by Hyakunichisou 13 (百日草 十三)
By the time Daniel got the thing called the bonnet nut unscrewed and the thing called the faucet stem pulled out, his hands were sweating badly enough to slip on the wrench handle. He rubbed his palms on what had been a decent pair of jeans, several months of home ownership ago, and looked from the gunky cylinder of metal to the slightly blurry image frozen in the centre of his laptop screen.
The size was about right. The shape was about right. The level of grossness was higher than expected. Daniel wiped the cylinder with a cut-up old T-shirt and poked dubiously at the wad of scored rubber at one end. That was the thing he had to replace, apparently. He dropped the entire piece into a ziplock bag, grabbed his coat and his cane, and headed down to Queen Street.
On this Saturday afternoon, the hardware store was hopping. Daniel made his way past a couple brandishing paint chips and arguing about what colour chartreuse was and someone testing the heft of snow shovels, and found his way into the aisle of plumbing supplies.
Washers, confirming what the video had told him, did indeed come in a variety of shapes and sizes. He scanned through the selection of little plastic packages three times, but nothing looked quite like the black rubber disk he was looking for. Eventually he managed to flag down a red-aproned teenager, who led him back to the same section, glanced at the wall of packages, and said, “Yeah, no, we’re out of those.”
“Okay. Thanks.” Daniel shoved the plastic bag back into his coat pocket. His leg was showing signs of having had enough of this handyman posturing for one day, and the next closest hardware store was a ten-minute streetcar ride away on a weekday, never mind the TTC’s archaic weekend schedule, and there was a gaping hole where his kitchen tap had been–
“You could try across the road,” the kid said.
“Across the road?”
“Yeah. Hart’s? It’s just across and a few doors down? The one with the wooden stars in the window? He’s got all kinds of stuff.”
Gentrification had made tentative inroads into this part of Queen, but in between the coffee shops and artisanal butchers, there were still second-hand appliance places and storefronts with nothing in them but curtains and dusty plants. Daniel had walked this strip plenty of times since his move, and never really noticed the shabby 1920s facade with its garland of wooden stars and string of star-shaped vintage Christmas lights. Now he saw the neatly lettered sign propped in the window, black Sharpie on the end of a peeling old plank: J. HART, ARCHITECTURAL SALVAGE, HARDWARE, BITS AND BOBS.
A bell, a real brass bell on a curl of metal over the door, jangled as he entered. The store had an antique shop’s smell of wood and dust. To his left were shelves, to his right a many-drawered cabinet, index cards written by that same hand tacked and tucked where they would be visible: Doorknobs, locks, hinges, keys; Switches and switch plates; House numbers and door knockers.
“Hello,” a voice called from deeper in the store. “I’m back here. Feel free to look around.”
Daniel walked towards the voice, past Tiles and Kitchenware and Hooks, rings, various, until he reached a clearing in the shelves. A man perched on a stool behind a wooden counter big enough to have had the store built around it. A tarnished door lock was spread out in pieces on newspaper in front of him.
The man, presumably J. Hart, looked up. “Hey, there. Anything I can help you find?”
“Yeah, do you carry washers? For a kitchen tap.” Daniel heard the doubt in his own voice.
“I do. Do you know what size?”
Daniel took the plastic bag out of his pocket. Hart slid the newspaper covered with screws and springs and bits of cast metal carefully to one side. Lines around his eyes crinkled as he examined the washer: not old age, though he did have a sprinkle of white hairs among the dark at each temple, but lines earned by doing things in the sun and wind. The sleeves of his faded plaid shirt were rolled up to his elbows, leaving his solidly muscled forearms bare.
“Pretty sure I do have one of these,” he said, “but do you mind if I make a suggestion?”
Daniel pressed his lips together on his reflexive It’s fine, I’m fine, I’ve got it. “Go ahead.”
Hart fished under the counter and brought out a screwdriver. He began unscrewing the small screw that held the washer to the end of the faucet stem. “Do you know how long this has been in use?”
“No, sorry. I’ve only been in the house for about six months.”
“These things will last you a good long while, but they’re not indestructible. Twenty, thirty years of worn washers, and you might be looking at a new one. I think–yep, see this?” He had pried the rubber disk off; now he ran a thumbnail along the lip of the metal. “See how this edge is nicked? You’ll never get a good seal with a damaged cartridge, no matter how tightly you screw the washer on. You’re better off replacing the entire piece.” He lowered himself from the stool. “I’m pretty sure I’ve got a few back here somewhere. It’s a standard size.”
His voice was deep and thoughtful, with not quite a drawl but a relaxed cadence that said not from the city. Despite the vagueness of back here somewhere, he led Daniel straight to another set of shelves farther from the door, turning his broad shoulders to fit between them and reaching up past Daniel’s eye level to lift down a plastic package. He put the new and the old cartridge side by side, nodded, and handed them both to Daniel. “There you are.”
“Thanks,” Daniel said, and followed him back to the counter.
“So you’re sprucing up your new house?” Hart asked as he rang up the purchase on an iPad.
“More like trying to keep it from falling apart.” Daniel had always wondered why friends who had just bought houses suddenly had no weekends as well as no money. Now he knew.
Hart smiled. “Yep. Old places are like that. Worth it, mind you.”
“I guess you have a lot of vintage parts?” There were some grating Seventies repairs grafted onto the solid core of Daniel’s Twenties house, and if he ever managed to cross off all the parts of his growing to-do list pertaining to things leaking, rotting, and freezing, he had some ideas about period-appropriate wood trim and lighting fixtures.
“I do. Modern parts too, although I sell less than I did, now that they’ve opened up across the road.” Hart dropped the new part into Daniel’s plastic bag with the old, and handed the bag over.
“They sent me over here. I’ll try you first next time.”
“I’ll look out for you.” Hart extended his hand. “Jim Hart, proprieter.”
Daniel shook it. “Daniel McCreedy, uh, old-house-haver.”
“A pleasure. Have yourself a fine afternoon, Daniel,” Hart said, and smiled again even as he turned back to the lock he’d been working on.
Ten minutes later, Daniel felt the warm satisfaction that after six months had still not begun to fade, as he let himself through the front door of his old, weird little house, that was his and no one else’s.
It was owner-built, back in the days when that meant that the guy whose name was on the deed had been the one using the hammer. There was no basement; the water heater lived in a cupboard in the bathroom, and the whole place was heated by a gas appliance that looked like a wood-burning stove in a corner of the living room. Neither of the two bedrooms could have fit a queen-size bed and still left room to get the closet doors open. The only reason it topped eight hundred square feet was that someone at some point had enclosed the front porch. Daniel’s brother had suggested that maybe a person who took a full minute to get up the four front steps might consider a condo instead, but Daniel was done with living in boxes in the sky. Having forcefully been reminded of human mortality, something in him wanted to invest in something real.
