Quentin blinks, and the room changes.
“What - Vix -?” He sways on his feet and looks up again to see Alice staring at him. Alice’s eyes are red, like she’s been crying. “What’s wrong?” Hadn’t they been kissing a moment ago? Except… Alice’s clothes had been different and her hair had been different…
Quentin’s own hair brushes the back of his neck as he shakes his head, trying to clear it, and he suddenly realizes something. He hadn’t felt that once in the last hour or two, his head had felt curiously light like when he’d been little and his mother had insisted he keep his hair short. And his clothes were different too, weren’t they?
More than anything, he can still feel the tingle of magic on his fingertips, but he doesn’t remember casting anything.
“I don’t know what’s wrong,” Alice says, her voice unsteady. “I don’t remember anything clearly for the last… maybe hour or so? The last thing I know for sure we were in your room, we were making out, and then - I was here. What do you remember?”
“I was still here,” Quentin says slowly, “at Brakebills South. But in a different room, and I’m not sure how I got there. Your clothes were different and I think your hair was lighter. Oh, and there was a lot of rope, we had to tie it into knots.”
And I kept trying to talk you into sneaking off to hook up , he doesn’t add, because Alice still looks like she’d been crying. And now he thinks about it, in that odd room with the ropes, Alice had seemed leery of him, had almost flinched away from him. Had seemed conflicted even as she leaned up to kiss him in that last moment.
God, his head hurts.
“What do you remember?” he asks, trying to think through the sudden pounding headache. “Forget clearly, just - anything at all.”
“Not much,” Alice says grimly. “We were in my room, and then we were here. And I think - I feel like you were with me, but you… you didn’t like me at all anymore, I don’t know what I did but something was really wrong, Q. I think I remember your eyes and I’ve never seen them so cold. And there’s… I was clearly doing a spell, but I don’t know what spell, there’s not enough materials left to tell me what I did,” she says, frowning as she looks around.
“I don’t like this place,” she says finally, avoiding Quentin’s eyes.
And Quentin - agrees. Until a couple of hours ago, he’d thought he would always remember Brakebills South fondly, remember it as the place that brought him and Alice together. But it’s like now he can see it , cold and strange as the snowscape outside. “Did we - want any of this?” he asks, shoving his hands in his pockets. He looks over at Alice but can’t quite meet her eyes, his gaze falling to her hands twisting nervously. “I mean,” he continues hurriedly. “I like you. A lot. Like, really a lot. But I wasn’t, um. Ready to, to ask you out on a date , much less, well.”
He’d wanted to, but he hadn’t quite found his nerve. And there’d been a sort of - it’s probably not cool to ask out the girl you like when you haven’t quite shaken the inconvenient crush on your impossible new friend. Bisexual problems indeed, but his crushes on Julia and James had been sort of blocked by them dating each other, so it was a new situation for him to have crushes on two people who, being single, were theoretically available. Although with Quentin as the other party, that was, well, very theoretical.
So he’d been waiting to figure out how to fix that and also gather his nerve to ask Alice out. But then bam, they’re foxes having fox sex and then humans having… sex that still felt kind of like they were foxes. And now that he’s spent time with Alice where she seemed almost afraid to touch him but doesn’t remember it, that bothers Quentin. A lot.
“Did Mayakovsky do this too? Whatever it was?” Alice asks, and Quentin looks up to meet her eyes then, sees the same mounting horror that he feels himself.
“I - I don’t know. That would make sense, but I don’t understand why he would…”
“Q, why would he magic us into having sex? I don’t think this guy follows any rules but his own.”
“So what does that mean?” Quentin makes himself ask when she doesn’t say anything else. “Are we - I mean -”
“You said you weren’t ready. Neither was I. I don’t think - if we were to try and make a relationship of this right now, I don’t think either of us could ever trust that it was real, do you? Maybe that’s why this… sense of you that I have didn’t like me anymore. Maybe we pushed too far, too fast, and broke whatever might have been,” Alice says, and Quentin watches her set her jaw, and she’s brilliant and stubborn and they’ve gotten along so well here, and he wants -
But she’s also right. Isn’t she? If it had just been about the foxes, maybe, but the mind games are too much. Things are too strange, with no way to know what’s real and what isn’t. Quentin thinks of an Alice with paler hair and something sharper about her face, and eyes somehow impossibly more sad even than this Alice, here and now who had been crying. He thinks of his head feeling too light without the weight of his hair, clothing he’s never worn.
“We can be friends, at least, and good ones maybe?” Julia, he remembers, Julia and how he’d thrown it in her face, but he never would have if things weren’t already fucked - he’d been prepared to never speak of it and he can do that with Alice, can’t he? He can be her friend because she’s amazing and he likes spending time with her, and he doesn’t want to lose her even if they can’t be what he’d hoped they would be.
“We can do that,” Alice says, and she offers him her hand to - to shake on it of all things. And he takes it, and he does shake her hand, because what else is there to do?
Something - shifts. He can feel it, somehow. Something changing in the air. He doesn’t understand it, doesn’t know if he wants to. But he thinks - “We’re OK. We can, can be OK. As soon as we’re out of this fucking place, anyway.”
“God,” Alice says, letting go of Quentin’s hand and leaning back against the table. “I can’t wait to be out of here. Antarctica can go to hell, what do you say?”
