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Within These Walls

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The framed photo rattles with such finality that Connor almost regrets throwing it so hard into the box. Amanda stands impassive, watching him collect the few things he thought to bring to decorate his office. A daily comic calendar follows the picture; Connor notes it’s nearly two weeks behind the times. A stress ball, squeezed half to death and in need of replacement, comes next.

“Mr. Smith, please. This is unnecessary.” Her tone is carefully neutral, but he can see her distaste for him lurking behind her sharp eyes. No matter how well he performs his job, she always seems to find something wrong with it.

He pulls the photograph back out of the box, one long finger running slowly down the side before sweeping a thumb over the small leaves engrained into the frame. He tries to remember how he felt when the picture was taken. The first fleeting touches of giddy happiness ghost across the surface of his mind, but reality comes in swiftly to smack it away. He shakes his head and sets the photo face down on his desk; he does not want it.

He hefts the box onto his hip before sweeping his eyes around the room one last time. Panic and the instinct to remain where life is comfortable glue his feet in place, but his mouth runs off without him, sealing his fate.

“Elijah made it very clear this is absolutely necessary.” A tremor of irritation ripples across Amanda’s face at Connor’s casual use of Elijah.

“Mr. Kamski is more than happy to keep you here at the company. Personal issues aside, you two do great work.”

“Personal issues?” Connor parrots, sarcasm heavy on his lips, “How can he expect me to be in the same room with him much less work with him after…,” his hand circles in the air in front of him trying to conjure a work-place appropriate term for what had passed between them.

Amanda’s sharp voice cleaves his attempt in half, “You could try to grow up.” As was always the case, Amanda makes Connor feel smaller than a crumb dropped from a stale loaf of bread.

Having no answer for her acerbic opinion, Connor strides past her, leaving behind the only meaningful thing he’s managed to achieve in his miserable thirty-three years of life.

He finds himself at Markus’ door, clutching the box of paltry office items. Markus’ greeting at Connor arriving unannounced goes from surprised delight to apprehension with comical speed.

“What happened?” He’s pulling Connor into his apartment by the arm, trying with limited success to remove the box from Connor’s grip. Connor sinks onto Markus’ plum colored couch, immune to the barrage of colors that usually disorients new guests. Art covers the walls, speaking to Markus’ love of creating vibrant paintings. A half-finished watercolor sits on an easel, a wet brush dripping lightly.

“I didn’t mean to interrupt,” Connor gestures toward the painting, “I should have called.” Having known Connor for most of his life, Markus ignores this remark. Connor finally releases the box in favor of putting his face in his hands. It clatters to the floor, the stress ball rolling away haphazardly.

Markus places a gentle hand on Connor’s shoulder, “Would you like some tea?” A strangled laugh escapes from Connor’s chest before he looks up to meet Markus’ gaze.

“I must look worse than I thought if you’re bringing out the big guns this early,” he mutters tea under his breath before asking, “Do you have anything stronger?”

Markus’ mouth goes into a thin line of dissatisfaction. He doesn’t approve of drinking as a means to deal with a problem; he knows Connor feels the same. In fact, Connor only ever turns to drink when he’s upset about one thing in particular.

“This is about Elijah, isn’t it?” Markus’ mask of disapproval deepens at the mention of the man’s name. Connor’s groan and the return of his face to his hands are answer enough for Markus.

“I don’t keep hard liquor in the house, but I have wine.” He rises and retrieves a bottle of his favorite red and two glasses before sitting down next to Connor. As he pours two glasses just this side of too small, he prompts Connor again, “So, Elijah.”

Connor takes the wine and sips to buy himself some time. He’d come to Markus to commiserate and seek shelter from his poor life decisions. Now that he’s here, he’s struggling to produce words. He decides to start from the beginning even though Markus already knows that part of the story.

“You remember what I told you about the office holiday party? The meaningful conversations, the drinking—,”

“The mistletoe?” Markus interrupts, one eyebrow raised and unamused, “Yes, I remember you telling me that he kissed you. I also remember you having a panic attack about it afterward.” Connor makes a face at Markus’ use of panic attack, but he’s not far from the truth so Connor lets it go.

“Right, well. It didn’t stop. The flirting, I mean. He brushed off the kiss, ‘What else was I supposed to do, Connor? It was mistletoe.’” Markus rolls his eyes at Connor’s poor imitation of Elijah’s arrogant tone. Connor couldn’t pull off arrogant on a good day, much less when he’s precariously close to falling apart.

“I take it the flirting eventually transcended into more?” Markus asks when Connor remains quiet. Connor twirls the wine glass in his hands, fingers twitchy and itching for the stress ball.

“Much more. Too much. It was…wonderful at first. There was a Valentine’s Day party. I only had one drink, but Elijah insisted he drive me home. He drove us to his place instead. He—that is we—um.”

“I can surmise the rest of that evening, thank you.” Markus has no interest in hearing about how Elijah performed in bed, especially now that Connor looks so destroyed. Connor swallows another mouthful of wine before continuing.

“No one at work could know; I didn’t want them to know. He was my mentor and it felt…I didn’t want people to think I made it to my position by fucking my way up the corporate ladder.” His fierce tone startles Markus but he stays silent, letting Connor talk.

“He grew more distant at work. I had told him I didn’t want to flaunt our relationship, but his behavior felt off. We have a huge client we are pursuing so I thought that was consuming his attention. He started asking me to come over less. Then, he only ever wanted to meet at my place. I should’ve realized a breakup was coming.” Connor lets out a little hysterical laugh before continuing.

“Breakup. Relationship. I realize now I was assuming a lot of things about how Elijah felt.” Connor reaches for the wine and adds more to his glass, “He hired a new receptionist around Valentine’s Day.”

Markus grunts at the odd non sequitur, but Connor holds up a hand to stop him from interrupting. “She’s sweet, but a bit simple. He’s been sleeping with her, too.”

Understanding and a protective instinct to go beat Elijah into pulp rise like bile in his throat, “What?” is the only coherent word he can produce.

“Yeah,” Connor lets out a humorless laugh, “She knew about me the entire time. Elijah apparently liked to tell her stories about me…about us and our sex life—” Connor breaks off, feeling tears build up behind his eyes.

“Please tell me you are exaggerating,” Markus says it quietly, but he already knows it must be true.

“I asked him what was going on between us. I wanted to know where he thought our relationship was heading. He laughed at me then told me about Chloe. ‘Oh, this is marvelous. Chloe will find this so endearing.’” Connor doesn’t attempt to mimic Elijah’s voice this time, bitterness bleeding through every word.

“I asked him what he meant. He told me about Chloe and that my ‘misguided understanding of sex’ was amusing. He said it was a pleasure to teach me, that my skills as a lover were passable now—” Markus tries to interrupt but Connor’s expression clearly conveys please, don’t. Markus lets him continue, certain he won’t be able to say the words out loud if he stops talking.

“—but he was rather bored with me and decided we should stick to working together as professionals.” Connor swallows down his second glass rapidly as Markus weighs his words.

“Connor, that man is vile. I’ve thought so from the moment you mentioned him. Everything has always been on his terms. He’s unkind and manipulative. Do not for one second believe anything he has to say about you.”

“I was a conquest. He started losing interest in me from the moment he got me into his bed.” His voice is flat and lacking the emotion from moments before.

Markus eyes Connor suspiciously, “You sound remarkably detached all of the sudden.”

Connor exhales a dejected sigh, “It’s what Chloe told me this morning when I arrived for work. She wasn’t saying it to be mean,” Connor tries to clarify that he doesn’t blame Chloe for any of this, “She’s guileless and straightforward. She answered a lot of questions, actually. She moved in with him a while ago. That’s why he preferred my place by the end.”

Connor pours his third glass and Markus makes a note to move the easels out of the guest bedroom.

“Connor, you have got to stop doing this.” Connor looks at Markus with glassy eyes, a ruddy wine-induced flush forming on his cheeks. Markus presses the issue even if Connor isn’t ready to hear it. At least he can lay the foundation for future conversations, “This isn’t the first time I’ve heard this story from you. Elijah is just the most recent out of a long string of men just like him. You like to please people. I get it, I do, but you can’t please people into loving you. Those men only know how to take.”

Connor stares into the depths of his wine glass for several moments before offering, “I know. It’s why I quit.” Markus goes rigid and immediately launches a barrage of questions. A small smile tugs at Connor’s mouth. He may be a people pleaser, but Markus picked up the habit of problem-solving.

“Do you have enough savings? Do you have any prospects? Do you need—,”

“Markus, I was the CFO for the number one e-commerce company in the nation and I brokered several deals to acquire other organizations to expand our own. I’ll be fine financially.”

“If you want, I can speak to Carl—,” Connor makes a panicked motion with his hands, slopping some of his wine on his pants.

“No, thank you. He’s your father, not mine.”

Markus makes a pained expression, “Connor, he cares about you and you know it.”

“Not enough to get me out of The Grove.” Markus closes his eyes at the mention of the place, pushing away dark memories.

“That’s not fair, Connor. He couldn’t take us both.” Connor shrugs his shoulders. They’d covered this territory before. Carl was single, older, and covered in tattoos the first time he walked into the front doors of The Grove. He’d been lucky they allowed him to foster one kid at all. Connor had been sick that day so Carl met Markus first. Connor visited them often, but The Grove never let Carl take on both boys. Markus eventually became a Manfred while Connor aged out of the system with no known family or real last name.

Connor pours the last of the wine into his cup before muttering, “I know. I’m sorry.” Markus waves a hand at him, brushing aside the apology.

“Don’t worry about it. It’s been a bad day. Crash in my guest room and we can start your job hunt tomorrow. You’re going to feel like trash, by the way. Four glasses, Connor?” Connor smiles at Markus’ fussing over his financial future and eminent hangover.

Connor shakes his head in mild amusement, noticing that his vision isn’t keeping up with the motion. “I’m drunk,” he announces and Markus mutters no kidding. Connor doesn’t drink often and his tolerance shows it. Stumbling slightly, Markus helps him to bed and he awakes in the morning uncertain of how he got under the blanket.

“Good morning,” Markus calls brightly as Connor emerges from the guest room, “How’re you feeling?”

“Like I could use a remote to turn down your volume,” Connor mutters darkly, but Markus just laughs.

“Overindulged, hmm?” Connor flaps a hand at him in irritation before shuffling over in search of coffee.

“Yes, yes. You are forever and always Supreme Lord of Being Right. Where’s the creamer?” Connor’s been over often enough to know where the creamer should be, but Markus’ creative chaos has a way of making things disappear from their proper place.

After a brief search, Connor gives up on the creamer and opts to spray a long spurt of pressurized whipped cream into his coffee instead. Markus pulls a face, but Connor retorts, “Beggars can’t be choosers.”

Connor glances at Markus’ open laptop and groans, “I haven’t been awake long enough to gauge this hangover and you’re already bookmarking jobs for me?”

Markus nudges the laptop toward him, “I’ve found several. As it turns out, companies need you brainy types to keep track of their money for them.” Connor wrinkles his nose at Markus but pursues the job listings anyway. Some he disregards outright but others he copies the links to send to himself later.

He’s looking at the fifth job listing when his phone starts playing a ringtone he knows all too well. “That song is ruined for me forever now,” he says before declining the call with an overly vicious poke to his phone screen.

He turns back to the job listing when the ringing begins again. Markus raises his eyebrows when Connor declines the call once more, “That’s not going to stop him, you know. There are formalities to quitting your job.” Connor sighs, knowing Markus is right.

“I know; I’d just rather not deal with it while hungover and un-caffeinated.” When Connor’s phone starts to ring for the third time, Markus’ hand darts across the counter to snatch it.

“Good morning, Elijah. How can I help you?” Connor’s eyes go wide as his hands dither about in a panic.

Markus puts the phone on speaker in time for Connor to hear, “Ran to you, did he?” Connor’s eyes narrow as Markus’ roll.

“Do you need something in particular?” Connor gives Markus a thumbs up, showing his solidarity in ignoring Elijah’s jab.

“To speak with Connor. I thought I had made that clear.” Connor cringes at Elijah’s condescending tone; he knows it well.

“He’s unavailable, Elijah. Would you like to leave a message?” Markus’ hands drift to search for a pen and pad among his cluttered counter.

“I know he’s there; I can hear his hormonal panting.” Connor’s mouth snaps closed self-consciously. He doubts Elijah can hear him breathing, but one of his more common complaints about Connor’s sexual performance was his loudness.

Have you no self-control? The memory of that first night together ricochets in his mind, leaving poison in its wake. He had moaned through Elijah’s initial ministrations and the man threatened to end the evening right then and there if Connor couldn’t put a lid on it. He had changed to please Elijah, but it was never enough.

Hearing Elijah say his name shakes him out of the unpleasant reverie, “Connor may be many things but a coward isn’t one of them. Put him on the phone n—,” Connor rips the phone from Markus’ hand, needing to grip something solid to deal with this conversation.

“What do you want, Elijah?” It comes out gritty and harsh and Markus smiles approvingly.

“Ah, Connor. Good morning. I had wondered when you were going to grace the office with your presence. We do have several important projects at the moment as you are well aware.” Connor’s mouth falls open a fraction as Markus mouths What? in stark confusion.

“Elijah, I quit yesterday. I cleared out my office. Amanda was right there.” For a moment, Connor wonders if this is some kind of horrid nightmare.

“I do recall you having a fit and trying to resign. I don’t, however, remember accepting it.” Connor’s mouth opens and closes in rapid succession, not believing what he’s hearing, “You’re an invaluable asset to the company Connor. Losing you would be an insurmountable detriment.”

“I’m not working for you, Elijah. I quit. I wrote and signed a resignation letter.”

“Dear me, I seem to have misplaced it.” Connor can imagine the man looking at his fingernails in boredom. He never had time for what he called Connor Hysterics.

“Elijah, this is illegal. You can’t refuse my ability to resign.” He knows the words are true when he says them, but cold fear crawls up the back of his neck nonetheless.

“Of course I can.” Connor looks to Markus, at a loss. Markus, usually cooler than a fall afternoon, is simmering with fury. To most, he looks much the same as he usually does, but Connor’s known him long enough to read his tells. The slow tap of his forefinger against the counter is a clear sign that World War III is about to kick off in his kitchen.

When Connor’s mouth refuses to come up with a reply, Elijah continues, “You can either come into work or I will place you on leave without pay. If you try to obtain employment elsewhere, I will be forced to come after you under the provisions of your non-compete agreement.”

Unable to withstand the arrogance for a moment longer, Markus interjects, “I don’t know who you think you are, Elijah, but Connor will not be coming into work today or any other day because he quit.”

“Oh, I was wondering if this was a conversation with an audience. Connor’s non-compete agreement is perfectly reasonable and legal in the state of Michigan. He can certainly try to countersue, but I do have rather deep pockets. I can keep this up for however long it takes.”

Connor tries to appeal one last, desperate time, “Elijah, you don’t like me and I despise you. Why would you want to work in such a toxic environment?”

Elijah sighs in a way that Connor associates with disappointing the man yet again. The instinct to apologize bubbles in his gut, which he resolutely ignores. “Connor, I like you just fine. I don’t love you and therein lies your problem. This should not affect your ability to perform your job. In that area, you are more than sufficient.” Connor hears the unspoken but implied insult to his sexual capabilities. He feels a hideous flush burn up his chest and over his face.

“Elijah, you are a monster. Goodbye.” Connor hears Markus say the words, but his body has gone numb. Markus pulls the phone gently from Connor’s hand to end the call. They spend the rest of the morning on the phone with Carl, discussing Connor’s options.

“So I’m fucked, is what you’re saying.” Markus scowls at Connor before muttering language under his breath, but Carl lets out an easy laugh.

“Sorry, Connor. You do have options, but they’re risky and expensive. You can try to work, but he will throw so many lawsuits at you, you’ll be unemployable. If you don’t go back to work for him, you’re not earning any money.”

“I cannot go back there. Ever.” Connor hears the whine in his voice and cringes at himself.

“I wasn’t going to suggest it. There is another option. You can go into business doing something else entirely. His non-compete argument only works if you try to find work in your field.”

Connor groans out, “That is not helpful,” and Carl laughs again.

“Give it a thought. I wanted to be an artist, but everyone told me it was a waste of time. I struggled for far too long trying to be a suit.”

Markus laughs loudly before saying, “Carl, you worked as a temporary administrative assistant for two months before you sold your first painting.”

“Two months too long, I will have you know.” They all laugh easily, but doubt returns to nag Connor about his uncertain future. Carl speaks again, “Give yourself a couple of days to calm down and think about things with a little more distance and rationality. You don’t have to make a decision today.”

Markus chuckles before adding, “Now would be a great time to pick up a lucrative hobby.”

“Like painting, for instance?” Connor says it with a smile and Markus knows he’s kidding.

“As I recall, you did draw a mean stick figure,” Carl offers. After a few more minutes of conversation, they end the call and Markus rises from the kitchen table.

“I have to get back to work on my painting. You can stay if you’d like some company while you try and figure out your next steps.”

Connor nods in agreement before asking, “How did you figure out you liked painting?”

Markus snorts before offering, “I don’t like painting, Connor. I love it. I’m passionate about it. Don’t you feel that way about…numbers…and, um, math?” Connor chuckles at Markus, knowing full well how much the man hates math to this day.

“I don’t get all giddy with excitement about it, no, but there’s a peacefulness to it. It’s systematic and I can predict with almost one-hundred percent accuracy how the numbers will shake out in the end.”

“So not passionate then,” is all Markus says in response.

“Well, I don’t want to throw my calculator onto my bed and make love to it, if that’s what you mean.”

Markus arches an eyebrow before an ill-suppressed snicker escapes him. Connor wanders over to the purple couch and drops heavily onto it, his hands groping around in the cushion in search of the remote. “I think I’m going to take a mental health day. Care if I watch TV while you sling passion onto your canvas?” Markus says no and then calls Connor several names under his breath, which Connor pointedly ignores.

He channel surfs aimlessly, clicking through show after show before Markus shouts at him to pick one already, “I can work with sound in the background, but two seconds of every show in existence is a bit much.”

“You’re a bit much,” Connor mutters mulishly, but he sets the remote down. He’s landed on one of those home renovation shows where the lead contractor is far too attractive to be doing any of the actual work. Despite his initial misgivings, Connor finds himself pulled into the carefully staged drama.

“Asbestos, again? How can one house have so much asbestos? Kelly and Ryan can’t afford any more asbestos!” Markus rolls his eyes at Connor, answering the questions that were clearly meant to be rhetorical.

“Yes, again. Houses built before the ‘80s almost always do. As for their finances, maybe milk toast Kelly and Ryan can hire you to manage their money.” Connor shoots a glare at Markus and then turns his attention back to the disaster reno unfolding before him.

“Connor, you know this is all staged, right? They already knew those issues existed and planned for the cost. Haven’t you noticed how they always come in right on budget?”

Connor harrumphs a little before musing aloud, “What do you know about restoring houses?”

Markus turns to answer the question, but his eyes narrow when he sees Connor’s expression, “Connor, no. I was joking before. You do not need a passion project. You need an actual solution to the Elijah problem. Taking on an expensive diversion you know nothing about is the opposite of helpful.”

“I know more than nothing,” Connor says stubbornly, knowing this is a blatant lie.

Markus points his paintbrush at Connor, waving it about in irritation, “Three hours of binge-watching home improvement shows does not an expert make.”

Connor exhales a noncommittal hum and Markus shakes his brush at him so hard that some paint flies off, decorating the ceiling in a colorful splatter, “Connor, I’m serious. Buying a house is a huge deal. Renovating it—,”

Restoring it,” Connor corrects him through a smug smile.

“—is an even bigger deal. You have no cash flow, Elijah isn’t going to relent just because you ignore him, and…and…” he breaks off, recognizing the look on Connor’s face. “Christ. You’re going to do this, aren’t you?”

Connor gives him a jaunty nod of his head, “Yep.”

Markus groans and watches as Connor grabs his laptop and opens a new tab to start house hunting. He mutters, “This is a mistake,” but sets down his brush and joins Connor anyway. “I can’t let you buy an ugly house,” is his explanation.

Connor glances at him from the corner of his eye, “I’m going to buy the biggest, gaudiest house I can find.” Markus elbows him slightly and Connor adds, “You can help me fix it.” They filter through houses for an hour, but Connor has an obvious favorite from the start.

“If you like the Victorian so much, just say so.”

Connor shrugs, but he knows Markus is right, “I didn’t want to buy the first house I saw.”

“It isn’t a wedding dress; it’s a house. Stop being superstitious.” Connor purses his lips but clicks the contact agent button on the Victorian listing.

“I have a good feeling about this,” Connor says, beaming at Markus.

“Famous last words,” Markus quips before returning to his painting.  

Chapter Text

As Connor lays face down across Markus’ kitchen table, he can’t help but question his life choices.

“Why did I think a fifteen-day close was a good idea?” he mumbles, his lips moving oddly against the grain of the wood.

Having given up on making Connor sit upright five minutes ago, Markus doesn’t bother to look away from his painting when he answers, “I don’t know why you do half the things you do. I gave up trying to understand when we were children.”

Connor raises his arm to extend a middle finger in Markus’ general direction; his face remains resolutely against the table, and he misses that Markus doesn’t see the rude gesture. After a moment, Connor lifts his head to return his attention to the face plant-inducing email, his nose a little red from prolonged squashing.

“I have all of my documentation; financing isn’t an issue. Why won’t they just sign the damn contract? They’re the ones who pressed for a quick close.” Markus didn’t have a satisfactory answer for the question the first time Connor asked it. He suspects Connor is questioning the ceiling more so than himself this time around.

Connor knows his frustration is the $20,000 he’s been waiting to wire for two days. He has a loan in place for the restoration costs, but the purchase price is his own money. It’s a lot for what he’s getting and he worries that he’ll change his mind if he has to wait much longer. He clicks to the perpetually open tab containing the listing. He’d visited it in person and the pictures were more than a little flattering.

When Connor had pulled up to the address for a tour, Markus’ first reaction was, “Well, this is a dump.” His opinion did not improve as they explored various rooms. What Markus saw as a waste of time, Connor saw as something worth saving.

“But look at this built-in!” Connor had gushed, running a hand through the dust to reveal a deep cherry oak finish.

Markus had frowned before offering, “Built-ins came after the Victorian era. It doesn’t belong.” Most of their visit had gone that way, with Connor exclaiming over features he liked and Markus running them over like a mac truck.

Look at this turret wall! There will be so much natural lighting!

Connor, you need to replace the plywood with actual glass first.

When they reached the stairs, Markus point blank refused to go up with Connor, “If I’m to die today, it will not be because I came crashing down through floors of questionable stability.”

Markus’ voice pulls Connor back to the present, “Maybe they’re reevaluating if they want to sell to a crazy person who waived a home inspection.”

Connor’s shoulders sag in irritation as his head tilts back and up toward the ceiling, “I already know what will be on the inspection report: fix everything.” He rolls his neck, trying to relieve some of the tension that seems to permanently live there.

Markus taps his paintbrush unconsciously against his cheek, leaving livid purple smatterings in its wake. He resumes dabbing at the canvas before asking, “Has the home improvement channel taught you nothing? You need to know what you’re getting into or else you end up like bland as butter Mr. and Mrs. What’s-His-Name, wondering how you’re going to pay for all of the asbestos.”

Connor turns in his chair, draping an arm over the back of it, before asking with a grin, “I thought you said that drama was all staged and they already knew.”

Markus closes his eyes and inhales deeply through his nose, his brush frozen in place on the canvas, “That is entirely my point. They knew and they had the money for it the entire time. In your case, you don’t know anything and you’ll wind up pacing holes in my carpet wondering how you’re going to pay for it all.”

Markus’ paintbrush begins to move again and Connor leans in for a better view of his progress. “Nice,” he offers before Markus’ hand freezes, a sudden thought striking him. He turns rapidly, brush still in hand, dragging a bright purple trail across Connor’s upper lip.

“How are you—oh, sorry about that,” he pauses realizing he’s given Connor an unwanted lilac mustache. After locating the paper towels and wetting one, he hands it to a still-sputtering Connor before continuing his question, “How are you going to pay for the restoration? I know you’re getting the actual house for next to nothing, but the money to repay the loan has to come from somewhere.”

Connor, ignoring the question for now, scrubs in a mix of irritation and amusement at the acrylic adorning his face. “Any better?” he asks and Markus’ carefully blank expression tells him he should try again with some soap. He rises to go scrub at his face in the hall bath. His answer to Markus’ question comes out muffled around a soapy hand towel.

“Elijah sent me an email this morning. He wants to talk about work. Hopefully, I can convince him to be reasonable.” Markus mutters not likely and Connor pauses his scrubbing to see if there’s any improvement to his face. Still mustachioed, Connor sighs, “I think I’m making this worse.” Markus turns to see Connor gesture at his now puffy upper lip still tinted purple.

“It’ll come off eventually,” Markus shrugs and returns to his work, still unaware of his own paint-speckled face. Giving up on his lip, Connor returns to the table to gather his things.

“Thanks for the face paint, but I think I’m going to take Elijah’s call at my own place.” Markus makes a noncommittal sound and Connor knows he’s not truly hearing him. He shakes his head as he shuts the door behind him, aware Markus will work well into the night if it means finishing his project.

In truth, as much as he doesn’t want to interrupt Markus with what will likely be a disaster of a phone call, he doesn’t want Markus to see him as pathetic. “As if that wasn’t already a given,” Connor mutters darkly at himself. He’s spent the last several days bouncing between his place and Markus’, unable to handle being alone for long. He devotes the drive back to his apartment trying to predict what Elijah will say and how to best argue his case.

Connor lets himself into his apartment, trying to find comfort in the familiar atmosphere. Unlike Markus, Connor prefers calming blues and greys. His apartment is small, consisting of a conjoined living, kitchen, dining area and a single bedroom. He supposed he should consider himself lucky that he has one and a half bathrooms so he doesn’t have to share with visitor’s, but he does feel trapped in his own place at times.

Pacing the hall that separates his bedroom from the rest of the apartment quickly loses its appeal. Realizing he timed leaving Markus’ poorly, he settles down onto his slate-colored couch with his laptop, buffeting decorative pillows out of his way.

Markus’ question filters back to him, and he acknowledges for the tenth time that he has no earthly notion how much a restoration project of this magnitude costs. He’s tried researching the matter, but the internet proved remarkably uninformed. Assuming it must be a trade secret, he starts browsing for construction companies that specialize in restoration rather than general renovations.

He sends out requests for more information to a few likelier looking companies when his phone starts to sing:

If I lay here
If I just lay here
Would you lie with me

Jumping up to snatch the phone from the counter, Connor makes a mental note to change Elijah’s ringtone. He gives himself a little shake before sitting down and taking the call.

“Hello,” he decides to be short and professional.

“So frosty, Connor,” Elijah all but purrs at him.

Connor reconsiders the benefits of maturity before remaining firm in his resolve, “How can I help you?”

“It’s almost been a month, Connor. Surely, you’re ready to set aside this petty squabble. Your clients are suffering.” Connor closes his eyes, trying to figure out how Elijah somehow made him feel smaller and less important to him than a goldfish yet simultaneously something of value. He decides it’s the something part. He’s a valuable thing to Elijah; not a person or anyone approaching an equal. 

“Here I thought you would’ve replaced me by now.” Connor tries to affect a cool, unruffled demeanor, but Elijah slices through it easier than air.

“I wouldn’t do myself the disservice or you such a favor. You are the best man for the job; perhaps you are ready to come back to the office and act like it?” Connor exhales loudly through his nose, hoping the sound of it assaults Elijah’s ear. So much for professionalism.

“The only thing I’m ready for Eli,” he says the nickname with unnecessary emphasis, knowing the man hates it, “is to never see your face again.” Not much as far as verbal sparring goes, but Connor chalks it up to a win. This is the closest Elijah has ever come to admitting he needs Connor for something. Not the company, but him personally. His need was an extension of the company’s, of course, but this had become personal to him at some point.

It shouldn’t make Connor happy, he knows, but Elijah’s blunt dismissal of their relationship had flayed him to the bone. The moment doesn’t last.

“I had rather hoped you were done with these histrionics by now. I can’t imagine your bank account is too happy about it.” Connor rolls his eyes, moving his lips in silent mimicry of Elijah’s words. Embarrassment at himself makes him stop and he’s doubly grateful Markus isn’t an audience to this conversation. He slouches deeply into his couch.

When Connor remains silent, Elijah sighs and resumes speaking, “We are at an impasse then. How about a compromise?” Connor’s jaw droops so low he wonders how it’s not scraping his sternum.

“I didn’t think you were capable of making concessions,” Connor waits, angling the phone away from his mouth. His elevated heart rate is making him breathe a little heavier than normal and he doesn’t want to hear Elijah accuse him of panting again. 

“Your petulance is hurting my company. Don’t try to tease any more meaning than that out of it. I offer you this: You can work from home and meet with clients at our secondary office. After a month, we will reconvene to evaluate the situation.”

Connor considers the offer, trying to find the trap he knows it must contain. Staring at his laptop, willing it to give him advice, a new email pings at him.

Re: Restoration Estimate Request

Dear Mr. Smith,

Thank you for your request. Anderson Construction would be more than happy to meet with you regarding your project. I have decades of experience renovating and restoring homes in and around the Detroit area. Surveying the property myself will allow me to give you a better estimate. I look forward to hearing from you soon.

Regards,

Hank Anderson

Connor smiles after quickly scanning the email. The reality of his situation forces his hand, “Fine, Eli. Give me access to the network and I’ll square up with my clients.”

“Don’t call me Eli, Connor,” his tone is menacingly calm. Connor can hear the predatory smile in Elijah’s words, “Thank you for your cooperation. You were always a pliant boy; I knew you wouldn’t let me down.”

The line goes dead before Connor can recover from the insult. Pliant? Connor’s brain asks the question and he can feel the word bounce around inside his skull. He shakes his head, trying to force down the multipronged surge of embarrassment and delight.

How could Elijah still have this kind of effect on him? He knows he should take the man at his word and not force meaning where there is none. Elijah never plays that kind of game; he is direct and brutal, always. Connor files the interaction away as the insult Elijah intended it to be and nothing more, mentally chastising himself for radiating warmth at the idea that Connor may have, however fleeting, once been enough for Elijah.

He digs the heels of his palms into his eyes trying to prevent the tears threatening to form. With a mental shake, he turns his attention back to his laptop. His happiness, punctured and deflated as it was by Elijah, surges slightly upon re-reading Hank Anderson’s email. He replies with a time and date just after closing on the property. The man must be at his computer because Connor receives confirmation within minutes. Smiling, he opens the calendar on his phone and saves the meeting.

By the end of the week, Connor is more than ready for his consultation with Mr. Anderson. Connor had scheduled several similar meetings in an effort to find the best fit for his project. The first four had not panned out. The earliest appointment took one look at the building and told Connor to tear it down. Connor gave him a tightlipped smile, thanked him for his time, and then promptly deleted the man’s information from his phone.

The second had not gone much better, expressing doubt at the purpose of restoring the home. “S’not gonna sell as a Vic,” he said it thickly around a wad of chew in his lower lip. Connor tried hard not to stare at it, not wanting to offend.

“A vic?” he repeated, uncertain if he misunderstood the man.

The man spat wetly before offering, “Victorian.” Connor rankled at the man’s assumption that he was only taking on this project to make money. Somewhere between thanking the man for meeting with him and stepping back into his own car, he realized the absurdity of what he was doing. Of course, the purpose was to make money. No sane person restored a home just to sell it at a loss.

Still, he paused, his hand hovering over the ignition, to turn and look at the house again. There was something there, something worth saving. Even if it bankrupted him, Connor was going to bring the house back to life.

He meets with Hank Anderson on a dismal, rainy day outside his freshly purchased home. Connor gives a mental check of approval that the man arrived before him. The other contractors had arrived late or not at all. Connor finds Hank running his hand beneath the row of empty windows boarded up in the turret wall.

“Brick’s in good shape,” Connor hears him muttering to himself, and a small smile of approval filters across his lips. Connor’s eyes take in Hank’s staggering height and greying hair. It’s hard to tell in the rain, but he pegs him as middle-aged—maybe pushing sixty? Most of the contractor he’d met with so far had been young and lacking experience. He hopes his interview with Hank goes better than the others had.  

“Good afternoon, I’m Connor Smith,” he calls by way of greeting from beneath his umbrella, not wishing to startle the man. Noting Hank doesn’t have an umbrella of his own, Connor steps closer to shield him from rainfall that threatens to become a downpour at any moment.

Clear, blue eyes widen slightly at the proximity. Realizing too late that his unstoppable desire to please has likely made Hank uncomfortable, he asks, “Would you like to go inside? The weather doesn’t feel like cooperating today.” At this distance, Connor can see the crows feet around Hank’s eyes aren’t deep. Closer to fifty then.

He gestures at the sky and Hank nods. Once they’re out of the rain, Hank offers Connor his hand, “Nice to meet you, Mr. Smith.” Connor’s nose wrinkles but he accepts the greeting. Hank’s large, warm hand dwarfs his.

“Just call me Connor,” he offers, not wanting to spend months being Mr. Smith’d if he hires Hank.

Hank gives him an easy smile that reveals a slight gap between his teeth, “Sure thing, but only if you call me Hank.” He drops Connor’s hand in favor of performing a slow spin to take in the house. “Gavin wasn’t kidding. The place is in rough shape.”

Connor startles slightly, recognizing the name of the first contractor he’d met with, “You know Mr. Reed?”

Hank lets out a bark of laughter, “Yeah, I know him. Not the most pleasant sort. This isn’t his sort of gig.”

“So I gathered. He told me to…,” Connor hesitates, trying to gauge Hank’s personality and if he’ll balk at some colorful language. Deciding the man looks game for a laugh, he continues, “He told me to ‘Burn the fucker down and collect the insurance money.’ I did not hire him, obviously,” Connor offers Hank a shy smile and is rewarded with a deep laugh. It’s infectious and fills Connor with a happy, golden glow.

“Christ, that man is something else. He has a point, though. We need to talk about a few things before this project of yours goes much further. Namely, we gotta talk numbers.” Hank pulls out a notepad, flipping it open.

“You’re in luck. Numbers just so happen to be my specialty,” Connor offers with a grin. The smile fades from his face as Hank begins the rundown of what needs to happen for the project to get off the ground.

“Permits you don’t need to worry about. I take care of that as the general contractor. This is the basic order that things need to happen,” Connor’s eyes scan a list including multiple bullets for framing, plumbing, HVAC, electrical and his head spins at how much work the house needs. He knew it just by looking at the decaying building, but seeing an enormous list made it much more of a reality.

“Do you have an idea of how much this will cost?” Connor asks weakly but still determined. Hank seems to evaluate him and his resolve. Connor’s cheeks grow warm under his scrutiny, but Hank must approve of what he sees.

“It’s not a large house, but there isn’t a single piece of it that doesn’t need work. If you want to do it right and really restore it, you’re looking at $75,000 at a minimum. Realistically? A hundred grand.” Hank’s gaze never wavers from Connor’s face.

It’s not a challenge, but Connor raises his chin and squares his stance as if preparing for a rebuke, “When can you begin?”

Hank pockets his notepad and scratches easily at his beard, “Assuming the city doesn’t act a tit about the permits,” Connor stifles a choking sound, realizing he’s the one who opened the door for unusual turns of phrase, “I can start in a couple of weeks. I’m wrapping up a project now. Just waiting on final inspection. If your finances are in order, I can draft a contract and send it to you later today.”  

“I’m approved up to $400,000. I could get more if necessary,” Connor’s breaks off uneasily, chastising himself. Why are you flaunting your wealth? He continues again, slightly subdued, “What I mean is, I am set financially.”

Hank frowns at him, “You know you’re never going to get that kind of money for this house. If you intend to live here, that’s one thing. Otherwise, I’m not gonna let you tank your savings into a venture that won’t pan out.”

Connor smiles at Hank’s concern, “I know the market. I’m hoping to get $200,000 for it restored. So long as I make a small profit, I’m happy.”

Hank grunts, acknowledging that Connor’s done his research, “Well, that’s more realistic.” He extends his hand once more, “I look forward to working with you, Connor.”

Hank’s paw of a hand engulfs his and Connor returns his grip with a smile, happy that Hank is onboard with the project. When he releases his grasp, Hank reaches into his coat for a card. He pulls a pen out along with it, before scribbling on the back of it, “This is my personal number. Projects like this? They can go off the rails fast. There will come a time that the roof will collapse or a pipe will burst and you won’t want to wait until business hours to get it taken care of.”

Connor tries to brush off Hank’s worry for his house, but the man fixes him with a stern look and slips the card into Connor’s breast pocket, “Better to have it and not need it,” Hank says tapping the card lightly through his shirt before patting it with finality.

It’s only when Hank steps back that Connor realizes he was leaning forward slightly into his touch. Get it together, Connor. He wonders what it says about him that one kind gesture is enough to make him react like a breathless schoolgirl around her first crush. Probably nothing good.

