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Hank, the grumpy shepherd living in a cottage in the mountains in self-imposed exile, tending to his many, many sheep and his very large dog.
Connor, the vagabond that twists his ankle traipsing carelessly through his fields during a rainstorm.
The storm is not at its peak yet. The sheep are huddled a little closer, some of them seeking the shelter of trees and shrubbery, but the worst clouds are still far away. Hank sees a brief flash, then thunder rolls what feels like half a minute later.
It's starting to rain though, and he'd prefer to make it to the house before he gets too soaked. The sky to the east is pure slate, so he whistles at Sumo to come, shaking a few cold drops out of his hair. The spring is too young to be warm just yet.
He only notices that Sumo isn't following him a few minutes later, and he turns, frowning, scanning the horizon. The fields are hilly though, and obstruct his view.

"Sumo!" he yells, and the rising wind whips his words away.

A second later, he hears a distant bark.
Cursing under his breath, he follows the sound. There's an urgency to it; the same one he's heard when Sumo found one of the sheep trapped, or a lamb injured or lost. He can't just leave them like that, so he half-jogs downhill, his hopes of outrunning the rain rapidly vanishing.
By the time he finds Sumo, the storm has begun in earnest, and his clothes are clinging to his skin. The thunder rumbles closer, and the ground tries to slip out from under his boots when he walks too fast, slick as it turns to mud.

It's rocky, treacherous.
He expects to find a ram with his horns stuck in some shrub, or an ewe that had slipped and broken a leg.

He does /not/ expect to see Sumo standing over the limp body of a young man.
His first thought, punctuated by a harsh gust of wind, is that he's dead. He's chalk pale, curled against the ground, and soaking wet like he'd been lying there for hours.

But when Sumo barks again, the boy flinches.

Perfect. Just - fucking perfect.
"Sumo, heel!" he snaps.

Sumo just huffs.

The boy looks up, brown eyes wide.

His dark hair is plastered to his face, and now that Hank's paying attention, he's also shivering like a leaf in the breeze. He's thin, and not dressed for the weather. He winces as he tries to sit.
"Don't fuckin' move," Hank growls, because if he's broken something - say, his neck - it's going to make Hank's life a lot more difficult.

The boy slumps. He clearly wasn't in any shape to get up anyway.

Hank kneels in the mud next to him, gently pushing sumo aside.
The rain rapidly turns into a torrent, blanketing them in a gray, humming haze of water. Rivulets run down Hank's hair, and drip down his chin. He shouts over the rush of it.

"What happened?"
The kid mumbles something in response, but it's drowned out by a fresh crack of thunder. He points to his ankle.

Hank reaches to feel it. Finds it tender and swollen, possibly broken, but he supposes it could be worse. He's not bleeding, and his head appears to be in one piece.
Hank groans. This... none of it is ideal. In fact, he has half a mind to go right back where he came from and pretend none of this had happened. Let the trespasser deal with the consequences of his little foray onto Hank's land, especially here, the more treacherous slopes.
Of all the places to get himself injured, he may have picked the worst.

He can't, of course.

Doesn't mean he's not pissed when he bends down to gather him up, one arm supporting his back and the other under his knees, tucking him close to his chest.

He's too old for this.
His back hurts, he's soaked, Sumo is underfoot, and the rain pelts them, turning into hail, The flash of lightning is almost overhead now. There's little time to make it back to the house.

He grumbles the whole way there. Curses when the man in his arms whines weakly in pain.
They make it through the front door just as the sky breaks open, a bolt of pure light splitting the inky darkness of the clouds above into jagged halves.

Hank is panting as he slides them both to the ground as softly as he can. They're half entangled, stuck together with rain.
He's got his arms around Hank's neck, his head resting against his shoulder. His teeth are chattering so hard Hank can barely make out the small 'thank you' he stutters out.

They're making a sizable puddle on Hank's hardwood floor. They need to move, but Hank is still frozen.
Somewhere in a dark recess of his mind, he's panicking. He did not sign up for this. He's here to get away and be alone and dysfunctional in peace. The cottage is a mess, dusty and dim, the curtains drawn. It smells like old paper and pinewood, and currently also wet dog.
He peels himself away, leaving the kid on the floor in the foyer, his hands shaking. Grumbles something about coming right back and beelines for the bathroom to get towels and a first aid kit. He can feel a pair of eyes following him down the hall.
He avoids his own face in the mirror as he collects the supplies he needs. For a few precious seconds, he's blessedly alone in the small space of it, and a part of him wants to lie down in the claw-foot tub and stay there.

He doesn't want this. Any of it.
Gritting his teeth, he comes back out, trying not to think about the intrusion of his home. It's like a pebble in his shoe, uncomfortable and chafing at him with every step.
The windows rattle, and Sumo whines. He's not usually afraid of thunder, but he's restless.
So is Hank. He has to remind himself that he can do this. He's - more or less - done it before. There can't be that much of a difference, right? He can just care for the boy the way he cares for any injured, wayward lambs.

Can't be that different, he thinks as he kneels again.
Momentarily, he manages to forget what he's dealing with and reaches to feel the swollen ankle again with little preamble. Remembers that he should probably be more reassuring when the kid flinches at the contact.

"Any other injuries I should know about?" he asks.
"No," comes the soft response. "I - I'm alright."

Hank grunts, prodding gently at the joint. "I don't think it's broken. We'll wrap this up and elevate it for now." He frowns. "What the hell were you doing on that side of the fields, kid? Didn't see the 'no trespassing' signs?"
The space between them is small and cold, but Hank catches the hint of a smile. He's got a soft, cupid's bow mouth, and freckles sparsely dotting his face. He's older than Hank thought at first glance.

He's also still shivering, and his eyes drift shut, as if from exhaustion.
He bandages the ankle with a practiced efficiency, ignoring the outraged little huff. The second imperative is to get them both warm, because they're soaked through, and an icy wind whistles through the windows.
He hands over a towel so his patient can dry his face and his hair.
"Thank you."

"Don't mention it, kid," Hank grumbles, making his way across the room to the fireplace. Seems like a good place to start.



"My name. It's Connor."

Hank winces. He was hoping to keep the pleasantries to a minimum.
But he has /some/ manners left, so he says, "I'm Hank" as he throws some pale wood into the hearth. "I'd say it's a pleasure, but..."

Connor makes a sound that could almost be a laugh. It devolves into a soft, wet cough that makes Hank freeze.

He lights a match, tosses it in.
The fire cracks to life slowly, and Hank takes a second to dry his icy hands before turning back to Connor where he's still leaning against the front door in his thin - threadbare - clothes, staring longingly at the flames.

He sighs. "I'll getcha' something to wear. Stay put."
"No, I- if you could just help me closer to the fire," Connor says. "I'm cold."

"Yeah, well, you'll be a lot less cold when you're not soaking wet," Hank said, shaking his head. "I'll be right back."

"Hank, it's /fine/. I'm fine," Connor says quickly, hunching in on himself.
His eyes are dark, and when Hank turns to face him, there's something in them that's - Hank's not sure. But it gives him pause, and he stops halfway to his bedroom.

He exhales sharply, his head pounding. "You're going to catch your death if I leave you like this."
Connor says nothing else as Hank goes to plunder his wardrobe and dressers. He digs up some soft, flannel pants, a cotton undershirt, wool socks. Layers, he thinks, grabbing whatever he can find. A thick, woolen blanket. He brings it all back to Connor.
He eyes him carefully.

"So. How'd you wanna do this?"

"Do what?"

"We need to get you changed and put you near the fire. Which part do you want happening first?"

"The fire," Connor says without a moment's hesitation, so Hank leaves the pile of clothes and approaches him.
It would, perhaps, preserve some of Connor's dignity if Hank was to hoist him up and let him limp up to the rug in front of the fireplace mostly on his own, now that they're out of the storm and have all the time in the world. But Hank's not sure he has the patience for that.
It also becomes apparent rather quickly that whatever is wrong with Connor it can't possibly be only his ankle, because he can't even pretend to stand on his own. Hank has to pick him up again, and drop him on the plush hide on the floor between the sofa and the fire.
Rain pounds at his roof and his windows, and when thunder shakes them again, Connor curls up on his side, eyes shut, facing the flames. With a deep, long-suffering sigh, Hank tugs at his collar, trying to work out how to peel his soaked shirt off. It's probably completely stuck.
Connor's eyes fly open, and he's got a shaking hand on Hank's wrist before Hank can even open his mouth.

"No, I -"

"You need help," Hank explains reasonably. "You can barely lift your head."

"No, look. I'm fine, see?" Connor makes a show of sitting up.
He barely manages it, but his lips are pressed into a determined line. And Hank's not some kind of pervert, he's not about to force this, so he stands up with a groan, his back twinging like he's suddenly gained ten years.

"Change. I'm going to my bedroom to do the same."
Connor sighs shakily in apparent relief and gives Hank a tight nod.

It hits Hank that they're going to have to talk about this. Connor can't stay here, but he also sure as hell can't move down the mountain on his own - not even after the storm passes.
"I'll be back in a few," he grumbles, and leaves Connor alone.

He debates pushing the issue if he finds Connor still shivering in his damp clothes later, but figures it's really not his place. He's done all he can without crossing some kind of line. The rest is not his problem.
He'll either change clothes or he won't, but he's a grown man, and at worst he's in front of the fire now, which should help.

Hank squashes the feelings of guilt and unease. They have no place in his head right now.

But. Maybe there's still something he can do.
He changes, and feels immediately less like an icicle. Sumo pads into the room, whining softly, and Hank bends down to ruffle his fur. He's wet too, so he grabs a big towel and dries him off best as he can, then tucks it like a cape around him.
Hesitantly (and honestly, the nerve, in his own home) he pokes his head out of his room and walks half down the hall, clearing his throat.

"Uhh- Connor, you decent?"
He hears a light chuckle. "I - yes. I'm sorry. It's your home, you don't have to-"

Hank just sighs and walks to his kitchen, shrugging uncomfortably. "I'm going to make tea. Do you want something hot to drink?" He might as well offer, since he's doing it one way or another.
Connor hesitates so long that Hank turns to look at him. He's half sitting in the furs, and under the woolen blanket. It's tucked around him like a cocoon. His cheeks are flushed, a sudden and stark contrast to the paleness from before. Hank quirks an eyebrow at him.
"Tea sounds lovely," Connor rasps. "Thank you. For the clothes, and the..."

Hank waves him off, grabbing his kettle and going to fill it up. He doesn't want to hear it. He's doing the bare minimum that human decency requires, it's nothing to sing praises about.
He brushes off the counter with a rag, searching the dusty cabinets for his tin of tea. He's still cold, but the room is warming up fast, even though the windows still shake periodically with each crack of thunder outside. Idly, he thinks he should wash the curtains.
He doesn't look at Connor again as he lights the stove. He stares pointedly out the window, trying to pretend he's still alone. The illusion only shatters when he has to fill two mugs with leaves and hot water, and he shivers with something that could be anger but really isn't.
"Hope you don't take sugar," he mutters as he brings Connor his mug. "I don't keep any around."

"It's fine. Than--"

"Shout if you need something," Hank snaps, whirling around so fast he almost sloshes scalding tea all over himself. He returns to his bedroom, sets it down.
He draws his bedroom curtains, not interested in watching the treetops outside sway precariously in the wind. It looks like any second, they might come crashing down on top of the cottage. They won't, but that's how it feels.
He curses under his breath. He has no idea what he's going to do.

He sits on the bed, feeling heavy, wondering if he should sleep off the ache in his joints. It's too early for it, but it feels like there's nothing else to do. The books are all in the main room, with Connor.
His sheep have all sought shelter, it's too dangerous to work outside, Sumo seems content just lying down at the foot of the bed.

Hank lies back on top of his sheets, staring at the low ceiling. Closes his eyes, head spinning.

It's a long time before it all seems to stop.
When he jerks awake, it's nowhere close to morning.

His room is dark, and rain is still pelting the window. He can hear the harshness of his own breathing. The house is silent, and Sumo is snoring at his feet. On the bed, of course. The mutt never did learn to stay off it.
His mouth feels dry, but at least it's warm in the house. He's got a headache building behind his eyes, but it's not unbearable yet. It feels like any moment now, it's going to be, but for the time being it's just a dull and distant throb.
He rubs a hand across his face.
He has to use the toilet, and it would be a good idea to check in on -- the fire, so he shuffles out of bed, feeling stiffer than a board, and more or less manages to drag himself out of his room. He clears his throat as he walks, annoyed at the necessity, but -

He doesn't get a response. Right. It's the middle of the night, and just because he hasn't slept normally in three years doesn't mean other people have the same problem.

Still. He's awake now, and he probably won't be going back to sleep tonight. Time for an early start?
The fields will be too dark and muddy to work, but there's always things to do in the barn. Maybe going through some firewood with an axe will at least settle him and give him something to occupy his hands.

He's not avoiding his house. He's just... redirecting his energy.
He glances at Connor before he goes out. He's still bundled up and passed right out in the warm, low glow of the embers. The ambient temperature is still good, so he doesn't stoke them. He just shrugs into his parka and leaves.
He spends several hours in the barn doing a blessedly small amount of thinking. It's a dim and musty space, lit only by a couple of very old and rickety lamps, but it's good enough for doing a little sweeping and organizing of the chaos. He checks the bags of feed, medication.
He makes sure none of his tools are dull or rusted, cleans them, sets one pair of shears aside for repairs when he finds it dented.

He chops wood; hickory and beech, from the grove. It makes his back ache, but the smell is good, and movement is good. He doesn't have to think.
The second the sun begins to come up, he wipes the sweat off his brow and heads for the hills to check on his flock. It's lambing /and/ shearing season - the busiest time of his year.

He groans. An uninvited guest is just what he needs in the middle of it.
The storm, thankfully, didn't do any untold damage. The ground is wet, and the sky - also wet, although the clouds are thinning here and there, the sun just barely poking out from between. He sighs, looking around. The hills are rolling, lush green, and it never fails to soothe.
It's an idyllic canvas of nature, and comes in a thousand subtle shades, exactly like a painting.

