Quentin Coldwater followed the sheet of paper as it flew stubbornly in the wind, through the alleyway and over the gate. His Yale interview had gone smoothly and the head of the Philosophy department seemed interested, maybe even impressed with his epistemological emphasis. But he was pretty sure successful applicants were able to keep their shit—and their materials—together enough for at least five goddamn minutes. Cursing under his breath, he forced his decidedly unathletic body to climb over the wrought iron and slam gracelessly onto the hard asphalt below.
But when the soles of his loafers hit the ground, his toes weren’t accosted by the harshness of concrete and urine. Instead, he was bathed in the brightest, softest light he’d ever seen and grass cushioned his fall. He stood dumbstruck, staring at the change around him. Time had fucked itself, and it was the middle of the day, rather than an empty evening. In the distance, a towering palace of higher learning loomed, reading BRAKEBILLS UNIVERSITY in ivory-tower carved stone.
His mind racing, he went over his pill combinations in his head, wondering if he’d somehow fucked with his dosages. Or maybe—shit, maybe he’d taken the wrong pills without thinking? He had more bottles littered in his medicine cabinet than the whole of Staten Island beach. He knew firsthand that hallucinations weren’t an uncommon side effect. In fact, plenty of the shit he’d been prescribed over the years had the giant warning written in bold lettering on the side of the stark white pharmacy gift bags his medications came in. Also, one time, when he took too much Ambien, too soon before bed, he’d imagined he was on the bow of a great ship, rocking back and forth over the waves. He ran around his room, delirious and giddy, wondering if it were possible to fly the sails into the moon or out into oblivion.
Another time, he thought he was a Keebler Elf. That was slightly less poetic.
That morning, he’d taken his Zoloft and half an extended-release capsule of lithium, under his therapist’s recommendation. As far as he knew, there was nothing in the side effects either individually or together that could account for such a vast, detailed hallucination, so it was probably his broken brain having yet another meltdown. Exactly what he fucking needed. But his heart refused to follow this garden path, as a previously unforetold joy and excitement built within his ventricles in every moment he spent in this beautiful, delirious new reality.
Quentin held his arms out and the warming sun brought up the hairs to a delightful standstill. He valiantly fought the urge to twirl.
Stepping forward with a quickening pace, he was pulled into the mirage, his veins and lungs filling with…something ineffable, something intangibly gorgeous that he’d never experienced before. It was fucked up to think, he knew, but he wanted to stay in this hallucination, more than he’d ever wanted to stay in any of his other escapes, even the ones that he sought in books and movies and music and the crevices of his own mind. This felt real and true. More real and true than anything he’d ever experienced in the world he knew was actually real and true. This mysterious college campus—all bright greens and whites—was like the first time he’d heard Mozart. Times about a billion.
He was rambling now. In his own head. A new low. But shit—who the fuck could blame him?
When he finally reached the stairs of the large building, once in the wild, mind-blowing distance, Quentin stopped and gaped around, his mouth catching flies. His eyes landed on a figure in front of him, like a sanity beacon. It was like proof that he wasn’t crazy, that he wasn’t completely losing his mind and dissociating like all of his doctors always feared he would, deep into Fillory.
No, right in front of him, like it was the most natural thing in the world, sat a young man. Legs dangling awkwardly over the stone, he was reading a book called Practical Applications, Vol. II and held a small card in his hand. Upon hearing Quentin’s approaching footsteps, he looked up and his young, attractive face smiled, revealing a row of white teeth against olive skin.
“Well, hey there!” He said, cheering out his hand into a big wave that immediately set Quentin at ease. Well, at least at as much ease as Quentin was ever set and especially in a large-scale, intoxicating hallucinatory paradigm shift. So, not at much ease at all. But still, Quentin was even happier and slightly calmer. He felt seen, which was more than he could say for the rest of his life.
“Uh, hi?” Quentin said, not exactly knowing what to do with his hands or knowing where he was or what the fuck and holy shit, was he about to have a panic attack? But his unfettered energy was too joyful, too focused. This liveliness, eagerness flowing through every part of his soul was an entirely new experience. It was mostly pleasant, except that he was pretty sure he was about to vomit glitter.
“You must be—” He looked down at the card, then back up at Quentin with a grin and an outstretched hand. “Quentin Coldwater, right? Nice to meet you, I’m Todd.”
