Margo started to walk away, but Quentin all but vaulted over the couch to get to her.
“Look, um, Margo—I, um, I can’t—” he stammered quietly.
She raised an eyebrow. “Spit it out, Coldwater.”
He ran a trembling hand over his hair. “Things are still, um, really weird with me and Alice and I just—I can’t, alright, I can’t—” His voice was getting a little frantic, in a way Margo had barely heard since he was just the little first year that she and Eliot had fallen for. He’d gotten steadier as Margo had known him, but right then, it just looked like he was right back to being nervous and desperately insecure.
Half as a second thought, Margo glanced over Quentin’s shoulder to Alice, who quickly dropped her gaze to the floor. Oh, yeah, she’d definitely heard. Margo took a quick breath. That was a whole can of fucking worms that she didn’t really want to manage, but…
“Okay,” Margo said, as gently as she could manage given the circumstance. “Okay, alright. Look, it’s fine.”
She reached over and put a hand on his shoulder, offering a soft smile she really only reserved for him or Eliot. He met her gaze, wide-eyed, his jaw tensing. Jesus, he looked like a mess.
“I’ll go with Alice. She can do the spell. You stick around and figure out the Binder shit with Julia and Penny.” She touched her palm briefly to his cheek, but she pulled back abruptly when she noticed how he stiffened.
“Thanks,” he said, barely audible.
“We’re gonna figure this out,” she said softly.
Quentin just looked at her, lips pressed together and brow furrowed.
“We always do,” she added, a hint of desperation creeping into her voice. Something in her really needed to hear Quentin’s seemingly endless belief, his stubborn, reckless optimism. She could’ve used that comfort in the desert.
If she’d had enough optimism to warrant a lizard-based hallucination, it would’ve manifested as Quentin.
She’d really missed him.
Quentin swallowed. “Right,” he said, his voice flat.
She frowned, studying his face with concern. She must’ve missed how bad it had gotten. She must’ve missed something. He didn’t sound like himself at all. He sounded—well, hopeless and empty. Resigned.
It was kind of terrifying.
When she got back, she promised herself, she’d talk to him. Right now, they needed to fucking go because Eliot was in danger and they didn’t have a lot of time.
“I’ll be back,” she said, her voice developing an edge. “Be here when I am.”
Quentin half-rolled his eyes, which helped Margo relax a little. “Yeah, okay, Margo.”
She offered one last smile, hoping it communicated all that she needed it to, before holding her head high and breezing past him over to Alice.
Alice looked a little sick, glancing over at Quentin with wide eyes.
Margo chose to ignore that.
“Alright, well. Let’s get the fuck to it,” she said with a constructed confident smirk.
Alice tried to ignore the way her stomach was turning. She knew things were—well, complicated. She knew that she’d fucked up with the keys. She got all that. But was it really that hard for Quentin to be around her?
It didn’t seem fair. She’d apologized. She really, truly was sorry. Why wasn’t that enough? How could she make that be enough?
She didn’t like it when things were hard to fix. She just wanted to move past this part. It was messy, and hard, and exhausting. She wanted to skip to the end.
It didn’t even make sense for Margo to come along instead. It had been her and Quentin at Brakebills South before—with the mind swapping spell, how was Margo going to deal with explaining to first-year Alice why she was there?
Yeah, okay, they were supposed to erase memories before they left, so it should be fine in the end, regardless of whatever Margo said or did. But still. It seemed risky. Clearly, the best course of action was for this mission to be her and Quentin.
But Quentin could hardly stand to look at her anymore.
Truthfully, Alice wasn’t thrilled about the idea of her body just being there with Margo, with the version of herself she was when she was a scared, shy first year. She’d always kind of felt like Margo hated her, especially back then. She didn’t like the idea of Margo being snide and cruel while she was off getting the stupid spell from Mayakovsky.
At least, whatever he felt for her now, Quentin used to like her. He used to love her. There was some comfort in that. There had to be.
Alice also, for far less complicated reasons, just hated the act of Traveling. Penny 23 was never as kind about it as Penny 40 had been, for one thing, and the act just made her nauseous.
Basically, the entire experience was going to be a nightmare and Alice just wanted it to all be over.
When they got to Brakebills South, Alice stumbled against the wall, her head spinning.
23 just let go of her arm, letting her half-collapse.
