It’s a brand new year, and with it comes the vital responsibility of kicking it off right with an Inaugural Cottage Party. Most students are on campus by now, but classes don’t start until Monday, leaving the next three days open for all kinds of festivities. Eliot remembers his first weekend at Brakebills fondly. The school doesn’t host any kind of formal orientation activities, whether out of laziness or a purposeful introduction to Brakebills’s overall attitude of forcing students to be self-sufficient. The students, on the other hand, always take it upon themselves to host all kinds of events, some targeted towards the newcomers, others more exclusive. There’s an interesting mixture at Brakebills between being welcoming towards first years and hazing them. As bullshit as the Trials were, Eliot has to admit he’s excited to get to host them this year.
This party will set the tone for the whole semester, so Eliot has to make sure it’s perfect. Which is why he’s been at the bar for the past hour and a half experimenting with drink ingredients to create the perfect signature cocktail. It’s a complex optimization problem, one that Eliot loves having the time to really sink into. It’s not just about finding the perfect flavor profile, but also balancing the mix of alcohol and magic additives, as well as getting the color just right. It needs to be something vibrant and attention-getting, but not tacky.
“Hey Eliot, I was wondering… I’ve been thinking that… I mean, it’s not that I… but I was hoping - “
“Spit it out Todd, before my drink literally evaporates from my glass.”
Todd takes a deep breath. “I was wondering if this might work for the signature cocktail for the party tomorrow?” Eliot turns toward him and sees he’s holding a glass in his hand. Eliot glares at him as he quickly adds, “Just this one time. See, over the summer I got really into mixology and I think I have something everyone will like. And I heard you and Margo talking before about not having one yet. Obviously I could never be as um, as good as you at it – “
“But uh, I just thought… since we need one… I have one here, you could try it and – “
“Todd. Let me explain something,” Eliot says, taking the drink from Todd’s hand and setting it down on the far end of the bar. “This is the first party of the semester.” Todd nods, his eyes wide with fear. Good. “This is our only chance to make a first impression on the new students. Our only chance, Todd. The reason I haven’t decided on a signature cocktail yet is because it needs to be perfect. Do you understand?”
“Yeah, sure. But maybe if you just try it –“
“I have it handled!” He snaps. “Just… go help with clean-up. This place turned into a dump over the summer.”
Todd hesitates before plastering on a smile, saying “Ok, yeah, sounds good,” and finally walking off. If people would just stop interrupting him, Eliot could focus enough to create a cocktail worthy of the occasion. He dumps Todd’s drink into the sink. Maybe something with chile liqueur…
“So, Darren,” Eliot says, dancing his fingers lightly over the arm of the first year he’s been flirting with for the past few minutes.
“Actually, it’s Derek.”
“Of course. Derek. What can I make you?” They’re standing at the bar, the party in full swing around them.
“Hmm, something sour. Maybe a bit floral?”
“Ahh, finally a man who knows his own tastes,” Eliot purrs. He turns toward the bar, ready to make one of his favorites, an elderflower sour. He takes out the simple syrup and lemon juice, but their only bottle of gin is empty. That simply won’t do. They can’t start out the semester ruining their reputation as the best party house by being out of one of the staples of any half-decent bar.
“Todd,” he barks. He’ll just have to make something else for David in the meantime. He could substitute rum, maybe add some extra St. Germaine to try balancing it out. “We’re out of gin. Fucking Tyler took a bottle with him over the summer, said he’d bring it back. It’s over at the Castle. Go get it, and tell Tyler he’s not allowed into another one of our parties until he brings us something worthwhile to make up for it.”
He finishes combining the ingredients into the cocktail shaker, already thinking about garnishes. It might be a simple drink, but he needs to make sure it looks -
Eliot laughs, and then immediately erases the smile from his face to stare right at Todd. “I’m sorry, was I asking?” He turns his head away and scoops some ice into the shaker, waiting for Todd to trot away as he always does. Always so fucking eager to please.
“No and that’s exactly the problem,” Todd says instead. “It’s always ‘Todd, go do this,’ ‘Todd, fuck off over there,’ ‘Everyone’s welcome to this new cocktail except of course for you, Todd.’ You act like you’re so much better than me, but you know what? You’re just a bully.”
“A bully? That’s what you’re going with? What are we, in high school?” Eliot laughs and starts shaking the drink, making sure to put on a good show for Daniel. But he’s interrupted yet again.
“No, we’re not. But it seems like no one’s informed you of that, with the way you act. So no, I’m not just going to leave the middle of the party to go all the way to the Castle so you can have your precious gin. Do it yourself.”
Todd stares at him for another moment before turning around and walking purposefully off towards the kitchen. Well that was weird.
“Wow,” Josh says from couch. “That last one really must have done a number on him.”
“What are you talking about?”
“This strain I invented last year,” he says, gesturing to a closed container of what looks like weed. “Lowers your inhibitions like crazy. It once got Victoria to go stand outside the faculty dorms at 1AM shouting obscenities about them failing her on an exam. It was fucking awesome.”
