"I'm representing their country and they can't even afford to upgrade me to a private room? How drunk do you think I'm going to have to get the birds around here to convince them to have sex in a twin-sized bed next to you? I'm gorgeous, but even that might be beyond my control."
Arthur, wondering again how drunk he must have been to agree to team up with Gwaine, of all the possible mates to partner with, is serious as he turns, points to the glass door leading outside and says, "We've got a patio; it's not a luxury afforded to everyone. Did you honestly expect to be treated special because we're at home?"
"Honestly, yes. I'm going to win them gold, which they only won 19 of in 2008 and none of them in volleyball; it's the least they could do. This patio" – gesturing grandly at the sliding door, Gwaine frowns seriously (Gwaine, serious? Who knew?) – "only means that now I'll have you and most of London watching."
"Actually," he adds a moment later, staring down at the shoulder-to-shoulder packed pathwalks and gardens that form the Olympic Village below, "That might be kinky. Some girls are into that..."
He looks like he might be ready to tell Arthur a conquest story about fucking in a public loo or at the top of the Eiffel Tower before there is a (blessed) loud crash just outside their door and a bumbling, clearly British, "Bloody fucking hell, why is it always me?" to interrupt him.
Smirking, Gwaine mumbles, "Way to represent, eh?" and Arthur clenches his fist, angry at Gwaine and the idiot outside his door and all the catcalling members of the British team shouting down the corridor to one another, groaning about the size of their rooms and the tacky multi-coloured bedspreads.
They're meant to be representing their country and these fools are dropping shit in the corridor and cursing loud enough for even people locked tight in their rooms to hear. Doesn't anyone (Gwaine, included) realise the way they're reflecting on each other, their entire country and all of it's citizenship right now? There were French swimmers laughing and American tennis stars rolling their eyes, hiding their mouths with their hands and whispering about the unfair advantage the Brits have for playing at home when Arthur rode up the lift. Did no one else hear them? Did no one else understand what that meant for them all?
This isn't tossing a ball around on the beach any more, swimming laps while some wrinkled old man keeps one eye on you and the other on the stopwatch or twisting a couple of times on the uneven bars before letting go and calling it a day without really working; this is it – the Olympics. If you fall, you lose. If you slow down, you lose. If you miss the ball, spike it into the net on your last chance, there's no 'try again' or 'next time'; you lose, end of the line.
Arthur's prepared to tell as much to the muttering idiot outside who is still blithering on about his luggage when he yanks open the door, barely making it back fast enough to avoid the over-long, flailing limbs that fall through the threshold. He clearly should have opened the door a little slower to forewarn the idiot who decided to lean against it. The body on the floor groans, snaking lengths of white flesh that could be arms pushing him up, giving him leverage to at least roll over onto his back and stare at Arthur's face with big, impossibly blue eyes as he mumbles, breathlessly, "This day is just getting worse and worse."
Arthur thinks his day is going much the same. He prepares to relay his tangent about winning and proper representation but is struck by the fumbling way the boy goes to stand, how he wobbles, rolls his shoulders and leans against the door jamb when he finally rises, staring at Arthur all the while. He's too long – too lean to be part of any real competition. So, instead, Arthur gestures at the boy and raises his brows condescendingly, saying: "What are you, a bloody gymnast? You're not a real athlete, that's for certain."
In the corridor, a lithe girl with blonde hair half-turns and glares at him. The hot pink leotard clutched tightly in her hand slaps against the side of her thigh as she stomps away, huffing until she disappears around the corner. Gwaine, interrupting the boy as his lips part, clearly ready to speak, yells, "Oi! Mind your mouth, Pendragon; you're scaring away the real gymnasts." He steps a little closer, bumps against Arthur on his way to clap the boy from the corridor on the shoulder, asking, "There's no such thing as a male gymnast, is there? You're not one of those birds who dresses like a bloke, are you? You're a bit gangly but you're not... Well, if you're a bird, you're best to stick to the really dark pubs, yeah? Word of advice."
"I'm not a bird," the bloke announces. He pushes Gwaine's hand from his shoulder, adding, to Arthur, "But I am an athlete; I swim."
"You're swimming in the Olympics? For Britain?"
"No, I'm here visiting from Kazakhstan and was offered prime boarding in Olympic Village," the boy deadpans, shooting Gwaine a look that says 'What kind of idiot are you?'
Arthur is wondering the same thing, between the 'no male gymnasts' and asking someone living in Olympic Village if they're swimming for the Olympics, Arthur is seriously considering poisoning Gwaine's food and ringing up Leon instead. Aloud, he says, "Good, then you should know that you're representing all of us and we don't need you out in the corridor bellowing about your luggage; it's embarrassing."
Not half as embarrassing as the entire corridor, people from other countries included, watching him fall through Arthur's door but Arthur chooses not to mention that. The boy's anger is already showing in his scowl and the way his fingers bunch at his side; Arthur may be furious but he's not willing to bring the argument to blows and possibly ruin both of their chances of winning gold.
He wants to laugh but struggles to cut it off before it becomes a full-blown fit of giggles. The thought of the over-long mess of a boy standing before him, just a few inches taller with dark hair and a firm, defiant look in his eyes winning gold at anything at all, much less swimming – a sport known to require and work every muscle in the body – is hilarious.
He might have been better off pretending to be a girl and joining the gymnast from earlier.
"I'm not here to fit your preconceived notions about what a person is supposed to look like to win, Pendragon," announces the boy as he presses his finger against Arthur's chest, a single, hard jab that sends Arthur back a step from sheer shock. His face is flushed, chest heaving under his worn, too-large Spiderman shirt; its logo is faded and colour is more pink than red after too many washes. "Not all of us got press coverage for our name alone or a fucking guaranteed spot; some of us had to earn it and if you're embarrassed to be seen with the little people who worked their entire lives to compete here, maybe you should have stayed – home."
With a hard stare and a sharp nod, the boy escapes in Arthur's moment of dumbstruck wonder. Arthur hears more than sees him as he drags his luggage into his room, grunting but not cursing until he slams the door shut and shouts, "That wanker! Ugh!"
Its then that Arthur steps back, shuts his own door with a quiet snick and mumbles, still unsure, "What the fuck was that?"
With a snort, Gwaine says, "If making people angry was a sport, Pendragon, you'd win gold every time."
