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Contractually Speaking

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As he shut the front door to his new (old) house, Joe grimaced and silently bid a “good riddance” to his guest. That had been the second of three contractors he’d lined up for a walk-through today, and unfortunately it had also been the second that had annoyed him.

The first, from Keane Construction, basically talked over all his ideas, convinced he knew exactly what the house needed - and not caring at all that it wasn’t what Joe himself wanted. Joe definitely didn’t want to butt heads with that sort of aggressive personality for a months-long renovation. The second hadn’t been much better, the weasley owner of Merrick Contracting walking through his home and criticizing everything, tossing out unbidden idea after idea about upgrading this and scrapping that - he’d even laughed about razing the house to the ground and building something better from scratch. He was focused on modern and high-end everything, and Joe got the feeling that if he told the man what his actual budget was then he’d laugh and leave that very second.

He had one more visit lined up today and he hoped the third time would be the charm. Since there was still some time before they were scheduled to arrive, Joe started meandering through his newly-purchased house.

He still couldn’t believe he was actually a homeowner. He hadn’t planned on it, to be honest - but when he’d randomly passed by the old Victorian house one day and saw the For Sale sign on its front yard, something had made him stop and take a closer look. It had been a bit run-down (dilapidated, some would call it), but Joe’s eyes had been drawn to the gingerbread fretwork and the high gables and the dichromatic brickwork and he immediately saw what she had once been. More importantly, he could envision what she could be again. Before he knew it he had found himself a realtor, toured the house, and fallen in love with the well-worn hardwood floors, the tall baseboards, the crown mouldings, the ceiling medallions… He had made an offer and it had been accepted so quickly that he honestly hadn’t had the time to think about just how he was going to manage to restore the house to its former glory. He was artistic, sure, but that didn’t necessarily translate to competence in construction or renovation. (Had he ever swung a hammer in his life? He honestly couldn’t recall.)

Hence trying to find a contractor. Maybe it would be a Goldilocks-type situation and this third one would be just right. So, when he heard the knock on the front door, Joe crossed his fingers and hoped that the representative from DiGenova Restorations would be the one.

A different sort of hopefulness invaded his mind when he opened the door to find possibly the most gorgeous man he had ever seen standing on his porch. The first thing he noticed were the man’s pale eyes, and he probably could have stared at them all day, but Joe was then distracted by a dozen other things all at once - the aquiline nose, the preciously-placed mole, the little silver hoop earring in one ear, shoulders that went on for days

It was fair to say he was gob-smacked, and it took him a second to respond when the man clenched his jaw and broke the silence. “I am Nicolò Di Genova, from DiGenova Restorations. You are Yusuf Al-Kaysani?”

“Yes,” he managed to nod, melting slightly at the Italian accent before remembering to act like a normal human being and holding out a hand in greeting. “Please, call me Joe.”

“Nice to meet you,” Nicolò said with a brisk shake of his hand. Joe had to suppress a shiver at the feel of a few calluses on the pads of his fingers and his mind went unbidden to imagining just how they might feel trailing across other parts of his body... “Shall we get to the walk-through?”

Alright, so no small talk - he was clearly all business then. Joe frowned slightly, but stepped aside to let him in. Probably best to follow his lead - the man was here in a professional capacity after all. So he gave his head a shake and began to guide Nicolò through the house, pointing out the things he hoped could be done.

As they slowly went room by room, a sinking feeling grew in Joe’s chest. Nicolò was brusque, barely saying anything; he would stare at the home’s original features with what looked like reverence, but seemed to avoid looking at Joe at all. It was only when they reached the kitchen and Joe mentioned wanting to overhaul most of it that the other man finally said more than two words in a row.

“Let me guess,” he scowled. “You want to rip out all these cabinets, throw in some stainless steel appliances, tear down these walls and make it all open-concept -”

“Not at all!” Joe interrupted, shaking his head emphatically. “I am an artist, I like walls! More space to hang artwork, you know? I’m not into that whole HGTV cookie-cutter vibe. The house is amazing, and I want to honour it - it just needs some sprucing up.”

Nicolò blinked slowly, finally looking at Joe again. He took the opportunity to throw what he hoped was a winning smile in his direction. It didn’t seem to put the man any more at ease, because Joe could have sworn he saw the man’s jaw tighten, but at least he thought he also saw the tension in his shoulders (those shoulders! How could the man even fit through doorways without turning sideways?) lessen slightly.

“Ah,” Nicolò finally said, with a small nod. “That is… good. Sorry. Shall we continue then?”

And so they did, finishing off the tour with no further outbursts, after which Nicolò promised to email him a quote within a few days before all but running from the house. Joe watched him rush away with a baffled expression, not entirely sure what had happened. What a strange - albeit beautiful - man…

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By the end of the week Joe had three emails from the three contractors sitting in his inbox. Keane’s was the lowest in terms of cost, and while that was tempting for Joe’s bank account, he didn’t trust it - nor did he particularly feel like dealing with that man. Merrick’s was quadruple the cost of what he’d been budgeting and Joe had to laugh at some of the extravagant items listed in the quote that he certainly hadn’t asked for. What sort of delusional world was that guy living in?

