Actions

Work Header

oh baby make 'em bodies

Chapter Text

Margo wakes up Eliot’s body on a Wednesday in April of their second year at Brakebills.

“Oh, fuck yes,” she says as awareness sinks in, hand flying down—it takes a minute, this bitch is long—to cup Eliot’s huge schlong in his huge fist. Oh, yeah. This is gonna be great.

She isn’t alarmed, at least rationally. This is magic school. Shit happens. Her body—Eliot’s body—has a different idea. There’s a sudden, panicky tightness in the chest when Margo’s brain lazily wonders where her own perfect carcass is and who might be driving it. As she’s pissing—luckily the first order of business, she’s always wanted to do this—she takes a moment from being totally mesmerized by this basic bodily function to realize she’d just assumed that Eliot is Margo’s current pilot. Like, obviously. So she’ll go to her room and if that isn’t the case she has to find out who is in her and who the hell Eliot is and hopefully they can have some fun before they have to work this out.

Margo brains herself on the doorway as she’s making her exit, not having calibrated navigating Eliot’s absurd dimensions. That sharper pain clues her in to the presence of the dull thud of Eliot’s hangover headache and she’s still clutching her skull when she reaches her own room. As she does the door flies open, and she’s staring down at herself standing in the doorway. Sweet merciful fuck, that is a trip. This is what Eliot sees? She’s like a fucking Lego person. Also, looking at her own body from the outside. That’s really fucking weird too.

Eliot, in said body, had unglued his hand from Margo’s left tit long just long enough to twist the doorknob, but it instantly flies back to its perch. So when he opens his mouth to say, “Bambi? Holy fucking shit, he’s cupping his—her?—breasts in both hands. Margo doesn’t know how she knew it was Eliot in there even before he said a word. She just did. It’s still a relief to hear those treasured two syllables, but also fucking bananas to hear them in her own voice.

Margo is smiling so wide it makes Eliot’s cheeks ache. “Holy fucking shit.”

A rumpled blonde head appears over Margo-Eliot’s shoulder. “Um, sorry, excuse me, Margo, I have to—I’m late for astronomy?”

Oh, right. Last night had ended with Margo fucking Tabitha from astronomy class. Which she and Eliot are also late for, a fact she could not give less of a shit about. It had been fantastic. Margo had put her across her lap and spanked her with a copy of Tanaka’s slim yet groundbreaking Pathways for Technomancy until she cried. Margo-Eliot blinks down at her in surprise, apparently having been too enraptured by suddenly being in possession of breasts to notice anything else. So, you know, Margo in sixth grade.

“Oh,” Eliot stutters brightly, “uh, hi, right—” and because he’s the best boy in the world he then stops and looks to Margo for guidance.

Do you want me to get rid of her? Let her down gently? Leave the door open? His—her own, fuck—eyes eloquently ask.

Margo lets Eliot’s eyes answer for her. Good time, would screw again. Leave her wanting more.

Eliot—it’s both totally easy to fall into thinking this way, looking at herself and seeing Eliot, and also absolutely the most insane thing of her entire life—gives a small nod of perfect understanding. Great. That’s handled.

But.

Then.

Margo watches in horror as her own eyes, though it doesn’t seem possible, increase in diameter by approximately 60%. In depth, lustre, and hot tenderness—a hundredfold. A white canine sinks into the smudged red of Margo’s lower lip as Eliot bites it. He’s fucking—he’s twirling her hair around her finger. His voice is a soft, well-fucked rasp, as he puts his hand on Tabitha’s lovely freckled shoulder and says, nervous and eager and intimate, “When can I see you again?”

Tabitha flushes pink from her sternum to the roots of her hair. A very nice sight, that wind-kissed shade, and one Margo had gotten to appreciate plenty last night, as she created it with her hands.

Oh, so that’s what the beginnings of an erection feel like. Jesus Christ. Just like that? How does anyone with a dick function?

This exciting new development is enough to distract her for just a moment from her mounting dread as she watches Tabitha basically melt. Her hand flutters up to her throat and her blue eyes take on a cartoon sheen as she fumbles out, “Oh, um, yes, oh my god, absolutely. Anytime. I mean, soon.”

“Wonderful,” Eliot purrs. “Last night was…”

He trails off suggestively, batting his fucking eyelashes, causing Tabitha to trill out an overwhelmed laugh, and nearly break her neck as she trips down the stairs because she’s too busy craning her neck to look at Margo and smiling moronically to notice what her feet are doing or to have even registered Eliot-but-actually-Margo standing there.

“Jesus, fuck, Eliot, I wanted you to make sure I could screw her again, not make her think I was about to propose marriage,” Margo says as soon as she hears the last footfall fade away.

“What are you talking about?” Eliot turns to her with what Margo thinks is an attempt at a hair flip but ends in an epileptic thrashing of the neck that makes Margo wince even before Eliot yelps and mutters, “How is your hair that heavy?”

“Focus,” Margo says through gritted teeth. “What the fuck was that?”

“I have no idea what you mean, Bambi,” Eliot says, all innocence. “I have been a dedicated observer of the art that is Margo Hanson flirting. I just did what you would have done.”

Margo guesses that’s technically true. The words were, on paper, very similar to what Margo might have said. But Eliot did it...differently. Margo could respond with the compelling argument that he’d certainly never look at one of hookups like that, but whatever, not worth it right now. She can deal with whatever romantic complication Eliot has just created for her later. He’s right about one thing: Margo Hanson is a professional. So she has no idea why it feels like a vice has been placed around her ribs and the screws are slowly being tightened, all because of the minor hiccup of having to break a hot girl's heart. That’s a normal weekday.

Eliot moves them right along, though. He’s running his hands all over Margo’s body and grinning as he says, “Oh my god, Margo. You feel incredible.”

“Yeah, that body is a work of fucking art, you better be careful with it.”

“No,” Eliot says, putting his fingers to his temple and shaking his head, squinting, “Like...inside? Last night must have been fantastic, because you feel...amazing.”

Margo blinks. Well, it had been fun, but she doesn’t know if it was all that. “I mean, I came like, four times? Maybe that has something to do with it.”

Eliot’s face instantly brightens and he says, “Oh my god, multiple orgasms, we have to—”

At the same moment Margo says, “Right, priorities, I have to fuck someone with your enormous cock.”

They beam at each other, before Eliot’s face goes virtuously sober. “Then we have to figure out how to get back in our own bodies. Obviously.“

“Obviously,” Margo agrees, before Eliot grins again, and grabs her by the hand to haul them back to his room.

*

“Oh, go ahead,” Eliot says, at Margo’s attempt at a respectfully inquiring look. They’re sitting side-by-side on the edge of Eliot’s bed and her hand is already on her—Eliot’s—crotch.

“Consent is important, El,” Margo demurs, and then Eliot is watching her take his cock out of his underwear and into his own hand, her eyes closing in rapture and her mouth stretching into a grin.

Her cock, her hand. His eyes, his mouth. Hers is more accurate, Eliot thinks. This is far stranger than even the wildest trip of his life and at the same time suddenly not strange at all, as Margo’s sheer force of personality simply renders Eliot’s face and body her own with this evidence of her enjoyment. He watches, mesmerized, as Margo strokes his cock to hardness. After a moment her eyes flutter open, and she turns to look at Eliot, forcing his eyes up from where Margo is leisurely toying with herself to meet her gaze. Her eyes are dreamy, but her smirk is sharp as ever as she flicks her gaze pointedly downward to his—Margo’s—own crotch. “Oh, come on, don’t you want to?”

Eliot had gotten distracted, but. She’s right. He can honestly say he’s never been as eager to touch a pussy as he is Margo’s. Like, as a general rule, but he means specifically never as eager as he is in this moment, when it’s in his possession. He’s gotten Margo off and watched her get herself off and seen and helped people get her off and it all looks like a great time.

He starts by touching Margo’s breasts which are, for the moment, his. He always likes touching Margo’s boobs. Their heft and silky warmth fill him with a profound feeling of comfort, a rare sense of the rightness of the universe. Like stroking a rabbit, or something. A chinchilla. Something soft and nice to touch, and so perfectly sized for and submissive to that touch that you almost can’t believe that there’s probably an evolutionary purpose to the fur or the tits, to protect against the cold or to nourish young—ew—but instead it must only exist because it feels wonderful under your hands.

Margo would say, yeah, no, there isn’t another purpose, because that chinchilla was put on this Earth to be made into a coat for me to wear. She has one such coat from her grandmother.

(“—not that she’s dead and left it to me or something, that bitch is very much alive. I stole it from her closet before stealing Daddy’s new Mercedes-Benz and getting the hell out of dodge.”

“You didn’t like your grandmother?” Eliot had ventured politely.

“Oh, no. I love that miserable old cunt, and she’s gonna outlive us all. I call her every six months, and honestly I think the theft delighted her. She can’t stand my dad either.”

“Interesting,” Eliot replied. “What happened to the car?”

“I totaled it.”

Eliot hadn’t needed to ask what had happened to the coat. It had been four a.m., they’d come home from a night on the town still wound up and giggly, and Margo had begun pulling out the contents of her wardrobe, until finally, naked underneath, she’d donned the magnificent garment, and they’d sat cross-legged, knee-to-knee in the middle of her magically expansive closet, and told wild stories. Margo’s, he thinks, were mostly true. It’s an oddly clear memory: Margo in nothing but pearls, grey fur slipping off her shoulder, gesturing with an ivory-tipped cigarette holder she’d found somewhere, eyeliner smudged, both of them laughing laughing laughing, as Eliot dreamily rubbed his fingers over and over against the otherworldly softness of the coat at the hem of the sleeve, a thing of such wonder that he remembers drunkenly thinking it could only have been pulled from a chest of fairy treasure.)

Anyway, it’s a trip to cup her breasts in her hands to tease at the nipples in the way he knows Margo likes and to feel the corresponding pleasure—from the way it could make Margo’s back arch he’d imagined it sharp and electric, but it’s a slow oceanic ripple, radiating out. Not a bolt up the spine, but a cat stretching in a patch of sunshine. There’s a responding throb between his legs, where he woke this morning—next to a blonde girl lying on her stomach and drooling into the pillow beside him, ass red and scratches up her spine, which was cause for a moment of real alarm that shifted into a feeling a proprietary pride when he realized whose body he was in—with a pleasant, well-used feeling. It’s fascinating to catalogue their divergences, as he slides one hand between his legs to find himself wet already. It’s not the familiar empty ache of having been fucked hard the night before, but a different memory of use, of parts being flush with blood, over and over, again and again. I came like, four times, Eliot remembers Margo saying in his voice, as he brings pleasure to himself through her, as he seeks—

(Okay, so. If Eliot were hypothetically called to account for his sexual relationship with Margo, his first instinct would be to say that it wasn’t even about sex. This isn’t true, but it comes easily because everything about his desire for her feels very different from his desire for men. But it’s like, okay—he remembers being new to New York, and having worked up to courage to walk into a very very expensive store for the first time, and walking up to a very very expensive shirt and touching it, awed and frightened and ravenous, with just the tips of his fingers, and as he did so seeing this vision of himself as a person who might own such beautiful things, of being the person who could wear them, becoming that person and being seen by the world as that person, and feeling a frisson that he would bizarrely qualify as one of the more powerfully erotic experiences of his life. That’s what it’s like, with Margo. The finest whisky and the thing that makes him believe he has a right to drink it. She’s beautiful boys, glamorous locales, the thing that renders Indiana void with a glance—and also irreducibly, helplessly herself. Once early in their first year there was a professor visiting Brakebills to give a guest lecture, an expert in the field of weather magic, Italian, around fifty, beautiful and terrifying and during her demonstration Margo had leaned over and said to him, “I don’t know if I want to be her or if I want her to put her—” and as Professor Morante’s irate glare found Margo’s with laser precision Margo’s—Margo’s!—mouth had snapped shut with an audible click of teeth. That’s how it was, with Margo. Eliot obsessed with her remarkable self-possession, wanting desperately to siphon off a little bit of it for himself.

What does Margo get from it? He doesn’t presume to know. But he remembers one time they’d fucked, early on, Margo riding him lazily and he’d found himself stroking her hair over and over, mesmerized by it’s softness and fragrance and then he’d realized what he was doing, something for which another guy would have been at risk of his fingers for presuming, and he’d snatched his hand back but Margo had blinked her huge eyes open and smiled at him and murmured, “No, that feels nice,” and he’d been inside her but this is what he remembers, her eyes like lanterns and the silken texture of her hair sliding under his fingers as he carefully so carefully once again smoothed his hand adoringly over her small head, and he thinks maybe—maybe that’s it, for her. That giving, and taking, but who can say who is doing which?)

—and finds and touches his clit, rubs at it, feels that familiar pulse of blood made new, with the way it’s concentrated into this much smaller, secretive piece of flesh, but also the sensations it causes are more diffuse, tidal. He feels it in his fingers, in his toes, the back of his knees, places he’d never thought of as having erogenous possibilities. Everything down there is so, so wet—like, is this really necessary—so wet and hot and open. He feels something—not building, no, it’s like. It’s like he’s about to—he’s on the edge of—there’s something coiled, tight, tense within him, and if can just find the latch, the switch, he can—there’s this great pressure, immense heat, something boiling, boiling within him and if he can just get the fucking lid off, everything will be—free, expansive, it will overflow the bounds, and he’s almost, almost there—

When a hand clamps down on his ankle. Margo has turned around and is staring at him. One foot on the floor, the other knee braced on the bed. Working her cock while she watches Eliot who is herself rub one out. “Stop,” she says, sounding pained. “Stop, I’m gonna…”

“I was gonna,” Eliot grits out, feeling himself pull away from that precipice, feeling wild. “I was about to—stop fucking touching it, then!”

Laughing Margo’s raspy sex laugh. Because Margo can’t, she can’t stop touching her cock all the time, marveling at this miraculous organ and what you’ve just discovered it can make you feel, and with such ease, just stick your hand down your underwear beneath your comforter covered in different types of sports balls and think of the sweet-eyed non-threatening boys gracing the pages of the Tiger Beat you’ve stolen from one of your endless female cousins.

(“Quentin looks like he should be a boy band member. Or playing a teen on the CW.” Margo, musing. A party at the cottage, back in what, September, October. Golden days. “The hair. The extreme symmetry of his features.”

“I thought you said he wasn’t that cute.”

“He isn’t, really. Because that’s boring. Except he’s not a boy band member. I think it’s his height. He’s short, so he developed a personality.”

A lot to process here. “Aw,” Eliot says first, overwhelmed by happiness. His friends are getting along! “You think he has a personality?”

Margo rolls her eyes. “Not a good one. But at least there’s something there to save him from being totally dull.”

Are all boy band members tall?”—tangent, to argue about the heights of One Direction’s members—then: “Wait. I’m tall. Do you not think I have a personality?”

“Your face is interesting.”

Eliot is so offended that he storms off before she can say anything, but later she explained that his face’s idiosyncrasies mean he both developed a personality and possesses true beauty. They’re in the technology hut googling the heights of One Direction, and they all turn out to be pretty short, so there goes Margo’s whole theory of male beauty, probably, but Eliot chooses to be flattered. He just objects to Quentin’s exclusion from this category, because Eliot thinks his face is—plenty interesting.)

“Stop,” Eliot commands, putting all of he and Margo’s considerable combined top energy into his tone. Of course it doesn’t work on Margo. “Stop,” he entices, syrupy-sweet. “Stop and I’ll give you a show.”

Margo takes her hand away from her cock as if pulling magnets apart. Puts her hand, wet, on the outside of Eliot’s leg, gripping his shivering thigh instead. He takes a moment to look at his cock, standing free and proud against his stomach, swollen and red and yes, it really is huge. He lets a feeling of satisfaction suffuse him.

Eliot was almost there. Margo had yanked him back from some wondrous discovery, but he feels magnanimous. Open, filled with love. So he smiles at her, slow and hot. Arches his back, a patented move he’s seen dozens of times. Hears her breathing pick up. Slides his other hand down the length of her lithe, toned body, so admirable and appealing to Eliot for the effort he knows Margo puts into it. Watches Margo’s eyes flick between his hand between his legs as it begins to move, and his face as he bites his lip and arches his back for real, because he’s coming, coming, coming, the tide rushing back in, the kettle screaming, a door flying open. That’s fucking fantastic, holy shit.

Eliot opens his eyes to see Margo watching, slack-jawed. “You’re such a narcissist,” he pants, fond.

Margo scoffs. “Like you aren’t.”

But maybe he’s less of one than he thought. Because Margo says, “I want to eat myself out,” and Eliot is more than happy to oblige, imagining the furl of tongue gentle against clit and stronger against slick giving flesh, but when he looks down and sees himself kneeling between Margo’s legs, something about the sight of Margo’s self-assured, lustful avarice on his own face hits him the wrong way. It’s not that Eliot hasn’t done this before and enjoyed it, happy to make Margo happy, proud to be the one responsible for her gasps and moans, fascinated by being able to observe the mutual gift of pleasure free of the fog of a sharper hunger. It isn’t as if he’s not done this for an audience and very much enjoyed the picture he knows he makes. He likes to do this for a certain kind of boy in particular, one that seems wary of Eliot’s presence but willing to tolerate it if it means he gets Margo in the bargain. This same boy wants Margo so badly he can’t see straight, would die to get his cock inside her, but also probably thinks giving a girl oral is kind of gross. Eliot likes the double shock it causes, the homo eating pussy with relish. He likes to show off, provide a nice object lesson: it’s worth it, to get her screaming like that. Eliot liked being wet to his chin, Margo limp and satisfied, as he hauls the boy in by the back of the neck to kiss him. Gets his tongue in the boy’s mouth when he gasps, in shock—first at the man kissing him, then at the taste of cunt that he sucks off Eliot’s tongue when he starts kissing back. A strange feedback loop of perversity. Then, Margo, like a queen with her wise and laughing eyes, watches as Eliot takes that boy apart, makes him feel things he’s never felt before.

Margo’s eyes are riveted to her own face, and so she must catch a flicker of Eliot’s unease. “No?” she asks, gentle.

Eliot shakes his head. “Not right now,” he says, hating to disappoint her in anything. Margo just smiles at him, bites playfully at his hip, rests her chin on his knee as she looks at him.

“This is so fucking weird,” she says. “I feel high.”

Then, after dropping a kiss on his knee, Margo shimmies up the bed to stretch out beside him. Eliot’s own face is easier to handle when it’s closer up, somehow, and then it isn’t hard at all when his girl gives him her dirty grin. “Multiple orgasms, right?”

Margo rests her hand on his belly. A question. Eliot says, “yeah, fuck—” and Margo slides her palm down to cup his pussy in her palm. There’s a gentlemanly sort of pause before she asks, “Okay, El honey?” and there’s something about hearing that husky, solicitous tone of his own voice, hearing a version of what he’s said to a dozen boys—the boys that start repulsed and stiff, standing on a laughable machismo to hide from themselves the fact that although they were in bed with Margo Hanson, Eliot was also there, only to find those weak defenses crumble entirely sometime in the night, and then they’re face down, shaking, frightened at the pleasure Eliot is drawing forth from their bodies with every movement of his hands, and Eliot is tender, overflowing with grace, as he pauses, asks, gives them the chance and the choice to say no, to get up, put on their clothes, leave the room, forestall any further inconvenient revelations, grants them the gift to stay forever in that moment before they might have to know, or maybe he curses them with making the choice to leave that moment, a moment Eliot himself had never had, only for them to say: no, yes, please, more, oh my god—it has Eliot feeling small, delicate, easily bruised, at risk of injury, something to be handled with infinite care, and it hits his brain just right in a way he doesn’t understand, and he gasps, as Margo begins to move her fingers slow slow slow against him, making his whole body fizz, his knees champagne flutes.

It’s false, on multiple levels. Margo is a force despite her body’s tiny dimensions, and even when animated by Eliot’s less redoubtable spirit, it’s not like Eliot is ever—this—this quivering animal thing, this instrument of revelation. But he uses Margo’s body to allow him the lie, knowing she won’t mind. She’s watching her own face, as Eliot in it blinks wetly, cries out, pants and sighs. She’s hard against his hip.

“Yeah? Good?”

“You know it is,” Eliot says, as he comes down panting from another orgasm, as Margo gives him a moment to breathe before she presses back in with her thumb, relentless, he’s squirming and wet nearly down to his knees, he’s soaking his comforter, it’s totally gross and weirdly amazing and he laughs as he demands: “Bitch, put your fingers in me already, oh my god.”

Margo does, and they feel huge, and that’s exciting, and he laughs out, “Fuck, we haven’t even kissed yet,” and Margo—giggles, is that what he sounds like?—says, “What the fuck, you’re right.” Then they’re kissing, and it’s just about his favorite thing, kissing Margo. Her fingers move strong and hard and sure in him as she braces herself on one arm above him and they kiss and kiss. He feels the rasp of her stubble against the incredibly smooth skin of his face. Margo is rubbing herself off against his belly, and it’s one of the most erotic things in the world to Eliot, that furtive desperate high school rutting. He hears Margo gasp, feels her jerk as the sensitive skin of her cockhead drags against Eliot’s stomach, making him wet, just as her fingers are making him so wet, and then he’s coming again. Eliot really throws his entire theatrical soul into it as his cunt seizes around Margo’s fingers, as Margo stops kissing him and pulls back to watch a full-body shiver radiate out from her fingers in him, up his glistening taut stomach, out to his spasming arms and fingers and legs and toes, to his eyes rolling back up into his skull.

“I am so hot,” Margo says, satisfied. She touches the pool of come on Eliot’s stomach, because of course watching herself orgasm was enough to make her go off early. His perfect little narcissist. Eliot watches, dumb with satiation, as the come slides towards his belly button, but Margo makes a disgusted noise, smacks him lightly on the side of the head, and moves her fingers in a tut to make the semen disappear. Magic is great. (“Come on, hopefully you won’t be in my body anymore to feel it, but I will, and you know how it feels when it gets in there and—” “Crusts up—” “Exactly, I know I screwed your brains out, but have some respect, that is a rental—”)

After this soothing patter, they turn toward each other. Lie side by side on Eliot’s pillows and look at their own faces. The curtains had been opened to allow them to see, but, blinking and wincing, (“This wine headache is wicked, honey, how much did you and Q drink?”) Margo performs another quick tut to plunge them into an obscuring dim. Bright morning light just peeking at the edges of the windows. It’s only 10 AM, Eliot guesses. Today’s classes are a bust, but whatever. It feels so comforting, to lie in this sex-scented artificial dusk, with Margo. The pillows smell like himself, and right now that fills him with an odd feeling of safety.

“I didn’t want my first experience of having a dick to be splooging you like a teenage boy,” Margo says mournfully.

“That’s an essential first experience of having a dick, so welcome.” He gives the side of Margo’s face a kindly pat. The expression on that face isn’t easy to discern in this light, but he still feels discomforted at having to look at himself. And it’s simply very wrong that he can’t tuck Margo under his chin. But he can always roll over and let her be the big spoon, that’s a classic they can manage. “Fortunately I am a virile young fellow. My refractory period is short.”

Margo sighs, not yet consoled. She bounces back quickly: “Ooh, do you think you’re up to blowing yourself?”

“I think that can be arranged,” Eliot replies. It comes out a bit slurred, drowsiness overtaking him.

They doze for he isn’t sure how long, tangled together. Eliot wakes up and Margo is gone, but she returns shortly, triumphant, in possession of a small feast.

“Did you run into anybody?”

“Nope. Ghost town.”

Eliot wonders if anyone would have known that it wasn’t Eliot in there. If there would have been sign, some essential Eliotness missing. Maybe, but it must at least be clear that some essential Margoness is present. He wonders, if he were to walk outside in his current form, what reaction he would get. Imagines men leaping up to open doors for him with one smile, one flick of his eyelashes. No idea who was really in there—but then that’s no different from normal. They never did. Imagines running into—well.

Margo does not cook but has a talent for slapdash decadence and so they eat cheese and charcuterie and smoked salmon and fresh bread and grapes, and then Eliot rolls Margo over and slides down and sucks the head of her dick into his mouth, takes it onto his tongue. There’s an initial instinct for some stage-setting, to shift things into the competition they both find so exciting, we’ll really see who’s the better cocksucker now, but it's washed away by an unexpected tenderness. He can let Margo feel this, really feel it, know it in the singing of her blood. This thing that to Eliot was worth nearly dying for, that it was worth living through Indiana to get to have. A boy who adores you sucking you off. Every part of that sentence is a lie or a half-truth or a distortion and yet it’s also the truth. Another falsehood: that there’s anything new he can show her. He thinks of the sight of Margo between a girl’s thighs, that ravenous joy, thinks of her today, the wolfish, unashamed satisfaction in her eyes, as she felt her own body clench around her fingers and watched Eliot feel this old discovery made new through her. Now Eliot can make it new for her. They can experience it together, this time.

Margo gasps. Eliot hears himself gasp—that shock, that anything can feel this good, that it’s possible to feel that good. Margo jerks in his mouth, hips rising off the bed. Eliot pulls off, pinches her hip.

“Come on, you know better than that.” Taking the time to gather his hair into his fist, hold it back. Does that look hot? Eliot always thought it looked hot, but doing it just makes him think of watching Margo hurl into a toilet, before Eliot stepped in and held her hair back for her.

“Sorry, sorry, Jesus fuck, El, no wonder you assholes are so obsessed with this.”

Eliot grins, sucks her back down. Gags on himself. He is big, and he usually fucks guys with smaller cocks than his own. Huh. It’s not like he never noticed that pattern before, but there’s noticing and noticing. Which he is, at the burn of trying to work the head of Margo’s cock into his throat, eyes watering. She’s being good now, although he can feel a muscle on her thigh jump under his hand. He rubs his palm against it, soothingly, remembers her saying I want to fuck someone with your enormous cock. Eliot imagines it, feels a responding pulse in his borrowed pussy. Girls get wet and so it’s less of a process, which is actually a negative for Eliot. Although it still takes a certain amount of patience, to work himself inside Margo. The cock in his mouth gets easier to take then, his throat opens to swallow around Margo more easily, as he thinks of this, of getting well-fucked by his own truly huge dick, and he’s delighted to feel it make him wetter to think of it, and he dreamily drags his lips back up in a slow drag, really putting on a show for her, as he imagines it, that he’ll get to know an approximation of that ache felt between the legs of every boy he’s fucked, and it’s easy to swallow the bitter taste of himself as Margo abruptly comes in his mouth, petting at his hair, laughing.

They sleep again, for a while. They’ve entered that feverish twilight where time loosens its hold, as you are reduced to nothing more than an animal body, with its animal needs and animal hungers.

They wake, Margo’s hard-on against Eliot’s ass, and then, as in a dream, he’s on his hands and knees.

—He got like this, eighteen, discarding his virginity with glee, finally by choice destroying the pretense at straightness that no one had ever actually allowed him to have. He’d spent some time crashing on his cousin Megan’s couch, long-worshiped cool cousin Megan, the only worthwhile member of his entire accursed family, the one who at seventeen ran off with a punk band she’d sneaked out to see in Indianapolis and never looked back, who sent Eliot postcards and mixtapes and phone numbers for all her weed hookups around town, who had a baby at nineteen and became the other family black sheep not because of the baby-out-of-wedlock in itself but because instead of coming home with her tail between her legs, penitent and filled with regret, she’d been proud of her lovely baby and not only not married the kid’s father she’d dumped that piece of shit and moved alone to New York City instead and Eliot had followed the path she’d blazed—

Margo is pressing in to him, with just the head of her cock, as Eliot opens for her, panting, knees slipping against the sheets as he hears Margo’s punched out breath, her soft, “fuck, oh, my god,” as she desperately tries not to simply shove up in there as far as she can go, that overwhelming primal urge that Eliot knows so well it’s like he’s actually feeling it, like he’s experiencing both being fucked and doing the fucking at the same time, and he circles his hips slowly, bears back on a tremulous outward breath, as he takes just another couple inches of himself. Jesus.

—and Eliot would go out all night to find the men, men, men. Preludes: the first time Eliot checked a guy out in a club and knew it was welcomed, knew he wasn’t going to get his face bashed in. The first time Eliot had a drink bought for him. A mass of sweating frenetic bodies dancing. Standing outside a bar, just waiting for some beautiful boy to put a cigarette in his mouth and pat at his pockets, glancing at Eliot out of the corners of his eye, waiting for Eliot to offer him a light. Then: sex with men, cherished longing fulfilled and better than he could have hoped. Cocks, small and large and thick and thin, cut and uncut, cute and beautiful and endearingly ridiculous and arousingly ugly, hard and thick in his mouth, yet so vulnerable too, so absurd and sublime, the most delicate treasured part of a man in between his lips and teeth and he could make those sounds fall from someone’s mouth, Eliot was doing that, and he didn’t care what anyone said: it felt holy. That good musky smell at a man’s groin, at his armpit. Soft dark hair on inner thighs. Sucking a ball into his mouth like a lollipop. The feeling of getting just the head of his dick into the tight clenched heat of an asshole for the first time, and somehow, patience, dedication, repositioning, the sweetness of nervous laughter, absurd amounts of lube, fitting all of himself inside—

Margo just keeps saying, “Oh my god, oh my god,” as she slips further inside, and yes—that’s all Eliot could say too, then and now, oh my god.

—he’d stay out all night, stumbling from whatever club whose bathroom he’d blown a guy in or the apartment he’d fucked someone in, and walk the streets, Eliot Waugh didn’t stay the night, but he also couldn’t go back to Megan’s and wake up her cute daughter, so he’d walk and walk, skin on fire, until dawn came. Then he’d stumble back to Meg’s, shirt plastered to himself with rank booze sweat, reeking of sex and smoke, and Meg would be getting ready for work, having already dropped the kid off with the old Ukrainian woman across the hall, and she’d just quirk her eyebrow at him and give him a hit off the morning joint she was smoking. Eliot would sit on the toilet in her filthy little bathroom and they’d pass the spliff back and forth and he’d watch mesmerized as she put on her make up until one morning she caught his curious gaze in the mirror and turned around and with an expert flick of the wrist applied some dark purple eyeliner on his lowered trembling eyelids as he swayed with exhaustion, and he’d blinked his eyes open to meet his own face in the glass and found himself made new. You have to teach me how to do this, he’d said, awed, and Meg had said sure thing

“Fuck, wait,” Eliot says. God, that ache. He’s so wet and open, so turned on, it’s absolutely the weirdest feeling of horniness he’s ever experienced, which is, like, really saying something, but it’s intense, and still—it’s a lot to take. Margo holds still, he can feel her shaking but she takes the time to rub an admiring hand up over her own ass, pull his cheeks apart to look at where she’s splitting him open.

“It’s been a minute since I’ve fucked anyone with a horse cock, sorry,” Margo laugh-gasps, “I need to do exercises or something, k-keep in shape.”

Eliot tries to be good, tries not to go there in his own head, now, but it still rises up, intrudes: the thought of who Margo’s been fucking, lately.

But Eliot shakes it off. Spreads his knees wider, and wow, Margo is really onto something with all the yoga because it’s one easy movement, a graceful undulation of the spine, to shift so his ass is in the air and his breasts are brushing against the bed, and that makes him gasp, makes him melt a little, and he feels it so, so deep, as finally she slides all the way in.

—and he and Margo had gotten like this after they fucked the first time, high off not so much the sex in itself as the adoration the sex served to more sharply transmit. They’d rolled around on her bed for a week, only emerging for food. But of course if sex sometimes briefly blesses you with an ecstatic unconsciousness of time it also is a path back to time, there’s no getting away from it, the flesh drags everything along with it. Make sure it's the good things, that’s the trick. Letting a boy fuck his up into his fist in an alleyway smelling of cat piss led directly, in a way that is impossible to explain unless you’ve felt it, to that moment in Megan’s bathroom, window cracked and chill morning air washing away the marijuana fug, radiator clanking noisily, her calloused thumb gentle on his jaw, smell of coffee on her breath, as she does his face, which she says in that 40s starlet voice that is their familiar shared vernacular from the many hours spent lying in front of the television on the tangerine carpet at their grandmother’s house watching TCM.

Margo, Margo, Margo. The way there was an electric crackle in the air when their eyes met across a crowded room. The miracle of the first time he made her laugh. Goosefleshed and unbound and seen at the Trials. It all led to the moment where to Eliot's own surprise he realized he wanted to kiss her and since he was no longer in the business of denying himself the things he wanted that's what he did and Margo had kissed him back. To the look in Margo’s eyes when they broke apart, to Eliot's fear of what she might say, the inevitable questions that would force him to make an account of himself, and how through those questions the specter of everything else would enter into that tiny sacred space between their mouths. How instead she’d looked and looked at him and asked just the one—

Now it’s easy, Margo’s really fucking into him, and Eliot moans, face down ass up, a position of vulnerability that he’s up to performing but that he can only really give himself over to when it’s Margo. Eliot wiggles his hand between his body and the mattress to touch the stretched rim of his pussy, to rub right above where his clit is slick and throbbing. He gasps and gasps, words fled. Thinks of the body he’s in, Margo’s body, that she uses so well for her pleasures. It’s been a minute since I’ve fucked anyone with a horse cock. And she approaches fucking like Eliot does: with ingenuity and style and effort, something that can be perfected. So there’s no need to—if she’s been fucking—what was her name, Tamara from astrology, girls and girls and girls, with their fingers and their tongues—except Eliot is intimately acquainted with the breadth of Margo’s tastes: the collection of silicone cocks in her drawer, in a range of sizes and colors (Eliot’s preference: firmly middle of the range, bright purple), memories of watching a girl work her fist into Margo, Margo’s head in Eliot’s lap, of stroking her hair off her forehead as she moaned and sweated and smiled up at him with incongruous sweetness.

So if it’s been a while since she’s had anything approaching the size of Eliot’s dick inside her, and Eliot knows it has, intimately, from the presence of that good burn that’s making his legs shake, it’s because she’s been fucking one person in particular. And he’s small, slender, cute, with a perfectly proportional cock to match. Eliot assumes. He can’t know for sure because he hasn’t let Margo say a word about it. But he’s probably still nervous, eyes darting back and forth between his cock entering Margo and her face, worried about hurting her, wanting to make sure it’s good for her. Or maybe Margo throws him down on the bed and climbs astride him, presses his cute dick to her pussy, as he gulps, stutters, a flush down his chest, throat working, big eyes dark and wet. He’s been inside me, Eliot thinks hysterically, and. Goddamn it. Listen, your honor, Eliot had tried, he tried real excitement, dildos and fisting oh my (fuck, he’d have no idea about—anything, he better not, because it doesn’t bear contemplating that Margo has gotten to—) and all these speculations were useless pathetic diversions (but god, does he have lovely hands, capable and strong and gentle at once, and Eliot insanely finds himself thinking of how they’d come back to the cottage together a few weeks ago to find a small bird with a broken wing on the porch, and he had picked up this poor wounded thing and held it in his hands, made soft soothing noises, had asked, “Is there, like, a wildlife rehabilitation center somewhere nearby, do you think?” like Eliot would have any clue, and then suddenly the bird had shot from his cupped palms and taken off into the sky and Eliot had said, “Whoa, what did you do?” and he’d replied, just as baffled, “I just thought—I wish I could fix it’s wing, and—”) from the true destined course of his thoughts, the thing that has obviously fucking unhinged him: Quentin Coldwater’s dick, Quentin Coldwater’s hands, Quentin Coldwater’s everything, that’s what he’s thinking about as he chafes his rental clit raw and comes so hard he’s maybe crying.

After, they lie side by side, panting. Eliot stares up at the ceiling and tries not to think. The room is swimming. The ceiling spins and heaves. Eliot tries to anchor himself in physical sensations. That sweet ache between his legs fills him with a proprietary, manly pride. I did that, he thinks. But this body has turned treacherous. It provides no escape from his thoughts. The second he thought of Quentin Coldwater the road it promises out of himself became a closed loop, leading always back to his hopeless, pathetic heart.

He’d made dinner for Quentin and himself last night and then they’d opened a bottle of wine and sat in the common room drinking it. Taste of wine in his mouth. Feeling of fullness, of plenty. Warmth of the fire in the persistent cool of the spring evening. Sound of birds in the dusk trees outside the window. Quentin’s boy-smell, overlaid with the smell of clean laundry. Watching Margo lead her girl of the evening up the stairs by the hand. Eliot had looked away from Quentin politely, while watching his expression from the corner of his eye. Quentin had ducked his head and blushed, his mouth quirking in seeming amusement. He didn’t look upset.

It’s a friends-with-benefits thing, Margo’s ghostly voice had echoed in his head. Extremely chill.

Eliot had been upset with Margo. To be able to fuck Quentin Coldwater and to choose not to—

“Jesus cunting Christ,” real-Margo groans beside him. “That was...I feel...”

“Fucked out?” Eliot says, amused again.

“Hm, no,” Margo says, shaking her head. She’s slid down so her head is resting on Eliot’s shoulder. He’s pretty sure this means her feet are hanging off the bed. “I’m still in good shape to sexually rampage with your massive weiner. But it raises some questions. Obviously, morally, I’d have to let whoever I’m fucking know it’s me in here…”

“Less fun?”

“What? No. I’m not really hot for catfishing people in your body.”

Yeah, haha, obviously. Eliot isn’t either.

Margo is still idly musing: “...but it raises the question of who would be down for that.”

“Most of the female population of Brakebills, I like to imagine.”

He can feel Margo’s smirk against his skin, and he can feel her eyes when they come to rest on his face. “Mm. Tempting. But I think it’d feel too...I don’t know.”

Eliot thinks maybe he does know. He meets her gaze and smiles at her. Strokes her hair. “Yeah, maybe not.”

“This is fun though,” Margo says with a sleepy return grin. She yawns—wow, that’s unattractive, Eliot should henceforth yawn as little as possible—and lays her head back down.

“Mhm.” It's been a minute, since he and Margo were together like this. Nothing to do with Quentin. Or not only. They just have their rhythms, ones that easily admit fallow periods and mutual indifference.

Eliot’s eyes feel heavy. It’s getting late. Red evening light casts the room in a furnace-glow.

“And we have to figure out how to get back in our own bodies. Obviously.”

Obviously. This is an interesting adventure, but neither of them wants it to be permanent. Solving it will mean first visiting Henry, always delightful, and apprising him of this wild development with his favorite students. The Dean will then say it’s not his fucking problem and then Eliot and Margo will have to figure it out on their own which means lots of time in the library and probably getting themselves blown up. Less delightful.

“Let me feed you dinner first,” Eliot says.

