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I'll Follow My Secret Heart

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When Quentin walks back into the great room, following his ears, he finds the tinny strains of music coming from a contraption under the frost-covered windows. The hand-crank Victrola record player with its cone-shaped attachment.

He sees that Eliot has unrolled the sleeping bag on the area rug in front of the fireplace and is lying on top of it, all six-foot-something of him, with his eyes closed. “Oh my god,” Quentin says, mostly to himself, in case Eliot is sleeping. “This thing works?”

“I’m awake,” Eliot says. “Just resting my eyes. Visiting memory lane in my mind.” He sits up and rests his back against the front of the couch. He looks impish with the dancing firelight flickering across his features. Even bruised and swollen, his face is full of mischief and something else unnamable that gives Quentin a thrill. A way of looking at Quentin, maybe, like he’s interested even after all these hours have gone by.

The song that’s playing is a theatrical ballad from the 1920s or something. It’s not his go-to genre by a long shot, but he likes the wistful mood of the song. Lyrics to do with keeping one’s hopes and dreams a secret. The net effect is more romantic than melancholy.

“It’s nice.” Quentin sinks down onto the empty couch, his knees next to Eliot’s shoulder. He picks up the empty sleeping bag sleeve and peers inside. “I meant for you to take the couch. It’s more comfortable than the floor. And I swear I thought there would be two sleeping bags in this case.”

“Nope. One bag, double-wide. Looks like we’re getting cozy after all.” They both look at the sleeping bag, which is a wide trapezoid shape and made of some kind of shiny high-tech material that keeps heat in.  

“I can go look for—” He shakes his head. His brain is currently overwhelmed with a surprise backlog of there was only one bed fantasies that he wasn’t even aware were in his subconscious. “Um.”

“Psh. It’ll be warmer this way. And I promise I don’t bite. Not without advance consent.”  

Yeah, that tracks. He’s envisioned those exact words or their near synonyms dozens of times. He tries not to think about what that says about him. Objectively, he knows Eliot is right about shared body heat and all. And maybe it’s also a ruse, but he’s happy to play along. More adventurous, more optimistic—wasn’t that his resolution?

The wind whistles past, sending ice particles rattling against the windows.

“I can’t believe you got that thing to work,” he says, about the rickety Victrola. He can see dim light glinting off the old vinyl record as it turns.

“It’s Noël Coward,” Eliot says. “When I saw you had this record, I had to give it a try. It’s not a very complicated mechanism. Similar to a wind-up music box.”

“It feels strange, like we’re breaking a rule, you know? Listening to amplified music without electricity.” Everything about this night feels like it’s happening in a parallel universe, something apart from real life, so why not this, too?  

“It’s just physics,” Eliot says. “Or so I’ve been told. But I know what you mean. It’s a little like magic.” There’s a pause, filled by the fuzzy, warbling sound of the record. Eliot tips his head back onto the couch next to Quentin’s thigh and goes on, staring at the high, shadowy ceiling. “The first time I heard this record it was on a regular CD player, but it felt otherworldly. Of course, this was in a classroom in rural Bible-belt Indiana where anything that wasn’t scripture seemed outrageously scandalous. This song about a person going through with a marriage despite loving someone else just blew my mind at the age of eleven. I think my teacher, looking back, was doing his best to slyly let us know our world was bigger than that small town. The idea of a secret heart got me through high school, honestly. This song gave me permission to feel a secret could be something noble instead of shameful. Until it didn’t have to be a secret anymore.”

“Hmm,” Quentin says. He often feels afraid of saying the wrong thing. He misses his dad suddenly—it slices through him, a sharp and clean pain, a thing he’s grown used to. His dad who worried for him but certainly never shamed him. “I’m glad you had that. And sorry you had the need for it.”

“I sort of—got a little too used to keeping secrets.”

“Oh?”

“Just—hopes and dreams. You know. I tell myself I have to keep them buried deep so the world doesn’t crush them.”

Quentin has limited experience with this philosophy. His approach has been to simply marvel at all the ways the world crushes his hopes and dreams. “Maybe I should try that.”

“It’s nice that you don’t. I know we only just met, but it might be my favorite thing about you.” 