“Hey Todd,” he said, batting his eyes around, trying to be polite but holy shit. “Where—?”
“Brakebills University.” The baby-faced stranger smiled somehow even wider and dropped his hand, not commenting on Quentin’s seeming lack of interest in social customs. “Before you ask, no, this isn’t a hallucination. This is a graduate program in Upstate New York.”
Upstate New York. Upstate New York. There was…he’d just been in the Village. There was no way he could be in Upstate New York. Quentin hadn’t exactly enjoyed AP Physics, but he’d done well enough to know that walking six feet to the left in a city didn’t usually mean you’d end up fifty miles north.
“How, uh, how the fuck did I get here?” He asked, rubbing the back of his neck compulsively, breathing deeply to gather more and more of that ineffability in the air, the one that kept him on solid ground and fucking happier than he’d been since…
“Oh, you’ll find out,” Todd said with a laugh. “Though I think in your heart of hearts, you know.”
The word came unbidden, without pretense. Quentin felt his mouth do something then that it hadn’t done in months, maybe years. He smiled. It was bright and wide, and took up his whole face. His eyes crinkled and his eyebrows raised high into his hair, lightening the tension that had weighed him down his whole life. He realized now what he’d been feeling—it was the discovery of a new sense. It was like he was hearing or seeing or touching for the first time in his life, all over again, at age 23.
“You’ve been invited to take a preliminary exam, but don’t worry,” Todd winked. “I can tell we’re going to be seeing a lot of each other from now on.”
Julia was there too. Julia was there too. Julia was there too.
Throwing herself headlong into his arms, they gasped and twirled, laughing like they hadn’t since they were kids. She kissed his cheek and his heart didn’t even ache with the relentless longing that had plagued him for so long. In fact, as he pulled her back from his chest, he looked at her with new eyes, ones that didn’t completely hate himself for not being good enough, handsome enough, normal enough to win her heart. Now, he saw her for the incredible, big-hearted friend she’d always been…and one who was his true peer. Maybe their connection wasn’t romantic. Maybe it wasn’t even based in deep familial-like bonds, forged from childhood. Maybe, just maybe, it was magical. Literally fucking magical. Maybe they were finally complete and whole, and this was everything they’d known and dreamed of for so long.
“Holy shit, Q,” she said, her eyes glowing up at him and he returned the smile tenfold. “We were right.”
“We were goddamn right, Jules.”
Squealing, she threw her arms back around him and they fell to the floor, and Quentin Coldwater had never felt so free and light in his entire life. This was the beginning of something grand. The beginning of something true. Of something good. Fucking finally.
Over the next few weeks, Quentin pushed into the deep end of magic, in all its beauty, strangeness, and difficulty. The schoolwork itself was brutal, but not impossible. He found places where he was adept. He was particularly good at anything to do with mathematical differential calculations regarding the minutiae of magical formulations, particularly in regard to physical substances. The more minor the detail, the stronger his work. The first time he successfully changed the tempered essence of iron to nickel, the high was like how he'd imagine it would feel to fuck a rainbow (a type of marijuana, rumor had it, he’d actually be able to get his hands on, if he so chose.)
Most of magic was like this; there were no wands, no simple Accios shouted across the room, no trolls in the dungeon. Just a lot of hard, diligent work, pressed upon them relentlessly by the aloof, demanding faculty. And while Quentin had found something that felt a little bit like a niche, it turned out he was decidedly mediocre at everything else. He supposed that magic couldn’t change everything in his life. Besides, Magicians, it turned out, tended to be particularly remarkable people in their own right: preternaturally beautiful, genius, and fluent in multiple languages, living and dead. Two out of three wasn’t bad for him, he figured, as he reflected on his own 148 IQ and swiftly translated his Sanskrit for his latest liquidation exercises. Still, he was he was glad to have Julia by his side since she was, no surprise, a fucking badass at everything thrown at her. They spent hours in the library or on the quad, poring over their books and practicing their tuts, growing in depth and breadth with each passing day.
