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For Eliot, the influx of first-years into the Physical Kids’ cottage always brought chaos along with the bright and shiny new sexual opportunities, and it also always brought at least one problem child.

This year the problem child was Quentin Coldwater. Always trying to hide his face behind his long brown hair, always looking around as if expecting to be the butt of some joke at any moment, and always frowning slightly unless teased into a hesitant smile that clearly begged, “Please don’t kick me,” he simply radiated raw nerves.

Margo told Eliot to just ignore the boy and let him find his own way, but Eliot simply couldn’t deal with the amount of constant anxiety the twitchy boy exuded in his vicinity, in his own abode for fuck’s sake! And so he developed a plan. He called it the Calm Q Contrivance, and he was determined to reduce the boy to a bearable level of stress so that those around him—namely, Eliot—weren’t constantly affected.

First he plied the boy with alcohol, but it seemed to only make him maudlin. At their parties, Quentin usually started out gamely enough, obviously trying to have a good time despite his nerves, but after a few drinks he spent most of his time sitting alone, staring at the floor, his face barely visible behind his curtain of hair.

He offered drugs, but Quentin rejected them in no uncertain terms. “I get side effects from almost everything,” he insisted. Eliot decided to sneak him a little relaxing something in his drink one night, and Quentin ended up sleeping for nearly three days, curled up on the loveseat in the common room like a vulnerable young animal, making occasional bird-like noises of distress.

Eliot didn’t try drugs on him again after that monumental failure.

He tried a couple of different spells, but they seemed to leave Quentin basically a walking zombie, which was considerably more disturbing than the twitchiness.

Despite the child’s anxious demeanor—or perhaps because of it—he and Margo took him under their considerable social wingspan. Confused Quentin often found himself sat with Margo on one side and Eliot on the other, being regaled with amusing anecdotes about the best parties from past years, particularly successful pranks, and other tales of enjoyable times past. At first, Quentin sat stiff as a poker between them on the sofa whenever this happened, as if certain he had only unintentionally been included, but when they sat with him more and more often, he began to relax by minute degrees.

Well, “relax” might not be the correct term, because the poor boy didn’t seem to understand the concept. But he did begin to drop the occasional comment or question into the conversation, as if no longer afraid of being noticed and ejected from his place on the sofa.

 

Eliot walked into the common room one afternoon, returning from a class if that could be believed, and simply threw himself down on the sofa in a snit. Attending classes always put him in a mood, which was why he tried to do it as rarely as possible.

He didn’t care, of course, that Margo and Quentin were already sitting on the sofa when he collapsed upon it, and so he found himself with his knees bent over Margo lovely thighs, and his head in Quentin’s lap. Quentin looked rather startled, frozen with his hand holding his book far off to the side as if he had been afraid it might collide with Eliot’s head as he landed.

That was really quite sweet, actually.

Margo patted his knee and cooed, “Went to seminar, did we?”

Eliot heaved a sigh of absolute disgust. “Yes. Distract me, Bambi?”

Margo looked over at Quentin and said, “Give him a scalp massage.”

“Wh-what?” the boy stuttered, still holding his book away at an odd angle.

“A scalp massage,” Margo repeated slowly, as if speaking to someone of extremely limited intelligence. “You know, where you put your fingers in someone’s hair and rub your fingertips against their head.” She lifted her magazine again, adding casually, “It always calms him down when he’s being a drama queen like this.”

“But I was … I mean … I have reading … there’s an assignment…” Quentin stammered, glancing between Margo and Eliot in an absolute explosion of nervous confusion.

“Oh for fuck’s sake,” Margo groaned, rolling her eyes. “I didn’t tell you to give him a hand job or anything.” She stopped and thought, then smirked impishly. “Though I suppose that is one way this could be described.” She and Eliot both laughed.

Quentin did not.

Margo sobered. “I just told you to rub his scalp. Surely you can manage something that simple?”

