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two different stars in the same sky

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Foreward:


Connor's husband, Sam—who passed away from sudden heart failure—was the love of his life. One of those situations where he dated around casually but as soon as he saw him he knew they'd be married. They never had any children, just focused on their careers and traveled and enjoyed each other to the fullest. Connor thought they'd have forever together—so when his beloved husband of 20 years is suddenly gone at age 55 he feels like his own life has been taken from him, too.

Hank's story is a little different. He’s been married before—twice. There was an elopement after his academy days, five happy years with his best friend, Aaron, and then it all ended in blood and a closed casket funeral when his husband was killed in the line of duty. After that, Jennifer came along, and a few years later they had Cole. Hank always loved Jen more as a friend than a wife, but stayed with her because it's what was best for their son. Then came the cancer diagnosis, and Hank wonders why tragedy lives to haunt his whole life.

Jennifer passes peacefully three weeks before they were meant to go on a gift cruise together. Cancelling the trip wasn't even a thought in Hank's mind as he held her hand through the ending and promised to take care of Cole; it's not until after the funeral that the ticket reminder dings in his email. He’s 60 years old, widowed for the second time, and a single father to a 22-year-old young man who is away at college most of the time. Cole has his own life, and even though he calls every other day Hank still has to live his. So he packs one bag and decides to take the cruise.

Connor had made his husband a promise a long time ago. It’d be easy to forget it, push it out of his mind now that he's alone, except he can't. He keeps his wedding band on, haunted by the vows they'd told each other. Even in death, I will still carry you with me. And so Connor decides to take their last trip together after all, part of his husband's ashes concealed away in a tiny vial he wraps in cotton and nestles in his bag. They’d met while at sea; it's only fitting they say their final goodbye there, too.

Hank Anderson and Connor Stern-Arkait don't know each other, but they both fly out of Detroit on a Thursday and head for Florida, each vaguely lost in the wilted autumn of their lives and wondering if they're strong enough to do this thing alone after all.


* * *


The first thing Hank notices pre-boarding is the fucking heat, like a wet slap against the back of his neck and between his shoulder blades. The second is that his bad hip doesn't ache here in Florida like it does back home. Third: he's the only single man as far as the eye can see.

Adding insult to injury, the steward who takes his ticket at the ramp asks him if Mrs. Jennifer Anderson will be boarding later or needing wheelchair assistance. Hank smiles grimly and shakes his head. "She couldn't make it," he says, and walks alone onto the boat.

He might be 60 years old but he still doesn't feel quite as old as most of the other passengers...look. It’s a startling juxtaposition, all these blue-haired old biddies fawning over the handsome captain in his starched uniform and white-headed geezers wearing socks with Velcro sandals. Hank supposes Cole kept him young, tired as he was dealing with a teenager in his fifties. Jen would've laughed with him if she was here, looking at all these old folks. Hank feels eyes on him as he moves through the crowd, ready to drop off his bag and find the first open bar.

At the other end of the boat, Connor stares at the loading ramp and takes a deep breath. Aching heat prickles behind his eyes, hidden for now behind his sunglasses. An elderly couple comes up to him and asks where the port restroom is; he must look so young they mistook him for a crewman. Age 55 is the cut-off for these kinds of cruises, and when Connor's husband had gotten the free package from work they'd both laughed and laughed—they certainly didn't feel old at 55, then. They’d planned on taking these trips well into their 90s…but Connor knows differently now.

The wind coming off the ocean whips through his greying hair as he boards, wondering if he'll have the resolve to come back here in seven days or if he'd rather let the sea swallow him up instead. It’s tempting, broken promises aside. There’s nothing left at home now but an empty house, after all. Connor doesn't join the party on deck as the ship departs, but he does bump shoulders with a large man in a garish Hawaiian shirt on his way up for the lifeboat drill.

"Pardon," the man says, one big hand touching the back of Connor's elbow like an old friend, and then he's gone.

 

The first night Connor dines alone, which would be fine; he's dignified to carry himself through dinner, if only it didn't hurt so badly every time he looked at the empty seat across from him. He wonders if he's made a mistake, but glancing down at his wedding ring says otherwise.

Hank doesn't even eat, though he has his fair share of liquor at the open bar and a few handfuls of mixed nuts from the glass dish the barman keeps there.

"Waiting for somebody?" the bartender asks conversationally after Hank's third round.

"Nope," Hank tells him. "Not a soul."

Even well after nightfall the top deck's pool and event halls are bustling with the sound of music and laughter. Hank goes for a quick smoke on the balcony and looks out into the dark water, endless and deep. Thinks about the hubris man needs to sail a ship like this above the abyss. It’s no real secret to folks in the industry that people who are terminally ill use up their life savings on cruises like this—blow it all in one last hurrah, and then come back into port in a body bag. Hank thinks about Jen, too. Maybe she could've held on just a little longer.

After he snubs out his smoke and heads back below deck to his room through the lounge, tired and restless all at once, a young blonde woman in a beaded dress and a crew name tag passes a pamphlet into his hand. Step back into the jazz age, it reads, and dance the night away.

"Thanks, but I'm not much of one for the foxtrot," Hank tries, pressing the paper back into her hand. The woman smiles but doesn't let him off easy; "It's never too late to learn!" she says, pale eyes sparkling. "Come find us in the Golden Lounge tomorrow night."

Elsewhere on the boat, the first class cabin room Connor's husband had reserved months ago feels too spacious for just one person. Connor unpacks his toiletries and briefly showers before turning down one side of the bed. He take the tiny vial out of his bag and holds it until it's warm in his palm. Connor turns out the light and listens to the massive ship carve through the water. He tucks his hand under his pillow and tries to clear his mind, though it's painfully easy to imagine there's a warm body sleeping soundly beside him, all too familiar and just out of reach.

On the deck below Connor's room, Hank picks up the last few bars of cell signal off Florida's coastline to get a text from Cole. try to have some fun, dad. mom would've busted your balls for being a stick in the mud the whole time.



Hank wakes up before daybreak with the unmistakable ghost of a hangover clouding his senses, mouth dry and head pounding. His hip creaks when he gets out of bed and he snorts because he feels—old. His stomach is gnawing his backbone and he decides he'll have to try and feed it.

Below deck is still quiet; he's up even before most of the housekeeping staff's day shift, passing tired night shift workers as they head for bed in crew quarters. But the smell of coffee brewing leads him along, and eventually he finds a buffet just starting to put out breakfast. Hank heads straight for the coffee, drinking a long swig of black brew before he even sits down. Other than the chefs and wait staff bustling around in their white smocks, there's only one other passenger seated at a small table by the dark window, brown hair greying at the temples.

After loading up his plate with bacon and eggs and a piece of buttered toast, Hank goes to settle down at one of the single tables nearby the other man. He watches his back while he eats, wondering when he'll be joined by a spouse, but one never comes. At last, when the man finishes his meal and stands, vague recognition dawns in Hank's mind if only because he remembers the tortoiseshell pattern of the man's glasses when they bumped shoulders yesterday.

They share a brief look across the dining room, now starting to fill. Connor blinks, immediately remembering the ugly Hawaiian shirt he'd gotten an eyeful of yesterday—bright but charming, like it'd been a gift from a well-meaning child. From here he can get a better view of the stranger, handsome even though there are dark circles under his eyes.

Hank doesn't move to stand, though he can't help but commit the face to memory this time: younger than him, probably one of the youngest passengers on board, but still with laugh lines around his eyes and mouth. Tall, thin, long-legged, looking prim in his linen shirt and slacks. The moment passes without a word. Connor gathers his light jacket and slips it on, then turns on his heel and leaves, acutely aware that a curious pair of blue eyes never stray from his back while he goes.

There are so many people on the ship, he doubts they'll cross paths again.

Connor lets the first day pass him by, lingering here and there, his time unbidden. There seems to be laughter and celebration all around him while he quietly strolls through the ship's small shopping mall and peruses the tiny book store, then takes lunch on the outside deck. He idly sketches in his small pocket notebook from memory and tries to think of his husband's smiling face, how brown and freckled it would get in the summer sun. I miss you he writes on the page without even thinking, then closes his notebook. Three months without him today.

Hank tries to sit out by the pool after lunch but can't keep still; he doesn't want to swim and he's never been much of one for sunbathing. There’s the poolside bar but he knows better than to keep drinking his days away. He wishes Cole were here, his one grounding counterweight, but Cole's at school in Michigan and Hank's on a geriatric party boat halfway to the Caribbean. He needs to occupy himself, somehow, and he thinks back to the smiling blonde who'd tried to give him a pamphlet the night before.

Maybe learning the fucking foxtrot could be a start.