Well, that makes sense. Meaning Todd will be back to normal tomorrow, and the balance of the universe will be restored. Fuck Todd, anyway. Eliot’s not a bully. It’s not his fault that Todd’s an annoying shit who puts too much weight on everyone else’s opinions of him. Whatever, honestly. It’s not like Eliot hasn’t been insulted before. If he cared what people thought about him he’d… well he’d be a lot more like Todd, and he’s not about to let that happen. He pours the drinks, hands a glass to Dylan, and heads off to find Margo so he can start having some actual fun at this party.
He’s in the kitchen the next morning making pancakes when Todd comes downstairs, looking like he’s working through a serious hangover. He sits down silently at the counter and stares off through the window. Eliot’s not about to miss this chance to mess with him.
“So, no apology?” Eliot says. Because it’s fun to watch Todd squirm. Todd squeezes his hands into tight fists as Eliot observes him quietly, casually looking at him over the bowl of batter he’s whisking.
Todd mumbles something Eliot can’t make out. “What was that?” Eliot asks, his patience already starting to wear thin. He’d wanted to stir a reaction out of him, but he doesn’t have all day for it.
“I said, can we please not.”
“Not what?” Eliot says, getting increasingly annoyed. Todd turns his head to stare directly down at the countertop.
“I’m not… I’m sorry about how I said it, but I’m not sorry about what I said.”
Eliot blinks. “Ok…” he says, and then sighs. “It’s too early for this. Margo’s coming down for pancakes soon, so go be weird and moody in the living room instead.”
“No,” Todd says, as if he’s testing out the sound of the word in his mouth.
“God, not this again,” Eliot says. He scoops some batter onto the griddle to make two nearly perfect circles. “As enrapturing as it is witnessing your newly discovered empowerment or whatever, I don’t have time for it. That’s Margo’s seat, and all you’re using it for is to sit there looking... well… looking like Todd. So unless you want to run clean-up duty all by yourself for our next party – “
“You know what, Eliot?” Todd says, standing up. Well, this is bound to be rich. “I’m the same year as you. We got placed in the Cottage at the same time. You don’t… you’re not in charge of everything that goes on here, ok?”
Eliot lets out a breath that’s almost like a laugh, but with no humor to it. “I kind of am, actually,” he says, his voice veering on a little too loud. But this isn’t worth him getting upset over. He quickly reigns it in. “Hardly anyone had heard of the Cottage parties before I got here, and I didn’t exactly see anyone else volunteering to put in any effort. Me and Margo built this place’s reputation from the ground up. So yeah, Todd, if we give you something like party clean-up duty, you’re going to fucking do it. Or don’t bother showing up.”
Todd doesn’t seem to know what to say to that, so he grabs a cereal bar off the counter and turns to walk into the living room. But before he’s out of the kitchen, Eliot hears him mumbling something that seems directed at him.
“I’m sorry, what did you say?” Eliot asks.
Todd hesitates, then turns around to face him. At first he’s looking down, but then he takes a deep breath, looks directly at him and says, “Fuck you, Eliot.”
Before Eliot can do so much as roll his eyes, Todd’s out the door.
“Ooh, kitten finally grow some claws?” Margo says, sliding into her usual seat.
“Eww, please don’t call him ‘kitten’ ever again.” He turns back to the griddle and flips the pancakes over to find that they’re both completely burned. Fucking Todd.
A little over a week has gone by, and there haven’t been any more outbursts from Todd. It’s kind of disappointing, really. Just when Todd had started to become maybe interesting, showing a personality trait besides a nauseating amount of enthusiasm and eagerness to please. Though it’s not like Eliot’s had much reason to interact with him, anyway. He’s been busy showing around the new first years who’ve just moved into the Cottage.
He’s just finished showing off the library to a couple students when Todd comes downstairs wearing a vest that looks identical to one Eliot owns. And that just will not do.
“You’re obviously trying to match my aesthetic, but it comes across more as boy-dressing-up-for-school-picture than anything else. And not even for your own picture. I mean, even Quentin –“ he gestures over to one of the new first years placed in the Cottage (unfairly cute, but seems fixated on a beautiful blonde in his year, and Eliot doesn’t have the patience for that complication), “ – has his own style, even if it’s solely composed of blue shirts and gray sweatshirts.”
“Gee thanks,” Quentin says dryly without looking up from his book.
“Vests are a perfectly common clothing article,” Todd says. Eliot just stares, unimpressed. “And uh, maybe having my own style isn’t that important to me.”
“Well yeah, that much is obvious.”
“Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery?” he tries.
“Well, find someone else to flatter, then. And this time, try not to look like a Cabbage Patch doll reject when doing it.”
“Ok, but… you don’t have to be so mean about it.” He’s not wrong. Eliot’s not usually quite this antagonistic, even with Todd. He’s just in a bad mood. His classes are already going poorly, even this soon into term, some first year came through and left their library in complete disarray, and this is testing the last of his patience.
But he doesn’t want to admit that. Not to Todd, where it’s give an inch, be forced to take a million overly appreciative thank you’s and compliments and, God forbid, a hug. So instead he says, “I’ll say whatever the fuck I want,” and tries ignoring the twinge he feels at the hurt look that flashes quickly across Todd’s face.