Anyway, days when he couldn’t get upstairs were why he’d splurged on the super-sized couch.
The tap went back together a lot faster than it had come apart. When he turned it on, water came out. When he turned it off, water didn’t come out. Daniel limped a victory jig once around the kitchen, and decided to quit while he was ahead.
The following week, after a bad night followed by a stupidly irritating workday, he hit the switch for the overhead light in his bedroom, and it gave a gentle pop and blinked out again.
“For fuck’s sake,” Daniel said out loud, glaring at the ceiling.
The fixture had been buzzing and flickering for a while. He kept meaning to stop on the way home from work and pick up some lightbulbs, but he’d never quite managed it. He still hadn’t gotten his full energy back, and even after a good day at work he didn’t any left for much more than heating up dinner and lying on the couch listening to music until he fell asleep.
He turned on the lamp on the bedside table and let himself flop down onto the bed. His right side ached from his hip to his toes. Too much standing, too much sitting, too much weather, too much whatever the fuck it was. He turned his face into the pillow and groaned, in at least as much frustration as pain. Then he peeled off his work clothes, pulled on his bathrobe, and creaked slowly down the stairs to the bathroom.
Pain medication had a disturbing tendency to stop working over the long term, and despite recent events, Daniel planned on having a lot of long term ahead of him. He had a protocol he’d worked out, by order of potency, so he could save the heavy guns for the really bad days: hot bath/heating pad, over the counter NSAIDs, smoking up–only one of his doctors knew about that step–and prescription pills. He didn’t let himself skip any of the stages.
He filled the tub with water just this side of unbearable. After he turned the tap off, he reached for a basket on the shelf above the toilet. He chose a scented ball at random and tossed it resentfully into the steaming water, watching as it fizzed itself into tangerine froth and the scent of orange peel. He did this sometimes, pretending he was giving himself pleasure instead of therapy. He generally wasn’t fooled.
He set the ipod in the speaker unit on the back of the toilet to shuffle, hung his bathrobe up, and inched into the water. He’d lined the back wall of the tub enclosure with inflatable cushions held on with suction cups, so he could lean back in a semblance of comfort and still keep his legs under the surface. The bath bomb effervesced to a deep rose. He eyed it suspiciously, waiting for dried flower petals or some such pretty junk that he’d have to dredge out of the tub drain afterwards. At least the pink staining the water camouflaged the red lines that slithered over his hip and down his leg, puckering the top of his thigh, radiating out from the side of his knee, fragmenting into a galaxy of smaller, whiter scars towards his ankle. At least the refraction of the water disguised a leg that would never be quite the right shape again, courtesy of someone else’s monetary lack of attention and his own bad fucking luck.
Daniel forced his thoughts out of that groove. He stared at the one cracked tile at eye level at the other end of the tub, caulk smeared over the cracks to keep the water from seeping behind it. Replacing it would be an easy enough job. He could do that chipped one behind the sink at the same time. Though they probably hadn’t made tiles in this grim band-aid colour for forty years. Maybe Hart would have something he could use. He imagined bringing a shard of the tile into the shop, Hart taking it from him, eyes lighting in thought. Hart’s large hands would be warm, smelling of salt and sawdust; he’d run his thumb over the gloss…
Unexpectedly, under the heated water, his penis reacted with cautious interest. Post-orgasmic endorphins were a footnote to the protocol, subject to the truly unfair inverse relationship between how badly his leg ached and his ability to produce any. Still, Daniel slid his hand down and cupped himself. The pressure of his hand felt good, comforting as much as arousing, but that was fine; he’d always required time to warm up. He thought of the soft cotton sleeves folded neatly up to Hart’s elbows, just the right amount of hair over summer-browned skin. Hart’s strong fingers had handled the screwdriver with practised confidence. Daniel closed his eyes and stroked himself and pictured those hands on his belt, on his shirt buttons, curving warm around his jaw…
It didn’t stop feeling good, but a few minutes in, his dick lost interest anyway. The water was cooling. Daniel’s stomach rumbled; it had been a long time since mid-afternoon coffee. He sighed and reached for the drain plug.
On Sunday, he went up to his brother’s for dinner. Greg and Judy’s house was of the same vintage as his, though built for a very different demographic. Last year they’d dug down and finished the basement as what Judy called a rec room and Greg called a man cave. This year’s project was a reno that would expand their kitchen to just about the size of Daniel’s entire first floor.
“Seriously, hire some pros and you can get that second bedroom done in a week,” said Greg, spooning out mac and cheese for Daniel’s nephews, gourmet mac and cheese for the adults. “Take out the lathe and plaster, drywall the whole thing.”
One wall of the second bedroom looked as though someone had used it for batting practise. “I like lathe and plaster. And it’s a job I can do myself.” He could hardly make it look worse than it did now.
“Yeah, but when are you going to get around to it, though?”
“I’ll get around to it when I get around to it.” The insurance money had whittled the mortgage down to a sum that didn’t give him cold shivers when he thought about it, but he was never going to have the combined resources of an IT manager and a real estate lawyer. Anyway, unlike his job, making things in his own house right with his own two hands made him feel like he wasn’t just wasting his limited time on earth pushing virtual paper around.
“Well, let me know if you need an assist.”
“Yeah. Thanks,” Daniel said, and gritted his teeth.
At the end of the evening, as Daniel was putting on his coat, Greg took his keys down from the hook near the door. Daniel tensed.
“Let me give you a lift home,” Greg said.
“We’ll be there in fifteen minutes. It’s, what, over an hour by TTC?”
“Jesus, Greg, I’ve taken the TTC for years, it’s fine.”
“Don’t you trust my driving?”
“Can you please just–”
“How long are you going let this go on?” demanded Greg.
Judy put a hand on her husband’s shoulder. “Sweetie,” she said, “knock it off.” She leaned over and embraced Daniel one-armed. “It was good to see you. Take care of yourself.”
“You too. Thanks for dinner.”
He and Greg eyed one another warily. Then Greg shrugged and looked away, and Daniel let the moment pass. He thought of clever ways he could have answered Greg’s question all four blocks to the subway station.
On Wednesday night, he turned the oven on, stuck a frozen chicken pot pie into it, and went to lie down and listen to an old, familiar album. When he got up to flip to side two, the oven was cold and the pie still freezer-solid.
