by Hyakunichisou 13 (百日草 十三)
Peter shut the front door behind the furnace guy and let his forehead rest briefly against the wooden panel. Then he pushed himself upright to shiver over to the couch and dive again into the warm refuge under the duvet. He rolled his head back and stared at the ceiling. “Blah. I’m officially tired of adulting.”
“Was that the lower price?” Duncan asked.
“No, it’s about four hundred dollars more than the other place, but he answered my questions better.” What was a few hundred dollars when you were thinking about dropping five grand? He scrubbed chilled hands over his face. “Babcia spent a bundle to get it fixed a couple of years ago. The company said she should replace it then, but no, when she was younger furnaces lasted thirty-five years and this one was going to too.”
“Nineteen years sounds pretty good for a furnace.”
“I guess. Ugh, I don’t know. Isn’t there a math thing, like, if repairing it is whatever percentage of a new one, that’s the best deal?”
“Yeah, and the math is, you always replace it either too early or too late. Same with cars.”
Peter laughed, with effort, and stuck a stockinged toe out from under the duvet to poke the written estimate on the coffee table. “I’m sick of thinking about it. I’ll figure it out tomorrow.”
Duncan threw his blanket off and stood up. “We could do with a good, hot dinner. I’m going to make vegetable stew and dumplings.”
“Dumplings? You mean like pierogi?”
“No, drop dumplings.”
“Like potato kluski?” Peter made a face. “When we were kids, we used to call them potato glue-ski. No offense, but, uh, just stew for me.”
“You’ll like these.” Duncan disappeared into the kitchen, where all the cupboard doors were open and a small electrical heater was whirring away in a brave attempt to prevent the pipes from freezing.
Peter slid down and sideways so that he was lying under both duvet and blanket, his feet in the warm spot where Duncan had sat. A headache lurked around his temples. The night before, he’d woken up every half hour in a tense, frigid huddle, until he’d finally gotten out of bed and found the furnace silent and the thermostat at nine degrees.
He heard the clang of pots being unstacked. “It’s warmer in here. Come peel some carrots.”
Peter pulled the hem of the duvet over his head. “Do I have to?”
“You do if you don’t want a peanut butter sandwich for dinner.”
He briefly considered just going to bed now and making the entire day go away, but his traitorous stomach rumbled. He stretched the cuffs of his sweater over his curled hands and, with a purely internal whine, thrust off the duvet. He didn’t believe the threat, but Duncan was right; the kitchen was warmer.
After dinner–which warmed him from the core outward, and he did enjoy the biscuit-like dumplings–they watched some episodes of an English murder mystery series, side by side on the couch under the covers. Peter started to fade before ten, and gave in when Netflix produced the are-you-still-there? screen and he dropped the remote trying to make it go away.
“Will you be warm enough?” he asked.
“I’m going to bring my sleeping bag in from the van.” Duncan retrieved his coat and went out the back door. Peter moved the heater to the exact centre of the kitchen floor and turned it to low, crossing his fingers that it didn’t set the place on fire overnight. When Duncan returned, sleeping bag in his arms, Peter locked and bolted the door behind him.
“Goodnight,” he said, gathering up his duvet and, upon consideration, the crocheted afghan that usually lived on the back of the couch.
Duncan paused at the foot of the stairs. “Why don’t you come in with me tonight?”
“Um. I don’t think we’re both going to fit in your sleeping bag.”
“I’ll unzip it, and we can put it and your duvet on the bed.”
“Are you sure?” Peter knew Duncan could hear his thoughts anyway, but also that physical closeness enhanced the whole involuntary psychic eavesdropping thing.
“Yeah, it’s fine. It’ll be warmer with the two of us.”
“Okay. Cool. Or, not so cool, haha. I’ll be there in a minute.”
Upstairs, he changed into his pyjamas and brushed his teeth, which took just long enough to start him shivering again. He carried the duvet into Duncan’s room and, while Duncan took his turn in the bathroom, spread it out over the unzipped sleeping bag. He slid between the icy sheets and waved his arms and legs as if he were making snow angels, trying to warm either the bed or himself with the friction.
“It’s going to be a cold one,” Duncan said, putting his phone on the bedside table and getting in beside Peter. “Could go down to minus fifteen.”
