“Sooo,” said James, setting down his coffee, leaning across the café table and stealing a bit of the muffin that Quentin wasn’t eating. “What’s up with you, my friend? You coming out with us tonight? I hear there’s going to be, like a ton of hotness there. Girls and guys.”
“You told him?” said Quentin to Julia. “Seriously?”
“Hey,” said James. “I am totally down with you liking guys, I am one hundred per cent cool with it – wait, have you ever checked me out? I mean, when we were skinny-dipping in math camp or whenever? That would be kind of weird but you know, I could deal. I might even be into it.”
“I am so sorry, Q,” said Julia. “I swear I didn’t mean to, I just - James, could you please stop being such a dick, for a moment?”
James raised his hands, mock-defensive. “What did I do?” he said. “I’m being supportive. I’m being, like, here for whenever Quentin wants to talk about gay sex and Grindr hookups.”
“Oh my God,” said Quentin. He put his face in his hands.
“So have you fucked a guy?” said James. “What was it like?”
“James,” said Julia.
“You know what? I’ve got – an assignment,” said Quentin. “Have a good night.” He shuffled his books into his bag and stood up, awkwardly, banging the table and spilling some of the coffee.
“Oh come on, don’t be like that – “ James was saying, and Julia was starting to stand up too, “Q, I’ll come with you – “
“I’m fine,” said Quentin. “I just, don’t feel like hanging out right now, OK? I’ve got to study.”
He walked off as quickly as he could, shoving the door open, but he could tell that Julia was running after him along the street. After a minute he stopped and let her catch up.
“I really am sorry,” she said. “I shouldn’t have said anything.”
“It’s OK,” said Quentin. He hitched his bag more firmly across his shoulder. “He’s your boyfriend, of course you told him.”
“He’s your friend too,” said Julia. “He really is trying to be helpful, he’s just – going about it the wrong way.”
“I don’t need help,” said Quentin. “I shouldn’t even have said anything, it’s nothing, it’s like, not even a thing.”
Julia sighed. She crossed her arms. “It is a thing,” she said. “If it wasn’t important, you wouldn’t have told me, would you.”
“Look, I was drunk,” said Quentin. “And I’d taken those pills, so I was drunk and high. Can we just forget about it?”
Julia looked at him, frowning. Quentin looked away.
“I’ll forget it if you come with me to Stereo this weekend,” she said. “There’s a 90s night on and James is away at his brother’s birthday. I want to go.”
“There’s, like, a million people you could go with. And I do know that’s a gay bar, by the way. This is a really transparent fucking ploy.”
Julia shrugged. “There’s no ploy,” she said. “You, me, dancing. I pay for the drinks as an apology for fucking up. We drink, we dance, we go home. Just like in my bedroom when we were sixteen, except with alcohol and better clothes.”
“Jules – ”
“Say yes. Please? It’ll be good for you to have a night off.”
“I had a night off last weekend.”
“Yeah, and now it’s Thursday and I’ve barely seen you in five days. Come on, Q. It’ll be fun.”
“OK,” said Quentin. “OK, fine, I give in.” He wondered if Julia would ever not be impossible to resist, when she looked at him in that particular way.
“Great,” said Julia. “I’d better – go beat some sense into James. I’ll text you, OK?”
“Mmm,” said Quentin, and waved her off.
The thing is, he thought, head down and walking fast in no particular direction, he’d known he shouldn’t have said anything. And not because it was a big deal. This was New York, this was college, literally no-one, including either of his parents, cared whether Quentin was draping himself in a rainbow flag while having orgies with his entire advanced Latin class or whatever.
And it wasn’t new, either. The horrible truth, which he would have rather been tortured to death than reveal, was that he had found James attractive, back in high school and maybe before. He’d had the occasional – or more than occasional – thought about James. And sometimes about James, and Julia, and him, together.
