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Something Good

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Quentin Coldwater followed the sheet of paper as it flew stubbornly in the wind, through the alleyway and over the gate. His Yale interview had gone smoothly and the head of the Philosophy department seemed interested, maybe even impressed with his epistemological emphasis. But he was pretty sure successful applicants were able to keep their shit—and their materials—together enough for at least five goddamn minutes. Cursing under his breath, he forced his decidedly unathletic body to climb over the wrought iron and slam gracelessly onto the hard asphalt below.

But when the soles of his loafers hit the ground, his toes weren’t accosted by the harshness of concrete and urine. Instead, he was bathed in the brightest, softest light he’d ever seen and grass cushioned his fall. He stood dumbstruck, staring at the change around him. Time had fucked itself, and it was the middle of the day, rather than an empty evening. In the distance, a towering palace of higher learning loomed, reading BRAKEBILLS UNIVERSITY in ivory-tower carved stone.

His mind racing, he went over his pill combinations in his head, wondering if he’d somehow fucked with his dosages. Or maybe—shit, maybe he’d taken the wrong pills without thinking? He had more bottles littered in his medicine cabinet than the whole of Staten Island beach. He knew firsthand that hallucinations weren’t an uncommon side effect. In fact, plenty of the shit he’d been prescribed over the years had the giant warning written in bold lettering on the side of the stark white pharmacy gift bags his medications came in. Also, one time, when he took too much Ambien, too soon before bed, he’d imagined he was on the bow of a great ship, rocking back and forth over the waves. He ran around his room, delirious and giddy, wondering if it were possible to fly the sails into the moon or out into oblivion.

Another time, he thought he was a Keebler Elf. That was slightly less poetic.

That morning, he’d taken his Zoloft and half an extended-release capsule of lithium, under his therapist’s recommendation. As far as he knew, there was nothing in the side effects either individually or together that could account for such a vast, detailed hallucination, so it was probably his broken brain having yet another meltdown. Exactly what he fucking needed. But his heart refused to follow this garden path, as a previously unforetold joy and excitement built within his ventricles in every moment he spent in this beautiful, delirious new reality.

Quentin held his arms out and the warming sun brought up the hairs to a delightful standstill. He valiantly fought the urge to twirl.

Stepping forward with a quickening pace, he was pulled into the mirage, his veins and lungs filling with…something ineffable, something intangibly gorgeous that he’d never experienced before. It was fucked up to think, he knew, but he wanted to stay in this hallucination, more than he’d ever wanted to stay in any of his other escapes, even the ones that he sought in books and movies and music and the crevices of his own mind. This felt real and true. More real and true than anything he’d ever experienced in the world he knew was actually real and true. This mysterious college campus—all bright greens and whites—was like the first time he’d heard Mozart. Times about a billion.

He was rambling now. In his own head. A new low. But shit—who the fuck could blame him?

When he finally reached the stairs of the large building, once in the wild, mind-blowing distance, Quentin stopped and gaped around, his mouth catching flies. His eyes landed on a figure in front of him, like a sanity beacon. It was like proof that he wasn’t crazy, that he wasn’t completely losing his mind and dissociating like all of his doctors always feared he would, deep into Fillory. 

No, right in front of him, like it was the most natural thing in the world, sat a young man. Legs dangling awkwardly over the stone, he was reading a book called Practical Applications, Vol. II and held a small card in his hand. Upon hearing Quentin’s approaching footsteps, he looked up and his young, attractive face smiled, revealing a row of white teeth against olive skin.

“Well, hey there!” He said, cheering out his hand into a big wave that immediately set Quentin at ease. Well, at least at as much ease as Quentin was ever set and especially in a large-scale, intoxicating hallucinatory paradigm shift. So, not at much ease at all. But still, Quentin was even happier and slightly calmer. He felt seen, which was more than he could say for the rest of his life.

“Uh, hi?” Quentin said, not exactly knowing what to do with his hands or knowing where he was or what the fuck and holy shit, was he about to have a panic attack? But his unfettered energy was too joyful, too focused. This liveliness, eagerness flowing through every part of his soul was an entirely new experience. It was mostly pleasant, except that he was pretty sure he was about to vomit glitter.

“You must be—” He looked down at the card, then back up at Quentin with a grin and an outstretched hand. “Quentin Coldwater, right? Nice to meet you, I’m Todd.”

“Hey Todd,” he said, batting his eyes around, trying to be polite but holy shit. “Where—?”

“Brakebills University.” The baby-faced stranger smiled somehow even wider and dropped his hand, not commenting on Quentin’s seeming lack of interest in social customs. “Before you ask, no, this isn’t a hallucination. This is a graduate program in Upstate New York.”

Upstate New York. Upstate New York. There was…he’d just been in the Village. There was no way he could be in Upstate New York. Quentin hadn’t exactly enjoyed AP Physics, but he’d done well enough to know that walking six feet to the left in a city didn’t usually mean you’d end up fifty miles north.

“How, uh, how the fuck did I get here?” He asked, rubbing the back of his neck compulsively, breathing deeply to gather more and more of that ineffability in the air, the one that kept him on solid ground and fucking happier than he’d been since…

Ever.

Since ever.

“Oh, you’ll find out,” Todd said with a laugh. “Though I think in your heart of hearts, you know.”

Magic.

The word came unbidden, without pretense. Quentin felt his mouth do something then that it hadn’t done in months, maybe years. He smiled. It was bright and wide, and took up his whole face. His eyes crinkled and his eyebrows raised high into his hair, lightening the tension that had weighed him down his whole life. He realized now what he’d been feeling—it was the discovery of a new sense. It was like he was hearing or seeing or touching for the first time in his life, all over again, at age 23.

“You’ve been invited to take a preliminary exam, but don’t worry,” Todd winked. “I can tell we’re going to be seeing a lot of each other from now on.”

 


 

 

Julia was there too. Julia was there too. Julia was there too.

Throwing herself headlong into his arms, they gasped and twirled, laughing like they hadn’t since they were kids. She kissed his cheek and his heart didn’t even ache with the relentless longing that had plagued him for so long. In fact, as he pulled her back from his chest, he looked at her with new eyes, ones that didn’t completely hate himself for not being good enough, handsome enough, normal enough to win her heart. Now, he saw her for the incredible, big-hearted friend she’d always been…and one who was his true peer. Maybe their connection wasn’t romantic. Maybe it wasn’t even based in deep familial-like bonds, forged from childhood. Maybe, just maybe, it was magical. Literally fucking magical. Maybe they were finally complete and whole, and this was everything they’d known and dreamed of for so long.

“Holy shit, Q,” she said, her eyes glowing up at him and he returned the smile tenfold. “We were right.”

“We were goddamn right, Jules.”

Squealing, she threw her arms back around him and they fell to the floor, and Quentin Coldwater had never felt so free and light in his entire life. This was the beginning of something grand. The beginning of something true. Of something good. Fucking finally.

 


 

Over the next few weeks, Quentin pushed into the deep end of magic, in all its beauty, strangeness, and difficulty. The schoolwork itself was brutal, but not impossible. He found places where he was adept. He was particularly good at anything to do with mathematical differential calculations regarding the minutiae of magical formulations, particularly in regard to physical substances. The more minor the detail, the stronger his work. The first time he successfully changed the tempered essence of iron to nickel, the high was like how he'd imagine it would feel to fuck a rainbow (a type of marijuana, rumor had it, he’d actually be able to get his hands on, if he so chose.)

Most of magic was like this; there were no wands, no simple Accios shouted across the room, no trolls in the dungeon. Just a lot of hard, diligent work, pressed upon them relentlessly by the aloof, demanding faculty. And while Quentin had found something that felt a little bit like a niche, it turned out he was decidedly mediocre at everything else. He supposed that magic couldn’t change everything in his life. Besides, Magicians, it turned out, tended to be particularly remarkable people in their own right: preternaturally beautiful, genius, and fluent in multiple languages, living and dead. Two out of three wasn’t bad for him, he figured, as he reflected on his own 148 IQ and swiftly translated his Sanskrit for his latest liquidation exercises. Still, he was he was glad to have Julia by his side since she was, no surprise, a fucking badass at everything thrown at her. They spent hours in the library or on the quad, poring over their books and practicing their tuts, growing in depth and breadth with each passing day.

But unlike any other part of their dull prior lives, Quentin wasn’t totally in Julia’s shadow. Mostly, sure, but he’d actually made a friend of his own. Todd, his initial exam guide, had gone out of his way to check in on him. Todd was a really good guy, affable and funny, and far more gentle than anyone Quentin had ever been friends with in the past. At Columbia, he’d mostly run with the fedora’d nerd groups, all sharp and acerbic in their latest gatekeeping frenzies. But here, he felt at ease in Todd’s presence, with magic as their foundation.

“Everyone has their own introduction to magic. That can help determine your discipline,” Todd said brightly, passing his hand around the green of the campus and over several groups of students, all doing different and interesting work, out in the open. “What do you think triggered magic for you?”

Fillory and Further,” Quentin said without hesitation. Todd’s face lit up and for a brief moment, his heart leapt. “You’re familiar?”

“Oh sure, I read the first one when I was a kid. Then it got a little too complicated,” he said with a laugh. “I’m not that imaginative. But hey, man, that’s a really awesome way to get in touch with your connection to magical energy. You’ll have to tell me more about the series sometime.”

Warm in his easy acceptance, Quentin promised Todd that, sometime, he would do just that.

 


 

It also wasn’t long until he realized that Todd was also apparently a conduit to the famed Party House. He and Julia heard about it early on, when a pudgy, bespectacled, yet weirdly alluring third year walked through their halls, telling them to come one, come all to “the Cottage,” and described it as a rare opportunity to party with the professionals. Julia hadn’t been feeling well, so they begged off that night to read Fillory at Magic School, a rare and exciting sounding bonding experience at the time.

…And then they immediately regretted their decision when they heard their classmates talk the next day.

“Holy shit, you two are such losers,” Penny, his intimidating and awful roommate, shook his head at them over lunch. “You skipped it because of the sniffles? To read kids’ books? It was fucking epic. Drink fountains, drugs with no hangovers, fucking orgies like it was no big thing.”

“You’re really not getting our vibe here, are you?” Julia asked, amused. “You think the idea of orgies is going to entice me?”

“I’m just saying it was a fucking bacchanal,” he said, blushing a little under his firm eye roll. “And it would’ve been more fun if you were there.”

Then he looked at Quentin, “Not you, though.”

…That tracked.

However, it quickly became clear that the typical parties there were exclusive: Physical Kids only or those deemed worthy by one of the elusive hosts, apparently an attractive, man-eating pair of beautiful, impossibly charismatic people. That is, exactly the types who would never give Quentin the time of day, even in the world where his confidence levels were soaring with every magic lesson. But when he mentioned it to Todd, he immediately laughed and beckoned him along to the Cottage, not even in a month into term.

Following Todd’s footsteps eagerly, Quentin walked up a small brick pathway and into a quaint, lovely mid-century modern living room, with amber light, soft rock music, and more attractive people than Quentin had ever seen in his entire life, all fucked up and tipsy on some new kind of magic. The bespectacled man was in the corner, hawking his inventions, including a cake that supposedly would make every hair follicle on your head have an orgasm, for ten solid minutes.

“This,” Todd said with wide arms and a grin, “is the Physical Kids’ cottage. Also known as, where yours truly hangs his hat and his heart every night. Not to boast, but we’re the best group on campus. And we have the best drinks.”

He grabbed a suspiciously bright blue cocktail off a bar cart and handed it to Quentin, who thanked him with a dubious nod, not really sure what he was in for. He was already used to magic being this grave, serious endeavor, so it almost felt sacrilegious to imbibe. But as he was about to take his first sip into the great unknown, a strong hand, adorned in several silver rings, grabbed it out from under him with a tetchy sigh.

“Todd,” the man next him said darkly, in a deep and haughty baritone. He was tall and well-coiffed, and staring past Quentin like he wasn’t even there. “You know the rules. Your little friend here needs to earn his keep before he gets the good stuff.”

“Come on,” Todd said with a sycophantic smile, looking upward. “I can vouch for him.”

“That’s supposed to move me?” He asked with a snort. “A vouch from the illustrious Todd?”

Quentin’s stomach angrily gutted itself, annoyed at his cruel tone.

Todd, though, in a shocking move, literally bowed. “All homage, of course, to The Party King.”

Curious what could invoke such an absurd reaction, Quentin turned his attention fully at the intruder and his neck automatically pulled back into his shell, like a turtle. He was… unlike anyone Quentin had ever seen before in his entire life. Being a not strictly heterosexual man, his pulse raced slightly as his eyes trailed up a silk vest and shirt, to a pocket-watch casually draped across a broad chest, and up to a defined and handsome face. Quentin swallowed and his lips twitched, but his brain stopped him where he stood:

Out of your league, shithead.

Entirely accurate, he realized, as the man in question sipped the cocktail he’d taken from Quentin possessively, despite the carved flask dangling casually in his other hand. There was both a light and a darkness to him, intoxicating and potent. With unreasonably nonchalant dark, curled hair and striking green-brown eyes, the man held himself like a cigarette in a holder, prim and delicate, yet commanding and bold at the same time. And incidentally, he was also glaring at Todd like he was worth less than a thousand of the worst versions of Quentin inside his fucked up mind’s eye.

“Um, I’m Quentin,” he said, filling the tense, awkward silence, suave as ever.

“Charmed, I’m sure,” the man said, still not making eye contact. Quentin suspected that he was actually entirely un-charmed, but that was nothing new. He shook his head derisively, and pointed Quentin and Todd to the other side of the room. “Fuck off now. You know exactly where the well drinks are.”

Like a glass shattering, Quentin unthinkingly rushed in defense of his new friend.

“You’re not literally a king, you know that, right?” Quentin said, an out-of-body experience. “You can’t just boss people around. Todd lives here too.”

Now, he looked at him. Slowly slitting his eyes over to Quentin, he traced them up and down his whole form, calculating. For a brief moment, his lips formed into a perfect rounded shape and his eyebrows pressed together, leveling Quentin with an inscrutable, intense gaze. It made Quentin’s heart leap into his throat. But then, the man laughed quietly and shook his head, obviously having determined him unimpressive.

“Watch yourself, Todd’s Friend,” he said, like it was the worst thing Quentin could be. “Learn the lay of the land before you declare any wars.”

What the fuck?

“What the fuck?” Quentin said. “Who said anything about war? I’m just advocating for—”

“First years don’t get to advocate shit,” he said, cutting him off lightly, matter-of-factly. “We’ll see if you’re even around in a few weeks. After that, feel free to attempt a dethroning coup. I always enjoy a spectacular suicide mission.”

He smiled and goddamn, Quentin hated himself for the thump in his chest and the unsteadiness in his dizzy legs. He knew guys like this. The city was full of them and typically, Quentin found them exhausting and try-hard. But there was an ease and a magnetism to the man standing before him—a man whose name he didn’t even know, because he’d obviously deemed Quentin far too below him to even offer that slight social courtesy.

Asshole.

Anger re-bubbling in his chest, commingled with the frustration at his own attraction to this total dickhead, Quentin narrowed his eyes and opened his mouth, about to tell this...whoever-the-fuck exactly how spectacular the dethroning would be. It would be a false bravado, of course. Quentin couldn’t dethrone a toilet seat. But it would have felt really good nonetheless.

But before he could speak, Todd grabbed Quentin’s arm urgently, with a nervous laugh, directed right at the man’s bored, beautiful face.

“Sorry, he doesn’t know any better,” Todd said, chastened and pulling Quentin towards the couch, where a few bottles of shitty liquor were stored. “We’ll get out of your hair.”

“Best you do,” the man said, straightening himself up and twisting his mouth into a bitter little smirk. “Au revoir, Todd. Todd’s Friend.”

Turning on the balls of his feet, he glided off, leaving the cocktail on the bar cart, not even half-gone. A power move, if Quentin had ever seen one. Meanwhile, Todd was squirreling into him into the couch, casting his eyes backwards behind his shoulder, watching The Party King’s exit with a visceral anxiety.

“Don’t embarrass me like that again, please,” Todd said, trying to sound intimidating but it came out sweet nonetheless.

“Sorry,” Quentin said with a shrug. “He was just kind of being an asshole.”

“Of course he’s an asshole. He’s earned it,” Todd hissed. “That’s Eliot Waugh.”

Todd said his name like it was supposed to mean something.

“Okay…?” Quentin assumed that Eliot must be one of the notorious hosts of the parties the Cottage was known for. But honestly, his reputation proceeded him more than any of his personal details. And at this point, he wasn’t really sure how interested he was in either aspect of him. Or any aspect of him, he thought, a liar as usual.

“Wow, you have so much to learn,” Todd said, pulling out a bottle of nondescript grocery-store label whiskey; exactly zero magic included. “Drink up and listen…”

 


  

And so began Quentin’s introduction to the Cottage, which quickly became his second home, after Julia’s room. He and Todd would sit around the coffee table, playing Magic the Gathering on weekend days while the cool kids slept, and drinking, smoking, dancing anything they could get their hands on during the weekend nights, all between intensive study sessions. Technically speaking, Quentin still wasn’t invited to the parties, but with Todd’s help, they were able to get in once the ragers were, well, raging in earnest, when even the hosts—Eliot and a breathtakingly stunning woman called Margo—were too fucked up to give a shit about their own elitism.

It was a nice change of pace, having a friend of his own. He and Todd didn’t really have a lot in common, but they both gave a shit about things the way nerds were wont to do and it was…nice. Even Julia took a liking to Todd, though she found him a bit “peculiar,” in her words.

“Nice guy for sure,” she said one evening in the library. “Just…can’t put my finger on it. I think he wants to be a lot cooler than he is.”

“Sounds like me,” Quentin said with an eyebrow raise. But Julia shook her head.

“No, you know who you are,” she said firmly. “I think Todd’s still learning. Maybe you can rub off on him a little.”

But most of all, Quentin was becoming more and more at peace with himself, as the days and weeks went by. It was nearing Halloween now, a holiday that Eliot had apparently declared “gauche” and so was uncelebrated on campus. But what Quentin loved about this time of year was the quiet coolness, the still warmth. It was the straddling of seasons, the witching hour of the year. It was built for the solitude his body and heart craved, but his brain never gave him the chance to enjoy and explore. Breathing in the scent of bonfires and fresh air, Quentin settled back against the tree on the quad and opened his book—The Flying Forest—with a relish, the ambient noise and sparkle of magic permeating his soul.

The words flowed over him in their gorgeous familiarity and sunk him into his favorite world so entirely, that he didn’t even notice the warm body next to him until he flipped a page and caught a sudden glimpse of svelte, bare legs pressed up against his jeans. Jumping, he almost dropped his book as he realized that Margo Hanson was reading over his shoulder.

“Um, can I help you?” He asked, instinctually closing the book in on itself, so she couldn’t see. But she rolled her eyes at his startle and clicked her tongue against her top teeth, forcefully plucking the book out from his hands.

“What’s this?” She asked, flipping it over itself. “A second edition?”

“Yeah, it’s, uh, it’s a second edition from the American run, post-war,” he said, before biting his tongue and shaking his head. “Not that you care about that.”

“Not about the publishing details, no,” Margo said, opening the book. “But these books are…”

“Nerdy bullshit, I know,” Quentin said, snatching it back. Her eyes widened.

“I was going to say my absolute favorites.” She crossed her arms. “You don’t enjoy them?”

“Enjoy them?” Quentin laughed. “I’m like…a total fanboy, I guess, you’d call it.”

“Well, my social calendar hasn’t allowed me to read a book for pleasure in a little bit,” she said, pushing her hair behind her shoulders, her clavicle displayed with a small amount of shimmer. She was The Party Queen here and everywhere. “But when I saw you, I was struck with so much fucking nostalgia that I had to intrude.”

Quentin gave her a thin smile and a nod before trying to turn back to his story. He was a little uncertain what he could possibly have to say to Margo.

“Which one’s your favorite?” She obviously didn’t have the same problem regarding Quentin. “Of the series, I mean.”

“That’s like asking me to pick between my children.”

She laughed, almost genuinely, “Wow, you are a fuckin’ nerd. Okay, then, Sophie’s Choice me. Gun’s at your head.”

Margo brought her pointer and middle finger together, then cocked her thumb like a trigger. She pressed her long nails against Quentin’s temple and he was suddenly struck with the absurdity of the situation. Margo was everything vivacious, dangerous, and thrilling about Magic school. She'd never spoken to him before tonight and never even looked at him. For the most part, she hung off Eliot's arm like his favorite trophy and the two of them were a true force to be reckoned with. Quentin hated cliches, generally speaking, but the one about being the girl every guy wanted to be with and every girl wanted to be was never more aptly applied. And yet, here she was, forcing him to talk about his one true passion in life, the nerdy, childlike Fillory series, like she actually cared what Quentin Coldwater had to say on the subject. It was actually kind of funny, really.

“Uh, fine,” he said, a smile forming against his will. “I guess the first one. It’s iconic. Introduces the world. And it’s just, um, the one that makes my soul feel like it’s on fire whenever I read the first lines.”

“That’s cute,” she said, bringing her lips together into a smirk. “You’re cute. But you don’t know it, huh?”

“Cute’s a subjective term, I guess,” he said with a shrug and she barked a loud laugh.

“Jesus, okay. Wow,” she shook her head and bit the inside of her cheek. “How do I know you? You look familiar.”

“Well, we go to the same school—”

“A smartass too,” she punched his shoulder a little and Quentin was struck with the strange, weird sensation that she was flirting with him. “But seriously, where have I seen you?”

“Uh, I sometimes come to the Cottage parties, with my friend Todd.”

Then, her eyes flew open and her mouth dropped open, like she’d just won a jackpot. Her open mouth curved up into something like a smile and she appraised him, like she was now interested in each and every part of his features. Quentin swallowed in embarrassment, his cheeks turning slightly pink under her steady gaze before she laughed a little bit. She put her hands on her hips and nodded.

“Oh my god, you’re Todd’s Friend,” she said with a wave of recognition. “I have seen you. And I’ve definitely heard of you. Repeatedly.”

“That can’t be good,” Quentin muttered and Margo pulled her lips down noncommittally.

“Hmm,” she said, twisting a strand of hair around her pointer finger. Then she squinted her eyes, a small laugh on her lips. “Why the fuck are you friends with Todd?”

“Okay, what the hell?” Quentin slammed his book shut and fixed a glare at her pretty face. “Why is there, like, this vendetta against Todd?”

“Vendetta?” She laughed, but Quentin ignored her.

“He’s a nice person. Todd’s actually, um, the only person who’s gone out of his way to be kind to me at this place, other than my best friend,” he said, crossing his arms. “And yeah, he’s a little bit of a brown-noser with that Eliot guy, but it’s not the worst thing. People should chill the fuck out.”

That Eliot guy,” she repeated, a sly smile on her face, seemingly disregarding everything else he’d said.

“Yeah, tall, wears vests, kind of a dick?” Quentin knew that Margo knew who Eliot was, obviously, no shit. But it was beside the point.

“I know him,” she said simply. “He’s the one who told me all about you. Ad-fuckin’-nauseum.”

That was...strange information. Eliot had barely glanced sideways at him since their first interaction and he certainly never gave any indication that he gave three shits about anything Quentin Coldwater related. 

“Wait, what?” He blinked. “I didn’t think I made that much of an impression.”

“Well, new boys don’t usually challenge him. Falling in line is status quo,” she leaned forward into him, all sex and glamour. “You’re quite the Brave Little Toaster, huh?”

“If social ostracism is the only consequence, I’ve been there, done that,” Quentin said dryly. “Even ‘The Party King’ can’t do any, um, actually damaging shit to me. And—and that is a really corny nickname, by the way.”

“Please call him corny to his face. I’d fucking die for it.”

“I have a feeling you aren’t totally motivated by my well being here,” he said with an eye roll and a grip at his messenger bag.

“No, definitely not,” she laughed harder but then tilted her head, taking him in, softer. “So okay, what is your name then?”

“Quentin,” he said, breathing out, averting his eyes. She was far too discerning and intense for his preference. But then, she extended her hand.

“Nice to meet you, Quentin,” she said. “I’m Margo.”

“I know.”

“Of course you do. You’re welcome to hang with me anytime,” she said as Quentin took her hand in his and shook it firmly. She smiled like a sphinx. “And that’s a big fuckin’ offer, so don’t waste it.”

“Um, okay,” he said and she laughed.

“We’re gonna have fun, Quentin,” she said, with a wink. He gulped, not sure if it was a promise or a threat.

“So, uh, which one is your favorite?” Off her confused look, he clarified. “Of the Fillory Books.”

“That one,” she said, pointing down at the book on his lap with a smile. “I know I’m supposed to have a total clit-on for Jane Chatwin, but I always identified more with Rupert. And The Flying Forest really gets into the nitty-gritty of his kingship…”

And as they talked over the next hour about the through-line of the series, female representation, and whether the talking animals ever fucked outside of their own species, Quentin slowly, quickly made his second new friend.

 


 

tbc.

Chapter Text

The handwritten sign on the door was innocuous enough: PHYSICAL KIDS, LET YOURSELF IN. It was completed with a sweet smiley face, an auspicious sign of modern welcome if Quentin Coldwater had ever seen one. But when he touched the doorknob, it burned and electrocuted him at the same time.

“Fuck, shit,” he said in quick succession, snapping his hand back.

The note was literal. A hazing ritual, likely from the mind of that fucker Eliot Waugh. It reeked of his sort of sadistic, patronizing humor. Biting down on his lip in frustration, he shook his head. That guy really was a magnificent dickhead.

Looking around for someone to piggyback off, his fear and frustration grew at the realization of his solitude. For this task, he was apparently on his own. Quentin swallowed. Okay. Okay. Maybe he could think outside of the box here, like all of his elementary school teachers always implored. He tried his best to be like Julia, clever and inventive.

He glanced at the window and something like an idea percolated in his head. Recently, he’d been the only student in Tempered Elements 101 to successfully liquidate glass. Well, other than that Alice girl. Obviously. But working tirelessly with and under Julia’s tutelage continued to give him an unexpected edge, and more than a few people were actually impressed with him that day. And honestly, it had felt really fucking good.

There was no screen behind the big bay window, giving him the best shot he had in his limited arsenal. Fuck it, he thought and he took a deep breath. Muttering the Sanskrit aloud, he calculated the formulation based on the estimated size of the window. Within less than a minute, part of the glass wept. Quickly after, the whole thing turned into a large, shimmering pane of water before rushing down and soaking several partiers on the couch below.

“What the fuck?” A woman with dark curly hair stood up quickly, wringing out her shirt. “You couldn’t have even tried to control the directional flow? Shit, man.”

“Uh, sorry,” Quentin said as he climbed in through the window, to the applause of several upperclassmen. Drunk and devious, they all held their glasses in their air, raucously toasting him. The woman in question was considerably less amused and she flipped him off with a sneer.

“Fuck off,” she said, her tattooed arms soaked to the bone. “I need to find a fucking towel now. This place is the goddamn worst.”

“Sorry,” Quentin said again, as she stalked off toward the stairs. Refocusing on his victory, he looked around at the wallpapered corners and the bright, vintage decorations adorning every nook of the cozy, light-filled house. Loud music blasted through the upbeat conversations, laughter peppering each crescendo. His fellow Magicians were packed euphorically throughout, leaning and falling over each other, sitting on ladders and squeezed into chairs above and below. A sweet tingle leapt into Quentin’s heart. This could actually be pretty great.

And as if to prove the point, a buoyant figure waved his hand above the bobbing, languid heads of the drunkards, bright and earnest.

“Quentin!” Todd shouted loudly, running up to him and hugging him around the waist. Charmed, Quentin offered his arms back and spun around with his bud. “That was super dope, man. Wow. Awesome.”

Todd patted his back, but then ducked his head obediently as Margo Hanson waltzed her way between them. Wearing the tiniest striped bustier and black skirt Quentin had ever seen, he swallowed a little. Margo was undeniably hot, but her beauty generally evoked a feeling of inadequacy and anxiety in him, rather than desire.

With nothing more than a flick of her wrist, she commanded Todd away. In response, Todd nodded happily without so much as a balk or a question, offering Quentin a brief wave before turning around and walking away. But when Quentin raised his arm to try to stop him, Margo simply lowered it and slinked against his side with a smile.

“Color me impressed,” she said, pressing her lips together, eyes glinting up at him. “What’s the discipline then? Optomancy? Aquamancy?”

“Uh, Undetermined, actually,” Quentin said with a sheepish grin. “And that was really more about the math than anything else.”

“Jesus, everything you just said was painfully on brand,” an obnoxious voice came from behind him. When Quentin turned around, Eliot held out one of his famed bright blue signature cocktails, his arm relaxed and a cigarette hanging carelessly out of his mouth. “Technically, you earned this. Welcome to our gracious abode, Todd’s Friend.”

With a grimace, Quentin took the high-ball glass and sipped the concoction within. His stomach dropped in disappointment.

“Shit, that’s good,” he said reluctantly.

Eliot laughed, actually smiling at him for a moment, pulling the cigarette out and in between two fingers. He nuzzled Margo’s cheek with his nose and then, he tipsily stumbled away.

Quentin swallowed, fighting down the distinct feeling that he kind of liked Eliot’s laugh. Reminding himself that he was just a charming asshole, one of those types that knew exactly how to crawl under anyone’s skin, Quentin took a deep breath.

That’s all it was. Nothing more.

Meanwhile, Margo purred her way even closer and linked her arm in his.

“Go clean that the fuck up,” she whispered in his ear, pointing at the wet couch. She let out a slow laugh and ran her hand down his back. “Undetermined.”

Shaking her head, she blew him a kiss and Quentin turned to the soaked couch with a grin.

Home, sweet home.

 


 

On weekend mornings, the Cottage was quiet. The hardest partiers slept off their varying levels of hangover and the nerdiest got a head start on studying, in the uncrowded hours of the library. But Quentin’s humors lived somewhere between the two. He was often hungover, but still an early riser, antsy for space and focus and escape. So he always tried to spend those mornings reading in the living room, rather than holed up in his room, which was homey but a little dark for a longtime SAD sufferer. Every chance he got, Quentin would snatch the warmest and brightest spot in the house—couch he soaked beside the big bay windows—and read or study or nap or think. And Saturday mornings were always the surest bet.

That day, he went downstairs, soaking up the morning sun, and opened the first page of The Wandering Dune, ready to complete his umpteenth re-read. But alas, his best laid plan was not to be, as Eliot Waugh unexpectedly swept into the room. He stopped right next to Quentin’s prone form and immediately re-arranged the furniture, decor, and even the lighting, with fast and methodical movements in his hands.

“Todd’s Friend,” Eliot said without even looking at him. “Move.”

“Huh?” Quentin looked up from his book. Eliot rolled his eyes and stopped long enough to forcefully pat his shoulder.

“Up, up,” he put his hands on his hips, taking in the layout of the room. “Plans in the making and you’re stonewalling me.”

“I was here first,” he said, settling into the couch harder, in defiance. “And Quentin.”

“Gesundheit.”

“My name is Quentin,” he repeated, glaring at Eliot’s airy, moving figure. “We’ve met several times. I’m friends with Margo. You should know it by now.”

Eliot smiled at that and strode across the room, grabbing several small shot glasses. He placed them in a row on the coffee table and levitated a stream of gin into the air. Delicately, he directed disparate streams into each one. After, he twisted gracefully to face Quentin and shook his head.

“You are not friends with Margo. You’re like her Tamagotchi.”

Asshole.

“Um, fine,” Quentin set his mouth into a hard line that apparently only served to entertain Eliot, as his smile turned into a laugh. “Whatever. Doesn’t mean—”

Eliot lifted his hand for silence, shrugging with one part remorse and three parts amusement, “I’m a busy, brilliant lush, so details tend to slip through the cracks on occasion. Don’t take it so personally.”

“Yeah, ‘cause alcoholism is so chic right now,” Quentin said with raised eyebrows, turning back to his book. Eliot stopped and let out another small laugh, harsher this time, blinking at Quentin like he couldn’t believe what he saw.

“You are not nearly fun enough to be that bitchy,” Eliot said, before crossing his arms and tapping his foot. “Listen, I’m a renowned Kinetic so if you don’t move on your own accord, I’ll simply lift you and drop your ass wherever I please.”

“Fucking seriously?” Quentin’s mouth felt dry and indignant, at the gall of this arrogant person. Eliot shrugged one shoulder up to his ear.

“This party is the most important one of the week and I can’t have you bringing me down with your maudlin modus operandi,” he said, like that was a good enough explanation. Then he held out his hand like a parent to a toddler, a single finger raised in the air. “So I’ll count to three. One… Two…”

“Jesus, fine,” Quentin stood up and slammed his book shut. “You’re a bigger dick than Penny.”

“Who the fuck is Penny?” Before he could answer, Eliot cut him off immediately with another raised hand. “Rhetorical question.”

“Christ,” Quentin said, shaking his head, but trudging his way back to his little nerd lair nonetheless. At least there, he could focus and escape in peace. For the most part, he loved living in the Cottage. He loved Brakebills. He was starting to feel like he could have a life that meant something, that could actually bring him something more than the constant pain and confusion that his later adolescence and early adulthood was steeped in. But then, there were times like this, when he wasn’t really sure that anything would ever fully change. Or, at least, the assholes of the world wouldn’t.

“Oh, and Todd’s Friend?” Eliot called lightly as Quentin started going up the stairs. Quentin turned around, widening his eyes and holding out his arms to show his impatience. “I apologize. I should have defined my terms. A party is a human social gathering, often with music and—”

“Fuck off, Eliot.”

 


 

“Answer the question.”

Quentin laughed, hoping that the blush rising on his cheeks wasn’t visible under Margo’s oversized sunglasses. Sitting on the patio, enjoying the false sun and freshly grilled burgers, she was decked out in a resplendent sundress, preening for attention yet entirely focused on every syllable Quentin spoke from the lawn chair across the way. He shook his head, his long hair falling in his face the way it did when he was embarrassed.

(Next to her, Eliot sat, smoking, also preening for attention, yet entirely ignoring Quentin’s very existence.)

“You know,” Quentin said, running his fingers along the edge of the chair’s rubbery plastic. “I think Freud would have a field day with your, um, obsession with this topic.”

“I don’t give a shit what Freud thinks,” Margo said to Quentin, deathly serious. "Now answer the question, ass-licker.”

“Nothing wrong with licking ass, Bambi,” Eliot spoke for the first time in an hour, ashing his cigarette into a jade tray. Margo gasped, reaching out to touch his arm, in all seriousness.

“Hey now. You know how important a well-tossed salad is to me,” she said, licking her lips. Eliot leaned forward and bit her earlobe, sending a shock tingle through Quentin’s chest. But Margo simply giggled, before looking back at Quentin. “So? Centaurs or what?”

Quentin widened his eyes and shrugged, laughing nervously, “Um, none? I’m not super, like, into bestiality, generally speaking.”

“God, you’re so vanilla,” Margo slumped her head onto her hand, sighing. “Expand your horizons, Coldwater.”

“Wait, your full name is Quentin Coldwater?” Eliot asked, using his name out loud for the first time, proving that he did indeed remember it. “Wow. You should be more grateful I call you Todd’s Friend. Much more of a ring to it.”

“Yeah, thanks,” Quentin rolled his eyes and Eliot nodded, like it was a genuine gratitude. Quentin turned his attention back to Margo, tilting his head back and forth. “I mean, I guess… do the nymphs count?”

She pulled a face and flipped him off.

“No, the nymphs don’t fucking count. Who the fuck wouldn’t fuck a nymph?”

“Fine, my interest is piqued,” Eliot butted his cigarette out and fully faced them. “Catch me up. Who are we fucking here, exactly?”

Margo perked up, happy to have someone play her game who’d be much more amenable to the terms. Quentin sulked a little, not really wanting to deal with Eliot’s…Eliotness right now. Even if Quentin wouldn’t fuck any Fillorian talking animals, it was fun and freeing to talk about the series with someone who was equally passionate about all the details, albeit in her own perverted way. Eliot would change the dynamic.

To prove the point, Margo pushed her sunglasses to the top of her head. She took both of Eliot’s hands in hers, holding them lightly against her chest, like she was about to propose something wildly romantic.

“Okay,” she said, smiling brightly. “So in the Fillory books, there’s talking animals. They have autonomy, their own cultures—”

“Losing me, Bambi,” Eliot said, not unkindly.

“Point being, Quentin here and I have determined they’re capable of consent so party’s fuckin’ on,” Margo dipped her head to the side. “Which one would you do, if propositioned?”

Eliot pulled out a new cigarette and lit it, lifting his face to the sky and breathing deeply. He looked unfairly handsome, Quentin thought, with a quick shift in his chair. Swallowing, he refocused on the conversation at hand.

“What are my options?” Eliot asked, looking right at Quentin now. “Shockingly, I’m unfamiliar with the series in question.”

“Uh, so there’s centaurs,” Quentin said, thinking through the first level of human-animal hybrid categorization, since they were the most integrated into Fillorian society at large. Centaurs, in particular, were highly revered healers and—

“Body of a man, dick of a horse?” Eliot cut off Quentin’s train of thought with a laugh. “Give me something a little more challenging.”

“Um, okay.” Quentin reversed his thought process. “Lizards and fish.”

“Hmm,” Eliot rubbed his chin. “My body’s saying let’s go, but my heart is saying no.”

“Bears,” Quentin said, thinking of the most iconic symbols of Fillorian light and love. Honeyclaw was a gentle, unsung hero for how well he cared for Jane Chatwin after her attack with The Virgin Blade, from the dastardly Lorian assassin.

“Oh, come on.”

Quentin smirked a little at that, but continued, “And birds, lots of birds—“

“No,” Eliot cut him off stonily. “I wouldn’t fuck a bird.”

The lighthearted air turned tense and Eliot stared down at the table, blanched and unfocused. Margo and Quentin exchanged glances, culminating in Margo shrugging wildly. Quentin bit the inside of his cheek and tried his best not to laugh. Not because it wasn’t funny, but because Eliot looked so goddamn serious that he wasn’t totally sure how he’d react.

“Uh, okay,” Quentin pushed down his amusement. “Why…why did that provoke such a strong reaction?”

Eliot shot his eyes up intently, “I have my reasons.”

Just as Margo was preparing to give Eliot exactly the amount of shit he deserved for his strange performance, a familiar figure crossed into their periphery, happy and sweet. Quentin immediately perked up, while Margo and Eliot slunk down, already exhausted.

“Quentin!” Todd rushed over to him, grabbing his arm with a giant grin. “Quentin. There you are.”

“Fuck do you want, Todd?”

“He was talking to me, not you,” Quentin said, snapping a little at Eliot. Then he returned his eyes to Todd, smiling. “What’s up, man?”

“You gotta come inside,” Todd leaned into him, whispering a little in his thrill. “My pal Trevor has a Time Walk card.”

“Wait, seriously?” Quentin scrambled up. “Holy shit, I hope it’s protected, for his sake.”

“Nah, he actually likes playing with it, the rube,” Todd smiled and beckoned him in. “Bonkers, but let’s go.”

“Totally, man,” Quentin repeated with a grin. “Totally bonkers.”

“So bonkers,” Eliot said, taking a long draw on his cigarette with a mocking laugh.

“Be nice to Quentin,” Margo smacked Eliot’s chest. “He’s endearing.”

As Quentin gathered his messenger bag from underneath the lawn chair and he signaled to Todd that he would be right there, Margo and Eliot continued their conversation like he was long gone. They had the attention span of ladybugs sometimes.

“Like you’re going to fuck him before you drop him kind of endearing?” Eliot sucked his breath in between his teeth. “Because it’s getting tiresome.”

“You know I wouldn’t,” Margo’s voice was lower than usual.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Eliot asked sharply.

“Nothing!” She shook off whatever tone Quentin could have sworn he heard with aplomb. “Obviously, I’m not going to fuck Quentin Coldwater. Please.”

 


 

The party around him was in full-swing, but Quentin didn’t give a single flying fuck about it. As he wrapped his arm around Julia on the couch, all he could think about was her pain and the way it cut deep into his own heart. Her eyes were still red-rimmed from the hours of crying and she balled her hands anxiously at the edge of her dress.

“Well, this is the Cottage,” he said, sweeping his arm out and she gave him a small smile. “Sorry.”

“It’s fine, Q,” Julia said, wiping under her eyes. “It was inevitable. You know it was inevitable.”

He sighed and leaned into her. Since they’d been at Brakebills, their physical affection had increased, just in time for his romantic interest to fade. It was some kind of poetic, he thought. Dipping his head down to capture her eyes, he took her hand and set his face into something akin to serious and sympathetic.

“Jules, if you want to go somewhere else, where we can talk…” He would leave in a heartbeat. He didn’t need to party every weekend. He hoped she knew that.

“No, I want to get fucked up,” Julia said, nodding resolutely. “And this is supposedly the best place for it and you live here now. Ergo, Cottage time.”

Quentin nodded and let out another sigh. He loved Julia. And for once, he could think that without it meaning something more. Something painful. For years, he wished for this exact day and now that it was here, he felt, well, extraordinarily little. The only thing he cared about was making her feel better, even though he knew she was weeks from that. She was his best friend. He would walk through fire for her. And in this case, he thought with a grimace, he would even enter the belly of the beast.

“I think I know what can help,” he said, squeezing her hand. “Just give me a second, okay?”

She nodded vaguely as he disentangled himself from her. Watching her stare off into space, like the world’s saddest and most unfocused little lamb, Quentin grit his teeth, walking solidly, firmly towards the bar cart and the individual behind it. If this didn’t prove his platonic devotion to Julia, nothing ever would.

“Hey,” Quentin said, averting his eyes awkwardly. He and Eliot didn’t exactly go out of their way for chats. Eliot glanced up from placing a variety of ground herbs into the cocktail shaker and something unrecognizable passed over his eyes. Then he laughed, standing up into his perfect posture.

“Hey,” Eliot said, lifting his chin. His mouth was already curling in preemptive snark. Quentin made a face and shook his head, cutting him off at the source.

“Look, we don’t like each other and that’s fine. Or, um, it’s whatever,” Quentin folded his arms and Eliot squinted his eyes at him, running his tongue across his teeth. “But my friend is having a shitty day and could really use a pick-me-up.”

Eliot shook the metal tube, the clatter of the ice underscoring his words.

“Todd can go fuck himself, sorry.”

Asshole.

“He is not my only friend,” Quentin said, frustrated. “Julia is a Knowledge student and she just broke up with her boyfriend and can you be human for, like, three seconds instead of the Oscar Wilde Robot?”

“Excuse me?” Eliot put the shaker down, forcefully. “What did you just say to me?”

Okay, maybe he was playing with fire a little bit there. But Quentin ground his molars, jaw tensing. This was about Julia and being the kind of friend she deserved, even if that included chatting up total assholes and trying to get them to take pity on people they didn’t know and didn’t care about.

“They were together for three years,” Quentin said, imploring. “She’s a good person. She’s heartbroken. Come on.”

He pointed over to the living room and Eliot’s gaze followed this finger, looking at the crumpled Julia, tiny and sweet in the middle of the couch. Eliot’s face stirred, two deep lines forming between his eyebrows. He sighed. Blinking back to Quentin, he ground his teeth right back at him.

“Fine,” he snapped. “Give me ten minutes.”

“Thank you,” Quentin said, but Eliot cut him off with a glare.

“Not doing it for you,” he said, brushing past him harshly, off to the kitchen to gather supplies. Quentin shrugged, not really caring, and walked back to Julia in double-stride, before enveloping her in a hug.

“Everything hurts,” she said, into his chest.

And almost exactly ten minutes later, practically on the dot, Eliot glided over. He held a deep violet concoction in a hurricane glass in one hand and a cut lime in the other. He placed them both down gingerly on the table under their feet and tilted his head towards Julia, sitting on her opposite side. Quentin nudged her and she sat up, wiping her eyes in embarrassment.

“Hi there,” Eliot said, strange and quiet. “I’m Eliot. Wish we would have met when you didn’t look quite so…”

“Awful?” She asked, tears welling up. Eliot touched her knee, gently.

“Beautifully sad,” he said, his lips quirking up tenderly. At that, she bit out a false laugh and shook her head.

“Well, I feel awful,” Julia said, pressing back against the couch. Eliot matched her movement, his eyes warm on her devastation. “Completely gone and ruined, like nothing will ever be good again.”

“Jules—” Quentin started and Eliot kept his gaze firmly, sympathetically on Julia, not a hint of snark in his profile.

“I keep thinking about Neruda,” she said, cutting Quentin off and smiling against her pain. “I keep thinking about his one line, when he wrote, As if suddenly the roots I had left behind cried out to me, the land I had lost with my childhood—and I stopped, wounded by the wandering scent.”

Unbidden, Quentin thought of Fillory and he held Julia’s hand. She squeezed her palm warm against his. Eliot’s eyes briefly flickered over to them before resetting again, kind and empathetic, on Julia.

She sniffed and shook her head, “That’s how I feel right now.”

“You’re just the picture of sincerity, aren’t you?” Eliot pursed his lips looking her up and down. “I think I like you.”

“Thank you. And sorry, I’m Julia. It's nice to meet you,” she said, taking a tissue out of her pocket and blowing her nose.

Eliot’s smile grew at her perfunctory politeness. He was soft, entirely unlike he’d ever been with Quentin. Grabbing the glass from the coffee table, he held it out to her. She gingerly placed her hands around the robust base and brought it to her chest, breathing in and out, like every movement of her lungs was forced and stabbing.

“I call it Lovelorn Sighs,” Eliot said, running the quick lime around the rim. “Not a cure for heartache, but it will lessen for a time. It’ll help you see light-hearted beauty in the world again.”

Quentin chest twisted at his words. It was oddly earnest, evocatively sweet. Most of Eliot’s infamous concoctions were for increasing sensitivity during sex or coursing stars through your veins. When he’d approached him for Julia’s sake, Quentin assumed Eliot would stop by with the kind of mixology creation that would give her the time of her life, a party high for the century, making her feel like she was reliving the heyday of Studio 54 or something equally fabulous and debauched. The absolute last thing he’d expected was something so…wholesome.

It was fucking weird.

“Thank you,” Julia said again, more intensely and she took a sip. Her eyes flew open. “Holy shit.”

Magician drugs and drinks worked instantly, and it was clear that this one had been calibrated perfectly. Her tension eased, her cheeks regained color, and her smile grew. Turning her newly cheered eyes to Quentin, she gave him a big thumbs up before impulsively wrapping her arms around Eliot and kissing him on the cheek.

“Right?” Eliot chuckled and wrapped his arm around her in turn. “That’s special for you. No sharing.”

“But Q has to try this,” Julia said, laughing, giddy and free. “This is the most delicious drink I’ve ever had in my life. I mean, I feel light. I feel hopeful. I feel like you absolutely fucking have to show me the formulation when I’m not so—I mean, fuck, I feel like maybe I actually made a good decision. I mean, it’s still awful and I know that but—”

“Sorry, who’s Q?” Eliot seemed genuinely curious, with a light head tilt, cutting her rambling off.

“She’s talking about me,” Quentin said and Eliot squinted his eyes at him, like he’d just remembered he was there. “That’s what she calls me.”

Q,” he said, slowly, wrapping his lips around the letter. “Huh.”

Shrugging his shoulders up to his ears awkwardly, Quentin burned a little under Eliot’s steady, discerning gaze. He and Margo were the masters of making people feel calculated, judged, watched. The difference was that Margo’s silent assessments usually ended with a big smile and a joke about what a cute little nerd he was. Eliot, on the other hand, was something else. Something fundamentally more disconcerting. He didn’t make Quentin feel seen—he made him feel transparent.

“Sorry, I drank it all,” Julia said suddenly, showing Quentin the empty glass. “Maybe next time.”

“Well, if Q ever gets his heart broken, I’ll consider preparing some for him,” Eliot said, sounding genuine. But Quentin knew better. “Now, tell Uncle Eliot everything. Who’s the asshole who hurt you?”

A small cloud of sadness reappeared over the couch and Julia batted her eyelashes down.

“He didn’t hurt me,” Julia said, playing with her own hands, tracing a pattern in her palm. “I hurt him. I’m the one who ended things.”

Eliot’s eyebrows drew in, “Okay. What happened?”

“He wasn’t—he doesn’t have magic,” she said, with a small waver. Eliot closed his eyes and nodded, understanding. “It wasn’t tenable anymore. But he’s all I’ve ever known and I’m just…I feel lost right now.”

“That’s shitty. I’m sorry,” Eliot said, rubbing her arm. “But also definitely for the best. You can’t have baggage like that here. It’ll hold you back.”

“You’re right,” Julia said evenly. “I know you’re right. I could already feel it affecting my focus. My PA teacher mentioned it, and that was that.”

“Julia’s the best in our class so far,” Quentin said. “So the faculty’s been really taking an interest.”

“Not surprising. You practically radiate it,” Eliot said, soothing, still wrapped around Julia and rubbing her arm like they were the old friends. “I’m not sure if this will help or hurt then, considering, but want to hear another perk of this awful situation?”

Julia turned to him with a questioning face and Eliot smiled, “Every sexual being in this place is going to lose their goddamn minds when they realize you’re available now.”

She laughed.

“That does help, actually,” she said, grinning. “Thank you.”

“Human vanity always prevails,” Eliot’s eyes and voice were still uncharacteristically gentle and it made Quentin feel…weird. It was weird. But then, Eliot’s steeliness came back as he looked at Quentin. “For instance, I’ll bet this nerd is already plotting his Win You Over scheme as we speak.”

“No, it’s not like that between Q and me,” she said, leaning against Quentin’s shoulder with a smile. “We’re beyond.”

But she looked up at him, with a question in her eyes. To answer, he smiled, wide, nodding.

“Totally beyond.”

They locked eyes and all was right. For his part, Eliot pulled out his own flask and took a long sip, still watching the two of them with a keen, sharp gaze. If he had any further questions, though, he swallowed them with his booze and turned back to face Julia, expertly ignoring Quentin in the way he always did.

“In any case, after crying tonight, you should take some time to get your Alanis out. You know, get pissed, get fucked up, get fucked,” Eliot said, kissing her forehead. “But then, you need to move on, okay? Bigger and better abounds.”

Julia smiled at him and took his hand, looking at him in that sweet, characteristically Julia way that once made Quentin fall in love with her. And if the curious, gentle look in Eliot’s eyes was any indication, he was maybe a little equally taken with her, albeit in his own way.

“Thank you for being so nice to me, Eliot,” Julia said. “It was an unexpected pleasure.”

“Anytime,” Eliot said, patting her shoulder and offering back his own soft smile. It made him look handsomer than Quentin had seen him yet. “I hope to see you around here more often.”

“Wait!” Julia jumped up as Eliot began to walk away and he spun back, his dark curls falling over his face. She smiled and jutted out her hip, with a nose wrinkle. “Do you dance? Q doesn’t dance.”

“I’m insulted you even felt the need to ask me that,” Eliot said, immediately pulling at her arm and twisting his hips backwards toward the dance floor. “It’s about time we had someone fun around here.”

It was a dig at Quentin, but he didn’t mind. As long as Julia was having fun and not sobbing her eyes about James, he’d take a thousand little cuts from that asshole. And for her part, Julia giggled, wrapping herself into him, a little flirty, a little tipsy, and a lot herself.

“Won’t you take me to Funkytown, Eliot?”

He laughed, loud and sincerely charmed, before twirling her, “My god, you are an earnest little nerd. It’s a blessing you’re so pretty.”

Watching Julia dance with Eliot until they disappeared into the crowd, Quentin sighed and laughed a little, relief flooding his bones. Then, he reached into his bag and pulled out The Wandering Dunes, better late than never.

 


 

Quentin and Todd sat on the quad, and he grinned at his accidental poem. But just as Quentin was about to tell Todd his funny thought—if anyone would find it humorous, it was definitely him—Todd lifted his hand high in the air and waved at an unknown figure in the distance.

The two of them spent the better part of that Monday afternoon sitting outside, shooting the shit and taking advantage of the free space in their schedules that lined up. Todd’s discipline was Auralmancy, the manipulation of sounds and the perception thereof. In another stroke of good fortune, this particular part of sense magic was a difficult subject for Quentin, who couldn’t always quite grasp the circumstances. Todd was thrilled to help him, though, especially with work he’d already passed, if not mastered. Todd wasn’t a brilliant student, but he was plainspoken and his method of teaching the concepts was easier to grasp than the highly technical language in the textbook. Quentin was enormously grateful.

But they’d been working for quite some time and Todd was getting antsy, as he was wont to do. An almost extreme extrovert, Todd needed to be around people constantly and always sought out new faces to incorporate into their conversations. Generally, Quentin found it exhausting, but he tolerated it. He certainly wasn’t going to look a gift horse in the mouth, especially when that gift was someone who actually wanted to be friends with him. Someone who enjoyed his company, in all sincerity.

“Quentin,” Todd said, as he continued beckoning someone over, almost frantically. “You have to meet my pal, Ryan. He’s a first year, like you, but an Illusion student. Really good guy.”

“Um, okay,” Quentin said, still not really in the mood to be social. But regardless, in a short order, Ryan was standing in front of them, offering back a friendly wave of his own and a hug around Todd’s shoulders. Quentin squinted his eyes a little bit, taking him in. Wide brown eyes under neatly combed strawberry blonde hair, he was the definition of American wholesome. He had high and wide cheekbones and his lips were…

Quentin blinked, his mouth a little dry.

“Todd, Todd, Todd…” Ryan said, a wide grin on those very nice lips. “You know I can’t be seen with a Physical Kid. From ancient grudge to break new mutiny.”

That was possibly one of the corniest things Quentin had ever heard a human being say. It made him smile.

“Oh man, totally,” Todd laughed, nodding his head happily. “Is that a reference to something or…?”

Ryan’s face tightened in confusion as he sat down in the grass with them and Quentin laughed a little. He patted Todd’s back, thoroughly amused by his friend’s good-natured dopiness, as always.

“It’s Shakespeare,” Quentin said, leaning over a little. “Romeo and Juliet. It’s part of, um, the most famous opening lines of all time.”

“Someone’s well-read,” Ryan smiled and Quentin shrugged.

“Or, you know, I passed 9th grade English.”

At that, Ryan laughed and Quentin felt a little tickled. People didn’t always realize when he was joking. Or that he even had a sense of humor at all.

“Yeah, totally,” Todd laughed too, never insecure. “Full disclosure, I didn't do my homework in high school. But Shakespeare is super dope.”

Ryan raised his eyebrows at Quentin and chuckled. He was tall, Quentin realized, and his shoulders were broad, like someone who played sports. But his liberal-political buttoned backpack and the book barely hanging out of it—Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude—suggested a softer soul than a typical jock.

“Illusion Kids and Physical Kids don’t mix?” Quentin asked the newcomer, slightly compelled to keep the conversation going.

“From what I understand, we’re like frat rivals,” Ryan said, putting his arms up in mock-fisticuffs. “Us Illusionites have our own parties, in the West Campus Cottage. Nothing pisses you all off more than when ours are the bigger hit.”

“Well, I just live there,” Quentin said with a shrug and a grin. “Not to brag, but my discipline is currently ‘Undetermined,’ so I’ve got that going for me.”

Oh, shit, was he flirting? He didn’t mean to flirt. Or did he?

Ryan’s smile widened and he held eye contact with Quentin for a few more moments.

“Everyone must be so jealous of you,” he said, leaning in a little and Quentin’s heart skipped a single beat. “You know, I actually heard a rumor that Undetermined disciplines can really be some of the most powerful Magicians. Because once they figure out their niche, they gain mastery quickly.”

His eyes dropped down for a moment and then met Quentin’s again, slyly, and holy shit, it was actually on. This was flirting. Quentin’s scalp tingled and he was pretty sure he was about to be a bumbling idiot, per usual, if he didn’t figure a way out of the conversation, fast. He’d learned early on that no matter who he was talking to—woman or man—his attempts at flirting went over better when they were short but sweet. Emphasis on short. He was the walking definition of less is more.

“Um,” Quentin said, already starting to fulfill his worst self-prophecy. But before he could fully embarrass himself, Ryan stood up. His body lurched a little, not quite ready to see him go. With another big smile and pushing a rakish hand through his red hair, Ryan sighed and offered a genial wave.

“Good to see you again, Todd, but I’ve actually got class in about, uh…” Ryan looked down at his watch. “Shit, three minutes ago. I’m outtie.”

But before he ran off, he turned around and stared right down at Quentin, a little intense and a little playful.

“Hope to see you again…” He drew in his eyebrows, with a side smile. “Sorry, I didn’t actually catch your name?”

He swallowed, “I’m Quentin.”

“Quentin,” Ryan repeated with a small smile. “Definitely hope to see you again, Quentin.”

And Quentin smiled back, his heart beating double-time.

“See you later!” Todd said, hollering off in the distance, as Ryan walked away. And Quentin’s heart moved to triple-time beats when Ryan sent a backwards glance at him over his shoulder, before disappearing into the building.

 


 

Highest highs and lowest lows. That appeared to be the Brakebills motto. Pithy as his thoughts were, Quentin actually barely had time to breathe, let alone think, when the two strong hands grabbed his shirt and roughly pushed him against the tree. Penny’s eyes were blazing, and he pounded his left hand into Quentin’s right shoulder, scratching and bruising his back.

“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” Quentin squirreled his hands up into his chest. “Are we actually doing this again?”

“Do you know how to close your  mind?” Penny nearly spat in his face. “‘Cause I will show you right now.”

“I thought I was,” Quentin said, in truth. Julia had taught him a spell weeks ago. “Maybe you could just, like, not read my—”

“It doesn’t fucking work that way,” Penny pushed him down to the ground and Quentin rolled in the leaves, his body landing awkwardly. “Get your shit together.”

Quentin wanted to tell him that it wasn’t that fucking easy. That maybe getting one’s shit together, packing it in some goddamn bag and keeping it out of sight and out of reach was something that most people could do. But Quentin wasn’t most people. His shit had been splayed for as long as he could remember and even with magic, even with his growing confidence, and even as his heart approached something looking like happiness for the first time in his fucking life, that wasn’t going to change anytime soon. Penny could kick his ass as often as he liked, but it still wasn’t changing.

“I don’t give a shit about your shit,” Penny responded, like Quentin spoke aloud. “We all have shit. Grow a pair and learn to deal with it.”

Quentin sighed and pressed his hands down into his knees, inwardly repeating the incantation Julia gave him, focusing.

But Penny simply sniffed the air and looked at him, narrowing his eyes again, “Seriously, man? Taylor Swift?”

“I—I am not singing Taylor Swift in my head,” Quentin said, bringing his hand to his hair and pulling the strands over his face, nervously. Technically, he had it stuck in his head. It wasn’t his fault that Shake It Off was a catchy song. It had been playing in the coffee shop earlier. Ear worms affected everyone. But Penny wasn’t known for his acceptance of such logical trains of thought.

“Close it the fuck down,” Penny held his fist up and brought it down, making Quentin flinch. But he didn’t punch him. “Or else.”

“Got it,” Quentin said, angry at himself for the quaver in his voice. “I’ll work on it.”

With one last glare in his direction, Penny shook his head and walked off, muttering about how pathetic Quentin was under his breath. Ever since Penny had stopped chasing Julia and started dating Kady—the dark haired girl who also hated him—he’d been more and more open about his feelings towards Quentin. Spoiler alert: They weren’t all positive.

Brushing his knees, Quentin reached behind him and rubbed his back, sore and tweaked. Heaving a heavy sigh, he tried to lift himself up but his shoulder gave out under him, hurt worse than maybe even Penny strictly intended. But before he could twist himself around to find a better angle to stand, a hand appeared in his direct line of vision, offering to help him up.

It was Eliot.

“Shit, did you see that?” Quentin asked, averting his eyes. It was honestly about the last thing he needed. But to Eliot’s credit, his face was expressionless, without either pity or mockery painting his features.

“Psychics all have anger management issues, what with having to be psychic. No greater doom,” he said, taking Quentin’s hand in his forcefully and lifting him up. “That one seems particularly pissy though.”

“That’s my roommate from before I moved into the Cottage,” Quentin said, rubbing his back again. The scratches were bleeding a little but they were surface-level at least. “He says my mind is  weak and it, uh, leaks all over him.”

“Kinky.”

“Yeah, Penny doesn’t think so,” Quentin winced a little, rolling his arm out into the air, trying to get fluid movement back. “Julia taught me a spell to ward my mind, but I don’t think it’s working.”

“Which one?” Eliot asked, lighting a cigarette. He offered to Quentin, who shook his head.

“I quit,” he said and Eliot shrugged. “And, uh, the spell Julia taught me was something called Kero’s Incantation?”

Eliot breathed out smoke and chuckled, “Rookie mistake. She’s bright, but not infallible.”

“So I’m fucked?” Quentin blanched. Eliot rolled his eyes, almost good-naturedly, and held the cigarette between his lips, as he brushed leaves off Quentin’s shoulder.

“No, you’re not fucked, you drama queen. You want Cholmondeley’s Psychic Ward. It’s bulletproof.”

Quentin nodded a quiet thanks and Eliot raised his eyebrows in brief acknowledgement. Out of things to say, Quentin cleared his throat and looked down, while Eliot continued smoking, staring at him with narrowing eyes. The silence between them was long and painful, and the tension increased as Eliot’s mouth twisted around his cigarette in a strange kind of recognition. Clearly, the unexpected detente was on shaky ground.

“So wait, that’s Penny?” Eliot’s eyes darkened entirely. “That’s who you think I’m worse than?”

“What?” Quentin said. “What are you talking about?”

“Last week, you said that I was a bigger dick than Penny,” he crossed his arms. “Begging to differ here, Todd’s Friend.”

“I literally don’t remember that,” Quentin said with a shrug. “But I mean, I wasn’t—you’re not exactly nice to me either.”

“Sure, we don’t throw tea parties together, but fuck, I’m not—” Eliot breathed out, indignant. “I would never rough up the weak out of some kind of fucked up inferiority complex.”

“Yeah, maybe not. But your methods are just, um, more insidious,” Quentin shrugged. “Two sides of a coin.”

“That’s bullshit,” Eliot said, harsh. “Guys like that are—I’m not like that.”

“Well, you’re not nice,” Quentin repeated and Eliot lowered his eyebrows, sighing.

“You’re not exactly Miss Congeniality yourself,” he said. “For the record.”

“That’s because we don’t like each other, Eliot,” Quentin said and Eliot scoffed. “But whatever I do is just, like, a reaction to how much you obviously disdain me.”

At that, Eliot swallowed and bit the inside of his cheek, staring at Quentin plainly. He opened his mouth like he was going to say something, but instead, he let out a rueful laugh.

“You know I’m fucking around, right? I’m not...” Eliot trailed off, thoughtfully. “I don’t actually want to socially ostracize you. I did hear that was a concern of yours.”

Quentin should have known that anything he said to Margo, he was in effect saying to Eliot.

“Could’ve fooled me.” Quentin met Eliot’s eyes for the first time and then immediately averted his gaze again. It was a little too intense.

“Look,” Eliot said, but then trailed off again, biting the air. He paused. “My incredibly alluring personality isn’t always a hit in every corner of this shitty world. I know exactly what it means to be ostracized. And it’s important to me not to be that kind of person.”

Quentin wasn’t really sure what to say to that. He believed him. Being openly Eliot probably wasn’t always easy. But that didn’t change his treatment of Quentin.

“So I sincerely apologize if I gave you the wrong impression,” Eliot said, continuing his train of thought. He ducked his head and held his arms out, matter-of-fact yet sincere. “You’re welcome anywhere I am.”

“Right, sure, except for the constant little comments and digs—”

“I might give you shit sometimes, but that’s as far as it goes, okay?”

Eliot’s eyes glowed a little, burning right into Quentin. He was trying to be genuine, even if it wasn’t an offer of friendship or anything like it. But whatever it was, it was in both of their best interests if Quentin accepted it. He knew that. It was a small campus.

Nodding, Quentin crossed his arms and sighed.

“Yeah, okay, fair,” he said. “I can live with that.”

Eliot nodded back and they both turned in the same direction, casting sidelong glances at each other and sighing. Apparently, they were both headed in the direction of the Cottage. As they walked without speaking, the silence wasn’t comfortable, but it also wasn’t strictly painful anymore either.

…Still, it was awkward enough that Quentin was compelled to fill it.

“So, um, do you prefer Darjeeling or are you more of a Chamomile guy?”

“Don’t push your luck, Todd’s Friend.”

But when Quentin stole a quick glance at him, Eliot was smiling, ever so slightly.

 


 

tbc.

Chapter Text

Knowledge Kids never called themselves "Knowledge Kids."

They were Knowledge Students, thank you very much, and they took every step of their magical journey as seriously as the final breath of a dying man. The attic above the library was grand and domed, filled with the personal and preserved notebooks of great Magicians past—Da Vinci, Tesla, Wittgenstein, among others—and large sweeping curtains of gold and green offset every angle, enveloping their living and studying space in a Cathedral-like reverence. Margo called them the most boring motherfuckers on campus. Julia called them her salvation, like a true believer would.

Quentin wasn’t quite sure what to make of Julia’s domicile, her room high above the trees, entirely constructed in carved glass, with a large floating bed in the center. It was obvious that Dean Fogg had a preference for the Knowledge discipline and this came out through the funding of their living space. Magic permeated the air, in ways that made him want to be around all the time, to simply soak it up. But on the other hand, there was a coldness and a distance that made him itchy. The Cottage was humble in comparison, but it was so much more joyful. It was warm. It was a home.

Julia, though, was the only person in the world who represented home in her own right to Quentin and he enjoyed getting the chance to decompress with her, in her space. There, they could be themselves, apart from the rest of the shit, protected by the solitude. Resting back on her bed, he lazily pulled open her Horomancy book and flipped through. He had no interest in time travel, but the fact that it was possible at all was pretty wild. The theories and schematics were overwhelming, but fascinating.

Pulling his fingers together with concentration and poise, he formed a small green tremor between them, where it had never been before. Spontaneous generation for a new era. His energy, his power, the source of his soul, made manifest. Julia looked at his work and smiled, proud of him. His breath hitching in his chest, he smiled back shakily, feeling overwhelmed by everything. He had magic. He had a home. And he had Julia, his childhood best friend. And he was entirely overwhelmed.

Without prompting and with zero forethought, Quentin felt an aching urge to mark the occasion, to honor his growing self. It was time. Things were changing. And Quentin Coldwater was finally embracing that, in all its good.

“Hey,” he said suddenly, looking up at her.  He hoped he didn’t sound as emotional as he felt. “You feel like taking a break?”

“Never,” Julia smiled. “But I will for you. What’s up?”

“Do you want…” Quentin trailed off and rubbed his neck. “You know that thing you’ve always wanted to do? To me?”

For a moment, she looked at him blankly, with confusion. But then, as his implication hit her in the chest, Julia’s eyes widened and her mouth opened.

“Wait, are you serious? Is this a joke?” She smiled when he smiled. “Holy shit, Q.”

“I think I’m finally ready,” he said, his heart pounding in his ears. Julia strode across the room and placed her hands on his cheeks, gazing at him warmly.

“You definitely are,” she said, giddy in anticipation. “Don’t worry. You won’t regret this.”

 


 

He regretted it.

Running his hands through his newly short hair, Quentin stepped into the Cottage, self-conscious and far too exposed. Julia had wielded the scissors without a second’s mercy, artfully shearing his armor down to a classic side part. Longer strands still fell over his brow, which she called adorably floppy, whatever that meant. Looking in the hallway mirror, Quentin sighed, wrinkling his features at himself. He was visible in a way he hadn’t been in years. There was nothing to hide behind. And he was distinctly aware that this might have been a rash decision.

He needed a drink. Like, right the fuck now.

Walking over to the bar area, Quentin bent down and looked through the vast communal liquor collection before landing on the siren’s call of the translucent green Tanqueray. Twisting silver off the top, he poured a finger (okay, maybe two) into a high ball, before looking around for the bottle of tonic he knew he’d seen around there.

Finding it overhead, he reached up before coming back down…to feel two strong, warm hands on his back. Quentin froze, insides jellied, as the deft fingers rubbed into his shoulder blades and a gentle breath tickled his neck, before landing right against his temple. Lips barely grazed his ear. It sent shock waves of shivers through his every molecule.

“Darling, if you’re making a gin and tonic, ice is supposed to go first,” Eliot’s voice rumbled and Quentin’s mouth went dry.  “I’d be more than happy to oblige.”

What the fuck was happening?

His atoms coming back together, Quentin jumped out of his skin, craning his neck backwards just in time to see Eliot take the glass out of his hand and down the liquor in a single gulp, his eyes closed. His other fingers still pressed into Quentin’s skin, languorous and flirting.

Smiling, Eliot opened them again, right back on Quentin. In a flash of recognition, he jolted, pulling his hand back, like he’d been scalded. The bald desire in his eyes quickly flashed to confusion, hostility, and something less defined in its urgency, before he blinked rapidly and sputtered a little, entirely unlike himself.

“Fuck, it’s you,” Eliot finally said, staggering back, almost dazed. “I thought you were—”

“A random loiterer?” Quentin asked, crossing his arms. “Who you decided to hit on, sight unseen?”

Eliot shrugged, stretching his neck, the muscles in his jaw tensing without rhythm. He almost seemed…embarrassed.

“Wouldn’t be the first time,” Eliot said, determinedly looking around for his bar tools before letting out a long breath. “Either way, the point stands. You can’t have a gin and tonic without ice, you mongrel.”

He produced an ice bucket from thin air with a grin. Quentin took a deep breath, trying to shake the encounter off. Eliot didn’t get embarrassed. Quentin was obviously projecting. Because he was definitely fucking embarrassed.

Still, though, he wasn’t going to mess with their growing peace just because he’d had an intense visceral reaction to Eliot accidentally flirting with him. So he took another breath and considered what he could say, that wouldn’t be something like Take me against the wall right now. Because that would probably…uh, well, it would definitely go over like a lead balloon. 

So instead, Quentin shook his head and watched Eliot carefully choose the specific pieces of ice that were best shaped for a gin and tonic. He placed them gingerly in the glass with tongs, like he was perfecting a sculpture. And Quentin reminded himself that Eliot really was patently ridiculous, once you looked past his powerful charisma.

“Or you’re a control freak who can’t stand to see anyone else make a drink,” Quentin said, laughing a little. Casual toned. Like he was supposed to be. Thankfully, Eliot snorted at that and caught his eye, smirking.

“Touché,” Eliot was squeezing lime juice into a small measuring glass with an adept twist. He quickly glanced up at him, an odd look on his face. “Sorry. Didn’t recognize you. “

“Really, no shit?” Quentin did his best to affect a dry, sarcastic nonchalance.

“You changed your hair.” Eliot finally poured the gin, concentrating.

“Oh. Uh, yeah,” Quentin cleared his throat. “Julia’s work. She used to call me a hobo, like, every chance she got. And I figured, fuck it.”

“You can see your face more,” Eliot said, still unnervingly even-toned, busying himself with a sprig of rosemary he was using to spruce up the drink, unable to leave a classic alone. Quentin rolled his eyes.

“Yeah, yeah. The jokes fill in themselves, all right? So save your breath.”

Eliot looked at him and brought his eyebrows together, unreadable. Then, he half-smiled and his mouth opened, about to say something. Quentin gulped, feeling a little too vulnerable for whatever clever quip Eliot had up his sleeve this time. But before Quentin could try to change the subject away from his stupid face, he was saved by the grace of Margo’s presence.

Shimmying her way down the stairs, Margo started to say something typically effervescent and naughty to Eliot before stopping in her tracks, staring at Quentin in shock. A wide smile broke on her face.

“Holy motherfucker,” Margo ran up to him, her hands running up his cheeks and into his newly shorn locks. “Were you always this symmetrical?”

“Uh, I guess?” Quentin said, his throat catching in her flattery. Heat rose up his neck. Margo was staring at him, mouth agape, like he was actually good looking. And considering exactly how good looking Margo definitely was, it was hard not to feel a little pleased at her attention.

With a wicked smile, she put her hands on her hips, “Well, shit. At this rate, you’re not going to be my dirty little secret for much longer.”

Breaking their moment, Eliot thrust the now-complete gin and tonic into Quentin’s hand, rough and almost angry. Moving in unbidden determination, Eliot pushed onward, his shoulder nudging Quentin aside. He stopped next to Margo and glared, grabbing her hand.

“Bambi,” Eliot said sharply, pulling her towards the dining room. “There you are. I need your assistance now. We need to begin Regalo preparation.”

Margo moved her head back and forth rapidly, like she was shaking off cobwebs. She laughed.

“That’s two weeks away,” she said, putting her hands on her hips. “Since when are you proactive?”

“Since the elders are not fucking around this year,” Eliot said, practically snarling in her face. “No time like the present. Chop, chop.”

“Fine. Jesus,” Margo rolled her eyes, following Eliot’s frantic footsteps. Before walking out of the room, she pointed at Quentin. “You look fuckable, Coldwater. I’m serious.”

“Bambi!”

 


 

 

Saturday night that week was more low-key than usual. It was a smaller group of people, many of whom had joined Eliot and Margo for one of their infamous, elaborate dinner parties. As typical for the lavish feasts, everyone was full and sated on delicious wine and even more delicious pastries. Eliot always put an inordinate amount of effort into his confectionary delights, much to the pleasure of the whole Cottage. As far as Quentin could tell, it was about the inverse of his efforts towards schoolwork. Which made the fact that he was clearly an incredibly adept Magician all the more obnoxious.

Another unexpected benefit was that the after party was slower, steadier, more driven toward conversation and ease. It was closer to Quentin’s speed than the frantic, beat-heavy dance parties. Tonight, he could lean against the couch and let the world wash over him in all its amber, warm glowing softness. To his left, Julia sat, her third drink resting between her knees. And to his right, Margo chugged her sixth glass of wine. They were talking. They were bonding. He anchored them, but he was unimportant. And it felt really nice, just to be.

“Girl, you grew up next to the Short Hills Mall and you still hated your childhood?” Margo sipped the last of her drink and reached across Quentin’s lap to touch Julia’s hand. “Fuck, it must have been damaged beyond repair.”

Julia laughed, “It was a bright spot, for sure. But didn’t erase the fact that my mom is an evil cunt-bitch from hell.”

“Cheers to motherfucking that,” Margo grabbed the wine bottle off the coffee table and held it up to toast. Julia tapped her still half-full glass against it lightly. “Daddy issues are so passé.”

“Hey, I’ve actually got those too,” Julia said smiling cheekily and Margo laughed into Quentin. “Seems to be a Magician thing.”

“God, you have no idea,” Margo said, smiling outside of her usual harshness. Then, she patted Quentin’s thigh admonishingly. “Quentin, you need more alcohol.”

Before Quentin could respond, they heard a loud throat clear from above. In unison, Quentin, Margo, and Julia all turned their eyes upward and Quentin tilted his head, a little confused by the sight before him. The bespectacled man was standing there, his palm widely stretched out toward Quentin, in a firm offer of a handshake.

“What’s your name, man?” He asked, using his other hand to push his namesake glasses up the bridge of his nose.

“Uh, Quentin.” To be polite, he reached out and the bespectacled man grasped Quentin’s hand firmly and admiringly. His slightly pudgy face brightened into a wide smile. It made him look kind. He pumped their arms together twice and then he pulled back, eyes darting between the three of them in awe.

“Quentin, I just had to shake the hand of the baller who is flanked by two of Brakebill’s most gorgeous women and isn’t even fucking fazed by it,” the bespectacled man said, bowing a little. “Someday, I’d love to learn your ways.”

Now it was Julia’s turn to laugh into him.

“Baller!” She repeated, cackling. It was the first time anyone had even used that word in the same room as Quentin. Margo, on the other hand, was considerably less amused and glared at the bespectacled man like he was the muck-covered gum on her expensive shoe.

“We’re his friends, dipshit,” Margo said, crossing her arms. “Kindly take your male gaze fuckin’ elsewhere.”

“Come on, Margo,” the man said with an eye roll, sitting down on the coffee table in front of them. “You know my intentions are pure.”

“I don’t know shit about your intentions,” Margo leaned forward, a calculating smile on her face. “But I do know about your product. Make it up to us?”

“Anything you want,” the bespectacled man said, pressing his hand to his heart. “Mi drugs es su drugs, mi bonita.”

“Dealer’s choice. Sweet and delicious,” Margo purred before turning to Quentin and Julia. “Ready for the time of your life, ladies?”

“I’m in,” Julia said nudging Quentin. Game, he nodded.

“Wait, someone go get Eliot,” Margo lifted herself off the couch slightly, craning her neck. “Eliot!”

And that was the last thing Quentin Coldwater remembered.

 


 

It was Sunday morning. The Lord’s day. And Quentin was in hell. Moaning against his prickly, painful bedsheet, hot against his skin and twisting around his sore muscles, he slowly blinked his eyes open, the sunlight from his small window destroying his retinas and his soul.

“What the fuck?” He brought his heavy hand down against his clammy forehead. “What the fuck?”

Stumbling out of bed, his legs nearly buckled under him. He needed water. And water was downstairs, in the kitchen. All the way in the goddamn kitchen. He moved slowly, like dripping sap, but finally, he reached the dining room table, and pressed his hands against the back of a chair, breathing deep. Holy shit, what the fuck had happened?

He closed his eyes, trying to remember. Flashes of the night came to him. Julia yelling, her hands over her head. Margo laughing. The bespectacled man crying into his lap. Making out with a woman he’d never seen before.

Oh, god.

And, of course, when he opened his eyes, Eliot was sitting at the table, smiling at him like the cat who ate the canary.

He wore a gold and black silk kimono robe, his curls still wet from the shower. Somehow, this had the effect of lengthening his eyelashes tenfold, giving him a soft, devil-may-care sexiness that Quentin was truly ill-fucking-prepared for. Out of his aching mind, Quentin wanted to launch himself at Eliot and press his face against his visible bare chest, to feel his chest hair and his heartbeat, to breathe him in. Blinking his heavy eyelids, he felt queasy.

He needed to get a fucking grip.

“How the hell can you make me feel underdressed at eight in the morning?” Quentin asked aloud, grumbling. In contrast, he was wearing a stained striped shirt and baggy gray sweatpants. He looked like the frumpiest frump who ever frumped.

“Good morning to you too, sunshine,” Eliot chuckled, leaning forward on his elbows. “Glad to see you made it to the harsh light of day.”

Quentin coughed out a laugh and almost threw up. Swallowing back the taste of sharp, too-sweet remnants of alcohol and a pins-and-needles tickle in his throat, he pulled out the chair and slumped into it. He slammed his head on the table and moaned.

“What in the ever loving fuck happened last night?” Pulling his arm underneath his face, he rested his cheek against his prone elbow and cocked an eye up to Eliot.

“Shit, were you blacked out?” This apparently amused Eliot more than anything. Because why would he offer sympathy or concern or whatever the normal human reaction would be.

“I remember bits and pieces,” Quentin slumped down in the chair. “Like, I made out with someone?”

Eliot nodded, taking a sip of the coffee in front of him. Quentin vaguely registered that he had two mugs at the ready, but didn’t have the energy to question him.

“Indeed,” Eliot said. “For quite some time. Monica, a third-year Healer. Way out of your league.”

 


 

“Hey beautiful,” Quentin walked right up her, nary an introduction more, his mouth breathing open. “I think your face should kiss all up on my face, pronto.”

Next to him, Eliot and Margo scream-laughed. But the tall brunette shrugged and leaned in.

 


 

“Great,” Quentin tried again in vain to shake off the torture chamber in his skull. “Yeah, that’s…uh, that’s ringing a bell. Fuck.”

“Well, you were Hoberman’d.”

Panic ricocheted through Quentin’s chest and he swallowed dry air.

“Oh god, is that, like, some kind of curse?” He’d heard about curses. They weren’t a good thing. On account of being curses. But Eliot just laughed, a wide and open sound.

Josh Hoberman, our drug guy? Your newly bonded soul brother?” Eliot wrinkled his nose in even greater amusement. “You seriously don’t remember anything?”

Quentin’s stomach dropped again and he moaned, much to Eliot’s delight. Fuck, he wanted to die.

“I’m kind of magic drug lightweight, I guess,” he said, swallowing back more bile and booze.

“Clearly. Jesus.”

“What else exactly…?” Quentin sighed in frustration. Eliot had his head tilted in mock-innocent confusion. “How embarrassed should I be?”

“Boy howdy, let’s see,” Eliot clicked his tongue against his teeth, laughing. “Like I said, don’t be surprised if Hoberman greets you with giant hugs from now on.”

 


 

“I fucking love you, man,” Quentin yelled in Josh’s face and Josh sobbed harder, falling in his lap. “Victoria sounds like a biiii-iiiitch.”

“Don’t say ‘bitch,’ you cock,” Margo smacked his arm. “It’s pejorative and shitty.”

“You say ‘bitch’ all the time,” Quentin rested his neck against the top of the couch and tilted his head back, opening his mouth. Margo laughed, pouring a stream of wine directly into his throat from the bottle.

“That’s ‘cause I am a bitch,” she smirked. “And you’re an unworthy boy. Live with it.”

“Quentin,” Josh grabbed at his shirt, his eyes red and his face puffy. “Quentin, I’m really fucking glad I met you.”

 


 

“Great,” Quentin said, a little anxious. He rubbed the back of his neck, thinking of how the hell he’d deal with having a friendship with someone he barely remembered. Eliot shrugged, either unaware or apathetic to his turmoil. He smiled again, laughing, running one of his silver rings along the edge of his bottom lip.

“You also broke into the Astromancy building,” Eliot’s eyes glinted. “And stole a moving replica of the solar system. It was valiant and foolhardy.”

 


 

The planets shimmered in front of their noses. Quentin wanted to drink in the milky way, to feel it dance on his tongue. He also thought Saturn was really fucking cool and wouldn’t it be really fucking cool if he owned Saturn? If it was, like, his? Forever?

“I want it,” Quentin said, tears forming in his eyes. He looked at Eliot, who clapped him on the shoulder. Eliot was such a good friend. How hadn’t he seen that before? He was, like, his best friend. Best friends forever and ever.

“Then take it,” Eliot urged through his teeth, being the best friend in the world. “Take what’s yours.”

Quentin pressed his chin on Eliot’s shoulder, fear and uncertainty overtaking him.

“Am I worthy?”

Eliot turned to him fiercely, holding his shoulders in a tight vice grip. He ducked his head to make eye contact, fervent and solid. Quentin really was so lucky to have a best friend like him.

“It is not worth that makes a man, nor destiny a hero,” Eliot’s eyes glistened in turn. “It is our actions that define us.”

So they broke the wards, grabbed it, and fucking ran.

 


 

Quentin groaned and Eliot laughed, the sound low, rough, and delighted. But Quentin actually could have gotten in trouble for that one. Obviously, traipsing through campus and stealing shit went better when you had Magicians like Julia and Eliot with you—and Margo, too, he supposed, though he didn’t remember her being there at that point or doing any casting on their behalf. Still, though, Professor Abrams was going to be livid in the morning, when her main demo mechanism was found missing.

“Fuck,” Quentin stretched his mouth out, feeling like not even a gallon of water could help ease the dryness. “I’ll return it.”

“Don’t you dare,” Eliot said, catching his eyes. For once, there was almost a fondness there, warm and crinkled under a laughing brow. But he blinked and cleared his throat, and Eliot returned to his usual casual and light disaffection.

“Okay, so is that it?” Quentin asked, running his hands through his hair. He would have fucking killed to be able to press the long strands over his face. What the hell had he been thinking?

“Mostly,” Eliot said, with a slow, Cheshire Cat grin that made Quentin’s heart pound. “Then you and Julia ended the night by teaching all of us this dance to a song called, uh, I think… ‘Ayo Technology?’ Perhaps?”

Eliot’s mischievous eyes and smile indicated that he was in no way misremembering. Quentin’s whole body froze in horror.

“…Oh no.”

“Oh, yes.”

 


 

Quentin rolled his body forward, landing on the couch. Josh Hoberman was there and they embraced, solidified in their friendship, in the pain they’d both shared that night. Margo was on his other side and she was laughing, crooning some song into Quentin’s ear and all he could think was that this was the best night of his life.

But he was wrong.

It hadn’t been the best night of his life until that very moment, when a slow, almost ominous beat filled the dance floor. And when he heard Fifty Cent’s voice, announcing himself and then Justin Timberlake, his heart was full and bursting out of his chest. He stood, uneven, but determined. He dashed into the dance floor, pulling the freespirited, writhing Julia off Eliot. They both protested, until they realized that it was Quentin and that Quentin was actually there to dance.

Eliot reached his hand out, trying to pull Quentin in, but he had a mission. His attention fully focused on Julia and the tenth grade and how much everyone in this room needed to know what incredibly sexy dancers they’d always been and still were. If anyone at Brakebills thought they’d seen magic in their lives, they had no idea what was going to hit them.

“Oh, shit, Jules,” Quentin said, grabbing her arm. “Oh, motherfucking shit.”

Julia’s eyes widened in recognition as the first rap verse began and she screamed a feral whooping sound into the air, wrapping her hands around Quentin’s neck. Charging forward, they pushed the other revelers out of the way, clearing space. Julia twisted her hips and jumped into position.

“I don’t think they’re ready for us, motherfucker.” She said, holding her hands at the ready. In time, Quentin pushed his hands out in the beat and the music overtook them.

 


 

Without his hair, Quentin had to hide his face with his hands, shaking his head into his fingers. He buried himself deeper and deeper as the memories returned in astonishing, intricate, humiliating detail.

“God. Fuck. No. It’s so…bad. And it’s, like, so hip-thrusty.”

Eliot’s demeanor was a little cooler now, his posture straighter and he sipped his coffee delicately, like he was thinking. But the blatant mockery and humor was still in his eyes, entirely zeroed in on Quentin’s pathetic, hungover form.

“It certainly was. And so very creative,” Eliot placed his mug down and tapped on an invisible keyboard with the biggest smile Quentin had seen on him yet. It made him want to die. “You put Fosse to shame.”

 


 

Quentin and Julia moved on the dance floor, their bodies in time with each other. They both remembered every choreographed move like it was born in them, like it was as natural as breathing or the way the wine and drugs coursed through their veins. Their hips, their thighs, they got the whole room hypnotized. Quentin and Julia laughed and they danced, and the joy was almost beyond what he ever could have hoped to feel in his entire life.

But the next time Quentin pulled her into him, he looked over to the couches, wanting more attention, more people to dance with them, more friends. He briefly realized that he hadn’t seen Todd at all that night. He fucking loved Todd. Todd was his favorite. Where was he?

He wasn’t on the couch. The only people on the couch were Josh, Margo, and Eliot, all smoking and drinking and languishing in various states of fucked up. Margo was crying, laughing so hard she could barely breathe, at Quentin’s incredible dancing. And Josh was pressing his hands into the air, yelling Julia’s name and Quentin’s name, in time with the beat.

But Eliot.

Eliot was staring at them, watching, unblinking. He sipped his drink, a strange, cool darkness in his eyes. They darted back and forth between Quentin and Julia, like he was…angry. Why the fuck was he angry? This was the best night of their lives and they were also best friends now. Annoyed and amused, Quentin locked eyes with him and gave him a giant, oversized shrug, imploring him to cheer the fuck up.

Eliot’s anger melted, growing into something lighter. Something more knowing. And he smiled.

Julia spun Quentin away.

 


 

“Oh my god,” Quentin rubbed his face. “So, um, is there like a massive memory wipe spell I could enact for myself and all others involved last night because, uh—”

“Calm down,” Eliot looked down at the table, a little quieter. “It was almost charming. I think a few girls fell in love with you.”

Quentin gulped.

 


 

Julia swung him around and they jumped three times in a row. Dramatically, Quentin hung up his hand like a phone, striking a pose. His elbows and his hips hit every angle perfectly and Julia mirrored him, twisting and grinding her body in the air with all the reverence the performance deserved. And he jumped forward, his body free, his short hair mussing into the rhythm.

The adorable floppiness of his newly short hair pressed into his eyes, obscuring his vision. With a big, wild grin, he blew upward, making his hair dance too, and he laughed, because laughing felt so goddamn good and because it had been so long since he’d even wanted to laugh, like this, with other people. Overwhelmed by the urge to see Eliot again, he glanced back over at the couch.

His stomach jolted. Because now—fucking now? Eliot was gazing at him. Gazing. Smiling. Like Quentin was something worth gazing at, like he was…

Margo grabbed Eliot’s hand, and the two of them joined them on the dance floor. They all jumped in unison and everything was fucking perfect.

 


 

Quentin was unsteady again, but it had nothing to do with the hangover. The night was coming back in flashes and the more he saw and felt, the more it felt significant. Like something crucial had happened, between him and all his friends, between him and—

…No, that was stupid. It made no sense.  Eliot was sitting there, unfazed. And he still talking, past and unaware of this strange remembrance.

“Better for your social life if you own it,” he said with a snort. “Now people know a fun person actually lives inside that mopey exterior.”

Quentin’s heart fell a little. Scratch that. It was a false remembrance.

“Fuck, well, I guess that’s fucking…” He trailed off, his stomach queasy. “Jesus, if the humiliation doesn’t kill me, this hangover might.”

Silently, Eliot slid the other mug of coffee towards him. The steam rising from it was shimmery.

“Drink,” he said. “Josh never calibrates for the morning after because he believes in ‘living in the moment.’ That’s where my cynical, more talented ass comes in.”

Warily, Quentin took a sip. Immediately, the pounding in his head disappeared and he was overwhelmingly grateful to Eliot, even in all his sharp cuts and assholedom.

“Wow, are you sure you’re not an Herbalist?” Quentin asked, chugging the rest. Rest and relief breathed into him, the magic offering a solace for his aching core. Coffee was acidic on a good day, but now he felt like he had a stomach of steel and light and clouds.

“I’m going to pretend you didn’t ask me me that, for your own good,” Eliot stood and walked around the table, patting Quentin’s shoulder as a farewell. “Rest up still. This will wear off in about five hours, but it will give you a head start on recovery.”

Quentin stared down at the last milky smudges of coffee in his mug and pressed down his feelings of disappointment. So maybe Eliot hadn’t decided that Quentin was hot or interesting or whatever his fucked up brain wished for on its most ridiculous days. And he knew he didn’t really want that—Eliot was a hugely different person than him and not always exactly, well, pleasant.

But it had been a good night. A fun night. And the coffee was a gesture. It meant they were both maybe growing that peace into something even friendlier. With time, at least. Swallowing, Quentin convinced himself that was a good thing, in and of itself.

“Thanks, Eliot,” Quentin said, calling back towards his retreating form, as he was about to go up the stairs. For a moment, Eliot stopped, gripping the banister. Quentin heard him chuckle before continuing up the stairs, with only two words in return.

“Anytime, Quentin.”

 


 

Quentin hadn’t done a hard day’s labor in his life and his feet lacked the callouses to prove it. That’s why he wasn’t just being a baby when he told Margo Hanson that the way she was dragging him over the sharp pine needles really fucking hurt.

They pricked into his soles like small knives, puncturing the sensitive skin. And meanwhile, she was being kind of an asshole, dressed in a pink cape and mask, calling him a virgin, and taking him somewhere unknown and mysterious. All he’d wanted to do was catch up on his PA exercises in peace and maybe get a shower. But instead, he was here, at 11 PM, outside and manhandled by Margo and some other woman he’d never seen before.

“Don’t be such a virgin, you virgin,” Margo said, throwing him into a line, surrounded by Tiki torches and other equally confused looking students. All first years.

“Come on, Margo,” Quentin said, pleading. “What the fuck is going on?”

Her only response was a malicious laugh.

Quentin looked to his right and was relieved to see Julia. She looked decidedly less pleased, wearing nothing but a black, see-through negligee. Her hair was pushed in several directions, sticking out of her head in angles. She’d obviously been… interrupted. Julia wrapped her arms around herself, averting her gaze. She crossed her legs at the knees.

A tall figure emerged slowly between the center of the crowded second years, wearing a green cape and a golden tunic, amidst the sea of magenta. With a long, languishing laugh, he pulled his face free, a wide, evil smile greeting all of them with a dramatic flair that sent a chill down Quentin’s spine.

“Hello, first years.”

It was exactly who Quentin assumed it would be. The inevitable conclusion.

“Seriously, Eliot?” Julia put her hands on her hips. “I have actual work to do.”

“Damn right you do,” he said, breaking his stage voice to look her up and down lasciviously. She flipped him off. “Shush now, none of you worms get to speak.”

“Can I at least get fucking changed?” Julia was never a shrinking violet.

“Oh, honey, most of us were full-blown nude last year,” Margo purred, her smirk invisible but audible. “Emphasis on blown.”

“Gross,” Julia said, rolling her eyes and hugging herself tighter. Suddenly feeling like an inconsiderate ass, Quentin pulled his arms out of his hoodie and handed it to her, behind his back. Her eyes went wide with gratitude and she put it on, zipping tight. Eliot sneered.

“No more of that,” he said, leveling a warn glare at Quentin. “Every man for himself.”

Clearing his throat, Eliot spread his arm out wide, presenting himself to the confused group of groggy students.

“At this appointed hour, as tradition dictates,” he said, speaking in a theatrical baritone, projecting from his diaphragm, “it falls upon the upper class to administer what is known simply as The Trials.

He stalked along the line of students, stopping at Quentin. His green-brown eyes narrowed at him and he ran his tongue across his lips. Quentin hoped his face didn’t register the sudden shock of discomfort and heat the movement sent down to his toes. Inwardly, he cursed himself. He’d just fucking gotten over this shit.

“The Trials test your ability to think and act like a Magician,” Eliot raised his eyebrows, his eyes laser-focused on Quentin’s. Quentin swallowed, but didn’t avert his gaze. A dangerous game.

But Eliot was still talking.

“Pass,” Eliot’s eyes softened at Quentin for a moment, searching his face with an almost tender intensity. Their eyes met and Quentin was drowning. He swallowed, reminding himself that it was a performance. It was just a performance. But then Eliot smiled, still holding eye contact, and his toes were gone. “And your journey begins.”

Eliot took a brief step closer to Quentin when he paused, his brow crinkling and his chest rising and falling, in time with his. He could feel Eliot’s warm breath on his face and he was surrounded by an intoxicating scent of cologne and smoke and something uniquely musky and masculine and fuck. But as soon as it happened, it was over and Eliot turned from Quentin like it was nothing, because it was. He swept across the line of students, pursing his lips at Julia, who chuckled, never intimidated by a test.

Quentin blinked and swallowed. He blinked and swallowed.

“Fail,” Eliot stopped in front of Penny and glared, his perfect teeth sharply biting towards him. He was darkness personified. “You flunk out.”

Quentin’s ears buzzed and his throat was dry. Every trace of his fucked up attraction to Eliot disappeared with a gut punch.

The idea of flunking out of Brakebills had been always in the back of his mind, but never quite so immediately. He couldn’t flunk out. That was just, like, completely not even a little bit an option. Eliot was still speaking, saying something about Harvard and the faculty and Quentin was going to throw up in front of everyone.

His head was racing, and racing, and racing.

He was going to throw up.

“Onward to glory!”

Julia’s hand was on his as they ushered into their doom.

 


 

An hour until midnight. The last twenty-four hours had been long and humiliating, trying and exhausting. And now, Quentin was physically and emotionally spent, tied in ropes enchanted by secrets magic, and every muscle in his body ached. Oh, and he was naked, with paint smeared down his face and arms. He looked and felt completely ridiculous. After cheating his way to a victory in the first task and being convinced he was supposed to give a horse a blow job in the second, the last thing he felt like doing was baring his soul and his truths aloud, for the pleasure and mockery of his far-off, doubtlessly entertained professors.

But he was with Julia. That made it better. She was as supportive a secrets partner one could have, averting her eyes from his more private body parts and keeping him grounded, whenever the panic started to set in. And while the last hour of conversation hadn’t exactly been fun—they’d already touched on their fight, the one right before Brakebills—Quentin and Julia were talking through things they hadn’t had a chance to talk through yet. In its own way, the honesty and the openness made him feel light and whole. And it gave her the space to breathe and process. So, perhaps, this final Trial wasn’t all bad.

“I love magic more than I love myself,” Julia said, a tear running down her face. “And it’s…so hard for me to think about myself, my life, my family, everything before and not be wrecked with anger. That my whole fucking life, I lived without such an essential part of who I am.”

“Jules,” Quentin’s voice caught in his throat. “Jules, you always had magic. Deep down. We know that now.”

She closed her eyes, devastated.

“I didn’t have the truth of it. I have to make up for so much lost time,” Julia swallowed thickly, her eyes closing in sorrow. “I’m not sure the anger will ever really fade. It’s a burden I have to bear now. Magic and love and anger and regret are inextricably linked for me.”

Her ropes fell loose.

“Fuck, okay,” she said with a laugh, wiping her eyes. “That ended up being heavier than I anticipated.”

Quentin laughed back, half-heartedly, acutely aware of the burning tightness on his own wrists. Julia was done. He had no other distractions. He had to face himself now. But first, he had to acknowledge his best friend.