But unlike any other part of their dull prior lives, Quentin wasn’t totally in Julia’s shadow. Mostly, sure, but he’d actually made a friend of his own. Todd, his initial exam guide, had gone out of his way to check in on him. Todd was a really good guy, affable and funny, and far more gentle than anyone Quentin had ever been friends with in the past. At Columbia, he’d mostly run with the fedora’d nerd groups, all sharp and acerbic in their latest gatekeeping frenzies. But here, he felt at ease in Todd’s presence, with magic as their foundation.
“Everyone has their own introduction to magic. That can help determine your discipline,” Todd said brightly, passing his hand around the green of the campus and over several groups of students, all doing different and interesting work, out in the open. “What do you think triggered magic for you?”
“Fillory and Further,” Quentin said without hesitation. Todd’s face lit up and for a brief moment, his heart leapt. “You’re familiar?”
“Oh sure, I read the first one when I was a kid. Then it got a little too complicated,” he said with a laugh. “I’m not that imaginative. But hey, man, that’s a really awesome way to get in touch with your connection to magical energy. You’ll have to tell me more about the series sometime.”
Warm in his easy acceptance, Quentin promised Todd that, sometime, he would do just that.
It also wasn’t long until he realized that Todd was also apparently a conduit to the famed Party House. He and Julia heard about it early on, when a pudgy, bespectacled, yet weirdly alluring third year walked through their halls, telling them to come one, come all to “the Cottage,” and described it as a rare opportunity to party with the professionals. Julia hadn’t been feeling well, so they begged off that night to read Fillory at Magic School, a rare and exciting sounding bonding experience at the time.
…And then they immediately regretted their decision when they heard their classmates talk the next day.
“Holy shit, you two are such losers,” Penny, his intimidating and awful roommate, shook his head at them over lunch. “You skipped it because of the sniffles? To read kids’ books? It was fucking epic. Drink fountains, drugs with no hangovers, fucking orgies like it was no big thing.”
“You’re really not getting our vibe here, are you?” Julia asked, amused. “You think the idea of orgies is going to entice me?”
“I’m just saying it was a fucking bacchanal,” he said, blushing a little under his firm eye roll. “And it would’ve been more fun if you were there.”
Then he looked at Quentin, “Not you, though.”
However, it quickly became clear that the typical parties there were exclusive: Physical Kids only or those deemed worthy by one of the elusive hosts, apparently an attractive, man-eating pair of beautiful, impossibly charismatic people. That is, exactly the types who would never give Quentin the time of day, even in the world where his confidence levels were soaring with every magic lesson. But when he mentioned it to Todd, he immediately laughed and beckoned him along to the Cottage, not even in a month into term.
Following Todd’s footsteps eagerly, Quentin walked up a small brick pathway and into a quaint, lovely mid-century modern living room, with amber light, soft rock music, and more attractive people than Quentin had ever seen in his entire life, all fucked up and tipsy on some new kind of magic. The bespectacled man was in the corner, hawking his inventions, including a cake that supposedly would make every hair follicle on your head have an orgasm, for ten solid minutes.
“This,” Todd said with wide arms and a grin, “is the Physical Kids’ cottage. Also known as, where yours truly hangs his hat and his heart every night. Not to boast, but we’re the best group on campus. And we have the best drinks.”
He grabbed a suspiciously bright blue cocktail off a bar cart and handed it to Quentin, who thanked him with a dubious nod, not really sure what he was in for. He was already used to magic being this grave, serious endeavor, so it almost felt sacrilegious to imbibe. But as he was about to take his first sip into the great unknown, a strong hand, adorned in several silver rings, grabbed it out from under him with a tetchy sigh.
“Todd,” the man next him said darkly, in a deep and haughty baritone. He was tall and well-coiffed, and staring past Quentin like he wasn’t even there. “You know the rules. Your little friend here needs to earn his keep before he gets the good stuff.”
“Come on,” Todd said with a sycophantic smile, looking upward. “I can vouch for him.”
“That’s supposed to move me?” He asked with a snort. “A vouch from the illustrious Todd?”
Quentin’s stomach angrily gutted itself, annoyed at his cruel tone.
Todd, though, in a shocking move, literally bowed. “All homage, of course, to The Party King.”
Curious what could invoke such an absurd reaction, Quentin turned his attention fully at the intruder and his neck automatically pulled back into his shell, like a turtle. He was… unlike anyone Quentin had ever seen before in his entire life. Being a not strictly heterosexual man, his pulse raced slightly as his eyes trailed up a silk vest and shirt, to a pocket-watch casually draped across a broad chest, and up to a defined and handsome face. Quentin swallowed and his lips twitched, but his brain stopped him where he stood:
Out of your league, shithead.
