Chapter 1: Prologue
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.
Quentin ordered a toasted poppy seed bagel with drizzled honey. Coffee with cream, no sugar. Next to him, Julia ordered a plain bagel with cream cheese, lox, and avocado. Coffee, black.
They didn’t look at each other.
They paid with their Brakebills credits and nodded weakly at the cashier. She had blue hair and wore a perky smile across her face. She also kept glancing toward the tip jar, clearing her throat when they started to walk away. With tight smiles, they turned back and put a credit in each. It wasn’t her fault they were having a shitty morning.
The autumn sunlight was bright as they squinted their way out onto the quad. Two weeks into term, and Fogg was still going with the relentlessly cheerful opening weather show, meant to ease the young first years into a sense of complacency. But as third years, world-weary and bone-tired, they knew better. It was bullshit all the way down.
They walked in silence down the winding stone path and gripped their white bags and disposable cups. But finally, they reached the tallest oak tree, where they faced each other and made wary eye contact.
Julia spoke first. “Truce?”
They made the exchange, bags and cups changing hands—and hearts—in their usual post-fight ritual. Julia opened her bag suspiciously, eyeing down at her bagel as though to inspect it. After a moment, she turned her face up at him and nodded once, tersely, officially. Then, just as quickly, her mouth lifted up in a bright smile.
Quentin rolled his eyes. She was a dork.
Sitting at the base of the tree, Quentin dug into his smoked salmon treat and didn’t comment on the forgotten capers. Julia rested her head on his shoulder and sipped her coffee, frowning as she stared straight ahead.
“Maybe I overreacted a little,” she said, before turning her tiniest and most familiar smile up at him. “I know, a concession. Don’t get used to it.”
“Would never,” Quentin said, giving her a tentative half-grin right back. “But I guess I’m sorry too. For, like, being a dick. I know it’s a red flag when I want to be alone all the time and you weren’t—you weren’t wrong to push me on it. I know you’re just looking out for me.”
The words were rote coming out of his mouth. It was like he was trying to appease an authority figure rather than have a genuine conversation about his feelings. But there was only so much more he could say. Moving into the Cottage was an ongoing adjustment. Quentin was mostly handling it by throwing himself into work and ignoring everything else. Julia didn’t approve. Same old shit.
“Always looking out for you,” she promised as she took his hand in hers. “But shit got out of hand. I’m sorry I said what I said.”
Julia cuddled into him and Quentin swallowed against the memory of her shouting that he was dooming himself to a lifetime of misery and loneliness. Like he didn’t already know. Like his brain didn’t tell him that every fucking day.
“I just—” Julia let out a slow breath. “I worry about you sometimes, Q.”
Quentin snorted. “Sometimes?”
“Constantly,” Julia corrected. But when Quentin sighed and turned his face away, she elbowed him. “Can you blame me? I’m worried you’re stalled.”
Quentin sputtered his lips, letting his head fall back too hard against the big tree truck. He wasn’t stalled, he was getting his shit together.
He was trying to figure out how he fit into the Physical magic world, while still sticking with the plan for his thesis, while still trying to get his research done, while still going to class and not floundering all over the damn place, while trying to position himself to finally get a fucking mentor, and while, honestly, just trying to keep his oxygen intake flowing so he didn’t choke in a puddle of his own bullshit.
It was forward motion, even if it didn’t fit Julia’s narrow prescription. He was trying his best.
Quentin gesticulated with his coffee cup, making liquid jump out of the lid holes. “I’ve just—I’ve had some shit on my plate, Jules.”
“Hey, I know,” Julia said. She ducked her head and gave him her most serious look. “I’m not trying to diminish that.”
But of course, she kept staring at him, her big doleful brown eyes fluttering against the inevitable. Quentin grit his teeth. “But—?”
“But your dad’s been in remission for six months now. I know it’s far from a guarantee, but you can give yourself a break.”
Sometimes Quentin hated her. He loved her, but he fucking hated her.
“What does a break look like?” He ripped a piece off his bagel and chomped down on it. “In Julia world?”
“It looks like you putting yourself out there, even a little bit,” Julia said. She shimmied against him. “You know. Do a little dance. Make a little love.”
“Oh my god.”
Julia smacked his arm. “How long has it been since you’ve been on a date?”
Quentin hated when she asked questions when she already knew the answer. “You know.”
“I do,” she said in a sanctimonious lilt. “But I want to hear you say it out loud.”
He sighed, “Why do you care?”
“I want you to be happy.”
“I am happy.”
“You can be happy and single at the same time.”
“No kidding, but I know for a fact that it’s something you’ve always wanted but never let yourself have.”
“No one’s interested.”
“Bullshit,” Julia said, grabbing his chin to wrench his face toward her. “You’re a catch, Coldwater. Especially if you’d actually let people see how kind and funny and romantic you are under all that—“
Quentin narrowed his eyes. “All that what?”
“Um, my point is—” Julia tried to breeze past it, but he stared her down.
“Under all that what, Julia?”
“Come on, Q,” Julia said, like that was enough for him to intuit. But he raised his brows, unyielding. So she sucked her lower lip between her teeth and spoke in that one careful voice that irritated the shit out of him.
“Okay, well, you can be sort of—prickly and, you know, a little bit quiet and passive when people first meet you.” But then Julia lost all delicacy to roll her eyes. “That is, unless you dive right into yelling at someone for saying that their favorite David Lynch film is Mulholland Drive.”
“It’s an insane position when Eraserhead exists.”
Julia opened her mouth and then snapped it shut, taking a long sip of her coffee. “I just think sometimes you can come across a little disinterested.” She smirked. “Or outright hostile. One of the two.”
Quentin thought back to the time he had spent ten minutes lecturing a girl about how, sure, Morrissey was a total douche but that didn’t make The Smiths’ oeuvre any less important to the post-punk era and if she wanted to dismiss them because of a few off-colors comments then they obviously had nothing in common. “I take your point.”
“You used to be much more open with your heart.” Julia touched her tattooed hand to her own. “I don’t want you to lose that. And I think there’s some lucky girl—or guy—who is really missing out too.”
She leaned into him with a teasing, dreamy smile and he snorted. “You’re corny as shit.”
“Damn right.” Julia popped a kiss on his cheek. “Angel protecting your future. Now and always.”
“Are we done then?” Quentin asked. “Fight over?”
Julia hesitated. She picked at her bagel, flicking a particularly big poppy seed into the grass.
“There’s one more thing,” she said, chewing on her lip. “I was... mad last night, Q. Like, really mad. I felt like you were—like you aren’t taking care of your emotional needs. And not only that, but you’re neglecting them because you’re a stubborn shithead more than anything.”
Quentin’s patience snapped. “Jesus, Julia. It’s not up to you what my emotional needs are, okay?”
“I—I know,” Julia said, stuttering uncharacteristically. Her throat spasmed as she swallowed. “I do know that, Q. It’s just—you stormed out of your room last night and I was—I was so mad, but I was mostly so worried. Can you understand that? Where my fear comes from?”
“I—don’t know,” Quentin said honestly, balling up his paper bag as tight as he could. “I don’t know, Jules. I mean, I know I’m not always easy, but—”
“You know what?” Julia held her hands up, eyes darting away. “Let’s—it’s okay. If we need to talk about this more, we will. But I just need you to know that I would never do anything to hurt you. I only ever want help.”
“Okay?” Quentin screwed his face up. “What the fuck are you talking about?”
“I’m sorry I yelled at you,” Julia said, looking down at her hands. “But that’s the only thing I’m sorry about. You needed to hear some things. And—and you needed a push.”
Quentin deflated. She had a lot of nerve calling him stubborn. “Yeah, I mean, okay. I disagree, but, like, I know—I know you come from a good place.”
She always did. It pissed him off, it frustrated him, and it made him want to throw things. It had also saved him more than once. So Quentin would always give her the benefit of the doubt, no matter how much he wanted to pull out his hair when he looked at her supercilious, patronizing, obnoxious, loving face.
“I do,” Julia said brightly. She patted his knee. “Glad that’s settled. Now, let’s talk about my thesis. I’ve started to build out the second phase components, but I was wondering if you had any thoughts on the use of a Polaski in conjunction with a thermogenesis, which would alter the molecular structure of—”
Quentin took a last big bite of his bagel, chewing as he listened to Julia methodically talk through her latest metacomp stroke of genius. Her idea sounded perfect to him, as usual, but she needed to brainstorm out loud to get anywhere with her work. He was just glad he could keep up, even if he never really had much to offer beyond probing questions and a mirror back of her best ideas.
Julia also brainstormed best when she was moving. So the two of them got up to walk back to the library and they reached the steps in a short while. But just Quentin was about to ask how the flow of the Hudson would affect the spatial dimensions she had plotted out, a shoulder crashed hard into his.
He stumbled off the path and the last of his coffee splashed across his chest. Whipping around in a daze, Quentin gaped at the retreating figure.
“You’re fucked up, Coldwater,” Penny Adiyodi said, not looking back as he stormed away. “Get your head on right.”
Quentin steadied himself along the wrought-iron railing, staring at the middle finger Penny waved high in the air until he disappeared from sight.
“Uh,” Quentin blinked a look over at Julia, pushing his hair back. “What the shit was that?”
“Who knows?” Julia said. She looked a little pale as she sipped her coffee. “Penny’s a dick.”
It was a good enough explanation for Quentin. “Such a fucking dick.”
“You know I love you, right?” Julia said abruptly, spinning to face him before they made their way up the stairs. “So much?”
“Yes, Jules,” Quentin grumbled. But when she kept staring at him with an unreadable, pinched look on her face, his resolve melted. Slightly. “I love you too. Now, can we—?”
Julia gripped onto his wrist. “No matter what happens, I want you to know that. I need you to know that.”
Quentin felt a regurgitation of impatience and frustration overtake his chest. “Are you, like, uh, dying or something?”
It was a shitty joke.
“No.” Julia brushed a strand of his hair from his face, tilting a soft smile up at him. “But you’re wonderful, Q, and everyone deserves to see it. I want everyone to know.”
His heart cracked under the gentle warmth of her gaze. Swallowing down a burn in the back of his throat and blinking a stinging wetness from his eyes, Quentin shuffled on his feet. He nodded once and sniffed, glancing away to put the jagged edges of his bullshit back into something vaguely respectable.
“Would you just chill out?” Quentin said, clearing his throat. “For, like, five seconds?”
Julia tapped her chin, all academic thoughtfulness. “I’ll take it under consideration.”
She wrapped her arm into his with a giggle, and happily pulled Quentin through the door to the safety of the stacks.
East Village, Manhattan
Ennui absolutely fit the aesthetic.
The summer after Eliot’s first year at Brakebills, he had spent a long midnight in Père Lachaise with a bottle of absinthe. He wore a rumpled silk vest and toasted high to the stars, lounging beside Mr. Wilde himself. It had been a quiet night. Lonely, dark, a touch macabre. For his mourners will be outcast men, and outcasts always mourn. Aesthetic as shit.
This wasn’t all that different.
Wrapped in a green kimono, Eliot stretched his bare legs out onto the velvet couch. It was a chaise lounge, covered in tacky as hell leopard print and high camp perfection. He ashed his cigarette, casting his eyes out the window and onto the gray city below.
Eliot and Margo had graduated from Brakebills almost four months earlier, and they’d had a fantastic summer. They had moved into their perfect little apartment and planar compressed the shit out of it. They may or may not have scammed a Soethby’s auction to get all their antique furniture. They hosted soirées and baked cupcakes and watched Bambi’s Star Trek marathons on their projector, filling their spare time with ease. Margo also had a cushy job in finance, which let her crack skulls and bust balls and get paid for it. And Eliot—well, he wasn't concerned about his career prospects. Fuck a career.
Most importantly, they had taken the local Magician scene by storm. They had gotten into the best clubs, and finagled invites to secret societies, and schmoozed at salons in highest style. They had even finally snagged two invites (complete with plus-ones) to Genji Quinn’s winter retreat, at last proving themselves worthy and ensuring a certain amount of clout from then on. And to top it all off—
Eliot had even met a boy he liked.
He didn’t usually like boys beyond a night or two, making Mike McCormick a lovely surprise. At least, at the time.
Not to mention, Mike was a bonafide adult. He wore corduroy blazers and drank craft beer. He was a Magician litigator who loved the beach and the 1988 film Bull Durham. Sure, he had an exhausting stamp collection (that Eliot had tried really hard to give a shit about, hand to god) and his favorite food was reportedly “hamburgers.” But he was also hot, smart, and nice, which mattered more than anything.
That, and the fact that Mike had liked Eliot. A lot.
...For a little while.
“I deserve someone who actually wants to build something with me. Are you committed to this long term or not, Eliot?”
Eliot inhaled smoke down to the cellar of his lungs.
“You lounge around all day with your hedonist horseshit, fucking kidding yourself. Like everyone doesn’t know that you’re really just a—”
He needed a drink. It was a late Sunday morning. Perfect drinking time.
Thankfully, the bar in the apartment was grander and much better stocked than the one at Brakebills. Eliot reached up to the top shelf to grab rye, sweet vermouth, and bitters before getting to work. Before long, the sound of the stirrer scraped and clinked against the mixing glass, and he flicked his fingers to call over two coupes.
But Eliot hit the final vibration too hard, and one flew straight across the room.
“If you ever get around to growing the hell up, give me a call.”
The glass smashed into the wall above the fireplace. Eliot swallowed his fury and gripped the edge of the bar. Mike was a smug prick.
“What’s up with you, sunshine?”
Finally freshened up after her aggressive nightmare of a kickboxing class, Margo slunk her way into the living room, clad in a half-ironic baby pink shift dress. She twisted a sly smile his way, hands perched perfectly on her hips. Eliot sighed, letting her mere presence soothe his inner roaring rage.
“Oh, just living out my days in on-the-nose metaphors,” Eliot said, as he called over a new glass and began to pour. “Speaking of, would you care for a Manhattan?”
“Make me a Pimm’s,” Margo said, sliding her way onto the cushy chair in the living room. She used her own mid-range telekinesis to send the broken glass to the garbage. Meanwhile, Eliot chopped a little too forcefully into a cucumber.
“Oof,” Margo said, puckering her lips at him. “You’re gonna get forehead wrinkles, baby.”
“I will never,” Eliot assured her. He reached down for his lemon stash. “But I’m fine. Figuring out whether to send Mike his stuff or incinerate it, that’s all.”
Margo didn’t look up from sorting a pile of mail. “Who’s Mike?”
“You mean the anal fissure who jumped ship because he’s a whiny sack of shit?” Bambi squinted at an enchanted letter in her hands, folded like a paper airplane. She pushed the others aside. “Good thing he’s an anal fissure and we never have to think about him again.”
“You just like saying fissure,” Eliot accused, fond. Margo waved him off, reading the letter to herself with surprisingly intense interest.
After a moment, she snorted into the paper.
Eliot arched a brow. “All good?”
“TBD,” Margo said, a tremor of bemused laughter under her voice. She kept reading as she spoke. “Anyway, the point is, Mike’s a cock and—oh my god, what?”
She gaped down at the page, eyelashes fluttering quickly.
Eliot placed a mint sprig on crushed ice and craned his neck over toward her. “What is that?”
“No fucking idea,” she said. Her eyes darted across the lines at rapid speed. “Keep talking.”
She didn’t have to tell him twice.
“Truly, sincerely, Bambi, like I said, I’m fine,” Eliot said. “He is absolutely an anal fissure, and I absolutely want to sip the victory cup of sweet vengeance over his demolished self-esteem. But beyond that, I’m hardly devastated.”
That part was actually true. He had liked Mike. He was attracted to Mike. But beyond the heady giddiness of the first week—when Eliot was high on the idea of man like Mike wanting to be with him, for real, for more than a night—the fireworks had quickly dulled to no more than a pleasant warmth. He had figured that was what adult relationships were like, eventually trading the clandestine blowjobs for cheese plates and chill. But Eliot must have miscalculated since soon enough, Mike had accused him of being uninvested.
And then. Well.
“Yeah, yeah, I get wanting to screw his shit over, but he’s a boring cockhead,” Margo said, voice distant as she kept reading. “Not worth your energy.”
Eliot swallowed, wiping down the jade surface of the bar as a niggling thought squirmed its way up from the darkest folds of his mind.
“But do you think there’s any chance Mike was right? That I didn’t try hard enough?” Eliot mused aloud, right before shutting it down.“No. I don’t know. I just need to regroup.”
“On it,” Eliot said, swooping over with the drinks. Margo took hers without looking up from her letter, clearly an engrossing read. Eliot settled back on the couch, taking a moment to look at her as he sipped his drink. Perfection.
“Alright,” he said with a laugh, after Margo’s face broke out into yet another giant grin. “Are you ever going to tell me what I’m vying with for your attention?”
“Oh, honey,” Margo said, eyes sparkling up at him over the top edge of the paper. “This is the perfect thing to cheer you up.”
Eliot frowned. “A letter?”
“An overwrought love letter,” Margo said with an affected gasp, pressing the pages to her chest. “To you, from a sad little loser of a Brakebills boy.”
“Aw,” Eliot said with a quick pucker of his lips. “Been awhile.”
Every now and then, one of the boys he fucked got silly notions in his head.
Margo grinned catlike up at him. “Shall I do the dramatic recitation?”
Eliot smiled tightly, trying to be a good sport but failing miserably. Bambi lifted impatient brows at him.
“I don’t know,” he said with yet another sigh, already tired at the prospect. “Seems pointless.”
True, the notes were often flattering and always funny. But honestly, there were only so many ways to describe how good Eliot was at sucking cock before it all blended together. He was sick of monotony.
“Before you mope away from my fun, hear me out,” Margo said, shaking the loose leaf toward him. “This is the pathetic love letter to end all pathetic love letters. First of all, it’s five pages long.”
—Okay, that was different.
“What?” Eliot stretched the word out under a stuttering laugh. Margo nodded, eyes wide and thoroughly amused.
“Second of all? I’m pretty sure this guy’s never even slept with you. The whole thing reeks of unrequited bullshit from afar.”
The beginnings of interest sparked up Eliot’s spine. “A secret admirer?”
“I knew that’d smack you right in the ego,” Margo said with a wink. “So now, do you care to hear the opening lines or are you going to keep up your sad sack cosplay?”
Eliot pursed his lips and pretended to ponder the notion. “Very well,” he concluded, folding his hands in his lap. “I suppose I trust your judgement.”
Margo’s following smile was bright and sharp and wicked. She cleared her throat.
“Dear Eliot Waugh,” Bambi began in a breathless grand style. She paused and cocked her head, to let that sink in.
“Oh,” Eliot whistled low, leaning back on one arm. “The full name?”
Margo delighted in a smirk, then continued, “The first time I saw you was the birth of a revelation. I don’t know what blinded me more: the magic light across the grassy Sea or the spark of cleverness in your eyes.”
For a split second, the wind knocked out of Eliot. What the fuck? Boys didn’t—
That definitely wasn’t the usual script.
But he blinked it away, absorbing the absurdity of the words slowly. A potent mix of incredulity and sheer amusement filled him up until it overflowed into a tentative laugh.
“Oh my god,” Eliot said, sliding forward onto his elbows. “Okay, I’m hooked. Keep going.”
“You were tall,” Margo continued, softening her voice to a languid narration, “and you moved like the wind, charting your path with unmatched precision and ease.”
“You’re fucking with me.”
“You wore a waistcoat, you said, not a vest. I kept the word pinned to my heart all day long, my mind spinning with it, my mouth hungry. I let the syllables roll across my tongue, hoping to taste them. Waistcoat. Waistcoat. Eliot Waugh’s waistcoat.”
Margo placed the letter down on her lap and looked up with a blank expression. For a moment, their eyes met in silence.
Then they exploded into hysterics.
Eliot fell all the way to his side and Margo bellowed into her knees. His drink spilled and for once in his life, he didn’t care because holy shit, that was the funniest shit he had ever heard.
It also felt so good to laugh with Margo, over this poor little would-be Wordsworth. It felt so good to feel light and buoyant, to feel anything but his spiraling inadequacy and rage. To giggle goofily like an actual person with his favorite person. So Eliot begged her to continue, to read the whole damn thing, to keep the light shining.
And somehow, in some unbelievable way, the letter only got better. For five fucking pages, Eliot was exalted with more similes than a goddamn SAT. It was ridiculous. It was perfect. It was, as Bambi had promised, exactly what he needed.
“Holy shit, oh my god, stop,” Eliot cried, belly shuddering. “You have to stop.”
“Sometimes, when you look at me—“ Margo shrieked, thrusting the page down and looking away. “I’m sorry, it’s too good. It’s too fucking good. Okay.”
She cleared her throat, though she snorted as the sound came out.
“Sometimes when you look at me, oh my god,” Margo bit her lip and sniffed, forcing focus. “Sometimes when you look at me, I think I see something there, something mysterious, something that will haunt me sweetly in the night.”
“Yeah, uh,” Eliot cupped his hands around his mouth. “It’s called my giant cock!”
Margo sputtered out a loud baying sound. She shook her head quickly, wiping at her falling tears with her fingertips.
“Okay, but wait,” Margo said, shaking the final page with a flourish. “Now, we have the coup de grace.”
Eliot shot her a giant grin. “Please, nothing could top him calling my chin dimple a cut stone of Alhambra.”
“But you’ll never believe what this kid’s name is.”
Honestly, Eliot would have believed anything by that point. But she was rocking back and forth a little, shivering in anticipation. So he smiled indulgently and waited for her reveal.
Margo bit her lip in glee as she leaned in and whispered, “Quentin. Coldwater.”
The couch lurched, but Eliot didn’t move. “What?”
“I shit you not,” Bambi said, snorting. The world was spinning too fast. “They didn’t give the poor sucker a chance.”
Eliot snatched the letter from her hands. “Give me that.”
He could vaguely hear Margo coo something hostile in response, but his heart was pounding in his ears, rushing and howling as it tried to make sense of the words in front of him. He brought the last page to his nose, breathing hard as he read. He went cross-eyed at the sign-off—With no expectation, and yours, Quentin Coldwater—reading it over and over and over and...
With no expectation, and yours, Quentin Coldwater. With no expectation, and yours, Quentin Coldwater. With no expectation, and yours, yours, Quentin Coldwater. With no expec—
“El?” Margo whistled and waved to get his attention. “Hello? What the shit just happened?”
Eliot flipped back to the first page. “This was written two years ago.”
“It’s dated at the top, see?”
“Why would he send it now?” Eliot shuffled back to the end. I wish I could miss you more, but I’ll miss you all the same. “What the fuck is with this postscript? What does that even mean?”
“El,” Margo said, standing and crossing her arms. “Uh. Who’s Quentin Coldwater?”
Eliot clenched his jaw. He didn’t look up. “He’s—he’s nobody.”
“Oh my god.” Margo dropped her jaw. “Who the fuck is Quentin Coldwater?”
Eliot had no idea how to answer that.
Margo was usually the first to hear dirty details of his fantasies until they were seen to fruition or forgotten. Quentin Coldwater should have been the same. It was pathetic that he wasn’t.
But Quentin Coldwater had always been a different kind of fantasy.
Quentin, with his soft brown hair, and unfair jawline, and giant eyes, and glowering seriousness, and unexpected humor, and childlike wonder, all wrapped in a slouched gray hoodie, had been a painfully perfect stand-in for every passing notion that ever teased at his heart. The two of them had spent one lovely day together, once upon a time, and it had almost been enough to tip Eliot’s heart over to hope, against his better judgment.
But in the end, their Brakebills lives ran in different directions. Quentin was easy to talk to once cornered, but he was also an elusive hermit who was always holed up in the library. And, well, Eliot had a life and he wasn’t going to spend it chasing after a boy who wasn’t interested.
(That, and he could never fucking find him.)
So they would see each other from time to time, but they never managed to cross the friendship bridge. Yet still, Eliot always carried his fanciful soft spot everywhere he went, for his nerdy little dream boy. That the spoft spot appeared to be mutual—and especially this fucking mutual—was both exhilarating and...
Where the hell had this been the whole time they knew each other? Certainly not anywhere Eliot had been able to see, give or take a few fragile moments Eliot had been certain he'd dreamed up more than anything. It didn’t make sense.
But more pressingly, Bambi had started tapping her foot at him. He needed to give her answers or face the consequences.
“Quentin was a year under us,” Eliot said, slightly dazed. “I was his, ah, his exam guide. After all the shit with the Labor Day party.”
Margo screwed her face up. “Okay?”
“I—” Eliot took a breath and forced a casual shrug. “I wanted to fuck him, but never managed.”
“Uh,” Margo coughed a sharp laugh. “Sorry, but—you never managed to fuck the guy who wrote this?”
“Trust me, it’s not representative,” Eliot said as she started laughing at him in earnest. “This is the fucking Twilight Zone. He’s cute, but he’s also completely nerdy and twitchy and irritable and just a total a scared little bunny in social situations.”
Margo composed herself, biting her lip. “Mmm, I can feel your dick getting hard from here.”
“Regardless, they seemed to tolerate me at best,” Eliot said, breathing out a half-truth. “So I assumed he was straight and called it a day.”
Except he had known, deep down. Eliot had known there had been something between them. From the start. He knew it, he felt it, every time, in all its thrumming imprecision. It had always driven him fucking mad.
“That’s never stopped you before,” Margo said. She crossed her legs with a thoughtful frown. “You went through your straight boy hate-fuck phase not too long ago.”
“Hate-fucking straight boys is forever,” Eliot said, fluttering his lashes. “But it’s not like that. I mean, we got along, hung out occasionally. Not friends, but friendly. We stole a case of wine from an alumni event once.”
When he grinned a little at the memory, Margo flew her hands to her hips. “And where the fuck was I?”
God, Eliot loved when she was possessive. It made him feel like a kept man. “Schmoozing. Securing your current job.”
Margo harrumphed, but allowed it. “Well, red alert,” she said, twinkling her eyes with a scrunch of her nose. “But I think straight might be an overstatement for this kid.”
Eliot shook his head. “Yeah, I guess. Apparently.”
His heart caught in his throat and he staggered back down onto the couch, still caught on the postscript. I wish I could miss you more, but I’ll miss you all the same. What was that? It didn’t make sense in the rest of the context. In fact, the whole thing felt like—it wasn’t like Quentin was saying he wanted to grab drinks sometime. It was more like he just… wanted Eliot to know. So what the fuck was he supposed to do with that? What did Quentin want him to do with that?
There were no further instructions.
The couch dipped with new weight beside him and Margo placed her hand on his knee.
“Why are you being so weird about this?” She softened her voice, frowning slightly. “I’m trying to understand, honey, but—”
She cut herself off with a rare pinch of her brows. Eliot exhaled.
“This is information I would have acted on back then.” He quietly offered the simplest version of the truth. “That’s all.”
An unbidden image of Quentin on graduation night flashed through his mind. Eliot had found him squirreled away in the dark, endearing as all hell. Drawn to him like a helpless moth, Eliot had ignored the party just to be near him, smoking beside him on the patio and—god, there had even been a moment when he had come so close to kissing him. To saying fuck it and finally taking his shot, if only for the tiny, gorgeous space between shifting lives.
At the time, Eliot had been glad he hadn’t gone through with it. There had been no need to dampen an already shitty night with a flustered rejection.
“Hm,” Margo said, nodding slowly. “So are you dead or something?”
Eliot jumped a look over at her. “What?”
“You’re single now.” Bambi shrugged. "Call me crazy, but I’d say you have an opening.”
His mouth went dry. “You mean—?”
Margo rolled her eyes, rising from the couch. “I mean, go fuck his brains out. Change his life. Make him write some real poetry.” She took his face in her hands, tenderly bossy as ever. “Regroup.”
His first instinct was to spit out a firm no fucking way. Quentin wasn’t his rebound boy. He was something else, something way more terrifying. Chasing the intensity of the words in the letter—or god forbid, the itchy, brightened, thrilled way Eliot had always felt around him—was way too big of a risk.
But on the other hand...
It certainly wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world to fuck Quentin.
Eliot’s stomach grew tight and warm, thinking of big bright eyes and pink lips, strong forearms and a firm little body under layers of cotton-blend. A sweet smile and dimples, made all the more disarming by their rarity. The sharp cutaway of wry wit between stammering sincerity.
Maybe they could make a night of it.
Eliot could take Quentin to dinner, somewhere quiet and simple. Get him away from the drudgery of Brakebills, so they could sit together in a back booth and take their time. Then they could talk, and relax, and get to know each other—finally, for real—until Eliot found the courage to nuzzle at his jawline, just to make that criminal blush appear.
They’d make flimsy plans to go to a bar that they’d abandon by the end of the meal, opting to head straight back to the apartment instead. They’d make out in the cab, with Eliot finally getting his hands all over him, and then together, they would tumble up to bed. For hours. For days. For as long as Quentin wanted. Any of the above.
It was one way to regroup.
Eliot lit a cigarette. “You make a compelling argument, Bambi.”
“Duh,” Margo said, plucking it from his lips and taking a long drag. She winked. “Now, go make your sugar mama another drink.”
Eliot nodded slowly. Right. This wasn’t a big deal. He needed to get the fuck over himself and take what he wanted.
So to start, Eliot took her tiny hand in his and kissed her knuckles. “Yes, ma’am.”
A knock at Quentin’s door startled the shit out of him.
He pressed his book onto his chest and frowned, taking a quick glance at the clock. It wasn’t dinner time yet, so not Julia. He didn’t have any group projects right now, so there was no one who was expecting any work from him. He wasn’t playing music, so there was no way he was pissing off any of his housemates. So why the fuck was someone knocking at his door? Who the fuck was knocking at his door?
Quentin’s chest lit up like a circuit board of anxiety, every horrible possibility glowing brighter than the next. What if it was someone from admin? What if it was—what if something had happened with his dad? Oh, god. Okay. Shit. He didn’t want to know. Whatever it was, he didn’t want to fucking know. He wanted to just stay on his bed and never face it. He backed into his headboard and curled his knees into his chest.
But the knock came again.
It was harder the second time, like someone pounding with a fist.
“I know you’re in there, loser,” a deep voice said. Then sighed. “I mean, uh. Hey Quentin, can I talk to you?”
Quentin blinked in confusion. “Penny?”
“No, Santa Claus,” Penny said. God, he was such a fucking dick. “Look, can you open the door so we can discuss this like adults?”
Quentin opened his mouth and cocked his head to the side. “Uh. What the fuck are you talking about?”
“Just open the door, Coldwater.”
Jesus Christ, he hated his life almost as much as he hated Penny. Quentin grumbled and trudged over reluctantly, swinging out the door with a graceless thunk.
He popped his brows up and demanded, “What?”
In the darkened hallway, Penny stood tall as always, wearing an open red sweater and a shitton of necklaces. He tightened his face at Quentin, looking even more sour than usual.
“Don’t be a pissy baby,” Penny said, folding his arms across his bare chest. “Are you actually surprised that it caught me off-guard?”
“Penny.” Quentin rubbed the back of his neck. “I have, like, a million things to get done. I don’t have time for your bullshit.”
“My bullshit? Fuckin’ rich,” Penny snapped out. But he closed his eyes, grinding his teeth. “Sorry. Um, I guess what I want to say is that—look, Kady kinda gave me some shit to think about and I just wanted to explain where I was coming from.”
“She told me that I was maybe kind of an unfair asshole,” Penny said. He darted his eyes away. “You know, earlier.”
Quentin snorted. “Could you be a little more specific?”
But Penny ignored that to keep talking. “Kady also said that it might have seemed like I have an issue with who you are, which isn’t the case. Well, I mean, I do, but that's because of your awful personality and the sound of your voice. Not because of, you know, anything else. And, like, I also know it probably wasn’t easy to say what you said. I'll admit, it actually took some balls to lay it out there like that. But maybe that’s why it was so—uh, fucking weird?” He bit the tip of his tongue. “Shit. No. Your desires aren’t weird, man, that’s not what I meant.”
Quentin was obviously missing some crucial information. “Sorry. What is this in reference to?”
“It was more how you expressed it.” Penny swallowed hard, clearly uncomfortable and possibly not listening to Quentin at all. “We aren’t exactly friends. So that made it kinda shocking to get an essay about the stuff you want to do to my dick, you know?”
“I—” Quentin blinked again. And again. “Uh, what?”
“I mean, I’m flattered that you think my pecs are so, you know, notable,” Penny said, pulling a folded up piece of paper out of his pocket. “But this is really graphic for people who lack a contextual foundation of trust. At least, that’s how Kady put it.”
Quentin’s heart died in his chest.
Then it restarted. Then it died, sinking down to the goddamn underworld, into hell. This was hell. This was goddamn hell. He choked on his tongue, staring down at the letter.
The letter the letter the letter. Nonononono.
“No. No. Where the fuck—?” Quentin shot his eyes up, burning and fizzing and melting out his skull. “No. How did—?”
He raced through his day, trying to figure out how the fuck, when the fuck, where the fuck, what the—
Quentin flared his nostrils. “I’m gonna fucking kill her.”
But Penny definitely wasn’t listening. He had closed his eyes, forcing each word with obvious effort. “Kady also helped me realize I felt kinda objectified and so I lashed out at you for that. Not because you’re gay or whatever.” He paused to shrug. “That part’s cool. I don’t care.”
“No. Oh my god.” Quentin clapped his hand over his mouth. “Penny. No. This is a huge fucking—”
“Your wards are shit, so I sort of knew that you thought I was hot in, like, an inexact way, but this—” Penny pulled his lip down into a wince. “This is another level.”
Like a shot to the gut, Quentin burst out laughing. “This can’t be happening.”
But Penny was still fucking talking. “All that to say, uh, congrats on being gay—”
“I’m bi,” Quentin snapped. Everyone knew that. His legs were shaking. Only adrenaline kept him standing.
“Congrats on being bi,” he flatly corrected. “But I also want to be clear that I’m not interested. So you can, uh, have this back.” Penny held the letter out between two fingers. “I do not want it.”
Quentin stared at it for a moment. Black spots swam in front of his eyes. “I have to go.”
Kill Julia. He had to go kill Julia. Quentin had to straight up fucking murder her in cold blood. Premeditated as shit, but no jury would convict, he was sure about that.
Quentin pushed his way out into the hallway, storming ahead as fast he could. Penny said something else, but he couldn’t hear. He couldn’t think about the things Penny had read. He couldn’t curl up into a shaking ball of mortification like every atom in his body wanted. He needed to keep to his resolute goal of killing Julia Wicker. It was his only purpose now. The only thing that could ever bring him joy, cold and devastating and raw motherfucking joy.
After that, Quentin could shrivel away, living out his days in the Upstate wilds, foraging berries and mushrooms for subsistence. In fact, he had just learned a water purification spell, which was good timing since—
Quentin didn’t finish his thought.
He reached the bottom step and jumped backwards, hands splayed across his chest to keep his lungs from exploding out.
Jesus fucking Christ.
Mother of a son of a bitch.
—Eliot Waugh was in the foyer.
Quentin sucked in a breath. His stomach turned and his panic crested, burying him under its oceanic power.
Eliot Waugh was in the goddamn foyer.
Standing with his strong profile angled down, Eliot’s hair fell in ringlets, more rock star disheveled than the prep school cool Quentin remembered. His cultivated stubble hit the light, the planes of his face sculpted and defined and sophisticated. It had only been four months, but Eliot looked older now, somehow more put together, with his regal posture and his usual uniform of silky tailored clothes.
It wasn’t shocking that Quentin forgot himself for a second, left breathless and mesmerized. Eliot had always had that effect.
But reality flew back all at once when he saw the folded pieces of paper in Eliot’s hand. It was the letter. His letter. The letter Quentin Coldwater wrote to Eliot Waugh two years earlier.
The stupid fucking letter.
Quentin stumbled backwards and fell onto the stairs in a futile escape attempt. Of course, at the sound, Eliot snapped to attention and his eyes widened as they trapped Quentin in their intensity. Eliot furrowed his dark brow, hand gripping tight at the letter, softly crumpling each page.
He didn’t look happy.
“Quentin,” Eliot said cautiously. The soft sound made Quentin jump out of his skin. “Hi.”
Eliot swallowed hard and shifted on his feet, like the greeting was the hardest thing he had ever done in his entire life. Oh, god. Quentin needed to say something, anything, to let Eliot know he wasn’t a complete crazy person.
“So, ah, I have to admit I was hoping I’d get to have a drink before I saw you,” Eliot said, with a sharp smile to the ground. “Er, not that I need a—actually, let me start over." He took a breath, turning serious eyes to Quentin. "I came here to talk to you about—”
Quentin jolted forward, pointing a shaking finger at the letter.
“Before you say anything, I can—I can explain that.” TELL HIM YOU WERE ABDUCTED BY ALIENS AND THEY FORCED YOU TO WRITE IT TO REGAIN YOUR FREEDOM. “I was, uh—um—it’s—”
“Okay, whoa,” Eliot said with a chuckle. Oh, god. “Breathe. You don’t have to—”
“I literally never think about you anymore,” Quentin said in a rush. “Ever. I’m over it. Like, I am one hundred percent not into you at all.”
Eliot blinked. “Oh. Well, that’s—okay.”
It was an easy enough acceptance. Eliot’s face went slack and relaxed as quickly as he had looked vexed. But Quentin was out of his mind, shaking and about to scream, and he just—he fucking had to make sure Eliot understood exactly how much the letter meant nothing and exactly how little Eliot needed to worry that Quentin was planning to boil his proverbial bunny.
“I mean, I don’t think about you at all, in any context, but especially not, uh, that one. Like, yes, I wrote it, I’ll admit that. Mea culpa. But it was a long time ago, like years, two years, you can even check the date at the top for proof, and—and—and I promise you that I am seriously so, so over it. It—it—it wasn’t something you were ever supposed to read.”