“I’m proud of you though,” he said, with a genuine, gentle gaze. He loved her. So much. “You’re a badass.”

“Thanks,” Julia squeezed his arm and then looked down, biting the inside of her lip. “Your turn, Q.”

If his utmost truth wasn’t that he had been terrified of giving up Fillory or that he had a fundamentally broken brain or that he was terrified of losing everything, then he really wasn’t sure what it could possibly be. A sinking feeling crossed over the darkest corner of his mind. It had to be more. It had to be personal. It had to scare the shit out of him. So he decided to just talk to Julia, telling her what came to mind, without trying to figure out the puzzle. Because that’s what scared him the most—trusting his own instincts.

“The dean told me to stop taking my medications.”

Julia’s breath caught and her eyes flew open. She reached out for his arm and squeezed, hard.

“That’s reckless. And stupid. Quentin, you can’t—” Julia said, using his full name urgently. He met her eyes and cut her off with a wane smile.

“I’m still taking them,” he said. “I’ve been picking them up from my dad’s every week.”

She breathed again.

“But I’m taking them because I’m still…” Quentin trailed off, a little worried that what he was about to say would scare Julia. But he couldn’t protect her right now. “I still have these thoughts that course down through me and root out everything that doesn’t totally suck, you know? And sometimes, Jules, I want to fucking run.”

“Shit, Q.” The hard squeeze on his arm came back and she was practically digging her nails into him.

“But…” He began, clearing his throat. Tears pooled threatening in the bottom of his eyelids.

“But?”

“I think I want to run less and less every day. The longer I’m here, with magic and—and friends and something like a purpose,” Quentin sniffed, urging himself not to cry. Not yet. “I feel like maybe there’s something worth sticking around for. Maybe I don’t have to be this person I fucking hate anymore.”

“Well, you’ve always been a person I fucking love, so that makes me happy to hear,“ she said, smiling. But then she indicated to his still tightly wound ropes. “What else, Q?”

Okay.

Okay.

So the Universe wanted him to go there.

“What I’m compelled to say is kind of embarrassing,” Quentin said, wishing desperately he could rub his neck or hide his face or at least hide his penis. “It’s not…it’s dumb.”

“I think we’re a little past that,” she laughed, patting the top of his bare thigh lightly. “Come on.”

He closed his eyes, so he could pretend that no one was watching him. Not even Julia. Because what he was about to share was a part of him he’d pressed down and buried so much, so intensely, for so long that he was completely fucking terrified of anyone’s reaction. Including his own.

“There’s a person who I’m really into. Like, full body delirium, you know?” Quentin said shakily. Once he said it though, his eyes opened and he felt lighter. “And I know it won’t happen because… he’s light years out of my league, but it still feels good to know that I can feel that way.”

Julia’s face briefly registered surprise at the pronoun, but she recovered quickly.

“That’s wonderful, Q.”

She smiled and tucked her hair behind her ears. Quentin cleared his throat again and wrinkled his brow, looking up at the sky. It was a beautiful night. They sat by the library fountain and the relative silence was sweet, under the golden street lamps blanketing the campus.

“I feel like magic is allowing me to heal. To finally explore parts of myself that I never could, you know, before.”

Her face fell again.

“You know magic isn’t—“

“I know. I know it comes from, like, darkness or whatever,” he said, truthfully. It didn’t take long to determine where the source of his energy came from. The calmer or more relaxed he was—even the happier he was—the less intensity his spells had. “But I think it’s about learning to mange those feelings into something productive. Like, maybe it’s the counterbalance then, right?”

“That’s a nice way of looking at it,” Julia said simply, but obviously not totally convinced.

“Besides, I’m really using magic as a shorthand for this whole experience,” he said, looking off into the distance. “It’s all of it.”

“Can I ask you a personal question, Q?”

He laughed, gesturing downward at his naked form. Again, it was an absurdity. Julia chuckled too and grinned.

“Okay, right,” she said. But then her expression turned curious and serious in equal measure. “Have you...have you always been interested in men?”

“Yeah,” Quentin said, suddenly finding the ropes interesting. “Women too. Definitely women too. But, um, yeah.”

“Have you…?” She trailed off, letting the implication speak for itself. Julia was asking if he’d been with men before.

He slowly nodded.

“Wow,” she said, breathing out. “I had no idea.”

“Never told you.”

“Why not?” She asked, maybe a little insulted. “You know I’d be supportive.”

“Because it was crazy. It added unnecessary complexity to my life. It was too much.”

“Such an important thing to keep quiet, though, Q.”

“They weren’t, like, grand love stories or anything. Because, fuck, dating and—and romance? I wasn’t...” He swallowed heavily. “I was way too fucked up for that, Jules.”

“And now?”

“Now, maybe not. I don’t know. Again, not with this particular person. But I’m grateful to know that the door is open, for myself, to find that if I want. It’s a new kind of secret door for myself. An exciting one. A hopeful one.”

Julia smiled and nodded, patting his knee. A breeze passed through them and they sat there, allowing Quentin’s revelation to steep in both of their minds. It wasn’t enough to loosen his binds, but it was important nonetheless. They both knew that.

“For what it’s worth, I don’t think anyone is out of your league,” she said, smiling a little too knowingly for Quentin’s preference. “Especially if you’re talking about—“

“It doesn’t matter who I’m talking about,” he said, firmly. “Like you said earlier this year, I know who I am. I know who would possibly want me. I don’t have any illusions, okay?”

He implored her to drop the subject with his eyes. Thankfully, their years of developed shorthand worked. She nodded.

“Okay,” Julia said. “I get it. I disagree. But I get it.”

But she had shorthand of her own. She was staring at him out of the corner of her eye, biting her lip to telegraph that she wasn’t quite done yet.

“What?” He asked, chuckling.

“I think he might be kind of into you too,” Julia said quickly, because she couldn’t help herself. “So maybe don’t cut off any options prematurely.”

“He’s not into me. At all,” Quentin said with a finality that even she couldn’t argue. “But you’re a good friend.”

More silence fell, as the minutes ticked by. It wasn’t uncomfortable, though it was a little bittersweet.

“Ropes are still on,” she said, blessedly changing the subject. “Any other instincts?”

“It’s just, like, I think I’m starting to find myself, dumb as that sounds.”

“Not dumb,” she said, voice thick. “Nothing makes me happier or more relieved.”

“And I finally want to try choosing happiness for myself, in whatever form it takes and however I can manage to find it or even seize it. But that’s probably too cheesy of a revelation for an activity like this.”

Quentin’s ropes fell loose.

 


 

Professor Mischa Mayakovsky was the worst person Quentin had ever met in his entire life. Bar none. No competition. He was awful, cruel, mean, relentless, arrogant, drunk, and fucking everything terrible rolled up into one shitty Russian shitshow of a human being.

All of this rang particularly true as he stood in the Antarctic snow in nothing but his underwear.

“Come the fuck on,” Quentin pounded at the door, the wind howling out his cries. “Someone let me in!”

He knew Mayakovsky likely wouldn’t let him die. But he wasn’t so sure that he wouldn’t let Quentin get such bad hypothermia that he’d end up permanently brain damaged. Or that he wouldn’t lose a few toes to frost bite. None of the upperclassmen warned them about Brakebills South, apparently another time honored tradition to doubly fuck over the news kid after fucking them over with The Trials.

One, two, punch.

But it was increasingly clear that Mayakovsky was as powerful as rumored and that he was even more of a reckless recluse, caring little for his students’ welfare. And he especially didn’t care about the welfare of the more mediocre students—and the professor wasted no time letting Quentin know that he fell firmly in that category.

“Let me the fuck in!” He roared, hitting the metal with every remaining energy reserve he had. Thanking Christ and fuck at once, Quentin nearly fell on himself when the door finally swung open. He wasn’t sure if an actual beacon of light hung over the glowing figure or if he’d just started to hallucinate in earnest. But sure enough, as he squinted, glinting golden-red hair was visible in the vicious, swirling iceflakes harshly obfuscating his vision.

“Quentin?”

It was Ryan. More specifically, it was Ryan, with warm hands, pulling him inside. Quentin could have cried.

“Holy shit, are you okay?”

“Been better,” Quentin wrapped his arms around himself, both out of staggering cold and self-consciousness. Ryan was dressed in the unflattering white fleece uniform, but looked every bit as tall and broad and handsome as the few times he’d seen him around campus since their first meeting. In comparison, Quentin’s lean, nearly-nude form was paltry and pasty.

“Someone should seriously report Mayakovsky for abuse,” Ryan pulled Quentin down the hallway and through the door, into his room. He handed him a thick gray blanket and Quentin wrapped himself in it, shaking. He nodded in gratitude.

“Yeah, I’m pretty sure this is just how the fuck it goes,” he said, rubbing the corner of his eye. “Brakebills doesn’t pretend to be cuddly.”

“Still,” Ryan sat on his bed and leaned back against the enchanted cinderblock walls. They made it so that the cold barely seeped through. “You could have been seriously hurt.”

“Could have been. Not was. They don’t give a shit about hypotheticals,” Quentin laughed, tugging the blanket around him further. “But I appreciate that you do.”

Oh shit, there was that eye contact again. His stomach flipped over a little, a dull tickle. Maybe not full-body delirium, but everything about Ryan sparked an invigorating warmth that was undeniable.

“You play cards?” Ryan said, changing the subject. Quentin smiled.

Hours later, they both sat on the bed and Quentin made the deck dance in the air, forming stories and songs around the two of them, finding refuge in the cold and harsh evirons. Ryan was awed—awed—by Quentin’s magic, and he was kind and gentle and interested. Even Quentin could see that, as their hands touched and smiles passed between them like secrets.

Looking at Ryan’s apple-cheeked grin in the fluorescent blue light of the South Pole and the tender glow of his eyes upturned hopefully at him, Quentin remembered what he said to Julia, only two nights prior. He’d promised himself that he was going to seek out happiness where he could find it. No time like the present, he thought and something like bravery pounded in his chest.

Quentin grabbed Ryan’s wrist, pulling him close. He pressed his lips on Ryan’s very nice ones and sank in, finally living wholly. Ryan responded immediately, falling over forward on Quentin, like he’d been waiting for him and wanting him the whole time.

Stomach flip, dull tickle.

And if for a moment Quentin wished his fingers were wrapping into dark curls and that a sharper tongue was caressing his, he closed his eyes tighter. He willed away that most selfish part of himself, the part that always fucked things up before they started, with hopeless wants and reckless desires. Ryan was good and strong and, above all, there with him.

He didn’t need anything else.

 


 

tbc.

Chapter Text

His webbed feet landed on solid ground and he was a man again. Gasping and swallowing an overflowing amount of warm, enchanted air in his rapidly expanded lungs, Quentin was shaking and unnerved, uncertain how his body could tether to the earth. Still dressed all in white, he stared at his fellow first years, all equally blank and wary, as they each reengaged with the world around them. The geese were no more, and only the traumatized Magicians remained.

Julia’s deep, rough breath was suddenly in his ear as she threw her arms around him, trembling. Quentin wrapped his arms around her even tighter and thought through the weeks or days or maybe it was months? Time at Brakebills worked so strangely. He knew it was sometime around Thanksgiving, mostly because his dad had been disappointed that he didn’t come by. But there was no winter break and under the enchanted sky, no mark of the seasons until you ventured out. It was almost like the school wanted them to forget the outside world, to get entirely sucked into the rhythm and rhyme of Brakebills, and Brakebills alone.

“That last electrical tower freaked the shit out of me,” Julia said into his ear, still hugging him. Quentin nodded blankly, not really able to form words yet. He inhaled and exhaled. He was at Brakebills. Upstate New York. He was home. He was home.

“Yeah,” Quentin finally breathed out, pulling away from Julia, but keeping one arm draped across her casually. “Yeah, it fucking wrecked me.”

“Wanna get drunk?” Julia asked, looking up at him. He shook his head.

“Definitely not,” Quentin said, still trying to capture breath naturally. “If I even think about vodka, I might have a panic attack. Just wanna get some sleep.”

“Fair enough,” Julia laughed, patting his chest. Looking slightly behind Quentin, her face quirked  and she cleared her throat. “Uh, I think someone’s trying to get your attention.”

Quentin followed her gaze behind him and smiled a little when he saw Ryan, standing sheepishly in his periphery. Quentin raised his eyebrows at Julia, who crinkled hers, curious. He turned around and beckoned Ryan closer, letting go of Julia entirely.

“Hey,” Ryan said, smiling at Quentin and nodding at Julia. “Julia, right?”

“Right,” she said, tilting her head exaggeratedly. “And to whom do I owe the pleasure?”

“Uh, this is Ryan,” Quentin cleared his throat, darting his eyes to the ground. “Ryan’s an Illusion Kid.”

“I make dreams,” Ryan said, by way of explanation. Then he smiled at Quentin again, with a little more purpose. “Hopefully sweet ones.”

Julia’s eyes went bright and wide, and she sucked her cheeks into her teeth. Quentin suddenly found the prospect of the electrical tower much more appealing.

“So Quentin,” Ryan said, kicking the ground a little. “I’m planning on grabbing dinner in the cafeteria around seven or so. Maybe you’ll be there?”

“Oh my god,” Julia turned away, clapping her hand over her mouth. Quentin not-so-subtly kicked her shin.

“Um, yeah,” Quentin’s chest swelled with nerves and pride. “Yeah, I can be there.”

Emboldened and clearly not caring at all about Quentin’s social anxiety, Ryan took Quentin’s hand in his and pressed his lips to his knuckles. Beet red didn’t have anything on the color of Quentin’s cheeks and splotched neck. Julia was practically bouncing on her toes as Ryan nodded his head at Quentin and offered her a quick wave, before retreating back to the Westside of campus.

Julia’s mouth was as wide as her delighted eyes and Quentin cut her off with a finger in her face.

“Not a damn word,” Quentin said, pushing past her, en route to the Cottage.

“He’s cute,” Julia said, laughing, catching up with him, wrapping her arm into his. “He’s so cute, Q.”

 


 

The Encanto Oculto crowd returned later that week, on a Thursday.

Quentin walked the scenic route back to his room from Ryan’s, figuring that three nights together in a row was more than plenty at this early phase. He was ready to settle back into his own bed, read his own books, and sleep with the full space of his own cool pillow. He liked Ryan, but Quentin was in many ways a solitary creature. Too much time with any one person made him feel hollow and stale, like he was starting to shrivel away. The people he was closest to in this world understood this about him. Even in the throes of what one would call a Honeymoon phase, he found himself urgent for space. Itchy for it.

But space wasn’t on the menu, as he walked up the brick pathway and saw the lushes, thrilled and yelling, pour their way out of the temporary portal, still dressed in their Ibiza best and clearly filled with revelry. Quentin wondered how difficult an invisibility spell would be, so that he could sneak his way in, but he figured it was probably not something you could just whip out with a few tuts.

His breath hitched in his chest as the tall figure of Eliot Waugh stepped out of the portal, dressed in pink silk pants, a tall green hat with feathers, and nothing else. He was flanked by a third-year woman and man, their arms reaching up around him as they all fell together, laughing. His bright white teeth laughed up into the sky before kissing the man firmly on the lips. Quentin swallowed, hanging himself back so he didn’t run into his line of sight. He especially wasn’t in the mood for his annoying attraction to Eliot at the moment.

Waiting until he disappeared behind the Cottage door, Quentin steeled himself, gripping his messenger bag before he stepped through the threshold, hiding behind a group of partiers he didn’t recognize. But the second he stepped through, Julia’s hand grabbed him and pulled him to the couch.

“Goddammit, I want to go to bed,” Quentin said by way of greeting, slumping down next to her. Julia glared at him.

“We had plans!” She put her hands on her hips. “Remember? You and Margo said that if I didn’t come to this party, you’d burn down the library?”

“That sounds like something Margo said and I just happened to be there,” Quentin said, grumpily. “She probably wanted an excuse more than anything.”

“Either way, I’m here and not doing my mountains of work,” Julia smiled but her eyes were firm. “You’re fucking stuck with me.”

“Goddammit,” Quentin said again, moaning. Then an idea hit him. “What if we just both leave? It’s not like she’ll even notice if we—”

“Quentin!” The sweet voice of the sleep killing angel cried out and Margo ran full speed at him. “Where the fuck have you been?”

Jumping onto his lap, Margo pressed her lips against his briefly and cracked up at his automatic sputtering. She pet his hair like he was a cat and arched herself backwards to press her lips against Julia’s, Spiderman style. She was much more game for the obviously still slightly tipsy Margo’s antics. Smacking loudly, the two girls giggled and Quentin shifted a little uncomfortably.

“I almost missed you two,” Margo said, sliding down his lap to force her way between them. “Ibiza was everything. You would have died. Literally for you, Quentin.”

He nodded. It was a fair observation.

“Looks like you’re still mostly there,” Julia said, teasing. Margo shimmied her shoulders a little before laughing and then turning back to them with a much more somber look on her face.

“Sorry you were stuck in the South Pole like Mayakovsky’s little personal dildos.”

“A warning would have been nice,” Julia said, screwing her mouth into a teasing smirk. Margo stuck her tongue out.

“No one warned us about shit. And you’ll do the same next year,” Margo snapped her fingers in the air and some random person immediately brought her a drink. She turned around and glared. “For my friends too, dickweed!”

It was nearly instantaneous. Quentin stared down at the Old Fashioned and figured there were worse things. He took a sip. It was fine, but not one of Eliot’s. And he steadfastly ignored the fact that he both knew that and was a little disappointed by it.

“So, so, so,” Margo patted both of their legs in unison, smiling. “Tell me all about the shenanigans at Brakebills South. Happens every year, so no denials.”

Quentin and Julia exchanged wary glances; both of them had stories to tell.

“Come on,” Margo pouted and winked. “Mama needs her medicine.”

Julia nudged Quentin, much more excited than he was, “Can I tell her?”

“Tell me what?” Margo was practically bouncing. Actually, she was literally bouncing. “Tell me what, tell me what, tell me what.

Quentin sighed and shrugged, considering the notion. It didn’t seem like he and Ryan were going to stop seeing each other anytime soon. He liked Ryan. Ryan liked him. They had a nice, easy chemistry and the sex was good. Nothing mind-blowing, at least for Quentin, but it was serviceable and tender. Most of all, Ryan had a particular way of making him feel like he was something really special, like tall and handsome Ryan was the one who lucked out, rather than the obvious opposite. All this meant that it probably had a little bit of staying power, at least for now.

The trouble then, though, was that it did mean that he’d have to tell his friends. And his friends’ friends. Maybe delegating to Julia really wasn’t the worst decision in the world. Taking a large sip of his whiskey drink and grimacing a little at the sharpness of the liquor, he shrugged again.

“I mean, it’s not like it’s a secret,” Quentin said, quirking his lips down. “Better to rip the bandaid.”

“Romantic, Q,” Julia said, smacking his arm. Margo’s eyebrow arched at that.

“Bandaid? Romantic?” Her eyes narrowed a little as she zeroed in on Quentin, trying to read through his skin. “Okay, I’m interested.”

“Quentin hooked up with someone,” Julia said, her smile ten times the news Margo was clearly expecting. She deflated a little.

“Ooh, wow,” Margo said, rolling her eyes. Yawning for effect, she rolled her hand out, perfunctory. “So what’s her name?”

And that’s when Julia’s smile became devious, ready to have Margo in the palm of her hands. Quentin’s insides squirmed, suddenly overwhelmed with the idea that this was a bad idea. But it was too late, because he heard Julia’s voice, high-pitched and sing-song, say the thing she’d be dying to say.

“Wrong ques-tion.”

“Wait, what?” Margo frowned for a moment. Then an almost feverish realization dawned visibly on her features. “Oh my god.”

Quentin cleared his throat and rubbed the back of his neck. Like whiplash, she flipped her head to stare at him. And stare at him. And stare at him some more, for good measure.

“It’s not that big of a deal,” Quentin finally said, his ears burning. But Margo wasn’t done staring at him yet. The lines on her brow furrowing deeply, she crossed her arms and something like a prayerful, euphoric smile crossed her lips.

“You hooked up with a boy?” She asked, her voice rough and practically whispering.

“A very cute boy,” Julia confirmed.

Quentin shrugged again, more intensely, “It’s not a big deal.”

Lather, rinse, all that.

“On the contrary,” Margo crossed her legs and leaned back, her face and eyes still focused on Quentin’s every move, like she was seeing him for the first time. “This is a monumental plot twist."

Quentin gulped, “It’s really not.”

But Margo ignored him, smiling wider and wider. Then, finally, she laughed, pressing her hand on his arm and shaking her head wildly.

“Shit, Coldwater,” she said, with a full-blooded grin. “You have hidden depths.”

On cue, a long figure languished up on top of the couch, his thigh and hip against Margo and Quentin’s heads respectively. Quentin swallowed thickly as Eliot’s familiar scent immediately overtook all of his senses and rational functions at once. Daring to peer upward at him, he was annoyed to see that Eliot was still shirtless. And he was staring down at the top of Quentin’s head, a drunken smile on his face, as he tried to lay his body along the top of the couch, only semi-successfully. He had some kind of thick black eyeliner around his too-green eyes. It made him look like an ancient King and fuck, Quentin wasn’t sure if he hated Eliot or himself more.

He breathed in and out, steadily. He was over this. He was totally over this.

“I greatly doubt it,” Eliot said, responding to Margo’s last comment and not Quentin’s inner thoughts. “But what on earth could spark such a falsehood?”

“Ha, ha,” Quentin said and Eliot smiled wider, his eyes shining right into him. He ruffled his hair.

“Good to see you, kid.” Weirdly, Eliot looked like he meant it. And it was infectious enough that Quentin couldn’t help but grin in return.

“Likewise,” he said with a put-upon sigh. “I guess.”

Eliot laughed aloud and gave him the finger, before leaning over to kiss Julia’s cheek in greeting. Margo stood and pulled Eliot down into her seat, and Eliot immediately wrapped his arms around Quentin and Julia, the touch making his skin jerk under its heat, even with two layers of fabric between them.

It was fine. They were friends now. Friends occasionally touched each other.  But then Eliot’s hair fell raucously in front of his eyes and Quentin was struck with the desire to push it back, to run his fingers through all of the curls, until he reached his neck and could pull him in closer.

…But friends probably didn’t do that.

“Hidden depths?” Eliot asked, looking right at Margo, who repositioned herself on the coffee table. “Hello?”

“How was Ibiza?” Quentin asked, definitely not at all trying to change the subject. Eliot smirked at that and took Margo’s drink out of her hands. He made a face at the flavor, but downed the small amount left before his smirk turned to a wistful grin, his eyes as far away as the islands surrounding the Spanish mainland.

“Exactly as promised,” he said, sighing headily. “There was sun, sand, drinks, drugs, Guillermo...”

Guillermo,” Margo and Eliot both said at the same time, leaning into each other flirtatiously, rolling the ‘r’ sound exaggeratedly. They both giggled a private joke.

Quentin rolled his eyes and ground his teeth. Not that he was jealous. Eliot had walked into the house making out with some dude. He was under no illusions that Eliot was celibate. But still, normally they were nameless and Quentin could silently hate the concept, rather than the person themselves.

He breathed in. He breathed out. He had his own named person now, he reminded himself. That mattered.

“Ooh, a love connection?” Julia asked, with a smile. Eliot snorted.

“Sure. We’re thinking a June wedding,” he said, shifting himself deeper into the couch, his grip on both Julia and Quentin firm and warm. Eliot also wasn’t exactly a serial monogamist. “But he’s visiting Brakebills at the end of the year and everyone needs a hot Spaniard in their Rolodex.”

“Or two,” Margo smiled brightly.

“But while Encanto is a luscious droll of fucking and getting fucked up, Brakebills South is usually filled with much more intrigue,” Eliot said, refusing to get sidetracked. “So come now, hidden depths? Sharing is caring.”

“Q hooked up with someone,” Julia said with a shrug, a little more muted than before.

“That’s not interesting.”

“He hooked up with a boy, Eliot,” Margo’s voice was softer than expected, but then she turned her eyes deviously to Quentin, winking.

Like Margo, Eliot turned his head to Quentin like whiplash and their eyes met. Quentin’s breath caught entirely and the rest of the Cottage fell away. Eliot’s dark eyes were hot, aching, a little pissed off. His fingers, wrapped around Quentin’s shoulder, tightened with a quirk jerk. It was a slight, but sure movement and Quentin gulped, then blinked. But when Quentin opened his eyes again, disappointment dulled against his gut. It hadn’t even been a microsecond and Eliot was relaxed, his face the epitome of placid amusement. His hand was at ease and the sinking feeling that Quentin had imagined it all—that it was some kind of extremely fucked up wishful thinking—settled onto him.

He breathed in. He breathed out.  And Eliot chuckled.

“Huh,” he said, his lips curving upward slowly, eyes narrowing. “Honestly, I didn’t think you had it in you.”

“Is it really that shocking that I’m not totally straight?” Quentin asked, sincerely. It wasn’t that he was a rainbow flag touting Pride Parade participant, but he didn’t think he came across as precisely the storybook Hetero Hero either. Eliot unwound his arms dramatically and took Quentin’s drink, sipping on it as though it were his. Quentin made a slight sound of protest, but Eliot ignored him.

“God, no,” he laughed. “But I thought you were too…”

“What, prudish?” Quentin filled in, dryly.

“Anxious,” Eliot concluded, more fairly than anticipated.

“I mean, I guess my anxieties manifest themselves in myriad other ways,” Quentin shrugged. “But not right now in regard to that, uh… particular endeavor.”

“Yeah, okay, you’re still fuckin’ Quentin,” Margo said with an eye roll. “So a little bicurious experimentation, huh? I can get behind that.”

Quentin pulled his gaze to look directly at her, and she was staring with her eyes squinted, a single finger tapping slowly on her knee. She was testing him. Margo never tried to be subtle. She was trying to get to the root of what this meant to Quentin and what it meant for Quentin, moving forward. And that’s what made him more nervous than anything.

Thankfully, Julia answered the call for him, since he didn’t really want to go there himself.

“But riddle me this. Is it an experiment if it’s an ongoing thing?” She asked, touching her chin with her pointer finger finger, like she was considering a difficult problem. “If Quentin’s been sleeping over at his place, oh, every night since we got back?”

Eliot pulled out a cigarette and lit it, breathing out the smoke between his teeth.

“In the house?” Julia pursed her lips at him, the Mother Hen. “Really?”

“Do you fucking live here?” Eliot nudged Julia lightly with his knee and she smacked him good-naturedly.

“Huh,” Margo said though, sounding very much like Eliot. She was still focused on Quentin. There was also a new sourness in her tone that made Quentin squirm. “So you straight up like dick. And you’ve always liked dick?”

“Is that a problem?” He asked, a little defensive. Margo rolled her eyes.

“Only because you didn’t fucking tell me,” she said, hitting his leg with a sharp smack. It actually kind of hurt. “I need to know what I’m working with. Don’t hold back again.”

“It wasn’t really relevant until now.”

Quentin could have sworn he saw Eliot’s lips purse tightly around his cigarette, but again—it was probably all in his head. He looked at him again and tried not to feel disappointed at how clearly unaffected Eliot actually was.

“You don’t get to make fucking decisions anymore,” Margo said with another, even deeper eye roll. “You’re mine. Bow to your liege.”

“Okay, Margo,” Quentin said, returning her eye roll measure for measure.

“So, he’s your boyfriend?” Eliot asked, hints of his typical sneering mockery on his lips at the word. “That’s cute.”

“No,” Quentin said, unthinkingly and fiercely. Eliot’s eyebrows shot up. “I mean, not really. I kind of—”

Julia cut him off with a glare, twisting her body around Eliot’s to stick a single finger in his face, “Q, I swear to god, if you say that you ‘eschew labels,’ I will pinch you.”

Eliot laughed at that, visibly relaxing back into the couch and blowing billows of smoke upward. Quentin shrugged and bit his lip, not really sure what to say, except what was true.

“But it’s true, I do eschew—ow!”

Julia pinched his thigh, really fucking hard. It hurt way worse than Margo’s smack. He pushed her hand away, but she shook her head and dove against him, pinching his arm and chest over and over, to his increasing protests. She went all in for it, her body forcefully crossed over a positively beaming Eliot. Margo was equally amused, grabbing another drink from the sky and sipping, clearly enjoying Quentin’s pain.

“He’s a nice guy, Q,” Julia said, finally relenting and her mouth set in a serious line. “And he really, really likes you. Don’t be you about this.”

“Double ‘really,’ huh?” Eliot said, with a chuckle. “Oh boy.”

“I might even go for the triple,’” Julia said, admonishing Quentin with another pinch. She made a face at him when he whined. “From what I saw, the guy’s besotted.”

“Besotted,” Eliot repeated, like he’d never heard the word before. “With Quentin.”

…There was the asshole he knew and kind of tolerated.

“Hey, the trappings of domesticity aren’t everyone’s kink,” Margo said, nodding sagely. “Respect, Coldwater.”

Quentin desperately wanted a drink, but when he looked down at the one Eliot had stolen from him, it was completely drained. Eliot shrugged at Quentin’s pointed glare.

“Oh, please,” Julia scoffed. “He’s one-hundred percent your boyfriend. Just own it, dude.”

“Blah, this part is boring,” Margo said, yawning again to make her point. “Tell us about the sex stuff instead. The more details, the better.”

“Julia had a threesome with Penny and Kady,” Quentin practically shouted. Eliot and Margo’s mouths fell happily and turned to look at Julia.

“Asshole,” she said through grit teeth, only half-serious. “Traitorous asshole.”

“No, but, like, let’s talk about that,” Quentin said, nodding exaggeratedly. “I’m so boring. Super vanilla, trust me. Like, Haagen-Daaz all the way.”

Haagen-Daaz,” Margo repeated, chuckling and stroking his knee. “You’re such a nerd.”

Julia snorted a little, but then held up a fist at Quentin, now apparently threatening to punch him. But Quentin was on a roll.

“Julia, though, with those two? I’ll bet that’s some real kinky shit. Ask her all about it.”

He glanced back and forth between Margo and Eliot conspiratorially, much to Julia’s chagrin and vocal protest. And his heart jumped a little when he noticed that Eliot was looking at him in that way again, like he was almost fond, almost charmed. But then Margo turned to Julia like a predator and his best friend shook her head, laughing and reaching behind Eliot to mess up Quentin’s hair.

“Fuck you, Q.”

 


 

It was a rarity at Brakebills, but it still happened occasionally. Quentin sat on the couch in the Cottage, blowing air out his mouth in a whale-like pattern, tossing a card high into the air before freezing it and letting it come back down in a gentle spiral. He threw another one up, freeze, down. The pattern was usually hypnotic, but that day, it rang dull. Like everything about that day.

He was bored.

Ryan had class for the next six hours—a special lab that took up the whole day. And Julia said that she was out of commission for the next three days, thanks to some special project with Lipson. Which didn’t even make sense because Julia was hardly a healer, but Quentin supposed being The Golden Girl came with all kinds of weird benefits and drawbacks, depending on how you looked at it. So his two primary sources of socialization were non-options and he’d already finished all his homework. He couldn’t do another Popper even if it offered to blow him after and Fillory was reading rote at the moment. Sighing discontentedly, he threw another card in the air, froze it, and let it come down. He was resigned to his itchy, vague ennui.

The door to the Cottage opened slowly and a familiar figure walked through the door, so that Quentin’s heart leapt. He sat at attention and a big, wide smile took over his face. He raised his hand into a wave and called out, thankful not only for the interruption of his dreariness, but also because he was just so damn happy to see him.

“Todd!” Quentin said, a little brighter than his natural disposition. “Um, holy shit. Where the hell have you been?”

Todd gave Quentin a half-hearted wave and a tentative smile, very much unlike the man he knew. Quentin tensed his jaw, a little puzzled and concerned.

“Hey Quentin,” Todd said, without his usual mirth. “Good to see you, man.”

“I feel like it’s been ages,” Quentin said, honestly. Even before Brakebills South, Todd had been harder to get in touch with on a regular basis. “How was Encanto?”

“Oh, uh,” Todd swallowed and averted his gaze. “I didn’t get to go. Margo and Eliot said I’d be too much of a bummer. Which, like, they totally know best so it was fine.”

Quentin’s gut sank into the ground and he was overwhelmed with anger towards the upperclassmen. The more time he spent with them, the easier it was to forget what elitist assholes the two of them could be. Eliot was the more obvious of the two, but even Margo—who Quentin had much less ambiguous friendship with—more than held her own in the Treating People Like Shit game. And every single time, it disappointed him like the first.

“Jesus, I’m sorry,” Quentin said, sincerely annoyed on his behalf. But Todd tried to perk up a little, a sad and false smile on his face.

“I ended up doing that Magic tournament I told you about,” Todd said. “Came in 37th.”

Quentin smiled and gave him a thumbs up, which made Todd laugh a little. He put his hands in his pocket and warmed a bit toward Quentin, rocking back and forth on his feet.

“How was Brakebills South?” He asked, ducking his head. “Sorry I didn’t say anything. The others would have flayed me alive.”

“I get it. No worries,” Quentin said, waving his hand. “And it was mostly shitty. Mayakovsky tried to kill me.”

“Literally?” Todd asked and Quentin nodded. “Oh wow, shit.”

“Threw me outside, at night,” he said, biting the inside of his cheek, half in laughter and half in continued bitterness. “He said it was the worthy fate of a B-minus student.”

“A B-minus isn’t terrible from Mayakovsky.”

“He was talking about my average,” Quentin said wryly. “I’m honestly terrified to see what my grade will be from him.”

“Well, sorry that it sucked so much,” Todd said, all genuine.

“It wasn’t all bad,” Quentin said, thinking of Ryan. Todd had actually introduced them, he remembered. And he suddenly felt grateful. “I have a lot to catch you up on, actually. Want to grab lunch?”

It was almost noon and he knew that Todd’s schedule was also free, since it was Monday. But Todd looked down at the ground and shook his head.

“No, that’s okay,” he said, that sadness creeping in again. “You don’t have to do that. I know things have changed.”

Quentin blinked and pulled his lips down, in a quick quirk of a movement.

“What are you talking about?” He asked, confused. But Todd just looked at him, with a half-smile and a shrug.

“Come on,” he said, imploring. “You’re friends with Margo and Eliot. I’m not stupid. I know where I stand.”

“What does that have to do with anything?” Quentin asked. Then, a dark, angry thought crossed his mind. “Wait, have you been avoiding me because I’ve been hanging out with them?”

“I know the score,” Todd said, his sadness blatant and quiet. “There’s no way they’ll let you have both. And I’d probably choose them too, so I get it.”

“Margo and Eliot don’t let me do anything, Todd,” Quentin crossed his arms, feeling equal parts angry and hurt at what his friend was saying. “You’re my friend. That’s it.”

“At the end of the day…”

“At the end of the day, the two of them—yeah, I mean, I guess they’ve turned out to be kind of weirdly important parts of my life. Prominent, at least. They’re fun. They’re interesting,” Quentin shook his head. “But I, um… if they dropped me because I’m friends with you, then I’d tell them to go fuck themselves.”

“Seriously?” Todd asked, awed. “You’d tell them to go fuck themselves?”

“I mean, honestly?” Quentin chuckled. “I’ve already told Eliot to go fuck himself more times than I can count, over way less meaningful shit.”

Todd laughed at that, but then a strange look crossed over his eyes. He cleared his throat.

“That must be why he likes you so much,” Todd said, looking down at his hands. Quentin swallowed, harder than he’d ever swallowed before. His heart rate increased a good few beats per minute and he nodded, trying to best to pretend like those words didn’t completely unnerve him.

He means as a friend, you dipshit, his brain said, rolling its little brain eyes. Quentin breathed in and out. It was true. That was true.

“He must like that you’re…you know, so much your own person,” Todd sighed and finally walked over to the couch, sitting next to Quentin. “I can never be like that. He scares me too much.”

“Nah, I think he fucking hates it,” Quentin said, honestly. “I mean, his ego needs its own plane seat so I think my, uh, righteous indignation pisses him off more than anything.”

“That’s funny,” Todd said with a loud snort. “Its own plane seat.”

Quentin offered back a wry grin, “If he likes me at all, it’s from Margo’s influence.”

“I don’t know about that,” Todd said simply.

In lieu of a response, Quentin threw all his cards in the air and shot them out into a perfect circle that spun three times before coming together on the coffee table, all perfectly lined up together in a neat deck. Todd waggled his eyebrows at the magic and Quentin snorted, crossing his arms and turning to face him, serious this time.

“He shouldn’t scare you. He’s ridiculous,” Quentin insisted. “And he definitely can’t stop us from being friends.”

“Margo scares me more,” Todd sheepishly admitted and Quentin laughed.

“Now that’s fair,” Quentin said and Todd smiled, up to his eyes this time. Clapping Quentin on the back, he nodded happily, finally relaxing back into their easy friendship.

“All right, let’s go get some lunch,” Todd said before hesitating, maybe slightly guilty. “And sorry, I won’t—”

“No worries, man,” Quentin said, standing and pulling Todd’s arm to help him up off the couch too. “So, total tangent, but uh… you know your friend Ryan?”

And as they walked to lunch and Todd’s eyes went from wide and incredulous to full-blown ecstatic, Quentin’s boredom dissipated and his heart warmed.

 


 

Quentin’s efforts to keep Ryan from the Cottage succeeded for about a week and a half. It helped that he split his time between East and West, sometimes not sure which Cottage he was waking up in on any given day. Spending time with the Illusion Kids was relaxing and easy. For all their bluster about hating the Physical Kids’ Cottage, they were actually all pretty low-key and too focused on their work to really give a shit about where Quentin lived. Ryan in particular was often bogged down with his work, studying overtime, frantic about any given test or challenge on any given day. Quentin had never seen someone quite as neurotic as he was about magic and it made him feel good to be with someone who understood the urgency that lived deep down in his soul.

But Quentin also knew that it bugged Ryan not to sleep over at his place. What could he say, though? Sorry, a couple of my friends are complete assholes and I don’t trust them to be kind to you would spark more questions than Quentin strictly had answers. And on the flip side, it definitely bugged Margo that she hadn’t been introduced to Ryan…and that Quentin steadfastly refused to even give her his name. Oh, and that he’d worked out a schedule around hers, so that whenever he was with Ryan, there was no chance they’d walk through campus and run into her.

Or Eliot, for that matter, but he definitely seemed to give way less of a shit about meeting Ryan. He hadn’t really brought it up since the first night and would sigh at Margo whenever she’d go on one of her tangents, telling her to calm down and let Quentin live his life in peace. Quentin was grateful for that, at least. He didn’t need to explode a combustion engine.

But that’s why it was particularly surprising when, one day, about three weeks into his relationship with Ryan, Eliot smoothly sat down next to Quentin on the couch and leveled him with as serious a look as he’d ever seen on his face.

“Dinner party,” Eliot said, like that was enough information. Quentin glanced up from his Fillory book and knitted his eyebrows over his squinted eyes. Eliot sighed. “I’m hosting a dinner party, for you, so you can bring your nameless little friend and we can all finally meet him.”

“Uh, fuck that?” Quentin said, with a wry and sarcastic grin. “I’m not throwing him at a hornet’s nest.”

“Come now,” Eliot rolled his eyes. “You’re something akin to a friend, in all the most embarrassing ways possible. If you don’t want us to eat him alive, we won’t.”

“My confidence is overflowing,” Quentin said, his voice flat. Eliot chuckled and stretched his arm out on the back of the couch.

“Look, this is a favor. You’re not thinking strategically,” Eliot said, a surprising amount of sincerity in his eyes. “I’m giving you an opportunity to control the narrative.”

“I’m controlling it fine.”

“That’s because I’ve been holding Margo back,” Eliot said with a half-smile. “You really think she won’t eventually cast a locator spell on you—or worse—if left to her own devices? Trust me, it’s not in your interest for her to find this guy on her own accord.”

That…was a good point. Quentin knew it. And Eliot definitely knew it. Sighing and closing his book, Quentin held the bridge of his nose and set his jaw, thinking desperately of a way out of this. He could just bring Ryan over, without preamble, and be done with it. It didn’t have to be some big debutante event. But an event had structure and a clear end point and it would be easier to have Julia there, if needed. If anyone could keep Margo and Eliot in line (because he still didn’t fucking trust the serpent in front of him, no matter what he was saying), it was her.

“Fine,” Quentin said, acquiescing. “But Julia’s invited.”

“Obviously,” Eliot said with a laugh. “I’d invite her before I’d invite you.”

“And Todd.”

Eliot froze. He snorted out air through his nose, not quite a laugh. He was a bull, about to charge at the waving red cape with which Quentin was taunting him.

“Go to hell,” Eliot said, his meanness spitting out. Quentin shrugged.

“Then no deal,” Quentin said. “Todd’s the one who introduced me and Ry—my friend. He should be there.”

“Todd set you up with him?” Eliot’s voice was lower and more curious, his tongue wrapping around the words delicately. “That’s new information.”

“Well, no, but they’re friends too,” Quentin said and rolled his eyes at Eliot’s unconvinced face. “You’re, like, the only person who hates Todd, for the record. He has lots of friends. Including me.”

“World’s fucked, I guess,” Eliot said, tapping his hand against the couch. With a guttural growl, he tensed his jaw and popped it, before settling on a long, harsh smile. “Fine. Todd can come. But I’m not engaging him in pleasant conversation.”

“I don’t really care what you do,” Quentin said, meaning it. “But deal’s a deal. What day?”

“Friday evening,” Eliot stood up, already walking away, smug and victorious. “And if you wear a hoodie, I’m sending you back upstairs.”

 


 

continued with part ii.

Chapter Text

Ryan was thrilled at the prospect of the party and that made Quentin all the more anxious. He tried to tell him—to warn him—that the Physical Kids were different than the Illusion Kids, in that they lived and breathed the kinds of things the West Cottage only jokingly hinted at. He tried to tell him that Margo and Eliot were exactly as rumored, a good most of the time, but Ryan laughed him off, explaining that his housemate Mario used to have a thing with Eliot and had filled him in on what to expect.

“From what I gather, he’s all bark and no bite,” Ryan said, kissing Quentin’s cheek with a dip of his head, as they walked the quad. Quentin looked at him dubiously.

“Margo is all bite and more bite,” he said, disentangling himself from Ryan’s pawing hands. He was more of a touchy-feely person than Quentin and sometimes it made him feel suffocated. But he wasn’t going to screw anything up, so he angled himself toward his classroom, like his movements were purposeful and practical rather than internal.

Still sensing disappointment on Ryan’s end, Quentin gave him a quick grin and touched his hand again, as a good faith gesture, “You seriously don’t have to come. There’s only so much I can do to protect you.”

“No way, mister,” Ryan said, laughing and clearly already knowing him better than Quentin thought. “You’re not getting out of this.”

And so, it was Friday evening and Quentin was tying his favorite and only tie—the blue and red one he wore at the exam and also for alumni week—grumbling to himself in the mirror. Eliot’s preparations were already in full-swing and for some goddamn reason, he’d decided this one was where he’d outdo all of his other soirées. It was the smallest one he’d ever thrown, but apparently, it was going to be the grandest. He and Margo had been discussing which dish from the El Bulli repertoire would be best to recreate and something about the effort involved put a twisting knot in Quentin’s stomach.

Stepping briskly down the stairs and looking up at the clock on the wall, he saw that it was still fifteen minutes until seven, which was when he expected Ryan, arriving with Todd. But he heard voices and laughter from the kitchen, and so he followed the joyful ambiance. Immediately, a glass of wine was shoved in his hand. Smirking, Julia ruffled his hair, dressed in a bright blue dress. She looked great, as always.

Meanwhile, Margo—radiant and sexy in all black—was sitting on the counter, next to a swiftly moving Eliot, who was solo operating the oven and the burners, concocting up a variety of sauces that Quentin barely recognized. He was surprised to see Eliot dressed down more than usual, clad only in dress pants and a red button-down, with rolled up sleeves. All of the accessories likely weren’t good for his work in the kitchen, but Quentin was still struck that he looked better than he usually did, if that were even possible. There was an ease and a casualness that felt intimate.

Breaking his probably inappropriate reverie, the man in question turned around briefly, to check the convection oven on the other side of the kitchen. He rolled his eyes at the sight of Quentin.

“Excellent,” Eliot said, drawling out angrily. “More people in my kitchen.”

“Where’s your sous chef anyway?” Julia asked, tossing her arm around Quentin and wiggling into him, excited about the evening. “I thought you and Josh were a happy little partnership when it came to culinary endeavors.”

“Waist deep in a tomato garden,” Eliot said, salting a fish filet tenderly. “Thesis project.”

Julia shrugged and popped an olive from a nearby platter into her mouth, quickly extracting the pit. And Margo, unusually quiet so far, was staring at Quentin, looking him up and down like an appraiser. She was obviously underwhelmed and she sighed loudly, before sliding down from the counter and walking over with a purposeful strut.

“That’s what you’re wearing?” Margo said, stopping in front of him, hands on her hips. “The same motherfucking chambray?”

“Isn’t that a type of white wine?” Quentin asked, quipping dryly. Surprisingly, Eliot laughed, full-throated, getting the joke. He glanced over at Quentin from over his shoulder, his hands still chopping garlic. Margo rolled her eyes.

“Don’t be cute,” she said, pointing in his face.

“He can’t help it,” Julia said lightly, pressing Quentin’s collar down. “Though she’s right that it wouldn’t kill you to put in a little more effort, Q, instead of wearing the same dress clothes you’ve had since high school.”

Quentin rolled his eyes and popped a few truffle fries in his mouth.

“I put in effort,” he said, his mouth and tongue rolling around the fried potato. Eliot snatched the bowl out from under him.

“Those aren’t even close to being right yet,” Eliot said with a frustrated groan, taking a delicate bite off the edge of a single fry before dramatically spitting it out. “Hands off.”

“You don’t have to go crazy,” Quentin said as Eliot practically threw the bowl onto the counter and dipped his frantic form over it. “Ryan’s even less into fancy food and stuff than I am.”

“I seek perfection for its own sake,” Eliot said, delicately using tweezers to place micro-herbs onto the edges of the potato and black truffle combination. Quentin’s chest swelled a little at the notion. He leaned against the counter, watching Eliot work, privately impressed. He chuckled though, the urge to tease him too great to ignore.

“I’m just saying, he’d be fine with, like, Arby’s waffle fries.”

Eliot pulled a face and refused to respond, turning back to his precision. Quentin shuddered out a silent laugh, until he caught Margo’s eyes. She was watching him oddly, like he’d just done something she’d commanded and she was a pleased master.

“Great,” Margo said, smirking. “So now you’ve got someone to validate your worst caveman tendencies, when what you actually need is someone who can culture you the fuck up.”

“I was a philosophy major at Columbia,” Quentin crossed his arms. “I’m plenty cultured.”

“But only with boring stuff, like how to best jerk it to Kierkegaard,” Margo said. “But I’ll bet you wouldn’t know Puccini if he stuck his dick in your ear. ”

“I feel like the better we know you, the cruder you get,” Julia said, a little impressed. Margo laughed and took a long sip of her wine, before starting to tell a limerick about exactly how disgusting she was when Eliot decided they were all distracting assholes and kicked them out of the kitchen, for good.

 


 

Ryan and Todd arrived at seven-ten, the perfect amount of fashionably late. He shouldn’t have been surprised at Margo’s vehemence toward opening the door when the knock finally came or the way she pushed Quentin down to the ground, to ensure she made it there first.

In contrast, Eliot’s calm and casual stroll to the door was elegant and disinterested, and it bugged Quentin in a deep way he really didn’t want to try to read into. But Todd and Ryan were there, and the small group greeted each other. Ryan tried to kiss Quentin on entry, but if there was anything he hated more than watching PDA, it was engaging in it. So he stayed off to the periphery of the circle, watching the first interactions between his small group of friends and his…well, whatever Ryan was to him.

Of course, Ryan was genial as ever, shaking hands and giving hugs. He’d even brought a bottle of wine for the host, which was a nice touch. Quentin saw Eliot’s eyes falter slightly at the scripted words Charles Shaw on the bottle. But surprisingly, he didn’t say a single snarky word. Instead, Eliot recovered with a gracious smile and patted the wine, tucking it under his arm.

“Thank you,” Eliot said and Ryan nodded in return. “And please, make yourself at home. We have lots of food, ample seating room, and a variety of spirits. Happy to make any cocktail your heart desires.”

“Appreciate it,” Ryan said, tugging Quentin forward into the small group. “I’m not picky so I’ll have the same as Quentin.”

Eliot’s eyes faltered again and they recovered again, “Whatever pleases.”

Margo, though, was less forgiving.

“Independent thought a foreign concept, then?” She asked, sickly sweet. She was joking, of course. Ryan turned a grim smile to her and cleared his throat.

“You must be Margo,” he said and Margo smiled back, not without a danger that set Quentin’s teeth on fire.

“Please,” she said, batting her hand out lightly at him. “You’re adorable pretending you didn’t already know that.”

“Margo,” Quentin said, his voice low. But she ignored him, circling Ryan like a vulture.

“Hmm,” Margo said, humming out and looking him up and down, though he were a show dog. “Well-built. Broad. Basic.”

Quentin opened his mouth to tell Margo exactly where she could shove her opinion, but another force interrupted before he could manage to sputter the angry words out.

“Bambi,” Eliot grabbed Margo’s hand and attention. “Would you be an absolute darling and bring me the amuse bouches from the counter?”

“Ugh, I’m not your servant,” she said with mild sneer. Eliot fixed an intense gaze on her, one that Quentin couldn’t quite interpret, but it made Margo visibly deflate.

“Okay, Jesus,” she said, sauntering her way past the dining room before looking back at Ryan with a simpering pout. “I’m only teasing.”

“Thank you, Bambi,” Eliot said, light yet intentional. She held her middle finger high in the air, but went into the kitchen regardless. With a clap, he turned back to Quentin and Ryan. “Any decisions on drinks, gents?”

Ryan breathed in and shrugged, his mouth set in a line. Quentin was overwhelmed with the urge to run out of the house, away from all of them. It was a lot. Too much, maybe.

“I want wine!” Julia said with a smile and a laugh,  breaking the tension and putting her arm through Todd’s. “This one and me will split a bottle.”

“Boy, gee-whiz,” Todd laughed a little nervously and Julia scrunched her face up.

“Time to bond, dude,” she said, leaning into him with a little giggle. Quentin felt a glow of love for her and how she always ensured that the most socially vulnerable felt comfortable. “You’re in Wicker country now.”

“I’d be super honored, Julia,” Todd said with a wide grin. “You’re, like, the coolest.”

“Calm down, Todd,” Eliot said with a grimace, unable to help himself. Then he turned to Julia, ever the consummate host. “Red or white?”

 


 

The beginning of dinner didn’t go much more smoothly. Of course, Eliot’s work was incredible. Floating candles crowned the table, glittering in the dimmed lights. The food presented itself on cue and in perfect timing, as they all sat around, tasting and delighting. And Eliot himself acted as the sommelier, explaining his perfectly planned drink pairings with a smooth, easy conversational flow. If it had been simply a restaurant experience, rather than a fraught social one, Quentin would have rated it as highly as one could.

But that wasn’t the reality of the situation, as Margo swiftly reminded them, watching Ryan with an increasingly intense and discerning gaze. Or, perhaps, glare would have been a better term for the way her eyes narrowed and sharpened on the newcomer.

“How tall are you?” Margo asked him, apropos of nothing. She traced her finger around her wine glass. Ryan screwed his face up in confusion.

“Sorry?” He asked, a little thrown by the abruptness. Margo narrowed her eyes into virtual slits.

“How tall are you?” She repeated.

“I don’t—”

“Are you deaf?” Margo said slowly, sending a shot of anger to Quentin’s chest. But once again, he was cut off at the source. Eliot’s hand touched Margo’s.

“Bambi,” he said, his voice a low warning. “He’s a guest.”

“I just don’t understand why he’s pretending he didn’t understand me when it’s a very simple question,” Margo said, her voice light and high and brittle in its shark-like danger.

“Uh, I’m around six foot, I guess,” Ryan answered, clearing his throat and crossing his arms. “Something like that.”

“If there’s a truth universally acknowledged, Brian,” Margo leaned forward, licking her lips. Quentin hoped his own glare would fucking electrocute her. “It’s that every man knows exactly how tall he is.”

“I’m six-one,” Ryan said, his voice flat. Margo smiled.

“That’s all I wanted,” she wiggled her way back into her chair and smiled brightly at Quentin. “So you like ‘em to tower over you, huh?”

“Fucking Christ, Margo,” Quentin started to say, hoping his dark voice conveyed his frustration and rage, but Ryan squeezed his hand and smiled at him reassuringly. Sometimes Quentin forgot that not everyone was completely ruined by negative social interactions and that people like Ryan could even take them in stride.

“Not to break up this weird conversation or anything,” Ryan said, with more humor than Margo deserved. “But I need to use the restroom?”

“Second on the right,” Eliot pointed behind them, toward the kitchen. Ryan nodded in acknowledgement and patted Quentin on the back as he left. As soon as his retreating form disappeared, Quentin forcefully pushed his elbows against the table, staring straight at Margo.

“What the fuck is your problem?” He demanded and Margo’s eyes disappeared into her head. “You promised you’d be nice.”

“Technically,” she said, sipping her wine. “Eliot promised to be nice. I didn’t say shit about it.”

“Come the fuck on,” Quentin said, glaring harder and harsher. Margo sighed.

“I verify, then trust,” she said, crossing her arms. “I have no idea if this guy is worthy. You should be a little warier yourself.”

“That’s actually, like, the last thing Quentin needs,” Julia said, inserting herself. Margo shook her head, ready to argue, but then Todd cleared his throat.

“I know Ryan pretty well now and he’s a really good dude,” he said, agreeing with a bright nod. “That one of my patented Total Todd Guarantees.”

Eliot closed his eyes and jerked his head, apparently physically pained by Todd’s presence and quips. But that didn’t matter. Quentin put his hand down on the table, looking between all of them.

“What Quentin needs is for everyone to just be fucking normal,” Quentin said. “For once in their lives. Especially you.”

“This is my normal, Quentin,” Margo said, exasperated at Quentin’s pointed stare. “I’m not a nice person. Total scorpion. It’s my nature.”

“You’re nice to me,” he said, challenging. Margo immediately pouted her face and rubbed his hand.

“That’s because you’re my soft little nerd,” she said, her voice exaggeratedly mothering. “I’d break you.”

“Yeah, well, what this soft little nerd wants is for you to be nice to his fucking boyfriend, okay?” Quentin slammed his hand down, that being that. Julia smiled widely, much to his internal annoyance. He really hadn’t meant to say that. He wasn’t even sure if he meant it.

But he knew that Margo was being an asshole to someone who absolutely didn’t deserve it, and he was sick of it. Even Eliot was keeping his shit together, shockingly maturely. Because maybe, just maybe, he was trying to be an actual friend. And that was ironic, considering Quentin was definitively closer to Margo. So if calling Ryan his boyfriend is what it took to get her to take him—and them—seriously, then that’s what it fucking took. Even if it meant that Julia was going to stare giddily at him, with the world’s biggest shit-eating grin on her face.

For her part, Margo swallowed hard and pure anger painting her eyes. But she nodded.

“Fine,” she snapped, picking up her napkin like her fingers were going to break it and throwing it in her lap. Eliot’s unfocused eyes narrowed and he touched his hand to his lips, like he was thinking. Then he held a finger up.

“Saucepan is still on,” he said, standing abruptly. “Bambi, come with. You’re the only one I trust in the kitchen other than myself.”

 


 

The night was long and short at the same time. Tense as he was, the final course was gone from their scraped plates before he knew it. 

At this point, Quentin was used to the fact that everything Eliot did was incredible, but that didn’t make it any less annoying. Still, the meat dish was tender and well-seasoned, with an herb sauce that tasted like it came right from a garden. If Eliot ever decided that giving a shit about things larger than parties and culinary delights was worth his time, he’d be on track for world domination.

Unfortunately, the conversation had gone from tense to schmoopy, with Todd and Julia taking control, trying to get the details out of Ryan and Quentin about their relationship. Margo and Eliot both harshly protested their boredom with the topic, repeatedly, but Julia was a force to be reckoned with. If she wanted to talk about something, everyone had better get damn well ready to talk about it. And Todd was equally happy to follow suit.

“What’s the first thing you noticed about him, Quentin?” Todd asked. “That made you think, oh, maybe he’s my sweetheart?”

“Fucking gross, Todd,” Margo said, sticking her tongue out and retching out a disgusted sound. “We just ate.”

Eliot held the bridge of his nose, breathing in and out, like he had a painful Todd-induced migraine.

“I’m curious,” Ryan said lightly. Margo rolled her eyes, but then gave Quentin a tense smile when he cast a warning look her way. She slumped into her chair, domesticated and frustrated. Eliot lazily ran his fingers through her hair, whispering in her ear. She harrumphed, but swallowed, softening.

“Uh, you had Marquez in your bag,” Quentin said, answering with the first and only thing that came to mind. “I thought it was an interesting juxtaposition.”

“Juxtaposition?” Ryan smiled teasingly. “Meaning?”

“Well, guys who look like you usually don’t…” He trailed off, blushing. Standing up, Eliot clanged his plate on top of Todd’s.

“I love Marquez,” Julia said brightly, facing Ryan.

“Everyone loves Marquez,” Eliot said, pushing his way behind Margo and taking both her and Julia’s plates in a single movement. “Scoot a bit, I’m clearing now.”

 


 

 

With a twist of his fingers, the Crepes Suzette were alight and Quentin just shook his head, not fighting the journey of Eliot Waugh’s talents anymore. It was a strange coincidence that sweet orange desserts were Quentin’s favorites, but he figured that Eliot just went with whatever had the most alcohol content. Relishing everyone’s applause, Eliot bowed and sat down, barely touching his own plate. Instead, he watched everyone else down theirs, drinking up their approval. He specifically looked to Quentin with a questioning gaze. Rolling his eyes, Quentin gave him an approving grin and his heart blacked out for a moment at the dazzling one he got in return.

He grabbed Ryan’s arm, to feel him close. He had nice forearms, strong and sturdy. In response, Ryan quirked his head over to him with a smile, a little surprised at the sudden affection. Quentin tried not to feel too guilty at its impetus.

“What was Quentin like in high school?” Ryan asked Julia, since they were apparently still playing twenty questions. “I find him incredibly mysterious and I’m hoping you can shed some light on this handsome enigma.”

“Uh, I mean, I’m not—” Quentin swallowed, blushing. “I’m, like, the opposite of mysterious. Pretty much what you see is what you get.”

Ryan chortled, a strange sound between a laugh and a snort. He disagreed, but that didn’t make him right. There really was very little more to Quentin than met the eye. But Ryan kept looking insistently at Julia, who briefly caught Quentin’s eye with an almost imperceptible nod.

“High school Q was honestly a lot like Brakebills Q, only younger,” Julia said. But there was nothing honest about it. It was a complete lie and Quentin felt a rush of gratitude towards her.

“In what way?” Ryan asked.

“Oh, you know. Kind of shy, zealous in his nerdiness, but still sweet,” she said, before her smile turned mischievous. “And, you know, a total stealth heartbreaker.”

Eliot’s face was expressionless as he moved swiftly around the table, refilling everyone’s glasses.

“More wine?” He offered to Ryan, who smiled in the affirmative. “Bambi, wine?”

“Yeah, right,” Quentin said, his ears burning red. “Everyone here has met me, Jules.”

“I call ‘em like I see ‘em,” she said, her lips pursed teasingly in the air. “You’ve totally got that hard-to-get vibe.”

“And he has no idea how powerful it is,” Margo smiled at Julia, agreeing. “It’s like a superhero origin story. A sexy one.”

Eliot didn’t bother asking Quentin if he wanted more booze. He just filled Quentin’s glass up all the way to the rim as the women spoke, with a grin of his own.

“Definitely a bit of Peter Parker thing going on,” Ryan said with a laugh. “I can see that. And like it.”

“Fuck,” Quentin slumped down into his chair and grabbed his wine glass chugging. He caught eyes with Eliot, who snorted and winked at him.

“All right, stop torturing the poor child,” Eliot said, stepping in. “His constitution can only take so much. You especially should know better.”

He was pointing at Julia, who shrugged.

“Someone’s gotta push his comfort zone,” she said with zero remorse. “He’s hot and he needs to accept it.”

Quentin threw his napkin at her.

 


 

All in all, it had actually been a halfway decent night.

Margo had calmed down and even said some marginally pleasant things, the food and wine had been excellent, and Quentin was surrounded by all of his favorite people, including the sweetly and hilariously overindulged Todd, passed out on the couch. Still, he was glad to see the party end, ready for the catharsis of his bed. But that idea bothered Ryan, who kept trying to insist on a sleepover, in front of everyone, to Quentin’s annoyance and embarrassment.

“You sure you can’t stay over tonight?” Ryan asked, running his hands down Quentin’s arms affectionately.

“Yeah, I’ve got plans in the morning,” Quentin said, only lying to spare his feelings. At Ryan’s slightly cool stare, he decided to try a little more honesty. “Plus, I’m pretty beat.”

“Normally I don’t go for solitary types, so you’re lucky you’re handsome,” Ryan said with a genuine, if slightly disappointed laugh. Quentin returned his smile, half-aware of Eliot’s eyes following the whole interaction with a keen, guarded interest. Finally able to take no for an answer somewhat gracefully and with a wave at the group, Ryan ventured out into the night and Quentin closed the door behind him, letting out a breath.

“All right,” Quentin said, still not turning around, but feeling the watchful gaze of his friends on his back. “You each have thirty seconds and then not another damn word ever again.”

“You can do better,” Margo said bluntly. “Like, way better.”

“Jesus, seriously?” Quentin turned around fiercely, not knowing exactly what he expected from her. Support was probably a pipe dream.“Why don’t you like him?”

“I only have thirty seconds,” Margo said drolly. “So all I’ll say is that his white-bread boring ass serves to accentuate the parts of you that are equally white-bread boring and not the parts that are interesting, cute, and endearing.”

“Now I’m not sure if I should be more insulted on his behalf or, like, my own,” Quentin said, biting the words out. Margo laughed.

“Oh, obviously on his,” she said, smiling. “I just called you interesting, cute, and endearing. You’re in literal singular company, Coldwater.”

“It didn’t really sound like that,” he said, grumbling and fidgeting with his tie.

“Well, tit up and get over it,” Margo said, hands on hips. “I’m just looking out for you.”

“I think your time is up, Bambi,” Eliot said, smoking quietly against the bannister. “You’ve made your point.”

Quentin felt a huge rush of gratitude towards Eliot for his unexpected allyship that evening, but he didn’t say anything. Acknowledging it could undo everything.

“Well, what about you?” Margo said, challengingly to Eliot. “You think he’s, what, great?”

Eliot shrugged, “I’m personally overwhelmed with indifference, but if Quentin enjoys his company, that’s all that matters.”

“That’s a cop out, motherfucker,” Margo said, her voice ice. Eliot shrugged again and breathed in smoke, closing his eyes for a moment. When he reopened them, he fixed his stare beyond all of them. The conversation was clearly done, as far as he was concerned. Again, rush of gratitude.

Julia smiled softly then and tilted her head back and forth, her firm and comforting presence announcing itself.

“But it’s not only that,” she said, thoughtfully. “Not only that Quentin enjoys his company. There’s one specific thing I like about Ryan that I think supersedes everything else.”

When Julia paused, Margo groaned and put her hands on her hips.

“What, it’s a cliffhanger?”

“I like that he’s so nice to you,” Julia said, looking right at Quentin. “Because that’s what you deserve. Someone who is really, really nice to you.”

Quentin’s cheeks turned pink and he looked away, but noticed that Julia’s gaze remained steady, letting the moment sink in. For a brief, crazed moment, he felt like maybe she wasn’t even talking to him at all.

“Yeah, well, nice can’t fuck,” Margo said with a single shoulder shrug. “Passion and challenge, Coldwater. That’s the bread and blood of life. Don’t get so caught in softness that you can’t get it up.”

Meanwhile, Eliot stared out into space, still smoking, still breathing, unmoving.

 


 

Highest highs. Lowest lows. Brakebill’s motto, he recalled, as he sat at the dining room table, drawing out some circumstances. It wasn’t the work that made him recall the notion, though. It was how Margo stood in front of him, quiet and small and so unlike herself, holding a slip of paper. Her eyes were low and hesitant, her lips trembling a little.

“Quentin,” she said, her voice catching. She cleared her throat again. “Um, Quentin.”

“What’s up, Margo?” He asked, his voice a little harder than usual. He still hadn’t totally forgiven her for her antics at the dinner party two days earlier. But as he took in her defeated posture and the bald sadness in her eyes, he felt his resolve soften a little.

Quentin sighed, “Are you okay?”

“The admin office left a message for you,” Margo said, her mouth quirking up a little, but her eyes growing more and more pained with every syllable. “I, um, I’m a nosy bitch and so I read it, but I shouldn’t have…and I’m sorry.”

Fear pricked the edge of his skin as he took the note from her. Before she released it, she placed her hand on his and squeezed, something like pity and despair crossing over her features. He opened the small handwritten note and everything inside him blurred and froze at once.

“My dad’s sick,” Quentin sunk into the chair, the world slowly suffocating him. Margo nodded, sitting next to him. She stroked his arm, almost lovingly.

“Is that…” Margo trailed off, looking down. “Is that a bad thing? For you?”

It wasn’t snark. It was genuine. Fucked up family relationships were par for the course for Magicians.

“Um, yeah,” Quentin said, pressing his hands on top of his head. “Yeah, it’s a bad thing.”

“I’m sorry,” Margo said again, her voice tiny. “Do you need anything? A drink? Or some, like, tea? I guess?”

“No, uh,” Quentin owered his fingers to his forehead, breathing in and out. “I need to go to New Jersey. I’ll have to, um, I’ll have to go now.”

It was Sunday morning. He was due to go to his dad’s to pick up his meds anyway. But this wouldn’t be the same kind of visit. He’d take the portal and he’d hug his dad, but he’d be hugging someone with cancer. Some kind of fucking cancer, slowly metastasizing through his body, attacking his cells, the fundamental building blocks of his dad’s body, for no goddamn reason. It made him want to throw up. It made him want to curl into a fetal position and cry like a child, like someone who just really needed his dad.

“Do you want me to get Julia?” Margo asked. “So she can go with you? Maybe you shouldn’t be alone.”

Quentin shook his head, “No, I need to see him on my own. But, uh, if you could tell her?”

Margo nodded firmly, clearly relieved to have something to contribute. She wasn’t a warm and cuddly person, but it was obvious she wanted to help, in some kind of tangible way.

“Of course,” she said. “I’ll make sure she knows. Do you think you’ll be back—?”

“Tonight,” Quentin said, with a grave nod. “I have a few tests tomorrow. Can’t risk missing them.”

Margo nodded again. The faculty at Brakebills were even less warm and cuddly than she was. A sick family member was not sufficient grounds to miss classwork. Your own death barely was.

“Quentin, I’m so sorry,” Margo said again, wrapping her arms around herself. And Quentin knew she meant it.

But it didn’t help.

 


 

He didn’t get back to the Cottage until after midnight. It was technically Monday and every inch of marrow in his bones burned with an ache that wouldn’t subsist. Closing the door behind him quietly, there was only a single lamp alight in the living room and the rest of the first floor was illuminated by nothing but the TADA sign. Quentin knew that he should be sad to be here, to be away from his father, away from the precious moments that could disappear in months, weeks, days, for all he knew. But all he could feel was the most intense relief. He needed the comforts of home more than anything right now.

Gripping his messenger bag, he walked over to the bar area. He wasn’t tired. Well, that wasn’t strictly true. He was exhausted; bone-achingly so. But he wasn’t tired in a way that would allow him to sleep. His brain was racing and his heart was sore, and all he wanted to do was run and escape, or fall to his knees in the shower and scream. But instead, he looked everywhere for a clean glass, but it was like his eyes weren’t working. Everything was a little blurred and his heart was pounding, and fuck, he couldn’t even get this right?

“Fuck,” he said aloud, pressing his hands against his forehead and bending down into a squat, down on the ground, drowning and trying his best to catch his breath. “Fuck. Fuck.”

Someone bent down next to him, a tentative hand on his back and he knew who it was automatically.

“Quentin,” Eliot sounded softer than usual. Gentle. “Quentin, let’s go sit on the couch, okay?”

Nodding numbly, Quentin pulled himself up and walked the few feet to the left before collapsing, not really caring how he looked to Eliot at this particular moment. Digging his elbows into his thighs, he pushed the tops of his palms into his eye sockets so hard that he started to see stars. He was only vaguely aware of Eliot’s hand, still on his back, firmer than before and rubbing circles between his shoulder blades.

“My dad’s sick,” Quentin said, not really to Eliot. He was more saying it to the exploding darkness behind his eyelids. “He’s really fucking sick.”

“Margo told me,” Eliot said, still in that gentle voice of his. He walked an incredibly deft line between concerned, but not pitying. “I’m sorry.”

“It’s fucking brain cancer.” The words still felt like acid in his throat. The consonants stuck out at weird angles, stabbing him in their absurdity. Eliot’s hand stilled for a moment and twitched, before returning to their circles.

“Fuck, Q,” Eliot used Julia’s nickname for him and it briefly—really briefly—made Quentin’s heart feel light. “That’s…I’m not really sure what to say.”

“There’s nothing to say,” Quentin said, finally bringing his eyes up, but still not looking at Eliot. “It’s brain cancer. It’s fucking brain cancer.”

“I’m sorry,” Eliot repeated and Quentin looked at him. His eyes were warmer than they’d ever been on Quentin and that fucked up part of him that was so attracted to him danced with an extremely fucked up joy. Pushing it down, he sighed and pushed his hair back, glad for the first time that the long strands didn’t cross over his eyes. If he had something to hide behind right now, he may never come back out.

“The most fucked up part is that he’s had it for over two months,” Quentin said with a laugh. It wasn’t really the most fucked up part. The most fucked up part was that his dad had brain cancer. But the fact that he’d been secretly going to radiation treatments and meeting with oncologists, and only now told him because he may have to start chemo in addition to the other therapies…

Well, it was fucked up too.

“Are you two close?” Eliot asked. Quentin nodded.

“Yeah, uh, we’re close. He just didn’t want to tell me because, apparently, I seemed happy. My happiness prevented him from—” Quentin bit his fist and repressed a sob. “You know, of all the Charlie Browns in the world, I’m certainly the fucking Quentin Coldwater-iest.”

Eliot didn’t say anything, but instead brought both of his hands up to Quentin’s back and massaged, trying to put all the words that no one could say into easing the stone-sharp tension in his back. Quentin could have melted into his touch, his tenderness for the rest of his life. But then, he realized he was holding captive a particularly unwilling audience and cleared his throat. He turned to look at him apologetically.

“Sorry. This isn’t your problem. I probably should talk to Ryan,” Quentin said and he tried not to question the sharp little turn of Eliot’s lips at his boyfriend’s name.“Or, like, Julia.”

“I don’t mind,” Eliot said with a placid shrug, but he ceased his hand movements on Quentin and instead gently rested his arm across his back. Quentin had to admit that while it was a less comforting physical touch, it was definitely more in the realm of totally platonic and probably for the best. For him, at least.

“You don’t?” Quentin chuckled a little, the sound creating a harsh friction in his throat. “I’d probably mind. I’m not fun in a crisis, trust me.”

“I don’t mind insofar as I get that an objective sounding board can be…” Eliot trailed off and let out a long breath. “I get it.”

“It’s all just so fucking arbitrary.” Quentin leaned forward again, breathing in and out.

“Look, I don’t identify as a nihilist,” Eliot said, his fingers tracing new patterns on his shoulder. Quentin wondered if he even knew he was doing it. “But the truth is that nothing matters, life is inherently unfair, and then we die.”

Quentin snorted, something like a real laugh bubbling up in his chest.

“That’s, like, textbook nihilism.”

Eliot grinned and shrugged, squeezing Quentin’s shoulder firmly, “Well, I also sort of believe that life is fucking great and worthwhile. At least, I hope so. I think all the shit makes the precious little good even more important.”

“Technically, that’s, uh, that’s not incompatible with nihilism as a general—”

“Don’t be a pedant.” Eliot wasn’t admonishing. It was good-humored.

“Sorry,” Quentin cleared his throat and turned his face to look at him. Eliot was still offering him steady, gentle comfort and he drank it up. “I get what you’re saying.”

“It really sucks that your dad is sick. It’s criminally awful. But it’s also…” Eliot laughed then, lightly and sadly. “My parents are the worst people in the world, Quentin. The fact that your dad cares about your happiness that much and wants to protect your happiness that much? It’s astounding to me.”

“I didn’t think about it that way.”

“That kind of love is a gift. Don’t take it for granted, okay?” Eliot squeezed Quentin’s shoulder again and shook his head. “I know it doesn’t make it better, but—”

“No, I get it. Thanks,” Quentin said, settling back against Eliot, seeking comfort and nothing more. “That’s kind of helpful.”

“What I always strive for.”

“Kind of helpful?” Quentin smiled a little. Eliot cast him a side-long glance, smirking.

“Lowered expectations work in my favor.”

Quentin rolled his neck a little, feeling tense and achy. The pain of his dad’s diagnosis still settled angrily on his stomach and he wanted to close off the world. But still, he kept thinking back to what Eliot said and how much it surprised him. While he wouldn’t have ever called Eliot happy-go-lucky, there was an ease in which he approached the world that made him seem careless and light, like he’d never worried about anything ever and certainly wasn’t going to start anytime soon. Hearing that he had family problems, of whatever kind, was almost…intriguing. It didn’t fit the narrative and Quentin found himself yearning for more information, more details about Eliot that weren’t just wrapped up in his favorite ascots.

“I always pictured you, like, yachting away your childhood,” Quentin said carefully, looking down at his hands. “Drinking champagne at age five.”

Instead of the laugh or quip he expected, Eliot simply half-smiled, his eyes darting. For a moment,  he looked like he was going to say something, his features hinting at something close to anxiety. But whatever it was, he shook it off and lit a cigarette.

“Well, you know,” Eliot grinned, in a way that didn’t totally reach his eyes. “Mo’ money, mo’ problems.”

But just as Quentin was about to question further, the door to the Cottage slammed open.

“Q!” Julia rushed into the house, her eyes red and cheeks tear-stained. “Q, I just got your message. I didn’t think you’d get back tonight after all. I wanted to be here.”

“Hey Jules,” he said as she flew to him, her arms wrapped around him in seconds. He was twofold grateful that Eliot didn’t move, but that he also didn’t say anything. Instead, he just kept his hand firm on his back, making his continued presence and support silently known. His cigarette smoke burned Quentin’s nostrils and he breathed deep.

“I’m so, so sorry, Q,” Julia breathed out, her hug tightening with each word. “I’m so sorry.”

“It’s…” He trailed off, not able to answer. Firmly, she pulled back and put her hands on his cheeks. He could still feel Eliot’s hand resting against his back, though he wasn’t looking at him anymore. He only saw Julia.

“I would have come with you, Q,” she said, urgent and thick. “I would have waited outside while you talked to him. You shouldn’t have been alone. You didn’t have to be alone.”

“You’re busy, Jules,” Quentin said weakly, but she shook her head.

“Shut the fuck up,” Julia said, hugging him again. Then, after a few moments, she pulled away and looked up at him, concerned and loving.

“Are you okay?” She asked.

Quentin meant to answer her, but instead he felt his face screw up with a sob, and he fell into his hands, the tears finally flowing through his fingers. And he stayed that way, for a long time, Julia’s arms wrapped around his waist and Eliot’s hand warm on his back.

 


 

tbc.

 

Chapter Text

Quentin was never athletic.

The feeling of the angry wind between his legs, the way his heart twisted and constricted under pressure, and the graceless jangle of his awkward limbs only served to emphasize his inadequacies, rather than provide any mental clarity or physical euphoria. He was fine with being an indoor cat forever, with underdeveloped pectoral muscles and a weaker heart than necessary. Such was his lot and desire in life.

But on that day, Quentin was a world-class sprinter, a deft parkour practitioner, and the strongest man alive as he darted his way through the Brakebills campus, avoiding hurdles and throwing himself over obstacles, his heart expanding anxiously against his ribcage. The force behind his heartbeats propelled him forward, with a single mantra racing through his brain: He was fucked. He was fucked. He was fucked. He was fucked.

Turning the corner past the first-year dorms, he could see the edge of the Cottage in the distance. It was a sunny weekend day, and the patio was the most likely answer for what he sought. And as his running feet landed with a stomp on the brick, his heart leapt at the familiar sight and he threw himself forward, calling out the only name that could save him now.

“Eliot!” Quentin stopped sharply, nearly falling over his own legs. He panted out labored breaths, relieved to see the face he was seeking come into sharp focus. “Eliot.”

The man in question angled his face disinterestedly toward him with a chuckle. He was sitting at the patio table, smoking behind sunglasses and a wry grin.

“Ah, the lonesome cry of the nubile first year, shouting my name in sweet desperation,” Eliot puffed three clouds of smoke. “Music.”

“Ha, fucking, ha,” Quentin said, putting his hands on his knees and catching his breath. “I need your help.”

Eliot lowered his sunglasses, to peer at Quentin over the dark edges.

“What’d you do?” He smirked and Quentin squirmed.

“It’s going to sound worse than it is,” Quentin said, pulling out the seat next to Eliot and pouring his sore, sweaty body into the constricting chair. They were famously uncomfortable, but he didn’t care. He needed to let his body reconfigure itself into something vaguely human again.

“Uh-huh,” Eliot said, running his tongue over his teeth. “I’m sure.”

“You’re familiar with Gerald, right?” Quentin asked. Eliot took his sunglasses all the way off, leaning back against the chair to let the sun fall on his face. He closed his eyes, like he was trying to ignore the conversation more than anything.

“I definitely am not.”

“Yes, you are. You know,” Quentin scratched his neck and averted his eyes. “Cancer Puppy.”

Eliot’s eyebrows drew together for a moment and he sat back up, like Quentin’s words shocked him into reality.

“Q,” Eliot said, way too intensely and meaningfully. Quentin shot a finger out at him.

“No,” he said firmly. “Don’t look at me like Julia would. That’s why I didn’t go to her.”

Eliot tensed his jaw for a second, cocking his head. Then, he nodded and swallowed. Instantly, his face went from lined and dark to smooth and neutral. It was like the first expression had never existed at all. It was yet another talent of his and one that Quentin never would have known to be impressed with until he saw it himself.

Eliot brought his cigarette back up to his lips and narrowed his eyes a little.

“And your boyfriend?” He asked. It was a fair question. But an untenable one.

Initially, Quentin expected Ryan to be on board—to be the one to help him cast a cooperative spell he’d found, if the first one he tried didn’t work. Instead, Ryan completely freaked out. He told Quentin that he was being impulsive and that while he was really sorry about his dad, Quentin needed to focus more on himself and school, rather than any “delusions of grandeur.” It had been their worst fight yet. And it came after a series of fights, about increasingly ridiculous things. Truthfully, they were in an exhausting place and he didn’t really want to hear about how badly he’d fucked up from Ryan right now.

But rather than getting into all of that with Eliot, Quentin darted his eyes and shrugged, “He has too many, uh, scruples.”

“I do enjoy a scruple-free reputation,” Eliot put his cigarette out. “So what exactly did you do?”

“There’s, um, a couple of spells I found, right? Technically, uh, illegal ones or—or I guess they call them ‘forbidden,’” Quentin said and Eliot gave him both a sigh and smile, at once exasperated and impressed. “I thought I could cure Cancer Puppy because I have this, like, overwhelming reservoir of energy right now.”

“You tried to cure Cancer Puppy?”

“Yeah, emphasis on tried,” Quentin shook his head. “There was a cooperative spell, but it looked too risky. I mean, I could literally hear Julia’s scolding in my head. So I tried one I could do on my own, but, uh…I kind of sent Cancer Puppy into, like, another dimension?”

“Jesus, Quentin.” Now, Eliot was purely exasperated.

“But there’s a spell that could bring him back,”Quentin said, moving forward into productive action. “At least, I think so. I just need someone to cast it with me. Someone more talented than me, to act as a stronger anchor.”

Eliot snorted, “Flattery. Good tactic.”

“It should only take about an hour,” Quentin said, pleading. “I’m dead if this gets back to Fogg.”

Eliot stared at Quentin for a moment before chuckling and rolling his eyes, biting down on his jaw a little. But he stood, a promising sign, even as he shook his head.

“Fine,” Eliot said, holding out his hand to Quentin and pulling him up. “But for the record, you are very high maintenance.”

“Seriously? You’re calling me high maintenance?” Quentin asked, incredulous. “You threw an earth shattering shit fit this morning because you thought Margo used your hair pomade.” 

Eliot strode ahead of Quentin, even though he didn’t know where he was going, and called behind his back, smirk in his tone.

“That’s how high maintenance you are.”

 


 

 

They reached the lab in less than ten minutes, and by the twenty minute mark, they were surrounded by an intricate circle, lined in chalk on the ground. Eliot—the stronger of the two Magicians—sat in the center, cross-legged, and Quentin knelt in front of him, his palms facing out. Eliot was focused, his eyes closed, as he swiftly moved his fingers in the specified formation, muttering the Avestan like a chant.

Then, Eliot pressed his palms against Quentin’s. Quentin forced himself to stay focused on the spell, rather than the shock of electricity the warm and firm touch sent up his arms and down his spine. He closed his own eyes and repeated the chant backwards, the sound looping against Eliot’s melodic tone. They repeated this at least fifty times, until finally, the ground under them trembled and a burst of light flashed against the darkness of his closed eyes. A soft whine and a scratching sound came from Eliot’s lap and Quentin practically fell on himself in relief.

“Fuck,” Quentin said, looking at tiny little Gerald, nestled against Eliot’s stomach. His nerves were frayed and everything was shaking. Without thinking, he threw his arms around Eliot’s shoulders, pulling him into a tight hug. “Jesus Christ, fucking thank you.”

“Um,” Eliot said, awkwardly patting Quentin’s back. “Sure. No problem, Q.”

Aware of the feel of Eliot’s hair against his cheek and the way his scent overwhelmed his core, Quentin slowly pulled away, sitting back down with a deep swallow and sigh. Gently lifting Cancer Puppy out of Eliot’s hands, Quentin shot him a terse smile and scooted back, leaning against the cabinet underneath one of the lab tables. Eliot followed suit, clearly much less affected by Quentin’s spontaneous outburst.

For a few moments, they sat there in silence, both of them lazily petting Cancer Puppy, lost in their individual thoughts.

“May I ask you something that I promise is not concern, but pure curiosity?” Eliot’s calm face turned to him and Quentin nodded. “What were you thinking here?”

“I mean, it’s kinda obvious,” Quentin said, looking down at his hands. The ghost of their conversation about his dad passed over them. Eliot sighed, reaching his hand over and laying it comfortingly on Quentin’s leg, just above his knee. It made him feel like every inch of his skin exploded, but he kept it together. He and Eliot were friends. They were friends. Sometimes friends touched each other.

“You’re logical though, mostly,” Eliot said, tilting his head at Quentin, not without affection. “Even if you had cured Cancer Puppy, it in no way follows that you could—“

“I had to try something, El,” Quentin said, shaking his head. “I can make literal magic and my dad is sick.”

Eliot’s mask of pure curiosity fell into the concern Quentin asked him not to reveal. But he smoothed his features out again and sighed.

“I’m empathetic,” Eliot said. “But it was reckless and it could have gone a lot worse.”

“Uh, glass houses and stones,” Quentin crossed his arms, a little annoyed.

Eliot was nothing if not a rabble-rouser, pushing limits and finding the loophole, to get exactly what he wanted, when he wanted, how he wanted. Quentin figured if anyone would be interested in his experimentation, if anyone would approve of it, it would be Eliot. It was a strange texture that this appeared not to be the case.

“Everything I do is controlled, Q,” Eliot said, like he was divulging a state secret. “I’m just excellent at making it appear otherwise. This wasn’t control. You can’t fuck around, especially not when—”

“What’s the point then?” Quentin pressed his face into Cancer Puppy’s soft fur, before sitting back up with a loud groan. “If I can’t use magic for things that really matter, what’s the goddamn point?”

“Who said you can’t? That’s a leap.”

“It’s not,” Quentin shook his head. “Look at the world, look at how awful it is, and look at what Magicians focus their efforts on. It’s all superficial bullshit. Whoop-dee-fucking-doo, you can fly, but cancer still exists.”

“Magic doesn’t make life less shitty,” Eliot had the audacity to laugh. “You’re expecting follow-through on promises the story never made.”

“It just seems like magic should be used for something bigger than ourselves,” Quentin said, rocking his head back against the cabinet, scratching Cancer Puppy’s ears. “How is it not just party tricks if we can’t even affect actual change?”

“Don’t diminish the power of party tricks,” Eliot said, stretching his fingers out. “But come on, Q. I may be as self-interested as they come, but you can’t seriously think there are no charitable Magicians out there.”

“I haven’t seen them.”

It was true. As far as Quentin could tell, the only thing generous about Magicians was their sexual mores. Otherwise, they were all incredibly vain and theory-focused, rarely if ever expending their considerable energy, resources, and talent on the less fortunate or even the world at large. Not that Quentin himself had done anything particularly magnanimous with magic in the few months he’d known about it, but he figured he had time. And he wasn’t totally a selfish asshole, right?

But Eliot waved him off, reaching his long fingers under Cancer Puppy’s tiny chin and scratching.

“That’s because you’re here. It’s cutthroat behind these wards,” Eliot said, with a small shrug. “But from what I understand, shit gets a little less myopic once you’re out in the real world.”

Life after Brakebills. Quentin knew it existed, that classically trained Magicians went out into the world and pursued careers, had families, full-blown lives. That they all joined special forces and secret societies and supper clubs, building coalitions of elite practitioners in every corner of the world. But Quentin hadn’t thought about his place in all of it, not since Alumni Week.

It had been one of the most overwhelming and underwhelming experiences of his life, where he was introduced to all of the greatest minds of the Magical world—most of whom were far more keenly interested in Julia, who he trailed behind like a puppy. No pun intended, he thought, as he ran his fingers through Gerald’s tufty fur. His future was like a great blank spot, empty and foreboding.

“I can’t imagine what that’s like,” Quentin admitted. “I mean, you’re graduating next year, right? What the hell are you going to do?”

Eliot frowned, before adopting a glassy, faraway look. He sighed dreamily and leaned over, the top of his head barely touching the top of Quentin’s.

“If I have my druthers, I’ll find a magical sugar daddy,” Eliot said, with a half-smile. “Wile my cares away as a kept gentleman.”

“Come the fuck on,” Quentin said, serious. “You’re way too capable for that. It can’t really be all you want out of life.”

“Is this a serious conversation?” Eliot’s face was sharp and frustrated. “I don’t need a pep talk.”

“I’m just saying that you’re a really good Magician,” Quentin said. “It’s not flattery. It’s the truth. You could do fucking anything you wanted, if you wanted.”

Eliot’s brow lowered along with his guard and he smiled, faintly, “You’re a sweet kid.”

“Don’t be condescending,” Quentin said, smirking in return. “And I’m, like, a year younger than you.”

“I meant that it’s nice of you to say, but it’s…” Eliot sighed. “The truth is, I don’t think much about life outside of Brakebills either. Being away from Margo or the Cottage? I can’t imagine it, so it’s easier not to go there.”

“Yeah, but it’s happening, so what the fuck are you going to do?”

“I’m definitely too sober for that question,” Eliot said, pulling out his flask and resting his head against Quentin’s more firmly. “Mr. Guidance Counselor.”

Quentin closed his eyes, relishing the feel of the weight of Eliot’s warm presence. And yeah, maybe it was shitty, since Ryan was probably wondering where he was. But what was life without the occasional minor indulgence? It was harmless. It’s not like he and Eliot would ever be a him-and-Eliot, in any lifetime. But they were friends. Borderline good friends. And maybe, yeah, they occasionally flirted. Or at least, Eliot was Eliot and Quentin enjoyed it, sometimes. But it didn’t mean anything.

No harm, no foul.

“I guess it doesn’t really matter,” Quentin said, glancing over with a grin.

“Now you’re talking my language.” Eliot tipped his flask at Quentin approvingly.

“Well, ‘cause whatever you end up deciding, I’m sure it’ll be spectacular,” Quentin said, a gentle laughter pressing on the edge of his words as he rolled his eyes. “Like everything you do.”

Eliot blinked a few times and just looked at him, his eyes crinkling in an unfamiliar way. He swallowed and looked down at his hands, before looking back up at Quentin. His face held an undeniable gentle kinship that made Quentin’s chest glow and constrict, without any plausible denial.

“Thanks, Q,” Eliot said, deeper and more solemn than usual. But then his face widened into its usual careless grin. “Though I personally always aim for glorious.”

“Minor details,” Quentin shot a look and a snort over at him. He glanced up at the classroom clock and felt a pang at the two hours that had flown by. “Anyway, I’m sure I’ve taken up enough of your time.”

“It’s no trouble,” Eliot said, cracking his neck. “Everyone loves a chance to play with Cancer Puppy. Or to cast a cooperative spell through dimensional portals, saving him from certain doom.”

“Yeah, yeah. But I’m sure you’ve got your usual better places to be,” Quentin said dryly, gently cupping Gerald in his hands and placing him back in his crate. “Seriously, though. Thanks again for your help. Saved my ass.”

Eliot smiled briefly and cleared his throat, “Yes, well, part of my duties as your elder is to keep you out of trouble.”

“Okay, when is your birthday? You are not that much older than me.”

 


 

Quentin and Ryan’s classroom materials were spread through the Physical Kids’ Cottage in haphazard disarray. They’d been working for hours, trying to move an apparently immovable block of wood, their tuts and Latin getting tiresome and their fingers weary. When Ryan suggested they take a breather and sit on the couch for awhile, chatting and reconnecting, it sounded like just the palate cleanser they needed.

Things hadn’t been as smooth between them lately—the mismatch in their desire for time together and time apart always on the forefront—but Quentin really didn’t want to be the guy who fucked everything up, again. He liked Ryan. He really liked Ryan. He was a good, kind, handsome, funny person who really, really liked Quentin. So he needed to try to make it work, and relax and enjoy his company.

But, of course, best laid plans often go awry.

“I guess I just don’t really get it,” Ryan asked, sincerely confused. “How is it different than The Chronicles of Narnia?”

“Only, like, everything?” Quentin tried his best not to let his annoyance through, but Ryan was trying his patience. “The lack of Christian allegory, for one.”

“So it’s an atheist Narnia?

“It’s not Narnia at all. It’s a beautiful masterpiece of classical fantasy with a complex through line and a perfectly constructed hero’s journey,” Quentin said, tense. He dug his fingernails into his palms. “Stop talking about fucking Narnia.”

“You don’t have to get pissy,” Ryan narrowed his eyes. “It’s not my fault that it sounds like a Narnia rip-off.”

Quentin took a deep breath and purposefully steadied his hands, squeezing his eyes shut, “Just please stop it. It’s not goddamn Narnia.”

“Fine,” Ryan spat out, flipping his workbook open. “Are we going to get work done then?”

“Yeah, that’s probably for the best,” Quentin ground his teeth to dust, focusing his energies on magic and not throttling the traitor sitting next to him. “Um, so let’s try Poppers eight and seventeen, move to four and then back to eight before reciting the Latin.”

They tried it three times, but the block remained solid and unmoving.

“Okay. We’re obviously a little out of sorts,” Ryan said, pressing his hand to his forehead. “Can I grab a drink of water from the kitchen? Get a quick breather?”

“I mean, you know the way. Free country,” Quentin said, bitchier than necessary. Fucking Narnia, he thought, watching Ryan shake his head and mutter to himself, before disappearing behind the kitchen door.

“Totally wrong,” Eliot’s voice said from the couch. Quentin sighed. He hadn’t even known he was there, but he shouldn’t have been surprised.

“What?” Quentin asked, regretting it already.

“He’s doing that formation wrong,” Eliot said, popping his head up. “I’m talking really wrong.”

“Don’t be a dickhead,” Quentin said, his frustration at Ryan still seeping out. But Eliot shook his head.

“I’m being the opposite of a dickhead,” he said, standing up on his couch and gracefully jumping onto Quentin’s, taking Ryan’s seat. “His form is off. A good boyfriend would be concerned.”

“My form is off on half my shit too,” Quentin said with a shrug.

“With the harder stuff, maybe,” Eliot pursed his lips. “But you’re talented enough.”

“Gee, thanks.”

“Look, on number four, you’re supposed to bend your index finger like this, right?” Eliot demonstrated deftly, immaculately. “Ryan? He’s doing this.”

Eliot dropped his finger down, until it looked like a smudge against his thumb.

“Yeah, it’s not great,” Quentin said, heat rising in his chest. “But he manages fine.”

“For now,” Eliot said. “But I’ve been watching you two. He makes a lot of similar mistakes, with basic shit. And with fundamental errors like that, Q—”

“Eliot, hey,” Ryan said from behind. Quentin and Eliot gave each other a quick tense look, before looking back to see him waving congenially. “Where’d you come from?”

“The wind, darling,” Eliot said as he stood to give Ryan his space back. “How’s the lesser Cottage?”

“Still throwing the superior parties,” Ryan said with a grin, flopping down and placing his hand on Quentin’s knee. He sighed and ducked his head to make eye contact, peace in his expression. “Back to the grind?”

“Uh, yeah,” Quentin said, though he was still aware of Eliot, who was still standing there, staring at them with a tilted head. Something about the way he was looking at Ryan, intense and intent, made him uncomfortable. But he brushed it aside, ready to work. “So, yeah, let’s redo the same formation, in unison, to see if that—”

But Ryan was already curling his fingers and it was…not right. Not even close to being right. Eliot took a long breath and sighed it out, his jaw tensing a little. Then, he hesitantly knelt in front of Ryan, his eyes concerned. That uncomfortable feeling sank into Quentin’s gut and compounded itself.

“Here,” Eliot said, taking Ryan’s hand in his. He gave Quentin’s boyfriend a soft, tentative smile that made Quentin want to punch a wall. “May I correct you?”

“Uh, sure,” Ryan said, his brow coming together a little, as Eliot sculpted his fingers against themselves like clay. “Thanks.”

“Try not to overthink it,” Eliot said, firm and warm. “You’re a Magician. It comes naturally if you let it.”

Quentin swallowed down something hot and sticky, that tasted like bile and snakes. All he knew was that he wanted Eliot to stop touching Ryan. That he never wanted to see Eliot touch Ryan ever again. That he never wanted to see Eliot touch anyone

He took a sharp breath.

“I know how to do my Poppers,” Ryan said, a little defensive. Eliot smiled kindly. Quentin suppressed an eye roll.

“Of course you do,” Eliot said, readjusting Ryan’s fingers again and that hurling feeling in Quentin’s chest grew. “But we all need a tune-up now and then.”

“Uh, and remember to try to move your hands like it’s a single motion,” Quentin said, clearing his throat and focusing his eyes entirely on Ryan’s handsome face. His boyfriend’s face. “And time it out in beats in your head, if you have to, until it flows naturally.”

“Good advice, Q,” Eliot said, with a small smile. He looked back at Ryan. “You’ve got yourself a smart one.”

“I’m aware,” Ryan said, his voice slightly stilted. “Thanks.”

Something intense passed over Eliot’s eyes as he stared at Ryan, and Quentin pushed down that strange nausea again. But whatever electricity passed between Eliot and Ryan dissipated as Eliot looked down, pursing his lips. He let out a small laugh and leaned back against the coffee table, giving them space to consider their block.

Quentin and Ryan tried again, moving their hands together. This time, the block glowed and twisted up and then out, becoming a sphere.

“Hey, there you go,” Eliot said, clapping Ryan on the back. His eyes were bright. “Nice work.”

“Shit,” Ryan breathed out, smiling. He looked at Quentin with a lightness in his grin and Quentin did his best to return it, ignoring the dark crack slowly rising through his stomach.

 


 

Quentin paced in front of the door three times before he decided he was being ridiculous. If he wanted to talk to Margo about something, he should just, er, pussy up and knock. They were friends. He apparently had quite a few friends now.

Not that he necessarily expected her to divulge anything. Her primary loyalty was clear. But still, Quentin couldn’t get the image of Ryan and Eliot, together—like, together—out of his head and he needed some reassurance that he was crazy.

And what was it that Eliot had said about Ryan? That he was overwhelmed with indifference? That was what he needed Margo for. He needed her to tell him that there was no way Eliot would be interested in someone as boring and lame and white-bread as Ryan. That Eliot was no threat to his relationship. So in this case, for once, he knew her distaste would work in his favor. She’d set him straight immediately.

Courage in his fist, he knocked twice before opening the door at her soft beckoning.

“Hey Margo,” Quentin said quickly as he walked into her room, sitting down on the bed. “Can I talk to you about something?”

Hey Quentin,” Margo said, mimicking. She laughed and then looked up from her magazine with squinted eyes. “And that depends. Is it boring?”

“Uh, well, you probably won’t think so,” Quentin smirked, like he wasn’t shaking with an internal jealous rage. He gestured behind the door, to ask if he can close it. “May I…?”