Quentin wonders just how obvious his hopes and dreams are to this near-stranger. He feels the weight of Eliot’s head come to rest on his knee, and he looks down. Eliot’s eyes are closed, but he feels Eliot’s fingers circle around his ankle in a decidedly deliberate way, and Eliot’s thumbnail grazes the hairy patch of skin above his sock once before coming to rest. It makes the blood pound in his ears. He takes a slow, steady breath and then—heart in his throat—threads his fingers into Eliot’s hair, drags his blunt fingernails gently across Eliot’s scalp, aiming for something on the knife’s edge between soothing and stimulating. Beneath the crackling of the fireplace, Eliot has gone silent. Eliot’s hand around his ankle feels hot. After an eternity, or maybe a full minute, a hoarse, simple, gratifying noise rumbles out of Eliot’s chest and lodges itself in the part of Quentin’s brain reserved for Things to Structure Entire Life Around.

He lets his knuckle graze the shell of Eliot’s ear. Watches his Adam’s apple dance in his throat.

“You were thinking about kissing me earlier,” Eliot says, his voice low and thick.

“More than once,” he says, because if there was ever a time to be coy, it’s long past.

“Have I put you off completely, or is that still something you’re thinking about?”

He chuckles to mask a groan. “You haven’t put me off. But I think you would be sorry.” He stops raking a hand through Eliot’s hair and rests it on his shoulder instead.

“I kind of want you to. Gently, I mean.”

He considers it. Of course he does. For about half a second. But he knows himself, and restraint is not his forte. “Don’t tease me. Gently? What type of kisser do you think I am?”

“I would never. And are there types?”

“You know there are. If I come anywhere near your mouth the way it is right now I don’t think either of us will be happy.”

Eliot makes a pained noise . “I guess I do know that.” He opens his eyes and blinks at the wall opposite. He sighs. “I saw myself in the powder room mirror when I was cleaning up just now. I’m in worse shape than I realized.”

“It’s only temporary,” he says, and it doesn’t help that his voice comes out in a whisper. 

Eliot closes his eyes again and says, “You’re taking good care of me, but I’m looking forward to not being your patient.”

“Raincheck?” he says.

“Raincheck. Pinky swear.” Eliot crosses a hand up to close it around Quentin’s, resting there where Eliot’s shoulder meets the long, elegant span of his neck. He doesn’t do the pinky thing, of course, adults don’t do that, but he gives Quentin a little squeeze. 

“I’ll hold you to it,” Quentin says. Silently, he makes the same promise to himself. No backing down from this one. 

“Q?”

“Yeah?” 

“Why did you stop training to be a nurse?”

He takes a few steady breaths and decides to say out loud the thing that everyone who knows him—Julia, Penny, Kady, Alice—knows to be true. “Good nurses are realists, and I never was. My dad had cancer, and I thought I could learn to fix people. I thought if I couldn’t fix him, I could at least do some good in the world, and the math of the universe would work out to somehow keep him alive.”

He feels the soothing slip of Eliot’s thumb circling a bone of his wrist. “And in the end I realized I wanted to spend my time with my dad while I still could, instead of in labs and study groups. So I quit school and did that. Until, um, he died.”

A thought crosses his mind, traveling worn grooves. A regret. His dad died wondering if Quentin would ever be contented in life. If only I could have gotten there sooner , he thinks. What the hell was I wasting my life doing?

A flash of light catches his eye and he looks up to see the sky through the wall of windows opposite the couch transform from pitch black to an unnatural baby blue color. It’s over just as soon as it started, and once again the amber firelight in the room with them is the one source of light.

“ . . . the hell. Is it the alien invasion, finally?” Eliot asks.

“The power station over in Queens, I think, exploding.”

“I’m going to interpret that as a sign of progress. Locating the problem can be the toughest hurdle.”

“Eliot,” he says, feigning shock. “Are you an optimist?”

Eliot’s shoulder shrugs beneath his hand. “I saw a shooting star tonight. And I wished for this entire city of nine million people to be inconvenienced for a sufficient duration that I could enjoy a delightful sleepover with an adorable stranger.” 

He blushes, stifling a yawn and a chuckle at the same time. 

“Thanks for playing this record for me. Do I need to turn that thing off when it’s over?”

“You’ll want to lift the record off and let the spring wind itself down.”

“Speaking of winding down. You must be ready to sleep, huh?”