“We can’t, I think the animals like it, you told me you like penguins, remember?” Quentin says before he can stop himself, and then Alice chokes on a sound like a laugh, and he’s laughing too, and it’s fucking hysteria and not in the good way but. But it’s something, as they sink to the floor and at some point end up holding hands again.
The hand holding isn’t about liking each other, just now. It’s more about having an anchor, as the world spins and re-forms around them in the wake of magic that cut far, far too deep.
Quentin goes to the cafeteria after he and Alice split off, because he doesn’t really want to go back to his room where they’d been in the middle of ripping each other’s clothes off before… before…
Before whatever happened.
He goes to the cafeteria because he has to do something, and also he feels weirdly hungry, in spite of everything. Like he’s barely eaten in weeks or something, which isn’t true at all but he feels it, hungry and a little shaky like his blood sugar’s low.
Still, even after he gets food, he toys with it rather than eating it, lost in brooding.
“Hey - Quentin, right? You’re not usually here at this shift.”
“Yeah, well,” Quentin shrugs. “Um…” He knows this guy, redheaded and blue-eyed, but he can’t remember…
“Gabriel Carter, we had Basic Magical Theory together.” Gabriel Carter says as he sits down with his own tray and a worn pack of cards. Quentin glances at it, fingers itching for the familiarity of a card deck, and Gabriel grins. “Found these in my room. You play?”
"Yeah. I do tricks too," Quentin says, shrugging as he tucks his hair behind his ear.
"Ever play Push? Magicians' card game."
Wait. There's a card game with magic, and no one told him that? "No, where can I learn how?"
Gabriel smiles, and Quentin notices in spite of himself that it's a cute smile. Gabriel is cute, and learning to play Push from him and getting more of those smiles is easing some of the fox-restlessness still thrumming under Quentin’s skin.
“It works better,” Gabriel says, “if you already know the deck. I doubt you’ll manage card illusions like we do at the Castle because you’re a physical kid, but still, it helps to know the deck. Best I’ve ever seen was this guy, name was… oh, what was it… Oh! Mike Ross, that was it, he had an eidetic memory, remembered every card that was dealt so he could basically count cards automatically. Not at Brakebills, he’s a hedge in the city, I think he might be a lawyer, but that man could play. I mean I’m sure he was mixing Muggle and magical ways of cheating, but the only real rule is don’t get caught, right?”
Quentin does not have an eidetic memory. But he does, in fact, know how to count cards. He’s not as good at counting cards as he is at palming them, but by most standards he is very good at both. So he smiles, and says, “I know the deck very well.”
It’s what comes of spending hours at a time practicing tricks; you can’t help but get a feel for the deck itself. And so he finds that he picks up the casts that go with Magician card games faster than he ever picked up a single Popper, much less the more complicated things.
He feels like Harry Potter the first time he got on a broom, trying these spells. Finally, something that comes naturally.
Card probability can’t be a discipline, can it? What house would that even be?
Hours later they’re still playing - they played through the night, Quentin realizes - and all the first-years are being rounded up to be sent back to Brakebills proper. Alice glances Quentin’s way when he shows up with Gabriel, but doesn’t say anything. Penny shows up without Kady, and Quentin can’t help but ask where she is.
“Who cares?” Penny says, and it’s not really any more unfriendly than he ever is with Quentin but there’s something raw under it. Quentin doesn’t like Penny any more than Penny likes him, for all that the first Trial proved they can work pretty well together when it’s absolutely necessary. But when he still feels pretty banged up himself, he can’t help but feel bad for him.
What the fuck is it about this place? Quentin has to wonder how many of the other students, people he mostly doesn’t know, are leaving somehow fucked up by something that happened here? The Teagan twins from his Basic Uses of Stone and Crystal class, are grim faced while their friend - he thinks her name’s Kit - is all tense, lips pressed together in a thin line.
Almost everyone looks worn out, and it’s hard to tell how much of that is from the pace of learning and how much is from, well, shit like getting electrocuted because of a reluctance to use mind control magic. Quentin’s sure he and Alice aren’t the only ones who got that treatment for one thing or another. Bleakly, he wonders if any of the others were turned into animals and sent out into the snow, and if any of them ended up having sex.
He hears Mayakovsky say something to Alice, but he’s in the back of the line with Gabriel so he can’t hear what it is. When he goes by, though… “Quentin. I removed your inhibitions. Go do interesting things without them, unfinished boy.”
Unfinished -? What? Quentin doesn’t say anything at all, but Mayakovsky isn’t done yet. “Why the fox?”
That makes Quentin stop, because - well. In spite of everything else, the thing about being a fox, like the thing about being a goose, is… “The fox knows what it wants,” he says through gritted teeth. Before he might have called the fox happy, but now, he’d cut out his tongue first.
“The fox is in you now,” Mayakovsky says, and then Quentin is blinking in the bright sunlight of Brakebills, a day like all the other days somewhere between the nicest spring days and the prettiest autumn ones.
The fox is in you now.
God, he fucking hopes not.
After escaping Mike and Eliot, Quentin goes back to his room and flops back on his mattress, folding his hands over his stomach and wishing that he was less of a damned idiot. It occurs to him, briefly, to wonder how he might have felt if, without all the damned interference, he and Alice had come back from South as a couple, instead of a pair of rather shaken friends.
