A neon sign floated over the dance floor: CONGRATS, YOU FUCKERS in bright, flickering orange. Quentin Coldwater squinted, trying in vain to figure out its intent—insult or tease, sincere or ironic. But the glowing magic tubes still hadn’t revealed their secrets. He suspected they never would.
Music thumped through the static air. Bookshelves and crystal glasses bounced with the bass and each tremor sparkled under a spinning disco ball. Drunken, undulating bodies dipped in unison, screeches of intoxicated glee whooping from their open mouths. The house was covered in spilled liquor and crushed cigarette butts, the constant bellows of laughter and snaps of roaring fire underscoring the decadent atmosphere. Everything smelled of marijuana and semen, of flowers and the seaside.
Quentin took a sip of his shitty beer and snorted. He was a goddamn poet.
Obviously, the party was his worst nightmare. It was loud and sweaty and everyone wanted to be on display, which was an impulse he would never understand. But Quentin was nothing if not adaptable. If there was a place to hide, he would find it. The one advantage of the Physical Kids Cottage was that it appeared to be a twisty labyrinth of nooks and crannies. It would be easy to hide forever. He could slip away into the cobwebs without notice.
But even in the safety of his dark little corner, two naked Nature kids had managed to stumble near him, giggling into each other’s skin with giant drugged pupils. That was one of the many distinct disadvantages of the Cottage; everyone was always looking for a place to fuck that wasn’t the privacy of their own bedrooms. Obnoxious as shit.
The couple landed on the piano keys with a discordant crash, shameless as they moaned. One dipped down to snort some kind of glittering substance off the other’s collarbone, licking all the way up to nip an earlobe. They kissed, a showy slide of tongues, skin flushed with arousal even in the low light. And when they parted, they turned toward their captive audience with sly smiles. Crooking two matching fingers, they beckoned him forward, come hither.
—Quentin jolted back against the wall.
Taking deep breaths, he stayed perfectly still, hoping to emulate crypsis. The music floated around him in waves, each song now flavored like a dessert. Whitney Houston tasted like pistachio ice cream. It was distracting. He hated pistachio ice cream. He hated this party. He hated Julia, who had dragged him here against his will and then abandoned him to talk to Penny Adiyodi, of all fucking people. He hated Penny Adiyodi.
Quentin hated everything, and he was not being dramatic.
“Jesus, there you are.”
Think of her, and she appeared. His own personal Benedict Arnold sidled up to him and pinched his shoulder between her sharp nails. “Are you mingling?”
“Yup.” Quentin popped the ‘p’ and shook the paltry remains of his shitty beer as evidence. “Been mingling a shitton.”
“Hm, thanks for clarifying,” Julia said, slipping her arm into his. “Because you look like an asocial asshole.”
“Don’t pretend you‘re having fun,” Quentin countered. “This whole thing is like, uh, uh, Lupercalia with shitty pop music and glitter bombs.”
Julia pursed her lips. “Lupercalia.”
“Yeah, it was a pre-Roman pastoral festival that often involved, um, ritual sacrifices and—”
She sighed to silence him and perched her chin on his shoulder. “It’s a party, Q. It’s not that deep.”
He grunted in response. Julia nuzzled into him.
“Look,” she said, sighing gently. “I get you’re upset about your discipline and I understand your frustration, even if I think it’s a little overblown. But these are your people now. You need to make an effort.”
“I’m appealing to Fogg,” Quentin said, with a tight clench of his jaw. “I’ve been in the Attic for almost two years. Moving to, like, the worst place on campus for my final year is going to be disruptive to my learning and definitely not conducive to thesis writing and, like, I have transition anxiety so I’m pretty sure it’s an ADA violation, so—”
“Bawk, bawk,” Julia clucked out the side of her mouth. He glared at her and she smacked his stomach. “Dude, this is a good thing. Please try to be happy for yourself.”
“I’m thrilled,” he shot out. The words tasted bitter despite the newly cheesecake-flavored air. “Why wouldn’t I be? I’m destined to do a first year spell for the rest of my life. Totally what I wanted.”
“Minor mending is a respectable—”
“Can I please feel the way I feel without having to fucking explain myself?” Quentin stared away, irritation crawling up from his gut. “Like, for once?”