Chapter Text

The account Quentin Coldwater might have given of his first year at magic grad school at 4:36 p.m. on March 9, 2016, went something like this:

He found out magic was real, and that he was a magician. He’d been walking through the evening streets of Brooklyn in summer, smelling the familiar scents of garbage that has baked all day in oppressive heat and exhaust from the endless cars whose beeping and squealing and honking formed the background track to his agonized musings about Julia, and Yale, and how he and Julia and James were all going to graduate school at Yale, Quentin for philosophy and Julia for law and James for his MBA, to yet another apartment paid for by Julia’s mother, relocating this inescapable pyschosexual swamp to New Haven—when, and later he’d never quite been able to recall the sequence of events that led to this, he’d stumbled through a hedge into an Arcadian paradise, everything green and growing and alive, hallowed by soft golden light, and in the light birds singing, bees humming, and Quentin walked up a verdant lawn like a carpet rolled out just for him, to arrive at a wall which later will be revealed to be a very average sort of wall with the words Brakebills University set in a dull institutional font, but which at the time had seemed like something mythic, a boundary from legend, largely due to the fact that upon it sat a being that seemed to naturally belong there, in his glamor and ease and magic, to belong as much as bees and birds and grass and sun-warmed brick.

This, then, was a magic place. A magic university that wanted Quentin to matriculate there. Goodbye Yale, and goodbye James. Because as their child-selves suspected there was indeed something special about the two of them. Quentin and Julia were magicians. The doubts that had gnawed at Quentin, even at the age of nine—that it was all some lucky fluke, some cosmic joke that smart funny bold Julia had chosen to bestow her energy and attention on Quentin, and one the universe would figure out a way to rectify eventually when Julia went to reign as a queen in Fillory and left Quentin behind in New Jersey—they had all finally been dismissed as groundless by that same universe, which maybe had some order or reason to it after all.

Quentin was—well, he was only so stupid. It’s not that he was dumb enough to believe that the presence of James was the only thing standing in the way of Julia realizing it was Quentin she really wanted. He’d thought that when he was seventeen, maybe, when James first came into the picture and on good days he could imagine that it was only his existence that had prevented Quentin from asking Julia to senior prom and Julia saying yes.

He would never have asked. He would have never actually forced Julia into having to turn him down.

Still, it was hard not to feel like it was all a sign. The universe had put its stamp of approval on Quentin and Julia’s belief that they were special, had banished Quentin’s fears that Julia was destined to leave him behind. Surely with James gone from the picture—

(Julia had tried for a while, Julia had explained that she’d decided to put off Yale, and Quentin for some reason had too, and James, who infuriatingly to Quentin had always been a person of rather heroic patience, had accepted the explanation of an abruptly decided upon deferment due to a fabricated Adderall addiction, a gap year to figure some things out, and again, Quentin was there, and Quentin is such a nonentity that Julia didn’t worry this might be perceived as a threat and indeed James didn’t perceive it that way. Julia had tried to maintain regular phone calls, kept up her apartment in the city for weekends where James had come to visit her despite the weight of his course load, had tried, tried, tried. In the end it wasn’t the effort and stress, conditions that Julia thrived under—but Julia having finally gotten up the nerve to break up with James and James finally being fed up enough to accept it, the thing was, as she told Quentin, crying, as they stood outside the library watching sheets of rain pour off the roof as they shared a cigarette—it’s so hard when I can’t share with him the—it’s like the biggest, best part of my soul, you know? And I can’t ever tell him about it, I can’t ever let him see it.)

—surely then, the universe having so neatly gotten rid of Quentin’s nine-year old fears, surely the fact that it was Quentin and Julia who were destined to share the biggest, best part of their souls—this love of magic—that had to be evidence of the logic of the equation that Quentin had worked out privately, where this was a portent that there was a relief to come for the other torment, the one that had appeared at puberty and dominated Quentin’s adolescence thereafter: that he loved Julia, and she would never love him, not the way he wanted her to. She’d leave him behind, because somewhere Quentin knew he wasn’t meant for the kind of love that Julia had assumed so easily with James, the one that the entire planet smiled on. Quentin was too strange and sad and uncomfortable in the world to be worthy of it, and so although Fillory wasn’t real she could still leave him behind for the charmed realm of marriage and family.

Well. His equation was shit.

Julia was a knowledge student. The rarest of all disciplines. Julia was the brightest and most brilliant, always.

Quentin didn’t get a discipline.

Getting ahead of himself. Julia threw herself into Brakebills wholeheartedly, eyes shining. The Dean’s special pet from day one. She had been assigned to a room with an incredibly intimidating girl with a mane of dark hair. This is Kady, she knows all kinds of shit, battle magic, her mom’s a hedge, she grew up doing magic, come on Q, she’s going to show me….

Quentin was already several paces behind. What was a hedge? Why did Julia’s voice go hushed with awe on battle magic? His head hurt, and his new meds and how quickly everything was moving made him nauseous, and of course Quentin’s roommate hated him and was mean and Julia’s roommate was this super special pure blood magician or whatever, and he knew Julia was only inviting him along out of the old force of habit, have to make sure Quentin feels included, but Julia was already turning to bestow her radiant smile on Kady and Quentin can picture it, trudging along after them, but he didn’t need to do this anymore because he’s a fucking magician too, thanks.

So he said no and laid down on his bed and stared at the ceiling, hating himself. Wanting immediately to take it back, run after them, because he knew the self-torture he’d be in for later, endlessly wondering what he’d missed, what he’d cut himself off from by being—himself. He always did this to himself. Quentin then heard the clatter of footsteps on the stairs headed in the direction of his door and got to his feet in case—Julia came back for him. She did, sometimes. Still. He didn’t want to be lying in his classic wallowing position if she does. But it wasn’t Julia after all.

Quentin threw out his meds. The Dean said he would no longer need them, that indeed he never had needed them. Quentin’s suffering had been a case of false diagnosis all along: he was a magician, and he just hadn’t known it.

It seemed too easy but he grabbed at it anyway. He’d never needed much excuse to throw out his meds, to stop going to therapy. They’re so burdensome, so much work, and they might make life something approaching bearable for small stretches at a time but it always proves illusory. Still, maybe the Dean was on to something. There’s no dramatic backslide. Quentin felt focused, keen, the gray fog burned away with the fire of magic, and his need to keep it now he had it.

Because magic didn’t come naturally to Quentin. It came to Julia so easily, but Quentin felt from the first as if he was moving through water in his quest to understand, to keep up with her. Julia’s graceful fingers moved effortlessly, through all of Popper, and then on to increasingly complex things. Quentin’s fingers felt thick, dull, made of clay, and he grew to hate them in an active way as he worked through the basics for weeks, lagging behind. He couldn’t even maintain his psychic wards which Penny Adiyodi hastened to assure him was extremely basic shit, Coldwater, get it together.

There was someone else in their class for whom magic seemed to come with a spellbinding ease. Quentin watched Alice Quinn’s delicate glass horse take shape, a thing of wonder that she seemed ashamed of, and felt such mingled awe and frustration that he couldn’t stop thinking about her. Magic came so easily to her but she was so angry about it. She was the only one at Brakebills that seemed as uncomfortable as he did. Ridiculous, to be that gifted at magic, to be that beautiful, and still be so unhappy. He felt drawn to her. That old sick hypnotic pull of fascination.

Alice rebuffed most of his friendly overtures, those first few weeks. Then one evening Quentin had sat down at her table at the library, which was covered in books that appeared to have nothing to do with any of their classes. In theory Quentin was studying but in practice he’d mostly snuck glances at Alice’s sharp, fierce face, with occasional exciting detours to getting glared at when he attempted conversation. Then Alice had sighed heavily, put down her pen with a thump and said, if you’re going to be here, you might as well be useful.

Which is how he’d gotten involved in Alice’s quest to find out what happened to her dead brother. The spell she needed to attempt to summon him apparently required two people.

An empty classroom at midnight with the scent of herbs Quentin didn’t know the names for sharp in his nostrils and Alice Quinn lovely and disdainful in the flickering candlelight. Quentin did the spell with her and despite his labored movements meaning they had to do the spell twice, to his companion’s palpable annoyance, the moment where it seemed to work, where they were moving in tune with one another and it was as if they became one body and this joint body became a vessel through which the power to shape matter and alter time moved—that was worth it. It was like nothing Quentin had ever felt before. He’d looked at Alice’s face to see if she felt it too, but she’d been looking at the mirror, peering into the darkened corners of the room, searching for something she could not find and cursing in frustration, kicking over a mortar and pestle in her haste to flee their failure.

Because Alice’s brother was dead. She’d begrudgingly ground out her admittance of this tragedy and Quentin had experienced further mortification when she only turned more acidic at his poor attempt at sympathy.

This noble mission was nearly derailed by their expulsion. Turns out summoning magic is a big no, and although nothing happened this time that was, well, not luck, actually, but a sign of Alice’s talent, her impressive control evident in the fact that she was able to prevent things she didn’t from coming through the doorway she had after all succeeded in creating, even if she had not had corresponding success in beckoning her brother through it.

Not that the Dean knew who they had attempted to summon. The spells lingered in the classroom, unmistakable the moment Sunderland entered Monday morning, and apparently it was an easy matter from there to trace who was responsible from there. What in God’s name were you trying to do? When Quentin looked at Alice he caught a flash of true desperation breaking through her typical cold fury for just a moment, and without thinking he’d found himself blurting out that they’d been attempting to contact his Grandma Joan beyond the veil.

The contempt on the part of the Dean was to be expected, but Quentin felt that from Alice it was a bit much.

Fogg obviously didn’t believe them, and he kept trying to catch Alice’s eye, but Quentin kept loudly insisting that the fondest wish of his heart was to once again smell the menthol and baby powder scent of his Grandma Joan, who had been mean as hell and lived in Florida and died when he was eight and of whom he could not recall a single fond memory.

Finally the administration was forced to admit defeat although even Quentin was not sure why his expulsion should be taken as such: surely the Dean should be relieved, to retain a student such as Alice and lose one like Quentin. But with visible reluctance he pronounced Quentin would be expelled and Alice put on probation. Quentin was to collect his things and clean out his room and wait for a specialist to arrive to mindwipe him.

Of course he immediately went to Julia. He hated himself as he bounded off the steps of the main building and ignored Alice’s call of Quentin, wait, he hated himself as he rushed through the campus he had taken in with wonder so recently, telekinetics defying the laws of physics and Josh Hoberman holding court under an oak tree, selling magical drugs that could make people hear color and smell emotions and see into other dimensions, and which Quentin would now never get to try, as he passed by Penny, sneering and half-shirtless, who shouted after him Damn Coldwater where are you booking it to? He hated himself as he opened the door to Julia’s room in the Knowledge attic and startled her where she was studying on her bed, blessedly alone for once, hated himself at the instant concern that flooded her face, the worry in her eyes when he choked out I really fucked up Jules, they’re going to kick me out, hated himself at the pathetic fear in his voice, the fact that he instantly runs to Julia to get her to fix it like always, hated her as exasperation began to mix with the worry, her scolding, Quentin, god, that’s so risky—which was truly fucking rich, like she and Kady Orloff-Diaz didn’t go to the woods every day after class and fuck around with battle magichated them both equally at her evident exhaustion at needing to fix Quentin’s mess yet again, like in high school when she covered for him and covered for him as he could less and less force himself to get out of bed or do his work until one of his texts finally scared her enough that she went to his dad and attempt #1 had ended in failure, and he’d hated her so much, and once he was in a medicated upswing he still hated her and loved her desperately because she’d saved his life and because she was Julia, and hated himself as she sat in a chair beside his hospital bed after he’d had his stomach pumped, and she was so beautiful and so scared and Quentin was the most worthless person to ever live for being the cause of that haunted look in her eyes, and she’d never want him now because who ever could, and he’d hated himself even more for wanting any more than this, Julia’s brave jokes, her hand warm in his, how she’d said fuck the doctors, fuck the nurses, and climbed into the bed with him, wrapped her tiny body around him, and how he’d started to cry into her hair as she clung to him.

Now it was down to Julia to save him again, because he’ll die if he loses this, it hasn’t made him happy but he’ll die without it. Julia grabbed his hand and marched right to the Dean’s office and made a stirring argument that Quentin couldn’t quite follow through his terror, but he caught parts of a speech about how intellectual curiosity was to be properly guided, not stamped out, bits of a rant about how overly punitive institutions that thrive on fear are destined to fail at keeping anyone safe. It must have been persuasive enough to convince, or maybe the Dean’s blatant favoritism combined with his 3 o’clock cordial was enough to soften his heart, because with a sigh and a wave of his hand he said fine, and condemned Quentin to the same probation as Alice.

He fled from Julia, too. He managed to grind out a thank you, Jules, knowing this is hateful, knowing he’s ungrateful. She said, Q, c’mon, let’s— but he cut her off, said I have to—we’ll talk later and stalked away, feeling sick as he thought about that moment when they were rushing across the Sea on the way to the Dean’s office, and Julia had turned to him and said in her most ardent voice, If I can’t talk him out of it, if he expels you—I’ll find you, OK? I’ll fix it.

For just an instant—and he’ll hate himself for this for a long, long timehe’d actually wondered: if their positions were reversed, if Julia was expelled and magic wiped from her mindwould he go after her? For a single second which he hopes will remain the clear MVP in his self-loathing rotation possibly forever, he wishes that Julia wasn’t at Brakebills. That he could remove her and thus remove this taunting mirror she’s turned into, this walking reflection of his inadequacy.

Quentin sought out Alice again. She was forced to thank him and obviously hated every second. I’m sorry, I didn’t want you to get expelled, I just—I have to figure out what happened to Charlie. This cold-bloodedness, the doomed inescapability of Alice’s self-appointed task, held great appeal for Quentin. This was someone who had known real suffering; someone whose life has been touched by true loss: but Charlie wasn’t the type to just give up, Alice assures him at Wolf Fountain, and Alice isn’t either.

That was why Quentin couldn’t just let her throw it all away, why he had to stop her from Niffining out. Maybe. Or maybe the true reason Quentin stopped Alice was envy. Here was someone who would annihilate themselves but only to great heartbreaking purpose, because it was what duty and love required. No morose scrawlings on a torn out sheet of notebook paper for her father to find, nothing to find at all as she immolates herself in a blaze of pure furious light. Part of him thought that in some sick way he was jealous of that clarity.

Alice Quinn was still alive, but gone, and gone hating him. Then she was back and she didn’t hate him anymore. They were on a roof together naked in the autumn chill. Quentin has been asked to solve the riddle of himself but he can’t. He has almost everything and he is still unhappy because he is still himself. Quentin thought of Julia that past summer, after he got out of the hospital, and she knew without him having told her, and he knew she knew, and she knew he knew she knew. Julia told him life was beginning, real life. There were no doors to escape through. This was it.

But there had been a door, a door in a hedge to magic. And still Julia was right. There’s no door for Quentin out of himself, out of this mind and this body. This is what he tells Alice on the roof, and its profundity, its truth, is sealed by the ropes falling away from his wrists.

He then transformed into a fucking goose and took to the sky.

Antarctica sucked. Turning into a bird and flying the breadth of the Earth to the icy center of the world blew. Quentin didn’t even get relief from his brain while he was a goose. Like, he was a goose, not exactly himself, but he was an incredibly anxious goose. Then he was himself again, freezing all the time and in pajamas that are somehow both ill-fitting and uncomfortably revealing at the same time and having his masculinity and magic ability impugned by a cruel drunk Russian.

Julia was there. Her gaze sought Quentin out worriedly and he avoided it, but she was quickly preoccupied with some pantomimed drama with Kady and Penny that he couldn’t track.

Alice was there and beautiful, softening towards him slightly in all that snow. All he had needed to do was tell her the very sexy history of all his hospitalizations. Who knew?

Quentin couldn’t quite follow the logic that had Mayakovsky transform them into foxes, but he was oddly grateful for it. He was an anxious goose and an anxious fox but it was a less entrenched anxiety, and washed away entirely when he got a whiff of Alice. At the beginning it wasn’t precisely sexual. Just animal. He smelled her and knew with certainty for one moment that he was not alone and could never be alone. They rolled over each other, pawing, sniffing, licking, biting, yipping in glee. The world was very cold and they were very warm and steam lifted off their fur into the air. Then it shifted: but naturally, without thought. He was a fox and he was having sex as a fox but it felt normal, unremarkable, the only thing to do.

Human again, but not yet condemned. Quentin had a body and it wanted and it was fine. The world didn’t end. The smell of Alice and fox told him what he already knew. Told his hunger back to him. There was no fumbling, no nerves, the faithful companion that his fear of loss always made was turned faithless after all. He bit Alice hard, on the back of the neck, in his joy.

He felt shame later, when they got back to Brakebills. Because Alice was ashamed. That wasn’t really us.

But it was Quentin. It was Quentin laid bare, with all his obstructing neuroses pared away. Quentin as he had always felt himself to be, since the first time Julia had walked toward him one day, innocent and happy to see him, and suddenly and quite against his will all he could see were her breasts: oversexed, horny, embarrassing, desperate, pathetic, too much, oozing with his feelings, sliming everything up with his desire. He’d had to fight so hard to keep it off Julia, even though his failure had always been evident, because she knew—and now Alice knew too. Inhibition had been stripped from Quentin and their fevered entanglements on his cot returned in flashes to torment him. Her smell, her heat. He’d mounted her from behind and taken the nape of her neck in his teeth but she’d met him at every turn. Thrown him on the bed and ridden him. Torn his back up with her nails.

Now it shamed her and shamed him and he attempted to mask the scent of fox with cologne and presented himself as harmless. It worked. He didn’t go wild in the library and fuck her on the books or anything. Like, Jesus, what did she think of him? He can control himself.

The next night he couldn’t. Quentin kissed Alice in the hallway and she kissed him back and then they were in her room. His hands were shaking too hard to undo the buttons on her blouse. He had to make this good so she’d want to do it again. She was so beautiful and already sighing in exasperation at his fumbling, gently batting his hands away, and Quentin thought with bleak humor, shit, that’s a new record, but she was just taking over the shirt removal process.

When Alice’s shirt was off and she stood before Quentin in her bra, they froze. Alice looked back up with him with something almost like panic in her eyes. He had to do something. Guys did something here. In Antarctica in the aftershocks of pure instinct he would have pushed her down on the bed, put his cock in her. His body had known exactly what to do. He reached out his hand and touched her shoulder where a purple mark from Quentin’s mouth was fading to an ugly yellow.

They’d managed somehow. Quentin’s hands sweated and he bit Alice’s lip on accident. Quentin on his knees in front of her, nosing at her underwear, blue with pink hearts. Alice had said, Oh, you don’t have—are you—do you want to? She sounded so bewildered Quentin felt a pang of embarrassment about how badly he did want it. He’d never wanted anything so much in his life. When he first touched his tongue to her she’d given a little gasp and her hand flew out to tug at his hair and Quentin had moaned so loud that they’d both frozen again. His face hot, Alice hotter against him. It’d been a moment before he could start up again. Quentin was inside her and she was tight and perfect around him, her breasts felt so incredible against him, and she was making these tiny bitten-off sighs, and he couldn’t stop saying God, you’re so beautiful, and Alice's face twisted every time.

So that was how Quentin finally got a girlfriend. Fuck as foxes, go steady.

Quentin was so happy walking across campus the next morning with Alice’s hand in his, but he dropped it like it burnt when they ran into Julia in front of the library. Alice looked hurt and Quentin was instantly sorry and tried to interlace their fingers again but then it was Alice’s turn to yank her hand away as if stung by his touch.

He couldn’t have explained to Alice why he’d done it. It wasn’t that he was ashamed of her, as she’ll accuse later that evening. It was that he was proud, and being seen by Julia confronted with his feeling of satisfaction at being perceived as a part of a unit with a girl like Alice.

Julia was happy for him. She said so, and he could see it was true, and it hurt. The palpable weight of her relief. Quentin was finally someone else’s problem.

Quentin began having weird dreams. Well, that was normal. Weird sex dreams. Also pretty normal. But it felt wrong and unjust to continue to have these bizarre dreams when he was sleeping in a bed with his incredibly hot girlfriend.

Like the one where he was Indiana Jones and Julia was Leia Organa and Alice was Daenerys Targaryen and—okay, that one wasn’t weird. Actually, you know, very pleasant. But then came the one where Quentin was Martin Chatwin but also himself, and Julia was Jane Chatwin but also herself. That part was typical. Fillory was still his most common recurring dream theme. More unexpected was Eliot Waugh as Rupert Chatwin but also himself. In a tweed jacket, debonair and handsome, every inch a dashing war hero, in total command of himself, he’d walked right up to his sister/Julia with his dignified, courtly limp and kissed her passionately with tongue while sticking his hand up her schoolgirl skirt as she giggled.

Quentin practically willed himself out of the dream. Sat up in bed gasping like people did in movies.

That was just so wrong, on so many levels. Eliot was his friend, and although sex dreams about Julia were normal if shameful incest sex dreams about their childhood idols were certainly not. Also, like, Rupert was gay? There had always been rumors about him and his American army buddy Lance Morrison but then in 2005 their private correspondence had been released and it had been put beyond all shadow of a doubt and Quentin had written a paper on it and everything.

It didn’t last.

Alice broke up with him six weeks and three days after the first time they slept together at Brakebills South. He’ll go back over every moment later and every good part (Alice blinking at him in an endearingly owlish way when he took off her glasses; the way the blunt ends of her hair brushed the elegant slope of her shoulders when she looked down; the sight of her soft stomach with it’s gentle fold of skin above the waistband of her underwear and how it staggered him with tenderness; standing in the corner of a party with her; how her magic possessed a sense of barely contained force, of terrible natural processes like avalanches, rogue waves, plate tectonics) was subsumed into an unbearable accounting of all his failures (Alice saying Quentin I don’t want to talk about it after he said something that made her mouth go tight and he desperately sought to understand why; the anxious way his eyes tracked her when they were in a room together like she might vanish in a twist of smoke, the weight of Quentin’s gaze making the muscles of her neck twitch like a horse flicking off a fly; the sight of her pinched brow as Quentin moved his fingers clumsily in her and tried to make that line ease, her mouth go slack in a mirror of his want and how helpless he felt when he failed; kissing her in public only for her whole body to go rigid; how—)

I just don’t think we’re right for each other.

I think we rushed into things.

I don't know who I am or what I’m doing and I just can’t be anyone’s girlfriend right now.

I don’t think we’re—I mean, for you, is it—do you. Sexually. Do you think we’re sexually compatible?

I want us to be friends. You were my first real friend. You reminded me of—I do want us to be friends, Quentin. Please.

The last was the worst. Which is really saying something, since in the same conversation his first sexual partner of any duration longer than a week had just told him he was terrible in bed. Her offer of friendship was the worst because it was the best, because it was kindness but a kindness that wounded simply because it was not what he wanted. He didn’t want kindness, he wanted

Quentin wanted not to cry in front of her.

He didn’t get that wish granted either.

It was Alice’s turn to flee from him this time. She shoved her books in her bag hastilyshe broke up with him in the library—but then she stopped and said Q, softly, just once, and then walked away on quiet feet after she watched Quentin’s entire body flinch in reaction.

Of course with his luck he ran into Julia on his way out of the library. Quentin was burning with humiliation. There was some defect in him that drove away anyone who came close. Here was Julia, who could have anything she wanted, who drew people to her like a moth to flame and who was also good and so continued to tolerate Quentin out of a sense of loyalty. He hadn’t managed to lose her yet, but it would come. So many things that could rip them apart and nothing in Quentin’s power to seal her to him as indissolubly as he longed for. Images flashed before his eyes, absurd and tortuous at once: Julia's supreme self-command earning Quentin’s place at her side in the face of the disapproval of her gaggle of acolytes freshman year when she overnight became both hot and popular; Julia getting her license (Quentin failed three times before giving up for good) and driving him everywhere in the very expensive car she got for her sixteenth birthday; James’ arm proprietary around Julia’s shoulder, her waist, reaching with his other hand to tousle Quentin’s hair like he was an amusing pet; insomniac reading in the glass-doored den that had been converted into an extra bedroom for Quentin to live in and hearing Julia and James stumble in trashed and attempting not to hear Julia’s moans as they fucked on the couch.

Julia knew him. She knew by his face that something terrible had happened to him.

Quentin felt wild, as he laughed out, yeah, so Alice broke up with me.

Oh, Q, shit, I’m so sorry.

Yeah, I just bet you are.

Nasty enough that she went very still and asked him what exactly that was supposed to mean.

It finally exploded, all of Quentin’s poison. Obviously Julia would be devastated that she had to deal with him again. She must have been so relieved to finally have to stop playing dumb when it came to Quentin.

What the fuck are you talking about?

You knew. You’ve always known.

Quentin didn’t know exactly what he was expecting there, but obviously Julia came back swinging.

Are you for fucking real? Maladjusted little boy bullshit. Classy, Q, really nice. Get the fuck over yourself.

Then Julia’s eyes filled with tears. You’re so fucking selfish, Quentin. Really? You haven't asked me about Kady. Not once. You didn’t even fucking notice.

What the fuck does your hedge thief friend have to do with anything?

Quentin was honestly thrown. Wait, Kady? What? It was the scandal of the school year: she’d bailed after Brakebills South because apparently she’d been stealing shit since the beginning of fall term for some expelled former student who had gotten someone killed a few years back. Quentin had too asked, figuring Julia knew what the hell had really gone down there, but Julia had been weirdly cagey about it all.

Julia made a strangled scream-laugh of sheer frustration, and ground her hands into her eyes. Quentin’s mouth kept running. Literally, what? Okay, so now you can fuck her boyfriend—that’s what had been up with their drama at Brakebills South, right?

Then Julia hauled back her hand and smacked him.

Did you—did you just fucking hit me? Quentin said as Julia stalked off.

Jules, wait—

Chapter Text

Shortly after the one-two punch of Alice breaking up with Quentin and Quentin turning around and imploding his oldest friendship, Quentin has two significant conversations.

The first begins at the end of his trek across campus in the mockingly permabeautiful weather of Brakebills, hoping to make it to his room without running into anybody so he can throw himself face down on his bed and scream in peace. But his luck continues to run out: “Quentin!”

They’re in the garden in the back of the cottage. Quentin had almost made it, but Eliot Waugh is calling his name.

Eliot comes towards him with his graceful, relaxed gait. He’s smiling like always, as if he finds running into Quentin a delightful occurrence. The smile slowly fades and one of Eliot’s eyebrows arches, sardonic and sympathetic at once, when he catches sight of the expression on Quentin’s face.

“Oh, dear. That bad?”

Quentin’s throat feels clogged. There’s some sort of blockage in it preventing speech, and so it all leaks out of the undefended gateway of his eyes instead. God, he hates how easily he cries. It’s pathetic, and it’s always made him an easy target. Crybaby in elementary school. Pussy and little bitch and an exciting buffet of homophobic slurs once he hit middle-school.

There’s a moment of miserable silence where Quentin’s own feet begin to blur in front of his eyes before Eliot answers himself: “Pretty bad.” He puts his big hand on Quentin’s shoulder and begins to steer him back towards the cottage. “Let’s get some alcohol in you, shall we?”

God, yes. That’s exactly what he needs, to get so drunk it obliterates the last 24 hours entirely. Maybe the last year. The level of drunkenness necessary may not exist this side of killing him. Well, I wouldn’t say no to that either. The thought that to another person might be the sign of an alarming shift in mental state is Quentin’s baseline and it takes form in his mind smoothly. He’s nodding his assent to at least temporary annihilation of self so fervently that Eliot laughs, low and warm.

The common room is empty. This is no surprise as in his headlong rush across campus Quentin had perceived that seemingly everyone was out of doors; he had been taunted by the sight of groups of friends lounging on blankets in the grass, of lovers entwined. Brakebills never exactly got cold over the winter due to whatever magic keeps the campus’ climate temperate, and yet someone has designed things so there is still a noticeable spring: a relief, an unfurling.

Quentin sits down heavily on the couch. It’s a position he has found himself in innumerable times in the last seven months but now he looks around himself feeling confused, every familiar shape turned strange. Light falls honeyed through the thick old glass in the windows, gilding the wood of the bookcases and tables with a warmth that makes them seem animal and alive. Curious delightful touches meet the eye everywhere one looks: the multicolored glass of Eliot’s liquor shelf refracting rainbows onto that living wood; the natty emerald velvet on a chair; an astrolabe beside someone’s abandoned astronomy homework; a skull bedecked in a feather boa that tells dirty riddles; beer bottles and even a chair stuck to the ceiling from long-forgotten telekinetic feats. A cabinet of wonders that Quentin has felt continual awe to be admitted to now made nearly unrecognizable. Had he and Alice really been curled up together on that window seat a few nights ago? How could he have ever thought to belong here?

Cool glass is pressed into Quentin’s palm, and Quentin looks up at Eliot standing before him, entirely at home in this place. It’s evident he had also been enjoying the tempting weather before Quentin came along. It’s odd to see him in something other than vest and ties in garnet and plum and charcoal but in an effortless adaptation to the general atmosphere he’s donned shorts and a polo shirt in pinks and creams. There’s a smoky smell to his skin.

“God, sorry,” Quentin says, taking a swallow of the drink he’s been given so quick and big that in a certain insult to Eliot’s dedicated craftsmanship he hardly tastes it. “I didn’t mean to take you away from—whatever, were you and Margo grilling out, or—”

“Psh.” Eliot waves this away airily. “Margo traitorously abandoned me, and obviously we were waiting for you to show up anyway.”

Well, Quentin had shown up, alright. Now he’s recalling the vague plans made the night before, the kind of plans that are in fact the absence of any: to grill out and drink and enjoy doing nothing much at all this evening. It’s as magical as anything else about this place, that Quentin often has people, plural, obviously waiting for him. But here arrives the natural end result of such magnanimity on Eliot’s part—an open invitation extended to Quentin is also an invitation for all his morose bullshit.

“Q,” Eliot breaks into the stream of his thoughts gently as he sits down beside Quentin on the sofa. “Obviously I am not one to force a man to bare his soul before drinking away his sorrows or anything, but just so we’re clear—no one’s hurt or anything, right?”

Quentin shakes his head before Eliot can even finish, sorry to have made him feel real worry.

“The apocalypse isn’t nigh? Tolkien didn’t die, did he?”

Quentin knows Eliot wants him to retort that Eliot knows that it isn’t fucking Tall-Ken and also Tall-Ken’s been dead since 1973, and it startles a sound out of him, not really a laugh but maybe the laugh’s bastard love child with a sob. Eliot smiles at Quentin like he’s proud of himself, eyes crinkling at the corners. Quentin drags a hand down his own face.

“No, everything’s—no one’s dead. God, sorry.”

This last causes Eliot to knock his shoulder against Quentin’s in mild reprimand, and it takes everything in Quentin not to apologize for apologizing, something that drives everybody nuts. There’s pressure building behind his eyes. His chest hurts. To try to see if he can let Eliot distract himself for a few more minutes from the oncoming storm of shame and panic, Quentin says bleakly: “That bad, huh?”

“Pretty bad,” Eliot agrees.

His shoulder is warm against Quentin’s own. Quentin looks at him out of the corner of his eye, observing the poise with which he sits, the elegance of his long throat when he swallows. Eliot is his friend, who Quentin drinks with and who helps Quentin with his homework and who makes elaborate dinners for no one in particular but which Quentin and Margo are always at hand to consume, and yet that first impression of wonder has never quite faded. Eliot is always tied in with magic in his mind. They belong to each other, somehow, in a way Quentin will never belong. A fresh rush of tears prickles at Quentin’s eyes. Quentin will probably end up spilling the entire horrid saga to Eliot sometime in the course of the evening. That has a way of happening with Eliot, and it doesn’t feel quite fair: that he’s so sophisticated and yet bizarrely Quentin finds himself so comfortable with him that from the first Quentin has never been able to make even a token attempt to restrain himself.

Still, he’d like to put off weeping on Eliot’s well-tailored shoulder for as long as possible. “What happened to Margo?” he asks after a pause.

Eliot picks up Quentin’s robotic-toned attempt at distraction smoothly and runs with it. He sighs theatrically. “Oh, well, Dr. Morante showed up, quite out of the blue—apparently she does this famous, how have you never heard of this, El, do you even listen to me when I talk, internship at her ancestral villa in Lombardy. Not every summer, it seems there’s no schedule other than the good professoressa’s whim. Turns out 2016 is one of the lucky years and our little cryomancer wants in.”

“Oh, Margo wants—Morante is weather magic, right?”

“See? You keep listening to Margo’s magic nerdery so I don’t have to. I was in fact aware of Morante—she visited campus last year, and I knew Margo wanted Morante to be her mommy but I failed to appreciate what is apparently also a deep academic admiration, Eliot. Not that it’s either/or, Margo can multitask. Which she’s looking to do. Morante wanted to talk to her, so fingers crossed it all works out.”

“Uh,” Quentin says. He’s caught on mommy. He knows better to invite humiliation by asking for clarification of the terms here. He can figure it out. Context clues. Having met Margo. “So Margo might be going to Italy this summer?”

That sounds so oddly mundane to his own ears that Quentin had to smile. He turns to look at Eliot and finds Eliot not staring off into the middle distance in worldly-wise contemplation of European sexual intrigue like he’d expected, but looking at Quentin with a small smile. Mission objectives for Operation Distract Quentin from Contemplating the Abyss achieved. There’s that molten lump in Quentin’s chest again. He looks away.

Eliot clears his throat and takes Quentin’s drink and goes to the bar to prepare a refill.

“Yes, sadly we might be left to each other’s company in our own continental jaunts. Morante only takes the best, and I certainly don’t qualify. Weather magic is not my forte. And Margo has no compunctions about abandoning me.”

Eliot sounds wistful about it. Good-humored but also perhaps genuinely hurt. It’s hard to imagine Eliot and Margo separated. Of course he’d be depressed at the prospect of being left with only Quentin as a companion on their vaguely sketched out trip to Europe this summer. This summer…

“Maybe there’s a, I don’t know, telekinetic internship at a chateau in Switzerland, or something,” Quentin responds lamely. Worth a shot, if Eliot’s faith in his magical prowess is the thing to be assuaged. “Since these are apparently things that happen. I thought mentor’s weekend covered everything?”

“Oh, no, that’s small fry,” Eliot scoffs, engaging in some interesting revisionist history considering he and Margo’s jointly deranged state back in October. “The real deal are the freaks who wouldn’t deign to engage in that kind of hobnobbing.”

Eliot returns to the sofa, presenting Quentin’s drink with a flourish, and continues: “That’s sweet of you to say, Q, but I have absolutely zero interest in anything remotely ambitious this summer. We’ll have much more fun being wastrels, and maybe Margo can join us for the odd weekend…”

He trails off at the look on Quentin’s face. It’s finally hitting him. This summer: the recurrent torment of having a future. Eliot and Margo weren’t the only people he’d made plans with. Alice, who had never been to the beach. Julia, who had a list of magical sights to visit as long as her arm. Oh, fuck, Julia.

“Q,” Eliot says, and there’s a thread of alarm in his voice that makes Quentin realize he’s possibly hyperventilating slightly. Eliot quickly takes Quentin’s drink back and sets it safely on the coffee table before kneeling in front of him. “Q, hey, breathe.”

This is a response that always makes Quentin feel like screaming. If he could breathe obviously he’d be doing it, no one chooses not to breathe except for, okay, yes, those times Quentin had made that choice. Eliot’s hands are warm on his knees. Quentin can’t meet Eliot’s eyes so he moans, “I fucked up, I really fucked up,” into his cupped palms.

Eliot says: “Yeah?” Not: I’m sure that’s not true. Somehow that makes Quentin feel slightly better, like Eliot is open, a vessel into which he can pour his failure, redistribute to keep it from overflowing. “What happened?”

Where to even fucking begin?

“Alice broke up with me.”

“Sounds like she fucked up, then.” Eliot responds immediately, and Quentin gives a hysterical, hiccuping laugh and shakes his head emphatically. “Well, why’d she do it then?”

This is stated so baldly, with such frank curioristy, that Quentin has to lower his hands from his face and look at Eliot, irate. Eliot shrugs, only slightly abashed.

“Sorry. Incurable gossip, you should know this by now. I only mean that I can’t imagine you did anything wrong. I’m baffled at Alice’s poor taste. In cocktails, yes, but when it came to men I had good reason to think better of her.”

Eliot was a good friend. He flirted with everyone, and didn’t begrudge Quentin some of the warmth of that attention. Quentin had been worried at first that it was some kind of bit, one of the many inscrutable jokes that he and Margo shared. Months on, though, and this didn’t seem to be the case. Quentin had sometimes felt angry and condescended to at the idea that Eliot was trying to, like, raise Quentin’s confidence or something—but no, for some reason Eliot appeared to be genuine in his conviction that Quentin was desirable.

Of course Eliot has hit on the real sting here. Quentin hadn’t done anything wrong; Quentin was wrong.

“Alice—she said it wasn’t working? She was kind of vague on the details, but then she doesn’t have to be precise, it’s obvious, right, she’s—her, and I’m me, and I can never—I can never keep anything that I— ”

“Quentin, it’s not obvious at all,” Eliot insists.

That’s nice. Of course Eliot would say that. It makes Quentin even more ashamed. Luckily Eliot isn’t done.

“Alice seems like…she has a lot of her own stuff going on. And she’s not shy about letting people know when they’ve displeased her. If she said it wasn’t working, that’s probably exactly what she meant. I never thought you two…”

“Yeah, it was a real mismatch. Everyone probably wondered how someone like me ever got with someone like her, and now the entire school will be like well, of course that experiment ended quickly.”

Eliot looks honestly taken aback. “That’s not what I meant. It always made sense to me that—I was just trying to say that I didn’t see how you two could last when she was always such a bitch to you.”

Quentin startles. Eliot looks equally surprised.

“Jesus, sorry,” Eliot says. “I didn’t mean it to come out that way. I like Alice, truly. But as I said, it seems like she had a lot going on, and—”

“And I annoyed the shit out of her, yeah,” Quentin says. “It is like you said. She wasn’t shy about it.”

Because Quentin had, he knew he had. He’d tried so hard to get that treasured heartbreaking smile from Alice but success was so rare. Instead all he seemed to do was leave her exasperated and irritated without ever being sure what he had done. Be himself, he supposes.

“Okay, no, I take back my take back,” Eliot pronounces. “Friend duty calls. She was a total bitch to you and good riddance.”

Quentin’s laugh is a rather wet, limp thing. Eliot is always so nice. Because he doesn’t know. He doesn’t know what Quentin’s really done, what he’s destroyed. Quentin is going to tell him, though. He can feel it bubbling up inside himself. It’s better that he knows now.

