Bill’s duffel takes up barely any space in Mike’s truck. To tell the truth, his own bag isn’t much bigger. He’s not sure why they’ve both packed so light, like they’re ready to run at a moment’s notice. Well, maybe they are, or at least, Mike is. This feels risky. He doesn’t think it actually is risky, but it does feel that way. His parents would never do anything to hurt him, and they’d never want to hurt one of his friends, either. He’s mentioned Bill to them before, in passing.
They worry, though. About him. His dad’s sort of given up asking him about girls, but his mom hasn’t quite yet.
The drive back is easy and familiar. He filled up the tank before they left, so the only stop they make is to pull into an old and cracked parking lot to stretch and to eat. They climb into the truck bed and Mike eats half a sandwich while Bill smokes a cigarette.
“You can’t smoke in my parents’ house,” Mike says.
“’C-course, Mikey,” Bill says. Surprised, like he never would’ve even considered it. Mike smiles, and leans over to brush a strand of hair out of his eyes.
“Gettin’ pretty long,” he says.
“I’m not gonna cut it,” Bill says, decisively, and Mike laughs.
“I love you,” he says, softly, and Bill looks over at him, his lips curving up.
“Because I h-have long hair?”
“Yeah,” Mike says, and now they’re both just grinning at each other, like schoolboys. “That’s why.”
“Cool,” Bill says, and then he pulls Mike forward into a kiss. Mike lets his head rest in the curve of his shoulder for a moment after, then levers himself off of Bill.
“We should get back on the road.”
“Sure,” Bill agrees, easy. “Boots ‘n’ saddles.”
“Don’t, you sound like my old man, good Lord –”
Bill laughs as he stubs out his cigarette on the curve of the truck bed. “Can’t wuh-wait to m-meet the illustrious Will Hanlon at last.”
Mike rolls his eyes as he vaults the side of the truck, gathering his food trash with him. “Yeah, yeah, you will soon enough. I can’t believe you managed ‘illustrious’ without stuttering.”
“Fuck off,” Bill says. As he laughs, his head tilts back, his hair falling around his shoulders. It’s getting late; the sun is going down; the light goes through Bill’s hair and makes it look closer to blonde than it is. Mike wouldn’t look away from this for the world. Bill tilts his head back up and smiles at Mike. A small smile but not a shy one. They’re ages past that.
“C’mon,” Mike says, softly, and opens the driver’s side door back up. He waits for Bill to climb out of the back and join him. He’s humming a little. He’s getting excited to see his parents.
Bill settles back into the passenger seat. He props his feet up on the dash.
“Sit properly,” Mike says. “And you better not have tossed your cigarette butt into the grass.”
“Aww, Mikey,” Bill complains, but he sits back up and he presses the stub into the bag with Mike’s napkins.
“Thank you,” Mike says, primly, and Bill rolls his eyes.
“Just drive, baby,” he says. Mike does, trying to ignore the way it makes his chest feel when Bill says baby.
“Hi, Momma,” Mike says, and like he always does when he comes home from school, he feels almost shy.
“Oh, sweetheart, so glad you could make it home again,” Jessica Hanlon says, and she cups her hands around his face and Mike laughs.
“I always do,” he says.
“I know,” his mother says. “Thank you.” She hugs him, tightly. He thinks about the fact that this is his last spring break before he graduates. He thinks about the fact that he hasn’t told his parents anything about his post-grad plans yet.
There’s business to attend to, though.
“And, uh – I brought us a farmhand.” He steps into the house so she can see Bill on the doorstep. “My classmate. Bill Denbrough.”
Bill smiles, and gives a little wave. Mike tries to take a mental step back, and see Bill how his parents must. A scrawny white boy, long-haired; one hand grasping his bag. He doesn’t look that strong or that hardy, but his parents trust Mike, and anyway all Bill has to do is help with the ewes.
“Lovely to meet you, I’m sure,” his mother says kindly, and she presses past Mike to approach Bill and shake his hand.
His father appears beside her. “We’re glad to have you, son.”
“Thank you, Mr. Hanlon,” Bill says, and Mike knows he’s not the only one who can hear how genuine that is, how much Bill really means it.
“Mike can show you the caravan we’ve rented,” Will Hanlon says. “I’m sorry we can’t board you in the house, but –” his father spreads his hands, and gives a little self-deprecating smile. “We’re short on space.”
“That’s fine,” Bill says. “I understuh…stand.” Mike knows Bill was a little shy about his stutter, but he thinks he’s done pretty well. Perfectly comprehensible, and it’s not like his parents care beyond that.
“I’ll show him now, Pops,” Mike says, and his father grins at him, and Mike pulls him into a brief but tight hug. He gives both of his parents a little nod-and-smile as he heads out the door.
“Shit,” Bill says, as they cross the yard. It’s rained recently, and the ground is still a little wet. “I need a cigarette s-so bad r-right now.”
“Billy, you’re fine. They like you, I swear.”
“D-do I huh-have to come to d-dinner?”
“I can literally hear you getting more nervous.”
“Fuck off,” Bill says, and Mike watches him stomp his heel into the giving dirt.
“Sorry,” he says, softly, gripping Bill by one elbow. “It’s okay, though, really. My parents are good people.”
“Yeah,” Bill says, but he’s still mad and scared, Mike can see it in the pulled-down turn of his mouth.
The caravan in their yard isn’t in great condition, but it’s not terrible, either. Quite frankly, Mike has seen Bill’s school dorm, and this might even be an upgrade. He unlatches the door and spreads an arm out in dramatic invitation. Bill only glowers at him a little as he steps in.
“It’s not much,” Mike says. “But it’ll do, right? Anything else you need, you can get in the house. If we’d had room to sleep you in there my parents would’ve gone for it. I promise.”
“Okay,” Bill says, tossing his duffel onto the little cot bed.
“Billy,” Mike says, sort of helplessly, because he doesn’t want to lose that easiness that they had in the drive over.
“Sorry,” Bill says, to the sheets, and then he turns towards Mike and cups his face in both hands. Bill kisses him, and Mike closes his eyes to it; he savors it.
“Don’t apologize,” Mike says, softly. “And come for dinner. You gotta, Bill. I’ll tell them to not ask you too many questions?”
“Alright,” Bill says, as if he’s doing Mike a huge favor by agreeing. He kisses Mike again, and then leans back and says, “God, th-this is weird.”
“I know!” Mike says, and lets out a nervous laugh.
“Your parents are nice, though,” Bill says, and Mike says, “I know!” again, because that’s part of the problem.
“They’re too nice,” he says, and he runs his hands down Bill’s shoulders, down his arms, grasps at his hands. “Makes me wanna tell them everything.”
“Christ,” Bill says. “Don’t t-tell them, Mikey.”
“Good Lord, Bill, I’m not gonna push you out of the closet,” Mike says, and he loves his parents but suddenly he kind of wants to be at school again, in his dorm room, or at his literature class with the professor who everyone knows is a homosexual. In a way, it’d be safer there.
“W-well, you never know,” Bill says, pouting a little bit, and presses his face into Mike’s chest. Mike raises a hand to cup the back of his head.
“I’m gonna go back in,” he says, rubbing circles into Bill’s hair. “I’ll fetch you for dinner. Okay?”
“Okay,” Bill agrees. He pulls himself from Mike’s grasp and sits back on the little bed. “I’ll be fine, Mikey,” he says, softly, and Mike nods abruptly to himself before he exits, leaving behind the little living space, and the man he loves inside it.
“So, how’s school?” Jessica Hanlon says, eyeing her son keenly as he chops an onion for her. Mike already cries easily; this is no exception. Over the years, he’s become used to the experience of casually conversing with his mother while tears drip down his face.
“Good,” Mike says. “It’s good. I’m really liking my library work.”
His mother smiles a little into the roast on the stove. “You’re liking the library over your history classes, then?”
“I guess. I mean, I love history, but it’s like – I don’t wanna be caught in academia forever, you know?” He feels real awkward as soon as he says it, because his mother never got the chance to go to college at all.