Deciding to end the conversation before he can continue to embarrass himself, Connor says his goodbyes and Hank tells him to keep an eye out for an email with the contract.

Two hours later in his apartment, Connor finds himself sighing every few minutes as he refreshes his inbox. Now that he’s met with Hank and agreed on the project, a nervous energy consumes him. He wants to begin work on the house immediately. He wants to see the old place come back to life.

He wants Hank to send him the damn contract.

Fidgety fingers tap a tense tattoo on his thigh before snatching at a newly purchased stress ball. This one looks like a clown and its eyes bulge eerily out of its head every time Connor crushes it within his grip. Reclining listlessly on his sofa, he jerks forward in a whirl of limbs at the sound of his email inbox pinging at him.

Re: The Williams Account

Connor sighs, seeing the email is from Elijah. He clicks it open, hand in chin as he reads:

I heard you bought a house. Congratulations, I never would have thought you could be so precocious.

His eyes scan the words several times in confusion. He hadn’t told anyone about the Victorian outside of Markus and Carl. Then again, Elijah always did seem to know everything about Connor’s life before he did himself. When they had been together, it seemed caring. With distance, the sensation of it resembles control much more than anything else.

He knows better. He should ignore the comment and ask Elijah if there is a problem with the Williams’ finances. Instead, he prods.

What do you mean?

Elijah must be at his desk because his reply is immediate. He launches his insult with practiced ease, making his mark,

You’ve managed to kick-start your midlife crisis a decade early. Bravo, Connor.

With dizzying speed, he switches gears,

The Williams project needs more attention. I’ve scheduled a meeting for you tomorrow at 9:00. I pasted the pertinent details below.

Connor scans Elijah’s notes before it ends, as always, without a parting valediction. Connor looks through the older messages, filtering back through previous exchanges littered with barbs. Deciding to delve deeper into the self-pity hole, he rises to grab a bottle of his favorite red blend.

“Midlife crisis,” Connor mutters to himself two glasses of wine later. He broods on his couch, glaring daggers at his inbox as if it is partially to blame for Elijah’s behavior. In the time it takes for Connor to rinse his glass and put away the bottle, another email drops into his inbox.

“Finally,” he exhales the word when he sees it’s the contract from Hank. He’s familiar with the legal jargon of standard contracts and doesn’t see anything out of the ordinary. He makes a note that it’s a lump sum and scheduled contract with a timeline for project stages and payments. He hums with approval at a clause that binds both parties.

If Connor reneges on the deal, he still owes Hank a percentage of the agreed upon final price. However, he isn’t without protection. Should Hank not hold up his end of the deal, he will have to return part of Connor’s payment as a penalty. Overall, he’s impressed at the thoroughness. It speaks to Hank’s expertise and familiarity with these types of projects.

He prints the contract to sign before clicking back to Elijah’s email with a scowl. He may as well print those details out as well. His fingers a little less dexterous under the influence of alcohol, he clicks the wrong button, opening a new email. Huffing in irritation, he tries to exit and manages to forward Elijah’s email to himself.

“Oh, for the love—,” he refreshes his inbox, waiting for the email to come through to him again. He performs the action a few times before looking in his sent folder.

Fwd: Re: The Williams Account
Anderson Construction

“Oh, no, no, no.” Panic rises in Connor’s chest, leaving trails of ice in its wake. Frantic hands scrabble at his pocket for Hank’s card. He can’t bring himself to call him directly. He doesn’t want to hear Hank laugh at him or, worse, hear his disappointment. The email chain contains dozens of interactions between himself and Elijah; most of them include condescending personal comments about Connor. His mind generates dozens of scenarios of what Hank might say or do after reading it, none of them likely, but he doesn’t trust his voice. He clings to the hope that he can prevent Hank from reading the email at all and settles on a text instead.

I am so sorry to bother you, but please disregard that email.

He sends the message and realizes it won’t make any sense to Hank without context. He messages, belatedly.

This is Connor.

A moment later, a text from Hank pops into view,

Don’t worry about it, kid.

Connor sees the ellipses dancing, wondering what Hank could be typing that takes him so long. In the end, all he says is:

That Elijah guy is kind of a dick.

Connor isn’t sure if he should laugh or cry. He realizes the hope that Hank would just delete the email was a slim one. With shaky hands, he decides this conversation would be better out of text after all and hits the call button.

“I’m sorry to bother you this late at night,” Connor begins talking before Hank even finishes saying Hello.

“No need to apologize, Connor. Got a question about the contract?” Connor closes his eyes, seeing the out Hank is offering him, but he has to explain. He needs Hank to understand.

“No, I, that is—oh, hell. Look, those emails were from my boss and I just wanted to—,” he hears Hank make a surprised sound, “What?”

“Nothing, it’s none of my business.” Ever the glutton for embarrassing himself in new and creative ways, Connor presses for an explanation. Hank sighs and continues, “Must’ve been a bad breakup if the back and forth between you two is anything to go by.”

Connor groans, resting his forehead against his palm, “Is it that obvious?” He hears Hank laugh, but it’s not a mean one.

“I’ve had a shitty boyfriend or two in my life. I know the signs of an asshole when I see one. Elijah? He’s premium grade.” Connor startles a little, wondering if Hank offered the information as a sign of solidarity or…

He shakes his head. His contractor is not flirting with him. He can all but hear Elijah’s voice drifting in from the recesses of his memory Did you think that man was making a pass at you, Connor? My, but you are so darling sometimes.

“It took me a little too long to recognize the signs, unfortunately. I’m also stuck working for him unless I learn a new skill I can monetize.” He hears Hank chuckle again and feels a burst of light surge into existence in his gut. He could rarely make Elijah laugh, much less twice in one conversation. The good feeling doesn’t last.

“So you decided to try your hand at construction?” Connor winces, realizing he may have just insulted his contractor before he even signed an agreement.

“I didn’t mean…I am making a horrendous impression. I’m sorry,” he ends lamely, feeling uncertain once more.

“You apologize an awful lot for someone who hasn’t done anything wrong,” Hank’s voice sounds genuine and he cuts Connor off before he can try to explain himself, “That man did a number on you, huh?”

Hysterical laughter wells up in Connor’s chest and he realizes with horror that he is crying. He takes solace in the fact that Hank isn’t in front of him to witness it. He inhales a steadying breath and brushes away the few traitorous tears before offering, “Having to keep working for him is like salt in the wound, as the saying goes.”

Hank is quiet for a moment before saying conspiratorially, “I know a guy who’s pretty good with swinging a hammer. I could put in a good word for you if you need someone to bump him off.”

Connor can hear the mirth in Hank’s tone and he returns the quip with one of his own, “I’m afraid your friend wouldn’t like me very much. I’ve been told I apologize too much.” Hank’s easy laugh helps Connor dry his eyes entirely.

“My friend likes you just fine, kid. Don’t forget to send me the contract so we can get started. Take it easy, Connor.” Recognizing the farewell, Connor ends the call.

Despite several self-induced disasters, Connor decides the evening isn’t a loss. He can’t help but smile at himself as he brushes his teeth before bed when My friend likes you just fine echoes back to him.

Chapter Text

There are few things worse than termites, Connor decides on the third week of the restoration project. As it turns out, asbestos isn’t a common problem for homes of this age; bugs are another beast altogether.

“I don’t understand. Didn’t you have a termite inspection?” Markus asks in confusion.

Connor scowls at the road since he can’t scowl at Markus while he’s driving, “Yes, I did have that inspection done. It came back fine. The inspectors found signs of a previous remediation and no indication of a living infestation. Apparently, they were wrong.”

Markus sighs in the passenger seat next to him, “So how much is that going to run you?”

Connor tries to say it nonchalantly, but panic coats his insides in a thick residue, “About three grand.”

Markus jerks in his seat, trying to face Connor fully, “On top of the problems with the plumbing and the insulation and the wiring—”

Connor’s fingers go tense around the wheel before he cuts Markus off, “Yes, on top of all of those unexpected expenses. As much as I would like to, I can’t wish away the termites for free.” Both men shrink away from the other.

Markus offers the olive branch first, “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to imply…It’s not your fault.”

Connor exhales loudly through his nose, knowing he’s being sensitive. A lot of the problems shouldn’t have been surprises. The lack of home inspection was proving to be a challenge; Markus has been right about that. The termites, however, were threatening to unglue him. “I shouldn’t have snapped. Between work and the house, I feel like I may disappear if I spread myself any thinner.”

“And that is why,” Markus begins in a false pompous tone, “we are going to get shit faced at Carl’s showing tonight.” A grin spreads across both of their faces. When Markus had suggested that Connor attend the showing with him for the sole purpose of getting drunk for free, Connor had laughed and agreed immediately. He wouldn’t, of course, but it was still a favorite joke of theirs.

The first time Carl had invited the both of them to a showing as legal adults they promptly parked themselves at the open bar and flirted shamelessly with anyone who tried to order a drink. An hour and eight drinks later, Carl had ushered them into one of his many guest bedrooms and locked the door until noon the following day.

Even at that late hour, he had found them still passed out. Markus had been half off the bed with his shoes still on his feet yet somehow sans pants. Connor had apparently decided that the shower made a great place to sleep and had hauled all of the blankets into it to create a makeshift nest.

After a forty-five minute lecture and a day’s worth of hungover yard work, Connor decided it wasn’t worth it to drink at Carl’s parties.

“What charity is he supporting this time?” Connor asks, trying to maintain the reestablished cheery atmosphere in the car.

“It should be right up your alley, actually, given your current pet project,” Connor makes a face at Markus but remains silent, “It an organization that supports rebuilding Detroit. They’re trying to fix all the rundown buildings.”

“Maybe they can take over my Victorian,” Connor mutters only partially serious. He parks on the street, foregoing the expensive valet. Markus grumbles about Connor being cheap until Connor points out he’s financing a money pit restoration.

Once inside, Markus makes a beeline for the bar, Connor frowning in pursuit, “You know drinking at these events never ends well, right?” Markus pointedly ignores Connor while taking a veritable gulp of champagne. When Connor’s stare doesn’t falter, Markus sighs.

“It ends poorly when we both drink. Besides,” he adds with a jovial grin, “I have a designated driver.” He slaps Connor on the back who scowls darkly in response.

“If I’m being honest, I hate coming to these things. Everyone wants to compare my art to Carl’s and it’s just…not why I’m here.” Markus downs his champagne before grabbing another glass to keep him company as they wander Carl’s art. Not being much of a drinker, Connor can see a blush forming on the apples of Markus’ cheeks a few sips into his second glass.

Markus burns through his drink just as quickly as his first and snags a third from a passing server carrying champagne flutes on a tray, “Don’t you think you should slow down?” Connor asks it knowing full well he’s fighting a losing battle. He changes tactics, aiming to get Markus to eat something instead when a familiar form catches his eye.

“Oh,” he says it quietly, but Markus catches his tone, “Hank is here.”

Markus squints his eyes at Connor inquisitively, “Who—Oh! Your contractor.” Markus follows Connor’s gaze until he spies Hank by the hors d’oeuvres. Markus stares at him from across the room with eyes much too wide, “Connor, that man is a bear.”

Connor flaps his hands in horror, whirling around to face Markus, “Shhhhhh, stop it. He is not.”

“How could you not tell me your contractor is a bearded bear?” Markus strokes at his chin in an imitation of possessing facial hair.

“This, right here, is why I said no more alcohol at Carl’s parties,” Connor whispers it in a hiss while making an unsuccessful grab for the champagne glass in Markus’ hand. His attempt to shame Markus into silence is equally as ineffective.

“I agreed to no such thing. You’re driving, not me. Back to Hank; does he roar?” Groaning, Connor runs a hand down his face. He feels molten embarrassment flow through his veins when a familiar, deep voice rumbles with amusement from behind them.

“Well, I don’t roar, but, if it will help out the charity, I can certainly give it a try.” Hank hands a furiously blushing Connor a water bottle before continuing, “That man over there asked me to bring this to you, by the way.” Hank’s nose wrinkles in distaste and he adds, “He was a bit of a shit about it, actually.”

Connor looks to where Hank is pointing and sees a razor-parted undercut and sleek topknot. All of the blood drains from his face while his hand gropes weakly in Markus’ direction, “What is Elijah doing here?”

Markus’ head swivels to follow Connor’s gaze, “Oh, shit. Stay here; I’ll go find Carl.” Connor isn’t sure what Carl can do about it, but dread and embarrassment root him to the spot. He hates this about himself: this instinct to freeze when on the precipice of confrontation. If he could flee or confront Elijah, it would be better than standing silent and waiting for him to pounce. 

“Damn,” Hank muttering under his breath drags Connor’s attention away from Elijah.

“What?”

Hank fixes him with a crooked grin that shows a hint of the gap between his two front teeth. With an easy shrug of his shoulders, he spreads his arms wide, palms up, “My friend left his hammer at home. Coulda made good on my offer.” Hank makes a swinging motion in the air and Connor chokes on a laugh, feeling some of the tension ease from his neck.  

“Connor,” a familiar, velvet-smooth voice sounds from behind him. Connor turns, longing very much to put Hank in front of him like a human shield. Feeling like that would be cowardly and presumptive on his part, he opts to stand next to Hank instead.

“Elijah,” he returns the greeting. Hoping to keep this conversation from going off the rails in front of the man he hired to fix his house, Connor steers it toward work, “How is the Williams account?”

Elijah gives a small, tight-lipped smile before answering, “Better. They rang after the meeting. It seems my decision to hold onto you was a sound one.” A ripple of disgust slithers over Connor’s skin at Elijah still claiming possession over him somehow.

“Well, seems you two know each other. I’m Hank Anderson. Nice to meet you,” Hank thrusts his hand out at Elijah like a javelin. Elijah glances down his nose at the proffered hand before accepting it. Elijah’s face doesn’t betray him, but Connor can see a lingering white handprint where Hank must’ve squeezed much too hard.

Feeling bolstered by this display of comradery, Connor offers a more proper introduction, “He’s the contractor working on my hou—,” Elijah interrupts him with a wave of his hand.

“I know who this man is,” he says it dismissively, his mouth curling into a slight sneer.

Hank’s expression goes from one of confusion to understanding before voicing his suspicions, “So it was you nosing around about my projects,” Connor’s eyes flit to Hank for a moment before he continues, “Debbie said someone called asking about the Victorian. Offered a large donation if I reneged on the contract.”

Connor’s eyes dart back and forth between the two men, mouth slightly ajar. He knew Elijah was conniving but this seemed a bit much, even for him. As smooth as ever, Elijah offers an explanation wrapped with an insult, “You don’t know dear, sweet Connor like I do. Given his work situation, I didn’t think it wise for him to take on an expensive financial venture. He’s not very good at making decisions for himself.”

Red stains Connor’s cheeks as embarrassment and anger war for purchase; anger wins in the end, “What do you mean, Eli? I’m perfectly stable and—,”

Elijah interrupts him again, shallow blue eyes narrowed critically, “Do not call me that. I had rather hoped to do this in private.” Connor can tell by his tone that it’s a lie. Elijah is reveling in the fact that he gets to do this in front of people.

“As you well know, you are in a probationary period. The month has come and gone, Connor. This arrangement is not to my satisfaction.” Elijah stares at Connor, waiting for his words to sink in.

“My work is fine. It’s the same as it’s always been,” Connor argues, aware he’d lost this fight well before it had begun.

“I dislike the constant back and forth and waiting on phone calls and emails. The workflow was much better when I could pop into your office for an update.”

Connor steeples his fingers over the bridge of his nose for a moment before trying once more, “Elijah, we could not possibly work well together as things stand. My work will suffer—the company will suffer—if I have to see your face on a daily basis.”

Elijah tilts his head as if considering him for a moment, “Of that, I have my doubts. Connor, always eager to please and do well, will perform at anything other than his best? It’s laughable. You might suffer, but your work won’t.”

Having almost forgotten this argument has an audience, Connor has to suppress a small jerk when Hank speaks, “Damn, you’re a piece of work.” It takes Elijah several seconds to register the direct slight. Elijah throws a foul look in Hank’s direction, but his attention is on his phone, “Shit. Connor, I need to go. Debbie just texted me. Something’s wrong with your house.”

Connor catches the fleeting, vindictive smile on Elijah’s face before he speaks, “Clearly, you need this job even if only for the money it provides. I’m sure your contractor here would agree you need to be able to pay him.”

Hank pauses in his search for his keys, pointedly ignoring Elijah, “Hey Connor, it would probably be best if you came with me.”

Recognizing the exit Hank is providing, he seizes it with relish, “Yeah, sure. Let me find Markus and we can go.”

Elijah narrows his eyes in irritation at Hank before spitting out, “Be at the office on Monday or I will write you up for insubordination.” He turns on his heel and all but collides into Markus, sending his champagne glass flying. Markus shakes some of it off his hand, before looking up to see who he soaked with his drink.

“Oh, good. It’s just you. I thought I would have to apologize,” Connor makes a flabbergasted sound at Markus, but the alcohol has given him wings, “By the power vested in me, I ask that you leave the premises.”

Connor hears Elijah snort before a more dignified voice speaks from behind them all, “He’s speaking for me, but the directive is the same Mr. Kamski. I would prefer it if you left my venue before making a larger scene.” Carl comes into view, wheeled by a staff member of his employ.

Elijah goes stiller than a statue, assessing his options. After several moments that threaten to become awkward, a tense smile consumes Elijah’s mouth. It does not reach his eyes. “Of course, Mr. Manfred,” is all he says before giving him a slight nod and making a leisurely exit as if the notion was entirely his idea.

Markus sways slightly and Connor grips his forearm, “You, my boy, are drunk,” Carl offers up to Markus. Markus smiles blissfully, nodding his agreement.

“I’ll take him home, Carl. I have to go anyway.” Connor explains the situation with his house and Carl bids him farewell.

Markus leans heavily on Connor, who nearly folds under his weight, “Geez Markus, packed on some pounds have you?” In truth, the weight and height difference wasn’t that great between the two of them, but Connor isn’t experienced in half carrying intoxicated people.

“Give him here,” Hank offers before ducking under Markus’ other arm. Rather than accept Hank’s offer with grace, Markus slaps his other hand against Hank’s chest.

Hank looks down at him startled before Markus grins up at him and issues a throaty, “Grrr.” Mortified Connor tucks an arm across his chest before running his free hand down his face.

“Get it? He’s a bear, Conn—,” Connor places his hand across Markus’ mouth.

“That’s quite enough out of you this evening.” He casts Hank an apologetic look before adding, “I’m parked on the street. Do you need my help or…,” Connor trails off as Hank readjusts his grip and practically carries Markus out of the building. “Guess not,” he mutters, feeling distinctly hot around the collar.

When Hank gets Markus into the passenger seat, Markus extends a gallant hand much like a princess would to a suitor, “My hero!” He sweeps his other arm wide in an imitation of a seated half-bow. Mortification spells its name across Connor’s face, but Hank seems more amused than anything else.

“I’ll meet you at the house in about twenty minutes. Markus’ place is on the way. I’ll drop him off and link up with you there.” Connor moves to open the driver side door when something about Hank’s stance gives him pause, his expression odd but unreadable.

“Hank?” Connor asks, but the man just shakes his head.

“See ya in a bit, Con.” Connor’s hand falters on the car door handle at the use of the nickname, the familiarity of it washing over him like a breath of fresh air after being trapped in a cave for a very long time.

Connor offers him a smile and a nod, which swiftly turns into a grimace when Markus calls through the glass, “C’mon, Cooooooon.” Scowling at Markus darkly, he waves goodbye to Hank before dropping heavily into the driver’s seat.

Connor goes to start in on Markus, but Markus beats him to the punch, “He likes you.” He says it with the confidence born only of children and drunk adults.

“Oh, he does not. You’re drunk.” He says it by way of proof, but Markus rambles on in the way of intoxicated people who believe they are right about everything.

“He gave you a nickname. He came to your rescue.” Connor sighs before pointing out it was Markus and Carl who did the rescuing, but Markus waves his hands at him.

“No, I meant me. You weren’t getting me to the car on your own.” Connor rolls his eyes and grips the wheel tighter.

“I would’ve managed just fine.” He says the words adamantly, but Markus’ uncontrollable snickering gives him pause, “What did you do?”

Markus fixes him with a look of wide-eyed innocence, “Nothing…nothing.” When Connor presses him again, Markus admits with a smirk, “I may have been making it hard on you on purpose. At least we know he can carry you if necessary now.”

Connor splutters uselessly, “That was—you were?—What?”

Markus laughs again, “You never know. It’s useful knowledge to have. If he can carry me, he can definitely carry you.” Connor ignores Markus for the rest of the ride home before frog marching him up to his front door.

“You’re home, go to bed, goodnight,” he says it frostily, but his anger wanes when Markus sulks at him.

“I’m just trying to help.”

Connor sighs, not understanding, “Help me with what, I can’t hazard to guess.”

Markus makes an exasperated sound before leaning heavily against the door. “Good lord, I am drunk,” he mutters to himself before saying louder, “Joking aside; he definitely likes you. I called him a bear—,”

“Three times,” Connor interrupts, but Markus carries on undeterred.

“Exactly. He could’ve left. He could’ve acted insulted. He could’ve let you struggle with me down the steps. Hell, he could’ve gone to the house alone and given you an update later. What are you two possibly going to accomplish tonight?” Either the cool night air was helping sober Markus up or he wasn’t all the way wrong—or Connor just really wanted to believe him.

“Good night, Markus. Disaster awaits at the Victorian. Call me tomorrow when the alcohol wears off and I can tell you all about what an embarrassing human being you are,” he says it with a smile and Markus knows he’s kidding.

“Good luck,” Markus calls out to him before shutting the door and Connor isn’t sure if he means with his house or with Hank. Knowing Markus, probably both.

When he arrives at the Victorian, he can see Hank through the one remaining window with actual glass in it. It looks into the formal living room and he can see Hank’s arm gesticulating wildly while he holds a phone to his ear with his other hand. The sight of it makes Connor smile even if it likely means big problems with his house. Elijah was always so reserved; at times, it had felt like dating a machine.

He lets himself in through the front door and Hank nods at him in greeting. “Uh huh. Tomorrow at nine? Great, thanks Debbie,” he ends the call and Connor can tell he’s trying not to look grim for his sake.

“How bad is it?” Connor asks, his shoulders drooping under the question.

“Won’t know until the engineer checks it out tomorrow. I have a suspicion that an owner before you did some handiwork themselves that isn’t up to code. We won’t know the extent of the damage until we get the engineer’s report.” Connor doesn’t miss Hank’s intent. There’s definitely something not right; he just doesn’t know how bad it’s going to be.

Deciding for once in his life to not worry about a problem until he knows all of the facts, Connor moves onto the elephant that been dogging him since leaving Carl’s showing, “Sorry, about—you know. Earlier tonight.” He cringes at himself, hearing how poorly he’s handling the situation.

“What, Elijah?” he says the name with clear distaste, “Don’t worry about him. The snoopy bastard didn’t faze me any.”

Never one to leave loose ends, Connor clarifies, “Uh, no. I meant my friend, Markus. He’s not usually like that, but give him a few drinks and—,” a deep laugh from Hank cuts Connor off mid-sentence. “What?”

“Nothing. It’s just been a while since I’ve had drunken twenty-somethings throwing themselves at me.”

Connor smiles at the comment before offering, “Markus will be pleased. He hasn’t been accused of being in his twenties in years.”

Hank eyes him for a minute, scrutinizing, “Neither of you could be a day over twenty-eight. If you were, I’d eat my—,”

“Careful what you offer to stick in your mouth, Hank, because you’re wrong.” Hank’s eyebrows shoot up to his hairline and instant humiliation consumes Connor when he realizes what he’s just said. “Oh, god. I’m so sorry, I don’t know what’s wrong with me tonight. I just meant we’ve been in our thirties for a couple of years now.”

Hank gives him another one of those looks that Connor can’t fully interpret, “Don’t worry about it. Run-ins with shitty exes who also happen to be your boss can’t be good for your filter. Lord knows I don’t have one most days.”

Connor gives him a weak smile and his heart rate returns to something resembling normal by the time Hank finishes walking him through the house and potential problems. “See those beams?” Hank asks while pointing up at what just looks like a lot of wood to Connor.

“Sure,” Connor offers with a chagrined smile.

Hank continues on, undeterred, “Well, they’ve been cut clean in half. I’m no engineer, but I’ve been doing this for long enough to recognize a supporting beam when I see one. These look pretty important. Victorians were built different way back when, though, so there’s a chance it won’t be a problem.”

They make their way back to the front entrance where a makeshift door stands waiting for a real replacement. Connor goes to take his leave before he can embarrass himself any further when he sees that look again.

What?” he asks, his tone conveying he knows something is going on in Hank’s head even if he doesn’t have the slightest notion as to what.

Hank hesitates and Connor can all but hear him weighing his options as he thinks. With a shake of his head, Hank makes his way over to Connor. The air between them grows charged as he steps closer than propriety would dictate as acceptable.

“Your friend,” Hank begins, his voice deep and rough, “he said something that got me wondering.” Until this moment, Connor hadn’t fully appreciated just how big Hank actually is. He has to tilt his head back to look him in the eyes. The arms crossed over his chest are thick and muscled from years of lifting lumber and operating power tools. Connor tries to will away the flush threatening to consume his face after letting his mind wander a bit too far.

Clearing his throat, he asks, “And what’s that?”

Hank leans forward as if to share a secret, “If I’m a bear, what does that make you?”

The distinctly not masculine squeak that escapes Connor’s throat at the question makes him want to die a thousand deaths on the spot and he closes his eyes to shield himself from Hank’s amused expression. When Connor opens them again, Hank is still there, still smiling, and still waiting for an answer.

For once in your life Connor thinks to himself say what it is that you want. Granting Connor the smallest fraction of mercy, Hank stops looming over him like he’s about to devour him.

Having regained enough personal space to breathe, Connor holds Hank’s gaze.

“Interested,” he says it quietly but decisively, “It makes me interested.”

Chapter Text

Markus’ head throbs at the first stream of light that filters through his sleep clogged eyelashes. The pounding continues despite closing them again and he realizes it’s not just a sensation but a sound. Rising blearily against his will, he stumbles and weaves his way to his front door.

He rips it open and spits out, “What do you want?” before even seeing who it is.

Unprepared for such an abrupt greeting, Connor’s hand comes down hard on Markus’ forehead, “Oh! Sorry, I wasn’t expecting—,” Markus grabs his throbbing face and retreats into his living room. Connor follows and finds him pulling curtains closed, dimming the room considerably.

“Rough morning, eh?” Connor asks jovially but quietly. If Markus’ face is anything to go by, he’s hungover and Connor doesn’t want to piss him off before picking his brain.

Markus throws an arm across his eyes and mumbles, “I’m never drinking again.” Connor rises and starts looking around for one of Markus’ many herbal teas. Locating a packet of ginger tea beneath a paint palette, he fills a cup with water and pops it into the microwave. Markus prefers his hoity-toity teapot, but he declines to comment on it. Connor assumes Markus is just happy he doesn’t have to move to make it himself.

After handing him the steaming mug, Connor collapses on the lurid purple couch and waits. He’s not certain if there’s ever a good opportunity to discuss the intricacies of dating your contractor, but he suspects this very second isn’t a great time.

Markus sips at his tea before asking, “What are you doing here?”

Connor bristles at the comment, “I’m checking up on my friend who got shit housed and made an ass of himself.” So much for being cordial.

“No,” Markus replies unfazed by Connor’s prickly retort, “I meant why are you here at the ungodly hour of 10:30 in the morning? I have a strict No Visitors Before Noon policy when I get drunk.”

A small smile twitches at the corner of Connor’s mouth despite himself, “Well, I have a two-fold purpose for this visit. To chastise you and…um,” he breaks off, fingers itching for a stress ball. Markus sees Connor’s hands clenching and tosses him a throw pillow.

“It’s the best I can do on short notice. No squeeze toys here.” Connor ignores Markus, trying to figure out where to begin.

He stares at the tassels on the pillow now clutched in his hands, but they have no answer for him. He sighs before deciding to get straight to it, “Hank came onto me last night. It’s your fault.” It’s petulant and he knows it, but it provides a useful shield.

Connor expects Markus to be surprised or at least make some kind of sly comment, but he breaks into a smile that belies the headache plaguing him instead, “Did he ask you out?”

“He asked me if he is a bear than what am I,” he provides the direct quote without meaning to, Markus’ unexpected response shocking him into candor.

If he didn’t feel so miserable, Markus would have laughed gleefully. Since he feels like death reheated in a microwave, he opts for the quieter approach of asking more questions. “And what did you say?”

Connor glares at him before replying, “I told him I was interested. We’re going on a date. Sort of.”

Markus wrinkles his nose at him, “Sort of? How do you sort of go on a date? Either you go or you don’t.”

Connor sighs, frustration with himself mounting, “I panicked. I had a brief, shining moment of putting myself out there and then I promptly ran away.” He doesn’t look at Markus when he says it so he misses the dumbfounded expression on his face.

“Please tell me,” he starts off in a gentle tone, “that you did not actually run.”

Connor rolls his eyes, “Of course not. He asked me if I wanted to go out sometime and I said yes. He asked me if I was free this weekend and what I’d like to do and, um. I, uh. I said yes, but—,”

“Connor, I am too hungover for rambling. Just get to the point so I can start judging you.”

Connor extends a half-hearted middle finger at Markus before dropping his hand to the pillow with a sigh, “We’re building a table.”

Markus blinks rapidly over his tea several times, “You’re doing what?”

“Build—,”

Markus wafts his hand through the air as if trying to clear smoke, “No, I heard you. It’s just—you? Doing construction? Connor, you faked every illness and injury known to man to avoid having to operate any saw in shop class.”

“I know,” he says it with a drawn-out sigh, “I was freaking out and just wanted to get away before I ruined it somehow. He was talking about how I could help put my own touch on the place and it all sounded very romantic and he had his giant hand on my shoulder and—”

Markus cuts him off, “I do, in fact, understand the meaning of the words freaking out,” Connor would take offense if it weren’t for his smile, “But I need to know. Did you kiss?”

At Connor’s immediate blush and inability to look him in the face, Markus knows the answer, “Are you kidding me? No kiss? Lame, Connor. Very lame.”

Connor scowls at his shoes before looking up, “There was a moment…I thought he was going to, but he didn’t. Then I thought maybe he expected me to initiate, but he’s so tall. I’d have to get up on tiptoe to reach, which made me panic worse. By that point, the moment was gone.”

Halfway through his explanation, Connor’s face had found his hands, “I don’t want to talk about it.”

Markus gives him a curious look before saying more to himself than to Connor, “You would have to get up on your toes.”

“I said I don’t want to talk about it,” Connor pauses for a moment before adding, “I was being dramatic. He’s not that much taller than me.”

Markus snorts before grabbing at his temples. He blinks hard for a few seconds before asking, “Did you at least tell him that you’re absolute shit with tools? Never swung a hammer? Wouldn’t know an Allen wrench from a screwdriver?”

“Yes, I told him I didn’t have any experience with it. He said he’d go slow and teach me.” Markus’ mouth spreads into its first genuine smile of the day.

“Oh my god. Connor, you’re in way over your head.” Connor’s face snaps up from his hands to look at Markus quizzically.

He blinks at him, bewildered, “What?”

“He’s going to go slow and teach you? He’s going to nail you, that’s what.”

Knowing Markus, Connor tries to stop his thought train before it can get away from the platform, “Oh, for goodness sake. Markus, stop—,”

“He’s going to screw you,” Markus’ smile broadens, clearly pleased with himself.             

Connor pulls a grimace, “These metaphors are really unecess—,”

“He’s going to pound you into the gr—,”

“I’m leaving,” Connor rises from the couch, but Markus follows him toward the door.

“Maybe he’ll show you his hardware.”

“Seriously, I am going to walk straight out this door—,” Markus grabs Connor’s arm, tugging him back into the main hall.

“Ok. I’ll stop; I’ll stop. I never realized how ripe for innuendo the construction business was until just now.” Connor follows Markus back into the living room, but he doesn’t sit. He feels too full of nervous energy.

“That’s not the only thing I wanted to talk to you about. You weren’t around for most of Elijah’s posturing. He’s calling in of our deal. He says I have to be back in the office on Monday or he’s going to start a paper trail on me.”

“A, uh, what?” Having never worked outside of the art world, Markus isn’t well-versed in office goings-on.

“He’ll write official complaints for my file—create a bad record. Even if I do manage to get away from the company, I’ll be hard pressed to find a decent job.” Connor rolls his head before mentally reminding himself to unhunch his shoulders.

Markus scowls at the ceiling before pressing the issue again, “I still think you should ask Carl for help. I know you feel all…weird about it or whatever, but he knows people. He might be able to help you.”

Connor sighs, giving the suggestion more than a cursory thought before immediate rejection, “I’ll think about it. One problem at a time, right? My pseudo-date is tomorrow and I have no idea what one wears to build a table.”

Markus allows himself to chuckle despite his head still throbbing at him, “Probably whatever Hank usually wears when you see him at the site.”

“Oh,” Connor replies, feeling like a moron, “Right.” He starts to run through his wardrobe in his mind, realizing that he doesn’t own much in the way of construction-worthy clothes. “Markus, I have a confession. I might be a snob. I don’t own jeans.”

Markus mumbles, “Might be?” under his breath, tone heavy with sarcasm. Connor picks up the cast off throw pillow and chucks it at Markus’ face. He bats it away with a smile, “I’m joking. You’ve been doing nothing but work or chasing after the impossible goal of pleasing that intolerable man for well over a year now. When would you have had the time or occasion to even wear jeans?”

Markus’ manner is soft and Connor relaxes a little, “I have to go; apparently, I need to buy some jeans.”

Markus sees him to the door, squinting against the bright light of the sun. He turns his back to it and gives Connor’s shoulder a little shake, “This is a good thing, you know.” Connor gives him a confused look and he presses on, “Stepping out of your comfort zone. Doing new things. Getting out of your house. Moving on from that absolute prick.”

Connor smiles and offers his thanks before heading to his car to purchase his first new pair of jeans in over a year.

The next day finds Connor nervously raking outside his Victorian in a suspiciously pristine pair of Levi’s. He’d noticed leaves piling up in the yard on his last visit and he doesn’t want the grass to die. It has the added bonus of burning off some of his nervous energy. When Hank rolls up, he gives Connor a grin, “You ready to build in them fancy pants jeans?” Connor blushes, ready to explain, but Hank winks at him and the words die in his throat.

He opts for a nod instead and Hank gives him a sideways look, “I realize this isn’t exactly, uh, date-like. It’s been a while and Debbie brought it to my attention that I’m an idiot.”

Hank’s laidback manner helps put Connor at ease, “If it makes you feel any better, I don’t have any idea what I’m doing either.”

Hank’s eyes wrinkle into a smile, “About dating or building a table?”

Connor’s head tilts back with the force of his laugh, “Neither, if I’m being honest.”

Hank moves forward to lift aside the makeshift door blocking the entrance and Connor drops the rake in the yard while offering to help. Hank brushes him off, “I got it; I got it.” He sets the sheet of plywood aside and turns back to Connor, “Anyway, if you’re interested, I figured we could go to dinner when we’re done here. It takes more than a day to finish a table anyway. We’re just going to be getting started on it.”

Connor can’t decide if he can’t suck in air or if it’s stuck in his chest, refusing to exhale. Either way, his lungs revolt. “Sure,” it comes out higher pitched than he cares for, “that would be great.”  Fifteen minutes into watching Hank work on the table, Connor is itching to get his hands on some tools. There’s something masculine and sensual about how Hank works. He’s watched him make several pocket holes to join the tabletop planks together.

“Can I try to make one?” Connor asks when the whirring of the drill dies down.

“Sure,” Hank hands him the drill, “Try to angle it so it penetrates both boards. We need to be able to connect the two. If you miss the mark, don’t worry about it. This is the underside of the table. No one will see it.” Hank double checks the drill bit and hands the equipment over to Connor.

Unprepared for how heavy the drill actually is, Connor feels his hands sink several inches before he can readjust his grip, “Oh.” It’s quiet, but Hank hears it and grins.

“There’s a lot of power there; give it a try.”

Connor’s aim goes wide on the first attempt and Hank reaches around to readjust Connor’s grip. He feels Hank’s chest press against his back and he has to fight hard to keep his attention on the tool in his grip. Hank prompts him, “Try again.”

He hadn’t expected Hank’s patience. Elijah had conditioned him to expect one chance both at work and in bed. The concept of trying again feels foreign but not unwelcome. His second attempt goes better. It’s not smooth and perfect like Hank’s, but it will do. “How’s that?” Connor asks, still a little apprehensive.

Hank cracks a gap-toothed grin, “You still have all your fingers, so I’d say not bad.” Connor glares at him comically before nudging his shoulder lightly. He makes two more pocket holes before handing the drill back to Hank.