Maybe friends, she can’t even look at him.
(Briefly, he has to admit that Penny is probably at least as fucked up as they are, given the way he was talking about Kady when they left, but it’s not like Penny would tell Quentin of all people if that’s the case.)
Anyway. If he and Alice had come back together, then Quentin… well. He certainly hopes Eliot having a boyfriend wouldn’t bother him, because hopefully having a girlfriend he really likes would just… undo Quentin’s inconvenient crush on Eliot, but as it is, well. As it is he’s kind of entertaining daydreams of punching Mike’s face in. Which is both a shitty thing to want to do to his friend’s boyfriend and, also, he can’t throw a decent punch, it’s not even realistic.
Maybe he should try to hook up with someone at the next Cottage party. Maybe that will help. Even if he’s never particularly cared for one-night stands with strangers. He’s had them, usually when he’s feeling numb and wants to try to get out of his head, but they rarely go well and usually just aren’t that good anyway. Add that to the general awkwardness of his existence, and the odds of either managing a hookup or that it will make him feel better are pretty damn low.
Quentin sighs, scrubbing a palm across his face. Why did things have to get so complicated anyway?
It should be comforting to consider that he’s finally over his longstanding infatuation with Julia, and that his milder crush on James vanished into the ether along with it. It would be, except that getting over Julia had literally required him developing crushes on both Alice and Eliot, and, oh yes. Let’s not forget the mental hospital illusion Julia trapped him in.
In short, he’s in trouble.
“Oh what the fuck, fuck everything,” he grumbles, turning over and burying his face in his pillow. He doesn’t mean to fall asleep, but he’s still exhausted from Brakebills South. He sleeps and he dreams, fractured images of a room that looks like Brakebills in greyscale, golden sparks swallowing him up, and -
He wakes up gasping, pressing his hands to his head. Right, OK, no more napping. He’s up half the night more times than he isn’t without taking long naps partway through the day. So he gets up, grabs fresh clothes and the shower caddy he still uses from freshman year of undergrad (Molly bought a lot of his dorm gear in an awkward attempt to be nice to him) and goes to shower. They haven’t bathed in weeks, and it’s finally starting to hit him how gross he feels.
The peppermint two-in-one soap he uses at times like this makes him smell like candy canes, or so Julia used to say, but it always makes his head feel clearer and that’s what he needs.
He stops back at his room long enough to get shoes and a book, then leaves the Cottage. He hears Eliot’s laughter round the back and hesitates briefly - he wants to talk to Eliot, maybe even tell him what happened at South. Talking to Eliot always somehow… makes things less horrible. But he’s busy with his new boyfriend, and Quentin knows how that shit goes. Best not to interrupt.
It feels strange to be back at Brakebills proper, sitting under a tree in warm sunlight, in thin layered shirts and worn-soft jeans instead of the heavy South uniform and the snow and oddly sharp sunlight outside the windows.
It feels strange to feel his still-damp hair sticking to his neck when some part of him feels like it should be shorter. His shoulder feels stiff, and he’s still vaguely hungry like when he hasn’t eaten in a while but the feeling has become more like background noise. He might head over to the little cafe soon, get coffee and a muffin or something.
God, what did Mayakovsky do to them? He wishes he could talk to Alice about it, but since their last conversation she’s barely looked at him. It’s like whatever kinship they found in being mutually screwed with just fell apart. He understands, because he swears he can still smell fox-her, lingering on the edges of his senses, but understanding doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt.
And Julia hates him, and Margo’s not here, and Eliot is… occupied, and - God. There’s no point to this. He doesn’t need a shoulder to cry on, he’s a fucking adult, he just needs to get out of his head for a while. So he opens his book and tries to lose himself in Timothy Zahn’s iconic take on the Star Wars universe.
(Fillory just feels… too fraught right now, after what Penny told him before the Trials.)
Quentin drops his book. “Oh, uh, Gabriel, hi,” he says, running a hand through his hair. He had more or less assumed that his conversation with Gabriel was going to go the way of South interactions in general; namely that he’d never talk to him again now that they were back. “Get settled back in and all?”
“Yeah, half the crowd’s still gone - you know the break overlaps with our last couple days, right, so they get more time off? Fucking unfair, but there it is. We start up again before they do too, come to think of it.” Gabriel drops down next to Quentin, flopping back on the grass and resting his hands under his head. “Some of ‘em are staying over break, but not all, so at least it makes things a little more calm coming back from South.”
“You sound like you know a lot about this,” Quentin says, setting his book in his lap and leaning back against the tree trunk.
“Well, about half my family has alumni keys, and the other half is magic too, just without the piece of paper from Brakebills. Although that’s kind of a point of pride for them, really.”
“Being hedges?” Quentin asks, curious now. He’d kind of assumed everyone thought of hedges the way Eliot had described them, but come to think of it, Eliot is kind of… particular. That bodega hadn’t exactly been impressive, though. Even so, the memory of the disdain he’d thrown at Julia makes his stomach squirm a little now.