“No, she was right. Alice was right, because Julia, I—” Quentin’s throat closes up entirely. Alice had known, somehow, the poison that Quentin tried to keep hidden. She’d seen it and then Quentin had gone and proven her a prophet by being the worst person imaginable.

“Julia?” Eliot says, confused. “I admit I’m a bit lost, but I’ll call her a bitch too if that’s what you need. And I really like Julia.”

“I think you just like women that—could maybe be described that way. So I don’t know if that actually…” Quentin is distracted by Eliot for a moment, Eliot smiling at him and his hands like hot stones where they still rest on Quentin’s knees. But Quentin’s also shaking his head even as he speaks. “No, no. I ran into Julia in the library, after Alice—and—fuck, I exploded at her like a lunatic. I ruined everything. She’s never going to fucking speak to me again. She shouldn’t ever speak to me again.”

“I think I’m missing some necessary context here, Q,” Eliot says. He must have determined that Quentin’s hand is now steady enough to be worthy of his creation because he passes the drink back to Quentin and moves to once again sit beside him on the sofa. “But I can’t imagine anything that would make Julia never speak to you again.”

The thought that anything about his feelings for Julia needs to be explained is an odd one. Quentin has always felt that it must be painfully, humiliatingly obvious.

“I’ve been in love with Julia since I was twelve.” It makes Quentin feel nauseous to say. He doesn’t think he’s ever stated it out loud before. As soon as it’s said, it doesn’t seem right, somehow.

“Ah,” Eliot says.

“Wasn’t it obvious?” Quentin replies bitterly.

“I know you’ve been best friends since elementary school.” There’s something almost pensive in Eliot’s tone.

“Yeah, and then puberty hit and I got feelings and she didn’t. I knew she didn’t feel that way about me. So I always—I fought so hard to not let it show, not to let her know. She did anyway, obviously. I’ve never been exactly subtle. But I never said anything. I knew it wasn’t fair to her but I couldn’t stop how I felt, I couldn’t stop wanting her. She’s Julia. She’s everything. But if someone is your friend, really your friend, and they aren’t interested in you, you don’t ruin it by forcing all your stupid feelings on them. I was the worst, but I still knew that wasn’t right.”

“Yeah,” Eliot agrees softly.

“She dated all these awful dudes in high school, and I hated them and I resented her and I hated myself because, god, she was my best friend, and I was mad at her because she wouldn’t let me—then she started dating James, who wasn’t awful at all, he was everything I wasn’t, he was handsome and kind and confident and sane—”

“Q…”

“And she was so relieved when I started dating Alice. I resented that. Because I knew it was because me and my feelings were finally someone else’s problem. But also she was happy for me, she’s always wanted me to be happy.”

Quentin’s voice cracks, he hates it, he hates this, but he can’t seem to stop.

“Then I ran into her and she told me she was sorry and I knew she meant it and I finally—after so many years of holding it in I vomited all my shitty feelings all over her and of course she was horrified, and I’ve been the worst friend, I hadn’t noticed anything that was going on with her—like, with Kady?—” at this Eliot nods like yeah, of course, Julia and Kady, that whole deal, duh, okay, wow, just great, “and I was fucking awful, I lashed at out and— ”

“Quentin,” Eliot cuts in. “It sounds like you fucked up.”

Quentin nods in miserable agreement and swallows the rest of his drink in one gulp. Eliot hands his own drink to Quentin and Quentin puts his mouth gratefully on glass warmed by Eliot’s lip and shudders as he drinks that down too.

“But you’ve been friends with Julia for what, nearly two decades? No matter how much of a bitch you were—and hey, you’re right, I am very fond of bitches, so I don’t doubt you have it in you—it can be fixed.”

Quentin makes a noise of open derision and Eliot sighs. “Yeah, I find that hard to believe too. Usually. This time I’m actually being sincere. Come on, Q. You’ll apologize and she’ll forgive you.”

There’s still something false in Eliot’s voice despite his protestation of belief. Quentin’s laugh is despairing. He rolls his neck against the back of the couch, eyes burning. Turns towards Eliot to see if his face offers any greater assurance. It does and it doesn’t—it’s just Eliot’s face. Eyes sympathetic, mouth wry. “I know. I’m not good at this. Let’s not talk, OK?”

So they don’t, at least for a while. Dark comes on, and a few people start to trickle into the cottage, although most stay out in the balmy evening. Alice isn’t among them, nor is Margo. Eliot and Quentin relocate to a window seat.

Hours later. Lights bobbing across the grass, sparking across the window pane.

“Julia wasn’t my only crush. Well, crush isn’t exactly the right word for her. But I had all these humiliating crushes too, on top of that.”

Quentin is performing a bit. Making this unbearable thing bearable by really leaning in to it. Worth a shot. It’s obvious why tonight of all nights these spectral taunting girls shimmer before him, crawl up out of his mouth.

“Ooh, what were baby Q’s crushes like?” For some reason this seems to amuse Eliot to no end.

“There was Addison from junior cowboy camp. She was a, like, horse whisperer. A horse girl. Obsessed. I was scared out of my mind by the horses, at least at first. I don’t think they liked me much. The horses.”

Addison of the two glossy cornsilk plaits and the heartstopping smattering of freckles, shod in boots of gleaming pungent leather, hand darting out with the astonishing quickness of instinct to catch the reins of Quentin’s horse when Rocky—the slowest and gentlest one in the stable, possessed of a tired looking spine and an undulating, plodding gait—had proven so resistant to letting Quentin ride him that he’d uncharacteristically bolted. “They can sense your fear, you know,” Addison had scolded, returning the horse to Quentin. “You can’t let them know you’re frightened of them,” she’d insisted, her pity turning to scorn when he’d panicked and tried to give the horse back. In Quentin’s memory she’d then flicked one of those perfect silken twists of hair over her shoulder and nimbly leapt into the saddle of a beautiful gray horse and galloped her and her freckles and her boots away.

They’re both laughing so hard Quentin can’t speak for a moment, and someone from the wider common room says good lord. Eliot lazily gives them the finger.

“Then there was Sofia, freshman year? No, sophomore year. She was a freshman.”

Sofia from his geometry class, freshman wunderkind on the varsity swim team the year they went to state, sleek and compact and as comfortable in her element as a seal, with thick dark hair on her arms that Quentin found oddly beautiful and that he felt hot all over when he imagined getting to stroke it which he always did as he watched her raise her arm to work out a proof to perfection at the whiteboard in third period, obscurely shamed and trying to think of something fucking normal, like her small breasts in her wet suit but again there were her arms with their ropey muscles flexing as she hauled herself out of the pool at a meet which he and Julia attended purportedly because she and Sofia were friends but Quentin suspected was because of Julia’s infatuation with Joey Lamb on the boy’s team.

“College, that was rough.”

Miriam from his Intro to Women’s Studies class, from his Existentialist Metaphysics class, from his seminar on Tolstoy, Quentin haunting her from building to building and department to department quite accidentally. Another head of long dark hair. Spiky all over. Her black tights with their perpetual runs and her scuffed ankle boots, dark purple polish on her nails, rings on every finger, a mysterious black-and-red tattoo climbing up her collarbone to peak out from the collar of her shirt and he wanted to lick it to its origins. She’d read everything, a breadth of knowledge that made Quentin want to crawl under his desk every day: obscure female modernists and hidden fantasy gems and out-of-print bargain bin paperback memoirs of forgotten Golden Hollywood starlets and a collection of noir pulps. She’d lived in Senegal and Latvia. She thought Quentin’s taste in books were infantile and all his opinions were stupid. He had confusing dreams of eating her out while she read Goethe in the original German.

Eliot doesn’t ask if he ever made a move on any of them, doesn’t censure him with his lack of reasonable cause to complain. Doesn’t urge Quentin to confess the parallel stories of all the times he did succeed with a girl (not—you know, not many, but yeah, it’s happened) because that’s not the point. They don’t leach the sting from these wounds. They’re an entirely separate story.

“Come on, now, you’ve gotta—you have to like, comfort me.” Quentin’s words are beginning to come out funny. “Right? I mean, you’re you, but I have to believe you at least have one embarrassing crush. Like, maybe in high school, maybe for just a minute there...”

A strange look passes over Eliot’s face, but it might be a trick of the falling light. “Oh, sure. Many. High school though...”

He’s quiet for a long moment. Quentin nudges his thigh with his foot, and Eliot smiles at him. He starts out with his typical jocular, expansive storytelling tone. The eloquent rise and fall of his wrist as he pushes his hair back. His languid sigh. “Kyle. You know the story. I was a theater kid and he worked the lights as extra credit for the class of Mrs. Carlsson’s he was failing. He was failing music appreciation class. Baseball star, prom king, etc. Very wholesome and widely beloved, but he was actually nice to—”

Eliot cuts himself off. Gives a little shrug.

“I don’t actually know that story,” Quentin says nonsensically, sleepy before one last rally.

Days have passed, maybe.

“It’s just, like, obviously, right? Alice realizes, ha, Quentin Coldwater, what? I’ve never—she said she wanted to be friends! Friends. I’ve got enough of those. I’ve got so many of those. Now. Or I did. Got some friends, lost some friends. Haha. Friends, friends, friends. Everyone wants to be my friend.”

“No no no.” At least Eliot’s voice is slurring too. Not as much as Quentin’s, but still. “Someday—no, listen to me. Someday someone is gonna want to not be friends with you so bad, Q.”

This strikes Quentin as deeply hilarious. Eliot’s face is very close to his.

“I’m serious. I’m so serious.”

Quentin can’t stop laughing. “It’s new for me, people wanting to be my friend. I was always such a loser. Only Julia ever wanted to be my friend.”

That makes him stop laughing very abruptly, like someone turning a radio off. He’s filled with deep sadness. God, what has he done?

“But now you. You, and Margo. Like I can’t believe it,” Quentin says, looking at Eliot. His eyelashes dark against his cheek. “You. I couldn’t believe you wanted to be my friend. That you’re my friend. You’re so…”

Handsome Eliot. Tall Eliot. Kind, funny, stylish Eliot. “You’re magical.”

Eliot laughs, and Quentin feels the heat of embarrassment laid on top of the alcohol flush, but he’s too drunk to care much. His regrets in the morning are going to be infinite. “You’re—stop laughing, you are. You belong here. I don’t belong here. I’ve never belonged anywhere. I keep thinking someone’s made a mistake, and they’re going to realize, and I’m going to wake up and this will all be gone.”

“That’s how you know,” Eliot says with drunken confidence. Fuck, they are so drunk.

“What?” Quentin’s lost. His eyes feel heavy.

“I’ll let you in on a secret,” Eliot leans in even closer. Wine on his breath hot against Quentin’s face. “Me neither. No one who belongs anywhere belongs here. That’s how you know you’re a magician.”

For one moment everything makes perfect sense to Quentin.

*

Quentin Coldwater sits on the edge of Margo’s bed. Hunched over in his dumb little hoodie. Margo had considered digging out a bottle of wine and pouring him a glass, trying to get him to loosen up a bit. But no. Better to not get any substances involved.

Margo stands before him. Takes him in, thinking. Plans her course of action. This requires delicacy.

It makes Quentin nervous. He squirms, and then bursts out, “Why are you doing this?”

“Doing what?” Margo asks innocently. She knows what Quentin means, but she wants to see if he’ll say it. He can’t. She thinks he tries, he opens and closes his mouth a couple of times, flushes, but he can’t quite get it out. Why are you about to have sex with me? Margo sighs. “Because I want to.”

Why?” Quentin says, totally bewildered. Which makes Margo both sad, and annoyed. She rolls her eyes heavenward, but Quentin doesn’t even notice. “You aren’t, like. Into me.

For fuck’s sake. How old were they? She understands what Quentin is getting at. Margo had been crystal-clear: this was a friends-with-benefits situation. They’d screw and it would be fun, but Margo has absolutely no intention of dating him, and would never develop this intention. The second she thought Quentin was harboring hopes that might change, she was cutting this shit off. Margo hopes that doesn’t happen, and thinks she’s reasonable to believe it probably won’t. She thinks that despite appearances, this might be exactly what Quentin needs.

“Define ‘into.’”

Ok, yeah. Too much for tonight. Quentin looks like his head is about to explode. Margo sighs again. That’s happening far too much already, but she has no one to blame but herself. She knew what she was signing up for. “Q, I’m into having sex with you tonight. That’s all it takes. This is where I want to be and that’s what matters. Do you want to have sex with me?”

The baldness of this statement causes Quentin to make a weird gurgling sound. “Um. Yeah. That’s why I’m here.”

Margo claps her hands together, which makes Quentin flinch slightly. Like a scared puppy, no loud noises. She wishes Eliot hadn’t decided to be a weirdo. This is a place where they would have made an excellent team. “Great. You want to learn how to get a girl off, yes?”

Quentin still looks nervous. Margo doesn’t think that will go away entirely, not tonight. But he nods, and although his answer is quiet, it’s given with more confidence: “Yes.”

“Good. That’s why. I’m a feminist, and I would be failing womankind if I released you on the world to fail to satisfy more women when I had the opportunity to stop it.”

Hm. Maybe a little meaner than she should go? Quentin doesn’t seem bothered. His brow wrinkles and he says, “Um, I don’t think that’s what femini—”

Margo puts a finger to his lips and says, “Shh. Please. Do not finish this sentence. Never let it be known you took exactly one women's studies course in college, not in the bedroom, or indeed anywhere.”

Quentin looks startled, like he’s barely refraining himself from asking how Margo knew.

“Also,” Margo continues, “I’m your friend. It’s not your fault alone the sex was bad. Girls have a responsibility to know what they want and express it. I’d help Alice figure all that out but she’s firmly shut down all my attempts at friendliness.”

“You’d help…” another little squirm, this time more firmly in the nexus between arousal and nerves. Progress. But then, easily distracted, Quentin switches tracks. “You have a weird idea of friendship, Margo.”

Eh, true. But they’re getting off topic. “Anyone can be good at sex. That doesn’t mean it’s easy, but anyone can. It’s a true meritocracy.”

“It is?” Quentin sounds genuinely hopeful. That’s sweet, and again, sad.

“Sure. It’s all about good first principles. Not about what bits or involved or what exactly they’re doing, but one essential thing.”

“Um. And that would be?”

“Figuring out what the other person wants, and trying to give it to them.” A bit didactic, but the simplicity is deceptive.

“Oh. Okay.” Quentin obviously doesn’t get it.

“Did you ever ask Alice what she wanted you to do to her?”

Quentin blinks at her. “I mean. I guess not exactly? But I’m not a dick. I asked her if, you know, it felt good.”

See, complicated. Even if Quentin had asked it seems unlikely that Alice would have had an answer. Too tightly wound to express it, and that’s if she’d figured it out in the first place. Margo has never seen two people who seemed as deeply uncomfortable with their possession of corporeal forms and all the complications they entail as Quentin and Alice. It’s a miracle they ever managed to fuck in the first place. Even Margo’s vivid and fearless imagination is daunted by trying to picture what it was actually like.

Margo moves to sit on the bed. A little behind Quentin, causing him to twist around, breaking his tense vigil on the edge of the bed, like he was ready to bolt at any moment. Margo smiles at him. Reaches out to tuck back the lock of hair that he’s hiding behind. “What did you guys do?”

Quentin huffs, annoyance masking a profound discomfort. “Is—is this really—god, Margo.”

“Another rule: to have good sex is you have to be able to talk about sex.” Quentin gives her a look like he wants to tell her that sounds moronic, but he keeps it to a look. Sounds wrong; don’t know enough about sex to dispute it. At least Quentin has some respect for obvious expertise. He’s slowly tilted downward, and now he’s lying mostly flat on the bed, head propped up on his hand. Classic sleepover gossip pose.

“The—all the normal stuff, I guess?”

Oh, honey. Margo raises an eyebrow at him, keeping her face unimpressed.

“You know, we. We—I went down on her.”

“Wow. Gold star.”

Quentin rolls his eyes. “No—I just. Julia and her friends, they—a lot of times I think they forgot I was there, and they. Talked. And they always complained about guys who didn’t. And I...”

“Didn’t want to be complained about.” Interesting. Couldn’t eat Julia Wicker’s pussy, went forth into the wide world carrying the favor of her disappointments like a knight of old. Funny, and sad.

“No. I mean yes, but—obviously I wanted—I wanted things to be good. For Alice.”

“So you made a brave sacrifice...”

Quentin flushes, fidgets. “No,” he says, low and rough. “It wasn’t a sacrifice. I wanted to. Alice was so. She was so—beautiful. I wanted to.”

The first times Quentin’s desires have come up in this discussion. It makes Margo’s heart hurt a little. The actual problem isn’t what Quentin believes to be the problem, but Margo knows that sometimes it’s kinder to play along until you can help someone to realize the real problem for themselves.

“But that wasn’t what Alice wanted.” Margo says this as gently as possible, but she swears she can feel the misery radiating off Quentin’s body start to vibrate at a higher frequency.

“I guess not, not that she ever—I asked her if it—I’m not a psychic. I don’t know what—I thought girls, they don’t—you don’t want to be selfish. You need to make sure to get them off, and I thought I—I tried to do that. I thought I did.”

“I’m sure you did,” Margo says, soothingly. She’s sure of no such thing, but she’ll let Q have this one. “But there’s more to sex than that. And it seems like Alice needed something more.”

Quentin’s sheer frustration comes out in a whine. “How do you do—both. How do you even assertively eat someone out anyway?”

Margo could make some suggestions. Flashes of holding girls down by the hips, bringing them to the edge over and over, pulling off whenever they get close, making them squirm and beg. Let me show you, Margo imagines saying. She could press the gas on the evening, accelerate. Flip Quentin over and pull down his stupid, ill-fitting pants and lick at him until he’s humping the bed. But with every strange dichotomy about sex Quentin is revealed to have internalized, the slower Margo feels the need to take things.

When Margo tunes back in, Quentin’s still going: “...but then I guess girls like that too, right? They like guys who—you know. Take charge.”

“They do?”

“I mean. I don’t know. Thinking about all the guys—like Julia’s boyfriend. From before Brakebills. James. She was pretty in love with him. He was this—he was on the lacrosse team. He was a business major. He was so—I don’t know. Confident.”

Good lord. It continues to be even worse than she’d thought. If Margo has read Julia right, Julia probably had “peg boyfriend” pencilled in to her calendar for alternating Wednesdays for stress relief and every Sunday to get them both in the right frame of mind for the busy week ahead, but Quentin apparently thinks his appeal lies in some kind of 1950s caricature of virility.

Julia has popped up twice in this conversation. Quentin hasn’t explicitly said anything about the nature of his feelings for her to Margo, but it’s not hard to guess. The childhood best friend. The boyfriend that is everything Quentin isn’t. Margo gathers that she and Quentin have had a falling out recently. Margo hasn’t seen her around the cottage much lately. Previously she’d been a common fixture partly because of Q and partly because despite being a knowledge dweeb girlfriend enjoyed a good party. Margo really can’t blame Quentin for his hopeless crush. Julia Wicker is pretty magnetic, and Margo definitely would, but: ugh, knowledge students.

“Mm,” is all Margo says, carefully non-committal. “Well, some girls do.”

Margo’s still thinking. She should probably give Quentin a lecture about how women aren’t a monolith and he really needs to drop the gender essentialism, inform him in no uncertain terms that letting the moment Julia started dating the lacrosse star senior year of high school permanently reorder your universe is stupid and centering your entire understanding of human sexuality around the hurt of your own perceived failures is unsustainable. Really, it’s incredible Quentin isn’t an incel, because all the ingredients are there. A real testament to some inborn sweetness that his self-loathing takes the form of his woebegone little voice saying he was a business major, and a minor miracle that Margo feels such a sense of pity and fondness mixed with her irritation. Like, it’s super fucking annoying. But perhaps fixable.

And Margo, for some reason, wants to help him fix it. For womankind and for Quentin himself. Because of course this state of affairs is no good for Quentin either. Figuring out what someone wants and trying to give it to them is only the first part of Margo’s golden rule: the next clause is figuring out what you want and asking someone to give it to you. Margo watches Quentin’s furrowed brow and defeated shoulders, as he traces a pattern on Margo’s bedspread and follows the path of his finger and doesn't look at her. That might be a bit much for Quentin right this second, but he should have no problem with part one. He seems desperate to please. It’s why he’s here, after all.

Margo finishes formulating her plan. “So you wanna learn how to take charge. OK, I can help with that.”

Quentin squeaks a little. “Alright.”

Margo sits up, pulls her shirt off and tosses it across the room. Enjoys Quentin’s saucer-eyes for a moment before she says, “Take your clothes off.” Because they have to get started somehow.

Which is how Margo comes to this absurd pass in her life: naked except for their underwear with Quentin Coldwater, instructing him to pin her down by the wrists.

He’s on top of her. Margo’s wrists are crossed above her head. He’d followed Margo’s orders and pinned them to the mattress but immediately he jerked his hands back, and now they’re hovering uselessly. It means he can’t really balance his weight, and so he crushes her whole body into the bed, before he realizes, and as he says, “Oh god, sorry,” he braces himself on his arms above her, face red. He finishes with an uncertain: “Um, like—like that?”

Margo arches her back. Breathes harder. Wriggles a little, as if fighting against the imaginary bond.

Quentin just looks panicked.

Margo sighs. “OK, get out. You’ve failed.”

“What?” Quentin says, almost tearfully.

He makes to get up, to flee, but Margo locks him in with her knees. “Kidding.” That was mean, but Margo had to get it out somehow. “Well, no, you have failed, but don’t go anywhere.”

Quentin’s face spasms with a growing frustration that bubbles up through the surface woundedness as he says, “What do you mean? What do you want me to do, I don’t—”

“Q, what did I say the one fucking rule was? The one rule of fucking?”

Quentin’s brow wrinkles in concentration, and when he remembers Margo’s earlier instruction he throws himself off her in a very dramatic fashion, and lies on his back on the bed, both hands over his face as he says, “But how, how am I supposed to figure out what someone wants—”

Margo leans over and flicks Quentin between the eyes, hard. She’s found unprecedented, slightly unnerving reserves of patience when it comes to Quentin and his bullshit, but really, there are limits. “You ask, dumbass.”

Quentin slowly lowers his hands from his face. He looks at Margo, eyes wide. Something Margo can’t quite read playing over his features.

“What do you want, Margo?”

The tone this is delivered in doesn’t fit the context. Not an ounce of sex in it. In fact it’s the exact same tone of voice Quentin had addressed Margo in last week, when he had walked right by Margo in the cottage hallway, too absorbed in muttering down at some notes in his hand to notice anything, and she’d lept out at him from where she’d been partially obscured by the coat rack. Exactly the same words, too, said after he’d yelped and scattered index cards everywhere. The same sullen exasperation trying to cover up the fact that Margo has scared him senseless.

“I’m going to tie you up and touch you all over.”

Margo is startled to hear these words from her own mouth. As startled as Quentin, who emits a faint whimper. She hadn’t planned them before she said them. There’s several things she could imagine wanting to do to Quentin Coldwater, or wanting him to do to her. She could introduce him to his own ass. Or allow him the gift of going down on her. But what came out is this: the unforeseen desire to have Quentin underneath her, trembling.

Last week, when Margo had scared him, when Quentin demanded what Margo wanted of him, how had she responded? Oh, right: To fuck with you a little. Yes, that’s what she wants: to fuck with Quentin a little. Nicely. Sweetly. A friendly little fucking with, that’s what they’re about.

Margo decides to roll with it. “I’m going to show you how it’s done. Teach by example. Watch and learn, Coldwater.” She sits up and kneels beside Quentin, who lays there on his back, gaping like a landed fish.

“Margo, I don’t...”

“Do you not want to do that?” Quentin is already shaking his head in protest as Margo goes on, “You have to tell me if you don’t. We aren’t going to do anything you don’t want to do, Q.”

“No, I. Uh. You touching me, that sounds. Good. Tying me up, um—I don’t know. But. I don’t understand why you would. Want to do that.”

OK, Margo’s getting pretty fed up with this. “Q, if you’d fuck a girl even while believing she can’t bear to view your hideous troll form, that’s pretty messed up.”

Margo almost feels bad when she glimpses the wretched look on Quentin’s face. Almost. Although she’s right and she stands by it, the force of a self-loathing so deep that it makes Quentin believe that every desired touch is something granted to him on sufferance is suddenly like a third person in the room with them. Which is ridiculous, Quentin is perfectly attractive. If you’re into his sort of thing. And there are people who are. Eliot, for example, is very

“I’m going to show you,” Margo says before Quentin can apologize. She swings a leg up and over so she’s straddling his waist. What exactly it is she’s going to show him is no longer clear.

Then Quentin Coldwater is spread out before her. His eyes widen even further as he feels the heat of her against him, through her underwear. They’re lined up in a way that if he was hard Margo would feel his dick against her ass. He’s isn’t, not yet. Too on edge. She feels the fabric of his boxers—when she’d seen those earlier she’d really had a moment of intense soul-searching when she’d had to acknowledge to herself that she still fully intended to sleep with him.

Quentin looks up at her. Swallows. His hands clench in the comforter, and pink creeps up his sternum. When they’d stripped down earlier he’d snuck little glances at Margo and then away, like he couldn’t quite believe he was allowed, but now, overcome, he looks. Shifts underneath her.

“Grab the headboard,” Margo commands. “Both hands.”

Quentin’s eyebrows do that thing where they try very hard to meet in the middle of his forehead, and look saddened and weary when they can’t quite manage the reunion. “I thought you said you were going to tie me up,” he says.

“Too involved,” Margo murmurs distractedly, her own eyebrows rising in surprise at this change in Quentin. All it took was someone else taking the reins and he’s relaxed a bit, enough to deliver this in a familiar tone of dry, bemused humor. A good sign. That blotchy red of anxiety and hopefully the beginnings of lust has reached Quentin’s neck, but he complies with Margo’s instructions, raising his arms above his head and gripping the bars of her headboard with both hands.

“Good boy,” Margo says. Quentin rolls his eyes but Margo can feel the depth of his indrawn breath, from the way it moves his belly underneath her.

Now Margo can look. Quentin is pacified for the moment, looking at her, distracted from awareness of how he’s on display by Margo on display. His eyes are glued to her breasts. His breathing picks up, and Margo thinks she can feel signs of life from his dick. She’s flattered that her tits still have the power to move him, after he got to look at Alice Quinn naked, however briefly. Or maybe he didn’t. Maybe they did it in the dark, through a sheet, because Quentin is getting really worked up. Margo isn’t knocking on herself. But it’s simply a matter of honor to acknowledge when you’re outmatched, and when it comes to Alice’s incredible rack, Margo definitely is.

This is the accompanying track that runs underneath her perusal of Quentin’s nakedness. Hirsute forearms. A nearly hairless chest. Surprisingly defined shoulders. Pale skin, kind of unhealthy looking. Like he’s a Victorian consumptive, like he’s never felt the sun on his skin. Small pink nipples. Margo finds her hands following the path her eyes have charted. She puts her palm on Quentin’s stomach, and slides it up to rest on the lurching, erratic thump of his heart. His skin is very warm and very soft. A miracle, like his bafflingly beautiful hair. He definitely doesn’t condition or moisturize. The little patch of hair on his chest is scratchy against her fingertips.

Finally, the increased wriggling Margo has noticed beneath her becomes impossible to ignore. She brings her gaze up to Quentin’s face and is surprised to find his eyes closed. She can feel his erection against her, but she wonders how long his eyes have been closed.

Margo rolls his nipple under her finger, and his eyes fly open. He squeaks.

“Hi,” Margo says, idly playing with his nipple, feeling it draw up tight as Quentin lets out a shuddering breath. His eyes are comically wide, and he looks like he’s about to go off in his dumb underwear, just from this. Jesus. “Am I boring you?”

Quentin’s laugh is a little wild. “Uh, no. But are you—are you done?”

“Kind of sounds like I’m boring you,” Margo says. Touching Quentin Coldwater’s nipples, listening to the soft sounds of surprise falling from his slack mouth at being touched in this way, watching his entire body ripple out from her fingers on him, the occasional little jerks like he’s been electrocuted. Quentin always seems like one raw nerve, and now Margo gets to watch the upside of that flayed open endless reaction to everything.

“Margo, you’re never boring.” It’s fascinating to watch the stuttering stop once he’s being told exactly what to do.

“Damn straight,” Margo affirms. “You don’t like me looking at you? You like looking at me, right?”

Quentin snorts. Small stalled movements of his hips, like he doesn’t quite dare to rub up against her, but he can’t entirely help himself. “Yeah, because you’re gorgeous, come on.”

“So are you,” Margo says, matter of fact, and it makes Quentin dare a ruder sound of disbelief. Margo pinches his nipple in retaliation, but it only makes him moan.

Margo means it. Quentin isn’t the type that usually gets her panties wet, but everyone is gorgeous, given the chance. The right lighting, the right circumstances. These are Quentin’s: trembling beneath her, just as she predicted.

“Close your eyes,” Margo instructs. Quentin looks at her in shock. Like he hadn’t even realized that he’d closed his eyes before, that he’d gotten harder from Margo’s eyes laying him open, drinking her fill of him while he shivered and sealed his gaze against it.

Quentin obeys on a big shuddering breath. Margo ghosts her fingers up his sides and he squirms.

“Ticklish?”

“That’s—that’s dang—ha ha—dangerous information for you to have,” Quentin says. “Margo.” But he’s being so good for her, white-knuckling the headboard, eyes squeezed tightly shut, so she’ll oblige.

Margo gets off of him and Quentin gives a little gasp at the sudden removal of her weight and warmth. “I’m not going anywhere,” she assures him. On impulse she leans forward to drop a kiss to his throat, right over his leaping pulse.

Then she shifts down the bed and contemplates the existential question of Quentin Coldwater’s underwear. There’s a spell that could remove them by magic, and she imagines the noise Quentin would make on feeling the air on his exposed dick. Instead she tucks her fingers under the waistband and says, “I’m gonna take these off, OK?”

There’s a long moment of hesitation before he nods. Margo is gentle as she takes them off, and less gentle as she flings them somewhere behind her. Good riddance.

Then Quentin is totally naked before her. She looks at his face first. Crumpled as if in pain with the brutal awareness of being looked at. He’s turned his face to the side and is rubbing his cheek against his arm as if to soothe himself.

“Q,” Margo says softly. Touches his hip. She wants to say we don’t have to but she thinks that maybe they do. Quentin has had sex, even if not that much of it, but has never yet submitted himself to this, to being looked at and weighed as an object of desire. That seems sad to Margo. In some way it seems like it should be freeing, but really it’s trapped Quentin somewhere beyond human reach. Margo wants to give Quentin the gift of that knowledge. She can’t quite manage the straightforward enthusiasm he deserves, but she still can let him know she approves. Of the fact of his body, of his wants.

Margo looks at Quentin’s hard cock, leaking against his belly. His embarrassment hasn’t caused his erection to flag at all. It’s perfectly average, perfectly proportional to the rest of him. Compact, but with a surprising heft. Like his thighs, which are way more defined than Margo would have guessed. Powerful, hairy. Calves that are—no other word for it—shapely.

“You don’t like this,” Margo says, as she wriggles out of her own underwear.

Quentin huffs, but maybe Margo was onto something with the command to close his eyes, because speech seems to come easier now.

“I don’t think I’m a, a hideous troll, or whatever, but I know I’m not—not much to look at. I mean, not in comparison with…”

“With James the business major?”

Quentin actually laughs a little. Margo leans against his propped leg, let’s him feel her warmth. Scritches in the dense hair on his upper thigh with her nails. He shivers and his cock jumps, a pearlescent drop beading at the tip, but he answers her in a voice that shakes only slightly. “Yeah, or with Alice, or you, so…”

“Why do you think anyone has sex with you, then?”

“If it’s not my looks and it’s not my winning personality, you mean?”—and Margo wants to say there, that’s it, right there: that wry amusement at Quentin’s mouth, with an unexpected gentleness in it, that’s why they’re both naked on her bed on a Thursday evening—“Pity, I guess.”

Margo makes a noise of true disgust. “I absolutely do not pity fuck anyone, Q.” She can’t explain it to him, her revelation just now, anymore than she could explain it to herself, so she falls back on unsatisfying shorthand. “You’re cute. Trust me. I can’t go five seconds without hearing about it.”

“Wait, what?” Quentin says in bewilderment.

Shit. Fuck. God, there’s no way Quentin doesn’t know, right? There’s no way. It’s not like any effort has been made to hide it.

“Come on. You landed a hottie like Alice.” Margo says. She feels sorry to have brought it up when she sees an unhappy frown on his face. “You beat me to it. A rare L for me, I’m still mad about it.”

“Sorry. Maybe if you had warned me about turning into a goose and flying to Antarctica and—”

Quentin cuts himself off abruptly.

“One day I’ll get the full story out of you. I knew you two were hiding something, you were so fucking weird about it.”

“There were, um. Special circumstances. Alice was probably right, we weren’t—she wasn’t herself.”

“There’s nothing special about it. Everyone hooks up at Brakebills South. It’s a survival mechanism to prevent your tits from freezing and dropping off.”

“Yeah, well that’s all I got. I couldn’t believe it either. Like you said—I’m not that cute.”

“Maybe it was your thighs in those horrible pajamas. Seriously, what is with that? How did this happen?” Margo could enumerate Quentin’s physical charms until she’s blue in the face and it would do nothing to convince him that reasons of simple lust were probably sufficient to account for Alice sleeping with him and that simple incompatibility is why she stopped. But still, she's gotta ask.

“My thighs?” Quentin says with a touch of hysteria, and when Margo straddles one of the thighs in question, he gasps. Margo knows what he feels. The soft warmth of her cunt against him. The faint rasp of the small patch of hair on her mons. “Fuck, Margo. Um, I—I run?”

“You run? I’ve never seen this. I’ve never seen you engage in physical activity of any kind. Or move more quickly than a brisk walk.” Margo starts to move her hips in tiny circles, against Quentin’s strong warm furred upper leg. She clenches her own legs tight around muscle and bone and releases, contracting and dilating in an unconscious rhythmic pattern. It sends a rush of blood to her clit, and traps it, concentrates it.

“Ha! Uh, yeah, I mostly do it at night, when I have trouble sleeping.”

“How did that start?”

“In high school, after I—my mom thought it would help. I was anxious and miserable and you know, exercise and endorphins, it’s supposed to help your mood or whatever.” Quentin bites his lip and moves his leg in a slow rock against Margo. “Fuck, sorry, that’s not—sexy. Is this alright? Is this what you want?”

Even something as basic as running, the burn in the muscles, the pumping of the blood: done under the cover of darkness. Margo is trying to avoid shoddy psychoanalysis with Quentin, but he makes it so easy.

Still, even the ignored body knows what to do. Quentin starts to rock his leg back and forth more actively, starts to instinctually meet Margo’s flow.

“You’re doing fine, you’re fantastic,” Margo says with a laugh. Fuck, this is good, surprisingly good. She feels warmth flood up from the heat trapped between her pussy and Quentin’s leg all the way to her navel. “Like I said, your legs, Q, what the hell. You should run with me. We’ll get you some little shorts, you’ll be a hit.”

Quentin laughs, the first real laugh of the night. His eyes are still closed, the muscles of his arms quivering as he tightens and releases his fingers on Margo’s headboard. His brow is creased with the great force of his concentration; his cock still hard, bouncing with the increased vigor of their movements. Margo gets her hand on his cock, hot and slippery, and Quentin goes ah ah ah, high-pitched and shocked. He almost twitches away from her, only to roll back towards her on a wave, meeting her where she’s grinding against him, welcoming Margo’s wet, her heat.

“Can I—I feel like I should be doing something,” Quentin pants. He rolls his head back against Margo’s pillow, restless and overwhelmed, pinned. She jerks him off as she slides forward a little, so her knee is snug against his balls and perineum, giving him something to rock back on.

“You are, this is great,” Margo says dreamily. Goodness sparking along her skin. She simply feels good, loose and happy, bouncing and writhing on her friend Q’s bent thigh.

“Yeah?” Quentin says, doubting her on a groan.

This is why Margo rarely fucks putative straight guys. No imagination.

“Listen, this right here features in my top three orgasms. Me and this girl, she was Russian—no, Czech. Anetka, god, her fucking thighs, we did this for hours. She was on the Olympic hockey team.”

Quentin goes still, although it takes Margo a moment to notice.

“Really?”

“Yes. We went back to her hotel room and I rode her thigh and—” Margo stills the movements of her hips, stops stroking Quentin’s cock. She turns her hand over and traps the head of his dick in her cupped palm, up against his belly, and moves her wrist in small, tight circles. She moves her knee with a steady, firm pressure against his taint, and Quentin shudders all over and moans, loud and unashamed, “—I touched her, like this.”

Not exactly like this, obviously—but she’d touched Anetka’s cunt the same way, the heel of her hand in a tight dirty grind against her clit, knee broad against the slick open of her.

“Like—like—so I’m a girl, in this scenario?” Quentin’s shaking all over, fine little tremors breaking out across his body in the wake of his question, as Margo starts to circle her hips again, in time with the way she’s moving her hand on Quentin’s cock.

“You’re a 6’1” hot Olympic hockey dyke, in this scenario,” Margo replies, laughing. Maybe this is what Quentin needs. Being Quentin seems so laborious, so taxing. She wants to show him how to slip into another skin and catch yourself sideways.

Quentin giggles. “That’s—flattering? Ah, ah—fuck, ha, but that’s what I was questioning. Like was she really on the Olympic team?”

Margo laughs again, at the depths of Quentin’s strangeness, to even think of that in this moment. “I mean, I didn’t run a background check, but that’s what she told me. You can ask Eliot.”

“El—Eliot?”

Fuck. Margo hadn’t intended to bring Eliot up, to bring him into this room. He hadn’t wanted to be here. Margo didn’t fucking understand why, but she was willing to respect his boundaries, even in her own mind. Now he floods in through every bend and twist in her brain, filling every nook and cranny of her mind that he usually occupies.

Margo doesn’t answer, because Quentin is coming against her palm, and she moves to jerking him through it, aiming his cock so that white strips his belly, his chest. Margo moves faster, more frantically against Quentin, losing her rhythm.

Of course Eliot had been there, to hear this girl tell Margo stories about the Sochi Olympics, before he found a thin and wan poetic type with huge eyes and a terrible haircut to cry on him for the night, no thank you. Margo hadn’t begrudged that the girl might have been lying, in whole or in part. Margo and Eliot had most certainly been lying themselves, that late-summer evening in Berlin. Trying on their different skins.