“Gross. It’s nearly April.”
“There’s always one last deep freeze.”
Peter curled up, his knee breaching the edge of the sheet and letting in a puff of cold. He pulled it back, bumped Duncan with his heel, and straightened his leg down into the frost at the bottom of the bed.
“Back to back is a good way to share heat,” Duncan said. “Move over a little. No, towards me.” Peter did, and Duncan rolled against him, a warm pressure, shoulders to hips.
“You’re sure it’s okay?”
“Peter, it’s fine. I’m not crazy about being grabbed by strangers, is all. You’re not a stranger.” Duncan switched off the light. “Sleep tight.”
Peter fell asleep still wondering when his feet would stop being cold. He had weird dreams about needing to stamp out little icebergs that were kindling all around the house like tongues of flame, and woke up in the dark with his arm around Duncan’s waist and his face crammed against Duncan’s spine. Relief washed over him.
“Thank god,” he heard Duncan mutter. Peter turned onto his other side and was asleep again before he fully stopped moving.
In the morning, Duncan woke him briefly, slipping out of bed for his opening shift at the tea shop. Peter dozed for a while, not wanting to face the difference between the climate under the covers and the climate outside of them. When he finally was forced to take the plunge, he swung the duvet over his shoulders as a cloak and hurried into the bathroom. The pipes weren’t frozen, but every metal and porcelain surface radiated chill. He made the executive decision to shower at work.
He left the house as soon as he was dressed, turning off the kitchen heater and hoping that he’d be back in time to turn it on again before the indoor temperature hit negative digits. He got to the seniors’ home at the tail end of breakfast, and sat in the cafeteria, wrapped around a large coffee, until his first appointment.
During a break, his phone notified him that the new schedule had been posted. He signed into the system to find he was on for twenty hours. Not for the week. For the month.
“The city budget’s coming up. You know how it is, another five percent off the top,” Kernesha said, when he dropped by her office after his last client to ask if there’d been some mistake. “I’m sorry. Yulia’s going on mat leave in June, and there might be more hours for you then.”
Twenty hours was barely enough to cover property taxes and utilities. He had savings–almost precisely new-furnace-sized savings–and Duncan paid a small rent and bought most of the groceries and was used to living on the equivalent of Peter’s coffee budget in good times, so they probably wouldn’t starve. There were casual, security-free, randomly scheduled RMT jobs all over the place. A new day spa had opened in his rapidly gentrifying neighbourhood just a few months ago. He was sure he could find something.
He liked working with his seniors, though. He looked forward to hearing the reminiscences and small dramas of lives that had been forcibly simplified. He was glad he could bring a little bit of pleasure and relief to the former plumbers and factory workers and housewives who ended up in a municipally run home for the aged, lower-middle-class people who wouldn’t have been caught dead getting a massage in their prime and who hid their enjoyment of his touch under grumbles about doctors and the indignities of getting old. He liked doing good for people to whom he made a difference.
It was only late afternoon when he got home, but it was an overcast day and he’d forgotten to leave a light on. The house was dismal. He left his coat on as he plugged the heater back in and assembled the constituents of dinner. Spaghetti, a jar of tomato sauce, a can of mushrooms, several pucks of frozen spinach, and half a block of firm tofu, crumbled up small enough that he barely noticed it mixed in with everything else and was a little embarrassed by how resistant he’d been to it in the beginning. He’d really acquired some solid non-frying-pan-based cooking skills, he thought with satisfaction, filling a pot with water and turning on a burner on the stove.
Between that and having the oven on for garlic bread, the kitchen warmed up so much that he carried the heater into the living/dining room, and he and Duncan ate as comfortably as if it were a normal night.
“Do you know what you’re going to do about the furnace?” Duncan asked. “Because the store is closing for a week for renovations, which probably means two to three, if you need someone home while the work gets done.”
“Yeah, that won’t be a problem. My hours got cut.” Maybe they could tough it out for the rest of the winter with the portable heater? The hydro bill would hurt, but at least he wouldn’t have to come up with a chunk of change until the fall.
“I’m raising my rent,” Duncan said.
“What? No, no, nope, no way.”
“You need to make repairs. It’s a valid reason. Do you know how much I’d be paying if I was renting a room anywhere else?”