& & &
With a limited number of tellies in the village, Arthur goes for most of his first day without the news at all. It's not until nearly six in the evening, in nothing but a towel that is too short to fit properly around his waist and fresh from the shower, that he actually gets to catch a bit of the pre-Olympic news.
Gwaine grips his bicep, fingers tight around Arthur's still damp skin and drags him to the common room on their floor, British and German Olympic hopefuls packed from corner to corner with their eyes set on the telly mounted to the wall. They're so busy watching the bubbly reporter on the screen that they hardly pay any mind to Arthur's state of undress – a miracle, if there ever was one. She talks about America's Missy Franklin and China's Yang Yilin, their likelihood of winning gold and the challenges they'll face to get there – who poses the greatest competition, what the chances of the other hopefuls are in comparison.
She says, "If last year's silver medallist Zhang Lin is looking for gold in the 400 metre freestyle, he's going to need to beat up and coming Merlin Emrys of Great Britain," and Arthur is shell-shocked to see the boy from earlier's face, a cheesy grin plastered where his scowling lips had been before. Even more surprising are the cheers from Arthur's left, a gaggle of dripping wet males and females alike with goggles loose around their necks and swim shorts tight over their skin. Between them Merlin Emrys – nineteen, born, raised and trained in Wales and expected to win Team Great Britain a number of gold medals if the woman on the telly is telling any sort of truth – gives the same wide grin from his photo and says, "Yeah, thanks," waving them all off half-heartedly but clearly enjoying the attention. He looks up then, catches Arthur's eye before his gaze trails lower, settles on the open space around Arthur's thigh where the towel doesn't stretch to cover and tanned skin is bare to the world, still a little damp.
He's tempted to leave. Going back to his room to at least put some goddamn clothes on is best at this point, what with Merlin giggling and mumbling, "And I'm the embarrassing one," while one of the female swimmers replies, "He has nothing to be embarrassed about – look at those legs."
He's going to strangle Gwaine in his sleep.
After the Olympics, of course; with the fucking gold medal they're going to win.
"Assisting Great Britain's swimming hopefuls in bringing pride and gold to the host country are Arthur Pendragon and Gwaine –" here Gwaine cheers so loud for himself that the voice of the reporter is inaudible above his shouts; he raises his arms high above his head and turns to watch the crowd, only lowering his hands when he realises that no one else is cheering along with him. If anything, they look a bit scared of him... "– dominated other teams during their eighteen month training period and have come to London to claim gold. Experts say with their level of talent, the odds are certainly in their favour."
Gwaine jabs his elbow against Arthur's ribs, sharp bones clashing painfully. If no one else is going to celebrate with him, clearly Arthur is going to be forced to. "Odds are in – our – favour. Like the fucking Hunger Games or something, yeah? Team Peeta or Team Gale, Arthur?"
"If I were you, I'd be a little less worried about me embarrassing you and a little more worried about him embarrassing you." Emrys gestures at Gwaine as he passes, the woman on the screen replaced by a commercial of some sort. His lips are pulled into a smile that is too proud for someone skinny enough to be blown flat on his face by a light breeze, much less a not-so-friendly shove from Gwaine, who looks like he might be tempted to do just that.
Arthur doesn't know how he manages to get so close to Merlin in so little time, much less why both of his hands find Merlin's shoulders, gripping them so hard that his fingers hurt. Merlin's friends are saying, 'Hey, watch yourself' and 'What's your problem?'. Even Gwaine is behind him, adding his easy, "Relax, Arthur; He's not worth getting sent home, mate."
Arthur, ignoring the protests and Gwaine's hand on his elbow, stares Merlin in the eye and says, "Gwaine might be an idiot, but he's my friend so I suggest you watch your mouth" before shoving him away, softer than he wants to but hard enough to make a point.
Merlin seems amused, the moment of shock in his face dissolving to a quirky grin, almost fond. "Look at you, Pendragon, defending your mate's honour. Maybe there's more to you than the tabloids said."
Someone yells for them to break it up, head back to their rooms and remember the ceremony tomorrow evening. It's enough to make Arthur turn around, keep in step with Gwaine as he swings his arm over Arthur's shoulder and says, "Look at you, knickers in a twist; don't let the gymnast get you disqualified, even if it is over someone as pretty as me."
Arthur says, "Piss off, Gwaine," aware of Merlin's footsteps behind them, their quiet padding over the carpet and the way his voice, annoyed, whispers, "Christ, who would have thought Pendragon has a heart – even if it is just for his partner?"
Arthur isn't sure why it bothers him half as much as it does.
& & &
Their first match is easily won. Gwaine, though he refuses to get a little dirty to save the ball, has a nasty spike and a level of seriousness on the sand that most who know him away from the game would doubt exists. And, where Gwaine lacks, Arthur excels. If anything, he appreciates the shock of his knees hitting the ground, sinking as his hands rise to smack the ball back over the net and the rush that floods his chest when he scrambles to rise and be ready for the return, toes digging in the sand to ready himself for the opportunity to make the next point. He loves shaking his hair out, rinsing off the grains of sand still plastered to his body after a win and the way they sometimes stick to the drain of his shower, a reminder of matches won and his Olympic goal.
The crowd is small, as expected for a mid-day preliminary match, but their cheers are delighted when Arthur and Gwaine are announced to be moving on. It's enough to draw smiles to their faces, pride to their step as they move closer to the gold, shaking hands with the other players and making their way off the sand.
Arthur isn't sure what prompts him to glance away from Gwaine as he claps him on the back or why exactly his general glance toward the crowd is elongated, captured by Merlin as he stares back, blue eyes shaded by his hands and Team GB shirt too large on his lean frame. Maybe it's the shock of seeing him, of knowing he's being watched by the same man from the day before who, when he should have been feeling small after the incident in the corridor and the dressing down Arthur gave him, had dared to lift his chin and tell both Arthur and Gwaine to piss off.
Or maybe it's the way Merlin smiles when Arthur sees him, cheeky as he shrugs before following out with the crowd. He doesn't look the least bit ashamed of being caught.
Arthur admits to Gwaine later that Merlin is a bit strange that way – with his openness and his pride, his determination and the way that nothing, except maybe some over-stuffed luggage, seems to dissuade him.
"Well, you don't make it to the Olympics by giving up every time someone tells you you're a loser, do you?"