Margo and Eliot have been, including but not limited to:

- Dissolute children of a British lord
- Despotic heirs to an oil fortune
- Siblings
     - (See above; one or the other of them as the lately discovered byblow with a special relationship to the legitimate sibling)
     - Separated at birth as a part of an experiment
- Married
     - Yokels, fresh off the Times Square Olive Garden, eager for corruption
     - Spies (this posed obvious challenges)
     - Margo as a gold-digger aiming to steal Eliot’s money
     - Eliot as a gold-digger aiming to steal Margo’s money
-Descendants of the Romanovs
-Pretenders to the French throne
-Royalty of a fake country (done at a magical retreat without Internet)
-Royalty of real countries: who knows anything about the Danish royal family?
-Eliot as a gigolo, yearning for freedom from his keeper's tyrannical demands
-Cult escapees
-Once Margo had been Eliot’s hot stepmom?

Margo can sense her orgasm building within her, with that feeling she remembers from middle school, from that first discovery of her body and its wonders. A deep inward feeling, a stone-fruit feeling: a pit somewhere in her stomach, right at the center of her. Secretive and red-hot and glowing and growing. She angles her body forward a bit and grinds her clit right up against Quentin where he’s firm and unyielding against her dissolving, where he’s slippery and warm with her.

(Thinking of Quentin’s incredulity, his wait, only this? Margo remembers Eliot’s similar disbelief, his doubt regarding the jokes about girls and their pillows. So Margo had shown him. Grabbed the firmest pillow on her bed and folded it in half and stuck it between her legs and started to rock back and forth while Eliot watched, fascinated. Margo had closed her eyes and focused on that tiny waking sun within as she humped a pillow while Eliot laughed and stroked her leg with the tips of his fingers and looked at her with lazy fond eyes, anthropological and enamored, and the teasing pressure on her clit from the pillow and from the contractions of her thigh muscles sparked up along Margo’s veins until she was sweaty and whimpering and coming.

Yes, only this.)

It had been a lot of work to keep Eliot at bay, and Margo is angry at how futile it was in the end. Futile from the beginning, really. The whole time she hadn’t been able to banish the ghostly second self who looked out at Quentin from behind Margo’s eyes, as she catalogued and weighed the thing he yearned for but inexplicably refused to be here to see for himself.

God, she’d had this fantastic idea, and for what? Eliot, sunglasses on while he smoked away his hangover at the window—one morning several weeks ago he’d informed her that Quentin had been dumped and since Q was pretty torn up about it it was their duty as his friends to provide succor in this dark hour. OK, sure. From the start, she’d accepted Quentin’s place in her and Eliot’s two-pointed circle with little fuss. Eliot wanted him, and Margo wanted Eliot to get what he wanted. Also she was fond of the dork. So Margo had gotten some of the good shit from Hoberman and gotten Q alone and lent her sympathetic ear in order to get the real story, or at least the part of the story that Eliot had missed. Which was that Alice had apparently told Quentin—or implied, it wasn’t entirely clear what she’d said and what Quentin had merely inferred—that the sex was not good.

Her idea had everything.

Provide comfort to Quentin with their sexual prowess? Check.

Eliot finally gets to make a move on the boy he’d been lusting after for nearly a year? Check.

(And Eliot was hopelessly hung up on Coldwater. Margo didn’t believe for a second his sudden bullshit about how we’re friends now, Margo, why ruin a good thing. When had that ever stopped them? How would it ruin anything? The endless string of slight brown-eyed boys at Encanto Oculto didn’t lie, Eliot’s crestfallen face when they got back from Ibiza and learned that Alice and Quentin were together didn’t lie.)

Teach Quentin a lesson about friendly, low-stakes screwing, that everything didn’t have to be on an epic scale? Check.

Do a solid for women everywhere, or at least a handful of hypothetical women, by teaching Quentin how to get a girl off? Check.

Do a solid for men everywhere, or one specific man, and gently reveal to Quentin that maybe he wasn’t so straight after all, like, come on? Check.

Eliot did not immediately clap his hands and go thank you Bambi, my stunning genius, finally you are on board and bored enough to help with my long-deferred plans of seduction! He’d looked sick, and panicked. Then he’d gotten angry with her.

That’s not what Quentin needs right now. He needs friends, not people who are going to treat him like a piece of meat. He just got dumped. It’d be taking advantage.

Margo’s thighs are shaking. She’s coming, eyes shut as her frustration mounts and scenes of their argument play across her closed lids.

This is being a friend. Quentin’s an adult, I’m not going to pressure him into anything. It’s an offer he can take or leave.

The fight went out of Eliot quickly. He’d sighed and handed her a drink and said Bambi, do what you want. Really. You could be right. It might be good for him. But II can't, alright?

On the way out of the room, he’d paused with his hand on the doorknob. Justbe good to him, okay?

She had to admit that last bit had stung.

Margo blinks her eyes open on a gasp. She’s been good to him, alright. Quentin, this highly inconvenient boy unexpectedly flung down in the midst of Margo’s life, lies before her sweating and flushed covered in his own come, in her. Not a bad look. His eyes are open and he’s looking up at her, breathing hard.

“You should be spanked.” Margo intended that to come out differently. Ooh, you wanna spanking, opening your eyes before I told you to? Instead it comes out with an air of pronouncement, of recognized natural law. Quentin Coldwater should be spanked.

He laughs, totally overcome. Margo slides off to lay beside him with an exhausted thump.

They lie together, gasping in the aftershocks. Margo feels slightly worse than when they started.

After a second Quentin says: “You failed.”

Margo turns to look at him. “Excuse me?”

Quentin expression is far too smug. “You never asked me what I wanted.”

Margo starts to laugh. She wasn’t so sure just now if she was going to bone him again, but Quentin’s keeping her on her toes. “We both just got off so I think you’re fine but yeah, I concede your point. Bad form. What do you want, Q?”

“Can I kiss you?” He must see something of her internal jerk of revulsion cross her face, because he laughs, the asshole, and says: “No, not like—but can we, you know, make out a little? I like that. I’d like to kiss you.”

Margo’s eyes feel suspiciously tight. “Yeah, honey. Sure. I like that too.” She turns to her side, and Quentin turns to her, and she kisses his hot wet mouth.

Chapter Text

Fucking Quentin is a lot more fun than Margo thought it was going to be.

Obviously she thought it’d be a decent time, or she wouldn’t have done it in the first place. Still, she’d viewed it mostly as an act of generosity, a noble bestowing of her hard-won expertise. A rarely indulged spirit of philanthropy provides an excitingly novel form of pleasure.

Margo had told Quentin she didn’t pity fuck anyone but you know actually, like, maybe just a little.

Quentin’s a fascinating specimen. He has such a strange constellation of inherited rigid ideas about sex, but little of the typical resistance to having those assumptions overturned. Margo guesses that unlike most people, and most men particularly, Quentin is actually desperately eager to be told his conception of himself is, in fact, all wrong.

Also he is really, really, really into eating her pussy. So.

There’s only one drawback to this fun little interlude, but it’s a big one.

She can’t tell Eliot about any of it.

Margo has tried. He’s been so weird about the whole thing but maybe the only way forward was to brazen through it.

“So me and Q…” she’d begun after that first time, only to see a pained spasm ripple over Eliot’s face. Only for a second.

Then he’d pasted on a smirk and replied: “Have fun?”

It was strange to realize Eliot was acting a part with her. Painful.

She’d grinned back at him and said: “Yeah, it was,” and Eliot’s relief was evident when they quickly moved on to something else.

If Margo thought for a second that sleeping with Quentin would jeopardize her relationship with Eliot, she would obviously quit immediately. But things continue as normal. She and Eliot hang out, and Eliot is doing well.

Margo perches on the bathroom counter to watch Eliot reapply his eyeliner in the bathroom mirror between classes and tells her about the alum he's sleeping with. Margo stares down any first year who does a dramatic double take at a woman in the men’s bathroom.

“So how’s the fucking?” Margo flicks a flaking piece of polish off her nail. She needs to get those done.

“Good. I mean, it would have to be.”

“Why? What terrible attribute does this Mike have to make up for? He’s OK looking. A lot of flannel, he’s sort of personified flannel, but—”

But that’s apparently exactly Eliot’s type. There’s a pregnant silence where the choice to deliberately ignore this lives.

“He’s, uh,” Eliot is really overdoing his waterline, carefully not meeting Margo’s eye. She winces. “Well. The words socially liberal—”

“Oh, sweetie, no.”

“—and fiscally conservative may have been spoken. Also #NeverTrump. Also...registered Republican.”

Ugh,” says a voice from the urinals.

Margo snaps her fingers in the direction of the sound of piss hitting porcelain, and then snaps them at Eliot. “Exactly, Hoberman. Exactly.” (Josh had just given a cheery little wave on seeing her.)

So Eliot is doing...fine. He’s fine.

She and Eliot and Quentin also hang out, and it’s mostly not weird or awkward at all. The fact that Quentin and Margo are getting each other off on a regular basis is simply not referred to.

Quentin has a lot going on. Like, emotionally. Fucking Margo is probably a footnote, which is kind of offensive and refreshing at the same time. This is probably the reason they still hang out so much and ignore whatever undercurrents of sexual drama seethe between the three of them—Eliot believes Quentin needs support. Quentin believes Quentin needs support. He got dumped, and then there was some horrible falling out with Julia. Margo had tried to commiserate with Julia about her own recent heartbreak, because Margo is a bit of an expert being screwed by hedge bitches, but had been firmly frozen out. So she guesses Quentin has gotten both Eliot and Margo in the divorce, which isn’t super fucking mature of Wicker, but Margo gets the sense that whatever is going on with both of them is operating at a very juvenile level psychologically, so fine. Still, it seems Julia is getting comfort from somewhere, as Margo discovers by chance one day. Exactly where is...interesting. Also problematic, for certain people.

So Margo’s glad when she walks across the Cottage and sees Quentin and Eliot sprawled on a blanket together she can walk right up without worrying about things getting uncomfortable. Or at least not any more uncomfortable than her news is gonna make it.

“Q,” she says after she’s settled, sprawled against Eliot’s legs. “Have you run into Julia lately? Or Alice?”

Quentin’s head jerks up from his book, shooting Margo a wounded look for her rank betrayal in speaking those names. “I mean, I try to avoid it. So do they. Why?”

“Well,” Margo straightens her skirt. “I saw them over by Worf Fountain. They looked...friendly. And that’s new, right?”

There had been an unease, between Quentin’s oldest friend and his girlfriend. Alice had seemed resentful of her, and Julia’s somewhat forced friendliness had made as little headway with Alice as Margo’s totally genuine friendliness, thanks, had.

“What the fuck,” Quentin says.

“Margo,” Eliot chides.

“What?! I just wanted Quentin to be prepared!” Having your ex-girlfriend and ex-best friend develop a friendship would be rough for anyone, but is probably especially horrifying to Quentin.

“You don’t have to, to gleefully share it like it’s some piece of—hot gossip.”

“Oh,” Margo says. “I literally cannot help that, sorry.”

“I know, Bambi,” Eliot coos with a soothing pet to Margo’s hair. He’s already stroking Quentin’s shoulder, as Quentin vibrates with consternation and self-pity. Like this is what God gave him two hands for.

“People can be friends. They can be friends. It’s none of my business.” Quentin looks like he’s barely holding back from throwing himself down wailing and beating his fists against the brightly patterned picnic blanket. His mouth is twisted with misery. “They, uh, do you think—are they? Friends?”

Sure, that’s one word for it. Margo thinks she had actually been delicate in delivering this news, considering when Margo had come across Julia and Alice sitting on a bench, Julia with one hand entwined in Alice’s on Alice’s black-skirted lap and the other rubbing Alice’s shoulder soothingly, Julia had looked up and met Margo’s eye with a hard stare, like, yeah, run back and tell him, bitch.

Quentin’s having a difficult month. But hey, at least he gets to fuck Margo, and at least if she has to put up with his delicate nerves she is also having fun fucking him and he’s not a Republican.

It's just that not being able to tell Eliot about any of it is a big negative when it comes to Margo’s sexual satisfaction. Margo likes sex, and she’s good at it. Part of her enjoyment has always been telling other people about it. Making a story of it redeems even the most lackluster lay, and casts a satisfying, deepening glow around fantastic sex. Before Eliot sex was less good because of the weaknesses of Margo’s audiences: a handjob in a Porsche that led to the gurgling death of her father’s love for her or fooling around on someone’s else’s parent’s bed at a party with a girl who never spoke to her again or fumblings in a dorm room bed with a guy who had a girlfriend and didn't even make Margo come—no one else ever appreciated Margo’s performances, the potential that lay entirely within herself to reclaim anything if only she could find the right way to tell it and the right person to hear it. It turned out Eliot was that person.

This is pathetic, but Margo starts internally narrating her encounters with Quentin to an imaginary Eliot. Like this:

We were hanging out in my room. Somehow we got to talking about Coldwater’s porn viewing habits. OK, I asked. I was curious. If you’d gotten as deep and dark a look at Quentin’s sexual hangups as me, you’d be curious too.

I’m already curious.

Quentin has a lot of thoughts about pornography and how the chauvinistic, violent sex therein leads to the oppression of women. Also about how porn sex isn’t realistic and this lack of realism warps people’s views of sex and leads to distorted expectations about what sex is actually like.

I also had a lot of thoughts, but Q was on a roll, gaining steam.

“Like anal sex. It’s everywhere in porn, and it makes guys expect that every girl should do it or he’s being like, horribly denied something. And then girls do it to please them but it’s just painful.”

Well, my unspoken but burning question about whether Quentin ever watched gay porn has been answered.

A lot there, like always. Obviously, I felt for Julia or whichever of her friends had been pressured into having her ass so abused. Nothing Quentin had said was wrong. I couldn’t let it stand though.

“Only if you don’t do it right,” I scoffed.

Hey, I’m a feminist. It was doing battle with my dedication to good fucking, fucking well and being fucked satisfactorily, and it lost. They aren’t mutually exclusive, of course, but a commitment to both can gum up the works a bit on occasion. Sure, I could have given the speech that some women liked it and some women didn’t, everyone’s asshole is super valid, just listen to your partner, don’t pressure people into doing shit they don’t want, blah blah blah, but it lost to the fact that Quentin was fucking me at the moment.

Ah.

“I love it, when it’s done right,” I said. I let him take that in for a minute, then said: “You wanna?”

Quentin looked like he’d swallowed his own tongue. I could tell that the thought of fucking my ass held great appeal for him but that he also felt guilty about how much he liked it. I haven’t found the trick yet to getting Quentin to let that guilt fuel how hot he gets. I’m working on it.

“Do—do you want to?”

He always does that: answers a question about his desire with one about mine. To defer responsibility, to try to get me to insist on what I want so he can hitch a ride. I only looked at him. I always make him say it.

He dragged a hand down his face with a laugh. “I never know how a night is going to go with you,” he muttered. Isn’t that the truth. “Yeah, I’d—I like that.”

Oh, fuck!

So there is some progress. He looked nervous. Wondering what it said about him, that he did want it, wanted what those other pricks wanted. What it meant. I wanted to say: nothing, yet. It meant what you wanted it to mean. What you discovered it to mean, and the only way to find out is to do it.

“Hm. Eat me out and I’ll think about it.”

Quentin had a confused, constipated look on his face, like he didn’t know if he was frustrated, and if it was even okay to be frustrated, or if he was as happy as he usually was to go down to me. Finally with a little amused twitch at the corner of his mouth to contain it all, he replied, “Okay,” and gave me a kiss on the cheek before getting on his knees.

I wasn’t just having fun making Quentin work for it. Teaching through practice. Much more effective. I wasn’t sure whether I was in the mood for assfucking tonight or not. You know what I mean. We’ve talked about it, and we feel similarly. It’s not something you’re always up for. A special item on the menu. Not rare enough to be a delicacy exactly, but something to be savored when it shows up. Sometimes there’s nothing more unappealing. Caught on the wrong night and it’s repulsive, no way that’s happening. And then sometimes you might think you’re up for it but once things get going your body disagrees.

So I took my time thinking it through, as Quentin teased at me through my underwear, getting it nice and soaked. He seems to like that: evidence of enthusiasm in sartorial damage. Not that there was much he could do to hurt this particular pair, thinning elastic, the fact they predated Brakebills and magic obvious in the fact that they contained a brown period stain that Quentin was darkening with his saliva, with my arousal. Then moving the fabric aside with his fingers and licking at me, pressing these gentle little kisses to my clit, as I imagined his wide eyes, the way he could never seem to believe that he was being permitted to touch me, his shaking hands, his eagerness, the noises he’d make, the gratitude at being allowed anywhere near my ass. It was gratifying. Hot as hell. Also surprisingly hot. Quentin’s cock was the ideal size for it—mmm—when I was in this mood: not too much work, enough to get that sensation of fullness, that intensity of feeling that’s almost divorced from the question of good or bad but which forces me harder into my body in a way that can get me so wet when everything shakes out right. I was getting wetter just thinking about it.

Me too, bitch.

Yeah, that’s what we were gonna do.

That’s what I was thinking about when I realized I had lost track of what Quentin’s mouth was doing, only to feel his tongue lower than it had ever been before. Not quite on the mark, given the position of my hips and the presence of my underwear, but the intent was clear.

I pulled Quentin up by the hair. God, yes. I can confirm that’s extremely satisfying to do. His face was bright red. Normally in that state of embarrassment he’d have trouble meeting my eye, you know how he gets, but past a certain horniness threshold that sometimes vanishes.

“You like kissing me everywhere, huh.” I stroked his hair. What a good boy. Possibly some kind of sex savant. So ashamed as he nods and finally has to tear his eyes away from mine. Wondering if I’ll think he’s some disgusting freak and decide he’s to be forever barred from human society for wanting to eat my ass. Precious. Adorable.

“Here, let me over,” I said.

Once I was on my stomach, pillow under my hips, there was a pause. I craned my head over my shoulder to see what was what. Quentin was still flushed and he was looking down at my ass with fierce concentration. Like an Arctic explorer examining the wastes he must traverse from the prow of his ship. This suddenly seemed like the only correct response. Before I could ask him if everything was good back there he said, “Um, can you—lift your hips,” and I obliged so he could work my underwear off my legs.

He parted my asscheeks with his thumbs and after a lazy tut to get everything straight, which I’d show to Quentin later because never let it be said I fell down on the job in sex magic education even if at the moment I didn’t want to disrupt his process, I eased my head down to rest on my crossed arms and settled in to enjoy myself. There was another pause as he looked and I felt a prickle of annoyance. Maybe it wasn’t as hot as he’d expected. It wasn’t quite 2016 in Quentin’s sexual landscape. So asseating isn’t de rigeur? How dull. He’d been inspired only by the porn that started this entire thing so maybe he expected a bleached porn star asshole, I don’t know. It made me think of the time—oh God, please let this go—you’d attempted that via magic as one of your various schemes to make us easy money but you’d only succeeded in turning it translucent which was “super fucking unsettling, right,” that’s what you’d said furiously as you’d bent over for me—Bambi, please—in my bathroom and demanded I help you fix it. The amusement from this memory distracted me from peremptory disappointment at Quentin and so the first warm swipe of his tongue came as a surprise.

I never had anything but the firmest faith in Q, I’ll have it be noted.

That first sensation of awareness so heightened that it’s half-pleasure, half-discomfort rippled across my skin, raised the hair on my arms. A moment where my mouth opened in shock, emitted something between a gasp and a laugh. Every time, there’s a beat where it feels wrong to be touched there in this way, by something as soft and wet and insinuating as a tongue. It got me more turned on instantly, and I squirmed back against Quentin’s face, laughing, wriggling, finding it hard to stay still.

It made Quentin moan. Although I gotta take a moment to say he did not come to me with any natural talent for eating pussy, he’s a quick learner, and there was a gratifying enthusiasm to smooth over that awkward place before he gained the necessary precision, where he just sort of rooted around down there. Like a pig at a trough. Gross. Sorry. OK, but yes. Like a little baby kitten searching for the teat. That is a thousand times worse. I’d been surprised at how hard I’d found myself working not to laugh at how at first he just kind of mashed his whole face against me in a way that made me feel nothing at all, because the little whimpers of pained arousal, the throaty long moans, were so...sweet.

And you told me to be good to him.

Asked you.

Right then, enthusiasm was all that was required. I could feel the way he opened his jaw wide to lick at me, the point of his nose as it dug into my pubic bone. Just going for it, making these little groans and grunts and hums of eagerness. It felt good but I moaned and writhed like it was fantastic. You know, I think people have a real lack of nuance around the subject of faking it? The moans that are almost forcibly pulled out of you, from somewhere deep within, and the ones you willfully offer up, can be equally good. I’ve had people pull back and look at me skeptically, suspecting I was putting on a show. Which: yes, duh, of course. Like, grow up.

The sound of my own enjoyment set up a closed-circuit loop of pleasure. It made me wetter and the wetter I got, both in my cunt and the way my ass was getting slick from Quentin’s saliva as it opened to his mouth, the louder I moaned. Quentin responded perfectly, whining, fingers digging hard into my ass.

Fuck.

I got my fingers on my clit and rubbed in tandem with Quentin’s movements. Feeling a throb between my legs, an increasingly intense feeling of emptiness. Quentin pulled back a bit, almost panting for air, and I could picture the sight I made, the one that made him gasp and frantically pet the flats of two fingers over my wet open cunt.

“Your fingers,” I demanded, and laughed as he fit just the first knuckle of his middle and ring fingers into me, no more depth possible at this angle, and pressed his face into me gracelessly in his eagerness. “Wait, wait,” I said, and although it was a delicious frustration to take my hand away from my clit I reached around so I could hold myself open for Quentin, so he could kiss at my asshole while also rocking his fingers into me. It was a strain on my arms, a position I couldn’t hold long even with my impressive flexibility, ridiculous and inefficient, my grip already slipping and my shoulders aching, but that was what was great about it: it was provisional and messy and desperate, lacking the guaranteed pleasure that I’d get from moving to my back and letting Quentin lick at me while I fucked myself with a toy.

We got there, me lying on my back and Quentin kneeling between my legs, his face unattractively blotchy and the saliva drying on his jaw, as he worked a finger into my ass. Eyes fixed hungrily on my fingers circling my clit as I took a deep breath and bore down.

“Margo, is it, you’re so—”

Tight, he wanted to say. But he felt bad about it. So I helped him out.

“Am I tight, baby?” It’s part of the fun: rolling your eyes and writhing and saying in a breathy voice oh fuck, your big cock, acting like you’re being split open, like you think it’s just fucking impossible that they’ll ever fit it in there.

Quentin nodded and made a small broken noise, mouthed a sloppy kiss against my knee. “You’re so tight,” he echoed quietly.

Eventually Q was on his knees behind me while I knelt in front of him. I felt his shaky breath on the back of my neck. I’d gotten a toy out and it was vibrating against my clit as he pressed the head of his cock against my asshole at the same time I lowered myself down, muscles in my thighs burning.

That bizarre pop feeling as the head of a dick finally pushes in made me giggle at the same time Quentin gasped, and then as he slowly and carefully pushed forward my gasps joined his, high and almost yelping.

Quentin stilled, shuddered. I could feel how sweaty his thigh was under my hand. “Are you—is it—am I hurting you?” His forehead pressed to my shoulder, mouth lipping it at it toothlessly.

Aw, like a puppy.

This was the moment where I’d usually squirm, bite my lip to set the stage for myself, say vapidly, No, just—it’s a lot to take. Instead of sharing what was really happening, which is that the first little bit of having anything bigger than fingers in my ass always makes me face the question of whether what I was feeling was being fucked or—

Needing to take a shit.

“Fine, fine. There’s just always a second where it feels like I have to take a shit,” I said, laughing. It just felt like something I could say to Quentin.

Oh my God, really? Bambi. You’ll scare the baby.

Quentin stilled again, this time in surprise. “Oh, uh, really? Um, that doesn’t sound good?” Panting, slipping a little further inside, and then he was laughing too. Giggling breathlessly, giving in to absurdity, around whispers of, “Fuck, fuck, oh fuck.”

“It is, it’s good, it passes,” I said, and it was. Definitely a dick in there. I was so full; my skin broke out in shivers all over. I could feel my blood in my fingers, in my toes, in my nipples. I flicked the vibrator to a higher setting and it made my legs start to tremble, made me clench rhythmically around the delicious frustration of my empty cunt, around the animal heat of Quentin.

“Margo, you—you feel so good, oh my god. You’re s-so tight.” Pressing his face into my hair in shame, his hands going to my hips, and then one hand slipping around to my pussy. His fingers are very nice, but they weren’t needed at the moment, so I smacked his hand away.

“Just fuck me, Q,” I said. “That’s your only job.”

And he did, with a choked off moan. Started fucking into me, slamming his hips up, his hands gripping my hipbones tightly.

After I came once, he paused, exhausted, and I did the work, shaking all over as I fucked myself back on him and at the same time I worked myself over with the toy. I knew he could feel the way I tightened every time I got close because he bit me, hard, on the shoulder. Ooh. He quickly tried to pull back and I just as quickly reached around to grasp his head in a tight clamp, to press it hard to my shoulder, and he got the message and started to suck at my skin, desperate, just as his hips started to fuck up into me gracelessly.

“I’m—Margo, I’m gonna…”

“Don’t you dare,” I hissed. I wanted to come again with him inside me. This was a gamble: from experience I knew being commanded to do anything could either freeze him up enough with terror to stave off orgasm or could make him go off immediately.

This time it worked the way I wanted. I’d orgasmed again and it felt like he’d worked a good bruise into my shoulder by the time he came.

“You really do like it,” Quentin said softly, a bit later. Almost to himself.

“Have I ever lied to you?” I said, knocking my knee into his playfully. He snorted. We laid side by side and it was companionable, easy. I looked at him and smiled. I looked down at his body, the sheen of sweat on his chest, his silly vulnerable cock, the sheets tangled around his legs. My eye fell on his hand, which was touching the toy on the mattress between us, where it was slick from my body.

When I picked it up Quentin snatched his hand back. The first time I’d gotten out my box of sex toys, Quentin’s huge eyes making me very unsexily feel like an out-of-work circus clown at a child’s sad birthday party, he’d shown an instant fascination. Touching them gently, worrying his lip with his teeth. He’d asked, “Can I, um—can I use one on you?” Hey, no better way to weed out worthless dudes. If they’re threatened by anything battery powered or bigger than their dick you can kick them out of bed, no further information necessary.

As I held the vibrator to Q’s lips my mind flashed to memories of Quentin sucking my slick off his own fingers, of Quentin gratefully cleaning his own come from my proffered hand. I could see it already: the pink dart of Quentin’s tongue flitting out to taste. Instead he widened his jaw and sucked the toy into the wet red cavern of his mouth. Jesus. His eyes closed and I heard him emit a small, wounded moan around the weight of the toy on his tongue as he suckled.

I pushed his hair off his forehead as he sucked harder. Frantic, messy.

Quentin’s eyes opened and they were panicked. He hadn’t expected to do this. To want or to act on the want? I couldn’t tell which. I stroked his hair and smiled at him and saw the panic recede a bit, a glaze of pleasure encasing it, dulling it.

“I liked it so much,” I said. “Do you want me to tell you how it felt?”

Chapter Text

Margo returns from her morning classes one day to find an envelope lying on her pillow. She stops in her doorway, cocking her head in curiosity, and when the name of the sender leaps out at her from the return address, her heart begins to pound.

The contents of the envelope were sparse: a roundtrip plane ticket to Milan and a brief letter informing Margo that a car would be waiting to pick her up at the village station when the train from Milano Centrale arrived at 14:00 on May 15. None of the soul-crushing back-and-forth of emails from HR that define more typical internships. Just a ticket, and seven little words in an elegant, spidery script that cause Margo to let out a squeal of excitement. I look forward to working with you.

She rushes out of her room. “Wow, good news?” Todd says brightly as Margo pushes him aside from where he’s blocking the stairs. Of course gloating to Todd will be an essential part of her celebratory process—later. Right now there is exactly one person the planet she wants to talk to.

There’s a simple spell, functioning like a homing beacon, that would lead her straight to Eliot wherever he is on campus. Margo doesn’t use it. She wants to revel in this already too brief interstice—there’s only a couple of paths he might have taken after his horomancy elective, and she heads first for his favorite mid-morning smoking spot under a particularly picturesque oak—striding through campus with the awareness of her victory is suffusing every pore, her fierce satisfaction heightened and sweetened by anticipation of the moment she will get to share it with Eliot.

The Dr. Morante development had been unexpected.

Because, the thing is, Margo had known about magic for nearly a decade before she landed at Brakebills, and about Brakebills itself for nearly that long. That provides one explanation for the cynical weariness she’d felt on looking on the dopey, wonderstruck expression on her newly inducted classmates’ faces at orientation, but then—had she ever felt that way?

(Even at twelve, trembling as she knelt on the cool tile in her bathroom after a conversation—Mama, what is it? What did I do?—where Margo knew her mother—cold, stiff, shrugging off Margo’s kisses, the hugs and hair-stroking that she permitted when Margo had pleased her—was angry with her but would not say why or tell her how to rectify it because there was no particular reason and thus nothing Margo could do—as she knelt there and felt a stone sink to the pit of her stomach she watched the hot bath she had just filled freeze solid right down to the bottom of the tub in the blink of an eye her feeling had not been one of wonder. Neither had it been disbelief—a lot of magicians unconsciously did magic as kids and convinced themselves that what they’d seen was a delusion or let their brains craft an explanation to make it fit with what they already knew to be true. Not Margo. She had believed in it instantly and totally. I did that, she thought, and it felt right, it was true, the new truth truer than any she had known before, and her trembling had not been wonder but rage, a rage that had worked itself outward to work upon the world, and that had been the source of the awe.)

Her eyes scanning the other faces—one girl was crying—crossed paths with someone else’s bemused survey. Eliot his eyebrows at her, and a space had opened up between them: open, clear to cross.

(Talk about lack of wonder. Eliot had never gotten it because magic had arrived to him as horror. At the Trials he’d been unable to meet Margo’s eyes as he told her how a split-second inner wish had doomed Logan Kinnear and Margo had said, immediately aghast, “What? Fuck, why not me?” That had startled Eliot into looking at her. “It should have been me,” she’d repeated. “Like, come on. I’m always ready to kill a bitch,” and Eliot had laughed—in exhausted disbelief at her bullshit, at her inability, even at the cost of their entire future, to say one true fucking thing, in frustration at the stubborn way the rope still encircled his hands—they’d both laughed and laughed, slap-happy on no sleep, and although as they laughed Margo started to feel awful about her self-centered knee-jerk response she also realized it actually was true. Truer than true. She had frequently been angry enough, across the country and a couple years earlier than some insignificant loathsome little creep becoming roadkill, to want someone dead. It did not make cosmic sense, it was monstrously fucking unfair, that the remaking fury her idiot younger self once found so impressive could make something very cold while magic’s taunting theft of a quicksilver protective yearning of Eliot’s mind could make someone very very dead. Margo had looked at the lingering tightness in Eliot’s shoulders, the miserable compressed line of his mouth, and felt something swell hot and unbearable beneath her ribs. It should have been me, because I could have carried it. I wish it was. I wish could carry it for you.)

No. Magic, for Margo, was about what it had always been about: it could get you things, and meeting Eliot meant there was something to get things for. That was the revelation.

They’d ace their classes and make connections and be able to take care of themselves forever, and they’d have great fucking time while they were at it.

Margo had originally viewed Morante in that light. Margo and Eliot had slunk in to the back of the lecture hall grievously hungover when she’d given a talk first year, anticipating another grindingly dull forum in the line of New Frontiers in Meta-Topography: Theoretical Considerations of N-dimensional Castings or Moral Epistemology and Ontology in Magical Theory: A Comprehensive Retrospective from a worrying prospective case of elder abuse (because it was surely cruelty to let whatever dinosaur droning on at the front of the room out of the home), and instead there was Dr. Vittoria Morante (B.A. Universitá di Bologna, 1984; PhD Esquith University 1992) and Margo fell in love, instantly, the only way she ever had: with a superior version of herself suddenly glimpsed.

She’d sat up straight in the chair, jostling Eliot from his drowsy slouch against her shoulder, electrified by a pure, piercing knowledge that she had previously only had brief vague intimations of—Margo was born to be fifty years old. Morante’s fifty: her body kept as sleek and well-oiled as a collector’s classic Ferrari, and clothed as expensively. No one called her girl or baby. No one would dare condescend to her or underestimate her. The supercilious, mocking flick of her eyebrow at van der Weghe’s lame jokes in his introductory marks was so devastating that if Margo had been on the receiving end of it she’d have to leave human society, go to the woods, and lie down in a ditch to wait for death to take her, longing for the worms to feast on her worthless flesh. Margo felt the paint on her nails peel back at the targeted acid in her dry, “How droll, Fredrick,” while van der Weghe just laughed. He wasn’t tuned in. He was a lower level of organism, incapable of realizing Morante simply didn’t view him worthy of the effort of being told to go jump off the library bell tower. When Morante rose and strode to the podium, Margo leaned over to try to impart her revelation to Eliot, in an attempt to restrain herself from crawling down the auditorium stairs on all fours like a disgusting little crab and licking her leather pumps, and when Morante honed in on the moron (Margo) that dared to interrupt the eerie expectant silence from the student audience (not a rustle of paper, not a single tap on a screen) with a surgical precision and decapitated her above the second vertebrae with her eyes, Margo either peed a little or came, it was hard to tell.

Born to it, but not hers by birthright. Here was something that required conscious effort—if only because it was impossible to imagine Morante satisfied with anything not amply earned by rigor. You worked towards it, under discipline, and then you reaped the rewards. They might take this outward flesh: legs to die for and a white streak in perfectly coiffed dark hair.

(Although maybe it was in Margo’s stars, a little. By dint of genetic inheritance. There’s something in Morante that reminds Margo of her grandmother, as Margo remembers her being when she was small. Flying in from Paris, smoking constantly and teaching Margo how to make the perfect gin and tonic by the age of five. Ethering Margo’s father with the way she sat on the edge of her chair. Margo had known she wasn’t supposed to love her. Known she was being the basest sort of traitor for how every single time she peeked around the door and stared in fascination and how she always, when her grandmother caught sight of her as had been the sly design all along and beckoned to Margo with a beringed hand, crept over gratefully to cuddle in her grandmother’s lap and worshipfully gaze at her face, to rapturously sigh in her perfume. She’d felt bad about it then, especially as it took shape for her slowly, over the course of those visits, that the same glamorous Old World parties in 1950’s and 60’s Bombay and Cairo and Rome that her grandmother held Margo spellbound with the accounts of were the reason for her father’s resentment, the source of many of the convictions that shaped their family life. A specific vision of how women should conduct themselves that he got closer to realizing with his wife and perhaps hoped to perfect in the more malleable form of his daughter. Margo had to give her father credit. He held himself to similar standards, and he’d done as he’d promised: different than his parents. He might stay late at work but he was home to kiss her goodnight more often than not, or he’d call from the office and sing her to sleep down the telephone wires. He might travel frequently but he’d come into Margo’s room when his flight landed and pick her up from her bed and walk around the house with Margo dozing in his arms, head heavy against the travel-crumpled shoulder of his suit. It wasn’t hard to understand how Margo as she turned out to be posed a challenge he wasn’t ready for. For much later than she’d ever admit she would experience flashes of disquiet about her change of allegiances. Look at Eliot. Shouldn’t she have sympathy for sons whose mothers chose the path of abstention? But as a daughter who deferred, she had been left with little choice.)

So this was the goal to work towards, and Morante was the ideal mentor. She could impart her wisdom, and give up her secrets to Margo’s keen observation. Since Margo Hanson is never one to delay once decided upon a course of action, after the lecture on the possibilities of weather magic for mitigating climate change (actually not uninteresting) has concluded Margo pushes her way through the wave of students hurrying for the exits to the stage, ignoring Eliot calling her name, confused at her unprecedented choice of direction.

Margo slid between van der Weghe and Dr. Morante to proffer her hand and an introduction. “Margo Hanson. First year, cyromancer.” She thinks Morante looks amused by the boldness of this interruption, but even offense wouldn’t go amiss—as long as Margo’s memorable. She shakes Margo’s hand back: brief, firm, well-moisturized. The interaction doesn’t last much longer because although Margo has no compunctions about being rude to Frederick she’s smarter than to get on Sunderland’s bad side, and so when Pearl (“Pearl, wonderful to see you,” kisses on cheeks all around) comes up (“Vittoria, masterful as always,” more kisses on cheeks, and Margo would swear lingering one on the mouth??) she’s forced to beat a retreat.

She does her research and it turns out the object of her infatuation is famous. Legendary. Weather magic is a rare speciality, given the amount of power it requires.

Morante has that power.

She’s dissipated tornado-spewing storefronts in Oklahoma and mitigated tsunamis in Japan, torn away persistent unseasonal cloud cover to give smallholders crops the blessing of sun and coaxed deep hidden veins of groundwater up through hidden pathways in parched soil slowly returning to desert.

Asking around reveals Morante occasionally holds a summer internship for one or a few promising young magicians whose talent might benefit from her tutelage. Not every year or even every other: she’s too busy, too in demand for that, and her mentee relationships apparently are far deeper than normal, apt to last longer and turn into partnerships. There is no discernible application process. This air of mystery and exclusivity explains Morante’s absence at the unseemly scrum of Eliot and Margo’s first year mentor’s week, where they lost out on a Michelin starred restauranteur to Hoberman, which no sweat, good for him. First year success in getting a top-tier mentor was rare, right? It was natural that second and third years were prioritized.

(Eliot landed a geriatric nun, which he insisted was camp and ironic, and despite his frequent declaiming on the miseries he suffered while his telekinetic abilities were abused for the sake of some much needed convent renovations, he continued to come at Sister Rosemary’s call. She and the sisters liked having a good looking young man to tea every so often, and Eliot’s tales of how each sister took him aside to bitch to him about various convoluted internecine conflicts—involving fraught issues like Sister Martha’s kleptomania slowly jeopardizing their relationships with all local merchants—were some of his best material, which was maybe what he’d been after all along. He alleged that after the restauranteur was gone there was simply no one else interesting, which wasn’t untrue, but there were still useful options, or so Margo had thought: she’d set her sights on a successful and expensive defense attorney—which, like, ugh, lawyers, but surely it was equally pathetic to avoid doing what your parents did simply because they did it as it was to blindly emulate them, right, it was all in how you did it—anyway, this was a woman she originally took to be someone in Morante’s line, powerful and settled and unfuckwithable, quickly leading to dreams of how incredible Margo would look decimating her opponents in court in a well-tailored pantsuit, only for these hopes to be dashed on the rocks of endless paperwork and stale coffee and the fact that this potential muse wore separates.)