His sheep, none the worse for wear, graze peacefully. He walks into the herd, petting a couple of soft heads on his way along. A couple of greedy little mouths nip at his clothes.
He checks on the pregnant ewes, looks for any stragglers that may have escaped in the storm. By the time he starts shearing, he's almost forgotten all about Connor, but as the sun climbs and his stomach growls, he remembers that he hasn't had breakfast.
He's not in the habit of taking unnecessary breaks, but it's hard to work on an empty stomach. Despite himself, he also remember a slender - maybe even too-thin - frame in his arms, and Connor's fingers clutching weakly at him to keep steady.
He might need food, and something for the pain, or ice to keep the swelling down. Hank has ointments in his cellar, and if it works on a lamb, it will work just as well on a human. Hell, he's used plenty of them himself in a pinch.
He works as long as he can to make sure the flock doesn't need him, and begrudgingly heads back for the house. It's probably close to noon by the time he walks through the front door. Sumo bursts out past him to do what Sumo does best, almost knocking Hank over in the process.
The cottage is brighter with light filtering in through the curtains, but it's still dusty and... silent. Hank looks over at where Connor is curled up in the furs. Asleep.

Hank's heart jumps to his throat. Just asleep.
He's walking over before he can think about it, a stubborn fissure of panic in his chest. It doesn't calm until he sees that Connor is breathing, his ribs rising and falling a little unsteadily. Hank frowns, bends low over him. He's flushed, on his cheeks two dots of red.
When he reaches out to shake him awake, he finds two things - Connor undoubtedly has a fever. And he does /not/ appreciate Hank touching him, judging by the full-body flinch and the way his eyes fly open, arm swinging out like he wants to smack Hank away.
Hank catches his wrist. His skin is dry, smooth. "Easy," he grumbles.

Connor just huffs, turning his face into the blanket with a groan. Hank doesn't need to touch his forehead to feel that he needs to be cooled down. He's scalding, his pulse an unsteady, rabbit-fast thing.
Perfect, Hank thinks. Just - fucking perfect. He clearly wasn't busy enough with Sumo and the flock and a million other things that had to be done every single day. No, he also had to take care of some little upstart that had wandered where he shouldn't have.
Now he had a twisted ankle and a fever and honestly who knew what else. This was not Hank's area.


Connor's eyes flutter open. He looks at Hank without turning his head, and if possible, his pulse speeds up. Hank drops his wrist quickly, wincing.
"You're dehydrated," he says. "And sick. I'm going to get you some water and some wet towels, but we'll have to move you off the floor."

Connor makes a noise that Hank hopes is vaguely assenting.
Hank fights down a sigh as he gets to work. The first priority is to get Connor somewhere more comfortable than the furs. The sofa is still near enough to the fire if need be, but it's too small for him - Connor is lanky, but almost as tall as Hank.
That, unfortunately, only leaves Hank's bed. His room is cooler, but that should be just right for Connor right now anyway, and if he gets too cold at night there are other ways to warm him up. Hank kneels, trying to draw Connor's arm around the back of his neck.
"Come on, hang on to me, kid - ah, there ya go, see? My back's fuckin' killing me, so this'll be easier on us both if you can at least hold - good. Alright."

As he carries him to the bedroom, it quickly becomes apparent that Connor is very unwell.
He's trying to cling to Hank, make himself less of a burden, but his grip around Hank's shoulders is slipping. He's breathing too fast, the huffs of it warm against Hank's chest. His forehead, where it rests on Hank's clavicle, feels like an ember. He's shaking. Eyes glazed.
Hank swallows down his anxiety. It's just a fever. He was out in the rain too long, caught a cold. Nothing spectacular. Hank's done this before.

He makes sure to lay Connor on the bed without jostling him too badly, easing him down, and fetches a glass and a pitcher of water.
He has to help Connor drink it. The glass is too heavy, almost slips from his grasp like a bar of wet soap. Hank steadies it for him, listening to the clink of his chattering teeth against it, something unpleasant twisting through him when Connor coughs, the sound of it labored.
When Connor's finished drinking, he feels comfortable enough to leave him for a moment to get the rest of the things he needs. He takes his time searching, eventually returns with two basins, one empty and one full of cool water. He's also got towels, a flannel sheet, a bottle.
The bottle contains what remains of a family recipe. He untwists the cap, gives it a sniff - it's pungent and herbal, but there's not a cough it hasn't fixed. He sets it down on the oak night stand.

"I'm getting you out of that sweater first," he mutters, reaching for the hem.
Connor attempts to push his hand away. "No," he manages. "No, don't--"

"Listen, I'm leaving the shirt on if you want, alright?" Hank grunts. "But you're going to boil in this thing, it's made of wool. Come on, lift up - there you go. That's good. You'll feel better in a bit."
He has to do a bit of maneuvering to get Connor to roll onto the soft flannel sheet instead of the scratchier stuff on Hank's bed. It's probably unnecessary. Connor's a grown man. But Cole used to always feel -

he clamps down on the thought. Has to take a second to push it away.
He dips a towel in cold water and drapes it over Connor's forehead, giving him a moment to adjust to the temperature, trying not to think. Connor winces, but then sighs in apparent relief, tipping his face into it.

Hank takes a second towel and wrings it out.
He presses that one to Connor's clavicle above the unbuttoned shirt collar. Cringes, because what he'd been about to do feels too intimate, too much- just too much. He folds the towel and rests it on his neck like a scarf. Leaves his hand there for a second before pulling back.
He pinches the bridge of his nose. He can't do this -- not like - no. He can't. He has to call someone in, get an actual doctor -- except it's not an option, they're far into the mountains. Even the vet doesn't visit this place more than twice or thrice a year.
He's on his own here, at least for now. And that means Connor only has him, so he has to do this whether he likes it or not. Has to make time for it, because he knows that untreated illness can sneak up on someone, leech the strength and the life straight out of them.
He rubs his face vigorously, grabs the bottle off the nightstand and pours a out a generous tablespoon.

"Open wide."

Connor swallows it obediently, and to his credit, only splutters a little, turning rosy rather than beet red. So, he's made of sterner stuff than he looks.
Hank's mouth twitches at the glare Connor shoots him. "Don't be a baby, it's good for you."

Connor just snorts softly. His eyes close again, and he relaxes against the pillows.

He'd look - pretty, if he wasn't so obviously uncomfortable. He's got long, sooty lashes, freckles.
Hank somehow manages to cringe from his own thoughts even harder this time. Shakes himself off, almost taking a page out of Sumo's book. That's... No. Just no. That's a level below even /him/, ogling someone ill and vulnerable.

He stands up.
The best thing for Connor is probably to sleep all of this off. He doesn't want to leave him, doesn't want to be too far in case his condition worsens, but - he can at least make some food, then go find that salve for his ankle.

He tries not to think about how easy this is.
Slipping into a caretaker's role is second nature to him, even if he'd rather it wasn't directed at anyone or anything outside of Sumo and his sheep. It's too late though. He feels /responsible/ now.
Quietly, he slips away to put a pot of water on and unearth his sourdough. He figures a light broth with fresh bread will be just the thing, so he makes quick work of the ingredients and lets them simmer while he goes down to the cellar to find the rest of what he needs.
He picks up salve, fresh bandages, a jar of honey and one of fruit preserves. He's also got some cured meats and cheeses he generally saves for the winter, but Connor is going to need to eat something solid once he's well enough to keep it all down.
He'll have to think about how to replenish those supplies later. Right now the priority is getting him better --

The sooner Connor gets better, the sooner he can be back out of Hank's life.
It shouldn't be more than a few days. It really shouldn't.

Except, even after Hank feeds him soup spoon by spoon, after he changes the towels and re-bandages his ankle and gives him more medicine, Connor seems to take a sharp turn for the worse.
Hank doesn't even notice at first, given how bad he was in the first place. He'd hoped sleep and food would return some strength to him, but by late evening, Connor is unresponsive. Hank has to cradle his head in the crook of his elbow to get him to drink.
His fever isn't down, he coughs up half of what Hank gives him. His shivering becomes a constant thing, and Hank's heart squeezes at the sight of him curled up, eyes shut tight and teeth chattering. He starts changing the towels hourly, but begins to think it won't be enough.
Hank also can't completely abandon his other duties, and after gravitating back and forth between the house and the fields all day, he's exhausted. If this keeps up he'll have to move the sheep and corral them up, a task he's decidedly not looking forward to.
He sleeps on his own couch, cramped, gets up twice during the night to check on Connor and then the ewes again. When he lies back down, Sumo pads into the room and licks his hand with a soft grunt.

"Yeah, me too, boy," he mutters, scratching behind his ear.
The next day, Connor doesn't eat at all. He's too weak to sit, and delirious with fever. His breathing sounds labored, wheezy, and Hank is convinced that any second now it's going to stop altogether. He hardly goes out, spends the day toweling Connor down and checking his pulse.
By evening, when it becomes apparent he's not anywhere close to improving, Hank decides that it's time for more extreme measures. He fills the tub in his bathroom with lukewarm water, sets down a couple of rugs and towels on the floor and rolls up his sleeves.
This is fine. He's done it all before. It's familiar, a jagged echo of something else, always prodding at the back of his mind. It's like slipping on a second skin. Or a uniform.

Dragging Connor out of bed is predictably not the difficult part. Getting him out of his clothes -
that's another story. Hank thinks they're a little past modesty now, but the second he attempts to strip Connor to toss him into the water, Connor makes a feeble attempt at squirming away from him. It's half-hearted, but his distress somehow manages to break Hank's heart.
"Connor, I'm not gonna be able to get these off of you later if you get them wet," he says gently. "I'm trying to help."

Connor shivers, turns his warm face into Hank's chest. They're on the floor, half sitting, Hank supporting Connor as much as he can.
Hank smooths his hair back. "I'm not going to hurt you. We just need to cool you down."

Somehow, this seems to actually put Connor at ease.
He watches Hank's face through half-lowered lashes as Hank makes quick work of his buttons. Hank doesn't want to linger, doesn't want to upset him further, only looks as much as he has to. Still, he's not sure what he's expecting. Horrific scarring, maybe. Unsightly birthmarks.
But Connors skin is pale and generally unmarred, and it makes Hank's stomach twist with unease. He'd much rather there was a specific, obvious source of discomfort and self-consciousness to pinpoint. The lack of one seems to indicate some... deeper damage.
There's only one obvious mark on his front; a small, roundish spot he thinks almost nothing of at first glance. It takes him a second to recognize it for what it is. For a moment, he freezes, almost reaches out to trace the edge, his heart doing something unpleasant in his chest.
A twist of anger maybe. And worry, because the mark isn't fully healed yet. Doesn't look /infected/, but it's still raw and inflamed, and too close to vital organs for comfort. No wonder Connor's not healing from whatever he caught out in the storm.
All his energy and every last resource that his body has to spare must be all tied up trying to knit him together from the inside out.

A bullet between the ribs is no joke.

It also prompts the question of /why/, or rather how Connor had gotten himself shot.
And how he'd survived long enough to finally stumble upon Hank's pastures. There are no homes for miles around, just woods and grassland. So, a hunting accident perhaps? The wound seems too precise for it, but it feels like the only non-sinister explanation.
The alternatives are bleak. But when he looks to meet Connor's eyes, searching for answers, he finds them closed again.

Right. Priorities. Priorities like taking off the rest of his clothes and plonking him down in the tub, with a towel thrown over his hips for modesty.
He puts a towel under Connor's back to keep him from slipping, and allows his arm to be used as a pillow. And now that he's here, he feels suddenly protective. It's an instinct he thought he'd long since put to rest, yet here it is, the tendrils of it wrapping around Connor.
"Hey. Do you mind if I wash you? You probably need it." He clears his throat. "Being out in the rain and such."

Connor's lips twitch. He doesn't open his eyes, but manages a mumbled 'no'. Curls up slightly, shifting so his head is once again resting in the crook of Hank's elbow.
So Hank takes care of him, cooling the water slowly, then methodically soaping up Connor's skin and hair. He feels vaguely wrong doing it, clumsy and - it's too intimate a thing to do for someone you really only just met. But Connor, against all odds, relaxes against him.
For a while, there's nothing but the soft splash of the water, the scent of lavender and sandalwood, the sound of Connor's labored breathing, and the texture of his smooth skin sliding under Hank's fingertips. As Hank suspected, he feels a little too thin, his body all angles.
He tries to be gentle; fever can make someone sensitive. Something flutters through him when Connor groans quietly against his arm just as Hank rinses some suds off his shoulder. He thinks maybe his hands are too rough, until Connor shudders and makes a small, pleased noise.
He finds himself suddenly digging in a little harder, searching for tension in Connor's muscles, trying to squeeze some of it away because like an idiot he'd also forgotten that fever can make someone /ache/. Connor melts into his touch, hot breath rushing out of him on a sigh.
And that seals things as altogether too much, because all at once he's paying a lot of attention to the flushed hue of Connor's skin, to the spiky tufts of his eyelashes, the intriguing slope of his cheekbone and his jaw.

Hank wants to shake the feeling off. For Connor's sake.
But he can't, so he lets him go, easing him back against the towel so he can finish bathing him without having to stare at his face. He lets the water run colder and clearer, then checks Connor's pulse. Still fast, but starting to slow.
By the time his temperature has stabilized, Connor's shivering; this time because he's legitimately cold.

But his temperature has /stabilized/, and when he looks up at Hank, his eyes are a lot clearer. Hank lets out a steadying breath and wordlessly goes to fetch dry towels.
A short while later, Connor is on the bed again, lying on top of a fresh change of sheets in a pair of clean flannel pajamas, with a damp towel still on his face. Hank avoids his gaze, but gets him another bottle of medicine from a cabinet.

"Hey, Hank?"
Hank grunts noncommittally.

"Thanks." His voice is low and hoarse, and as Hank looks at him he sees uncertainty in his brown eyes. A furrow between his brows. It occurs to him that he's a perfect stranger to Connor, his intentions unclear.
It's been too long since Hank's had to be reassuring though. His animals understand him far better than people do. If he brings them food and warmth and kindness, it's enough for trust. Humans are seldom so straightforward.

He sticks a spoonful of tonic into Connor's mouth.
"Food?" Connor's wince says it all, so Hank just sighs. He sets down the bottle, dusts off his hands, cracks one window open. "I'll be back later. I have... work."