“For once,” Julia snorted and threw him a thumbs up. “Uh-huh. Sure, you never get any leeway. Poor baby.”
That was fair, but Quentin wasn’t in the mood to admit it. He gripped tighter at his empty cup and waved it at the dance floor. “Come on, Jules. This shit? It’s not me. I don’t belong here.”
Julia pinched her lips up at him. “Not with that attitude.”
“God,” Quentin said with a groan. “You’d be the worst mom. Just, like, so insufferable.”
Julia widened her eyes, big and creepy without blinking. “That’s why I’m going to focus all my energy on you. Forever.”
“Christ,” Quentin said, though a small smile snuck its way out. She always had that effect. It was annoying.
Assured of her victory, Julia slid in closer to him, her tiny frame curling into his side like they had a million times before. With a rush of bittersweet nostalgia, Quentin quietly acknowledged the lack of stomach swooping bliss at the feel of her against him, the evenness of his heart rate at her proximity. He really was over her now. It was weird. Good. But weird.
“You know, I actually know some people who live here,” she said, rubbing her cheek on his arm. “They’re not boogeymen. They can even be nice, if you gave them half a chance.”
“It’s not that I don’t think they’re—”
But before Quentin could finish his thought, a loud crash and a few scattered yells caught their attention from near the bar. A pretty blonde—Alice Quinn—held up a wobbly ward as a curly haired woman shot bolts of fire at it with a cackle of drunken laughter. Alice giggled back, her cheeks bright pink and eyes shining under her owlish glasses. Emboldened, the other woman held her hands out with a circuit of electric sparks, firing up toward the ceiling with a snort and sway.
“For the love of fuck, Kady, no Battle Magic!” A brassy voice rang out from behind them. “We have one goddamn rule. One! Uno.”
Quentin’s stomach dropped.
It was Margo Hanson.
Margo Hanson, with her long hair piled on top of her head and big eyes narrowed in annoyance. Standing only inches away, flowery perfume tickling his nostrils, Margo Hanson held a bottle of fancy looking champagne in one hand and pointed the other out accusingly toward Alice and her friend. Margo Hanson snapped her fingers repeatedly, until she got a halfhearted glare and an exit outside.
Then Margo Hanson heaved a breath, tiny dress riding up her legs. Quentin dutifully looked away. She was hot, but he didn’t have to be a dick about it.
“Jesus, no fucking respect,” Margo Hanson sighed. She turned her head to catch Quentin’s eyes. “Don’t get it twisted, kid, Mama’s reign is eternal.”
Quentin swallowed. “Um.”
He had never actually talked to Margo Hanson before. Which made sense. Quentin was Quentin, and Margo Hanson was the most beautiful woman on campus. She knew it too, with a gleeful and gregarious swagger of her hips from one admirer to the next.
Quentin was as far from her social circle as anyone could be. But from what he’d gathered, if she bothered to speak to you, it was to fuck or fight. It was only the rarest—and the most stunningly gorgeous—who ever truly gained her favor.
But at his silence, Margo Hanson twirled all the way around to face him, voice dipping to a purr. “Aw. Cat got your tongue, honey?”
She touched hers to the roof of her mouth, flicking her eyes down the length of his body. His skin flushed burning hot, toes trembling. He wanted to run away, but he was trapped between Margo Hanson’s toying gaze, Julia hanging on his arm, and—well, the wall.
“Hmm,” Margo continued, cocking her head to the side. “Now, you would certainly do.”
“Uh.” Quentin could feel his pulse thump. It made his voice squeak. “Like, um, do what exactly?”
Margo smiled wide and wolfish, one of her small hands gripping the edge of his flannel. “You’re cute,” she mused, almost academically. “El’s gonna love you. Are you a first year?”
Quentin’s heart took off like it had been tasered. But his terrified elation was cut off by Julia gripping his arm, sharply tugging him out of his daze.
“Walk before you run,” Julia said low in his ear. She waved her free hand to call attention to herself. “How’s it going, Margo?”
