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I'll Follow My Secret Heart

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The third day after Christmas is Quentin’s number one favorite day of the year.

The day after Christmas he usually spends schlepping home through snow and ice from a relative’s house in New Jersey or Connecticut, emotionally drained. Or nursing a hangover. Or, in all honesty, both.

Christmas itself he typically spends doing the drinking that will account for that hangover, in between fending off nosy questions about his personal life and pretending to be interested in advice that is as vague as it is unsolicited.

Plenty of decent gals right here in Colt’s Neck, if that’s your taste, or plenty of fellas who earn a good living, for that matter, seeing as . . . you don’t mind, or . . . as I understand it . . . well. I don’t know how you go about choosing, speaking for myself, but you live your life. LGBTQ, and all that. Very good.

Not a lot of money in teaching, I don’t think. Your cousin Evan works in the finance and he can introduce you, you know, if you ever called him up. You’ve got to reach out to people, Quentin.

I know your father would have wanted to see you happy. I told him you’d sort yourself out eventually, but you know he worried for you so much right up until the end.

Oof.

The second day after Christmas is still kind of a buffer of a day—a day for readjusting, cleaning, doing laundry, putting away the holiday decorations and botanical garlands and all the fucking mistletoe his housemate Julia insists on blanketing the place with even knowing, every year, she’ll be off on some vacation with their other housemates, Kady and Penny, when actual Christmas hits. Quentin is always grateful to be invited on these trips, but always infinitely more grateful to be allowed to beg off, no questions asked. Julia knows how much he likes his quiet time.

And so: the third day after Christmas—tomorrow—is the Goldilocks perfect day he looks forward to all season. The stressful family-oriented and awkwardly churchy holidays will be well behind him. There’ll still be plenty of time before the nonsense of New Years, and he’ll still have a full week of vacation left before his classroom full of eight-year-old miscreants reconvenes.

He’s not even working his EMT side gig this week. He might even have told them he was out of town completely for the full duration, so as not to get called in for last-minute coverage on New Year’s Eve. He shudders. It’s just nonstop drunk accidents and alcohol poisoning. Why don’t people just stay in on New Year’s? Honestly.

The third day after Christmas is a day all his own, time to do whatever he feels like doing.

What he feels like doing this year is turning off the Wi-Fi, baking, snacking, reading, listening to records, and maybe lighting some scented candles and soaking in a hot bath until his toes turn to prunes. A part of him has always wondered what it would be like I live in another era, and he can . . . what’s an adult version of playing pretend? Reenact history? That only counts when there’s an audience, or some fellow re-enactors, he thinks. But—no matter. No one’s here to judge him. That’s the beauty of the third day after Christmas.

He figures he’ll get a head start tonight, first prepping a couple of sourdough loaves that will rise overnight, then baking buttery rosemary shortbread cookies he’ll enjoy with his coffee in the morning. That, he tells himself, will be the perfect way to wake up on the perfect day. As perfect as he can wish for, being an eternally single person, that is.

Which is how Quentin comes to find himself, on the eve of his favorite day of the year, teetering on a footstool in the butler’s pantry, arms full of three types of flour, at the moment the power goes out, the moment the entire building—the entire neighborhood—plunges into near-complete darkness.

#

The night midway between Christmas and New Year’s is Eliot’s least favorite night of the year. He hates it so, so much.

This week is always stupidly unbalanced, socially speaking, with all the interesting parties bookended as close to each holiday as possible, leaving a vacuum in between. A vacuum he doesn’t appreciate. This year, even Margo—his ride-or-die—is AWOL, off at some type of spa retreat in the Arizona desert. It sucks.

Eliot loves almost everything about the holidays themselves—the way the city is transformed by lights and music, the cheer that buoys strangers on the subway. The aforementioned parties, everyone participating convincingly in the temporary fiction of good will toward men or, failing that, halfway decent blow jobs enthusiastically given. The excuses to shower his acquaintances with gifts and affection and—why not?—reciprocal blow jobs. Seasonal cocktails—a select few are quite drinkable, in fact.

He’ll never reveal this to a soul, but he even loves the crowds of out-of-towners. Or at least he feels a tender twinge for the starry-eyed farm boys among them who need the dream of New York like they need air to breathe, the gangly teenagers who he can tell at a glance spent an hour in the hotel bathroom getting their hair to look just so, then thirty seconds mussing themselves so their families wouldn’t get wise.

Eliot loves the whimsical, extravagantly high-concept holiday window displays at Bergdorf’s. He really ought to love them, because he’s in charge of creating them now. The Bergdorf holiday windows are Eliot’s Oscars, or his World Cup, or whatever would be his World Cup if it happened every year, he doesn’t follow sports, okay?

Maybe neither of those analogies holds up, because it’s never his name or face in the spotlight, it’s always his collaborator, Fen—which is just as he wants it. The point is it’s a big meaty project he can sink his teeth into. He can stay busy, get Margo off his back, qualify for health insurance, and create some fun spectacles, all without really risking anything.

Put another way, the Bergdorf windows gig is the only thing he has going for him at the moment. But why would a person ever put something so grimly, having a choice? Yes, it’s true that he spends the rest of his year creatively blocked and aimless, picking up the most random of odd jobs and side hustles, hoping against hope to stumble across something that interests or even inspires him. But the Bergdorf window displays, at least, are exhilarating, immersive, exhausting. He disappears into the work, blissfully, for months upon months. And when the figurative curtain descends at the end of each season and he stops being busy, he has certain strategies at the ready to avoid sinking into despair.

Like any good hedonist, he knows the value of a proper restorative pause. At one point in his life, he was only going through the motions, nodding along when people at cocktail parties talked about cleansing breaths and how amazing meditation is. But then something clicked, and he started actually doing that stuff more than talking about it, and now he’s in the habit of spending his dreaded in-between days in late December doing woo-woo things like setting an intention for the year, meditating on openness to new experiences, and recalibrating his energy. Definitely not wallowing in self-pity.

Earlier this month he saw a flyer pinned to the corkboard at yoga, the ubiquitous shoe-area corkboard every yoga studio has, advertising a meditative year-end vow-of-silence Walkabout in nature somewhere in Australia. Australia is bit far to go, honestly, and also selling a Walkabout to privileged New Yorkers is the definition of cultural appropriation, he’s pretty sure, but he likes the idea of a vow of silence. So much better than just plain no one to talk to. And there are quiet places in New York, contrary to popular opinion.

Which is how Eliot comes to find himself alone in the middle of Central Park on his least favorite night of the year, attempting to admire the city’s lights from a secret spot he doesn’t hate atop a granite outcropping, when a blackout cascades across the city in a wave.

He tips his chin up, listening to the creak of snow-heavy branches around him, feeling a rush of cool air sneak past his scarf. When his eyes adjust he sees something that should be impossible to see in New York City: a twinkling, glittering canopy of stars. He stares for a while. He soaks it all in—the peace, the cosmic majesty. The infinity or whatever.

He can see the storm clouds edging their way in. But before they cover the heavens completely, he sees something move up there. A shooting star, or a satellite. Does it matter? He lets it point the way.

It points, conveniently, to a nearby building that appears to be equipped with a generator: the Upper West Side Gourmet Market.

#

The fridge in the butler’s pantry powers down with a thunk, and in the dark, eerie silence Quentin thinks: crap. And then he thinks: well, actually . . . His stash of cheeses will keep for a day, assuming the blackout lasts that long, if he minimizes opening the fridge door. The oven is already preheating, and it’s a gas range, so he’ll be able to bake and cook. He can boil water on the stove for French press coffee in the morning, and to warm up his bath. He’s gotten pretty good at building fireplace fires since Julia invited him to move into this insane place, and there’s plenty of wood. He’s pretty sure Penny’s camping gear, stashed in one of the fourth floor closets, includes a polar sleeping bag.