That left the quote from DiGenova Restorations. Joe clicked the email, honestly not sure what he was hoping for nor what he was expecting. No, actually, that was a partial lie. He had been expecting some sort of quote, obviously - but instead there were just a few lines of text asking if they could meet back at the house so Nicolò could go over the quote with him in person.

Joe had to admit he was surprised. Judging by the way their previous interaction had gone, he had thought the other man didn’t like him. He’d been tense and terse, but now he wanted to meet? Why?

“I wanted to apologize,” was the first thing Nicolò said to him when they met up a few days later. Joe just stared back blankly, not sure whether it was in response to the abrupt statement or the man’s attractiveness (did he somehow get better looking in the few days since he’d last seen him?).

Before Joe could reply, Nicolò kept talking, apparently having a rather strong need to unburden his soul. “I made an assumption about you, and I apologize. I thought you were one of those people who bought an old fixer-upper intending to tear down every wall inside and rip out its character. And I hate those types of jobs, so I was very rude to you before, and I am sorry for it. So I wanted to give you this quote in person and go over everything together to know we are on the same page, because you said you want to honour this house and I would like to help you do so.”

And with that, he thrust a few pieces of printer paper in Joe’s direction. Joe was somewhat stunned at all this, but as the words sunk in, he finally smiled. Grabbing the papers, he eagerly gestured for Nicolò to come inside.

“It is a large amount I am quoting you,” the man kept talking, seeming somewhat nervous. Joe’s eyes widened as he flipped to the last piece of paper and saw the grand total in bold red font; that was more than he had wanted to spend, and he opened his mouth to say that, but Nicolò rambled on. “But that is with contingencies built in. Sometimes you never know what the walls of these old houses are hiding, so I try to plan for that as much as I can. This is likely the maximum cost, and with luck it will be much less. I want to be up-front with you on that.”

“I appreciate that,” Joe said, but his smile was worried. “But let me be up-front with you too, that this is still more than I would be able to afford.”

Nicolò frowned at that, almost as if disappointed, before staring at Joe consideringly. That intense gaze was doing very strange things to Joe’s insides, so much so that he almost missed it when the other man tentatively proposed, “What if… would you be willing to break a sweat?”

I’d love to break a sweat with you, said Joe’s inner monologue, but thankfully only to himself. “I’m not afraid of a little hard work,” is what he managed to say out loud. “If I help with some of the labour, will that bring the cost down?”

“Yes, it would help,” Nicolò replied. “It is the labour that always makes up the most of a budget. I would still need to bring some sub-contractors and trades on board, but most of your list are things the two of us could handle, things I can show you how to help with.”

“I can be very good at taking direction. Don’t be afraid to crack the whip if you need to,” Joe chuckled, and, to his horror, accompanied that with a wink. He really needed to adjust his default setting from ‘shameless flirting’ to something a bit more subtle, he chastised himself. He didn’t want to scare this man off.

Nicolò, however, didn’t seem to react beyond a quick clench of his jaw. Keeping it professional then, Joe mentally noted. Okay, he could do that. “That sounds great,” he continued, gratefully. “But I don’t pretend to have any reno know-how - I’m pretty sure I can paint a wall, but that’s about it. I hope I won’t be in your way or cause you trouble or anything.”

“I can be a patient man,” Nicolò replied, and Joe could have sworn he almost saw a whisper of a smile start to quirk up at the corner of his lips. “In all seriousness Joe, I very much would like to work on this house. This is my favourite type of project. I have worked on too many old homes where the owner wants to remove all the character, but I think you and I both see the same thing, yes? That this house is beautiful already, and with a bit of work we can help everybody else see it too.”

And, well, what could Joe say to that but “You’re hired”?

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“So let me get this straight,” Booker said later that evening, after Joe had caught him up on the news that he’d hired a contractor. “You went with the quote that was over your budget because the guy sold you on wanting to ‘honour the house’? Sounds like he was just feeding you a line, mon ami.”

“I think he was being perfectly sincere,” Joe disagreed. “I could see it on his face.”

“Ohhhh, on his face? And how else did his face look?” Sebastien wondered innocently, directing a snort into his bottle of beer.

“Absolutely gorgeous,” Joe wistfully sighed, only to wince when Booker let out a triumphant, “Ah hah! There it is.”

“There what is,” he grumbled.

“You’ve been taken in by another pretty face,” his friend said, finally turning away from the football game they were watching to pin Joe with a disapproving look. “So what, some handsome man flirts with you a little and you basically turn the fate of your house over to him?”