“Ok, whatever, Eliot. Just, maybe you should think about why you treat people so badly.”
“Excuse me? And what reason is that?”
“Nothing, sorry, I should –“ he motions vaguely to the stairs.
“No, I’m on the edge of my seat here. What were you going to say?”
“I think…” Todd gulps and almost looks like he’s going to retreat to his room. But then he says, “I think you weren’t popular as a kid, and now that you have a chance to be, here, you use it to pick on anyone who lets you.” Eliot freezes.
“That’s a lot of fucking assumptions, Todd,” he says icily. Everyone usually just assumes that Eliot’s always been… well, Eliot. Elegant and sophisticated and maybe more than a little stuck-up, from some rich family who sent him to prep schools and let him take vacations with his other rich friends on private yachts. No one has ever…
“But I’m right, aren’t I? You know, you’re not as mysterious and…” he flails his arms around, “and whatever, as you seem to think. And it’s… it’s just such a fucking cliché, right? I don’t get why… why there has to be like, this social hierarchy, here. We’re adults.”
“Oh, please,” Eliot says. “I get that you’re trying to pull a High School Musical, we’re all in this collectively, or whatever it’s called. But you’re just as excited to be the center of attention as anyone.” He takes a step closer to Todd and lowers his voice. “Last year when me and Margo were at Encanto, you loved it. Finally getting to be the star of the show. Your big chance to prove to everyone how cool you really are.”
Todd looks a bit uncomfortable at how close Eliot’s gotten, but he doesn’t move away. “So you hate me for being like you, then.”
“I never said I hate you,” Eliot says quietly. They’re making direct eye contact now, and he feels this weird charge in the air between them. He doesn’t want to dwell on it, so he takes a step backwards and brings his hand up to straighten his tie.
“It’s just kind of hypocritical, don’t you think?” Eliot says as he walks toward the door. “And don’t fucking compare yourself to me,” he adds before shutting the door behind him.
There are a lot of annoying things about Todd. But maybe the worst is the way he acts so genuinely nice all the time. At least, he does a good job of making it look genuine. Eliot doesn’t believe it for a second. Just in the last few hours, he’s helped someone translate a passage in Icelandic, loaned someone his favorite board game, made tea for someone he noticed had a cough, and volunteered to escort some random first year off campus for a whole day to make sure they get back ok.
“God, no one ever warned me that second year would be so hard,” a girl who’s in some of Eliot’s classes groans. “There’s more homework than there is time in the day.”
“Ugh, don’t get me started,” Eliot says. “Principles of Matter is kicking my ass.”
“I took that class last semester,” Todd pipes up from across the room. Had he just been listening in on Eliot's conversation? Typical. “I can take you through it.”
“Why?” Eliot asks. They aren’t friends, and helping him with this homework is bound to take at least an hour.
“Because you’re having a hard time with it, and I can help?” Todd says, sounding honestly confused. And that’s what’s so annoying about it. He acts like he doesn’t even realize that not everyone would give up an hour of their time to help someone who isn’t even nice to them. It’s off-putting. Eliot can’t understand the motivation behind it.
He raises an eyebrow. “So you’ve established that you’re not going to do things when I ask you to, but suddenly you’re just happy to give up an hour of your time to help me with my homework?”
“Well, they’re different things,” Todd says easily. “This time, I’m offering to help, you’re not ordering me to.”
Eliot sighs. He really does need help or this assignment isn’t getting done. “Fine, far be it from me to turn down something freely offered. Let’s start with Problem 2. What do you remember about inducing phase changes?”
As it turns out, Todd is, begrudgingly, an excellent tutor. He’s patient, and good at explaining things, and is actually a damn good magician, which you’d never realize just from knowing him. He doesn’t flaunt it like other people. Like how Eliot himself will throw around spells at parties with added flourishes for that extra wow factor. Because what’s the point of magic without showing it off?
But it gets Eliot thinking – does he really know Todd? Maybe his impressive skills with magic would have been obvious if he’d been paying attention. He had decided Todd wasn’t someone worth paying attention to, but maybe. Maybe that was a bit premature. At least, given his apparent usefulness when it comes to Eliot’s GPA. Natural talent and bribes may have been enough to get Eliot through his first year, but this semester things are really starting to pick up. They’re only two weeks in and he’s already behind.
After Todd helped him finish his assignment yesterday, they’d arranged to meet up this afternoon to work on the Electromagnetism: Theory and Manipulation (which everyone calls ETM, pronounced “eat-em”) homework together. If he has to put up with Todd’s annoying traits for a few hours to understand how the hell magic makes it possible for current to flow in an open circuit, he’ll gladly make the trade-off.
Now, they’re sitting on a bench outside Botany Bay, and Eliot’s thoughts haven’t veered far from the fact that this class has got to be the absolute worst thing he’s ever had the misfortune of spending his time on. Typical Circumstances don’t apply to this type of magic – even worse, half the time making the usual modifications to a spell can make it go dangerously wrong. It finally makes sense why electronics are so strictly banned on campus. So it’s like they’re all back to being first years, memorizing a complete new set of tables and rules and exceptions, and exceptions to the exceptions. And they’ve barely done any magic at all. He’s been trying to get this one spell working all week, and it isn’t even going to do anything exciting when it finally does work. All that’s supposed to happen is flipping a magnet’s polarity. It’s worse than all the lame things they’d done with the marbles in PA last year.