“Mm, not exactly. It’s kind of complicated - older magic families that teach their kids independently. Mostly, they refuse to let their kids go to Brakebills but since my dad’s family’s all classical magicians trained either here or at the school up in Canada, they didn’t fight about my older sisters or me. I’m not the only one here now either - you know the Teagan twins?”
Everyone knows the Teagan twins, even socially-inept Quentin, because they’re kind of noticeable. Identical in every way except that they dress differently and Aislinn’s hair is dyed blue while Maureen’s is pale-pale green, they’re both psychics of some flavor or other. He’d seen them in passing at South with the others, looking deeply unimpressed with the proceedings. Kady had told him, Alice, and Penny at dinner one night that she’d heard one of the twins cursing out Mayakovsky in some language she thought might be Irish. He’d apparently found that funny.
“ Super old family, on both sides. The old families hang on to the old ways.”
Quentin finds real curiosity, not just the idle flash of it from earlier, cutting through his gloom. This doesn’t sound anything like the idea of magical culture or whatever that he’d gotten from Eliot or Margo, or from Mentor Week even. “That sounds… like old-school royalty or something. Is that your family too?”
“Hm? Oh, no, not for the most part. I mean, I know some spells that the people here would call homebrew because they’re not official , but for my mom’s family they’re as common as a freaking Popper. But the Davises are not that old. Hedges who made good, more or less.” Gabriel makes a face. “Shit, sorry for talking your ear off - I don’t get to talk about it much here, it’s better not to bring it up much, and you actually seemed curious but I shouldn’t assume.”
Quentin, who God knows has rambled at people for much longer about things they were definitely not interested in, knows exactly how he feels. “No, it really is interesting. I don’t know much about any of this, you know? No one else in my family’s magic as far as I’m aware of, and all I really know about it is what they say in class or what Eliot and Margo have told me.”
“And, despite being known throughout the campus, those two are first-gens, right?”
“First-gens?” Quentin echoes.
“Not from magical families. Like you.”
“Oh. I don’t actually know, but probably?” Quentin remembers Eliot’s story about how he’d discovered his magic, which definitely sounded like a case of someone who hadn’t known it was even possible before it happened. So he’s certain about Eliot, he just doesn’t want to say so because it feels like halfway betraying a confidence. Margo, he’s genuinely not sure, but it seems likely she’s the same given how fixated she was on Mentor Week. If she was from a magical family, she’d have other connections, right?
“Yeah, so there’s a lot you don’t find out until you’re out of Brakebills,” Gabriel says. He’s playing with a woven bracelet on his wrist, horizontal stripes in two shades of green, then white, grey, and black. Quentin’s seen that before, but he can’t remember where offhand. “I mean, there’s also tons of stuff online, varying degrees of legit, most people whose magic kicks off early find things that way. LiveJournal’s big for it.”
“LiveJournal?” Quentin echoes. “That used to be the place for fandoms, but…” He still has a LiveJournal, actually. Hasn’t used it in ages, but maybe he can go to the tech shack and do some digging? Just because he’s at Brakebills is no reason not to augment things, right? Again he thinks of Julia and that guilt twists through him.
Although, on second thought, maybe he shouldn’t do a search like that on Brakebills property. Next time he leaves campus then.
“Oh yeah, I can give you a few people to check out that are good.”
They end up going for coffee and sandwiches together, still talking about the ways you can find reliable magic online and how to find Push and magicians’ poker circuits in New York. And it’s - it’s nice, actually. Now that Quentin thinks about it, a lot of his conversations with people, except Eliot and Margo, tend to be about serious shit or classwork. Even with Eliot and Margo, unless they’re letting him ramble about stuff it’s usually more him listening to them. Which he likes a lot, especially on bad days when Eliot in particular lets Quentin curl up next to him and just be quiet while their voices wash over him, but…
But this is nice too.
With Alice, she’d kept up her bargain to tutor him for a while, so they’d mostly talked about classes when big things like first Charlie and then his dad weren’t coming up. Maybe he and Alice were never as close as he’d thought?
“You know, you should come by the Castle,” Gabriel is saying as they settle at a table with their food, and Quentin blinks, coming back to himself.
“Illusionist Castle. My dorm, and also home base for the Brakebills card game circuit. I think you could have a lot of fun, don’t you?”
“Actually, I think I could.”
Quentin starts spending most of his time either in his room or in the reading nook. Alice doesn’t like the nook or the common room it opens out onto, prefers the library or to work outside, and he’s finding himself responding to her evasion in kind. Something about being treated like he’s still half fox and might pounce on her just makes him feel weird.
Although he guesses the way he’d stammered to Eliot and Mike about how he’d maybe seduced her instead of Alice doing the seducing as Eliot assumed… didn’t help his case. But that had just been awkwardness, he hadn’t meant anything by it.
Well, anyway, Alice is avoiding him and Eliot’s in the city staying over at Mike’s apartment. If part of Quentin thinks that is really fast, the rest of him is well aware of how much that is not his business.
So he has the rest of the break more or less to himself, and he spends it reading. Not a Fillory book, or even another novel, but a book on cartomancy. It’s mostly fortune telling, which he doesn’t think he’d be much good at, but there’s some cool stuff in here on variants of warding magic, luck magic, and some others, using cards and card suits as symbols for people who are more comfortable with that than runes or something.
