he doing? Why was he fighting this?)

(He couldn’t remember.)

Quentin broke the moment though, looking down at his hands and clearing his throat. In an instant, it all came back. He was fighting it because He’s a fuck up and Quentin deserves better. Right. Of course. Duh.

“No, um, I guess,” Q said, pushing his hair back, “I hear the ceiling fan? Is that a good answer?”

Eliot tucked his hands into his pockets. “No good or bad answers.”

Quentin glared back up. “You literally told me I gave a bad answer, like, two minutes ago.”

Touché. He shrugged as he dug around his pockets for a cigarette. Couldn’t find one. Shit. So instead of responding directly, he just continued, not looking at him as he considered all his options for obtaining nicotine without walking away. 

“What do you smell?”

(He could call a cigarette or his case from his room. But he couldn’t quite remember the path of the hallway, which meant he’d end up with a lot of soldiers littering the ground after they inevitably slammed into the walls. Pain in the ass.)

(But fuck, he wanted a smoke. Needed a goddamn smoke.)

(Maybe Q had a cigarette? Would that be weird to ask?)

“Um, I smell your cologne,” Quentin answered, softly, threading his hands together. The cigarette was forgotten as the hairs on the back of Eliot’s neck stood up. 

All brain functions halted, like a screeching subway that lurched the passengers forward. His heart restarted, fast and jittery, like he’d been hit with the paddles. He stared straight ahead, forcing himself into composure. His fingers tingled.

“Which smells like citrus,” Quentin said, still soft. But now was looking up at Eliot through his lashes. “Like, a musky citrus. Is that dumb?”

Eliot ran his tongue over his teeth and swallowed. His throat was dry. “Ah, no. Not dumb. It’s, um, a special blend for tropical—doesn’t matter. But, yeah, you have, um, a strong olfactory system.”

Smooth, Waugh.

“There’s, like, um, jasmine or sandalwood or something?” Quentin said, leaning in closer to Eliot’s neck, murdering him. He sniffed in a soft line up from his collarbone to the nape, without touching. “Both, maybe. Plus, orange, of course.”

Eliot’s pulse pounded, and he tried not to swallow again. It would be too deafening. But his throat was so dry and all his nerves were shaking, overheating. He nodded, like his head was detached from his body, floating in its movement.

“But it also smells unique, I think,” Q said, pulling back just enough to catch Eliot’s eyes. They were dark in the angled light, but something glimmered there. “It smells like you.”

His breath hitched “Which is what?”

“I couldn’t describe it,” Quentin said with a smile, eyes hooded. He reached up and grazed his fingers against the line of Eliot’s jaw. Automatic, he shifted closer to him, his nose grazing Q’s forehead.

Eliot whispered, unthinking, dipping his head down. “What do you feel, Q?”

Their foreheads touched and his eyes closed. He felt Quentin’s hand travel slow up his chest and rest over his heart. Which, god—fuck. 

Fuck.  

Yeah. He wasn’t strong enough to resist that. 

So Eliot tilted his head down and captured his lips under his own. In less than a beat, Q made a choked off sound and threw himself into Eliot’s lap, parting his lips and sliding his tongue against his. His hands frantically wrapped around his face, knocking him back with his intensity. Eliot caught himself on his arm, like a lever, but Q kept kissing him harder, pushing him down with all his strength. He whispered his name against his lips once (“God, Eliot,”) and straddled him, hands fumbling for the buttons on his shirt.

Baby, Eliot thought, slow and desperate and delirious. He slid his fingers through Quentin’s hair, gentling him and pulling him closer, softer. They sunk into the couch and each other at once, Quentin on top of him, still undressing him. He heard that same vague, underwater protest from his rational brain, but he kept moving, kept feeling, without taking heed. One hand slid up and under Q’s shirt, palm splaying wide and desperate over the lines of his back muscles. The other got to fast work on Quentin’s belt, tugging it off with precision, without ever taking his lips away from him. But then Q started kissing down Eliot’s now-bare chest, with intent, and the world disintegrated in a universe-expanding inferno. 

His eyes closed and his head rocked back against the ornate couch arm. Holy motherfucking goddamn shit. He tangled his fingers into his hair and smiled under his fluttering lashes at the trail of perfect fire. He even gasped when Quentin lightly bit at the soft space above his hip bone, his perfect hands getting to fast work on his belt and buttons, palming slowly at the tight seam of his pants like it was something they’d done a million times before. 

“Fuck, baby,” Eliot said, out loud, wild and trembling. He slowly opened his eyes and stared down the line of his body, at Quentin tugging down his trousers and reaching for the top of his briefs, like every movement was precious, sacred. “Fuck.” 

Q’s eyes pierced up at him, pools of heat and something… terrifying and beautiful and— fuck . He smiled a little and Eliot’s heart jumped up into his mouth, full of all the longing he had felt for so fucking long. He couldn’t feel anything but Quentin. He didn’t want to feel anything else ever again, for his whole life.

But of course, because the world was a terrible place that hated him with every turn, that was when the worst hit him.

Eliot was done. 

He was fucking done with idealistic bullshit. He was done with Quentin’s stubborn bullshit. He was certain there was more going on in the room around him—he could still hear Margo and Julia, could still feel Todd’s mouth breathing, could still see Kady trembling—but his tunnel focus was all on Q.

Stupid, stupid Q.

“Sweet Christ, Quentin,” he growled, snapping his fingers once. “Get out of the way. She’s dangerous.”

But Quentin didn’t budge, arms folded, and he repeated the same annoying question again. “Why do you care?”

“Because of everything Julia said!” Eliot shouted, ready to use his telekinesis to knock him out of the way. This was getting ridiculous. They had all made a decision and Quentin thought that his ill-conceived principles meant that he could unilaterally derail it? That wasn’t how it worked. That wasn’t how any of this worked.

“Bullshit. You’ve never been a moral authority ever,” Quentin accused, eyes still firm and stance firmer. “How the fuck is this different?”

Was he serious? He knew better than anyone. “Because I know how exactly dangerous magic is without—“

But Quentin shook his head, cutting him off by shaking his hands out. He was obviously just as agitated with Eliot as Eliot was with him, but he sucked at keeping it composed.

“That’s what I’m saying. It’s why sending Kady off to get her memories erased or worse with this—this energy still in her is messed up and—and dangerous in its own right, in bigger ways,” Quentin said, his forehead creasing into a frown. “Do you really not see that?”

“I see a clear danger here and now,” Eliot said, with a lackadaisical little shrug. He brought his drink up to his lips and finished it. “I’m not bothered about some hypothetical.” 

“Well, fine, that’s your choice.” Quentin licked his lips and stared off to the side, tucking his hair behind his ears. “But I’m not going to—“

Eliot’s patience snapped, like a glowstick. He lit up, red and bright. “Why are you being so fucking stupid about this?”

He definitely expected the kicked pup look, the retreat, the Okay, um, sorry, okay, forget it, sorry . Eliot had taken advantage of that expectation, planned to use it to get the shit done and over with. Yeah, yeah, he was a bad person, whatever. Ends justified means; if not by charm, than by force; all that. But Quentin didn’t fulfill that expectation. Instead, he met Eliot measure for measure, his hands at sides in tight fists, relentless. 

A strange, unfocused backdoor part of Eliot was incredibly, inappropriately turned on.

“Why should we get to choose?” Quentin’s voice was a whisper, but not delicate. “Why should Brakebills get to choose?”

The heat of the moment dissipated in his frustration and Eliot nearly laughed. “Because that’s how it works , Quentin.”

“So question it, Eliot,” he retorted, precise and hard, eyes widening and jaw setting.

Okay, yeah, it was still hot. But for once, there were actually more important matters at stake.

“You want to change things structurally, fine. Write up petitions to your little heart’s content,” Eliot said, voice low and pointed. “But you don’t do it in the midst of shit like this. There are already systems in place, Q. Maybe they’re imperfect, but now is not the fucking time.”

Quentin gentled then. He sighed and held his hands out, looking to the ceiling like it would have the answer for him. Meanwhile, Kady was turning gray, her lips hard and white and her eyes so bloodshot, it looked like she hadn’t slept in over a week. She looked like a fucking zombie, and not in the sexy way.

“Look, Kady made a mistake. But people make mistakes, that’s, like, what we do , as a species,” Quentin said, shaking his head and pushing his hair back. He pressed the heels of his palms into his temples and started pacing in a small circle. “We fuck up and we do shitty things to each other, but, uh, mistakes—mistakes are how people can actually learn do better, El. But they can’t do better if they’re not even given the chance to. Taking away Kady’s memories, taking away her agency, is not the answer.”

A tiny pulse of light traveled into his ventricles, nearly rendering them apart in Quentin’s incandescent hope. It was intoxicating, even in the worst of circumstances. But closing his eys to its power, Eliot snuffed it out, remembering himself. 

He bit his lip and laughed, airy, before his voice hissed out hard. “That’s a very sweet, very fucking naive sentiment.” 

There was the kicked pup look. He had almost missed it. Normally, nothing made him feel more like shit, but Eliot was done. Quentin stuffed his hands into his pocket and nodded, over and over again. He laughed, high-pitched.

“Right. Anytime I disagree with you, it’s because I’m fucking naive.” Quentin’s voice was as sharp and off-kilter as his was low and grounded. “Not because I could actually—”

Enough. Eliot looked past Quentin, like he wasn’t speaking. This wasn’t Debate Club.

“Kady, tell us what else Marina asked you to do,” he demanded of the walking corpse. She was shaking. “Let’s see how deep these adorable little character-building mistakes actually go, shall we?”

Kady’s mouth opened, a dry and cracking sound. She coughed once and closed her eyes, croaking out a single, entirely irrelevant sentence.

“Fuck… you… Eliot.”

Quentin’s eyes went wide and he flipped around, hand on her shoulder. “Hey, uh, don’t fight it. You can’t—you can’t fight truth serum.”

She coughed again. It was supposed to be a laugh. “Watch… me…”

Kady sneered and held her middle fingers up right at Eliot. They shook so hard, they would barely stand upright. But he got the message. She really was quite the charmer.

“Listen to Quentin. You could Niffin out,” another voice said from behind them. It sounded like Julia. Again, Eliot had tunnel vision, so he wasn’t totally sure. “Kady, come on.”

Kady cough-laughed again and her hands covered her eyes, trembling and trembling. She was whiter than a sheet of paper, than Eliot’s shirt once was. “Fuck... off… Julia.”

“Should we maybe take her to the infirmary?” Another voice asked. It was annoying one. “She doesn’t look so good.”

“Shut the fuck up, Todd.” That was one was Bambi. He knew that. “She’s fine. The grown-ups are talking.”

He loved her. But he couldn’t snark with her right now. His focus was elsewhere. Namely, on how Quentin was wrapping his arm around Kady and trying to make gentle eye contact with her, searching for her cooperation in that stumbling, disarming way of his.

“Kady, please,” Q said, brow wrinkling a thousand times over. “Just answer Eliot and then we can figure this out.”

She shook her head, death white and almost translucent, and shaking harder and harder. “I’m not giving... this asshole… anything.”

“I get that. I really do. But you could hurt yourself,” Quentin said as he took a deep breath and swallowed, trying to find the right words. “No matter what your answer is, Kady, I promise you, I will—“

That was when something shifted. Kady’s whole body went still and Eliot could feel magic vibrating off her in waves. It pricked fear in the deepest part of his gut, but Kady just took a single step forward, right out of Quentin’s grasp. Of course, because it was Quentin , he reached out again and she stormed around, her movements stiff and labored, but determined.

“Stop touching me,” Kady said, suddenly clear, suddenly urgent. Then, like she used all her strength, she threw herself away from him, toward the daybed, eyes dancing all around the room. Her hand went up to her chest. She breathed like she was hyperventilating.

“Okay, I’m sorry,” Q said with his hands in the air. “But Kady—“

Her hands were sparking again. Small yellow trails of lightning. It was twirling, blurring. She didn’t even seem aware that it was happening. Eliot brought his eyebrows together and reached out to tap Q on the shoulder.

“Quentin,” he said, keeping his voice low. “Get behind me.”

But Q was still mad at him, so he glared and stepped further away from him as he stepped closer to Kady. “Fuck off. No. She needs help, Eliot, and you’re obviously not going to do anything to make it better.”

“Q, do you see what I’m seeing?” Julia’s voice asked, urgent. “I think we all need to take a minute here and calm down.”

Quentin ignored her, stepping closer to Kady again, nearly touching her. “Kady, please, if you just answer, the energy will dissipate and then—”

Kady growled, an inhuman sound. The sparks got brighter and brighter. Her core glowed, red and yellow and piercing cold. “I won’t. I can’t. Fuck truth serum. Fuck you. Fuck off.”

He held his hands up and moved one toward her shoulder, about to touch her again. “Hey, I get it, I do, I really do, but—”

Eliot realized what was happening as it was happening. None of it mattered. He hated himself. He hated Kady. But it didn’t matter. None of it mattered. His hand reached out, strong and desperate, along with the terror in his voice.

“Quentin, get behind me now!

But it was too late.

“Fuck,” Eliot winced, hissing and scrambling upward, knocking Quentin back. Fuck. Fuck . “Um, I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”

“Are you okay?” Quentin’s quiet voice asked, and Eliot could feel his hands on his arms. He couldn’t bear to look at him. And he had no idea how to answer that or how to begin to talk about it because— 

Because Eliot had seen a lot of harrowing shit in his short life, but nothing would ever haunt him quite like those thirty seconds. He had tried to hard to block it out, more than anything else. Quentin rag-dolling in the air and slamming against the Cottage wall, a wide streak of blood trailing as his body slumped down its length. Julia screaming and sobbing his name, but unable to move, trapped under a table. Margo reaching him first, cradling his bleeding head in her lap, her eyes wide and hateful and—worst of all—almost grieving, checking frantically for a pulse. Kady sinking to the ground, her eyes and mouth flying open, destroyed with the horror of what she’d done. 

And Eliot standing frozen, feeling nothing except the reverberation of magic in his palms. Feeling nothing… until Kady whimpered a pathetic Oh my god, I’m so sorry . Then his neck snapped toward her and the lost souls of the River Styx cried in their fury.  After that, he didn’t remember much else, except Todd Bates binding Eliot to stop him from attacking Kady. Probably for the best, he was sure. Even though sometimes—

Eliot let out a sharp breath, remembering where he was.

He opened his eyes and swallowed, everything slow and heavy around him. Beside him, Quentin was curled in on himself, tinier than before, which was exactly what he fucking needed. What either of them needed. Fuck. Fuck.

(Fuck.)

He was such an idiot. He knew he was an idiot. He could feel the idiocy settling on his shaking arms, pushing his face down into his palms. He could feel it wrap around the whole of his body, but he couldn’t do anything to stop it.

“Q—” he said, shaking his head. He didn’t know how to finish his thought. How could he say—? When it was all so—? When they never talked about —? He licked his lips and stared up at him, every emotion he’d ever felt concentrated in a knot in his chest. He was certain his stupid heart was drawn all over his face. 

But Quentin’s was shut down, gray and darting.

“No. Um, shit,” Q said. He broke away further away ( Nonono, don’t go, don’t go) with a breathy laugh and rubbed the inner corners of his eyes. “Shit. No, I’m the one who’s sorry. That wasn’t supposed to happen again. Fuck. Sorry.”

“Q,” Eliot said, breathing hard. His arms were hugging himself around his waist and black spots jumped in front of his eyes.  “Um. Look. Maybe we should have another talk about this?”

Everything and nothing was clear. But his heart glowed in the dark, a calling beacon to a part of himself he had buried so long ago. Maybe. Maybe, maybe, maybe. Once upon a time, he had almost lost Quentin and it wasn’t—it wasn’t exactly not his fault, okay? He fucking knew that. He knew his piece, his part, everything he had done. He knew what he deserved, but he had always, always been selfish. That wasn’t going to change. So now, sitting there in front of Quentin, heart in his hands and all the words jumbled on his tongue as he held his breath, a forgotten and unfamiliar sensation clawed its way through him. Maybe, maybe, maybe. Maybe he could do this. Maybe he could try, for once, for his Q, for himself. Maybe it wasn’t—

But before he could say anything, Quentin pulled further away, leaving nothing but the enchanted cold air of the fan billowing between them. He heaved a heavy sigh and shook his head again.

“No, that’s not—I know, okay? Being attracted to each other doesn’t mean we—you were right,” Quentin said quickly, sliding back down onto the couch. He slapped his palm on top of his eyes. “You were right. This isn’t worth fucking up our friendship.”

Oh.

Well, of course he was right. He was always right.

(Stupid.)

As Eliot processed, his brain a dull whir, Quentin smiled dimly and let his hand fall. “Sorry. Um. Sorry. I’m kind of fucked up right now.”

Right. Broken brain. Of course. Eliot was both an idiot and an asshole. What the fuck was he doing? He needed to get away. He needed to go far, far away. But he just closed his eyes and shook his head, landing firmly back in reality. 

“You’re fine, Q. Or, even if you’re not, we’re fine,” Eliot said, swiftly pulling his pants back up. He buttoned his shirt, ignoring the burning red blush on his cheeks. “We’re—it’s weird, okay? I know it is. But we’re just... in the worst possible place to be dealing with this.”

“Yeah, I know,” Q said, rubbing the back of his neck. He stared straight ahead and nodded, reflexive. “We’ll be okay. I know.” 

There was nothing more to say to each other. Nothing more they could say. Eliot’s muscles froze and he nodded, a reflexive motion too. With that, they both sat there for far too long, not moving, not looking looking at each other. Not moving. Rationally, he knew he should get up, but he couldn’t. 

So he didn’t.

Neither did Q.


 

Encanto Oculto
Days Who Gives a Shit? and Fuck Off.

 

Growing up in Indiana, Eliot always loved the word moonshine . When his brothers would talk in the downstairs hallway about making their particular brew out back—gnarly, nasty shit with an almost improbably high proof—he would rest his cheek along the wooden railing of their stairway and dream about slanted light across the cornfield, guiding a path out and away from the hell of his home. He would doodle the word in the margins of notebooks and stare up at the sky every night, hoping against all hope. Moonshine. It was lovely.

Of course, even when he was little, he knew it wasn’t actually so wholesome. He wasn’t stupid. 

But young Eliot liked to think that maybe someday, somehow, he’d be able to reconcile all of it, and that something beautiful could come out of it anyway, improbable as it seemed. But then, the first time he got fucked up on his brothers’ most potent batch, he had gotten so sick, shaking in sweats and struggling to breathe. At least his brothers took good care of him though, giving him water and electrolytes, propping his head up with a pillow and gently ribbing him all while assuring him that he was never alone. That they’d all been there and they would help him get through in one piece.

Ha.

No, obviously, they called him a pussy and kicked him in the head, leaving him lying face down in the barn and not even bothering to throw a scratchy blanket over him. After that, He never dreamed about the moon again.

In the present day, though, Eliot wasn’t fucked up on moonshine. That was for hicks. No, he was in the hookah lounge, on a gorgeous cosmopolitan island in the Mediterranean, covered head-to-toe in silk. A nubile and clean-shaven boy fed him grapes from above, like he was an exalted demigod. How the mighty had risen.

But he was definitely fucked up.

(Quentin wasn’t talking to him.)

(Well, he was. But it was small talk bullshit, which was so much worse.)

Eliot sighed and leaned his head back on the couch-thingy. He needed another drink, but the bar was really far away. He blinked and stared around the ornate surroundings. Lush reds and golds draped everywhere, but he was alone. Everyone else had gone off to get lunch or join an orgy or do something actually fun , rather than staying in with a sad sack drunk. It made sense. But the ice cold grip of loneliness would have staggered him backwards if he hadn’t already been on the ground.

So… fuck it.

He could do what he wanted. He just had no idea what that was. But he didn’t have to think about it that long, because a svelte shadow crossed the lamp-lit patterns around him, hip jutted out like perfection. He would have known the silhouette from anywhere and his intoxicated heart leapt with muted joy.

“There you fuckin’ are,” the best voice in the world greeted him and he didn’t even care how annoyed she sounded. “This is—this a new one, El.”

“Margo,” Eliot said, smiling wide. Margo was here. All was well. But she didn’t smile back. She stepped further into the light and sighed, pointed and irritated. Her hair was down and curled around her bare shoulders. She wore a pink tube top. She was such a teeny bopper at heart. He loved it.

“Eliot, what the shit? Is this where you’ve doing?” Her face scrunched up, like she was angry and disbelieving. “You haven’t answered my texts in over a day. I couldn’t find you.”

“Been busy ,” Eliot said, with a hand wave. “I’m a big boy.”

(Busy, like Alice, who wouldn’t even fucking look at him. She hadn’t talked to him in days, except for quick hellos and goodbyes, rushing off everywhere but to hang out with him. Rushing off with Quentin.)

(Who, by the way, was barely talking to him. Except small talk bullshit. Did he mention that?)

“Everyone’s been asking where you are,” Margo’s lips trembled as she hugged herself tighter. “Did you put an anti-locator spell on yourself?”

“Sure as fuck did.” He did. He could do whatever the fuck he wanted.

“That was stupid,” Margo said, eyes flashing and teeth gritting. She always went from zero-to-super pissed. “Why would you—?”

Eliot hiccuped and pulled himself up halfway, his elbows resting on the couch-thingy behind him. He cocked a rakish grin at her and winked. “Now, now. Let’s not focus on drab and dull details. You seem far too sober, my love.”