Quentin sat frozen, then repeated, “But … my book…”

Margot rolled her eyes again, letting her head fall back against the sofa. “Forget the fucking book! No one cares if you do the reading.” Quentin pulled the book close and clutched it tightly to his chest. Margo sighed. “Fine. I’ll spell the book to turn the page whenever you want to. That’ll leave you with one hand free to massage Eliot’s damn scalp so he doesn’t stay in this bitchy mood all night.”

Eliot felt hesitant fingers slide into his hair and touch his head only very lightly, then move in very small circling motions. “Is that … is that okay?” Quentin asked. Eliot gazed up at him, and the boy’s brow was furrowed in obvious expectation of harsh criticism.

“It’s lovely,” Eliot crooned, smiling and closing his eyes. “Just a little more pressure. You can move your hands more than that.” When Quentin gained a bit of confidence and began sinking his hands properly into Eliot’s hair, fingers pressing and rubbing in a deliriously wonderful way. Eliot opened his eyes to mere slits and looked up at Quentin again. The wrinkles in his brow had smoothed out, and he’d gone back to reading his book, his hand in Eliot’s hair continuing its ministrations as if unconsciously.

Eliot wasn’t sure how long he lay there, but he did vaguely notice when Margo lifted his legs to climb out from beneath him. “Nerd lover,” she mouthed at him as she left with a smirk. Eliot just closed his eyes again and felt his whole body relax. Quentin was far more skilled at this than Margo, regardless of the boy’s uncertainty and lack of experience.

And then he gradually became aware of something. He wasn’t the only one who had relaxed. The thighs beneath his head were pliant, the hand in his hair languorous, and when Eliot opened his eyes he saw a face above him that he wasn’t sure he’d ever seen before: Quentin’s face in complete relaxation. No furrowed eyebrows, no forehead wrinkles, no tight-lipped attempt at a cringing smile. Just … Quentin. In repose.

And he was really … quite beautiful.

Eliot had noticed him even that first day, of course, and found the awkward little nerdling attractive in his own little nerdling way, but … none of his previous first-year conquests had caused this sort of feeling in his heart. Well, he didn’t really do feelings, in general… that was the purpose of the alcohol and drugs. Keep the feelings at bay.

But right now, the feelings were actually surprisingly pleasant.

He watched Quentin Coldwater, reading his book, completely absorbed in its contents, as his hand began to not so much massage but rather stroke Eliot’s hair, as if Eliot were a cat curled up in his lap. And Eliot found that he rather felt like a contented feline being petted.

He’d always been a very tactile person, but no one besides Margo had ever treated him with such gentle fondness. At least, it felt like fondness. Quentin wasn’t even aware he was doing it, so it probably didn’t indicate anything about his feelings for Eliot…

His feelings for Eliot? Why was Eliot worrying about Quentin’s feelings for him? He wasn’t, of course. That would be ridiculous.

But he did feel quite smug that he had accidentally happened upon the solution to Quentin Coldwater’s anxiety problem.

Quentin Coldwater simply needed his hands in Eliot’s hair.

And he’d read somewhere that people who stroked their furry pets lived longer lives than those who didn’t. So if stroking Eliot’s hair had a similar effect, then he was actually lengthening Quentin’s lifespan as well as reducing his anxiety. He was improving Quentin’s life in two ways simultaneously. Quite virtuous, actually … not a word Eliot applied to himself often, if at all.

And so he began tossing himself onto sofas at every opportunity to present his head for stroking and massaging. Quentin laughed now whenever Eliot did it. Eliot purposely nudged Quentin’s hand as a pet might, demanding attention, and Quentin always rolled his eyes … but he also always obliged. He’d learned the spell himself now, so he would spell his own book to turn the pages as necessary, and he would card the fingers of his free hand through Eliot’s curls and along his scalp, making Eliot want to purr like the giant cat he imagined himself to be.