About half the book’s on tarot, which Quentin doesn’t know much about. That was one of Julia’s high school enthusiasms, not his. He remembers her talking about some of it, though, and he has a book on the basics at the bottom of his black footlocker (another freshman year of college gift from Molly) that he bought because Julia was into it. It was supposed to be a gift, but then she dropped the idea and he just left the book in among his stuff. He should dig it out, compare and contrast.
He got another book out of the library that he hasn’t started yet, on ink magic. Spells done through written or drawn things, on paper or objects or skin. He used to draw, back before his second therapist tried to make him do it as therapy and that kinda ruined it. But he misses it, and he’s been thinking about being an animal again. How as a goose or a fox, he just had to do what came naturally.
Maybe he has to do that with magic too. Make it work for him by finding the ways it connects to things he can already do? Maybe that was the real point of animal transformation, to teach them to follow their instincts? It’s a thought, anyway, and he hasn’t got anything else to do but look into it.
You need to go off the garden path, his dream of Jane Chatwin said.
His first night back from South, he dreamed of his own hands coloring in a design for a sunrise, made in pastel blocks. Since then, his dreams have mostly gone back to normal but there’ll be a flicker of an image in there, something bright and vivid and clear like snapshots of memories he doesn’t have. It makes him edgy and restless.
They’re probably not connected, but the dregs of fox magic under his skin have only added to his restlessness, and he might as well channel that energy into learning things, right? He doesn’t know what his dreams are about, but it seems likely shit will hit the fan again eventually. So maybe he should try to learn whatever he can. That was probably the one thing about South that made sense - there wasn’t much else to do, and as horrible as he is Mayakovsky knows his shit so Quentin feels like he maybe learned more there than he has up till now.
It doesn’t excuse the bullshit, but it does make him think. He’s been trying to be Alice, who’s just good at this, or Julia who was just good at everything. Or even Eliot or Margo, who act like there’s no effort involved. Except that Quentin has seen Eliot up at night studying when the general population can’t catch him - has in fact fallen asleep next to Eliot half covered in his own books a few times because if they were both up it was kind of nice to not be alone.
(Quentin isn’t sure how Margo studies, but he suspects she has her ways same as Eliot.)
Maybe he should stop trying to be them. He told Fogg he wasn’t here to be told what magic was or wasn’t, but to find out for himself. The first known magic he did was build a house of cards. Sunderland told him that some of his card tricks were probably early manifestations of magic, though she’d said that wouldn’t help her narrow down a discipline since he did them by “subconscious casting via mundane methodology.”
He assumes that means sleight of hand.
Still, maybe the trick to actually being decent at this is working through the things he’s already good at. It’s worth a shot, anyway, and so he spends his weekend starting to put the idea into practice.
So he’ll begin with cartomancy and ink magic. And the next time he stops by the school store, he’ll get a couple unlined notebooks and a pack of colored pencils, as well as a pack of colored pens. He misses drawing, and he’s going to need the practice, isn’t he? Better than brooding, better than pining or being a third wheel.
And maybe he’ll even take Gabriel up on his offer to come play cards at the Castle. Why not? It’s not like anyone is likely to miss him being around less, and he remembers that the only time he’d ever enjoyed the parties Julia and James used to throw were when someone decided to throw a poker game together.
Or, hilariously, one time almost everyone involved was too high to play anything but Go Fish. That particular incident was also the only time after grade school when Quentin’s card tricks actually got him applause. James still had footage of that on his computer somewhere, last Quentin knew.
Parties are a Cottage thing but card games are not. So… what the hell. He should keep it in mind.
Classes begin again for the first-years on the following Monday, with yet another speech from Fogg in the lecture hall where the Beast broke in. The mirror’s gone, but when Quentin walks by the corner he sees there’s a shard still there by the wall. It makes his fingers itch and his spine crawl all at once, so he pretends to ignore it and sits as far away as possible.
They have study groups now. And double the workload. Yay.
Quentin briefly considers finding out who is in Alice’s study group and seeing if he can swap with one of them - there’s a part of him that wants to demand she look at him and stop acting like what happened to them is his fault, and forcing her to work with him will settle that instinct. But in the next moment he’s horrified that he even thought it.
She needs space after what happened, and if they were both mind fucked into fucking, maybe it - maybe it’s worse for her. Quentin himself is only uneasy about what happened, but it could have hit Alice differently. He’s used to being vulnerable just because he’s so bad at putting up convincing defenses, but Alice locks out basically the whole world.
Also, it’s not like him to force the issue like that. He doesn’t like the fact that part of him wants to so much.
So instead he finds his study partners, Kit Chandler and Maureen Teagan. He was right about Kit’s name from when he saw her at South, which is nice to know. “Hang on, we’re still waiting,” Maureen says when Quentin joins them on the stairs outside.
“I thought it was three to a group?” Quentin asks. There’d only been two names on his card.
“I know, but no one says we can’t work together with other groups,” Maureen replies, very serene for a woman with green hair.
Quentin leans back against the rail, flipping his worry coin over and under his fingers while Kit and Maureen talk quietly. He’s just thinking it’s weird to see them without Maureen’s sister when he realizes who they must be waiting for, and sure enough a moment later Aislinn Teagan is leading the way out of the building with two other students at her heels. Quentin knows the other girl in passing because she’s another Cottage resident. Her name’s Maria, and she once dumped a bucket of ice on Todd’s head and thus earned herself one of Eliot’s most impressive cocktails. But Quentin has to admit he’s relieved when the third student is Gabriel.