“If I keep going, I think I’ll run out of beginner’s luck,” he offers by way of an explanation. In reality, his fingers were starting to tingle, not used to the constant vibration of the drill. He watches Hank finished four pocket holes in the time it took him to aim the drill.

When he inserts all the screws, he steps back from the workbench, “Well, you have yourself a tabletop.”

Connor checks his watch, “Yes, and it only took us seventy-three minutes.” Hank barks out a laugh before walking over to a woodpile and shouldering some thinner cuts. Connor watches him run strips of wood glue before setting and clamping the skinny pieces in place. “This is the apron for the underside of the table. I’ll screw them in for added security tomorrow once the glue dries.”

Hank surveys the room, looking sheepish, “That’s about all we can do to this table today, but…” He trails off until he sees Connor’s inquisitive face, “There is one more project I’d like to do now while we’re here. The beam came early—to replace the one the termites destroyed.” Connor’s face lights up, more than ready for the hideous support system to go.

When Hank remains hesitant, Connor presses, “Is there a problem?” Hank flushes a little, which captures Connor’s immediate interest. How had he managed that?

“It’s just…it’s really heavy.” Connor realizes Hank’s asking him for help and he grins toothily at him.

“Do you need a hand?” Hank grunts an affirmative and waves at Connor to follow him. Propped up against the wall is the single largest piece of wood Connor has ever seen. Even with his inexperience, he knows this must be an important piece.

“Even if the termites hadn’t of gotten to it, we woulda had to replace it. This is the one someone cut into; I was right about it being a supporting beam.” Hank yanks at it until it tilts in his direction before slowly resting it against his shoulder. “Alright, you take this end and I’ll lift the other. It’s a heavy sumbitch so tell me if you need to stop or put it down.” Connor stands astride Hank and maneuvers to take the weight of the beam. He staggers slightly despite bracing for something heavy.

Hank keeps his eye on him for a moment before nodding when Connor readjusts. He watches Hank squat down before getting the beam on top of his shoulder and standing as if he was lifting nothing more than a sack of potatoes.

No wonder he could lift Markus so easily. Connor gives himself a mental shake, remaining firm in his resolve not to stare at Hank’s ass. He opts instead to stare at his broad shoulders, his fitted A-shirt offering an ample view. They flex under the bulk of the wood. Connor’s pretty certain Hank is taking on the majority of the weight, but Hank doesn’t complain.

They walk the beam over to a pair of stepladders before Hank calls back to him, “This part might be a little tricky,” and Connor groans. Hank chuckles before asking, “D’you think you can lift it?” Connor tries to give it a cursory nudge and the thing barely shifts.

Deciding he’d rather be embarrassed than crushed under a support beam, he goes with honesty, “Uhhh, no. No, I do not.”

Hank snorts and mutters something indistinct, “Don’t worry about it. Just get up onto the ladder and hold steady. I’ll take care of the rest.” Connor feels himself grow warm, but he’s not sure if it’s from trying to remain upright under the weight of the beam or if it’s because Hank is strong enough to almost handle the task by himself.

With greater difficulty than he’d like to admit, Connor manages to make it up the three short steps in tandem with Hank. Hank’s large hands cradle the beam before hefting it onto a column against the wall. When the weight is off his shoulder, he says with a sigh, “Easy part’s done.”

Before he can stop himself, Connor blurts out, “What part of that was easy?” Hank turns around with a hint of a grin before wiping at his brow. Connor feels a bead of sweat run down his jaw and neck before bleeding into the collar of his shirt. He wasn’t sure how Hank expected to set his end of the beam, but his intentions become clear when he climbs onto Connor’s stepladder. Hank modifies his stance for better balance, slotting one of his feet between Connor’s.

Face to face, chest to chest, he takes the beam from Connor. With nowhere to go, Connor remains trapped between the broad expanse of Hank’s chest and the wall. “Sorry about this,” Hank says in a low voice that sounds anything but apologetic, “I’ll be done in a minute.” When he lifts the beam, Connor can feel Hank’s muscles contract against him. It’s a heady sensation and Connor wills his body not to react.

Blue eyes filled with mirth lock onto his own and Connor has a sneaking suspicion that Hank is rubbing up against him on purpose. At this proximity, he can smell Hank, a mix of earthy sweat, aftershave, and something that Connor can only define as masculine. Hank leans forward, presumably to check the setting of the beam, pressing more firmly into Connor in the process. He has a soft layer, Connor can feel some of Hank give around the middle, but he can also feel the hardened muscle beneath his massive barreled chest.

Uncertain if he wants to die or melt under Hank’s overwhelming presence, he exhales a little breathily when Hank pulls back. His eyes rove over Connor’s face and it must betray how he feels because Hank raises a hand to cup his cheek. He tilts his head down, brushing his lips against Connor’s and murmurs against his mouth, “Thanks for the help.”

Connor wants more, wants to deepen the kiss, wants to run his hands over the swell of Hank’s chest, but their precarious perch on the ladder doesn’t allow for much more than a gentle kiss. As far as first kisses go, Connor decides this is by far the best he’s ever had. The sound of someone clearing his throat behind Hank effectively puts a stop to it. Connor peers around Hank’s shoulder to see who it is and groans before letting his head fall back against the wall with a dull thunk.

“Glad to see you’re using your free time wisely, Connor. It’s almost as if you don’t have a major decision to make by Monday.” Hank makes a sour face upon recognizing the voice and starts to climb down the ladder. He strides past Elijah as if he’s not there and Connor follows his example. He counts it as a minor victory that Elijah is forced to trail behind in their wake if he wants either of their attention.

“I have some—,” Elijah begins to speak to the side of Connor’s head, but Hank interrupts him by beginning to hammer away. Connor tries to make out what it is Hank is working on, but, as is the case with most projects on the site, it just looks like wood.

“Do you mind?” Elijah calls over the sound and Hank shoulders the hammer before looking at the man.

“I do, actually. What are you doing on my site?” Elijah doesn’t appear to react, but Connor knows him well. He can tell by the little adjustments of his shirtsleeves that he’s uncomfortable. Of the two of them, Hank is by far the more dominating personality. Unused to being upstaged, Elijah takes the direct route.

“Connor left something that I thought may help him make the right decision. It is his favorite photograph, after all.” Connor’s eyes snap to Elijah’s hands, but they’re empty. He doesn’t want the picture, but the thought of it in his Victorian makes him want to retch. He doesn’t want any part of this project to have the taint of Elijah.

When neither Connor nor Elijah makes a move, Hank speaks, “And how did you know where to find him?” A whisper of irritation skitters across Elijah’s face, clearly put out that he can’t taunt Connor how he wants to.

“Connor wasn’t home and he wasn’t with his friend,” he says the word as if Connor leads a lonely pitiable existence with only Markus for company, “That left only one possible option so—,”

“Bullshit,” Hank’s voice cleaves Elijah’s sentence in half, rendering him silent. “He could have been anywhere—the store, the mall, the bank—how did you know he was here?” If Connor’s heart wasn’t yo-yoing at the sight of his former boyfriend and current love interest going toe to toe, he’d be deeply amused at the spectacle of Elijah squirming.

He huffs out a sigh before answering, “I called your secretary, Debbie. I told her I had an urgent financial matter to discuss.” Connor’s anger flares at Elijah’s casual manipulation of people for his own selfish gain. The more time he spends away from Elijah, the more he wonders what he saw in him in the first place.

“Yeah, you can leave,” Hank waves his hand at Elijah in a shooing motion, before resuming his hammering. Elijah visibly startles at the abrupt dismissal but turns his attention to Connor.

He raises his voice to be heard over the din of Hank’s hammer. “Yours,” is all he says as he reaches into his jacket and extracts a single picture. Connor knows it well, but the leaf-embossed frame is missing. He doesn’t reach out to take it.

“I left it behind for a reason. I don’t want it.” Elijah slowly lowers his arm before resting the picture on the workbench next to the tabletop he and Hank assembled that morning. His fingers glide down it before tapping it lightly. His expression never changes—no frown or smile, just cold calculation.

Hank looks up and makes eye contact with Connor, seeing his stricken expression. He takes the opportunity to shoulder past Elijah and pick up the photo, “He said he didn’t want it and I don’t need trash cluttering my site. Speaking of which, I believe I told you to leave.” Hank punctuates the sentence by dropping the picture in a nearby industrial size garbage can. The picture flutters, pitiful and small, to the bottom.

Connor’s heart performs a celebratory leap at Hank’s words. He hadn’t expected him to so willingly and effectively take up the gauntlet against Elijah. Connor sees Elijah’s jaw tick several times before he turns and stalks out the open doorway without a word. Connor and Hank watch him go, but then Connor sees the rake.

On impulse, he opens his mouth to call out a warning, but warm, rough fingers clamp down over his lips to silence him. His eyes dart up to Hank and back to Elijah, realizing Hank sees what’s about to happen, too. Connor sucks in a deep breath through his nose while Hank exhales a quiet chuckle. One, two, three steps later, a loud crack reverberates across the yard.

“WHAT THE FUCK?” is Elijah’s immediate reaction to stepping on the rake and receiving a face-full of its handle. When he stumbles back a pace, Connor can see his nose is bleeding. Hank drops his hand from Connor’s mouth to his waist.

Elijah turns with ill-concealed ire to face Connor, his lips pulled back in a snarl, when Hank calls out, “You gotta be careful on construction sites. You never know what might fly up and hit you in the face.” He’s looking idly at his free hand flexing the fingers in and out of a fist, his threat clear. “You may want to avoid them altogether actually.”

As Elijah pinches at his freely flowing nostrils, Connor notes with satisfaction that one of his perfectly manicured eyebrows is swelling and taking on an unattractive puce color. The irate man makes his way back to his car without a backward glance.  

When Elijah’s car fades from view, Connor spins beneath Hank’s palm and yanks him down into an ungainly kiss. Judging by the odd sound he makes, he wasn’t expecting it. After a moment of hesitation, he wraps his arms around Connor’s waist, tugging him onto the ends of his feet.

When Connor breaks the kiss, his mouth runs away ahead of his brain, “That was amazing. You’re amazing. I’m cooking you dinner tonight. What’ll it be?” Hank’s head swivels slightly as if trying to watch the words flying out of Connor’s mouth.

He smiles broadly, “It wasn’t anything, Con. That guy is an ass. Any half-decent person would’ve told him off.”

Still giddy, Connor speaks without thinking, “You’re way more than half decent.” Earning his second blush of the day, Connor beams up at Hank waiting for a real answer.

“I need to shower first, but—,”

Connor interrupts him, afraid he’s going to say no or come up with some excuse, “You can shower at my place.” Blood suffuses his face and hurries on, “I mean, uh, I have a shower you can use. I didn’t mean to imply—” he stops talking when a deep laugh rumbles in Hank’s chest.

“You’re fine, kid. I’ve got spare clothes in my truck anyway. I’ll follow you back; we can figure out dinner when we get there.” Hank smiles softly down at him and true happiness courses through Connor’s veins for the first time in well over a year.

Chapter Text

Connor tries to treat the shower running in the background as white noise, but the knowledge that Hank is in there naked foils the attempt. The only full bath is in his bedroom and Connor had performed a hasty shove-everything-under-the-bed maneuver before letting Hank in the room.

If Hank has any thoughts on Connor’s apartment, he keeps them to himself. He stands, one foot on the bathroom tile and the other on the bedroom carpet, looking at Connor expectantly.

When Connor doesn’t move, Hank asks, “Are you gonna watch or…?”

A thunderous flush consumes Connor’s face before he stammers, “O-oh my god. I’m so sorry. I—,”

Hank interrupts him with an easy grin, “I mean, not that I mind, but someone has to get started on dinner.” Connor’s halfway out the door when Hank calls after him, “Don’t know how much help I’ll be, but I can chop shit up for you when I get out.” Despite his embarrassment, Connor smiles. Elijah never helped in the kitchen. He knows he needs to stop comparing the two, but Hank out stacks Elijah ten to one every time.

Connor pads barefoot down the hall to his kitchen in search of vegetables. He had been a little taken aback when Hank asked for stir-fry. He’d seen enough fast food bags pass through Hank’s hands at the worksite to make him raise an eyebrow at the request. 

“Trying to get my doc to stop nagging at me about my cholesterol,” had been his answer.

Shaking his head, Connor pulls out some zucchini, sweet onions, bell peppers, and sweet peas before hunting for his cutting board. As he rearranges the vegetables to make room on the counter, he realizes belatedly that there aren’t any clean towels in his bathroom. His own is in there hanging on a hook, but he doubts Hank wants to use it.

With a final delicate touch of his forefinger to ensure the onion won’t roll off the counter, Connor hurries back to his room, stopping at the hall closet to grab a clean towel. He knocks on the door and waits. He doesn’t hear a response, but, for privacy’s sake, he calls out, “Hank?” When silence greets him again, he swings the bedroom door wide.

Hank steps out of the bathroom, a comically small towel draped around his hips. “Yeah?” he asks with a grin. Connor gazes at him for what would normally be an uncomfortable amount of time, but Hank just smiles with mirth in his eyes.

When Connor remains speechless, Hank gestures at the towel in his hand, “That for me?” The question breaks the spell over Connor and he nods.

“Yes,” he holds the towel out, not trusting his shaky legs, “I forgot, um, I mean—I didn’t think you’d want my,” he gestures weakly at his own towel encircling Hank’s thick waist. Hank crosses the room, towel flapping dangerously around generous, muscled thighs. Connor does his best not to stare but comes up short on the effort.

Hank must notice it, but he doesn’t comment, opting to take the clean towel from Connor’s proffered hand and tossing it over his shoulder, “I’ll be out in a minute. Gotta dry my hair a bit.” Connor turns to go back to the kitchen, but his head doesn’t seem to want to follow his torso. His eyes zero in on Hank’s muscular back as he walks toward the bathroom.

Connor’s in the middle of slicing a zucchini long ways when Hank emerges from his room. Connor smiles slightly when he takes in his loud, striped button down. Not wanting to end the night in the ER getting stitches, he turns his attention back to cutting the zucchini.

Large, warm hands engulf his from behind as Hank’s chest presses lightly against his back, “I said I’d handle the chopping.” Hank pulls the knife from Connor’s hand and gestures at the wine sitting out on Connor’s counter, “Have a glass; relax.”

Feeling the elation from Elijah all but eating a rake ebb, Connor’s nerves agree with Hank. “Would you like one?” he asks as he pours himself a glass.

Hank’s hand seem to tremble for a moment, but he offers Connor an easy smile, “No, thanks. I don’t drink. Not anymore.” Connor’s hand freezes halfway up to his mouth to take a sip. Hank sees the deer in headlights look and chuckles out, “Helluva thing to drop on you, yeah?”

Connor smiles weakly before asking, “Does it bother you, uh, if—,”

“Wouldn’t’ve suggested it if it did. I don’t want to be peeling you up off the floor later, but you’re clearly wrapped up tighter than an Eskimo about to head out into a storm. Relax, Con.” Connor knows there must be more of a story there, but he doesn’t pry. Hank told him up front, and that is more than enough for now.

Hank starts chopping and Connor pulls out a stool opposite from him. It’s his favorite part of the kitchen, this little peninsula. He isn’t often on this side of the counter, and he takes a moment to enjoy watching someone else prepare a meal.

“So what’re you gonna do about working for fuckface?” Hank asks casually while moving onto cut the onion into thin slices. Connor startles badly at the question and takes a large gulp of wine to buy some time.

“I think I have to take Markus’ advice. I’d rather not run to Carl, but I can’t keep working with Eli and pretending like everything is fine.” Hank makes a sound of agreement but doesn’t offer anything else on the subject.

Seemingly content to put a pin in that conversation, he moves on, “I feel like I know a lot more about you than you know about me.”

Connor considers the statement before offering, “My life has had a habit of blowing up spectacularly when you’re in the vicinity to see it. I don’t suppose you have a monstrous ex waiting to spring out at me at inopportune moments?” He meant it as a joke, but the way Hank freezes mid-slice tells him he hit closer to the truth than he intended.

Attempting to backpedal, Connor rushes on, “Not that—I mean, um, you don’t have to—,” Hank holds up a hand to silence him.

“I opened this Pandora’s box,” he sees Hank take a steadying breath before he resumes slicing the onion. “I was married once. It wasn’t a great match.” Talking about it seems to physically pain Hank, his expression pinched. Connor remains silent, letting him speak at his own pace, “She was nice enough, but…”

Connor blinks twice at the she but continues to hold his tongue, “She got pregnant.” When Hank finally says it, Connor resists the urge to look around, as if a child might pop out of Hank’s back pocket. “When she figured out I wasn’t uh, yeah…it was a bad split. I drank a lot. She got full custody and it took a long time to get visitation.” Hank sets down the knife and blinks up at the ceiling a few times.

“Fuckin’ onions,” he mutters before scrubbing the back of his arm across his eyes, “Anyway, I don’t do well with drink. I got my head on straight, got joint custody.” A small but fierce, victorious smile crinkles the corners of Hank’s eyes and a rush of fondness soaks into Connor’s skin at the sight.

Hank is holding an even gaze on Connor and the rushing realization that he has a kid hits him like a hammer striking at a bent nail. After a very expectant pause, Connor finally says, “So you have a child.”

Hank laughs nervously, “Caught that part didja?” Connor swallows, trying to decide how he feels about the revelation.

Finally, before the silence can damn him, Connor asks, “How old is your...?”

“Son,” Hank supplies, “He’s nine. His name is Cole.”  

They spend the next half hour acting out a careful dance. Connor asks questions and Hank answers with varying degrees of comfort as he slices and chops the rest of the vegetables before sautéing them in a pan. Connor locates various oils, sauces, and spices when Hank asks for them, a new question growing in his throat when Hank asks if he has any quinoa.

“I didn’t know you could cook,” Connor says before handing Hank a bag of quinoa. Hank shakes a damp, curling piece of hair out of his face as he takes the bag with a grin.

“Kinda had to figure it out when Brenda left. I’ve been getting takeout a lot lately because I’ve gotten lazy. I keep forgetting I’m not a young buck anymore. Two weeks straight of the drive-through and it shows.” He slaps at the side of his belly to emphasize his point.

Connor stares at him, the memory of Hank standing in his bedroom in nothing but a towel playing on repeat. There had been some give around the middle, sure, but his broad shoulders and pronounced chest—

Connor cuts off that train of thought before he can embarrass himself. Heat creeps up his face and Hank must notice because he asks, “Penny for your thoughts?”

Feeling called out, Connor stammers,” I, um, nothing. I just…I like the way you look, is all.”

Hank smiles broadly before tucking a stray hair behind his ear, “You’re something else.” He shakes his head and exhales a sound just short of a chuckle. When Connor gives him a confused look, Hank elaborates, “I mean, c’mon. Look at you.”

Connor actually looks down at himself and Hank barks out a deep throaty laugh, “I didn’t mean literally. Y’ain’t bad to look at yourself.” A flush that matches the intensity of his merlot stains Connor’s cheeks.

He watches Hank set some water on to boil before realizing, “I offered to cook, you know.”

Hank makes a tsk sound before offering, “You’ve had a rough month. Don’t worry about it.”

It’s a simple meal, but Connor appreciates it more than he can say. He hasn’t had someone cook for him since he left the orphanage. It’s a startling thought, swiftly followed by a heavy pit in his stomach. It shouldn’t matter, not after Hank laid his skeletons bare, but Connor isn’t sure how to let Hank peek into the closet of his past.

“You got awful quiet all of a sudden,” Hank’s voice so close to his ear makes his jerk. Hank reaches for Connor’s empty plate and walks it over to the sink, “Weren’t wool-gathering on me, were ya?”

Connor laughs, “No, I was just trying to think of the last time someone else cooked for me.” He keeps his tone light and Hank seems to accept the answer.

“I hear ya on that one. Most nights, it’s just me and Sumo. Great big beast of a dog is a freeloader, let me tell you.” Hank’s quiet for a moment, rinsing off dishes, but, when he turns, Connor can tell he’s not going to let it go, “Any reason my stir fry made you sad?”

So much for his poker face.

Connor’s fingers flex as he tries to think of an acceptable answer that doesn’t involve the truth. He chastises himself internally when, “It’s complicated,” crosses his lips. He tries again, “Sorry, that sounded like a bad soap opera scene. I just don’t like to talk about my past.”

He expects Hank to pry or to balk, but instead he shrugs, “Everybody’s got one. Hell, I’ve got enough baggage for two vacations and you haven’t told me to beat it yet.” Connor rises from the table and gestures at the sofa. He’d rather be armed with decorative pillows for this conversation.

Connor sits at an angle on the far left side of the couch, crammed into the corner between the back and the armrest. Crossing his arms over a pale blue pillow, he feels every inch like the dejected child of his youth. Hank settles down next to him and waits.

“You’d think I’d be better at talking about it by now,” he begins after several silent seconds pass. Sucking in a breath through his teeth, the words come out clumsily, “I don’t know who my parents are; neither did the orphanage. The note pinned to my blanket only said my name was Connor. I grew up there with Markus. Carl adopted him. He—The agency wouldn’t let him adopt us both.”

Having laid out the bones of it, Connor lapses into silence, staring at the floor. He’s gotten a variety of responses and reactions. Elijah had laughed before bringing a hand up to grip Connor’s chin. Well, that explains a lot was all he had had to say on the matter.

“That had to be hard on you both,” Hank’s voice is deep and quiet—soothing in a way Connor didn’t know he needed until that moment.

“It was,” he admits, voice tight. Do not cry, he chastises himself with horror when he feels the telltale heat building behind his eyelids. Despite his best efforts, he feels one traitorous tear roll down his cheek. He tries to shift to hide it and buy himself some time to wipe at it discreetly.

He startles badly when Hank’s hand finds his. He returns the grip and offers him a weak, watery smile. Soft blue eyes hold his gaze before flicking down to the tear on his face. A tentative hand reaches up to thumb it away. When Hank moves to pull back, Connor lifts a hand to stay him. While he hadn’t anticipated crying this evening, he not about to let it ruin it either. Hank must be thinking along the same lines because he offers no resistance when Connor grabs him by the collar and pulls him closer.

Hank leans into him and a small moan slips through Connor’s lips at the sheer size of the man. A flush blooms from the collar of his shirt, steadily consuming his face, “I’m sorry, I—,”

Hank tilts his head, looking slightly puzzled as he cuts him off mid-apology, “We’re gonna have to work on that.” Connor’s embarrassment deepens, though he’s not sure what for this time. Seeing his confusion, Hank clarifies, “You apologize a lot. Like there’s something wrong with everything you do.”

The words I’m sorry try to leap from his tongue, but he reigns in the impulse, “I’m s—It’s a bad habit. I’ve been told I’m, uh, noisy. I’ve tried to get it under control, but sometimes…,” Connor drifts off, quailing under the look Hank gives him.

“The fuck are you talking about?” The question is brash, but his tone is kind.

Connor’s blush deepens and he suddenly wishes he wasn’t trapped under this mountain of a man while poorly explaining himself, “I, um, make sounds when…in romantic situations?” It comes out a question and Connor groans before hiding his face by pressing it into Hank’s chest. He feels him laugh before he hears it.

“Connor, look at me,” feeling all the world like a child, he shakes his head no. He’d rather let his mortification keep him company than see Hank laughing at him. A firm hand under his chin forces the issue, “It doesn’t bother me. Really. Make whatever sounds you like.” Hank narrows his eyes for a moment, likely guessing exactly who put the notion into Connor’s head that he should remain mute, but Elijah’s name stays locked behind his teeth.

“If I’m being honest,” he leans closer, making Connor’s heart flutter as embarrassment bleeds out of him, desire rapidly replacing it, “I like it. Lets me know I’m doing something right.” Warmth bursts in Connor’s chest at the declaration. He pulls Hank into a kiss, hoping to convey how much his words mean to him.

When Hank breaks away to mouth at Connor’s neck, Connor sighs out a small, contented sound. He feels Hank smile into his skin before bringing their lips together again. For the first time in over a year, he isn’t insecure about being himself. Hank’s hand slips under his shirt, rough fingers ghosting over his hip. Connor’s hands rise to Hank’s hair, gripping at it loosely, when a loud foghorn begins to blare repeatedly. Connor jolts badly and releases his hold on Hank to find the source of the noise.

“For fuck’s sake,” Hank mumbles while reaching into his back pocket, “I have to take this; it’s my ex.” He sits up and swipes his thumb to answer the call before asking gruffly, “What can I do for you, Brenda?” Connor hears indistinct words in a feminine tone. The woman isn’t loud enough for him to make out any words, but he can tell by Hank’s irritated expression that it’s not welcome news for their evening.

“Fine. What? No, of course, I want to see him. I’d just prefer a little more notic—hello?”

When Hank continues to glare at the dark screen of his cellphone, Connor asks the obvious question, “Problem?”

Hank gives him an apologetic smile before answering, “No, not really. It’s Brenda’s weekend with Cole, but she says something’s come up and she needs me to take him. I’ll take all the time I can get, but…”

“Oh,” Connor says quietly, unsure how to navigate the situation. “Do you need to leave then?”

Hank’s smile shifts to something more carnal before answering, “Not yet.” He tugs at Connor, guiding him to straddle him. One large hand grips at the back of his neck, “I have a little time.”

A small sound escapes Connor when Hank pulls him forward to suck gently at the base of his throat. “How much is a little?” The question comes out a touch more breathy than he intended and he feels Hank smile at the sound of it.

Hank free hand grips at his waist before leaning back to give him a coy look, “Long enough to get you flustered.”

Connor shivers a little before saying in a low voice, “Mission accomplished.” A laugh rumbles in Hank’s chest, but it’s tinged with desire. Hank’s growing arousal become more obvious by the minute to Connor in his current position, but Hank seems content to kiss him. He caresses him lightly over his shirt and his jeans, but he never presses for more.

It’s maddening.

It’s perfect.

For all his bravado back at the Victorian, Connor isn’t honestly certain what he’d wanted when he invited Hank to his home. To actually have dinner, certainly, but beyond that? He’d barreled headfirst into his disastrous relationship with Elijah; he doesn’t want to repeat that mistake with Hank. If he’d taken his time then, gotten to really know the man, he might’ve prevented the whole catastrophe from happening.

Still, kissing Hank is good. He has to fight to keep himself from shifting his hips, aching for friction but not ready for the implications of it. He breaks the kiss and rests his forehead against Hank’s.

“How are you real?” The question comes out without his bidding and a faint blush stains his cheeks. It deepens when Hank says gruffly, “Could ask the same about you.” Before Connor can think of anything to say, Hank lifts one large hand to ruffle Connor’s hair.

He bats it away and asks through a laugh, “What are you doing?”

Hank gives him an easy shrug and a lazy grin, “Now you look properly disheveled.”

Recognizing the shift in mood, Connor slides out of Hank’s lap. He watches Hank feel around his pockets, searching for keys. When Hank wanders over to pick up his bundle of work clothes, Connor asks, “When can I see you again?”

Gesturing at the clothes under his arm, he offers, “You can see me anytime you like if you come by the Victorian. My crew’s gonna be buttoning up final touches on electrical and plumbing on Monday. After that, we can move onto the parts most homeowners care about.”

“And what’s that?” Connor asks, interest piqued.

“The pretty stuff,” Hank says with a chuckle before continuing, “Outside of work, I’m free Wednesday night. I’m not sure what your week’s gonna be like.” Again, Elijah’s name floats between them and Connor pushes past it.

“I’m sure Wednesday will be fine,” his tone is more confident than he feels, but having a date with Hank to look forward to is more than enough to get him through the mess at work. His face pinches slightly at the thought.

Misunderstanding his expression, Hank says quietly, “Sorry I had to cut tonight short.”

Connor shakes his head, trying to smile, “It’s not that. I’m just thinking about work. I need to talk to Carl anyway.” Hank’s expression grows hard at the mention of Connor’s job and it’s not difficult to figure out why.

“Let me know if I can help with that,” he says conspiratorially before stepping closer to Connor. Pressing two fingers beneath his chin, Hank tilts Connor’s head back, pressing a gentle kiss to his lips. When he breaks it, he mutters, “I can leave a few convenient rakes around his car.”

Connor snorts at the unexpected comment and slaps a hand over his face in a belated, useless attempt to conceal it. Hank gives him an amused look and Connor drops his hand, “I hate it when I do that.”

“I dunno. I thought it was cute.” Why Hank feels the need to say these things, Connor can’t hazard to guess. He’s not sure if he’s ever blushed this much in a single day before. Even so, he’s happier than he can ever remember being.

Something of it must show in his expression because when he moves to open the door for Hank, he finds himself pressed against it instead. It’s a rough kiss and betrays a lot of the want coursing through their veins. He’s breathing heavy when Hank breaks away to murmur against his ear, “Couldn’t help it. Had to kiss ya.”

Connor makes a hysterical noise somewhere between a laugh and a hiccup, “You can kiss me anytime you want.”

Warmth flares behind blue eyes, but Hank gives his head a little shake, “If I don’t go now, I’m never gonna leave.” Connor’s heart flutters at the admission and he finds it impossible not to fall harder for this man. He opens the door for him, each saying their goodbye. Hank steals another peck before forcibly turning away and striding toward his truck.

Connor leans against the doorframe, watching him go. There are calls to make and major questions about his job that demand answers, but, for now, Connor sets those concerns aside. With a final wave, he steps back into his apartment, focusing instead on committing every moment of the day—every kiss, every touch—to memory.

Chapter Text

Connor rotates a mug of tea in his hands while waiting for Carl on Markus’ purple couch. “He’ll be here in about five minutes,” Markus calls from the kitchen, phone in hand. Connor makes a sound to let Markus know he heard him, but that’s about all he can manage.

He hates running to Carl for help; he despises the notion that he can’t handle his problems on his own. There’d been a disastrous period when he aged out of the system and had no home, no job, and no future. Carl had swooped in then, opened his doors, but Connor was still young and full of misplaced anger.

He radiated pain for years anytime he had to be around Carl. He’d made his choice. He’d chosen Markus. It took time, more time than he cares to admit, for him to understand. Even still, he’s hesitant to lean on Carl like this. Beyond occupying a room for a few years in Carl’s house, Connor had built his own success. He hadn’t asked for any favors or borrowed any funds from Carl to make his way through college or obtain his position at Elijah’s company.

Asking Carl for help feels equivalent to branding failure across his forehead. It had taken him nearly a decade to build enough skills, work enough entry-level jobs, to make it to a management position. From there, he started catching the eye of more prestigious companies. Eventually, Elijah recruited him. It had taken barely more than a year to unravel it all.

The front door opening snaps Connor out of his self-pitying spiral. He gives Carl a tight smile before shifting his gaze to the man entering behind him. Everything from his boring, black briefcase to his stark white shirt and nondescript tie scream lawyer. His skin is an unhealthy shade, bordering on grey. Connor gets the immediate impression that this man doesn’t expose himself to a lot of natural sunlight.

Despite his sickly appearance, his grip is firm and his eyes are sharp, “Mr. Smith?” When Connor nods, the lawyer releases his hand, “I’m Marshall Sanford. Carl brought me up to speed on your situation, but I have lingering questions.” Connor resists the urge to sigh. He knows this Sanford is here to help, but he dislikes the situation regardless.

As if reading his mind, the man continues, “I understand this isn’t to your liking, but, from what I’ve gathered, it’s more uncomfortable to remain in your current…situation than it is to address it.” Connor can tell Sanford is trying to be tactful, but his emphasis and word choice are like harpoons to the chest.

Still, he’s right. Connor can’t work in the same building as Elijah. He doesn’t want to see his face or watch him low-key flirt with Chloe. He doesn’t want to sit in his office or remember stolen kisses after hours. What had seemed so romantic at the time now smacks of a clandestine arrangement. Squaring his shoulders, he meets Sanford’s gaze, “Right. What do you need to know?”

They discuss the non-compete agreement, Connor handing over a printed copy for Sanford to peruse later. They discuss Elijah’s likelihood to retaliate, what his resources are like, and how far Connor is willing to go to see this issue resolved.

Eventually, they discuss the Victorian.

“It’s an odd asset to have, Mr. Smith,” he says it quietly in a tone Connor has quickly learned to associate with Sanford about to tell him something he doesn’t want to hear. “It might become a liability.” Sanford raises a hand when he sees Connor bristle, “If Mr. Kamski decided to play dirty, the expenses will add up quickly. I can offer you premium rates,” his eyes flick to Carl, underscoring exactly why that’s the case, “but I don’t work for free. I’d recommend you take a hard look at your finances before taking this route.”

Connor stares at the man blankly, “You think I shouldn’t try to get out of it?”

Sanford’s sallow hands lift into a shrug, “I understand why that’s not agreeable to you, but—,”

“It’s illegal. What he’s doing is extor—,” Markus’ hand on his shoulder cuts him off before he can build up enough steam to flatten the lawyer like a runaway train. With a visible effort, Connor reigns in his anger. “There is no other option. If it comes down to it, I’ll deal with the Victorian. How do we proceed?”

Sanford gives him a nod, recognizing his resolve, “I’ll need to look over this non-compete to see just how air-tight it really is. There’s almost always a loophole. I’ll be in touch in a couple of days. For now, you’ll either have to return to work or face the consequences. Unless…” Sanford trails off looking thoughtful.

“Unless what?” Carl asks the obvious question, startling Connor. He’d been so quiet, Connor had almost forgotten he was there.

“You may still have a recourse available to you, but it would require you to have friends within the organization.” Connor watches the man tap his chin in thought before explaining, “You can try to take vacation time or sick leave, assuming Elijah doesn’t personally approve such requests.”

For the first time, Elijah’s superior tendencies tip in Connor’s favor, “No, he doesn’t. It’s worth a shot.” When the man goes to take his leave, Connor follows him to the door to shake his hand one more time, “Thank you, Mr. Sanford.”

He nods but says grimly, “Don’t thank me yet. I’ll see what I can do with this.” He holds up the non-compete agreement before offering, “Good luck.” When Connor returns to the living room, Carl and Markus are both wearing carefully neutral expressions.

“I’m fine,” he says defensively before either can start in on him.

Markus opens his mouth twice before shaking his head, “Alright then. So what’s the plan?”

Connor’s mouth twists into a humorless smile, “I call Chloe.”

Markus stares at him as if he’s sprouted a second head—a particularly stupid second head, “You can’t be serious. He’s sleeping with her, Connor. Living with her. You really think she won’t say something to him?”

Connor shrugs, embracing the recklessness required of a man about to make a decision that could torpedo his life, “It’s worth a shot. He’s already pissed about the rake.”

Markus stares at him, blinking hard, “I’m sorry, the what?”

Connor grins down into his tea, not yet ready to bring Markus up to speed on the previous twenty-four hours. At least, not when Carl is sitting within earshot. Shaking his head, he dismisses the subject, “Nothing, it’s nothing. He’s just more dissatisfied with me than usual.”

Markus snorts and mutters about impossible to please men while Connor searches for his keys. Carl’s eyes follow him, brow furrowed, “Leaving already, m’boy?” Connor nods absentmindedly, deciding that Markus’ house must have a black hole that eats guests’ belongings. This isn’t the first time he’s had to hunt for keys and he doubts it will be his last.

Finally locating them inside the sugar bowl, Connor arches one incredulous eyebrow. Markus shrugs, “Must’ve happened when I made your tea.” Connor pockets them, feeling suddenly awkward in his departure. He should thank Carl, he knows it, but the words feel stitched into his tongue.

Carl motions at him to come to him so he does more by the grace of good manners than any real desire to linger. Carl pulls him down into an uncomfortable half-bent hug, but Connor accepts it. “You don’t have to do everything alone,” he says it quietly, a parting meant just for Connor.

Connor nods before righting himself, squeezing at Carl’s hand, “Thank you…for the…” He breaks off, gesturing in the air, “For everything.” It’s a poor excuse for gratitude, but Carl accepts it all the same.

He calls Chloe from the car, hoping to have the matter resolved before he gets back to his apartment. Her voice is honey sweet and it makes Connor cringe. As much as he wants to hate her, he can’t. If anything, he wants to tell her to run as far away from Elijah as she can.

Once the pleasantries are out of the way, he steers the conversation more in the direction of work. When he asks how Elijah’s been, she huffs, “Working like a maniac, like usual. He’s at the office now, actually.” Her tone is a little odd, but Connor doesn’t have the time to work out why. She seems to correct herself before adding, “If he was around, I’d put him on for you.”

Thanking his lucky stars that Elijah isn’t home, Connor lays the groundwork for his plan, “You’re still in charge of approving leave, right?” When she confirms, a small victorious smile tugs at the corner of his mouth.

By the end of the conversation, he’s secured two weeks of paid vacation—justified by his tireless work on the Williams account and by virtue of never having taken a day off in his time with the company. He’s sure Elijah will raise hell if not outright overturn it, but he’s bought himself some time regardless.

“Connor?” His regret at involving Chloe is immediate. Realization that he’s dragged her into his war with Elijah sits heavily in his gut like soured milk. Her voice is quiet and hesitant, “I wanted to say I’m sorry. For everything. I really didn’t know that you didn’t know.” Pulling into his designated parking spot, he puts the car in park before tightly shutting his eyes.

