* * *
Pierce had to admit–Hal’s parents’ place was pretty damned intimidating.
The long drive from the main road to the gigantic antebellum house was paved, thank God, because Pierce’s body had pretty much decided travel was the suck. The three days they’d spent in Atlanta had helped, as had Hal’s insistence on using the jacuzzi and the pool while they were there, so Pierce thought maybe, with some more attention to stopping every two hours, he could make the trip home.
His other option was to give Hal directions to drive by himself while Pierce flew, and he really didn’t want to do that. Even if he was sitting in the passenger seat, watching the unfamiliar scenery whiz by as Hal negotiated the expressways, listening as Hal sang loudly to pop songs Pierce had never heard of, Pierce was as happy as he’d ever been in his life.
He didn’t have to be home until mid-February, and his ex-wife was setting up the bedroom and the backyard for him, like he’d asked when she’d sent the divorce papers. He was bringing Hal to a proper home. Hal had seriously left everything behind him– parents, school, friends– so he could start a life with a guy he’d known for a month. Pierce really didn’t want him to regret that.
Seeing this long driveway and the spectacular house didn’t bode well for Hal not regretting things.
“Damn,” he muttered.
“It looks like a prison?” Hal asked.
“It looks awesome. How was it a prison?”
Hal grunted. “Do you see the house next door?”
Pierce peered through the beech trees that lined the driveway and saw nothing but rolling horse pasture, criss-crossed with wooden fences. “No. I think there’s a barn about half-a-mile away.”
“That’s a whole mile. We’ve got a golf cart to take us out to the barn. Anyway, no, there were no next door neighbors. There were no play dates. There were no other kids invited to come sit in the living room and watch movies.”
Pierce grunted. His parents had been cold and detached as well–but the house he’d grown up in would fit in this house’s living room. “Me neither,” he said. “I did have soccer, though. What’d you have?”
Pierce let out a little sigh. “Do you want kids?” he asked out of the blue.
“Someday, yes,” Hal said, slowing down and glancing at him. “Is that a problem?”
“No. Just, you know. We need to make plans. Soccer teams and swim parties and trips to the zoo. We can take turns working from home.”
Hal smiled softly, his entire oval-shaped, boy-beautiful face lighting up. “We can spoil our kids like your sister spoiled hers.”
His sister’s house had been tiny. That Hal thought Darius and Abigail were spoiled told Pierce everything he needed to know. “Yup. And all of that will start with you telling your parents where you’re moving to.”
Still, when an older man with thinning white hair over a pink liver-spotted scalp came out to greet them and park the car, Pierce couldn’t help but be impressed.
“Thanks Daniel,” Hal said kindly. “I thought you’d retired.”
“Your mother seems to think she can’t abide without me, sir.” Daniel smiled creakily, his dentures a shining white. “And I’d be bored if I didn’t at least park the cars, even if driving full time is a little much for me.”
“Well, as long as you’re happy,” Hal told him dubiously. “But seriously–you can always tell my parents no.”
“I don’t know why,” Daniel laughed. “You’ve done so enough for the both of us!”
Hal chuckled and came around to help Pierce out of the car. Pierce was about to shake him off when, to his embarrassment, his leg buckled.
“Oh, oh…” Hal clucked, wrapping his arm around Pierce’s waist and forcing Pierce to give him some of his weight. “We drove too long, didn’t we?”
“I’m fine,” Pierce said softly. “Just take my elbow up the porch and I’ll be fine.”
Hal grunted. “I’ll make sure we get you seated as soon as we get inside, okay?”
How embarrassing. “Sure.”
But apparently getting up the stairs wasn’t the only trial he had in store for him this day.
A butler (butler!) opened the large french door to the right, and ushered them inside, where a mid-sized slender woman stood wearing a winter-white pant suit, her dyed ice-blonde hair twisted up into fashionable coif. Her face was flawlessly–if heavily–made up, and she smiled thinly and offered her cheek for Hal to kiss. “Harold.”
“Hi, Mom. This is Pierce–I was hoping we could–“
“Dinner isn’t for another hour, Harold. Are you planning to stay the night?”
