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to be unbroken or be brave again.

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It’s one of those perfect timing things, except that all the perfect is, actually, pretty horrible.  Three pretty horrible threads of events which run along, perfectly unentangled, for the whole of Quentin’s first semester at Brakebills, until they get all caught up together at the very last second.

The first pretty horrible thing is this: Quentin’s dad has cancer.  It’s brain cancer, he tells Quentin, over the Christmas holidays, which is the first time Quentin’s left Brakebills campus since he started school there.  Being out in the real world feels odd enough, even without being sat on his dad’s puke-green corduroy couch with his hands tucked awkwardly between his thighs and listening to his dad tell him they’re doing everything they can, they think I’ll be okay, don’t worry about me, Curly Q.   But as much as he tells Quentin not to worry about him, Quentin can’t help but think about how medical bills are so fucking expensive, and how his dad still pays for so much shit for him, and Quentin can’t stomach the thought of that anymore.  So, he decides, as he sits awkwardly with his dad and listens to him talk about surgery, he needs to start providing for himself. If the only way he can help any of this is by taking a bit of the financial burden off, that’s what he’ll have to do.  It’s his dad.

The second pretty horrible thing belongs to Eliot.  Eliot begins dating Mike McCormick roughly one month into his second year at Brakebills.  This is unusual in and of itself, because Eliot spent most of first year sucking a different dick each week, like he did pretty much the whole of undergrad, and loving it.  But then he meets Mike, who’s an alumnus, and someone alluring in his normalness, someone who makes Eliot feel like he’s got steady, familiar ground under his feet for the first time in his life .   They date for several months.  Eliot tells Mike things he’s never told anyone else: the word Indiana comes up.  Eliot begins to fall in love.  And then, all of a sudden, just before the Christmas break, it is revealed that Mike has been lying about pretty much everything, that he’s married back in the city, and has just been stringing Eliot along for the sex, and everything explodes publically and horribly and Eliot is left, once again, messy and broken and alone.

The third pretty horrible thing is only actually horrible if you find such things horrible.  Josh Hoberman certainly doesn’t.  Because Josh Hoberman is hooking up with Margo Hanson.   Sure, it’s always kind of been drunkenly and he thinks Margo mostly only likes him because he brings interesting drugs to her parties, but she’s also badass and hot and smart and funny, and he’s the luckiest guy on campus.  After the fourth time it happens, Josh decides to go for it, and as they’re bathing in the sweaty afterglow, he asks Margo if she wants to go on a date.

Margo looks at him, up and down, and says, “No offence, Hoberman, but no.”

“Oh.”  Josh’s stomach sinks a bit.  He pulls up his pants and takes a joint out of his pocket.  “Okay, that’s chill too. Wanna smoke?”

“Oh, don’t look all sorry for yourself,” Margo says, rolling her eyes as she picks herself up from the bathroom floor and inspects her hair in the mirror.  “It’s nothing personal. You’re nice, the sex is good, whatever. But, listen. Eliot is my best friend, and he’s going through this incredibly shitty time right now.  Specifically to do with love.  It’s been a couple months since that Mike shit went down, but he’s still seriously messed up, and he’s my first priority, capiche?  I’m not gonna start dating someone and just leave him by himself half the time, or shove a bunch of lovey-dovey crap in his face.  No way. I’m not gonna date anyone until Eliot’s dating again, too.”

“Right,” says Josh, slowly, as he lights his joint and thinks about it.  “Not until he’s dating someone too. Got it.”

He thinks about the party raging downstairs, and about what he knows about Eliot.  Eliot’s had no problem hooking with guys recently, everyone knows that, but he’s not kept anyone around for more than a night.  He’s heard Margo calling it Eliot’s attachment freak-outs when he drops the guys as soon as they suggest sucking his dick more than once , which makes sense.  Except. Well, there’s that one first year, with the floppy hair and the Lord of the Rings t-shirt.  Eliot and the first year with the weird name haven’t hooked up, according to Josh’s well-informed rumour mill, but he certainly seems to be the only person other than Margo who Eliot’s remotely interested in spending time with when he’s not drunk.

There aren’t a lot of things in life Josh Hoberman has an excess of.  But he’s not hard up for money. He’s got a trust fund and a drug hustle.  And he’d spotted Eliot’s first year at the school noticeboard taking the number for a three-headed-dog walking ad, the other day.

So, just like that.  The threads tangle together.

 


 

 

Quentin is sat in the library, a headache building behind his eyes as he stares down at a Horomancy textbook and watches the letters swim around the page.  He’s not sure if the book is enchanted or he’s just seriously sleep deprived. It’s Brakebills, so both is a likely answer.  There was a party at the Physical Kids Cottage last night, where Quentin has been assigned to live since the Christmas break because of his discipline still being undetermined, and it was kinda fun for the first hour of signature cocktails and blathering to one of his classmates about the political subtext of the Fillory books in a corner, but after that, it was just sorta noisy and distracting.  Quentin had retired to his room, but he hadn’t been able to sleep through the sound of the music and his own anxiety about everything going on with his dad.

He’s so bleary that he doesn’t even hear the chair across from him scraping against the wooden floor, or notice a new presence at his table, until someone is suddenly snapping their fingers in front of his face.  Quentin startles, hands leaping off his textbook and one of his drawn-up legs slipping from the edge of his chair to land on the floor in a ready-for-flight position, until he realises it’s just a friendly third year interrupting him.

“Hey, dude, don’t freak out,” says Josh –– Josh something?  Quentin remembers him from a few parties, and one magnificent bake sale where Q bought a cupcake that had him hearing colours for a week, but they’ve never really spoken before.

“Uh, hey,” says Quentin, drawing his leg back up to its perch on the chair and rubbing at his eyes until they focus.  “Um, did you want this book? ‘Cus I’m kind of using it, but honestly I don’t think I’ve absorbed a word for like, the last hour, so you can probably borrow it ––”

“Oh, nah.  I wouldn’t touch Horomancy with a ten foot dick,” says Josh, which, well, is a lot for Quentin to process in this current moment.  “I actually had a ––” Here Josh looks around, and lowers his voice –– “ Business proposition for you.”

Why does Quentin immediately feel like this is barrelling towards a terrible mess?

“I don’t think I’d be a very good drug dealer,” he says cautiously, his anxiety flaring up at the mere thought of it.

“What –– oh, dude, no, not that kind of business.  Listen, you know Eliot, right?”

Quentin blinks.  Does he know Eliot?   Everyone knows Eliot.  And Quentin –– okay, it’s not like they’re close.  But Eliot showed him to his Brakebills entrance exam, on the very first day, and has always made a point of saying hi when he sees Quentin around campus, inviting him to parties, all that stuff.  Quentin had sort of hoped they might become proper friends when he moved into the Physical Kids Cottage after Christmas, but Eliot had some big drama with Mike just before the break, and he hasn’t really seemed himself since then, so it’s been rare to find him without a drink in hand and Margo by his side.  Still. Quentin sometimes sits near his periphery at parties, and ends up oversharing with Eliot when he’s drunk more often than not. And sometimes they bump into each other in the kitchen at 3am when they’re both battling insomnia and just sort of sit and chat in the quiet for a bit. Quentin simultaneously likes Eliot and is wildly intimidated by him and also feels pretty sorry for him so it’s just –– a whole thing in general.

He doesn’t know how to say any of that to Josh, though, so he says, “A bit.”

“Great, well, okay,” says Josh, and then launches into some great big explanation which presses at the headache still building in Quentin’s temples and takes several minutes to weave around his foggy mind into something vaguely resembling sense.

“You want to pay me to date Eliot?” he exclaims in a sharp whisper, suddenly understanding why Josh checked nobody was around them before beginning this conversation.  “Isn’t that, like, really fucked up, considering he just went through a shitty break-up because his boyfriend was lying to him.”

“Hey, hey, I’m not saying be his boyfriend ,” Josh quickly interjects, throwing his hands up in the air.  “You don’t have to be serious about it and lead him on, or whatever.  If you think about it, you’d be doing Eliot a favour, too.  He seems to be having trouble getting back out there in the dating scene.  It’s why Margo’s so worried about him. You’d just need to take him out, have a bit of fun, a few casual dates.  Then you can just let things fizzle out for a while, end it mutually, give him his confidence back by having a non-traumatic relationship, and earn yourself some cash.  Plus I get to date Margo. It’s not just a win-win, it’s a win-win-win-win, dude.”

Quentin hates to admit there’s some logic in that, especially since his insides feel all squished up and weird about it, but, well.  There sort of is.

“I –– what even makes you think he would say yes?   I’m not exactly up to his usual type.  I’m not exactly anyone’s usual type.”

Quentin’s seen the sort of boys Eliot takes up to his room at parties.  Fascinating, fey-pretty guys, or guys who look like they could be artists, or guys with biceps bigger than Quentin’s head.  And he’s just Quentin. He hasn’t washed his hair in four days and he’s wearing a hoodie with holes in the sleeve-cuffs because he worries them over his hands so much, and he can’t get his tuts right, and the last conversation they had was him blathering to Eliot about his D&D group in high school and Eliot calling him a giant nerd.   There cannot possibly be any appeal there.