She simply smiles even broader. “I’m glad you’ve found something for yourself, Michael.”
“Thanks,” he says. A tear drips down his chin. He keeps dicing.
“How about Bill?” his mother says after a moment of companionable silence.
“What about him?”
“What’s he studying, I mean? I know you’ve mentioned him before, but I can’t recall if it came up.”
It hadn’t. He slices the knife through the flesh of the onion. “Uh. Bill’s studying literature. He wants to be a writer.”
“Oh!” Jessica sounds genuinely delighted. “He published anything I can read?”
“Um, just in magazines. I don’t know how easy they are to come by.” He also does not know that his mother would particularly enjoy reading Bill’s horror stories.
“Still,” his mother says, approvingly. “That’s nice. It’s a good goal to have.”
Mike says nothing, but privately, he agrees. He smiles a little, through the veil of tears. Jessica sees him do it, and laughs. “Oh, Mikey,” she says. “That’s enough onions for now, I think. Go talk to your father, alright?”
“Yes, ma’am,” he says, and washes his hands thoroughly so he can finally rub at his eyes.
“Hey, Pops,” Mike says, softly. “How’s it going?”
“You don’t have to talk quiet to me, Mike,” his father says, annoyed. “The noise ain’t gonna make the cancer worse, you know.”
Mike laughs, despite himself. “Sorry, Pops.”
“Meh. Can’t get too mad at you. Glad you’re here.”
“I always come back for the lambing,” Mike says, because he does.
“Of course you do. You’re graduating this year, though. Can’t keep coming back to your old folks’ place forever.”
“I’ll come back as long as you need me to,” Mike says. How could he do anything less?
“I believe you mean that, which worries me,” Will Hanlon says, because Mike got his highly perceptive nature from somewhere.
“Dad, I like coming back.”
“So you still like us, huh?”
Mike lets himself smile. “I guess so.”
Will Hanlon hums a little to himself. “That boy you’ve brought us, I’m guessing he doesn’t have any experience?”
“Nah,” Mike shakes his head. “I didn’t really know anyone at school who does, honestly. But Bill will do the work, Dad. He’s got a good work ethic.”
“Just hope he’s stronger than he looks. He’s a string bean. Looks like you when you were a kid.”
Mike laughs, delighted at the comparison. He was a skinny kid.
“Hippie hair, too.”
“He just likes the Grateful Dead, he’s not about to go join a commune.”
“He’s a bad influence. He turning you against haircuts?”
“Pops,” Mike says, because his hair isn’t really that long at all, and he keeps it neat. “I’ll cut my hair when I have to for a job, but not before. Okay?”
“Hm,” Will Hanlon says, but it’s been a few long years since he’s ever actually tried to stop Mike doing something he wanted to.
“Bill! Dinner!” Mike calls, and then Bill opens the door before the words are even out of his mouth.
“Christ, Mike, I s-saw you coming,” Bill says, and pulls Mike roughly inside by his shirt collar.
“I look okay?” Bill says, standing still the middle of the little room. There’s barely any sun getting in through the tiny little caravan window but Bill is illuminated by it. Mike takes the time to just look.
“Well? Should I tie my h…hair up?”
“Your hair’s fine.”
“Well, no,” Mike says, tucking a strand of it behind Bill’s ear. “But it’s beyond fixing.”
“Gr…great,” Bill says, but he’s smiling.
“C’mon,” Mike says, and he kisses Bill chastely on the mouth, and pulls him out the door.
Dinner is mostly good. About ten minutes in, Mike forgets to feel like a closeted homosexual covertly sneaking his boyfriend into the house under the guise of employment and just starts feeling back at home. Bill has a tense little line between his eyebrows, so he’s probably not having as great of a time, but he stops clenching his utensils like they’re gonna jump out of his hands, so that’s a start. He also seems deeply opposed to saying any other words than “thank you” and “yes, sir,” but then – baby steps.
Mike stands to get the dishes when everyone’s finishing up, and Bill stands too, and Mike’s heart goes kinda funny just from being next to him; watching Bill’s hands in his parents’ sink. He glances over to the table, where his parents are watching, too. The closet starts to creep back up. He wants to put his hand on the small of Bill’s back. He wants his father to stop looking at him. He feels ashamed, and then guilty for feeling ashamed, and then kind of guilty for feeling guilty, since it’s not like he’s the one who made them put homosexuality in the DSM-I.
He wants Bill to tell him to get out of his own head, but Bill’s busy frowning down at one of his mother’s favorite plates. It’s got a pattern of strawberries on it.
I think I’m freaking out, Mike’s mind politely informs him.
Jessica Hanlon is an angel, or maybe she’s got telepathic mind powers, or maybe she’s just a good mother; because she comes up to Mike and takes the glass he’s drying right out of his hands.
“Now, your father and I can finish up here, you boys don’t need to do that.” She smiles up at him; he’s been taller than her since he was fourteen years old.
“Ma, we’re not twelve, we’re not gonna go play –”
“Listen to your mother,” his father says from the table, and Mike says, “Well, okay –”
There’s a little laugh behind him. He turns, surprised, to see Bill watching him, Bill watching them – his family. Smiling, Jessica takes the plate from Bill.
“Go on now,” she says, so they do.
“I’ll show you the barn,” Mike says, once they’re outside. His heart-rate is up.
“O-okay,” Bill says, easily. He shoves his hands in his pants pockets and keeps sending little glances over to Mike that Mike’s pretending he doesn’t see.
“Your parents are good people,” Bill says.
“Yeah, they are.” Mike’s hands are sweating. “You can speak actual words in front of them, you know. They don’t bite.”
“Mm. Mikey, y...you okay?”
“I’m fine,” Mike says. “Why wouldn’t I be fine?”
They make it to the barn. There’s no need to go in, but Mike opens the door anyway. He steps inside and he lights the little lantern that still hangs on the hook exactly how he remembers it always having done.
“This is the primary barn,” he says. “Uh...in the morning we’ll come back here and I’ll show you everything, I guess.” He’s trying to keep his voice steady, but halfway through his sentence, he fails.
“Mike, you’re crying,” Bill says, softly.
“I know,” Mike says. He scrubs a hand down his face. “Damn. Sorry, I – I don’t know why –”
Bill grabs at his hand and holds it, rubbing circles into the back of his palm.
“I really didn’t think I’d react like this,” Mike says, and then he laughs a little bit. It’s kind of choked, but that’s alright. “I don’t know. Watching them watch us…” I will never have the life they want for me.
“Y…you think they…?”
“Do I think they know we’re together? No, I don’t. That’s part of the problem, I guess.”
Bill doesn’t say anything, but he keeps rubbing at the little bones in Mike’s hand; his fingertips pressing into the tendons and muscles.
“When did I become unknowable to my own parents?” Mike says. He hadn’t even realized that that’s was the problem is, but as soon as he says it, he thinks, Oh.
“When you grew up, probably,” Bill says. “I m-mean, you don’t luh-live with them anymore…”
“I guess,” Mike says. “Shit, I don’t know how to say all that I mean.”
“I don’t mean to dump all my angst on you.”
“’Cause I’ve n-never done that to you…”
Mike smiles a little. He loops an arm around Bill’s shoulders.
“I’m glad you’re here, though. As surreal as it was seeing you holding my mom’s favorite set of plates.”
“The strawberry ones?”
“Yeah,” Mike says. He kisses the side of Bill’s head.
“I like ‘em.”
In the darkness of the barn; in its dirty familiarity, Mike feels a little safer.
“Maybe I’m deluding myself,” he finds himself saying, softly, after a moment. Bill’s back and shoulders are warm underneath his arm; he doesn’t wanna let go, so he’s not going to. “Maybe they do know. My pops doesn’t ask so much after girls anymore. Goddammit, I don’t know.”
“If you don’t know, I certainly don’t,” Bill says. He reaches up and grasp Mike’s hand where it’s curled on his upper arm. “I j…just met ‘em.”
“Your parents don’t know about you.”
Bill laughs shortly. “Of course not.”