He’ll be fine. It’ll be an adventure. He’ll live a little! No better approximation of another era than a total lack of forced air heat and electricity.

He should use up his eggs, though. And as much of the butter as he can. Maybe he’ll add a batch of cookies to tonight’s to-do-list. And a pie. Why does he have quite so much butter, he wonders?

He walks through the house closing doors and turning on taps to a trickle so the pipes don’t freeze, then builds a fire in the great room next to the kitchen.

He measures out flour and salt for the pie crust by candlelight, mentally ticking through the ingredients he has on hand for the rest. He shreds the cold butter into small pieces with flour-coated fingers, evaluating the texture by feel, thinking: I should do this in the dark all the time.

Then he cleans his hands and finds his phone, which is almost fully charged. He calls the Upper West Side Gourmet Market instead of using the app, relieved to reach a human person who confirms they’re open and still doing deliveries during the blackout. He squeezes in an order before that changes. Fresh rosemary for his shortbread, two pounds of stone fruit for the pie, a bag of chocolate chips and some brown sugar for the cookies.

#

Eliot knows the guy who manages this market. Josh. They met when Josh supplied a metric shit ton of oversize meringues for a sugar plum fairy-themed Bergdorf window a few years ago. Later, on a whim, Eliot stepped in as a cater-waiter for Josh once during an emergency, and found he liked the energy of the crew so much that he asked Josh to put him on the list of temps.

Josh has built himself a reputation for supplying chefs around the city with tomatoes that are freakishly ripe and flavorful no matter the time of year, to the tune of $50 per peak tomato. Only in New York.

Funny how you can build a life around one thing you’re brilliant at, Eliot muses. It doesn’t matter how narrow the expertise, as long as you’re the best. Once Josh was established as the Tomato King of New York, everything else began falling into place for him. He’s hinted that a TV show might be in the works, with some sort of gourmand out-on-the-town theme.

As Eliot trudges through the accumulating snow toward the doors of the market, he wonders: Is it happiness, being king of something? Or is it a trap? Once the world gets an idea of who you are, people start thinking they can predict what you’ll do next. You might even start to take their word for it. The idea makes his chest contract, his breath tight.

Inside the steamy warmth of the market, he can feel how cold his face is. He presses his palms to his cheeks. He’ll need to rethink his scarf placement before he ventures out again. He catches sight of Josh bustling about behind a counter, arranging packages and bags.

Josh sets down a phone he’s been holding to his ear and nods in Eliot’s direction. “E-Money! Hey, buddy. What can I get for you?”

“Hey, Josh.” He checks his watch. His vow of silence has lasted approximately 40 hours. “I . . . don’t know.” He’s suddenly very aware of his aimlessness.

“You came out in a combination blizzard and blackout to browse? Don’t you live in the Village?”

“It’s a long story. I’m kind of . . . going where the wind blows. Saw your lights on.”

Josh gives him a pensive look, cocking his head to the side. “You sober right now?”

“Painfully so.” The truth is he hasn’t felt like indulging alone, though this isn’t something he needs to disclose to Josh.

“I only ask because—what if the wind blows you to the doorstep of a notoriously off-limits Gilded Age gem? You geek out on that stuff, right? Be one of the privileged few to get a peek inside. I got a good customer needs a few items and I’m a little pressed for delivery guys in this blizzard.”

Eliot leans forward to read the address Josh is showing him, scrawled on a slip of paper stapled to a plastic bag. His eyes widen. He won’t need Google Maps to find this place. “Whitespire Mansion. Someone actually lives there?”

“Decent guy. He orders all the time.”

Honestly—why not? Sure, Eliot thinks. “Except,” he says, “’I’m on foot.”

“Can you ride a bike? Bikes, I have plenty. You can ride it home after, avoid the subway debacle.”

He hadn’t thought of that. The subway won’t be moving during a blackout. He’s no expert cyclist, but it beats bothering his car service, wrestling for a cab, or walking four or five miles home through the snow. He slides his arms through the backpack Josh proffers, then heads to the loading dock to find a bike, a chain, and a helmet.

“Text me the contact info,” he says.

#

Quentin sets his finished pie crust next to the cool window to wait for filling. This should keep the butter in the crust from getting too soft ahead of the bake. With the fireplace going and the oven on, the place is starting to heat up. Say what you will about Gilded Age industrialists, but they didn’t skimp on building materials. The walls are solid and thick.

The air outside the window is dense with falling snow, lit only by Quentin’s candles and the faint light of a crescent moon.

He strips off his sweatshirt and reties his apron on top of his plain grey t-shirt. He turns his attention to his sourdough ingredients, to the levain that’s been fermenting all day, his battery operated kitchen scale and thermometer. Once he mixes in the remaining flour, the next stage is proving, which takes a couple of hours. Then he can shape the loaves and set them up for the final rise overnight. His mind wanders as he shoves his hands into the sticky mixture.

The thing his aunt Rita said to him at Christmas about his dad is what needles him, because he feels the truth of it deep in his core. He worried for you so much, right up until the end.

His dad had worried. And not about any of the stupid stuff—not Quentin’s job, not money. Only his singlehood. And it was never a Just gotta get out there, son worry. It was more a profound sadness he’d seen in his dad’s eyes. A stunned, melancholy worry like: Gosh, Q. Gonna be a tough match. His dad, who knew him better than most people in some ways, who’d witnessed all of Quentin’s weird anxious tics well before he’d learned to cover them, who understood the escapism impulse at the root of his obsession with children’s fantasy novels, who’d watched his short-lived relationship with Alice fall apart. His dad had seen . . . something. Something that concerned him. Was he right, whatever it was he saw?

He watches the snow come down while he lets the doughy mixture rest.

He tries to nudge his mind toward something more soothing, like a daydream. He’s good at thinking up scenarios.

For example: What if Zelda, the librarian at his local branch, gets sick and—no, that’s terrible. Poor Zelda. What if Zelda comes into an inheritance and decides to take off for a four-month round-the-world vacation-of-a-lifetime and is replaced by a hot temp? Someone brainy with glasses, probably, a Clark Kent type, a novelist doing Zelda a favor before he leaves on book tour, and he happens to be working when Quentin brings his well-behaved class in for a field trip . . . okay, that’s not plausible. Make it a regular librarian, not a children’s librarian, and Quentin can impress him with his questions about literature. Oh, do you have the final book of the . . . what’s a grown-up book series . . . Karl Ove Knausgård autobiography? It’s so brilliant. I was halfway through and I . . . dropped it in the tub. Okay, maybe not that. He can’t admit he reads in the bath, he’ll scandalize the hot temp librarian.

Fuck it. Why is the hot temp librarian about to leave on book tour, anyhow, when Quentin is driving this fantasy? Why can’t Quentin be the one taking a vacation of a lifetime, for that matter?

He’s not big on resolutions, but he thinks of one now: he’ll try to be more adventurous this year. He can at least try. More adventurous and more optimistic. He tries not to predict how long he’ll stick to it, since that wouldn’t be optimistic, would it?

Quentin’s phone buzzes with a text. Most likely a spammy offer of an instant low-interest loan, he thinks, since most of his friends are out of the country, his students’ parents know not to text him after nine, and it’s almost ten now. He carries on folding more flour into his starter, evaluating the texture.

A minute later the phone buzzes again, a third time, a fourth, and his heart leaps into his throat when he realizes the power outage means the doorbell isn’t working, duh, and the delivery person must be about to give up. Fuck. He needs that fresh rosemary.

He throws open the window, feeling the rush of cool air against his neck, and leans out. “Shit! Sorry! I, uh. The buzzer must be—I’ll come down.”

He sees the top of a head down below, obscured by flurries of snow, all helmet and scarf.

“Yep.” A man’s voice, resonant in the strangely quiet street.