“Call me when you’re done,” he said gruffly, “since I’m apparently a human Uber now.”
“I’m rating you three stars,” Margo replied.
“Bite me,” 23 said. And then he was gone.
Margo turned her attention to Alice, her hand resting on her hip. “Need a minute?” she asked.
How did Margo make such an innocuous question sound like an attack? Her tone always felt like some kind of jab. Alice curled in on herself just a little.
“I’m fine,” she replied, teeth gritted. “Let’s just get this over with.”
They performed the spell together in silence. It was pretty anticlimactic—Margo doing the tuts from outside the circle and Alice on the table, facing away from her.
Nothing appeared to have happened when the spell was done, but Margo felt the tingle of magic in the tips of her fingers.
She studied Alice’s back for a moment, watching the way her posture changed.
Alice seemed a little fidgety, looking down at the table. She held her hands up a little, like she was getting ready to do a tut but she’d forgotten halfway through.
“Huh,” Alice let out softly, and somehow, that was what did it.
It was the sound of Alice’s voice. Hearing it felt like time-traveling. Margo hadn’t even noticed that it was so different. Maybe the change had been gradual. Maybe Margo just hadn’t been paying attention. Either way, it was clear that this Alice was the version from the past.
Margo didn’t make a sound or a move. She just watched as Alice pinched her skirt between her fingers, studying it for a moment before carefully coming down from the table.
When Alice turned, she practically jumped into the air at the sight of Margo.
“Um,” she said, in an almost offended tone. Like she was completely put out by Margo’s presence.
Margo glossed over it, ignoring the hint of hostility. She raised a hand, giving a half-hearted wave. “Hey there.”
“What are you doing here?” Alice said stiffly.
Whatever, they were going to have to use the memory erasure spell anyway. “Things have gotten pretty fucked in the future, so present day you pulled a Freaky Friday to get something we need from Mayakovsky,” Margo said bluntly.
Alice stared at her for a moment, looking a little startled.
Margo sighed. “Yeah, yeah, I’m from the future.”
“But,” Alice said, “why are you here? I mean. Why would it be you?”
It was Margo’s turn to stare. She wasn’t sure what to say to that. She was kind of taken aback for a moment.
“That’s what’s confusing you here?” Margo finally replied.
“There being a crisis in the future is par for the course, time magic exists, whatever. I’m keeping up. I don’t know, I just—” Alice’s voice was getting softer. “Guess I would’ve expected it to be Quentin.”
“Well, it’s um… It’s been a while. Since.” Margo gestured vaguely. “Couple years, actually.”
“Is Quentin—is he okay?” Alice said. Her voice was tight, her lips pressed together like she didn’t want Margo to see even a flicker of emotion.
“Quentin is f—” Fine, she was trying to say. She wanted to say. Her voice caught like the word was too big a lie. Margo offered half a shrug, trying to seem nonchalant. “Well. He’s as good as any of us can be with how much our lives are fucked right now.”
She tried to say it breezily, carelessly. Judging by the way Alice was blinking at her, she’d pretty severely missed the mark.
“What happened?” Alice asked.
Margo shot her a cold look. “What do you care? You won’t remember. I have to wipe your memory before present Alice comes back.”
Alice pursed her lips and looked away. Margo felt a prickle of frustration. Whether it was at Alice or at herself was debatable.
“Guess you haven’t changed, at least,” Alice mumbled.
Margo’s irritation spiked. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
Alice rolled her eyes. “Nothing. Whatever. Forget it.”
“You got something to say to me, Quinn, just say it.”
When Alice came to, after the disorienting experience that was the mind-swap spell, she found herself in Quentin’s room. He was sitting up on the bed, his eyes wide, hair falling into his face like he was hiding behind it.
It was so familiar while simultaneously feeling so wrong that Alice felt her stomach twist. She drew a hand up to her forehead, feeling the slightest bit dizzy.
“You okay, Vix?” came Quentin’s soft mumble.
Wrong, all wrong, so wrong.
It was the nickname. It was the way his voice trailed off. It was the cold, dusty air.
So much had happened since this time, this place. Alice could’ve collapsed under it.
“I’m fi—um. I’m fine.” Alice glanced around the room. Her heart ached. She’d spent a lot of time in here, when they were stuck in this awful place. She’d latched onto him as the one bright spot she could find. It had been the only good thing about Brakebills South.