Connor nods, twisting his hands.

Hank should say something, but for the life of him he can't figure out what.
When he leaves, he gets the feeling Connor wanted to say something else, too. Hank didn't stay long enough to hear it.

He wonders who Connor is. Wonders whether he's harboring a fugitive in his home. His mind's an uncomfortable tangle again. He's tired.
Caring for the herd is hard work on his own, and doubly so when his responsibilities feel like they've quintupled in the span of a few days.

He checks on his flock. Routine, mostly. They seem to be doing well, for the most part. Then he finds one pregnant ewe lying on her side.
She's breathing hard, and bleats at him pitifully.

Hank sighs and rolls up his sleeves, kneeling in the damp grass.
When Hank finally returns to the house, it's dark. He heads straight for the bathroom first to get himself clean. His hands are shaking, and his shoulders hurt, and there's an odd ache swimming about in his skull. It feels like there's grass and hay stuck to every inch of him.
The ewe had taken him buy surprise with twins, both of which needed to be repositioned. It left him - and her - about about twice as exhausted. And it means he has to keep a close eye on all three of them to make sure they stay healthy and well fed.
He washes up, decides that he needs coffee before all else and puts a pot on, checking in on Connor before making any decisions.

Connor is sleeping when he comes in, but he opens his eyes when Hank sits and touches his forehead. He's warm again, but not quite as bad as before.
His breathing, on the other hand, is worse. His coughing sounds like pebbles rattling around in his lungs, and he winces, visibly trying to fight it down. When it stops he's still fighting for air, breaths too shallow.

Hank wonders if it's got anything to do with that bullet.
If Connor's ribs were broken or bruised, he could be very sore. Not ideal if he also needs to breathe deeper to get half as much air as usual. Hank should get him something for the pain, and something to open up his airways a bit. Just watching this has him feeling suffocated.
"You hungry yet?" he asks.

Connor just shakes his head.

Hank sighs. Connor has a lot of healing to do, and although Hank has sympathy for his lack of an appetite given the shape he's in, he has absolutely zero qualms about sticking a tube down his throat if need be.
It's crude, but effective, and he's reared what feels like a thousand lambs that way. Although he'd rather it didn't get that far.

"I'm going to make you something, and you're gonna' have to try and eat." When Connor opens his mouth to protest, Hank shoots him a glare.
"I know your stomach probably hurts. I'll try to make it light, alright?"

Connor bites his lip. "You don't have to-"

Hank holds up his hand. "I might as well get you on your feet, yeah? What am I supposed to do, dump you outside and roll you down the mountain away from here?"
Connor's eyes crinkle at the corners, like he finds the mental image amusing. He looks like he's about to say something else, but that's when the kettle Hank's put on starts to whistle. Hank's almost disappointed. It was nice to sit down, even for a stolen moment.
He'll have to move the herd and paddock them closer if this keeps up. It means more work feeding them, but with so many ewes still pregnant and nursing, shearing to do, and Connor this ill, it's a matter of time before something gives. Likely Hank, from all the running.
He makes himself coffee; it's bitter and black, but strong enough to keep him on his feet for the few more hours he needs. He's behind on deworming, still has to feed Sumo, still has to... right. He searches the cabinets for the pine, frustrated when he realizes he's all out.
Replenishing the supply means another trip uphill, so he makes Connor a chamomile tea with some fresh honey instead, and brings it to his ro-- /Hank's bedroom/ -- along with some bread, sheep's milk, and a bowl of broth. Connor doesn't eat much of it, but he at least tries.
Hank stays to drink his coffee, his questions fighting for priority. He doesn't voice them. He's not sure he's quite ready to hear the answers, and more to the point, Connor looks exhausted by the simple act of drinking a bit of milk and tea. He eats maybe two bites of bread.
Hank doesn't hold it against him, but he does worry. Before he leaves, he sets it all down by his bedside and gives him another cold towel to press to his face. He sighs when he sees Connor's hands are still shaking slightly.
He's not sure how to respond when instead of thanking him, Connor apologizes softly. He freezes, staring down at him where he's sunk into the pillows, where he still looks small and and... vulnerable. Not unlike a newborn lamb. Struggling just to breathe.
He doesn't know if Connor's apologizing for trespassing, or for not eating as much as he should, or for something else altogether. But Hank figures he's not up for answering any questions when, after a long silence, he closes his eyes again.
There's nothing else Hank can do, not until he goes to collect what he needs. He could wait until morning, but he'd rather Connor got some relief, and the sooner the better. So he goes to put on his jacket and sets out for the woods, Sumo at his side as they vanish into the dark.
The whole trip takes him longer than it should. He knows the lay of the land well, but even with a lamp he has to travel cautiously through the uneven patches of grass and stone to the east. To his dismay, he finds that the pine grove closest to home is browning.
He has more luck with the second, but he loses precious time. By the time he's heading back, he begins to feel uneasy. The wind outside is rising, and although it doesn't feel like a storm is coming, he's not so sure the wolves aren't.

One more thing to worry about.
He passes through the flock on his way back, and by then the air is chilly, his face red from the gale. It smells like fresh grass and wool and manure out here, and for a second, this comforts him.

He leaves Sumo with them, to protect the vulnerable new mothers in the dark.
He feels guilty for not checking on the newborns on his way to the cottage, but he's reaching the end of his energy reserves, and he's worried about Connor.

It becomes apparent that he was right to be worried the second he steps foot inside again.
The fact that he can hear Connor struggling to catch a breath all the way from the door doesn't bode well. And it's worse when he all but barges into the room and finds him curled up on his side, staring a little desperately at nothing, looking /frightened/ until he sees Hank.
Hank curses and strides over to press his fingers into Connor's pulse. He's too pale, his heartbeat thin and fast, his skin covered in a thin sheen of sweat. He turns into Hank's touch with naked relief, but relief isn't gonna do him any good if he can't /breathe/.
Fuck. Just... fuck. Connor must be exhausted, and now this. Hank shushes him, rubs a circle into his back before going over to swing the window open, latching it so it won't swing back shut. Suddenly, he's grateful for the cool wind. Connor's little gasps are distressing to hear.
He comes back quickly, presses his hand to Connor's neck, anxiety making a dark pit form in his gut. "I'll be right back. Gonna get you something to make breathing a little easier, alright?"

Connor coughs. It's not a full bodied thing, small from the little air he's drawing in.
But he nods, making a vaguely assenting sound.

Hank feels numb when he goes to the kitchen to put the kettle on and light the fire. He has to go to the cellar to find what he's looking for. The whole time he's down there he's sure he's going to come back to silence.
He doesn't, which is both a relief and - not. Hearing Connor in this much distress makes something painful unfurl inside of him, but he's still - there, at least, still breathing, even if barely. Hank's not sure how long he can stay like this. He thinks not long.
He comes back to Connor before the water is ready, just to see him. He knows he's - not good at being comforting. But he knows it's a scary thing, to be this sick and left alone. So he comes by while he waits for it to boil to sit by his bedside and rub his shoulder.
Connor looks relieved to see him again. Hank's hands are shaking, but with the hard time he's having, Connor probably can't tell.

Hank thinks maybe opening the window helped. Maybe it's wishful thinking. the room is cold, but at least the air is fresher, and circulates.
On his next shallow, weak coughing fit, Connor coughs up blood.
It's not a lot, but it's enough to make Hank's heart almost stop. Maybe it does. He's not sure. For a second there's nothing but a rush in his ears, one that sounds like noise and silence all at once, and a cold that grips his very core like a claw.
The only thing that keeps him steady is the knowledge that Connor /needs/ him, right now more than ever, and he needs him calm and - capable, even though Hank feels abruptly, somehow, even more out of his depth. They need a real doctor. The closest town is days away.
"I'm gonna roll you onto your stomach, okay? Make it easier to breathe." Also make it so he doesn't choke or aspirate anything he manages to cough up. Something someone taught him once.

Connor gives him a tight nod. At least he's still conscious.
He has to do it gently, and the positioning is awkward because Hank can hardly leave him with his face pressed into a pillow, so he adjusts Connor's arm to leave a little space for him. It's just for a moment. He'll have to find a better solution in a moment.
Connor groans a little when Hank rolls up his shirt to press his ear to his back. His lungs sound terrible, the low wheezing sound he hears somehow ominous, but both of them are at least working. As much as you can call it that, anyway.
If Hank sends for a doctor now - if Hank had sent for a doctor /yesterday/ - it's going to be too late for him either way. At this rate, he's going to suffocate before the sun comes up.

Hank should've known. He should've known the moment he heard him cough, dammit.
He should've reached out the day of the storm, dammit, and not now, not when it's long past time and Connor is suffering. Hank's an idiot.

He also doesn't have time to dwell on it. He heads back for the kitchen to get hot water, towels, pine, the contraption from the cellar.
It's a modified lamp, sort of. When he lights the liquid inside it, it gives off a scentless, smokeless heat. The reservoir, he fills with hot water and leaves it near the bed, not so close that it's too hot but close enough to at least humidify the air.
He's got medication, too, that's supposed to help when it's poured into the makeshift humidifier. It always helped Cole. Maybe it can help Connor. It's too little, too late, but -- comfort, even. Anything. Hank just wants him to stop hurting as much.
He kneels by the bed, brushing Connor's damp curls away from his face. His eyelashes flutter, nostrils flaring as he looks up at Hank.

"Well-" Hank says, every bit the dumbass he's been the last few days -"At least your fever's down, right?"
Connor, somehow, manages a brief, wobbly smile. Hank feels his own expression fracture into something pained.

"I'm sorry, Connor. I --" he cuts off, because the list of things he's sorry for could probably fill a book. Connor doesn't want to hear that shit, certainly not now.
"I've got you," he says instead, even though the lie tastes thick. "You're gonna be okay. Just try to breathe with me." He has no idea if Connor can, or if it will even help. But Connor stares at him and evidently /tries/, which is - something. It has to be.
Hank finds himself supporting his shoulder in a position that's almost half off the bed, more face down than on his side. It seems better this way though, because when he starts coughing again, at least he's got Hank to hold on to. Hank gently squeezes the back of his neck.
He reaches for the kettle without letting him go, almost burns himself pouring it over a mug full of pine needles. Thankfully, he'd had the presence of mind to wash them. He brings the mug closer, somewhere under his face he can fan the fragrant steam for him to breathe.
Connor shoots him a look, and Hank shrugs, a little helplessly. "It's supposed to help. When it cools down, will you try drinking a bit?"

Connor nods. Hank sighs. "Good," he says, rubbing between Connor's shoulders. Maybe there's a salve, or some pills he could use.
Everything he has is for the sheep, but at this point Hank's willing to try anything. He can't leave him alone though, not yet.

He's a little shocked when Connor shifts closer, rubs his face against Hank's shoulder. Hank, hesitantly, reaches out to pet his hair.
"I'm glad you're here," Connor says. His voice is thin and reedy, he can barely get it out between his still-frightening attempts at breathing. Hank tries to shush him, but he stops when Connor reaches for his hand, and Hank squeezes it before he can think better of it.
Connor squeezes back, the motion brief but surprisingly strong. Hank should let go. But he can't, because it feels a little like Connor is clinging to him and - maybe it's the other way around. Whatever. If it gives Connor any comfort, then Hank will hold him.
He has him sip the warm pine tea. Connor drinks it obediently, manages almost half the mug.

He's shivering. So is Hank. He's so tired his vision feels fuzzy around the edges, but sleep is the last thing he's allowed, so he distracts himself with counting Connor's freckles.
He's not sure how it happened, but the way he's leaning against the bed and Connor's position has their faces close, and Hank's hand in Connor's hair, combing through it in an attempt to soothe. Connor blinks at him, lacing his fingers through Hank's and closing his eyes.
His breathing doesn't really seem much easier, but he seems - at least marginally comforted. Hank feels a peculiar kind of heartbreak. If he'd come back any later -- Connor could have died. He might still die. But at least Hank's gonna be there with him, one way or another.
He stays until dawn. He keeps making Connor drink, holds him through fits of coughing, hands him tissues, talks at him through periods of unsettling quiet. Sometimes it feels like he's breathing a little better, although better is very relative when the baseline is - what it is.
Other times Hank finds himself squeezing his hand too hard and whispering soothing words close to his ear, all but begging him to hang in there when it really seems like Connor just can't anymore. It looks exhausting. Hank hurts for him. He tries to make him comfortable.
Come morning, when Connor is still - somehow, miraculously - alive, Hank leaves him for a few minutes and calls Sumo inside to guard him. Then he heads for the barn in search of more medication, soothing ointments, anything. Every second he spends away from him hurts.
He finds something minty and mildly numbing to massage into his ankle and his back, and when he thinks on it, very gently into his ribs on the side where the bullet went in. He also finds a mirror wound on his back, although it's smaller and cleaner than the other.
So at least he's not trying to heal /around/ an actual bullet, although the implication that Connor was shot in the back is somehow not particularly comforting. Even if he was exceedingly lucky to have survived it at all.
The other thing Hank managed to fetch from the barn is a box of white powder he uses to fight off infection in sickly sheep. He mixes it up with some cold broth and draws the paste into a new feeding syringe he sticks into Connor's mouth.
It's bitter, the lambs generally spit it up so he usually has to tube feed them, but Connor evidently trusts him enough to drink the medicine without complaint. Hank gives him some milk with honey to get rid of the taste. Then he sits on the edge of the bed, head in his hands.
Light is filtering in through the window. Hank realizes he's cold, so he grabs the edge of the blanket and drags it over Connor, tucking the edges around him. He refills the humidifier. Makes more tea. For a couple of minutes, he lies down next to Connor because he gets dizzy.
He closes his eyes and puts his hand on Connor's back to monitor his breathing. Still too shallow, but he can't relax without feeling the soft rise and fall. There are spots of black swimming in his vision, so he waits for them to go away. They wink in and out slowly.
When Hank wakes up, the midday sun is in his eyes. The room feels different somehow. Quiet. It unsettles him, even though it takes a few minutes for Hank to figure out why.
When his mind untangles the snarl of confusion and concern, he freezes. No, no, surely he hadn’t - he can’t have fallen asleep, he can’t have left Connor to suffer for what’s apparently hours only to have him die like this, alone and with no one conscious enough to hold his hand-
But when he reaches for him and grasps his shoulder, Connor jerks slightly. He’s warm. And the reason Hank couldn’t hear his breathing is because the wind, and Sumo’s snoring at the foot of the bed had just about drowned it out. Now that he’s more awake, he can hear it perfectly.
It’s still too harsh, but it no longer sounds like he’s trying to shake gravel out of his chest. When Hank squeezes his arm, he turns slightly, and his eyes flutter open. He gives Hank a small smile when he scoots closer, hums when Hank swings an arm around him in an awkward hug.
For a second, he allows himself to hold Connor to his chest. He smells like mint and lavender and pine, his hair is soft where Hank’s pressed his forehead to it, and the sound that comes out of him is almost a laugh.

