“So,” Quentin starts, his hands folded behind his head, pillowing it from the floor beneath him, and his feet resting on a small box that Alice had been cloaking in invisibility—bending the light around it, Quentin, we’ve gone over this a million times—on and off for about an hour. “What’s the deal with the holidays?”
“Uh, they’re generally celebrated by people and cultures all around the world,” Josh responds.
Quentin pulls together enough energy to kick at the leg of the chair Josh is sitting on. “Well, duh. I just– do people tend to celebrate Christmas on Brakebills time or on real world time?”
“Real world,” Janet titters. She’s standing in the doorway, a glass of something held loosely between her thin fingers. “You know, Q, this is the real world.”
Believe it or fucking not, Quentin thinks. He says, “You get what I mean, though.”
Alice, perched on the arm of Josh’s chair like some bird that hasn’t yet flown the coop, nods her agreement. “You’d think we’d know, right?” she says. “But, well, last year Q and I were so bogged down with studying to try and skip a year that the holidays came and went without much affair, so.” She wiggles her fingers. They dip in and out of visibility. “Not that it matters much,” Alice continues on. She’s not a rambler, but she can get going when she’s anxious, and not having a firm understanding of the rules of a social exchange tends to stress her out. “My parents are so– well, you know. My Chanukah gift is usually just seeing my Mom’s face for the first time in a month.” She laughs shortly, bitterly, and the only one who joins in on her laughter is Janet.
“We celebrate together,” Janet says. She slips into the room and deposits herself on a chair next to Josh. She sets her feet on the same box that Quentin has his on, and for a second, it disrupts Alice’s spell. The box flickers back into existence, but with a quick series of jabs of Alice’s thumbs and a bit lip and a wrinkled brow, it disappears again. “The Physical Kids, I mean. On Brakebills time. I’ve no clue what the other people here do.”
“And frankly, I don’t care all that much!” Eliot calls from his near-perpetual place in the kitchen.
“Of course you don’t,” Alice says, toeing the line between good-natured and biting in that subtle way that only Quentin seems to be aware of.
Janet, taking her at face value, says, “And why should he? We have a lovely little party here. Flowing libations, home-cooked food, et cetera. The works.”
Quentin wants to say Jesus fuck, who the hell says et cetera out loud? , except for that Alice absolutely says et cetera out loud, and Eliot does too, probably, and Quentin doesn’t want to offend either one of them. Instead, he says, “Do we exchange presents?”
Janet laughs, the sound a filigree dagger, pretty and painful all at once. “Christ, no. If we did, these two—” she points a finger at Josh and another over her back at Eliot “—would run me out of house and home. They’d want eight fancy gifts for eight precious nights and they’d give me one pair of socks in return.”
“I’d be happy with socks for at least three of those nights,” Josh says, and Eliot argues, “I’d give you something fucking wonderful if we exchanged gifts!”
“Also,” Eliot continues, “I’m pretty sure it would be impossible to run you out of house and home. Your money knows no bounds.”
Janet sighs. “Yes, but my patience does, and I can only go searching for so many delicate blouses or expensive bottles of alcohol for you, darling.”
“They’re so dramatic,” Josh says to Quentin in a stage whisper. “The real reason we don’t do gifts is because Richard said we—” he puts on a dramatic, uppity effect “—sullied the spirit of Christmas by reducing it to a materialistic holiday.” He snorts and returns to his normal voice. “Which is bullshit, because, like, Eliot and I don’t even celebrate Christmas, and I’m pretty sure a solid ninety percent of America is totally fine with Christmas being reduced to a materialistic holiday.”
Quentin swings his feet off the box (Alice, in the background, chides him for breaking her concentration once again) and pushes himself to stand before falling back on the couch. “Richard sounds like a treat.”
“Richard was—” Janet starts, but Josh holds out a hand to stop her.
“And now even with Richard gone we don’t give gifts because they’d outclass me by leagues and it’d be pretty damn pathetic. And, yeah, because Janet would bitch and moan about getting seven less gifts than we do.”
“Hey!” Janet protests. “I never bitch. Well, barely ever bitch. And I only moan when the circumstances necessitate it.”
Alice, pink around the cheeks and ears, drops her spell entirely. She says, “What night is the celebration, then? If we’re juggling two holidays.”
“Whenever inspiration strikes,” Eliot says mysteriously.
“Depends on the year,” Josh clarifies. “Obviously. Whenever there’s a good date in the winter where we’re not too burdened by work and we want to go all out with the cooking.”