“Whatever, it’s not about that. Anyway, you won’t be making anything for the next couple of weeks either. It’s my house, it’s my responsibility, I’ll handle it.”
“Peter, honestly, I’ve saved some–“
“I’ll handle it.”
Duncan shrugged in that one-shouldered way he had, the gesture that clearly said I’m letting that go by, but don’t think I don’t see what you’re doing. “You’re a hard man to help, Peter Wachowski.”
Peter tore a slice of garlic bread in half with a little extra force. “I accept help,” he muttered at his half-eaten plate of pasta.
“Mm-hm. I’m going to put the kettle on; should I make a pot?”
They spent the evening reading, each of them wedged into a corner of the couch with their legs leaning together under the duvet. Duncan had one of the paperback mysteries he went through one after another like a row of cookies in a box. Peter caught up on the latest forum flamewar in the spiritual community that had shut him out after Babcia died, until he realized that such a large dose of schadenfreude was probably bad for his soul and switched to a pop culture site until his phone battery conked out. They went through most of Peter’s ambient playlist and a pot of tea, and ended up in Duncan’s bed again. Peter dreamed that he was living in Duncan’s van parked outside a haunted house festooned with wrought-iron railings and gap-toothed shutters, while Duncan kept bringing him bowls of Babcia’s kluski and getting upset when Peter didn’t finish them.
The next day was less cold, though damper. They could totally make it through to May with the electric heater, Peter decided, going from shower to three layers of clothing in record time. If he had to take some cash out of his savings to live on while he looked for work, at least that gave him all summer to build it back up to furnace size. Babcia had had a stringent attitude towards money–namely, that one paid cash for what one needed or didn’t buy it in the first place–and the idea of a five-thousand-dollar credit card debt sat in his stomach like those under-boiled potato dumplings.
When he got down to the dining room, Duncan pointed at Peter’s phone, which he’d forgotten there charging the night before. “Someone’s been trying to get ahold of you.”
Peter grabbed his phone, hoping it might be Kernesha with a better offer, but instead he saw a missed call and two messages from Felicia Saunders, one of the agents at the real estate office he sometimes did jobs for. Not for the first time, he wished fleetingly that his calling came with a stipend, or at least tips, or even something archaic like salvage rights.
He made himself coffee and stoked himself with a bowl of the oatmeal Duncan had cooked, dense with walnuts and raisins. Then he refilled his cup, dumped in extra sugar by way of fuel, and called Felicia.
“Good morning, Peter,” she said, her voice reminding him as always of cool water on a hot day. “I hope I didn’t disturb you too early.”
“No, it’s fine. What’s up?”
“We have a new client, and there’s something odd going on in one of the bedrooms. At least I think so, though Marijke thinks it’s just draughts in an old house. Would you have time to investigate it for us?”
“No problem. This afternoon?” He waved widely at Duncan, who looked up from his own phone. “My colleague and I are both free.” Duncan nodded. “Whereabouts is it?”
The house turned out to be in the Annex: three storeys of grey stone and red brick and intricate terracotta, a curved second-storey porch dripping with gingerbread and a thing Peter didn’t know the name for that looked like a turret trying to push its way out of the corner of the roof like a sprout out of a clove of garlic. Felicia was waiting for them on the shadowed porch, white as a birch tree in a calf-length coat with a collar that curved around the back of her neck like a calla lily. “Thank you both for coming. I wanted to be sure that it was safe before we scheduled an open house.”
“Safe? What happened?”
“Nothing specifically, but the master bedroom is…uncomfortable. I’d at least like to know that it won’t spread.” She pointed straight above them. Peter fought the urge to duck.
“Is there anyone coming to see it today?” Duncan asked.
“No, we haven’t listed it yet. One of the owners moved out–they’re getting divorced–and the other is out of town on business. It’s yours for the next three days.” She unlocked the heavy oak door and pushed it open a crack, then presented the key to Peter, stem first as if it were something sharp. “Please lock the door when you leave, and I’ll collect the key from you when you’re finished.”
“I’ll text you tonight and let you know how it went.”
“Thanks, Peter.” She quirked a smile at him. “Just to warn you, the owners have a unique aesthetic sensibility. Enjoy.”