Eliot runs through the spell again and curses when nothing at all happens.
“Oh, I think the issue is you’re forgetting how the time of day interacts with the nearest body of water.”
“Yeah, I got that, see the table says you’re supposed to make the Standard Babbage Adjustment to Popper 5.”
“Right, but then remember that between noon and 7PM, you have to make Bernoulli Adjustment 18 – or 19, depending on your blood type – on top of any adjustments already applied to the third or fourth finger.”
Eliot stares at him blankly. “Please tell me you’re making that up.”
“No, it’s… it was in our reading last week. Well, it was in the appendix…”
“I hate this class. Ok, the Beefaroni Adjustment. What is it?”
Todd snorts, and then proceeds to explain the obnoxiously subtle way it changes the finger positionings. Sometimes it really seems like Dr. Seuss must have invented magic with how ridiculous it all is. Eliot tries the modification a few times, but it’s still not working.
“I could fix it, if you just,” Todd starts to move his hands toward Eliot’s but then backs away. “Um, with your middle finger, you just have to…” Again, he moves his hands to almost touch Eliot’s fingers, and then brings them back down to his lap.
“You can touch me Todd, I’m not going to chop off your hands.”
He puts Eliot’s fingers into position, and as Eliot moves through the tuts, it’s like his magic is being amplified, somehow. He’s had professors help him like this before, but it’s never quite felt like this, like there’s this static energy surrounding his hands right where they meet Todd’s. It’s growing stronger the further into the spell he’s getting, building and pulling him to keep going, the spell begging to be completed and -
“Todd! What’s up, man?” The feeling fizzles away as Todd pulls his hands away quickly.
“Oh, hey Blake! How’d that quiz go for you?”
Jesus, how many friends does Todd have? This has to be the third person to see him from the complete opposite side of the courtyard and decide that they just had to come run over to say hi. Eliot’s always thought he was perfectly happy with his level of social interaction. He has Margo, and they’re unstoppable together. And it isn’t that he wants to change that, exactly. He loves Bambi. It’s always been the two of them together against everyone else. And he loves the together part. But the against everyone else… maybe that doesn’t have to be such a fundamental part of their relationship.
They wrap up soon after Blake leaves. Eliot finally gets the spell right on his next try, and Todd gives him an enthusiastic high five, which Eliot returns with surprisingly little reluctance. It feels good to have finally succeeded. And for someone else to seem genuinely excited about it, well, that doesn’t feel too bad either. They decide to make it a weekly thing. Eliot could certainly use the extra help.
When Eliot gets back to the cottage, he immediately heads over to where Margo is reading on the couch. He sits down next to her, close enough that their legs are touching, and leans over to see what she’s reading. Principles and Practices of Cryomancy. Yuck.
“And where were you all afternoon?” Margo says, draping herself over his lap and bringing a hand up to pet his hair. She puts the book down on her stomach and looks up at him.
“Sunderland’s having me meet with her weekly about this project she’s excited about. Thinks it could be a good thesis topic for me. I guess it fits particularly well with my discipline.” The lie comes out more quickly than he can even process. But so what if he doesn’t want to tell Margo where he is every second of every day? She’s never had trouble with grades the way that Eliot has, and maybe he doesn’t want to share his secret weapon with anyone. Plus, if Margo starts coming to their study sessions, the whole vibe will shift. Eliot’s proven himself capable of behaving around Todd, but he’s not so sure Margo would be as willing.
“Really?” She raises an eyebrow. “You’re thinking about your thesis already? We don’t have to deal with that shit for another year.”
“I know, it sucks. But I don’t think I really have much choice in the matter. Besides, it can’t hurt to be a bit ahead.” Margo keeps looking at him appraisingly before finally shrugging and picking up her book.
The next Friday, Eliot’s sitting in their usual spot waiting for Todd. He’s completely lost about what they covered this week, and is really hoping Todd was paying better attention. After a few minutes, Todd slides up on the bench across from Eliot with a groan, yet he’s somehow also smiling at the same time. Classic Todd. “Hot today, yeah? I overheard Dean Fogg the other day talking to Brzezinski about testing out some new weather spells.” Then his usual cheer comes back in full force. “Maybe they’ll actually let it snow here this year! I’ve been waiting to try out some cooperative magic for building a snow sculpture. I have this design planned where…”
But Eliot isn’t paying attention. He’s too busy staring at the sight in front of him. Todd is wearing a tight red short-sleeved button-up with the top three buttons undone, exposing his bare chest and clinging to his body. Eliot swallows. It can’t be. It’s impossible. Is Todd… hot? He’s known Todd for over a year now, but he’s never spent much time really looking at him. And he’s almost certain that he’s never seen him wear short sleeves or undo a single button. Because this, Eliot certainly would have noticed. Todd is surprisingly muscular, a single bead of sweat running down one of his well-toned pecs. Eliot follows it with his eyes as it travels down below his shirt, then lets his gaze fall down to his stomach where he can faintly see the outline of his abs…
“What do you think?” Eliot blinks and looks at Todd, who’s giving him an expectant grin.