Eliot comes up behind Janet and the chair she’s in and puts a hand on her shoulder. She acknowledges it with a slight tap of her fingers to his before draining the contents of her glass. Eliot is adorned in his school shirt and pants, as well as an obnoxiously frilly apron, and is somehow pulling it off. He says, “And, really, don’t feel obligated to get us big kids a gift because it’s your first year.”
Confused, Alice says, “Were we supposed to? You did just say you didn’t give gifts.”
“Read between the lines, honey,” Janet says in her ridiculously attractive and ridiculously condescending tone. Janet could make a scholar of quantum physics feel like an idiot if she wanted to.
Something from the middle of the conversation catches up to Quentin. He looks to Eliot. “They have Jews in Oregon? Like, on farms, even?” he asks.
“They have Jews pretty much everywhere,” Eliot returns. “That’s kind of our whole thing, you know? Diasporadic wanderers.” His voice is lofty and his expression is aloof and something in Quentin kind of wants to hit him. Or at least touch him.
“You are so full of it,” Josh says, and Alice giggles into her hand. “Don’t start on about Talmudically mandated commitment issues, I swear.”
“Oh, is that why your boyfriends never last long? I would have thought it was due to your charming personality,” Janet teases. She pinches Eliot’s arm affectionately, and he swats her away with the spatula in his hand.
“The point is,” Eliot says, ostensibly to both Quentin and Alice, but he’s only looking at Quentin, “we do a holiday party, it’s a fantastic thing, it’s a family affair, it’s on Brakebills time, and we don’t give gifts. But, you know, if you two wanted to get the three of us something, it’s not as if we’d complain.”
A week before the party, Alice and Quentin find themselves in the almost-never-used Brakebills library fretting into their homework. Alice had suggested they go here, as she wanted to talk without the older Physical Kids present. The overabundance of magic used in the library is giving Quentin the mildest of tension headaches. That, or the stress of having to come up with a good gift idea.
“You literally can’t go wrong with socks,” Quentin says. “I’ve gotten socks for, like, half of the Christmases I’ve had in my life.”
“Along with other things, though,” Alice guesses.
Quentin shrugs. “Yeah. I guess so. Well, do you have any better ideas?”
Alice furrows her brow in concentration, the eraser end of her pencil beating a steady patter against her hardcover copy of some book on magical theorems or another. “Maybe we should make them something with magic?”
“Specific,” Quentin says, and instantly regrets his tone, because the line between Alice’s eyebrows deepens. He backpedals as quickly as he can. “That does sound good, though. Better than socks.”
“Most things are better than socks,” Alice returns with a smile. “Now, c’mon. We have to figure this out soon. We do actually have homework to do.”
“As if you wouldn’t be able to get by without it.”
“It’s the principle of the thing!” Alice insists, not at all denying that she’d absolutely be able to participate fully in class tomorrow even if she was behind on the readings. “I could put on a little light show?”
“Janet would think that was adorable,” Quentin says, pronouncing adoooorabulll in the drawn-out, lazy, L.A. way that Janet would say it.
“Is that a bad thing?”
“Honestly, I have no clue,” Quentin admits. “But, yeah, a light show seems cute. Especially because, like, that’s what these holidays are about, right?”
“Pretty sure Christmas is about Jesus, actually,” Alice corrects. “But I could be wrong.”
Quentin waves a hand in her face. “Christmas is about putting up nice strings of lights and drinking too much.”
“So, every day at the Cottage?”
“Basically,” Quentin agrees with a grin. “Okay, though. Light show sounds good. I can do some magic—y’know, sleight of hand stuff, not real magic—or something. We’ll put on a little performance. And also get them some socks.”
“I’ll take Janet and Josh if you take Eliot,” Alice says.
Quentin groans. The tension headache worsens. “Alice. That’s so not fair. You can’t give me the heavier workload. You know you’re the superior student.”
“You will find some silken fucking socks, so help me, Q, or else we’ll be exiled from the Cottage forever,” Alice says, all business. She taps him on the nose with her pencil, and he overdramatically recoils as if he’d been decked.
Alice gives him a small smile and bends her head to go back to her work. They plod on through a few mundane exercises in relative silence for a few minutes, until Quentin’s wrists need a break from going through the rote motions of a simple incantation to get his fingertip to glow—Alice keeps looking up as if she wants to help him, but he refuses to get it done on any merit other than his own—and he looks up and says, “Do magicians tend to celebrate the holidays?”