“Sorry.” There’s quite a few things that the Denbroughs have failed to notice about their son.
“I think about telling my mom, sometimes,” Bill says. “T-to see if it gets a r-reaction, I guess.”
“Don’t know that that’s a good idea,” Mike says. He presses his face into Bill’s hair and then he feels weird about it; uncertain and shy in a way he hasn’t been since he first started sleeping with men three years ago. He lets go of Bill and takes a step away from him. He wrings his hands together then lets go; shoves them into his pockets.
“Who cares?” Bill says, softly. “I’m…I’m n-never living with them again.”
“That’s good. You don’t owe them anything.”
“It’s different for you, though.”
“I just wanna make them happy,” Mike says, helplessly. “Or, shit, I don’t know, I at least don’t want to make them sad.”
“They l…love you so much, Mikey. God. You can see it. I d-don’t think you could make them sad.”
“Yes, I could,” Mike says, and he’s starting to feel it again, the prick of tears in his eyes. Bill takes a step towards him, one hand raised, and Mike has to step away.
“Shit,” Mike says. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s alright,” Bill says, and he drops his hand. His head is cocked gently to one side, considering, and Mike is thinking of every moment of their relationship, from the day they met to this.
Bill kissing him in the dark alley behind a bar while rain sleets down around them; Bill lingering outside his Philosophy classroom, ready to talk Levinas with him even though he hasn’t read him. That first time he’d brought Bill back to his dorm room, the one on the university circle that he’d fought so hard to get; and he’d only meant for them to write together but he’d watched Bill on the quilt he’d brought from home and he’d felt like crawling out of his damn skin so they spent an hour necking instead, like sex-starved teenagers. Bill smoking under a tree on the circle on a sunny day, watching grad students walk by and guessing their research interests while Mike laughed and sketched school buildings for that art elective that he didn’t even know why he’d taken. They’ve been together for less than a year but in this moment, he feels like they’ve known each other for one hundred years; for a lifetime.
He can’t picture a future for himself that doesn’t have Bill in it. Oh God, how terrifying. This is why he’s tried not to think about it.
“I,” he starts to say, and immediately doesn’t know where that sentence is going. “Damn. I’m sorry. Really. I think I need to go inside.”
“Alright,” Bill says again. Mike can’t really read anything in his gaze. Bill shrugs his shoulders and puts his hands in his pockets, mirroring Mike’s posture. Now they’re just two men standing several feet apart from each other in a dark barn. It’s so stupid.
“Good night, Bill,” Mike says. “I’ll…walk you back to the caravan.”
That gets a little smile. Toothless, though; if Bill’s really happy he shows teeth.
“What a gentleman.”
“I try.” Neither of them have taken their hands out of their pockets. Mike has to, to turn off the lantern. The sun’s gone down as they were talking, but the moon is approaching fullness so it’s easy enough to see. Bill stands patiently in the overgrown grass and waits for Mike to compose himself. Together they walk back to the caravan, and Bill lets Mike remain a few steps ahead of him without comment.
“Sleep well,” Mike says, as Bill is standing on the steps up to the door. “Okay?”
“Yeah,” Bill says. “Y-you too. Good night, Mikey.” There’s a tension there that’s undeniable, but there’s an understanding that has passed between them, too. They’re both adrift. As Mike walks back to his parents' house, he doesn’t look behind him at the caravan. Instead, he looks up at the sky, at the stars and moon and the nearly-out-of-sight planets.
If he has dreams that night, he doesn’t remember them. It’s a nice change from his school-nervous dreams about missing classes or unfriendly schoolmates. Sometimes he dreams about Bill, but usually only when he’s missing him, and there’s no reason to miss him when he’s so near.
Mike watches Bill watch the sheep pass through the little wooden gate of the field. “It’s easy enough,” he says. “Mostly we’re just waiting around for them to be ready. Ewes have been giving birth on their own for centuries. We’re just here to help them along.”
“Sure,” Bill says. His hair is blowing in the wind, obscuring his eyes from Mike’s curious gaze. Mike is suddenly grateful that it’s just the two of them; his father is resting at home where he belongs. It’s reassuring that he can give his parents this chance to sleep and to laze around and to heal. The selfish-guilty feeling of doing it with Bill drops off in times like these.
Mike pulls the lamb from her mother and clears the birth-residue from her mouth; all the while talking through it so Bill knows what he’s doing. Bill watches with a wide-eyed look, and Mike remembers what it’s like, that very first time – the first time you see new life being birthed. Doesn’t matter that it’s a beast instead of a person; it’s always something miraculous and amazing and dirty and strange.
“Touch her,” he says, and Bill puts a hand on her womb-wet fur.
“Wh…what am I feeling?” Bill asks, and Mike’s heart is beating out a crazed rhythm that he can’t get under control.
“Life, I guess,” he says. “Brand new life. Birth. Another step in the cycle.” He knows he sounds almost religious as he says it, and the truth is that he never feels more faithful than when he’s got his hands on a newborn and he’s there, participating in the godly act of nature’s destiny.
He feels Bill’s eyes on him, his gaze steady, but Bill doesn’t say anything. Sometimes there’s nothing to say; no words big enough.
He watches Bill’s hands on the newborn calf; Bill’s slender fingers curved around the calf’s thin legs and she’s small – not a runt but small, and Mike watches as Bill rubs breath into the calf’s chest just as Mike has so many times; and Bill is so gentle; he takes good care of her. Mike shouldn’t concern himself with watching; he’s got his own job to do; but Bill’s hands are so familiar to him that to see them turned to this task is foreign and scintillating.
Bill is too focused on the animal under his hands to notice he’s being watched; eventually the calf wriggles underneath his grip and he breathes a sigh of relief, lets her stand up on unsteady legs.
“That was good,” Mike says, because he doesn’t know what else to say, he doesn’t know how else to express the words in his heart right now. “You handled that well.”
“Just like you taught me,” Bill says, voice low and rough, and he turns his face towards Mike’s, and the fire-light flickers off his eyes.
Mike reaches out and presses his thumb to Bill’s chin, his index finger dipping to touch Bill’s neck.
“Did I?” he says.
“Sure,” Bill says. Mike feels the tendons flex under his chin as he swallows.
Mike’s heart is pounding in his chest and his mind’s got that odd buzzing, restless feeling, like he’s drunk, only he hasn’t had a single drop of alcohol. There’s nothing for it; he leans in and he presses their mouths together. It should be the same as every other kiss they’re shared, but it isn’t, because – because they’re on his parents’ farm; because they should be working; because he just saw Bill usher new life into the world and maybe that makes him feel like his mind is gonna overflow.
“Hi, Mikey,” Bill breathes, when Mike sits back on his heels.
“Sorry,” Mike says. “That was inappropriate.”
“W-was it?” Bill says. One eyebrow arches up. “But I g-guess those times in your dorm were –”
“You don’t have to call me on it,” Mike says, and then he kisses Bill again, and then one more time, and he holds the kiss until they both run out of breath. And then he stands up.
“Work to do,” he says. From where he’s still on his knees in the dirt, Bill smiles up at him. It’s a genuine Bill-smile, with his teeth peeking out. Mike grips his own wrist to feel the thrum of his own pulse, but the too-fast race of it does little to calm him. He has to turn on his heel and walk away. He checks each ewe in a slow and methodical manner and when he’s done he walks back over and sees Bill leaned up against the stone wall blocking them in, smoking.
“I thought you agreed not to smoke on my parents’ property,” Mike says, leaning up beside him. The rocks press into his back and side, but the mild pain of it feels almost good.
“Did I s-say that?” Bill exhales a slow stream of smoke.
“You know I don’t like this habit of yours,” Mike says, but he turns and presses his forehead into the curve of Bill’s collarbone.
“I know,” Bill says.
“It’s unhealthy. You seen the latest articles?”
“You…you know I h-haven’t.”
Mike sighs into his chest. “Well, it is.” He pulls himself upright. It’s a cool night out and the full moon is gorgeous in the sky above them. At school, the stars are still present, but out here – out here they look bright and close enough to reach out and touch.