Behold, a sound bit of knowledge from Gwaine.
It's followed by: "I mean, not that I've ever been turned down for anything." He laughs, his whole body shaking with it in the bed across the room. "Your mate Merlin, though... He was turned down a time or two with ears like those – probably used to rejection after all this time."
"What does rejection have to do with it?"
Gwaine glances across to Arthur, expression a bit puzzled in the darkness. The curtains over their window are half-open and London is glowing in the night, starless sky replaced by towering buildings whose windows flood Olympic Village with pale yellow light. He leans up halfway, bracing his weight on his elbows and forearms as he says, "Did you not see the way he looked at you during that match?"
Arthur shakes his head, unsettled by the idea that dim-witted Gwaine might have noticed something he didn't. Maybe that's why he'd missed the ball that time... "No," Arthur replies, "I was a bit preoccupied with trying to win."
Gwaine falls back against his pillow, says, very simply, "He was trying to magic away your shorts with his eyes. I figured you brought it up because he's weird and you told him to fuck off properly. I don't know what you're talking about otherwise."
"Not weird – strange. And I'm talking about the fact that he was there in the first place. Didn't he have a medal to swim for today?"
"Same thing, Pendragon. Pull out your dinosaurus if you don't believe me."
"It's a fucking thesaurus, Gwaine. How did you manage make it through college?"
Gwaine looks smug. "I gave oral presentations."
"Honestly, though, how did you not feel him looking at you? Probably left after his heat to watch sweat drip down your arms and sand get in your hair; I'm surprised he didn't stay after to talk to you."
Arthur thinks about the pull he'd felt during his match, the heat on the back of his neck and the way he'd kept wanting to turn around. It had been hard to stay focused, strange considering volleyball has been like breathing to him since he was seven, being nurtured to be an Olympic starone day – training long and hard so that tracking the ball was second-nature, not forced. He hasn'thad to think so much about a match since he was still learning the rules, finding the best method for winning. When he remembers the match earlier, how he'd struggled – having to search for the ball rather than just feeling it, landing crooked and taking twice the time to get up as he usually would – he wonders if that was because of Merlin.
Of course, it could have a bit to do with the fact that Merlin's words from the corridor were still aggravating him, weighing him down for reasons unknown because it was true that he didn't care too much openly, but friends were sacred and it had been insulting for anyone, much less someone named Merlin, to assume that Arthur wouldn't take up for Gwaine – annoying though he may be. But, at the end of the day, Merlin's presence in his life was temporary and, really, he had bigger, more important things to worry about than the opinion of a lanky swimmer who smiles too wide and makes too much noise.
He tells Gwaine, "You're imagining shit again" and to: "Stay out of the sun when we're not playing, yeah? It's causing permanent damage" before he rolls over, faces away from the window and London and watches the shadows play across the wall, wondering the entire time if any of what Gwaine said was actually true.
& & &
His schedule says the 400 metre freestyle relay starts at 20.54 so he takes the javelin to the Aquatics Centre forty minutes before, flashes the pass that says he's one of their own when he arrives and quickly presses into a spot near the wall, close enough to see without standing in the over-crowded area when he's finally in. His goal is not to be seen by Merlin, Merlin's friends or the reporters who might point him out to the cameras and wonder aloud why he's there at all.
Because if they ask, he has no fucking idea what he's supposed to say. 'That one – there, with the goofy ears? Yes, him! – he said something that's been keeping me awake at night and, frankly, I nearly lost a preliminary match today because I was too busy searching the crowd to see if he was watching me to pay attention to the ball that will determine my future'?
For some reason, he doubts that'd go over very well.
A boy Arthur remembers being named Will dives at the starting shot, body sliding under the water before he rises and splashes his way across the pool.Merlin and the other two swimmers standing at the end scream his name, urge him forward with 'Come on! Come on!'s that are twice as loud as the Australians' next to them.
It's back and forth, France leading by the few split seconds that may cost Great Britain the win before Merlin dives in last, lean body soaring over his partner and sliding into the water. Arthur's breath catches as Merlin disappears under the glassy surface, his arms appearing a moment later when the muscles of his bare shoulders flex, rotating and pulling him forward through the water, onward and closer to the edge of the pool.
Arthur swears the sharp lines of Merlin's cheekbones are cutting through the water when he turns his head to breath, dark blue swim cap tight around his head while stray curly locks of black hair peek out around his ears and the back of his neck. France is close, the fingers of their swimmer and Merlin's are even the entire way back down the lane – the final push, their last chance to make gold over silver and secure Merlin's second gold medal.
There's a surge of people moving toward the water, necks craned and breaths caught in their throats as Merlin's splashes and those of his opponent grow so close that the water floods and meets between them. Arthur swears that everything suddenly goes silent and still in that moment;his chest is tight, so heavy he swears he can't breathe. Their fingertips are not even a full half second apart from one another and the wall is right there – within reach of them both and it could be Merlin's medal or France's medal as soon as time starts to move again. In the silence, the stillness, the crowd is standing, arms in the air and Team GB shirts bright in the crowd amongst waving flags and silent, would-be-cheering children who stand on their tip-toes to watch the scene – the closest race Arthur has ever seen at any Olympics.
He tries to remind himself that it's okay if Merlin loses because he's already won a silver and a gold and has more races after this to win but when time rushes back Arthur takes a step forward, splashing water spraying across the edge of his shoes and screams echoing through the Aquatics Centre, calling Merlin's name and shouting for their country and the gold, Arthur can't help but feel like this should be it – this should be Merlin's.
The race is so tight that for a moment the entire room is silent, Merlin and the French swimmer both tearing their goggles from their face to turn to the overhead screen that will announce the winner. Arthur doesn't breathe, doesn't dare to and the rest of the room seems to be holding their breath as well – subconsciously, mind preoccupied with the few short moments of waiting that feel like an eternity before Great Britain flashes across the screen, France following just below it.
Arthur doesn't yell or cheer or jump up and down with the people next to him. He doesn't turn and hug and cry happy tears or any such rot but he does watch Merlin – watches as his mates pull him out of the pool, as they pump their fists in the air and scream until their bodies shake. Merlin pulls away, smiles so wide that his face looks like it's in danger of splitting into two and waves at the camera, mouthing something like, "THANK YOU!" before his eyes catch Arthur's and the centre seems to grow suddenly quiet again, just as still as it had been the moment Arthur realised Merlin might lose – as if the second Merlin realised that Arthur was there, watching him and seeing his win, was just as momentous as the moment Merlin pulled forward and won his country the gold.