Hank exhales. Then again when it doesn’t feel like enough.
When he finally feels steady enough to sit up, Connor is looking at him with something like warmth in his eyes. Hank sighs and ruffles his hair, and it feels weirdly natural. Maybe after you’ve held someone back from the brink of death, boundaries begin to break down.
"You alright?" Connor asks, and the absurdity of his question makes Hank choke on something that's more a sob than a laugh, yet still decidedly both.

Hank doesn't answer him, because he's still not sure. It's easier to squeeze Connor's hand, to get up to put on fresh water.
He hasn't overslept this badly in... Ever. But before going to check on the sheep he fills Sumo's bowls, he makes Connor fresh pine tea and breakfast and sits next to him, chewing on a bit of bread, trying to get his own energy up. Connor watches him, dark circles under his eyes.
Hank is almost pulled forward, an inexplicable part of him fighting the urge to cup his face, to kiss his forehead, his knuckles, to hug him and absorb whatever's making him unwell into his own body. It's ridiculous to feel so attached. They've exchanged all of five words.
Not a single real part of him actually seems to care though. He maintains a distance, but feels wistful for it. Can't help but feel inordinately pleased when Connor drinks his tea, swallows down his medicine, and even manages half of a light breakfast.
Hank will refill the humidifier for him when he goes. Leave a pitcher of water and some milk and bread, and a sweet bit of fruit cake to nibble on. He's not planning on staying away long. At least not yet.
Hank moves the flock that same afternoon. He herds them into the paddock closest to the house so he can get some sleep, and pens the nursing ewes off by the barn. The twins are doing well, and one more had lambed during the night, thankfully without his assistance.
The next few days are easier. He's still tired from the workload, but the lambs are growing and thriving as expected. Connor sleeps a lot and his breathing is still far from comfortable, but the medicine seems to be helping. He eats a bit more. Doesn't cough up blood as often.
Eventually even that tapers off into nothing, and although some nights are harder than others, Hank cautiously begins to think of him as actively recovering. He's still feverish some nights, but nothing like before. And almost a week later, he also gets some energy back.
Hank isn't prepared for it. Because, as it turns out, a Connor not actively dying is an absolutely /horrible/ patient.
It starts when Hank catches him trying to climb out of bed one early morning. He's gritting his teeth through it, bone pale and clearly in pain as he searches for purchase to support his weight on his still-tender ankle.
Hank almost has an aneurysm, pushes him back down with the same stern 'NO' he uses when Sumo gets into the garbage or brings dead opossums home. Connor shoots him a mutinous glare.

"You've been helping me to the bathroom long enough, don't you think?" he bites out delicately.
Hank squints at him. "Better that than mopping you up off the floor later."

Connor grunts. Coughs, which still has a tendency to send a fearful clench through every part of Hank, but when he doesn't keel over and die Hank says, "See? You still need your rest."
And Connor rolls his eyes at him, as if Hank hadn't been /this/ close to digging a grave in his goddamn back yard just a couple of days ago. He sort of wants to throttle Connor all of a sudden.

Something of his outrage must show on his face, because Connor laughs softly.
And Hank does /not/ find it cute, not even a little bit. It's irritating, is what it is. Never mind the stupid dimple and the soft, still breathless sound of it, and the way it makes Connor look like some infuriatingly pretty woodland fae. He's a little shit, and that's that.
Hank stomps off in one hell of a Mood. He has a flock to take care of and a home to run, a dog to feed and probably wash because Sumo had rolled in a carcass earlier, lambs to wean, sheep to shear. He'd dragged Connor, kicking and screaming, back to the land of the living.
His work here is /done/. And he's willing to provide a home -- a /roof/ for Connor to rest under until he's well enough to go, but that's all. He's not going to kill himself making sure Connor stays in bed and warm and clothed and healing. He doesn't have /time/.
And no. It has nothing to do with how curious about Connor he is, or the stupid flutter of Hank's heart when he sees him smiling in greeting when he wakes up in the morning. Or the soft, warm depths of his eyes, or the fact that he's - just. All that. Hank's not avoiding him.
He's just got too many things to do.

But suddenly not as many as he'd like, because he moved the flock specifically for this purpose. Once they're fed, examined, and the shearing and worming is well underway, he abruptly finds himself with the prospect of an extended lunch.
He could eat outside. But it feels - petty, and Hank's not that. So he heads back to the house with a sigh just as the sun is at its peak. It's still a bit of a walk back, but the terrain is smoother, the grass short and springy, and the wind in his hair feels good.
He takes off his jacket, slings it over his arm as he walks. He likes how the fields hum with springtime noise when the weather warms, insects buzzing softly in the grass. It's full of life, even if to an outsider the hills look barren and empty.
But he sees butterflies, small and pale yellow, and clover poking its way out of the grass in colorful tufts, and occasionally foxes, rabbits, birds diving for mice or walking the thick growth for worms. It's one of his favorite things to watch. Sometimes it makes him forget.
He wants to show it to Connor, perhaps when he's better. Or maybe Connor wouldn't care for it, a young man with too many things on his mind, or appreciation dulled by familiarity. He knows -- nothing at all about him, actually, and it discomfits Hank.
Besides, Connor owes him answers, he thinks as he steps across his threshold, kicking it a little on the way in to shake the dry dirt off his boots. They should talk. Hank doesn't like not knowing things.

He's about to head for the bedroom, but he finds Connor lying on the sofa.
He grits his teeth. Smiles sharply. "I see you're up and about."

Connor's eyes snap open, and Hank almost kicks /himself/ because for a second there's panic in his eyes, so apparent that Hank's chest echoes with the too-recent memory of him gasping for his breaths.
He also thought that Connor wasn't actually sleeping, just resting somewhere he can rub in the fact that he's not about to listen to Hank's very sound medical advice.

Hank walks up to the couch, leans over the back of it to look down at Connor's face, casting a shadow over him.
"Didn't mean to wake you," he says by way of apology. It sounds gruff, even to his own ears. Connor rubs his face and stretches, and Hank has to drag his gaze away from where his shirt rides up and exposes a sliver of his pale midriff. "You want some food?"
He's used to Connor denying him, half expects it. Instead, he's pleasantly surprised when Connor meets his eyes, his pupils widening like he's a cat that's just spotted a particularly juicy looking bird.

"I'm starving," he whispers, like he's a little shocked at himself.
Hank grins at him. "'Course you are. You've been subsisting on bread, tea, and broth so weak you might as well call it tea. What would you like?" Hank's willing to share just about anything he has. To celebrate the return of Connor's appetite, if nothing else.
The look Connor gives him abruptly shutters into something softer, almost uncertain.

"I - Anything you have is fine, Hank." He looks away, manages to sit up without Hank's help, but when he goes to stand, he's not yet strong enough to properly balance on his injured leg.
But before he tips sideways, Hank finds himself at his side, winding an arm around his waist. And it really hits him then that it's the first time they're standing - more or less - side by side. Too close to each other for comfort, because a few things hit Hank at once.
Connor is tall enough that Hank's arm rests comfortably around him. There's no reaching, no discomfort, he just - fits.

Connor is somehow prettier up close, where Hank can see every little wrinkle, freckle and pore.

He's also wobbly. The hand he places on Hank's wrist light.
Hank's torn somewhere between the instinct - practiced by now - to sweep him up into his arms to make this easier on him, and his own need to step away, before he crosses a line he can't uncross. He clears his throat. "Uh. Sorry, force of habit. You okay?"
Connor just stares at him with a small frown between his brows. He drops his gaze. His face - they're too close. It makes everything between them feel warm, makes Hank feel like they're in a real embrace, like he could lean in and -

"Right," he says. "Why don't you sit."
Connor sighs in relief and nods. Hank helps him to the kitchen table and then releases him quickly, turning towards the cabinets, trying to settle his nerves. He really has to stop touching Connor. His rapidly growing - /something/ - is inappropriate, borders on creepy.
Connor isn't a guest he invited into his home. He's - Hank's not sure, but he thinks Connor is lost. He'd been hurt, out in the storm alone, and now he is here, in a stranger's house, still too weak to get around on his own. He's vulnerable, whether he wants to be or not.
And from this morning's desperate bid at a modicum of independence, it's clear he /doesn't/. Because who wants to be, really? But especially in the care of someone they don't know.

Hank sighs. He really, really needs to learn to keep his hands to himself.
It doesn't take a genius to figure out that Connor is not naturally inclined to trust. Hank doesn't need to give him any more reasons to feel unsafe here. He'd poked and prodded and seen Connor about as vulnerable as one can be. It was out of necessity, but it doesn't matter.
It can still leave a person wary, and that's exactly how Connor looks at him now, watching as Hank gets plates and bread, cured ham, bacon, and butter. Hank tries to focus on the food, and on getting Connor something to drink. Not the way his gaze feels on Hank's back.
He grants Connor the small dignity of preparing his own sandwiches. They share everything from a common plate, and they both drink coffee from the pot. They do it in a sudden, pensive silence, filled only by chewing and the hum of the world outside.
Connor eats neatly and slowly, for all his assertions of how ravenous he is. He also looks at Hank a lot over the rim of his mug. And for all of Hank's questions, he suddenly feels lost. He doesn't want to pry. Doesn't want to upset the delicate thing between them.
He has his suspicions of course, but tries to refrain from making assumptions. It feels wrong to speculate.

He doesn't realize there's something about his expression until Connor sighs, smiling tiredly, and says, "What's on your mind, Hank?"
And Hank, somehow, manages to ask the question he'd been meaning to save for later.

"Do you feel - safe here? I mean, are you?"

Connor blinks at him, the mug of coffee forgotten halfway to his mouth. He sets it down, shifting uneasily. "How do you mean?"
"I couldn't help but notice," Hank says dryly, "that someone shot you. Is that something I should be worried about?"

Connor pales slightly, like the thought hadn't occurred to him. Perhaps it hadn't. He'd been a little preoccupied, before. Now, the question makes him balk.
"Listen," Hank says. "If you need somewhere to lie low for a bit, I don't mind, but I'd rather know, you know? Do I need to be on the lookout?"

Unless Connor /is/ a fugitive. Maybe he murdered someone, fled justice.

Hank looks into his warm brown eyes and scoffs. Unlikely.
Connor looks away. He traces the rim of the mug. "You're not in any danger."

"Are /you?/"

His mouth quirks sadly. "Not anymore."

Hank thinks maybe it should sound ominous, but the only thing he feels at the moment is relief. He's... very invested in Connor's survival.
"Whatever it is," Hank mutters, "You don't have to talk about it." He's seen the way Connor flinches at times, seen the bullet wound that had entered through his back. He can put two and two together. The picture is not clear, but it's not happy, whatever it is.
He reaches out when he sees Connor's troubled expression. Without thinking, because he seems to be doing less and less of that these days. He touches Connor's arm.

And Connor relaxes. Like that's still a comfort, which is about to do a massive number on Hank's head.
He attempts a smile, and this time Connor returns it. It's so fleeting he thinks maybe he imagined it, but then Connor places his hand over Hank's thoughtfully, testing the texture of the hair on the back of his palm with his slender fingertips. It tickles. Hank stays very still.
"You were so gentle with me," Connor says quietly, almost to himself. "I wasn't expecting it."

Hank does recall with some chagrin that he was - short - with Connor the night that they met. He /also/ recalls asking about injuries though. Connor had told him he was alright.
When he asks about it, Connor just blinks. "I thought you might kick me out."

Hank gapes. "You thought I would - what, leave you outside on my doorstep? For what, for being more hurt than I anticipated?"

Connor's back stiffens, and his fingers curl tighter around Hank's hand.
His smile is a small, bitter thing. "It - wouldn't be outside my realm of experience."

Hank has no clue where to even begin to unpack that. He's sure he should say something, but Connor huffs softly, evidently done talking. He squeezes Hank's hand, then lets go.
He stares uneasily at the food. Hank almost thinks he's feeling nauseous again until he says, "Listen, I - I don't have any money, and --"

Hank waves him off. "Later. Right now, you still have recovering to do," he says. Privately, he thinks Connor doesn't owe him anything.
Connor looks like he wants to say something else, but then shakes his head, frowning. Still, there's relief in his eyes. Or maybe gratitude, and Hank first preens a little thinking about how it's for him, and then just as abruptly decides he doesn't want it from Connor.
He wants other things from Connor, things he can't and won't think about, so he clears his throat quietly, looking about the room. "Hey listen. If the books I've got here aren't to your liking, let me know. I'm sure I've got more in storage. If you need help with anything -"

Hank looks at him.

Connor sighs and scoots his chair closer. "I'm trying to thank you," he says. "You've done so much for me, and I-"

"It's fine," Hank says quickly. The back of his neck prickles. "It's fine, Connor. Don't thank me. Or - thank me when you're well."
Connnor exhales slowly and shakes his head. Hank stands, squeezing his shoulder. "I know you're getting stronger, but you should still be getting plenty of rest, okay? And staying hydrated. And - keeping the windows open. Okay?"

Connor huffs with gentle laughter again.
"Do you always fuss like this?"

Hank frowns sternly. Opens his mouth, closes it. "I'm not fussing."

Connor's smile widens. "You're fussing."

"I'm not. Do you need my help getting back to bed?"