“It wasn’t like that,” Joe maintained. “First of all, he didn’t flirt with me at all. And when I tried to flirt with him, he didn’t even react, which, fine. That’s fine. So what if he’s an absolute adonis? I’ve hired him, it’s done, so I’m, like, basically his boss now so things will have to be professional. And I can do that.”

“Riiight.” Booker rolled his eyes, now focused back on the television screen. “Does this adonis have a name?”

“He said I could call him Nicky,” Joe grinned. “Isn’t that cute?”

There was a beat of silence as Booker raised a brow back at him, and then shook his head. “Yeah, you’re fucked.”

“I have a really good feeling about this,” Joe insisted. “I’m not going to regret it.”

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Joe was absolutely regretting it.

Or rather, parts of it. He didn’t regret hiring Nicky because the man was a consummate professional. What he regretted was thinking that he could be a consummate professional in return. Because, only a few days in, he was already spending most of his time daydreaming about just how to consummate things with said professional. Professionally.

In his defense, Joe hadn’t realized how much of a competency kink he had. Hearing Nicky talk about the plans for their day and the tasks to be accomplished with his quiet confidence, and then actually watching him go about demonstrating those tasks with surety, and seeing those large, callused hands grasp around tools with firm but gentle care, and seeing those forearms flex as he moved… It was a lot.

And that was just the visual stimuli. Because, much to Joe’s consternation, laying on some auditory stimuli on top of that was a whole other level of torment. It wasn’t just Nicky’s sexy accent. No, it was also what he said with that accent.

“Joe, I was able to hoist myself up into the attic earlier and I have a few concerns,” Nicky said to him one day. “Do you want to follow me up there?”

Aside from the slight blip in his executive functioning at the thought of other ways Nicky could be hoisted, Joe managed to follow him to the ladder now propped up underneath the attic hatch. His curiosity at seeing the space up there quickly took a back seat as Nicky started to climb up ahead of him, and suddenly the man’s literal back seat was right at his eye level.

Oh, that just isn’t fair, Joe grumbled to himself. The man’s fashion sense was rather dismal, always covering his body in loose fitting t-shirts and ripped jeans - which, fine, made sense when his clothes would eventually end up dusty and stained - but they were most offensive for the fact that they did nothing to accentuate the subtly toned body hidden underneath. Every now and then though, when Nicky would lean over or bend in just the right away, Joe would get a tantalizing glimpse. And now, when that glimpse was right in front of his face? It was giving him ideas, and he felt chagrined at thinking about what was essentially his employee in that way.

Giving his head a shake, he decided the best course of action was to close his eyes and wait until Nicky had ascended the ladder all the way; only then did he scamper up after him.

“Careful,” Nicky warned, reaching down to offer an arm and tug Joe through the hatch. “Be sure to only walk on the exposed beams - you don’t want to step through your ceiling.”

I’d like to expose your beam, was the inappropriate thought that popped into Joe’s mind first, but luckily he got distracted by being able to look around at the attic space for the first time. “It’s rough up here. I was hoping it might be extra usable space one day, but -”

“I don’t think you have enough headroom,” Nicky frowned. (Definitely not enough head room, Joe thought as he tried to gingerly shift his stance and hide his bodily reaction to following Nicky up the ladder.)

“I think it would be beyond your budget at this time to finish this space, to be honest - but it might be done down the road,” said Nicky, thankfully not noticing Joe’s discomfort. “For now, I would actually suggest just insulating the space better, because there is not enough batting here. It will be a cost now, but it will save you money over time with your energy bills.”

“Yeah, that sounds reasonable.”

“Great - then do you prefer rigid or blown?”

“Excuse me?” Joe startled. Had he heard what he thought he’d heard?

“The insulation, rigid or blown? It either comes in these big rolls or in these little fluffy pieces that get blown in,” Nicky clarified, with a totally straight face.

Joe stared at him for a second or two, trying to get a sense of whether the man was making a joke or some sort of innuendo, but there was absolutely nothing in his expression that suggested it. Okay, it was just his own mind that was clearly in the gutter then. “Whatever you think is best,” he managed to say.

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It should have been an odd but innocuous exchange, one to be quickly brushed aside and forgotten about. But no, instead it seemed to have unlocked some hopelessly immature part of Joe’s brain that then started to hear sexual innuendo in every conversation.

“You mentioned wanting a bookshelf in this room, yes?” Nicky asked him one day as they examined a bedroom Joe was planning on using as a guest room-slash-library.

“Yeah, I have what people tell me is an unreasonably large book collection. I was thinking floor to ceiling shelves, across this entire wall.”

“First of all, there is no such thing as an unreasonable amount of books,” the man said with a small smile, to which he grinned in agreement. “Do you have the shelves already?”

“No. Honestly, I was thinking I’d have to go to Ikea,” Joe admitted with a wince, and was met with the expected look of disdain. “I know, I know! You don’t have to say it, it’s just that for the amount of shelving I need, I really can’t argue with that price. I’m trying not to blow my entire budget here, Nicky.” (Not when I’d like to blow something else, he then thought, and grimaced internally. Seriously, what was he, thirteen again?)