Half an hour of internetting suggested any number of expensive and life-threatening electrical problems that could be at fault, but one he could check was the fuses. Daniel hadn’t even known that stoves had fuses, but he flipped up the top panel of the Kenmore that had come with the house–it was so old that its clock was still the kind with hands–and there they were. One did seem to have a snapped wire through its centre where the others were unbroken. He reached for it, had second thoughts, and went through the acrobatics required to reach the plug behind the stove and pull it out of the wall. That done, he wriggled the fuse out. He thought about walking down to the hardware store, grimaced, and ate peanut butter on toast for dinner.
Hart probably didn’t carry fuses, he told himself on his way home the next night, taking the streetcar that went along Queen rather than the one that stopped closer to his house. Still, he might was well try Hart’s first. The big store would be open until nine.
The star lights were illuminated in Hart’s window. Hart was at the counter again, a laptop open in front of him.
“Hello again. How’d the plumbing repair go?” he asked.
“Good. It’s not dripping, anyway.”
“That’s what’s we’re looking for. What can I help you with today?”
“Do you sell these?” Daniel handed him the fuse.
“A stove fuse? Let’s see if I’ve got any in this size.” Daniel followed him to a pegboard wall hung with plastic bubble containers. Most of the contents might as well have been rocketship parts to Daniel, though he was sure he’d be back for some of them in the future.
“Here we go.” Hart took down a package of two fuses.
“Thanks. Uh, I guess they don’t sell them individually?”
Hart chuckled. “You’re not a real homeowner until you have a shelf full of half-used packages and screws in random sizes.”
As they went back to the counter, Hart said, “I see you’re a Disney fan.”
“What? Oh, this.” On the weekend, while he’d been playing a video game with six-year-old Andrew, Pete had quietly covered his cane with stickers of the blonde girl from Frozen. Daniel had left them on, because what the hell; it wasn’t worse than aluminium and grey plastic. “My younger nephew’s obsessed with that movie. I could probably sing all the songs, and I don’t think I’ve ever actually watched it all the way through.”
“I may have seen it a few times myself.” Hart handed him the package. “Good luck with the stove.”
Daniel managed to get both the fuse in its slot and the stove plug back into the outlet. When he turned the stove on, the elements started to glow. He felt like a magician.
The problem with the overhead light in his bedroom turned out to be something other than the lightbulb. After five minutes balancing on top of a stepstool with both hands in the air to find this out–and dropping one of the fixture’s tiny screws, which rolled under the bed and into a crack in the floor, never to be seen again–Daniel collapsed onto his coverlet and panted as if he’d run the four-minute mile. Both of his legs were trembling.
“I’ll get you, my pretty,” he gasped, and gave the fixture the finger.
Above the main aisle of Hart’s shop, from the door to the counter, hung a line of period light fixtures, wired up and radiant through their ruby and emerald and swirled caramel glass. Daniel caught a few of the dangling price tags to read them, and winced.
“Those are all vintage, with modern wiring,” Hart said behind him, emerging from an aisle holding a pair of embossed door hinges.
“I think I’m looking for something, uh, smaller,” Daniel said.
“These are definitely showpieces,” Hart said. “And they will set you back a fair bit.”
“Is that something that anyone can do?” Daniel asked. “Put in a new light fixture?”
“Oh, sure. Read up on it, follow the instructions, remember to turn the power off before you touch anything. Of course, if electricity makes you nervous, there’s no shame in calling in the professionals.”
“I’d like to learn to do it myself.”
“I hear you. Still, nobody has the time and energy to do everything on their own. Might as well delegate the jobs that don’t appeal to you as the ones that do.”
None of the fixtures at the other hardware store seemed particularly suited to the room, and Daniel decided to hold off for a while. The bedside lamp was adequate, and it was only his bedroom; he couldn’t imagine anyone seeing it anytime soon, and if he ever did manage to get someone else into his bed again, he hoped they’d have better things to think about than what the ceiling looked like. Then a cold snap came, retreated, came again and stayed, and he was kept busy with things like getting the gas heater serviced and figuring out what to do about the truly astonishing amount of draft coming in at the edges of the single-paned windows.
He had to take a weekday morning off work for a follow-up appointment with his physiotherapist, something that always made him cranky. He had to go south to catch the Queen streetcar anyway, so on the way he consoled himself by dropping into his neighbourhood’s tiny indie coffee shop, which made an ambrosial almond milk latte. They also sold cake pops, and the hell with the fact that it was nine o’clock in the morning.
He hit the end of the rush hour and the beginning of the dog-walking, stroller-pushing hour, so there was a line. He pulled out his phone and started adding some new acquisitions to his Fucking Physio playlist, featuring songs with a lot of screaming and/or swearing.
“Good morning,” said a familiar voice behind him, and he turned to see Hart, in a black-and-red plaid lumberjack jacket that looked like he’d earned it.
“Morning,” Daniel said, feeling a smile break out of him with embarrassing intensity.
“How did the cocking go?”
Daniel’s mind swirled in an unexpected direction. “Sorry?”
Right; Hart had told him about applying removable caulk over the window gaps. “I can really tell the difference. It’s a good thing I didn’t start with the front windows, though, because the first time I used the caulk I go got goo all over everyth–me? Oh, uh–” With relief, he gave the barista his order, then turned back to Hart. “What can I get you?”
“Oh, that’s not necessary.”
“Please, let me pay you back for your advice.”
“A hot chocolate made with soy, then. Thank you, that’s very kind of you.”
Steam curling up from their drinks in the sunny chill, they walked together in the direction of Hart’s store. A half-empty streetcar rumbled past them, heading downtown; Daniel didn’t even care.
“What’s the next project?”
“I’m thinking of painting the kitchen cupboards. They’re this Seventies fake wood grain, and I thought I could live with it for a while, but they’re really, really ugly and they make the back of the house so dark. That’s unless something new doesn’t break.”
“I don’t sell paint, but I could lend you a couple of good reference books on period colours, if you’re looking for inspiration,” Hart offered.
“Really? That would be great. I have, um, an appointment now, but could I drop by maybe on the weekend and get them?”
“I’ll put them aside for you,” Hart promised, and they parted at his star-filled window.
He didn’t get to Hart’s until the middle of Saturday afternoon, which turned out to be a busy time. He lurked in the aisles, sorting idly through shoeboxes of mismatched cupboard door pulls and lamp finials, until the cluster of treasure-seekers and people explaining complex, unexpected home repair problems with the aid of smartphone photos dispersed. He clearly wasn’t the first one in the neighborhood to have discovered Hart.
When he saw Daniel, Hart smiled and reached under the counter. He brought out two books, one slim and glossy and the other a small but chunky tome with a worn fabric cover, and slid them across the counter to Daniel.
Daniel picked up the smaller one. It broke open to a sheaf of coloured plates in the centre: pale green and lemon yellow kitchens with massive stand-alone sinks and checkerboard linoleum floors.