Still, despite Morante’s elusiveness and despite prior disappointments, there’s a lot of fish to fry. Although Margo indulged in fantasy from time to time, (Morante behind her in a lush, verdant garden, guiding Margo’s hands and watching the lackluster results critically, with low hums of disappointment in her throat and sharp reproving clicks of the tongue, until Margo finally gets it—whatever it is, that detail is less relevant—and thereby earns herself a caressing, “Good girl, that’s it”…) and once, during her and Eliot’s peripatetic, idiosyncratic summer jaunts after their first year, while flipping through a guidebook at a book stall in Venice, she briefly contemplated visiting Morante’s ancestral village—“a hidden treasure of Lombardy, a picturesque gem just a stone’s throw from Milan”—and thus enabling an fortuitous, accidental run-in in the plaza—“charming on a summer evening, enjoying a scoop of gelato or an espresso at one of the many cafes around the square”—in front of the cathedral—“a beautiful example of the Romanesque style”—she was too busy to dwell on it.

(No disgraceful theater like “Oh, doctor, imagine running into you, what are the odds?” occurred largely because she was thoroughly sidetracked when Eliot sidled up to her and made a show of idly thumbing through postcards with bored distaste in preparation to saying, “I know it’s gauche, but—do you want to take a gondola ride?” Margo had felt a spurt of meanness, disdain, composed of several different parts. Ugh, really? and How would you know what’s gauche? You’re from fuckin’ Indiana, and this is your first time going anywhere. Then the miracle. Her mouth opening only to close. Finding herself stalled by whatever she sees in Eliot’s downturned face and baffled once more by a confusing wish to put aside her first natural impulse for cynicism. Somehow Eliot called that forth in her. But she also knew what her role was, knew how she needed to respond to make space for that sweet nervousness. Margo sighed heavily and put down the Lonely Planet. “Highly passé,” she drawled, putting all her deferred scorn into it. Pausing ominously. “But what the hell. Let’s do it.” She’d grabbed Eliot’s hand and let his grin break open her own. And fuck it, it was fun. The lights held trembling in the canal. Eliot’s chest against her back as they lounged warm against the cool pervading damp seeping off the wet stone.)

Margo did give a lot of thought to she and Eliot’s future, in general. They both did. Creating glowing visions of their fabulous future was a favorite way to pass the time, and it led them to Genji Quinn and her retreat as their most enduring idol. A magical retreat on the grounds of the restored mansion of a Gilded Age robber baron and a reigning despot fabulous enough to be worthy of such a setting. Eliot was very taken with her from the first, as they hunched over his phone looking at her website after hearing through the grapevine that the only thing that kept her from her faithful yearly attendance at alumni week last year was a bout of pneumonia.

“She’s no Morante, but she is pretty spectacular.”

“No Morante is right. She’s far superior to Morante.”

And this after Eliot had claimed sympathy and understanding of Margo’s fascination. (“In an academic sense. Well, I mean, not academic, I don’t care about—oh, you know what I mean. I get it, Bambi, and I respect it. But I don’t feel it, you know?”)

“Hey now.”

“Look at that hat, Margo. Look at it. That’s the hat of a woman who fears neither God nor man. I want her to make me cry.”

“Hm. I can see it.”

It would be a fitting backdrop for Margo and Eliot, and ideally suited to their talents. That high they get when a party goes perfectly, where Margo’s ooh you know who you should meet and Eliot’s come on, try this combine, catch and lock together, to create an electric reaction that Margo could almost taste, where they just knew everyone was having the best time they could have and it was all because of them. To do that on a larger scale, to enable the sharing and nurturing of magic with fine tuned social engineering rather than arcane theory…they would kill it.

Alas, Genji claims not to agree. Margo doesn’t buy it.

“She’s playing hard to get,” Margo says confidently as they made their way back across campus after their rejection, hands entwined. “We just have to wear her down.”

“I thought you said that was an incredibly sexist concept,” Eliot replies, sounding distracted, stewing in his own analysis of their lack of decisive success.

“She’s a filthy fuckin’ tease,” Margo says, basking in the glow of Eliot’s laughter. They can’t be kept down for long. They’ll win the Caligula of the Catskills over eventually and if not they don’t even need her. Margo Hanson can do anything. She and Eliot will set up their own show and put her out of business, force her to come her knees to them begging to partner with her before she goes bankrupt.

It’s a nice thought, but there’s no urgency in it. They’ve got time. It’s the start of second semester, second year, and they’re just beginning to think about their theses: tossing around ideas, half-joking, half-hoping something will catch. Neither of them are inclined to the type of theory-heavy research that make the Brakebills faculty cream themselves. Every professor wants to be the advisor to a student that blows their field wide open with a discovery that upends the foundational assumptions of an entire discipline or rewrites the theoretical underpinnings of magic itself. One or the other. But Margo and Eliot don’t run to theory. They’re big on application: there’s already so much magic, wonderful, beautiful magic, and so much that can be done with it that no one has ever bothered to try, so eager are they to be groundbreaking.

Margo is in fact the midst of mulling over this exact conundrum—she wants to win her thesis, she wants to have the best thesis, she wants the entire faculty to be bowled over by her brilliance, but also she has no interest in doing the sort of thesis that will lead to this result—when Todd runs up to her, panting, and says, after he theatrically puts his hands on his knees, and catches his breath, “Hey, Margo! Fogg wants to see you in his office!”

“Was all this really necessary, Todd?”

Todd ignores this. “There’s this woman here that wants to speak to you—uh, a Marino something? She has an accent—”

It’s Margo’s turn to take off running, sent on her way by a mystifying, “Have fun!” from Todd, aimed at her rapidly retreating back.

(Margo passes Eliot on the way, emerging from the direction of one of the exit portals and by implication a rendezvous with his flannel cure. She doesn’t have time to slow down for a full casual run in, so she just yells “Morante! Internship!” as she speeds by, and their shared language is such that he can respond “Oh shit! Good luck!” without confusion.

They’d talked about it enough that it needed no further explanation. If Eliot was puzzled by Morante as Margo’s mentor-passion of choice, he similarly didn’t completely understand Margo’s newfound obsession with being selected for an internship that would put her in a remote location with a harsh magical taskmistress for an entire summer.

“Okay, actually, when I phrase it like that—I can see it. But while that’s a nice fantasy I don’t know if it’ll bear much resemblance to reality, given—” Eliot gestures at Margo’s laptop, paused on Morante giving a talk in yet another beige, institutional space, this time on something about ocean currents and preventing the die-off of krill. Margo switches tabs.The first to another paused video, this time of Morante with her arms raised, against a background of red clay and green shrub, redirecting a dust storm away from a village in Namibia and back into the Kalahari, and the second to Morante’s villa on Google Maps, specifically to a view of the garden. Vines strangling the plinth of a statue, purple flowers climbing up a stone wall. She describes her fantasy of Morante in this setting, guiding Margo to channel the kind of power on evidence in the first video. The thrill of Morante behind her, snow clouds forming overhead, tasting the descending cold on her tongue…

Some tiresome, joyless scold might think this is a cheat. A shallow diversion from whatever deep emotional need Margo is really seeking in Morante’s prospective tutelage. This is a limited analysis. It’s both: merely an outward form of for a many-layered desire that Margo herself can as yet only dimly perceive the true outlines of and it’s also a part of the desire, or even the latticework that shapes the desire. It’s not a distraction: it’s a vehicle. A way to transmit something both she and Eliot can better understand.)

When she gets to the Dean’s office, Fogg is the only occupant. Margo’s disappointment must be evident, because he gives a small smile and says, “Yes, Miss Hanson, just me. Dr. Morante is waiting for you in the botanical garden. I expect you to do this institution proud.”

Thus directed, Margo makes her way to this meeting with destiny at a brisk walk. Perspiration is an unavoidable fact with all this traipsing around—or it would be, if she wasn’t a literal ice queen. Cool flows out from the center of her, pooling where it’s most needed: in behind her knees, under her arms, between her breasts, at her groin. It’s an unspectacular subdiscipline, but not unuseful.

Morante is just beyond where the beds of flowers and herbs end, her impeccably clothed back to Margo as she faces a large old oak that marks where the well-tended campus grounds give over to a barrier of thick woods. She turns at the crunch of Margo’s footsteps on the graveled path.

“Miss Hanson,” she says, taking Margo’s hand and pressing a kiss to each of her cheeks. “Wonderful to see you again. You may be wondering why I’ve called you away from your studies…”

“The internship, right? You’re doing it this year?”

Oh my god, she remembers me! is Margo’s first thought before the intense embarrassment of this undignified excitement sinks in and is overwhelmed by the internal directive of bitch, please calm the fuck down.

The professor raises her eyebrows and gently murmurs, “So I see you’re already familiar with why I’m here,” in a tone of such perfect politeness that Margo almost wants to cringe at the admonishment. Almost. But Morante seems mostly amused and maybe even gratified by the enthusiasm. “Well, that saves us some time.”

Morante turns and begins to walk the path that Margo had traversed to reach her, back between the neat vines and hedges. Margo follows but is distracted batting a butterfly out of her face and doesn’t get a chance to respond before Morante continues: “That’s good. You see, the bureaucratic wrangling that goes into something like an internship is part of why I do it so rarely—although, yes, you are correct: this year is one of the exceptions. So time consuming! And I am so busy, I have so many commitments. But the, hm, the irony is that I become less busy with every magician whose skill I cultivate, with every future colleague I nurture.”

“And you want to cultivate…me. As a future colleague.” Margo doesn’t have patience for playing coy, and it seems like maybe Morante doesn’t either.

“I keep an eye out for students whose talents might benefit from my tutelage. When I was Brakebills last, I asked for the names of any students who had shown promise in elemental magic. Your name was mentioned. Cyromancy, very interesting.”

“It is?” Margo can’t hide her surprise. She’s always found her speciality pretty underwhelming.

“You don’t agree that—here, what was it—” in confusion Margo watches as Morante withdraws a paper from some secretive tailor-made pocket in her tight sheath dress, and this shifts to dread when she recognizes her own handwriting. “—ah, yes. You don’t agree that a spell that keeps all the ice in all the drinks at a party cool all night is interesting magic?”

The paper that Morante has managed to acquire is a list of thesis ideas from the thesis preparation class all second year students were required to take. Stumbling in resentful about the scheduled but somehow always unprepared for termination of absolute freedom on the first day of the semester, it had to be said Margo didn’t give it her best effort.

But like, still. Fuck you! “That is actually really difficult to do, it takes a lot out of you,” Margo replies, hating how doubtful and weak she sounds, because it’s the truth, and Margo did it while looking hot and being the fascinating light of the party and typically managing to get both her and Eliot and random partygoers laid while doing it, so there.

“So you’ve already figured out how to do this,” Morante says, like she’s caught Margo out.

“I don’t see why every single master’s thesis has to reinvent the fucking wheel,” Margo snaps back, goaded. “Shit, sorry for cursing. Shit.”

Oh well. she’s just going to have muscle through it. Brakebills and magic has turned her feral, or maybe undomesticating herself had been so arduous an effort that she now can’t tame herself even for short stretches. Whatever. If Morante wanted a wheedling toadie, she’d have to go elsewhere. But she’d asked for Margo Hanson and that’s what she was going to get.

“Or even magic in general,” Margo continues, slightly more evenly. She doesn’t know if she wants this after all if Morante turns out to be yet another smug, stuffy academic like all the other institutional windbags, but if that’s the case she does want the pleasure of getting to turn down Morante’s fucking annoying super special internship after beating all others to win it. “The focus is all on innovation, and not on using the stuff we’ve got more effectively.”

“Ah. So you’re interested in making your unique talent more widely applicable, simplifying it for common magical use?”

Margo wrinkles her nose at that one. That’s not how she would phrase it, but that realization sparks the succeeding one that she hasn’t ever actually put what she does mean into words, not even to herself.

So she tries. She thinks of a party, of the tiny stresses of disdain Morante had placed on the syllables. Margo places herself in that moment when she knows she and Eliot have made something flawless: a thing totally ephemeral, nothing that will last, and made up of elements no one but they will even notice enough to appreciate. Like cold ice in your glass, like drinks that refill by magic so you can continue vibing with that crush or dancing to that great song—not the same song for everyone, the precise song you need, in that moment, to let your body fall into rhythm with—and the ice still cold when it ends exactly at the moment when you’ve danced out that need and you return to where you left your drink, how refreshing it feels to dehydrate yourself further, hair sticking to your sweaty forehead…except for that exact moment when it’s really time to make your way across the room, see what’s happening, see who’s new, show yourself off, and a trip to the bar provides the ideal opportunity. Margo isn’t so up her own ass that she doesn’t realize that no one cares as much as she and Eliot do, that horny overworked grad students would take whatever party got them laid and allowed them to let of steam. It mattered only to them, but it mattered a lot, it mattered that they made it…

“I want it perfect. I want to perfect magic.”

“Ambitious,” Morante says. Margo can’t tell if this is meant admiringly or ironically. “Perfection in magic, is that what you had in mind with…a) an adaptation of Benacerraf’s Cooling for applicability to data storage?”

“No, that one is mostly to make me money. Tech is big.”

“Hm.” There’s a hint of a smile in Morante’s sculpted cheekbones, if not quite at her mouth. “Is that also the motivation behind b) an adaptation of Benacerraf’s Cooling to internally cool more than one person?”

“That’s just useful.” No matter how many magnanimous wafts of cooling breezes Margo had sent Eliot’s way on the beach in Crete he’d still complained it didn’t stop him sweating, like Margo could make herself do. “Also difficult as hell, and I haven’t figured it out yet.”

“Margo,” Morante says, and Margo stops still with the thrill of this intimacy. But Vittoria has already stopped: they’ve done a short circle and reached the end of the path, the towering old tree before them once more. “I’m not trying to needle you, I promise. I did want to make a point, however—that Brakebills is simply not equipped to develop your unique talents. Your identification of their theoretical focus is correct. I don’t entirely concur with your disdain. Such work is important, and it underpins my own. But it is not what I am called to. Nor are you, it seems.”

“So now you’re going to give me your pitch instead? Sell me on the nobility of the path of the globe-hopping climate warrior instead?”

Margo knows how she’d react to such a statement, were she in Morante’s position. Me pitching to you, little girl? You’re the one who has to prove herself worthy of me, you overgrown child! It’s how she expects Morante to react, maybe how she wants her to react—but Morante only gives a husky laugh, seemingly sincere in its amusement. There’s a flutter in Margo’s stomach, with its origins in a variety of competing emotions. This, this is the kind of thing she’d wanted when she first pinned her hopes on Morante’s example: being surprised. Learning something she didn’t know to want to learn. The model of the bone-deep ease of a confidence in your own power so absolute that it didn’t need to swipe out at others, where enfolding a challenge into the warm flow of your amusement was the most impressive, most badass thing you could do.

“Mm, no. I don’t think that would have much success with you. It wouldn’t have with me.”

Next, one of the moments she’ll pin her later retelling of the afternoon on. Morante slips out of her first-home-downpayment heels and leaves them behind on the gravel along with the ghostly impression of her foot on the buttery leather as she steps into the grass. The pale underside of her sole as it lifts free of conforming grip of the shoe; the flex of her toes against the grass.

(“This…isn’t a foot thing.” Eliot was tentative, but he didn’t phrase it as a question. He discerned that it was a different kind of fetish: an designated object for signs to accrue around, for meaning to stick to thick as honey on a spoon. Even if, like the clueless anthropologist, he couldn’t read them, he was unlike the colonial scientist in an important way, in that he wasn’t so ill-bred as to do anything as tedious as ask for a simple explanation.

“No.”)

Margo would swear her scalp prickled the moment Morante’s skin made unmediated contact with earth. The afternoon remains bright and hot, still and green-blue with the heat, but Margo is now aware like an animal is aware, alert as a dog that whines and paces to the tune and beat of a storm miles and miles off. A buzz so low she can only sense it in her teeth. She breaks out in sweat all over, her cyromantic control of her internal temperature failing as her flesh dials in to the frequency of a force far larger than her own magic.

Morante raises her arms. She doesn’t perform tuts in a way familiar to Margo. Rather, her fingers twitch like antennae, like she’s feeling for something as she stretches them skyward. The operating theory behind Popper’s method: using the movements of human hands to channel and shape the ambient. Morante seems to be doing something different. Turning herself over, allowing herself to be channeled by the magic, almost. It’s as erotic as it was in Margo’s fantasies, although this is less Morante in and of herself than the raw sexiness of power, of Margo’s body too giving itself over to a thing alien to itself as every hair on her body rises to meet a beckoning thrum in the air at odds with the serene blue blister of the sky. The very top leaves of the oak begin to stir, chivvied by a irritated sourceless breeze that turns playful with Margo’s hair, teasing it about her face, tossing the ends across her parted mouth. The charge of the realization that is the same power that moves them, leaves and hair, tree and woman. The omnipresent saccharine chatter of birdlife has abruptly ceased.

The latent humidity in the air, held at bay by Brakebills’ wards, swells into its full promise. Expands and Margo expands with it: her pores widening to drink in the moisture, her mouth gasping open to breathe against the wet blanket thrown over everything, her tongue against the giant panting tongue of the world, her hair follicles bursting their chemical bonds with a pop that, in her heightened state, she almost imagines she can hear. But maybe that’s just the singe of ozone sharp in her nostrils coming as, like playing with the coloration on the TV set as a kid, turning the knob to lurid saturations, every other color is muted and drowned out by a flood of flaring green.

Margo can’t say she’s ever been someone very attentive or attuned to the natural world. Her mechanisms for such appreciation are broken, the primal connection thoroughly atrophied by growth in the ungenerous soil of So Cal suburban sprawl. Margo Hanson does not hike. The supposed need people sought out by communion with the environment, to be taken out of oneself by majestic vistas and romantic awe, is an alien one to her. But maybe she was approaching it all wrong. It was not about being pulled out, but going in. She observes the strange spasms of Morante’s fingers bring forth clouds from an empty vault of sky, first white and wispy and then slowly drawing together gray, and is powerfully alive to every minute change in the atmosphere because she is alive to her body, overcome and transported—through her body; by her senses, her nose and her eyes and through unseen deeper processes, something in her blood finding its like in the electric air, a fine filagree of static lacing itself across her skin—of mysterious distant interactions of heat and cold and pressure in the distant heavens obeying the call of the woman before her, and Margo obeying these forces in turn. The way out is in, she thinks as the heavens open, almost neatly, as if Morante has cut a careful slash in the marbled blue-white-gray curtain and black thunderheads broil out to turn the world dark all through.

“Holy shit,” Margo breathes. A handful of flat, fat quarters of rain break against her bare arms, quickly narrowing and multiplying to a bruising rain of hard pennies. Having to raise her voice to be heard above the interfering clamor of the rising wind, she yells: “How the fuck are you doing this?

Morante laughs wildly. Margo feels a delicious trill of danger. Is this bitch sane? Did Fogg know what was happening? Shit, fuck, what was she even talking about, Fogg didn’t give a damn about the safety of his students. She can’t be; it can’t be sane, to be daring this. Margo loves it. “This is nothing!” she shouts back, across the weeds and shrubs laid horizontal between them by the bruising hand of the storm. “It’s all already there, I just call on it. Can’t you feel it?”

“Yes,” she whispers, not caring if it won’t carry to Morante’s ears. Yes. Yes. Margo tilts her head back, opens her throat to the downpour. Like when she was a kid. She’d always loved storms, hadn’t she? The rare grace of a drought-breaking deluge. Safe in her bed and making the choice to cast herself out to riot on the lawn.

“This is nothing,” Morante repeats. “You want to see something?”

She does. Margo witnesses Morante gather the thunder around her fist, in a motion like reeling in a fishing line or a kite; yes, just like a kite: when you crane your head back to gaze at a tiny scrap of bright color tossing on invisible currents, and track it as it grows larger and larger hastening to obey your call to return, as it blots out more and more of the sky. Except the sky is being revealed, that bright hot blue reappearing, first in teasing little incursions where the trees meet the horizon and then faster in wider and wider strips, as a funnel of wind opens above the oak tree and Morante spins all the cloud cover spilled across the troposphere tight around a vortex. A black, howling maelstrom, lit up by flashes of lightning.

One of the flashes unpicks itself from the rest, becomes single, distinct, becomes flame in the moment it arcs downward to meet the tree’s core in a sulfurous clap.

Everything goes slow, after that. The holy shits stop at the most unnatural manipulation of nature yet. It’s quiet. Morante must release her control of the atmospheric agitation. The tempest disperses and a sluggish calm descends in the silence left behind as the fire teases along the branches. In no time at all eddies of grey release from that meeting of heat and wood to smudge that blue hollow afresh. Margo smells burning and hears the hushed chatter of the fire eating at the tree limbs in a kind of stupefied, held enchantment.

This is broken around the time billowing plumes of smoke begin making Margo’s eyes sting and haze her vision of the rising, jagged tiers of flame, by Morante saying: “Are you going to do something about that?”

Margo turns her stunned gaze away from the immolation in front of them—Jesus, it’s really going now—to Morante. The sexy, defining control has given way to an even sexier control-with-ragged-edges. Her body bears signs her performance was not effortless. A sheen of sweat encases her skin and Margo watches with the sharpened attention Morante’s display has honed as a droplet of sweat unhooks itself from the pool at the fluttering depression at the base of her throat and begins a slow descent towards her cleavage, hastened by the way her chest moves rapidly up and down with her heavy breathing. Margo wrests her eyes up once it’s completed it’s journey and and disappeared into the crevice formed by her breasts and the tight silk of her bodice. One strand of Morante’s hair has snaked out from the still perfect mass to stick to her damp temple.

“What?” Margo replies.

Morante’s own focus does not move from the flaming tree. “Are you going to do something about that?” she repeats, this time accompanied by a little illustrative gesture, moving an accusing finger from Margo’s direction to the result of her own actions and back again.

“…me?”

“It’s really caught,” Morante muses, nonchalant. “Dryness, it’s a common downside to this sort of magical climate. That tree is three hundred years old, you know. Older than Brakebills itself. It’d be a shame to lose such a magnificent old specimen. But of course, if it consumes the tree that’s the least of our worries. Like I said, everything is so dry. So, time is ticking.”

Margo thinks maybe Morante is mixing her idiomatic English phrases: time’s a’wastin, clock is ticking. If so, she’s landed on a phrase more poetic than either. There are moments when time passes so acutely it’s almost like you can hear it tick, throb: her veins pumping with adrenaline as she watches one of the highest, most delicate tree limbs snap off and crash smoldering to the earth.

She’s not stupid. She knows exactly what’s happening here. She just hates it works so well on her.

“Seems like a you problem,” Margo says, trying to match the other woman’s cool unconcern.

“Adulthood is so often fixing others’ problems, no?” Morante sighs.

This is the test. This is the obnoxious test portion of the interview, because god forbid any significant milestone in magical education pass without one. Unfortunately, Margo is exactly the kind of lunatic this was made to work on. She feels her entire body tighten in concentration. Morante wants her to show her stuff. She put on a hell of a show for Margo, and now it’s Margo’s turn, and nothing could hone Margo’s will more than that.

The only problem is Margo has no idea what to do.

Sure, she knows several spells that might halt the blaze—depriving a localized area of oxygen, yes, okay, that’s something Brakebills students learn pretty early on, for the obvious reason if you’re going to teach people to set shit on fire you have to teach them how to put it out. But the fires they taught you to start at Brakebills were in theory small and Margo had no idea how to adapt Waverly to the gorgeous disaster unfurling—

But she has to stop trying to calculate how she’s going to enlarge and focus Waverly. Morante doesn’t give a shit about Waverly. She didn’t set this tree on fire for that. That’s not what Morante has come here for.

“I—” Margo starts, cutting herself off instantly, ashamed she vocalized her building panic.

“Come on, Miss Hanson. Show me you’re good for something more than a housewife’s party trick.”

Alright, fuck this bitch. This comment does exactly what it's designed to: filling Margo with a furious focus. Because even more unfortunately Margo is also susceptible to the other favorite magical pedagogical technique, one dearly beloved by Brakebills: negging.

Cyromancy, very interesting.

When Margo drops to her knees, she’s thinking of—weirdly, not of the fact of dropping to her knees, and not why, but somewhere she understands why Morante took off her shoes and stepped into the grass, because she needs…the grass is hot and itchy against her knees, against her palm as she presses her hand against it, but she turns her hand into a claw and digs with her fingers under the grass and into the soil which is warm too, right on top, but dig a little bit down and it’s cool, cool—Morante doesn’t know what the fuck she’s talking about. Margo knows. She knows her mother’s parties and she knows her parties and her parties are nothing like that. People get their pussies ate at her parties and so it’s different. Still. There’s something else in her too. It’s there. It’s not mystical, and she refuses to give it the freighted meaning Eliot might give his ability to move things around violently, except—even to refuse it is it to voice it. It’s right there, isn’t it? There is something cold in her, right at the heart of her. Magicians are self-absorbed, and often in possession of liberal arts degrees, and they read their disciplines like Tolstoy. But it just—is. Margo fingers a small, cold pebble, gritty with soil, rolls it between her fingers.

It’s all already there, I just call on it. Can’t you feel it?

Margo thinks of a black deep cave in green summer woods, the water spilled from it’s mouth forming a pool of black still glass so cold it singes flesh, heedless of how it sits solid on a belt of churning magma.

It’s all already there.

Crystals of ice cling to those the clouds that drift across the face of the sun, prickles the windowpane of the plane drawing a fraying thread behind it as it drones across the blue expanse. It shoots from Margo’s fingers to vein the grass around her hand, because she wills it. It spiderwebs over the space between her and the base of the tree, first slowly, incrementally, teasingly, Margo holding her breath for a moment like—when a boot steps onto ice and little fissures radiate out from a human weight, gone still waiting to see if it will hold. Then faster, faster, the separate strands reaching the base of the tree and braiding together to form one silvery sheet, climbing the roots hand over hand and joining, merging, swirling slow around the trunk.

She thinks of Antartica, snow and ice as far she could see, cold colder than anything she had previously imagined possible. Silent and warm and tangled together with Eliot in a chilly cot washed by a blue, lunar light.

The top and bottom of the world are both covered in two poles of life-giving, necessary ice. Ask the polar bears. Kindly consider Venice.

The lowest, heaviest branches. Shivering then stilling the new growth.

It’s all there, but where? The sun slaps the top of her bent head harshly. She just has to reorient herself. Get some perspective. The stone is still in her palm, cool. Margo reaches her perception out, down. In geologic time, this fire is nothing. A stone once rolled fine and smooth by the retreat of glacier or the lapping of the warm shallow sea that eons ago covered the Sea. To the center of the Earth—reach down, down, through all the layers of frozen rock to a core of iron hot as the sun that warms the grass and Margo but to reach it an inhospitable frigid vastness that mercifully intercedes to keep everyone from roasting to a crisp must be crossed.

Margo’s breathing has gone very, very slow. She feels very cold. It’s nothing at all really, once she’s got the trunk done.

The entirety of the burning tree is encrusted with a glittering shell of ice, the charred wood and bright leaves blurred by frost.

“Holy shit,” Margo says, at herself. “Holy fucking shit.”

Her legs give out from under her. She looks up at Morante, giggling as wildly as she had when calling down the storm. Trembling all over, like she’s run a marathon, or had a really spectacular orgasm: the tingling, giddy exhaustion of complex bodily satisfaction.

“Yes,” Morante says.

“I did that.” She tries to stand despite the black spots eating away at her peripheral vision. She feels like a kid—an overpowering need to touch the shimmering vision in front of her, dazzling, hard and cold and clear and impossible.

“You had some help.” Margo’s affront must be evident. Morante laughs again. “Just lent you some, hm, juice. Don’t be disappointed. If not you’d be dead.”

Looking at Morante again she can see this, figure out why she hasn’t been much help in getting Margo standing, why instead they sway precariously together, holding each other upright. Her sweat now has an unsexy, sour tang, her sclerae are bloodshot, and her laugh is a strained whisper. At her matter-of-fact tone Margo laughs back, giddy. Morante slides her arm around Margo’s waist. Margo thinks are we going to kiss??? No, but the moment has turned intimate—because Morante had poured her magic into Margo, and Margo put it out into the world. Then Morante makes her a promise far sweeter: “Someday, though—Margo, you are capable of incredible things.”

Margo pulls herself away and Margo relinquishes her easily with a fond squeeze. The grass crackles under Margo’s chilled feet. She walks towards the tree imprisoned in its cage, a white so blinding it’s blue. She puts her hand to the trunk and feels it sting her palm. She did this. How had she had magic, and no idea this was possible? The knowledge burns cold and clear within her. This is a thing she did.

When she relates the afternoon to Eliot, she uses all the descriptive ability at her disposal to convey it: the storm, the fire, the ice, flowing out from her into the world. He oohs and aahs and appreciates her genius in all the right places but she still feels he doesn’t get it. Or maybe that’s just her, the itch of dissatisfaction that she can’t capture it in words, can’t convey it exactly as it felt. That maybe it’s value is in the fact she can’t communicate it.

“You had to be there, I guess,” she finishes with an ironic little laugh.

“No, no,” Eliot protests. “The idea of you as some kind of sexy, like, goddess of the elements, I’m into it. It’s just…not very you.”

Margo can’t decide which is more irritating—the mischaracterization or Eliot rejecting her qualifications for the mischaracterization.

“How dare you. I can too be a sexy goddess of the elements.”

“Absolutely. It’s just unexpected, I guess. I mean, you never cared much about weather magic before.”

“Someone has to care,” Margo insists. “We have to start thinking about what comes next. I am not becoming a nun. Morante’s made good off this and it’s cool as hell and I’m curious.”

Eliot raises his hands. “Hey, I’m all for it. You’re just full of surprises.”

“Damn straight.”

“To your sure-to-be-dazzling success,” Eliot says, clinking his glass with hers in a toast both sardonic and sincere, frowning at the unusually discordant sound it makes. He sticks his finger into the glass.

“Interesting,” he says. “Give me back my wine, please.”

“No can do. I’m a cyromancer, not a winemancer.”

“No, that would be me,” he sighs theatrically. “I guess that’s my cue to go open another bottle.” He stands up and then squints at her. “OK, Emma Frost. You’re going to be obnoxious about this, aren’t you?”

“Mhm. Also, her ability had nothing to do with ice. It’s just a name.”

Eliot smirks at her and Margo rolls her eyes. “Shut up.”

She refuses to let frustration linger. She can’t explain it. There are a mass of explanations waiting, and she could reduce it—the ice, in her, outward—to any number of metaphorical vehicles for her psyche. She doesn’t know why she refuses. It’s absurd and even more stupid to admit to herself she didn’t want to demean it that way. It was itself, completely. No words can stand up to the fact of it. Maybe she can show Eliot someday.

Morante can teach her how to do that, because she got the internship. Now, when a lazy, premature heat has pervaded the campus, she catches sight of Eliot in the shade of his favorite tree to have a midmorning smoke under, and she smiles. This summer is going to be perfect.

Chapter Text

It’s an act of effort for Margo to open her eyes. She knows somewhere that she has to get up but it takes unusual willpower to force her eyelids open, like they’ve been weighed down with stones. Blinking with glacial slowness, holding her lids apart for longer and longer blurred slivers: bright sunlight on wardrobe, desk, wall.

There’s a warm body in the bed with her. Not, at first, alarming—although she doesn’t actually recall taking anyone to bed after the party. She doesn’t remember…

The body is accompanied by a smell of the kind she’d never usually allow between her sheets. A yeasty, sour stink. A tauntingly, primally familiar aroma. It’s like…like—

Margo sits up and turns around. At the commonplace sight of Quentin Coldwater’s spine curving away from her, she relaxes. Awareness comes slowly. Her body is tensing up again before her sleepy, sluggish mind puts together why. Like, it’s definitely Q’s back she’s seeing, but there’s something…off. She leans down, sniffs. Why is his skin an unnatural bronze shade? Is that…hair gel?

Understanding comes slowly, then all at once. The color; the smell. It is suddenly, screamingly clear: Quentin is now in possession of an unconvincing spray tan.

“What the fuck?”

This strangely hued form heaves under the covers as Quentin rolls over on his back and turns his face on the pillow so he’s looking at her when he opens his eyes. His hair is shorter than it was last night and slicked back against his skull. He smiles at her, and Margo’s heart begins to pound.

It’s a classic Quentin smile, at first glance: a halfway smile, one end of his mouth curled up like someone had put their finger at the corner and stretched it up like putty. But where Quentin’s rare smiles usually radiate a shy surprise at his own amusement, a sweet, hesitant capitulation to joy, this one is...it’s wrong. It’s off somehow. It’s more of a smirk, equivocal from laziness and disinterest rather than ambivalence, halfhearted instead of reluctantly teased out. Something pompously bestowed rather than something won. The hair on the back of Margo’s neck stands up.

Then Quentin opens his mouth.

“Morning, Bambi.”

“Coldwater, I have no hesitation about twisting your balls right off your body,” Margo says instantly, horrified to the depths of her soul.

Quentin proceeds as if she hasn’t spoken.

“Baaaa—”

Margo’s brain is finally kicking into gear. Nutless Quentin isn’t good enough. She’s going to make it so he has to receive all nutrients through a tube, because she is doing an impromptu deep read of the way Quentin has just uttered those two perfect syllables—Bam-bi—and he actually may have to die for his crimes.

She’s never heard anyone other than Eliot say it. No one else would fucking dare.

Margo can’t quantify the way Eliot says Bambi, because it changes every time. It is not deployed casually, thoughtlessly: there is an attention paid to the nuances of the moment. But take the first time as an example for exegesis: some stupid fight Margo can’t remember any details of besides a) she had been totally in the right and b) been more of a cunt about this correctness than was probably strictly necessary. So she’d come to Eliot to apologize. She’d been genuinely contrite, but at that point so divorced from that feeling she could only perform it, the way she had learned to do from the time she was very small, whenever she wanted something or wanted to get out of trouble. The calculated strategy that had worked every time until one day it didn’t. The crafted emotion that was almost indistinguishable from Margo’s authentic remorse, because after this long the real now seemed to ape the act. She’d sat down beside Eliot on the common room couch. He pretended to ignore her, turning the pages of his magazine with pointed concentration, but she’d laid her hand on his arm and he’d cracked like an egg. Looked at her as she made her eyes huge and shimmering, let her lips part softly, and suddenly as she looked back at Eliot’s unusually stern expression, the tears were real. The fact that Margo could upset him, that she could lose him if she wasn’t careful, was a truth that scared her so much she was willing to pull out all the dirty tricks at her disposal, to use the beauty that in his fashion he loved better than anyone else ever had. It became real. She felt her chin tremble, a childhood giveaway she could never fake.

“Oh, give it up, Bambi—you’re forgiven, alright? Those eyes are fucking dangerous.”

That inaugural Bambi acknowledged the performance, recognized the act and appreciated it, admired Margo’s pantomime of feminine docility and saluted the vein of honesty evident in her willingness to go through the effort at all. With this deployment of a nickname so patently absurd, Margo was seen right down to her marrow. Revealed in the fact that Eliot dared it, enabled through the fact that she permitted it of him.

This Bambi, just now from Quentin—it would only ever be said one way. Worse, it wasn’t in on the joke.

“—aaaabe. Can you get me an Advil? My head is kil-lin-g me—”

“You’ve got two fucking legs. If I’m getting out of bed to get you some it’s going up your urethra.”

This comes out in a hot rush that does not quite manage to block out the end of Quentin’s plea: “—damn, your parents really do know how how to throw a party.”

What did you just say?” Margo whispers. But the meaning of his words are being processed in tandem with her brain finally sorting through and quantifying the other sensory inputs that her conscious mind has thus far self-protectively refused to understand. She’s jerking off the bed, getting her legs tangled in the frilly white comforter, and falling on her hip hard, not onto bruising old hardwood of her room at Brakebills but onto the cushioning of plush carpet. Her wrist twinges from where she’s caught herself. The tip of her fingers touches a faded light blue stain marring the white, from where Margo had knocked over a bottle of aqua nail polish in 2005.

She holds her fingers up to frame her eyes in a shaking square, hoping it will reveal a fragile illusion. But the image holds. The stain holds too, because even though she tries to direct a frustrated burst of flame towards it, nothing results from the rote tuts. Her magic isn’t fucking working.

Adrenal bile floods her throat. It had taken so long for Margo to notice because the mind apparently rejects outright the discovery that you’ve somehow woken up in the childhood bedroom you haven’t seen in years. But then it’s not her childhood bedroom in Pasadena, not exactly. She’d been tricked by the ease with which her eyesight had pinged off the familiar lines and angles and dimensions of her room in the cottage. The clear hot western light falls through a different window, facing a different direction, located in a different place along the wall. This room is smaller than the one her mother had turned into a yoga studio in California.

This carpet no longer exists, pulled up and replaced by faux-bamboo flooring, and neither does the lacy bedding, the headboard of pink-and-white metal twisted into flowers of nauseating unnatural roundness, the vanity speckled with a rainbow of further nail polish stains, its surface covered with a flat iron, a copy of A Song of Swords lying face down halfway through with its cover peeling back from a close call with the pool in the backyard and its spine broken from Margo’s enthusiasm, and a purple vibrator she’d stolen from a convenience store by a freeway, its mirror nearly occluded by the fairy lights twined around its rim and the stickers and photobooth strips stuck around the outermost glass and the smudges from the clutter of dirty makeup palettes filled with garish sparkling shadows and the gummy tubes of glittering gloss dappling the reflection, the discarded UGGs leading a trail (one toed off just inside the door, one tossed on its side near the foot of the bed) from the door to the large CD player below a poster of Shakira that Margo liked to worshipfully prostrate herself before, deck popped open to reveal the Twilight: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack glinting, her beloved Buffy and Veronica Mars DVDs on the bookshelf beside her previously beloved Fillory box set, although the Fillory boxset has been nonexistent longer than the DVDs, and the Shakira poster was gone by the time she spent afternoons blasting “Supermassive Black Hole” at ear shattering volume, because she is looking at some Frankenstein’s monster of Margo Hanson’s rooms, circa approximately 2000 - 2010. One room, a million rooms, overlapping each other in some horrible nightmare amalgamation. There’s a dirty thong near Margo’s right toe that Margo would have a vivid memory of stealing from Victoria’s Secret even without the logo on the waistband.