“I have a better idea,” Nicky declared. “I have a stash of reclaimed hardwood from another job. What if I use that to build your shelves?”

“I’d like to claim your hard wood,” Joe muttered under his breath.

“What did you say?”

“I said, I like the idea of reclaimed hardwood!” Joe blurted out, trying to save himself. “That would fit the aesthetic of the house. But I have to admit, that sounds pricey too.”

“I will give you a good deal,” promised Nicky. “And honestly, you would be doing me a bit of a favour - I enjoy woodworking, I don’t have much opportunity to do it though.”

Bet I’d enjoy working with your wood, Joe thought, trying to make sure he didn’t say the quiet part loud, before forcing himself back on track. “Alright, yes, sounds good. I can sketch up some rough plans of what I’m thinking?”

“Yes, that will help us figure out the layout.” (I’d like to lay you out.) “You won’t regret this Joe, I think it will look really good,” Nicky stated with his calm certainty, and Joe tried to convert his awkward grimace into what he hoped was a normal-looking smile. It didn’t last long. “Now, can you hand me that stud detector? Let me just examine this wall to make sure a wall-mounted unit would work. It will be heavy, we need to ensure I mount it on a solid stud.”

Somehow he must have managed to pass Nicky the little yellow device he’d been pointing at, but Joe honestly had no clue how his brain told his body to move when he was fairly sure every single one of his synapses had just fizzled out.

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Most days were fine, and they would actually be productive with demo or plastering or whatever tasks were on hand. They worked well together, and Joe found himself enjoying the manual labour. Much like he had to apply layers upon layers on his canvases to achieve the final product, they had to strip away layer upon layer from the house to restore its shine. It was an exciting and satisfying process to see it slowly take shape. And throughout it all, Joe had begun to develop an immense respect for Nicky’s cool and calm demeanour, and his way of explaining things to him in a clear way that didn’t make him feel like a complete idiot.

It was he himself that made him feel like a complete idiot, it turned out.

They could go days with nothing but polite conversation - even verging into friendly chatter - where Joe managed to stay focused and be totally professional (okay, so there may have been some ogling here and there, but he had eyes after all - what was he supposed to do, walk around a construction zone with his eyes closed?). But then, seemingly out of the blue, a random comment would hit the reset button on Joe’s attempts at appropriateness.

“I was taking a look at your plumbing and I had a few questions,” Nicky began as they stood in the dismantled kitchen. “Do you have a new sink picked out yet?”

“Yes, actually, I have my eye on one,” Joe said, reaching into his pocket to grab his phone and pull up a photo.

“Is it self-rimming?”

He dropped his phone. “What?” he choked out, sounding slightly strangled.

“The sink, is it self-rimming? Do the edges rest on top of the countertop?” Nicky explained.

“Oh, er, I guess?” Joe mumbled as he bent over to pick up his phone, focusing too hard on that so he wouldn’t have to meet Nicky’s eyes. “I was thinking of an old-style apron front sink, to match the era of the house. So yeah, I guess it sits on top.”

“Single hole?”

“Er, uh, no. Two holes?” he said, his voice pitched a bit higher than normal. Sink holes, sink holes, we’re talking about sink holes, he told himself. He sort of wished one would open up beneath him now.

“Great. I’ll have to do a bit of work with the rigid pipe that comes up from the basement, but it shouldn't be too hard,” Nicky mused, luckily concentrating on jotting notes down onto a little pad of paper so that he missed the multiple pained expressions crossing Joe’s face. “I think I will add a ball valve for you too, so you have easier access to the water shut-off.”

“Easy access, sure, that sounds good,” Joe nodded, envying that his brain didn’t come with a shut-off too.

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“I swear I’m losing it, Book!” Joe cried later that evening, having once again retreated to Booker’s to scream about everything he couldn’t say in front of his contractor. “I feel like I’m back in middle school and want to giggle at everything he says because it sounds dirty.”

“Can I say it?” Sebastien asked, looking at Joe steadily.

“...You can say it,” he sighed.

“I told you so.”

“Yeah, you did,” Joe groaned, dropping his head into his hands.

“Thank you for admitting it,” his friend smirked, and then naturally continued to rub it in. “Now, how about you actually do something about this crush of yours so you don’t come running here to vent after long days of you and Nicky getting sweaty together?”

“I would love to do something about it, but I don’t know if I can!” came the desperate but muffled cry from where his face was still hidden. “Setting aside the fact that the man works for me and me asking him out would be all sorts of creepy, I honestly have no clue if he’s into me.”

It was actually driving him crazy, trying to figure it out. He just couldn’t get a good read on Mr. Nicolò di Genova, licensed contractor. There were times when he thought he noticed a flicker of interest in the man’s eyes (oh, those eyes! How did he not need some sort of license to operate those things? They were clearly a dangerous weapon), but it would be gone the next instant. The man’s poker face was masterful. That, or he truly wasn’t interested in Joe. Or men in general - Joe really had no clue, he was just making all sorts of desperately hopeful assumptions.

