It's pretty clear that they specifically design the Brakebills entrance exam to be disorienting, and that's – whatever, they're trying to make their little point about magic and pain or whatever, or in a charitable reading trying to prepare students for the unraveling of the philosophical underpinnings of their worldview. Fine, Quentin gets it. He's not the biggest fan, but he sees what they're going for.
In Quentin's case, it's just such fucking overkill, but that's his typical bad luck.
He's a mess from the second he stumbles onto the lawn, lashing himself for the stupid fight with Julia, sunk in a weird, dark place from coming face-to-face with a dead body, anxious about losing his grip on reality, and hot-prickly-jittery-cranky from being on the cusp of a heat cycle. He's already disoriented. He's kind of permanently unraveled in general, but that day specifically is – not great.
Apparently he's also late, at least according to the tall, sexy alpha they send to collect him. It's both embarrassing and infuriating, because Quentin wasn't letting himself be late, he hates being late to things, he didn't know about any of this, and that should be obvious? But the alpha still cuts his eyes judgmentally up and down Quentin's body like Quentin is transparently messy, and not like– Quentin is Ivy League, you know? He's not incompetent at stuff, he can handle himself under normal circumstances. (There's a hospital bill in his messenger bag that he's supposed to send to his father that Quentin's not thinking about, but – it's not relevant, it's not – Quentin still would have been here on time if he'd known he was scheduled for an exam.) That part is infuriating; the embarrassing part is that Quentin gets wet when he does it, and he knows it has to be scentable.
Well, whatever, it's not Quentin's problem if – Eliot? It's Eliot, right? – takes something meaningful away from that, because it doesn't mean anything other than Quentin is less than a week away from starting his heat, and his body is hypersensitive to certain things. This isn't junior high, after all, with alphas and omegas presenting without warning and everyone freaking out about it. They're adults, they're college graduates. Everybody should have figured out biology by now.
Magic, not so much.
Stupid fight notwithstanding, Quentin is so glad to see Julia in the crowd, and when they hug after the exam he drops his face right into her neck and breathes in her clean, neutral beta scent like a big, weird dog, but it's just – so grounding. The test room is insane with hormones, way more than Quentin is used to, and he doesn't think it's just his hair-trigger nose. Statistically speaking, in a room like this there should be maybe a dozen secondaries at best, a few more alphas than omegas; all graduate schools skew a little alpha. Quentin can't figure out why Brakebills should be any different, but Quentin's senses are telling him that practically everyone around him is a secondary, which is – so, so weird. And crazy uncomfortable.
He doesn't have time to explain that to Julia before they're whisked apart, and he doesn't have time to apologize for earlier, either, which he was planning to do, even though – he's not sure he was in the wrong. He doesn't care about being right anymore, he just wants some outpost of normalcy, something he understands. Julia being vaguely snotty and superior about her amazing, unmessy life is at least familiar, which – Quentin doesn't mean quite the way it sounds, but is nevertheless not untrue.
And then Quentin does magic while a strange alpha yells at him, and he's still hot-prickly and anxious and insecure and generally a mess, but he's also – a Magician. Apparently.
It's the most incredible thing that's ever happened to Quentin, in every possible sense of the word, and all he wants to do is den himself into a closet for like fifty years, until things calm down and he can think, which he can't do because for some reason (for no reason?) his tall, sexy (what is it about Brakebills guys, like seriously, this is not in Quentin's heat-cooked head, right? They're all like this?) beta roommate just instantly despises him, and Quentin doesn't want to make things worse by forcing a personal-space conversation right now. It'll have to happen before Quentin goes into heat, but he's willing to kick this can down the road at least a day or two.
They don't seem to encourage leaving the Brakebills campus more than entirely necessary, so Quentin has no idea where he's supposed to den, and it's a time-sensitive issue. His heats are usually super regular, but he feels it coming on faster than normal this time, probably because he's in proximity to all these goddamn alphas at once.
He doesn't mean it like that – goddamn alphas. He likes alphas fine. He likes alphas plenty. But he likes music, too, and that doesn't mean he wants to hear fifty different songs blared in his ear all at once. He tells himself it'll be less intense when he's on the other side of the cycle, or he'll adjust to it, or hopefully both.
Meanwhile he stays in his room, pleading exhaustion. Penny leaves, slamming the door, and Quentin crawls all the way under his blankets, tucking his head under the pillow to block out the light. But this is good, right? This is still good, this is – they're going to teach him magic. He's not dealing well with how chaotic all of this is, but he'll adjust, and he'll handle it.
He can usually handle things, if he gives himself enough time to process. He doesn't end up in the fucking asylum every time something comes along to surprise him.
There must be a cafeteria or a commissary or something, because before it gets dark, Julia shows up with a chicken Caesar wrap and a bottle of Sprite. “You need anything?” she asks as he crawls out from under his shitty blanket den and takes the food from her.
“I don't know,” he says. “No. I'm okay. Do you know if there's – like a doctor on campus? I need to figure out how to get my prescriptions here.”
“There's a clinic. Didn't you get a campus map?” Julia says, because sure, Quentin would be asking her this basic question if he already had the answer to it, that sounds so like him. Whatever, he's not going to snap at Julia again. He just give her a flat look, and she looks a little apologetic. She pats his knee and says, “There's a whole orientation weekend starting tomorrow, and a required session just for secondaries first thing in the morning. I bet they'll talk to you about the suppressant situation then.”
He was thinking more about the antidepressants than the suppressants, but sure. Both are important. “Great,” he says. “I guess I should – rest up for that. Hey, is your roommate also a huge dick, by any chance?”
“I mean, a little?” Julia laughs. “I don't know, you might like her. She's kind of your type.”
“I have a type?” Quentin says.
“You know,” Julia says with a little shrug. “Mean alphas.”
“I don't like – mean alphas,” Quentin says. Does he? He's only ever been with one alpha, and he wasn't mean, just. Kind of matter-of-fact. Whatever, it's not a character flaw to like sex just for sex. It's not like Quentin was pining for the guy, he was just. A good person to call, especially at certain times.