Connor's laughter bubbles out of him in what Hank can only describe as a /giggle/.
It hits him like a gut punch, steals the breath right out of him. He almost does an about-face, but then Connor seems to sober, looks at him a little shyly and says 'yes', and Hank had offered so he can't very well run away now. He offers his arm for support.
Connor winds an arm around him, sinking into Hank's side. Hank helps him limp back to bed, feeling every impression of his fingertips where they rest on his waist like a brand. Connor's out of breath by the time he sits down, and just for a second, Hank sits next to him.
He lets Connor lean his forehead against his shoulder, rubbing his back while he catches his breath. Connor curls a frustrated fist into the hem of Hank's shirt. He waits for him to let go when he's ready, but Connor just - doesn't, clinging to Hank in a half-embrace.
And Hank's thinking too much again. About the bed, about the sun coming in through the window and the way it lights up Connor's soft, slightly curly hair, about what it would be like to push him into the sheets and lie next to him, breathing the scent from the crook of his neck.
Connor chooses that moment to look up at him, and for a second Hank almost thinks they're thinking about the same thing. They're something soft and wistful on his face, something inviting and -- Holy hell, Hank /has/ to stop projecting. He releases Connor quickly.
He escapes to the living room so he can bring him some books and some fresh water. He doesn't look at Connor as he leaves for the pastures again, because he needs to stop thinking about him and it's not going to happen if he gets another eyeful of - all of him.
That night, he sleeps on the couch again.

Connor is stronger, Hank's habit of lying down on top of the sheets next to him no longer strictly necessary. And he doesn't trust himself anymore. When Connor was very sick it was still about keeping him well, but now it's frustrating.
He misses the warmth though, and can't help the anxiety that gets its claws into him. He checks on Connor twice in the middle of the night, stands there listening to his breathing until his own heart slows before heading back to bed. He wakes up cranky and sore.
His day doesn't go much better.

Connor insists on getting around on his own. He's restless, and although he reads in bed a little, before long he's also trying to make himself food and tea. Hank lives in fear of him spilling boiling water all over himself.
But his attempts at helping are met with a hard rebuff and a sharp little glare, even though walking still clearly hurts, and he can't take more than a few steps at once without running out of breath. It's driving Hank out of his mind, so he leaves without getting breakfast.
When he comes back, Connor's sitting on the couch, looking sullen. He shoots Hank a glare as he walks through the door, then pales visibly when he sees the state Hank is in.

"Hank --"

Hank walks over to him, his mouth a tight line. He sets the lamb in Connor's lap.
"If you're going to deliberately exhaust yourself," he says, "At least be useful about it. Keep him warm for me, alright?"

Connor blinks at the tiny, woolen baby like he's never seen a living creature before in his life. Hank is out of patience for the day.
"Wrap a blanket around him and rub him with it. I'll be back. He needs food."

"What happened?"

"What do you think?" Hank sighs. "Look, just - do as I say, alright? I won't be long." Hank needs to get formula. And then a wash, because he's covered in sweat, blood, and fluids.
But, as always - Hank's needs come last. He goes to fetch the bottle and the food, comes back to find Connor rubbing the lamb down awkwardly while the wee thing suckles on his fingers. His expression is wide eyed, a little awestruck, relieved when Hank shows up again.
"Am I -- doing it right?"

Hank's mouth quirks involuntarily. "You can stop now. It's good to see he's hungry, but let's get him something a little more appropriate to eat. I don't think your hands are gonna' do it for him."

Connor nods. Abruptly, Hank has an idea.
"Here." He sits on the couch next to Connor, taking the lamb from him, gently adjusting it so their positioning is better. He hands Connor the warm bottle, holds the baby's head steady for him.

Connor pets the lamb's dense, curly coat as he feeds it, and Hank smiles.
"He's strong." Hank mutters. "It's good. Thought I was going to have to tube feed, but he's eating on his own, little bugger."

Connor looks over at Hank, frowning. "Are you okay?"

Hank blinks, because he can't remember the last time someone had asked him that.
"Yeah," he says, even though he's aware that his voice sounds heavy. "Just one of those days. Sometimes everything goes to plan, and some times you lose an ewe and two of the triplets. This little guy's the last one left."
Connor's face falls, and his breath hitches sharply. "Oh. I'm sorry."

Hank stares at his bowed head. "It's part of the life out here. Happens." It doesn't really get easier, either, but he doesn't say that. Maybe he should be used to it, but he loves all the animals in his care.
He doesn't like to see them suffer, and right now he feels like he's failed them, even though logically he knows there was little he could've done.

It doesn't do good to dwell on it though. Not with a new bottle baby to feed.

He sighs. "Will you be alright a while?"
Connor nods, still fixated on the lamb. Hank puts it in his lap again and then tucks the blanket around them both.

"If you need me, I'll just be in the bathroom."

"Okay," Connor says, rubbing the lamb's velvet little nose. It nuzzles his palm, ears twitching.
Hank tries not to think about how much easier it is to take the few minutes he needs to feel clean again with Connor handling things - even if it's just one little baby - for a while. Because soon he'll be gone, and it's not like this has been a regular thing, either.
It's just - it /is/ easier. Even with Connor so sick for so long, coming home and knowing that someone was there was just... better. It's not that Hank had felt particularly lonely before or anything, but now -

He's going to miss Connor, when he inevitably leaves.
This is not good knowledge to have. Hank would've been happier without it.

He'd been content before. Now there's something else. Glimmers of long lost feelings, anything from amusement to joy to dread, but underneath it all, an undefinable ache. It's uncomfortable.
He sighs and splashes water on his face, brushing a bit of it through his hair to cool down, and allows himself a moment to feel sad. He's no stranger to loss, not at all. Maybe he should be used to it by now. He isn't of course, and he doesn't really want to be, but -
He's going to be fine, somehow, eventually, but for a second there's something almost purifying about letting himself feel this. He sits on the edge of the tub with his head bowed and takes a couple of deep breaths. He can't take too long. Connor is waiting for him.
He collects himself and returns to the living room. Stops dead in is tracks because Connor is curled over the little newborn, humming some soft, lullaby-sounding song into the wool on top of its tiny head, and Hank suddenly has to steady himself against the wall.
Connor's got his own set of soft curls, and - they're a bit longer now than they were when he came here, just about touching his ears and sticking up in all kinds of interesting directions. They're not quite as dense as sheep's wool, but Hank finds himself thinking /lamb/ anyway.
It's not until Connor looks up with a soft 'hmm?' that Hank realizes he's just sighed like a love-struck schoolboy. He covers it with a cough, although he suspects from the gentle tilt of Connor's head that Connor might be on to him anyway.
Still, Connor flushes slightly, and aside from it being good seeing some color in his face, Hank's heart skips another beat.

"He's just - very adorable," Connor whispers fiercely, petting the lamb.

Silently, and just as fiercely, Hank agrees.
"You know," he says, "He's gonna' need feeding every couple of hours for a while. If you want to help take care of him --"

"Yes," Connor says quickly. "I'll do it, just show me how,"

So Hank does. Over the next few days, he teaches Connor how to properly bottle feed a lamb.
He goes over the basics of care and leaves him with everything he needs. He's a little concerned that Connor's going to overexert himself, but Connor is adamant, and Hank puts himself at ease by setting everything up so that he never has to move particularly fast or far.
A couple of days later, he finds a long piece of hardwood that he sands down, carves, and stains a nice warm color for Connor to use as something of a cane when he goes outside and onto uneven terrain. He doesn't expect Connor to like it, or even use it, but his eyes light up.
He runs his fingers along the whorls, the patterns in the wood. Hank's not much of an artist, but he'd found himself carving swirls and stems and leaves into it anyway. It's a crude, choppy job. Connor looks at it like he's looking at the Mona Lisa.
More importantly, he uses it the first time he goes outside, keeping it at his side. He's still limping slightly, but as he walks out into the morning light after sharing a coffee with Hank, curls lit up by the pale sun and the lamb tucked safely under his free arm -
Hank thinks he looks - like he belongs here. He's dressed in Hank's clothes, warm but relatively light, he's just a little bit scruffy. When Sumo bounds up to him, tail wagging, he bends down to ruffle the thick fur of his head and gives him a bright smile.
He doesn't venture far from the house, but it's clear that the fresh air and the open space does him good. It's getting warmer, the air is dry and smells like wildflowers. Hank doesn't want to take him out into the fields until he can walk longer distances, but he thinks - soon.
The thing between them begins to feel strange.

Now that Connor is more independent, stronger, he doesn't need Hank's arm around him as often. He doesn't need to have breakfast made, or for Hank to bathe him or carry him to the bathroom or cover him in cold towels.
Hank is glad for this, kicks himself for missing the closeness when it came from such a terrible place. Not the difficult parts that scared him to death, but simple things like rubbing his back or holding his hand to comfort him. He has to remind himself that was never his.
He keeps a polite distance. He gives Connor all the space he can, even though he still checks on him often and reminds him to get lots of rest. But largely, he returns to old patterns of work.

Connor seems irritable though. He's polite to Hank, of course, but something changes.
Hank rarely finds him reading anymore. Instead, Connor takes him by surprise by making him lunch, although he leaves Hank alone to eat. That evening, he insists on retiring to the couch. Hank's having none of it, and it feels like they step precariously close to an argument.
Connor's eyes are exasperated and stormy, and Hank's not sure what he's done wrong. Not until a day or two later, he sees Connor wince when he stretches to reach for some coffee on the top shelf of the cabinet.

Hank is next to him washing a plate, reaches without thinking.
He touches Connor's shoulder, leaning in. "Hey. Are you still in pain?"

Connor gives him a tight, unhappy smile. "I'm fine."

"No, but -"

"I'm fine, Hank. Just a little sore."

Hank grunts. "I told you, you're still moving too much."

Connor sighs, opens the coffee tin.
He gives it a sniff, sets it down. He's avoiding Hank's gaze, and he shrugs Hank's hand off, moving away.

Right. Hank drops his hand, fingers curling at his side.

"I'm not strong enough to travel yet," Connor says finally. "And I don't want to inconvenience you further."
Hank frowns. Looks down, not sure how to explain to him in a way that Connor can trust that Hank does not feel inconvenienced. Not at all.

"It's - fine," he says clumsily. "Look, you just need time -"

"How much time, Hank?" Connor turns on him with a strange light in his eyes.

"How much time? And how much am I going to owe you by the time I'm well? My life is already on the list and I don't /have/ anything else."

Hank blinks at him, trying to go down the checklist of things he may have fucked up in his quest to not fuck them up.
"Connor, I --"

"You fed me. You - you gave me clothes, medicine, you stayed up with me at night. Hank, I don't - I /can't/ pay you back. There's no family waiting for me, no assets, no estate. This is the only thing I can do. So I-"

"Connor," Hank says gently.
Connor looks away sharply and takes another step back. "I know you said we'd talk about this is later. Well - it's later. I have nothing to offer you, Hank. Nothing. But I can at least try to work to earn my keep for as long as you want me here, and -"
Hank shouldn't. But he does, he steps into Connor's space, grasps his upper arms and squeezes, just sharply enough to make him look up.

He wants to kiss him, and he can't, especially not now. He wants Connor to stop, to take a deep breath, to listen to him.
"I don't need money," Hank says. "I live - happily - off my own land. I do alright for myself. The food and the medicine was all provisions anyway, easily replaced if I take a couple of days to do it. I just - don't want you to hurt yourself." He gentles his grip, sighs.
"I don't want you hurt," he says again, and a little bit of feeling leaks into his voice. The hands on Connor's arms and halfway through to a caress, and he has to concentrate on keeping them still.

"No." Connor shrugs uneasily. "But you don't want me here, either."
Hank opens his mouth, but Connor manages to interrupt him again. "Which is fine! It's your home," he says quickly. "I've barged into your life, and you - you don't know me, and you want your space. It's okay, I just don't want to be more in the way than I have to be, you see?"
He tries to extract himself from Hank's grip, but this time Hank can't let him go. He can't let Connor think - whatever it is he thinks, not when reality could not be further from it. He's at a loss, drops his forehead to Connor's with a groan, the words inside him tangled.
"I want you here," he says roughly.

Connor is suddenly very still. And Hank thinks about what he's doing, trapping Connor in his arms and leaning in like this, in a way that could only be interpreted as very threatening or very - intimate, with their faces this close.
He thinks about how it's wrong of him to want this, even worse for him to act on it when Connor still feels like he owes him so much, and he wants to lean away and do the right thing, he does, but there's something he wants even more.

He clamps down on it. Because he can't.
He wants to let go, and realizes that Connor's hands are tangled in the back of his shirt, keeping him right where he is. He blinks, stares at the spots of color on Connor's cheeks, and the confused, fragile emotion on his face, in those warm eyes.
He almost jumps out of his skin when he feels Connor's slender fingers drift against his waist, finding a patch of Hank's bare skin right above his belt. It slams into him like a freight train, all the suppressed want, the longing, the need.
He pulls Connor in. Not for the kiss he so desperately wants, just a hug he intends to be brief and reassuring while he collects his thoughts and figures out the right thing to say. Just a thing to - express some degree of friendship, of understanding. He thinks Connor needs it.
He's not prepared for the little sound Connor makes, or the way he wraps his arms around Hank in an iron embrace, shuddering like all the tension in his shoulders is draining out all at once. Hank reacts without thinking, reaches to press him close, to cup the back of his neck.
Connor's curly hair tickles his cheek, and his nose is against Hank's clavicle. He's also completely still, like he's afraid to breathe, afraid to make the smallest move.

And suddenly it's so, so easy.

"You don't owe me," he says quietly, still not letting go.
"But, Hank-"

"No. Stop. Will you just --" Hank sighs, twisting his fingers into Connor's hair and giving it what he hopes is a playful tug. "You don't owe me. Not your labor, not money, not your - anything at all. I don't want it. I don't need it. You're not a /burden/."
If possible, the arms around him tighten. Hank hums, pleased. Connor is strong.

He also smells like lilacs, coffee, and sunlight, and when he tips his face up to look at Hank, his skin is pink and his eyes look tired and a little red. Hank brushes a curl away from his forehead.
"I'm glad I found you when I did," he says simply, sharing a small, wistful smile with Connor. "These hills are a lot less lonely with you around. And if - when - you want to go, then you'll go, but promise me you won't do it because you think I want to get rid of you?"
The implication of that feels maybe clearer than he'd intended. Because it's not a handwave so much as it is a plea, not just to stay now, but to stay as long as Connor wants.