Except apparently, Josh thinks so.

“Not for nothing, dude, but you’re like, the only person Eliot seems to wanna be around other than Margo right now.  Plus I’ve definitely caught him looking at your ass before. So, yeah, I’m not worried.”

Quentin’s face turns splotchy pink when Josh says that, but, like, okay.  It’s true Eliot sort of jokingly flirts with him sometimes, or at least did when Quentin first arrived at Brakebills.  Eliot’s like that with everyone, sure, but he can’t have been entirely opposed to Quentin’s existence, at least.  He’s still not convinced, but…

“How much?”

“Fifty bucks per date,” says Josh instantly, and Quentin taps his pencil against the table as he thinks about it.  That’s a whole lot of money to just hang out with someone who he probably would have spent his evenings hanging out with anyway if he could.  The last on-campus job he looked at was getting paid seven bucks an hour to organise the ‘minor curses’ section of the library, with a disclaimer that some of the books may try and enact said curses on you for practice, and you’d just have to toughen up and accept that.  He considers the logistics for a moment, but Josh must misinterpret his silence as reluctance, because he adds, “Okay, fine, seventy five, final offer.”

And that’s not a deal Quentin is gonna be getting twice.  Immediately, he says, “Deal.”

He’ll work out the details later.  Between the chaos of Brakebills and everything going on with his dad right now, Quentin would have to be an idiot not to at least try and make this work.

 


 

 

There is another party at the Physical Kids Cottage that night.  When Quentin first arrived at Brakebills, he’d been told –– by Eliot and Margo themselves –– that the Physical Kids threw both the best and most frequent parties, but he hadn’t realised quite the extent of it until he moved in.  He’d also been lying if he said he hadn’t noticed a slight increase in the amount of elaborate gatherings going on since Eliot got dumped.  Since Eliot’s the one who organises all of them, he’s presumably looking for distractions, which –– Quentin can hardly blame him.

Still, Eliot’s immaculate hosting abilities mean it’s hard to get him alone.  After he leaves the library a while after Josh, Quentin gets dinner in the cafeteria and dramatically overthinks things for a bit, and then heads back to the cottage, but Eliot’s already got wine-red lips and is animatedly talking to a gaggle of Knowledge girls in the middle of the room, his hands waving everywhere as he gesticulates.

He looks happy enough, Quentin thinks to himself, as he pauses in the corner of the room for a moment and watches Eliot.  But then he spots Margo on a couch behind Eliot, her brows worrying together as she stares at him, too. And, well, Margo knows Eliot a lot better than he does.

Quentin’s not in the mood for a party, and since nobody comes over to drag him into it, he decides to retreat upstairs.  Talking to Eliot can wait til tomorrow; he’ll presumably be actually sober on a Tuesday morning, and getting a moment alone with him will be easier, too.  Quentin hardly wants to do this in a room full of people. He’s bad enough at asking people out as it is.

So he goes back to his room, puts on his pyjamas –– sweatpants and a washed-soft Fillory and Further t-shirt with a hole in the arm –– and reads a pulpy new fantasy novel his dad got him for Christmas until he falls asleep.

Unfortunately, for Quentin, sleep isn’t a static state.  It’s more a shifting creature his body dances towards and away from over the night, and he startles back to consciousness in an inexplicable fit of anxiety, heartbeat uncomfortably loud in his ears, just after three AM.

This isn’t an unusual occurrence.  Quentin sits up in bed and rakes his hands through his hair until his heartbeat’s calmed down, and then notices that the sounds of the party have faded downstairs, so decides to risk a trip down to the kitchen.  If chamomile tea is his only line of defence against his own shitty sleep schedule, so be it.

The cottage is dark and silent and mostly abandoned as he makes his way downstairs in his pyjamas.  He spots the remnants of the party –– empty glasses strewn around, a couple of people passed out on the sofas –– but mostly nothing else, until he reaches the kitchen.

He shouldn’t be surprised to find Eliot already in there, given how much they bump into each other down here in the middle of the night, but he sort of is.

“Hey,” says Quentin cautiously, stepping over the threshold, and Eliot glances over at him.  He’s got his tie loosened and vest undone and he’s washing out wine glasses by hand at the sink even though he could do it with magic.  He doesn’t look drunk. There are smudged dark shadows under his eyes, but Quentin can’t judge; he barely sleeps either. “Sobering up?”

“Did that a while ago,” Eliot says with a snort, washing out the last wine glass before grabbing a cloth to dry his hands on.  Quentin sets about finding himself a mug and making some tea, but his eyes keep drifting back to Eliot.

Well, he thinks, as the water boils.  No time like the present.

“So, uh, Josh Hoberman wants to pay me to ask you on a date,” Quentin says, just like that.

Because fuck everything if he’s gonna lie to Eliot.  Eliot, who’s like, the one person at Brakebills who has been hospitable to him since he arrived.  Eliot, who just got so very fucked over by someone lying to him when he was falling in love with them.  Eliot, who probably wouldn’t want to go on a date with Quentin if he asked for real, anyway.

Eliot, who is slowly turning around to stare at Quentin, eyebrows furrowed beneath the curls tumbling into his face.

“Ex cuse me?”

“And, uh, I kind of said yes?” Quentin continues, because, well, once you get him going on a train of thought like this, there’s no stopping him.  “But just because I really need the money, and, like, I thought not even trying it would be stupid, but I also just don’t wanna lie to you, so, uh, I figured maybe I’d just be honest and –– see what you said?”

“Quentin,” says Eliot, very slowly.  “I feel like you are missing out at least several steps of this story.   Why does Josh Hoberman want us to date?”

“Oh!  Uh, ‘cus he wants to date Margo.”

“Well, that’s disgusting, but I’m still not seeing the connection here.  Are you sure this wasn’t just a particularly strange dream you had, little Q?”

Quentin rolls his eyes.  Much as Eliot is hospitable and lovely, he’s also a total dick.

No.   Okay, so, like, apparently he asked Margo, and she said she wanted to, but she wouldn’t date anyone until you were ready to date again, too.  Because she’s worried about leaving you alone. So I think Josh just figured, like, find someone you could –– uh, maybe someone you could stand, which I guess he thinks is me?  And get them to date you, and then Margo would feel like it’s, like, not totally betraying you, and go out with Josh.”

Eliot’s eyes drift away from Quentin before he’s even done speaking though, and he mutters something to himself under his breath, before striding across the kitchen for seemingly no reason other than to expend some frustrated energy.  It only takes him a few steps –– he’s got such long legs. Quentin watches them move for a moment.

“Fucking Margo,” Eliot carries on, loud enough for Quentin to hear now.  He seems rather affronted. “I don’t need her to help me out by putting her own life on hold!  I’m doing fine! Absolutely fine! As if I’m some helpless orphan child who needs a keeper.   What, does she think I’ll do something stupid if she takes her eyes off me for a moment?

“I, uh, I think her intentions were nicer than that ––” Quentin tries to say, but Eliot shoots him a look, and he immediately shuts up.

“Okay, Quentin,” says Eliot, suddenly striding back across the room and looking Q right in the eyes.  He’s so tall, Quentin thinks, as his head drops back so he can meet Eliot’s gaze.  “You say you need the money? Great, this will work out for all of us.  Tomorrow, you go to Josh, and tell him you asked me out, and I said yes.  We’re going on a date on Friday night –– something trite, like a study date.  And we are going to act like we’re super fucking happy about it, and madly into each other, have you got that?  Then Bambi will have to stop worrying about me, and go be happy her fucking self.”

Quentin can’t quite believe this just worked out.  It’s still an entirely ridiculous situation that he’s sure is gonna blow up in someone’s face, but getting paid seventy five bucks to study with Eliot and having Eliot know about the deal is just  –– a dream job, basically.

“Uh, okay,” Quentin agrees.

Then, the kettle boils.  Eliot pours Quentin’s mug of chamomile tea without seeming to think about it, and hands it to Quentin, and they sit at the kitchen table together for a while, Eliot offendedly muttering about how he can take care of himself, Quentin just drinking in silence.

So.  It begins like that.

 


 

 

That Friday, they go to the library together and study.  Well, Quentin studies; Eliot divides his time between glancing at his textbook and flipping through a men’s style magazine, occasionally sipping at his flask.  Mostly they’re silent. A couple of times Quentin has a question about something he doesn’t understand, and Eliot helps him work through them. Eliot’s only a year older, and Quentin’s never seen him work for more than three consecutive minutes, but he seems wildly, incredibly capable when it comes to magic.

 


 

 

Quentin’s not sure if it’ll end there, but the next day, Josh Hoberman accosts him in the quad while Quentin is just trying to eat a sandwich and begins gushing absolutely everything about his date with Margo.  His story finishes, “––anyway, she still seems to think Eliot’s gonna have a breakdown about romance or whatever, so you’ll have to take him out at least a few more times before she’s totally cool with it. D’you think he’d say yes to you again?  Monday night this time?”