“Sure Todd,” he says quickly. “So, dielectric waveguides. What are they and why do we care?”
Whatever, this is fine. If Eliot gets the added bonus of a nice view to go along with his studying, he’s not going to complain about it.
“Ugh, that test was actually the worst,” Margo groans as they walk back to the Cottage. “I knew I did badly, but a C-? Really? Number 3 was just cruel, they throw in trick questions like that just to fuck with us.”
“Well, you know the professors here, they take every chance they get to beat in the whole ‘with every spell, there are exceptions’ spiel.”
“How’d you do?”
“Oh, you know…” he shrugs.
“Lemme see your number 4, I’m not at all convinced by this comment Van der Weghe gave.”
“Um, I left that one blank,” he says quickly, moving his test a bit out of reach.
“Well let me just see what she wrote, I can barely read this solution she scribbled on mine.”
“No, she uh, she didn’t write anything for me.”
“El, just let me see it.” Her eyes go wide. “Fuck, did you fail? We can start doing the homeworks together if it’ll help. You need to pass this class. I am not letting you cock out on me and leave me to take ETM II alone next semester.”
She snatches the paper from him and her mouth opens in disbelief. “You got an A? El, if you’re getting exam answers from somewhere, sharing is caring.”
“Is it so hard to believe that I might have actually earned this A? That I studied for it and know the material?”
She puts her hands on her hips. “When have you ever studied for anything?”
“I just. I want to do well in this class, Bambi. I actually like it.”
She still looks completely baffled. “Uh-huh, you like memorizing tables and dozens of exceptions. They’ve barely even let us do any magic yet.”
He shrugs. “Well, when we finally do get to do magic, I want to be prepared.” She doesn’t look convinced, but finally shakes her head and goes up to her room, presumably to get changed for the party tonight.
Eliot’s in an unusually good mood from his A, and he knows without Todd’s help the past few weeks the test would have been a complete disaster. He can’t let Todd get too big a head over it, but he decides he can throw him a bone as a bit of a thank you. He walks over to where he’s sitting on the couch.
“So, what was that cocktail you were talking about? That you made over the summer?”
Todd’s eyes light up as he rushes to the bar and starts babbling about all the ingredients. “So it’s a play on a Tom Collins, but it uses cucumber vodka, and a blend of fruit juices instead of just simple syrup.”
Eliot’s bracing himself, ready to worst-case have to force the liquid down his throat without spitting it out, best-case have to come up with something to say about a mediocre drink that could at least be interpreted as a compliment. But then he tries it. And. Well that’s just…
Eliot prides himself on knowing what to do in a myriad of possible situations. He’s great at improvising, reading the room, planning for potential party disasters. But this is one scenario that Eliot never saw coming. Has Todd actually made a cocktail that’s… better than anything Eliot’s made all year? God fucking damnit.
“So, what do you think?” Todd says, all puppy-dog eyes. And fuck, usually when Todd does that, it just makes Eliot want to get rid of him even faster. But right now it’s making it even harder to respond in any way that’s less than completely genuine.
“It um… it’s on the sweet side, but overall, not bad.”
“Really?” Todd looks so excited at such a neutral compliment, it kind of makes Eliot’s heart hurt a little. That Todd could be actually good at something and not really believe it. That he could think a “not bad” coming from Eliot is the highest praise he could possibly deserve.
“Yeah, Todd. Not bad at all, in fact...” Eliot doesn’t know why he does it. Whether it’s Todd’s wide eyes, Eliot’s gratefulness for all the study help, or some part of Eliot’s carefully curated persona cracking apart. But he says, “You know, I don’t actually have a signature cocktail planned for tonight.” It’s a complete lie. He spent an hour yesterday perfecting a strawberry-banana-rum smoothie. But he’s quick to add, “Kind of fell behind with the uh, studying and all. We could um, we could use yours.” He rubs a hand through his hair. Why does he feel… nervous? Anxious? He’s not used to giving up control like this, not when it comes to something this near and dear to his heart.
“Really?” Todd asks, his voice quiet.
“I mean, just so I don’t have to throw something together last-minute. Even a Todd-cocktail is better than an Eliot Waugh original made in haste.”
“Oh my God, thank you Eliot!” And then Todd hugs him. Eliot stands there completely stiff, not sure how to respond. “Oh, sorry, sorry,” Todd says, quickly pulling away. But he’s still smiling. “I’m gonna go get changed!”
Eliot sighs. He can’t help but feel like he’s made a huge mistake. But he also feels a small glow of happiness at Todd’s excitement. And that’s just… uncomfortable. He shrugs it off as he goes upstairs to get ready himself.
The party has good turnout, as always. Eliot’s by the bar observing people come in.
“You’ve really outdone yourself this time,” Margo says, holding her drink up. “This is really good.”
“I didn’t make it, actually. Todd did.”