And then. Everything else happened.
“You sure? You, um, you don’t look so good.”
Alice met his gaze and his eyes got big.
“I mean—wait, that came out, um, that came out wrong. You look good, of course you look good. I mean, um, I just—you always look good. Of course. I just meant—”
“I know what you meant,” Alice replied softly.
Had he really been that intimidated by her? That afraid of saying the wrong thing?
Her memories from before being a niffin were strange—more distant and fuzzy than anything else. It was almost dreamlike. She never quite connected to that version of herself, not anymore. It was like an ill-fitting dress. She didn’t know that person. She didn’t know that person’s life.
But she always felt—
Alice frowned, looking down at the ground.
Something felt wrong.
She cleared her throat, centering herself as best she could. She needed to get what she came for and leave.
“I just remembered that I have to go talk to Mayakovsky,” she said, her tone flat. She couldn’t make herself look at Quentin.
“Wait, Alice, come on—I’m sorry, I’m—um. I just. I’m sorry. I’m so dumb. I didn’t mean for it to sound like that.”
It was such a small thing—did she even look mad about it? Or was he spiraling?
Had he always spiraled like that with her?
She couldn’t really remember. Everything was so rose-tinted.
“It’s fine, really,” Alice said, trying her best to sound assuring. Assuring had never been her strong suit. She caught a glimpse of Quentin’s hand, pulling at the sheets, unable to keep still.
“Really,” she repeated. She forced herself to look up, unfocusing her gaze so he was blurry. She offered a forced smile. “It’s not that. I just don’t want to have to deal with Mayakovsky.”
Quentin’s shoulders seemed to relax and he snorted. “Yeah, the guy’s a tool. I could talk to him, um, for you. If—If you want?”
Alice got the lingering fuzzy memory—
Or, not quite memory. More like a feeling. A feeling of an argument she and Quentin had at one point, way back then. Something about how he was always offering to do things for her. Like he wanted to play at being a white knight.
She’d always found it a little demeaning. Like he didn’t think she could do anything for herself. Like he was always trying to be the hero, trying to save some damsel-in-distress version of her that didn’t even actually exist.
When she heard his tone, just now, it didn’t sound like he was trying to play hero. It just sounded like he was offering some part of himself, like he wanted her to know she could count on him.
Maybe the problem was that they were always seeing things through their self-centered lenses. He’d never seen how she needed her independence, and she’d never noticed how he wanted to feel reliable. She could never hear what he meant, and he could never hear how he sounded to her.
Alice focused in on Quentin’s eyes. They were bright, and nervous. A little overeager. She could feel a lump growing in her throat.
Did she even remember the last time Quentin’s eyes looked that light? He’d been so—
“It’s alright,” Alice said quickly. “I can do it.”
Quentin cleared his throat, his gaze shifting away. “Well, I mean, I um. I know you can, I just—like, he’s such a dick, and—”
“Why don’t you just—” Alice started softly. She hesitated, tucking a lock of hair behind her hair. “Um. Why don’t you just come with me? Moral support. Or something.”
That was a bad idea. Alice could feel it.
Quentin smiled and Alice’s heart ached.
That was the problem: she really, really missed him, actually.
“Sure thing,” he said.
“I’m just asking what happened, and you just—” Alice made a frustrated gesture towards her.
Margo narrowed her eyes. “Just what?”
“You’re just always so—” Alice tried again. She cut off, letting out an irritated scoff. She seemed fidgety, touching her hair quickly and dropped her hands, looking around the room rather than directly at Margo. “I don’t get what I did to you.”
“What you did to me?” Margo repeated, a little disbelieving. She barely knew Alice had any feelings about her, let alone some actual baggage about it. Alice didn’t seem all that fragile.
“Like, whatever it was, I’m sorry, but I don’t get why you have to be like this with me.” Alice’s words came out fast, rushed. Like she needed them out all at once.
A small memory surfaced, and Margo’s temper spiked. She’d tried—she really had.
“Hey, you’re the one who didn’t want to be friends,” Margo snapped. Thinking about how she’d reached out that one time, really tried her hand at some sincerity. She’d asked about Alice’s life. She’d tried to share a bottle of wine, she’d tried—
Alice scoffed again, more venom in it. “Yeah, like you really wanted to be friends.”