Connor, however, loves to dance. It's not something many people outside his old inner circle know, but he can cut a rug with the best of them. There hadn't been a dry eye after the first waltz at his wedding, the moment plucked out of a fairy tale and preserved crystalline in his mind. He thinks back on that night, fondly, while he looks at the flyer tacked up on the bulletin board outside the lounge. Jazz dancing wasn't his forte, but he could always give it a shot. He’s comfortable enough on his feet to focus on getting lost in the music.

And maybe what Connor needs, he realizes, is to get a little lost while he's here. Not be so alone and caught up in the dusty corners of his own head. He sighs and snaps a photo of the flyer with his phone for later; in the very least, it's worth an earnest shot.

That evening after dinner, despite how ridiculous he feels, Hank tries to focus on the pretty blonde crew member while he combs his hair and puts on nicer clothes, just some grey slacks and a deep blue collared shirt. He daubs cologne on his neck and sighs; what's the point? He realizes he's only using the girl as a focal point, like a carrot on a stick—he has no interest in dating somebody that young. He doesn't even know if he has any interest in dating at all. But Cole's reminder to not be an old stick in the mud is what pushes him out the door.

Connor straightens his glasses and checks his hair in the mirror on the back of his door one last time. He looks nice but feels a frayed nerve twinge in his gut as he twists his wedding band around his finger and slips out into the hall.

It’s just a dance class. He can do this.

Jazz piano is already seeping out into the foyer as Hank walks toward the Golden Lounge. A group of older ladies and their dates pass wearing feathers in their hair and long strands of costume pearls clacking around their necks. One sweeps her painted eyes from Hank's shoes to the top of his head and smiles. Inside, people mingle around the edges of the polished dance floor while the blonde woman and a tall dark-skinned man introduce themselves as the instructors. Hank hovers by the bar, feeling less awkward there, and watches them twirl each other around, young and beautiful.

Chloe and her fellow instructor, Josh, lead by example and do a few different dances—handsome in their 1920s garb, not a hair or step out of place. When they slow the music and ask everybody to pair off with a partner, Hank feels sweat bead at his brow.

People begin to move and clear the cocktail area as they head toward the dance floor, and when Connor look up from where he'd been leaning against the polished bar his heart stutters in his chest when he comes face to face with that blue-eyed stranger for the third time.

"Have you two been paired up yet, gentlemen?" Chloe asks, swishing over in her beaded dress, looking between them with bright eyes. Behind her, the rest of the class is listening to Josh explain the waltz, all paired up and waiting.

Connor opens his mouth, ashen-faced, but Hank beats him to the punch when a string of words he didn't anticipate rush out of his mouth all at once: "We were just getting ready to join you," he says, and then take three steps down the bar to reach for Connor's hand. "Shall we?"

Chloe winks and turns to head back toward the dance floor, heel clacking as she goes. Connor looks down at his hand in Hank's larger one and feels oddly faint, as if he's stumbled into the borders of some strange dream, caught along the turning edge of a kaleidoscope.

Connor lets himself be led over to the group while a ruddy flush crawls up Hank's neck. "So we meet again," he murmurs. "I'm Hank, by the way."

"Are you a private investigator or something?" Connor blurts out, frazzled. “I feel like we keep crossing paths in the most conspicuous places.”

Hank laughs, loud and warm. "Nah, but pretty close."

"What does that mean?" Connor asks, acutely aware of Hank's thumb resting over the back of his knuckles. The audacity of some men—

"Means I'm a cop on vacation but I'm not licensed to work privately, so you're safe," Hank jokes, winking. "You’ll have to tell me your name."

They're standing so closely that Connor has to lift his chin to meet Hank's eye; after a moment of brief indecision, he decides there's no real use in lying even if his brother's name had been teetering on the very tip of his tongue.

"Connor," he says, and at that Hank smiles. They watch Josh and Chloe do a turn around the floor in a perfect rendition of the waltz and wait for the piano player to start back up. Connor gets into position, clearing his throat while he waits for Hank to grasp his hand and waist. "I take it you're new at this?"

"Uh, yeah," Hank says, squaring his shoulders a bit despite the pinkness burning the tips of his ears. Who knew this guy was such a little tart? "I think the last time I danced was at my wedding."

That melts some of the ice out of Connor's voice. "You’re—married?"

Hank nods, then quickly shakes his head to make up for the mistake. He probably looks like a liar or a fool; maybe both. "I…was. Twice.  My late wife...she. She passed not too long ago."

Connor realizes the other couples are moving around them but he and Hank are standing quite still. The music and lights are suddenly all too much. He closes his eyes and draws in a deep breath, wishing he'd never set foot on this fucking boat. It’s not Hank's fault. He just doesn't know if he can do this anymore. All of it. Any of it.

"I'm sorry," he whispers, and pulls away. Connor's halfway to the balcony outside when it dawns on him that Hank is following him.

"Hey, Connor," he calls, low at first, jogging a little to catch up. "You good? Guess I have two left feet—"

"You don't know me," Connor says firmly, almost too loud. "We don't know each other."

Hank slows up, stopping a few feet away. His palms go up, already entreating, and suddenly there's no doubt in Connor's mind that he's really a cop.

"I know that," Hank say slowly, and then blinks, deflated. "Listen, if me being a dude isn't your thing, I'm sorry I even asked to dance."

That pulls a laugh out of Connor. "You being a dude is probably the least of my worries," he says, and that's when he notices Hank's gaze lingering on his gold wedding band.

"Oh shit," Hank says, wincing. "I really made this awkward, didn't I?"

Connor clenches his left hand and then lets it unfurl again. Reaches up to pull his glasses off his face and stands there pinching the bridge of his nose.

"My husband is dead," he says, looking at the waxed deck between their shoes. Tears threaten to fall and he fucking hates it. "He passed a few months ago," Connor says, drawing in a shaky breath. He glances up at Hank and thinks their expressions may be mirroring each other in this moment. "I—I don't know why I'm here."

"Then maybe we have more in common than you thought," Hank says quietly.

The sea wind whips around them, cooler now that the sun has sunk behind the horizon. Connor leans against the balcony railing, folded inward, and bites his lip. "Funny how that works," he rasps. "Two old widowers on a floating nursing home."

Hank snorts, then runs his tongue along his bottom lip as he struggles with some internal thing Connor isn't privy to until Hank looks back at him, reaching up to tuck his hair behind his ears. "So...you wanna take a walk?" he asks.

Connor nods, despite everything. "Okay," he says.

They stroll around the boat, quiet in each other's newfound company, not saying too much other than the odd remark here or there. Curiosity works Connor's mind over like a dog with a soup bone and he realizes they need to be frank with each other before the conversation can move on. Death, the great hurdle faced by everyone, sitting like some lead weight between them. Somehow pulling two people together as much as it wedges them apart.

Connor draws in a deep breath, looking at Hank's profile in the dim deck lighting. "How did you lose your wife?" he asks.

"Stage IV breast cancer," is Hank's immediate answer, like he'd only been waiting for Connor to ask. "Spread to her lungs. She held on a little over six months after the diagnosis."

Connor doesn't say he wishes he had six months with his husband. He didn't even get to say goodbye. "I'm sorry,” he says, even if he's thinking of his own loss when he says it, but Hank doesn't seem to notice.

"Harder on the kid than it was on me," he says. "I'd been through it before. Not—not that it's ever easy, but you know."

Connor doesn't quite, but he nods anyway. They pass under an overhead light and a group of old men smoking cigars under the awning, the burning embers flickering orange in the dark. Connor breathes in the smell of tobacco leaves as Hank asks, carefully, "What about your husband?"

Connor remembers getting the call after walking out of a meeting and screaming something he doesn't recall in the marble atrium until somebody dragged him outside and Richard eventually showed up, wide-eyed and silent.

"They told me onset heart failure," Connor says. Then, "A heart attack."

"Fuck," Hank breathes out, shaking his head, and then feels heat bloom across his cheeks at the lewd word. "Shit, sorry, I didn't mean—"

Connor makes a weary gesture between them. "I think 'fuck' sums it up pretty well, Hank." Outside the agony of heartbreak, anyway.

As they round the back of the boat and pass another throng of people, Hank reaches up to tap the back of Connor's elbow again, a fleeting touch come and gone. "I think we missed the class," he says, smiling impishly so that Connor can see the gap between his teeth. "Thank Christ."

"I'll get you back on the dance floor eventually," Connor says, the words tumbling out of his mouth before he can stop them, completely unbidden. He nearly claps a hand over his lips but Hank only laughs.

"Maybe I'll hold you to that," he says, reaching up to scratch through his silver beard.

Connor sniffs despite the smile tugging at the corner of his mouth, and maybe it's the first one he hasn't forced in weeks. That’s a lie—he knows it is.

"You drink?" Hank asks suddenly. "We should get a drink."