“What is your new obsession with scalp massages?” Quentin asked one day with that soft, relaxed look on his face as he ran his fingers through Eliot’s hair, not even giving a massage so much as just gliding his fingers through the strands of dark curls, and Eliot didn’t even care that he would need to go upstairs and restyle his hair completely afterward because Quentin was utterly destroying the artfully tousled look Eliot preferred and was instead causing an actually tousled look, which wasn’t at all the same thing.

“You’re just so dreadfully talented with your hands, Q,” Eliot replied with a smirk, making Quentin blush. But he didn’t stop what he was doing, and that was the important thing.

--

The largest sofa became Eliot and Quentin’s space. When they entered the room, students would move from the couch to other chairs and sofas in the room, as they should when Eliot wanted a seat somewhere in particular. Eliot always playfully pushed Quentin onto one end of the sofa and then threw himself down to lay his head in Quentin’s lap and demand the boy’s massage attentions.

“I’m not your cabana boy,” Quentin chuckled one day, but Eliot simply pressed his head into Quentin’s fingers more insistently.

“Service me, cabana boy,” Eliot responded, primarily to hear Quentin’s laugh again. “And fan me with some palm fronds when you’re done with my hair.” Quentin giggled, and it was the best sound ever.

--

Sometimes Q seemed to lose interest in whatever book he was reading and set it aside, pushing both hands into Eliot’s hair and giving him a more thorough massage and more thorough attention to his increasingly messy curls, tugging and pulling on them occasionally. Eliot tried to contain the humiliating sounds of appreciation that bubbled up in his chest at those times, but he wasn’t always successful. He often saw Margo watching from across the room with a fond, mocking look on her face, but he didn’t care. Let Margo make fun of him for enjoying having his hair played with. This was heaven.

“You put … stuff in your hair? Right?” Quentin asked one evening as they lay in their usual position on the sofa with Q’s hands both toying with Eliot’s hair rather than paying any attention to any sort of massage or class reading. Q sounded genuinely puzzled by the concept.

Eliot rolled his eyes in disbelief at the child’s ignorance. “It’s called product, dear boy, and all civilized mammals use it to make themselves presentable.”

“What’s your hair like without it?”

Eliot shuddered. “As if I would reveal such a deeply personal piece of information.”

But one morning a week or so later, Eliot came downstairs in blue-and-white striped pyjama pants and a Japanese-style flowered silk robe. He found Quentin reading in one of the chairs in the common room and took him by the hand, insistently pulling him up to Eliot’s room, which he could tell confused Quentin terribly.

“Sit on the bed,” Eliot told him, “and wait. I’m going to take a shower.” Quentin’s eyebrows rose toward his hairline. “Oh, don’t get your hopes up, Q,” Eliot smirked. “Just wait a few minutes.” Eliot showered, washed his hair, and then blow-dried it into its natural waves instead of his usual artfully-styled fall of curls. He collapsed on the bed, rolled his head into Quentin’s lap, and prompted, “Well, go on then.”

“Go on and … what?” Quentin seemed genuinely puzzled.

“Get your fingers in there and feel for yourself. I’m giving you a rare opportunity to experience the sensation that is naked Eliot Waugh hair. Complete lack of product. Don’t waste this honor I bestow upon you.”

Q laughed and sunk both hands into Eliot’s hair, focusing more on the hair than Eliot’s scalp this time, obviously relishing this rare chance. “It feels different,” he commented. “Softer.” He twined strands around his fingers and then rubbed his hands over it to messed it up just because he could, which made Eliot laugh with the silliness of it. He ran both hands through Eliot’s hair for far longer than Eliot would have thought anyone would find such an activity remotely interesting. “Thank you,” Q eventually said as he stroked Eliot’s hair down into some semblance of order again. “Thank you for trusting me with your real hair. With the real you.” And he leaned down and pressed a soft kiss to Eliot’s forehead, and when Eliot looked up at him, seeing him sort of sideways and upside down, Q’s cheeks were pink. Eliot wondered what his own face looked like.