But then Quentin thinks about earlier this afternoon, the alpha on the lawn with the cigarette dangling between his fingers. How he'd looked at Quentin like he was only very, very possibly not a total waste of time, and how Quentin had gone flushed and slick and wanted to prove--
Whatever, that was just. Hormones and proximity, not some kind of kink for people with shitty personalities. He'd much prefer to fuck someone – you know, nice. Maybe even someone who's mate material, as long as they're okay with taking things slow. Quentin doesn't have his whole life planned out like Julia does (like Julia did?), but he likes school, and he's good at it. He can see himself being happy in academia, and it's a rare enough thing that Quentin can see anything making him happy, so he's not going to just blow that off for a bite and some puppies. He thinks he'd like that stuff too, but – later. For now, matter-of-fact suits Quentin fine.
Of course, he guesses he's not going to be an academic after all. He's going to be a Magician, so – holy shit.
“What are you going to do about James?” Quentin asks.
Julia blinks for a second, and she doesn't say it, but Quentin would bet the house that she's just now remembering that James exists. “Uh – I don't know,” she says. “The hell with him, I guess? Q, we're going to be Magicians.”
Her smile is incandescent, and faintly terrifying. If Quentin does have a thing for a little streak of mean, he guesses it's not limited to alphas. “Okay,” Quentin says, because – like, fuck it? James is a friend, but people break up, it's not the end of the world. “So, we – yeah. Holy shit.”
Julia starts to laugh, and Quentin can't help letting her enthusiasm bolster his mood, because they're doing this, holy shit, they're going to be Magicians.
Quentin's unraveled for a lot worse causes. He can handle a little bit of chaos for this.
In the morning Quentin's mood stays steady, buoyed up by the thrill of fucking Magician school even though his body is still prickly and sweaty and generally gross in all the ways that they skip right over when they're making heat porn. He barely has time to find the cafeteria and eat a bowl of off-brand Froot Loops before he makes it to the lecture hall where he's supposed to be at nine o'clock with all the other incoming omegas.
There are eight others, which is insane, that's so many more omegas than Quentin's ever been in a single classroom with. They're only like five percent of the population. Quentin sits by himself; everyone's sitting as close to by themselves as they can, most of them with notebooks and pens at the ready, keeping their eyes to themselves. Part of Quentin thinks that maybe they should be – developing some kind of camaraderie? But he's the last person to get that ball rolling. He's never had close omega friends before, not because he believes what they say about unmated omegas only seeing each other as competition or whatever, just. He doesn't know, he gets nervous? He gets nervous with everyone, but it's worse with omegas. He always suspects they're like – good at being omegas in a way that Quentin is highly aware he himself is not. Most of them seem so poised, so comfortable with their own value, so – not suicidal. Sorry, can't relate.
Everyone seems a little off their game right now, though. Brakebills's special magic, Quentin guesses.
The session is led by an attractive omega who introduces herself as Dr. Lipson. “Possibly unlike wherever you were before this,” she says dryly, “Brakebills is very accustomed to accommodating the unique needs of omega students. Magic tends to run most strongly in secondary genders, so this is very likely to be the first situation you've ever encountered where you are not a small minority. I stress this because the most common problems we have tend to involve omegas being unwilling to come to us for help when it's warranted. I know that you've likely been ignored by people who don't fully understand what being an omega entails, and that you may have learned you'll be belittled and infantilized if you insist on reasonable accommodations, as if you've somehow failed to be betas. That is not the situation at Brakebills; some of the most powerful Magicians ever to exist were omegas, and we do not underestimate your potential.”
That sounds nice. Quentin's experiences haven't been as dire as the stuff you hear about, but it's still-- Well, you worry about it, about how people are going to see you if you draw attention to it. Quentin does, at least.
Anyway, she talks for a while, and Quentin didn't bring anything to take notes with, so he just tries to concentrate. They're required to get wellness exams every semester, and obviously to stay on suppressants while enrolled. Jesus, Quentin can just imagine what absolute insanity one unblocked and unmated omega would wreak on a contained campus packed full of alphas. “Obviously matings happen on campus,” Dr. Lipson says, with a clear grudge in her voice, “but they are not encouraged. The Brakebills program is demanding, and we will not lower our standards for a student just because they are distracted by personal matters. If you can't keep up, you will be expelled and your memories of Brakebills removed. If your mate can't keep up, they will be expelled and erased, and you will also be removed from the program.” Someone lets out an obvious, indignant noise at that, and Dr. Lipson looks sharply at that side of the room. “As separating bonded mates is an obvious violation of international human rights, we would have little choice.”
Honestly, it doesn't seem that unfair to Quentin. God, why is everyone in such a rush to mate? They're still really young, and if someone likes you enough to mate with you for life, it doesn't seem like that big a sacrifice just to date for a couple of years first.
They get down to brass tacks after that. The campus has a few magic-null and scent-neutral spaces that they call Clean Rooms, and that's where they're going to spend heats. It sounds a little grim to Quentin; he's been going since he was a teenager to an omega hostel, and those are designed to be dark, cozy little dens, but something about Clean Room sounds – he doesn't know, clinical. Yes, intellectually he totally understands and supports that heats are just necessary medical functions, but when you're in the middle of one, you want – he doesn't know. You want to be a little gentle with yourself, right? Make it feel like a real den, not just a place you're renting.
The good news is that at the beginning of next semester, they'll all take another series of tests that will – well, she says it less dorkily, but basically sort them into their Hogwarts houses, so they'll be moved out of the first-year dorm and into a literal house with upperclassmen, and each of those houses has a private den. That sounds almost wildly luxurious to Quentin; Quentin's parents are betas so they didn't have a den in the house, and when Quentin presented they just started sending him to the hostel, and then he lived in Manhattan where nobody had the space for a dedicated den. He's always kind of fantasized about being able to den down for a heat in his own home, in a familiar space that smells like – well, at least like him, and maybe – ideally maybe like someone he cares about, you know? Just because he doesn't want to mate right away doesn't mean he's immune to romance. Anyway, a private den in a house where he lives with people who are hopefully friends – that sounds kind of fucking blissful, and Quentin can feel his skin sizzling and his vent softening and dilating a little. He's going to be fucking lucky if he gets out of here without an embarrassingly adolescent dark patch on his jeans, and it's going to be a miracle if he makes it to the end of orientation weekend without a full-blown early heat.