“Shit, is this a clandestine meeting?” Her discerning face turned pleased. “You’re learning the ropes here, kiddo.”

After quietly closing the door, Quentin put his hands in his pockets and cleared his throat, staring down at the ground. He took a deep breath and looked back up at Margo, his heart pounding.

“It’s about Eliot.”

A wide, mischievous smile crossed over her face, “What about Eliot, Quentin?”

“It’s just…” He trailed off and cleared his throat again, unable to shake the strange phlegm permanently lodged against his trachea. “Look, something happened and it was weird. I wanted to get your take on it. I need you to tell me I’m crazy.”

“Uh-huh,” Margo was positively beaming. “Well, no promises. But talk to mama.”

“I just feel like there was this… moment the other day,” Quentin said, still pushing down that fierce jealousy that kept boiling in his stomach. He didn’t want to examine it. At all. But Margo’s eyes lit up like a firecracker. “It just seems like he’s maybe starting to, uh, take an interest in…”

He trailed off, thinking of the softness with which Eliot touched Ryan’s hands, the concerned and gentle way he coaxed magic out of him, how his eyes lit up when Ryan got the spell right. It made him want to scream. In so many ways, they were the couple that made more sense. They were both tall and handsome, both totally at ease in their own skin. They’d probably have incredible sex, unlike the underwhelming tussles that made up his time with Ryan.

…Fuck, he really wanted to scream.

“An interest?” Margo sat up, crossing her legs and putting her hand under her chin. “Whatever do you mean?”

“Look, can you just be real with me?” Quentin sighed. “Is Eliot attracted to—”

Margo threw her hands to her mouth and let out a squeal, a sound unlike any Quentin had ever heard escape her lips. She jumped down to the ground, practically dancing.

“Yes! Yes, okay? He totally is,” Margo burst out, grabbing Quentin’s arms. “I’m so glad we can finally talk about this. Eliot will kill me, but I’m a feisty wildcard and I want it to happen.”

All of Quentin’s functions stopped at once. He was right. Eliot was attracted to Ryan. It wasn’t in his head. For once in his goddamn life, it wasn’t in his head.

And apparently, from Margo’s perspective, it was something to celebrate. Because as he knew, she was loyal to Eliot above all, even over Quentin who was actually dating the other guy in question. Disappointment pricked his heart, but really, her indifference toward him wasn’t surprising. At least, not when he was in direct competition with Eliot.

“Wait, are you joking?” He asked then, desperately hoping that Margo was just messing with him. She did that sometimes. She really liked messing with people.

“And besides, you came to me, so he can’t actually complain,” Margo rubbed her hands on his arms harder, her smile almost crazed. “What was I supposed to do, lie? I’m a very honest person. He knows that.”

Quentin bit the inside of his cheek until it nearly bled, “Seriously, Margo, are you fucking with me?”

She rolled her eyes and put her hands on her hips.

“No, I’m not fucking with you, Quentin,” Margo sighed, shaking her head. “God.”

Touching his eyebrow with a centering breath, Quentin gently extracted himself from Margo’s grasp and sat back down on her bed, his head in his hands. He breathed in. He breathed out. This wasn’t what he was expecting from the conversation. But he could get through it.

“Um, okay,” Quentin said, trying to remain calm. “Then, uh, what about how I feel? Did you consider that?”

She raised her eyebrows, surprised, “I mean, I guess I thought you—”

I’m with Ryan.” Quentin didn’t mean it to sound quite so bitter. But fuck, he was bitter.

Who the hell did Eliot think he was? Who the hell did Margo think she was? He and Ryan weren’t couple of the year, but they liked each other. They didn’t get to just swoop in and fuck that up just because they wanted to. Quentin wasn’t one of their playthings and neither was his boyfriend.

“I know,” Margo said, harsher than even her usual tone. “But it really doesn’t seem like you’re all that crazy about him, to be perfectly honest.”

“Well, I’m definitely into him enough that I’m not okay with just, like, giving him up.”

“Shit. Fine,” Margo’s jaw set and she wrapped her arms around her chest defensively. “Then don’t make a big deal out of it.”

But that was precisely the problem, right? Eliot was a flirtatious guy, by nature, but there was something about how he interacted around Ryan. Something undefinable in the way he looked at him, something ineffable that completely freaked Quentin out. There was something there that went way beyond his usual bedroom eyes and that’s what he was really trying to figure out. Because annoyed as he was, Eliot had been a good friend to him lately. A shockingly good friend, really, and Quentin wasn’t one to give up that kind of connection easily.

His stomach dropped. He actually cared about whether this was impacting Eliot.

God, he was such a sucker.

“It’s just—it, uh, kind of feels like a big deal,” Quentin said, pushing his hair back and hating himself. “Especially for Eliot. It’s like it’s affected him or something.”

Margo’s tension fell out of her body at that and she sighed, sitting next to Quentin. Her dynamic sparkle muted in the seriousness of what she was clearly trying to convey. She put her hand on Quentin’s knee and nodded.

“Here’s the thing. Eliot doesn’t always let on what’s happening in that gorgeous, sensual heart of his,” Margo smiled with a true adoration of her best friend, before leveling Quentin with a serious, matter-of-fact stare. “But yeah, it’s affected him. More than I’ve seen in a long time. Ever, really.”

“Holy shit.”

“But I should be clear about something,” she said, pressing her hand firmer on his leg. “You two are friends now. He doesn’t want to screw that up. Not unless, you know, you gave him an opening.”

His stomach boiled again. She really had a lot of nerve.

“That’s crazy, Margo,” Quentin said, almost spitting. “Why would I?”

“Because you don’t even like Ryan that much?” She looked at him like he was the one making absurd suggestions. “And Eliot’s the fucking best? I know you didn’t always see that, but—”

“He was a huge dick to me!”

“Oh, what? Because he didn’t fawn all over you the second he met you?” Margo’s eye roll could have made an appearance in the Guinness Book of World Records, for Most Exasperated of All Time. “First, grow up. Second, he actually cares a lot about your friendship. He cares about you, Quentin. I think that should be obvious by now.”

“He must, if he’s holding this much back,” Quentin ground his teeth and shook his head. “Jesus.”

Margo’s eyes faltered, almost like she was a little sad. But then she shook her head right back at him and crossed her arms.

“I mean it. He would never try to come between your little ‘relationship.’” Margo said the words like she deeply disagreed. “He wants you to be happy. But if you wouldn’t be happy with Ryan…”

“Jesus.” Apparently, they were back on this idea again. One where Quentin would valiantly step aside, to let the much more obvious, natural pairing of Ryan and Eliot happen. Well, Margo could go fuck herself if she thought he’d actually even consider it.

“In that case, hoo boy. Game on,” Margo laughed, raising her eyebrows. “He’d pull out all the stops, trust me.”

Shit.

Shit.

“So it’s like a full blown, what? A fucking crush or something?” Quentin’s blood rushed in his ears.  “I didn’t think Eliot even—”

“Trust me, I was as surprised as you,” Margo laughed, like it was funny and not totally humiliating.

“This is completely nuts. And, like, wrong,” Quentin’s eyes widened and he felt like his eyebrows were crawling all over his face. “It’s wrong, Margo.”

Margo’s eyes sharpened like knives.

“If that’s really how you feel, then don’t say a fucking word about this, got it?” She said, seething out every word. “I’m not kidding. I will end you, Quentin Coldwater.”

“Wasn’t planning on it, Margo Hanson,” Quentin said, frowning. “I wish I’d never fucking brought this up.”

Margo sharply smacked his leg and bristled at his loud protest.

“Goddamn, Quentin, you don’t have to be so…” She glared at him before trailing off and shaking her head, seriously. “Okay. Obviously I misread the situation. Rare, but happens.”

“I just don’t know what the hell you were even—” Quentin started, but her dead-on gaze stopped him in his tracks. She swallowed.

“This is real for Eliot, Quentin. I don’t think you comprehend what that means,” Margo took his hand, imploring. “So I need you to be the good person you are and let it the hell go, okay?”

…Shit.

“Shit,” Quentin said, releasing the tension in his chest. His resolved softened and he bit his lip. “Fuck, now I feel kind of bad.”

Margo closed her eyes and pressed her lips together, before breathing out a soft laugh and looking over at Quentin, with that soft gaze she saved for rare occasions and even rarer people.

“You know, honestly? His whole feelings thing would really piss me off if I didn’t kind of understand them so much,” Margo smiled fondly. “I see what he sees, in my own way.”

“What?” Quentin screwed his face up. “You hate him.”

“Hmm?” Margo frowned.

Quentin squinted his eyes, trying to figure out her angle, “You hate Ryan. This morning you said, ‘I hate Ryan more than Todd.’ Kinda for no reason.”

“Ryan,” Margo repeated, furrowing her brow. “Right. Yes. Ryan.”

Quentin shook his head and tapped his foot anxiously. He wanted to stand and pace around, but it was like his brain signals weren’t reaching the rest of his body. His anger at Margo’s presumptuousness and his strange guilt over standing in the way of Eliot’s happiness fought each other into a swirl of confusion and inertia.

“Eliot likes Ryan,” Quentin said, repeating back the crux of their insane conversation. “And now you do too? What?”

“Uh-huh. Yeah, yeah, that’s it,” Margo nodded wildly, snapping her fingers. “Eliot totally wants to bone your man. Same as me. I’ve just been covering that up.”

Okay, what the fuck.

“Seriously?” Quentin sighed, both because he actually had air building up like a pressure keg in his lungs and also because he needed Margo know exactly how what the fuck everything she was saying really was.

“We’re deviants?” She bit the inside of her cheek and a small quirk of a smile started to show itself on her lips.

“That’s really fucked up, Margo,” Quentin said, admonishing. “And—and either way, I’m not giving him permission to date Ryan. That’s too much to ask.”

“No, of course not,” Margo held her hand to her mouth and her shoulders started shaking with laughter. Then, a loud laugh burst out of her, like a cackle. “Because why the fuck would you? That’s insane.”

“What’s so funny?”

She burst out into loud, raucous laughter and held onto his leg, bowling over onto her side.

“Nothing,” Margo wiped under her eyes and then smiled at Quentin, her eyes devious. “I’m, uh, I’m fucking with you. This is me fucking with you.”

All the tension in his body released at once, until his limbs were jello. Of course. Of course. This was the natural conclusion. Margo was Chaotic Neutral personified. Besides, it’s not like she gave that much of a shit about his friendship with Eliot. She was for herself and for Eliot, and that was it. Still, though. It was a little shitty.

“So Eliot’s not into Ryan?”

Margo howled with laughter, “Fuck no, Quentin. Eliot could give two shits about Ryan. You’re obviously conjuring up some bullshit in your dumb little head. Jesus.”

“Goddammit, Margo.” Quentin stood up from the bed and rolled his eyes. “Glad to be here for your amusement.”

“You should have seen your face!” Margo cracked up again, before letting out a slow soft breath and shaking her head, “Shit.”

 


 

 

The soap suds crept up Quentin’s rapidly moving hands, holding a dirty frying pan underneath the warm running faucet. His skin cracked and wrinkled from the excess water.

Quentin wasn’t a particularly fastidious person, but something about the large pile of dirty dishes bothered him more than usual, and he decided to take on the task himself. Maybe it was the frustration from seeing his dad waffle on whether he’d vigorously pursue treatment earlier that day or maybe it was just because he’d seen a few ants making their way in, but taking over the chore himself felt good. He was solid and steady. He was there.

But when he turned to the left, to grab a clean sponge, Quentin saw the increasingly familiar sight of Eliot, chuckling at him like Quentin was out of his mind. Raising his eyebrows in a quick greeting, Quentin tried to ignore his presence, until Eliot gingerly reached around Quentin and plucked one of the dirty glasses from the pile.

“Wild idea here, Q,” Eliot said with a grin, twisting his hand several times and instantly pulling up shining clean glass to the glinting light. “Magic.”

“Oh good call, asshole,” Quentin said, elbowing Eliot swiftly and gently near the ribs. “Too bad I actually like washing dishes.”

“Because you’re a glutton for punishment?”

“No, because…” Quentin trailed off briefly, but then shrugged and continued scrubbing. “Because I have some, uh, mental health stuff. The focus and movement helps. It’s like a productive meditation.”

Eliot nodded at that and leaned his hip against the sink, “Okay. So is it a solitary exercise or can I at least help you? The host in me is protesting your solo effort rather painfully.”

“You can dry,” Quentin said. “But no magic.”

“Ugh, fine,” Eliot lightly took one of the glasses Quentin had left to the side and a clean dish towel. He glanced over at Quentin’s work with a brillo pad with a snort. “So is the vigorous scrubbing an homage to your manic brain-state then? You’re going to scratch the shit out of my cookware.”

“Your cookware is fine, Gordon Ramsay,” Quentin said with a good-natured eye roll. “And I’m more of a depressive.”

“Ah. See, I cultivate a generous attitude myself,” Eliot smirked. “Porque no los dos?”

“I mean, I dabble,” Quentin said, casting a side-long grin at Eliot. He grinned in return, and a soft, unspoken moment passed between them. Like a light switch going on, Quentin was gently glad to have a newly easy friendship with Eliot. The beginning of the year felt like a distant, separate life. He was even tempted to say that to him, to show his appreciation for how different things were now.

But he didn’t. Eliot wasn’t exactly the sentimental type.

“Why are you looking at me like that?” Eliot said, wrinkling his nose. Quentin blinked. He’d been staring. “Is my hair fucked up?”

“I’ve never noticed your hair,” Quentin said with a snort, lying.

“Please. My hair is positively haunting. You’re only human.”

Quentin bit in his smile and a surge of mischief exploded in his chest. Dipping his hand under the running faucet, he wet his fingers and quickly flicked the droplets onto Eliot’s face. In response, Eliot’s eyes filled with laughter and incredulity, and he swiftly turned toward Quentin with a wide open mouth, a single finger in the air. But before Quentin could get the full brunt of Eliot’s reaction, a cheerful voice cut through the kitchen.

“Hey Quentin!” Todd said and Eliot visibly tensed. Quentin pushed down a deep feeling of disappointment and turned around. He blanched a little when he saw not only Todd, but also Ryan, who was silently leaning against the frame of the kitchen entry, his arms crossed.

“Hey,” Quentin said, blinking. “What are you two doing here?”

“We had plans,” Ryan said, his voice perfectly casual. “Remember? Movie night?”

“Shit,” Quentin said, sighing. This was the last thing he and Ryan needed. “No. I’m sorry. I was thinking that was tomorrow.”

“Apparently,” Ryan said, his voice still too constructed. It made Quentin nervous. Thankfully, Todd was the human embodiment of a tension reliever and his smile cut through the painful stillness like it didn’t exist.

“I have the DVDs and Blu-Rays of every version of Planet of the Apes. It’s going to be lit,” Todd said brightly. “Eliot, you’re always welcome.”

“Oh boy,” Eliot said simply. He threw the dish towel over his shoulder and turned to face Todd and Ryan for the first time since they entered. “Would never intrude. You kids have fun.”

“We will,” Ryan said, meeting Eliot’s eyes with a smile. “Don’t worry about us.”

“I’ll just use magic to finish these up—” Quentin said, surveying the huge pile of dirty dishes still resting in the sink, but Eliot touched his arm and shook his head.

“I’ve got it, Q,” he said, smiling at him. “I’m particular anyway. You’re fucking it all up terribly.”

“Sounds good,” Ryan said, answering for Quentin and tugging at his arm. “Let’s go, Q.”

Quentin frowned a little. Ryan had recently started calling him that, more and more frequently. But it sounded different from his mouth than when Julia or his dad or even Eliot said it. It was false, like Ryan was proving a point rather than it coming from a place of organic affection.

But that was the kind of thing a bad boyfriend would think. A boyfriend who was on the edge of really screwing everything up. He was still really, really trying not to screw things up. So Quentin swallowed his discomfort, smiled, and followed along.

 


 

 

But the break up happened anyway.

It was different than how Quentin saw it coming. He imagined that Ryan would eventually tire of him, plain and simple. One day, he would look at Quentin and no longer feel affection. Instead, he’d decide that Quentin was too broken and insular, that Quentin always brought a good mood down, and that Ryan was too young and vibrant to deal with that kind of bullshit on a daily basis. Most of Quentin’s previous relationships had ended under similar circumstances, so he was mostly resigned to this fact, rather than it bothering him all that much. It was only a matter of time.

So when it actually came on one of Quentin’s best days, when he was relaxing under a tree with Margo, laughing about Fillory in their secret nerd tones, he had to admit he was caught off guard.

“Obviously, I’d be an ambassador-cum-assassin,” Margo took a single finger and sliced it across her throat, with a deadly grin. “Get those Lorian bastards where they earned it, right up their dickholes.”

Quentin smiled, wide in the sun, and cocked his head at her, “I think you just want an excuse to say cum.”

Margo smacked his chest and her doe-like eyes fluttered wide open, in a way that made her look painfully pretty. It really was no wonder that Eliot called her Bambi with such affection.

“Hey, that was almost clever, Coldwater. And a little dirty,” Margo laughed. “I’m loving this vibe.”

Quentin let out a soft laugh and pressed the back of his head against the rough bark of the tree, thoughtful. His brain rolled over her words and he scratched his chin.

“Though the moralistic tenants of High Ambassadorship and the strictly amoral de facto ‘code’ of Fillorian assassins are, um, fundamentally incompatible, right?” Quentin said, carefully. “So you’re kind of talking about breaking the lore in an irreconcilable way.”

“And it’s gone.”

Margo smacked his chest again, a little harder this time. But she gave him a sly grin and Quentin wondered if maybe his zealot nerdiness wasn’t something she totally wanted to get rid of after all.

“Quentin!” A strong voice echoed. Curious, Quentin and Margo turned around, as Ryan’s housemate Mario jogged up to them. He was a little out of breath and his dark skin was covered in a sheen of sweat. “Quentin, I’ve been looking all over for you.”

“Who are you?” Margo asked, crossing her arms. Mario glared at her.

“Are you serious, Margo?” He asked, annoyed. “I dated Eliot last year.”

“Oh please. Eliot doesn’t date,” she said, rolling her eyes. “At best you were on his fuck schedule.”

“Good to see you again too,” Mario said with a grimace. “But you’re actually not the point here.”

“I’m always the point.” Margo’s lips curled into a light smile.

“What’s up, Mario?” Quentin asked, breathing back the reference to Eliot’s fuck schedule as best as he could. It was none of his business. “You seem a little…”

“Yeah, I am,” Mario said, his eyes lowering in concern. “You’ve gotta come to the Cottage now. Ryan—Ryan’s in bad shape. He needs you.”

“Quentin’s busy,” Margo said, until she caught Quentin’s sharp eyes. “I mean, whatever. Fine.”

“What happened?” Quentin asked, standing up and throwing his messenger bag across his chest. Mario paused and shook his head.

“Uh, you should probably talk to him about it, okay?” He said, his deep brown eyes darting around. With a lurch, Quentin felt like he saw something like grief and pity in them. “It’s not really my place to say.”

 


 

The Illusion Kids’ Cottage was the mirror image of the Physical Kids’. The main living room off to the right and the dining room to the left, and the stairs still right in the center, leading up to the rooms from the entryway. Quentin set his jaw and took a small breath, readying himself to play the role of the supportive boyfriend. He’d been supportive before, once or twice in his life. He could do it again, for Ryan.

But as he wound his way through the dark upstairs and into the familiar room, the sight in front of him made his heart sink. Ryan sat on the ground, surrounded by empty beer bottles. He was staring off into space, his hair mussed and set in odd angles. His eyes were dead and his skin pallid, his hand resting on his forehead like it was the only thing keeping his body together. Quentin swallowed.

He was probably in over his head here.

“Ry?” Quentin said quietly, bending down beside him. “Ry, what’s going on?”

“It’s over, Quentin,” Ryan said, his eyes staring out into the distance. “You and me. This. All of it. It’s done.”

Quentin felt more whiplash than heartache at his words, but pride and hurt still bubbled up his chest painfully.

“What the fuck are you talking about?” He touched Ryan’s knee, trying to make him remember that Quentin was a real person and that he was there. “What did I do?”

“Nothing,” Ryan said, his throat thick. But then he laughed, an unamused sound. “I mean, not that things have been good lately. You know that. I’m not stupid. But this isn’t about you or him.”

“Him?” Quentin squinted his eyes in confusion, not really knowing to whom Ryan was referring. “Him who?”

“Come on, Quentin,” Ryan said, glaring at him. “Do you think I’m blind? You may be fucking socially inept, but I’m not.”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Quentin said, honestly, despite the anger in his chest. “But wow, Ryan.”

“Yeah, well, you can tell him he won. And that his shitty act wasn’t nearly as convincing as he thought it was,” Ryan said with a sigh, purely confounding Quentin. “But it’s irrelevant. I really mostly just wanted to keep my dignity here, for our last interaction.”

“Our last interaction?” Quentin shook his head. “That’s a little, uh, fucking harsh, Ryan. Even if you don’t want to be with me anymore. Which is out of nowhere, by the way—”

“It’s really not and you know it.” Ryan bit down on his fist and glared out into nothing. “You’ve been gone since we met.”

“I don’t know shit,” Quentin said, pushing down a sense of recognition. Ryan was wrong. He was wrong. “But even if this isn’t working for you, there’s still no reason why we wouldn’t or couldn’t be friends eventually.”

“It’s impossible, Quentin.”

That’s when Ryan told him. And Quentin’s stomach roiled with nausea and pain, until the numbness took over.

 


 

Quentin poured the vodka in a long stream into the beer glass. The liquid bubbled against itself from the force of the height. Finally, it reached the rim and he took a sip. Normally, the kerosene flavor made him retch, but it slid down his gullet with ease.

He stared around the room, taking in the usual suspects with a disinterested ease. Margo was chatting with Josh and a tall woman with dirty blonde hair, toasting them with sangria. Eliot was pressed against some random second-year, his mission clear as his fingers worked their way up the nervous boy’s thighs. Todd was clapping and laughing through a game of champagne pong in the corner. They were all caught in the mindless monotony of themselves, much like Quentin, yet so much less aware.

The one person he didn’t see was Julia. For that, he was glad. He didn’t really want to deal with her right now. But this, as it turned out, was a futile wish.

“Please tell me that’s water,” Julia’s voice came from behind him. He turned around and she stood there, her hands on her hips. Quentin shrugged.

“I can tell you whatever you’d like,” he said, his voice and face impassive. They couldn’t really be anything else at the moment. But this didn’t impress Julia.

“Trying to channel your inner Mayakovsky or what?” She bit her lip, the slightest hint of concern popping out on her features. “What’s going on?”

“Ryan and I broke up,” Quentin said, taking a nice long gulp. Julia’s face crumbled.

“Oh, Q,” she stroked his arm. “Oh, no. I’m so sorry. I’m really sorry.”

“Don’t be,” Quentin said with a shrug. “Life’s a bitch, then you die.”

“Okay,” Julia said, her eyebrows quirking a little. “What happened? Want to go talk?”

“He failed out of Brakebills,” Quentin said, gurgling. His mouth was full of vodka. He swallowed  whole, down into his gut. “He didn’t tell me, but he was on academic probation. His review was today. Didn’t go well.”

“Holy shit,” Julia swallowed. “So what does that mean? Are they going to—“

“They’re bringing in a specialist,” Quentin’s lips quirked into something like a dreadful smile at the word. “He won’t even know who I am by the end of the day.”

“Q, I am so sorry,” Julia repeated. “I know how awful this must feel. I mean, especially after your dad—“

“This has nothing to do with that, Jules,” Quentin said, monotone. “Look, I know how much you get off on supporting your favorite fucking charity case, but I’ll be fine.”

“No,” Julia said firmly, her eyes ablaze. She grabbed the glass from his hands. “You don’t get to say that shit to me. Not again. We are past that, Q.”

“Then I’m going to bed,” Quentin said, like he was recounting the weather. “Preferably for the next few days.”

“That is also not happening,” Julia said, her hand on his arm. “It’s three in the afternoon. You need to talk about this. You’re heartbroken. That’s normal.”

“I’m not heartbroken, Julia,” Quentin said, shrugging. “I’m just tired. Leave me alone.”

“Quentin,” Julia said forcefully. “At least let me come with you. Q—“

But as she spoke, Quentin slowly made his way upstairs, the haze of numbing brain cells overtaking his form. He really didn’t give a shit. And as he closed the door to his room, he was vaguely aware of Julia’s continued and increasingly frantic calls and her harsh pounding on his door. He really didn’t give a shit.

Pulling himself under the covers, he fell asleep instantly.

 


 

Julia was nothing if not persistent.

He woke up with a pang of annoyance, two hours later, and her relentless pounding on his door had nowhere near let up. But the first voice that wafted through the barrier wasn’t hers. It was Margo’s.

“Julia, honey, let the boy wallow,” her voice said softly beside Julia’s metronomic knocks. “He’s sad. It’s normal to be sad. At least that’s what they tell me.”

“No,” Julia said sharply, “Wallowing isn’t good for him. Q, open the door!”

“Wallowing is good for everyone for a spell,” a deeper voice said and fuck, it was Eliot. Wasn’t he supposed to be hooking up with that guy? Why was he there? “I seem to recall you cry-quoting Pablo Neruda at me the first time we met. Give him some space.”

“It’s different,” Julia hissed, trying to lower her voice, but Quentin heard her nonetheless. “Quentin is—He can’t wallow, okay?”

The pounding continued.

“Q, I love you and I respect you, but if you don’t open the door, I’m forcing my way in.”

“Go the fuck away, Julia,” Quentin moaned out, burying his head under his pillow. “Leave me alone.”

“You know that’s not happening. You have two choices—“

Forcing himself up from off the bed, he swung open the door and was at least relieved to only see his tiny sprite of a best friend glaring up at him, rather than the whole Cottage cavalcade.

“What, Jules?” He pressed his head against the door frame. “I’m just sleeping and watching movies, okay?”

“Let me join you then. I could use a break,” Julia pushed in and jumped on his bed, patting the space next to her. “What’s on the docket?”

“Um, The Fifth Element.” He rubbed his neck and averted his eyes. It was a guilty pleasure.

“Sounds perfect,” she said, as he crawled into bed next to her, resting his head against her shoulder. She wrapped her arm around him and kissed his forehead, as he flipped open his laptop.

“Thanks, Jules,” Quentin said quietly. She kissed his forehead again and hit the space bar, starting the film. Frame-by-frame, the numbness slowly faded and gratitude made its way through the cracks.

 


 

tbc.

Chapter Text

 

Twenty-four hours passed in a blur. Quentin slept in fits and starts, finally convincing Julia to get out of his room around two in the morning. It wasn’t that he didn’t appreciate her comforting presence or the way she knew exactly what he needed even when it wasn’t what he wanted. But they weren’t the kinds of friends who snuggled together in bed, spooning like it meant nothing. Too many years of history—of Quentin’s longing for her, even as far off as it felt now—had made that particular arrangement too fraught and uncomfortable. So when the exhaustion of the day and the sheer need for rest finally hit him, he begged her to let him get some sleep. He meant it when he promised that he would be okay. That he didn’t need her. That this was something he would get through. He really did.

Of course, meaning it didn’t stop the nightmares. Nor did it prevent him from staying in bed for over twenty-four hours after he first found out about Ryan.

Glancing over at his digital clock, he rubbed his eyes angrily at the blinking 4:00 PM, both relieved to have skipped the day and frustrated at what it would bode for the social interactions awaiting him. But nonetheless, he finally emerged from his bed in as foul of a mood as they came, angry and hateful. The sheer pain and fury he felt eclipsed any rational thought. It was at least better than the numbness, but not by a large margin.

Dragging his ass, Quentin was also glad he was still wearing his clothes from the day before. One less thing to worry about. He drudged his way over to his desk and opened one of the drawers, rummaging through his haphazard crap, including pieces of gum, pens and pencils, a couple of condoms, and ripped notebook paper, all of which were useless to him. Finally, though, his fingers found their way happily around the long white cylinder, filled with tobacco and relief. Pressing the Pall Mall behind his ear and tucking an old gas station lighter in his pocket, Quentin steeled himself for the firing squad.

Of course, Julia was sitting on the couch, perched like she was there ever-so-casually and definitely not taking up space in a house that wasn’t hers. Beside her, Margo flipped through one of her celebrity magazines, looking sincerely unperturbed. She probably hadn’t thought about Quentin since morning, except or unless Julia brought him up. Which she almost certainly fucking did, because sometimes she didn’t know when to leave well enough alone.

Clearing his throat, he offered a brief wave, to which Margo barely responded. But Julia arched her back into a perfectly still and bright posture, every part of her lighting up at seeing him.

“Hey there, mister,” Julia said, falsely cheerful. Quentin rolled his eyes. “Good to see you out and about.”

Quentin shrugged and shook his head, the scratchy pain of the last day making its way up his throat. He did not want to talk about it with Julia, even if Julia would have been a great therapist, in another life. But the truth was… none of it mattered. None of it came close to the raw pain and fear he felt, or how his blood vessels froze as the same thought went through his head, over and under every part of him. He was so angry. He was so scared. And none of it mattered. But Julia was far too, well, Julia to talk to about it. So she’d have to fucking deal with his emotional withholding for a little time more.

“I’m going to smoke,” Quentin said, not looking at her, refusing to see the concerned look in her eyes. He was surprised to hear Margo put her magazine down. Out of his periphery, she saw him fold her arms and glare at him. Maybe that’s what concern looked like for her. At least it was better than Julia’s loving and irritating Mother-Knows-Best gaze.

“I thought you quit,” Julia said and Quentin could hear the fucking furrow in her brow.

“Shit changes, Julia.”

“Wait, are you still moping?” Margo asked, fully acknowledging him for the first time. “Over that hack of a cardboard box? It’s been a whole day. Move on.”

“Margo,” Julia said, harshly. ‘That is not supportive.”

“Honestly, I prefer it to your kid gloves right now, Jules,” Quentin said with a shrug and a sigh. “I’ll see you both later.”

“Do you want company?” Julia asked, raising herself off the couch. But Quentin just kept walking, with a single word behind him.

“Nope.”

 


 

Quentin forgot how quickly he could inhale a cigarette in the throes of self-loathing. Stubbing the butt into the jade ash tray, he scratched his chest and pulled his hands up to his neck, not sure what to do with his limbs or fingers without something to hold. He glanced back at the Cottage, considering his rock and hard place. If he stayed there, he’d have no cigarette. If he went up to his room to try to find another cigarette, he’d be accosted by Julia and would probably still have no cigarette. Either way, the inevitable conclusion appeared to be No more cigarettes for Quentin, and it was a particularly grim fate against the overcast day.

Closing his eyes and lolling his head back against the top rail of the patio chair, Quentin let the ambient noise of campus wash over him, still not giving a shit about any of it. Eventually though, his reverie was interrupted by the tell-tale sound of metal legs scraping against brick and concrete. He heard the sharp clicks and whiz of a lighter. The smell of freshly burnt smoke trailed its way to his nose.

Obviously, he knew it was Eliot. He’d wondered when he’d have to deal with the Third Musketeer. Quentin rubbed his eyes and blinked them open, less taken aback by Eliot’s handsome form than usual. He was wearing all white with a loose and open gray vest, a single golden leopard broach on the lapel. His hair fell in particularly lush ringlets over his eyes, which were lined in that charcoal again. Normally, Quentin would have wanted to fall into the ground than be too close to him. But not today. Today, Eliot was the handsomest man Quentin had ever seen in his life and he gave zero fucks about it.

“Hey Q,” Eliot said, friendly yet unenthused. He proffered a lit cigarette. “I come bearing nicotine.”

“What, Julia sending out reinforcements now?” Quentin asked, dully. “Didn’t take you for a lackey.”

Eliot chuckled, a dangerous sound. He rang his large silver thumb ring over his bottom lip and stared directly at Quentin, unblinking.

“I’m giving you a single pass,” Eliot said, a warning half-smile on his lips. “Because I’m kind.”

“Sorry,” Quentin said, not feeling particularly apologetic. But none of this was Eliot’s fault and if Quentin wanted another cigarette, he needed to play nice. Eliot took a deep breath and slowly handed it to him, before lighting his own.

“I know you’re feeling shitty right now because it’s, well, kind of shitty,” Eliot spoke through a mouthful of smoke. “But I promise, with some time, booze, and a rebound fuck, your little heart will mend and it will all be a pleasant-if-dull memory, completely irrelevant to your continued magical existence.”

Quentin almost laughed. Eliot’s rote speech, bored in its platitudes, was clearly not personalized. He’d obviously underestimated exactly how indifferent Eliot was to his relationship with Ryan. Fair enough, really, since Eliot had been pretty clear that he didn’t care. Which was probably the right attitude, all things considered. But Quentin wasn’t there yet, especially with that thought, that fucking thought still skating his brain in scalding figure-eights.

“Uh, yeah, that’s really not helpful.”

It was all Quentin could say at this point. But something about Quentin’s response sparked at Eliot and asshole fire blazed in those goddamn green-brown eyes of his.

Good. At least it was real.

“Your malaise is a touch overkill,” Eliot said, his head cocking. “Ryan was a clingy bastard who wore sweater vests.”

That actually made Quentin smirk.

“He wore one sweater vest, one time,” Quentin said, focusing on the easier part of the jibe. The other part, where Eliot called Ryan clingy—well, that was just true. It wasn’t funny. It had actually been a big fucking problem. But he wasn’t getting into that now, because it didn’t matter. Nothing mattered.

“That’s all it takes,” Eliot said, with a real grin. His gaze softened and Quentin had to look away. He enjoyed not caring about Eliot’s charisma and power. He liked forgetting how fucking badly he wanted to lose himself in Eliot every time he was around. The numbness and pain had their advantages. But when Eliot looked at him like that, his resolve grew weaker and all his delicate vulnerabilities came rushing back in.

“Forget it,” Quentin swallowed. “Everything is pointless anyway.”

“Do you want me to make you the drink?” Eliot asked, annoyance back in his tone. He was referring to the violet and lime concoction he’d made Julia, at the beginning of the year. Lovelorn Sighs, the heartache mender. “Maybe then you’ll be able to talk about this coherently.”

“It won’t help.”

“I’m sorry, but there is no fucking way you were so in love that a magical breakup cocktail won’t help,” Eliot ashed his cigarette with a sharp tick of his thumb. “You two were hardly Tennessee and Frank.”

The guitar string snapped. The flood dam broke. Everyone telling him what he felt or how he should feel—fuck that. Fuck it. Quentin was done.

“It won’t help because I’m not actually that upset about the break up.”

In a lot of ways, that was the worst part. He should have given more of a shit. Ryan deserved someone who gave a shit. But goddamn, Quentin really didn’t give that much of a shit.

He should have cared that he’d never hear Ryan’s laugh again. That he’d never see the sun glint in his red hair or get such a wide smile that the dimple on his left cheek came through. He should have cared that he’d never feel Ryan’s hand in his again, or feel his lips or his body. He should have cared that Ryan had shared himself with him and that Quentin had done the same, and that he was a significant person to him—the first man he’d been with outside of a drunken hookup. But while those things were cherished memories, Quentin mostly felt like they had served their purpose and that none of the pain associated with them compared to the goddamn thought.

Meanwhile, something curious passed over Eliot’s face as he leaned back with a bemused and amused smile. Because of course he’d find this funny. He was a bit of a sadistic bastard.

“You’re not?”

“It’s not about that. Or him,” Quentin said, sighing. “I mean, Ryan was fine. He was great. He was a good time filler.“

“Jesus, cold-blooded,” Eliot said, but his smile widened. Quentin sighed again, deeper, knowing he sounded harsh. It was meaner than he meant it.

“I’m not operating under any illusion that he’s some great love of my life. That’s all. We’re weren’t—it wouldn’t have worked in the end, not really,” Quentin said. “I’m a little sad but it’s no existential crisis.”

Eliot sucked in his cheek as he breathed in smoke, nodding in an unknown rhythm. He squinted his eyes and considered Quentin, like he was either quite funny or very annoying.

“Then what’s with the self-pitying wailing?” He asked, laughter tapping against his perfect teeth.

Quentin mustered up as deep a glare as he could manage, “There’s been no wailing. Don’t exaggerate.”

“What’s the fun in that?” Eliot smiled and Quentin’s vulnerabilities were a real bitch.

But still, the way Eliot was looking at him, all open and nonjudgmental underneath his quips? Quentin had to admit Eliot was easy to talk to; easier than Julia even. So he shrugged, the tension in his chest bursting and releasing.

“This might come as a shock, but I haven’t always been the, uh, vivacious creature in front of you today,” Quentin said drolly and Eliot’s lips quirked up, clear fondness painting the edges. “Before, I was—it was bad.”

Eliot raised a single eyebrow, “No one’s backstory is cute and cuddly, Q.”

“Yeah, I get that, but I—I was in the hospital,” Quentin said, tension roiling his back. He hunched over in the chair and desperately sucked in the cigarette smoke. “I have—or had—I don’t know, this thing that I couldn’t shake where I felt like because nothing was ever not going to be pointless and empty, then, uh, why go on? And then I got here, and it’s amazing I survived as long as I did not knowing that I was a Magician.”

“Okay,” Eliot said, his eyebrows one solid line. “Okay.”

“So the fact that Ryan failed one fucking test and they wiped his memory? Taking away magic and—and almost six months of his life?” Quentin’s heart rate increased as the numbness shattered into glass. He was talking faster and faster, the words pouring out of him. “That it can happen at all, that it could just be gone, by the faculty’s whim? That’s fucking terrifying.”

“Q—"

“I am a constant fuck-up, Eliot,” Quentin laughed, ashing his cigarette with a grim smile. “So if it can happen to him, someone worked so hard and tried even fucking harder? Then it’s got to be just a matter of time for me.”

And there it was. The thought. He was on borrowed time.

“You’re catastrophizing,” Eliot said, quirking his lips together. “Ryan didn’t fail one test. He failed multiple tests and had to go to the board for review. If you were at risk of flunking out, you’d know it.”

“I didn’t see it though,” Quentin said, shaking his head. “I thought he was doing fine. And if I thought he was doing fine—”

“You had orgasm goggles on,” Eliot said with a hand wave. “But I saw it, Q. I knew he couldn’t handle it. I told you that.”

“Not in that many fucking words.”

“I was trying to be sensitive,” Eliot shrugged. “And I didn’t really care that much.”

Typical. Quentin snorted, “Nice, El.”

“But I’ve seen your work too. You’re not going to take the world by storm, but you’ll definitely graduate,” Eliot said, rolling his eyes in unhindered exasperation. “You’re a Magician. So don’t worry about it.”

“Yeah, except that historically, there’s only, um, one natural conclusion,” Quentin blew smoke into the sky and shook his head wildly. “Quentin the Fuck-Up strikes again.”

“For what it’s worth, you don’t seem like a fuck up,” Eliot said quietly, not looking at him. “Not to me.”

Quentin laughed harshly and sucked on his cigarette until it nearly died, “Um, well, give it time.”

“Hashtag relatable,” Eliot said, peering up at Quentin through his lashes. He gave him another one of those soft smiles that Quentin was powerless to resist. He quirked his lips up in response, grateful for Eliot at least trying to meet him where he was.

“You can head inside, okay? I’ll be fine,” Quentin said, balancing his cigarette perfectly between the space of two fingers. It was a small magic. “I think you’ve more than fulfilled your crisis management quota at this point.”

“Fuck off,” Eliot said. “We’re friends. This is what friends do. You’d do the same for me if I wasn’t preternaturally composed.”

“Yeah, but that’s—” Quentin bit out a harsh laugh. “That’s why I’m not sure you can really get where I’m coming from, to be honest. Everything is easy for you.”

“You think so?” Eliot tilted his head, taking a long drag on his cigarette. Quentin nodded.

“You’re like Julia that way,” he said with a wide shrug. “So in terms of the onslaught of fucked up bullshit? I’m basically on my own. Like always.”

Eliot’s gaze cooled and he looked at Quentin, blank and reserved. He delicately placed his cigarette against the ash tray and a gentle trail of smoke rose from its resting place. Eliot propped his long legs up on the table and dipped his head back so he was staring up at the clouds. Silence passed for several long moments and Quentin thought that maybe Eliot had actually decided to stop talking, for once in his life. He wasn’t sure if that made him more relieved or disappointed.

“I killed someone.”

Eliot almost said it like it was a dull fact, except that his hand was shaking, slightly, and his voice was low, though he were in church or the morgue itself.

“What?” Quentin jerked his head in a quick movement. Eliot breathed out harshly and closed his eyes, his face still angled away.

“I was fourteen. He was this—he beat me up,” Eliot said, twisting his mouth like he was embarrassed. “I can’t tell you how many times he made me think about killing myself. He was the single worst person in my life.”

“Eliot,” Quentin said, because there was nothing more he could say. Eliot held his hand up, requesting silence, and Quentin obliged.

“I was walking down the street eating a candy bar because by then I already ate my feelings at a professional level, and I saw him crossing over. There was this… bus coming,” Eliot finally looked over at Quentin, his eyes wide and haunted. “I barely thought the thought.”

Quentin instinctually pushed his hand through his hair, “Shit, El.”

“I knew immediately what I’d done, that it was me. My nose literally started bleeding. Logan Kinnear died instantly and I ruined my favorite button down,” Eliot brought his legs back down and laughed, hiding behind his witty shield in the smallest way he could. But then he sucked in his lower lip and shook his head. “And in that moment, I became the single worst person in my life.”

“That’s—um, that’s a lot,” Quentin nodded, looking down at his hands. “Shit. I’m sorry for assuming—”

Eliot stared straight at him, his gaze penetrating and steely.

“You’re not special, Coldwater. We all have pasts we’re desperate to escape and we all cling to magic as some kind of fucked up salvation,” Eliot said, monotone. Then, he sighed and his gaze melted. Eliot reached over to grab Quentin’s hand and heat radiated through his whole arm.

“But that means the twisted beauty is that you are actually not alone here, okay?”

Quentin really wanted to accept his kindness, to internalize that rare warmth that Eliot was giving him, completely unadulterated. But his brain had other plans.

“Until I fail out and everyone forgets me,” Quentin said, whispering and self-loathing. “Just like I’m going to forget Ryan.”

“No,” Eliot said, fierce and tightening his hand around Quentin’s. “I mean no matter what. What you’re worried about is irrelevant. Even if you weren’t going to be fine on your own—which you are—we’d never let that happen to you.”

Quentin smiled sadly, both touched and unconvinced, “That’s nice, but you couldn’t prevent it, El.“

Eliot’s free hand plucked his cigarette back to his lips and he smirked around the filter, “Margo and I have methods, trust me.”

“That sounds vaguely sinister.”

“Nothing vague about it,” Eliot said, tracing his thumb in a circle on the back of Quentin’s hand. He felt the motion in his chest, like fire. “You’re stuck here, with us.”

“Yeah, well, maybe I’ll believe that after I graduate,” Quentin said with a slight smile. “I tend to catch up retroactively.”

“Better late than never, I suppose,” Eliot said with an eye roll, letting go of Quentin’s hand and patting his arm with purpose. “Now come on. If bucking up isn’t yet on the table, at least try to put on a better front. Fake it ’til you make it, kid.”

“Oh, you’ve read my personal affirmations diary?”

Eliot chuckled, “You have an odd wit about you sometimes.”

Quentin shrugged, not really sure what to make of that. Instead, he silently pointed at the cigarette pack and raised his eyebrows at Eliot. He nodded and lit a new one for him, which Quentin brought to his lips in sweet relief. He’d never been a huge smoker, but the burn down his throat and the constriction of his lungs—the high-like oxygen deprivation—was comforting and grounding. That was what all of those anti-smoking ads never addressed; that sometimes the immediate emotional benefit outweighed the longterm physical risk.

“It’s kind of fucked that they wipe memories anyway,” Quentin said, breaking the silence with the first thought that came to mind. “Like, why does Brakebills get to be the arbiter?”

“Because magic is an incredibly dangerous force,” Eliot shrugged. “It’s a privilege, not a right.”

Quentin quirked his eyebrows with a grin, “I think Julia would have some thoughts about that.”

“That’s her prerogative,” Eliot said, closing his eyes, his head resting against the back of the chair again. “But she’d be going up against years of systemic entrenchment. Sounds like a bore.”

“Not to Julia. She thinks any lack of free information is, like, basically forced amputation.”

“Spoken like a fucking Knowledge Kid,” Eliot said with a shake of his head and a broad smile. “In any case, the institutions can’t control everything, much as they try. Hedge witches exist after all.”

“Right, and I’ve only heard great things,” Quentin said. “Real paragons of society.”

“They’re generally pathetic junkies, but I guess at least they give a shit?” Eliot snorted. “They’re tenacious. Like cockroaches. Maybe Ryan will find his way to one of their little safe houses.”

“Yeah, maybe.” Probably not, Quentin really thought. Ryan had loved magic. He had loved Brakebills. But there was no hunger or urgency in how he approached the world. In some ways, it was what made Quentin feel comfortable around him, especially in the beginning. But on the other, it had widened the gulf between them every day.

“If he did, would you—?” Eliot set his mouth in his unspoken question. “You know.”

“What, find him? Be with him?” Quentin laughed. “No. He made it pretty clear that he wanted to break up anyway. And he wasn’t wrong. We weren’t right for each other.”

“Why not?” Eliot asked, his voice a little low. Quentin shrugged.

“We wanted different things more often than not,” Quentin said. “And maybe it sounds dumb, but I think there was a lack of, like, chemistry there, you know?”

“No, that makes perfect sense,” Eliot said. “Chemistry is critical.”

“And that you can’t fake, it turns out,” Quentin said with another shrug. Eliot smiled.

“No,” he said quietly. “No, you can’t.”

“At the end of the day,” Quentin said, stretching his arms over his head, “it’s for the best. And you know, I’ll lick my wounds or whatever. Then I’ll get over it and it’ll be fine.”

“Ryan would be touched at your mournful pining.”

Eliot was joking, but his words made all of Quentin’s back muscles tense anyway. He really had been the worst boyfriend to Ryan, in a lot of fucked up ways. The fact that he was even sitting here with Eliot, of all people—

Quentin slammed his eyes shut. He couldn’t go there. It was irrelevant anyway.

But Ryan had deserved better. He still deserved better. And Quentin just wasn’t the person to give him what he deserved. That was the goddamn tragedy of it all, at least from their relationship’s perspective. For once in his life, someone had really wanted him and Quentin couldn’t have been bothered. Not really. It was a guilt he’d have to live with, yet another selfish fuck-up to internalize. Such was his doom.

He opened his eyes again and Eliot was looking at him, mostly curious with a hint of concern. Quentin sighed and put his hands behind his head, pressing down on his skull like a vice.

“It’s mostly fucking weird and, uh, unnerving to have someone in your life one day and then just…”

“It’s like a death,” Eliot said, nodding seriously. “Fucks with your sense of reality. I get it. I’m not trying to diminish that.”

“I know.”

“And I am sorry it happened.”

“I know.”

Quentin’s cigarette was gone again, his intense inhalations taking a toll on his lungs. As much as he was itching for another, he instead sat on his hands, trying to keep his body in check. He’d hate himself the next day if he had four cigarettes in less than a couple hours. He could already feel his chest and stomach burning, the acid sloshing around in his gut. It occurred to him that he hadn’t eaten all day and that he should probably take care of that. That he should probably take care of himself. Obviously, he wasn’t hungry at that moment, both from emotional turmoil and the appetite suppressant of nicotine. But he’d force something down in a little, just like he always had to when he was on Adderall. He was well-practiced.

Eliot, though, apparently had no issue with continuing to smoke. He was always so poised that he certainly didn’t scream chain smoker, but that’s exactly what he was, Quentin realized. He felt another dull pang of guilt for having assumed that Eliot’s life was so much easier than his. He wondered if Logan Kinnear was just scratching the surface.

After another few moments, Eliot squinted his eyes and slid them over to Quentin, a half-smile around an open mouth like he was going to say something. He closed it then, shaking his head. But then he bit his lip and brought his eyebrows together, staring at Quentin with an intensity he couldn’t quite read. He smoothed his features out and continued smoking, while Quentin enjoyed the stillness and near silence of the lazy campus.

“So if it’s not Ryan, what would The Great Love of Quentin Coldwater’s Life look like anyway?” Eliot finally asked, staring down at the rings on his fingers. “Out of curiosity.”

“No fucking clue,” Quentin answered, honestly. “I can let you know if I ever figure it out.”

“Hmm,” Eliot said, still smoking. And they sat there, in comfortable silence for some time more.

 


 

The following morning, Quentin stuffed a handful of sour gummy worms into his mouth between sips of black coffee. And that’s when Margo grabbed his arm and dragged his ass out of the house, toward the cafeteria.

“You’re going to give yourself a fucking ulcer, you twelve-year-old,” she said, her fingernails digging into him. “Enough is enough. Green juice in your body and then back to your normal executive functions or so help me god, Quentin.”

“I hate green juice.” He wasn’t concerned with how petulant he sounded.

“I don’t give a shit. You’re being gross. Have you brushed your fucking teeth?”

Margo was harsher than a Detroit winter, but the forcing mechanism helped, even if his forearm was left a little bruised. Later that day, he managed to get to his dad’s and his work done. He went to bed at a reasonable hour. He showered. And yeah, he brushed his teeth.

Each day following brought more sunlight and less despair. By the third day post-Ryan, he was even able to socialize and talk through the situation with Todd, who was probably the only other person Quentin knew who gave a shit about Ryan’s departure, rather than how Ryan’s departure was affecting Quentin.

“Ryan was a good friend,” Todd said, sighing as they sat on the couch. “And a good person. He deserved better.”

“Yeah, it’s fucked,” Quentin said, taking in Todd’s dejected form with a pain in his heart. “I’m sorry you lost your friend. I think you were closer to him than I was, really.”

“That’s definitely not true,” Todd said, surprised. “You were his boyfriend.”

“Yeah, but not a very good one,” Quentin said, admitting that aloud for the first time. “I had too much other stuff going on.”

“Like what?” Todd asked, full of sincerity.

Quentin just smiled sadly, “Nothing relevant.”

And by the week mark, Quentin could honestly, reasonably say that he felt more like himself. Not entirely and certainly not with any aplomb, but he could hang out at the Saturday night party without feeling like he was either going to sink into the underworld or wrench out his soul with guilt. Maybe there was still a touch of numbness there, every now and then, but for the most part, he felt something like ease. Like calm.

Still, that didn’t mean he wanted to dance and chat and get entirely fucked up. So instead of integrating himself into the full party swing, he hung back behind the bar cart, observing Eliot’s meticulous work on the various cocktails throughout the night.

“How is this fun for you?” Quentin asked, leaning his body lightly against the cabinetry. “You’re basically doing menial labor.”

“It’s artistry,” Eliot corrected him, placing a small green herb against a cube of ice. “Creating something from nothing.”

“More like bartending.”

Eliot glared at him, only half-offended, “I bring these separate parts together, for the sake of pleasure. And it thusly brings people together for a brief respite from this fucked universe.”

Quentin smiled and shook his head, “Quite the love affair with booze you’ve got going.”

“You have no idea,” Eliot licked his lips lasciviously and held the glass out to Quentin. “Taste this.”

Quentin sipped and nodded, “Yeah, it’s fucking good, El. Like always.”

“And that’s why it’s fun for me,” Eliot smiled. “I like making fucking good things. Of all kinds. Your enjoyment is my enjoyment.”

“Hate to break it to you,” Quentin snorted. “But I have, like, no taste. I’m sure it’s more satisfying when Josh likes ones of your creations than when I do. At least he knows what he’s talking about.”

Eliot shrugged, “Shakespeare wrote for the masses.”

“And he was so humble too.”

Eliot’s mouth slid into a smile, but he kept his hands moving across the bar tools and his ears perked up for the requests shouted at him, with increasing drunken fervor. Tired of standing, Quentin flopped down into the tufted brown leather chair and propped his head up under his hand.

“What’s your favorite drink anyway?” Eliot asked after a few moments, all curiosity. “You switch it up a lot.”

Quentin considered the question, thinking about Hemingway or Fitzgerald, and how they would answer, “Um, a good whiskey. Peaty scotch.”

“Right,” Eliot nodded, and then bit the inside of his cheek as he poured tequila into several shot glasses. “And what’s your favorite drink when you’re not a liar?”

Quentin’s neck burned.

“Mojitos.” Fuck it. Shame was beyond him at this point.

“Respectable,” Eliot said and Quentin kicked his ankle. “Oh, I’m being sincere, you toddler. A well made mojito is actually a decent choice.”

“I mean, not really. It’s like the patron drink of shitty nightclubs,” Quentin said and Eliot laughed.

“They’re good if you use Santiago de Cuba, a hefty dose of Angostura, and the Cuban Yerba Buena mint varietal,” Eliot said, pulling out a highball, a lime, large handful of fresh mint, and a muddler. “Also with a dash of Lanique, for a floral twist? Heaven.”

“I don’t know half those words,” Quentin said, narrowing his face into a smirk. “Show off.”

“We’ll go to Havana and you’ll see what I mean,” Eliot smiled a little into his work. “You’d like it there. It’s got that old school vibe you’re so fond of.”

“Margo said I’m not allowed to go anywhere tropical with her, ever.”

Eliot’s eyebrows came together sharply, before he relaxed again, squeezing a lime.

“Oh, there’s plenty of history and architecture to keep your pasty skin as far from sun and fun as possible,” Eliot said, hand-waving over his muddling. “She’ll get over it.”

Quentin nodded, “I mean, I’ve always wanted to go to the Museum of the Revolution. Cuban history is, like, so obfuscated in the American perspective and—”

“Sure. Fascinating,” Eliot cut him off with a teasing smile and Quentin glared. But then Eliot handed Quentin a glass with a wink. The clear liquid was stained with the fine green smudges of pressed leaves and the top of the ice fizzed. “Here. One excellent mojito for The Tasteless Wonder.”

“Hope that nickname catches on,” Quentin rolled his eyes, but took a long gulp. It was like an explosion of mint, citrus, and a smooth sweetness all at once. “Fuck. Damn. All right, that’s good.”

“Told you.”

Eliot pulled out another glass, his movements deft and quick. The increasingly familiar shock of curiosity hit Quentin’s chest again, the one that was desperate for information about the man in front of him.

“Okay, so what about you?” Quentin asked and Eliot blinked. “What’s your favorite drink?”

“I’m polyamorous when it comes to liquor,” Eliot said, amused. “But at the end of the day, I’m always seeking a bottle of good champagne.”

“Really? That simple?”

Eliot crossed his arms and shot him a look, “I’m sure you mean elegant.”

The truth was, Quentin did mean that, but Eliot didn’t need to know. Mostly because Eliot already knew exactly how elegant he was and Quentin’s opinion on the matter wouldn’t add to anything. So instead, he pressed his palms behind his head and crossed his legs, fully relaxing into the chair.

“Preferably split with a beautiful stranger, I guess?” Quentin asked, not really sure why he brought it up. But Eliot brought his lips down thoughtfully at the notion and actually considered it.

“In the ideal scenario? Most preferably someone I actually like being around,” Eliot grabbed an Old Fashioned glass, a type of clear liquor Quentin didn’t recognize—the label written in Portuguese—and several limes. “Good conversation, kissable lips, the whole package.”

“Probably not a lot of guys who fit that Venn diagram for you,” Quentin said, musing.

Picturing someone who could actually hold both Eliot’s interest and attention was an exercise in vivid imagination and ultimately, futility. And obviously Eliot agreed, since his only response was a wry raise of his eyebrows and a small laugh, before focusing entirely on the latest cocktail in his hand. He glanced over at Quentin’s still half-filled glass and tapped his knee.

“Hurry and finish that,” Eliot said brusquely. “I’m making you a Caipirinha in preparation for our trip to Rio.”

 


 

And so, life continued on.

 


 

One would think that a magical cafeteria would have great food, but one would be wrong. It may as well have been Aramark, Quentin noted as he cut into the paper dry chicken. He wished they had gone into town to grab groceries instead of giving into the laziness of stumbling their asses to the tall-windowed room. But finding someone willing to lend them a car or building a portal felt like too much effort and so, lunch was served in a particularly underwhelming manner.

Next to him, Eliot refused to eat at all, dramatically calling it a hunger strike against the human rights violation of too much seasoning with too little flavor. Paradoxical yet accurate, Quentin thought queasily as he popped yet another plain bite in his mouth. And across from him, Margo was gesticulating wildly as she recounted her latest frustration with a minion of the moment. Julia listened quietly, seeming maybe a little out of sorts, her eyes downcast.

“And so I said to Josh that I didn’t really care about his romantic blah grand reunion with Victoria. When I need a favor, I need a favor,” Margo said, sipping her smoothie. “He got so fuckin’ pissy, like ‘I have a life, Margo.’ Puh-lease. Barely.”

“Yeah, that’s not selfish at all,” Julia said, pushing her food around with her fork. “Expecting others to cater to your shallow whims, even when life finally cuts them a break. Zero narcissism there.”

“Ouch,” Eliot said, pulling a tight face. “She’s not that serious about it, Wicker.”

“I mean, she’s pretty serious,” Quentin said with a smirk. Margo tapped her nose and pointed at him. She was delightfully unfazed by Julia’s criticism and Quentin wished he could be so at ease with himself, foibles and all.

“Exactly, and it’s bullshit,” Julia raised her eyebrows. “Maybe Josh is happy. Maybe someone deserves to be fucking happy around here, for fucking once.”

“Someone’s in a goddamn mood,” Margo said, more out of curiosity than animosity. “What’s up your ass?”

“I don’t want to talk about it,” Julia said, grumbling her face back into her plate. Quentin ducked his head and tapped her arm. She glared at him and shifted her face away, and Quentin’s estimation that she was a little out of sorts jumped to something being actually really wrong. He took her hand, which she abruptly pushed away, startling him. He and Eliot exchanged a quick, confused glance.

“You always want to talk about it,” Margo said, cutting through the tension like she didn’t care. Which she probably didn’t. “It’s by far my least favorite thing about you.”

“I don’t want to talk about it because Smuggy McSmuggerson here will be all, I told you so,” Julia stuck out her tongue, right at Quentin. She was teasing, but real anger underlined her words. “And I can’t deal with that right now.”

“Hey, I wouldn’t,” Quentin said, offended and sincere. But he amended his statement at her dull and knowing look. “Okay, I promise I won’t.”

“Fine,” Julia said, swallowing. “I had a bad fight with Penny. He was really mean to me over the dumbest shit and I think I’m done with whatever was going on with him and me and Kady. He’s too much of a jerk.”

Quentin set his mouth into a firm and hard line, forcing down everything he was desperate to say. Julia knew him very fucking well. Eliot repressed a laugh behind an unnecessary napkin.

“Come on,” Julia’s eyes widened and she pointed at him. “That’s exactly what I’m talking about.”

Quentin crossed his arms and tensed his jaw, “I’m not saying anything.”

“You’re saying everything with your eyes,” Julia said, pursing her lips. “J’accuse.”

“These are just my eyes, Jules.”

“I can fucking hear your little internal monologue,” Julia said. Then, she stuck her neck out and furrowed her brow, before putting on a frantic tone. “‘Wow, Jules, I’m sorry, but, um, I’m not really sure what you expected. I mean, a dick is going to be a, uh, a dick. And I—I told you that Penny is a huge dick, so this was, like, the inevitable fucking conclusion.’”

“Okay, I do not sound like that,” Quentin said over Margo and Eliot’s howling laughter.

“More! More!” Margo chanted. “Quiero mas!”

“Q’s right,” Eliot said, wrapping his arm casually around him. “He doesn’t sound like that.”

“Thank you,” Quentin said, until Eliot’s mouth quirked up. “Oh, this is a bit.”

“‘Because—ah, because what you really want is to put on, um, more of an affectation, right? At the end of your sentences?’” Eliot widened his eyes and raised the register of his voice, leaning forward into Julia and his arm still slung around Quentin. “‘I mean, because, like, it’s, uh, it’s all in the details—the fucking details, Jules.’”

“I hate all of you,” Quentin said, smiling into his sandwich as the laugher roared around him, as Margo started insisting that there was more stuttering than either of them were conveying. And best of all, Penny was blessedly forgotten.

 


 

Quentin laid out on the patio, his arm tucked under the back of his head to cushion his neck from the hard brick. His feet were propped up against the side of the Cottage, perfectly imitating Eliot next to him, with the exception of the cigarette that rested between the latter man’s rings. The smoke veiled the dim overhead light in a hazy glow and if Quentin squinted hard enough at the night sky, he could almost see the milky way. He wondered if it was real or if one of the Nature Kids was fucking around with celestial proportions again.

Eliot wrinkled his brow in thought, puffing the sharp smoke into his lungs with a serious set of his mouth. He turned his head to look directly at Quentin and nodded, having finally formulated exactly what he wanted to say.

“Would you rather,” Eliot elongated the last word with a smirk, “fight Penny or fuck Todd?”

“Fuck Todd,” Quentin said immediately, arching his neck toward Eliot with an incredulous stare. “Obviously.”

“Wrong answer, Q,” Eliot laughed. “So fast too.”

“Penny would kill me. Instant, painful death,” Quentin slammed his hand on the brick in the small space between him and Eliot for effect. It was exactly how Penny would curb stomp him, moments into Quentin’s attack. “I’d have no chance in hell.”

Eliot was still entirely amused though, smiling brightly, “At least you’d die honorably.”

Quentin brought his other arm under his head and smirked.

“I mean, Todd’s probably a very gentle lover,” he said, casting a side-long glance at Eliot and waggling his eyebrows.

“Oh, fuck off and never say lover again,” Eliot smacked Quentin’s chest with his wrist, white ash falling on his favorite hoodie. “Your turn.”

Quentin was quiet for a moment, taking in a deep breath. The fresh air mixed with Eliot’s cigarette smoke in a way he could have lived in forever.

“Why do you hate him so much?” Quentin finally asked. All his conjectures failed him. Sure, Eliot could be a dick to pretty much everyone, but how much he hated Todd was actually incongruous with everything else Quentin had since learned about him. Todd was the anomaly, not the rule.

Eliot closed his eyes and cracked his neck, “That’s not the game.”

“C’mon,” Quentin nudged him with his foot.

“I just do,” Eliot said, setting his jaw. “Come up with a question.”

Quentin rolled his eyes, “Reflective.”

Eliot tensed and brought his cigarette to his lips, inhaling deeply. He quickly glanced at Quentin, his eyes narrowing. He chuckled and swallowed, like he was annoyed at himself.

“I suppose if I had to put a point on it—” Eliot said, roughly letting out a breath before cutting himself off with another harsh laugh.

“Yeah?” Quentin asked, frowning.

“He’s just so goddamn desperate for whatever scraps of acceptance are thrown his way,” Eliot said, a shock of bitterness dripping off his tongue. “I want to shake him and tell him to stop giving so much of a shit about things that truly aren’t worth it. The world will let him down. He should stop trying so fucking hard.”

Quentin had the sinking feeling that Eliot wasn’t totally only talking about Todd anymore. But he generally valued his life these days, so he opted out of saying anything even hinting at any wild theory. Instead, he shrugged lightly and crossed his legs, angling a foot towards Eliot, along with the whole of his form.

“Maybe that’s not his experience,” Quentin posited, trying to keep it relatively understated. Eliot swallowed and his eyes darted, his cigarette dangling casually from his lips.

“I’m not saying everyone needs to be a miserable son-of-a-bitch like me,” Eliot said, his voice hoarse and quiet. “But Todd? With his Cheery-ho, motherfuckers attitude? Sets me on edge.”

Nodding, Quentin gently took Eliot’s cigarette out of his mouth and placed it to his own, breathing deep. Eliot turned his face toward him, watching Quentin intently. Maybe it was rude to do without asking, but something about what Eliot said really made him feel like he needed a smoke. And, well, it was right there. But when Quentin made eye contact with Eliot again, he saw no hint of annoyance on his features. Just curiosity.

“Okay,” Quentin nodded again and handed Eliot the cigarette back. Eliot took it silently, breathing it back into himself, his eyes still focused on Quentin’s face, like he was searching for an answer. “Would you rather eat the disemboweled innards of a beached whale in a single sitting or have to bathe in donkey piss for a year?”

“Jesus Christ, Coldwater.”

 


 

Then, it was another Friday night. This time, Quentin had skipped out on heading into the city with the Cottage upperclassmen, in lieu of quality time with his books. While there had been a few vehement protests regarding his sad sackness and his particular means of pooping all over parties, Quentin was really quite satisfied with his decision.

He would have been even more of a mess than usual at the club scene, especially if the wild and expensive attire Margo and Eliot had donned was any indication of the night’s intention. Even if he could hold his own at Brakebills’ parties these days, Quentin was far too muted and cerebral—both internally and externally—to have any experience at a New York City nightclub that didn’t end in getting fully cannibalized. That is, if anyone even let him through the door.

Escaping to Fillory, especially with a brand new commentary from Christopher Plover’s scholar nephew, was far more his speed, comforting and relaxing. Briefly, he actually kind of missed Ryan for the first time in a few weeks. His ex would have been happy to sit on the couch with him and drink tea, even if he’d never really grasped the importance of Fillory to Quentin. But that was a weird and dark place he didn’t need to go.

Startling him, the Cottage door suddenly opened with a burst of light, indicating a portal. Eliot staggered in, propping up a giggling and barely coherent Margo. Quentin blinked, more than a little surprised to see either of them. It wasn’t even midnight and, frankly, he thought they would be gone until early Monday morning at least, given their voracious track records and varied appetites.

“Eliot,” Margo slurred, hanging off him like a necklace. “Eliot, you have circle hair. Your hairs are circles.”

“I know, Bambi,” Eliot’s much more even-keeled voice soothed. “It’s a real boon. Do you need water?”

“Fuck water and fuck you,” Margo said, stumbling and hiccuping. She would have fallen face first on the floor if Eliot hadn’t wrapped his strong arm around her waist. “I’m a champion.”

“Always, darling,” Eliot kissed the back of her head. He glanced up and caught Quentin’s eye, sighing. “Hey there, Q.”

“Shit, is she okay?” Quentin asked, gesturing to Margo’s swaying, barely upright form. Eliot raised his eyebrows and made a so-so hand motion behind her head. But at Quentin’s likely very concerned look, Eliot snorted and smiled.

“She’ll be fine,” he said, pulling Margo into him and kissing her forehead. “Minor overindulgence. It happens.”

But Margo finally noticed that they weren’t alone, her eyes widening at the sight of Quentin. She wrenched herself from Eliot’s arms and staggered over to him, falling down on the couch. Her face fell into Quentin’s stomach before she cracked up and pulled herself up by his shoulders.

“Quentin!” She pouted right in his face before throwing her arms around his neck, like she had to Eliot. “Quentin, come cuddle me.”

“Uh, I think you should go to sleep, Margo,” Quentin locked eyes with Eliot, who nodded and rushed over to sit on her opposite side. But Margo shook her finger in Quentin’s face, mock-admonishing.

“Stop it with your cute face,” Margo said, placing her cool fingers on his cheeks. “Cute face.”

“He’s not wrong, Bambi,” Eliot said, tugging on her elbow and rubbing her back. “Bedtime.”

“Eliot,” Margo looked over her shoulder coquettishly. “Doesn’t Quentin have the cutest face?”

“It’s a perfectly fine face,” Eliot said, pulling Margo into his chest again and standing her up. He raised his eyebrows at Quentin in exasperation. “Say good night to Q. It’s time for sweet dreams now.”

Margo shook her head and repeatedly hit Eliot’s chest, her fingers ricocheting off his vest. She tightened her face up seriously, looking Eliot straight in the eyes.

“But El,” she hiccuped, throwing her arm out wide towards Quentin. “You said that he—”

“Bambi,” Eliot moved her toward the stairs urgently, his voice low and odd. “You have to sleep it off.”

 


 

 

Quentin was in over his head.

His Practical Applications class with had taken a brutal turn after nearly fifty percent of the first years failed a pop quiz the week prior. Quentin himself had barely scraped by into the majority. Disappointed beyond reasonable measure with their performance, the cold fury from the front of the classroom that day turned quickly tangible. Pearl Sunderland was not a force to be trifled with and she brought down the tyranny, swift and righteous. The piles of work deluged and the stakes grew ever higher, the sharp threat of the Sword of Damocles hovering above every moment.

And that’s how Quentin found himself squirreled into a couch corner on a bright Saturday afternoon. He furiously read and re-read his insanely difficult assigned exercise, his hand permanently lodged in his hair. He probably should have gone to the library, he realized, as the Cottage filled more and more with its usual revelry. But Quentin was in over his head and in too deep and every cliche he could think of to indicate that he was probably fucked. And, of course, it was on the weekend that his de facto tutor Julia was invited to some crazy Magicians retreat. His typical luck.

He pushed his hair back again and set his face and mind into concentration. He could do this. Fuck.

Trying once again to absorb the circumstances into the part of his brain that wasn’t totally moronic, Quentin jumped with a startle when a large weight fell smoothly on top of him. Dark hair rested on his thigh and a long arm stretched over his book, clad in a multi-colored paisley button-down. A long sigh escaped Eliot’s lips and Quentin rolled his eyes, extracting his book from under the intrusion.

Eliot shifted, throwing his arm back over the book and sighing all the louder.

“What?” Quentin snapped, finally looking down at Eliot’s face, which immediately curled into a grin.

“Whatcha doing?” He asked, all mischief.

“Playing basketball,” Quentin said, refocusing on the page in front of him. It was what his dad always used to say to him when he was a child and would ask equally apparent questions. But Ted Coldwater’s wit didn’t impress Eliot, who shook his head against Quentin’s leg.

“Oh, you’re better than that,” he said, stretching his arms behind him, like a cat on its belly.

“I’m busy, El.”

“But I’m bored,” Eliot said, entirely affronted. Quentin tapped the pink eraser of his pencil against his page, trying to focus like Eliot’s mouth wasn’t perilously close to his belt buckle.

“Then go find Margo.”

“She’s currently in flagrante delicto with a lovely, yet terribly inconvenient young lady,” Eliot pulled a face, settling his head into Quentin’s lap firmly, like a challenge. “I’m left in the lurch.”

“And I’m your only other possible source of entertainment?” Quentin gestured vaguely around the room, at the tens of other Brakebillers who were already deep into their drinks and frivolity.

Eliot smirked, “The heart wants what it wants.”

“Your heart’s shit out of luck then,” Quentin shook his head. “I’m working. I’m serious.”

“What is it they say about Jack?” Eliot quipped before sitting up and sinking into the couch next to Quentin.

“This is five percent of my grade," Quentin zeroed his eyes on the page. "I need to concentrate.”

“So is there nothing I could do to distract you then?” Eliot’s voice was low and rough, and Quentin blinked up at him, shocked. But Eliot’s face was neutral and as bored as he claimed, eyes rolling. Quentin blinked again.

“Uh, not until I figure this out,” Quentin indicated his work, biting his lip again in frustration and confusion. “I mean, it’s, like, a fucking paradox or something.”

Eliot glanced over at Quentin’s worksheet and immediately laughed, “Q, it’s literally a paradox. That’s the point.”

Shit.

“Shit,” Quentin flopped back against the couch, rubbing his eyes. “Shit.”

“Oh, give it,” Eliot grabbed the spiral-bound book and pencil from Quentin’s hands and threw together a few equations before writing out the formation. “There. Just do that on Monday.”

“Eliot—” Quentin started to say, reading through notes frantically. He was sure they worked, for someone whose could actually keep up with Eliot's thought processes. Generally speaking, though, Quentin’s brain wasn’t in that category. While he could see a basic framework towards resolution in what he had jotted down, the crux of the formation and the way each movement worked within the circumstances was still painfully unclear.

But Eliot had already moved on, patting Quentin’s leg excitedly and pulling at his arm, trying to lift him off the couch toward the bar area.

“Let’s get drunk now,” Eliot said, smile bright and voice effervescent.

“It’s two on a Saturday,” Quentin snorted. “And you’re not drunk yet?”

Eliot winked, “Let’s get you drunk.”

Appealing as the idea sounded, Quentin sighed and Eliot instantly glared at him. He tugged his arm out of Eliot’s grasp and sat back down, pointedly opening his book and pointing at the circles and notes with his pencil.

“Sure, after I go over this another hundred thousand times,” Quentin said. “I don’t understand how what you wrote even works.”

“Jesus,” Eliot rolled his eyes, but sat back down and pressed himself closer into Quentin. “Fine. I’ll help you.”

Quentin laughed, “You must be really fucking bored.”

“You’re forcing my hand,” Eliot said, with absolutely zero affection. “Now, what exactly is confusing you?”

“Um, all of it?”

“Bullshit. It’s as straightforward a paradox unfuck as you can get. Look—”

He kept talking as he leaned into Quentin, but Quentin didn’t hear a damn word. Eliot’s face was right next to his, their cheeks almost touching, and his aftershave or body wash or fucking something else that smelled incredible wafted off him like mist from a stream on a hot day and Quentin was dizzy. His heart thudded painfully and arrhythmically against his ribcage and he hated himself. He hated that he still could drown on dry land next to Eliot, even after they’d come so far as friends. It was pathetic. But he couldn’t stop. He couldn’t stop looking at him.

When the apparently still-speaking Eliot pointed downward on the page, he closed his eyes for a moment and a single lash caught against his cheek. Like an out-of-body experience, Quentin leaned forward and pressed his finger on Eliot’s skin, until his finger captured the stray. Eliot jumped back and widened his eyes as Quentin held the lash out to him, balanced in the air.

“Oh, uh, you had an eyelash,” Quentin said with a hopefully inaudible swallow. Trying to recover, he remembered something from his childhood. “Make a wish.”

“Um,” Eliot said, his brow wrinkling and a strange expression in his eyes. “I’m not familiar with this custom.”

Quentin shrugged.

“It’s like birthday candles,” he said, bringing his finger closer to Eliot’s lips. “You make a wish and then blow it out in the air.”

“How whimsical,” Eliot said with a smile.

Quentin shrugged again, embarrassment creeping up his back. But Eliot gently took Quentin’s hand in his and considered the eyelash, carefully studying. He pursed his lips and released a small stream of air, until it floated up and disappeared into the fibers of the rug.

Then, Eliot pulled his eyes up to meet his.

Quentin’s throat seized on itself. The raw intensity behind Eliot’s other long lashes sent him on one of those swooping carnival rides, without leaving the ground. The Cottage didn’t exist anymore. Nothing existed anymore. Eliot swallowed and turned his head, as something shifted. The intensity became that ache Quentin could have sworn he saw, so many times, so briefly. Crazed thoughts attacked his brain at once.

Maybe if he kissed Eliot, right now, he would kiss him back. Maybe he’d pull Quentin into him so neither could tell where his body ended and the other’s began. Maybe Eliot would pin him down on the couch, their legs entwined, their hands moving and memorizing, and maybe Eliot would whisper into his skin that he wanted this too, that he wanted Quentin, that he really wanted this, as badly as Quentin did, before maybe they’d lose all sense of time and feeling except each other.

Maybe, maybe, maybe.

Or...

Or maybe Eliot would jerk back and laugh, telling Quentin in no uncertain terms that he had standards, thanks.

Sobered, Quentin averted his eyes and scratched the back of his neck, pulling his book back toward him. He felt Eliot’s eyes on him for a few more moments, until he relaxed back, lighting a cigarette.

“Anyway, um, it seems like this particular set of circumstances and the formations you wrote here are, like, impossible,” Quentin said, tracing his finger over the symbology, barely able to comprehend. His blood was still rushing through his bones.

“Not impossible,” Eliot said, angling his face toward the ceiling and blowing smoke in soft rings. “Sometimes you just have to try harder.”

 


 

 

tbc.

Chapter Text

 

The Cottage was covered in an angry layer of ice, the frozen water particles hanging mockingly off the couches, books, ceilings, and even the toilet seats. The air was still and bone-chilling, and no amount of magic pricked its swell for long. Usually, this would have caused an uproar, but that day, the denizens suffered in wise silence.

Margo was preparing for her second year tutorial review in the same way she did everything—with ferocity, intensity, and a rule-by-fear iron fist. She froze every square inch of matter she could find, to hone her talent and skill as well as to prove her badassery to every motherfucker who ever doubted her. At least, that’s what she said as she encased one of Quentin’s Fillory books in a solid chunk of ice.

“Goddammit, Margo,” Quentin said, immediately applying a useless heating spell. “I’ve never doubted you for a second.”

“Can’t be too careful,” Margo said with a bouncy grin. Then she froze his shoelaces, to prove the point. And to be an asshole for fun, probably.

Once she finished her onslaught, the whole of the Cottage worked together to melt and clean her carnage, since Margo herself definitely wasn't lifting a single finger. But late into the evening hours, everyone slowly tapped out until Quentin was left alone in his cold insomnia, bent near the fireplace. His hands were bright red and chapped against the forty degree air and he stuffed dry wood and old newspaper into the bottom of the hearth. He took a long match and lit it with a scratching snap, before placing it against the paper. It burned for a few moments before curling out into embers, retreating from the wood.

Cursing to himself, Quentin tried again. And again. And again, for good measure, until he sat against the floor with a thud, burying his head in his hands. Maybe he could just drink a whole bottle of wine until he his blood vessels constricted with false warmth and he passed out, he thought. It seemed an appealing option, since he apparently was never going to get a fire started.

“Is this another one of your exercises in mental stability?”

Quentin grinned into his hands and glanced up at Eliot, who was leaning against the brown tufted leather seat with a matching smile of his own. He wore loose pajama bottoms and a red silk robe, his hair mussed from sleep or other activities Quentin forced himself not to think about.

“Uh, more like an exercise in sucking at Pyromancy,” Quentin said, squinting one eye. “Can never get the fucking spell to work. And the old-fashioned way is apparently beyond me too.”

Eliot laughed and sat down next to him, “I’ve got it, Q. You can open the Cabernet.”

Pulling himself into the chair and twisting out the cork with magic he actually could do, Quentin reached underneath into the table’s small storage space and pulled out two wine glasses. He poured the red liquid in equal proportions, watching Eliot move the wood and paper into a perfect dome without lifting a finger.

“What do you suck at?” Quentin asked, sipping his wine. It was cooler than red wine was meant to be, but he figured it would still do the trick. He could still see his breath in the dry air and so he gulped it down quickly.

Eliot tilted his head, considering. Then, he twisted his fingers into a snap and the fire roared.

“Thinking of things I suck at,” he said with a smile. Quentin rolled his eyes, but handed over the wine in praise of a clever quip. In turn, Eliot sprawled himself out on the floor, resting back against his elbows as the fire crackled at him. Quentin ignored the pinching in his stomach that tried to tell him exactly how good Eliot looked. Of course he looked good in his pajamas by a roaring fire. It was Eliot.

“How many silk robes do you actually own?” Quentin asked, without preamble. Eliot leaned his head back and closed his eyes, enjoying the feel of the warmth.

“Four.”

Mischief tugged at Quentin’s mouth.

“Oh shit, I have you beat,” he said. “I’ve got five.”

Eliot’s eyes popped open. He traced them over to Quentin and he looked at him in that way he always used to, like he was almost fond of Quentin, almost charmed by him. He parted his lips a little, like he was going to say something beyond a retort. But instead, he simply laughed and shook his head.

“Drink your wine, Coldwater,” Eliot said, tapping his own glass as an indication. Quentin grinned and raised his eyebrows over the long-stemmed glass.

“It’s still fucking freezing in here,” he said, tugging his hoodie around him tighter. “Margo needs to calm her shit.”

“Yes, that’s in the realm of possibility,” Eliot snorted. “Come down on the ground. Warmer.”

Not able to think of a coherent argument beyond his anxiety around Eliot’s half-dressed body, Quentin shrugged and slid down the chair into a cross-legged position right against the fire. He had to admit that Eliot was right—it was a lot warmer. Taking another sip of his drink, he wrapped his hands around the glass and pressed them into the hottest part of the air. His skin thawed pleasantly, as comfortable silence filled the quiet Cottage.

Eliot caught Quentin’s eyes over his wine glass and tilted his head, looking at him oddly. Then, he rolled his eyes and laughed, sitting up a little so his weight was pressed on a single palm.

“You’re annoying, you know that?” Eliot said, as he swirled the red wine in his glass until it formed a small vortex. Quentin screwed his face up for a moment before laughing loudly, his hands up in the air, in a mock-shrug. But Eliot laughed too, matching his humor, in a low rumbling sound right from his chest.

“Sorry. That was abrupt,” he said, his cheeks grinning up to his eyes. “I was trying to segue into one of those serious conversations you like so much.”

“You do suck at something,” Quentin said and Eliot held both his smile wide and wine glass up in a cheers. Quentin crossed his arms and indicated for Eliot to continue. “Okay. So?”

Eliot snorted and shook his head, like the topic was something horribly humiliating and deeply irritating. Quentin sipped his wine, patient.

“My mentor wants me to develop this—“ Eliot snorted again “—this fucking grandiose thesis project. She thinks I’m wasting my talents and that I could contribute to meta-kinetic research by the time I graduate.”

It definitely wasn’t what Quentin had expected Eliot to say. He could count on his hands the number of times Eliot had willingly brought up schoolwork to him. In fact, he still could count every single time even if he’d lost all his fingers in a freak woodcutter accident. That is to say, Eliot never brought up schoolwork.

“That could be interesting,” Quentin said, not entirely sure what meta-kinetic meant. But he felt like that wasn’t actually the point Eliot was trying to convey. “What’s the problem?”

“Effort, obviously,” Eliot said with a dull glare. “Not my interest.”

“Then tell her to fuck off,” Quentin shrugged. “Wouldn’t be the first time.”

“Sure, but the rub is that I keep hearing an obnoxiously familiar voice in my head asking me what I’m going to do with my life,” Eliot shook his head, fixing Quentin with an all-too-familar affectionate and irritated look. “So figured I’d volley it out with the source.”

“Ah, hence why I’m annoying,” Quentin laughed, sipping his wine. “Got it. The logical connection is there.”

Eliot raised his eyebrows, “Always is.”

“Okay,” Quentin placed his wine glass on the ground and pivoted on his ass so he was directly facing Eliot. “So what would the project mean for you long term?”

Eliot immediately scoffed, “I don’t think long term.”

“Fucking try, asshole,” Quentin hit Eliot’s arm with the back of his hand, which Eliot watched with a keen gaze. Sighing, Eliot put his own wine glass down and sat all the way up, cracking his neck. He stared up at the ceiling for a few moments, the fireglow reflecting in the whites of his eyes as he tried to take Quentin’s directive seriously. Finally, he looked back over with a half-hearted shrug.

“It could be nothing. Feather in my cap,” Eliot said, bored. “Or I could end up courted by research institutions.”

“You, working in academia?” Quentin pinched his face with genuine incredulity. “The entire world would burn and crumble by your second day. By your second hour.”

“It’d be a breathtaking firestorm, you must admit,” Eliot grinned. “But if I do this, I’d be clearing the obvious path for it. My thesis would be more writing than hands-on spellwork.”

Quentin shook his head, “Yeah, that sounds like your worst nightmare, to be honest.”

“Path of least resistance though,” Eliot said, tracing his finger in patterns along his pajama pants, caught in his own thoughts. “You’re underestimating that part of the appeal.”

“Would you be happy?” Quentin asked with a small frown.

Happy,” Eliot repeated with a grim laugh. “That’s—not usually one of my considerations.”

Quentin swallowed back an angry, violent opposition to that idea. If anyone deserved happiness…

He ground his teeth and leaned forward, absorbing the warmth of the fire. This was a practical conversation, not an emotional one. And it wasn’t like his thoughts on the matter concerned Eliot much, if at all. Despite the apparently deep reservoirs of pain the other man held within himself, he always managed to keep his shit together. He didn’t need a pep talk from a depressed super nerd.

So Quentin refocused.

“You said you like making things,” he said, looking up at the ceiling, thinking it through. “So make things.”

Eliot shot him a look, “I’m not actually going to be a bartender, Q.”

“Obviously, El,” Quentin rolled his eyes. “But you’re creative, in a bigger way, when you let yourself be. What do you want to contribute? What matters to you?”

“I have no fucking clue.” He didn’t sound distressed by the idea. It was enviable. Quentin found uncertainty unmooring and overwhelming, but Eliot took it as it came. It was yet another thing Quentin admired about him.

“Well, think about it,” Quentin said. “But also realize you’re asking someone who’s way more fucked than you are in terms of the future. So, like, massive of grain of salt here.”

“Doubtful,” Eliot shook his head. Then he smiled, with a small laugh. “For one thing, you’re certainly more helpful than my mentor last year, one Sister Mary Joseph.”

Quentin cracked a wide smile and a bubble of laughter rose through his chest, “Your mentor was a nun? Like, an actual nun?”

Eliot waggled his eyebrows and laughed again, that same low rumbling sound, like a delightful thunder.

“It was a disaster. I can be occasionally, uh, provocative,” Eliot curled his mouth cheekily around the word. “So it wasn’t a ‘fit,’ as the official record states.”

“Jesus,” Quentin laughed. “I can only imagine.”

“I promise the story is even better than what your mind dreams up,” Eliot chuckled and winked. “I’ll tell you another time.”

Finally feeling warmth down to the center of his bones, Quentin leaned back against the ground, his palms pressing into the brick tiles firmly. He looked over at Eliot, who had grabbed his wine glass again and was sipping slowly, thoughtfully. Quentin had never seen him so pensive. And he had certainly never seen him give so much of a shit about something outside of parties or food or booze or the various beauties that made up the whole atmosphere that surrounded him. In many ways, it was that concoction of delights that drew Quentin to him like a hopeless moth. But in another, deeper way, he preferred the man in front of him, with his edges at once sharper and so much softer.

“All your options are good ones, El,” Quentin said quietly. “I still think that you could do anything you want. But I can’t tell you what that is.”

“Thank you,” Eliot said, his voice quiet too. He didn’t look at Quentin. “Though I wish you could. I’d trust you.”

That made Quentin smile, even if it was stupid of Eliot. Not many people trusted his opinion, for good reason. But it still felt…nice to have made a friend who really did. And that connection—that bond—was what really mattered to him, no matter how much Quentin wanted to end the conversation by leaning forward and kissing Eliot senseless.

Quentin breathed in. Quentin breathed out. He refocused. Again.

Maybe Eliot was another one of his friends that started with a one-sided attraction, but ended beyond. Beyond was good. It was his favorite place he’d ever been with Julia, by far. It was natural and right. Maybe someday it would feel natural and right with Eliot too. Someday soon, if he was lucky and the gods were kind.

Eliot stretched his head back, his long neck illuminated in the firelight and Quentin had to look away.

“Should I be freaked that I don’t have a mentor?” He asked, his mouth dry and his mind desperate to change the subject. “I barely even tried to get one.”

“You should work on not getting ‘freaked’ at all,” Eliot said, raising his eyebrows. “But no, you’re fine. Just don’t sleep on it next year.”

Quentin nodded and settled back into himself. The fire was lowering slowly, but the flames still sent fans of warmth toward his face. His cheeks were pink and overheated, and golden speckles of light danced on his skin in a warm reflection. Taking a final sip of his wine, he glanced back at Eliot and was surprised to find he was already looking at Quentin, like he was studying him. Staring at him, even.

“What?” Quentin asked, smiling a little. “Is my hair fucked up?”

“I’ve never noticed your hair,” Eliot repeated, understanding the callback. But his voice was soft and his eyes were still fixed on Quentin.

“Then what?”

“I don’t really care about a lot of stuff,” Eliot said, still looking at Quentin and wrapping his arms around his knees. “Or, you know, people.”

Quentin frowned, “You’ve mentioned.”

“But, uh, here’s the thing, Q,” Eliot swallowed and looked straight at the fire. “I really—“

He cut himself off with a jerk of his head and his head dipped down. He licked his lips and swallowed again.

“Really what, El?” Quentin asked.

“I really, um,” Eliot tensed his jaw and laughed. “I really appreciate that we can talk. It’s surprisingly helpful.”

“Hey, I appreciate it too,” Quentin said with a grin, meaning it. Talking to Eliot was regularly a highlight of his days lately, no matter what complexities roiled under his surfaces. Eliot’s lips pressed upward in return, but his smile didn’t seem to reach his dark and pensive eyes. Perhaps, though, Quentin thought, it was just the way the shadows played off the fire.

 


 

The knock on the Cottage front door grabbed Quentin’s attention as he headed downstairs, wearing a pair of shorts and a T-shirt. It was one of the first properly warm days of spring, where the enchantments weren’t necessary, and the celebrations were already in full swing. Margo and Eliot had procured multiple types of liquor, egging on body shots and whipping up frozen daiquiris, respectively and together, with each of their particular talents taking the lead as necessary. The frivolity was infectious.

But the knock was curious, since most people knew they could walk into the Cottage, sight unseen at any time. So he ignored Eliot’s call to him from the main living room and swung open the door, slightly worried he’d come face-to-face with a college official or possibly a vampire, seeking invitation and entry. However, the sight in front of him surprised him considerably more than either of those options.

“Julia?” He asked, furrowing his brow. She gave a soft little wave, her lips pressed together in a delicate smile. “Uh, what the fuck? Why are you knocking?”

With a long sigh, she pushed her way around him and shot him a look from behind her shoulder, tossing her hair back in a single motion.

“I have to knock, Q,” Julia said, crossing her arms and staring up at him. “It would have been terribly rude otherwise. After all, we are complete and total strangers. I abide by the social contract.”

It had been five days since Quentin had seen or talked to Julia. He set his mouth in a teasing firm line and sighed, nodding exaggeratedly.

“Uh-huh,” Quentin said, his lips curling into laughter against his will. “Okay. Point made.”

“And I apologize for being so forward with you right now,” Julia continued, pressing her hand to her heart. “Old habits of familiarity are hard to break.”

Quentin glared at her, “You know that if one of the other thirty people who live here opened the door, your point would have been totally lost, right?”

She perked up and smiled, patting his back, “Don’t worry, I had back-ups.”

“It’s good to see you, Jules,” Quentin said pointedly, beckoning her into the main living room. Flopping down next to Eliot on the couch, he gave her another grin as she stuck her tongue out him childishly. For his part, Eliot briefly offered Julia an eyebrow raise as a greeting and then handed Quentin a glass of some smoky cocktail, both in terms of flavor profile and in terms of the literal smoke rising from it. It was…intense.

“It’s Mezcal, Aperol, and a fire glamour,” Eliot laughed at Quentin’s downturned mouth, his eyes fixed on him. “Shouldn’t work together, yet miraculously does.”

“I think we have different definitions of work,” Quentin coughed and Eliot laughed again, taking it out of his hand.

“Noted,” he said, his eyes glinting. “No smoky, earthy, sharp profiles for Q.”

“I mean, you could have just asked me,” Quentin smirked. “And I’d tell you that no, I don’t like bitter as shit drinks.”

“Excuse you,” Eliot mock-glared, sipping the drink himself and angling his body closer to Quentin. “This is a nuance in a highball. You’re just far too unrefined to appreciate the genius.”

But just as Quentin was about to retort, he heard a loud throat clear from above and he glanced back at Julia, who was staring down at him with tight lips and disbelieving eyes.

Quentin,” Julia said insistently, laughter tumbling out. He screwed his face up in confusion, not sure what her issue was. But before he could ask her exactly what her problem was, Margo cleared her throat and made her always indomitable presence especially known.

“Hey Julia,” Margo said, dipping her head at almost a right angle, eyes wide. “Been awhile, girl. Welcome to my tedium.”

“Your life is incredible, with fucking zero tedium,” Eliot shot back at Margo, leaning backwards to kiss her neck. She purred into Eliot, wrapping her arms around around him from behind, resting her chin on his shoulder. Julia laughed again and smiled with a dramatic sigh.

“It’s definitely nice to see three of my favorite people. Margo and Eliot. And…” She stared at Quentin  and snapped her fingers. “I’m sorry, what was your name again?”

Quentin sighed and put his hands behind his head, “You’re really milking this.”

“I told you I had back-ups,” Julia said, smacking his knee. “It’s been five days, Q!”

“Didn’t realize you were incapable of reaching out to him in that time,” Eliot said, sipping his flask. Julia’s eyebrows briefly came together, but then she shook her head and smiled widely.

“Interesting coincidence, Eliot! That’s why I’m here to steal him away,” Julia said smugly, tugging at Quentin’s immediately reluctant arm. He glanced over at his other friends, who both crossed their arms in a moment of simultaneous annoyance. Eliot in particular opened his mouth in protest, their plans for the day clearly on his lips.

“Steal me?” Quentin asked, looking right at Julia’s sun bright face, dread rising in his stomach. “Jules—”

“We’re going into the city,” Julia stood him up against his will and patted his chest authoritatively. “We’re going to the Met for the new photography exhibition and no, it’s not negotiable.”

“I don’t want to go to the fucking city,” Quentin sighed. Julia pouted simperingly at Quentin and rubbed two of her fingers together, mimicking the world’s smallest violin that was playing the world’s saddest song just for Q. He was thoroughly unamused.

“Too bad,” Julia finally said, laughing and ruffling his hair. “It’s happening.”

“He already has plans,” Margo said, putting her hands on her hips. “We were going to barbecue today. Booze and burgers.”

Eliot simply sipped his flask again and caught Quentin’s eye, cocking an eyebrow at him. In response, Quentin shrugged. What Julia wanted, Julia usually got. This was most likely going to be no different than any other scenario. Reality was as reality did.

“That’s what you do every weekend,” Julia rolled her eyes at Margo and started pushing Quentin toward the front door. “I think you’ll survive without Q one time.”

“But I’m the life of the party, Jules,” Quentin insisted. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Eliot smile. “Everything will collapse into dullness without me—”

“Q, your best friend misses you. This is happening, motherfucker,” Julia stopped him in front of the door and put her hands on his shoulders, centering him in eye contact. “We’re going to drink coffee and look at art like practiced, pretentious twentysomethings.”

“Goddammit,” Quentin said as Julia pulled him through the portal, without so much as a by-your-leave. Catching eyes once last time with Margo and then Eliot, he waved a reluctant goodbye before the world swiftly shifted to the familiar sight of 5th Avenue and tall sweeping steps leading to the preeminent art museum of North America. Glaring at Julia’s still smugly smiling face, he gave in and wrapped his arm in hers as they stood in line.

But by the time they were knee- and brain-deep in the stylized exhibit, Quentin was actually glad to be there. He and Julia walked through the tall white halls, dipping around the displayed photographs like they knew what they were talking about or what they were even looking at. Each photo was a dizzying array of sex and color, bright and bursting with joy and eroticism. Quentin found them daunting and so unlike anything he’d ever seen before. Yet he was drawn to the aesthetic, forcing him to look deeper and deeper still, at the raw humanity beneath the dazzle. They were weirdly beautiful.

Julia, though, chalked them up as pop art, tacky and cloying. And she said as much, debating Quentin with ferocity, until he made an offhand comment about how they were the exact aesthetic Eliot would enjoy or at least find interesting, and that he probably knew better than either of them regarding what kind of art was worthwhile or valid. He said it because it was true, but the instant he said El’s name, Julia’s whole form and all of her features shifted, into something much more devious.

“Oh, the usurper,” Julia rolled her eyes good-naturedly. “Of course that’s who you’re thinking about.”

“The what?” Quentin blinked and laughed. “What are you talking about?”

Julia gave him a look, fully Julia in every sense. She walked over to an empty bench—a rarity at the Metropolitan Museum of Art—in front of Lepage’s Jeanne d’Arc, a favorite painting of hers. She patted the seat next to her and Quentin tentatively sat down, looking at her with a confused, lowered brow.

“Seriously,” Julia said, delicately pursing her lips. “What’s going on with you and Eliot?”

“Nothing,” Quentin said, defensiveness rising in his chest. “We’re friends.”

“Uh-huh,” Julia said with an exaggerated nod. “Good friends. Really good friends.”

“I mean, yeah?” Quentin’s neck was getting hot and his stomach churned uncomfortably against her steady, knowing gaze.

“Really, really good friends.”

His frustration snapped inside him and he glared at her, “What are you getting at, Jules?”

“Q, come on,” Julia said, resting her hand on his arm. “Maybe this is breaking some Brakebills honor code, but I remember what you said during The Trials. You weren’t talking about Ryan.”

Quentin’s stomach flipped over, with his guts bursting toward the seams. It was definitely breaking a code of some kind, to throw that information back in his face and she knew it. He fixed her with a tight glare and true anger infused in his bones and blood. When Julia wanted to prove a point, she went to any means necessary. He’d been on the wrong side of it before, but it had been awhile. With a shaky breath, he snarled and turned away from her, growing even angrier as her face remained impassive and unsympathetic.

“That doesn’t matter,” Quentin finally said. “New fucking topic please.”

But Julia really never knew when to leave well enough alone. She had the audacity to laugh and press her hand against his leg.

“Frankly, it kinda does matter,” Julia said. “Especially when you’re spending most of your free time with the guy.”

“We’re friends. We live in the same house,” Quentin said, frantic and desperate. He wasn’t sure why he was even justifying any of this to her. “It’s more like we run in the same routine. We’re not, like, actively choosing to hang out all the time.”