Quentin has to hold in a laugh.  Yeah, he’s pretty sure Eliot will agree, considering he knows he’s not actually dating Quentin.

He’s just thinking again about how dumb this whole thing is when Josh shoves seventy five bucks, cash, into his hands.  Okay, Quentin concedes as he stuffs the money into his wallet. Maybe it’s not that dumb.


 

On Monday, they go on a study date again.  It’s exactly the same as the first one, except Eliot’s really working on an essay this time –– although the flask is still there.  At the end of the night, Quentin proofreads it for him, while Eliot checks Quentin’s answers on his Magical History worksheet. They’re home before ten.

 


 

On Wednesday, Eliot banishes everyone else from the cottage kitchen, and cooks an elaborate meal for Quentin.  

“Bambi wouldn’t believe I was actually dating someone if I kept just saying we were studying,” he explains, as he expertly moves a pan full of sauteing onions while Quentin curiously peers over his shoulder, nibbling on a carrot stick.  “So I’m making you a romantic dinner.”  Eliot snorts, making his feelings on the word clear.  “This actually works out wonderfully, though. I’ve been wanting to try this recipe for weeks.”

Quentin’s a mess in the kitchen, so he just perches on a counter, watching Eliot cook, and talks about how he thinks they’d survive in a zombie apocalypse.  Eliot has apparently also had a lot of thoughts on this.

“I’ll show you my disaster notebook sometime,” he promises, while he forces a wooden spoon full of some kind of delicious sauce between Quentin’s lips.  “More salt? No? Great. Anyway, I’ve got all the best spells figured out for every sort of apocalypse. They’re colour coded. There’s a skull-cracking one that’s technically part of the healing set rather than battle magic, did you know?  I figure that would work beautifully on a zombie.”

Quentin feels inexplicably pleased by such an answer.  “Uh, I’m definitely sticking with you if zombies happen, then.  You can cook and crack skulls?  I’d, like, definitely die without you.”

Eliot cracks a smile as he stirs the pasta sauce.  “I’m the whole package.”

 


 

On Saturday night, Eliot takes him into the city.  They go to a gay bar far fancier than anywhere Quentin’s ever set foot in before, where Eliot spends most of the time hitting on guys, and Quentin drinks red wine and practices his non-magic card tricks at a table.  They’re both sort of tipsy by the time they leave, and Quentin’s pretty sure Eliot got his dick sucked in the bathroom, because he seems exceptionally cheerful. They stumble through the portal back to Brakebills together with their arms around each other’s shoulders, so they don’t fall down.

 


 

On Tuesday, they have a picnic on the Brakebills lawn.  Eliot says, “Margo walks this way a lot; I’m hoping she’ll see us,” with the air of someone who’s had a conversation about this recently, and rolls his eyes, before draping his arm around Quentin’s shoulder.

It should probably feel pretty awkward.  Quentin’s not really a PDA sort of guy, or a picnic sort of guy, honestly.  But Eliot’s brought really nice sandwiches, and it’s a sunny day, in the temperate Brakebills way which should be entirely impossible for late February.  It doesn’t feel difficult to sit with his legs crossed, one knee resting on Eliot’s thigh, Eliot’s arm warm against his neck, and debate whether Plato was just a total bitch or whether his allegories still have merit.

 


 

“Margo’s still not convinced,” Josh huffs, when he catches Quentin after class.  Quentin’s trying to drink coffee from a paper cup while his arms are way too full of textbooks, so he sort of just makes an mhmhmm? noise around his drink.  “I think you’re legit gonna have to take Eliot out every time I wanna take Margo out.  It’s still cool, right? You don’t feel weird lying to him?”

At least Josh cares enough to ask that, Quentin thinks, while he carefully balances his textbooks and manages to hold his coffee in one hand.

“Uh, no, it’s fine,” he promises.  It’s weird that he has to lie to Josh about the understanding, but, well, he doesn’t actually know Josh that well, and he doesn’t wanna stop getting paid.  So. “We’re just. Keeping it casual. Like you said, I think it’s making Eliot feel better, probably.”

“Cool, great,” says Josh, and then shoves an even bigger wadge of cash than normal into Quentin’s pocket while Quentin splutters.  “I’ll buy in bulk, then. Can you do like, three nights next week?”

 


 

They go to a coffee shop on Wednesday and just sit doing separate work.  Have dinner again on Thursday. Hang out at a Physical Kids party on Saturday, Quentin hovering close behind his shoulder even as Eliot plays host and chats to his guests and makes endless drinks for everyone, but somehow always has time to keep Quentin’s glass topped up.

It’s nice, Quentin thinks to himself, as he and Eliot fold themselves onto a couch together at the party and talk about their days over the fruity cocktail Eliot’s made.  It’s sort of just like being friends. Quentin always wanted to be better friends with Eliot, and it’s just as good as he imagined.

 


 

“We should probably start acting a bit more relationshippy,” Eliot says the next week, sliding onto the back garden wall beside Quentin and lighting a cigarette.  Quentin startles, closing his book; he hadn’t even heard Eliot come outside. “We’ve been on an awful lot of dates to not even be holding hands or kissing in public.”

He breathes out a thin stream of smoke just as Quentin’s face goes bright red.

“Uh –– we didn’t really talk about, like, kissing, did we?”

Eliot smirks around his cigarette.  “My apologies, Q, would that offend your delicate straight boy sensibilities?”

Quentin, who has sucked more than one dick in his life and is just too awkward to properly advertise that fact, just snorts.

“Well that’s the least of my worries.  I just meant, like, uh. Wouldn’t you feel uncomfortable?  Kissing someone you’re not actually with?”

“Oh, Q,” says Eliot, sounding suddenly, and almost insultingly, fond.  “I forget what you’re like sometimes. So innocent. No, that wouldn’t bother me.  We’re both adults with a healthy casual sex life here, aren’t we? And I kiss my friends plenty anyway.  But if it bothers you , we can stick to sickening little cheek kisses; I’m sure they’d make everyone just as uncomfortable in a PDA sense.”

Quentin’s cheeks are definitely still too pink, and he can’t quite explain it.  Eliot’s not wrong.   Quentin’s kissed people casually before.  It’s only that it’s Eliot which feels a bit, well, proper.  Quentin’s not sure why, though, when Eliot’s more liberal with kisses than anyone Quentin’s ever met, anyway.  Maybe it’s just because everyone else will think they’re proper relationship kisses.  Quentin knows news of him and Eliot dating has begun to spread, because that’s the whole point of the ruse anyway, but there’s a difference between ‘Quentin and Eliot have been on a few study dates’ and ‘I saw Quentin and Eliot holding hands and kissing in their garden’.  People are going to think it’s becoming a real relationship.

But.  Well. If it’s what Eliot wants.  It’s not like Quentin has anything else going on.

“No, no, it’s fine,” he says, and then leans into it when Eliot reaches up a hand to play with his hair.  Someone must be watching them out of the window. “You’re right, we’re adults. I don’t mind it.”

So later, when they go inside, and Eliot hears a noise he apparently recognises as Margo’s high heels clicking against the floor, he immediately swoops an arm around Quentin and begins pressing kisses into his cheek: hard, swift kisses in a playfully dramatic smatter.  His lips are soft and warm and Quentin’s whole face goes bright red, but he also smiles immediately, because, like, sue him, he likes physical affection. He’s actually enjoying it so much that he doesn’t remember what’s going on for a second when Eliot stops, before realising all at once that Margo’s entered the room.

“Oh,” he says, and to be honest his surprise probably helps sell it.  “Hi, Margo.”

It’s been a while since Quentin actually saw Margo properly.  Of course he bumps into her around the cottage and at parties and things, but he hasn’t had an actual conversation with her in awhile; by design, she’s always with Eliot when Quentin isn’t and with Josh when Quentin is, so their paths don’t really intersect.  She hung out with him a fair bit last semester, though, actually, and it’s nice to see her, even if he’s perpetually nervous now that she’s going to figure him out.

She’s looking at them with her eyebrows raised, paused in the doorway, but steps closer when she realises that Eliot’s apparently not going to let go of Quentin’s shoulders anytime soon.

“Hello, lovebirds,” she says, crossing her arms over her chest.  “El, I thought we were getting dinner?”

“We are,” Eliot confirms, with one big squeeze to Q’s shoulders.  “I’m just saying goodbye.” And then he turns back to Quentin, and plants one last big kiss on his cheek.  “Don’t study too hard, nerd.”

Quentin rolls his eyes as he finally twists out from Eliot’s arm.  “I won’t. I’m meeting up with Julia, remember?”

“As if she’s not gonna want to study?”

Okay, he has a point, but.  Grinning as he shakes his head, Quentin says, “Just go enjoy your pretentious dinner with someone who isn’t me for a change, please, Eliot.”

“Gladly ,” Eliot announces, and then swoops back in to kiss Quentin’s cheek one more time, almost like he just can’t help himself.  It lands closer to the corner of Quentin’s mouth this time and Quentin’s heart stops for a moment as Eliot lingers there.   Wow, he thinks, as Eliot pulls away and heads off with Margo immediately afterwards, he really is a good actor.