They're allowed to designate an alpha student to share the den with, but in order to ensure consent, they're supposed to have that filed with the clinic at least a week in advance. So that's a no for Quentin this week, even if he wanted to just – throw social niceties to the wind and present to any and all takers, which obviously he would never do, nobody actually does that in real life.
Even if everyone fantasizes about it.
Quentin's awkward enough just making conversation with strangers. He can't actually see himself getting knotted by one, even if Brakebills's rules allowed it. That's the kind of scenario that's hot when you're rubbing it out, but the reality would be excruciating.
The session ends with a well-rehearsed pep talk about Brakebills's special responsibility to the health and whole personhood of their students, and it sounds great, although Quentin's not sure how it squares with that hope you don't die release they made him sign yesterday. Whatever, he literally could not care less. Everybody dies. Not everybody is a goddamn Magician, are they?
He emerges from the classroom to find Julia waiting for him at the bottom of the stairs, but she doesn't notice him right away, deep in conversation with a blonde woman who's scowling at her over the top of a stack of books pressed protectively to her chest, and it softens the last of Quentin's little pissiness from the other day. It's so Julia to find someone on her first day who looks as tense and anxious as Quentin feels and insist on befriending her by force. Julia is just this – wonderful, frustrating sheepdog who can't stand to see anyone hanging around on the margins, and it comes from such a well of goodness. If Quentin ever gets his head out of his ass for half a minute, he could maybe hope to be half as unselfish as Julia is.
“Hey, Q!” she calls as she sees him coming down the stairs. “Alice, this is my friend Quentin – Quentin, my new roommate Alice Quinn.”
“Hi,” Quentin says, and then isn't sure how to follow that up, because Alice – Julia's mean alpha, he guesses – is staring at Quentin like he killed her dog as she scents him with flared nostrils, and she's just unbelievably beautiful, again, and she clearly hates him, again, for like no reason? Why, what the hell is Quentin doing wrong when he just got here? “Um,” he says. “Really nice to meet you.”
“Alice knows some magic already,” Julia says. “Her whole family are Magicians.”
“Oh, that's – cool,” Quentin says hesitantly. “Very cool. I guess we'll – know who to talk to about stuff, because Julia and I don't know anything. Unless it works on a d20 system, which. It doesn't. Obviously. That– I'm kidding, it's not – a game, I know.” What the fuck is Quentin's problem, can't he just shut up? His heart is pounding, a whole crazy array of instincts activating at once in the presence of an attractive but vaguely threatening alpha, like someone's just keysmashed the control console in Quentin's brain. He doesn't know whether to get the hell out of here or show his throat or use his words like a fucking person and ask her what her problem is, and all of this is just – such bad timing, god, he's not usually like this, he just feels so small and ignorant in this new world, and his body is already just so hungry and irrational and vulnerable, and the harder he tries to sound like a normal person, the further away he knows he's getting.
Alice says absolutely nothing to him, she just turns her attention back to Julia and says, “I don't like being set up with people's omega friend. It's insulting.”
Oh, god, she thinks Quentin is displaying for her? Why? He was just being the bare minimum of polite, but – some alphas can take politeness that way. Most of them don't have the goddamn nerve to say it out loud, though. “I really wasn't setting you up,” Julia says, cool and rational. “Quentin's an old friend. He doesn't even date alphas.”
“Julia,” Quentin protests weakly. She doesn't have to make it sound like he has some kind of no-alpha policy, when really he just – seems to be more attractive to betas, or at least the way it's worked out is that most of the people who were interested in dating Quentin happened to be betas, because most people are betas, and most alphas have – options. Better options. But Quentin's not, whatever, prejudiced against alphas, or – or gay, although obviously it's fine to be gay, he's just. Not. He likes betas, and he's – the normal amount of attracted to alphas, except for at this point in his heat cycle, when he's really unreasonably attracted to alphas, as per the whims of his weird secondary hormones.
Possibly especially to mean alphas. Dammit, he hates when Julia knows him better than he knows himself.
“Quentin!” someone calls, and Quentin's just – really done, he's done with this day, it's not even time for lunch and he cannot deal with any more drama, but clearly drama's not done with him yet, because who comes swanning across the quad straight at him but the tall alpha from yesterday, arm in arm with – uh, okay, Quentin's not gay, but just like, factually – the most beautiful omega who ever existed. “This is the interruption you've been waiting for,” Eliot says with utter confidence in spite of the fact that his shirt is untucked and his tie is askew and his deep voice is faintly slurred like he's three Bloody Marys into the morning already.
“Oh, um,” Quentin says. “I wasn't waiting for--”
“Hi,” Eliot's omega purrs, using the tips of her fingers to flip back both sides of her perfectly feathered hair carefully, like she needs to get an unobstructed view of Quentin in all his rumpled glory. “I'm Margo.”
Quentin nods dumbly, and then his brain finally arrives on the scene and he says, “Okay, hi, um, this is Julia and--”
But for whatever baffling reason, the interruption is apparently embossed with Quentin's name alone. “Julia, we're going to borrow your friend, okay?” Margo says without bothering to look at Julia, and neither she nor Eliot wait for any response before they split apart and flank Quentin with military precision, herding him away. Quentin manages to look over his shoulder, and he can see Julia raise one hand and both eyebrows in the universal gesture for uh, what the fuck? Quentin shakes his head, hoping his expression conveys no fucking idea! It usually does.
“Is that your alpha?” Margo asks him sweetly. “Julia?”
“I – no, what, I – Julia's not – you mean Alice? Alice is the alpha. Not mine.”
“See, El?” she says, casting a sly look over Quentin's head at her own alpha. “Have a little faith.”
Quentin's not sure what that's supposed to mean. He sneaks a glance to his right, where Eliot is fishing a cigarette from a case in his vest pocket, looking as bored by life as a person who spent that much time on his hair this morning could possibly look. “Bambi, behave yourself,” he says around the tip of the cigarette, before he makes a short, crisp gesture with three fingertips and – lights the cigarette. With fucking magic.