"I...a little," Connor admits, and then swallows, suddenly unsure. "Why do you ask? It’s getting late—"

It's not even 9 p.m. yet. Hank watches him, briefly chewing at the corner of his lip, and takes a measured step back. Reading Connor like a book.

"Maybe another time," he decides. "Well, it was nice talking to you tonight Connor," Hank says, holding out his hand one more time for Connor to hake with clammy fingers. "I'm sure I'll see you around here sooner or later."

Connor can't help but notice that he almost sounds defeated, touched with regret. Hank gives one last little wave and goes to turn, broad shoulders curving in when he slips his hands into his pockets, and Connor grabs his elbow before he can leave. They both stand frozen in place, silent, and then Connor hear himself croak out, "Where can I find you tomorrow?"

There's the tiniest twitch of a smile under Hank' beard. "Where you found me tonight, I guess," he says amiably enough, and then ducks his head again before he slips away.

Connor watches him go, rapt, and wonders why his heart is beating so fast.

Back in his room, Hank sits on the edge of his bed and wonders what the fuck he's doing. It’d happened so fast and easily; there'd been no forcing his hand when it came to gravitating toward Connor. God, he doesn't even know the man's last name and they’re practically still strangers. He has the grating urge to text Cole even if he doesn't have cell service. Why didn't he think to download one of those talk apps beforehand?

But the last thing Cole needs right now is a video call from his old man asking whether it's too soon to go chasing tail on a cruise ship. And oh Christ, Connor—what about him? He’s obviously still grieving, rightfully so, and he'd tensed up like a spooked animal when Hank suggested getting drinks. But then he'd reached out in the end, reluctant to see Hank go without another word.

Maybe that'd been something. Hank passes a hand over his eyes and heaves out a sigh. His fingers stray to the heavy gold chain hidden under his shirt and pull up the two wedding bands that had been resting against his chest. Not his own, no—Jen's and Aaron's.

He thinks about the ring on Connor's finger and feels a bit less like an old sap, even if Connor was wearing his own wedding band. But Hank's aching sentiment never really applied to himself, only the two people he lost. He’d pulled Aaron's ring out of his drawer the night Jen died.

Hank's mind swirls around a great many things as he undresses and gets ready for bed, but God help him, through it all he can't stop thinking about meeting Connor again tomorrow.

Like a bright spot set back against the blight, something new and vivid to look forward to.



* * *


In the morning Connor wakes with a gut feeling he can't shake. He’d meant to have breakfast at the café on the other end of the ship today, but he can't stop thinking about locking eyes with Hank in the buffet dining room from afar.

Maybe...just maybe, Hank would be there again. They aren't supposed to meet until tonight in the lounge, if even then, but Connor gets dressed and quickly heads up to the dining area. It’s not as early as he'd risen yesterday but there's still only a handful of people and crew milling about. He keeps his eyes peeled, searching.

And as sure as anything, Connor's heart leaps into his throat when he spots a familiar figure seated by the window, slowly working his way through coffee and pancakes.

He steels himself and smooths a hand down his shirtfront before slowly walking up. "Hank?" he says, painfully hopeful. Hank's fork full of pancake stops halfway to his mouth as he looks up with bright eyes. He seems far less tired than he did yesterday and Connor's whole body sags with relief when he sees the amiable smile spread across Hank's face.

"Connor?" he says, and then laughs. "Sit down, sit down."

Connor eases himself into the chair Hank pushes out with his foot, a little flustered but undeniably satisfied. He doesn't quite know what to do with his hands.

"Want me to get you anything?" Hank asks, already standing. "I was going to see if they'd put out the hash browns."

Biting back his first instinct to politely say no thank you, I'm fine, Connor looks up at the big man hovering by their table and smiles instead. "Some hash browns would be wonderful, actually."

"Coffee?" Hank asks.

"Coffee," Connor agrees.

While they eat and chat amidst the bustling dining room, Connor catches himself laughing more than once at some of Hank's commentary. It’s a good feeling he hasn't felt in a while—just talking with somebody, about anything other than death, insurance, inheritance, arrangements. Hank is larger than life in a way that doesn't impose in his space. Instead of commanding his company's attention, Connor finds his eye is drawn to Hank regardless, like something that pulls light toward it. Hank's abhorrent taste in shirts is only partially responsible for that.

"Well, you already know I'm an old washed-up cop with one foot out the door into retirement," Hank snorts after a while, pushing a toothpick around his mouth. "What do you do for a living?"

"Financial consultant for big business, mostly," Connor says. "I keep money in my clients' pockets."

Hank's face twists into a wry smile at that. "I knew a few guys like that in my past life, mostly liked to keep money in their own pockets. But something tells me you run clean." His eyes look content and heavy-lidded when he says it, amused, and Connor's cheeks burn pink.

"I don't have any interest in dealing dirty business," he says, clearing his throat. Connor takes pride in his financial track record, pristine as a sterling whistle. "What part of the country do you work out of?" he asks, curious.

"Detroit," Hank says, and Connor drops his fork with a clatter.

“What?" Connor asks hoarsely. “I’m from Detroit,” he adds a moment later, looking for some sign of a joke in Hank’s face. He can’t find one. “Y—you work with the DPD?”

"36 years, baby," Hank tells him with a little mock salute. "Lieutenant Hank Anderson at your service."

Connor's face is so warm he's tempted to rest his head against the cool glass of the dining room window. "What are the odds?" he says, flipping a hand through the air. "This can't be real."

Hank watches him with a peculiar sort of look on his face Connor doesn't recognize yet. Soft, amused. Thoughtful. Connor wants to hold a jeweler's loupe glass up to his ear and see what's going on inside Hank's head.

"What’s your last name?" Hank asks, tapping his chin. "Maybe we've run around some of the same circles without realizing it."

"Stern by birth," Connor says quietly. "Arkait by marriage."

Hank nods, not seeming to draw any immediate connections. "So you took your husband's name," he observes instead, eyes flickering away like a shy bird. "My first husband took mine."

Connor stops breathing. "What?"

"I was married before Jen and my boy ever came along," Hank says, looking back over at his scarred, aged hands spread on the tabletop. "We were so young back then, people said it wouldn't last. But not because Aaron would get gunned down on some fucking routine night patrol."

Connor's mouth opens and closes. He looks out the window until his eyes burn from the raw sunlight bouncing off the sea. "Here I thought it was the end of the world losing just one," he says softly.

"Sometimes the world ends twice," Hank says. "But you live through it somehow."

They let that sentiment rest between them for a beat, leaving it untouched for now. Connor has no intention of getting up and leaving anytime soon, mostly because he doesn't want to.

“Tell me about your son," he says at last, and watches the love spark and brighten in Hank's eyes.

"He's a lot like me, more than I'd ever care to admit," Hank says with a snort before pulling up a picture on his phone of a grinning young man with a head full of honey-brown curls. "My Cole."

They sit talking well into late morning, neither needing to be anywhere else at all. The boat is set to anchor in the Caribbean the following morning per the captain's announcement. Hank and Connor walk around the deck again and lounge under the veranda with a couple drinks, watching gulls sail on the breeze.

"Did we take a cruise just to sit and talk?" Hank laughs. He’s joking, but Connor wonders the same thing. He hasn't wanted to do anything else all morning; they're on a multi-million dollar vessel designed to entertain people, and he's only wanted to spend time with Hank despite a thousand other things he's already paid to do.

"There's an afternoon yoga class I was reading about," Connor says, and wrinkles his nose into a smile when Hank cuts him a look that suggests he'd rather swan dive off the bow of the boat. "Or we could...check out shuffleboard on the upper deck?"

"Let’s do it," Hank says, slapping his thick thighs before standing and knocking his sunglasses back down onto the bridge of his nose. "Go show those highfalutin grannies a thing or two."

"You know how to play?" Connor asks.

"Nope," Hank says with a grin. "But I learn fast."

Up on the shuffleboard court, Hank sits back and watches a single round before he declares them fit to play. "We can dominate this shit," he stage-whispers to Connor as they get some weights and sticks. "And even if we suck all the ladies are looking at you—it’s foolproof."

Connor rolls up the sleeves on his linen shirt, exposing pale, freckled forearms. Hank's already sweating a little under the midday sun but shines golden where it kisses his skin.

"I'd assumed they'd be watching you," Connor murmurs, and watches as Hank sets up a new game.

In the end, they lose. Terribly. But Connor hasn't laughed so hard in ages and the old ladies who hustle them off the court and blow Hank kisses tell them to come back later for another match.

"Where to next?" Hank asks. Connor stares at his reflection in Hank's sunglasses and feels unbothered by the fine lines around his eyes, the grey streaking through the wind-swept curls flopping over his forehead. Not young, but youthful somehow. Lighter.

"Anywhere," Connor says, so that's exactly what they do.