The silence grows into something slimy and unpleasant. The words leave his mouth heavy and tired, “It’s fine, Chloe. I don’t blame—,”

“It’s not fine. Nothing about this is fine.” The sharpness in her tone makes Connor wonder just how much she understands about his request for paid time off. He hears her suck in a shuddering breath, but no words follow it.

Unable to resist, he lets his emotions speak before his brain can pull the words back in, “Then why are you still with him?”

If it wasn’t for the line not going dead, he would think she hung up on him. She’s quiet for a long time and when she finally releases a pent up sound, he can almost sense her longing, “You know how he is. You know what it’s like when you’re the center of his attention.”

Any inkling of fight he had left in him flees at those words. He does know. Elijah had been devoted, easy with gifts and lavish dinners. Being under his gaze had felt like standing center stage. He could make Connor feel like the most interesting, important person in the world and it had been lovely—more than lovely—while it lasted.

But it hadn’t been real. No man could truly love so fiercely then turn it off in the blink of an eye. Elijah could imitate devotion just as well as any other emotion. Given enough time, Connor came to learn the most Elijah ever really felt was slight amusement. Much like a spoiled child, he grew tired of his toys. Connor wonders how many came before him and how many will follow Chloe.

“Yeah,” he says after a long silence, “yeah, I guess I do. Take care of yourself, Chloe.” He ends the call feeling significantly less victorious than he’d originally expected. Chloe was a big girl. She knew what she was getting into—hell, she knew Elijah was sleeping with Connor when he first approached her. He may have misled her about Connor’s complicity with the situation, but still. She had to realize a relationship with Elijah was never going to end well.

Short of dragging her away from Elijah’s high-end condo, there wasn’t much else he could do. So, why then, does he feel culpable? He drags himself across the threshold of his apartment door and collapses on the couch, fully intending to stay there until dinnertime.

His phone vibrating decides otherwise. Grunting, he lifts his hip just enough to yank the phone out of his pocket. Hank’s name flashing across the screen lifts his mood.

When he answers, he thinks Hank may have dialed him by mistake. Everything sounds muffled and it gives him the distinct impression that he’s riding in Hank’s back pocket.

“Hello?” he asks, uncertain of what answer he’ll receive. Within seconds, his ear is assaulted by what is clearly a jackhammer when Hank pulls his hand away from the receiver.

“CONNOR?” Hank shouts over the noise. When Connor assures him he’s still on the line, he continues in an overly loud voice, “We’re wrapping up for the day over here. Thought you might like to see the progress. I’m ordering a pizza.”

When Connor tries to reply, Hank shouts back at him, “Can’t hear for shit—STUCKY! CUT IT OFF!—Ah, fuck it. Deaf bastard can’t hear me.” Connor’s head spins at the back and forth before realizing Hank is talking to him and someone else on the site simultaneously. “Text me if you can make it,” he calls loudly into the phone before ending the call.

Connor taps out a reply that he’s on his way before heading back out the door. He’s a little surprised that Hank and his crew are working on a Sunday, but he assumes there is an explanation for it.

When he pulls up to the Victorian, he can hear the jackhammer going while still in the car. As he steps out, he sees a couple of burly men packing into work trucks before spotting Hank, going to town on the slab in front of the house.

Connor cups a hand around his mouth, poised to shout out to him, but the words dissolve on his tongue. Hank’s turned at an angle, half of his back facing Connor. Connor’s eyes drift from the hardhat down to Hank’s tightly coiled shoulders, watching the thick ropes of muscles expand and contract down his arms as he drives the jackhammer into the cement in a ceaseless onslaught.

His stance wide, Connor sees the carefully controlled power of his movements. Taking in the intensity of Hank’s gaze as he works, Connor suddenly finds himself envious of the stone. Despite the fall season bringing in cooler temperatures, Hank is stripped down to his A-shirt, sweat making it stick to his back.

Connor startles badly when one of Hank’s crew honks their horn in rapid succession, trying to get the large man’s attention. Hank cuts the power, waving off his employee when he spots Connor. Connor tries to make it look like he hadn’t been openly staring, but he’s not sure how successful he is in his efforts.

For his part, Hank smiles warmly and waves Connor over to him as he jumps down from the slab. When they’re side-by-side facing the house, Hank’s arm slides across his back before tugging him closer by his hip. He’s damp with sweat and smells like a man who’s done physical labor all day. Connor couldn’t care less.

“She’s starting to come together, isn’t she?” Hank asks, gesturing at the house. The first thing Connor notices is all the windows have real glass in them, no longer boarded up with plywood. The new wood trim around them has a fresh coat of pristine white paint. The roof is finished as well while the brick and stone veneer looks freshly power washed.

“You did all this today?” Connor asks, slightly shocked. He’d been here less than two days ago and the entire exterior had looked more like a haunted house than a stately Victorian.

“Had to,” Hank puffs his chest, pleased by Connor’s impressed tone, “S’gonna rain and snow for the next few days. Heavy precipitation, too. Unseasonably cold if you ask me. Wouldn’t think a winter hell storm was coming by the looks of today.” Hank breaks off to actually look up at the cloudless blue sky. Connor can see gooseflesh break out across Hank’s arms now that he’s not in motion, a cool breeze promising colder temperatures to come.

“Anyway, we had to get the roof and windows taken care of—couldn’t have bad weather fouling up all the hard work done inside. The roof was almost done anyway.” When Connor shifts from foot to foot, Hank chuckles, “Wanna step inside? Walls went up today as well.”

Hank frowns slightly when he hops up onto the front slab, “I was hoping to get enough of this knocked out today to put in a proper set of stairs sooner rather than later.” He extends a hand to help Connor up over the rubble. “I had to special order the door. I’m gonna tarp over the plywood to keep the water out. The old roof and windows were our main priorities.” Connor nods, trusting Hank’s judgment on these matters.

Hank smiles widely when Connor lets out a small, awed gasp when he gets his first look inside. Without walls, the place resembled the ribcage of a house more than an actual dwelling. What was once wooden framing and insulation is now covered in sheets of drywall.

“Still need to mud and tape ‘em,” Hank interjects as Connor spins slowly on the spot. He makes a noncommittal noise, unhearing in his distraction. Hank’s hand on his shoulder pulls him back into the present.

“What?” he mumbles half-dazed.

“Starting to feel a lot more real now, isn’t it?” Connor nods, imagining cased openings and ceiling medallions around ornate light fixtures. He finds himself wondering about the costs of installing a wooden wainscoting feature when a highly anachronistic box of pizza on a workbench breaks his reverie. Rich jazz music pumping lightly out of a handheld radio dissolves the Victorian illusion entirely.

Hank nods his head at the pizza when he sees Connor looking, “Go ahead and grab a slice. I’m gonna wipe down real quick and change.” Hank disappears into what Connor knows will eventually be a functioning powder room.

Connor walks over to the box and flips the lid. He snorts lightly when he sees a pile of mushrooms, green bell pepper slices, red onion, and black olives set neatly to the side of the remaining slices of pizza. Pulling out a slice, he bends it partially before devouring half of it in three bites. By the time Hank emerges from the soon-to-be bathroom in a fresh plaid shirt and jeans, Connor’s nibbling on the bare bones of the pizza crust.

“Hungry were you?” Hank asks with a laugh as he tosses several used baby wipes into a nearby trashcan. When Connor wrinkles his nose at the display, Hank holds up a placating hand, “Hey, now. They take the edge off the stink. Plus, I don’t wanna itch from the sweat. I’ll take a real shower when I get home, scouts honor.” He holds up three fingers to underscore his point and Connor lets it go.

They fall into a companionable silence while Connor chews on the last bits of crust, dusting his hands off on his pants. The radio rumbles about smoking cessation before a tune steeped in nostalgia warbles out of the aging device.

Unforgettable
That's what you are

Hank colors slightly, “I, uh, I like jazz.”

He moves to cut it off when Connor reaches for his hand, “It’s fine. I like it.”

Smiling despite the embarrassed flush, Hank switches his grip before dragging Connor toward him and pressing him against his chest. One large hand rests at Connor’s waist while Hank moves them without direction to the tune of the song.

Unforgettable in every way
And forever more, that's how you'll stay

Giving way to the music, Connor presses his cheek to Hank’s, letting him dance them around the empty room. When they pass by the pizza box, Connor exhales a slight laugh. Hank leans back and arches an eyebrow at him before Connor nods his head toward it.

“What about your cholesterol?” Connor chides quietly, half-serious half-amused.

Hank waves his hand in the air as if to shoo away Connor’s question before bringing it back to his hip, “It was a veggie pizza.”

Connor tilts his head to look at Hank while they sway in time to the song, “Hank, you picked off every single topping.”

Hank grins at him, the slight gap there on full display, “I think a sliver of onion may have squeaked through.” Connor smiles warmly and Hank pulls them back into a smooth rhythm.

That's why darling it's incredible

Recognizing the song is near its end, Connor breaks away to tangle his fingers in Hank’s hair before tugging him down into a kiss.

That someone so unforgettable
Thinks that I am unforgettable too

They remain that way, arms locked around the other, well after the song comes to an end.

Connor isn’t certain how he made it to his apartment safely given that thoughts of dancing with Hank consumed most of his attention. He’s pretty sure he sat at a stop light for a solid ten seconds before realizing it was green. It would explain all the honking, anyway.

Upon walking through the door and connecting to the wifi, his phone starts pinging repeatedly. Connor sighs, watching text message after text message chime into existence. The reception at the Victorian wasn’t the greatest and this isn’t the first time this exact scenario has occurred. Deciding the world can wait until tomorrow, Connor changes into blue striped satin pajamas and slips into bed.

The world, it would seem, is not eager to wait for him.

At precisely six in the morning, his phone starts to ring belligerently loud right next to his ear. Staring blearily at the screen, he sees Elijah’s name flash at him. He mumbles, “Oh, Christ,” before sitting up to answer.

Despite clearing his throat, he knows his voice sounds rough with sleep, “Good morning, Elijah. What can I do for you at this absurd hou—,”

Elijah’s voice lacks any such tiredness when he cuts him off mid-sentence, “I suppose you think you’re clever. I must say, this is the most teeth you’ve ever shown.  I would never have guessed a backbone existed under that supple skin.”

Connor’s mind reels. Sleep clings to his eyes as his brain tries to catch up to Elijah’s words, “What are you talking about?” He assumes Elijah means his maneuver to secure paid time off, but he asks the question anyway to buy himself time to get his bearings.

“I received your cease and desist notice this morning, as you well know.” Connor blinks at the statement, glad to be in his dark bedroom rather than standing in front of Elijah for the man to see the stark confusion written on his face.

Putting the phone on speaker, he hastily scrolls through the texts he ignored from the night before. He bites back a groan when he sees several of them were from his lawyer. Unable to read them and talk to Elijah at the same time, he tries his best to navigate the conversation blind.

“What of it?” Connor tries to affect an unconcerned, carefree tone but a yawn spoils the effort.

Elijah sneers at him across the line with the force of a slap to the face, “I expected you to yield as you always do. You surprised me as much as you disappointed me. Tell me, did that ape of a man fuck the moral fiber into you or was it latent there all along?”

And there it was—the gritty pearl at the core of Elijah’s ire. Realization dawns over Connor as bright and harsh as the arctic sun. Elijah never once rejected Connor. He had grown bored of him, true. He was likely very near to cutting him loose, but it was Connor who did the leaving—from their sordid relationship, from his job, and from Elijah’s carefully controlled life.

Then, Connor had had the gall to move onto someone new. Someone so distinctly not Elijah that the man couldn’t even pretend Connor was trying to replace him with a pale imitation.

At a loss, Connor leans on his only recourse, “Given the nature of the situation, I think you should direct all future correspondence through my lawyer.”

Not one to let Connor ever have the last word, Elijah spits out, “I’ll be in touch,” before the line goes dead.

Deciding it’s high time to catch up on his texts, Connor sees the only important ones were from his lawyer.

Marshall: Connor, I’ve found an easy out for you. Check your email for more details. Sending the cease and desist by currier first thing in the morning.

Connor taps out his thanks and opens his email to scan the letter. It was a simple solution. Michigan law only allows non-competes if they’re reasonable. Rendering an individual destitute if they try to quit doesn’t fall under that umbrella. There was a lot of legal and technical jargon after that, but Connor understood the gist of it. Marshall Sanford achieved in one day what Connor had fumbled with for nearly two months.

Connor rubs at his eyes and wonders how much frustration he could’ve saved himself by taking Markus’ advice in the first place—if he’d swallowed his ridiculous pride and asked Carl for help. Shaking his head, he rids it of the what if’s before checking his other messages.

Most of them are from Markus in various states of annoyance asking for details about his date with Hank.

Markus: So. I have been patient.
Markus: Why aren’t you checking your texts?
Markus: You will tell me about the date, Connor. I know where you live.
Markus: -_- you’re with him now, aren’t you?
Markus: 10:1 you’re sucking face right now.

Markus had given up around ten at night and Connor exhales a gentle laugh through his nose. No normal person will be up for several more hours, but Connor’s too full of energy to go back to sleep. He tries for about fifteen minutes, but his conversation with Elijah and resulting epiphany keep zinging through his brain. Much like small children fueled by sugar, his racing thoughts don’t show any signs of slowing down anytime soon.

With a sigh, he hauls himself out of bed. Might as well shower and then start seriously looking for new jobs. If the conversation with Elijah was anything to go by, he’d be free of the man in the very near future. The thought should make him happy. On a level, it does, but Connor knows Elijah and he very much doubts he’ll let Connor go so easily. One cease and desist letter and Elijah backs down like a heeling dog? It seems so preposterously easy that it can’t be true.

Connor’s aching arms draw him from his dark musings as he realizes he’s been lathering his hair for the better part of ten minutes. Excitement begins to edge out trepidation when Connor resumes his job search from months prior. Most of the postings he’d bookmarked have long-since been filled, but he finds several likely looking options.

Connor is in the middle of applying for his sixth job of the morning when his phone starts to ring. He can feel the irritated energy emanating from it when he sees Markus’ name. With an amused eye roll, he answers the call, “Morning, Markus.”

The man doesn’t bother to conceal his irritation, “Two days, Connor. You’ve made me wait to hear about this date for two days. This is unacceptable. I thought we were friends.”

Connor exhales a derisive snort before asking, “Do you want to tell you about it or not?”

He swears he can hear Markus throw himself in a chair, “God, yes. Tell me everything.” Connor wouldn’t be surprised if Markus had made popcorn for the occasion.

Markus plays the role of Rapt Audience Member well. He gasps and asks, “And then?” at all the right moments. He mutters, “Lucky bastard,” when Connor describes what it was like when Hank kissed him for the first time. He cheers loudly when Connor gets to the part with the rake.

Connor’s smile fades from his face at the thought of Elijah, “He called me this morning, you know. The lawyer found a loophole after all.”

Markus continues to whoop until he notices Connor’s silence, “Is that a bad thing?”

Connor sighs in irritation before snapping his laptop closed. He can’t focus on applying for jobs anymore when his current one is vexing him, “No. It’s not bad. I just—you didn’t hear him. He…it was too easy. He backed down without a hint of a fight. It makes me feel like he’s planning something in retaliation.”

If Markus didn’t know Elijah, he’d tell Connor he was being paranoid. With what little information he did have on the man, Markus knows better. He makes a sympathetic sound before asking, “Have you told Hank?”

Connor shakes his head despite Markus not being able to see him over the phone. Markus correctly interprets his silence, “You should tell him. He’s never shown any love for Elijah. If anything, he seems to dislike him as much as I do. This is good news, Connor. He’d want to hear about it, I’m sure.”

Connor agrees when he hears the clicking of an incoming call. He glances at it before offering Markus a hurried goodbye, “The lawyer’s calling—I gotta go.” Markus is in the middle of saying goodbye when Connor accepts the call.

“Mr. Sanford, sorry I didn’t reply to your texts sooner. I didn’t see them until this morning. After Elijah called me.” His tone is apologetic and Marshall doesn’t seem to mind.

“Don’t worry about it. I’m actually calling in reference to Mr. Kamski. Something strikes me as distinctly off about his response.” Connor’s shoulders sag in relief that someone else is picking up on Elijah’s odd posturing.

“He sent me the most bizarre email. He slipped in several barbs about you that don’t bear repeating,” Connor mutters a thanks at that, not wanting to hear what an angry Elijah could conjure up to say about him. “The long and the short of it is he wants to meet with you tomorrow to finalize the terms of your resignation. I don’t like it. I highly recommend bringing me with you.”

It doesn’t take any convincing to get Connor to agree. Elijah is much savvier at navigating legal waters and Connor doesn’t want to be blindsided into some heinous agreement, “What time does he want to meet?”

“Nine in the morning at his office. I’ll bring some legal documentation just in case this is a clever maneuver to try and pin you to the company. He wouldn’t be the first to try something sketchy.” More than glad to have an experienced lawyer on his side, Connor makes a mental note to thank Carl again.  Sanford bids him a polite farewell and Connor does his best not to fixate on his meeting with Elijah.

When that attempt fails miserably, Connor decides to heed Markus’ advice and give Hank the update. Despite having seen him the night before, Connor is giddy to speak to him again so soon. True to Hank’s forecast, it was already pouring buckets and growing colder. He assumed that would suspend work on the Victorian, but he hears an air compressor rumbling loudly in the background when Hank answers the phone.

“Is this a bad time?” Connor calls loudly over the noise. Hank shouts something indistinct and the compressor lapses into silence.

“Nah, just hanging some of the last drywall pieces upstairs. The guys are downstairs doing the first layer of tape and mud. It’s gonna take for fuckin’ ever to dry with all this rain, but at least we can get started.” Connor imagines Hank nailing up sheets of drywall, his biceps rippling under the force of the gun.

Hank’s voice saying his name startles him, “Connor?”

“Wha-what?” He hears Hank chuckle and he colors slightly at being caught daydreaming.

“I asked if you needed something.”

Connor mutters an embarrassed Oh before rushing on to explain, “My lawyer seems to have solved my work problems. I’m meeting with Elijah tomorrow to finalize the details of my resignation. I should be free of him for good after that.”

“You okay? You nervous?” He isn’t sure how he expected Hank to react. He knew he wouldn’t be giddy like Markus or wary like his lawyer, but the questions boggle him. He’s nervous, but why shouldn’t he be okay? He’s wanted nothing more than to escape Elijah’s radar for the last two months.

When Connor makes a few noises that sound more like a goldfish gulping at air while out of water than actual words, Hank elaborates, “I mean, are you going to be okay job-wise? He’s not tryna fuck you over somehow?” Warmth skitters over Connor’s skin at Hank’s concern.

“He might be, yeah. My lawyer’s going to go with me to make sure he doesn’t try to pull anything last minute. I don’t know. I just have a bad feeling about all of it. I know him. He’s giving up without a fight. I—it just makes me anxious I guess.”

“Want me to stop by for a visit; take your mind off it?”

Connor jolts at the question, “Don’t you have Cole today? And work?”

“Ehh, yes and no. Cole’s in school until 3:30. We’ll be wrapping up around noon today on account of the rain. I have a few hours to kill. Could watch a movie, eat junk food—whaddaya think?”

Connor grins, “Sounds like a plan. Minus the junk food. I don’t really keep any of that at my place. I can order out for lunch though.” After some finagling, Connor gets Hank to agree to subs so long as Connor lets him get whatever toppings he likes. Ending the call, Connor places the order through an app.

A dark, squirming thought stirs in his gut. His subconscious tries to bubble over like a boiling pot, but Connor firmly puts a lid on it. “This is different,” he mumbles to himself. “He has a son. It’s different.” Try as he might, he can’t shake the realization that, much like Elijah had, Hank has a preference for meeting at Connor’s house.

The unpleasant notion leaves him as soon as Hank crosses over his threshold with an armload of old movies. Hank brushes snow from his shoulders, muttering about, “This damn cold snap,” before toeing off his shoes. They settle on Six Days, Seven Nights because Hank assures Connor it’s hilarious and it’s one Connor’s never seen before. While Connor isn’t so sure of Hank’s taste in movies about half an hour into it, Connor loves how easily the big man laughs. It reverberates up his side and he leans into it.

When Hank’s arm drifts to his shoulder to pull him closer, Connor leans up to kiss his cheek. He gets a face full of beard for his efforts, but Hank just chuckles before pressing a gentle kiss just to the side of Connor’s mouth. Connor isn’t sure how the movie ends nor does he care. What he does know is that he’ll always associate Harrison Ford with making out with Hank on a snowy day.

He lets the memory of it bolster his courage the following day as he approaches his old office for the last time. His hands shake as much with cold as they do with nervousness. Marshall Sanford stands waiting for him, his skin almost matching the grey of his suit. Even his pale blonde hair seems to take on a dusty hue of the dirty snow littering the sidewalk. After greeting him, Sanford offers, “I’ll try to keep things short and sweet. Exes have a way of trying to drag out the inevitable.”

Connor nods his head before glancing up at the window he knows to be Elijah’s. He wonders if he’s watching him now. Anxiety wells up inside him, threatening to strangle his lungs with its foreboding grasp. When Sanford starts toward the door, Connor follows. Chloe greets them both at the front desk, her voice as chipper as ever. Her eyes, though, seem to be desperately trying to convey something to Connor.

She ushers them down the hall. With one last squeeze of his arm, she tears her eyes away from him as if she doesn’t want to see what’s going to happen next. It does nothing to calm his overwrought nerves. His lawyer knocks on Elijah’s door with more authority than Connor thought was possible to imbue into the action.

The way Elijah says, “Come in,” sets Connor’s jaw on edge. The tone of it crawls across his teeth, making them feel furry and in need of brushing. When they enter, he immediately spots another man in the room. He would assume it was Elijah’s lawyer were it not for the way Elijah has his hand pressed to the small of the large man’s back.

He positively dwarfs Elijah. Though not as tall as Hank, he has a couple of inches on Connor. There is something disturbing about the man. His stance, his face—it all feels familiar, like a dream he’d once had but could no longer recollect. While his hair is dark, his eyes are a clear grey. They’re also dispassionate as he holds Connor’s gaze. If the man had given Connor a once over as Connor had just done to him, there is no inclination of it on his face.

“Meet Richard,” Elijah says, voice full of quiet amusement, “your replacement.” Connor stares at Elijah as the words bounce off his uncomprehending ears.

“My what?” He finally asks when it becomes apparent Elijah is waiting for some kind of response.

“Your replacement. I’d grown tired of your constant tantrums despite my generous offers to keep you with the company. I’ve been holding quiet interviews, but nobody seemed to fit the bill until now.” Elijah lets his gaze settle over the man like molasses, performing a slow up and down of his body.

Sanford wastes no time getting things back on track, “Mr. Kamski, this is unusual and unprofessional. If you were prepared to accept Mr. Smith’s resignation, why force him to resort to legal action? Excuse me, but this is the act of a petulant man play-acting at being an adult.”

Sanford pulls out several papers before setting them on Elijah’s desk, “If your intent was to lure my client here to insult him and antagonize him, you’ll sorely regret it. These are the agreed upon terms.” Connor can see Elijah’s neat signature in a box next to his own, e-signed from the night before. “Are you prepared to uphold your end or do we need to take this to a judge?”

Elijah seems to warp slightly under Sanford’s stern words before he recovers himself, “Of course, Mr. Sanford. I was merely introducing Connor to his replacement. They went to the same school, you know.” The moment he says it, recognition curdles in his gut.

“Dick?” The man twitches at the use of an unwanted nickname but fixes Connor with a steely grin all the same.

“So you do remember him?” Elijah’s voice is thick with malicious glee. Of course, Connor remembers Richard. He’d earned the Dick moniker during their days at university for good reason. Elijah must’ve done some serious digging to find out about him.

Unimpressed, Sanford presses the issue, “You have thirty days to issue Mr. Smith the agreed upon amount. Should you not—,” Elijah cuts him off by handing out a cashier’s check to Connor.

“Done and done. You may see yourself off the premises, Connor. As you are well aware, you already cleared out your office.” While Elijah’s tone indicates he is through with this interaction, Sanford is not.

“As clever as you may think you are Mr. Kamski, we aren’t done here. In addition to the funds, you are not permitted to interfere in Mr. Smith’s affairs. Should you attempt to prevent his future employment in any way or sabotage his character, we will seek damages. Toe the line of the agreement or prepare your legal defense. Good day, Mr. Kamski.”

Sanford nudges at Connor, encouraging him to leave without a parting word. Connor follows willingly. When they get out into the hall, Chloe is standing there wringing her hands, “Connor, I’m so sorry. I asked him not to bring Richard. I told him—,”

Belated anger flickers into life, coursing through Connor’s veins, “You’re still sleeping with him?” The question explodes out of his mouth with enough incredulous fury that Chloe takes several steps back from him. “You know he’s fucking that asshole, right? It’s plain as day.” Despite no obvious signs, Connor knows Elijah’s tells. The small touches and lingering glances were practically a public declaration.

“I…I know,” Chloe’s voice is small and she appears to shrink in on herself. Connor stares at her flabbergasted. He can feel harsh words well up on his tongue, but she beats him to the punch, “How could I not know? He’s always done me the courtesy of telling me who he’s taking to bed.”

The urge to turn around and beat Elijah with his own office door replaces any frustration he has for the woman before him. “Chloe,” he begins wearily, fire sapped from his tone, “You don’t have to stay. He’s not worth it. I promise you that.” He can see her decision teeter as if on a tightrope before she steps back onto the safety of the platform.

“I can’t,” is all she says in answer, and Connor knows the feeling all too well. Elijah had given him countless reasons to go before he’d finally mustered up the guts to do it. Sanford clears his throat uncomfortably, reminding Connor he’s still there, watching this awkward exchange.

“Right. Call me if you change your mind. I’ll help you find a place if you ever need it.” She smiles at him, but Connor could find more strength in weak tea heavy with milk than in her resolve. Elijah will have to hurt her worse before she’ll give him up.  

Sanford waits until they’re at the parking lot before offering, “That was the most bizarre exchange I’ve ever sat in on, and that’s saying something.” Connor remains quiet, waiting for Sanford to ask the inevitable question. “Who is Richard to you? Kamski clearly yanked him out of his back pocket as a last ditch effort to slight you.”

Connor nods before explaining, “We went to school together. I was a few years ahead of him. I’d made a name for myself. Broke a lot of records in academics. Richard made it a point to try and surpass me while I was still at the school.”

Sanford wrinkles his nose, “Seems petty, but your face indicated something more went on between the two of you.”

Connor pinches the bridge of his nose and exhales, “It was personal—nasty, honestly. When he couldn’t best me, he accused me of cheating. He was good at it, too. There was an inquiry. Nothing came of it, but my reputation was…never the same afterward. I was more than ready to graduate and leave him and his ilk behind.”

Sanford shoots him a curious look, “But you didn’t recognize him?”

Connor lets out a single bark of laughter lacking in joy, “He looked a lot different back then. He was a little…edgy? Not quite goth, but he had long hair, piercings. He didn’t strike you as the academic type to look at him.” 

Sensing Connor is more than over this line of conversation, Sanford switches gears, “Well, at least the bulk of this unpleasant business is behind us. You should have my invoice by the end of the week. I’ll make myself available if Elijah tries anything funny.” Sanford sticks out his unpleasant grey hand, “Good luck with the job hunt.”

Connor returns his grip then nods his thanks before making his way to his car. He moves to turn the ignition, but his hand falls limply against the effort. Despite being rid of Elijah, he can’t shake the feeling that the man had beat him. He knows it’s ridiculous, that life isn’t a game to be fought and won, but, in this moment of legal triumph, Connor feels more defeat than victory.

A memory, unpleasant and cold, rises from the murky depths of his mind from where he’d tried to bury it:

I’m smarter than you, and you know it.

Connor exhales a dejected breath, watching it form a cloud of fog. As it disappears into the air, the memory of Richard at university does him no such favor.

His phone pulses at him from the cup holder and his hand moves from muscle memory more than any desire to talk. He doesn’t check the screen before answering, “Hello?”

Connor’s brain processes Hank’s tone before his words. He sounds concerned, upset even. Connor has to ask him to repeat himself before he fully understands, “You need to come to the Victorian. We’ve got a major problem.”

Chapter Text

Connor half expects to find the Victorian razed to the ground. When he pulls up, it looks exactly as it did when he visited over the weekend. He tries to recall dancing with Hank, but, after seeing Elijah and Richard, the memory offers him no warmth. Ice-cold anxiety has Connor firmly in its grip; nothing else can penetrate it.

He spies Hank just inside the front entrance, still missing a proper door. The sight of it rankles him. Two months is a long time to go without a front door. He walks with more force than necessary, feet crunching down on unseasonably early snow as if each drift did him a personal injury. Hank’s face is drawn tight, his mouth a thin, grim line.

It softens when he sees Connor’s stormy expression, “Meeting didn’t go well?”

Connor gives his head an irritated jerk, “It was fine. Tell me about the problem.” Hank’s eyes go wide at Connor’s curtness, but he nods slowly before gesturing at Connor to follow him. They make their way up the reinforced stairs to the now sturdy second floor. Though it had pained him to admit, Markus had been right about the stability of the floors. He makes a mental note to never tell the man.

When Hank steals a glance at Connor, he says quietly, “I figured it was best to show you than to try to explain it.” Interest more than piqued, Connor braces himself for the worst.

He can’t help but laugh when he sees the hall bathroom toilet. The entire tank is missing, replaced instead by a perfect ice replica of its insides. The porcelain pieces lay scattered around it on the floor. He can’t help but notice Hank’s foreboding silence as his chuckles quiet down.

“So why is this a major problem? It’s a toilet. It’s, what, $200 to replace it?”

Hank shakes his head before running a hand over his face and down his beard, “This is just some of the damage. The weathermen weren’t quite on point with their predictions. When the temperatures drop below twenty degrees, your pipes are at risk of freezing. When that happens they tend to, well, burst.”

Connor’s head whips around in search of hidden torrents of water. Hank waits for his gaze to fall back on him before continuing, “The water’s still frozen. Once it starts to melt, the damage will be massive. With the walls up, there’s no way to know how many burst. We’ll have to cut a lot of holes and patch it up after.”

A shiver of irritation ripples across Connor’s body, “Isn’t this what insurance is for?”

Hank’s stance is that of someone trying to calm a vicious animal, “It’ll cover any damage that the water causes. It’s unlikely your policy will cover the pipes themselves, though, or the labor involved to replace them.”

A hysterical bubble of laughter wells up in Connor’s chest before bursting out of his mouth. His arms wrap around his torso as he bends slightly, defensive and protective. When his outburst subsides, he mumbles, “It fucking figures.”

Hank’s hand on his shoulder triggers a release of molten rage. It roils in his gut and it takes everything he has in him not to lash out at the man. He knows none of this is Hank’s fault, that Hank’s been nothing but kind to him, but the urge to have someone else feel as badly as he does at this moment sits poorly chained on his tongue.

He shrugs out from beneath Hank’s touch before asking, “Wasn’t this preventable?” Hank raises his eyebrows at Connor’s implication.

“Well, yeah. If you know the temperature is gonna get colder than a witch’s tit. Like I said, the weather guy got it wrong. If I’d known, there are some steps I coulda taken. Even then, there’s only so much I can do short of squatting here anytime the weather gets bad.”

Connor knows Hank’s right, but that doesn’t stop venom from seeping into his tone, “So. How much is this going to cost me?”

Hank sighs at Connor like a parent about to cart away a tantruming child. It does nothing to improve his disposition. “Dunno, Con. Gonna have to run the numbers. Each pipe can run up to $900 if there’s enough dama—,”

“Each?” Connor all but screams the question, evaporating the last of Hank’s patience.

“Look. I get that you’re having a bad day, but I’m nobody’s punching bag.” Connor opens his mouth to issue a retort when Hank barrels onward, “You’ve got some decisions to make. Today.”

Hot anger morphs into cold dread, Connor’s breath exhaling in a cloud of fog in the frigid Victorian. “What do you mean?” He mumbles the question when Hank continues to regard him with a weary expression.

“You’ve got budget problems. Big ones. You were flirting the edge before, but you’ve definitely blown it now. There’s no way you’re selling this thing for a profit.” When Connor makes an irritated expression, Hank holds up a hand, “You may not even break even. Depends on how bad all of this is.” He waves his hand at the frozen toilet and pipes hidden behind the walls.

Hank shrugs his shoulders before saying quietly, “You may want to consider cutting your losses now and selling it as is.”

The last, desperate thread holding Connor together falls in a loose pile around his feet, unleashing his fury on an undeserving and unsuspecting target, “I don’t care about the fucking budget!” Hank’s eyes go wide and his hands clench in his pockets while Connor rants at him, “I’m not walking away. I’m not giving up on this house!”

Connor stamps his foot, feeling all the more like a child when Hank mutters, “You done yet?”

“No,” his narrows his gaze, not ready to concede the fight, “What the fuck am I paying you for if you turn tail the moment things get hard?”

He’s looking for a fight, wants one, but Hank continues to stare at him with an unreadable expression. Connor’s mind screams for Hank to lash out at him, to do anything. He doesn’t know what to do with his cool, collected gaze.

“You’re right,” Connor gapes at the response, but Hank isn’t done, “You want to bankrupt yourself, kid? You’re gonna have to do it without me.” Seeing Connor’s uncomprehending expression, he presses the issue, “I’ll draw you up a final bill. Less the penalty for not completing the project.”

“You can’t,” it comes out a choked whisper, but Hank ignores it, opting to collect some of his tools instead of answering. Connor follows him like a lost duckling from room to room, awkward tension building the longer Hank doesn’t reply.

When Hank finishes gathering his smaller tools, Connor can see a determined set to his shoulders that hadn’t been there before. Hank turns to face Connor, words hovering just on the verge of existence. He shakes his head and turns to leave.

“Wait!” He hates how desperate he sounds, hates every mean thing he’s said in the past half hour. He tries to stir at the damage, tries to make it smooth before it can set. Hank pauses, but he doesn’t face him, “What about…” Hank’s head falls back as he looks to the ceiling, waiting.

When the question remains unasked, Hank’s head rotates in a circle, cracking his neck in the process before his chin drops down toward his chest, “We’re…I think we’re done here.”

Desperation constricts in Connor’s chest. His heart ricochets inside his ribcage, willing his lungs to breathe, but all his anguished brain can process are Hank’s footsteps walking away.

When Hank’s hand reaches for the makeshift door, wild hopelessness forces words from Connor’s mouth, “You think you’re the first?” He fights to speak through a strained hiccup, his diaphragm clenching painfully. Hank’s hand pauses, listening even if he thinks it’s wiser not to, “You think it hasn’t been made painfully clear how easy I am to replace?”

For a brief moment, he thinks Hank will stay. His hand seems to tremble against the door, but then he shakes his head, “I’m not going to help you destroy your life.”

“Then leave!” He shouts it at Hank’s rigid back, bitterness clogging his throat. Hank shifts the plywood door aside; it jolts and scrapes heavily against the floor when Connor adds in a quieter tone, “Everyone does, in the end.” Connor watches Hank’s booted feet hit the snow before tearing his gaze away, unwilling to watch him leave. He leans heavily against the workbench trying to remember how to breathe. Blue eyes flick back once, regret sharp and clear.

He remains there until the pain of just breathing reduces to something more manageable. On instinct, a list of things to do fills Connor’s mind, his frantic subconscious’ way of avoiding real problems. It’s how he finds himself, shopping cart deep with basic tools and equipment, in the hideous orange glow of Home Depot.  

“Screwdrivers, hammer, sandpaper, tile cutter, power drill,” he mutters to himself, checking things off his mental list. He may not be able to fix frozen pipes, but there were plenty of projects left that he could do. Should be able to do. After a brief Google search, he has a moderate amount of certainty that he won’t lose any fingers making the attempt, anyway.

Every other aisle, his heart seizes painfully in his chest, guilt trying to creep up and out of his esophagus like bile. More than once, he pulls out his phone, finger hovering over Hank’s name. “He doesn’t want you,” he tells himself firmly. “You or your stupid house. You made sure of that.”

He knows he must look like a lunatic, wandering the aisles and pulling things at random while verbally flagellating himself, but at least no one approaches him. He’s not sure he could handle talking to and subsequently crying in public at a complete stranger.

 His phone buzzes in his hand as he talks himself out of texting Hank for the fourth time. He declines an incoming call from Markus, having zero desire to discuss any of today’s events. When Markus follows the call with several texts, Connor opts to turn off the phone. He isn’t a suitable human being today; no need to further subject people he cares about to himself.

He goes through the self-checkout, not bothering to pay attention to the total. He just runs his card and hopes to prove Hank wrong about selling at a loss. At the very least, he should be able to save some money by doing certain projects himself.

He checks his weather app once more to establish a tentative timeline. The cold snap should last another week. The pipes shouldn’t become an issue until then. He’ll start looking for another contractor tomorrow. His throat constricts so tightly at the thought, he wonders if it’s possible he damaged his vocal cords.