Peter waited until she had reached the reclaimed-brick two-car driveway–the existence of which alone probably added a hundred thousand to the price of the house–before he tapped the door to open it another few inches. “What do you think?” he asked Duncan. “Getting anything?”
Duncan shivered and crossed his arms. “She’s not making it up. There’s something going on up there.”
“Okay. Let’s check it out. Let me know if you need to back up or take a break.” He pushed the door open and stepped inside.
He stopped in the centre of the entry hall, right under the three-tiered chandelier dripping with ruby teardrops. “Okay, wow.”
It was a Victorian heart-shaped box translated into interior design. The wallpaper was crimson moire silk; the upholstery on the crushed velvet fainting couch against the far wall was the colour of wine. Swags of scarlet lace crowned every doorway. The floor was a mosaic of black, red and ivory tiles, all with a slight mother-of-pearl sheen.
“This is…something else,” Peter said, at a rare loss for words.
“Nice woodwork. Probably original to the house,” Duncan said, in the tone of someone looking for something positive to say.
“Is that just a random stone gargoyle sitting on a table for reasons? Why does it have three leg–oh.”
Duncan was looking at the vintage prints hung over the couch, in which top-knotted men folded back elaborately printed kimonos like flower petals to reveal pale, skinny legs and enthusiastic erections. “These people aren’t shy, I’ll give them that.”
“It’s like a goth steampunk bordello.” Peter turned in a circle. “Man, if this is what’s in their front hallway, I don’t want to know what’s in their bedrooms.”
The decor continued in much the same theme upstairs, everything blood-coloured and black. There were stained glass windows backlit by wall sconces and a life-sized painting of a naked, ecstatic angel on the landing. At the end of the hallway was a tall, gold-framed mirror that made Peter nearly jump out of his skin when he spotted himself moving in it.
“This way,” Duncan said, and walked along the carpet runner, which was woven in spiky patterns that might have been venus flytraps and might have been teeth, to a door with a cast-iron cobra’s-head knocker in its centre.
The master bedroom was large, probably originally two rooms that had had the wall between them knocked down to make a long space across the entire front of the house. Narrow shards of daylight glinted between and above floor-length drapes. Peter went right to the windows and slid the drapes aside, inundating the gloom with midday sunshine. The little bit of warmth was welcome; the owner must have turned the heat down when they left. Peter wondered where the thermostat was.
Even in prosaic daylight, the room was lush. One side was a seating area–maybe not seating, Peter revised; the two couches were oddly sinuous shapes and had metal rings set at intervals into their seams–and past that were two doors leading into walk-in closet and bathroom.
Duncan had come to a halt on the other side of the door, beside a marble fireplace veined with black. Stalactites of red and black wax reached downward from thick pillar candles on the mantle. Beyond was the bed.
It was big enough to have acreage. He and Duncan could have lain on either edge, stretched their arms towards one another, and not quite touched. Its headboard and footboard were wooden, as high as Peter’s shoulder, with posts at the four corners rising almost to the ceiling. More iron rings were set into the posts. There were heaps of pillows, and a vermilion coverlet overlain with a fine layer of immensely detailed white lace.
Not lace, Peter realized, stepping closer. Frost.
“Oh, come on,” he said.
Duncan had folded his arms over his zipped-up jacket. “Can you feel that?”
“Yeah, it’s freezing in here. Oh my god, can our next job please be in a haunted sauna?”
Duncan stepped closer to the bed, one hand outstretched, the other curled at his breastbone. “Hello. Can you hear me?” He waited. “Are you here?” Pause. “Why are you cold? Are you lonely? Sad? Angry?” A other pause. “Are you waiting? Can you hear me at all?”
On the mantel was a wind-up clock, its face set into a frame of carved ebony cats; Peter could hear it ticking in the silence. Duncan stood motionless. “You don’t have to be cold and alone. I can show you somewhere warm where you can rest, if you like.”
After a while, he lowered his hand and shook it out. “I don’t know if it can tell I’m here. It’s barely even a self-aware spirit any more.”
“So, a bedroom freezes and a couple gets divorced. Do you think it was in the house and whatever issues they had attracted it? Or did it glom onto them and wreck their marriage?”