“I’m a normal amount of vacation drunk, thanks,” Margo said, nose curling up. She held her hands out at the gorgeous and definitely not totally fucked up and messy tent. “But this? This is—”

“Ah, ah, ah,” Eliot laughed, shaking a finger in the air. “All I’m hearing is that you need to catch up, Bambi.” 

Margo slammed her eyes closed and pinched her nose. “Eliot—”

“Daddy’s on drink numero cinco,” Eliot held out his hand as he spoke over her buzzkill bullshit, stretching all the fingers wide. Then he hiccupped. He thought very hard. Held up two more fingers. “Siete.”

“Pretty sure you’re rounding down, dick,” she said, folding her arms and arching an eyebrow. Eliot shrugged.

“I may also be on some drugs. Yay drugs,” he said, lifting his hands in the air and razzle-dazzling them at her. She bit the inside of her cheek and pursed her lips.

“Sweetie,” Margo said, stretching herself along the length of the chaise lounge across from him. She reached forward and touched his knee, her big eyes warmer than before. “You know I don’t like to judge, but—“

Eliot let out a loud, snorting laugh, shaking his shoulders. Margo’s eyes narrowed back to burning slivers.

“Sorry, that wasn’t a joke?” He kept laughing, curls bouncing against his sweat-slicked forehead.

She tilted her chin up, staring down at him from her nostrils. He could see the gears shift as she sneered up her lip, eyes like stone. “You look like a cigarette that’s been floating in beer can. Get the fuck up.”

“I’m just trying to have a little fun ,” Eliot spat out, hand messing up his hair and sliding down his face. He could feel his eyeliner smudge, but whatever. Louche as fuck, baby. “That’s the point of this place. F-U-N.”

Bambi lost all her patience then. She reached over and smacked him upside the head, without an ounce of gentleness. It hurt. 

“What the hell is going on with you?” Margo demanded, bending down and staring him right in the eyes. She really wasn’t fucking around. And for an insane half-second, he thought about telling her the truth. 

(Fuck.)

But instead—

“I may be… it’s stupid,” Eliot laughed, light as anything. He scratched under his eye a little too hard. It stung. He needed to cut his nails. He cleared his throat and licked his lips. “I’ve been having a slight disagreement with, uh, the Marquis, if you will.”

It was true. 

(But it was more of a symptom than a cause.)

It landed with Margo just as he expected it would though. He watched the understanding and sympathy blossom across her face. Her eyebrows came together, calculating and empathetic. She was the best friend in the world, and he only felt a little guilty.

“Ah, shit,” Bambi said, eyes trailing downward and landing on his crotch. Her lips tilted sideways and she clucked her tongue. “Ah, honey. Okay. I get it.”

“It’s a minor performance issue,” Eliot said, mumbling. He forced himself to sit up more. He was in it now. “I’ll be in tip-top shape in two shakes of a… well, you get it.”

But Margo immediately went into problem-solving mode. She was a goddess. “Magic Viagra?”

He didn’t deserve her.

Eliot gave her a rueful grin. “Doesn’t do shit for me anymore. Overuse immunity or some other nonsense.”

“How about a new location?” She tapped her chin and then pointed at him, excitement sparking in her eyes. “Creature sex?”

“Tried and tried,” Eliot said, low and rough. He chuckled. “Failed spectacularly. I think I just gotta ride it out.”

“Shit,” Margo said, her eyes genuinely sorrowful. He loved her for it. He really didn’t deserve her. “I’m so sorry, El. Of all the fuckin’ times.”

Eliot waved her off and reached for his flask, somewhere in his robe. He took several long gulps and relished popping the top out of his mouth. He smiled at her and took her hand, kissing it once.

“Life is bullshit and everything is misery,” he said, easy as anything. Bambi frowned a little, but she let it go. He loved her for it. Eliot clapped his hands and plastered on a fake grin. “So how are the kiddos? Alice doing okay? Julia?”

Margo snorted, rolling her way down onto the ground to sit next to him. She curled her head onto his shoulder and took his hand in hers. He kissed the top of her head, the cracks in his soul mending slightly. She cuddled in closer, laughing again.

“They’re fine. Alice is boring but not hopeless,” she said, an unusually kind admission. “Been off on her own dumb little adventures. Julie’s outside waiting for me. She’s the same as always.”

“Sure, sure,” Eliot said, nodding. Then, he affected the most casual voice in his arsenal. “And, uh, hey, how about Quentin? How’s Q? Is he embarrassing the hell out of you?”

But he must have failed, because Bambi tensed, her face snapping up at him. Shit.

(Shit.)

“Honey,” Margo said, peeling off him. Her eyes were wide and glued on him, like she was seeing him for the first time. “Oh my god. Is that what this is about?”

(Goddammit.)

Eliot pulled himself up and dug a cigarette out of his robe pocket. He lit it and smoked, head tilted upward, regal.

“Whatever do you mean?” He didn’t look at her. He was nonchalance and grace.

Margo smacked him again, even harder. He grimaced. She was obnoxiously violent sometimes. “Oh, we’re still playing that game, I see.”

It wasn’t a fucking game. It was his life. He didn’t have to share every goddamn thing with her, especially when she hadn’t been around like he needed. She had a lot of fucking nerve, honestly, to make any assumptions about him and especially any assumptions about him and Quentin. What the fuck would she know about it? She hadn’t been there. She didn’t even seem like she wanted to be there, not more than she wanted to hang on Julie’s every boring word.

But he didn’t say that.

(Why would he say that?)

“No,” he said instead, rolling his eyes. He smoked harder. “I just can’t even talk about him without you reading into it now. It’s annoying.”

“Come on, El,” Margo said, gentler than usual. If he didn’t know better, he would think she looked a little hurt. But of course, he knew better. They didn’t hurt each other. They bantered and bitched, but none of it actually touched them. Never could, never would. 

“I asked about everyone else,” Eliot said, growling. He offered her a drag and she shook her head. Oh, right. She quit or whatever. “Why wouldn’t I also ask after Q? He’s my guest. I’m doing my job.”

“Whatever. He’s fine too,” Margo said, cutting the words out behind her teeth. She laughed, harsh and baldly sarcastic. “Living it the fuck up.”

Oh. 

“Well.” Eliot popped his flask into his mouth and grinned, wide as he could. Flask in one hand, cigarette in the other. Everything was grand. “Good for him.”

Even though everything was grand, something in Margo’s face softened, barely perceptible. She sighed, stretching her arms long and loose above her head. She stuck out her tongue, a perfect show of disgust.

“You know, I mean, living it up the way Quentin does,” she said, rolling her eyes with flair. “Reading in the shade and babbling about the art and shit. He and Julia geeked out over some giant installation that featured, like, Lord of the Rings crap? It was boring. He’s boring. That’s my official stance.”

She was full of shit. Margo loved Q. She also definitely loved Lord of the Rings. A flutter of warmth revived his stupid heart and he sighed, leaning back against her. Without hesitation, she curled into him again. That was what they were like. That was how they’d always be.

But Margo was also relentless, to a fault. She smiled and patted his thigh. “Anyway, hey, come get lunch with Julie and me.”

“Margo,” he said, rolling his head toward her. He smirked. “I’m a little busy.”

The bar really was calling him and the last of the Chocolate Sunshine was wearing off. He wasn’t totally sure he was ready to face the world yet. Or the people in the world, even in the sweet comfort of Encanto Oculto.

“Not a request, dickhead,” Margo said, cutting into his thoughts without quarter. She stood and tugged his arm up. Because he was a weak man, he followed, scrambling up on his lazy bones. “Come on. Move that hot ass. Sunlight and socializing awaits you, you fucking creature of the night.”

He kissed her forehead and wrapped his arm around her as they walked toward the light. “Anything for you, Bambi.”

(Lunch was fine. They ate lobster. They drank wine. He flirted with a waiter.)

(And if Julia seemed stilted as she looked him up and down, smile tight as she spat out, “Hello, Eliot ,” and then barely acknowledged him again, he was sure it was all in his head.)

 


 

 

Encanto Oculto
Day Seven

 

But the tide turned on the final day. 

A dark gray seatbelt bit into Eliot’s shoulder and he white-knuckled against his knees, genuine panic churning in his gut as the car stuttered along the unfamiliar road, likely to a fiery crash. 

He had tried being patient. He had tried being calm. He had even tried coaxing and positive reinforcement, only to receive grunts and a cold shoulder in return. He understood to an extent, since shit was so tense. But when the revs increased like the harbinger of death, he knew he couldn’t take it anymore and the frantic orders started flowing out of him.

… It didn’t go well.

“Shift the fucking gear, Quentin!”

“Do you really think yelling at me helps, Eliot? Do you think yelling is the key here?”

“I don’t care, shift the goddamn gear !”

“I’m shifting it! I am currently shifting it! What more do you want from me?”

“Oh my god, downshift!”

“I’m shifting!” 

“Downshift, Q. Downshift!”

“I don’t know what that means! Vary your language!”

Synapses firing and nerves screaming, Eliot summoned all his commanding calm and pounded his words out, never taking his eyes off Quentin’s shaking face, in case it was the last time he would ever see him. 

“Push the clutch in and go to the fucking lower gear,” he snarled out. With unsteady hands, Quentin did so and the god-awful sound finally stopped. He breathed easier, but didn’t let up in his forcefulness. “Now hit the gas—no, goddammit, the gas —there, right.” 

He did it. Okay. They would probably survive the next few minutes. Eliot leaned back and closed his eyes, relief washing over him. But he could still feel Quentin’s tension beside him, like an electric current. 

(He resisted the urge to cover his hand with his.)

Instead, he let out another slow breath and said, “Now slowly release and add—yes, you got it. You got it.” Finally, they were cruising at a lower speed down the backroad, safe and sound. Jesus. Fuck. Jesus. “Okay. You’re good. Jesus.”

Quentin swallowed, face pale and knuckles paler as they clutched the steering wheel. He stared ahead, steely and stern. 

“Thank you,” he mumbled out, reluctant as hell, ticking his head toward Eliot in bare minimum acknowledgment. 

Eliot offered back a closed-lipped smile that Q definitely didn’t see. He really didn’t sound particularly grateful, even though Eliot had literally just saved their lives, or at least the car’s life, for sure. But he was actually speaking to him now, outside of panicked yelps, which was an upgrade. But in their brush with death, Eliot realized he had been remiss in the most important question of all, because he had made assumptions based on other pieces of irrelevant information. Rookie mistake.

So he slid his eyes over, careful yet probing. “Do you actually know how to drive stick, Q?”

“Yes,” Quentin said, like a strong punctuation mark. Then he wavered, clearing his throat and ticking his shoulder up once. “Well. Kind of.”

“What does that mean?” He was all innocence and curiosity, truly. “ Kind of ?”

The blush hit Quentin’s cheeks like splattered tomatoes. 

“I, uh,” he licked his lips, not taking his blazing eyes off the road. He shrugged again, like it wasn’t a big deal. “I read a Wiki How before we left.”

Eliot let himself look at Quentin for two very, very long beats before setting his jaw forward. “Pull over.”

“I’ve got it now,” Q said defensively. He gripped the steering wheel tighter, as though that projected Confidence and Skill. “I just forgot how to decrease speed.”

“Kind of an important part,” Eliot said, but then sighed when Quentin’s brow came together, morose and mulish. “But be that as it may, just let me drive. It’ll be easier.”

The mule revved up to kick and Quentin sucked his cheeks into his teeth. “No.”

“Don’t be a dick.”

That was obviously the wrong thing to say, considering everything. But he was totally being a dick. What, was Eliot supposed to pussyfoot around it? From what he could tell, Quentin could probably barely drive an automatic car, as he originally suspected. He must have bribed someone or used unwitting mind-control to get his license. Seriously. But regardless, the words pissed Quentin off as soon as he heard them and he let out a frustrated scoff.

You’re telling me not to be a dick right now?” He slammed his eyes over at Eliot for a half-second before gluing them back on the road. “Seriously?”

Eliot pulled his lips together and smiled, airy and with just the right hit of condescension. “Okay. I know you’re pissed at me, but that doesn’t mean—“

“Because you shouldn’t even be here, Eliot,” Quentin said, releasing his hands from the steering wheel just enough to hit it once. Then he gripped it all over again, like penance for forgetting himself. “This isn’t any of your business—“

Now it was Eliot’s turn to scoff. “Well, I certainly wasn’t going to let you get into a fucking car with—“

“Let me?” Quentin’s eyes ripped over again, angrier than before. “ Let me?”

“Jesus, you know what I mean,” he said quietly, staring down at his hands. He didn’t mean it like—he knew Quentin was perfectly capable of—he just didn’t want—

“No,” Q said, cutting off his train of thought with a small, hysterical laugh. “Explain. What do you mean, Eliot?”

He ignored that. Quentin knew. He was being an ass. 

“I should drive. Seriously,” Eliot insisted. When Quentin made a low, frustrated sound all over again, he bit down on his lip, forcing his patience and composure. “It’s a safety thing and there’s also no fucking way this is a pleasant experience for you. So come on.”

But Quentin shook his head, something small shifting in the lines of his face. He coughed. “That’s a bad idea.”

“In what possible way?” Fuck, he was such a stubborn asshole sometimes. God. To prove the point, Quentin kept staring ahead, unmoved. Eliot poked him on the shoulder once with a firm finger. “I’m serious. How is my driving a bad idea compared to this chaos?”

He stared at the taciturn Quentin, whose jaw muscles rippled over and over again. Running his tongue along his teeth, he glanced over at Eliot, eyes softer than before, but no less serious.

“How many drinks have you had today?” He asked it quietly, patiently even, which was way worse. A cold front settled on Eliot’s chest and he stared out the windshield. His silence was obviously the answer Quentin was looking for and he chuckled softly, humorlessly. “Yeah, that’s what I thought.”

He didn’t know why he felt like he had to justify himself. He didn’t. But still—

“I’m on vacation.”

“Right,” Quentin said, nodding. Silence spanned over them, unmovable. It said enough.Then Q refocused on driving, and the two of them didn’t speak again until they reached Ibiza Town. 

Thankfully, the drive was only fifteen minutes long, which was why Alice hadn’t built a portal. She would probably come to regret that decision, Eliot thought, as he stared out the window from the winding hillside onto the wide and glittering sea. Silently beside him, Quentin pulled into a decent parallel park, proving that he always had surprises up his sleeves.

“Don’t forget the handbrake,” Eliot said quietly, not looking over. Quentin nodded and applied it, pulling the car to a complete stop along the brown and beige cobblestone, dusting the red car in a fine layer of gold. The sun was lowering already, gentle over the stark cliffs and stunning aquamarine. It was lovely, but it wasn’t important. 

He glanced over at the paper map in Quentin’s hands. A tiny blue dot pulsated on the top of the hill and he calculated the fastest path in his head, quick and with ease. Clicking open the door and storming out, he barely checked to see if it had closed behind him as he started his long, full strides up Dalt Vila, faster than Q could catch.

“Eliot!” The voice behind him called angrily, but he didn’t stop for a second. 

He had a mission. 

He had a fucking party to break up.

 


 

It had all started innocently enough. 

Eliot had stumbled in from a night out with Margo—boozy and blissful, if still not to his usual, ah, physical standard—and promptly passed out on the ugly couch. Then, he woke up at two in the afternoon, poured himself a few hangover cures and a pitcher-for-one of mimosas, and treated himself to solitude on the porch, feet dipped in the cool water and listening to nothing but the sound of cawing gulls. Also, he popped out a quick mind-clearing tut made it so he didn’t think about certain things or certain boys or anything at all, if he didn’t want to. Face to the sun and liver sated, it was the perfect way to relax on a perfect day.

But then a certain boy interrupted him and god fuck it all, if nothing made him happier.

Quentin stuck his head out the patio door with a quick knock and a furrowed brow. “Hey, uh, El? Can you do me a favor?”

Anything. “Sure,” Eliot said, rolling his head backwards to stare at him upside down. “What’s up?”

The first sign that something was off should have been then, but he was pretty tipsy. So he chalked up Quentin’s shifting feet and eyes up to his usual twitchiness. Quentin was a twitchy person. Just facts.

“I need to get to, uh—shit, my Spanish is rusty, Es Xarcu?” He pronounced it like EX-arcu , which was close enough. Well, okay, not really. By whatever. Meanwhile, Quentin ran his hand through his hair over and over again. “It’s a restaurant outside of the wards and I’m having a bitch of a time getting through the northeastern lock. Could I borrow your key?"

Eliot spun around, like a cat, so he laid on his belly. He propped his chin on the back of the lounge chair and lowered his sunglasses to smirk up at Q. “No. I told you, it’s like alumni keys. I can’t just hand them out.”

“Ah, shit, right,” Q said, hand still plastered to his head. He waved up and into the air, with a sigh. “Never mind then. I’ll figure something else out.”

“But I can go with you,” Eliot said slowly, patiently offering the really fucking obvious solution. Quentin tensed, like he hadn’t predicted that. He cleared his throat and licked his lips, looking everywhere he could, like he would find something to save him.

“No, no,” Q said, too casual. Way too casual. His voice squeaked like a pubsecent boy’s. “Um, don’t worry about it.”

Eliot’s eyes narrowed, suspicious. “I don’t mind.”

“No,” Quentin said again, that time a little too forcefully. He cleared his throat and softened, terribly falsifying nonchalance. “No, it’s fine. I’ll figure it out. Thanks though.”

“Q,” Eliot said, before pressing his lips into a line. Who the fuck did he think he was talking to here?

“El,” he sighed, rubbing the back of his neck. “It’s fine.”

“Q.”

“Drop it,” Quentin said, dropping his own act. He spat the words out, eyes flashing. A pang of worry hit Eliot and he stood up, leaning his weight against the chair and giving Q his most Mentorly gaze. 

“What’s going on?” Eliot reached out to tap at his shoulder, to remind him that they were all friends here. 

“Nothing. I just—I have to go pick up Alice,” Quentin said, eyes closing. Which was lucky because who the fuck knew what Eliot’s face did at that piece of information. Probably nothing dignified. “She’s stranded in Ibiza Town without cash and she asked me to, uh, grab a rental car that... she left at the restaurant.”

Any residual gnarled jealousy dissipated into confusion. Eliot frowned. “I have so many questions.”

“That’s why I wanted to drop this,” Quentin said, staring upward and shaking his head. Eliot sucked his lower lip into his teeth and brought his hands together. He had to ask. 

He had to ask.

Eliot cocked an eye at Quentin and gave him his best sheepish look. “Most pertinent of which is: Do you know how to drive?”

“Of course I know how to drive,” Q said, eyes meeting his for the first time. He looked thoroughly insulted. It did nothing to inspire confidence.

“Hm,” Eliot said, astutely. 

Quentin crossed his arms and blazed his eyes. “I know how to drive, Eliot!”

He laughed and patted his arm, moving past him and into the living room. His mind was made up, though he still had to make it seem like Quentin was in on the end result. He shucked off his robe and grabbed his shirt from the coffee table, buttoning it up. He still had his seersucker shorts on, so if he just found the right pair of shoes, he’d be ready for a quick adventure into town.

“Well, now I’m coming with you out of sheer morbid curiosity,” Eliot said with a twinkling laugh, as he bent down to grab his boat shoes and striped socks from their precarious position by the kitchen island. “To see these alleged driving skills of yours.”

But Quentin wasn’t budging.

“El, you can’t come, okay?” He sounded so wrecked and it sent a wave of nausea through his whole nervous system. “Please drop this.”

Eliot strode over to the couch and slipped his socks on, pulling them up his calves one at a time. The fabric was a silk blend and it soothed him, reminding him who he was. Then he slid his feet into each shoe, before popping his polo’s collar just so and raking a hand through his hair. He was Eliot Waugh. He could do this. It was fine.

“Quentin, look, you don’t have to—” He cut himself off with a forced laugh and then grinned up at him, with all the ease in the world. “You don’t have to feel bad, okay?”

Q’s face went from fretting to puzzled, like he’d been jolted between two emotions. “What? Feel bad about what?” 

“You know,” Eliot said, blowing out a puff of air. He stood and twirled his hand about, spinning away from Quentin. “If you and Alice are, you know—”

“I’m sorry, what?” When Quentin cut him off, he didn’t exactly sound puzzled. Eliot paused and turned back around, slightly startled to see Quentin’s eyes burning toward him. His jaw was set along with his stance, arms crossed and eyebrows folded down.

He smiled. “I’m just saying, you don’t need to feel like you can’t—”

“If Alice and I what, Eliot?” Quentin demanded.

“She’s cute,” he said with a quick shrug of his shoulder. He pulled out a cigarette, lit it. Smoked serenely. “I get it. You two would make a—”

Quentin literally stomped his foot on the ground. “Jesus Christ, are you serious right now?”

Fuck. Okay. Maybe this wasn’t the time. Eliot let out a slow stream of air, the smoke wrapping around his nose perfectly. He stared at the ground and slowly smiled, a fake thing, but a thing nonetheless.

“I’ve upset you,” Eliot said, gently. “Let me start over.”

“I’m not dating Alice, Eliot,” Quentin said, darkly quiet. Which, okay, sure, Eliot knew he probably wasn’t. But his actual point was that he didn’t need to try to hide things from him. If he wanted to date Alice, if he wanted to move on, he didn’t need to hold off just because of… some dumb hook up between the two of them. The whole point was that their friendship was more important. So they could be friends and they could both move on. Or Q could. Q should.

“Okay,” Eliot said, laughing around his cigarette. “Fine. So then, whatever it is that’s between you two—” 

“Jesus fucking goddamn son-of-a-bitch,” Quentin shot out, rage spilling off him in waves. “Are you serious ?”

