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The Proposal

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"What do you mean I'm getting deported?"

Alice stared at her bosses and wondered how poorly it would reflect on her efforts to get a new visa if she murdered them both where they stood.  Yes, she had left the country when, technically, she shouldn't have.  But that expose on a half dozen CEOs and their fucked up human trafficking ring had gained their magazine thousands of subscribers and a Pulitzer Prize, and it would have never gotten done if Alice hadn’t gone, in person, to make sure it did. 

She'd tried to get someone else to do it.  They, like the idiot men in front of her, had turned out to be useless.  

"Okay," she said, sitting in the chair in front of them.  She carefully smoothed her skirt, and then clenched her fists in her lap to stop their shaking.  "Okay.  This is okay.  I'll have to go back for what? A year.  I can handle a year."

It wasn't like she hated Canada, after all.  Business often took her to Vancouver and Toronto, and she tried to visit her brother in Saskatoon for at least a week around Christmas.  Really, Canada was a lovely country if you ignored the other people that lived there. 

Her parents.

Tolerable in small doses.  Very small doses.  

And thinking about her parents was not the way to prevent shaking. 

"I can work from Saskatoon.  They have wifi, even there, and we can use Zoom and email.  I'll need a better assistant to handle messes like the Ireland one, but we can do it."

"Alice, you can't work for an American company without a Visa.  It's against the law." Martin leaned back in his own chair, entwining his fingers in front of him.  There was a smug look on his face.  It wasn't a secret that Martin didn't like Alice, but he could hardly fire the most successful editor that the Crime Beat magazine had ever had.  Rupert looked far more uncomfortable next to his brother, but it was a well known fact that Martin ran the show.

Alice could see everything she had achieved slipping through her fingers.  She'd fought tooth and nail and early college years for this.  And now she was going to lose it all thanks to a shitty rule when she was hardly even a God damn immigrant.  She was from fucking Canada.

Her fingernails bit into her hands, her mind whirring rapidly.  There had to be a way out of this.  There had to -

Movement from the corner of her eye, and she turned her head slightly.  Half the office staff was attempting to act like they weren't watching the three of them through the office's glass walls, but  only one person was ignoring it all. She strode down the space before the wall,  brown hair and blue blouse and pencil skirt, Alice recognized Julia Wicker almost immediately.  Junior Editor who, it was widely known, had turned more than one shitty story into gold thanks to her fact checking and revision skills.

Alice made an insane decision almost immediately.

She was on her feet and at the door, pulling Julia into the office and closing the door behind them before Martin or Rupert, or Julia herself, could really react. 

"Wha - oh, hello."

Alice had to give credit where it was due; Julia, despite being confused and flustered, did an excellent job of pulling herself together and appearing like a put together professional in front of the CEO brothers.  Good.  Maybe this stupid plan wouldn't completely blow up after all. 

"Sweetheart, I was just about to tell Rupert and Martin" - and yes, it was petty, but Alice knew how much Martin hated when anyone put Rupert's name before his, even if they, supposedly, held the same position in the business - "our good news!"

"Our good news," Julia repeated, and Alice could see out of the corner of her eye that the other woman was staring at her.  But right now, they needed to put on an act, so Alice just wrapped an arm around her waist and smiled at the two men.  

"Yes!  Our wonderful news, in fact.  About how we're getting married." 

For half a beat, Julia gaped at her.  That probably should have been enough to ruin the whole, insane ploy - except that Martin and Rupert were too busy gaping themselves to really notice Julia's response.  And that gape became coolly analytical in a moment.  Alice didn't know the thought process Julia went through, but it took less than five seconds before she wrapped her own arm around Alice's waist.  Her grip was firm and warm, compared to the more distant embrace Alice was using, and it was really rather startling.

"That's right," Julia said, and if Alice didn't know the whole thing was a lie, she might have actually believed that she was actually enthusiastically happy about their engagement.  "It was a bit of a whirlwind romance... and we didn't want to rub it in anyone's face.  But we all know that the whole inter-office dating rule was tossed out the window last year, and we just couldn't help ourselves!"

The comment about dating was a thinly veiled jab at Martin, who everyone knew was having an affair with his secretary.  An affair that began almost immediately after said rule was deemed "archaic."  Of course, the same couldn't be said about the rule that had both Julia and Alice wearing their uncomfortable pencil skirts, so Alice could appreciate the insult.

"Is that so," Martin replied, his jaw tight as he steepled his fingers.  

"It is.  So, if you'll excuse us, we can head to the immigration office this afternoon and get it all cleared up! That should work for everyone, right?"

"Right," Martin agreed, though the lack of enthusiasm in his voice said he meant anything but.  Rupert, however, leapt to his feet clapping his hands. 

"Wonderful!  Get it cleared up - and don't forget to get a ring on it.  A quick visit downtown now, and you can always do the big ceremony later.  We're so happy for you!"

The crazy thing was, Alice thought he might be genuine.  

Which... Martin might be the bigger ass, but at least he thought the whole thing was bullshit, which clearly made him the lesser idiot. 

"Right," Julia agreed, still putting on an excellent show as she released Alice's waist, and instead slid her hand into hers, twining their fingers together.  "We'll get right on that!"

And then she tugged Alice, shocked into stillness by the casual contact, out of the office.

---

Julia had spoken to Alice Quinn exactly once.

It had been on her first day at Crime Beat, and Julia had been almost embarrassingly excited to meet the genius who had risen to such heights even though she was the same age as Julia.  

They say never meet your heroes, and that had proven true when, upon meeting her, Alice had given Julia her Starbucks order and waved her away.

Coffee runs had never been part of Julia's job description, even back in those days.

That was when Julia had realized the big boss was a raging bitch.  But further experience with Crime Beat had shown that she was a raging bitch with a well earned reputation for being amazing at her job.  So Julia might not like her, but she could still appreciate Alice's talent. 

And Julia had ambitions of her own.

Junior Editor wasn't a position she wanted to hold forever.  She had her eye on picking up the pen herself and being the next great investigative reporter.  Of course, it had taken her exactly a year and being overlooked for a promotion in favor of freaking Josh, who everyone knew was the Worst, to realize that Crime Beat probably wasn't going to be the place she made that dream come true.  It was well known, and Alice was an amazing editor in chief... but ultimately, Martin had the final say, and he was about as sexist as they came. Alice had fought, and won, in certain arguments about promotions with him, but she obviously chose her battles very carefully.

Chances were, a junior editor's future prospects wouldn't be one of those battles.

So Julia had figured she would stay at Crime Beat until she found another, less prestigious magazine where she could finally get that reporter position.

And then - something amazing had happened.

Alice Quinn had grabbed her at random... and claimed they were engaged.

Julia Wicker wanted to be known for her talent, but she couldn't get that recognition if she was never given a chance, and no one who knew her would ever deny that she could be a bit cutthroat.

So... if she needed to use blackmail to get that chance, then she would. She was confident enough in her abilities to believe she'd take that chance and shine - but first she needed to make her future something Alice would fight for. 

"How long have you been with Crime Beat, Miss Wicker?" Alice asked, her arms crossed as she tapped her shoe on the floor of her office impatiently.  "Nine months?"

"Eighteen," Julia replied with rolled eyes.  "Which you should know, since you had been ready to fire Ember before you assigned me to be his main editor. Did you think he suddenly gained talent when you weren't looking?"

"Honestly, I thought he'd been making his brother do his writing again.  I don't really care how the quality is created, as long as it makes it onto my desk." She continued to tap her toe, frowning down at Julia. If she thought the height difference, made dramatically larger by the heels Alice always wore, would intimidate her... well, Julia stood just over five feet.  She was used to being the shortest one in the room, and she wasn't about to back down. 

"I want a promotion."

Alice let out an inelegant snort and dropped her arms, strolling around her desk to take a seat.  She began to work on her computer, and Julia lowered herself into the chair across from her.  She wasn't about to go running, not when she was so close to what she wanted.

"Willing to sleep your way to the top?  Why would I put my own neck on the line for you?"

"Because if you don't, I'll go right back to the Chatwins and tell them that not only are we not engaged, but the only reason I said we were was because I was intimidated by my boss.  Not only will you get deported, but your departure will become an  HR nightmare.  Child prodigy may look good on a resume, but it'll be overshadowed by that."

Now it was Julia's turn to cross her arms, lean back in her chair, ankles crossed.  Alice froze and slowly looked up at her.  It would have been intimidating, except that Julia had known Margo Hanson for the entirety of her high school years, and still kept in regular contact with her.  Alice might have genius levels of intelligence, but she couldn't match Margo on pure, fierce bitch. 

"Are you threatening me?"

"You could call it a threat.  Or you could consider it a mutually beneficial arrangement. I'll do what you need me to, so you can stay in the country.  And in return, you'll let me start to take on my own writing projects.  I'm not asking you to shove me right into a reporter position, Alice.  I'm asking for a chance.  I'm pretty sure you're getting the sweeter deal; my side involves fraud, and I'm pretty sure that's illegal."

"Then why are you doing it?" Alice asked, her brow furrowed as she stared at her computer screen.  But Julia got the sense that she very much had the blonde's attention. 

"Because that expose needed to be written, and the Chatwins weren't giving you the support you needed for it.  So it sucks that you're getting punished for doing something really good.  And because I want to be an investigative reporter."

Alice looked at her once more, eyes carefully weighing her.  Julia kept her own expression relatively blank, waiting for her final response.

"Fine.  It can't happen immediately, because I'd be accused of favoritism.  But I can make your chance happen in a way no one will doubt." She looked back at her screen, beginning to type.  "I sent an email to the immigration office.  We have an appointment for 3.  You can go.  I'll come for you when we need to leave."

It was a clear dismissal, and Julia narrowed her eyes, the words sparking the little, stubborn flame in the center of her.  The one that could burn bright and hot for weeks or months or years until she got what she wanted, because sometimes Julia just dug in her heels until she got what she wanted.

And right now, she refused to move.

"Why are you still here?" Alice demanded after five minutes where they sat in silence and Julia refused to leave.

"I'm waiting for my proposal," Julia replied, as though discussing the weather.  She was pretty sure her words didn't register for Alice for a moment, because she just kept working. Then she froze in a spectacularly amusing fashion.

"Excuse me, but what the fuck?" she demanded, head shooting up.  "A proposal?"

"Girls have dreams, Alice.  If we're going to be engaged, I want a proposal."

"It's not a real engagement!"

"Then I want a fake proposal.  But you should still do it on one knee."

"Oh?" Alice sneered, her mouth twisting angrily.  "Should we go out into the main offices, so we can make it a public spectacle?"

"Please," Julia scoffed.  "The only thing public proposals are good for is mocking with Q.  You can do it privately.  Here is fine."

Alice's glare darkened, and Julia kept her expression perfectly pleasant.  As expected, that just pissed Alice off even more.  Totally worth it.

