Rating: PG for language
Author's Notes: Blah blah fiction blah. This was set waaaaaay back in 2006 when Ian went to Los Angeles to train not long after Pieter
Unbetaed, suckiness all mine. Feedback, the ever-lovely requirement.
Pieter van den Hoogenband and Ian Thorpe sat in silence, the engine of the Audi purred and the radio with some annoying radio personality did hardly anything to fill the black void. The quiet was eerie, the same kind of quiet one experiences before a major storm.
Ian maneuvered the Audi through the crowded streets of Los Angeles on its way to his place in the Hollywood Hills. (He couldn't bring himself to call it home, as far as he was concerned, Australia would always be his home, this was merely a temporary lodging.) Although the weather was mild, another one of those perfect days that made California climate so famous and living there so desirable, the car windows were rolled up and blasts of icy air conditioning pulsed through the Audi..
Pieter sat in the passenger side, involuntarily shivering from the artic assault, totally lost in his train of thought; this was his first visit to Ian since he moved from Australia to train in the United States. Although Ian publicly stated it was for training purposes Pieter knew the real reason for his lover's exodus.
He clandestinely glanced at Ian's bandaged hand and struggled to control a flush creeping over his face. Ian publicly claimed he broke it in a bathroom accident back in Sydney, Pieter knew the real story behind that as well. He shifted in his seat uncomfortably, almost squirming like a child. A souped-up muscle car raced past them, the sound system booming a bass line so loud the Audi itself vibrated to the beat. The hustle and bustle of the second largest metropolitan area in the United States was all but ignored by the two men, they were existing only in their little cocoons.
With the auto stuck in true L.A. gridlock, Pieter stared out the passenger window blankly. Despite the scenery of palm trees reaching for the clear blue sky, brand new autos roaring and screaming for attention on the roadways, people on the sidewalks doing the same thing as well as the gaudy, expensive goods taking center stage in their dolled-up window fronts, he saw none of it. He snuck a glance at Ian and almost gasped aloud as the Aussie was already staring at him. No, glowering would be the more appropriate term, his dark olive eyes snapping and his mouth in a thin slit.
Pieter's eyes widened. He desperately racked his brain to say or do something to get Ian's stone glare away from him. Pieter felt like a child who was in serious trouble and was expecting the volcanic interruption of a beyond-angry parent at any second. He inwardly panicked, thinking of something, anything to diffuse the thick blanket of tension that had covered them since Ian went to pick him up at the airport. Although Ian looked happy that he arrived safely it quickly dissolved as soon as they finished with their greetings. The two barely exchanged more than ten words after they said hello and collected Pieter's luggage. Although Pieter was not in the best of moods himself, arriving in Los Angeles to face Ian's expressions stunned him into utter silence. Not since his first schoolboy crush had he ever felt so uncomfortable and awkward.
"How's your hand?" he quietly inquired, gesturing to the bandaged appendage.
"You tell me," Ian turned and gave Pieter a cold, stony glare.
Pieter's fight to stop the flush overtaking his face failed, he was now bright red. Ask a stupid question, he thought to himself, his face radiating heat. For the first time, he was feeling hot inside the icy confines of the Audi. An urge to roll down the passenger window suddenly overwhelmed him, just as quickly it was repressed. He clasped his hands together and leaned forward in his seat, almost in a prayer.
"We...we didn't mean for it to happen so soon," It was the truth, but Pieter's tone made it sound like a pathetic whine. He shook his head, his flush deepening.
Ian turned to the Dutchman, giving him a hideous glare; his healing hand started to throb. He opened his mouth to say something but at the last second held back. He turned his attention back to the L.A. traffic, almost rear-ending a black Porsche. Both men gasped involuntarily at their close call, then fell back into their former facial expressions.
"I...I...thought you would be happy, you love children so much," Pieter continued, starting to fumble for his words, never mind that he knew with each word he was making the situation more and more tense, just a notch below unbearable. "I was just...so stunned...gobsmacked...when you said you were moving here, especially since Tracey just had her baby..."