Merlin smiles for him, too. Softer than the smile for the camera, more awe-struck than proud but it's enough to make Arthur's stomach clench and his heart race and hands shake a little as he shrugs and offers a tiny smile back before he walks away, sliding through the crowd and taking the javelin back to Olympic Village.
He hears Merlin come in hours later, too loud as he bumps against the walls and the doors. He even hears Merlin say, "Christ, Pendragon was there – he watched, Will. What is that supposed to mean?"
A voice Arthur recognises well enough as Will's replies, "It means he wants your arse, mate – best avoid that until after the Olympics though, yeah? That saying about arrogant arseholes having small cocks? It's a lie, mate. You're probably going to walk crooked for a week."
Gwaine, still awake in the bed across the room, hears just as clearly as Arthur does before Will and Merlin slide into their room, Merlin yelling something like: "Fuck, Will! Any louder? I don't think the Japanese on the 13th floor heard you!" He whistles lowly, as their door slams and says, "Hear that, Pendragon? The bigger the pillock, the bigger the cock; if he's right, you should probably call that record book and have yourself logged as the biggest dick in the world."
Gwaine asks, confused, "It's past midnight and you want beer?" He sits up, prepares to throw his legs over the edge of the bed. "I suppose –"
"I meant the record book," sighs Arthur, shaking his head as he rolls over. He should probably be annoyed with Gwaine, with the way he says, "ohhh" and: "don't get angry with me, Princess; I'll be forced to send an anonymous photo to the paps and prove your gymnast's mate is dead wrong if you keep up your shit."
Shockingly enough, Arthur isn't bothered half as much by Gwaine's threat as he is by the fact that Merlin is across the hall from him, likely talking about his cock, when Arthur could very well be proving Will isn't wrong in the slightest.
& & &
Fresh from the shower, Gwaine says, "We have the late game tomorrow so I am going out. Another hour around you will kill me – all the sexual tension between you and the gymnast is palatable."
"Palpable. Christ," mutters Arthur but he doesn't argue when Gwaine walks out, naked as the day he was born and clearly prepared to feign innocence to get in some poor bird's room. Arthur can't count the number of times he's heard the, "My flatmate locked me out" excuse.
Funnily enough, it always works...
He heads to their room alone, Team GB shorts loose just under the jut of his hipbones and feet bare across the carpet, plush between his toes as he walks. When he nears the corner he hears Merlin's voice, muffled and tired as it repeats, "Mum, I'm a swimmer; I'm practically naked most of the time. There was no reason to pack the bag that full; I'll never even touch half of the clothes you shoved in there."
To be fair, Arthur has only seen Merlin twice in normal clothing -- a pair of khaki-coloured shorts and his faded Spiderman t-shirt. He always looks boyish, young in a way that is more lively than immature. It almost makes sense now – the overstuffed bag and the way Merlin had turned to find the camera after the relay, giving it a huge, body shaking wave before he returned to celebrating with everyone else.
Arthur smiles a bit when, as he's rounding the corner, Merlin grumbles, "Mum, I fell over trying to carry it in – made an absolute fool of myself."
Merlin's on the floor, back pressed against his door and knees drawn up to support his chin. His chest is bare, the carpet around him visibly damp from his still-wet Team Great Britain swim shorts. He waves to Arthur with the hand that isn't holding his mobile to his ear as though they're mates or even something like it -- as though their interactions haven't been limited to bickering and stalking and a one-sided relatively silent wank Arthur had the night before, remembering Merlin's heaving chest as he'd struggled to breathe after his relay and the way water had dripped from his hair, down the side of his neck to pool in his clavicle. Stray drops had slid down his chest, pale and lean and perfect in a way Arthur had never even known he appreciated before stopping at the edge of his shorts, around the sharp lines of his hipbones.
Gwaine had still managed to hear him, no matter how hard he'd bit his knuckles to keep from making too much noise. He'll never live it down – never.
Not that Arthur stalked Merlin. There's nothing wrong with supporting Great Britain's swimmers... One of them. All of them. Whatever.
Christ, he's starting to sound like a teenage girl.
"Locked out," Merlin explains after he rushes his mum off the phone, ending the conversation with: "I know, mum. I know but I can't – We can't talk about that right now!"
"You can wait in mine if you'd like." Where the hell did that come from? Certainly not from the sane part of Arthur's brain that's screaming, 'you are quickly losing track of your priorities to favour a boy with shaved legs.'
Though, to be fair, it's all for the sake of the sport and props to any bloke willing to go that far to win gold. He imagines it must itch... Then he imagines what Merlin's legs will feel like around his waist and promptly shoves the door open, asking Merlin only once more if he'd like to wait in his room, hoping the entire time that Merlin will say, "No, thanks, I'd rather wait out here in the corridor while I drip all over."
"Great, yeah," Merlin says instead, nodding as he rises, long legs unfolding and stretching and abs drawing tight as he pulls himself up. He tugs along the bag at his side, the top unzipped showing a pair of his own Team GB sweatpants and bright red towel when he throws it on Arthur's bed, settling down next to it a moment later. The sheets under him are already dark, damp with water when Arthur realises whose bed Merlin made himself comfortable on.
Arthur says, "You couldn't sit on Gwaine's bed? You're getting my sheets soaked."
"Gwaine's bed? I've heard what Gwaine gets up to in that bed; I feel like I'm going to catch a disease being this close to it, much less sitting on it."
"It's all rumours – he spreads them himself, mostly," Arthur admits. He shrugs, pushes Gwaine's bag off of his bed and sits on it, showing Merlin how unafraid he is of the non-existent syphilis.
Merlin looks mostly unimpressed. He says, "Does it work in his favour?" and Arthur nods, amused as he replies, "All the time."
For a moment there's silence, awkward as it fills the room. There are no tellies, obviously too costly for a village this size and most of what Arthur brought was books and volleyball research to fill the few short hours between matches and sleeping. Merlin looks just as unsure, tapping his bare feet against the carpet, fingers slapping his mobile open and then closed to keep himself busy. He doesn't even look at Arthur, focused only on the mobile's screen as it lights up and then dims again with every click.