"Oh fuck it," Alice muttered darkly, shoving herself away from the desk.  She came around and took a knee, careful to keep her skirt decent. "Julia, will you marry me?"

"You don't sound very sincere."

"Oh, fuck you-"

"No need to be rude!" Julia cut Alice off, just barely biting back a laugh.  She was pretty sure she'd now officially pushed this as far as she could.  It was time to back out gracefully until it was time to apparently go and lie to a federal agent.  Which might be totally crazy.  She definitely shouldn't be so okay with breaking several laws, but as she'd said to Alice, the expose had been necessary.  And you had to break some rules to get the truth out.  "Yes, I'll marry you.  Fakely.  I'll just be... at my cubicle.  Until we need to leave."

Julia got up, leaving Alice behind still on a knee.

"Who is Q?" Julia froze at the door, when Alice asked the question. 

"What?" she asked, frowning over her shoulder.

"Q.  You mentioned that you make fun of public proposals with him.  If there's a boyfriend, that's going to make this mess, Julia."

Because lying about an engagement to avoid deportation wasn't already messy, apparently.  But whatever, it's not like Julia didn't enjoy talking about her friends.

"He's my best friend.  Has been since we were kids.  Quentin Coldwater... that's something a fiancee should really know, Alice.  Engagement fail right there."

"Oh, get out.  I'll be down shortly after 2."

Julia managed to withhold her smirk and a snicker until she had successfully gotten out.

---

No one would ever deny that Alice was an intelligent woman.  She had the degree as a teenager to prove her intelligence.

She suspected that Julia was also known as the smart one in any group she might be part of.

Yet somehow, between the two of them, they had managed to be so remarkably stupid that it almost defied description.  They had traipsed in to see the immigration agent, assuming that fixing Alice's Visa issue would be as simple as telling him about their engagement.  

They hadn't, however, counted on Everett Rowe.

Mr. Rowe was a man in his fifties who, upon first look, appeared pretty plain.  Balding head, glasses, dressed in a carefully pressed suit.  He looked like a dozen men that Alice passed daily without ever paying them a second glance.  

In reality, he was a man that believed love was dead and that anyone who wasn't an American citizen only wanted to marry an American citizen in order to become one themselves.  It was rude and insulting, and Alice didn't really care that, in her case, it was the truth. 

The man was just an asshole.

"We'll question you separately," Everett said, after forty-five minutes where Alice thought she and Julia put on a decent show of pretending to be in love, but that he, apparently, hadn't bought at all. "If you get even one question wrong, we'll deport Miss Quinn and you, Miss Wicker, will be found guilty of fraud."

Alice's jaw clenched,this would be where the gig was up.  It was one thing to help her, in order to get a promotion.  But there was no way that Julia would carry on when it would lead to fraud and a prison sentence.  Alice was pretty sure that Julia would do terrible in prison. 

"Are you really going to deport her if I can't remember that her favorite color is purple?" Julia demanded, and Alice looked at her to see that the other woman looked oddly... amused.  Which was a terrible thing, because Alice's favorite color was blue - a pale shade, just a bit paler than the sky.  She'd always loved it.  "I hardly remember what my mom's favorite color is, and I've known her my whole life."

"You're very smug for someone who is about to potentially be arrested," Everett retorted, his mouth twisted in anger.  "Maybe you should go visit your mother.  Explain to her what you're getting yourself into.  Ask her favorite color while you're there."

"Thanks for the suggestion, but I never visit my mother.  She's terrible.  My fiancee and I, however, are visiting my actual family.  My best friends, upstate.  We were planning the trip to announce our engagement, and now that has happened, it's made it a bit more urgent."

Alice was... impressed.  It wasn't that she was a bad liar herself, necessarily, but even knowing the truth of the whole situation, she could almost believe every word that Julia was saying.  It was alarming, really, how smoothly she spilled out lies, as if she'd practiced their story.  

Everett still didn't seem completely sold, but he was tapping his fingers impatiently.  

"We like to interview family," he said at last.  "Visit your family, Miss Wicker.  But I'll be watching, and I'll be talking to them.  And I imagine that, if it can keep you from a prison sentence, they'll tell me the truth."

"I'm sure they will, too," Julia replied with a pleasant smile.  "They'll tell you how happy we are together.  And then I'll start to ask questions.  About whether or not you ask heterosexual couples these same questions.  I imagine the answers would be enlightening."

Everett blustered incomprehensibly, while Julia tossed her hair over her shoulder and grabbed Alice's hand, pulling her out of the office.  Alice found herself following her, and knew she was gaping just a little bit.  But she couldn't help it.  She'd seen an opportunity with Julia, and it was pure luck that she was crazy and desperate enough to go along with Alice's whole plan.

But this... this was beyond what Alice had ever expected.  This was...

Julia, in that moment, was fucking hot. 

And it wasn't like Alice wasn't aware that she was, objectively, attractive.  It was one of those things that she had noticed in passing, just as she had noticed that Everett Rowe was balding.  But until this whole mess, Alice had always been in a position of power over Julia.  Alice was the boss, and Julia had very clearly always been aware of that.  So while she had always come across as proficient, never before had Alice gotten to see this side of her.  The confident side.  

And it was fucking hot. 

"Stop staring at me like that," Julia muttered under her breath.  "You're supposed to be looking at me like we're in love.  Not like I've grown another head."

They exited the building, and Alice finally tugged her wrist from Julia's grip and then carefully straightened her shirt, and smoothed out her skirt, using the movements to hide the fact that she was a little bit flustered.

And suddenly very aware that she and Julia were, in reality, very close to the same age. 

It wasn't something that Alice was usually aware of.  She was honestly more used to dealing with people older than her, than she was with those around her own age.  But she'd never found it to be an issue, particularly not with employees in the past.  Alice knew that in social situations she could be somewhat awkward - it was why she tended to avoid them - but when dealing with business she was nothing but pure confidence and competence.

And now she just felt.. awkward. This was exactly the type of thing she normally avoided.  But simply turning around and walking away from Julia at this point in their game wasn't exactly an option for her.  

"Telling him that we're going upstate was clever.  What is our excuse for not going?"

"Oh, we're going," Julia replied, crossing her arms and staring Alice down.  "It's Eliot's birthday this weekend.  I have to be there, or I'll never hear the end of it."

"Okay, then I'll come up with an excuse for not going."

"And then my friends won't be sold on our relationship, and the only way you'll get to stay in the country is if we miraculously win that asshole's game of twenty questions." Julia raised her brows when Alice hissed out a low curse.  "Yeah.  You're getting it.  So, the only answer is that you come back home with me and we convince them all that we're in love."

"I don't have the time to come and play house with you, Julia.  And even if I did, I'm not an actress. Convincing your friends of anything isn't going to fit in my schedule."

"Fine, then I'll just go back to Everett and say I had a change of heart. And you can get deported."

Alice cursed again, and this time she grabbed Julia's wrist, tugging her back around when she began to walk back towards the office building.  She looked around a bit desperately, relieved when there was no one from the immigration office.  The street probably wasn't the best place to have this stupid argument.  But they would have it.  

And Alice never lost arguments.

---

Alice was pissed off.  But she was on the plane.

Which was a win.

Maybe.

Possibly.

Julia had sort of started to regret this whole mad plan.  Because it had seemed simple enough in the beginning.  Pretend to be in love and all that bullshit.  Get Alice her Visa, get her own promotion.  But now they were on their way back to Brakebills, in upstate New York, to celebrate Eliot's birthday.  And while Eliot himself wouldn't care about Julia's love life so long as she claimed to be happy... lying to Q was going to be difficult.  Lying to Margo was going to be basically impossible.

Margo could sniff out a lie, like blood in the water, and she wouldn't stop picking at them until Julia had confessed everything and laid it bare for Margo's judgment.

She already dreaded it.  Not as much as she dreaded the very rare occasion when her sister managed to guilt her into visiting the family... but almost. 

"I can't believe you made me come," Alice muttered next to her, clutching the arms of her seat as the final passengers made their way onto the plane.  "And I can't believe we're flying.  In this impossibly tiny death trap."

"Look, it only takes, like, half an hour to fly to Brakebills. And of course the plane is tiny.  The local airport couldn't handle an actual jet landing.  I thought you would have flown on tinier and more dangerous.  Haven't you been in war zones before?"

"Yes, and at the end of those flights there's a story to get.  There's something in it for me." Alice's words were tight and precise, and she had her eyes closed.  "When there's something to gain, it's worth it."

"Then just think of this as a necessary hurdle you have to cross to stay in the country. There, you have a reward at the end.  Or you could just think of it as repaying me for the very, very large debt this whole mess is accruing."

"I thought the debt would be paid by getting your chance as a reporter," Alice muttered.  She still had her eyes shut, and her knuckles were starting to turn white.  Julia furrowed her brow and contemplated the other woman.  The plane began to move, and Alice let out a low, almost pained moaned.

"Well, shit," Julia muttered, and she pried the hand closest to her off the armrest and clutched it with her own instead. She didn't look at Alice, just squeezed her hand.

"What are you doing?" Alice asked, voice still tight, but she began to squeeze back.  Her grip was hard enough that Julia actually winced, but didn't say anything otherwise. 

"Just squeeze.  And don't talk about it otherwise."

Because Alice's hand was warm.  And soft.  She clearly took care of them, although Julia did notice that the pointer finger on the left hand was looking a bit ragged.  Just that one finger, but it was clear it had been chewed on.  It was something that made Alice seem sort of human.  Just like this fear of small planes.  

That... humanness was at odds with her extreme bitchiness over having to pretend to be interested in Julia's life at all.  It had been easy to be hardened towards her when their only interactions had been complaints sent through WhatsApp.  It was tougher to remember this was purely a business arrangement that involved Julia lying to everyone she loved when Alice was gripping almost desperately to her hand, and her skin was warm and soft. 

It made her real and touchable.  Something Julia really didn't need Alice to be. 

"It's all a lie, Wicker," she murmured to herself.  "You're just here for that one single chance."

"What are you saying?" Alice asked, and Julia almost jerked away, except that her grip was so strong that Julia wasn't sure anything would break it.

She also wasn't sure she'd be able to feel her fingers by the time this whole thing was done.

"We'll be taking off soon," Julia replied instead of answering the question.  "Is it the whole flight, or just the take off?"

"And the landings.  I just... hate small planes."

They fell into silence, except for Alice's small whimpers as the plane moved and then took off.  Julia just kept holding her hand, until they were finally in the air and Alice slowly began to loosen her grip.

"Thank-you," she said stiffly, removing her hand from Julia's entirely, and placing it in her lap to grip her other one, which she had removed from the armrest.  She sat stiffly, it couldn't be comfortable at all.  Julia was half slumped in her own seat, because while flying might not frighten her, she couldn't say that she actually liked it.  Even short flights like this just left her feeling sort of dirty and grumpy. 