Margo Hanson rolled her eyes away from Quentin, though her hand remained pressed flat against his chest. But when they landed on Julia, her brows lifted in pleased recognition.
“Julia Wicker,” Margo chirped, lips curling into a small smile. “Finally dragged yourself out of the moldy stacks to hang with the big kids?”
“I had to congratulate you all on graduating, didn’t I?” Julia said with a grin, lifting her glowing green drink. “Congratulations, Margo.”
“It was a cinch, but thanks,” Margo said, craning her neck to shamelessly check Julia out. “Love the dress, by the way. Does great things for your ass.”
Julia brightened. “Thank you! I’ve been getting my pre-thesis aggression out at the gym.”
She made a little punching motion like she was kickboxing. She was a fucking dork.
“Oh, I can tell,” Margo said, eyes twinkling. “So how’s your fuck boy these days? Darren?”
“Derek and I broke up,” Julia said. “Usual shit. He wanted to be single after graduation.”
For once, she didn’t seem stricken by it. If anything, she was blushing, especially as Margo let out a happy little sound at the news. Either way, Quentin used the opportunity to angle away, contemplating escape. Carpe diem.
But Julia was a keen multitasker and she clutched his arm tighter. “Oh, so, Margo, I don’t think you’ve actually met my friend—“
“Enchanté,” Margo said to Quentin with a wink, not letting Julia finish. “Anyway, this has been great, but I’ve gotta go do body shots off an Illusionite. Last hurrah and all.”
“Of course,” Julia said. She offered a tiny salute. “Godspeed.”
Margo shimmied into a low smile. “You lambies have fun. Though, FYI, if you have too much fun, you’re on your own. We don’t fuck with alcohol poisoning. It’s gauche.”
Julia tucked her lip between her teeth. “Noted.”
“Tequila awaits.” Margo ran her hand down Julia’s arm. “Save a dance for me, Wicker.”
Taking one last moment to blow them a kiss, Margo Hanson took a drink straight from the champagne bottle and gyrated her way into the crowd. And just like that, with nothing but a trail of stardust...
She was gone.
“Wow, you’re right,” Quentin said, shooting Julia a sidelong glance. “She seems super nice.”
But Julia just cupped his face between both hands to kiss the tip of his nose. “Go mingle, dummy.”
Quentin did not mingle.
He slid down the stucco wall to land flat on his ass, stretching his legs onto the small brick patio. There were a few stragglers outside, but most of them were too fucked up to pay him any mind. Not that anyone ever paid him any mind. But that was okay. He was used to it.
What mattered was that, for all intents and purposes, he was alone.
The sky was dark and starless, but the full moon above was a blinding white-blue. And Quentin wondered if werewolves were real. That would either be really fucking cool or really fucking scary. Or both. Not mutually exclusive.
His housemates were all Knowledge students and thus, curious by nature. But most of them disdained discussion of magic’s “fantastical elements.” According to them, it was a base distraction from the true mysteries and complexities of metaphysicality and the science therein. Which, like, yeah, he understood the argument. But at the same time, it was cool that dragons were real, you know?
Quentin sighed, twiddling his fingers around his knees. It had been a long time since he’d let himself get excited about magic. It was weird and nice that he still could. Weirdly nice. Nicely weird. Like putting on an old favorite sweater that shouldn’t still fit, but did.
His dumb thoughts were broken by a titter of hushed laughter in the darkness, followed by a shuffling of feet and low voices. The moonlight caught a gleam of bright blond hair and sculpted cheekbones. The Healing student bent over at the waist to zip up his fly and smirk at the ground with a satisfied hum.
Quentin rolled his eyes.
That guy was hot, but a total ass. The one time Quentin had been sent to the infirmary for a minor mix-up regarding chemical alloy application in a vertomancy spell, that guy had been the student healer who cleaned out the pus from his stomach wound. It had started out routine, but as the attractive blond worked, he had glared at Quentin and lifted one derisive brow, all to say, “Ugh, the cuter they are, the dumber they fall.”
Which had not only been a stupid line, but it was also inaccurate. Quentin was far less dumb than he was cute, thanks.