Eliot stitched his brows together. “Okay.”
Quentin could have stopped there. He probably should have stopped there.
But he didn’t.
“Like, sure, fine, yes, there was a time when I was—um, whatever, but you don’t have to worry about that anymore, okay? I mean, I still think you’re, uh—obviously you’re good looking, right? But now I appreciate you the way one may appreciate, uh, uh, a statue. Respectfully and at a distance.”
Was that weird to say?
“A statue,” Eliot repeated. His voice was flat.
Yeah, it was weird. Shit.
“That letter wasn’t really a letter. It was, um, more like a journal?” Quentin promised, begged, pleaded. “My friend—she’s kind of the worst and she wants me to be, uh, more social or something, and so she sent out the letters—”
Eliot crossed his arms, cocking his head to the side. “Letters?”
“Yeah, they were, like—um, they’re kind of like a form of therapy?" Quentin swallowed, eyes darting up at the ceiling like it could help him. "But my friend didn’t really know that, I never told her, she thought they were just, uh, letters.”
“She thought I was being a chicken shit for not sending them, but they were more of a way for me to come to grips with my sexuality, a long time ago,” Quentin said, a lodge forming in his throat. He couldn’t believe this was happening right now. “But I kind of kept writing them even after I had fully processed it because it—like, I feel things intensely and kind of obsessively so it helps to write it down to, ah, move past it.”
“Fascinating,” Eliot said. Quentin couldn’t tell if he was being sarcastic or not.
“Anyway, uh,” Quentin sucked a breath through his teeth. “So over time, I’ve written them for a bunch different dudes.”
“Fascinating,” Eliot repeated, sharper, dragging his tongue across the ridge of his teeth. “Not to be nosy, but what exactly is a bunch? In a precise numeric?”
Quentin hated everything. “Uh. Five?”
“Five.” Eliot shot his eyebrows up to his hairline. “I see.”
Quentin held his hands up. “Yeah, well. The point is, my friend sent them out last night without my knowledge and—”
“That's epically shitty.”
Eliot actually looked offended, eyes narrowed over a dropped jaw. Quentin snorted.
“Well, that’s Julia.” He took a deep breath, the mortification strangling his chest all over again. “Anyway, it’s not—”
“Sorry, still stuck on the shittiness,” Eliot said, holding his hand up. “Quentin, did she out you? Because that’s really not okay.”
Quentin froze, slightly startled. “Oh, god, no. She sucks, but she wouldn’t do that. I’ve been openly bi since I was eighteen.”
Everyone knew that.
Eliot let out a strange huff of air. “Well, okay, that’s—” He cleared his throat and smiled, though it contained no mirth. He nodded to himself, but he didn’t say more.
Quentin chewed on his lip. “No, I mean, I appreciate the concern, but I really just wanted you to know that it’s not about you. The letter isn’t about you, I mean, not really. It was that I had just discovered magic, and you were handsome and nice to me, and, uh, I’m a dumbass.”
“Okay,” Eliot said with a breathy laugh. He closed his eyes. “Okay. Quentin. I think I should probably—”
“I know it’s intense, but it’s an old sentiment and I’ve moved on.” It wasn’t hard to say because, well, Quentin had moved on. Mostly. “So if you’re here to yell at me or tell me to fuck off, I guess I get that. But I promise I’m not a fucked up murderer who wants to wear your skin or something.”
There was a long beat of silence.
“Ah, see, now we do have a problem,” Eliot said, his face set coolly over folded arms. Quentin tensed. “Because that’s exactly what a fucked up murderer who wants to wear my skin would say.”
But right when Quentin opened his stupid mouth to sputter out his stupid explanations and excuses, Eliot broke into a dazzling smile.
“Sorry, couldn’t resist.” He smirked at Quentin’s dumb numb face for a second, before rolling his eyes. “Of course I’m not here to yell at you or tell you to fuck off. Jesus. If I felt that way, I would have ignored it and sent the letter back to you, no harm, no foul. At most, I would have done some kind of restraining ward.”
Quentin frowned. That actually made sense. But...
“So then, uh, if you’re not here to yell at me or give me the letter back or citizen’s arrest me,” Quentin scratched at his scalp. “Then why—why are you here?”
Eliot opened his mouth but no sound emerged.
“Excellent question,” he said after a second. He squared his shoulders back and grinned. “I’ll explain. But do you mind if we step out so I can have a cigarette?”
Honestly, Quentin wanted to go curl up in his bed with the first Fillory book and try to forget today ever happened. All his rage toward Julia had turned to a wilted defeat. He had said what he needed to say to Eliot. This was the point where they should have gone their separate ways, the strange blip a horrible memory for one and a hilarious anecdote for the other.
But if Quentin recalled the contents correctly, Eliot had endured reading several similes comparing his smile to the first sunbeam that warmed the Earth. So Quentin probably owed him a few more minutes of his time.
Begrudgingly, he nodded, and they soon resettled outside on the front patio chairs.
Eliot lit his cigarette with a roll of his fingers, the tip glowing bright orange with magic fire. He exhaled a plume of smoke high above them, like he had all the time in the world, all while looking like every anti-smoking campaign’s nightmare.
Which was exactly the kind of hackneyed bullshit Quentin had written in that goddamn letter. The letter, which Eliot had slipped into his waistcoat pocket, probably just so he didn’t have to look at it anymore. Quentin wondered if it would be bad form to ask for it back. Or would that be weirder?
Quentin shifted awkwardly in his chair. “Mind if I bum one?”
“I thought you quit,” Eliot mock-accused, though he handed one over.
“You remember that?” Quentin was surprised, but Eliot shrugged. “Yeah, I mean, I did. But, uh, honestly, my best friend just sent out my therapy letters and two of the recipients came to confront me about them within a ten minute span. So I’m smoking.”
To prove the point, Quentin sucked the tar into his lungs and closed his eyes. But when he reopened them, Eliot was looking right at him, lips pulled down into a frown. He sighed, resting his cigarette on an ashtray.
“Quentin, I’m not here to confront you. I’m here because—” Eliot took a deep breath, like he was bracing himself. But then something shifted, his eyes narrowing into bright little slits. “You’ve never had a mentor, right?”
“I’m working on it,” Quentin bristled. It only made Eliot’s smile that much wider through the smoke. “Wait, are you—uh, are you offering to be my mentor?”
“God no,” Eliot chuckled. “But I think I may have a mutually beneficial idea in mind.”
Eliot leaned back in the chair, casting his eyes up at the enchanted sky and bringing his cigarette back up to his lips.
“I need someone to take on dates around my ex so he sees I’ve moved onto a healthy, happy, grown-up relationship without needing to commit to said relationship. The arrangement would then culminate in a sojourn to Genji Quinn’s winter retreat, which you would attend as my guest, to really stick it in his smug asshole face.”
He said it all smoothly, as he released an elaborate illusion of exotic smoke birds from his mouth. It was almost enough to make it seem like a casual suggestion, something that anyone could have said at any given time.
“What the fuck?”
Quentin had a million questions, but he started with the most obvious. But Eliot was unfazed.
“I’ve been interviewing candidates, but this letter is exactly the kind of energy I need.” Eliot patted his waistcoat lapel with a roguish wink. “I figured if you were so into me, you’d agree. But it’s actually far less complicated that you’re not. Win-win.”
What the fuck?
“Interviewing?” Quentin coughed out smoke. “Wait, is that a thing?”
“Magician culture in the wild is, well, wild.”
“Uh, I mean. Shit.” Quentin slumped back into the chair. “Okay.”
“Okay... you’ll do it?” Eliot looked thrown for a second, eyes startled around the edges. But it was gone in a flash, replaced by smirking opportunism.
“Okay, I believe you. Sort of.” Quentin smoked again, trying to find some kind of grip on reality. The tethers were slippery. “Okay, but, like, if it’s a thing, won’t your ex know you’re doing it? Thus, defeating the purpose?”
“He might, he might not.” Eliot waved his cigarette back and forth in an equivocating bob. “It’s all very Les Liaisons dangereuses.”
“Wow,” Quentin shook his own cigarette up and down, ash flying everywhere. “Uh, I am definitely not your guy then.”
Eliot gave him a thin smile, before looking down to ash his cigarette.
“Precisely.” Those eyes gleaned back up. “He’d never suspect you.”
This was the weirdest goddamn day of Quentin’s entire goddamn life.
“Um. Okay, uh. What—what—what exactly would it entail?” Quentin asked, shaking his head. “If I pretended to date you? Hypothetically speaking.”
“It’s not dissimilar to actual dating,” Eliot said. He tilted his head back as he smoked happily. “Just without the emotional involvement or sexual perks. It’s like a form of dinner theatre.”
“And you thought, yeah, sounds like a job for Quentin Coldwater?”
Eliot actually laughed at that, eyes crinkling. “Not before today in a million years. But sending the letter was bold. Piqued my intrigue.”
“Except I didn’t send it,” Quentin reminded him. “I’m not bold. At all.”
Eliot nodded, wryly lifting his brows.
“It’s more of a long shot now, I admit,” he said, propping his long legs up on the table. “But I figured if I came all this way, I might as well still give it a shot. No hard feelings if you're not interested though.”
“Holy shit,” Quentin groaned, throwing his head back. “What the shit? This is the weirdest goddamn day.”
Eliot stubbed out his cigarette and shot him a smile. “Weird is underrated.”
That had never been Quentin’s experience. He was always the off-putting loser in the corner, never a strange yet sparkling dynamo like Eliot. Eliot could effortlessly do some weird bullshit like pretend to date someone for social cache and it just would make him more interesting.
Quentin—not so much.
So naturally, Quentin had been about to play his assigned part. He was going to say that he appreciated the offer, but he really (really, really) wasn’t the right guy for the job. That was the way it was supposed to be. Anything else would have chafed against the grain. He knew that. He had always been practical.
But despite his wiser instincts, the gears in his head started turning. They twisted around new ideas that maybe should have stayed silent, all while spurring him onto something he shouldn’t have considered. At every angle though, the puzzle pieces formed an image. Maybe it wasn’t the one on the box, but it was... coherent. Potentially even worthwhile, in myriad ways.
It was the weirdest goddamn day of his entire goddamn life.
So fuck it.
—Quentin was gonna go all in.
Eliot cocked his head. “Yeah, okay, what?”
“I’ll do it,” Quentin said with a shrug. “I’ll pretend to be your boyfriend.”
Eliot jolted back, shoulders hitting the chair with a clang. A vast array of shifting emotions spun across his wide eyes, before he blinked in slow disbelief. “Wait, ah, seriously?”
Quentin’s stomach plummeted.
“Oh god, this was a joke.” He stubbed his cigarette out hard, jumping to stand. “This was a joke and you were making fun of me and I’m an idiot.”
Quentin scurried away from the table, knocking over the chair in his haste, trying to get the fuck away. But fucking Eliot Waugh followed him. “Shit. No, Quentin, that’s not—”
“Um, forget it, I’m just gonna go, uh, die?” Quentin darted his eyes everywhere as he stumbled back toward the house. “Maybe upstairs? Is that dignified?”
He couldn’t stop. His face was burning hot and his pulse raced at a dizzy pace. He needed to get the fuck back upstairs and hide for a thousand years. Then die.
“Like, if it’s not—I mean, shit, whatever, you can go, I’m sure you’ll see the obit in the Brakebills newsletter—is that even a thing—but, like, uh—“
“Quentin,” Eliot said, grabbing his arm. “Jesus. Stop and let me explain.”
When Eliot tugged him back, Quentin all but collapsed, forehead pressed to his chest in a broken pile of exhaustion. Eliot was strong and sturdy, and Quentin was pathetic, wanting to drown in him, to burrow into his warmth. His nose rubbed against a fancy white button and he inhaled the calming scent of really nice cologne, musky and herbal and sweet. Like a sexy Christmas candle.
Quentin jerked away the second self-awareness hit him, a prickling hot blush spreading across his whole body. Pushing his hair out of his face, he focused anywhere but at the gentle look of pity in Eliot’s eyes.
“It wasn’t a joke,” Eliot said, keeping a firm grip on his arm so he couldn’t run away again. “I wasn’t making fun of you, I wouldn’t do that.”
Quentin sniffed. “Uh, well, your face begged to differ.”
Something darkly remorseful shadowed across Eliot’s features. “No, I know. And that’s my fault. I’m just—the truth is, I—” He searched all around Quentin’s face for a moment, before letting out a small sigh. “I was just... surprised you agreed. That’s all.”
God, he was such a pathetic asshole. Eliot had never been anything but kind to him. Quentin was a jackass for immediately assuming the worst.
So Quentin remembered how to breathe and opted to shrug, chagrined. “Oh. Um. Sorry.”
“It’s okay,” Eliot said. He smiled warmly, trailing his fingers down the length of Quentin’s arm. “Happens.”
Quentin swallowed and took another step back, the heat of proximity too much. “Well, you know, I get why you would think I’d say no. But I just—um, I guess I just want to help you.”
He did want to help Eliot. Quentin had always liked Eliot, and not just in a I want to suck your dick kind of way, but, you know, as a person. And if Eliot had been hurt enough by a break up to go this far, well, that fucking sucked and he couldn’t help but want to try to relieve that, in some small way. Clearly, the ex must have been someone really special to have Eliot Waugh spinning such intricate webs.
(He pushed down the angry twist up from his gut. None of his business.)
...But also, truthfully, Quentin had some self-interested shit in mind, even beyond getting to meet all the greatest Magicians in the world. He didn’t want to open with that though. Seemed rude.
“You want to help me?” Eliot tilted his head, a more familiar goading tone creeping back in. “Out of the goodness of your heart?”
“Uh-huh.” Quentin nodded. “You—you deserve it.”
That was even more of a stretch, and Eliot obviously knew it. He twitched his lips together. “I deserve what?”
“You deserve to—rub your success in your ex’s face?” Quentin committed to the line of thought. “Like, you’ve, uh, earned that right.”
Eliot slid half his mouth up into a crooked smile.
“Why are you really doing this?” He asked it conspiratorially, rather accusingly. “That eager to get into the retreat?”
“Not only,” Quentin admitted. “I, uh, I also think if I started dating you, Julia will get off my ass.’”
“Ah,” Eliot said. That dark expression crossed over his face again. “Escape from the shitty friend. Understandable.”
“She’s really not always shitty,” Quentin said. Eliot didn’t look particularly convinced. “But yeah, if she thinks her little plan succeeded, she’ll be all sanctimonious and satisfied, and I’ll have time to work on my thesis without her dragging me to singles trivia.”
Eliot shuddered. “Christ, say no more. It’s my ethical duty to shield you from that.”
Quentin tapped his lips with his fingers. “Do you have an apartment with, like, studying space I could use? On weekend days? That would sweeten the pot.”
Eliot broke back into that same bewildered, brilliant smile. “Are you offering to be my fake boyfriend in exchange for more time to do homework?”
“Sounds like a fair trade to me.” Quentin said. Eliot snort-laughed and shook his head. “Also, Genji Quinn’s retreat would obviously be—uh, well, to be honest, it’s always sounded like a goddamn horror show to me. But you’re right that my prospects aren’t exactly... grand.”
He was pretty sure he had bemoaned exactly that to Eliot last year. Things hadn’t changed. Quentin still wanted to focus his work on curing cancer and every mentor still laughed him out of every conversation. But his fear for his dad and his hope for the future fueled him forward. So for once in his stupid life, he was going to take an opportunity when presented.
“I’ve got your ticket then,” Eliot said, blinking back his face to its usual aloof state. But his eyes twinkled like Quentin was, unwittingly, the funniest person he had ever met. It was hard not to bask in it, to let the shimmer settle on his cheeks in the form of a blush.
So Quentin looked away to hide his smile, and the two of them settled back into the chairs to hatch an absurd plan.
Every weekend for the next three months, Quentin would take a portal to Eliot Waugh’s Manhattan apartment. There, he would have free use of the never-used office space for as long as he needed. In exchange, Quentin and Eliot would go to Magician parties, dinners, and events, with the express purpose of being seen by Mike McCormick, Eliot’s ex who he was still obviously obsessed with. Not that it mattered.
Then, in late December, Quentin would attend Genji Quinn’s retreat as Eliot’s guest. While there, they would ensure that fellow attendee Mike notices their enduring love and “chokes on it,” and Quentin could concurrently use the time to make as many medical research and clinical informatician connections as “his little heart desired.”
After that, they would part ways, missions accomplished.
Quentin was pretty sure it was an insane idea. Like, by any metric. It had to be, right? But at the same time, Eliot talked about it all so casually, so confidently, with all the practiced ease of a maestro. So if Eliot said that games like this were Magician par for the course, well, who was Quentin to argue?
Honestly, if that was the case, then it was kind of nice to be included. Especially by Eliot.
Quentin was over him, of course. For real. He hadn’t lied about that. They barely knew each other, so any feelings he once had were products of his overactive imagination. It had never been real, not any way that should have prevented them from working together.
Still, when Eliot sparkled out a laugh that carried across the whole campus, Quentin had to try not to stare, try not to smile. He had never had any foolish dreams, even at the height of his infatuation. There were guys like Quentin and guys like Eliot. Their worlds didn’t actually mesh, not for anything more than a one night stand or a silly scheme like this one. Even that was pushing it.
But if one of the perks of the arrangement was actually getting to hang out with Eliot Waugh?
Well, Quentin was only human.
As the conversation dwindled, Eliot helped Quentin stand again, giving his hand a friendly squeeze. Quentin’s heart took a tiny leap and he smiled.
“So, uh, I’ll come over around 4 on Saturday?” Quentin said, trying to keep the words smooth out of his mouth. “Ease into it?”
Eliot shook his head. “Make it 3. That way we can strategize more. Get our stories straight, that kind of thing.”
“Sure, uh, okay,” Quentin said, a few bubbles of excitement rising from his gut. “After that, you said we’re heading to someone’s house for dinner? For like a food lover’s meeting or something?”
Eliot laughed good-naturedly. “No, it’s a supper club, a private restaurant within a restaurant.” He sighed. “Terribly passé, but Hoberman claims he’s trying to ‘give the 00s some love.’ Meaning he’ll insist on serving food that looks like inedible objects and playing Arcade Fire all night too.”
“Man, yeah, wow,” Quentin said, nodding seriously. “That all sounds passé as shit.”
Eliot gave him a heatless glare, guiding Quentin to the cottage with a hand on his back. “Josh is the goddamn worst, but he can cook well enough and always has decent weed. Most importantly though, this is the first event that both Mike and I are attending since our break up, so it’s crucial.”
Quentin pushed down that ugly gut twist again, forcing out a helpful smile. “Well, I’ll be there.”
“Excellent,” Eliot said. He stopped at the threshold of the doorway, wrinkling his brow a bit. “Anyway, it’s been good to see you again, Quentin. And it’ll be nice to see you more often.”
“Uh.” Quentin’s mouth went dry. “Yeah, same here.”
Eliot laughed as he started to walk away, even though Quentin wasn’t sure what was funny. Didn’t really matter. He liked his laugh. So.
But then Eliot spun back around on his feet, snapping his fingers at Quentin like he forgot something.
“Ah, before I leave. One last thing.”
Quentin assumed Eliot was going to give him the letter back. He didn’t. Instead, Eliot stepped in close and smoothed down the collar of his flannel, the backs of his fingers gliding lightly across the bare skin of his neck. Quentin tried not to swallow, tried not to move at all, since pretty much anything would give his frozen tingling sparkly exploding bullshit away. After a syrupy slow moment of almost shared breath, Eliot swallowed, placed both hands on his shoulders, and looked him deep in the eyes.
“You can say vest,” he said, lips pursing seriously. “I don’t give a shit.”
Quentin blanched. “Oh my god.”
Eliot smiled, wide and bright. He ran a knuckle under Quentin’s chin and backed away with a bow. “See you next weekend, Coldwater.”
Margo slid her hands to her hips and narrowed her eyes, stony and unamused.
Eliot shrugged. “I improvised.”
Tumblr is @hmgfanfic!
Chapter 3: Chapter Two
Thank you so much for all the love on the last chapters! This fandom remains the best. <3
Eliot tossed a tangerine in the air.
He curled off the peel in three perfect corkscrews and floated them into the glasses below. The naked fruit landed in his palm and he ate it piece by piece, while his magic did the rest of the work. Soon, the drinks were ready, temperature controlled and aesthetically flawless.
In the past, Quentin had always demurred when asked about his preferred cocktail (“I don’t know, I guess, um, wine?”) but Eliot figured everyone liked sweet citrus and cognac. It was the epitome of a crowd pleaser.
Flicking away a strange tingling buzz in his fingertips, Eliot arranged the finished drinks on his favorite platter, made of ornate silver with mother-of-pearl inlay. He put them in a triangle. Then in a line. Then back to a triangle. He picked up the drink closest to him and took a small sip, just to test the flavor profile one more time, before nodding and putting the glass back down.
It was still good. Rich and syrupy, light and tart, like the golden waning light of summer.
“One of those for me?”
Margo glided over to the bar in a black dress, hair sleek and lips painted wine purple. She was poison in a crystal goblet, purposeful and perfect. Eliot lifted a smile up at her and adjusted the knot of his tie.
“Ah, ah,” he said, smacking at her hand as she reached for the nearest glass. “Patience is a virtue.”
Margo lifted a defiant brow. Slowly, she reached back out and lifted the same drink up—all while maintaining cool eye contact—and took a delicate sip. Fluttering her lashes, she placed it back on the platter and smacked her lips.
“You need to calm the fuck down,” she said sweetly.
Eliot scowled and pushed the platter to the side. The booze nearly sloshed out, but his mind caught it at the last second. He was on top of his game.
“I'm perfectly at ease,” he said, though he adjusted his tie again. The line was askew.
Margo rolled her eyes and batted his hands away. She bit her lip as she rearranged the silk herself, running her fingernail along the folds and straightening out the edges. “You’ve been flitting around this bitch like Donna goddamn Reed all afternoon.”
Eliot snapped down a bright grin, tugging her flush against his chest and spinning them across their tiled floor. “I cook like Betty Crocker,” he sang, low and velvety, “and I look like—”
Margo pressed a finger to his lips. “Your weird plan to fuck a boy who already desperately wants to fuck you is gonna go off without a hitch, okay?”
With a sigh and a kiss to her knuckles, Eliot pulled away from their embrace. He squared his shoulders back, tall and lofty, and he ran his finger along the embossed border of the bar. No dust.
“That's not what's happening,” Eliot said. He squinted across the expanse of their great room. Nothing was out of place. “The plan has evolved to a greater purpose.”
“He said he’s over it."
“He said he wants to tell time by your five o’clock shadow.”
Something sour slammed into Eliot’s gut. It burrowed there for a moment, stifling and stagnant, feeling uncomfortably like regret—or loss—until he grabbed ahold of his well-honed rationality and shooed it the fuck away.
"Two years ago," Eliot said. He adjusted his tie again. "Shit changes."
Margo tilted her head down to her shoulder. “That shit’s forever.”
Eliot bit down on his teeth, breathing hard through his nostrils. The thing was, Margo hadn’t seen Quentin at Brakebills. She hadn’t seen his restless panic at the absurd notion that he could still possibly be interested in Eliot. She didn't really get that Quentin had written the letter the first day they met, back when Eliot had been pulling out all the stops to show Quentin how glamorous and charming and sexy and aloof he was. And while Quentin had been momentarily blinded and awed, exactly like Eliot had wanted, over time, the sheen faded.
Like it always did.
So, sure, maybe Eliot had been a bit… disappointed after their first meeting. But in the end, he had something even better. To quote the woman before him, boys may come and go, but sucking the life force from your enemies until they were nothing but a shriveled scrotum of misery was forever.
As it was, Mike McCormick had been infatuated with Eliot, wonderstruck even, from day one. Just like Quentin had been, once upon a time. Under all the cruelty and bluster, Mike had been obviously devastated when he had broken things off. It wasn't hard to see. At least, god, he had to have been devastated. Because if not, fuck, what did that mean about—?
Eliot closed his eyes.
Anyway, Mike was a smug prick who didn't know shit. Which was exactly why Eliot was going to pull out every stop to prove that he could absolutely be a solid, stable, reliable, committed, loving boyfriend.
Just not for Mike.
Eliot smiled grimly, cracking his neck.
—May that fact crawl into the darkest, most insecure corners of his ex's mind and fester.
The buzzer let out its tinney honk, right on time.
“That’ll be him. Best behavior now,” Eliot said, moving swiftly and straightening himself up. “He’s a nice boy.”
“Go fuck yourself,” Margo said. She flicked her middle finger high. “That what you’re looking for?”
“Magnifique.” Eliot pressed a quick kiss to her temple, squeezing her shoulder.
She huffed a tiny laugh behind him, but Eliot was laser focused. He walked over to the still un-magic’d door phone and pressed the beige little button. “Hanson-Waugh residence.”
“Um, hi?” A jumpy voice came through muffled and too loud, like Quentin was yelling with his mouth pressed to the speaker. “Uh, hi. Shit, this is—sorry, this is Quentin Coldwater? We texted this morning regarding our plans to—”
“Hi Quentin,” Eliot said, his chest pinching with a fleeting bit of fondness. He was cute. “Come on up.”
“Oh. Right, yeah.” There was somehow an audible nod from the other side of the line, underscored by frantic shifting and shuffling around. “I’ll be—okay. Yeah. I’ll be right there. Thank you.”
—Jesus, Quentin was cute.
“Huh.” Margo puckered her lips, eyes narrowed at the speaker. “Okay then.”
As she lifted her face into an obnoxious knowing smile, Eliot ignored her bratty ass and walked back over to the bar. He considered the platter of drinks, considering whether he should bring it over to the door upon his arrival. Or would that make him look too much like a butler? No one wanted to fuck the butler. Not that he wanted to fuck Quentin. Well, okay, sure, yes, he still wanted to fuck Quentin, since he was still cute and fidgety and moody in all the exact right ways. But he wasn’t aiming to fuck Quentin anymore, the mission had evolved, it was—
The knock came soft and tentative.
Eliot swallowed. He adjusted his tie. And he swung the door wide open.
“Quentin!” Eliot smiled bright and big. “Great to see you. Willkommen, and bienvenue, to our gracious abode. Would you like a drink?”
Giant brown eyes peered up at him from the threshold, blinking under a gently furrowed brow. Quentin shifted his weight back and forth, rolling the edge of his sweater sleeves between his palms. He had a large leather messenger bag slung over his shoulders and he adjusted its weight every few seconds.
“Um. Wow. Hi? Uh, I mean, okay. Yeah? A drink would be—helpful.” Quentin shook his head. “Shit, sorry. I mean, it’s good to see you too, Eliot.”
“Oh, Jesus motherfucking Christ," an obnoxious voice shot out from behind them.
Eliot smiled even wider at their guest and placed a friendly hand between his shoulder blades, rubbing a quick, comforting circle.
“Ignore that,” he said, ushering Quentin in. “The place came with the banshee. Hazard of New York living. You understand.”
Quentin cast bewildered eyes up at their arched vaulted ceiling and sputtered his mouth a little bit. “I—okay—uh, wait, there’s a banshee in here? For real? Is that like—?”
(Fuck, he was so goddamn cute.)
“No, El’s just a prick,” Margo said, swaying her hips as she made her way closer to Quentin. “Hi there. I’m Margo."
“Bambi,” Eliot said warningly. He knew that predatory look. He loved that predatory look. But Quentin wasn't ready for it.
She dismissed him with a wave behind her back, tracing her eyes up and down the poor boy like he was her next meal. Quentin rightfully blanched and took a step backward, flight instincts engaged.
“Oh. Okay. I didn’t—sorry.” Quentin cleared his throat and waved. “Uh, hey. I know. We’ve met.”
“Have we?” At his nod, Margo tugged on the bottom of his sweater and grinned. “Well, in that case, it's very good to see you again.”
“Um,” Quentin said, darting his eyes all around, everywhere, except Margo’s intense gaze. “So this is—this is a really nice place.”
“Thank you,” Eliot said sincerely. “We’re not done with modifications yet, but it’s coming along.”
“Yeah, I’ll say,” Quentin whistled. He stuck his hands in his pockets, eyes still cast upward. “It’s, um, big. Planar compressed, I guess? And—and it’s—wow, it’s extravagant.”
They were standing under their eighty-light cut glass gilt bronze chandelier, so it was an apt descriptor.
“Extravagance is what we do,” Eliot said, with a preening lift of his shoulders.
“Yeah,” Quentin said, long lashes fluttering to his cheeks with a chuckle. “I remember.”
When he looked back up, Quentin smiled, closed-lipped and sweetly twinkly eyed, sending a quick rush of fluttering warmth down Eliot’s spine. Shit. He opened his mouth to respond, but any words lodged in his throat. Shit. And ever the opportunist, Margo took the chance to step in even closer to Quentin.
“So you’re saying our decor meets the standards of one Quentin Coldwater?” She clicked her tongue. “High praise.”
“Oh, god, no, uh, I have no standards,” Quentin said quickly. The tips of his cheeks went dark, in dapples of pink, and Eliot took a slow breath. Shit. “No, uh, but it kind of reminds me of, um, do you know Bringing Up Baby?”
Margo startled with genuine surprise. That movie had been a specific reference point she used in her decor spellwork. “I know it.”
“Yeah, so it’s kinda got that vibe to me?” Quentin said, rocking back on his feet. “Only, you know, like, if Katharine Hepburn had skinned and eaten the leopard.”
As he spoke, his eyes had trailed to the tacky gorgeous chaise lounge, over a thoughtful frown. Margo’s lips pursed together in the tiniest, sparkliest seal of approval.
“That’s a weird fuckin’ thing to say."
Quentin froze and turned his face back to her in a minor panic. “No, uh, sorry. I meant it in a good way. Like, it’s got that—classic thing? But it’s also kind of… vampy. Er, is that a word?”
Margo nodded. “It is a word.”
“I meant, is it an appropriate word? For the style?”
“You tell me. You’re the design expert.”
“No, I’m not. I just meant—”
Seeing that they were in a nice rapport now, Eliot quickly excused himself to the bar and took the platter in his hands, to finally bring over the carefully constructed drinks. Taking a moment to rearrange the garnishes one last time, Eliot watched as Quentin ducked his head into an awkward blush and Margo smirked, like the cat about to pounce on the sparrow. Adorable.
“Sidecar?” Eliot asked, floating over with the drinks.
“Oh, god. Holy shit, yes,” Quentin said. He grabbed at the closest one and started chugging, without even waiting for a customary toast. The line of his throat undulated in fast paced swallows—fucking hell—until over half the drink was gone. And then, because the gods wanted Eliot to unduly suffer, Quentin wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and let out a tiny, almost kitten-like sound of breathy enjoyment. Fuckshitfuck.
“Damn, that’s—wow, that’s really good,” Quentin said, nodding slightly manically. He raised abashed eyebrows at Eliot. “I usually only like alcohol for its effect.”
“Refreshingly honest,” Eliot said. He lifted his untouched glass with a wink. “Cheers, Quentin.”
“Oh, shit, yeah.” Quentin hurriedly raised his glass and clinked it against Eliot’s. “Cheers. Thank you for—uh, having me. Here. I guess. And for giving me the—”
Quentin cut himself off before he was clearly going to say opportunity like an absolutely unfair darling. Eliot grinned at him and Margo sipped her drink slowly, eyes glued on their guest as her own tiny smile peeked its way over the rim.
“So,” she said brightly, holding her glass out to the side. “How did you and Eliot meet?”
Margo squinted her eyes, a perfect imitation of deep and sincere focus. She even curled her free fist under her chin like the Rodin statue.
“Oh, Eliot was my student guide to the Brakebills exam room when I was a first year,” Quentin said. “He didn’t tell you?”
Eliot arched a wary brow at Margo. “No, I absolutely did.”
“No, he absolutely did,” Margo repeated easily, waving the notion off. “At this point, I know way more about you than I would have ever given a fuck to know. But I still wanna hear you tell the story.”
Quentin finished his drink with an oversized gulp. “Why?”
“Because we have to sell this shit,” Margo said, jutting out a dramatic hip with a long sigh to match. “Right now, I’m not convinced you’ve got the chops.”
“The—the chops?” Quentin blinked. “Wait, you mean to be, um, to pretend to be Eliot’s… you know, his, um—you know?”
“If you can’t even say the word boyfriend,” Margo accused, pinprick sharp, “how the fuck are you going to convince anyone that’s who you are?”
“Now, Bambi,” Eliot said quickly and forcefully, because fuck her, she wasn’t going to ruin this for him. “I’ve already told Quentin that all he has to do is show up and let me handle the rest. No pressure.”
He gave Quentin a soft smile and reassuring squeeze of his arm. But Quentin's eyes went glassy and unfocused as he considered Margo’s terrible, irrelevant points.
“Hm.” Margo sipped her drink. “So, what, he’s going to sit there and not say anything the whole time? That’s fucking creepy.”
Eliot hissed, “Margo.”
“No, I mean, I’ll say things.” Quentin rolled his glass between his hands, eyebrows crawling all over his forehead. “I just figured I would follow Eliot’s lead. Like, do whatever he tells me to do. That’s fine with me.”
“Oh, honey, I have no doubt it is,” Margo said, biting her lip. “But what if someone talks to you when Eliot’s not around? Or asks you a direct question you’re not prepared for?”
Quentin swallowed. “Um.”
“And what’s the PDA deal?” Margo sauntered her way over to her favorite accent chair. She sat down smoothly, crossing her legs. “You good with holding hands? Kissing? Cuddling? A little tongue fucking?”
“Um.” Quentin went bright red. Eliot laughed loudly, trying to drown out the awkward tension Margo had single-handedly caused. He clapped Quentin on the back and rolled his eyes.
“Don’t listen to her,” Eliot said cheerfully. He shot Margo a dark glare. “She skipped her colonic this morning.”
“I—” Quentin frowned, tilting his face up at Eliot. “I don’t know what that means?”
“Look, all I’m saying,” Margo said, holding her hands up, “is if we’re gonna do this, we gotta do it right.”
“Okay, uh. Sorry, but you keep saying we? Are you—are you, like, involved?”
Eliot opened his mouth to tell Quentin that of course she wasn’t, she was just a fucking busybody, when Margo sat back in the chair, in a full power pose. “I’m the goddamn mastermind.”
“Oh.” Quentin cocked his head like a chastened puppy. “Well, okay. Sorry.”
“Apology accepted.” Margo let out a long sigh, swirling her drink around her glass. “Anyway, this is your audition. Sell me on the romance. Go.”
Eliot shook his head, “No, that’s not necessary. We can just—”
“She has a point,” Quentin said. He wrung his hands in front of his stomach and took a deep breath. “You said that pretending to date is common in New York Magician circles and so, like—if we don’t want to make it obvious right away, since I’m not, you know, an actual professional pretend relationship person, then we should practice.”
Margo breathed in slowly and bit her tongue between her molars. She nodded, tears gathering subtly at the corners of her eyes, doing her damnedest not to laugh. “Makes sense.”
(Eliot hated her.)
“Okay, well, um,” Quentin said. “Where should we start?”
“Well, you could put that monstrosity of a bag down,” Margo said with a nod toward the, indeed, very ugly bag on his shoulder. “Then take a seat on the couch.”
“Sure, yeah,” Quentin said, pulling the strap over his head and ducking under it. “Um, should I drop it off in the office or—?”
Margo scrunched her brow. “The office?”
“Ah, sorry, Margo,” Eliot said. He grabbed Quentin’s bag telekinetically and sent it down the hall. “I forgot to mention that Quentin will be using the private desk space for his thesis research, in exchange for helping us.”
“Huh,” Margo said. She widened her eyes. “You did forget to mention that, El.”
(There may not have been a private desk space in their apartment a day earlier. Who could say. Things changed so quickly in the world of magical interior design.)
“Slipped my mind,” Eliot said, with a blithe shrug and smile. Margo bit her lip and shook her head. Quentin drew his eyebrows together.
“Is that—is that a problem?” He scratched at the back of his neck, the strands of his long hair bunching between his fingers. “I don’t want to be a bother.”
“I don’t give a shit,” Margo said, snapping serious eyes back to business. “But we still haven’t seen the extent of your acting abilities. First order of business, both of you sit down on the couch.”
She pointed a firm finger to the leopard print and Eliot’s spine tingled with delight. She was so bossy. But Quentin gulped and went a little pale, so Eliot took pity on him. He wrapped another friendly arm around his shoulders and gently guided him across the room, until they were sitting together, facing Margo.
She was unimpressed.
“Jesus, is this a middle school dance?” Margo glared at the few inches of space between their bodies. “You two are supposed to be fucking each other.”
She clapped her hands to underscore every syllable, making Quentin’s shoulders ram straight up to his temples, hunched and tense like a feral cat. Eliot tightened his grip and pressed down, hopefully soothingly, and gave Margo a rare no-nonsense look of reproach.
“Margo,” he said again, clipped and low. Take your shit down a couple notches, he didn’t have to say. Her face went stony in response.
“I’m just looking out for you crazy kids. Again, if you can’t even pretend to be together now in front of me, how the fuck are you going to convince fifteen randos and your ex-boyfriend in a few hours?”
Quentin sucked in a breath. He set his jaw and scooted closer to Eliot, so they were touching hip-to-shoulder, and defiantly interlaced their fingers.
Eliot’s heart jumped. The soft strands of Quentin’s hair tickled his chin, his body fitting against his like it was meant to be there. Carefully, Eliot slid his longer fingers down the back Quentin’s hand, magnetic toward the hairy knob of his wrist, and tugged him in ever-so-slightly closer, so his back settled onto his chest.