"Don't worry about it," Julia replied, tugging her headphones out of her purse and putting them in her ears.  She didn't usually listen to music on flights, but in this case, it gave her an excuse not to talk and try to fill the suddenly awkward silence between them.  Alice didn't seem inclined to do anything about it, and Julia wasn't about to do all the emotional heavy work in making them feel comfortable.  So she'd cheat, and block off the option of conversation entirely. 

She closed her eyes to the crooning of Hozier, and must have fallen asleep at some point.  Because the next thing she knew, she was being shaken awake, and opening her eyes to realize that she had, at some point, slumped against Alice, her head on her shoulder. 

It was comfortable, and shocking, and Julia jerked away so violently that she pulled her headphones out in the process.

"Shit," she swore, shoving her hair away from her face as Alice watched her with a rather flat expression.  "I'm sorry."

Alice watched her for a moment, before turning her face sharply towards the front of the plane.

"We're beginning to land," she said shortly.  Julia just stared at her for a minute, feeling a bit out of it still.  But then she realized that the hand furthest from her was gripping tightly to the armrest, but the one closest was resting between them, palm up. 

Julia didn't say anything, just let Alice clutch her hand again, and pretended not hear the way she murmured fuck under breath like a mantra.  

And yeah, this whole trip might end up being one giant disaster.

---

No one had ever met Alice at the airport before.

Okay, that wasn't entirely true.  She'd had chauffeurs pick her up before, always dressed in neat suits, with signs that had her name - Ms Alice Quinn - written on them in neat block letters, or printed out on a paper.  They were always perfectly polite and professional, and Alice made sure that she tipped them well, because you never knew who might talk to the press.

Alice would know; she'd made her living off of figuring out who was willing to talk to a reporter. 

But she'd never had a friend or a family member pick her up before.  Even when she visited her brother, she'd always just gotten a taxi or an Uber.

That wasn't the case when they arrived at Brakebills.

Their welcoming committee consisted of a tall brown hair man dressed impeccably in a perfectly fitted vest and pants.  Next to him was a shorter man, with hair that was a bit too long and large puppy dog eyes.  If the man next to him was dressed perfectly, this one was just a step up from homeless chic.  The final member of the party was a beautiful woman with brown hair in a dress that Alice would be happy to have in her own closet, although she wasn't sure she'd be able to pull it off.

The second man held a colorful sign that read "Welcome Home Julia" with the words "and guest" written in much smaller lettering beneath it, as though added as an afterthought.  Alice wasn't used to being considered just "and guest".  She'd worked until she was the most important in just about any room she entered, and that not being the case here was... unique. 

Next to her Julia came to a halt.  Alice turned her head to look at her, only to find herself with a face full of hair.  Because Julia was rushing by her, and the man with hair that was just a bit too long was shoving the sign at the other man, and then he was catching Julia and spinning her around as they both laughed and spoke over one another.  They seemed to be having some sort of conversation, but Alice could barely understand a word they were saying, it was all jumbled up and confused.  She grabbed the handle of Julia's suitcase and dragged it along with her own, joining the group at a much slower pace.  As she reached them, Julia was finishing up hugging the other man and the woman.  

"Alice, this is Q.  Quentin.  We've been best friends since we were old enough to have one." Julia's smile was pure joy, making Alice realize how restrained she was at work.

Or maybe she was just that open with Quentin.

"And what are we?  Just the extras?" the woman asked with a raised brow and a smirk.  She eyed Alice up and down, and she got the distinct feeling she didn't quite meet muster.  "Hmm.  I thought you'd be taller."

"Margo," Julia muttered, giving her arm a shove. But Margo just gave an unapologetic shrug.

"What?  You made her sound like the second coming of Jesus.  Or maybe the devil.  It depended on the day.  Interesting that you're suddenly bringing her with you to Brakebills, Julia."

"Come on, Bambi.  Maybe our Julia just decided to finally take your advice and lighten up a bit." the other man, the one whose name Alice didn't know yet, gave her a smile.  "Congratulations on going right to the top when trying out being naughty."

"Really, Eliot?" Julia asked with a groan, releasing Quentin so she could grab the handle of her bag from Alice.  "Are you sure that's who you want to be married to, Q?  The guy who says naughty unironically?"

"You know no one is better for him than I am," Eliot replied, and Alice realized that this was the birthday boy.  

"This isn't about you right now, El," Margo added, moving away from the group so she was right in front of Alice.  She was still watching her with an almost vicious twinkle in her eyes.  "So what exactly should we call you?  Alice, or Satan's Bride?  We've heard it both ways, you see.  After the way you gave a promotion to that dickless wonder Josh, I'm leaning towards the second one."

"Margo," Julia hissed, moving so she was standing next to Alice.  "That's all in the past.  We've... come to an agreement!"

Alice, who had been part of the corporate world far before she was legally allowed to drink, would admit it to no one... but when Margo turned her gaze towards Julia, she was almost relieved.  And maybe that hint of viciousness wasn't just for Alice, because it didn't seem to disappear entirely, even when she was looking at a friend.

"An agreement?" a brow quirked, and a smirk on her lips.  "Sounds kinky, Wicker.  Maybe El is right."

"You're all assholes," Julia replied, rolling her eyes.  She grabbed her bag, and then Alice's hand, and began to stalk towards the airport exit.  The whole place had maybe three gates, so it would be a quick journey to said exit.

"Hey," Quentin argued, rushing after them.  "Why am I an asshole?  I didn't do anything!"

"It's thanks to you the other two assholes are in our lives.  That makes you the worst."

Alice, who had honestly never really had friends her own age, was a little startled by the words.  It seemed so surprisingly... mean.  And yeah, Alice could be mean - raging bitch may have been tossed around a time or two - but it was always business, never personal.  And with friends it could never be anything but personal.  Yet Quentin didn't seem insulted, nor did Eliot, who laughed from behind them, and a quick glance back had Alice catching him pressing a kiss to Quentin's cheek.  It was sweet.

Was that the kind of thing Alice should be doing to sell this whole thing?  Because she so wasn't the type for casual affection.  She'd never experienced it in her life, really. 

Her thoughts were interrupted when she realized that Margo was still watching them. It took Julia coming to a sudden stop, for Alice to look away from the other woman, who seemed to be trying to figure her out just with the power of her mind.

Alice wasn't entirely positive she wouldn't be able to.

"Okay, which lot did you park the car in?"

"There's more than one lot?" Alice asked dubiously, because really?  She'd half expected to walk out of the tiny airport into a pasture, and she wasn't all that far off.  Was that a cow, she could just see in the distance, where pavement turned into brilliantly green grass? "Where the hell have you brought me?"

"It's Upstate, Satan's Bride," Margo replied, pushing around them to head for one of the, apparently, two parking lots available.  "And you don't need to look at us like we're crazy.  None of us actually stay around here.  We just come back for birthdays.  For reasons El still hasn't explained."

"I hate to admit it," Julia said after a moment, heading after Margo.  "But Margo is right.  Why did you decide to come back to Brakebills, El?  I thought we all agreed it was kind of the worst place ever."

"It's completely the worst place ever," Eliot corrected, voice brightly cheerful as he stood back so Quentin could begin to load their bags into the trunk of a sedate Sedan that had to belong to Quentin, because she couldn't seeEliot or Margo ever owning something so plain.  "But it's where we all met, and I'm feeling a bit nostalgic.  Plus, Bambi was complaining about life in the big city.  And you know that I love to make sure my Bambi is happy."

"I was thinking a really nice cabin at a lake.  Or somewhere where they serve us those drinks with the little umbrellas on the beach.  Not Brakebills.  But we're still avoiding the elephant in this situation." And once more, Alice was the target of those sharp eyes, and the even sharper smile. "What exactly did you mean by an agreement, Julia?"

"Really, Margo?" Quentin asked, his voice somewhat exasperated as he closed the trunk.  "Could we at least get back home before you continue the fourth degree?  They've hardly been here for ten minutes."

"No, it's fine Q," Julia replied, shoving her hands in her pockets.  She'd dropped Alice's hand sometime after Quentin took their bags, and Alice kind of wished she'd take it back.  Which was ridiculously stupid, but being around these people...

She felt awkward and out of place in a way she hadn't even known to feel when she was at least five years younger than her next youngest classmates. 

Julia's next words brought her out of her thoughts, something that was odd in itself, because Alice had never been much a daydreamer.

"The agreement is that we're getting married.  Say hello to my fiancee.  So I guess you can start calling me Satan, Margo."

---

Julia hadn't exactly meant to just blurt it out like that, like some sort of challenge.  She'd intended to ease the gang into the idea that she had, very suddenly, decided to marry someone that she had actually once called Satan's Bride.  But she'd forgotten to factor something really important into her plans.

Margo, and the fact that sometimes she drove Julia right to the edge of murder.

Oh, Julia loved her friend.  But a huge part of the reason she loved her was because of Q, who had been the one to bring Margo Hanson and Eliot Waugh into Julia's orbit when he had decided to fall in love with quite possibly the most high maintenance man Julia had ever met.

Of course, Eliot had been a high maintenance teen at the time.

And she had Margo had been forced together, and at times they'd almost come to blows.  There had been actual hair pulling at one point, although Julia couldn't honestly remember what it had been over.  The point was?  She loved Margo now, but she also knew that Margo wasn't always easy to love.  And that was the way the other woman liked it.

Just like she liked to pick and prod at Julia until she exploded.

So there it was.  The explosion of Mount Julia into the awkward admission of an engagement, and now Eliot was looking at her with raised brows while Q gaped at her in a way that would normally be all kinds of hilarious.  

"Married," Margo said after a moment, because she hadn't gone shocked or wide eyed.  No, she had crossed her arms and gone all suspicious.  "You.  To her."

The ‘her’ was accompanied by a finger jabbed at Alice, who stood next to Julia, looking all prim and uptight, smoothing her skirt with hands that looked like they might almost be shaking.

Was Alice nervous?  It seemed impossible. 

It also made Julia feel like a giant dick, because she was the one making this awkward by rising to Margo's baiting.  But it wasn't entirely her fault.

Margo was really good at baiting. 

"Yes," Alice said into the silence, her voice strong despite the nerves Julia could have sworn she had been feeling.  But when Alice stepped up next to her, grabbing her hand, there was no shaking.  Alice looked steady and completely untouchable, just as she always did; as though she weren't at all affected by the fact that Margo was putting on her most vicious face.  "We're engaged.  It's what people do, when they decide they'd like to spend their lives together."

"Yeah, I'm aware." Margo waved a hand at Q and Eliot.  "Those two have basically been engaged since we were teens.  But then again, I've also known they wanted to spend their lives together since El brought Q to the party and told me that he likes the shy ones.  This whole thing here, the two of you?  I'm calling bull shit."