“I don’t believe that for a second,” Julia shook her head vigorously. “Sorry.”

Quentin threw his hands in the air, “Believe what you want.”

But Julia was really failing to pick up on all his indications that the conversation was unwanted, unwarranted, and unwelcome. She leaned into him and turned her face directly toward him, giving him as serious an expression as she could manage. She touched his hand and sighed, like she was about to ask something even more personal than she’d already managed.

“So you’re totally over it?” She asked quietly. “Q, you said he gave you ‘full body—“

Quentin gnashed his teeth and threw his head into his hands “I remember the fucking Trials, Julia.”

“Q, I’m not trying to make this—”

“And yeah, sure, I’m over it,” Quentin continued, laughing out something crazed and hidden deep within his heart. “Or at least, Eliot is my friend. I wouldn’t fuck that up because of some biochemical response.”

“You’re still attracted to him then?” Julia asked carefully. Quentin sighed, still really not wanting to talk about this. But now that he’d started…

“He’s a magnetic person,” Quentin bit out with a sad laugh. “He’d be the first to tell you that.”

“Q,” Julia fixed her stare on him. “Remember how I said I thought he was kind of into you? Back in November?”

He waved her off, “That was then. Now is different.”

“Uh, yeah. Exactly. No fucking argument,” Julia smacked his arm and rolled her eyes at his blank expression. “You two were looking at each other like Penelope and Odysseus today. Over one afternoon.”

“You’re wrong.” Quentin’s jaw hurt from how much he’d been tensing it during this conversation.

“I really don’t think I am.”

“We’re friends,” Quentin said again, shaking his head, desperate for that strange, painful tugging in his chest to go away. “Unless he said something to you that you’re not telling me?”

(And honestly, fuck him for having any sliver of hope regarding her answer. Goddammit.)

“Not directly,” Julia said with a shrug, making Quentin sigh and dismiss anything further she had to say. “But I have functioning senses, Q. You make him laugh.”

Quentin ran his hand through his hair, desperate for a cigarette, “Because he thinks I’m a nerd.”

“No, Q,” Julia shook her head seriously. “You make him laugh. Sparkle-eyed kind of laugh.”

“I think you’re seeing what you want to see,” Quentin said, pushing hope down and down and down until it was gone. “Can you just, like, trust my instincts here?”

“Only if you promise me you’ll trust your own too,” Julia said, firmly. “I know that’s hard for you, but—”

“Jules,” Quentin said, taking her hand. He took a deep breath and reminded himself that she came from a place of love. Stubborn, annoying love. But love. “I have this under control, okay? I know what I know. And it’s not like I’m in love with him. It’s an attraction. It will pass.”

“And for him?” Julia asked, pressing her lips together. “I think you’re underestimating—”

“I’m not. It’s, uh, non-existent,” Quentin said, his heart tugging down into that pit of pain. Much as he fantasized, he knew the truth of it. He still had no illusions. Eliot was forever and always in a fundamentally different category than he was. “Please trust that I know this.”

Julia bit her lip and stared at Quentin for a moment, a thousand more arguments passing over her eyes. But whether she decided she agreed or she sensed the seriousness in Quentin’s tone, she ultimately nodded, reluctantly.

“As long as you promise me that you won’t always assume the worst, Q,” Julia said, squeezing his hand back. “And that you’ll remember to choose happiness, like you fucking said you would.”

“I’ve been more than doing that, Jules,” Quentin said, at once reassuring and defensive. “I’m healthier than I’ve been in a long time.”

“I know,” Julia clarified quickly. “But I think you might be ready to level up. That’s all I mean. And sometimes that takes a few scary leaps here and there.”

“Jules—”

“Just don’t get in your own way, okay?” She said, begging him with her eyes. “You have a habit of doing that. It’s not good for you or the people who get caught in your wake. You're my priority, but I care about Eliot here too.”

Quentin felt a surge of affection for Julia as her tiny hand encased his own again. She really wanted the best for him, always. She really believed he was worthy of everything he’d always thought was an impossibility. Without her love and support over the years, he would be no one and nothing. He might even be dead, in an incredibly serious way. Quentin appreciated every single thing she did for him and all the ways she believed in him, even when he couldn’t manage it himself. So while she was wrong about this—about Eliot, about him, and Eliot-and-him, his pained heart thudded—he couldn’t fault her for being the tenaciously loving friend she’d always been.

So he nodded, more to assure her than anything else. It must have satisfied her, though, because she stroked his cheek and turned back to the large scale painting of the young martyr. Quentin let out a labored breath that he’d apparently been holding under all his tension and leaned back on the bench, forever lost in thought.

“Hey Jules,” Quentin said, gazing at her as a new thought suddenly crossed his mind, completely unbidden and free in its organic strangeness and truth. She smiled back at him.

“Hm?” Julia hummed out, leaning into his shoulder.

“Why the fuck haven’t I needed a haircut in over six months?” He asked accusingly, crossing his arms. She immediately blanched.

“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Julia stood up abruptly, walking ahead. “Let’s get going. I think we have time to check out the Egyptian permanent.”

“Jules.”

“It’s a minor enchantment, Q. God.”

 


 

It was a nondescript Monday morning, and Quentin was running late. He’d been up until two, burning the midnight-plus oil in preparation for a few tests he had later in the week. And now, he paid for it, as he ran his hand down his exhausted and haggard face. Rolling groggily out of bed, he glanced quickly in the mirror and pressed his hand once, twice against his messy hair and threw on a crumpled shirt, hoodie, and jeans from the floor, after they more or less passed a brief sniff test. Messenger bag slung across his chest, he pushed his way into the hallway, still twisting his foot into his scuffed black boot. He stumbled his way down the stairs, with the singular goal of reaching the kitchen for a cup of hot coffee before his first class.

But when he reached the dining room, he was surprised at both the sweetly spiced scent wafting from the door frame, as well as the two familiar voices emanating from inside.

“Jesus Christ, it looks like goddamn Florida exploded in here.”

“It’s a theme, Margo.”

“Just fucking bang already, Eliot, for fuck’s sake.”

As he stepped through the door, Quentin could kind of see what Margo meant in regard to the Sunshine State, as seemingly hundreds of discarded orange peels laid scattered about the counters, with their juice and pulp in various bowls. He wasn’t going to complain though, since apparently his favorite fruit was one of Eliot’s favorites to cook and bake with.

“Who’s banging who?” Quentin asked before Eliot could respond, leaning against the kitchen door. Margo rolled her eyes.

“No one ever, apparently,” she grumbled and Eliot pointed at her warningly with his whisk before turning all his attention back to extracting egg whites into the small silver bowl in front of him.

“Morning, Q,” Eliot said, over his back. “Breakfast abounds.”

Quentin looked to his left and saw a platter of large, freshly baked muffins and he took Eliot’s word at their availability. He took a large bite of the still-warm pastry and practically moaned.

“Shit, what’s the occasion?” Quentin asked, his mouth full. Of course, it was delicious. It was filled with some kind of candied citrus and the glaze was chocolate-orange, like the Christmastime delicacies he grew up with. When he raised his eyebrows at Margo to indicate its tastiness, she snorted and laughed, like she was in on some joke that was far above his sensibilities.

“Joie de vivre,” Eliot said, turning to face Quentin as he balanced the bowl in the air kinetically. His eyes glanced up with a grin as he started whipping up a frenzy. “Coffee’s on too.”

With a nod of thanks, Quentin walked over to the cabinet and grabbed a nondescript black mug, before filling it nearly to the brim with the dark brown liquid that fueled his soul. But before he could reach out to the refrigerator for his usual cream, Margo slid off the counter with a sly smile at Quentin, touching his arm.

“Well, I guess that’s my cue,” she said, almost like she was teasing. But Quentin didn’t really get the joke. “Or Eliot’s, as the case may be.”

“Huh?” Quentin asked. Eliot, though, shot her a sharp look that he didn’t quite understand. Quentin had given up on trying to understand their strange shorthand months prior.

“I have to go kick out Blaine or Blake or who the fuck ever from my bed,” Margo finally responded, yawning and rolling her hand in the air like she was bored.

“You let someone sleep in your bed?” Quentin asked, actually pretty surprised.

“Sometimes a bitch needs a cuddle,” Margo said with a shrug before she slowly caressed Quentin’s arm, like she was both petting and threatening him, all in her usual way. “Enjoy your Martha Stewart cosplay, boys.”

“If you’re in a bad mood because you’re hungry, darling, grab a snack on your way out,” Eliot said, his voice sharp as that look.

“I’m never in a bad mood,” Margo said with a wink. She dragged her eyes back to Quentin and smirked. “By the way, has anyone ever told you that your bedhead is adorable, Coldwater?”

“Uh, definitely not,” Quentin said, grabbing another muffin. He’d devoured the first one in less than three bites, like an animal. He felt no regret.

“Well, someone really should,” Margo said with a tinkling laugh, ruffling said hair as she finally left the kitchen. Meanwhile, Eliot continued whipping the egg whites, peaks forming as he violently beat the whisk around the metal bowl. Quentin finally grabbed the cream and walked over to Eliot’s side and the sugar bowl.

“Try the coffee without your usual deluge of accoutrements this time,” Eliot said with a faint grin. “It’s good stuff.”

Quentin made a disgusted face and shuddered, “No one actually likes the taste of coffee, Eliot.”

“That’s just inaccurate, Q,” Eliot said with a sigh, as Quentin poured nearly a quarter cup of half and half into his mug, which overflowed the coffee onto the counter. Bending his torso, Quentin sipped the top of the liquid, draining out just enough that he could pick it up again. He glanced at Eliot, who was smiling down at him with a furrowed brow, like Quentin was some kind of very sweet idiot.

“I like cream,” Quentin said defensively and Eliot immediately snorted.

“Far too easy,” he said with a lewd wink. “I prefer a challenge.”

Quentin flipped him off and Eliot placed the egg whites down, crossing his arms and leaning into Quentin’s space cheekily, his back pressed against the counter. He held up a small goat cheese canapé in the air and handed it to Quentin, who downed it in one delicious bite. He gave Eliot a thumbs up, which pleased him, if the expression on his face was any indication.

“Anyway, don’t mean to dine and dash,” Quentin said, using the elbow of his hoodie to wipe up the last of the spilled coffee, to Eliot’s demonstrable chagrin. “But I’ve got PA in, like, fifteen.”

But then, Eliot’s hand was on his wrist and Quentin’s lungs stopped working.

“May I suggest an alternate proposal?” Eliot asked, his voice softer than usual. Quentin wanted to say that he could suggest fucking anything and he would follow suit without question, but thankfully he kept his shit together.

“Um, what?” Quentin managed to get out instead.

“Use your absences today.” The light in his smile was the east and Eliot was the sun. “You can feast on the fruits of my labor and then we’ll spend the rest of this beautiful day nursing a bottle of vihno verde.”

Goddamn if that wasn’t the most appealing suggestion anyone had ever made to Quentin in the entirety of his twenty-three years. But he hadn’t used any absences yet. Not for his mental health, not when he had bronchitis, and not even for his dad’s sickness. Using three separate absences for three classes on one day for the sake of frivolity with Eliot felt—really fucking right, yet it would probably be the worst decision he could make. It was right. It was wrong. It was wrong. He knew better.

“I mean, that sounds fun,” Quentin said, understating. “But—”

“Stop getting in your head,” Eliot smirked, returning to his prep work. “Live a little.”

And another out-of-body experience overtook Quentin—one of those ones that seemed to be coming more and more frequently around Eliot—as his mouth said the words his brain fought valiantly and futilely against.

“You know what?” Quentin dropped his messenger bag onto the floor and grinned. “Sure. Fuck it.”

This was clearly not the reaction Eliot actually expected. He froze, holding a bowl suspended in midair, and laughed, blinking back his shock. His eyes crinkled in that strange way they sometimes did and he smiled, half-amused and half—

Well, half something Quentin really didn’t recognize and probably never would.

In any case, Eliot seemed pleased yet unenthused with the turn of events, as he returned to his work, the smile not fading. Quentin leaned back against the counter, grabbing the sugar bowl and emptying three tablespoons into it. Eliot’s smile immediately disappeared and he rolled his eyes, hard.

“You’re going to get diabetes,” he said, grumbling.

“Thanks, Mom,” Quentin sipped his caffeine—which tasted way fucking better now because, seriously, coffee was always astringent as hell—and hopped up to sit on the counter. He leveled Eliot with a blank stare. “Uh, I was promised food.”

“Hold your goddamn horses.”

 


 

Brakebills scheduled a rain on a Friday and it made the Cottage especially cramped when classes were let out for the day. It was always the best place on campus, but it was especially the coziest place and it was like a beacon to anyone drenched and cold from the pounding storm outside. Normally, the additional layers to the post-school crowd would have made Quentin feel itchy and overwhelmed. But on that day, he barely even noticed the influx.

He sat on the floor, propped against the back of one of the couches with a drink between his legs and five cards in his hands. Next to him, Eliot coolly considered his own five cards before taking a small sip of some fancy gin drink he’d made and placing them down, fanned out. Quentin frowned a little at the straight. It was a good hand. The best one Eliot had shown yet, which was clear in the pleased look in his eyes.

So, naturally, Quentin smirked as he casually put down his own four of a kind and Eliot’s face narrowed into a deep glare.

“You’re cheating,” he said, snapping his drink to his mouth in a huff.

“Once again, I am not fucking cheating,” Quentin scooped all the cards up again and deftly shuffled them in a single, magical moment. “Is it really that crazy that I’m better at something than you?

Eliot paused, bringing his lips together for a moment. Then, he smiled.

“You’re cheating.”

Quentin flicked a single card at Eliot’s face, “You’re a funny guy.”

“Deal again,” Eliot tapped a finger on the floorspace between them. “But I’m keeping my eye on you, Coldwater.”

Quentin reshuffled the cards, partially to prove that he was indeed properly shuffling and partially because there was still nothing more delightfully thrilling than his sleight-of-hand magic tricks with his favorite deck. But before he could distribute a new game, his shoulder was slammed with the weight of someone dropping between him and Eliot with a loud huff. Eliot’s drink tipped over slightly against the movement and he swiftly steadied it, only losing a few splashes.

“Excuse me?” Eliot said to the intruder with a real glare, much angrier than any he'd turned on Quentin in months. Kady Orloff-Diaz looked behind her shoulder at him with a tense smirk, as she scooted her way back more solidly and, honestly, rudely. Quentin blinked, entirely unsure what to make of her appearance. They weren’t friends. At all. Like, at all.

“Sorry,” Kady barely said to Eliot, sounding exactly the opposite. “But I need to talk to Quentin.”

Quentin brought his eyebrows together, deeply confused. And Eliot was busying himself with the forgotten cards, in that way of his that indicated his attentions were a misdirection. Kady was on thin ice.

“Um, you know I’m Quentin, right?” He asked, in case she was thinking of someone else. Kady rolled her eyes and nodded. He cleared his throat, anxiety piquing. “Just checking.”

“You’re friends with Julia,” Kady said, obviously more than a little annoyed to be speaking to him. “And I was just hoping I could get your take on this whole clusterfuck.”

She indicated herself shakily and Quentin squinted his eyes.

“Meaning, what?” He asked, genuinely not knowing what she was talking about. She blanched and made a face.

“Fucking seriously, dude?” Kady crossed her arms. “Are you really that much of a self-absorbed little twit?”

“Your name’s Kady, right?” Eliot asked, all false calm, plucking a card from the ground and holding it up to the light, like he was still checking for Quentin’s cheats. He knew exactly what her name was. But she nodded again, her nose wrinkled in annoyance.

“Well, Kady, apologies if I’m misreading your tone,” Eliot smiled like a sneer. “But it sounds like you’re trying to ask our Q here for his help.”

“Yeah, but—”

Eliot brought his eyes back down to hers, warning and sharp, “So maybe consider that in your next sentence.”

It was sometimes still strange to be firmly on the other side of Eliot’s inner circle, but Quentin wasn’t about to complain.

“Fine,” Kady said, swallowing probably all of her pride. “I need help. You’re Julia’s best friend. She respects your opinion above every other damn person here, for some reason, even though you clearly can’t be bothered to know anything about her fucking life—“

Quentin cut her off, channeling his own inner Eliot.

“I know the important things,” he said, glaring right back at her. Eliot’s face broke out widely and he mouthed Well done behind Kady’s curly head. Quentin’s lips trembled with the urge to smile proudly but he kept his face resolute.

“I’m in love with her, man,” Kady said, her eyes dropping. “And I think even Penny is too, in his own fucked up way. But, like, we’re all handling it so badly and I don’t know how to make her see.”

“Have you told her?” Quentin asked, like it was the most obvious thing in the world. Kady scoffed, like it was the most absurd thing in the world.

“What?”

“Have you used your words and told her?” Quentin spoke to her like she was a child and immediately regretted it, since the flash in her eyes was decidedly violent. She would definitely have no qualms about punching him in the face. He knew this because he’d seen her punch at least three people in the face for much lesser crimes.

“Fuck off, it’s not that easy,” Kady said, her voice hitching a little under all her bravado. It almost made Quentin sympathetic, if Kady and Penny hadn’t always been the worst two people on campus. He knew they mattered to Julia, in some capacity, but there was a reason they didn’t talk about it. They were the starkest reminders that Quentin was still a weak part of the herd and that there were people in the world who would hate him just for being him.

“Sure it is,” Quentin said, terse. “So if there’s nothing else—”

“No, it’s not,” Eliot’s low voice came as a surprise source of opposition. He was swirling his drink, staring down at the liquid, lost in thought. “Besides, words are meaningless. It’s our actions that define us.”

It was the same thing he’d said to Quentin when they stole the solar system. It made him smile, even though Eliot was wrong.

“Maybe, but actions can be misinterpreted,” Quentin said with a shrug and Eliot’s face went strangely dark, still unmoving.

“So can words,” Eliot said.

“How the fuck could she misinterpret ‘I’m in love with you?’” Quentin laughed a little and shook his head. “It’s as straightforward as you can get.”

“Because it can mean something different to different people,” Eliot said, looking back up at Quentin, arguing urgently. “If Kady really cares about Julia—if she really wants to create something real with her—she has to make her feel it. To show her how much it all actually matters, in a way that’s lasting. That’s how it will fall in place, when it’s supposed to.”

Kady cocked a single eyebrow at that.

“Saying ‘I love you’ seems like a slightly easier path to get there,” Quentin said, enjoying the artful tennis of debating with a professional. But Eliot frantically shook his head all the harder, his voice higher and more teetering than usual, his points less practically persuasive.

“Easy is not the goddamn point,” he said, his eyes darting around the room as he thought through what he was trying to say. “The words are cheaper than what they’re building.”

“Huh?” Kady asked, her bright red lip rising over her teeth. But Eliot ignored her, grabbing his drink and taking a long sip, before continuing.

“I mean, what the fuck could words possibly mean compared to all of her other efforts?” Eliot set his mouth in a line. “She’s trying to prove herself here, Q.”

“What the hell are you talking about?” Kady asked, scratching her head. “We barely know each other.”

“Do you want help or not?” Eliot asked, annoyed and barely looking at her. She shrugged.

“Unclear at this point, man,” Kady said dryly.

“Well, I know Julia,” Quentin said, self-congratulatory at his easy final word. “She’s like me. She’s a straight-shooter.”

Eliot’s jaw tensed so hard Quentin thought it might break. He really didn’t like being wrong. But then, Eliot brought his lips together, before looking at Quentin through his eyelashes, searching his face. He was going for a final Hail Mary pass of some kind.

“But Julia has to know, even deep down, how Kady feels,” Eliot said, his voice a little thick. “She’s not stupid, Quentin.”

A few beats of silence passed between the three of them, as Quentin considered the point. But then, he shook his head. If Julia knew that Kady loved her, it would have come up. And Julia was obsessed with talking about every thought she’d ever had about every emotion she’d ever had. If she even suspected that Kady loved her, it would have come up. But it had never come up.

“I mean, maybe, but she’s never said anything to me,” Quentin said, shuffling the deck of cards lightly, thoughtfully. “So probably not.”

Eliot’s mouth fell open. Then he clenched down on his teeth, without a clear impetus. He shook his head again, ending the debate the way he always did if he didn’t prevail—without another word. Albeit, Quentin noted, he was maybe a little more frustrated than usual. But honestly, it hadn’t been his best performance.

Kady, though, stood up harshly and pointed between them, stomping her feet.

“Okay, this is obviously some other weird thing,” she said with a characteristic huff. “I’ll figure it out my damn self. Thanks for nothing, losers.”

She left as quickly as she came, spilling Quentin's drink in her graceless wake. Eliot followed her with his eyes, at once angry and still pensive, like she'd terribly interrupted him and yet caused a chain reaction, something undefinable. With a shrug, Quentin reached over and grabbed Eliot's drink, sipping from it.

“What’s up her butt?” Quentin asked, as he passed out the cards out again. And Eliot burst out laughing.

 


 

Every now and then, Josh Hoberman enthusiastically took over the music at the Cottage. As the creator and purveyor of the best intoxicants on campus, Josh wielded an inordinate amount of power and even Margo and Eliot would allow him a certain amount of leeway and control when he was high and in the mood to listen to extremely particular music. Occasionally, this led to strange evenings, like his famed 12-hour John Denver Extravaganza which ended with Margo bodily forcing him out the front door with a crazed scream, all to the dulcet tones of “Thank God I’m a Country Boy.”

But luckily, often, Josh’s choices fit the vibe, whether it was 90s rap or—in the case of this particular Sunday night, mere weeks before the end of term—pop and disco hits of the very early 1980s. It was a soothing choice, lighthearted and mindless, which was exactly what Quentin Coldwater needed, after a particularly harrowing and exasperating day with his sick father. That, along some wine and some particularly light-hearted company, lifted his spirits in a way he’d thought impossible when he’d first walked through the door, a full two hours later than his typical return.

Todd had immediately grabbed Quentin when he walked in and scurried him over to the couch, to show him a comic book...of, well, something or other. Quentin’s brain was too distracted, too sad, and too furious at himself to strictly pay attention, but he genuinely appreciated Todd’s brightness on that particular day. So he nodded along, comforted in the friendship, if not actually able to engage.

Eventually, though, the wine hit his nervous system and Quentin relaxed, just in time for the conversation to turn to the music and Josh and The Buggles, rather hilariously.

“This is my favorite song of all time,” Todd said happily, pointing up at the sound system. Quentin immediately grinned.

“‘Video Killed the Radio Star?’ Seriously?” He asked, hopefully not unkindly. Luckily, Todd nodded with enthusiasm, his eyes wide and smile wider.

“Totally, man,” Todd said. “It’s such a classic. Always puts me in a good mood.”

“You are a good mood, Todd,” Quentin said, finishing his drink in a single gulp. Todd somehow smiled even more, in a way that Quentin had never smiled in his entire life. It was nice to be around.

“New wave is underrated,” Todd said. “But it’s raring for a real comeback. You can mark down the date and time I said it. Today and now.”

“I’ll inform your biographer,” Quentin said with a laugh. Todd clapped him on the back, the way the two of them always did, and smiled again, down to his toes.

“On that note, I’m going to grab a beer from the kitchen,” he said, half-standing before politely turning to Quentin. “Need anything?”

Quentin shook his head and laughed again as Todd sauntered off, practically skipping in his carefree enjoyment of the world. He was a goddamn fucking delight.

With a sigh, Quentin let himself fall back against the couch cushions, the shittiness of the day hitting him again. Todd was easily distracted and so likely wouldn’t be heading back anytime soon, and Quentin’s natural introversion warred with his desire not to be alone with his thoughts in that particular moment. He considered getting up and joining Todd—and whoever Todd would end up engaged in some lively conversation with—in an attempt to be a normally functioning person. It sounded at once appealing and tedious, lending itself to true uncertainty. But in the end, the decision didn’t need to be made, when within seconds,  Todd’s spot was occupied again.

Eliot was smiling down at him, settling into the couch.

“Technically, I don’t allow beer in the house,” he said, stretching his arm along the back of the cushions. “Your little buddy is dancing a dangerous tango.”

“And you give a shit because...?” Quentin asked with a chuckle. Eliot leveled him with a devastating stare.

“Decency, Coldwater.”

“Right, yeah, the biggest worry of the Hedonist,” Quentin said, rolling his eyes with a smile which Eliot returned with a wink. But then Quentin looked at him more seriously, still internally annoyed at Eliot’s stubbornness. “You know you don’t have to, like, hover when I’m talking to Todd. You could be the social person I know you are and—“

“I never hover,” Eliot said, narrowing his eyes. “I was behind the bar and saw you all by your lonesome. Figured I’d grace you with my presence.”

“An honor, really,” Quentin smirked. “But seriously, Todd’s not the enemy.”

“I’m sure I’ll have people in my life you’re not crazy about,” Eliot said with a smirk of his own in return. “All our friends don’t have to be mutual.”

“Guess that’s fair,” Quentin said with a sad sigh that maybe belied his current inner workings a little too much. “Though I still think if you gave him a chance, you’d—”

“Q,” Eliot poured Quentin another glass of wine and handed it to him. “Leave it.”

“Fine.” Quentin took several long gulps of the newly poured alcohol, finishing it faster than Eliot poured it. He could feel the lines on his own face, deeper than usual, pained and trembling, trying to hide his day. But, of course, Eliot’s eyes were watching his every movement. And when he looked back up at him, his face was in that perfectly constructed mask. Curiosity. Not concern.

“How’s your dad?” Eliot asked carefully, shrugging when Quentin tilted his head at the question. “You were back later than usual.”

“Uh, you know,” Quentin sighed, rubbing his eyes. “They think he’ll need surgery at some point but he’s worried it’s too, um, inorganic or something?”

“Inorganic?” Eliot asked, his lips ticking down into a frown. “You never mentioned that he’s a crystals and oils kind of guy.”

“He’s not. Or he wasn’t. I don’t know,” Quentin swallowed, wishing the world would disappear for a little. “It’s a fucking mess. We fought about it and now I feel like shit for getting mad.”

“I’m sorry,” Eliot said quietly. He moved his hand to rest on the back of Quentin’s head, his thumb tracing along the nape of his neck. “That sounds rough. But remember, you’re human.”

Quentin closed his eyes, “A human who basically exploded at someone with brain cancer.”

“You’re allowed to get frustrated when something is frustrating,” Eliot said, soothing, his fingers burying into Quentin’s hair, tracing along his skull. It felt familiar. It felt comforting. It felt good.

“My frustrations don’t really mean anything, though,” Quentin said, bringing his hands to his eyes. “I’m not the one who might be dying. I need to keep my shit together.”

“All I’m saying is cut yourself slack,” Eliot said plainly, before affixing Quentin with as gentle a look as he’d ever seen. “God knows you deserve it.”

Slightly drunk and bone tired, Quentin rested his head against the solid call of Eliot’s arm and was pleasantly warmed when Eliot smoothly slid his arm fully around his back, squeezing Quentin closer and then onto his chest.

“Mmm,” Quentin hummed. “Long day.”

“Apparently,” Eliot’s voice was low and soft, his fingers moving on Quentin’s shoulder. “It’s a good thing your best friend Alcohol is always here for you.”

“My truest stalwart, that Alcohol,” Quentin laughed, and he felt Eliot’s rib cage rumble with a chuckle too. He sighed again and closed his eyes. “Fuck, today sucked.”

They sat there in silence for a second longer, when Eliot dipped his head, placing a featherlight kiss on Quentin’s hairline. His lips barely touched Quentin’s skin for a few more moments, until he sighed—soft and sure—and rested his cheek against the top of Quentin’s head. And immediately, Quentin's chest constricted with all the heat and ache and longing he suppressed every second of every day.

It wasn’t fair. Eliot was trying to be comforting. God knew that Quentin had seen Eliot kiss Margo or Julia a thousand times before. It was so obviously only meant as a friendly, gentle affection, like the entirety of their friendship. And fucking hell, that friendship meant a lot to Quentin. It meant so much. It wasn't fair of him to put anything more on it, on either of them. So, looking up at Eliot, hazy and handsome in the dim Cottage light, TADA reflected in his pupils, Quentin breathed out slowly, resisting the urge to reach up and stroke his cheek.

Quentin needed him to know. He needed him to know how much he fucking—

How much Eliot’s friendship meant to him.

“Hey,” Quentin said, pulling himself up closer to Eliot’s face. “Hey.”

“Hey yourself,” Eliot said, his eyes dark green and intense on Quentin’s shifting face.

“I—uh, I just wanted to say that’s it’s actually you,” Quentin said, smiling, catching his eyes.

“It’s actually me...?” Eliot breathed his question out. He didn’t break eye contact and his eyebrows crinkled a little. Quentin’s heart lurched as a soft smile played on Eliot’s lips. Fuck, he was still the most beautiful man—the most beautiful person he’d ever seen in his life. Bar fucking none.

But that wasn’t the point. They were beyond. Like him and Julia. At least, that’s what he told himself, over and over and fucking over again. He couldn’t go through years of pining after something hopeless. Not again. And Eliot meant too much, had become too much to Quentin, to risk any of that with his bullshit biochemical responses.

“You’re my best friend,” Quentin said, swallowing down his deeper feelings. He leaned his head into Eliot’s shoulder again, with a small laugh. “And that’s pretty cool, I think, considering where we started.”

Time froze, as Eliot let out a catching breath, everything about the moment tensing. Quentin glanced up at him, and watched at Eliot’s tongue run over his top teeth and his eyes narrow. He still held Quentin against him, but his muscles were hard and sharp, and the movement of his fingers stopped cold.

“Best friend?” Eliot asked, his voice unrecognizable. “That’s—that’s how you feel?”

“Mmm-hmm,” Quentin said, closing his eyes, trying to enjoy Eliot’s warm chest under his cheek. “For sure.”

Eliot cleared his throat and took a long labored breath, his tongue between his teeth. He looked down at Quentin with a frown, his eyes brown again and probing, searching. He sucked his lower lip into his mouth and nodded, like he’d made a decision.

“A few weeks ago, you asked me if there was anything about my Brakebills experience I would change,” Eliot said, rough and intense. “I said no, if I recall.”

“You said regrets are for peasants,” Quentin laughed, pulling himself closer into Eliot, his nose tipsily touching his neck. Eliot tensed sharply. “Such a fucking snob.”

“In any case, I’d like to change my answer,” Eliot said, the weight of his arm pressing down on his shoulder like it was a dead stone. Quentin tried to brush off that feeling that something had shifted negatively between them, since why the fuck would that have happened?

“To?” Quentin asked, sincerely curious.

Eliot was still, like a statue. Seconds ticked by in silence and Quentin shrugged a little, certain that he’d changed his mind on answering. Wouldn’t have been the first time, since he wasn’t a huge fan of reflective conversations. And all Quentin really wanted to do was continue getting drunk, in Eliot’s arms. He was a sad, selfish man, but he was who he was. Like Popeye.

But then Eliot spoke an answer that truly surprised him.

“If I could, I would go back to when we first met and I’d be kinder to you,” he said, staring straight ahead. “I’d be your friend right off the bat.”

Quentin’s stomach jolted with an unnamed electricity.

“That’s sweet, El,” he said slowly, two minds rising in his chest. They hadn’t actually talked about this in any real way since the time Penny almost beat him up. “But not really my point. It’s not necessary.“

“It is though,” Eliot said, sharp and biting. Quentin suddenly felt like he was in a totally different conversation altogether and he peeled himself off Eliot’s body. “You’ll obviously never get past it. You won’t forget.”

“What, because I mentioned it? I’m over it—“

“No, you aren’t,” Eliot said, his face growing darker. “You and I—we’re...”

He trailed off and bit his fist, shaking his head. Grabbing the wine bottle to his left, he shakily lifted it to his face and chugged.

“Uh, thirsty?” Quentin asked, trying to joke. But Eliot continued chugging for a few moments before finishing, wiping off the excess red liquid off his mouth with the back of his hand.

“Parched,” Eliot said, growling. Then, he stared right at Quentin, a challenge in his eyes. “Admit there’s at least a part of you that will always see me as that dickhead who was rude to you.”

“I mean, I guess, insofar as it exists in my memory,” Quentin said, considering the idea. He definitely didn’t see Eliot as That Guy anymore, but it was a texture in their friendship. More like an anecdote, though, of unlikely friends. The story of the wolf and the lamb. “But El, I was trying to be sentimental here and tell you that you mean a lot to me—“

Eliot barked out a harsh laugh.

“Right, so now we braid Friendship bracelets?” He pulled himself up into a perfect posture, the muscles in his jaw rippling. Quentin’s heart sank. He’d always known that Eliot wasn’t nostalgic or softhearted. Maybe he was being stupid here, thinking that any of this would actually matter to him, in a way they could talk about.

“Maybe friendship doesn’t mean that much to you,” Quentin said, quietly. “But it means a lot to me. I haven’t been that lucky in my life.”

Eliot’s eyes fell into themselves, like a house of mirrors. They were pained and soft at once, like Quentin had never seen.

“Q,” His gaze softened even further and he tilted his head towards Quentin. “No, of course, I’m obviously honored to be your friend. But—“

“But you’re upset or guilty or what?” Quentin was getting annoyed now himself. “About a short time period that doesn’t even factor anymore? At least, not to me.”

But Eliot shook his head, his eyes darting around. He slowly turned to Quentin, wringing his hands in an unfamiliar way.

“You don’t see or—or maybe you don’t care how hard I’m trying here,” Eliot said, with a strange desperation in his voice that Quentin couldn’t place. “And I’m really trying, Q. I don’t know what more I can fucking do, to show you how much I—”

But Eliot didn’t finish his sentence. Instead, he let out a jagged breath and looked down at his lap. Quentin’s annoyance faded and he put his hand on Eliot’s knee.

“I’m sorry I brought it up, okay?” He said, but Eliot’s eyes were focused on Quentin’s hand, looking at it like it was the missing part of a riddle. “And maybe I should have been clearer about how much I appreciate that things have changed between us.”

“Q—” Eliot started, looking up at him. His eyes were wild.

“El, you’re one of my closest friends now,” Quentin said with a smile, hoping his sincerity reached him. “Isn’t that, like, the best possible outcome?”

And Eliot laughed, a small and breathless sound. He brought his hands to his lips, leaning forward on his knees.

“Right,” he said, swallowing hard and his eyes unfocused. “Right. Yeah. That’s—I can’t really argue with that.”

“Um, okay,” Quentin felt dread rise through his chest again. “Are you okay?”

Eliot’s dark eyes hit Quentin for a long moment, before his entire face smoothed out into pleasant, amused neutrality. He smiled.

“Always,” he said with a fuller laugh. His eyes were still dark, but everything else about him was light. “Sorry, I’m, uh—I’m really drunk. I also did a line of this fucking insane coke earlier. It feels incredible for about twenty minutes, but then it fucks up your emotional regulation capabilities. So, here we are.”

Ah.

“Ah,” Quentin said, breathing again. “That, uh, that makes sense.”

“Anyway, this was—” Eliot scratched his neck and smiled widely. “I, uh, I need to get back to my adoring public. I’ll see you in the morning, Q.”

“Okay,” Quentin said, as Eliot stood up and started pacing a little, before tucking the bottle of wine under his arm. He stared down at Quentin, his eyes moving over his form and his hands shaking a little.

“Take care of yourself, okay?” He said, biting the inside of his cheek, like he was going to prevent himself from laughing. But there was no hint of amusement in his features. Quentin slowly nodded, thrown from the conversation but trying to find solid ground again.

“Okay,” Quentin pressed himself back against the couch. “‘Night, El.”

He gave Quentin a brief, brilliant smile and turned on his heels, his usual elegant sway in his step. But instead of heading back to the bar, Eliot instead went up the stairs, purposeful and swift. And from underneath the 80s music, Quentin could have sworn he heard a door slam.

 


 

 tbc.

Chapter Text

 

Quentin was fine.  Everything was fine.

Really. He was totally fine. More than fine, he told himself, as he paced in the dark hallway of the upstairs Cottage. Sure, his legs were moving frantically under his torso like they were disconnected. And true, he wasn’t really sure where he was going or why he was moving so much. Sometimes when his brain cranked and churned, he needed to get some kinetic energy out. The short bursts of dashing back and forth kept his thoughts afloat and away from himself. If he stood still, they would sink into his soul or his heart, and obviously Quentin couldn’t allow that.

Not that there was anything to sink. Not this time. He was just antsy. Sometimes he could get antsy, without it meaning anything more.

Because Quentin was fine. Everything was fine.

So, okay, maybe it had been kind of a weird week.

But sometimes weeks were weird, right? Not everything had to follow an exact, prescribed pattern. His former therapist told him that often—that when he tried to control the way the world worked or the way the world was “meant” to be, that those were the times he came up against the most trouble. So he wasn’t going to do that. Not now, not this time, not with—not with anyone. Certainly not with anyone in particular.

Because no one owed him anything, right? That’s what Angela Greer, licensed therapist, had always told him, in the kindest and most professional way possible. The world didn’t owe him shit. No one did.

Also, seriously? Half the time? It was all in his head. He created phantoms everywhere, all the time. His brain was broken. And that was yet another reason why Quentin was fine. Because, most likely, everything was fine. Historically and rationally speaking.

He scratched the inside of his palms and tensed his jaw. He paced to the left. He paced to the right.

But still, if anything wasn’t fine—you know, hypothetically speaking—Quentin was pretty sure he could trace it back to the day after he fought with his dad. Which again, nothing was wrong and everything was fine, so it was a pointless exercise.

But still. No reason not to reassure himself, right?

Right.

So.

It had been a Monday. A fucking hungover as shit Monday.

He took a slow shower that morning, his body aching. He threw up once. His bright purple veins, oddly visible under his skin, definitely told the story of an unhealthy coping mechanism. His heart was pained that day, both from severe dehydration and an intangibility he still didn’t understand. He felt guilty, like he’d done something wrong. Which, yeah, he’d yelled at his dad only one day prior, which was more than enough to fill his guilt goblet for decades. But even outside that whole clusterfuck, he felt distinctly like he was missing the key piece to a large-scale puzzle, without which the whole picture was invisible.

The shower water dripped clear and cold on his head, and Quentin thought of Jane going to solve The Mosaic. He thought of her deep disappointment that she never even got to try. He related.

After towel-drying his hair and putting on his usual T-shirt and hoodie uniform, Quentin walked downstairs and headed over to the couches, like he did every morning. Letting out a gasping breath he didn’t know he’d held, Quentin had been desperately relieved to see Eliot, like always, sitting with his eyes closed and sipping from a thermos. The normalcy was a godsend. But the relief turned cold the closer he came to his friend’s still and silent form.

Because Eliot? Eliot looked like shit.

Of course, he was still Eliot, effortless in his radiating charisma and goddamn natural beauty. But even Quentin couldn’t deny the haggard dark circles under his eyes or that he was scandalously unshaven. His dark stubble was attractive, in a deeply masculine way that sent a shock through his spine. But it was mostly jarring, in its uncharacteristic lack of care. He decided to tread lightly though, since pointing the change out would most likely result in some form of emotional freeze or even possible bodily harm. Eliot wasn’t violent, but Margo was. He wasn’t stupid.

“Morning,” Quentin said with a light throat clear. Eliot’s eyes slowly opened and Quentin threw his bag over his shoulder with a shake in his hands. “Did you sleep as shittily as me?”

“Shittier,” Eliot said, voice low. His lips held the ghost of a smile and it sent a spike of anxiety right to Quentin’s chest. But then Eliot handed him a large covered mug and the familiar action soothed him. “One hangover coffee, freshly brewed.”

“Fuck. Shit. Thank you,” Quentin guzzled it down. “You’re the best.”

“As one strives,” Eliot said, elegantly standing and maneuvering his way toward the door. Quentin scurried after him, despite his untied Converse, when an unrecognizable sense memory swayed him. The scent of flowers wafted from Eliot’s drink.

“Shit, what’s that?” He asked, pointing. Eliot shrugged. “Smells incredible. Let me—“

Quentin casually reached for the thermos, with a friendly and accustomed ease. But Eliot snatched it out of his fingers with a strangled sound.

“That’s mine,” Eliot snapped with a true fury. He marched purposefully ahead of Quentin, like he’d tried to steal his soul. “Won’t help you.”

They didn’t speak again the rest of the day. And nothing really improved after that.

Over the next five days, Eliot was in and out of the Cottage, his patterns changed. One second, everything would be as it always was—they’d drink a cocktail or smoke cigarettes, talking and laughing in that incredibly comfortable and soul-lightening way Quentin lived for. But then the next, Eliot was gone. He wouldn’t be in the dining room at dinner time. Or he would be wrapped in an unbreakable conversation when Quentin would come over to his side after class. Or Quentin would catch his eye and wave, only for Eliot to simply disappear. This repeated until things went back to normal, for a few moments, until they weren’t, again.

Quentin took a long, shallow breath and stopped his pacing, his hands a little numb.

He was being an egoist. He was catastrophizing, as Eliot would say.

It was true that they were friends. They were even very good friends. And they definitely spent a lot of time together. But that didn’t mean there weren’t going to be natural differences or variations in their time together. Quentin wasn’t owed Eliot’s constant attention or even a permanence in their routine. He didn’t expect that from Julia, right? Ergo, it was unfair of him to expect it from Eliot.

So Quentin was fine. Eliot was fine. Everything was fine.

…But still.

Quentin figured it didn’t hurt to knock on Eliot’s door, rather than pacing around like a nervy creepazoid. It would definitely make him feel better, to know that everything really was fine. Also, Eliot had offered to lend Quentin a few formulations he’d developed, which were applicable to a class he was struggling in. Knocking made total sense. Way more sense than not knocking, really.

He stopped in front of the door and his body froze in knocking position. Two familiar voices seeped through the wood, an intense conversation plain to hear. Quentin blanched when he realized that someone had forgotten to put up a privacy ward. Sucking his lower lip between his teeth, he knew he shouldn’t listen, but…well, honestly, he was only human.

“Let it go,” Eliot’s muffled voice barely came through. “It’s done. It is what it is.”

“Repeating that like a fucking mantra helps nothing, Eliot,” Margo said, her sharper tone easier to hear. “He needs his head pulled out of his ass and if you’d just let me—“

“Don’t you dare,” he said, calm but deadly. “I mean it. It’s done.”

“Only because you’re choosing to be all woe-is-me instead of doing something about it,” Margo was the vocal embodiment of sassy hands on sassy hips. “I know you think he’s smart, but I am telling you that he is a goddamn moron.”

“He’s not a moron. Don’t call him that.”

“Fine, he’s an idiot, then,” Margo’s mocking laughter imbued her every syllable. “Come on. You know he’s nothing but a stupid little ball of wet dreams and nervous—”

“Enough, Margo,” Eliot said, cutting through her words in a command. “Stop.”

“Sweetie, all I’m saying is that you need to get out of this funk,” Margo’s voice transitioned to something firm and sympathetic. Quentin could imagine her long fingernails running through Eliot’s curled hair. “You’re Eliot Waugh. There’s no world where you don’t hold the cards.”

Quentin instinctually agreed. But Eliot didn’t respond and Margo sighed, dramatically and loudly. Feeling too much like a voyeur and an obviously unwelcome one at that, Quentin pressed his knuckles to the door in two quick successive beats. Then he cleared his throat.

“Uh, hey, El?” He asked lightly and he heard quick-paced shuffling before Margo swung the door open, glaring at him. She had been snippy with him lately, like he was an annoying gnat rather than one of her closest friends. Which, again, sometimes these things happened, right?

“How long have you been there?” She asked, demanding.

Quentin shrugged and lied, “Like, right now?”

Margo narrowed her eyes deeper, “Don’t be creepy.”

“How am I being creepy?” Quentin gulped. Margo opened her mouth threateningly, but Eliot cut her off before she could answer.

“What’s up, Q?”

Eliot was lying prone on his bed and sounded like Quentin was the chore he’d been putting off. Quentin blinked back the fleeting nausea his tone incited and cleared his throat again, keeping his intrusion practical and to the point. Obviously, Eliot had some shit going on. It happened. Not everything was about him, as Julia and Angela Greer both ruthlessly reminded him from time to time.

“Sorry to interrupt,” Quentin said, stepping through the threshold and rubbing his neck. “But you said I could borrow your Herbalism notes?”

“Shit, yeah,” Eliot sat up and ran his fingers through his hair, pulling himself over to his small bookshelf filled with notebooks. He plucked a deep purple one out of the grouping. “Sorry. Forgot.”

“Didn’t expect it to be top of mind,” Quentin said, shrugging and taking it out of Eliot’s hands. “And don’t worry, I know the punishment will be merciless if I reveal to anyone you’ve ever given a shit about schoolwork.”

“These are actually my personal notes,” Eliot said with an easy tone that belied the hollowness in his features. “My reputation remains.”

“Still,” Quentin smiled. “Effort, right?”

For a moment, Eliot caught his eyes and the world fell away with his soft grin. But it crashed back a moment later, and Quentin tried not to be perplexed about the quick quirk of Eliot’s eyebrows and his obvious avoidance of eye contact. He was in the middle of something with Margo. That’s all. Not everything was about him.

Everything was fine.

“Well, uh, I’ll get out of your hair,” Quentin said, awkwardly patting the book. “Thanks.”

Eliot flicked his eyes back down to Quentin and nodded, something pained etched all over his face. Quentin smiled again, wavering in his desire to leave. But he backed up into the corner of the door frame, hitting his funny bone. With a sharp hiss, he rubbed his elbow and cursed under his breath.

“Oh, Jesus Christ,” Margo said, rolling her eyes. Quentin looked at her, eyebrows furrowed. She put her hands on her hips and snarled her lips. “Just fucking leave, Quentin.”

Eliot laid back down on the bed, his hand over his forehead, like Quentin was already gone. Sighing out all the frustration caught in his sternum, Quentin bit down on his tongue so hard it bled. Both Margo and Eliot were often incomprehensible on a good day. And this? Well, this was obviously not a good day.

“You know what?” Quentin said, matching her tone. “Fucking gladly, Margo.”

He heard Margo protest his insolence with a shrill swear word or two, but he didn’t care. Not giving another second to whatever the fuck was happening behind him, Quentin shut the door forcefully.

Everything was fine.

Everything was fine.

 


 

Quentin had forgoten all about Guillermo until a dark new Saturday came along. It was only a week from the end of term and the air danced with a swooping thrill. Margo and Eliot tittered amongst themselves, preparing an onslaught of cocktails, drugs, and sex toys for the arrival of the mysterious stranger.

Guillermo was a Brakebills graduate, several years prior. He was a born and bred Spaniard, from the Basque region, and he was—in their terms—the sexiest man either of them had ever met. Margo in particular rhapsodized poetically, throwing herself over Quentin’s lap as she recounted the numerous ways Guillermo had, well, uh, pleasured her during the week of Encanto Oculto. He was a maven, a maverick, a king under the sheets, and the very sparkle of the sun, as they told it. With each adulating word they spoke, Quentin felt smaller and smaller, like he couldn’t stop drinking impossible potions to shrink himself down to nothing.

“You’d think Guillermo would be unable to live up to our expectations,” Margo said, her hand wrapped around Quentin’s neck like an affectionate chokehold. “But I actually truly believe he’ll exceed them.”

“Why are you even telling me this?” Quentin asked, sincerely disinterested, and Margo shrugged.

“It’s important you know,” she said, pursing her lips. “Now go the fuck away. We’re busy.”

For once, Quentin didn’t argue. He lost himself in a book on the couch in the main living room and stayed there for hours, as far as he could get—mentally, if not physically—from the elaborate plans in motion. Technically, he knew this day would come, even if he forgot. And he’d certainly seen Eliot and Margo around their fair share of beautiful sex objects, surviving the ordeal each time. So even if he didn’t personally enjoy the anticipatory vibe, it would all be fine.

(Because everything was fine.)

But in the hours before Guillermo was set to arrive, Eliot was frantic, moving through the house in a frenzied mire. He tried on several different outfits, shouting at Margo to confirm their elegance and attractiveness. Which she did, albeit mostly with blasé shrugs. He stormed back into the living room, holding two shirts out at her with a forceful thrust.

“Blue or green?” Eliot asked, annoyed.

“Who cares?” Margo said, raising a single eyebrow. “He’s hot, but you’re hotter. You can wear whatever the fuck you want.”

“I care, Bambi,” Eliot insisted, shaking the shirts firmly in her face. But Margo sighed and looked over at Quentin, a devious idea percolating on her delicate features. He brought his book up closer to his nose in protest.

“What do you think, Quentin?” She asked, her mouth curling up oddly. “Does Eliot look better in blue or green?”

A rush of annoyance fell through him, “Oh, are you talking to me now?”

“What?” Margo asked harshly. Eliot paused to glance back and forth between them. Quentin rolled his eyes, still trying to hide his face behind the book.

“It seemed like you weren’t really talking to me before,” Quentin said, trying not to sound too angry. But honestly, Margo had been kind of an ass lately. “So I’m just clarifying.”

“I’ll talk to you whenever I fucking want to talk to you,” Margo said, putting her hands on her hips in her most violent stance. “Answer the goddamn question.”

“Bambi,” Eliot said, almost warningly, though he was engrossed in the contrasting details of the two shirts. At the moment, he was considering the differences in their buttons like they were some kind of embedded code.

“I think Eliot doesn’t give a shit what I think,” Quentin said, keeping his eyes firmly on the page. He’d read the same paragraph three times.

What he said was probably true; guys like Eliot didn’t take fashion advice from guys like Quentin. But in response, Eliot threw a red argyle sock at him. The long stretch of fabric landed right on his head, the heel dipping onto his nose. Peeling it off, Quentin blinked and met his stern gaze.

“I welcome all opinions,” Eliot said tightly, crossing his arms. The shirts flapped over his elbows like flags. “Even ones that will probably be horribly wrong.”

“Uh, then green,” Quentin said, shrugging. He didn’t even have to think about it. “You look better in green.”

“Why is that?” Margo asked, the upturn of her mouth growing further into her cheeks. “Show your work, Coldwater.”

“He obviously answered randomly,” Eliot said a frustrated sound from the back of his throat. Then he fanned the shirts back out at her, like two pom-poms. “Pick one or I’m going to lose my shit.”

For once, though, Eliot was wrong. Quentin shook his head, tossing the sock onto Eliot’s shoulder in retaliation. He smirked at the glare he received and shrugged. The truth was, Eliot absolutely looked better in green than blue.  Eliot actually looked better in green than any other color, even if he looked fantastic in literally every color.

“No, uh, I said green because of your eyes,” Quentin said, clarifying. Eliot blinked and he slowly pulled the sock down into his pile of clothes, never moving his gaze from Quentin’s form.

“My eyes?” Eliot asked, quieter than usual. “You—what? My eyes?”

“Yeah, they’re, like, brownish-green, right?” Quentin thought for a moment before snapping his fingers. “Hazel. That’s the word. You have hazel eyes. So green always looks really good on you.”

Eliot’s mouth fell open for a moment.

“Um,” he said, swallowing again and his voice painfully small. “Um, okay. Thanks, Q.”

Feeling like he’d somehow fucked up, Quentin faked nonchalance and shrugged again. He took a slow, hopefully unnoticed breath inward as Eliot kept standing there, staring at Quentin with a thousand question marks in those eyes of his.

“Good answer,” Margo said with a grin, breaking through the tension. “I agree. Green.”

Eliot drew his eyebrows together with a barking laugh.

“Jesus, both of you can fuck off,” Eliot said testily, characteristically. “I’m obviously wearing the blue.”

He stormed off dramatically, muttering to himself about pocket squares, and Quentin could breathe once again.

 


 

Hours later, a crack of light burst through the front door and Margo’s loud and jumping squeal announced the arrival of a newcomer. Quentin still remained in his seat, after finishing his book in a single setting. He glanced up, curiosity and dread commingling like an erotic dance.

When he finally got a good look at him, Quentin was surprised that Guillermo wasn’t exactly what he expected. It wasn’t that he’d pictured some cliched Latin lover, since he definitely knew that was reductive and harmful. But still, the way Eliot and Margo discussed him, he’d sort of anticipated something closer to the stereotype. Slightly. Just a little.

…Okay, honestly, he thought Guillermo would tango his way in, all dark haired and dark eyed. That he would roll through the room with a boisterous rhythm, a single red rose between his teeth and his flowing white shirt open over mountains of chest hair. Sue him.

Instead, Guillermo was tall and broad, with narrow and delicate facial features. His long dirty-blond hair was piled atop his head in an intricate bun. He moved gracefully and quietly, firm and sure in his wake. And the moment he saw Margo, he dipped down and grabbed her ass, whispering something in her ear that honest-to-god made her blush. Margo was blushing.

Margo.

Quentin would have actually been impressed, except the next thing Guillermo did was wrap Eliot in the longest, messiest kiss Quentin had ever seen. His stomach froze into a chunk of broken ice as they swallowed each other’s faces, all teeth and tongue and hands in pants. Dark and forceful fury immediately screamed its way through Quentin’s soul. It was like he was being ripped apart by the Big Bang, on a cosmic and atomic level.

But his wrenching gut punch of jealousy didn’t matter. Within minutes, his space on the couch was surrounded by Margo, Eliot, and their sex friend, with only the balm of Julia to keep him at bay. She arrived shortly after Guillermo and her hand on his knee was the only thing keeping him grounded, even if she had no idea the calming presence she offered.

Unfortunately, Julia was also a painfully polite person and she obviously felt awkward ignoring Guillermo. Small talk ensued and it was the goddamn worst.

“So were you a Physical Kid then?” Julia asked him, sipping her drink after Guillermo finished a monologue about the way the Cottage had changed over the years. Apparently, the wallpaper used to be in a palm tree pattern. Riveting stuff.

Guillermo shook his head with a large laugh, “Absolutely not. My discipline was and will always remain Undetermined.”

The record scratched and Quentin was engaged on the turn of a dime.

“Wait, for real?” Quentin asked, trying his best to seem friendly. He wasn’t naturally friendly and definitely not toward this guy. But he’d never met another Undetermined Magician before and certain things needed to take precedence. “I’m, uh—I’m actually Undetermined too.”

Eliot drew his face up from his nipping and sucking at Guillermo’s pulse points to look intently between the stranger and Quentin, like he was suspicious. Quentin rolled his eyes; Eliot could fucking deal if his new boy toy had a Q-shaped flaw in his shining armor.

“You never told me that,” Eliot said to Guillermo, his eyes squinted. His eyebrows nearly crossed over each other, like he was doing some kind of complicated calculation.

“Indeed?” Guillermo asked without acknowledging Eliot, leaning forward like Quentin was now the most fascinating person he had ever seen. “Well, you must understand the burden then.”

“I mean, yeah, totally,” Quentin nodded, his deep reservations about the new person falling by the practical wayside. “It’s like this constant awareness of not quite fitting the way you’re supposed to. And a constant fear that maybe you never will.”

Eliot bit down on his lip. His eyes fell on Quentin under a gently crooked brow for a half-moment. But when Quentin glanced over, he immediately averted his eyes, placing them fully on Guillermo and petting his inner thigh with reverence. Julia, though, pressed her hand on Quentin’s knee and kissed his cheek, lovingly and comfortingly.

“Exactly,” Guillermo nodded and smiled, his full lips flattening against gap teeth. “Knowing that your power is too immense, that the whole of yourself cannot be categorized, that your very essence is outside of the bounds of the laws of physics and magic, because of the nature of your sheer magnitude.”

Quentin’s stomach sank, “Oh. Um. Sure.”

That time, Eliot bit the inside of his cheek with a smile and quickly glanced at Quentin again, before looking away in the same beat, like he was going to laugh. Quentin chuckled too, letting it disappear into the rim of his glass as he took another sip of his drink. But instead of saying anything more, Eliot squeezed Guillermo’s knee like it was going to disappear.

“Yup, Q’s a total renegade,” Julia said, wrapping her arm around his shoulder and wrinkling her nose into his cheek. “I tell him that all the time.”

“Weirdly, it’s also my middle name,” Quentin said, joking back and kissing the top of Julia’s head. She laughed and patted his chest, eliciting an earth-shattering eye roll from Margo. She had been uncharacteristically quiet and blissed out the whole time they were talking.

“Get a room,” Margo said, snapping. Eliot tensed his jaw, displeased with the refocused nature of the conversation. But it was too late, as Guillermo pointed between Julia and Quentin, officially fascinated with the audience he barely noticed before.

“I must say,” Guillermo smiled again. “You two are a particularly beautiful couple. If you procreated, the genetics would be staggering. Particularly with your respective bone structures.”

“Who wants to do shots?” Eliot threw a bottle of tequila between the group. Quentin wasn’t even sure where it came from, but he definitely wasn’t going to refuse getting drunk on that particular night.

“We’re not together,” Quentin said to Guillermo, who shrugged.

“I hope you at least make love on occasion then,” he said, leading immediately to Quentin and Julia’s bursting laughter. “I am not joking. Your orgasms would sing to the angels.”

“This is the good stuff. Reposado, technically for sipping,” Eliot spoke loudly over Guillermo as he poured long streams of the rich amber liquid into neatly laid out shot glasses. “But all that means to me is no bullshit chasers required.”

Julia was still laughing between her words, her hand delicately pressed against her lips. Once upon a time, it would have been the most painful sight in the world—Julia literally laughing at the idea of the two of them falling into bed together. But now, he also saw it for the absurdity it was and he couldn’t help but laugh and smile widely into the night as well.

“That’s definitely not happening,” Julia said to Guillermo, who was still waggling his eyebrows and fingers between them. “Q’s like my brother.”

“But consider the way your bodies would move together, the way your lips—“ Guillermo started, but Eliot cut him off with a loud whooping sound, as he downed his tequila and slammed the empty glass back down on the table. Then, he immediately refilled and did it again. And then again. Margo slowly sat up, her eyes entirely focused on Eliot.

“Enough boring chatter. Come the fuck on,” Eliot said, rolling his eyes and handing out the rest of the booze to the group. “The night awaits.”

“El, honey, maybe slow down,” Margo said quietly, almost like she cared. She watched Eliot down his fourth shot in well fewer than the same number of minutes, her lower lip caught between her teeth. “No rush.”

“Guillermo’s here,” Eliot said with a rakish grin and darting eyes. He clapped his hand on the newcomer’s shoulder. “We need to celebrate.”

And celebrate they did. Trying to be game and not his natural wet blanket nature, Quentin did a few shots happily, linking arms with Julia and knocking their heads back in a cascade of giggles. Margo did several body shots off Guillermo and even convinced Julia to sip one out of her bellybutton, which made them both choke with laughter when Julia accidentally blew a raspberry into Margo’s taut stomach, decidedly unsexy. And Eliot—Eliot devoured as much alcohol as his body could reasonably take, his hands constantly on the bottle of tequila when they weren’t placed somewhere explicit along Guillermo’s stretch of massive muscle and bone.

Ignoring the jolting pain from grinding his teeth, Quentin had to admit that Guillermo was attractive, in a weirdly alluring kind of way. Maybe not conventionally so, since he honestly looked like a combination of Fabio and a Gremlin, post-transformation. And he certainly wasn’t attractive like Eliot was, not by a long shot. But he had a presence about him, a cockiness that at once repulsed and enticed, like a beautiful wreckage. Looking at Guillermo was like having a boner while amidst the influenza virus.

But wasn’t that exactly Eliot’s type? Fascinating and sensual and maybe even a little grotesque? What the fuck else could actually capture his discerning eye and that intricate mind of his?

Quentin swallowed a few hundred knives as he stared out at the dance floor. Over the past couple hours, the party had roared to its usual crest around them. Julia and Margo dipped each other over and over again in a false merengue, while Eliot pressed his whole body against Guillermo, their lips never moving from each other. The knives turned inward and stabbed his stomach, and Quentin dissociated from the scene altogether as fast as he could. He needed to leave. He wanted to leave. Sad, tired, and lost, he couldn’t stay any longer.

With a long sigh, Quentin turned around and reached the bannister of the stairs, ready to head up to his bed and his books. He wanted to read The Watcher Woman, to think about the Mosaic, and to forget that Spain was even a country that fucking existed. But as soon as his foot lifted to the first stair, a strong arm pulled his weight backwards. He crashed into Eliot’s towering form, smiling cheekily and gleefully down at him.

“Q,” Eliot put both of his hands on his shoulders, bodily turning Quentin back toward the dance floor. His hazel eyes were wide and his skin drenched in sweat. “It’s Q.”

“Eliot,” Quentin said, raising his eyebrows. “It’s Eliot.”

“You were attempting an Irish goodbye,” Eliot said, holding a single finger the air. “But I apprehended you, like a ninja.”

“A ninja?” Quentin’s mouth immediately quirked up. He would have bet his life savings against  Eliot ever saying the word ninja. But Eliot nodded slowly and solemnly, his eyes wide and dancing all over Quentin’s features, like he was memorizing them.

“Ninja,” he reiterated, before bending over at the waist with a bowing smirk. “And d’you wanna to know my secret?”

“Uh, sure,” Quentin said, crossing his arms and biting his lip to keep from laughing. Eliot was trying so hard to be so serious that it seemed cruel to take that away from him, no matter how ridiculous he was being.

He put his hands around his mouth with a mock whisper, “It’s ‘cause I always know where you are.”

“Let me guess,” Quentin said with a wide grin, his hair falling in his eyes. “Because you’re exceptionally observant?”

“You—” Eliot’s eyes narrowed and he pointed at Quentin, suddenly unsteady. “When your face looks like that, I don’t even know what, um, what I’m supposed to do?”

Quentin blinked, not sure what had shifted or what Eliot was talking about.

“What?” He asked, sincerely confused. Eliot growled out something guttural and reached his hand up to Quentin’s cheek, stroking his thumb across the skin just beside his nose. It was a plodding movement and entirely indelicate. It made Quentin feel alive for the first time that whole night.

“When your face is—like that,” Eliot whispered, his eyes memorizing all over again. “I don’t know what to say. I never know what to say. I fucking wing it every, um, every time and just hope something smart-brained comes out my talk hole.”

“I mean,” Quentin laughed, ducking his head down and away from the weird sensation that Drunk Eliot was flirting with him. “Uh, this is just my face.”

“God, I know,” Eliot laughed too, burying his eyes in his hands. “That’s the tragedy of it. Rest in Peace, Eliot Waugh.”

Quentin chuckled, awkwardly. He didn't know what that meant either. But he put his hands in his pockets and smiled, tilting his head at the ridiculous Eliot for a moment.

“If it helps,” Quentin said. “I always think your talk hole is very smart-brained.”

“Fuck,” Eliot sighed and closed his eyes. “Fuck, you can’t say shit like that. You’re going to kill me.”

“What, from acute nerdiness?” Quentin laughed.

Without warning, Eliot threw his whole body against him, their noses crashing into each other. His hands tangled in Quentin’s hair hungrily and Quentin’s stomach fell down to his feet. But before anything untoward could happen, Eliot staggered again, his knees bending under his own weight and he tumbled into the stair railing with a loud, intoxicated guffaw.

Quentin immediately pulled Eliot up by the hand, concern overtaking his confusion, “Um, El, how much have you had to drink?”

“A shitton,” Eliot steadied himself by wrapping his arms around Quentin’s waist. He whispered into his ear. “A shitton, Q. You should catch up with me. Then we can go somewhere.”

“Oh yeah?” Quentin wrapped his arm around Eliot’s back and scanned the perimeter for Margo. She had disappeared somewhere into the crowd. “Where do you want to go?”

“Saturn,” Eliot’s lips vibrated against his earlobe. It would have made Quentin sizzle into the floor if Eliot hadn’t been so obviously incapacitated.

“Yeah, sure,” Quentin said, distracted. “We’ll get right on that. But first, let’s drink some water, okay?”

“But you don’t wanna,” Eliot shook his head, his curls bouncing against Quentin’s face. “You said you don’t wanna.”

“I don’t want to, what?” Quentin pursed his lips and used all his strength to try to prop Eliot up further. “Drink water? You’re the one who needs water, El.”

Eliot hiccupped and shook his head, putting a single finger back in the air. But then, he laughed. And laughed again.

“What do you think of Guillermo?” Eliot asked, still laughing and resting his hand harder onto Quentin’s shoulder for balance. Quentin had literally never seen him so drunk. “I’m desperate for my true north’s opinion.”

“He’s, uh, intense?” Quentin frowned a little. Eliot cracked up.

“He is intense,” he said, cackling like Quentin had named something ineffable. “Maybe you are observant. Y’know, like me.”

“Not really,” Quentin said, but Eliot shushed him, stumbling into his side.

“Intense used to be more fun. I used to think it was so appealing,” he said with a breathless laugh, resting his forehead against the side of Quentin’s head. He hummed. “Oh, Q. What happened to me?”

“I think you drank a whole bottle of tequila,” Quentin said with a grimace. Eliot laughed, really loudly, like a fog horn.

“Uh, try one and a half bottles of tequila, please and thank you,” Eliot lifted his hands in the air, like a champion. “As always, I dedicate this victory to my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.”

“Fucking hell, Eliot,” Quentin’s mouth set into a line, anger curling his toes. “You could get alcohol poisoning. You probably have alcohol poisoning.”

“You’re not my mother,” Eliot bit out harshly, his attitude shifting like a shutter. “Or my boyfriend. What the fuck do you care?”

“I’m your friend,” Quentin said flatly and Eliot’s eye roll was one of epic proportions. His knees buckled under him again and he fell to the ground. When his butt hit the wood floor, he laughed wildly, mingled together with a few unanticipated tears. Quentin swallowed down a painful soreness in his throat and focused on the practical worry that imbued every ventricle of his chest.

“Eliot,” Quentin wrapped his arm around his waist firmly, pulling him up and pivoting both of their bodies towards the stairs with purpose. “El. Hey. Okay. Let’s get you upstairs.”

“God, yes. Please,” Eliot stumbled, his breath hot on Quentin’s neck. “Fuck, that’s all I want.”

“Okay,” Quentin chuckled, ignoring the tight pulling near his groin. He needed to keep his shit together. “Then you got it, Drunky.”

“I’m not drunk,” Eliot said, with a loud hiccup. “I don’t know if I can even, like, um, get drunk anymore. S’all good in the hood.”

“Sure, sure,” Quentin said. “Though I think when I’m the more articulate of the two of us—”

Eliot pressed his long pointer finger on Quentin lips, “No talky. More upstairs. With you. Eliot  goes upstairs with Q. Rhyme.”

“Okay, bud,” Quentin squeezed his shoulder and maneuvered Eliot’s clumsy steps up the first stair. “You’ve got this.”

“M’not your ‘bud,’” Eliot snapped into Quentin’s face. His breath smelled like a distillery. “Call me ‘El.’ I really like it when you call me ‘El.’”

Quentin lifted his own feet slowly, trying to force Eliot to follow suit onto the second step. But he was like a toddler, unwilling to bend his knees instinctually.

“Um, then I’ll call you El,” Quentin said, not really paying attention to the nonsensical conversation. “I guess.”

“And thus spoke Zarathustra: the EE-OHT sound is now verboten,” Eliot announced from his diaphragm with flair. Then he hiccuped and gagged a little, pressing his hand to his mouth. “Um, stairs now please.”

“We’re on the stairs,” Quentin said, all patience. “Can you help me out a little? Take a few steps. Bend your knees.”

Eliot followed suit, thankfully, and they ascended four stairs in the same time it took them to do the first two. Eliot giggled incoherently, mumbling under his breath as Quentin kept him steadily moving.

“Q,” Eliot finally said directly to him, pressing his mouth against his ear. “Q, I have so much I need to tell you.”

“Oh, yeah?” Quentin asked as they reached the first landing. “Like what?”

“My stomach does weird shit,” Eliot laughed, lifting his legs too high. “It’s on fire. All the fucking time. And, like, my chest is glass.”

“Sounds painful,” Quentin said, steadying Eliot when they reached the top of the stairs. He kept his arm wrapped tightly around him, walking him slowly through the darkened corridor until they finally reached Eliot’s door. He patted Eliot's chest and let go of him, but immediately, Eliot turned in toward him, pulling Quentin against the wall. He trapped him between his long arms and stared down at him. Quentin forgot how to breathe.

“Painful? Ha. Ha,” Eliot sighed, his eyes dark and drunk and shifting over a thousand emotions. “You have no fucking idea.”

With a long exhale, Eliot pressed his chest against Quentin’s, his hands wrapping around his face to lightly graze his thumbs over his ears. Quentin shifted uncomfortably against his weight and resisted the urge to place his hands on Eliot’s chest and neck, just to feel him. Eliot was drunk. Eliot was really drunk. But he pressed further into Quentin with a rumbling sigh, his hands moving up into Quentin’s hair. He pressed his fingers in patterns along his scalp and Quentin swallowed, hard.

“Stay with me,” Eliot said, his eyes heavy and glassy. His voice was achingly soft and he pressed his lips against the side of Quentin’s mouth. After a single beat, he dipped his face lower and pressed another light kiss against Quentin’s jawline. “Stay, Q. Please.”

Quentin closed his eyes and breathed through the splotchy heat that painted his cheeks, emanating directly from his war-torn chest. Eliot was drunk. Eliot was really drunk.

“Q,” Eliot murmured, still kissing along his jaw, saying his name like it meant something. The tip of his nose traced a warm line along his cheekbone and Quentin couldn’t move if he tried. “My Q. Lemme show you. Please.”

“You’re drunk,” Quentin somehow managed to get out, gasping amidst the fireworks under his skin. He turned his head away from Eliot’s moving lips. “You—you need to go to bed—”

“With you,” Eliot said roughly, tracing his tongue around Quentin’s ear and all he could hear was the ocean, flowing in and out. It would be so easy to turn his head, to give in to everything he’d wanted since he first saw Eliot, standing by the bar cart, glaring at him. Eliot slept with people all the time, without discrimination. Would it really be so bad to—

Quentin jerked his head to the opposite side, gritting his teeth. With a heavy, jagged sigh, he pushed Eliot away from him.

“No, Eliot,” Quentin said, firm. “Stop.”

Eliot froze, his eyes popping open like he was painfully aware of himself. Like he was painfully aware of Quentin. His mouth fell open and he staggered backwards, widening the gap between their bodies to a safe distance once more. His eyes darted around and he shakily ran his fingers through his hair.

“Shit,” Eliot said, barely a whisper. “Shit. I’m sorry. I—fuck, I’m sorry. That was—stupid. I’m so sorry.”

“Eliot,” Quentin soothed, tenderness overwhelming him. “Hey, it’s okay.”

“No, it’s not,” Eliot said, shaking his head wildly, wrapping his arms around himself. “It’s really not. Fuck. Fuck.”

Nodding, Quentin gently held his arm out, steadying Eliot into a standing position. Eliot was drunk. Eliot was really drunk. He was incoherently drunk and Quentin needed to be a good friend, not some crazed hormone bomb asshole. Pushing open the door, Quentin pressed his hand into his back, guiding him into the room, in all its all deep reds, golds, and cologne scents.

“Let’s get you in bed,” Quentin said quietly and Eliot let out a long sob, his hands clutching against Quentin’s hoodie like it was something precious and intangible.

“My chest is glass. So pathetic,” Eliot said, while he laid down. Quentin pulled Eliot’s shoes off and watched as Eliot’s face crumpled, before he started singing. “Once I had a love, but it was gas—

Quentin internally rolled his eyes—because of fucking course Eliot could sing incredibly too, even when drunk off his ass—and reached up Eliot’s chest, his hands working clumsily against Eliot’s trinity knot.

“El, I’m going to take your tie off, okay?” He said lightly, while Eliot kept crooning Blondie in the background. “I don’t want you to get strangled or something.”

Seemed like the real thing, only to find—” Eliot hiccuped, closing his eyes and pressing his hand against Quentin’s, stopping his movements. “Fuck, I don’t—I don’t remember the rest of the words. I can’t do anything fucking right.”

“El,” Quentin swallowed back something urgent and covered Eliot with a blanket, propping his head up with all of his pillows. “El, do you want me to get Margo?”

“Don’t want Margo,” Eliot grabbed Quentin’s wrist, pulling him down onto the bed, right on top of him. Quentin hissed a sharp breath as his hips fell against Eliot’s and Eliot’s hands reached up to his cheeks again, his eyes moving all across Quentin’s face with an impossibly soft smile. “Goddamn, I’m so fucking pathetic.”

“Eliot,” Quentin pulled himself up, scrambling as fast as he could, and sat next to him. Immediately, Eliot pressed his head into Quentin’s lap.

“Please tell me why,” he said, voice muffled against Quentin’s jeans. “I’ll do anything.”

“I’m not sure what you’re asking me,” Quentin pressed his hand into Eliot’s hair, in an attempt at comfort. “But I am sure that you’re extremely drunk. You need sleep.”

“No, I need—I need something else, Q,” Eliot reached up and pressed his own hand against Quentin’s, entwining their fingers. “I need something else.”

“Okay, Eliot,” Quentin squeezed his hand and stood up. “I’m going to let you rest now or you’re going to have a rough morning.”

“They’re all rough mornings,” Eliot said, still unmoving. His voice was surprisingly even and dark. “Every one of them.”

“El,” Quentin’s throat caught on itself and he shook his head. “Do you need anything before I go?”

“Don’t ask stupid questions,” Eliot buried his head in his hands as he brought himself back up against the pillows. “Hate that question. I’m so goddamn pathetic.”

“No, you’re not,” Quentin said, looking down at Eliot’s shaking, sweating form. Even in the worst state he’d ever seen him, he was beautiful. He was always beautiful and strong and witty and so fucking smart. Eliot was everything Quentin would never be. And he wanted to be near him all the time. But instead of changing the narrative on exactly who was pathetic, Quentin simply shook his head, “You could never be.”

But Eliot was fading, both of his arms slung over his face as he twisted his body into a fetal position, “If you’re gonna leave, then, um, fucking leave, Quentin.”

“Okay,” Quentin’s heart hurt, though he wasn’t quite sure why. “I’m sorry.”

“Don’t say sorry,” Eliot slurred, his form smaller and smaller under his white and multi-colored patterned comforter. “S’not your fault.”

 


 

After an extra long, extra cold shower the next morning, Quentin wasn’t surprised when Guillermo strolled out Eliot’s door like he owned it. He also wasn’t particularly surprised that his chest was crushed in a fierce bull-stomp. The thought of Guillermo falling into Eliot’s bed—falling into Eliot, like Quentin almost had, just hours before—wasn’t exactly pleasant. But the sight also served as a clear reminder. It was exactly why it was the right call to treat Eliot’s advances as the drunken nonsense it was. Quentin wasn’t who Eliot had really wanted.

Which was fine. Everything was fine.

Still, when he finally caught a glimpse of Eliot through the downstairs window, sitting alone on the patio with a cigarette in one hand and his head firmly pressed into the other, Quentin couldn’t help his moth-like draw to him. Slowly sliding open the door, he walked to the table with his hands in his hoodie pockets and threw himself into the chair, trying to make just enough noise so he didn’t startle the obviously drained and distracted Eliot. But while at first it seemed like none of his efforts had caught his attention, Eliot eventually raised a single finger up in the air as a terse, unenthused greeting.

“Hey Q,” he said, monotone and hoarse.

Quentin pushed his hair back and managed a small smile, “How are you feeling?”

“Oh god,” Eliot laughed, rubbing his eyes under his sunglasses. “I guess I’m mostly feeling like someone who is less adept at drinking a whole bottle of tequila than he used to be.”

“One and a half, according to you,” Quentin said, trying to laugh over his remembered worry. It was too much alcohol for anyone to drink in a single sitting. Magic must have been involved to keep Eliot afloat. At least, he fucking hoped magic was involved to keep Eliot afloat. Because it was either that or Eliot was a lot further gone on the alcoholism train than he’d ever really considered.

“Ah, well. Should’ve been two,” Eliot pushed his sunglasses up to the top of his head and winced at the sun. “I’ll get ‘em next time.”

“But at least you’re recovering well,” Quentin said and Eliot glared at him. At that, Quentin snorted and shook his head. Sometimes he could be funny too.

“Want?” Eliot shook his pack of cigarettes at him and Quentin held a single palm in the air as a refusal.

“Quit again,” he said, despite his fingers itching. “For real this time.”

“Traitor,” Eliot smirked. “Though on average, it takes seven attempts, so I’m sure I’ll see you back in tobacco’s seductive clutches one of these days.”

“You sound so gleeful about the idea of me wrecking my lungs.”

“Misery loves company.” Eliot wrapped his mouth along the filter of his barely burning Parliament and blew smoke right in Quentin’s face. He chuckled as Quentin batted it away.

“I told my mentor to fuck the fuck off, by the way,” Eliot said, half his mouth lifting into his cheek. “As you suggested.”

“Literally?” Quentin smiled. “Like, you said the words ‘fuck off’ to her?”

He’d believe it.

“More or less,” Eliot said as he stretched his arms into the air, cigarette ash falling like snow. “You were right. I’m a true Physical Kid at heart. Getting bogged by theory and intangibles probably would have killed me.”

“Well, I don’t know that I said that exactly,” Quentin said. “But I think it sounds like the right call.”

Eliot nodded and looked down at the table, “If you think so, then it’s probably true.”

“I can’t reiterate enough that if my opinion is your roadmap, you’re fucked,” Quentin looked up at the sky, both making a joke and very much not making a joke. “That’s, like, a legally required disclaimer.”

But Eliot just kept smoking, quietly. He shook his head, wincing his eyes again, like a sharp pain ticked against his temple. Quentin noted that he still had that artful stubble on his chin and cheeks. Lately, it seemed like Eliot only shaved every few days, at most. He never went long enough to grow anything even slightly resembling a beard, but he wasn’t the clean-shaven dandy that Quentin recognized. It was a ruggedness and a haggardness that was stark and unnerving against his usual insouciance.

“Ah, so—“ Eliot chuckled into his hand. “I don’t have the most precise memories of last night, but I think I may owe you an apology.”

Quentin’s chest ached as a flashback of Eliot’s lips on his skin, of Eliot’s hands crawling on his body, of Eliot’s torturous closeness dazzled themselves against the back of his eyes and along all his nerve endings. But he maintained his forced indifference and smiled, certain that touching Quentin Coldwater a little too frequently when practically black-out drunk was hardly the worst thing Eliot had ever done. Still, he’d give him an out. He deserved that much at least.

“Oh, it’s fine, El,” Quentin said with a hand wave. “Literally just a quick trip up the stairs, then you passed out.”

“Handsy, though, I think,” Eliot said, staring down and swallowing. “Which is obviously inappropriate and I’m, uh, sorry about that.”

“Don’t worry about it. You were extremely drunk,” Quentin laughed, push and pushing down. “Pretty sure any working pulse would have caught your attention.”

“My sluttiness is renowned,” Eliot said, his smile wry. “In that case, a simple thanks for not letting me sleep on the stairs. Those things have terrible ergonomic support.”

“Obviously,” Quentin said. “It was nothing.”

“Wasn’t your responsibility,” Eliot said tersely. “So it’s appreciated.”

“Fuck off,” Quentin smiled. “We’re friends.”

“Right,” Eliot said, clipped. “Friends.”

Eliot pressed his fingers to his closed eyelids, the lit end of his cigarette perilously close to his skin. He rubbed his temples and let out a loud tetchy sigh, much like the one he made when he was making a point to an unworthy peon. But this time, it was almost inwardly directed, like Quentin wasn’t there at all. His Adam’s apple bobbed in a tremble against his unshaved neck and he pressed the back of his head against the top of the chair, his hand falling against his forehead.

Then, Eliot abruptly sat up again and offered Quentin a wane smile, his eyes averting as far away from him as possible.

“Are you sure you’re okay?” Quentin asked, while Eliot lit a new cigarette in the same motion of putting out his original one.

“I appreciate that you want to return the favor of my past support,” Eliot said, looking past Quentin toward the Cottage. “But I really don’t want to talk about this with you. I’ll be fine, okay?”

“Um, okay?” Quentin blinked and couldn’t help the question in his tone. He had no idea what Eliot was referring to, even though he spoke like they had an understood common ground.

“Actually, I am fine,” Eliot said, turning his face away with his cigarette to the sky. “So let’s not. This is how it goes sometimes. I understand.”

“What do you mean?” Quentin leaned forward, desperately curious. “How what goes?”

“Q,” Eliot’s voice was hard again, distant. “Come on. Drop it. There’s no need to talk about it, okay? I’m fine. I promise.”

“Um, okay,” Quentin’s stomach squirmed uncomfortably. The Mosaic mocked him again. The missing puzzle pieces. “Sure. Sorry.”

“Don’t say sorry,” Eliot held the bridge of his nose and a small amount of ash fell on his lip. He brushed it off with an angry grunt. “You say sorry too much. It’s annoying.”

“Okay,” Quentin said again, more because he literally had no idea what else he was supposed to say. Honestly, he wanted to say sorry for saying sorry so often, but Eliot would kick him off the patio if he did that.

“Besides,” Eliot coughed a little and glanced over at Quentin, almost cautiously. “Guillermo is staying longer than expected. So things are looking up for me.”

“Oh?” Quentin’s blood stopped moving. Guillermo was supposed to leave on Monday. It had been the one thing Quentin was looking forward to. It was going to get him through yet another difficult meal with his sick father.

“We’re going to Josh’s graduation thing together next week,” Eliot said, pressing his cigarette along the rim of the ashtray. “Like a debut of sorts.”

Ah, yes. Josh’s celebratory party, via portal magic in France. The Herbalist had gotten a prestigious job as the sole tomato purveyor and experimental R&D analyst at a well-known Magician restaurant in the 10th arrondissement of the capital city. The invitations arrived in style two weeks prior, promising a long evening of incredible food and wine in the City of Lights. It was a small gathering, complete with only Josh’s closest friends and their dates.

Miraculously, Quentin had made the cut along with Margo and Eliot. Even Julia hadn’t been invited, which was a milestone Quentin thought he’d never see. So he’d sent an affirmative RSVP early on via magical ping, excited by the idea. While he wasn’t exactly a connoisseur of any kind, drinking good wine and eating good food with Eliot and Margo under the Parisian night sky had sounded like an excellent dream come to fruition.

But now.

Well.

The winds of the Sahara thrashed against Quentin’s throat and he couldn’t swallow them down hard enough.

“Wait, you’re—like, what, Guillermo’s your boyfriend?” He asked, hoping his voice didn’t betray the blitzkrieg currently ripping through his chest.

“Like a dear friend of mine once said, I eschew labels,” Eliot said with a smirk. But his eyes were still looking directly on Quentin, wary and probing. “But I asked him to stay for the dinner this morning. We’re enjoying our time together.”

“Shit,” Quentin forced his face to look normal. He wasn’t sure what normal really was anymore. He wasn’t sure. “I guess you do like intense then.”

“Intense certainly likes me,” Eliot smiled around his cigarette. “I try to live intuitively.”

“Sure,” Quentin said, nodding. And nodding. And nodding. He was a fucking bobble head. “Sure. Sure.”

“Sure,” Eliot repeated, flat. But then he chuckled. “Are you not a fan of Guillermo?”

“Uh, I have no opinion,” Quentin lied. “If he makes you happy, then—”

“He does,” Eliot said firmly, putting out his cigarette. “He does.”

“Then I’m happy for you,” Quentin said, his chest externalizing itself into the harsh air and stabbing his blood vessels.

“Thanks,” Eliot said, slowly extending the word out, like it was too harsh to remain in his mouth. He sighed and pressed his hands to his eyes again, rubbing fiercely. “Goddamn, fuck tequila.”

“Anyway, uh,” Quentin rubbed his neck. He breathed in. He breathed out. “I just wanted to make sure you weren’t the walking dead or anything. But I'm heading to my dad’s soon here.”

Eliot raised his eyebrows in a slow goodbye and Quentin stood, his legs not working under him properly for some reason. But it was fine. It was no different than how they felt disconnected from his torso earlier. Sometimes legs did that. Sometimes bodies broke down and brains turned to mush and fucking hearts felt like they’d been crushed in a goddamn clamping mechanism on repeat, the blood and emotion all splattering everywhere like nothing would ever matter again. That was fine.

That was fine.

That was totally fine.

 


 

Everything was fine.

Everything was fine.

Quentin was fine.

Quentin was fucking fine.

It was the middle of the night. Or early Monday morning, depending on how you looked at it. Quentin hadn’t slept a single minute. He laid in bed and kept replaying Eliot’s voice in his head over and over and fucking over again. Guillermo makes Eliot happy. Guillermo makes Eliot happy. Guillermo makes Eliot happy. Guillermo makes Eliot happy. Nothing—nothing—had ever made him feel more desperate and unmoored in his entire fucking life.

Guillermo makes Eliot happy. Apparently. But, like, who the fuck was that guy even? What fucking right did he have to make Eliot happy?

Not that, you know, Quentin could make Eliot happy or anything. He had no illusions. And for that matter, it wasn’t that Quentin even wanted to make Eliot happy. Eliot was a sophisticate. He was a genius. He was everything light and dark in the world, like a wine stain on glinting glass. Quentin couldn’t reach him if he tried. What was it that Eliot had said to him early on? That dethroning him would be a spectacular suicide mission? Well, that’s what Quentin trying to make Eliot happy would be too. Quentin was awkward and nerdy, unremarkably attractive at best. He couldn’t hold the tiniest spark to Eliot’s roaring inferno.

So then why the fuck couldn’t he shake his goddamn attraction? His goddamn feelings, that were taking firmer root every day instead of disappearing they way they were meant to.


He’d let go of his feelings for Julia. They were gone. The two of them were forever beyond. And the way he felt about Eliot exactly paralleled how he felt about her, once upon a time. A best friend that he found himself drawn to, saved by, and who brought out parts of him that he never knew existed. A best friend who progressed him, challenged him, supported him. So even if it was understandable why feelings would emerge, Quentin also knew that he was perfectly capable of overcoming them. And he wanted to overcome these feelings for Eliot. They were pointless and futile and entirely biochemical, so why the fuck couldn’t he shake them? They were the same as what he felt for Julia. Entirely the same.

Except, well, when they weren’t.

With Julia, Quentin had created an image in his head, almost a conglomeration of his fantasies, this bright light of unmet expectations and impossible standards. He’d fallen into traps upon traps, seeking something that didn’t exist. The way he felt about her was something beyond himself, beyond her even. Beyond, even before they were beyond.

That’s not how it was with Eliot. With Eliot, it was much less pleasant, much less some fantasy, based on unrealities. He only really knew who Julia was once he stopped having feelings for her. But Eliot…

Quentin knew exactly who he was. Eliot was contemptuous and angry. He was cruel. He was petty. He was ridiculous, fretting about things like clothes and color schemes, like whether the flowers outside the Cottage complemented his outfit for the day. He’d almost been isolated from the rest of the Brakebills population for “an increase in alcohol-related incidents” and he was proud of that fact. He genuinely enjoyed reality television. And yeah, he’d made Quentin feel smaller than a piece of shit when they first met.

There were so many things about him that should have made Quentin hate him, should have turned him off from his even his friendship, let alone that fucking attraction he couldn’t shake, no matter what he did or what he tried to focus himself on instead. Yet still, somehow, all of these things were part of it all, part of what made Eliot so infuriating and enticing to him, they were part of his essential interest, part of what made Quentin feel—just fucking feel whenever he was around him and—

Oh.

…Oh.

Quentin sat straight up, his heart slowing down to almost a comatose rate. His fingers felt like they fell asleep, as the rest of him woke up with a sharp, cold understanding. The clarity of his realization was like any basic fact about himself. It was just as natural, just as certain, just as much of a given, easy and true.

His name was Quentin Coldwater. He wore size nine shoes. He was from Montclair, New Jersey. He was right-handed. He was a Magician. And he was in love with Eliot Waugh.

“Huh,” Quentin said aloud, to nothing and no one. “Okay.”

Okay.

Okay.

So he loved Eliot. That made sense. It was obvious. Of course he loved Eliot. Fuck.

But also, of course, Eliot didn’t love him.

He sharply inhaled a breath. That wasn’t true. Eliot loved him. Like friends do, or maybe even brothers, he thought with a particularly painful swallow. But he wasn’t…

Eliot wasn’t shy about his affections. When he wanted something—or someone—he stopped at nothing to get it. He viewed all of life as a constant conquest, reaping that which was for the taking. If he’d wanted Quentin, he would have had Quentin, months ago. There was no doubt in his mind about that.

He thought of that one time when Eliot didn’t recognize Quentin, standing behind him, his lips against his ear, his hands caressing, his voice soft and seductive. That memory had often crept into Quentin’s most private thoughts, in bed or the shower, more than once. There, he followed it out to the conclusion reality never offered, where Eliot had continued kissing down Quentin’s neck, his hands moving down Quentin’s body, wanting him, right there in the living room, needing him. It was usually one of his favorite fantasies, but on that early morning, it was the icy water of reality.

Eliot had never treated Quentin like he had that day, sober and knowing who Quentin was. He simply wasn’t attracted to him like that. He wasn’t attracted to him, period, save for some awkward drunken pets that had obviously mortified him. Quentin was probably the only person in the world Eliot had ever apologized to for his drunken advances, complete with a blanched face like it really was the worst thing he had ever done. And then apologized again, the next morning, sober and horrified. That alone told the whole narrative from start to finish. Quentin was Eliot’s close friend. He loved him. But he would never, ever want to go there—or anywhere near it—with him, when he had a choice. They were beyond.

And that was the real goddamn tragedy of it all, along with his face.

The clock blinked 4:00 AM and Quentin was nowhere near sleep. He may never sleep again.

Fuck.

 


 

Going through life knowing that he was in love with Eliot was slightly more challenging than Quentin anticipated. Sure, it was as natural as breathing in most ways. But now that he knew it was a fact, it was a yoke on everything he did.

He got out of bed, in love with Eliot. He brushed his teeth, in love with Eliot. He walked downstairs, in love with Eliot. He ate breakfast, in love with Eliot. He studiously avoided Eliot, in love with Eliot. He glared at Guillermo’s stupid braided man-bun, in love with Eliot. He ignored Margo’s increasingly mean insults, in love with Eliot.

He walked to class with Julia, in love with Eliot. He told Julia that he was totally fine whatever do you mean?, in love with Eliot. He listened to lecture, in love with Eliot. He did his tuts, in love with Eliot. He had a meeting with Sunderland, in love with Eliot.

He came back to the Cottage, in love with Eliot. He read Fillory and Further, in love with Eliot. He sat on the couch, in love with Eliot. He ignored Margo’s angry sigh at his appearance, in love with Eliot. He was roughly accosted by Josh Hoberman, in love with—

Josh’s hand gripped at his collar and wagged a finger in his face, “Quentin Coldwater!”

Quentin blinked and ripped himself away from his internal monologue. His mouth fell open and he realized that Josh was actually pissed, glaring down at him through his thick glasses. He’d only ever seen Josh look happy or happier, so it was a jarring contrast.

“Uh, what’d I do?” Quentin asked, genuinely concerned. Josh pushed his shoulder a little, releasing him deeper into the couch.

“You changed your RSVP, that’s what,” Josh crossed his arms. “At four-thirty in the morning? For some reason?”

Oh. Yeah. He did do that. He was occasionally self-loathing, but he wasn’t a total masochist. Bearing witness to Eliot and Guillermo’s first real date? In fucking Paris? Pass, thanks.

“Oh, uh, yeah,” Quentin scratched his neck. “I did do that. Sorry if I fucked up your numbers.”

"I don't care about that," Josh said, adjusting his glasses up his nose and glaring harder. "But I specifically chose a wine pairing with you in mind, motherfucker.”

“Wait, you’re not coming anymore?” Margo asked, looking up from her Us Weekly on the other couch. Her voice dripped with sourness. “What the fuck, Quentin?”

“What do you care?” He shot at her. “Not like you’re my biggest fan right now.”

“My affections are fickle,” she said, clamping her teeth down. “And I’m allowed to think you’re a total goddamn dumbass horsefucking shitstain while still wanting you at a party.”

“That definitely doesn’t track,” Quentin said, with a frown. But then he turned to Josh. “And I’m sorry, but I have too much going on. I’ll be cheering you on from here, though.”

And then the door opened and everything stopped. Quentin’s heart was in a vice and every hair on his body stood on end, at attention, and in reverence. Because Eliot. It was Eliot.

It was Eliot.

Truthfully, Quentin didn’t react any differently than usual. Every time he’d ever seen Eliot, he realized now, his heart rate double or tripled. His cheeks grew warmer, his pupils dilated. His back stretched with a fuzzy warmth that tingled from the nape of his neck down to his knees. His chest moaned and ached to be touched by him, his stomach twisted in a thousand shimmering knots, and the feeling in the tips of his fingers floated out into the sky.

But now, he knew why it happened and he was completely aware of it. He couldn’t push it down anymore, not when Eliot was there, right in front of him. There, and wearing a navy blue sweater and a white shirt, his hair messy from the wind outside. There, and still growing out that stubble, that made him look so much older and more defined, and fucking rugged. There, and blinking his long lashes down against his high cheekbones as he wiped his feet on the front door mat, fastidious and considerate. There, with his profile perfectly illuminated by the TADA sign, Romanesque and powerful, like Jupiter himself. There, there, there. Eliot, Eliot, Eliot.

“Uh, you okay, Q?” Eliot’s perfect deep, rich voice suddenly asked and Quentin jumped, startled. He’d been staring. And Eliot was looking at him like he was concerned. Or, at least, weirded out by Quentin’s mad attention.

“Everything is fine,” Quentin vocalized his inner processing for the first time. Eliot squinted at him before shrugging, sitting next to Margo with his head resting on her shoulder. She patted his head lovingly, but her eyes were focused in his direction, as she stared directly Quentin. She was the hawk, Quentin the twitchy rabbit.

And when he fully caught her eyes, she really smiled at him for the first time in days.

 


 

Progress with Margo was a slow moving train.

Even after she had given him the slightest crumb of affection—that single smile—she refused to speak to him for the rest of the day. Or the day after that. Or the day after that. In all, it had been three full days since Margo had even looked at him, her annoyance with everything Quentin Coldwater still bright and true. But the night before she was going to leave for Paris, she walked into his room without warning and sat down at his bed by his feet, like they were the kinds of friends who did things like that. But they weren’t and so he glared at her.

“Knocking is customary,” Quentin said, grumbling. “I could have been naked.”

“And I’m sure the jaw-dropping beauty of Quentin Coldwater’s penis would have knocked my socks off,” Margo said with a loud laugh. “But I have something important to discuss with you.”

“Not in the mood, Margo,” Quentin said, pointing to his Astromancy book. “I’m working.”

“You’re coming to Paris with me,” she said, pressing her hand on his leg. This grabbed his attention and he looked up at her, pulling down his eyebrows.

“Huh?” Quentin slammed his textbook shut. “No, I’m not. I’m not going to Paris at all.”

“You are coming to Paris with me,” Margo repeated, like he was an especially idiotic preschooler. “Buck up and suck it up. Not a negotiation.”

“Uh, no,” Quentin said, reopening his book to a random page and burying his eyes amongst the unimportant words. “I already told Josh I wasn’t going. He adjusted the numbers.”

“Good thing I RSVP’d with a preemptive plus-one then,” Margo said brightly, before putting her hand on her chest. “Brilliantly done, Margo.” She flipped around and waved her hand in the air. “Thanks, Margo. Wanna bang?” She licked her lips and purred, flipping around again. “Oh, you naughty girl, always.”

“Cute,” Quentin said, flat and uninterested in her antics. “But no thanks.”

Margo made a low growling sound from the back of her throat and laid down on his bed, her arms sprawled out over her head. She slapped his thigh.

“It’s a four hour long tasting menu, Quentin,” she said, flipping over onto her belly and taking his hand in hers, causing him to drop the book in his lap by force. “I need to sit with someone I can half-way stand. Eliot’s spoken for, so you’re my extremely distant second choice.”

Quentin pricked his eyebrows up and crossed his arms, anger and hurt covering his chest like moss, “You can stand me now?”

“Oh, you know I can,” Margo sat up, her eyes sharp and sad at the same time. “Yes, I was kinda mad at you. Newsflash: You’re a dumbass. It happens.”

“But, like, you won’t even tell me how or why I was a dumbass,” Quentin threw his hands in the air. “Which is not fucking fair, Margo.”

But she simply shook her head, “Sometimes, friends get mad at each other and then they move on. That’s part of the deal.”

“You’d never do that to Eliot,” Quentin accused. “You’d always tell him what was wrong.”

Margo laughed, loudly, genuinely.

“Are you fucking kidding me?” She snorted out. “Eliot and I are the Queens of Passive-Aggressive Back-Biting. We don’t talk about shit.”

“Well, uh, it sounded like you were talking about something serious the other day,” Quentin said, averting his eyes a little. “So—”

“You were listening?” Margo’s voice was ice. “That wasn’t your concern, Quentin. And if you have something to say about Eliot, then you pussy up that nutsack of yours like someone who gives a shit about him.”

“I wasn’t listening,” Quentin said, his throat tight. “I just—sometimes I feel like you two are conspiring against me or something.”

“That’s not even close to what is happening and you know it,” Margo pointed at him sharply. “Frankly, your willful refusal here is getting fucking old.”

“Remind me again why I should go to Paris with you?” Quentin shot out, ignoring the pounding heat and cracking in his chest.