“Help, we’re outnumbered,” Gabriel says to Quentin as the two groups meet, mock-alarmed as he waves at the four women surrounding them.
“Oh, hush, Gabe, you know you like it,” Aislinn drawls, sliding an arm around Kit’s waist as the six of them troop down the stairs. They make an interesting contrast, Quentin thinks, Kit small and dark-skinned, her many thin braids pulled together into a ponytail, while Aislinn is tall and pale, her blue hair cut short and sticking out at all angles like a slightly demented take on a pixie cut.
“Not since you broke my heart by playing exclusively for the other team, Linn,” Gabriel laughs, cutting into Quentin’s idle thoughts. “I guess I could try and win Maureen’s heart, but that seems like a losing battle.”
“How do you all know each other?” That’s the last girl, Maria. “I mean, I sort of know Quentin because we live in the same house and he’s always with Margo and Eliot so people talk, and I’ve worked with Kit in class last semester and at South, but…”
“We grew up together, more or less, us and Gabriel anyway,” Maureen says. Unlike her sister, her equally-quirky-colored hair is long, twisted back in a topknot that she’s stuck three pencils through. “Our families know each other.”
“They broke my heart one summer, both of them, it was terribly unfair,” Gabriel jokes even as he falls into step next to Quentin, and his bright smile is for Maria at first, but then he turns it on Quentin and winks like they’re sharing a joke. It makes Quentin’s chest do something warm; he likes being in on things. He didn’t know that until he got to Brakebills, but he does now. “Hey, so, where exactly are we going?”
“My room,” Kit says. “For botany and our star charts for astronomy, obviously we’ll have to work outside, but I have a lot of space so we can all fit there.”
“Aren’t you a knowledge kid?” Maria asks. “You live over the library, how much space can you have?”
Kit shrugs. “According to Dean Fogg, there’s never that many knowledge students at a given time, so we get a little more space. Occasionally people have had to double up, a couple of the rooms have bunk beds. But it’s quiet and the library is right there, which will be useful. Also, knowledge kids are famous for experimentation, so there are extra wards on all the rooms for when spells go wrong.”
“All the dorms have basic wards about that, but it’s no surprise knowledge kids need the strongest,” Gabriel says. “Good thinking.”
Quentin doesn’t say anything, just sort of lets the conversation wash over him. Kit turns out to have been more or less telling the truth about having space, though most of them end up on the floor. That’s not so bad - he tucks himself into a corner and he’s comfortable enough. Kit has star charts and a poster of a black hole on her wall, which is cool enough but not really Quentin’s thing. Then she shuts the door after the rest of them are all inside and on the door is a poster of -
“Is that the Wizard’s Oath? From the Young Wizards series?” he asks, and watches her light up.
“Yeah - don’t tell me, tried to take it when you were in middle school too?” Kit asks.
“Twice, even,” Quentin admits, a little sheepish. “Hey, maybe it worked after all,” he adds with a little smile.
“Oh no, we have nerds,” Aislinn laughs, but it sounds fond. It reminds him of the way Eliot usually calls him a nerd - and not the vaguely dismissive they are nerds comment to Mike when -
God, he is not going to let himself do this shit again. So instead he shrugs a little. “Guilty?”
“Oh, we’re just as bad in our own way. Linn once got herself grounded for two months when she tried to use magic to create a lightsaber,” Maureen says lightly, and Aislinn throws a pillow at her sister’s head, declaring her a traitor.
"Wait, did it work?" Maria asks.
"No," Aislinn says, "but I can make lightsaber necklaces that will glow permanently, so I still count it as a win."
They settle down to start work on Runes after that, but as icebreakers go, Quentin decides it’s not a bad one.
The study group spends the first two weeks almost constantly together, and Quentin understands within two days why the study groups are mandatory for this semester. The workload is… definitely more than it used to be, by a lot. And they all have different skill sets, which means a lot of swapping tips for memorizing stuff.
Quentin is slower than the rest of them in botany, even with Maria’s flash cards, for example, but he has a bunch of tricks for new language vocabulary. They don’t all have the same languages - Quentin went for Latin, which he half knows from high school, and Arabic, which he doesn’t know at all - but the tricks mostly hold.
When he has to admit that he knows these methods from teaching himself Klingon and Vulcan, Kit shrugs and says, “Well, the premise is the same.”
Kit is carrying all of them in astronomy/astrology, because the former was something she was already studying in college as part of an astrophysics degree, Maria has notes and study guide designs for everything, and as for the twins and Gabriel? Well, they’ve spent their entire lives around magic, and unlike Alice, their parents taught them a lot. Basically, between them they know at least a little about everything they’re learning. Including some alternate spells that are sometimes easier than the standard.
“Technically homebrews, but old ones, so they’re trustworthy,” Aislinn says when Maria asks how reliable some of these spells are.
And so two weeks in, they get to Friday and Gabriel turns to Quentin as they all leave Kit’s room. “Hey, we’ve got a game going over the weekend, you want in?”