Back on the patio though, he kept his focus on the scuff of his boots, waiting for the newcomers to go back to the party and leave him to his solitude. He heard the usual pattern of stumbling steps, retreating laughter, and a squeak of sliding glass. The open door let out music and chatter out into the quiet night, signaling his freedom.
But right when it should have thudded closed, one of the footsteps paused. He heard a scratch like a pivot, a presence hanging back. Then—worst of all—he felt the telltale heat of eyes on him.
His heart stopped.
It was embarrassing how well Quentin knew that voice. The rumble, the pop, like a roll of warm thunder and a crack of bright lightning. There was no other sound in the world that made him feel more unsteady, or more like his toes were on fire.
Which wasn’t insane at all.
“Um,” Quentin said, forcing his face into a socially acceptable mask of mild interest as he looked up. “Hey Eliot.”
Standing about fifty feet taller than him, Eliot Waugh jutted out his hip and cracked a disbelieving grin. He was decked out in an array of dizzy patterns and silky looking fabrics, his shiny black curls cascading down the slope of his defined face.
“Holy shit, hi,” Eliot said, airy and amused. He flicked his fingers behind his shoulder and the sliding door closed. “What are you doing out here?”
There was no good way to tell the de facto host of a party that you hated said party and had come outside to escape its oppressive inanity.
“Oh, uh,” Quentin said. He pushed back his hair, just to give his hands something to do. “You know, I was just—”
Eliot frowned. “Are you lost?”
He said it with the same gentle inflection as the nice thirty-something woman who found Quentin wandering the mall when he was seven. Like Eliot genuinely wanted to help him get back to his adult.
Quentin’s cheeks burned.
“No,” he said. He waved his hand about, still not sure what the fuck to do with them. “I mean, I’m here for the party?”
Eliot’s smile flashed back on, feline at the edges. “Seriously?”
It was easy to compare Eliot to a cat. He was always so slinky and aloof and composed. But really, every time, Eliot made Quentin feel like the cat. Every time he saw him—which wasn’t all that often—Quentin felt his body battle itself. One part skittish and haunched, hissing at his own deficiencies. But the other part, the deeper and more vibrant of the two, aching to wrap himself in the splendor of Eliot Waugh, twining between his tall legs and purring at a single scratch under the chin.
Again, super sane. Not creepy at all.
Quentin cleared this throat for the third or fourth time. “Is it, uh, is it that shocking?”
“I’m trying to think of a tactful way to answer that,” Eliot said wryly. Fair enough. Quentin wasn’t exactly what anyone would call a joiner.
But Eliot was nice enough not to dwell on his antisocial bullshit for long, eyes zeroing instead on Quentin’s twitching hands. “Do you need a drink?”
He made the offer with all the cadence of a practiced host, mostly accommodating but with an underscored gasp of horror at the negligence, at his unacceptably empty hands.
“No, I’m good,” Quentin said, offering a genuine smile. “Thanks though.”
Eliot softened his own grin back and Quentin’s stupid heart flipped. He looked away, casting his eyes back up to the sky so it didn’t get any crazy ideas. “Honestly, uh, I’m just getting some air.”
That was the obvious cue for Eliot to nod politely, spin around on his fancy shoes, and forget Quentin forever. He had done his duty—said hello to his casual acquaintance and offered a drink to the empty-handed partygoer. So now Eliot could go spin his usual gold as he danced and laughed with boys far more interesting than Quentin Coldwater.
But Eliot took one long step forward and slid down to the ground beside him.
“I’ll join you,” Eliot said. He settled back against the wall and into perfect posture. “It’ll be dull in there for awhile still.”
Dull was not the first way Quentin would describe the party but what did he know. “Oh, uh,” he said, the words sticking to his throat. “Yeah, sure.”
Eliot looked at him for a moment before turning away with a snort. “Though I feel like I should be deeply insulted that you made your inaugural Cottage appearance for my grand finale.”
Quentin shrugged a little, repressing a disappointed sigh.
Of course Eliot didn’t remember.
Eliot had been his exam guide, once upon a time. Quentin had stumbled onto the big green Sea, under an ethereal golden light. Within less than a minute, he had not only found out that magic was real, but had also laid eyes on the single most beautiful man he had ever seen in his entire life. It was a lot for his brain to wrap around and Quentin wasn’t sure that he had managed it yet.