Margo scrambles up, the Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire poster—postdating a map of Fillory, preceding blankness when she decided she was above posters, Margo the unsparing autocrat of these four walls, this limited square footage the only thing in her life she could control—crinkling beneath her back when she hits the closed door.

“What the fuck, WHAT the fuck, WHAT the FUCK,” Margo says, building in volume with each anxiety-heightening recitation.

At the last, a near shriek, Quentin levers his horrid orange torso and helmet of hair upright with a groan and rubs at his eyes with the palms of his hands. Margo’s building panic is lanced by the relief of observing this scene. That fussy little boy waking up—Margo knows that. No matter how strange Quentin appears or sounds—because of the spell, it must be some kind of spell—this is definitely still her friend Quentin. Margo knows it. She wills her heart to slow and forces a deep breath. She’s not alone in whatever the fuck this is. Quentin is here with her. Not necessarily her first choice for a partner-in-crime, but oddly comforting nonetheless. He’d be a good assistant, dogged and eager to assist as she got them out of this mess. Actually, Quentin might not be so bad. He was intuitive, and he made up for whatever he lacked in raw magical talent with persistence and a talent for looking at things from just the right unexpected angle. They’d be fine.

“Q, it’s some kind of fucking spell,” Margo says, ungluing herself from Daniel Radcliffe’s face and taking a step towards the bed. Quentin twists his torso away from her to rummage in the drawer of her bedside table, the shore trashed with used up chapstick and the weird detritus of family vacations and the effluvia of past decades—license plate ornaments with Margo’s name on them, a map of a national park held onto for some reason, a pink heart-shaped address book where Margo had painstakingly written in gel pen the landline numbers of her three third grade friends—onto the bed, freeing them from this unlikely spot they’d washed up by escaping the trash and belonging nowhere else, before finally unearthing an ancient buried bottle of Ibuprofen and swallowing three tablets dry. Rude, but fine. He’s gotta kick the hangover so they can get to work.

Quentin falls onto his back with a thud of muffled drama and another groan, throwing his arm over his eyes and muttering about closing the blinds. Margo thinks she catches another babe in there and tries to push down the rising column of ice in her sternum.

“Okay, nuh uh. Get up. Get some water. I have no idea what kind of spell this is, but it’s high time we figure it out.”

Nothing. The earlier flurry of panic is revealed as a flimsy indulgence as it’s replaced by a more implacable dread. Up till now, she could dismiss all of Quentin’s oddities, but Quentin simply ignoring her when she snaps out, “Quentin!” patting sightlessly at the mattress beside him till his fingers snag on the pillow Margo’s head had so swiftly vacated—that she could not ignore.

How had Quentin’s fine receptivity to her become so integral and unquestioned that it’s loss was the most horribly wrong thing yet? The way he couldn’t help but turn towards the sound of her voice, how it’s tones could make his eyes deepen or lighten, how intensely he listened to her, really listened…

Nothing. Margo is both trying an experiment and unable to do otherwise, when she says—soft, pleading, tremulous—“Quentin, please. You have to help me.”

Nothing.

The long beat after this, where Margo is frozen in terror, is broken by a jangling, repeating sound, that Margo does not at first recognize, with the way fear seems to distort everything, her vision narrowing to Quentin before her, the blood pounding in her ears muffling her hearing—but whatever it is, this gets Quentin’s attention. He curses and rolls onto his stomach, reaches his hand down to feel along the floor, brings the hand back up with a pair of very expensively tailored pants she could not even imagine Q wearing clutched in his fist, and from the pocket he excavates the source of the noise, that demon of her childhood: a Blackberry.

Fake-Quentin—and he has to be fake, or some kind of illusion, or a Quentin under a deeper, stranger sort of enchantment than Margo—silences the ringing by answering and greeting the caller with “Ha! Brad, you son of a bitch! What’s tight?”

Margo flees. She leaves her room—running her hand down her body to determine she wasn’t sleeping nude, because even as all reason breaks down she has enough mind left to know she doesn’t want to greet whatever’s next naked, sleep shorts and camisole, good—and. Her flight is short. She stands for a moment outside the bedroom door she’s slammed shut behind her, trapping both demons (the one with Quentin’s face and the one she can hear him saying “You cocksucker! Ha ha ha,” into) safely inside, once again confused by what she’s seeing. The layout is the cottage’s: there’s the hall bathroom, Alice’s room, the stairs at the end of the hall leading to Eliot’s attic eyrie—oh god maybe Eliot is here, she has to cling to that, she can’t take her earlier comfort turning to disillusionment with Quentin to heart because from the opposite side of the door she’s once again plastered to in disorientation she is taking in, laid atop the dimensions she sees every day, even more well-known details, known so intimately and deeply that she didn’t even consciously take them in anymore by the time she took her leave of them forever. So intrinsic she carried them with her, all the way to here, portable flesh to clothe any skeleton she moves within.

Dark wood paneling has been replaced by white walls, the scarred old floorboards covered by mismatching rugs swapped out for square tiles, and instead of the misty spring light of upstate New York struggling to make its way in through thick growing green foliage that piercing western light that is so different, so unmistakable, falls clear through wide windows and throws down the shadows of parched palms to dapple the walls and to tangle near the head of the stairwell not with the shadows of the cottage’s immortal ficus but with those of a huge aloe vera plant.

Her eye captures all of this in the eternal instant of a camera’s shutter-snap. She swivels her focus to the plant. Shutter, click. Perform the trick again. An unusually large specimen, it had been one of the many odd gifts given to her father by grateful clients, banished upstairs and out-of-sight of guests because her mother hated it but was not allowed to get rid of it. Margo had been obsessed with it, breaking it off in pieces to reveal the glistening insides. Margo is thinking of the pungent green limbs she’d loved to carry around in her hands, forgotten in her pockets, worrying her hands sticky and cool-smelling. The aromatic wounds the plant carried from this habit had driven her mother crazy.

Or was she wrong? Is the cottage in fact the skin, and this house the muscle and bone pushing through? Is that why Margo’s looking at the fucking plant, lightheaded and nauseous? She can’t look at the walls. She can’t look at what else has seeped through. She can’t look at the pictures. The sun sparks off glass to catch at the periphery of her vision.

Margo won’t see the black-and-white photos of long dead students preserved forever, stiff and silly, in the dumb outfits of boating clubs and societies dedicated to quaint defunct pursuits like apple picking. But what has broken through instead? What do you do with a child who no longer answers your calls, because she refuses to acknowledge any continuity between the self in those photos, round-faced and confident—a shot of her with her mother and father in front of the Grand Canyon (taken by a German tourist, her father patting her shoulder saying one second honey, jogging with a little alarmed wave over to the baffled sun-stunned stranger to help him navigate the camera); Margo, hand on cocked hip and licking a cone of gelato in front of the Eiffel Tower, extremely pleased that the strawberry flavor matched the shade of her favorite shorts (taken by her father on a trip to Paris to visit her grandmother, meeting up with them after the funeral of a family friend that he insisted Margo and her mother skip for sightseeing, tired and sad in his rumpled suit, brightening when he saw her, buying her the gelato, saying having a fun day, sweetheart?); Margo with a large yellow python around her neck, gleeful and terrified (taken by her father, who picked her up from school early and took her on a weekend trip to San Diego, he had business but he’d set her up with The Wandering Dunes and paper and crayons in waiting rooms under the watchful eyes of resentful secretaries while he had meetings, but this was fine and she was very good because she had her father all to herself for a whole weekend and afterwards he took her to the beach and the zoo);

—and their daughter, captured, framed and hung: Margo in her white confirmation gown (taken by her mother); Margo at her thirteenth birthday party smiling while surrounded by girls who weren’t truly her friends (taken by mother, who had carefully vetted these girls, the kind of girls who dutifully came because their own mothers made them, Margo smiling stiffly as her mother called something over her shoulder for the group of watching glossy mothers to laugh at politely before snapping the picture); Margo with a boy who would later that night desultorily wiggle his finger in her vaginal canal behind the school gym, in a dress she and her mother had had multiple screaming fights about, on the stairs before spring formal her junior year (taken by her mother in a prolonged agonizing process, every drop of perverse enjoyment drained from it as if she could grimly foretell that Margo would never go to prom); Margo with her grandmother on the school lawn after graduation (taken by her father, in the spirit of all the other pictures of members of her graduating class and their sweet proud little grandmas being snapped around them, surely he knew it was doomed from the start, looking through the lens at Margo, high as a kite and eyes blank, and his mother a careful foot apart from her looking rad as hell in her big sunglasses with her right elbow propped on her left palm to better lift her cigarette to her mouth, before she passed it to Margo and her father ceased trying to get them to smile and actually dropped the camera in fury, why on Earth had her mother hung the damn picture up—)

She looks. Of course they’re all there. This is not really Margo’s parent’s house; whatever this spell is it hasn’t actually transported her back there with a cursed Quentin Coldwater in tow. Jesus, she needs to get a grip. The question of whether her parent’s have kept her pinned under glass on their walls or replaced her with something else or left ghostly darker squares on the walls or sold the house entirely remains unanswered. This is a spell, and she in Margo motherfucking Hanson, and there’s no need to lose her tits. She’s going to figure this out. She takes several steadying breaths.

Footsteps on the stairs. Margo’s mother appears at the top. Polished, lovely. Hair wet from a shower, face shining from a complicated skincare regiment that Margo has inherited. Margo doesn’t speak to her mother anymore, but she slaps the same seven step sequence of cleanser, toner, antioxidant serum, eye cream, spot treatment, moisturizer, and sunscreen on her face every morning that has left her so dewy and glowing and well-preserved. Thanks, ma.

“Darling!” she says on catching sight of Margo. In the five hundred dollar late-morning caftan that follows the early morning house dress for her coffee and grapefruit breakfast and the mid-morning yoga pants for her morning routine by the pool because Adriana and Margo Hanson are also both the type of woman to demarcate the day by costume changes. “Sleep well? Oh, last night was a success. Wonderful. I just got off the phone with Elena Cook, and she was so impressed with that fiancé of yours. Quentin told her—”

Well, Margo had tried. Panic had made its daring attempts at overwhelming her and she’d managed to keep the tide back each time, but this is to much. She thinks it would be too much for anyone. She’d challenge anyone to wake up in their childhood bedroom engaged to their current platonic fuck buddy (because disbelief will only stretch so far before the reality of even the most absurd universe must be entered: Margo can’t pretend not to know what the words “fiancé” and “Quentin” mean paired together this way) and not come a little unglued. This most recent bit of incomprehension being comprehended is the last straw. It’s what it takes for Margo to finally give in to hysteria.

Margo has a tried and true template for the gleeful abandonment of reason. She has unceremoniously been shunted back in time and space to her childhood home—what’s a few more years. Margo Hanson, aged five, had a surefire and singular method of assistance and resistance. She secretly always believed it couldn’t be improved upon; she regretted it’s abandonment.

Margo throws herself on the floor and shouts. It poured out of her and it felt good so she didn’t stop: like eating a potato chip or popping a zit. Like those feel-worse-after forms of relief where it was not only not possible to stop at just one, where you had to keep pressing forward, keep leveling up. You had to squeeze every pore on your face dry and throbbing. You had to eat the entire bag standing up in the kitchen at 2 a.m. You had to give yourself over to it bodily and totally. You had to revel in the not giving up. Margo had to squirm on the tile and shriek, no longer wordlessly: “WHAT THE FUCK WHAT THE FUCK AAAAAAH WHY IS THIS HAPPENING!!!!!!”

This was the classic stratagem when confronted with her mother. She only dimly remembered the period of her rages and sometimes wondered if she didn’t really remember them but had only heard about them enough times that she felt like she did. She’d heard her mother recount what it looked like from the outside many times, to friends and acquaintances and teachers—how upon any impasse between her and her small daughter (so stubborn! so set on having her own way! there were frequent confrontations, over what Margo wanted to wear or how she wanted to cut her hair, over when she wanted to go to bed…) Margo would extend her arms straight out from her torso, her body going rigid as her eyes rolled back into her skull and a scream burst from her lips in anticipation of the surrender to gravity where she herself fall backwards with brain-brushing, bone-rattling force. At this stage of these evocative portraits, she always decided she did remember it after all because she had the powerful sense of something more deliberate. Yes, it was initially like rage moved through her body without her permission, but once she gave in to the constitutive, encompassing logic of the noises coming from her throat: she’d thrown herself backwards. It requires force to overturn the body’s instinctive balance; it requires will.

These displays had been so alarming—so embarrassing, with how often they occurred in public, the most brutal and high-stakes arena for their mutual, never-ceasing battle—that Adriana had sought professional help. The child therapist’s verdict: a cry for attention, a need for love and understanding. An idiot, but a half-right idiot. It was about attention. It was a calculated intervention in the adult hierarchy of attention, a system of value where Margo’s opinions were ranked so much less than considerations she neither understood nor had agreed to. Margo had one weapon at her disposal and could use it to puncture that, to redirect it, to mold it. Her mother did not listen to Margo’s exceedingly rational arguments about why she should be able to don a swimsuit top to go to school, but she did take note when Margo embraced and enlarged the implication of her parents’ own tactics which she perceived to be governed by the logic of force. Margo could instantaneously find herself in control of the conversation with her writhings, her stiffness, her limbs too dangerous in their flailings for her to be physically stopped or removed or argued with. Margo recalled looking up at her mother through a haze of fury to see her glancing around, laughing apologetically at curious onlookers, and once the coast was clear hissing at her to get up and behave yourself, and agreeing with Adriana this was a humiliating and ludicrous state of affairs. But Margo had been left with no other choice. When she yanked Margo up by the baby fat at her elbow and marched her out of the store or the restaurant or inside and sealing her in her room without dinner, she didn’t have any choice either—faced with such a recalcitrant, unrepentant combatant, fighting on like some guy in the jungle who refused to believe the war was over, with an anger so titanic and irrepressible it pounded at the locked door and yelled until it finally exhausted herself and passed out in the middle of the floor—Margo had felt satisfaction in the belief she’d forced her keeper into conditions where if Margo could never win, she never exactly lost either.

Now, Adriana is not hissing and furious at the scene Margo is making. She is not entering it. She’s still talking, tapping rapidly at her phone (“Oh I have to show you this picture...Melissa’s gift came, or did I tell you that already?”) It’s like it isn’t happening, like there’s some soundproof glass between them. In this nightmare world Margo has found herself in mommy dearest’s dearest wish has been granted: for Margo’s troublesome emotions to simply not be happening anywhere in her vicinity.

She stops shouting abruptly, panting and out of breath, long out of practice and mouth hangover dry. This victory of strategic disregard must inspire her mother to up the stakes to more forceful and direct steamrolling, because the next offering in her one-sided chatter are “Thank god you’re finally awake! You aren’t a child, who sleeps this late? Then again—and don’t take this the wrong way, honey—I have to say you looked like you needed it. Which means you do need it. The photos will catch everything. Come on, get dressed. I forgot just how much there is to do, for a wedding!”

Wedding?” Margo whimpers.

This finally earns Margo a response. She feels a nauseous thrill as her mother’s eyes meet hers with a fond, approving smile and a delighted trill of laughter. It’s as if Margo isn’t on splayed out on the floor at her feet.

Margo has said something that her mother can understand. She’s making sense to her mother, she’s entering their sense—

Oh, she’s going to throw up. She’s going to hurl all over her mother’s perfectly manicured toes.

She’d made her entry carefully—accidentally, but she had years of practice and so instinctually she’d granted no ground—she’d come across the threshold grudgingly, with a question, by an expression of fundamental doubt. It didn’t matter. Margo knew that. Even to question the terms of play was to enter the field. The fantasy she could negotiate different ones was bullshit she’d had to leave behind a long time ago.

“The day after tomorrow, can you believe it?” The sound of the doorbell ringing makes her mother stop. “Oh, that must be Eliot! I’ll go get that, you wake up your fiancé—”

Margo scrambles up and bolts towards the stairs. Her mother sighs behind her and says, “Fine, you greet him and I’ll go make sure Quentin is up. I hope he’s decent.”

Eliot. She knows, from Quentin, that she should be preparing for something that will horrify, shock, and upset her. But everything about the last surreal half-hour has so overloaded her system emotionally that she can’t quite internalize it, as she ping pongs from despair to rage to hysteria. Besides, it makes intuitive sense to her, that if she is real here then Eliot must be real here too.

She nearly slips as she rounds the last landing, as she catches sight of the entry way and Eliot standing in it, the front door being closed behind him by what appears to be a catering company employee, going by their uniform of black shirt and pants, one who looks an awful lot like…Lipson? Sure. Fine. Jesus.

All thoughts of this and anything but Eliot vanish in the fact of Eliot, and then Lipson physically vanishes as well, disappearing into another room as all such menials were expected to when not directly providing assistance, as Margo pauses on the last stair taking him in before making the final descent, sick with hope.

She only mentally registers the oddities her eyes had quickly catalogued in the next moment, as she’s plastered to Eliot’s chest and clinging to his shoulders for dear life, and her other senses come in to assist. The material under her cheek is not the silk or velvet of one of his vests but, many a time he has permitted Margo to rest her head against one of his shirts, heedless of wrinkles or makeup smudges, and it’s not the 140 count two-ply Egyptian he favors but a linen cotton blend. Instead of being pleasantly inundated by all of Eliot’s delicately masculine scents—a woodsy shaving cream, a citrusy cologne, the smell of fresh dry cleaning, everything clean and subtle and delicious—her nose is burrowed into a scent that’s overpowering, cloying.

Margo is clutching Eliot, but he does not clutch her back, his arms hanging limply at his sides. This is very wrong. Even when he doesn’t know why Margo clings to him, she is always assured of being caught and held. Like that time she’d tested out a new product for Hoberman and had a really bad trip, but this was not immediately discernible from the outside—it hit her on a delay and snuck up on her in the middle of class and moreover filled her with the conviction that are shadowy, terrifying agents everywhere, vibrating in her peripheral vision only to slip away when she turned her head. They were watching her every move but it was imperative that she not let them know she knew they were watching, that they believe she believed everything was normal. If she failed to convince them of this they would steal her away somewhere dreadful. This was difficult, especially when she walked of the library and the doors were revealed to be the mouth of a great, hulking sphinx-like creature that they all studied inside and it said its name was Cindy and told Margo she looked like shit. When she found Eliot—she knew she had to find him, to make sure they didn’t get him—she had, with what he later admitted was pretty unnerving calm, walked into his chest and latched on. He’d stroked her hair off her face, and seeing that she was high as a goddamned kite, proceeded to wrap his arms around her go along with the forcedly normal conversation about exams Margo made them have until she stopped shaking.

Now she pulls away with nothing to catch herself on and looks again, to double check her touch and smell against her sight. It’s Eliot: in shorts, loafers, a lightweight shirt. An outfit Eliot might indeed wear when it’s hot—when they’ve dropped their bags in their room and are taking their first freeing walk on the beach at Encanto, for example. But he wears it differently, somehow. He looks like…

“Hello, darling!” (Punctuated by two smacking kisses to the air around Margo’s cheeks.) “God, traffic today was murder! Let me tell you, I strongly considered turning in for brunch somewhere and telling you I’d come down with a violent case of food poisoning, but I just had to come see my favorite groom—whoops, I meant favorite bride.” (Exaggerated wink, laugh, undisturbed by the lone tear Margo feels slip from her lid and down her cheek, already moving on, looking at the stairs behind her.) “Oh, Adriana, don’t you look divine.”

More laughter, more kissing of cheeks, her mother saying, “Quentin said he’ll be down in just a minute, honey,” with an indulgent hand to Margo’s hair, her shoulder. Affectionate touches disconnected from the distress on Margo’s face, not comfort for the second and third tears wringing their way from her desiccated tear ducts, but approval for Quentin, her fiancé, coming down in just a minute.

This isn’t real, she reminds herself sternly. It can’t be real. It’s a spell. Margo is a student at Hogwarts for Burgeoning Alcoholics, and so that’s actually the likeliest explanation. She keeps telling herself this, but she can’t seem to make logic wrestle her emotions into submission. It feels real. It doesn’t feel like a dream, and Margo should know, because she’s had this dream. A reoccurring favorite of her subconscious is the one where she’s back in high school, back at home, and no matter how much she insists to everyone that she’s graduated college, she’s in magic grad school, her parents and school counselor will sternly inform her that actually she missed some mandatory graduation requirement and so she has to go back and complete her senior year all over again. For some reason—this is the worst part—Margo goes along with this and finds herself trapped in the dreary nightmare of trudging through the halls of her high school, thinking if she does this one last thing they’ll finally let her go.

This isn’t like that. It feels as real as anything ever has, and so maybe Brakebills and Eliot and magic are the dream, and this is the reality. Maybe Margo is actually a bride-to-be who has some kind of psychotic break from stress on the eve of her wedding and has developed a vivid hallucination that she is a magician and—

“The dress is in the car—” Eliot continues only to break off with a small shriek that falls into reproving clicks of aesthetic disgust as he rushes over to the girl—Alice Quinn as another wedding minion, sure, why not—placing a bouquet of flowers on the mantel piece. Apparently incorrectly, as Eliot bats her away and moves the vase one inch over and one inch forward, steps back, examines his intervention, and sighs in satisfaction.

—that her wedding planner/dressmaker/…hairdresser (???) (Eliot turns back to them, clapping his hands together: “Right, final dress fitting and then hair for tonight…”) is actually her best friend and a person who would rather chop off one of his own limbs than look into Margo’s tearstained face, smile, and brightly ask whether she’s thinking up or down for tonight’s look.

She hears steps behind her on the stairs and watches Adriana and Eliot rotate towards Quentin as he enters this uncanny melange of her childhood living room and the cottage common room. He greats her mother with a slick, ingratiating charm that for a moment Margo thinks might be the most jarring thing yet, until bizarro Eliot greets him with a flirtatious hand on his shoulder, and bizarro Quentin goes stiff, uneasy. This is so fucked up. Everything about this Quentin—with his spray tan and his shorts, his expensive watch, his douchebag sunglasses tucked into the pocket of his polo shirt, his short, slick hair (he looks handsome, and adult, and he is not Quentin)—is wrong, wrong, wrong, and the most deeply wrong thing of all is seeing the way his entire body freezes up with discomfort at Eliot’s touch. Quentin Coldwater, so perennially awkward, so tense with physical anxiety, always relaxes into it, takes the comfort intended by Eliot’s constant fond touches, smiles up at him shyly, Margo doesn’t know if she’s ever put that together consciously until this moment when it’s gone, he always loosens, visibly—

At this point, Margo makes the decision to check the fuck out. Okay, the first step, both to figuring out what the hell is going on and to calming herself down enough to be able to do something about it, is to retrace her steps. She is not in California, and she is not marrying this homophobic asshole wearing her second most consistent fwb’s face, and there is no world she will accept where Eliot only knows her as a client. She is in upstate New York, at Brakebills University for Magical Pedagogy, and yesterday she got the news that she had landed the internship with Morante. Eliot had picked her up and spun her around when she told him. They had hastily pulled together a party to celebrate. Not one of their best, due to time constraints, but it had been fun. Although...she had felt incredibly tired at a shamefully early hour, hadn’t she? That’s where her memory goes patchy, as she tries to follow it. Around midnight, struggling to keep her eyes open, she’d stood up, and then—Margo feels cold with fright, as the tape runs out. She doesn’t remember anything after that. Shit.

Her imminent disassociation from her disassociation is interrupted by bizarro Quentin coming over to her. Fuckin’ great. She feels no need to interact with this freak in any way. She knows this guy: every frat brother she ever ill-advisedly fucked, the one so many of the guys she grew up with grew into. But now her dad loves him because between then and now he got an MBA or JD from Stanford and is going to make partner any day and bind his daughter in lawful matrimony.

“Listen, babe—” he begins.

“I’m going to rip your tongue out of your mouth if you call me that again.”

“I hate to run but Bradley got into town early—you remember Bradley, right?—so I figured, hey—meet up for a drink, play a few rounds—”

“Oh, hell no. I did not once listen to Quentin Coldwater talk my ear off for a half hour about the environmental evils of the golf course for this.”

“—and dude was like, my brother, and you know he’s been having a rough time—I told you Jess left him, didn’t I—”

There’s a pause, like Quentin is waiting for Margo’s line in a script she refuses to follow. It doesn’t matter. He continues like Margo has made the expected response (presumably not “And I’ll tell you where the tongue is going—” but her woman’s mouth making noise must be all that was required) and been the unreasonable bitch he must now both placate and outwit.

“—babe, come on, I’ve been putting up with this whole fucking circus, alright? Christ. It’s a couple of drinks. Like, god, it’s been years—”

Margo’s absences doesn’t even have to do all the work, though.

“Leaving so soon?” Adriana gasps, leaving aside an examination of fabric swatches with Eliot and joining their conversation, hand to Margo’s shoulder, smile to Quentin. “Now, Quentin…”

“Sorry, Mrs. Hanson.” Bashful, regretful. “I was just telling Bambi—”

“—up your urethra. Missed my chance with the Advil.”

“—good friend of mine from undergrad just got into town and I thought, you know, it’s not like I contribute much here…”

“Oh, fine. Go on, you.” Removing her hand from Margo to bat at Quentin’s in a playful little swat that makes Margo want to gouge her eyes out, faux resigned in response to Quentin’s faux apologetic which in turn was spurred by her faux rage. This is, of course, actually the exact situation desired. A man to come come occasionally, and leave, and his presence and leave-taking granting the knowledge of him out in the word, enriching all they do. Her mother might have wrung her hands about her husband’s derelictions but the real problem was that they were too rare: such absences are in fact necessary. Her son-in-law is already proving congenial.

Quentin laughs charmingly, kisses Margo on the cheek, and heads for the door, jingling the keys in his pocket. Margo knows what car she’ll see him get into, even before she looks through the window to the driveway, before she can blink away the glare of the sun sparking off the metal roof.

Margo says his name, right when he’s got his hand on the door. She sees his shoulder slump as his escape is foiled at the last minute, although he comes back, with another abashed smile for her mother. But she has no interest in keeping him. “Honey,” she says, making her voice go low and hot and sweet. “Take me for a spin?”

“I won’t be too long. Have fun with…everything.” This is accompanied by a vague wave of the hand, meant to indicate all the mysterious things Margo might find absorbing. He gives her a wet, repellant little kiss on the mouth, and then he’s gone.

Margo’s eyes, as always, orient towards Eliot. He’s holding unidentifiable pieces of fabric up to the light, one and then the other. She watches his ruminating squint, accompanied by the considering clucks in the back of his throat and negated by the shake of his head as a standard of perfection is not reached, the dismissive flap of his hands—enough of that—as he sets them both down and selects a third. Each detail intimately known and beloved.

The precise movement of his wrist as it rotated the vase a millimeter to the right—that was from the life. This Eliot might be a hollow facsimile, but he was perfectly observed. And when she’d turned away from the door: her gaze had intersected Eliot’s, interrupted it, made him go back to his fabrics—he’d been watching Quentin leave with a wistful expression not justified by anything about this hellish scenario. That was from life too, although Margo had never quite...

It relights the always smoking fuse of her rage. How dare whoever or whatever is responsible for this? How dare they take these gestures accrued by Margo’s careful attention, preserved painstakingly in her memory and use them for this caricature? It’s sick. The finicky little movements, Eliot’s often maddening fussiness that is the sign of his immense care, made into a sneering mockery by the setting, by this suffocating context. Somehow it’s this that is suddenly, acutely unbearable: not the fact that Eliot looks through her and barely knows her, not that his attentiveness to Quentin was shrugged off, not all his—love—being void—but the fact that Eliot’s heartbreaking desire to make things beautiful has been rendered absurd, laughable.

She runs at Eliot—he sidesteps it neatly, humming to himself—and past him to the mantle, to swipe at it like an enraged tiger in a cage. Down crashes the vase, more pictures, candles, glass shattering on the floor.

Nothing. And as always, no matter whatever futile, destructive acts Margo might take, there’s someone to come behind and clean it up, she makes more work for someone and changes absolutely fucking nothing. This time the person responsible for cleaning up her mess is wedding minion #3: Todd, rushing in with dustpan and broom. (This is also from life. God, Todd does most of the cottage cleaning up, doesn’t he? That’s probably not fair. But he likes it, right? No one ever makes him do anything. He likes it!) Margo is already whirling around to focus the wrecking balls of her fists on the coffee table, on which there is a display of different glasses that Margo guesses she is to choose from for whenever the fuck this wedding supposed to be. This is fucked up! Margo loves choosing glassware with Eliot! They like to get lunch and then go into various department stores and pretend to be terrible and engaged and make a wedding registry. How dare the sacred tradition of pretending to have a fight over cocktail glass selection be perverted!!!

Smash, smash, smash. A squeak from behind her. Minion Todd looks on with horror at her continued rampage. He picks up the dustpan and then hesitates with the realization he’d have to put down the cloth he’d abandoned it for to clean a smear of wax off the hardwood. He looks back and forth between them, obviously having a small meltdown.

Whatever. Not Margo’s problem. The wax gives her an idea, and luckily her first go at the mantlepiece was incomplete: there’s still one candle burning. She makes her way over to it, trying and failing to step over the shards of glass and hissing when a piece of it works it’s way into the heel of her bare foot. Hobbling, leaking blood on the floor that Todd frantically tries to wipe at, succeeding only in smearing it into the wax he still hasn’t managed to clean. The matrix generates minion #4—Josh Hoberman—to assist him, just as Margo reaches out and grabs the candle.

No one seems to be paying attention to Margo herself, so busy with dealing with the fallout that it doesn’t seem to occur to them to address the problem at the source. The minions are the only one who seem to take any notice of the even the effects. Her mom and Eliot are still chatting, totally impervious to the havoc she is attempting to wreak. This means that the curtain has a chance to really, satisfyingly catch from Margo holding the candle flame to it by the time minion #5—Nurse Faye from the infirmary, Brakebills class of 2013—steps in and douses it with a vase full of water.

Margo looks at the latest designated damage control. Faye—Margo’s only interactions with her were accompanying Eliot for emotional support that time he got chlamydia and when she’d once had cramps so badly she’d hit up the infirmary and got a runed crystal from her that was actually helpful—is standing there, empty vase in one hand, fistful of dripping gardenias in the other.

There’s only one thing left to try.

If Margo looked through the open sliding door in the place where the cottage’s reading nook to be, she’d see the pool and the patio and dining table where she and her parents and a girl from Florida with a lip piercing named Carly had once sat eating enchiladas. Margo isn’t looking because she’s hauled in Faye by her black nurse’s scrubs and is mashing their faces together in the one act that might dent her mother’s indifference. Margo had brought Carly to dinner with her parents and introduced her as my girlfriend to try to get a reaction from them. She wasn’t, actually—just a girl that Margo fooled around with, got high with, who raised a dubious and also pierced eyebrow and texted her dude wtf under this table but went along with this change in status. Faye is kissing Margo back. Even slipping a little tongue in, okay, but Margo already knows she’s miscalculated—again. She hadn’t understood her disappointment at her parents reaction, her insane, irrational anger at the evident discomfort they were visibly but politely trying to fight. Oh, honey, you’re—gay? They should have been throwing plates into the pool. This was plate throwing worthy news!—never mind her father had only done that once. It had been for something far less worthy than this. Here was something that should make them run around shrieking. Here, the more absolute, unacceptable evidence of Faye’s body hot against her, the press of her breasts against Margo’s, the wet heat of her mouth—this should make the house fall down around them. She’d known then that if they’d really understood, if they could understand, that’s what they would be doing. It’s not open-mindedness that prevented a scene: it was incapacity. She’s since heard enough coming out stories to know how obscene her wish was, but still. It’s what she’d wanted. That’s the kind of girl she was.

Later, years later, Margo would recognize the trap she’d walked into. She knows it now, already, still kissing Faye frantically, hearing her mother’s heels click in her direction, still heedless of the spectacle Margo was trying to make. She’s not—gay, that is—but for a moment she’d wanted to say yes in response to her mother’s wary, shocked query, if it might needle them. The same impulse that led her to lie and say Carly was her girlfriend might have thought it was a challenge, a provocation. But her mouth hadn’t been able to form the words. What she’s doing with her mouth now is truer, if just as futile. Maybe some part of her had understood that that provocation would be temporary, that such a distortion would pay diminishing returns. Because someday they might understand that, a someday Margo had no interest or need to play along with to reach. Not accept it, exactly—but understand it. It would be legible. #loveislove. Vague, mealy-mouthed liberal sentiments of equality masking a deep, lingering squeamishness. If their daughter wanted to marry a woman—oh it is awful. But. You can’t just say that. It’s the Obama administration for god’s sake! The acceptance would always be conditional anyway, only tolerable if Margo remained beautiful, fit, feminine, polite to their friends, and successful by their reckoning. She could see it in the way they looked at her that night, a sort of dim fear, that they’d overlaid a monster atop their daughter, their vision of her doubled and dizzying. What might she turn into? She might cut her hair. Stop shaving. Rant at the dinner guests—well, she already does that. It’s all already falling apart. She could see in real time The One with the Porsche and the Hand Job being recast in her father’s eyes as salvation. Maybe this was a stage. One of Margo’s rebellions. Or, maybe not. Maybe it was there to stay. But the outward forms would assert themselves, surely. Look, they had. Here and now her daughter’s tongue is down another woman’s throat and Adriana talks on about flower arrangements. It’s negligible, ignorable, because Margo is getting married. It was just odds. Odds helped along by that silence, difficult to breathe in, the awkward, painful scrape of silverware on plates, the clink of glasses hastily snatched up to deliver helpful delays of water and wine to lips and throats. So much more bearable for everyone, the expansive, open-handed greetings for spring formal Jake. For the college boyfriend she’ll inevitably bring home. For the fiancé. This can stay hidden. Girls at college, yes, fine, but the silence means she won’t invite them here. Margo wouldn’t have brought anyone of any gender home anyway. Not for this, for this picking over, this weighing up, these frantic glances. Thus natural inclination condemned Margo to playing along with their wishes. Because Margo would remain beautiful, and will never give a shit about marriage. What was that to her, especially at seventeen? She wanted to tangle with Carly in her dirty sheets and get up and walk home in a hot evening, and then find someone different tomorrow. She wanted girls and girls and girls, ones she saw at school, at the mall, on TV. She wanted men on street corners and in cars and bars, trains and planes. She wanted it all. She wanted to lead Faye upstairs by the hand and escape all this. Her body was a vibrating, porous, muscular animal. She wanted to be the best at something. She wanted to go places. She wished she could tell her all this and provoke them with a monster they don’t know and couldn’t master. But they’d wrangle all her confrontations eventually, make friends with every last one. Hydrangeas, or peonies?

Margo didn’t want it. She didn’t want stilted dinners with her parents and she did not want weddings and she hadn’t understood then exactly why this was so but in her sharp appreciation of the scorekeeping between their two opposing teams she could discern that if she kept this part of herself private and safe they’d win regardless. She couldn’t make it public because they couldn’t understand it, couldn’t make sense of it. She pulls away from Faye, gasping, that satisfying divorce of spit.

What Margo didn’t know she wanted, then, but knew was an impossibility before she knew it: to bring a person home. To let her dad welcome them in, make them a drink, an excellent dinner. Let him be at his most charming, let him tell one of his good stories, let him not ask for measurements, credentials, itemizations. His daughter likes them, that’s enough. Let him be a father that Margo has thought enough to bring someone home to and sensible of the privilege. She wants them to laugh, to eat well, to take her to her childhood bed, to leave in the morning.

Horribly, Margo begins to cry.

“You know, I had planned on fucking with you a little more, but this is all so tragic, I just don’t have the heart.”

Margo feels the voice all over her body. The hair on the back of her neck stands to attention. The base of her spine prickles. She turns around.

It sounds completely absurd and she’ll never say it aloud, but her first sight of Marina—head-to-toe in black like the rest of the minions but with the vital and telling difference that instead of catering uniform it’s skintight leather—is felt in her cunt: she’s so hot, yes, damn it, but it’s more a sympathetic, responsive ache, the place where a potent set of memories is felt. It always is.

Because Margo should not feel quite this shocked at Marina’s unexpected appearance. There is a greater degree of overlap between the classically trained students of Brakebills and New York’s hedge communities than Fogg likes to realize. If they were really so isolated, there would be no need for disdain. There have been run-ins before. The awkward, dreaded, hotly anticipated reunion with the bitch of an ex that had used her and then split with their share of the cash, the ill-gotten haul that was supposed to be their ticket to a new life together, was an ordeal Margo had undergone a year ago, and a couple of times since. In New York City, just two years out from her ignominious expulsion from Brakebills, Marina Andrieski was an inescapable fact of life for most of the city’s practitioners of magic. Everyone found it very impressive, this rapid ascent even after the school wiped her magical hard drive. Marina found it useful to play up this impression of herself as a dangerous wunderkind too brilliant to be contained by institutional limits. Margo liked to let it drop that Marina actually got a head start as a hedge rat, out in L.A., but it didn’t make much of a dent in the mythos.

More than that, it shouldn’t be shocking because she’d known Marina when she lived in this house. Shouldn’t she have felt more of a jolt on seeing Quentin or Eliot, people she’d only known years and miles removed from this place, and the person she’d been here, than Marina, who’d she’d so many times snuck out the front door behind her to meet, to slide into the car Marina idled in a street over? But it’s Marina’s presence that makes the room spin. They had felt so separate. Making out and more with Marina, in the ’94 Honda with the busted AC, on a dark, quiet suburban cul de sac, before they drove to make plans with a truly colorful collection of hedges in the basement of a Methodist church—that had been the thing that made this house impossible for the first time. Of course Marina can’t be integrated into whatever grotesque farce half of the people she’s met at Brakebills have been shanghaied into.

There’s another obvious reason Marina isn’t appearing as Margo’s bitchy, soused maid-of-honor, or whatever. It might be too easy, unimaginative, to so instantly peg Marina as the author of her present misfortune, but to be fair Marina seems to like broadcasting this as loudly and clearly as possible, in throbbing neon lights. This was not always the case: Marina had been magnetic at eighteen, but Margo is too cynical about all her memories of that time to think the half-homeless teenager in jeans and Goodwill t-shirts, fervent and freckled, was the genuine Marina—which doesn’t mean it was an act, either. Adjustments have been made. Marina is the big bad villain of the perpetual present hour and she wants Margo to know it. The leather. The eyeliner. The predatory lounge against the wall. The smirk. She raises an eyebrow at Margo and blows out a taunting plume of smoke from her cigarette.