Even in his haze at the nearest proximity he’d ever managed with Quentin—other than that one near-kiss Eliot forced himself to never think about—he could feel a low rumble through his whole body as Quentin swallowed, the line of his throat growing splotchy red. But he kept staring straight ahead, right at Margo, determined.
“Want me to hex her?” Eliot murmured against the shell of Quentin’s ear, somehow staying afloat amidst the scent of cheap shampoo and cute boy. “Say the word and I’ll do it.”
The tip of the very same ear went pink and Quentin grinned down into his lap. “Uh,” he whispered back, “I don’t think that would go so well for you.”
“Yes, but I’m very brave.”
That got an even bigger smile out of Quentin, who lifted his face back up with warm, squinted eyes. A spring of fizzy warmth erupted in his chest and a for moment, Eliot could hardly remember his name, let alone the bullshit scheme that had led them here.
“—I can fucking hear you, dickheads.”
When Eliot glared up at Margo, he was surprised to find her face was somehow—softer than usual. Strangely guarded, with the corners of her eyes drawn and crinkled, as though in thought. Eliot opened his mouth to say something, but she cut him off easily.
“Well, at least you two look like you can stand each other now,” Margo said, cracking her knuckles with a grin. “So let’s try this again. Quentin, how did you meet Eliot?”
“Eliot was my student guide,” Quentin said rotely, like a child repeating a memorized fact. “We were—so we knew each other at Brakebills.”
Eliot ran his thumb across the soft skin Quentin’s hand and relished the tiny shiver he got in return. Maybe he still had it, just a little. “We got along well from the start. I think there was always something there between us.”
(Little bits of truth helped sell lies. Deception 101.)
Quentin’s breathing became more measured, more deliberate. “Yeah, uh, but you know, life… uh, gets in the way and—”
“And it took us a few months to get our act together, silly boys,” Eliot said, biting his lip and throwing his gaze over at Margo with the rush of an idea. “After which we engaged in a passionate, clandestine affair for years.”
“What?” Quentin frowned up at him. “What are you talking about?”
“Oh my,” Margo said with wide eyes. “Tell me more.”
“We would sneak around,” Eliot said, low, nosing into Quentin’s hair. If this was his only chance to capture even a sliver of closeness to him, by god, he was going to take it. “We'd meet late at night in our rooms, in dark little corners of campus, fancy hotel rooms in the city. It was torrid and all-consuming.”
That strange look returned to Margo’s eyes and she tilted her head. “Huh. Fascinating.”
“I agree,” Eliot said, the edge of a warning in his voice. What he was warning her against, he couldn’t really say. But the center of his palms suddenly felt itchy and hot under her discerning gaze.
“But, like, why would it be clandestine? Why would we sneak around?” Quentin shook his head hard, still stuck back a minute in time. “We were both single at Brakebills.”
“Because we didn’t want to be tied down, sweetheart, remember how we used to kid ourselves?” Eliot grinned and booped his nose with a free finger. “Ah, youth.”
Quentin squirmed a little, grumbling, “I mean, that still doesn’t account for why we would—”
“But once I graduated,” Eliot sighed, “I just… couldn’t stop thinking about him.”
—Quentin’s grumbling stopped, dying away as he stilled. Another vibrating swallow coursed through his body and reverberated into Eliot’s, a thrilling shockwave of energy.
“Clever,” Margo interjected with a short nod. “Implies you were into Quentin the whole time you were with Mike.”
Quentin let out a loud exhale, pulling his hand away. For a split second, one Eliot could have easily conjured up in a flare of ego, Quentin looked mad, rolling the inside of his cheek between his teeth with a stare down into nothing. But it disappeared and Quentin just smoothed his fingers wide across the grain of the velvety couch fabric, like he was stretching out a cramp.
Eliot refocused on the story. The scheme. “So one day, when I was feeling particularly miserable over the whole thing, I decided I needed to stop messing around. But I didn’t know how to go about it, how to show him everything I wanted.”
If his voice went dryer, more delicate, Eliot was sure he could chalk it up to his exemplary acting abilities.
“And then—” Quentin said with a tiny shrug. “I guess I wrote him a love letter.”
Eliot’s heart slammed against his rib cage.
Jesus, that was—
Fuck, that was a good improv. Based in enough truth that they could pull it off without faltering, edging toward uncomfortable in its honesty, very much like Quentin himself. And discomfort was the bedrock of great performances, right?
“Then he wrote me a love letter,” Eliot repeated back softly. “The rest is history.”
Quentin’s face flushed again, blushing at a pin drop, and he twisted his thumb in his hands. He lifted his brows and gave Eliot a slightly chagrined half-smile, like, welp, I guess that’s what we got.
—Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea.
“Fine,” Margo said, her voice flat and jarring. “I can maybe believe you two are boning each other. But these are just the basics. If you’re gonna pull this shit off for the next three months, we’ll need way more of a strategy.”
“Um—” Quentin cleared his throat. “Yeah, I think it’s safe to say I’ve never done anything like this before. So if you have any advice or tips, I’m all ears.”
He smiled at Margo, feet bouncing and fingers tapping. Eliot nearly flinched with the force of wanting to place a steady hand on his knees, to ease him into calm. But Margo apparently had the opposite instinct, loudly clapping her hands together in a call for attention.
“Listen the fuck up. Everyone at that damn party, everyone in the damn world, and especially goddamn Mike McCormick are going to believe that you two are the soppiest, grossest, most in love couple that ever lived, capeesh?”
Quentin nodded his head obediently. “I capeesh.”
(This was definitely a bad idea.)
“And the way that’s gonna happen—” Margo smiled gleefully, leaning forward on her knees “—is that you're going to do exactly what I say.”
Quentin almost didn’t show up at Eliot's apartment that day.
He had woken up in a panic on Saturday morning, before the blue light of dawn made its way over the ward, cold sweats shivering down his back. All at once, like a freight train to the nervous system, he had realized that it was stupid. It was—it was the stupidest idea that anyone had ever had. No one in their right mind would ever do anything like this. Considering that Quentin was rarely in his "right mind," that realization was saying a fuckton of a lot.
Not that Eliot was stupid, of course.
Even in the trembling panic of a too-early wakeup, Quentin knew that Eliot was glamorous and innovative. Eliot wasn't crazy for wanting to do this, not in the same way Quentin would be. Eliot was on a completely different wavelength than most mere mortals. Eliot was like a freefall on a rollercoaster. Being around him was like stepping on hot coals, it was the rush of getting a spell right for the first time, the wilds outside a well-fortified comfort zone. To someone like Eliot, pulling off a Les Liaisons dangereuses was all in a devil-may-care day. A fanciful adventure.
But to Quentin, it was—
It was insane, and Quentin had decided, in that early morning dim, that he needed to get a grip back on reality. He needed to send Eliot Waugh a text, the first chance he got, saying hey this is Quentin C., sorry for the last minute notice, but— and put an end to all insanity for the rest of his days. He needed to focus on his work, on getting a medical mentor through his writing and his determination, not through an ill-begotten chance at hobnobbing with the elite at Genji Quinn’s retreat. He needed to hunker down and work harder. He couldn’t lose his focus—his momentum—especially not over the chance to see Eliot Waugh again, especially in the most pathetic of ways.
As Quentin had made his way out of bed and through his morning routine, his resolve to call it off only strengthened. Broken as it often was, his brain still found far more reasons not to pretend to be Eliot’s boyfriend (holy god) than reasons to do it. Mind made up, he grabbed a granola bar, his momentarily magic-bricked phone, and a theoretical oncomancy book, en route to the library. But when he had finally balanced all his shit enough to open the door, Julia was standing right there.
It had been the first time they had been face-to-face since she had sent out the letters. Quentin had been avoiding her for, well, several reasons. But she was stubborn, to say the least.
“We need to resolve this,” Julia had said, tapping her foot with arms crossed. “I’m sorry you feel like what I did was a violation of your privacy, but I’m still not sorry I did it.”
—Obviously, it had all gone downhill from there.
They had fought.
They had fought. Way worse than the fight that had proceeded all the bullshit, way worse than any fight they’d ever had. Words like “selfish” and “Machiavellian” and "cowardly" were thrown around like explosives, hands flying everywhere and voices breaking through any shoddy wards they had tried to put up before their battle began. Through the whole thing, Julia had just been so fucking smug, so certain that Quentin had needed a push toward a social life, and had spoken with such sternly aggravating condescension about his chronic timidity that Quentin had just––
He fucking snapped, remembering the other reason he had wanted to embark on this insane idea to begin with.
“Actually, your plan worked. I have a boyfriend now and I have a date with him tonight,” Quentin had shot out. “So suck on that.”
The bombshell hadn’t been as devastating as he had hoped. Julia had just gaped at him, eyes narrowed tight and incredulous. “Wait—are you serious? And you’re still mad at me?”
“It doesn’t change what you did,” Quentin said, because it was true. Nothing was going to get her off the hook this time. Fuck her all’s well that ends well bullshit. She had gotten away with it for too long.
“Oh my god, who is it?” Julia’s face had broken into an audacious smile. “Did you and Mattie reconnect? I was hoping.”
Quentin felt his chest burn, bubbles of acidic nausea sloshing up from his stomach. Mateo had been a semester-long fling at Columbia, the one hot guy who liked to play DnD with him. No one’s interest had ever flattered him more and their hookups had been refreshingly fun. Over time though, it had petered out and they parted ways as friendly acquaintances, if not actual friends. But for a long time, Julia had lamented the lack of potential between them, regularly referring to Mateo as “the one that got away,” especially once she had seen the letters. Especially after she had seen Mateo's letter, written after the first time Quentin had blown him.
“No, I haven’t heard from Mateo, obviously,” Quentin had barked. “How the fuck would he even reach me, Jules?”
“I thought maybe you—”
“It’s not James either, if you’re wondering." His teeth trembled, hard enough to send a ripple of pain across his gumline. “That one—that one was particularly shitty of you to send.”
Julia had closed her eyes, looking chastened for the first time. “Okay, yeah, you’re right. I was... mad at you and I thought, maybe, if you actually talked it out with James, then—”
“You’re unbelievable,” Quentin lodged sharply. “But, uh, if you must know, I’m actually dating Eliot Waugh now. So you’ll be seeing a lot less of me, which is probably pretty fucking good for both of us. I think we need some space.”
The fucked up thing was that Quentin didn’t actually want space from Julia. It was Julia. But… yeah. They needed it. He had pushed his fingers back through his hair and pulled his eyes back up to her, ready to see her softly wistful look of happiness despite all the shit. That go get ‘em tiger twinkle she could never quite help, especially when she thought her machinations had brought about good things for Quentin.
But instead of that familiar fond gaze, Julia’s eyes had gone wide in clear disbelief.
“Uh. Eliot Waugh?” She snorted. “You’re kidding.”
:Do I look like I’m feeling laugh-a-minute right now?”
“Q,” Julia had breathed out, almost a laugh. “No, you can’t be—come on.”
He scrubbed his hands down his face. “Jesus, what possible problem could you have now?”
“Dude, that was the only letter I seriously considered not sending.” Julia had spoken in that one clipped voice of hers that only came out when she knew She Was Right. “I just didn’t think there was much risk in the end and figured the more variety, the better. Maybe you’d hook up with him or something, get it out of your system.”
The gut twist had started to blister as it wrung out his intestines. Quentin had gotten it out of his system, he had been over it. She was the one who had reopened the whole goddamn— “Uh, that kinda sounds like you’re saying you don’t think a guy like Eliot could possibly be interested in a guy like me.”
“That’s exactly what I’m saying." Her eyes rolled in exasperation at whatever hurt or shock she had seen on his face. “Jesus, not because you’re not wonderful, Q. Obviously. But because Eliot is—look, I’ve spent time in his orbit before, okay?”
“So he and Margo threw great parties and they were a lot of fun to drink with, but they didn’t have friends for a reason.”
Quentin had let out a harsh laugh. “Uh, no, they definitely had friends.”
“Not really. Only each other.”
“They were literally the most popular people at Brakebills.”
“Yeah, they ruled the prom committee with an iron fist.” Julia had snorted and Quentin had wanted to scream. “Look, I’m not saying they’re bad people, but they were super insular and super snobby. They spent most of their time acting like everyone was just a prop for their weird egocentric spectacle.”
That had been a slightly uncomfortable charge to hear, considering everything. But Quentin had still answered honestly when he said, “Eliot's never treated me that way.”
“He could literally never remember my name.”
“Not everyone’s obsessed with you, Julia,” Quentin had snapped. “People forget my name all the fucking time. It happens. Get over it.”
Julia had taken a deep breath and closed her eyes. “I know you think I should go fuck myself, but just… be careful, okay? I saw him with guys, Q. None lasted more than a week. Most were on board with that from the start, but a few really got hurt.”
“That’s—that’s not going to happen.” Quentin had answered truthfully again. There was no risk of getting hurt, not when it wasn’t real. But then he tacked on a lie for good measure: “He likes me.”
"I hope that’s true, Q. I really do.”
They had left things unresolved after that, the fight drained out of them both. Quentin had fucked off to the library like he had planned, but he couldn’t focus. Then, before he knew it, he was texting with Eliot Waugh about their insane plan.
And only a few hours later—
Quentin was sitting at a fancy table, wearing a brand new suit, and tucked under Eliot’s arm.
The restaurant was some well-known New York hotspot with five Michelin stars or whatever, but the supper club was hosted in the wine cellar. The group of a dozen or so other Magicians were seated around the room, in tiny pockets of their own social groups. They were all startlingly beautiful and dressed in coordinating blacks, like they were at the world’s most stylish funeral. They held their heads high and haughty, barely greeting Margo and Eliot as they had entered fashionably late. They had all completely ignored Quentin.
He didn't care though. For one thing, he was used to it. And for another—
The dinner space was filled with a stunning array of magic.
It crackled in the air, setting Quentin's nerves aflame and lifting his heart like it was the first time he had seen Brakebills. Light manipulations spun through the air. Wine hopped out of fountains into crystal goblets. The menu was painted like starlight across the ceiling, the music was perfect in a way Quentin couldn't exactly define, and the air itself was imbued with an aching, nostalgic sense memory, which Eliot said was drawn from each person's childhood.
Quentin’s felt like cool grass under bare feet, like being eight-years-old and roaming the small backyard hills of suburban Jersey, in desperate pursuit of Fillory. Margo said, to her, it felt like wrapping a Hermès silk around her neck for the first time. But when his turn came around, Eliot just smiled wanly and said, “Ah, you know. This and that. Now, try this aperitif, Quentin. It will change your life.”
With a grin, Eliot held a tiny glass up to Quentin’s lips, a reddish-orange liquid swirling around the divots in the crystal. Quentin sipped dutifully and marveled at the warmly spiced drink, leaving a gentle tingle through his mouth as he swallowed.
“Good?” Eliot asked in a murmur, the heat of his full attention warm all the way down to Quentin's toes.
“Yeah,” Quentin damn near breathed out. He was pathetic. “Yeah, it’s sweet, but it’s also got... an edge to it? Or something? I don't know, it's unique.”
“Hm,” Eliot said, eyes roaming all over Quentin's face. “Apropos.”
—A man sitting at a nearby table cleared his throat. Loudly.
Quentin jumped, whipping his head over. The man’s blue eyes narrowed at Quentin and the line of his jaw rolled under a golden beard. Eliot chuckled, not looking away, running his hand down the length of Quentin's arm. He leaned forward and pressed his lips close to his ear, warm breath like whiskey and mint.
“That’s our target,” he whispered. "You’re doing great.”
Quentin tried to keep breathing steadily, tried not to go bright red and hot. He gripped the fabric of his uncomfortable suit pants—the ones Margo had forced him into earlier—and twisted the tweedy material between his fingers as tight as he could. He could do this. This was fine.
But his traitor eyes darted back over to Eliot’s ex.
Really, Quentin shouldn’t have been surprised that Mike was hot. He wasn’t surprised that Mike was hot. But Mike was a different kind of hot than Eliot used to date, or fuck, or whatever. He didn’t strike Quentin as a pretty party boy who mostly wanted to do lines of molly off someone’s dick. Not that there was anything wrong with being a pretty party boy doing lines of molly off someone’s dick, if that was what one was into. Or if molly was even something one could snort. But it was just that Mike looked like he was more into… fishing. Camping, maybe. Like he could roast you a mean marshmallow, and tell you a good story, and would give you a ride to the airport. Like if he hugged you, he'd lift you off the ground a little.
When Mike looked at him again, his eyebrows slanted over his pointed, defined face. He considered Quentin carefully, taking in every inch of his features and apparently deeming them—confusing, if the way Mike pulled his lips down was any indication. Which was probably fair.
Obviously, Quentin’s first instinct was to curl into an armadillo ball and roll away on the floor, but a commanding voice took over his anxious thoughts.
If at any point Mike makes eye contact with you, do not shy away from it. Don’t even give him a bitchy side-eye. Just be friendly as shit.
It had been one of Margo’s many, many rules. He didn’t know Margo well, but he was pretty sure he didn’t want to fuck with her. So Quentin did exactly what she'd said: He lowered his brow disarmingly, pulled his mouth up into a soft smile, and waved.
—Being nice to the cockstain means you don’t see him as a threat. Nothing will piss him off more.
Mike gave him a tense smile and turned his attention to the woman next to him, who had been talking for the last fifteen minutes about the legal issues inherent in invisibility magic. Eliot had said Mike was a lawyer for Brakebills—basically, the guy who would represent the school during all the litigation Fogg threatened—and he was clearly able to keep up with all the legalese. Even from a distance, Quentin had been nearly put to sleep after a few sentences. It definitely didn’t make him feel any less out of his element.
So he turned back to Eliot, seeking some amount of solid ground. Eliot gave him a quick, surreptitious wink and wrapped his arm tighter around his shoulder. “I promise, we’ll eat at some point,” he said, maybe mistaking Quentin’s nerves for impatience. “Hoberman always needs to make a big goddamn entrance. He’s showboaty as all hell.”
“Oh, yeah,” Quentin said, surprising himself with a laugh. He leaned in closer to Eliot and whispered out the side of his mouth. “Showboats are the worst.”
Eliot let out a short huff of breath, tilting his head. “What exactly are you implying, sir?”
“Nothing,” Quentin said, with a low tsk of his tongue. Eliot’s jaw dropped, wide and scandalized.
The aperitif must have been magic’d to be stronger than it looked. It must have gone straight to his head. He felt dizzy and light, like he could tease Eliot Waugh and get away with it. Like it was something they did, like it was how their friendship worked. Like they had a friendship, rather than a weird acquaintance that had turned into a pseudo-business arrangement. It was exhilarating.
“Watch it,” Eliot warned without heat, his thumb tracing slow circles into his bicep. Dizzying. “I’m your ride back.”
Before Quentin could giddily respond with how well he knew the subway system without any guidance, thanks, Margo leaned across the table and wrapped her tiny hand around his wrist. She tugged a few times, demanding focus.
“Quentin.” Margo pouted. “Stop talking to Eliot. He’s boring.”
“You’re boring,” Eliot retorted lovingly.
Margo grinned, lacking her and Quentin’s fingers together. “Pay attention to me.”
You and I are officially best fucking friends. As far as that cockstain is concerned, I think you’re the greatest thing since the portable vibrator. Act accordingly.
His stomach squirmed with a strange mix of discomfort and pride. It wasn’t real. Margo had made it very clear that she gave exactly zero shits about Quentin outside the current arrangement. Which was also fair. She didn’t know him. It wasn’t like he was especially interesting or handsome or any of the things that made Margo like people, if she even did like people other than Eliot.
But it was still—
It was nice.
“You’re the best, Q,” Margo said, blowing him an air kiss. “So cute too.”
Quentin startled at the use of his nickname, since he was pretty sure he hadn’t told her about it. But his confusion was overshadowed by the terse shift and harsher throat clear from Mike, who angled himself away, a little too obviously. Eliot smirked and reached for his napkin, floating it down to his lap with a flourish.
Good job, Margo mouthed at Quentin. She let go of his hand and gave him an approving nod, before grabbing a newly appeared dinner roll and slathering it an impressive amount of salted butter. Quentin glowed at the praise, even though he was pretty sure he hadn’t done anything.
After that, the three of them chatted as they waited, the conversation flowing easier and faster than any Quentin could remember in recent years. At Brakebills, he had never made many friends, outside of Julia. Talking to Julia was like second nature, but talking to pretty much anyone else was an energy vortex. People were nice enough, but after his dad had gotten sick, anything else felt frivolous, like a waste of time, and he had become more and more closed off as the heavy days had gone by.
But now, he was sitting at a fancy table, tucked under Eliot Waugh’s warm arm, and Margo Hanson was telling him such an outlandish story that he couldn’t help but belly laugh, muscles jolting in pain from underuse. The wine was poured, the lights were shining, and magic was in the air, and Quentin couldn’t remember the last time he had smiled so much.
It felt like dancing with Calvin.
Quentin had met the other letter recipient at a ballroom dancing camp his mother had sent him to when he was sixteen, so he could waltz away his depression or something. It was a nightmare, except that he had been friends with Calvin. Quentin hadn’t known he was bi yet—which was, well, sort of stupid looking back, but he had only been a kid. Calvin had been the best dancer in the camp. Quentin had been the worst. Like, by far. But the one time he and Calvin had danced with each other, for “practice,” Calvin had floated Quentin around the room so effortlessly that Quentin had felt, for just a moment, like he was a good dancer too.
Talking and joking with Eliot and Margo was the same. They were so good at the performance, at the bubbling ease of pretend, that it made Quentin feel like he was good at the performance, at the bubbling ease of pretend. It was so simple, so easy, that it almost felt real.
But another fifteen minutes ticked by without an appearance from the chef or the first course, and Quentin’s stomach gave a low, but audible grumble. To tide him over, Margo passed him more bread and Eliot plied him with more wine, all while whispering gossipy details about the other people in the room. Exactly none of them had bothered to introduce themselves to Quentin or really talk to anyone outside the predetermined cliques of people.
“So over there, to the left, the red head?” Eliot stage-whispered, hand planted conspiratorially on the nape of Quentin’s neck. “That’s Poppy Kline, also known as the dragon bitch.”
Quentin cocked his head, trying to work out the euphemism. “Because she’s—”
Margo smirked. “A dragon researcher and a raging bitch.”
Still, Quentin perked up. “Dragons?”
“You’re cute,” Eliot said, almost softly, almost easy. Almost real. “Anyway, she’s seated all the way in Siberia so she can be far away from—” he swiveled his head to the far right end of the room “—Victoria Gradley over there. They used to be best friends, until Hoberman fucked Poppy, while monogamously dating Victoria.”
Quentin frowned. “What a dickhead.”
“Such a dickhead.” Eliot took a sip of wine. “That’s what threesomes are for, right?”
Wine was a good idea. Quentin laughed shakily and took several gulps. He wondered how many threesomes Eliot had—whatever, probably a lot. Eliot and Margo pretty famously had threesomes with lots of guys. But it was none of his business.
“So then, uh, why are they both here?” Quentin cursed under his breath when he put his glass down too hard and a bit of wine splashed out. “If Josh—if, you know, Josh is such an asshole?”
Eliot cleaned up the stain with a breezy tut. “Welcome to the tiny, suffocating world of New York Magicians, my friend.”
“We’re like a family,” Margo said, twisting her lips. “In that we all fucking hate each other, but we’re all too fucked up to go anywhere else.”
Quentin blinked. “That’s bleak.”
“And how,” Eliot said lightly, eyes lifting toward the cellar door. “Ah, but here’s the manboy of the hour now.”
Josh Hoberman did indeed like to make an entrance. Loud, slow hip-hop rang through the space as he marched his way down the stairs, wearing a classic white chef’s hat and holding his hands high above his head. The lights flashed and circled slowly, mimicking the feel of a DJ record skip. Eliot pinched the bridge of his nose, Margo glared from under her eyelashes, and none of the others seemed any more impressed.
“Hope you all are ready,” Josh said into a microphone that appeared out of nowhere, “for a feast of the senses, for a feast of delight. If not, get ready, my family, for the feast... of a lifetime!”
—He dropped the mic.
Everyone clapped politely.
“Thank you, thank you, I’ll be here all week,” Josh said with a laugh, his round glasses fogged up. “Before we get to the grub, I have a few short words I’d like to say—”
Margo groaned and slammed her head on the table, grabbing a knife and stabbing into the white tablecloth beside her long splayed out hair.
“Nice to see you as always, Margo,” Josh said, without skipping a beat. “Now, Webster’s Dictionary defines magic as a supernatural power over natural forces. But as a tried and true Nature Kid, I think it’s fair to say I’ve always taken issue with that! To me, magic is more like the harmony we find in—”
Quentin squirmed in his seat, leaning into Eliot. “Hey, uh, is this gonna be awhile?”
“Yes,” Eliot sighed.
“So is it okay if I, like, you know—?” Quentin nodded his head toward the restrooms, biting his lip. Eliot snorted and nodded, waving him off with the flick of his elegant fingers. Quentin scurried away, trying to be as quick as possible so he wouldn’t be too rude to Josh, who may be a dickhead in relationships but had also made them all a lot of food.
When he exited the absurdly luxurious single-stall bathroom, a shriek of giggles came from the other corner, as two of the women from the table emerged from the women’s room holding hands. They were whispering to each other, heads ducked and smiles beaming, and they definitely hadn’t noticed Quentin standing there.
This became even more obvious when one of them said—
“—looks like a little elf!” She clapped a perfectly manicured hand to her lips and muffled a laugh. “Oh my god, Waugh is going to eat that poor kid alive.”
The other woman nodded with a howl. “Then spit out the bones for Margo’s collection.”
Quentin slunk back against the wall, invisible as they rounded the corner away from him. His throat went strained and dry, burning with an embarrassing threat of tears. They came so easily now, after the shitshow his life had become, and he just—he needed to get a fucking grip.
He needed to remember that he wasn’t actually dating Eliot and he wasn’t actually friends with Margo. He barely fucking knew either of them, and this was all just part of the game. There was no reason for him to be hurt—no way for him to get hurt—when none of it was real. He had known that from the start. And eventually, he'd get something real out of it too. Time to work, time with Genji Quinn's connections. That was what he needed to focus on.
“Hey, ignore them,” a kind voice said from beside him. Quentin nearly jumped out of his skin. “They have too much time on their hands.”
Quentin shook loose the cobwebs in his brain to find himself face-to-face with Mike McCormick, giving him a crooked smile and a pat on the arm.
“Oh, uh,” Quentin said. He froze.
“It's one of the hazards of being with Eliot,” Mike said, with a knowing lift of his brow. “Everyone talks shit like you’re a Page Six feature.”
Quentin laughed uncomfortably, eyes sliding back and forth in a futile search for escape. “Yeah, no, uh, it’s fine. No, it’s fine. I don’t even know them anyway. So, whatever, they can say what they want. I don’t care.”
(Margo would tell him he was protesting too much. The backs of his knees were sweating bullets.)
“Not knowing them makes you a lucky one,” Mike said, lifting his hand out for a shake. “I’m Mike.”
“Yeah, I know,” Quentin said automatically. He blinked. “I mean, I’m Quentin.”
Mike chuckled and dropped his hand, unshaken. Shit. “Yeah, yeah, I get it. You think the big bad ex is here to huff and puff, right?”
Shit. “Um. No, that’s—”
“Look,” Mike said with a small laugh, hands raised in the air. “I just wanted to come over and say hi, and let you know that I’m not some evil monster or whatever it is I’m sure Eliot told you. We’re all adults here. No reason we can’t be friendly, right?”
Eliot hadn’t actually told Quentin much about Mike. He said he was a litigator who was five years out of Brakebills, that he had been an Illusion Kid, and that he had an exhausting stamp collection. (“I think you mean exhaustive.” “No, I don’t.”) But beyond that, Quentin still didn’t know what made Mike so special that Eliot would go to such extremes just to get under his skin. He didn’t know if Eliot really disdained him as much as his sneers indicated or if it was a cover for deeper heartbreak. He didn’t know.
It kind of killed him that he didn’t know.
—But those weren’t his orders.
If Mike corners your ass—and trust me, he will, he’s not original—and then has the gall to prod you about Eliot, your answer is simple:
“No,” Quentin said, furrowing his brow as innocently as he could. “I mean, yes, of course we can be friendly. But El just said you guys dated for awhile, but it didn’t work out. No one’s fault. Just, you know—” he shrugged the way Margo trained him “—run of the mill incompatibility.”
Mike’s smile turned cooler. “I see. How mature of him.”
“Yeah, I guess,” Quentin said. He rubbed at the back of his neck and started to push away from the wall. “Anyway, it was nice to meet you, Mike, but I should probably get back to—”
“Hey Quentin,” Mike said, darkened eyes stopping him in his tracks. “You seem like a nice guy.”
Quentin bobbed his head noncommittally, still angling to try to get away. His tongue felt heavy and his limbs were starting to shake with the need to run. He couldn't be trusted not to fuck this up with an extended conversation.
“So if I were you—” Mike looked both ways quickly “—I would get out of here as fast as you can.”
“Uh,” Quentin blinked slowly. “Are we expecting, like... a zombie invasion or something?”
“Zombie invasion,” Mike repeated back with a loud laugh. “Good one. That’s funny.”
(Zombies could totally exist. Necromancy was a thing and from what he had read, there were a lot of variables that required extreme skill to handle the spellwork properly. That meant shit could easily get out of hand and it was only prudent to have the possibility in the back of your mind at all times.)
“No, listen, I’m sure you’re going to tell me to fuck off for saying this,” Mike said, shaking his head with a sigh. “But you gotta know that Eliot is a mess. Those girls aren’t wrong. This isn’t going to go well for you.”
“Uh, okay, yeah,” Quentin said, jolting away from the wall. “Yeah, no, I should probably—“
“I’m not saying you’re not a good looking guy. If you were here on your own, I’d be the one taking you home tonight.”
“That’s—” Quentin swallowed, cheeks burning all over again. “Um, that’s kind of presumptuous.”
“Eh.” Mike shrugged, his eyes moving down the line of his body. Quentin shifted away, fighting a prickle of embarrassed heat spreading across his back. “But the truth is, the only reason Eliot brought you here is to try to get under my skin. That’s the kind of person he is.”
Egocentric spectacle. “Um.”
“And if you’re just having your fun, by all means, ignore me. I know he’s hot and even better in bed—”
Quentin pulled his eyes up to the ceiling, praying for a divine mercy to get him out of the conversation. Nothing happened. God was dead.
“—but Eliot has the depth of a teaspoon, and it's filled with vodka and hair product.” Mike scrunched his nose. “You know what I mean?”
An image of Eliot smiling at Quentin under a starry night flashed before his eyes. The sound of his rich voice quietly assuring him that he had worth, that he could do the things he wanted to do, fuck all the rest, reverberated through his body.
“Yeah," Quentin said slowly. He forced a tight smile. "No, that’s very enlightening.”
“We gotta help each other out, right?” Mike gave him a light tap on the arm. “Bro code.”
“Sure. Bro code,” Quentin damn near growled back, though he widened his smile to offset it. Just like Margo had said. He wasn’t going to give this guy any shit to go on.
“Well,” Mike said with a quick clap of his hands, changing the subject as though that was that, “I hope you didn’t bring your appetite to this shindig because Josh’s portion sizes are notoriously—”
“There you are, sweetheart.”
A strong hand pressed into Quentin’s shoulder, just on the edge of too tight. Quentin caught glimpse of a moonstone ring and breathed in the scent of musky cologne before he could manage to look up at Eliot. When he did, Eliot caught his eyes with a soft smile and his stupid heart beat faster.
“Here I am,” Quentin said. Eliot hummed happily and kissed his hairline. The heat of his lips felt like a brand, sending shockwaves across his scalp.
“Good to see you, Eliot,” Mike said. He crossed his arms over his broad chest, tucking his lips between his teeth. “Been awhile. Seems like you’ve been skipping events lately.”
“Aw, keeping tabs on me?” Eliot smiled as he brushed a strand of hair away from Quentin’s face. “That’s cute.”
“Just concerned,” Mike said, still the picture of civility. “Not like you to miss the chance to drink free alcohol.”
“I’ve been busy,” Eliot said, sliding his arm low around Quentin’s waist. Quentin couldn’t remember how to breathe, especially when Eliot’s nose buried into the crown of his head, intimate and familiar. “Sorry, my manners. This is my boyfriend, Quentin.”
“I know,” Mike said. “We’ve been having a nice chat. Though, sorry, Quentin, I didn’t catch—did you say you’re working in the city?”
“I’m still at Brakebills," Quentin said, though his insides squirmed when Eliot's hand tensed on his hip. He looked up at him, to make sure he hadn't said the wrong thing, but only found easy adoration in his gaze. It was a little unnerving.
“Ah, I see," Mike smiled, with an edge that hadn't been there before. "Are you a first year then?”
A hairline fracture in the perfectly serene facade appeared. Eliot clenched his jaw. “Mike.”
“No?” Quentin shook his head, that sickening feeling of being left out of a hidden conversation crawling up his back. “No, I’m a third year. Eliot was a year ahead of me.”
“My mistake,” Mike said. “You’ve just—got that innocent thing going for you. We all know how much Eliot loves himself some—”
“That’s enough,” Eliot snapped, eyes dark. "Bye Mike."
Mike quirked his eyebrows up, short and pointed, as he stared Eliot down. “Nice to meet you, Quentin. Remember what I said.”
"Bye Mike," Eliot said distractedly. He waggled his fingers vaguely in the air, until Mike chuckled softly and walked away.
Once he was out of earshot, Quentin blew air out his cheeks and shook out his limbs. “Wow, shit, that was, uh—” he cleared his throat, nodding compulsively “—I think that went mostly okay?”
Eliot smiled, a soft yet vicious thing, and he fussed with the knot of Quentin’s tie. “What did he say to you?”
“Nothing,” Quentin squeaked automatically. Eliot lifted up no bullshit eyes. “Okay, I mean, he was an ass, but—but he’s obviously jealous. That’s what matters, right? It’s working.”
(Quentin would rather go bowling than repeat the teaspoon line to Eliot.)
“An ass to you or about me?” Eliot ran a flat hand down the length of his tie, feeling like a long stretch of electric shocks. Quentin's breath caught in his throat and it took him a second to answer.
“What does it matter?”
“I don’t care what he says about me, but you didn’t sign up for someone to be a dick to you.” Eliot said with a surprising burst of ferocity. “He shouldn’t have cornered you like that.”
Quentin faltered back with surprise, his back hitting the wall. “Oh. No, it’s fine, Eliot. Margo called it, so I kind of knew that it might—”
In his periphery, he could see the servers bringing the first course, could see a smattering of curious eyes looking over their way from the tables. He saw the woman next to Mike lean over and whisper in his ear. But Eliot didn't seem to notice any of that.
“God, he’s such a fucking passive-aggressive prick, who thinks he can—”
“Eliot,” Quentin said urgently, when he saw Mike now staring at them intently from across the room. “Hey, uh, hey. He’s looking at us. Right now.”
“So what?” Eliot spat out. “Let him fucking look.”
Quentin pursed his lips. “Well, it's just you—you look kind of pissed right now.”
“I am kind of pissed right now.”
“But he might think you’re pissed at me.” Quentin placed his hand on Eliot’s forearm, solid and lean under the lavender silk of his jacket. “It'll, uh, look like we’re fighting? About him, maybe. Which I’m pretty sure that would make Margo say—”
Mike has to believe that his tiny noodle dick is the last thing either of you give a shit about.
“I’m obviously not pissed at—” Eliot took a deep breath, eyes closing. “Sorry, I’m certainly not angry with you, Quentin. This is just... it’s the kind of shit he always pulls. He tries to wheedle his way into good graces through this fucking disingenuous salt-of-the-earth act. But he’s actually a judgmental asshole who thinks he’s the most adult person in any room, without any acknowledgment that his own petty bullshit is exactly—”
Eliot’s face was getting red and his eyes were growing dark, bits of spittle flying from his mouth as the words increased in bitterness. Quentin felt his heart sink. It wasn’t like he had been holding out hope or something stupid like that. He knew the score. Guy like Quentin, guy like Eliot. But any doubts about whether Eliot was truly doing this without residual feelings for his ex were now assuredly put to rest.
Still though, Quentin liked Eliot. He liked him, as a person, beyond any delusional attraction. And whether it had been a good idea or not, Quentin had committed to his part in this insane plan.
“—and did I mention he’s a goddamn Republican? A Republican, Quentin, I fucked a Republican. Yes, sure, he says he didn’t vote for him, that he's a true conservative, whatever the fuck that means. But can we trust it? Who can say? Assholes like him lie about everything, so why not—”
Quentin made his decision before he could second-guess it.
He surged up on his tip toes and kissed Eliot, closed-mouthed and soft. Eliot startled, tensing the moment Quentin tilted up into him, with a muffled sound of shock that ran straight down to his toes. But it worked, since all of Eliot's angry words died away and his arms fell slack by his sides.
Look, if you two need to kiss because the situation calls for it, just fucking kiss. Unless you’re a virgin or something. Wouldn’t shock.
It was barely anything, barely a kiss. It was sort of stupid, really, more like two people awkwardly sewn together than anything romantic. But his frantic mind shut down into a static stillness, with only the refrain of Eliot, Eliot, Eliot tingling across his skin.
And when Eliot melted into him, returning the pressure with his own soft lips, the ground disappeared. He cupped Quentin’s face with his hand, fingers curling gently around the hinge of his jaw. It was tentative and delicate, and it set Quentin on fire. The world was spinning, a whirlwind of low lights and laughter, and everything was yes, this and please more. Quentin desperately wanted to part his lips, to deepen the kiss, to finally capture what he had wanted for more than two years now, since the first time he had stumbled into the white light of Brakebills and seen the most beautiful man in the world.