A seed of his own annoyance formed in his gut. “I’m trying to say that I’m your friend and I support you and you don’t have to be weird about this, Q.”

“Holy shit, Eliot,” Q was the one laughing now, palming at his eyes before slamming his hands down on his legs. “Alice is on a date with Kady right now.” 

Quentin threw his arms up into a Are you happy? fake shrug, as though every vein in Eliot’s body hadn’t stopped moving at that completely unexpected name drop. His nostrils flared and his cigarette shivered between his fingers. His brain was short-circuiting. 

Oh my god, I’m so sorry.

Oh my god, I’m so sorry.

Oh my god, I’m so sorry.

“What?” He didn’t even recognize his voice as it hissed out. It wasn’t lost on Quentin, who nodded and collapsed in the other loveseat in the living room, holding his face in his hands. His shoulders slumped and he rubbed his eyes, hard. Eliot couldn’t move. He stood as tall and as still as he could. His throat was closing in on itself.

“They went biking and Alice hurt her ankle, and I’m the only one who knows that Kady is even fucking here since everyone fucking hates her,” Quentin explained, playing with his hands. He cleaned out his thumbnail with his teeth. “So—so—so I’m trying to do the right thing by keeping their secret so they can actually, like, get to know each other, but now I’ve gone and fucked that up because you’re so—Jesus.”

Eliot didn’t care about any of that. All he cared about was: “Holy fuck, are you serious right now?”

“Do not start with this, El—”

… Which of course, had been the beginning of the end. It wasn’t long before Eliot had strongarmed his way into the car and into a stony detente with Q, who was still pissed at him but wasn’t sure how to actually fight back against him. Not this time. He hadn’t really, since—

Eliot closed his eyes and kept moving forward. 

The point was, Eliot almost always got his way, no matter the cost. And now, he was walking as far and as fast ahead as he could, ready to pounce. 

He couldn’t believe the fucking gall of Kady Orloff-Diaz. 

His heart trembled and flipped with every step he took, his stomach churning. He ignored the voice in his head, the one that grew louder every day, the one that sounded like Margo ( Fuck you, Margo ), that told him he was being ridiculous and overreacting and that it had been an accident and a series of fuck ups and not any one person’s fault and—

And then Eliot saw them, sitting together on the top of Dalt Vila. 

The fortified hilltop was golden in the late afternoon sun, with all its cobbled lanes moving down from their perch below the cathedral. The sight was majestic, tranquil and stunning, like an old painting. The crowds were thin that day, due to the chilled breeze in the air. But Alice and Kady sat together, like nothing else existed. Covered in a single blanket—quilted in blues and greens and violets—their shoulders were crunched together, shivering exaggeratedly at the cool breeze off the marine layer.

Meanwhile, his head was spinning, and his fingers clenched into his pockets. Maybe the world was spinning. His breath was labored, tight in his chest. He tutted out an amplification spell and their voices carried over in an instant, like they were right beside him under the stone archway.

“Not in a narc way or anything,” the deeper, scratchy voice said and the more nasal of the two let out an intent Hmm , as though she was considering the notion.

Blithely unaware of their impact on the invisible-to-them Eliot, the women stretched their legs out into the air, both grinning wildly. Kady tossed her hair back and took Alice’s leg into his lap, hand wrapping around her swollen ankle. 

“But yeah, I think I really give a shit about trying to make the magical world safer,” Kady’s voice said, like she was clarifying. Eliot was still frozen, morbid curiosity lighting his veins on fire. “For everyone. Not only the classically trained.”

“Admirable,” Alice said, her smile cooling into a smirk he could barely see. Her head ticked to the side. “But I actually asked why you wanted to be a cop?” 

Eliot snorted despite himself. Alice’s sarcasm was always a treat. Kady turned to look at her and Eliot could see half of a wide toothy smile creep up her face.

“Ouch, Blondie,” Kady said, leaning back on her hands, precarious on the ledge. “There’s something to be said for affecting change from the inside.”

“Something, sure,” Alice said with a nod. She bit her lip. “But nothing based on statistical success rates. I can send you a few well-sourced articles that bear out the actual facts, if you’d like.”

Ouch all over again,” Kady said as she dramatized falling to the side. Alice scrambled forward like she thought Kady would actually fall, but she just held her hand to her chest as she laughed. “Crushing my dreams. Cold-blooded mama.”

Alice’s face turned down and her fingers swished across the rocks behind her, in trailing, swirling patterns. “Sorry. I—I know I can be a little much sometimes. Sorry.”

But Kady just smiled again, softer. “Don’t be sorry. I like it. It’s refreshing. Too many bullshitters in the world.”

Alice lifted her face back up and the soft smile reflected back.

“Thank you. But the kind thing to do would be to ask why it matters,” she said, wringing her hands. “So why does safety matter to you? In terms of building your career off it?”

Kady bit the inside of her cheek, sucking in a tiny false dimple. She regarded Alice slowly, trailing her eyes up and down, searching and seeking. She smiled, huffed out a breath, and cleared her throat. She answered Alice’s question with her own.

“Do you know why I’m here right now?” 

Alice frowned. “Well, it started because we ran into each other in the silly string room earlier in the week and then we decided to—”

“Thank you for the recap, but I actually meant,” Kady laughed into the crook of her elbow before biting her lip, eyes twinkling at Alice’s stern and confused face, “why do you think I’m here, in Ibiza at all? Do you really think Encanto Oculto is my scene?”

“I suppose not,” Alice frowned even deeper, the lines on her face stark in the light. “But it’s not necessarily mine either, so far be it from me to question.”

“You’ve got friends who are, like, way into it though,” Kady said, rolling her eyes. “So makes sense you’d be a forced tagalong.” 

Alice’s face smoothed out, but her eyes narrowed. “No one forced me to do anything.”

Damn right. Tell her, bitch.

“Sorry, yeah, no,” Kady held her hand up, eyes hooded and sincere. “I didn’t mean it like that. Sorry. I more meant that I have even less reason to be here than you.”

“Okay,” Alice’s lips twitched, trying not to let out her impatience and failing. “So then why are you here?”

Kady closed her eyes and took a deep breath, stretching out her hands. She tutted out a few tiny wisps of cooling magic, curling around their exposed skin. “I’m here because a friend of mine struggles with addiction and she needed me to get her to a safe location. So I portaled in and got her the hell out. Then, once she was in good hands, I came back to tie up any shitty loose ends for her.”

Huh.

Honestly, Eliot didn’t really have a way to snark on that. 

It was a decent thing to do. And probably a really hard thing, for everyone involved, which was was an uncomfortable admission for him. Kady was the worst person in the world. That didn’t fit the narrative. But he supposed even villains patted the dog on occasion.

“Oh,” Alice said, a reasonable reaction. Her voice was tiny. “Is your friend okay?”

“She’s physically safe,” is all Kady said. She raised her eyebrows once and let out another long breath, scratching her hairline. “I’m not here to air dirty laundry or make myself look like pious or something. It’s not like I didn’t end up having a really fucking good here over the past few days, you know?”

Alice’s smile lit up the whole hillside. Kady’s eyes softened on her, and she let out a tiny laugh, staring down at her hands. If Eliot didn’t know better, he’d think the worst person on the planet was blushing over a cute girl.

“But I’ve seen a lot of shit and I’ve—you know,” she continued, her hands twisting into themselves, “I’ve also done a lot of shit. And I’m trying to figure out how I can use that to make a difference. How I can put what I’ve learned to good use.”

“It sounds like you already are,” Alice said, light and almost fragile. Then she bit her lip, suddenly sly. “And you’re obviously quite the code-cracker if you could break into Encanto Oculto .”

Kady’s green eyes blazed up at her, before they melted into amusement. She laughed, loud. Alice wrinkled her nose, far too amused with herself.

“Yeah, the wards are, like, really shitty,” Kady said with another full laugh and Alice snorted, face scrunching up with glee.

“You have no idea. They put us in this desert simulation to start,” she said, ducking her head down like she was revealing classified information. “The spell craftsmanship was like a videogame from the 1970s. So obvious to anyone who had even the smallest idea of what to look for. I could have demolished it in seconds.”

Kady gave her a tiny punch on the arm. “Why didn’t you?” 

“Because no one likes an uptight, know-it-all, show off bitch,” Alice said, arching a wry eyebrow. But she gave herself away by averting her gaze at the last second with a wavering smile. 

Kady stared at her again, seeking and searching, face rounding through several complicated things that Eliot wouldn’t have understood even if he had the inclination to try. But then she settled on a soft look, head cocking and eyes gentle.

“Speak for yourself,” she finally said, voice lower and clearer than he’d ever heard her. At Alice’s wide eyes, Kady lifted her chin up toward the horizon and pulled in closer, so they were cuddled into each other. It was a sweet, quiet moment, between a lovely ray of light and Beezlebub. Eliot caught a second wind, and his anger coiled again in his steel chest.

“I always do,” Alice said, with a small chuckle. She pushed her glasses up her nose. “Only person I would dare speak for, really.”

“People underestimate you, Quinn,” Kady said, twinkling. Alice slowly smiled.

“Wait, people? Underestimate me ? What are their names?” Alice sat up taller, bouncing. She faced Kady and held her face stern. “Because I’ll give them something to really fucking underestimate.”

She put way too much emphasis on the word fucking . But damn, if it wasn’t among the cutest things he’d ever heard, especially followed by her gleeful, snorting giggle. Kady was so fucking unworthy.

“Ooh, Blondie goes badass.” Kady held the tip of her tongue between her teeth and waggled her eyebrows. “Describe your first order of business.”

Alice huffed out a thoughtful breath, tapping her chin. Her pink lower lip slipped between her teeth, but there was no anxiety painted on her face. It was performance. It was flirtatious. Eliot was going to be sick.

“Army of enchanted and sentient horses,” she said, smiling wider than the horizon. She held her hand out, like she was sweeping an elaborate painting across the faraway water. “So I can free them and they can live their best lives through the multiverse.”

Kady snorted. “That—is not badass. That’s some Princess Sparklemoon shit.”

“Horses are inherently badass,” Alice said, falling into a frown. She crossed her arms and tited her strong chin up, a challenge. “Have you ever seen a horse?”

“Yeah, okay,” Kady said, nodding and raking her hand through her wild hair. Her smile was tiny, almost private, in its teasing. “You had those binders in middle school, didn’t you?”

Alice froze for a moment, eyes wide. But then she cleared her throat, eyebrows coming together. “Binders?”

“You know what I’m talking about.” Kady winked, lips curling up and up. “You fucking had them. Photorealistic mass print paintings, lush pastoral scenes, ring a bell?”

For a few moments, Alice stared straight ahead, like she wasn’t going to dignify Kady’s line of questioning. But then she sniffed and held her head all the higher. “They were more like pocket folders.”

Kady let out another loud laugh and Alice broke, her giggling a sweet and tinkling sound that harmonized with the deeper roar beside her. Eliot’s stomach did something strange and twisting, and his heart kicked up its speed for no reason. He couldn’t quantify and qualify what was swirling in him, and he was almost grateful for the feel of another shoulder brushing against his, breaking him out of the moment. 

Quentin stood next to him, looking right ahead, a soft smile on his lips. Innocent looking, but hiding a natural smugness, Eliot knew. All in all, he knew him well.

“They’re cute, right?” Q said more than asked, his voice soft on the wind.

Eliot sneered and repeated Kady’s words, ironic even if Q wouldn’t get the reference. He stared daggers at them. “Speak for yourself.”

“They’re happy,” Quentin said, his voice losing the softness. He clenched his jaw and shook his head. “Or they could be happy, given the chance. They like each other and they want to be together. Simple.”

Eliot was so tired. It had been a long fucking week. Usually, Encanto revived him for the upcoming year. It gave him purpose and drive. It reminded him that there was marrow to suck from the world and that he was finally in the position to do so, without anyone getting in his fucking way. No Indiana, no Taylor, no brothers, no fathers, no Baptists, no bullshit. 

Now, though, he was drained. He was tired. His eyelids were sandy and heavy, and he wanted to sleep for a lifetime. He kicked at the ground and cleared his throat, his lips tingling with so many unspoken words. Finally, he risked a glance over at Quentin, standing beautiful in the sunlight, so convinced he was doing the right thing. He always was. And even more remarkable, normally, he wasn’t wrong.

(Eliot was wrong all the fucking time.)

He kicked at the cobblestone and huffed out a breath. “Q, you know, right?”

“I know what?” Quentin blinked over at him, frowning.

“That my issue with Kady has nothing to do with the Cottage,” Eliot said, the words tumbling without grace. “You can’t—you know that, right?”

He stared up at him again, the back of his eyeballs burning and the world a little blurrier than it was before. He sniffed and swallowed the thick saliva down, forcing himself forward. He had to look at him for this, if they were going to do this. And for a second, Quentin’s face broke open, painfully bright and hopeful, his wide eyes looking at Eliot like he couldn’t believe he was real.

But then it shut down, and he tore his eyes away, everything going bleak around the edges.

“Let’s not talk about that, okay?” Quentin was monotone. “It’s ancient history.”

Eliot smiled, hollow. No, it wasn’t. But it also wasn’t Eliot’s business. None of it was. He knew that. 

He knew that.

But all he could think about, in the insane golden light, while two women held each other in the distance and he couldn’t make sense of how he felt about it, was—

“El!” Quentin’s face broke into a dopey smile, all drugged out bliss. Eliot’s stomach flipped over and his chest tightened, but he smoothed his features out and slid onto the small sliver of bed. He had finally gotten his shit together. He wasn’t going to ruin the moment. Not now.

It wasn’t the first time he had seen him, of course. That had been when Lipson patiently—and then impatiently, at all of Julia’s questions—let them know that Quentin was going to be just fine. He had to be sedated for twenty-four hours for the healing spells to take place, due to the concussion, head wound, and the blood poison from a battle magic blast, but he was fine. He was fine.

Of course, Julia got the first shift, once he was awake, and she had taken up several very long hours. Obviously her prerogative, he supposed with a bitter stutter in his chest. But now it was finally Eliot’s turn and he was—ill-equipped. Quentin’s bright smile, like nothing had happened, like nothing had changed didn’t help matters, not deep down.

But Eliot wasn’t one to look a gift horse in the mouth.

“Glad to see you, kid,” he said, lightly ruffling his hair. It was slightly greasy and stringy. It was beautiful. “Gave us a scare.”

But Quentin didn’t directly respond, opting instead to close his eyes and lean into his touch. “My El is here.”

God. Eliot swallowed down a sigh and forced out a laugh, like Quentin had told a funny joke. He was his, he was his , how uproarious. Centering himself out of his own bullshit, he slid further onto the bed and waggled his eyebrows, all normalcy.

“I come bearing contraband,” Eliot said with a wink, patting his waistcoat pocket.

“I don’t think I can—“ Quentin blinked, looking both ways, fearful and intrigued. “I don’t think I can have a cocktail right now, El.”

Eliot dipped his lip between his teeth and tried not to laugh. “It’s not a cocktail, Q.”

He needed a cocktail, but that was neither here nor fucking there. This was important. So he forced himself to be grounded, to be present. For Q. For his Q. He was his.

So without further adieu, Eliot pulled out the playing cards and placed them on the tray with a flourish. And god, he wanted to live in how Quentin lit up like a nerdy little Christmas tree.

“Oh, damn!” Quentin said, marveling at the standard deck like it was the first time he saw magic. “Cards! I love cards!”

Eliot grinned over his aching heart and tapped at them with his pinky. “I figure in your current state, I actually have a chance.”

“Uh. Except you’re a bitch ass sucker,” Quentin said with a scoff, going from starry eyed to smack talker in zero to sixty, “and I’m a god.”

“Can you always be on whatever these painkillers are?” Eliot was serious. But also not. All versions of Quentin managed to intrigue and delight him. 

Even the ones that shouldn’t.

He hated himself. Eliot briefly closed his eyes against the clanking memories of their last conversation, of how things could have—

Focus, dickhole , his inner Margo scolded, rightfully so. She was right. He needed to stay present. He needed to move forward. Always move forward, always.

Meanwhile, Quentin was still preening and laughing at his own train of thought, nary a care in the world. 

Thank fuck.

“Not the pills. That’s pure Coldwater, baby,” Q’s giant eyes brightened and he put his hands behind his head, looking like a lamb in lion skin. “No fuckin’ Brita filter.”

Eliot snorted and shook his head. “Deal, hot shot.”

“I’m on some real good shit, El,” Quentin said, like he was revealing a secret. Eliot just smiled and resisted the urge to wrap himself around him, and never let go. It was herculean.

But then, without warning, Quentin slammed his eyes shut and swallowed, trembling. Eliot instinctively reached out to him, hands around his face. Q sighed and leaned into his touch, but didn’t open his eyes.

“Hey, um, I’m actually—I’m just gonna rest my eyes for two seconds, okay?” Quentin said this like he was worried Eliot was going to be mad. He hated himself so much. “Then we can proceed your humiliation. Promise.”

Nodding to himself, Eliot’s heart caught in his throat and he wasn’t sure if he would be able to move. But he finally did, and he moved closer against his better judgment. Because he knew Q wouldn’t remember, Eliot ran his fingers through his hair and kissed him on the forehead. 

He whispered, lips still on his skin, “Whatever you need, sweetheart.”

His thoughts betrayed him like a barrage as the gentle sweet-salt of Quentin enveloped him, like a hug, like a strangle, like everything he didn’t let himself want. Eliot pulled away, clearing his throat. He needed to get a fucking grip. He would get a fucking grip. He owed Q that much, not his bullshit. 

Meanwhile, Q was already half-asleep, but when Eliot tried to extract himself, his hand reached out and grabbed Eliot’s wrist, keeping him in place.

“You’ll stay, right?” His voice was muffled as he snuggled his face into the comfy looking infirmary pillow. “Gotta stay so I can kick your ass later and also ‘cause… ‘cause… uh, you just—you gotta stay.”

Eliot choked back a sob and nodded. It wasn’t about him. It wasn’t about him. It wasn’t about him.

“Of course I’ll stay,” he said, tracing his thumb along the knobby bones of Quentin’s knuckles. He sighed. “I’ll always stay.”

(The truly fucked up thing was that Eliot hadn’t even hugged him after he’d woken up. Every time he saw Quentin, he’d just pat his head and joke around, sneaking him snacks and even a few cigarettes. He sat with him on the edge of the bed and they did play cards sometimes, but mostly chatted about nothing, laughing like they were on a couch in the Cottage.) 

(But all Eliot had wanted to do was hold him and hold him, tight against his chest, lips murmuring nonsense promises into his hair, and hands pressing into his back, all telegraphing every ounce of burning affection he felt for him, until it was all okay again. And every day after, even after everything really was okay and everyone else seemed to just forget , like it didn’t matter, like it never happened, there was still a part of him that ached for exactly that.)

(At the time, ignoring those instincts seemed like the best course of action, but now…)

(But now.)

Eliot cleared his throat. The frog jumped. “Yeah. We won’t talk about it. Whatever you want.”

“Okay,” Quentin said, quiet. So fucking quiet. Between them, the sound of the sea was deafening, even from their great height. “Okay.”

Eliot popped his collar again, ticking his neck to the left and then to the right. He fixed his hair. He lit a cigarette. He bit down on the filter and steeled his gaze forward, as he took nice long steps ahead, with Quentin trailing him. Ahead of them the women kept chatting and laughing indistinctly, as he got closer and closer.

He was about a foot away from them when Alice caught sight of him in her periphery—and all the color drained from her sweet flushed face in an instant.

Good.

“Eliot,” she said, sitting up straight and stuttering her fingers along the blanket. Kady turned around too and her eyes set to stone, lips puckering into a fury. He didn’t even spare her a second glance. Instead, he zeroed his eyes into Alice’s blinking blue guilty ones and brought his cigarette up, a plume of smoke in the air like a dance.

“Not happy to see me, darling?” He asked, a rounded smile making his point. Kady let out a sharp laugh and looked behind him, to the scurrying figure that had just bumped up next to him.

“What the shit, Coldwater?” She snapped, while Alice tucked her hair behind her ears. That caught his attention and Eliot laughed, holding himself back from snarling at Kady.

“Yeah,” he said, with a click of his tongue. “You don’t talk to him. You have anything to say, you say it to me.”

“Fuck you,” Kady said, widening her eyes and holding up two middle fingers at once. “That good enough?”

Just as he was about to retort with more viciousness than she had in her poorly manicured black pinky nail, Quentin stepped on Eliot’s foot. Not too hard, but hard enough. 

“You said you were going to try not to be a dickhead about this,” Q said, out the side of his mouth and stern, like a librarian.

Eliot smiled all the wider. “And I’m trying very hard.”

“Quentin,” Alice said quietly, bunching her skirt in between her fists. “What—you know—I—?”

“I know,” Quentin sighed, brushing his hair back. He indicated Eliot like he was a traffic jam. “It just—it happened. I’m sorry. It was my fault.”

Eliot snorted and rubbed at his temples, still holding his cigarette. He sighed and shook his head. He wasn’t in the mood for chit-chat. He wasn’t in the mood for excuses. He had made his point, if Alice’s darting and scared eyes were any indication. She knew that what she was doing was wrong. She knew what he had told her. There was no need to rub salt in it.

So he threw his cigarette on the ground and stomped, pressing it into the ancient stone with his heel. He ground it like a mortar and pestle, until it was nothing. Finally, he glared up at Kady, eyebrow arching. She burned fire back at him and sat up tall, arms crossing in her usual defensive stance.

“You know how to drive stick?” Eliot asked, even as he could. Kady rolled her eyes.