Alice stops chewing on her lip and tucks a strand of hair behind her ear. “It depends,” she says. “I mean, culturally, I’d say we trend a bit more away from organized religion, but I wouldn’t say we’re necessarily all without some sort of spirituality. My family’s Jewish, but we’re not super serious about it. We do the holidays because it’s nice to do the holidays and because it’s nice to continue the family tradition, but there’s no real religion behind it, you know?”
“Yeah,” Quentin says. “I mean, I think I’ve been to church about four times in my life total, so, yeah.”
Homework forgotten, Alice folds her hands into each other and taps them on the desk. “Back when my brother– back when Charlie was with us, he and I would do the holidays together, usually. Mom was researching and Dad was redoing the house, and despite the fact that as magicians they pay pretty close attention to the phases of the moon, they always seemed to forget when Chanukah was coming. The timing of the holiday is based on the lunar calendar,” she explains at Quentin’s confused look.
“Sorry,” Quentin says, which sounds hollow, but he means it. “I get it, though. We do Christmas with the extended family, and it’s really hellish. I’d always try to get out of the house as quickly as possible to show up on James or Julia’s doorstep.”
Alice nods, a miniature thing. Quentin doesn’t tend to talk much about Brooklyn, and he certainly doesn’t tend to bring up James, and he absolutely tends to avoid the topic of Julia (especially in front of Alice), but right now, he feels like he should be opening up a little more. It’s hard to do that in the Cottage. It’s hard to do that surrounded by three carefully crafted personalities, even if you’d never really know that Josh was putting on airs unless you spent as much time with him as Quentin now does, and you’d never really know that Eliot’s persona was of someone who grew up in a very different way than he did unless he offered up that information to you, and Janet– well, Janet’s much more of an open book than she probably wants to be, really.
Alice is different, though. Alice might be closed off, but Alice isn’t an actress. It makes her easy to be around.
“I don’t know how smart that was, though,” Quentin continues. The words pour out of him, a dam being dashed to pieces, like that first time he ever did real magic. It feels the same way, too: like relief, like this has been a long time coming, like he’s taking a step towards being the version of himself that exists under his showboaty shuffles and the intentional way he puts his hands in his pockets and leans against walls.
Alice cocks her head to the side. She looks a bit birdlike, a bit delicate. She may not be an actress on purpose, but her appearance certainly can deceive. “What do you mean?”
Quentin drags a hand through his hair. It’s almost as long as Alice’s. He’s going to have to start stealing her hair ties soon. “Just. Y’know. I loved them, but we always all saw each other as competition. So half our conversations were just us trying to one-up each other with literary references, or historical jokes, or turns of phrase in other languages, or whatever. Which, I won’t lie, was pretty fun—especially when I was the indisputable winner of whatever not-competition we weren’t having—but…”
He doesn’t know how to finish that thought. The past tense feels weird on his tongue, like James and Julia are dead. Which they aren’t, obviously, but they’re as good as. He doesn’t imagine he’ll ever spend much time with them ever again. And it feels like a desecration, kind of, to Julia and her memory and the love he had for her, but Brooklyn, like an ill-fitting coat, is something he simply can’t fit himself into anymore. Julia’s a beloved patch on the elbow. He’ll think of her fondly when he thinks of her at all, but she’s been fraying for a while now.
And it’s not as if his friends at Brakebills aren’t competition—Alice especially; he can still remember the stress of his late nights with her and Penny when they were trying to study up to skip a grade—but Quentin is a lot more secure in the understanding that he isn’t the top of his class anymore. Alice is better than him at magic, plain and simple. He always wants to prove himself to her and to the Physical Kids, but he doesn’t need to be one-upping them all the time.
Alice nods. “You know,” she says slowly, “I never really had friends until I got here.”
The room feels dry and still and heavy. Quentin puts his hand on hers. “Well, I didn’t have any that counted until I got here. So. Thanks.”
“Yeah,” Alice smiles. “You, too.”
They spend a bit of time each day practicing their show and making socks. Alice, phosphoromancer that she is, can do brilliant things with lights. Her fingers glitter and glow almost as bright as her eyes, and her smile is a firm, steady thing that Quentin thinks she could pull herself up on and stand tall. When Alice does magic, she unfolds. When Alice whispers words that Quentin can’t understand and makes sharp, methodical gestures with her hands that Quentin couldn’t dream of replicating and lets the light show go, she grows a few extra vertebrae and takes in a lot more air, and the world sharpens to a single point. Magic is what she’s made of, and it’s what she’s made for. It makes Quentin’s arms itch.