“No. I didn’t think about dinner–we can be out of here by then. I just wanted you to meet–“
“Well you must certainly stay for dinner. I’ll have your room prepared, just in case.” She eyed Pierce up and down, like fish for dinner. “Where will your friend be staying? We can have Daniel drive him there.”
“I’m staying with him. I’ll drive us fine.”
Pierce smiled greenly at her disdainfully raised eyebrow. “I’m, uh, Pierce Atwater.” He stuck his hand out gamely, holding desperately onto the cane with his other hand. “I’ve been traveling with Hal–“
“I’ve been traveling with you,” Hal interrupted. “My car, your destination.”
Pierce smiled at him, their eye contact feeling like an oasis in the middle of an emotional desert. “Yeah, but you drive. I’m pretty sure I’m just along for the ride.”
Hal’s smile, as subdued as it was, seemed to give color and warmth to this sterile white-marbled hallway. No wonder Hal was so irrepressible. He’d had to shine hard and long to even make this house livable for someone who needed color and kindness. “I’ll give you a ride any time, sailor,” he said with a quietly bawdy wink.
Pierce winked back. “Anyway,” he continued, pulling his eyes away from Hal’s extraordinary amber gaze, “Hal and I have reservations in Charlotte. It’s barely an hour away.”
“Indeed,” she said, the disapproval rolling off her like a wave. “Well it’s good you have reservations, Mr. Atwater, but I wouldn’t count on Hal accompanying you. He does start school next week.”
“No I don’t,” Hal said, exchanging a panicked look with Pierce. “Mom, I called you the day after Christmas. I told you I wasn’t going back.”
“No, seriously–Pierce and I are driving to his house in California!”
“For all you know he lives in a homeless shelter, Harold–don’t be ridiculous.”
“It’s a house,” Pierce said quietly.
“Mom, I wanted you to meet him.”
“And so I have.” Her tone left Pierce under no delusions as to his importance or impressiveness.
“I wanted Dad to meet him.”
“He’ll be down for dinner. I doubt Mr. Atwater will want to remain.”
“Well if he goes, I go. I’m a fully grown adult, and I told you what my plan was. Why can’t you just believe–“
“Harold Justice Lombard, who leaves a college education and a hefty inheritance to go be… what? A masseuse in California? Do people even run away to California anymore? What, are you going to give massages on the beach?”
“I live in Sacramento,” Pierce said, because talking to himself was fun. “It’s two hours from the beach.” His leg ached fiercely, and his hip wasn’t far behind. Hal had tried–he really had given it his best to get Pierce to the living room, but his mother had pretty much cornered them in the foyer.
“I have enough of my own money to get a license,” Hal argued, and it was the plan they had come up with together. “A year working for a reputable place, and I can start taking clients of my own.”
“Clients.” She rolled her slightly protuberant eyes. “Harold, you’re barely old enough to inherit your money–“
“But I am old enough. Mother, we didn’t have to come here. I was all for skipping Charlotte and driving to New York. Can you not even shake his hand?”
“I’m not going to know him long enough to bother!” she snapped, and then Pierce snapped too. Or rather his abused body gave a shiver and a give, and he almost fell to the floor.
“Fuck!” Hal snapped, wrapping his arm more securely around Pierce’s waist. “Mother, I’m taking him to the living room. He needs to sit somewhere not the car, and then we need to leave.”
Wonderful. But Hal’s hand on his hip was exquisitely gentle, and the look he shot Pierce was full of remorse.
“It’s not your fault,” Pierce said softly as they walked down the hall and then to the right, into a sitting room that really was the size of the house Pierce had grown up in. “You tried to warn me.”
“Yeah,” Hal grumbled, “but you were trying to be a good guy.”
“Maybe your father will be a better sell?”
But now, Harold Justice Lombard the Fourth was not an easier sell. After sitting for an hour in icy silence, punctuated only by Hal’s running to the kitchen to fetch them some water and ibuprofen so Pierce could hydrate and wouldn’t start cramping, a bell rang from somewhere else in the first floor. Hal’s mother stood and clicked her way across the marble tile floors in two inch taupe heels, while Hal guided a barely refreshed Pierce to the dining room.