College was supposed to be the place where he would – explore his options. Except this seemed that it was easy to do for everyone other than him. The people in the various college societies were – well, they all seemed very, very gay. And societies weren’t really his thing. He’d signed up to a class in Gender Theory, first year, in case it helped, or at least gave him some intelligent conversation for parties, and then the other students had been so fucking – confident, and full of opinions, and they all had tattoos and artfully created hair and T-shirts with witty slogans and they were very serious about class being a safe space – people had fucking cried and hugged each other, and one time the professor had asked how he was feeling. After three weeks he’d started doing coin tricks under the table. He wasn’t sure he’d spoken in class at all.
It was all pathetic. He was pathetic. What was the point in knowing that you’d maybe like to fuck men if you weren’t ever going to do anything about it?
“Have you studied Sartre yet? Because I read, like, nothing but Sartre when I was seventeen, it was totally – ”
“Yeah, sure,” said Quentin. “Sartre, wow.” He took another drink from the paper cup in his hand, surprised again to find that it seemed to be cheap red wine, and smiled in a vaguely encouraging way while trying to cut his eyes round to spot anyone he knew.
He wasn’t entirely clear on how he’d ended up in a corner of the party with this very earnest hipster college student, who had brown wavy hair and glasses and very blue eyes and was maybe around Quentin’s age. He wasn’t entirely clear as to how he and Julia had ended up at this party – midterms were all in, so they’d gone for happy hour at five, and it had all kind of escalated from there - and he couldn’t lose her, because they’d come in an Uber, he didn’t know where they were, and his phone was in Julia’s bag. Hopefully.
The guy he was talking to had definitely told him his name and his major or something and Quentin had instantly forgotten it. For the thousandth time he regretted not coming up with a cover story that didn’t involve the words ‘philosophy’ and ‘Columbia’, which were like waving a red rag in front of all the most pretentious people at any given event.
The music was too fucking loud to hear properly, as well, so this guy was telling him a serious or possibly comic story about existentialism and his teenage years, touching Quentin lightly on the shoulder for emphasis, and Quentin didn’t know whether to nod sympathetically or grin. He settled for a sort of half smile.
The guy leaned a bit closer, and his hand settled on Quentin’s shoulder. Quentin blinked.
“Hey, you’re really cute,” he said, gazing at Quentin with a different kind of intensity – and Quentin stared back at him with his mouth slightly open because he wasn’t clear whether he could have heard that right. But he must have done, because the guy was moving in closer and leaning down, and Quentin was very drunk, and it seemed like it was easier just to kiss him back than to think of something else to do. At least it would stop him talking about bad philosophy.
It was – he was kissing a man. Another man. It was – different, the way his chest felt against Quentin, the way he was slightly taller, slightly more muscled than most people Quentin got to kiss. He felt kind of detached from it all; here he was, making out with some guy at a party, it was good but he was really not sober enough to be thinking about what he was doing, and also probably not sober enough to have sex. He could feel a vague anxiety about this looming in the back of his mind, but for now it was – enjoyable. Kissing. Random guy was pressing into Quentin and it felt – pretty good.
Some indeterminate time passed, maybe long or short, and then the guy broke off and smiled at him.
“We could go find somewhere more private?” he said.
Part of Quentin realised that this was a bad idea. Another part of him, though, was thinking that if he hadn’t had those four cocktails and then God knows how much wine, he wouldn’t have been relaxed enough to do any of this.
“OK,” he said, shrugging.
They ended up in an empty bedroom: Quentin noted in passing that the guy he was with seemed to know his way around, so maybe it was even his bedroom. He would have liked to ask his name again, but at this point, this point being kissing and stumbling towards a bed, that would have been more embarrassing than not knowing.
Random hipster guy pulled away from Quentin and sat on the edge of the bed. He started undoing his jeans. “Do you think you might?” he said, with a fairly unambiguous gesture.
Quentin had a moment of disorientation at the abruptness of this whole thing. Was this how gay men had sex? Not that it mattered, because he wanted – he wanted to see what it was like, and also he was relieved that he wasn’t going to have to perform in any other ways, given how wrecked he was.