"You can call whatever you want, Margo," Julia said, rolling her eyes and shooting Quentin a conspiratorial look, because that's what she would be doing, if she wasn't lying through her teeth. And since she couldn't tell them she was lying, she had to act like she wasn't.  "It still doesn't change anything.  Now, can we go?  I smell like airplanes and bad decisions."

"Ooh, tell me more, Julia," Eliot said, holding the door open for them, because Eliot did have decent manners when he chose to use them, and shooting her a wink.  "You know I love hearing about bad decisions."

"Flying, El," Julia said, and her smile became rueful and genuine, because Eliot had always had that effect on her, right from the time she had been curled up on the couch feeling sorry for her and drinking from a bottle of scotch that her mother definitely hadn't known she'd stolen, and told he had told her that the way she was hugging it wasn't entirely unfamiliar to him.  Like Margo, his presence in her life was thanks to Q... but Eliot was a good friend.  He was also the best at keeping Margo from terrifying new people too much.  "I regret flying.  I always regret flying to Brakebills.  It's a terrible decision every time."

Julia ended up stuffed in the middle in the back seat.  Because she always ended up stuffed in the middle in the back seat.  Back when they were in highschool, it had usually been Penny or Kady sitting to her left, and she could remember the way she'd used to kiss them, because the PDAalways pissed Margo off.  It had gotten to the point where she had forced Eliot to drive, so she and Quentin could alternate who got shotgun.  

This time, she was stuck between Alice, who was stiff and staring out the window, because that was the only place she could look that didn't involve meeting someone's gaze, and Margo, who was watching them like a hawk.  Julia could all but see her mentally comparing the way Julia acted with Alice to long ago days with her exes.  

"Penny and Kady got married in January," Margo said, and God, but it felt like she could read Julia's mind somehow.  Because the timing of that was just... eerie.  

"I know," Julia replied with a shrug.  "I was actually invited.  Work was crazy, though, so I sent them an air fryer and my regrets."

Now she could feel Alice watching her, because in January work hadn't been crazy, at least not for her.  Which Alice really didn't have any reason to know, because a junior editor was typically pretty beneath her notice... but then again, Alice Quinn took control freak to a whole new level.  So yeah, she definitely realized that Julia was lying through her teeth, and if she gave that away, Julia would kill her and make Margo help her bury the body.  It was what they both deserved. 

A hand was placed over hers, where it rested on her knee because there was really nowhere else to put it.  Their fingers didn't intertwine, but the pressure was warm and... comforting.  Far more comforting than she would have expected. Margo's eyes darted to the contact, and her brow furrowed slightly in confusion.  Good.  It wasn't healthy for someone to think they were always right the way Margo did. 

And okay, Julia was being harsh. Margo always meant well... she was just making this more difficult than it should be.  Julia had come in expecting Quentin to be the difficult one to convince, and it was a bit irritating to realize she'd underestimated Margo Hanson - never a good thing to do. 

"Wait, why were you invited?" Eliot demanded, turning so he could frown at her.  Of course, the angles were all wrong, so he ended up frowning more at Alice.  "I wasn't invited, and I don't have any of your awkward history with them.  And they know I love love.  You hate love."

"The only reason you 'love' love is because you met the one person able to get past your daddy issues when you were a teenager," Margo said, poking at the back of Eliot's neck.  "And we were invited, El.  But we went to Bali, remember?  The no boyfriends allowed trip?"

"Leaving me to be the only one there," Quentin agreed.  "Which was just great, because we all know that I am absolutely Penny's favorite person in the world."

He wasn't, of course. 

At all. 

"Who is Penny?" Alice asked, and God, but it must have killed her to keep that question in as long as she did.  One didn't get to Alice's position without a deep set need to know absolutely everything.  Of course, Julia wasn't entirely sure she wanted to talk about this particular viper's nest.  "And Kady?"

"You didn't tell her about Penny and Kady?" Margo asked, raising her brows, and the earlier confusion had completely disappeared to be replaced once more by smug certainty that she'd read the situation correctly when she "called bullshit."

"We dated in high school," Julia replied with a shrug, as though it were absolutely no big deal at all.  "Then when we were done high school we broke up."

"Okay," Eliot replied slowly, drawing out the 'o' sound.  "That was weak, even to me.  I'm not imagining that was weak, am I?"

"You are not," Quentin agreed, meeting Julia's gaze in the rear view mirror.  "That was really weak, Jules.  Should I be agreeing with Margo?  I know you hate it, but I'm starting to lean that way."

"You should always agree with me, Q," Margo replied smugly.  "Seeing as I'm always right."

"Oh, for God's s - I dated them.  Both of them at the same time - in high school.  I thought I'd end up marrying one of them, mostly likely Kady.  But in the end, she wanted Brakebills, I wanted anything else, and I broke up with both of them.  They stayed, and now they're married, and these three apparently think I've been living my life trapped in amber and haven't moved on.  Which, clearly, I have."

She waved between herself and Alice, her fiancee, as if to prove a point, but even Quentin didn't look entirely sold.  Which, fuck.

"Jules, you gotta admit it's a little weird," he said.  "And there's no ring."

"Seriously, Quentin, just because we decide not to-"

"I have a ring," Alice blurted out, and the car fell into silence, particularly Julia, who felt somewhat shocked by the sudden revelation.  Alice was once more looking out the window, a faint flush high on her cheekbones as she avoided eye contact with everyone.  "I was going to propose again.  Here.  Figure out your favorite spot.  I thought I'd ask your friends for help on that, and make it romantic, but I don't think that's going to happen."

And damn, she was good.  Because Quentin was looking back at the road, but his shoulders were hunched in that way that meant he felt totally guilty for doubting them.  And Eliot was comforting him,, while simultaneously making it clear to Margo that she wasn't to antagonize them more during the drive, in that way that only they really understood.  And all thanks to one little lie that Alice dropped on them so easily.

And maybe Julia ended up smirking a little smugly, but everyone would just think she was proud of her badass, manipulative fiancee.  Which she was, except for the part it was all fake.  But still.

They made it to the house that belonged to Julia's family, but stayed empty except for when Julia or one of her friends returned for visits, without anyone saying another word about lies. 

"We'll need to get a ring," Julia murmured to Alice as Quentin opened the trunk to get their bags, and Eliot murmured something low to Margo - maybe a warning to not be so antagonistic?  There was a fifty-fifty chance of that.  He lived for the drama, after all, but not if it threatened to genuinely upset Q. "Or Margo will comment."

"Didn't I say I already have one?" Alice hissed back. 

And Julia was left to stare after her in surprise, as she took her bag from Quentin and stomped off towards the entrance of the house.

---

Alice had known this was a terrible idea.  But desperate times had driven her to it, and Julia seemed to enjoy shoving her face first into this shit fuck of an awkward situation without a single warning.

Like her exes.  Plural.  That lived in this shitty little town, and Alice knew it was ridiculous, that she was this angry over it.  She hardly knew Julia, and even if this whole thing was real, Alice still wouldn't have a reason to be mad.

So Julia had a past.  They all had pasts.  So why was this... bothering her?

The omission. That had to be it.  It was because Julia hadn't given her the heads up about her exes, so that she'd be caught off guard by them, and Margo, who also didn't get a proper warning label, could take advantage and be all smug.  Alice hated feeling like she was at a disadvantage, yet here she was, totally feeling like that.

Yes.

That was it.

The house was remarkably large. She wasn't sure who it belonged to, but clearly they came from money, and the room she was in had an attached bathroom.  Alice knew she'd be sharing it with Julia, but the other woman clearly realized now was not the time to be forced together, so she'd made herself scarce.  Alice took advantage of the privacy to straighten her hair and her clothes and regain her composure.

When she felt in control again, she changed her shirt - the skirt was fine, but she hated the way her shirts felt post-flight.  It was probably the sweat; she would admit to it, in the privacy of her own mind.  Her issues with flying didn't have pretty results.  To anyone else, she'd just say that she hated feeling like she had been contaminated by strangers. 

Convinced that she looked unflappable once more, Alice headed for the door, only to run into someone as she stepped through it.  

She caught Julia's shoulder, helping both of them catch their balance.  Her hand held bare skin, and as soon as she was able, she released her hold, not liking that she was having any sort of response to the other woman.  This was a business arrangement, and any other feelings would make it awkward and ruin everything.  Feelings always did.

"What are you wearing?" were the words she said, when she took a moment to look at Julia.  She had meant to ask where the others were, but those thoughts left her mind immediately after the first sight.

Julia wore pencil skirts or neat slacks at work, partnered with heels and blouses that buttoned to her neck and projected professionalism at all times. 

That was... not what she was wearing.

"They're clothes," Julia replied, her lips curving into an amused smirk.  "I mean, you might only have five outfits that you alternate through whether you're at work or on personal time - but most of us are just pretending at work."

"So this is the real you, then?" Alice retorted, waving a hand to take in the entirety of Julia's outfit.  An outfit that consisted of tight - way too tight - pants and a crop top that left her arms bared and showed off a midriff that said she probably spent at least a bit of time at the gym.  And bare feet.

Her toes were a bright purple.  It wasn't what Alice would expect.  None of it. 

"I also own t-shirts, but I'm not about to give Margo a reason to call me a garbage gremlin today. I might punch her, and then Q will look at me with his sad, sad puppy eyes, because he'll think I ruined his boyfriend's birthday weekend."

"Just think you ruined it?" Alice fell into step with her, as Julia began to head for the staircase leading back to the main floor.  "I'd think a brawl would ruin it pretty obviously."

"God, Eliot would probably find it hilarious.  I mean, he'd take Margo's side of course, because that's how they roll.  But he'd secretly love it.  He's an asshole at heart."

Their conversation cut off as Julia led her into some sort of casual den.  Quentin was perched on the arm of a couch, while Eliot lounged along it's length, Quentin's feet on either side of his head.  Margo was in the middle of the room, paused mid-step, her gaze focused on them.  Alice felt like some sort of prey, caught in the gaze of a wild cat that was very, very hungry.

Ridiculous thoughts.

"You look like you're ready for your first day teaching Sunday school."

To Alice's surprise, the observation didn't come from Margo at all.  Instead, it was Eliot, who had pushed himself up to his elbows, surveying her rather critically.  Quentin's foot nudged him, but Eliot ignored it with the ease of someone that had clearly ignored him multiple times. Alice didn't feel any sort of envy at the sign of ease between the two of them.  A relationship wasn't something she'd ever desired, at least not since she was old enough to realize she was the smartest person in the room more often than not. 

And that hadn't changed; this whole thing was just about not getting deported. She didn't think about how nice it had been, to have someone hold her hand on the tiny plane that brought them here.  Or how soft Julia's hair had been, when she'd slumped against Alice's shoulder and fallen asleep. 