“Joe. Seriously. With everything you’ve told me this man has said, how can you think he’s not into you?”

“Because Nicky has been nothing but perfectly polite and professional! I’ve been looking up all the terms he’s been saying and they are real,” Joe explained with frantic eyes, now throwing his hands up into the air. “Did you know that masonry materials have to be thoroughly wet before being laid, or that you can get butt glazed windows? Because I sure didn’t think construction terms were so dirty, but now I know. And when he points out a load-bearing member or asks me for help laying out studs, he actually means it literally!”

“Come on, he has to have a clue what that all sounds like,” scoffed Sebastien disbelievingly.

“I don’t think he does!” Joe cried. “Maybe the innuendo is lost between Italian and English, I don’t know… but he seems perfectly sincere every time.”

“Well, then I don’t know what to tell you,” Booker shrugged. “Except that, once again, I told you so.”

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It was a few days later, when trying to adjust the shelves in the pantry, that Joe found an opportunity. Nicky was fussing with the precise angle of the corner and bemoaning that the board he had cut did not align properly.

“Yeah, nothing in this house is straight, is it?” he jested, but with a particularly pointed tone.

“Actually, I think the term you want is square,” Nicky corrected him gently, clearly not taking the hint. Then again, Joe really shouldn't have been surprised at his literalness by now. “That the walls do not meet at a proper 90 degree angle means it is not square.”

But you are definitely square, Joe sighed to himself. If only he didn’t find it so darn endearing.

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“So I will be calling in a sub-contractor to do your electrical work soon,” Nicky mentioned to him one afternoon. “Luckily the house was rewired relatively recently, so we won’t have to pull knob-and-tube.”

I’d love to pull your knob and tube, Joe thought, and winced. What was wrong with him?

The other man must have noticed his discomfited expression because he quickly added, “It is not a major job, but there are a few things they will need to upgrade. I am creating the master list for the electrician, but I think we need to do another walk-through to make sure we don’t miss anything. Think about all the outlets you want in each room, things like that.”

Yes, Joe desperately needed an outlet, just not the kind Nicky was thinking. He shook his head and tried to focus on the task at hand, which mostly worked, until -

“How do you feel about a three-way gangbox here in the kitchen?”

“What?!” he sputtered, shocked that those words had come out of the mild-mannered man’s mouth. (And frankly that didn’t sound sanitary for a kitchen, what with possible food contamination issues.)

“A panel with three switches,” Nicky described, looking at Joe as if curious at his overreaction. “One for the lights over the island, one for over the sink, and one for the pantry?”

“Ohhhh,” he sighed, somewhat relieved. “Yes, yes, that sounds good. Makes sense.”

“Good, and I’ll have them check over everything else too. I know there are a few places that will need some butt connectors, and they’ll give an okay to your electrical panel too. The last thing we want is for you to blow a fuse at an inopportune time.”

Too late, thought Joe’s brain as it went ‘poof’.

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Joe had actually been looking forward to the bathroom reno, because he had been sure there wouldn't be many opportunities for sexy talk when dealing with something as decidedly unsexy as reattaching a toilet.

He had been very, very wrong.

"Joe, I think you're experiencing some head loss to your rim holes," Nicky had begun as he leaned over to examine the toilet bowl, and Joe couldn't even truly appreciate the view because he somehow felt vaguely insulted at the words he didn’t fully understand.

It only got worse from there.

He played assistant to Nicky, listening to him narrate what he was doing ("I just need to tweak this nipple a little" and “Now I’ll just seal it with the o-ring” and “We’ll need the male-to-male adaptor for these pieces”), but the whole time he was biting his lip constantly to try and stop himself from blurting out inappropriate responses. Whenever Nicky asked Joe to hand him something, like "Pass me that pipe coupler please?" (I'd like to couple with your pipe), he managed to do it somehow but Joe swore he’d had to ask Nicky to repeat himself so many times that the man probably thought he was hard of hearing. In his defense, it was a bit hard to hear Nicky’s instructions when he was screaming internally.

"Almost done!" Nicky finally exclaimed, lifting the top off the toilet tank. "I just need to adjust the ballcock a bit…"

Allah save me, Joe prayed, and squirmed a bit as he felt the need to adjust his own ballcock too.

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"Did you have any idea that plumbing was so sexual?!" he shouted later, both to the heavens and to Sebastien. “He asked me to pass him a ball peen hammer, Book! It’s not just me, right? That is a legitimately ridiculous and overly sexual name for a tool.”

“It’s kind of funny, yeah, but come on…” Booker rolled his eyes, by now completely nonplussed at all the nightly Nicky recaps Joe regaled him with.