Today, they’re practicing in the Maze. Quentin sits on the ground with Janet’s socks in his lap (they’re a rich purple, warm and practical and exactly the sort of thing she’d wear with no one else around, still classy enough for her tastes and with some light blue stitched into them) and watches as Alice takes in a deep breath and beings.
The sky above her is a clear, crisp blue. The day isn’t a particularly cloudy one, so the sun is brilliant and white and haloing Alice like she’s something more than human. Her face, robed in shadow, is serious. Her hands, thin and strong and constantly in motion, are coated in a pale glow.
Alice makes a series of motions sort of like she’s going through the first half of the ASL alphabet with both hands simultaneously, but with sharper edges. Her jaw is set. Gold light streams from the tips of her fingers when she gets to L. She pushes her hands forward, framing her face between the ninety-degree angles each of her thumbs and forefingers are making, and sparks shoot up, dusting her green eyes with gold.
Socks abandoned, Quentin tucks his fist under his chin and leans forward to watch as Alice directs the sparks with an angular series of gestures and a string of steadily-chanted German. Shapes swim into being, stitching themselves together in the air, and slowly, the faces of the three Physical Kids come into being.
Quentin whoops. Alice, blushing slightly, stutters a word. The spell drops, but neither of them particularly cares.
“That was awesome,” Quentin tells Alice. He’s sure he looks like a little kid right now, his cheeks and ears bitten a light pink by the cold and by amazement, his eyes blown, his hands clasped earnestly in front of his heart. He can’t help it. That’s how magic makes him feel.
“Thanks,” Alice says, her smile a softer thing than it was when she was spellcasting. No less sincere, though. “It’s– I still need to tweak it. I can never get Eliot’s face shape right.”
“His face shape is pretty wrong, so I think you’re fine.”
Despite herself, Alice laughs. “That’s not nice,” she chides, but she doesn’t disagree. “How are the socks going?”
“Just doing some adjustments on your stitches,” Quentin tells her. He holds up the socks. “You did a really good job making them. Josh’s are back in my room—I finished my tweaks to what you did last night—and Eliot’s are there, too. They’re almost finished. You can check them out if you want to later.”
“I trust you,” Alice says easily, which means a lot to Quentin, especially considering how much of a closet control freak Alice is. “And you have your card tricks prepped?”
“Oh, yeah,” Quentin assures her. It’s basically the same routine he’s been doing for years, just with a little bit of an actual magical spin to it. “I can show you if you want, but—”
“No,” she says, shaking her head. “Save it till the day of. Consider it your Chanukah present to me.”
“I thought we weren’t doing presents,” Quentin says playfully.
Alice reaches out to him. Backlit and standing, she looks like a beautiful giant. He wraps his fingers around her forearm and pulls himself up. “We’re not,” Alice says. “Still.”
Quentin steps closer to her and puts his other arm over her shoulder. She looks up at him, lips parted, eyes wide, and he thinks this is someone I can’t ever lose, and he pulls her into a tight hug.
Alice tucks her head under his chin. She’s too slight of a thing. Quentin is always worried she’ll end up blowing away in a rush of light without someone to keep her a little grounded.
“Happy holidays,” Quentin mumbles into her hair.
“You, too,” she says against his shoulder.
When Quentin steps back, Alice looks a little wet around the eyes. He can’t deny that he feels somewhat the same. Neither of them addresses it, of course, and Alice gets back to practicing her light show, and Quentin gets back to adjusting the blue stitching in Janet’s purple socks, but Quentin feels lighter.
He loves Alice, he realizes, all at once and entirely overwhelmingly. He’s not sure he’s ever loved someone as a friend before like this. He loved Julia and he loved James, but there were parts of them that he loved in an entirely covetous way. It’s not like that with Alice. With Alice, it’s more that she slots underneath his chin and against his shoulder, and his arms have never felt more sure than when they’re wrapped against her back, and he’s content to sit in silence with her here while they work.
The sun is setting. The holiday party is tomorrow. Quentin isn’t sure he’s found happiness at Brakebills yet, but he’s found Alice and he’s found the Physical Kids, and they’re something almost like Fillory to him. Something too precious for him to be able to believe he can hold in his hands.