“Really,” she deadpans. “You’re telling me you put Todd in charge of the signature cocktail. El, you don’t even let me help when you’re experimenting with ingredients.”
“Yeah, well, I fell behind, that’s all,” he waves his hand dismissively.
She keeps staring at him with the same expression. “Uh-huh. You fell behind. Preparing for a party.” Eliot shrugs. “Why Todd though? Letting him mix drinks… He can’t even manage to mix milk in with cereal. Seriously, the other day I saw him pour orange juice in his bowl instead of his cup.”
He finds himself getting annoyed at that, for some reason. “I mean, he did a great job at it so it was clearly a fine decision.”
“Ok, jeez, sorry. I didn’t mean to accuse you of poor party judgement. Come on, let’s go dance.” He lets himself be pulled along to the dance floor, shaking away whatever defensiveness he was feeling earlier. An evening dancing with Margo is exactly what he needs.
The topic in ETM this week is refraction, and Eliot and Todd decide to venture out to the pond for a larger body of water to experiment with. Plus it’s a nice day, and Eliot could use the exercise.
Their assignment is to gather a beam of light to shine into water and then make it split into a rainbow like a prism. For this section of the course, they were each given special glasses to help them observe and debug their spellwork. Wearing them lets you watch the light affected by your spell travel at a much slower rate, so you can actually observe precisely how, when, and where it’s bending and reflecting.
“Thanks for agreeing to come all the way out here!” Todd says, all smiles. “I know it’s not ideal, but I think it’ll help our casting.”
“Seems pretty ideal to me,” Eliot says, looking around. He’s never actually been out this far to the edge of campus. It’s gorgeous. There are bushes and flowers surrounding them on nearly all sides, there’s a birdbath in use a little ways away, and Eliot can count at least 3 butterflies in his current field of vision alone. It’s like a scene out of a Disney princess movie. He’s just waiting for someone to start singing and attract all the deer and squirrels from the forest to come join them.
“Oh, yeah! It’s really pretty out here. I just meant the long walk. I know you don’t like spending extra time studying together if you can help it.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Todd… you do realize I don’t mind spending time with you, right? If I did we wouldn’t still be doing this every week.”
“Oh.” Todd blushes and looks away. “Ok. Yeah, that’s. That’s good.”
“Alright, so how should we start this?”
But a mischievous look is growing on Todd’s face. “So would you say you lake spending time with me? That it’s some nice, light bonding?”
It’s dumb. The joke is so fucking dumb. But it’s so out of nowhere that Eliot can’t help but burst out laughing. “Oh my God, don’t ever tell anyone I laughed at that,” he says, still catching his breath. “I’m serious. That was extremely low quality, I expect better.”
Todd grins. “I promise I’ll put more work in next time. Ok, I’ll try casting first.” He stands at the edge of the pond and starts going through the motions of the spell. Eliot looks at the water expectantly. When Todd finishes, a thin rainbow beam travels through the water for about a foot before disappearing. Although, calling it a rainbow is a bit of a stretch. It looked like it had about three colors in it.
“Hmm,” Todd grumbles, grabbing the book and looking carefully at the page. “I don’t know what went wrong.”
“Let me try. Rainbows are, after all, the symbol of my people,” he jokes.
Todd looks up and takes a breath like he’s about to say something, but then closes his mouth. After a moment of hesitation he says, “You know I’m queer too, right?”
Huh. “Didn’t you date that girl last year, what was her name…”
Todd just laughs. “Yeah, Jessie. I did, but I mean, I’m bi.” Interesting. He had definitely pegged Todd as straight, without question. He’s certainly never seen Todd with a guy before. He maybe takes a bit too long processing that information, because Todd awkwardly clears his throat.
“Right. Well, anyway,” Eliot says, “I’m gonna take a stab at it.” He performs the spell, watching the light around his hands gather together and shoot forward towards the water as he executes the last gesture. But just like when Todd cast it, all that happens is a sad-looking rainbow that disappears almost instantly.
“Ooh, I have an idea! I bet if we alter…” Todd kneels down and starts working out equations in his notebook. “Ok, got it!” he says after a few minutes. “This is gonna take both of us. Can you go over to the other side, directly across from me?”
Eliot raises an eyebrow. “We’re not supposed to start cooperative casting until ETM II. Are you sure we’re not gonna accidentally turn this pond into a black hole?”
“It’s not cooperative magic, exactly. It just needs two focal points. We’ll be casting the same thing.”
Eliot shrugs and walks around the pond, getting into position.
“Ok, so we have to cast at the same time,” Todd calls out. “Do what you did before, except leave an extra two second pause between Poppers 8 and 11, and at the end, cross your pinky over your ring finger, not under.” Eliot nods, and on the count of three they begin. Just like before, Eliot can see light starting to bend, filtering into the water. At first when he finishes casting, it doesn’t look much different from last time. But instead of the rainbow fading away, it bounces off the bottom of the pond and travels upward, then bounces back down from the surface. It continues moving like that until meeting Todd’s rainbow in the middle.