Margo could feel the frustration on her skin.
“God, we were in grad school, what did you think? That I was the mean girl pretending to be your friend so I could spill your dumb secrets to your crush? What bad eighties high school TV show did you think this was?” Margo snapped, feeling herself bristling. Honestly.
Alice crossed her arms tightly over her chest, huffing. “Right, because I was clearly so wrong about you. You’re super nice, you’ve always been so nice to me.”
Margo paused, frowning.
What was she supposed to have said, or done, or been? She told Alice that she wanted to be her friend, and Alice just dipped. She said it out loud. And Alice had just not believed her.
Margo was flipping through her mind, trying to decipher the words she should’ve said.
“I never meant to be mean to you,” is what she ultimately replied, flatly.
At least, at the time this Alice is from, that had been true.
Alice looked away, defensively. “Yeah, well,” she said, her tone short.
Was that really it?
Margo didn’t even know what to make of this fucking conversation. She and Alice barely ever talked. They weren’t friends.
She’d always blamed Alice for that, until she ended up making it her own fault.
With a twinge of regret, she realized that Alice, this Alice, hadn’t yet been betrayed by Quentin and Eliot and her.
A little uncomfortably, Margo cleared her throat. She didn’t really know what else there was to say.
They were both stubborn people. They’d made up their minds about each other a long time ago.
She just had to wait it out until present day Alice came back and they could get the fuck out of here.
She got in and out of Mayakovsky’s office as fast as she could, wanting to minimize the time she had to spend with him. Yeah, whatever, everyone said he was such a genius, but he was also an insufferable dick and Alice had no patience for him.
But she got the spell without too much teeth-gritting, and Mayakovsky believed her claims about wanting to be as great a Magician as he was, and just wanting to look at all his work. Amazing how well ego-stroking worked with supposed geniuses. She wasn’t even a good liar; he was just that ready to believe that someone worshipped him.
She slipped out of his office, to where she’d left Quentin waiting for her in the hallway.
She tried to smile at him, her heart going through some complicated twists. It was so hard to look at him, knowing where they were now.
Did he really hate her? After everything they’d been through, could he truly hate her?
“You good, Vix?” he said. His tone was gentle and warm.
All at once, Alice remembered why she’d latched onto him so fast. Why she’d fallen so hard.
She’d been so alone, her whole fucking life. And here was this kind, well-meaning boy—who liked her, really liked her. He always saw when she was hurting or uncomfortable. He always cared. Maybe he was a little clumsy about it, a little insecure—she wasn’t patient with all the reassurance he seemed to need.
But it was kind of the first time in her life she felt like someone saw her and accepted all that she was, even the messy parts.
She met his eyes and she felt like she could cry. No one else had ever looked at her the way Quentin had.
“Alice?” he prompted, frowning a little. Like he was worried.
She shook her head. “Sorry. Sorry. I’m fine.”
He took a step towards her, putting a hand on her waist. “You sure?”
“Yeah,” she said, her voice breaking. She pulled away. Her skin burned where his hand had touched her. She didn’t know what to do with his affection.
“Did he say something to you?” Quentin said, his voice hardening. He glanced back at the office door, his eyes already narrowed in anger.
“No,” Alice said quickly. “No, I just—he didn’t do anything. It’s fine. Really.”
Quentin looked back at her, the anger still lingering. “If you’re sure,” he said uncertainly.
She tried to smile. “I am,” she said, her voice a little stronger.
She turned, walked away again. He fell into stop beside her.
“So what did you need from Mayakovsky?” Quentin asked.
“Just a spell,” she said, as casually as she could. “No big deal.”
She had done what she came for. She both desperately wanted to leave and desperately wanted to stay. Her chest was tight. She glanced at Quentin, and he met her gaze easily, with a warm smile.
God, she really missed him. He’d changed so much. They both had.
It had been so long since he’d looked at her like that.
Heart aching, Alice realized he never would again. They’d never be able to be the people they used to be. Too much had happened. It was solidly in the past.
She knew she wasn’t in love with him. Not anymore. She just missed it.
She had to get back home. There was nothing left for her here. She had to let it go.
She took Quentin’s hand, squeezing lightly.
“You’re a good guy, you know that?” she said softly.
He blinked, looking fully surprised to hear her say it.