Once they got there, they stood at the long table, waiting for…
“What are we waiting for?” Pierce asked, knuckles white on the back of the really uncomfortable looking wooden chair.
“My father needs to come down,” Hal said. His utter disgust indicated that this wasn’t a joke, and then he looked sharply at his mother. “Mother, Pierce is sitting down.” With that, he pulled the chair out slightly and helped Pierce down, before moving to stand behind his own chair.
“Sit down with me,” Pierce said.
Hal looked at him, and looked at his mother, and then looked at the doorway that led from the staircase to the bedrooms. He looked at Pierce again, and Pierce could watch him do the math. His father was leaving them to wait–which was a dick move in any household, but apparently this one made it especially douchey. And Hal had just defied his mother as it was. With a scowl in her direction he sat down next to Pierce and they both took a look at the covered dishes placed around the table.
“What do you think’s in them?” Pierce asked idly, unable to take the silence anymore. Fuck it, actually– he couldn’t hate anybody more thoroughly after an hour of acquaintance as he hated Hal’s mother. If Hal was really leaving with him, Pierce wasn’t particularly interested in a good impression anymore.
“There’s a main dish in the big one,” Hal said, smiling. “Probably protein.” He sniffed the air.
“Chicken you think?” Pierce asked, although the smell was a little gamier.
“Turkey?” Hal frowned. “No… but something bird like. Ain’t beef. Anyway, there’s a winter salad under the clear dish.
“And we know this because…”
“It’s wearing a fur coat,” Hal said, smirking.
Pierce grinned, relieved. That was his man. The angry, frustrated kid who’d been trying valiantly to be civil to his mother had borne little resemblance to the confident, perky young man who had won Pierce’s heart. “And pearls?”
Hal frowned, squinting into the dish. “Apple slices and mayonnaise, I think.”
They both grimaced. “That’s awful. Anybody who puts raisins in mayonnaise…”
“Doesn’t deserve either raisins or mayonnaise!” Hal supplied, reassuringly outraged. “Gross. Well, we know we don’t want salad. What else we got?”
“Harold,” Mrs. Lombard hissed. “Put that cover down right now. You know how your father feels about cold food!”
“Well then he should be downstairs by now,” Hal said tightly. “You’ve both been unconscionably rude to a guest. Now I’m hungry and so is he, and we’ve got a long drive back. I mean, we’re not going to return for years, if ever, we might as well get a bite to eat.”
Pierce let some of his insecurity show in his wobbly smile. “You’re really going to choose me?” he asked quietly.
“I already have,” Hal murmured back. Then he raised his voice again. “So, in this dish, we’ve got greens fried with bacon. Here, let me dish you up some.”
But Hal was on a roll, dishing up greens, potatoes, bread–there was plenty of food at the table, and Pierce really was hungry. And pissed. And hurting for his lover, who hadn’t deserved this sort of homecoming, and had definitely deserved more than this sort of home.
“So,” Pierce said, as Hal reached for the biggest cover, “you ready for the big reveal?”
“Maybe it’s something extinct,” Hal said, glaring daggers at his mother–who was still standing behind her chair like she was glued there.
“Like your education,” Mrs. Lombard shot back. And Pierce felt that remorse again.
“Are you sure you want to leave your education behind?” he asked soberly.
“I’d do it twice. I’d torch my records. I’d go back and take all my massage credits again,” Hal vowed, looking intensely into his eyes.
“But I might not be worth it,” Pierce said softly.
“Bullshit,” Hal told him.
“Wabbit season,” Hal said unexpectedly.
“What?” Pierce had to laugh.
“Wabbit season!” Hal insisted, the smile crinkles in the corner of his amazing eyes deepening.
“Are we even having a Wabbit season discussion?” Pierce wanted to know. This was usually a safe word for them, when their discussion got too heavy, too painful.
“Sure we are!” Hal told him, his voice losing the anger, the embarrassment, the tightness of being here with his disapproving mother and a father who couldn’t bother to come down for dinner. “I want to tell you all the reasons you’re worth it, but I’m damned if I let my mother hear. Wabbit season!”
“I give. Duck season.”