Entirely accurate, he realized, as the man in question sipped the cocktail he’d taken from Quentin possessively, despite the carved flask dangling casually in his other hand. There was both a light and a darkness to him, intoxicating and potent. With unreasonably nonchalant dark, curled hair and striking green-brown eyes, the man held himself like a cigarette in a holder, prim and delicate, yet commanding and bold at the same time. And incidentally, he was also glaring at Todd like he was worth less than a thousand of the worst versions of Quentin inside his fucked up mind’s eye.
“Um, I’m Quentin,” he said, filling the tense, awkward silence, suave as ever.
“Charmed, I’m sure,” the man said, still not making eye contact. Quentin suspected that he was actually entirely un-charmed, but that was nothing new. He shook his head derisively, and pointed Quentin and Todd to the other side of the room. “Fuck off now. You know exactly where the well drinks are.”
Like a glass shattering, Quentin unthinkingly rushed in defense of his new friend.
“You’re not literally a king, you know that, right?” Quentin said, an out-of-body experience. “You can’t just boss people around. Todd lives here too.”
Now, he looked at him. Slowly slitting his eyes over to Quentin, he traced them up and down his whole form, calculating. For a brief moment, his lips formed into a perfect rounded shape and his eyebrows pressed together, leveling Quentin with an inscrutable, intense gaze. It made Quentin’s heart leap into his throat. But then, the man laughed quietly and shook his head, obviously having determined him unimpressive.
“Watch yourself, Todd’s Friend,” he said, like it was the worst thing Quentin could be. “Learn the lay of the land before you declare any wars.”
What the fuck?
“What the fuck?” Quentin said. “Who said anything about war? I’m just advocating for—”
“First years don’t get to advocate shit,” he said, cutting him off lightly, matter-of-factly. “We’ll see if you’re even around in a few weeks. After that, feel free to attempt a dethroning coup. I always enjoy a spectacular suicide mission.”
He smiled and goddamn, Quentin hated himself for the thump in his chest and the unsteadiness in his dizzy legs. He knew guys like this. The city was full of them and typically, Quentin found them exhausting and try-hard. But there was an ease and a magnetism to the man standing before him—a man whose name he didn’t even know, because he’d obviously deemed Quentin far too below him to even offer that slight social courtesy.
Anger re-bubbling in his chest, commingled with the frustration at his own attraction to this total dickhead, Quentin narrowed his eyes and opened his mouth, about to tell this...whoever-the-fuck exactly how spectacular the dethroning would be. It would be a false bravado, of course. Quentin couldn’t dethrone a toilet seat. But it would have felt really good nonetheless.
But before he could speak, Todd grabbed Quentin’s arm urgently, with a nervous laugh, directed right at the man’s bored, beautiful face.
“Sorry, he doesn’t know any better,” Todd said, chastened and pulling Quentin towards the couch, where a few bottles of shitty liquor were stored. “We’ll get out of your hair.”
“Best you do,” the man said, straightening himself up and twisting his mouth into a bitter little smirk. “Au revoir, Todd. Todd’s Friend.”
Turning on the balls of his feet, he glided off, leaving the cocktail on the bar cart, not even half-gone. A power move, if Quentin had ever seen one. Meanwhile, Todd was squirreling into him into the couch, casting his eyes backwards behind his shoulder, watching The Party King’s exit with a visceral anxiety.
“Don’t embarrass me like that again, please,” Todd said, trying to sound intimidating but it came out sweet nonetheless.
“Sorry,” Quentin said with a shrug. “He was just kind of being an asshole.”
“Of course he’s an asshole. He’s earned it,” Todd hissed. “That’s Eliot Waugh.”
Todd said his name like it was supposed to mean something.
“Okay…?” Quentin assumed that Eliot must be one of the notorious hosts of the parties the Cottage was known for. But honestly, his reputation proceeded him more than any of his personal details. And at this point, he wasn’t really sure how interested he was in either aspect of him. Or any aspect of him, he thought, a liar as usual.