She wasn't envious of Quentin and Eliot, or thinking how nice it would be, if all those things with Julia were real.  Because it wouldn't be. 

"I'm sorry, do you have an opinion on my wardrobe?" Alice asked, forcefully shoving any thoughts of envy and relationships away - far, far away - and instead focusing on Eliot's comments.  Men shoving their noses where they didn't belong she could handle.  She'd been doing it since she was a teenager, and they'd all decided she needed them to save her.  "Please, share it with the group, Eliot.  I'd love to hear."

"She's not being serious," Quentin hissed, covering Eliot's mouth with his hand before he could respond.  

"I'm aware, Q," Eliot replied, his voice a little muffled until he'd managed to remove the hand.  He gave his boyfriend an almost sad look and patted his knee, sitting up entirely.  "But no one is comfortable in a skirt like that.  And this weekend is meant to be casual, my dear Garbage Gremlin."

Okay, so Julia had been very honest when she'd said there was potential for being called that.  Alice raised a brow, and focused on Eliot's own outfit. 

"You have a pocket square.  It matches your shirt.  Please, tell me what's casual about that?"

"You're right, of course," Eliot agreed, clapping his hands together, and Alice had the sudden sense that she'd, somehow, stumbled into exactly the trap he'd wanted.  She wasn't sure how, or when, but there was a glint in his eye that was smug and Alice had a feeling a smug Eliot wasn't something anyone wanted.  "There's only one solution.  I'll take Satan's Bride shopping.  The rest of you... do something."

"Eliot-"

"No argument, Julia.  It's my birthday.  Consider this your gift."

"Your gift is a very expensive bottle of aged scotch that I wrapped up in a about five layers of clothing to keep safe, and your birthday isn't until tomorrow."

"Then consider this your apology for ruining the surprise of scotch." Alice found herself being turned towards the door, Eliot's hands on her shoulders, firmly steering her towards the front exit.  "We'll be back, when we're back."

"Aren't you forgetting someone?" Margo asked coolly, and Alice didn't have to know them since high school, to know she expected an invitation to come along.  Eliot paused, looked back at her, and what ensued was some sort of silent communication that made Julia roll her eyes and Quentin just sigh and rest his chin on his knee.

"You're right," Eliot said after a moment.  "Bambi, please deal with that" - he waved a hand at Quentin - "I didn't have time to go through his bag and repack.  You know what to do."

And then, Alice was moving again, and in the truck, not at all sure how this had all happened.  

"So," Eliot said as he revered with the ease of someone who had handled the thing one multiple occasions, even if he looked completely out of place in the thing, "are you going to tell me what's happening between Julia and yourself?  Or do I need to guess?  I'll warn you, my imagination can be quite creative."

Alice just stared at him, keeping her lips shut mutinously.  Instead of wilting under the look that should have sent him running, his expression just brightened. 

"A guessing game.  Excellent.  They are my favorite."

---

 "Are you just going to let that happen?"

Quentin motioned at the door, where Eliot had disappeared with Alice. Julia contemplated following them and dragging the blonde back, but a low, unimpressed huff from Margo made her decide that Alice's absence might be a blessing for the moment.

"I'm sure Eliot can handle her.  Or she'll make him cry and you'll get all huffy like you did when we were twelve and I stole the third Fillory book before you could finish your third re-read."

"You know I wanted to fact check my MySpace essay-"

"You probably didn't need it.  You know Fillory better than anyone, Q, even as a kid.  That's not the issue right now." Margo lined herself up across from Julia, her arms crossed, and Julia felt herself mirroring the stance. So this was going to happen.  Okay.  She'd deal.  "What's up with you and Little Miss Uptight, Jules?  And don't give me that bull crap about an engagement. I could see you waiting to tell El and I, but you wouldn't hold off on telling Q, and he would have told us immediately."

"Hey-"

"She's not insulting you, Q.  You and El don't keep secrets these days.  It's sweet, we're both very envious," Julia said to her friend, but she never looked away from Margo.  "This is all about Margo not liking that she doesn't know everything.  It was new, we were keeping it quiet.  Then she asked me to marry her, and I said yes, and it seemed sort of dumb to call ahead when I knew I'd be seeing you all in person.  It's not like we tell each other everything these days, Margo.  Life happens, and mine was busy."

"Too busy to mention that you were dating your giant ass professional crush slash giant Queen Bitch?" Margo raised a brow.  "I'm not buying it, Julia.  Something smells, and it's bullshit."

"Really?  I was just thinking it was horse shit from that high horse you're on."

They both still had their arms crossed, but had encroached into each other's space.  It was high school all over again, when their personalities would clash, and both of them would refuse to step down, worried that if they did, they'd somehow lose their place as best friend to their boy.  Just like he had back then, Quentin finally pushed in between them, forcing them to step back from each other. 

"Did I step in time?  Is this sophomore year again?"

"She asked Penny to prom just to piss me off!" Julia snapped, and when Quentin just looked at her, she bit back a curse and stepped away.  Because Q had brought that up to get exactly that response, and she had let it work.  Because he might not be as assertive as the rest of them, but, for a brief moment, Julia had forgotten that Quentin knew her best.

And that meant he knew exactly how to point out she was being an idiot without actually saying the words.

She slumped back on the couch that Eliot had vacated and let herself pout for a moment.  Then she swallowed her temper and and looked at Margo.

"Look, I appreciate the worry, Margo.  I do.  But I am a grown ass woman.  I know what I'm doing, and sometimes I don't spill all my secrets to the world.  Sometimes... sometimes things need to be kept quiet for a bit."

Like the fact that she was faking an engagement with her boss to keep her in the country and get a promotion. But Julia's words were sincere, and hopefully Margo would believe it was in regards to their relationship being important.  After all, she hadn't actually told anyone, not even Q, about her breakup with Penny and Kady until she had been at university for a month.  Keeping her thoughts to herself wasn't completely unheard of, not when it came to emotions.

"I still don't buy it, Wicker," Margo said after a few minutes, sitting in the overstuffed chair across from her, crossing her legs at the ankles.  "You've had your whole life mapped out since you left for university.  I'm pretty sure you have your goals mapped down to the minute... and there's no room for a relationship that lasts beyond a night.  If there was, you wouldn't have left Kady behind.  You loved that girl."

Kady, not Penny, because Julia had cared for Penny, but Margo had always been the one to notice that she cared for Kady just a little bit more.

And it occurred to Julia that prior to their wedding being mentioned, Julia hadn't actually thought of either of her exes.  Usually, upon returning to Brakebills, she started thinking about them on the plane and didn't stop until she returned to the city.  Even when they weren't at the front of her mind, they remained there, floating in the background.  But she'd been so distracted with Alice that...

She hadn't thought of them at all.

Well... that was something she didn't want to unpack at all, because Julia was pretty sure it would lead to disaster that she was not at all equipped to deal with. 

"Maybe I did," Julia replied with a shrug.  "I'm not as positive as you apparently are.  But regardless of my emotions when I was eighteen, I left.  And I changed.  And you're being a bitch to my fiancee because you don't like to be wrong, Margo.  It doesn't matter what you think of my relationship - that isn't okay."

Quentin had perched on the arm of the couch again, because he had never met a piece of furniture he would sit on properly, and watched them as if they were a particularly interesting stage show. Apparently he must feel the threat of coming to blows had disappeared.  Obviously he'd spent entirely too many years with Eliot, if he was vacating the peacemaker role to observe the drama so quickly. 

"Fine.  I'll be polite." Margo pasted a smile on her face that was probably meant to be sweet, but instead just sort of looked like a grimace of pain, and Julia let out a snort.  It felt nice, to be around her friends again.  She had no one in the city she'd laugh like that around; it was elegant or professional, and Julia's entire life back there revolved around being both. 

"I'm asking for you to not be a raging bitch, not a miracle."

"I'm pretty sure they're the same thing."

Margo gave her a wry smile, and Julia returned it with a far bigger, brighter one.  It wasn't a promise of good behaviour, but it was as close as Margo would ever come, and to maintain the peace, Julia would accept it.

"Now, enough about me," she said, tugging her legs up to sit cross-legged.  "What's the plan to surprise the shit out of Eliot this weekend?"

---

"Where exactly are we going?"

Eliot had parked the truck in a parking lot next to a building with a clock tower, and then he'd taken off down the street without a word.  They'd lapsed into silence after his comment about guessing games, except for a couple of droll remarks as he pointed out a couple of landmarks around Brakebills.  It was an old fashioned place - pretty, but tiny, as far as Alice could tell. 

"Weren't you paying attention?  You need to be less uptight, Princess. This place doesn't exactly have chic couture, but that's never been Julia's type anyway.  She's more into the type that can kick her ass."

"Oh?" Alice replied, and she knew there was a snap in her voice.  It was because she was tired of being treated like crap, of course, and not because she was pretty sure her chances of ever kicking Julia's ass in anything other than, possibly, a crossword puzzle were nil.  Why should she care what Julia's type was, anyway? "Because I'm the one engaged to her, so I'm pretty sure her type has changed."

Eliot shot her a smirk over his shoulder, as if he knew the entire story already, and was amused that she was continuing to maintain the lie.  That was impossible, of course.  He was just the best friend's boyfriend, after all.  He probably knew Julia the least of anyone staying at the house.

"Keep telling yourself that.  Here we are!"

He pulled open a door, and motioned for her to proceed him in.  Alice hesitated a moment, but there was something about his smile, seeming pleasantly harmless, that made her hackles raise.  He was challenging her, and if Eliot Waugh thought Alice would back down in front of his sad little challenge, he had another thing coming.  

She stepped into the boutique, and almost let out a breath of relief when her eyes lit on a high collared dress.  The one that caught her eye had large, poppy red flowers printed on it.  Alice didn't usually wear prints; her wardrobe leaned towards solid colors, particularly in whites, blacks, or dark blues.  But if getting something a little different would mean Eliot wouldn't make any more comments, then Alice was willing to play nice and wear the stupid dress for the next couple of days.  

"Where do you think you're going, Ms. Quinn?" he drawled out, his hand landing on her shoulder.  He turned her away from the dress display, and towards a brunette with a brilliant smile that clapped her hands as they saw them. 

"Eliot!" she called out in joy, her laughter a living thing as she threw her arms around his neck.  Eliot released his hold on Alice's shoulder to give the girl a quick hug in return, before he carefully extricated himself from her hold, obviously not all that comfortable with the contact.  Alice found herself in the odd position of feeling boy sympathetic - she didn't particularly like human contact either - and thinking he deserved it for dragging her around like this.

"Fen my sweet, this is Alice Quinn.  She's engaged to our very own Julia, and her wardrobe had an unfortunate accident, so we need to re-dress her for the events this weekend."