“Or both at the same time.” Duncan touched the edge of the frosted coverlet; the warmth of his fingertips left damp ovals behind. “I don’t know if there’s enough of it left to even know the door’s there if I open it, but we’ll see.”
“Okay.” Peter put his bag down and struggled out of his coat. “Dammit, I didn’t think to bring a blanket. Give me a sec, there’s probably spares around here somewhere.”
“Don’t worry about it.” Duncan extended his hand to the bed again.
“Okay, but,” Peter said, “remember how last time, touching me while you did it seemed to help?” Duncan was the most talented person he’d ever come across, and before the job when they’d met, opening the door had been as easy as turning a key for him. Things had gone sideways ever since. Duncan wasn’t the most talkative guy you’d ever meet, but Peter knew it had been eating at him.
“It’s okay, Peter, I’ve got it.” His voice was a little less patient this time.
“Right. Okay.” Peter chewed on his lip so he wouldn’t say anything more and watched Duncan offer himself to the door. Touching worked, Peter was here, and while he suspected Duncan was still a little spooked by that job with the dog he wasn’t sure why Duncan had to be so weird about it.
Duncan curled and uncurled his fingers. “It doesn’t have to be like this. Don’t you want to feel the spring thaw?” he asked softly–to the spirit, to the door, to the chilly room.
Moments went by. Someone outside dinged a bicycle bell. The faint drone of traffic sifted in from Bloor Street.
Duncan made a sound on an indrawn breath and collapsed as though someone had beaned him with a frying pan.
Peter was kneeling beside him before he thought about it, cupping cold hands around Duncan’s cheeks, giving him skin the fastest way he could. Duncan shuddered and tried to say something through clenched teeth.
“It’s okay, I’ve got you.” Peter slid down onto the rug and rolled Duncan against him. He yanked Duncan’s shirt out of his jeans and flattened his hands against Duncan’s back. Duncan’s breath was fast and hot on his neck.
Under Duncan’s shirt, Peter shoved his own sleeves up to maximize the bare skin he could offer. He wrapped a leg around Duncan’s and pulled him closer. Gradually Duncan’s shivering diminished, and he sagged in Peter’s arms.
“What happened?” Peter asked. “Did the door open?”
Duncan detached himself and sat up gingerly. “It hurt. I’ve never seen that before. The door hurt to feel. There used to be pleasure, and warmth, and connection–and it’s gone–and it hurt so much to feel it again–“
“Hurt the spirit, you mean?”
Duncan nodded. “The door won’t take the unwilling, so it shut–it slammed–” He shuddered again.
“Yeah.” He turned to look at the bed. The spots where his fingers had melted the rime had frosted over again. “I guess I should talk to it again. I don’t know if it can even understand words.”
Fingers. Frost. Inspiration electrified him. “Hey,” Peter said.
Duncan turned back. “Hey?”
“I have an idea. But, uh, I’m going to have to touch you. We’re going to have to touch each other. Kind of a lot.”
Duncan made an exasperated noise. “Will you give it a rest?”
“God, will you just listen to me for a second? I’m here to give you what you need.”
“What if what I need is for you to stop pushing me?”
Resentment stabbed through Peter. “Just because you have a boatload of talent and I don’t have shit doesn’t mean you can tell me what to do.”
“Yeah? I’ve been doing this work since I was thirteen. Just because you were born into your god-awful community doesn’t mean you know any better than me.”
They glared at each other, eyes wide, and realized at the same moment.
“Hang on. That wasn’t all us,” Peter said.
Duncan let out a breath. “It’s protecting itself. If it freezes us apart, it can stay frozen too.”
“The thing that can save it is the thing that hurts it, so it’s doubling down on the other thing that hurts it. That’s…pretty fucked up.”
“Yeah.” Duncan ran a hand through the short shag of his hair. “Look, you’re right. Touch did help before.”
“You know I don’t mind,” Peter said, for about the thousandth time since he’d met Duncan. “I’m your support staff. It’s what I do.”
“I know, but…” He made a face. “I’m used to doing it by myself. I should be able to do it by myself.”
“Ha. Relatable.” Peter punched him gently on the arm. “You’re a hard man to help, Duncan Coburn.”
“Yeah, well.” Duncan cleared his throat. “What was your idea?”