But for Eliot, it had just been a run-of-the-mill chore. A punishment, actually, for the amount of parties he had thrown and for “singlehandedly lowering the grade point average of the second year class.” Eliot told Quentin that himself as they walked to the testing building, a proud smile on his face and showing off the Brakebills bee pin he got for the occasion (“It’s to borrow, but I’m stealing it. Jot that down.”)
After the exam, after it was confirmed that Quentin was indeed magical, he had embraced Julia and moved into his dorm room in a daze. He had almost forgotten all about Eliot—well, as much as anyone could—when the upperclassman had shown up at his door with a sly smile and an everlasting flask.
“Bambi sends her regards,” Eliot had said, which had made Quentin sputter like a dumbass because, whoa, uh—were Disney characters real? But Eliot had just laughed and clapped his hand on his back, leading him out to the wilds of the campus.
Of course, Quentin being Quentin, he had spent most of the day babbling about the excitement of magic. How he had always known it existed. How he was going to dedicate every second of his life to it now. He never stopped talking, even when Eliot had grown tired of the mandatory tour and probably the conversation, bringing Quentin back to the Physical Cottage in search of “something magic to smoke.”
But still not reading the disinterested room, even as Eliot packed a bong with masterful ease, Quentin had just kept telling him all about how everyone had always thought he was crazy and how now he’d show them, and also wasn’t it amazing that his childhood best friend was there too? Wasn’t that, like, totally insane? His hands had shaken with his fervor and with a happy shout of, “Oh my god, holy shit!” he had zoomed through all the spellbooks on the walls of the house, every word a line of cocaine.
Meanwhile, Eliot had merely offered placid smiles and the occasional humoring mhmm in response, plying him with booze and salacious gossip whenever Quentin took a breath. But in retrospect, Eliot never really gave much indication he was paying any real attention.
And obviously, he hadn’t been.
He didn’t even remember that Quentin had already been to the Cottage, let alone their day together. Which made sense. It wasn’t like they had become best friends after. Eliot was always kind when he saw Quentin around campus, and they would catch up here and there, making Quentin’s whole week whenever it happened. But for the most part, their worlds were completely separate, especially once Quentin’s had fallen apart and magic had become a means to an end rather than a source of childish wonder.
He had gotten serious about his work and Eliot had… remained Eliot. Beautiful, charming, elusive Eliot. A glimmer of light in his dark world, but not a permanent fixture.
Eliot broke him out of his thoughts by nudging him with his knee. “Makes me wonder if I’ve been too unapproachable.”
He smiled almost knowingly, making him feel way too seen, like he’d been caught out in his hopeless obsession. Inhaling a sharp breath, Quentin looked away. “I mean, uh, it didn’t have anything to do with you.”
Quentin swallowed hard, hoping the moonlight didn’t showcase his red cheeks and fidgety hands. He was such a fucking idiot.
“Okay,” Eliot said with a small laugh, looking down. “Touche.”
Abruptly, Quentin felt like he fucked up. But Eliot seemed serene as ever, pulling out a long white cigarette and lighting it with a fluid tut of his fingers. He lifted a brow at the silver case in his other hand. An offer.
Quentin shook his head. “I quit.”
“Good man.” Eliot tilted his head back and let a plume of smoke rise into the air. “So. How was second year? Last I saw you, you were having some kind of breakdown and turning to a life of crime.”
Quentin huffed a laugh, making Eliot smirk around his cigarette.
During Alumni Week, Quentin had run himself ragged trying to finagle his way into the graces of Magician medical researchers. But they had only wanted to work with Healing or Knowledge kids, not bullshit nothingmancers. One of his rejections has involved a renowned Master Magician literally laughing in his face and calling him Quinine. Like tonic water. Just to be mean-spirited.
So the drunkest, pissiest version of Quentin had stolen a case of the school’s fanciest vintage wine at the closing dinner banquet.
Of course, that had caught Eliot’s attention. Quentin hadn’t exactly been subtle, and nothing delinquent ever got past him. So when Quentin was in the back room—gripping the slatted wooden crate with determined hands—Eliot had flown in, grabbed Quentin’s elbow with a low-spoken allez, and directed them out a secret exit.