They walk through the ship's small aquarium and feed the scarlet macaw by the pool, make their own piña coladas, play virtual reality golf, and even win a round or two of bingo. Hank takes the floppy straw hat from his prize basket and sets it atop Connor's head, chuckling warmly.

That night, getting ready for the comedy show they'd agreed on seeing, Connor stares himself down in the bathroom mirror and wonders if he's meant to feel guilty. Hank hasn't touched him beyond a brush of their hands or insinuated anything about this being a date—And yet.

And yet.

Does Connor want it to be a date? When he's been carrying around his husband's ashes in a tiny glass vial in his pocket all day? Perhaps he does, even if he doesn't know how to say it just yet. But the wanting in and of itself feels like some tiny spark of what could be hope.

Hank greets him in front of the Golden Lounge for a second time, freshly showered, shaved, and smelling like vetiver and sandalwood. Connor sees the gold chain at his throat, eyes drawn to the grey hair peeking thru the open collar. His lips tingle just the slightest at the sight. Connor wants to tell Hank he looks handsome, because he does. The words almost leave his mouth but not before Hank stands back and lets out a low wolf whistle.

“You clean up this nice for little ol' me, slick?"

"Absolutely not," Connor tells him, smiling as he does.

They laugh and clap through the comic's routine but Hank mostly finds himself wanting to watch Connor. Thinks he's being real sneaky about it, too, until he peers over again and catches Connor looking at him over the tops of his glasses.

"We should go for that drink," Hank whispers.

Standing at the railing outside the lounge later, swirling something strong and amber around his glass with Connor at his elbow, Hank looks out across the black water and ponders if he's hiding from his own haunts or if this is what folks call healing.

"What if we'd met here and my wife was still alive?" Hank asks aloud, regretting it almost immediately but surging forward with another sip of liquid courage. "What if your husband were here?"

Connor looks momentarily stricken, glass pressed against his bottom lip. "I don't know," he says, watching Hank's profile through the moonlight. It hurts to think about; it hurts to tally up three months of loss and ask yourself if you deserve to feel happiness again. Connor wonders if there's a guidebook that teaches a widowed man how to grieve.

But when he's with Hank, he's somehow able to think about what he lost without it swallowing him whole. The pain's still there but it doesn't have to crush him to death every moment of every day. This single day they spent together is like the first full breath he's drawn in months. It’s intoxicating—it scares Connor, just how much. He wants to cry and laugh at the same time and it makes him feel a touch crazy.

"My husband is here," Connor whispers. He reaches into his pocket and produces the tiny vial. Hank stares at it where it rests in the palm of his hand. "It's just a sentimental thing," Connor says, tucking it back into the safety of his pocket before gripping the balcony railing. "I thought I'd bring part of him back to where we met so we'd come full circle."

Hank only smiles softly. "Well," he says. "I'm sure glad you did."

Connor drains his glass in two gulps and closes his eyes against the starry night. He doesn't want to go back to his room alone tonight; the realization is like sinking in a pool of warm water. When he opens his eyes again, Hank is staring at his mouth.

"Can I kiss you?" he asks.

Connor takes the glass out of Hank's hand and sets it down on the table behind them before turning back to face him, one hand come up to rest against the center of his chest. "Yes," he says, already so close the word is spoken there against Hank's lips.

It's tentative, chaste, more delicate than Connor may have imagined considering Hank's beard, but the hair doesn't scratch him like stubble would, pleasantly coarse but still soft. He tips into it headlong and lets their noses brush together, uncaring, simply letting it all be.

Hank's hand comes up to touch the side of Connor's face, one thumb at the corner of his mouth. When he covers Connor's palm resting against his chest he feels the warmth of a gold band there but doesn't pull away. "This is kinda crazy," Hank says when he pulls away, laughing a little hoarsely.

Connor nods but given the circumstances of his life up until this very moment, he supposes there's nowhere else he'd rather be. "Do you want to come back to my room?" he asks.

Hank goes still, warm hand sliding around to rest against Connor's neck, thumb just above the steady pulse there. His expression looks grave in the faint light while he seeks out Connor's gaze. "You’re sure that's what you want?" he asks, words gentle enough to lie on.

Connor reaches for Hank's hand. When he takes a step backward Hank only follows; a question and an answer unspoken. Connor still nods, though, despite the hammering of his heart. "Yes," he says, for a second time tonight.

They can hardly keep their hands off each other the whole way down to first class. Connor fumbles his key card out and swipes it, letting himself fall into the room backwards with Hank pressed to his front. His glasses are askew on his face and he's already undone Hank's shirt down to the last button before it tucks into his slacks. They're both a little winded.

"I should," Connor stammers, buzzing wherever Hank's hands touch him, "I should...just go wash up a bit—"

Hank kisses the hinge of his jaw and drops onto the bed, patient as a saint, hair disheveled from where Connor had raked his hands through it. "I'll be here," he promises.

In the tiny bathroom Connor splashes some cool water on his face and quickly rinses with some mouthwash. Undoes his belt, unbuttons his slacks, and then looks down at his own wedding band. His vision heats and blurs again, some hot thing welling in the back of his throat. He takes the little vial out of his pocket and bites into his own lip to keep from letting out a tiny sob. The soft cotton he keeps it wrapped in is on the dresser in the room; he'll have to walk past Hank to reach it.

It's all so pitiful it's almost humiliating. Connor drops onto the closed toilet lid and puts his head in his hands. He’s 55 years old, he's been widowed for three months, he's on a boat in the middle of the Caribbean, and there's a beautiful, kind, generous man sitting on his bed behind the closed door, waiting. For him.

Two knuckles rap softly on the bathroom door. "Connor?" Hank's voice asks. "You alright in there?"

"Yes," Connor lies, and then his voice splinters and breaks in half. "No—no. Oh, God."

Hank is silent for a few moments. "Maybe I should go," he says. "If you need some space."

The last thing Connor needs is more empty space to get lost in his head. That horror claws through him with some wild desperation, the fear of being alone—but also the fear of not seeing Hank again.

Connor opens the bathroom door a little faster than he’d intended to, tears streaking his face. "Don’t go," he rasps.

Hank smiles, sad but understanding. "I didn't want to," he says, and then looks down, making a vague gesture between them. "Just...didn't want this to hurt you, y'know."

"It's not," Connor says, trying to reassure him through the emotion in his voice. "You're not, Hank."

Hank stays quiet and Connor draws a shaky breath. He knows the ball's in his court and Hank will defer to anything he asks just by merit of being a good man. But Hank deserves more than just whatever Connor wants. They need to be in this together; two lost souls bound in the storm. Honesty has always been Connor's practice in business affairs, so he supposes there's no reason he can't be honest with Hank now.

"I don't know if I'm ready yet," he says, almost a whisper. There’s just the sound of their quiet breathing in the small room. "But stay. Please."

The small distance between them is painful to bear and Connor wants to touch Hank, hold him and be held. He brings up a hand to wrap around the curve of Hank's shoulder and inclines his head, wanting to be drawn inward like a bowstring against the bulk of Hank's body.

"I will," Hank says, the words a gentle rumble in his chest. His arms wrap around Connor's back and pull him close, and despite his shame Connor's already crying against his shoulder when Hank tucks him closer against the crook of his neck and holds on. "C'mon sweetheart," Hank says, sinking down onto the bed and taking Connor with him. Still fully clothed except for his shoes, he reclines against the made-up pillows and coaxes Connor up into his arms, kissing his temple.

There’s nothing he can say, but he doesn't let go. Connor isn't sure how much time passes, but eventually his tears slow and dry up. Even though his eyes are sore and his face is blotchy and the whole shoulder of Hank's lovely dress shirt is soaked through, he doesn't move from where he's pressed against Hank's side. Their breathing is slow, easygoing, but Connor can't tell Hank isn't sleeping. He smooths a palm up from Hank's belly to his collarbone, long fingers brushing the gold chain pooled in the hollow of his throat with two rings Connor hasn't seen until now. He touches them, tentatively, and finds a wide gold band and a smaller ring with a diamond that must've once belonged to a smaller pair of hands.

"Felt right to keep them with me," Hank murmurs, covering Connor's hand with his own. "At least for a little while."

Connor lays his head back in the juncture between Hank's neck and shoulder and closes his eyes. "They’re with us always regardless," he says, and Hank doesn't find any reason to argue with that.

The rings are only a tribute to old habit and what was lost. Eventually Connor lets Hank up long enough to strip down to his briefs and undershirt, turning the lights off before climbing back into the double bed together. They meet in the middle, Connor silently pulled into the warm circle of Hank's arms.

* * *



He sleeps deeply without dreaming. The captain's announcement wakes them in the morning at first light. The ship will be docking in port shortly, and all passengers are encouraged to spend the day exploring the island at their leisure. Connor's reluctant to see Hank go, if only to shower and get a change of clothes. He goes through his own morning routine, stepping into his swim shorts and slathering on extra sun lotion to keep from burning. He considers the straw hat Hank gave him from their bingo winnings and puts that on, too.