—But that wasn’t the deal.
So Quentin broke away.
He fell back on his heels, putting several inches of space between him and Eliot again. He forced his eyes open, lids heavy as though he’d been drugged, hazy and still halfway caught in that prism of perfect light, and he let out a shaky breath. H e couldn’t push it. He didn’t want to push it, because he was over it, he wanted to be over it, but also because—it would be—it would be wrong to push it, no matter how good kissing Eliot felt.
His body was, as ever, an unreliable narrator.
Blinking back to focus, Quentin was surprised to find Eliot’s eyes still closed, lips still gently puckered. Which, fuck, just made Quentin want to kiss him all over again. B efore he could do anything stupid though, Eliot's lashes fluttered up. His lips were pink and parted, the tips of his cheeks slightly flushed, and he laid a gentle hand on the crook of Quentin's elbow. But his expression was unreadable at best.
“Well, that sort of—” Eliot licked his lips, brows drawing together. “Escalated.”
“Sorry, it was just, you know,” Quentin scratched at his cheek, like he get rid of the fire hot blush he could feel crawling across his skin. “Margo said we should kiss? If it was warranted?”
Eliot tilted his head. “Hm. Was it warranted?”
“Uh, I mean,” Quentin said, stomach dropping. All at once he couldn’t stand looking Eliot in the eye. “You seemed kind of like you were spiraling?”
“I was not—” Eliot huffed incredulously and Quentin shook his head, backing up until he hit the wall.
“It’s fine. I—I spiral all the time? Like, it's a weird situation, it happens. But, uh, sometimes when it gets bad, I need something to kinda—” he shot his hands out, right in Eliot’s face “—jolt me out of it, y’know? And—and—and I also thought Mike looked kind of...curious about us? In the bad way? So I figured—you know. Two birds.”
Eliot pursed his lips. “Two birds.”
“And if we’re gonna do this for three months?” Quentin swallowed. “The reality is, Margo’s right, at some point, there has to be a, uh, a physical element, even if it’s minor. So it—it seemed like as good a time as any to rip the bandaid.”
Eliot narrowed his eyes. “Rip the bandaid.”
“Not that kissing you is painful,” Quentin quickly clarified. Duh. “All I meant is—”
The world spun all over again. But this time, it was because Eliot had pulled Quentin right against his chest, one hand gripping his hip and the other sliding down his forearm, until their fingers laced together. Quentin’s eyes widened, which only made Eliot smirk, right before he dipped his whiskey-mint mouth right back against his ear.
“I can’t figure you out, Quentin Coldwater,” he murmured, rumbly and warm. “You’re something of a mystery, you know that?”
Quentin was a goddamn idiot. He closed his eyes and let his forehead fall against Eliot’s shoulder, the smell of his cologne and lingering cigarette smoke overwhelming. It wasn’t part of the act. He was a shitty actor. Hopefully Eliot wouldn't realize that. “Um. What you see is what you get.”
“That’s exactly what I mean,” Eliot said, doing that same intoxicating thing again, where he nuzzled his nose against the hair at his temple. “But you do make a good point. So may I kiss you again before we head back? To keep up those crucial appearances?”
Shit. “Uh.” Quentin’s mouth was dry. “Uh, yeah, that’s—that’s fine. Sure.”
“Mm, be still my heart,” Eliot drawled out in a breath, right as h e ducked his head and kissed Quentin soundly on the mouth. This time, there was nothing hesitant about it, nothing halting or awkward. His lips moved expertly, softly, so fucking softly, and his long ringed fingers buried into Quentin’s hair and everything was—
Quentin couldn’t remember closing his eyes. He couldn’t remember his hands sliding up Eliot’s chest, couldn’t remember wrapping his fingers around the intricate knot of his tie. He couldn’t remember his name, couldn’t remember where they were, why they were. He couldn’t remember anything, and he didn’t give a shit. The kiss, a fizzing of sparklers and champagne through his blood, had all but hit an off switch in his fucked up brain. The lights were out, and all he could see—all he could feel—were the stars.
When Eliot pulled away, it was a smoother departure than his own. More natural, as though they had ended kisses a million times before. Eliot made a soft sound against Quentin’s lips and smooched them once, quick and sweet, before brushing his hair off his brow.
“Damn, Coldwater,” Eliot said softly, tracing a thumb over Quentin’s sideburn, eyes shining. His lips pulled up into a sly little grin. “Buy a boy a drink next time.”
Quentin sputtered on instinct. “I—uh—what? You were the one who—”
“Come along,” Eliot said, speaking over him and tugging at his hand. “Soup course is up. We can feed each other spoonfuls of dehydrated clam chowder. ”
That heady, floaty feeling of having just kissed Eliot Waugh, twice, evaporated. “Um. Gross?”
"Indeed," Eliot said with a laugh, tucking Quentin back under his arm. He dropped a firm kiss to the top of his head. "Allez, honeylove. We don't have all night."
Eliot swayed his way through the kitchen, throwing his jacket across the island and haphazardly rolling up his sleeves. After the supper club had finally ended, always an interminable hours-long affair, the tipsy trio had the brilliant idea to head to a bar and do a few rounds of shots. Tipsy had thus turned to drunk, and now he was in pursuit of food—anything carby and salty—to soak up the copious amounts of alcohol they had all imbibed.
It had been a weird night.
Of course, Mike had been a dick. Water was wet. But Eliot still didn’t know how much of a dick his prick of an ex had been. Still didn’t know what exactly he had said to Quentin, that had made the shy boy’s eyes so fiery and jaw so clenched, what personal hot spot Mike had found and poked so raw. The not-knowing made him feel unsteady and out of control, and there was no worse feeling on the fucking planet.
But on the other hand, Eliot had kissed Quentin twice. Which had been—
Not the worst feeling on the planet.
Their lips had touched, softly caressing under twinkling magic starlight in all their kitschy glory. Eliot had held his face in his hands, felt his stubble beneath his palm, the silk of his hair between his fingers. They had breathed the same air, foreheads pressed together, and Quentin had laid a hand flat on his chest. He had wrapped a hand around his tie to bring Eliot in closer, dizzyingly close, and made tiny gasping sounds from the back of his throat, vibrating through their joined bodies.
—Eliot slammed open the pantry.
None of that mattered.
A kiss was a kiss was a kiss, and Eliot had kissed more boys in the past eight years than he could count. What was one more, for a good cause? But the night had been weird because this sort of thing was... uncharted territory. It had felt painfully real and even more foolish. It was exciting, it was stupid. It was the most fun he’d ever had. It left him hollow. Obviously, drinking the confusion away had been the only solution. As always, it worked remarkably well.
First of all, it had made the evening’s exploits funny, instead of awkward. Once they were at the bar and well into their third round, they could laugh about Mike’s stupid constipated face or the way Quentin had spilled a whole glass of brandy down his shirt, when Eliot had held his hand when he hadn’t expected it. Margo could tease Quentin to her heart's delight—even calling him, in an inherent contradiction, a motherfucking virgin—and Quentin laughed until he cried, instead of sulking into himself.
Second of all, Drunk Quentin was a particularly lovely brand of Quentin.
Sure, he was still a morose little smartass, but his rambling earnestness also emerged more easily. He spoke with undulating hands and giant eyes, smiling and bouncing in his seat. Whenever Quentin was drunk, it seemed like he became that boy again, the one Eliot had met at the Brakebills entrance. The one who had told Eliot all about his plans, about his hope for the future, and had bragged about his brilliant best friend, more than anything about himself. The one who had been so excited about magic, that it almost made Eliot feel excited about magic. The one who had written Eliot poetry that he never meant to send.
Not that he was trying to—
Eliot ripped open a bag of salt and vinegar chips. That would be fine. Whatever.
Over on the couch and in her favorite chair respectively, Quentin and Margo were chatting happily, cheeks flushed and smiles wide. Eliot felt a tiny tug in his chest at the sight. Margo didn’t “enjoy” spending time with “other humans” as a general rule, beyond clubbing and shopping and judging their behavior, but she actually seemed to like Quentin.
“Only pretentious dickbags prefer Picard to Kirk,” Margo said as Eliot walked over. She grabbed the bag out of his hands and ripped it open, stuffing her face. “He seemed like a good leader because he was all thoughtful or whatever, but when push came to shove, he cocked out half the time."
“Kirk was a douchebag,” Quentin argued, reaching across the coffee table and grabbing his own handful of chips when Margo held it out to him. “Oh, thank fuck, real food.”
She shrugged, crunching down and swallowing exaggeratedly. “Douchebags get shit done.”
“I like Chris Pine,” Eliot added helpfully, floating down to sit on the couch. He threw his feet up on the coffee table and stretched his arm along the length of the chaise lounge, the tips of his fingers just barely grazing the long ends of Quentin’s hair.
“That’s Kirk,” Margo said, snapping fingers at Eliot with a firm nod. “I win.”
Quentin scowled. “Except Kirk was nothing without Spock.”
“Majority rules, kid.”
“How undemocratic of you.”
“Fuck you, by every measure, Picard was steadier, more forthright, and kinder. Not to mention, he canonically saved more lives—”
“No, fuck you,” Margo groaned. “That’s not the only measure of success, Quentin. Plus, you can’t—”
“It’s a damn big one!”
“—measure it per capita. You have to look at it by percentage of people saved, adjusted as though their screen time was equal.” Margo arched a brow. “Don’t try to lowball me on a technicality, dick.”
“Fair,” Quentin agreed quickly. “But I’ve actually considered that element before and—”
“And it doesn’t matter,” Margo said, resting her chin on her shoulder coquettishly. “Eliot already broke the tie with his vote. Don’t be a sore loser, it’s not attractive.”
“Uh.” Quentin snorted. “Yeah, I’m not convinced Eliot actually knows enough to have a valid opinion.”
“Chris Pine is dreamy,” Eliot concluded, grinning happily. Quentin rolled his eyes.
“Mm, the nectar of victory is so sweet,” Margo said, standing with a twist of her hips. “On that note, I’m gonna get my pajamas on. Time to let the girls breathe.”
She grabbed her tits as she made her slightly stumbly way past the coffee table. Quentin went bright pink, darting his eyes over to the side. Cute.
“Aw, pajamas,” Eliot said teasingly, kicking out his foot toward her shin. “How matronly.”
Margo held a middle finger high in the air as she walked out. “Have fun not fucking each other.”
She was such a bitch.
Eliot sighed fondly, head lolling over to the side. His eyes found Quentin as they were wont to do, and he frowned to see him picking at a hangnail on his thumb, a portière of hair blocking most of the view of his handsome face. That wouldn’t do.
“So, Quentin,” Eliot said, clapping a friendly hand on his knee. “Since we’re very, very drunk, can I ask you a burning question?”
Those giant brown eyes peered up at him hesitantly. “Okay?”
—Eliot slid his hand slowly up Quentin’s thigh.
"Wanna practice?" Eliot asked quietly, moving in closer, until he could hear Quentin’s quickening breaths like they were his own. He watched his pretty throat grow splotchy, red and pink, a watercolor all for him, and he dipped his lips down to taste the heat of his skin. He was sweating alcohol, sharply sweet, and his stubble was rough under his tongue.
“Um,” Quentin squeaked as Eliot licked at his pulse point and bit at the delicate skin under the hinge of his jaw. “Wh—what?”
“Kissing each other, touching each other,” Eliot whispered, fingers trailing across Quentin’s lap. “You know. Inform our performance, through the art of experiencing. Stanislavski style.”
When Eliot palmed into the fabric covering Quentin's hard cock, Quentin arched his back and let out a loud gasping noise, like he couldn’t believe it. Like he was getting everything he had ever wanted, like he had no idea what he did to Eliot, like Quentin had no idea how gorgeous he was. It was stunning, it was insane, it was—it was like finding a goddamn Rembrandt at a yard sale. Eliot moaned as he finally kissed Quentin like he wanted, all lapping tongues and grazing teeth, one hand in his hair and the other flicking open the buttons of his shirt. Underneath him, Quentin whimpered, kissing him back wild and furious and fuck, Eliot was so hard. Fuck, e was going to ruin Quentin for anyone else, forever, so the only lips he thought about were Eliot’s, the only hands he thought about were Eliot’s, the only cock he ever thought about was Eliot’s. From now on, Quentin would only think about Eliot, ever again.
“Eliot,” Quentin murmured, as Eliot started kissing down his perfect little body. “Eliot. Eliot—”
Eliot jerked to attention, blinking rapidly as he came back to the present moment. Quentin sat a distance away from him, knees tucked under his chin. He had his brow gently furrowed, running his teeth over his lower lip as he squinted in confusion.
“Hm?” Eliot cleared his throat and wiped his hands down his pants. He may have been slightly drunker than he realized. “I—what?”
“You said you had a question?” Quentin repeated slowly.
Eliot cleared his throat again. He adjusted his tie and took a deep breath. He thought very hard for a second and then snapped his fingers when his wits returned to him. He did have a question. A real one.
“Yes. I just—” He cocked his head to the side and considered Quentin, in all his cozy, curled up, prickly glory. The most puzzling man he had ever met. “Why only boys?”
Quentin cocked his head too, a mirror to Eliot. “I don’t understand.”
“You said you’re bi,” Eliot said, pretty sure he remembered right. Definitely sure. He had thought about it a lot, the fact that Quentin had liked men the whole fucking time. “But the letters were only written to boys. You also said. I think.”
Eliot meant the question conversationally, like a gentle get to know you under weird circumstances kind of thing, but Quentin practically jumped off the couch.
“Jesus, shit,” he said, hand ramming into his hair. “I. Oh, god. You—you wanna talk about the—the letters?”
The whites of his eyes were blinding in their panic and Quentin was looking anywhere but at Eliot. The last of his deeply inappropriate desire to suck Quentin off until he was a puddle of raw nerve endings vanished, in favor of erasing that look from his face.
“Only if you don’t mind,” Eliot said, reaching out for his knee again. Quentin didn’t flinch away, but his face went dark and pinched, staring off into space.
“I mean, I definitely don't want—” Quentin shook his head, clenching his jaw. “Uh, no, sorry. Sure. That’s fine. I can talk about it. Whatever.”
“Convincing,” Eliot laughed. Quentin glowered, crumpling into himself even more and that just wouldn’t do. “Okay, stop. It was just a question, Q. If you want to tell me to fuck off, I’ll fuck off.”
He fully expected Quentin to do just that. They were both drunk and Eliot was pushing the bounds of their not-exactly-friendship with a loaded personal question. Hell, Eliot had hexed people for less. But he must have said something right, because Quentin looked up at him in surprise, all the tense lines of irritation melted from his face. For a moment, he was silent.
Then he said—
“Girls have always been easier for me."
He chose each word carefully. Quentin scratched at his eyebrow, another nervous tic, and shot a quick glance right at Eliot, like he was searching for understanding. But Eliot didn’t know what that meant and it must have shown on his face.
Quentin shook his head. “Uh, I mean, not easy. Like, I’m still the same with girls. You know, I’m not—” He wrung his hands together and chuckled, a breathless sound “—I’m not, uh, cool or whatever. I can count my girlfriends on one hand.”
I’ve only had one boyfriend and he dumped me after two months, Eliot didn’t say. He wasn’t that drunk.
“Girls just weren’t into me, because you know—” Quentin gestured vaguely across his body “—obvious reasons. But they never doubted my interest, it never caused me, like, existential crises. Well, that kind of existential crises. But guys have always—I don’t know. I may as well be invisible.”
Eliot smiled thinly. “I’m sure you get noticed more than you think.”
Quentin was so gorgeous. He had always been so fucking gorgeous. Half the time, Eliot convinced himself he had to be misremembering, that his minds’ eye image of Quentin had to have been idealized along the way. But then he’d see him again and, every time, his beauty was undeniable. A fact of nature, one that simmered in his veins. Sort of a sweet torture.
“I don’t know about that,” Quentin said with a fast wave of his hand, batting away Eliot’s heart without knowing it. “Either way, pretty much everyone assumes I’m straight. So I just—I’ve never had the energy to go through the whole coming out rigmarole.”
“I’m sorry,” Eliot said. He had also assumed Quentin was straight. “That’s—being closeted isn’t a fun place to be, for any reason.”
“I wasn’t closeted. I’ve always talked about it if it comes up. I’ve, uh, I've even hooked up with guys before.”
Eliot wanted another drink. He wanted to ask why Quentin had never approached him, why he hadn’t even tried, back when he actually did want Eliot. But he had already pushed his luck enough.
“The few times it happened, it happened,” Quentin said, not exactly a ringing endorsement of whatever had happened. “But I still didn’t seek it out myself. Didn’t know how to. I was always worried I’d get laughed at if I tried.”
Quentin cleared his throat and looked away, like he was embarrassed, like he had said to much. Like he was completely unaware that if he had ever, ever, approached Eliot, Eliot would have immediately dropped to his knees, even if they had been standing in the middle of the goddamn quad.
Eliot ran his tongue over his teeth and refocused. “Hence, the letters?”
“Hence, the letters,” Quentin agreed. He tucked his hair behind his ear and grimaced. “Like I think I said last week, I wrote them when I—you know, when I felt something that I couldn’t just shake off. I’m obsessive on a good day, so I need coping mechanisms. Letter writing was one of them.”
God, fuck the friend who sent them out. “Like I think I said last week, your friend sucks.”
Luckily, Quentin laughed, though it was a fragile sound. “It is what it is. ”
“Fair enough.” Eliot knew a change-the-subject cliche drop when he heard one. He rocked his head back and stared up at the grand ceiling. “So what about the others? Who were they?”
“You mean the other guys?”
Eliot shrugged, feigning all the nonchalance in his arsenal. “Can’t help but be curious about—” the competition “—the company I’m in.”
“Uh, well, I don’t know,” Quentin said. “They were just—guys from different parts of my life. One was someone I used to hookup with in undergrad. Another was a guy from ballroom dance camp—”
“I’m sorry,” Eliot sat up straight, delight sparking up his spine. “What kind of camp? Can you repeat that?”
But Quentin didn’t take the bait, opting to cheekily flip Eliot off and continue. “Another was Julia’s ex-boyfriend. That was a whole thing.”
“Julia, as in the one who sent the letters? Her ex?” Eliot whistled. “Sounds messy.”
“You have no fucking idea,” Quentin said, spitting it out. He scrubbed his hands down his face and Eliot was burning with curiosity. “Uh, but that's—whatever. So then there was another guy from Brakebills—”
“Who was that?” Eliot hoped he sounded giddily intrigued, rather than ready to burn some asshole’s house to the ground. Muggles were nonentities. Other Magicians could be a problem.
(Not that he was trying to fuck Quentin anymore. Really. He wasn't.)
“Uh,” Quentin coughed. He cocked a sheepish eye upward. “Do you know Penny Adiyodi?”
—Never mind, it was fine.
“I do,” Eliot said with a wide grin he couldn’t help. Quentin flipped him off again, such a grumpy middle school boy. It shouldn’t have been cute, but he liked that Quentin felt comfortable enough to do it. Give and take.
“Yeah, well, Penny was my roommate first year. He was a massive dickhead who hated me for, like, no reason and I wasn’t sure if I wanted to kill him or... you know, sleep with him. So I worked it out in one of my letters. Pretty, uh, intensely.”
“Oh, god,” Eliot laughed, a loud honk of a sound. He clapped his hand over his mouth and shook his head. “Sorry, it’s not funny. It’s very serious and I'm taking this seriously.”
But Quentin grinned right back, all dimples and crinkly eyes. Eliot would never have to do cocaine again if he could keep making Quentin Coldwater smile.
“No, it’s funny, I guess,” Quentin said. He tucked his lip between his teeth. "When I'm drunk, it's funny."
Eliot hummed airily. “That's why I endorse a constant state of inebriation for all."
"Ah, yeah," Quentin said, nodding sardonically. "Good policy. Healthy."
"Wellness is my passion." Eliot winked when Quentin snorted. “Okay, so you’ve got undergrad boo, dance camp boo, ex-boyfriend drama-llama boo, Penny boo, and—”
“And you,” Quentin finished, looking back down at his hands. “Uh. But we’ve already talked about that. Obviously.”
“Obviously,” Eliot agreed quietly, unable to remember what he had found so funny before. He was drunk.
Quentin laughed breathily, scratching at his brow again. Nervous tic. “I, uh, I know the one you got was stupid. Super stupid. Sorry about that.”
“No, it was—” Eliot shook his head, heart battling between wanting to desperately reassure and mercilessly tease Quentin. Whichever one would make him smile faster. “There was some real balladry to it. You're quite the master of simile and you know how to paint an evocative—“
“Shut the fuck up,” Quentin said, though he laughed through it, heartier and throatier than before.
“Okay.” Eliot bit his lip to tamp down a grin. But liquor loosened his lips and the instinct to reassure came back stronger than before. “And hey, for what it's worth, they were some of the nicest things anyone has ever said about me. So there’s that.”
He said it as casually as he could, letting the consonants hit his teeth and the vowels linger, an expert dip and wave of his usual sangfroid. He didn't want to give the sentiment any charged meaning, certainly not for himself. All he wanted was for Quentin to stop feeling so embarrassed.
Eliot looked up at the way the light refracted through the patterns in the glass chandelier, casting white and gold across the vast ceiling. Lovely.
I wish I could miss you more, but I’ll miss you all the same.
He cleared his throat, ready to move on. But when he glanced back over, his next witticism already queued up on his tongue, Quentin was staring at him, eyes narrowed and indiscernible.
“Mike’s an idiot," he said, low and gravelly. The sound pooled in pit of his stomach, warm and heavy, and Eliot swallowed roughly.
“On this, we agree,” Eliot said. Casual. Light. Belying the way his heart was racing. “You should hear his lyrical analysis of Bohemian Rhapsody. Bone chilling.”
He should have known the intense little enigma that was Quentin Coldwater wouldn't pick up his attempt at levity, his gentle but firm way of changing the subject. “No, uh, I mean, I don’t—I know I don't know you well. But what I do know is, like... great. You’re great, and—and you deserve someone who tells you how great you are. All the time.”
Everything had gone slow and quiet. Quentin was looking down at his knees, at the way his fingers were tracing anxious circles around the knobs of them. Eliot wanted nothing more than to place his hands over them, to still his movements, to give him some measure of comfort. But it was like he was trapped in concrete.
“I—” Eliot started to speak, but he didn't know how to say anything. Words came easily, always, especially the bullshit ones. But now, they were all in the back of his throat, tangled together like a tumbleweed. If he coughed, dust would fly out.
“Um, I should probably—” Quentin closed his eyes and pointed toward the hallway. “I was supposed to—”
The lights dimmed and the large projector screen descended from the ceiling, cutting off whatever Quentin was apparently supposed to do at two in the morning while piss drunk. Eliot had no idea if he was relieved or not. His fingers were numb.
With a big yawn and a stretch over her head, Margo made her way back into the living room. She looked uncharacteristically tiny in bare feet, shorts, and an oversized Brakebills T-shirt, one she had stolen from some guy, long ago.
“Scoot,” Margo barked, jutting her thumb to the side at Eliot. He slid over, always obliging, brain still caught in a loop of static noise. He hardly felt her plop down between them, throwing her legs up on Eliot’s lap and resting her head on a startled Quentin’s shoulder.
“I’m too fucked up to sleep,” Margo announced. “What do you bitches wanna watch?”
“Oh, uh, I was just saying that I have some work to do,” Quentin said, shifting uncomfortably underneath Margo. “I’m kinda behind, um, on some new advances for—and, like, I don’t want to impose on—”
Margo cut him off with a laugh, settling firmer into him. “Don’t be a dumb drunk, Coldwater. You’re not doing shit tonight.”
Quentin took her words under advisement, bobbing his head back and forth before finally relaxing, unable to argue with her sound logic. Eliot let out a slow breath, trying to bring himself back to equilibrium. They were all so drunk. It was fun to be drunk. People said meaningless things when they were drunk. In vino veritas was verified horseshit.
“Hm." Eliot took Margo’s foot in his hand and putting the last of his nervous energy into massaging her arch. “Let’s watch something with Chris Pine.”
Quentin made a low grumbling sound. “Oh my god, what’s so fucking great about Chris Pine?”
Eliot clicked his tongue. “That question is homophobic.”
“Nah,” Margo said, angling her head back to look up at Quentin. “I’m with you. He’s not that hot.”
“You’re not that hot,” Eliot snapped. Margo gasped, loud and horrified, and he wrapped a quick hand around her ankle. “No, I’m sorry, that was too far.”
After they had all enthusiastically settled on a romantic comedy, cinched with Quentin’s overjoyed, “Fine, whatever," the blue light of the screen took over the conversation, sending them into a movie magic haze. The plot was nonsensical, but sense was overrated. Plot was overrated. What Eliot always liked were the moments in between. The wit, the pratfalls, the way eyes lingered, and the chemistry between good looking people, ostensibly trying to do their best in a kinder world than his own.
But as Chris Pine took off his shirt onscreen, Eliot happily opened his mouth to say something crass and clever, he realized his captive audience was anything but. Somewhere along the way, Margo had ended up snoring softly into Quentin’s rumpled suit jacket and Quentin had dropped his cheek to the top of her head, eyes closed and breathing even. Their faces were peaceful, unlined and young, like nothing had ever disturbed their slumber.
Eliot’s heart twisted.
It was terrifying, in a way he couldn’t think about, in a way he desperately didn't want to think about. His heart raced and his skin tingled, all while the world settled into a soft low lit glow around the three of them, syrupy slow motion and feather soft air. Everything that shouldn't have fit was somehow slotting together, like he had found something wild and precious and right without even seeking it out. Somehow, he had stumbled upon something previously undiscovered, a deserted island hidden in his emotional landscape.
Unbidden and irrational, a small smile pulled at his lips—a drunken, crooked zigzag—and he exhaled. At the sound, Margo shifted in her sleep, curling in closer to Quentin with a shiver. Eliot flicked his fingers and a blanket floated down on top of them, tucking around their sweetly sleeping curves. Margo let out a contented hum and Quentin twitched once, with a grumpy groan.
And as Eliot finished the movie alone, he smiled the whole time.
Chapter 4: Chapter Three
Oh, uh, hey! The reports of this story's death have been greatly exaggerated. <3 I'm hoping updates should be a lot more frequent, since my longfic is more or less wrapped up now. If you're still here, thank you so much!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Lower Manhattan, New York
Late October 2017
Across the sunny kitchen island, Margo narrowed her eyes. “Any day now, Q.”
Quentin pushed down the French press with both palms, forearms shaking. The stopper jammed against the wet grinds’ resistance, but he had decent upper body strength. He’d faced down greater challenges and come out the victor. A stupid fucking French press had nothing on him.
He could do this.
“Tick, tock, asshole.”
“Gimme a sec, it’s—it’s stuck, okay?” Quentin shook the long metal thingy. “Just need to—” He grunted with the effort. “I need to, uh, like, goddammit, fucking jimmy it or something.”
Margo yawned as he thrust it several more times, using his wrists to force short bursts of motion, all his energy focused. He could do this, even if it killed him. Mark his fucking word, he would literally die before surrender, would just keep going forever until he owned the motherfucker. Just fucking watch.
It took him eight more tries, but then the stupid thing finally gave, sliding down to pull black coffee up the glass container. Quentin fell back on his heels, bouncing and swaying through the syrupy relief of accomplishment.
But then Quentin furrowed his brow. The longer he thought about it, the more it made very little sense; the change in resistance had been too sudden. Too easy.
Quentin whipped his head around. “I had it.”
“Agree to disagree.” Eliot checked a batch of muffins with a toothpick, a wave of warmth spilling over from the open oven. “Hm, these need a couple more minutes.”
He popped them back in with a sly smile, wiping his hands on an incongruously fancy apron, delicate strands of shimmering gold thread embroidered through the bright white fabric. Quentin puffed himself up to offer his sternest rebuttal, but Margo struck the bottom of her mug on the granite countertop. Then she struck it again. And again, and again, and again. Clang-clang-clang-clang-clang-clang-clang-clang—
“Holy shit,” Quentin turned back to her, pressing his mouth into a hard line. “Would you like some coffee, Margo?”
Brow arched, Margo angled her mug at him with a lazy hand. He poured, letting out a reluctant snort, annoyed to be amused at her antics despite knowing better than to encourage her. When he pulled away with a sarcastic bow, Margo let out a blissful sigh and brought the coveted caffeine to her lips.
Her eyes flew open.
“Jesus!” Margo thumped her fist to her chest, coughing and retching, pushing the mug away. “Oh my god, Quentin, why don’t you just chew on the goddamn beans?”
“I like my coffee strong.” Quentin speared a piece of fluffy pancake, chomped it into his mouth, and washed it down with a gulp of mimosa. He lifted his brows.
“That’s not strong,” Margo hissed, pointing down at the steaming cup. “That’s sociopathic.”
“Make your own if you’re gonna be picky.”
“I’m not picky, I have tastebuds.”
“This is how I drink my coffee every day.”
“Then just do cocaine.”
“You two are adorable.” Eliot slid over to stand next to Quentin, elbows on the counter. “But Bambi’s right, Q. Last time you made coffee, it was undrinkable garbage. I was just too polite to say anything.”
“I’m not,” Margo said. “This shit is awful.”
“Whatever, more for me,” Quentin grumbled, crossing his arms over his chest. “Haters.”
Eliot clicked a soothing sound with his tongue, running a hand over the top of his head like he was petting a skittish Yorkshire terrier. Before he pulled away further into the kitchen, Eliot rested a warm hand between his shoulder blades, pressing for one reassuring beat. A breath caught in Quentin’s chest, and then he slowly released it, heat crawling up his neck.
“I’ll whip up a couple lattes,” Eliot said, reaching into one of the endless white cabinets. “You two relax. I don’t mind.”
Margo lifted her coffee in cheers and then kept drinking it despite her all her protests.
“I mean, I know you don’t mind,” Quentin said, twisting in his seat. “But on the weekends, I’m basically a freeloader here—”
“You’re totally a freeloader.” Margo danced her fingers up his arm.
“—and since you won’t let me pay for food, or cook, or do the dishes, or vacuum, or pay a small fraction of rent, or—”
“I get it,” Eliot said without turning around.
“It’s kinda my responsibility to contribute somehow.” Quentin waved his hand at the elaborate spread. “I mean, shit, look at all this. Making coffee is something I can actually do.”
Margo’s face fell serious. “No, it’s not.”
“You contribute with the favor you’re doing me.” Eliot opened the oven right as it started beeping. “Nothing else required.”
A renewed wave of fresh chocolate chip-banana muffins filled the air, and Quentin’s stomach sank. Right. He and Eliot had been at this—whatever, this “scheme” for over a month now. Six weeks. And it was becoming increasingly, dangerously easy to forget Quentin didn’t spend so much time with Eliot and Margo just because they wanted to.
It should’ve been awkward as shit, to hang out with the Brakebills’ party royalty Quentin had never gotten to know beyond a few stolen moments. Well, with one of them. The one he was pretending to be in a committed relationship with, the same guy Quentin used to want so, so much—obsessively—before his life had gone to hell. The one who knew Quentin had once wanted him and how much Quentin had wanted him—how much he’d obsessed—because Julia had done what she’d done. It should’ve been a disaster, an exercise in abject humiliation with very little benefit for his future or emotional well-being. It should’ve sucked, it should have felt like an obligation, but every part had been…
Fuck, it’d been easy.
Quentin tipped his mimosa down his throat.
Every Friday afternoon, Quentin popped through the portal at Bleecker Street and walked the ten minutes to Eliot and Margo’s apartment. It was a surprisingly quiet walk, through a tree-lined and gentrified part of the neighborhood. The hallmarks of fall were all around, from the glow of twinkle lights to the shock-chill of a sudden breeze. Autumn had always been Julia’s favorite season; her yearly proclamation of her identity as “PSL bitch” was as time-honored tradition as all the goddamn hayrides she used to drag him on. (Fuck hayrides.)
But Quentin tried not to think about that, not even when he passed a few too many Starbucks stores, trying to lure him inside with the promise of overpriced corporate-mandated espresso drinks. He couldn’t stand the sight of the green awnings, the whimsical Halloween displays drawn on the windows. Anger clawed at his chest every time he gave it attention, vicious, wrenching, and unforgiving. But.
But this was the longest he and Jules had ever gone without talking.
Still, Quentin’s world always got a bit brighter, a little more sparkling, whenever he walked through Eliot and Margo’s door. Eliot always greeted him with a broad smile, a big hug, and a cocktail, immediately pulling Quentin to his side to catch him up on the latest gossip. And Margo kissed his cheeks, patted his head, and gave him shit he could lodge right back.
It was kinda like watching an 80s teen movie, starring himself, where he got to live out his long-harbored fantasy of cool, attractive people desperately wanting to be his friend. A funny, happy romp where people like Eliot and Margo magically thought Quentin Coldwater was the best thing that ever happened to them, despite the narrative rationale being paper thin.
Only his life wasn’t a movie, and so of course there was a rationale. Eliot and Margo liked to play games, they liked being theatrical, and this whole scheme was far from the exception. Every night the three of them left on a new “date,” Eliot and Margo ducked their heads together and loudly strategized every way to make Mike McCormick jealous, to get Quentin all the way under Eliot’s ex’s skin. The game was afoot, and Quentin was but a pawn.
But Quentin reminded himself that Eliot and Margo didn’t have to pretend to like him when Mike wasn’t around. There was a lot less kissing around the apartment, but a lot more genuine rapport too. So their friendly overtures had to be real, even if it wasn’t what exactly his fantasies craved. Fantasies were for children anyway.
“Yeah, uh, so.” Quentin shifted in his seat, grabbing his own coffee. It was fine. “What’s the plan for tonight, anyway?”
Eliot grinned over his shoulder, mouth opening in a soft little gasp. “I haven’t told you yet?”
“Christ,” Quentin groaned. “I’m not salsa dancing again.”
“You’ll salsa dance when I say salsa dance, Coldwater,” Margo said, throwing a piece of muffin at the side of his head. From Eliot’s first batch—wholegrain pear-ginger-carrot with a honey glaze—which he had declared experimental.
Quentin picked the pastry out of his hair and threw it back at her, grinning at her indignant squeak when it left a trail of crumbs down her face. They flipped each other off.
For a second, Quentin felt the weight of Eliot’s eyes on him, but when he turned around, he was just making another batch of mimosas. His long fingers moved in focused tuts over the pitcher, murmuring a cooling spell to himself. Quentin went hot all over, watching his silver rings glint and wink under the skylight.
Salsa dancing hadn’t been all bad.
A sultry throb of music circled through the humid air, lights flashed erratically through smoke and silhouettes. Quentin stood in the middle of the dance floor, a beautiful woman in a red dress twirling in his arms.
But around the third time he accidentally stepped on her foot, Margo cracked up, long hair tumbling over her bare shoulders. She fell forward, a little wobbly on her stilettos, and switched their hands. “Okay, Don Juan, I’ll lead. Try to feel the music.”
“Uh, I’d prefer not to,” Quentin said. But Margo pretended not to hear him, pushing them back into the rhythm; loud drums and brassy trumpets drowned out any reservations.
When they first arrived, Quentin had obviously refused to dance at all. He hadn’t been a total wet blanket or anything, but he’d been clear to both Eliot and Margo that he was happy to go, happy to cheer them on as they wowed the crowd or whatever, but he was absolutely 100% not dancing.
Until the three of them drank tequila. Shit happened with tequila.
Early in the night, Quentin had made the tactical error of mentioning to Margo that he only liked tequila in mixed drinks because, in his humble opinion, straight shots of tequila left a weird cleaning product in his mouth, kind of like what he imagined the aftertaste of licking Mr. Clean’s taint would be.
“That was weirdly specific, Q,” Eliot had said with a smirk.
Margo gasped—a loud and dramatic thing—hand splayed over her chest “¡Pinche cabrón!” She stood, chair screeching behind her. “No, fuck that, you just haven’t had real tequila. Be right back.”
She’d jumped over the bar when the server wasn’t looking, unlocked a safe, and grabbed a plain-looking bottle. The whole thing happened so fast, Quentin figured it couldn’t have been the first time she’d done it.
Anyway, Margo was right—good tequila was good. Like… fantastic good. Sort of honey-pinecone-saltwater flavored, but in a good way, with very little taint at all. So over the next several hours, they drank a good chunk of the bottle, tucked away and laughing at a corner table. His face went all tingly, and the music created, and then Margo had booed in his face and dragged him to the dance floor, while Eliot maturely yelled, “Pop his cherry, bitch!” through the megaphone of his own hands.
Salsa music wasn’t something Quentin would ever listen to on his own, but it was fun. Margo was fun. Tequila was fun. Dancing wasn’t fun, but the booze and Margo’s big smile and the loud whoops of encouragement from Eliot almost got it there. Now and then, Quentin would dance a seven-eight-and-one with screwing up, and his heart would take a happy little jump in his chest.
But mostly, even with Margo leading, Quentin was a complete disaster, messing up the steps more often than not. His lack of rhythm and ingrained self-consciousness made his feet too heavy and his arms wobble, tripping and sliding all over the place. Eventually, Margo had to call over reinforcements and a giggling Eliot stood behind him, pressing down on his shoulders.
“Jesus.” Eliot breathed right against his ear. “Chill out, Q, you’re fine. Relax your frame.”
A shiver sparked down his back, and Quentin’s elbows sunk toward the sticky floor.
“Ah, ah, ah,” Margo said in a strange, high-pitched voice. “Spaghetti arms.”