#

While he waits at the service entrance for Josh’s customer to come down and let him in, Eliot pulls the plastic bag out of his backpack and peeks inside. Huh. Peaches, rosemary, brown sugar, and chocolate chips. Not exactly a blackout survival kit.

He peers up at the stately building. He’s read about this particular real estate specimen. Okay, he’s watched some Fuzzbeat videos about it. Not because he cares about architecture so much, more because he cares about things that are strange or rare or challenging to access. Whitespire Mansion used to be a historical house museum, but has been closed to the public for decades. It has working dumbwaiters connecting a subterranean wine cellar to a service kitchen on the ground floor, then onward to a dining room on a higher floor and purportedly a ballroom above that. At least one of its bedrooms is outfitted with a freestanding bathtub and wood-burning fireplace. There are rumors of secret passageways, an underground swimming pool, and a botanical garden on one of the upper floors, full of ferns and tropical birds.   

It’s probably a myth. A myth invented by space-starved New Yorkers. But still. He’d like to see.

He tries to picture the person who lives here—someone encrusted with wealth, out of touch, unused to eye contact, unused to doing simple things for themselves like going to the market. Quentin Coldwater is the name on the ticket. He wonders what it will take to charm Scrooge McDuck into letting him see the place. He wonders if it’ll be worth it.

He sees movement in the vestibule, and here’s a surprise: the customer is adorable, ruddy and frazzled, covered in flour and something wet and clumpy. He looks straight at Eliot and smiles as if smiling is just a natural thing a person might do, cheeks dimpling, eyes sparking. Eliot is taken aback, honestly, at the effrontery of eye contact.

The door swings open. A yeasty, buttery aroma wafts out, with notes of wood smoke, and Eliot practically floats into the vestibule, thinking, inexplicably: home.

Chapter Text

Quentin watches the delivery guy step into the vestibule of the service entrance, watches him unclip his helmet and unwind a long scarf from around a face that looks, well, pretty nice to look at, even in the blue tint of the dim emergency lights. More so with every twirl of the scarf. The bag full of Quentin’s groceries dangles from one of his hands.

“Quentin Coldwater?” the delivery guy says. He’s tall, with impressive posture giving him an air of elegance, and glossy black curls threatening to tumble over his forehead any moment.

“Yeah.” Quentin can’t even offer to take the bag from the guy. He hasn’t thought this through.

“I haven’t thought this through,” he says, holding his dough-covered hands away from his body. He’s smiling bashfully, self-conscious now. “I, um,” he says. Typical. And then, “I was in the middle of something.” 

“I can see that,” the guy says. His voice is deep and amused. “Does it involve rosemary-peach compote with chocolate sauce?”

“If anybody ever says yes to that, call the police. That’s disgusting.”

The guy brightens at this in a way that New Yorkers sometimes do when there’s an unspoken mutual agreement to let an encounter evolve past a Mere Transaction into a Human Moment. It’s a delicate science, Quentin has learned. It’s easy to step too far and creep people out, or misread and annoy them. He’s rather proud of his own ability to manage a Human Moment now and then, when inclined.

“I’m making peach pie, rosemary shortbread, chocolate chip cookies, and sourdough. Just, you know, to put your mind at ease.”

The guy hums, making a show of feeling reassured. He doesn’t make a crack about it being too late to curry favor with Santa, or about the wisdom of bingeing on gluten and sugar ahead of New Year’s resolutions. He just stamps snow from his boots and brushes his coat with his gloved hand.

He catches himself staring at the guy’s outfit. The guy looks down at his own outfit, reasonably free of snow now. A camel colored pea coat, possibly cashmere, threadbare at the edges, over trousers dotted with salty residue from the streets and extremely scuffed Chelsea boots. Not the expected bike messenger uniform.

“I’m a bit overdressed for this, hmm? Maybe I knew I’d be visiting Whitespire Mansion when I got ready this morning.”

“Too bad about the blackout, or I’d give you the tour,” Quentin says, surprising himself. That isn’t how it works. What if the power suddenly comes back on? He can’t go inviting random delivery guys inside. Can he? Not to mention, this is clearly crossing the line from Human Moment to Ambiguous Invitation, which is almost worse than an Unwelcome Advance. He winces at himself.

“I was joking, more or less,” the guy says. “But let me at least . . .” he lifts the bag and gestures at Quentin’s goopy hands, then gestures again at the stairway.

Quentin nods. “This way.”

In the kitchen, the bag of groceries safely on the butcher-block counter, Quentin feels something settle in his chest. Relief that he has his supplies, probably. Or relief that this Human Moment seems to have been salvaged. He plunges his hands into the bowl of dough again and gives it a few quick kneads before something can go wonky with the fermentation.

The delivery guy is lingering just inside the door, gazing around the massive kitchen and great room with an unreadable expression. Quentin watches him take in the crackling fire, the easy chair with his book open on the armrest.

For a split second, Quentin wonders what first impressions this stranger might be forming about the sort of person he is. Visual clues include: a chaotic mélange of baking supplies spread all over the otherwise spotless marble island; the cozy and tidy great room, walls lined floor to ceiling with books; his mug of tea; a few holiday photo cards fixed to the fridge with magnets, which suggests he has friends; eight or ten candles.

This guy doesn’t know him as Quentin Coldwater, indebted nursing school dropout, moderately socially maladjusted, eternally single and barely making ends meet. He might just as well come across as Quentin Coldwater, cool and confident caretaker of a historic mansion, skillful hobby baker, reader of novels that are not distinguishably children’s books at first glance. That’s . . . better, right?

“Oh!” Quentin says, snapping out of his mini-daydream. “Um. I think I better tip you through the app? I would do cash, but . . .” He holds up his goopy hands.

A smile breaks out on the guy’s face and the temperature in the room goes up. “You’re sweet. No, I’m just loitering in complete violation of the social contract. I’ll be on my way.” He winds his scarf around his statuesque head, which is a whole process, then yanks part of it down away from his mouth to say, “You’re not what I expected.”

Quentin can feel a tiny sideways smile break across his face. “Were you expecting a 19th-century industrialist tycoon? Because that guy is a ghost now, he only comes out when the moon is full.” Jesus Christ, he’s—flirting. Is this how I flirt? he thinks. What the holy heck?

“Ah, right. Hauntings really ought to be predictable, as a rule. It’s much more courteous.”

Quentin feels like this is now a conversation, so he says the next thing that occurs to him, which is: “That’s a long scarf.”

“I tend to lose hats,” the guy says. “A long scarf is extremely versatile, and underrated.”

“Versatile is good.” As soon as he hears the words come out of his mouth, he blushes furiously, and it’s the blushing that incriminates him. This poor guy is just trying to do his job. “I’m—um. I didn’t mean—”

The guy’s grin is even wider now, so there’s that. “Neither did I. Sometimes a scarf is just a scarf.”

The guy turns to go, but catches himself on the door jamb and turns back again. “But since you bring it up—” He squints a little, laughing, and says, “Have we met before?”

“I think I would remember,” Quentin hears himself say, bursting crimson now, powerless to stop it, because that is literally a cliché, and also literally true, so what can be done?

“I mean it.” The guy folds his arms and leans against the door frame. “I bartend once a month at a bowling alley in Bay Ridge, maybe there?”

“Brooklyn is a bit far to go for bowling.” He can feel the guy’s eyes traveling all over his face, maybe even lingering at the spot near one clavicle where his pulse is pounding. Can he see that?

The guy nods. “It’s the square footage. Nowhere in Manhattan does the math work out, unless you want to be crammed in amongst video poker machines at a sports bar. Such compromises are antithetical to the aesthetic of bowling.”

Quentin thinks, but doesn’t say, that there are plenty of bars in Manhattan where the tips-per-hour math works out a lot better than at a bowling alley.

“Contact improv jam in Soho? Every other Wednesday night?”

“No, not me.” Quentin makes a mental note to look up what that is.