Quentin sits bent over the socks as if he’s working on them for a few more minutes after he finishes. He doesn’t want to go back to his room just yet. It’s almost dark out now, but the light that emanates from Alice is more than enough.
“Holy shit,” Quentin says as he opens the Cottage door. One of his hands is clasped with Alice’s, and the other holds a little bag that contains a card deck and three pairs of socks. “This is…”
“I know,” Janet replies smugly. She’s adorned in a dark green wraparound dress with a plunging V-neck that Quentin is desperately trying to not blatantly stare at. Her heels are sky-high and her eyeliner is more winged than Icarus ever was and she looks drop-dead gorgeous. The Cottage around her is decorated to the nines and then some.
“Look up,” Eliot says cheerfully, running through the room. He has a pan of something in his hand, but he disappears into the kitchen too quickly for Quentin to catch what it is.
Quentin looks up. There’s mistletoe in the doorway. He sighs.
“Oh, come on,” Alice protests.
“Rules are rules,” Janet tuts. “I’ve had to kiss everyone in this damn thing during the holidays.”
You’ve probably done a little more than that, Quentin wisely does not say, because he doesn’t think that getting disemboweled by Janet is entirely in the Christmas spirit. Instead, he slides the gift bag up his wrist and takes his hand out of Alice’s and puts both of them on her cheeks.
She stands up on her tiptoes and closes her eyes. Quentin presses a light kiss to her mouth. He was anticipating he might feel some romantic stirrings when their lips touched, but he feels nothing other than the cold December wind on his back and the grip of Alice’s fingers around his wrist.
“Passionate,” Janet says dryly as Alice steps out of the kiss.
Alice shrugs. “Happy holidays,” she says. She swipes a thumb under her lip to fix up the light gloss on it. Alice isn’t one for heavy makeup, but she’s wearing some for tonight. It makes her look nice. She always looks nice, though.
Janet waves the two of them in. It’s warm inside the Cottage and, as always, a fire is roaring in the fireplace. The room is decorated with green and red and blue and silver. There’s a star-topped tree in the corner—Quentin’s pretty sure he heard Josh bitching one day about getting one of the Naturalists to agree to uproot one and transport it to the Cottage—and a menorah above the fireplace with all of the candles lit with a flame that doesn’t cause the candles to drip white wax. The room sparkles with magic and lots of glitter. It’s just a step below completely trashy, and Quentin loves it.
“The boys are finishing up in there,” Janet says over her shoulder, gesturing grandly at the kitchen. “I can’t cook to save my life, you know.”
“Oh, we know,” Quentin assures her. She’d tried to make pasta bolognese one night for dinner and had somehow managed to fuck up boiling the water.
Janet leads them to the table. There are fancy forks and fancy glasses and even fancy napkin holders, and Quentin feels totally out of his element, but he leans into it. Name cards indicate where they’re sitting, and Quentin finds himself across from Alice and next to Eliot. Janet’s seated at the head, of course.
She pours them some wine. “Eliot picked this,” she says, “and he told me a slew of fun facts about it to tell to you, but you know just as well as I do that it doesn’t matter where the hell the liquor is from as long as it tastes good and works fast, and I can assure, this thing fits the bill.”
Alice sips on her glass. Quentin downs half of his in one go. Janet smiles and sits at the head of the table like a queen sitting on her throne, all easy confidence and an unspoken command of the room, and says, “So. Your first real Christmas at Brakebills.” She doesn’t ask how they’re feeling about it, or anything as ridiculously emotional as that, but she leaves the end of the sentence open for them to fill with whatever they’d like. For Janet, that’s a big act of kindness.
Quentin nods. “Yeah. Feels good.”
“My parents didn’t send me anything for Chanukah,” Alice says. “Not that I really expected them to? But still. It’s nice to be able to have this. That’s something.”
“It’s more than something,” Janet assures them. “Just wait for dinner. It’s amazing. And this year we won’t have to do anything stupid like say grace over it, or talk about the spirit of Christmas, or whatever the hell else Richard liked us to do.”
“Baby Jesus and all that,” Quentin says vaguely, and Janet seems to find that funny, because she laughs.
Josh comes in from the kitchen, his shirt stained with about three different things and his smile wide. “Hey, guys. We’re gonna be done in just a few. Hang in there. And—” he turns to Janet “—try not to eat them alive before they’ve had the chance to have dinner.”