Connor's expression is somewhere between hopeful and disbelieving. Hank squeezes him. "Promise me."
It's a long time of staring into Hank's eyes before Connor seems to finally exhale. "Okay."

It's still too quiet, but Hank will take it for now. He smiles, reaching up to cup Connor's cheek, stroking it briefly. "Why don't you rest today? If you're sore."
Connor tilts his head. "But who's going to feed

Hank bites his lip, fighting down a snort. "Is that what you've named him?"

Connor shrugs. "It's Boo for short." Then he cracks a little smile again, light and impish, and Hank can't help but laugh.
Connor echoes it, softer than his, but breathless in the rapidly shrinking space between them. He looks up at Hank and then freezes, still with a hesitant half smile, and his lips suddenly half an inch away. Hank wonders what they taste like. Whether they're as soft as they look.
"I, uh-" he stutters out quickly - "I can feed him for you if you want, and you can get some rest today. Or - not. You know. But if you'd like to lie down -"


Hank wants to say something else, but abruptly forgets what it was. He should step back, but he can't move.
Connor brushes the softest whisper of a kiss against Hank's cheek. He feels his pulse jump at the tender, brief press of his lips, the way his fingers curl in his shirt, the tickle of his breath. When Connor leans away, he's unmoored, until he sees a slow, beautiful smile.
They end up working outside together, close to the house. Connor feeds Boo, and then watches Hank feed the rest of the sheep. A couple of the other lambs come up to nip and nibble at him curiously, and he pets their noses, feeds the ewes the oats and apples Hank's given him.
Hank resists the urge to carry him home when it's time to head back. He knows he doesn't have to, Connor wouldn't want him to, but it's another odd thing he finds himself missing sometimes, especially when Connor appears a little stiffer and more tired than is usual.
When Connor reaches out for him wordlessly, he has no qualms whatsoever about wrapping an arm around him and walking back hip-to-hip, his hand resting on the dip of Connor's waist. It's comfortable, familiar. He's missed it, and it still feels like it's in the realm of normal.
Once they're inside, he ushers Connor towards the bedroom, a soft idea forming. Connor limps off, a little stiffly, and with a small frown on his face. It doesn't clear until Hank asks to be let in, sitting on the edge of the bed while Connor stretches out on top of the sheets.
"Still sore?" Hank asks knowingly.

"Little bit." Connor only manages a sleepy mutter. "Why don't you stay here anymore?"

Hank swallows. "I wanted you to be comfortable."

"/You're/ comfortable." Connor yawns, shivering like a hummingbird. "S'okay. Miss it though."
A moment later he tries rolling to his side, winces with a small, pained noise.

Hank scoots close, steadies him with one hand against his back and rubs a slow circle into it through his shirt. Connor's eyes flutter shut.

"I've still got some of that numbing salve, if you want."
Connor's answering smile is small and lopsided. "That sounds nice. Would you-?"

"Of course," he says. "It'll help a lot with the ache. Don't move."

It doesn't take him long to find the jar; it's still in the room, in a dresser. It's half-empty, but fragrant when he uncaps it.
"Tell me where it hurts the most?" Hank asks, keeping his voice low as he works to unbutton Connor's shirt with one hand.

Connor hums sleepily. "Left shoulder and back. And - my thigh. On my good side."

Hank helps him shrug out of the shirt. Puts his dry hand on his spine.
Connor's filled out a little recently. There's a bit of muscle on him now, mostly subtle, and a thin layer of fat that softens a few of the sharpest of his angles into gene shadows. The bullet wound is now nothing more than a reddish scar.

Hank would still like to know.
But he's not going to prod for information not volunteered, so he just warms the salve between his hands and then presses his fingers into Connor's aching shoulder.

Connor groans quietly, and Hank helps him to roll over onto his belly. He works the paste gently into his skin.
It’s like that time in the bath all over again. Connor’s pleased little sound shoots straight through Hank, and he swallows convulsively, intent on keeping this - medicinal, impersonal. He’s not sure it works, exactly. He knows there’s a reverence to touching Connor like this.
So he stays as gentle as he can and tries not to linger uncomfortably, but he still feels all of this too much. The shape of Connor’s shoulders under his hands, the way he shudders a little when Hank hits a sore spot, and even better, the way he unlocks.
It doesn’t take long for Hank to suddenly find he’s basically giving a very tired, limp Connor a massage on his bed, but he thinks Connor doesn’t mind, not of his grunt of protest when Hank pauses is anything to go by. Hank laughs, squeezing his nape gently. “One moment.”
He goes to fetch a couple of towels so he won't make a mess, and after wrapping one around Connor's hips and helping him out of the rest of his clothes, he takes his time working the salve into his tender muscles. First his back, then the purportedly aching thigh.
"It's because you're on your feet too much," he chastises gently, pressing his thumb behind his knee and dragging it upwards, trying to unknot the tension in his leg. "You still put all your weight on this foot and it throws everything off. See?"

Connor whines quietly.
"This alright?" Hank asks. "If you need me to stop, or it hurts-"

Connor draws a shuddering breath, curls a pillow to his chest and sighs into it. "It's fine. Feels - nice."

Hank presses his palm to the small of Connor's back. Connor hums, an unmistakable sound of contentment.
He spends the next few minutes making sure that Connor is comfortable as Hank works the knot out of his leg, then the vestiges of the tension in his shoulders. He discovers that Connor really likes it when Hank digs in a little harder, relaxes beautifully under the attention.
By the time he's mostly done he realizes he's just indulging them both at this point. Connor is breathing so deeply Hank isn't sure he's not asleep, but Hank is still touching him, trying to lull him deeper, smiling when Connor grumbles something completely unintelligible.
"Should I let you sleep?" Hank asks, kneading Connor's thigh again, because there's still the whisper of tension, and because the way Connor shivers when he does has his mouth going dry and his face warming a little. Not that that's the point. He just - wants to comfort.
"Sure," Connor breathes. "As long as you don't - ah - don't stop."

His little gasp makes something hot and liquid unfurl in the pit of Hank's stomach, and so does the way he shifts uneasily, spreading his legs a tiny bit. The towel is still modestly draped over his hips, but -
Hank suddenly envisions himself inching his hand underneath it, tugging it aside so he can touch Connor properly. He swallows, resolutely pushing the thought away. He figures there's nothing too horrible about his fantasies as long as he keeps them to himself.
He stops when he thinks Connor's fallen asleep. But then he turns his head slightly to glance at Hank from the corner of his eye, offering him a hesitant smile that punches Hank's breath right out of him. His cheeks are pink, one of them creased slightly from the pillow.
Hank brushes his hair behind his ear, traces the elegant ridge of his brow. He's about to get off the bed to leave Connor to fall asleep in peace, but then Connor asks, very quietly, "Would you stay? Just a little longer?"

And when he asks like /that/, Hank can't exactly refuse.
He grabs a soft blanket and throws it over Connor and then lies down next to him, just close enough to put a hand on his bare shoulder. He thinks it's an acceptable distance until Connor shifts a little closer on a small sigh, until he's properly pressed against Hank's side.
Hank wraps an arm around him, and Connor sinks into the embrace without hesitation. His hair is soft. He smells like hay and sweat and peppermint, and Hank closes his eyes, resting his face against the top of his head. He can hear his own heartbeat thundering in his ears.
"Thank you," Connor says. There's an odd stiffness to his words that Hank doesn't quite understand.

He tightens his grip. "Dunno what you're thanking me for, but you're welcome."

Connor is silent for a good while. Almost long enough for Hank's heart to calm.
When he asks, "Is this okay?" Hank has to wonder how could it /not/ be, when Connor fits next to him so perfectly, and feels so good tucked into the crook of Hank's arm. They keep inching closer into this bubble of affection, and Hank loves every second of it.
"Yeah," he says, rubbing Connor's arm reassuringly. "More than okay."

Connor curls up on his side with his head pillowed on Hank's upper arm, close but too far. His breathing fans out, unsteady against Hank's cheek.

"I like this," Connor mumbles. "I like it when you touch me."
"Oh?" Hank chokes out, charmer that he is.

"No one's ever been this gentle with me before. I didn't know -" he cuts off abruptly, curls closer. "Your hands. They're wonderful."

Hank flushes and rests his fingers on Connor's bare waist. Connor shifts to look at him.
Hank strokes Connor's ribs, then his back, then the dip of his spine. He watches Connor's eyes slide closed, lashes casting soft shadows, lips parted on a shaky breath.

He thinks about how tragic it is that Connor hasn't known gentleness.

He thinks he wants to show him.
He's not sure what miracle resulted in Connor liking his fumbling, coarse touch, but he's not going to question it. He just - he wants to offer him everything. A warm place to stay. A home. Himself.

He wishes he had more than that to give.
He's not sure how Connor grabbed him by the heart so very hard, and so quickly. He's not sure he cares.

Connor's hand had wandered under Hank's shirt to rest against his belly. It's a welcome contact. He wants to tell Connor as much, but then he hears a quiet snore.
He laughs quietly, closing his eyes and tightening his grip around Connor. Now that he’s here and Connor is using his shoulder as a pillow, he has to stay. He can’t say that he minds.

He drifts off to the sound of His breathing, and the early patter of rain against the windows.
He wakes to the rumble of thunder over the fields.

His grip tightens. Something is different.

Connor is breathing fast against his neck.

The flash outside illuminates the room, Sumo shifts restlessly next to the bed. Hank untangles himself, even though it physically hurts.
He only leaves for a moment to make sure the windows are closed and that Boo is sleeping soundly on his new favorite spot on the couch, but when he comes back, Connor is wide awake, sitting bolt-upright, his eyes glassy and wide. Hank sits next to him, grasps his upper arms.
“Hey,” he soothes, “It’s alright, love. Just a storm.”

But then, he’d found Connor during a storm, injured wet and on the verge of falling extremely ill. He wraps his arms around him, drawing him into a tight hug, cupping his head. Con latches on to him like a sloth.
Hank rubs his back, absorbs his shuddering little breaths. He’s covered in a sheen of cold sweat, trembling, but when Hank talks he gradually relaxes into his arms, until he’s limp as a rag doll. Hank holds him up, presses a kiss into his soft, dark hair.
“You’re safe,” Hank tells him. “I’m right here.”

“Thought you’d left,” Connor says quietly into Hank’s shoulder. He makes a small sound, too much like a sob.

Hank hushes him, kneads the back of his neck. “Just got up to check on things. Not going anywhere else.”
Connor laughs weakly. “Stupid. I - I’m okay, I just - the thunder -“

“I know.”

It cracks again in that moment, bright and loud, and Connor flinches. Hank keeps holding him, then pushes him down to the bed, rubs a circle into his chest.

“I’m going to draw the curtains.”
Maybe it won’t help much, but Connor at least relaxes slightly when Hank comes back to him to lie down by his side.

“I’m fine,” he whispers. “Was just - disoriented when I woke up. Sounded like a gunshot.”

Hank freezes, then reaches to place his hand over Connor’s heart.
It’s beating too fast, but it’s strong, so loud he feels it humming through him. Connor’s fingers find his arm, wrap around his wrist.

“I want to tell you,” he says, but it sounds almost like a question.

Hank shifts so he can tuck Connor into the crook of his neck.
The blankets and towels had slipped, and Hank considers reaching for them, only he doesn’t want to let Connor go. Connor makes no move to grab them either though, so he figures it must be fine.


Hank rears back a little to look at Connor’s face.
“Don’t go, okay?” He’s pale, worrying his lower lip between his teeth, lashes low. Hank kneads the place where his neck meets his shoulder, then cups his jaw when Connor leans into the touch. He touches the soft skin behind his ear.

He kisses his forehead. “Not going anywhere.”
A warm, relieved sigh bleeds out of Connor when he nuzzles closer to Hank.

It takes him a long time to relax, even as Hank holds him, touching his ribs gently and stroking his side like he's petting a frightened horse. The storm gets closer. He thinks Connor should sleep.
Connor does not sleep. He shivers, lips against Hank's neck, breathing shallow before he says, very quietly, "I don't know who shot me. My back was turned. I was running."

Hank stills. Squeezes him. His heart is beating so hard he's sure Connor can feel it too.
"Why were you running?"

"I did something bad. I - I know I shouldn't have, but I was - tired, and hungry, and desperate." he swallows. He sounds - ashamed of himself. "There was a camp. I tried to steal some food."

He pauses, like he expects Hank to admonish him.
Of all the things Hank's imagined this is possibly the least offensive. He almost wants to laugh, because he'd been halfway ready to explain that if Connor needed someplace to hide from the law after a - a bank robbery, or a homicide, Hank was willing to offer.
And he's also - angry, because he thinks petty theft does not exactly warrant a bullet that narrowly missed Connor's spine, his vital organs. Didn't warrant Connor suffering from painful, exhausting illness for weeks.

His hand tightens on Connor's bare waist.
"I... must've really scared them. They caught me, so I turned, and I ran. And then I - I fell. It was dark. I couldn't breathe. I - I thought I was dying."

He /had/ been dying. The cold chill Hank feels at the thought sends a shiver through him, a thread of pure fury.
"But you didn't," he reminds him, almost as much as he reminds himself.

Connor laughs weakly. "I don't know how I survived. I crawled away. Hid in an abandoned shed not far from where I was shot. I thought I wouldn't make it through the night."

"They didn't come looking?"
Connor sighs. "No. I don't know why. Wasn't worth the trouble, probably. Or a second bullet." He twists his fingers into Hank's shirt. "I'm - sorry. I know I - I fucked up. I - should've been honest with you from the start. I should've told you -"
"It's alright," Hank says gently. Smooths a hand down his spine. "I'm just glad you made it. Glad you're here."

He's not sure how to explain that none of it matters to him. Not the details. What matters to him is how - how afraid Connor must have been.
How close he'd come to losing him before they ever met. That somehow, despite it all, he trusts Hank now.

He exhales slowly into his hair, kisses Connor's temple. "You were trying to survive. You made a mistake. You've suffered for it, and now - now you're safe."
Connor twists away from him. Hank''s afraid he's trying to run, but he only moves so he can meet Hank's gaze. It's too dark to properly see, but his face is close, and his breath is fanning out against Hank's lips, their noses touching.