--

It was at one of the famous Physical Kid parties that it all went wrong. A drunk third-year heard Quentin in conversation with Eliot, heard him refer to Eliot as his friend. The drunk guy—Tom or Tim or something, he was boring and so Eliot had never bothered to learn his name—interrupted with a laugh. “Man, really?” He giggled into his martini. “You never figured it out? I can’t believe this.” From behind Quentin’s back, Eliot gestured desperately at the drunken idiot, but there was no stopping him now that he’d butted into their conversation. “This dude was so annoyed by you at the start of the semester that he spent months letting you mess up his hair just to keep you from moping around the place and bringing us all down.” The guy sloshed his drink and laughed again. “I mean, this is the party house, you know? Can’t have some loser ruining the fun.”

Quentin turned to look at Eliot, and his mouth was slightly open in an expression of shock and dismay. “You … I annoyed you? And so you did this as some sort of … experiment or something? To get me to stop being such a loser?” He sounded like he didn’t want to believe it but couldn’t help the blow to his chronically low self-esteem.

Eliot reached out, but Quentin avoided his hand. “You just seemed so anxious all the time!” Eliot rapidly tried to explain. “I wanted something to relax you. And, you know, the whiskey didn’t help, and you slept when I slipped you the drugs, and … well ... you seemed to like my hair … it seemed to calm you down … and so it seemed like … a good idea … at the time…”

Quentin nodded, but it wasn’t in any kind of agreement. “So everyone has just been laughing at me this whole time? The first-year who thought you were his friend, but really you were just doing the whole house a service by keeping me from dragging down everyone’s fun with my inconvenient anxiety problem?”

“It wasn’t like that!” Eliot insisted, even as he realized it sort of had been like that, and his entire body went cold with shame.

Quentin’s face, a mess of crumpled wrinkles and furrows Eliot hadn’t seen since the start of the semester, now stared at him in humiliated fury. “I can’t believe you did that! I can’t believe you … you manipulated me like that. I thought you actually liked me! And all along you were just making me into some kind of joke. I actually thought … I thought you...” He turned his head away, swiped at his eyes, and then looked back at Eliot with a face utterly destroyed. “Okay. Joke’s on me. Ha ha. Well, you don’t have to waste any of your time. I’ll just stay away from you, stay away from the cottage, so none of you have to deal with my inconvenient little emotional issues.”

Quentin turned to walk away, but Eliot reached out to put a hand on his arm. “Wait … Q…”

“No, don’t even talk to me.” Quentin shrugged off Eliot’s hand and ran from the room.

--

Quentin kept his word. Eliot almost never saw him in the cottage the last two weeks of the semester. He would only occasionally catch glimpses of him rushing across campus with his bookbag slung across his body, head down and shoulders slumped.

And even when Quentin did come to the cottage to eat or sleep, he would stand, no matter what he was doing, and leave if Eliot walked into the room. One time, he was in the middle of eating a bowl of cereal at the kitchen counter, and he simply walked away, leaving cornflakes to grow soggy in a bowl of abandoned milk.

Eliot stood there, looking at the milk, and felt equally abandoned. He wasn’t used to feeling this way. Eliot Waugh was above all that sort of thing. The … feeling … thing. And if there was abandoning to be done, then Eliot Waugh was the one who would do it.

He certainly wasn’t accustomed to feeling abandoned by first-year nerdlings who no longer wanted to put their hands in his hair.

He certainly wasn’t accustomed to feeling abandoned by a first-year nerdling who now walked around the campus with shoulders hunched and face furrowed into lines of anxiety … just like those first few weeks of the semester. Those weeks before Eliot had found the solution.

But it hadn’t just turned out to be a solution to Quentin’s anxiety problems. It had been more than that.