Eliot hums and scoots his body down into the sleeping bag. “I’m about to sleep like the dead, Q. But elbow me if I get more handsy than you care for. Seriously.”

He brushes his teeth and swipes at himself with a washcloth and water from the ice-cold tap. He does a circuit of the house, collecting extra pillows and down blankets from the bedrooms, watching his breath turn to vapor in the supercooled air. He recalls a certain daydream he used to indulge in where every room of this massive house was full of life—Julia and her partners on one floor, with room for some kids eventually, another floor for him and someone, that someone’s friends, and in the north wing maybe his ex, Alice, now that they’ve made peace, and whoever she wanted to invite, and five or six more people beyond that. Is it really that far fetched? The whole house bursting with life and activity, and still plenty of quiet nooks for him to escape into. He sighs and shakes it off. Maybe there’ll be another shooting star tomorrow night and he can wish his heart out.  

He makes sure the lights are all switched off in case the electricity comes blazing back in the middle of the night. He sets the oven to a low temperature for extra warmth, begging forgiveness to the climate gods. He puts another two logs on the fire, shuffles out of his black jeans, and slides into the sleeping bag on the floor, where Eliot is snoring gently.

He drifts off quickly, then comes back to consciousness two or three times during night, feeling the warmth of another body near him, hearing Eliot’s steady breaths. In between, he dreams of digging in a garden, the night hot and starless around him, digging until his hands are caked in rich, black soil, then digging some more. He’s searching for something bright and hot and golden, something he knows is there to be found, knows with his body more than his brain. He’ll keep digging forever. And in the dream, even knowing this, he’s never felt happier.

#

The low hum of the refrigerator coming to life is what wakes Eliot up. He makes out the grinding scrape of a snow shovel on the streets below, and the distant hiss of a trash truck making its rounds. He pictures the powerful machinery crunching down around dried carcasses of discarded Christmas trees. He blinks open his eyes to see the sky outside the massive windows is slate-grey, still more moonlight than sunlight, but the streetlights are glowing again. He’s lying on his side, the hardwood floor solid beneath his hip through the area rug and sleeping bag.

It makes him think of his earliest days in New York, the days and weeks when he would find a party—any party—every night, and become Fun Eliot: always on, charming and strange and new on the scene, captivating and pitch perfect one moment and passed out cold the next, adorably drunk off his ass, or so it was meant to look. The reality was he never drunk but always exhausted. He’d line his long body up against a baseboard in nobody’s way, a roll of paper towels for a pillow, grateful to be left in peace. It was cheaper than paying for short-term rentals. It was a surprisingly long time before anyone clocked what he was up to, and even then the person who called him out did it discreetly, saying Hey. My roommate’s subletter fell through, you need a place? Margo, seer of secrets, destroyer of every last cliché about the heartlessness of New Yorkers.

The heat must have kicked on at some point. The sleeping bag has been unzipped and shoved halfway down his body, and he vaguely recalls peeling off his sweatshirt in the middle of the night. The body dozing next to him is shirtless as well.

Quentin is flat on his back, his lips parted, head tilted toward Eliot and one hand resting on his white belly. His other hand, Eliot knows without looking, is splayed in the gap between their two bodies. He knows because their hands are touching. Their pinky fingers. It’s maybe one square centimeter of skin-to-skin contact, but he feels it, all right, and he wants to laugh at the absurdity of it all even more than he wants to cry at the agony surging through his every stiff muscle. He feels like he’s been beaten with a sack of bricks.

Experimentally, he twines his fingers with Quentin’s and shifts his body, suppressing a whimper of pain, until their two arms are draped across Quentin’s torso and he’s curled like a giant hairy cat into Quentin’s smooth strong shoulder. So what if doing so screams needy in neon letters. So what.

The next time he wakes up, he finds Quentin’s head resting on his chest, hair clinging to both of their sweaty necks. Limbs are tangled everywhere, and his own arms are—well. His arms are wrapped around Quentin, holding him there.

Quentin stirs, his stubble scraping the skin of Eliot’s clavicle, and then freezes stock-still, which is the sort of body language signal that usually precedes full-blown panic and flight. But whatever Eliot thinks he’s prepared to hear, Quentin just says, “Oh, shit. Your knee.”