 


 

“Bambi’s getting suspicious that we haven’t fucked yet,” Eliot announces, as he shoulders his way into Quentin’s bedroom that evening.  Quentin’s book drops out of his hands as he bolts upright up on his bed, spluttering.

“El––Eliot!  At least knock, geez, I could’ve been ––”

“Oh, Q, I guarantee you couldn’t have been doing anything more scandalous than I’ve seen before, you wouldn’t have offended my sensibilities,” Eliot consoles him, closing the door behind himself and sauntering into the room.

“I wasn’t thinking about your sensibilities,” Quentin mutters, but still, he doesn’t kick Eliot out, just shuffles back to sit against his headboard and sighs.  “Okay, wait, what is Margo saying?”

“She thinks it’s weird we haven’t had sex,” Eliot replies, as he noses around Quentin’s bookshelves.  This is the first time he’s been in here, Quentin realises all at once, and suddenly feels like he should be embarrassed of the clothes strewn everywhere and his Fillory collectibles shelf and the huge Lord of the Rings poster he has up above his bed.  He bets Eliot’s room is extremely classy and clean. “I get where she’s coming from, of course, considering I used to use blowjobs as more like a handshake. I tried telling her we’ve done some things, but considering she lives in the room opposite yours, she thinks she would have noticed if we were having sleepovers.   So.”

“So,” Quentin agrees.  His brain has sort of shorted out.  “Er, what are you suggesting here, then?  Because ––”

Because it’s been a really long time for him and, okay, he wouldn’t mind fucking Eliot, Eliot is gorgeous and extremely nice and presumably a talented lover solely on the basis of experience, but.  Also. It’s probably not very moral to do that just to keep up the pretence of their fake relationship, right?

“I’m suggesting we pretend,” Eliot says, just in time to cut off Quentin’s ridiculous train of thought.  He finally quits snooping, just as Quentin’s face turns pink, and comes over to lounge on the bed beside him.  “Let’s jump on the bed and smack a few walls for an hour or two––”

“Or two?” Quentin remarks, thinking back across the scope of his own sexual history, and how nothing he’s ever done with a guy has probably ever lasted more than fifteen minutes, and not much longer with girls either.

“––and then I’ll sleep in here so she sees us come out together in the morning.  Oh, Q. Two hours is relatively standard. Lord, the things I could teach you if this weren’t just all a ruse because Margo is ridiculous.”

Right, Quentin thinks slightly dizzily, but he’s then too busy thinking about that to bother protesting to anything else, so this is apparently happening.

“Okay, we’ll start by just making the bed creak,” Eliot decides, sitting up against the headboard with Quentin and rocking back and forth a bit.  It looks completely ridiculous, but it does get the bedsprings creaking a little. “Do you that she can hear that across the hall?”

“Probably not,” Quentin says, because, well, he’s never heard anything from Margo’s room, and she has a far more active sex life than him.

Eliot seems to only take this as an excuse to try harder, though.  He goes up onto his knees and starts bouncing on the bed, and, yeah, okay, that’s making some pretty loud creaks.  

“Come up here and help me!” Eliot insists, grabbing Quentin by the hands and pulling him up to his knees too.  Quentin’s book falls to the floor with a thud, and all of this is just so ridiculous, he has to stifle a giggle as he starts bouncing as well.  

“Should we try and make it sound like, a, uh, rhythm?” Quentin asks, pink-cheeked, trying not to give too much away about how he personally fucks.  Eliot seems to like the idea, and holds onto Quentin’s elbows until they’re bouncing in sync, the old bed really straining beneath them now.

“Okay, now start moaning,” Eliot instructs with a grin.  Quentin nearly bursts out laughing.

“Eliot!  I’m not gonna just ––” But Eliot cuts him off by letting out a huge, deafening moan.

“Q-Quentin!” he gasps, and, yeah, it’s for sure loud enough to be heard outside.  Also it’s –– Quentin would never admit it aloud, but if that’s how Eliot sounds in bed, it’s very hot.  “OH, QUENTIN!”

“You’re ridiculous,” Quentin says under his breath, as they keep bouncing on the bed.  Eliot smacks a hand against the wall, and grins.

“Your turn,” he instructs.  “Say my name.”

“Eliot,” Quentin says, as flatly as one can while bouncing on a bed.

Eliot rolls his eyes.  “ Shout my name, Quentin.”

Eliot.”

“Shout my name as if I’m fucking you right now,” Eliot finally suggests.  “Can you just imagine that, for a second? If I was properly hammering into you, you wouldn't keep quiet, would you?”

Quentin’s entire body flushes hot for a moment, then white-cold.  No, if Eliot was –– if they were, he probably wouldn’t keep quiet, he thinks.  He probably wouldn’t even feel like he had a brain in his head at this point.  He probably wouldn’t know how loud he was being and he wouldn’t care. He’d probably be begging for it.

ELIOT !” he shouts, at last, and Eliot’s eyebrows shoot up, pleased and surprised.

“That’s more like it,” he says, bouncing faster.  “Okay, now shout, uh, fuck me with your giant cock, Daddy.”

“Oh –– pfft , Eliot, fuck off,” Q says, and then they’re both laughing together under their breath.  

They keep jumping against the springs of the bed, and hitting the walls, and mostly Eliot keeps up a steady stream of moans, for what feels like ages, until Quentin finally convinces Eliot they’ve definitely convinced everyone by now.

“Okay, but we have to sell the big finale,” Eliot insists, grinning like the absolute little shit he is, and starts jumping faster, pushing the headboard against the wall in a frantic rhythm too, and nearly screams, “OH, BABY, I’M GONNA COME!”

And.  Well, thinks Quentin, if this is his last chance to really go for it.  So he opens his mouth, and lets out the loudest, filthiest moan he can possibly muster.

And then, panting and spluttering with silent laughter, they collapse down onto the bed together.

The room is almost disconcertingly quiet in the sudden absence of bedsprings and groans, and Quentin tries to catch his breath, but the second he looks over at Eliot he just bursts into giggles instead.

“Shh!” Eliot hisses, but he’s shaking with laughter too, his face wide open and maybe brighter, more unqualified joy on it than Quentin’s ever seen.

“I think they bought it,” Quentin insists, shoving his face into Eliot’s shoulder to muffle his laughter.  A little weakly, Eliot nods above him.

“Yes,” he agrees, “They probably did.”

And then.  There comes the bit where they’re actually just sleeping.

It shouldn’t be weird, Quentin tells himself.  They’re adults. They’re both wearing pyjamas. He’s slept in double beds with his friends plenty of times before.  And yet the feeling of Eliot sliding beneath his boring flannel sheets with him is somehow intimate in an unparalleled way.  Even with the lights out, Quentin feels like he’s hyperaware of all of Eliot’s features. His fingers twitch restlessly where he’s got them tucked against his stomach on his own side of the bed.  Why does he want to reach out to Eliot so bad?

It’s like he’s somehow tricked his brain into thinking they really did just have sex, and now it wants postcoital cuddles.   It’s all fake, he reminds himself sharply, and curls a little further towards the edge of the bed, growing the space between them.  It doesn’t help his twitchy fingers, though, or change the fact that he can smell Eliot’s gentle shampoo, feel the warmth of his long body in Quentin’s bed.

For a while, there’s just quiet, but neither of them have relaxed enough to fall asleep.  Thinking back to how many times they have always bumped into each other in the kitchen at 3am, Quentin knows they’re both bad at the whole sleep thing, so it’s not surprising that neither of them can drop off.

And then.

“If I’m being honest, it’s not just Margo,” Eliot admits into the darkness.  His voice is quiet, more fragile than Quentin’s ever heard it, and Quentin holds his breath so that he won’t disturb the moment of rare vulnerability.  It’s one of those moments, he knows: one of those things that can only be admitted in the safety of the dark, secrets which just want to tumble out the moment the lights are out.  “It’s kind of nice, having everyone think you’re my boyfriend.  I’ve spent… a long time, not just at Brakebills, building up this extremely untouchable persona.  The sort of person who isn’t affected by anything, and is certainly never overinvested.  And then last year, about half the school witnessed me getting my heart broken.  And everyone knew sad little Eliot Waugh had been played. So being able to show them all that I have, actually, definitively moved on, it’s… nice.”

“For what it’s worth,” Quentin admits back, voice hushed, as he stares at the ceiling, “Persona or no persona, underinvested or overinvested, I think you’re pretty amazing.  And, like, take it from me, there’s no shame in getting your heart broken. There’s no shame in caring.”

“Not for you, maybe,” Eliot whispers.  It’s so quiet that Quentin’s not even sure if he’s meant to hear it.  “I don’t know how you do it. You care about everything, and make it beautiful.”

 


 

“I hate that poster, by the way,” Eliot says one night a couple weeks later, wrinkling his nose towards the wall as he climbs into Quentin’s bed.  Their little sleepovers have become somewhat regular now, although they don’t have to bother on nights when Margo’s out with Josh. Just. Nights like this.  Quentin doesn’t mind. At least, he doesn’t mind when Eliot’s not throwing out insults about his room. “I feel like it’s taunting me with mediocre poetry as I fall asleep.”