“Obviously,” she said, like he was a moron. “It’s my car.”

Using his telekinesis, he called the keys out of Quentin’s pocket and threw them right at her. She barely caught them before they flew over the edge. He could feel Quentin’s sullen glare right at him, but he was done. He was too tired for this shit.

“Then make yourself useful,” Eliot said, sparing her one more glance before spinning around and striding back down, far and away, and ready to disappear.

 


 

That night, the beach was quiet and empty. The sky above Eliot was flashing bright neon, but it didn’t blind him. The effect was diffused with magic, like watching a firework display from afar. Affecting and beautiful, but distant and untouchable. Almost like a dream. Curling his legs in toward his chest, he rested his elbow back and he smoked, staring up at nothing.

All in all, it hadn’t been his most successful Encanto. 

Smoke surrounded him, white-gray and floating off into nothing. He wondered if there was magic that could change him into vapor, so he could join it, so he could disappear.

Oh, I wish I had a river / I could skate away on.

It really was coming on Christmas now, actually. In Indiana, they always put their tree up the day after Thanksgiving. It was a big event. Not nice or anything, nothing ever was. But they lit candles around the Nativity scene and his mother made truly horrible eggnog out of skim milk, cheap rum, and grocery store cinnamon, heated up in the microwave. Then they listened to choral versions of Silent Night on his dad’s old record player until the drunks passed out. Well, they did, until the year Earl, Sr. smashed it against the wall. Not much of a loss. In any case, they never listened to Joni Mitchell, that was for damn sure.

(Fuck Indiana. Fuck Christmas. Fuck everything.)

He was so trapped in another goddamn reverie (Q liked that word, he used it a lot,) that he didn’t even notice the soft figure slide into the sand next to him, with a flutter of fabric and a slightly nasal cough.

There was no preamble before she asked—

“Can I tell you how my brother died?” 

Alice’s voice cut through the heavy night with precision. He turned his face toward her, chin resting against his shoulder. She looked pretty in the blinking light, in her soft pink dress and stick-straight hair. Her blue eyes were serious and sparking out toward the water, her fingers clasped against each other in her lap. Her knee touched his and he could almost remember why he had thought bringing her along to Spain had been a great idea. Why he had ever cared to begin with.

In reality, though, all he wanted was another drink. But conversations required reciprocity. He couldn’t very well ignore her. He couldn’t be rude.

Eliot offered back a hollow smile. “Your ice breakers are a thing of beauty, my dear.”

“I’m serious, Eliot. I’d like to share with you,” she said, still looking away from him and out toward the horizon. “If you’ll allow me.”

A bubble of affection burst in his chest and he sighed at his own weakness. Alice was—Alice was wonderful. She was kind. She had been a good friend. He was being a dick. She didn’t deserve to carry his bullshit. No one did. 

(But that had never stopped him before.)

Instead of answering verbally, he waved her on and she started talking. She told him about a kind young man, the only one who guided her in a world of chaos. She told him about his mysterious disappearance, his first year at Brakebills. About how she had searched tirelessly, for years, promising herself she would never walk through the wards. About how she became so desperate that she skipped over the entrance exam to confront Fogg, only to find herself face-to-face with her brother’s indirect killer, a sexual predator who made his one student feel so awful that she took drastic measures to win his favor. About how Mayakovsky didn’t reveal this—or reveal that he absolutely knew all this—until she had done all his work for him, nearly a year into their working relationship.

Eliot couldn’t breathe.

“I lost the only person who loved me. The only person I loved,” Alice said, her voice coarse gravel. “He’s gone because of magic. It destroyed him. Worse than death. Mayakovsky said that his soul was fractured, that a fundamental piece is missing. Forever.”

“How?” Eliot asked into the firelight, off in the distance. 

Alice clenched her jaw. “He became—do you know what a Niffin is?”

Eliot’s eyes burned and his teeth shook. 

“Yes.” He managed to say. It was all he could say.

“I hate magic,” Alice said, trailing her fingers through the cool sand. “I hate it. But I have to learn to control it. I have to learn why I can’t—why I can’t let it go. Why it consumes me.”

“I understand that,” Eliot said, slow and careful. Dripping, but without his usual heat. His instinct to connect was overpowering and he continued without really even meaning to. “The first time I used magic, I murdered someone. He was crushed to death by a school bus that I telekinetically threw at him. Or maybe I threw him at the bus. Minor details, I suppose.”

“How old were you?” Alice asked, all clinical. She entirely skipped over the emotional aspect. Eliot was grateful.

“Fourteen.”

“That’s relatively young for passive energy to turn active,” Alice said, cutting a glance at him. “You must be powerful.”

Eliot nodded, grave. “I am. But I—keep some of it at bay.”

He shook his flask and Alice’s understanding almost audibly clicked in place. Eliot wasn’t really sure why he was telling her this. He felt like it was important that she knew. That she knew that he understood, but that didn’t mean—

It didn’t mean he was okay with any of it.

“It’s safer that way,” Eliot said, still smoking. He wanted this part to land. “So I don’t ever hurt anyone ever again.”

Alice took a hard gulp of air and nodded. “Me too. So I never hurt anyone. I’d never forgive myself.” 

“Then you understand too,” he said, leaning back on his hands. She didn’t answer that.

The sky above them was still too neon. With an urgent pull on his heart, he missed the stars. The night sky over Brakebills was always a thing of celestial wonder. He wasn’t a nature person, either in discipline or personal preference—like, fucking fuck camping, seriously—but he loved seeing the stars. Encanto Oculto wanted to keep everyone secluded, to make them forget reality. But wasn’t there beauty in reality too? Wasn’t there something even more precious in the found, rare beauty contrasted with all the difficulty, all the bullshit?

(He was way too sober.)

“There are—” Alice licked her lips and stared into the sea. “There are other ways to control it, Eliot. Instead of alcohol or drugs, you could—”

Nope. Fuck off. He held his hand up and spoke, monotone. “Thank you, but I’m not looking for advice.”

She took a long breath and steeled her eyes at him. “It’ll catch up with you, eventually, and you’ll need more and more—”

“Stop talking, Alice.” Eliot didn’t mean to be too harsh. But it was new lips, same shit. “This isn’t open for discussion. Do you understand?”

Alice stared at him for a few more moments before nodding her head terse. She brushed her hair back and sat up straight, pulling herself onto her knees. She let out a gentle huff of air and turned toward him, chest out and eyes serious.

“Kady uses meditation and martial arts training,” she finally said and Eliot’s chest roared in turn. But he simply smoked and smoked, lips twisting into something sharp and angry, even in their facsimile of a smile.

“I was wondering if you were going to address it directly,” he said, blowing smoke rings. “Good for you. Ballsier.”

Alice audibly ground her teeth and she snorted, unshaken. “I know you don’t approve.”

Eliot actually laughed at that. Like he was her father, standing at the door with a rifle. Wagging his finger at Kady and saying, You get my little girl home by nine o’clock sharp or there’ll be hell to pay! It was such an oversimplification of the situation. It wasn’t entirely her fault—Alice hadn’t been there, she hadn’t experienced it firsthand. But still, she was supposed to be better than this.

“Jesus. That’s—not how I would put it,” he said, putting out his cigarette in the sand. He sent it off to that mystical world of cigarette butts. Hopefully no one lived there. “Did you even listen at all to what I told you about her?”

“I took it under advisement. I asked her about it,” Alice said, clinical as ever. “She directed me toward Quentin. So I spoke with him and asked for his blessing.”

Inappropriately, Eliot laughed, a real thing. He couldn’t help it, his eyes sparkling over at her. “For his blessing ?”

“Yes,” Alice said, face pinched. She let out a heavy sigh and pressed her lips into a firm line. “He also thought the phrasing was humorous.”

Eliot snorted again and even smiled. He could picture Quentin’s baffled face slowly morphing into a grin, replete with his full dimples and discerning eyes as Alice stood in front of his him, hands clasped, lip worried between her teeth, and eyebrows wavering in her uncertainty. But the image passed as quickly as it came, and uncomfortable silence was all that remained. The waves were gentle and not nearly enough distraction.

“But he did tell me everything, in the end,” Alice said, softly. 

“I’m sure he did,” Eliot said with a snort. Well, at least that explained that, he figured. They weren’t fucking so much as engaging in a share of information. Honestly, he wasn’t sure which one he preferred. At the same time, Alice licked her lips and took a breath.

“He also told me he has no problem with me dating Kady because he believes it’s our actions after we do stupid shit that define us, rather than the stupid shit itself,” she said, quickly and firmly, fists clenched in the sand. “Because everyone does stupid shit sometimes.”

Again, Eliot’s lips quirked up against his will. “That sounds more like a Coldwater original than a Quinn paraphrase.”

She nodded in confirmation. “He’s not the most eloquent person I’ve ever met.” 

He wasn’t. Eliot liked it. Though sometimes, Quentin could surprise people. He liked that too.

“He also said he thinks she’s trying really hard,” Alice said, staring at him meaningfully, trying to let her words imply all that she wasn’t saying directly, “but that a lot of people can’t see it.”

Eliot lit another cigarette, staring out into the sea. It glittered with lights. “That’s great, but Q isn’t objective.”

Alice shrugged and smiled, more to herself. “He said the same about you. Well, he called you a stubborn ass which I think is about equivalent.”

Of course he did. He opened his mouth to retort, but the words disintegrated. He was so tired. He wanted to go home. He hated that he wanted to go home. Alice took a deep breath and took Eliot’s hand, her gentle fingers tracing over and around his many rings. He didn’t stop her, but he didn’t engage either.

He was so fucking tired.

“I know people aren’t all good, okay? I know they may not even be good at all,” she said, her voice thick with feeling. She sniffed and Eliot looked up at her red eyes. “I am operating under no illusions. I’m not—I’m not like Q, you know? I can’t always keep believing and believing. I don’t even know if I can believe to begin with, most of the time. I don’t know how he does it.”

A lump formed hot in his throat and he nodded, suddenly unable to look at her. She saw too much. Becoming her friend was a mistake. 

“Me neither,” he said, croaking out his understatement. He smoked. His hand trembled for his flask and he pulled it to his lips, drinking as much as he could in a single pull. Alice tightened her grip on his hand, squeezing warmth and affection into his palm. 

Becoming her friend was a mistake. But it was too late.

“But if I can’t—if I can’t try to make a connection with someone, if I can’t accept them for who they are, all of it, then I’m never going to live,” Alice said, tears falling in earnest. She wiped her cheeks with the back of her free hand and let out a wild, inappropriate laugh. “It’s not that I need to take chances on other people. Fuck other people.”

Finally, something relatable. He glanced over at her and nodded, with a sarcastic smile. 

Encouraged because she was about as good at social cues as Quentin, Alice pulled herself up, eyes alight. “But I do need to take a chance on myself and what I want. Otherwise, I’ll stay static my whole life, Eliot. I’ll stay lonely my whole life.”

His sarcastic smile softened and he sighed, pulling her hand up to his lips. He kissed them once as his brain turned all around, uncertain. Then, decision made, he tilted his head and clicked his tongue at her, the silly little thing.

“Or you’re just making justifications,” he said, eyebrows raising with the corners of his mouth, like they were gossiping, “so you can get good and fucked.”

She dropped his hand cold. “That is not—“

He cut her off with a laugh, waving his hand in the air, blithe as ever. 

“God. Please, no judgment from me, truly. Get yours,” he said, blowing more smoke rings and grinning at her fallen face. Then he sharpened his teeth, so slightly, without losing his air of Not Giving a Shit. “But let’s not kid ourselves with the high-minded horseshit, alright? We’re all smarter than that, Ms. Quinn.”

Alice sat there, stricken. Her face was paler than it had been on Dalt Vila, and she pushed her glasses up her nose, solely a nervous habit. She stood up, abrupt and kicking up sand in her movement. She brushed off her skirt and stared down at Eliot, her eyes dark and unreadable. 

Once again, she looked like the most dangerous person in the world. Good for her.

“Have a good night, Eliot,” she said, barely above a whisper. But it may as well have been a shout across worlds. Obviously, he had made his point.

(He hated himself.)

Eliot offered a lazy wave toward her retreating form, but he knew she didn’t see. He kept waving, until she was but a dot in the distance, and he was left with nothing but his thoughts. His eyes closed as his head pounded.

“El, sweetie,” Margo said, smoothing her hand over his brow. He was sweating and pallid, run ragged from the exhaustion of fighting the telekinesis, the one he was going to use against Kady. He was going to use it against Kady. He was everything he promised himself he would never be. He was drunk too. Real, real drunk. Had to control it. 

Margo was still talking. Why was she still talking? “El, they’re letting us go to the infirmary now. They have news about Q.”

No, no, no. God, no. He couldn’t. Please.

“Can’t go,” Eliot moaned, head rolling to the side. Dead weight. “Don’t wanna go. Gonna stay here.”

Margo’s nails were sharp in his arm. “You will hate yourself if you’re not there when he wakes up. Get your ass in gear. This isn’t about you.”

His face fell down, chin to chest. He wished his head would roll off and away, out of his misery. “Yes, it is. It’s my fault.”

“How the fuck do you figure that?” Margo wasn’t patient right now. She never was. But especially not now. Why couldn’t she ever be patient with him?

“I gave her the truth serum. I didn’t even really give a shit ,” he admitted with a sob, because Quentin had been right, he didn’t care, he didn’t care, he was just proving a dick point, “but I kept pushing her, even when I saw that she was getting agitated because—because it’s always felt like she wanted to hurt my only two people and—“

“El.”

“—and I’m an asshole. And I was such an asshole to Q because I’m a dick and hurting people is what I do and—and what if that’s it? What if—? I just—it’s my fault, it’s my fault, I fucked up—“

“Eliot, look at me,” Bambi forced his chin into her hand, giant eyes blazing into his. “This is not your fault. Got it? Do not go down that spiral on me. It was an accident.”

She didn’t get it. She was there, but she hadn’t really been there. Not like Eliot had been. She hadn’t been involved.

“I’m the one she was pissed at, Margo,” he said quietly. His hands were bound. It had been Todd, who had done it without hesitation. He didn’t think he had it in him.  “I’m the one who—it wasn’t supposed to be Q.”

“It wasn’t supposed to be anyone, El,” Margo said, softer than soft. He didn’t deserve her. He didn’t deserve anyone. He was such a fuck up. “It was an accident.”

He couldn’t breathe.

“But what if it’s bad news?” Eliot couldn’t feel his tongue. Margo’s hand was icy in his. “If I stay here and it’s bad news, then I’ll never hear it—I won’t hear it—and that’s better—it’s better—”

“Hey,” Margo said, cupping his face. His eyes were unfocused but he could almost see her. “I’ll be with you the whole time. No matter what. But it’s gonna be okay, El. I promise.”

He was shaking too much. Head, shoulders, legs. Hands too, even under the bind. “He’s my—”

“I know, sweetie.”

He stopped shaking. He stared straight at her. She looked awful. He probably looked awful too. Didn’t give a shit.

“No, you don’t,” Eliot choked out. He didn’t recognize his own voice. “You don’t know. He’s my— He’s my—”

“Eliot,” Margo said, pleading. Her eyes were filled with tears and she stroked his face like it was precious. “I know.”

Then the disembodied voice that sounded like his. But it couldn’t be. 

“I love him, Margo. I love him so much. I—I don’t know what I would do if anything—I love him. I love him.”

“El. Honey. We gotta go.”

The voice kept talking.

“I’ve never—never, in my life, had someone like him, someone so—someone so everything. And I know I’m not—not for him. But. God, I love him.”

Bambi sighed. “I’m going to sober charm you once you’re on your feet, okay?”

“Margo. I’m trying to tell you—”

“Jesus, I know. Okay? I’ve known for awhile,” she barked out, impatient and giving the voice no space, no room. Maybe it didn’t deserve it. “We’ll figure it out later, but right now, I need you to stand the fuck up. That’s what Q needs too.”

He didn’t remember standing. He didn’t feel his legs. But Margo’s encouragement told him that he did, and that it was good.

“That’s it, baby, lean on me—”

With a trail of sparkling dazzle, the sky over Encanto Oculto broke and so did all of his thoughts, shattered over the beach with the remnants of his control. The crowd in the distance cheered and sparklers lit up the night, from the revelers paying homage. It meant the week was officially over, and all that remained were the muted stars, hiding away in clouds.

So Eliot put out his cigarette and stood the fuck up.

 


 

tbc.

Chapter Text

 

 

Brakebills University, December 17, 2016

*

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

 


 

But First, A Remembrance,
Early May 2016

 


 

Eliot found the last shard of broken glass on the piano keys.

Sitting down at the bench, he swept his hands across the yellowing ivory, preparing to play something soft, something melancholy. Something that would fit the quiet late night-early morning air, to commemorate finishing his task at long last. Instead, the jagged point surprised him with a prick at the side of his middle finger . With a low curse, he snapped the wound up to his lips, a shallow but stinging puncture. Sucking at the pain for a few seconds, he took a breath and reached down, plucking the piece of purple glass up to the dim light.

It was from one of the painted mosaics, ready to be reunited with its family.

Closing his eyes, Eliot sent it off to the side and it melded in with the swirled patterns from whence it came, closing with precision.  Exhaustion overtook him at the spell’s finish and his chin fell to his chest, disheveled curls falling like a wave.   His forearms slammed on the keys and the clanging music filled the sleeping Cottage, a loud and dissonant startle . Oh well.

(“I can actually play something, you know,” Quentin once said, in the middle of the night. He sat down and stretched his fingers out, like a virtuoso preparing his masterpiece. He only received  Eliot’s wry eyebrow raise as a response.

Still, Q smiled up, the lines of his dimples making him impish as ever. “It took me forever to learn.”

“Is that so?” Eliot leaned against the side of the instrument, his heart aching at Quentin’s excitement.

Well, if he was honest, his heart always ached with something about Quentin. But that time, he really felt it. He imagined it was a similar sensation to chronic pain. The symptoms were always there, sometimes almost neutral or numb. You learned to live with it as background note, even as it slowed everything down, made you a little less discerning, a little less able to stay focused. But every now and then, the acuteness caught you off-guard and rendered you to your knees, defenseless .

That was Eliot, that night. Weakness acknowledged.

“Sure is,” Q said in reply, trying to lift his own single eyebrow and spectacularly failing. It wasn’t a skill everyone was capable of, but Eliot would kill a man who told him that. “Wanna hear?”

Obviously ,” he said, only allowing a half-smile to creep out. “Rock me, Amadeus.”

Without another word and with every ounce of seriousness in his moody body, Quentin placed his hands on the keys and sat up straight, form not too bad . He worried his lip between his teeth for a few moments, pensive, before he banged out several low, staccato notes .

Then he hit a few chords of all black keys. Then he returned back to the staccato white notes. He went back and forth with more intensity and fervor, as the song turned more melodic and even more recognizable . His deft hands, the ones capable of more beautiful magic than he ever gave himself credit for, moved across the keys with purpose, if not finesse . At the crest of the song, his eyes closed and he smiled, and Eliot felt like he was going to die, happily breathless.

Quentin was playing the Darth Vader theme song from Star Wars, and with every dark and spry note, Eliot’s heart ached, ached, ached . He wanted to wrap himself behind him, brush his lips against his ear, and say, Stay with me, sweetheart. He couldn’t really remember what was stopping him.

“Shit-goddamn,” Quentin’s loud swear broke his thoughts and the moment, as his fingers stuttered against the keys in a fucked up chord. He shook his head as he stopped abruptly , laughing with a careless shrug. “Well, that’s all I remember. Not too shabby though, right?”

And Eliot had just smiled, rolling his eyes and grinning at him, before changing the subject .)

Everything was too cold.  

The low lit and sleeping Cottage always reminded Eliot of Quentin, even when his every waking moment wasn’t plagued with thoughts of him . Most nights, or mornings, perspective pending, creatures may not have stirred, but Coldwaters sure did . The pacing shuffle of thick socks and loose-fit pajamas, the screech of a tea kettle, the obsessive muttering of spells under anxious breaths—that was the true soundtrack of the Cottage, after hours . The parties couldn’t hold a candle.

Of course, Eliot personally cleaned up the Cottage, from top to bottom, in the days after.

Fogg had tried to send a group of professional amateurs to do the work, but Eliot had negotiated them away. He had been insistent that he was going to be the one to care for his own goddamn home . But he hadn’t totally thought the decision through, it turned out, since it hadn’t been as easy as he hoped. He was kind of shitty at detail spells, which was the majority of the work. Go figure. At the same time, he would have rather served all the pieces of broken debris as garnishes in his next signature cocktail than have a single part of their home be out of place when Quentin was released from the infirmary . So he stuck with it, piece by painful piece.

Either way, it was done , all of it, but his fingers still itched to mend. To take what was broken and fix it. He knew it wasn’t his strong suit, but he also knew that he had to fucking try, for once in his goddamn worthless life. He owed that to the Cottage, to his home. He owed it to Q, who deserved exactly none of this.

But with a lack of better options to fill the void at his disposal, Eliot stood up and walked over to the bar. He grabbed as many glasses as he could and arranged them in a perfect line, good little soldiers. Next, he pulled out three shakers and called over a selection of bitters, a bottle of good vodka, and his favorite bourbon. After he set them all to work, automatically pouring in perfect lines, he went about the selection of mixers and garnishes, citrus and herbs, all preserved and ready for his expertise, his magic, his—

The stairs creaked tell-tale, and a vision in a long white robe rested her hand on the railing, sleepsoft and barefaced . Her big eyes were dark and concerned when they landed on him and he felt her sigh as much as he heard it.