It takes Connor five hours, four projects, and a bleeding hand to realize that home improvement is not his forte.

Some of the projects required skills well beyond his own, which he hadn’t realized until he was halfway through them. He’d assumed installing a dimmer light would be a cinch. After an hour of struggling with it, all Connor has to show for his efforts is a loose wire sticking out of the wall.  

Conceding that electrical work requires a skilled contractor, he’d thought he could at least handle tile cutting. He’d watched seven tutorials and scored the tile just as the man in the video had done. When it came time to snap it, though, Connor’s rendition did not go so well as the man’s in the video. The tile snapped badly and at an angle, gouging a fairly deep cut into Connor’s palm and wrist.

Deciding to call it quits for the day, the plywood sheet that’s been serving as the front door nearly unmans him. What Hank had made look so easy to lift, he can hardly budge. He’d left it for his Home Depot run, but he’s not willing to leave the house wide open overnight.

He makes a sound at it somewhere between a grunt and a scream. The sound of a car door closing makes his head whip around at lightning speed.

“Thought I might find you here,” Markus calls from across the yard, taking in Connor’s general appearance. His expression tells Connor he’s worse off than Markus anticipated. He half expects Markus to take him to task for not spilling about his meeting with Elijah or to ask where Hank is. Instead, he joins Connor on the stone slab without stairs and asks, “Need a hand?”

Connor nods mutely, and the two of them shift the plywood into place before securing it for the night. Markus dusts off his hands, eyes lingering on Connor’s bandaged one, “Need some company?” Connor considers waving him off to wallow in a nest of blankets, pillows, and regret, but he knows Markus won’t relent.

“Yeah,” he says on a sigh, the word forming into a brief but dense fog in the cold night air.  Markus follows him back to his apartment, sitting on his simple grey couch, waiting for an explanation. When Connor does little more than squeeze at a stress ball for the better part of five minutes, Markus offers a starting point.

“So. You turned off your phone?” When Connor only nods, Markus shifts away from yes or no questions, “Why?”

Connor sighs before clenching the stress ball as tight as he can in his fist, “It started with Eli, I guess.” Markus harrumphs a noise that sounds suspiciously like figures, but he doesn’t interrupt otherwise. Connor lets the ball drop to the floor before bringing his head to his hands. He’d rather talk to his knees for this conversation.

“He kept his end of the deal. I can work wherever I want. I have a lump sum he agreed to so I have some time before I have to find a new job.” Connor can see Markus nod in his peripheral, letting him work his way up to the moment of crisis.

After a prolonged silence, Connor offers, “Richard was there.”

Markus explodes out of his seat as if jet-propelled, “WHAT?” Too tired emotionally and physically, Connor doesn’t try to stop Markus’ agitated pacing.

“Elijah must’ve dug deep for that one. Or maybe I mentioned it once, I can’t remember. Anyway, he’s my replacement.” The word comes out bitter and halts Markus in his tracks.

“Do not, for a single moment, let yourself think he’s better than you. That man was a snake in the grass and a ladder climber from the start—at anyone’s expense.”

“It’s really…not that simple,” Connor finishes lamely. His insides cringe and roll over, willing him to let this secret stay dormant.

Markus resumes his pacing, his finger jabbing and slashing through the air to underscore his point, “He was jealous, Connor. When he couldn’t outsmart you, he tried to destroy what you’d—,”

Connor looks up to give Markus the courtesy of meeting his gaze before disclosing his perfidy, “I slept with him.” Markus’ hand freezes midair while he stares at Connor with disbelieving eyes. “Told you. It’s not simple. Not any of it.”

Wind sufficiently sucked out of his sails, Markus deflates onto the couch, “Connor. How is that…why?”

“He wasn’t always—” his voice cracks under pressure, but he pushes past it to explain himself, “He wasn’t always like how he is now. I guess I have that effect on people.” The poison of the truth bleeds out over Connor’s tongue.

Markus’ hands on his shoulders and his intense gaze inches from his face startles him, “Connor, you listen to me. You had a hideous habit of picking selfish men. You may have your faults, but you never deserved the things either of those men put you through.” Markus is quiet for a moment before adding, “Any of the men you dated, actually. If I had a dollar for every asshole—,”

Connor interrupts, a ghost of a smile tugging at the corner of his mouth, “Then you’d have four whole dollars, Markus. I don’t get out much.”

Markus exhales a humorless chuckle, “Yeah, well. You get my point.” He’s quiet for a minute before asking, “So what happened? With you and Richard, I mean.” Connor tries to explain, but it’s difficult to capture the powerhouse persona Richard had emanated. He supposes that’s what lured him in in the first place.

“He was smart, like me. Not a lot of people liked to hang out with me because…well. You remember.” Markus nods, the teasing and bullying Connor endured for being a Brainiac had followed him from primary school to college. At least at the collegiate level, Connor was old enough to recognize it as envy or intimidation.

“It was a summer fling—you were overseas, shadowing that painter friend of Carl’s.”

“Well that explains how I missed this entire courtship,” Markus mutters darkly, but he drops it at Connor’s pained expression.

“It wasn’t a courtship. It was hardly more than sex, honestly. We were in the common area studying, stress levels were running high—things happened.” Markus rolls his eyes at Connor’s innuendo. “It only happened a handful of times. He didn’t do as well as he wanted on his exams. He blamed me; said I was trying to sabotage him to maintain my status as the academic elite.”

One arched and unimpressed eyebrow is enough to tell Connor what Markus thinks of that explanation. The man offers his opinion regardless, “And what, other than stress and hormones, made you decide to bump uglies with that prick?”

Connor makes a face at Markus but tries to explain, “He was so sure of himself. So confident. I wanted to be like that.” At Markus’s look of disgust, Connor rushes on to clarify, “Not like that. I mean, I wanted to exude that kind of self-assurance.”

Comprehension crests over Markus’ face before he speaks, “Yeah, well. I guess not every assertive person is an asshole. Hank’s got confidence in spades and he’s been great.” When Connor’s expression falls, Markus lets out an exasperated sound, “Oh, for fuc—what the hell happened?”

Connor tells Markus in halting sentences about his last conversation with Hank. By the time he’s done, his head is in his hands again.

Markus waits for a beat, clearly expecting more. When Connor remains silent, he asks incredulously, “That’s it? That’s how you left it?”

Connor scowls at him, “What was I supposed to do? Chase after him and beg for his forgiveness like a bad RomCom?”

Markus snorts, “Anything would be better than leaving it like that.”

Connor groans, fisting his fingers into his hair. The cut on his hand stings in protest. “I have to find a new contractor by the end of the wee—,”

Markus’ hand waves in a negating gesture, “Oh, you do not.”

Connor stares at him for a long moment, “Did you miss the part where he quit?”

“No. Did you miss the part where you were a huge asshole?” Connor glares at Markus, but it lacks heat. He knows Markus is right.

“He’ll be back, Connor. I guarantee it. No man invests that much effort in a project just to walk away.” Markus’ smug self-assurance grates at Connor’s frayed nerves.

“He doesn’t care about the Victorian, Markus. Not like I do.”

Before Connor can build up enough doubt to disregard the notion, Markus says quietly, “I wasn’t talking about the house.”

Startled, Connor objects on instinct, “I have been nothing short of a train wreck since he met me,—”

“He liked you anyway,” Markus counters.  

“—we haven’t even gone a proper date yet,”

“He cooked you dinner.”

“—and I royally fucked it up beyond repair!” Connor is nearly shouting by the end, but Markus’ gaze remains level.

“The jury is still out on that one.” Markus rises and starts to rummage around in Connor’s cabinets. “Why didn’t you tell me you were out of tea?” Connor rolls his eyes before joining Markus to help him find the tea bags.

Markus stays well into the night before claiming the sofa as his. Connor shrugs but appreciates the gesture. Left to his own devices, he’d likely alternate between berating himself and considering texting Hank despite the late hour.

Connor sleeps through his alarm—or, more accurately, hurls his phone when the alarm sounds. When he makes it out to his living room at half past ten, Markus is nowhere to be found. He sees a note on the counter but disregards it. He knows Markus. The man can’t sleep in past eight without the assistance of a hangover.

Connor tries to research contractors for the better part of an hour, but his heart isn’t in it. Closing the lid of his laptop with a sigh, he snags his car keys on his way out the door. He drives around aimlessly, making it halfway to the Victorian without realizing it.

“Might as well tackle the staircase,” he mutters to himself, deciding he should try to do at least one productive thing today. The plywood door almost thwarts the attempt. No matter how much Connor grunts, groans, and yells at it, the door refuses to budge. In the end, Connor wiggles his way through the new window adjacent to the slab.

He spends the better part of the next three days sanding the railing, banister spindles, and stairs themselves. He alternates hands regularly despite the still healing cut, but his shoulders and biceps are screaming at him regardless. He’s fairly certain there must be an easier way to sand, but he likes the accomplished feeling he gets when layers of grime and unsightly stain dissolve under his careful attention. The manual labor distracts him from thoughts of Hank as well.

Friday dawns bright and cold, but Connor rises in time with his alarm, eager to get back to the Victorian. He’s almost ready to start staining and he wants to bring at least one project to completion before he calls any of the contractors he researched the night before. In truth, there’s only one contractor he wants to talk to, but his nerve fails him every time he considers dialing Hank’s number. Markus’ convictions and Hank not sending the final bill yet keep him afloat in his mess.

He’s finishing up staining the first stair when a loud knock on the makeshift door makes him jolt in surprise. Wiping at the sweat on his brow, he peeks out the window to see a burly, hairy man with folded arms.

Unable to move the plywood himself, Connor swallows his pride and opens the window to pop his head out, “Can I help you?” The man jerks, but doesn’t comment on Connor leaning half out a window.

“Got a delivery for an Anderson. S’a door, yeah?” Connor looks around and spies two men unloading his front door from the back of a truck.

“Oh, yes. Um, he’s not—he’s not here right now. I’m Connor Smith. I own this house. I can sign for it.”

The man scowls and checks the manifest, “Says Anderson.” His eyes run down the form and he grumbles, “Fine. Says Smith at the bottom.” The man mutters about people not being where they said they’d be, but then whistles for his men to bring the door over.

“Need a hand with that?” he asks while pointing at the plywood door.

Connor colors hotly before quietly accepting the man’s help. Much like Hank, the man has no issue lifting the door and setting it aside.

“Where d’ya want it?” he asks Connor, thumb jerking in the direction of the men holding the door.

“In this front area is fine,” Connor gestures near the entrance after extracting himself from the window. He signs for the door while the men set it down, the long slender box leaning against the wall. Realizing he won’t be able to leave the Victorian without some kind of door, he decides to leave the stairs for another day.

Smiling despite the cold, Connor shivers while dismantling the box. He finally has an honest to goodness entrance with working hinges. Despite a complete lack of evidence supporting Connor’s handyman skills, he’s pretty certain he can at least hang a door.

As fate would have it, he cannot.

Connor’s swearing freely at the instructions with his back angled to the open hole in the front of his house. He doesn’t hear Hank enter or see his quiet amusement at Connor’s floundering.

Hank pauses, a little taken aback by Connor’s appearance. A streak of dark red-brown stain is smeared across his forehead while a dirty and seeping bandage encircles his palm and part of his wrist. A fine layer of what looks like sawdust coats his shoulders and hair, making him look older than his years.

By the looks of him, Hank thinks Connor has tried to tackle every remaining project on his own. Casting a glance around the room, Hank estimates the results of Connor’s efforts range from questionable to spectacular failures.

“You can do this, Connor,” he mutters to himself, “All you have to do is figure out which of these is a Phillips head screwdriver.”

“And then how to mount a door?” Hank calls the question from across the room, uncertain of the reception he will receive. Connor’s head whips around, his expression morphing in comical speed from relief to outrage to wary hesitance.

“What are you doing here?” Hank expects to hear accusation, but Connor’s voice lacks inflection. The question falls flat in the space between them.

“I got a call about the door,” Hank nods at the box discarded on the floor. He takes a tentative step forward, noticing the circles under Connor’s eyes, “You been at this all week?”

“Yes. The door’s here, as you can see. Did you need something else?” Hank can almost see the protective wall Connor’s erected between them.

“Markus called, too. Couple of days ago.” The words have the effect Hank expected. The rigid lines of Connor’s shoulders contract defensively. “He called Debbie, actually. But yeah. Got ahold of me eventually.”

Uncertain just how much Markus revealed, Connor keeps his cards close to his chest, “What did he have to say?”

Hank gives an easy shrug before laying out the bare bones of it, “He told me about your meeting. Said there was bad blood between you and some guy Markus really doesn’t like. Is his name actually Dick or was Markus just callin’ him that?”

Hank’s attempt at a joke goes down like sour milk. Connor regards him blankly before offering in a soft tone, “Richard. His name is Richard.”

“Ah,” is all Hank says, the supreme awkwardness pressing in on him from all sides. Connor won’t look at him anymore. Embarrassment and sadness emanate from him in waves.

Finally, he explains in a voice barely above a whisper, “Elijah stuck in his knife and twisted. It was an overwhelmingly bad day. It doesn’t excuse—I’m sorry.” He’s staring resolutely at the floor, but he can see Hank move closer in the fringes of his vision.

Hank sighs heavily, hands deep in his pockets, “Yeah, well. I coulda handled myself a little better.”

Connor’s head jerks to look at him, “I was practically screaming at you. I said…a lot of not nice things.”

“True,” Hank says tilting his head from side to side. “I was mad at first. Less mad the next day. I kept starting and stopping the final tally for the bill. Then Markus called and I’ve been waffling ever since.” He’s quiet for a minute before adding, “I wanted to see you again.”

“Why?” Connor realizes it probably sounds like he’s fishing, but he genuinely wants to know. He wouldn’t want to see a person who caterwauled at him ever again if he could avoid it.

Hank’s cheeks tinge slightly with pink, “I’m not proud of how I reacted. Didn’t want to leave it like that. You may’ve noticed—I’m pretty good at the romancing bit of relationships. I suck really bad at the actual…feelings part. I don’t know what to do with them.”

Connor gives a humorless bark of laughter, “I put mine in a cage until they explode out of me and attack people who don’t deserve it.”

Hank reaches out a tentative hand, lightly gripping Connor’s bandaged wrist before flipping it palm side up, “Help me with the door and then we can take care of this.” Warmth floods through Connor’s veins. It’s more than he’d hoped for as far as olive branches go. Hank shows Connor how to install the hinges but handles the rest of the work. By the time he’s done, Connor’s relief at Hank’s timely arrival is evident.

“I don’t know what I would’ve done. I can’t move that plywood at all. Or hang doors, apparently.” Hank claps a hand to his back and laughs. Connor resists the urge to lean into the brief touch.

The moment grows quiet and taut again before Hank mumbles, “Let me take a look at that hand.” Connor follows him out through the new front door, a burst of pride trumpeting through his chest. He hadn’t realized how much it needled at him not to have an honest to goodness entrance until just now.

In proper lighting, Connor winces at how bad his hand looks. Although he can’t feel it due to the cold, the wound had started bleeding again at some point. Dark red stains the center while evidence from his attempts at sweat equity mark it here and there. Noticing the fine layer of grit on his clothes, Connor dusts off the sand from the stairs.

“Missed a spot,” Hank says with a laugh, before ruffling at Connor’s hair. “You got a bit of somethin’ here, too.” Hank runs his thumb across Connor’s forehead before moving to gently unwrapping the bandage.

“Yikes,” is all he says when he sees the angry, unhealed cut.

“I was cutting tiles,” Connor responds weakly, a flush consuming his face from his chin to the roots of his hair.

Hank eyes the gash with suspicion, “I was hoping it wasn’t this bad. I don’t have what I need here to take care of this.”

“It’s fine,” Connor mumbles while moving to pull his hand back to his side. Hank’s grip doesn’t budge.

“This needs attention,” Hank’s thumb glides along the side of Connor’s forefinger before he finally releases his hand. “I’ve got some pretty heavy duty first aid supplies at my house. I get all sorts of cuts and injuries on the job. We can patch you up there.”

Connor’s eyes snap up to meet Hank’s. “Your house?”

“Yeah,” Hank’s hand scratches at the back of his neck before offering, “I can drive you if you want.” He nods his head in the direction of Connor’s hand.

He flexes it lightly, testing its give, “I can manage the wheel.” A small smile runs along the curve of his lip, “Lead the way. I’ll follow.”

Chapter Text

In the time that it takes to drive to Hank’s house, Connor’s anxiety envelopes his chest like a shirt two sizes too small. His injured hand throbs in time with his racing heart while he tries to come up with a suitable apology. There’s still so much he needs to explain, but every possible starting point circles around his mind without finding any purchase.

He parks along the curb without making any progress. Despite the frigid temperature, he can feel cold sweat prickle at the small of his back. Hank holds the door for him as Connor crosses the threshold. He makes it two steps before a furry beast stands on its hind legs to wrap its front paws over Connor’s shoulders. He nearly buckles under its weight.

“Sumo, down! Sorry about that, got him as a pup. Still thinks he’s tiny.” Connor staggers and readjusts his shirt with a small, amused smile.

Hank heads off down the hall while talking over his shoulder, “Have a seat; I’m gonna grab some stuff for your hand.” The instant Connor’s butt connects with the yellow couch, Sumo’s head perks up with interest.

“Oh, no you don—,” the sentence remains unfinished as Sumo clambers up onto Connor’s lap and stretches across him. “Well. I guess you do then.” He pets the giant dog’s head, accepting the fact that his leg may never work properly again as they start to tingle and go numb.

Hank sighs when he re-enters the room carrying a large bowl and a bag, “Oh, for heaven’s—Sumo, get down you great big brute.” Sumo waits until Hank is nearly to the couch before obeying the command. He pads over to a dog bed and settles down with a fwump. “This right here,” Hank gestures at Sumo’s hulking figure, “is why you pay for puppy training.”

Hank grumbles about ill-mannered dogs half-heartedly while pulling items out of the first aid bag. Hank nudges him with his knee, “You should go rinse it off first. Use soap; it’s starting to look questionable.” Connor looks down at the jagged cut; the skin around it looks angry and red.

In the warmth of Hank’s house, the pain returns to his hand full force when he runs soapy water over the injury. Swearing quietly under his breath, he works at removing the bulk of the debris still clinging to him from working on the Victorian. 

When he returns to the living room, Hank has the table covered in various ointments, cleansers, and tools. Connor eyeballs the implements warily, “You know how to use all this?”

Hank looks from his table to Connor and back again, “Yeah. Banged myself up pretty good several times on the job. I should have a damn Ph.D. in first aid.”

Despite Hank’s friendly behavior, Connor can sense that something’s shifted between them. He’s not surprised, he’d behaved horribly, but he desperately wants to put it back the way it was before. He’s not sure it’s possible.

He sits next to Hank, and tries to repair the damage, “I appreciate this.” It’s not sufficient but it’s a start. Hank nods at him and pulls at his wrist, positioning it over the bowl.

“I wasn’t prepared to see Richard that day. I handled it badly.” Hank opens a container of antiseptic, listening in silence. Connor hisses at the initial contact when Hank upends the bottle, but the pain fades quickly.

“I know I’ve acted like a fool every time my past creeps up on me. I’m sorry. I wasn’t at my best.” He breaks off in a wince when Hank dabs at the cut with a clean rag. Sucking in a shuddering breath, he continues, “You deserve better than that. You’ve always treated me well and I returned your kindness by practically spitting in your face.” Connor’s quiet for a moment, horrid realization crawling over his skin, “I’m no better than either of them.”

Hank’s eyes cut over to Connor before returning to his hand. He picks up a pair of tweezers before speaking, “I wouldn’t go that far.” Interrupting himself, Hank gestures at the cut, “You’ve got some debris in there. Gotta get it out. Might not wanna watch.” Not wanting to see Hank dig around in his flesh, Connor opts to look at his face instead.

He grips his knee and resists the urge to jerk his hand away on instinct when the tweezers first touch him. Hank works with a gentleness Connor hadn’t expected while he talks, “Markus didn’t tell me much when he called, but I got enough of the picture to figure out what went down that day.” He grows quiet for a moment, concentrating on a particularly stubborn piece of dirt. After successfully removing it, he continues, “I can’t be the reason you get over them. You gotta find that in yourself.” Connor’s heart thumps painfully. His tongue itches to interrupt.

Hank wipes the tweezers on a clean napkin, leaving behind a streak of bloody pink tinge. “I like you,” he says it simply, but his tone sends a cold shiver down Connor’s spine, “but I have big stakes when it comes to dating someone.” Cole’s name goes unsaid. There’s no need. Evidence of a child’s existence permeates the entire house. Crayons on the table, small shoes by the front door, and children’s books littering the shelves all speak of his presence.

“I know,” Connor begins slowly, words leaving his mouth like molasses. He has this one chance to explain, for Hank to understand, “I am over them. Elijah—Every day that I got further away from him, the more I saw how noxious he was. His presence was intoxicating. I couldn’t see—didn’t want to see—the truth behind his intentions. When I couldn’t ignore it anymore, I left. He hadn’t expected it. He thought he had complete possession of me. His refusal to let me go was…it was awful. How could I move on when he had me trapped?”

Connor searches Hank’s face, but his expression tells him nothing, “When I figured out how to be free of him—he always has to have the last word. I don’t think anyone’s ever walked away from him before. He went digging and found a weapon that would inflict the most damage.” Connor jolts abruptly and his eyes flick to his hand as a sharp pang rips through him.

“Sorry, that one was deep,” Hank mutters, but he offers no opinion on what Connor’s had to say.

“I never told anyone about Richard. He went to school with me. He was a couple of years behind me. He was obsessive. I thought it was infatuation, but he did everything to the extreme—school, sex…” Connor’s voice fades as memories he hasn’t touched in years flit through his mind. “He blamed me for…for things that don’t matter anymore. It got ugly. He tried to get me kicked out of school. All anyone ever knew was the boy who hated me for my intelligence. I never told anyone we were, uh, together.”

He stumbles over the word, not having a suitable alternative for whatever it was they were. Certainly not dating, “Anyway, I never dealt with it. I buried it and moved on with my life. I finished school, worked hard to make something of myself, to be more than—,” his voice cracks under the pressure of his confession.

Blinking hard, he says quietly, “It’s difficult to grow up as an orphan and not feel unwanted. The caretakers tried, but it’s not the same. Their affections and attention were spread too thin. It always left us feeling hungry.”

He sees Hank set the tweezers aside and sighs in relief when he reaches for some antibiotic ointment, “It was harder than I thought it would be to leave. I had spent years hoping someone would want me enough to take me away from there. Once I left—well, it hurt. I hadn’t expected it.”

Hank expels a long stripe of salve before starting to wind the bandage around Connor’s wrist, encasing it in slow circles, “What d’you mean?”

Connor exhales a humorless laugh, “It’s never fun to realize no one wants to keep you.”

Hank’s grip on his wrist spasms, “Connor, that’s—,”

Connor gives him a resigned, tight-lipped smile, “I don’t feel that way anymore. Not really. Markus has told me over and over that I was dating the same awful man just with a new face. He wasn’t wrong. They all turned out the same in the end. Until you.” Connor flushes and drops his gaze to stare at Hank’s hands carefully bandaging his wrist.

“When I saw Richard standing next to Elijah, something snapped. I had expected Elijah to hurl insults or try to pull some last minute sketchy legal maneuver. I wasn’t prepared for my skeletons to step out of the closet.” Connor knows Hank should’ve finished the bandage by now, but the man continues to fiddle with it, unwrapping and re-wrapping sections.

“I was shocked and hurt and then you called about the Victorian—”

“And dumped a truckload of bad news on your already bad day. Yeah, I was there for that part.” The words sound harsher than his tone, but Connor grimaces and winces under the weight of them regardless.

“That doesn’t make it right. I lost my damn mind. I—,” he breaks off with a huff, scrubbing the back of his good hand across his eyes in frustration. Tears are pricking at the edges. He’s not going to do that to Hank.

He looks up with clear eyes, “I was wrong. I’m sorry.”

Hank holds his gaze for a moment before returning his attention to the bandage that’s gone a little loose, “Believed ya the first ten times you said it.”

Connor flushes, disbelief crawling out of his mouth, “How…why are you being this nice to me? I don’t deserve it. At all.”

Hank is quiet for a moment, considering the question, “I’ve been where you’re at. You’re not the only person who’s made a mistake you wish you could take back. Feels like your whole world is falling apart. I know how much it hurts when someone you care about won’t give you a second chance.”

Hank secures the bandage around Connor’s hand and places his palm over it. His eyes flick up, calm and steady, “Don’t waste it.”

When Connor exhales, the tight knot he’s carried in his chest all week loosens a fraction. “Thank you,” he reaches out with a tentative hand and rests it on top of Hank’s, holding it between his own.

True to his earlier assertion about feelings, Hank shifts uncomfortably under the intensity of the emotionally charged conversation. Still, he doesn’t move to pull back his hand and Connor’s content to let him leave it there for as long as likes. Hank clears his throat, a gruff your welcome embedded somewhere in it. He steers the conversation toward something more tangible, “About the Victorian.”

“I still have to figure out what to do about the pipes. The everything, really,” Connor visibly wilts at the thought.  

“I had an idea about that, actually. S’partly why I never sent you the final bill.” Hank opens his mouth to elaborate, but the half-formed word dies in his throat when the front door flies open with a bang.

“I’M HOME!” A young boy with dark hair streaks past the both of them, not noticing a stranger sitting on his couch.

Hank doesn’t jerk away, but he does extract his hand. Connor expected it, but a small pulse of hurt resonates from his chest all the same. The boy Connor knows must be Cole ricochets back into the room, “Did you forget?”

Hank shakes his head with a laugh, “No, buddy. I didn’t forget. Half day Friday this week, right?”

Cole beams at his dad before his gaze flicks over to Connor, “Who are you?” He asks the blunt question, possessing much of his father’s confidence.

Connor’s eyes cut over to Hank’s seeking permission. When he gives him a nod, he smiles while answering, “I’m Connor. Your dad is—”

You’re Connor?” The boy asks, incredulity clear in his tone. He starts to survey him with an expression more shrewd than Connor would’ve thought possible of a nine-year-old.

“Cole,” Hank starts in a warning tone, but the boy ignores him.

“You bought the ugly house,” Cole beams with the pride of a child who has inside, grown-up information while Hank groans audibly.

“Boy, get to the kitchen. I’m sure you have homework.” Cole skips away, serenely unconcerned by Hank’s tone. “Got me wrapped around his finger tighter than a spool of floss,” Hank grumbles quietly.

He shakes his head before returning to the previous topic of conversation, “Anyway, I know you weren’t thrilled about asking Carl for help before, but I was thinking—”

Cole’s head pops back into the room, “DAD! Can I have a snack?”

Hank waves over his shoulder, “Sure thing, buddy,”

“Can it be cookies?”

Hank pinches his nose. Connor has to bite back a laugh at his expression, “It can be cheese and crackers.”

Trying to find any point of weakness, Cole presses his luck, “What about soda? Can I have it with soda?”

Looking to the ceiling, Hank says evenly, “You can have juice”

“What about—”

Reaching his limit on snack negotiations, Hank turns to address his son directly, “Keep pushing and you’ll get bread and water.” Cole slumps from the room, grumbling about Joey’s dad who apparently lets his son have soda whenever he wants. 

“Sorry about that. Anyway, I—What?” Hank breaks off to peer at Connor suspiciously.

Connor tries to school his face, “Nothing. It’s just…You’re a good dad, is all.”

Hank gifts him with the first broad smile he’s seen in days, “Thanks.” He starts repacking the first aid kit before getting back to business, “I was thinking you could auction it.” When Connor does little more than stare at him blankly, he hurries on, “You know, like one of Carl’s charity events. Except, instead of paintings, it’s the house. I know it’s not his niche, but I figured some of the sale proceeds could go to one of his charities or to support the arts. Something to tie it back to him.”

“I understood what you meant. I’m just…processing.” Connor’s knee jerk reaction is to shut the line of thinking down. He doesn’t want to lean on Carl more than he already has in this week alone. Carl’s words come back to him, brushing feather light against his mind.

You don’t have to do everything alone.

Carl would do it in a heartbeat, Connor knows. When Connor doesn’t outright reject the idea, Hank continues, “It’s the only thing I could think of that would get you upside right on the house without abandoning it.”

Connor makes an aborted movement to place his hand on Hank’s knee, his eyes darting to the kitchen and back, “It’s a good idea. I’ll think about it.” At a skeptical look from Hank, Connor places a hand over his heart, “No, really. I will.”

Hank glances toward Cole sitting at the kitchen table, chewing on a pencil as he scowls at a notebook, “I do actually need to help him with his homework. Brenda gives me a ration of shit if I don’t on my weekends.”

Recognizing the dismissal, Connor rises while patting his pockets, trying to remember which one has his keys, “Right. I’ll see you…later?” The sentence ends in an awkward question and Connor ducks his head.  

“I’ll walk you to your car,” Hank mutters, casting a backward glance toward his son. Connor nods, bracing against the cold when Hank opens the door. They walk in silence until they reach Connor’s car. Connor turns, not sure what he wants to say, only knowing that he’s not ready to leave. Things between them still feel fragile.

“Hank, I really am sor—,” warm fingertips on his mouth silence him.

“I know,” Hank murmurs before dropping his arm back to his side.

“You don’t have to—” Connor’s vocal cords constrict, trying to keep the words locked in his chest, “You don’t have to do this, you know. I’d…I’d understand.”

He can’t bring himself to look at Hank. He’s made the offer: a clean break. Hank doesn’t need his mess complicating his life. He doesn’t want him to stay out of pity. If he decides to walk away, Connor won’t hold it against him. It’s no less than he deserves.

Hank’s fingers chuck him under the chin, “Wouldn’t be much of a do-over if I didn’t give you a chance to try.”

Connor flushes as he looks up to meet Hank’s gaze. He sees a brown head duck down from the window and smiles, “Looks like we’ve got an audience.” He nods his head to the now empty window, but Hank follows his meaning.

“We have to establish some ground rules when it comes to Cole. His mom and I have an agreement—no significant other stuff around him until it’s serious. Cole’s young—doesn’t understand—I can’t have him getting attached to someone who might not stick around.”

“Hank, I—,”

Connor begins to try to reassure him he’ll do whatever makes him comfortable when it comes to his son when Cole flings open the door to shout, “Daaaaaaaad! Mom’s on the phone!”

Hank rolls his eyes but adjusts his face into something neutral before he turns to holler back, “Alright, buddy. Be there in a second.”

When Cole gives him a thumbs up and closes the door, Hank resumes the conversation, “It’s pretty simple. No PDA in front of him and we don’t talk about our relationship. Not at first, anyway.”

Connor nods, feeling a bit glum. Now that it’s off the table, he wants nothing more than to touch Hank before he leaves.

Hank gives him a wry smile as if he knows exactly what he’s thinking, “I’ll send some guys to work on the Victorian’s pipes tomorrow. With a bit of luck, the damage won’t be too bad.” Connor nods and waits. Hank shifts on his feet, gearing up to something. After a moment of hesitation, he asks, “What’ll you be doing?”

Connor tilts his head, confused. He knows Hank has Cole this weekend. He assumed that meant he would be busy. He shrugs, “Nothing much. Applying for jobs, harassing Markus if I get bored—discussing the Victorian with Carl once I swallow what remains of my pride.” Connor pauses, curious but not wanting to overstep. Finally, he settles on, “Why?”

Hank eyes him for a moment as if he only made up his mind seconds ago, “Cole’s got an ice hockey game. It’s an absolute shit show, buncha nine-year-olds with sticks, but they’re enthusiastic.” When Connor’s expression doesn’t clear up, Hank huffs, “Christ, Con. I’m asking if you wanna go.”

Oh!” Connor resists the urge to smack his forehead. “But I thought…you just said.”

Hank exhales a laugh through his nose, “I said we’re not gonna suck face when Cole’s around. I didn’t say you weren’t allowed to see him ever. Besides, I value his opinion, too.”

“He’s a kid,” Connor blurts out without thinking. “I mean, of course, he’s—,”

Hank laughs and waves off Connor’s hasty backpedaling, “That just makes him brutally honest. Believe me; never ask him how you look unless you’re one hundred percent prepared for the truth.”

Connor snorts at the unexpected explanation, “Of course, I’ll come. Where is—” The sound of Cole rapping on the front window and pointing at a phone cuts him off mid-question. Hank glances back to the window where Cole is making hand gestures of a person ceaselessly talking while pining the phone between his ear and shoulder.

Hank holds up one finger and Cole gives him a dark look, “Ahh, shit. She’s gonna be a bear to deal with.” He runs a hand through his hair with a sigh, “Alright, I’ll text you the details later.” They say their goodbyes, both casting glances at Cole watching them from the window. Connor waves to the boy and he returns the farewell.

Connor spends the rest of the day looking through job listings and stealing glances at his phone. More than once, he gets halfway through a text before deleting it and setting it down. “He’ll text you when he texts you,” he mutters to himself. He knows Hank is likely helping Cole with his homework and doing family things. Sending Connor directions probably isn’t at the top of his priority list.

Opening his text messages for the fifth time, Connor scans his recent texts before landing on Elijah’s name. Tapping through various options, he starts to delete the last remaining vestiges of him from his life. He doesn’t bother to read the texts and emails; he’s done giving the man any more of his time.

When the phone asks if he’s certain that he wants to delete the contact Elijah Kamski, he presses yes, severing the final tie between them. As if in reward, a notification from Construction Hank pops up at the top of his screen. Smiling, he reminds himself for the dozenth time to update Hank’s name in his phone.

He scans over the text and adds the time and place of Cole’s game to his calendar. The overwhelming urge to apologize once more gets him halfway through another assertion of I’m sorry when Hank’s voice plays in the back of his mind, tugging at a happy memory:

We’re gonna have to work on that.

Backspacing one letter at a time, the words vanish from the screen. They can’t move forward if Connor keeps pulling them back to the past. Shifting tactics, he starts anew.

Thank you for today.

Hank’s reply of You’re welcome is immediate, and they chat off and on throughout the evening. Hank complains about the “nonsense new-age crap” the movie industry keeps churning out.

Trolls VII is really taking it too far one message reads. Another follows swiftly on its heels. Cole likes it, though. Connor smiles at the mental image of Hank and Cole side-by-side on the yellow couch, one riveted and one bored out of his gourd.

Connor thinks back on Hank’s words, a theory building in his gut. Hank’s forgiveness had floored him and he accepted his explanation without hesitation. He’s sure some of it is true; Hank knows what it’s like to struggle alone. However, he wonders just how much losing custody of Cole and fighting to get him back shaped his compassion.

When Hank sounds off for the night, Connor decides to turn in as well. Cole’s game is at the ungodly time of seven in the morning and it’s across town. Still, Connor would wake up at any hour if it meant spending time with Hank, making up for past hurts.

The building is frigid and Connor’s butt goes numb within twenty minutes. Hank mutters apologies, mentioning that next time Connor should wear two sets of socks to avoid freezing off his toes. After the first period, Hank gives Connor the padded seat all the other parents seem to own for sitting on the bleachers.

Connor protests at first, but Hank hauling him down onto it by the sleeve effectively ends the battle of wills. His pinky brushes against Connor’s before sliding over it and linking it with his own. Connor glances down at it then over to Hank. His eyes are on the game as he shouts encouragement to Cole, but his finger squeezes in silent confirmation that it’s intentional.

The cold doesn’t bother Connor as much for the rest of the game.

 

Chapter Text

It happens in fits and starts. Hank slips a hand into Connor’s back pocket while showing him progress on the drywall repairs from the water damage. Connor brushes at a smear of paint on Hank’s cheek, making it worse. Connor tries not to laugh, and Hank doesn’t have the heart to tell him he has paint on his own face as well. Over the course of several weeks, their fragile relationship resumes its easy back and forth.

Connor spends his time between job interviews with Hank at the Victorian. Determined to make up for his initial handyman blunders, Hank helps him work on simple projects. Connor’s sure Hank could do them faster, but his work frees up Hank’s time to focus on more difficult tasks.

Connor had been sufficiently indignant when he found out power sanders are a thing and that he didn’t need to sand every stair tread by hand. Hank shows him how to operate the tool for an even finish. It doesn’t take long for Connor to touch up his previous work.

Connor surveys his progress with his hands on his hips. “I think I’m ready to start staining,” he calls up to Hank from the bottom of the stairs. Hank pauses in patching the drywall, brushing his hands off on his jeans.

He casts a critical eye at the treads while Connor holds his breath, waiting for his professional opinion. “Nice job,” Hank says quietly, running a finger to check for lingering dust. Connor preens at the praise until Hank mutters, “Missed a spot.”

“Where?!” is Connor’s immediate, indignant response. Connor peers at the stairs viciously as if daring a speck of dust to remain after his thorough vacuuming and wipe downs.

“Right there,” Hank gooses him and Connor whirls around with a shriek.