Bill doesn’t say anything, but he stubs out the cigarette on the stones behind him.
“Thank you,” Mike says, into the night sky and not to the man beside him at all.
“S-sure,” Bill says. They don’t talk about it. In the distance, a lamb cries out for her mother.
It’s five in the afternoon and the day’s work is mostly done but there’s a few hours of daylight left. Mike’s mind has been wandering all day; jumping from thought to thought with little rhyme or reason. He needs to slow himself down.
“Billy,” he says, and Bill looks up from where he’s checking the paints for marking the sheep. It’s nothing important, Bill is just killing time. (Might as well kill it doing something more fun, right?)
“I like to drive around sometimes,” Mike says. “Not in town, but out a ways…I don’t know. Guess I just think it’s nice to see. You can roll down the windows.”
“You w-wanna go for a drive?” Bill says, a little nonplussed. “Now?”
“Nothing better to do, is there?”
“G-guess not,” Bill says, with the little smile he gets when he’s humoring Mike. Or maybe ‘humoring’ is the wrong word; too uncharitable towards Bill – it’s just that that little smile, one side higher than the other, is a smile he’s only seen Bill use when it’s something to do with himself. A This is Mike’s thing smile, maybe. He’s probably got a smile like that for Bill’s things, too.
He doesn’t say anything to his parents because he’s an adult man and doesn’t need to and also they’ll be back by dinner. And maybe because if he doesn’t tell them it feels almost like sneaking out of the house, which is something he never did as a teenager. He doesn’t say this aloud but he suspects Bill senses it all the same. Mike swings himself into the driver’s seat and he cranks all the windows down. It’s mostly a still day, but there’s some clouds off in the distance he thinks might give them trouble later.
“Storm’s a-coming,” he says.
Bill looks up from the little collection of eight-track tapes in the center column. “Yeah?” He glances out the window with an untrained eye. “D-don’t see it.”
“It might pass us,” Mike says. He’s humming a little to himself. Nervous energy or excited energy, he’s not sure which.
He looks over; Bill’s grinning now.
“I’m already here, I don’t need my ‘I’m homesick’ music,” Mike says. He reached over and pushes Bill’s hair back where it’s falling in front of his eyes. “We can listen to the Dead, if you want.”
“No, I want something nuh…nostalgic.”
They listen to the Four Tops. The quality’s so bad Mike gets the opposite of homesick and misses Bill’s record player, but he hums along all the same. When he looks over, Bill’s head is pressed back against the seat, his eyes closed. Mike smiles to himself. With the windows down he can feel that there’s a slight breeze picking up, but the gray is still a ways away in the sky. Plenty of time.
He drives far enough that the farmlands get bigger and then drop off; so there’s nothing but open land. When he passes the old train-tracks, he pulls over in a little gravel turn-around.
“Always used to stop here, when I was younger,” he says. “I’d just sit out here and listen to the radio. And think about things, I guess. Sometimes I’d bring my notebook. I’d draw sketches of the worn-down buildings around. Not good ones, I’m not that artistic.”
“Aw,” Bill says, “I b-bet they were decent. You gonna draw out here again?”
“Didn’t bring my notebook. Did you?”
“Nah.” Bill props his feet up on the dash, lighting a cigarette. Mike watches the gathering clouds. They’re definitely getting closer, now.
"Still think she'll h-hit us?" Bill asks, blowing smoke in a long stream out the window.
"The storm?" Mike says. He's distracted from the conversation by the curve of Bill's face. "Yeah, I do."
Bill just nods a little to himself at that.
"Looks nice," he says, after a little while. "Stormy weather is…pretty, too. You know?”
Mike's so damn tense in his skin. The drive was supposed to calm him but he can barely sit still.
"Bill," he says, abruptly. "Put out your cig."
"Huh?" Bill says. "Why?"
"'Cause I wanna kiss you," Mike says.
Bill turns towards him. Mike can hardly see his eyes, but he can see the little smile that curves up his face.
"Yeah?" he says. "Well you don't have an ashtray. I was gonna smoke it d-down."
Mike bites his lip. Aw, Hell. He leans over the central column and plucks the cigarette from Bill's hand. Bill gasps, and laughs, and Mike curves his other hand around the back of Bill's neck and pulls him in. Bill's mouth is already open when they come together; he's warm and loose and tastes like his cheap cigarettes. Mike forces his frantic body to go slow, mouthing and sucking at Bill's mouth, his lips.
"Mikey," Bill says, "You're g-gonna burn –"
Mike looks at the cigarette in his fingers; true enough the ember is close to his skin. He holds the stub to his mouth and takes a long drag. It tastes stale and mildly unpleasant, without the warmth of Bill's mouth. He rubs out what's left in one of the cup-holders.
"H-hey," Bill says. "That w...was mine." He's grinning, though.
"Told you I didn’t like it," Mike says, and Bill laughs, his eyes squinted tight in amusement, and Mike kisses him again because how could he not.
The central column keeps getting in their way and Mike is still buzzing with reckless energy. "Get out of the car," he says.
"What?" Bill says, breathless.
"Don't you want to?"
"Mike," Bill says, and he's asking for something alright.
Mike climbs out of the truck. He walks around to Bill's side and opens the door. Bill stares at him.
"I opened the door for you," Mike says. "Like a gentleman."
"You are n-not acting like a gentleman today," Bill says, but he takes Mike's proffered hand and hops out. They climb into the bed and Mike lays out a blanket.
"We don't have to do anything," Mike says. "I don't have any...supplies. I just wanted to touch you."
"I want to touch you, too," is all Bill says, and then he does, which, it turns out, exactly what Mike wanted, exactly what the nervous energy in his body was waiting for.
Mike doesn't wanna make a fool of himself and he really doesn't have anything on him, not even a washcloth to clean himself off so eventually he groans, and plucks Bill's hands off his waist. Bill laughs a little and tucks his head in close to Mike's chest.
"You started it," Bill says.
"I know, I know. Shaddup." He manhandles Bill closer and they lay back together, their heated bodies pressed against each other. They watch the sky, where lightning starts to spark in the distance. They watch her dance until, finally, they hear thunder, and a gentle sprinkle of rain starts up.
Bill reaches a hand up to where a raindrop splattered across his nose. "There she is," he says. "Coming our way. Guess you were r...right."
"I'm always right," Mike says, sitting up. "Let's go home."
They do, and they beat the storm, if only barely. Mike has half a mind to invite Bill into bed with him, nervous to leave him in the trailer if things get too ferocious, but the brave recklessness has finally dissipated.
"Come inside if it gets rough, okay?" He says, instead, and Bill nods and then yawns.
"Good night, Mikey," he says, and Mike kisses him and watches him disappear through the doorway. He retreats upstairs; washes his face and brushes his teeth, and then when he settles into bed he watches the lightning flashes creep closer until sleep takes him.
Spring is known for her storms. Mike’s known that for as long as he can remember. Longer, even. April showers bring May flowers; every schoolkid knows it. Three in one week, though, that’s odd. He’s pretending very aggressively that he doesn’t think it’s some sort of omen.
“I…it always l-like this?” Bill says. He’s pushing his hair back off his forehead; he’s as soaked-through as Mike is; his gray t-shirt plastered to his chest. It’s not even particularly attractive; he looks like he’s about to drown; which is how Mike feels, too.
“Christ,” Mike says. He keeps trying to wipe the rain from his eyes, but his hands are soaked too so it’s not like it’s doing much. “No, actually, it’s not – c’mon, let’s get inside –” The animals are safe – as safe as they can be, anyway – and there’s simply not much else they can do.
“Looks like you boys had fun out there,” Jessica Hanlon says when they walk in the door. She’s got towels in one hand, though, so she’s forgiven for laughing at them. “Boots off!” She scolds, when Mike reaches for one, and he groans and obeys.
Over dinner – Bill’s got a towel around his neck, his hair not dried yet – his mother puts down her fork and shares A Look with his father. Mike glances back and forth between the two of them, a little warily.
“Momma?” he prompts, eventually.