Eliot lay awake at night in his bed and remembered that sunny morning when Quentin had sat there, laughing, running both his hands through Eliot’s product-free hair, happily caressing the soft waves before digging his fingers in and really pulling the wavy strands and rubbing his fingertips into Eliot’s scalp. He’d delighted in gathering handfuls of Eliot’s clean hair and tugging on them slightly to make Eliot sigh, because the slight pressure of the tugging felt so incredibly good.

Quentin had even squirmed his fingers under Eliot’s head and through the thickness of his hair so that his fingertips rested at the base of Eliot’s skull. “Just relax,” Quentin had said. “I got a massage once, which totally did not help me relax by the way, but they told me the best way to really get to the muscles here was to let the weight of your head relax onto someone’s fingers. So just let your head drop. I’ve got you.”

And Eliot had lain there in that sunshiny bed, freshly showered, blissfully happy, and completely trusting as this little first-year nerd had cradled his head in his hands ... his amazingly graceful, strong, beloved fingers pressing into the base of Eliot’s skull and relaxing him…

‘Beloved’? Where had that word come from? He didn’t love Quentin Coldwater, the nerd obsessed with fantasy books and getting his homework assignments done on time.

Eliot Waugh didn’t love anyone. Well, except for Margo, but that was different.

The next time he saw Quentin afterward was like being struck by lightning, because he saw that sad, anxious face speeding away from him behind a curtain of long brown hair and the feeling hit him with an undeniable force.

He’d gone and fallen in love with the little creep.

Holy fuck this was bad. He wasn’t sure if he should talk to Margo about it, because he knew she would laugh at him for days if she knew, but he wasn’t sure what else to do.

“I’m in deep shit,” he told her one night when they were alone in front of the fireplace in the common room. They were sharing some brandy and had both already gotten quite drunk, drunk enough that almost everything seemed funny. Margo was smiling that fond, happy smile she had whenever she looked at him when they were sharing secrets like naughty children.

She rolled her eyes and laughed. “What have you done now?”

“Oh Bambi,” he groaned. “It’s … I don’t even know if I can even tell you. It’s horrific.”

That sobered her up. Well, not physically, but she definitely sat up a little straighter and met his gaze. “What is it, El?”

“I’ve…” God, could he actually say it? “I’ve fallen in love with someone.”

As expected, Margo laughed. “I’ve gotta hear more about this. Is it that blond fourth-year who’s been giving you the eye all semester?”

“What blond fourth-year?” Eliot asked in utter confusion.

Margo’s eyebrow went up. “Well, if you haven’t noticed him, then you are definitely gone on this other person, whoever they are.” She leveled a serious stare at him, looking him straight in the eye. “Who is it, El?”

Eliot ran a hand through his hair, but that only reminded him of Quentin. “It’s Q,” he said before he could lose his nerve.

“It’s who?” Margo asked in disbelief.

“It’s Q!” Eliot repeated more loudly, frustrated, then looked anxiously around the room as if some other student might be lurking to overhear.

“Let me get this straight,” Margo began, looking a bit more sober but still slurring her words a bit. “You’ve fallen in love with the little nerd boy who annoyed the fuck out of you at the beginning of the semester. The one you’ve been forcing to give you scalp massages like your own personal servant for the past two months.”

Eliot put his face in his hands. “I know. It’s an absolute tragedy. A horrible black mark on my long-standing record as an unrepentant libertine.”

“Yeah,” Margo said dryly. “You should be embarrassed. Jesus, El! What were you thinking?”

“I wasn’t thinking!” he replied defensively. “I was just … he had his hands in my hair … and it felt good … he’s got good hands … and he’s actually quite sweet when you get to know him…”

“You think he’s ‘sweet’?” Margo asked. She said it like it was a four-letter word … except that she tossed around what were commonly referred to as “four-letter” words quite liberally and this instead sounded foreign in her mouth. Eliot had to admit that he wasn’t sure if he’d ever heard her refer to someone as “sweet.”