“That’s an old one,” Hart said.
Daniel flipped gently through the thick, dun-coloured pages. Each chapter started with a line drawing of a bobbed-haired woman wearing a long string of pearls. “This is very cool. Thank you. I’ll take good care of them.” He wrapped the books tightly in a clean record store bag, and put them in the largest compartment of his backpack.
A young woman with bright pink hair emerged from the door behind the counter. “I finished the Grafton inventory,” she said. “It’s ready to dump whenever you want.”
“Thanks, Bisma. Hold off on going live, though; I want to double-check my wants list before you upload it. I’m pretty sure I already have a buyer for those stained glass windows.”
She nodded. Hart stretched his arms above his head. “Can you hold down the fort here for an hour or so?”
“Sure thing.” She took his spot at the counter.
“Are you interested in joining me for a sandwich?” Hart asked, looking at Daniel. “Or do you have things to do?”
He’d heated up a frozen calzone not two hours ago, but there was not one thing on his housework-and-groceries Saturday grind that came even close to the thought of lunch with Hart. “A sandwich sounds great.”
Hart fetched his jacket from the back office. They walked east, past the multiplex and the park and the expensive condos and into the next short block of aging, shabby retail. Daniel wasn’t as familiar with this end of the neighbourhood. He followed Hart into a storefront under a peeling painted sign that said Vashon’s Sporting Goods in a typeface that wasn’t quite old enough to be hip again. Inside was a long, narrow space reminiscent of Hart’s shop, but brighter; instead of shelves there were two-tops surrounded by mismatched chairs and set with cloth napkins and randomly patterned silverware.
The chalkboard menu was a mix of hippie cafe and retro comfort food. Daniel decided on tomato soup and grilled cheese, and Hart ordered a roasted portobello sandwich and a salad that arrived in a bowl large enough to mix plaster in.
“I just realized I only know your name from your sign,” Daniel said, after they had paused their small talk about the neighborhood to let the waiter shoehorn plates and bowls onto the small table.
“Technically, it’s James,” Hart said, unrolling his napkin, “but I prefer Hart. And I know your name from your credit card, but do you go by Dan? Danny?”
“Daniel.” He picked up a crisp, promisingly greasy triangle of bread and cheese. “So how long have you had the business?”
“Must be, oh, fifteen years now,” and Hart launched into a tale of antiquing and salvage that made rescuing mouldings from condemned houses sound like a treasure hunt against time. From there they veered into books (Hart) and music (Daniel) and back to the heartbreak of loving an older home.
“There are a few things most of us want to leave to the experts,” Hart said, chasing the last shreds of carrot around the sides of the bowl, “foundation work, for example, but for the most part, you can do anything you set your mind to. The pros have better tools, and they can do things faster and a little prettier, but not necessarily better, in my experience.”
“I’ve painted apartments before,” Daniel said, “and yeah, it was definitely not pretty.”
“The good thing about painting is that, given enough time and enough paint, you can correct almost anything you decide you don’t like. Mind you, sometimes that can mean a lot of extra paint…”
“That sounds like the voice of experience,” Daniel said, so he could listen to Hart continue to talk, and Hart comically described a friend’s epic struggle with a bedroom that had at one time been crimson with black trim. His voice, Daniel thought, was of a piece with the rest of him, easy and confident and strong. He had a way of making suggestions that made Daniel feel able to cope with anything, that anything was doable with knowledge and care. And it wasn’t the generic you-can-do-it cheering that Daniel had had a bellyful of this past year; he took it to be self-evident that Daniel could pick up a paintbrush or a hammer and do what needed to be done. Hart wasn’t comparing him to the Daniel of before, who’d walked the city for hours with music filigreeing the world around him, who’d accepted rides from friends and taken taxis home from far-flung neighborhoods without fear. Hart only saw the guy with the old house and the cane. Unlike his family and most of his friends, who loved him and worried about him and were so intensely solicitous about getting him back to whatever they thought his normal was that sometimes it made him want to put his fist through the second bedroom’s fractured plaster wall.
“My goodness, Bisma’ll be wondering what hole I fell down,” Hart said, folding his napkin and placing it under the edge of his bowl. He dealt with the cheque while somehow making Daniel feel comfortable letting him pay it, and they walked back to his shop under greying skies.
Hart paused with one hand on his door. “Let me know how the painting goes.”
“Definitely. Thanks again for lunch.”
“It was my pleasure,” Hart said, sounding as though it had been. He disappeared into his shop, and Daniel crossed the road and went into the big hardware store to pick up some paint chips, feeling oddly as though he were cheating when he stopped to look at the aisle of cabinet hardware.
That evening, when he got some sunny Seventies piano rock going and installed himself on his couch to take a closer look at the two books, he found that Hart had tucked his business card into the front of one. He grabbed his tablet and keyed in the url to the website, and promptly went down a rabbit hole of inventively photographed marble mantels and claw-foot bathtubs and leaded glass doors and twelve-foot-high steel-frame windows–things that wouldn’t have fit through his front door, let alone settled comfortably into his modest worker-built home. Visions of reclaimed industrial lofts and three-storey Victorians with wrap-around porches danced in his head, until he came back down to earth, recalled that he had his hands more than full with what he had, and went back to the period illustrations of breakfast nooks instead.
He had a good week. His leg ached no more than bearably, and he reached the end of each day feeling less hollowed out than he had been. He wasn’t optimistic enough to think he’d turned a permanent corner, but he was definitely going to appreciate it while it lasted. One night after dinner he actually felt like he could do something other than lying down until it was time to go to bed, and the feeling so threw him for a loop that he dithered over which album to choose for a good fifteen minutes before realizing he had something else at the back of his mind.
The second bedroom had become the go-to place for things he didn’t want underfoot. In one corner was a drop cloth under a spreading scatter of pry bars, drill bits, screwdrivers he could never remember the proper names of, and other things he’d never needed space for when he’d been a renter. The closet was where he’d stashed the boxes he hadn’t opened since the move. His CDs were mostly music he’d loaded onto his ipod or bought on vinyl or both, but he’d labeled the boxes well, and it didn’t take him long to find what he was looking for.
The evening was as crisp as the year’s first snowfall, forecast for later in the week. A few holiday keeners (or, alternatively, people too lazy to take their lights down every year) brightened the street with blinking red and green outlining their windows or swags of glowing white on their porches. In the impossibly deep sky, the few stars that managed to shine past the city’s wash of streetlights and billboards glinted, smaller and less distinct than the illuminated ones in Hart’s window. Even Queen Street’s hum seemed muted, as though everything had silently moved further away from everything else.