“Have I cut your hair, maybe? At Abigail’s, near LaGuardia Airport? Invite-only, bodega basement situation?”

Quentin’s long hair is held back in a sort of hybrid ponytail/bun, and it goes without saying he doesn’t get it cut often. “I go to someone . . . you know, closer to me. Closer than an hour on the MTA.”

The guy shrugs his broad shoulders. “I’m not licensed to cut hair, so I’m at Abigail’s mercy.”

Quentin blinks, trying to decide if, when the power is back on and he Facetimes Julia, he’ll categorize this guy as chaotic neutral or chaotic good. He shouldn’t be chuckling, but he is.

“So maybe we haven’t met before,” the guy says. “Pity.”

That’s—that’s definitely an opening, right? Quentin swallows, a cartoonish gulp. “If this is the part where you ask for my number, you already have it.”

For a fleeting split second he thinks he sees the delivery guy’s smile falter, and feels a cold, gut-deep panic that he’s misread the situation, and—well. That’s a level of humiliation he can live without.

But the delivery guy looks him in the eye, his voice going gentle and serious. “Permission to use it?”

Quentin clears his throat and—nods. Totally smooth. Does this all the time. Natural. He’s long since stopped kneading. He scrapes excess dough off his hands, just in case. Just in case what?

“Well, Quentin Coldwater,” the guy says, “This has been an unexpected delight. I’m Eliot.”

With that, he claps his gloved hands together once, a gesture that means I’m leaving now, unless you object.

Quentin suddenly finds himself crossing the distance to the door. “Thanks, Eliot. For coming out in the snow,” he says. He pauses on the brink of Eliot’s personal space. On the brink, but not yet in it. He could— He could— He imagines himself rising up on his tiptoes, squashing down the nervousness he feels, closing his eyes, and kissing Eliot softly on the mouth. Just a peck. Playful and confident. Could he?

His eyes dart to the top of the doorway, where until this morning a cluster of mistletoe had been hanging.

Eliot follows his gaze, then reaches a long arm up and taps his gloved finger to a tacky square of residual adhesive. Eliot is now grinning like the cat that ate the canary, but with a sight pinkish flush to his cheeks that gives away . . . something. He tucks a strand of hair behind Quentin’s ear and whispers, “Mistletoe is commonly infested with nargles. I’m glad you don’t have any.”

Quentin squishes his eyes closed and presses his lips together. Mortifying. Not smooth. And at the same time he feels a pleasant rush of heat under his skin, his pulse quickening. 

He opens his eyes again to see the back of Eliot’s head as Eliot retreats down the stairs. Eliot lifts a hand, waving, saying cheerfully, “You handed me that exit line. Couldn’t not take it.”

“Well, congratulations, you just outed yourself as a Harry Potter nerd, so.” He’s smiling in spite of himself, and he can hear it in his own voice. He ventures onto the landing, feeling braced by the cool air that washes over him as Eliot opens the door below. He stops himself from crossing his arms, which are now more crusty than goopy.

“I stan Luna Lovegood and only Luna Lovegood. I’ll text you soon,” Eliot says, without so much as a glance back. And then he’s gone, striding away on long legs into the snowy dark night.

#

Eliot feels a twinge of remorse as he leave the building, knowing he won’t text Quentin soon. He probably shouldn’t text him at all, ever, if he’s honest with himself. It’s just so fun to flirt when the other person seems receptive, and he’s so good at it. And he’s starved for interaction after two full days alone, so sue him.

It takes him a long while to finagle the key to his bike chain out from under his layers, then it takes him another long while to disentangle Josh’s bike from the scaffolding it’s locked to—why so much scaffolding everywhere, New York?—and then to knock the ice off of his tires.

All the while, he tries to locate the source of the weird thrum under his skin. Or, honestly, he tries to locate a source other than Josh’s customer—Quentin—who is wound tight, weirdly courageous, nerdy, fit, corny, possibly a pastry chef, impossibly awkward, and hot. And a serious blusher. And—vers? Vers-friendly? Really, Eliot, he thinks to himself.

He is frowning under his scarf, and also smiling, and that’s disconcerting. He’s also buzzing like he could light up the skyline all on his own. That won’t do. This night is supposed to be the low point of his year, a night for reflecting and ruminating, not chasing pretty diversions, no matter how twinkling and dimpled. He swings a long leg over the frame of the bike, gets his balance, and starts pedaling through the unplowed snow.

It’s just . . . it’s just a momentary fascination, really. Eliot hasn’t met anyone quite so unguarded in years. What sort of person lets their actual feelings show? In their facial expressions? In front of a total and complete stranger? I mean, come on. Yes, okay, the guy was in his own home, which maybe means a different set of rules applies. It might also be why Eliot abandoned his original plan to sweet talk his way into a full tour of the place.

But. Also. The glaring central fact: Quentin doesn’t know him from Adam. In fact, any mini-bio Quentin would have been able to piece together in their short conversation should have sent a sane person fleeing for the hills. A part-time bowling alley bartender, unlicensed barber, and ill-equipped bike messenger? While these are all rewarding pastimes for reasons that have special meaning for Eliot, they do not add up to a right-swipe Tinder profile. Sweet baby Jesus.

He figures out a way to package up this strange encounter and tuck it away deep. He’d liked feeling anonymous. That was it, and that was all. It’s been a long time since he felt seen as just some guy with good hair, a nice smile, and a long scarf. Seen and, yeah, okay, appreciated. Just as a person, and not as Eliot Waugh, with all the accompanying expectations.

He slogs past darkened storefronts, empty restaurants, street poles wrapped in plastic garlands that look positively creepy without their festive lights—without any lights shining on them at all. The tableau, empty and cold, pulls him back into the sullen mindset he’d been embracing all day.

He’s thinking about how he’ll distract himself in the time that remains until New Year’s, about what he might want to drink or smoke to keep from dwelling on this tender, unspoiled cinnamon roll of a man, when he takes a corner going who knows how fast and feels, too late, the unmistakable slow-motion vertigo-like slide of black ice underneath him.

And so when he picks his stunned self up from the tangle of metal moments later, he does text Quentin after all, and it’s not a suave, cool, drawn out flirtation leading to nowhere but a graceless, messy, matter-of-fact plea.

I taco’ed my bike around a post just now. Can I use your sink to clean up?

He presses his scarf to a spot below his left eyebrow that is bleeding, interfering with his vision. His gloves are . . . gone. He spits a mouthful of blood into the snow. He touches his fingertips to his face gingerly, grazing a cheek and lips that are swollen and numb, and stumbles on stiff legs back toward Whitespire Mansion.

Chapter Text

After Eliot and his opinions of mistletoe and Luna Lovegood disappear into the dark, Quentin cleans his hands and stands still for a moment, feeling the quiet, feeling the emptiness of the big, drafty house all of a sudden. He shrugs. He puts the kettle on. He shapes his loaves of sourdough and sets them aside for the long final rise. He starts slicing peaches and scraping them into a Dutch oven to simmer for pie filling.

It’s very possible he’s just been party to a mutual drive-by flirtation. And it’s also possible he’ll hear from this handsome but eccentric bike messenger (barber?) (bowling alley denizen?) one of these days. Eliot. If he thinks about it, the brief exchange he just experienced was practically perfect—by his own standards, anyhow. He managed to come across as fairly confident and well adjusted, he thinks. His spirits are lifted, and that’s something. If he’s being realistic, there is no way Eliot’s impression of him will improve upon getting to know him better. Why not just keep this delicious moment preserved in amber, fuel for a few months worth of daydreams and elaborate fantasies?

On the other hand, when he recalls the way Eliot’s smile made a warm glow bloom in his chest, when he indulges in hoping . . . well. Would that be so wrong? To hope? It’s the natural by-product of his new commitment to optimism and adventure, after all.