“What? Um, right. Okay! So, frostbite. Someone has frostbitten fingers, you can’t dunk them in hot water or wrap them in a heating pad or anything like that, it can hurt them worse. You bring them up to temperature gradually with body heat or warm water.” Duncan nodded. “So the door’s pure unadulterated life and pleasure and connection and everything good. It’s too much to take all at once.”
“So we…warm the spirit up slowly?”
“Yeah.” Peter felt his face heat. Duncan could probably already sense where he’d been going with this; Peter wasn’t sure whether that made him less shy, or more. “With, um. I was going to say. Touching. And…touching. If we wanted to do that.” He looked down, fiddling with the zipper pull of his jacket. The sting of Duncan snapping at him lingered, bringing an unwelcome flare of discontent when he thought about it. Melting the spirit’s resolve with some good, old-fashioned enjoyable sex had felt like a reasonable idea a few minutes ago, but sometimes he did push too hard, and now everything was kind of weird and awkward–
“Hey. Come on over here.” Duncan reeled him in with a touch and a nudge. Peter gave up, and, embarrassed and comforted, folded into the front of Duncan’s jacket.
“That wasn’t us,” Duncan reminded him, hands firm on Peter’s back.
“It was a little bit you.” Honesty made Peter add, “It was a little bit me, too.”
“Sure. Everyone has things they resent, or are jealous of, or that drive them up the wall, even with people they like a lot. The best anyone can do it to just try not to be mean about it.”
Peter took a fortifying breath and pulled away. “Right. So, spiritual deep freeze. What’s the plan?”
“I think your idea’s a good one. I’m game if you are.”
“Are you sure? If you’re not into it, I get it.” This felt more deliberate than what they’d done before on jobs after the door had come and gone, times when Duncan had needed naked skin and Peter had provided it and one thing had led to another.
Duncan laughed a little. “You have this impression that I’m some kind of monk. I’m not, believe me.”
“Sure, but it’s…different for you.” Duncan said that he enjoyed sex, but he didn’t respond physically, and the concept of wanting sex but never getting off was honestly a bit confusing for Peter to wrap his head around.
“Not all that different.” Duncan reached over and slid his fingertips over the back of Peter’s hand and up his wrist. He hitched himself closer, not breaking the touch, and then he leaned in and kissed Peter gently and surely on the lips.
Peter had had boyfriends, and attempted boyfriends, and a couple of impulsive hookups before he’d decided he wasn’t any good at them. He’d had friends with benefits; he’d had crushes that had become more, and fleeting attractions that hadn’t. He didn’t think of Duncan as any of those things. Duncan was a friend, a roommate, a colleague to whom he didn’t have to explain himself, someone who just got him. And they’d only ever kissed once before, that time in the library, when Duncan had been horny on energy from the door and Peter had been hot watching him, and in between times Peter kind of forgot that they had that kind of intimate connection at all.
So it came as a surprise to Peter how good it felt to open his mouth to Duncan’s, how comfortable and right Duncan’s hand felt sliding around to cup the base of Peter’s skull. It wasn’t a wild or passionate embrace; Duncan moved as if he was anticipating all day and all night to do exactly as he liked. The easy intention of it sent liquid heat down Peter’s spine. He closed his hands on Duncan’s upper arms, and let himself be kissed.
“All right?” Duncan asked, drawing back.
“Like you can’t tell,” Peter said, a little breathless.
“I’m still going to ask.”
“Yeah. Good. Okay. I’m great.”
Duncan smiled. “Let’s move this to the bed?”
Peter looked over at it and wrinkled his nose. “Is the spirit lying on it?”
“Not on it. Maybe around it.” He stood. “It’s not going to hurt us.”
Peter got to his feet. “It froze that couple apart.”
“They didn’t know what was happening. We do. And they couldn’t talk to it. I can.” Duncan stepped closer to Peter. “It wants what we have. Affection. Trust. Connection.” His breath heated the few inches between them even before his mouth met Peter’s again.
“Get out of this coat,” Peter said, grabbing the zipper of Duncan’s winter jacket. Together they peeled him out of it.
“Shoes,” Duncan said, and they both took care of their own. Duncan lifted the bedcovers like a tent, and Peter scooted in, still fully dressed. Duncan followed, and let the coverlet and sheets settle down around them.