“El, honey, it’s four in the morning,” Margo said, raking her hair back and using her fingernails to extract a tangle. She yawned. “You need to go to bed.”

He didn’t look up from his thyme, painstakingly separating each dried leaf. “Almost done.”

Margo slowly wrapped her way around the quiet corners of the walls and tables and couches, all fixed, all the same . She put her hand on his cheek, trying to get him to look up. “It looks great. Better than before. Time to rest.”

Obviously it looks great,” Eliot said, not giving into her implicit request. He let out an airy laugh, because that’s what he did. “But I also realized I’ve been remiss in not planning some actual fun too. So we’ll have a soirée tomorrow.”

Margo groaned, a frustrated little sound.

“A party?” She said, her hands going onto her hips, their natural habitat. “Eliot.”

He smiled up at her, catching his second wind. He held his hands aloft, as the concept came to him in broad strokes. “I’m calling it We’re Glad You’re Not Dead: A Celebration of Quentin M. Coldwater .”

Her lips slid down into a straight line, pulling her eyes into exasperation. “Jesus, El.”

“Too dark?” He brushed the pieces of herb into his hand and gathered them in the crease of his palm, before sliding them into a shot glass . He’d save them for later. “I was going for cheeky irreverence.”

But Margo wasn’t interested in talking about his party ideas. Instead, she took his hand and led him away from the bar and over to the couch. Sitting down at his Bambi’s command, he still managed to roll his eyes when she started to cover him with a blanket. He wasn’t an overtired toddler. If he wanted to go to bed, he would have gone to goddamn bed.

“You haven’t slept in a week,” Margo said, cool hand laying flat on the crook of his shoulder, exposed as his silk robe started to slide down . She rubbed at a spot of tension and he had to admit it felt good. It had been burning for awhile. “Q will understand if it’s lowkey here when he gets back. I doubt he’ll even be up for—“

Eliot set his jaw and looked away from her. She didn’t get it. “I have to do something.”

“You’ve done enough,” Bambi pleaded, scratching at the hairs at the nape of his neck. “He knows, sweetie.”

He shook his head, quick and tight. She didn’t get it. She’d never get it. But her hands kept rubbing his back and his eyes closed despite himself. He really was tired. It had been the longest week of his life, but he wasn’t sure he deserved—

“Okay, dead end, I guess,” Margo said, her voice shifting from concern to brass tacks. “Fine. What’s your plan then?”

Eliot frowned and craned his neck to look at her, genuinely not following. “Plan?”

“With Quentin.”

She said it like he was supposed to know what the fuck she was talking about. His heart hurt for a moment with how out of sync they had become. He once knew what every tiny shift on her face meant, but now? It was like a foreign language put through a shitty translator, at best. Sometimes, anyway.

“Look around, Bambi,” he said slowly , indicating the cleaned up Cottage and the streams of alcohol pouring into shakers . Her face fell, unamused.

“So we’re just not gonna talk about it?” Margo asked, her eyes wide and ironic.

A spike of panic shot his heart rate up. He growled more than spoke and he snapped his eyes away from her. “Talk about what?”

“Cut the crap, asshole,” she said, finally sounding like herself. Her lips twisted into a characteristic scowl and he could have kissed her, if she wasn’t talking about, well. “You told me a week ago that you quote-unquote lo—

Whoa. Whoa, whoa, whoa.

“Good god, Margo,” Eliot laughed out, half-hysterical. He pushed off the couch, blanket falling in a heap where his feet were. “What the fuck? Friends do not throw friends’ drunken nonsense back in their face. It’s the eleventh commandment.”

But Margo gave no quarter. “Sure, when it’s actually nonsense. But your head has been so far up your own twat for too fucking long. Time to ovary up.”

Eliot snarled and reached in his pocket for a cigarette, without other response. Bambi pulled her legs up on the couch and tucked them under her, all yoga flexibility and rare heartbreaking earnestness gazing up at him . He kind of hated that his instinct was to seek and destroy it, so that she gave him nothing but her cool cynicism. That was what he was comfortable with. That was what he wanted. And he was who he was, and she knew that.

She just kind of wasn’t acting like she knew that, at the moment.

“Sweetie, why wouldn’t you—?” She closed her mouth quickly , changing tactics. “Do you trust Quentin?”

What a stupid question.

“With my life,” he said, finally lighting the tip of his cigarette and letting the smoke burn. “But that’s irrelevant.”

“Your life,” Margo repeated, folding her hands on her lap. “But not your heart?”

She really didn’t fucking get it. She would never get it. It wasn’t about Q. It would never be about Q. Even if Quentin were insane enough to want him—which, by the way, he didn’t. T here was literally no indication that he saw Eliot as anything more than a good friend, as he was acutely reminded every day . But even in that mystical if, if, if, it wouldn’t be so simple. Never could be, never would be.

Of course, he said none of that. Instead, he blew a cloud of smoke her way, no party tricks. Just frustration.

“Who the fuck are you?” Eliot narrowed his eyes at her, shaking his head. “Like, what the fuck is this conversation?”

Margo leaned forward on her palms, stretching out like a tiger ready to pounce. Her whispered words were more terrifying than the many times a day she screamed. “Excuse me for giving a shit about your happiness.”

He actually laughed at that, no pretense. The laughter grew so strong that tears started pricking at his eyes, hot and wild. Maybe he was too tired for this. Maybe he really should go the fuck to bed and approach the day with semi-refreshed eyes. Because right now, all he could see was the fucking audacity of her and he hated her for it.

“My happiness. Good one,” Eliot said, smoking and smoking. Margo’s face was stone. “If you really give a shit about my happiness , you will drop this like an album on a Tuesday, got it?”

Her lips barely twitched but otherwise her expression remained unmoved. “Do you love Quentin?”

He ran his tongue over his teeth and stared off at the bar. He should just drink the whole bottle of bourbon. “Goddammit, Margo.”

“Do you?” Her eyes were so wide and so bright. They hurt to look at. So he didn’t.

“You’re going to force me to talk about this?” Eliot could barely hear his own words. “ Really ?”

“Yes.” She was a stone-cold bitch. He chuckled out the side of his mouth, even though nothing was funny. Smoke rose from his lips, wisping outward and up into the ceiling, where it wouldn’t stain. Hooray for magic.

“This reeks of Julia’s influence,” Eliot said, aiming for archly nonchalant. It came out more strained and sour. “For the record.”

“Tough shit,” Margo snorted, not a denial. “Answer the question.”

Eliot licked his dry lips and smoked, pacing in a circle. He fussed with the tie around his waist, scratched his chest hair. Looked down at his shoes, frowning at a small scuff he’d have to take care of later. His jaw muscles were so tight they were about to snap. He sympathized with Raymond’s TMJ for the first time. But as much as his jaw hurt, the silence across the Cottage was even more painful to his nerve-endings. Margo had much more patience for empty space than he did.

So he broke first, always terrible at chicken. His exuded calm was the most flimsy of his facades.

“I—care a lot about Quentin,” Eliot said, quiet and slow, monologuing to the scuff. “He is a good friend of mine and I also happen to sometimes think he’s the tiniest bit fuckable. In an especially tense situation, it evolved into some unseemly emotional vomit. But I’m… mostly sober and level-headed now, and I’m telling you I didn’t mean it. So back off, okay?”

He met her eyes again on the last word, begging her from the deepest pit of his cold and dead heart to just fucking listen for the first time in her life . But based on the sharp spark of annoyance in her eyes and the low growl of frustration from the back of her throat, he was in for no such luck .

“Satan on a goddamn saltine, the fucking mires you twist your brain into,” Margo said, leaning back on the couch into a seated power stance, crossing her legs and her arms . She flashed her face up at him, doom and gloom. “This shit is going to catch up with you, sooner or later.”

With a haughty and curt flourish, Eliot turned to her and bowed, arms stretched wide and cigarette smoldering . “I’d like to see it try.”

Point made, he strode away from her, all confidence and swagger. But Margo’s voice—his favorite sound in the world—froze him where he stood.

“You’re better than this, El.”

“No, I’m not,” Eliot said, turning on his heels and snapping his neck at her.  He sucked down the last of the smoke and stabbed it into a nearby ashtray, not bothering with magic. “This is who I am. Sorry if it’s not enough for you.”

She didn’t stop him after that.

(Later, at the party, Margo would drape herself all over him and they’d giggle over a joint filled with Hoberman’s weed. Because that’s what they did and that was who they were . Then even later, Eliot would wrap his arm around a still too-pale Quentin and ask him what he thought of the party’s name—if it was too macabre—and Q would shrug and say, “I mean, I'm a cynical bastard deep, so it takes a lot to shock me . I like it.”

And Eliot’s heart would ache, ache, ache .)

 


 

The Present,
Where One Should Remain Focused

 


 

Eliot wasn’t sure who said, “One cannot have too large a party; a large party secures its own amusement,” but he wholeheartedly agreed. The coming together of people, music, spectacle, energy, potential —all of it brewed together for an ineffable chemistry that set his veins alight, with anticipation and good humor. Outside of the bedroom, nothing excited him more than the hope and suspense of a huge party, one where he was the elegant ringleader, the puppetmaster of delight. As far as he was concerned, it could cure any ill. Hence, it was especially pertinent to throw a party during times of crisis, when general amusement was most threatened. 

And, uh, well…

Things weren’t great.

To be fair, they also weren’t necessarily bad

Everything was—fine. It was normal. Mostly. At least, it seemed as though life was going on automatically. There was absolutely nothing out of the ordinary occurring, even within the context of their definitionally extraordinary lives. There was nothing to write home about, but nothing worthy of complaint either. It was—fine. Fine. Totally fine.

But Eliot knew, down in his quaking bones through years of honed instincts, that it was an eerie level of fine . It was like when the clouds were forming in the far off distance, even though the sun was still shining on the cornfield. It glinted everything in a haze of gold, serene and almost beautiful, if you were into that pastoral Wyeth shit. Butall the while, lurking on the edges, the asshole farm cat—yellow tabby, scrawny, and feral—would walk around in crazed, frantic circles, hissing at nothing with its haunches raised.

Storm was brewing and everyone should take heed.

Thankfully, again, due to his well-developed intuition for that sort of thing, Eliot also knew where the danger was most acute and where he needed to watch his step. The storm, if it seemed to originate anywhere, was radiating in waves off Alice Quinn. She was deep in a gross and giddy honeymoon phase with Kady Orloff-Diaz, yet painted a stark and terrifying figure every time she met eyes with Eliot. The bright blue was dark and stern, almost feline in their slanted fury. He hadn’t yet worked up the courage to speak to her, because he didn’t totally trust her not to blast his synapses out with laser sharp look. 

Rightfully so, perhaps. 

But still, it had been almost three weeks since Ibiza, with no sign of improvement. Guilt had made its home in his heart, for so many reasons. But the cold front with Alice was the worst of it.

(Well, almost. But he wasn’t thinking about the other thing if he could help it. He needed to function.)

In any case, something had to give and so, Eliot decided it would be him and that his gift would be: a perfect party. Not necessarily only for Alice—again, valuing the sanctity of life and limb—but also to smooth over the sharp edges that had crept up and made things too uncomfortable, for everyone. It was no way to live.

Muddling a syrupy mix of mint and sugar, he nodded to himself from the bar area, temporarily turned to face his friends. The two of them were sitting together on the couch, not quite cuddling, both reading scholarly analyses of the failures of alchemy and occasionally speaking in low tones to one another. Glancing away before either of them caught him staring, he calcified his belief that he was focusing his energies in the right place. 

What else could he do, really?

After the julep’s base was settled in a crystal glass, Eliot got to work crushing the ice. He always liked to give every party a signature drink to complement the Signature Cocktail. It was a silly novelty maybe, but people enjoyed it. Meanwhile, from the couch, his friends stirred, speaking louder and louder, drawing more attention to themselves. He kept his focus for as long as he could, until his eyes finally lifted up just under his lashes, gaze like a magnet.

“You’re misremembering,” Julia said, a quiet little smirk reaching all the way up to her eyes as Quentin leaned back against her knees. As she expected, he made a loud noise of protest and dipped his head back, glaring at her upside down. Her eyes sparked as she giggled at him.

“Uh, no,” he said, affronted, with pulled down lips. “I’ve never misremembered anything in my whole dang life.”

Eliot’s heart fluttered and he swallowed, looking back at the ice. Dang. Goddamn.

“Well, you just popped your cherry then,” Julia said, pulling Quentin’s hair into her hands and twisting it into a topknot, “because I am ten-thousand percent certain that Rupert’s favorite tree was a maple, not an elm.”

“Except elms in and around Cornwall were way more common during that point in history than fucking maples,” Quentin said, sitting up and shaking his hair loose. He pushed at her shoulder, like an annoyed little brother. “At least they were, until they all disappeared because of a plague.”

“Wait, what?” Julia scrunched her nose. “All the elm trees disappeared in Cornwall?”

Quentin sat up and took a sip of his tea, before hissing and jolting backwards. Burnt tongue. “Yeah.”

All of them?” Julia said, again. She shook her head, like it was overloaded. “From a plague?”

“Yeah, all of them. Well, all of the Cornish Elms, at least,” Quentin said, waving his hands in the air as he processed through the information. “It was, uh, back in the late sixties, early seventies, give or take. From a beetle-carried fungus, uh, called Dutch elm disease.”

Eliot never thought that his heart would feel like falling out of his chest at the words beetle-carried fungus , but that was apparently where he was at in his life. A real low point. 

On the other hand, it was also the most he’d heard Quentin’s voice in weeks, so...

So.

“Seriously? That’s really sad,” Julia tucked her hair behind her ears and frowned, a distant look in her eyes. But then she grinned, eyes sliding back over at Q. “I still think you’re misremembering.”

On cue, Quentin threw his hands in the air. “I’m not fucking misremembering, Jules.”

Just as Julia started to let out a bright laugh in earnest, the Cottage door swung open. Margo strutted her way in, dressed in fur and velvet, her favorite way to celebrate the upcoming holidays. She gave a tiny wave and flounced her hair back, as she stood on her tip-toes to plant a quick kiss on Eliot’s cheek.

“Focused,” he said, indicating the cocktail materials, as he pressed an even quicker kiss to the side of her mouth. 

Amused, she waved him off, before finally turning toward her girlfriend and Q. But before she could say anything, Julia sat up straight and put her hands on her knees, urgent.

“Margo,” Julia said, half breathless. Bambi pouted her lips and leaned over, a modern Marilyn Monroe.

“Julia,” she said, in the same tone. But Julia didn’t play along, biting her lip, eyes wide and fervent.

“Did you know that in the sixties, all of the elm trees disappeared from Cornwall because of a plague?” She said quickly, pointing at Quentin. He gave a quick wave at Margo, as a hello, and a nod in acknowledgment at what Julia was saying. “Isn’t that the most awful thing you’ve ever heard?”

Shocking no one except maybe Julia, it was not the most awful thing Bambi had ever heard. She snorted and rolled her eyes, flopping down in the armchair closest to Eliot and arching a brow right at Julia.

“Oh, no,” Margo said, deadpan. “Dead trees. Boo-hoo.”

“Mmm, you’re so tough ,” Julia purred, stretching her leg out to lightly kick against Margo’s ankle. “You’re like Clint Eastwood in a movie directed by Clint Eastwood.”

“Aw, babe,” Margo pouted, hands to her heart, before her lips curled into a smile. “Don’t get sappy in front of the boys.”

Julia winked and blew her a kiss because they were the absolute fucking worst. Eliot poured an ounce and a half of the good bourbon into the glass. Then he frowned, remembering that juleps were supposed to go in stainless steel cups, not crystal. Shit. He was distracted—off his game.

Meanwhile, Julia was going full-blown Quentin, bouncing her feet as she spoke, to Margo’s equally exasperated and pleased tiny smile. 

“But really, Margo,” she implored, “think about the history, the beauty, in this one tiny place, in this freak occurrence—“

“Actually, it’s not freak,” Quentin said as he finally swallowed a gulp of his tea, one pedantic finger in the air. “It’s pretty widespread.”

Julia’s face fell and she crossed her arms over her chest. “Seriously?”

Margo groaned and launched a throw pillow right at Quentin’s face, which bounced off his confused nose with a thud onto the ground. He frowned, big wide eyes blinking owlishly at Margo, surprised and maybe not a little hurt. 

Eliot chugged his whole failed creation, vowing to start over. Not like he was going to waste perfectly good booze.

“Q, you gotta stop telling her depressing facts,” Margo said, slowly, like she was speaking to a toddler. “You’re killin’ me, man.”

“But it’s not depressing, it’s interesting,” Quentin said, face brightening as he held his hands out, twisting around in the air. “See, the fungus comes in sacs that attach to—”

“Don’t say fungus,” Margo said, sticking her tongue out.

“But you should always say sacs,” Eliot interjected before he could stop himself, while beginning the muddling process all over again. Quentin froze and looked up at him, brows pinching with an unfamiliar uncertainty. 

Eliot’s hands stopped over his work as he remembered that, oh, yeah , they were kind of on a Strained Small Talk basis at the moment, and not so much a Teasing Banter one. 

Fuck.

To smooth it over, he shot Quentin a quick and unsteady smile. It only served to twist Q’s face into more confusion, laid bare on his always heart-sleeved face. But with a lick of his lips, he turned his focus back on Margo and his nerdy rant.

“Well, uh, the things attach to beetles that feed off the elm tree bark, specifically , and then the—the things attack the—”

“Look, that shit? It’s about as interesting to me as this—” Margo slammed open a magazine from the side table, displaying a picture of Jennifer Garner and Reese Witherspoon in sliced photos next to each other, in very similar blue dresses “—is to you. Tell me, Quentin, who wore it best?”

Q squinted at the photos and then frowned, eyes filled with all the sincerity in the world. “They both look nice.”

Eliot wanted to pin him against the wall and fuck him until they both passed out.

Bambi was less besotted. She rolled her eyes, gagging, “No. Wrong. Reese.”

Quentin tapped on the page. “I mean, the printed box says that only 23% of readers agree with you.”

“Because people are stupid sheep who don’t know tacky accessorizing when they see it,” Margo said with a scowl. She tore the magazine away and held it up in the air, glaring sourly at Q. “God, you never listen to me.”

“Their accessories look the same,” Quentin said, all academic seriousness, yet with the smallest blink of coyness. Without expertise, it was easy to miss. 

Margo wasn’t an expert.

She froze and then spun around to look right at Eliot, wide eyes desperate and pleading. “El. Help.”

“That’s a lost cause, Bambi,” Eliot said, crushing ice over and over again. It was basically water. “Besides, you know I think Jen Garner’s a dish.”

“Whole damn buffet,” Quentin said quickly, nerdily, sending a ripple of sparkling tension down his back. His eyes snapped over to Q’s, which were smiling up at him, tentative but true. Eliot’s mouth fell open and he tried to think of something to say, but his words came up empty.

Did this mean they were—talking now?

Was that all it took? A dumb double entrendre about ballsacks and suddenly, all was well? He started to fill the cup with bourbon and he spilled it on the table. He was in uncharted territory. He was ill-equipped to deal with it. He should pour the bourbon down his throat.

But his thoughts were cut off by Bambi making a small simpering noise his way. She leaned over and patted his free hand, her chunky bracelet bouncing against his cufflinks with a dinging chime.

“First of all, gross,” Bambi said response to Q, before turning to Eliot, gently cooing. “And yes, I know you  like her, baby, but that’s your Alias bias. We’re in a post-post-Affleck world now.”

“I’d still do Ben Affleck,” Eliot admitted with a wince.

Margo gasped, her face screwed up with horror. “ What?

Eliot shook his head, deeply apologetic. “I know.”

“Okay, point made. Not interesting,” Quentin said, clearing his throat as he stood. He darted a fast look at Eliot one more time before running his hands through his hair and sighing. “I’m heading out to the library.”

“Speaking of boring , “ Margo said with a groan, throwing another pillow at Quentin’s face. He blinked in surprise, again, like he couldn’t have possibly predicted it. “It’s Saturday, be fun.”

“The library is very fun,” Julia said brightly, obviously just to piss Bambi off. She received a middle finger for her efforts. Quentin bent down and grabbed his leather bag, shrugging it on.

“Van Der Weghe is making me do a meteorological demo for my final and I extra suck at Nature magic,” he said with a wane grin and a tuck of long hair behind his ears. “I’ll be buried in thunder resonance books until break.”

Huh. Literal storms were brewing too. That boded well.

“Want help? Julia asked, bouncing her hand on her knee. She smiled, too wide. “Or hey, maybe just some company? We could go get some coffee and chat, hang out, just the two of us—”

“God, again?” Margo asked, rolling her eyes theatrically. “You’re like obsessed with him right now.”

“Quentin is my best friend in the world,” Julia said, too intense. Quentin’s jaw ticked and Eliot’s eyes narrowed. “Spending time with him is a joy I would never give up.”

Jesus. Okay. Eliot decided to drink the cup he was making too. Always good to taste test in the proper settings.

“Yeah, yeah, whatever,” Margo said, waving Julia off with a pout before slumping back in the chair, slouchy and sweet. “But, like, be obsessed with me. I’m much more obsessable.”

“Hey Q,” Julia said, straightening out her long neck and clapping her hands together. Quentin took a deep breath through his teeth and raised his eyebrows, a cracking veneer of patience over the tense lines of his muscles. “How’s this for a plan? We go work on storm magic, or maybe even just get a nice breeze going. Then we head to get some hot cocoa and talk about Fillorian allegories before getting dinner and—“

“No, thanks,” Quentin said, a little tightly. But then he smiled easily, so Eliot was probably reading into things again. Julia deflated and looked at him intensely, unreadable. But Quentin must have seen something there, because he responded with his own intense and unreadable look. She volleyed it back. He returned. Her eyebrow arched. His eyes blinked five times fast.