"My wardrobe is perfectly fine - you just decided that you don't like it.  That dress over there, I'd like to try it on." She pointed at the flower print outfit, and Fen released Eliot, her expression suddenly more serious and professional, which Alice would admit was to her credit.

At least until she spoke.

"Oh, that won't work at all!  It's boring, and you aren't boring.  I can't tell.  I'm very spiritual; people's auras are always speaking to me.  And yours need something from over here." 

Fen had grabbed her arm and began to haul her "over there," which was a corner with darker material.  At first, Alice thought it might be okay.  She liked black.  But then she realized it was all denim and t-shirts and half the articles were ripped in some way.

Alice couldn't remember the last time she had worn jeans.  She was pretty sure she no longer owned any.  She barely owned any pants, with the exception of two pantsuits she'd bought over a year previous, and one jumpsuit that she hadn't ever worn.  They were all in the back of her closet, and she probably wouldn't even remember them, except she'd had briefly considered bringing one of the pairs of pants on the trip.

She'd discarded the idea, simply because she wasn't here to impress Julia's friends.  Simply convince them their relationship was real, in case they were asked about it. 

"You don't expect me to wear this, do you?" she demanded, staring at Fen's back as she began to look through the jeans, pulling out a pear that had tears from the thighs almost to the ankles.  "Does she?"

Her last words were addressed to Eliot, who had followed them across the store.  His expression was pure amusement, and clearly he was a total asshole if he was enjoying this.  

"You heard Fen.  Her aura spoke to her.  Who are we to argue with your aura?" 

Alice bared her teeth at him and would have snarled a nasty reply, except Fen moved incredibly fast, and startled Alice by shoving a pile of clothes in her arms.  Eliot had begun to chuckle, only to come up short when another armful of clothes was shoved at him. 

"Fen, we're not here for me," he said gently, and Fen just rolled her eyes. 

"You're miserable in those suits all the time.  Who wants to be miserable? The dressing rooms are over here."

A few minutes later, Alice found herself staring at her reflection in the mirror.  Dark blue skinny jeans and a black tanktop.  She didn't see how this was more interesting than the poppy print. 

"Why are we doing this?" Alice demanded, knowing that Eliot would be able to hear her.  She could see him moving around in the room next to her.  "I realize you brought me here for your own amusement, but it backfired, so why are we still here?"

"Fen is basically my little sister," Eliot muttered in return.  Alice had to lean closer to the wall to hear him, but the words were clear enough once she did.  "I'm not very good at telling her no."

"Well, she's not my sister."

"Maybe not, but if you want some protection against Margo, you won't upset her.  I'm your only ally there.  Q might make the attempt, but he doesn't know Bambi like I do.  Woman up, Quinn. And let's see your stupid outfit."

Alice heard the door next to her open, and she sighed, exiting her own dressing room.  She stepped out and raised a brow when she saw Eliot standing there in a graphic t-shirt and dark jeans not quite as tight as hers. Over that was a black hoodie.  With his hair still carefully styled, he looked kind of ridiculous, and Alice just barely bit back a snort of laughter when Fen saw them and clapped her hands gleefully.

"Eliot! You look perfect!" she then turned her gaze to Alice and her brow furrowed.  "You... it's missing something.  Just give me a minute."

She zipped away, Alice staring after her, before she turned to look at Eliot.

"Is she always that... enthusiastic?"

"Trust me, if she's not that enthusiastic, it's because someone is dead.  The enthusiasm is preferable."

Fen returned before Alice could explore that more, more dark material in her hands.

"Arms up!" she ordered, and Alice, who never obeyed orders, found herself doing it, still not sure why.  There was nothing particularly impressive about Fen's presence, yet for some reason she just didn't want to disappoint her.  

Once Fen stepped away, Alice looked in the mirror and had to do a double take.

"I don't... entirely hate it," she said after a moment.  The dark material had been a jacket with elbow length sleeves and gold on the lapels.  It was well fitted, and with a bit more tailoring, Alice could actually see herself wearing it regularly.  It elevated the whole outfit to something that she didn't wince whenever she thought of it.  "I can tolerate this."

"Great! I'll ring you up and get your other clothes bagged."

It was like being in a whirlwind, dealing with Fen, and it was with relief that they were finally discarded outside the store, with a bright promise that she would see them the next day for the celebration.

"Well, that truly did backfire," Eliot said with a sigh.  "You ended up with the much nicer clothes.  Come on.  I'll buy an ice cream, and you can convince me that you and Julia are truly in love.  Or at least attempt it.  I'm quite positive it's all a lie, although I'm not as inclined to need to prove it so as Bambi is."

"Why not?"

Eliot gave a shrug as he led the way down the street.  Normally, Alice probably wouldn't have agreed to ice cream.  But after the experience with Fen, she figured she deserved something sweet and delicious. And maybe part of her was okay with some space from Margo.  Just long enough to figure her shit out and prepare for a second round. 

So, she would get ice cream and question Eliot.

"Julia is a big girl," Eliot said simply as they continued walking.  "She's been Quentin's best friend since they were children, and for that reason I love her.  But my relationship with her is... different than with Q or Margo.  We have a don't ask if we're not told relationship, the two of us.  If she needs me to know something, she'll tell me.  If she doesn't, then I can assume she knows what she's doing.  Or at least doesn't want my opinion on it.  That's how our relationship has always worked."

"It seems a little cold," Alice mused, and cold wasn't the way she would describe Julia's relationship with her friends.  Really, they appeared to have that sort of familial relationship that Alice had secretly envied in her classmates, before she began to skip grades and stopped interacting with those classmates. 

"Not at all.  If she comes to me tonight and wants to get drunk and spill the whole sordid tale about the two of you to me, I'll happily listen.  I won't even tell anyone else, including Q.  And she'll do the same for me.  It's quite nice, really."

Alice shrugged.  She couldn't pretend she understood friendship dynamics, truthfully.  Outside of her brother, there was no one she cared enough about to spill her guts, or even to get drunk with.  It made her relieved, that Charlie lived in Saskatoon, really.  And it probably meant Julia was very brave and dedicated to her goals, that she was willing to bring Alice here, to lie to all her friends.  

She wouldn't be able to do the same with Charlie, and perhaps she should make an effort, make this a little easier.

Alice didn't like to question her own actions.  That she was doing so now made her a bit irate, but that wasn't what the moment needed. 

"How about I buy you the ice cream?" she said, a tentative olive branch.  It was easier to offer to Eliot, because he hadn't been an confrontational as Margo.  "Since it's your birthday weekend."

"That would be - terrible.  Awful.  We don't need ice cream at all.  In fact, I just remembered I'm lactose intolerant." Alice stared, as Eliot stopped, turned on his heel, and began to walk in the opposite direction.  It was such a sudden change, and so ridiculous, that Alice didn't know how to react.  Had he hit his head in the store or something?

"Eliot?" said a different voice, this one female, and Eliot stopped again as Alice turned towards the person who had spoken. 

She was beautiful, this woman with dark, wavy hair and green eyes that crinkled when she smiled at Eliot.  He smiled in return, stepping towards her.

"Kady! What a surprise running into you here!"

"Really?" the smile turned wry and amused.  "Because I live here, and Brakebills isn't exactly huge.  The surprised one should be me, really, but the fact that you guys opened up the old place for your birthday weekend is the biggest news around here since Penny and I got married, so I can't really say I am."

"Yes, well... sometimes I forget how small this place is."

"Sure," Kady replied, though it was clear she didn't at all believe what she was saying.  She turned those green eyes to Alice and then glanced at Eliot again.  "Are you going to introduce us?  Even if you weren't completely gone for Q, I'm pretty sure she's not quite your type.  But still - getting the latest gossip will make me the most popular girl in town."

"Alice," Alice said, holding out her hand in her professional way.  Inside, her thoughts were wild.  So, this was Kady.  Julia's Kady, she would assume. It was the best explanation for Eliot's sudden awkwardness, and it was almost sweet, that he had wanted to avoid this.  But Alice didn't need to avoid this.  Exes were a fact of life, of course, and she and Julia just had a business arrangement, so it really didn't matter that Kady was pretty, or obviously friendly, or that her grip as she took Alice's hand was firm and strong, just the way a handshake should be.  "Alice Quinn."

"Kady Orloff-Diaz.  I didn't take Penny's name, so don't look at me like that, El. Are you a friend of Eliot's?"

"Julia's, actually," Eliot replied, somewhat hesitantly.  

"Oh," and now the interest in Kady's gaze was very, very real.

"Yes," Alice replied, and the stupid little part of her that still remembered how soft Julia's hair had been made her add, "I'm her fiancee, in fact."

And fuck, but she hadn't really meant to say that.

---

"The truck is coming back!" Margo moved away from the window, and nodded her head at the notebook that was perched on Julia's lap.  She had the neatest handwriting, had taken on the role of secretary in their planning.  "Hide the evidence."

Quentin grabbed the book, and shoved it into the book shelf.  He chose the spot so easily that Julia knew it had to have been put among the Fillory books.  Eliot liked to say that Quentin knew the books so well that he'd just rather have him tell the tales rather than read them himself.  It was sweet, in a way.  It was also probably just El's way of avoiding reading the books.  She knew he was more of a Narnia fan, although she'd promised to take that dark little secret to her grave.

Q might view it as grounds for divorce... once they were married anyway.  Which was likely just a matter of time.

They were sitting in front of the TV, arguing over what to watch on Netflix, when Alice and Eliot entered the room.

"Hey, back me up El - what are you wearing?" Quentin stared at Eliot for a minute, and then burst into laughter.  That was Julia's first reaction as well, seeing Eliot in a hoodie that was not at all tailored to him, except then she saw Alice.

She had never seen Alice dressed casually before.  Was this how she had felt, when she'd seen Julia in her crop top?  If so, it was... it was...

It was something.

Jeans and a tank top, all pulled together by a jacket that kept Julia from wondering if she'd wandered into an alternate universe.  And the effect of the whole thing was... hot.

Like, in an 'oh no, she's hot!' sort of way that really wasn't good for Julia's peace of mind. 

"The two of you look like you got in a fight with a grunge band," Margo said, smirking at them.  "You really need to learn to say no to that girl, Eliot."

That girl.  Fen; they must have visited the store that Fen's family had run for years.  Suddenly the sudden change made sense, and Julia didn't bother to hide her amusement, that clearly Eliot had fallen victim to his plan to shove Alice, with both hands, out of her comfort zone.  He deserved it.  Alice didn't deserve to have discomfort shoved at her from all sides.

And Julia didn't deserve to have to suddenly realize she might be a little bit in lust with her boss.

Who was her fake fiancee.

Who she was going to be sharing a room, and a single bed with.  Something that had seemed far less daunting when she was viewing her as The Alice Quinn, instead of Alice Quinn, actual human being who looked really good in skinny jeans. 

