“Hand me that book, please, John - goodness, your hands are dry.”
John looks at his chapped hands. They are pretty bad, he guesses, but something about the way Harold’s frowning stops him from pointing out that he got shot in the gut last year, and he currently has a fractured rib and three stitches in his scalp. He’s got used to Harold fussing over him - even, on his bad days, goes out of his way to seek it out, if he’s honest - but it’s usually for stuff that requires actual first aid. Right now Harold’s tutting and rummaging in his desk drawer, and John tries not to smile when Harold brandishes a tube of moisturizer. It’s plain, unscented stuff that he doesn’t mind having on him; it’s probably what he would buy himself, if he’d thought of it. He is a little taken aback when Harold holds out his hand expectantly for John’s, like it never even occurs to him that it’s kind of a weird thing for one guy to do for another, let alone a boss for his employee.
John’s reconciled himself to the fact that Harold doesn’t know or care about normal behaviour. Although sometimes it’s annoying, mostly he likes it, more than he’d have expected. He’s realizing, the longer he spends with Harold, that he’s spent his whole life pulling back from other guys in case they get the wrong idea. He remembers what it was like, with Jessica, just being allowed to touch her whenever he wanted to, being allowed to notice that he wanted to. When he was with her, he felt like something was lifted off him, like he could breathe easily again. He thought it was her that he wanted so much, and it was, but partly it was just - being allowed.
He was bad at it then; he’s not sure he could do it at all, now. Some habits sink into the bone. His body knows how to strip and clean a gun blindfolded, and it knows how to keep an appropriate distance between himself and other people. Men, especially. He just does it, without thinking about it, because he learned so early the consequences for getting it wrong. Most of the time he doesn’t even notice himself wanting anything different.
He’s only thinking about it lately because Harold lives by a different set of rules, and it grates on John, because the way Harold touches him, in John’s world, has very clear connotations, and John doesn’t know if Harold knows that. No, that’s not true. He knows Harold doesn’t mean anything by it. It’s just that slowly, quietly, John’s been realizing that he wants. Something. He wants to touch Harold back, and he wants Harold to know what it means. He wants Harold to tell him what it means.
“Well?” Harold says impatiently, and John holds out his hands without a word. “I know you won’t do it properly if I let you do it.”
“You’re probably right,” John says, managing to keep his voice level as Harold rubs the goop into his knuckles and the joints of his fingers with warm, firm strokes. Harold took his arm, earlier, to stabilize himself as he stepped over some books; yesterday, he tapped John’s leg when he didn’t take his feet off the desk quickly enough. He touches John all the time, and doesn’t seem to even notice he’s doing it, let alone that John waits for him to do it again.
John doesn’t know what to do with his face; watching Harold’s frown of concentration feels intimate in a way that John shies away from, but looking away makes him feel like he’s pretending he’s not there. He settles for looking at their hands as Harold rubs the ball of his thumb into John’s palm. Warmth is spreading up his arm and making him want to melt into his chair.
“Hm,” Harold says, and he’s definitely giving John a hand massage now. When he rubs John’s index finger between his finger and thumb, John can’t help it; his breath catches, and he closes his eyes, just for a second. When he catches himself, it’s too late; Harold’s noticed, and frozen.
“Am I making you uncomfortable, John?”
John opens his mouth, but frankly doesn’t know what to say, so he doesn’t say anything. A blush is rising in Harold’s face. He looks down at John’s hand in his.
“… oh,” he says. “Is this inappropriate? It is, isn’t it.”
John figures it’s better just to rip the band-aid off and be done with it, so they can laugh about it and move on. “Harold,” John says, trying to make his voice light, “Are you hitting on me?”
He isn’t expecting Harold to frown at their joined hands again, as if he’s thinking about it.
“If you mean, am I trying to convey a message to you other than that your hands need better care, then, no. If you mean, am I attracted to you - ”
He spreads his hands in a gesture of helplessness, and looks confused when John’s hand goes with them. John is staring at him, completely floored. After a moment of indecision, during which John should probably do or say something but doesn’t, Harold puts John’s hand down on the desk with almost painful gentleness.
“I feel as if we speak different languages, sometimes,” Harold says to the desk. “It’s not your fault, of course. I’ve always been like this. I should have tried to put more effort into learning how to be with people, when I was younger, but I took the easier path. I don’t - some things come so easily to me, and I don’t manage well where I don’t have a natural aptitude.”
“Uncomfortable isn’t the word I’d use,” John blurts out, desperate to stop the outpour, to stop Harold looking so hunched and miserable. Harold looks up at him then, doubtful.
“What is, then?”
John tries not to open and close his mouth like a fish, but he feels like he is, anyway. “It’s complicated,” he says at last, with effort.
“When they told me they were adding that to the relationship tree on Facebook, I confess I thought it was ridiculous, which should tell you all you need to know about why I don’t run it anymore,” Harold says. He’s looking at John in a way John can’t quite parse, but that makes him feel restless, something humming under his skin. “Well, would you like me to stop?”
John just wants Harold to touch him. He doesn’t want to think about it, doesn’t want to talk about it. The desire strolls into his mind fully formed, like it was waiting for him to open the door, and it settles in like it owns the place. He puts his other hand into Harold’s, palm down. It’s surprisingly easy.
“Oh,” Harold says, looking surprised, then pleased. “All right.”
He rubs moisturizer into John’s other hand, massaging the tension out of his fingers, digging his thumb into John’s palm. John’s mind goes empty and calm as the touch rolls over him.
“I don’t read people very well, John,” Harold says, after a little while. “If there’s anything you want me to know, or that you want from me, I suggest you tell me. I will endeavour to do the same for you. Does that work?”
“Yeah,” John says. His smile comes easily, with the loosening of his chest. “That works.”
Harold works his way up his forearms, and John relaxes into it, lets the feeling of Harold’s warm, firm hands on his skin sink into him. It doesn’t totally fill the yawning ache inside him that, now he’s noticed it, is clamoring for his attention, but it goes a little way. He feels better.
“Would you like a footrub?” Harold says, after he’s spent a good ten minutes on John’s hands and arms. John tries to let himself think about it as a simple question, free-floating, without implication or ties. If Harold wants to ask him for something else, he will. Put that way, the idea of ten more minutes of Harold’s hands on him, caring for him, is - yeah. He wants that.
“Sure, Harold,” he says, and starts to take off his shoes.