Anyway, it went on for an awkwardly long time and so Eliot turned away, having grown bored. He cleaned out the cup and started over on his cocktail.

Third time would definitely be the charm.

“I think I can manage, Jules,” Quentin finally said aloud as he waved to the room’s empty space, rather than anyone in particular. “See you all when I see you.”

“Coldwater!” Julia called out over the back of the couch at his retreating form. He slumped his shoulders and turned around, long-suffering. She pursed her lips at him. “Eat. A. Good. Lunch.”

“I’m. Not. A. Child,” Quentin said back, in the same staccato cadence. But at Julia’s firm gaze, he took a deep breath and shook his head, looking up at the ceiling. “But yeah, okay, I will.”

Her finger jutted out at him. “Not grilled cheese!”

“It has protein,” Q said, head tilting like a pup.

“Cheese is the worst protein, Q.”

“There is no good or bad protein,” Quentin countered, crossing his arms. “Protein is protein.”

“Yes, technically,” Julia said, putting on her Cool Health Teacher face while her hands went to her hips. “But cheese has so much saturated fat and sodium that it’s basically—“

That in and of itself was enough to get Quentin fully through the door, waving a middle finger in the air behind him as he stomped out. “Bye everyone!”

Eliot smiled into his chopped mint.

But a sharp sigh called his attention, followed by the sound of Julia’s arms thumping against her chest and into a defensive stance.

“What?” She demanded at seemingly nothing. But Bambi stood up and walked over to Eliot, grabbing a glass, some ice, and a bottle of vodka. She poured and cocked an eye up.

“You know what,” Margo said, slow and even. As she took a sip of her liquor, Julia clicked her teeth together and shook her head.

“You have to respect my dynamic with—“

“You have to ease up, Smother Hen,” Margo said, not unkindly. “You’re pissing him off.”

Unexpectedly, Julia laughed, sputtering her lips. “Oh, he can be pissed. I don’t give a shit. Whatever it takes so he takes care of himself.”

Eliot frowned, fully disengaging from his work for the first time. “Q seems okay to me.”

It was true. He knew the signs of a depressive Quentin almost as well as Julia did now. Despite not talking much, he had certainly been observing Q plenty. 

He seemed stressed about school as usual. But in general, it seemed like he was sleeping fine, eating as well as he ever did, and even being social. He’d been to every Cottage party since Ibiza, a record as far as he could remember. Every time, Q stayed most of the night, happily bobbed his head to music, and chatted with people to the side of the bar.  Near Eliot but not with him.

Anyway.

There were none of the usual signs of danger, at least from where he sat. But apparently, that wasn’t the case from Julia’s vantage point.

“I’m sure he does,” she said, cutting out a harsh laugh. She refused to look at him. “You always see what you want to see when it comes to Q.”

Ah, it was Little Miss Passive Aggressive. That had been another change since Ibiza. 

It hadn’t been cute. 

Eliot licked his lips once. Then before he could think it through, he slammed his hand down on his cutting board, startling even Bambi into spilling her drink.

“Okay, what the hell is your problem?” Eliot demanded. Julia still wouldn’t look at him. “Any particular reason you’ve been such a—?”

She looked at him now. Julia smiled under her dark eyes, tilting her head in false confusion. “Such a what, Eliot?”

He chuckled low and lit a cigarette. Then widened his eyes at her, all sardonic innocence. “A cuh -rankypants.”

“Well, at least you have your shitty jokes to keep you warm at night,” Julia said with a big, cheeky, dangerous grin. “Help you sleep too?”

He bit into his filter and narrowed his eyes. “If you have something you want to say to me, Wicker, then say it.”

Julia’s eyes lost all mocking as they went cool. She snorted and shook her head, looking away. “What would be the use in that?”

A vicious retort spiked at the edge of his tongue, but Bambi’s icy grip on his forearm stopped its launch. She glared up at him with fierce eyes before flashing them over to Julia, as she snapped her other fingers for attention.

“No,” Margo said, pointing between the two of them. Her meaning was clear, but she still bared her fangs and spoke through her teeth, hissing and wild. “I will literally murder you both where you stand, got it?”

Eliot shook his shoulders out and blew out a puff of air, already surrendering. But Julia tightened her jaw and faced down Margo head-on.

“No,” Julia said, laughing out in barely a whisper. She pointed at Eliot without looking at him, eyes burning at Margo. “He has been such a fucking dick —”

“I don’t know what the fuck is going on here lately,” Margo whispered, in that croaking and pointed way of hers. Her cheeks grew red and her neck muscles popped. “But I don’t actually give a shit. You two are friends. We’re all best fucking friends and we’re gonna fucking act like it or so help me god, do you understand?”

Julia stared down at the ground, trying to keep her temper in check. “You can’t order around us around like we’re your soldiers or some shit.”

“I am in a goddamn thesis hole, Julie,” Margo said, screeching as she grabbed at her hair. “I do not have time for anyone’s interpersonal bullshit, least of all you two massive pains in my ass. Get along or ignore each other. Only two options.”

But before Julia could respond, the Cottage door flew open and Quentin stormed back in, eyes set straight ahead and fists clenched at his side. He slammed the door shut and walked into the living room, panting.

“I’m back,” Q said, unnecessarily. Then he nodded once as he stared off into space, before focusing all his attention on Eliot. “Uh, hey, El, what are you doing right now?”

Trying to revive my heart into normal functions , Eliot didn’t say. But he did say, eloquently: “I’m—this?”

Quentin nodded again, before averting his gaze, embarrassed. “Wanna get lunch with me?”

Eliot blinked, his numb body turning to painful pins and needles at the sudden flare of hope in his gut. “That’d be great.”

(How long had he been that numb?)

Julia snorted. “Jesus Christ.”

“Okay, well,” Quentin shifted on his feet, shooting Julia another one of those unreadable looks. Then he smiled back up at Eliot, still tentative. Still true. “Uh, I do have work, so can we—?”

Eliot nodded, putting out his cigarette and wiping his hands on a white rag. He blinked over and over, clearing his throat, before he forced his most natural smile at Q. Their eyes met and the world’s color started to slowly ease its way back in, the Cottage turning gold and green and red right before his very eyes.

(How long had everything been in grayscale?)

“Yeah. Yeah,” he said, smiling turning real. “I’ll clean up later. Okay.”

Meeting eyes and grins again, they started to make their way out the door and all of Eliot’s grounding and focus started to come back in happy waves, when the best voice in the world stopped them.

“Q, sweetie, before you go, I have a question for you,” Margo said, resting her chin on her fist, lips curling down into a thoughtful frown. At Quentin’s waiting eyebrows, she took a deep breath. “If I murdered Julia and Eliot, do you think we’d grief-bang about it or would you be too mad at me?”

“I—what?” Quentin startled backward, eyes so damn confused. “What the fuck?”

“It’s a thought experiment,” Margo said, sighing and put-upon.

Quentin rolled his eyes, adjusting his bag. “I don’t think you know what a thought experiment is.”

“Answer the question,” Bambi said, cracking her neck. Quentin bit his lip and stared straight ahead, before opening his mouth and closing it. He nodded, holding his hand in the air, on the edge of a thought.

“Okay, but, like, why did you murder them?”

Julia threw the pillow that time.

 


 

The Brakebills cafeteria was a dreary place.

The air was always chilly. Its architectural lines stretched out long and unforgiving, with blue and pink windows that cast a gloomy purple pall over the uniform wooden tables. Sure, there were lamps over most of them, with shitty edison bulbs and round shades that added an unappealing white-yellow to the atmosphere. But for the most part, it was like one of the professors had decided to see if they could create a room that best triggered Seasonal Affectiveness Disorder on a campus with controlled weather.

Weirdly, despite what was probably good for him, it was one of Quentin’s favorite places on campus. 

Since they met, Q was always pestering Eliot about joining him there. He’d suggest they meet for a coffee or food they didn’t “have to” cook (as though Eliot had ever complained about cooking, ever in his life.) He even want to go to just hang out, like it was a fun change of scenery rather than set dressing for a horror movie. The handful of times Eliot had indulged him, Quentin would find the furthest back corner he could and prop himself up in some absurd way, like he was the comfiest frog on the strangest lily pad. It was sweet of course, in the usual Qish way. Though he had to admit it was one of the Quentin quirks Eliot really didn’t understand.

But for once, he had never been happier to be seated in his least favorite alcove of the school, with Quentin’s dirty boots a little too close to his BLT. Eliot’s lips quirked as Q settled against the wall, cross-legged with a fresh grilled cheese plopped in the lap of his acid-washed jeans. He was cute.

Weakness acknowledged.

“Don’t tell Julia,” Quentin said, lowering his brow like he had a real secret.

“See, I’d go the opposite tack,” Eliot said, waving a particularly crispy french fry before popping it in his mouth. “Full blown social media campaign. Your grilled cheese now has its own Instagram account.”

“That would be a good way to stick it to her, if not for one major issue,” Quentin said, setting his jaw upwards, brattily. “Which is that, as always, we are not allowed—“

“Jesus, Q.”

“—to use technology on Brakebills property.”

The first real, full smile Eliot felt in days, maybe weeks, crossed over his face as he studied Quentin’s earnest and stern expression. “Rules are meaningless to you every other context, but that’s the hill you die on?”

“Fogg says it interferes with the current,” Q said with a shrug, digging into his own fries. “I’d feel terrible if I fucked up someone else’s work.”

Eliot rolled his eyes. “Fogg’s full of shit.”

“Based on?”

“The fact that I use my phone daily,” Eliot said, waving it proudly in the air and pointing out that he was, in fact, on his data and not airplane mode. “It’s never caused an issue.”

“Sure,” Quentin snorted. “QED.”

The glow of another smile stretched wide, but just as he was about to give his friend (his friend ) even more shit for being such an inconsistent goody-goody, barring a better term, Quentin’s brow pinched. He looked up at an approaching figure, fingers twitching around his food. Curious, Eliot turned around in his chair and caught sight of the impending doom. He propped his elbow and frowned.

Penny Adiyodi stalked his way over. He wore a threadbare green shirt unbuttoned down to his navel, all for Eliot’s viewing pleasure. 

God, he was hot. 

Total asshole. 

But so fucking hot.

Now, to be sure, Penny was a total dick—cruel and spiteful, with alpha male syndrome galore. Not appealing. Plus, obviously, he had tortured Quentin for months, for no discernible reason beyond not liking Q’s personality. Which was not only an insane position, but a hurtful one. Eliot wasn’t a fan, to say the least.

… But goddamn , he still wore the fuck out of a flowy shirt and a scarf . Overall, Penny was neatly categorized into Eliot’s Paisley, Patchouli, and Pain brand of fantasy. Not a common dip, but there when the itch arrived. 

Not that he’d ever tell Quentin that anytime soon. 

(Or at all. Because why would he? It would be weird.)

(Just because he wanted to tell Q everything didn’t mean he should.)

(Whatever.)

As usual though, Penny was completely uninterested in Eliot and pressed his palms on the table next to Q, tilting his head menacingly.

“Even though I fuckin’ love that circus music sound mixed with screaming about Hobbits or some shit—” 

Under his breath, Q muttered, “ Dwarves ,” and Eliot’s heart ached.

Penny glared harder, opting to ignore the interruption.  “—I figured I’d let you know your wards are slipping. Again.”

“Sorry,” Quentin sighed, scratching the back of his neck. “I’ll adjust.”

Penny nodded slowly, his eyes bulging out his head as he stared and stared at Quentin. Hot as he was, it still sent a rush of defensiveness through Eliot, who hadn’t yet made his illustrious presence known.

“Hey Penny,” he said, mostly casual. But he figured the psychic would pick up on the edge he wanted to convey. He’d never know if it worked though, since Penny didn’t even look at him when he jutted his chin out in that standard Male Greeting Nod that had always evaded him.

“Sup, Eliot?” He said, like he didn’t give a shit. Then he narrowed his eyes back at Q. “I don’t know how you function.”

Quentin pressed his lips into a line and held his hands out. “Mediocrely.”

Eliot was used to his little self-jabs, but that didn’t mean he had to like them. His throat twisted with the urge to spit out compliments, thousands of compliments, all assuring Quentin that he was the kindest, bravest, most generous, beautiful, wonderful—

He bit his tongue into blood. 

Penny stood up straight, his face growing softer. He kept his dark brown eyes on Q, who was fully recoiling under his scrutiny.

“Stop torturing yourself,” Penny finally said, his voice low and almost gentle. He crossed his arms over his mostly bare chest—which, like, seriously, bravo for the bold style choice—and let out a short breath. “Man the fuck up and do something about it. Better to know. Trust me.”

“Your unsolicited advice is, as always,” Quentin smiled, but his sparking eyes gave his sarcasm away, “unappreciated.”

This had the unforeseen effect of making Penny Adiyodi laugh. 

Eliot paused over his sandwich, fingers tightening around the seeded bread. He wasn’t sure that he had ever heard Penny Adiyodi laugh before. He felt a bit like Steve Irwin must have felt when he saw new animal behavior for the first time. You know, before the whole unfortunate stingray thing.

Anyway, it was exhilarating.

“Yeah, yeah,” Penny said, before he fucking clapped Quentin on the shoulder, definitely friendly and borderline affectionate. “Take care of yourself, man.”

What the fuck?

What the fuck?

Almost exactly one year ago, Penny had said I hope you get stabbed in the spleen, you fucking pussy , when Quentin had wished him a happy winter break. So to say that it was a slight change in tone between them might have been understating things. A tad.

Eliot leaned back on his arm and slowly tilted his head at Q, who wasn’t paying attention to him. Instead, he gave Penny a small wave before popping a fry in his mouth, like all of this was really normal.

“You too,” Quentin said, without much inflection. “Say hey to Victoria and Oscar.”

“Will do,” Penny said as he rapped his fist on the table before nodding once more, curt. “Later, Eliot.”

“Bye, Penny,” Eliot called out in a singsong voice to his retreating figure. He swiveled around to watch him walk away and—as soon as he was out of ear or mindreading shot—he let out a sharp laugh and looked Quentin right in the eyes.

He smirked. “What in the actual mother loving shit was that?”

“What do you mean?” Q asked it so sincerely. He was so ridiculous.

“You and Penny are, what,” Eliot grinned despite himself at the absurdity, “buds now?”

“Yeah, sure, we have slumber parties all the time,” Quentin said with an eye roll. He pulled out the bun Julia made and let his hair fall loose, almost reaching his shoulders. “We gossip about boys and chat about music and rehash all the ways he’s casually threatened to murder me.”

Eliot was a complete fucking dumbass who read way too much into Q saying gossip about boys instead of gossip about girls . But he also refused to be deterred from his mission.

“Nope. There was an almost fondness right there between you two,” he accused, putting his elbow on the table and propping his chin on his palm. “Are you almost fond of Penny now?”

“That’s an overstatement,” Quentin said, finally taking a bite of his forbidden melted cheese. “But I guess we’re cool.”

What the fuck. “Cool?”

There had never been anything about any of Quentin and Penny’s interactions that had predicted anything but maybe reaching the point where they could grudgingly ignore each other. And that mostly depended on Q finally getting his psychic wards down pat, which… 

Well, he adored his friend ( friend ) with all his heart. But there were a few things more likely than that to happen.

Like Margo announcing that she was joining the Peace Corps.

“I know. But I mean—the thing about Penny is, uh,” Quentin picked at his fries again, looking for the crunchy bits, and snorted. His big brown eyes looked up at Eliot with a hint of humor he couldn’t quite translate. “He was a huge asshole.”

“I know, Q,” Eliot said, with a tilt of his lips. The smiles kept coming. “That’s my point.”

Quentin nodded, throwing a tiny crisp in the air and catching it with his mouth. He held a finger up as he bit down, his brow low but his eyes wide. It was as performative as he got.

“Like, a massive asshole. To everyone. He was erratic and vicious and, like, dismissive, all at once, all the time, over shit he never bothered to explain,” Q said, blowing a stray hair out of his face. “So, yeah, hypothetically, I know he fucked up a lot, and that there are definitely people who wouldn’t blame me if I said Fuck that guy forever, you know?”

“What the hell are you talking about hypothetically ?” Eliot frowned under a laugh. “Please recall that if we had lockers, he would have stuffed you in them.”

Q smiled into his food. “But despite everything, I know he’s—god, he’s such a good person, even if he doesn’t think so—“

“You have too much faith in people,” Eliot said with a sigh and not for the first time.

“—and he’s, like, my best friend in the world,” Quentin finished, meeting Eliot’s eyes full on. “And I missed him. A lot. So I wasn’t going to spend any more time avoiding him, because it sucked too much.”

Oh.

Eliot swallowed, the muscles of his throat spasming as they registered Quentin’s meaning.

Oh .

His perfect Q was such a crafty motherfucker, wasn’t he?

He huffed out a breath, not exactly a laugh, and glanced away, his eyes burning and heavy with unwelcome wetness. He sniffed once and blinked the embarrassment away before schooling his face into a placid smile.

“I suppose Penny was certainly—maybe a little much, when you all went on vacation together,” Eliot said slowly. “He didn’t always make top notch choices.”

Quentin’s lips twitched, almost teasing. “Yeah, that’s one way to put it.”

“But you’re right. Now that you mention it, I can tell Penny is—” Eliot lowered his gaze to his hands along with the tenor of his voice. “I can tell he’s sorry and that he really, really missed you too.”

He raised his eyes again, his heart thudding in his fragile chest as the dark curl of his lashes blurred the precise emotions swirling across Quentin’s face. For a few beats, he stared down at Eliot, eyebrows tight and eyes endless, everything raw and too messy to fully comprehend. But then he cleared his throat, smiled privately to himself and took a deep breath, before shrugging at Eliot.

“Hence why we’re cool,” Q said, simply. Then he took a huge bite of his grilled cheese and munched. Like Forrest Gump before him, that was apparently all he had to say about that.

(Whatever, anyone who said they didn’t like that movie was a liar.)

Eliot drummed his fingers on the table and let out his held breath. “Thank you for explaining.”

Thank you for giving me another chance , he didn’t say. He always felt like he was low on chances with Q. He knew he never even deserved the first one. He hoped his real meaning was clear. He always hoped his real meaning was clear. 

But so far, if he was being honest, his average on that wasn’t great.

Quentin offered him a small, tentative grin and kept eating, the silence finally making its way to comfort for the first time in too long. But after a few minutes of quiet, his face tensed up again and he put his hands on his knees.

“But, uh, you know,” he said in his most stilted voice and Eliot’s muscles froze, doom settling in. Quentin worked his jaw and looked away, fidgeting his fingers. “Penny’s not cool with everyone, from what I understand. I think he was kind of an especially huge asshole to someone else. Someone who, uh, really didn’t deserve it.”

Flashes of Alice Quinn’s angry and devastated eyes taunted him, under the ominous soundtrack of his own stupid words. He clenched his fists and sighed, rubbing them into his eyes until he saw stars. He really was a huge dickhead and a massive asshole. He deserved every bit of ire she wanted to throw his way. He had just been too much of a coward to face it.

“I know,” Eliot said, low as he could. But Q heard him. His warm eyes glowed down and he chewed on his lower lip.

“He should apologize to her, El,” Q said, still keeping up the ridiculous facade of a conversation like a champ. But Eliot didn’t have the patience for that anymore.

He breathed down any shame to ask directly, “You know what I said to her?”

Quentin regraded him quietly for a second before he licked his lips and nodded, shorter. “Uh, yeah. She told me.”

Eliot closed his eyes against the growing guilt. Then he squeezed them even tighter against the growing anger. That she had any right to be pissed at him , that she was the one who got to give him shit about his choices, even considering—

He let out a shaky laugh, sucking his lower lip in between his teeth. Then he simply nodded and smiled at Quentin.

It wasn’t as real as before.

“I’ll talk to her,” Eliot said, before biting into his sandwich. That was all he had to say about that. But it was worth the strenuous effort to be calm, flimsy as it was and would ever be, at the tiny grin that crossed Quentin’s face. Like he was pleased. Like he was proud of Eliot. It made stomach swoop.

He was pathetic.

With an exaggerated swallow of his food, Eliot pointed over at Quentin’s half-finished grilled cheese with a wider smile. Still false, but at least far more fun.

“So, what filter are we going to use on this bad boy?” Eliot waggled his eyebrows as he opened his phone, to a nonexistent Instagram app. He wasn’t on social media. “I think we want one that will highlight the processed orange the most, no?”

Quentin rolled his eyes and grumbled, “Please don’t take stylized pictures of my sandwich to spite Julia. I just wanna eat.”

“You never let me have any fun,” Eliot said, throwing a french fry into Quentin’s hair. The teasing middle finger he got back sparked wider, happier, and more delirious smiles on both their faces, traded back and forth before conversation started to flow with ease. 

It was like it had never gone away.

 


 

Disposable coffee cups in hand, Eliot and Quentin walked the quad, taking the long way toward the library. 

The trees were still, with only a small breeze passing through. The sun shone bright on them, without a hint of the freeze overtaking the rest of the world in that moment. He’d never admit it aloud, but sometimes Eliot missed the change of seasons. It was why he was so insistent on quarterly parties celebrating the passage of time, even if Brakebills itself was about as temperate as Southern California. They did have more rain, he thought absently, staring up at the green leaves overheard. It kept the grounds lush throughout the year.