Arthur almost says, "maybe we should go to the sitting room," when Merlin finally looks up from his lap and says, "You know, you're really self-entitled and mostly an arsehole –"
"You sure know how to start a conversation," Arthur interrupts dryly, mostly disappointed by Merlin's words rather than angered.
"– but I think it's mostly a front. The way you stood up for Gwaine? I've never seen a person more sure of themselves, including you. I watched your matches online, yeah? You were good – great, even – but you didn't stand half as tall after those wins as you did for your friend and I –" Merlin pauses, suddenly unsure andArthur's breath lodges in his chest because he has no idea what he's meant to say to praise like that? He's been complimented since birth for his looks and since he was seven for his skills but never once has anyone mentioned his loyalty – his fierce defence of his friends and his family and all those who are important to him though he knows that it's existed for just as long, if not longer, than the rest.
When Merlin picks up again, he says, "Well, I just thought that was pretty amazing. I was wrong about you and – Yeah, sorry about that. And thanks for coming to my match it was – Well, it was nice to see you. I appreciate it."
There's a noise from across the hall, a clatter of metal and a soft thump of a bag hitting the floor. Will's voice is loud, tired as he grumbles about his 'damn friends sitting their wet arses on the floor' and adds, 'as if I wasn't wet enough already'.
Arthur hasn't even had a chance to reply, to thank Merlin or tell him how great it was to watch him swim before Merlin is rising, pulling the strap of his bag over his shoulder. He smiles, waves cheerfully. "Thanks for letting me wait here and sorry about the emotion moment, yeah? I bet I sound like love-struck bird – one of the fangirls, yeah? But, honestly, you're a good mate. Gwaine is lucky to have you" and then he's gone, tugging open Arthur's door and yelling for Will to unlock his own, whinging about how he's been locked out for nearly an hour and 'Thank Christ for Pendragon, he let me wait on his bed.'
Arthur hears Will say, "Well, did you fuck yet?" and can't help but think that if he'd had more time, Merlin's answer might have been 'fuck yes' instead of a mumbled, almost grumbling, 'no.'
& & &
Arthur looks up from the papers scattered over his bed, statistics of the teams left and scribbled notes from himself and his coach on what to watch out for -- who spikes the hardest, who's known to fake out. Merlin is casual against the door jamb, a strange repeat of their very first meeting but in a neater, less fury-filled manner. His hair is dripping, the shoulders of his Spiderman t-shirt – a favourite, obviously – damp and his smile is easy, inviting.
Gwaine is off somewhere with one of Australia's swimmers (but not before he'd cackled and said, "Now we each have a swimmer!") and it's not like Arthur hasn't looked over all these statistics before but he does pause, wondering how exactly he and Merlin got to a point where it was perfectly acceptable to push open Arthur's cracked door and say, "Dinner?" like they do this every day.
"Somewhere close. I'm not familiar with London."
There's a lot that's "close"; dozens of take-away places between up-scale, fine dining but Arthur doesn't think Merlin is the type to appreciate somewhere like Roka or J. Sheekey and Arthur's not too fond of greasy take-away so... He chances a glance outside, finds it's still bright enough for the little outdoor café he remembers visiting last year. After a quick Google check on his mobile, a questioning, "Did you change your mind...?" from Merlin and a text or two to his sister about the underground schedule, Arthur final asks: "How do you feel about paninis?"
+ + +
The trip from Olympic Village to the café is mostly silent, awkward bumps in the underground and the occasional, "So..." that never really develops into a real sentence. When they push into the café, Merlin is suddenly flooding Arthur's ears with all the things he didn't say earlier – stories about his mum's sandwiches and how she always sliced tomatoes perfectly, never too thick and how too much lettuce makes everything taste like water, drowns out the flavour of the meat and the bread, how much he hates mayo even though he can't properly explain why and how he's really sorry about all that useless chatter yesterday because he generally doesn't go out of his way to act like a teenage girl, it all just kind of slipped out.
"It's alright," Arthur says when Merlin finally takes a breath. They're seated outside across from one another at one of the tables, melded lengths of steel curved intricately around each other and a thick round cut of glass set over the top. Condensation drips from their glasses, pooling on the glass table top as they wait for their sandwiches. It's warm out, not overly hot but enough to make his skin feel a bit sticky and his throat itch for water. He's comfortable though, despite the heat and he wants to think it has more to do with the fact that he and Gwaine won another match and not just because Merlin is smiling at him, legs bouncing and fingers long and pale around his glass.
"Why couldn't your mum come?" Arthur asks, noticing the way Merlin's eyes lose just a tiny bit of their spark, how they glance down at his drink before shifting back up again. "Missed too much work this year already. I don't think she realised that going to all of those little matches meant she wasn't going to be able to come to the one that mattered." Merlin laughs slightly, as though attempting to be more amused than disappointed.. "She's off every day in time for the medals, though, and she rings every – bloody – night."
A moment later, Merlin adds: "What about your dad? I haven't seen him around."
'At any of your matches' is left unsaid.They pretend that they haven't taken time out of their days to watch the other, that between press functions and meetings with their coaches they've memorised each other's schedule and taken time to watch each other win a match or two (or three or four).
Arthur shrugs. "He'll be at the last match. Gold is all that counts, yeah?"
"If you ask my mum, it's getting to the gold that matters most."
"She and my dad can argue that over one of her sandwiches one day. Pretty sure she'd give up before he would, though."
Merlin raises a disbelieving brow, smiles. "You have no idea."
Arthur thinks that maybe he'd like to find out. It's an irrational thought process – an irrational wish that he can't seem to yank out of his mind once it's sprouted and for a moment he tries to envision his father and Merlin's mum – a woman he thinks might smile just like Merlin does, wide and unhindered and proud of the smallest things – debating their son's accomplishments while he and Merlin sneak amused glances from between their own opinions on the matter: Merlin can't even walk in a straight line, Arthur can't give a single interview without insulting the reporter in some way and neither of them can seem to figure out what they want.
The brunette from the shop comes out with their paninis then, sets them in the middle of the table and, with a giggle, asks, "Are you Merlin Emrys and Arthur Pendragon? We've –" she gestures behind her, at the gaggle of other girls pressing their faces close to the glass to get a better look – "been watching the Olympics all week; you're so amazing. Is this, like, a date? Oh – my – God. Everyone on tumblr would freak."