Joe put his hands flat on Booker’s kitchen table and stared across at him with utter seriousness, not quite believing that he was going to have to recite his next words with a straight face. “He asked me, and I quote, to ‘pass the ball peen hammer so he could shape the gasket to better fit the mating surface in order to prevent fluid leaking from the flange joint’.”

“...Okay, maybe it’s not just you.”

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Spring had sprung and with it came the warmer weather, but seeing as how he wasn’t living in the new house yet, Joe hadn’t seen the need to activate the air conditioning system. Why not save a bit of money on utilities when he could, he thought to himself as he entered the perhaps-too-warm house one afternoon; the heat hadn’t yet reached summertime levels of unbearableness, so it all seemed perfectly manageable.

That was the last coherent thought he had for a while however, because almost as soon as he crossed the threshold he was met with the arresting sight of Nicky walking down the hallway, tugging off his sweat-soaked t-shirt.

Joe had never truly understood the ‘no thoughts, head empty’ meme until that very moment.

“Oh, hello Joe!” Nicky greeted him with a pleasantly surprised smile. Had Joe been able to summon even the barest amount of brainpower, he would have thought how much he enjoyed the way other man now seemed much freer with his smiles. But there were still no thoughts whatsoever present in his head, just a strange buzzing between his ears.

Luckily, Nicky kept talking. “I was in the back room doing some stripping -” (Not enough stripping, Joe thought greedily, throwing a disgruntled glance down at the man’s dismal jeans.) “- and all the windows means it gets quite warm in there. I know you wanted to use that room as your studio, but perhaps you should come back there and see the conditions? I do not know how the heat will affect your materials.”

Joe could only nod, tugging at the neck of his own shirt uncomfortably. He was already getting hot under the collar, and he had only just got there.

He turned on the A/C that very afternoon, deciding the extra dollars each month would be worth it to prevent himself from spontaneously combusting.

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As the finish line of the renovation neared, that meant the finishing work could begin. Joe was looking forward to it for multiple reasons, and the fact that his house would be done was not the main one. The end of the renovation meant Nicky would no longer be his employee and Joe could in good conscience make his move. He was nearly at the end of his tether, but he really thought he could hold on until then. After all, what was really left to do? The major jobs, with the kitchen and the bathrooms, had been done. How much innuendo would he really have to face when the tasks left were mostly to do with surface-level aesthetics? Some spackling, some painting… Painting was the one thing Joe was actually confident in, so surely it would be easy and then he’d be home free.

If only he knew how wrong he was.

And, to be fair, Nicky did try to warn him, in his own way. “So, today may get a bit messy,” he began one morning.

Yes please, get me messy, Joe thought with a gulp, before trying to portray a sense of cool. “I’m an artist, Nicky, I’m used to messy.”

“That may be so,” Nicky shrugged, “but I find that caulk is a special kind of messy.”

...Annnnd, there it was. Joe.exe had stopped working. That was the only possible explanation for the words that somehow then emerged from his mouth, with absolutely no filter to stop them. “I’ve dealt with messy cock before.”

He heard those words as they were coming out of his mouth but he couldn’t stop the verbal train wreck. Yet, somehow, Nicky didn’t even blink. He only said, “Oh good, then I don’t need to tell you what to do?”

Now Joe was the one to blink as his brain tried to play catch-up. For once the homophones were working in his favour; Nicky had never left contractor-mode, he obviously had no clue what he’d accidentally blurted out. That meant Joe could salvage the situation, and he wanted nothing more, but apparently his brain-to-mouth filter was beyond repair. “I would love it if you would tell me what to do,” was what he said next, and then winced. What in the name of all that was holy was wrong with him?!

He had to be thankful for Nicky’s utter professionalism and/or literal interpretation of English, because the other man didn’t lose so much as a step as he began explaining the process. “We’ll start with the trim and mouldings, you see there are some loose pieces here and there? I will go and nail them, but it’s hard to always find the correct amount of pressure with a nail gun. So likely I may penetrate a bit too deep, and you will have to follow behind me and fill in the holes.”

I can fill your holes, he thought lavisciously, before then also saying out loud, much to his horror, “I can fill your holes.”

And while Joe was silently begging for Allah to just strike him down right there, Nicky remained utterly focused as he grabbed a tube and demonstrated the proper technique. “My advice would be to have a gentle hand with the caulk. You just need a bead to squeeze out from the very tip, you don’t want to overdo it. Otherwise things get sloppy.”

“Wouldn’t want that…” Joe gritted out between clenched teeth. (Or would we?)

“But there is a trick! All you have to do then is just smooth out the caulk with a wet finger.” And, as he watched Nicky bend over and trail a careful finger along the wood trim, wiping off the excess white goo, all he could do was imagine that same finger caressing a very different piece of wood.

“Once the holes are filled in,” Nicky continued as if he wasn’t giving Joe an aneurysm, “you can go back and fill the gaps where the trim meets the wall. For this a caulk gun might be easier, have you ever used one before?”