It’s an old anger she feels stirring as she takes a step towards Marina, one mixed headily with excitement. The excitement is unique to Marina but it’s strengthened now by a particular little shiver Margo feels as their eyes meet. Marina’s eyes are proof something else is alive in this place. Margo is seen. Everyone has made eye contact with her this morning, a dull, incurious contact—but no one has made contact like this. Whatever she does now, the action will be recognized and responded to. If this is partly because Marina is the one pulling the strings, at least Margo’s dance will be observed.

You,” Margo says, like she’s in a bad movie.

This is humiliating. It’s always been humiliating, and alarming, that part of her eager to dance to Marina’s tune because she was the only audience for the same part of Margo that comes alive now, the part that flings herself forward in a mad rush at Marina. Whose eyes widen, just a fraction, as she stubs out her cigarette on the doorframe she’s abruptly no longer leaning against, straightening up to meet the attack. Even though Margo knows it won’t work she tries to make her hands into icy claws that will subdue by burning surprise—she’s been experimenting a bit, since Morante’s visit, oh god she got the internship, she has to get out of here—maybe because Marina is so wrapped up in the initial bloom of her magic: her body remembers being used for something astonishing for the first time, and Marina’s feral smile sets off echoes of the grins of pure exhilaration illuminated when the candle they hunched over in Marina’s pitch black studio apartment flickered to life from nothing but their voices and movements and want.

(It had exposed Margo’s smile anyway, trembling helplessly on her face as she listened to Marina’s compelling, intent voice in the darkness. They’d remained thwarted after hours of attempting to light one stupid Bath & Bodyworks candle with cobbled together bastardizations of Popper and god knows what else from printouts of defunct Geocites, and Marina, growling in frustration, had decided to turn off the lights, to stop looking at their hands and to instead try to just feel it, let the magic guide it—which is too hokey and woo woo a thing for anyone to buy Marina having said it, but she had. And it had worked. Margo had been smiling in the dark the whole time, hearing Marina breathe, inhaling their mingled scents. There had been nowhere else on Earth she’d rather be, even if they never got the fucking candle lit, and the time she looked up from the wavering flame, laughing in shocked awe, it had made and then revealed Marina’s own triumphant delight.)

Magic remains a no-go; Margo’s hands remain at their normal temperature. There are other memories, though. When she’d lived in this house, Margo had come home from several spectacular fights with other girls at school, and what you learned quickly was to go for the hair. When she lived in this house, she’d discovered that she could tangle her hands in Marina’s hair and pull to make her gasp.

She manages to make contact and wrench Marina off balance by a fist at the root and get one good scratch in on Marina’s face, but the other woman catches herself before she falls and the next part is inevitable: hand-to-hand combat is not on the Brakebills curriculum, but Marina probably gets into scummy little spats on a daily basis. Margo’s ego is nonetheless bruised by how quickly Marina gets her pinned to the wall by the arm twisted up behind her back.

“Me,” Marina agrees. Her front plastered to Margo’s back, her hot breath panting against Margo’s neck. “Now, are you gonna be good if I let you go, or are you going to make me do something we’ll both regret?”

“Let me go and I’ll think about it,” she replies, which sounds like a bad, nonsensical line but is actually just a straightforward statement of intent. Marina is behind this somehow, and the helpless fury Margo feels surges within her unpredictably. But if she knows Marina she knows she’s about to get an explanation.

Marina releases her and steps back. Margo turns around. Marina tilts her head and gives her a smile deranged in it’s dead-eyed cheeriness.

“Got it out of your system? Good. I can’t do anything to you now, because I’m already doing something to you and I need you cogitating, princess. But fair warning that once you get out of here, I won’t have any such reason for restraint. We’re the only two real things here, but I’d take take a sec to consider before seizing the opportunity for some girl-on-girl—”

“Oh, do you even hear yourself? I’m not one of your little cronies in your pathetic hedge mob cosplay, bitch.”

Marina is brought up short, blinking. “That’s what you’re focusing on? Not anything else I said?”

“Yeah, no I got the gist. You’re the mastermind behind whatever the fuck this is.”

“Hm, half right. I did put you in this spell. The frame of it, anyway. The interior design was all you. In a manner of speaking.”

Yeah, she’d figured that much out. Can they move things along?

“Are you going to enlighten me as to why, Marina? Or is this your psychopathic way of letting me know wanna give it another go? Bit late for Valentine’s but, gee, you’ve really made my night so special.” She can’t help rising to the bait. Beneath Margo’s exhaustion and rage, there’s a thread of enjoyment at sparring like this.

“You are fun,” Marina drawls. Margo’s going to rip her head off. “But looks like I’m not the one whose had some trouble letting go, is it?”

While they’ve been talking, Marina has pointlessly straightened her immovable skintight leather, tossed back her only slightly disarrayed hair to better display the vivid red scratch that leaks unstanched blood along her cheek, and most importantly lit another cigarette, to better obnoxiously gesture with it at their surroundings.

You put me here!”

“Do you ever listen to anything that doesn’t come out of your own mouth? I provided you the foundation, put you in the trap—Brakebills, since that’s what you see everyday, that’s just easiest, although it is nice to see the old alma mater again—but then I’m not, not really. There’s been a bit of a redesign. This? All you, baby. Poetic, no?”

“No,” Margo says flatly. She has no fucking patience for magic as metaphor, but she knows other, more irritating people have no such qualms. She gets the implication but she rejects it entirely, thanks. She’d never voluntarily choose to go on a journey through her psyche, so no way is this getting put on her. “But okay, you’ve had a your nice peak into my childhood trauma, you freak, so can we hurry it up maybe—”

“Oh, no. Self-absorbed, much? I mean, that is pretty much why I showed up in person rather than just letting you go crazy with no audience. I’ll admit, I’d never done this bad boy before, and I was curious what adorable little therapy hour sob story you could possibly imagine was hell. But the spell itself, well—means to an end. I actually couldn’t let you out even if I wanted to.”

Margo goes cold. “What?”

“Relax! I’m not a sadist. Well, not non-consensually. This is all simply pragmatic. I need something and this is the way I’m gonna get it.”

Trusting Marina is a fool’s game, but Margo’s fear is still undercut by this follow up. Looking at things practically, Marina isn’t going to, like, kill her. Probably. On the one hand, Marina always has something she wants and is hellbent on getting and has never much minded if Margo or anyone else gets damaged in the process. On the other, as long as she gets it, she’s not out for blood. Still, Margo feels the randomness of Marina’s current choice of victim, after all these years, and she’s clearly having the time of her life watching Margo suffer. God, fuck her. “Right, nothing personal at all about trapping your ex in a custom-made mind prison. I’m sure if I decide to return the favor you’ll take it with no hard—”

“Prison? Trauma? Please get over yourself. Honey—you wouldn’t last two minutes in mine.”

Margo rolls her eyes at Marina’s I was birthed from the vag of Satan herself schtick. Like yeah, Margo knows she doesn’t have it bad. She’s never acted like she does. That’s why she cut her parents off. She’s not going to whine about how they make her trapped when she could just leave. She’s not precious about the fact that she was born very lucky. No one could accuse her of that. But she’s suddenly blinking back tears. It’s not that bad, like, Jesus. She’s always known that. It’s not bad at all. Other people know what bad is. For most people it would be insanely, absurdly good, beyond anything they could dream. People would kill for her parents, and she thought having to lie to them about literally every aspect of herself and what she wants and needs was a price too high to pay?

“Listen, kid—”

“You are two years older than me,” Margo says, feeling, on the contrary, approximately five.

Marina breaks that electric eye contact and ashes her cigarette on her mother’s radiantly white sofa. “You were always more of a kid than I ever was.”

This is the closest thing to an apology Margo has ever or will ever likely receive, and she decides hates it. The non-apology actually isn’t worth the insulting minimization Margo sometimes would like to believe it contains; it’s less than useless if it's for the thing Margo in some secret place occasionally finds herself liking to believe isn’t true. But maybe it is. Maybe it was always what Marina is implying—Margo was calculatedly used, and callously abandoned. That’s what she’s always feared. The softening perspective of the intervening years sometimes hurts her with the whisper that Marina had been a kid too, one who’d done what was needed to get out. Margo would prefer to be allowed to hate her for that. It’s important to hate someone for the right thing.

Marina cleats her throat and crosses her arms, cocks her hip. “Here’s the deal. The spell is called the Scarlatti Web. I had an...accomplice drug your drink last night—”

Yeah, never mind. Fuck that. Fuck perspective. What is she, a sucker? No way. Fuck this, fuck hedge bitches, fuck this scummy little gutter rat in particular.

“Jesus Christ—”

“Oh, you’re fine. Said accomplice was very concerned about your well-being, very insistent you incur no permanent damage. You had a guardian angel. Anyway. I had to ensure you were unconscious long enough for the spell to take hold. It traps your mind safely away—I guess it is a prison, really—and puts your body in a magical coma.”

“Oh. Sure. Great.”

“It can be broken. But to do that the school wards will have to be lowered to allow in the Matarese—it’s this bug demon of the underworld. You’ll deep throat that sucker, it’ll give a nice jolt to your cerebral cortex, and then if you manage to break free, voila! Back to the land of the living.”

“…if?”

“Apparently it can be a little dicey. That’s what the chick at this anarchist squat in Amsterdam who taught it to me—”

“Marina!”

“—said. There have been some real disasters. It’s not like it’s killed anyone! They just…never wake up. But I’m sure you’ll be fine. You have enough motivation. No sweet release of death, it’s this shitshow forever. Ugh.” Marina looks to where Eliot is displaying a bridesmaid’s dress that would somehow wash out all complexions over one arm and one that will make anyone under six feet look like a toadstool over the other with an exaggerated shudder. “Because I take it back. This is fucking grim.”

“Why? Why do this? You’re right, you’re only a sadist for pleasure or profit, and you’re also right that this is the spiritual equivalent of a clitoridectomy, which means you’ve done it for a reason.”

Marina pouts. “Aw. Don’t sell yourself short, baby. Maybe I did just want to catch up. You always bite my head off whenever you wander onto my turf. There’s no reason we can’t be friendly, no?” Margo pointedly doesn’t respond to this and half expects Marina to laugh her off and vanish in a cloud of sulfurous hellfire, but instead she goes quiet and intense. “Fine. No reason not to tell you, really. I’ll be long gone by the time you wake up. It’s so Fogg will lower the wards and I can walk right in and get back what they took from me. They keep all the memories they remove in a little box, useless. They’re that confident they can keep everyone out.”

Margo resolutely refuses to feel anything about the way Marina defensively squeezes her arms more tightly to her chest, or be tempted into an idiotic sympathy by imagining having the last year and a half removed from her head by fucking van der Weghe. “That does seem dumb. They should be way more thorough in giving rejects their magical lobotomies. Didn’t you get some other students killed?”

She doesn’t actually care, but she is curious. Marina seems to be in a confessional mood, and the whispered rumors about her expulsion have always been foggy on the details.

“Please. Like Brakebills actually gives a shit about the moral use of magic. It’s all a power play. And it was one student. Poppy got killed in a mutual endeavor we had chosen to undertake with full awareness of the risks involved. Victoria more...vanished.”

“Funny how the risks always works out in your favor.”

“Oh, you were fine. Look, you didn’t need the money.”

Little Orphan Annie, boo hoo. “It was never about the fucking money, Marina,” Margo says, hoarse.

Easy for you to say. “You didn’t need it,” Marina repeats, ignoring her, weirdly intent. “You got out. You got to Brakebills. And you can get out again.”

It wasn’t about having to get out, not if it meant getting out alone.

“Oh, I’m getting out all right, bitch.” And since Margo isn’t one for stupid bravado, or pride for that matter, not when you might get farther by being smart: “Any tips on how, though?”

Then Margo watches her go still and crane her head back to look at the ceiling, as if seeing and hearing something Margo can’t. “I think it’s go time. Oh—no, Grete was really sparse on the details, but apparently you’ll know when the time comes. Gotta jet, sweetcheeks, good luck—”

Margo doesn’t have any parting quips for Marina, because she’s worried if she opens her mouth she’ll start to beg. Marina pauses with her hand on the door handle, and as Margo is hit by a jolt of disorienting deja vu, she’s worried she’s spoken after all. But no. Marina is turning back of her own volition.

“Didn’t you wonder why I chose you?”

Of all the hungry girls in L.A. with a spark of magic…

“No.”

“I mean, I could have finally gotten back at Hoberman for edging me out—”

“…what?”

“His product was superior, which is why I offered him a partnership—”

“Wait, back up—”

That head tilt, that considering gaze. Margo stops.

“Maybe I just wanted to give you some real motivation to come try to fuck me up. You never did track me down like you promised.” She looks Margo in the eyes, the smirk dropping off her face. “So—call me, baby.”

Then touching her palm to her lip, and when she removes it to blow Margo a mocking little kiss, the smirk is back and she’s gone, the door shutting behind her.

Too late, Margo bolts after her in a panic. When she opens the front door Marina is nowhere to be seen. She runs out into the driveway, into the road, hoping around as the sizzling concrete singes her feet.

“BECAUSE I’M NOT A SOCIOPATH, MARINA! I HAVE A LIFE! I GOT OVER IT!”

A dog barks. Birds twitter. The sprinkler making it’s contribution to California’s perpetual drought by keeping their front lawn green spritzes her knees.

Margo returns to the house, ignoring her mother calling her over as she makes her way across the room. “Oh, she must be in one of her moods,” Adriana apologizes as Margo exits through the back door and walks over to the pool. She sits down at the edge and cools her feet in the water.

Call me, baby. She really should have tracked Marina down. Stolen the money back. Begged for Marina to take her back. Killed her. Instead, that fall she’d started her freshman year at UCLA. Majored in communications. Graduated with honors. She can hardly believe it now. Margo had known magic was real, and she’d rushed a sorority instead because she’d no longer been able to believe in magic as transformative, after it revealed itself as capable of enabling only ugliness. Also she had no money that was not her father’s and the only money he was going to give her was to go to school.

You got out. But it had taken her another four years. The trap that it was insulting to even call a trap had closed around her so neatly without Marina. She’d sworn it was only a pause. She would do it all—college, a degree, another avenue to success—as a way of profitably bidding her time for the graduate program that hedges spoke of with mingled jealousy and disdain. It would be better. Margo would be better. She’d been surprised when she got to campus and heard Marina’s name because the two worlds were so separate in her head, but gratified that it was spoken of in the context of ignominious expulsion. She was over it. She was at Brakebills, and Marina had been ejected, and she had only suggested to Eliot they go slum it at a hedge bar in a spirit of curiosity, and if got to rub Marina’s nose in it all, then even better—

God, she has to get ahold of herself. Forget Marina; resist that mental vortex. Margo has to get out of here and she will. Eliot or Quentin or fuckin’ Todd has probably found her unconscious body by now and she just has to wait.

To bide her time and then she’ll be out, again, for real.

She swallows, eyes stinging. Where has she heard that one before?

Behind her, through the open door, Margo can hear Eliot and her mother giggling as they discuss cake frosting. Buttercream, fondant, ganache?

(The night before last: Margo and Quentin sitting at the table in the cottage kitchen, heads bent over the cursed Popper workbook. Margo takes his hands in hers to try to guide him, and when he yanks his hands from hers with an “OK let me try…” she looks up to where Eliot is making cupcakes to see Eliot watching them, tube of frosting forgotten. He clears his throat and Margo sticks her tongue out at him.

“Bambi, no.”

“Bambi yes. Frost me up, baby.”

He always folds so easy. He pipettes a line of frosting straight down the middle of her tongue and she retracts it back into her mouth like a lizard. “Mmm.” Hearing a small noise from Quentin’s direction, she jostles Quentin with her elbow. “Let him frost you, Q.”

Eliot moves like he’s going to deposit a dollop on the plate in front of Q. Margo moves it out of his reach.

“Hm, I don’t think so.”

“Margo.” Eliot is gripping the tube so tightly some frosting squeezes out onto his thumb. He puts it into his mouth and sucks it clean, glaring at her.

“It’s not very friendly, not frosting Quentin.”

“It’s not very friendly to frost someone when they don’t want to be frosted.”

“How do you know? You didn’t ask. You’ve frosted me, you’ve frosted yourself. It’s only fair.”

Margo looks over at Quentin, whose tongue is sticking out of his dumb mouth, forehead wrinkled as he flicks his eyes back and forth between them. He flushes and starts to pull it back in.

“Aw, you’ve hurt his—”

She doesn’t finish before Eliot’s moving in. He doesn’t get there before Quentin’s mouth snaps shut, but he can’t slow the momentum: there’s now a vivid line of pink sugar down Quentin’s pink face, from nose to chin. His pink tongue darts out to lick it off his top lip, and they all laugh.)

Margo thinks, from the distance of this box she’s in, that of course her parents would find nothing comprehensible in that scene. Margo’s tongue lolling out in a knowing wink: what Eliot is about to deposit is frosting, but it has been MDMA, champagne, and his come. The innuendo loud, and Eliot able to meet with a frank, sexy, friendly ease, in contrast to the way his face had been tight and close with an awareness of touch so fraught and fine it was practically a fourth person in the room, as he carefully took a napkin and wiped the frosting off Quentin’s chin, like you might a little kid’s. It had been freshly strange to Margo too, as she felt bewilderment at the things shifting between the three of them. But some one—no. What had Marina said? This? All you, baby. Her own head had made this tame. Remade it in the shape of her parent’s knowledge, which had once been hers.

She remembers who fake-Eliot’s outfit reminds her of: David, a partner at her father’s law firm when she was a kid. He lived somewhere Margo never saw with a man she never saw, and he always brought Margo back presents from the cruises they went on together. He’d retired when she was in high school, moved away. Once, at a Christmas party, at this house, by this pool, he’d caught a miserable twelve year old Margo trying to smoke stolen cigarettes. Not a feat, as she’d just inhaled smoke into her lungs and was gagging loudly. He’d said, “Oh, honey, no—like this,” plucked the cigarette from her lips, and showed her how it was done, and then passed it back. She’d marveled at this person who her parents so obviously found embarrassing, bringing the cigarette to his lip in a way that had imprinted itself as an epitome of cool, smoking in companionable silence with a 7th grader. The party loud behind them, the night cool. “I told Mark I’d quit, and you’ve made me a liar, so you keep my secret and I’ll keep yours,” he’d said, his eyes crinkling nicely in a smile, and then with a wink he’d gone around the side of the house in a flawless Irish exit, to get into his car and go off to his impenetrable life.

Margo cannot form the tiniest ice crystal. In her head there is no magic. But she can’t sit around and do nothing, either. She’s in her head. So she drops her wards.

Dropping her wards implies an effortlessness that doesn’t exist. It’s actually the opposite of natural. The building of these mental barriers is basically the first thing taught to students, and Margo took to it eagerly. By her second year they are habitual, engrained. No way was she going to give anyone free reign to rummage around in her skull. She has an example though, of what it’s like: Quentin. He psychically leaks, bleeding his every thought all over the place. There have been multiple occasions while hanging out with Quentin where she looked up to see an irate Penny Adiyodi zooming toward them, coming to demand that Quentin lock his shit up. This never happened with other psychics, so it must be something unique to Quentin and Penny.

What annoying shit does Quentin think about? Margo demolishes her mental boundaries and thinks as Quentin, directing these put on thoughts outwards in the direction of Penny, wherever he may be.

Penny blips into being in front of her as she’s imagining Quentin dressed as Luke Skywalker, bent over a desk having his ass destroyed by Penny dressed as Princess Leia, buns and all.

“Girl, what the hell.” He does a double take, looking up at the house behind her. “Woah. Nice digs.”

“Yeah. Spectacular,” Margo says flatly. “Sorry/not sorry for the mental invasion, but I had to get your attention somehow. Interesting that that was what did it, but let’s move along. I am trapped in my own mind, placed in the prison you see before you by my psychotic ex. My unconscious body is somewhere on campus and I need you to make sure it’s found and Fogg is working on a solution before I fall into a permanent magical coma. Apparently he’ll know what to do. It’s called the Scarlatti Web, FYI. You have to do this because we haven’t banged yet, and you know, I’ve always felt that was in the cards.”

“Oh my God,” Penny mutters. “I’m not going to let you die. But sorry, that ship has sailed. I am not going where Coldwater’s been.”

“Oh, who said anything about that?” Margo does a neat little find and replace. Penny bent over as Leia, but Margo is more of a Han Solo type. Light saber strap-on.

Penny rolls his eyes and then smiles, just a tiny one, and Margo even laughs. She winks; he escapes. Penny’s a softie. She can trust his promise.

What happens next doesn’t surprise Margo. It’s fucking typical. She makes contact with the world outside the trap and the trap pulls out the big guns. Her mother was small fry. She senses it behind her, the weight of that specific gaze, even before she hears the familiar tread on the concrete. She trembles. Her father gets closer and closer, and she recognizes him, his step, his smell, and shakes harder, in fear. She draws her knees up to her chest and presses her forehead into them, rocking the ball she’s made of herself back and forth. She’s been invisible, her actions unseeable, and maybe he won’t see her.

He stops behind her. Puts his hand lovingly on the top of her head.

“Had to escape for a minute, huh, sweetheart?” Wry, fond. It’s been years since Margo was folded in to this conspiracy of two. Them against her mother. Their pact when she was a kid, the bold tomboy, the silly bookworm. Her mother’s hysterics, her fuss about stains. The shared eye roll. Hidden in her father’s extortions to listen to your mother was an understanding that although they were both in on the secret, she had to go along. It had felt fun then.

“Fuck you,” Margo whispers. “Oh, fuck you, fuck you, fuck you.”

“It’s a circus in there. Wish we could do away with all of it, but your mother is so happy. So proud of you. This is just how she shows it.” Then Margo started to care about the things her mother cared about, or some of them. This is what her father had to want her to want—what was the alternative? But it also seemed to enrage and sadden him. Mean jokes about how long she spent in the bathroom, about the long shopping trips she and her mother took. There had still been moments like this, up through high school, where Margo’s small rebellions against her mother won his sympathy, when they weren’t threatening, when they were in alignment with his. She needed the exact right amount of distance, to please him, and then she needed to go back. The man who took such pride in her math scores always needed her to go back, willingly, happily, and he equally strongly needed her to agree it was all stupid.

“We both are,” her father mulls, getting into it. Margo looks up. His wide set stance, his pleased, proprietary hand on her hair, the pleased proprietary gaze at the back lawn. He smiles down at her ghastly face. “So proud. This is what we always wanted for you, honey. I’m so proud to call you my daughter. We love you so much. You’re smart, and beautiful, and hardworking, and we have always wanted you to be happy.”

Margo thinks of the Porsche she saw Quentin get into and drive off in earlier. Of course. The hated boys that let his daughter jerk them off for a spin around the block grow up into the ones he’s delighted for her to bring home, that make both her and him happy, in a transfiguration that seemed to make instinctive sense to everyone but her. They come through the front door, and they’re willing to make the deal with him, sealed by a handshake and the title son-in-law—marriage, for Margo. It’s always struck Margo as obscene, the exchange of sex for something else just as screamingly obvious as the handy for the Porsche, turned acceptable in a bargain Margo can’t abide. That ride with the roof down was the best deal she ever got, and it was one she made.

It doesn’t matter that she knows all her father’s tricks, that through long practice she can read every subtle nuance of poison in his words. It’s useless against the way he’s stroking her hair, gazing at her, enamored. She leans her head against his leg and whispers, “I know, daddy,” as the sob rips it’s way out of her, and then she’s wailing against her father’s knee.

This is the temptation, the final test: Margo had been very, very loved.

It had bound her early. I love you to the moon and back. I love you more than ice cream. I love you more than a hundred trillion dollars. She was surrounded by it, cocooned in it. She had no idea it could be conditional. Margo had liked to play a game with her father as a kid. Would you still love me if…Margo constantly escalating with worse things. Would you still love me if I never took a bath? Would you still love me if I was cross-eyed? Would you still love me if I robbed a bank? Would you still love me if I murdered someone? Giggling as her father said, yes, yes, yes, yes, I’m sure you did it for a good reason. I’ll help you bury the body. The fun of the game was that he never said no, and she never feared he’d say no. It was not an anxious game. She could never have known that it wasn’t that there were no dealbreakers, but that her imagination had merely failed to come up with the right ones.

The light coming on in the house. Her hand on Ray Latanza’s cock and her father’s hand on the car door as EIGHTIES, NINETIES, AND TODAY! played on the radio. Like a drifter, I was born to walk alone. His stern voice commanding her to get out of the car. Right now. His hand on her arm when she said No.

Her father tugged harshly and Margo threw herself down violently, because it’s maybe what she wanted from the start. To end up sprawled hissing on the gravel. She wanted the mutual shock of it. She wasn’t stupid: if she’d told Ray to park his car one street over this never would have happened. She’d wanted to test the conditions she was beginning to realize had been there from the beginning. She’d wanted to call his bluff.

A family meeting at the kitchen table that night, the terms of her indefinite grounding laid out. Her father raging, her mother tense. At one point he’d shouted: it’s because we love you. We want better for you than this.

Go to prom. Graduate in the top of your class. Go to a good school. Get a good job. Get married to a good man. Give them grandchildren. It’s effective, as strategy. It kept Margo hopping to keep up, to do one more thing, for this: his smiling, tender regard, which wavers at her through her tears as she cries and cries.

After a while her father returns to the house, to his office. A little after that Margo follows.

She walks up to her mother and Eliot. “I think the bridesmaid’s dress that is going to make all the bridesmaids look like they are wasting away of TB is definitely the way to go. The buttercream frosting. For sure.”

Her mother kisses her cheek, squeezes her waist.

The only way is to hold her hand right to the fire.

When Penny shows up again, he’s expected. The pre-rehearsal dinner day, into which every aspect of wedding planning has been nonsensically crammed in a manner that defies the laws of time and space, extends for what feels like an eternity, so when night starts to fall, and fake Eliot does her hair, and her mother zips her into a dress, and her family and the minions adjourn to a long table on the patio under the stars, she knows something is happening.

Margo has stood up to give a toast, and her father has just sat down after his—in which he praised her, his beautiful, beloved, treasured only child, where he got teary-eyed as he spoke of her bright future, her happiness, of how much he loves her—when Penny blips in again.

“None of this is real. It’s all in your head.”

“Uh, yeah. I know. Let’s blow this joint.”

“Oh,” Penny says, brought up short. “Well—”

The lights flicker, and he’s gone. There’s something burning working it’s way up her throat again, but this time it’s not tears. A metallic carapace scrapes it’s way out of her mouth and goes splat into the remains of the soup course.

“Ew.”

She looks up at her father, her mother, this abomination in a Quentin suit, and over to where a shadow of Eliot is overseeing the plating of desert (some kind of sherbet?) “So this good little wifey drag has been fun, but—”

Her chest hurts. She looks right at her father, who loves her. “I’m going to steal your car someday and total it somewhere in Nebraska. Sorry about that.”

Two days after her college graduation, Margo had been rifling through her grandmother’s closet in the guest bedroom, trying decide which of her furs she wanted to steal. Her grandmother usually stayed out pretty late when she went to get dinner with old friends while visiting. She’d come home early and startled Margo when she turned on the bedroom light.

“I’m not doing the internship. I’m leaving. I’m going to New York.” She held up the car keys, clinched protectively tight in her fist.

Her grandmother hadn’t said anything. She’d come into the walk-in closet with Margo and rifled through the racks. “This one, to keep,” she said throwing a gray pelt over Margo’s right shoulder. “This one to sell,” she says, draping a dark brown one over Margo’s left shoulder, followed by the little pat that from her grandmother was a hug.

“You could just give me money,” Margo had said, crying.

“And you could just buy a plane ticket. Much less narratively satisfying, no?”

You got out. Margo sets down her glass of wine. She walks right out the front door.

“I don’t know what happened, it went dark and it threw me out—” Penny is saying when she comes to.

Margo sits up with a gasp.

Bambi,” Eliot says.

Chapter Text

Eliot must have fallen asleep, worn out by adrenaline and Margo, because he wakes thinking of what he’s going to feed her, and it’s gotten dark out. He has those steaks…

When he finally gets out of bed he leaves Margo sleeping in his skin and heads to the bathroom. She’s snoring a bit—fluttering little whistles that make him hurt with how cute they are, just from the knowledge it’s Margo making them, haha, aw—but then it registers that it’s his body sounding like an asthmatic pug and it’s less charming. Like Jesus, does he really sound like that? No wonder guys don’t spend the night twice.

It’s a weirdly sensual experience, the weight of his heavy bladder and the relief of emptying it in Margo’s body. Impossibly intimate.

Eliot startles badly when he makes his way to the sink to wash his hands and raises his eyes only to meet a face that is not his own. The sight of Margo’s beautiful face, when it registers in his mind, soothes him as readily as it always does. Hand in hand with this wave of calm is a piercing tenderness at observing the mobility and character of Margo’s much loved features as they are animated by Eliot’s emotions: her eyebrows jerking and her mouth unlatching with his surprise, the flare of nostril and circumambulation of eye as he laughs a little at his own alarm, at the absurdity of the situation. It hits him with a special pang, thinking of her face last week when she was under the sway of that fucking spell. Horribly, unnaturally still, except for the way her eyelids ripped as the eyes beneath frantically raced to track whatever she was trapped with, the skin of her cheeks and chin occasionally twitching in agitation or distress…

He shudders. Margo is fine. He has ample evidence in the events of today that she’s fine. Well, aside from the fact that Eliot is currently occupying her body. There appear to be no lasting negative physical effects from her time trapped in Scarlatti Web. Emotionally…she seems fine. She says she’s fine. Eliot has been anxious to provide whatever support might be needed, but she’d brushed him off. Aside from those first heartrending moments when she’d come out from under the spell and indifferent to Fogg and Penny and the gaggle of other assorted rubberneckers looking on, pitifully gasped out, “Eliot? Oh, my God, El,” gripped him hard by the back of the neck, buried her face in the front of the shirt, and let out exactly three hard sobs muffled against his chest, she’d honestly given no evidence she was affected in any way.

She’d had some stuff to say, in the immediate aftermath: vivid imprecations against Marina’s unsurprising treachery, and amazement at Julia’s far more shocking betrayal. Eliot had tried to pursue these opened avenues, to coax Margo into talking to him.

“I can’t believe she chose you,” Eliot had fumed that night as he put a drink into Margo’s hand. She seemed to want to be physically close to him, separating long enough only to shower. “She could have chosen any student at Brakebills for her little stunt. I swear, if we ever run into her again, I’ll…”

He’d trailed off there, unable to articulate what exactly it was he felt capable of doing. Because he was angry enough to—something. It scared him and he selfishly wanted the comfort of Margo’s own blistering white-hot rage. But she was very quiet. Her wet hair soaked his shoulder where she sat close to him.

“What, she should have just picked some innocent rando who’s never done anything to her?” Margo had replied, drily amused.

You’ve never done anything to her,” Eliot said hotly. Margo moved away, placed her drink on her bedside table. Shifted forward so her cheek rested against the knees pressed to her chest, face turned away from him. “Not enough to warrant that,” he insisted to the knobs of her spine creeping out from the collar of her shirt to burrow under the fine hair at the nape of her neck, fluffy with damp. “Still, point taken. I’m was just trying to say it’s kind of especially fucked to do this when she once—”

Loved you, Eliot stopped himself from saying. He had no idea if that was true, if that snake was even capable of emotion. Knew you would maybe be more apt. Knew Margo, sweet horrible baby Margo, her body and at least some of her soft, fiercely guarded places. She had that and thrown it away. Despite Margo’s firmness in claiming her own fair share of the breakdown of their teenage relationship, surely this was enough to obliterate any blame on Margo’s part.

(The way her arm had flopped, when Eliot had picked her up and carried her to the Cottage sofa, limp as a rag doll or something equally dead.)

“Exactly. We’re bitter exes. Of course she chose me. Frankly I would be kind of offended if she hadn’t. It would be insulting if she’d chosen some nobody.” The first real anger she’d shown in hours, at the completely hypothetical slight of an alternate reality in which she had not being chosen as the student Marina murdered as collateral damage. “From Marina, this is actually a mark of respect.”

God, Eliot did not get lesbian drama.

Speaking of which…

“Jesus, I can’t believe Julia.”

“Stupid cunstruck idiot.” Margo, soft spoken and savage. “What a goddamn moron. She really thought she could get her and her girl away scot-free with no consequences. I thought Wicker was supposed to be some kind of genius, Fogg was so up her ass. Good fucking riddance.”

These statements, rife with the opportunity for psychoanalysis by a knowledgeable observer, were said with an irreducible mixture of condescension, pity, and scorn. But Eliot isn’t going to do Margo that way.

Eliot’s thoughts turn again towards that awful day as he leaves the bathroom and slips out of his darkened attic bedroom without Margo stirring.

-

Later he’ll realize it started the moment he looked up from a smoke to see Margo sailing toward him, glowing with triumph, actually fucking glowing, as Eliot’s brain helplessly spit out synonyms to describe this flaming, gleaming, luminous vision of satisfaction.

He’d only seen her that way once before, so he knew to open his arms wide even before she said “I got it!” By the time she stepped into the space he’d made, he’d already braced his feet to pick her up and spin her around.

When he relinquished her to gravity once more, she offered an extremely endearing two handed fist bump to the sky, took several deep breaths to push down her giddy, exhilarated laughter, and opened her mouth to immediately try to ruin it: “So, listen, I know we had plans for this summer—”

“Oh, Bambi, no, that’s—”

“But, like, there are weekends. I’m excited for Morante to mold me into her mini me, don’t get me wrong, but it can’t be a 24/7 thing and I’m not going to give up my entire summer—”

“Margo, don’t worry about any of that yet.” Eliot perhaps said this a bit sharply because her forehead wrinkled and although her mouth remained open her words no longer had to work their way around her megawatt smile. Eliot started his apology by wiping away the northernmost beginnings of this pout with a brush of his lips, which softened her mouth, made it malleable to having her triumph kissed back into it. When Eliot pulled back her smile was a softer, richer beam, a gentle candle spark trembling behind glass. Burnished, lambert. Words Eliot didn’t know he knew. “You fucking did it! Enjoy it, bitch! You’re incredible.”

“I am, aren’t I?” The flame strengthened, blazed. Margo threw her head to direct a whoop of victory at the heavens while Eliot pushed down his annoyance, mostly directed at himself. Margo had just gotten this incredible thing she’d so wanted and she was worried about their dumb summer plans. Like Eliot was too pathetic to be left alone. But he wouldn’t be alone—he’d be alone with Quentin. This was the source of the other unworthy emotion he’d suppressed as they walked off arm-in-arm to plan a celebration fitting for Margo’s good news: guilt. Because Eliot wasn’t only sad at the prospect of he and Margo’s first extended separation, since that separation meant—

Anyway. Aforementioned celebration had been a success, or so Eliot had been telling himself as he made his fuzzy way to the kitchen late the next morning. He’d been in a weird mood. He reached the bottom of the stairs only to run into Julia Wicker, of all people. Weird. She certainly hadn’t been in attendance the previous evening.

“Oh. Hello there. Been a tick since you’ve deigned your to darken my humble doorstep—”

“Where’s Margo?” Julia said.

“Uh...somewhere? Why?”

Julia huffed in blatant, uncalled for disdain, but otherwise offered no other answer before turning on her heel and striding off. Even weirder. Why on Earth was Julia asking for Margo? Eliot trails after Julia in a state of befuddled curiosity at this mystery.

He tried to recall how Margo had ended the night. Hm, when he’d looked up from his phone, where he’d been locked in an agonized argument between himself and it about whether he wanted to text Mike and see if he could get him to Brakebills for a quick fuck (was it worth Mike whining about not being invited to the party, he definitely would, because that’s how they met, by him being the kind of guy who still hung around grad school parties after he’d graduated) his eye had been drawn to his two lodestones: Margo, grinding her ass into a seated Gretchen Alsop’s lap, both of them obviously having the time of their lives, and a short optical skip to Quentin beside them on the couch. But there was something unexpected there—Quentin was missing out on this congenial vision. Eliot had tracked the direction of his gaze to…wait. It had actually been very recently indeed that Julia had once again been seen in the cottage, because the terminus of Q’s attention last night had been looking at Julia and Alice conversing in the corner. Eliot had been surprised because prior to that he hadn’t seen Julia around the Cottage, not since she and Q’s big falling out.

When he traced that invisible, vibrating string from these two women that had such a hold over Quentin back to Quentin’s taut, anxious gaze, he found it broken by a third woman. Margo had stood up, maybe put out by Quentin’s lack of appreciation for her show or far more likely simply keenly attuned to his moods and trying to coax him back to a slightly less gloomy frame of mind and succeeding, as Quentin cringed into the corner of the couch cushions, flushed and laughing in spite of himself, and the force and weight of Eliot’s scrutiny must have been palpable enough that Quentin looked up and met Eliot’s eyes where Eliot was leaning like a creep against the mantelpiece, and Q smiled as he allowed Margo to pull him up by the hands, smiling and smiling, and it was like Eliot’s heart had pulled a fucking muscle, the heart was a one big muscle and it could be sprained—

Eliot had then landed on the insane and stupid decision to see if Mike was awake and ready to receive Eliot in the comfort of his own apartment. A pain in the ass for Eliot, and not worth it on a number of levels, but his poor decision outlet of choice at the moment was fucking a guy who had spent the summer between his graduation from Harvard and getting into Brakebills interning for the reelection campaign of some Republican congressional candidate, and a great way to maximize the self-loathing profits was to exert the greater effort of being the one to go to him.

He’d given Quentin the best return smile he could muster and watched him sway woozily to the music for a moment, his hands in Margo’s, and then Eliot had gone upstairs to change his shirt, get his wallet, and while there he’d decided on juuuuust a little half-hour nap to get himself in top shape, and next thing he knew it had been morning.

Now, Eliot pulled him back to the present, to Julia opening the door of the hallway closet and pushing aside coats and umbrellas while muttering, “She said she might…”

“Um, I don’t think she’s in there,” Eliot said. His brain hadn’t quite come online, and although this was all bizarre, he didn’t feel up to parsing it or questioning it. The repressed agitation evident in little hairline cracks in Julia’s typical cool self-command triggered the first prickle of Eliot’s unease.

She continued to ignore him and made her way towards the stairs and seemed ready to ascend them at speed them when, foot on the second stair, she turned her head toward the door, to the dining room, eye caught by something her body was blocking Eliot from seeing, and said, “Oh shit. Fuck.”

Eliot came around Julia to see for himself whatever had so alarmed her. Margo, curled up under the dining room table. Eliot’s body responded instinctively to this sight, and he reached her so quickly unease didn’t blossom into fear until he’d gently slid her out from under to the table, until the way he was saying “Bambi? Hey, Bambi, time to wake up,” hit his own ears.