It is, quite possibly, even sexier than the way Eliot smells.
“I should, um – I think there's still a, like a campus tour I'm supposed to go to,” Quentin says. He can't remember; he stuck the folded-up campus map in his pocket but he forgot to bring the itinerary that was also in his orientation folder, because he was running late this morning, hazy and distracted and nervous in that paralyzing way that inevitably eats its own tail, creating more life bullshit to be nervous about. Quentin's not usually like this, but – he's not never like this, either. It comes and goes. Hormones don't help, stress doesn't help, the smell of strangers doesn't help. Very little, right now, is actually coming to Quentin's aid.
“Bitch, we are your campus tour,” Margo announces with finality. For a second Quentin's hackles go up, but then – that's not really an insult when another omega says it, right? It seems like in – movies or whatever, omega friends call each other that all the time. Quentin wouldn't know, he's never had an omega friend, and the idea that Margo, with her perfect hair and her fancy eye makeup and her swaying stride in thigh-high boots, could even theoretically be his first kind of beggars belief. It's not like hey, you've been accepted to the magic school you never applied to levels of improbable, but it's – like, whatever's right below that, basically.
He glances again at Eliot, who's still semi-ignoring them both with cool serenity while he smokes. He smells like – like Quentin imagines alphas smell in, like, movies from the 40s, powerful but controlled, elegant – musk and cherrywood and tobacco. There's a note of early fall in the air around them, the crisp leading edge of decay, but it's like Quentin could step off the clean edge of that ambient smell and fall down and down and down into Eliot's richness. Quentin rubs his hand over his face, trying to use his own familiar, boring scent to block everything else out before he just, like. Does something crazy.
Quentin guesses they're serious about the campus tour, because instead of any attempt at small talk (where are you from? What's your undergrad degree in? Why do you dress like a homeless beta?) they start rapid-firing Brakebills facts at Quentin, pointing out this building, that professor, some other thing that Quentin's never going to remember.
When they pass a group of students who are floating a dozen apples in the air, Eliot breaks into a trot, breaking into their circle and stretching for the highest one. “Physical kids,” he explains for Quentin's benefit. “Telekinesis. Move shit, lift shit – most can fly.” He tosses the apple to Quentin, who manages to catch it – small mercies. He thinks Eliot's eyes rest on him a little longer than necessary, approving. Quentin takes a bite out of the apple, and Eliot looks away, striding onward so that his shorter-legged omega companions have to scamper to keep up with him. “Also, magnificent partiers. Do not come by our house if you have anything important to do in the morning.”
“Got it,” Quentin says breathlessly, and for the first time he thinks he does sort of get – something about Eliot, something Eliot has accidentally let slip about himself through the warm notes in his voice when he says our house. Between the short, taut sentences, Quentin hears territory and pride and mine; he hears alpha as clearly as if Eliot had bared his teeth.
It doesn't sound like Quentin's going to have much choice about what his discipline is, but – god, he wants to be something that belongs to Eliot like that.
He wants – he wants –
It's all so much, the early fall heat and Brakebills and Eliot's rumbly voice and Margo's strong little hand tucked in his as she drags him along behind her. Quentin knows he's sweating through the back of his shirt, and he kind of – can only partially follow the train of their conversation, his brain and his skin and his nose are all overstimulated, and he can feel a whine gathering low in his throat because he wants--
They bring him inside, and it's such a relief to be somewhere dark and sheltered that Quentin's knees buckle a little, and he ends up leaning against the doorjamb with his eyes pressed shut, panting to get more of the cool air into his lungs. “Sorry, sorry,” he gasps, aware of Margo's hands pressed to his shoulder and chest, Margo's candied voice lilting in exaggerated sympathy, ticking up at the end like she's asking him a question. “I think it was the sun.”
“Lie down, baby,” Margo orders. “Let's get you some water.” Quentin tries to obey, navigating in the general direction of the couch. Lying down sounds good, he wants--
Everything flickers. Time tilts. He's on his back, sinking into soft cushions and looking at dark wood and a galaxy of fairy lights, and oh, he likes this place, it feels safe, he wants to stay forever. He wants--
A rush of alpha fills his nose as a big hand wraps around the back of his neck, pulling his head up toward the cool rim of a bottle of water, and the whine finally bursts out of Quentin's chest; he can't swallow, but he opens his mouth as water splashes against his lips, because he is thirsty, he's thirsty and he's burning up and he wants he wants he wants--
“Oh, fuck,” the alpha growls, and every joint in Quentin's body rattles at the same deep note, it feels amazing, it feels agonizing. “Bambi, a little help?”
The alpha tries to move further away. Quentin hates the idea. He grabs the-- Eliot, he's a person, his name is Eliot – by his convenient tie and he says, “I wanna stay, let me stay,” before all he can do is make sounds of want want want, alpha--
Everything flickers. Time bends. He's sitting up, shoved into position by Margo underneath his arm. “Up you go,” she says, sounding a little amused and not at all patient. “Let's go, puppy. Feet on the floor.”
He manages the feet-floor part, but then he can't – won't – doesn't want to go any further. He squeezes his eyes shut and shakes his head, leaning heavily against Margo, breathing her soft hair into his nose. “I don't wanna go, don't make me go,” he says.
“Life's rough,” Margo says. “Look, I'm helping you, okay, you dingbat? We're going to the infirmary, because someone is in his twenties and doesn't know how to track his heat cycle.” Quentin is very vaguely aware that he's being slandered. It's early this time.
Holy shit, it's early this time – he's in heat. On the fucking couch. At some strange – fraternity house or something. Even Quentin, who is no stranger to social disaster, has no frame of reference for how fucking horrifying this is, how beyond embarrassing. “I'm sorry,” Quentin tries to explain. “I'm sorry, it's – never this fast, and it's early, I think – the test yesterday, and, and Eliot smells, Eliot's so--” No, oh my god shut up, say literally anything except that--
Thankfully, Margo doesn't bristle up, although she has every right. She just rolls her eyes and says, “Yeah, yeah, Eliot is so,” with the wry smile of someone who is not hearing this for the first time. Quentin guesses she's – probably not. She's used to it? He guesses?