“Wow, you have so much to learn,” Todd said, pulling out a bottle of nondescript grocery-store label whiskey; exactly zero magic included. “Drink up and listen…”
And so began Quentin’s introduction to the Cottage, which quickly became his second home, after Julia’s room. He and Todd would sit around the coffee table, playing Magic the Gathering on weekend days while the cool kids slept, and drinking, smoking, dancing anything they could get their hands on during the weekend nights, all between intensive study sessions. Technically speaking, Quentin still wasn’t invited to the parties, but with Todd’s help, they were able to get in once the ragers were, well, raging in earnest, when even the hosts—Eliot and a breathtakingly stunning woman called Margo—were too fucked up to give a shit about their own elitism.
It was a nice change of pace, having a friend of his own. He and Todd didn’t really have a lot in common, but they both gave a shit about things the way nerds were wont to do and it was…nice. Even Julia took a liking to Todd, though she found him a bit “peculiar,” in her words.
“Nice guy for sure,” she said one evening in the library. “Just…can’t put my finger on it. I think he wants to be a lot cooler than he is.”
“Sounds like me,” Quentin said with an eyebrow raise. But Julia shook her head.
“No, you know who you are,” she said firmly. “I think Todd’s still learning. Maybe you can rub off on him a little.”
But most of all, Quentin was becoming more and more at peace with himself, as the days and weeks went by. It was nearing Halloween now, a holiday that Eliot had apparently declared “gauche” and so was uncelebrated on campus. But what Quentin loved about this time of year was the quiet coolness, the still warmth. It was the straddling of seasons, the witching hour of the year. It was built for the solitude his body and heart craved, but his brain never gave him the chance to enjoy and explore. Breathing in the scent of bonfires and fresh air, Quentin settled back against the tree on the quad and opened his book—The Flying Forest—with a relish, the ambient noise and sparkle of magic permeating his soul.
The words flowed over him in their gorgeous familiarity and sunk him into his favorite world so entirely, that he didn’t even notice the warm body next to him until he flipped a page and caught a sudden glimpse of svelte, bare legs pressed up against his jeans. Jumping, he almost dropped his book as he realized that Margo Hanson was reading over his shoulder.
“Um, can I help you?” He asked, instinctually closing the book in on itself, so she couldn’t see. But she rolled her eyes at his startle and clicked her tongue against her top teeth, forcefully plucking the book out from his hands.
“What’s this?” She asked, flipping it over itself. “A second edition?”
“Yeah, it’s, uh, it’s a second edition from the American run, post-war,” he said, before biting his tongue and shaking his head. “Not that you care about that.”
“Not about the publishing details, no,” Margo said, opening the book. “But these books are…”
“Nerdy bullshit, I know,” Quentin said, snatching it back. Her eyes widened.
“I was going to say my absolute favorites.” She crossed her arms. “You don’t enjoy them?”
“Enjoy them?” Quentin laughed. “I’m like…a total fanboy, I guess, you’d call it.”
“Well, my social calendar hasn’t allowed me to read a book for pleasure in a little bit,” she said, pushing her hair behind her shoulders, her clavicle displayed with a small amount of shimmer. She was The Party Queen here and everywhere. “But when I saw you, I was struck with so much fucking nostalgia that I had to intrude.”
Quentin gave her a thin smile and a nod before trying to turn back to his story. He was a little uncertain what he could possibly have to say to Margo.
“Which one’s your favorite?” She obviously didn’t have the same problem regarding Quentin. “Of the series, I mean.”
“That’s like asking me to pick between my children.”
She laughed, almost genuinely, “Wow, you are a fuckin’ nerd. Okay, then, Sophie’s Choice me. Gun’s at your head.”
Margo brought her pointer and middle finger together, then cocked her thumb like a trigger. She pressed her long nails against Quentin’s temple and he was suddenly struck with the absurdity of the situation. Margo was everything vivacious, dangerous, and thrilling about Magic school. She'd never spoken to him before tonight and never even looked at him. For the most part, she hung off Eliot's arm like his favorite trophy and the two of them were a true force to be reckoned with. Quentin hated cliches, generally speaking, but the one about being the girl every guy wanted to be with and every girl wanted to be was never more aptly applied. And yet, here she was, forcing him to talk about his one true passion in life, the nerdy, childlike Fillory series, like she actually cared what Quentin Coldwater had to say on the subject. It was actually kind of funny, really.