He settled awkwardly between the guy’s legs, and – and that was his cock, right there; it was odd and also, Quentin was relieved to find, hot. He had no idea what he was doing, but alcohol gave him courage and enthusiasm; and the guy he was with didn’t seem to object. He grabbed Quentin’s hair, which hurt, and thrust into his mouth, which took Quentin a moment to adjust to – and – he was actually doing this, it was happening, this was him. It seemed to take a long time, long enough that his jaw ached, and he wanted to move to a more comfortable position. Eventually, though, the sounds the guy was making got louder, his movements sped up and he tugged at Quentin, who was with it enough to pull off at the right moment.
He rested his head on the man’s thigh, wiping his mouth off with his sleeve, and felt – pleased with himself, though also a lurch of worry about what happened next and how to get through it. He was starting to feel unwell, too, which wasn’t surprising given his state.
“Q?” someone called, in the corridor, and Quentin startled with surprise and relief.
“Oh, um – shit, that’s my friend, I’d better check on her,” he said.
“You got to go already?” said the guy. He didn’t sound as though he particularly cared.
Quentin scrambled to his feet, stiff. He hadn’t even taken off any of his clothes. He was half-hard, in his jeans. This was the most abrupt and least mutual sexual thing he’d ever done, and that was saying something. Though on the other hand, it would have been humiliating if he couldn’t get all the way hard, or indeed if he threw up all over this stranger from alcohol poisoning.
“Yeah, sorry,” he said.
“Well, thanks, man,” said the guy. “That was cool. See you another time?”
“Mmm,” said Quentin. He looked at this stranger a final time, blinking at the weirdness of it all, and then slipped into the corridor to find Julia. All the way home, in the taxi, with Julia leaning her head back and complaining about the music, lights blurring outside; he thought about the taste in his mouth, the feeling in his jaw; proof that he hadn’t dreamed it up.
He couldn’t tell Julia, she would only worry about him. More than she was doing already, that was.
Still, he’d done it now, he thought. It was do-able. If anyone asked him outright, in circumstances where – in similar circumstances, he wouldn’t have to lie.
Alice was lying in his arms, warm and naked. She was smiling against his skin.
“Does it make you feel good, that you’ve slept with more people than me?” she said.
“Barely,” said Quentin. “And only if you count, like, all forms of sexual encounter.”
Alice stretched, which was very pleasant.
“You mean, like…?” she said.
Quentin thought about a party that he could barely remember, about a stranger’s cock in his mouth. His skin prickled. “Like, blowjobs, or whatever.”
“I think it counts,” said Alice. “I counted it.”
“Oh?” said Quentin, stroking down her arm. He wanted to say something, to tell her, but he couldn’t think of how to phrase it, so that it would come out lightly, easily. He could feel that he was starting to blush just at the thought.
He cleared his throat. “Have you ever, you know, with another girl?”
“Why, because that’s your ultimate fantasy?” said Alice, teasing. “Mmmm. The good news is, yes, once, last year of high school. The bad news is, it wasn’t my – thing.”
“Wait – seriously?” said Quentin. He struggled up in bed a little, so that he could see Alice’s face.
“Don’t make a thing about it,” said Alice. She frowned up at him. “I was pretty unhappy that year, and it just kind of happened, with this girl I was studying with.” She ran her hand down Quentin’s stomach, stopping at the waistband of his shorts. “And it turned out I wasn’t into it, because I’m really –“ her hand slid lower – “into this.”
“Umm, that’s – very – flattering but you’re changing the subject,” said Quentin. “So are you like – bisexual?” His pulse had sped up, and he could hear that his voice sounded higher, weird in his own ears.
“God, no,” said Alice, without any hesitation. There was a thread of something in her voice: scorn, perhaps. She pressed her hand flat on Quentin’s stomach, where she could surely feel that he was breathing erratically.
“It was a mistake, OK? I am definitely – “ she stroked a circle on his skin, “one hundred per cent into men. Sorry to disappoint.”
“Right,” said Quentin, swallowing.