As soon as that happens, the beams splinter off in different directions. Every time a beam hits another, it multiplies, intensifying the light in the pond until Eliot can’t see the individual beams anymore. It’s all one brilliant, shimmering rainbow pool. It’s beautiful. Eliot stares at it in awe for a few moments before it starts to die down, the light losing intensity until finally the pond returns to its original state.
“Wow,” Eliot says.
“I know, right!”
Eliot walks back around to Todd’s side of the pond. “I think we’ve earned a cigarette, don’t you think?” he says, offering out his pack. Todd smiles and takes one, lighting it with a quick tut. Eliot does the same.
“My dad would love this,” Todd says. “He’s a magician, works on making interactive art displays. You know, I was talking to Melanie the other day.” Why does Todd know so many people? “She was telling me about how she didn’t know she was a magician until the exam. I can’t imagine going so long without knowing. Do you come from a magical family?”
“No, but uh, I did know about at least some of this stuff before I came here.”
“Oh!” Todd hesitates, looking unsure if it’s ok to ask about it. This isn’t something Eliot likes to talk about. He’s only ever shared it with Margo. But something about Todd’s kind gaze, and the way he clearly doesn’t want to push, makes him decide to open up.
“So, in middle school there was this kid. For some reason he decided to make it his mission to make my life a living hell. God, I hated him. One day I saw him crossing the street, and there was this bus coming… I barely thought the thought.” Todd bites his lip, seeming to understand the implication. “I knew immediately what I’d done, my nose literally started bleeding. He died instantly.” Eliot takes a slow drag of his cigarette, and then with forced lightness says, “And that’s how I discovered I was telekinetic. Fun story, I know, I should tell it at parties.”
Todd doesn’t ask any questions. He doesn’t jump to any kind of judgement. He just nods thoughtfully.
“My little sister got into an accident when she was pretty young. At least, that’s what my parents think. She was up in our treehouse one afternoon, making fun of me for not wanting to climb up. I never liked heights. And she kept throwing things at me. They were just little things – toys, stuffed animals. Nothing that really hurt. But I just kept thinking how much I wanted her to stop, to just shut up and get down already. The next thing I knew, the treehouse was falling down, her along with it.” He pauses for a moment, letting it sink in.
“She hit her head on a rock and ended up with a TBI. It made her get, well, she still gets these really intense mood swings? Like, she can be laughing one minute and then shouting and breaking things the next. It’s gotten a little better over time, but it’s still…” he trails off.
“That sounds really hard.” Eliot can’t think of anything else to say. Because it does sound hard.
“It’s tough to be around her sometimes. Not because of that. You get used to it. I guess I became like, pretty understanding of people because of it. You never know what someone’s going through. And I love her. But whenever she has an outburst I just feel all this guilt, you know? And the thing is, I already knew about magic. That was just my first time ever using it.”
“Well, you were a kid. You didn’t know what you were doing.”
Todd smiles sadly. “Same goes for you.”
Eliot looks at Todd, trying to picture what that must be like. To have had to face your biggest mistake every day growing up and now every time you visit your family. To love someone you know you hurt, and who lashes out during uncontrollable fits of rage. And despite all of that, to still be able to be there for them.
“What?” Todd asks after a while of Eliot looking at him silently.
“Nothing I just… I wish my older brothers had been more like you, that’s all.”
They stand there in silence for a few more minutes. Eliot feels oddly at peace. It doesn’t make what he did to Logan any better, but knowing that someone else experienced something similar… he feels less alone. Finally, he puts out his cigarette.
“We uh, should get back. Party tonight and everything. If I’m not there Margo will kill me.”
Todd clears his throat. “Right. Yeah.”
At the party Eliot finds himself congregating with Todd and some of his friends. He doesn’t know any of them well, but they’re actually kind of… fun to talk to?
“There you are,” Margo says, coming over. “You took for fucking ever with Sunderland today, when did you even get back?”
“Sunderland? What’s this about?” Todd asks. Shit.
Margo rolls her eyes. She doesn’t usually like talking to Todd, but she’s clearly had a few drinks and is apparently feeling extra social. “He’s been meeting with Sunderland every Friday afternoon to work on some kind of secret project.” She glares dramatically at Eliot. “Which sucks, because it means I have to wait an extra three hours before we start drinking together. It goes against Friday tradition.”
Todd looks confused. “Fridays afternoons, but that’s…” And, there it is. He gives Eliot a look that can only be described as pure betrayal. Why does Todd always have to let his emotions show on his face so obviously?
“Wow,” he says, nodding his head up and down and crossing his arms.
“Todd – “
“No, I get it. I don’t know why I even…” He throws his hands up. “Forget it,” he says, and storms out. Fuck. Fuck.
“Well what’s got his panties in a twist?” But then Margo turns to him and must see the devastated look on his face. Her tone immediately shifts to that of concern. “El, honey, what’s wrong?”
Eliot shakes his head while biting his lip, and then, without saying anything to Margo, follows Todd out the door.
“Todd, hey, wait up. Can we talk?” Todd keeps walking, but Eliot catches up and puts a hand on his shoulder. “Come on, just give me a minute to explain.”