Connor silently prays he hasn't ruined anything after last night. But when Hank returns he's got a complementary beach towel thrown over his shoulder, wearing his own pair of swim trunks and a soft cotton shirt rolled up to the elbow. Not one of the eyesore Hawaiian ones this time, and it's sheer enough to see the faint outline of a winged tattoo underneath.

"Ready to roll?" Hank asks as he leans in for another morning kiss at the height of Connor's cheekbone, warm and familiar even though they've only known each other this small handful of days. "Thought we could grab breakfast at that little café first."

It shouldn't be this easy, Connor thinks, as he walks up on deck at Hank's side and greets the cool, salty air and wide open expanse of a beautiful day at their disposal. But it is.

They step onto the island and walk through the streets, some paved and grand, others only dirt pathways carved in the soil. Neither have much use for shopping but they peer into the shop windows anyway, some displaying souvenirs and others selling watches that cost as much as a car. One artisan is selling handmade jewelry, delicate but handsome things crafted from hammered silver and blown glass.

Connor lingers at the table outside her shop, eyes and fingers strayed to some of the bracelets, but eventually he moves on to the next stall selling woven baskets. Hank lags behind and when Connor looks up to find him he's tucking something into his pocket, already hidden from view. He holds his palms up, empty, as if that absolves him of any guilt. "What?" he asks, eyebrows high on his forehead behind his sunglasses.

When they make it to the beach there's hardly anybody in the vivid blue water yet. It’s still a little early, many of the other passengers preferring to shop or dine on the island rather than swim. They kick off their shoes and walk along the tide for a while, soaking up the sun. Hank tells stories about being a detective and a father, about meeting Jen, even speaking of his big old dog, Sumo, staying with a sitter back home. Connor talks about his travels and the places he's been, his brother and his childhood, and all the places he still wants to go.

As they round a bend in the coastline and navigate around some craggy stones, Connor finds an ounce of modest courage and asks, "What was Aaron like?"

Hank stays quiet only while he thinks. "He was my best friend," he says, smiling. "We practically lived in each other's pockets."

Hank talks more while they walk, bare feet leaving crisscrossed imprints in the wet sand. "Young and bold, y'know?" he says with a laugh. "We weren't even 30 back then. Not old and grey yet...well, at least not me. Aaron will be 29 forever in my mind." He shrugs, looking out over the water. "Would you believe me if I told you he was a redhead?" he says, like it's some kind of private joke Connor doesn't quite understand. And then, more wistfully, "Only the good die young, I guess."

"That’s not always true," Connor says, reaching up to keep his hat from blowing away. He wants to tell Hank how good and kind he is, too. That he's still here, and not without good reason. "I...I'm sure he'd be proud of you, Hank. I know he would be."

"Maybe so," Hank muses, slipping his hands into his pockets. "What about your husband? You never mentioned his first name."

"Sam," Connor says immediately, smiling around the familiar word despite himself. It feels so good to say out loud, broken free from the cage of his mouth.

He tells Hank about Sam's old motorcycle, his collection of preserved flowers and butterflies, the time they got lost on a business trip in bumfuck Iowa and wound up at the county fair. How he hated ketchup and how dark his handsome face got in the summers. And somehow, none of it hurts like Connor thought it would; Sam and Aaron still live on in memory, kept safe there.

He and Hank laugh and trade stories, splashing through the clear water, losing track of time until their stomachs start grumbling and they have to turn back to find lunch. Under a canopy overlooking the water with their fish tacos half-eaten, Hank reaches into his pocket and produces a sterling cuff inlaid with little blue stones in the palm of his hand.

"I was going to wait, but I'd rather see you wear it," he says, blushing just the faintest bit. Connor slips the bracelet on over his wrist, bending it just a little so it fits well. He holds it out in the sun and watches the silver sparkle, the polished gemstones blue like the sea. "Thank you, Hank," he says, rubbing at his wrist. And then, more quietly, "For everything."

Hank studies him for a moment, dragging a finger through the ring of condensation his beer left on the table. He reaches up and pulls his sunglasses off his face, eyes clear and earnest. "You don't have to thank me for anything," he says softly, clearing his throat. "I'm just glad we…" Hank adds before pausing, gaze hovering around Connor's face. "I'm glad all this turned out the way it did and that you didn't tell me to fuck off when I asked you to dance."

Connor laughs. "I almost forgot," he says. "You still owe me a turn around the dancefloor."

Hank snorts, waving him off despite the smile hanging around his mouth. "We’ll see about that."

After lunch they wander the island some more, taking their dear sweet time. If Connor happens to reach down and brush Hank's hand, he only threads their fingers together and holds on.

Dusk creeps back in as the day ends and they head back for the ship. Connor's wind-chafed and Hank's pink from the sun, both of them weary from the heat and their time spent walking by the water. There’s a formal dining event tonight but they opt out, sniffing out pizza instead.

"Your place or mine?" Hank asks conversationally, winking at Connor as he pops half of a cookie into his mouth that he filched from the buffet table on the way out. They’re grimy with sand and salty sweat, both badly in need of a shower before bedtime and the ship's departure.

"Let’s get a few things from my room and crash at your place tonight," Connor decides with a tiny thrill, taking the corridor that leads to first class. It’s not Hank's real house or home, of course, but he wants to see his little hidden nook on the boat nonetheless.

They take turns in the narrow shower, rinsing off the clean, briny smell of the ocean. Hank's sitting back in bed when he emerges from the bathroom, idly watching TV with his ankles crossed at the end of the bed. He’s so tall his feet almost hang off the edge. It’s a scene that feels oddly domestic; surreal, considering they're in a room the size of a walk-in closet on a boat, but comfortable all the same.

The ship is set to depart in an hour and Connor bites his lip, holding that tiny glass vial he carried with him all day. "I'm going to do something real fast," Connor says, slipping his shoes back on even though he's still damp from the shower. "I'll be back in a few minutes."

"Where you headed, babe?" Hank asks, turning his head to look. Connor draws in a deep breath, smile wavering. After everything, Hank deserves to know, at least. "I'm going to say goodbye to Sam," he says.

Hank blinks and slowly sits up. "Do you want me to come with you?" he asks. Cautious, but still so sure.

"Yes," Connor sighs. "Please." the wind is calm when they walk out on the deck. Not many people are out, mostly tired from a long day on the island or still enjoying their dinners in the formal dining hall. Tiny lights twinkle in the distance on the mainland, winking golden in the night. Connor senses nerves trying to twist in his gut into knots but Hank's hand stays low on his back, a grounding weight.

"Maybe I didn't think this through all the way," Connor admits, trying to laugh and failing. They stand at the polished railing, peering down into dark water.

"You do whatever you feel is right," Hank says quietly, watching as Connor considers the tiny vial of ashes in the palm of his hand. "No matter what, it's a tribute to the life you shared and his memory."

Connor nods, unshed tears behind his glasses. "I know," he whispers. Hank stays close but steps a little off to the side, giving Connor some room to breathe. Unashamed now, Connor briefly presses the glass to his lips in one last kiss before opening it. A breeze cards through his hair, come and gone like a faint whisper. Then the air is still again.

There's so much he wants to say, but maybe Sam knows it all anyway without Connor needing to repeat it. They’d lived their lives in an honest marriage full of love and laughter and he tries to think of those times while he lets the ashes sift out into the air and across the sea. Connor's quiet for a time, carefully stowing the vial back in his pocket. The silver cuff on his wrist clinks against the railing and he realizes he hasn't taken it off all afternoon.

This time, instead of thanking Hank again, Connor only wraps his arms around him. He doesn't fully know or understand how grief and death brought two souls together like this, but he's thankful. Perhaps there is strength to be found through loss if you live long enough to see the other side.

But Connor is tired, and that's too much to think about tonight. For now, he only wants to sink into Hank's embrace and stay there. He wants to close his eyes against the darkness of a cool room with a warm body beside him, knowing who it is and how they found each other. He wants to look forward to tomorrow, knowing Hank feels the same.

"You ready to head back?" Hank asks, sliding a broad palm up Connor's back, the heat of his hand burning through the material of Connor's shirt.

Connor nods, exhausted but relieved. His body gently thrums with some of the released tension he's been carrying around for months. "Let’s go."

Back in Hank’s room, they step out of their shoes and turn down the lights. The TV is still playing and Hank doesn’t turn it off, though he lowers the volume to the barest murmur. Connor thinks about the nights he can’t sleep in his own empty house and knows all too well why.