Scared. Scared as hell.

Julia, who had moved forward to hover behind him, said, “This is—”

“Bad. Really fucking bad. Like—”

“Get the dean bad,” Julia finished for him softly, when fear choked him off and he could only pat ineffectually at Margo’s stiff cheek with the tips of his fingers. “I’ll go. You get her to the couch.”

God, it sets fire to that smoldering anger, still, to think about how pathetically grateful he’d been to Julia for having it together, when she was the one who was responsible for the entire thing.

As Julia was slipping out the front door, Quentin was coming in it. Not that Eliot saw this, unable as he was to tear his eyes away from Margo’s face. But he heard Quentin’s surprised and bewildered “Jules?” and then the pointed silence after this filled only by the rapid-fire click of Julia’s heels as she set off down the path towards the administrative building.

If Eliot had felt gratitude for Julia’s cool under pressure, for her apparent magical prowess, it’s nothing to the relief he felt at the sound of Quentin’s voice. This was nonsense. The real help had just left to seek further assistance in the Dean—no affectation, no winking Henry then, only a prayer to please let be the Dean and a Dean that managed to get most of his adepts to graduation mostly in one piece. Quentin could offer nothing to Margo that Julia could not and yet Eliot felt so comforted by the exchange that he almost wanted to cry. Because for some reason Quentin had become the only person Eliot wanted with him when his best friend had fallen into a mysterious magical coma. Nothing was better but it was bearable because Quentin’s “Oh shit. Fuck,” was of some intangibly superior quality and it became possible for Eliot to unlock his limbs from their immobile terror, to brace himself to lift Margo into his arms, he could do that if Quentin was there to uselessly but with great tenderness cradle Margo’s flopping neck as Eliot settles her head into the crook of his elbow.

Once they had Margo settled on the sofa and Eliot had exhausted his fussing—positioning her head, straightening her rumpled dress—all there is to do is wait. Quentin was not much comfort. His fidgeting grated on Eliot’s raw nerves and when he opened his mouth he got no further than “El—” before Eliot cut him off with a clipped “Q, please,” feeling unequal to Quentin’s sweet concern, his evident need to offer solutions. Sitting with Quentin in the quiet morning light of the common room did not make things better but did make them bearable; they allowed Eliot to continue to bear it. Eliot didn’t what the difference was but looking at Quentin at Margo’s feet while Eliot perched on the edge of the sofa next to her head was a neat lesson in the proof of it’s existence: Eliot was able to wait meekly and not fall to the floor gibbering as his insufferably glib words—magic is not unlikely to kill you—played on a taunting loop in his mind.

It was maybe ten minutes before Julia returned with Fogg but suppressed panic engendered cliche: it felt much longer. It was a relief that the Dean knew exactly what the spell was, but this was hollow and fleeting because all his knowledge was terrible. Margo trapped in her own mind was awful, and the question of who would do such a thing to her even worse. The solemn set of Fogg’s face and the worried crease of his brow implied suggested something Eliot did not care for about the highness of the stakes, and the orders he gave made. Eliot, sick with fear and chastised for his brief and supremely foolish sense of comfort at authority. Authority sucked—it was used to say alarming things like “lower the wards” and “summon the Matarese” and “let’s hope this works.”

When Penny shows up, his unexpected appearance does add a nice touch of the surreal to the proceedings.

“Yeah, she sent out a call. A fucking bat signal. She’s stuck in her head. She said her ex cast this spell called the Scarlatti Web—” at this, Eliot gasped “—her words, I’m just the messenger—and you have to figure it out, or else she might not wake up.”

“Mr. Waugh, I’m guessing you’re aware of the identity of Miss Hanson’s former paramour?”

Eliot felt bad about telling Fogg. Margo had always been uncharacteristically ashamed of this and he’d been willing to follow her lead. If Margo said hedges were untrustworthy, dangerous, low-lifes, he believed her. Also, it was nice to be at the top of the pecking order; it was nice to be elite. He’d lasted one semester in community college in rural Indiana and he had to admit his motives for dislike were different: the Ivy League cosplay was an unseemly high.

“Is that, uh, relevant? To breaking the spell?” He didn’t want to give Margo’s secrets away or taint her by association.

“It may well be,” Fogg says in frustration. “At the very least, I like to know who is casting highly dangerous spells on my students. Mr. Waugh, now is not the time—”

He was interrupted by the arrival of the Matarese and it must not be immediately relevant because they’re then absorbed in the sight of Margo choking down a metal bug demon.

“It shorts out the cerebral cortex, which should break her out of the spell, which should bring her back, halfway.”

Halfway?” Eliot squeaked.

“The spell is like a prison in the middle of the desert. The Matarese breaks you out of the prison, but you have to get yourself out of the desert, and it is a lot easier with a guide.”

Before Penny left, Eliot opened his mouth to ask where Margo had been, when he answered her call. But he was too slow. Penny was gone while his body remained, eyes closed and breathing deep and slow, unreachable.

Penny returned quickly, and even before Eliot’s hope was broken by Margo’s unchanged slumber, he knew it was too soon.

“It threw me out,” he said. “She was at some kind of…wedding reception? But she was about to follow me out, and—”

Come out, Eliot thought. Come out of the desert, and back to me.

Fogg’s face got, although it hardly seemed possible, more doom-laden.

“What can we do,” Quentin said desperately, and now Eliot was happy for it. He nodded along, in enthusiastic and inane agreement. “There has to be something else.”

“It was me,” Julia threw that bomb into the despairing silence that followed Quentin’s plea. “I helped Marina Andrieski—she was one of your students—”

“Oh, I’m very well aware,” Fogg said quietly. Before he’d been concerned, but he was—something else. “Miss Wicker…” he began in his most commanding baritone, before breaking off abruptly and pinching the bridge of his nose.

“She wanted to get her memories back. The ones you took when you expelled her. So she needed you lower the wards.” Julia had been speaking slowly and steadily, seemingly impervious to everyone’s jaws unhinging in shock, but now she bit her lip and her voice wavered slightly as she said: “She’s gone now. I went and checked. I can help. It helps, to have the caster. Right?”

“You checked?” Quentin hissed. “All this time where you could have…and you wanted to make sure some heist had gone off first?”

Eliot thinks this is less important than Julia apparently helping to cast the spell in the first place, a revelation that makes him recoil. Julia? How could she have done this?

Julia didn’t respond, her back turned to Quentin, her front facing Fogg like he was a one-man firing squad. A muscle in her neck twitched.

“That might have been helpful a half an hour ago, Julia. But Quentin is correct. The time wasted on ensuring that the theft Marina cast this spell to facilitate was completed has lost us valuable time. Now an innocent student may well be in life-threatening danger, a student who had nothing to with—wait. Penny, you said Margo told you her ex did this?” Penny just gaped at him, but Fogg swiveled in Eliot’s direction without waiting for an answer. “Marina Andrieski is Margo’s ex?”

“It was, like, in high school?” Eliot confirmed without thinking as his obnoxious, irresistible, inescapable impulse to show off that he had the most gossip was inevitably triggered.

“Huh. Interesting.” Fogg spoke to himself, with a considering lift of his eyebrows. “Not surprising though. In addition to being a person of unscrupulous, dangerous character, she cut a veritable swath of devastation through this institution’s female population. The atmosphere of this campus was simply untenable.”

What?” Penny said. “How the fuck does that matter right now?”

Before Eliot could concur with that sentiment, Julia’s voice, knife-sharp, cut through the mounting hysteria. “Don’t look at me like that. You don’t get to look at me like that.”

She wasn’t looking at Fogg. She’d turned around: she was looking at Quentin.

Quentin, who usually seemed to find it difficult to make eye contact, whose eyes flinched at the first sign of conflict, looked Julia steadily in the face and said quietly: “Jules, how could you? To Margo?”

Until the powerful swell of relief Eliot experienced at the soft but insistent emphasis on Margo’s name, Eliot hadn’t known how badly he needed to not be alone in his concern, his fear. One part of his need to have Quentin close is clarified. Of course Fogg and Penny are worried—Penny because he seems like a good guy and Fogg because student death goes over badly with the Board of Directors—but they would be equally worried for any other student on campus. Eliot had been alone with the special gift of loving Margo Hanson and although he’d never been jealous of the privilege, now he had it actively confirmed that he truly did not want to be the only one so blessed. How lonely it would be, to be the only one who shamefully felt it was an especially grievous crime that this had been done to this student in particular.

Then again—the suspicion that Quentin loved Margo was also frequently like a splinter in Eliot’s heart these days. But just as often it was this: something precious.

Julia said nothing. Her spine remained ramrod straight and unashamed, but a little choked off indefinable noise escaped her lips.

“Julia…” Fogg said, sounding impossibly weary. “I cannot overemphasize how grave this is. Again I must concur with Quentin and ask: what in God’s name possessed you?”

She whirled around on Fogg again, appearing almost relieved for the excuse to break away from Quentin’s penetrating stare. “You don’t get to say anything to me, Dean. I had to try to fix what you didn’t give a shit about. She had Kady, she was making Kady do horrible things—”

“If you are referring to Miss Orloff-Diaz’s thefts, I am very sorry she found herself entangled with such a character, however—”

Entangled,” Julia spat. “She didn’t have a choice! She was coerced. But you never asked. You just expelled her in absentia, put a price on her head, no hope of help from any legitimate magical organization anywhere—“

“Perhaps if she had not fled, she could have had a chance to explain herself.”

Julia’s scornful laugh scythed through the air. “Entangled. Like you would have given a shit about anything she had to say. She stole some of your toys, so she had to pay.”

“So what you are trying to say is that you agreed to help Marina into the school and steal more as a noble undertaking?” Fogg responded with equal scorn.

“I had to,” Julia whispered. “Can’t any of you understand that? I had to.” She was still facing Fogg, but the desperation in her tone made Eliot think this plea wasn’t for him. “Marina would never let go of something she found useful, not without something she wanted a hell of a lot more in exchange. So I agreed to help her get the thing she wants most. No one was ever supposed to get hurt.”

“And you believed her? On either score? As your passionate defense of your friend shows, you are fully aware of how untrustworthy the person you are dealing with is—”

“Well I made a word as bond for her promise to release Kady from her indenture,” Julia admitted.

“—and you have just given her the tools to commit even greater atrocities—”

Another harsh laugh from Julia. Fogg stood up in anger. “Please spare me the ‘we just did it for safety’ spiel. She’s already been wreaking havoc in the city for years, totally unchecked, and you didn’t care as long as she wasn't on your campus and you took back your shiny stuff. It didn’t stop her. You can’t stop her, not like that. Not by taking the magic away, because you can’t take the magic away.”

“Oh, Miss Wicker,” Fogg sighed. It chased a chill down Eliot’s spine. All sadness and disappointment was gone, replaced by a dispassionate, cold resolve. “I assure you—we very much can.”

Fogg nodded at some point beyond Julia’s shoulder, and van der Weghe stepped out of the shadows—where the fuck had he come from?—and grabbed Julia from behind by the upper arms.

“Hey, now—” Penny said, the attractive manly wrinkle of concern on his brow breaking up the stony, willfully emotionless lines his face had fallen into when Kady was being discussed.

Quentin jumped up from the couch, “Don’t you touch her,” he said quietly.

“Q—” Julia’s voice shook.

Fogg kept speaking above the fray, calmly and evenly. “Julia, no one regrets this more than I. You were the brightest student this school has seen during my tenure as Dean. But rules, as they say, are rules.” He paused. “Professor, there’s no need for these theatrics. Recent events aside, Miss Wicker is too smart to do anything rash.”

Taking in the wild panic in Julia’s eyes, Eliot did not share this confidence. And what else did she have to lose? They were going to take her memories, her magic. It shouldn’t have made Eliot sick to think of somewhere deep down under the blaze of his anger, not after what she’d done. But it did. Julia was as little eager to find out as he, because after a long look between she and Fogg that he couldn’t parse, she gave a small nod, and when van der Weghe released her she just stood there, arms limp at her sides, and when van der Weghe said to the Dean, “We’ll be waiting in your office,” and beckoned to Julia to follow him with a patronizing quirk of his finger, she followed, shocking Eliot still further.

Quentin took a step toward the door after them. “Hey, wait.” Then he stopped to glance back at Margo, chewing his lip and obviously conflicted.

Julia stopped in the doorway too and said, “Q, listen, I—” and seemed on the verge of—what, Eliot wasn’t sure. “I had to. Okay?” Then her eyes went steely, sealed-off, and she turned away from them all with a stiff, unchastened pride.

“Now, then,” Fogg continued. “Penny, tell me again exactly what transpired when you attempted to lead Margo out. We must be missing something.”

As Penny began—talking about a house, somewhere hot, there was a pool and palm trees and Margo sitting beside the pool—Eliot was thinking, of all fucking things, about how he hadn’t realized Julia and Kady’s thing was that serious. With the finely tuned nose for gossip that meant a mental map of every dalliance at this school was taking up all the space in his skull where anything useful might actually reside, he’d known that after Julia broke up with her Muggle boyfriend—or maybe before?—they’d started hooking up, and that Kady was also hooking up with Penny. He’d dismissed it as classic girl-on-girl dilettantism and thought he might be forgiven, granted the evidence, but recognized how full of bullshit that thought was the second it mutated from a vague feeling to a revealed, solid assumption by its own undoing.

If Eliot expressed that thought to Margo she’d pull his lower intestine out through his ear and he’d found himself considering leaning over and whispering in her ear: who does Julia think she’s fooling? ‘I Kissed a Girl and I Liked It’ had it’s heyday during the first Obama administration or something equally dumb and heinous, to see if it got Margo to break her Sleeping Beauty act to bolt upright and threaten him with bodily harm, as true a true love’s kiss as Eliot could fathom.

“Then, I don’t know what happened, it went dark and it threw me out—”

At that moment Margo had gasped for air like she’d been drowning and sat up, eyes frantic and confused, not to hurt Eliot but to cling to him. Still, Eliot hasn’t been able to entirely convince himself she couldn’t possibly have read his mind.

Margo had been reluctant to talk about her experience that night and had not been much more forthcoming since. Eliot had at least wrangled from her what shape her prison in the desert had taken, however.

“A large Spanish Revival in Pasadena,” she’d said flatly. “I was home, I was engaged to Quentin, and my parents were overjoyed.”

Eliot hadn’t known how to respond to this: either her words or the strange, chill tone she said them in. Still less had he known how to parse his own feelings. Was that what misery was, to Margo? Bringing Quentin home and having her parents welcome him?

It’s different for Margo. He knows that objectively. It just is different: Margo is a woman, and Quentin is a man. Margo could kiss Quentin at night and did; she could take him home in the day, and didn’t. Both feel like equal betrayals and it didn’t matter that Eliot knows it’s unfair.

Maybe he felt so off-kilter because Margo had given him no clues as to how he was supposed to read her statement. I was engaged to Quentin!...Margo had not said. No laugh of bitchy disbelief and a finger on the pulse of absurdity. And my parents were overjoyed. No scathing disdain, no perfectly chosen, cutting detail. Eliot can put the pieces together. He knows Margo. He can guess. But that flat, deadened voice. What was the source of the thread of pain disturbing it? In the fact that her mind had presented her with the dreadful fate of marrying Quentin, or—

Eliot is projecting. He knows this. It is hard to stop, though, because Eliot’s hell is so very similar. A farmhouse in Whiteville, Indiana. I was home, I was engaged to Quentin, and my parents were overjoyed.

—or in the inescapable truth that it was an impossibility anywhere outside of his mind?

The fear that Margo might not find the thought of being engaged to Quentin as laughable as previously believed, or the knowledge she did: which was more painful?

Of course this all call later, after the immensity of his relief had subsided to manageable levels, a relief that had Eliot taking Margo’s tiny, perfect face in his hands so he could press thankful kisses to her cheek and tear-stained eyelids and trembling mouth, laughing and crying and indifferent for once to the spectacle they made.

-

His very first experience of performance as performance: the first time he ever did drag. Eliot had been performing from the time he was very small. Every single day, as a matter of necessity. He’d even performed well enough to often go long stretches avoiding getting his ass beat, which just made failure that much more bitter. There were press-ganged, forced performances: 4-H club, trying and failing to get on the baseball team three years running, suppressing shrieks of revulsion at the realities of farm life (snakes, dirt, sweat, smells.) The price exacted for failure was steep, and steeper the further he ranged from home, because word of that failure would cling to him like a stench and then his father would extract his price, with interest. Don’t wear bright colors. Don’t doodle flowers or princesses with flowing dark locks on the corner of your math test. Don’t smile too long or too brightly at other boys. Don’t give in to the natural and constant urge to touch them—even back when it actually was innocent, even when Eliot didn’t yet know why it was different when he did it. What grim models he had. Hand in the pockets of dull, ill-fitting suits from Sears, talking to other men about tractors and the basketball team’s chances at state this year. Don’t hang around your mother, don’t offer to help her hang up decorations in the church sanctuary, don’t take too much satisfaction in making things beautiful. He’d come out into such a crowd of red-faced men in a grey, sleeting December, after he tasted the heady draught of performing for pleasure for the very first time.

The girl who was going to play Mary in the nativity play was sick with pneumonia and for some reason everyone thought it would be great fun for Eliot to take her place. Eliot thought it was fun, the most fun he’d ever had, and they’d all laughed and laughed as Eliot dressed in a shapeless, musty gown and the diaphanous donated wedding veil exhumed from their plastic bin once a year, as they pressed a baby doll—hard plastic face and creepy clicking black eyes, a soft, solid cloth body—into his arms, and then he’d stopped laughing, overcome by a solemnity and responsibility he had not felt playing one of the Wise Men the previous year. He’d been filled with a great pure light pouring into him as he knelt on the dais in front of the congregation, the sensation of the cheap satin of someone’s repurposed baby blue prom dress from 1992 slipping between his knees making him shiver and destined to be his first and for years most powerful experience of luxury, glamor and sensual pleasure, feeling beautiful and holy and good, tears coming into his eyes as he imagined himself into Mary’s place without knowing that was what he was doing—it just came naturally, Eliot too knew the feeling of being cold and scared and forced to roll around in hay in a barn and pretend to enjoy it—as he pressed the baby to his chest and imagined Mary swearing he would never have to be cold in a barn again because he was the son of God. Half the audience had tittered, happy at the sweet little vision they all made—because at seven and for short intervals this sort of thing was still cute—and the other half had found it not funny in the slightest, but then everyone had fallen silent as Eliot raised his eyes heavenward and sang out in his clear little boy warble. Afterward once again in his best ill-fitting suit from Sears but still suffused with this first experience of beauty, of transporting himself beyond himself as he became a vector for beauty, coming out into the sanctuary where all the families stood around and not finding his father, Eliot went out into the entrance hall where a knot of men stood and his father’s face was stern and the corners of his mouth drawn tight as the other men opened their circle to admit him, cracking jokes about Eliot’s performance. He remembered his confused hurt—what was there to joke about, since when do they joke about holy things? He had thought that had been understood, in that silence as he sang. They should all have fallen again into that awed recognition when he comes among them, still trailing the tattered remnants of sanctity behind him. His father said nothing but that only set off a familiar squirming anxiety in his belly. Eliot smiled as if abashed, embarrassed, submitted with shy, flustered good-humor to their teasing, ducking his head and scuffing the toe of his shoe against the reproachful shine of the exhausted tile. Put his hands in his pockets. Felt his father’s heavy hand on his back—relieved.

-

A week later, making his way to the cottage kitchen in Margo’s body, he’s glad of the concrete evidence provided that she’s okay. He’s glad of those hours up in his bed, tangled together with her. Margo might insist that the whole incident had left no lasting marks, but Eliot isn’t so sure that’s true for him. He was glad of the excuse this novelty had provided for letting them hide away from the world, absorbed totally each other. In that way nothing could be more familiar, more ordinary.

In other ways, too. Eliot smiles with Margo’s mouth at a third year named David as they pass each other on the stairs and the awareness of the spectacle is again firmly in place, now sharpened by the way it has been made new and strange by finding himself in her skin. He’s been brought to a more heightened awareness of his daily performances by the way he’d arched Margo’s back so she might enjoy the sight of herself, the way Margo had looked up hotly through Eliot’s lashes so he might take notes. This might be the same smile he always smiles at nice, boring David, already married to his high school sweetheart when they both arrived at Brakebills—flirtatious, a little aggressive—and it isn’t really weird to do it as Margo because Eliot had after all originally refined and perfected that smile in explicit and base imitation of one of hers. But the reaction it garners is different and Eliot can’t help but notice. David stops on the stairs, blinking, stunned at the bestowal of such a gift—Margo, needless to say, didn’t usually bother with such attentions—both wary and intrigued despite himself, whereas with Eliot he would simply smile slightly, mutter a “Hey man, how’s it going?” and continue on his way.

Eliot smiles that way at everyone. It’s a matter of principle. He spent years giving men hey, man, how’s it going? smiles and refuses to ever do so again, but people will respond how they’ll respond. He has magic now and feeling David’s eyes on his ass as he sashays down the stairs, he reminds himself that it would be hard for anyone to extract brute revenge for Eliot’s refusal to play along, so—that’s the important thing, really.

When Eliot comes around the corner into the kitchen his feet and brain come to a screeching halt. Quentin. There, of course, he is. Sitting at the table that takes up most of the middle of the room, head bent over a book. Eliot’s eye is drawn like a magnet to where one of his blunt, square fingers—nothing wrong with looking at hands, right, and with so many excuses, here, no here is how you do Popper 33, try it again, let me watch, hm—worries at the edge of the page he’s reading. From there Eliot can trace one of the prominent veins on the back of the broad hands—Quentin is so small and his hands are so large and Eliot remembers the three of them high as kites and comparing hand size, and both their hands comically dwarfed Margo’s and then the surprise when Eliot pressed his sweaty palm to Quentin’s and their fingers nearly aligned perfectly—up to his wrists, the delicate bones covered thickly with hair. He continues, unable to stop once he’s started—arms, arms feel like riskier territory, even though they actually make Eliot feel slightly less insane than the hands, slightly, he feels light-headed—slim and strong, up to the curved arc of his shoulder blades—god, his posture is terrible—pressing through his worn blue-grey t-shirt, nubby, discolored in places from frequent washings by a boy who did not know how to separate his colors, neckline of unraveling threads, skipping up the terminating knobs of his spine—pausing exasperatedly on the ragged tag sticking out of his shirt—tracing them up to where they part his hair, a tender strip of revealed skin that makes Eliot ache—

Jesus’ hairy tits, get a hold of yourself. You saw him last night.

—which in turn draws his gaze helplessly forward—tracing the curve of his skull, that part re-emerging on the top of his head—to what Eliot can’t see: the heavy dolorous cast of his brow, the whimsical surprise of his adorable, jaunty swoop of a nose, all hidden by the obscuring fall of his hair, but, wait—Quentin lifts that graceful, strong wrist and with a rare elegance borne of long, mindless repetition, tucks back his silken hair behind his goofy, delectable ears—

Eliot needs a Valium, a blow to the head.

—and there they are, brow, nose, the lips pursed around the pen Quentin distractedly chews on, with their indulgent mournful downward tilt at the ends, his stubbled cheek—

Maybe Eliot makes an involuntary noise or the force of this focus is enough to disrupt Quentin’s concentration, because he looks up at the doorway and jerks in surprise, the pen dropping from his mouth into his coffee mug, and in his haste to rescue the pen upending the mug, and then in his haste to rescue his book from the spillage nearly falling off the chair, his balance being precarious to begin with because of the fucking insane way he was sitting, one knee under his chin and the foot of his other leg tucked up under him, (a favorite pose, as it provided evidence of the startling hints of strength in his thighs, and the perfect shelf for his pert little ass—)

Eliot’s magic instinctively leaps to Quentin’s assistance. But where he cast out unthinkingly with his telekinesis, intending to halt the flow of coffee long enough for Quentin to rescue his belongings and from stains, Margo’s cyromancy bursts forth instead to freeze it solid.

His heart pounds. He tingles all over, the magic flowing through Margo’s cells feeling different to his own, new and sharp.

All the surprising new things this body is doing, the new places it throbs, of course reminds him again that Quentin has touched this body. Those strong fingers have been inside this body. (Probably.) These hands have touched that ass. (Surely.)

Make that elephant tranquilizer.

“Woah,” Quentin says. His book is safe in the air above his head, but his body still wobbles worryingly. “That’s pretty fucking cool. Where’s Eliot?”

To get to the stove Eliot has to pass behind Quentin, and he can’t resist: he tucks in the tag sticking out of his collar, and the teasing slide of his finger between flesh and fabric goes to his head, the warmth of bare skin, goes to his head and he finds himself recklessly indulging: he picks a bit of fuzz off Quentin’s elbow while he’s at it, as he rounds the edge of the table and emerges on the other side to witness Quentin smiling (god, dimples) up at him—at Margo. He realizes what he’s decided to do without realizing.

Eliot starts filling a pot with water for pasta. Steaks, no way. The idea of Margo, swaying in a post-coital glow, her house dress slipping off her shoulder, singing dreamily along to something warm and low, cigarette in hand, grilling a red, bleeding steak for her man, the sexy sound of fat popping in the pan...no. He needs a diet of bland starches, meditation, immersion in a sensory deprivation tank. He doesn’t hook his phone up to the music player after he lights the stovetop because even cooking pasta to the basic concept of arranging sounds into pleasant combinations feels too fraught.

(Eliot has looked this way for Margo, before. Not smoking—he would never. Occasionally he would dart his head clear of the pots and pans and take a drag of the cigarette Margo offered to him, where she sat perched on the countertop, legs swinging against the cupboards. Margo would, though. A little ash mixed in. Margo has looked like this, cooking for Eliot. It’s been known to happen. Kind off. Scrambled eggs, whatever combination of vegetables haunts the crisper drawers, 5 A.M., cocktail dress, taking swigs from a wine bottle, slapping Eliot’s hand away and pointing him towards the water bottle she’d opened for him.)

Out of the corner of his eye Eliot can see what he thinks of as the patented Q expression—somehow smiling and frowning at the same time. He ducks his head, and as he looks down at the table and scratches nervously at his chin, it shifts to frown only.

“What got you so startled?” Eliot asks. It’s as easy as it was this morning to let Margo’s arch, insinuating purr roll out.

“Oh,” Quentin says, head jerking up. “Um, nothing.” He flushes. What an adorable little liar. “Do you want to maybe, uh, unfreeze that? So I can clean it up?”

Eliot turns around and has an excuse to avoid replying in his doubtfully raised eyebrow. “Really? You jumped pretty high in the air for nothing.”

As he speaks he also unfreezes the puddle of coffee halfway, just enough to suggest that ambiguous moment where solid gives way to liquid, a strange and startlingly observable example of a transitional state. It should be hard to do. It should require such fine control that he’s sweating, but for Margo it’s nothing to hold it in that impossible in between. Quentin watches it expand, quiver, bloom.

It stills. Eliot can’t bear to watch Quentin’s clumsy attempts at wiping up the mess—unspooling half the roll of paper towels and flinging it on top, patting at it ineffectually while half the liquid escaped, smearing it thin but failing to completely remove it, making everything sticky—but Margo would not clean it for him and good thing because she’s maybe worse.

A tilt of the head, long hair sliding against his bare shoulder, and Quentin lets out a percussive sigh.

“I’m just—I was just happy to see you.”

“Didn’t look happy.”

“Happy,” Quentin says, firm in contradiction. “Just also, like, surprised. I haven’t seen much of you lately, and which I know is—anyway. It’s nice, is all.”

Quentin’s small voice, painfully sincere. The depth of feeling in it.

“You don’t have a lease on my twat, Q, I’m free to live my life.”

The words fly hot and easy to his lips. They feel justifiable, reasonable: it sounds like something Margo would say if Quentin presumed too far. The moment after they’re out of his mouth is one filled by the intense breed of relief that makes you feel immediately worse than before in the second it passes, like popping a zit or puking.

Hurt flashes on Quentin’s face, and Eliot responds to it, a twang behind his breastbone. He might use Margo’s mouth to ape Margo’s sharpness, but he can’t steal the protection of her immunity to Quentin’s pathetic eyes.

“That’s—OK, that’s not what I was saying. I don’t care about that.”

“Really?” All the force of Eliot’s own doubt drips off the syllables. That had been the assumption underlying Margo’s original pitch. They would fuck Q, and it would be fun and casual. There were several problems in the assumed plural there, and that was one part of why he’d rejected her plan, but another was that nothing about Quentin suggested he was capable of casual and her belief that he was seemed a rare and bafflingly naive lapse of judgement on Margo’s part.

He knew Margo, and although he would never attempt to change her, he also couldn’t just sit by and watch Quentin get his heart broken when he inevitably wanted more than she did. And he would. All evidence confirmed that Quentin fell, deeply, quickly and enduringly, with a dogged inability to give up even when it seemed hopeless. He was still mourning Alice, but the fact that he was obviously still carrying a huge torch for Julia hadn’t impeded him there. His heart was expansive. There was no way that Quentin, both inexperienced and clearly desperate for any return for his affections, would remain unaffected by sleeping with Margo. “Well, good. Because that would be a problem.”

“It’s not.”

“Good.”

“I mean, I do hope I haven’t—obviously you can do what you want but I, I would really—” Quentin takes a deep breath. “I really like, uh, sleeping with you, and I hope that’s not—I do hope to keep doing that. You want me to like, state my desires clearly and without shame or whatever, so, you know, that’s where I’m coming from. But if not of course that’s fine. I just miss you. I haven’t seen much of you lately, and I understand why that is but we’re—we’re friends, right? I enjoy spending time with you. I hope everything’s—okay.”

Eliot experiences several feelings at once. That’s about all he can identify with clarity. He deals with it by turning back to the stove and opening a cabinet to retrieve the pasta, abruptly realizing that he’s missed Margo too, this past week. She’d been absent even while present, and present less than usual. She’d not allowed Eliot to comfort her, and had taken to disappearing to avoid Eliot’s clinginess. Only now does he consciously realize that she couldn’t have been disappearing with Quentin—because if Margo resisted Eliot’s compulsion to fuss over her, Quentin had been a willing recipient of that excess care. Of course he felt her absence, left with only Eliot’s company.

Because he hadn’t taken Julia’s expulsion well. After the fuss had died down, after he and Margo had returned from the infirmary and she had fallen into an exhausted sleep, entrapment in a Scarlatti Web apparently being the opposite of restful, Eliot had gone downstairs with spare adrenaline still pinging in his veins and found Quentin brooding. That afternoon upon receiving a newly arrived Lipson’s curt assent to his “she’s going to be okay?” Quentin had foregone accompanying them all to receive Margo’s official bill of health, instead splitting off and heading quickly, head down, towards the main hall, to that little room of the dean’s office where van der Weghe did his work. Only on finding Quentin staring red-eyed at his own hands did Eliot recall the architect of the by then previous day’s excitement and have her fate confirmed by Quentin in a voice aiming for flat and furious and not quite managing it.

“She’s gone. They took her memories and then made a portal to her old apartment and dumped her there and she’s not a magician anymore. It was—it’s what she deserves. She did this to herself. There’s nothing more to say.”

So Quentin hadn’t actually been more amenable than Margo to talking about the entire disaster. Eliot had sat down beside him and leaned his head back against the couch, keeping his eyes open. He was so, so tired, but every muscle in his body shouted in alertness. He felt the his head rise and fall, the back of Quentin’s skull disturbing the cushion as he joined Eliot in trying, until dawn crept in and revealed the blankness of the wood, to read the ceiling for answers to his own mysterious questions.

Quentin had, however, been more receptive to Eliot’s impulse offer food where he can’t alleviate hurt in a more lasting way.

(Eliot too has cooked for his man, in a hazy evening light. Grilling a steak for Mike, for another hook up. For Quentin, just last night. If someone had passed by, someone who didn’t know them, that’s what it might have looked like. Quentin in the same spot at the table. Eliot perfectly dressed, sleeves rolled up, towel over his shoulder. Wear him out, fill him back up, make him laugh, send him on his way. Self-conscious, resolutely ironic elan.)

Eliot can feel Quentin’s mounting anxiety filling the room as he tries to shake off the grip of other kitchens, other times, to try to parse through Quentin’s little speech, to think how to respond as Margo.

I really like, uh, sleeping with you, and I hope that’s not—I do hope to keep doing that. Yeah, Eliot is not equipped to deal with any part of that sentence. He could say, I like that too, baby, in Margo’s most sensual voice. It wouldn’t be a lie, probably. By inference. Margo didn’t do anything twice, much less for weeks, if she didn’t enjoy herself. It’s been fun, Q, but all good things come to an end. That might not be a lie. Margo could have very well gotten all she wanted out of Q in just a few weeks. It strikes him that he has no idea which is true. He couldn’t say anything even if he did know. It’s not his place.

What the fuck is he doing?

You want me to like, state my desires clearly and without shame or whatever, so, you know, that’s where I’m coming from. That’s good. Quentin should be able to do that. Eliot knows how refreshing it is, to give in to the temptation of believing Margo’s firm insistence that all desire is right and good. The memory of Quentin saying this with a shy, new confidence, is going to haunt him until the day he dies, but that’s good. Wonderful. Margo is blowing Quentin’s mind and running a fucking growth seminar, how fucking fantastic.

“What do you understand?”

“What?”

“You said I understand why that is. But there’s nothing to understand. There’s no reason. I’ve just been busy. Getting a head start on my thesis, you know.” Eliot can say that. Margo has been filled with an entirely novel enthusiasm on this subject, since she fell in love with Morante.

“Right.” Eliot turns around again at the sarcasm in Quentin’s tone, water still pastaless, dinner no closer to being made. He feels off-kilter, strange, unreal. He wants to dig in: he has no earthly idea why Margo has performed this vanishing act, but Quentin seems to have a theory, and isn’t that a weird feeling. It’s already happening, exactly like he knew it would.

“It’s true.”

It works just like Eliot expects, Quentin goaded into a bitter laugh and an acidic retort. “Right. Your perfect time management holds right until my best friend tries to kill you, and then you disappear. No connection.”

Oh. Hm. Not what Eliot would have guessed, but when he imagines how he’d handle it if Margo had almost accidentally killed Julia in pursuit of some other goal, he supposes it might be kind of weird. Still: “Your best friend isn’t you.”

“It’s funny, how it’s never quite felt that way,” Quentin says with a small laugh. “For either of us, maybe. I just mean—I don’t know. It’s kind of awkward.”

“It’s not. Not everything is about you.” Eliot tries to modulate Margo’s tone, which came out angrier than he intended, as he continues: “Or it’s just about you. You feel that, not me.”

Quentin’s mouth quirks. “Fair. And true. Because I’ve felt—it’s been a strange week. But I can’t put that on you.”

He cuts himself off. Eliot follows Quentin's finger as it runs over the icy spill and sees it come away wet.

“Put what on you?” That sudden gentling in Margo’s voice, disarming enough to let yourself fall into, deep and soft enough to find yourself caught. Eliot has asked but not pressed on Quentin’s obvious closed-off fretting over Julia. He’d chosen, as he always did, the road of distraction. But maybe he should have. After all, if Margo had gotten expelled and mindwiped for endangering Julia…Eliot doesn’t know what he’d do.

“You’re right, I do—I don’t know. I should be furious at Julia. I am furious at Julia. But I still—I don’t know. I feel—it feels bad. Her being gone. And it was awful, to watch her—but I don’t want—I can’t bring that badness to you. You’re the victim here. So I guess I just assumed that you knew that and resented me for it.”

“That makes sense to me. You feeling that way. I’m sure sh—I don’t resent you for that, Q, Jesus. And you can talk about it. You should talk about it. To someone.”

This bit of sympathy is apparently all it takes to overset Quentin’s reservations. “Well, I mean, I can’t talk to Eliot. He was so upset, you didn’t see how—I mean, obviously. You were unconscious. He was terrified. We were all worried, but he was—god. I tried getting him to talk about it, but he clearly didn’t want to, so. Like, it’s been just as awkward with him but he’s so—he hasn’t let it come between us. I just wish he could talk to me about it, but.”

“Why haven’t you? It’s on me to soothe him about my brush with death?”

“I told you, I tried! But, you know Eliot, he…"

Oh. Right. Quentin had. That first night Quentin had broken their silent divination of the ceiling only once in order to say god, that was terrifying today, are you…

She’s fine. It’s fine.

Eliot waits for Quentin to say what he’s like, but Quentin trails off. He presses: “‘You can’t talk to Eliot about your bestie helping my ex try to murder me, but you can talk to me about it?”

Quentin laughs a little, shrugs. “Yeah, I guess. Eliot seems—more upset.”

“Eliot’s delicate.”

It comes out withering enough to startle Quentin. “No, it’s just. If it was me. I would be way less upset about nearly dying than I was about, you know, you being in danger. Not that I’m a good example.”

Eliot blinks in confusion. “Why not?”

By this point Eliot is leaning on the table on his arms, mirroring Quentin. They’re nearly eye-to-eye. Quentin shakes his head. Neither of them break eye contact.

“No, Eliot is—I’m fine. Of course I’m fine. Of course I fucking broke out of my stupid fucking mind prison. If Marina or Julia thought they could get me so easily, they learned otherwise. It’s over. But you’re right. Eliot is made of less stern stuff.”

Eliot enjoys borrowing Margo’s confidence. Of course she’s fine, he reassures himself. Of course she’s over it.

Of course Eliot isn’t.

So he enjoys her scorn, too. What does it matter to admit this fear now, from her throat, to Quentin and his sweet, worried eyes? So concerned for him. For Eliot. For Margo, too—but is it so wrong to revel in Quentin’s regard for him for a moment? He should really ask Quentin, sometime, about Julia. Insist on it, like Margo found so easy to do. But for a moment Eliot lets all his fears rush back in. Is Margo okay? Is Quentin okay? Is he okay? Are they okay? What would Quentin think if he knew about the cage Margo’s mind had fashioned out of them? Why is this happening to him?

Quentin’s hair falls in his eyes. Eliot lets himself reach out and tuck it behind his ear. Quentin’s cheek is warm against his palm. His brow creases, and he swallows. Opens his mouth to say—

“Um, Margo? You might want to get that.”

The pot of water has boiled over, making the burner hiss, flooding the counter. Eliot reaches out with Margo’s ice but now that he’s thinking about it nothing comes. He hurries to twist the knob to off.

Fuck this,” Eliot says aloud.

“I didn’t know you cooked,” Quentin says into the quiet only broken by the hissing steam of water on hot metal, by the drip of the water as it overflows the rim of the counter and hits the floor, by the startling blare of the too eager fire alarm.

“I don’t. Hey, do you want takeout?”