Quentin, meanwhile, was struggling with grasping some unrelated, yet very basic concepts.

“So it’s a Christmas party,” he said, bringing the black lip of his cup to his mouth, smile forming stubbornly. Eliot sighed.

“No, it’s a winter party,” he said, poking Q on the shoulder once for emphasis. He stood tall as they walked, dragging his usual cigarette up to his lips. “I’d never be so gauche as to celebrate Christmas, my god.”

Quentin’s big eyes frowned, childlike. “Even secularly?”

“Especially secularly,” Eliot said, shaking his arms out like he needed to get the idea off his person. “It’s so gauche.”

“Gauche things are fun,” Quentin said, surprising Eliot not with his words but by taking the cigarette from his hands and smoking it. “You’re missing out on so much.”

His eyes floated down and watched Quentin’s lips wrap around the place his own lips had just been. Everything was a little too hot and dry, his chest too tight. He wondered if he’d ever forget what it felt like to have Quentin’s body under his hands. Ever forget exactly what that mouth felt like, soft and gasping against his. How his pulse raced when they touched—

Shit. Quentin was still talking. He needed to focus.

“You could have, like, candy canes and mistletoe,” Quentin said with a big smile and bright eyes, blissfully unaware of how Eliot’s gaze dropped, again, ever briefly to his lips. But maybe he had a point. “And—and a gingerbread decorating contest? You have to like gingerbread. It’s the law.”

Eliot snorted, a choreographed thing, and took his cigarette back. He tilted it skyward and breathed out smoke like a languous cloud.

“Slippery slope may be a fallacy,” he said, anticipating the shithead off the bat. He was rewarded with a Quentin eye roll and smirk. “But if I allow even a single strand of tinsel into the Cottage, I’m certain I’ll wake up wearing K-Mart cargo pants. I’m sorry, but it’s how it has to be.”

Quentin threw his coffee cup into the magical void and shrugged. “Cargo pants are great.”

“I’m sure they are,” Eliot said, placing a condescending hand on his shoulder. “For you.”

At the real first touch between them in weeks, Quentin jolted, muscles tense. The blood drained from Eliot’s face and his stomach shuddered with uncertainty. But just as he was about to snatch his hand back, like he had touched a burning oven, Q relaxed in toward him with a happy little hum, their hips touching. 

A wave of warmth coursed through his body and every color went blinding bright. He swallowed and pushed his luck, sliding his arm across the expanse of his firm back and wrapping his fingers around him, like a hug. He brushed his thumb up and down the soft fabric, imagining the soft skin underneath.

Then Quentin smiled up at him and the world disappeared.

But in cold reality, the library loomed ahead and it took all his willpower not to gather him into his chest and steal him away, so he never left his sight again. The only consolation was that Quentin also obviously in no hurry to get to work, shuffling his feet and angling even more toward Eliot, his smile turning to a tease. Flirtatious, an annoying back part of Eliot’s brain whispered, stupid and hopeful against all good reason.

“You’re missing out on the pocket space,” Quentin said, quietly. His eyes popped up at Eliot from beneath his lashes. “I can carry, like, all my keys and a book and, uh, you know, anything else I might need that’s also, um, pocket-sized.”

He was so cute. Eliot wanted to devour him, to rip his clothes off and get drunk on his skin. Sharing his atmosphere was exquisite torture. Eliot was such an idiot. He was such a fool.

By then, they were standing on the juncture where the pathway met the library step’s concrete. But they may as well have been on another world altogether for what Eliot gave a fuck about in the moment, with Quentin’s big eyes looking up at him, steady and true. His chest squared toward him, the scent of his cheap minty shampoo and stale smoke wafting in the breeze. His cheeky little expression. Fuck, Eliot had missed every part of him. Still missed too much of him.

( “Eliot,” Quentin breathed against his lips, thumb tracing against the grain of his stubble. “El, you feel so good.”

He kissed him again and again, tongue curling with his. Eliot’s palms traveled up his sides, relishing the lines of his muscles, the soft fabric of his shirt, how even the sand and the seabreeze was nothing but Quentin Quentin Quentin... )

Emboldened without cause, Eliot took another step into his space, watching Q’s eyes darken and heat with wonder. It was a terrible idea, to stoke these fires again. But fuck.

Fuck.

He was just a man.

“You could also carry cutlery,” Eliot said, nonsensically but who gave a shit. His voice was little more than a murmur. “In your pockets.”

Quentin’s breath hitched and his smile went soft. “Good example.”

“I’m chock full of good examples,” he said with a swallow, probably audible, gulping. Wanting. He let out a shaky breath and his heart sped up as Quentin took another step in, making the space between them even smaller. Even closer.

“Yeah?” Q’s eyes didn’t move from his and Eliot couldn’t remember what oxygen even was.

“Yeah,” Eliot croaked out, seeing nothing but Quentin. Quentin, Quentin, Quentin . With a jerky and unsteady motion, his hand reached out and lightly touched the corner of his elbow, a tingling burn on his fingertips. “Hey, blow off studying.”

The shutter closed back over Quentin’s eyes. Shit. He averted his gaze and licked his lips, and Eliot wondered if he could claw his words back with his bloodied hands.

“I shouldn’t,” Quentin said quietly, not backing away, but brows pinching with another hint of hesitation. 

Eliot tightened his grip, not too much, but enough to keep him where he was. But when his fingers wrapped around his arm, Quentin’s eyes fluttered shut and delirious Eliot almost dipped his lips down on his. 

He was pretty sure he could have, that it would have made his point, that Q would have responded the way he wanted (wanted, fuck, he wanted.) At the same time, it wasn’t actually what he was going for, no matter how much all his instincts were screaming at him to follow through, follow through, fucking follow through. He wasn’t actually totally stupid, contrary to most evidence. Deep down, he knew was the easy path to losing Quentin, forever. Not worth it.

… But you know, he was still pretty stupid. And stubborn.

“Do it anyway. Come on,” Eliot said with a cajoling grin. His thumb found another rounded groove under the worn fabric of the trusty sweatshirt. He pressed into it. “We could go for a walk?”

Quentin’s eyes lit up with something unfamiliar before they dipped down to the brick pathway, his hand curving up to rest on his own neck. He shook his head. “El, I—”

Urgency ripped through him like a lion’s claw. He forced a nonchalant and breathy laugh, lightly shaking his arm with a too-big smile. “Oh, come on —”

But the moment wasn’t meant to last, as a booming laugh and a commanding voice interrupted from overhead, calling out with geniality. The greeting wrapped around them like a lasso that pulled and separated. 

Quentin blanched, withdrawing immediately. He snapped his arm away from Eliot and took three large steps backwards, hugging himself. Eliot didn’t even have the time to be concerned when a large, warm hand rested on his shoulder.

“Eliot Waugh, as I live and breathe,” the familiar voice laughed and it only took him a moment to turn his head and register the handsome face of Idri, the King of Encanto Oculto. The one he had definitely, totally planned on fucking but had never, well... 

Gotten around to fucking.

“Idri,” Eliot said, blinking in surprise. He wasn’t overly fond of surprises, but this one was pleasant at least. He smiled and offered the man a quick, tight hug. “What are you doing here?”

Pulling away as fast as Eliot had reeled him in, Idri’s nuanced eyes—bright and deep as he remembered—looked him up and down, before laughing again, like he remembered a joke. He was dressed in a blue and gray suit, looking far more the competent professional he naturally exuded than the absurd (and sexy) furs he wore in Ibiza.

He really was a fine looking man, he mused absently. With that thought though, Eliot swallowed tightly, suddenly acutely aware of Quentin again. 

Q had opened his bag and was shuffling through his mess of papers, like he was looking for something. Eliot highly suspected it was a ruse, borne of social anxiety and maybe—just maybe—something else. A stone of guilt fell into his stomach, when he realized that a tiny and petty and fucked up part of him hoped Q’s sudden retreat was from jealousy.

Really tiny. Practically minuscule.

Eliot shook his head to clear his thoughts and painted on a soft smile. He was being stupid again. No time for that. 

Luckily, if Idri picked up on the change in his mood, he didn’t let on. Instead, he smiled with his bright white teeth and pointed back toward the admin building.

“Henry Fogg and I are good friends. We have some business to attend to, nothing interesting,” Idri said with a shake of his stately head. His eyes finally moved from Eliot to smile gently at Q, who was still neck deep in his bag and shifting on his feet. “Good to see you again, Quentin.”

“Yeah, same,” Quentin said, flat and without looking up. Then he sighed and closed his bag, fortress eyes meeting Eliot’s. “Hey, so, uh, I’m gonna head out.”

The panic exploded in his gut. “But I thought we were—?”

“I really shouldn’t,” Quentin said, his face impassive and chuckle forced. He gave Idri a quick line-mouthed smile. “Plus, this way, you two can catch up.”

Chest wrenching in and out with labored breath, Eliot was a crazed half-second from grabbing him tight and begging him to stay. But all he could manage was a creaky, unstable: “Q—”

“Hope your meetings go well, Idri,” Quentin said, placidly enough as he turned around and walked away. He didn’t look at Eliot again. “I’ll, uh, see you both around.”

The air was colder when the library door slammed and Eliot was certain that he fucked up again. 

Nothing new.

But left alone with Idri, he forced himself to be sociable. He at least had that. He always had that. Eliot raised his eyebrows, holding his hands behind his back as he met his friend’s eyes again. They were a little more puzzled now and maybe a touch exasperated. They stared through Eliot with a look that belied more knowledge than he intended to share.

“He’s a nervous one, isn’t he?” Idri said, though it sounded like it wasn’t all he meant. But he didn’t elaborate when Eliot frowned with a question in his eyes. He just adjusted his tie and smiled at the ground, before turning his head in profile to gaze upon the campus, unperturbed.

“Occasionally,” Eliot responded vaguely, not wanting to dwell on the topic. Then he smiled, shifting course like a pro. “Now, if I had known you were in town, I would have invited you to lunch.”

He would have. Idri was a good connection, in many ways.

“And I would have had to decline,” Idri said, matching his expression. He always mirrored people. It was a good social tactic. “Far too much going on in my corner of the world. But a late dinner perhaps? Tonight?”

Eliot offered a small wince, a polite sadness. “I’m hosting, at the Physical Kids Cottage.”

“A party?” Idri sounded more intrigued by a grad school drinking fest than a middle-aged man should, but Eliot judged no kinks.

“If you’re not opposed to fraternizing with the underlings, you should join us,” he offered, not really expecting him to take him up on it. But surprising him, Idri brightened and eagerly nodded.

“Why, of course, Your Majesty,” he said with a small bow, one arm pressed firm behind his back. His eyes danced up at Eliot and a small wave of attraction ran through him. Gentle, pleasant. Dull. But it was enticing, in its relative safety.

Idri stood straight again and laughed, “From what I understand, I’m on the uncontested sovereign land of the Prince of Brakebills.”

“Ah,” Eliot said, finally putting out what was left of his cigarette. He threw over a shit-eating grin. “So you and Henry have talked about me.”

Prince of Brakebills was probably not the first descriptor Dean Henry Fogg would use in regard to Eliot. 

A few of the more relevant turns of phrase included the A+ alliterative, Arrogant adolescent alcoholic . There was also, Biggest pain in the ass this school has ever seen . One time, Too damn smart and so damn stupid at the same goddamn time . Oh, and his personal favorite, the time Fogg had been talking to Sunderland in a hallway, pointed at a passing—and truly innocent—Eliot, to say, Don’t get me started on that asshole .

Idri let out a booming laugh and fixed Eliot with a wry and winking look. “He certainly feels strongly about you, I can say that.”

“True love, baby,” Eliot quipped and Idri rewarded him with another full laugh. It was nice.

“Well, I would never get between the two of you, but I would be honored to attend a true Eliot Waugh party,” the Encanto King said, before taking one step closer in. His cologne smelled nice, like rosewood and myrrh. “Maybe after, we could… talk. Just the two of us. There’s something I want to propose.”

His eyes were low, fixed on his neck and Eliot’s heart pounded with dread more than desire. It was a weird fucking day. But he knew how to play the game—he was a master at the goddamn game—so he smiled, dazzling, and lowered his own voice, enticing.

“By all means,” Eliot said, before sliding his hand around Idri’s shoulder and walking them through campus, the conversation light and easy and dull and nice.—

 


 

Hours later, preparations were in full-swing, one of Eliot’s favorite states of being. The fizz of magic in the air. The fizz of champagne in glasses. Telekinesis whirling and whirring about. Bottles and lights and music and streams of liquor all dancing like fountains, all moving toward a joint goal of pleasure.

The heady anticipation of a good party—the spark of potential in the air—always made Eliot’s veins run hot, ready to unwrap the mystery of the night. Yet still… always, always wanting to hold off, ever so gentle, ever so subtle. That way he could prolong the sweet release in the build-up, the chaos, the order. The shock wave of fulfillment would come in good time and all the better for the delay, with rapture and bliss taking over all senses.

Eliot took a quick shot of tequila, another taste test. 

He was half-hard in his pants.

There was maybe a slight chance he was still slightly sexually frustrated. 

It was fine.

Obviously, of course, duh, it would be better if he could get it up for his usual array of willing and eager first year boys or even Idri, who had been pretty fucking obvious about his intentions, or really, anyone who wasn’t—

He bit down on his teeth, almost snarling. Eliot didn’t like to dwell on what should have been. It was always better to exist in what was. And it was fine. It was fine.

It was fine.

It was going to be a great fucking party. That was what mattered.

Anyway, in more pertinent matters, he had gotten so caught up in observing the glory of his own work, that he’d forgotten all about Alice Quinn. That is, until she was storming down the stairs, fire blue eyes focused on him in her enraged fury. As always these days, she looked like the most dangerous person in the world. 

Eliot gulped.

Her Mary Janes stomped on the hardwood and she stood in front of him, looking at him dead in the eyes for the first time in almost a month. She glared stone cold, and the ticking clock of the bomb grew louder in his ear. He hoped he hadn’t just sped things up.

Mostly because it would be kind of inconvenient. With the party and all.

Her pink lips pressed down into a line and she crossed her arms. Two little creases formed between her brows and she shook her hips, the black skirt of her babydoll dress swishing as she did.

“Eliot, may I speak with you please?” Alice said, clipped. His throat closed over itself as his heart dropped.

Shit.

But before he could collect himself enough to respond, she glanced over at the lovebirds on the couch behind him—wrapped up in themselves more than anything Eliot was doing. She softened, going hesitant herself.

She bit her lip. “Hello, Julia. Margo.”

Bambi’s response was bored, at worst. Nothing different than usual, with a yawn and a lazy wave. “Hey Elsa.”

But Julia glanced up at her and offered nothing more than an aggressive smile before looking away like no intrusion had ever impeded her. Alice deflated, but shook her head and turned her cautious eyes back on Eliot.

“May I speak with you?” She repeated, tapping her foot. She sucked her cheeks in and cleared her throat. “In private?”

Eliot stared down at his cranberry mint julep pitcher, as though it would anthropomorphically speak out in defense. Like, Sorry, Alice, but Eliot has to attend to me, a sentient drink that will be thoughtlessly devoured by blood-thirsty revelers, and whoa, this got dark, huh? But alas, his salvation never came. Traitorous cocktail.

So instead, he put down the shaker and nodded, a quick and confident thing before following her over to the nook of the hallway.

He let out a long stream of air from his lips as he walked the plank.

Earlier, he had sent her a small token of his affection and esteem. She wouldn’t talk to him, so it had been the only way to reach her. But by the stormy and enraged look on her face, it hadn’t necessarily been taken in the spirit it was meant. The sick pool of dread at the pit of his stomach grew and grew.

… She was probably going to murder-blast him into another world before the year was out. He should go kiss Margo once, as a bittersweet farewell.

The low light of the cramped corner played shadows off her face. Her lower lip was minced between her teeth by the time she stood still, facing him with tight fists.

“Did you use psychic magic on me?” Alice blurted out. It was the last question he expected. He should have been used to the strange nonsequiturs by now, but his eyebrows disappeared into his curls regardless.

Eliot frowned and responded the only way he could, no matter how much it made him sound like Q. “Uh, what?”

“For the flowers,” Alice clarified, stomping her foot once. Her face was lined in accusation. “Did you use psychic magic?”

A flare of defensive pride lit up in his stomach and he matched her crossed arms measure for measure. He snorted. “I can’t stress enough that I would never use psychic magic. Even if I was capable, it’s the principle of the thing.”

“Then how did you know that pink roses are my favorite?” Alice asked, jutting her chin upward, like she had finally caught him in his dark web of lies.

The cold tension in his body melted and his heart expanded with a rush of affection for her. He had missed her.

“Call it a lucky hunch,” he said, his arms falling to his side with a soft smile. Alice sniffed, her eyes flashing through a thousand complex emotions before she puckered her lips.

She sniffed again.

“They’re lovely. Thank you,” Alice said, brushing non-existent dust from her skirt. “I plan on using a preserving charm on them.”

“I’m glad, Alice,” Eliot said, risking a soft press of his hand to her bare arm. She flinched away like his touch was acid. Okay.

Her dark brows lowered over her neon eyes. “You were a huge jerk to me.”

Eliot swallowed down his instinct to say, Maybe you shouldn’t be sleeping with the enemy then . He closed his eyes and cracked his neck, taking a deep breath. It was time to turn over new leaves, grow whole new species of flora if he fucking had to.

“I know,” he said, with as much remorse as he could muster. He did feel bad for having hurt Alice. She was a good person and had been a good friend. Her piss poor taste in partners had nothing to do with anything.

Repeat, repeat, repeat.

Alice adjusted her glasses and peered up at him. “Is that your apology?”

“The apology was on the card,” Eliot said tight and through his teeth, refusing to say the words she wanted aloud. Come the fuck on.

“No, it wasn’t,” Alice said, her nose scrunching and lips twisting. “The card just said, To my favorite blonde. xx Eliot .”

He wanted a cigarette. But Alice always got pissy when he smoked cigarettes. His fingers twitched at his side.

“Exactly,” Eliot said with a shrug. Alice’s whole face narrowed to an angry point.

“That’s not an apology. It’s a nothing,” she said, heading ticking back and forth every other word. “At worst, it’s borderline objectifying.”

Eliot sighed, rubbing his hands down his face. “It was obviously implied.”

“Apologies aren’t something you imply.”

“Look, Alice,” he growled out, throwing a fist up to his temple. He gave her the most serious look he could. “You know how I feel about Kady and what happened. Or, at least, you understand in theory. Frankly, as someone who wasn’t there, I’m not sure you can totally, truly, honestly get it. But—“

But Alice frowned, cutting him off. “That’s fair.”

Eliot blinked, trying to hide his surprise at her agreement. He failed. “Wait, really?”

She nodded, eyes unfocused as though in thought. “Yes. It’s easy for me to come in months later, only hearing stories and knowing that Quentin is fine, and judge your lingering distrust as an overreaction.”

Eliot licked his lips, pulse thumping. “Yeah.”

Alice tilted her head, like a mechanical doll. “I’m sure actually experiencing it was harrowing. I’ve grown to care about Quentin too and the thought of someone hurting him, even by accident, is definitely—“

“I don’t want to talk about that,” Eliot spat out, nausea building from his stomach and reaching—scratching—up his throat. He averted his eyes and felt his jaw muscles pop arrhythmic. He started to pull away, when a gentle French manicured hand landed on his forearm.

“I’m sorry,” Alice said, quietly. Then she set her jaw again, eyes flashing with strength and resolve. “Not for dating Kady. I think you also need to understand that I am coming from a different perspective and it’s one that is just as valid as yours.”

He knew it was. He knew it. But he couldn’t—he couldn’t admit that. Not yet. Maybe not ever. 

But he cared about her. Because for whatever fucking dumb reason he had allowed his heart to open again, since he truly was so stupid. So instead of choking out some meaningless platitude, he just nodded, not looking at her. It was the best he could do.

“But I don’t think I considered yours enough either,” she said, letting her blonde hair fall in front of her face, like a shield. So much like Q. “Because it was painful and confusing. I was finding happiness and your pain didn’t fit that. It’s a hard reality to face.”

Eliot’s chest tightened, though he wasn’t sure with what. “Alice—“

“I’m willing to let bygones be bygones, if you are,” she said, looking him in the eyes. The light in her was blinding, even as her fingers fidgeted. “I’ve—I’ve missed you.”

He could tell that was as hard for her to say as it would be for him. That sparked his own real smile and he tapped her hand with his, a gentle affirmation. She sneaked a tiny grin up at him in turn. She turned her palm over and held his hand, a firm pressure and promise.

She was so lovely.

(He ignored the angry screaming in his roiling gut, the cold rush of anger curling his toes. He was better than his worst instincts.)

(... He could try to be better than his worst instincts.)

“I’m having a party at the Cottage tonight,” Eliot said, hand squeezing hers. “If you… and Kady would like to attend, I would be happy to welcome you both.”

Alice twisted her lips, genuinely perplexed. “You can’t really invite us to a party held at our own home.”

“I’m trying here, Alice,” Eliot said, cupping her cheek with his free hand and sighing. Thankfully, it made her smile.

“Okay,” she said, almost shy. She nodded and squeaked. “We’ll be there.”

“Great,” he said, bringing her knuckles up to his lips and kissing once. “It’s a date.”

She smiled like the sun and Eliot ignored, ignored, ignored the bubbling fury building in his chest. This was a good thing. All was well. Or at least, the storm had passed.

... Sure, let's go with that.