“Take him downstairs,” Eliot says from somewhere Quentin can't see. His voice jolts through Quentin – brusque, demanding, irresistible. Alpha.
Irresistible unless you're Margo, it seems. “Oh, fuck off,” she says, snapping her fingers and pointing upward. “Out. Go to your room.”
“Bambi,” he protests, and this time it's less demanding. He sounds like – maybe he wants, too. Wants Quentin to stay in his house. Quentin rubs his face against Margo's shoulder, his breath hitching as he tries to just – just shut up, just please shut up for once –
“Oh, I do not want to hear it,” she says. “Take your knot somewhere else, this exact second. I'm counting to three.” There's a gruff noise of displeasure, and then the sound of heavy feet ascending the stairs, and Quentin keens a little at the abandonment. He can't help it. “Jesus,” Margo sighs, patting his head a little. “No wonder he thought you were so cute. Okay, come on, now. I know the PKC has a reputation, but you can't spend your heat in the living room, that's a little much even for us. You've got to walk to the infirmary; I'll help you.”
“I'm sorry,” Quentin says. “I'm sorry, I can't – I'm sorry, I didn't mean to.” Can't stand up and walk, can't get his head straight, can't hold this off any longer, can't shut up shut up shut up--
“I know you didn't, puppy. Shit happens. But you gotta work with me, here.”
He wants to. He's not being difficult. But every part of his body feels too heavy, flushed with blood and slick and nerve endings like he's – like he's wearing his own body plus someone else's, too. He stumbles with every step he takes, even with Margo to lean on, and his eyes are heavy with tears before they get to the front door, because he can't, he can't make it, he just wants to curl up tight and sink through the floor like a thousand dense pounds of wet, hot, miserable, rebellious organic matter, bodies are so stupid.
The first thing that distracts him from his own pathetic meltdown is that when the door opens, Quentin's still in the comfort of cool darkness, not facing the unforgiving sun. “One step down,” Margo says, steady and – not exactly warm, but reassuring. She sounds like she knows what to do. So Quentin listens and puts his foot down a step. “Good,” Margo says, her hand small but unyielding, pressed against Quentin's chest where he's sweating through his unironed shirt. “Stick with me, okay? Another step. I got you.”
They're not leaving, Quentin realizes. Wherever Margo is leading him is down, not out – is inside the house (our house, territory, pride, Eliot's house). They get to the bottom of the stairs and across the uneven cobblestones of the laundry room floor, until finally, just when the ache in Quentin's pelvis is radiating into his thighs so intensely that he knows he can't keep walking anymore, there's another door. Margo takes her hand from Quentin's chest, flips the deadbolt and raises the bar, and shoves him inside with her shoulder. Quentin stumbles and doesn't even really try to stop himself, just lets himself half-fall and half-crawl onto the big square futon-style mat laid out on the floor. He rubs his face and his neck against it, gasping for breath.
“--liquids in the fridge,” he can hear Margo say as he starts to relax into the mat, comforted by the way it smells a little like him now, a little familiar. “Hey. You listening to me, puppy?”
“Yeah, sorry,” he mumbles, rolling to his side so he can look up at her through the mess of his hair. “Liquids. Yeah.”
Margo looks at him critically for a minute, then shakes her head. “Congratulations, kiddo. You're a Physical bitch for the next three days. Don't do anything I wouldn't do.”
“Thank you,” Quentin says. Margo waves at the air, fingernails flicking away the concept. “I'm sorry, I was trying – I didn't mean to – but thank you.”
“You're fine,” she says. “Hey. We gotta look out for each other, right?” Quentin nods, even though he doesn't know if she means – Magicians or omegas or what.
A little shiver rolls up Quentin's spine at the sound of the heavy door closing, the bolt sliding shut. Even though it's happened four times a year since he was twelve, it's always – weird, being locked in, for at least a minute. But then Quentin lies in the dimly lit den and focuses on his breathing, and he can feel everything slowing down, releasing. His eyes flicker shut, his vent melts further open, and he licks the fabric of the mat to test the scent. It's good, it's cotton and Quentin's own saliva. It's safe. Safe den, protected. Quentin breathes in, holds it. Shudders on the exhale, feeling relief and indolence and....
Want. The want prickles at the back of his neck, icy-hot, and Quentin groans, because it's time. He's safe, he's ready. It's time.
He pulls his clothes off, vaguely aware that they're completely gross and quite possibly ruined, and he kicks them toward a dark corner, near the mini-fridge. He feels better once there's nothing but cool air touching his skin, bringing the inflammation from the friction of his clothes down. Quentin puts a hand on his neck and rubs down over his chest, taking deep, shivery breaths. He's okay, this is okay. He flicks a little sweat out of his eyes and pulls his hair back, looping the elastic a third time to tie it tight. Should he get a drink first? Probably, right?
But he doesn't. He doesn't want to move just yet. He lies down on his back and reaches with both hands, resting them on the soaked insides of his thighs, and the contact feels so good. He moans as he feels his vent flutter and dilate, aching with the initial stretch and the emptiness. His cock is hard, too, but he can barely feel that, like it's gone completely numb in comparison with the aliveness between his legs. Quentin explores further inward with two fingertips, and the hungry sounds his throat makes when he contacts the wet, sensitive flesh of his vent no longer have the power to embarrass him at all. It just feels so fucking good, and he needs the pressure, the relief.
He needs – the pressure of – the weight –
Quentin grits his teeth and lifts his hips up into it, and he wants, but he needs-- Safe in a good den, he's ready, he's ready, he needs his alpha pushing into him, holding him and opening him and taking him, taking care of him. The memory of Duncan's face floats through his hazy brain – oh, he'd been a good alpha, strong, big – not Quentin's alpha, but there to take care of him when Quentin needed it. Quentin remembers the weight of Duncan's body across his, anchoring him while Quentin nuzzled into the scent of summer at his throat, remembers his warm, smooth skin and the muscular curve of his chest, his heavy hand petting Quentin's shoulder and his cheek, his kind voice whispering it's okay, just let me in, I'm here, I'm right here. Quentin pushes his fingers inside his body, but it's nothing like – it's not nearly what he wants.