"Bollocks!" Ian roared, slapping both hands against the steering wheel, the healing one starting to squeal in old, rusty pain. He slammed on the brakes and turned into the parking lot of a service station, the tires screeching and cutting off two people coming from the opposite direction, who had no qualms about voicing their displeasure. He killed the engine and turned to face Pieter, his eyes blazing, his mouth frozen into a grimace. Pieter stared back, almost in fright.
Pointing a finger at him, Ian tried to keep his cool. "You know...why I'm here. Don't bullshit me anymore, Pieter," His voice wavered, he felt tears prick his eyes. "I knew marriage was inevitable, but we were going to wait on children..." He felt his throat close up; fight it, fight it, no time to lose it like a child.
Pieter’s mournful expression deepened. He reached out to put a hand on Ian’s knee but Ian slapped it away. Pieter withdrew his hand in shock and misery, he looked down at the floor, hands clasped together as if he was still praying.
Ian, still breathing raggedly, tried to regain his composure. Nothing worthwhile comes easy, the old adage boomed through his head but for the love of God, how much more difficult could this get?
Still together after all these years? Check.
Keeping it low by letting women into the equation? Check.
Pieter’s marriage? Ian wasn’t too thrilled with it but he had to suck it up and deal. Check.
Minouche’s pregnancy? The straw that broke the camel’s back.
Ian loved children and still desired at least two or three of his own, he and Pieter discussed this several times. He wanted to wait until they could come out together and then start a family. Upon finding out that Pieter already had a jump start Ian lost his mind and put his hand through a wall of his home back in Sydney, breaking it and forcing him to make up some lame story about a bathroom accident. Adding insult to injury was the fact that Pieter didn't even have the guts to tell him, he heard it from Grant Hackett.
The move to the States was part of it as well. Ian needed to train and he needed to get away and think. Although he had been to L.A. several times he considered it neutral territory, if he was to stay in Australia he would be overtaken by memories, Tracey’s baby and the non-stop media circus, which would have put him over the edge.
He was angry at Pieter, but he was even angrier with himself. If only he had the guts to out himself sooner and the two could’ve declared their mutual love, Pieter marrying Minouche and then her getting pregnant wouldn’t have happened.
Ian breathed heavily, resting his forehead on the steering wheel. Pieter squirmed even more uncomfortably, his eyes darting out the window at the heavy rush-hour traffic. The idea of getting out of the car and making a run for it did more than flash through his mind.
After what seemed like forever but was only a few minutes, Ian raised his head. Across the street from where they were sitting was a diner. The sudden urge for a cup of joe rose from the depths of his stomach and clawed hungrily at him, never mind the facilities was a bit run-down and the coffee would probably taste like someone left a pair of dirty socks in the brew.
"Come on," Ian opened the door, stepping out of the car.
"For what?" Pieter inquired, uncertainty and fear began to bloom in his eyes.
"Let's get some coffee," the Aussie murmured, holding out his hand to the Dutchman. With a bit of chagrin, Pieter took the hand and clasped it tightly; the two almost totally losing themselves in each other's eyes. Unfortunately this wasn't going to be one of their happier moments when such eye contact would lead to clothes strewn everywhere and the two grinding their bodies together in a rhythmic dance of lust.
"Um...are you going to let me get out of the car or are you just going to pull me through the driver's side?" Pieter smiled, the first real smile since landing in Los Angeles.
Ian burst out laughing, his eyes dancing for the briefest of moments. "Sorry," he relented his grasp on Pieter's hand with a huge amount of regret.
Pieter grinned and stepped out of the car, shutting the door and walking to the rear of the auto where Ian stood. They gazed briefly at the grubby-looking diner with half of the neon letters burned out and a yellowed HELP WANTED sign all lonely staked in the grass at the edge of the diner's driveway.
"Are you sure about here?" Pieter asked. He knew Ian could be a princess at times and greasy spoon diners such as this were not his first choice for good coffee. Ian nodded.
"If you don't feel up for driving," Pieter continued, "I'll drive and you show me where you want--"
"This is fine," Ian stated firmly, almost brusque. Pieter raised an eyebrow, looking at Ian out of the corner of his eye.
"If you say so," Pieter replied. The two crossed the street to the diner, engaging in a dispirited game of duck-and-weave with the relentless traffic.