“Margo,” Eliot said, voice all rumbly. Half- warning, half-enamored.
Margo pulled Quentin’s arms back up into a frame, eyelashes fluttering as she checked his form. Quentin frowned. “Wait, is this a bit? Who’s Mickey?”
“You’re bad.” Eliot chuckled, resting his chin on Quentin’s shoulder, but eyes all for Margo. She blew him an air kiss.
“Are you two making fun of me?”
“Oh, Q,” Eliot said, rubbing his cheek into his hair. It wasn’t really an answer.
“C’mere, lover boy.” Margo tugged Quentin closer with a loud tipsy laugh. “Let’s teach him how to move, El.”
“If you insist, Bambi.” Quentin stiffened when Eliot wrapped one big hand around his waist and pressed the other into his hip. “Hey, it’s okay. Breathe. Relax.”
Quentin took a breath, sliding his shoulders toward the ground, a tingly sensation fluttering down to his elbows and back up again.
Margo rolled her eyes, pulling at his hands again. “Don’t relax that much. Keep your arms up.”
“Guys, I just don’t think I’m cut out for—”
Quentin’s brain short-circuited.
Eliot pressed himself up against his back, the hand on his hip squeezing along with the music. His nose tucked into the space behind Quentin’s ear, lips whispering the count of the beats. Twinkly eyes batting up at him, Margo slid one leg between his thighs, and the air grew warmer, heavier. The three of them moved and his vision swam; the scent of smoke, and cologne, and sweat more intoxicating than the booze, tongue fuzzy and inhibitions just, like, fucking gone. Margo’s cool hands in his own, Eliot’s stubble scratching the hinge of his jaw. He could barely keep his eyes open, the flashing lights and blare of brass instruments overwhelming.
Quentin’s head lolled to the side, and his eyes slid open. A survival instinct to keep grounded. His glance to the bar was accidental, but there stood Mike McCormick, strangling a beer bottle’s neck. A million emotions hit him at once, ranging from mortification to fury to yeah, that’s right, they want me, suck it, asshole, until he remembered, oh, wait, no. They didn’t. Mike’s rapt attention was what they wanted. Not Quentin, not the pawn.
His stupid heart dropped to his stomach. Part of Quentin wanted to fall to the floor and curl into the fetal position. Just fucking lie down with all the discarded cigarette butts and spilled drinks until the club itself disintegrated with the sands of time. But the part of him fueled by tequila, and fun, and something he couldn’t name, something rattling the cages deep inside him, made his eyes fall closed.
He tried to lose himself in his drunkenness and the bodies surrounding him. Tried to pretend that it wasn’t some fucked up job he was hired for, tried to sink into the fantasy that Eliot and Margo wanted him here, dancing with them now. The heedless wish that could ever Eliot want him, for real, that he could ever have an actual chance in a million years. That he wasn’t just the pathetic loser who’d written a secret love letter to Eliot Waugh like a starry-eyed middle-schooler hopped up on hormones and his first boner, and that he wasn’t—
“There you go, baby,” Eliot whispered, lips just barely grazing his ear.
Quentin sucked in a breath, hopefully not audibly. Baby. Eliot called him that a lot, almost all the time in mixed company, as soon as the spectacle was on. Baby, and sweetheart, and honeylove, and darling, and the ill-fated “my sweet Q-drop,” which was supposed to be a play on dewdrop? Margo had soundly rejected it and Eliot had replaced it with “mon amour,” and Quentin had blushed and Mike had stomped his feet to the other side of the luxury airship. It worked every time.
But there was no way Mike could have heard Eliot call him baby this time, murmured into his skin as they danced.
It took all Quentin’s strength not to moan into the sound of Eliot’s fast breath on his neck, the solid pressure of his hands, the vibrating thump of wooden dance floor, of Margo’s perfume draped over them like a veil. Quentin let himself be carried away by the music and his dance partners, the hand on his waist tightening, and soft fingers lacing through his own, until they were almost entwined at every angle.
When the music stopped, they got more drinks at the bar with no fuss. Mike was gone by the time the bartender took their order and they didn’t talk about dancing again, save a few teasing jabs at Quentin’s lack of finesse and a scathing critique of band’s take on “Pedro Navaja.” Dancing together wasn’t noteworthy to either Eliot or Margo, so Quentin did his best to shake off his own funk and joined them in their jokes—easy, lighthearted, and usually at his expense. And another mystery was solved without fanfare, when Eliot finally made it clear they’d been referencing the 1988 film “Dirty Dancing” earlier, in which the protagonist’s name was… Baby.
“Get it, baby? Ah, we like to have fun.” Eliot took a long sip of the house sangria, frosted glass sweating in his hand. Quentin gave him a weak smile back.
Another hour passed until Quentin admitted he’d never actually seen “Dirty Dancing.” Then their night ended in an abrupt halt, the three of them hauling ass back to the apartment for what Eliot called “an emergency screening.” Unlike a lot of their far-flung adventures, the salsa club wasn’t too far from the apartment, so they tumbled through lower Manhattan. The rain shone on the city streets in a blurred yellow glow, distant sirens and car horns not quite drowning out their laughter.
Manicured fingers snapped in front of his nose. “Earth to space cadet.”
Quentin’s arms jerked, but he recovered with a cough and another bite of fluffy pancake. “Seriously, what’s the deal tonight? Do I need a tie, or what?”
Eliot frowned over an empty platter, his finely honed social radar picking up on the shift in Quentin’s tone, the way it’d gone flatter and detached. Not subtle, but it was good to remind himself that this was a quid pro quo job. Eliot wasn’t taking him on dates every weekend; they had arrangement, where Quentin could end up with a mentor. There was no intent to woo.
“We’re taking a portal to the North Pole,” Eliot said, biting his lip as he cut green grapes into tiny rose blooms, somehow. “To the lesser known third Brakebills campus.”
Quentin perked up. “We have an arctic presence? I’ve never heard that.”
“Well, campus may be a bit over inflated. Only a handful of astronomers and astrologists work up there. Basically, a research outpost.”
“They call it ‘Santa’s Workshop,” Margo said with scornful air quotes. “Fuckin’ dweebs.”
“Tackiness thrives in these trying times,” Eliot said, wiping his knife on a towel before cutting into a few ruby red strawberries. “Anyway, every four hundred years, there’s some special interdimensional aurora borealis only visible through some special type of cooperative spectral spell. Tonight is the alum viewing party, on our glacier.”
“Oh.” Quentin blinked.
Margo scoffed, tossing her hair over to one shoulder. “Strobe lights in the club give you the same effect, but without freezing your clit off.”
Eliot waved a vigorous spatula. “Amen, sister.”
“Uh,” Quentin said. “I mean, I think it sounds pretty cool.”
“It’s not.” Margo tucked a bare foot under her thigh, propping her chin on a fist. Like most weekend mornings, she wore tiny silk shorts and an oversized hoodie, tiny frame swallowed in fabric. Quentin always found it remarkable how cozy she liked to be at home, thriving on comfort whenever she could. It was both unexpected and the polar opposite of Eliot, who Quentin had still never seen out of a collared shirt and slacks.
“At least the schnapps are reportedly excellent.” Eliot looked at Quentin, brief and sharp, almost abashed. “But honestly, if we ever want the arctic ambiance without all the inconvenience, sometime we should just go to Reykjavík. Much more fun.”
Margo stuck her tongue out. “Still too nature-y.”
Sometime we should sometime we should sometime we — “Yeah,” Quentin swallowed hard, busying himself with his food. He pushed a blueberry with his fork. “Uh, I mean, you know, if the docket ever calls for it.”
Eliot gave him a quick smile, then got back to work without another word. Margo sucked a deep breath through her nose, turning a glare on Quentin like he’d disappointed her. Or maybe that was just her face. She wasn’t a morning person.
The next time he looked at her though, the expression was gone. “Well, I’m sure you boys will have a delightful time frolicking through Jack Frost’s dickhole tonight.” Margo stretched her arms high over her head. “But I’ll be sitting this one out.”
“What?” Eliot snapped his head up, voice just short of a snarl. “We planned this months ago, Margo.”
“And I told you last week, Eliot,” Margo said, each word punctuated with a cloying faux-patience. “I have a date.”
“Okay, well, that’s interesting timing.”
“Saturday night?” Margo popped bit of muffin in her mouth. “Yeah, I’m diabolical.”
“You know that’s not what I—”
“Then please enlighten us on what you do mean.”
Margo pursed her lips, one brow lifted in a challenge. Eliot’s clamped jaw shut.
“Uh, so wait, you have a—a date?” Quentin asked Margo, stupidly.
“Sorry, I’ll clarify.” Margo leaned forward on one arm. “A date is when two people go out together for an evening, usually to eat and drink.” Her eyes opened wide. “And then at the end of the night, if they get along okay, they go home and fuck each other.”
Quentin tilted his head in faux contemplation. “Sounds cool.”
She threw more muffin his way.
Ducking from her attack, Quentin looked up at Eliot to catch his grin. But Eliot had bent over the fruit plate again, jaw tight with concentration. He swallowed his disappointment and pulled a knee up to his chest, perching on the bar stool.
Margo gave Quentin another strange look as she sipped her coffee, then put her mug down. “But yeah, I’m going out with some douche who works in my building.”
“Love at first sight?”
“He’s hot.” Margo bit down on a sausage link for emphasis. “Plus, you know, it’s been a few weeks since I’ve gotten any strange. After a while, it’s not liberation so much as just sad.”
“Yeah, a few weeks.” Quentin rolled his eyes. “Can’t imagine.”
Margo dug into her omelet next, bobbing her head back and forth as she chewed. “Not gettin’ lucky, Coldwater?”
Metal utensils hit the countertop with a loud clang, making them both jump in their seat. Behind them in the kitchen, Eliot held up a hand in silent apology, resuming his task.
“I mean, uh,” Quentin turned back to Margo. “You know I’m not.”
“So pretending to fuck Eliot is your only option?”
The utensils clanged again. Quentin pushed back his hair to steady himself. “Yeah, uh, it is. If I want to take it seriously, which is the only way it works.”
“How do you figure?”
“Like, if my friend Julia saw me leaving a girl’s room or something, which she would because, well, she can be kind of invasive—”
“—and so then she’d know this is all—uh, what it is.”
“And that would be a tragedy.” Margo sipped her coffee. “Well, if you ever want to use the study space to entertain a friend or friends, by all means—”
“Hey Q, what are your thoughts on cantaloupe?” Eliot called over, plucking a few sprigs of mint off his mini-herb garden. “People have strong opinions, so I like to do a vibe check.”
“I’m indifferent to cantaloupe,” Quentin said over his shoulder.
Eliot smiled at him. “So am I.”
“Christ,” Margo grumbled. Eliot wiped his hands on his apron and untied it, hanging it on its little dedicated hook. He swooped over to the island with the finished fruit plate and a winning smile.
“And despite my initial surprise at the last minute change, I do hope you have a lovely time on your fuck date, Bambi.” Eliot sat next to Quentin, helping himself to a slice of fanned strawberry. “You’ll be missed, of course.”
“I’ll bet,” Margo said, head tilting all the way over. Eliot gave her a tight smile, their eyes narrowing and widening at each other. They spoke in cryptic riddles and body language a lot. It wasn’t worth trying to analyze.
Quentin munched on his bowl of caramelized-banana quinoa oatmeal. “By the way, this is all awesome, El.”
Eliot shot one more unreadable look at Margo, then gave Quentin a soft grin. “Plenty more of everything, if you’re still hungry.”
“I’m gonna be insanely full in like two minutes, but thanks.” Quentin smiled against his spoon, elbowing Eliot’s arm. Eliot elbowed him back, catching his eye with a wink.
“Christ.” Margo thumped her head down to the countertop, muttering into the marble. Quentin kept eating, confused.
Eliot reached across Quentin’s arms to pat her hair. “There, there, my love.”
“It’s just so stupid.”
“I’m sorry you feel that way.”
After that, the rest of breakfast carried on normally. They passed Eliot’s zillions of main dishes, side dishes, and accoutrements until they were all stuffed, sipping mimosas and falling into lighthearted conversation with no effort at all.
Margo lamented the scarcity of her favorite dildo lube, which Quentin learned should never be silicone-based if the sex toy was also silicone. They canceled each other out or something. Quentin shared a few interesting facts about regenerative spells and how they could help make his coffee taste better (“Just scoop in fewer grinds, Q.”) And Eliot talked Quentin more through the evening plans, discussing the portal mechanism and warming spells... and, of course, what to expect from Mike. Apparently lots of beer drinking and comments about how the cold was “refreshing.”
Neat-o, as Mike himself would say.
Quentin remained confused at what Eliot saw in the guy, but it also remained none of his business. So as they started to to help clean up—at least until Eliot inevitably shooed them off—Quentin focused on the day ahead instead of his unshakeable petty jealousy and his unhealthy tendency to want more than he could have.
For the next couple hours, Quentin would hole up in his borrowed study space and work through a few theorems for his thesis, while Margo would head off to her Pilates class. Eliot would take a nap on the couch after the kitchen was pristine, then smoke a bowl upon waking, which he always shared with whoever was walking by. Sprinkle in a few showers here and a trashy TV show there, the lazy weekend day would be complete. And at nightfall, Quentin would become Eliot’s boyfriend. Then next Friday repeat, and repeat, and repeat.
They had a routine.
At least Quentin really liked routines.
Ice stung Eliot’s legs, even through the heavily charmed blanket. He scowled at the worthless quilt, knitted in a tacky black-and-gold beehive pattern, shifting his frozen ass to find warmth. Wind howled overhead, moving through the vast nothingness of the far north. A mournful sound, a long-lost phantom hovering over the jarring glow of chic finery, fast-paced electronic music, and sparkling magic of the alumni party. The small crowd murmured and tittered, designer bags hanging from their arms and glasses of green-tinged schnapps spilling on the snow.
Eliot should have stayed home.
Should have tag-teamed Margo’s so-called “date” like old times, getting back into their groove with some unassuming “straight” boy. Or “straight” adult man with a job, or whatever. Either way, Eliot should have been prancing around their gorgeous, heated apartment in a little sheer robe, letting out breathy apologies about having “forgotten” some such or other thing in the living room, while Margo loosened the boy up on the couch with light thigh-strokes and eyes full of promises.
A few innocent, flirty smiles later, and Eliot would bend over to flash a little skin. The collarbone; they always loved the collarbone. You have the most beautiful clavicle, one had once said in an awed whisper, before he ravaged Eliot’s chest with sloppy hickeys. Margo would scoot closer, breath on the boy’s neck. Under the joint power of their pouty gazes and the shiny allure of forbidden fruit, Margo’s boy du jour would’ve been so polite, so open-minded, when he’d graciously invite Eliot to join them for a nightcap. And every time, it ended the same way. Rolling on silk sheets, a roaring fire lapping the air, brandy-soaked lips and moans buried in skin.
Instead, Eliot was sitting on a goddamn glacier, traitor heart beating so fast it was about to break his sternum.
Bright colors crawled across the sky.
The effect was pretty enough, but no more awe-inspiring than a photo. In the foreground, the usual band of drunk and miserable Magicians wandered about, enjoying the spectacle with all the enthusiasm of cats in water. Derisive sneers passed around without a single glance upward. Eliot snorted; such an obnoxious cliche of the elite.
But over by the ice bar and hors d’oeuvres station, Eliot’s ex stood with his hands in his pockets, wearing a giant wool sweater and nursing a beer stein. Mike talked to an amiable Josh Hoberman, hand clapped on his shoulder and laughing at an unfunny joke.
Social shit was the one place Eliot could give Mike a bit of credit. He always tried to enjoy himself at these things, having long ago accepted this group of ornery jackoffs would be stuck together for years to come. He’d once told Eliot he didn’t like the other Magicians and never would, but he still made the best of it because life was what it was. Happy people made the best of the bullshit life gave you, Mike said, lest you go insane with visions of the impossible. It wasn’t the cheeriest thought, but it’d made sense to Eliot. Or at least, the idea resonated.
When Josh threw his hands up to punctuate another assuredly awful punchline, Mike’s smile grew wide and bright under his golden beard, the symmetry of his features and the sparkle in his eyes making him look like a catalogue model. LL Bean or Eddie Bauer, probably. J. Crew on a good day. He was a good-looking guy, a real grown-up. And every now and then, Eliot felt like the two of them had really been in sync sometimes... and sometimes it still sucked it hadn’t been enough.
Eliot took a fortifying drink of the potent schnapps, sliding a secret look over at his “date.”
Quentin never looked like he belonged in a catalogue. Not because he wasn’t handsome—god, no, he was extremely fucking handsome—but because the lines of his striking face were too moody, far too expressive and vulnerable, to ever debase themselves into selling mass-produced sweaters for the bourgeois. No, Quentin had more of an art house vibe, like some genius avant-garde photographer in the city could see him on the street and dedicate the rest of his life to capturing his infinite nuance. There’d be brownstones and penthouses, perhaps even wings of museums, all decked in large format frames of his eyelashes, the curve of his mouth, his bedhead. New York’s muse, captured for the ages.
Eliot bit the inside of his cheek so he didn’t smile, imagining the frozen terror on Quentin’s face were he to actually encounter such a proposition. He also kept the real Q in his periphery, not only to admire him but also... to check in on him. It was the first time they’d gone out, just the two of them, and Eliot couldn’t help but worry Margo’s absence would give Quentin second thoughts about the whole thing. That tonight would be the night he’d realize Eliot was in too deep, that he’d been serving platters of bullshit all along, without the natural buffer of Margo’s charisma to keep things from careening off a cliff. That Quentin would finally notice Eliot kept looking at him, all the time, even when there was no need.
... Especially when there was no need.
So he did his best to play it cool and keep the night distant and friendly, at least whenever Mike wasn’t nearby. They’d gotten closer lately, but that didn’t mean things couldn’t get complicated or awkward if he let them. And Eliot never wanted Q to feel uncomfortable, never wanted to be a source of distress for him, even as he couldn’t quite bring himself to end the charade. Even as he couldn’t quite stop looking at him, all the time, whenever he got the chance. Then again, Eliot had perfected the art of looking at Quentin without Quentin knowing years ago. So it wasn’t like it was anything new.
But this time, the stealth was unnecessary. Though Quentin remained cuddled under Eliot’s arm per their arrangement, his knees tucked against his chest and he gazed at the sky without blinking. His big pupils reflected the night, his sharp-cut jaw dropped in wonder.
Eliot should have stayed home.
He knew it in his blood, in his goddamn soul, that being here with Quentin would lead to nothing good. His already questionable grasp on reality was growing weaker every day, little fireflies of guileless hope lighting up his belly, making him feel things he knew (he knew, he knew, he knew) would never come to fruition, no matter what a two-year-old letter said.
It was funny; sometimes Eliot hated Julia Wicker for sending him that goddamn letter at all. For forcing him to know it existed, a taunting specter of what could have been for him. Sometimes he hated her as much for that as for betraying Quentin’s trust. Life was easier before he knew he’d fucked up the one chance he’d ever have.
Ignorance was bliss. Knowing was hell.
“Jesus Christ, Eliot, no. You two obviously wanna bang, so what’s the fuckin’ hold up?”
Eliot closed his eyes.
He wasn’t blind.
Quentin wasn’t exactly subtle with his lingering glances and telltale ruddy cheeks. Eliot wasn’t the only one who indulged in an extra long kiss, with the barest hint of tongue, when they were somewhere ridiculous, like at a group dinner or on an art museum tour. They both sighed into it a little too dreamily, grasped each other a little too hard, with too much desperation. The electricity between them thrummed too often to be all fake. Eliot was pretty sure Quentin forgot Mike’s name as often as he did.
But Quentin also said he was over anything he’d ever felt for Eliot, even if having sex with Eliot wasn’t off the table. Reasonable enough. And because of Eliot, Quentin had weekly dinners and events with the most recent graduates and an invitation to Genji Quinn’s retreat, which gave him a big leg-up for his thesis project and current lack of mentorship. Unlike Eliot, Quentin gave an actual shit about his work, enough to put up with whatever the fuck this was.
It was only a matter of time before Quentin realized it was a creepy sham, but at least what Eliot was offering him was real. And Quentin had invested so much in the charade, Eliot knew he owed it to him to see it through, even as the performance aspect was becoming increasingly painful as the days went on. But that was Eliot’s problem, not Q’s. If he bailed now, it would be a failure.
“Sunk cost is a fallacy, dickhead,” Margo liked to say. “Cut the shit and fuck him already,” she meant. Not unwarranted critique, but the thing was—
Eliot liked Quentin.
More than he should, yes, but finding people you could stand in this godforsaken world was a thankless task. So Eliot refused to let his growing affection impede an actual friendship with Quentin. He’d had crushes before, and he’d always gotten over them. Quentin was just proving to be a longer process than usual, but Eliot would get there. Margo didn’t know what the fuck she was talking about.
(“Hey, I like him too. Don’t be a cock about this.”)
Eliot rocked his head back, cold air filling his lungs. “I think you might be the only person enjoying the view.”
Quentin startled out of his focus. He whipped his head both ways, soft brown hair flying out with the movement, before he pushed it back with one hand. “Uh, yeah,” he said with a frown. “You’re right. What’s up with that?”
Siobhan (Brakebills Class of ‘13/a total bitch) vomited by the DJ booth. Her friends politely cheered her on, backs turned to aurora. Quentin watched on in horror, looking like part of him had died with her regurgitated schnapps and duck rillette. So cute.
Eliot whispered in his ear. “Most people are only here for the status boost.”
“But, like, what status?” Quentin frowned harder, lines creasing his lips. “With who? Everyone here only knows each other.”
“First rule of high society is to never question the rules of high society.”
“I’m not questioning the rules, I’m questioning the premise. How the fuck is this high society? Is there another society, or—” Quentin paused, brow pulling together. “You’re teasing me.”
Eliot grinned wider. “Mostly.”
Quentin rolled his eyes with a huff, a cloud of mist rising over his head. Eliot figured Mike was doubtless looking at them by now, so he tugged him closer into his side, burying his face in his hair. All the tension in his body unraveled as Quentin went pliant against him. God, he was warm.
“The societies to which I refer are, of course,” Eliot nosed at the shell of his ear, “the classical elite and the hedges. It’s our inborn imperative to rise above the riff-raff, you see.”
Quentin shivered, shoving his uncovered hands in his pockets. “I thought we collectively pretended hedges weren’t a thing.”
“Ah, but how would we know we’re superior then?”
“Is that how you see it?”
Those eyes were turned on him now, in all their principled earnestness. Eliot swallowed, his collar suddenly too tight. “I’ve—well, I’ve dealt with hedges before, let’s say. It’s a generalization, but I think calling them an unstable bunch is actually fairly generous, in my experience.”
“Yeah, but, like, wouldn’t you be pretty unstable? To know magic is real but only get glimpses of it?” Quentin blew a strand of hair out of his face. “I mean, shit, I’d suck dick for spells too. No shame.”
Every time Eliot thought he couldn’t like Quentin more, Quentin surprised him.
Fondness bloomed in his chest, and a coil of heat tightened in his belly. Sweet little Q, the eager hedge witch. Black star tattoos up his arm, on his knees in a back alley. Eyes darting, making sure no one was coming around the corner, while Eliot slid his fingers through his hair, murmuring reassurances. Pink mouth parted, wet and soft, sucking the head of Eliot’s cock between his lips, just like the one time, in real life, when he’d sucked on the tip of Eliot’s tongue and made his veins go electric. And Eliot would choke back a moan as Quentin got lost in it and took him deeper, one hand braced on the brick, the other wrapped around the base of his cock. Those dark eyes locked on his as he got bolder and bolder, bobbing harder and faster, moaning, until the full hard length went down his throat and—
Eliot let out a slow breath. Dangerous territory.
“Fair enough.” His palms itched for a cigarette. “Guess you’ll have to suck dick for free then.”
Eliot took a leisurely sip of his schnapps, trying to make the quip seem clever and purposeful instead of the panicked flail of a drowning man. Thankfully, Quentin just snorted a laugh, knocking his knee into Eliot’s without retort.
After a few moments of intoxicatingly comfortable silence—soft hair resheltering Eliot’s nose, their bodies pressed hip-to-shoulder—Quentin ran light, fidgeting fingers up and down his own knees. “You know, uh, I used to do this kind of thing with my dad sometimes. I mean, not this, specifically, obviously. But we’d go to the Adirondacks or whatever to view the Perseids meteor shower. Shit like that.”
“Sounds nice.” It didn’t, but that was what you were supposed to say.
“Neither of us are outdoorsy, but I think he wanted me to be? He, uh, he’s happiest building model airplanes in his garage, but I think it terrifies him I’m the same way. Cut off. Too into my nerdy bullshit.”
“So he took you away from civilization?”
“Coldwater men aren’t known for their master plans.”
Eliot smiled at that. “Are you two close?”
“Yeah,” Quentin said. “I mean, yeah. It’s—it was complicated, for a long time, but yeah.”
Three yeahs said a lot. “Complicated dad shit is the bare minimum for Magicians.”
Quentin scratched at his cheek, his knuckles screaming red. “I wasn’t an easy teenager.”
“No one was,” Eliot stroked his thumb down the line of his jacket, a fuzzy brown corduroy monstrosity. “Hm, well, I guess except your friend. Little Miss Brakebills. That one just screams ‘honor roll.’”
“Julia?” Quentin laughed, loud and bright. “Uh, you’d guess wrong. Not about the honor roll part, but trust me, honor roll kids can be their own special brand of batshit.”
“No hope for any of us then.” Eliot pressed a kiss to Quentin’s temple. Mike was probably looking, he told himself again. “If someone so self-satisfied was a terror too.”
“It’s—yeah. Complicated too.” Quentin cleared his throat. “So, uh, you were a terror too? Back in Illinois?”
Eliot stopped dead. “Illinois?”
“You told me you grew up in Illinois,” Quentin said, eyes flickering between confusion and doubt. “During that one time we—I mean, uh, okay, maybe you don’t remember, but at an alumni event, you helped me steal some wine and—”
Quentin must have thought he had some kind of memory disorder. “Of course I remember that. I just didn’t realize I’d told you…” Eliot swallowed. “Um. About my childhood?”
“I mean, it’s kinda fuzzy, but I think you said something about… uh, a farm? Or growing up in a small town? Is that not right?”
Eliot breathed in, then out, as Quentin searched his face for answers. Jesus fuck, he’d known he’d gotten spectacularly drunk that night, but he hadn’t realized he’d gotten drunk enough to talk about that. His hands shook as he grabbed his drink, downing it with a burn in his throat, heart racing in a loop. Eliot licked his lips as he considered how to answer.
“Um.” Great start. Jesus. “I grew up in Indiana, actually.”
“Shit, that’s right. I knew it started with an ‘I.’”
“That it does.” Eliot’s stomach ripped open, screaming into the cosmos. “And to answer your question, there’s no doubt I was considered a terror back then.”
The lopsided grin he got in return made his heart drop. And he could’ve left it at that, with Quentin believing he was being lighthearted, alluding to usual rebellious teenage mischief. “I was a pariah even, ah, one might say.”
Eliot would have killed a man for a cigarette, but security had confiscated his pack when they entered the warded area. He traced his fingers along the quilt’s pattern instead. A swirl of ice lifted from the ground with the wind. Flecks of glittering white moaned as they danced toward the sea, lost to the black waves and the broken sky. Eliot could feel the heavy weight of Quentin’s eyes on him. “Because you’re gay?” he asked in a quiet voice.
Eliot nodded numbly. “Gotta love those small town family values.”
“That fucking sucks, El.”
Quentin had turned to look right at Eliot, leaving him a shaking, exposed nerve. He forced a chuckle. “Yes, well, it worked out. The ten years since I’ve spoken to those people have been the best of my life.”
“That’s—yeah, wow, I didn’t—” Quentin fiddled with his fingers, picking at his thumbnail. “Wait, ten years? How old were you when you—?”
“Seventeen.” Eliot had no idea why he was still talking. Quentin pulled it out of him, those gentle masticating hands churning his insides to bloody pulp and examining the remains, casual and curious and deadly. “Took a bus to Toledo, never looked back.”
“Wow, that’s—that’s really young.”
Eliot let out a sharper laugh; yeah, he’d been a fucking kid. Quentin tucked a strand of hair behind his ear, taking mercy on Eliot by not directly looking at him. “Did you graduate from high school?”
From anyone else, the question would have been drenched in judgement. But Quentin cocked his head. Nothing but curiosity. Eliot slid his mouth into a secret smile, letting his pride show. “Not strictly.”
“God, Eliot. You’re so...” He turned his crinkly eyes to the sky, but his words were lost to the wind as he wrapped his arms around his knees, sighing into the night. Eliot was desperate to know what he was, what Quentin thought of him, but the silence was probably for the best. Whatever he had to say might not have been survivable, especially if it was anything like what Eliot hoped they could be.
“I feel like a dick now.” Quentin scratched the tip of his boot into the ice, digging a shallow little hole. “Um, like to be clear, things with my dad were never bad. He was always—he was always a good dad. It was all me. I was just a selfish asshole.”
Eliot doubted that. “Everyone has their shit, Q.”
“I know, but when he got—” Quentin cut himself off, shoulders bunching around his ears. “Doesn’t matter. Sorry. I’m just glad things worked out for you. That you’re where you want to be and settled now.”
“Jesus, I didn’t say that.” Eliot leaned back on both arms. He was in a weird mood tonight. The dry air bit his nose and the thump of music shook the ground.
“Oh. Right, yeah, no, I mean, I know you’re not settled-settled. Obviously. But I just thought—um, it seems like you and Margo seem you have a really great life.”
“For now, sure.” Eliot tried to swallow down his next words. “But it’s not like we can live this way forever.”
The words tumbled out like spat acid, leaving a burning trail down his throat. Eliot took another drink to quell the sting, to no avail. He’d never said it out loud before and now that he had, he regretted it immediately. If he could snatch it back, he would.
But it was too late; Quentin gaped at him, incredulous and outraged in that twitchy way of his. “You’re not happy?”
“I didn’t say that.”
“Then why not?”
“Come on, Q.”
“No, I’m serious. Why not?”
“Because—” Eliot touched his tongue to the roof of his mouth, staring up at the goddamn aurora borealis. It was green now. Hooray. “Because it’s not fair to her to support me while I drift through life? Because someday she’ll meet someone who doesn’t want me around all the goddamn time? Or I’ll meet someone and he won’t want—” He grit his teeth. “He won’t want to share our space. Share me, like that.”
“That hypothetical guy sounds like a dickhead.”
Eliot’s chest tangled with electric fear and wanting. It wasn’t—he couldn’t—Quentin wasn’t saying anything he should latch onto. He was just... being nice. “It’s normal to feel that way.”
“Yeah, well, someone who’s with you isn’t signing up for ‘normal.’ They’re getting something better than that.”
Fuck. Fuck. Damn him. “You’re sweet, but—”
“Did Mike make you feel like that?”
Quentin laced his fingers together, stretching them out, almost a cat’s cradle. His voice was carefully casual. Eliot shrugged one shoulder. “He didn’t like Margo, that’s for sure. Encouraged me to get a job, wanted to think about getting our own place. And I was resistant, so it ended.”
“What a dick.”
“He’s not a dick.” Well, okay, Mike was totally a dick, but it was still more complicated than that.
“Uh, you’re the first to say he was a dick about everything.” Quentin clamped his jaw like it frustrated him. “I mean, that’s why we’re doing this, right?”
Right. Eliot held back a harsh laugh. “Mike was a dick for how he handled it, not for what he wanted. I’m not saying I like it, but I think I have to be realistic about the future.”
“What does Margo think?”
Eliot shot him a sidelong glance. “Would you be surprised if I told you we’ve never spoken about it?”
“Shocked,” Quentin snorted. Then he took a breath. “Sorry, I know this is, like, this is obviously none of my business, so just tell me if you want me to shut the fuck up about it, okay?”
Eliot couldn’t imagine ever wanting Quentin to shut the fuck up. He jostled their shoulders together, shooting him a grin. “Who doesn’t love unsolicited advice?”
“Yeah, yeah.” Quentin rolled his eyes, cheeks flushing over a smile as he continued. “But seriously, El, I think it bothers me because what you and Margo have is—it’s actually pretty remarkable? I think it’s something many people want, but the world fights so hard against because of, uh, heteronormativity, I guess? Or maybe capitalism?”
“Capitalism,” Eliot repeated flatly, lips wobbling with hidden laughter. Oh, he was so cute.
“I mean, I don’t know, it’s a half-baked thought, I just—” Quentin shrugged, so fucking adorable. “But what I mean is that it’s, like, next to impossible to find these kinds of friendships, let alone keep them, because only certain structures are—are—are valued. The nuclear family, marriage, uh, anything that keeps the cogs in the machine going.”
“Fuck the man.”
Quentin flipped him off half-heartedly. “I mean, look, I’ve been friends with Julia since we were kids. I know you’re not a big fan, but she’s my constant. She knows me better than anyone, but it’s still different from you and Margo. Way different. And—and that’s fine. It’s no worse, and I know we love each other, but I—”
He tucked his knees back to his chest, resting his chin between them. His skin glowed with faraway interdimensional light. Eliot couldn’t quite find his breath.
“I don’t know. I guess if I had something like what you have with Margo, I wouldn’t give it up for all the magic in the world, let alone some jealous douchebag.” Quentin fixed his eyes on a point in the distance. “I’d fight for it.”
The music disappeared, or maybe Eliot couldn’t hear anything over the thrum of his own pulse, the rushing surge of heat in his chest. Before he could stop himself, before he could think, Eliot cupped Quentin’s jaw with one hand and reeled him in for a kiss. Their mouths opened to each other in gasp, all the stars and colors crashing around them.
Quentin made a muffled sound of surprise, gloveless hands sliding their way up Eliot’s chest. His touch burned through all the layers, and Eliot was mad with the need to feel them on his bare skin. He crawled over Quentin on his knees, bowing him back into the quilt, one hand on the small of his back and the other gripping his neck. Quentin spread his fingers up to touch Eliot’s cheeks, gentle and exploratory, tongue swiping along the seam of his mouth. The kiss turned deep, then hot, then dirty, well outside the bounds of their agreement but Eliot was not a good enough man to put a stop to anything. Not yet. He tightened his grip on the back of his neck and pulled him closer.
It was—god, fuck; it was all too much. How his solid little body pressed into all of Eliot’s angles, sharpening every sensation, and how the silk of his hair brushed his cheeks. The heady scent of him all around, like grassy cotton and salt, like off-brand bergamot soap, like generous Quentin, who had no idea how generous he truly was. It was too much; enough to make him dizzy, and Eliot pulled away, panting as he clutched at woolly shearling.
Warm peppermint breath fanned over his face, and Eliot lifted his head, meeting the confused shine of giant eyes.
Quentin had those two little lines between his eyebrows, begging to be kissed away. His nose was pink from the cold and his mouth slack, opening and closing without a sound. The northern lights silhouetted the defined curves of his face, a glowing love-light in the distance.
“Sorry, ah, Mike was walking over,” Eliot said, voice low and hoarse, a liar and a coward. “Sorry.”
“Oh. Uh, right? Yeah, that’s—that’s okay.” Quentin’s eyes dropped to his lips. “Um. Is he still—?”
Eliot nodded quickly, about to die if he didn’t get his hands on him again. Quentin met him halfway and then they were pressed so close, Eliot could faintly feel Quentin’s heartbeat racing against his chest. Their tongues curled together, pulling out a small groan from Eliot’s throat, the rush of sparks and heat way intense for him to even feel embarrassed. Their desperate hands moved everywhere, fingers gripping in hair and lips brushing with the sharp sting of stubble, making all the blood in Eliot’s brain rush to his cock.
Eliot broke the kiss with a ragged gasp, and Quentin honest-to-god whimpered, chasing after his lips. He swayed, one hand pressed down on the quilt, letting out a little sharp, staccato breath. It was gratifying, but they couldn’t—
He swallowed a dry lump in his throat, forcing a casual smile and some amount of distance between them. Eliot brushed little shavings of ice off the quilt, attempting to keep his hands far away from Quentin.
“Point made, I think. Thank you.” What an idiot. Eliot sucked in a breath and craned his neck over to where the bored crowd still stood. “On that note, did you want to get another drink?”
“Yeah,” Quentin said, blinking in rapid succession. “Yeah, that sounds. Yeah.”
God, there was nothing Eliot wanted more than to take the portal home and fuck him all night long. He wanted it so, so much, he could taste it, could feel his desire burn on his tongue, his heartbeat racing in his throat. Eliot wanted to take him apart on his sheets, lick every inch of his skin until he trembled under his mouth, until he could sink into him and move, thrusting slowly, painstakingly, holding off the end until neither of them could take it anymore and their bodies crested toward ecstasy, to oblivion. And worst of all, he knew Quentin would let him. No one was that good an actor.
But Quentin was also the kindest, gentlest, truest man Eliot had ever met. He was sharp, and funny, and so fucking smart, in the ways Eliot actually gave a shit about. Q could keep up with him and Margo; he was curious and opinionated; he was witty and caustic; and he was just—he was the most earnest darling anyone could’ve ever dreamed up. Eliot liked him. He liked him so much, and so he couldn’t fuck that up by fucking him, not if he wanted to keep Q in his life. Maybe someday, when they were closer, more like him and Margo, that was when Eliot could finally indulge, could pretend sex was all he wanted from Quentin. Maybe by then, occasional sex with Q would even be enough, in happy kinship and compartmentalized desire.
But until then—
Eliot pulled them to stand, smoothing down Quentin’s collar, so it laid flat. “Peppermint or licorice schnapps for the gentleman? My treat.”