No sense in obsessing. He keeps his attention trained on his projects, his ginger tea, the yeasty aroma of his bread dough rising and the syrupy peaches. He luxuriates in the toasty warmth and homey smells of the wood fire. Piles another log into the fireplace. Thinks about putting his phone into airplane mode to save battery. That’s his plan, at least, until his phone dings with a new text from Eliot.

#

When Eliot reaches the service entrance of Whitespire Mansion for the second time that evening, somewhat worse for wear, he finds Quentin waiting in the vestibule. No easy grin this time. Quentin is wearing a carefully composed neutral expression.

Eliot doesn’t like that one bit, so he says, “We have to stop meeting like this.” He tries to say it, anyhow. What comes out is a thick slurry of gibberish.

“Shit,” Quentin says, and there goes the neutral mask. Wide, alarmed eyes and a serious-business frown have taken over Quentin’s face. “Okay, wow. Maybe—um, don’t try to talk just yet. Open your mouth for me? Lift your tongue, if you can?”

Eliot does as asked, mostly, but he can’t seem to stop babbling, even though it feels like he’s talking around a mouthful of raw hamburger. “I’m tho thorry. Thith ith embarrathing.” Eliot shakes his head. I do have friends, he wants to say. Just—not nearby. It would be true, too. Another thing that’s true, that he’ll never say out loud: he didn’t even think of texting anyone else, not for a second. He doesn’t have the energy to wonder why that might be.

He sits on the stair, surprisingly out of breath, trying not to stain the two-hundred-year-old marble. His trousers are in shreds, especially on the left side, where he skin of his knee is also in shreds. So, okay, slight possibility this is more than a matter of just rinsing off and skedaddling on his merry way. His face is bleeding in a couple of places, and here in the relatively warm vestibule it’s starting to sting. His hands, miraculously, are unscathed, though they seem to be shaking a bit. He looks away as Quentin inspects him. He notices Quentin is positioned in such a way as to block his view of his own indistinct reflection in the glass door, which is fine by him.

Eliot focuses on Quentin’s voice, which sounds soothing. “Yeah, this is—hmm. Not so bad. I mean it probably feels terrible, but you’re okay,” he hears. “A cold pack would help.”

Quentin pulls a plastic bag from Eliot’s backpack, the kind cyclists keep stashes of to cover their seats in the rain, with a smiley face and HAVE A NICE DAY printed on it. He closes his eyes as Quentin steps outside. When he comes back, the bag is full of fresh snow, and Quentin wraps the whole thing in his apron before pressing it into Eliot’s hand.

“Gently,” Quentin says, making a vague gesture in the vicinity of Eliot’s face. Eliot gets the gist. The relief is almost immediate—the packaged snow soft and cool against his skin. Quentin looks like an angel hovering above him, the softly glowing the safety lights making a halo of his hair.

It occurs to Eliot that there are two types of people who manage to function relatively well when things go pear-shaped: people who are so used to daily disasters that responding is second-nature, nothing to fret over, and people who are so naïve about the possible ways things can rapidly get worse that they don’t know to worry.

If he had to guess, he’d put Quentin in the second category. He envies Quentin for it.

“You theem calm. Are you a doctor?”

“I teach third grade.”

“Ah.” Eliot understands indistinctly that this means contending with children for long durations, which in his view is a sort of nonstop crisis.

Quentin nods and hums, finding Eliot’s wrist and feeling for his pulse. “And I’m an EMT. Very part time,” Quentin says. His hands are warm and smooth, and his forearms are—. Hmm. Hairy. Eliot closes his eyes for a beat. When he looks up again, Quentin is making a pained face. “I was training to be a nurse, but I dropped out,” he says.

Huh. That’s extra information, but it gives Eliot a weird fluttery feeling to be presented with these credentials, such as they are. In return, Eliot summons a tablespoon of practicality. “Thould I go to Urgent Care?”

“Well . . . did you black out at any point?” Quentin asks him. Eliot closes his eyes and tries to forget the visual of the trail of pink snow he left in his wake.

“Unfortunately, no.” He opens his good eye. “I’m annoyingly luthid and feeling every moment of thith. Do you have one of thothe little barrelth of brandy ‘round your neck?”

This gets a tight smile out of Quentin. “I don’t have that. Seeing stars? Any nausea or dizziness?”

Eliot shakes his head no. He remembers catching himself on his hands and knees, for the most part. He holds up his helmet, showing Quentin there isn’t a scratch on it.

Quentin pokes at his phone for a moment and frowns.

“We can get you to Urgent Care, but I don’t drive, and the Lyft situation is looking a little grim. Plus Google is showing a four-hour wait once you get there. They’ll have the good painkillers, but otherwise all they’ll do is bandage you.”

Eliot shudders, picturing what fluorescent lights do to his skin even on the best of days.

“I do have some steri-strips and gauze,” Quentin says. “I can sort you out, if it’s all the same to you.”

“I can pay you.” Eliot isn’t sure where that impulse came from. He doesn’t know the etiquette.

“Hmm, don’t make this weird,” Quentin says lightly, and Eliot thinks about how Quentin nearly kissed him not an hour ago. How delighted it had made him feel, and how warm, heading out into the night.

And he thinks about the posh car service he can call and rely on even in a combination blackout and blizzard, and the concierge care physicians he can summon to his home if he so chooses. He can always summon them here, if it comes to that.

Decision made, Eliot lifts his arm and lets Quentin loop it around his shoulders, which are solid and firm.

“You’re gonna need to keep your leg straight while we get up these stairs,” Quentin says. “Lead with your good leg and really lock this other knee, or you’ll tear it open more.”

At that, something must happen to Eliot’s face, because he feels quite cold all of a sudden, and Quentin clutches him closer. “Okay. Whoops. You’re squeamish, that’s okay. Don’t look. Just—look at me.” 

Eliot does. He leans his weight on Quentin, who is stronger than he looks, and lets himself be helped.

#

As long as Quentin has a task, he can keep from flipping out. So. Water heated on the stove. Soft washcloths. Tylenol. Mild soap. Sterile gauze. A better, cleaner cold pack.

One minute you’re thinking about kissing a person under a sprig of mistletoe that doesn’t exist, and twenty minutes later you’re looking into the person’s blood-filled mouth in case he’s about to swallow his own tooth. Fortunately, Eliot’s teeth all appear to be intact, but unfortunately he’s bitten a gash into his tongue.

He’s given Eliot a square of sterile gauze and told him to apply pressure to his bleeding tongue, because if that doesn’t start to improve, there’s no avoiding Urgent Care. And it has the added benefit of giving Quentin a few conversation-free moments to gather his thoughts.

He dabs at Eliot’s face. They’re set up in the laundry room, a few candles and Penny’s camping lantern for light. Eliot is in a straight-backed chair with his head tipped back over the utility sink. Quentin rinses Eliot’s skin and hair with warm water from a bowl until the water no longer runs pink, then cleans and applies steri-strips to the small cut just at the edge of Eliot’s eyebrow. Tending to minor wounds comes easily to him, and he slips into professional mode and stays there. His hands move with precision and confidence, all business.

Okay, so it’s a little bit weird—domestic and intimate—to be doing this here at the laundry sink in his home, and by candlelight. It was either here or in the powder room, and he hadn’t wanted Eliot to see himself in the powder room mirror in case that led to another swooning episode. So here they are, Quentin and the tall, handsome wayfarer, dressing battle wounds by the light of a candle. Quentin shakes his head. So much for professional mode. Also, he thinks, in stories the handsome wayfarer is sometimes a bandit in disguise. Even if he does smell like honest sweat and, like, sawdust and—Jesus, get a grip.

At least Josh from the Gourmet Market knows him, right? Quentin looks up with a start. “Oh. Hey. Should I call Josh for you? Or—anyone?”