“Other leg,” Eliot says, his voice raspy. “This one’s good.” He tenses his good leg where it’s twined with Quentin’s, hooking Quentin’s foot with his own and drawing him closer. He feels Quentin relax again, feels him sigh and rest his weight on his chest, and it sends a weirdly powerful rush of warmth through him. Quentin’s hair smells like woodsmoke.

“Power’s back on,” Quentin says.

“I noticed.” He tries not to hold his breath. It’s good that Quentin can’t see his face from this angle, because he’s sure it must be back to flashing needy , all neon bright and obvious.

“I, um. You’re welcome to stick around. I mean I hope you will. I’d like you to. All day, really.” Quentin is brushing fingers through his chest hair in a studiously offhand way. 

Eliot sighs, smiling.

“Of course,” Quentin says, his hand going flat and still, “if you want to check your messages or, you know, sleep in a proper bedroom. Enjoy some privacy.”

He covers Quentin’s hand with his own. Strokes his fingertips along the back of his hand, encouraging. “Q. I’m sure you’re as good of an innkeeper as you are a nursemaid. But you just woke up in my arms. I think we’re beyond that.”  

“Oh. I—” Quentin laughs, bashful. “I mean, we didn’t even . . . “

“Fuck?”

“Well, sure, but I was gonna say we didn’t even kiss.”

Eliot squeezes his eyes closed. Why does he have to say it like that , Eliot wonders. Like a whisper. Like something special. He swallows down a lump in his throat. Maybe he’s got a point, he thinks.

“Get up here.” He wraps his hands around Quentin’s biceps and tugs him so they’re face to face. He stares at Quentin’s pretty mouth. Tries to gauge how keen of a kisser he’ll be, how clumsy. Decides it doesn’t matter. He won’t mind. 

Quentin hisses and winces when he looks at Eliot in the cool predawn light. “Oh, ow. Sorry, just—ow. You’re less swollen, but more bruised.”

“It looks worse than it feels,” he lies. “It barely hurts at all.” He reaches to tuck a lock of Quentin’s hair behind his ear, drawing his knuckles along his stubbled jaw, which in Eliot’s experience is universal shorthand for we’re doing this .

Quentin looks at him for another beat, searching his face with a frankness that almost makes Eliot walk back his bravado, because he thinks maybe Quentin can see right through him, and then Quentin quirks his mouth into the hint of a smirk and says, “Your funeral.”

He braces himself for the pain. He’s ready. But when Quentin kisses him, the shock is that it isn’t forceful at all. The kiss is soft and slow, unhurried, mostly breath and all tenderness, and Eliot grunts in surprise. It feels so—so—

Quentin pulls back and takes in Eliot’s stunned expression. He anchors his hands in Eliot’s hair, coming nowhere near the stinging cut on his eyebrow, whispering, “Did you really think I would let myself hurt you?”

Another blink, and he feels Quentin again grazing soft lips feather-light against his lips and across the aching planes of his face, Quentin’s slack mouth trembling with control, an onslaught of delicate sensation, and when tears spring to his eyes he can’t account for it. He finds himself rolled onto his back looking up at Quentin helplessly, his vision blurry, Quentin straddling him saying shh, you’re okay, let me, Quentin holding his head steady with strong hands, fingers tangled in his hair the way they were last night, sure and deliberate. He’s being slowly tortured by the sweetness of Quentin’s gentle mouth, by soft hot kisses peppered across his brow and cheekbones and eyelids, by the flat edges of teeth not quite biting the line of his jaw, promising something feral yet to come— raincheck —and by a teasing swipe of tongue along the border where his upper lip meets stubble. He moans into it, equal parts relief and release, because he has never, ever been kissed like this, not even once, and now he knows.  

What type of kisser do you think I am? This type, it turns out. This type.

It shouldn’t make him hard, this barrage of feather-light kisses, but the need he keeps so tightly bound inside is loose now, erupting in his veins like slow-motion lightning, golden hot, desperate. He has the use of his hands, thank God, and he clutches Quentin’s thighs, slips his hands up the legs of his boxer shorts, grasps at skin. He holds Quentin close and rolls his pelvis, debating whether he can get away with bending his injured knee for leverage, when Quentin says yeah, okay, God yes , and settles more of his weight where their bodies meet.