Quentin gave him a look of unmitigated horror. “Who the fuck would choose licorice?”
“Personally, I prefer it.”
“Then I take back everything I’ve ever said about your good taste.”
“Fighting words.” Eliot grinned down at him, wrapping a tight arm around his shoulders. “Once again, it’s my honor and privilege to expand your horizons, Coldwater. Allez.”
Amateur portals went crack-swish-slash when they closed, which was the funniest sound Quentin Coldwater had ever heard in his entire life. His roaring laughter bounced off the walls of Eliot and Margo’s unenchanted walk-up, the peeling wallpaper and popcorn ceiling somehow amplifying his mania down the long dim hall. Dreary lights buzzed a sickly fluorescent green, but as Eliot stumbled toward the apartment door with a full-faced grin, he was still the most gorgeous man Quentin had ever seen in person.
It was, like, unfair.
“Okay,” Eliot laughed, taking a shaky step forward. He held a long arm out for balance. “Um, okay.”
Quentin hiccuped his agreement.
After walking away from the most intense kiss of his entire fucking life (which had to be the scheme and Eliot’s lack of inhibitions, re: casual intimacy, because it had to be or else Quentin would lose his goddamn mind), the two of them had gone to the fancy-as-shit bar on the goddamn North Pole and had some schnapps. Or, y’know, lots of schnapps. Many schnapps.
A metric fuckload of schnapps.
Unlike the tequila incident, this time it wasn’t Quentin’s fault. This time, Eliot had straight-up conned Quentin into believing licorice schnapps could ever be “an acquired taste.” A bald-faced fucking lie—no matter how many times you drank licorice schnapps, they still tasted like Satan’s ball-sweat, dipped in death. But ever an adept snake oil salesman, Eliot had goaded him into drinking more and more as the night went on, with the peppermint schnapps as their only chaser. So the northern lights got blurry, and the music garbled, until all Quentin could focus on was the glow of the portal, the numbness of his lips, and Eliot’s big hand pressed white-hot on his lower back.
“Okay,” Eliot said again. He shook a finger at the doorknob. “Shit. Houston, we have a problem.”
“Is the hallway is spinning like one of those, uh, fun house spinny thingys for you too?” Quentin tried to convey the concept with his hands. “You know, the thingys. At the carnival. With the stripes?”
Eliot twisted his head over his shoulder, straight white teeth shining. “You’re such a fucking lightweight.”
“There’s a chance my blood alcohol level is no longer at the legal limit.”
“Good thing you’re not driving then.”
“I don’t know how to drive.”
“You never learned to drive?”
“I grew up in New Jersey.”
“What does that have to do with—?” Eliot cut himself off, closing his eyes. “Focus, Eliot. And Quentin. We have to—look, ah, there’s a ribbon on the door.”
There was. Long, satin, and crimson, the ribbon was tied in a delicate bow around the brass knob, bunny ears on either side of it. Quentin squatted closer to the ground, so he could look close up. “It’s beautiful.”
Eliot laughed again. “No,” he gasped. “No, it means there’s a lucky young professional ass-up and hog-tied on the couch as we speak.”
A vision of Margo in black lingerie and holding a paddle flashed across Quentin’s mind, her pouted mouth purring over some drooling square-jawed stock broker, a cool hand soothing the red splotches on his skin. Feel good, baby? His throat went dry. “Oh.”
“It’s fine. We could just, like.” Eliot snorted a giggle. “Barrel on through. Trust me, Bambi won’t give a shit.”
“No.” Quentin held his head high to show how, like, for real he was being. “There’s a red ribbon on the door and it is our responsibility to heed its command.”
Once again, Eliot doubled over laughing, this time wheezing. “Oh my god, you’re so cute,” he said, wiping at his eyes with his hands. “Holy shit.”
“Not cute.” Quentin glared. “Chivalrous.”
That only made Eliot laugh harder. After what felt like a full minute, he let out a sigh and slumped back against the wall. “So what the fuck are we supposed to do then, Sir Galahad?”
Quentin snapped his fingers. “Portal. We take a portal.”
“Right, back to the North Pole.” Eliot nodded, face serious again. “We keep drinking and reconvene from there.”
“No, somewhere else. Uh, uh, uh—” Fuck, he couldn’t remember the name. “Shit, um.” He got it. “Brakebills! We could crash at Brakebills. Because I have a room there. And you have an alumni key, so we can get in after hours.”
“Ugh,” Eliot pulled a face. “A dorm?”
“A magic dorm.”
Quentin would never be sure if it was his jazz hands that had won Eliot over, but off they went.
New York City had to have been warmer than the North Pole, but Quentin shivered hard as they walked down well-tread streets to the school’s secret alumni portal. Beside him, Eliot buried half his face into his scarf, unusually quiet and focused on the path ahead. Wind hit like wasps through the buildings, enough to sober them up by the time they walked out onto the Sea lawn. Well, at least, “sober up” in the colloquial sense. Quentin had read once that the concept was a mind-body illusion, since there was no way to actually increase the rate at which the liver processes alcohol. One could become more alert, but that wasn’t the same as—
“Fuck,” Eliot groaned up at the cheerful Brakebills maples. They walked down the brick path toward the Cottage, shedding their coats in the temperate air. “You know, after graduation, I made it a point of pride in never returning to this goddamn place ever again. This is a real setback, Q.”
“You were just here six weeks ago,” Quentin pointed out, scrunching his face.
Eliot opened his mouth, then clicked it shut. “That was different,” he said, the point of his jaw catching the overhead light.
“It was for a specific purpose.” Eliot brushed a dry leaf off his shoulder. “Jesus, the perennial, collegiate autumn thing that Fogg cultivates grates after a while, doesn’t it?”
Branches rustled overhead, bursting with yellow and red. Since they’d left the apartment, Eliot’s whole demeanor had shifted, his posture tense and expression sour. It left Quentin a little shaky, an odd pit in his stomach. It also didn’t track with his understanding of, like… anything. If Brakebills was the royal court, Eliot had been its king.
“So, what?” Quentin scuffed his feet along the walk. “You didn’t like Brakebills?”
Eliot picked up his pace, long legs striding almost too quickly for Quentin to keep up. “Meeting Margo was good. Everything else, bullshit.”
“That can’t be true.” It couldn’t be. It just—it wasn’t true. “No. I mean, first of all, you learned graduate-level magic.”
“Not the draw for me as it is for you.”
“Yeah, I get that, but, I mean, you always had—like, come on, I know you had a fun time here. You can’t deny that.”
“Fun can be overrated.” Eliot lit a cigarette, took a drag.
“Well, not sure if you realized, but I’m the least fun person on the planet. If there’s a party and I’m thinking about going, there’s a bylaw that says they have to give a, uh, a Quentin Warning so people know to evacuate. ‘Cause, like, the fun vortex is on its way. No survivors.”
Eliot stopped walking. “What the hell are you talking about?”
Quentin’s hands flew in the air, gesticulating toward something just out of reach. But his ankle caught on the curb, and in slow motion he fell over, rolling into the grass beside the path. Eliot hissed a curse under his breath, and then a strong arm hooked around his waist, pulling him up to sit. The still-smoking cigarette rolled into the crack between two bricks.
Quentin was still fucking drunk.
An apology or a joke at his own expense rolled around his mouth, the last vestiges of Sober Quentin trying to take control, desperate to make this less weird. But Drunk Quentin just slumped into the crook of Eliot’s neck. “I’m so lonely.”
So much for that.
Eliot took another breath, softer this time. “Q,” he said, a murmur, the tip of his nose dragging along his scalp. Quentin leaned into it, his chest tight with a restrained sob.
“I thought magic would make it better, and I thought Brakebills would make it better, having somewhere to finally belong, but it didn’t and it’s my fault. Everything—everything got worse. So now, I’m—I’m—I’m more alone than I’ve ever been. I have no one, not even Julia anymore, because I can’t stop being… what I am. Just fucking doomed to be alone forever because I’m a miserable frowny foot-face with delusions of grandeur. Like, god, I wanna change the world, but how can I when I’m just a pathetic asshole who can’t do shit for shit?”
“Q,” Eliot said, firmer.
Quentin sniffed back a line of snot, so he didn’t get it on Eliot’s nice outfit. His eyes stung. “No wonder I have no one. Who the fuck could stand to be around that? Um, no one. That’s who.”
“That’s not true,” a rough voice said. “You know that’s not true, Q.”
“No, uh, it is. It’s true. Everyone’s always said it. My dad, my mom, my litany of therapists.” Quentin swallowed. “Julia.”
With a sudden spin of motion, Eliot grabbed his face, looking him dead in the eyes. “Fuck Julia.” When Quentin shook his head, the fingers around the point of his chin tightened. “I’m serious, Quentin. I may be a selfish dick who’s taking advantage of the bullshit she pulled, but that doesn’t make it any less complete bullshit. Don’t let her get in your head.”
Quentin wanted to say, well, you’re a few years too late on that one. But all he managed was, “You’re not a selfish dick.”
Eliot dropped his hand, all the world’s warmth leaving with it. “Trust me, I am. You deserve to be living your life, not getting wrapped up in my shit. But Julia?” He barked a sound from his throat, not exactly a laugh. “Julia is supposed to be your best friend. She’s supposed to look out for you and that’s—”
Quentin blinked in wonder as Eliot stopped speaking, his jaw clenched tight. A million indistinct emotions flitted across his eyes until they closed. Resigned.
“But that’s the point.” Quentin reached out, covering one of Eliot’s hands with his own. Eliot jerked at the touch. “My life kinda sucks. But, like, at least when I’m with you, I get to pretend. For a little.”
Eliot’s eyes snapped back up at him, now unreadably bright.
It took a few moments of quiet—a long stretch of fuzzy time and the endless depths of beautiful eyes—but then Eliot turned his hand over and squeezed his palm. Pulse racing in his throat, Quentin slowly laced their fingers together, not daring to look away. Even through a drunken haze, Eliot made him feel present. In time, in space, like he belonged where he was instead of the ever-nebulous and alluring somewhere else. He was maybe the only person who’d ever made him feel this way. He was definitely the only person Quentin didn’t resent for it.
“I need to do something now,” Eliot said quietly. “So I don’t do something stupid later.”
“I—” Quentin frowned. “Okay?”
The brightness in Eliot’s eyes dimmed, replaced with an affected nonchalance that didn’t seem right. He let go of Quentin’s hand. “FYI, it won’t be fun. Sorry.”
Before Quentin could ask what he meant, Eliot moved his fingers through a series he didn’t recognize, and then Quentin’s head started pounding. His stomach turned with a wave of sickly sweet nausea and his dazed mind rearranged itself, the lost and forgotten pieces fitting back together in all the worst ways.
“Jesus fucking Christ, Eliot.” Quentin sucked in a breath, palming at the sides of his head. “What the… what the fuck.”
“If it helps,” Eliot croaked from where he crouched over his knees, “I did it to both of us.”
“Why would that help?”
Eliot stood on two shaky legs, stretching his jaw wide. And on the ground, Quentin groaned all over again, the conversation they’d just been having flooding back to him in snippets of mortification. “Oh. Oh god, Eliot. I didn’t—um. Okay, so, I—”
“We had too much to drink,” Eliot said, face pale as he held a hand out to stop him. “It turned on us. We don’t need to speak of it again.”
Quentin pressed his palms into his eye sockets. “Yeah. Thank you. I appreciate that.”
Quentin was the most pathetic man who ever lived, but Eliot was gracious. A good friend. A great friend. They were friends by now, safe to say. Even with an odd starting point, even if it had taken them years, their newfound deeper friendship was an objectively wonderful thing. And, and, and, even if Quentin was still attracted to Eliot—even if he’d always been attracted to Eliot, would always be attracted to Eliot because Eliot was, you know, Eliot—that kind of shit was stupid. It was immaterial. Stupid and immaterial and, like, easily corrupted for something base and irrelevant, like sex. A good friendship transcended stupid and immaterial and easily corrupted desires, like sex. Sex was stupid. Which, like, that was how it’d worked with Julia, right? So Quentin was damn lucky to have Eliot’s friendship, weird additional clauses and all, instead of stupid sex. Nay, he was overjoyed to—
“Okay, kid, stop thinking.” Eliot grinned at him, though it was strained around the edges. “Welcome back to reasonable sobriety. Sucks, doesn’t it?”
Quentin’s blood may as well’ve been pooled around his shriveled skin and bones for how awful he felt. “I hate alcohol.”
“Ah, yet she knows we’ll always return.” Eliot brushed off his pants and held out his hand. “In the meantime, shall we venture forth?”
Nothing had ever sounded better than sleep. Quentin rubbed his eyes as he stood, then shook the cobwebs out of his fingertips as he accepted Eliot’s help up. They took the rest of the walk in silence, lost in thought side-by-side, arms brushing together every few steps.
It was late (or early) enough that the Cottage was quieter than usual, give or take a few stragglers. One girl in Quentin’s year was sprawled out on the couch, a red cup dangling from her hand, half-conscious. Her bleary, makeup-smudged eyes followed them, narrowing in confusion at the sight of Quentin and Eliot ascending the stairs together. When Eliot gave her a quick, tense wave, her interest made sense. Someone Eliot used to party with would of course wonder why Eliot was going anywhere with Quentin. It happened all the time.
“That girl has a serious coke problem,” Eliot said under his breath as they rounded the landing. “And that’s coming from me.”
They reached Quentin’s door without more commentary, and Quentin opened his wards with a few lazy tuts. Eliot’s eyes were on him, appraising his movements, but Quentin was way too tired to feel self-conscious. Julia gave him shit for his wards all the time, but they got the job done. The door swung open, and his unmade bed was finally in sight.
Quentin could have cried.
“Do you always use a Reed’s to lock your room?” Eliot folded his coat and scarf into a neat pile, placing them on the corner of the dresser. Quentin lifted one hand in the air to dismiss the question and fell face first on the bed. After a moment of letting himself sink into the mattress, he rolled onto his back and kicked his boots off.
“Are you good with sharing?”
Eliot frowned as he unscrewed his cufflinks. “Sharing what?”
“The bed.” Quentin undid his belt and dropped it wherever on the floor. “Like, sleeping in the same bed.”
“Do you have another alternative?”
“I could sleep on the floor.”
Eliot tilted his mouth into a faint half-smile, not looking up from all his fastenings. “That’s not a real offer.”
“I mean, it is if you insisted.” Quentin threw his sweater over his head and wiggled out of his jeans. He was left in a T-shirt and underwear. Good enough. “But that’d be, like, really mean.”
“Can’t have that,” Eliot said softly. His long fingers slid down the fabric of his tie. “I think we’ve evolved past cooties by this point.”
Eliot pulled the tie through his collar and unbuttoned his shirt, sliding it off in a fluid motion. Quentin’s brain turned to static, the entire world narrowing to the dark chest hair smattered around a deep V undershirt that may as well have been painted on his chest.
“Uh, yeah.” Quentin coughed, throat spasming. “For sure.”
“Then I wager we’ll survive.”
Eliot stepped out of his slacks and laid them out flat along the bureau, every piece of his ensemble laid out with meticulous care. Quentin stared at the ceiling, so he wouldn’t stare at Eliot’s ass or his, uh, other assets. Asset. He wasn’t being a creep on purpose or anything; it was just hard—it was difficult not to notice Eliot’s… everything, without physically looking away. His tiny black briefs left pretty much nothing to the imagination.
Not that Quentin was imagining—
His skin was about to burn him alive by the time Eliot slid into bed next to Quentin, giving him an easy smile, like they did this all the time, like it was no big deal. Which was probably because Eliot shared beds with random people a lot, so it actually was no big deal, not to him, not like it was for Quentin, who couldn’t remember the last time he’d slept in the same bed as someone other than Jules, after his dad’s diagnosis. But Eliot probably had a new guy in his bed every day of the week when they weren’t together, because why the fuck wouldn’t he? And Quentin—he knew that, okay?
They just never talked about it.
And he didn’t like to think about it.
Quentin was still on top of his comforter, all scrawny knobby knees and stained cotton boxers. Eliot’s mess of black curls fell across his pillow, long neck stretching as he settled between the sheets. His lingering cologne wafted over Quentin, spiced and warm and so familiar now. A sexy Christmas candle making his whole room glow. Their bodies barely touched, just a brush of elbows and shins, but every subtle point of contact set him on fire.
“Quentin.” Eliot bounced his legs, making the bed squeak. He poked the mattress with one finger. “Exactly how many comfort charms do you have on this thing?”
“None?” Quentin shrugged. “It’s fine the way it is.”
That was, apparently, the last straw for Eliot. He smacked Quentin’s thigh, kind of hard. “No, absolutely not. Get up, get the fuck up.”
“El, come on, it’s fine.” Eliot shot him a withering glare, and Quentin wrapped his arms around the top of his head. “You can’t handle one night on a dorm bed?”
“You sleep on this piece of garbage five nights a week, Q.” Eliot stood at the foot of the bed, stretching his neck side to side. “To speak your language, it would be a blight upon my honor if I didn’t fix it.”
Quentin grumbled, but didn’t refute the characterization. “Most people sleep on a shitty mattress every night and they’re fine.”
“Yeah, well, we’re not most people,” Eliot said, lacing his fingers together to crack his knuckles. “We’re Magicians. Get up.”
Quentin dragged himself out of bed and walked over to Eliot’s side, dropping his head against his shoulder. “El,” he said, lowering his voice to a whimper. “Please, I’m exhausted.”
His attempt at pulling heartstrings failed. “You’re exhausted because you sleep on a shitty mattress,” said Eliot, hands locked in Popper 13. “Give me five minutes.”
“I’m not standing the whole time,” Quentin shot out, stomping over to his desk chair. He got a dismissive thumbs-up in response.
Eliot stretched out a leg, cocking his knee into a parallel squat, lean back muscles rippling under his tight shirt. His taut strength pulled down the length of his endless thighs, every movement elegant and precise. Deft fingers flowing like water, like waves cresting on the shore, and, like, his ass was just—it was—fuck.
Quentin threw his arms onto his desk and clunked his face into the crook of his elbow. He was such a creep. Such a fucking creep. If Eliot knew—
Okay, fair enough, Eliot probably would be into it.
Eliot wasn’t into Quentin, not beyond a surface level that didn’t make him grimace every time they touched, but he definitely liked attention, and he loved drama. That he’d read Quentin’s insane letter and thought ah, an opportunity! instead of contacting a local judge for a fast turnaround on a restraining order proved that much. So did his attention to detail, all the ways he’d concocted to get under Mike McCormick’s skin, his natural ease at making the scheme seem perfectly commonplace and reasonable despite all logical evidence. How he could kiss Quentin breathless, just to smirk in its wake.
His cheeks heated at just the memories, the ghost of hands in his hair and phantom lips on his jaw drawing out a shudder. Fuck, Eliot was a lot of things, most of them wonderful, some of them less so, but he sure as shit wasn’t stupid. He had to know Quentin was a little too into him. But Quentin didn’t know how to stop, not when Eliot kept kissing him like he meant it. Not when Eliot always kissed him with more softness, more care, more heat than anyone had ever kissed him. The sweet torture of Eliot’s fake kisses made his ex-girlfriends seem bored, and they made James seem hesitant. They even made Mateo—the only person he’d ever come close to having something real with—seem cold and uninterested. And as much as his logical brain knew the comparison wasn’t fair, it was also kind of…
If he thought about it too much.
Which he did.
The light dipped in and out of focus, and Quentin’s eyes watered with a yawn. His cheek nestled against his wrist, his own body heat lulling him toward blissful nothingness, the only thing that’d ever stilled his whirring thoughts. Light dipped in and out of focus. His room was warm.
A gentle hand shook his shoulder, and Quentin grumbled, lips swiping through a sticky puddle of drool. “Not now, Rupert,” his mouth supplied before his brain could catch up. He hadn’t even been dreaming of Fillory.
“Oh my, who’s Rupert?” an airily scandalized voice asked, the fingers on his shoulder drawing tiny circles, making gooseflesh rise on his arms, little rhythmic shivers from the soft touch.
“Chatwin.” Quentin kept his face buried. “From the books I read. You know. Uh. Those books.” The name had been right there, but it fell from his mind, fine sand through his fingers.
Eliot sighed, massaging a thumb into his neck. “Okay, let’s get you to bed.”
“What’s a bed?”
“Fair enough, sweetheart.” There was a hand running through his hair. “Come on, just a few feet. I promise it’s more comfortable.”
Somehow, Quentin fell onto his bed, and the mattress gave him a hug. A giant, toasty warm bear hug made of rainbows. “Holy shit, what the fuck?” Quentin rubbed his face into his pillow, little tingles of pleasure running all over his skin. “This is amazing.”
Eliot chuckled, the sound reverberating up Quentin’s neck as he settled down next to him, warm and long and Eliot. “I may have gotten carried away.”
“I’m never getting out of bed again.”
“Not nice to tease.”
“Nothing. Sorry, ah, dumb joke.” Eliot shifted, leaving an inch of space between their bodies. “Goodnight, Q.”
“‘Night, El.” Quentin curled onto his side, eyes heavy. They closed. “I had a really nice time tonight.”
A moment passed in still silence. Then Eliot’s hand was on his hip, his chest pressed to his back, and he placed a featherlight kiss to his temple. “Thank you for indulging me,” he whispered, running his warm palm down the length of his arm.
“Sleep,” Quentin grunted.
Eliot huffed a breathy laugh, then complied.
The bed felt like a cloud.
Eliot couldn’t recall the last time he woke up with a boy in his arms.
Before Mike, most trysts didn’t last through the night. Not because Eliot kicked anyone out on their head—that was far too much of a tacky cliche for his style. Rather, Eliot prided himself on leading on no one and never being led on, terms and conditions spelled out far in advance. One of the many, many reasons he liked sharing boys with Margo was getting the best of both worlds: an awed stranger around his dick and then the comforting nighttime embrace of someone he trusted. But as much as he loved Margo, as much as he craved her touch and her steady embrace, there were times when her skin was too soft and her edges too curved, too rounded, in all the places he sought sharp angles. It was never anything she did wrong. He just had other needs. Sometimes.
Then Mike had enjoyed cuddling well enough, especially in the early days. But he was an insistent big spoon, much how he was an insistent top, in a way that flirted with retrograde. Sort of like—okay, we get it, Mike, you like to fuck things. You are the provider. Big strong man. A silly attitude, but one that hadn’t bothered Eliot all that much. Sex was sex. So long as everyone got off, he was good. He could be flexible.
But as much as it had been nice to have someone want to hold him and want to nurture him—let me take care of you, baby—Mike had never once let Eliot scratch his own itch to hold, to nurture, to take care. Sure, he let Eliot cook sometimes, but never without hemming and hawing over how Eliot didn’t need to, how Mike should have, how it was too much, with the nervous chuckle.
It got to where it seemed like Mike resented Eliot’s desire to hold, to care, to nurture. Or worse, he thought Eliot wasn’t capable of it. Like, perhaps, just spit balling here, Mike thought Eliot was too much of a mess to offer anything to anyone else except a good fuck and a razor-sharp witticism. Which wasn’t an unfair conclusion, even if it occasionally stung if he thought about it too much. Honestly, back then, Eliot had just been glad Mike wanted to stick around, anyway. Looking at it that way, a few weeks wasn’t actually a bad run, considering what they were up against.
Now, Quentin Coldwater was in his arms.
Eliot's lips buried in silky hair, his fingers wrapped around a warm, hairy forearm, and his legs tangled with surprisingly strong thighs. Quentin was warm and solid in every way Eliot had ever wanted, in all his most secret wishes, on every cold nights alone. In his arms, Quentin felt like all the things Eliot had never let himself hope to feel. The closeness of it should have freaked him out and had him headed straight for the proverbial hills, but Eliot just wanted to sink into it forever and never return to the life he knew before.
That should have freaked him out even more.
Eliot pulled Q in closer, closing his eyes to the morning light. They were both sweaty, clothes sticking to skin and a too-sweet hangover musk seeping out their pores. His spell the night before had helped speed up the worst of the effects, but it wasn’t a miracle cure. Eliot slid his tongue over his teeth, grimacing at the grit. Okay, yeah, that wouldn’t do. But when he slid toward the edge of the bed—he needed to at least find some mouthwash before he faced the terrifying new day, one where he now knew what it felt like to cuddle Q all night—Quentin made a little sound from his throat, shifting back closer to Eliot so every part of them was touching. He kept snoring, a gentle, even sound, and his morning stubble glittered in the sunlight.
The wind punched out of Eliot.
Helpless, he pressed his face into the bare skin of Quentin’s neck. He was so fucking warm, and he smelled like boy, and sleep, and Eliot’s cigarette smoke, and it was exhilarating. Better than food, better than drugs, better than an orgasm, which had to be the single most insane thing Eliot had ever thought.
As good a sign as any to get that slippery grip back on reality.
One small blessing was that Eliot somehow wasn’t hard, thanks to the booze, making it a lot easier to pull away from Quentin without either poking him in the back or being unable to stand the lack of contact until he found friction by slowly rubbing himself against the pert curve of his ass. So slowly, until Quentin pushed back into it, gasping in Eliot's ear and guiding his hand down into his boxers as he murmured his name, kissing down the length of his jaw as they fell apart. Eliot sucked in a breath and his dick twitched, the fantasy buzzing under his skin, so he took it as his cue to slip out the fuck out of bed. Quentin let out another groan of protest, stirring under the covers. But right when Eliot was about to say good morning, Quentin grabbed the spare pillow and smashed it on top of his head.
After a second, the sound of steady snoring returned. Eliot smiled to himself as he jumped back into his pants.
Quentin’s room was shockingly tasteful. Dark green walls, covered in antique Fillory posters, every edge perfectly leveled. He had throw pillows in complementary colors, a cozy wooden rocking chair, and more books than any one person should own, but they were well organized, by genre, author, and binding color, much to Eliot’s specific delight. His dresser was covered in little dragon figurines, and coins, and a few antique decks of cards, and books on muggle sleight-of-hand close-up magic, which was heart-stoppingly adorable. One loose photo of him and Julia Wicker, sticking their tongues out.
Weirdly, there was also a pile of muggle oncology textbooks. Eliot knew Quentin’s proposed thesis was about curse-based disease ecology, but unlike almost everything else, Q didn’t like to talk about it all that much.
I wanna change the world, Quentin had said last night. He’d been out of his mind drunk and Eliot didn’t believe in vino veritas—otherwise, his onetime marriage proposal to Todd would have been worth examining and he refused to live in that world that demanded such an indignity of him. But Eliot couldn’t shake the feeling he was missing something, that certain parts of the fascinating enigma that was Quentin Coldwater didn’t quite line up.
Eliot buttoned up his shirt and tucked it into his pants, opting out of accessories. He figured he’d just do a quick caffeine run to give Q a little more time to sleep, and then he’d make himself pretty once they got back home.
… Once he got back home.
It was Sunday. Quentin would stay at Brakebills. Obviously.
After a futile search for some sort of hair pomade, Eliot twisted a few of his more unruly curls into temporary submission. He took a pen and a slip of paper off the bureau, jotting down a quick note: Braving the unwashed masses to grab coffee, BRB - E. He dropped it on the nightstand next to Quentin, taking a quick glance at the clock. Jesus, it was already eleven. They’d really passed the fuck out.
Eliot rolled his shirtsleeves and crept over to the door. He opened it with a slow and careful touch, trying his best not to disturb Quentin with an unceremonious squeak or thud. But when he stepped out, he almost lost his shit when he nearly tripped right over a tiny brunette standing in the doorframe.
“Before you slam the door in my face again,” Julia Wicker said, hands up and eyes closed. “Can we please just—I just want to talk to you, Quentin, okay? I saw your light on last night and, yes, I did a minor locator spell this morning to check in. If you're going to be mad about that, fine, but I figured if you were still here on a weekend, then—”
“Actually, Quentin’s still asleep,” Eliot said, closing the door behind him. “So I’d appreciate if you kept it down.”
Julia took a full step back, her cheeks flushing with a rush of color. “I—Eliot,” she said, voice creaking. “Oh. Uh. I didn’t—” She cleared her throat. “Hey. Good to see you.”
“Hi there.” Eliot jutted out his hip, winning smile at the ready. “Sorry, it’s Jenna, right?”
Fire flashed in her eyes, followed by a pointed chuckle. “Julia, actually," she said, shifting her weight on one foot and tossing her hair back.
“Ah, of course, that’s right.” Eliot pressed his hand to his heart. “My mistake.”
“Happens all the time.” Julia smiled at him pleasantly enough, but spoke through her teeth.
Eliot held back a smirk. “Apologies all the same, Julia," he said, hitting her name with just the right spike of acid. Her gaze narrowed, but Eliot pretended he didn't notice, looking down the hall with a light sigh. “So I was actually about to head to the coffee shop to grab a little pick-me-up for the sleeping beauty.”
“How thoughtful of you.”
“I try.” Eliot tapped out a cigarette and placed it at the corner of his mouth, holding a friendly hand forward. “Care to join me?”
Anything to stop this bitch from ruining Quentin’s morning.
“Oh, gosh.” Julia slid her mouth into a poison smile. “You know what? I’d love to, Eliot.”
@HMGfanfic on the Tumblah.
Chapter 5: Chapter Four
Hi again! Sorry again about the sporadic updates on this fella, but I'm deeply grateful if you're still here <3 Just as an FYI, there's a slight warning for this chapter. Check the tags or the end notes if you'd like to know in advance, but otherwise, thank you so, so much as always for reading, and see you again [hopefully] soon. :)
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Quentin’s fist hovered in front of the door, hesitant to knock.
Which was stupid.
He shouldn’t have been nervous. He was a grown man who could have tough conversations without being all weird about it. And, really, Eliot had been clear from pretty much day one that Quentin’s presence wasn’t a bother. Mi casa es su casa would be Eliot’s motto, if Eliot didn’t specifically find the idea of mottos to be “declassé.” But either way, the point was, El always said if the door was unwarded, it was an invitation to come in, no questions asked. It’d made Quentin feel at ease early on, that warmth and openness, both shown and told. Taking a break from his thesis work to flop into the comfort of Eliot’s massive leather armchair and do card flourishes to himself while El filled the space with his easy, idle chatter had become as much of a ritual as rubbing their pretend romantic relationship in Mike McCormick’s face every weekend.
Only this time, Quentin wasn’t coming by just to shoot the shit or to escape Margo’s ooh-you’d-look- great -in mascara clutches, though that was a plus. Unfortunately, this time, he actually had something serious to talk to Eliot about, which wasn’t exactly their usual “thing.” At least, not when sober.
Hence the bottle in his other hand.
But since Quentin logically knew his fear was (probably) irrational and stupid, and that Eliot (probably) wouldn’t kick his ass out on the street for expressing the shit he needed to express, he pushed past the knot in his stomach and rapped his knuckles on the wood. Tap-tap-tap, then he pulled his hand away like it burned.
He’d done it, it was over, and now he was committed to having this conversation.
And truthfully, they needed to have this conversation, if the details of today were going to work out. He let out a breath and waited, his sweaty fingers twisting around the neck of the Tanqueray. Quentin shifted his weight, blowing staccato puffs out the side of his mouth as he stared up at the ceiling.
The hallway had several types of wallpaper plastered on every surface, in wildly different patterns. Green and pink polka dots next to dark hued swirls and shit, sort of like an oriental rug (“Mina-Khani, Q.”) next to a shock of neon paisley stretching down alternating panels. Somehow, Eliot and Margo’s expert touch made mesmerizing, but it would’ve required a seizure warning if Quentin ever attempted it himself. Not that he gave a shit about interior decorating, anyway. His room at Brakebills was functional and had a lot of shelf space, which was pretty much all he needed.
Though Eliot actually had made some good points recently, about why interior decorating (apparently not the same as interior design, by the way) was something every Magician should care about. How the balancing elements of comfort, luxury, and artistry in a space created a magic-rich environment, providing a better flow and a dedicated “comfort zone,” which led to stronger casting. Magic came from pain, Eliot always said, but that meant it was even more important to have a soft landing for yourself, even for the little shit, since it cumulatively adds up. Thus, comfort charms and planar compression and more art than the brain could process in a lifetime. Quentin had never really considered the impact of specific environments on casting, at least beyond axial positioning, but it actually made sense than he—
The door swung open.
“Hi,” Eliot said, sounding a little out of breath, all smiling teeth and slicked-back hair still wet from the shower. His shirt was only half-buttoned, a single droplet of water coursing a trail from his neck to his chest hair. “What’s up, Q?”
Quentin’s throat dried up. “Um.” He forced his eyes to focus on Eliot’s waiting face, on the slight arch of his questioning brow. “I, uh, I just wanted to talk to you? Just for a second? Uh, before you get too busy? Hey, um, want some gin?”
He thrust the bottle into Eliot’s arms.
Eliot’s brows went from arched to lifted. “That bad, huh?”
Quentin bobbed his head to the side, an equivocating sigh passing through his lips instead of more words. Eliot snorted, tucked the bottle under his armpit, and stepped back into his room, wordlessly nodding at Quentin to follow.
November rain tapped at the giant window, gauzy curtains diffusing the morning light. Eliot’s bedroom was as enormous, and elaborate, and lush as Quentin would’ve imagined in all his wildest dreams, especially with Eliot’s giant purple and gold canopy bed as the centerpiece. Dark walls showcased the brightly colored pieces of art Eliot had on seemingly endless display, and a giant roaring fireplace crackled an orange contrast to the gray weather. There was ample seating and ample blankets, welcoming and warm. Quentin grinned as he took in the warm splendor. Thinking that the bedroom should’ve been too grand to be cozy, that but there wasn’t another word for it.
Like usual, Quentin flopped down in the armchair beside the fireplace, letting his bare toes warm up. He shook his head at the perfunctory offer of a cigarette, and Eliot smoked in silence as he poured the gin into two martini glasses, mixing it in with a bunch of bitters, liqueurs, and a couple of olives, before rounding back over to Quentin with his improvisation.
They clinked the edge of their glasses together and drank. Eliot leaned against the mantle with curious, appraising eyes. Obviously waiting for Quentin to speak.
“Um, so.” Quentin swirled his drink, creating a little mini-game in his head where the olive had to bounce off one side and hit the other in a single motion to get a point. He quickly got to two. “I wanted to—so Julia’s coming over today, right?”
Eliot cocked his head. “That’s the plan as I know it, yes.”
“Yeah, it is. That’s the plan.” Quentin grimaced. “Can we—can we talk about that a little? Would you mind? Just, like. With the arrangement. The scheme, or whatever.”
“Of course,” Eliot said, airy. Something about his voice pricked at Quentin’s insides, but not in any way he could interpret. “I guess we haven’t touched base on the details in a while. What would you like to establish?”
Quentin rocked his head back, overwhelmed all over again. A tension headache popped up between his eyebrows and he rubbed at it harshly with his thumb. He didn’t want to do this. But it was happening.
It was happening.
It’d taken Julia three weeks to finagle her way into the apartment for a brunch date. Three weeks since Quentin had dragged himself out of his bed at the Physical Cottage, opened his door, and found Julia and Eliot walking up the Cottage stairs together, to his immediate horror. Eliot held two cups of coffee in his hand and Julia had her arm looped in his, and they were laughing together like they’d both made the funniest joke at the same time. Their eyes were hollow and their teeth sharp. Julia had given a great performance of her so-called Jersey WASP laugh, an expert at passive-aggression. But Eliot was no slouch either. El had been the picture of poise, but the poison kind. The long, tense lines of his body and the strain of his smile told Quentin all he needed to know about the truth of his first interaction with Julia.
“Hey Q!” Julia squeezed Eliot’s arm. “I kidnapped your boyfriend.”
Quentin ran his hand back through his hair, resting his temple against the doorframe, exhausted. “I, uh, I see that.”
He remembered Eliot’s eyes had flashed with something like concern, like he was worried he’d fucked up, but he covered it like a pro. “We come bearing caffeine.”
“Oh, thank Christ,” Quentin had said, reaching out grabby hands. He gave Eliot what he hoped was a genuinely thankful look, and he’d been rewarded by one of those rare small smiles, the ones that made his stomach flip.
When Eliot handed over the goods, their fingers brushed and lingered, sending a wave of heat down into Quentin’s belly. They hadn’t talked alone in the light of day yet, after spending the night half-drunk and wrapped up in each other’s arms. Quentin wasn’t totally sure if the tentative glint in Eliot’s eyes was about that, but he’d hoped so.
But the moment—if it even was a moment at all—was killed by Julia’s hawk eyes and pursed lips. “Seems like you two had a fun night.”
“We were at the North Pole,” Eliot said, a master of affected nonchalance. “Schnapps happened.”
Despite herself, Julia immediately brightened with recognition. She launched into everything she’s heard about aurora luxalia, how lucky they were to have seen it, how she hoped they’d taken a lot of notes and pictures. Her enthusiasm had been infectious, and for a short while, the three of them had an almost pleasant conversation, skating over the dangerous depths below.
But then Eliot had said something lighthearted about Quentin’s drinking inability, and Julia had read it as criticism. She sweetly, sharply objected in that usual way of hers, and her tone made Eliot’s fingers tighten around his coffee cup. Tension returned like an iron wall, portending nothing good. And while Quentin wasn’t a natural social mediator, panic raised in his throat at the thought of these two people coming to blows, and he blurted out the first thing his brain provided.
“So, uh, El.” Quentin turned firmly to Eliot, who gave a start. “Let me just grab my books and we can head back home, okay?”
His stupid fucking brain.
The silence following his words was damning, and his every instinct tried to force his eyes down to his toes. But he’d said it, it was out there, and as Margo always said—it was way fucking weirder to be weird about it than to own it, no matter how absurd. So as impassively as he could, like he hadn’t said anything weird at all, Quentin turned to Eliot, like all was normal.