“How is it colder under here?” Peter complained, plastering himself to Duncan.
“It won’t be for long.” Duncan put his arm around Peter and kept him close as he turned, until Peter was on his back with Duncan’s mouth on his, and yeah, Peter liked that a lot.
“Get this off,” he said, yanking at Duncan’s sweater. Duncan rolled away to pull it over his head while Peter divested himself of his own sweater and then reached for Duncan’s shirt. Duncan held himself up on his arms, giving Peter access, until his shirt was undone and Peter could peel it off him.
“How many layers are you wearing?” Peter demanded, hooking his fingers under the neck of Duncan’s fleece undershirt and tugging for emphasis.
“Your place is twelve degrees.” Duncan went down on one elbow and began unbuttoning Peter’s shirt with his spare hand. “A cotton T-shirt, is that all you have under there? No wonder you’re freezing. I’ll give you one of my thermal shirts when we get home. Cotton kills in the winter, you know.”
“That’s very frontier woodsman of you.”
They shed more layers, and came back together. Peter snuggled into Duncan’s naked arms, and brought his leg up to wrap around Duncan’s. “Mmm. Ow, crap,” he added involuntarily, as his keys bunched in the pocket of his chinos to stab him in a tender area.
“Off?” suggested Duncan, hands going to Peter’s waistband. Peter shivered and stilled as Duncan popped his button and slid his fly down.
“God,” Peter started, and closed his eyes as Duncan’s hand parted the sides of the fabric and slid inside. He went from half-hard to very-into-this in a few heartbeats, Duncan’s hand cupping him firmly over his briefs. Duncan’s lips bumped against his, gently, and Peter opened to him, deliberately relaxing into the intimacy.
Duncan pushed Peter’s chinos down, and disappeared under the covers to take them off completely and drop them off the side of the bed. Peter’s socks followed.
“You too?” Peter asked, and Duncan reappeared, to wriggle out of his jeans and send them after the rest of their clothing.
They’d never been naked together before now. Half-dressed, almost-nude, shirts rucked up and Duncan’s hand on Peter’s cock, but never fully bare. Duncan slid a leg between Peter’s, kissing him again. Peter would never have guessed that Duncan enjoyed kissing this much. Peter’s erection pressed against Duncan’s stomach.
“Hey, so are you a no-fly zone? I mean,” he said as Duncan started to laugh, “can I touch you? I mean, it’s up to you. I mean–“
“I don’t mind you touching.” Duncan pushed his hips forward, a caress without hands. Peter slid his palm over Duncan’s cock, which was soft, and down to cup his balls.
“Does it feel good?”
“Yeah.” Duncan mirrored the movement on Peter. “Does that feel good?”
“You know it does.”
Duncan’s hand trailed lower, caressing. Peter sighed and let his thighs fall further apart. There was a small waft of cold air as Duncan ducked under the coverlet again, and then his mouth was on Peter’s cock.
When he’d gotten up that morning, Peter never would have imagined that Duncan would ever do this to him, for him. Yet at this moment it seemed like the logical conclusion to everything they’d come to be to one another, slow and gentle and exciting and comforting and more intimate than he’d ever felt it before.
He let Duncan set the pace, let the pleasure build and plateau, in no hurry to end it. It was cozy under the blankets now, and the room was filled with sunshine.
He wasn’t sure what threw him out of the mood, some noise or random thought. His shoulders were cold where the coverlet had slid down. The old house creaked as if someone were trying to creep quietly in the hallway. Duncan’s touch was suddenly impersonal and remote.
“Come back,” Duncan whispered, sliding up and pulling Peter against the long, warm line of his body. He was close enough that the movement of his lips tickled Peter’s. “It’s okay. I’m here.” His callused hand circled Peter’s cock. Peter trembled, the different touch sparking a new urgency. Not that he didn’t enjoy the feel of someone’s mouth, but what he liked most was to be face to face with someone, to be held, to be brought to that most vulnerable point in someone’s arms. “I’m here. I’m with you.”
Peter’s body bloomed with pleasure, with release and satisfaction and completion, a leisurely pulse of joy that rolled slowly through him. He was aware of Duncan touching him everywhere, mouth against his throat now, chest pressed against his side, hand on his cock, foot resting against his ankle. He felt the rumble as Duncan laughed quietly, and Peter drifted into the afterglow still smiling.