It’s an unspoken thing when they both move toward the bed. It’s pushed against the wall to save space in the tiny cabin and Hank climbs in first, scooting over so that Connor can slide in beside him. The blue light from the TV flickers over them, bathing Connor’s pale face in cerulean. For a while they don’t speak, simply huddled together on the narrow bed. Connor tips his head against Hank’s shoulder and sighs, fingers tracing idly up and down the back of Hank’s arm, browner now from their day spent on the island.

If this is all they had, it would be enough. But when Hank turns his face and tips Connor’s chin up for a kiss, he parts his mouth to invite him in, eager and willing. Even now past the peak of mid-life, the sweetness of a gentle kiss makes Connor’s stomach quiver like it had thirty years ago. He’s not afraid, though. Far from it.

It goes on like that for a while—their easy, patient kisses, the exploratory brush of fingers against throats and collarbones. No reason to rush or fumble. Hank takes Connor’s glasses off his face and sets them on the little shelf on the wall, safe from being crushed or sat on. When Connor’s hand slides down his belly to his groin, Hank’s breath catches. He doesn't push Connor's hand away and doesn't want to, but they both know he's still soft beneath the spread of Connor's palm.

"Happens when you get to be my age," he croaks, hoping Connor understands. “I haven’t—not since Jen,” Hank blurts out, line of his throat bobbing in place.

“Me either,” Connor whispers, sad and thankful all at once that they’re on this leveled field together. His hand comes back up to rest over Hank's chest near his heart instead. “It wouldn’t matter to me if you had.”

Hank nods, blowing out a wavering breath. His eyes look far-off for a moment, lost in another time and place somewhere Connor can’t see. “It’s not easy,” he says at last. “Making love one last time to a dying woman.”

Connor's heart aches for him so much in that moment that he decides any of his jealousy from before was misplaced the whole time. He never had to walk to the gallows alongside Sam, knowing that death was near. They were happy and vibrant together, oblivious until the very end.

"We’re here, Hank," Connor says, feeling foolish for saying the obvious but still needing to all the same. "We’re alive."

"I'm glad," Hank says, and this time Connor's surprised to find that his eyes are glassy with wetness in the dim light of the television. Connor sits up without another thought, tired knees creaking, and settles himself into the spread of Hank's lap. Leans over to take his face between his hands and kisses him—on his mouth, his crow's feet, the tip of his strong nose.

Connor shrugs out of his shirt, pale chest smooth and dotted with freckles and moles. Hank touches him with a careful sort of reverence, thumbs tracing the faint contour of Connor's ribs, the flat, crooked scar low on his belly from where his appendix was removed. Perfect in all the tiny imperfections gathered over time.

"You're beautiful," Hank tells Connor, gruff but sincere. "Didn’t expect all this under that prim little sweater vest," he adds, thankful for the guffaw it rouses out of Connor.

"Now show me what you're working with, big boy," Connor says huskily. "I want to see that tattoo."

They work Hank’s shirt over his head, tossing it aside. Connor soaks in the sight of him: the broad chest softened with age, the freckles on his shoulders, the faded ink on his chest and another high on his arm. The crater left by a bullet that fits Connor’s fingertip almost perfectly. Connor pushes his fingers thru the silver hair on Hank’s chest, reveling in the wiry curls.

He can feel his own cock stirring and presses Hank’s hand there against the tenting fabric of his briefs. “Touch me,” he says against Hank’s mouth, bowed over him and dazed with how much he needs this. “Please, Hank.”

Hank groans and gets his hands around Connor’s ass, slips his fingers in the waistband of his briefs to tug them down halfway. Kneads the pale skin and muscle before letting his palms slide down Connor’s thighs, thumbs caressing the soft inner creases by his groin. God he wants to taste it.

“What do you need, babe?” Hank murmurs against Connor’s throat. “Might be working with limited equipment tonight but I want to make you feel good.”

“Just you,” Connor says, shivering when Hank mouths at the hinge of his jaw. “It doesn’t matter, Hank, it—fuck, it doesn’t—please.”

Connor’s sweet to say as much but Hank physically aches with the need to be inside him if Connor wants that, too. God damn getting older, he thinks, as he sucks a love bite into the soft skin on Connor’s chest and coaxes him up on his knees.

“Get these off,” he says, pulling them down until they're bunched around Connor's thighs and he can take Connor’s rosy cock in his hand. He strokes it once from base to tip and that's enough to make Connor swear and gasp Hank's name into the dark cabin. The soft, lovely rasp of his voice makes Hank's cock twitch where it rests against his thigh and he takes that faint twinge of hope and fully runs with it. He keeps stroking Connor with one hand, fumbling his soft cock out of his boxers with the other. Connor moans when he sees it, biting his lip and bucking there in Hank's lap like he's 25 and not 55.

"I want you to fuck me," he says, flushed and fully at Hank's mercy. "I don't care how, Hank, but I—I need you."

"I don't know if I can, sweetheart," Hank says. "But we can try." He wraps his big hand around the both of them together and strokes slow and steady, relishing in the velvet softness of Connor's length against his, the tiny bead of wetness that his thumb swipes through and slicks over their cockheads. Connor's head is bowed between them, beautiful.

"Talk to me," Hank begs, wanting this so badly, desperate for it. "Tell me something, baby."

Connor whines, fingers digging into Hank's biceps. "Fuck me open and make me yours," he croaks, rutting up into Hank's fist. And then, somehow more timidly than before, "Tell me I'm good."

"You are, Connor," Hank says, and fuck if this vanilla shit ain't doing the trick by itself. "You’re so good, honey. So strong. Y—you deserve so much. Makes me wanna give you everything."

Three days in and maybe, just maybe Hank would pull the moon out of the sky if Connor only asked.

His cock has finally joined the program, hard enough now that it flags and slaps against his gut when he lets go. Connor hisses at the lost contact but stares down with want, eyes blown wide.

"May not last long," Hank rasps, mortified, but that only spurs Connor into action.

He's up out of Hank's lap as fast as his legs will carry him, kicking off his shorts on his way to the overnight bag he brought. He throws a t-shirt to the side and digs out some foil tear packets Hank squints at until he realizes what they are with a wash of relief.

"Are those printed with the cruise line's logo?" Hank says, and then snorts when Connor trips over their shoes and stumbles back into bed with a handful of lube and condom samples.

"Free in first class," Connor says with a giggle, pressing a lopsided kiss against Hank's belly. Before he can scramble up Hank shifts under the sheet, pushing it away as he sits up. They both look ridiculous with their dicks waving through the air like this but mostly he’s glad he got it up at all. Connor’s eyes stay heavy-lidded where he’s sprawled in the bedding, waiting

Hank lowers himself on an elbow, leaning over Connor to kiss him long and deep. He pushes his boxers down and away and then they’re both stark naked save for the rings they never take off and Connor’s new bracelet still clasped at his wrist. Two bodies scarred, faded, worn down. Matched imperfection, Hank thinks. Two odd shards of something that somehow fit together to make something new.

“What are you thinking about?” Connor whispers, reaching up to touch a piece of hair at Hank’s temple.

Hank thinks he may love Connor, but he can’t tell him that yet. It’s too soon to say such things aloud even if he knows it deep down. Feels it, encroaching around the edges of this very moment.

“Thinkin' I just got pretty lucky for some old bastard,” Hank says instead, reaching to pull Connor's body closer until their chests are flush together.

Connor feels Hank’s cock press into his lower belly, hot, hard and wonderful. Despite Hank’s words about this not lasting, he still doesn’t rush. Kisses Connor lazily while he explores the jut of each shoulder blade, the dip of Connor’s lower back, the cleft of his ass. It’s intimate, nearly perfect, but still not enough. Connor’s shaking with the wanting, trembling now with need like he’s never done or felt anything like this before. And he hasn’t—at least not with Hank.

“I’ve laid awake at night thinking about somebody touching me like this again,” Connor says, squeezing his eyes shut as if to hide from his own truth. “Thinking it wouldn’t ever happen again except in memories I forget more a little each day.” He doesn’t mean to choke around a sob and cry, thinking about how the memory of Sam’s touch and smell fades from his senses all the time. This isn’t about Sam, but Hank seems to understand when he cradles Connor’s head and shushes him, leaving a kiss at his greying hairline.

But the moment bleeds rebirth from every direction, and suddenly there’s the possibility of new memories blooming alongside old ones. They don’t have to eclipse each other, the precious things we love; they can each be held and loved dearly, two different stars in the same sky.

This time it’s Hank who does the asking. “What are you thinking about now?” he murmurs, fingers carding through the soft curls at the crown of Connor’s head while a stray tear drops against Hank’s collarbone and slides down his chest.

“That during those nights I was thinking of you," Connor says, unfurling in Hank's arms as he gives himself over completely for the taking. "I just didn't know it yet."