“Mediocre poe— that’s, Eliot, that’s the Ring Verse! One ring to rule them all , it’s iconic!

“Mediocre,” Eliot insists, with a little-shit grin.  Quentin chucks a pillow at his head.

“Okay, we can’t all, like, decorate our dorms with framed softcore porn from our own undergrad thesis like pretentious twats, Eliot.”

Eliot grins salaciously before he turns out the bedside light.

“Those are artistic photoshoots, Quentin.”

“Mmhmm, sure .”

But even when they’re teasing, they can’t help curling towards each other in the bed. The ocean of space Quentin left in the middle of the mattress the first time they did this seems ludicrous now.  The weight of someone else in his bed settles something in Quentin’s soul; the way they touch at shoulder, hip, and knee sends happy little bursts of warmth through him all night.

For some reason, he seems to sleep amazingly well when Eliot’s there, nothing like his usual insomniac bursts.  He figures it’s probably just because the bed is warmer.

 


 

The sight of Josh and Margo suddenly striding towards them sends Quentin into a momentary panic.  He and Eliot are just hanging out on a couch in the cottage, Quentin with his nose in a book and Eliot bothering him while he reads, but he can’t for the life of him figure out why both Margo and Josh would want to talk to him at once.  His brain leaps right into disaster mode, of course — Margo’s figured out they’re lying about the relationship and Josh has figured out Quentin told Eliot, and they’re both here to yell at him, it’s the only explanation. Quentin wobbles where he’s perched with his knees up on the sofa, his book dropping to the floor as he prepares for possibly the final moments of his life.

It’s almost anticlimactic when Josh just says, “Hey, dudes.”

“Uh.  Hey?”

“To what do we owe the pleasure?” Eliot asks, one of his arms casually falling along the back of the couch and just so happening to bracket Quentin’s shoulders as it does.  Josh grins, and flings himself into a nearby armchair, while Margo stands rolling her eyes behind him.

“So, there’s this magicians-only bar in the city, and I have a groupon —“

“A groupon,” Eliot repeats flatly.

“Magicians have groupon?” Quentin asks.

“— for a wine tasting for four, so I thought we should double date!”

“A groupon,” Eliot repeats again, looking at Margo even though Josh was the one who spoke.  And then, “Double dates are trite and ridiculous.”

She shrugs. “Yeah, but fancy wine with Josh footing the bill isn’t.”

Eliot considers this for a second.  “Okay, you’ve completed the monumental task of winning me over with alcohol.”

Quentin doesn’t point out, because of the company they’re presently in, that Josh has technically footed the bill for all of his dates with Eliot anyway.  He asks again, “Magicians have groupon ?”

But nobody answers him, and then a few days later he somehow finds himself on a date with his fake boyfriend, his fake boyfriends best friend, and the person paying him to date his fake boyfriend who doesn’t know that his fake boyfriend knows that.  Seriously, Quentin thinks to himself as he downs his first glass of expensive wine in one go, how did his life come to this?

He has to admit, it’s actually kind of — fun, though.  He’s far from great friends with Josh but he knows Josh is at least always good for a night out.  And Quentin genuinely likes Margo a lot, her sharp wit and easy little touches and the fact that she understands more of his nerdy references than any of Quentin’s other friends ever do.  Plus there’s Eliot, who, well, Quentin is just so used to hanging out with at this point that he couldn’t possibly object. Eliot’s presence has sort of become like a comfort blanket to Quentin lately, something so familiar and worn-in around you that you feel off without it.

So they’re laughing, and drinking the wine to excess even though you’re officially supposed to spit it out again at wine tastings, and it’s all fun and really just feels like four friends hanging out, barring the couple of times that Josh shoots Quentin awkward winks when the other two aren’t looking, like he’s trying to say hey we’re totally pulling this off while being oblivious to the fact that he’s actually the one missing a piece of the puzzle.  

And then comes the point of the night where Josh goes off to the bathroom and Eliot goes to chase down their next round of wines, his hand slipping reflexively across Quentin’s shoulder as he leaves.  And it’s just Quentin and Margo.

He opens his mouth to ask her what book she’s reading at the moment in case she has any good recommendations, because that’s the sort of thing Quentin and Margo talk about.  But before he can get a word out, she’s bracing her sharp elbows on the table and leaning towards him, her eyes suddenly steely with resolve. Quentin gulps.

“Okay, I’m gonna make this quick. I don’t usually go in for all that patriarchal shovel talk bullshit, but I  think I need to warn you that if you fuck with him for a second, I will destroy you.” Margo doesn’t even blink as she stares at him, all snake-like intensity.  “You don’t even wanna know what I did to Mike.”

“I’m not Mike,” Quentin points out, for a lack of anything else to say. If only he could reassure her that he actually has no power to hurt Eliot at all, here; that Eliot isn’t remotely invested, and thus holds all the cards himself.

“Hence why I’ve let you live so far,” she says, like it’s obvious.  “I like you, Q, and I like that you’re making El as happy as a fucking nineties teen getting dicked down by J.T.T., but if you do anything to fuck that up, just know I’m coming for you.”

“I don’t doubt it,” Quentin says. He should maybe be scared or insulted, but he finds himself actually just pleased to know that someone is looking out for Eliot’s happiness this much.  Eliot deserves it. He tells Margo, “All I want is for him to be happy, too. Seriously.”

Margo looks at him strangely for a moment, like she’s maybe seeing some new angle of Quentin she hadn’t expected to be there.  She opens her mouth to respond, but then Eliot’s suddenly back and handing out drinks and the moment has passed.

Quentin hopes she remembers this later, though. When this whole thing blows up or fizzles out in the end.  He hopes she remembers, and somehow believes that even if it’s not romantic, Eliot’s happiness still is the most important thing in Quentin’s world.

 


 

Quentin’s dad is coming to visit campus.

It’s not something that’s usually allowed, non-magicians coming to Brakebills, but apparently you can get a family pass if you apply for one roughly three months in advance and fill out a form that makes zero sense, so.  Quentin does all that. With all his dad’s health problems right now, and how amazed he’d been when Quentin showed him just a tiny bit of magic, it feels like something nice to do.

Ted arrives through the designated portal, going from a sludgy April day in New Jersey to the sunshine-dappled Brakebills campus, and it blows his mind.  He can’t stop telling Quentin that, as Quentin shows him around. Ted Coldwater is amazed by everything at Quentin’s new school. The weather, the buildings, the books in the library.  Even the thoroughly non-magical trees seem to impress him.

“And this is where I live,” Quentin says, leading him into the Physical Kids Cottage.  He made sure in advance that his dad was gonna come in the daytime rather than an evening, so there wouldn’t be any wild parties to catch a glimpse of, although he’s not sure how much his dad would care about that now that Quentin’s an adult anyway.  Still. It’s better to be able to show his dad the slightly more wholesome side of life here, like the flying books and the reading nook which is twice as big inside than outside.

After the little tour, Quentin makes them both sandwiches and they sit down at the table to eat, Ted still listing off things he’s amazed by at the campus.  Quentin can’t help smiling as he listens to them all. He and his dad have always been –– close, but in an odd way. Close but tentative around each other, in the way you often are when you love someone hugely but don’t really understand them.  Getting to see all of this, though, Quentin thinks, might be helping his dad understand him, just a little more. It feels amazing.

They’re just finishing up their lunch when the door to the cottage crashes open, and Eliot comes sauntering in, stack of books in his arms for once; he’s just back from class.  Quentin’s stomach does something a little confusing at the thought of the two of them meeting, but he waves Eliot over anyway. There’s no reason for any of their lie to spread to his dad, after all, and Eliot’s still pretty much the most important friend he’s made here.

“Dad, this is Eliot,” Quentin says, and Eliot offers a charmingly polite hand to shake.  “He’s a second year. He’s helped me with, uh, pretty much everything about Brakebills that I could possibly need help with.”

“Well, that’s nice to hear,” Ted says, smiling at Eliot in that half-awkward way he gives people when he doesn’t quite know what to make of them but maybe likes them anyway.  “Thanks for looking after Curly Q for me, Eliot.”

“Curly Q,” Eliot repeats, delighted, just as Margo steps through the door behind him.

Danger, thinks Quentin, just as Margo’s eyes latch onto them all, and she grins.

Ooh,” she drawls, stepping over and looping an arm through Eliot’s.  “Is it meet the boyfriend time already?  I promise Eliot’s a total gem who’s treating Quentin right, Mr Coldwater.”

She’s at least half teasing and at least half not, but it doesn’t matter, because she’s said the word and everything else is just noise after that.

“Boyfriend?” Ted asks, eyebrows raising.  Eliot goes pale, looking rather terrified, which Quentin thinks is an overreaction considering his dad’s a big softie, but still.  Feeling rather overwhelmed, Q just steps forward and holds Eliot’s hand.

“Uh, yeah, sorry I didn’t mention that yet, dad.  It’s pretty –– new, still, so I didn’t want to jinx things.  But Eliot’s my boyfriend, yeah.”