~ ~ ~ ~
The diner was just as Ian had expected: orange vinyl booths with a black and white checkered tile floor and decor that screamed 1956. It would have been rather chic in a retro sense except that it wasn't very well cared for and it looked more like they had been dragged out of somebody's attic after festering for thirty or so years.
Pieter wrinkled his nose at the aroma emitting from the kitchen. He liked greasy burgers as much as the next person but this was...perhaps too greasy. He could see the form of the cook lumbering back in the kitchen, a walking stereotype of all cooks working in cheap American diners. An overweight, although not obese man with five days of grizzled beard and a white shirt that lost its last resemblance to the color when Mark Spitz ruled the pool. The grill and fryer loomed in the background, Pieter could tell with his nose that this was one of those places where everything was cooked on the same apparatus and it probably hadn't been cleaned in a decade.
The waitress, a short, stout creature in her forties appeared, almost gawking in disbelief at the two hard bodies that were standing right in front of her in this sea of trucker plaid and middle-age spread, waiting to be seated. We must be two of the best-looking guys she's seen here in a long time, a looooooooooooooong time. Ian fought to suppress laughter; a quick glance to his left revealed that Pieter was thinking the exact same thing. She led them to a secluded booth in the back of the restaurant at Ian's request and seated them. She took their orders and before walking back to the kitchen, giving them yet another appraising glance before disappearing behind the double swinging doors.
The two exchanged a look, snickering into their hands. They looked up at each other and grinned, the tension that was between them suddenly evaporated.
For a brief, shining moment.
As soon as the waitress returned with two cups of coffee, seeming to take her sweet time setting them down and leaving to tend to her other patrons the clouds of tension that had dissipated sprung back, fast and furious like a freak summer thunderstorm.
Ian took a sip of his coffee and grimaced, it was just as expected for an establishment like this, with just a touch of what tasted like turpentine to him. He pushed it away and stared at Pieter, who was staring back at him, his coffee untouched.
Pieter leaned over, resting his forearms on the table. "Why did you invite me here, if you were trying to get away from it all?" he whispered, staring at Ian with wide-eyed childish apprehension.
Ian shook his head, his mind and heart overflowing with a multitude of responses but his voice box had shorted out. "I...I just wanted to see you," he whispered just as quietly, turning to look at him.
Pieter smiled, but faintly. Very faintly. "Despite all that's happened you're still the constant in my life and I still love you with all my heart." Ian continued, his emotional barriers had crumbled, leveling Pieter with a gaze that was raw, hurt, but very loving.
Pieter dropped his eyes, maintaining eye contact with Ian at that moment was almost too painful. He knew he hurt Ian badly with Minouche's pregnancy but he couldn't find the words to say how sorry he was. Although he was very open and honest with Ian, much more than he had been with anyone else in his life, such feelings of guilt and pain were very hard for him to acknowledge, let alone express.
He quickly diverted his gaze a couple of feet lower and quickly changed the topic. "Looks like you haven't been doing a lot of training," he quietly stated, not unkindly, fondly gesturing to Ian's midsection.
Even thought Ian knew Pieter's remark was not intended to insult him he didn't reply to it, staring miserably at the table. He had put on a few kilos and the Aussie media was all too eager to jump on it. One of the blessings of being in the States was that no one in America outside of the swimming circles knew who he was. Although he had been photographed with the likes of Heath Ledger and Michelle Williams most Americans had but passing knowledge of who he was. (The fact that some people had misidentified him as Michael Phelps amused him greatly, although he wasn't sure if he should have been amused or insulted.)
Ian gathered himself and sat up, glaring at the Dutchman, ignoring Pieter's remark. "Why didn't you have the guts to tell me she was pregnant? I heard it from Hackett, Hackett for fuck's sake," Ian did his best to keep his tone steady, although he was starting to lose the battle. Pieter flushed deeply but didn't drop his gaze.
Ian propped his elbow on the table, a slight pucker of distaste crossed his lips as he realized he hit a small sticky spot from a previous customer's meal. He flexed his injured hand, never taking his eyes off Pieter, whose face was approaching a light shade of plum.