Hal grinned and nodded, and suddenly Pierce knew at least one answer they would get about life that night. “Wabbit season,” he said soberly.
“Duck season,” Pierce argued, and they both grinned evilly. “Want to see?”
“God yes. Wabbit season.” He set his hand on the trencher handle.
“Duck season,” Pierce said, putting his hand next to Hal’s.
“One, two, three,” Hal counted.
“BANG!” they both chorused, pulling the food cover off on three.
Sure enough, neck stretched out, head intact, was a complete roast duck.
They both burst out laughing.
“Oh my God!” Pierce chortled.
“I can’t eat that!” Hal laughed. “I don’t know how I ever could.”
“That’s… oh dear God!”
They were still laughing when Hal stood up and offered Pierce his arm. “Can you make it to the front?” he asked. “I’ll have Daniel bring the car around. We can sit on the steps until he gets there.”
Pierce nodded ,pretty sure he’d crawl through broken glass not to sit at that table for another minute. They made their way, step by step toward the hallway, and had actually made it to the front door, where Hal pushed a little red buzzer.
“Sir?” came Daniel’s creaky voice.
“Daniel, I’ll need my SUV please.”
“So soon, sir?”
“Well, I’m not returning in the near future, so you don’t have to worry about that, okay?”
Hal let go of Pierce’s waist and grabbed the door handle. “Can you make it through to the steps?”
“Yeah. ‘ll need your help down,” Pierce said, his mortification complete. “It’s like the perfect metaphor for me reaching to high for myself.”
“Wabbit season,” Hal muttered. “All the things I want to say to you about why you’re so much better than this place, but I’m not going to do it here.
“Duck season,” Pierce conceded. “I’m just so glad you’re leaving with me, I’m not even going to argue.”
“Harold!” It was a thundering male voice. “Harold Justice Lombard the Fifth–“
“Go, go, go!” Hal shushed. “Let’s let him think we’re gone.”
Pierce should have stayed. He should have been the grown up. But his body was buckling and he hurt for his lover and all he wanted to do–all he wanted to do–was hold the young man whose spirt was so indomitable, it had survived this giant sinkhole of loneliness and pain.
He limped outside with Hal on his heels, and they were both sitting on the white porch steps when the door flew open.
Hal looked up to the top of the stairs, hurt in his eyes. “Dad?”
“You’re not even going to stay for dinner?” The man who stood by the french doors was not tall–but then, neither was Hal. But while Hal was slender and lithe and fit, this man was portly, with jowls and a fireplug body. This was Hal if he ever stopped doing yoga and working out and started eating… well, all the stuff on that table, actually.
“Nope, Dad. Too expensive to eat here.”
“Don’t be silly, Hal– we don’t charge you–“
“My soul. I brought the love of my life home to you and you couldn’t even come down on time. Staying here might get me lots more money, but I don’t like the cost to my soul.”
Hal’s father harrumphed. “Why’d you bother to come here at all?”
Pierce grimaced. “My fault sir,” he said. “I thought that maybe Hal’s parents would know what an awesome kid they had and would want to wish him well. Even a college graduate can make some piss-stupid mistakes.”
“Like spiriting my son away–“
Pierce’s eyes never left Hal’s. “Like doubting his word for even a moment.” He took Hal’s hand and kissed his knuckles. “I’ll never doubt you again.”
Hal’s pretty eyes grew shiny. “Duck season,” he said, giggling
“Wabbit season,” Pierce told him back.
They both grinned. “Bang,” they said in unison.
The car appeared around the corner then, coming slowly as Daniel performed his duties. Hal stood and gave Pierce a hand up. “You and me, Bugs?”
“Sure, Daffy.” He made it to the bottom of the stairs and then turned to smile at Hal’s father. “Next time, sir, if your son comes to visit, you might want to come out and talk to him. He’s a really amazing man.”
They both turned and Hal helped him into the SUV, and then gave Daniel a hug–and a tip–and they took off back down the tree lined drive.
They made plans to stop somewhere and eat on the way to the hotel. They told jokes about cartoons. They sang to some more of Hal’s pop music. They talked about going to see baseball and basketball games when they got to Sacramento. They touched hands often.
They never looked back.