Eliot looked strangely sucker punched. Probably confused as shit really, rightfully; seeing as Quentin had never spent a Sunday at the apartment. Eliot’s lips parted under his furrowed brow, speechless, and the hand holding his coffee cup dropped to his waist as he searched across Quentin’s face for a century. But just as Quentin lost his breath, time sped up and Eliot gave him a brilliant smile, taking a sip of his coffee. “Of course, baby,” he said easily. “Don’t forget your Cepheid Variables worksheet.”
Quentin nodded once, bones a slosh of liquid, then glanced at Julia just as she finished mouthing baby? to herself. When their eyes met, her mouth gave a tremulous quirk. “I thought you stayed at Brakebills during the week. Usually.”
“I work better at the apartment,” Quentin said truthfully. Out of the corner of his eye, he thought he saw Eliot’s face do some complicated thing. But when he looked at him straight on, El was placid as ever.
“Oh.” Julia forced a smile. “Okay, well, can we talk soon?”
“Yeah, for sure.” Quentin cleared his throat, eyes sliding away. “I’ll see you around, Jules.”
Julia stayed silent, and guilt overtook Quentin, a sharp splinter in his side. He felt like the tell-tale heart, like she was reading every inch of his bullshit the longer they stood there. I’m lying, I’m a fucking liar, I’m as fucked up as you think I am. But when Eliot sent him a secret wink, the ache and fear faded.
More silence passed, a stalemate. “See you,” Julia finally said.
Always one to read the room, Eliot gave Julia an almost genuine smile. “It was nice to see you again, Julia. We should do brunch sometime.”
Julia blinked for a third time, slow as molasses, then turned a stony smile up at Eliot. The kind that curled toes. “Count on it. Nice to see you too, Eliot.”
And as Julia slowly turned around and walked down the hallway, Quentin could feel El’s warm breath on his ear. “You’re diabolical.”
“What?” Quentin jumped.
Eliot shushed him, smoothing down the collar of his flannel. “Let’s go home, honey?” He clicked his tongue, wrapping his hand around his neck. “Fatal blow.”
“I didn’t—I wasn’t—”
“Now, don’t pretend like you don’t know exactly what you're doing.” Eliot ran his thumb down the line of Quentin’s throat, and Quentin’s vision swam. “Kudos, truly.”
“I wasn’t—I’m just hungover,” Quentin grumbled, though he kept leaning against Eliot, snaking an arm around his waist. “Your spell didn’t do shit.”
“My poor darling.” Eliot pecked a kiss to the top of his head.
Quentin grunted, Eliot grinned. For yet another perfect moment, it all felt dangerously real, all over again. But when he glanced over his shoulder, his heart dropped at Julia standing by the stairs, watching them with a frown. When she noticed Quentin, she just gave him another sad smile and wave, before disappearing down the stairs. It was almost bittersweet, almost like an understanding.
Except... it was Julia.
So for the next three fucking weeks, she hounded him all the goddamn time for a goddamn brunch invitation. Between classes, via text, via email, via spell, waiting for him at Brakebills portals. She brought it up so much, so often, and with such unyielding tenacity, Quentin had to give in, practically begging for mercy and, like, some goddamn peace. And whether the momentary respite would be worth the headache of bringing her into the fold was the world’s biggest fucking TBD.
The fire lapped at the crooked wood, effortlessly passing through its solid weight like a ghost. Magic meant the logs would never turn to ash. Quentin took a long sip of his drink—slightly too bitter and more herbaceous than he liked. Still better than shots straight from the bottle.
“Um,” Quentin said, voice shaking. Eliot cocked his head patiently. “There’s a couple things you should probably—uh, things that might come up today and it’d be weird if you didn’t know?”
Quentin ripped the bandaid clean off. “I have severe clinical depression, to where I’ve been hospitalized on and off for pretty much my entire life. Uh, mostly through my teen years, but also right before I got into Brakebills. The worst of it happened when I was sixteen, when I was basically rendered catatonic with suicidal ideation. For about two months.”
The only sound that followed was the light clink-thud of a glass being placed on the mantle. Quentin watched the reflection of the fire in the shine of Eliot’s black shoes.
“Okay,” Eliot said softly. He cleared his throat. “That’s—okay.”
There was a space then, a space where Eliot could have asked a question or Quentin could have offered more, but it passed with a breath and a bone-deep gratitude Quentin couldn’t express. Eliot hadn’t called the whole thing off or asked probing questions, and honestly, Quentin kind of fell for him harder for it. Pathetic, but true.
But that wasn’t all. “And then, um, the other thing is about my—my dad?” Quentin splashed the drink onto his jeans, a dark spot on his knee, when he got to eight points in his dumb game. “He was diagnosed with brain cancer about, uh, three months into my first year at Brakebills. Glioblastoma, which has about a 5% five-year survival rate.”
Another long pause.
“I had no idea.” Eliot sounded a little hurt that time, which made Quentin feel like shit. It was a fair response, since they had literally just talked about his dad a few weeks ago, but he couldn’t—it was just—
“Anyway, um,” Quentin rushed through, “he’s in a miraculous remission right now that I’m—I’m trying to study? Sort of to see if there’s an underlying magical cause that I might replicate. Using mending not on the curse itself, but on the curse mechanism at the cellular level. My hypothesis is that it’s sort of like plugging a dam.”
“That sounds… plausible, I guess,” Eliot said, voice both dazed and right on the edge of patronizing.
Quentin’s face burned with embarrassment, and he ripped at his cuticle. “I don’t know, I mean, it’s half-baked. It’s why I want a good mentor in the healing field, but no one will take me seriously to even test it out or give me more information about curses to even, uh, get on any kind of right track. I just—I want to do right by my dad, but it turns out magic is just so fucking—um, yeah.”
“Well, okay.” Eliot chewed on his lower lip. “That explains why you’ve been so focused on your thesis.”
Eliot and Margo both thought Brakebills’ theses were bullshit check-the-box exercises with zero bearing on future prospects. They bragged about writing theirs over the course of a single week while tripping on DMT and passing with accolades from a reluctant Henry Fogg. The topic especially came up whenever they tried to convince Quentin to stop working for a few hours and drink, gossip, or otherwise entertain them to their current whim. And now that Quentin was spending… most nights at the apartment, it happened more and more frequently.
Yet Quentin’s specific thesis topic never came up. Now, it sat like a cold stone between him and Eliot.
Eliot took a delicate sip of his drink, eyes never leaving Quentin’s face. Quentin scratched under his chin, then sighed. “Look, it’s not a big deal, okay? I only mention it because those two things are why Julia can be kind of intense with me. About me. I think it’s important for you to know that, so you don’t say something that backs you into a corner. If she thinks I didn’t tell you...”
“She’ll think you didn’t trust me enough.” There was a raw quality to his voice that clenched Quentin’s stomach. “Sure, I get it. No fuel for her self-righteous fire.”
Desperately, Quentin wanted to tell Eliot he trusted Eliot more than he had ever trusted anyone in his life, that he trusted him a frightening amount. That if Quentin could spend his days projectile vomiting all his bullshit thoughts, and anxieties, and half-baked ideas onto Eliot’s generous heart, he would, he would, he would. That the only reason Quentin didn’t or couldn’t was because he was fucked up and couldn’t find the words, that he’d never known how to share that kind of shit on purpose, especially to someone who looked and acted and kissed Eliot did. It was too much, too real, and he wanted it so fucking badly he could taste it. But if Eliot didn’t want the same thing, if Eliot didn’t really want him—
He just couldn’t.
Not for the first time, Quentin almost said fuck it and said it out loud, bleeding heart in hand. But also not for the first time, Eliot instinctually cut off the impulse. His eyes sparkled with that siren-call sardonic brightness and half his mouth quirked up, moving the moment along. “I thought you were going to tell me you fucked her.”
Tension unspooled, the air oxidizing back to its usual state. Quentin huffed a low laugh. “Yeah, uh, nope. Never.”
“Wouldn’t have blamed you,” Eliot said. “You’re a warm-blooded bisexual man after all, and Julia is… attractive?”
“You know she’s attractive.”
“She’s no Margo Hanson.”
“I don’t think it’s a competition.”
“Try telling that to Bambi.”
Fair enough. Quentin rolled his eyes and took a gulp of his drink—still bitter as shit, but growing on him. An acquired taste. “Anyway, I think that’s pretty much it. She’ll be up your ass about pretty much everything, but I think you can handle it.”
“Um, I can definitely handle it,” Eliot said with a scoff. He dropped to a squat, like a Little League coach. “But that’s far from it, mister, sir. This is your first chance to proactively, calculatingly stick it to the bitch who stole your therapy letters and sent them out en masse in some fucked up, almost impressively misguided attempt to get you to... go on a date? You can’t let that opportunity slip through your fingers.”
“Don’t call her a bitch,” Quentin said. “But yeah, good points.”
Strategizing with Eliot was always way more fun than it should be.
“You should talk a lot about our joint financial goals,” Quentin said, after a few alternatingly laughing and deadly serious topics of discussion. They’d settled on a plan of twisting the knife of domesticity. “Like, that we have a spreadsheet together and, uh, an accounting of our assets?”
Eliot grinned. “What assets?”
“All your art and shit?”
“Honey, those are definitely stolen. We can’t have a paper trail.”
Whatever, Quentin wasn’t a business major. He waved it off, right as another stroke of inspiration hit him. “Oh! But you, uh, you should definitely casually mention that you convinced me to go to a bank and—this part is important— physically talk to a teller in order to get a personalized checkbook. Like, y’know, in case I have to deal with non-magic shit sometimes, for my dad or whatever. That’s a motherfucking kill shot.”
Eliot barked a laugh, eyes crinkling at the edges, making Quentin’s heart do a cartwheel. Eliot rounded behind the armchair and squeezed Quentin’s shoulder. “See?” he said, dipping his mouth low to his ear. “Diabolical.”
The rain cleared, and a slant of pale gold light poured through the window. Quentin finished his drink with the conclusion that it was actually really fucking good, like everything Eliot did. He followed the path Eliot forged through the cozy-huge space, watching his long legs stride over to the bureau, to all the tiny details—cufflinks, cravats, makeup, an array of organized scarves and pocket squares and jewelry—that made up the precise, dazzling collage of Eliot Waugh.
Eliot winked at him, looping his tie through his collar. Quentin felt warm all over.
When Eliot ushered Julia Wicker into the foyer a few hours later, the first thing she did was blink at Margo, then at him. She twisted her lips into a tiny smile, and said, “I feel underdressed.”
“Oh, no, you’re fine .” Margo affected a falsetto, smoothing her hand down her own silk and sequin pantsuit. “Love the pigtails, by the way. So retro.”
Despite Margo’s reassurances, Julia was, in fact, underdressed. She was clad only in leggings and an oversized gray cardigan. But while the corners of her mouth tightened at Margo’s tone—assuming she was being snidely mocked—Eliot knew Margo was actually quite sincere. Nothing revved Bambi’s engine like a grown woman in pigtails.
Julia’s eyes flicked up and down Eliot’s three-piece suit. “Q told me it was casual.”
Eliot swooped a hand onto her shoulder, directing her toward the living room and the awaiting bar cart. “Now, don’t be silly. Your comfort is our pleasure. Shall I take your purse to the closet or would you prefer an Hermès stool?”
Julia rounded her mouth. “A what?”
Margo linked arms with Julia, taking her for a turn about the room. “An idea we copped from a Parisian boutique hotel-slash-fine dining restaurant. Right on Rue de Rivoli. Have you been to Paris, Julia?”
“Yes…?” Julia said slowly.
“Then you know. Honestly, between you and me” —Margo leaned in conspiratorially— “it’s mostly overpriced tourist schlock. No surprise given the location, but I’ve still always loved how they bring out a cute little Hermès leather stool for luxury bags. Such a charming and practical touch! That way, you can have easy access to your personal effects, while ensuring your bag never gets sullied by the dirty ground or stretched by the chair. Genius, no?”
Margo twirled her words like honey-sweet venom, like a cloud of too much perfume. She was as pissed at this entitled bitch as Eliot was for what she’d done to Quentin, and she expressed it with subtle vigor. Always a force to be reckoned with, that old cliche, but in ways no one ever gave enough credit. Eliot lived nowhere but in awe of her.
“Wow,” Julia said, frowning but still letting Margo lead them around the living room. “So what happens if you’ve got, like, a Target brand bag? Shit out of luck then? To the disgusting floor it goes?”
Margo laughed. “I doubt anyone who can afford Le Meurice carries a Target bag, though I agree, a little more exclusion would probably serve them well. The stools used to be just for Birkins, but they caved to populist pressure, I guess.”
“And this is right down the street from Place de la Concorde, you said?” Julia batted her lashes.
(Place de la Concorde was where Louis XVI and the unfairly maligned Marie Antoinette were executed, after which it was renamed Place de la Revolution until the July 1830 uprising. Eliot played Jean Valjean in his high school production Les Miserables ; he was well-versed in French revolutionary history.)
Margo touched the tip of her tongue to her canine, then pointedly smirked down at the designer label on Julia’s giant black bag. Julia quickly tucked it under her arm. “I’ll just hold my purse.” She shot Eliot a quick, half-apologetic glance. “Thanks, though.”
Eliot shrugged, positioning himself behind the bar and cutting a few lime wedges. “Suit yourself. Offer stands.”
“What’s your poison?” Margo asked Julia, gliding them down onto the leopard-print chaise lounge. Their arms stayed entwined. “El’s a booze wizard. Just name it.”
“So, I don’t mean to be rude, but I have to ask.” Julia craned her neck toward the kitchen, then the hallway. “Quentin is here, right?”
Margo cocked her head all the way to the side, eyebrows screwed together. “What’s a Quentin?”
One side of Julia’s mouth twitched with amusement, the kind that surprised her enough to school it back down to a neutral placidity in a too-quick blink. But Eliot appreciated any appreciation of Margo, and it was enough for him to take pity on her.
“He’s finishing up some work, but I set a strict fifteen minute egg timer...” Eliot glanced up at their wall clock. “Fourteen minutes and fifty-five seconds ago.”
“Ah,” Julia said brightly. “So it’ll be another hour then?”
“Trust me,” Eliot said. “He’ll heed the timer.”
Sure enough, after another five minutes passed—whilst Eliot made four gimlets in gold-rimmed coups and Margo chattered away to a bemused Julia—a loud yell of “What the fuck? ” rang down the hall.
“That’ll be him,” Eliot said mildly, garnishing each drink with a sprig of rosemary.
Quentin stormed down the hallway, eyes dark and wild. He held out a medium-sized common box turtle as far away from his body as he could, only the tips of his fingers quivering along the shell. “Turn it back.”
“Aw,” Eliot said, bending over at the waist. “Who’s this little fella?”
The turtle stretched his wrinkly yellow neck. Quentin shuddered. “Turn it back, Eliot.”
Eliot wished he had a bit of lettuce to offer their guest. “Only if you acknowledge I gave you a very generous five minute grace period which you then squandered.”
“Are you serious?”
“Timeliness is next to godliness, Q.”
“Like you give a shit about godliness.”
“True. Timeliness far surpasses.”
“I was just in the middle of a thought!”
“All your thoughts are a million years long.”
“I need my notes, Eliot. Turn it back!”
Eliot rolled his eyes and did a few swift tuts. Presto, the turtle returned to its original form—Quentin’s overstuffed green spiral-bound notebook. Quentin pulled it protectively toward his chest, taking a relieved breath. He blew his hair out of his eyes. “I told you I don’t like turtles.”
“That’s what you get for expressing weakness,” Margo called over from the background.
“She’s right,” Eliot said. He tucked Quentin’s hair back behind his ear, smoothing down the shoulder lines of his flannel. “The lesson here, sweetheart, is to always keep your guard up and trust no one.”
“Thanks,” Quentin said flatly.
Then, because Eliot was on display and in boyfriend mode, he wrapped his hand around the back of Quentin’s neck and pressed a gentle kiss to his lips. Quentin made one of those surprised, whimpering little sounds, the kind that always ripped Eliot’s chest to shreds, and pushed up on his toes to kiss him back, with just enough pressure to make the backs of Eliot’s eyelids white-out.
Someone cleared her throat. Quentin pulled away first, color dotted high on his cheeks. His dazed eyes looked just past Eliot’s shoulders and his brows shot up to his hairline. “Julia. Oh, uh. Hey.”
“Hi there, Q.” Julia gave him a wave, her voice unreadable.
Quentin blinked. “I, uh. I didn’t realize you were here yet. Uh. Sorry.”
Eliot snuffed out the bright flare of hope that ignited in his chest. No, that wasn’t right. Quentin had to know Julia was here, because if he didn’t and he kissed Eliot back like that, thinking they were alone in the apartment—
Quentin had to know Julia was here.
Julia gave Quentin another long, indiscernible look, then turned sharply to Margo. “So are they always like this?”
Margo choked. “Oh my god,” she said, pressing her wrist to her mouth. “You have no fucking idea. Honestly, this is them being halfway bearable.”
Honestly, that sounded a little too honest. Margo was a good actress, but not that good. Eliot sharpened his gaze into a subtle warning, a short and swift watch it, but she blithely ignored his subliminal messaging.
“They’re the Spring Fling Kings of the New York Brakebills’ alumni circle,” Margo said drily. Eliot shot her another, harder look. That time merely she arched a brow, not ignoring but not backing down.
Quentin blinked again, slower this time, turning his bright red face to Margo. “But it’s not spring. It’s, like, late fall. Almost winter.”
Margo gave him a serene smile. “Thank you, Quentin.”
Julia hiccuped too loudly, an airy burst of sound, clapping her hand over her mouth. Margo waggled her eyebrows at her, rubbing their shoulders together.
After that, the conversational tempo shifted into a key change. The four of them caught up on life at Brakebills and life in the city, saying lots of words with no real meaning. Everyone nursed their drink, clinging to well-timed sips to get through the awkwardness. Well, everyone but Margo, who had never been awkward in any situation ever in her life. She finished her gin with fast flair and refilled once by the time Julia broached the subject of how often Quentin was staying at the apartment these days.
“I feel like I barely see him anymore,” she said, as though Quentin wasn’t sitting literally right across from her.
Quentin scowled and was the second person to finish his drink after a huge gulp. Eliot took that as his cue to answer for him.
“We don’t spend much time at Brakebills since the portal’s not too far away and this is much more comfortable.” Eliot gestured around the spacious room, to which Julia politely nodded. “But thankfully, I did manage to sneak a few comfort spells on his bed, at long last.”
Eliot used the same cloying co-conspirators’ voice his mother and sisters-in-law did when discussing his awful brothers’ Sunday night football habits. Nauseating to apply to Quentin, but it was the only way he knew how to play this game. Dating Mike McCormick for a few weeks hadn’t exactly given him ample boyfriend tools. Fake it ‘til you make it.
“Oh! Oh, wow. So you agreed to that?” Julia turned to Quentin, deceptively bright. Kill shot. “I thought comfort spells were quote-unquote ‘stupid’ and that you slept just fine on the hay bale at junior cowboy camp, so why would you need anything fancy now?”
Margo leaned forward, putting a hand on Julia’s knee. “I’m sorry, you slept on a what at what?”
“I don’t want to talk about junior cowboy camp,” Quentin grumbled into his glass.
“Well, we’re gonna,” Margo said. “First, why didn’t they have beds? I went to summer camp as a kid, too. From what I remember, they usually have beds.”
“I mean, yeah, they had beds, I just opted out.” Quentin groaned when Margo screwed up her entire face in confusion. “I—I wanted the full cowboy experience, okay? If I had to be there, well, you know. So I slept on a haybale, near the eastern barn. I brought a blanket and a pillow, and the counselors thought my commitment to the spirit of camp was admirable. I fucking hated that place.”
Margo tapped her chin with a finger. “I feel like there’s a lot we need to unpack there.”
“On that note,” Eliot said, voice shaky with his delight at the lovely absurdity of Q. “I’ll go get the food ready.”
“I’ll help you!” Julia said, jumping to stand.
Knives lurked beneath the surface; it wasn’t a friendly offer. And Quentin must have known it, too. He sat up ramrod straight, eyes darting between them. Margo cracked her neck, the slightest bit of tension tightening the line of her throat.
But Eliot had never been one to give into demands. “Don’t be silly,” he said lightly, chuckling. “You’re our guest. Relax, finish your drink.”
He wasn’t sure what he expected in response, but it definitely wasn’t for Julia to tilt her head back and chug the rest of her nearly-full drink in two clean swallows. She let out a happy little sigh on the finish and sent her coup over to the bar cart using telekinesis—a flex, since she didn’t have a Physical discipline.
“All done,” Julia said cheerfully. “Really, I’d feel like a total asshole if I didn’t lend a hand. Plus, you know, this way you and I can have a chat.”
“Julia,” Quentin said in a low warning.
“It’s fine, Q,” Eliot said. He also wasn’t one to back down from a challenge, so he gave fucking Julia a bow. “Thank you, Julia, I’d appreciate that.”
He could feel the weight of Margo’s eyes on him. She cocked her head, her face clearly reading: are you good or do you need me to fuck this bitch up? Eliot appreciated her loyalty, but he already knew he could handle alone time with this toothless, posturing little girl. It was fine.
Margo nodded minutely and stood, walking over to the other couch. She patted the terrified and furious-looking Quentin on top of his head. “Come on, Q. You can help me pick a new outfit.”
Quentin jumped. “What? Why?”
“I don’t think this one fits the vibe anymore.”
“The vibe, the general vibe,” Margo said, waving her hands all around. She grabbed his wrist and tugged. “Come on.”
“No, I don’t—no. Margo, stop. No.”
“You stop, it’ll be fun. Ooh, I’ll do a fashion show for you.”
“ No .”
“Christ, no, not again.”
“Get on board. It’s happening.”
The two of them bickered all the way down the hall, and with the click of Margo’s door, Eliot was once again left alone with Julia Wicker.
She smiled brightly. “Ready, Freddy?”
Olive oil and minced chilis sizzled too loudly on the pan, sending bitter smoke into the air. Eliot cursed under his breath, knuckles stinging from where a spray of scalding droplets jumped onto them from the surface. But before he could spread his fingers out over the invisible dome of energy atop the cooking space, tinier ones got there first, tattooed and delicate.
“Quentin did say you’re good in the kitchen,” Eliot said grudgingly to Julia, who slowly reversed the cooking process with ease, until the oil was bubbling and simmering to perfection.
Julia threw him a look. “Q thinks anyone who can sauté garlic deserves a Michelin star.”
Eliot laughed at that, half-against his will. It seemed to please Julia though, who hummed a little off-key tune under her breath and swayed her shoulders as she spread the sliced garlic and red pepper flakes over the pan and popped the cork off the sherry as it simmered. “Is this stuff drinkable?”
“It’s very dry,” Eliot cautioned, though he called a couple of glasses for them. “But also very alcoholic.”
“That’s all I need,” Julia said. She poured for them both and handed one off to Eliot with a wink. He had to admit Julia had a charm to her; a buoyancy with both magic and conversation that delighted far more than it grated. They drank, made mirrored sour faces at the taste, and then laughed, silently agreeing to finish them like a shot.
Julia stuck her tongue out and shook her head. “Jesus, Spaniards don’t fuck around, huh?”
Eliot hated her. He hated her. He definitely wasn’t grinning to himself as he de-veined the prawns and put them on the heat, and definitely didn’t want to make her a Flor de Jerez with amontillado, so she could experience how sherry could be inviting and delicious, if still a touch unconventional. Instead, since he hated her, he just placed the shrimp into the pan and let them cook on a magical timer—turtle-free this time—before stretching out his casting hands and resting back against the island.
Julia watched him with a mysterious smile. “Thank you for having me today, Eliot. It means a lot.”
You relentlessly invited yourself. “It’s no trouble. The more the merrier.”
She tilted her head. “You know Quentin and I aren’t really talking to each other right now, right?”
Eliot cleared his throat to buy time, then spun around to fuss with the caprese salad. “He mentioned something like that,” he said.
Q had really mentioned that Julia might be this blunt, but he’d hoped she wouldn’t be. It crept into the territory he’d rather avoid with Quentin; some shit was too real to sweep into the nonsense, as this morning proved. What Julia did and how it had affected Q—the ripple effect it had on all of them—certainly qualified as a topic to avoid.
“What exactly do you know?” Julia asked.
“If you’re asking if I know about the letters, the answer is yes.” Eliot tutted out a minor clean up spell, to make the edges of the balsamic drizzle more precise. “I do.”
“Shit.” Julia dropped her jaw. “He told you there was more than one? That’s honest.”
“That’s Q,” Eliot said, without a single trace of irony.
“Right.” Julia’s expression twisted, then smoothed. “Right, well, I’m glad we finally get to meet. You know, for real. It’s been awhile since Q’s had someone in his life and it seems like you’re great for him.”
Eliot snorted, using a spatula to check the doneness of the prawns. Another minute. “Spare me. We both know you’re gearing up for a shovel talk.”
“You know, I’m actually not.” Julia lifted her face into the sunlight, beatific. “I mean, don’t get me wrong. I was fully planning on pulling out the big guns—”
She flexed her biceps and Eliot snorted again, even more undignified. “My god.”
“—but I don’t know. I don’t think it’s necessary.” Julia bit her lower lip and shook her head. “After everything with his dad, it’s nice to see him smile again, you know?”
There it was. Exactly like Quentin predicted. Eliot spooned the sauce over the shrimp, watching their translucence turn white. “Of course.”
“He was so laser-focused for so long. Brakebills, doctor’s appointments, Brakebills, doctor’s appointments. There was no room for Quentin in any of it, you know? And of course he has his own struggles to deal with on top of it all, which are no fucking joke—”
“I’m aware,” Eliot said shortly. A platter and four brown clay bowls flew through the air and landed next to his hand on the counter, the clang covering up his fingers’ restless tapping.
“Great! So obviously, you know exactly how fucked up it would be if someone messed with him and his heart after everything he’s been through.” Her voice had turned grim and skin-crawling. “I don’t need to tell you.”
Eliot plated the gambas into the dishes, not once looking up at her. “Yes, it would be. I’d say it’d be almost as fucked up as someone betraying his trust by disseminating his most intimate secrets.”
As soon as the words escaped him, Eliot clamped down on his lip. He hadn’t meant to go there. This was supposed to be about rubbing Julia’s face in Quentin’s happiness despite her actions, not at all about addressing them head-on. He had no fucking leg to stand on, no matter how much it pissed him off, since he wasn’t actually Quentin’s boyfriend. It wasn’t his business.
But holy fuck, did Eliot hate her for it. “You should have known he’d never want that,” he said. “You should have done better, because you should have known better.”
Julia remained deathly silent for a moment, before a cold whisper came his way. “I’ve loved Quentin for fifteen years. He’s the only real family I have, and one of the few people in the entire goddamn world who I actually give a shit about. That breeds a desire to create good things for him, even if it takes brute force, since he can’t and won’t do it for himself.”
Eliot snapped up, palms digging into the counter. “Look, I’m sure in your little straight girl world—”
“I’m not straight, you condescending prick.”
“Oh, then you really should have known better.”
Julia’s conviction flickered, then hardened. “I’m not a monster. Quentin is openly bisexual” —she held her hand up when Eliot gave an incredulous scoff— “and none of the guys who got the letters are straight either. I was pissed at him, so yes, the decision was rash and emotional. But I can’t regret it when it’s obviously been good for him. If he hates me despite his happiness, then so be it. At least I’ve done right by him.”
There was way too much information there for Eliot to parse, not least of which was the fact that Penny Adiyodi apparently wasn’t straight either (was there something in the water?) but he was too caught on the last sentence to go anywhere near the rest of it.
“You didn’t do shit right by him. You just got lucky that it didn’t fuck him up.”
Julia blew a strand of hair from her face. Just like Q always did. Exactly like Q always did. “If you honestly believe Quentin never needs a push out of his shell and away from his toxic mindsets, then not only are you kidding yourself, but your relationship with him is doomed.”
“Oh, wow, fuck you.”
“Look, I know Quentin at his best is wonderful, okay?” Julia shifted on her feet, the lines of her face drawn and gray and tired looking. “I know I probably sound like a fucking harpy who’s borrowing trouble, since you two are obviously—you have a rhythm with him. I get it. I’m not trying to diminish that.”
“Uh-huh,” Eliot said, suddenly weary himself. He rubbed an eye with his fist.
“But you have to prepare for Quentin at his worst, because Quentin at his worst…” Julia closed her eyes. “You obviously haven’t seen him at his worst. And I’m not even talking about his depression. I’m more talking about… Q has a unique ability to get under your—or at least get under my skin. He says things he both means and doesn’t mean, and so then I do things I both mean and don’t mean. But that doesn’t mean the struggle isn’t worth it.”
Eliot squinted at her. “What the fuck are you talking about?”
“Do you have any siblings, Eliot?” Julia asked.
“No,” Eliot said automatically.
“Well, then it might be hard for you to understand, but that kind of bond isn’t easy or simple or even unconditional in the way people like to romanticize. You have to cultivate it, and you have to fight for it, and you should cultivate and fight for it, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t fucking suck sometimes. No one knows how to hurt you like your brother.”
Eliot took a large knife and sliced an onion clean in half. He was done cooking, but he just—needed to stab something. How Margoesque. “I’m still not following.”
“I’m saying what’s done is done,” Julia said. “Quentin and I will work our shit out, but in the meantime, it’s my responsibility to make sure the worst of my actions don’t, in fact, fuck him up. I’m glad he seems happy, but this isn’t exactly what I thought the outcome would be. I’m sure you can understand where my concern comes from.”
“And what, pray tell, exactly concerns you?”
“Just because you seem to be, like, aggressively incapable of remembering me doesn’t mean I don’t remember you.”
Julia said you with such force, with such accusation, sending a rough shudder down his spine. Eliot pulled himself taut and strode over to the fridge, grabbing a half-used bottle of white he was going to use for a sauce, but now had a greater purpose. He pulled the cork with a satisfying swoosh-pop sound and poured himself a huge glass. Under the gentle guidance of his cupped hand, the pale yellow-gold liquid swirled so fast, it created a vacuum. He didn’t offer any to Julia.
“I thought distracting Quentin from his studies was the whole point of your little endeavor,” Eliot said. “There’s no one more well-versed in that art than me.”
“And that’s probably good for him, for now.” Julia took a step closer, speaking softer. “At least, it’s good for him until you inevitably get bored and toss him aside, like you did with every guy I ever saw cry over you, and Quentin is left heartbroken and shattered.”
Rage was a dangerous emotion. While Margo extolled its virtues and wielded her own to great success, the same roar that defined the core of her passion—her talents—drove Eliot into a frenzy, until he quietly, then violently lost control. It garbled his mind until it was deranged, demented, and his body was no longer his own. Rage made him do things like kick his shotgun-holding, piece of shit dad in the stomach, or drink towards oblivion and wake up in a freshly arson’d warehouse, or murder a child with a school bus.
The lump in his throat threatened to burst, and his fingers vibrated. The thuds of his heart screamed on each repeating beat, but he breathed through the waves because he had to, because it was the one thing in this world he took seriously.
“You’re very dramatic,” Eliot said, light and acidic. “I like that in a person.”
“Cut the crap,” Julia snapped. “Jesus Christ, did you even read the letter he wrote you?”
Eliot’s throat closed in. “Obviously,” he managed.
“Then how the hell can you be okay with that kind of power imbalance? I get you like to be fawned over, and that everything’s a party game to you, but Q idolizes you, Eliot.”
“You know.” Eliot laughed, drumming his hand along the counter so he didn’t punch a wall or worse. “For someone so smart, you sure do have piss-poor reading comprehension.”
Julia went very, very still. “What?”
The ice in her voice cracked. One wrong move meant Eliot would plunge to his death. Honestly, at that moment, he’d welcome it. It’d be better than having this fucking conversation.
But Eliot was in it now. Walking away would admit weakness, and he wouldn’t give Julia anything resembling the satisfaction. “The letter was certainly lacking any economy of language, I’ll give you that. And it was clearly written in the throes of a new, intense crush. Also granted. But if you break it down to its actual meaning, all Quentin ever said is that I’m really hot. And you know what?” He shot her a thin, bitter smile. “That would probably be because I’m really hot.”
Julia fell back on her heels, eyes wide. “I—” she frowned. “I don’t think you’re supposed to say you’re really hot.”
“Gotta know your worth.” Eliot brought his wine back to his lips. His breath shook. “Most of the letter is ridiculous. Q is the first person to say most of it is ridiculous. And it’s not why I asked him out.”
“Okay.” Julia jutted a hip, brow wrinkling with a mocking incredulity. “So, what? You just happened to receive an old love letter from him on the day you were already coincidentally going to travel to Brakebills and sweep him off his feet? Come on.”
“I asked him out because of the postscript.”
Eliot didn’t mean to say that.
But something about it threw Julia. “What postscript?” she asked, face going carefully blank.
Eliot dipped a spoon into the gambas sauce and tasted it. Discarded the spoon to the sink with telekinesis. “ I wish I could miss you more, but I’ll miss you all the same .”
The sauce had gone cold, so he put a warming spell over it. Anything to keep his hands busy, anything to distract from his pounding heart. Julia opened her lips to speak, but said nothing.
Eliot gripped the edge of the counter, too many words bumping into each other, ready to burst out of his chest. “The rest of it was—it was flattering and, yeah, a little intense, but… in a sweet way, especially once I realized it was Q. But that one sentence was all I actually needed to get my ass in gear.”
Julia pursed her lips back together. “Why?”
“Because I knew what he meant. Because I felt the same way.” Oh shit, oh shit . “At Brakebills, Quentin and I—we always had these moments. These perfect moments where it felt like the universe righted itself, just for an afternoon or a night or for a few minutes on the Sea—”
What the fuck was he doing.
“—but I never chased it then, not like I should have, because I’m a coward, or I wasn’t ready for it, or because I was scared it was all in my head. But then I get this letter, and—and I find out it wasn’t. It wasn’t just in my head. Quentin felt it too.”
That day on the couch hadn’t been Eliot’s rock bottom. He’d seen rock bottom before, had luxuriated in its moldy damp surface, digging into his bare ass. He knew that booze and semen-soaked gutter of emotional despair. No, that day had been typical malaise, a post-breakup ennui where his purposelessness of his life had come into an uncomfortably stark focus. But getting that letter had felt like a lightbulb illuminating a once darkened room, so all the shapes Eliot had learned to move around revealed themselves, bringing new depth and dimension to something he’d thought he’d have to live with forever.
“Do you know how often I thought about Quentin, both at Brakebills and since graduation? Do you have any idea how insane it made me feel?” Eliot leaned back against the counter, shaking his head with a breathless laugh. “I was newly single and unsure of everything, and then… this letter lands on my lap like a sign. Like destiny. Jesus Christ.”
Eliot heard Julia shift in the background, but he just hung his head, entirely lost to the moment. “Once I knew I had a chance, a real chance, I had to—I had to do something about it. I had to, even though it was obvious the letter was old and, well, perhaps not something he meant to send.”
Julia’s hand came into view, right next to his. She had moved over to where he stood, positioning herself right next to him, almost curled toward his body. Her tiny shoulder only came up to just above his elbow, which was cuter than it should’ve been. She said nothing.
Eliot was so far gone; he had no choice but to continue. “So I didn’t waste time. I didn’t want to waste another second. I had wasted more than two years of feeling this way and wanting something I thought was impossible. So once I realized that maybe, maybe, it wasn’t, I had to go against every self-preservation instinct I’ve ever had and actually try, for once in my life. I didn’t even each lunch, I just portaled right to Brakebills, and I ran to the Cottage and I—”
Reality caught up with him. All at once, Eliot remembered he wasn’t actually defending his relationship with Quentin to Julia. He didn’t have a relationship with Quentin. The only purpose of this was to help Quentin get back at Julia for the awful thing she’d done to him. Eliot’s feelings were irrelevant. Eliot was irrelevant.
So Eliot got his shit in order.
“And I asked him out, and he said yes. Now, Quentin is the boyfriend of my dreams. It’s like a fairy tale.” Eliot smiled at Julia, imbuing his expression with all the starry-eyed wonder of a man innocently, simply in love. Easy to pull off, actually.
But Julia looked like she’d been slapped across the face. “And you’ve said all this to Q?”
“Yeah,” Eliot said. He swallowed. “Yeah, of course.”
Julia stared at him, eyes shining and glassy, the fragile tension between them hanging on a live wire.
Then she deflated, shoulders slumping. “Jesus. No wonder he’s so pissed at me.”
“Well, I think he has a few reasons.” Eliot meant it, but his voice came out gentle. Almost teasing, which felt both incongruous and weirdly right.
“I fucked up,” Julia whispered to the ground.
Eliot’s heart clenched, and he curled his fingers into his palm so he didn’t do something stupid like cover her hand with his own. “Yes,” he said carefully. “Yeah, you fucked up. But god, I think we’ve all, at one point or another, done something we don’t exactly—”
An eruption of loud laughter mercifully prevented him from finishing his sentence. Julia pushed off the counter to stand up straight, sniffing away her sadness with a forced smile. Margo and Quentin tumbled back into the living room, hands clutching at each other while Margo twirled. Quentin tripped over his own feet, and they both honest-to-fuck giggled, which made Eliot’s stomach go gelatinous.
Margo whispered something in Quentin’s ear that made him double over with more laughter. Tenderness was going to strangle Eliot’s lungs if he didn’t speak, so he took a breath and pointedly lifted a brow at Margo’s silk-and-sequin pantsuit. “You’re wearing the same outfit, Bambi.”