Surely Alice would now ask him, in turn, and he would say – what would he say? That maybe there had only been that one time for him too, but that he definitely wasn’tone hundred per cent into women? That he had any number of very explicit fantasies about Eliot, a significant proportion of which were less about Eliot himself and more about Eliot’s cock? That he’d even had some excruciatingly embarrassing thoughts about Penny – though that was hardly his fault, Penny had basically walked around naked in their shared room, what did anyone expect?
And what if Alice magically found out about that thing with Penny that Quentin was pretending very hard had never happened? Or what if, every time he was hanging out drinking with Eliot, she assumed that it was because he liked Eliot.
What if she broke up with him, and he lost the best thing that had happened to him in years? And he messed everything up, right when they were all in the middle of some really serious shit, what with the Beast, and Fillory, and everything?
“So since we’ve established that, how about we – do it again?” said Alice, running her hand over him. “We don’t have class for another couple of hours.”
Quentin closed his eyes, and rolled over to kiss her.
“We’ll wake him up,” said Quentin, half-laughing. Margo, above him, unhooked her bra and his breath caught: the room was whirling round him but this was still happening, Margo was right there and Quentin was naked, and Eliot, Eliot was passed out beside them and that was…
“Believe me honey, he’ll be only too happy with that,” said Margo. “Now focus, I’m going to fuck you and I need your full fucking attention on the job.”
“Oh my God,” said Quentin, far too loudly, and that was when he felt Eliot stir beside him. It was difficult to pay attention, what with Margo over him, around him, hot and perfect and amazing; he swallowed and swallowed and tried not to come immediately.
“I see you started without me,” said Eliot, lazily, beside him, and Quentin jerked and turned his head and met Eliot’s eyes, full of intent. Eliot shifted over on the bed, onto his side, and ran a hand down Quentin’s chest, thumbing at his nipple, and Quentin made a sound and jerked again.
“Don’t distract him till I’m done,” said Margo, through her teeth. She moved in a way that made Quentin make another, louder sound.
Eliot smiled, and leaned over to kiss Quentin; Quentin opened his mouth and kissed him back, desperately,
“Mmm, he’s very… distractable,” said Eliot, drawing back and sounding almost surprised. “But don’t worry. I can wait.”
[Four harvests after the Great Storm, or 2018].
“We’ll wake him up,” hissed Quentin, half-laughing. Eliot, above him, pulled his nightshirt over his head and Quentin’s breath caught. Sunlight spattered him through the cracks in the roof, that they’d never quite been able to fix. It was going to be another beautiful summer’s day.
“He’s a fourteen year old boy,” said Eliot, low. “You know we won’t see him before noon. Besides, if he hasn’t encountered the primal scene yet, it’s past time. We’ll just be –” he bent down and bit at the side of Quentin’s neck, “very, very quiet. I’m sure those silencing spells are still working. Maybe.”
Quentin arched up, under him, wanting. He licked his lips.
“That’s a shame,” he said, rocking up into Eliot. “I wanted to suck you until you were shouting my name. I want you inside me – God, I want hours.”
Eliot looked down at him, his eyes dark. “It’ll be minutes, if you carry on like that.”
Quentin pulled Eliot down and kissed him hard, once, and reached a hand out for the edge of the mattress, under which they kept the lotion that was supposed to soothe aching muscles, but which had turned out to have many other uses.
It was difficult to be quiet. Quentin kneeling up, gasping at Eliot’s hand stroking him, his fingers inside him. The bedframe creaking, unbelievably loudly, as Eliot pushed into him, good and familiar and strange, every time. Eliot moved and Quentin groaned in an accidental porn-star way, and Eliot shushed him; and then they were shaking with laughter; Eliot’s breath coming warm in huffs on his shoulder, the feeling moving through him like sunlight. Eliot’s breath hitched and he thrust into Quentin again, and again, and Quentin braced himself and bit his own lip to keep silent and loved it, every moment.
Afterwards, they lay together under the thin summer quilt, recovering. Quentin’s chest was sweaty, he rubbed at it.
“Not bad considering we’re practically middle-aged,” said Eliot, smug.
“We haven’t done this in weeks,” said Quentin. “We need to get Teddy out of the house, like, find him a job in town. So that you and I can – take some more downtime.”