Regaining his balance, Connor huffs, “Oh, ha ha. Very funny.” When Hank’s rough hands run up and down the length of his arms, Connor’s grumpiness ebbs, “Ok. Maybe a little funny.”

With a gap-toothed grin, Hank gets him started on the staining, “You aren’t gonna be able to do every stair today. Not unless you want to be trapped upstairs until they all dry. Figure out how far your legs can reach and leave those treads for tomorrow.” Nodding, Connor gets to work on the bottom-most stair while Hank resumes the numerous patch jobs around various pieces of plumbing.

Connor had gotten lucky, very lucky, when it came to the damage. Some pipes had burst, but Hank’s crew had arrived in time to deal with the worst of it. The unexpected freeze hadn’t affected as many pipes as Hank had anticipated either. Drywall patch jobs cost significantly less than removing and rerunning plumbing. With the cold snap behind them, they were taking advantage of the equally unexpected burst of warm weather.

By the time Connor reaches the top stairs, Hank is nearly done with the final passes of drywall mud for the repairs. Peeking at Connor’s handiwork, Hank’s arm goes still in midair. A heavy dollop of drywall mud drops to the floor without his notice.

His eyes rove over Connor’s prone form as he attempts to access a stair tread just within his reach. Ass high and knees spread to brace himself on the top landing, he wiggles with each pass of stain. At some point, Connor had removed his shirt and Hank’s mouth waters at the sight of him. Delicate freckles dot him like a canvas and his skin shines as evidence of his exertions.

“You’re a damn distraction,” Hank mutters loud enough for Connor to hear.

Connor’s head swivels to look at him over one freckle-smattered shoulder, “How’s that?”

Hank gestures at Connor’s naked upper half, “It’s fifty degrees outside. What happened to your shirt?”

Connor glances down at his exposed chest before resuming his staining, “Well, it’s not fifty degrees in here. I got hot and it kept dragging across the stairs. It was messing up the stain.” His gestures at the railing where the discarded, dirty shirt hangs.

Conceding the point, Hank uses the hem of his A-shirt to wipe at his own sweating brow. He hears Connor mutter something about a pot and a kettle before noticing his eyes still peeping over his shoulder at him.

With a smirk and a feat of will, Hank pulls his gaze away and returns to mudding one of the few remaining patches. Connor’s wiggling decreases with each step he completes before he finally finishes staining the final stair tread for the day. Wiping his hands on his dirty shirt, he comes to stand by Hank.

“Can I try?” he asks, gesturing at the smears of mud on the walls.

Hank crouches down to slap some joint compound onto the tray in his hand before handing it off to Connor, “Hold this in your left hand.” It’s heavier than he expects and Connor has to do some correcting to prevent the gelatinous mud from dropping to the floor.

When he nods, Hank hands him a foot long drywall knife, “This is the final coat. You’ll wanna feather it out a couple of inches past the last coat I did. Don’t worry if it’s not perfect; we can sponge it later.”

Unfamiliar with the lingo and uncertain of how to proceed, Connor does his best to imitate how Hank spread the compound. It doesn’t smear as easily as he anticipated and he leaves behind a much thicker streak than Hank would have.

“Here,” Hank’s voice rumbles much closer than expected. Connor’s breath hitches when Hank’s hands glide over his own like gloves. “Let me show you,” he murmurs from behind, his beard scratching at the curve where Connor’s neck meets his shoulder.

Hank’s hands grip firmly at Connor’s, taking him through the motions, “You gotta put more ass into it.” Connor chokes back a laugh as Hank puppets his hand through broad strokes to smooth out the finish. “Think you got it from here?” Hank’s grip remains fixed, waiting for an answer.

Connor’s mouth wraps around a word before he changes his mind. He leans back into Hank’s chest wearing a smirk the man can’t see, “Show me one more time.”

Hank remains still for a beat longer than usual before stretching Connor’s reach, pulling the majority of his body flush against his own. He works in silence, bringing Connor onto tiptoe to finish a section of mudding just within range. His nose nudges along the shell of Connor’s ear and his voice comes out more a growl than a murmur, “How’s that?”

Connor knows he’s breathing heavy—is sure Hank can hear it. For once, he does not care, “It’s perfect.” He lets his head fall back against Hank’s shoulder, wanting very much to kiss him, but unsure of what to do with the tray full of slop and the mud knife. Calloused hands glide over his own, tracing over stain that will take several bouts of scrubbing to remove completely.

“Hank,” Connor’s voice comes out more ragged than he expected. Emboldened, Hank’s fingers caress Connor’s slender throat while the other holds him against him at the waist.

“Hmm?” the question rumbles into the skin of Connor’s neck and he nearly fumbles the tray.

“Your tools,” Connor shrugs his shoulders weakly against the incongruous desires for Hank to stop and keep going.

“Don’t drop them,” is his only reply before pressing a kiss just below Connor’s ear. Connor exhales a breathy Oh, not capable of sophisticated speech.

When Hank’s thumb rubs at Connor’s exposed hipbone, he whines, “Hank, this isn’t fair.”

A deep chuckle scrapes against his skin, “M’ aware.” Connor allows himself to wonder how far this will go and what surfaces are available to them that won’t result in splinters. The front door slamming open followed by a shout of, “Boss?” is as effective at diffusing the moment as a cold shower.

Connor jerks badly enough to send a scoop of mud to the floor while Hank heaves an agitated sigh. Disentangling himself from Connor, he pulls a rag from his belt loop to swipe at the spill before taking the tray and knife from Connor’s hands.

“Yeah?” he shouts down over the railing while Connor tries to wriggle into his shirt without being seen. “Didn’t think any of you were scheduled to come in today.”

The man eyes the drying stain on the stairs and opts to continue shouting the conversation instead of navigating the mostly complete treads, “Beck’s wife finally popped. We’re gonna be down a man next week. Debbie called and asked if anyone was willing to come in and pick up the slack.”

Hank groans and runs a hand down his face, “Yeah. Thanks, Stucky. We’re almost done up here. Downstairs is ready for primer, though. We can tackle the upstairs tomorrow. You can start tarping the floors. I’ll join you once I wrap up this patch job.”

Stucky’s eyes cut across to Connor and he gives him a wide grin and a tip of his non-existent hat. Connor flushes and Hank calls down, “Beat it, Stucky,” in a half-irritated, half-amused tone. “Well, shit,” Hank runs a hand through his hair as he pulls his phone out of his pocket to send a congratulatory text. “Beck is one of my best. New baby, though…” he fades off with a fond smile.

“I can go,” Connor offers, well aware his home improvement skills do not extend to rolling primer. He doesn’t want to be in the way or slow down progress when it’s already hamstrung by a missing employee. Hank hesitates and Connor leans into him, “I don’t do so well without direct supervision.”

Hank’s head tips back in a laugh as his arms wrap around Connor in a loose embrace, “You’re a menace.”

Connor gives him a wink and nods in the direction of a light switch he’d tried to wire on his own, “Well, I did almost install a switch upside down and not to code. You never know when you could use that kind of talent.”

“You’ve got a fair point. If I need something to spark or blow up, I’ll be sure to give you a call.” Hank gives Connor a squeeze before letting him go in favor of finishing the mudding.

As he makes a broad swipe at the remaining seam, Connor objects, “Hey, now. I didn’t actually explode anything.”

They exchange a few more teasing remarks until Hank hears Connor’s teeth chatter now that he's not in motion, “Toldja you needed your shirt. Didn’t bring anything warmer than that?” He gestures to Connor’s stain covered t-shirt, making him flush beneath his freckles.  

“My over shirt suffered an unfortunate stain related accident and is no longer serviceable.” When Hank does little more than give him a bemused look, Connor rushes on, “I slopped stain on it trying to open the can. It’s drenched.”

Hank makes a face that tells Connor he very much wants to laugh but is restraining himself for Connor's sake. Setting the tray down, he grabs at his own plaid shirt draped across a stepladder and tosses it to Connor, “Put that on. I got another in the truck.”

After some minor protesting, Connor relents and slips out of his stained t-shirt before shrugging into the button-down. It’s comically large, but he’s warmer for it. The sleeves slide to the tips of his fingers and he decides on the spot that Hank is never getting this shirt back.

Returning to the mud tray, Hank starts to clean up while the compound dries, “What’re your plans for the rest of the day then since handyman work is off the table?”

Connor grimaces then admits, “I need to talk to Carl. I ran the idea by him, but we haven’t really dug into the details. I feel like such a mooch.”

His mouth morphs into a pout on the final word and Hank makes a grab at his bottom lip, “Tuck that in. It could be worse. At least you have Carl as an option.”

Connor flushes and mutters an agreement. He knows he’s lucky to even have a shot at coming out right side up on this sale. “You’re right,” his keys jingle in his hand as he turns to try to navigate his way down the mostly stained stairs, “Good luck with the primer. I’ll text you lat—,”

Hank’s hand snagging at his own through the borrowed shirt cuts him off mid-sentence. Hank tugs him back and spins him around before pressing a soft, warm kiss to his lips, “It’ll be fine; you’ll see. I should be done here around five.” Connor hears the question in Hank’s tone before he asks it, “Have any plans for dinner?”

Several hours later finds Connor fussing over his hair in front of his mirror. Try as he might, the one dwip of hair refuses to stay put. Giving up on the curling lock, he backs up several paces to see himself in full. He can’t remember the last time he dressed up for a date. Adjusting his tie, he smooths the lapels of his light grey suit jacket. The herringbone pattern is subtle and the powder blue of his shirt goes well with it. It reminds him of Hank’s eyes. Hearing the ping that his Uber is out front, he grabs his things before heading out the door.

As the driver pulls up to the hotel, his eyes flick to the sixteenth floor where soft purple lighting glows through wall-to-wall windows. He’s heard of Iridescence before, but he always assumed only guests at the MotorCity Casino Hotel could dine there. Hank had assured him that is not the case.

He spots him across the parking lot and double times it to catch him before he goes inside. A greeting fades into a soft wha sound when he gets close enough to see Hank in detail. Stopping dead center in a parking space, Connor stares in a way that would be embarrassing if anyone was around to witness it.

The suit is fully canvased; of that, Connor is certain. It molds to Hank’s body beautifully, cutting a sharp figure. There’s no unnatural draping or bubbling often seen with lower quality pieces. Even from this distance, Connor can see the softness and guesses the thread count is quite high.

When Hank spots him and lifts an arm to wave, Connor catches sight of the working buttons that adorn the wrist. The last buttonhole is a contrasting color from the charcoal grey of the rest of the suit. A pop of apricot orange pick stitching peeks out at Connor, perfectly matched with the loud paisley shirt Hank has on beneath his suit jacket. If pressed, Connor would describe the button-down as an atomic tangerine.

Grinning, Hank meets him halfway. Extending his arm, Connor loops his own through it as Hank murmurs, “You look nice.”

His mouth finally back in working order, Connor replies, “You look orange.”

Hank barks out a laugh and Connor flushes horrendously, cursing his brain that is clearly not yet in sync with his lips. “I meant…I like it, is all. It’s a good color on you.” Probably off of him, too his traitor brain supplies, ensuring that Connor won’t be attempting conversation for several more minutes.

They make it to their seats without any further blunders on Connor’s part, but the exclusiveness of the table gives him pause, “How’d we get this table? It’s not early bird hours.” He looks around noting the prime placement and the plushness of the plum-colored booth seating and the noticeably full dining area.

Turning back to Hank, he can see a slight blush despite the colorful mood lighting Iridescence is known for, “I, uh, made a reservation a while ago. Before…well, anyway. I never canceled. They sent me a reminder text this morning so I figured we should still go if you were available.” 

When Connor stares at him expressionlessly for several silent seconds, Hank asks, “Is this ok?”

Stupor sufficiently broken, Connor shakes his head to clear the molasses that used to be his brains now sloshing honey-slow between his ears, “You were going to bring me—are bringing me— here for our first real date? Hank, you had to’ve made this reservation over a month ago.”

Hank shrugs and squeezes his hand under the table, “I wasn’t gonna take you to some cheap burger joint.”

Connor struggles to put his thoughts into coherent order, “No, I mean…Hank, I was an absolute train wreck. A disaster of a human. This place is,” the word expensive tries to work its way out of his mouth, but he swallows it down. “It’s very nice,” he concludes lamely. He’s explaining himself poorly, but Hank seems to understand what he’s trying to convey.

“I spent a lot of years trying to make it work with the wrong person. I know what it’s like when a connection just isn’t there.” Hank leans in conspiratorially to whisper, “I also know when I’ve hooked myself a live one.”

Connor bats at his arm in mock outrage at being compared to a fish, but a warm glowing feeling immerses his body at Hank’s words. It takes Connor several minutes to categorize it as overwhelming happiness. Elijah never took him anywhere and the dates he went on prior were lackluster if not outright disappointing.

It had gotten to the point where he assumed people didn’t make reservations or grand gestures anymore. It might be the time Hank grew up in or something specific to Hank himself, but he was clearly intent on showing Connor a good time. That much was clear no matter what they did together.

The waiter arriving to take their order puts the conversation on hold and Connor briefly considers sucking water out of a napkin rather than buying anything off the menu, “Twelve dollars for a glass of sauvignon? Highway robbery.” He hears Hank chuckle and he shoots him a scowl that is more ersatz than it is genuine.

Hank plucks the menu from his hands, scanning over the wine list, “He’ll have a glass of the Gitton Père and Fils Sancerre. I’d like a black coffee. A round of waters, too, please.” If the waiter is surprised by the exchange, he doesn’t show it. With a slight bow, he collects the wine menus before laying a single dinner menu in front of Hank.

Connor stares, slack-jawed as Hank reads over the entrees, “Did you…did he?”

“Yep,” Hank answers before handing over the menu, “Wanna pick something yourself this time?” He winks and Connor snatches the menu while trying to conceal a smile. Damn Hank’s tooth gap and shining blue eyes.

Glancing down at the menu, Connor suppresses a sigh. The script is ornate, italicized, and in cursive. It’s also much smaller than the wine menu. Fishing inside his suit jacket, he extracts a pair of delicate, pointed reading glasses. He looks up at a choking noise from Hank.

“What?” The question comes out defensive, but Hank’s smile is soft.

“Nothin’. S’just—out of the two of us—you’d think I’d be the one pulling out a pair of peepers.” A pink tinge peeks along the ridges of Connor’s cheeks, but Hank continues, “I like ‘em. They’re cute.”

The comment doesn’t help the blushing, but it does untangle the self-protective knot that had sprung up in his stomach. Reading the appetizers aloud to Hank earns him a deep, rumbling laugh, “Jesus. These people really are in the business of getting people fed and laid.”

He’s not wrong, Connor thinks to himself re-reading over the options as oysters on the half shell reflects back up at him. Chilis, avocados, and other typical aphrodisiac foods feature heavily as elements of several entrees as well.

They settle on the Frito Misto as an appetizer, and Hank grumbles about opinionated doctors, the relative merit of vegetables, and his cholesterol. Connor conceals his smile behind a sip of wine. They place their orders, a fancy chicken breast for Connor and a Niman Ranch prime filet for Hank. When the waiter walks away, Hank asks him about his talk with Carl.

Connor considers the question while pocketing his glasses, recalling the phone call from earlier in the day, “It went ok—as well as could be expected. He’s ecstatic to help me and I’m…not very good at accepting help.” Hank chuckles out a No kidding, but Connor continues despite the interruption, “He needs a firm timeline to be able to send out invitations and get his people in order.”

Hank chokes on a sip of coffee, “He’s hot to trot on this, then.”

Connor nods, “Emphatically so. He’s already drawing up a guest list as well as personae non gratae. Obviously, Elijah and Richard are on it. I told him he should add Amanda as well. It wouldn’t surprise me if Eli sent her in his stead to do something foul.”

Connor makes a face before amending, “Well, Amanda was always a class act even if she detested me down to the last fiber of my trouser socks. Still, she can draw blood when she wants to. I’d rather avoid a scene.”

Hank promises to get Connor a firmer deadline for Carl as their food arrives. The smell is heavenly; the taste is sinful.

“Wanna try it?” Hank asks, while extending a speared bit of filet in Connor’s direction. In answer, Connor looms forward, his tongue grazing the underside of the fork as his plump lips close around the small taste of steak. Connor closes his eyes and a small, pleased sound thrums up his throat.

“Christ, are you trying to kill me?” Connor’s eyes snap open at the question and he sees hunger dance across Hank’s face, “Woulda offered to feed you before now if I knew you’d react like that.” The admission comes out quiet and, for the first time in his life, Connor is happy about his tendency to be vocal.

Content to leave business off the table for the remainder of dinner, they chat about Cole, Connor’s job search, and a new project Hank is bidding on now that the Victorian is close to completion. When it comes time to pay for the bill, Hank’s hand lands firmly on top of the check. Connor tries to protest, but Hank cuts him off, “I’m an old man with an old fashioned sense of dating. Let me have this one.”

“You’re not old,” Connor chides him, but he stops playing tug-of-war over the check all the same. Hank offers to walk him to his car, but Connor shakes his head, “I Uber’d here. The online reviews said parking could be difficult.”

Hank offers to drive him instead and Connor accepts. A nervous tension begins to hum under his skin when the engine revs to life, prodding at him. He’s known Hank for three months and dated him for two. They’ve been on a handful of dates, he supposes, but he knows most people would consider this their first real one. Still, he wants to ask. If he could just get the question to come out of his mouth.

Something of his internal struggle must show on his face. Hank’s voice penetrates his anxious vacillation, “You’re lookin’ real serious all of a sudden.”

“Oh! No, it’s…” Connor fades off and Hank lets him cobble his thoughts together. He starts at the beginning, “I had a good time tonight.” It’s not enough for Hank to catch his drift, but he’s working towards it. He still has time.

“So did I,” Hank smiles and it’s genuine.

Connor reaches for Hank’s hand over the console as they turn into his neighborhood, “I don’t want it to end.” Hank glances over and understanding clicks into place at Connor’s tone, his wandering hand, and what he can only assume are his fuck me eyes, “Do you want to come in?”

Hank sighs and Connor hears regret in the exhalation. He moves to retract his hand, afraid he’s pushed too hard, too fast after all.

Hank gives him a wry smile and tugs it back, “I know the feeling. I can’t.” Confusion and disappointment war in his stomach and he tries to prevent it from traveling onto his face.

“I’ve got Cole—wasn’t supposed to be my weekend, but…Anyway; I got a sitter for tonight.” A small Oh of understanding crosses Connor’s lips. Hank’s expression shifts to one of calculation trying to balance desire with responsibility.

“He’ll be in bed by now,” Hank starts slowly, giving Connor time to catch up to his thought process. “I could take you back to my place.” Connor sucks in an excited breath, but Hank releases his hand in favor of holding it up in a universal gesture of stop.

“You can’t stay the night, though. Not that I don’t want you to, but it’ll lead to awkward questions in the morning when Cole comes bounding into the room and you’re under the covers.” Molten desire creeps up Connor’s thighs at the mental image of the two of them together in Hank’s bed.

“I’ll take you any way I can have you,” he hears the wantonness in his tone and his words. He doesn’t care; they’re true. Making the silent decision, Hank turns down the nearest street before reversing and heading back to the highway.

There’s an uncomfortable moment when Hank has to deal with the sitter, who turns out to be Debbie. She’s older than Connor anticipated; with a cotton candy cloud of grey hair and thick spectacles, she looks like a grandmother out of a storybook. Having no suitable explanation for why Hank brought Connor, his client, back to his house, he flushes hideously when she pats his cheek and tells him to have an enjoyable rest of his evening.

Running a hand down his face while the other braces against the recently shut door, Hank grumbles, “Christ in a flapjack house; that was awkward.”

Now that he’s here, Connor’s not certain what to do. In his own apartment, surrounded by familiar things, he’d be surer of himself. Here, he’s wary of making the wrong move. Connor’s apartment is just that—a box with four walls: a place to eat and sleep. Hank’s house is a home. It feels more important somehow.

Hank suffers from no such indecision. Gripping at Connor’s jacket lapels, his fingers glide down to the uppermost button. He leans in and Connor tilts his head to meet the hungry kiss. There’s a flurry of arms as both try to undress the other. Pulling free at last from restrictive suit jackets, Hank mouths at Connor’s neck. A soft sound escapes his throat when Hank’s hands find his waist, tugging him flush against him.

“Never thought I’d say this and mean it, but you’re gonna have to keep quiet,” he inclines his head toward the hall where Connor realizes Cole must be sleeping. Hank’s finger trails down Connor’s jaw before tilting his head up, “Think you can do that?” He murmurs the question against his lips and Connor’s knees threaten to buckle at his tone. He whispers back a Yes, not caring if he has to stuff a sock in his mouth to comply.

Connor wants. Wants in a way that he hasn’t experienced in a long time. Less restrictive than jeans, his suit pants aren’t as capable of concealing his arousal. He can feel Hank lengthening against him as well; it puts his resolve to the test as he bites back a groan at the sensation.

When Hank reaches down to palm at him, Connor’s fingers fist into his vibrant shirt while his face presses into the crook of Hank’s neck. A small, strangled sound disperses into his skin and Hank lets out a low chuckle. “So expressive,” he mutters as his hand gropes at Connor’s hardening length through the fine material of his slacks.

“Hnnnnnnnk,” his name comes out in a stifled whine and he arches into the touch.

Hank walks him backward and he tumbles when the backs of his knees hit the arm of the couch. Connor crawls in reverse to the other end, and Hank follows him down. One leg braced on the ground and the other tucked against Connor’s side, his body casts an all-consuming shadow over Connor’s prone form. His fingers work open Connor’s shirt with proficient ease, exposing planes of pale skin dotted with dark freckles.

Dragging the pad of his thumb across one of Connor’s nipples, he watches it pebble from the contact. Sneaking a sheepish glance at Connor, he admits in a quiet voice, “Wasn’t expecting this to happen.” Connor cocks his head at him, sensing something unspoken by his tone. “Condoms,” Hank says by way of explanation. “I mean, I’m clean, but…” he trails off and Connor’s hand cups at his cheek before he murmurs, “So am I.”

When Hank gives him a decisive nod, Connor yanks him down into a kiss, craving contact. He’s aware of Hank’s hands at his belt, his zipper, the waistband of his briefs, and then his mind can only focus of the heat of Hank’s palm wrapping around his straining erection to pull it free. He bucks into this first touch and accepts the fact that he is doomed. There is no way he’s surviving the evening if this small amount of touch is threatening to unravel him at the seams.

Hank strokes at his length a few times before saying in a hushed voice, “I’ve got lube in the bedroom, but…” He shifts and warm heat consumes Connor’s cock before his brain can catch up to Hank’s intent.

A whispered Oh, fuck escapes him before Connor clenches his teeth shut. He doesn’t trust his open mouth to remain silent for long. He glances down and his regret is immediate when he experiences both sensations of seeing and feeling Hank hollow his cheeks around him. It’s too much; it’s wonderful. He buries his head into the back of the couch and tries his best not to buck up into Hank’s throat.

It’s a matter of minutes before Connor’s resolve crumbles, “Hank.” Hank’s runs his thumb over Connor’s hip in response. Tugging at the shoulders of his shirt, Connor tries to make him understand before his talented tongue pulls a scream from his chest, “I can’t, I want—oh, god. You have to…stop.”

Hank pops off him with a lewd sound, lust and concern clouding his eyes, “Something wrong?”

Connor’s lungs suck in heaving gulps of air, his shirt sliding further open as his hands tangle in his own hair, “Yes. No. You’re too good at this.” Hank rumbles out a laughed Thanks. “I’m not, I’m sorr—,” he shakes his head, dropping the apology at a scowl from Hank.

“Can’t keep quiet?” Hank deduces the problem as his eyes take in Connor’s frantic breathing and the bite marks on his own knuckles from the effort to contain sounds. Connor nods and his mouth drops open in a low moan when Hank’s hand wraps around his girth, his thumb swirling at the leaking tip.

Hank’s eyes bore into his as he brings his free hand down over Connor’s mouth, locking away a whimper trying to cross Connor’s lips.

It’s so much worse.

It’s that much better.

Connor isn’t small, but Hank’s hand can conceal almost the entirety of his cock when he wraps his fingers around it. The sight of Hank’s grip nearly engulfing him is just about enough to undo him on the spot. Hank follows his gaze and gives him a smirk, “Ain’t a thing about me that isn’t big.”

Hank pumps Connor’s spit-slicked dick as he whispers filthy things into his ear, his chest pushing down into him, “You moan so pretty for me.” His fingers press lightly into Connor’s cheek when he feels Connor’s muffled sob reverberate against his hand, “Just like that. I can’t wait to see you fall apart around my cock.” He corkscrews his fist and Connor thrusts into the grip.

Encouraged by Connor’s eager response, Hank keeps up a stream of dirty talk while he works Connor into a frenzy, “I want to hear you scream. I bet you’ll come from taking my dick alone.” The thought produces a stifled wail and Hank presses his advantage, “You’d like that, wouldn’t you? Make you come without touching your dick once?”

Connor won’t last long like this, and he scrabbles at Hank’s back, trying to convey his impending orgasm. Hank breaks for a moment to whisper, “I know. I’ve got you.”

Hank’s words grow softer as his grip tightens. He still murmurs every debauched thing he wants to do to Connor, but he peppers him with praise, too:

You’d take me so good, Connor

You’d come so hard for me

Heat coils in his guts like a snake waiting for the right moment to strike. Hank’s lips brush against his ear, his breath hot and heavy with promise, “I’m gonna fuck you so nice next time, the only thing you’ll remember is my name.” Connor seizes at his words, a garbled shout suppressed by the thick weight of Hank’s hand over his mouth. Sticky white ropes of come paint his stomach and chest as Hank works him through it.

He releases his hold when Connor twitches and whimpers softly, spent and sensitive. He relaxes his grip on Connor’s mouth, stroking at his cheek before disappearing into the kitchen. While Hank retrieves a hand towel, Connor closes his eyes and waits for his breathing to even out.

“Christ, you are something else,” Hank says with affection, dropping the rag onto Connor’s decorated torso. Connor blinks open his eyes in a bleary question. Hank gestures at his blissed-out expression and melted body molded perfectly into the couch, “Just look at you. Fuckin’ perfect.”  

Fighting the boneless sensation consuming him, Connor sits up to wipe himself more or less clean. Setting the soiled rag on the coffee table for lack of a better option, he meets Hank’s heated gaze. Reaching out a tentative hand, Connor strokes at the straining length and girth still concealed behind his suit pants.

Hank grins wolfishly when Connor’s eyes go wide. He’d expected Hank to be big, he could tell when he’d pressed against him earlier. It’s a wholly different matter to feel it at full mast. Hank thrusts into Connor’s palm and Connor groans quietly at the promise of next time.

A firm believer in tit for tat, Connor’s fingers rise to the front of Hank’s pants. Warm hands lock his own in place, “You don’t have to.” Hank’s eyes flick to the clock meaningfully and Connor startles to realize it’s already a little past ten o’clock at night. Still, he doesn’t want to leave Hank in such an uncomfortable condition. He also wants to see what he’s working with now that he’s felt him through his pants.

If Hank’s behavior this evening was anything to go by, Connor’s fairly certain he knows how to get his way. Lowering his chin to look at Hank through his lashes, he lends a husky tone to his voice, “I want you in my mouth.”

Hank stares at him for the space of a single blink before working open his pants himself, “Far be it from me to argue.” Widening his stance, he motions for Connor to perform the honors.

Slightly nervous and more than a little intrigued, Connor hooks his fingers into the waistband of Hank’s brief and tugs, “Oh, holy shit.” As it turns out, feeling it and seeing it are two very different beasts. Connor had always dated fairly average-sized men or, at the very least, proportional men. It had occurred to him that Hank being as tall and broad as he is would likely come with matching equipment. His assumptions fell well short of reality.

Wrapping his hand around the base, he exhales a sigh of relief that his hand does actually close around it. After staring for several more seconds, Hank’s fingers tap under his chin.

“It doesn’t bite,” he mutters in amusement and Connor feels embarrassment stain his skin red from his chest to his forehead.

“I wasn’t prepared for…you’re, uh—,”

Hank cuts him off with a stroke of his hand along his jaw, “You’ll be fine. Haven’t broke anyone before.” Connor grumbles at the crass joke but shifts to a better position on the edge of the couch cushion while Hank moves more fully in front of him.

He takes the tip into his mouth, swirling his tongue across the beaded slit. His lips stretch around Hank’s girth and he’s fairly certain he looks like a largemouth bass bobbing for dick. Still, fair is fair. He’s not going to be able to deep throat him, that much is for certain, but he manages to swallow more than half of Hank’s length. He makes up the distance with his hand, pumping at the remaining inches to leave nothing untouched.

Where Connor was vocal, Hank is handsy. In less than twenty seconds, Hank has his hand on Connor’s head. Shortly after, his fingers entangle with the strands. It doesn’t take long for him to start tugging and guiding Connor to set a pace he prefers.

Several times, he locks both hands in Connor’s hair before relaxing them as if he’s afraid he’ll hurt him. Connor drags his tongue along the underside of Hank’s cock and up the tip before pulling off with a small pop. Looking up with hooded eyes, Connor makes an educated guess, “You can fuck my face if you want.”

Judging by Hank’s first groan of the evening, he assumed correctly. Fisting Connor’s hair with both hands, he thrusts with far more force than before. Connor doesn’t gag so much as he makes a choked noise of surprise. When he looks up at Hank, blue eyes are glued to his face. He feels warmth flood his cheeks at being watched while being used. He’d never been with anyone who looked at him so much like this.

His drained cock twitches at the thought of Hank pinning him down with his arms and his eyes, railing him until he’s a babbling mess. Something of it must show on his face because Hank mutters something that sounds like Christ and Gonna kill me. Connor hums in agreement and Hank spasms briefly at the sensation.

“Connor,” Hank’s voice is ragged and low. Connor lets out another hmm in answer. “Keep that up,” he breaks off around a sharp inhalation when Connor hums again before continuing, “and I’m gonna blow my load down your throat.”

Smiling with his eyes, Connor starts to moan around Hank’s cock while the large man does his best to permanently stretch his mouth. He lets his mind wander again to thoughts of Hank touching him, sucking him, fucking him, and he groans softly around his shaft.

“Connor,” Hank’s voice comes out like a warning, “I mean it.”

Connor’s eyes flick up and lock onto Hank’s. With an exaggerated wink, he does his best to put porn stars to shame. Although muted, the sounds and vibrations coming from his mouth shoot straight through Hank.

“Fuck, fuck, fuck,” is all the warning Connor gets before Hank thrusts deeper than he has all evening. He feels the warm slide of his release at the back of his throat and rapidly swallows to avoid the taste. Hank’s hands drift from his hair to his shoulders as he leans on him in the afterglow, his cock falling from Connor’s lips in a weak bob.

Tucking himself back in, he spins on one foot before collapsing on the couch next to Connor. “Holy fuck,” is all he says for several minutes. Connor checks the clock and sees it’s nearly ten thirty.

“Hank,” Connor reaches for Hank’s hand and finds himself tugged against his massive chest. He laughs before trying again, “Hank, I need to order an Uber or we’re going to fall asleep on this couch.”

It gets his attention and he deflates a little. “Wish you could stay,” he mumbles into Connor’s hair.

Connor squeezes at his hand, “Me, too.”

Hank’s quiet for several moments and Connor’s about to ask him if he’s sleeping when his hand moves to grip at Connor’s ass, “Ah, well. Next time.”

The phrase sends tingles down Connor’s spine and he murmurs in agreement, “Next time.”

Chapter Text

Markus dabs thoughtfully at a canvas while Connor raids his shoe collection for a second interview, “Don’t you own several pairs of very fancy shoes already?” He brings the brush up to his cheek, tapping it lightly while he scowls at the whorls of rose-orange dominating his latest piece.

“They suffered a tragic accident,” Connor calls back as he discards a pristine pair of white leather dress shoes. “Markus, how is it that a man who spends most of his life barefoot owns twenty-seven pairs of shoes?”

Markus looks down at his naked toes and gives them a wriggle, “I do have to attend art galleries and my own shows, you know. Back to my original question—what happened to your own shoe collection?” Connor may not be as bad as Markus, but he definitely used to own a dozen or so pairs of formal shoes.

Settling on dark tan oxfords, Connor extricates himself from Markus’ closet, “You remember when I told you I purged all things Elijah?” Markus nods without looking away from his canvas, “Well, he bought me most of those shoes. Said I had to look presentable for our clients.”

Markus rolls his eyes and mutters dark opinions about Elijah. Connor agrees with his assessment, “Exactly. I didn’t want them in my apartment. I donated them. I assumed you wouldn’t want them either.” Markus makes a yuck face before decisively slashing a crimson arc across his painting.

“So this interview,” Markus redirects the conversation to a happier topic. “You like the place? Researched them and, uh, whatever it is you suit types do before accepting a job offer?”

Connor rolls his eyes in fond exasperation, “Yes, Markus. They’re a well-known company in the finance world. If this interview goes well, I can breathe a little easier. I’ll feel even better once I sell the Victorian.” Connor’s barely kept the looming threat of financial ruin at bay. Having a light at the end of the tunnel has done wonders for his stress levels.

So has Hank.

He tries not to let a flush betray his thoughts of their time together the previous week. Markus was more persistent than a bloodhound if he caught a whiff of anything interesting. Connor doesn’t have the brain power to fend off a nosy Markus at the moment. Occupied with his canvas, Markus doesn’t take notice.

“When’s the auction? I want to be there to see that beautiful beast.”

Connor’s mouth draws into a thin line, “Can you cut it out with the bear nonsense?”

Markus’ eyes blink away from his painting for a fraction of a second, “I was talking about the house, Connor.”

Connor mutters a small oh until he sees a betraying smile tug at Markus’ mouth. Chucking a pillow at the back of his head, Connor calls him several choice names. Holding up his palms in surrender, a blob of paint falls from the half-clenched brush onto Markus’ hand, “Alright, alright. I’ll stop. Seriously, though, do you have a date set yet?”

Connor shakes his head, “Not yet. I’m meeting Hank after my interview to go over what work is left on the house. We’re going to settle on a date after that.”

Markus smirks at him and Connor lets out a defensive, “What?”

“Nothing,” Markus returns his gaze to his painting. “Just, the way you said it. Sounds like you’re picking a wedding date.”

“Oh, shut up,” Connor says it with a laugh, trying to keep the blood threatening to dash across his cheeks under control. “It’s a house auction and you know it.”

“Yes,” Markus muses, mischief clear in his tone, “Most couples buy a home before they sell one together, but you’ve always been a bit of a relationship rogue.”

Scowling, Connor says flatly, “You are the worst and I hate you. I hope you know that.”

“Aw, you love me,” Markus quips back. “Did you find some shoes that’ll do the job?”

Glad for the opportunity to discuss anything else, Connor hoists them up into Markus’ peripheral, “Yeah, thanks.”   

Despite his distraction, the interview goes well. While he was able to set aside Markus’ comments for the duration of an interview, they come springing back into his mind the instant he sets out for the Victorian.

Wedding. It’s a word that sits heavy and awkward on his tongue. Their relationship is far too new to even be having these thoughts, but they buffet around his mind like unruly pigs in a too-small pen nonetheless. He tries to look at things logically to untangle why a throwaway joke is enough to have him in knots.

It doesn’t take him long to figure it out. He hasn’t seen Hank in person since their date. Things are getting serious—far more serious than any relationship Connor had had to date. There are outside factors that are different this time. Hank has a son, an ex-wife, and a truckload more life experience than Connor does.

Still, he wants it. He wants the challenges and the complexities that are so different from his own small world. Markus’ wedding talk hadn’t scared him so much as it made him realize he’s actively planning for the future. With his previous romances, he’d never considered where he’d be a year, a month, or even a week later. With Hank, he wants to build something together. It’s a warm, happy thought.

He pulls up to the Victorian feeling the happiest he’s been since buying it. It looks like a real home now, complete with functional windows, a working front door, and actual steps leading up to it. Turning the knob, Connor makes it to the dining room before he stops in awe.

He’d seen the walls go up and had contributed to small projects here and there, but seeing it dusty and tarped is a far cry from the view he has now. He runs his hands along the cherry stained wainscoting, happy Hank was able to pull off this design feature for him. Glancing up, an ornate ceiling medallion surrounds an impressive chandelier. Forcing himself into motion, he admires the authentic stained glass that fill the windows up the stairs. Hank had salvaged them on a special picking trip.

He finds the man in question pulling tape from the baseboards, revealing perfectly cut paint lines. Sneaking up on tiptoe, Connor hugs him from behind, “Hey there, handsome.”

Hank laughs before twisting in his grip, “Hey there yourself.” He cups Connor’s face with one hand before his thumb runs along his bottom lip. Heat floods Connor’s body at the memory of their date and the aftermath. Hank’s warm, hooded gaze makes him wonder if he’s thinking about it as well.

Dropping his hand, Hank turns to gesture at the house at large, “Whadda ya think?”

The dopey grin on Connor’s face would be answer enough, but Connor tries to give his emotions justice, “It’s wonderful. I never thought this day would come.”