Actually, no. He abruptly sat up, which caused him to slide off his chair onto the floor, no doubt giving his ass an impressive bruise that would confuse him in the morning. “You called him ‘sweet,’ too,” he accused her.

“I did not!” Margo objected, pressing a hand to her chest in affronted denial.

“You did! You called him a ‘sweet little nerdy loser’ only a week after we met him, back at the beginning of the semester.” Eliot glared at her. “This is all your fault. I never would have ended up in this situation if you hadn’t called him ‘sweet’ three months ago.”

“Don’t you go blaming this on me, mister,” Margo proclaimed, wagging a finger at him. “I take no responsibility for your abject humiliation and violation of everything we stand for. What happened to the arrogance? The utter disregard for anyone but ourselves? The pride, Eliot! What happened to your pride?”

Eliot let his head fall back to rest on the cushioned bottom of the chair he’d fallen from. Staring at the cottage ceiling, he murmured helplessly, “I fell in love.”

--

When they got back from spring break, Q was different. He didn’t leave a room when Eliot arrived—he simply stared past him. Or, if Eliot stood in his line of sight and he couldn’t avoid it, he simply gave a tight, obviously fake smile, and then his face would turn completely bland, as if Eliot did not matter in the slightest.

He’d never looked bland when he looked at Eliot before. He’d never looked so much like he didn’t care.

Even before Eliot had fallen—quite literally—upon the tactic of having Quentin’s hands in his hair as an anti-anxiety method, even when they had merely been vaguely friendly during those first few weeks, Quentin had always lit up when Eliot was around.

Eliot had never noticed it before. Never noticed it until it was gone.

Maybe because he was, not to be immodest, rather accustomed to having that effect on the naive young first-years. Quentin Coldwater’s reaction to Eliot hadn’t seemed special at the time. Now he’d give anything to get it back, to see that excitement back in Q’s eyes when Eliot looked at him.

“Q,” he begged, and Eliot never begged, so this was a serious step down on the dignity scale. “Q, I need to talk to you.”

But Quentin only shrugged at him and walked away. “I don’t care what you need,” he said without looking back.

--

Sometimes, when no one conveniently willing and eager was around to vent his feelings on, Eliot would lie in bed at night with one hand tight in his hair and the other working under the blankets, and he would remember.

--

“This has got to stop.” Margo put her face right in front of his, blocking his view of Quentin reading in the common room’s nook. “You are mooning after this kid like you’re the one who’s a fucking first-year. Worse than when you actually were a first-year, because at least then you already had style and a more than healthy ego. It’s beyond embarrassing now and venturing into fucking pathetic.”

Eliot swallowed and looked away. “I don’t know what to do, Bambi. He won’t even look at me.”

“Then go bang every other guy on the campus and forget his fucking hair-loving ass.”

Eliot rolled his eyes. “You think I haven’t tried that? I’ve given and gotten more blow jobs in the last month than I do in a usual year. And that’s not a small number, as you very well know.” He looked down at his hands in his lap. “It doesn’t help.” He looked back into Margo’s eyes. “I’m fucking in love with him, Margo! Can’t you understand that?”

“No,” she replied flatly. “I can’t. I’ve never had the misfortune. But you can’t keep swooning around here like a Victorian heroine. Pretty soon I’m going to be embarrassed to be seen with you, and you’re basically the only friend I have, so I’m not going to let that happen.” She heaved a dramatic sigh. “Just tell him.” She sounded as if the words pained her.

“He doesn’t care,” Eliot replied. “He won’t even look at me anymore.”

Margo put her hands on his shoulders, staring at him intently. “That means he does care, you idiot! If he really didn’t care, he’d be talking to you like he used to, back at the beginning of last semester. He’d be acting normal, or whatever passes for normal in Quentinland.” She collapsed into the chair beside him and said quietly, so no one else would hear her, “He still cares, El. He probably cares as much as you do. You just have to pull up your big girl panties and pussy up.”