“Well,” she says. “You know your father has an appointment down the road a bit.” Fluent as he is in Jessica-Hanlon-speech, Mike knows she means the next city over. It’s more than a bit down the road, in fact.
“Your mother’s trying to say that she’s worried about the weather,” his father says. His voice sounds rough; he’s not talked much today. “We’re thinking maybe of heading up the day before and staying over.”
Mike nods. “Sure, if you’d think that’s be best. Gotta keep you safe, Pops.”
“Don’t you baby me, Michael Hanlon.”
Mike grins. “Sorry, Pops.”
“Insolent,” Will Hanlon says, but there’s not bite to it.
“But what about everything here?” his mother cuts back in. “With the weather…I don’t know want to leave it to just you two boys…”
“Momma,” Mike says, exasperated. “This is why you had me bring someone home, remember? Bill and I will be fine.”
Bill’s been quiet the whole dinner, but when they all turn to look him, he shrugs, and says, “Y-yeah, of course.”
Jessica purses her lips. “Will you ask the neighbors for help if you can’t control the sheep?”
“We won’t need help,” Mike says. “But yes, Ma. Promise.”
That gets her to smile. “Thank you, Michael.”
As it turns out, they don’t need the neighbors help, because the sheep are already safe by the time the storm hits. Past midnight, Mike wakes up the sound of rain battering at the roof. When he stands to look out his window, he sees that the ground is soaked; the drainage ditch flooded. And Bill’s off in a tiny damn caravan.
He tries to flick the light by his bed on, but nothing happens. “Shit,” he says aloud into the darkness.
"Bill!" he says, minutes later, a useless lantern in one hand; the rain and wind battering him through his rainslicker. He pounds on the door. "Billy!"
Eventually, Bill opens up. "Mikey?" he says, blearily. "Wh…it’s the m-middle of the n-night...the storm…"
"Bill, it's bad," Mike says, and shoves his way into the doorway. "Power's out. You'll be flooded out in the next couple of hours if this keeps up – pack anything important up, I'm not leaving you out here."
"Well, shit," Bill says, staring at him, but he listens right away, tossing his few belongings into his duffel. He pulls his boots on over his pajama trousers and straightens to look at Mike.
"All boarded up. We can't do much else. They'll have to ride it out just like us."
Bill nods, and lets Mike pull him close as they stand in the doorway. Mike tosses the spare poncho over Bill's shoulders and says, "Hold on to me, okay?"
Bill doesn't even try to make a joke out if it; he just balls his fist into the back of Mike's coat. Mike pulls him out and they run, not very quickly because it's awkward as Hell with the two of them at different heights and Bill carrying his bag. He tears open the front door like a man possessed and Bill bounds in after him, gasping for breath and laughing a little.
"Christ, Bill, this is not funny," Mike says, but then he's laughing a little, too.
"Mikey, l...look at m-me! I'm fucking drenched through in m-my pajamas!" And he is. His boots and pants are muddied up to the knee, and his hair is plastered to his forehead, and his borrowed poncho is dripping everywhere.
Mike reaches out and wipes Bill's hair out of his eyes. Mostly it just sticks to the sides of his face instead, but it's still an upgrade.
"Hey," he says, and his voice has gone odd and kinda soft. "Uh. Did your mom ever tell you not to shower during storms?"
Bill laughs again, vibrantly. "Y-yeah. I-is it true?"
"No idea, but if we don't get cleaned up soon we won't have any hot water till the power comes back."
Bill peels the sodden poncho off himself and grins up at Mike. "Let's risk it," he says, faux-solemn.
Mike lets Bill takes the first shower, and then about one minute later he feels kind of stupid because for once they’re not in a dorm with shared showers and his parents are miles and miles away. He knocks on the bathroom door.
“Yeah?” Bill’s voice is muffled through the door, but there’s no water running yet.
“Can I come in?”
Bill opens the door very shortly after this statement.
“Christ, Mikey,” he says. He’s only half-undressed; shirtless and barefoot but his trousers are done up. “Thought you’d n-never fucking ask.”
“I’m an idiot,” Mike says. “Just feels weird. This is my parent’s house!”
“Your house, too,” Bill says, and he drags Mike in for a kiss, sloppy and eager.
“Hello to you, too,” Mike says. Bill pushes him back until his back is up against the rough wood of the bathroom door. He knows every inch of this little room; familiar as always, no matter how many little changes his mother makes. God, this is weird. Scandalous.
He grips at Bill’s neck, and then his shoulders, and then pushes him back.
“You’re dirty,” he says. He can hear the rain on the roof, still so loud with no sign of slowing. “Me too. Let’s hurry up and get clean so we can get dirty again.” He definitely feels his face heat as he says it, and Bill laughs.
“F-fair enough,” he says. He grins as he undoes his belt. “One at a time, or –”
“Ugh,” Mike says, because the bath really isn’t big enough for two people, but there’s no real shame in trying, is there?
Thunder cracks, loud, when they finally make it into Mike’s bedroom.
“Fuck,” Bill says, crossing to look out the window. “Shit, th-that’s…a helluva storm.”
“I know,” Mike says, adjusting the lantern. Neither of them bothered to get dressed; Bill’s got a borrowed towel around his waist and that’s it. “Nothing we can do about it, though. C’mere.”
When Bill gets close enough Mike grips him ‘round the waist and manhandles them both onto his childhood bed. Bill laughs into Mike’s chest; both of them are naked now, just bare flesh on Mike’s quilt.
Bill shivers a little; the storm is bringing with her cool air. Mike traces a finger down his chest.
“It’s like three in the morning,” Mike says. “We should sleep.” The adrenaline of his rush through the rain is starting to wear off, and he’s tired.
“You’re no fun,” Bill says, but he yawns right after he says it so it’s not particularly convincing.
“You’re right,” Mike says, and rolls off the bed to pull on boxers and his sleep-shirt. Bill groans, but he grabs at his own duffel.
“Guess your pajamas are done for,” Mike says. Bill leaves it at briefs. “Yeah, it’s tragic.” He crawls across the too-small bed and straddles Mike – it’s too much skin-on-skin where their thighs touch, and Mike groans.
“N-night, Mikey,” Bill says, sweetly and cheekily, and cups Mike’s face with both hands as he kisses him. Two can play the temptation game, though, and Mike pinches at one of Bill’s exposed nipples until he yelps.
“Good-night, Billy,” Mike says, and Bill climbs off him, running a hand down his own chest.
“Mean,” he says.
“I’ll use my teeth tomorrow,” Mike says, tossing back the covers and beckoning Bill under. Bill obeys, if reluctantly.
“If you want it to be.”
“I do,” Bill says, though he’s yawning again, and pulling the covers up and over his chin. “Mm. Night.”
“But first thing tomorrow is we gotta pick up the aftermath of the storm,” Mike says. “Or, in a few hours, I guess.” This is still nice, though, he thinks, and he flops one hand over Bill’s shoulders because he might as well take what he can get. Bill doesn’t say anything, but as Mike watches him he nods sleepily. Lightning flashes close enough for Mike to see the pale curves of Bill’s face, but the thunder that sounds after it is farther away; the storm finally starting to move on.
They wake again, maybe four hours later. It’s late – not objectively, but by farm standards it is, and Mike groans as he drags himself out of bed. Bill is still hidden under the covers, only a messy splay of brown hair revealing his presence.
Mike tugs gently at the blankets, but Bill’s cocooned himself in them pretty tightly.
“Morning,” he says, to his lover’s sleeping form. “Bill?”
Bill mutters something, still mostly asleep, and then he burrows so deep in the covers that even his hair can’t be seen.
Mike is tired too, but he laughs a little.
“Billy,” he says, insistently, leaning in close. “Wake up. Time for work.”
He has to say it a few times, before a hand reaches out and grasps at him.
“Yeah,” Mike tells Bill’s exploring fingers, “Time to get up, lazybones.”
“Ugh,” Bill says, but he flips the covers back far enough that Mike can finally make eye-contact.