“Quentin,” Margo said, her voice suddenly serious. “Please. I really—Look, you’re right, okay? Things have been weird lately. Obviously. But I don’t want to go to this party and not have anyone.”

The quietness in her stature stilled Quentin and he sighed. Margo was one of the most complicated people he’d ever met. But she cared fiercely and she felt fiercely, as fiercely as she pretended that she didn’t. If she said something like this to him, it likely hid a wellspring—an ocean—of depth untold. But he still wasn’t a masochist. He really wasn’t sure if he could do this for her.

“Come on, you’ll still have Eliot,” Quentin said, tentatively patting her knee. “You know you’re always his first priority.”

“I’m not. Not right now,” Margo said, gingerly flipping Quentin’s hand over so she could trace lines on his palm. “It’s okay, but he’s caught in his own shit.”

“Like Guillermo?” He hoped the bitterness wasn’t too apparent.

“Something like that,” Margo smiled sadly.

“Well, I guess as long as he’s happy,” Quentin said with a sigh that he hoped didn’t sound too miserable. “He said he’s happy. So it makes sense that he’d focus on his, uh, relationship.”

“I think you’re the only other person on earth who has any idea how complicated a path Eliot has to happiness,” Margo said quietly, not looking at Quentin. “But for the first time since I’ve known him? He actually wants to be happy, Quentin. He wants it so badly.”

“I’m…” Quentin trailed off, trying his best. “I’m glad to hear that.”

“And Quentin,” Margo looked right at him now, her eyes pained and emotional. “That alone fills me with so much gratitude, I can’t even express it. So I have to help him, in whatever way I can.”

“Right, so give him space,” Quentin sighed, his ribcage falling away into the abyss. “Yeah, I get that. And I, uh, I also want Eliot to be happy.”

The saddest thing was? That was true. If Guillermo made Eliot happy, then Quentin wanted Guillermo in their lives. No matter what Quentin thought of the pretentious hippie asshole. Eliot’s happiness had somehow become his happiness, even in ways that directly went against his self-interest.

He was the most pathetic man on the planet.

“I know you do. I really know you do,” Margo said, whispering and clutching Quentin’s hand. “That’s why I need your help and no one else’s.”

“Well, Guillermo’s exactly the kind of guy I always pictured him with,” Quentin said, fucking miserable. “So I’m sure the happiness will come. He deserves it.”

Quentin,” Margo said, now extremely serious. It was like her anger piqued again. “Quentin, you are—”

She brought her fist to her mouth and took a deep breath.

“What?”

“Nothing. Never mind. But please come to Paris with me,” she asked again, crossing her arms and shaking her head. “I actually really need you there.”

“Margo,” Quentin sighed, before swallowing, hard. He hated himself. “Yeah, okay. Fine. I’ll go. When do we leave?”

It was worth it though, because Margo threw her arms around him in the tightest hug he’d ever felt. He raised his arms over her shoulders and hugged her back, breathing in her sweet warm scent. She was the most complicated person he’d ever met in his entire life. He also totally understood why Eliot was unconditionally devoted to her.

“Tomorrow, nine in the morning,” she said, pulling away and patting his chest. “And don’t forget, you have to wear dress clothes. Good ones. Don’t embarrass me.”

Quentin rolled his eyes, “I’m the one doing you the favor, Margo.”

“And don’t worry, ” Margo put her hands on his cheeks, before she said an all-too-familiar sentence with a wink. “We’re gonna have fun.”

Quentin still wasn’t sure if it was a promise or a threat.

And it still made him gulp.

 


 

tbc.

Chapter Text

Bright red flowers contrasted against the aging white limestone walls of the Haussman building. Above, blue slate rooftops peaked with tiny chimneys against the crisp noon sky. The transformation from the rolling greens and brick colonial Brakebills to the heart of a busy Parisian neighborhood melded Quentin’s senses into a frenzy of delights. Standing on the street corner, where he hadn’t been and now was, Quentin smiled at the compact cars twisting their way through the long streets, reaching for miles past the red awnings of cafes, women in all black, leisurely passing bicycles, and also, like, a kind of unreasonable amount of untended dog shit. There was an undeniable energy in the air. The City of Lights, the City of Love, any nickname would do

He'd only used portal magic a handful of times, but he always found it dizzying and entrancing. His ears felt waterlogged, but his heart was full, especially as his gorgeous and ferocious companion both shot him a full-faced smile and also thrust her four large bags of luggage into his person, like he was her bellman. Not bothering to fight her quiet insistence, Quentin piled them all on top of each other and lugged them down the street and into the ornate doorway of La rose du Magicien, a luxury boutique hotel hidden by extensive illusion work in a high-end apartment building.

The intoxication from the swift change of magic was even stronger that day, since Margo had sprinkled a touch of Horomancy into the particular formation, saving them a full three hours in the time zone change. She tried explaining the method to Quentin several times, but honestly, he still didn’t understand how it didn’t completely fuck up the entire fabric of the space-time continuum.

“I really can’t explain it any better. Eliot set the circumstances, so ask him,” Margo admitted with a huff as they walked through the luxurious hotel lobby. She briefly waved at the concierge, obviously accustomed to the faces as a regular Parisian traveler. “He’s so obnoxious.”

“What do you mean?” Quentin asked, faking as much nonchalance as he could at his absolute favorite name in the world.

It was a relief to openly speak about Eliot. For some reason, Margo hadn’t mentioned him all fucking morning and Quentin frequently had to bite his tongue as to not drop Eliot’s name in the conversation every five minutes. Or ask about Eliot every two minutes. Or adulate Eliot’s entire existence every, you know, microsecond or so. He was proud of how convincingly he was playing the role of a totally normal, totally casual, totally non-obsessive, and totally not-in-love-with-Eliot type person.

Margo didn’t suspect a thing.

Meanwhile, his glamorous date for the weekend leaned her head back into a long stretch as she pressed the gold antique elevator button, her toe tapping impatiently on the marble floor until the soft ping of a bell alerted them to its arrival. The shimmering doors opened to reveal a small encased glass room, with an almost absurd number of button options for floors—70 in total, much higher than official Parisian regulations allowed. But such was magic and Margo shimmied in anticipation, pressing 51.

“So, El took a Horomancy elective last year because the final included a shaman retreat and he wanted to do school-sanctioned peyote,” Margo finally said after they settled into the compact compartment. She twisted around to stare out the large elevator window as it rose above the city. “Otherwise, he didn’t attend a single class.”

Quentin scrunched his nose up, “But he already does, like, a startling amount of peyote on his own time. Why did he care that it was school sanctioned?”

“Quote, unquote: ‘For the erotic thrill of it.’” Margo shook her head, biting her lip with an eye roll and a snorting laugh. Quentin’s lips immediately pulled outward into a hapless grin.

“Yeah, sure,” he said, tracing his tongue across the inside of his lips to try to calm his shit even slightly. But fuck, it was so Eliot. Just so fucking witty and irreverent and Eliot. “That sounds about right.”

God, he loved him.

Quentin slammed his eyes shut. He had to stop doing that. He really, really had to stop doing that. Puffing air into one side of his cheek and creating a small dome, he shook his head. He had to get a fucking grip. Raising his eyebrows to glance at Margo, he faltered when he saw she was watching him under narrowed, glinting eyes.

“Yes, Eliot’s definitely funny,” she said, strangely quiet, before turning her head away from him to stare out at the expanding view. “He thinks you’re funny too.”

Quentin snorted and pushed everything vaguely resembling hope as far down as possible.

“Funny looking, maybe,” he said, hoping he sounded casual. He didn’t feel casual. He felt like he was constantly getting hit by trucks. “Anyway, we’re room 5117, right? Once we get there?”

But she was smiling widely at him, clutching her palms together like she won a big prize. Meanwhile, Quentin held his hand against his brow to block the blinding sun as the glass elevator continued rising into the air. From their vantage point, he could see the ribbon of Canal-Saint Martin and its footbridges, amidst the straight and wide tree-lined streets. And Margo—looking radiant in a form-fitting cream dress and a wide-brimmed hat—smiled widely and wrapped her arm in his.

“Thank you for officially confirming a hunch for me, Coldwater,” she said, like she was reading his mind. Which maybe she was. He wouldn’t put it past Margo to be a secret psychic, but refusing to admit it. “I’m sorry I doubted you.”

“What hunch is that?” Quentin asked, naturally wary. “And doubted what?”

“You’re not just being stubborn, are you?” She asked, her doe eyes fluttering. “You have no fucking idea.”

“Uh, regarding?” Quentin searched her face for any hint of an answer. He didn’t have high hopes for getting a direct response from her, but he figured it was at least worth a shot. Sure enough, though, she simply laughed out a few tiny sounds and patted his arm. Yeah, she wasn’t going to tell him shit.

“Absolutely nothing, you cutie pie,” Margo smiled with a resplendent glow, before leaning forward and pressing a firm, dry kiss on his lips, much to Quentin’s sputtering. “You’re a darling and I should have known.”

“Known what?” Quentin asked, rote. He knew she still wasn’t going to tell him shit. And once again, sure enough, she ignored him as they finally reached their floor and stepped out the elevator. Their room was right across the hall, which was lucky considering how much luggage they (well, Margo) had with them. Without missing a beat, she swiftly and easily put in the ward breaker that gave them access so they could walk right in.

Even though it was a Magicians’ suite, it was still typically European. Small, modest, with a sitting room and a single pink floral couch. Two doors led to the different bedrooms and a marble sink sat outside the compact bathroom, glowing yellow from the old lightbulb ensconced in an antique dome. It was lovely.

“Put all the shit down and then let’s enjoy this goddamn beautiful day,” Margo said. “We’re in Paris, it’s sunny, we have no responsibilities. We should have some fun.”

Quentin nodded, opening his door and tossing his backpack onto the bed without grace.

“Okay, sure. Let’s get in touch with El—“ he started automatically before catching himself, his throat shuttering closed. Margo raised a single eyebrow over an amused face. “Uh, right. Forgot. Habit.”

“Yeah,” Margo said, sidling up to Quentin with her cheek against his shoulder. “It would defeat the purpose. Trust me.”

“I know,” he said, though his gut raged.

“And anyway, I was looking forward to the two of us hanging out,” she said smiling, pushing the last of her ridiculously large bags into her room. She stepped back out and dusted her hands off on her dress, like she’d just done intense hard labor. “He’s been kind of hogging you lately. I should get my fair share.”

“Right, ‘cause I’m a real precious resource,” Quentin rolled his eyes. But Margo just winked and positioned a fancy looking purse on her shoulder.

Posing in front of the full-length mirror beside the vanity, Margo fluffed her strands of hair under her large hat until she was satisfied with her appearance. She looked exactly as good as she always did—which was to say, she looked incredibly good. Quentin briefly glanced down at his jeans and hoodie, and wondered if maybe he should have put in slightly more effort for her.

But Margo pressed a pair of dark round sunglasses on the bridge of her nose and grabbed his arm, dragging him back toward the hallway, “Vámonos. If I don’t deep throat a crepe in the next thirty minutes, I’m gonna die.”

“Actually, Josh highly recommended fasting before dinner,” Quentin said, quickly grabbing his Parisian guidebook off the counter. Margo glared at him; she’d already told him it was embarrassing. But it didn’t hurt to be prepared. “Too lavish a feast, apparently.”

“Quentin, I’m starving,” Margo said with her hands on her hips. She tilted her head menacingly. “Do you think I’m a fun person when I’m hungry?”

“Yeah, okay,” Quentin cleared his throat and ushered her out the door. “Let’s go get some fucking food.”

 


 

Quentin’s thighs burned through all of their muscles as they ascended the final stair, sweat slicking down his back. Tying his hoodie arms tighter around his waist, he took a few long breaths and rubbed his neck, glancing over at the unperturbed Margo with a grimace. The woman was in goddamn high heels and she literally wasn’t breaking a sweat or an ankle.

“I exercise,” she said with a laugh at his pathetic, shaking form. “A bod like this doesn’t come for free.”

“You didn’t tell me Montmartre was literally a giant hill,” Quentin complained. “Fuck.”

“You would’ve cocked out on me,” she said with a shrug, pulling her crepe back to her mouth. It was wrapped in several tight circles inside a paper container. “Fuck, this is like an orgasm. What kind did you get? You devoured yours.”

“Uh, just sugar and cinnamon,” Quentin admitted with a sheepish grin. He was a man of simple tastes.

But Margo twisted her lips into a tiny pucker, “I thought your balls were two literal tangerines based on how hard your dick gets for citrus flavor, though.”

“Evocative imagery,” Quentin said with an eye roll. “And yeah, sure, but I figured it probably wouldn’t be as good as what Eliot makes anyway, so why bother?”

Margo’s laugh scared a few nearby birds into flight.

“Jesus cunt-licking Christ,” she said, simply. Quentin turned pink. Okay, yeah, maybe that was a little much.

“He likes oranges too and cooks with them a lot,” he said, hopefully in a smooth and believable explanation. “That’s all.”

“Oh yeah, El fuckin’ loves oranges,” Margo snorted. “For sure.”

“Right, so, figured I’d get something different,” Quentin said, desperately looking around for a distraction. Margo still didn’t suspect anything. He was sure of it. Still, rather than dwelling on the risky topic, he pointed out the obvious. “The sign says Sacre-Coeur is just up the bend here.”

Naturally, Margo led the way, peppering their conversation through the iconic village with a surprising amount of fervor regarding the history and cultural ties to the area. She pointed out a salon frequented by Degas’ dancers—a Magicians’ scandal at the time—and spoke of Renoir’s brush strokes with technical and knowledgeable adoration. On the one hand, it was a charming, almost sweet side of the fierce, complex woman in front of him. But on the other, holy information overload, Batman. He felt a bit like he’d been signed up for a walking tour without his consent.

Unfairly to Margo perhaps, he smiled to himself as he heard Eliot in his head, effervescent and disarming. Bambi, you know I think your voice is the most melodious sound on Earth, but please for the love of god, let’s talk about something else. Quentin’s stomach squeezed against his heart. He loved spending time with Margo. She was a great friend. But he missed Eliot. He really missed Eliot. Fuck.

Fuck.

Thankfully, before he could totally spiral, they stood in front of the towering, awe-inspiring building in plain view and even Margo seemed bowed and entranced by its majesty.

“Shit, too bad it’s a church. Could’ve been something really special,” she said, typically. Then she looked at Quentin, probing. “You’re an atheist too, right?”

“I mean, I think so,” he said, furrowing his brow. He hadn’t thought much about it lately, not since Columbia. “But then, I never thought magic was real either. This year has kinda been like the Socratic paradox. I neither know nor think that I know.”

“Hmm,” Margo said with an unconvinced frown. “Maybe.”

“Like, who the fuck am I to say there’s no God or gods at this point?” Quentin sighed, before smiling a secret hope. “Maybe even Fillory is real.”

Margo snorted, “Don’t stretch credulity too much, Coldwater.”

Fair enough.

Stepping onto the grass, Quentin scanned his eyes across the small rolling hill and out into the horizon. Les Invalides and the Eiffel Tower peaked cheekily at him from the Left Bank, reminding him exactly where he was in their iconic splendor. The scent of hot dogs and body odor mingled with the fresh flowers and cigarette smoke, while hundreds of tourists and locals laid out in the knoll, dotted like Seurat’s pointillism through the expanse. The whirring sound of toy planes, glowing neon through the air as the unsanctioned vendors caught and released them without rhythm, almost eclipsed the general chatter and street musicians. A moveable feast, indeed.

Meanwhile, Margo cast a quick spell on the grass and a thin protective layer of heat swelled over a picnic blanket sized square. She happily sat down and pulled Quentin beside her, neither of them needing to fear stains rubbing on their clothing. Of course, he was still wearing casual all-black in contrast to Margo’s white, but he was glad she was more comfortable. He stretched his legs out into the sun and she joined him, kicking his foot with hers.

“Can I ask you a personal question?” Margo angled her chest toward him, her voice more serious than usual. She took her sunglasses off and placed them on the ground between them.“What’s your deal?”

“Uh,” Quentin quirked his lips down. “More specificity please?”

“So, like, you dated Ryan for a few months, right?” She asked and he nodded, slowly. Margo obviously knew this well. “And he was the first guy you’d been with?”

Ah. Okay. Right. She was asking about his sexuality. He bit the inside of his cheek, a little too hard. It wasn’t always a favorite topic. He didn’t analyze it very much, so why the fuck did everyone else feel like they needed to?

“Nope,” Quentin shook his head, terseness calcifying his words before he could stop it. “Been with a few before him. Women too. But Ryan was, like, my first semi-functional relationship.”

“Right,” Margo waved her hand. “Okay. Still, first real guy. What does that mean for you moving forward, then? Like, in terms of your next fuck friend?”

“Oh, I’m glad you asked,” Quentin said, smirking. “A lot of people aren’t interested in the bureaucratic nitty-gritty, but there’s actually this, uh, quota system laid out by the Bisexual Association of America that strictly states—”

“Fuck off,” Margo laughed, shoving him until he fell sideways onto the grass. “I’m queer too, you asshole. I’m just asking if you have a sense of a preference now. Like, are you itching for pussy or what?”

“I mean, when you put it like that, how could I resist?” Quentin pulled a face. “But no. I just kind of take people as they come.”

“Too easy,” Margo said with a sly wink.

“You and Eliot both say that a lot,” Quentin said, shaking his head. “And I’m starting to suspect it’s because you can’t always come up with an actual joke.”

“Blasphemy,” Margo laughed. “But I like your cheeky side.”

“To answer your question, though, I guess my deal is that—” Quentin cut himself off with a sigh, but then nodded. “My deal is that I think it’s fucked up that if I had dated and ended things with a woman, no one would ask me if I was itching to go back to dick now.”

“Shit,” Margo’s face drained of color. “Shit. You’re absolutely right.”

“It’s fine,” Quentin shrugged. “Just—my interest in people is pretty broad. I don’t identify as anything because I find it all too fucking constricting. So no, I don’t have a preference.”

“I absolutely get that,” Margo nodded. “I do.”

“But that doesn’t mean I’m—”

“Quentin,” Margo cut him off. “I get it. I’m sorry.”

“It’s fine,” he smiled, not totally feeling it. But he was used to putting others at ease. “Shit’s complicated.”

“I just needed to make sure you’re ready before I move forward,” Margo said, cryptically, typically. It didn’t even faze Quentin. “But it wasn’t a fair question.”

“Sure,” he laughed. “As usual, I have no fucking idea what you’re talking about. But sure.”

Comfortable silence reigned and they people-watched for a short time, the sun warming their faces as it moved slowly through the sky. Eventually, a small child walked up to them, selling the toy planes and Quentin reached into his pocket to grab a couple euros.

Handing it to the boy with a quick Merci, he took the plane in his hands and shot it up in the air, much further than it should have been able to go. It dazzled too bright against the blue sky and the boy’s face broke into a wide grin, as he pointed upward, babbling excitedly in French. When it came back down, the boy pointed at Quentin and up to the sky, begging for more with common body language. Indulging him, Quentin sent it into fast circles upward, leaving a trail of plausibly deniable magic behind it.

Children were the easiest to share the joy of magic with. They didn’t question it, they didn’t second guess. They just accepted, with wide-eyed love. It gave Quentin an undeniable feeling of hope, every time. It made all the shit in the world worth it, for a few brief moments. And so maybe buying the novelty item technically went against everything the guide book said—warnings about pick-pockets and the economy abounded. But at the end of the day, Quentin had always been a sucker, his whole life. Wasn’t changing.

Meanwhile, Margo watched the whole exchange with a strangely soft gaze, not speaking once. When the boy finally ran away, off to tell his friends, she swallowed hard and touched Quentin’s knee.

“I’m also sorry about the past couple weeks,” Margo said, more sincere than Quentin had ever heard her. “I think I was a shitty friend. I was trying to be a good friend, but I fucked up. I assumed the worst and I’m sorry.”

“I mean, once again, it would help if I knew what pissed you off so badly,” Quentin said with a sigh. “But I still appreciate it.”

“I’m protective,” Margo said, dipping her head down. A strand of her highlighted hair glinted in the French sun as it fell against her cheek. “But I think I should have been more protective of you too. That will change. I promise.”

“I don’t need protection,” Quentin said with an eye roll. But Margo just squeezed his arm.

 


 

The warmth and good feelings between Quentin and Margo lasted precisely until they arrived back at the hotel to get prepped for dinner. After they both showered and began getting dressed, everything went to complete hell.

Stomps around the hotel room, angry yelling and ferocious insistence on who knew best permeated the once happy air and while Quentin eventually gave into Margo’s absurd and obnoxious overreach—because he had no fucking choice, he thought with a furious huff—it wasn’t a happy scene. According to Quentin, Margo was an overstepping tyrant. According to Margo, Quentin didn’t know a good thing when he saw it. She was looking out for him, she said. He had a right to his own choices, he said.

Because, well, Margo had literally thrown all of Quentin’s clothes away.

Like, literally. In the fucking garbage. The public dumpster, to be exact, as she recounted her subterfuge with a gleeful grin, as though it wasn’t the most entitled bullshit Quentin had ever heard in his entire life. But it was fine, she insisted, as she pulled a dry cleaning bag out of her endless luggage and thrust the suspiciously suit-shaped hanger at him, because she had taken the necessary steps to ensure he would be ready for the party, in style.

More yelling commenced, until they reached a shaky detente, brought about more by the necessity of the ticking clock than actual emotional resolution.

Slipping on the black and red suit jacket over an uncomfortably crisp white dress shirt, Quentin plucked at the sleeves with a frustrated sigh. All of the edges were embroidered with an abstract pattern that included little skulls and holy shit, it was the exact opposite of anything Quentin had ever been in his entire fucking life. The label read Alexander McQueen and while he didn’t know much about fashion, he remembered there had been a Met retrospective of the designer’s work a few years earlier. If that gave any indication, he was definitely in unknown territory.

Similarly, a single price tag hanged off the edge of the pants and when he saw the dollar indication, Quentin actually burst out laughing. What a scam.

But he was dressed and wearing the damn clothes and the night was happening regardless, so he tried his best to put on a game face as he walked with Margo out onto the street and up the boulevard, toward the direction of the restaurant.

Margo wore a long red dress with a slit up the leg, her hair piled up intricately on top of her head. She was gorgeous, as always. For a few moments, he allowed himself to bask in the glow that a woman who looked like her—like the goddamn Queen of the fucking Universe—would want anything to do with nerdy, mousy Quentin Coldwater. It was an odd pride, especially considering the almost near lack of romantic interest he had in Margo beyond extremely base sexual desire. Still, it was a pride nonetheless.

But his self-consciousness came back in full form as they reached the restaurant. It was a small, unassuming single-story cafe, with short stairs leading into a darkened entryway. Wicker chairs faced outward on the small patio and he already saw Guillermo outside, smoking with his legs propped up on the back of one of them. Eliot wasn’t with him, but fuck. Fuck. Fuck.

Fuck.

Quentin looked ridiculous.

“I look ridiculous, Margo,” he said, hissing under his breath, apropos of nothing. She rolled her eyes.

“Uh, no, you look like a hot dreamboat who’s actually worthy of being my date,” Margo said, immediately tugging him into the entrance without a moment’s hesitation. “Enjoy this fleeting moment, Coldwater.”

 


 

The Magicians’ room of the restaurant was on the secret second floor, above the awning. Margo and Quentin walked up the narrow stairs and through a small wooden door. Immediately, the sounds of a string quartet playing Edith Piaf flowed through them and the smell of caramelized meats and edible flowers dizzied Quentin’s mind all over again. A long table dressed in candles and greenery was already prepared with fine cutlery and the room led outward toward a breathtaking balcony, overlooking the canal and the whole of the city.

The elegant wooden indoor bar had multiple glasses of wine laid out for the taking and Margo pointed out the back of Josh’s head, as he talked animatedly with a red-headed woman Quentin didn’t recognize. Grabbing a glass of red wine, he drank deeply to calm his nerves. It was going to be a fun night. It was supposed to be fun. People had fun at parties.

Finally, the red-head walked away and Josh turned around, taking in the new arrivals. He gave Margo a quick salute, but then his bespectacled face broke into a genuine smile at the sight of Quentin.

“Quentin Coldwater,” Josh laughed and stepped forward, wrapping him into a hug. “I knew I’d see you here, one way or another.”

“Another prevailed,” Quentin said with a smile and hugged Josh tightly back. “Congratulations, man. I bought you a bottle of whiskey, but it’s, uh, back at Brakebills. You don’t get it until you walk the stage.

“A motherfucker after my own motherfucking heart,” Josh released him and handed him a quick glass of wine. “Switch out. This one’s better.”

In response, Quentin chugged his original one and Josh laughed again, clapping him on the back. Margo immediately grabbed Quentin’s wine and sipped it, comparing it to her own. After considering with a frown, she handed Quentin her original glass. And he accepted that, because, well, it was Margo.

“Entrez, entrez. The night is light and full of heart,” Josh said, ushering them deeper into the small crowd. Quentin scanned the room and tried not to feel disappointed at the lack of Eliot. He was around somewhere. It was a matter of time. “That’s a little Game of Thrones subversion for ya.”

Quentin took another sip of his drink and smirked, “Never heard of it.”

“Good to see you too, Hanson,” Josh said, finally offering Margo a brief hug. She vaguely deigned to touch him before pulling back to pat him on the shoulder.

“Happy Birthday, Hoberman,” Margo said brightly, even though she definitely knew that it wasn’t a birthday party.

Josh ignored her and immediately started explaining the menu—a classic French feast with frankly exhausting sounding molecular-magical gastronomy elements—and Quentin almost forgot his nerves with the almost-graduate’s fervent excitement about the innovativeness and deliciousness of the feast he’d prepared. He just hoped that duck confit foam that was going to swim to their plates actually contained some duck confit and wasn’t, like, only foam and illusion magic. His stomach growled with annoyance. He should have had a second crepe earlier.

But then his same stomach swooped and crashed, as a familiar voice rang out through the crowd, joyful and commanding. Quentin closed his eyes and let the half-second of cadence wash over him, his grip on the bar tightening along with his chest.

“Bambi!”

Margo smirked at Quentin and patted his arm, before turning around with an affected huff. Quentin kept his eyes focused on the still-talking Josh, not wanting to be rude and immediately cutting him off just because the person he loved more than anyone in the world had announced his presence. Quentin wasn’t rude. And he also definitely wasn’t being a coward and trying to keep his shit together and away from Eliot. Definitely not.

“Where in the ever-loving fuck have you been?” He heard and fucking felt Eliot move closer to them, the scent of his cologne drifting their way. “When did you arrive?”

Quentin risked a glance over his shoulder and then couldn’t look away. Eliot looked…well, he looked like Eliot. Prime, perfect Eliot. Tall and lean, in a perfectly tailored red tuxedo jacket, worn like a suit over a black button down and bowtie. His hair was mussed in that way that looked like he’d rolled out of bed, but Quentin knew better.

He could picture Eliot standing in front of the mirror, swiftly moving his long fingers through each curl, twisting and setting with product. His lips and nose would be screwed up with concentration until he finally perfect the style, the way it fell over one side of his face, and the way it swooped across his hairline like the devil himself would never care about anything. After that, Eliot would smile at his own reflection, pleased and ready to conquer the world and every person on the face of it, willing and ready for his taking. And then Guillermo would appear in the mirror too, to hug him from behind and—

Quentin cut himself off with a harsh inward breath. Fuck.

“At noon,” Margo answered drolly and Quentin had to remind himself of the original question. When she arrived. Right. Then, Margo leaned up at Eliot and quickly kissed both of his cheeks in a fast succession, like the French did.

“Uh, what?” Eliot pulled a dark face that recovered quickly into his usual amused mask. “You’re joking.”

“I never joke. I’ve had a lovely day in Paris,” Margo said, before pouting a little. “Aww, did you miss me?”

“You could have at least sent a fucking messenger pigeon,” Eliot folded his arms, real annoyance deepening the lines between his brows. “I specifically wanted to take you to this speakeasy style salon I stumbled on last year. Very exclusive—”

“I’m sure it would have been fab, El,” Margo said, cutting him off lightly. “But I’ve been exploring the city with my date.”

Eliot brightened.

“Your date? Well, I never, you saucy minx,” he rubbed her shoulders, languid and naughty. “Tell me everything.”

“Trust me, you’ll love him,” Margo laughed and abruptly pulled Quentin’s arm so he rag-dolled to her side. He caught Eliot’s eye with a brief wave and tried not to take it personally when Eliot’s face immediately fell and he staggered backwards. ”See?”

“Hey—” Quentin started to say, but was immediately cut off as Margo’s hand went possessively up his cheek. He batted her off. “Stop it, Margo.” She purred into his ear. He batted her off. “Stop it, Margo.”

But instead of engaging in the banter, Eliot stepped back once again like he’d been scalded.

“What are you doing here?” He asked, quiet, without a single hint of jovial affectation. He blinked three times in quick succession and swallowed, looking at Quentin like he’d committed treason.“You—you said your plans changed.”

“Good to see you too,” Quentin tried to smile over the way his heart rammed itself against his sternum. “And uh, long story short, Margo made me come.”

“Okay, now you’re just doing that on purpose,” Margo elbowed him. Quentin’s lips twitched. He was. But Eliot wasn’t playing along, as his eyes darkened further, like he was piecing together a narrative that greatly displeased him. He tilted his head and looked Quentin up and down.

“What the hell are you wearing?” Eliot asked, his eyes crinkling in confusion and Quentin wanted to crawl in a hole. Margo glared at Eliot.

“McQueen,” she said, crossing her arms.

“Obviously,” Eliot crossed his back. “But why?”

“I think what Eliot means to say is: Damn, son,” Josh said, sidling up to the group with a grin, his arms around Quentin and Margo at once. “Looking sharp. Seriously, should I be honored? I’ve never seen you so dressed up.”

“Sure,” Quentin said, scratching the back of his neck. “Or, you know, alternately, Margo threw out all my clothes and these were her not-so-conspicuous replacements.”

The first bloom of a smile settled on Eliot’s face and he breathed out a soft laugh, giving Margo a wry, questioning look. She shrugged, unapologetic and confirming. Then he looked back at Quentin and rolled his eyes, like in solidarity.

“Ah, okay,” Eliot nodded then. “All riddles have resolutions.”

“Honestly, I wish I could throw out every single piece of clothing you own,” Margo said with a glare, pinching Quentin’s shoulder. “I could only get my hands on the ready trash heap you brought with you. I did the Lord’s work.”

“I like my clothes,” Quentin said, crossing his arms. Margo stuck her tongue out, looking more like Julia than he’d ever seen. He felt a brief pang of missing his best friend. He could use her wit and soft wisdom right now. And she would have fucking eviscerated Margo for her antics. Not cool, Margo, she’d say. Q’s great just as he is. And Margo would have insisted that Quentin's okay enough, but everyone needs a tune up sometimes, and then Eliot would have said—

He blinked. Better to focus on reality, not hypotheticals.

“I’m just glad I finally got to execute that chambray atrocity myself,” Margo said, reaching over to Josh’s martini and plucking out the olive. She popped it into her mouth over the guest of honor’s weak protests. Then she spit it out and snarled her nose at the pimento in the center before handing it back to its source.

“Uh, what am I supposed to do with this?” Josh asked, holding the chewed up food in the center of his palm. But no one really paid attention, save Eliot who shrugged a single shoulder upward before turning back to the more pressing matter of Quentin’s clothing.

“I liked that chambray atrocity,” Quentin stated firmly over Josh’s vocal search for a trash can, though both men were glaring at Margo.

“So did I,” Eliot said, lightly. Quentin rolled his eyes, his stomach twisting a little. Eliot really could still be a dick sometimes.

“Ha, ha,” Quentin said, flat and not looking at him. “Funny guy.”

But Eliot looked down and cleared his throat, before scanning the perimeter of the room like he was desperate to escape. Probably looking for Guillermo, Quentin realized, miserably. He finished his wine in a quick gulp and was a little surprised when Margo immediately handed him another full glass, with a small smile. It was unusual for her to anticipate anyone’s needs other than her own, but he wasn’t going to question it.

“Well, I think he’s never looked more handsome,” Margo said, wrapping her arm around Quentin’s. “Honestly, can anyone here can say he’s ever looked more handsome? I can’t personally think of examples.”

“I don’t have any examples, but only because I’ve never thought about it before,” Josh said, raising his glass. “But you definitely look very handsome right now.”

“Fuck off, Margo,” Quentin said, feeling his cheeks burn. Meanwhile, Eliot was sipping his flask in quiet concentration, quite obviously ignoring the dumb conversation. Margo stared him down, an inexplicably devious smile on her face. Josh chuckled and patted Eliot on the back.

“Hey El, you, uh, know there’s plenty of free alcohol here, right?” Josh said with a giant smile. “It’s good stuff too.”

Eliot gave him a tight grin and wagged his flask in the air, “I know what I like.”

“More like what you think you need,” Margo perched an eyebrow high, only to receive a dark glare back from Eliot. Quentin sniffed the air and smelled flowers again. He frowned a little, still unable to place it.

“Whatever gets the job done, right, boys?” Eliot patted Josh and Quentin’s arms at the same time before letting his long legs take him as far away as he could go. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, it’s time to mingle.”

 


 

It didn’t take Quentin long to lose track of Margo.

Ducking his way out onto the balcony, he was awed at the warm breeze and stunning view out to the canal and even stretching out beyond the Seine. It was late enough in spring that golden hour was only barely upon them and pink light shrouded the city like cloudy cotton candy. The blue rooftops shone in their history and stature over the courtyards, gardens, and trident-like street lamps. Gold and marble statues peaked their heads out to say hello every few meters and the scent of a thousand perfect meals being cooked across the city permeated the air.

But out of the corner of his eye, Quentin saw two figures bent over each other each other, whispering angrily and throwing their hands around in the air indiscriminately.

It was Eliot and Margo, fighting.

This in and of itself wasn’t that unexpected. As close as the two of them were, they bickered like an old married couple and had drunken blow-outs over nonsense even more frequently. But while he could only see the back of Eliot’s head, there was something about the intensity of Margo’s eyes that drew him in closer, both concerned and curious.

“And fucking fourth of all, this is not what I would have worn,” Eliot spat out through his teeth.

“Calm down,” Margo put her hands on her hips. “This has nothing to do with you.”

“Nothing to do with me? Is that a joke?” Eliot leaned into her space, his finger pointed directly in her face. “I don’t know what you think you’ve got up your sleeve, but—”

“Uh, hey guys,” Quentin said, feeling a little awkward at their instant and simultaneous head snaps toward him. They often made him feel like the dumb little kid trailing behind their wake. “What’s going on?”

“Nothing,” Eliot said, glaring at Margo. “And it had better stay that way.”

“Oh, you’re a fucking drama queen,” Margo said with an eye roll.

“I’m going to the bar,” Eliot said, giving Quentin a terse nod. He pulled out a cigarette and walked away. Sighing, Margo kissed Quentin on the cheek.

“And I’m going to pee,” she said, slamming her purse against his chest. “Hold this.”

“Um, okay,” he said, as she walked away, her hips twisting like she was delighted. And then there was one.

When Quentin glanced back at the balcony bar, Eliot was already gone. Looking around the almost empty rooftop, save the red-headed woman and Victoria, he finally found him at one of the bar stools closest to the edge. Eliot gazed out at the view, alone and pensive, all the way to Place de Republique. He sipped a delightful looking pink drink out of one hand and nursed long and thin cigarette in the other. Moth to a flame, as always, Quentin walked to him and leaned against the looping wrought-iron balcony gate with a grin.

“That looks good,” he said, trying to engage Eliot like the lovesick idiot he was. Oh well.

Eliot snorted, barely looking up at him, “It’s Campari. You’d hate it.”

“I mean, it looks pink and fruity and delicious,” Quentin smirked. “Right up my alley. You’re just being pissy.”

“Okay, know-it-all. Try it then,” Eliot said, his usual glean in his eyes when he finally caught Quentin’s. Falling instantly into their natural rhythm and ease, Eliot handed him the drink with an exaggerated wink and chuckled when Quentin brought it up to his lips, ready to enjoy the deliciousness.

…He’d definitely made a terrible mistake.

Quentin’s throat started to gag as an instantly bitter and almost rotten flavor, like fermented grapefruit, filled his mouth. He pulled a long, hard face, glaring at the cheekily, evilly grinning Eliot.

“Is it supposed to taste like that?” He asked in a harsh whisper, quietly allowing the acidic flavor to swirl around his poor tongue. Eliot cracked a wide laugh and nodded, slowly.

“Told you,” he said, wrapping his hand around the drink to take it back. He was so horrified that he almost didn’t notice when Eliot’s fingers brushed against his for a moment, two moments, before pulling away. He almost didn’t notice the long, hot shot of adrenaline that radiated from the tip of his finger, all the way in a single coursing line up to his ear. Almost.

“That’s like the equivalent of when people put ghost peppers in their delicious looking food to fuck over their co-workers,” Quentin said, stretching his tongue out against his chin. “It’s an attractive nuisance. Fucking, uh, litigation worthy.”

Eliot’s smile perked up over the rim of the glass, “At least you’re not being dramatic about it.”

“I’m definitely not being dramatic. That could seriously convince me to never drink again,” Quentin shook his head. “Fucking disgusting.”

Eliot rolled his eyes and bit his lip, like he was trying to keep the last of his bad mood clenched down under his teeth. Quentin’s insides sparkled at the idea that his stupid jokes and fumbling inability to taste anything even remotely bitter may have melted whatever ice had formed around him. It was pathetic and sad, but it made him feel good.

Oh well.

“Hey, uh, you’re right though. I was being pissy earlier. Sorry,” Eliot said, his jaw tensing despite his soft words. “I’m glad you decided to show up after all.”

“Yeah, didn’t mean to startle you or whatever,” Quentin said with a shrug. Eliot glanced away.

“Well, in any case, I’d been looking forward to our Paris adventure for awhile,” he said, raising his glass in a quick cheers. “So it was weird that you wouldn’t be here. Glad to the course righted itself.”

“Thanks, yeah,” Quentin pressed his lips into each other. He tried not to read into it. He and Eliot were friends. Friends was still good. At least, better than nothing. “Margo can be persuasive.”

“Apparently,” Eliot said, looking Quentin up and down. “The outfit alone.”

“Oh god,” Quentin brought his hand up to his collar, tugging at it self-consciously. “Yeah, I keep forgetting I’m wearing this shit.”

“You look good,” Eliot said, taking a sip of his god-awful drink. “Didn’t mean to imply otherwise. Though I do think your usual style suits you more.”

“It’s some Trading Spaces shit, for sure,” Quentin said. “Rags to riches. Pauper to prince.”

Eliot tilted his head, “Not what I meant. You wear it surprisingly well. But everyone looks best when they’re comfortable. That’s all.”

“Yeah, but I feel like a monkey in a tuxedo,” Quentin laughed and Eliot raised his eyebrows like, well, what can you do. “I saw the price tag on just the pants and they’re worth more than my kidney.”

“It’s certainly an interesting change of pace,” Eliot smiled. “Fine for a special occasion. But don’t let Margo get to your closet or she’ll have you a label whore before you blink.”

“Noted,” Quentin shook his head, his hair falling in his eyes as he grinned. Eliot glanced away again. “Though between her and Julia, I’m probably fucked. Did I tell you that Jules enchanted my hair so it wouldn’t grow?”

Eliot bit the inside of his cheek and stared him down, “How long did that take you?”

“What do you mean?”

“To notice that you didn’t need a haircut,” Eliot smirked and put his highball down on the stool. “How long did that take you?”

Quentin’s ears went pink, “Uh, a little over six months.”

He could have listened to the laugh that Eliot let out on a loop for the rest of his life. And looked at the wide, dazzling smile on his face for even longer.

“You are the poster child for ADHD,” Eliot said, shaking his head. But his eyes were warm and affectionate. “Jesus.”

“Well, to be fair,” Quentin started, before smirking. “That’s totally true.”

“Let me see,” Eliot reached his hand up and lightly touched Quentin’s hairline. Quentin tried to swallow his heart as silently as he could. Eliot held his pointer and thumb together into a circle and looked through the one-handed frame. “I could break this for you if you wanted. Easy.”

“Eh, I probably could too. But it’s one less thing to worry about,” Quentin said and Eliot rolled his eyes. “Besides, I think Julia would kill me if I went back to my long-haired days.”

“You look good with long hair too,” Eliot said, clinically and considering. “She’s unimaginative.”

“Uh, thanks,” Quentin blinked and inwardly told his thudding rib cage to calm its shit. Eliot gave him a quick smile and slowly moved out of Quentin’s personal space. Everything felt distinctly colder.

“How did you and Margo pass the time this afternoon, then?” Eliot asked, taking his drink back. “Besides the makeover montage.”

“She wanted to go to Montmartre,” Quentin said. “So we took the Metro and got a pre-dinner crepe. Then we took a walk to Sacre-Coeur and chatted mostly.”

“Wholesome,” Eliot said, frowning.

“Well, I haven’t been to Paris since I was, like, four and she’s apparently obsessed with the Belle Époque. She knows way more about Renoir than any one person really should. Even I was like, calm down, nerd.”

Eliot shuddered out a laugh at that and raised those warm eyes up to Quentin’s again. Quentin smiled back and tried not to feel bereft when Eliot immediately turned away again.

“To be fair, I’m not sure you have a soul if you don’t enjoy La Belle Époque,” Eliot said, clearing his throat as he gazed out at the horizon. The view really was spectacular. “Though I’m more of a Rodin person myself.”

“Yeah, she wants to go to that museum tomorrow,” Quentin said with a nod and Eliot frowned deeper. “But in all, it was fun to see the sights as an adult, with a friend.”

Eliot chugged the rest of his drink—somehow without vomiting from the pure acid in the glass— his eyes unfocused, “Glad you kids had a nice time.”

“I’m just glad she’s not mad at me anymore,” Quentin said with a shrug. Eliot tensed his jaw again and nodded.

“Seems like you two had a real bonding sesh,” he said. “That’s great.”

Quentin felt like he didn’t actually think it was totally great, but he didn’t press.

“How about you?” Quentin asked. “Do anything fun?”

“Not really,” Eliot said, his voice a little clipped. “Took a nap. Smoked and drank at a cafe. Didn’t even know you and Margo were here.”

“Oh,” Quentin said, a little startled, realizing all at once that Eliot was annoyed that they hadn’t reached out to him. “We thought you were busy. That’s all.”

“Sure.”

“El, Margo and I weren’t trying to—”

“It’s fine, Q,” Eliot said, with a deep breath. His wide smile was back. “Technically, she was your friend first. She reminds me of that frequently.”

“Sorry,” Quentin said, his gut wrenching.

“Don’t say sorry,” Eliot said, for what felt like eightieth time in less than a week. “I’m here with a date, after all, so your assumption wasn’t unreasonable.”

“Speaking of,” Quentin cleared his throat, “Where’s, uh, Guillermo?”

He didn’t really care. He really didn’t want to see Guillermo. But he was still Eliot’s friend and friends were supposed to give a shit about these kinds of things. Surprisingly, though, Eliot didn’t seem to brighten at the mention of his person-with-whom-he-eschewed-labels. Instead, he seemed partially annoyed and wholly disinterested.

“Fuck if I know,” Eliot gestured around with his cigarette. “Somewhere around here.”

“I thought you said you always knew where everyone was,” Quentin waggled his eyebrows. “You know, because you’re a ninja.”

“I don’t think I said exactly that,” Eliot said with a brief smile. “But I am absolutely a ninja. That will never change.”

But just as Quentin was about to deepen their back-and-forth—desperate for the high of that familiar, easy rhythm—his back was suddenly clamped in a firm and loving vice. Two strong arms gripped him from behind and lifted his whole body into the air with a loud, excited shout. Not sure if he should feel honored or accosted, he stole a panicked glance at Eliot, whose face had darkened into pure hatred.

Oh, it was Todd.

“Holy shit, Quentin!” He yelled right in his ear, twirling him around a few times until Quentin actually laughed at the intrusion.  “I thought you weren’t coming!”

Eliot took three long strides backwards and sucked on his cigarette with a sharp, steely stare at the two of them. Todd eventually put Quentin down and greeted Eliot with an enthusiastic wave. In response, he dragged his cigarette back and forth, as unenthusiastic a greeting as anyone could manage. But Quentin turned his form to Todd and grinned.

“Margo dragged my ass here,” he said, patting Todd’s back with a laugh. “Almost literally.”

“Oh man, tonight is going to be the bomb dot com,” Todd said, jumping up and down. Eliot took several deep breaths, still not speaking. “So freaking happy you could make it. It’ll be way better now, because—spoiler alert—you’re the real bomb dot com.”

“Thanks,” Quentin tried to keep smiling as he warily watched Eliot started to mime strangling Todd over his head, his mouth open in an angry, silent scream. He shot him a firm warning glance before turning back to his other good friend. “Glad I’m here too.”

“And you look fantastic,” Todd said, pointing at Quentin’s formal jacket. “Did you get this from, like, Saks Fifth Avenue or something?”

“Okay, I’m out,” Eliot said, turning on his heel. “I can’t. See you soon, Q.”

 


 

The dinner settled into loveliness from the moment everyone sat around the long table. The meal was served in courses, starting with several amuse bouches and other tiny bites of things Quentin was sure someone with much more refined tastes would enjoy.

Desperately and unsurprisingly, he wished he was seated closer to Eliot, since he would know how to explain each plate in a way that actually made sense to Quentin. He loved Josh, but hearing that the tomato-morel compote was imbued with the blood of the terroir really meant virtually nothing to him. Still, everything looked good and tasted good, which was all Quentin could truly want. And the company was even better and the conversation flowing, even if it was a bit silly at times. But fuck, didn’t they deserve a touch of silly every now and then?

Proving the point, Josh pointed down at the table and glanced around with a grin.

“Personally, I think that everyone has a kinship with one of The Beatles,” he said, nodding sagely. “But it’s important to know thyself. I’m a Ringo. No shame.”

“And I’m a George. Hare Krishna, motherfuckers,” Victoria said with a peace sign, before turning to her left. “How about you, Eliot?”

“Mick Jagger,” he said over his wine glass, skipping zero beats. Quentin rolled his eyes and suppressed a smile at Eliot’s refusal to play by the simple rules of a loose party game. But before anyone else could say anything, Todd earnestly popped his head into view.

“Actually, Mick Jagger is a member of The Rolling Stones,” he said with a bobbing nod. “Don’t worry, Eliot. It’s a common mistake.”

“Thanks, Todd,” Eliot said, voice flat. Todd nodded again, brightly, earnestly, unwittingly.

“Around the table!” Josh said, drumming his hands in excited anticipation. Margo groaned.

Quentin, though, frowned at her displeasure—he liked categorization games. As soon as Josh brought up the topic, he immediately started going through each Beatles’ characteristics to try to analyze which one he was truly most like. He’d landed on John, probably. He was art and philosophical. Kind of odd looking. Prone to deep, reckless love. And he wrote the songs that Quentin liked best.

“But I don’t identify with any mediocre white men,” Margo said, like a declaration. “The Beatles are jerk-offs.”

“Hot take,” Victoria shot back.

Margo shrugged, sipping her champagne, “I wanna talk about Renoir.”

“Oh my god, what more could you possibly have to say about Renoir?” Quentin didn’t really mean to snap, but oh my god. Margo stuck her tongue out at him, Julia-like again, and from across the table, Eliot coughed into his wine.

“Margo’s Haterade aside, methinks it could get interesting. Everyone else is pretty ambiguous,” Josh said, before he laughed with a point across the table. “Well, except Quentin.”

“What do you mean?” Quentin asked. He was currently grappling with the horrifying thought that he may actually be a Pete Best when all was said and done. It was really the answer that would align best with his life’s trajectory.

“You’re about as Paul McCartney as they come,” Josh said and Victoria nodded vigorously. “You might be more Paul than Paul.”

“Oh god,” Margo said, her eyes widening. “This is the dumbest game and I genuinely hate it. Like, sincerely fucking loathe it. But that’s actually true.”

“He thinks he’s Lennon though,” Eliot said, mouth twisting up into a grin, his eyes crinkling at Quentin. The tips of Quentin’s ears burned at both the pleasure of Eliot’s attention and the accuracy of his statement.

“I mean, I’m at least a hybrid,” Quentin mumbled and Eliot’s smile widened brightly, as he glanced down at the table. “Like, sixty-forty."

 


 

 

A little less than mid-way through the evening, the waiters presented a palate cleansing sorbet, made of chamomile tea, juniper, and vanilla, with sprigs of micro-mint atop the iced glaze to be finished in several single bites. To Quentin, it felt like having a weird dessert right before eating a bunch of fish, but everyone else was going nuts over it. So he figured his opinion was probably wrong and he simply nodded intensely—with as wide and earnest of eyes as he could manage—when Margo asked him if he loved it or if he loved it.

It was a quick interlude, though, and the waiters took away the tiny bowls in a shot, readying them for the cod and bergamot asparagus course. And just as the gorgeously plated meals were placed down on the table, Todd popped his head into view again, catching his eye with a wave. Quentin smiled. He hadn’t had a chance to chat with Todd much that evening. In truth, Todd had been a little unusually quiet, mostly drinking and listening to the conversation rather than participating.

“Quentin,” Todd said with his usual pep, which immediately put him at ease. “I actually wanted to give you something. I got you a present.”

“Oh, Jesus,” Eliot said, like he couldn’t help himself.

“A—what?” Quentin blinked. He hadn’t expected that. “Why?”

“Well,” Todd said, pouring himself more wine as he spoke, “I spent most of the afternoon at Librairie Christian Chaboud—”

“You spent your afternoon in Paris at a library?” Eliot asked, slowly, like Todd was the strangest, worst person he’d ever seen. “What?”

“It’s not a library,” Margo said, her eyes not moving from Todd. “It’s a rare book store.”

“You say that like it’s better,” Eliot rolled his eyes. Meanwhile, Guillermo was staring down at his cell phone, probably fucking up the magic frequency as he did. Asshole.

“Anyway,” Todd cleared his throat and laughed, a small sound. “I was looking through the bargain pile and I saw—well, here.”

Todd reached under the table into one of his shopping bags and handed Quentin a small paperback book, torn at the edges. The title read Fillorie et plus lion.

“Uh, holy shit,” Quentin gasped and grabbed it hungrily. “Holy shit, Todd.”

“I’m sure you already have different translations, but I obviously thought of you immediately,” Todd shrugged. “Figured you wouldn’t say no to another one.”

“No, this is fucking incredible,” Quentin flipped through the pages. “I don’t think they knew what they have here. This is a collector’s item.”

“Really?” Todd smiled and lifted his posture. “I had no idea. That’s so cool.”

“Let me see,” Margo said, plucking the book out of his fingers without hesitation. “I mean, honestly, it just looks like Fillory but written in French.”

“No, see, it’s a publishing error,” Quentin said, pointing at the French title. “It’s obviously supposed to read plus loin, but it was printed as lion.”

“Okay,” Margo twisted her lip. “So?”

“So in the fan circles, this is considered the le Lion edition, right?” Quentin smiled, even though he could feel Eliot’s probing stare right at him. He probably thought he was being a ridiculous nerd, but this was too exciting. “And—and so it’s really evoked some incredible academic discussion about how small errors can shape textual narratives around, like, uh, daemons and cultural identity and—“

“Oh, Quentin,” Margo cupped his cheeks lovingly, cutting him off with a shushing sound. “No one cares.”

“I care,” Todd’s bright voice was slightly tighter than usual and Quentin sent him a grin. But Margo rolled her eyes.

“You don’t have to suck his dick, Todd,” she said with an airy hand wave. Quentin’s stomach coiled with sudden nauseous heat.

“Margo,” he said sharply. Todd, though, clenched his jaw and drank his wine, his eyebrows lowering down onto his face. His cheeks glowed red and he disengaged once again from the conversation. But before Quentin could reach out to bring him back in, he was cut off by a more charismatic force.

“As a palate cleanser to that particularly disturbing image,” Eliot said, leaning forward, his voice commanding and wry. “I propose a toast to our venerable host, one Mr. Joshua Hoberman.”

“Which one is Joshua?” Guillermo asked, pointlessly. Quentin rolled his eyes.

 


 

Another interlude and another weird sorbet before the several meat courses. Quentin had to admit that Josh was right—it was indeed a lavish meal and he was starting to get uncomfortably full, genuinely regretting the single crepe he’d eaten earlier in the day.

When he mentioned it to Margo though, she laughed and insisted that it was because they weren’t drunk enough. She flagged down the waiter and quickly ordered something in her impeccable French before rubbing her shoulder against Quentin’s in a tiny dance. He snorted and shook his head, eating more of the lavender and fois gras sorbet like it wasn’t the strangest flavor he’d ever put in his mouth. It wasn’t bad. It was just odd.

Quickly, the waiters set up a small ice bucket on a stand between Margo and Quentin, with a large bottle of champagne nestled in the center. Margo thanked them and sent them off, disallowing them to pour for her. Quentin thought it was oddly nice of her to order an extra bottle of booze for the table, but then figured it was all on Josh’s tab anyway. Of course she’d take advantage, brazenly.

“Ooh, Bambi,” Eliot reached out towards the green bottle, painted in flowers. “Excellent choice.”

Margo slapped Eliot’s hand away, “Ah, ah. Not for you. This is only for Quentin and me.”

“What the fuck?” Eliot’s eyes warped quickly through varying levels of annoyance. Quentin frowned.

“Oh, I already have red wine,” he said, pointing at his drink. With a shrug, she grabbed his glass and finished it in a few chugs. Eliot glared at her, crossing his arms over his broad chest.

“There! Champagne time,” Margo giggled.

“I wanted red wine,” Quentin furrowed his brow.

“Tough shit,” Margo said in a sing-song, pouring until the light gold liquid almost bubbled over the edge. “We’re in Paris and you’re my sweet date, so we’re going to do this right. To coup de foudre!”

“What does that mean?” Quentin asked after clinking his glass against hers. Margo laughed, kissing his cheek. With a shrug at her non-answer, he took a sip of the fizzing drink and Eliot abruptly stood up.

“I’ll be back,” he said, his eyes focused totally on Margo. “I need to use the facilities.”

Eliot stared Margo down and she frowned at him, cocking her head. He tensed his jaw and ticked his head toward the exit. And she shrugged, exaggeratedly.

“Need me to tickle your balls while you go pee-pee, El?” She asked, grabbing a piece of leftover bread and popping it in her mouth. Eliot laughed through his teeth.

“Can I talk to you?” He spelled out tensely and she shrugged.

“Nah, I’m good,” Margo airily, before turning her whole body to Quentin. “Let’s tell each other secrets. We can whisper, don’t worry.”

“What?” Quentin choked on his champagne a little. “Uh, no thanks. That’s a weird suggestion.”

“I’ll start,” Margo said with an incandescent smile. Then, she leaned into his ear, eyes still on the glaring, almost shaking Eliot. Her lips touched his ear. “You’re doing fabulously. Keep it up.”

“Fuck off, Margo,” Quentin said again, pulling himself away from her just in time to see Eliot pivot on his feet and storm off toward the bathroom.

 


 

It seemed like the evening should have been winding down. They had finished over twenty courses of decadent French food and only dessert remained. But when Josh announced that it would consist of a port tasting, followed by three chocolate courses, a cake course, and finally a tea and coffee sampling, Quentin realized that Margo’s complaint that the dinner would be a full four hours may have actually been a conservative estimate.

But by now, everyone was varying levels of tipsy and the nostalgia for Brakebills and hope for the future weaved their way through the conversations. Josh explained how he and Victoria were going to manage long distance, via portal magic. It helped that Victoria was headed to Magicians’ barrister school in London, so the time zone difference wouldn’t be quite as miserable. And while Quentin was definitely interested in everyone’s plans, it wasn’t until the red-headed woman—who’d been kind of annoying all night, to be honest—said something that truly caught his attention so that the night came alive.

“—and so I’m getting started as a freelance dragon researcher.”

Quentin slammed his knife down and turned his entire attention to her, for the first time that night.

“Dragons are real?” He breathed out. She tilted her head at him and smiled, leaning forward into the table.

“Well, hi there,” she said, her eyes tracing up, down, and all around his face. “You know, I don’t think we’ve officially had the pleasure yet.”

“Yeah, sure, I’m Quentin,” Quentin said with an eye roll because no one cared when there was a much more pressing matter. “Dragons are real?”

From across the table, he barely saw Eliot give him another genuine smile. But as much as it stilled his aching heart for the briefest of moments, there was a bigger issue at stake. To be precise, there were motherfucking dragons at stake. Even his hopeless feelings for Eliot didn’t really have shit on that.

Mostly.

“I’m Poppy,” the motherfucking dragon researcher said, with a big smile. Quentin thought she looked like a very pretty rabbit. She flicked her eyes over to Margo. “Where’d you find this one? He’s cute.”

“He’s my first year,” Margo said, her hand falling into place on Quentin’s forearm.

“Almost a second year now,” Josh said, interjecting with a smile, directed at Quentin. “That must feel awesome, huh?”

“How are we not talking about dragons right now?” Quentin demanded.

“It’s a good point, Quentin,” Poppy’s smiled turned directly to him. “I actually have all my materials in my room at the hotel. I’d love to show you everything, later tonight, if you wanted. I’ve even got pictures.”

“That would be—” Quentin started to answer in the excited affirmative, when Margo’s sharp pointer finger stuck between him and Poppy.

“Back off,” Margo said, growling intensely. “Look at him like that again and I’ll slit your goddamn throat.”

“Fuck, Margo,” Quentin said, genuinely startled. “Calm down. She’s just offering to share her work.”

Fuck, Quentin,” Margo said with an eye roll. “No, she’s not. She’s hitting on you.”

“Yeah, right,” he said, chuckling, because that was absurd. But then his cheeks turned instant red when Poppy shrugged nonchalantly. “Oh. Uh. No thanks, then.”

“Your loss,” Poppy said, but Margo was still glaring, like her eyes could kill Poppy where she sat.

“Oh, wow, I really didn’t realize you two were...” Josh pointed between Quentin and Margo suggestively. Quentin laughed and pulled a face, shaking his head.

“No, no. God, no. We’re not,” he laughed more. “Definitely not. Never.”

Now Margo’s sourness was directed at him.

“Okay, you know what? Unnecessary, Coldwater,” she said with a sharp point at his mouth. “You should be so goddamn lucky.”

Poppy rounded her mouth, confused, “So you’re—?”

“Not fucking, but he’s my date,” Margo said, clarifying and clutching Quentin’s forearm hard, even more possessively. “I don’t share.”

If Eliot had been listening at all throughout the interaction, he was doing a great job not letting on. His wide smile was directed entirely at Guillermo now and Quentin basically wanted to die. So he refocused on the mortifying, are-you-fucking-Margo? conversation instead. Lesser of two evils.

“You two are kind of an odd couple, I’ve gotta say,” Josh said. “Never would have pegged you as friends.”

“Oh, we both love pegging as friends,” Margo said, barreling forward over Quentin’s sputtering, blushing Jesus, Margo like he never said it at all. “But seriously? He’s totally evolved since the beginning of the year. It’s mostly due my tutelage.”

“Uh, that’s a fucking exaggeration,” Quentin said, rolling his eyes good-naturedly.

“No, but does anyone remember Quentin when he first came on campus?” Margo’s pretty face widened into a smile as she stroked the back of his head. “He was so nervous. Long hair. Stuck in books. Flannel shirts galore. And now, look at him. He’s my greatest project yet.”

Quentin pulled self-consciously on the crisp fabric of his dress shirt, loathing all the eyes on him. Desperately looking across the table for solidarity, his heart sunk when Eliot’s eyes were still planted firmly on Guillermo, as though Margo wasn’t speaking. Fuck. But then, he caught the eye of another friendly face and was surprised to see bitterness coming from one of the happiest sources he knew.

“That’s not what I remember,” Todd said quietly, looking down into his empty wine glass. “That’s not what I remember at all.”

“No one cares, Todd,” Margo said, not even looking at him. “I’m making a point here.”

“No,” Todd said, his sweet brown eyes ticking upward and uncharacteristically glaring. “You’re wrong. You need to stop. Quentin is the nicest guy on campus. And he’s always been the nicest guy on campus.”

“You think I don’t know that?” Margo squinted and waved her hand. “Stay in your lane.”

“No. You don’t know that,” Todd spat out, his intensity growing. He grabbed a wine bottle from the center of the table and filled his glass to the top of the rim. Quentin blinked twice, not sure what to make of the person in front of him. “You couldn’t.”

“Todd, it’s fine, Margo’s just—” Quentin said, but Todd leaned forward on his elbows.

“Quentin isn’t your project, Margo. He’s a real human being with feelings,” Todd widened his eyes comically, condescendingly. “Do you know what feelings are?”

“Watch your fucking tone,” Eliot barked out, twisting violently in his seat.

Apparently, he had been listening.

“Oh, don’t get me started on you,” Todd sloshed his wine glass in Eliot’s direction before taking a long chug. “It’s really a credit to what a great guy Quentin is that he can even stand to be near you.”

Eliot froze, his nostrils flared and his eyes more poison than Quentin had ever seen them.

“Todd,” Quentin said, firmly. Todd didn’t know the dangerous waters he was treading right now. “It’s okay.”

“No, it’s not. You deserve better than this bullshit,” Todd said, bringing his wine to his mouth and chugging more, more, and more. “You’ve been a good friend to me and now it’s time for me to return the favor.”

“Please don’t,” Quentin said, but Eliot cut him off.

“If he wants to shit the bed, Coldwater,” he said, dark curls falling ominously over his eyes, “then let him shit the bed.”

“You two are bullies,” Todd said, pointing back and forth between Margo and Eliot, without a single stopping point. Quentin sank down in his chair, acutely feeling like he was watching a fatal car wreck in slow motion and was powerless to stop it.

“Bullies?” Margo scoffed, but there was an odd tremor in her left hand. “Are you twelve? Think I’m gonna take your lunch money, Todd?”

Todd slammed his hand down on the table and Poppy gasped, before smiling widely.

“Well, Quentin taught me that I don’t have to take your shit and I think it’s finally clicking,” Todd smiled without his usual joy. It was menacing. It was righteously angered. It was fucking weird. “No one has to take your shit.”

“You’re embarrassing yourself,” Margo said, but her voice was starting to lack its usual conviction. Eliot, though, was growing more and more tense and furious with every word Todd spoke. He was like a crackling live wire, ready to explode.

“You both get off on making people feel less than,” Todd continued, biting down on his lip and shaking his head. “You do it to me every damn day. But then, it didn’t work with Quentin because he’s stronger than both of you—”

“I was always Quentin’s friend,” Margo said, swallowing and hoarse. “And Eliot is one of his best fucking friends—”

“You don’t have justify shit to this child, Margo,” Eliot said, his icy voice almost unrecognizable. But Todd laughed, like Eliot had made a particularly funny quip.

“Please,” Todd rolled his eyes. “You only befriended him so you could pretend it was your plan all along. I mean, seriously, what could someone like Quentin actually bring to the table? Not like he could source your cocaine for you.”

“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” Margo said, her voice higher and higher. “No one asked for your terrible opinions.”

But Todd was clearly, clearly not fucking done.

Quentin’s hand was permanently attached to his forehead, knowing that none of this was really about him and yet still caught smack dab in the fucking middle. His head hurt. His jaw hurt. His heart was—confused. On the one hand, he was proud of Todd for finally standing up for himself. On the other, he was mischaracterizing things he knew nothing about. And above all? Goddamn, this is what Eliot meant when he talked about a spectacular suicide mission.

“You see Quentin as disposable as you’ve seen every other person in your whole life,” Todd was shaking. “The second he stops being fun to you, as soon as you’re bored, he won’t matter anymore.”

“Hey Todd, can we talk about this somewhere else, please?” Quentin said, trying to stay gentle. Meanwhile, Margo’s eyes widened at her classmates’ words, two small lines forming between her eyebrows.

Todd completely ignored Quentin and continued. Holy hell, he continued.

“And you’ll both think to yourselves that at least you gave him that little bit of glory, that little bit of shine that comes from being friends with Eliot and Margo,” Todd laughed bitterly. “Because why treat him like he’s a person, right? You never gave me that courtesy, so what makes him so fucking special?”

“Todd,” Quentin’s voice was low. “Todd—”

“Spoiler alert, he’s not! Not to you, at least,” Todd looked down at his hands, tears forming in his eyes. “But he is special, because he’s good and kind and loyal and humble, and because he is all the things neither of you have ever valued. To you, he’s—”

Todd cut himself off, snapping his fingers at Quentin, “Wait, what was it that Eliot said that one time? Near the beginning of the year? Remember, it was around when he was the world’s biggest asshole to you because you had the nerve to be my friend?”

Todd,” Quentin warned. Eliot’s veins were popping out of his neck.

“Oh, that’s right. He said that you weren’t Margo’s friend, you were her Tamagotchi,” Todd let out a false, over-exaggerated laugh. “That was a good one. Because, get it? He was saying you weren’t an actual person worthy of affection.”

Eliot’s eyes shuttered closed.

“Eliot,” Margo breathed out, betrayed. “What the fuck?”

“It was a joke,” he said, feebly, his eyes still closed. “Obviously.”

“You know exactly why that’s a shitty thing to say,” Margo bit out, her voice wavering. Teetering. “And it’s not just because of Quentin.”

“Margo—” Eliot started, his eyes open and pained, but Todd cut him off.

“But none of that even matters, because the truth is that neither of you have the capacity for kindness or love or friendship anywhere in your hearts. You’re both cruel and shallow, and someday, everyone’s going to see it and you’ll have no one but each other.”

“Shut the fuck up,” Margo said, her voice tinny and hollow.

“And Quentin Coldwater? He is a thousand times the person either of you could ever hope to be. You don’t give a shit about him,” Todd leaned back in his seat and crossed his arm, his eyes darting and glassy. “You don’t give a shit about anyone. Stop pretending.”

“Todd, enough,” Quentin held his hand up, before he saw Eliot’s face and confusion spread like a rash up his chest. Eliot was in shock, mouth hanging open, staring at the space next to Quentin. He slowly turned to his side and his stomach dropped a thousand feet as he looked at Margo.

She was crying.

Her lower lip trembled as several heavy tears landed on her cheeks and she stood up abruptly, pushing her chair out with a loud screech.

“I, um, I have to go,” Margo gracelessly grabbed her purse and wiped at her eyes. “I can’t be here.”

“Bambi,” Eliot stood up and she shook her head.

“Just leave me alone, Eliot.”

“Margo!” He practically leapt across the table as she flew out of the restaurant, before turning his gnashing teeth on the rest of the table. Then, he stared right at Quentin, livid, his finger pointed at Todd. “Control your boy.”

“I’m sorry, Quentin,” Todd said, like he suddenly remembered himself, like he’d come back into his own body. He was shaking, standing up. “Oh my god.”

And then, to make the evening that much better, Todd held his head as he stood, like he was overwhelmed by sudden dizziness. He jutted his neck out once, twice, before he doubled over behind his chair and loudly vomited his entire meal and the several—several—large glasses of wine he’d chugged through the night.

“Yeah, okay,” Josh said, taking his glasses off to hold the bridge of his nose. “Yup.”

“Holy shit, this is the best party ever,” Poppy said, clapping her hands together. “The drama, the action, the emotion—”

“Shut the fuck up, Poppy,” Quentin and Eliot barked out in accidental unison.

“Ah, can someone—?” Josh asked, looking between Eliot and Quentin, pointing down at Todd. “Look, we’re about to have dessert and this is kind of your shit, guys.”

“I—I fucking can’t,” Eliot said, pointing at the vomit and Todd in a quick succession. “I am not dealing with that. I need to get to Margo.”

Behind him, Guillermo sat, bored, eating like nothing had even happened. Typical.

Quentin stood up and walked around the table, bending over next to Todd. He was muttering and groaning under his breath, his fingers coursing wildly through his hair. It was mussed at odd angles, pulled in his desperation. He felt a rush of sympathy for his first friend and rubbed between his shoulder blades, trying hard not to breathe in the smell of the throw up. He swallowed back a rush of his own nausea and glanced up at Eliot, practical and calm.

“I’ll take care of Todd,” Quentin said. “But then I’ll meet you out there—”

Eliot turned all his ire directly down at him, his eyes black with rage, “Oh, I think you’ve done more than enough, Quentin.”

He startled back like he was slapped.

“Todd is fucking wasted and upset,” Quentin said. “This isn’t my fault.”

“Isn’t it? You’re not even supposed to be here,” Eliot said, striding past Todd as fast his long legs could carry him, barely glancing down.

“Eliot, come on,” Quentin said, trying to get his attention as he hauled himself through the door. Eliot turned back briefly and looked directly in his eyes, affronted and pained.

“Why are you here?” He asked, quietly.

Quentin opened his mouth to answer, but Eliot just laughed, sounding crueler than he had in months.

“Rhetorical question.”

Then, he slammed the door behind him.

 


 

Quentin tugged Todd to the bathroom, after he helped the wait staff clean up the vomit. Tipping wasn’t customary in France, but Quentin intended to leave a fucking large one on the table regardless. Even though he knew everything that happened wasn’t his fault, no matter what pissy fucking pants Eliot thought. It was pretty typical of him to lash out at the nearest available warm body upon being confronted with an emotionally fraught and vulnerable situation, but still. Didn’t make it feel any better.

Grabbing several paper towels and wetting them under the sink, Quentin bent down and pressed them against Todd’s forehead and the back of his neck. Todd moaned under the cold and damp sensation, shaking his head over and over again, still incoherent and rambling. He hiccuped and fell over onto the floor, before laughing hysterically. Quentin closed his eyes; he was tired of taking care of drunk people. Running out of options, he sighed and performed a quick, gradual sobering charm. In general, they were seen as socially rude at Brakebills, since they increased hangovers tenfold. But Todd wouldn’t hold it against Quentin. And frankly, it was for his own good at that point.

Within ten minutes, the magic completed itself. Todd was crumpled against the tile wall, shaking in dehydration. But he was mentally and emotionally back to himself.

“I’m sorry if I got you in trouble with Eliot and Margo,” Todd said quietly, wrapping his arms around his legs and putting his forehead on his knees. “I’ve never—I don’t know what that was.”

“Yeah, it was something,” Quentin sat next to him, twiddling his thumbs against his shins. “But the fact that you think I’m worried about ‘being in trouble with them’ is kind of, well, part of the issue, maybe.”

“I don’t mean like they’re your parents or something—”

“No, you kind of do,” Quentin said, patting Todd’s back. “You don’t see them as our peers. But they, um, they are. They’re just people.”

“Mean people,” Todd said, sniffing. Quentin’s heart cracked.

“They’ve been really shitty to you, Todd,” he said, wrapping his arm around Todd’s shoulders. He was warmed when Todd leaned into his embrace. “I’m not going to defend that. They both owe you an apology.”

Todd snorted, more cynically than Quentin had ever heard, “Yeah, good luck with that.”

“I should have been harder on them,” Quentin said, sighing. “They get away with a lot, by claiming that it’s who they are and not going to change. But I promise, I won’t let them—”

“Why are you friends with them?” Todd asked. “Seriously. I shouldn’t have said what I said the way I did, but I meant every word of it. You’re too good for them.”

“Todd,” Quentin said, biting his tongue. “I get what you’re saying. But we’ve had very different experiences with Margo and Eliot.”

“You said that Eliot was the biggest asshole you’d ever met,” Todd’s brow darkened. “And then, it’s, like, I turn around and you’re spending all of your time with him.”

“Yeah,” Quentin’s voice was strained. He could see how that would be confusing, from the outside. And maybe even hurtful to Todd. “Yeah, I know. Things changed. They evolved.”

“That’s horseshit,” Todd clenched his jaw, his voice still raw and harsh. “Eliot is who he’s always been. A shallow, self-serving, narcissistic—”

“Uh, Todd,” Quentin swallowed down his anger. He understood where Todd was coming from. He really did. But. “I know he’s not good to you. But I’m the wrong audience for that particular diatribe, okay?”

“Why though? I honestly don’t get it,” Todd blinked. “I feel like one minute, you were with Ryan and we were always hanging out together. And we had the best time. But Eliot crawled his way between all of us—”

“Eliot is my best friend,” Quentin breathed out. “And yeah, he is not perfect. But I know him. I really know him. He’s not who you think he is, even if he’s shitty to you. It’s fucking complicated, Todd.”

“Sometimes I think he only wanted to be your friend to fuck me over,” Todd said, the words coming out like he had no control again. “He saw that I had something he didn’t and he wanted to take it away.”

Uh, fucking ouch, Todd.

“That—” Quentin ground his teeth. “That is not something he would do. And saying that only accomplishes making me feel like shit.”

“I’m sorry. You’re one of my favorite people,” Todd said, burying his head in his hands. “And sometimes it kills me that you like him more than me. Everyone likes him more than me. I didn’t think you would too.”

“It’s not a competition,” Quentin said.

“I know,” Todd said, clearly not really believing it. That rush of sympathy formed around Quentin’s heart again. “But he hates me. For no reason. And Margo hates me, because he hates me. She’s actually not even that bad when he’s not around.”

“You remind him of—” Quentin bit his lip. Nope. He couldn’t betray Eliot’s confidence. Even now. “Look, just trust me that he doesn’t actually hate you, okay? You make him uncomfortable.”

“Much better,” Todd snorted. “I feel so great about that.”

“Would it help if I told him to rein it in?” Quentin said, looking at him. “That you’re a package deal with me? That he can go fuck himself if he’s mean to you? Because I will.”

“I can’t ask you to do that,” Todd said, tilting his head. “I know—”

“You’re my friend, Todd,” Quentin said, firmly.

“I know,” Todd sighed. And then he swallowed, looking up at Quentin tentatively. “But I think maybe you love him?”

Quentin’s breath froze in his throat, “I—“

“I know you love him,” Todd concluded, dully. He looked away from Quentin.

“Uh, is it that obvious?” Quentin sighed, rubbing the back of his neck. Fuck. If even Todd could see it, then he was fucked. “I’m—I’m a sucker, I know.”

“He doesn’t deserve you.”

Growing up, Quentin had watched a lot of Westerns. Ted Coldwater was a big fan and one of his favorites was Unforgiven. While the gunslinging plot line never appealed to Quentin at any point in his life, the ending scene always resonated—the most famous in the movie. In the dark night of a dusty desert by a dimming campfire, Clint Eastwood held a gun over Gene Hackman, who angrily bit out that he didn’t deserve to die. Over the years, Quentin and his father had quoted the film’s next line more than any other in their shared family life, in situations both serious and silly.

In that moment with Todd, the seven words rang clear again, completely unbidden:

Deserve’s got nothin’ to do with it.

But instead of saying that, Quentin instead sidestepped the landmine with another sigh, “He should be nicer to you.”

“Yeah, he should,” Todd laughed, tears forming in his eyes again. “I want to be him, Quentin. But he thinks I’m the worst.”

“For what it’s worth, I like you as you are,” Quentin said, sincerely. “And maybe wanting to be him is part of the whole problem, you know? Like, I get it. He’s—he’s, uh, elegant and charismatic and witty and handsome and so fucking intelligent that it kind of kills you—”

“Holy cow, you’re a goner,” Todd smirked. Quentin raised his eyebrows in wry acknowledgement.

“Yeah, yeah,” he said, smirking back, swallowing his adoration back into his heart where it belonged. “But you’re great too. Seriously. I’ve never told you this, but I genuinely believe that if anyone else had been my exam guide that first day, my life would be much, much less.”

“Much less what?”

“Just—much less everything,” Quentin said simply. “You were welcoming and kind to a fucked up guy trying to find his footing, no questions asked. I love you for that, Todd.”

“Love you too, Quentin,” Todd hugged him. “Really love you.”

They sat there for a few moments, in a cramped European toilet, holding each other. Finally, Todd pulled away, his arms firm on Quentin’s shoulders as he dipped his head, his face resolute.

“Like, platonically, though.”

Quentin burst out laughing. It had sincerely not even been a little bit of a concern, but Todd’s earnest face was so serious that he almost felt bad at his reaction. So he sobered himself, twisting his cheeks between his teeth and cleared his throat.

“I know, Todd,” Quentin said, shaking his head. “Not an issue.”

“I do love you dearly,” Todd said, confirming, before squeezing his shoulders. “But I’m not gay.”

Quentin tilted his head back and forth, considering Todd’s words.

“I mean, technically, neither am I.”

But Todd threw his arm around Quentin and leaned his head against his, his eyes popping upward as he gazed off into the dreamy distance.

“I’m just clarifying that while I’d love to go on a ski trip with you in Telluride, I equally don’t want to have even a small amount of sex with you,” Todd said, sighing forlornly. “It’s kind of sad, really. But true.”

Quentin grinned, “Noted.”

 


 

The Parisian night air was cooler and crisp, but Quentin barely felt the chill as he scurried along the boulevard, in a likely vain search for Margo and Eliot. The two of them were the masters of secrets and even better at hiding if they didn’t want to be found. But even after—or especially after—his conversation with Todd, he needed to make sure Margo was okay. And if he got to the real bottom of why Eliot was so angry along the way, well, that would be a worthwhile bonus.

Quentin was officially in a friendship-affirming mood and no one was safe from his affection.

He dipped around a quiet corner and could see the hotel’s illusion work glimmering above in the short distance. But before he could race over, to try to check his and Margo’s room—or to desperately try to find Eliot’s—he noticed a small garden pathway, leading to a small, locked park. Instinct overtaking him, Quentin walked the short few steps laid out in large stones and jumped the gate.

He halfway expected to land on the Brakebills campus. But instead of being transported back to the moment his life became a Before and an incredible After, Quentin was indeed in a Parisian garden. He smiled softly when he immediately saw Margo and Eliot in the cool, dim light ahead. Margo, in her gorgeous dress, haunched over on a bench with her head in her hands and Eliot, kneeling in front of her with pleading eyes. They were silhouetted by a golden street lamp and they were entrancing, even in their clear sadness and determination. Quentin stepped closer—just close enough that their voices carried in the breeze over to him.

“Tough love time, Bambi,” Eliot said, taking Margo’s hand. “This is beneath you.”

“You just don’t fucking get it,” she said, shaking her head. “You don’t even have to try.”

“But why the fuck should you?” He asked, in kind rhetoric, leaning forward to kiss her forehead reverently. “You are a radiant, incomparable bitch and anyone who makes you feel even an ounce otherwise—“

“That’s what you don’t get,” Margo kept shaking her head, lightly pressing Eliot’s chest to keep him an arms-length distance away. “You don’t get it.”

“I guess not?” Eliot ducked his eyes and tried to capture Margo’s. “Explain it then.”

Quentin’s breath was tired and lost. He didn’t belong here. It was too intimate, too personal a moment, and he wasn’t welcome. The best thing he could do—the kindest, most loving thing—would be to give the two of them their space to work out whatever was going on. He almost felt like he had intruded on their Trials’ conversation, two years prior, before Quentin had incomprehensibly not known who either of them were.

He tried to quietly back away, but being Quentin Coldwater, of course his foot snapped a loud, cracking twig. Margo’s eyes rushed up to him. As soon as she clearly registered who he was, her whole form followed in its own rush. Before he could blink, her hands were gripping his arms. Meanwhile, he saw Eliot lift himself upward in the background. He stood tall, his face hidden in the shadow.

“Quentin,” Margo said, more urgent than he’d ever heard her. “Where the fuck are you going?”

“Hey, uh,” Quentin tried to back up again, but Margo held her hands firm on him. “Sorry, I heard voices and I just—I wanted to make sure you were okay. But I can—”

“I’ve got it handled,” Eliot said, his voice low and his features still obfuscated. “You can head back.”

But Margo swallowed tightly, ignoring Eliot and digging her fingernails into Quentin’s skin. Her big bright eyes were wild and red-rimmed.

“Todd is a dirty, lying asshole,” she said, blinking away any remaining tears. Quentin immediately deflated.

“Um,” he sighed, more than a little frustrated. “I don’t think—”

“Fuck, I suck at this,” Margo pulled away, wringing her hands. “I’m really, really not good at this kind of thing. All I meant is that he was wrong. I don’t want you to believe him. I obviously—”

She cut herself off and made an odd, annoyed high-pitched sound before looking away.

Quentin’s mouth fell open a little as he realized her concern. He took a quick step toward her, avoiding touching her as to not spook. But he needed her to know that he knew. Of course he knew. God, Margo was a lot of different things—not all of them good, all the time—but the person Todd described, in relation to Quentin? That wasn’t Margo. There was no part of him that thought Todd was right about their friendship.

“No, no, Margo, hey,” Quentin shook his head, his eyes going wide. “No, I know. That whole thing wasn’t actually about me at all. Don’t worry. I know.”

“Because I’m just joking when I say you’re my project,” Margo said, her words coming out fast and soft. “But maybe it’s a shitty joke. I’m not trying to make it seem like you’re—”

“Margo, stop,” Quentin said, wishing he could calm her nerves and mind at once. “It’s okay. Seriously.”

“But I’m just…I’m not good at this. I—”

Quentin ducked his head, his eyebrows wrinkling as he watched a new layer of tears form over her eyes, glassy and shining.

“I don’t have a lot of friends, Quentin,” Margo said, dipping her head down to stare at the ground. “I’ve never had a lot of friends. People don’t—they don’t like me very much.”

Oh god. His fucking heart. “Margo.”

“So I beat them to the punch,” she said, holding her head high once again. “And I usually don’t regret it because fuck the world, Quentin. It’s a shitty, sexist, racist place that wants to box me in. I refuse it.”

Quentin simply nodded, knowing that his thoughts probably weren’t wanted or warranted. Margo cleared her throat and bit her lip, suddenly looking nervous.

“But with you—I feel like you sometimes get me,” Margo mumbled through the words, averting her eyes. “At least I hope so. Even if I piss you off. Though you piss me the fuck off too sometimes, so we can call it even.”

“I mean, I literally don’t do anything. Like, ever,” Quentin laughed, but Margo rolled her eyes.

“Exactly, asshole,” she poked him. “It’s my job to fucking push you. But then you take it the wrong way.”

“Well, your methods can be a little, uh—”

But Margo shushed him and took a deep breath, “I guess what I’m saying is that I—I marginally give a shit about you. Or I care about you or whatever. Like, a lot.”

Quentin could feel his eyes melt along with his insides, touched by her crude rendering of emotion, “Margo.”

“Don’t look at me like that,” Margo said sharply, glaring. She stalked away quickly before flopping back down on the bench, her hand tucked into her elaborate updo.  Slowly, Quentin walked over and sat down next to her, their thighs barely touching. He tentatively took her hand and was pleasantly surprised when she grasped it back. When he looked over to the side, the tall, dark figure of Eliot had faded even further into the background, yet still somehow entirely unmoving. Quentin swallowed.

One issue at a time.

“You know,” Quentin said carefully. “People don’t like me very much either.”

“Yeah, except that’s not fucking true,” she said, with a small laugh, tilting her eyes up at him. “You just can’t see it. People are drawn to you. I certainly was.”

“I think you just have weird taste.”

“Your self-deprecation isn’t anywhere near as charming as you think it is,” Margo harshly accused.

“I don’t think any part of me is charming,” Quentin shrugged and then winced when she punched his shoulder.

“Fucking stop that, Coldwater,” Margo said, her glare true on him. “Stop it. Jesus Christ.”

Weirdly, her harshness sent a tingling rush of affection to his chest.

“You’re a good friend,” Quentin said, meaning it. Believing it. She blinked, recoiling backwards.

“What? No, I’m not,” Margo looked to the side. “Todd was a total choking chode tonight, but he wasn’t wrong about that. I don’t know how to be a good friend to anyone other than Eliot. And, fuck, even then.”

“But you are,” Quentin said simply, before leaning back on the bench and wrapping his arm along the back. “I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but I’m kind of, um, a neurotic mess half the time. And I love Julia but—but you know exactly how to call out my bullshit so I actually hear it.”

“I mean, you do have a lot of bullshit,” Margo tearily laughed. “I didn’t know that was working for you.”

“People coddle me a lot,” Quentin said. “They think I can’t handle it.”

“So should I up my ante?” Margo laughed in earnest. “Because honestly, I have way more notes than I’m letting on half the time.”

“Uh, no,” Quentin laughed back. “The current level is fine.”

“But we could have so many conversations about your fingernails alone.”

“My fingernails?” Quentin shot his eyes up, his mouth gaping open. But then he shook his head. He didn’t actually want to know. “Never mind.”

Margo smiled slyly, waggling her shoulders back and forth, “Your cuticles’ funeral.”

“But Margo, I’m serious,” Quentin said, his voice lowering to almost a whisper. He squeezed her hand all the tighter. “I really—”

“Okay, stop. I actually really can’t take mushy stuff,” she said, wiping her eyes again. “I get it. I’m incredible and you’d be a street urchin without me.”

Quentin smiled, “Exactly.”

“But I am really glad we’re friends, Quentin,” Margo said, completely avoiding eye contact.

“I’m really glad we’re friends too, Margo,” Quentin said, allowing her to keep looking away. “And as your friend, I think I need to tell you that while Todd owes you an apology, it should go both ways.”

“Don’t hold your fuckin’ breath,” Margo said, seriously. “Especially after that shit show. But I’ll do my best to ignore him more. For you.”

Quentin took a deep breath in and nodded. He had to accept it. Shit was complicated and would always remain so, in some inextricable ways. So he simply patted her hand and gave her a quick smile, ready to move on. But Typical Margo had moved on the second after she’d spoken and her attention was now on Quentin’s suit jacket. She traced the embroidered pattern with her pinky, her eyes narrowed. Finally, she let out a long sigh.

“And I’m sorry about your clothes,” Margo said, pouting a little until she grinned. “I’ll buy you a new chambray piece of shit if you want.”

“I mean, honestly?” Quentin bit his lip. “It was probably for the best. That shirt had, like, a huge hole in the armpit.”

“Jesus Christ, Quentin,” Margo laughed, falling into him. His shoulders shook silently as he laughed too.

“I had to, uh, plaster my arm down—” Quentin demonstrated, holding his left arm tight against his body “—the whole time I wore it.”

“Like a goddamn stroke victim. Fuck,” Margo wiped under her eyes and smiled. “You’re a disaster. You really need someone who can take care of you.”

“Sure, because fuck personal responsibility and growth,” Quentin said with as wide a smile as he’d felt in ages. “Shit’s overrated.”

Before Margo could cheekily respond, a rush of ruthless wind ripped their moment apart.

“Is this Hallmark moment wrapping up anytime soon?”

Eliot’s voice slit through them and Quentin’s heart bended under his own blood. He’d almost—almost—forgotten Eliot was even there. He raised his eyes to look at him and gulped at the angry intensity now visible in his illuminated face. At their eye contact, Eliot bit down on his molars and stared firmly at the ground. Margo’s eyes widened and her neck muscles tensed around a long swallow.

“El. No. Don’t you see?” she asked, quiet and private. “This is the perfect opportunity to—”

“I was fine with abandoning my date to be there for you,” Eliot said, still looking down, as though to the Earth’s core. “Not to be a third wheel. My time is valuable.”

“You’re never a third wheel, Eliot,” Margo said, her eyes wide and intense. “To either of us.”

“Since the fuck when does us refer to you and Quentin?” Eliot demanded, his neck snapping toward her. “You and I are the us, Margo.”

“What the hell is your problem?” Quentin asked, his chest cold and his stomach colder. Margo touched his arm, to silence him.

“El,” Margo whispered. “Don’t do this. Remember what I said.”

“What you said—” Eliot laughed, his teeth contrasted against the inky blue sky. “What you fucking said means nothing here, Margo. It’s bullshit. Why can’t you accept that?”

“Because you’re wrong,” Margo insisted. “You’re wrong, El.”

“I’m not,” Eliot said, quiet. “Guillermo is waiting for me.”

Margo sighed heavily and nodded, her eyes unfocused. Quentin shifted uncomfortably in the bench, all of his nerve-endings feeling like they’d been shot to hell. His stomach was dully thudding, like a hole trying to fill itself with pain. But he stood as Margo stood, following her lead. It had been a great night. It had been a weird night. It had been a shitty night. Maybe they all just needed to go their separate ways for a little.

But before they walked too far from their original positions, Margo looked upward to the sky, her big brown eyes shining back the reflection of all Paris. Then, those eyes flew open as wide as they could and she grabbed at her hand.

“Shit,” Margo whispered. “Oh—oh god. Oh, fucking shit.”

“What’s wrong?” Eliot asked urgently, swinging around. As usual, his protective instincts took over his fury. Margo bent down onto the ground, her hands moving all over the cement and grass.

“My ring,” she said, crying out. “Fuck, El, something happened to my ring.”

“Your ring?” Quentin asked, when Eliot immediately crouched down beside her, panic on his own face.

“An heirloom from my grandmother,” Margo said, her voice wavering. “My only non-shitty relative. It’s—I think it fell off when I was upset.”

“We’ll find it,” Eliot said, his hands going into an instant tut. “Just remind me what it looks like and I’ll locate it.“

“No, here,” Margo stood up shakily, clutching Eliot’s arm for a moment. She glanced at Quentin and gave him a pained look that broke his heart all over again. “You two stay by the bench and keep an eye out. I’ll do my own special locator spell. It works every time.”

“Um, sure, okay,” Quentin said, pulling himself closer to the bench. He made brief eye contact with Eliot, who nodded at him in a fast moment of a joint goal. “Do you need anything from us?”

Margo backed up a good six feet or so and she started setting the circumstances with concentration, “Just keep your eyes to the ground. The ring will glow, but it won’t last long.”

“Of course,” Eliot said, no questions asked. In mere moments, Margo was deeper in concentration, her eyes closed and her hands moving fervently, gracefully, in a pattern Quentin had never seen before. It was obviously one hell of a locator spell. And it was obviously one hell of a ring.

Soon, Quentin heard a swooshing, swooping dinging sound, the spell complete. But nothing lit up on the ground. There was no glow. No spark. Nothing. So Quentin stood and looked over at Margo, concerned. She shrugged at him and he quickly walked over to her in less than couple strides, ready to help her as needed when all of a sudden—

He fucking slammed into an invisible barrier.

Margo’s eyes were still on him, cooler than before. Less pained. But still concentrated.

“Hey,” Quentin said, picking himself back up, slightly dazed from the impact. He pressed his hand against the air, confused at its solidness. “Uh, Margo, I think you fucked the spell up. You cast, like, some kind of ward.”

“Did I?” Margo curled her fist under her chin and propped it up. “Huh. That’s odd.”

“Wait, what happened?” Eliot stared up from the ground, his eyes narrowing between Quentin and Margo. She frowned and shrugged, before putting her hands slowly on her hips.

“Margo fucked the spell up,” Quentin said, putting his hands into a frame and looking around at whatever the hell it was she accidentally cast. “I don’t recognize it, though?”

“What do you mean she fucked the spell up?” Eliot walked over to Quentin, his eyes not moving from Margo now.

“It’s, like, a ward, see?” Quentin pressed against it again and Eliot’s nostrils flared. Margo’s lips twitched, but Quentin needed to think through this. “Do you remember what you did? Maybe if you switch the circumstances, you could reverse it. No issue.”

Margo bit the inside of her cheek and tapped her chin, looking up, like she was thinking really, really hard about what he’d said.

“Hmm,” she paced slowly along the ward. “I’m not sure. I’m just not sure, Quentin.”

“Bambi,” Eliot’s voice was low as his eyes slit. “What did you do?”

“Nothing, El,” Margo said, touching her hand to her heart. “It was an honest mistake, like Quentin said. I’m such a little dummy.”

“Bambi,” Eliot grit his teeth. Quentin held his hands up in a frame again, something still not adding up about the spell. It was an intense magic and it even looked like one he’d seen before. But he was struggling to determine how it could connect to a locator spell, even one that made the actual object glow, rather than reproducing its specification and location on a separate surface. He pivoted 180 degrees and saw that the ward completely surrounded them, with no point of exit. It was basically a six foot radius around the bench, in an elaborate pattern.

“Uh, the bonds are, like, this shimmering gold and blue chain-link,” Quentin said, his brow wrinkling. “It looks familiar, but I don’t—”

Margo snapped her fingers, “Oh, you know what? I think I actually do know how to reverse it.”

Quentin brightened, “Oh, great. Okay.”

But she kept standing there, smiling and unmoving. And Eliot stalked closer to her, his movements very much like a large cat. A predator.

“Okay,” Quentin stared at her, frowning. “So, then, uh, reverse it?”

“Funny thing, Quentin,” Margo laughed. “I actually can’t.”

“What?” Quentin furrowed his brow, confused. “You just said—”

“But you and Eliot can.”

“Margo,” Eliot bit out, his intensity growing. “What the fuck did you do?”

“Everyone fucks up sometimes, El,” Quentin said, annoyed at him for his dark fucking mood. Margo cast the spell when she was overemotional and it came out incorrectly. God, it happened to everyone sometimes. So he looked right at Margo, to let her know that it was okay. “What do we need to do?”

Margo tilted her head, “That’s my Brave Little Toaster.”

“Come the fuck on, Margo,” Quentin said, rubbing his head. She was being her usual cryptic self, but he really just wanted to go back to the hotel room and sleep. “Is it, like, a cooperative spell?”

Margo shook her head, laughing gently, “Way more simple than that.”

“Okay,” Quentin let out a sigh of relief. He looked over at Eliot and rolled his eyes at the dark suspicion still resting in the depths of those stupid hazel eyes. God, they were so stupid. He was stupid. Eliot was stupid.

“Just be honest with each other,” Margo said, her arms dashing up above her head in a dazzle. Quentin frowned.

“What?” He said. Eliot rammed his hand into his hair and spun around, like a charging bull.

“Tell each other your most essential truth regarding the other,” Margo said, leaning her form forward in toward them with a flourish. “See, this is just an itty bit of…secrets magic.”

Then, she smiled widely.

…Shit.

Evilly.

“Wait, did you do this on purpose?” Quentin asked, his eyes widening as his heart rate rose and Margo laughed and laughed. She twisted a simple tut popper and her ring appeared right back on her hand. On her middle finger, to be exact. Eliot charged back toward the two of them and slammed his hand against the ward. It ricocheted back with violent blue magic.

“Goddammit, Margo,” Eliot roared. Then he slammed his other hand against it, to the same effect. “God-fucking-dammit.”

Margo’s laughter continued, low and steady and sure. Quentin felt dizzy and hazy. What—what the fuck? What was she doing? What was this about?

Oh, god, what was this about?

“Our original intention was to get you in a room. You know, with a bed,” Margo said with a low laugh and a wink. “But I figured a cute little secret garden would do in a pinch. All great artists can improvise.”

“Our?” Eliot spat out. “Who the fuck else do I have to kill?”

“Not important,” Margo said with a long stretch over her head. “Anyway, Mama’s gonna grab a quick bubble bath while you two widdle babies work out your shit.”

“Margo, cut it out,” Quentin said, a steely anger of his own tightening all of his muscles. “Reverse it.”

“There’s only one fucking way to reverse secrets magic, dumbass,” Margo said with a hearty grin. “So you boys have fun, okay? I’ll be in my trailer.”

“Margo!”

But Margo was gone, and only Quentin and Eliot remained.

 


 

tbc.

Chapter Text

 

Quentin was bored.

He knew that was probably the wrong reaction to being stuck in a secrets trap built by his most manipulative best friend. And it was definitely the wrong reaction when your only company was one of your other best friends, who you happened to be in love with. And throw in the fact that the two of them were in Paris, late at night, with incredibly high tensions, and honestly, it should have been emotionally fraught and painful and all kinds of gut-wrenching. Which, sure, Quentin had definitely gone through the gamut a few times over.

But at that particular moment? God, he was bored.

The scene was set thusly. Quentin was resting on the ground, his back propped against the invisible barrier. He’d staked out his spot early on and hadn’t moved from it, trying to keep all of his panic and frustration still and silent. Margo had been clear how to break the spell—that he and Eliot had to be essentially honest with each other—and the implications of that were more than enough to send him on a tailspin if he allowed it. So he didn’t allow it. He breathed, he meditated, and he grounded himself, literally on the ground.

Meanwhile, opposite him in every way, Eliot had been all over the place. He stalked and paced like a caged animal, letting out frustrated yells every few minutes. He tried spell after spell, concentrated solely on breaking the ward through trickery and sheer will. At one point, he even tried flying up and over the walls of the ward, as though Margo was a complete idiot who hadn’t thought of that possible escape route. But Quentin had never actually seen him fly before—Eliot generally thought it was uncouth—so at least it offered a small amount of entertainment, even if it had been short-lived and futile.

And also, uh, it had been hot. It was hot. Really hot. Fucking just—so hot.

God.

Admittedly, that aspect wasn’t totally relevant, other than the slight chance that You look really hot while flying was, in fact, his essential truth about Eliot. But with a grim sigh, Quentin pushed his hair back and banged his head softly against the ward. It ricocheted magic mockingly back at him.

Yeah, that was some wishful goddamn thinking.