Hidden away in the sculpture garden, the two of them had imbibed a few bottles of wine, mostly silent as they sat in the grassy nighttime shade. Quentin had ranted a bit about the bullshit unfairness of the mentor system and Eliot had agreed in his own way, by telling a story about his childhood—in, like, Illinois? Maybe? They’d both been pretty drunk by that point.
But what he thought Eliot had been trying to say was that people thrived when they had their feet to the fire, when no one believed in them. He remembered it had helped at the time, letting his anger fall into tipsy laughter and comfortable quiet. He’d been fucked up as shit and had a hell of a hangover the next morning.
But it had been a good night.
He remembered that too.
Quentin cleared his throat. Again. “Yeah, that got resolved. More or less.” Less. Quentin was 0-for-2 with mentor opportunities. “But, um, I guess my second year was fine. I got my discipline, so that’s progress.”
Eliot smoked. “Disciplines are bullshit.”
Quentin was stupid. “Oh.”
“But congrats anyway,” Eliot said, flicking his eyes over with a guilty smile.
“Shit,” Quentin said quickly. “I’m a dick. I’m the one who should be congratulating you.” Eliot arched a confused brow. “You know, for, like, graduating?”
“Oh,” Eliot said. “That.”
Quentin shifted, curling his knees into his chest. “Do you have any—I don’t know, big plans?”
Quentin had figured that Eliot would go on to do something exciting and sexy and maybe more than a little dangerous. And/or marry into royalty.
But Eliot didn’t respond except to breathe smoke out his nose. “So will you be sticking around the library then?”
The prickling sting of the results flooded over him all over again.
Quentin had been so sure he would be Knowledge. He wanted so badly to be Knowledge. He had been placed in the Attic because they had extra space, and Quentin had fought every goddamn day for legitimacy and respect. Being any other discipline felt like failure, like they had all been right about him all along.
“No, uh, I’m a Physical kid.” Quentin tried to say it lightly, but it thudded. “Fogg says I have to move to the Cottage at the start of next semester.”
If he sounded like a resentful dickhead about it, Eliot was polite enough not to comment. Instead, he let out a melodic sigh, resting his chin on his own shoulder coquettishly.
“Such ships in the night we are,” Eliot said, voice softer than his sharp grin.
Quentin’s pulse raced thick in his throat as Eliot’s eyes pierced right into his. Eliot was a notorious flirt. Everyone knew that. Hell, Eliot had even always flirted with Quentin, from the first second they met. And from the first second, every time had been dizzying, flattering, spellbinding.
But it wasn’t anything real. It was more to see Quentin squirm or to play Make the Nerd Blush. At least, it had to be, since Eliot had never initiated more than a few lightly heated moments here and there. If he had wanted more, Quentin would have known. What Eliot sought, Eliot got.
Everyone knew that too.
Sure enough, when Quentin didn’t say anything, Eliot relaxed back against the wall. The spark was gone. “No, that’s great, Quentin. I’m happy for you.”
“Yeah, it’s—great,” Quentin said, pinching the bridge of his nose. “I mean, I know it’s great. I’m sure I’ll be less frustrated or whatever. But I—I don’t like change. I don’t, uh, deal well with change.”
It was a kind of an intense thing to say to someone he barely knew, but Eliot just nodded. “Change is a bitch.”
“That’s offensive to bitches.”
At that, the corners of Eliot’s eyes crinkled and he slid an unreadable smile over at Quentin. But he didn't say anything.
“It’s actually why Julia made me come here tonight,” Quentin continued. “So I can get to know people. Be, uh, more social. Mingle.”
He waved his hand out with a sour sigh. Eliot kept looking at him, exhaling a line of smoke up to the clouds. He flicked the end of his filter with his thumb and gray-white ash fell to the brick.
“Well,” Eliot said, glancing both ways before leaning in with a stage whisper. “You’re doing an ace job.”
Despite himself, Quentin snorted a loud laugh. Eliot grinned, bright eyes searching until they met his directly. And Quentin smiled back, allowing himself one indulgent moment to enjoy the sight of Eliot Waugh, most likely for the last time.