All Eliot can manage is a muffled, “Uh?” and then, “Oh.” He takes the gauze away from his tongue. “I don’t really work doing deliverieth. He just athked me to do thiht one-off.”

Quentin isn’t sure what to make of this. He notes that Eliot’s tongue is no longer bleeding, which is a relief.

“You can sit up.” He hands Eliot a towel for his hair, and a cup of water to rinse out his mouth. He turns away while Eliot spits into the sink.

He remembers the box of blue raspberry popsicles that must be beginning to melt in the powered-down freezer, and retrieves one for Eliot. “Try this. Don’t—um, don’t suck. Just think of it like a cold pack for your tongue.” He’s in danger of blushing again, so he changes the subject back to Josh. “Are you friends with Josh?”

Eliot accepts the popsicle with a resigned expression and rests it on his tongue. He flicks a damp curl away from his forehead. After a moment, he begins to respond. “I—wait, hol’ on.” He fishes a stubby sushi-restaurant pencil and an old receipt from the linty pile of rescued pocket treasures atop the dryer and starts scribbling. He has elegant lean fingers with clean, trimmed fingernails and tidy handwriting.

Me and the Tomato King of New York? We’ve done some jobs together you could say. He takes the pop out to read what he wrote, which is—whatever—then puts it back in and starts scribbling again. I’m just realizing how that sounds. I am not in the mob and neither is Josh to my knowledge. Also I do have friends they r just mostly out of town this week.

“Mine, too,” Quentin says. He thinks, and doesn’t say, that he didn’t ask. He studies Eliot’s face, trying to be objective. It’s going to hurt a lot in a few hours. He’s going to have a shiner and some tender bruises on the left side of his face, and a fat lip. His eyelashes are damp and stuck together, and he’s . . . watching Quentin ogle him. He blinks knowingly and flashes Quentin an amused smirk.

Eliot rolls the pop around on his tongue, making an O with his lips. This makes him wince, because his lips are swollen, and then he shrugs and—winks.

Quentin can’t keep a straight face. “Feeling a bit better?”

Eliot hums, then turns back to his scribbling, rummaging for a second receipt. Well enough. I can get out of your hair but I wonder if I could trouble you for some pants that don’t have a gaping hole in them? I’ll be happy to replace them for you.

“Oh. I was going to offer. But—” Quentin frowns, hesitating. For a mixture of reasons he doesn’t feel like analyzing, he wants Eliot to stay just a little longer. He wants Eliot to choose to stay, and for that to work the invitation needs to feel sincere. He reaches for a rationale that’s true enough. “Look, I know we just met, but I’d feel more comfortable if I knew you weren’t going to be alone. You might still spike a fever or show some head injury complications. And is there heat, where you’re going?”

Eliot appears to think this over, twirling the pop in his mouth. Then he hunches over his writing. Probably a meat locker now that I think about it. Well not literally—I sound more and more like a serial killer! Hah! What exactly do you have in mind?

#

Twenty minutes later Eliot finds himself alone in the largest bedroom he’s ever seen, in front of a roaring fire, about to step into a hot bath in an antique porcelain clawfoot tub. Not a turn he imagined this day taking, but not a bad turn, all things considered. As he drops his loaner robe and eases himself in, his mind flashes to the memory of Quentin’s pink face as he tipped a steaming stock pot of water into the tub a few moment ago.

So what if his sigh, as he sinks into the heat of the bath, comes out closer to a moan. He was colder than he realized. He’s been cold for so long.

He listens to his host’s footsteps on the other side of the door, the floorboards creaking faintly as he walks away. He’s relieved to have this time to be alone with his thoughts. He can feel the blood coursing through his veins, through his tender head, which will hurt like hell in the morning. But he also feels warm and calm, and not alone, and a little bit silly, as any sane person would feel in his situation. He slouches down into the deep tub so the water covers half his face.

The light from the fireplace flickers and dances. There’s a pile of fluffy towels on the chair, and some slippers, and . . . well. Looks like a fleece sweatshirt and some jersey knit harem pants. He wouldn’t have figured Quentin for a harem pants guy, but then again, he doesn’t know Quentin, does he? And people wear all sorts of things around the house that they wouldn’t wear in public.

He thinks of Quentin’s quiet confidence as he dealt with the cut on his face by candlelight. He ponders decency for a moment, and simplicity. Something about the blackout and the loss of familiar technologies stirs his brain. Heat and light can stop coming from the places you expect, but might still come from a different source. The thought isn’t even fully formed, but he feels it lodge in the (cavernous, usually vacant of late) space his brain reserves for creative inspiration. Heat and light as a stand-in for something. Something about the essence of beauty and life. That’s all. Impossible, vague, yet somehow appealing as a project.

The wind howls and rattles the windows. He luxuriates for no more than fifteen minutes, as per Quentin’s advice. He soaps himself up limb by limb, discovering new bruises as he goes. He saves his shredded knee for last, gritting his teeth. None of the scrapes are deep, but they cover a patch of skin as big as his palm. He lifts himself out of the tub, pats his knee dry and covers it with a square of sterile gauze, then bundles up in the comfy sleepwear. He considers diving into the big four-poster bed, chasing the oblivion of sleep before the fire dwindles completely.

Instead, he pads down the hallway. He can be good company while Quentin prepares for his bake sale or whatever the hell it is he’s working on. It’s the least he can do. It’s the only thing he wants to do.

Chapter Text

Eliot hovers in the kitchen doorway, just out of sight.

Quentin is at the marble island doing something forearm-centric with a rolling pin, his face amber in the flickering candlelight like a goddamn renaissance painting. It’s not Eliot’s style to creep, and the kitchen is one big hearth drawing him in, but he lingers another moment. Cookies are piled everywhere on the counter, and a pie is cooling on the windowsill.

Maybe it’s the unusual quiet, or the painkillers Quentin gave him, but he feels stuck in a waking vision of past eras, of lives spent tied to the daily movements of the sun and moon and tides, and there’s something captivating about it. He likes his life as it is, he likes New York as it is, likes his phone and his steam shower and having at least a modicum of his human rights acknowledged, praise be to Saint Marsha, may she rest in peace. He has never in his life been deluded enough to entertain nostalgia for days of yore. But the light is beautiful in here, and the kitchen smells are comforting, and he’s allowed to compartmentalize good things from time to time.

He watches Quentin sweep an errant lock of hair from his brow with the back of his wrist. Watches as he munches absently on a cookie, as he jabs a finger at the air like he’s doing math on an invisible chalkboard, lips moving. Okay, Eliot hears him whisper. Okay. That’s done. Just the shortbread now.

He watches Quentin lick cookie crumbs from his lips and thinks of how easy it would be to dive over this particular cliff. He’d have Quentin squirming in the palm of his hand, quite literally. He wants that. Wants to see this man turn pink all over by the light of a fucking candle. Eliot may look and feel like he tried to shave with a cheese grater, but that doesn’t mean he should lurk and sulk like the Phantom of the Opera.

He clears his throat and shuffles into the room as Quentin looks up. He posts up on a kitchen stool and elevates his throbbing leg on a second stool.

“I though you might just go straight to bed after you warmed up,” Quentin says.

Eliot smiles and wiggles his eyebrows. “Tempting. But I feel refreshed. I’m a new man, Quen—ow.” He touches his fingers to his swollen lips. “Quentin.”

“Well, good. This room will be warmer through the night, what with the fireplace and the oven, and I can make a nice setup for you on the couch.”

Eliot hums his thanks. He’s already noticed a bedroll and some pillows piled on the floor in the great room.

“And you can just call me Q, if it hurts to talk. Or hey, you. I don’t mind.”

Q, then.” He speaks more carefully, forcing himself to slow down. “I’m usually rather proud of my oral dexterity. The thingth I take for granted, you know?” He sneaks a cookie from a nearby pile. He chews cautiously.