“Oh,” he said. “Um. Thanks, I, uh…”
“I’m just… I’m glad I know you, Quentin.”
“I didn’t—” Alice started suddenly.
Margo looked up abruptly. She’d started idly picking at her nails in the stretching silence. It had moved from uncomfortable to boring by that point.
Alice glanced at her, looking away fast. She coughed. “Sorry.”
“No, what was it?” Margo said, trying to keep her tone in check. “You didn’t what?”
Alice dropped her gaze to the floor. “I didn’t think you were, like—a teen movie mean girl or whatever. I didn’t think you were, y’know, Heather Chandler.”
“Heather Chandler?” Margo repeated, raising an eyebrow. “I would’ve said Regina George.”
“Not the point,” Alice said quietly. She didn’t seem to find any part of it funny. Margo bit back whatever snarky comment might’ve come out. “It wasn’t that I thought you were some movie mean girl. It’s just—no one ever wanted to be my friend. They wanted to know about my family. And you—you were asking about my family.”
Margo studied Alice’s profile. “I wasn’t asking because—” she tried, but she cut off. She swallowed, casting her eyes towards the window. “I get it, y’know. My family. It was like that for me, too.”
“It was?” Alice said, her voice laced with doubt.
Margo felt the flicker of defensiveness coming up. Why did Alice always seem to think she was lying?
She ignored it. “Yeah. I mean, it’s not the same. I didn’t grow up with magic. But my family—my dad. He was someone important. And it was always just—” Margo picked at her nails some more. “It was always a fact of my life that I was his daughter. Before I was my own person, before anyone saw me, I was just my father’s daughter.”
“Brakebills, it was… It was the first place I could be me without that fuckin’ baggage.” She glanced at Alice. “It must’ve been hard. Because Brakebills only made that worse on you. Didn’t it? Coming from a legacy like that. Everyone knew who you were before you did.”
Alice’s head snapped up, her eyes wide. She looked at Margo, like she was searching for the ulterior motive. Like she was searching for the other meaning.
Margo got that, too. She’d gotten used to having to read between the lines when people talked to her. It was a difficult habit to let go of.
“I never really cared about your family,” Margo said. And it was the truth.
“Oh,” Alice said.
Margo felt a pang of regret that she was going to have to erase Alice’s memory of this conversation. It was kind of sad, really, that maybe they could’ve been friends. Who knew how different everything could’ve been, if they’d just been able to understand each other from the beginning?
It was too late to change what had happened.
When Alice came back to the present, her heavy heart offset the nausea a little bit.
She sighed, closing her eyes tightly. She wasn’t sure if she was glad she got to see the person Quentin used to be or not. It hurt too much for her to figure out if she was grateful she’d gotten a few more precious moments of the past.
“You good?” Margo said.
Alice opened her eyes. Margo was looking at her cautiously, like she might fall over.
Alice nodded briskly. “Fine. Got the spell,” she said, all business. “Did you erase past me’s memory?”
“I did,” Margo replied. If Alice didn’t know any better, she would’ve said that Margo sounded sorry about it.
“Good,” Alice said. “We should get back to the others, then.”
“I’ll call 23,” Margo said. She didn’t move. She looked hesitant, almost nervous.
It was strange. A little unsettling, honestly.
“So? 23?” Alice prompted after a few long moments of silence.
Margo met her gaze, and Alice was a little startled. Margo’s eyes were troubled as she studied Alice’s face.
Alice felt like shrinking away but she didn’t.
“Was it okay?” Margo asked. Her voice was almost kind. “Being back there? It couldn’t have been easy.”
Alice swallowed, a defensiveness clutching at her chest. “It was fine. Whatever. What do you care?”
“Just checking in,” Margo replied. “I’m guess I’m trying to do that more. Check in with my friends.”
“We’re not friends,” Alice said, the words coming out automatically. She regretted them as they left her mouth, but she was just so caught off guard by how Margo was acting. She didn’t know what else to do.
Margo studied her face again for a long, quiet moment. Alice could hear the cold winds outside. She broke eye contact, looking at the floor like she’d lost something.
“No,” Margo finally agreed. “I guess we’re not.”
Alice hadn’t imagined it. She could hear some regret in Margo’s voice.
She self-consciously tucked a lock of hair behind her ear.
“I could really use a friend.”