 


 

As the music crested and the lights dipped low, the party thrummed around him as Eliot put the finishing touches on his first cocktail of the night, an edible holly leaf garnish enchanted to taste like winsomeness. He cast his gaze around, taking in the splendor. 

Apropos of nothing, he definitely considered it a sign of personal growth that the snowflakes glittering down from the Cottage ceiling were one of his lovely illusion charms, rather than cocaine. Last time, that hadn’t gone so well and thus, he learned his lesson. Cause and effect, and all that.

Maturity, thy name was Eliot Waugh.

Because even without* nose candy, the party was a smash. It was perfectly raucous and glittering with magic, both real and from the inherent energy of a crowd. Laughter pealed out happily and beautiful bodies writhed as they danced, giddy and tipsy in all the best ways. He had pulled it off, again. Not that he expected less, but it still felt damn good.

(*Okay, more like without quite as easily accessible nose candy . Come on, it wasn’t the sixteenth century. No puritans in sight, thank you very much.)

He savored his victory and sipped his wintery julep. It was sweet and bitter to taste, with a magical firewood scent wafting off the top as the coup de grace. 

But it wasn’t long until his gaze betrayed him. 

Without conscious effort, Eliot passed over all the gorgeous details, the rising smoke and tricks of light. He looked passed the disco balls and the elaborate ice sculptures and the makeshift early orgy by the fire. He even only briefly stopped to look at his Bambi, who was decked out in black fur and thigh-high boots like a goddamn queen. Because even with that grounding sight, he was barely able to keep his own limbs steady as his synapses fired out, overwhelmed.

His party was an unprecedented success, but all he cared to look at was a sweet nerd in a tweed sports coat and blue button down, frowning up at the falling fake snow like it held all the mysteries of magic. 

With his hands in a frame and a small notepad on his lap, Quentin looked at the spell from every angle, trying to solve it, even though he knew all he had to do was ask Eliot for the incantation, specifications, and circumstances. But that wasn’t Q. He had to figure it out himself, right there, squatting on a couch, the centered and studious calm in the middle of a rollicking party.

Eliot loved him.

Not a revelation or anything, but there it was.

He tore his eyes away, his heart reluctant but brain reasonable. Nothing had changed. If anything, everything had gotten way worse and proved his original point. But still. But still . It was there, no matter what he did.

Water wet, sky blue, Eliot cliched.

Sending his glass off to the kitchen, he took a deep breath and swallowed the feeling away. Weakness acknowledged, he thought, on autoplay. The words were more hollow than usual, but he shook it off. Really, the world had seen enough sentimental maudlin nonsense from him for the next good decade.

Time to buck the fuck up.

Thankfully, Eliot didn’t need to dwell on it much longer because a strong arm wrapped around his shoulder and a booming warm laugh filled his ear.

“Oh, Eliot,” Idri said, grinning at him without further adieu. He squeezed his arm tight. “This is well done . Well done, indeed.”

A bubble of happiness rose in his chest at the praise and Eliot pressed a quick kiss to the top of Idri’s bald head, a warm and grateful affection. “I live to serve.”

“Is this for a special occasion?” Idri asked, surveying the room with a keen gaze. “How long did you plan?”

“Spur of the moment,” Eliot answered honestly, calling over two new glasses. The men clinked happily before drinking. “I felt like the campus needed some cheering up, et voila.”

“Your reputation is well deserved,” Idri said, before ducking his head with serious eyes. “And well earned. Please know that at least one person recognizes your tireless work here.”

God, if that recognition didn’t feel good. 

It always took so much out of him, to create these beautiful diversions. But he had so carefully perfected his effortless way, that all his work and care seemed lost on even the people closest to him. His throat tightened with feeling as he took a sip of his drink and nodded, forcing himself to stand tall. Idri deserved nothing less.

“I appreciate that,” Eliot said. Idri patted his shoulder and pulled away, twirling toward the dance floor.

“Join me for a spin?” Idri asked, holding out his hand. Eliot sighed and shook his head, hoping he looked regretful.

“A host’s work is never done,” he said, stretching his arms out wide. It was half-truthful. He did like to keep a close eye on things. But really, he just didn’t… want to dance with Idri. Couldn’t even imagine it.

His heart ached.

( Their lips almost touched before Quentin hummed out a laugh and settled his cheekbone against his .

“You’re a good dancer, El,” he whispered against his ear lobe .)

At Idri’s final laugh and wave as the crowd swept him away, Eliot finished his drink with shaky hands. 

He placed the glass on a stone coaster, because he wasn’t sure he’d find the path to the kitchen at the moment. He rested his hip against the edge of the coffee table to catch his breath. He stood in his weakness, the tear and pull of his chest, before he gave into his temptation and stole a look over to what he always wanted to see.

But Quentin was gone.

 


 

No matter how raucous and debaucherous a party, once everyone was good and drunk, it was common for tiny pockets of friends to form along couches and floors. 

Of course, Eliot was a dynamic creature at heart. But once he settled into a celebration, even he could admit the quiet joy of a group giggling over magical weed. And right then, the world was soft enough along the edges, in the Cottage’s golden light, that even he could admit that the urge to connect, human-to-human, was stronger than any drug or any dancefloor could ever hope to be. 

It was equal parts tipsy bullshit and fundamental truth. His favorite.

Seated on the floor with his elbows on the couch behind him and beside Idri, Eliot took in the pink-flushed and happy faces of his friends—plus some randoms and Todd—as they argued over Bambi’s contribution to the latest drinking game.

“They’re all lies,” Julia said with a cackling laugh, doubling over onto her crossed legs. “You’re a fucking liar. You broke the game.”

Margo smirked and rolled her head back, smoking a joint between two perfectly straight fingers. “I’ll break anything I goddamn want, but two are true. I swear it.”

From beside her, Todd furrowed his stupid little plucked eyebrows and tapped his chin with an index finger. “Can you say them again? They were kinda long and I’m trying to form a calculation in my head, but—”

“No,” Bambi said, sliding her cool gaze over to him. Her red lips pursed and really, Todd should have seen this coming. “I don’t repeat myself.”

But from beside Julia, Quentin tucked his knees under his chin and frowned, staring off into the distance. “I think the lie is the one about the Russian circus. She always orders lattes at the coffee shop, so the detail about the semen in the macchiato throws the story off.”

He was right. The Russian story was total bullshit and Bambi had peppered in one small hint to give it away. Q was the Riddlemaster. Eliot tucked his lip between his teeth to hide a smile, swirling his melting ice in his glass as a distraction.

(There was still no sign of Alice, he realized, as he looked up and around the room. His chest clenched and winds blew in the distance.)

“Final answer, Coldwater?” Bambi’s face tilted into a sly serpent smile. Quentin stared into the abyss for two seconds before nodding.

“Correct!” Margo said with a bright yelp in the air, passing the joint over to Julia. She glared at her girlfriend, without heat. “I fuckin’ hate macchiatos. How do you not know this about me?”

“Well, to be fair, I genuinely thought they were all lies,” Julia said, relighting the tip of the joint with her tiny and quick fingers before puffing twice. Then she pulled her lips down into a sheepish, impish grimace, “But if that one wasn’t, I thought it was maybe, like, the origin story of why you hate macchiatos?”

That made Margo laugh, a true and happy sound, and she rested her forehead on Julia’s shoulder. 

“No, they’re just bad,” she said. Her eyes twinkled when she looked up and scrunched her nose in Julia’s face, before she turned her slightly less warm eyes over to Quentin. “But okay, your turn, Q. Everyone else take a shot or a toke.”

Eliot opted for bourbon, courtesy of the small grouping of shot glasses next to Idri’s feet. He and Margo preferred drinking games that got everyone drunker sooner than later.

“Okay,” Quentin said, rubbing his hands together. His eyes brightened as he looked around, small smile on his face. He was always all in when it came to games. “I’ve got some good ones.”

“They have to actually be good, Quentin,” Margo said, exasperated. “Not whatever you think good is.”

He twisted his face and glared at her. “Uh, I understand the rules.”

“No, dipshit, I mean don’t be a boring nerd,” she said, leaning over and swatting at his foot. “At least two of them have to be personal and not your opinions on sci-fi and fantasy.”

It was an extremely fair restriction to put on him.

“Fine,” Quentin said with a deep frown, passing the joint to Eliot without smoking. The gears in his head turned and Eliot could see him recalibrating as their fingers brushed against each other. “Fine. Give me a second then.”

After a moment, Q took a deep breath and sat up, pulling his legs under him into one of his weird, uncomfortable looking squats that he loved so much. “Alright. So, uh, the first one is that despite my dating record, I consider myself a solid 2.5 or 3 on the Kinsey scale. The second is that my least favorite season of Buffy is season six—”

“That’s the only one, Q,” Margo warned, cutting him off. He flipped her off.

“—and the final one is that I once got stuck in a bowling gutter for three hours and now most of my nightmares are in some way or another, uh, bowling alley related.”

Ah. The Bowling Incident. Definitely a truth. Eliot popped the joint in his mouth and breathed in. He tried not to get too soppy at the idea of a tiny Quentin, sweet and melancholy and just so terrible at anything that required gross motor skills. He had probably been wishing he could play with his cards the whole time until someone forced him to take a turn, forever solidifying his hatred of anything even slightly athletic. It was too adorable. It made his whole body light up with affection.

Meanwhile, Julia played to win, so she snorted and kicked at Q, devious smile on her face. “Jesus, you made it too easy. Kinsey is the lie.”

“Final answer?” Quentin asked, impassive. He had the best poker face. It was hot. At his cool and expressionless face, Julia started to open her mouth, smug and wide, when words poured out of Eliot before he could stop them.

“I’m gonna contest that,” he said, and Quentin’s stare popped over to him, still not giving anything away. Julia frowned and crossed her arms. Eliot cleared his throat. “Ah, I think Buffy is the lie.”

“Explain your reasoning,” Julia said, annoyed. Eliot shrugged.

“Season six is his secret favorite,” he said through another puff of the joint before passing it to Idri. He could have sworn he saw Quentin’s lips quirk up. “He hates season four. He doesn’t even like Hush because of its ‘context.’ Which is bonkers, for the record.”

Idri frowned and tilted his head. “I think season four is underrated.”

“It’s not,” Quentin spat out, giving himself away. Julia deflated and gave Eliot a sharp, slightly too intense glare, before shrugging at Q and downing a shot.

“Guess I’m not up on my Quentin nerd facts,” she said, deceptively light. “I’ll have to do a refresher course.”

“El’s turn,” Quentin said, not quite looking at him as he smiled at his hands. “This should be good.”

“Except I’m not playing,” Eliot said with a long sigh. He kicked his legs out into the center of the circle, impervious to the jeers and boos around him. It had all been fun to watch, but he wasn’t up for spinning any stories.

But then a particularly devious thought hit him and he turned to his least favorite member of the group with an innocent glow in his eyes. “Todd, it’s a real shame that you haven’t gone yet. Take one for the team, hm?”

He had told Idri all about how ridiculous Todd was. It was time for him to see it in action, since he didn’t quite believe it. Apparently, Henry Fogg had raved about Todd as one of the brightest minds at Brakebills. He had even said he was a real possible successor to the deanship, somewhere down the road.

Fucking absurd.

“Wow. Yeah, I’d love to. Thanks, Eliot!” Todd said with a big, bright smile. 

Eliot caught eyes with Idri and snorted. The older man’s lips spasmed once, before he set his face forward, in a serious listening pose. Todd held his hands out excitedly and he bounced his knees, as he thought through his two truths and a lie, with every ounce of effort in his worthless brain.

Eventually, he took the last deep breath he would die quite some time… and Idri’s eyebrows raised higher and higher up his smooth head as the monologuing commenced:

“Okay, so my first one is that one time, I was super into this girl, right? Even though my mom was like, I’m not sure about her, Toddy, she seems like a not nice girl and I said, Mom, fucking chill, bro. Well, no, I didn’t say that, I’m a good son. But it would have been funny, right? Calling my mom bro ? Classic. Anyway, I told her that she didn’t need her to worry because Nina—her name was Nina, so sometimes I called her mi niña and she really hated that, like, a lot. Anyways, then she said she was, uh, in need of a kidney? Urgently? Like, she needed a kidney in two days, she said?”

One breath broke through.

“To be totally real with you guys, I gotta day she didn’t seem super sick, but I had recently learned that it’s ableist to assume that someone isn’t sick just because they don’t look sick. Important stuff, not making light of it. Truth to power. Anyway, so because I didn’t want to be ableist, I didn’t question it. Meaning, obviously, since I was in love with her and wanted to do her a solid, I magically extracted my kidney and gave it to her, uh, in a Disney’s Tangled themed cooler. It was pink with Rapunzel and a pretty good looking dude, for a cartoon, standing back-to-back with their arms crossed and her hair was, like, holding a bunch of shit and there was a frog on her shoulder or something? I’ve never seen that movie. Anyways—”

“What the hell?” Julia narrowed her eyes and coughed over the joint. “This is the lie, right?”

“It’s way too specific to be a lie,” Margo said, head tilted like she was observing a distasteful old timey freak show.

“—spoiler alert! She sold it,” Todd finished with big wide eyes and a laugh. Idri took a long sip of his drink and sparked a quick amused glance at Eliot as the absurd speciman of a human kept fucking talking.

“Anyway, my second truth or lie is that when I was five, I had, like, a major epidemic of warts. But it turned out, they were magical warts and it was really, uh, how I discovered that I had a reserve of energy within me, even though I couldn’t do magic until my second semester at Brakebills—”

“How the fuck did you pass The Trials?” Quentin asked, face scrunched in genuine confusion and interest.

“That’s a whole other story, way less interesting than my magic warts though,” Todd said, starting to take off his shoes. “Here, I’ll show you what I mean, because the leftover scars are a real befuddlement in and of themselves—”

“Todd,” Margo said, sharply. “What’s the thing I always say about you? You’re doing it again.”

His shoulders slumped and his smile dimmed a little. “That I say three boring things every time I open my mouth.”

“That’s right,” Margo said, purring. “So let’s be a little more efficient.”

Todd brought hands up to his lips, palms flat against each other like a prayer. He bowed once and quickly. “You’re very terrifying.”

Margo shimmied her shoulders. “I know. Be better.”

A hit of wit slammed into Eliot’s chest and he winked at Idri. He’d appreciate this, if the barely concealed laughter swimming in his tense muscles was any indication.

“Hmm, that works out. Because that’s definitely his lie,” he said, wrapping his lips around a newly appeared bong with perfect suction. He was well practiced. He breathed in, bubbling, before tilting his head back and letting the magic smoke course into his lungs. He blew fireworks out his mouth. 

“He doesn’t say three boring things every time he opens his mouth,” Eliot clarified with a wicked grin. “Not at all.”

Todd shook his head, smiling sycophantically. “I really, really appreciate the kind words, but that wasn’t actually my final Truth or Lie story. It’s just something Margo makes me acknowledge whenever I—”

Rakish as he ever was, Eliot handed the bong over to the next set of hands, before fluttering his lashes right at Todd’s dumb face.

“But I know you would never limit yourself like, not when you obviously have such infinite boring stories to regale us with,” he said, leaning back on his palms and cracking his neck. His smile widened. “I believe in you, Todd.”

Idri lost it, the laughter tumbling out along with residual smoke. Across from him, Margo ran her tongue over her smiling teeth, giggling back. Todd’s eyes dipped down briefly, before popping back up at Eliot, good-humored as ever. He was such a chump.

“That’s a good one, Eliot,” he said, wringing his hands and nodding. He swallowed, looking off to the side. “I especially like how you brought in what I say to people in the morning. Extra clever. Kudos, man.”

Meanwhile, Idri placed his big hand on the space between his upper thigh and knee, and gave Eliot the biggest smile he’d seen yet, with an edge of desire in his eyes. “You weren’t joking when you said you perfected the art of the bite.”

Eliot gasped, holding his hand to his chest, the rush of flirting pumping blood through his veins. “I would never joke about biting, good sir.”

“Jesus Christ, do you always have to be such a dickhead?”

He rolled his eyes at the inevitable wet blanket words, from the other side of the circle. Eliot snapped his face over at Julia with a sharp retort of his own on his tongue...

… Until reality settled on his teetering bones.

It hadn’t been her voice.

Blinking back blurred confusion, Eliot slowly turned his head until he met the hot and flashing stone eyes of a furious Quentin Coldwater. 

Blood rushed and thumped in his ears as all his confidence reserves failed him. His voice was pathetically weak as he let out a small, nervous laugh.

“What?” Eliot swallowed, one hand splaying on the ground for stability and the other dipping into his waistcoat for his flask. He had a feeling he would need it.

“You’re being a dickhead,” Quentin repeated, more vicious than Eliot even knew he was capable of sounding. “Again.”

Eliot blinked, looking around the circle at the people he gave even a slight shit about. He saw Todd’s face jump into shock. Idri looked passively amused and concerned, and Margo’s eyes sharpened like a hunter, ready to pounce as necessary. Only Julia remained unmoved, as though this was nothing extraordinary. She pressed her lips into a line and kept her dark brown eyes on Quentin, steady and only slightly cautious.

Eliot forced another laugh, to diffuse the tension. “It’s—not that serious, Q.”

“Yeah, because nothing’s fucking serious to you,” Quentin said, spitting down into his fidgeting hands. His cheeks were burning red. “Do you understand that your words don’t exist in a vacuum? That they can affect and hurt people? I know in your head it’s always the fucking Eliot Waugh Show and we’re all supposed to act like we’re goddamn privileged to bear witness—”

Enough.

Eliot was the master of self-berating, but he’d be damned if he was going to let one of his best parties be dragged down by this bullshit. He was sure he deserved whatever he’d done to spark this colossally cunty response from Quentin, and he fully acknowledged that. But it didn’t mean the others should have to put up with it.

“Quentin,” he said, keeping his voice low and firm. “Let’s talk in private, okay?”

But Quentin just laughed, a high-pitched and hysterical sound. Julia flinched, her hand reaching out to him, but he stood and pushed her away. He ran his fingers through his hair and glared down at Eliot, his teeth almost bared.

“No. Fuck that. I don’t want to talk to you,” Quentin snapped out, each word a lash against Eliot’s heart. He offered back a tight smile at Q, trying to keep his shit together, and he opened his flask. The liquor slid down his throat easily.

Which was good, because Quentin wasn’t done. “Everyone deserves better than your shit. Margo and Julia deserve better. Alice deserves better. Todd deserves better—”

At the siren call of his own name, Todd perked up. He walked over slowly, like he was approaching a scratchy cat in heat, and placed a tentative hand on Q’s shoulder. “Quentin, hey, I appreciate what you’re trying to do here, but it’s fine. Eliot and I are cool.”

“No, you’re not,” Quentin said, with a sputtering sound from the side of his mouth. “He fucking hates you, Todd.”

Todd recoiled like he was slapped, and that made Eliot want to slap the shit out of Quentin , mostly for making him feel sympathy for Todd of all fucking people . It certainly didn’t help that at Todd’s stricken expression, Quentin just threw his hands up in the air and shrugged like, Welp, what are you gonna do ?

Eliot narrowed his eyes and put on his best warning voice. “Q.”

“No, no. Eliot doesn’t—” Todd smiled, before it faltered, like he was thinking through the statement and reaching a brand new conclusion. He blinked and shook his head before turning mournful eyes right on him. “Wait, you—you hate me?”

Eliot wanted to say it was an overstatement.

But.

Well.

He widened his eyes helplessly at Bambi, as though she could save him. “I—”

“Because I thought we were, like, friends,” Todd continued, his boyish face crumpling. “You know, friends who give each other shit. Or, well, where you give me shit, but I didn’t think—”

Quentin grabbed his drink from the floor and a finished all of it in a single gulp. He swallowed heavily and shook his head, finger wagging in the air. It was not a series of motions that portended good things.

“Oh, no, he hates you. I can personally expound on the many, many ways he hates you. And, uh, spoiler alert,” Quentin cupped his hands around his mouth and mock-whispered, “ all of them are really goddamn petty .”

“Oh,” Todd said, staggering backward. His face fell and Eliot felt like the biggest piece of shit.

… Well, the second biggest piece of shit, he thought pettily , glaring over at Quentin. But Q just stared him down, fully remorseless. The thick silence rang heavy in his ears and Quentin started to pace, snapping his eyes away from Eliot and wrenching his hand into his hair.

“But the real fucking problem—” he started to say, but a stronger presence cut him off, hard.

“Shut the fuck up, Quentin,” Margo said, flat and quiet. She stood without touching the ground, her eyes stabbing him. “You’re not accomplishing what you want to accomplish here.”

His shoulders slumped and he rubbed the space between his brows, sighing. Eliot felt an inexplicable rush of sympathy for him and an even more inexplicable urge to wrap his arms around him, to tell him that it was okay. But his pounding heart, furious and shell shocked, kept him grounded on the floor, drinking away the whole damn scene in front of him.

“I’m not trying to accomplish anything, Margo,” Quentin said, rough and low. “I’m—I’m just tired.”

“Then go to bed,” Bambi said, with neither warmth nor anger. Quentin didn’t give her the same courtesy.

“You know I meant existentially,” he snapped.

Margo’s most dangerous growl returned. “Go to bed anyway.”

“I don’t want to go to bed,” Quentin said, petulant as a motherfucker. It snapped Eliot out of his frozen numbness and a hot spike of anger ripped through him. He let out a cold laugh, expelling his freeze.

“Congratulations,” Eliot hissed up at him and Quentin’s face turned slowly toward him, uncharacteristically viper like. He didn’t care. “You’re as emotionally evolved as a t