Quentin purses his lips and shakes his head, biting back a reply that Eliot desperately wants to hear. Of course he wants to. He meant to make Quentin think about kissing him, to imagine it—that’s how flirting works, why pretend otherwise—and he knows he’s succeeded. He knows it like he knows his own name.

“Well? Don’t hold back on my account,” Eliot says.

Quentin sets aside the rolling pin and lets one of those weirdly enchanting bashful smiles take over his face. He changes the temperature dial on the oven and marks something down in a notebook with a grease pencil. When that’s done, he looks Eliot square in the face, his own face inscrutable.

Eliot readies himself to hear whatever Quentin’s version of flirting is—a retort about the dexterity required to speak parseltongue or some such thing—and instead Quentin opens his mouth and says, “You don’t need to try to impress me. I’m—it’s just—fancy technique is  . . .” he trails off and waves a hand. “Wasted on me.” 

Eliot almost says, all reflex, we’ll see about that. He wants to feel affronted, he feels he should make a show of umbrage, because fancy technique is what he has to offer. Masterful technique. Loads of it. But he takes a beat. Mustn’t overwhelm the poor boy. He touches the roof of his mouth with his tongue behind closed lips and doesn’t say a word.

He waits for Quentin to say something like I’m not all that experienced when it comes to these things, to which he will reply A journey of a thousand miles starts with one step, Q, with a certain trademark lift in his voice—but instead Quentin pops a morsel of cookie into his mouth and while chewing says—he says—“You’ll see. I have two speeds: total standstill, and galloping enthusiasm. I mean, if I want you, it’s—um. I’m pathetically simple.”

And Eliot. Well. Eliot sits up straight, shifting his center of gravity forward on the kitchen stool ever so sightly. You’ll see? Enthusiasm is—you can’t just come straight out and—simple isn’t—

And Quentin carries on, oblivious—really, can he be?—to the effect he’s having. Quentin shrugs. “Anything fancy just seems like gilding the lily. I’m an all-in sort of person, once I get going.”

“Once you get going,” Eliot says, imagining. Captivated. 

Quentin makes a take-it-or-leave it gesture, a little flip of his hand, before picking up a spatula to maneuver cookies from a baking sheet. It might be simultaneously the most vulnerable and the most carefree thing he’s ever seen a person do.

Eliot feels his chest expand and contract, and he wills his heart to stop its foolish hammering. He curses the patch of ice that sent him flying, curses asphalt for existing, curses winter itself for whatever role it played in making his mouth so useless in this moment. He wonders if it might be acceptable to just skip the kissing and bend Quentin over the sink and—

“Do you think that makes us incompatible?” Quentin asks, trying for all the world to come across casual. Looking everywhere but at Eliot.

“Hmm? Um, no, I think some common ground is . . . pretty likely.”

Quentin looks at him now, his smile a touch less shy than before. “Just maybe not tonight, while you’re still arguably concussed. Given that I have no chill.”

“Not tonight. Noted.” Eliot nods and grins, which only hurts a little.

“I’m sure with a little time you’ll recover your full abilities, whatever they are.”

Eliot leans forward onto his elbows, hoping to mask the shiver that is so rudely giving him away. “Whatever they are. I’ll show you whatever they are. Brat.”

Quentin’s face is tipped down and obscured by his hair, but his Adam’s apple bobs in his throat. He carries on slicing his circle of buttery dough into triangles and arranging them on a metal sheet. “As for your knee, you’ll be able to bend the joint, like to walk, but kneeling on it is gonna be impossible for a while. Will that pose a big issue? With your work or anything?” He looks up.

Eliot’s mouth forms several shapes, mutely, somewhat painfully, before he responds. “What did you just say to me? Did you just ask me if I get on my knees for money?”

The crimson blush that creeps up Quentin’s neck is exactly as delicious as Eliot had hoped. “If you need to make bike deliveries again! Or . . . bowling involves—um, deep knee bends, right?”

“A bowling alley bartender doesn’t—doesn’t demonstrate bowling. There isn’t a bowling subcategory of flair bartending.” He straightens his spine and sits up tall. He wants to understand Quentin’s mind. Like, right this instant. What on earth?

Quentin chuckles and shrugs, all innocence. “You seem to have a few jobs. You could be . . . a tailor, I don’t know.” His voice goes from high-strung squeak to breathy whisper.

“A tailor. Bless you. I’m pretty sure you’re not the ghost of a 19th-century tycoon, but you do get out of the house, correct? You know about the internet? Drones? Hoverboards?”

“Tailors exist nowadays!” Quentin says.

Eliot glances down at the stretchy, shapeless grey harem pants he’s been given and raises an eyebrow. “Do they, Q?” He helps himself to another chocolate chip cookie from the massive pile.

“First of all, I refuse to acknowledge wheeled scooters as hoverboards. It’s not even—well, whatever.” He blinks a few times in quick succession as if batting away the offensive notion with his eyelashes, then frowns and shakes his head. “And for the record, I do own dress pants. Those joggers belong to one of my housemates. He’s kind of a hippie but he’s tall like you.” The tips of Quentin’s ears turn red when he says this and he looks away, breaking eye contact. Interesting.

“These are comfortable. I’m beginning to appreciate the merits of a roomy crotch.” Again he feels the impulse to pounce, like a cat with a mouse, to tip the interaction over a line decisively, but he holds back. He feels a strange ache wash over him, this time nothing related to his accident. He relaxes his posture and picks up the grease pencil to give his hands something to do.

“I, um, want to thank you. You’re being really kind to me during what is, honestly, a weird week. So—thanks.”

Quentin makes a cautious smile. “I don’t mind the company. It’s kind of an adventure, right? And if you murder me, think how much they’ll be able to charge for tours of this place.”

Eliot picks up the notebook and flips to a fresh page. “About that. Why exactly do you live here? It’s lovely, but it doesn’t scream twenty-something crash pad.”

“I suppose that’s true,” Quentin says. “Somebody left this building to The Met Museum as a bequest, and the Met is getting ready to restore it to its original glory. In the meantime, they want to have someone physically present. My friend Julia’s mom is on the board of directors, so Julia got us in. We keep it from burning down in exchange for shockingly reasonable rent.”

Eliot sketches Quentin’s face idly, intrigued by the liveliness he sees there. He tries to keep his own expression neutral. He stops himself from saying What’s Julia’s mom’s name? I might know her. “Well,” he says instead, “Now there’s no point in murdering you. The Met would never do something so gauche as to charge tourists to see a haunted house.”

“Good point.” Quentin opens the oven door and checks the thermometer before sliding the shortbread triangles in and closing the door again, and—cute butt. Eliot considers scrapping his current portrait and starting a new one.

“Is it true there’s a lap pool in the basement and a conservatory upstairs?”

Quentin laughs. “Sadly, no. There’s a pretty nice sitting room upstairs with huge windows and a lot of plants. We should go see it when the sun is up, if you feel like dealing with three flights of stairs.”

Eliot can’t remember the last time he spent the night with someone other than Margo. He doesn’t do overnights. He might—want that. He does want that. For a fleeting moment, he finds himself hoping desperately that the power doesn’t come blazing back, lighting the way for him to exit stage right. Not yet.

“So, what type of bake sale are you preparing for here? I see I interrupted quite a production.”

“Um. I’m mostly just using up dairy products so they don’t go bad. Or—well, I was already going to bake sourdough and shortbread just to snack on tomorrow, and then once the power went out I realized I had a lot of butter on hand so I added pie and cookies. I like being busy.” He says this last part with a shrug, flustered, like he’s not buying his own explanation for the observably outrageous level of baking intensity. And, honestly, that’s a refreshing degree of self-awareness as far as Eliot is concerned.

He does some shading on his portrait while Quentin busies himself with the hot oven again. He mulls over whether to probe further—What’s tomorrow? I like snacks. Can I come?