Sitting at Hart’s counter was a man Daniel had never seen before.
“Is Hart around?” Daniel asked, at his greeting.
“No, sorry, he had a thing. Are you looking for anything in particular?”
“I just wanted to drop this off for him.” Daniel pulled the CD out of his pocket.
“I can make sure he gets it.”
He should have put it in a bag or something at least. The idea that Hart might not be in his accustomed place hadn’t even occurred to him. “Do you have a sticky?”
The man rummaged under the counter and came up with a block of russet sticky notes in the shape of an oak leaf, which he slid over the counter toward Daniel, along with a pen. Daniel stood, indecisive, until he started to feel self-conscious, then scribbled This is the CD I was talking about, and his name and number.
“Tales of Mystery and Imagination,” the man read off the side of the CD case. “Isn’t that a book?”
“It’s music inspired by the book.”
“Oh, it should be right up his alley then.” Daniel heard the plastic click against wood as he slid it onto a shelf under the counter.
“So. Thanks,” Daniel said, and beat an awkward retreat.
Outside, he buttoned up his coat against a chill he hadn’t felt so sharply on his way down. He could drop into the cafe for a hot drink, he thought, except he didn’t really need caffeine at this hour, and what he actually wanted probably wasn’t there either.
“Just go home, dude,” he told himself–out loud, to make it stick. He had too much going on in his life to be standing alone on the sidewalk unsuccessfully stalking a–admit it–crush who was way out of his league in more ways than he could count on one hand.
The ding of a streetcar’s bell lanced through the night, making him jump. He crossed over to the hardware store and bought some paintbrushes and green tape in a effort to salve his dignity, and went home.
He spent the next two weekends either painting or sitting in the bath. As Hart had suggested, he prepped meticulously, scrubbing and taping and laying plastic sheets down everywhere within six feet of where an open paint can was going to be. He’d decided to go with something called Etoile White for the cabinets, out of a dizzying number of whites to choose from, and, since he was going to all that work anyway, a pale yellow for the adjacent walls. Hart’s website listed a variety of 1920s cabinet hardware, but not enough of any one kind, and the poor-but-artsy mismatched look had never appealed to Daniel, so he went with simple brushed aluminum knobs and Gibson pulls. When it was all finished, he lay down in the middle of the kitchen floor and grinned at it for half an hour.
Halfway through the second week, he got a text from Hart. Came home to find your loan of music waiting for me. Thank you! I will listen to it when I have a moment to sit and pay attention to it properly. How goes the house?
Daniel texted him back a photo of one of the paint cans, side obscured by a dried cascade of white, beside it a brush with almost as much paint on the handle as on the bristles, stuck to an unfolded issue of the city’s alternative weekly he’d been using to soak up any spills.
I look forward to seeing how it turned out, Hart texted him the next day.
The first snowfall did come, followed by freezing rain that glazed sidewalks to treacherous crystal. Daniel sanded and salted every inch of concrete that led to or past his door, and glared at the many neighbors who didn’t as he shuffled across the slick pavement.
The big hardware store had had its Christmas displays up since just before Halloween, but now, with December actually on the horizon, the small businesses were getting out the greenery and tinsel. Posters for bazaars, Christmas pageants, holiday decoration house tours began to appear in store windows. Among the decorative ironwork grate covers and hand-painted tiles on the floor of Hart’s display window was now a stand of wooden fir trees.
He heard Hart’s voice coming from the back of the shop, something about moulding and bullseyes. He waited by the register until a woman in goretex and snow boots headed past him to the door. Hart emerged a moment later.
“Well, hello!” Hart was wearing a green shawl-collared sweater with the sleeves pushed up. It made Daniel’s fingers twitch with the wish to touch him.
“Hi, how are you? How was your trip?”
“Unexpected, but profitable.” Hart took a flannel rag from a hook behind the counter and wiped his hands clean with it. “It seems you’ve been busy.”
“Yeah, let me show you some pictures.”
Daniel had brought his tablet with him, as a better display module than the small screen on his phone. He was no photographer, but he’d carried one of the living room lamps into the kitchen for better light, and tried a mix of broad shots and close-ups, including one of an inside corner where the white cabinet and yellow wall met and where he had managed to make a straight brushline of which he was ridiculously proud.
“Very nice,” Hart said, swiping through the images, moving back and forth to compare a few. “I like the hardware you went with. It’s a good, classic look. Are you happy with it?”
“Oh, yeah. The entire first floor is so much brighter, it feels like I put in some windows back there.”
“Good.” Hart handed back the tablet. “I enjoyed the music. Though it wasn’t at all what I expected. Do you mind if I hang onto it for a while longer?”
“No problem, go ahead. I can recommend some other stuff, if you’re interested.”
“I’d like that. I don’t get much time to listen, but with all the driving I did this past week, I found myself wishing for an alternative to rural radio.” Hart paused. “In fact, what are you doing this Saturday?”
“Nothing special.” Daniel was ready to take a weekend off from treating his house better than he treated himself. He grabbed his courage with both hands. “Do you want to get some dinner?”
“As it happens, I have to go up to Peterborough for the day. I’d be happy to have some company. It’s a pretty drive on the back roads, once you get off the highway.”
The bottom dropped out of Daniel’s stomach. “Drive?”
“I need to take the truck, yes.” He tilted his head. There was a soft question in his eyes.
“I, I would. I do. Want to go. With you.” Heat boiled in Daniel’s chest, washed up his face. “It’s just, there was, last year, I was in a, an accident. I can’t, now, with cars I have–” Sweat bloomed under his arms and in the small of his back. “I can’t…be in cars. Right now.”
“Daniel.” Hart’s large hand curled around his forearm. “It was an offer, not a demand.”
“I, I’m working on it,” Daniel said, aware as the words came out of his mouth that they were a complete and utter fucking lie.
“You can’t do everything at once,” Hart said mildly, as though Daniel melting down at the thought of doing something everyone else did every day were simply a home improvement project not going according to plan. “You seem to have a lot on your plate right now. Would you like to sit down?”
“No.” Daniel’s hand was white-knuckled on his cane. His legs seemed very far away.
“As you wish.” Hart withdrew his hand. Daniel dimly wished he’d been in a state to enjoy the touch.
He curled his free hand on the counter. It was shaking. He took a long breath. The heat was lapping away.
He cleared his throat. “Sorry, that…kind of came out of nowhere.”
“I’m sorry for hitting a sore spot.”
“So not your fault.” He wanted to say something witty and self-deprecating about this not being his usual reaction when being asked out, but self-deprecation cut a little too close to the bone at the moment.
The front door opened and thunked shut behind someone. “l’d better let you go,” Daniel said.