Still, it's okay for now. Quentin gets himself off quickly and easily, not a real heat orgasm, but a perfectly fine regular one. It takes the edge off, for the moment.
Quentin rests his wet hand over his stomach, feeling his breaths and trying not to sink into self-pity. Solo heats can be lonely, but that's. It's not a real emotion, it's mostly hormones. Partially hormones. It's – more than half hormones.
There's an alpha for every omega, they say, but it's really not true. Like, statistically maybe there's some truth to it, but in reality – not everyone mates. Some alphas die. Some alphas are gay. Some alphas choose to pair-bond with betas, and some just aren't into bonding at all. There are no guarantees in life, and there's certainly no grand, magical promise from the universe that every omega who wants a mate ends up finding one. People don't like to admit that, but it's true.
Fifty weeks out of the year, Quentin really doesn't have a problem with that. If you want someone to grow old with, there are friends. If you want to be loved, the world is full of betas, and their minds and hearts are just as good as anyone's, they're just as easy to love. And there are a million types of arrangements you can make if all you want is an able, reliable knot on a quarterly basis. Nobody needs a mate.
Fifty weeks out of the year, Quentin believes that and it's fine.
With a sigh he rolls onto his hands and knees and crawls off the edge of his mat to investigate this mini-fridge situation.
Quentin guesses he should've known even based on a brief acquaintance with Eliot and Margo, but the Physical house is a pretty swanky situation, as dens go. When Quentin's head is finally clear enough to go poking around, he finds basically everything you might want during your heat, and some stuff Quentin would never have thought of. The fridge is stocked full of Gatorade and plastic containers full of berries, chicken sausages and wheels of smoked gouda. There's a record player and a vinyl collection, mostly classical music and R&B, plus a few oddball outliers (KT Tunstall? The Black Keys? Dolly Parton? okay....) There's a bookshelf with a few antique-y looking books about magic, and then a bunch of old paperbacks, mostly historical family sagas and classic science fiction. There's a sink and a toilet behind a decorative screen, and there's a half-sized closet stacked completely full of blankets and towels and sweatpants and hoodies in various sizes. The lights are on a dimmer switch and the walls are painted with forest scenery. It's really comfortable, actually. Quentin doesn't know anything about the Clean Rooms, but he feels confident that he stumbled into a much better deal here.
Dr. Lipson shows up to visit him, Margo hovering behind her, and they check Quentin's vitals and leave a cooler of food with him. Quentin remembers to wrap a quilt around himself, but it's funny how close he comes to not remembering – he's spacey during heat, and body-shame is kind of the first thing that usually goes away. He apologizes again for throwing a wrench in the system on his first full day on campus, and Lipson gives his hair a firm, almost motherly stroke and says, “As long as you're comfortable, Mr. Coldwater. That's what matters.”
He is comfortable. The loneliness goes away, more or less, after a couple of hours and a couple of orgasms. Quentin's heats have always been physically easy, and it's not like he has anything to worry about or anywhere to be. Or so his dumb omega brain has decided, and even though part of Quentin knows that he could actually worry about any number of the same things he normally worries about, during heat he generally just – doesn't.
There are several roll-on vials of synthetic alpha pheromones in the toy chest, and that helps a lot; Quentin rubs it all over his wrists and palms and then curls up on the mat, snuffling his face greedily into his hands. It doesn't smell like anyone – not grassy and humid like Duncan's scent, or heavy and rich like Eliot's – but the chemicals do their job, leaving Quentin grateful and relaxed and humming with satisfaction between spikes of urgency.
There's not a ton of variety in the toys; Quentin figures people who live here are likely to bring their own stuff into the den, so it's probably just here for people who don't have strong fake-knot opinions outside of heat. Quentin does have strong fake-knot opinions; he can't stand the kind where the knot inflates. He gets that it's supposed to feel more natural or whatever, but there's always a certain give to the knot that just – isn't enough to get Quentin all the way there. Fortunately, there are also a few of the heavy glass kind, which are a little harder to maneuver when you're trying to get it all the way in and also your brain is lava, but once it's in, it's – yeah, it's what Quentin likes best.
He wonders if they'll let him keep the one with the swirly turquoise pattern – probably, right? If he's brave enough to ask. It doesn't look like they reuse any of this stuff, and by the end of the second day it's practically Quentin's new boyfriend.
Okay, that's a joke. Obviously. But it is really nice, built with a longer-than-usual handle that makes it less impossible than most to move when Quentin's in presenting position, and the knot is closer to spherical than others, which means when Quentin's body grips onto it and pulls and pulls with the long waves of his deep-heat mating orgasms, there's no uneven spot, just a perfect, even pressure as Quentin's sensitive channel flexes again and again against its weight. It's a myth that omegas get mindless with desperation during heat; you notice that stuff, or at least Quentin does, and he appreciates it.
It feels so goddamn good that he doesn't want to take it out even after the pulses eventually subside and he's no longer tied onto the knot. He just drops onto his stomach, lazily tilting his chin back and forth to get the sweat from his scent glands deeper into the fibers of the mat, to claim this peaceful space for his own. He wonders if they'll let him come back here in the winter. It's so nice. Everyone's been so nice to him here. God, it almost actually makes him want to go to one of those parties that Eliot's so proud of.
Thinking about Eliot gets him wet at both ends, a rush of slick between his legs, a rush of saliva on top of his tongue. A flicker of rationality tells Quentin he should be embarrassed; there's no reason to believe – they barely know each other and – Brakebills is full of omegas, omegas who are a hundred times prettier and sweeter and more adept at being alive in the world than Quentin will ever be. Brakebills has Margo. The tall, strikingly handsome alpha whose scent dominates the whole Physical house doesn't have the slightest need for – Quentin, and if he were in his right mind, that would matter to Quentin.