“Holy shit!” Margo gasped, stepping back with her hand pressed to her heart. “What the fuck, what the fuck , where’d you come from?”
“Hey. Hey, it’s okay. They live here,” Quentin said, rubbing a soothing circle on her back. “It’s okay. They live here, Margo.”
Julia frowned exaggeratedly at the ceiling. “Um?”
The giddiness in Eliot’s chest came out in a wide grin across his face. “What exactly have you two been up to?”
Margo opened her mouth, then closed it, eyebrows scrunched deep in thought. She snapped her fingers. “Right! Yeah, okay, see, I was going to change, but then Quentin here—” she patted his chest, but lingered a little too long as she rubbed a slow circle over his pec. “Quentin made an excellent point, you see, which is that getting high together would be way more fun than a fashion show.”
Quentin’s giant pupils nodded. “It’s scientifically proven. I read a journal article.”
Something overwhelming washed over Eliot, tingling down to his toes. Margo pressed her face into Quentin’s collarbone and Quentin wrapped an arm around her shoulders, tugging her in close and resting his cheek on top of her head, and Eliot was so crazy about both of them in such different ways, it was either going to send him to an early grave or grant him the power of immortality. His fingers twitched, the urge to touch Margo’s soft hair and Quentin’s sharp jawline propelling him heart first.
But Julia stepped forward first, biting her lower lip. She cocked her head to the side.
“Do you guys have any more?” she asked, the picture of innocence.
Margo’s answering grin eclipsed the sun.
Usually, Quentin hated feeling own heartbeat, since it reminded him of the slow, relentless crawl toward death and all the ways he was failing to live a meaningful life, but right now, it matching the drumline of “Call Me Maybe,” so it was cool.
He leaned back into silk fabric and cologne, his cheek warm on lean muscle and humming along to the song. Eliot’s heart percussed much the same way as his, a steady thump-thump-thump-thump-thump, while garbled nonsense words about taking time with a call, but no time with the fall, you gave me nothing at all parried with the rush of oceanesque blood in his ears. Quentin lolled his head, then let his eyes slit open, the yellow-gold glittering brightness of the chandelier contrasting the jeweled city lights in the distance, and the way the bright blurs dappled the black velvet night that had crept upon them.
Quentin let out a wheezing sound through his nostrils. Shit. Who the fuck did he think he was, F. Scott Fitzgerald?
“An age old question,” Eliot murmured in his ear, and that was how Quentin realized he said all that out loud.
Whatever. He made a noncommittal hum, like yes, indeed, and settled deeper into Eliot’s arms, warm and satiating. Eliot’s fingers drew patterns up and down Quentin’s forearms, and Quentin wanted to get the pathways tattooed, from his wrists to his elbows, so he could always see them, always feel them. So he could always remember that once upon a time, Eliot Waugh ran his hands over Quentin’s skin.
Having a boyfriend was nice sometimes.
Across the coffee table, obscured by clouds of smoke, Margo and Julia sat curled on the chaise lounge. They’d kicked off their shoes and their bare ankles were locked, hugging matching throw pillows in their laps, both chatting and laughing over how “skeezy” Professor March had been to both of them.
“—and he was, like,” Margo clutched at her chest, laughing so hard no sound came out, “sex magic doesn’t need to be inherently sexual , Ms. Hanson, it can be a transcendent ritual borne of pure phenomenological pursuit.” She leered at Julia, licking her lips. “My office hours are always open for ‘further discussion.’”
That made Julia crack up, sticking a finger down her throat with a gagging sound.
Quentin dropped his jaw in actual horror. “That’s, like, super fucked up, Margo. Did you report him to Fogg, or—or to the board?”
Margo waved him off, not even glancing over. “Oh, Q.”
Eliot chuckled against his neck, shooting sparks down the column of his spine. He kissed the hinge of Quentin’s jaw, then slowly trailed up to the soft skin behind his ear, shifting his legs so Quentin could sink deeper into the V of his lap. Quentin slipped into the ruse easily, gratefully.
Julia sparked the joint in her hand and took a puff. “The thing is, March isn’t wrong, per se. Sex magic has totally been treated as a vulgar ‘secondary’ class, ever since the backlash to Salem. But that’s cultural puritanism, not fact. It’s absolutely a valid form of casting.”
“Absolutely.” Margo winked.
“But, let’s be real.” Julia blew a star in her smoke. “Dude was looking for a handy.”
“Which would’ve been fine , if he’d offered a decent incentive,” Margo said, rolling out her neck. Julia coughed, startled. “I mean, gosh, who amongst us has never gotten the answers to an Arabic exam while wearing nipple clamps?”
Quentin’s face flushed, burning brighter than any flame. “Um.” He swallowed slowly, trying to keep his eyes away from Margo’s chest, but the wildcat smile spreading across her lips was even worse. His knees shook with the image of Margo naked and spread out over a desk, lips pouting and hands sliding down her body, delicate metal chains criss-crossing her tits. The silver metal winked in the light of his mind’s eye and his dick jumped in approval.
“Fuck you,” Eliot said mildly. Margo stuck her tongue out at him. “And can we please be clear that was a T.A., not March? I do have some dignity.”
Quentin gripped his knees with his hands, taking a few steady breaths. The image shifted and now it was Eliot batting his lashes coquettishly, Eliot running his hands through his chest hair, mouth parting on a gasp as some lucky T.A. fell to his knees and got to touch ––
Fuck. Fuck . Quentin swallowed again and tried not squirm back against Eliot, no matter how much his half-hard, throbbing dick was screaming at him to do just that. He stayed as still as humanly possible. No, more than humanly possible. Like a mannequin. A chaste, respectful mannequin. One that didn’t even have a dick.
Julia tore her eyes away from Margo, looking as shell-shocked as Quentin felt. “You?” she squeaked.
“In my defense” ––Eliot sunk his fingers into Quentin’s hair, massaging his scalp with firm pressure––“I’m really bad at Arabic.”
Julia said something to that, which made Margo laugh and launch into another story, but Quentin couldn’t hear a word of it. His heart felt like it was going to beat right out of his chest, at the feel of Eliot’s body underneath him, at the long line of heat from where their knees tangled together to where Eliot’s breath feathered along his temple. Eliot’s shirt smelled like smoke and brandy, and Quentin wanted to bite at it. But he couldn’t open his mouth without risking an embarrassing moan, from the way his toes curled at the feel of Eliot’s hands in his hair.
Eliot’s thumb pressed a maddening circle into the nape of his neck, in time with Carly Rae’s B-sides, in time with his pulse. Everything was hazy and warm. The massage made his legs shake again, however minutely, and all the noise in all the world quieted under Eliot’s strong hands.
“That feels good,” Quentin said, unable to filter himself.
Those soft, warm lips brushed the corner of his mouth, clenching his stomach. “Good,” Eliot whispered, just for him. “You seem tense. Do you want me to get rid of Julia?”
Quentin’s eyes flew wide open, darting to Eliot in shock. “Are you offering to murder her for me?”
“No, baby,” Eliot said, brushing a strand of hair off his nose. “Much worse. I’m offering to subtly hint that she’s overstayed her welcome until all of her well-bred instincts engage and she sees herself out to avoid further embarrassment.”
“Oh." That made more sense. “Oh, well, no. No, it’s fine. I don’t know, like, in a weird way? It’s actually kind of nice that she’s here.”
Eliot smiled. “Okay,” he said softly, running his thumb over Quentin’s chin. “Just checking.”
“FYI, I can literally hear every word you’re both saying,” Julia said. “I’m sitting two feet away.”
“I’m aware,” Eliot said, getting back to massaging Quentin’s hair, neck, face. Quentin slowly turned back to Julia, his numb cheeks shivering under the soft, slow lines Eliot drew on them with his fingers, his lips parted and dry eyes wide.
“Sorry, Jules,” Quentin said. "I wouldn't have let him murder you."
Julia shrugged, then turned back to Margo, who had her face buried in her throw pillow. Her shoulders shook with ragged, silent laughter.
Another hour went by. Possibly two.
Margo and Julia bogarted the joint between themselves, rarely remembering to offer to Quentin and Eliot. If their preoccupation bothered El, he didn’t let on. He spent most of the time unusually quiet, running his fingers through Quentin’s hair, or tucking his chin on his shoulder, or lacing their fingers together in a slow slide. It helped keep Quentin grounded through the drug comedown, so he didn’t panic as the world realigned itself back to its usual indifference.
“Okay, okay, okay.” Julia puffed on the joint, calling Quentin’s attention away from the in-between. “Now that we’re all buzzing little buzzed bumble bees—”
“Oh my god!” Margo cracked up.
“—it’s time to give up the goods, gents.” Jules leaned forward, elbows to knees, shark intensity. “Describe your first date. Describe your first kiss. What’s your favorite thing about each other? Would you describe yourselves as cuddlers? Which popular song best encapsulates your relationship and why?”
“Don’t be stupid.” Eliot wrapped both arms tighter around Quentin’s chest. “We hate cuddling.”
Julia tapped white ash into a ceramic bowl. “What exactly are your intentions with my Quentin?”
“Marriage and children,” Eliot said drily.
Quentin’s idiot heart jumped.
Margo plucked the joint from Julia’s fingers. “What a funny joke, El,” she said, pulling in a drag.
Eliot tensed, fingers digging into Quentin’s elbows. But as fast as it happened, it disappeared. Eliot perched his chin on Quentin’s shoulder and pouted. “Who’s joking?”
Margo released the smoke, cool eyes steady and unreadable. The silence went from companionable to uncomfortable, and Quentin’s fingers and brain buzzed with the need to fill it.
“Julia. Hey, um.” Quentin pursed his lips. “So I appreciate your concern, and I’m grateful for your interest. I recognize it as the sign of support you mean it to be. But what Eliot and Margo are trying to say is that the only thing that matters now, in this moment, is the moment. This moment right now, and every moment following. If––you know, if there’s anything I’ve learned from my time here, spending day after day in their company, and––and through my relationship with Eliot if and of itself, it’s that time is literally… god, Jules, it’s all we have. It’s scarce, and it’s precious, and it’s the only way we humans can conceptualize the measure of our lives, our passions, our growth. It’s all we have. So, like, why should we waste precious moments––our precious time ––looking back at what was, when we can bravely push toward what can be?”
Quentin let out a contented breath, resting his head against the rough stubble of Eliot’s jawline. Julia gazed at him, unblinking. His speech lingered in silence.
A vibrating laugh raced up his spine, a rumble from Eliot’s chest. Likewise, Margo slowly brought her hand up to cover her mouth, trying in vain to stop the otherworldly cackle that erupted from her throat. Soon, both she and Eliot were howling at the top of their lungs.
“Holy shit,” Eliot said, high-pitched and punctuated with short stops of breathlessness. “Oh my god, you’re so high.”
“How much fucking weed did you smoke, Quentin?” Margo laughed and laughed, shining tracks of tears running down her face.
“Wait. I’m confused.” Julia slanted her eyebrows together. “How does time help us measure our passions?”
That sent Margo and Eliot into another roar.
Quentin would’ve been offended, except that Margo fell over onto her side, smiling like the sun, and Eliot’s open mouth was pressed to his throat and his arms were tight around his waist, and even Julia seemed to soak up some of their shine. She was pink-cheeked and grinning, and Quentin was immediately struck by how she didn’t look like the intruder he thought she’d be. She looked like she belonged.
That feeling made the next hour float by, a happy, dipping thing, until Eliot turned his head to the side and into a long yawn, while Margo and Julia snuggled together like burrowed squirrels, eyes locked and expressions serious. They spoke quietly, privately, with no signs of movement either home or to bed. Quentin wasn’t sure what possessed him––he usually wasn’t so bold––but next thing he knew, he was pulling Eliot up by the arm and shooting a wave to the girls as they stumbled off to bed. Eliot didn’t protest.
Before they could turn down the hallway, Quentin felt a soft hand on his shoulder. He craned his neck back just in time to see Julia hold a finger up— one second —at Margo, and Margo smile back wanly. Quentin opened his mouth to ask what she needed, but Julia just snaked her arms around his neck.
“Eliot seems great,” she whispered in his ear as she tightened the hug.
Distantly, it occurred to him that this wasn’t how it was supposed to go, that Julia was supposed to be… mad or something now, but he couldn’t remember the logic of that. It didn’t compute. And Quentin also distantly knew that he and Eliot probably didn’t need to share a bed, since Quentin could just go over to the study and Julia wouldn’t notice, but the truth was he didn’t give a shit. He wasn’t ready to leave Eliot yet.
They both moved seamlessly into the bedroom, the door locking closed with a ward behind them. Continuing right from where they left off on the couch, Eliot chatted more about his high school musical production of Les Miserables , and the surprising amount of gravitas he brought to the role of Jean Valjean even at the tender age of fifteen. He even offered to show Quentin the video of his performance, so Quentin could understand how well he scaled the heights (“Would I be an asshole if I just took your word for it?” “You would be,” Eliot said blithely.) He talked about some casting drama between himself and the kid who played Javert, while rummaging through his drawers until he put a pair of neatly folded blue silk pajamas into Quentin’s fumbling hands.
Eliot grabbed his own red ones and smiled at Quentin over his shoulder, walking into his en suite. The door closed and Quentin frowned down at the clothes. Oh. Right, yeah, that made more sense than sleeping in their boxers again.
He shook off the dumb disappointment and got changed quickly, so he didn’t leave Eliot waiting. Quentin folded his T-shirt into a pathetic triangle when Eliot re-emerged, pajama-clad and clean-faced. He gave Quentin a soft half-smile at the sight of him, hands swimming in the sleeves. Eliot looked younger with all his eyeliner washed off—sweeter, somehow—and it tugged on a string in Quentin’s stomach. Together, they flopped onto the bed, as huge and comfortable as it looked, knees touching as they turned toward each other and their conversation picked up like it never left off.
“I can’t prove it, but I think it was my second time using magic,” Eliot said quietly, with a smile. “We were going to do The Music Man , as is foretold for all podunk Indiana high schools, but the drama teacher had an inexplicable change of heart… right around the same time I stole the Les Mis Broadway cast recording from the Greenwood Park Mall.”
“I literally cannot picture you at a mall.”
“Thank god,” Eliot said seriously. “Honestly, that production is the only reason I think about that point of my life at all. It was the closest I got to a romantic high school experience.”
“Romantic?” Quentin grinned.
Eliot huffed a laugh, a curl bouncing off his nose. “I meant romanticized , like everything Sweet Valley High promised, but reality never delivered. But yeah, now that you mention it, I think there might have been something between me and the guy who played Marius. A little bite of Midwestern forbidden fruit.”
“Let me guess,” Quentin said. “Hot popular jock?”
That made Eliot narrow his eyes and quirk his head, like he was studying Quentin. “Is that what you think my type is?”
“I mean, uh, Mike’s pretty stocky.” Eliot frowned like the name surprised him. “Just wouldn’t surprise me if he was a football player in high school. Or lacrosse, or whatever.”
Fuck lacrosse players specifically.
“He is a Republican.” Eliot’s face twisted like he tasted something sour. “Anyway, ah, no, Eddie wasn’t a jock. Or a hick. More like a painfully shy theatre kid who wore hand-me-downs every day. Terrible performer too, to be brutally honest. Pitchy.” He cleared his throat and looked down at his hands. “But he was always nice to me. More than nice. That took guts.”
“Did you guys ever—?”
Eliot shook his head. “Wasn’t worth the risk.”
“Oh.” Quentin frowned. “That’s sad.”
“That’s life, kid.” Eliot put on an affected Humphrey Bogart voice, chucking Quentin under the chin. His hand dropped with a sigh. “He was probably straight, anyway. Young gay imaginations are overactive.”
“Or maybe he hopelessly pined for you from afar and wrote you a godawful love letter, only that one never reached you.”
Quentin was glad they’d reached the point in their friendship where they could joke about the stupid letter, but Eliot didn’t laugh. His eyes flickered with some unreadable emotion, and his throat bobbed with a swallow.
“Maybe,” Eliot whispered.
His pink lips pressed together softly, and Quentin was overwhelmed with the urge to brush his fingers along the bottom bow. “Um,” he said, flicking his eyes back up. “Well, for what it’s worth, you had more success than me in high school. I was, uh, a late bloomer.”
Eliot didn’t look surprised, but his expression did go softer. “Says the man who wrote five different boys five different love letters.”
“Uh, that was a product of my overactive imagination and literally nothing else.”
“I doubt that,” Eliot said softly. His thumb traced down the shell of ear and Quentin shivered.
“Doubt away, but even now, I’m not exactly, like. Uh, it’s been awhile since I’ve—you know.” Quentin cleared his throat. “Uh, dated anyone.”
Eliot’s hand stilled. “How long?” he asked, voice low. It was probably the lingering effect of the marijuana, but Quentin could have sworn his eyes darkened.
“Too long to admit.”
Eliot held his gaze for a moment, then shifted. Their knees knocked, almost slotted together. “We’re comrades in sexual frustration now, I guess.”
“What?” Heat kindled in Quentin’s chest.
“It’s been awhile for me too. Not since Mike.”
“Your shock is flattering.”
“I just—why? You must have opportunity all the time.”
“It’s like you said a few weeks ago,” Eliot said lightly. “If we’re going to do this, it’s important to take it seriously.”
“You really care about sticking it to Mike that much?”
“My spirit of pettiness knows no boundaries, Mr. Coldwater,” Eliot said with a sly grin. “But it also helps you, and we’ve already introduced you to everyone as my, well, you know.”
Quentin snorted. “Your special friend?”
Eliot laughed. “It’s only a few more weeks. Better to keep it tight and professional until it’s over and then I can…” He trailed off and his eyes did something else strange. “You know, I can celebrate.”
Quentin’s heart dropped to his stomach. “Right. No, yeah, totally. That’ll be—nice. For you.”
“Can’t wait.” There was an odd note that didn’t fit, but Eliot wiped it away with a smile. “But you’re looking more like your normal self. Losing your buzz?”
Quentin took a deep breath, lungs settling down into his rib cage. Yeah, Eliot was right. His shit was more or less back to normal. The world had stopped fading into gold; the air had stopped feeling like a rainbow hug along his bare skin. “Yeah, I’m mostly sober now.”
“Need an edible?” offered Eliot. “I have one that guarantees sweet dreams.”
“Uh, that’s okay. I’m, like, the one asshole in the world who gets wired on marijuana and then can’t sleep.”
“Oh, no,” Eliot laughed. “That sucks.”
His smile was sweet and secret, his nose scrunched. Quentin felt kind of dopey, a little gooey at his center, and it had nothing to do with any drugs. Warmth flared in his chest when Eliot brushed his hair back, again. “But are you doing okay?”
“Yeah,” Quentin said, a little surprised at the question. “I’m great. Why?”
“Well, that’s good.” Eliot chuckled. His hand lingered near Quentin’s face. “I just meant it must’ve been a lot to see Julia like this.”
Oh. “Uh, no. No, honestly, it was fine. This is kind of” ––Quentin blew air out the side of his mouth–– “like our thing? We get over shit in weird ways.”
Eliot’s eyes glittered. “What’s weird about this?”
Quentin huffed. Yeah, it was fucking weird. Life was weird. He was weird. It was probably the drugs, but for once, that seemed like a good thing. “Yeah, well. What about you, though? Was she, like, super intense when you were cooking together?”
“Like I said, I can handle her.” That wasn’t a denial. Eliot stretched his neck back and forth, eyes closed. “I just fed her some bullshit and then we were good. She thinks I’m a model boyfriend, which I’m sure drives her nuts.”
“Yeah, probably.” Quentin said softly. He thought of the way she hugged him, the fervor in her voice.
A moment passed in comfortable quiet until Eliot yawned again. He fought against it, trying to keep his lips closed, but it made its way out, anyway. Quentin’s gooey center expanded up to his chest. “Don’t let me keep you up.”
Eliot popped one eye open at him. “Are you going to offer to sleep on the floor again?”
“Uh, excuse you. I’m the guest. You’re supposed to offer this time.”
“Never in a million years.” Eliot pushed half his face into his pillow, the tip of his grin jutting up like a knife. “Guess you’re stuck with me.”
“Guess so,” Quentin said, with an exaggerated eye roll. Eliot kicked his shin. “Jesus, your feet are freezing.”
“Then warm them up, my sweet babboo.”
Eliot slid his frozen toes up Quentin’s bare shins and Quentin hissed, but didn’t bat him off. That made Eliot laugh again and curl in closer to him, and Quentin couldn’t remember the last time he was this happy.
“Hey,” Quentin said, voice a little lost in the depths of Eliot’s eyes.
Eliot smiled. “Hey yourself.”
“Hey, so, um—”
Quentin pushed up on one palm and kissed him.
It was a fast, bright-burning thing, far more chaste than any of the kisses they’d performed since this whole thing began. But when dropped back down to the bed, he stared up at Eliot, heart pounding in his throat.
His lips tingled. Eliot’s eyes were closed, his mouth still gently puckered.
“Quentin,” Eliot breathed after a moment, a hand sliding up his chest and curling around the nape of his neck. “ Q.”
Quentin wasn’t sure if it was a question, or a plea, or something else entirely. All he knew was that he wanted Eliot to always say his name just like that, exactly like that, forever. He raced forward to kiss him again, their mouths fitting together perfectly even in his desperation. And this time, sparks exploded behind his eyes when Eliot kissed him back.
It wasn’t their first kiss, wasn’t even their eighth kiss, but Quentin knew—he knew it was different this time. He knew it by the way Eliot clutched his face with both hands, the way they gasped for breath together, the way time slowed to a crawl and exploded to dust when Eliot pulled his lower lip between his teeth and gently bit down.
Everything became the push-pull of their bodies, the ways they filled the empty spaces between them with skin and movement. Eliot buried his fingers in Quentin’s hair, nails scratching his scalp and making him moan, and Quentin couldn’t stop running his hands up and down the expanse of Eliot’s silk-covered chest, solid and real. Heat flared in his veins, unfurling low in his belly until his cock plumped at the base and pressed right into Eliot’s thigh.
Eliot stilled. He pulled his lips away, but kept their foreheads tipped together, fingers sifting through Quentin’s hair, slow and exploratory. He ducked down to kiss Quentin again, one time gently, almost like he couldn’t help it. But then he sighed. “Are you too high to do this, baby?”
Baby. Quentin shook his head and pushed himself closer to Eliot, desperate to feel him. Desperate to show him. His vision blanked out at the friction of his dick sliding against Eliot’s hipbone, at the mere fact of touching Eliot , at last, and having Eliot touch him back, or even want him back. Quentin smiled, giddy and off-kilter, when Eliot whimpered.
“I’m sober enough to know I want this,” Quentin promised, kissing up Eliot’s throat. “I want this. I want you, I want you so fucking much, El, I can’t even—”
Eliot cupped his chin and tilted his head back into the pillow’s fluffy softness, making him gasp right before Eliot rolled on top of him. Quentin arched his back into it as Eliot’s tongue curled in his mouth, a soft shock of electricity down the whole length of his body.
Eliot broke away with a broken sob, hands shaking where they held his face. “If we do this, Q” —his eyes bored into him, pleading— “I need you to promise me you’ll still be my friend after. Please.”
Quentin blinked, mind tripping over the word friend . That wasn’t—what was happening? What did Eliot think was happening? “Um.”
“Please,” Eliot whispered.
“Yeah, I promise,” Quentin said instantly, unable to deny Eliot anything ever. Especially this, especially now. “I’ll always be your friend. Always.”
It was the easiest promise he’d ever made. Quentin would rather walk barefoot through a forest fire than ever stop being friends with Eliot. Even if Eliot didn’t want—even if it was just this once—even if Quentin got crushed after this—
Nothing would change.
Eliot groaned, capturing Quentin’s lips with his own like a homecoming, pinning him down to the mattress.
Quentin grabbed two fistfuls of red silk, pulling Eliot as close to him as possible, until their warm bodies were pressed together. He wanted to rip their clothes off, wanted to put his mouth all over Eliot’s skin, until Eliot cried his name. Wanted to take him apart by the seams and put him back together again, even if he had no clue how to do either of those things. He was a flurry of want, stymying him as they kissed and kissed, paralyzing every neuron so all he could do was lie back and let Eliot kiss him and touch him, until he was pliant and delirious.
Quentin broke away for air, and Eliot immediately latched his hot mouth onto his neck. Jesus fucking Christ. “Wait, um, are you—are you too high for this?” That was the right thing to ask, right? Responsible.
Eliot ran the tip of his tongue up the throbbing vein of his throat. “I am not too high for this,” he said, biting his earlobe. Like punctuation.
Quentin gasped. “And—and you want this?”
Eliot took a breath, knocking his forehead into his temple. “Yes,” he said, quieter. He splayed his hand on Quentin’s chest, palming down his side. “Fuck, look at you.”
Quentin swallowed down the instinct to say something snarky and reticent, like I’d rather not . He’d been told guys liked confidence in bed. So he just pushed back up on his elbows and kissed Eliot again, trying not to smile like an asshole when Eliot met him right there, nearly toppling into him, an equal and opposite reaction to his bottomless want.
They were both hard, hips jerking against each other. Eliot moaned brokenly when they broke for air, hands in Quentin’s hair and tugging , shooting sparks of insanely good pain down to his toes. Eliot pressed an open, sloppy kiss to his jaw, and the Christmas candle scent of him was everywhere, fucking choking Quentin alive. It was so overwhelming, Quentin could barely catch his breath, even as Eliot jaggedly pulled back, fumbling with the buttons on their pajama shirts and pushing their pants down to get them both naked.
Quentin’s breath twisted in his chest, throat dry and pulse thrumming like a trapped bird. Eliot’s pale thighs straddled his hips, lean and strong with a smattering of dark curls. His chest and stomach were angled and jutted like something in marble, except for splotchy streaks of red—from the movement of his blood, the friction of their bodies grinding together—stretched down to the long, thick curve of his dick.
Quentin ran his hands along the grooves of Eliot’s rib cage, savoring every inch. The heat of his soft skin, the rolling angles of his muscles, the wiry coarseness of his leg hair, then back up to wrap a loose fist around that gorgeous dick, pumping once to feel its heat and weight in his palm. Eliot let out a stuttering breath, eyelashes fluttering.
“Holy shit, you’re big,” Quentin said wonderingly.
“You like that?” Eliot breathed, swaying in place. A wavering mirage.
Quentin stroked him again, drunk with the power of making Eliot shudder, with the way his dark eyes searched all over Quentin’s body, the way his hands twitched at his sides, like he wasn’t sure where to touch Quentin, like he was just as paralyzed with his want as Quentin had been. Like Eliot was right there with him. Like he wasn’t alone.
“Apparently.” Quentin lifted his eyebrows, mesmerized, as he thumbed over the slit, his own dick jumping when a bead of precome spilled out with the motion.
Eliot threw his head back with a throaty laugh. “Nope,” he said, grinning madly. “Nope, this isn’t real. I’m imagining all of this.”
Quentin thought a confident guy might say something like, I want you to fuck me with that big dick; I want you to rip me in half and make me beg for more , but the words dried up on his tongue. It wasn’t just self-consciousness, even though, yeah, that too. It was more that he wanted—but he didn’t want—Eliot was so much more to him than a big dick and he would never want him to think that was all he wanted, even though he did want it, wanted it more than he’d ever wanted anyone or anything, but it wasn’t just that his dick was apparently, like, a thing for him, it was that it was Eliot. Eliot wasn’t a thing , Eliot was a wonderful, amazing man who deserved—
Eliot’s hand touched his cheek, a gentle thumb brushing the delicate skin beneath his eye. “Still with me, baby?” His voice was soft and teasing, just like his smile.
Quentin’s jaw slackened, and he trailed his eyes from the dimple in Eliot’s chin, to his aquiline nose, up to his amber eyes. He leaned into his touch, kissing the center of his palm, the pulse point on his wrist. His dick was so hard it ached, but it mattered––it fucking mattered that Eliot knew that this mattered. That Quentin wasn’t just horny, or high, but that he wanted this now, with Eliot, who’d become someone he’d grown to care about so much.
“If this is in your imagination,” Quentin lifted his eyes back up to Eliot’s, “then what happens next?”
Eliot hitched a breath, fingers curling into his scalp. “I blow you,” he murmured. “If you’ll let me. If you want.”
Any remaining blood in Quentin’s body ran straight to his dick. “I––yes.” Quentin swallowed. Holy fuck. He was going to lose his fucking mind. “Yes, I want. Oh my god.”
Eliot leaned forward and pressed a chaste kiss to Quentin’s lips, a quick brush of their mouths together. Eliot put his fingers under Quentin’s chin, tipping up so their eyes met. And Eliot didn’t look away, not once, as lowered himself down Quentin’s body and took him full in his mouth.
An otherworldly moan ripped out of Quentin’s throat before he could stop himself, hips spasming like wild things as Eliot sucked slow and tight down his shaft. It was almost too much, too overwhelming, and Quentin pushed up on his palms, thrusting into the sweet, wet heat of his mouth and certain his heart was about to explode with the intensity of it. Eliot splayed a possessive palm over his chest, gently coaxing him back down as he eased up on the pressure, reading Quentin like a book.
Quentin followed his lead and fell into the pillows, fluffy and cool under his overheated back. Eliot’s mouth turned fast and eager, his tongue doing wicked things, and Quentin’s head reeled with the enormity of it, of heat coursing through his veins; the scratch of Eliot’s stubble on his thigh. His whole body shook with a pulsing supernova of pleasure, knotting in his gut, already pushing toward release. He’d wanted this for years , since the first time he saw Eliot on the Sea, a white flame amongst the summer green. And now, beyond the mouth sucking him off in expert, torturous slides, he knew with distinct certainty that he’d fallen in love—real love, no bullshit—somewhere along the way. It was insane; it was reckless, but he couldn’t help it.
Eliot popped off his dick with a ragged gasp, panting for air. But instead of swallowing Quentin back down again, he stroked him with his big, ringed hand, giant eyes glued on Quentin’s face, and eyes, and lips. “You’re gorgeous,” Eliot said, voice scratchy. “You’re so beautiful. You’re the best thing I’ve ever tasted, Q.”
Quentin’s stomach plummeted to the center of the earth. “ Eliot ,” he whined. “Oh my god.”
Eliot sucked Quentin back into his mouth, nearly down his throat, and before Quentin knew what was happening, his body wracked itself with shuddering, gasping sobs. He was gonna come. He was gonna come so hard, so soon, and if his body hadn’t already trending toward nirvana, he would’ve hated himself for it. But he couldn’t. He couldn’t hate anything, not even Quentin Coldwater, not with Eliot’s lips wrapped around his dick with such reverence.
He couldn’t ask Eliot to stop. He didn’t want Eliot to stop. “El. El, I’m gonna—”
Quentin let out a loud shout, an exclamation to the heavens. Eliot’s mouth suctioned tight around his head, hot and wet and slick with spit. His tongue—fucking hell, moving and swirling across his skin and veins like a dedicated cartographer, mapping out pleasure, the way Quentin jolted and moved and moaned. It was profound in its care, in its pliable dips and drags, in the way Eliot never moved his eyes from Quentin’s half-lidded gaze.
Quentin jerked his hips from the bed, his dick trying to push deeper of its own accord. “Shit, oh my god, I’m sorry,” he gasped. “I’m sorry— oh my fucking holy shit, Eliot .”
Eliot took him all in, firmer and harder than before. His nose buried in the bramble of hair at the base of his dick and he bobbed, persistent. The scrape of Eliot’s stubble against his inner thigh made him tremble and gasp, his hands launching forward to grab Eliot’s soft black curls. Every time the impossible tight wet heat along his came back, it enveloped his whole body and his crazed mind with nothing but Eliot, Eliot, Eliot , and his wild gorgeous clever mouth.
Quentin’s fingers scrabbled at the sheets, then back to Eliot’s hair. Eliot licked and sucked him in a ceaseless rhythm, consuming him, worshipping him, loving him . Loving him, if only for a moment, in this perfect space between bullshit reality. He shuddered and grunted, pleading Eliot’s name on a loop, begging him not to stop, to never stop, please, Eliot—
He came with an explosive yell.
The shock of it hit him like a shot, making him sit up straight. Immediately, Quentin curled his stomach back around Eliot’s head, needing to be as close to him as possible, seeking shelter in his body. With a ragged moan, he tugged on soft curls for dear life, and his toes spasmed, and his vision blacked out and his dick pulsed, and pulsed, and pulsed , spurting long and hot into the back of Eliot’s throat, while Eliot worked him through the aftershocks.
When Eliot pulled off, it felt like loss. Like grief, like being plunged into the depths of the ocean. But it only lasted a second, and then Eliot was kissing him again, hungry and desperate, as their arms wound tight around each other. They rolled onto their sides, into the same position as when they started, curled in toward each other. Their legs entwined, their tongues lapped into each other’s mouths, heartbeats thundering under their skin.
Eliot’s hard cock dragged along Quentin’s thigh, wet and hot. Eliot snaked a hand down his own chest, but before he could wrap his hand around himself, Quentin caught his wrist with quick fingers. “Eliot, please let me.” Their foreheads pushed together, both their breath hot and panting. “Let me.”
“I’m already so close, baby,” Eliot said, babbling. “So close, just from hearing you. The sounds you make, oh my god.”
Quentin whimpered. “Eliot.” He nipped at his lower lip, sliding his thumb up and down the long, throbbing vein of his shaft. Eliot made a wrecked sound and nodded, suddenly frantic.
“Yes, please. Please touch me, Q, please. Baby, oh my god .” When Quentin’s hand slightly faltered––intimidated by the weight of it, of how much getting this right mattered to him––Eliot brushed a messy kiss to his cheek. His lips. “Here, shit—ah, okay, let me show you. Let me show you. God, your perfect hands.”
Eliot covered Quentin’s hand with his own, pressing firmly into his knuckles as he guided Quentin’s fist up and down, jacking himself off but using Quentin to do it.
A bright flush rose high on Eliot’s cheeks and his mouth opened, half-smiling, half-moaning, and Quentin had never felt so fervently about a lesson in his life. Eliot taught him the rhythm that made him feel good, and it was the only thing in the entire world Quentin wanted to know. Fuck magic. Just this. Just the way Eliot fucked into his palm and gripped his wrist and kissed his cheeks with slick lips, as Quentin got more and more confident. Soon, he was pumping Eliot on his own, while Eliot ran his hands up and down his back. Like he just wanted to touch, to be close.
They were so close to each other. Their noses bumped on every upstroke, but Eliot’s eyes never closed. He stared at Quentin like he was drowning and Quentin was his only lifeline, like he couldn’t look away, like he’d rather die. He looked, and looked, and looked at him, until he didn’t, until his eyes abruptly screwed shut and he all but collapsed into Quentin, gasping wordlessly, pulsing hot into his hand.
Eliot’s mouth softened on his shoulder, chest heaving. His come coated sticky over Quentin’s hand, across his palm and between his fingers. In a dizzying rush of boldness, Quentin nosed at Eliot’s face until he looked at him. When their eyes met, Quentin licked up his own messy palm with a broad stroke of his tongue, then slowly sucked each finger clean, while Eliot watched him with slowly rising eyebrows.
Quentin could hear his heartbeat roar in his ears. Eliot gaped at him, unblinking.
And just as he regretted it, just as he thought maybe guys don’t like confidence in bed, not if it comes from a total fucking weirdo, Eliot grabbed his shoulders and kissed him hard.
“You’re gonna kill me,” Eliot breathed against his lips.
Then Eliot kissed him again, this time slow and deep, tongue delving deliciously into his mouth. It was maddening, intoxicating, electrifying. The taste of Eliot and himself, together, sharp on their tongues. They stayed like that for a long time, and not nearly long enough.
“ Fuck .” Quentin ran his fingers through Eliot’s hair and held on tight when at last they parted. “Fuck. Wow, shit, that was—uh, that was a lot.”
Something flickered in Eliot’s eyes. “For me too.”
“Um.” Quentin’s heart kicked up. He couldn’t let go, couldn’t look away. “So should we… we should talk about this?”
The flicker repeated. “Right now?”
Uncertainty churned in Quentin’s stomach. He thought they were on the same page, that they both wanted this. Not that Eliot was in love with Quentin the way Quentin was with Eliot, since why would he be? But whatever this thing was that’d grown between them over all this time had recently blossomed into something that wasn’t just pretense and wasn’t just sex.
Eliot furrowed his brow, eyes still unreadable as he looked at Quentin. He ran his thumb once, twice, across the bump of Quentin’s chin and let out a breath. “I’m pretty tired. And more than a little worn out.” He gave him a half-hearted smirk, which quickly softened into something more genuine and vulnerable. “Maybe tomorrow?”
Tomorrow was good. Whatever Eliot wanted was good. Quentin nodded his agreement with a small sigh, melting into the arms still around his waist. He bumped his nose into Eliot’s, with a playful smile. “Can I kiss you again?”
The flicker flashed into something bright and anguished behind Eliot’s eyes, then quickly went out. “Yeah,” he said, sounding choked in a way Quentin felt down to his soul. “Yeah, of course. Um. Any time.”
Eliot caught his eye with a shy, pleading look, lower lip between his teeth. He looked at Quentin like he was equal parts uncertain and hopeful, like he wanted Quentin to know what he was saying without words. And as Quentin cupped his cheek and gently slotted their mouths together—
He was pretty sure he understood.
Quentin and Eliot hook up for the first time in this chapter, which happens after they smoke a pretty significant amount of magic weed earlier in the day. It also happens after the major effects have faded away and after they verbally confirm their relative sobriety/enthusiastically consent to said hook up, but I know mileage varies here!
Unrelated, but I'm also on Tumblr @HMGfanfic.