“Find him a girlfriend,” said Eliot.
“Or boyfriend,” said Quentin.
“I’m sorry to break this to you, Q,” said Eliot, “but your son is as straight as you were at his age. As straight as a die – what is a die, I’ve always wondered? I forgot to tell you about the whole flirting thing he had going on with Jennet in the bakeshop the other day, you know, the one with the red hair and all the freckles, the new apprentice?”
“I wasn’t straight,” said Quentin.
Eliot made a huffing sound.
Quentin sighed. “I’ve told you this before, literally a million times. I like men. And women. I like both. I know you understand the concept.”
“Well, you like me,” said Eliot, stroking his hair. “Because I’m the only person in Fillory who gets your millennial pop culture references, and because we have – “ he waved a hand round – “all this. And a snoring teenager on top of it.”
“That’s not the point,” said Quentin. “I liked men, OK? When I was fourteen, when I was Ted’s age, I was – watching gay porn and fantasising about this boy in my D&D group, and fucked up about it. But I wasn’t in denial about it. Just because you still want to believe that you won me over to, to the dark side - ”
“I do, absolutely, want to believe that,” said Eliot. “There is a compelling weight of evidence on my side, I would add. And what do you mean, your fucking D&D group? I can’t believe you never told me this before – though on second thoughts, don’t tell me, and definitely don’t tell Teddy. Christ, imagine what could happen if you introduce the local teenagers to RPG, the whole of Fillorian history would change.”
“Changing the subject,” said Quentin. He was too warm and relaxed to care, though.
There was a sound from the back room. They both looked over at the door.
“If he’s awake, he definitely heard us,” said Eliot. “Awkward.”
“We should oil the bedframe or something,” said Quentin. “And we’d better get up, now.”
Eliot yawned. “If we get in a pattern over breakfast and another by lunch, we could take the afternoon off, go swimming?”
“Yes,” said Quentin. He thought about Eliot in the river, water running down his back. Teddy almost certainly wouldn’t want to come, and if they went a bit farther upriver, no-one else would be there, either.
“I’ll heat the water for tea,” he said. “You put some clothes on before he comes in,” and he gave Eliot a last quick kiss, before easing out of their bed.]
The monster padded into the main room, wearing pyjama bottoms and a robe, bare-chested. Quentin looked up. It was four, five am. His eyes were scratchy with exhaustion. Julia, across the table, was deep into her second entire pot of espresso, there were books scattered over the table between them. They were getting nowhere.
“I’m bored,” it said. “Sleeping is boring. I woke up. I want – “ It – he – ran a hand over his chest, absently.
Quentin frowned at him. He was too tired to feel more than the regular steady undertow of grief, and pain, and terror for Eliot; too tired to be afraid for himself.
“Coffee?” he said. “There’s some here. We’re just, umm, working out how to help you.” He tried, rather hopelessly, to smile reassuringly, while simultaneously clicking shut the multiple open tabs on how to rid a body of evil spirits, one-handed.
“Hmmm,” said the monster. “No, this body wants – to – I don’t know.” His hand strayed lower. Julia straightened, across the table. Quentin felt his expression freeze.
“I read the internet,” said the monster. “It says: fuck someone.” He cocked his head and looked at Quentin, thoughtfully. “And then I watched some – videos. I don’t think I remember. Is this – something fun? Like tequila, and pizza?”
There was an awful pause. Quentin wasn’t sure if he would be able to speak. He cleared his throat.
“We, ah, humans, we do use our bodies for – um, fucking. But not when we’re on a – on a mission.”
“Yes,” said Julia. Her tone was very carefully controlled, and she wasn’t looking at Quentin. Someone who didn’t know her as well as he did wouldn’t have been able to hear the tension behind it. “Because it would be distracting. Humans are very weak. If we want to keep our minds working well we have to – umm – be pure. That means – no touching other people. Because it could wreck the mission. Like Quentin said.”
“Oh,” said the monster. “So if this body wants – “ he rolled his shoulders, one of his hands still lightly resting on his pyjama pants “ – if it wants to fuck, then no?”