“Uh, fine,” he said, a smile forming against his will. “I guess the first one. It’s iconic. Introduces the world. And it’s just, um, the one that makes my soul feel like it’s on fire whenever I read the first lines.”
“That’s cute,” she said, bringing her lips together into a smirk. “You’re cute. But you don’t know it, huh?”
“Cute’s a subjective term, I guess,” he said with a shrug and she barked a loud laugh.
“Jesus, okay. Wow,” she shook her head and bit the inside of her cheek. “How do I know you? You look familiar.”
“Well, we go to the same school—”
“A smartass too,” she punched his shoulder a little and Quentin was struck with the strange, weird sensation that she was flirting with him. “But seriously, where have I seen you?”
“Uh, I sometimes come to the Cottage parties, with my friend Todd.”
Then, her eyes flew open and her mouth dropped open, like she’d just won a jackpot. Her open mouth curved up into something like a smile and she appraised him, like she was now interested in each and every part of his features. Quentin swallowed in embarrassment, his cheeks turning slightly pink under her steady gaze before she laughed a little bit. She put her hands on her hips and nodded.
“Oh my god, you’re Todd’s Friend,” she said with a wave of recognition. “I have seen you. And I’ve definitely heard of you. Repeatedly.”
“That can’t be good,” Quentin muttered and Margo pulled her lips down noncommittally.
“Hmm,” she said, twisting a strand of hair around her pointer finger. Then she squinted her eyes, a small laugh on her lips. “Why the fuck are you friends with Todd?”
“Okay, what the hell?” Quentin slammed his book shut and fixed a glare at her pretty face. “Why is there, like, this vendetta against Todd?”
“Vendetta?” She laughed, but Quentin ignored her.
“He’s a nice person. Todd’s actually, um, the only person who’s gone out of his way to be kind to me at this place, other than my best friend,” he said, crossing his arms. “And yeah, he’s a little bit of a brown-noser with that Eliot guy, but it’s not the worst thing. People should chill the fuck out.”
“That Eliot guy,” she repeated, a sly smile on her face, seemingly disregarding everything else he’d said.
“Yeah, tall, wears vests, kind of a dick?” Quentin knew that Margo knew who Eliot was, obviously, no shit. But it was beside the point.
“I know him,” she said simply. “He’s the one who told me all about you. Ad-fuckin’-nauseum.”
That was...strange information. Eliot had barely glanced sideways at him since their first interaction and he certainly never gave any indication that he gave three shits about anything Quentin Coldwater related.
“Wait, what?” He blinked. “I didn’t think I made that much of an impression.”
“Well, new boys don’t usually challenge him. Falling in line is status quo,” she leaned forward into him, all sex and glamour. “You’re quite the Brave Little Toaster, huh?”
“If social ostracism is the only consequence, I’ve been there, done that,” Quentin said dryly. “Even ‘The Party King’ can’t do any, um, actually damaging shit to me. And—and that is a really corny nickname, by the way.”
“Please call him corny to his face. I’d fucking die for it.”
“I have a feeling you aren’t totally motivated by my well being here,” he said with an eye roll and a grip at his messenger bag.
“No, definitely not,” she laughed harder but then tilted her head, taking him in, softer. “So okay, what is your name then?”
“Quentin,” he said, breathing out, averting his eyes. She was far too discerning and intense for his preference. But then, she extended her hand.
“Nice to meet you, Quentin,” she said. “I’m Margo.”
“Of course you do. You’re welcome to hang with me anytime,” she said as Quentin took her hand in his and shook it firmly. She smiled like a sphinx. “And that’s a big fuckin’ offer, so don’t waste it.”
“Um, okay,” he said and she laughed.
“We’re gonna have fun, Quentin,” she said, with a wink. He gulped, not sure if it was a promise or a threat.
“So, uh, which one is your favorite?” Off her confused look, he clarified. “Of the Fillory Books.”
“That one,” she said, pointing down at the book on his lap with a smile. “I know I’m supposed to have a total clit-on for Jane Chatwin, but I always identified more with Rupert. And The Flying Forest really gets into the nitty-gritty of his kingship…”
And as they talked over the next hour about the through-line of the series, female representation, and whether the talking animals ever fucked outside of their own species, Quentin slowly, quickly made his second new friend.