Todd stops walking, and after a beat, spins around. “What’s there to even explain, Eliot? You’re just too embarrassed to be seen with stupid, annoying Todd, huh? Wouldn’t want anyone to know we’re hanging out? Well, you wouldn’t even call it that, would you? We’re just ‘studying.’” He actually does the air quotes. “Because the idea of being friends with me is just that unbearable to you.”
“Todd,” Eliot says, some urgency in his tone. “That’s not it. Margo can be – “
“And it’s so rich. Just today, we… you told me… But it’s all just calculated, right? You could tell that I – “ He takes a deep breath. “You knew and… you just didn’t want to lose your study tool. So you…”
Eliot’s trying to figure out what exactly Todd’s talking about, but he’s more distracted by the devastated look on his face. His voice is breaking and it seems like he might actually cry.
“Hey, Todd, no.” He grabs Todd’s hands, starting to feel desperate. He needs him to listen. “It wasn’t that I was too embarrassed to be seen with you. God, we study outside in a fucking public courtyard, we’ve obviously been seen together.”
“Then why? Why lie to Margo about it?”
He drops Todd’s hands and looks away before blurting out, “I wanted to spend time alone with you! I… I didn’t want to share you.”
He glances back up at Todd. He looks shocked, but swallows and says carefully, as if trying to convince himself, “So… so that I’d be helping just you. So that you’d have the most access to all the homework help.” And he’s not exactly wrong. At least, that’s what Eliot had told himself when he’d first told Margo his whole Sunderland lie. But there was always more to it, wasn’t there?
“For the love of… do you always have to assume the worst about me? More than that, you’re assuming the worst about yourself. There are other reasons someone might want to spend time with you, you know.”
Todd looks hopeful for just a second before it disappears. “Yeah, well, not in my experience,” he mutters.
Eliot laughs incredulously. “You have more friends here than probably anyone else at this school. People are constantly coming up to talk to you.”
“Yeah, well... they’re not…” He looks right into Eliot’s eyes, hesitating. “It seems like whenever I try to make someone like me, I just end up doing the opposite.” He’s staring at Eliot pretty pointedly.
“You try too hard,” Eliot says, stepping forward and putting his hand on Todd’s arm, just below his shoulder. His eyes go wide at the touch. They’re standing a mere few inches apart, and Eliot’s never really noticed before, the way Todd’s eyes somehow manage to sparkle even when there’s barely any surrounding light. Todd’s lips part, and before he even consciously thinks the thought, Eliot leans in.
At first the kiss is tentative. Tense, even. Eliot wasn’t expecting this evening, or any evening really, to go this way. But then, it all makes perfect sense, doesn’t it? Of course this is where things have been leading all along, Eliot’s just been refusing to acknowledge the reality of it. The kiss so far is odd. Eliot’s stomach feels fluttery in a way that’s completely unfamiliar to him. He never gets like this. He’s no stranger to lust, sure, but this isn’t that. This is… this is…
Todd cups his cheek, and for some reason that’s what finally sends him over the edge. He allows himself to fully melt into it with a soft moan, opening his mouth to meet Todd’s tongue. And now there’s definitely lust on top of whatever the hell the other thing is. He brings his hand up to Todd’s hair, and God, it’s so soft. Like, really soft. Eliot’s kind of jealous of how soft it is. He buries both hands in it, and he wants to pull but something doesn’t seem right about that, not yet. Right now he just wants to hold Todd close to him and feel his heartbeat against his chest and – what the fuck? Get it together, Waugh.
“Come upstairs with me,” Eliot says after what feels like entire minutes have passed.
Todd grins. “You know, I thought I made it pretty clear I’m not gonna let you order me around anymore.”
Eliot rolls his eyes. “Todd. Would you please do me the honor of coming upstairs with me? Better?”
Todd grabs his hand and they quickly make their way to Eliot’s room.
“So how was it?” Margo asks with an outright smirk as soon as he comes downstairs the next morning.
“Whatever do you mean, Bambi?” Eliot asks, trying and failing to keep the smile off his face.
“Oh, please, everyone saw you and Todd race upstairs like your dicks were about to explode, and your afterglow right now is making me wish I had sunglasses. So spill.”
“You know. Study buddies. Fuck buddies. What’s the difference, really?”
“El. I saw the way you looked when he stormed out yesterday. You’re really telling me that’s all it is?”
Just then Todd bursts into the kitchen, his top buttons undone and his hair mussed, and he looks so hot like that, even Margo is staring with raised eyebrows. “I am super late!” he says, and then he kisses Eliot softly on the lips. It’s a quick ‘see you later’ kiss, and Eliot’s never really had that before. His heart does a stupid fluttery thing and he thinks he might even be blushing, so he quickly takes a bite of his bagel.
“Case and point,” Margo says, giving him a look.
Todd leans over the counter to grab a muffin to go, and in doing so spills Margo’s coffee.
“Shit, sorry Margo!” he says. Fortunately, Eliot’s learned to be quick at recognizing when Todd’s movements are about to lead to disaster, and with a flick of his wrist he catches most of the coffee and swirls it back into Margo’s cup as Todd rushes out the door.
“Fucking Todd,” Margo says, rolling her eyes.
Eliot gives her a wide grin. “Yeah I am.”