“No,” said Quentin, as firmly as he could manage.
“Really, a very bad idea,” said Julia, doing conviction much better than he had. “Everything would be totally ruined. Any rituals we needed, any spells – they wouldn’t work. At all.”
The monster frowned. “But – ”
“Just for a short time,” said Quentin. “We’re nearly there. You could try a – cold shower? So that you aren’t bothered by – ”
“…these human weaknesses,” said Julia. “Because you’re much stronger and more powerful than that.”
“Huh,” said the monster. He vanished. There was a faint sound of running water.
Quentin wrapped his arms round himself. He was shivering all over. Julia reached over the table and gripped his arm.
“Fuck,” she said, quietly. “Fuck, fuck, fuck. Do you think he – bought it?”
“I don’t know,” said Quentin. He ran a hand over his face. “It’s Eliot’s body. It wants what he wants. Eliot wasn’t – isn’t – exactly pure and chaste.” He couldn’t stop his voice from shaking, and his breath from catching, and he didn’t try.
“Q,” said Julia. “I don’t want to make this worse, but to be clear – you’re one of the things that Eliot’s body wants, right?”
Quentin looked away from her, for the space of a few uneven breaths.
“Yeah,” he said. “Possibly.”
“It’s not safe here. You need to get out, in case he comes back.”
“What’s the point? He’d find me. It looked like he believed us. We need to – to get this plan done.”
He pulled his laptop back in front of him and stared at the screen, seeing nothing at all. Julia was quiet. When he looked up she was watching him, thoughtful.
“You’re putting yourself through all this, for him,” she said. “For Eliot. You know, I didn’t quite realise, before. That you two were together. Properly together.”
“We weren’t,” said Quentin. “Or, we were and then we weren’t. I don’t think I can talk about this now, Jules.”
“OK,” Julia said. “When all this is over, though – I owe you an apology. You told me, you told me years ago, you – you fucking came out to me, and I just – I don’t think I took that seriously enough. I kind of – forgot about it.”
“It doesn’t matter,” said Quentin.
“It will matter,” said Julia. “Because we’re going to find a way to get your boyfriend back, and one day I’m going to dance at your fucking wedding.”
“We already both got married,” Quentin said. "That was - one of the problems."
“Then we’ll just fucking dance,” said Julia. “We’ll get there. I swear.”
Quentin nodded, but he couldn’t smile. Julia squeezed his arm, again, and they both turned back to their research.
“Mom,” said Quentin. He thought about kissing her on the cheek, but decided against it.
“Hi, Quentin,” she said, frowning at him a little as she stood up to greet him.
“I brought – ” said Quentin.
“Hi,” said Eliot, smiling charmingly, and holding out his hand. “I’m Eliot. Quentin’s boyfriend.”
His mother’s eyebrows rose. “Oh,” she said. “Well, sit down, let’s order some food.”
Eliot kept up small talk about her job, and her house, and her incredibly dull friends, while Quentin poked at a salad like a sulky teenager, until the coffees came, and then there was a pause.
“So,” she said. “Last thing I heard, Quentin had a girlfriend, what was her name – Anna? I mean, I’m fine with my son being gay, of course, I’m just wondering when all this happened.” She made it sound accusatory.
“Oh, he’s not gay,” said Eliot. “He’s bi. He did have a serious girlfriend, but, well, that kind of fell apart a while back, and we got together.”
“Eventually,” said Quentin. “There was some stuff in between.” He reached out for Eliot’s hand, holding it tightly.
“I was a dick,” said Eliot. “For a really long time. Effectively decades. I got over it, though.” His thumb stroked over Quentin’s hand.
“Bisexual?” said his mother, studying Quentin. “You know, I did used to wonder if you were gay, when you were a teenager.”
“Yeah, well,” said Quentin.
“It’s so easy for you young people today, isn’t it,” she said.
Eliot choked on a mouthful of coffee. Quentin patted him on the back.
“Actually, not…so much, in my case,” said Quentin. “But it’s OK. I got here, in the end.”