Janet puts a hand to her chest delicately, feigning being affronted. “Come on. They’re used to me at this point. They can handle whatever I give ‘em.”
Alice coughs into her cup. Quentin presses his fingers into his knee. Janet smiles like she knows exactly what she’s doing.
Conversations with Janet always make Quentin feel like he’s on somewhat unsteady footing, but it’s fun to try and stay balanced. Plus, Alice across from him is a good counterweight.
After a few minutes of chatter about this week’s classes and getting the latest gossip from Janet about what’s going on in her year—“Elsie Adams tried to sleep with a first-year!”—Josh and Eliot come through the doorway separating the room they’re eating in from the kitchen. Wordlessly, Janet flicks a hand up towards the mistletoe hanging in the frame, and both Eliot and Josh groan, and then both Eliot and Josh look at each other as if they’re offended by the other’s reaction.
“Rules are rules!” Janet repeats, her voice gleeful, sing-songy.
They manage to kiss without dropping the plates of food they’re holding. It’s even less romantic than Quentin’s kiss with Alice was, and that’s saying something. Janet laughs and laughs and laughs and Josh is blushing a little as he sets down the food he’s holding.
He’s changed clothes since last Quentin saw him. He’s wearing a nice-looking button-up and slacks, which is good, because that’s about what Quentin is wearing, and Janet’s been making him feel underdressed. Eliot’s in some dramatic button-covered getup that Quentin is pretty sure has at least one enchantment on it, because his brain refuses to take in the entirety of the outfit.
“These are some latkes,” Josh says. “They’re great. I made them. Just me. Eliot refuses to get too close to splattering oil, because he’s a massive pussy.”
Eliot rolls his eyes. “And I made—” a string of French words falls out of his mouth, a few of which Quentin is about sixty-five percent sure Eliot is making up on the spot “—and it’s probably better than what Josh made. Dig in. More food’s coming.”
Alice is the first one to make a move, spearing a latke with a fork and putting it on her plate.
“You don’t want apple sauce?” Josh asks.
Alice’s nose wrinkles delicately. “No thanks,” she declines politely. She brushes her hands down the front of her smart-looking green blouse. “It’s got a terrible taste and an even worse texture.”
“More for me,” Quentin says. He spoons some onto his plate and piles three latkes onto it, as well as some of the chicken dish Eliot brought out.
It doesn’t take long for Quentin to feel flushed and full with good alcohol and good food and good company. Dinner is an incredible affair—both Josh and Eliot are wonderful cooks, and they’ve really gone all out for holiday dinner, and each plate of food that comes out is better than the one before it—and dessert is donuts with a jelly that coats Quentin’s tongue with strawberries and sugar.
The conversation flows like the tide, rising and falling with the pull of the moon, or maybe just the pull of Janet, but the two are so similarly large and cosmic that it’s hard to care if there’s a difference. At some point, Quentin realizes that Eliot’s had his hand on Quentin’s thigh for about ten minutes, and that Quentin doesn’t mind in the slightest. In fact, he quite enjoys it.
“A toast,” Eliot proclaims towards the end of dinner. He pushes his chair back and stands up, and it’s as if Alice has cast a spell on him, because he seems to shine brighter than anything else in the room. His glass is raised high, and he’s smiling more sincerely than Quentin’s seen him smile since those early days at Brakebills when it was just the two of them. “To the Physical Kids who have gone, to the Physical Kids who are still here, and to the Physical Kids who have joined us.”
Janet and Josh raise their glasses high. “Here, here,” Josh says.
Eliot locks eyes with Alice for a moment, and then turns to Quentin to do the same, and Quentin feels his heart pick up speed. “We’re happy to have you,” Eliot says simply. And then, with a crooked grin and a little wink: “L’chaim.”
The group drains their cups in unison. Alice sets hers down with a decisive thunk and announces, “Q and I have– okay, I don’t know if it’s a gift, but it’s something for you guys.”
Unsurprisingly, no one says oh, no, you didn’t have to!, or anything like that. It’s almost funny.
Alice stands up and motions for Quentin to stand up with her. He follows her to the unoccupied end of the table, only stumbling a little bit along the way, and grabbing one last cold latke off the plate for good measure. He crams it down his throat gracelessly and ignores Janet’s laugh-coughing at his back.
“We’re tonight’s entertainment,” Quentin declares grandly. He feels something loosen between his shoulders. He loves performing, and he loves being in front of an audience, and there’s a satisfying thrill he gets at being able to wow people with nothing more than learned tricks and his own two hands.