“Er, no, can’t say that I have,” Joe managed to say, while thinking of an old toy that he was pretty sure had been named the Cock Gun. He felt fairly certain that’s not what Nicky had been referring to though.

“Some people find them easier, they apply a steady pressure on the tube so you can get a smoother and more even finish,” he explained, and all Joe could do was mentally beg, I’d love a smooth finish…

“Let me show you,” Nicky demonstrated. “All you have to do is squeeze the tube steadily so you get an even bead coming out of the tip. You can either push or pull the tube, whichever is most comfortable for you. Then, as you near the end of your line, just press the release lever on your gun to stop the flow of the caulk.” (I would love to press my release lever, Joe’s mind whimpered. What had he done to deserve this torture?)

“And that’s all there is to it!” exclaimed Nicky, standing up and passing the caulk gun to Joe. “Easy, yes? Are you ready to get started?”

Joe was more than ready to finish, but he gamely nodded. “As I’ll ever be,” he croaked.

The next few hours passed in very much of a blur. Joe didn’t bother hiding his relief when they finished off the trim work in the last room, rising to stand straight and stretching languorously. He thought he heard something in his back pop and was ready to congratulate them both on a job well done - but it appeared Nicky wasn’t ready to call it quits yet.

“I think we can focus on the walls now,” he suggested. “Can you take the caulk and fill those deep voids?”

I’d like to fill your deep voids, he sighed.

“Joe, you seem to be squeezing that caulk very hard,” Nicky noticed with a frown, and Joe looked down and was surprised to find that he was indeed gripping the tube in his hands as if his life depended on it. “Is it too stiff?”

He nodded tensely. “Yup, it’s definitely too stiff.”

“That caulk may have been sitting untouched for too long, let’s get your hands on another one.”

By this point Joe’s inner monologue was nothing but full-on sobbing. It must have shown on his face, because Nicky threw him a sympathetic look. “The prep work is frustrating, I know, but it is necessary for a satisfactory finish. Good preparation is key.”

“I’m well aware of the importance of preparation,” Joe groaned. “I suppose I am just impatient.”

“It will be worth it in the end. I think you’ll be happy with how it will come together.”

“I would love to come together,” he sighed quietly, ready to weep.

☽☉☾ ☉ ☽☉☾ ☉ ☽☉☾

The house was looking wonderful. Joe himself? Maybe not so much. He was fairly certain he was developing an eye twitch, but finally Nicky spoke those magic words.

“I think we can finally wrap things up!” he announced one day. (I can think of something I’d like to wrap up, Joe thought before the meaning of the words truly sunk in and he felt a sense of relief overtake him.) “Unless there are some other items you wanted to revisit, now that we know we did not blow your budget?”

“No!” Joe quickly cried. “No, I want this over and done with.”

He surely wasn’t imagining the way Nicky’s face dropped at his words, was he? “Oh, I see…” the other man said slowly, and there was definitely a disappointed tone to his voice.

“Um, no, I don’t think you do see,” Joe responded carefully, deciding he might as well go for broke. Surely this conversation couldn’t be as humiliating as the others he had endured… though he was now all but positive that the others had been one-sidedly embarrassing, at least. “You really have no clue, do you?”

“No clue about what?” Nicky asked guilelessly.

“About all the things you’ve been saying! And how I was reacting to them?” Joe blurted out, finally at the end of his rope and figuring he might as well hang himself with it. “I thought I was being so obvious and juvenile and inappropriate you were just… well, honestly, I thought half the time you were doing it on purpose, but -

“Doing what on purpose?” he repeated, eyes wide and concerned and Joe absolutely hated that he was the one to cause him worry... “Joe, I’m sorry, I don’t follow, have I offended you somehow?“

...But at the same time Joe was frustrated (in more ways than one), so he just began full-on babbling at this point (because if he wasn’t getting his ideal sort of release, well, all he could do now was vent verbally). “All your sexy talk! The studs and the rigid pipes and the butt connectors… And the caulk! So much caulk! I can’t look at a tube of caulk without getting hard now!”

“Oh,” Nicky blinked, still looking slightly confused, before realization slowly dawned across his face. “Ohhhhh! Oh no, Joe, I am so sorry, I did not realize…” He wiped a hand over his face where a flush was rapidly forming. “I was not thinking, honestly. I have to translate all the terms from Italian to English, and I focus so much on trying to find the right words that I do not even think about other meanings, or what I was implying… I have embarrassed you, I am so sorry.”

“No, no, it’s fine,” Joe sighed, before looking up towards the ceiling and praying for strength. “I mean, yes, it was embarrassing, and I am clearly embarrassing myself now, but I had to know whether it was on purpose or not. Because I have to say that I can only take a beautiful, kind, patient man talking to me using such words for so long. It made me think of incredibly inappropriate things that I didn’t want to say in my position as your employer.”