But he's in heat, so fuck it, fuck it. Quentin shifts, rolling his hips to test the feeling of the glass dildo still inside him, and he thinks he's – not ready to go again, but not far from it. He should get up and get a drink and some protein, but he's not going to. He's going to lie here like a dumb, horny starfish and imagine that he's shuddering and squirming under the weight of a tall, handsome alpha, locked on his perfect knot while he runs big, hot hands up and down Quentin's arms and leans close to his ear, smelling like cherrywood while he says you feel so good, Q, I'm so glad you stayed here for me.
Solo heats can be lonely. It helps to be a little gentle with yourself – let yourself have whatever harmless little fantasies help get you through it. In your own den there doesn't have to be any such thing as out of your league, right? Right.
When the sharp rush of the next wave comes over Quentin, he pushes himself onto his knees, the glass knot already making his head spin as he stretches into presenting, and he closes his eyes and allows himself to call out Eliot, alpha, Eliot as his body rocks to meet a thrust that never comes. It feels so good in his mouth, and what does it hurt, right?
It's such a good den. Everything feels good here, and nothing hurts. Quentin never wants to leave.
When it's over, it's over. Quentin dozes off like he's been doing off and on in hour-long doses for days, and when he wakes up he feels like himself again. Basically. Sore and just super, super sticky, but mentally himself.
Quentin pushes himself to his feet, wobbling a bit on quads that are going to resent the fuck out of Quentin for days, and he hobbles to the sink to make an even bigger mess trying to wash up. He does at least get clean enough to put on a pair of sweatpants with the Brakebills crest printed on the thigh and a black t-shirt he finds in the stash. He lets his hair down and gets his hands soaking wet, then runs his fingers through his hair before tying it up again, and a little spaceyness must be lingering, because he gets transfixed by his reflection in the small mirror, the way individual drops of water track down from his hairline, past the faintly stubble-shadowed edge of his jaw, down to dampen the neck of his t-shirt.
The room feels so quiet now. Quentin closes his eyes, wondering – what the fuck you're supposed to say to the total strangers who had to take responsibility for your heat? God, it's going to be so awkward.
But then – maybe it won't. Brakebills isn't like the real world, right? Quentin's not everyone's one omega friend here. We gotta look out for each other, Margo said, so maybe--
Quentin's eyes fly open, staring at his reflection in shock as the hazy memories resolve themselves in front of his newly alert brain. Margo didn't just give him Gatorade and a place to crash. Margo was protecting him – take your knot somewhere else, this exact second – god, god, fuck, Quentin was so out of it that he basically presented to a total stranger, and if Margo hadn't-- God, what the fuck? If Margo hadn't been there....
Well. But she was. Which is good, because now Quentin can just – put this in the past and move on with his life. Shit happens. Margo said that, too. Quentin closes his eyes and takes a few deep breaths. Everything's fine and nobody has to be in therapy forever.
Not for this, anyway.
There's only so much cleaning up Quentin can do, but he at least tries to consolidate the food trash into one pile and folds up his dirty clothes, and then he sits down on the cleanest edge of the mat that he can find and reads a couple chapters of Something Wicked This Way Comes.
Eventually someone knocks on the door, and it's a good thing Quentin's ready to go, because Margo opens the door without waiting for a response. “Still alive, I see,” she says.
“Uh, yeah,” Quentin says, levering himself uncomfortably to his feet. “I – hope that was the plan.” She gestures out the door with her head, but Quentin hesitates. “I feel like I need to – help clean up? I can't ask someone else to--”
“Sure you can,” she says. “We use magic, it takes nothing. Don't worry about it, just hurry up, we're waiting dinner on you.”
Quentin is half-telling himself that she's kidding all the way up the stairs, but – she's not. The main area of the house is full of people, at least ten of them, grouped on the couch or the main stairway or around the bar, and there's food – a big pot of chili and hot garlic bread and a million little fruit tarts for dessert, and Margo introduces him around to a bunch of people who have obviously heard all about him, but in a – not terrible way, like, they all seem not to care that he's the basket case who went into heat right here three days ago. They're all Physical Kids, Quentin guesses, or maybe they're not, and they're other omegas and betas and a couple of alphas, and they're vaguely curious about Quentin but not that curious, so he doesn't feel totally put on the spot, and – honestly Quentin hopes – he could see himself living here, he means? Not because he fits in, he's not sure he does, it just seems like. A place where nobody expects you to fit in all that much.
Maybe that's Brakebills. They're all – Magicians, right? What does fitting in even mean, in magic school?
By the time the food is picked over, it's after eight o'clock, and the music starts and the drinks start to flow, and Quentin thinks – it's a school night? It's Monday night, right? He's missed a day of classes, and if he stays-- He can't stay, he's so exhausted, he really--
“I can't,” he says when Eliot tries to put a mixed drink with – steam? smoke? – coming off the top of it into his hand. “I – it's late, I--”
“Drink it,” Eliot says. His eyes are warm and amused. He's wearing a tie again, and again it's loose, exposing his throat, which seems like – kind of an omega look, actually? Like, Quentin's not that savvy about fashion, obviously, but it seems like you don't see alphas baring their throats like that too often. Quentin likes it. He tries the drink, and it's – pineapple-y. It's fine.
“I hope you didn't – do all of this for me,” Quentin says, gesturing around the party – party? – with his glass.
“Why would you hope that?” Eliot asks. He seems genuinely curious.
The answer seems intuitive to Quentin, but it's – probably not, to people who aren't Quentin. “I don't know,” he mumbles. “You just. Didn't need to go to any more trouble than you already have. For me. You don't even know me.”
“Mm,” Eliot says. “That could change.”
Eliot has sideburns. Quentin's never actually seen someone their age – pull off sideburns before. Quentin bolts the rest of the cocktail and then says, “It's not rude if I go, though, right? I mean, I'm. Really tired.”
“It's not rude at all,” Eliot says. “I'll walk you back to the dorm.”
“Oh,” Quentin says. “Uh, you don't – have to. Your party....”
“Will be here when I get back, I assure you,” Eliot says. “And of course I have to. Send a beautiful omega home alone in the dark on a strange campus? Please, I have a reputation to protect.”
Yeah, Quentin just bets he does. “Are you saying I'm not safe at Brakebills?” Quentin says.
“Oh, you're most certainly not safe at Brakebills,” Eliot says. “Didn't you read the fine print? Magic is an extraordinary gift that is, it turns out, not unlikely to kill you.”