“Mmm. Wow,” he said a few minutes later, throwing off the duvet to let the sweat cool on his skin. He realized, and opened his eyes.
The coverlet was gently steaming.
“Huh. I guess the door opened?”
“It opened, and the spirit went through like a breeze.”
Peter rolled over onto his side and put a hand on Duncan’s chest. “Can I do anything for you?”
Duncan looked as lazy as Peter felt. “I’m fine.”
“You know I have to ask. Is it okay that I ask?”
“Sure. I appreciate you asking. But that was all I needed.”
Peter yawned. “‘Kay, my work here is done. You up for a nap?”
“Sounds good to me.”
Peter drew the duvet back over them. The sunlight gilded the vapour above them, surrounding the bed with radiance. Peter snuggled against Duncan and fell asleep with a sunrise glowing behind his eyelids.
“Listen,” Peter said reverently, as the furnace gave the low hum that began its cycle.
Duncan appeared in the kitchen doorway, the front of his sweater dusted with flour. “Are you going to do that all night?”
“I’m going to do that all week. Have you seen the weather forecast? It’s going to be a high of minus nine tomorrow. We could be blocks of ice, and we’re not. I love my new furnace like I love life itself.”
In the end, he’d just faced reality. Two thousand of his own down, and another thousand from Duncan–a hundred for every month he’d been living there, Duncan had said, handing him an envelope and refusing to take it back. The heating company had financed the rest at considerably less than credit card rates. He’d already gotten one interview and some interested-sounding noises from the clinics he’d applied to. Things would be tight for a while, but he wasn’t going to starve or lose the house.
Duncan was pushing his rolled-up sleeves back to his wrists. “The bread’s in the big bowl on the counter. If you have to move it tomorrow before I’m up, try not to jostle it too much. I’ll bake it before I leave for work.”
“No problem. Do you want to watch an episode of GBBO?”
“Wouldn’t mind it.”
They took their usual places on the couch. One hour of watching British people bake and make puns turned into two. The furnace droned reassuringly at intervals.
“I’m going to turn in,” Duncan said, stretching and nearly losing the end of his sentence in a yawn.
“Good idea.” Peter went to turn down the thermostat–no, wait, the new programmable one that had replaced the nineteen-sixties bubble on the wall would take care of that for him. He checked the stove and the doors. He picked up the afghan on the couch, remembered that he didn’t need it, and folded it to lie on the back where it usually stayed.
Duncan had gone up ahead of him. Peter took a last look around the living room and hit the light switch. The fixture in the upstairs hallway spilled light down the stairs, and he followed it up.
“What time are you setting your–” he asked, halfway into Duncan’s room, and stopped. “Oh. Right.”
“You can stay here if you want,” Duncan said, head popping out of the neck of a long-sleeved T-shirt.
“I don’t have to. Are you sure? I mean–” Peter bit his lip. “Actually, I’d kind of really like that.”
“Me, too.” Duncan sat on the bed. “Do you want to take the bathroom first?”
Peter went to brush his teeth and change, and then slid into his side of Duncan’s bed. While Duncan was in the bathroom in his turn, his phone, over on the table in the corner, played an echoing chime.
“Your phone rang,” he said when Duncan came back.
Duncan glanced at the screen. “I don’t know the number. They left a message. I’ll check it out tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow?” Peter could no more have waited that long to listen to a phone message than he could have stopped breathing overnight. “What if it’s a job?”
“It’ll keep ’til then.”
“What if it’s some kind of emergency? What if it’s, like, rattling chains and flickering shadows that only happen at midnight?”
“Good night, Peter.”
“What if it’s a transparent glowing figure walking through closed doors, but they can only see it when it’s dark?”
Duncan switched off the bedside lamp. Peter grinned into the darkness. “Oh, I know! What if it’s–“
“Tomorrow,” Duncan said firmly. He rolled backwards to nudge Peter with his shoulder. “If it’s a job, I promise not to go without you.”
Peter pressed back against him, just to feel him there, warm and calm and steady. “Okay, tomorrow,” he echoed. “It’s a date.”