It’s maddening that he can’t kiss Quentin back, but this he can do. He feels a jolt of gratification to see Quentin’s eyes roll back, to see his eyelids drift closed when Eliot rocks up against him.

He snakes his hands back out from where he’s gripping Quentin’s thighs and reaches for Quentin’s waistband only to feel Quentin slink out of reach, down the length of his body, dragging the loaner sleeping pants down with him and trailing wet, open-mouthed kisses as he goes, gentling every purple bruise. Eliot cooperates—why wouldn’t he?—letting himself be stripped naked, maneuvering his bad knee just so. He lifts his head, rising up using the strength of his abs, always up for watching, always willing to give a pointer or two because he’s rather bigger than average, when—

Oh god. Oh god. His head drops back onto the rug with a muffled thud, his breath rushing out of him. What the—all he can do is groan and twitch under the wet heat of Quentin’s mouth and his—his throat

Christ , don’t stop. Oh, Jesus.” It’s nonsensical, how good it feels. To the extent that his brain can form thoughts, he has an inkling that later, when he reflects, he’ll try to pick out the precise characteristics that make this an all-enthusiasm, no-finesse blow job, but he’ll come up empty. All he’ll be able to think about is how it feels, and then when he thinks about that , he’ll jerk off, and he’ll do that again and again for the rest of his life, probably. He knows all this while it’s happening, knows it in every vibrating, switched-on cell of his body. 

The early morning sun is brighter now, and he can see the ceiling far above, a domed trompe l’oeil blue sky dotted with fluffy clouds like the ceiling of a church. He can hear a jagged keening noise, not very dignified, which is coming from him, and he’s never cared less about how he sounds or looks or what anybody thinks. He doesn’t move a muscle—doesn’t dare—not on purpose anyways, and when he feels his orgasm curling deep within, faster than should reasonably be possible, he musters a polite warning grunt as a formality, really, because he knows he’ll come in Quentin’s mouth, they both know it, and he does, trembling, on and on, seeing stars, until his body is a limp rag, wrung out and panting.

“Jesus Christ.” He pets his hands into Quentin’s hair, damp with sweat, resting on his thigh.

“Mmm.”  

“Come,” he says, finding words again. “Come here.”

He flaps the sleeping bag up around them again to stop the chill.

“This is a promising start to the day,” Quentin says, breathless, and they both start laughing, and he feels heady pleasure pool in his chest because for all that it’s ridiculous, it’s true. 

Quentin settles in against his heaving ribcage. “Hot shower?” he says.

“Later.” He’s boneless still, and Quentin smells good, sweaty and musky.

They fall asleep like that, dozing again until the winter sun creeps up beyond the window sash.

#

Quentin reaches into the hot oven and pulls out his finished sourdough bread. These loaves are his best attempt yet—crackling and crispy on the outside, perfect round boules he knows will be the perfect balance of chewy and fluffy when they’ve cooled enough and he can slice into them.

He pours coffee into two mugs, listening for Eliot’s footsteps padding down the hallway from the master bath. He daydreams for a moment, thinking of the shower he just shared with Eliot, Eliot sitting on the built-in tile bench with his injured leg safely out of the way and his deft hands roaming all over Quentin’s body. He’s glad Eliot didn’t try to insist on a tit-for-tat exchange. Sex isn’t about keeping score. And he’s glad to know how strong Eliot’s hands are, how big and sure and capable. There was a time in his life when he’d internalized an idea about hand jobs being for teenagers, but he’s past that stage now, thank god. He blushes, feeling pleased, and sips his coffee. 

He’s flipping open his baking notebook to add to his notes about this attempt when he feels Eliot’s arms slide around his waist, Eliot’s broad chest enveloping him from behind. His phone is dinging at him from where it’s plugged into the wall, but whoever it is can wait. Eliot’s shoulder makes a perfect cradle for his head, and all he can think about Eliot’s palm stroking his neck, Eliot’s lips nibbling his earlobe. 

Well—he should write down the oven temperature and baking time before he forgets.

Something catches his eye as he flips through the notebook. He presses the pages open flat and is looking at a hand-drawn portrait. Of him. Only—he sees something he likes in the man pictured here. He looks satisfied, maybe. Confident. A little mischievous. To be seen like this is . . . he can’t find words for the feeling. It’s a fluttery feeling, and new.