He really was beautiful.
"Don't worry," Eliot said in a low voice, his gaze soft and tingling warm. "The Cottage is the best place on campus. I'm sure you'll have a good time."
"Well, uh, yeah." Quentin flushed, smiling wider, looking up through his eyelashes. "But probably less so now. You know, without you there."
He shrugged, a small scrunch of his shoulders. That was probably a stupid thing to say, but his chest was glowing and the air felt charged, giving him an unexpected kick of bravery. He liked Eliot so much and Eliot deserved to know that, even if it wasn't—even if it was just a friendly way to say goodbye. Even if any of this had only ever mattered to Quentin.
Eliot's eyebrows quirked and he let out a laugh, quiet like a breath.
"Shit," he said, smile melting into something sweeter and more undefined. He shook his head and then, before Quentin knew what was happening, Eliot Waugh cupped his face with one hand. He stroked his thumb across the line of his cheekbone and scooted closer, until their knees touched, grinning eyes trained on his. And Quentin—
Holy shit, Quentin was going to have a goddamn heart attack.
His eyes flew open wide and every drop of blood in his body rushed to his face in a furious blush. He was shocked when Eliot didn’t snap his hand away, burnt from the sudden heat, but instead just smiled all the more gently. Like this was normal. Casual.
“Tragic,” Eliot said in a murmur.
Quentin dropped his mouth because, uh, holy shit, what was happening. And when he did, he swore Eliot’s eyes darkened which was—holy shit. His numb fingers ached to wrap around the purple knot of Eliot’s silk tie, to pull him closer, but he couldn't think how to move.
“Uh—what’s—?” Quentin almost swallowed his own tongue, heart racing fast in his chest. “What’s tragic?”
Eliot tilted his head. “Your face.”
“My—face?” Quentin was dazed and unsteady. “Is tragic?”
Eliot slid his fingers to tuck back Quentin’s hair. “Entirely.”
Quentin tried to make his mouth form words. Something like what the fuck are you talking about? felt appropriate, but he was short-circuiting. His lips tugged up and down, forehead wrinkled with all the chaos in his mind. And Eliot Waugh was still holding his face, still caressing him like they were friends or—or lovers or something in between. Time had ceased and all Quentin knew was the charged air between their lips.
But right when Quentin was about to do something crazy like lean in, the world reset itself to the scheduled programming. Eliot patted his cheek once, a vaguely condescending thing, and dropped his arm.
He stubbed his cigarette out and cracked his neck.
“My adoring public awaits.” Eliot lifted his mouth into a half-smile. “Have a nice life, Quentin.”
I think you just ruined it. “Um, you too.”
Eliot chuckled, standing in a single motion. He walked away, reaching the sliding door in a few easy strides. But before he disappeared into the party, he offered Quentin a low bow. “If you’re ever in the city.”
Quentin nodded dumbly. “If, uh, you’re ever at Brakebills.”
“Sure,” Eliot said, the syllable rough with a hidden laugh. That was when Quentin knew he’d never see him again.
It shouldn’t have made his heart swell and ache. They barely knew each other. But all the same, it felt like a death—a microcosm of overwhelming grief—as Eliot lifted his hand in a wave and slipped through the door, into the party, and out of Quentin’s world for good.
The moon moved behind a wisp of a cloud, and Quentin rested his chin on his knee. For a little while, he stayed there. He hugged his shins and watched the grainy watercolor sky quiver with the wind.
Then, with only a half formed thought in his mind, Quentin bolted up from the ground.
He ran away from the Cottage, heart pounding. He bounded through hedges and ducked under a Japanese maple, tiny red leaves flying off and sticking to his hair through his hurry. The pavement slammed back against the soles of his boots as he sprinted all the way across campus, finally skidding to a stop in front of the library back entrance.
Quentin wound his way up the marble stairway, spiral and slick without railings. He almost ate shit on the top step, as usual, but he caught himself against the wall, as usual. He pushed through the glass doors of the Attic and leapt over a couch blocking his path. It evoked a disgusted scoff from a nearby Knowledge kid, but he didn’t give a shit.