“I don’t know, maybe, gotta see what else might be going on. Margo’s back on Monday, God knows what schemes Eliot might rope me into,” Quentin says, and he doesn’t know why Gabriel looks a little disappointed but he tries not to dwell on it. Then, he finds himself on the Cottage porch with Alice.
“Hey, how’s class going? And studying with Penny?”
“It’s fine,” Alice says, not quite looking at him.
Neither of us smell like foxes anymore, Quentin wants to say, but he doesn’t. He can’t help but think that he’s the one who put the final nail in his relationship with Julia by pushing on the fact that he’d had a crush on her, she’d known about it, and pretended not to. Outside of when he’s in a temper, he knows full well that she was never obligated to date him, but it does still sting that they both know she knew, and most of those attempts to set him up were less about people he’d actually like and more about getting him over her.
Which, to be fair, Julia had probably meant as a kinder way to reject him than actually saying so.
The point is, he fucked up by crossing a line. He’s trying not to do that again. So he doesn’t say a word, and he ignores the odd twinge when it turns out Alice wasn’t going inside, she was waiting for Penny, and when he arrives she says a quick goodbye to Quentin before hurrying down to walk off with him. Quentin hears a bit of their conversation - something about how at least the Psychic dorm is quieter than the Cottage - before he goes inside.
It’s not his business.
The next morning, he’s trying to practice some ink magic designs when Eliot pops up from nowhere, making Quentin jump so that his line slashes across the page. It’s a damn good thing he hasn’t progressed to skin, just ink on paper. That’s what the book says - start with pencil on paper, then ink on paper, then washable ink on skin. Once you’ve mastered that, try temporary tattoo methods like henna, then finally full-blown tattoos if you want.
“This is a disaster!” Eliot says, waving around two… vests? Shirts? Quentin’s not sure which with them being brandished in his face like this. Eliot is still in one of his brightly printed pajama sets, and Quentin thinks it's a small mercy that he's not in one of those super-short robes of his.
“I have nothing to wear!”
Quentin is reasonably sure that is far from the truth, so he says, “You think that might be, I don’t know, hyperbole?” He’s tempted to say he thinks there might be department store sections that have fewer clothes than what’s in Eliot’s closet, but whatever Eliot’s on about, he seems honestly upset enough that Quentin doesn’t want to be too much of a dick.
“I am not emotionally prepared for Mike to see me in repeat outfits.”
Oh no. Quentin suddenly realizes what this is. This is a date outfit advice conversation. He hasn’t had to deal with these since he and Julia were seventeen and she finally figured out he was always going to be hopeless at giving her any help in this area. “I think this might be a Margo problem?”
“Obviously, Quentin,” Eliot says impatiently, looking even more frazzled. “But she’s shacked up with some artiste at Encanto Oculto and so I’m stuck with you.”
And - Quentin knows Eliot probably doesn’t mean that quite how it sounded. Sure, he’s been all honeymoon phase wrapped up with Mike, but that doesn’t mean he - he’s decided Quentin isn’t worth being friends with anymore. Still, it stings. People always end up stuck with Quentin, don’t they? So, while he could at least manage some kind of basic color observation - Julia taught him that much, colors and how to help her with her hair - all he says is, “Honestly, all vests look the same to me.”
Eliot’s face hardens behind the frantic edge. “I made a horrible mistake asking you to help. Please leave.”
“I was here first,” Quentin points out, and when Eliot just continues to stare at him like he can will Quentin to either be a less useless friend or to vanish, he continues, “I’ve never really seen you care about something.”
“Things aren’t usually worth caring about.”
“With some limited, but very important exceptions,” Quentin says, stung again. It’s stupid, he knows it is, when he spent two days unable to sleep after the Web bullshit, only crashing out at last in Eliot’s room while listening to some completely improbable story about a party and a swimming pool full of champagne. But still, it manages to hurt.
“Very limited,” Eliot says, and his eyes are still frantic but his expression is at least trying to be that aloof mask Quentin hasn’t actually seen that much of since the very first day.
“Please leave,” Eliot says again when Quentin says nothing, and Quentin scowls.
“Like I said, I was here first. You leave,” he says, just bitter enough to say it. Eliot blinks, looking taken aback.
“What? Are you pissed that I have a boyfriend too, just like Margo? You didn’t see me complain about you and Alice,” he asks, mouth twisting bitterly.
And the thing is that Quentin is angry about it, in a way, but it’s the same way he resented James. So he knows it’s shitty, he knows he can’t let that bullshit get the better of him again. He already torpedoed his oldest friendship, he can’t afford to ruin this one.
“Alice and I aren’t together,” is all he says instead, resisting the urge to wrap his arms around himself.
“Well, what do you expect from a lichen vodka hookup, Q? Is that why you’re being a bitch?”
Quentin starts to snap back, but bites his tongue. He starts to confess that lichen vodka had nothing to do with it, but what’s the point?
If - if Eliot is getting bored with him, and if he is Margo will too, then… Quentin will deal with that. He doesn’t think they’ll be cruel about it, not actively, which is better than a couple experiences he’s had. He’s been a shitty friend lately, first to Julia and then to Alice even if that wasn’t intentional. He should try harder for Eliot, right, even if things are drawing to an end?
So he manages a half smile, shaking his head. “Eliot, no. You seem pretty happy, and that’s good, you deserve it.”