Bill surprises him by smiling up at him, and it’s a genuine smile. One side of his mouth hitching higher, revealing his teeth. Mike grins back, before he’s even realizing what his face is doing. There’s some weird excitement in the air, something he doesn’t usually feel preceding labor, but maybe there’s something different about working when it’s like this; when it’s with someone he loves and when it’s for people he loves.
“Things to do,” Mike says, not bothering to hide his sudden elation. He pulls Bill up by his shoulders and kisses him firmly on the mouth. “It’s probably real nasty outside. Wear clothes you don’t like.”
“That’s all I brought,” Bill says, and he’s grinning too. “I look like the sort of man who wears a suit and tie?”
“You wore a suit at commencement,” Mike protests.
“It’s the o-only one I own!” Bill says, laughing, and Mike groans, performatively put-out.
“You’ll be the death of me,” he says, fondly, pulling on his coveralls. “You will, Billy.”
Bill smiles, and climbs out of bed.
“I hope not,” he says, soft as a feather pillow, and Mike kisses him once more, for good measure.
By noon, they’re both mud-coated and sweat-drenched, but the Hanlon farm is safe. Mike was expecting casualties among the youngest lambs, but it’s a little miraculous – not a single one dead. One ewe had a nasty scrape on one of her front limbs, probably from the panic in the flood, and Mike watches Bill kneel in the mud beside her to clean it out. Mike wraps her up in gauze and they hope for the best. Sometimes that’s all one can do.
Mike takes them on a perimeter walk to check for broken fences. There’s a gate left ajar and bent by the wind, and it takes both of them about twenty rough minutes to get it back in place.
“Fuck,” Bill pants, hands on his knees. “M…maybe you should’ve got someone bigger to help.”
“We managed,” Mike says, panting a little himself but feeling that same elation he’s felt since waking up in bed beside Bill. He gives Bill a comradely slap on the back.
“Come on. Let’s get cleaned off.”
Bill looks at him curiously when Mike heads off away from the house, but he follows without complaint. The stream is running faster and higher from the rain, but the old swimming hole from Mike’s childhood is still spinning slow and wide. Mike undoes the tops of his coveralls.
“Well?” he says, grinning back at Bill. “You scared of a little cold water?” The midday sun is high and proud above them, and he’s already sweating, but the water will still be a shock to his system.
“Scared?” Bill says. He cocks one eyebrow and sheds his jacket. “N-no, don’t think so. Just because I didn’t grow up on a f-farm doesn’t mean I never played in the…woods.” He looks for a moment like he’s going to say something else, and Mike so seldom hears Bill talk about his childhood that he lets the moment ride out, patient, trying to keep his face gentle.
“With Georgie,” is all Bill says, and then he pulls his t-shirt over his head. Mike lets the sentence go un-remarked on, but he feels flattered and pleased that Bill said it to him at all.
They strip down to their bottom-most layers, and Mike grins as he watches Bill’s face turn mildly trepidatious the closer he walks to the water’s edge.
“Here, Billy, watch, I’ll go first,” he teases, and then it’s delightfully easier to jump off the rock nearest the water.
Sure it’s cold but his overheated body delights in it; he’s tucked up his limbs into a makeshift cannonball but the water’s deep enough he doesn’t even have to worry all that much about hitting the bottom. He lets himself slip under, then straightens and stands, shivering a little and shaking water out of his eyes.
Bill is kneeling on the rock where Mike was just before, watching. There’s an odd look on his face that Mike can’t quite parse.
“You coming in or what?” Mike says.
“Or what,” Bill says. He sits on the rock and dangles his feet into the water. Mike watches the shudder go up his spine. “Ooh, that i-is cold.”
“That’s why you have to jump in all at once,” Mike says, wading over. He puts his wet hands on Bill’s skinny knees. “Get it over with. Your body reacts quicker then.”
“Is that science?” Whatever brief tenseness that was on Bill’s face has passed now. He smiles and sets one hand in Mike’s wet hair and the other on his neck.
“Ew,” Mike says, wrinkling his nose. “You’re covered in sweat and dirt.”
“You smell like river-water,” Bill says in return, and Mike can’t argue with that, but the truth is that he’s always loved that earthy, mossy scent.
Bill leans down to kiss Mike but Mike grins, steps back, his practiced feet steady on the wet stones – you can take the boy off the farm but not the farm outta the boy – “Hey now, not unless you wanna join me.”
“You are s…so damn stubborn,” Bill says, but he’s grinning, too, and as Mike steps out of his reach Bill heaves himself off the rock with his arms, sliding under the water in one fluid movement. He rises and shakes back the soaked mop of his hair, and grips Mike’s chin in one hand.
“Well, I guess now you’ve earned it,” Mike says.
“You guess?” Bill says, and kisses him, one, twice, three times.
“Do I taste like a river, too?” Mike says, when they break for air.
“Yup,” Bill says, and then kisses him once more, as if to confirm.
Mike feels a playful buzz underneath his skin; he should probably be tired from the previous night but he isn’t; he’s too excited and he’s too happy. He takes a step back and splashes at Bill. Bill rolls his eyes but soon enough he’s splashing back. Mike swats bigger and bigger waves his way until Bill laughs out loud, says, “Wh-what are you, twelve?”
Mike just grins, pouncing at Bill in one swift moment and pressing down at his shoulders. Bill goes down easily, still laughing, and then they’re both underwater. Mike flicks his eyes open briefly, just long enough to see his own hands on Bill’s body; see the way that Bill is reaching for him, too. They both rise at the same time, and Mike wipes water from his stinging eyes. Now that his body’s cooled with the river, the midday sun feels gentle-warm on his skin.
Bill leans back in the water, spreading his arms and legs to keep himself afloat. He closes his eyes against the sunlight.
“Nice dead man’s float,” Mike says, treading water. “Hey, I guess I should’ve asked if you could swim.”
Bill disrupts his float with a short laugh, turning his idleness into a lazy backstroke. There’s not enough space to swim proper, but Mike follows after him, relishing the stretch of his muscles. It feels good. Being with Bill, and being at his childhood home – they both feel good.
After a lazy half-hour Mike climbs out of the swimming hole and stands, barefoot and shivering, on the same stones he’s known his whole life. Sure, they’re different – tossed around or weathered down by time and running water – but there’s something there, something genuinely old. The metaphorical implications are ready for the taking, but he’s not feeling metaphors at the moment, just a plain and simple nostalgia. Bill climbs out after him, covering a yawn with one hand. Mike smiles.
“Hey,” he says, pulling his dirty clothes back on, “Let’s eat something before we tackle the rest of the day.”
Bill nods, easy, as he drags his t-shirt back over his head. Mike watches the way the wet fabric clings to his chest and sides, and leans in to steal one more kiss.
His parents arrive past sundown. He and Bill have already eaten; Mike is wiping down the dinner table as Bill washes the dishes. Jessica Hanlon knocks on the door; Mike would recognize her cheery patter anywhere.
“How’d it go?” he says, pulling the door open. His parents look tired, but calm.
“Another doc, another drug they want you to try,” his father says, grouchily, but his mother laughs, so Mike takes that as it went well.
“Did you boys already eat?” his mother asks, sweeping back into her home turf. “Oh, I see you’re doing the washing up.”
Bill smiles at her, only a little awkwardly, and Mike watches as they work easily and quietly around each other; his mother setting up the stove as Bill dries the last of their plates.
“Momma, are you frying an egg at nine in the evening?” Mike ventures, curiously.
“That motel,” his mother says with a certain darkness in her voice, “had terrible breakfasts. Your father and I have suffered and I am going to make up for it.”
“Hear, hear!” his father calls from the living room. Mike laughs, and his mother pulls a wrapped package of bacon from the fridge.
It’s nice. It was nice to share with Bill, but it’s nice to have his parents back, too. Bill slinks away after the last of the plates are put away, and Mike watches him carefully pull the front door shut behind him. When he turns back around, his mother has noticed too.
“He knows he doesn’t have to run off, right?” she says. The bacon sizzles in the pan. “Your father and I were going to play cards after we eat, you two could’ve joined us.”