Quentin goes first. His routine is second nature to him at this point even if he hasn’t been performing it as frequently at Brakebills. Janet and Josh and Eliot delight in his pick a card, any card, and Janet gasps with glee when hers shows up in Alice’s bra strap and Josh’s shows up behind Eliot’s pocket square and Eliot’s shows up under the tongue of Quentin’s shoe. He does the disappearing nickel trick, and then he does it again, and this time Alice makes it actually turn invisible with a quick and quiet incantation that Quentin distracts from with his own hand movements.
Quentin loves magic—actual magic, real magic, the ability to say fuck it to all known laws of the universe and operate within a system that is entirely his own—but there’s something singularly fulfilling about this. All he has is his hands and the cards and the audience, and he feels high with delight at the fact that he’s put in the work and he’s getting something out of it. It’s as simple as that.
He finishes with a sweeping bow to a thunderous round of applause—he’s pretty sure Eliot is magically amplifying the sounds of his claps—and steps back to let Alice take center stage. She smiles at him, and he smiles back, and that’s simple too, the friendship that they have. Quentin never knew that happiness could be easy before Brakebills. And it isn’t easy most of the time, but it is on occasion, which is better than it used to be.
Alice’s light show goes off without a hitch. Janet shrieks with joy at her face in gold, and Eliot tries to light the phosphorescent cigarette stuck between his phosphorescent lips, and Josh says, “Alice Blaire in the house!”, which is a reference that Quentin gets and Alice doesn’t, but Alice smiles warmly at it anyway.
When Alice is done, she’s panting a little. Quentin steps up behind her and puts a steadying hand on her back, and she leans into him gratefully. He says, “Also, we made you guys some socks.”
“Christ. Like, with knitting?” Eliot asks, agog.
“Hell no,” Quentin laughs. “With magic. We don’t know how to knit.”
“I know how to knit,” Janet offers. At the stillness of the room, she pouts. “What? Is that so surprising?”
“A little, yeah,” Quentin admits. He walks Alice back to her chair, and when she sits down, he stays standing beside her. He produces the three pairs of socks from his bag and levitates them each over to the person they were made for. “Merry Christmas. Happy Chanukah.”
“Oh, I have to go put these on right now,” Janet says. “Alice, come with me to the bathroom, would you?”
“Can you not put them on here?” Eliot says.
“No. That’s weird. I’m not about to wave my bare feet around at the table. And, before you ask, Alice is coming with me because that’s what us girls do. We go to the bathroom in groups.”
Alice looks like this is a rule she has never heard of before, but she knows better than to argue with Janet, especially about social conduct, so she gets up from her chair and lets Janet tug her towards the bathroom. They pause underneath the mistletoe-bedecked doorway and Janet all but dips Alice into a passionate kiss, and when they come up for air, Alice is almost as red as a brick.
Eliot says, “Well. Hope you guys have fun in the bathroom.”
“Seconded,” Quentin agrees.
Shut the fuck up, Alice mouths at Quentin, eyes wide, once Janet’s back is turned. Quentin blows her a kiss and tries to hold in his laughter to a moderately okay degree of success.
Josh and Eliot pull their socks on while the girls are in the bathroom and they both applaud Quentin for his and Alice’s use of magic in creating them and in their eye for styling them for each person. When the girls return, Janet has her shoes in one hand and Alice’s hand in the other, and they’re laughing at some joke that one of them made.
“So,” Quentin starts, “this is holiday dinner?”
Eliot spreads his arms grandly. “This is holiday dinner. Pretty fun, right?”
“To say the least,” Quentin agrees. “Any other holiday plans?”
“We have eggnog in the kitchen, plus a few more donuts,” Josh says. “And that’s all. I know Janet and I need to get back to our rooms at some point to study for a quiz we have tomorrow, but at some point doesn’t need to be right now.”
Quentin wholeheartedly agrees. The five Physical Kids go single-file into the kitchen—except for Janet and Eliot, who cross through the doorway together, pausing so that Janet can press Eliot against the doorframe and kiss him deeply and for about a second too long for it to be entirely comfortable for everyone watching—and pass around glasses of eggnog and share donuts and laugh until their cheeks hurt. This is what the holidays are supposed to be, Quentin thinks, and then: I think I get why this is a time for family.