Instead, it’s Quentin who probes. “You said earlier this a weird week for you. Why so? Is it just the holidays, or something more?”

He sighs. “It’s more the non-holidays that make it weird. The in-between days where everyone’s out of town and there’s nothing to do. It makes me reflect too much.”

“That’s what I like about this week, actually, but I’m weird like that. I’m also very good at avoiding reflecting. ”

“Hence staying busy.”

Quentin raises his eyebrows and glances at the mounds of baked goods. “There’s no way I’ll eat all this food. I keep telling myself I can freeze it for when my housemates come home—if the power ever comes back on—but that’s not even the point. So, I guess what I’m saying is, maybe you just need a useless hobby.”

“My whole life is already a useless hobby. I finished a big work project recently, something super glamorous and sexy and totally engrossing but not actually right for me, if I’m honest with myself.” He cradles his swollen cheek in his hand, sore after so much talking. He thinks he must look like an old-timey person with mumps or an impacted tooth.

“The ‘mister right now’ of work projects. Not mister right. Not your soul mate.”

“Not my soul mate. Exactly. And now I have this gap of time in which I can’t help but think it over, and I don’t like the conclusion I am coming to.”

“You need to break up with your job.”

He laughs. Breaking up has never been difficult for him. “It’s not the breaking up. It’s the admitting that I want something more. Whether or not that thing is within my reach.”

“That is a tricky step.” Quentin coughs and focuses on sorting the cooled cookies into a glass cookie jar. “Which project was it? The bodega basement illicit haircutting?”

“Oh—no. I creative directed the Bergdorf holiday windows.”

“What, seriously?” Quentin lifts his head, his face bright. “The huge collages, with all the color? I love those windows. Those are a big deal.” He whistles.

“I told you. Sexy. Who would be crazy enough to walk away? It’s a huge New York tradition, especially for tourists. That was me once, you know, believe it or not. The bright-eyed newcomer. I love being a part of producing that for people, and I have a lot of creative freedom, and it’s an honor to be rehired every year, but . . . it’s advertising, at the end of the day. I’m not so sure I want that to be the main thing I accomplish in a year.”

“So, are you an artist?”

“That’s what I put when I file my taxes. And it does sometimes involve crawling around on my knees.” He pauses to allow Quentin’s hot-oven flush to be replaced by a true blush. “All entirely G-rated, mind you. The crawling. Not the art. Not all of the art. In any case, art doesn’t get rated that way.” He’s rambling, he realizes, almost like he’s—self-conscious.

“You never hear anyone say they’re an artist unless they make a living at it. I mean—shit, that was rude of me. Not to mention weirdly capitalist and, like, commodifying. I’m not questioning your talent.”

“No worries. Artists are some of nature’s most insecure animals. Nothing you could imply would be worse than the things I tell myself.” Eliot shrugs. “I’ve had my good years and my not so good years. I do a lot of other stuff to keep from getting stuck in a rut, like cutting hair and serving drinks to bowling leagues, who by the way are some of the best people you’ll ever meet. I’m . . . having a slow period for the time being.” He doesn’t mention that he’s been struggling with a creative block since the last time he sold something big.

“Well, I’m no expert, but I think a person who made those displays could have their choice of a next job. I still think about those white crystal dinosaur skeletons. I can’t believe you made that display. And the candy-colored chess set. And—wait. The green one, where it looks like a forest sprite is kind of hiding in a jungle den with his animal friends? It reminds me of Fillory. You know, the kids’ stories.”

He smiles. “That’s the same thing Margo said. My best friend.”

He’s starting to feel tired in his bones, which at least means he’ll have a hope of sleeping well. He finishes the quick portrait he was doodling, adds his signature out of habit, and puts the grease pencil down. He flips the pages of the notebook closed.

“This is the last tray,” Quentin says. “Then we can get you comfortable. You must be dead on your feet.”

He’s about to make a reflexive joke about his stamina when from somewhere in the house comes a shrill noise that startles both of them. An alarm, but not. When Eliot places it he can’t help but laugh, astonished. It’s the sound of a land line phone ringing.

#

Quentin picks up the antique receiver in the mahogany-clad office down the hall, flummoxed by the strangeness of the action, the unfamiliar heaviness of the old-fashioned handset. It must be made of cast iron. “Um. Hello?”

It’s Julia’s voice he hears coming through, from across the ocean. “Q! Oh, good. I hoped this would work.”

“Hi, Jules. Is something wrong? Are you okay?”

“I’m fine, I just woke up in Paris and saw the news about the blackout. I was worried about you, and you’re not answering texts so I assume your mobile is dead. The whole city is out!”

“Oh. Yeah, I’m okay. Jesus, I always thought this phone was just decorative.”

“So did I, but then Penny was rambling about how land lines have their own separate power grid so I found the number in an old email. Oh, Q. I wish there was something I could do. Is the power outage ruining your plans for your big day of antisocial fun?”

“Ha ha. As a matter of fact, no. Perks of living in a house that predates electricity. I’m perfectly comfortable.”

“Wait, why are you basically whispering?”

“Um. I kind of have company.”

“Shut up! What time is it there?” He hears Julia gasp, then squeal. “A late night guest. I’m so proud of you. Living it up while mom and dad are away. Does he or she have a strong jaw? You love a strong jaw.”

“Yes, but. It’s not—I mean it might be—but—.” He starts again. “He does, okay, but I don’t exactly know that much about him. He was here delivering groceries, and I flirted with him for like two seconds, and then he left, and then he wiped out on his bike in the middle of the blackout and I couldn’t just leave him in the street bleeding.”

“Okay, so, is he a college student, or . . .”

“What? He’s, I don’t know, age appropriate.”

“I’m just saying, not a lot of adults can make a living in New York on Taskrabbit tips.”

“All work has dignity, Jules.”

“I know, jeez.” After a pause, she says, “If you hired a sex worker, you can just tell me, you know. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it.”

“If I—Jules! He’s not. At least—I mean, I don’t know. He’s pretty forward, but he’s, like, very well spoken, with good manners and a nice wristwatch. And he smells like a person who has access to regular showers.”

“That’s . . . not different from a sex worker.”

“Okay, but. Why can’t someone just flirt with me without an incentive, is that so unbelievable?” He tries to focus on keeping his voice down without hissing at Julia. “He’s an artist, I guess, and he’s supplementing his income with odd jobs.”

“I’m sorry I said anything! Of course it’s believable that someone would make a move on you, you’re amazing. I called ‘cuz I miss you and I was worried about you being all alone in the cold, dark city. Q, I’m sorry.”

“It’s fine.” He still feels defensive, though. And a little uncertain now, honestly. “He had something to do with the Bergdorf holiday windows, that’s a legit job, right?”

“Hah! Well, if he worked for Waugh and survived he must have a strong constitution.”

“Who’s Waugh?”

“A somewhat famous and mercurial sculptor who, to quote my mother, has no business slumming at Bergdorf’s,” she says. “Shit, don’t tell this guy I said that. Art world gossip is so toxic.”

“I can’t imagine it will come up.”

“Listen, I’m glad you made a connection. I’m sure you’re taking good care of him and I love that you don’t care if he’s a grifter.”

“Jules!”

“I’m joking!”

“Listen, he’s—” Giving me make-out eyes like crazy. Please let him not be a grifter. “He wiped out pretty bad. He just needs a warm place to be. And he’s not setting off any alarm bells, for whatever reason.”

“Listen, you have good instincts about people. You should trust your gut.”

“Okay Jules. Love you.”

“But text me his picture as soon as the WiFi is back on!”

“Good night, Jules. Or good morning. Whatever.”

He hangs up the phone and stands for a moment in the freezing-cold office wondering whether that was one of the stranger conversations this phone has witnessed. In the quiet that follows, he picks out an unfamiliar sound coming from down the hall. It sounds, unaccountably, like music.

Chapter Text

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.