Well,” says Ted Coldwater, his eyes wide, and then smiles.  “Isn’t that nice! You know you’re supposed to tell me these things, Quentin, or I end up looking like an old fool.  It’s particularly nice to meet you now, Eliot. And I don’t think I caught this young lady’s name?”

“Margo,” she introduces herself, holding out a hand to shake too.  “Sorry for dropping the B-bomb, I assumed the boys had told you. But if you want cute sappy stories about them, I’ve got plenty.   They’re total dolls together.”

Luckily Margo has to head out for another class soon, and Eliot politely excuses himself a little after that too, but the damage has been done.  Of course, his dad’s just as thrilled by them as he has been by everything else at Brakebills, but the gears of Quentin’s mind still won’t stop turning.  Lying to Margo to stop her worrying is one thing; lying to his father who has cancer is quite another.  Quentin doesn’t believe in god, but he’s pretty sure an action like that can send you to hell even if you are an atheist.

“I know you say it’s new, and I won’t meddle,” his dad says, when Quentin walks him back to the portal exit a couple of hours later.  “But I’m glad you’ve got that Eliot boy. It sounds like he’s being good to you. I worry about you, Q, you know that, when I’m not there to look out for you, but knowing that someone else is picking up the slack –– well.  It just makes me feel better, is all.”

Quentin, who had been planning to explain to his dad once they were away from prying ears that the whole boyfriend thing was a misunderstanding, suddenly can’t bring himself to do it.  His dad’s sick, and Quentin almost never gets to visit, and everything’s just a bit shit about the whole situation.  If Ted feels better thinking Eliot’s looking after him like a good boyfriend, Quentin can’t take that away.

“He is.  He’s really good to me,” he says, instead of anything else, because, well: it’s true.

 


 

The next day, Quentin goes to the Technology Hut, the only place with proper wifi on campus, to check his emails.  Surprisingly, he has one from his grandmother.

Dad tells us you’ve met a very nice boy.  Silly us didn’t know you were gay, but it certainly explains why you’ve never brought a girl home! ––  (No, Quentin thinks, I’m just bi and ridiculously awkward.) ––  We can’t wait to meet him when you boys next get a break from school.  Study hard. Do you have an address I can send cookies to yet?

So.  Fuck.  Now his entire family knows, apparently.  This lie is maybe beginning to get just a tiny bit out of control.

 


 

It’s some time after that, Quentin thinks later when he tries to pinpoint it, although he’s never quite sure because it all built so slowly: it’s some time after that, when he begins to forget things are fake at all.

The thing is, pretending to date someone involves a lot of just actually dating someone.   He and Eliot hang out all the time.  They talk about anything and everything.  They get dinner together, help each other with things, meet each other after classes, bring little surprise gifts and coffees, sleep in the same bed at least a couple nights a week.  

It’s like they’re doing a whole relationship, except the sex parts.  And as nice as sex would be, holding hands and exhanging close-lipped kisses in public is nice too, and sex has never been the crux of a relationship for Quentin.  The crux of all of this just seems to be –– feeling like Eliot is there for him.  No matter what. Feeling like

And all of that is starting to feel all too real.

However, it does take some sex to actually figure it out.  Namely, a very vivid sex dream.   Quentin wakes up from it startled and sweaty and flushed, all tangled in his own sheets, so hard that he’s aching –– and, thankfully, alone.  It’s not one of their sleepover nights, or this would be all too embarrassing.

The dream doesn’t come back to him so much as it just never leaves.  He remembers every inch of it, and it was: Eliot’s mouth, Eliot’s hands, Eliot’s chest, Eliot’s voice whispering in his ears, Eliot’s hair tickling his thighs, everything.

Quentin thinks about the sex dream, and then he thinks about how secondary it is to everything else he feels about Eliot.

“Oh, fuck,” he says to himself, with a flood of terror rushing through his body and shutting down every single one of his senses until he’s just in a void of emotion and nothing else, no outside world, nothing to hide in, nowhere to run.  “I’m falling in love .”

 


 

The thing about a realisation like that is that it’s impossible to un-realise.  Quentin tries to go about life like normal, but he can’t. He’s suddenly ridiculously aware of every one of Eliot’s touches, which Eliot bestows so casually and easily.  Every tiny chaste kiss shared in public makes his knees weak, every time he even glances at Eliot in the mornings, when he’s all soft and sleep-bleary, Quentin just feels like leaping off a cliff.

He can’t keep this up.

The thing is, though.  The only thing that makes it bearable.  Is that maybe, just maybe, Quentin thinks, there is possibly a chance that Eliot might feel the same.

He lasts a ridiculously short amount of time, once he realises that.  He tells himself he’s gonna wait longer, try and figure out for sure where Eliot’s head is at, but in the moment, Quentin can’t bring himself to be so sensible.  They’re just sat in the Physical Kids Cottage together, like any other day, and Eliot leans in a little close to grab something, his warm shoulder pressing against Quentin’s, and Quentin.  Just.

Wants him.  So badly.

“Hey,” says Q, all at once, like the word is just bursting out of him and he can’t hold it in any longer –– and he leans across and presses the most lightning-quick kiss onto Eliot’s lips, cheeks pink but smiling when he pulls back.  “Um, so, would you wanna, like, go on a date for real sometime?”

This, Quentin thinks, is bravery.  He’s proud of himself for asking, and he’s also proud of himself for not being oblivious: he’s proud that he can work past his own horrifically low self-esteem to add up Eliot’s little comments towards him, and the soft ways Eliot looks at him sometimes, and how good their chemistry seems to be for both of them when they pretend to kiss, and how Eliot always makes sure he’s eating, and remembers everything Quentin says, and banters back at him about zombie apocalypses and fantasy lands, and says things like I would never drop you.   Quentin can add all that up, and figure out that Eliot must like him at least a little.   And if Quentin has a shot here, he’s determined not to waste it

Except.

Eliot pulls back.

“I don’t think that’s such a good idea,” Eliot says, gently, carefully, and Quentin just.  Shuts the fuck down. Oh, shit. Oh, fucking hell. He was reading it wrong along.

“Oh, that’s ––”

“Not because I don’t ––”

“No, it’s, It’s fine,” says Quentin, pulling out of Eliot’s grasp and swallowing around a hard lump in his throat.  “It’s not like any of this is real, I get it. I, like, knew all along, we’re just pretending to het Margo off your back, you never ––”

“Oh, you fuckers, ” says Margo from the doorway.

Maybe it’s a blessing that she interrupts them at just that moment.  It pulls Quentin out of the crushing weight of rejection, at least, although his face still feels hot with embarrassment and his neck is crawling and there’s a sickly feeling in his stomach as it turns over and over that he can’t shake.  His eyes take a moment to even focus on Margo, but when they do –– he realises she doesn’t quite look herself. She’s barefoot with her heels slung over her shoulder, and all her eye makeup is smudged, maybe like she’s cried a little.

He wants to ask if she’s okay, but she’s already stomping towards them, downing Eliot’s glass of whiskey in one go, and asking, “What the fuck are you talking about?  You two aren’t really together?”

There’s really no way to keep lying to her now, is there.  And Quentin can’t bring himself to do much of anything right then anyway, except keep his eyes steadfastly away from Eliot, away from Eliot, gazing at his own hands between his knees and trying not to feel like the most presumptuous person alive.

“Oh, calm down.  We only did it because of you, you meddlesome bitch,” Eliot says, but somehow manages to make the phrase sound ridiculously fond.  “Yes, okay, we exaggerated things a bit. But only because you told Josh you weren’t going to date anyone until I did.  I don’t need you looking after me, Margo ––”

“Yes you abso lutely do.”

“Oh, hush.  I’ve been doing fine.  I know the end of last year was –– okay, was bad.  But I can survive anything. And I don’t want anyone putting their lives on hold for me.”

“As if you wouldn’t do the exact same for me,” Margo sniffs, and Quentin suddenly feels entirely superfluous to this situation.  “And I wasn’t just worried about you surviving, you asshole.  I didn’t want to make you feel worse by suddenly getting a boyfriend for the first time since we’ve known each other like, two seconds after yours dumped you.”

Quentin still does think that’s actually pretty nice of Margo.  Maybe badly executed, but still pretty nice. And he also thinks it’s pretty nice of Eliot to try and spare her the responsibility, even if El’s way of doing that was… slightly badly executed too, apparently.

“And by the way, lying to me is still shitty.   You had me so fucking convinced you two were in love, Eliot!  You could’ve just talked to me!” Okay, Quentin remembers suggesting Eliot just talk to Margo a few times in the last couple months too, but –– whatever.  He immediately regrets even thinking anything though, because she suddenly wheels around to face him instead, and he feels like he’s somehow psychically summoned her wrath.  “And you are in even more hot shit, Coldwater.  What was in all of this for you, anyway?”

“Uh,” says Quentin.  His throat feels like he’s been swallowing broken glass.  “Actually, um, Josh? Just, after you said the thing about, uh, not dating because of Eliot, he kind of suggested I could date Eliot to make you stop worrying, and, um, he’d pay me.  But I told El right away! So I wasn’t like, lying to him.”