Eliot looked at her in horror.

“Yep. You have to go to him and make him listen. You might even have to grovel a little, if you even know how to do that. God knows I don’t. But you might have to learn. If it’ll turn you back into my fucking best friend instead of this emo loser you’ve become, it’s worth it.” She paused, then added, “Just make sure nobody else sees you do it.”

--

Eliot spent weeks watching Quentin, but Q always made sure they weren’t alone. If they were, Q would leave the room in a nonchalant way, as if it had nothing to do with Eliot’s presence.

It wasn’t until a night when Eliot couldn’t sleep, tormented by dreams of warm fingers in his hair, gentle fingertips against his scalp, and a soft, smiling face looking down at him beside a waterfall of brown hair, that it happened. He wandered down into the common room in search of a strong drink, anything to shut up his stupid brain, and saw Quentin hidden in the nook, his knees pulled up so he took up as little space as possible, like he always did when he was unhappy.

Obviously noticing Eliot enter the room, Q slouched back into the pillows as if attempting to become invisible, but Eliot had spotted him and both of them knew it. Eliot really wanted that drink, now more than ever, but he knew if he wandered as far as the bar, Quentin would make his escape. He was reading a book, probably one of the Fillory ones that he said always made him feel safe because they reminded him of his childhood. Why would Quentin be feeling a need to feel safe? Was it … maybe because of Eliot?

Maybe because Margo was right, and Quentin did have feelings for him, and was so hurt by what he’d heard at that party that he wasn’t willing to give Eliot a chance?

Well, if that was even a remote possibility, then it was time for Eliot to follow Margo’s advice—she was usually right anyway—and pull up his big girl panties and pussy up.

“Hey,” Eliot said, trying to sound casual as he walked slowly toward the nook, trailing his finger along the top of the back of one of the overstuffed leather chairs.

“Um … hey,” Quentin replied, because he never outright behaved rudely to Eliot. He would answer a direct question, and, apparently, a direct greeting.

“What are you doing awake?” Eliot asked, coming closer to the nook. Quentin was starting to look a little panicked, his eyes darting around as if he was seeking an escape route.

“Uh … couldn’t sleep … so I thought I’d read for a while…” Quentin’s voice trailed off, but Eliot found it encouraging, because he’d given more than the simplest possible answer. He’d elaborated on it a bit, which seemed promising. Or maybe Eliot was just incredibly desperate for any hint of hope.

He bit his lip, then tried to regain some sense of dignity. He was Eliot Waugh, for god’s sake, even if he was in love with a ridiculous nerd. He had a reputation to uphold, as sorry and threadbare though it might be. He stood up a little straighter. If he was going to say the things he needed to say, he was going to need all the confidence he could muster. He lifted his chin slightly.

“Want some company?” he asked, knowing that the answer was a humongous no, but also knowing that Quentin was unlikely to blatantly refuse, since that would be rude, and Quentin had been working very very hard to avoid being directly rude to Eliot since the new semester and his new blank attitude had begun.

Quentin looked even more panicked, whether it was because of the question or because Eliot continued to approach, Eliot wasn’t quite sure, but he didn’t actually reply.

Eliot got to the nook and hesitantly sat down on the edge of the seat. He hated that hesitation in himself, but couldn’t help it. God, what was he doing? Why was he listening to Margo? She was obviously wrong. He watched with a heavy heart as Quentin pulled his bare feet further away from where Eliot had sat down, huddling into an even smaller ball of anxiety. Quentin was wearing plaid pyjama bottoms with a faded gray t-shirt. They were both in their pyjamas with bare feet, the room dimly lit and silent behind them, and it somehow made the moment even more intimate.

“I’ve been wanting to talk to you,” Eliot started, then cleared his throat.