"Hank," he says, softer than the rain.
Maybe some part of this should bother him.

It really, really doesn't.

Connor's leg slides against his. It's a small thing, but suddenly Hank is -- too aware of everything. Connor's hand sliding up into his hair, fingers curling behind his ear. The warmth of him, everywhere.
"You're safe," Hank says again, because it's important to him that Connor believes this. Feels it.

Connor's sigh is a soft, warm thing. He strokes Hank's lower lip with his fingertips, like he's learning the shape of it. It tickles. Hank closes his eyes, breathless.

"I know."
"I know," he says again, voice low and full ow warmth.

Hank's not sure who moves first, and not sure it matters. He just knows that suddenly Connor's fingers are gone, and the breath they were sharing turns into a kiss, and that Connor's mouth is absolutely, impossibly perfect.
For a second it stays like that, almost an innocent, a hesitant nuzzle more than anything else. Something hot sparks from it though, and Hank's lips part on a shaky breath, right as Connor presses closer. It's clumsy, not a shred of finesse between them, and it's wonderful.
He tastes like honey and pine. And then just honey, and then nothing but /Connor/ under the flavors of the tea he'd had earlier. There's nothing hurried about what they're doing, even though Hank can feel something needy simmering under his skin, stretching out tentatively.
In the half second they part for a breath, Hank gets a few brain cells back, and it occurs to him to ask him if this is okay, if he's okay, if he's sure, but Connor beats him to it, buries his hands in Hank's hair, tugs him close. He traces the edge of Hank's jaw with his thumb.
"Hank - I - If you want me to stop -"

"Fuck, no."

A breathless laugh, soft and private and honest. Hank kisses him before it ends so he can catch some of that joy for himself, and Connor cups the back of his head, humming, pressing a slender, naked thigh between Hank's legs.
And Hank forgets what he was going to say because every inch of him is zeroed in on that feeling. Connor in his arms, raining damp, breathless kisses against his lips, hands sliding up under Hank's shirt, the press of his leg just /so/, drawing something aching out of him.
He shivers, because it takes him by surprise. He's forgotten how good it is to just be - touched. For someone usually so reserved, Connor is almost aggressive. His hands are firm, searching, gentle but - insistent and curious, trying to find the spots that make Hank shiver.
It's overwhelming, humbling, because when the sky outside lights up and bathes them briefly in a washed-out, silver glow, it's hard not to see the warmth, the appreciation in his eyes. It's hard to feel self conscious like this. Hard to think anything but 'yes' and 'finally.'
"Take your shirt off?" Connor mumbles against Hank's lips, unwilling to part more than a few fractions at a time. "I want to feel you."

Hank is more than happy to oblige, and after a brief, graceless fumble with his clothes, they're lying naked side by side.
And it's - yeah. Connor's warm, solid, and he nuzzles against Hank's neck, curls one leg up and hooks it over his hip. The both freeze for a moment, and then he /moves/, and the only thing he's trying to do is get closer but Hank would set the world on fire for more of this.
When he settles, they're curled together about as intimately as is physically possible. Hank can feel a heartbeat that isn't his own against his chest. They're touching everywhere. Connor is half-hard against his hip, but making no move to remedy it, and that seems just fine.
He drags a blanket over them both when another rumble of thunder shakes the window. Their legs are intertwined, and Connor's fingers are curled against Hank's chest, playing with the coarse hair.

Hank grabs his hand and kisses the pale inside of his wrist. "You're perfect."
Connor giggles, breath fanning out against Hank's collarbone, the movement - ah, well, his movement doing interesting things to the way they're touching. Hank can't quite help the breath that leaves him like it's been punched out of him, or the tiny, involuntary roll of his hips.
"And you're a romantic," Connor sighs, trailing his hand lower, dragging his thumb over Hank's nipple - not stopping there, or at all, until he reaches Hank's waist. "Somehow, I'm not surprised."

Hank grunts. He's starting to sweat a little. "Am I that predictable?"
And then he yelps, because Connor bites his shoulder to muffle his laughter. And God - that - does the opposite of calming him down, because suddenly the only thing he can think is 'do that again.'

"You're the least predictable thing that's ever happened to me."
"Can't say I've expected anything about you either," Hank says on a long exhale.

Connor hums thoughtfully. Hank thinks he's about to say something else, but instead, Connor nips him again, small and shockingly sharp about an inch from the place he did it earlier.
"/Fuck/." Hank shudders, choking on a sound.

Connor curls an arm around his neck to keep him in place, covers his throat in a rain of slow, toothy, open-mouthed kisses that shoot straight down to Hank's cock.

He finds Hank's pulse with his tongue, moans quietly against it.
It's like being devoured. Hank's suddenly so aroused it hurts.

"C-Connor, wait, honey, I-"

Connor tears himself away, eyes wide. His pupils are blown. "Sorry. I'm sorry - too much?"

"No," Hank wheezes. "But if you keep going, our fun isn't going to last very long."
Connor exhales, evidently relieved. "Oh. In that case-" he latches onto the same spot again, sucking so hard Hank thinks he's going to melt directly into his mouth through that one bite. It /burns/ then immediately cools when Connor leans back, and breathes cold air at it.
"I want to make you feel good,' he says, shy and sweet but somehow decidedly predatory. His lips return to Hank's throat, soft, searching, and Hank feels like he's on a fishhook. He reaches to pet Connor's hair and it feels like affection and appeasement all at once.
If Connor's little growl is anything to go by, Hank was correct in his assessment. He repeats the motion, and Connor's breath stutters out of him, hips bucking, fingers digging into Hank's back.

Huh. Interesting.

But when Connor returns the favor by reaching between them -
any cheeky, academic curiosity Hank had about his reactions is replaced by pure white noise. Because Connor is touching him, those beautiful fingers wrapping around Hank's length, not even teasing or doing anything much but exploring, and Hank is ready to expire on the spot.
When he bites Hank again, playing with the flushed tip of his shaft, Hank feels like he might actually weep. There are no words in the English language for this. Or any other language.

"I want to do this." Connor presses a wet, sloppy kiss to his clavicle. "But here."
He gives Hank's cock a slow, experimental tug to make his point, as if his meaning was unclear.

Hank can't fucking breathe, but he manages to say something approximating the word 'yes' or 'please' or 'anything you want, just don't stop' anyway.
And then Connor does something terrible.

He takes his goddamn /time/.

As if Hank wasn't already on the verge of simply dying from sensory overload, Connor sits up, backlit prettily by the light outside, presses Hank into the mattress and - teases him.
He tweaks Hank's nipple, then bends down to lightly, slowly suck on each one. He gives them a parting nip when he moves on, grins like something feral when Hank shouts and bucks into his hand at the sting. He kisses his way down, and when Hank is ready for relief -
Connor repeats his little biting game. Only this time on Hank's hip, and then his inner thigh when he pushes one of his legs up. Hank loses all semblance of coherence then. Having Connor's tongue and teeth on the warm, sensitive skin there just about erases his mind altogether.
By the time Connor actually gets to his cock, Hank's got tears escaping and rolling down his temples, one arm over his eyes because the second he looks down, he knows he'll be lost, and one hand in Connor's hair. As gently as he can, although probably not gentle enough.
Connor does exactly what he said he'd do - he plants that wet, sloppy kiss from earlier at the base of Hank's dick, sucking - a little more gently- at his skin. He does it again, a little higher, and Hank curses because his tongue rolls against a vein on the underside.
He works his way higher until he gets to the tip, where he pauses, gives Hank a moment to look at his face.

And he's - well, he's perfect, but what else is new. Hank wants to reassure him, tell him there's no script, no pressure, but evidently Connor is following his own rules.
Which Hank promptly stops thinking about, because his mind leaks right out of him at the hot, slick suction of Connor's mouth, sensation multiplied a thousand fold. Hank can feel every little moan. The careful, almost meticulous way he avoids using his teeth now.
Whatever Connor lacks in experience, he makes up for in needy enthusiasm. He goes /slow/, but God, the sounds he makes, the way his breaths hitch in his chest, that thing he does with his tongue - Hank's heart is trying to escape the cage of his ribs.
Then Connor whimpers around him, rubs Hank's hip, takes him a little deeper, just enough for Hank to feel the tight flutter of his throat. He chokes on a cry. Barely has time to warn Con before he reaches a sharp peak that splinters through him and has him almost blacking out.
It feels like an earthquake. Or dying. He doesn't recognize the sound he makes, loses all awareness for a dizzying moment. It takes him a few minutes to stop shaking.

He opens his eyes, and Connor is close, hair rumpled, lips slick, soft. He's kissing Hank's shoulder. Gently.
Hank reaches for him. And Connor comes to him, shuffling right back into the embrace, meeting him halfway. He's breathing hard, and his back is slick with sweat. Hank curls around him, lets his hands slowly rove over that expanse of bare skin.
When he squeezes Connor's ass, Connor laughs, but it's a breathless, wanting little noise. He rolls his hips, presses into Hank's thigh. Hank wraps an arm around him, keeps him still, kisses the taste of himself off Connor's lovely mouth.

"What do you need, love?"
"Just don't stop touching me."

He grins against Connor's lips, feeling warm, a little smug when Connor shifts in a way that's entirely unsubtle. "Wasn't planning on it."

The very thought of letting go of Connor sounds absurd and borderline upsetting. Hank squeezes him tighter.
It's ridiculously flattering, how much Connor seems to enjoy the simplest things from him. All Hank has to do is drag a hand down his back and he's moaning sweetly into the crook of his neck and rolling his hips again, clinging, and suddenly Hank knows exactly how he wants this.
Just like this, not changing a single thing about the way they're entangled, so he can touch every bit of Connor, appreciate every angle, dip, and curve of him, every mole and freckle while Connor grinds weakly into his hip.

It's somehow better than... just about anything else.
Holding Connor as he loses himself in the search for his own pleasure has Hank's heart rate spiking again, but in a very different way. There's something about this closeness. Something about /feeling/ all of this, all of him, soft and verging on sleepy as he moves.
His thrusts are slow and lazy, and his hands shake when he tangles them into Hank's hair. They lock eyes. He flushes the most gorgeous color and freezes, like he doesn't realize he's the sexiest thing in the world. Hank tucks him close, mutters soft praise into his hair.
Hank can hear every soft catch of his breath, quiet under the sound of thunder outside. He loves the way Connor's lashes flutter, and the way his mouth brushes against Hank's, and the way the sheets rustle. Loves the hard press of his cock between them. Loves Connor's warmth.
When Connor comes on Hank's skin, he loves the heat of his release and the slickness of it, and the way Connor groans, arms wrapping around Hank like he can't get close enough. The way his hips stutter, the way his sweaty hair feels when Hank brushes it back to kiss his temple.
Loves the way they're both panting into the silent bedroom afterwards, listening to the rain, still touching each other. Connor stroking Hank's spine sleepily, cheek pressed to his chest. His smell. His tired, satisfied smile. The messy kiss they share.
He loves the way his breathing sounds when it deepens, and when his head begins to feel heavy. His shiver, the soft snore. The way it feels to touch his hair. The warmth under his own sternum, bright and bubbly and alive.

If he could get up to clean them properly, he would.
But he doesn't want to let go, so he fumbles for a towel and tries to gently wipe most of the mess they made of their skin, then tosses it aside to be washed at a later date. The only thing that feels imperative right now is /this/, it's doing exactly nothing but this.
He falls asleep to the low growl of thunder outside, and to the softer rumble in Connor's chest.

Nothing's ever felt this much like home. Hank's still got his lips pressed to the top of his head as he drifts off. His heartbeat under his hands. It's his favorite sound.
He wakes before dawn.

Connor is still asleep next to him, hair ruffled. The sheets had slipped a little, and Hank spends a bit of time just admiring his back. He's like a painting, even in the dim light just beginning to gray out the sky outside.

He kisses his bare shoulder.
Connor doesn't stir, but then, Hank hadn't wanted him to. He still needs his rest. All Hank wants for him is his health and well being, so he gets up as quietly as he can, then tucks the blankets around him. The bed gets cold without another body to warm it.
He dresses, feeds Sumo and Boo, then puts on a kettle. He's halfway through making breakfast when he hears the soft footfalls. They're familiar by now, but recontextualized they make his breath catch and his face heat.

He turns, offering a hesitant smile. "Up so early?"
Connor just stares at him. He'd slipped on a loose pair of Hank's boxers, and Hank's gaze is rapidly drawn to the enticing jut of his hip. He sort of wants to bite it, but he's got bacon about to burn.

Connor doesn't sit. He walks over to Hank, nudges him shyly with his elbow.
Hank can't help himself, bacon be damned. He puts his hands on Connor's waist, pushes him against the counter, kisses the bow of his lips, then his jaw, his neck.

It still tastes of salt. When Hank's tongue flicks out against his skin, Connor makes an odd noise.
Hank draws back and cups his face. "Hey. Is this... Still okay?"

Connor blinks owlishly, nostrils flaring. "Yeah, Hank. Of course it is."

Hank shrugs uneasily with one shoulder. "You're. You know. Allowed to change your mind and all. Regret things. I don't mean to assume-"
"Hank," Connor says gently, "last night was -"

/A mistake, a joke, a fever dream,/ Hank's mind helpfully supplies.

But Connor just smiles, and it's as beautiful and mysterious as the rest of him. Shakes his head. "I.. I don't have regrets. I was worried you might, but -"
"No," Hank says quickly.

Connor laughs. "Good." He clears his throat, and his eyes glint with something warm and playful. "Good. So -" he coughs, because acrid black smoke rises around them.

It's too late to save the bacon. But Hank's still smiling when they open the windows.
It ends up being a sunny day.

They don't talk after breakfast because there's work to be done, and conversation feels like a thing better left for later.