Now, though, Eliot was on the bench, in his own silence, ruminating inwardly on his next move. Quentin knew this because he knew Eliot, rather than because Eliot had shared this thought process with him. If anything, he’d been viciously opposed to sharing anything with Quentin, including whatever alcohol he had stashed away in that flask of his. Considering that Eliot had enchanted it to be literally bottomless, it was a bitchy ass move. Because of all this and more, Quentin was really starting to lose his patience with El, and the boredom didn’t help.

“So can I at least have a cigarette or what?” Quentin asked aloud, not really caring if his voice was openly exasperated. At least he was breaking the silence.

“You’re smarter than that,” Eliot’s voice carried lightly across the few feet between them. He was laid sprawled, one hand splayed over his eyes and the other hanging down, grazing the ground. Quentin stretched his fingers out and let out a frustrated sound, like a whine. He was itching for nicotine and really didn’t care that he’d quit again. Hell, if it really took seven attempts or whatever, he was still well within average. He’d never been an overachiever.

A few more moments of tense silence passed.

“Uh, care to elaborate?” Quentin asked, throwing his hands in the air. He was really not in the mood for games, especially not the ones built to make him feel stupid. One of his least favorite things about Eliot was how much he enjoyed playing tennis with people who didn’t have rackets. It was mean.

“Do you seriously think that if I had any cigarettes,” Eliot began slowly and Quentin immediately sighed, because yeah, he saw where this was going, “that I wouldn’t have smoked the entire fucking pack by now? Obviously, I left them in the restaurant.”

“Yeah, fine,” Quentin breathed out, closing his eyes. “Fair enough.”

“And for the record, I’m going to smoke several fucking cigars once we get out of here,” Eliot said, tetchy. “In both the literal and Freudian sense.”

“Cigars aren’t necessarily indicative of an oral fixation, you know. Freud actually, like, famously said that,” Quentin spat out, feeling more annoyed than usual at the idea of Eliot blowing a bunch of guys. He was only human. “Which you’d know if you ever read a goddamn book.”

“Hey, it’s Pedantic Quentin,” Eliot raised his hands in the air in a mock flourish. “What a fucking delightful cameo.”

“Well, you know, I had to match the utter joy of Moody-Ass Eliot somehow.”

“Moody implies a changing state. I’ve been quite consistent, thanks.”

“Now who’s being pedantic?”

Eliot shot his head up from the bench, glaring at Quentin with another witty, devastating retort on his tongue. But instead of saying it, he released a long breath and his eyes faltered, looking down. He swung his long legs over the bench and sat all the way up, before burying his head in his hands. And for a moment, like the sucker he was, Quentin was overwhelmed with the urge to run over and wrap his arms around his slumped, tense, sad form. Fuck, he really was still hopelessly gone on Eliot, even at his absolute worst. But at the same time, Quentin wasn’t stupid. Eliot had made it pretty clear that he wanted very little to do with him right now. His comfort would be unwelcome.

Despite everything, that particular realization really stung his chest. So he breathed in. He breathed out.

When his breath and heart rate returned to normal, Quentin pulled out his new Fillory book, the one from Todd in the style of the Lion. He could make out a decent amount of the words in the dim streetlights, but as soon as his eyes absorbed the first few lines, he remembered the major impediment. Which was that, well, he barely knew French. Of course, he had the English basically memorized (okay, entirely memorized), so if he’d wanted to, he could have connected the Romantic sentence structure to the words he knew in his soul. But it was too tedious and too taxing, especially given the stressful situation. The translation process wouldn’t allow him to lose all sense of time and place like the original English words could, which was all he desperately needed at that moment.

Apropos of nothing, Quentin snorted out a laugh.

It really spoke to his strange goddamn life that he was way more comfortable in the intricacies of, like, Ancient fucking Sumerian syntax than even the basics of French. Grinning up automatically to say the thought aloud to Eliot—out of annoying habit more than anything—the words died on his lips and his breath caught in his chest. Eliot was staring at him over clasped hands, his eyebrows knit tightly together. It was like he’d been watching him.

“Uh, what?” Quentin asked, startled and self-conscious, immediately pushing his hair back. But Eliot just closed his eyes and shook his head.

“Fuck,” he said, almost like a gasp. He brought his flask to his lips and drank. Then, he slumped back against the bench, his eyes still closed, his head still shaking.

It wasn’t a surprising interaction, considering how poorly everything had been going. But Quentin couldn’t shake the disappointment. He squirmed against the ward, hating every single goddamn part of the situation they were in. The ground beneath him was tiny pebbles, dusty and white. It stretched out over the length of the park, where children played, dogs shit, and men and women put out cigarettes, all under picnic tables of wine and croissants, great conversation, and lovers’ quarrels. But in the night, it was like a blanket of snow, silent and tranquil, except for the dust kicked up by his movements.

Suddenly, intensely overwhelmed with anger toward Margo and her fucking games, Quentin focused all of his resentment into his gluteal muscles. He scooted his butt into the ground as hard as he could. Instantly, his black designer pants were covered in a small dusting of white dirt. He smirked and rubbed his ass even harder into the dry, moveable surface, until his pants were completely coated in a thick chalky film, like a pool shark’s hands. Then, he stretched his legs out and violently rolled them side-to-side, trying his best to get dust on everything, even into the pockets, so that the grime would never come out, no matter how many magical dry cleaners gave it their all. Oh, and if any of the tiny little rocks ripped and nipped at the delicate fabric? Well, then so be it and all the fucking better.

That’ll show her, he thought, with a final firm scooch up, down, and all around.

“Do I even want to know your thought process there?” An amused voice broke through his rebellion. Quentin scowled. No matter what he said, Eliot really was a moody motherfucker.

“Well, you’d have to actually, uh, talk to me,” Quentin said, not bothering to hide the bitterness. He refused to look at him, even though he could feel the direct weight of those hazel eyes. “So depends on how intolerable that sounds.”

Eliot was silent again for a few moments.

“Talking to you is never intolerable,” he finally said, simply and quietly. Quentin looked up at him and was slightly heartened by the half-grin on Eliot’s face, even if it didn’t really reach up to his eyes. But still, he snorted.

“Could’ve fooled me,” Quentin said. And Eliot let out a long, loud sigh, deep from his diaphragm.

“Look, I’m sorry, okay?” he said, his swallow audible. “I shouldn’t have blamed you for—for Fucking Todd’s bullshit. Or Margo’s bullshit. Or my own bullshit. I was lashing out and I’m sorry.”

“No shit,” Quentin shook his head. “But you’re not the only one pissed about this situation, El.”

“I know,” Eliot pursed his lips. “It’s just that it’s a lot harder for me.”

What the fuck? God, of course Eliot thought that. Quentin squinted his eyes closed against his pounding temples and ran his fingers through his hair, more to have something to do with his restless hands than anything else. He choked back a forced laugh and snapped his eyes back open, glaring right at Eliot.

“Yeah, well, you only think that because you’re an egoist.”

And the glare was volleyed back, as expected, “I think you may be lashing out there too, kid.”

“I am not a fucking kid.”

“Oh, I beg to differ.”

“You know what?” Quentin burst out, his hands popping outward in frustration. Innate magic kicked up more dust from the ground, like from the energy in his anger. “Stop it. Just—uh, fuck. God, Eliot. You and I? We’re actually supposed to be friends, if you recall.”

Quentin swallowed heavily at the word, but pressed onward. Eliot’s jaw ticked exactly once.

“Of course we’re friends,” Eliot said, but there was something like a snarl in his voice. “But we’re both frustrated. It happens. You're being bitchy as fuck too.”

“Well, then, I just feel like your ire is a little, um, misplaced,” Quentin pressed his forehead to his knee. “And as for me, I'm only reacting to you.”

The more things changed, the more they stayed the same. The last time he’d told Eliot that particular sentiment—that Eliot was the real asshole and that Quentin was just trying to keep his head above water in their interactions—their relationship had been as different as it could be. He wondered if Eliot even remembered that particular interaction. Probably not.

In any case, this time, Eliot's reaction to the words was completely different. The first time he'd said that—that he was just reacting—Eliot had brought himself up haughtily, staring down at Quentin with all the confidence in the world before he said the first almost entirely kind thing to him in their soon-to-be friendship. It was when Eliot told him that all of his digs and eye rolls were him ‘fucking around,’ rather than coming from a place of real malice. And it had been the first spark of hope that maybe, just maybe, they’d misjudged each other and that their doom wasn’t to constantly be at odds. But now, Quentin wasn’t so sure, as Eliot’s whole form slumped under himself, like his muscles and bones were too heavy to hold upward.

“I truly hold no ire towards you, Quentin,” Eliot said softly, running his hands down his face. “But I’m exhausted. I’m so exhausted.”

“Right, okay,” Quentin pulled his legs back toward his chest, to try to keep his heart from falling out. “I’m exhausting. Got it.”

“You are,” Eliot said, his voice low and defeated. “Not—not in the way you’re thinking. But fuck, Q, you really are.”

Quentin’s chest constricted and he turned away from Eliot, unable to look at him anymore.

“Maybe not talking really was for the best,” he said, harsher than he felt. He didn’t know what the fuck he’d done to upset Eliot so much, but he was getting tired himself. Too tired.

“Happy to oblige.”

Heartsick but trying not to show it, Quentin turned back to his book, though the words blurred together under his hazy brain. He took several deep breaths, trying again to ground himself in the moment. He was sitting in a Parisian garden, after hours. He was trapped in a ward that Margo built so that he and Eliot could work out their shit. He and Eliot apparently had shit they had to work out, even though it was fairly damn obvious that only one of them had an actual problem with the other. He was wearing ridiculous clothes, that he’d gotten ridiculously dirty and he felt itchy and lost and sad and—

The grounding exercise wasn’t working.

He closed his eyes and rubbed the space between his eyebrows, focusing instead on the feeling of the pads of his own fingers. Coming to Paris had been a terrible idea. He would literally kill or die to be back at Brakebills, sitting in the Cottage living room, with a cup of tea and an English version of the Fillory series. Away from the beautiful, chaotic city, and even further away from the beautiful, chaotic man next to him, who had already stood back up and refocused on tutting away, trying to get them out of the ward. Valiant. Desperate.

Darkly, Quentin bit down on his molars, feeling like the world’s biggest, most awkward inconvenience. At least a small part of Eliot’s frustration had to be that he was away from his date—the first real date he’d had since Quentin knew him—with no means of contacting him. And he was stuck with Quentin, of all people. That couldn’t have made anything better.

But his self-pitying inner soliloquy was broken, when he heard Eliot curse aloud. From what Quentin could tell from the formation of his tuts, he’d been trying some telekinetic thing to try to move the ward up and over them, to place it in another location. However, it involved some bodily intensive Poppers and one of Eliot’s buttons had popped off in the process (no pun intended), opening his shirt.

Which, um, great. Getting a peak at Eliot’s ridiculously sexy chest hair was exactly what Quentin needed right now, he thought with a heady, angry sigh. He closed his eyes again. Fuck his life. Seriously, fuck his stupid fucking life.

Things weren’t going much better for Eliot, who was scrambling in the dust, trying to find the button, just like he’d been trying to find Margo’s “lost” ring. This time, though, it wasn’t a complete fool’s errand. Briefly victorious, he held a tiny shining object up to the light with a smirk, before sighing all over again, laying it out flat in his palm.

“Shit,” Eliot said, frustrated, more muttering under his breath than actually talking to Quentin. “Shit. Fuck, I hate fixing shit like this. But this was an expensive fucking shirt.”

Quentin frowned for a moment. He’d never heard Eliot mention money, ever. He’d assumed that his family’s wealth covered everything, leaving him to luxuriate in his finery without a single care. But even the wealthy had budgets, he supposed, watching Eliot fuss with what was left of the string and the button itself, the movements more awkward than his usual finesse. Ironically, detail magic wasn’t Eliot’s strong suit. He pressed the button to his shirt and tried to levitate it against his chest, with marginal success. And Quentin chuckled, fondly, secretly enjoying the moment.

Anything that reminded him that Eliot wasn’t actually, like, some infallible god of magic was probably good for him. But he also chuckled because, well, maybe even more ironically, detail magic was actually Quentin’s strong suit. Pathetic moth to a fucking flame, he walked over and plucked the button out of the air, assessing the damage.

“Here,” Quentin said, looking through the holes to see what he was working with. He could immediately tell it would be an easy fix. “Let me. I’m actually kind of weirdly good at this sort of thing.”

“It’s fine,” Eliot said, waving him off, not looking at him. “I’ll just fix it later.”

“We’re stuck here,” Quentin said with a shrug. “It’ll take me two seconds.”

He stepped closer to Eliot and tried not to breathe in his familiar scent of cologne, smoke, and something uniquely haunting that eluded categorization.

Naturally, Quentin failed miserably and his heart glowed brighter with every intoxicating breath. Eliot, Eliot, Eliot, that Times Square heart of his traitorously thudded, every inch of his body on fire. It took a considerable amount of strength not to close his eyes and rest his forehead against Eliot’s chest. He hadn’t been truly near him in hours and he was a starving man.

But somehow, he kept his shit together. He breathed in and out, and he trudged forward, taking the button and laying it against the broken string with a firm pressure under the pads of his fingers. Eliot tensed and relaxed in the same beat, surprised at the contact. With a sharp breath, Quentin twisted his fingers together on both hands and the button affixed itself to the shirt in a temporary hold.

“I have to center myself for this part, okay?” Quentin asked, pressing his right hand firm onto Eliot’s warm, bare chest, his fingers stretching across the expanse of his sternum and ribcage. He was glad the concentration needed for the spell overtook his shame at how soft and hoarse his voice sounded.

He glanced up for confirmation and Eliot nodded wordlessly, his eyes hooded and unreadable in the street lamps’ golden light. Quentin deepened the pressure of the heel of his palm against Eliot, and stars flew in front of his eyes when he could feel his heartbeat, strong and surprisingly fast against his own pulse point.

Quentin breathed in. He breathed out. He breathed in.

He pinched his left hand’s fingers together and drew out a solid golden line from nothing, a thread of magic that unspooled itself like nature. The gold twisted around the two holes of Eliot’s button in a figure eight and barely along the fine, soft fabric of his shirt. Angling his hand downward like he was opening a door knob, Quentin tied off the end and pulled back, the magic thread instantly encasing the whole of the button against Eliot’s shirt. It would never pop off again.

Quentin let out the long breath he held for energy and smiled, the fast high of a perfectly completed spell coursing through his fingertips. He flicked his eyes back up at Eliot.

He almost lost his breath all over again at the intensity staring down at him.

“Um, all done,” Quentin said weakly, not sure what to make of the expression on Eliot’s face. He looked almost pissed off, except...

Except?

Q,” Eliot whispered, low and soft and rough and holy shit, Quentin wanted to kiss him. Eliot’s eyes were stormy and his Adam’s apple bobbed. He pulled one of his own hands up to his chest. His thumb and pointer finger caressed the fixed button, but his other fingers grazed slowly, softly against Quentin’s hand, still pressed against Eliot. Quentin never wanted to move. And, god, fuck, he wanted to kiss him.

It would be so easy.

All he had to do was tip his head upward a hairsbreadth and their lips would touch. And maybe, maybe, maybe Quentin was being a coward to not just go for it. God, the way Eliot was looking at him? With their hands almost entwined, their breathing tandem, their eyes lidded and heavy? Maybe it wasn’t crazy. Even if Eliot didn’t feel the same way—in a real way, in the way that Quentin wanted him to, the way he fucking dreamed of—even if it was a dumb fantasy that would never happen beyond a frustrated, magic-driven kiss, shouldn’t he at least fucking try? Would he regret it if he didn’t? Maybe?

His eyelids could barely stay open. His fingers twitched against Eliot’s chest.

But before Quentin could be brave, the moment slipped away. He blinked once and it was gone. Whatever was behind Eliot’s intense eyes disappeared and he stepped backward, clearing his throat, like the moment had suddenly presented itself to him with clarity and he’d rejected its implications. With a visible, deep swallow, Eliot straightened his lips into a narrow smile. He was amused, neutral, almost bored. And Quentin’s right hand fell abruptly to his side.

Probably for the best.

“Uh, thanks,” Eliot said, quietly. He looked down at his shirt and buttoned himself back up. “You really are weirdly good at that.”

“Yeah, well,” Quentin cleared his own throat in an attempt to shake out all the bursting love from his heart. “Probably gonna end up following my true calling as a seamstress someday.”

“You mock, but it’s a noble profession,” Eliot said lightly, still touching the button with equal parts fascination and distraction.

“Just wish I could do the same on anything worth a damn,” Quentin sighed. “I can only ever manage, like, tiny discrete shit. Pretty pointless.”

Eliot opened his mouth like he was going to say something, but then forcefully brought his lips back together, his teeth making an audible click as he did. He pulled out his flask and chugged again.

“Well, it certainly won’t help us get out of here, at least,” Eliot said, his hand resting atop his artful mess of curls. “Which has to be our main priority.”

“I mean, Margo said—“

“I know what Margo said,” Eliot said with an annoyed stretch of all his vowel sounds, that anger back. “But she’s persona non grata and we’re two reasonably smart motherfuckers. We can find another way.”

Quentin wasn’t so convinced though, and he shook his head. “In The Trials, though—”

“The Trials are set by Master Magicians,” Eliot said, plainly. “Bambi’s skilled, but her work can easily have cracks in it. I’ve never even heard of this spell, so I’m wondering if it’s something she threw together. Means there’s gotta be an exploit.”

“Or it’s actually secrets magic and we’re fucked unless we talk to each other,” Quentin sighed. “Which maybe wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world anyway.”

“Speak for your fucking self.”

Deep, rich sadness crushed Quentin’s stomach and he shook his head, hugging himself. Goddammit, Eliot. He blinked back sharp wetness behind his lashes and bit his lip.

“What did I do?” Quentin asked, quietly, unable to keep the hurt out of his voice. “Maybe if you told me what I did wrong, it would help things.”

Eliot’s eyes blazed up at him, but the anger was gone. In its wake was only—well, Quentin wasn’t totally sure. But it wasn’t anger. It was something else.

“Nothing,” Eliot said, after a few moments. He shook his head inwardly, his eyes closing. “You—nothing, Q. I’m sorry. This is me, okay?”

“Okay,” Quentin said quietly, either unwilling or unable to push him further. He was tired. Eliot wasn’t the only one who was tired. “Okay, fine. Then, uh, let’s focus. Let’s figure something out then.”

“Honestly, I’m pretty tapped out,” Eliot rubbed his temples, pacing in a small circle, before sitting back down on the bench. Quentin took back his spot along the ward, rumpling into himself. “So anything you can contribute to the brainstorming session would be well-received.”

But unfortunately, Quentin wasn’t nearly as clever as Eliot. That wasn’t the self-deprecation that Margo took such great issue with. It was just a fact.

Quentin was smart. He knew that. He was smart in that he absorbed. If someone told him something, he would remember it forever. He understood theory, practicum, the gears of an idea. He was a critical thinker, considering all elements of an argument or a proof, before reaching toward what was most evident. But he’d never been creative, compared to anyone.

And wow, especially not compared to Eliot, with his casual genius and ingenuity. Brilliant, bold, and constantly rewiring, always finding loopholes and hidden answers, like they were charming trinkets meant to be plucked from thin air. Eliot loathed both theory and practicum in equal measure, yet he could create them both without thinking. Like poetry.

It was funny. Almost like they actually kind of balanced each other out, Quentin mused.

...Like a goddamn lovesick idiot.

Oh well.

But then Eliot cleared his throat theatrically and stared at Quentin, his eyes asking for an update. Quentin shrugged.

“I guess, uh, I’m not really creative,” he said dully and Eliot groaned.

“Jesus, Q. Yes, you are,” he said without any affection. “You turned the window into water. No one’s ever done that before. So tap into that part of your brain and we’ll get there, okay?”

Quentin blinked. Honestly, he’d forgotten about that trick, trying to get through Eliot’s elaborate ward meant to test the Physical Kids. Huh.

“You remember that?” He asked, surprised. “I barely remember that.”

Eliot cocked his head into a smile, “Of course I remember. It was impressive as fuck.”

“Sure, you seemed real bowled over at the time,” Quentin said, flat. He could still picture drunk Eliot, stumbling toward him with a drink and thrusting it at him because he technically earned it, before stumbling away again without a look backward. But Current Eliot’s face faltered, his eyebrows darkening over his eyes. He looked away from Quentin, the set of his jaw tighter than before.

“Yeah, well,” Eliot said, scratching the side of his nose. “Didn’t want you to get a big head.”

“Major concern for me, true,” Quentin rubbed the back of his neck. “But fine, sure, fair enough. Let me think.”

Okay. Okay. So, okay, he had an occasional creative instinct, when he felt trapped. But that was part of the problem, he supposed, with a self-loathing sigh. Because being here with Eliot? It didn’t feel like a trap, not down in his bones. He almost, sort of, kind of wanted to be there.

Like a goddamn lovesick idiot.

Oh well.

Quentin owed Eliot at least an effort though, so he chewed on his lip as he thought. What he kept coming back to was a simple notion—that the truly most creative path was actually the obvious one. Because at the end of the day, he still didn’t exactly understand the reticence to just fucking talk to each other. Like, yeah, sure, one of Quentin’s essential truths about Eliot was scary to admit. Embarrassing, even. But it wasn’t like there weren’t other truths he felt about Eliot, that were just as valid. Maybe if they talked, they could find something together that wouldn’t destroy their friendship and also would allow them time to plot Margo’s murder together. Win-win.

But, uh, getting Eliot to talk? At all? Well, Quentin knew him enough by now to know that saying something like, Hey El, wanna unpack how we feel about each other? would be met with a certain amount of vicious resistance. Or worse, it would be met with Eliot spitefully deciding, Okay, sure and immediately divulging to Quentin all of the worst possible things he’d ever thought about him, from his ugly clothes to his stupid obsession with kids books to how he was a complete embarrassment at every party he’d ever thrown, what with his quiet sulking and lack of social grace. When pressed into a corner, animals attack. And in the current scenario, for whatever reason, Eliot was much more animal than man.

So, instead, Quentin decided to go with a classic maneuver from his sleight of hand days.

Misdirection.

“You know, there’s, like, way more graffiti in Paris than I would have expected,” Quentin said, trying to sound as casual as possible. Sure enough, even clever, attuned Eliot didn’t catch on. Instead, he laughed a little, like Quentin was ridiculous and maybe slightly charming in his inability to focus on the task at hand.

Hook, line, fucking sinker, Waugh.

“It’s a city, Q,” Eliot said, a touch condescendingly. “And kind of a shitshow of one at that. People think it’s all quaint boulangeries and twinkling lights, but it’s actually an exhausting clusterfuck of humanity.”

It was an accurate description, but it lacked so much nuance. Quentin smiled at a smashed champagne bottle next to a carved marble statue of Napoleon riding a horse up into the night sky.

“I’ve only spent, like, twelve hours here, so I’m hardly an expert,” he said, musing on the notion sincerely. “But I think that’s actually kind of what I love about it.”

Eliot cocked his head, “What do you mean?”

“It’s, like, this gorgeous city, right? It’s stunning and symmetrical and intricate,” Quentin’s chest swelled as he spoke, something deep twisting in his gut. “But it’s also total chaos, with people pissing on walls and fighting in the streets and, like, everything smells like bread and sewage at once somehow. It’s this gorgeous lawlessness. It’s irresistible. I think everyone feels it when they’re here.”

“I guess,” Eliot said, leaning forward on his knees with his brows furrowed. “But I think most people just want to pose for a photo in front of the Eiffel Tower. Instagram that shit and all.”

“On a surface level, yeah,” Quentin quirked up a smile at a street lamp, draped in long green branches swaying in the breeze. “But the flaws are essential.”

“Essential?” Eliot asked, stretching his legs out and leaning back, curious and somehow invested in Quentin’s silly ramblings.

“Paris is the magic it is because it’s, like, the most beautiful place on earth and it’s a total shitshow,” he caught Eliot’s eyes with a wide grin, his hands moving wildly. Eliot just blinked at him, like he wasn’t quite sure what to make of Quentin. “It’s heady, irreverent chaos in juxtaposition to this, like, impeccable beauty and grace.”

“Poetic,” Eliot said, letting out a short breath, his arms folding tightly across his chest. But Quentin was on a roll.

“It’s fascinating and terrifying, yet such a balm to the fucking soul, all at the same time. Gorgeous and intimidating, yet welcoming. Powerful and complex, yet good humored. All dark and all light,” Quentin was talking fast. Too fast. “I mean, fuck, how could anyone not fall completely in love with that? I definitely did. It’s everything I could ever want. I—I love it so much.”

So, you know, okay.

Okay.

Maybe he wasn’t totally talking about Paris anymore.

…Fuck.

Quentin huffed out a long breath and stared down at the dusty ground. God, he was an idiot.

“Q,” Eliot said quietly. Quentin brought his eyes up and Eliot was indefinable. He sat still on the bench, like every muscle was taut and frozen. His face was drawn downward and entirely unreadable, his eyes darting back and forth across Quentin’s face, like he was trying to read his own novel in an incomprehensible language.

Then, his eyes closed, “Goddammit. Okay.”

“What?” Quentin asked, his eyebrows pulling in, his heart beating out of his chest.

“Let’s get the fuck out of here, the old fashioned way. Worth a fucking shot,” Eliot swallowed hard, his hand reaching toward his hair. “Let’s, uh, talk.”

Oh.

He hadn’t actually expected that to work so well, Quentin realized with a blink. But it did. And that was a good thing. Because that was his goal, right? To coax Eliot out of his shell? He definitely wasn’t—he wasn’t actually trying to confess anything. All he wanted was to get the ball rolling and it turned out, he did. Mission accomplished. He knew he should have felt smug or victorious or at least relieved. But instead he felt…

Unmoored. Anxious.

Quentin breathed in. He breathed out.

“Okay,” Quentin nodded, frantic. He needed to focus. He could do this. “Okay, well, then, uh, let’s start with the basics.”

“Such as?” Eliot tapped his fingers wildly on his kneecaps. It was the longest Quentin had ever seen him go without a cigarette.

“Why did Margo even do this? That’s what I can’t figure out,” Quentin said. His analyst hat was on, which was far more comfortable than anything emotional, especially to start. “Why does she think we need to be honest with each other?”

Eliot laughed, “Yeah, I’m already regretting this.”

“Eliot,” Quentin rolled his eyes. “Come on. You know her best.”

“Look, she’s a bitch, okay?” He said sharply, but then let out a rough, annoyed sound at Quentin’s unamused face. “She thinks we—she thinks that we’re, like, mad at each other or something and need to work it out. It’s stupid.”

“I’m not mad at you,” Quentin said, frowning. “Are you mad at me?”

“Of course not,” Eliot answered, a touch too quickly. “But Margo doesn’t always have the firmest grasp on human emotions. Love her dearly, but she’s basically a rapidly developing AI. Like from the movie AI.”

“Um, okay,” Quentin sighed, changing tactics. “So then, ah—it’s a secrets ward, right?”

“Supposedly,” Eliot said darkly.

“Well, let’s assume it is and just, uh, we can start by trying to do some basic secrets shit,” Quentin posited with a shrug. “Maybe it doesn’t even really have to do with us, specifically. I’m not even sure how she’d formulate that.”

“Good point,” Eliot said, falling out of his mood into joint problem solving. “That’s definitely beyond Bambi’s skillset. She’s a Physical Kid.”

“Right,” Quentin nodded, snapping his fingers. “So, then, like, what was your truth in The Trials? Maybe that would be enough to get us out.”

Eliot froze, his nostrils flaring. He slid a harsh stare over at Quentin and laughed.

“Oh, let me think. Hmm, that’s right, it was none of your goddamn business,” Eliot said all in one breath. “That’s what.”

And the mood was back. Great.

“Jesus Christ, Eliot,” Quentin shook his head. “Fine, want me to go first?”

“You can do what you like,” Eliot said with a shrug. God, what an infuriating asshole he could be.

Quentin bit his lip and banged his head against the ward. Eliot’s vacillations really were something else and they didn't exactly encourage Quentin into a sharing mood. But the two of them were close to figuring their way out and someone needed to say something, for fuck's sake. Besides, at the end of the day, he wasn’t actually ashamed of his Trials secret, even if Eliot would probably think it was corny as fuck. But corny as fuck was who Quentin kind of was. He was done making apologies for that.

“My truth was that I was the most fucked up person before I found magic,” Quentin began, threading his fingers against themselves. His voice was quiet, but it was even. A success. “But now, even more than I wanted magic to be real, I want to be happy. Really happy. Like, where I’m successful at school, with good friends, or maybe even in, like, a lasting relationship or something. Just feeling better in my brain and all the ways that could manifest, you know?”

Eliot was silent and stony, his face graying like Quentin had said something terribly distasteful.

“That’s nice, Q,” Eliot said, flat. He glared into the darkness of the garden. “I hope it happens for you.”

Quentin could have laughed, really, at the absurdity of the ridiculous person in front of him. But instead he banged his head back against the ward as hard as he could, so that the whole dome danced with a shock of bright blue magic. He was smug when he saw Eliot briefly startle, even as he immediately slipped back into his cold, bored pose.

“What the fuck is your problem?” Quentin snapped out, tired and done.

“Do you want to be here?” Eliot gestured around, but Quentin shook his head.

“No. That’s not what I mean. See, the funny thing is, Margo the Broken Clock is actually right,” he said, harsh. “You’ve been weird for weeks. You’ve been practically ignoring me for weeks. What’s going on?”

“Jesus Christ,” Eliot laughed, touching his tongue to the roof of his mouth. “I’ve been busy. I’m seeing someone. I have a vast, interesting social life. Get over yourself.”

“So then Todd was right too?” Quentin folded his arms tight. “You got bored and now I don’t matter.”

“Fuck you,” Eliot said, breathy and not missing a beat. His voice was more even-keeled than his words and his eyes were dull. “Seriously. Fuck you.”

“Wow. Good talk,” Quentin still desperately wished he had a cigarette. Eliot wasn't the only one jonesing and at least he had fucking alcohol. “We’re definitely not going to be stuck here for the foreseeable future with that attitude.”

“Goddammit, Quentin,” Eliot’s voice was strained and high. Quentin realized with a jolt that he didn’t always like when he used his given name. “I’m not—I’m not going to do this.”

“Well, it can’t be worse than us being stuck together right now. So tell me what the hell is going on.”

“Stop it,” Eliot slammed both of his hands against the bench, before gripping the edge. His knuckles were brighter white than the ground. “You know exactly what’s going on.”

“What are you talking about?” Quentin wanted to scream in frustration. He had no fucking idea what was going on. Jesus Christ. But Eliot glared at him, darker than he’d ever seen, even back when he called Quentin ‘Todd’s Friend.’ He held his tongue between his teeth and laughed, with exactly zero mirth.

“You’ve made your feelings clear. I have too,” Eliot said, even and precise. “I’m allowed to have a reaction to the mismatch and the awkward fallout. It’s not comfortable for me, okay?”

Oh shit. 

Quentin hadn’t realized he was standing on a precipice until he was pushed off the side, free falling thousands of feet toward jagged rocks.

Oh, shit.

Eliot knew.

Quentin was such an idiot. Of course Eliot fucking knew.

Eliot was the smartest, most socially aware person he had ever met in his entire dumb life. From the start, Quentin knew that Eliot could see through him, down to his core, down to all the parts of himself he hated. It had been part of what made him so tense and pained around him at first. It was also part of what made him eventually fall for him, so deeply. And at worst, it also gave him a pathetic, sad little hope, the kind he always tried to bury down deep. Because sometimes it seemed like Eliot really could see all the worst parts of Quentin, yet decided that he still liked it all. And maybe even really liked it all. That he liked Quentin. That he could even, maybe, someday—

A sob tried to make its way out Quentin’s throat and he rejected it. No. He wasn’t going to do that. He wasn’t going to put that on Eliot.

Meanwhile, the discomfort he spoke of was now palpably radiating off Eliot. He harshly turned away from Quentin, his toes tapping, his hands racing up and down his opposite arms. He wanted to be literally anywhere else in the world rather than having this conversation, that much was clear. And who could blame him? How many times had Eliot made it extremely clear that he was uninterested in relationships? How many times had Eliot praised casual sex and disdained monogamy? How many times had he and Margo laughed at the idiots drinking Lovelorn Sighs, knowing they were so far above it all?

Answer: A lot of fucking times. For all of it. But Quentin—stupidly hopeless, romantic, demanding, entitled Quentin—couldn’t just accept what he’d always said. How was it different than all the times Julia called him her best friend and all Quentin heard was, “I’m in love with you, try harder?” He really thought he’d grown, but he hadn’t. Quentin hadn’t grown at all.

Oh god, and Eliot had even tried to throw him a fucking bone when he was drunk. Like, if he’d fucked Quentin, then maybe—

He couldn’t breathe.

Oh god, and then Quentin showed up in fucking Paris.

After Eliot had made it so cautiously, kindly clear that he was moving forward with Guillermo. After he’d been so clear that Guillermo made him happy—probably because he demanded nothing, asked for nothing from Eliot. Even after Eliot had been visibly relieved at Brakebills when Quentin told him that he wasn’t going to make it after all, which he probably interpreted as Quentin finally backing off. So yeah, when he saw Quentin, he’d been obviously upset and startled. And it was because it was fucking crazy that Quentin was even there. Of course it was. Goddammit.

Oh god, and then Quentin went on that stupid monologue about why he loved Paris, but really why he loved Eliot, and that look on his face had been embarrassment on Quentin’s behalf. No wonder Eliot was so uncomfortable. No wonder he wanted to get the fuck out of the ward, before Quentin said the words and completely demolished what was actually left of their friendship. Holy shit.

Holy shit.

But.

What about their friendship?

Fuck, that was the worst of it, really.

Quentin was in love with Eliot, true. But more than anything, he just…loved Eliot. Purely, simply, in any way that he could. He wanted Eliot to be happy. He wanted Eliot to find success, and a passion, follow his dreams into the sunset. He even wanted Eliot to have great sex and love or whatever it is he wanted out of that part of life. He wanted Eliot to have a thousand orgies if that’s what would bring him fulfillment, no matter how much it would slowly kill Quentin from the inside out. Because the truest truth was that he didn’t resent Eliot for one second for not feeling the same way. He only resented himself for creating the situation in the first place. And god, Eliot had really been so gentle—in his own clumsy, caustic kind of way—trying to put Quentin at ease, to let him down as kindly as he could. He cared about Quentin. That was obvious. He didn’t doubt that, even in all his sharp edges.

So maybe Eliot still cared about saving their friendship too. Maybe that’s what Margo was trying to fix, in yet her own clumsy, caustic, entitled way. And maybe that’s what Quentin had to fight for.

“El—” Quentin started, his voice strained. But Eliot just shook his head, violently.

“Don’t,” he said, kicking the dust beneath his own perfect shoes. “Don’t do that.”

“I’m sorry,” Quentin said, unable to find a fixed point to focus his eyes. “I’m—really sorry. God.”

“Stop saying you’re sorry. Jesus goddamn Christ.”

“I shouldn’t have pushed,” Quentin whispered, stealing a risky glance at him. Upon the eye contact, Eliot straightened up and clenched his fists, his eyes falling closed. “I shouldn’t have—I should have respected the space you were trying to put between us.”

Eliot brought his fists up to his closed eyes, rubbing hard. He was quiet for a moment, stilled under the lamplight.

“I guess I appreciate that,” he finally said, carefully, stilted. But Quentin felt a rush to his chest and throat and he bit his lip.

“But El,” he said and Eliot twisted his lips at the words, like he knew they were coming. “You’re my best friend.”

“I know,” he said, his eyes opening over his raspy voice. He looked pained. “I know, Q. And you’re mine too, but you have to cut me some slack.”

“But I mean, is it really that bad? I’m not asking for anything. Not really,” Quentin shook his head, feeling the hot prick of tears behind his eyes. "I don't have any expectations here."

“I—“ Eliot cut himself off with a strangled laugh and rubbed his eyes in his hands. He looked back up at Quentin and shrugged, slapping his hands on his legs. “I don’t know, Q. I don’t know what you want me to say.”

“I don't need you to say anything. But I do want to have you in my life, El. Nothing more.”

“Nothing more,” he repeated, with a soft laugh. “Yeah. Yeah. Um, I obviously want to be part of—you’re my best friend too. You’re mine too.”

“So how can I make it better?” Quentin asked, still frozen to the spot. He wrapped his arms around his legs and rested his chin on his knee, tilting his head up.

For a few moments, Eliot watched him with a strange, open expression—maybe pity?—and then surprised Quentin by walking over to him in three strides. He plopped next to him, right on the dusty ground, his own expensive pants be damned. There was still quite a bit of space between them, understandably, but it was as encouraging a sign as he’d seen yet. Quentin held back a smile.

“I think realistically time is the only thing that will make it better,” Eliot said, his voice even and almost recognizable. “But I guess talking through it doesn’t hurt matters either, loath as I am to admit it.”

“So, what, Margo did the right thing?” Quentin snorted, but Eliot snapped his head to him with a cold ferocity.

“Margo is dead to me,” Eliot said, in a way that Quentin almost believed. “Or at least, I’m actually—I’ve truly never been angrier at her. This is going to take some time to get over, even for her and me.”

“Yeah, I get that,” Quentin said, lacing his fingers together around his shins. “In all, her antics really turned up to eleven this weekend.”

Eliot’s face shifted, the tiniest smile in the world on his lips, “What a timely reference.”

“What’s the saying?” Quentin smirked. “You’ve gotta be square to be hip?”

“Jesus,” Eliot fully smiled and Quentin’s broken heart warmed. “You will never be hip.”

“I’m okay with that,” Quentin shrugged, pushing his hair back. And Eliot nodded, wrapping his arms around his own legs and resting his chin on his knee, mirroring the earlier Quentin.

“I know,” he said, chuckling. “It’s honestly impressive.”

“How uncool I am? Thanks, yeah, it’s a lifelong passion project.”

The apples of Eliot’s cheeks reached his eyes and he cast a sidelong look at Quentin.

“God, Q,” he said, almost soft. Then he swallowed and averted his gaze. “I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be sorry,” Quentin repeated Eliot’s own words back at him, meaning it. “I get it. It’s been a lot. But I’m going to try to be less, like, intense, I guess.”

“And even though I’ve been—” Eliot squeezed his eyes shut. “I promise that you matter to me, okay? You matter so fucking much to me, Q. Beyond everything.”

“Beyond,” Quentin repeated, the word stabbing him. “Right. Um, yeah. And you—you obviously matter to me too.”

“I mean it, though,” Eliot said, staring down at his hands. “Either in light or in lieu of the fucking secrets ward, I really need you to know how much I mean it.”

“I believe you, El,” Quentin said, with an easy shrug. But Eliot sucked in his cheeks and cursed quietly under his breath, shaking his head.

“Look, I’m about to say something…actually kind of real, so prepare yourself for a once in a lifetime experience, okay?” He stared straight ahead. “You make me a better person.”

Whatever he’d expected, it sure as hell wasn’t that. Quentin was dizzy.

“What?” He breathed out. Eliot swallowed.

“You—you’re like a forcing function in my life. Of the best kind. Of a singular kind,” Eliot kept speaking out into the garden, not quite monotone but certainly not emotional either. “You make me consider things. You make me considerate. You make me question my inner workings, like my motivations or my future or, like, the fucking difference between right and wrong.”

Eliot laughed quietly, finally looking over at Quentin, though not quite meeting his eyes.

“All I used to care about was Eliot getting what he wanted, when he wanted, as fast as he fucking could, ramifications be damned. You changed that.”

He was speaking quickly, but in deeper tones than Quentin had ever heard. He was frozen in place, listening as Eliot continued.

“And you’re so fucking open,” he laughed again then, like he was cutting Quentin off, even though he wasn’t going to say anything. On account of being frozen. “You are, Q. I know you think you’re this scared little mouse, but you’re open and hopeful and it makes me want to see the world the way you do. You’re interested and interesting, and God, you’re so kind, and—it makes me want to try. You know, I’ve never actually tried. Anything.”

“Yeah, but that’s more because you don’t really have to,” Quentin said, lightly. Anything more and he’d—well, he’d end up screaming. Because all of this? It sounded too much like love.

But it wasn’t.

“No, it's more that I’ve always run away from anything that required my effort or care,” Eliot shook his head and finally made eye contact, warm and sad. “But you—you inspire me. I would never say that lightly. Normally, I’d never even fucking say it at all. But I needed you to know, even if things are a little tough for a little while.”

“Thank you,” Quentin said easily and automatically, because what else could he say? It was relief. It was catharsis. It was fucking heartbreaking. He wiped away a tear and took a jagged breath. “And, um, you make me a better person too.”

“You don’t have to do that,” Eliot turned away darkly. “I know who I am, Q.”

“Sometimes, I’m not sure you do,” Quentin said, love bursting from his heart, the type he couldn’t help. “And I’m not—I’m telling the truth. You’ve made me, like, a happier person. And like, way more thoughtful about things outside my own head. And—and you encourage me to have fun. Which probably sounds like nothing to you, but it’s not. Not to me.”

He risked a glance up at his new secrets partner. Eliot was just looking at him, quietly, unshed tears in his eyes.

“And you, uh, challenge me to take better care of things. From as small as how to make a dark and stormy properly and all the way to, I don’t know, myself, maybe,” Quentin smiled at Eliot, who turned away, like it was too much. “Sorry, I know this is kinda sappy.”

“Really sappy,” Eliot laughed, though it sounded like a gasp. “Jesus, I’m starting think there’s a decent chance this is all blackmail material for Margo. You fucking win, Bambi.”

“You think she’s watching us?” Quentin asked, suddenly horrified. Eliot shrugged.

“Fifty-fifty odds.”

Quentin let out a hard laugh, before catching Eliot’s eyes again. He sucked air into the empty cavity of his aching chest.

“But El—” he started, strained, only for Eliot to hold his hand up in the air.

“It’s okay, Q,” he smiled, though his eyes were still warmly sad. “It’s really okay. We’ll be okay, alright?”

“I’m still sorry,” Quentin admitted, knowing that he should have ensured that none of this happened, by being stronger with his own emotions and expectations. “I know it annoys you when I say that. But I really am sorry.”

“It only annoys me because there’s no reason or need for it. Not in this situation,” Eliot said, meeting his eyes fully and kindly. Quentin could have melted. “Neither of us should be sorry. It’s no one’s fault. It is what it is.”

“It sucks,” Quentin said, with a sniff. “I really didn’t mean for things to get confused.”

“You couldn’t have helped it, trust me,” Eliot said with a wane grin, his eyes almost gleaning at Quentin. Jesus, he was still teasingly arrogant despite everything. But the normalcy helped Quentin breathe. They really would be okay.

“Yeah, well,” Quentin snorted, raising his eyebrows. Eliot smiled, briefly, before leaning his head back against the ward and laughing darkly.

Oh, yeah. The fucking ward. Goddammit. He'd almost forgotten, but apparently, if the solid wall behind him was any indication, they were still stuck. Everything they'd just said together wasn't enough for the secrets magic. Eliot banged his own head back against the ward with a bitter smile and he laughed again. They had similar thought processes, apparently.

“So since we have that all, you know, that out in the open now,” Eliot said, breathing out a slow breath through rounded lips, like a whooshing wind over the sea. “Uh, there’s actually a theory I want to posit.”

“A theory?” Quentin was confused.

“For getting the fuck out of here,” Eliot indicated behind them with a jerk of his thumb. Then, his lips curved back into a hollow smile. “I know Margo pretty well.”

“Really? Thought you two were, like, casual acquaintances at best.”

His hollow smiled filled with a small amount of warmth, “So I suspected from the start that it wasn’t as straightforward as she claimed. But our conversation now just proved it to me.”

“What do you mean?” Quentin asked, slightly wary.

“All of that was pretty fucking brutally honest, right?” Eliot asked, ducking his head down to make eye contact. “Our perspectives are clear? No secrets between us?”. 

“Nope, definitely not,” Quentin considered, nodding off into space. “Laid pretty bare. Though I guess at least we didn’t have to be literally naked this time. That would have been, uh, awkward.”

Eliot snorted and raised his eyebrows in a mock-wince, but pressed onward with this thought process.

“If it was secrets magic, our whole conversation would have done the trick. But—“ Eliot stood and pressed his hand to the ward and it shocked back blue at him. “No change.”

“Yeah, you’re right. I was thinking the same thing,” Quentin stood up too, his legs weak under him. But he steadied himself and tested the ward for his own knowledge. It shocked blue at him too. “It definitely should have fallen. A secrets ward without secrets doesn’t make sense.”

Eliot started walking up and down the length of the ward, one finger pressing into the solidified air, leaving a tracing blue line behind him. He was thinking and calculating, before stopping and turning around, coming back toward Quentin. He paused right in front of him and closed his eyes, like he was about to say something difficult. Quentin's heart started thudding hotly against his chest, the thick bile of anxiety rising and unwelcome.

“So, I think we may not be dealing with secrets magic, per se,” Eliot said, quietly and almost reverently. “But rather, the much more terrifying Margo’s a meddling bitch magic."

Quentin leaned his shoulder against the ward and sighed, “Yeah, I’m not following, El.”

“Okay, so,” Eliot stood still and quickly averted his eyes. “I’m going to say something uncomfortable but we’re just going to fucking push through it, alright?”

“Um, okay?”

Eliot took a deep breath and pulled himself up, like there was a string at the top of his curly head. He looked regal as he nodded at Quentin, his face cool and collected.

“Margo thinks we should be together, romantically. She sincerely believes that we’re in love with each other,” he said, all calm. “And recently, this fervent faith has reached a near zealot level.”

Quentin could feel his eyebrows wander the whole of his face as his jaw slacked open. His heart thudded painfully and all his vulnerabilities rushed back to the surface. His tenuous peace and calm, his fragile acceptance that Eliot didn't feel the same way and that he was frustrated with Quentin for not being able to keep his own shit together shattered. He was on tenterhooks, the other shoe dropping and nearly rendering him unconscious in a single instant.

“Wait, what the fuck?” He asked, putting his hands on his hips, Margo-like in and of himself. He dropped his arms. He couldn't think about her right now.

Oh, god. He felt like he was starting to have a panic attack. He breathed in, he breathed out.

It didn't help. Fuck.

“Push through it, Q,” Eliot said, gritting his teeth in something like a smile. Quentin tried. “So I suspected all along that there was a very particular secret she wanted us to admit.”

“That we—?” Quentin couldn’t even say the words. Fuckfuckfuckfuck

Eliot smiled bitterly, “Her one and only pastime is forcing her will on others, after all.”

“Fuck,” Quentin pressed his hands in his hair and looked down. “Um, but that’s actually really cruel of her.”

It was. Suddenly, Quentin felt like the world’s biggest moron for thinking that Margo had no idea the entire time they were together that day. In fact, she had been preparing for that exact moment the whole time they were together. She knew. Just like Eliot knew. He was such an idiot. He was the biggest idiot in the world. He couldn't breathe. The world was spinning and he couldn't breathe. 

“You say that like she’s infrequently so,” Eliot said, touching his lips, deep in thought. If he could tell Quentin was slowly spiraling, he wasn't letting on. “But I think in this case she was more misguided than anything.”

“So what, you think the ward will fall if we just say it?” Quentin shook his head. He was frantic. He didn't want to do that. He didn't want to say it. Not if it wasn't—not if it wasn't real.

"I really do, Q," Eliot sighed and shook his head, that sad smile on his face again. "Not my cup of tea either, trust me. But it's just... words, I guess. We both know it doesn't really mean anything."

Like he needed the reminder. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck.

Quentin searched for a logical way to stop it. Frantically, he landed on: “Well, it can’t be that easy.”

Eliot snorted and rolled his eyes.

“Easy for you maybe,” he said, the words crashing into Quentin right off his tongue. He said it like it was a normal thing to say. He said it like it wasn't—

Like it wasn't—

The world instantly froze.

Quentin couldn’t breathe. He really couldn't breathe.

Fuck.

Anger—real, pure fucking anger—ripped through his chest and stomach like a lion’s claws on a gazelle. He swallowed down his anxious bile down his throat and into his roaring gut. Holy shit. His hands flattened against his legs and he was frozen again, but this time in time and heat. He stared at Eliot as his anger flew to every part of his body, shocked at the casual, calm face in front of him.

Asshole.

Asshole.

Fucking. Asshole.

“That’s—” Quentin ground his teeth and pushed his hair back. “Wow, Eliot. You are capable of making a choice other than being a huge dickhead sometimes, you know.”

“What?” Eliot looked genuinely confused for a moment, frowning. “What are you talking about?”

“Yeah, okay,” Quentin cleared his throat. Fuck. His heart and hands both trembled. “You know what? No. I’m done. I am so fucking done with all of this. Let’s just get this over with. Let's do your idea and then hopefully move the fuck on with our lives."

Eliot dipped his head in concern, his hand resting on his arm, “Q, what did I do?”

Immediately, Quentin pushed his gentle fingers off him, making Eliot stagger back, with wide and hurt eyes.

“I’m sorry I make you so uncomfortable, Eliot,” Quentin said, low, glaring off to the side. “But you need to remember that you’re not the only one affected here.”

A few moments of silence passed between them, the air thick and heavy. And then Eliot had the fucking audacity to laugh. He laughed, hard, loud and wild, pointing his finger right at Quentin. Then, he dropped it back down in a snap, his whole body rigid and stern. He stared shocked and furious at Quentin, like he was the one who said something casually, thoughtlessly cruel.

“Wow,” Eliot breathed out, blinking twice. He bit the air and his eyes were black as the garden behind them. “Wow. Yeah, you’re right. Let’s get it over with indeed, you fucking brat. You goddamn kid.”

“Fine. You know what? Fucking fine with me,” Quentin snapped. Then he paused and just fucking said it, because its truth didn’t matter. I’m in love with you.”

Eliot’s jaw tensed against his impassive face and Quentin wanted to scream. Scream, scream, scream, fucking scream, as he waited for Eliot's turn, to hear the words he was desperate for, yet spoken like the punchline of a joke. But as he waited, staring down his own nose, his feet digging themselves into the ground where he wished he could sink, Eliot was still silent, staring at the ground, unmoving. Minutes passed. Maybe centuries. Finally, the last echoes of Quentin’s words fell from the ether and disappeared forever, and Eliot was still silent, still unmoving, still staring at the goddamn ground.

“You know, uh, you kinda have to say it too,” Quentin said, forcefully jerking his hands outward. “If we’re going to test your theory.”

Eliot’s stare at the ground turned into a glare and the veins in his neck trembled as he refused to look at Quentin.

I’m in love with you,” Eliot said, barely above a whisper, like it was the most difficult thing in the world. Which, really, fuck him for that. Quentin swallowed and shook his head, feeling tinier than ever. He couldn't breathe.

But as it was, Eliot obviously knew Margo well. The ward turned blue and fell.

Immediately, Eliot pivoted on his feet and stormed away. And the pathetic heart of Quentin shouted out before his cold, furious brain could stop it.

“Eliot, wait!” Quentin let out a frustrated sigh. He hated himself. “Just—fucking stop. Okay?”

Surprisingly, he did stop. And when Eliot turned around, he was completely drained of any anger. In fact, the look in his eyes was softer and sadder than Quentin had ever seen. It at once broke his heart all over again and gave him a strange kind of hope, even midst his own furious, nearly delirious anger and heartache. Things were fucked. But even if Eliot didn’t love him and even if he could be the biggest asshole in the world about it, he still cared, in his own fucked up way. That much was clear.

“For the record, you definitely just proved that I don’t have the monopoly on being a dickhead. In case you were wondering,” Eliot said quietly, before shaking his head. “But I know tonight sucked, so just—forget it, okay?"

"That wasn't what I was—" Quentin started to say, but Eliot cut him off with a hand in the air.

"I still meant what I said earlier," he said, so very hoarsely, like his throat was in throbbing pain. "You’re one of the only people I give a shit about in this world. Nothing changes that.”

“I meant what I said too,” Quentin said, folding his arms. “But I’m not—”

"Fuck, please, let’s not get back into it, Q,” Eliot pulled himself up into his full height and he licked his lips, keeping his guarded eyes down. “It’s been a long night. Our nerves are fried and our tensions are even more fucking fried. I just—I think we both need some space.”

He wasn't wrong. Quentin alone knew he needed sleep. And water. And maybe a Xanax.

“Yeah. I know. You're right,” Quentin said, dipping his head down, his heart kind of landing back in place. “And I know it’s weird right now, but I really do want to, like, salvage things. So maybe when it doesn’t bother you so much—“

“I’ll let you know,” Eliot said, never sounding so sharp or so dull, still steadfastly refusing to look at Quentin.

“Okay,” Quentin said, his chest cracking in half. “Okay, so then, for now, I’ll just go home. If that’s what you want.”

“It’s not. I never want that. I want—” Eliot stopped himself, shuddering. “You know what I want.”

No, I fucking don’t, Quentin wanted to say. But instead, he nodded. He’d pushed Eliot enough tonight. He’d pushed Eliot enough the whole year.

Eliot continued, putting his hands in his pockets and looking off to the side, “But considering everything, I do think it’s for the best. For both of us. So we can forget this ever happened.”

“That, uh, will probably be easier for you than me,” Quentin said, feeling the heavy weight of the night forcing his posture into a haunch. Eliot inhaled a sharp breath.

“I really don’t know what to say to that. Sometimes you are—” he said, running his hands through his hair before cutting himself off. “I’ll see you around, Q.”

With that, Eliot turned back on his feet and he left Quentin standing alone in the garden.

 


 

The elevator ride was slow and beautiful, but Quentin didn’t care. He could see the Eiffel Tower glittering from his great height, he could practically hear the tourists gasp in awe, and the spectacle of the city grew beneath his feet. But he didn’t care. He was exhausted and tired and sad. He wanted to go home. There was nothing more he wanted than to go home.

Well, that wasn’t true.

But any chance of what he really wanted had been demolished, well before he even knew it was what he wanted. Quentin pressed his forehead against the cool glass of the small moving room. He never should have let his stupid heart love so stupidly. He rubbed his neck and stood at attention when the button behind him dinged onto the invisible 51st floor. At least he wasn’t numb. Though not-numb was still—

It sucked.

He swallowed down his heartbreak and closed his eyes. He’d get through this. If there was anything he’d learned over the last year, it was that he was stronger than he’d ever known. He had support and love and he was getting better. Healthier. Even a blow like this one wouldn’t break him, not anymore. Not that he wouldn’t have his bad days—of course he was probably always going to have his bad days—but he had finally, after so many years, cultivated resilience and something approaching peace.

And while the night had ended in anger and a certain amount of despair, he really had meant what he’d said to Eliot, earlier. He truly did have a lot to do with Quentin’s journey toward happiness, no matter what. He’d taught him so much, had supported him so much, had shown him so much. So even if they never spoke again—which wasn’t a total impossibility, Quentin realized with a tortured crack in his heart—he would always hold unspeakable gratitude to Eliot for being such a force of fucking light in his life, however briefly.

And Julia, too, of course. But she was his constant. God, he needed to get home and see Julia. Thank god he could.

He broke the wards and walked through the hotel room door. On the one hand, Quentin knew he could have just left—it’s not like many of his possessions were actually still in the room, rather than languishing in a Parisian landfill. But on the other, he at least wanted his toothbrush and his backpack, which held one or two of his textbooks. Kind of important stuff and he was trying to be more responsible, in general. So he mechanically began packing, first grabbing his deodorant and comb off the small sink in the center of the two suites. He figured he'd be able to get everything thrown in his bag in less than five minutes, especially without any possible interruptions.

But he was wrong.

“Oh my god. Quentin!”

The voice he heard wasn’t one of the two he actually wanted to hear. In fact, it was the absolute last one he wanted to hear. He’d assumed she’d be at the after party, but no, why the fuck wouldn’t she be waiting there to continue making his life a living hell? It was her modus operandi, right?

“You’re back,” Margo’s eyes were wide and a giant smile formed on her face, as she stepped out of the bathroom. She was wrapped in a towel, still wet from the bathtub. “Where’s El? I need to hug and smack the shit out of both of you.”

“Eliot isn’t here,” Quentin said, zipping up his toiletry bag. He didn't look at her. He wouldn't look at her.

“Meeting him somewhere then?” Margo put her hands on her hips gleefully, shaking her shoulders in a playful dance. But then her eyes narrowed. “Why are you packing?”

“Because I’m going back to Brakebills.”

Margo tilted her head, stretching her long neck out sideways, “And Eliot is—?”

“Somewhere,” Quentin said, monotone. He wasn’t in the mood for her games. And Margo was all games, all the time. “The after party maybe. Probably with Guillermo.”

“What?” She breathed out. “But you’re out of the ward.”

“We sure are,” Quentin’s jaw tensed so hard it was going to impact itself. “And it all went to hell, multiple times, really. So I’m leaving. I can’t stay.”

Margo slammed his toiletry bag out of his hands and stomped as hard as she could on his shoe with her barefoot. Quentin let out a yelp of frustration and a small amount of pain, hobbling backward. Her poison eyes darted into him viciously and she snarled her lips, entirely not fucking around.

“Okay, you know what?” Margo put her hands firmly back on her hips. “You said you like when I call you out on your bullshit. This, right here? It’s bullshit, Quentin. You leaving is fucking bullshit.”

“Oh, fuck you, Margo,” Quentin laughed. He seriously laughed. “Fuck you and fuck all your stupid shit. I’m done.”

“You are not done. You don’t get to say you’re done,” Margo smacked his arm hard. She really resorted to physical violence, like, a lot. “This shit matters, you coward.”

He shuddered out a long sigh and turned to her, not even bothering to mask the tears in his eyes. She stepped backward slightly, her eyebrows faltering over her anger.

“You clearly knew how I felt, Margo,” Quentin said, shrugging widely. “But you couldn’t respect that maybe I didn’t want to talk to him about it. That I didn’t want to ruin anything more than it already was.”

“How the fuck would him knowing ruin anything, Quentin?” Margo shook her head, though she softened. She cautiously stepped forward towards him and rested her arm on his shoulder. “I’m sorry, but you two have been dancing around each other all year. Someone needed to push you together.”

“Well, it didn’t happen,” Quentin snapped, looking as far away from her as he could. “Eliot is the one who asked me to leave. So good job. Fucking thanks.”

“He what?” Margo narrowed her eyes and grabbed his chin, forcing him to look at her. “Something got fucked up then. He’d never do that.”

“Well, he did,” Quentin said. “He told me that he knows I’m in love with him and that he doesn’t feel the same way. And that my feelings made him so uncomfortable that he needed me to leave. That we need space from each other.”

For a moment, Margo gaped at him, like she was expecting him to say that he was joking. But he wasn’t going to do that, obviously, because he wasn't, even though his whole life was clearly some god's idea of a joke. Fuck. So instead, Quentin clapped his hands together and turned around, taking his toiletry bag off the floor and into his room. Within seconds, Margo followed, quietly closing the door behind her. She methodically sat down on the bed, laying her palms flat on her thighs, bare under her white towel.

“Okay, Quentin,” Margo took a deep breath, like she was trying very hard to keep herself calm. “So what you just said? There’s no way that’s what actually happened. I can guarantee that.”

Quentin nodded exaggeratedly and sarcastically, not buying her nonsense for one more second. But then he laughed, because really, she needed to hear it all. She needed to know exactly what her carelessness and cruelty had wrought.

“You know, I’m not sure what was actually worse. That part, or when we had to announce our fucking "love" for each other, thanks to you,” Quentin glared deeply at her, doing air quotes around the worst word in the sentence. “So again, thanks.”

“Wait,” Margo's hands flew to their natural position on her hips. She jutted her collarbone forward viciously toward him. “Wait, wait, fucking wait.

“I’m waiting,” Quentin said with a bitchy hip pop. Margo glared at him like he’d never seen before.

“You two goddamn morons actually said ‘I love you,’ to each other, out fucking loud, and you’re still on the world’s worst Will They, Won’t They merry-go-round?” She hissed, her hand on her forehead. Then she furiously reached behind her and threw a pillow at Quentin’s face. “Are you fucking kidding me?”

“It’s solidly in the Won’t They category, Margo. Eliot made that clear,” Quentin threw his Fillory book in his backpack before zipping it up. “We figured out your whole, like, scheme or whatever. That you think we should be together and if we said it, then the ward would fall. Shitty of you, but it’s done.”

Motherfucker,” Margo held the bridge of her nose between her fingers. “I can’t—I literally, truly can’t. Oh my god. You drive me to drink, Coldwater. And so does he.”

“Uh, same. Hard same.”

“I get that you both have more baggage than the Orient Express,” Margo’s voice was harsh, but her face was lined with an unusual sadness. “But are you really so terrified and damaged that you refuse to see what’s in front of your mutual asshole faces?”

Quentin clipped in the gray buckles of his backpack, shaking his head. “What are you talking about?”

Margo rushed forward and grabbed his arm, her big brown eyes pleading with him.

“I didn’t do anything clever, Quentin,” she said, her hand reaching up to his hair. “It was secrets magic. Like I said. I can show you the goddamn spell.”

“Bullshit,” Quentin said, but Margo stormed out of the room, before swiftly coming back to hand him both a notebook and an envelope.

“Read this first,” Margo said, indicating the envelope. “It was in case of emergency and I’d say this fucking qualifies. It’ll help you understand.”

She held it out to him limply, shaking it a few times so the edge wobbled up and down. With a sharp glare, Quentin snatched it out of her fingers. He’d always been a curious cat and the appearance of a mysterious letter overtook his anger for a moment. He ripped into the stark white corner until he could wrench out the single piece of looseleaf tucked inside. Smoothing it out, he began reading. Instantly, his chest cooled and his heart eased as he recognized the comforting, neatly looping handwriting.

But then he realized exactly what that recognition implied. And he remembered Margo had called it Our plan earlier. Quentin’s nostrils flared and he slammed the letter down against his thigh, wanting to stomp on it in a rage. The inferno roared again.

But yet, the curiosity. Fuck, the curiosity. How the hell was she going to explain this one? He had to know and he had the answer right in front of him. So Quentin took a deep breath and brought the words back to his eyes, the paper rattling under his shaking hands as he read, hatefully, betrayed, ready to scream.

It said:

 

Dear Q,

Don’t be mad.

I can preemptively (psychically?) feel your indignation cross the ocean between us. I admit it makes a certain amount of surface-level sense for you to feel angry or betrayed or out of control. But please, try to understand where I’m coming from.

To start, I don’t think I can express exactly how proud of you I am. Even more than that, I am certain I can’t express how grateful I am for you and your ever-abiding friendship. It’s constantly overwhelming to me that I get to share this journey with my oldest and truest. Your strength, bravery, and kindness are my constants and I am so lucky to know you. And I want you to know that I meant what I said during The Trials: Nothing gives me greater relief than seeing you actively seek happiness and peace. You’re one of the most important people in my life. I cherish you and I’m always rooting for you, near or far.

…But the reality is, Q? You are out of practice. And bravery without trusting yourself or others is too static. I know you think that stepping away from what you want is noble, as though self-sacrifice is inherently beneficial. Or maybe you think trying for something good in your life is too selfish and that you haven’t earned it. I get it. And I think these impulses come from a good place. In fact, I know they do, because YOU are a good place, Quentin Coldwater. But the results are still damaging and far-reaching, in ways I know you’d never intend.

Please believe me when I say you’ve earned it. No one has earned happiness and love more than you, and I promise that you are close to it right now. I know you may not understand, but I couldn’t sit by and watch you sabotage yourself. Not again, not after everything we’ve been through during this incredible, terrifying, soul-affirming year. So if you’ll allow (and well, even if you won’t allow, because sometimes I really do know best, motherfucker), I offer this gentle nudge and even firmer guidance, as one who knows you well. Maybe too well :)

Please trust yourself, and the way you feel. Please trust him, and the way he looks at you (oh, Q, the way he looks at you.) And please don’t be mad.

I love you,

Jules

P.S. Sorry about Margo? Probably?

 

Quentin sighed and internalized her message with a wince and a half-smile, the shaking and fury quelling slowly.

It was kind of overwrought, really, with way too many parentheticals. Julia always loved herself a good parenthetical, even when she’d already used, like, two fucking parentheticals in less than five meager paragraphs. He always got rid of them when he edited her term papers, which always annoyed the crap out of her. And then, throughout, she’d really used the word ‘please’ an awful lot. She probably thought it was thematic, but it came out repetitive. He would have edited those too, if she’d asked him for notes. She probably should have.

But overall, Quentin had to admit, it wasn’t a half-bad letter. Even if she was definitely still terribly wrong and overreaching for what she’d done, no bones about that.

Wrapping his arms around himself, like he was searching for a hug from nowhere, Quentin felt dizzy and he sniffed back a traitorous tear. He had to focus.

So he breathed in, he breathed out.

Quentin reached his hand out toward Margo, wordlessly asking for the notebook. She handed it to him gently, the new weight firm on his palm. He nodded in acknowledgement if not thanks, and still refused to look at her. He opened it to the first page and read through Julia’s vast, intricate spell work. She really was an evil meta-composition genius, in all her incredibly talented glory. He and Eliot never stood a chance. And really, Quentin should have realized exactly who they were actually dealing with much earlier on.

He shook his head of those cobwebby thoughts and kept reading. Luckily, when Julia wrote a new spell, her work was clean and clear. So even with only the first brief glimpse, the circumstances were obvious. And by the time he finished reading, Quentin’s heart had entirely stopped.

Margo was telling the truth.

It was an actual secrets magic ward, formulated to include his and Eliot’s humors regarding the other. The ward only fell if they—

Oh god.

If they—

The top of his head buzzed with tingling electricity. If they, if they, if they. He swallowed and caught Margo’s eye, who was smiling hesitantly at him. Water was dripping onto the carpet from her still-wet hair, but she was being patient. And at the glowing expression almost certainly visible on his face, her smile moved from hesitant to blinding.

“So you’re saying that—“ Quentin spoke aloud, mostly to himself but also to Margo. A slow, terrifying, incredible realization was still dawning on him. “Um, wait, you’re saying that—?”

“Only the truth got you out of there, Quentin,” Margo said, firm and gentle. “For and from both of you. I fucking promise you that.”

Quentin sat down on the bed, his legs like air under his form. He kept his shining eyes up at Margo and a smile of his own creeped across his face against his will.

“So Eliot is—?” He breathed it out, like a prayer. Margo sat back down next to him, clapping her hand on his knee. She bit her lip and chuckled, before turning those big brown eyes on him, warm and teasing.

“Completely ass backwards in love with you?” She imbued her words with bubbling laughter and Quentin’s chest and throat seized with joy. She held her hand out, like she was looking to shake his. “Hey there, glad to finally meet you here."

“Where?” Quentin asked, his lips trembling.

Margo smiled, forcefully taking his hand and pumping it up and down, “On the same goddamn page, you idiot.”

Quentin pushed his hair back and immediately bolted from the bed, all of his energy and adrenaline rushing to his chest and legs. He couldn’t stand still. He couldn’t stop smiling. He couldn’t—what the fuck was he actually supposed to do with his hands? Why did hands exist again?

He stopped and stared at Margo, “But he never said anything.”

Margo tensed her shoulders up towards her ears, “Eliot’s not exactly good with words.”

“You’re right,” Quentin snorted, not exactly sure where snark could possibly be coming from. But whoomp, there it was. “He’s famously inarticulate. ”

“I mean when it comes to real shit, smartass.”

“But—but it’s not just that he didn’t say anything,” Quentin was pacing even though he still couldn’t feel his legs. “He specifically said that none of this was about me. He said that he was with Guillermo. He said I needed to get over myself.“

“You know him,” Margo waved off Quentin’s concerns, before leaning back on his bed with both hands. “He was protecting himself.”

“From me?” It was the most absurd concept Quentin had ever considered. Also, like, his mouth was tingling.

“Yeah. From you. What you mean to him,” Margo sighed. “He’s fucking heartbroken, Quentin.”

“What?” He asked, still disbelieving. She nodded slowly, tilting her head backwards in remembered frustration.

“Oh yeah,” Margo almost laughed. “Big time. Ever since you gave him that best buds forever spiel. Had to talk him down from a fuckin’ tizzy that night thanks to you.”

A tizzy. Eliot had been in a tizzy because of—Quentin? He shook his head, pacing, not even sure what she was specifically talking about. He didn’t remember giving him any…

Oh shit.

Oh, shit.

The night he came back from his dad’s. The night that Eliot had kissed his forehead and held him on the couch, giving him wine and soft words and gentle eyes. The night that Quentin had almost fallen to pieces, wanting to offer up every part of himself, the first time he even came close to realizing how much he loved him. The night that Quentin had told Eliot that had become his best friend, even though they had a shitty beginning. The night the Quentin had called it the best possible outcome. And Eliot—Eliot had said…

Okay, he was going to be sick. Maybe. Oh, shit. He was so stupid.

“Oh, shit. Oh—oh, shit," he said aloud, his hands wrenching out his hair. Apparently, that's what they were for.

“No shit, dumbass,” Margo shook her head, but she smiled just a little, squeezing his arm. “And Quentin, he thinks you understood. That you knew and know, you decided you weren’t interested, more than once. He kinda underestimates how stupid you are.”

“Yeah, he probably does,” Quentin stood still, his arms hanging limply at his sides. “I mean, I am pretty stupid.”

So stupid. The fucking stupidest man who ever lived. Eliot.

“Sorry,” Margo winced. “You’re not—you’re not stupid, okay? I’m trying to be better about that.”

Quentin shook his head and started pacing again, “But I am. He—did he tell you he tried to kiss me? When he was drunk?”

Margo sighed, “No, he didn’t tell me that one.”

“And, like, he told me all these things about how he was feeling. Like that his chest was glass and that all of his mornings are bad,” Quentin laughed, pitchy and wired. “He was talking about his feelings for me, Margo, and I had no fucking idea. Come on, that’s fucking stupid.”

“Jesus Christ,” Margo said simply, running her fingernails along her scalp. “I mean, yeah, Q, that’s not great.”

He stopped and screwed his face at her, “You never call me Q.”

“Well, I figured I’d use a stupid nickname for a stupid man,” she glared, before grabbing his hand again, stilling his movements. “But Quentin, listen, okay? What I really meant is that he literally can’t fathom how little you think of yourself sometimes.”

“Holy shit.”

Margo smiled softly, sighing, “Because Eliot? Eliot thinks the sun-fucking world of you.”

“Holy shit.”

Margo’s whole face fell again, ignoring his sputtering repetition.

“Look, I’ve never seen him so devastated. He fucking—he loves you, okay?” She rushed that part out, like it embarrassed her. “He definitely wants to be with you. God, when he thought things were going well between the two of you, he was—he was joyful, Quentin. Can you even understand—?”

“Holy shit.”

Margo snorted a little at his words and nodded, “Fuck, he had so many plans, it was ridiculous. But now…”

Her eyes fell downward and all the air went out of the room.

“Holy shit,” Quentin said for a final time, while his chest was being ripped out by aliens, probably. “Oh, god.”

With a soft, one-dimpled smile, Margo tugged him over to the bed and grasped both of his hands, pulling him down next to her. Keeping a firm grip on one of his palms, she reached up and touched his face, her eye contact steady and sure.

“So I’m begging you,” she whispered, caressing his cheek with all the sincerity in the world, “if for any reason you don’t want the same thing, you have to tell me now so I can handle it accordingly. Please.”

But he didn’t even need to think about it. Not for a single second. He knew what he wanted. He knew exactly what he wanted.

Eliot.

“No, I do. I do,” Quentin said, firmly. “I, uh, I feel the same way. But I thought—I thought what he thought.”

She smiled and nodded, pressing her hand on his arm, “Then you need to set the course, okay? He thinks he lost his chance.”

Quentin smiled down at his hands, “Uh, yeah. He didn’t.”

“Duh. I know that,” Margo smacked his arm, smiling cheekily. “Now you have to go make him know that, you fucker. You really think I brought you here because of your dazzling company?”

“Mean, but fair,” he laughed, nudging a single shoulder into hers. She shimmied back against him and kissed his cheek. Okay, maybe she wasn’t that bad, after all.

“Quentin?” She asked, stroking his arm.

“What?”

“Why the fuck are you still sitting here?” Margo put her hands on her hips, glaring and smiling at once, a unique talent. Then her lips curled into a lascivious, playful smile. “Go get your man.”

She didn’t need to tell him twice. Quentin bolted upward and immediately ran out the door.

 


 

…And then he promptly ran back in, before Margo had even started to leave his bedroom.

She glared and huffed out a sigh, “Fucking what, Quentin?”

“Uh, where exactly is the after party?” He asked, holding a single finger in the air. Margo snorted.

“Musee d’Orsay,” she said. “On the Left Bank. It’s kind of a fucking hike.”

“And so, like, how do I get there?” He asked further and she smacked his arm, hard.

“I’m not your mommy. Figure it the fuck out,” Margo rolled her eyes and walked out of his room. “Anyway, I still have to get changed into my party outfit, because I have my own goddamn life, in case you forgot. So buh-bye.”

She waved her hand up and down mockingly, before smoothly flipping him off. Quentin twisted his mouth at her—because seriously?—but then he glanced over at the living room dresser with a smirk. Picking up his good ol’ handyParis guidebook, he patted it twice and raised it up in a salute to Margo. She cackled, hands on her hips.

“God, you’re so embarrassing,” Margo smirked. “He has terrible taste, honestly.”

Hearing her affection and love for what it was, Quentin kissed her on the cheek in a role reversal, before he finally, truly ran out the door, as fast as he fucking could.

 


 

tbc.

 

Chapter Text

 

Quentin ran as fast as he fucking could for fifty goddamn minutes. He hoped Eliot had a thing for puddles of sweat, strained muscles, and dirty suits, because that was what he was about to offer up. Jesus Christ.

He wheezed and panted, finally standing on the leftmost bank of the Seine and looking up at the beautiful former train station. His lungs were caught sticky against his rib cage. For the first time that night, he was actually glad Eliot had forgotten the cigarettes in the restaurant. If he’d smoked, he never would have gotten across the city without collapsing, though he’d like to think that the wings of love would have carried him regardless. And in his heart, they certainly did. But his body was as weak and unathletic as ever, so even without any fresh smoke clogging up the works, Quentin really needed to rest for just a moment.

He winced as he leaned against the concrete and limestone barrier between the museum and the drop to the river. His palms pressed into the rough material and he dropped his head down, taking several long, slow breaths. Academically speaking, Quentin knew that the idea of running across town to reach the love of your life was considered romantic. But he wasn’t actually trying to be romantic, not if it meant more time away from Eliot. More time that Eliot didn’t know, more time before the two of them could finally start.

…Or hope to start. Maybe. All of this was assuming that Quentin hadn’t completely fucked things up, with his insecurity, cowardice, and painful obliviousness. Much as it increased the weight of his heart, he knew he had to consider that possibility, the one of a certain amount of futility, even after everything. Though at the same time, he could also hear and see Margo scream at the top of her lungs, tongue sticking out wildly, at even the slightest hint of hesitation on his end. Still, he figured, balance and all that.

So though the idea of the run was romantic, the reality that led him there was much more commonplace. First, he’d missed the final train of the Metro. And then, his French sucked and therefore the taxi he captured had promptly dropped him on his ass, too frustrated by all the innumerable drunkards in the streets to deal with one who could barely even pronounce Bonjour without heavily emphasizing the ’n’ sound. He’d stood there, lost, at Place de la République for a good while before he’d decided Fuck it and his legs took off.

When he finally arrived, the night was dark and quiet; the museum looked closed to the average outsider. But as it turned out, there was actually nothing average about Quentin Coldwater. With a fast smile toward his love of magic, he pulled his hands into a frame and his stomach giddily swooped as all large windows lit up with sparkling glamour, music, and dancing behind his fingers. How exactly Josh had managed to turn his intimate dinner party into a large soirée at one of the most gorgeous museums in the world was both a magical and social discipline that entirely eluded Quentin. But he was thrilled to be along for the ride, even if the party itself was mere window dressing for the true crown jewel within.

Closing his eyes reverently, Quentin breathed in the scent of sewage and bread, before offering a prayer to Paris, thanking it for its strange service. With that, he walked through the door to the museum, the party, and the rest of his life. Immediately, his eyes widened as he stood at the top of the grand marble staircase. The windowed half-sphere was lit in fireworks, blazing and sparkling in ever changing colors, while hundreds of perfectly coiffed, perfectly gorgeous people mingled throughout the statues and history. The wards must have been obscenely intensive, he imagined, as champagne towers flowed over Gaugins and Rodins without a care. It was all undeniably beautiful.

But Quentin didn’t give a shit about any of it.

Not with the way his heart was clenching in three-quarter time, a waltz of heady anticipation rather than exertion. He scanned the large room, looking for a handsome figure towering over them all, ruling with ease, and smiling so dazzlingly that the fireworks were mere pittances of dull sheens. But he saw no one who even came close, and his brow furrowed in immediate frustration.

Where the fuck was Eliot?

Fear stuttered in his throat. It was very possible that Eliot had already left—gone back to his room with his date, Guillermo. As much as the idea punched Quentin’s gut into a simpering pulp, it wasn’t like it wouldn’t be fair. Eliot didn’t owe Quentin anything, at all, and especially not celibacy at that particular moment. But fuck. Fuck. It would just make everything he was trying to prove that much more difficult and complicated and—

Quentin spotted Guillermo amongst the crowd. He breathed again. 

Guillermo wasn’t as tall as Eliot, but he was close. He was hard to miss, all top-knots and broad shoulders, as he stood laughing near a Bourdelle. Quentin's heart darkened when he realized his arm was wrapped around a handsome, lithe stranger. And a sharp annoyance hit him even further as Guillermo dipped his mouth down and pressed a sloppy, laughing kiss against the man’s neck.

Uh, who the fuck did he think he was? He was there with Eliot Waugh and he was flirting with some other douchebag? Did he not comprehend how goddamn lucky he was? He really had half a mind to go down there and tell Guillermo where he could stick his flippant fucking attitude, that asshole, that complete piece of—

The barrage of insults continued rapidly though his furious mind until Quentin remembered that he was technically there to straight-up steal Guillermo’s date, in a permanent sense. So, fine. Whatever. He calmed his shit, internally called it even, and kept his eyes moving, walking down the hallway.

For the interminably long time of approximately five minutes (okay, three), Quentin found nothing but nothing and no one. But then, finally, when he ducked past a Camille Claudel lovers’ embrace, a warm hand firmly grabbed his arm from behind and tugged him close. Quentin’s breath caught in his chest. Turning around with wide eyes, he automatically tilted forward into the light, his heart beating painfully as a sweet hope burst in his soul. His mouth fell open, as he saw—

Josh Hoberman.

Oh.

“Oh,” Quentin said, his shoulders slumping. “Hey Josh.”

“Quentin Coldwater,” Josh shook his head at him. “Our little instigator. Why are you so fucking dirty?”

His suit was still covered in a mess of dusty grime. It was a thing.

“Uh, well, Margo trapped me in a garden and I—got dusty,” Quentin explained weakly. But he apparently didn’t need an explanation beyond the word Margo to satisfy Josh, who immediately nodded sagely, understanding.

“Say no more,” Josh held his hands up. “Fuckin’ Margo. Seriously, if she was even like an eighth less hot…”

“And, uh, sorry about the instigation,” Quentin continued, his eyes flicking about. He really wasn’t sure what to say about Margo’s hotness. Or about anything that wasn’t asking, Where the fuck is Eliot?  at the top of his desperate lungs. “Hopefully it goes without saying that it was unintentional.”

Quentin was proud of himself. He officially had the social awareness to look sheepish and engage Josh in conversation, rather than—again—immediately grabbing at his suit jacket and demanding, Where the fuck is Eliot? Which, if it wasn't clear, was all he actually wanted to do. 

Maybe he really had grown, in his own way.

“Eh, all gatherings need a drama factor,” Josh waved his hand with a wry smile. “And really, I’ve been up my own shit creek with the Burlesque dancers all night. I was going for a Josephine Baker vibe, but it ended up a bit more Lady Marmalade. Booty shorts and all.”

“That’s funny,” Quentin said with a polite grin because he still couldn’t just say Where the fuck is Eliot? “Vous lay vous-koo-shay and all that.”

“Did you study at the Sorbonne?” Josh laughed and it reminded Quentin of something Eliot would say and Where the fuck is Eliot? “Perfect pronunciation, man.”

…Though, really, if Quentin had made that particular joke to Eliot, he only would have gotten a Jesus, Q. No. Bad dog, complete with the haughtiest sigh and the tiniest hint of a hidden smile.

God, he loved him.

But he had to keep talking to Josh, for at least a minute. Maybe half a minute? He still wasn't sure about all social expectations. But he did know that it was Josh’s party. The "real" reason he was there, after all. And no matter what, Josh had genuinely become a friend to Quentin and that counted for something. Besides, the man at the heart of the question—and the heart of everything in Quentin these days—would be the first to chastise him for being too abrupt and graceless with someone who genuinely enjoyed Quentin’s company and wanted to spend time with him. It was fair.

“Self-taught if you can believe it,” Quentin laughed. Where the fuck is Eliot? ...Okay, he couldn’t help it. He refocused. “But seriously, don't worry. Everything tonight has been fantastic. Couldn’t imagine a better send-off for you.”

“Hey now, don’t call it a send-off. I’ll still be around,” Josh winked. “I don’t think you kids would survive without my cakes next year. Portal magic, baby.”

“Never,” he smiled, agreeing. “Still, I’ll miss the fuck out of you.”

It was true. He really would miss him next year. But the same time, Quentin was an inherently selfish person and a momentary hit of panic overtook him. He imagined sending Margo and—oh god, Eliot off in the same fashion, a mere three-hundred some odd days from then. Everything went hazy and dizzy before he firmly compartmentalized that gut-wrenching thought for another day. His emotions were far too haywire for any kind of unnecessary interference.

But his patience had also officially run out.

“Hey, uh,” Quentin swallowed and looked around, like the thought had just occurred to him. “So, perchance, um, have you seen Eliot around anywhere?”

At least he put it nicely. And very casually too.

Josh nodded, “Yeah, yeah, he went towards the bar in the back. If you’re heading there, can you grab me a Remy Martin?”

“Uh-huh, sure,” Quentin smiled briefly, knowing there was no chance in hell he’d be bringing Josh his drink. Oh well. “We’ll catch up more soon, okay?”

“Sounds great, man,” Josh called after him as Quentin quickly retreated. “And tell Eliot to come be social finally! The hermit look ain't sexy on him.”

“Sure thing!” He called back with a big grin and a wave, lying his ass off.

 


 

Quentin twisted his way into an almost darkened gallery, underneath a set of tall, winding metal stairs. Watercolor paintings hung on the plain walls, calling all the attention to themselves. But as it was a Magicians’ party, a bar appeared as well, long and wooden against the dim light. A single tuxedo’d bartender dried a glass with a white towel and for a moment, Quentin thought he’d reached a dead end.

But in the thin light, he saw him. At the very end of the long expanse, a hunched over figure sat on a stool, long pale fingers wrapped into messy dark curls. Eliot traced his other hand’s index finger along the rim of a half-drunk champagne flute, his flask splayed beside. His heaving breaths were visible in the curve of his back and his eyes were hidden under his wrist. He looked small. Which was possibly among the last words Quentin ever associated with him. But it was the truth.

He looked small.

Quentin wanted to run to him. To throw himself at him. To bodily rip his heart out of his chest and say, Here, fucking take it. But he knew better than that. Eliot was clearly not in a good place. And Bad Place Eliot needed to be approached with caution and care, and with a hefty thick skin of one’s own.

Gathering up every ounce of insignificant courage he had, Quentin walked past the symmetrical row of empty red bar stools and stood next to him, his hands frozen in trepidation before he could tap his shoulder. But even in his current state, Eliot was always aware and he covered his eyes fully with both hands.

“Margo,” he said, hoarsely. “I am not ready to talk to you. Go the fucking fuck away.”

“Um,” Quentin started, and immediately at the sound, Eliot dug the heels of his palm into his eyes and made a tortured, guttural sound from the back of his throat. “Uh, not Margo.”

“You’re like a cockroach,” Eliot said, not moving and not kind. “I asked you for one thing, Quentin.”

Quentin sighed. Not exactly an auspicious start. He gulped and breathed through the initial rush of defensiveness and pain Eliot’s words brought on. He knew where it was coming from.

But.

Still, he tried to keep his voice soft and understanding. He owed Eliot at least that much.

“Look, I know you’re pissed—“

Eliot shot his head up, staring straight at the rows of aperitif bottles on the mirrored wall behind the magical bar.

“Pissed. Pissed? That’s the emotion you’re ascribing to me? Wow,” he said, letting out a harsh laugh. His strong, statuesque profile glowed golden like a dimming marquee. “Maybe you’re the AI.”

Quentin dug his fingernails into his palms.

“I understand why you’re lashing out. I would too, if I were you,” he said, even and whispering. His heart was caught firmly in his throat, his fingers shaking as he could physically feel Eliot slipping away from him. “But can I just—I actually did see Margo, okay? And there’s something important I need to talk to you about.”

Eliot was silent. For a moment, Quentin wondered if he’d even heard him. But just as he opened his mouth to repeat himself, Eliot entwined his fingers in the prayer position, his knuckles against his lips.

“You have thirty seconds and then I’m walking away,” he said, biting the inside of his cheek before popping his lower lip out from under his teeth. “So don’t use up too much of it with your stammering.”

When he wanted to slash your throat, Eliot wielded a knife expertly. Quentin touched his forehead, instinctively pushing back his hair. He felt smaller than Eliot looked and his chest rushed with a pounding pain, telling him that it was all a terrible idea, that he was a stupid, worthless man who would never deserve Eliot, that he’d done too much and too little all at once, and that he should just walk out now and save him and Eliot the heartache and frustration, respectively.

“Fuck, Eliot—“ Quentin gasped out, but Eliot’s eyes flashed at him.

“Clock’s on, Coldwater.”

You deserve every piece of his anger. You hurt him, you absolute piece of shit. Why the fuck should he forgive you? Even if he does or fucking did love you, why should he give himself to a spineless, idiotic coward?

His angry brain kept hissing crueler and crueler things, as though it wasn't the same goddamn one that told him for months that he’d never be good enough for Eliot, that Eliot would never see him as anything more than a pet nerd, and certainly would never consider him as anything even remotely romantically viable. His brain could be a real asshole that way.

But Quentin needed to be brave. For once in his dumb life, he needed to be brave. If not for himself, then for Eliot. So he took a deep breath, pushed down the harrowing, relentless battery from his mind, and spoke.

“Margo wasn’t bullshitting us,” Quentin said slowly, methodically. “It was secrets magic. Real secrets magic.”

“The ward?” Eliot shook his head and chuckled, low, rough, dangerous. “It obviously wasn’t. Thanks for the chat.”

He took a hard swig from his flask and flicked his ringed hand out at Quentin, the caricature of an aristocrat dismissing a servant. Quentin gently grabbed his wrist and Eliot lurched backward, snatching it away, like his touch was horrifying and painful. His wide eyes burned into him for a split second before turning firmly away once again.

Ouch.

Okay.

“El. I’m serious,” Quentin said, desperately trying to seek Eliot’s eye contact. It was refused. “It was a secrets ward. You and I need to talk.”

Eliot twisted his hands into shaking fists, rapping his knuckles manically against the wood of the bar. He breathed out his nostrils, hard, and a long line down his pale throat trembled, shrouded in a gorgeous five o’clock shadow.

“No, it wasn’t,” Eliot said, hissing with incredulity. “It couldn’t have been. And you and I—fuck, Quentin. You and I need nothing. Lots and lots of nothing.”

“I’m telling you it was—“

The fists slammed down on the bar and Eliot finally really looked at him, leaning into the counter like it was the only thing holding him up. His eyes were dark and devastated and holy shit, everything Margo said was true. Quentin’s own heart burst and flipped in his chest and it took everything in him not to wrap his arms around Eliot’s chest and pull him close. But he didn’t. Hopefully, there would be plenty of time for that later. For now, he needed to help Eliot understand. He needed him to see. He needed to be brave.

But his courage was faltering in his  mouth, as it always did.

“Stop it. Why are you doing this?” Eliot shook his head. He was looking at Quentin like he might be the worst person in the world. Honestly, after their evening, it wasn’t totally crazy. “Think for two seconds about the implication of what you’re saying. Are you trying to hurt me?”

“Never, El,” Quentin managed to get out, his vocal chords trembling with feeling and fear. “Never in a million years. Please, just let me—”

“What’s that you always say?” Eliot clicked his tongue against his teeth. “Oh yeah: Could’ve fooled me.

“I deserve that,” Quentin said, sitting down on the stool next to him because his legs were far too weak and his head far too dizzy. Eliot immediately stood up. “I do. But you have to listen to me.”

“I don’t actually have to do shit,” Eliot said, taking another pointed chug out of his flask. Then he held his hands out with a gasping laugh and glared away from Quentin. “Your time’s run out. Have a good evening.”

With that, he turned on his heels and walked away from Quentin, his head held high. For a small moment, it felt like an ending. Like closure. Tears wet Quentin's eyelashes and he couldn’t help but think that maybe in another world, in another lifetime, when they weren’t such fuck ups, the two of them—

“Eliot, I’m in love with you.”

Quentin’s hopeful heart overtook his scathing brain, valiant and true. It tumbled out desperately, without thought and entirely on the instinct of what he knew best in the entire world. He loved Eliot. He loved Eliot. He loved Eliot.

The words hit Eliot’s retreating form like Hemingway’s bankruptcy: Gradually, then suddenly. Tension roiled through every visible, moving muscle under his well-fitted suit. His feet slow-motion stopped on the ground before his entire form froze in place. His shoulders sharply thrust toward his ears like a haunched, hissing cat, before he whipped back around. His hazel eyes were red and wild, slicing into Quentin like an out of control machete.

“What?” Eliot breathed out. “What the fuck did you just say?”

“I’m in love with you,” Quentin said again, swallowing at the end. His heart rate increased exponentially with each passing microsecond that Eliot simply stood there, staring at him, slack-jawed. “I’m, like, so in love with you it’s stupid.”

“Stupid,” Eliot repeated, monotone. He blinked. He blinked again. His face betrayed no emotion. And Quentin’s eyes flew open.

“No, I mean, like, I’m stupid,” he rushed to explain. “Not—not that being in love with you is stupid. That’s not—I mean, god, El, me being in love with you is really the only thing that makes sense, right?”

“The only thing that makes sense,” Eliot repeated again. His hand went up to his forehead and his eyes widened, down to the floor. “The only thing that makes sense? I—what?”

“Look, I saw the spell Margo used. In the ward, we both had to—” Quentin took a deep breath. “We both had to tell the truth. And we just didn’t realize the other was telling the truth too because we’re—we’re whatever.”

“We’re whatever.” Eliot was still repeating his last words back to him, though his voice was getting tinnier and higher, more strained like a panic. Quentin pushed through the uncertainty that provoked in his gut, knowing he needed to at least see his message through.

“But when I said I love you, there and here,” he pressed a single finger down on the bar, emphasizing his most important point. “I meant it. I mean it.”

Eliot opened his mouth. Then he closed it. Then he opened his mouth, like he was going to laugh. Then he closed it.

His eyes widened.

He opened his mouth again.

Closed it.

Finally, Eliot stared down at the ground and cleared his throat, before looking back up at Quentin with his fingers pressed together against his lips.

“Yeah. Ah. Hmm. I just blacked out a little,” he said, nodding broadly, up and down. His eyes were glassy and Quentin genuinely wasn’t sure if what he said was meant to be a quip or not. But based on the shake of Eliot’s hands, he leaned toward the latter. “I’m sorry. What?”

“We both had to tell the truth—“ Quentin started to repeat, but Eliot furiously shook his head.

“What?” He asked again, before dropping his mouth open, one finger defiantly in the air. “No, no, no. No. You said—you said—“

“It came to my attention that we were kinda talking past each other,” Quentin averted his gaze, Eliot’s intensity too much. He still wasn’t completely sure what exactly was racing through that mind of his. He was inscrutable on a good day and that day was—well, it was a weird day. The weirdest day. And it wasn’t like he thought for sure Eliot’s response would be to yell I love you too and throw himself at Quentin, but well…

It had at least been a hope. The brightest, truest, strongest hope he’d ever felt in his entire life that definitely had yet to come to fruition and seemed to be slipping further away the more they talked. But, uh, no biggie.

Quentin gulped.

“Past each other?” Eliot asked, his eyebrows falling down. He didn’t sound angry, but he didn’t sound not angry at the same time. “What the hell does that mean?”

Quentin shrugged and scratched the back of his neck, extremely nervous, “Like, we both thought the other knew. You know, how we felt.”

“Knew?” Eliot’s eyes were bigger than his whole face. “Wait, you thought I knew that you—? That you—?”

“Yeah.”

Another dark look registered on his face, “And you didn’t know.”

It wasn’t a question anymore. Quentin half-laughed. He wished he had a drink. Or a cigarette. Something that he could do with his hands, since he was pretty sure ripping out his hair wouldn’t be attractive to the remarkably stoic Eliot. At least, remarkably stoic all things considered. Quentin felt like all his bones were about to jump out of his skin. Eliot seemed—maybe perturbed? Anxious? At worst? Still nothing much auspicious, as far as he could tell. His heart sunk down as he swallowed his fear.

“No. I didn’t know,” he said softly, looking down at his hands. “Definitely not.”

Eliot’s face had teetered between emotionless and shellshocked. But then, a swath of anger and incredulity passed over his eyes, his eyebrows knitting tightly together and his lips snarling in a haughty square.

“How the fuck didn’t you know?” He asked, hard. He ground his teeth and raked a hand through his hair. “I told you. More than once.”

“Actually, uh, no,” Quentin kept staring at his hands. “You technically didn’t. So, uh, I had no idea. At all. Margo actually had to tell me.”

“Margo told you,” Eliot said, repeating again. This time, he wasn’t monotone. He was half-amused, half-furious. “Margo told you? My god, she is on the thinnest of motherfucking ice—”

“She was trying to help, El,” Quentin sighed. “Give her a break. And if it—whatever the fuck ‘it’ is—was so obvious, why do you care that she told me?”

“Do not become a Bambi apologist on me,” Eliot snapped, expertly sidestepping Quentin’s last question. “That’s how she gets her claws in. Brainwashing bitch.”

“I—” Quentin started to say and rubbed the inner corners of his eyes in a pinch. He nodded. “Yeah. Okay.”

Eliot’s face faltered at that and he gripped the edge of the nearest bar stool, his knuckles contrasting light pink against the Parisian red of the leather. He kept blinking for a few more moments, until he finally stared down, straight at his shoes. Quentin’s ears rushed in haunting swooshes as the world stood still on its axis.

“So wait, you’re—?” Eliot finally started to ask, all his sharpness and confidence drained. He cleared his throat. “You’re actually—? You feel—?”

Quentin nodded, cautiously, still staring at his hands. When he received no response, he glanced up and realized that Eliot also wasn’t looking at him. So he cleared his throat and Eliot’s shoulders jerked with a startle.

“Uh, yeah, El,” he said, cursing the way his voice caught, like a prepubescent boy. But he pressed onward. “Yeah. I am. I do.”

Eliot threw his flask on the counter next to Quentin and abruptly started pacing. He walked back and forth between the bar and a minor Monet on the opposite wall. He raked his hands even more thoroughly through his hair, which was less artfully messy and actual messy-messy at that point. But he still looked…

Well, he looked like Eliot. Quentin’s heart thudded.

“I’m processing,” Eliot said, into the ground. “Give me a minute.”

“Okay,” Quentin said quietly.

Eliot’s long legs carried him back and forth between the short space so quickly that it was more like he was pivoting and spinning over and over again. There was no scurrying in his stride, nothing harried or frantic. He was fluid, constant, unyielding. But tiny movements of his mouth and forehead belied his grace.

“What exactly did you think was happening that night, by my room?” He demanded, still moving. “When I asked you to stay with me? Did you think I was inviting you to eat popcorn and gossip?”

“I thought you were too drunk to consent,” Quentin said, honestly. Eliot laughed, like a madman.

“Consent? What?” He stopped his feet, but his hands ran up and down the side of his head in their own pacing motion. “Our life isn’t a campus sexual assault PSA, Quentin. I obviously wanted—”

“I wasn’t going to mess up our friendship because of an advance I didn’t think you meant, El,” Quentin looked down, refusing to apologize. “Because, honestly, it’s not like it would be the first time you’d hit on someone without it meaning something more .”

“Do not throw shit like that in my face,” Eliot said, firm. There was still no hint of affection or anything close to love in his eyes, and Quentin was growing nervous.

“I’m not throwing anything—” Quentin started, but Eliot shook his head and tensed his jaw.

“I make no apologies for my past proclivities and I never will,” he said, pointing his finger firmly toward Quentin. “It’s separate from you and me. From us.”

Eliot swallowed a little at the final word and shook his head, like he was dazed.

“I’m just—I’m explaining. You wanted an explanation.” Quentin said, rubbing his neck. “But really, I just wouldn’t have been able to live with myself. You were drunk off your ass, El.”

“Always so fucking noble,” Eliot almost laughed again, but his eyes were still darting, still processing. “Jesus Christ.”