"Now isn't the time for that, Bambi.  The cat is out of the bag?"

"What cat?" Julia asked, suddenly suspicious about what ridiculous things her friends might have planned.  But to her surprise, Eliot just pointed his finger at her.

"Your cat.  Your fiancee cat. Everyone will know."

Julia just looked at Q and Margo, hoping for some sort of explanation.  She didn't speak Eliot nearly as fluently as they did, at least not when he was all flustered.  She needed some translations, but they looked as confused as she did.

"We met Kady," Alice said, rolling her eyes, and coming to perch on the edge of an overstuffed chair.  The new clothes didn't change the tight way she held herself, as though she were ready to burst into action at any moment, and her fingers clutched each other, as if she were actually feeling nerves.  Which was ridiculous.  Alice never felt nerves; it was one of her claims to fame. "Our... relationship came up."

"What Alice means is that she went full on jealous harpy," Eliot interjected.  "Without the violence I've come to expect from, Bambi.  But I suppose Alice just isn't quite as in your face as that.  She still marked her territory quite clearly, however. It's enough that I might even believe this whole thing is real."

"You're fucking kidding me," Margo shot back, but Eliot shrugged almost helplessly.  

"She let Fen dress her with minimal complaint, Bambi.  And that might be good manners, but the jealousy?  You can't fake that.  I think it's legit."

Julia ignored the silent argument now occurring between her friends, and instead focused her attention on Alice.  Her fingers clutched each other even tighter, and she very decidedly did not look at Julia.  Confusion roiled in her, and she really wished that Alice would look at her, so she could try and see what Eliot had.  But nothing.  She just stared at the Netflix page as if it were the most interesting thing in the world.  

Next to her, the couch shifted, and Julia glanced over to see Quentin, watching her, as she had been watching Alice.  He met her gaze, a question in his eyes, and Julia just looked away, and then hopped over the back of the couch. 

"Where are you going?" Eliot asked her, as Julia walked between him and Margo, ending their staring contest.

"Well, since the surprise is already over, I might as well get that scotch.  It's your birthday weekend - we should celebrate!"

And Julia just... really needed to get drunk.

---

It hadn't been Alice's first time drinking scotch.  In the past, she'd forced it down even though she hated it. 

That was before Eliot's Scotch Punch.  She needed the recipe, because it was amazing.

And she was drunk... very, very drunk.  And Quentin had an arm wrapped around her neck, the other around Julia's, because he was apparently a very affectionate drunk.  And Alice drunk apparently didn't mind it.  

She didn't even mind Margo and her smart comments.  With some scotch punch, those comments actually became pretty funny.  In fact, she almost liked Margo when she was drunk, and she escaped Quentin's grip, to go and perch on the edge of the couch, right next to where Margo was lounging. 

"Well, the pair of you are doing a good act," Margo drawled out after contemplating her for a moment. 

"Act?" Alice asked.  Her head felt a bit heavy, so she let it hang down a bit. 

"You and Julia.  All the touches, revolving around each other.  Did you two discuss how tense you've been?  That you needed to act a bit more like a couple?"

They hadn't discussed anything at all.  Julia had been very careful to not be alone with Alice.  After Eliot's comment about her being jealous, Alice had been very much willing to be avoided.  She didn't really want to talk about what had inspired her reaction to Kady.  Eliot said jealousy, but Alice would prefer to not think herself that gauche. So yes, not being alone with her was for the best.

Which meant there had been no conversations about touching more.  Had they been touching more?  Alice had maybe brushed her hair back a couple of times, and Julia had spent an entire song, when they were dancing with the others, with a hand in the back pocket of her jeans.  But was that really that weird?

Yes.  Alice knew the answer was yes, of course.  She didn't like human contact unless it was with Charlie... and it's not like Julia would have a reason to want human contact with Alice.  So maybe she was acting, and Alice had just let herself be pulled along. 

"Stop thinking so hard, Princess.  You look like your brain is going to fry." Margo waved to get Julia's attention.  "Come and get your girl, Wicker.  She's about to keel over."

Alice wanted to argue, except her head really did feel so heavy.  And when Julia wrapped an arm around her waist, it felt so good.  And she smelled so good.  Did she always smell that good?  Alice would have to find out.  That was something you were allowed to do with a fake fiancee, right?

"I appreciate that you like my smell, but your nose is tickling me, Alice."

Oh.  Had she been speaking out loud?  And her face was buried against Julia's neck, so she pulled it back as they reached their room.  But that left her looking at Julia, still in those tight jeans and crop top.  It left her waist bare and touchable.

So Alice touched.  She grasped that waist with her hands, and they both stumbled into the room. 

"Alice, you're very drunk.  Whatever you're thinking is a bad idea."

"No," Alice said, with all the determination that had made her so successful at such a young age.  Drunk her obviously had great ideas, because the one forming in her mind was brilliant.  

And Julia's lips, soft and tasting like a hint of cherry from her balm, felt as good as her scotch addled mind thought they would.  And her hair was as soft under the fingers Alice tangled into it as it had been against her on the flight. 

There was a bed somewhere behind them.  Alice knew that, so she tried to direct them towards it, even as they kissed.  But her foot caught on something, and their lips broke apart and she stumbled back, until she landed with her arms sprawled on the mattress.  

She wanted to look at Julia, but her head was so heavy, and so were her eyes.  So she stayed there, and let her eyelids drift shut.  

"I suppose tomorrow we'll pretend neither of us wanted that."

The words were muttered, and she wasn't sure if Julia wanted her to hear them.  But she did, and she wanted to respond.  To say that no, tomorrow she would want to do it again.  That tomorrow they should do it again. 

But instead of speaking, she just fell asleep. 

---

Julia stared at the roof and contemplated everything that had happened.  If she licked her lips, she swore she could still taste Alice's, which was stupid.  People didn't even have tastes.  If they did, it would be concerning. 

She'd had these kind of pining thoughts once, for Kady and, to a lesser extent, Penny.  And that was stupid.  The last thing she wanted was to walk down that path again.  Especially not with a woman who would be leaving her behind as soon as possible.

That brought up another question... how far were they meant to take this whole thing?  Did they actually get married? Once they did, how long would they need to stay married?  A situation that had seemed so simple was suddenly far more real and left Julia realizing she wasn't really prepared for this. At all.

She turned her head to look at Alice, and she felt even more stupid.  They barely knew each other.  What they did know of each other was just their work.  No one was their real self at work, and getting emotional over the mask Alice wore every day would just be... unwise.

And still, even with scotch still making her head fuzzy, Julia was unable to fall asleep, because she could still feel Alice's lips against her.  And stupidly she wanted them there again.  So she looked at the ceiling again and closed her eyes and tried not to think about it.  To block it out so she could sleep.

Alice let out a low groan, and then the bed shifted.  When a head was suddenly nuzzled into her neck, an arm around her waist, Julia realized that Alice had been moving in her sleep.  She went very still, waiting for Alice to wake up.  She didn't, and Julia, hesitantly, let her arm curl around her in return. 

Alice was warm in sleep, and felt nice, pressed up against her size.  

She expected to be kept up even longer, but as if the contact made her body realize how tired it was, she fell asleep within the next five minutes, wrapped up around Alice.

---

The world was entirely too bright when Alice opened her eyes. 

Sadly, her hangover didn't mean that she had forgotten the previous night.  No, she remembered every action.  Including the kiss, and tripping, and then passing out.  She remembered them in vivid color, and wondered why the fuck she had ever decided to drink so much of the scotch punch, even if it had tasted good.

Hair tickled her shoulders, and she turned her head to see Julia.  Alice held the skin of her waist, and she was wrapped in Julia's arm.  It was all very domestic, and a reminder of why she had been drinking so much.

Because of that pesky attraction. 

She'd been stupid to think alcohol would make it go away; Alice had never really gotten drunk at university, due to her young age, but while her classmates had been out partying, she'd been watching movies to teach her about the older students.  Their number one lesson was that alcohol always led to humiliation. 

It turns out that was true to real life. 

She was tempted to kiss her again, to see if it felt as good when she was sober, a thought that made Alice carefully extricate herself from the embrace before she could act on it.  They had an expiry date, and if it weren't for their agreement Julia would never be in Alice's company outside of work.  The woman essentially called her Satan to her friends. 

Alice needed to stop acting like some dewey eyed girl with her first crush. 

Out of bed and certain Julia was still asleep, Alice changed into some fitness gear.  Her head still pounded, and the best solution she could think of was going for a jog.  She hated to jog.  She really hated to work out at all... but she was no where near the right state of mind for yoga, and sweating it out via running seemed like the best idea at the moment.

Everyone else was in bed as well; after all, she and Julia had been the first to go to bed.  Who knew how long the others had stayed up.  So it was with relief that she made it out of the house and on her way without seeing another human.  

The best path she could find was some sort of prairie trail that headed in the opposite direction from town.  Not really wanting to risk encountering Julia's ex again, she took off in that direction.  She hadn't brought her headphones; the pain in her head didn't seem conducive to that. 

She had no idea how long or far she'd been jogging, just that she was desperately out of breath, when she almost tripped over someone sitting in the middle of the trail. 

"What the fuck?!" she barked, and Fen turned to her, pressing a finger to her lips. 

"I'm communing with nature.  You're ruining it."

Alice stared at her as Fen went back to sitting there, where anyone could tumble over her, seemingly not a care in the world.

"What the fuck?" she repeated, but this time her anger was replaced by pure confusion. 

"Communing with nature," Fen repeated.  She opened one eye, and then the other, surveying Alice thoughtfully.  "Your aura is manic.  Sit down across from me.  You need some help."

Just like in the store, Alice obeyed, though she had absolutely no idea why.  She copied Fen's cross-legged position and waited for direction.  

"Sometimes it helps to hum for the first time," Fen stated, and she proceeded to do that, a low, monotone hum.  Deciding there was nothing else to be done, Alice copied her.

Except that monotonous hum got annoying... really fast.  And Alice found herself instead beginning to hum to the first song that came to her mind. 

"Get Low isn't what I had in mind," Fen mused, and Alice felt her face turn red as she realized that's exactly what she'd been humming.  It was Charlie's fault.  How many times had he played that when their parents weren't around when they were kids?  "But it seems to have worked for you.  Do you want to talk about it?"

No, was what Alice should say. 

"Have you ever been attracted to someone you shouldn't?" she asked instead. 

"My first crush was Eliot.  I have a vague idea."

Alice could imagine a young girl falling in love with an Eliot, who had probably seemed so urbane and mature, when really he was just very, very gay, and gave an internal wince.

"Awkward, but not quite what I mean. There are other reasons.  But the attraction is there.  And strong.  And will likely just end up hurting everyone."