“I’ll play, Momma,” Mike says, moving to start setting their places. “Bill’s probably just tired. We were cleaning up after the storm all day.”
His mother smiles. “I was trying not to be worried, hearing the rain and wind howl all night. But I knew we left the place in good hands.”
Mike smiles. “Yeah, well, you did.”
His even ends on a mildly sour note, and it’s not his mother’s fault, but his heart is racing nervously in his chest as he climbs the stairs to his bedroom.
Really would be nice to have a fourth person, she’d said, and Mike had thought she was still talking about Bill, until she said, You sure there’s no girl that’s caught your eye yet, Michael? No one in any of your classes?
Yeah, Mike thinks desperately. I met him in my Introduction to Mythology class, just some random silly elective I took, but there was this one guy, this one fella…
“Momma, I’ll tell you when I meet a girl, okay?” he says, placatingly.
She raises a skeptical eyebrow. “Will you, though? You’re awful quiet about your personal life. You never told me about any of your little girlfriends in high school.”
This was true, but largely because he had not actually had any girlfriends in high school, despite his best efforts. He was fairly sure the female friends he’d tried to date had known he wasn’t actually attracted to them, but he’s always wondered if they knew why that was the case.
In the end, it’s his pops that saves him. “Jessie, leave the poor boy alone. He’ll tell us when he’s ready to, won’t he?”
Mike smiles gratefully at him. “’Course.” His father nods, as if that settles it. His mother frowns, pouting a little bit.
“I just mean you can bring her around, baby. If you want to.”
“Sure, Ma,” he says. “But there’s no one right now, I swear it.”
It’s a half-lie, but maybe God forgives those.
Mike’s bed isn’t really big enough for two people, but it still feels empty to sleep in it alone.
“I’m sorry about your mother,” William Hanlon says, the next morning, and Mike’s heart plummets immediately into his stomach.
“Hm?” he says, vaguely. His father is sitting on a closed barrel watching Mike muck the barn. He’s fiddling with a broken lantern, and Mike has a child’s confidence that his father will fix it.
“Don’t play dumb. I know she pushes you too much, about girls.”
“Oh,” Mike says. He doesn’t turn around. He packs fresh hay into the dark corner where it’s safe to look. “It’s fine, she’s just looking out for me. And I appreciate the support.”
Will Hanlon makes a considering noise. “You know,” he says, and when Mike risks a glance back he’s focused on the lantern. “I remember when you were real little, you had this friend. Her name was Carole. You remember her?”
Mike nods. “Vaguely? We knew her from church, right?”
“Yeah. Little white girl. Dark hair and glasses. I’m thinking of her, I guess, because her mother used to joke about you two. How you were gonna grow up and date.”
Mike swallows around the lump in his throat.
“I remember telling your mother I didn’t think that was the case. Jess agreed, said you were too young for it. But when I was that age I was already pulling at girls' pigtails, you know? Flirting. But maybe you were just too young for it. I didn’t know.”
His father falls silent. Eventually, Mike leans the pitchfork against the wall. He turns around, slow.
“Pops,” he says, helplessly.
“I’ll sorry, Mike,” his father says, softly. “I don’t know what you need to hear from me right now. Hell, maybe you don’t wanna hear any of it.”
“No, I –” Mike says, but the truth is he has no idea, either. “Daddy, do you – do you know? What you’re saying?”
“I think I do, Michael. You never grew into playing around with girls like that. You were sweet to them. I remember. A nice respectful young man.”
I don’t wanna cry in a barn in front of my old man, Mike thinks, but there’s not really anything he can do to stop the tears pricking at his eyes.
“Sorry,” he manages to say.
“Do not apologize to me,” William Hanlon says, and this time he looks up from the lantern in his hands and their eyes meet. “Not for what I think you’re apologizing for. Michael, you could never do anything that would make me love you less.”
“Yes, I could,” Mike says, because he has to, he’s got to say it. “I could.”
His father chews his lip. For a horrible moment, Mike thinks he might cry, too. But Will Hanlon’s face remains stoic.
“Alright,” he says eventually. “You could. But you haven’t, Mikey. I don’t want you to be scared of me. Of us. Not about this.”
“Don’t tell Momma,” Mike says. “Daddy, you’re right. About what you’ve guessed. I am that way. But please…I don’t wanna break her heart.”
“You’re breaking mine,” his father says. “Good Lord, Michael, how long have you kept all this pent up?”
“I never lied,” Mike defends himself, desperately. “I just…”
“Of course you didn’t. I just hate that we scared you. That I scared you. We just want you to be happy. You know that, right?”
Mike doesn’t know how to tell his father that for a long time he’d thought that maybe there was no way to be happy as a homosexual. He doesn’t know how to tell him that he thinks maybe he’s starting to change his mind.
“Now I don’t know how to ask this,” Will says. “So if I’m off the mark you can holler at me if you want. But, is Bill…?”
“Yeah,” Mike manages. “Um. Yeah.”
Will nods. It’s awkward, and tense, but he doesn’t look angry, or disappointed, or anything.
“He seems like a good kid,” he says.
“I like him a lot, Daddy,” Mike says. “He’s my best friend.”
“Does he make you happy?”
And there’s another thing Mike hadn’t been sure was possible.
“Yeah,” he says. He wipes at his stinging eyes. “He does.”
Will Hanlon smiles at him. He rights the lantern in his hands, and this time when he tries to light the gas, the flame springs up as easy as anything.
“That’s all I needed to hear, Mikey,” he says, voice gentle as a summer breeze. “I won’t tell your mother anything you’re not ready for her to hear, but she loves you, too.”
“I know,” Mike says. “I love you both, too.”
“’Course you do. Now are you gonna muck this barn, or are you gonna cry all day?” He grins as he says it, and Mike lets out a startled laugh.
“I’ll muck the barn, I guess,” he says.
“Good kid.” Will’s smile is lit up by the dancing flame. “You’ve always been such a good kid.”
He and Bill are apart for most of the day. Mike catches glimpses of him walking the perimeter; slipping into the barn; checking the hinges on the gate they had struggled to get back into place. It’s pleasant in its own way, to know that he and Bill can work together like this; distanced but sharing a common goal, a common outcome.
It’s unexpected but reassuring. Then, in the evening, he sees something else he never thought he would.
But here he is, watching his father and Bill, together in the barn. He can’t hear all of the conversation, just snatches of it; his dad holding the tag-pliers in his calloused palms and saying, Like this, this trigger, be careful now. And Bill beside him; Yes sir, luh-like this?, I g-got it, thank you.
Mike makes his presence known, and they both look up. Bill smiles at him.
“He’s a natural,” his father says, and Will Hanlon sounds proud, and that’s a glorious thing. “Look at this, Mikey.”
His father holds the lamb still as Bill fits the nozzle over her ear; then Bill pulls quick and smooth and she bucks and it’s done, she’s tagged and already shaking off the sting of it. His dad’s right; Bill’s a natural – fast as a dream so it barely gives pain. Mike’s always been nervous around hurting the animals, especially the young ones, even when he knows there’s a reason for it. There’s a lump in his throat all over again.
“Guess we’ll have to keep him around, then,” Mike manages to say.
“Guess so,” his father says, smiling that gentle, familiar smile. His father slaps the rump the lamb and she grumbles a little, but there’s no lasting suffering. Mike’s heart is on a wild race through his chest, and he looks at Bill, at the instrument in Bill’s hand. Okay. Yeah. I can bring him back here; I can.
The day that they head back to school, Jessica Hanlon makes them both lunches, which amuses Mike. “We can probably handle getting together our own lunch, Momma,” he says, smiling at her. She tchs and swats him away.
“You leave your mother alone,” his father says. He’s leaning up against the doorway, and he looks tired and older than he is, but he’s still standing strong. “Let her take care of you boys.”
“’Course,” Mike says. “Thanks, Ma.” He kisses her cheek, and she smiles at him.
“We should get going,” he says. “I want to get back with plenty of time before dark. But it was really good seeing you.”
His father chuckles. “So we didn’t work ya too hard, then?”