“Worth it,” Quentin says without missing a beat.
“Oh,” Eliot says dryly. “You're one of those.” Which Quentin guesses he can't exactly argue with.
He has to say goodbye to Margo before he can leave, of course. He manages, barely, to pull her attention away from the dancing that's just started, but she pauses just long enough to pat his face fondly while he stumbles through an unnecessary explanation about school nights and Eliot. “Don't do anything I wouldn't do,” she says meaningfully, then dances off. Quentin's still not sure if they're friends or not.
Not only does Eliot walk him back to the dorm, but he holds his arm out for Quentin like the Golden Age of Hollywood heartthrob he smells like. Quentin puts his hand on Eliot's arm, feeling unbearably self-conscious about it, but even more self-conscious about seeming rude by refusing. Even without undue hormonal influences, Quentin – really likes the way Eliot smells. It's unique. Eliot's – unique.
Quentin's so stupid. He can't start thinking things like that, he's only going to make a fool of himself. Alphas like Eliot go after real omegas. They don't need someone who....
Who would still probably smell like the hospital, if he didn't smell like he'd just been in heat instead.
It's not far to the dorm, but to Quentin's surprise, Eliot offers him a cigarette when they get there instead of just dropping him off. Honestly, Quentin could really use one. “Is this good for your gentlemanly reputation?” Quentin asks after he takes his blissful first drag. “Loitering around the first-year dorms like a predator?”
Eliot smiles at him, coiled in the dark like the smoke rising from his lips. “You think my reputation is gentleman?”
“Well,” Quentin says, and he knows he's supposed to banter or whatever, but – yeah, no. “You were a gentleman with me. Before.”
“Ah,” Eliot says.
“I'm really sorry,” Quentin says. “That was – an insane position I put you in. I mean, it could've. Gotten really weird. If...Margo hadn't been there, I mean.”
“It's your first week and you've already discovered my darkest secret,” Eliot says. “I'm positively lost without Margo.”
Right. “Well, you guys are cute together. What did you call her – Bambi?”
“Quentin,” Eliot says carefully. Quentin looks up from his shoes to – something closer to Eliot's general direction. Eliot is looking at him intently, but at the same time almost – uncertainly, somehow. Like he doesn't quite know what to make of Quentin. Finally he shakes his head and drops his cigarette on the brick steps, grinding it out with the pointy toe of his boot. “You don't owe anyone an apology,” he says briskly. “In fact, you should apologize a lot less in general.”
“Sorry,” Quentin says dryly.
Eliot reaches out, and before Quentin can react, Eliot brushes his thumb softly against the side of Quentin's chin. “Pretty omegas never apologize,” he explains. “They make the world solve their problems for them. They make us fight for the privilege of solving their problems.”
“I'm not--” Pretty. “--that kind of omega. I guess.”
“Mm,” Eliot says. “Time will tell. Goodnight, Quentin Coldwater. Come play with us again soon.”
Quentin is still kind of dazed by – everything as he trudges up the stairs toward his room, so he doesn't even notice passing a doorless room until he hears his name called, and he doubles back and realizes he walked right past where Julia and Alice and – ugh – his asshole roommate Penny are studying around a small library table.
“You idiot,” Julia says after she's rushed over to him and pinned him into a hug. “You should've told me, I didn't know you needed--”
“I didn't either,” Quentin says. “I just. I don't know, it's been weird, but it's fine. I'm fine, Jules, it's – not a big deal.”
“You're an idiot,” Julia whispers, squeezing him tighter, and then she lets him go. “Hey, you wanna--”
“No, I'm just. I'm turning in, I'm-- I'm worn out. I'll see you tomorrow, okay?”
He takes advantage of the quiet on his hallway to take a long, private shower, and if he's expecting anyone to be waiting by his door when he squishes damply back home in his shower flip-flops, it's definitely not--
“Hey,” he says. “Uh. Alice. Hi.”
Without pleasantries, Alice pushes a stack of papers in his direction. Quentin tries to take them between his fingertips and not drip on them. “I brought your homework,” she explains. “And notes. My notes – copies of my notes. From class today.”
“Oh,” Quentin says. “Well, that-- Thanks, that was really nice.”
“I should apologize to you,” she says, scowling at his hairy legs between his boxers and his dumb flip-flops. Or just scowling in general. Alice seems ambiently scowly. “That was rude, the way I talked about you like you weren't there and treated you like an--”
Well, it's. Something. “Like an omega?” Quentin can't help but say.
Alice looks up at him, and for the first time she doesn't look vaguely pissed off. Or, she does, kind of, but she looks – something else, too. Lost, maybe. “My mother's an omega,” she says. “My mother's...the only omega I know. I don't know a lot of people.”
Quentin's no therapist, but. “I'm guessing you're not close.”
“I don't know what we are,” Alice says. “She...tries, but she's. Manipulative. Melodramatic. Narcissistic.”
“I'm not,” Quentin says. He wants to– Alice is pretty, and he guesses she's Julia's friend now, and she's kind of intense and uncomfortable and Quentin always finds that intriguing. He wants to give her a chance, he really does. He's just a little tired right now to be someone's personal guide through unlearning their secondary sexism.
“I know,” Alice says sharply. “I said I was sorry.”
In spite of himself, Quentin smiles. She's weird and intense and disagreeable and – relatable. They're either going to get along really well or not at all, and honestly he knows which one he's hoping for. “Maybe you can help me go over this stuff sometime tomorrow. Help me make sense of it.”
A spark of something shows in Alice's eyes – intense, but a different kind of intense. She has her scent covered fairly well, but that spark gives the alpha away in a flash. Quentin feels a pleasant prickle run up his arms, raising the hair. Is this what Eliot meant – make the world solve their problems? Is that what this is, what he's doing right now?
Quentin's not that kind of omega. He never has been.
Of course, he's never been a Physical bitch before this, either.
Quentin reaches past her for the doorknob to his room and watches her skitter back out of his way almost deferentially. Huh. “Goodnight, Alice Quinn,” he says, and leaves her standing on the other side of his door.