Margo’s eyes narrow.

“No, you were just lying to me.”   Okay, she’s got him there.  Still, there’s something softer or maybe just sadder in her eyes a moment later as she slouches back into the couch, sniffing.  “Well, you don’t have to fucking worry there anyway. Me and Josh just broke up. You are officially off the fucking hook.”

“Are you okay?” Eliot immediately asks, but Quentin doesn’t hear Margo’s reply, because his heartbeat is suddenly thudding in his ears.

Margo and Josh broke up.  Margo knows. There’s no reason for him and Eliot to keep fake dating anymore.  And Eliot made it –– really clear, about three minutes ago, that he doesn’t want to do any real dating.  So.

So that’s just.  It.

It’s over.

Quentin drinks the rest of his wine, and then, without saying goodnight to either Eliot or Margo, he stands up and heads to his room.  They have each other again, now. They’re both single, so neither of them needs to be whisked away or distracted. They probably just want to hang out together.  At this point, Quentin’s just dead weight.

 


 

Being just friends with Eliot isn’t so bad.

That’s what Quentin tells himself, for the first week, and then the second, and then the third.  Eliot is charming and interesting and fun and relaxing to be around. That’s enough. He still checks Quentin’s worksheets for him, and saves Quentin leftovers of the dinners he’s cooking for Margo, and provides him with delicious cocktails perfectly calibrated to Quentin’s tastes.

It’s just that now they’re not holding hands, or exchanging tiny kisses in public.  They’re not going on long dates without any of their other friends. They’re not laughing themselves to hysterics in Quentin’s room at night while they try and fake-fuck, and they’re certainly not having sleepovers in Eliot’s king sized bed.

It’s fine.  Quentin’s bed definitely doesn’t feel cold when he’s alone in it.  He’s definitely not back to being wracked with insomnia every night.

They haven’t exactly made some sort of break-up announcement, but people seem to catch on pretty quick that they’re no longer a couple.  Eliot starts hooking up with guys at parties left and right again. Quentin stops attending most of the parties altogether. He goes to study group with Alice a lot.  He could maybe have a crush on her, he thinks, almost like he’s trying to convince himself. She’s very pretty and almost exactly as high-strung as he is. They’d probably work, wouldn’t they?

But she doesn’t give any hints of being interested, and anyway, it’s ridiculous to try and get himself to like anyone else.  Quentin doesn’t like Alice like that. He can’t think about anyone other than Eliot. In the same way Quentin has always latched onto a single soul at a time and loved them until he’s forced not to, he’s latched onto Eliot now, and his foolish heart won’t let go.

It’s actually all a bit too much.  After a few weeks, Quentin starts avoiding Eliot whenever he can.  As nice as Eliot’s friendship is, it hurts too much, each kind gesture scraping like a knife against Quentin’s raw edges.  He just needs a little bit of time, he tells himself, to heal. Then they can go back to being friends, and it will only be half-painful, and Quentin will be able to pretend everything’s truly fine.

If Eliot notices Quentin’s sudden lack of presence, he doesn’t let on.

And.  Then.

“––re being such an idiot!” Margo’s voice is hissing in the kitchen one night, when Quentin pads downstairs to get some apple juice or possibly an entire bottle of wine, depending on what’s available.  He knows he shouldn’t eavesdrop, but it’s so rare Margo actually tries to be quiet that he can’t help it; he’s suddenly intrigued.  He pauses in the shadows just outside the doorway, his socked feet quiet on the floorboards.

“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” a voice that is unmistakably Eliot’s mutters back.  Quentin’s heart clenches, the way it always does when he hears Eliot these days.

“Oh, of course I damn do.  You’re moping around this place like a fucking war widow, Eliot!  Would you just admit that you miss––”

“I am fine, Margo.  You’re the one fresh off a breakup here, not––”

“As if me and Josh getting high and going out to dinner for a couple months is any goddamn thing like how you’ve been since calling it off––”

“I said I’m fine!   Sincerely, Bambi.  Now will you just leave it?”

“Not until you fucking admit it, Eliot.  At least say it out loud. We both know .”

And then, all of a sudden, the sound of stomping footsteps towards the door.  Quentin panics, and flings himself behind the dining table, watching through the gaps in the chair legs as Eliot’s bare feet stride past.  The fact that he can recognise Eliot by his feet alone should be ridiculous, but they’re all bony and elegant, unmistakable.

Quentin waits until he’s sure Eliot’s gone before finally, shamefully crawling out from behind the table and hightailing it back to his own room.  He doesn’t really want a drink anymore.

He wonders what they were talking about.  Margo clearly thinks Eliot likes somebody.  Maybe, Quentin thinks with a rotten feeling in his stomach, it’s still Mike.  Eliot was really affected by that break-up, everyone saw it. And yeah, Mike treated him like shit, but you can’t just turn off feelings at will.  Quentin knows that better than anyone.  So maybe Eliot still loves him, despite it all.  Quentin had thought he was getting over it, during the couple of months they spent together, but –– well.  If Eliot still loves Mike, that would explain why he so categorically didn’t want to try anything with Quentin, too.

Quentin feels a little sick, and decides he no longer wants a drink.  He heads back up into his room instead, and tries fruitlessly to get to sleep.  In his head, all he can picture is Eliot and Mike, the one time he saw them kiss, hard and deep and filthy where they were tucked away in the corner of a party, not expecting anyone to find them.  It’s the sort of kiss Quentin’s never got to share with Eliot.

The sort he never will.

 


 

“Are you avoiding me?”

Eliot asks it out of the blue, all at once, as he and Quentin bump into each other on the cottage staircase.  Quentin is going down the stairs with his bookbag over one shoulder; Eliot is coming up them, still in pyjamas, his curls softly sleep-ruffled in that way Quentin’s heart can’t stand , with a full mug of coffee.

“Um,” says Quentin, because seriously, he doesn’t know what else to say to that.

“Sorry, I didn’t mean that to come out so confrontational,” Eliot admits, cracking a smile and leaning against one of the bannisters.  Quentin awkwardly shifts down a stair, then back up it again. “I just noticed I haven’t seen you around much lately. I wanted to make sure I haven’t done anything too heinous and forgotten about it.”

“Uh, no, it’s not your fault,” Quentin says cautiously.  He plays with the strap of his bag and stares down at their feet so that he doesn’t have to look Eliot quite in the eyes.  “Just, um. I guess it has been a bit. Awkward? Uh, just felt a bit weird since I asked you out and you said no. Which is totally fine, obviously, it’s your choice!  But, uh, I just wanted to, like, process it in private for a little bit, I guess, before we started hanging out again.”

Something complicated goes across Eliot’s face, like he hadn’t expected that to be the answer, even though Quentin can’t think what else he possibly thought was going on.

“Oh.  Quentin, about that.  I really am sor––”

“No, no, it’s fine.  Trust me, it’s nothing new,” Quentin assures him, trying to sound wryly self-deprecating, even as tiny pinpricks of unhappiness travel up his throat.  “My romantic history is, like, a whole room papered in rejections. I’m an expert at getting over them. I just have to be awkward about it for a little while first, because –– well, you know me.”

He’s joking, trying to soften the jarring pain of even sharing a glance with Eliot these days with humour.  But Eliot doesn’t crack a smile or a laugh or anything. Instead his eyes go suddenly, impossibly soft, and something complex turns his lips down.  Quentin’s heart stops for a moment.

“Yeah,” Eliot agrees gently, words so quiet they’ve barely escaped his lips at all, “I do know you.”

And then Quentin’s phone alarm goes off.

“I’ve gotta go to class,” he says, swallowing around whatever emotion just leapt up between them.  “I’ll, uh, see you around, Eliot.”

 


 

Three nights later, there is a party in the Physical Kids Cottage.

Quentin is really, really sick of parties.  He is miserable and sleep-deprived because of his own stupid brain, and he just wants to go and lay down and read a dumb fantasy novel for a while upstairs in the quiet.   But when he tries to do that, Margo comes and grabs him, and drags him back downstairs again.

“Trust me,” she just keeps saying, while Quentin protests, “You want to be here right now.”

“I really don’t,” Quentin insists, thinking longingly of his pillows and cosy sweatpants.  But, because he’s not a particularly strong-willed person if he’s honest, he lets Margo lead him anyway.  She drags him to the bar first, gets him a glass of admittedly nice wine, and then steers him through the throng of unfamiliar bodies –– seriously, Quentin thinks, where do they find all these guests at such a small school –– to an unoccupied couch.

“Wait there,” Margo instructs him, with the air of a sort of elite sports coach who doesn’t know how to talk except in orders.

“If I was just gonna sit down with some wine, couldn’t I have done that up stairs?” Quentin complains, but his voice is mostly lost under the sound of the fast music playing.  Margo’s stood above him, head craning around like she’s searching for something.

Quentin can’t think about much other than escaping here before he bumps into Eliot.  He sets about drinking his wine. Maybe Margo will let him go when he’s finished it, he thinks, and then he can go and wallow in peace, like he’s been doing undisturbed every other night this week.