“When did you have time for this?”

“While you were making those buttery triangles last night. Just a doodle.”

“Okay,” he snorts. “It’s better than anything in this house, but okay.”

“Not better than this bread,” Eliot says, and with both arms extended in front of their nested bodies he breaks off a steaming chunk with his bare hands. “Oh my god. This smells amazing.”

He accepts a torn crust and chews it, realizing how hungry he is. 

“Eliot Waugh,” he says, reading the signature. Something about that tickles his brain, but he can’t think why. He laughs weakly. “Usually I know a person’s first and last name by the time I blow them.”

Eliot chuckles into his shoulder. Between kisses to his neck, Eliot mutters into his skin, “Did I commit a sex faux pas? Many apologies for going pantsless without first introducing myself properly.”

Quentin turns around to face Eliot and lifts his chin, reveling in Eliot’s attention, the closeness of his body. “It’s a nice drawing. Thank you.” 

Eliot smiles crookedly and places his hands on Quentin’s shoulders. He clears his throat. “Should I have been more forthcoming?”

“About?”

“My name, ah . . . some people know my name and reputation without really knowing me,” Eilot says. “It’s not setting off any alarm bells?”

He looks at his phone on the counter, recalling now his conversation with Julia. That’s where he heard the name Waugh. The details are fuzzy. Something about mercurial and maybe famous .

Sitting on kitchen stools with plates of rosemary shortbread, buttered bread, and fresh cups of coffee in front of them, they facetime Julia in Paris together.

“Hi Jules,” Quentin says. He can see his head and shoulders and Eliot’s framed in the tiny postage stamp in the corner of the screen, but it’s Julia’s poker face he’s fixated on. Her lips are locked into a tight half smile. “Just calling to say we’re fine. Power’s back on. I haven’t been murdered and I don’t owe anyone eighty bucks for sex.” 

“If anything, I owe him eighty bucks,” Eliot says cheerfully. 

Julia’s face on the screen turns pink. “Hello. Um, hello there. You’re Eliot Waugh. How—what—um.”

“Julia Wicker,” Eliot says. “I’d know you anywhere. You have your mother’s gorgeous smile.” Quentin isn’t sure, but that might be sarcasm. 

“That’s not a smile I’ve ever seen her make,” he says to Eliot. “Wow, Jules, your mom does make that face all the time, come to think of it.”

“Well, now you know how I look when I’m trying not to give myself away. I learned it from her.”

“That’s how your mom looks when she thinks someone is being a little shit.” 

“Quentin! Mr. Waugh, my mom doesn’t think you’re a little shit. She thinks you’re the shit and she’s been trying for three years to get you to show your Mosaic series at Art Basel.” 

“Julia, I wouldn’t dream of being a little shit to you. Not after I spent such an enjoyable night warm and cozy here in your home when I was a destitute and forlorn waif.”

“That’s being a little shit!” She laughs finally, herself again. “I was worried about Q.” 

“I know. He’s far too trusting.”

“I’m right here,” Quentin says. “And I don’t see what difference it makes. Someone can be poor. It doesn’t mean they’re a con artist.”

“I know. And that’s what I lo—oh, fuck me.” Eliot blanches and squeezes his eyes shut. He turns to look at Quentin. “That’s a charming quality. Is what I meant to say. I was having a rough night and you were very kind to me when most people would not have been.”

On the phone screen, Julia is staring at them with wide eyes. “Okay. I’m gonna let you two go, but—Eliot, seriously think about what would help you complete the Mosaics . My mom will literally pull any string and she’s connected everywhere.” 

“I think I may have figured out a problem I was stuck on, actually, so let’s talk when you’re back.” 

They hang up the call and Quentin turns to see Eliot leaning casually against the marble kitchen island, his hazel eyes bright and warm in the pale winter light. In three days, a new year will begin, and soon enough he’ll go back to work, and his housemates will fill Whitespire Mansion with noise and nonsense again, and he’ll be glad. But for now, he has time, and light and heat, and snacks, and six or seven beds, and the company of a person who sees him and wants to keep looking, and none of it is pretend. He pulls Eliot close, rising up on his tiptoes to draw him into a kiss. He can’t think of anything more perfect.