“Could it wait until … you know … daytime?” Quentin asked quickly.

“No,” Eliot replied, “because it’s … something private.”

Quentin looked even more panicked if that was possible. “I really don’t think…”

Eliot reached out and stroked a finger along the silky fall of Quentin’s hair where it hung beside his face, and Q jumped as if he’d been shocked by a cattle prod. “What … what are you doing?”

“I never really touched your hair,” Eliot said softly. “You had your hands in my hair so many times, but I never really touched yours.” He paused, working up his courage even more. “I’ve thought about that a lot lately. Since … since that party.”

Quentin’s face went cold and hard. “Since I found out, you mean. About your stupid plan, about you manipulating me.”

“It might have started out that way,” Eliot admitted reluctantly, “but I always liked you. That was never pretend. Margo and I liked you from the very start.” He swallowed again. Jesus. Had he always had this much saliva in his mouth? Because it felt like he needed to swallow every two seconds, and there was an uncomfortable lump in his throat, and this all sucked so hard that he couldn’t even find the words to describe it. But maybe … maybe it might work? Maybe Margo was right? Well, he couldn’t stop now. “And … I liked it … your hands in my hair. I liked it more than I told you … I mean, I never really told you at all, I just kept making you do it … but I liked it. And I’ve missed it. It wasn’t just about calming your anxiety. It wasn’t, Q.”

Quentin looked confused now, but he’d stopped pressing into the pillows quite so hard, and that seemed like a good sign. Eliot took a chance and stroked Q’s hair a little more assertively, starting at the top of his head and sliding his fingers down, slipping them slightly between the strands, until he got to the ends and played with them, lingering, not wanting to let go. He looked at Q’s face and it looked softer than he’d seen it in weeks, months, years. Something inside Eliot started to loosen and it felt like he could breathe again.

“Do you think … would you be willing to give me … us … a chance? Not just the hair thing, I mean.” He found himself stumbling over his words, and Quentin actually smiled, even huffed out a bit of air in what sounded possibly like a laugh.

Eliot slid his hand into Q’s hair more fully now, along the side of his head and behind his ear, feeling how the silky strands slid against his hand and wrist, wondering why he’d never tried this before, and Quentin closed his eyes, leaning into the touch. Eliot pushed his hands through Quentin’s hair, stroking it and tugging slightly, and Quentin smiled without opening his eyes. “No wonder you liked this so much.” This time it was Eliot’s turn to laugh softly.

“It always felt so good when you stroked my hair, when you touched my scalp … it felt … intimate. So much more intimate than sex, in its own way.” He blinked. “Not that I’m saying I don’t want sex, of course. Because sex definitely isn’t off the table if you wanted to…”

“The hair thing is good for now, El,” Quentin interrupted Eliot’s frantic ramble, opening his eyes, and he had the little crinkle at the sides of his eyes that Eliot knew meant he was happy, and the rest of his face was more relaxed than Eliot had seen it in what felt like forever. And then Q was reaching out, leaning forward so that he could push his hands, both hands, into Eliot’s hair on either side of his head, and he whispered, “I’ve missed this, too.” He pulled Eliot’s head just very gently toward him, and Eliot knew an invitation when one was presented to him. He slid his hand down beneath that horrible unkempt unstyled beautiful long hair to the nape of Q’s neck to pull him forward into a kiss. Their first kiss, actually, which seemed ridiculous after all this time, but Q’s lips were soft and opened beneath his almost immediately, the heat flaring up between them even though Eliot was leaning over at a ridiculously odd angle over Q’s knees. Q’s fingers tightened in Eliot’s hair as they kissed, and Eliot moaned.

“You’re sure about the sex?” Eliot joked when they slowly pulled apart, and this time Quentin laughed a real laugh, like he used to when Eliot’s head was in his lap and he had his hands in Eliot’s hair and Eliot said something funny and they were close and warm and together. Because they were again. After all this time, they were again.