Hart nodded. “Come let me know what your next project is.”
“For sure. Have a safe drive,” he said, and was proud at how casual his voice came out.
He struggled, moderately successfully, to be philosophical about it for the rest of the evening–he wasn’t the only person in the world with an unruly depth-charge brain, and Hart had probably seen plenty of people freaking out over unexplained dripping noises and dry rot–but woke in the middle of the night in scalding humiliation, reliving over and over the moment when he had torpedoed himself in front of a man he liked and desired, and the wide, worn boards of the floor had failed to conveniently open and swallow him whole.
He avoided Hart’s, and indeed all of Queen Street, for a week. It took work. He could replace that cracked tile– No. He had a hankering for a latte and– No. The bathroom door hinges squeaked; he could go pick up some– No. It felt like trying to ignore a new cavity that his tongue kept poking at without his direct participation.
He was still thinking about music he could share with Hart, though, throwing instrumentals and some of the less over-the-top prog rock into a temporary playlist as reasonable candidates came up during his commute. On Saturday, while mending a torn dryer exhaust hose with a great deal of duct tape, he put on the playlist, rearranged the first three tracks in his head, and realized that he was as good as making Hart a mixtape, and that while there was a place for that sort of thing he needed to adult up, because sixteen looked a lot cuter on sixteen than it did on thirty.
He waited until an hour or so before dinnertime, when people had already finished or abandoned their projects for the day and Hart’s wouldn’t be busy. It was the kind of grey winter day when twilight seemed to start in mid-afternoon; on Queen Street, Christmas lights glinted behind greenery and tinsel. Daniel stopped in at the coffee shop, then, one hand warmed by a tray holding steaming cardboard cups, made his way to Hart’s.
The counter was empty. He set the tray down and unbuttoned his coat. Steps thumped up the basement stairs, and then Hart appeared through the door behind the counter.
“Daniel! Hello,” he said.
“I was just in the coffee shop,” Daniel said, “and I thought you might like something.” He pushed the hot chocolate made with soy across the counter.
“How generous, thank you, that’s exactly what I need right now.” Hart wrapped large hands around the cup and inhaled over the tendrils of steam. “It’s chilly in the cellar.”
Daniel took a sip of coffee. “How was Peterborough?”
“It was a good trip. I rescued an eighteen-thirties built-in corner cupboard that had been painted over so many times no one knew what they had.” He shook his head. “Even though everything has its time, it’s hard to see these old homes come down. I save what I can, though.”
Daniel dove into the opening. “There’s this neighbourhood house tour next weekend. It looks like a fun way to see what people have done with their houses. I’ve got two tickets for Friday. Are you interested in going?”
Hart nodded, swallowing hot chocolate. “I never miss it, but I haven’t had a chance to get tickets yet. I’m open until seven, but free after that. Yes, I’d like to go.”
“Great!” Daniel let out the breath he’d been holding. “I could come by here just before seven?”
“That sounds like a plan.” Hart’s smile warmed Daniel down to his winter-booted toes.
On Friday, dinner was soup and sandwiches followed by an ibuprofen chaser, eaten while soaking in the bathtub–okay, he occasionally gamed the system–and he dressed afterwards in his thickest long underwear, hoping to keep his leg from stiffening up in the cold. A dusting of snow had snarled rush hour, but it frosted the bare shrubs and evergreens and parked cars and fire hydrants, a fresh cloak over the city’s winter grime.
Hart was waiting for him just inside the shop door, wearing his plaid coat and a muffler that looked hand-knit. Daniel felt himself flush as Hart turned to lock the door behind them, and thanked the chill for putting colour in his cheeks already.
The tickets–which were in the form of lapel pins topped with little cardboard houses–came with a map that traced a zig-zag path through the streets, with occasional shortcuts through back alleys and a schoolyard. Daniel hadn’t been sure what to expect; the unofficial slogan of the loosely organized residents’ and ratepayers’ association seemed to be “This ain’t Rosedale,” and the neighbourhood certainly had its share of eccentric front yards and handyman specials. But the people who had volunteered to open their houses for a charity fundraiser were enthusiastic, if nothing else. One living room had clearly been decorated under the direction of the resident five-year-old twins, with popcorn swags and construction paper garlands and random hanging ornaments covered in gold macaroni and glitter glue. Another house was like a forest, potted snake plants and dieffenbachia festooned with white lights and silver tinsel taking up more room than the rough-cut wooden furniture. Another had been vehemently renovated during the Seventies, and the current owners had embraced that, accenting the diagonal redwood panelling with sleek plastic furniture, shag rugs, and a macrame Christmas tree.
One house was similar to Daniel’s own, though probably a decade more advanced into its restoration, and considerably more exact with its period authenticity. Daniel got into a detailed conversation about hand-painting canvas floorcloths with the owner, Hart listening closely over his shoulder.
“That’s something I’ve learned not to attempt,” Hart said once they were outside, buttoning up his coat. “I can paint a straight line between a wall and a ceiling, but even with stencils anything decorative is beyond me.”
Daniel hadn’t sketched seriously since high school, but he was pretty sure he could manage some freehand art deco ferns and a reasonably straight border. “I could give it a shot. It can’t be worse than the beige vinyl I’ve got in my kitchen right now.”
“That attitude,” Hart said, “is half the battle.”
No one appeared to mind if Daniel enjoyed their decorations from a seat on their couch for a few minutes, but after two hours, his leg was a low throb from ankle to hip, and his arm was sore from leaning too hard on his cane. He stopped under a streetlight and shook the map open.
“There’s still a few houses to go up that way,” he said, pointing, “but I’m sorry, I’m about done with the walking, and I have to bail. Do you want to take the map?”
“Another time,” Hart said. “Let me walk you home.”
That could be old-fashioned courtesy or Hart making a subtle move, Daniel wasn’t sure which, but his fingers felt thick and clumsy as he folded the map up again, and not just with cold. He hadn’t gotten much action since getting out of the hospital, where “not much” meant absolutely zero, and he was suddenly filled with trepidation about how his body felt and looked and responded–or might not respond–and maybe he wasn’t ready yet, maybe understated flirtation over coffee and music and home repairs was enough, maybe there were plenty of things that could be made much worse by well-meaning attempts to make them better–
“So, um, this is me,” he said, stopping at the end of his frost-heaved concrete walkway.
Hart looked up at the house, where the inside lights silhouetted the wreath Daniel had hung in the centre of the row of windows. “Oh, very nice. That’s a solid little owner-built. Classic, but not exactly the same as anything else, either.”
“It still needs work,” Daniel said.