Then, all of a sudden, Margo spots whoever she was looking for.  Her posture straightens and she beckons with one hand, entirely unsubtle.  Quentin raises his head, hoping she’s not trying to set him up with someone or something ––

Only to look up, and find himself starting at Eliot Waugh.

Oh fuck, Quentin thinks miserably, as his heart clutches around nothingness inside his chest.  Eliot looks incredible, in some sort of velvet suit jacket and a peach-coloured cravat.  His curls are tumbling across his forehead like he was painted by an old master. Quentin sort of wants to jump onto his dick and sort of wants to cry.

“Uh, hi?” Quentin offers, as Margo shoots Eliot some sort of meaningful glance and then marches away from them.  “Alright, bye, Margo, I guess.”

“Don’t mind her, she was just helping me find you.”  Eliot sits down next to Quentin. He even smells amazing, which isn’t fair when she’s sat this close.  Quentin tries to shuffle away subtly, but Eliot only follows him.

“Uh, so, you’ve found me,” Quentin observes.  He doesn’t know what else to say. Has Eliot forgotten everything Quentin like, just said about needed space?  What could possibly be so important that Eliot needs to accost him at a party?

“Okay, here’s the thing.”  Eliot’s voice is low, and more serious than Quentin has maybe ever heard it.  He shifts on the couch so he’s facing Quentin, rests a hand on his knee, and Quentin’s heart sort of stops.  “I’m terrible at this stuff, Quentin. Really, truly terrible, because it scares me.  But when you asked and I said no, that wasn’t because there’s anything wrong with you, that was just all me.”

Oh.  “Eliot, it’s been a month, okay, I promise I don’t need the it’s not you it’s me speech right now ––”

“No, no, that’s not what this is,” Eliot insists, dragging Quentin back down when he tries to rise off the couch.  “Will you just listen for a minute? Just –– okay, just three minutes, where you don’t say anything, and let me talk.”

Quentin likes splitting time down into tiny chunks.  It’s a good way of managing anxiety. So, even if he doesn’t think he could feel more miserable about this moment if he tried, he nods.  Three minutes, and then he can go feel awful in his room for the rest of the night.

“Right.  Okay.” Eliot, for being the one who asked for this, sure doesn’t look like he actually wants to start speaking.  “So the thing is. I know you.  And I think I maybe didn’t realise just what that meant until a few days ago.  But I know you.  I’ve slept in your room with your dangerously overcrammed bookshelves and your nerd-porn fantasy posters.  I’ve listened to you rant about literary shit I couldn’t care less about for hours. And you’ve listened to me talk about fashion and cocktails and magical theory that you couldn’t care less about, even though you always try to understand.  And I’ve cooked for you. And I looked after you when you had that cold and were a total whiny baby about it.  And I’ve met your dad.”

Is there a point to any of this? Quentin wants to ask, because he can’t figure out if Eliot’s insulting him or not, but he promised to be quiet.  So he stays quiet, and lets Eliot carry on, hoping he’s nearing a point.

“And the thing is,” Eliot continues, and his eyes are endlessly deep, welling with unshed tears as he stares right into Quentin’s soul .  “Relationships scare me, because you never know if they’re going to work out.  There’s never that guarantee. But at the same time, I know, deep down, no matter what happened.  You wouldn’t betray me. It’s just not in your DNA. I mean, you weren’t even capable of lying to me for a single second when Josh asked you to try and date me, and we barely knew each other back then.  So, if my big thing is people not being honest or loyal, and you’re the most honest, loyal person I have ever met, then.  What do I really have to be scared of?”

Quentin just.  Stops breathing.

“What are you saying, Eliot?” he asks, hands trembling as he raises them to tuck his hair behind his ears.

“I wrote something for you,” Eliot replies, apropos of apparently nothing.  “Do you want to hear it?”

“You wrote something for me?” Quentin repeats incredulously.  Eliot barely reads most of the time, let alone writes.  Quentin can’t handle this. His heartbeat is rushing in his ears and he can barely breathe, like everything he’s ever felt is washing over him all at once ––

And then Eliot, fucking ridiculous Eliot Waugh, jumps up off the couch, and climbs swiftly onto a table.  He silences the music of the party with a clap of his hands, and draws everyone’s attention right to him in the same moment, because that’s the sort of person he is.

“Ladies and gentlemen and anyone else who happens to be in attendance tonight,” Eliot calls out, as Quentin sinks into the couch, cheeks already turning pink.  “In honour of teen movies everywhere, I would like to do something exceptionally cheesy right now, so if I could please have your attention! There is a very beautiful boy at this party who doesn’t know quite how crazy I am about him, so to prove it, I’d like to read a poem I adapted.  This is called A Ring Verse for Quentin, and A Shameless Rip Off Of 10 Things I Hate About You Except There’s 20 Things And I Love Them All for the rest of us.”

And then Eliot clears his throat, pulls a piece of paper out of his back pocket, and Quentin’s cheeks are burning but he can’t take his eyes off Eliot, can’t stop his heart pounding with love, ridiculous love, as Eliot begins to read.

“Three dates with you just studying in the school Technology Hut,
Seven nights in my bed where we talked for hours and didn’t even bone,
Nine times you just grinned when you caught me looking at your butt,
One whole fucking evening I spent helping you build a model Iron Throne,
In the Land of Brakebills, where we made something real out of lies.
And the one thing to rule them all, one thing to remind me,
One thing to link them all, and put my darkest days behind me, is this:
In the Hands of Quentin Coldwater is where my heart resides.”

Quentin is laughing by the end of it.  Laughing, with his cheeks flaming red and his face tucked into his hands, as Eliot stares down at him from a table and recites fucking Lord of the Rings themed poetry to him, talking about Quentin’s butt while quoting the verse Quentin has on a poster directly above his bed, in a room full of very confused people.  It really is just like a bad teen movie, Quentin thinks, as he laughs, except it’s kind of a teen movie he never wants to stop living.

“You’re being very insulting right now, darling!” Eliot’s voice calls out to him brightly.  “I’m pouring my heart out, and you’re laughing!”

Quentin finally pulls his hands away from his face and looks back up at Eliot.  He’s almost painfully handsome in the party lights, the strong curve of his nose and the dimple of his chin highlighted, his eyes sparkling like pure magic.  He’s got his arms spread wide, like he’s saying, that’s all I’ve got.  What d’you say? He’s opened up in every way, just offering himself to Quentin.

How, Quentin thinks.   How has he ever gotten this lucky.   All the pain of the last month just –– disappears,in an instant.  Every broken moment and miserable thought since Eliot turned him down just goes up in smoke.

All he can think about is the most beautiful man he has ever seen, wanting him.

Well, him, and the dozens of party guests watching them in confusion.

“Turn the music back on,” Quentin calls out, and with an unquestioning clap of his hands, Eliot does.  The second the pulsing beat has flooded the cottage again, Quentin leaps off the couch, and walks towards Eliot.  Eliot jumps down from the table.

It’s only a few feet between them, but Quentin nearly sprints it, and then, before he knows it, he’s in Eliot’s arms.  He tilts his head up. Eliot looks down at him, and says, “So, you liked it?”

Quentin kisses him.

It’s a perfect movie kiss.  Quentin no longer cares if people are watching them or not.  He no longer cares where they are, or what day it is, or whether the world is on the brink of exploding any second.  He’d let it burn around them. He’d let –– anything.

One of Eliot’s hands winds around Quentin’s waist, pulling him as close as he can go, and the other catches the back of Quentin’s neck, tangling in the strands of hair there until a jolt of pleasure runs through Quentin’s whole body, and he twists both his own hands into the lapels of Eliot’s jacket, his knuckles going white from how tight he’s holding on, and they’re swept up together like a wave, like any motion which doesn’t bring them closer together might kill them, and they just -– kiss.  They kiss, and kiss, and kiss, wet lips sliding together, mouths open and gasping, for so long that Quentin loses track of time completely, doesn’t hear the change of songs of shift of people around them, just pulls himself closer into Eliot’s arms and strains his head up and kisses Eliot like it might be the last thing he ever does.

And, then, either a couple minutes or a couple centuries later, cheeks flushed and hair ruffled and hands still restlessly gripping at each other, they pull apart.  

“I’m taking full credit for making this happen, by the way,” Margo says, from right beside them.  Quentin hadn’t even known she was there. “If I hadn’t been trying to babysit you, El, you two would have never even had to create a bunch of elaborate ruses and hang out.”

“Margo, darling,” Eliot suggests sweetly, “Please fuck off.”

And then he takes Quentin by the hand, and hauls him towards the stairs.  Quentin spares a glance over his shoulder to give Margo a smile and a little apologetic wave: she’s not wrong, but he can, uh, thank her later.  Right now, he just follows Eliot, easy as anything.

He’s so madly, wholly in love.  He’d go anywhere El wanted to lead him.

(But he’s particularly happy that Eliot wants to lead him to a bedroom, right now.  They have some lost time to make up for.)