Arthur and Merlin both attempt to look confused, shaking their heads 'no' and though Merlin whispers, "Christ, that was cold. We could have at least admitted to being ourselves" as the girl walks away. Arthur can't help but laugh at the adorably pitiful look she gives Merlin over her shoulder before disappearing through the door, dragging her friends along with her.
& & &
Merlin isn't in the stands when Arthur and Gwaine knock Brazil out of the running for gold. Arthur won't say that he expected him to be there – Merlin's heat started at 15.00 and probably didn't let out in nearly enough time for Merlin to make Arthur's 14.20 match – but he does wish, somewhat, that he might have turned and saw his beaming face in the crowd.
There's nothing for it, though. He trudges along, tired down to his core when he showers and tells Gwaine to have a good time when he mentions a party and a runner from the Netherlands who has most likely told Gwaine at some point since their arrival that she's not interested. Gwaine only really goes for the ones who bite – claims they're more fun.
He doesn't expect to find Merlin, freshly showered and still slightly damp, stretched out shirtless on his bed. There's a stack of papers in his hand, arms stretched overhead and neck bared as he leans back to get a good look at them. Sleeping, which had been Arthur's original plan, is forgotten. "How did you get in here?"
"Gwaine let me in – told me to tell you to 'take good care of the gymnast'. Then, as if I didn't know he was referring to me, he winked and told me to have a good time, too." Before Arthur can respond, Merlin adds, "Did you know the Olympics provides more than one-hundred fifty thousand condoms to the Olympic Village during the games?"
"One-hundred fifty thousand?"
"Yes." Merlin waves the paper in his hand at Arthur, bolded bullet points blurring together until he looks away to meet Merlin's eyes. "Will is using one now in my room with a blond diver from Germany. I didn't catch her name, though; Will was too busy assaulting her mouth with his tongue – he was late this morning by the way, didn't brush and she'll likely go back to her friends and tell her all the rumours about our dental hygiene are true – to say more than 'get the fuck out' so..."
"So... you're here to tell me about all the sex everyone else is having?"
Merlin nods. "Everyone but you and I, yes. There will be at least two condoms left by the end of the Olympics, at the very least. Maybe they'll let us take them home?"
"You're right. Will has probably already used all the ones with my name on them."
"Gwaine has used at least twenty all on his own, some of which were likely assigned to me so we're even."
And then – Arthur wants to claim it's out of the blue but he's pretty sure it's been wordlessly tip-toed about since two days ago when Arthur accidentally walked into Merlin's room when he was changing and, instead of stepping out while there was still time to escape, had actually stood still and stared long enough to get caught, flushed-faced and breathing too heavily to be half as 'fine' as he'd claimed when Merlin had asked if he was well – Merlin says, casually, "Unless you'd like to change that; I'm sure there's one left to share between the two of us, yeah?"
Silence settles between them, enveloping them and separating them from the rest of the world. Arthur wonders if Merlin is joking or being serious and how the hell they got to this point from where they started – fury filled and hating one another to kindly offering what promises to be pretty fucking amazing sex – and then he wonders, lingering longer on this than the other thoughts: how fucking impossible it's going to be to tell Merlin anything other than 'fuck, yes – now’.
Arthur closes the space between them with three short steps and plants his knees at the edge of the bed. He settles himself between Merlin's legs as they part to accommodate him, to welcome him close enough to run his fingers through Merlin's freshly washed hair, the smell of chlorine lingering just under the clean scent of his shampoo. It's a flurry of frantic limbs, Merlin a little out of control of his and Arthur a little too in control of his own, very unsure and not entirely moving without question. He pauses every few moments, between the open mouthed kisses Merlin presses to his bare shoulder - shirt lost the second Arthur pulled away long enough for Merlin to grip the hem – between the instances where his hands find Merlin's skin, pale and smooth when Merlin arches for more, when Merlin throws his head back and reveals the long line of his neck so that Arthur can press his teeth and tongue there. His hands slide over Merlin's hips, the hard muscles under the skin of Merlin's abdomen, hidden but clearly present when Merlin falls back against the pillow, breathing heavily and looking far too smug for someone who didn't plan to be so thoroughly admired, half-naked or otherwise before settling just under his jaw, thumbs stroking his cheekbones before their lips meet again – slower, almost personal.
"You planned this, didn't you?" Arthur asks when they're both naked – after Merlin's shorts are lost somewhere in the corner by Gwaine's bag and Arthur's pants are dangling over the door knob, a great throw on Merlin's part. It's not just the almost too easy way Merlin fell back on the bed or the coy smile he gave when he offered in the first place that gave the hint; the very last unused condom in Olympic village, if Merlin is to be believed at all, just happened to be hidden in Merlin's back pocket and there might have been a packet of lube accompanying it but Arthur can't be sure if Merlin retrieved that from his shorts or from Gwaine's bag which, not so coincidentally, is stuffed full of them.
Merlin, though, plays the part of semi-innocent well. He shrugs and Arthur suddenly has a new-found collarbone fascination, one he didn't even realise could exist. "There might have been rumours that you'd say yes... but that wasn't a guarantee that you actually would." Then, as though the topic is closed, Merlin shoves the condom and lube from his hand to Arthur's. The fingers of his other hand twist in the hair at the nape of Arthur's neck, draw him close as their tongues meet between their mouths. Their lips are already slightly abused in the best possible way; it's the kind of tingling pain that signals having done something one too many times, just enough to remind Arthur that he'll probably never have enough of Merlin's mouth against his, Merlin's warm breath against his damps lips when he pulls back, looks between their bodies at Merlin's hard cock and his own before he presses them close, groans at the contact.
He wraps one hand around Merlin's cock, revels in the soft, pleased sigh Merlin gives him and the way it turns into a wanton groan when he pulls up, slides his thumb over the damp head and then grips tight on his way down to the base, twisting his wrist the entire way. The noises Merlin makes – quiet, breathless ones and loud, inviting ones – drive Arthur nearly insane with want, teasing him completely by accident. It's not just that, though, that makes Arthur realise that this is better than he ever imagined; there's nothing better than being settled between Merlin's legs, Merlin's cock hard under his fingers and his breath shallow between murmured, "Christ, Arthur" and "Fuck – more" because Arthur's not new to sex or even sex with blokes but Merlin – Christ. Merlin is something entirely new and undiscovered, unique in a million and one ways that makes Arthur instantly addicted, unwilling to even attempt to consider what the end of the Olympics might mean for them – what the end of the night might mean.