Hank doesn't mind. He can be patient sometimes. Doesn't mind being patient with Connor, who still seems quiet, thoughtful.
Besides, it's easier to bask in this moment anyway, because after the chores near the cottage are taken care of and the sun has climbed high enough to warm the air and dry the soil, they venture out into the fields with their elbows linked. It's a silly, sweet way to be.
It's the first day perfect for it, the sun baking the chill right out of the air. Connor only limps a little, and manages the climb admirably. He's still more out of breath than a man of his age should be, but Hank lets him take all the breaks he needs. He's getting better.
Hopefully he'll continue to get better, although Hank worries. Not enough to feel truly upset, not right now, but enough to lace his happiness with a thread of something bittersweet, pensive, protective. He puts his arm around Connor as they walk, tucks him into his side.
When they get to the crest of the tallest hill right in the center of Hank's fields, they stop for a while. There's a small copies of trees up here, a few fallen logs. They sit down, early summer beginning around them. It's fragrant, comes with a buzz on the wind.
A little below, where the hills roll, the grassy fields are dotted with Hank's sheep. Sumo runs between them, head high, tail wagging lazily. The sky stretches for an impossible distance, clear and cornflower blue.
"I want you to stay," Hank says after a thoughtful minute. It feels right to do it, feels right to offer this. "You don't have to feel obligated, or god forbid trapped by it, but I want you to know you are... So, so welcome in my life. For as long as you want."

The way Connor says his name has Hank closing his eyes and breathing through his nose. His hand twitches where it rests between them, and Connor catches it before he even things to lift it. He twists his fingers through Hank's, his grip hard.
Hank wonders how many more goodbyes he'll have to make in his life. He hopes that this, here and now, won't be one of them.

He can't be sure after all. It still feels a little insane. He knows his own feelings, but can only guess at Connor's.

Connor sighs, wistful and hesitant.
It's almost a whisper when he asks, "What if I wanted to stay forever?"

Hank squeezes his hand so hard, he can feel his pulse in his fingertips.

He weighs his words, afraid to read into them. "I could always use a helping hand around here. Ain't getting any younger you know."
Connor pouts at him. "You're in better shape than I am."

"I suppose 'round' could be considered a shape," Hank teases, laughs when Connor swats his arm.

His eyes soften though, and he leans in to kiss Hank's warm cheek. "I love your shape. I love all of you."
Hank blinks at him, wondering if he'd heard that right.

Logic informs him he must be delusional.

His heart dares him to look into Connor's eyes and find anything but truth and adoration in them.

They're the warmest, loveliest shade of brown.
He weighs the benefits and drawbacks of having a tryst in the wet grass.

Last night had been life affirming. He can't imagine what it would be like here, under the full sun, all of Connor's freckles on display.

But there's ticks in the grass too, and probably other things.
For now, he'll have to say it with words, so he traces Connor's wrist with his thumb and gives voice to the thing that's been clamoring to be let out for Lord knows how long. He's surprised by how easy it feels to say. There's a warm weight to it, like an embrace.
Hank is familiar with love. But it doesn't feel like a trap like this, even though he feels an ache that is well known to him.

"I want to be your home," he admits with a slight, troubled shrug.

Connor swallows with a click. "Well, then you'd be my first."
Hank wants to strangle anything and everything that had ever hurt this sweet boy.

"I love you," he whispers into his hair instead of voicing the rather undignified, violent thoughts he's having. "Stay with me."

"That's a first, too, I think," Connor says, even quieter.
Hank's fingers bite into his waist where he's holding him. He picks up Connor's hand, kisses his fingertips, his knuckles, his wrist. Enjoys the little puff of his exhale.

"I'm going to murder anyone that's ever made you feel unloved," he says matter-of-factly.
Predictably, Connor laughs and buries his face in Hank's chest, arms wrapping tightly around him.

Hank pets his hair and kisses the top of his head, even as the little bubble of a giggle turns into a rougher, raw sound. His eyes burn a little in response.
“It’s alright, lamb,” he soothes when Connor begins to frantically apologize for getting his shirt wet. “Does it look like I care? No - no, come here. Let me hold you a little while longer.”

Connor hiccups out a laugh, and buries his face in the crook of Hank’s neck.
That night there’s no dance about where they’re both sleeping. They fall into bed easily and together, instantly entangled, both too exhausted to work for anything too exciting but equally desperate to get at bare skin. Hank shudders, running his hand up and down Connor’s side.
The clothes end up in a pile on the floor, the two of them naked under the sheets. They end up spooning, Hank’s face pressed into Connor’s hair. Their fingers interlaced, breathing matched. It’s wonderful. Hank’s not sure how he’s ever slept any other way.
The night after that goes a little differently. Hank’s brought some mild oils he puts to good use. Abruptly decides that having Connor fall apart on his fingers is his favorite way to do this. There’s something welcoming about the heat of his body, about the way he yields.
The sounds he makes are soft but indescribably beautiful. There’s a restless, gentle shyness to them sometimes, but when Hank coaxes, he lets them fall freely, pants against Hank’s mouth, whines loudly and moans into his shoulder. When Hank continues teasing after he’s come -
He sobs quietly, wiggling closer, biting Hank in warning and denial when he asks if he should stop. Hank falls a little deeper in love. Having a very wrung out Connor leaking tears onto his skin while he massages him gently from the inside fills him with something fierce.
Connor’s trust is a precious thing to have. That much he knows.

A few nights after that, they lie by the fire together. They’re touching each other, and it’s lazy, maybe on the edge of becoming more than just sensual but not quite there. Hank’s about to fall asleep.
He’s half-drifting when Connor says, “I’d like to keep you forever. If the offer is still... on the table.”

Hank hums sleepily. Draws him into his chest. “S’always on the table.”

“In that case, I - I think I’m just going to stay.”

Hank has to look at him then. “Really?”
“Yes, Hank. I’m happy here, and if you are too, then -“

“Good.” He kisses Connor’s jaw. Something massive and anxious inside him settles. “Very good.”

Connor sighs against his throat, presses a damp kiss there. “I’ll help around the cottage. Feed, shear. You can teach me -“
“I will. As long as you promise me you won’t work yourself half to death trying to earn a place that’s already yours.”

Connor looks at him for a long time. His eyes soft, the smile on his face a wistful, light thing. “I just want to help.”

“You have. You - do.”
Hank thinks about the memory of loneliness and how distant it feels. About the cottage that suddenly feels full and lively, the corners dusted, curtains open. About a Sumo that greets Connor with the same love he greets Hank. About the rolling hills that feel theirs already.
Connor curls closer, sighing. “I’m still getting used to your brand of unconditional kindness. It’s not something I know well.”

“You can take as much time as you need figuring it out,” Hank grunts. “It’s not all that complicated.”

“It feels like it is,” Connor admits.
“How so?” Hank has to ask. He’d be lying if he said curiosity wasn’t eating him alive. He wants to know everything there is to know about Connor. At his own pace, yes, but Connor is slow with trust, with this kind of sharing. It’s okay, but it also makes Hank ravenous for more.
Connor sighs. His fingers are resting on Hank’s chest, and fall a little lower, the press of them gentle and curious, like he’s tracing and memorizing the shape of Hank’s flesh - the harder places, and the softer alike.

“Nothing in my life ever came without conditions.”
“Were you... on the road that long?”

Connor huffs. “No, but I - my family,” he tries to explain. “I - I don’t know where I came from. My earilest memories are of Amanda. She - took me in.” He flushes, chewing his lower lip. “Me and my brothers.”

Hank squeezes his shoulder.
“It was good of her to give us a home, I think,” he says, but he sounds uncertain. “It wasn’t free. I had to work for it. We all did. It never felt - peaceful. It never felt like I could just rest, and everything would still be there the next day.” He looks at Hank meaningfully.
Hank strokes his cheek lightly. There’s a very old sadness in Connor’s eyes. Something soft and conflicted, the sort of feeling that came from a place of brokenness, of misplaced trust, of years of regrets. Hank knows. He’s familiar with the feeling. Connor knowing it hurts.
“So,” he clears his throat. “I don’t know. I suppose I’ve just never felt like this.”

“Safe?” Hank bites out, bitter still from the thought of Connor never knowing a feeling of peace and homecoming before now.

“Maybe,” Connor says quietly, looking away. “Is that what this is?”
Hank can only hope so. But he’s sure Connor never felt safe before, not if, even as a boy, he had to earn every bit of food and shelter, to say nothing of simple, necessary things like affection. Maybe he’s had it before, but Hank doubts it came without its own set of rules.
Not with the surprised way Connor still tilted into his touch, with the way he looked at Hank like no one’s ever hugged him before, the way he reached out, hesitating, like someone used to having their affection rejected or mocked.

He grabs Connor’s wrist and draws him closer.
“I’m glad you left.”

Connor leans into him. “Me too. I’m just... still sad, and I hate that.” He looks up at Hank, his eyes like shards of a mirror. “She tried to kill me.”

Hank chokes. “What?”

“I disobeyed her. I was tired. I - shouldn’t have, but I -“

Connor’s face tends to go flat when he’s upset, and it’s certainly like this now, his expression too blank for the things coming out of his mouth. “We got into a fight. I told her I was done and things - escalated.”

“And she tried to hurt you.”

“She did hurt me.” Connor says.
It’s too matter-of-fact, but maybe the acknowledgement is enough for now.

The aching chasm inside Hank’s chest widens. He wants to cocoon Connor - not just the one he knows, but the little, innocent versions of him, when he was just a baby - and tell him he deserved better.
“And - your brothers?” Hank’s almost afraid of the answer.

Connor’s expression shifts for a moment briefer than a moth’s wingbeat, into something so pained Hank’s heart keens in sympathetic distress.

“I was the last one left.” He looks away again, but stays close to Hank.
He doesn’t offer more, and Hank is faced with two possibilities, each equally horrifying. Either they’re dead, and Connor had been left alone after fighting so hard for the smallest semblance of family, or they’d left before he had, leaving him behind. Equally alone.
He kisses Connor’s forehead, abruptly regrets bringing any of this up. “I’m sorry, lamb.”

Connor laughs shakily, shivers. “Don’t be sorry. Don’t be. I’m — I’m happier than I’ve ever been.”

Hank rubs his back, the kiss lingering. “You’ll always be safe here. Always.”
Hank’s perfectly willing to spend the rest of his life making him believe it.

They fall asleep together. That night, and many, many nights after that. Nights that slowly chip away at the stories between them, not yet shared but still familiar. Hank is happy for every one.
It’s strange though, because getting to know more of Connor, finding out about his past - it seems to complete a picture that was already nearly all in place. Fills in the smallest gaps. Hank already knew the things that mattered. Connor is kind. He’s empathetic. He works hard.
Too hard, and he still fights Hank when he tries to force upon him some much needed rest, but his intentions eventually begin to feel like they’re less about earning his keep and more about keeping Hank well-rested too. He insists he needs it, given their favorite activities.
Sometimes Hank needs the rest. As it turns out, Connor is insatiable. Perhaps some of it is his youth, some of it his starvation for touch and affection, but some of it is just Connor. He’s touchy when he’s emboldened. He kisses Hank at every opportunity.
His hands are always brushing Hank’s shoulders or his waist, he’s forever leaning, touching his lips to Hank’s cheek or his jaw, or his neck when he’s being especially playful.

When they make love, sometimes he seems to make it his personal mission to wear Hank out.
On the nights that it’s gentle though, it’s equally shattering, because he’s patient when he wants to be, and when they’re both sleepy the sex is less about sex, and more about extending their embrace. They lie together, touching each other slowly to completion.
Or spoon, curled together, one of them deeply inside the other, not quite thrusting, just rocking gently on the deeper breaths, their hands gently and appreciatively finding places to rest or to stroke. Connor’s partial to Hank’s belly and thighs. Hank is partial to his freckles.
The night Hank finally manages to tell Connor about Cole, Connor cries harder than he ever did about any of his own pain, and Hank cries with him. He shows Connor the few pictures he has, chokes out all the feelings of regret, of failure, of profound pain and loneliness.
Little by little, they end up with very few secrets between them.

And the house begins to feel fuller than ever. Connor stays, like he said he would.

The fields become theirs. Hank takes him out there often, and they do end up in the grass more than once.
It’s never very graceful then, but there’s something about it anyway. There’s something urgent about it, almost primal. Hank lacks the words to describe the feeling of the earth turning under them and the sky beaming down while Connor squeezes around him. It’s just — everything.
Winter comes and goes, and Connor is still there. His hair grown out, his frame just as lean but much stronger, his eyes bright, warm.

The first time he catches a springtime cold, Hank almost has a heart attack. It turns out to be just that though, and then it spreads to Hank.
They end up - not bedridden exactly, but with both of them sick together, there's something a little sticky and disgusting about their cuddling, and Hank couldn't care less. They take good care of each other. They keep each other warm. Fed. Loved.
Connor hums lullabies at him sometimes. He's got a nice voice, soft and husky, even though he doesn't use it often. It never fails to put Hank right to sleep.

Sometimes it all feels like a dream. It's a good one though, better than any that Hank's ever had.
It doesn't hit him, not, really, not as /reality/ as such until the next summer rolls around.

It's when he watches Connor shear. His sleeves are rolled up, he's gentle with the sheep he's holding. His hair is in his face. Hank goes to brush it back for him.
His face is sweaty, and he quirks Hank a rueful smile. Not dissimilar to the one he gave Hank this morning when they woke side by side, and then again over coffee.

He's wearing a shepherd's clothes.

Sumo is by his side, and so is Boo, who still enjoys far too many privileges.
Hank doesn't think he's ever met a sheep this inclined to be indoors. Or this adamant about following around a single, particular human like a puppy. He's a little grown now, but he still acts like a baby. And Connor treats him like a pet more than a farm animal.
But he's also very good with the rest of them. He's good at chopping wood and collecting herbs, good at making Hank breakfast. Better than before at letting Hank do it, better at letting him take care of him. They've carved out a life together. Connor belongs here. With him.
He always will. Hank's not about to let him go. And from the looks Connor gives him, he's fairly sure the sentiment goes both ways.

Hank smiles, looking back at the sun as it sets over the roof of their home. The air is warm and full of cicadas, and the sharp snip of shears.
There's clouds looming on the other side of the horizon, dark gray and heavy with summer rain. A second later they both look up, listening to the low rumble they make, and share a knowing look.

Connor grins, and Hank's heart thuds hard against the inside of his ribcage.
For some reason, he's grown to like thunderstorms rather a lot as of late.

The End
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