"If it's Margo, then yeah, avoid that.  Even without her and Julia being a bit competitive, Margo eats everyone alive.  It's her nature."

Of course Fen would assume Margo.  After all, why would she realize it was Julia, who Margo was very much meant to be engaged to and in love with?  There was no reason for their attraction to be bad, after all, and really, how old was Fen anyway?  Was she even twenty yet?

She was a terrible person to go to for advice.

"Or maybe whatever act you and Julia have going on is becoming real.  In which case, what's the problem?  Just go for it."

Alice stared at her, and Fen gave an unapologetic grin. 

"I talked to Margo yesterday.  She has opinions.  She always does."

"Julia and I are very much in love," Alice replied, getting stiffly to her feet.  "And Margo shouldn't gossip."

She turned to begin to jog again.  

"Your aura looks better!" Fen called after her. 

It was irritating, for Alice to realize that, despite her irritation, she felt far more calm than she had when she first left her home.

Stupid hippy teenager.

---

Julia was beginning to wonder if Alice had fled Brakebills entirely and was considering if she should tell everything to Margo, to figure out what to do next because the thought of her being gone was... upsetting, when the front door opened and there she was. 

"Were you out for a run?" Eliot asked, lifting the wet cloth he'd used to cover his eyes, red from a hangover, to look at the door.  "Ew. Why would you do that?"

"Some people like exercise, Eliot," Q pointed out patiently.  Eliot's head was in his lap, and he was stroking his hair.  It was disgustingly domestic.  Julia hated how jealous she was almost as much as she hated both of them. 

"Thank God neither of us do.  It must be miserable."

Margo had re-entered the room with a mug of coffee in hand and surveyed Alice up and down.  Julia was doing the same, although she thought it was probably for a far different reason. 

She was wearing leggings and a sports bra, and it did nothing for Julia's already whirring emotions and lust.  In fact, it made the lust want to tell the emotions to fuck off so they could go and get some exercise of their own with the blonde. 

"Don't tell me you're one of those perky people that exercises every day?" Margo demanded with a sneer, turning to glare at Julia.  "You did not bring one of those people here."

"I probably won't job again," Alice cut in with rolled eyes.  She took the coffee cup from Margo, and began to gulp it down, apparently not caring that Margo was currently trying to stab her with her eyes.  "I need to shower. Thanks for the coffee, Margo."

Margo just stood there, utterly still for a moment.  Then she let out an angry growl, glared at Julia, letting her know exactly who she thought was at fault, and charged away, probably to get more coffee.  Julia laughed, and the lust and emotions became all tangled up. 

Because that... that had been beautiful.  And Alice was amazing.  

And Julia should really tell her that.  

"Where are you going, Julia?" Eliot called from behind her. 

"Just go back to wallowing in Q's arms, Waugh!" Julia called back.  Quentin didn't say anything, but then again, Julia rarely had to actually tell him anything unless it was a particularly complicated situation that needed clarification. 

Eventually this situation would, but not at that exact moment. 

She entered the room to see Alice getting ready to get undressed. 

"Can you give me a-"

Julia walked right up to her, framed her face in her palms, and pressed their lips together.  

It was better without the scotch.  With her mind clear, and Alice sober, they could stand solidly.  They could hold each other and not sway.  And Alice buried her fingers in Julia's hair, while Julia tugged hers out of its ponytail so she could do the same. And God, it felt good.  Soft and warm, and Julia couldn't even really care about the sweat. 

"What are you doing?" Alice asked, breaking away from her with a gasp.  

"What does it look like I'm doing?" Julia asked.  "I'm kissing you.  You kissed me last night.  You want me.  I want you.  We're fake engaged.  Let's just do this."

Alice hesitated for a minute, but then she kissed her back.  It was frantic, and hot, and Julia never wanted it to end.

Then the pounding started. 

"Julia, we need to run into town! Penny and Kady called and need a hand.  Birthday boy has decided to be a good Samaritan for once, and has declared we have to help!" Margo called out.  Julia broke off the kiss and shook her head with a smile, the warmth of promise a buoyant feeling in her chest. 

"They probably need us to get rid of a mouse or something.  Penny can do it, but has this weird thing where he likes to get Quentin to instead."

"Oh," Alice replied, and for a moment her expression flickered, and Julia couldn't quite read it.  But then she put another smile on her face and shook her head.  "I need to shower, but I'll come into town and join you guys."

"Okay," Julia agreed, and then she kissed Alice again, just because it felt good to be able to do so.  "I'll see you then."

Except Alice never appeared in town.  And when they returned home, all that was left was a letter and a ring box - the one Alice had said existed, but that Julia had never seen. 

"Ha!" Margo said as Quentin read the letter.  "I knew it was all a big lie!"

"I'm sort of impressed.  Actual fraud... I'm proud of you Wicker."

But Julia didn't care about what her friends had to say in that moment, as she heard that Alice was returning to the city, would resign her position and return to Canada.  Instead, what stuck with her was the final words. 

This ring is yours.  There's no one else I would give it to.  Maybe someday you'll look at it and think of this whole, ridiculous thing fondly. 

---

Alice was staring out the window, but not really seeing anything.  

She was throwing away everything.  Her career. Possibly her reputation. Everything.  And she still wasn't sure why.

No, that was a lie.  She knew exactly why. 

Because Julia Wicker deserved better.  She deserved better than a fake engagement and a fake... whatever else they would have to do.  She deserved better than to be used by Alice for her own needs.  She deserved someone that would make her smile fondly, like she had when she'd spoken about Penny..

And Alice would never be the one to do that.  Because she was uptight and a bitch, and she didn't really want to change.  She liked being an uptight bitch.

She only regretted that she couldn't be one and have Julia. 

But, she'd released her.  She'd laid out the whole story in black and white for Margo and the others.  They'd probably poke at Julia a bit, but then they'd finish Eliot's birthday weekend and move on.

And Alice would go back to Canada. 

"Can I get you anything?"

It was on the tip of Alice's tongue to snap at the flight attendant, but she fought the anger down and just shook her head, and went back to her own thoughts. 

Why had she left the ring?

Honestly, probably because she'd bought it thinking of Julia, and that was probably a sign from the beginning, that this was a bad idea.  You didn't see a ring and think of someone who meant nothing to you. 

At least the whole thing had just barely started.  There would be no broken hearts. 

Except maybe Alice's. 

Hers might be a little broken. 

The plan continued to fly, and Alice ignored the tears that tracked down her cheeks as she flew farther away from Brakebills. 

---

Everyone in the office was staring at her, but Julia couldn't really bring herself to care. She didn't care that they were seeing her in an outfit that was way too casual, after she'd spent years making sure that everyone within in this building saw her as nothing but professional. She hadn't been able to get a flight, so she'd convinced Quentin to drive her all the way back here, Eliot and Margo tagging along, because Eliot had figured it was exactly what his birthday weekend needed. 

Even now, they were probably off getting drunk in the bar down the street while Julia rushed into the office, just as people moved around getting ready for the end of the day. All of them now able to stop and stare at Julia Wicker looking like a complete mess.

She still remembered what Margo had said, about how she spent all her time making sure that she made her personal goal timeline. It hadn't been spoken in judgement... but maybe it should have been. Margo hadn't been in favor of Julia rushing after Alice like this, but then Julia had told her it had been her words that had made her realize that she needed to.

Margo had hated it; Eliot had loved it.  That was when he'd declared they'd be coming along for the road trip.

There was suddenly a cardboard box in front of her, and Julia's arms wind-milled wildly as she fought to keep her balance without hitting it. She couldn't quite catch her balance, and ended up having to grab the arms that were holding the box.

Alice stared at her, the look that had once made a Senior Editor flee in fear and tears after he'd failed to properly fact check an article. Julia stared back, suddenly unable to catch her breath.

She looked so put together, even though Julia knew she had to be feeling anything but. It was impressive, the way she'd managed to flee Brakebills and show up here, in a perfectly tailored dress and heels that made her tower over Julia in her flats. But it wasn't like before, where Julia fell for the act and didn't try to look any deeper. Now she could see it.

Alice was sad.

Alice was alone.

Alice should be neither.

"What are you doing here?" Alice asked, after Julia just kept gaping at her, like a giant, awkward idiot. Because that's what she was being. She had convinced Q to drive her back here, and now she really had no idea what to say.

"Youshouldmarryme."

The words came out, falling over each other. They weren't what she meant to say. Or maybe they were. Maybe they were exactly what she meant to say. Because this was their chance. Their chance to have Alice stay in the country, and for them to see if this... something between them could really become something.

" Marry me," she said again, this time clearly enunciated, with meaning behind them.

"Julia, what the fuck are you doing?" Alice asked. There were murmurs from the people around them - all of them avid observers - and Alice glanced at them, her expression appearing smooth, but her eyes darting rapidly. Her fingers dug into the cardboard of the box, and Julia wondered if it was killing her, the effort it took to resist nibbling on her nails.

Throwing caution to the wind, Julia decided to say fuck it. If she was going to do the spur of the moment thing, then she was going to go all out. She grabbed the box from Alice and would have thrown it to the ground. Except that Alice would hate that, and that probably wasn't a great way to start an entire life together. So, she took a second, carefully set the box down, and then she turned back around, and got down onto a knee. She pulled the ring box out of her pocket, the one that Alice had left behind, and flipped it open.

"Julia, what the fuck are you doing?" Alice demanded again, nothing in her hands to keep her fingers from curling into fists. So she stood there, probably looking ready to haul off and punch Julia in the face to the rest of the world. But to Julia she looked...

She looked scared.

Terrified, even.

"I think I'm in love with you, Alice Quinn," Julia said. "Or at least I could be. And I want to make promises that I'll never hurt you, but I can't do that. But I can promise I'll never abandon you. And I'll never be put off when you're a bitch, because honestly, I've never been as attracted to someone as I was when you took Margo's coffee cup from her hands as a big fuck you. It was amazing. You're amazing."

Alice covered her mouth with her hands, and wasn't even trying to hide her emotions anymore. They were kind of beautiful, on display for everyone.

"You're crazy," she said, voice muffled by her fingers.

"So? Be crazy with me, Alice. Live a little."

For a brief, desperate moment, Julia thought she might say no. that she would turn her down, fly back to Canada, and that would be it, and they'd both be miserable.

Then, she was hauled up onto her feet, and Alice grabbed the cloth of her crop top and pulled her in, pressing their lips together with a fierce hunger. Julia froze for a surprised minute, but then she buried her fingers into Alice's hair and kissed her back just as fiercely.

"Let's be fucking crazy," Alice agreed, when they broke apart, their breathing heavy.

Then they kissed again, and neither of them gave a damn that they had an audience the whole time.

Alice would just glare at them until they all forgot. Eventually. 

And if they didn't, who cared?  Because kissing Alice felt like coming home.