Merlin's back arches, pressing him close as though he can't get enough of Arthur's skin against his when Arthur has to pull away, struggles to find the lube and the condom between the twisted sheets and tacky-coloured bedspread where he'd tossed them earlier. If this is it – and somewhere deep under all of the childish hopes that it won't be, Arthur thinks the likelihood of this being a one-off is far greater than likelihood of carrying it on past this room – he's going to make it impossible to forget.
Merlin is tight around his finger when it finally pushes in, driven deeper faster then he'd usually go when Merlin pushes his hips down, forces Arthur further. Despite Merlin demanding more almost right after, eyes wide and blue and desperate when Arthur glances away from his finger disappearing back into Merlin's body, he takes his time, goes slow and curls to find the spot that forces a groan, loud and body-wracking, from Merlin's lips.
It's not until Merlin reaches between them, grips Arthur's wrist and, with undeniable firmness, says, "Either you move along a little faster or I'm going to turn us around and take it" that Arthur stops letting it fester and just goes for it. There's a second finger and then a third, breathy groans and Merlin's hips arched upward, bones sharp and abdominal muscles drawn so tight that Arthur wonders how the hell he ever doubted Merlin was an athlete. They share kisses, too; firmer than before, more like desperate breathing against each other's lips rather than the furious, teeth-filled ones from earlier but it's so fucking sexy to just press his face close to Merlin's and feel him – over his mouth and around his fingers, under the hand Arthur pulls away from Merlin's thigh to stroke Merlin's cock, still eager and waiting.
Merlin's hands find his shoulders, push him back and then grip over the bed for the last place they saw the condom. There's an awkward moment where they're both a little dumb-struck, given too much time to think about what they're doing and who they're doing it with, let their eyes track every bit of bare skin and Merlin's laugh is slightly nervous in a way that makes warmth blossom in Arthur's chest, full and spacious and all encompassing.
And then Merlin says, "Christ, you're so fucking fit. You have no fucking idea how hard I was that first day, when you were all flustered and angry. I came thinking about you that night, about your fucking mouth and your hands and – "and Arthur is absolutely lost. He finds the condom, doesn't protest when Merlin tugs it out of his hand and slips it on himself, slow and teasing to the point where Arthur has to pull away just to keep himself from coming right there.
It's a good thing he waits, that he saves himself from the embarrassment because he might have missed the moment he slides into Merlin's body, hot and tight and just damp enough to slip in slow and sure, so difficult when Merlin's nails are digging into his shoulders and Merlin's lips are parted wide, tongue dipping out to wet his lower lip. For the first few pumps, his hand keeps in tune with his body, sliding up Merlin's cock as he pushes in and sliding down when he pulls out but then, confident that Merlin is open just enough, he speeds up and losses track of his pattern.
Merlin doesn't seem to fault him for it, he pushes Arthur's hand away and tugs himself in time with Arthur's thrusts, moans and shifts and says "Fuck, fuck" when Arthur's hands lift his hips just right and Arthur's hips tilt perfectly to slam, hard and quick against Merlin's prostate – enough to make Merlin come, thick white ribbons against his fingers and his stomach and his arse clenches tight with every pulse, draws Arthur in so far that he falls slightly forward, saves himself from slamming against Merlin with weak arms alone that shake despite their strength when he follows, comes hard in hot, rapid pulses.
All sound is swallowed for a moment; the entire world goes brilliantly white and he feels nothing except Merlin's hands skimming over his side, tracing the lines of his ribs tiredly.
When his vision straightens itself out, he pulls the condom away from himself, ties it off and tosses in the corner, hoping it makes it to the trash. He falls beside Merlin and breaths heavily, chest heaving against Merlin's side and their eyes meet – their first post-sex moment. It's not strange so much as measured, calculated. Merlin's gaze, usually playful and proud, looks a bit unsure for the first time even though his smile is wide and pleased. He says, "Best use of the last condom in Olympic Village, if you ask me" and Arthur laughs, feels Merlin laugh with him. "I should go, though. Gwaine will probably be back, soon. You have gold to win tomorrow, yeah?"
Arthur nods in agreement but Merlin is already sitting up, moving a bit gingerly but dressing all the same. He slips his pants up, one leg at a time and then his retrieves his shorts from on top of Gwaine's bag. He'd apparently come shirtless because, when they're both on, he cocks his head to the side in a 'well, this is it...' way and Arthur thinks that maybe he should say something like, 'Let's tell Gwaine to piss off and do this again' or 'how about we exchange numbers – give this a go in a more personal fashion, with wine and cheese or whatever people on dates are supposed to eat' but, instead, he says, "Right" and "Well" and "Thanks, then."
The click the door makes when it falls shut behind Merlin is not nearly as loud as Arthur's own thoughts, loud and angry in his head when they ask when the hell it become socially acceptable to say 'thanks' after sex with a not-quite-stranger that he'd really like to know a little better, Spiderman obsession and all.
& & &
Merlin wins six gold, a silver and drags his luggage out into the corridor with the hand that isn't holding his schedule for the next two months – interview upon interview, meetings with companies looking to splash his picture next to their logo and maybe a day or two with his mum in between. Arthur has one just like it though he's only got the one gold and a dim-witted Gwaine trailing behind him through the door, yelling, "Oi! Gymnast! Congrats!"
It's only been two days since the incident involving the last condom in Olympic Village but Arthur still remembers the feel of Merlin's skin under his fingers, his hips clutched tight in his hands and the nervous, unsure look in his eyes when he'd walked out the door afterward. They've been busy, though. Arthur hasn't seen or heard Merlin once since then and things are still open between them, gaping and awkward and looking for some kind of ending more than Arthur's crass "Thanks, then."
"Thanks," Merlin replies, gesturing with his schedule sheet. He reddens a little around the collar of his shirt when Gwaine pushes past Arthur, interrupting the heightened unresolved sexual tension simmering between them to say, "Sorry about that first day, yeah? You weren't so bad, after all."
A moment later, as though suddenly understanding that he's standing between life and death every moment he's pressed against Arthur's side, Gwaine gestures goodbye with a wave. He says, "Well, I'll leave you poofs to work out your mental incapacities alone, then. Too many cocks in this equation for me" as he walks away.