“Oh.” Eliot’s face softens briefly. "Margo wasn't too happy about it, I thought you were going the same way."
"No, that's not it," Quentin says, and it's mostly true. Even if it wasn't, talking about Margo's reaction seems to upset Eliot, so Quentin would have said it.
Eliot frowns then, looking puzzled. “Then why snap at me?”
“Uh… Because I was literally here first? But, actually,” Quentin decides on a whim, “I have somewhere to be, so I’m gonna go after all.” The best way for him to stop being jealous, to stop being a little shit - even if only in his own head - is to distract himself until he wants different things.
“Wait, you have somewhere to be? Where -”
But Quentin is already halfway up the stairs to his room, because he needs his shoes. There’s a game running at the Castle, and there’s no reason he shouldn’t go.
He isn’t jealous, exactly, not of Alice, and not of Eliot. Or so he tells himself. It’s just - it’s just starting to feel like everything he’d thought he found by coming here is slipping away. Except it isn’t, because he has magic. He has magic, and maybe he should just focus on that.
And, he also has a friend. Who gave him an invitation.
It turns out that Gabriel is hanging out over by Woof Fountain, which at least means that Quentin doesn’t have to knock on the Castle door and awkwardly ask for him. “Hey, you said something about a game?” Quentin asks as he crosses the grass to reach him.
“I did. Come on then,” Gabriel says with a wide grin.
Quentin’s seen the Castle, of course. Well, OK, not the Castle itself, because it’s invisible, but the spiral staircase that seems to disappear into thin air. It’s more than a little freaky to actually be going up the thing, but he mostly watches his feet and tries not to think about it too hard.
Their views are worth it, though, holy shit. Once Gabriel opens up a trapdoor and Quentin follows him inside, the entrance hall actually has a wall that is entirely a window. From here, you can see the entire campus laid out, and Quentin pinpoints the Cottage before shaking his head and turning to follow Gabriel up still more stairs.
Inside, the Castle actually does look like a castle, all sturdy stone walls incongruous with the modern decor inside them. He likes it, actually - it’s not like the Cottage, noisy and cozy all at once, and he hopes he won’t turn out to be an illusionist and have to live here, but it’s nice. Students are sprawled in beanbag chairs or sitting up at desks set up in the common room, posters on the wall particularly odd against the stone.
That is also where the game table is - it’s a freaking round table like this place is supposed to be Camelot, and there’s already a couple people sitting there, one with his feet propped up on the table and his chair tipped back, since they’re not actually playing just now.
“Hey guys,” Gabriel says. “This is Quentin, he’s a physical kid, we’re in the same study group. I taught him Push last day at South, he’s pretty good.”
“The physical kids are shit compared to us,” says the guy Quentin noticed a moment before as he swings his legs back to the floor, chair thudding back onto all four legs. “But we’ll give you a try, kid. I’m Jake, dealer there is Chryssa.”
“Hi,” Quentin says, and takes his seat.
It turns out that he can hold his own with the illusion kids after all. In fact, Quentin ends up spending the entire weekend at the Castle, going back to the Cottage only to sleep and clean up before heading back over again. Everything but the card playing is still, well, pretty awkward. But a lot of the time he’s at the Cottage he’s in his room or in the reading nook, at least these days. It’s nicer, he thinks, to have some degree of human interaction. And then he wonders when he became someone who wanted more human interaction.
He let himself get spoiled by having coffee with Alice, or the parties Eliot and Margo threw where he was allowed to tuck himself away in a corner as long as he showed up. They’d both come by to talk to him for at least part of the night. Occasionally they were the ones off to the side surveying their kingdom and they’d pull him down into the niche they’d claimed as their own.
He let himself get spoiled, and now apparently he needs to be around people? So unfair. But with cards in his hands, he can sit in a room full of strangers and feel, if not relaxed, at least not out of place. He doesn’t even mind that people watch the games.
And then there’s Gabriel. On Sunday afternoon, they break off from the main group to go up to Gabriel’s room. He has movie posters all over, and they sit on his bed, playing magical poker instead of Push just for fun.
“You know, playing for candy is all well and good, but what if we up the stakes?” Gabriel asks, sucking on a lollipop he won in the last round.
“Uh… to what, exactly? Because you just lost,” Quentin says, laying down his royal flush.
“Ouch. Damn. Well…” Gabriel sets the lollipop aside, leans across the bed and kisses Quentin, soft and careful. Quentin opens for it more on instinct than anything else - he tastes like the lime of the candy. “Winner gets a kiss from the loser, to start?” he suggests, pulling back only enough to speak.
“I - you - really?” Quentin says.
Gabriel grins. “Are you so surprised? I mean, we can just keep playing for candy, it’s all right,” he says as he sits back. “But I thought you might want to know that it’s on offer, if you’re interested.”
Really, it’s no surprise that Quentin loses the next round spectacularly. When he does, he looks at the cards on the bedspread and takes a deep breath. He thinks of Alice at Brakebills South, and Eliot on the Brakebills sign. He thinks of stupid crushes that consistently never go anywhere, and the fact that for once someone decided to kiss him just because it seemed like fun.
Then he leans over and kisses Gabriel, pulse racing. “Loser kisses the winner, right?”