“Not much survives long without some dents and scars. They reveal character. And everything worth having takes work.” Hart rested his hand very briefly on Daniel’s shoulder. “Thank you, Daniel, for a wonderful evening.”
Daniel took a breath. He felt the way he did right before the saw went into the wood or the crowbar hit the worst of the cracked plaster wall: that he was about to change something forever.
“Would you like to come in for a cup of coffee or something?” he asked.
Hart smiled a slow smile that kindled heat in Daniel’s chest. “Yes, I’d like that very much.”
His house was a pool of light and warmth, and Daniel felt a surge, not just of pride but of comfort, as he shut the door–the door he’d painted his favourite green, with a cast-iron knocker shaped like a lion, which wasn’t period appropriate but he didn’t care–and locked it behind them.
He took Hart’s coat and hung it on one of the hooks by the door. Hart toed off his boots.
“My goodness,” he said, turning around to take in the low shelves of LPs that ringed the living room. He went over to the stereo, which was old enough to have been called a hi-fi when it was new. “That’s got some mileage on it.”
“It was my uncle’s.” Daniel walked back to the kitchen alcove and filled the kettle. “I scored it and his music collection when my aunt downsized.” He’d pruned a fair amount of it–Uncle Harv’s eclectic tastes had run farther into jazz and atonal experimental stuff than Daniel’s did–and added some of his own, spending entire afternoons browsing the second-hand record shops, back when he’d had what now seemed an impossible amount of free time. More than once, usually while moving apartments, he’d debated chucking the lot and going fully digital, but there was something about the ritual of placing the record on the turntable and filling the room with sound that he liked. It made him focus and pay attention to the music, not just let it hover around him as he did something else.
He opened a cupboard. “I have coffee, and regular tea, and, uh–” He squinted at a colourful box that had come in some get-well gift basket. “Mint and lemon and chamomile tea. Separately, not all together.”
“Mint would be nice.” Hart was squatting by a shelf. “Do you mind if I put something on?”
By the time the tea had steeped and Daniel had set the mugs on the old wooden soft drink crate he used as a coffee table, slow acoustic guitar was strumming through the room. Daniel had kept that album as much out of nostalgia as appreciation; it brought back Sunday mornings in his aunt and uncle’s sunlit family room, the scents of bacon and maple syrup, Daniel sprawled on the shabby rug drawing or paging through magazines while the adults drank pot after pot of coffee and talked about the world. But the lazy folk-rock fit this evening too, adding to the mellow light of the floor lamps and the heat of the stove, and the way Hart had carefully slid the LP out of the sleeve and balanced it with his fingers on label and rim made Daniel think of what else those large, capable hands might touch with skill and care.
He sat down in the middle of the couch, not right next to Hart but not on the opposite end from him either, and propped his cane up in the gap between two of the crate’s slats. Hart leaned back, ankle on knee, and stretched his arm along the back of the couch.
“Those are original,” he said, pointing with the mug at the line of six-over-one windows that lined the front wall of the house.
“I thought so. They’re all painted shut, though. I want to strip them and get them open again.”
Hart set his mug down on the coffee table. His hand moved to rest on Daniel’s back, just below the knob at the top of his spine. Daniel took a moment to relax into that gentle pressure, and then he turned and took hold of Hart’s collar and leaned in and kissed him.
Somehow the gap between their bodies closed without Daniel being aware of having moved. Hart’s arm was around him now, and Daniel’s other hand fisted in the shoulder of Hart’s thick sweater. This close, Hart smelled amazing, mint tea and hardwood sawdust. He kissed as though he’d had a lot of practice.
When the kiss ended, Hart sighed into Daniel’s mouth. Then he drew back and cupped his hands around Daniel’s hips, tugging gently. “Come up here.”
Daniel shook his head regretfully. “I don’t bend that way any more.”
“How about sitting?”
Hart lifted Daniel onto his lap–though he did grunt a little at the effort–and a stake of lightning went straight down Daniel’s core. He wrapped his hand around the back of Hart’s neck and kissed him hard. Hart’s hands splayed over Daniel’s back, anchors of heat and support.
Daniel worked his free hand under Hart’s clothing. Hart pulled back briefly to drag his sweater over his head and drop it on the floor. He grinned at Daniel, his hair a teazel of brown and grey from the static. Daniel leaned in again. He unbuttoned Hart’s plaid shirt by feel, and pressed his hand on the waffle-knit henley underneath. He could feel Hart’s heart beat under his fingertips.
Hart’s mouth moved to Daniel’s neck. Daniel tipped his head back, luxuriating in the faint scrape of Hart’s ten-o’clock shadow, barely visible on his face. He threaded his fingers through Hart’s hair. Hart worked at the zipper of Daniel’s fleece jacket. With his free hand, Daniel rubbed a circle on Hart’s chest, and Hart hummed against Daniel’s collarbone.
While it was a large couch, soft and deep and more than comfortable enough for Daniel on his own, it would be a squeeze for two grown men to lie side by side. And while Daniel loved the feel of a man’s weight on him, he could see them needing a little more elbow room.
He leaned away, and had to catch himself on the back of the couch so he didn’t slide off Hart’s lap. “How do you feel about taking this upstairs?”
Hart ran his hands down Daniel’s sides. “That sounds like a fine idea.”
A little light-headed, Daniel fished his cane from the crate and stood up. His hip and leg felt stiff as an old hinge, but the hell with it. Right now he didn’t care, he realized, if he came tonight or if he even got hard; he just wanted to put his hands on Hart.
When he stepped into his bedroom, Daniel, as he had regularly for weeks, slapped the light switch before he remembered that the light wasn’t working. He sighed and stumped over to the bedside table. He switched on the lamp and hooked his cane over the headboard.
Hart came close up behind him and kissed the back of his neck. Hart’s hand slid from Daniel’s waist around to the button on his fly. Daniel leaned back against him in encouragement, and Hart pressed his palm to the front of Daniel’s chinos.
It felt good. What felt better was the very definitive erection against his backside. Daniel tilted his hips back, and had the satisfaction of hearing Hart’s breathless chuckle, feeling his hips jerk in return.
Daniel turned in Hart’s arms. He pulled Hart’s mouth down to his, and, with his other hand, cupped Hart through his jeans. This was another thing he loved, the evidence of someone else’s need, hard and undeniable and still kept in check. Hart made a cut-off, breathless sound. Daniel worked Hart’s belt open. He popped the button on his jeans and glided the zipper down, dragging the pad of his thumb down along the denim as he went. Then he slid his fingers through the gap and squeezed gently.
Hart’s breath was moist against Daniel’s ear. “I had a hunch you’d be good with your hands.”