"I didn't think it was going to happen this soon..." Pieter trailed off, staring miserably at Ian's stony face. He swallowed and tried to regroup himself.
Ian stared, furious. What kind of lame-assed excuse was that? They were planning to wait until after Beijing and he knew it. The fact that they were in a public place and that his good hand was now gripping the coffee cup so tightly his fingers cramped kept him from unloading a massive tirade on Pieter, who seemed to be aging before his very eyes.
“Please,” Pieter reached out and took the Aussie’s hand; this time Ian did not relent. “This is my baby. Our baby. I want you to be a part of his or her life, you can help raise him or her.”
“No! Not our baby!” Ian roared, slamming the coffee cup on the table, ignorant to the loud smack of ceramic on tabletop and dark fluid splattering on him, the tabletop and even getting Pieter. He stopped dead in his tracks as a few of the other patrons turned to give inquisitive stares. Quickly grabbing a wad of paper napkins from the dispenser he went to work cleaning up the mess. "It was never our baby and you know this!" Ian dropped his voice to a growl while continuing to sop up the now-cold coffee. Pieter's eyes widened and he found himself backed up against the slippery vinyl of the booth. If he hadn't been sitting he may have just turned around and ran, never mind that he was in a foreign city and had no knowledge of the area.
With great strength the following sentence was wrenched from him, as if he was trying to pick up a half-ton boulder. "I...I'm sorry," he whispered, slinking into the booth, almost disappearing. He looked up and looked Ian in the eyes, his face flashing pain, fear, anger and apprehension. Ian could simply watch the emotions churning in his lover's face.
In a sudden change the two men seemed to have switched facial expressions. Ian had gone from furious to hurt and Pieter was now the one whose eyes snapped dangerously.
With a sudden surge of reserve Pieter sat up straight, his green eyes flashing dangerously, with renewed purpose and courage. "Listen to me," he murmured, his voice low and purposeful, pointing his right index finger at Ian. "I am sick of waiting, I am sick of hiding. I do not want to be kept like some obedient lap dog," Now it was Ian's turn to flush red. "I love you more than anything else in the world, but even I have my limits," Pieter's tone dropped to a rumble. "I know you have a lot at stake to risk coming out now, but it's not as if I'm in the clear. I'm losing right now,"
Ian looked up at him with surprise. He started to say something but Pieter cut him off.
"My dignity, my pride, my self-respect, I lose a bit of those every day," Pieter continued forcefully, his voice rising just a touch and tears forming in his eyes. "Sometimes there are mornings I wake up and I look in the mirror and think: 'Who is this stranger in my bathroom?' Only a few seconds later does it come crashing down and I realize, it's me."
Ian continued to stare at the Dutchman, his mouth slightly agape, his eyes wide. Even though they have had more than their fair share of arguments over this issue, Pieter rarely spoke of it so bluntly and never mentioned any loss of any sort, whether it was pride, dignity or self-respect.
"I don't recognize myself, and as good-looking as I am, that's a helluva shock for me to bear," Ian fought the urge to slam his head against the table in a fit of choked-up laughter; even in the depths of utter despair Pieter can still be entranced by himself.
“We’ve dug our graves so deep we can’t even get out,” Pieter sighed. “So what do we do, try and claw our way out or dig deeper?”
Ian put his head in his hands, running his fingers distractedly through his hair. He shook his head violently and grabbed his coffee cup so abruptly the dark brown fluid sloshed over the sides of the cup. Shaking, he gripped the cup with both hands and guided it to his trembling mouth.
Pieter slouched back into the booth, fatigued. Getting into a fight with his lover was as tiring as a week's worth of training sessions. He gazed wearily at the Aussie, who after taking a small drink of his now-cold coffee, set the mug back on the table and rested his head in his arms as if he was going to nap.
"I know," Ian whispered. Pieter had to strain to hear him. He looked up at the Dutchman, a tear coursing down his cheek. He brusquely wiped it away and continued. "I think about it all the time."
Stopping to unceremoniously grab a wad of paper napkins from the nearby dispenser and scrub his face, Ian fell silent. He set aside the napkin wad and went about tidying himself up. He clasped his hands together and stared at Pieter, who looked upon him in concern.