Merlin laughs, shaking his head at them both and Arthur can't help but feel just as silly as Merlin looks. He gestures at Merlin's luggage, obviously still too large for him to carry and offers to walk it down for him. "I'll trade you," he says when Merlin looks prepared to protest. "My superhero shirts aren't quite as heavy."
"You wouldn't know a superhero if he punched you in the face."
"Sure I would," Arthur argues tossing his bag on the floor before Merlin's feet. "There would be some sort of 'pow' in the air, wouldn't there? In all capital letters, followed by a series of exclamation points?"
Merlin looks more amused than Arthur thinks he's meaning to let on. "Not quite," he replies when he reaches for Arthur's bag. They trudge down the corridor together, careful not to bump into too many shoulders and smiling at every 'congratulations' they receive on the way down the lift.
For the most part, it's a quiet trek. Merlin smiles, bites at his bottom lip and sometimes says "So..." only to never develop it into a real sentence. It reminds Arthur of the day they'd gone for lunch, the same day the girl at the café had said, "Are you dating?" and Merlin shook his head, gave a simple 'no' in reply though Arthur thinks now that maybe he should have made it a date, made their last couple of weeks something more than just arguments turned casual understanding turned sex turned... whatever this strange, quiet silence is.
Not quite awkward or empty just... uncertain.
"See you in four years then?"
Arthur looks up when the lift dings, signals that it's done with them and spits them out before heading back up. His bag is on the floor in front of his feet as soon as he steps out. Merlin's hand is outstretched waiting for his own bag and his smile is expectant but not happy – not the way Arthur thinks it should be. "In Brazil, yeah," he replies. "If you make it again, I mean."
Merlin raises a brow. "Pretty sure I won more medals than you, Pendragon."
"Doesn't mean you'll be back."
"True. You could ring though – before that. Maybe I'll let you in on my training or something, give you ample warning to prepare to carry my bags in Brazil."
Arthur's mobile is out of his pocket before he even knows what exactly he's doing. Merlin's eyes are blue, bright and confident – instantly different than they were when Arthur saw them for the first time twenty minutes ago – when he takes it from Arthur's outstretched hand and taps his number into it with long, sure fingers and then sends a text message to himself, promising to save Arthur's number, too – the same fingers he wiggles when he walks away with a warm, "See you around, Pendragon."
Gwaine looks smitten when he falls into the cab next to Arthur. "You're fucked, mate. Arse over tit for a male gymnast; your dad is going to die."
Arthur doesn't argue. He's too busy tapping away at the screen of his mobile, replying to the text that says:
i usually train at the itc in wales. my bed there is a lot more comfortable than the ones in the village if youre ever close ;)
"Gwaine, how do you feel about training in Wales this season?"
"Team Great Britain! Fourth floor, if you please! Fourth floor!"
It's a mess of bodies and luggage, thousands of people making their way up in only four sets of lifts and a single set of stairs that most are avoiding in fear of tripping over air and twisting an ankle – ruining their chances of making anything of themselves at the Olympics.
Gwaine is, of course, a daring fool. Tugging Arthur by the bicep toward the door, he yells, "It's four flights, Pendragon! You'll survive!"
And Arthur does survive. He makes it up the stairs, safely to the room labelled '408 – B' and tosses his bag on the floor by the bed closest to the door. It's a tiny space, a little smaller than the room he and Gwaine shared in London but the bed is softer and the corridor isn't half as loud with whinging footballers and lithe gymnasts who'd claimed to have sensitive eyes and complained all training season about the over-bright colours of the bedding they'd been given in London.
Brazil is all soft white sand and clear blue water through the windows. There's no sliding door to let them outside from their room but Gwaine presses his face eagerly against the wide-paned window and exclaims that nothing beats the view from the top. All the tanned skinned, long-legged women below seem to be watching Olympic Village just as excitedly as Gwaine is watching them.
It'll be a good year for Gwaine. Arthur can tell already.
There's a crash, a mumbled curse and Arthur is pulling open the door before Gwaine can even attempt to comment. "I told you to ring me when you got here."
Looking every bit as rumpled as he swore he wouldn't be, Merlin pushes a stray lock of fringe away from his eyes and replies, "My mobile is dead, Arthur, and my telepathic powers are out of service." When he catches sight of Gwaine behind Arthur, probably smiling unashamedly, he says, "What are you doing in my room, Gwaine?"
"Keeping Arthur company is all." To anyone else it would it would seem innocent but Arthur knows better – knows that Gwaine has been bitching for two weeks about agreeing to switch with Merlin because the room he'll be sharing with Will doesn't have a beach-view and that, if he'd been given more time, he might have tried to unpack his bags so that Merlin, always too nice for his own good, changed his mind for the sake of convenience alone.
"Well, I'm here to keep him company now." Merlin hands Gwaine his key to the room down the corridor, on the opposite side of the building where, from what Arthur heard on the way up, the view is limited to the football field – chalk-full of sweating men. It's Gwaine's worst nightmare come to life and Arthur can't help but feel a bit smug when Gwaine trudges past him, looking forlorn as he walks away.
"That's was a little cruel," Arthur says after he tugs Merlin's luggage into the room, discarding it next to the opposite bed but knowing full-well that Merlin won't end up using it. They've practised sharing a twin bed, have mastered the art of sleeping half on top of one another and not knocking the other off in the middle of the night. It took half a dozen bruises and some missed training meetings but they're perfect now, prepared for the next two weeks between qualifiers and preliminary matches, not to mention medal-earning events. "We should have taken your room and let he and Will share this one."
"And miss out on all the glorious women?" Merlin asks, pressing his face close to the window. "I wouldn't dream of it."
"Don't let them distract you; you're here to win medals, not have sex with strangers."
Merlin actually laughs then, loud and unhindered as he turns. His hands are familiar over Arthur's shoulders now, welcome and warm as his fingers link behind Arthur's neck. Eyes just as blue as Arthur remembers from a similar day four years before, he says, "I think I'm pretty well practised in sex with strangers between winning medals."
"Not so sure," Arthur replies, sounding serious. "Show me again how you do that?"
Merlin is only too happy to comply – every night, between winning nine gold medals and cheering for Arthur at the beach volleyball final match when Arthur slides to his knees, slams the ball back over the net and holds his breath for the gold...