“I mean, it’s basic decency, not—”

“Save it for your Women’s Studies course,” Eliot said, growling. “To me, it was a fucking rejection. I am currently processing that it apparently wasn’t, okay?”

“Okay.” Still quiet.

He resumed his pacing for what felt like a lifetime, though it was probably less than a minute.

“Oh, fuck,” Eliot stopped on a dime, gritting his teeth and closing his eyes. “Fuck. Easy for you. Fuck. Goddammit.”

“Uh, yeah,” Quentin said, quiet and quieter still. “I might have overreacted a little—“

“Wasn’t what I meant,” Eliot said, whispering toward the wall. “Not at all. God, what do you think of me?”

“I—” Quentin wasn’t really sure how to answer that. It hadn’t been fair. He’d jumped to the worst possible conclusion and he didn’t have an excuse for it. But Eliot was still pacing and still talking.

“I didn’t—if I had known, I never would have—Oh, god, everything would have been so—“

Eliot didn’t continue and shook his head at the ground. Real panic slowly wrapped its way around Quentin’s torso, reaching up to strangle him. Eliot understood now. But he was barely looking at him. He’d barely stopped moving. His eyes and his voice were filled with shock, regret, maybe an apology. But not anything more. It occurred to Quentin that perhaps Eliot’s truth had been something else he said, that maybe Margo was wrong, that maybe—

But then, Eliot finally looked up at him and Quentin was overwhelmed with light. And that’s when he remembered that in the ward, Eliot spoke last. Quentin’s heart blossomed.

“God, Q,” Eliot said, softly. His eyes were intense and entirely focused on all of Quentin. “If I had known.”

“I’m sorry,” Quentin said automatically and Eliot shook his head, still unsmiling but much warmer.

“Don’t go down the apology rabbit hole again,” he said, his eyes green as ever on Quentin’s face. His gaze focused first on Quentin’s lips, before darting up to his eyes, with full contact. “That’s—no. Please.”

“Okay,” Quentin nodded, rooted to his spot. “I’ll, uh, try.”

Eliot closed his eyes and cracked his neck, a hint of a smile forming on his face. He touched the tip of his tongue to his front teeth and nodded once, before throwing himself into the stool next to Quentin. The tips of his fingers tapped along the bar and he reached across Quentin’s arms to grab his flute. He drained what was left of the drink and then frowned at its emptiness, still not speaking.

Cautiously, Quentin handed Eliot his flask, which had been resting next to his elbow. Eliot narrowed his eyes before huffing out a laugh. But instead of taking a sip of the bottomless alcohol, he pocketed it.

“So we, ah—we clearly need to work on our communication skills,” Eliot said abruptly, drumming the surface under his hands. He darted his eyes sidelong to Quentin, with the first spark of their familiar ease settling between them. “For instance, when I gave you thirty seconds? Were it me, I wouldn’t have necessarily opened with some oblique bullshit about Margo’s spell. Polite tip.”

“Fair feedback,” Quentin shrugged, his own smallest smile forming on his face. Eliot opened his mouth wordlessly and let out a long sigh, his eyes still dancing around Quentin’s face.

“Um,” he said, before shaking his head, falling wordless again. “But I think that’s where I’m kind of hitting my own wall.”

“Okay. Okay,” Quentin scratched the top of his head, his hotly squirming heart trying to form some kind of coherent words. “So, um, then how—how do you feel? You haven’t actually said.”

“How do I feel? You—” Eliot’s eyes fell open and deep, and his hand jerked slightly, in the small yet cavernous space between them. He breathed out a small sound, almost desperate. “Quentin. I—”

And just as Eliot was about to speak further, fucking Poppy walked in the gallery, clomping her stupid feet with her.

Upon seeing Quentin and Eliot, she let out an obnoxious woo-hoo sound and galloped over to them in some combination of a sprint, a skip, and a stomp. Eliot’s crumpled, annoyed face blinked at her tilted head with about as much amusement as Quentin felt in his black heart.

“Sup, homies?” She waved brightly. Then she widened her mouth. “Ooh, did I just walk in on more drama? Yes!”

Poppy pumped her fist to her chest. Quentin hated her.

“You two are hilarious,” she grabbed a bottle from behind the bar, to a very stern, very French glare from the silent bartender. She gestured toward them with the top of the bottle. “Bottom’s up, kiddos.”

She chugged the amber liquid before making a face, with her tongue sticking out.

“Ugh, don’t chug Ricard,” she said, wagging her face back and forth. Eliot simply ticked a weary eyebrow. She turned her gaze directly to Quentin. “By the way, offer’s still on the table, Dragon Freak.”

“Oh, uh—” Quentin turned bright red and Eliot’s head swiftly snapped toward him, his eyes wide all over again. But Poppy’s face broke out in a huge, devious smile.

“Or even better? Maybe, like—a threesome?”

She was pointing between him and Eliot, waggling her eyebrows.

Quentin was floating outside of his body, the absurdity of his life completely drowning him in the air. He opened his mouth to try to respond, but he was cut off by guttural, bursting sound next to him.

...Eliot had doubled over onto the bar, both hands flat in front of him and his smile wide as his whole body shook with loud, gasping laughter.

“Oh my god,” he cried out, touching his forehead to the edge of the counter. “Oh my fucking god.”

He cackled all the more raucously and tears started flowing through his crinkled eyes as he sputtered, bringing his fist to his mouth which could barely cover his bright grin. For a moment, Quentin stared at him, stunned. But then, slowly, a bubbling laughter reached up through his own chest, his shoulders shaking in time with Eliot.

Oh my god.

Quentin’s smile broke out on his face and his hair fell in his eyes, and he couldn’t stop laughing. Catching Eliot’s eyes, their laughter joined together and they were both leaning on the bar, laughing so hard they were crying.

“I’m, like, covered in dirt right now,” Quentin said, out of nowhere, choking the words out between howls. But it made Eliot fall over to his side, the sides of their torsos bumping together. Eliot laughed so hard it came out silently through an open, wheezing mouth and Quentin wiped his eyes as he laughed and laughed into Eliot’s shoulder.

On instinct, he reached over and twined his fingers through Eliot’s, desperate for his touch. And Eliot instantly laced his fingers down, brushing them over Quentin’s knuckles. He chuckled out a final laugh before raising his eyes to meet Quentin’s, soft and fond.

“Um,” Quentin breathed out and Eliot barely nodded, barely smiling.

“Yeah,” he said, squeezing Quentin’s hand. The warm, firm movement shocked light and hope directly into Quentin’s aching, broken chest.

“We should talk,” Quentin said quietly. Eliot nodded, firmer.

But Poppy was still staring at them from the opposite side, expectantly, with the bottle of pastis cocked at a precarious angle. Eliot snorted in her direction before once again moving his gentle hazel eyes all along Quentin’s face, like he was searching, memorizing, considering. His smile growing, he moved forward off the stool, his steps elegant, light, and determined.

“Come on,” Eliot grabbed Quentin’s arm, tugging him away without a backwards glance. “I know where we can go.”

Heart pounding and glowing with each step, Quentin moved swiftly behind him, as Eliot pulled him up the creaking metal stairs above them, toward the darkening heights of the back galleries. He was so focused on Eliot’s monarchal stride, the perfect curl of his hair against the nape of his neck, the length of his body, and the scorching heat of his hand on his arm, that he barely heard Poppy’s voice call out as they disappeared.

“Seriously, I’d fuck you both. Could be a good time!”

 


 

Through their journey upward, Eliot didn’t spare a single glance backward, though his tight grip on Quentin’s forearm never yielded.

When they reached the darkened fifth floor gallery, Eliot carefully maneuvered the exhibit, like he knew it by heart. Now at the highest point of the Orsay museum, they'd reached the clocktowers held high above Paris, like watchful guardians. The clocks glowed on the sides of the large walls, the only source of light throughout the quiet floor. With a warm sigh at their destination, Eliot finally pulled Quentin up onto the small platform beside the first clock. With that, they were illuminated by nothing but the moonlight and the city lights coming in through the large rounded glass of its face, with statues posing regally outward as their focal point. It was calm and quiet, contrasted to the boisterous party below. As a final touch, Eliot set a silencing ward, so their upcoming, inevitable words couldn’t be heard by others. The last vestiges of the music below disappeared at the same time. Finally, Eliot looked at him again, standing away from him, his dark hair glowing blue in the light.

“Holy shit,” Quentin said, more to himself than even to Eliot. He moved toward the large clock-window and looked out across the city's landscape. He felt sheer awe. “I’m kinda shocked no one else is up here.”

“It’s not strictly open to the public, even of the magical variety,” Eliot said, standing next to Quentin, his own eyes gazing out across the river. “But minor inconveniences don’t deter me.”

“No,” Quentin glanced over at him with a half-grin. “They really don’t, huh?”

Eliot caught his gaze and huffed out a breath. If he didn’t know any better, he’d say Eliot looked…

Nervous.

Huh.

But before Quentin could totally process the tingling rush that sent though his legs or how it sparked a dopey smile across his own face, Eliot turned back to the large window and raised his head, his eyes darkening in the shadows. He looked like a painting, like a Delacroix—intricate, expressive, powerful, soft.

“Is this private enough?” Eliot asked, all deep tones, placing his hands clasped behind his back. “For you?”

“What?”

“Where we are,” Eliot said, those dark eyes unmoving. “Do you think it’s private enough? Or should we go somewhere else? I know privacy matters to you.”

“Uh, I mean,” Quentin looked around. The gallery was still and empty. “I think we can talk here. It’s secluded and you set the ward, in case any stragglers wander up. So yeah, it’s probably—”

The end of his sentence was lost forever though, as Eliot took one long swooping stride toward him and his mouth fell against Quentin’s, his perfect hands curling around his jawline and up into his hair. 

The universe hummed.

When Quentin was a child, his family went to the seashore every summer. He never grew to enjoy the beach, but he loved the ocean. The power of the water terrified and awed him in equal measure. He was drawn to it past the hot sand, the cawing gulls, and the laughing children who never included him in their games. Beginning with his toes, always shocked by the cold in the shallow, he would slowly wade in deeper and deeper, until the water came up to his neck. There, his feet would dangle effortlessly above the sun streaked floor below.

Waiting, young Quentin would tread water, slowly circling his arms and legs outward until a particularly perfect crest of a wave approached. And as it touched his face, he would crash himself down, leading with the back of his head, submerging into the depths. The rush of stillness, of silence, of complete peace in suspended animation and weightlessness made him forget his need for breath every time. It was as though he were passing through the orbit of the moon or around time itself.

Kissing Eliot was exactly like that.

Such was the floating wonder of Eliot’s soft lips gliding achingly over his own starstruck mouth, of Eliot’s trembling hands grazing and caressing his jaw, his neck, his hair, of Eliot’s warm and humming chest pressing into his, of Eliot’s heartbeat joining with Quentin’s like their lost breaths, as they both moved down, down, into the depths, well past the point of no return. It was a gentle revelation, the beginning of all beginnings, and Quentin knew down in the furthest reach of his soul that there was no more turning back. He could have lived in that tender rush of silence for the rest of his life. It was the rest of his life.

But then Eliot’s tongue teased softly against his with a low moan and Quentin’s heart twisted into his stomach, all the way to the center of a supernova.

Like his body remembered something ancient and primal, he surged into Eliot, his hands tangling in his curls and his throat making desperate sounds right from the core of him. Immediately, Eliot’s long, perfect hands gripped Quentin’s shoulders and raced their way across his back, and up his neck, and he was consumed. By Eliot. By nothing but Eliot, with his haunting scent like sharp sugar and smoky rain, the strong and masculine curves of his muscles, the surging, intoxicating heat of him, and oh, fuck—he couldn’t remember his own name.

Eliot pulled him closer and closer, a single long leg slotting between Quentin’s thighs. Quentin ran his hands down Eliot’s neck and shoulders, before he reached his broad chest, pulling Eliot somehow even fucking closer still by grabbing the lapels of his jacket. Eliot briefly pulled away, gasping for breath, his eyes squeezed tightly closed. His lips moved all across Quentin’s face, like he needed every inch he could find. And when his teeth found a sensitive ear lobe, Quentin couldn’t help himself, his throat moaning out in joy.

“Eliot,” he gasped, falling forward into the space between his shoulder and neck, breathing in his skin, his hair, the heady warmth of him, as his stubble roughly stroked against his forehead. Stilling, Eliot’s lips pressed against the tingling skin beside his ear and the squeeze of his hands on Quentin’s arms tightened.

“Say my name again. Just like that,” Eliot said, low and strained, his mouth vibrating against him. “Please.”

A lump caught in Quentin’s throat and he could feel the teary smile cross his face before he could help it. He brought his hand up to Eliot’s cheek and could barely breathe.

Eliot,” he finally said, awed and nearly unmanageable. But the way Eliot’s eyes fell into his, like he was just as disbelieving and overjoyed, made the embarrassing tremble in his voice worth it. Eliot turned his face into Quentin’s palm and kissed his hand.

“I thought you’d never…” Eliot trailed off, shaking his head, nuzzling his strong, beautiful nose against Quentin’s wrist. “Fuck. Oh my god.”

Eliot grabbed him again, pushing Quentin against the side of the black iron wall. He melted into him—the pronouns’ reference irrelevant—lips frantic and desperate, rougher than before, like a thousand years of pain was healed through their passion.

Quentin smiled into Eliot’s mouth. So maybe, possibly, occasionally Julia definitely wasn’t the only one who could be the tiniest bit overwrought. But wow, he didn’t care. If anything was worth poetics, it was—

Eliot firmly, slowly traced his tongue throughout Quentin’s mouth and gripped his wrists, raising them above his head against the wall. It was like he’d realized Quentin’s attention had flowed away and he couldn’t have that for even a single second. And really, who was Quentin but a weak man with no recourse to resist? He gave in, pliant and passionate, powerless against all of Eliot against him.

He tasted like smoke, and the sharpness of alcohol, and peppermint, and something floral and citrusy—

...Flowers and citrus?

A knife thudded firmly into his gut, like panic or pain.

Violet and limes.

Violet and limes.

He tasted like fucking violet and limes. Lovelorn Sighs. Oh—oh god. The flask. “It won’t work for you.” Oh, god. Fuck.

Fuck.

Quentin pulled away with a gasp, his heart breaking out of himself. He had been so stupid. He had been so blind. So callous and cruel, everything he always swore he never was and could never be. And yet—yet, there was incontrovertible evidence of his lack of awareness and the ways that manifested into something dark and horrible. How long had Eliot been drinking it? How often? How much of it? Was his flask always

He slammed his eyes shut, forcing his chin down and to the side so he could catch his damn breath. All of his jaw muscles were on fire in tandem with his chest and he staggered, swallowing self-loathing. When he finally looked back up, Eliot stared down at him, his eyes curling into confusion.

“Q?” He asked, nakedly fearful. And Quentin hated that he could inspire that in him. That he could inspire anything but security and comfort and warmth and endless love. Eliot reached his hands lightly toward Quentin’s hips, trying to gently coax him back toward him. “What—what’s wrong?”

He firmly cupped Eliot’s face, forcing them both to maintain eye contact.

“I love you,” Quentin said, fierce. “I love you, okay? I love you more than I ever knew my heart was capable of loving someone. I thought I was broken, forever, but then I found you, El. I love you.”

And Eliot—witty, thunderous, irreverent Eliot—totally collapsed into his touch, his mouth opening with a shudder. He slumped forward into Quentin, his forehead against his, barely holding himself up by clutching at Quentin’s shoulders. And instead of his usual barrage of bon mots, the only sound he made was something like a sigh, laugh, and purr rolled into one. And Quentin was certain his own heart imploded and revived itself in a single instant.

“And I’m so sorry,” Quentin said, tracing his thumb along Eliot’s perfectly coiffed sideburn, because he could. Immediately,  Eliot pulled back, just enough to look at him, his eyes widened in urgency.

“Stop that,” He barely breathed out, adoring. God, adoring. “Absolutely not. You have nothing to be—“

“Yeah, uh, you’ve made your opinion on my apologies pretty clear recently,” Quentin smirked and Eliot tilted his head with a dazed half-smile. “I hear you. But I—I hurt you. Even if I didn’t mean to or know that I was doing it, I still hurt you and I fucking hate that.”

But Eliot simply pulled Quentin against his lips, pressing firmly into his hairline. He sighed, his nose burying into the hair on top of his head.

“It doesn’t matter,” he said, punctuating each syllable with light pressure all along Quentin’s forehead. “Not anymore. God, just kiss me again.”

Quentin was only human. He tilted his head up and recaptured Eliot’s lips, pouring out every bit of ache and longing he’d felt for the better part of a year. He flattened his hands against the broad expanse of Eliot’s strong, masculine chest and dragged his palms up his shoulders and to his neck, his fingers tracing the shell of his ears. And Eliot—Eliot wrapped the whole length of his long arms around Quentin, until they fell back against the wall.

He lost track of how long they stayed there, wrapped up in the feel of each other. It wasn’t long enough though, Quentin grieved, when Eliot pulled away with an almost pained gasp.

“Q,” Eliot gripped at Quentin’s suit lapels and brought their heads together, his eyes tightly closed, like he was overwhelmed. “Q. Oh my god. I can’t—you have no idea. You have no idea.”

“I mean, I have some idea,” Quentin smirked but Eliot shook his head, lips gently kissing the side of his mouth.

“I’m not ready to joke around yet, okay?” he said, quietly, petting Quentin’s hair back. In response, Quentin kissed him softly and Eliot’s hands tightly grasped at his ears and neck again.

“Okay,” Quentin said, reluctantly pulling away again. But they still really needed to talk at some point. “Then I need to tell you why I’m sorry. Please.”

Eliot nodded, silently, his fingers lightly moving up and down Quentin’s jaw line. Quentin took his hand and kissed his knuckles, before gently pulling Eliot to the ground. They sat with their backs to the wall and Eliot held onto Quentin’s hand like it was going to disappear.

“So, um, sometimes, I can kind of get stuck in my own head,” Quentin began, with a fast, labored breath.

And Eliot, for someone who had just said that he didn’t want to joke around, swiftly bit over his bottom lip as his eyes sparked with unbridled humor. But to his credit, he sobered the barely contained teasing down with a quick clearing of his throat and he simply waited for Quentin to continue.

So, he did.

“I should have—I don’t really have an excuse for why I was such a fucking ostrich, okay?” Quentin said, scratching his knee with his free hand. “You were right. I should have known. It’s not like you didn’t make it clear. I should have known.”

“Q,” Eliot started, running his thumb across Quentin’s bottom lip. A rush of heat emanated from his lip down to his thighs, like a tsunami. He turned away with a blush.

“Uh, that’s distracting,” Quentin admitted and Eliot’s lips curled up into a much more familiar, confident expression.

“Noted,” he said, with that inherent smugness and sensuality that was—fuck. He was calculating and categorizing Quentin already. With a jolt, he realized that Eliot may have actually already been doing so for awhile. More likely than not.

“Just let me—okay?” Quentin laughed a little and Eliot raised his eyebrows, with the barest hint of a smirk and glittering jewel eyes. His Cheshire Cat grin only grew as Quentin cleared his throat and shifted slightly away.

“By all means,” Eliot said, sweeping his free hand out, like he was carefree and casual. But his other hand was still white-knuckle gripping Quentin’s.

“The thing is, I’m not even, like, that emotionally stunted,” Quentin swallowed. “I understand subtext sometimes. I can even on a very rare occasion tell that someone is attracted to me. But, uh, with you it was, um—“

“Different,” Eliot supplied for him, quietly nodding. “Yeah.”

“Yeah,” Quentin pressed his face into his hand. “And, like, I think I couldn’t imagine that you’d ever feel anything for me. Ever.”

“What?” Eliot somehow squeezed his hand tighter.

“It was, like, incomprehensible to me, because—”

“Because of the beginning of the year,” Eliot filled in, his voice tight. “Q, I was such an idiot.”

“El—”

But Eliot gasped out a half-laugh and looked up at the ceiling, his eyes wet and pained, “Do you know how many times I’ve replayed our first meeting in my head? How many times I've imagined all the ways I could have done it differently, done it right? I would have swept you off your fucking feet if I—”

“No, El,” Quentin shook his head, cutting him off, tears in his eyes too. “It’s not about that. I’m over that. I’m over that. It’s about you. Who you are.”

“Who I am?” Eliot asked slowly, like he wasn’t sure if it was a compliment or an insult. That was probably Quentin’s fault.

“I—I wanted you from the first time I saw you,” Quentin quietly admitted. Eliot’s jaw tensed.

“Oh, god,” he said, letting go of Quentin’s hand for the first time, to rub his own face. “We could have had nine fucking months. Oh my god. I’m such an idiot.”

“El, please,” Quentin pressed his hand on Eliot’s knee and immediately, Eliot entwined their fingers again. “I wanted you, but I thought that you were—well, you know.”

“No, I don’t,” Eliot squeezed his hand again, coaxing.

“Out of my league,” Quentin swallowed. “Or some less cliche way of putting it. And I never really got over that, unlike everything else. We were friends and that seemed like the end of the line for what I could, um, reasonably expect.”

Eliot just stared at him, Quentin’s hand limper in his than it had been yet. So Quentin took another deep breath.

“And that’s what I meant by us being—that it was the best possible outcome,” Quentin said, not sure if Eliot would know what he was referring to. But he very obviously did, since his breath hitched and he winced, full-body, at the words. “I meant for me. And what I could hope for from you.”

Eliot narrowed his eyes and nodded, staring at a fixed point in space.

“Okay,” he said, like it was very much not okay. “Okay. I have—thoughts about that. Not all totally... positive. But I think I need to process again.”

“I understand,” Quentin nodded. “I get that. I’m sorry.”

“And I—” Eliot shook his head. “Fuck. I’m not really sure what I want to say right now. I’m jumbled.”

“Twinsies,” Quentin said, on an impulse, before sighing. “Sorry. No jokes. Sorry.”

He let out a long breath and dipped his head down, his eyes in his hands. Slowly, he felt Eliot’s long fingers push into his hair, massaging against the sides of his scalp like it was the most natural thing in the world. Fuck. It felt so good.

“Fuck, that feels so good,” Quentin said aloud. He expected Eliot to laugh or offer a languid quip about magic fingers. But instead, those hands slowly tugged Quentin closer, capturing his lips under his again, whisper soft.

“My Q,” Eliot said gently against him and Quentin was gone. “My Q.”

Quentin immediately deepened the kiss, parting his lips and Eliot took every inch given to him. Wrapped in each other, imprecise in their movements but not their passion and sheer depth of feeling, everything was warm hands, soft lips, breathy sighs, aching hearts, and Eliot.

“Shit, you’re really good at this,” Quentin breathed out when he surfaced for air.

“We’re good at this,” Eliot murmured against his mouth. “It’s—it’s us together, Q. My Q. I am—”

“El,” Quentin leaned back in, but Eliot shook his head, pushing Quentin slightly away.

“I know I haven’t said it yet,” he said, lowering his eyes, like he was ashamed.”Sometimes I require patience. Certainly more than average.”

“El, I don’t give a shit about that,” Quentin said, really meaning it. “All I want is you.”

But Eliot shook his head harder, his intense eyes meeting his, “Q. Quentin. I am—”

He scooted forward, shaking bringing his hands up and his lips as close as they could get without kissing.His jaw tensed slightly and he took a sharp breath inward.

“Quentin, I am madly in love with you,” Eliot whispered, caressing his face like he was precious. “I’ve never—never in my whole life. I’ve never even come close to this, not once. Jesus, you thought you were broken? You—I love you. I love you so fucking much.”

“Eliot,” Quentin said again, dazed and amazed, but Eliot’s thumb pressed on his lips. Fire sparked in his gut and he sighed, closing his eyes against his touch.

“I’m not done,” Eliot said, intense and devout. “I—I’ve thought a lot about what I’d say if you ever—if this fucking fantasy ever came true. God, that’s pathetic.”

Quentin brought his hand up to Eliot’s curls, smoothing them out clumsily.

“No,” he shook his head. “That’s—it’s definitely not pathetic, okay?”

Eliot smiled slightly, unconvinced, but he took Quentin’s hand and kissed each of his fingertips regardless, “In any case, I’m going to say it every single day, okay? I owe you that.”

“You don’t owe me anything,” Quentin said simply, and Eliot smiled.

“Then I want to give you that,” he kissed each of Quentin’s knuckles, like he was completing a ritual. “Can you—can you let me? Please?”

“El,” Quentin swallowed tears with a jagged breath. “Yeah. Yeah.”

“Every day.”

An instinct for lightheartedness made him dizzy and he quickly kissed Eliot’s lips again before pulling back. Eliot immediately lodged a formal complaint at the abrupt lack of contact, which included lips firmly crawling up Quentin’s neck. But instead of giving in to Eliot’s not so subtle demand—a Herculean task—Quentin instead grinned widely, dipping his head away from Eliot’s determined efforts.

“And I’ll pretend that it’s, uh,” he bit his lip a little, already amused with himself, “not really just a chance for you to get to hear the sound of your own voice more often.”

He smiled and Eliot’s eyes widened.

“I love you,” he said, planting a firm kiss on his lips before laughing, bright and joyful. “God, I love you. And all your dumb jokes.”

Quentin glared, “They’re not dumb.”

“It’s important to me that you know that they are. They’re really dumb,” Eliot brushed the pad of his thumb over Quentin’s chin, his grin never waning. “But I love them.”

“Agree to disagree,” Quentin said, dipped his head backward with a smile of his own that he couldn’t fight. “Mr. Bon Mot.”

“I’m not going to apologize for my natural eloquence,” Eliot brought his posture up, looking very much like himself. It warmed every part of Quentin. “Besides, it’s best we operate on a policy of full transparency.”

“Uh-huh,” Quentin laughed. “Yeah, we’ve been really good at that so far.”

“New leaf and all that,” Eliot sighed and leaned back against the wall, flipping Quentin’s hands between his own much larger ones. He watched the movement carefully, avoiding eye contact again. “So in that same vein, what I really mean is that you’re, you know…perfect.”

Eliot’s eyes darted as he swallowed, like he was nervous again. Quentin wrapped his fingers around Eliot’s and squeezed.

“I’m not,” he said softly, shaking his head. The strands of his hair fell in front of his eyes and Eliot pushed them back, pressing into his scalp. “I’m very much not. But I love you too.”

“Perfect to me,” Eliot murmured, his eyes closing. He leaned in and nuzzled their noses. “For me. God, Q.”

Quentin wanted to lean forward again, into Eliot’s lips. More than he’d ever wanted anything. Really, he’d be more than happy to take up a permanent residence there, forgetting everything else for the rest of time. But.

But.

“But, uh—full transparency?” Quentin said, pressing a kiss against Eliot’s cheekbone so he didn’t get too freaked out. He tensed anyway. “I think there’s still some shit we need to parse out.”

“Is there?” Eliot asked, unnaturally high-pitched. "Or are we, like, good?"

“El.”

“Q.”

Quentin ran his hands down his face, “Look, it’s just that I’m—I feel like the biggest fuck-up in the world.”

“Dramatic,” Eliot said, hand on Quentin’s knee. “But relatable.”

“I had no idea, El,” Quentin laughed bitterly, his voice and his words getting away from him, his eyes closing. “Like, that’s fucked up.”

“No need to be a martyr about it.” Eliot’s voice was an eye roll he couldn’t see.

“Do you even like oranges?” Quentin peaked one eye open and Eliot laughed.

“Oh, Q.”

That was all he said. Quentin groaned.

“Yeah,” he said, banging his head backward. “Yeah. I’m an idiot.”

“It’s fine,” Eliot kissed his forehead. “I like ‘em pretty and dumb.”

“Ha, ha,” Quentin bit down on his teeth. He shook his head again, too heavy to keep up. It dipped down into his chest. “It’s just that now I see everything you did and it’s, like, I really must be fucking broken if—”

But Eliot cut him off with a soft shushing sound and kissed him gently, before pulling him into the warm space between his shoulder and neck. He hooked his arm around Quentin’s shoulder and squeezed him as tightly as he could against him.

“Hey, I know. Me too,” he said quietly, resting his chin on top of Quentin’s head. “It’s okay. We’re the same, baby.”

Normally, Quentin loathed terms of endearment and especially that one. But from Eliot? Okay. Yeah. Okay.

“And as much as you like to take on everything yourself, I'm sorry to say this actually wasn’t just you. I didn’t listen to you either,” Eliot said, his hand rubbing firm, massaging circles into the back of Quentin’s neck. “You told me that you needed the words, but I was too fucking selfish and cowardly to give them to you.”

“What are you talking about?” Quentin blinked up at him, frowning. “When did I say that?”

Eliot gave him a probing look, “A few weeks ago. Remember when we were talking about Julia and Kady?”

“Yeah, sure," Quentin frowned deeper, confused. "But, uh, what do Julia and Kady have to do with us?”

Eliot laughed. Hard. Really hard. Like, a little insultingly hard?

“Never mind,” he said, kissing Quentin’s forehead again. That was apparently, like, a thing. He liked it. “The point is, I should have said something. I should have made sure you really knew, before running away. I’ll—try not to do that again.”

“I’m sorry I wasn’t brave sooner,” Quentin said, swallowing.

“You’re the bravest person I know. I’m in awe of your bravery,” Eliot said, quiet and staring right into Quentin’s eyes. Quentin swallowed and shook his head, before laughing a little.

“That’s an exaggeration,” he said, averting away from Eliot. “I can’t think of anything brave I’ve ever done.”

Eliot leaned his cheek against the top of Quentin’s head, “Yeah, but that’s because it’s instinctual to you. You think it’s normal. But it’s not. It’s incredible.”

“Right,” Quentin laughed harshly. “Yeah, you know, they’re actually writing a fucking superhero series about me. Socially awkward nerd reads books alone in room for two decades. Real heroic.”

Eliot was stone still for a few long moments. His dark eyes slit over at Quentin, before he let out a stifled breath.

“Okay. I’m done processing,” Eliot said then, referring to his earlier statement. He sat up, fully glaring. “Margo’s right. You have to stop that shit.”

“They’re just jokes,” Quentin sighed. “Not that serious, El.”

“You can't bullshit a bullshitter,” Eliot snapped. “It’s not a compliment to me when you act like it’s absurd that I could think these things of you.”

“Yeah, except that it kinda is. It’s totally absurd,” Quentin laughed. “You and me—we’re not an obvious pairing, El. You could have literally anyone and I’m just this—”

“Fucking stop it, Quentin,” Eliot’s hands burst out in a frustrated motion. “Stop it. I know you have a broken brain but you don’t have to give it what it wants all the goddamn time.”

Quentin blinked and frowned, “But they're just facts. You’re gorgeous and worldly and, like, I’m a former admin of the internet’s largest Fillory fan forum.”

“How uncharacteristically shallow of you,” Eliot said with a true incredulous snort. “Seriously?”

“My point is that it’s not totally self-deprecation. It’s self-knowledge.”

“Jesus,” Eliot rubbed his temples. “Well, then your self-knowledge sucks, as does your analysis. Because gorgeous and worldly? That shit doesn’t keep, Q. But your passion, your kindness, your fucking bravery—”

“I’m not saying you’re only—”

“I know you’re not!” Eliot banged the back of his head against the wall. “But fuck. I—”

“What?” Quentin whole being clenched with defensiveness and he hugged himself, tucking his knees close to his chest. But Eliot just deflated.

“I adore you,” he said, low. “I believe all these things and so many more, but you cut me off at the head every time I try to express them. I don’t know how to—”

Eliot swallowed and closed his eyes.

“I know I’m not good at this,” Quentin said, resting his chin on his knee. “But, like, you’re going to have to give me a minute with this whole adoration thing. I didn’t fucking know.”

He knew he was being pissier than the situation called for. But he did that sometimes. Better for Eliot to get used to it now, if he wasn’t already. He wrapped his arms tightly around his dirty pants and set his mouth into its comfortable, annoyed straight line.

“Yeah, but that’s my fucking point, Q,” Eliot buried his head in his own hands. “I failed. And I’m terrified that I’m going to keep failing.”

“Well, you could start by not being so hot and cold with me,” Quentin shot out before he could stop himself. Eliot pulled his head up, blinking.

“Are you on the whole moody thing again?” He rolled his eyes. But Quentin set his jaw.

“I mean, yeah, kinda,” he said. “You were basically a huge dick to me all night. Until you weren’t. But then, oops, never mind, there it was again.”

“You have context now,” Eliot said, flat. “I was trying my best.”

“Yeah, well, your best was pretty fucking mean,” Quentin sighed. “You can be mean.”

“Been waiting to say that or what?” Eliot bit his tongue between his teeth, staring at his fingernails. “Look, I know, Q. And I’m sorry, but—”

“But?”

“Margo’s bullshit got to me, okay?” He laughed, off-kilter. “I was spiraling. I didn’t expect to see you and then I did and I couldn’t handle it and then fucking Margo—I lashed out.”

“Yeah, I know with the ward,” Quentin said. “But El, it had been building all night. I’m actually talking about before that—”

“Oh, so the fuck am I.”

Quentin blinked. “What do you mean?”

Eliot wearily ran his fingers over his face and laughed, his discomfort calcifying again.

“Remember when I said Margo was more misguided than cruel? Well, it was about all of it. The whole fucking night, especially you being her fucking date,” he said, spitting out the last word.

“I wasn’t her date-date,” Quentin said, frowning. “I hope obviously.”

“Obviously,” Eliot shook his head, closing his eyes. “Obviously. I know that. Rationally. But it still got under my skin. She had some, ah—ulterior motives.”

“Margo?” Quentin gasped, widening his eyes. That at least got a brief laugh out of Eliot.

“I don’t think she entirely intended to send me on a tailspin,” he kept his eyes down, taking Quentin’s hand and entwining his fingers in and out in a pattern. “But as they say, the road to hell is paved with manipulative intentions, so what can you do?”

“Yeah, okay. So what was that about? The tailspin, I mean,” Quentin asked carefully. Eliot shrugged, an instinctive response. But then he took a deep breath.

“Her intention, I think, was to show me what I was missing, in an attempt to get me to engage more. To, like, fight for you. For us,” he said slowly. “But it had the opposite effect because—because, well, I already acutely knew what I was fucking missing. I knew better than her. I didn’t need the What-Could-Have-Been dangled in front of me.”

Quentin’s heart cracked.

“El.”

But Eliot almost imperceptibly shook his head, continuing to stare down at their joined hands. He wasn’t done.

“Also, I have this mostly irrational fear that one day, Margo actually will tire of me and all my bullshit,” Eliot said quickly, tracing his eyes upward and out. He squeezed Quentin’s hand for dear life. “And then, you know, I’ll die alone. In Palm Springs.”

“Specific,” Quentin said, giving him space. Eliot brought his legs up and cradled his head in his palm.

“And I think even the kernel of the idea that she would abandon me to spend all her time with you, the man I fell for more than I’d ever thought I—“ Eliot cut himself off with a choke, but then swallowed, “And, you know, who I thought would never love me back because I’m too…“

“Eliot,” Quentin breathed out as he trailed off. He settled himself in closer, running his hand along Eliot’s hair. Eliot leaned into the touch, but then blinked several times in succession and his head hung down, eyes glassy.

“Uh, I kind of lost it, I guess,” he said, finishing with a sad and dull tone.

“Definitely wasn’t her intention,” Quentin said, his voice too raw to say much more. Eliot shrugged and let out a dark laugh.

“I’m not sure if I was more pissed about the ward or that fucking bottle of champagne,” he clenched his fist. “That was a particularly low blow.”

“I’ll drink a million bottles of champagne with you,” Quentin said, squeezing his hand. Eliot smiled tearily at him and nudged him.

“You’d definitely die of alcohol poisoning. Probably by the fourth or fifth bottle, really,” he said, his recognizable lilt in his voice. “But I appreciate the sentiment.”

“Didn’t think you were so literal,” Quentin glared, dully, though he couldn’t totally keep the smile off his face.

“Only as suits for the bit,” Eliot said, but his face was also still smiling too much, still too dazed for his normal sharp impact. "But Q, I'll work on it, okay? On being mean and the unfair lashing out. I promise. But only if you work on not being so shitty to yourself."

Eliot brought his long fingers up to his curls and pressed them back, taking long deep breaths like he was steadying himself. Quentin’s heart thudded twice, sending a pool of warmth down to his stomach. It had been a really long fucking night. They were spent. And while they still had a lot to talk about, over days, weeks, probably years, none of it mattered. Not in that moment. Not really. So Quentin sidled up to Eliot, resting his chin on his shoulder. He quietly laughed, glancing up at him with a smirk.

“It’s kind of impressive, really.”

“What is?” Eliot asked, still dark and inward.

Quentin kissed the edge of his shoulder blade. “Just that even your worst tailspin looks a lot like my coma.”

That broke him out. Eliot laughed and wrapped his arm around Quentin, tucking him in closer to his chest.

“I internalize on occasion,” he said, with a wag of his eyebrows. “Until I don’t.”

“See, I always thought you were more like James Bond,” he said, before affecting a terrible British accent. “Shaken, not stirred.”

“Yeah, see, that’s a really nerdy thing to say,” Eliot said with a vaguely amused sidelong glance.

Quentin offered his best bright grin, “Well, I yam what I yam.”

“Oh my god,” Eliot said, shaking his head and hiding a smile, before kissing him again. Which was good because it had really been an unreasonable amount of time since he’d done that. Quentin kissed him back, firm and soft, opening his mouth just so, touching his tongue to Eliot's.

“Mmm, I like being able to do that,” he admitted with a grin and Eliot pressed his lips lazily along Quentin’s jaw.

“I like you doing that,” he hummed back, nipping a little. The pressure of his teeth on his sensitive skin made Quentin’s eyelashes flutter down against his cheeks. His breath hitched. Everything was perfect. Everything was perfect.

Everything was fucking perfect

“Hmm. Okay,” Eliot smiled as he pulled away, far too quickly for Quentin’s taste. Then he nodded curtly and pressed their hands down against the floor, like a shift of some kind was happening. “Okay. So now what?”

“Um,” Quentin furrowed his brow. “Um, well, I guess we start by defining our terms, right? And, uh, we should probably have a discussion about what our mutual starting understanding is, vis-a-vis—”

“Outta there, Coldwater,” Eliot laughed, tapping Quentin’s forehead with all the affection in the world. “I was speaking more immediately. Practically.”

“Like, uh...?”

“Well, as much as I’d like to keep making out in a clocktower, eventually we might want to move somewhere,” Eliot’s fingers wrapped firmly around Quentin’s wrist, “you know, more comfortable. If—if you want.”

His whole body lit on fire at once. Oh god, why weren’t they already somewhere more comfortable right the fuck then? He grasped Eliot’s hand and brought it up to his chest, like it was an anchor.

“Right,” Quentin said, hoarse. “Uh, yeah, I think it’s safe to say that... I want.”

Eliot dipped his nose against Quentin’s so they shared the same breath, “But there are a few minor logistical impediments. Our rooms here are otherwise occupied.”

They were both there with other dates. Because they were stupid, stupid men who didn’t come together, as God intended. Fuck.

“Well, uh, I guess we could wait a day or so,” Quentin said, tucking his brow down, hating that option more than both Guillermo and Margo combined. “Or—“

“Fucking or?” Eliot pressed, sounding desperate. Quentin smirked.

“Or Margo might give us space.”

“Subzero chance,” he rolled his eyes hard. It occurred to Quentin that Eliot was still angry with her, even after everything. “She’s too fucking nosy.”

“Or—okay,” Quentin sighed and briefly kissed Eliot, because he was right there. “Then we go home.”

“Home?” Eliot smiled. “I thought you were going to say we splurge on a muggle hotel room. We’re in Paris, Quentin.”

“I know. I know it’s dumb,” Quentin bent his head, blushing. Eliot’s fingers danced their way across his warmed skin.

“God, your pink cheeks,” Eliot dashed forward, his lips messily pressing to the side of his face. “They are so fucking delicious.”

“Jesus, Eliot,” Quentin smiled and his cheeks reddened more. Eliot’s lips fell back onto the pulse point of his neck. “Um—oh god, okay.”

The vibration of Eliot’s rough laughter tingled his skin, “You were saying?”

“Ah—something.”

“Mmm. Yes. I agree,” Eliot’s teeth grazed against his jaw and his ear, his hand tucking slowly up and under his shirt. Quentin’s breath caught sharply. “I should just take you right here, consequences be damned.”

“Fuck, don’t tempt me,” he gasped out and Eliot opened his mouth to retort wickedly, but Quentin rushed out the rest of his words like a wave. “It’s just that I’m—I’m so tired. It’s been a long night. I just want to be with you. I don’t care about Paris.”

Eliot pulled away and softened, sighing, “Really?”

“Maybe that’s hard for you to understand,” Quentin shook his head, looping their fingers together again. “But I spent most of the night really sad and—”

Eliot kissed him with such tenderness then that Quentin thought he’d sink into the ground.

“I’ll do anything to make you happy,” Eliot promised quietly against his lips. “Anything, Q.”

“Me too,” Quentin nodded. “For you. So what do you want?”

“I want what you want.”

“I think this is going to get really circular, really fast.”

Eliot laughed, loud and true, “Fair enough. Okay. Well, I suppose there’s a certain appeal to going home.”

Quentin gave a small smile. “Yeah?”

“For one thing,” Eliot tilted his head, all teasing, “you could get changed out of these extremely expensive clothes that you rolled in the fucking dirt for some godforsaken reason.”

Quentin grinned widely, laughing. He’d forgotten that he hadn’t actually explained that one to El.

“Obviously it was an act of revenge against Margo,” he said, pushing his hair back. “Duh.”

Eliot’s eyes sparkled, “Devastating, Q.”

“I mean, my nickname in undergrad was The Count of Monte Cristo,” Quentin winked. “So, you know.”

“I—” Eliot sputtered and laughed, like he was genuinely perplexed. “Why does that do it for me? How did this happen?”

“Speaking of doing it for you, if we went home? I could put on one of my T-shirts and a hoodie,” Quentin said, smiling up into the night’s lights and Eliot’s perfect eyes. “I know how much that look turns you on.”

“You think you’re joking, but it does,” Eliot groaned, his head dropping onto Quentin’s shoulder. “You’ve truly mastered some black magic witchcraft shit.”

“Margo’s going to be so disappointed in you.”

“Oh, she knows and she is,” Eliot laughed. “Your whole current attire was just as much about changing me as you.”

Quentin knew he was supposed to joke back, to keep that pop-pop-pop flowing electric between them. But the idea of Eliot confiding in Margo that he thought Quentin looked good or sexy or anything in his usual stupid clothes overwhelmed him. He reached up and cupped Eliot’s face, drawing him in for another long kiss. He couldn’t believe how easy it was and how much Eliot responded, instantly, tightening and caressing like Quentin might slip away if he didn’t.

When Quentin finally drew back and pressed his lips downward onto Eliot’s frankly fucking remarkable chin dimple, Eliot sighed into his hair, his hands moving up and down his back.

“You’ll have to explicate what precisely causes that reaction,” he murmured into Quentin’s forehead. “Because I intend to seek it near constantly.”

“Near?” Quentin asked, teasing.

“Well, we all have to piss sometimes. Unless you’re a lot kinkier than I’m anticipating.”

“I may surprise you,” Quentin said with a laugh, if still not without its own truth. “Though, yeah, probably not that.”

“Don’t worry, I’ve dated prudes before,” Eliot pulled back with a cheeky grin and kissed the tip of his nose. “It’s fine.”

“Funny guy.”

“But seriously,” Eliot said, tracing circles on the nape of Quentin’s neck. “You want to go home?”

“I want to be in your bed,” Quentin admitted, not caring if it was too bold. But the way Eliot’s pupils dilated and his breath hitched made the risk worth it. “I’ve, uh, wanted that so much. For a long time. In a lot of different ways.”

“Um,” Eliot’s voice was threadbare as he swallowed, eyes black and painted on Quentin’s. “Um, yeah.”

He smiled, innocently, knowing he may actually have Eliot in the palm of his hand, “But we can wait if you—“

“We are waiting for nothing,” Eliot gripped his shoulders, speaking right against Quentin’s lips. “For nothing, ever again, in our entire lives.”

And the balance shifted back.

“Seriously, you do have to get changed though,” Eliot smiled into his mouth. “I keep clean sheets.”

“Fine. Okay.”

“The ground in Paris is disgusting, Q.”

“Understood.”

“Which means you’re disgusting right now.”

“Yeah, okay, I get it.”

“I’m not sure you do. The fact that I’m even touching you speaks to the monumental depth of my love for you.”

“Sheesh. I mean, if it’s such a burden, I can—”

But Eliot found a new way to shut him up and that was how it was for a good long time.

 


 

Unlike Quentin’s typical disaster zone method, Eliot was able to procure a taxi for them without issue, and they reached the portal entrance in record time. Despite having spent the last couple hours kissing in a large clock, Quentin had lost track of time and was shocked to see the numbers 4:30 blinking back at him as Eliot paid the driver. Quentin’s eyes were bleary, but he couldn’t stop tapping his hands against his legs. He was exhausted and he had all the energy in the world at the same time.

The portal was glamoured to look like a city maintenance door in the side of a stoned wall, half a block from the hotel. Eliot opted not to do Horomancy to get them home at a time before or after the natural time zone change, because apparently fucking with it more than once in a day would, indeed, break the space-time continuum.

“But why would that break it more than doing it once?” Quentin asked, leaning against the wall as Eliot tutted to activate the dormant portal. It wasn’t supposed to come back on-line for another four hours. “It should break literally every time then.”

“Because of the Mandala Principle,” Eliot said with a quick glance of duh over at Quentin before turning back to his work.

“Mandala? Like Hindu symbolism?” Quentin’s eyebrows had a mind of their own as they moved around his forehead. “What the fuck does that have to do with time travel?”

“Everything is connected,” Eliot said, his hands gracefully fluttering out a pattern Quentin didn’t recognize. “The universe, our dreams, and all is one.”

“I—“ Quentin put his hands in his pocket and rocked back and forth on his feet. “I still don’t think I totally follow?”

“Imagine a single set of footprints in the sand and how the light of the world carries you forward,” Eliot said as he finished the first phase and now was working on the final wards. “Then how we must dance like no one’s watching, sing like no one’s—“

“You’re messing with me,” Quentin crossed his arms. Eliot smiled into the ground.

“Yeah,” he said softly. Then he glanced up cheekily at Quentin. “No one knows how Horomancy works, Q. It just does. Now, get ready.”

“I mean, someone must know—“

The portal opened, a bright glowing white light.

“Chop, chop,” Eliot grabbed Quentin’s hand firmly, kissing his knuckles. “Time’s a-wastin’.”

And with two short steps, they were back in New York.

It was around eleven at night and the Cottage party was in full-swing, even without Margo and Eliot. They ran a well oiled machine, Eliot explained, his voice low and breathy in Quentin’s ear as he shuffled him quickly up the stairs. The parties were basically automated at this point, never needing their loyal, passionate cultivars to fulfill their purpose anymore. It was all very nice, but Quentin couldn’t have given less of a shit. He was too focused on everything else about Eliot than the words he was saying.

And as soon as they were upstairs, in the empty, darkened hallway, he and Eliot were pushed up against each other, against the wall, and the urge—the need to crawl between each other, under each other, was more than any public space could handle.

“Go get changed,” Eliot gasped into Quentin’s neck. “Now. Or I’m going to—“

“Right,” Quentin nodded, a bobble head, out of his fucking mind. “Right. Um?”

His eyes asked the silent question and Eliot smirked.

“Behind you, second door on the right,” he said, giving Quentin directions to his own room. He kissed him once, hard. “Then come back to me.”

In turn, Quentin kissed him once, soft.

 


 

The second they closed Eliot’s door and set the privacy wards, Quentin frantically threw himself at Eliot, not giving one single damn how desperate he seemed. He had been desperate for far too long. His hands pushed through his curls and he kissed him hungrily, the rough brush of that artful stubble dizzying every sense.

But Eliot, ever kingly Eliot, slowed Quentin’s pace naturally, smoothly, with a single hand to the back of his head and a spine-tinglingly slow caress of his tongue up Quentin’s neck.

“Not so fast, baby,” Eliot hummed into his ear. “I want you so much I can barely stand. But tonight, I need to show you, okay? Please let me show you.”

He’d said that before. Quentin didn’t understand it then, but he was starting to get the gist now. Eliot slowly backed Quentin onto the bed, sliding his whole body between his legs, until they were lying together, tangled and slowly kissing.

“Show me—ah,” Quentin gasped out as Eliot bit his earlobe. “Show me what?”

“Everything,” Eliot murmured as he pulled off Quentin’s shirt and kissed the newly bare expanse of his chest. “How much I love you. How crazy you make me. How incredibly sexy you are.”

“Oh god,” Quentin bucked his hips up as Eliot continued to kiss down his body. “Eliot.”

But Eliot just chuckled softly as he brought his face back up to Quentin’s and kissed him, deep and firm.

“I’m gonna take care of you, baby,” he said, his lips moving all across his face. “God, I’m gonna take such good care of you. You’ll see.”

“Eliot,” Quentin said again, all his mind could process. His hands twisted the silk sheets, as Eliot straddled him and pulled his own undershirt shirt all the way off. Those curls falling in front of his face, he gazed down at Quentin, eyes warm and adoring.

“You are—“ Eliot was almost choked up, as his hand caressed Quentin’s cheek. Quentin kissed his palm and Eliot’s next words came out jagged. “You are so beautiful. You make me breathless.”

With every particle of him singing, Quentin shot up fast and his lips found Eliot, his hands found Eliot, his heart found Eliot. He loved and he was loved. He loved and he was loved.

 

He loved and he was loved.

 


 

coda and epilogue to follow.

 

Chapter Text

Pale sunlight filtered into the room, warming Quentin’s eyelids against their will. His brain fuzzed and briefly panicked at the feeling of unfamiliar sheets and the disorienting way his body laid against the world—he was in a bed other than his own. But as quickly as it came, it went, as the memories of the night and early morning came rushing back and oh god, everything was perfect.

With a small moan and closed eyes, Quentin rolled onto his belly, angling his face toward the warm, solid body next to him. He smiled a little and as soon as he did, he felt the pad of Eliot’s thumb brush over the side of his mouth and caress up to his ear and hair. Even though he couldn’t see him, he could tell El’s head was propped up on his arm, lying on his side and facing him.  He smiled wider as Eliot’s hand stretched up into his hair, lightly scratching his scalp.

“Stop staring at me, you creep,” Quentin said, his voice hoarse and muffled into the pillow. He heard a low rumble of a laugh and felt firm, tingling lips press against his shoulder blade.

“The dumbest jokes,” Eliot said into his skin, kissing up his neck before landing on his hairline with a sigh. Almost reluctantly, Quentin blinked his eyes open and tilted his face upward, immediately finding Eliot’s green-brown ones unabashedly gazing at him.

“I’m hilarious,” Quentin said with a smirk and Eliot tilted his head back and forth along with his hand, like Eh, so-so. But the joking lasted less than a full few seconds, before Eliot sighed, like he was content, laying his head down on the pillow next to him so their eye contact was parallel and direct. His hand curled up against Quentin’s cheekbone and he smiled, soft and still disbelieving.

“Hey,” Eliot said, low and close, his Adam’s Apple bobbing against the word.

“Good morning,” Quentin said, scooting closer. Eliot’s smile widened and he nodded slowly, his hand wrapping entirely around Quentin’s neck, all with a love that Quentin still wasn’t sure how he’d managed to capture for himself.

“Indeed,” Eliot whispered, kissing his forehead. “Do you need more sleep? It’s only been a couple hours.”

“What time is it?” Quentin asked and Eliot indicated the clock, which read five in the morning. “Jesus Christ, fuck that. Way too early.”

“Mmm,” Eliot said, noncommittally. He moved closer to Quentin, snuggling against him.

Quentin breathed in the scent of him—still cologned and smoky, but now also sweaty and soft and intoxicatingly mixed with the smell of Quentin’s own soap and natural scent, brushed against against every part of the man beside him. He kissed a line along Eliot’s clavicle, his nose brushing against his neck. For a wild moment, he was nearly ready for another round—and based on hot, steady tremor of Eliot’s racing heart under his palm, he wasn’t alone—but the weight of sleeplessness fell over his skin and he collapsed onto Eliot’s shoulder.

“How the hell did we save ourselves six hours on the return portal,” Quentin groaned, “yet still managed to get, like, no sleep?”

Quentin could feel Eliot’s smirk against his cheek, “Do you want the play-by-play or…?”

A deep red flush spotted over Quentin’s chest and the pit of his stomach was hot.

“Um, if you’re really offering, that would be kind of—uh,” he sputtered out as his whole body exploded into a mess of electricity, and Eliot pulled away, his eyebrows disappearing into his hairline. “You know, because I—I, uh, I like your voice and—”

“Wow, okay,” Eliot chuckled, his smile turning gleeful as his hands moved down the length of Quentin’s torso. “Definitely noted. Fascinating.”

The scalding fire on the back of his knees waned for a moment, as insecurity pricked at his brain. Quentin frowned,“Bad fascinating?”

“Hot fascinating,” Eliot quickly clarified, tongue deep into Quentin’s ear, like a slow dance. Quentin gasped and his hand clenched down on Eliot’s thigh. “The sweetest, sexiest fascinating. Q.”

He breathed his name out, pulling Quentin’s hips prone against him, before kissing him full and deep on the mouth, again and again. His hands brushed against his stomach in dizzying patterns before coming up to cup his throat. Then, slowly, yet with steadily increasing ardor, Eliot started whispering in his ear, spinning tales and nonsense poems, with exhilarating words about their bodies and his own desire and Quentin himself, like honey and glowing charcoal.

Quentin shuddered, eyes closed, out of his mind, overwhelmed by Eliot, all over again.

But he was also...

He was also—

Dead exhausted. Run ragged.

Incapable.

“I’m tired,” Quentin said with a short wheeze, collapsing into himself and pulling back from Eliot, his brain fuzzed and his heart screaming. “Fuck. I think I’m too tired.”

But Eliot just smiled, his hand reaching up to curl back around Quentin’s face. His kissed his lips once, soft and chaste, before nuzzling his nose against his.

“Then I’ll save both the theatrics and the ravishing,” he said, laughing and pulling Quentin into his side. Quentin could still feel Eliot’s heart racing, like it was threadbare against his chest. “Reluctantly.”

Sighing contentedly, Quentin kissed the underside of Eliot’s jaw and spun around to lie on his back, hazy and in between sleep and wakefulness. But before he committed to closing his eyes entirely, he took a long, awed look around Eliot’s room.

He’d been in there many times before, to keep Eliot company while he went through his painstaking hair routine or to hang out after the Cottage parties had died down and neither of them were ready to to sleep. In so many ways, he’d always felt like an intruder stepping through a border that was entirely not his own. Never hostile or unwelcome, but so fundamentally different that he was always the natural anomaly, amongst the artful wonder. In fact, until that very morning, Quentin had never really felt worthy to enter Eliot’s private space.

And while he knew that would piss El off if he said it, he was still adjusting. Still in awe.

Of course, Eliot had decorated the small space immaculately. Purple and red walls and a brass bed frame. White marble lamps and air plants, floating around the room. Vintage posters, in an array of complementary colors, hanging in perfect frames like a gallery along the length of his walls. An enchanted door in swirling pastel geometric patterns, blocking the light from their windows and warded to keep silence in. His books, perfectly arranged, color coordinated, nearly hidden from view, but still treated gently, lovingly nonetheless. Several framed photos of Eliot and Margo, looking every bit the royalty they were, down to their soul. But then his heart dropped into his stomach as he noted a new photo that he’d never seen or noticed before.

It was a framed photo of Eliot…and Quentin.

It was a candid shot, from a Cottage party. Probably taken by Margo, who secretly had a keen eye as a photographer, though she would never admit to something so pedestrian and earnest. In the photo, Quentin was holding a signature cocktail, sitting on the couch. He was smiling widely, reacting to something Eliot had said, with his hair falling in front of his eyes as he in turn fell backwards with laughter. And Eliot was languishing perfectly beside him, smiling over a cocktail of his own, with eyes glued on Quentin, on the laugh he evoked, looking at him like he was…

Quentin had been such a blind fucking idiot.

He cuddled deeper into Eliot without a word, a heady blend of love and smugness settling on his heart. He continued gazing around Eliot’s room, smiling at the remains of their clothes from the night before, thrown about the floor without a care. Eliot’s tie hung delicately off the bed and Quentin’s T-shirt was balled in the corner. His eyes passed over Eliot’s tuxedo jacket, his button-down, his perfect leather shoes, and the several accessories haphazardly thrown on the antique dresser, all surrounding a—

Shit.

All surrounding a quilted knapsack, patched with the Namaste symbol.

Oh.

Fuck.

Fuck.

He looked frantically up to Eliot, who lazily fluttered his own eyes closed. He breathed in Quentin’s hair, as content as a cat in sunlight.

“So, I’m, like, a really bad person?” Quentin squeaked out. And Eliot smiled, exasperated, his eyes remaining closed.

“Where the fuck did that brain just go?”

“I’m just saying that, I’m like, you know,” Quentin stretched his arms up over his head before pushing his cheek into Eliot’s chest. “I’m obviously a bad person for not giving more of a shit about what’s-his-name.”

“First, you’re never a bad person,” Eliot said automatically, rolling his fingers lazily about Quentin’s shoulders. “Second, what exactly are you talking about?”

“You know,” Quentin darkened his eyes, darting them around. “What’s-his-name.”

He was being petty. He didn’t care. But Eliot just sighed and took Quentin’s hand, kissing his fingertips.

“I’m seriously not following, Q.”

Quentin huffed out a sigh and stuck his tongue out slightly, as he bitterly spoke the stupid name, “Guillermo.”

“Oh. Fuck,” Eliot’s eyes popped open and he laughed, full-throated. “Oh god. No. Nonissue. Let’s not waste our time.”

Despite his better instincts though, guilt was starting to coil in Quentin’s stomach. It didn’t really matter if Guillermo had been sucking neck with some other dude the last time he saw him. Two wrongs don’t make a right was some basic kindergarten morality shit and definitely a concept he should have internalized much sooner.

“I mean, but was he waiting up for you?” Quentin asked, rubbing the bridge of his nose. He kind of hated himself. “I mean, obviously you were the one who was actually dating him. And you obviously don’t care which is, uh, I guess your burden to bear—”

“Q,” Eliot said, pressing his lips together with vague amusement.

“But I definitely don’t want people to see me and be, like, Oh, there goes Quentin the Horrible Homewrecker, you know?’

He peaked a look up at Eliot, hoping he wouldn’t see anger or regret on his beautiful face. And thankfully, he saw neither. Instead, Eliot was giving him that gaze, the one Quentin had grown to enjoy when they first met. When Eliot used to look at him and it sometimes seemed like he was almost fond and almost charmed.

But now, there was nothing almost about it.

“God, you’re cute,” Eliot said, with a wide smile. He stroked his cheek. “Holy shit. The cutest.”

“I’m not kidding, El,” Quentin said, leaning into his touch nonetheless. He was exceptionally weak-willed. Oh well.

“Neither am I. You’re adorable.”

Quentin sighed, unamused. “I’m just saying that maybe you should have had a brief—an extremely brief conversation with him first. Because, like—”

“This is all above board, Q,” Eliot sighed, resting his forehead against his, cutting off Quentin’s newest train of thought. “Not that I’d give a single writhing fuck if it wasn’t.”

“Eliot.”

He didn’t exactly inspire confidence. But Eliot simply laughed again, kissing his cheek.

“Since you’re a moral person, I can tell you there was zero exclusivity,” he said with a shrug, returning his lips to Quentin’s neck. “He’s probably moved on several times since. Seriously.”

“Maybe there wasn’t exclusivity yet,” Quentin said, brow deepening with too much thought. “But, I mean, he still thought or, fuck, still thinks he was there as your date. As something, you know, more.“

At that, Eliot tensed, frozen next to him. He kissed Quentin’s neck softly once again before he slowly wrenched backwards, his head landing with a soft thud on his pillow. He was silent for a moment as a few shades of panic crossed over his face. Finally, Eliot swallowed, nodding, like he was a stalwart prisoner facing his execution.

“Yes, well. Ah. Right,” he said, quiet and determinedly looking straight ahead. “So I might have—overstated? A few things. Here and there.”

Quentin blinked, “What?”

“Um,” Eliot swallowed again and tugged his lips down guiltily. “It was never anything but casual, as far as either of us was concerned.”

Quentin blinked again, “What?”

“So, I, uh—” Eliot’s hand clenched at his comforter in a tight grip. “Guillermo didn’t come along to Paris as so much a serious date as a sure, why not.”

“What?”

Eliot closed his eyes and his hand shook, “There was always a very real, very understood chance we’d go home with others.”

Quentin’s mouth fell open and his mind was completely blank.

“But you said—“ He started and Eliot glanced up, urgent.

“I know. I panicked.”

“You panicked.” Quentin blinked. He blinked again. His eyelids wouldn’t stay still. Meanwhile, Eliot rubbed his hands down his face, groaning out in frustration.

“I’d literally just thrown myself at you and you didn’t want me, or—or I thought you didn’t want me,” he said, looking back down at his hands. “So I told you something a touch self-preserving.”

“Self-preserving.” Now Quentin was the one repeating words back to Eliot. He nodded, like his head weighed a thousand tons before running his hair through his curls, ticking his jaw away from Quentin.

“And in the interest of full transparency,” Eliot pressed his shoulder back against the bed, like he was steeling himself, “I also said it because I wanted to kind of—gauge your reaction. To see if my dating someone else would, um, affect you.”

“Affect me.” Still repeating. Eliot breathed out and in, rubbing his temple.

“Look, when you started dating Ryan, it was something of major, major wakeup call for me, okay? So I wanted to see if—” Eliot cut himself off, snapping his eyes shut with a low and inward growl. “It was stupid. I know it was stupid. It was a shitty thing to do.”

Quentin pressed the heel of his palm to his forehead, taking several grounding breaths of his own. His eyebrows moved restlessly around his face.

None of it had been real.

Guillermo, Eliot’s claims of potential happiness, the commitment, everything that had tortured him for over a week—it hadn’t been real. It had all been because of Quentin. To make him jealous. Eliot had been trying to make him jealous.

Jealous.

Which, uh, success?

He ticked his neck back and forth, an uncomfortable crick forming. He could feel the weight of Eliot’s uncertain eyes on him, but he wasn’t really sure what to do with that at the moment.

“I honestly don’t know if I’m more flattered or pissed,” he finally said. He meant it. It would be an understatement to say this was new territory for Quentin Coldwater.

“Flattered sounds good,” Eliot said softly, tentatively placing his hand on Quentin’s. “Maybe go with that instinct.”

“El.” Quentin was flat, monotone, hard.

“I know.” Eliot was urgent, expressive, soft.

“You can’t,” Quentin flicked his intense gaze up at Eliot, deadly serious. “The games? You can’t.”

Eliot’s eyes flashed intense right back, “It wasn’t a game, Quentin. I—”

“Eliot.”

At Quentin’s soft plea, he closed his eyes again, his long eyelashes against his cheek. He was beautiful.

“Yeah, okay,” Eliot said, hoarse, nodding. “Okay. I’ll—I’ll be better. I promise. I'm sorry.”

Quentin huffed in a breath and nodded once, before flipping his palm over under Eliot’s hand. He entwined their fingers together, smiling as Eliot immediately brought their joined hands up to his lips. He kissed Quentin’s knuckles with his eyes tightly closed, like he was overwhelmed. A rush of love pushed through Quentin's chest and he softened without another moment’s hesitation. He’d never pretended to be anything but a sucker and fool, especially for Eliot. Always.

“And I definitely wanted you. For the record,” Quentin reiterated. Eliot laughed, a relieved smile painting his features.

“Last night dispelled any mystery there. Thrice, I’ll remind you,” he said, his eyes ticking down Quentin’s body purposefully, hungrily. “But thank you for clarifying.”

“And besides, I literally gave zero fucks about what’s-his-name until a few minutes ago,” Quentin said, sighing and still petty. “So it’s not like I’ve got a hugely moral leg to stand on here.”

“Well, you know what they say. Homewreckers are gonna homewreck,” Eliot said with a tiny grin. “You’re like a Real Housewives villain.”

“What’s Real Housewives?” Quentin asked, with a curious frown.

It sounded familiar, like something he’d heard Eliot and Margo titter about at one point or another. Beyond a vague familiarity though, it didn’t mean much to him. But at the question, Eliot’s eyes popped open and his eyebrows curled downward, like he was bewildered and offended.

“Are you joking?” He asked, seriously. At Quentin’s slow head shake, he made a soft little sound from the back of his throat, in sheer gall. “Oh my god. I have way too much to teach you still.”

An uneasy truth dawned on Quentin.

“…Is it one of your stupid reality shows?” He crossed his arms with a glare.

“It’s a lifestyle,” Eliot said with a shit-eating grin. “It’s the Alpha and the Omega.”

“You’re way too smart for shit like that.”

“Counterpoint: You’re a snob.”

“You’re calling me a snob?”

“That’s how much of a snob you are,” Eliot said, still smiling, nuzzling his nose deep into the side of Quentin’s face. “Mmm, hello, cheekbones.”

“Come on, Eliot,” Quentin blushed, pushing him off a little with a tiny smile.

But Eliot just smiled wider and pulled them both down onto the bed, with Quentin tucked against him as a perfect little spoon. He nipped once at Quentin’s jaw before making a humming sound and wrapping his whole arms around him and burying his face into his hair.

“This might surprise you,” Quentin said, running his fingers along Eliot’s forearm, “but I fucking love spooning.”

“Shocking, truly,” Eliot chuckled warmly into his ear. Quentin chuckled back, tilting his head to kiss Eliot gently, before tucking his head into the crook of his neck like a perfectly slotted key. He closed his eyes and let the sound of Eliot’s breathing wash over all his senses.

Slowly, the heaviness of sleep started to blot out the light Quentin could still sense from the window. He yawned, his muscles molten jelly in the heat and comfort of Eliot’s long, lean form wrapped around him. He could have stayed there forever and a day, then somehow managed to figure out Horomancy so he could return and relive it all over again.

His heart glowed.

Overwhelmed, Quentin stretched his hand up and around the nape of Eliot’s neck, to hug even closer to him and wrap those dark curls around his fingers. Eliot tightened his long arms around Quentin’s body and buried his nose into Quentin’s hair, breathing him in for a few centering moments.

Then, Eliot started shaking.

Hard.

“El?” Quentin twisted around and Eliot immediately looked away, burying his nose into his back. “El, what’s wrong?”

“So remember how we were, uh, just talking about full transparency?” Eliot asked quietly, all of his muscles tensing, spasming, shaking as he kept his face hidden against Quentin, but still tightly clinging to him, like it was impossible to let go.

“Uh, yeah, sure,” Quentin said, settling his head into the pillow and ignoring his pounding heart. “But El, you’re—”

“There's something I need to tell you,” Eliot said, pressing his lips into Quentin’s shoulders, over and over again. "Something I lied to you about."

Quentin swallowed, hard, trying to remain calm and not jump to any conclusions. The distress and fear overwhelming Eliot made him think that whatever he was about to say was different than the relatively minor Guillermo confession. That it was something more important. More powerful, and more precious for Quentin to care for.

He caressed Eliot’s skin under his fingers.

“You can tell me anything, honey,” Quentin said quietly, the pet name falling off his lips more naturally than anything he’d ever said before. "What is it?"

“It's about my childhood,” Eliot said, breathing in through his nose.

He sniffed. He sniffled. Quentin’s brow furrowed, but he didn’t speak his confusion.

It took Eliot a few more moments to continue.

“Um. It wasn’t—” he said, in starts and stops, folding his body against Quentin’s, until there was no space left between them. “I didn’t grow up in the Hamptons or fucking Napa or Palm Beach or wherever I highly implied I did.”

“Okay,” Quentin took Eliot’s hands and pressed them against his chest, against his heart. “Where did you grow up then?

“Indiana,” Eliot said, a tentative whisper. “On—on a farm.”

“Okay,” Quentin said, furrowing his brow as he processed. He brought one of his hands up to his lips and started kissing it, as gently as he could, as often as he could. Eliot’s other arm tightened desperately around Quentin’s torso.

“Only Margo knows,” he said. “And I only told her because of the Trials. She’s not allowed to bring it up. Ever.”

“So why are you telling me?” Quentin asked, still kissing Eliot’s hand, in circles and patterns. “Other than full transparency.”

“Because I want you to know me,” Eliot said, barely audible.

Quentin’s heart expanded and split. It took everything in him not to spin around to look Eliot in the eyes, to show him how much he already knew him and saw him and loved him. But—he knew he couldn’t do that. Not yet.

“That’s a scary feeling, huh?” Quentin kissed the pulse point on Eliot’s wrist. Eliot made a sound that approximated a laugh.

“Uh, yeah,” he dipped his forehead against the nape of Quentin’s neck and a smattering wetness tickled the hairs there. “You could say that.”

“You know it doesn’t change anything for me, right?” Quentin asked softly. “And that I get it? God knows there’s a lot I’m terrified to tell you.”

“You can tell me anything,” Eliot said in a vehement whisper, his fingers stretching widely along the expanse of Quentin’s chest. “There is nothing you could say that would make me any less—”

“I’m not trying to hijack,” Quentin said, running his hand up and down Eliot’s arm, continuing. “I just want you to know that we’re in this together. And that I feel the same way as you.”

“I love you,” Eliot said quietly, barely kissing the back of Quentin’s head. “And rationally, I do know it doesn’t fucking matter where I was born. But at the same time—”

Quentin twisted around, finally, and wrapped his arms around Eliot’s neck, nuzzling into his cheek. Eliot kissed the side of his head, sighing.

“At the same time, it scares me because who I really am—it disappoints people,” he said, his hands shaking again as they stroked Quentin’s hair endlessly. “And I think it might actually destroy me if I disappointed you.”

“Who you really are is who I fell in love with, El,” Quentin said, hoarsely and honestly. “All of you.  What you came from and what you built. I promise.”

Eliot gently pried himself away from Quentin, looking down at him seriously, gently. His eyes were green and tearful as they roamed his face, with every bit of the affection and awe Quentin felt reflected right back at him.

“Thank you,” Eliot said softly, kissing Quentin once. Twice. “Thank you, baby.”

“And for what it’s worth,” Quentin said, running his thumb along Eliot’s jawline, “I think you’re braver than you give yourself credit for.”

Eliot laughed his tears out and kissed him again, with a full-body lift and his arms wrapped totally around Quentin’s waist. And they stayed there for a few minutes, until finally they could breathe easily again.

And then Eliot pinned him under his arms, elbows on the bed.

“Look at you,” he said, shaking his head. “Shit.”

He was staring at him now, looking him up and down, a big smile forming on his face. The fizz in the air shifted as Eliot’s eyes sparked with a familiar mischief and hunger, raking them all across his face. Quentin averted his gaze with an embarrassed chuckle.

“Jesus, Eliot,” he said, reddening. “What now?”

“You have—” Eliot peppered his face in several kisses between breaths “—the cutest—” He dipped his mouth against Quentin’s neck “—and the sexiest—” His tongue started tracing circles against his pulse point “—goddamn bedhead in the world, Q.”

Finally, he rose for a breath and put both of his hands on Quentin’s cheeks, gazing at him quite seriously, “And it’s fucking criminal that no one has ever said that to you before.”

“Well, technically, Margo has,” Quentin said with a sly grin and chuckled at Eliot’s glare

“She’s a brazen thief,” Eliot said, burying himself back into Quentin’s neck. “Compliment stealing wanton woman. A sociopathic swindler—”

Quentin smiled into Eliot’s shoulder, as he kept insulting Margo with more and more ridiculous fervor, as well as further adulating the way his hair stuck up in different directions with more and more poetic passion. They laughed deep into the morning, wrapped up warm and fuzzy under Eliot’s fluffy comforter, until they collapsed back into each other all over again.

And again.

And again.

 


 

It was nearing noon by the time Quentin finally managed to dip a toe outside the bubble he and Eliot had built for themselves. But even in the midst of a gorgeously impassioned first hours together, bodily functions reared their ugly, stupid heads and Quentin frankly had to pee, shower, and, well, brush his teeth, to get rid of his steadily increasing gross morning breath, per Eliot’s mostly delicate suggestion.

As was normally the case, the bathroom was occupied and Quentin danced outside the frame, his bladder pressing down uncomfortably on his groin. He knocked with slightly more urgency and a soft, feminine voice called out to let him know it would only be another minute. And true to her word, the door swung open, with a ducked down brunette head trying to pass through as quickly and quietly as she could. Quentin blinked and grabbed her arm, clad in a short sleeve Slayer T-shirt that definitely did not belong to her.

“Julia?” He asked, incredulously. She startled back and snapped her gaze up to Quentin, her mouth falling down before clamping shut again. He pointed at her face. “Wait, hold on. Stay right there.”

He ran into the bathroom to pee and then quickly trudged his way back out, still zipping his fly as he reached the hallway again. Julia was wringing her hands together, staring at Quentin with deep lines between her brow.

“What are you doing here?” Quentin asked, crossing his arms.

“Q, I could ask you the same thing,” Julia frowned, her eyes wide and sad. “I didn’t think I’d see you. What—what are you doing back here already?”

Quentin took a long breath, thinking of the evening and Julia’s sweet, if slightly presumptuous, letter. His feelings were all over the place when it came to her actions, but at the end of the day, he knew he owed her a lot. Both now, and certainly in the years then.

But at the same time…

“Uh, yeah,” Quentin said, expertly averting his eyes, dipping his head and scratching the back of his neck. “It was eventful. But I, um, ended up deciding it was best to come back. For everyone.”

“Oh shit,” Julia touched her hand to her heart. “Q, I am so sorry. I thought that—“

“Everything happens for a reason, Jules,” Quentin sighed, running a hand through his hair with absolute precision. “I appreciate that you and Margo meant well.”

“Shit,” Julia said again, biting at a dry piece of skin on her lip. Her face was screwed up intently, like she was thinking back to where she could have gone wrong. Quentin held back a smirk.

“Shit. Q, I am so—“

Like it was choreographed, Eliot chose that exact perfect moment to stride out through his door. He gave Quentin a blinding smile as he sauntered towards them, clad only in a bright white towel, wrapped loose around his hips. Unaware of Julia’s golf-ball eyes, he stopped next to Quentin, resting his hand on his back.

“Fancy meeting you out here,” Eliot chuckled down at him and Quentin forgot how to breathe all over again, awed in the glory of this nearly naked Adonis of a man who was somehow all his. He only revived when Eliot broke the spell to briefly glance at Julia, who was blinking over and over again, rapid-fire assessing the context in front of her.

“Hey Julia,” Eliot said, bored. “Fucking Kady again, are we?”

Remembering his quest, Quentin reluctantly tore his eyes from Eliot and slid them up to Julia, laughter imbuing them slowly. Her face fell into a firm, hard line and she narrowed her eyes. Immediately, her hands pushed out against Quentin’s chest. He staggered back and Eliot caught his fall with a strong arm around his waist, with an unmistakable flash of incredulity and anger. But Julia didn’t care, gritting her teeth right at Quentin, with nary a spared glance at Eliot.

“You asshole!” She shot out. But Quentin pointed at her.

“You wrote a spell to trap me in a goddamn secrets ward!”

“That was you?” Eliot asked, whipping his neck at Julia. His face darkened into unreadability and he tightened his grip against Quentin. “Huh. I’ve never known the meaning of the word ambivalent until now.”

“My only regret is that we waited so long to do it,” Julia said with a careless shrug. “The ends justify the means.”

“Said every dictator ever, Jules,” Quentin widened his eyes. “I expect that from Margo, but not you.”

But Eliot snorted, pressing his chin against the top of Quentin’s head, burying his lips pointedly in his hair.

“Quick reminder that she secretly enchanted part of your body to suit her frivolous will, Q,” Eliot said. “In her own quiet way, I think she’s more tyrannical than Bambi.”

Julia smiled.

“Thanks, Eliot,” she said brightly.

“Not a compliment, Julia,” Eliot said, wrapping his arms around Quentin’s waist from behind. But his hands faltered for a second, like he wasn’t sure if it was an okay thing to do. Quentin grinned, tugging him closer and resting his head backward against Eliot’s chest. He was rewarded with a light huff of pleased air and a quick kiss on his temple.

Meanwhile, Julia smirked.

“You two needed to get your shit together,” she said, pointing at their embrace. “That? That’s because of me and Margo.”

“We would have gotten there on our own eventually,” Quentin crossed his arms, his fingers sliding around Eliot’s wrists. “Like, probably.”

“Almost certainly,” Eliot said, but his lips quirked in laughter from their unmoving spot against Quentin’s temple. “In a century or two.”

“What, vampirically?” Julia asked, ticking her eyebrow. “Just admit we did the right thing.”

“I’d be an incredibly alluring vampire,” Eliot said instead. “I’d inspire many a young adult novel.”

“That’s true,” Quentin nodded seriously, twisting his neck to look up at Eliot. “Though I’d just be, like, your nerdy sidekick.”

“Concubine-slash-familiar,” Eliot smiled, nuzzling his nose into Quentin’s ear. Julia smiled, smacking their joined arms.

“You’re fucking welcome, idiots.”

“In seriousness?” Eliot’s voice dipped low, serious and still. Quentin could practically feel his beautiful eyes burning straight into Julia’s much more boring ones. “Lack of personal freedom’s absolutely not my bag. I’m going to need some fucking time to grapple with that.”

But rather than retreating into the expected soft apology,  Julia sputtered out a laugh. Eliot’s fingers twitched dangerously, like they were preparing for Battle Magic. Quentin’s chest caught, glancing back and forth between the two most important people in his life, who were clearly on crumbling ground with each other.

“You need time to grapple with, what, exactly? The fact that you’re finally dating Q? Something you’ve literally pined for this entire tedious year?” Julia puckered her lips out, hard and pointed. Eliot lurched forward. “Fuck off and be happy, Eliot.”

“I am deliriously happy,” Eliot snarled out with his own false laugh. “But with him. Certainly not with you. It’s called emotional complexity.”

“And you can live in that emotional complexity to your black heart’s content. Or, you know, ” Julia widened her eyes and did mocking jazz hands, “you could get over yourself.”

Eliot let go of Quentin and stepped forward into Julia’s space, “Get over myself? Oh, you arrogant—”

“Guys?” Quentin rushed between them and held his arms out like a referee, just as Julia was about to match Eliot’s fury with her own righteousness, measure-for-measure. “Nope. Not happening. You two don’t need to be on the same wave-length right now, but you can’t be at each other’s throats.”

Eliot swallowed and cracked his neck, but nodded. Julia crossed her arms and looked to the side, breathing out a slow stream of air from the side of her mouth.

“I just don’t see why either of you are pissed,” Julia said, shaking her head. “This is a good thing. This is objectively a fucking good thing. And I’m sorry, but it wouldn’t have happened without us.”

Like it was wrenched from his soul, Eliot released a scoffing laugh, almost like a sob. Quentin could relate.

“Jules,” he said quietly, squeezing Eliot’s arm in solidarity before he could throw out whatever barb was certainly behind those perfect teeth of his. “I was teasing you before, but it’s important you realize that shit got bad before it was good, okay?”

Eliot tensed against him and threw his gaze over at the wall. Even in spite of everything—everything so wonderful and lovely—Quentin could feel the brittleness of those moments hanging between them. All of the parts were perfect, but as the morning had already shown, they weren’t whole yet. And at least some of that was Julia and Margo’s fault, even for all the good they ultimately did. The means may well be justified by the ends, in the grand scheme of things, but the moments between still rang clear and had their own burdens to bear.

To her credit, Julia deflated.

“It did?” She asked, her voice considerably softer. Quentin nodded, all serious. “Shit. I didn’t mean for that. Obviously.”

“Obviously,” Quentin said, taking a deep breath. “The ward opened up the conversation, but it wasn’t as straightforward as you might be thinking.”

“That’s putting it fucking mildly,” Eliot said, dark and low.

“In that case, then, yeah,” Julia nodded, looking down. “Then I’m sorry. I had good intentions, I promise. And I certainly didn’t mean to make anything harder, ever.”

“I appreciate the apology,” Quentin said. Julia nodded.

“And Eliot, maybe I was a little—”

“Bitchy?” Eliot asked, glaring. Julia set her face in a firm line.

“You get to say that to me once. Now, and then not ever again,” she said, never a shrinking violet. Quentin snorted to himself a little, looking between his two favorite people. They had a few slight similarities. “I’m sorry I didn’t take your concerns seriously. It won’t happen again.”

“Fine,” Eliot said, pulling Quentin into his side. “I appreciate the apology as well. And I apologize if I’ve been…brusque.”

“Sure,” Julia bit the inside of her cheek. “Apology accepted.”

“And I appreciate that you cared so much about us, Jules. And everything you wrote me in the letter,” Quentin said and Julia’s eyes melted. “Truly, okay? Even if your, uh, execution wasn’t exactly—”

Julia held up her hand, laughing. She nodded, like she understood.

“Q, I love you,” Julia said, reaching her hand out. “And you too, Eliot. I truly only wanted what was best for you.”

“I know you did, Jules,” Quentin said, nodding and taking her hand. “I just think we’ll have to process a little more, though. Maybe talk about it, a few times, before we can really—”

“I get it,” Julia said, squeezing his hand. “I do. But please trust that my intentions were good?”

“Always,” Quentin said. “I know you, Jules. And I love you too.”

Julia blew him a kiss.

“I’m not saying that,” Eliot said quickly, raising his eyebrows. “I mean, I don’t precisely want to rip your throat out anymore, but you’ve still hardly earned it.”

“Fair enough,” Julia said, with a cocked half-grin. “I’ll get it in our lifetime though. Comin’ atcha, Waugh.”

“My god have mercy on my soul,” Eliot said, ticking his head with a half-grin of his own. And they nodded at each other once more, in a detente. An understanding.

“Okay,” Julia said, looking behind her and twisting her way back down the hall, toward Kady’s room. “My, uh, lady friend awaits. So I’ll see you lovebirds—”

“Wait. Uh, hey, Jules?” Quentin grabbed her arm and took a deep breath. She raised her eyebrows expectantly, looking a little concerned. “How—how does Horomancy work? I still don’t get it.”

“Jesus Christ,” Eliot rolled his eyes, dropping a firm kiss on Quentin’s head before forcefully pushing his way to the bathroom without a single glance backward. “I’m going to get a shower.”

“Like, as a whole concept?” Julia widened her eyes and sputtered her lips, vibrating wildly. “Wow. Um. Okay. I mean, we could sit down and work through it for a few hours if you wanted—”

“Yes, please,” Quentin nodded.

“Fine. Later. Eat food first,” Julia said, pointing at his stomach. “And fuck your boyfriend again, for god’s sake, Q.”

“Seconded,” Eliot’s deep voice from the bathroom called out.

 


 

Dressed, showered, and feeling mostly like himself again (but perhaps, a more satisfied, mutually in love version of himself?), Quentin skipped down the stairs to the tune of his grumbling stomach. Pushing his air-drying hair back away from his forehead, he whistled off-key and snatched an apple from the fruit bowl on the dining room table.

Eliot always took longer to get ready, with his painstaking skin- and haircare regimens, but he’d promised to make pancakes if Quentin would or could wait a few minutes longer rather than, quote, eating whatever shit he saw first. Smiling to himself, he took a large bite of the fruit to tide over his hunger and started floating his way to the kitchen to make a couple cups of coffee, when a tetchy, frustrated sound Ahem’d its way into his ear drums.

“Asshole,” a sharp voice called from the furthest end of the table.

Quentin glared at the dark haired woman sitting in the chair at the head, her arms curled around themselves like two vengeful pythons. Her bright red lip was ticked upward along with an eyebrow, and her big doe eyes were decidedly not fucking around.

“Good morning,” Quentin said to Margo, as though she had greeted him like a friend would. “When did you get back?”

“Earlier than planned since you fuckin’ ditched me.” Margo did not yield, arms still folded and face sour. “We were supposed to go to the Rodin Museum. It’s the best museum in Paris, Quentin.”

Quentin took another hard bite of his apple, his own glare deepening. Margo let out a snort of air from her mouth, like he was ridiculous. He crossed his arms right back at her.

“You’re joking, right? You can’t actually be mad at me right now,” Quentin said, truly disbelieving. “You said the whole point of this weekend was for Eliot and me—“

Margo held a single finger in the air and waggled it back and forth.

“Ah, ah. No. The whole point of last night was for you two to bang,” Margo said, before her whole face melted seamlessly into a bright smile. “Which, whoa. Wow. Mission obviously accomplished.”

“Wait, why ‘obviously?’” Quentin asked. Then he shook his head. He didn’t want to know. “Never mind.”

“But you were supposed to bang in Paris,” Margo hissed out between her teeth, straining her neck toward him. “At no point did I relinquish you from your duties as my sweet date.”

Quentin’s stomach twisted over itself, in a shot of defensiveness for Eliot.

“Uh, Margo—”

But she ignored him, smirking and glaring in her typical way. “Please tell me you’re not dick-whipped already.”

“Margo,” Quentin bit his inner lip. “Hey, we’re good, but, uh, you might want to cool it on the whole ‘sweet date in Paris stuff,’ okay?”

“Oh, what, is El being pissy about it?” Margo rolled her eyes. “He does that. We can drink heavily together during the stormiest times. So, like, biweekly.”

“Margo,” he said simply. “Just please don’t.”

“Meaning twice a week,” she clarified, like he didn’t say anything. “Not once every two weeks. That’d be a fucking fantasy land.”

Margo.”

“Quentin.” She fluttered her eyelashes, her voice dipping lower into sighing sincerity. “Leave it alone, kid. This is my shit to work out with him, okay?”

He gave her another annoyed stare at the belittling nickname and shook his head, “Yeah, but I just don’t think you understand exactly how much—”

“It’s fine,” Margo said, waving him off. “Seriously. Fuck off with your concerned boyfriend thing.”

“It’s not a thing,” Quentin said. “We literally just talked to Julia, like, thirty minutes ago and shit is still kinda raw—”

“Q,” Eliot called down the stairs, gracefully jogging down. “Did you pick out what you want for the batter? Daddy doesn’t fuck with plain shit so—”

He froze as he turned the corner and his eyes fell on Margo, who waggled a royal wave to him, all fingers and poise. Eliot’s eyes and nose twitched once, like a rabbit’s, before he smiled at Quentin, smoothly passing over Margo altogether.

So, chop, chop and decide so we can get our fancy breakfast on,” he said, reaching Quentin in a single stride and curling his hands around his elbows, gazing down at him with a gentle smile. Sinking into Eliot’s warmth, Quentin sighed.

“Hi El,” Margo said from behind their little Q-and-El bubble, her voice firm and demanding. “Good to see you, sweetie. Glad you had a good night.”

Eliot stroked Quentin’s cheek, lovingly. His expression never shifted from its gaze downward, never wavering from his lips, his eyes, his heart.

“Don’t you dare talk to me about my night, you fucking perfidious she-devil,” Eliot said, sighing lightly, without a hint of the anger inherent in his words. He briefly kissed Quentin’s cheek. “Now, Q, let’s go have a nice afternoon.”

“Um—” Quentin tugged his lips downward, not totally sure what was going on.

Perfidious,” Margo laughed, slinky and sly. “Aw, when’d you get a Word of the Day calendar? So cute.”

“Um—” Quentin said again, looking backward at Margo. She was casually filing her nails, like a teenaged movie villain, as though none of this perturbed her.

“Staring at a Gorgon never goes well, baby,” Eliot said, tugging his arm toward the kitchen. “Seriously, let’s go.”

“You’re not mad at me,” Margo said firmly, blowing the fine dusting off her thumb nail and into the air. “You just think you’re mad at me. You want to be mad at me. But you’re not.”

That stopped Eliot right in his tracks. Quentin wondered if he was unaware of how well Margo knew how to push his buttons or if this was all part of their ritual. He wondered if he’d ever really know, if anyone ever could. Still, in either case, Eliot pivoted on his heels and thrust a pointed hand out at Margo, his eyes all fire and brimstone.

“No, I’m definitely mad at you,” Eliot said, never wavering. “Furious, actually.”

“No, you’re not.”

“Yes, I am.”

“No, you’re not.”

“Come on, Q,” Eliot went to grab his arm. “Actually, let’s go out for breakfast. The air in here is too rank with betrayal.”

“Oh, don’t be a baby,” Margo shot out and Eliot sunk into her trap all over again.

“A baby? A baby?” Eliot’s eyes darkened and he stormed away from Quentin, slamming his hand down on the table. “That’s it. Upstairs. Right now, Margo.”

“Anything you have to say to me, you can say in front of Quentin, who is unequivocally on my side,” Margo said coolly. Then she glanced over. “Now’s your chance to prove you aren’t dick-whipped, champ.”

Quentin snorted, taking another bite of his apple.

“Yeah, uh-huh,” he rolled his eyes. “That’s likely.”

“Coward,” Margo hissed at him over Eliot’s self-satisfied smirk. Quentin shrugged.

“Look,” Quentin said, trying his hand at diplomacy. “Margo kinda overstepped but her heart was in the right place.”

Kinda?” Eliot shot out incredulously.

Heart was in the right place?” Margo shot out incredulously. “You wash that nasty mouth, Coldwater.”

“Seriously, Q, you can’t play both sides here,” Eliot crossed his arms and glared at him.

“Of course he can’t,” Margo glared at Eliot in turn. “Which is why he’s on my side.”

“You fucking wish.”

“Okay,” Quentin held his hands up in surrender. “I’m done. You two can work your own shit out.”

“I mean, that’s what I said from the start,” Margo sighed. “Not my fault you’re kind of a nosy asshole.”

You’re calling me nosy?” Quentin shot out. And Margo, ever Eliot’s other half, smiled.

“That’s how nosy you are,”she said, slapping her hands down on the table with a bounce.

Like a gravitational pull toward the center that was Margo, the sides of Eliot’s mouth quirked with instinctual laughter. He bit down on his lip, forcefully, violently stopping his delighted reaction to her antics. But Margo noted it and her features softened—those doe eyes glinting up at Eliot like he was the warming sun—and she sighed gently, standing up and toward him. Briefly, she touched his arm and pressed her head against his shoulder, before continuing to walk past him, to her purse. She shuffled through the contents for a few seconds before deftly plucking out another unbroken white envelope.

Cautiously, she walked back to Eliot and held it out in front of him.

“Did you know that Julia wrote Q a letter?” She asked. Eliot nodded, his eyes still guarded.

Suddenly feeling like an intruder, Quentin started to back away, but Eliot’s hand reached out, firmly and silently begging him to stay in a single grip on his wrist. He obliged, but hanged back as much as he could.

“So, um, I—I wrote you a letter too,” Margo said, soft and uncertain. She wouldn’t meet Eliot’s eyes. “Can you just read it, please? I feel like it’s the only way we can move forward.”

Eliot swallowed and his glassy eyes glanced upward. Quentin entwined their fingers and ran his thumb along the back of Eliot’s hand, reassuringly. Almost imperceptibly, Eliot nodded and slipped the envelope out of Margo’s fingers. She smiled, almost teary herself, and backed up, giving him ample space.

There were a few moments where the silence hanging over the trio and the letter was deafening and too heavy to bear. Quentin’s chest felt like it was going to vomit out his heart. But finally, Eliot let go of Quentin’s hand and ran his thumb nail under the sealed flap. He pulled the looseleaf out in a single motion and flattened it against his chest before bringing it up to the light and his eyes.

He stared at the contents for a long while, with a hundred-thousand emotions shifting over his face in nuanced waves that Quentin couldn’t quite interpret.

“Um, what does it say?” Quentin asked, swallowing his anxiety. He’d never gotten such a close look at real intimacy between Margo and Eliot before.

Eliot pulled the letter down to his stomach and blinked, first at Quentin and then at Margo. Then, he handed the page to him silently, his eyes immovably focused and unreadable on Margo’s trembling face.

There was a single line of words, written in large block letters:

DON’T COCK OUT, MOTHERFUCKER.

Underneath, Margo had drawn a large, tap-dancing penis, wearing a top hat. He was winking and gave Eliot double barrel middle fingers. He knew that they were specifically directed at El because there were arrows pointed at them with the words ‘FOR ELIOT, LOVE MARGO’ written in the same bold lettering. She also drew a tiny Empire State Building next to the dancing dick, which she indicated was “for scale.”

Um,” Quentin said more urgently, glancing up in shock at Eliot.

But his boyfriend simply kept gazing forward with his his hands behind his back, in that boldly regal and statuesque way of his. He considered Margo intently, carefully, discerningly. And in turn, Margo’s eyes were widening more and more, as they both silently, slowly, skillfully stared at one another.

Finally, Eliot moved. He tilted his head.

“Laundry duty, for a month,” he said, his voice low and even. “To my exact specifications. My spells only, not your half-assed shit.”

“Two weeks,” Margo said, jutting her chin out. Eliot pursed his lips.

“Three.”

Margo nodded curtly and held out her hand. Eliot shook it.

Then, they both immediately squealed, with Margo jumping full-throttle into his arms, wrapping her legs around his torso.

Quentin blinked.

“Wait, is that it?” He asked, scrunching his lips up toward his nose. “Did everything just—like, get resolved?”

Margo kept squealing as she pat her hands against Eliot’s shoulders in a bouncing rhythm and Eliot spun her around, laughing. They completely ignored Quentin.

“Oh my god, have you sucked his dick? Has he sucked yours? Is he good?” She asked, sliding herself down Eliot’s body and leaning in conspiratorially. Immediately, Eliot dipped his eyes low, intense and giddy. Her jaw dropped in trembling anticipation and Eliot opened his own mouth excitedly—

“Please don’t answer that,” Quentin squeaked out. And like he remembered himself, Eliot shot apologetic eyes over to him and offered a sheepish grin before turning his full attention back to Margo’s unamused face.

“Now, now, Bambi,” Eliot said with a wink. “Let’s not forget the enticing beauty in mystery and the unknown.”

At that, Margo laughed, almost sing-song, nodding exaggeratedly.

“Sure. Of course. Got it,” Margo winked back. “So then let’s go upstairs. For totally unrelated reasons.”

Eliot bit his lip.

“Bambi,” he said softly, his eyes widening ever so slightly. Margo froze.

“You’re actually gonna hold out on me, aren’t you?” She crossed her arms. Eliot nodded—way too apologetically for Quentin’s preference—and pulled Margo to his chest with a mournful sigh. “Seriously?”

Quentin crossed his arms and glared at Margo, “I mean, it’s about respect and discretion—”

“Discretion? Please. This is a package fucking deal, dickbag,” Margo shot out, cuddling herself firmer into Eliot. “You signed the terms and conditions the second your put your tongue in his—”

Jesus, Margo.

“Don’t call him a dickbag,” Eliot said lightly, closing his eyes and pressing a light kiss to Margo’s forehead, tracing his fingers up and down her back.

 


 

~**~

 


 

An almost hour became an almost day became an almost week, and Brakebills’ final Friday was upon the campus.

Wearing a new chambray button-down, courtesy of a reluctant Margo, Quentin stepped out of the classroom building into the naturally warm and sunny air. As sparkling oxygen filled his lungs, he smiled at the intense permeation of all the magic he never could have imagined was truly his for the taking. The late spring light danced on hands, making the pale hairs glint and glean, and his knuckles were pleasantly hot in the thick humidity.

His last Practical Applications class had been a special lecture from the Dean, for the entirety of the first year class. there had been barely a dry eye as Henry Fogg congratulated them all on their survival through the first brutal year. Yet as Quentin adjusted his messenger bag over his shoulder and reflected on the sights in front of him—the grassy knoll, the quad, the long and tall BRAKEBILLS UNIVERSITY sign that had greeted him many months ago—he couldn’t think of the year as brutal, not in any sense.

He closed his eyes and let the magnanimity of his accomplishment, of the time past, wash over him.

The year had certainly been difficult, academically. Pushing his limits and his comfort zone, forcing him to think for himself, think critically, think creatively. And while it had only been nine months, t it was a truly a full lifetime, in his bones, in the way it changed him. But above all, the year had been a shifting swirl of change, growth, light, love, happiness, everything and anything that Quentin never could have imagined for himself, not in that desperate, desolate before. The year had been—

—It had been magic.

In all forms.

Opening his eyes again, Quentin stared at that Brakebills wall. It was blinding in the sun, whiter and brighter than the golden glow of the autumn day that brought him there, back from a cold, magicless winter. And sitting perched on the sign, he noted with a growing grin, was an awkwardly dangling figure, waving to him with a wide hand in the air.

“Hey Quentin!” Todd shouted out, before jumping down. When he hit the ground, his shoe caught on the grass and he nearly stumbled forward. Quentin jogged over to catch his hand and the two men smiled at each other, laughing in the misstep.

“Todd,” Quentin said, steadying his first friend with a pat on the back. “I feel like I haven’t seen you in awhile.”

“You probably haven’t,” Todd said with a sheepish shrug. “I’ve been hiding out since Paris. Going to class and—uh, reconfiguring. Alone. In my room.”