Daniel went for broke. “I’m good with my mouth, too,” he said, “but kneeling’s not a thing I can do. Do you want to sit against the headboard?”
“I certainly do.” Hart sat on the bed and pushed himself backwards to the top of it. He settled a pillow behind his back. “Before we get any further,” he said, and reached into his back pocket, “I confess I came in hope.”
The two flat squares he offered had Japanese writing on them as well as English. One promised Most Thin, and the other–
“They seriously make these in maple?” Daniel asked, taking it.
“The other’s unflavoured. I didn’t know if you had a preference.”
It wasn’t a surprise that Hart bought top-of-the-line equipment; certainly these were better quality than the condoms in Daniel’s bedside table drawer, that he’d grabbed yesterday from the drugstore in an agony of optimism.
He sat on the bed, then turned onto his stomach and wriggled on his hands and knees until he was lying between Hart’s outstretched legs. He put his hand on Hart’s fly again, felt the flesh under his touch twitch. Hart shifted his hips. Daniel looked up the curve of Hart’s abdomen and chest. He hooked his thumb under the edge of Hart’s henley and rucked it up, exposing a lightly haired, slightly softened belly over muscle. Then he carefully tugged Hart’s jeans and boxer briefs down, and stopped again to appreciate the view: naked thighs to naked chest, the shape of a man who worked with his body, cock curving out from dark curls and showing definite interest in what was going to happen next.
He could feel Hart’s gaze, which, when Daniel looked that far up, was heavy-lidded and anticipatory. Daniel felt his own body warm. He ripped the wrapper open and propped himself up on one elbow to roll the condom down over Hart’s cock, and then he followed its path with his mouth.
Sweetness and dubious maple flavoring didn’t entirely disguise the taste of latex, and he’d rather have been tasting salt and skin, but nothing could mar the satisfaction of hearing Hart’s indrawn breath. Daniel went slowly, accustoming himself to Hart’s thickness, trying to recall the finer points of his tragically rusty blowjob skills. When he drew his mouth back, he trailed his thumb along the underside of Hart’s cock, and heard Hart swallow. He shifted his supporting elbow so that he could reach Hart’s testicles with his other hand, cupping them, dragging his other thumb across them in the same slow line.
Hart’s hand curved around Daniel’s temple. “Suppose you do more of that,” he said, some of his customary ease gone from his voice.
“Mm-hm,” Daniel agreed, and gave himself over to another man’s pleasure.
He drew it out, investigating with lips and tongue and fingers, finding the touches that made Hart’s breathing go especially ragged, pulling back now and then to give them both a few seconds of tantalizing respite. He was getting hard himself, and every so often he rocked his hips against the mattress, enjoying the sensation, neither distracted nor desperate enough to want to disengage one of his hands from what he was doing.
He wasn’t into playing any serious games, though, so when he stroked the soft skin behind Hart’s balls and Hart gasped, “Soon,” Daniel hummed in encouragement and kept stroking. Hart’s hips froze; Daniel heard him whisper, “Oh, darling,” and then he panted harshly and came, cock pulsing on Daniel’s tongue.
When Hart sagged back against the pillow, Daniel released him and pushed himself up to a sitting position. Hart opened his eyes and smiled. He leaned forward to hook his hand around the back of Daniel’s neck and pull him in for a soft kiss. “May I return the favour?”
“Yes,” Daniel said fervently; Hart’s orgasm had kicked his own arousal into a new gear.
Hart grinned and kissed him again, a deep and thorough promise. “Let me just clean up.”
While Hart was disposing of the condom, Daniel settled himself at the head of the bed. The pillows were warm where Hart had leaned against them. It felt like being embraced, and when Hart sat back down and began to lean forward, Daniel blurted, “Actually–”
Hart paused. “What would you like?”
“Could we just…” Daniel slid down until he was lying on his back. “Could you just come here for a minute?”
“I surely can.” Hart settled himself full length against Daniel. He bent and kissed Daniel again, slowly, arm supporting himself on Daniel’s other side so that Daniel was covered and surrounded by Hart’s scent and his warmth.
Daniel sighed when the kiss ended. “Could you do this while you touch me?”
“Do this?” Hart’s finger traced Daniel’s bottom lip. “You mean, kiss your pretty mouth?”
Daniel’s hips jerked as sudden desire surged through him. “Yeah–and–”
Hart’s hand came to rest on the jut of Daniel’s hip. “Maybe this?” He ran his thumb and forefinger up Daniel’s erection, the touch electric even through layers of cloth.
“Yeah.” Daniel dug his hands into the coverlet.
Hart’s mouth came down over Daniel’s even as he thumbed open Daniel’s fly button and pulled down the zipper. Daniel groaned in the back of his throat, pleasure buzzing between mouth and groin. Hart’s hand, callused and strong, eased his dick out of his briefs, smoothed the rumpled cloth down the top of his thigh–
“Don’t,” Daniel said abruptly, thinking of scar tissue, thinking of ugliness, and Hart’s hand vanished from him instantly.
“Please don’t touch my leg.”
“Of course.” And then, instead of asking for reasons or trying to reassure him, Hart put his hand right back on Daniel’s dick, which had flagged a little in shock, and Daniel heard himself make a strained sound. Hart stroked him, firm and sure, and pleasure fizzed up Daniel’s thighs. He clutched at the bedclothes, all of a sudden overwhelmed, as though he’d gone from zero to one hundred in seconds, pinned by the g-force of his own need.
“You look about ready to come,” observed Hart, breath hot against Daniel’s skin. Daniel nodded, unable to gather breath for words.
“Let’s see if we can make that happen,” Hart said, and his fingers tightened.
Fire pulsed through Daniel, dragging a cry out of him, a whole string of cries, as his back bowed and the room was obliterated in sensation.
Gradually the room faded back in again. He was warm all over, inside and out, and nothing hurt even a little bit.
He opened his eyes to see Hart hovering over him. Daniel reached up and tugged him down for a soft kiss. Then Hart reached across him to the bedside table and snagged a handful of kleenex, and they both tidied themselves up.
Hart rolled onto his back, and Daniel snuggled up to him and rested his cheek on worn flannel. Hart’s arm went around him.
After a while, Hart stretched and put his free hand behind his head. “Is that the fixture you need to replace?” he asked, looking up at the ceiling.
“Simple fixtures like that aren’t hard to find. If you like, I could help you install a new one.”
“I can do it,” Daniel said automatically.
He felt the vibration of Hart’s chest-deep chuckle. “Daniel, I have no doubt that you can do absolutely whatever you need to. But sometimes–” His fingertips made circles at the nape of Daniel’s neck, and a shiver cascaded down Daniel’s spine. “Sometimes, it’s nice to have another pair of hands.”