"I'm...I'm..." although the thought had been running in Ian's head for years it was harder than hell for him to verbalize it. "I'm thinking...about retiring. Soon."
Pieter's eyes widened in horror. He knew about the pressure on Ian and he had spoken of it before but he saw how over the past year swimming had become less and less important to him. He started to say something but Ian cut him off.
"You know over the past year I can't seem to get into swimming. I'm distracted, Pieter. I'm distracted by you, but it's not your fault," Ian quickly interjected, seeing the confusion and hurt on his lover's face. "You are the only reason I continue to race and train. When you told me you were going to marry Minouche all of a sudden swimming didn't seem that important anymore. I..." Ian fought to keep from choking up, he felt as if he was being pulled in a hundred different directions. "...I don't know what to do anymore."
“Is this goodbye?” Pieter murmured, his face somehow pulling into itself, the flesh doughy, eyes terribly sunken.
Ian shrugged, he was too emotionally drained to think coherently.
"What the fuck are we going to do?" Pieter quietly spoke, a tear trickling down his face.
~ ~ ~ ~
Ian sat in the living room of his house, staring moodily into space. Pieter was not there, he had actually flown back to the Netherlands a few hours ago, not even opting to stay the night. His mantra of misery seeped through the whole house.
What can be done? What was there to do now? A tear trickled down his cheek as the sun began to fade and the Hollywood lights birthed themselves. The rest of the "visit" after the coffee stop was a blur, Pieter wanted to go home and Ian just let him, he was too drained to do much of anything.
He was running, running from his life, his love, everything. But they were always right there to pounce on him from the shadows, driving him deeper into a black cocoon of isolation and loneliness.
~ ~ ~ ~
December 31, 2006
Arriving home early from another day of training, Pieter stepped into his house with his back to the frigid wind that came from the northwest and shut the door behind him, temporarily leaning his back against the door. Shivering a bit, he stripped himself of his coat, gloves, and boots in the foyer. The streets of Maastricht were already darkened and the glow from an outside streetlamp made ghostly shadows through his front windows.
"Honey, I'm home!" he hollered cheerfully into the hallway. An agreeable odor greeted his nostrils and he could tell that supper was almost ready. Good, he was starving. After a quick jaunt to the bathroom to check his hair and wash his hands he strode into the kitchen. Although it was New Year's Eve he had no plans to go out and celebrate, it was just going to be sitting at home, drinking beer, eating some appetizers, a bit of necking and hopefully some nookie to ring in the New Year.
Licking his lips and rubbing his hands gleefully, Pieter walked through the kitchen door. Ah, just what he wanted to see: there were plates of lovely appetizers, cheese, meats and bread perfectly laid out. And the coup de grace itself, his love standing in the kitchen getting him a beer.
"Hello!" Ian's jovial voice rang through the kitchen, through Pieter's soul. He walked up to the Aussie and gave him a passionate kiss.
In a turn of events that can only be described as mind-boggling, not long after Pieter left Los Angeles Minouche miscarried. Although Pieter's timing could be described as callous, they broke up, both simply relieved that their charade was finally over.
Not long after Ian made the announcement of his retirement and the first thing he did the next morning was hop the first flight out of Sydney to the Netherlands. Pieter's statement about missing "the big black fish" was merely a formality, once Ian touched down in Maastricht there was no turning back. The minute Ian arrived on Pieter's doorstep all questions were put to rest. The were together, nothing could stop them now.
"I've never seen you this happy," Pieter smiled, reaching out to stroke a stray hair away from Ian's forehead.
Ian gave Pieter a quick kiss on the forehead and scooped him up into a bear hug. Pieter laughed merrily as Ian spun him around the room.
"Put me down, you crazy bastard, the kids are watching!" Pieter shouted joyfully. Tickled by that statement Ian went into gales of laughter, bringing Pieter in for a deep, passionate kiss.
Outside, some drunken revelers already started the New Year celebrations, staggering up the cold, darkened street and singing in a cacophony of slurring and laughing.
Inside a certain house, it was more than a new year to Pieter van den Hoogenband and Ian Thorpe.
It was the beginning of the rest of their lives.