Hank’s face looks caught somewhere between pain and adoration before he tips their foreheads together. He tries to laugh to chase the emotion away but it only falters and fizzles out between them. “Oh, honey,” is all he says in the end, shaking his head. “You’re more than I deserve.”

Connor does laugh through the wetness on his face, clinging to Hank like he doesn’t ever plan on letting go. “I want you,” he says, fingers gently curling against the wide expanse of Hank’s back as he tries to draw ever closer. “All of you, Hank.”

And Hank may be a little out of practice, but the body never really forgets. There’s the earnest, gentle fumble of tearing open one of the lube packets, his own dazed disbelief as he coats his fingers with slick and reaches down low between Connor’s legs to nudge his thighs apart. Connor drapes his leg over Hank’s hip and the sound he makes when Hank’s finger first dips into his body is heavenly, a moan breathed out on a soft sigh.

They’re slow to start but Connor is patient; the more he pushes himself down against Hank’s fingers, the more Hank’s cock throbs. It’s only after he’s three fingers deep that Connor starts unraveling. Hank’s thumb is a gentle pressure behind his balls, teasing the soft skin there, and for the past few minutes he’s been doing nothing but swearing between shallow gulps of air.

“Hank,” he gasps brokenly, over and over.

“Shh,” Hank says, crooking his fingers one last time before withdrawing them and reaching for a tissue at the bedside. “Almost.”

His body buzzes with anticipation beyond arousal, even. Christ, he hasn't held another man like this since he was young. It’s been years. A lifetime. There’s the fine hair on Connor's calves, the corded sinew straining in his forearms. Power and strength, but also the vulnerability found in the graceful curve of Connor's throat, his dark eyelashes resting against his cheeks. Even with his youth long gone, he's stunning.

Hank’s flustered enough that he means to ask how Connor wants him, how he wants this, but he supposes there was no use—Connor turns over onto his back, thighs spread, and reaches out as if to pull Hank back into his arms, an unspoken invitation. The TV casts over half his face again, blue light shimmering there like sun-dappled water. Hank would much rather see him like this than make love in the dark.

He slides a condom on and slicks himself again, drawn back into the gravity of Connor's embrace. There’s no performance in it, no flourish or fanfare. They’re both weary from a long day spent in the sea and sun and only awake now for chasing the burn of that bright and vivid wanting. Connor sighs as Hank settles between his thighs, eyes fluttering shut when Hank takes his cock in hand and pushes into the tight heat of him without hurry.

Hank groans low in his chest and pulls one of Connor’s legs up around his waist before he pushes in another scant little inch. The slowness is tormenting but better this way, being able to watch Connor’s face change and his bitten mouth part open in a silent sound as Hank bottoms out and rests flush against him. They breathe together, warm air puffed into the same tight space. Hank doesn’t move at first, content to lie here as he is in Connor’s arms, soothed by fine fingers tracing up his back as they memorize the contours and shapes there. He can feel a sliver of warm metal on his skin, a dash of hammered sterling still on Connor's wrist. His bad hip aches some, dull and deep, but it’s muted and distant for the time being; all his focus, all his sensation is honed in on Connor.

“Kiss me,” Connor whispers, and Hank does. He gives the first gentle roll of his hips and delights in the moan that bleed from Connor’s mouth into his own, the vibration caught between their chests alongside the gold chain clasped at Hank’s throat. Connor hitches his other leg up to hook around Hank’s side, loose and lazy, and loops both arms around Hank's neck. Holds him in place while they rock against each other, whispering sweet words and sighs in Hank's ear, urging him along without hurry.

It's a peculiar but beautiful moment of singularity; Hank doesn't know where he ends and Connor begins anymore, if he's holding Connor or if Connor's holding him. He hopes it's both—two tired bodies made stronger when joined together. He keeps his lips where they rest near the ridge of Connor's cheekbone, dropping a chaste kiss there. Heat gathers low in his belly, slowly coiling like a spring, and when Hank slides a hand between them to fondle Connor's cock the way he cries out is all the more reward.

“Hank,” Connor whines, grown wild and restless now with Hank’s hand on him, full and stretched to the limit. His body tenses and he turns his face into the pillow, blunt nails raking up Hank’s back while he teeters closer to the crumbling precipice, unraveling. Hank presses a searing kiss at the column of Connor’s throat and slams into him one last time, punching the air out of both their lungs.

When Connor’s breath comes back he lets out a sound between a sob and a laugh as he finally reaches his peak and topples over it in Hank’s arms. Even with his hand streaked in Connor’s spend, Hank withdraws it from the heat between their bellies and lowers his weight down off his aching elbow, bringing them chest to chest. Connor only holds on and carries him along willingly. Hank can see his own end like a buoy in the near distance, back and brow cast over in a sheen of sweat as he tries to fight his way there.

“I’ve got you, darling,” Connor whispers, still trembling with his own comedown beneath all Hank’s weight pressing him into the mattress. His touch is softer now, drowsy, body opened up like a precious night flower for Hank to use as he pleases. “Next time I want you to come inside me,” Connor murmurs in Hank’s ear, a secret promise just for him, and with a lurch that jars them both, that’s the ending.

There’s no fireworks when it arrives, though—only the sigh that comes with submerging yourself in a hot bath or the first lick of a cool breeze on a blistering summer day. The sweetest kind of relief, made sweeter by Connor’s gentle kisses on his face while Hank’s cock pulses inside him. They lay there together for a time, unable to move beyond their rising chests.

“Did you feel that?” Connor asks at last, tracing phantom shapes on Hank’s back. “We must’ve left port.”

Hank laughs against him, dropping a kiss to Connor’s pale shoulder. “That was all me, baby,” he teases.

Even though his cock is spent and his weight should be stifling by now, Connor keeps Hank inside him by sheer force of will. Hank’s exhausted, limbs turned to jelly, but Connor cradles his face and pets his sides, cupping his belly, fingers strayed to an old jagged knife wound just shy of his kidney.

“Thank you,” he says, pressing the words soft and sleepy somewhere above Hank’s ear. Maybe there’s more he wants to say, other words swirling beneath the surface, but he keeps them hidden for now.

Hank knows they’re there because he can feel them gathering in his own throat, too. Sleep eventually finds them, pulled apart and hastily cleaned up but still curled together in their mess of blankets like a pair of old dogs. Tucked into the tiny nook of Hank’s cabin, the flickering TV finally turned off, both gently lulled to sleep in the cool, peaceful dark.




* * *




When Hank wakes again it's still dark in his cabin. There aren't any portholes to let the light in here in second class and he keeps his eye closed, afraid to disturb the memory of last night for a moment. Had it been real? Had he dreamed the whole thing up? It seems likely. But the shift in his breathing must give him away, because he feels the warm, dry press of lips against the curve of his shoulder, then another high on his chest. Hairy legs brush his under the covers, and a happy little chill zips up his spine at the sensation.

"Morning handsome," Connor says, voice still rough with sleep. "I think we might've missed breakfast."

The lamp above the bed twists on and Hank cracks open an eye to find a bleary brown one squinting back at him, crow's feet gathered together, happy as can be. "Sleep good?"

"Very," Hank rumbles, and then shifts closer to mouth under Connor's chin, whiskers scratching there. "I think I have a better idea than breakfast."

"Oh?" Connor says, watching as Hank kisses down his belly and pushes the sheet aside to teasingly palm his soft cock. "H—Hank!"

It's probably the messiest blowjob Hank's given since college and certainly the first cock he's had in his mouth in over twenty years, but if the hitched little sounds Connor makes and the tight fingers against his scalp are any indicator, he does just fine.

Brunch comes later, a small spread of fruit and pastry sitting in the shade on the upper deck at a table near the rear of the boat. They're back at sea, steered round toward home.

Connor levels Hank with a knowing look over his glasses. "I haven't forgotten about that dance."

Dancing has been the last thing on Hank's mind this morning. In between stealing little sidelong glances at Connor, he's been busy privately wondering if this can last. If they can make it work. If things will be the same when he's back home in Detroit, working his weeks away, and they're not stuck on a boat together. It'll take at least another two full days to reach Florida's coast again, but that's plenty of time to worry and for Hank's own misgivings to cast doubt.

"Where do you live, Connor?" he asks abruptly, clearing his throat. "Back in Michigan."

Connor looks vaguely perplexed at the question, like he'd somehow been under the impression they already knew this about each other, that they've known one another so intimately for more than just the past three days. It certainly feels like it.

"Downtown," he says. "In a loft in the city."

Nodding, Hank tries to image the clean lines and whitewashed walls of any space Connor inhabits juxtaposed with the lumpy softness and dusty shelves in the house he shared with Jen. They seem too distinct, separate. One has dog hair in the corners and the other absolutely does not.