Hank laughs and claps him on the shoulder, “Well, we’re not quite to the finish line yet, Con. There’re a lotta little things still. You’d be surprised how much time they require.” As Connor’s glow fades, Hank backpedals, “It shouldn’t be more than another couple of weeks. We gotta do all the finishing touches, pass inspection, and then stage her for the auction. Can’t have an empty house and expect to attract top dollar bids.”

Connor’s head swims at the details, trying to figure out how he’s going to manage it while juggling a potential new job. His face must show some of his concern because Hank chucks him under the chin, “Don’t worry about any of that. It’s all part of what I do. Speaking of which…” Hank fades off as he grabs Connor’s hand to pull him from the room.

They make their way to the sitting room, where a large table dominates, oddly out of place. “I wanted to be here when you saw the finished product,” Hank offers when he sees Connor’s confused face. Grabbing a fistful of tablecloth, Hank reveals what Connor now recognizes as the table they built together.

Connor’s fingers drift to run across the surface, “Our table.” Hank’s presence looms behind him; he feels the warmth of his skin through his clothes before his chest connects with his back.

His hands rest over Connor’s, caging him against the table. He speaks in a quiet voice next to his ear. He’s only discussing moving it to the dining room, but his proximity is distracting.

“Anybody home?” The question startles Connor and he jolts against Hank’s chest, “You kinda phased out on me there.”

“Sorry, I was preoccupied,” he turns to face Hank, but the man doesn’t give him any additional space. The table edge presses into the meat of his thighs just below where they connect to his buttocks.

Running his hands up Connor’s arms, smugness bleeds into his tone, “Oh, yeah? By what?” Realization that Hank’s flustering him on purpose cracks through him like a whip. He reaches up to shove at him playfully. Ready to huff out some faux irritation, the words fade into a breathy sound when Hank restrains his wrist with ease.

He leans into him, forcing Connor into a sit on the table. “Asked you a question,” it comes out gruff and Connor sighs when Hank presses a scratchy kiss against his neck.

“You’re doing this on purpose,” if Connor were with anyone else, he’d be mortified at how needy he sounds.

“Maybe,” Hank murmurs in partial agreement. His hands grip at Connor’s thighs, his thumbs sweeping dangerously close to his growing arousal. “Been thinking,” is all Hank says, waiting for Connor to answer.

“About what?” Connor groans out the question when Hank nips at the space between where his neck connects to his shoulder.

“You could be as loud as you wanted to here,” the declaration shoots straight through Connor, heated desire pooling between his thighs.

“Hank,” breathing heavily, Connor’s brain tries to win the war against lust, “We can’t—not here.”

Hank’s hands tug at Connor’s shirt, pulling it free from his slacks. Rough fingers ghost across the skin above the waistband, “Why not?”

The sexually charged part of Connor’s brain heartily agrees while his common sense struggles to hang on, “Someone could stop by—it’s happened before.”

“Don’t care,” is Hank’s only answer. Still, he keeps his exploration of Connor’s body limited. He can hear the finality in his tone. Even so, he’s not ready to stop touching him yet, “I’ve wanted to get my hands on you all week.”

Connor lets out a low, unfettered moan when Hank’s forefinger nudges against the outline of his hardening length. The touch is feather-light, but it’s enough to make Connor shift against it, head lolling to one side. Hank nuzzles at the exposed flesh before muttering, “I don’t think I’m ever gonna get enough of this.”

Hank’s fingers trail down Connor’s neck, and Connor’s voice vibrates beneath the touch, “What do you mean?”

Hank stares at him like he’s crazy, “Christ, Connor. I mean, look at you.” His hand moves to cup Connor’s cheek and he leans into it, trying to get his breathing under control, “I could touch you and listen to your responses for hours.”

Connor bites back a whine at the thought. Hank’s thumb teases his bottom lip free from his teeth, “Just like that.”

A thick rope of unbridled longing wraps around what remains of Connor’s good sense like a gag, silencing it. Yanking Hank down into a kiss, he’s on the verge of making a liar of himself. Noticing the shift in Connor’s attitude, Hank’s hands move to work at the buttons of Connor’s shirt.

He’s sliding a sleeve down one slim, freckled shoulder when a foghorn blares from Hank’s back pocket, “Fucking. Brenda.”

When Hank steps back to answer the call, Connor pulls himself together. There’s no sense in waiting for someone to arrive unannounced to see him disheveled on a table.

Hank’s tone swings from one of irritation to concern so rapidly, Connor knows something serious must’ve transpired.

“What happened?” A shrill voice talking faster than an auctioneer screeches over the line in an unintelligible panic. Hank doesn’t get a word in edgewise until he says in a placating voice, “Alright, Brenda. I’m on my way. Tell him I’ll be there soon.”

Ending the call, Hank runs a hand through his hair, “Looks like you and Cole have something in common I never considered before.”

Connor cocks a confused eyebrow, not understanding the abrupt change in conversation. Hank gives him a humorless smile, “Neither of you should use my tools without supervision.”

Hank’s relative calm is the only thing keeping the cold fear that sprung up in Connor’s guts at bay, “Is he ok? What happened? Where—,” Hank holds up a hand and Connor falls into abrupt silence.

“He’s fine. He was playing with my staple gun and it ‘just went off’ according to Cole,” Connor cringes and Hank glowers. “Why he had it at all still remains to be seen. He stapled his big toenail. He’ll need a tetanus shot, but, otherwise, it scared him more than hurt him.”

Hank breaks off to thumb at a button on Connor’s shirt. Smiling ruefully, he continues, “He’s pretty wigged out by the whole thing, though. He’s asking for me.”

Connor hops off the table and takes Hank’s hand, “Of course he is. He’s a little kid with a staple in his toe. I’d probably want you to come sit with me if I was in his position and I’m a grown man.” Hank laughs and shoots him a grateful grin.

He tugs Connor closer by his waistband before glancing down meaningfully, “Raincheck, then?”

Connor laughs and pecks him on the cheek, “Definitely.” Hank walks him back to his car, kissing him through the window before he hustles to his work truck. The last of Connor’s uncomfortable arousal fades by the time he reaches his apartment.

Shutting off his car, his phone explodes in texts held back by the Do Not Disturb feature his phone activates anytime it’s near a car. Blinking in surprise, he sees several messages from Hank. 

Bumping the door open with his hip, a small frown forms as he reads Hank’s texts:

Sorry about today.

Cole is fine.

Didn’t expect this to happen.

Connor taps out a reply:

It’s not a problem, Hank. I’m glad Cole is well.

To his surprise, an ellipses bubble dances as Hank replies immediately:

Can I call you later once Cole is settled?

Blinking, Connor moves his head in a nod that Hank can’t see before replying:

Of course.

The next hour passes in a haze of distraction for Connor. He replays their conversation over in his head, trying to figure out what has Hank acting so strangely. With a shrug, he decides something must’ve happened at the hospital.

He burns some time placing a call to Carl, letting him know about the updated timeline. Connor’s startled to learn that Carl already sent out the invites. When he presses him, Carl admits to calling Debbie and picking her brain.

“I was getting worried,” Carl confesses. “The longer the house sits unsold, the more expense you accrue.” Connor knows Carl is right. Each bill he receives sends a tremor of anxiety through him. It costs money to own a home—he has to account for electricity, water, and more. He had the loan, but each expense puts him further in the red.

Shaking those concerns from his mind, he asks a more pressing question, “And you’re sure about the guest list? No Elijah, no Amanda—,”

Carl interrupts him with a kind chuckle, “You and Markus were very clear. No one under those names can purchase tickets, I assure you.” He ends the call, feeling relief at the upcoming auction at war with his concerns about not being ready in time.

His impending call with Hank continues to gnaw at him as well. Even though he can’t point to anything in particular, Connor can’t shake the unease that follows him from room to room. Picking all the peas out of his salad, he’s building a tiny green mountain with them when his phone vibrates against the counter.

“Hey, Con,” Hank sounds tired and Connor’s concern increases for no good reason.

Deciding not to waste time, he asks the blunt question, “Hank, what’s going on? You’re being bizarrely cryptic.” Hank exhales a sigh that makes Connor’s lungs constrict with cold.

“Nothing. It’s just…” he fades off and doesn’t offer any explanation until Connor prods him along. “I’m sorry about today, is all.”

More confused than ever, Connor presses him, “Why?”

Hank makes an irritated sound at the back of his throat, “Because it’s the second time something like this has happened.” Anger tinges his voice and Connor startles at it.

“Are you mad at me?” As incredulous as the question sounds, Connor has the unnerving feeling he’s striking closer to the heart of the matter than he’s comfortable with.

“No,” his voice is harsh, in direct odds with his response. Connor can almost hear him grimace when he modulates his tone, “No, I just need you to understand.”

Connor waits for several awkward seconds before speaking, “I’m going to need you to provide some details if I’m going to catch up to what you’re trying to explain.”

“Ahh, fuck,” Connor can hear bedsprings groan. Hank must be in his room. “I’m shit at this sort of thing.”

Panic wells in Connor’s chest, “Are you breaking up with me?” It makes no sense, there is no reason for him to think it, but it’s the place his mind goes to without hesitation.

Hank’s response is immediate, “Fuck no. Christ, I’m fumbling this one.” He mutters indistinctly to himself before exhaling a determined sigh, “I haven’t dated much since the divorce. Mostly because of Cole—not like that! Jesus fuck, Hank. Get it together.”

A warm surge of affection for the man swells like the tide in Connor’s chest, chasing away icy fears. He knows it’s hard for Hank to talk about his feelings. Hank clears his throat and tries again, “People act like they’re on board with the whole kid thing. They think Oh, cool. He’s only around sometimes, which sucks enough by itself when they’re not upfront about it.”

A tendril of suspicion curls to life in Connor’s mind, but he holds his tongue. He doesn’t want to interrupt Hank when he’s just opened a topic of discussion that’s clearly important to him, “I’ve had some relationships go south because of my responsibility to Cole. I guess what I’m saying is this sort of thing will happen again. I need you to know that and I understand if that’s a deal breaker for you.”

Connor wrinkles his nose, wondering what sort of assholes Hank dated in the past, “Hank, have I at any point indicated that Cole is an issue?”

“Well, no. But—,”

“Have I ever balked at spending time with the two of you?” Memories of Cole’s ice hockey games play in the background of his mind. They’re happy ones despite having to wake up at ass o’clock and nearly freezing off his toes on several occasions.

“No,” Hank says on a sigh.

Connor’s next question tugs at the root of Hank’s concerns, “Have I ever complained that you have to leave unexpectedly because Cole needs you?”

Hank’s quiet for a moment and, when he speaks, Connor can hear the smile in this voice, “No, you haven’t.”

“Right,” Connor exhales and some of the anxiety he’d felt since receiving Hank’s texts leaves him. “I know Cole is an important part of your life. He’s not a décor feature you can swap out on a whim. I’m aware you are a package deal.”

Hank goes quiet for so long that Connor wonders if the call dropped. Just as he’s about to check, Hank exhales, “You really are something else. Sorry to freak you out like this.”

Connor wishes Hank were here to reassure him in person, “I know I don’t know, well, anything about kids, but I wouldn’t do that to you, Hank.”

“I know you wouldn’t, Connor. Got too in my own damn head about it.” The conversation turns lighter after that. Hank panics when he learns Carl already set the auction in motion but relaxes when Connor gives him the date. He recommends a company that rents décor and furniture then asks if Connor wants to help with the finishing touches.

It’s the pretty part of the restoration. Fluffing pillows and shit for potential buyers.

Connor laughs and agrees, which is how he finds himself once more at the Victorian with Hank the following weekend. Stretching up on tiptoe, he tries to hang an ornate picture above the restored fireplace. It’s huge and heavy with ornate carvings around the edges. Rough fingers slide over his, “Need a hand?”

Connor sinks back down onto even footing, letting Hank handle the heavy frame. More or less trapped until Hank finishes, Connor enjoys the shift of Hank’s chest against his back.

“I thought you were supposed to be setting up the dining room?” Connor asks him when he backs away from the wall.

“Couldn’t just stand there and watch you struggle,” Connor flushes at the response. In truth, he liked Hank’s displays of strength. Connor may have dramatized how heavy the frame felt to him. It’s not something Hank needed to know, though.

“Come help me with the frou-frou chairs,” Hank tugs him along by his hand.

Connor frowns at him as he follows, “They’re not frou-frou, Hank. They’re period appropriate for the house.”

“Yeah, well. Good luck getting spaghetti sauce out of powder blue velvet. Honestly, it’s like no one had children in the Victorian era.” Connor smiles at Hank’s grumbling, helping him pull chairs out of boxes and arranging them around the dining room table they built together.

“I love this,” Connor runs his hands over the smooth surface. He turns to see Hank regarding him with a fondness that could rival down feathers for its softness.

He clears his throat, “Yeah, it’s a good one. C’mon, we have plenty of more rooms to do.” Connor helps Hank push a tufted chaise lounge into position in the parlor before promptly collapsing onto it.

“What? I have to test it out. For authenticity,” Hank’s head tips back on a laugh before he turns his attention to the other couches that need arranging. He doesn’t notice Connor’s watchful gaze until he’s holding an armchair directly overhead, trying to navigate around empty décor boxes.

“See something you like?” He rumbles out as he sets the chair down with a grunt.

Chin in hand, Connor eyes him from ankle to brow and back down again like the world’s sultriest elevator.

“I do.”

Hank grins at his tone before tugging him up to his feet, “Let’s go, bedroom eyes. We have a lot more to get done this weekend. With all my other job sites, I won’t have time to come back during the week. I don’t wanna hold up your auction.”

Connor presses a hand to his chest in mock outrage, “How dare you, Hank.” Hank gives him a highly skeptical look until Connor declares, “You’re cheating on the Victorian with other houses. A travesty.” He throws a dramatic hand over his eyes, peeking out at Hank with a grin.

“Yes, Connor,” Hank deadpans. “I’m having an affair with a mid-century modern and a rambler. I’m a busy, busy man.” An ill-concealed snort from Connor has them both chuckling for well over a minute.

Wiping at his eyes, Connor refocuses his attention on helping Hank. His resolve lasts for all of three minutes until Hank hefts an entire coffee table into the air as if it weighs less than a teacup poodle.

“Connor,” Hank’s tone is a blend of amusement and irritation. “You gonna help me or gawk at me all day?”

“Look, it is not my fault that you are absurdly strong. It’s my god given right to watch you pick things up and put them down.” Hank’s head tilts to one side and Connor has two seconds of warning before Hank advances.

“Hank, no!” He turns to flee but stumbles around an unfamiliar décor piece. In a confusing flailing of limbs, Connor finds himself bent in half over Hank’s shoulder. Scrabbling at his back, Connor wheezes around a laugh, “This is not what I meant.”

Hank pats his right buttock and says in a stately manner, “Then you should have been more specific.” Hank carries him around for several minutes while arranging things one-handed, his other arm locked around the back of Connor’s thighs.

“You’re on a real power trip here now, aren’t ya?” Connor finally asks when Hank’s shoulder starts to chafe at his hips.

“If I put you down are you gonna help or are you gonna moon at me from the rented furniture?” Connor laughs then winces as the motion reverberates through his ribcage and hipbones. Hearing the painful hitch, Hank sets him down. He relaxes when he sees Connor’s still wearing a smile.

He’s a better help after that, but it still takes the majority of the day to get it done. Connor’s phone pings at him several times as they’re folding up the last of the empty boxes. Tugging it out of his back pocket, he grins up at Hank.

“Carl says we can expect a good turnout. Not that I expected any different with Carl running the thing. Still, it’s nice to see him excited about an event. He never likes his own shows. He’d much rather watch re-runs of Family Feud.”

Hank laughs before settling in next to Connor on the couch. He throws an arm behind him and leans in conspiratorially, “So, about this auction.”

Hank’s slick tone catches Connor’s attention, “What about it?”

“Do you have yourself a date yet?” Hank waggles his eyes brows suggestively, underscoring the joke.

Connor laughs and shoves at his shoulder, “Why, are you asking me?”

Hank drops dramatically to one knee and the gesture punches the air from Connor’s lungs. He gets a grip when Hank begins speaking in a pompous voice, “Connor Smith, would you do me the honor of attending the silent auction of your home?” Connor cracks first, a hysterical peel of laughter bending him at the middle.

When he gets his fit of giggles under control, he pulls his hand free from Hank’s to tug the man’s face closer to him, “I wouldn’t have it any other way.” Sealing the deal with a kiss, Connor lets his fingers wrap into Hank’s hair.

Surfacing for air, Hank pulls back. Shifting into his usual demeanor, Hank asks honestly, “So what’s the dress code for this thing?”

Looking back on it, Connor is grateful and relieved the auction isn’t his first time seeing Hank in a suit. They’d agreed to meet half an hour before it was slated to begin and Connor needs all thirty of those minutes to recoup.

“This should be a crime,” Connor murmurs as he runs his hands down Hank’s broad chest. This suit is equally as well made as the first one Connor saw him in, but this one has pops of blue the same color as Hank’s eyes.

“What’s that?” He huffs out the question on the end of a laugh. By the way he puffs up under Connor’s touch, Connor suspects Hank is fully aware of what and is being coy on purpose.

Even so, he plays along, “You, in this suit. That’s what.” He sneaks a kiss knowing the opportunities for smooching will evaporate once the auction gets into full swing.

As is on cue, Markus strides through the front door, “Good evening, my fine host, how are y—oh, yuck.” Connor breaks the kiss in favor of flipping Markus the bird.

“So thrilled you could make it, Markus. Truly,” Connor deadpans, but he accepts a hug and a bottle of wine.

When Connor gives the bottle a questioning look, Markus shrugs, “I figured people bring wine to house warmings, why not an auction. If it sells, we can smash the bottle against the side before you set her off to sea.”

“It’s a house, not a boat,” Hank says bewildered.

Connor shakes his head, “Don’t encourage him.”

The guests begin to arrive in earnest after that. Connor loses track of how many people greet him and ask polite questions about the home. Flushing slightly, he feels like a schoolboy who didn’t study before his final exam. Hank saves him by answering the majority of the technical questions people lob in Connor’s direction.

Thank you,” Connor mumbles after Hank fields a question about the foundation of the home.

Hank gives him a smile and is on the verge of speech when his mouth snaps shut in a grim line. Following his gaze, Connor feels the air leak out of his lungs until they register as empty. Even from the back, he would recognize Chloe anywhere. Her posture is rigid like she doesn’t want to be here. Her fingers glow white from how firmly they’re gripping a glass of red wine.

He already knows what it means and doesn’t bother looking for the man. Elijah will come to him.

“You alright?” Hank asks the question low enough so only Connor can hear.

He squeezes at Hank’s hand, muttering back, “Yeah, I’m fine.”

“The man of the hour,” Elijah’s voice trickles down his spine like ice water. He has to physically resist the urge to hunch his shoulders against the sensation. “But I don’t want to interrupt you two love birds.” Elijah elevates his voice and more than a few interested eyes look in their direction.

“You need to leave,” Connor tells him in an even tone. “You didn’t purchase a ticket and this is a private event.”

Elijah extracts a ticket from his pocket, Chloe’s name staring back at him in shining black ink, “But I do have a ticket. My dear little Chloe purchased me one when I discovered I could not do so on my own.” Connor’s eyes dart to Chloe’s face; catching his gaze, her face goes rigid with panic.

“I won’t ask you again, Elijah.” It won’t be that simple, Connor knows. Elijah won’t leave without making a scene or forcing Connor into an unpleasant situation.

“Oh, but I can’t,” Here we go, Connor thinks to himself, wondering what Elijah’s done now. “I’ve already placed my bid.”

“You what?” Unable to remain silent any longer, Hank’s voice strikes Elijah with the force of a mule kick. The man takes a step back, creating distance between himself and Hank, evidently remembering his thinly veiled threat from their last interaction.

“Elijah,” although Chloe’s voice is quiet and small, there is no mistaking the anger in it. “You promised.”

Elijah reaches out to stroke her face, but she flinches back from the touch. He frowns, an expression Connor had come to know well in the final months of their sordid affair, “Chloe dear, I was just telling Connor about the generous bid I made for this…well, would you call it a house? It is rather small.”

Elijah’s attention is focused entirely on Connor when he says the words, hoping to see pain or anger cross his former lover’s eyes. Instead, an expensive merlot flies through the air, striking him full in the face.

“I’m so sorry,” Chloe whispers into Connor’s ear before she hands him her empty glass and walks away with quick, determined steps. Elijah takes several seconds to recover from his shock. Pulling a kerchief from his pocket, he wipes at this face. Looking down at the stained fabric, he grimaces, “Such a waste.”

Connor isn’t sure if he’s talking about the wine or his stained clothing; he’s certainly not talking about Chloe. He couldn’t even be bothered to spare her a backward glance much less chase after her. Connor catches sight of Markus intercepting her when Elijah demands his attention once more, “As I was saying—,”

“What did you promise her, Eli?” Connor’s voice is so cold even Hank glances at him sideways. “That this wasn’t about me? That you were genuinely interested in the house? Or maybe you told her you wanted to buy a little love nest for her so you can keep your lovers in their own private cages?”

Elijah’s mouth drops open in an angry O, but Connor ignores it, “Honestly, Eli, I don’t care. Buy the house—don’t buy the house—you’re the only one still keeping up this charade.”

“Excuse me?” He’s smiling so hard his face looks like it may crack under the pressure, “I moved on from you well before you had your tantrum. You were…” He fades off twiddling his fingers in the air as if searching for the most painful words he can find, “You were a convenient fuck. An indulgent distraction. I let you go months before you realized it.”

There was a time when those words would have hurt. Now, Connor only feels minor irritation that the conversation is still going, “Elijah, you can’t let go of someone you never had. You don’t know how to be in a relationship unless you’re controlling the person.”

A rebuttal is forming on Elijah’s tongue when Connor cuts him off, done with having this discussion, “In case you forgot, I’m the one who did the leaving. You’ve done nothing but chase me and harass me since. I’m not interested in your time or your attention. Now, please, leave. This is still personal property. Don’t make me call the police.”

Elijah gives a loud, haughty sniff, “Very well, I’ll retract my bid and go.”

Markus materializes at his elbow, ready to forcibly escort him out if necessary, “All bids are final. You’re welcome to pay the fine, however, for making a false offer.” Elijah stares at him and Markus gives him a smile that is mostly teeth, “It’s all in the forms you signed. There’s a twenty percent fee for reneging on an offer.”

Muttering about lawyers, Elijah pockets his soiled handkerchief. Glancing about, he only just seems to notice Chloe’s absence.

“She’s gone,” vindictive pleasure colors Markus’ tone. “She asked me to tell you not to expect her this evening or ever again for that matter. I believe she’s retrieving her personal belonging as we speak.”

That spurs Elijah into action. He turns on one heel before stalking away in high dudgeon without so much as a goodbye. Markus follows at a distance to make sure the man actually leaves. Hank hooks Connor by the arm and casually strolls away from the wine spill still on the floor.

Turning a corner down an empty hall, Connor’s on the verge of protest that he needs to clean up the mess until Hank pushes him roughly against the wall.

“That,” Hank’s voice is warm and gruff and much too close to this ear for coherent thoughts, “was amazing.” The kiss is fierce, passionate, and wholly unexpected. Connor does his best not to moan into Hank’s mouth when his body presses flush against him.

When he breaks away, Connor rests his forehead against Hank’s chin while his hands grip the lapels of Hank’s jacket. Trying to reign in his desires, Connor mumbles, “What was that for?”

Hank exhales a laugh into Connor’s hair, “I’ve never seen you stand up to that Kamski fuck before. It was kinda hot, not gonna lie.” Connor smiles, his fingers trembling with a mix of leftover adrenaline and want.

Markus’ head pops around the hallway entrance, “Connor, where’d you—oh, there you are.” Markus stampedes through them as if they’re not trying to enjoy a private moment, “There’s still wine on the floor. Bravo, by the way. I only caught the end of your dress down, but I give it ten stars and two thumbs up.”

Grinning, he extracts himself from Hank to check a linen closet for some paper towels, “Did Chloe say where she was going?”  

Markus nods, “Yeah, she’s going to stay in my spare room tonight and maybe tomorrow. She’s probably going to couch surf with friends until she finds something more stable.” Connor grimaces, not envying her position. At least he had had his own apartment after he imploded his personal and professional life.

“She’ll be fine,” Markus comments, noticing Connor’s concern. “She’s made of tougher stuff than I expected. I wish I could’ve been there to see his stupid face when the wine hit him.”

The rest of the evening passes in relative calm. There’s a moment when a server nearly collides with another, but they avoid impact at the last second.

“Thank goodness,” Hank murmurs as he plucks several tiny quiches from their trays and pops them into his mouth all at once. “Wouldn’t want to waste these,” his voice comes out muffled from so many tiny pies. Connor raises an eyebrow at his overstuffed cheeks but keeps his commentary to himself.

From the moment he’d learned Elijah had made a bid, he’d begun preparing himself for the inevitable. He knows it shouldn’t matter who buys the house, but he can’t quite suppress a cringe when the auctioneer announces a Mr. Kamski as the winner with the highest bid. Markus accepts on Elijah’s behalf, positively gushing over how much it means to Elijah.

Connor snorts through most of his speech, knowing with absolute certainty that Elijah would never say or think of half the things coming out of Markus’ mouth. Carl eventually shoos him off the stage after Markus announces, “Elijah would want me to assure you that he would have tears in his eyes knowing that 10% of his bid will go to supporting the arts.”

Later, Carl assures Connor he can complete the transaction through a lawyer rather than meeting with Elijah himself. His ridiculously high bid netted Connor a tidy sum. At best, Connor had hoped to break even. Elijah’s absurd vendetta will give him a modest profit of fifteen thousand dollars once he pays off the loan and covers the unexpected costs.

His first surge of true anger hits him when he realizes the sale includes all the furniture, “How is that possible?” Connor rages when the auctioneer brings him the final contract.

Carl intervenes to prevent Connor from biting the unsuspecting man’s head off, “He elected to purchase it furnished. Most people opt out of it because it costs more money, but…” Carl fades off, not understanding Connor’s abrupt outrage.

Eyes cutting over to the dining room, Hank knows what the problem is immediately, “I’m sorry, Con. We can build another one if you’d like.” Hank knows it won’t be the same and disappointment builds the longer he looks at the table they’d made together.

Dealing with the legalities, Connor doesn’t notice Markus tug at Hank’s sleeve. After an hour and a half of paperwork and accepting obligatory congratulations, Hank’s hand slips into his.

“There you are,” Connor says quietly, sagging into Hank’s frame. Most of the guests have trickled out by this point and Connor turns on the spot, committing all the details of this place to memory. He’s spent so much time, money, and effort to get to this point that he hadn’t considered what it would feel like to leave the place for the last time. 

“Want to take a final tour?” Connor nods, snapping pictures of small details he likes on his phone. They have the official pictures taken for the invitations, but he wants some personal ones as well. Hank lingers in each room; he seems even more reluctant to leave than Connor does.

Walking Hank to his truck, Connor’s question leaves his mouth in a condensation cloud, “What are you doing for the rest of the night?”

Hank’s smiles easily, “This was all I had planned for the evening. Though, I admit, I thought it would run later than it did.”

Connor toys with the button on the breast pocket of Hank’s jacket, “When do you have to be back.”

Hank’s grin widens, “I don’t.” His fingers hook Connor by his pockets, pulling him closer for a kiss.

Hank’s tongue flicks across Connor’s bottom lip, trying to deepen it. Pressing more closely to him, Connor opens his lips to the silent request. Hank doesn’t relinquish Connor’s mouth until he feels a slight tremor run through him. Whether from the cold or from need, neither is sure.

Smoldering brown eyes meet a hooded blue gaze, “Want to come back to my place?”

Checking his watch, Hank nods, “Meetcha there in twenty.”

Connor’s hips press into Hank’s, his intent undeniable, “Fifteen if you know how to work the lights.”

Connor doesn’t exactly run red lights, but he does burst through several questionable transitions from yellow to red. Pulling into his neighborhood, he double takes at a familiar car exiting his street.

Hank follows closely behind, parking along the sidewalk. Connor squints in the direction of the long-gone car, “Did that look like Markus to you?”

Hank crosses the lawn in four large strides, before pulling Connor up into a kiss that forces him onto his toes. Walking him two half steps backward, Hank has Connor flush against the door with his hands in his hair. “Don’t care,” he breathes into the space between them, his voice gruff and low with heavy desire.

Connor fumbles blindly at the lock, and it takes three tries to get it open. They stumble over the threshold and Connor’s laugh at their blundering turns into a moan when Hank pulls him into another heated kiss.

Still, something nags at Connor as his sixth sense warns him that something is not quite right about his apartment. Pulling back, he glances around to make sure they’re alone. He has the oddest sensation that someone’s been in here recently.

He turns in Hank’s embrace and he’s about to ask him to help check the windows when his eyes rove over his dining area. Hank noses at his ear when he goes ramrod straight, tugging his back tightly against his chest.

“Oh, Hank,” Connor’s voice cracks with emotion.

“Couldn’t let him have it. Markus and I ducked out while you were signing the papers.” Hank releases his grip on Connor so he can walk over to run his fingers across the familiar surface.

“Hank, thank you. This means so much to me. I know you did most of the work, but it’s the first thing I’ve ever made and—,” Hank’s fingertips press against Connor’s lips, silencing him.

“You’re welcome,” Hank murmurs against his ear. Memories of their last night alone together ignite at Hank’s fingers lingering on his lips. Dropping his hand to smooth down Connor’s chest, they wander wherever they can reach. His exploration is slow and Connor sighs at the touch. It’s not enough.

When his hands squeeze at Connor’s ass, Connor groans out Hank’s name. Hank smiles against his throat before sucking lightly at his pulse point, pulling a breathy sound from Connor’s chest. Gripping him under his buttocks, Connor’s legs wrap around Hank’s thick waist as he sets him down on the table.

Tugging Hank closer, his head falls back in a moaned Oh at the sudden friction. Hank reaches down to lightly palm at him through his pants, quietly unbuttoning them. “Hank, don’t be a t-tease,” Connor stutters around the word when Hank presses his hips into him, shifting his growing arousal against his own, fanning the fire of an ache that threatens to undo him.

Grinding slowly, Hank pins him down with his eyes, “Oh, sweetheart, I’m not teasing.”

Connor flushes at the pet name, “Then what are you waiting for?”

Hank grins at him with a predatory smile, “I wanna hear every sound you can make.” Connor buries his face in Hank’s chest, trying to hide his embarrassment. Hank lifts his chin, making him meet his hungry gaze. He buckles when Hank’s hand sneaks inside his briefs. Pulling Connor’s cock free, he strokes him as he growls, “I’m gonna make you scream.”

Chapter Text

I’m gonna make you scream.

Connor can almost see the words as they leave Hank’s mouth. They’re sultry and warm like a lover’s caress. He leans in to taste the sentence on his tongue. Hank’s stroking is slow and relaxed; Connor knows this action only serves as the opening act of a much grander show. He whimpers at the thought and Hank’s lips tilt upward at the sound without breaking the kiss.

Connor knows there’s only so much Hank can do without lube, but one large hand pins him to the table by his waist when he moves to shift off of it, “Where you trying to run off to, Con?” Hank’s tone is light and teasing, mirroring his gentle handling of Connor’s shaft.

Connor, for his part, does try to answer, “Nnggaaaah.” It comes out quiet and a great deal higher pitched than he cares for, but his ability to feel embarrassment vanishes in waves with each languid stroke of Hank’s hand.

Connor tries to scowl when Hank murmurs, “Sorry, didn’t catch that.” The expression gets lost in the circle of Connor’s mouth when his bottom lip drops open in a breathy moan. Hank’s thumb brushes across the tip of Connor’s dick, spreading a bead of pre-cum over the head.

“We…we need—,” he breaks off to sigh at the sensation of Hank’s lips pecking along his jaw. His beard scratches slightly, sending pulses of electric shivers across Connor’s skin.

He continues kissing up Connor’s face until he reaches his ear, nibbling at the lobe before whispering, “We’ve got everything we need right here.”

Connor pulls back in confusion and Hank gives him a grin, “I took the opportunity to, uh, stock your kitchen when I was setting up the table.” Hank releases his hold on Connor to reach over to the breadbox sitting on his counter. Sure enough, crammed next to half a loaf of sliced wheat bread, rests a brand new tube of lube, a condom packet, and a rag Connor assumes is for cleaning up after.

Hank returns with the items in tow and Connor flushes when his eyes dart over the condom a second time. With Hank’s hand no longer working him over, his embarrassment creeps back in. Braver words than he feels slip across his tongue as he points to it with a shaking finger, “That’s not necessary.”

Connor can tell Hank is trying to reign in an unpleasant facial expression, “I know you’ve got a clean bill of health, but—”

“No, I mean…I showered before the auction…and…” he fades off, not wanting to go into further detail about his attentive afternoon ablutions. Hank doesn’t miss the pink tinge that colors his cheeks.

“I was hoping to…” Connor fades off, rocking his head back and forth as he searches for the right word, “celebrate finally selling the Victorian. With you.”

Hank blinks once in heavy, libidinous understanding, “Were you now?” Connor nods, meeting his gaze despite his perpetual blushing.

“Good,” the word comes out on a growl and Hank captures Connor’s mouth with his own. Connor sucks in a surprised, stuttered inhalation around the kiss when Hank’s hand resumes its careful stroking. Although he’d flagged slightly at his clumsy handling of the condom conversation, Hank’s obvious approval and enthusiasm soon return him to full mast.

Connor resists the impulse to urge Hank into action. He’s already indicated he’s going to take his time. Still, Connor can’t help but rock his hips into Hank’s grip. Hank’s response is to trap Connor’s bottom lip between his teeth in a mild tug of admonishment, “None of that, now.”

He can’t contain a disappointed mewling sound when Hank’s hand falls away. When he realizes it’s in favor of further undressing Connor, he jumps to action to do the same for Hank. Hank lets him get as far as peeling off his jacket and vest. He even lets him get the first few buttons of his sky blue houndstooth shirt undone before gripping both of Connor’s wrists in one large hand.

“That’s enough for now,” he says it gently, but it does nothing to dispel the obvious disparity between their states of dress. In the time it took Connor to get Hank moderately tousled looking, Hank had gotten Connor down to garters and socks with his erection still half out of his briefs.

He’s on the verge of arguing when the familiar sound of a plastic cap opening takes over all functional parts of his brain. Hank yanks Connor’s underwear down his thighs while pushing him back onto the table. Shucking them off, they go flying to some unknown part of the room. Neither particularly cares where so long as they’re no longer in the way.

Braced at an angle against his palms, Connor’s head falls back in a low groan when Hank’s oiled hand grips him once more. Hank places kisses seemingly at random across Connor’s shoulders until he uses his free hand to tilt Connor’s chin to the side for better access to his neck.

His tongue runs a broad stripe across Connor’s frantic pulse, sucking lightly before admitting, “I think I like that one the best.”

“What…one?” Connor pants between leisurely strokes.

“Freckles,” Hank answers simply, continuing his agonizing pace. Despite Hank’s previous reprimand, Connor can’t help but buck into the now-slick grip. Hank grants him fractionally more friction, still nowhere near enough to exit the territory of maddening. He rumbles out a chuckle, “I’d enjoy it while it lasts if I were you.”

Startled by the ominous statement, Hank clarifies when he notices Connor’s sudden rigidity, “Toldja last time.” He leans in to whisper the words like a secret, “You’re going to come from taking my dick and my dick alone.”

A strangled whine escapes his chest before his lungs forget how to suck in air. The mental image of Hank railing him, hands fisted in his own hair to stop himself from reaching for his aching cock, springs so forcefully to mind, Connor wonders if it’s a premonition rather than a randy daydream.

“You ok with that?” Misinterpreting Connor’s brief short-circuit, Hank’s concern is touching but unnecessary.

“Yes, that is—Yes. That. Very much.” Connor half expects Hank to chuckle again at his enthusiastic consent. Instead, a sensual smile spreads across his lips one corner at a time.

Connor decides it is distinctly unfair that it takes Hank zero minutes to figure out a tempo that keeps him on edge, producing stuttered groans and gasps. He’s moaning openly into Hank’s mouth when a thick, hairy arm grips him firmly by the waist, yanking him forward and down. Connor reacts on instinct, wrapping his legs around Hank’s hips.

He isn’t entirely certain how Hank managed to get him flat on his back against the table without breaking his grip on his dick, but, quite frankly, he doesn’t care. If anything, the feat of strength makes him impossibly harder. He’s seen Hank lift beams of wood heavier than he is, but it’s a different thing entirely to have the man heft him about as if he weighs no more than a sack of feathers.

Relaxing his legs proves to be a mistake as his ass is half off the table and his legs dangle awkwardly in response. He moves to put them back around Hank when the man drapes them over his shoulders like a suit jacket made just for him. With his knees locked on either side of Hank’s neck, he feels the strain in his lower back as it rises into the air.