“Ah. I think I do see...” Nicky said slowly. He paused, and seemed like he was about to say something else, but then he held out a hand and stated, “I think you need to give me the final cheque now.”

Joe could feel a wave of disappointment crash over him. Well, that was it then, he supposed. Reaching into his pocket, he pulled out a folded cheque covering the last installment of the reno costs and passed it over, making sure not to let his fingers graze Nicky’s. No need to tempt himself any further when it seemed like the man - his contractor, he tried to remind himself, because that was clearly all he wanted to be - was ready to walk out the door.

“Thank you,” Nicky said, ever politely, not even pausing to unfold and look at the cheque. He just tucked it into his back pocket and continued, “I believe that officially concludes our business, and you are technically not my employer and I am no longer your employee. Now, would it be unprofessional of me to ask you to dinner?”

And, for what must have been the thousandth time since they had met, Joe had to second-guess what he thought he heard Nicky say to him - only this time it seemed like perhaps it was the most appropriate thing he could have said. “...You- You’re asking me out?”

“Yes. I hope, especially from what you have just told me, that it is not unwelcome?”

“No, no! I, just… I honestly wasn’t sure whether you felt the same,” he admitted, still somewhat surprised at this turn of events. “You were so stoic this whole time. And, well, when we first met I thought you hated me for some reason. I know we got friendly over the past few months, but I wasn’t sure if it was anything more than that.”

“I know I already apologized, for wrongly assuming you were one of those obnoxious open-concept flippers, but it did not help when you opened the door and I was met with a beautiful man,” Nicky explained, biting his lip anxiously in a way that was driving Joe to distraction when he really needed to be listening to his words. “And then I did my best to remain professional, because you were my employer. Though it seems I did not do a good job with that, no matter my intention.”

Joe’s mind was racing now, trying to think back at all the clues he must have missed. Taking a deep breath, he decided to finally speak plainly. “Listen, we began this all wanting to be on the same page. Let’s do that again.” He took a step closer to Nicky and placed his hands on the man’s (still sinfully broad) shoulders. Looking straight in his (stunning!) eyes, he said, “You have been driving me crazy for the past few months. I want you.”

He saw the corners of Nicky's lips turn up in a full smile, finally, as he said in return, “You have been driving me crazy as well. And I want you too.”

“Good,” grinned Joe, relieved.

“Yes, good,” Nicky echoed.

And that was that. Suddenly it was the easiest thing in the world for them both to lean in and have their lips meet. And meet, and meet, and meet…

Joe would have tried to hide the full-on whine he let out when Nicky pulled back a few minutes later (he liked to pretend he had some dignity left, after all), but then got distracted by the worried furrow that crossed his brow. “What is it?” he asked, now worried himself.

“I’m sorry, I am just looking back on some of the things I said to you and thinking on them in a new light,” Nicky admitted, a thousand-yard stare starting to take over his gaze and Joe could recognize the signs of an inner monologue of mortification. “Dio, some of the things I said…”

“Trust me, I am all too aware of the things you said,” he snorted, feeling quite unconcerned now. “You are luckily I apparently have incredible restraint.”

“Am I though?” Nicky wondered, now apparently drawn back to the present. WIth a sly smile and a glance up through his eyelashes that was making Joe’s stomach do very acrobatic flips, he asked, voice pitched low, “Do me a favour? Do not restrain yourself any longer.”

Joe could only groan at that and decided to enact that favour immediately, yanking the other man back in for a kiss by his shirt. He may have been a bit too enthusiastic in his tugging because they overbalanced slightly, sending Joe toppling backwards and bashing his hip against the chair rail molding halfway up the wall.

“Oh, careful!” Nicky exclaimed, looking at the point of contact. “I just touched up that spot a little while ago, the caulk is still wet! Now it’s smeared all over your pants.”

Joe closed his eyes, dropping his head back against the wall with a grunt.

“...Oh, okay. Yes, yes, I hear it now.”

“In our new-found spirit of openness and lack of restraint,” Joe began, “I have to say that I am more than eager for some wet cock.”

Oh, the way that Nicky’s eyes darkened at that was very intriguing to Joe, who began to regret not having been more candid before - who knows what delicious things that might have prompted? - but Nicky’s mouth back on his quickly distracted him once more.

All too soon however, Nicky tore himself away with another frazzled expression on his face, and Joe outright whimpered that time. “...I’m sorry, now I can’t stop thinking about some other jobs I have been on,” he fretted, running a hand through his hair in agitation. “Ohhh, some people’s odd reactions to what I was telling them make a lot more sense now…”

“Don’t worry, I am more than happy to help you practice your terminology,” Joe promised with an easy grin. “Consider it a crash course in construction innuendo. Let's say I could even drill them into you.”

And at the noise of protest that erupted from Nicky's throat, accompanied by an adorable blush staining his cheeks, Joe quickly decided that turnabout would be fair (not to mention fun) play.

☽☉☾ ☉ ☽☉☾ ☉ ☽☉☾