Hank's always struggled with expressing himself in these moments, caught between saying too little and saying too much. He swallows dryly. "I want to keep seeing you when we're home again." And then, a second later, "Fuck, Connor, I haven't even cleaned out Jen's closet yet."

A moment of silence passes between them and Hank's convinced he's ruined it. Shown his hand, made himself look weak. But Connor only reaches across the table and touches Hank's hand where it's gripped like a vice around his knee, thumb brushing against his knuckles.

"You aren't getting rid of me that easily," he says, smiling gently. "I have plenty closets of my own that need some attention. We can work on it together, if you want—or not. We'll figure it out, Hank."

It wouldn't sound like much to anybody else, but to Hank it's a promise. "I...maybe," Hank says, relieved. Relieved that he won't have to make Cole help him with this, relieved he won't have to do it all alone. "I'd like that," he murmus.

Suddenly it's that much easier to picture Connor waking up in his messy bed, mussed and sleepy, the sun slanting across his face. But the messy bed he imagines isn't in Hank's dark bedroom in his empty house by the canal. Connor's there, and his rumpled sheets are there, but they're in a different room with high windows, warm and bright.

Hank tucks away the image for later; it's something to think about. But more than just something to think about, it's something he thinks he may just be crazy enough to want.

"I want you to meet Cole," Hank says, picking at the edge of his brunch napkin before he looks up and smiles, hopeful. "Not right away—just whenever he's around, y'know."

"He's a good kid," Hank adds, clearing his throat. "It wasn't easy losing his mom, but I think...I mean, I know he's doing alright. As alright as you can be doing after something like that. We check in with each other a lot."

Connor smiles, a tender sadness around his eyes. "You miss him," he says.

Hank laughs and slumps back into his chair, swiping a palm down his face. "Yeah, can you believe that shit? Less than a week and I'm pining after my grown kid like it's been a month."

Connor tips his head, thoughts drifting. "I often wonder if I made a mistake, not having children."

"...with Sam," he adds a moment later, rougher, the soft rasp back in his voice. "So I could have that part of him now that he's gone." He looks away again with a sigh, clear eyes amber in the mid-morning light.

"I would love to meet Cole," he tells Hank. "When you're ready."

Hank smiles and tucks that into his bouquet of little promises. It thrills him as much as it scares him—not so much the part about Cole finding out his old man started knocking boots with a dude, but the part where it happened so quickly after Jen was gone.

"We'll play it by ear," Hank says, and Connor smiles in agreement, handsome as a painted portrait set back against the backdrop of the ocean behind him.

Hank can't quite help it when he sneaks his phone out for a picture.

As the day wears on it seems like they're running out of things to do on the boat, but in Hank's mind it doesn't matter when he and Connor can fill in all the spare moments playing catch-up with a lifetime's worth of stories and memories. Making up for lost time, maybe.

And when they've grown tired and bored with exotic floral arrangement classes and wine tasting, Connor leans into Hank's ear while he's got his nose in a glass of aged red and says, "Let's go back to my room so I can suck your cock."

Hank doesn't have to be asked twice.

This time, maybe, he doesn't manage to get it up all the way without his pill. But he's mostly naked and propped up against some pillows, feeling pretty damn good about the hot stripe Connor licks down his shaft before taking Hank's cock in his mouth. It's good. Connor is eager to please, and God, how he does.

Hank keeps his fingers in Connor's hair, not so much guiding him as coaxing him along with little grunts and a word or two. Connor's hands roam while his mouth works, touching Hank wherever he can cop a feel: thighs, belly, the curve of his ass. Feeling Connor's fine fingers squeeze the softer flab of his aging body is...interesting. Hank hadn't expected to get so riled up at the prospect, but Connor goes for another one of his lube packets and when he asks the all-important question, Hank only nods and says, "God, yes."

He's not quite ready for the whole shebang, and they had dinner and a show to attend tonight, so Connor only slicks one finger and slides it home before slurping Hank's cock back up. It's messy, but not from poor form, and when Connor finds his prostate Hank feels the stars wheel. Jen had done this for him sometimes—many years ago, when they were still young and spry, she'd even hitched herself into a strap and blown his back out into next week from time to time. But it's been a while, and Connor presses that sweet spot like breaking Hank apart is his sole mission in life.

Hank thinks he's about to piss himself when everything goes white and he comes with a shout, dry as a bone, not a single drop spilled down Connor's throat. But his pelvis feels like it's full of liquid fire and he comes and comes with two fingers jammed in his ass, rocked to the core, trying not to howl like a dog.

Afterward, when he's limp and feels like he may have just astral projected into a different fucking dimension, Connor only crawls up the bed to kiss him and hum in absolute bliss, like sucking Hank's old wrinkly cock was the highlight of his dick-sucking career. And shit, judging by Hank’s count, maybe it was.

"Can't doze off yet," Connor says, dropping another sweet kiss at the corner of Hank's mouth. "We've got a reservation."

"Tell them I can't move," Hank grumbles, pulling Connor closer, but within the next hour they're both showered again and headed back up to the Golden Lounge.

Dinner is some swanky affair, a white linen tablecloth and flickering candles. Connor sits across from Hank and can't help but stare while something warm stirs in his belly. It's a good feeling. He doesn't want to over-analyze it because this is a moment worth taking as it comes. Even so, he wonders if Hank knows how handsome he is, especially in the golden softness of the lounge's romantic lighting. He's also beautiful out under the beating yellow sun, but in here he looks fuzzed out at the edges, content and pleasantly buzzed on chilled white wine.

Connor looks down at his wedding band on his left hand but doesn't feel sad or ashamed about it. Hank isn't wearing one, of course, but his gold chain is tucked under his shirt and tie. Connor had watched him get dressed earlier, transfixed by the simple process.

He realizes, perhaps for the first time, that he doesn't need to be beholden to grief at every waking moment. Being around Hank has taught him as much over the past several days. Grief may come and go—but so do shared moments of peace and pleasure and quiet happiness, all of it only temporary so long as you’re alive.

Connor feels every inch of his 55 years and  then somehow so simultaneously distant from it. Middle age seems ancient and yet he doesn't want to resign himself to being old just yet. There's still so much to see and do and even with Hank being 60, they could just be getting started.

There are still other new fears lingering under the surface about loss and the unpredictability of the universe taking away his newfound treasures, but Connor can't think about all that. Especially not when their plates are cleared and Hank stands, reaching out to gently take his hand.

The piano is playing in the barroom, filling the lounge with soft, sleepy jazz. Nothing to really shake a leg to, but there are still a few older couples swaying along with the music on the dance floor.

"I think I owe you that dance," Hank says, eyes sparkling some in the light.

Connor blushes but gets up eagerly, feeling his stomach flutter with a stray butterfly or two. Just like the first time, he lets himself be led out to the polished floor. Unlike the first time, Hank remembers now to place a confident hand at the soft dip of Connor's waist. They step closer together and Connor laces their fingers, happy, completely unbothered by anybody else who may be watching.

"Well sweetheart," Hank murmurs with a tiny laugh as they start moving with each other. "It may not be the waltz, but it's something."

Connor wants to kiss Hank stupid but smiles instead, eyes crinkling behind his glasses. They'll have more time for that later. Half a lifetime perhaps, if he gets lucky.

"It's perfect," Connor says, resting his chin on Hank's shoulder as they sway and a broad hand spans his lower back.

Hank hums, voice a pleasant rumble in Connor's ear. His eyes scan the room, taking in the sight of couples in their 70s, 80s, 90s—still together, still in love. Not every story has a sad ending.

"Maybe getting old isn't as shitty as I thought," he says, feeling Connor's laugh.

"We're not that old," Connor teases. Then he gets quiet for a moment, voice just a soft thing when it comes back. "But I'd like to find out."

With you, Hank hears even though Connor had barely spoken it aloud at all.

“We should do this again next year, maybe," Hank rasps. "A different place, somewhere new. Alaska. Italy. Hawaii. Anywhere you want to go." Another promise passed between them, extending the life of this unexpected unity they'd found so far from home. Connor smiles, and Hank only knows because he feels the upward curve of soft lips above the collar of his shirt.

"Are you asking me on a date, Lieutenant Anderson?" Connor says.

"Yes," Hank says, holding Connor a little more tightly. "I'm asking you on a lot of fuckin' dates, Connor, if you wanna go."

They both know he didn't really need to ask when Connor in his arms right here in this moment is all the answer.

"I wouldn't miss it for the world," Connor says, a little watery at the edges, and for now that's all that needs to be said.

They both know that all the rest will come later in its own due time. Hank's not in any big rush, but damn if he isn't looking forward to it already. There's no good use in racing to life's last red light on the long and winding road they’ve been lucky enough to travel, so for now Hank's pretty content with steering Connor around this little dance floor and taking their time.

No matter the destination, he thinks, sometimes all you can really do is sit back and enjoy the ride.