He made it to his room in record time, locking the door behind him with a fast snap of a ward. The tall white walls were imposing as ever, surrounding his round bed like guardians or icebergs. Focused on his task, Quentin climbed up his library ladder, scaling his mountain of books. He balanced dangerously at the top to paw free his Fillory paperbacks, tossing all five onto the bed below.
The series was still the dearest to his heart, even after he had traded his fixation for the Chatwins for a fixation on magic, and using magic to fix things that should be fucking fixed.
His paperbacks weren’t his fanciest copies of Fillory & Further, but they were his first, and so the most beloved. Yet that wasn’t why he hid them the way he did.
Quentin hid the books because they held his letters.
When Quentin was eighteen, he told his therapist that he was having a gay panic. And his therapist—a no nonsense woman named Ann-Marie—had patiently asked him to elaborate, clearly unimpressed with the terminology, and he had been unable to do with any kind of real coherence.
“I, just, like, keep having gay thoughts. Well, okay, I’ve always had gay thoughts, but more like, you know—damn, Han Solo is pretty hot for a dude, I wonder what his chest hair tastes like. Stuff like that,” Quentin had said back then, wringing his hands in his lap. “But now, it’s affecting my friendships? And I know it’s because I’m, like, jealous that Julia has a boyfriend but I also don’t know—I don’t know if I’m jealous of her or of James. Or, like, it feels like I’m jealous of both? At the same time? I want to be both of them and I want to fuck both of them, which is fucked up, right? What the fuck is wrong with me?”
She was a good therapist, so Ann-Marie didn’t outright tell Quentin he was clearly bisexual. But she pointed him toward a lot of reading that led him to the conclusion himself. In the end, it had been a helpful, quiet revelation. An oh, that makes sense more than anything else. It didn’t resolve the rest of his bullshit, but it made the framework easier to work with. To that end, Ann-Marie also gave him an interesting tool for his arsenal called ‘therapeutic letter writing.’ She suggested that he use the method to explore his feelings in a safe way, to take his turmoil and turn it into cathartic prose. At least, until he was ready to explore them another way.
Over time, the habit stuck and Quentin had ended up writing five letters. Five letters, for five different guys. One letter for each book. He had thought it was kind of neat when that happened.
Everyone knew Quentin was bi now. He had even hooked up with a few guys later in undergrad. And earlier that year, he had shown Julia the letters, all of them, even the one for James, right after everything with his dad. He hadn’t told her the whole context, instead silently handing the letters over as he cried numb tears. He had just—wanted someone to know that part of him. To know that he felt things, once.
“These are beautiful, Q,” Julia had said. He couldn’t remember what she looked like because his eyes had been so swollen, but he could remember the feel of her pressed to his side. “You should—every one of these boys would be very, very lucky.”
Now, the letters were spread out along his dark green comforter, surrounding him like a crescent moon. Each held a different part of his heart, some small and some vast, some ridiculous and some burrowed between his ventricles forever. To James, of his curiosity. To Penny, of his lust. To Calvin, of his delight. To Mateo, of his regret.
And to Eliot, of his awe.
Quentin slid the letter for Eliot Waugh closer to him. It was the longest by far, written in a hazy rapture after that first day together, with so much hope and joy and magic, all finally in his life, maybe to stay. It hadn’t all exactly come to fruition the way he wanted, but it was still a moment in time he treasured. He always would.
But Quentin didn’t bother to re-read his own words. He remembered most of them and they were embarrassing as shit. Instead, he flipped to the last page and dug a pen out of his pocket, one of the few that hadn’t already exploded and stained his jeans.
Pushing his hair off his face, he scratched down a final thought, a final message to the Eliot conjured up by his mind, the one he had always been halfway in love with.
P.S. I wish I could miss you more, but I’ll miss you all the same.
Quentin smiled. It felt good. It felt right. Like a natural stopping point.
He slid the folded pages beside familiar words—Jane held within her hands, at last, a key to greater magic—and took a deep breath. For one last moment, he let his most wistful dream encircle him like a gentle glow. It settled into a brand new corner of his heart, filled with nothing but fond memories and no regrets.
And then Quentin closed the chapter.