“I get that,” Quentin said, with a short nod. “I definitely get that.”

“But,” Todd smiled, pointing up in the air, “I couldn’t let the last day of classes go by without finding you. It’s a big day for all the first years, but I especially wanted to take a moment to acknowledge how big of a day it is for you.”

“Nah,” Quentin waved him off. “It’s no more special for me than anyone else.”

But Todd paused, tilting his head. A soft, gazing look crossed his eyes and he stuck his hands in his pockets, rocking back and forth on his feet.

“So I think I’m going to have to give you a small disclosure here,” Todd said quietly, glancing down at the grass. “Not everyone gets a student guide to take them to the exam. It’s only for certain students.”

“Oh, so the most immediately talented and impressive?” Quentin asked with a snort. Todd glanced up under his gentle brows and sighed.

“They’re for the most vulnerable,” he said, with a sad, tiny smile. “Which, I’m sure you’re probably smart enough to have already figured out.”

“I knew Julia got herself there,” Quentin said, nodding in confirmation. “It never bothered me. I know who I am.”

“Yeah, you really do, man,” Todd laughed. Then he put his own hand on Quentin’s back, walking him slowly in a circle as he spoke. “So it probably won’t surprise you that I also had a student guide.”

That actually did surprise Quentin a little. Todd was a people pleaser and somewhat emotionally immature, but he more or less had his shit together. Though, he supposed, he had no idea where Todd started—it was quite possible that the man he knew was built from a much more difficult road, just like Quentin. He made a mental note to talk to Todd more about his own life, instead of being so overly focused on himself.

Todd continued, staring off into the distance, “And on the last day of my first year, my guide told me that he’d never felt more overwhelming pride than to see me not only still standing, but thriving.”

That sentence made Quentin clutch to his bag, the back of his eyes suddenly burning. He swallowed hard, but allowed himself to continue walking next to Todd.

“To be honest, I thought he was full of bullshit,” Todd said with a grin as he brought Quentin over to the garden path, shaking his head. “Because, like, why would anyone care that much about me, right? But it was a nice sentiment, so I never gave it anymore thought. Until now.”

“Todd—” Quentin choked out, before clearing his throat. They kept walking, faster, with the Cottage coming more and more into view with each step they took.

“Because now that I’m the guide looking at the prospective student I knew?” Todd sniffed back a swallow of his own and tightened his grip on Quentin’s shoulder. “I’m, like, so fucking proud of you.”

“Todd.” Quentin’s chest was heavy with a warm weight and tears were perilously close to falling. And when he met Todd’s gaze, as they stopped in front of the Cottage, his big brown eyes were equally watery.

“And I hope you know I don’t mean that in a condescending way,” Todd said, as though he could ever be anything other than warm, bright, inviting, and kind. “It’s just that I know how difficult life can be before coming to Brakebills and I know how much the ones like you and I fought tooth and nail to make it something worthwhile.”

Quentin bit his lip and darted his eyes away, up at the Cottage, up at the enchanted sky, up through every moment he’d experienced that year in that very place, with all the people who suddenly mattered more than anything to him. Including the wide-eyed, extroverted, ridiculously ridiculous, funny, and kind friend in front of him.

“I know that it doesn’t all get better automatically,” Todd said, running a hand through his hair and laughing softly. “I mean, hello, I literally just had a meltdown at a dinner party.”

“Meltdown might actually be putting it mildly,” Quentin laughed, elbowing Todd. They both smiled at each other and the first tears fell onto their cheeks.

“We all have our issues still,” Todd said, reaching out and gripping his hand. “But being part of your journey was really special. I just wanted to thank you for that and for being such a good friend to me. And to tell you that I’m proud of you. No bullshit.”

Immediately, Quentin surged forward and wrapped his arms around Todd’s shoulders with a laughing grin, over his one shaking sobs.

“Fucking thank you, Todd,” Quentin whispered firmly in his ear. “I can’t—thank you.”

Todd tightened the hug and sniffled against Quentin’s hair, “I’m so glad we both found a home, buddy. I’m glad you’re here.”

There was no way Todd could have known exactly how much those particular words meant and Quentin shook his head against the newest barrage of emotions welling up and burning against his solar plexus. Closing his eyes, he pat Todd’s back once and then pulled away with a grin, throwing a casual arm over his shoulder. They both sighed and nodded at each other, the message and affection resonating clearly between them in a solidified, lifelong friendship. And looking up at the Cottage once again—the sounds and smoke of the End of the Year party wafting through the window Quentin had turned to water—he knew there was no better way to put it.

Home.

 


 

The Cottage was enchanted in an array of bright colors and dizzying scents, uplighting and incense painting themselves against the walls and ceiling. Bright blue drinks were passed around in shot glasses and angled highballs, seemingly carried by their own accord and, somehow, an ocean breeze that magically blew around every corner. Quentin smiled broadly as he took in the scene—every detail was immaculately determined, without ever seeming either fussy or imprecise, a balance that was exceedingly difficult to achieve.

Unless, well, one was a genius aesthete like Eliot.

Bypassing the rest of the drunken revelers, Quentin scanned the room until he landed at the bar and his heart soared through the ceiling. Clad in a simple emerald green button-down, rolled at the sleeves, and with his wild dark curls falling over charcoaled eyes, Eliot was in his element, swiftly and telekinetically arranging glasses, liquor bottles, and pre-made drinks with flourish. Quentin was still very much a moth to the brightest light he’d ever seen in his life. He also knew that, as much as it would likely piss off Todd, Eliot had become such a huge part of what made home actually feel like home to him. Especially now and forever moving forward.

Following his heart, as Quentin promised himself he would always do from then on, he sidled up quickly next to the intensely focused bartender. He would have thought that he didn’t even notice his presence, except that Eliot’s lips slowly traced upward.

“Hey handsome,” Quentin said, lifting himself on his toes to press a soft kiss against his jawline. Stopping his movements at the words, Eliot’s eyes glowed down at Quentin for two intense beats.

Then, he smiled blithely and patted his cheek.

“Nope, you’re too distracting,” Eliot said, waving him off. “Go mingle and be merry.”

“Seriously?” Quentin leaned back against the brown tufted leather chair. “I’ve hung out with you at the bar before.”

“Yeah, when I was trying to date you,” Eliot rolled his eyes, shaking a drink with clanging and clattering panache. “But mission accomplished, and now I can happily admit that your face does nothing good for my precision.”

“Wow,” Quentin laughed, moving closer into Eliot’s orbit. “Gotta say, I feel kinda like a, uh, trophy wife or something here. Sent away from the men’s work because of my overwhelming sexual wiles.”

“Mmm, totally,” Eliot smiled down at him, resting his long fingers against Quentin’s hips. But then he raised his eyebrows and tilted his head toward the party. “So scoot, Miss Thang. Not joking.”

“Fine, jeez,” Quentin stretched up on his tip-toes to kiss Eliot on the cheek. He was rewarded with a pleased hum. “I’ll see you around, I guess.”

“Sure, sure. I’ll be in and out,” Eliot waved his ringed hand in the air, his eyes already focused on tutting over a glass of whiskey. “Have fun.”

Watching him work for a few more indulgent minutes—and giving his boyfriend a chance to say Just kidding, just in case—Quentin eventually chuckled to himself, shaking his head as he walked away from the apparently very serious and certainly very focused Eliot. The Cottage was filled with small groups of partiers, chatting and laughing in equal measure, like small pools of relieved joy. Looking around until he found someone familiar to latch onto, his raised his eyebrows in acknowledgment of Margo’s lazy wave and beckoning head nod, near the dining room and speaking to a blonde man Quentin didn’t recognize.

“Hey girl,” she said, immediately wrapping her arm around his, though her eyes never left the man she’d been talking to before Quentin came over. “Help me demolish this asshole who thinks Harry Potter and Rupert Chatwin are equivalent archetypal heroes.”

His heart stuttered to a stop.

“Um,” Quentin’s eyes narrowed into a burning fire at the frowning second-year in front of him. “Sorry, but what the fuck is your starting point exactly?”

“I mean,” the guy swallowed, glancing back and forth between the angry Quentin and amused Margo. “They’re both classic British fantasy protagonists? And they’re both Chosen Ones?”

“Ah, okay,” Quentin laughed. “So you’re not even taking the discussion seriously.”

“Is it something that needs to be taken seriously?” He asked, his eyes widening. Quentin smiled. What nonsense.

“Ooh, let him have it, girl,” Margo clutched at his arm, pressing her cheek into his bicep.

“It’s just that, uh, any serious reader would recognize the monumental difference between Rupert’s intentional yet stalwart motivations in a lush, intricate tale of worldly intrigue, hope, and freedom—“

“Yes, girl, yes.”

“—and the fucking passivity of the titular character in that pop-lit garbage, written as a vague, plodding allusion to Nazism, right?”

“Ooh, girl, that feels so good.”

“And—and—and um, tangentially, I must say that the Nazi allegory could have been done well, if only Rowling had either the skill or wherewithal to impart it with even the slightest fucking nuance needed to make it a worthy addition to the canon.”

“Uh…“ the guy said, blinking. But Margo tucked her hand into a fist right in his face.

Crush him, girl.”

“And furthermore, the fundamental narrative structure sets Rupert and Harry at complete odds and, gotta say, not in a way that bodes well for the literary longevity of your goddamn Boy Who Lived—”

“Actually, you know what? I’m good,” the guy said, cutting Quentin off quickly and backing away with his hands up. “You’ve…convinced me, man.”

“Goddamn right,” Quentin said, folding his arms and smirking. But then his face faltered, slightly sheepish. “Oh, uh, and I’m Quentin. Hi.”

“Jerry,” the guy said, before frowning and narrowing his eyes in recognition. “Wait, you’re Eliot Waugh’s boyfriend, right?”

A smile brightened Quentin lips before he could help it.

“Um, yeah,” he said, breathlessly. It was the first time he’d ever been asked that. “Yeah, I am.”

Margo elbowed him several times in a row, smirking up at him. He quickly caught her eye and smiled back. It was a moment.

“He’s kind of a dick,” Jerry said, crossing his arms. “So not surprising that you’re kind of one too.”

…The moment was gone.

“Well, uh, you know,” Quentin said with a dopey shrug, not sure what else to contribute. “Nice to meet you, I guess.”

“Whatever,” Jerry said, shaking his head and turning around without a glance backward. “I’m going to get a beer.”

With that, Margo and Quentin were left alone, staring at each other and tilting their heads in silence. And then, they burst into laughter.

“That was awkward as shit,” Margo screeched out, grabbing Quentin’s hand and pulling him toward the couches. “Come on. Let’s go get drunk, you dick.”

“Hey, kind of a dick,” Quentin laughed as he followed happily. “I’m only kind of a dick.”

 


 

An hour into the party, Quentin sat on the couch flanked by Julia and Margo, with Kady Orloff-Diaz sitting on the couch arm, braiding Julia’s hair.

“And then Quentin was all like, Fuck you, Harry Potter, you little cunt,” Margo laughed, doing a fast shot. “It was the best.”

“I mean, that’s kind of bullshit,” Julia frowned. “I like Harry Potter. I’m a Ravenclaw.”

“Bitch, Slytherin for life,” Margo rolled her eyes. “But it was still funny.”

“I’m a Gryffindor,” Kady smirked. And Quentin sighed.

“Okay, I’m a Gryffindor too. But only because I like categorization games,” he said quickly. “Not because I respect the literary merit of the series.”

Not because I respect the literary merit of the series,” Julia repeated back in a nasally, mocking voice before smacking him upside the head. “Go fuck yourself, Q. Harry Potter is amazing.”

“It’s fine, I guess, but compared to Fillory—”

“Yo, I’m saying that as the person who literally introduced you to Fillory,” Julia said, kissing him on the forehead, like a mob boss. “People can like more than one thing at a time. It’s fine.”

“What do you think Eliot’s Harry Potter house is?” Margo asked, tapping her chin. But before Quentin could venture a guess, the man in question rested his arms along the back of the couch and laughed.

“Whichever one gives exactly zero shits about that question,” he said with an eyebrow waggle. Quentin’s whole chest raised up toward him, with a shimmering joy. “How are my favorite nerds and Margo?”

“Uh, I’m here too,” Kady said, crossing her arms and dangerously cocking her head. “I’m not a nerd.”

“You just said, and I quote, I’m a Gryffindor,” Eliot scoffed and snorted. “You’re a fucking nerd.”

“Margo called herself a Slytherin—”

“Which is the only non-nerd Harry Potter house or whatever,” Eliot shrugged. “I read half of the first book. I know things. Besides, look at her. She’s stunning.”

Kady flipped him off, but Eliot didn’t seem to care. He was far too distracted by Margo surging up off the couch and popping a kiss on his cheek, before pulling him down between her and Quentin, head-first. Smoothly rearranging himself like a cat, Eliot grinned and wrapped his arms around both of them.

“Hi there,” Eliot said, smiling down at Quentin with twinkling eyes.

“Hi,” Quentin said back, trying not too gaze too much.

But apparently he didn’t succeed, because Julia smacked his chest.

“Chill out, Penelope,” she said with a teasing laugh. “It’s been like five minutes since you saw each other.”

But before Quentin could retort, a Cloud of Awful sunk over their beautiful bubble. He stared up at the looming figure, a snarl forming on his mouth. Yet, at the same time, Julia hopped off the couch with a smile, leaning forward up into the air, to…ugh, kiss the intrusive figure.

It was—

“Penny,” Quentin said with a short nod, ignoring the darkness growing within. Penny lowered his brow and nodded back.

“Um, hey,” Penny said, his eyes narrowing a little and a strange look crossing on his face, like he was searching. “You.”

Quentin tilted his head, a prick of annoyance and wonder stabbing into his throat, nearly making his laugh, “Did—did you forget my name?”

“Of course not,” Penny said with a wide and false smile, looking around. Quentin folded his arms.

“Then what is it?”

Penny stared at him for a few moments before swallowing again and averting his gaze, shrugging.

“Willoughby?” He asked, hesitant, and Eliot burst out laughing.

“Impressively wrong,” he said, wrapping his arm around Quentin’s chest and shoulders, quickly kissing his temple. Then he jumped up, kissed Margo’s hand and walked away, to the bar, still chuckling. “Like, not even fucking close.”

“It’s something weird and British,” Penny said, seeming a little hot behind the ears. “I’m not good with names.”

“It’s Quentin,” Quentin said, rolling his eyes. Penny snapped his fingers and nodded.

“Right. Weird and British.”

“You have to be nice,” Julia said with a sharp point in Penny’s face. “Not kidding.”

“Don’t baby him, “ Margo said, rolling her eyes dramatically. “Quentin’s tougher than he looks.”

Quentin raised his drink to her, almost imperceptibly and she bowed her head, with a tiny smile.

“Sure,” Julia said, pushing past their moment. “But I want Penny to be nice anyway.”

“Fine,” Penny said, tucking his hands into his pockets. “I’ll be fucking nice.”

“You better be.”

With that, Julia settled back into the couch and Quentin drained his drink, looking behind him. Eliot was back at the bar, preparing a whole new slew of mixtures at once, both telekinetically and with his remarkable, long, sexy hands. And that—that seemed far more appealing than continuing to look Penny Adioydi in his stupid face. So indicating his empty glass, Quentin stood up with barely a grin and walked away.

But just as he reached the bar and caught Eliot’s glinting and knowing eyes, a firm hand grasped his elbow and turned him around.

It was Penny.

Again.

Quentin took a deep breath and pulled away, keeping a safe distance from his once tormenter. The two men stood and stared at one another, the silence growing deep between them. In the background, Quentin could feel Eliot’s watchful, protective eyes burning into Penny’s head over his continued work. Penny glanced up once and furrowed his brow, apparently noticing Eliot’s attention himself. He sighed and swallowed, perhaps slightly chastened or anxious.

Good.

“Look, I really give a shit about Julia,” Penny finally said, turning back to Quentin and crossing his arms. “I just want you to know that.”

“Are you asking for my blessing?” Quentin frowned.

“Fucking hell no. I don’t give a shit what you think,” Penny shot out like he couldn’t help it, before biting down on his teeth. He painted on a false smile. “Um. I mean. Yes. I am. Because you’re such an important—”

“Don’t patronize me,” Quentin rolled his eyes. “I’m glad you care about Julia. But we still don’t have to be friends. Or, like, anything.”

“Thank god,” Penny said, huffing a breath out. They stared at each other again for a few tense, awkward beats. “Okay. Well. Uh. Later.”

Without a second’s hesitation, Penny walked away and a much more pleasant form filled the same space, all in the span of a single shift.

“My goodness, what a beautiful moment,” Eliot said, draping his arm over Quentin’s shoulders. “A stunning resolution for you two crazy kids.”

“Turns out, Penny and I were the real love story all along,” Quentin smirked up at Eliot, who gave him a big laugh before kissing the tip of his nose. “Feel like making me a drink?”

“One scotch, neat, coming up.” Eliot’s eyes glittered. “Kidding. I already have a potion with your name on it.”

“Literal magic potion or—?”

“Oh, you’ll see.”

 


 

 

“So you and Eliot, huh?” Todd said, walking over to the signature cocktail tray and handing one to Quentin. “Josh actually told me. He was ready to throw a parade.”

“I’m sure,” Quentin said with an eye roll, clinking his glass against Todd’s. But Todd shook his head, widening his eyes with gravity.

“No, I’m serious,” he said urgently. “I think he was really considering throwing a parade. There was talk about a golden banner that said Fucking Finally in giant lettering.”

“People are really invested in my love life for some reason,” Quentin said, narrowing his eyes and frowning. Todd shrugged.

“Honestly, I don’t actually give a shit who you date,” he said. “No offense.”

“That might be the most refreshing thing I’ve heard in awhile,” Quentin laughed. “I think I’m going to cheers you again.”

And he did, the glasses clinking like a bell.

“I mean, I’m glad you’re happy and all—”

“Totally get it, Todd,” Quentin smiled, liking the new devil-may-care side of him. “So what are your summer plans?”

But before Todd could respond, Quentin felt a warm hand on his shoulder, but with tense fingers gripping. At the same time, Todd’s face darkened, his wide eyes slitting and his lips pursing into a small circle. Quentin cleared his throat and glanced up at Eliot, who was staring down at Todd impassively.

It was the first time they had been face-to-face since Josh’s graduation dinner.

“Todd,” Eliot said, nodding with hooded eyes. In response, Todd pulled himself up into his full posture, which was still short and small compared to Eliot. But Quentin smiled.

“Eliot,” Todd said, placing his hands behind his back. He looked over to the side, his jaw twitching under his soft words. “I’ve already spoken to Margo, but I owe you an apology as well. I shouldn’t have attacked either of you at Josh’s party. It was rude and inappropriate, and it will never happen again.”

“You’re goddamn right it won’t,” Eliot spat out and Quentin elbowed him in the side, hard.

They’d talked about this.

Eliot made a sharp sound from the back of his throat and widened his eyes, a smile stretching painfully across his beautiful mouth. “And I, uh, I—I suppose I also apologize for my occasional rudeness over the past two years. We don’t necessarily need to be friends, but there is no reason we can’t…”

A few long, heavy moments passed between them, until Eliot smiled and turned away, like the conversation was over. With a sharp, unamused grunt, Quentin grabbed his arm and forced him to angle back toward Todd, who was shifting his weight between his feet.

“No reason we can’t, what?” Todd said, furrowing his brow. “You kind of stopped talking.”

“Did I?” Eliot crossed his arms.

Quentin elbowed Eliot again, harder. He shot him a quick glare, but Quentin kept his face firm.

“Fine,” Eliot grit his teeth at Quentin. He turned back to Todd, smooth as silk. “There’s no reason we can’t—coexist.”

“Really?” Todd’s eyes widened, incredulous. “That’s the word you choked on?”

“Don’t push me.”

“You don’t deserve Quentin,” Todd said firmly and without warning, apparently investing his time and energy into a new career as a circus fire dancer. Quentin immediately shot forward to grab Eliot’s arms, instinctively holding him back.

But oddly, this comment disturbed Eliot the least.

“I know that,” he said without hesitation and with a sharp eye roll. “Jesus, Todd.”

With that out of the way, Todd took a deep breath and nodded, holding his hand out. Eliot considered it for a moment and then nodded in turn, curtly shaking it. They released their hands quickly and both darted their eyes away from each other, the moment over.

Todd turned his dull, guarded eyes away from Eliot and affixed Quentin with as bright a grin as he’d ever seen.

“Let’s grab lunch this weekend, man!” He said, clapping Quentin’s shoulder.

“Sure thing, Todd,” Quentin said with a wry grin. “Sounds like a plan.”

 


 

And finally, after yet another endless hour apart, Quentin was tucked and hidden in the back reading nook, wrapped in Eliot’s arms, kissing him wildly.

“Is this okay?” Eliot asked, pulling away just enough to speak through heaving breaths. “Or is it too much for you?”

“No,” Quentin smiled, nuzzling his nose against his cheek. Eliot’s eyes closed with a warm and soft smile. “No, it’s not too much.”

“I always want to touch you. You make me feel like a fucking teenager,” he murmured, tightening his grip on Quentin’s waist. “So you need to let me know if—”

“I will,” Quentin kissed Eliot’s jawline. “Thank you.”

“I’m no clingy bastard, though,” Eliot chuckled, kissing down Quentin’s neck. “For the record. I have plenty of independent interests outside of you.”

“Yeah, uh, safe to say that wasn’t a concern, considering you’ve barely talked to me all night,” Quentin shot his eyebrow up accusingly, but Eliot only grinned wider against his skin. “Though you are officially making me rethink my stance on PDA.”

“You’re just drunk,” Eliot laughed, his hands running down the length of Quentin’s body, landing with his fingers tucked into his belt loops. “You’ll be so mad at yourself in the morning.”

“Mmm, you’re right. So mad,” Quentin bit into the crook of Eliot’s neck and smiled smugly at the whine it evoked. “Furious. Though I’ve only had, like, four drinks, so—”

“Well, that needs to be rectified posthaste,” Eliot stroked Quentin’s cheeks and softly kissed him. “What a horrid host I am.”

“The worst host,” Quentin laughed, kissing Eliot’s cheek once, before resting back against his chest without a drop of tension in his body, for once in his life. “Maybe if you hadn’t ignored me so much I wouldn’t be in this terrible predicament.”

“So insolent, Coldwater,” Eliot clicked his tongue in Quentin’s ear, before kissing the warm skin next to it. “Good thing you have that extraordinary face of yours. Otherwise no god-fearing man would have you.”

“Right, sure, because of my insolence.”

“Mhmm,” Eliot traced circles on Quentin’s forearms as he closed his eyes against his cheek, lashes fluttering with a gentle tickle. “Precisely.”

“I really am just your beautiful trophy wife,” Quentin sighed. “What a sad fate.”

Eliot hugged him tight from behind, a wide smile creeping across his lips at his dumb joke.

“You know, this might sound tangential, but the new button-down?” Eliot’s lips pressed against the inside of his ear. “It’s working for me.”

“Yeah?” Quentin smiled and twisted his body to face him at an angle. Eliot hummed approvingly, his fingers gripping tighter at Quentin’s hips. “Maybe it could work for you upstairs—?”

But Eliot just laughed into the side of Quentin’s cheek, placing a single languid kiss near his temple.

“No dice, baby,” he said teasingly, ruffling Quentin’s hair. “The party has barely crested. You have to be social for at least another hour.”

Another hour? Fucking seriously?” He asked, his eyes popping out. Eliot nodded a slow confirmation, smirking. “Goddammit.”

“At least another hour,” Eliot reiterated. “Or at least, I have to be social that long. You can do what you like. Go read like a nerd, if you want.”

Quentin huffed out an annoyed sound and grumpily fell back against the solid span of chest under him. As he did, Eliot’s arms wound tightly back around his torso, and Quentin closed his eyes.

“Then, like, why even bring it up?” He was pouting. Oh well.

“You know it makes it better,” Eliot chuckled low, his tongue dancing along its favorite spot on Quentin’s neck. He swallowed, his throat hot.

“Well, you’re lucky I love you,” Quentin said, dipping and twisting his head back to kiss Eliot’s chin dimple, the perfect indent for his lips. “Because normally I’d—“

But Eliot cut him off, breathing deep as he surged forward into Quentin. His hands cupped his face as he kissed him, full and soft, and far more intimately than their crazed making out. Quentin spun around, gathered into Eliot’s lap, and deepened the kiss, once he realized its impetus.

“I’m lucky too,” he whispered into Eliot’s ear.

And Eliot smiled.

 


 

epilogue to follow.

Chapter Text

 

 

 

Scenes From a Second Year

 

 

Highest highs, lowest lows.

Quentin sat in an uncomfortable chair. He crossed and uncrossed his legs, in a vain attempt to keep his blood vessels from constricting. Despite his best effort, they still fell into severe pins-and-needles. The tweaking fluorescent light shone off his father’s graying gold hair and a complicated machine beeped across the room.

Early on, he learned the technical names of every piece of equipment surrounding Ted Coldwater. But he was too drained to call them anything but childlike nicknames after the all the surgery complications.

Heartbeat measuring machine. Tubey shit. Weird wires. Boop-beep thing.

The hospital in Dallas had a Magician surgeon on staff. One of Julia’s contacts had pulled some strings, when things got bad in the form of a sudden grand mal seizure. In the span of a harrowing twenty-four hours, he left his planned summer, relaxed at home without a care, far behind him. It supposed to be for two weeks, to allow for the surgery and recovery, but then a bad blood clot happened. That was that.

So his time away from Brakebills, from everything (everyone) neared a full month. It turned out death and the relentlessness of Texas were the only inevitabilities in life. Though at least his dad had evaded the former item.

So far.

But even with magic in the air, it was a bleak place. His nostrils flaring and burning at once, Quentin was sick to his stomach. There was no smell more terrible than the chemical-grade sanitizer. Or the incense from the private incantations. Or the perfume of sickly death, permeating the long white hallway leading to his father's tiny room. He even preferred the sterile, almost chocolatey (for some reason) smell of the psych ward in Jersey.

A well of tears jolted up from the crevice of his bottom eyelids and he pinched the sides of his nose as hard as he could.

Fuck.

Quentin had never yearned for the warmth of the Cottage more. Never yearned more for that perfect daybed. Never yearned more for the lights glimmering through cocktail glasses. Or to have breakfast under a glowing sign that read TADA. Or to make coffee in that perfect tiny kitchen. Never yearned more for Julia’s warm hugs and Margo’s harsh laugh. Never yearned for Todd’s goofy jokes. Fuck, he even yearned for the nameless faces of the other Physical Kids. They were comforting in their ubiquitousness, if not their particularities.

And fucking hell, it had been over three weeks since he’d seen Eliot. Since he’d touched Eliot. Since he’d breathed in that heady sweet scent of him, since he’d wrapped dark curls around his fingers, since he’d felt the brush of his morning stubble against the top of his lip as they kissed and kissed under Eliot’s luxurious sheets, since he’d heard that low rumble of a laugh and felt it vibrate against his back, since he’d chased that dazzling smile, since—since—since—

He knew he was supposed to be focused entirely on his dad’s health. But he missed Eliot so much. He missed his friends. He missed his home.

But shit was bad. Or it could still be bad.

He knew he worst of it was over. But the reassurances from the doctors did nothing to quell the aching anxiety rooted right in the center of his chest. It churned and webbed outward, ready to assure him with a pouncing claw that the second he left, his dad would be gone. And that was why he made the shitty phone call, moments earlier. The one where he had to tell his boyfriend that he was going to have to change his flight. That he had to stay in Dallas for another two days. At least. Maybe longer. That they weren’t going to have their reunion. Not yet. Not fucking yet.

Of course, Eliot had taken it in stride. Told him to eat. Told him to sleep. Told him to shower. And that he was proud of him, for being such a good son and such a good person. It would have been easy to miss the disappointment, without knowing where to find it. It was almost hidden in his warm, rich voice, except for the slight tremble on the final I love you.

Quentin missed him so much. So much. Too much.

He squeezed hard on mostly empty plastic water bottle in his hand, the label half-torn off from his nervous tittering. It made a pleasant wheezing and cracking sound under his hands. He imagined it was his bereft and exhausted heart.

“Curly Q,” a gruff voice called from the bed beside him at the sound. Like a jolt, Quentin was at his side. “Curly Q, what are you still doing here? You were supposed to leave today.”

“What kind of question is that?” Quentin said more than asked. “Dad, you’re still recovering. They think you won’t be released for at least another forty-eight hours.”

“Bah,” Ted Coldwater said, lifting himself up by his elbows. “Technicality.”

Quentin pinched the bridge of his nose again. “It’s not a technicality. You’re recovering from brain surgery—”

“If you start saying brain surgery the same way you say brain cancer, I’m going to—ah, how is it you’ve put in the past?” Ted made a show of tapping his chin. It reminded Quentin of Margo. “Oh right. I’m going to have a shit fit.”

“Glad you woke up feeling so good,” Quentin said with a deadpan sarcasm. That was how his relationship with his dad worked.

“Quentin,” Ted said, all serious Dad Tone and bright eyes. “You need to go back to your life, son.”

“This is my life,” Quentin said, taking his dad’s hand. “Or it’s part of my life. I never want you to think—”

“You’re very good to your old man,” Ted said, the words coming out like a grumble, squeezing back. “But you’re still not always so good to yourself. You know I have Marjorie here. No need to take on the weight of the world.”

Quentin offered his dad a gentle grin. His dad had been seeing Marjorie, a kind-faced kindergarten teacher, for over six months. It was serious. He’d never seen his dad happier than when she finally arrived in Texas, right before everything with the thrombus. And that alone made Quentin happier than he could quantify.

“More support is great, Dad,” he said, now drawing his words out with precision and focus. “But her being here doesn’t mean that I should—”

“It does,” Ted said, squeezing his hand one more time before releasing it. “I refuse to be the reason you’re not living your life, Q. Even for a short period of time. I know how precious your stability is and how fast it can change.”

Quentin’s brows lowered. “Dad.”

“You have your whole elite graduate program… thing.”

“Thing?” He repeated back, amused. Ted rolled his eyes.

“I’ll admit I still don’t get the finance angle,” he said, with a barking laugh. “But I can’t argue with your happiness.”

“I am happy,” Quentin reassured him. As many times as he could offer that reassurance, forever, he would. “Very happy.”

“And I know you also your have your friends and…”

His dad trailed off and shook his head, smile glinting in the grotesque light. He leveled Quentin with a knowing look.

“What?” Quentin asked, not sure where his dad was going.

“I see you, Curly Q,” Ted said with another coughing laugh. “I see the way you light up when that phone of yours goes off, at the same time every day. I see that smile you get. There’s someone special waiting for you at that school of yours, isn’t there?”

Quentin let that same smile cross his face at the words. It wasn’t actually something he was hiding. But he also hadn’t brought it up either. A life and death situation didn’t seem to be the best time to drop the I’m in a serious adult relationship and, oh yeah, it’s with a man potential atom bomb. But it looked like he still wasn’t particularly subtle, regardless of his intentions.

“Um, yeah,” Quentin said, sobering down to a half-smile. “Someone really special, Dad.”

“Then I release you,” Ted said, holding his hands out. “Don’t change your ticket. I’m a strong man. I can take care of myself. You need to take care of yourself as well.”

Quentin shook his head, unmoved. “It’s only two more days. I can stay until you’re released and then reevaluate.”

“Well, I don’t want you to do that,” Ted said, his Dad Tone fierce and final. “I’ll be back home next month and I’ll expect our weekly dinners. Maybe the deal can be that you bring your special someone once or twice. Quid pro quo.”

Quentin repressed a chuckle, knowing both that his dad meant well. He also knew the idea was more likely to send Eliot into a tailspin than anything else. Still, Quentin appreciated the sentiment. And also noticed that his dad never used a gender pronoun. For a moment, he wondered exactly how much he actually knew.

But that was a conversation for a different day.

“I’m serious, Curly Q,” Ted pointed at him, knuckle wobbling. “Get outta here. You’ll miss the flight if you don’t leave now.”

“Okay, Dad,” Quentin ran his hands through his hair. It was growing longer again, with strands in the back starting to graze his collar. But he felt no desire to hide. “I can tell when I’m not wanted.”

“Damn right, son.”

Standing to wrap his dad in as tight of a hug as he could manage, Quentin thanked him, the words muffled into the thin, scratchy hospital pillow.

 


 

 

Quentin tossed his duffel bag over his shoulder, clenched and tangled against his trusty messenger bag. There was portal to Brakebills from Newark airport, right by the baggage carousel. Quentin landed at 2:06 PM and he was back on campus by 2:18 PM, out the side of the library and facing Woof Fountain. As soon as the tip of his sneaker touched daylight, Quentin ran with a quick-paced jog toward the Cottage. He reached it at 2:32 PM. Record time.

He opened the door with a burst of joy to find—

Nothing.

No one.

To be fair, that wasn’t crazy with an unexpected arrival.

A smile curled on Quentin's face as he took in the empty Cottage. Not in all its glory. At the moment, it was more like a sleeping giant. But it was there and it had been waiting for him.

His smile grew wider as he glanced over at the bar cart—several drinks were recently poured, waiting on a platter. They were arranged in a perfect circle, one he knew was plotted through muscle memory and the keenest eye. His heart leapt to his throat and he let the quiet of the still house wash over him.

His senses perked alive as he heard several of his favorite voices in the entire world rush in from the window.

Quentin huddled himself next to the sliding door and the scene became clear. Julia and Margo seated at the table, drinks light pink and fizzy, with floral garnishes. Kady and Penny on the ground, their legs entwined, gazing up at Julia. And at the barbecue—fluttering his fingers into the perfect fire call—was Eliot. He was dressed in a blue polo and white shorts, with dark sunglasses and a dangling cigarette. He looked like a film star from the 60s, tall and tanned and obscenely handsome. All long lines and elegance.

It took everything not to rush out and throw himself into the beauty that had somehow become his life.

But since no one suspected his arrival, Quentin figured he could at least have a little fun with it. He cast a quick tut, bringing the voices in through the window, so he could hear.

“—had to see Mackenzie,” Julia stuck her tongue out, before sipping her drink like it could be a chaser to her terrible family. “The worst.”

“You know, after everything you’ve ever said,” Margo mused, letting the sunlight angle onto her open face, “I definitely want to meet her.”

“My sister is the biggest bitch in the world,” Julia snorted. “Why the fuck would you want to meet her?”

“Game recognize game.”

Julia laughed at that and pushed Margo’s arm. Then she handed her drink to Kady without a word, like she knew her girlfriend wanted a sip, at that very moment. Quentin smiled.

It was kind of sweet.

But in the same moment, Penny blinked his eyes once, hard. He shook his head, like a just-bathed dog. Then he blinked hard again, before turning his dark eyes into a dangerous glare around the patio, searching. Desperate. Haunted.

Quentin smirked.

“Okay, someone’s wards are slipping,” Penny growled. “Eliot, is that you?”

“My wards are immaculate,” Eliot said without glancing up from the barbecue. “Who wants brats versus burgers?”

“Well, someone is blasting motherfucking Taylor Swift through my brain. Since Coldwater is blessedly not here—”

“Watch it,” Julia said, firm. Eliot roared the fire on the barbecue until it snapped up like a snare.

“—you seem like the next most likely candidate,” Penny said, finishing and still glaring at Eliot. His boyfriend laughed.

“Not sure what to tell you, champ,” Eliot said, before turning his back on both Penny and the conversation. Penny scratched at his head, glare not moving from Eliot. Quentin turned the volume up and relished Penny’s silent scream. Kady lazily ran her hand along his thigh, like she was trying to comfort him.

It was kind of sweet.

“Riveting as your obsession with Taylor Swift is,” Margo said, standing daintily over Penny’s protests, “Mama needs some ice water. Don’t miss me too much, kids.”

With that, she stood up and walked through the door. She pushed her sunglasses up onto her head and grabbed a tall glass from over the oven. She didn't glance once at the corner where Quentin was stuck up against the wall. It was only when as she opened the refrigerator for a pitcher of water that her peripheral vision caught on. She startled back with a sharp hiss.

“Jesus motherfucking Christ!” Margo pressed her hand to her chest, squeaking and shocked. Then she glared, hands on her hips. “Dickhead. What the fuck?”

“Uh, hey,” Quentin said with a grin and a tiny wave. “Long time, no see.”

Margo twisted her lips to the side and rolled her eyes. She smiled and took a single step closer, into Quentin’s space.

“You’re such a little shit,” she said, nudging his arm with her elbow. It was the Margo version of giving him a screaming bear hug. “How’s your dad? Fine, I guess, if you’re here.”

“Fine,” Quentin confirmed. “He’s getting released in the next couple days. Then he has physical therapy in Dallas for another month. But I couldn’t stay that long though.”

Margo’s face blanched and she shook her head, “Oh, fuck. No. You couldn’t.”

“Yeah, unforgiving professors.”

“No, unforgiving Margo,” she slapped his arm and pinched his side at the same time. He winced in actual pain. “If you’d left me alone with a Quentinless Eliot for another month, no jury would have convicted me, Coldwater.”

Quentin’s mouth slid into a warm smile. “He’s been grumpy about me being gone?”

Margo gave him a withering glare, all ice queen and hot rage.

“Grumpy?” Margo bit her teeth into a false laugh. “Grumpy?!”

“Unbearable?” Quentin guessed again, trying very hard not to smile. It didn’t work. Margo’s glare turned neon and spiked.

“Look, I get that he didn’t want to burden you with his lovesick moping. I’m sure that was very functional while you were dealing with a lot of shit,” she said, pacing through the kitchen. Quentin settled himself against the counter, laughing.

“But holy shit, Quentin. It’s not on me at all now. Not anymore. Jesus.”

“I mean, I’d say sorry I was gone, except that I was gone because—”

“No one wants to hear your bullshit excuses,” Margo said, hard and harsh, pointing right at him. “He belongs to you for a month. No. A month and a week. I’m charging you fuckin’ interest. All yours. Not kidding.”

“Fair enough. I can take on that terrible burden,” Quentin said, smirking and heart alight. “Speaking of, I’d better—”

“Oh yeah, you’d better,” Margo laughed, rubbing her hands together. “He’s going to be furious that I kept you even this long. But payback’s a bitch.”

Quentin scratched the back of his neck, sheepish, “I mean, maybe we can tell him I just got here? What he doesn’t know won’t—”

“Bambi, what are you doing?” Eliot boomed happily as he stepped through the glass door. “Your bratwurst is almost done. I guarantee whoever the fuck you’re talking to isn't worth missing my feast out here, you saucy little—”

Quentin was pretty sure he was about to call Margo a minx. But the word disappeared as Eliot’s eyes met his. The top of his defined cheekbones immediately flushed pink in his frozen recognition.

“Yeah, not worth it, you’re right,” Quentin smiled, offering a quick wave and starting to angle towards kitchen’s door rame. “So you two go have fun and I’ll—“

But somehow, Eliot’s hands were already in his hair, backing him up against the counter without a moment’s lead-in. Tangling himself into the embrace, everything fell away and balance restored. Eliot’s soft lips moved over his, urging and aching. It was like they’d been apart for years instead of weeks, and Quentin’s chest fell to his feet.

Honeymoon phases were fucking awesome.

“When?” Eliot asked when he pulled away, dazed and joyful, his eyes tracing up and down Quentin’s face. “When—? You were supposed to be—few days from now? You’d said—? I—I had an outfit, not this one, it’s terrible—Q, fuck—”

“Are you kidding? I love this,” Quentin said, running his hands down Eliot’s chest. “I was thinking you look like a movie star.”

“Yeah?” Eliot smiled, tucking a piece of Quentin’s hair behind his ear. He swooped in for another kiss, his tongue slipping against his with one long drag. “Well, you look like my little impish prince.”

“Oh my god,” Margo’s horrified voice carried through them. “No.”

“When did you get here?” Eliot asked again, pointedly ignoring her. His nose was grazing Quentin’s cheekbone, his eyelashes fluttering against his brow.

“Just now,” Quentin said, tucking his hands against deeper Eliot’s chest, feeling his racing heart. “I was watching you guys, trying to surprise you, but got distracted by the opportunity to fuck with Penny—”

“Reasonable,” Eliot smiled. “I should have put that together.”

“And then I got side-tracked by talking to Margo,” Quentin smiled back. Lying was stupid. Everything but being right in Eliot’s arms was stupid. Predictably, his face darkened.

“Unreasonable,” Eliot said, but he turned his glare to the woman in question. She shrugged, completely apathetic. Shooting one last sharp look her direction, Eliot turned back to Quentin. He softened, joy painting all his features.

“But you’re back?” Eliot asked, running his hands up and down Quentin’s arms. “Back-back?”

“Back-back,” Quentin said, stretching on his tip-toes to kiss the side of Eliot’s mouth. It was meant to be quick, but Eliot had his own plans, capturing him under him all over again. They separated only when they were glowing and out of breath.

“And your dad?” Eliot asked, sheepish. It should have been his first instinct. It was even Margo’s. But Quentin couldn’t find it in him to mind.

“Okay,” Quentin said, touching Eliot’s hand, awed by the feel of his long fingers. “He’ll be okay. For now.”

“Hey, remember that for now is good,” Eliot said. He pulled Quentin against his chest. “The present moment is good and that matters.”

Quentin tilted his head up and kissed him again. “Fuck, I missed you.”

“I missed you so much, Q.”

The loud tick-tick-tick of a stiletto tapping on linoleum broke their hazy gazes.

“I’m still here, you fuckers,” Margo said. “I’m starving. Andale.”

“Oh. Sorry, Bambi,” Eliot looked over at Margo with a wicked grin. “Tongs are on the counter. You’re dismissed.”

“Fuck you both,” is what Quentin was pretty sure Margo said as she exited back to the patio. But he was far too distracted by swooping repeat of Eliot’s hands in his hair, lips on his ear, backing him into the wall where he belonged.

 


 

Eliot’s bed was more comfortable than Quentin’s.

The beds were exactly the same in mattress and frame. Brakebills only allowed a certain amount of magic to change the firmness, softness, or dimensions. So each one queen-sized, square, and sturdy. Meaning, it shouldn't have mattered which one they slept in each night.

But unsurprisingly, Eliot chose his details with extreme care. Silk sheets from a small Chinese province, where the silkworms were only fed mulberry leaves. Four large fluffy pillows and a fluffy duvet, all rapturously scented like Eliot’s hair and cologne, as well as a strong whiff of vanilla. Good vanilla too, spicy and complex. Every night, the combination of luxuries staggered Quentin’s senses in the perfect harmony of comfort.

In fact, he loved Eliot’s bed so much that one night, he murmured, “Fuck, I could live here for the rest of my life.” He said it without thought and right into the crook of El’s neck, his lips caught against the scented pillow.

He meant it.

Uh. But.

The second Quentin said it, hot anxiety stung through his throat and up into his mouth. It was—an intense thing to say. He especially recognized the intensity when his boyfriend stilled and tensed under him, like his breath lodged in his chest.

He tried not to panic. Quentin and Eliot were in love and happier than he’d ever imagined he could ever fucking be. And it wasn’t like he meant it literally. Or at least, it didn’t have to be interpreted literally. Not if that wasn’t what Eliot wanted. It was fine. It was a fine and normal thing to say. Except. You know. But.

But.

But.

But they’d only been dating for two months.

It was a lot to say. Maybe it was too much? Maybe it was different than the sweet nothings back in Paris. Back then, it was all fire and extreme newness and reconciled longing. Maybe now it was—

Quentin never got the chance to spiral what it was or could be. Because Eliot shut up all panicked lines of thought, fiercely flipping Quentin over onto his back with a searing kiss.

He kissed him deep into the mattress, lips sliding over each other and entwined hands up over their heads. They kissed and kissed with growing ferocity and urgency, until neither of them were capable of any thought, ever again. And then Quentin's clothes were gone and Eliot's clothes were gone. And the sheets were so soft and the duvet was floaty and it was a cumulus, lifting them higher and higher through the air and Eliot had stars in his eyes—

And yeah, it was literal. They were actually above the bed. Floating and flying above the bed.

“Holy shit, Eliot,” Quentin let out a heady and breathless laugh. He wrapped himself around Eliot’s body. The buoyancy through the air and the literal magic flooded through every tiny space between them. It nearly killed him, almost as much as the feeling of boyfriend’s hands digging into his hips as he chuckled low against his chest.

“Is this okay?” Eliot asked, teeth scraping against Quentin’s clavicle. His lips and hands were everywhere at once. “I can bring us back down if—”

“Don’t you dare,” Quentin groaned out. He dipped his head backward, all sensation flaring white hot in the kinesis. “Fuck.”

“I’ve got you, baby,” Eliot promised. His hoarse voice was almost lost against the movements of his lips. They slid against every inch of his body, still suspended in dizzying animation, closer to the ceiling than the bed. “I’ve always got you.”

Fuck.”

 


 

 

An hour or a millennia later, Quentin’s skin was a sparkling supernovae, resting on the cusp of the universe. Or those damned perfect silk sheets. Either way. He huffed a short or long breath out into the ether of their love, throwing a hand against his sweaty forehead.

Fuck.

“Mmm, you keep saying that,” Eliot said, folding himself into the crook of his arm, eyes closed and face dreamy. He hadn’t even known he’d spoken aloud, still too dazed and blissed out, while everything surrounding him was still and hot and perfect. He stared down at Eliot’s fucking beautiful sleepy smile. An avalanche of love collapsed joy and peace all over his nervous system. It was a perfect moment.

So naturally, Quentin said—

“I don’t know anything about your exes.”

He tucked his cheek against Eliot’s bare chest, listening to the steady thrum of his heartbeat. They were folded into each other at odd angles, like they refused to separate so they’d instead opted to become human origami. Wouldn’t separate, never again, if either of them could help it. After he spoke, he sighed contentedly and kissed the groove of Eliot’s pec muscle, over and over again. Then he felt the low rumble of a chuckle, as expected.

“That’s your pillow talk of choice?” Eliot asked with a grin, pulling them both up to snuggle upright. He traced his finger in a small squiggle over Quentin’s temple. “Every time I think I have those synapses figured out…”

“It's an important discussion and I’m feeling, like, secure or whatever.”

“Or whatever,” Eliot smiled, kissing the side of his mouth. It sparked. “Okay. That makes sense. Though I’ll disappoint your curiosity. There’s not much to talk about.”

“There were obviously guys before me,” Quentin said, folding his eyebrows. “And I know nothing about them. You never talk about it.”

“Because they’re irrelevant,” Eliot said, frowning. “A parade of nothing.”

“That can’t be true,” Quentin tilted his face upward. “Tell me about your first love.”

Tell me everything about you. I want to know everything.

That’s what he really meant.

“Puppy love?” Eliot rocked his head back and forth before frowning, a darkness passing over his eyes. “Probably Taylor.”

“The one you—?”

“Yeah.” 

“Oh,” Quentin sunk back into him and sighed. Well, that took a shitty turn. He cleared his throat. “Okay. Uh. Then tell me about your first real love. Requited. Non-traumatic.”

Eliot considered the request for a moment, before gathering Quentin in his arms. He kissed his hairline and sighed.

“What do you want to know?” He asked, voice soft as it had ever been.

“Whatever you want to tell me,” Quentin shrugged. “It’s your story. I’m honored to have a piece of it.”

Eliot smiled and drew him into the warmth of his chest, both arms wrapped around his chest and shoulders. Quentin waited, ready to hear whatever Eliot had to say. He didn’t feel even an inch of jealousy. He wanted to know everything. Everything.

“Let’s see,” Eliot pressed his cheek against Quentin’s hair. “The first time I saw him, I thought he was handsome. Like a devastating kind of handsome, you know? And he was sexy too.”

Quentin blinked. Something bile-like and green started inching its way through his veins.

“Oh,” he said, with an electric shock of surprise. He blinked again. Okay, maybe he wasn’t that much of an un-possessive saint. But it was fine. This was what he’d asked for. “Uh, that’s nice. I guess.”

And it didn’t hurt that Eliot was slowly kissing his hairline and tracing his fingers up and down Quentin’s still tingling arms.

“But then, I came to realize that he was also kind and generous. Full blown Natalie Merchant style,” Eliot said and Quentin could feel his smile against his scalp. “So he was the first person who made me want to be generous or kind.”

This was fine. This was fine. This was fine.

“Shit.”

It was all he could say. He tried to chuckle through it, like Ha, ha! That’s great, honey. But he was pretty sure it came out like a thud of a sound, wet newspaper on cement. Eliot didn’t seem to notice.

“I never knew how to laugh before I met him either. He helped me take myself less seriously, which was a gargantuan task,” Eliot ran his tongue over his teeth. He squeezed Quentin’s shoulder. It was comforting. It helped. “So I was a goner early on.”

“I never knew that you, uh, had such an important relationship,” Quentin said. He ignored the screaming tension boiling in his stomach. He pushed it the fuck down. He’d asked to talk about this. He was beyond this. “Sounds like a good guy.”

Eliot laughed.

“Don’t get me wrong. He could annoy the fuck out of me like no one else,” he said, shaking his head and sticking out his tongue. “He had the distinct habit of being a self-righteous know-it-all and just—really fucking uptight. Not always in the sexy way.”

“I guess there are worse things,” Quentin said, with a grumble and a short shrug. He wanted to scream. Eliot smiled again.

“Definitely. It even grew on me. Sort of,” he said with an eye roll and a chuckle. “But no shock, he had a lot more room to complain. It took me longer to get my shit together. I wasn’t worthy.”

Quentin clenched his jaw. “I doubt that.”

“No, I wasn’t. I was—well, I was me. You know. Stubborn. Total dickhead.” Eliot ran his fingers up and down Quentin’s arms again. Fuck, it was soothing. “But I like to think I got better over time. I always tried to make up for it, even after he said it wasn’t necessary.”

“Lucky guy.” Quentin was more flat-voiced than he wanted to be. But Jesus. Come on.

“No. Lucky me,” Eliot whispered, closing his eyes as he kissed Quentin’s cheek. “Because somewhere along the way, he loved me too. Like a miracle.”

“So what ended up happening?” Quentin asked, officially grumpy. He clunked his head against the fluffiest pillow he could find. His lower lip jutted out against his will. “College graduation or what? Or are you still, like, pen palling with this dude?”

But Eliot laughed, a wide and bursting sound. His eyes crinkled in delight and he ran his thumb under Quentin’s jaw. He pushed it upward, angling their faces toward each other. Then he fixed him with a gentle smile.

“You’re an idiot.”

“Oh.” Quentin said, hit by a two-by-four. His skin turned bright red. “Oh.

“Yes, Q,” Eliot rolled on top of him, pinning him down on the bed. His curls fell in his face as he laughed. “Fucking Oh. How many goddamn times have I told you that you’re the only one I've ever—? You’re adorable.”

“You threw me off though,” Quentin said, shaking his head as he gazed up at Eliot’s perfect face. “Because you definitely did not think I was devastatingly handsome the first time you met me.”

“I most certainly did,” Eliot kissed him once, twice. “And so fucking sexy. I wanted to eat you up, slowly. Lapping.”

“Bullshit. This is revisionist history,” Quentin said with a playful glare. Eliot purred and rolled his hips, refractory period be damned. A deep, tugging ache kindled in the center of Quentin’s stomach, flushing his cheeks and racing his heart, thoughts fraying at the edges. “You fucking hated me.”

Eliot stilled.

His swallow made a soft and sad sound. His jaw ticked once, along with a tremble in his forearms. He rolled off Quentin, curling into him with soft eyes and gentle fingers feathering over his lips, chin, cheekbones. 

“Baby, I never hated you,” Eliot said. He was quiet and he ran his hand down the whole Q’s face, stroking his jaw over and over again. “You terrified me and I was an inexcusable asshole. But I never hated you. Never. Not in any world, okay?” 

“Okay,” Quentin nodded, kissing Eliot’s palm. Then he smiled again. “So the whole haughtier-than-thou-Todd’s-Friend thing was all a massive front for your desperate love at first sight?”

Coup de foudre,” Eliot whispered, all meaning and all feeling. He kissed him and Quentin was a blaze of firelight.

But then Eliot pulled back with a laugh, all wicked grin. “At least until you opened your mouth. After that, I absolutely thought you were an audacious little shithead.”

Quentin surged up and gently bit Eliot’s lower lip down to him. His boyfriend’s pupils dilated and he smirked. “I’ll show you audacious right now.”

“Yeah?” Eliot grinned, waggling his eyebrows once. “Come at me, Coldwater.”

 


 

 

One year earlier, Pearl Sunderland poured herself four fingers of gin. She did it while Quentin Coldwater watched, eyebrows slanted downward and heart dejected. It had been a showy point of how he’d wasted her time after his first discipline test.

Unnecessary as it seemed at the time, Quentin knew now that her frustration made sense. From what he understood, Sunderland was held in high regard from all corners of the magical universe. She had faced down countless instances of death and destruction, yet come out the other side all the wiser. Certainly all the more adept. Nothing and no one could break her.

That is, until Quentin came around.

He still remembered how she rubbed her temples, glaring at her most unassuming, bumbling student. Quentin had gulped, still holding a whole raw chicken in his hands. The juices dripped to the floor, the resonating puddle the only sound through the large lecture hall.

“Okay, Mr. Coldwater,” Sunderland had said, pressing her hands down on the desk. “I’m done.”

The chicken disappeared with a popping sound from his hands. His jeans had still been covered in the pale pink fluid from its entrails.

“You’re done?” He had blinked. “Wait, can you just be done?”

She raised her eyes up to him from their pitted despair and she grit her teeth.

“After today? Yes, I can be done, Mr. Coldwater. This is done.”

“Um, okay.”

She had shaken her head and closed her eyes, taking a deep breath, “We will retest you in a year. I will be sure to drink prior to our appointment next time.”

Then, it was the gin, to drive the point home. She chugged it in a single go when he tried to ask a follow-up question, dismissing him with a single flick of her wrist.

So now that Quentin was about to begin his second year in earnest, he was back in the lecture hall. He stared down the long space between chairs, leading up to his likely doom. What if he was forever Undetermined? What if he wasn’t a Physical Kid and had to move out of the Cottage? Oh god, what if he was somehow a fucking psychic and didn’t know it?

To say that he was nervous about his second time around was understating the case. A tad. A touch. A fuckton of a lot. The usual.

Quentin took a deep breath and faced Pearl Sunderland with as confident a face as he could fake. But instead of her usual glowering and resigned glare his way, she simply smiled and took a sip of her water. Her throat bobbed up and down elegantly with each increasing sip, soon turning into gulps until the glass was empty. She held it to the slanted light, tilting moving rainbows throughout the half-darkened classroom.

She smashed it on the ground.

“Fix it, Mr. Coldwater,” Sunderland said, slipping backward to sit on the desk. Her long strand of pearls grazed her bare knee, visible under her gray sheath dress. She looked smug and hopeful, and his heart started thudding in a new rhythm. The smile on his face arrived before the magic through his hands.

Once both were there, it was like a homecoming all over again.

 


 

His fingertips buzzed with exhilaration and magic as Quentin walked through the front door of the Cottage . He snorted at the sight of Julia, Margo, and Eliot, sitting on the couch, as though with bated breath.  

“Don’t you people have a life?” He said, teasing as he dropped his messenger bag next to the door.

“What’s the fucking verdict, Coldwater?” Margo said, staring at him upside down, her head lolled against the back of the couch. “And don’t do that dumb nerd thing where you drag it out. No one actually cares.”

“I care,” Julia said and Eliot made a quick seconding hand motion. Margo rolled her eyes.

“Yeah, but they’re both unhealthily obsessed with you,” she said, spinning around and blowing a raspberry in Eliot’s direction . “Whereas I’m your real talk pal, here to assure you that no one fucking cares.”

“The important thing is that I’m staying in the Cottage,” Quentin said with a sigh and a half-grin. “I’m a Physical Kid.”

“That much was already clear.” Eliot rolled his warm and glinting eyes. “So definitely not the important thing. What of the specific discipline?”

“Agreed,” Julia said, grinning. “Give us the good shit.”

“Uh, well, it’s kind of dumb,” Quentin rubbed his neck and Eliot sighed, standing up. Wrapping Quentin in a hug, he kissed the top of his head, coaxing. As usual, it worked. “It’s called Repair of Small Objects. It’s part of the Mending category. It’s dumb.”

“Not dumb,” Eliot murmured in his ear, his hands running up and down his back. “Perfect. You’re perfect. To me, for me.”

“To me, for me,” Quentin said back, low against Eliot’s cheek. He received a soft kiss on his temple in response. He reluctantly pulled away and raised his eyebrows at Julia, who was giving him a proud lip purse, her head tall and straight in its certainty

“It makes sense, Q,” Julia said with a bright nod. Margo tilted her head and shrugged. 

“Fixing shit,” she said. “Yeah. Okay. I can see that.”

“Thanks,” Quentin said with a tiny smile, touched at Margo’s acknowledgement. Until an evil smile melted over her delicate features.

“You’re like a magical construction worker,” she said, barely holding back a snorting laugh. “Or a magical HVAC guy. Or—”

“Okay, Margo.”

 


 

Getting called to Dean Fogg’s office was a bit like getting called to the principal’s office of yore. Quentin was a mess of sweating palms and blinding anxiety. He thought through everything he could have done wrong to lead him to the inevitable admonishment in store. He counted backwards from one-hundred as he walked through the glass and wood doors. The administrator’s office was stately and pristine. It scared the shit out of him.

Generally, Quentin never made much of a fuss one way or the other. But authority figures freaked him out. He was a total disaster around cops.

Quentin hadn't spent much time with Henry Fogg. Regardless, Quentin knew he was a booming figure. He was sardonic and humorous, with a zealot focus on magical theory. He suffered no fools and loved himself a good brandy. He adored Julia, but like Mayakovsky, disdained most of his students. Unlike Mayakovsky though, Fogg cared about their well-being and their progress. Albeit, his care often came with mixed results. Quentin knew Fogg had been a Knowledge student when he attended Brakebills. He often wore his ties like Eliot, in trinity knots. Based on said ties, his favorite pattern must be paisley, his favorite color gold. But most of all, he knew that Fogg had exactly zero natural interest in Quentin Coldwater. Because he was the middlest middle-of-the-crowd Middle that had ever middled.

So when Fogg greeted him with an enthusiastic smile upon entry, Quentin wasn’t sure what to do with it.

“Mr. Coldwater. I hope you had a refreshing summer session,” the dean said, resting his elbows on his organized desk. He gestured to the chair in front of him. Quentin flopped down. “I was sorry to hear about your father, but I hope his recovery is going well.”

“As well as can be expected,” Quentin said, proud of his lack of stammer. He didn’t want to stammer in front of Fogg. It would make him feel even more like a child than he already did. “Thank you.”

“I’ll cut to the chase then,” Fogg said, folding his fingers together, sitting formally at the desk. He was still smiling, but Quentin’s heart was still about to explode in a mess of nerves. “It’s the beginning of the year. Classes are starting in three days, as well as the preliminary entrance exam and our new cohort.”

Fogg paused. Quentin tried very hard not to furrow his brow and widen his eyes, in that stupid way he did when he was confused.

“Uh, yeah? Um.” Shit.

The dean chuckled, still warm and still smiling. "I received a glowing recommendation of you, for the role of student guide. From a trusted source. So I was hoping that would be something you’d be interested in helping with this year.”

Oh.

Oh.

Wow. Holy fuck.

“Was it Julia?” Quentin couldn’t help but ask before giving his answer. “Uh, Julia Wicker, I mean.”

Thankfully, Fogg laughed again. “No, Mr. Coldwater. I don’t think this is precisely on Ms. Wicker’s radar. It was actually, ah, Mr. Jones. He was your student guide.”

Fuckin’ Todd. Quentin smiled, his mouth tingling in surprise and gratitude.

“That’s very kind of him, sir, but I’m not sure I’m—” Quentin cleared his throat and cut himself off. “I’m not exactly the, uh, most social person. I’m sure there are others who would be a better welcome. Than me.”

“You’re perfect for the role,” Fogg said, more commanding than attempting to convince. “I’ve followed your journey. I’m blind to neither your growth nor your relative mediocrity. You could bring a unique perspective. So I hope you’ll shake my hand and agree to meet the young lady near the Brakebills sign, seventy-two hours from now.”

Unsure if he was flattered or offended by the small speech, Quentin opted to nod and bite down a sigh, a smile, and a dumb eyebrow thing all at once. Without saying another word, he reached his hand out and they shook on it. Fogg downloaded the instructions , before handing Quentin a small white card with a name printed on it in black. Then the dean sent him away, with a bare minimum farewell. He was still a very busy man with very little time for the mediocre.

But as Quentin tucked his materials into his messenger bag and started to turn around, Fogg raised his voice one more time.

“Oh, and Mr. Coldwater?” He called. Quentin looked back, expectantly. The dean narrowed his eyes, the dark brown fiery. “I don’t think I need to impart that Mr. Waugh is in no way permitted to join you on this venture, yes?”

Fogg said Eliot’s name though it were akin to Beetlejuice—hissing, harsh, hushed, and hardly worth the risk. Quentin ran his tongue over the front of his teeth several times, willing himself not to laugh. No laughing. No laughing. No laughter.

Lacking control of his own bubbling vocal chords, he nodded tersely. He stretched his lips out into a stern, close-mouthed grimace.

“Um, yes. Indeed. Understood, sir,” Quentin said, his voice too deep and wobbling as he backed out of the office. He scurried away to the sound of Fogg’s long sigh and the sight of his undulating hand, dismissing him.

 


 

“This is the Physical Kids cottage,” Quentin said as they walked through the door, three days later on the dot. Annabelle was a skittering young woman, with large blue eyes and jet-black hair.

She was like Quentin in that she rarely made eye contact. She was different than Quentin in that she'd passed the exam with flying colors—literally.

He grinned at her. “We’re known in order for great parties and any kind of magic that involves the manipulation of tangible matter or sensation.”

“This is where you live?” The inducted first year asked and Quentin nodded.

“Officially part of the cohort as of a week ago,” he said, tucking his hands in his pockets. “My discipline was undetermined for a year and I got placed in the Cottage because they had extra room.”

Annabelle nodded, looking around. “It’s…cozy.”

“Fuck you,” Margo said, popping her head up from the couch. Quentin rolled his eyes. “I know a passive aggressive insult when I hear one. Who the fuck are you?”

“Margo, this is Annabelle,” Quentin said with a sigh. He tried hard to meet the frightened girl’s eyes with a reassuring smile. “Annabelle, this is Margo. Sorry in advance.”

“For what?” Annabelle said, right as Margo said, “Apologize for me again, dickhead, and you’ll wear your ballsack as a hat.”

“Brakebills is a fun place,” Quentin said, patting Annabelle’s tense arm and ignoring Margo, per usual. “Want a drink? We have a great bartender here.”

 Annabelle settled herself in the living room, angling away from Margo’s predatory gaze. Soon, Julia walked through the door and introduced herself with her usual disarming friendliness. And Quentin finally convinced Eliot to prepare a batch of signature cocktails. Since they were the single most important part of the Cottage experience.

“For the lovely young lady, in congratulations for an exam conquered,” Eliot said. He handed the frightened girl the bright blue drink with a cool smile. He wasn't invested in her. “Enjoy. It will change your life.”

“Sip it,” Quentin said, throwing himself down next to Julia and elbowing her as a hello. “Do not chug. Slow and steady wins the race.”

“Nerd,” Eliot smirked, before sitting next to him, stretching his long arm out over the back of the couch.

“More like fuckin’ killjoy.” Margo rolled her eyes, before languishing back into her arm chair. Quentin didn’t even bother returning the gesture and turned back to the newcomer.

“The first time I had this drink was about two full months into term,” Quentin said as he flicked his boyfriend’s ear. “And I ended up sleeping in a classroom.”

“I don’t know this story,” Eliot said, turning to him with bright eyes. “Tell me.”

“That’s the whole story,” Quentin snorted. “I drank the goddamn cocktail too fast and I ended up sleeping in a classroom. I don’t remember anything else.”

The conversation continued in teasing earnest. The new girl was silent, drinking the blue (turquoise, Quentin heard Eliot say in his mind) drink with little heed to his warning. And sure enough, ten minutes later, her eyes were glittering and her cheeks were pink…and she’d more than found her voice.

“Okay,” Annabelle said, hiccuping. She’d downed half her drink. “Maybe it’s this incredible potion or cocktail or whatever the hell it is, but I have to ask. How the fuck did you people find each other?”

“Pardon?” Margo lifted her head from her neck, with a raised eyebrow. Annabelle giggled.

“You’re all so hot,” she said, shaking her head. “Did you, like, all go to a Hot People’s Convention? And one of you was like, Yo, do any other hot people wanna be friends? And the other three were like, Yeah, sure, sounds chill.”

“That is exactly what happened,” Julia said with a giant grin. Quentin kicked her foot, grinning back.

“I get your pain. I'm the resident average looking person of the group,” he said. Eliot immediately kicked his shin, kind of hard, “And I find that—”

But Annabelle cut him off with a loud laugh. “Oh my god. If you’re average looking, then the world is fucked.”

“Okay, I like you,” Eliot said, raising his glass. But Margo put her trademarked hands on her hips and scowled.

“He’s taken, bitch,” she said with a harsh glare. Eliot rolled his eyes, unperturbed. Annabelle blinked and puckered her mouth. She looked like a very pretty puffer fish.

“Sorry,” she said, slowly and carefully, though she were diffusing or disarming. Margo was obviously an easily detonated bomb. “I promise I wasn’t hitting on him. Just saying that he’s super good looking. An aesthetics thing. You’re—you’re a lucky lady.”

“Oh god. No,” Quentin said with a laugh. “No, I’m not dating Margo. Fuck no. No.”

Margo dragged her sharp glare like a machete to Quentin. “That doesn’t get cuter the more you do it, Coldwater.” 

“Q’s with Eliot,” Julia said, thumbing over across the couch. El waved , before lighting a cigarette and curving his fingers around Quentin’s shoulders. 

“Wow. Okay,” Annabelle said. Her blue eyes flitted back and forth between the two of them. It was like she was completing a particularly difficult riddle. It made Eliot preen. It made Quentin squirm. “Power couple. Got it.”

“Oh my god, Q in a power couple,” Julia screeched out laughing, falling on her legs. “That’s so ridiculous. Sorry!”

“Eh, Eliot’s all the power anyone needs,” Quentin chuckled. That time, his shin was kicked much more playfully.

 


 

Ten iochroma cyaneas laid in a small circle, rich purple in their poison nightshade glory, like delicate telescopes. Around them, fifteen bright white plumerias hugged at their edges. On the third ring, seventeen yellow orchids sat interspersed with the unripened berries of a holly plant. And on the fourth and final ring, twelve giant white magnolias laid in pairs. They were separated by leafy ferns, lavender, more orchids, and fifty small white flowers. Together, they all made a swirling starburst, stretching through the center of the Cottage. 

Eliot sat on his knees, his eyes closed and sleeves rolled up. He breathed in twice, stretching his long arms. He entwined his fingers in a flexing, easy motion. He had more grace and poise in a single instant than Quentin had ever had in his entire life.

Q crossed his arms around his tingling and fiery stomach. He tried hard to focus on the academics of the moment, rather than his urgent desire to grab those perfect arms and drag them upstairs.

But then Eliot twisted his hands out. His thumbs married in their outstretch and his other fingers were lithe and lean. He angled the lines of his spell toward the flowers and magic and Quentin.

Which. Wow. Fuck.

Quentin grabbed a throw pillow and clutched it, casual and definitely not weird, to his waist. Normal pillow snuggle time. Lots of people did it.

Meanwhile, Eliot levered himself up from the ground. He flowed his hands in concentric circles from his wrists and breathily whispered as the flowers rose from the ground. They danced like a corkscrew.

He loves me…he loves me not…” Eliot muttered, eyes still closed. “He loves me…he loves me not…

With a zing of sharp and spiced electricity, the flowers all joined together in a perfectly arranged bouquet. The arrangment landed right on Quentin’s lap, atop of his Not-a-Boner-Hiding pillow.

He loves me,” Eliot smiled, sliding into the space next to Quentin. Those incredible fingers cupped his jaw before he kissed him. “Hi.”

“Cheesy,” Quentin murmured into Eliot’s mouth, like his whole body wasn’t ripped apart by a shimmering earthquake of feeling. But lest Eliot get the wrong impression, he ran his fingers through Eliot’s hair and down his waistcoat. He tried to show that which words were inadequate to convey. “No one’s ever given me flowers before.”

“That’s a war crime,” Eliot said, breathy and nipping at his jaw. “A mortal sin.”

Quentin smiled, tugging them down into the pillowy leather cushions of the couch and twining his fingers through Eliot’s. Their foreheads stayed touching as they sat for a few moments, breathing.

“So did this really have anything to do with your thesis then?” Quentin asked, droll and pressing a quick kiss to his nose. Immediately, Eliot chuffed Q’s jaw with his knuckle, dragging it down the line of his neck. 

“Yes, baby,” Eliot said not quite laughing and a touch impatient. “It’s the kinetic mapping spell I told you about. It’s step one for demonstrating how telekinesis can manipulate the dimensional space axis. It's the foundation for my entire project.”

“Right, yeah. Sure, I remember now,” Quentin said, shaking his head. “Jesus, whatever I end up doing is going to look like a macaroni art project.”

“Hardly,” Eliot said, twisting his hand into Quentin’s hair. “Mmm, getting long.”

“Do you like it?” Quentin asked, his lips pulling down. “I know you liked that you could see my face with the shorter version.”

“Can still see your face,” Eliot said, bringing both hands up to massage his scalp. “Love your face. But I also love the longer hair too. I’ll fight Julia to the death if she ever curses it again.”

“It wasn’t a curse—”

“It was a fucking curse.”

“It was not a fucking curse,” a familiar and feminine voice said from overhead. They both glanced up at Julia, who stood tall with her arms crossed and a thick notebook in her hands. She cocked her head with a scrunched side-smile. “And I’d like to see you try to take me down, Waugh.”

“What’s up, Jules?” Quentin asked, twisting to get a better look at her. It had the added benefit of cutting off whatever way too intense retort was probably on Eliot’s tongue. “Did we have a study date I forgot about?”

“I’m actually here to see your boyfriend,” Julia said, patting Quentin on the side of the head. She walked around the couch before sitting primly between them, forcing her way in with a couple of shimmies. Eliot frowned.

“Me?” He asked, on the wary side. He and Jules were on general good terms after everything with the Secrets Ward. But it wasn’t like they sought each other out for gossip and teatime yet.

"I need your advice," Julia said, ticking an eyebrow. "You're the only one I can talk to."

“Uh, I’m right the fuck here,” Quentin said, hands splaying in the air. Eliot shushed him and sat up taller. He loved having his ego stroked more than almost anything else.

“She’s learning. Let’s not ruin it,” Eliot said, bright smile directed right at Julia. “What is it, my darling?”

“Fogg wants my input on how to mix things up for the Trials this year,” Julia said. She thrust the notebook toward Eliot, opened to a page with as complex a written spell as Quentin had ever seen. “I wanted to know if you thought this idea was too mean or not mean enough?” 

“Too mean,” Quentin shot out and Julia hit him, jutting her fist out behind her with nary a glance backwards. They’d learned how to punch each other sight unseen over a decade ago.

“That’s exactly why I’m asking Eliot. He’s the Just Right Bear.”

“Like Goldilocks?” Eliot asked, nose wrinkling in amusement.

“Quentin thinks everything’s too mean. Margo thinks everything should be about eighty times meaner,” Julia said, stretching her neck back and forth. “You’re by far the most objective. Sad state of affairs, but I work with what I’ve got.”

“On the outs with Kady and-or Penny again?” Eliot asked, a slight twist to his smile. The three of them had about as explosive of a relationship as ever seen. Quentin suspected that Eliot was slightly smug to be in the more... functional relationship. He could be so petty.

(Though. Uh. Yeah. He and El were totally winning. Suck it, Penny.)

Julia glared, the tenuous part of their friendship coming back to the forefront. “I don’t want to talk about that.”

Eliot shrugged, before turning his attention back to the spell. Quentin tried to crane his neck to read it as well, but Julia kept blocking his view. Rolling his eyes, he let go of the pillow—Julia had definitely killed that as a possibility—and snatched The Lord of the Rings off the cushion. He slipped his finger into the dog-eared pages. He reabsorbed into the ride to Endoras, near the middle of The Two Towers: The Treason of Isengard section. Which, fun fact, was actually the appropriate way to refer to the volumes, rather than saying he was reading the book The Two Towers. Tolkein had intended all three parts to be its own volume, published concurrently with The Silmarillion. Quentin believed in honoring author’s intentions even over historical accuracy, since—

“Who’s ring leading anyway?” Eliot asked Julia, still tracing his finger along the circles and sharp lines on the page. His voice always cut through everything in Quentin, no matter what. “I was the obvious and only choice for my class, but no one jumps off the page for you all.”

“Oh, it’s me,” Quentin said, not looking up from his book. He kept his voice even. “Everyone agreed because of my natural showmanship. Hello, first years.”

He could hear the slam fingers against the soft notebook pages and he smirked.

“I would burn the campus down,” Eliot said. He wasn’t joking. “You’d be terrible. You’d destroy a beloved tradition.”

Quentin looked up at that, lowering his brow with a twitch. “Beloved? Is it?”

“If you warn anyone, Q,” Eliot pointed right at him. “I swear to god—”

“I mean, just because you completely lack a moral compass—”

“Take it up with the fucking faculty then. They’re the ones who—”

“You know what? I should. It’s psychologically abusive—”

“Oh, come on, Quentin—”

“I’m out,” Julia said, patting their bickering legs with finality and her own subtle smug tone. “Eliot, we’ll get together later, okay?”

And she was gone, humming in her wake.

Which. Fine.

Whatever.

...They were still a better couple than anything to do with Penny.

Peace of mind solidified, Quentin continued fervently arguing that the Trials were an elitist hazing ritual (“Yes. And?” Eliot infuriatingly responded.) But as they kept debating, Quentin ran his thumb around the soft petals of the orchids in his bouquet.

Over and over again.

 


 

As the days turned crisper and the nights cooler, Eliot started waxing poetic about his softening heart. At first, Quentin thought it was another gentle reference to their relationship. He thought it was sweet and romantic.

But, uh, apparently?

It had all been leading up to his views on Halloween.

As Eliot put it, the holiday was still undeniably "gauche as shit." But at the end of the day, he felt that he'd been spitting on the spirit of hedonism by not allowing the celebration. He'd been remiss in not embracing others' pleasure-seeking. Really, the decision was as thoughtful and reflective as any he'd ever made. So it was a hard-earned victory when Eliot announced the party over breakfast in the middle of October.

It felt like a royal decree.

Preparation took well over a week. Naturally, the Cottage was the centerpiece. But for once, plans stretched all the way from East to West. A large haunted maze connected the Physical Kids and the Illusion Kids in a shaky and temporary stalemate. Illusion magic was essential for any good Halloween party. Even Eliot knew that and created the diplomacy needed to acquire it. Because no Eliot Waugh sanctioned Halloween party would ever be creepy peeled grapes in a bowl and “Monster Mash” on repeat.

Throughout the days leading up to the 31st, strangers and familiar faces alike were in and out of the Cottage. The Illusion Kids cultivated their particular brand of magic for an eerie and macabre atmosphere in all the tucked away corners. Their work was a stunning contrast to Eliot’s—rich, golden, and dripping with autumnal charm next to lurid, tongue-in-cheek darkness.

Quentin considered paying them a genuine compliment, but thought better of it. This was because he hadn’t actually spoken much to the Illusion Kids in recent days for, uh, reasons. And frankly, he didn’t plan on changing that particular status quo if he could help it.

But on the day before the party, Mario, the unspoken leader of the Illusion cohort, had stopped by. He was there to check a few of the more ghoulish Illusions... and he ran smack into Quentin as he was coming down the stairs.

It was awkward.

“Oh. Whoa. Hey,” Mario blinked and swallowed. It was awkward. “Quentin. Hi. Haven’t seen you around lately. Since last year?”

“Uh, yeah,” Quentin said, rubbing the back of his neck. It was awkward. “Yeah. You know, after—um, after there wasn’t much reason to come to the East Cottage anymore. I guess. Sorry.”

Of course, he meant after Ryan. Who he hadn’t thought about in months. Who he’d forgotten, like he said he would. As usual, no one could ever accuse Quentin Coldwater of not knowing himself. For better or worse.

“Well, I hope you know you’re still always welcome to hang out with us,” Mario said, putting his hands in his pockets. “We’ve missed you.”

“Yeah, uh, thanks,” Quentin said, guilt flaring in his gut. He only half-meant the gratitude. He was a terrible person. Leaning into it, he glanced around the room, looking for an excuse to cut the conversation short. “Anyway, I’d better—”

But Mario stopped him, placing a warm hand on his arm. He smiled then, softer, with more intensity. More intention. “Maybe you and me could grab some coffee sometime? Catch up?”

Quentin gulped.

“Uhh—” He started to say, when his woeful inelegance was cut off by Eliot’s hand on his shoulder. It was like he’d materialized out of thin air.

“Q, baby,” Eliot said, rubbing his hand up and down his arm. “I broke a glass upstairs. Would you mind taking care of that for me, sweetheart?”

The double pet names weren’t lost on anyone. Mario snorted. His eyes slit into red snakes. With a gruff head shake, he immediately pushed past the two of them toward the living room.

“Yeah, okay,” Mario shot back over his shoulder, unamused and uninterested. “Fuckin’ figures.”

Once Mario was more than gone, with only the ghost of a metaphorical middle finger in his wake, Quentin slid his eyes over to Eliot. “Really? Was that necessary?”

“That guy’s the worst,” Eliot said, popping a kiss on his forehead. “Gotta rub shit in when you can. One of my mottos.”

“Didn’t you kinda date him?”

“That’s an overstatement. Also, it changes nothing.”

Quentin rolled his eyes. “So do you actually need me to fix something then?”

“Fuck no. I haven’t broken glass in years,” Eliot said, nuzzling his nose into his temple. “But you can go open a bottle of wine for us. Daddy’s parched.”

“I will if you stop calling yourself Daddy.”

But Eliot swatted his ass as Quentin nonetheless walked toward the wine cabinet.

“Never.”

 


 

All Hallow’s Eve arrived shortly, and Margo kicked Quentin out of Eliot's room. He’d been gathering his simple costume items when she’d stormed in like lightning. She grabbed his arm and pushed him out with little more than a Get the fuck out, Coldwater or I swear to fucking god I’m going to cut your dick off. Loving friendship stuff. Very normal. The usual.

Of course, Julia was less amused when he recounted the story later as they got ready together. But she didn’t understand the Margo-and-Eliot dynamic, and where or how Quentin fit into it or if it was healthy for any of them. It wasn’t her business though, as he consistently told her.

(Privately, the vehemence of how little she understood concerned him, but not for the reasons he’d ever tell her. Because that was equally not his business.

But.

“Do you ever get jealous?” Julia had first asked him, in the early summer, in the first few days of Eliot. Quentin had actually laughed and thrust himself up from her bed, incredulous.

“Of Margo? Fuck no,” he’d said, meaning it. “She’s part of him. Loving Eliot is loving Margo, even outside my own friendship with her.”

“But. Yeah. Okay. But.” Julia bit her lip. “But let’s say there was a terrible fire and—and he could only save one of you—”

“Aren’t you actually poly, Jules?” Quentin asked, more to cut her off than anything. “You of all people should know how fucked up of a question that is.”

“I know. I—I know.”)

Regardless, it was nice to get some quality Julia time. Her mentorship with Fogg was time and energy consuming, so he felt like he never saw her anymore. Their bonding time was relegated to study sessions lately, and he missed her. So as they stood in the staid air of his underused room, Quentin tried to focus all his attention on his best friend. And he was going to keep it light-hearted and fun.

He dug through his dresser drawers—most of which were empty by that point—until he tugged out an old black tie. He grinned up at Julia.

“The pièce de résistance,” Quentin joked, looping it around his neck. She smiled, but glanced back again at his empty drawers. Her eyes traced all around the room, catching on any hint of the general lack of upkeep.

“I’m still confused how one person could ban Halloween anyway,” Julia said, rolling her eyes. She pulled a tight black cardigan over her black leotard.

“You’re forgetting what Eliot was like a year ago,” Quentin said with a huffed laugh. Julia tucked her hair behind her ears and swiped her hand along the dresser in front of his mirror. She frowned at the layer of dust on her fingers.

“He was a huge asshole,” she said, pinning the sides of her hair back. She reached down into her bag for a headband with cat ears. “But people followed him blindly anyway? Why?”

“I never understood it either,” Quentin said, straightening his collar and smoothing the tie fabric down. It rumpled right back up. “He’d say charisma. I say inexplicable.”

 But Julia nudged his side with her elbow.

 “Sure, yeah,” she said, with a teasing smile and twinkling eyes. “Playin’ it cool. Like you didn’t fall madly in love with the guy.”

 “Doesn’t mean I liked when he tried to boss me around,” Quentin said, before dipping his eyebrows up and down. He winked. “Well, you know. Then. Now it’s pretty, uh—“

 “TM-fucking-I, Coldwater,” Julia wretched her tongue out with a gagging sound. “Holy shit. You’re spending way too much time with him and Margo.”

 “We’re past the point of no return on that one.”

 Julia hummed and cleared her throat. Instead of continuing down that path, she playfully narrowed her eyes at his black suit and silly little To Hell with the “Beatles” lapel pin.

“For the record, Paul McCartney and Mick Jagger is not a couple’s costume.”

Quentin shrugged and shot himself a secret smile in the mirror.

“You’re wrong. They’re an iconic duo,” he said, waving her off. “You’re just not that up on pop culture. Now help me brush my hair in front of my forehead.”

Julia rolled her eyes and twisted out a spell, so that Quentin’s part rearranged itself. He looked exactly like a page boy dreamboat from 1965.

“Or do that.” Quentin grinned and narrowed his eyes. “But this isn’t permanent, is it?”

“Fuck you,” Julia said, pushing his shoulder. “Not all my spells are permanent.”

“El says I should ask you every time from now on. He’d be so mad that you just did a spell on me without my explicit permission. Open honesty and clear communication, Wicker."

“Well, El needs to mind his own business,” Julia said as fluffed her own hair, staring into Quentin’s mirror. “And don’t think I haven’t noticed that you’ve moved all your shit into his room. Talking about honesty here, Coldwater.”

“I wasn’t actually hiding it.” Quentin smirked at the obvious non-sequitur.

“Okay, so clear communication? Here’s me asking ,” Julia smiled mischievously, as she drew light cat whiskers against her cheeks. “How are things with you two? Still going well?”

“Uh, yeah,” Quentin said, his chest warming with his tiny smile. “Yeah, things are good. Really good.”

“I do have to say,” Julia shot him a cheerful glance, before pulling out green and gray face paint. “You seem pretty happy.”

“No. I’m not,” Quentin said, sighing and casting his eyes downward. She pursed her lips for a moment before he grinned. “I’m really fucking happy.”

“Yuck, Q,” Julia said, elbowing him with an eye roll. “You’re cheesy when you’re in love. Cheesy and way too much of an over-sharer.”

“He’s good for me, Jules,” Quentin said, rolling back and forth on the balls of his shiny leather shoes. “I think we’re good for each other.”

Julia smiled, all love and affection. She walked over to Quentin and patted his cheek.

“I’m very happy for you, Q,” she said, scrunching her nose and standing on her tiptoes to kiss his forehead. “Now can you help me with a quick spell?”

 


 

The party was a spooky spectacle. Dark and light, with the right mix of camp and genuine terror. Blood seeped from the walls and talking cats cracked jokes. The air smelled like mulled wine and a zombie-bride chased unsuspecting first years through the quad. Everyone was dancing and drinking champagne, and screaming while horrors flashed on the insides of their eyelids. In short, it was a masterpiece, like everything Eliot did.

In full costume, Eliot himself looked like something right out of Rolling Stone magazine. He was rumpled and dangerous and achingly untouchable. He’d straightened out his hair into soft waves, flipping up and outward, framing his defined face like angel whispers. His eyes were black rimmed in deep charcoal and he wore a striped tank top and a fur jacket, over criminally tight pants. He laid out in a sprawl along the couch, nursing a thin black cigarette and a smoking flask.

Next to him, Margo lounged in a tight red bustier dress and devil horns. She looked insanely hot. She clearly knew it too as she stretched her neck out like a model, taking in the certain and unyielding admiring glances from around the room.

They were always and forever undisputed royalty, and Quentin watched them from the stairs in awe.

Julia nudged him forward with her green and gray clad arm. Her eyes were golden and bloodshot, glamoured wide as a cat’s. Once they reached the heady nook of couches, Quentin’s dry throat tried to greet Eliot. His heart glowed when he saw Eliot was gazing back at him like he was the one who looked criminally sexy. Which was... nice and loving and hot, but Quentin was basically just wearing a too-tight suit. Eliot was slightly biased.

Biased and hot.

Fucking hot.

But before he could throw himself right onto Eliot’s lap, the devil in the red dress cut him off with a confused frown at Julia.

“Zombie cat?” Margo asked, crossing her bare legs over one another. She leaned forward with her chin propped on one hand. “Is that a thing?”

“Oh, come on!” Julia laughed, twirling once and winking. “It’s obvious.”

The geek in Quentin jumpstarted and he smiled at Julia’s costume again.

Zombie cat.

Genius.

“It’s definitely obvious,” Quentin agreed, grinning wider and wider. Eliot’s cheeks danced upward at him around his cigarette. “And it’s genius.”

“Don’t tell them,” Julia slapped his arm with a grin. Margo rolled her eyes.

“So it’s definitely gonna underwhelm, huh?” Eliot said, drolly. He stood up and stalked his way over to hug Q from behind, cigarette dangling from between the tips of his fingers. He purred in his ear. “Hi.”

“Hi,” Quentin smiled upward, kissing the hinge of his jaw. He turned excitedly back to Julia, who was bouncing on her feet. Margo remained unmoving and unimpressed.

“Think about it. Zombie cat. So—alive and dead at the same time?” Julia offered. She glanced back and forth between two blank faces and one over-enthused face with a sigh. “Hello?”

“Nope,” Eliot said, blowing smoke in Julia’s face over the crook of Quentin’s neck. It was so hot. “Nothing.”

He couldn’t take it anymore.

“Schrödinger’s Cat!” Quentin burst out and Julia squealed, clutching his hand and jumping up and down. Margo and Eliot immediately exchanged exhausted glances.

“Get the fuck out of my party,” Eliot said. He pulled Quentin onto the couch and into his lap, his arm tightening around his waist like a secure lock. He still glared down at him. “Both of you.”

Quentin bit into his shoulder and Eliot laughed, kissing his forehead.

“Mick Jagger and Paul McCartney is not a couple’s costume,” Julia retorted with a sharp clench of her teeth. Eliot shrugged and dragged on his cigarette, before turning his attention to the badly neglected nape of Quentin’s neck. Margo took a long sip of her martini and snapped in the air. A nameless first year presented Julia and Quentin with the Halloween version of the signature cocktail. It was blood red, with an aromatic mist wafting off the top.

But as soon as the four of them were together, they were separated once more. Staring into the distance with frozen fear painted on her face, Margo shifted with a start on the couch. She sniffed once, before standing and sweeping away, like a movie star, like a muse, like the Queen of the World.

“Not tonight, Satan,” she said aloud, kissing Eliot on the cheek. “See you losers around. You too, El.”

Then in her place, stood one of Quentin’s other favorite people.

“Hey Quentin!” Todd’s voice was chipper as ever, under his large square glasses, blue velvet suit, lacy and poofy white cravat, and magically enlarged teeth. “Lookin’ groovy, baby.”

Eliot tensed underneath him, a slight and angry growl emanating from his throat.

“Austin Powers,” Todd said, pointing at himself. “My favorite movie.”

Quentin smiled with good humor and a tiny salute. But out of his periphery saw the half-moon muscle near Eliot’s eye twitch once, hard, shuddering the whole side of his face.

“Having a good time, Todd?” Julia asked, sweetly cutting off any of Eliot’s most natural instincts. Immediately, Todd gasped, like he hadn’t seen her and was now horrified.

“A zombie cat! It’s alive!” He held his arms out, waggling them, before pointing both his hands out in finger guns. “Yeah, baby, yeah.”

“I’ll spare you life if you give me—” Julia twisted her face like a goofy mask and put her pinky to the side of her mouth. “—One million dollars.”

Todd waggled his hips at her. “Oh, behave!”

“Quentin. Q, I—I can’t,” Eliot whispered in his ear, breath hot and urgent, hands gripping his thighs in a tight panic. “I fucking can’t.”

Springing into action, he cleared his throat and gave Eliot a quick kiss on the cheek. He hopped to his feet, wrapping arms around the giggling Todd and Julia, still quoting the 1997 comedy masterpiece back and forth at each other.

“Let’s get a drink in your hand, bud” Quentin said, ushering Todd toward the bar, and into relative safety. “The haunted maze opens soon too. Could be fun.”

 


 

Quentin spilled coffee all over his fucking button-down.

After a night of particularly shitty sleep, it was a three cup kind of Saturday. Caffeine made him jittery on a good day, but normally he could keep his shit together. But that day, his nerve-endings tried to jump out of his pores, while sleep still tried to slam his eyes shut while he walked. So he decided to pour an ill-advised fourth cup. As he sipped, he ended up chatting with Margo. He got excited about an idea and gesticulated one time and, well, there he was fucking was.

So with a grumble, Quentin stole his way into his—into Eliot’s room, lifting the shirt up and over his head. The collar stuck against his neck and he flailed for a few seconds. After a short struggle, he finally turned it inside out and onto the ground.

Success.

But Quentin didn’t realize that the shirt’s sleeves had wrapped around his shoe. When he took a step forward, he slipped back on the tangled mess, his knees buckling under him. Steadying himself against the bureau with a halting sigh, he started over again. He grabbed the shirt from the floor and crumpling it into a ball in his hands.

“Don’t hurt yourself, baby,” Eliot’s voice said from the bed, book in hand. Quentin held his hands out in mock surrender and shook his head. Eliot chuckled and his eyes lifted to give him an affectionate look. Then he kept reading.

“Can you show me that laundry spell again?” Quentin asked, opening his drawer in the bureau. He pulled out one of his T-shirts and threw it on, without any major mishap. “Last time I made the stain worse. Somehow.”

“I’ll do it for you,” Eliot said, not glancing up. “Throw it in the hamper.”

He obliged with a small smile of thanks. But Eliot missed it, apparently engrossed in the book more than his boyfriend’s clumsy laundering drama.

“Thesis work?” Quentin asked, stretching his arms behind his back. It was a reasonable assumption.

Anytime Eliot wasn’t with him, with Margo, or behind the bar cart, he was reading about the synapses of telekinetic magic. Quentin didn’t totally get everything Eliot was doing yet, though he was trying. What he did know was that the Physical parts were more and more gorgeous every time. Whatever Eliot was attempting to do was working, in all its stunning glory.

But Eliot shook his head.

“No. I’m reading,” he said, slowly. “Finished now though if you want to hang out.”

“You’re…reading?”

“Left to right.”

“Like, a fictional story?” Quentin flopped down on the bed next to Eliot, who immediately angled the pages away from him. “For pleasure? On purpose?”

“You’re not as funny as you think you are,” Eliot said, closing it and tucking it under his arm. Like that was going to deter rather than fuel.

“I’m medium funny,” Quentin said with a nose scrunch into his cheek. Eliot snorted a little despite himself. “But what the fuck are you reading?”

“Don’t worry about it.”

“Well, now I’m even more curious,” Quentin ducked his head at the tightly drawn-in spine and laughed at the lack of conspicuous lack of title. “Is it porn?”

“Please,” Eliot smirked. “You know I’d be doing a dramatic recitation on the downstairs table if it were.”

“Then what the fuck?” Quentin pulled himself up on and over Eliot’s arm. “Let me see—”

“Q, seriously. Leave it—”

Protestations ignored, Quentin grabbed the book out of his hands. He used an old sleight-of-hand trick up his sleeve. With a wild and victorious grin over Eliot’s increasing demands for the return of his property, he read a few sentences with glee. Turn about was fair play, and it was finally Quentin’s time to mercilessly tease.

But instead, as he registered the words in front of him, his heart stopped. It floated in his chest.

He blinked and read a few more sentences. He blinked again and read more, confirming. He looked back up at Eliot. Something thick and heavy caught in his throat, and he swallowed it down hard, until it landed with a sweet thud in his stomach. He felt light-headed.

Meanwhile, Eliot’s cheeks tinged red and he was studiously examining his nails.

“El,” Quentin said, breathless and shaky. Disbelieving. “Are you reading—?”

“Don’t make it a thing, Coldwater,” Eliot said with a half-grin, still not meeting his gaze. “You and Margo won’t shut up about it, so it’s to make our joint time less tedious.”

“Eliot,” Quentin said, a wide smile growing on his face.

“And really, I was anticipating about eighty percent more centaur dicks than I’ve yet seen, so I’ve got a lot of unmet expectations. I’m writing a stern letter to the editor.”

Quentin slowly sat back down, breath returning in heated, joyful waves. “Well, that’s why you should read the annotated version and all the appendices.”

“Yeah, I don’t love you that much,” Eliot said, with a sidelong glance. Quentin felt his dimples burst onto his cheeks.

“This is The Wandering Dune though,” he said, flipping through and resting his chin on Eliot’s shoulder. “Are you reading them out of order?”

“No, I’m on the final installment,” Eliot shifted his eyes again, pressing a quick kiss on his forehead. “Anyway, what do you want to do for dinner tonight?”

“When the fuck did you have time to read the whole series?” Quentin knit his brow, still reading down a long paragraph, one of Rupert’s speeches. God, the prose was gorgeous. “They’re not short. Are you a secret speed reader?”

“If you must know, I began reading them last year,” Eliot said, with a slight tremble of his Adam’s apple. He cleared his throat and approximated a carefree tone again. “But seriously, I don’t feel like the salt-lick cafeteria slop so I’m cooking. What do you want?”

Light poured down from the sky. “Wait, did you start before we—?”

“Jesus. Fine. Yes, Q,” Eliot snapped with an affected huff. “Yes, okay? I had a big gay crush on you and so I read your favorite books. Happy?”

“I mean, incredibly,” Quentin said with a soft smile. His boyfriend’s shoulders relaxed and he sighed, resting temple-to-temple.

“They’re a big part you and I love all parts of you,” Eliot said, quietly. Simple and straightforward. It made Quentin want to fucking ravish him. “It—it didn’t feel right not to have my own access to it. That’s all.”

That’s all.

Right. Sure.

Okay.

“Yeah, uh, that makes me want to fucking ravish you,” Quentin said. He swung his legs over Eliot's lap until he was straddling him. And Eliot’s eyes widened with an effervescent laugh, throwing the book across the room.

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

Quentin ran his thumb along the cylindrical smoothness of the cigarette as he inhaled the rich smoke. He’d quit again, but that didn’t feel important. All that felt important was Eliot’s warm knee knocking against his, while they sat on the brick ground of the Cottage patio. All that felt important was sharing a single cigarette and playing the question games that helped bring them together in the first place.

That was what was important.

“Favorite word?”

“Superfluous,” Quentin said, passing the cigarette back. At Eliot’s puzzled look, he smiled. “I like how it rolls off the tongue.”

“I like how you roll off the tongue,” Eliot said, predictably, grabbing Quentin’s belt loop with his thumb and angling his hips closer.

“Least favorite word?”

“Encrusted,” Quentin said, lifting the edge of his lip toward his nose. “In any context.”

“Even a culinary one?” Eliot asked and laughed at Q’s fervent nod.

“Okay. Fine. Your turn.”

“Same questions. Favorite?” Quentin asked and Eliot smiled brightly.

“Fuck.”

“Right,” Quentin went to smack his chest, but Eliot caught his hand and brought it up to his lips instead. “Least favorite?”

Eliot’s face darkened into a glower. He took a drag on the cigarette again and passed it over, coughing. “Sassy.”

“Ah, yeah,” Quentin raised his eyebrows into a grin around the smoke. “That makes sense.”

“A shocking number of people still use it when they first meet me. And it still never goes well for them.”

“I mean, I know. But it’s so weird, though?” Quentin shook his head, unable to parse the logic. “Margo is sometimes kind of sass—uh, you know, like that—”

“I appreciate your sensitivity,” Eliot said, solemnly.

“But you’ve never exactly been like,” Quentin put his hand on his hip and waved his hand in the air back and forth, “Hey girlfriend.”

Eliot shot up into a seated position and a prayerful look crossed his face.

“Do it again,” he whispered, his teeth brightening his entire face. Quentin burned red.

“No,” he said quickly, sitting up and rubbing his neck. “What I meant is that my first impression of you was that you were more, uh, sardonic and elegant than—”

But Eliot barreled himself into Quentin’s lap, wrapping his legs around his torso and twisting his hands into his hair.

“Do it again,” he said, fervently. “I’ve never begged for anything in my life, but I am begging you, Coldwater.”

“El, come on,” Quentin dipped his lips in and out his mouth to prevent a smile. “No, it’s stereotypical and shitty. I was just trying to say that—”