He’s on the verge of complaint when Hank snags a seat cushion from a nearby dining chair and wedges it in the empty space. He’s fairly certain it will be filthy and in need of a good scrubbing if not outright replacement by the night’s end, but his back will be happier for it.

Hearing Hank uncap the bottle once more, Connor wiggles and scoots further down in anticipation. Hank snorts at the display, but his tone is fond, “Eager, are we?”

Connor’s on the verge of a snappy retort when Hank’s thumb traces against his puckered hole before pressing against it. His reply is lost in a cry he tries to conceal behind his hand.

Hank tugs at it lightly. His voice comes out heavy and thick with want, “Don’t hide from me.” Connor lets Hank pull his hand aside before rough fingers brush down his cheek and culminate in a grip on his chin. In the dim room, Hank’s blue eyes glint like inky sapphires, “I want to hear it all.”

“Hank,” already reduced to monosyllabic sentences, pink tints Connor’s cheeks as he reaches up in a vague gesture. Hank swoops down to capture his wrist and presses Connor’s fingertips to his lips.   

Releasing him, his own fingers resume their meticulous perusal. At the first slide of a slick finger, Connor turns his head to the side at the sensation. Hank’s free hand pulls his head back to look at him, “I want to see it all, too, Con.”

“Oh, fuck,” the words escape him on a whimper; for once, he’s not ashamed. He’d be pleased by the thought if it wasn’t for Hank’s finger dragging just so across his prostate at that very moment.

The profanity continues uninhibited when Hank strokes mercilessly in rapid succession at the same spot, “Hank, fuck. Fuck!”

“Quite the mouth you got there, sweetheart.” It’s the second time he’s used the moniker and Connor is certain he will die on the spot if Hank ever uses it in public. It’s forever connected in his mind with Hank taking him apart on this dining room table. Their dining room table, his mind corrects, remembering Hank’s hands on his as they built it together.

Hank slips in a second finger and Connor’s hiss at the transition fades into a low moan when Hank crooks his fingers inside him once more. He knows this part is necessary; he’s seen Hank’s girth—but still. He’s impatient. He pulls Hank down into a kiss and he exhales a shrill ha—aah against Hank’s lips when the man’s thumb sweeps across his stretched rim. Hank picks up his slow stroking again, timing his internal caresses to match with his grip tightening around the flushed head of Connor’s dick.

Connor swears again at the sensation and nearly chokes on a sob when Hank splits him further around a third finger. Connor hears Hank’s smirk before he sees it, “Think you can handle it?” He murmurs the question against Connor’s cheek, nuzzling his nose into it.

Connor’s eyes snap open at the jest. He knows Hank is teasing, but he grinds down against his hand in answer regardless. His head thrown back at the sensation of Hank’s coarse fingertips gliding inside him, he almost misses his reverential expression, “Fuckin’ gorgeous.”

Hank’s fingers withdraw slightly before a fourth joins in. Connor has to fight down panic before he realizes Hank’s intent. He grunts against shallow thrusts meant to open him up and make things easier on him. His sexual hunger throws caution to the wind, “Hank.”

When he doesn’t respond, Connor tries again, “Hank.” The licentious tone catches the man attention. He twists inside Connor, dragging his knuckles in a way that makes Connor’s back arch and his mouth drop open in shocked, pleasurable surprise.

“What’s the matter, sweetheart?” Connor knows, in that instant, that the pet name will give him immediate wood in all future instances of Hank saying it. His response comes out more a whine than words as his hands try to drift unseen. He knows Hank won’t let him get away with it. Sure enough, Hank’s hand releases its grip on his dick to grab at Connor’s wrists.  He extends them high above his head as if fully aware Connor is ready to take matters into his own hands if necessary.

“Gotta use your words, Con.” It’s a simple statement, but Connor groans nonetheless. Hank smirks down at him, teasing at the rim Connor wants him to sink into so badly.

Impatient and tired of the cocky grin on Hank’s face, Connor fixes him with the sultriest gaze he can muster, “I want you to fuck me half with that monster cock you’re packing.” Hank growls and Connor is briefly concerned for his life and his ass.

Unshouldering Connor’s legs, he rumbles out, “Undress me.” It’s a command Connor is quick to obey. Greedy fingers pry open the remaining buttons of his shirt before tugging it loose from his suit pants. Grabbing at Hank’s briefs and unbuttoned trousers at the same time, he’s hardly got them around Hank’s knees before the man is bodily lifting him back up to full height, kicking them off himself.

Hank cants his hips forward, brushing his considerable erection against Connor’s own. Even though he sees Hank’s arm move, he’s unprepared for the sensation of Hank taking them both in hand at once. Connor slumps forward and his face presses into Hank’s shoulder, muffling a strangled groan.

Connor grabs at the meaty flesh of Hank’s chest with one hand while the other wraps around his length in a mirror of Hank’s. The grip is as much a means to increase the friction as it is a way to anchor himself. Hank noses at Connor’s ear before pulling lightly at the back of his neck.

The hand on Hank’s chest slides up and into the man’s hair to tilt him into a shaky kiss. Connor lets a flustered mmM pass between their lips when Hank’s wrist twists just so, threatening to dismantle him with each slow pump.

“Hank,” Connor tries to speak, but Hank takes the opportunity to capture his bottom lip between his teeth. He hums a response before releasing it. He ceases his stroking in favor of making slow lazy circles with his thumb, moving back and forth across the tips of their cocks held in one large hand.

Connor whimpers his distress at the sensation, “Hank, I won’t last like this.” In truth, he could stay wrapped in Hank’s hand forever, but his sanity likely wouldn’t survive the experience. He needs Hank inside him now with a fierceness he’s never known. “Please, fuck me,” the request comes out ragged and heavy with want.

In response, Hank grips him beneath one thigh, hefting it into the air while his other hand snakes down and around his balls to press once more into his loose, exposed hole. Connor groans and flushes at the realization of what he doubtlessly looks like, spread open in his dining room, begging for cock.

Hank must decide Connor’s ready because he manhandles him onto the table, his straining erection battling against Connor’s as he settles him down more comfortably. Finally flashes across his mind when he hears a cap pop and glances down to see Hank slicking himself.  

At the first brush of Hank’s cockhead against him, Connor clenches on reflex before reminding himself to relax. Despite his heated words, there’s still a good deal of trepidation at Hank’s sheer size. The tip slips in with relative ease, but the burn he expected shows up with the first inch of Hank’s shaft. Hank withdraws and thrusts into him shallowly, finishing what his fingers started.

Hank goes slow and Connor’s grateful for it. This initial discomfort fades as they settle into a rhythm. When Hank’s a little over halfway in, Connor goes rigid around a moan. No novice to this, Hank withdraws an inch or so to drag the plump head of his cock across Connor’s prostate. He repeats the motion several times, painfully slow, until Connor writhing and whining with need, “Hank. More, oh my g—please.”

His voice is debauched and he knows how he must look with his legs in the air resting against Hank’s broad shoulders. His cock leaks freely and he wants nothing more than to touch himself. Hank continues his torturous pace, working Connor over until he’s babbling nonsense around breathy moans and muted cries. When Hank finally bottoms out, Connor’s sure he’ll give him a reprieve.

He doesn’t. He rocks into Connor slowly, reverentially. With each drag inside him, heat flares to life and simmers just below a boil. He’s riding the overwhelming edge of desire with no leverage. It’s maddening.

“Hank, please,” he tugs at Hank’s arms caged around him, hoping the combined verbal and physical request will spur him into action.

A large, rough hand reaches up to stroke his cheek, “Soon. Not yet.”

“Why?” The question comes out as a whimper and Connor doesn’t miss the dark look of lust that crosses Hank’s face.

“Because I like the sounds you make when you’re desperate.” Wind knocked clean out of his sails, Connor does little more than make a high-pitched hissing sound like air escaping from a very needy tire.

Several thrusts later that could’ve been an hour but was much more likely less than a minute, Hank’s fingers locking around Connor’s thighs is all the warning he needs that Hank is about to wreck him. Angling himself until Connor’s nearly bent in half, Hank thrusts into him hard enough to make him cry out his name.

Connor gasps and pleads when Hank withdraws and snaps his hip forward again and again, pressing more firmly against his prostate in this position. Connor’s fingers grip hard enough at Hank’s shoulders to leave half-moon indents from his nails. It only serves to fuel Hank’s fervor.

Connor’s seen Hank jackhammer up concrete and he wonders if that’s where he’s drawing inspiration. Thrust after relentless thrust punches the air from his lungs as molten desire builds to a slow roil in his gut. With each plunge of his cock, Hank drives Connor’s thighs further back until they’re touching his chest.

He can hear the table stutter once or twice across the floor from the force of Hank fucking him for all he’s worth. Hank mutters a curse at the sound and Connor’s tries to tell him not to worry about it. The words get lost in a wail when Hank simultaneously thrusts and shoves his hands underneath Connor’s back to lift him off the table.

Hank slams Connor down onto his cock with the added force of gravity, producing Connor’s first scream of the evening. Folded in half like a lawn chair cradled in Hank’s arms, the man drills into him with no signs of tiring. The show of strength sends a throb of desire rippling up his shaft and he has to fight hard not to come on the spot.

Forehead to forehead, Connor sees the pleased smirk plastered on Hank’s face at his prolonged wailing. Hank’s words from the last time they had the opportunity to be alone drift back to him in a haze of lust:

I’m gonna fuck you so nice next time, the only thing you’ll remember is my name.

He isn’t wrong in that Hank seems to be the only word Connor is capable of producing. Sooner than he cares for, Hank lifts him off then shrugs his legs down from his shoulders to his elbows before setting him on the floor.

Connor is disturbed by how much he aches and craves for Hank to be back inside him, drilling him and filling him in a way he’s never experienced. Hank tugs him close for a kiss and he whimpers at the sensation of his own dick trapped between them. He rocks his hips, seeking friction and his eyes flutter closed at the sensation.  Head thrown back around a breathy Ooh, he opens his eyes to see Hank arching an eyebrow at him in an unreadable expression. Swallowing thickly, Connor remembers too late that Hank intends to fuck his orgasm out of him without touching him.

When Hank spins him roughly around, Connor bends to the pressure of his palm pressed to the center of his back. Prone over their table once more, Connor’s face presses against the cool wood. His mouth droops into a silent O when Hank slides back in, his fingertips digging into Connor’s hips to embed himself as deeply as he can go. Connor shrieks a sound that could be Hank’s name or something less intelligible. At this moment, neither man cares.

Connor’s hands scrabble for purchase, but the smooth surface of the table doesn’t offer a handhold. Gripping at the edges closest to him, a constant torrent of needy cries and yelps spill across his lips as Hank pounds into him like a stubborn nail that won’t lay flush to the wood.

He feels the slight swell of Hank’s stomach press into the curve of his spine before the sensation of his chest hair tickles at his shoulder blades. Hank slows his pace to something more manageable and Connor worries. The emotion sits unwelcome in some part of his brain hanging onto old anxieties, nervous that Hank’s unhappy with him. Maybe he shouldn’t have stolen that illicit bit of touch. Maybe Connor’s not performing to Hank’s standard. Maybe—

Hank’s voice silences the lingering insecurity in his head. His words come out hot and rough against Connor’s neck, “Look at you, taking it like a champ.” Not anticipating this response, Connor tries to hide his face and his embarrassed-yet-pleased flush in the crook of his elbow at the unexpected praise.

He can feel the heat of it creep down his neck and Hank’s fingers trail along the bleeding edge of his blush to his spine. His fingertips dig ridges down Connor’s back until they reach the swell of his buttocks, kneading into the flesh. His momentum increases and Connor groans when Hank spreads his cheeks, clearly watching himself impale Connor over and over again.

Connor thrusts back, wantonly chasing the sensation coiling deep inside him. Connor thinks Hank must be close as well because he seems to be out of his usual dirty talk, peppering him with quiet groans of Fuck and Connor. At least, he thought as much until Hank makes a slight change in angle and Connor shrieks his name.

“Christ,” Hank bucks once more as if making sure it wasn’t a fluke reaction. When Connor howls, Hank doubles down, pummeling into him repeatedly, “Fuck, you scream so pretty.” Connor isn’t sure how he heard Hank over his own uncontrolled wails steadily increasing in volume, but he doesn’t miss it.

He convulses harshly in response, a choked sob the only response he can give. Although Hank’s only seen it once before, he knows Connor well enough to recognize the signs. His grip on Connor’s hips is just short of bruising, but neither cares when they’re this close.

Connor bucks back wildly, pulling an overwhelmed sound from his chest. One of Hank’s palms leaves his side in favor of gripping at the back of Connor’s hand. Hank’s thrusts are less controlled, and heat spikes through Connor like a warning. Though less obvious than his own vocal reactions, he knows he has an effect on Hank.

Hank,” Connor’s voice is desperate and lilts upward in a prayer for release.

Fingers threaded together, Hank’s words strike like lightning from above his ear, “That’s it, sweetheart.” Battering at Connor’s prostate, he murmurs, “Can you come for me?” Connor unravels at the words. Reality warps and bends inward a fraction before his release explodes out of him on the heels of a rough shout. Vocal cords shot, Connor hears his voice crack around the force of it.

Hank fucks him through it and overwhelmed tears prick at the corner of Connor’s eyes at the excess stimulation. Connor’s cock throbs with the final spend of his orgasm as Hank murmurs, “Fuck, Connor. Fucking—FUCK.” His hips slam one final time, sheathed to the hilt. Connor whimpers at the sensation of Hank unloading inside him. He feels some of it escape despite the tight fit, trickling wetly around his balls and down his thigh.

Hank’s chest heaves against Connor’s back and it takes him several moments to realize Hank is speaking to him in a hushed voice. He’s too out of it to parse the exact words right away, but he recognizes the tender-soft tone. Whiskery kisses press across his shoulders and Hank noses at his hairline, slightly damp from being fucked within an inch of his life.

He doesn’t recall the cleanup, but he’s certain it must’ve happened somewhere between his vision returning to normal and Hank chuckling at him for continuing to lie boneless across the table several minutes after the fact. He brain seems to come back online when Hank scoops him up like a spent bride and carries him to his bed. A throb of affection collides with a shiver as a thin layer of sweat he hadn’t realized was spread across his body begins to cool.

They should shower, he knows, and they will, but at the moment all he wants to do is slide beneath his sheets with Hank. Hank must agree because he bumps Connor’s hip with his own, making room for himself on the bed next to him. Awkward trepidation grips him in its uncertain arms until Hank paws at him, draping Connor half across his body like an excessively heavy blanket.

Blinking against Hank’s collarbone and settling more comfortably with his cheek against Hank’s pectoral, his hand strokes up and down his chest, tracing the lines of a faded tattoo he hadn’t had the time to pay proper attention to before.

He’s about to ask about it when Hank’s hand closes over his own, “You’re awful quiet.” Connor freezes for a moment until he realizes Hank’s worried by his silence. Pulling his hand free from Hank’s he rests it on his cheek. Hank gives way to the gentle pressure and Connor tilts his head up in a sleepy, sated kiss.

Nuzzling his face half in Hank’s neck just out of reach of his tickling chest hairs, Connor murmurs, “I’m wonderful.” He can feel Hank’s chest swell at the words and a sluggish smile tugs at his lips before the thud of Hank’s heart lulls him to sleep.

When he awakes, he’s not sure what to expect. What hour is it? Where is Hank? How much worse is the soreness going to be when he tries to get out of bed?

Opening his eyes answers most of his questions at once. A red LED clock blinks at him that it’s 8:42 in the morning, Hank is still in bed beneath him, and he doesn’t have to move just yet so he’ll let the concern about his soreness wait.

He’s most surprised by the hour. He hasn’t slept in past eight without the assistance of a night out or a sleeping aid in years. Hank continues to snooze away and Connor’s body begins its usual morning routine. At first, he’s content to wait it out or go piss to make his morning wood die down. When Hank mutters something indistinct and his hand paws at the cleft of Connor’s ass, he can’t help the way his erection strains at the sudden friction.

He hesitates, deciding it would be poor form to hump against his—his mind trips over the word boyfriend—against Hank before he’s even awake.

“Well, good morning to you, too.”

Connor startles at the sudden announcement. Hank’s gravelly morning voice does not improve Connor’s situation. Connor tries to extract himself delicately, but Hank’s grip tightens. Hank isn’t sporting a raging hard-on as Connor is, but he can feel the man’s cock inflating with interest against his thigh half wrapped around Hank’s waist.

He panics slightly when Hank’s fingertips brush feather light against his obvious arousal, “I can’t.” The words come out anxious and needy, a confusing mix of signals. Hank’s hand pauses, resting over him.

“What can’t you do, Connor?” He hears the amused note in Hank’s voice.

“Sex,” he deadpans, but his gasp at Hank’s suddenly firm grip through the sheets ruins the effect.

“Didn’t say I wanted sex,” Hank’s voice oozes smug assuredness and Connor’s mind goes stupidly blank. When Hank tugs at his erection lightly his brain informs him he’s an idiot, but it’s ok because he’s sex-addled and hasn’t had coffee yet.

Deciding two can play at this game, Connor bucks his hips against Hank’s hand, “Well, I want a shower.” Unlike Connor’s slow morning mental faculties, Hank is quick on the uptake.

“Is that right?” The question comes out so soft it’s nearly a purr.

“It is,” Connor breaks off to lap delicately at Hank’s nipple before sucking it between his lips. He smiles when Hank twitches in surprise, “In fact, I think you could use one yourself.”

Hank isn’t a man that needs to be told twice. He follows Connor into the bathroom. Connor can feel Hank’s eyes on him as he turns on the shower and he can’t help but grow self-conscious under his blatant gaze. Before he can comment on it, Hank’s hands wrap around him, pulling him flush to his chest, “Christ, you are gorgeous.”

Connor murmurs back So are you and frowns when Hank makes a tch of disagreement. Tugging Hank into the now-warm shower, he decides he’ll just have to prove it to him. As Hank leans his head back into the running water, Connor takes the opportunity to soap up the loofa.

Hank doesn’t comment when Connor starts to soap his chest, but he grunts at the teeth dragging along his neck. Kissing the reddening mark, Connor says quietly, “Your body is fantastic.” Hank makes a sound as if to interrupt, but Connor heads him off, “You do things to me. Just by looking at you.” He runs the sponge across the swell of Hank’s shoulder before trailing over his pectoral. Swirling around and back up to stroke along his arm, Connor confesses, “I just about came on the spot when you lifted me off the table.”

Hank groans at the reminder and pulls Connor against him, “Yeah, and my back is going to be giving me shit about that for the next several days.” Hank tone is light, but Connor doesn’t miss the pleased smile. Hank may have less personal baggage regarding his self-worth, but no one is without their insecurities. Hank’s helped Connor move past so many doubts, it only seems fair to return the favor.

Touching Hank anywhere and everywhere he can reach, he lets his fingers leave streaks of bubbles as Hank rinses shampoo from his hair. Pressing his obvious arousal against Hank’s thickening length, his hands sneak up the flank of Hank’s back, pulling him close.

“I could touch you all d—,” Connor doesn’t get to finish the thought as Hank’s mouth finds his, hot and hungry. He whimpers a startled, desperate sound into Hank’s mouth when a large hand wraps around his fully erect cock. Connor can’t remember the last time he’s had a morning after experience this phenomenal.

Feeling wildly out of control at the slippery sensation of Hank’s hand, he tries to reach down to stroke Hank into full hardness. Hank captures his wrist gently, “Let’s worry about you.” He adds, “for now,” with a grin at Connor’s pout.

Hank gives him a calculating look before using his free hand to grab at the shampoo, “You were right, Con. You do need a shower.”

Thrusting the bottle against Connor’s chest, he continues his slow stroking, “You should do something about that.” Connor nods jerkily in understanding while biting his lip. Dispensing shampoo in his palm, he bucks when Hank’s forefinger sweeps across the head of his weeping erection.

Hank chuckles, “Wouldn’t want you to be dirty now, would we?” Connor’s irritated grumble transforms into a whine as Hank tightens his grip.

He tucks his head into Hank’s shoulder, “Oh, fuck. Han—”

Hank cuts him off with a nudge of his nose against his ear, “Wash your hair, Con.”

With shaky hands, Connor tries to do as he’s told. Hank drizzling soap to slick up his shaft even more does not help. Connor tries to place the shampoo bottle back in its niche and nearly fumbles it in his distraction.

“You seem stressed, Connor,” Hank’s tone tells Connor that the man is thoroughly enjoying himself. “Showers should be relaxing.”

Rinsing the last of the shampoo from his hair, Connor groans out half-sarcastic, “Oh, bite m—”

The words evaporate in his mouth when Hank nips at his neck and murmurs, “Careful what you wish for.”

It isn’t long before Connor’s a writhing mess in Hank’s hands. He speeds up, bringing Connor to the edge before slowing down and drawing out the sensation all while Connor makes the perfunctory attempt to wash himself. It’s wonderful and terrible and Connor briefly contemplates the possibility of spending every waking moment with Hank like this.

Between lathering and rinsing, his hands keep drifting toward Hank’s swelling arousal. Hank bats them away with a mild admonishment to focus on his washing at every occurrence. The fourth time it happens, Hank grabs at Connor’s wrists and presses him against the shower wall. The cold tile punches the air from Connor’s lungs, grounding him. “Not about me, remember?” Connor nods at Hank’s question but frowns when Hank turns off the water and reaches for towels on nearby hooks.

“What? You’re all clean now.” Connor’s scowl deepens until Hank leans in with a low, conspiratorial voice, “We’ve got all day. I don’t have anywhere to be. Do you?”

Connor shakes his head, but jerks to attention in a few seconds delay of the question, “No, but I might soon.” At Hank’s bemused expression, Connor continues, “I should’ve heard back about the job I’ve been interviewing for by now.” Hank laughs at Connor’s suddenly twitchy behavior and shuffles him from the room to go check his email.

While Hank makes a show of towel drying his hair, Connor flips open his laptop resting on the hope chest at the foot of his bed. He stares at his inbox for several minutes until Hank’s warm hand rests over his, “Won’t know one way or the other until you read it.”

Nodding Connor clicks the email and stares at it unseeing for several seconds.

…pleased to inform you…

… at your earliest convenience to confirm your salary and…

“Hank,” Connor sounds shocked despite his credentials and background, “I got the job.”

He looks over to see Hank hopping into a pair of Connor’s roomiest pajamas bottoms. They’re obscenely tight over the curve of his backside and the swell of his half-aroused cock. Hank interrupts Connor’s staring when he chuckles, “I can read.” Connor scowls at him and Hank hip checks his shoulder sending him tumbling across his mattress.

“Give ‘em a call. I’m gonna need to eat if you’re going to be pawing at me all day.” Connor watches Hank’s ass as he goes until he disappears around the corner.

Connor slips on a pair of soft, plaid boxer briefs. Although his new boss can’t see him through the phone, there’s something indecent about calling him in the nude.

Connor does his best to will away his anxious, excited tension when the line picks up, “Good morning, Josh. It’s Connor, I just read your email.” The call goes well, but a bit longer than he anticipated. Hank comes sauntering back in with plates loaded down with scrambled eggs and avocado toast.

When Connor ends the calls, he arches an eyebrow, “Didn’t take you as an avocado kind of man.”

Hank spears a bite of egg before answering, “Didn’t take you for the kind of man who doesn’t keep bacon in the house.” He play-jabs his fork in Connor’s direction as if underscoring his point. Connor leans forward to steal the bite.

Chewing victoriously, Hank waits for him to swallow before asking, “So when do you start?”

“Straightaway. Monday. It’ll be nice to do something I’m actually good at again.”

Hank rubs his elbow against Connor’s arm, “You were pretty lousy with a power drill.” Connor’s mouth opens in indignation until Hank winks at him, “Guess I’ll have to bring you around more often to get your handyman skills up to snuff.”

Connor hides a smile behind an overly large bite of green-smeared toast. When he has his face under control, he murmurs, “I’d like that.”

They decide to watch a movie and lounge in Connor’s bed after Hank declares it a lazy Sunday. “Pick something while I take care of these,” Hank grabs at their plates and shuffles out of the room in Connor’s too-tight pants.

Clicking at random through his digital library, he settles on something classic, romantic, and a little bit silly. Hank’s pleased bark of laughter upon seeing the menu screen displayed across his laptop tells Connor he made a good choice.

Snuggled up against Hank, Connor prods at the spacebar with his toe to get the movie started. As the exposition gets underway, Hank’s fingertips begin stroking at Connor’s bare arm. Connor shivers against his touch, his skin on high alert. They both begin to slouch, sinking deeper against the headboard as if neither is aware what the other is doing. Hank makes a show of shoving at the pillows behind him while Connor shimmies down and sideways to rest his head on Hank’s stomach like a pillow.

One hand in Connor’s hair, the other resumes stroking his arm. Connor isn’t sure when it happened exactly, but Hank’s hand drifted to his hip somewhere between Westley’s assumed death and Vizzini asking Buttercup if she thinks she’s brave.

Hank’s thumb swirls in slow circles, dipping ever so slightly beneath the checkered waistband of Connor’s briefs to glide across the hard edge of his hipbone. Connor would assume it’s unintentional were it not for Hank’s cock chubbing up directly in front of his face. Connor tries to tell himself this isn’t the exact reason why he chose Hank’s stomach as a pillow.

Connor is a liar.

Putting his theory to the test, he shifts his face forward just enough to nose at the bulge on obscene display before him. He knows it wouldn’t be nearly as obvious in a pair of pajamas that fit Hank, but the effect is no less diminished with this knowledge.

Loose or fitted pants be damned; he wants Hank’s cock in his mouth.

Hank’s reaction to the brief touch is immediate. His fingers flex into Connor’s side and his stomach clenches beneath Connor’s cheek. After a hesitant pause, he resumes caressing Connor’s hip, his fingers sweeping incrementally closer to the revitalized swell straining beneath Connor’s briefs.

Deciding there’s never really a good moment to mouth at someone’s erection through their pants, Connor wraps his lips, warm and sure, around Hank’s clothed dick as best he can. Hank bucks against the sensation, a low groan rumbling through his chest. Keeping his eyes on the screen, Connor grins as Westley goes tumbling down a hill.

As you wish, indeed. 

It becomes much harder to keep up the charade when Hank’s fingers brush across the tip of Connor’s cock through his boxer briefs. This game is decidedly tilted in Hank’s favor, as he tends to show his feelings with his hands where Connor’s expressions are vocal and loud. He can almost see Hank’s smirk when he presses his face into the man’s crotch trying to smother a whimper at his feather-soft touch.

Westley and Buttercup make it through the Fire Swamp before Hank’s fingers sneak with purpose under Connor’s waistband. He braced himself mentally for the warmth, but he’s wholly surprised by the slick grip. The sensation from Hank’s gentle stroking eradicates the questions of where and how he found lube without Connor noticing.

Connor makes a sound somewhere between a whine and a groan, pitched low in his effort to maintain the pretense that they’re just casually watching a movie.

“Something the matter, Con?” Hank asks while thumbing at the tip, finger sliding with ease across the pre-cum covered slit. Connor hides his face in the swell of Hank’s stomach as he shakes his head. Hank exhales a quiet laugh at the display, sparking Connor’s fervor to even the playing field.

Hank started it, he decides, when he slipped his hand into Connor’s underwear. Connor owns several pair of pajama bottoms, but the nice thing about the ones Hank is borrowing is the button fly front. There’s no way he was going to be able to slip them down Hank’s hips without a lot of fanfare and maneuvering in their current position. The button, however, is easy enough to get around.

Connor strokes at Hank through the material, enjoying how he hardens more with each pass of his palm. It’s more complicated than he anticipated one-handed, but he manages to get the button undone.

If Hank noticed it happening, he gave no sign of it. Between keeping his face trained in the direction of the TV while also casually pumping along Connor’s shaft, his attention is elsewhere. Connor waits for a less grisly moment than the Pit of Despair, biding his time by nuzzling and petting at Hank’s dick through the soft fabric.

When Inigo and Fezzik reunite, Hank mumbles, “S’one of my favorite parts.”

Taking full advantage of that statement, Connor nudges open the unbuttoned fly, revealing a generous portion of Hank’s length. Swirling his tongue in a lazy circle around the head, Connor relents only to agree, “Mine, too.”

His cheeky smile lasts until Hank yanks at his underwear shifting them enough to pull his dick free. With neither of them willing to give up the pretense just yet, Connor does his best to stifle the sounds Hank is pulling from him with each tug on his now-exposed cock.

The obvious solution before him, Connor slips Hank’s engorged cockhead between his lips, tonguing at the glans. Small whimpers vibrate down Hank’s shaft and the man twitches in a motion just shy of a thrust at the sensation. Unable to grin with a dick in his mouth, the corners of Connor’s eyes crinkle with sensual mirth.

The sight of it proves to be Hank’s undoing. While his grip had been fairly loose before, he tightens it in response while asking in a rough voice, “Something funny about my dick in your mouth?”

Oh, fuck crosses Connor’s mind as Hank’s hand palms his head before gripping at his hair. Connor tries to sink further down, but Hank’s hand holds him in place, “Asked you a question.” His voice is softer now and Connor groans an approximation of uh-uh around Hank’s girth.

Hank releases Connor with both hands and eases him up in favor of shucking off his pajama bottoms. Connor’s doing the same with his underwear when he spies a bottle of lube peeking out from under a pillow. He’s still not sure how it got there, but the sight of Hank beckoning at him as he settles back onto the bed drives the question temporarily from his mind.

While blowing Hank as they pretended to watch a movie had been a perverse bit of fun, it’s much easier on his hands and knees. Canted at an angle, one hand braces against the bed across Hank’s thighs while the other curves across his hips and wraps around the base of Hank’s erection.

Hank’s hand returns to his hair, tugging gently at the strands. Connor groans at the pull and once more finds his head under Hank’s controlled grip. In unison, Hank gently presses Connor’s face down while thrusting up. The depth is manageable and Connor strokes at the remainder of Hank’s shaft.

Hearing a gentle thud, Connor’s eyes dart over to see the lube bottle roll away a foot or so from the force of Hank’s toss before tipping over the edge of the bed. His soft huff of laughter fades into a groan when Hank’s warm hand engulfs him once more. Reaching out, he smacks at the laptop keys until the movie sounds fall silent.

The teasing touches from before pale in comparison to Hank’s grip now. He strokes Connor firm and sure for several moments before shifting his hand to engulf Connor’s cock like a glove. Trailing the tips of his fingers down Connor’s length, a delicious wave of electric energy pulses up his spine when Hank reaches his cockhead. Noticing the reaction, Hank focuses his efforts on the head, stroking and working at where it connects to the shaft.

From his own exploits, Connor knows it’s a sensitive spot for him. However, he’s never doubled down on it quite like this. Hank’s fingertips swirl, caress, and stroke mercilessly as Connor moans loudly around Hank’s dick stretching his mouth wide. His thrusts are demanding as he continues to buck up into Connor’s face.

Giving up any notion of participating, Connor can do little more than receive what Hank gives him. Overwhelming, wonderful sensation pulses in the wake of Hank’s fingertips around his cock while his other hand holds Connor’s head in place.

“Christ,” Hank pants out when Connor all but screams under his careful ministrations. “You should see yourself.” Connor tilts his head a few degrees to attempt to look Hank in the eyes. Hank bucks hard at the visual, “Jesus, you look—”

He breaks off in a guttural groan when Connor hums out a needy sound in response. He can imagine how he looks right now. Desperate, wanton, and depraved all spring to mind. Humping against Hank’s dexterous fingers, he’s unbearably close to the edge of release.

Connor nearly gags himself when Hank loosens his grip, not anticipating the sudden lack of strength holding his head still. Pulling him off, Connor’s confusion doesn’t lessen any when Hank pushes at him lightly, “Scoot.”

He does as asked and uncertainty gives way to overexcited anticipation when Hank tips him onto his side and moves to lie down. Hank’s mouth engulfs his cock in one slow dip of his head and Connor has to choose between not shrieking and not fucking into Hank’s throat. He opts for the later and a harsh sob escapes from his chest when Hank pulls back to bob and tongue at the tip several times ruthlessly.

Hank’s hips shift slightly as if to remind Connor this is a two-person activity and Connor muffles himself around Hank’s girth. What he knows would otherwise be wails come out as frantic, high-pitched moans. A telling warmth begins to build when Hank sneaks an arm around to fondle at Connor’s balls, stroking and massaging in turns.

He taps at Hank’s hip in rapid succession as a warning; Hank’s answer is to tighten his hold on Connor’s legs and swallow him to the base. With Hank’s dick in his mouth, Connor’s orgasm is a bit more muted than the previous evening’s but no less enthusiastic. His hips stutter in miniscule jerks and his fingers attempt to tattoo their prints into Hank’s thighs under the force of his grip.

Hank gives him a moment to come down from the rush and the high before letting Connor’s spent cock fall from his lips. He moves as if to pull Connor off him, but he resists the tug. Repositioning, he pushes Hank flat on his back and wraps his hand around Hank’s still rigid erection.

 “Sweetheart, you don’t have to.”

A tremor grips Connor at Hank’s gentle tone, but he shakes his head, “I want to.”

Hank’s eyes flicker from Connor’s intense gaze to his plump lips, puffy from exertion, before dragging back up again, “Christ, I love you.”

Connor can tell by Hank’s abruptly tense muscles that he hadn’t meant to say the words aloud. He can also tell by the uncharacteristic blush that he meant them.

Oh, Hank,” Connor’s hand starts to move as he looms in to kiss him. Hanks’ breath comes out harsh through his nose at the sudden friction and he relaxes slightly. Breaking the kiss, Connor presses their foreheads together, “You have no idea, none, how much I love you.”

Whatever remaining tension Hank had left in his body at his unexpected admission leaves him when Connor shifts to swallow as much of his girth as he can. Although exhaustion is creeping in following his release, Connor has enough energy left for this. It isn’t long before Hank’s hands are in Connor’s hair, guiding him and thrusting into his warm mouth.

He shouts Connor’s name as he comes, wrapping around Connor’s head in an orgasmic reflex. Realizing it’s probably hard for him to breathe, Hank relaxes his grip. One hand dragging at the mattress, Connor lurches upward in a boneless fwump to curl against Hank’s side. He presses tiny kisses against his temple, drawing nonsense shapes with one long finger against Hank’s chest in sleepy contentment.

They don’t talk about it yet, but they can both feel it twining around them, waiting until they’re ready.

Love is a big deal for Hank. It involves a lot of moving parts, certainly more people than just the two of them. Connor can all but hear the cogs turning in Hank’s brain—Cole, his ex, Connor, and the massive amount of effort it will take to balance his personal life alongside his work.

Before Hank can spiral too far from his reach, Connor captures his chin in his hand, “Hey.” His tone and smile share a softness that makes Hank’s breath catch in his throat. Connor’s happiness is infectious and spreads across Hank’s face like butter over warm toast.

“Hey yourself,” Hank answers, rubbing at one of Connor’s arms. Grinning, Connor slots himself more firmly against Hank’s solid body before pressing his face into the curve of Hank’s neck.

“How’d you magic the lube back in here anyway?” Connor asks as his eyes land on the discarded tube laying on the floor.

Hank barks out a single laugh, “Force of habit. I don’t leave shit out that I don’t want Cole to find.”  

Connor makes an ah sound of understanding then lapses into silence. Hank thinks he may have fallen asleep when he murmurs, “I’m going to have to move.”

Cracking one eye open a fraction, he peers down, “Why’s that?”

Connor’s answer is immediate, “There is no way my neighbors didn’t hear that. Or last night.” Hank chuckles and Connor enjoys the feeling of the forceful rise and fall of his chest at his laughter.

A demanding yawn splits his mouth in two. “Think I wanna take a nap,” he mumbles it into the soft skin just below Hank’s beard.

A firm arm tugs him close, “Think I wanna join you.” Connor’s hand finds Hank’s before pulling it against his chest. Still, Connor can sense something tense working its way back into Hank’s mind. Even as they lie in silence for several minutes, he knows sleep won’t come until Hank says whatever he’s thinking about.

When Connor’s on the verge of cajoling him along, Hank exhales heavily and tightens his grip, “She wasn’t thrilled, but she never is when it comes to me.” Connor waits, knowing a more elaborate explanation is coming. Hank always starts at the halfway point when uncomfortable emotions are involved.

“I talked it over with Brenda—and you don’t have to if you…if you’re not. I mean—,” Hank takes a steadying breath when Connor’s hand cups his cheek.

“I’d like to take you to dinner again. With Cole.” A soft Oh of understanding crosses Connor’s lips and he squeezes Hank as much to reassure him as to prevent himself from floating off the mattress.

“I’d like that,” he says quietly and Hank’s body sags in relief.

Within minutes, Hank’s breathing begins to even out in a prelude to sleep. Even in his happiness in knowing Hank wants him involved in more of his life, Connor can feel tiredness tugging at his eyelids. He fights it for a moment longer to commit the past twenty-four hours, Hank’s love, and his trust to memory.