“You never do,” Mike grins. He takes the sandwiches his mother has wrapped up with careful hands. “I’m gonna start loading the truck up, and get Bill.”
“You make that boy say his good-byes to us, Michael,” Jessica says, a little sternly. “I won’t have him hiding away.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Mike says, and he hums to himself all the way up the now-familiar path to the caravan.
“You ready?” he says once inside, and Bill nods, tossing his bag over his shoulder.
“All packed, Mikey?”
“Have been since last night, unlike you,” Mike says. He reaches out and grips the back of Bill’s neck briefly, for no reason other than he wants to touch him and he can.
“I w-was writing last night, actually,” Bill says, and together they head out the little door.
“Yeah?” Mike says, watching the muscles in Bill’s arms flex as he tosses his bag into the truck bed. It’s a warm day, and sunny, and Bill’s just in a t-shirt. “New story?”
“Maybe,” Bill says. He turns back to Mike, shoving his hands into the pockets of his jeans. “I don’t know where I’m going yet.”
“Do you ever?”
His parents’ footsteps interrupt their gentle teasing. Bill goes quiet, but he’s still smiling; at-ease.
“You two be safe on the way back,” his mother says. “You know the roads get rough after we’ve had a lot of rain.”
“I know, Momma, we’ll take it slow.” Mike steps forward and hugs her tight; she holds on for maybe a little longer than usual. I’m graduating in May, he thinks.
“You’ve always been careful,” Will Hanlon says when Mike hugs him, too. “We've always been so proud,” he adds, voice softer. “You know you don’t have to worry so much?”
“I’ll try,” Mike says, which is all he can promise. “Thank you, Pops.” They nod at each other, something unspoken passing between them. He can tell his mother is watching, but she doesn’t press.
“Alright,” his father says, stepping back and clapping his hands together. “I suppose we’ll let you get on with it now. Bill, thank you for your help – this old man certainly appreciates it.” He smiles, and holds out his hand. Mike watches Bill blink at it for a moment, before he reaches out and they shake on it.
“We’d be happy to have you back here,” his father says, smiling that gentle smile again. “And not even necessarily to look after the sheep. Don’t be a stranger, alright?”
Bill’s a little wide-eyed. “Alright,” he says, eventually. “Th…thank you, sir.”
“And enough of that sir nonsense,” Will Hanlon says, and Mike and his mother laugh.
“Good luck on your studies, Bill,” Jessica Hanlon says. “Michael, give us a call when you get to school, okay?”
Mike signs off the way he normally does; with promises to call, promises to plan his next visit, and it’s odd – but lovely – to think that Bill might come along for the next one, too. It could happen. For a brief moment, Mike allows himself to think that anything could happen.
He watches Bill climb into the passenger seat, looks at him reaching over to their tapes to pick a soundtrack for their ride. He smiles to himself, and climbs in beside him. He waves at his parents, feeling loved and safe, and they wave back. They keep waving until he pulls out of the drive, and then they’re out of sight.
“See?” he says, glancing over at where Bill is inserting a tape by The Supremes, “They like you.”
“Guess they do,” Bill says, tentatively, but when he looks up from the tape-deck, he meets Mike’s eyes and grins, the tip of his tongue appearing between a flash of teeth.
The first few days post-break are, as always, a flurry of activity. Mike always feels rushed – rushed to work, rushed to rest, rushed to socialize, all of it – and he and Bill barely get to see each other. After a particularly frustrating class, he stalks over to the English building and leans against the wall to wait. Bill almost misses him, emerging from his lecture with his notebook tucked under one elbow and his head seemingly in the clouds.
“Mikey,” he says, with good-natured surprise. “What’re you doing over here?”
“Do you have class tonight?” Mike says, in lieu of answering.
“Come over,” Mike says. “Please?”
That gets a little smile. “Sure.”
Mike closes the door behind Bill and tosses his things onto a chair with a sigh.
“What’s up?” Bill says, gently. He sets his notebook down beside Mike’s bag; shedding his backpack onto the floor.
“I don’t know,” Mike says. “Just missed you, I guess.”
Bill smiles and reaches forward to take Mike’s hands in his own. Mike lets himself be grounded by the press of Bill’s thumbs into his palms.
“After four days?” Bill says. “Needy.”
“Maybe I am.” Mike pulls away and sits on his bed. Late afternoon sunlight is filtering in through his little window. He both misses and does not miss his parents' house.
Bill sits down beside him. They don’t look at each other, but their shoulders are pressed together.
It takes Mike a long time to say anything. That's something that’s nice about conversations with Bill; they don't have to be rushed. Mike likes to think over things, make sure he's saying what he wants to express.
"Living with you," he says, eventually. "That night we had alone. Even just that one night, I liked it a lot."
"I…I liked it too. It felt nice.”
“I think I’d like to have that again, sometime,” Mike says. His heart-rate is starting to pick up, now.
“Yeah?” Bill says.
“I,” Mike says. “I think I’m tryin’ to ask you something, here.”
“I know,” Bill says, and when Mike turns to face him he’s grinning, cheekily.
“Ugh. Help me out?”
“Nah,” Bill says. “I think I...I w-wanna hear you say it.”
“Cruel,” Mike says. He looks down at the quilt. His parents' house isn’t his home anymore, and this isn’t, either. If he wants a new home he’ll have to make one. Mike looks back up, at Bill’s face; at the indent Bill’s body makes on his bed, at the mark that Bill makes, in a very real and physical sense, in Mike’s life. There’s a tear-prick behind Mike's eyes now, because maybe he’s looking at his own future.
“I’d like to keep living with you,” Mike admits, softly. “I...don’t even quite know what that means, I don’t know how we’d do it or where we’d go, but...I want it. I guess I wanted to ask if you want that, too.”
Bill is quiet for long enough that Mike starts to get a little antsy; a little nervous.
“You’re not gonna carry on the H-Hanlon farm?” Bill says, eventually.
Mike laughs. “Nah. And my folks don’t expect me to, they never have. I mean, this is...it’s not like it’s my heritage, you know? My dad was just trying to make do.”
“Trying to make do, but he built a whole...a whole life.” Bill sounds almost awed by it.
“Look,” Mike says, “If you’ve got plans, Bill, I understand, I’m not trying to –”
“Mikey,” Bill says, gently, and then he’s turning, bodily, shifting on the bed to grip at Mike’s hands again. “Michael.”
“What?” Mike says. Bill leans in and kisses his nose.
“You know I don’t h-have any plans. My plan is to try my best to do something with my stories.”
“Yeah?” Mike says. He’s trying not to sound tense. He’s pretty sure he sounds tense anyway.
“Can do that any...anywhere.”
“Sure,” Mike says, heart pounding. He squeezes Bill’s hands and wonders if Bill can feel the pound of his pulse.
“I wouldn’t mind it,” Bill says. “Making a home with you.”
“We must be crazy to want this,” Mike says. He can’t help but say it.
“I d-don’t think it’s so crazy. To want to be happy.”
Mike swallows around the lump in his throat. He closes his eyes; presses his face into the curve of Bill’s shoulder.
“I guess not,” he says. “Yeah. I guess not.” Bill reaches up, to rub at the back of his neck. With his eyes pressed shut, it’s like Mike can see a through-line to the future: graduating in May; going home; leaving home – and all the possibilities that come with it. A graduate degree? Bill publishing a novel? Renting an apartment? Hell, buying a home? What will my mother think? Do we leave, go to a big city? Do we hide away in some tiny town? Do I still come back every year for the lambing?
“Stop thinking so much,” Bill says, softly.
“Sorry,” Mike murmurs. His heart-rate’s starting to relax again, though. It’s uncertain, but that doesn't mean he can't enjoy imagining it.
“It’s just,” he says, and as the words leave his mouth, he realizes how true they are: “It’s just I can’t wait to see it. With you. I can’t wait to live the future, with you.”
Maybe we could have our own farm together. We could keep chickens, at least, right? And I’d like a garden…A million possibilities for a new home; and Mike Hanlon – starting to feel ready for all of them.