At some point he finds himself lying on the floor of the main space of the Cottage with Alice’s head on his chest and Eliot’s hand resting lightly in his hair. Josh and Janet are gone, disappeared back to their dorms to try and sober up enough to finish studying for their quiz, and light jazz is playing from somewhere. Quentin thinks maybe Eliot’s doing it with magic.
“So,” Eliot sighs. “A very merry Brakebills Christmas to you.”
Alice hums contentedly. “We should probably go to bed soon, right?”
“Probably,” Quentin agrees, but no one moves from their positions. Eliot’s fingers card themselves slowly through Quentin’s hair. Despite the heat, Quentin shivers a bit.
“This was nice,” Alice says happily. “I had a really good time. This was the best Chanukah I’ve had in a while, and it’s not even actually Chanukah tonight.”
“Me, too,” Eliot says, and Quentin’s almost positive he’s being a hundred percent sincere. “Thanks for the gifts, by the way. Not sure if any of us said that yet.”
They hadn’t, but Quentin didn’t mind, and he’s sure Alice didn’t, either. He says, “It was nothing. It was great. This was great. You’re a good cook.”
“Mmm, I know,” Eliot says.
“I want another donut,” Quentin decides. “Do either of you want something from the kitchen?”
“I’m good,” Alice murmurs. She folds in on herself, her head rolling off of Quentin’s chest, and curls up in the fetal position on the rug. “I might– I think I’m going to rest my eyes. Just for a little. Wake me up when you’re headed back to your rooms.”
Quentin presses a light kiss to the back of her head and somehow manages to pull himself to his feet without falling. Eliot’s quick to stand, too, though his tolerance is a lot higher than Quentin’s, so he’s a bit less visibly drunk. He offers his arm to Quentin, and Quentin takes it gratefully, and they’re almost through the kitchen door when Quentin remembers about the mistletoe.
“We have to kiss,” he says, and leans forward. Eliot meets him halfway.
Even with Alice right there on the floor, Quentin feels like he and Eliot are the only people in the Cottage. In the world, even. It all falls away until his whole universe is his hands on Eliot’s shoulders and Eliot’s fingers against his skin, and it’s much too short of an affair, but Quentin manages to restrain himself from chasing after Eliot’s lips when Eliot pulls away.
Quentin clears his throat. “You’re good at that,” he says.
“So I’ve heard,” Eliot replies with a smug grin.
They split a donut and have a glass of water each. They eat in silence save for the sounds of the fireplace and the sounds of jazz, and it’s so easy and domestic that Quentin feels like he’s got to hold onto this moment forever lest it fall through his fingertips like he’s thirteen again and teaching himself how to flip a nickel over his knuckles for the first time. He doesn’t want this to disappear. Not ever.
“I guess we should get back to our rooms now,” Quentin says reluctantly once the last bits of sugar from his donut has been licked from his fingertips. “I’ll get Alice.”
“You two go on,” Eliot tells him. “I have to clean some of the dishes.”
“You? Wash the dishes?” Quentin asks, incredulous, and then: “Wait. No. You don’t have to clean up all on your own.”
Eliot rolls his eyes. “I have magic, idiot. I can handle it.”
Quentin feels like he should protest, but he’s tired and doesn’t like doing the dishes and doesn’t want to argue with Eliot, so he nods his assent and steps out of the kitchen. Eliot smiles at him, a small and honest smile, and Quentin pockets his expression and tucks it in close to his heart before leaning over Alice and shaking her gently.
“Alice,” he whispers. “Bedtime.”
“Gnnhhh,” she mumbles into her arm. She looks very asleep. Quentin weighs his options for about three seconds before scooping her up and carrying her to the door. He raises a foot to kick it open, but it swings open before he makes contact.
“I got you,” Eliot calls softly from over his shoulder. Quentin turns to see him, and as he does, Eliot closes the door again in Quentin’s face, but not before Quentin catches a glimpse of Eliot’s affectionate gaze.
“Mistletoe,” Quentin murmurs to himself and the December air and the door in front of him, and, clutching Alice tight to his chest and starting off towards Brakebills, Quentin presses a soft kiss to Alice’s sleeping forehead. He might be imagining it, but he thinks that she smiles a little in her sleep.
The weather is cold, biting, upstate New York winter, but despite the dusting of snow that coats Quentin as he walks back towards Brakebills, he’s warmed through with eggnog. His heart beats strong enough that it nearly pushes him to his knees. He feels Alice’s hair on his skin and Alice’s weight in his arms, and he feels like this is a happiness that might not be so temporary.