After the 400 IM, Ryan gets a slap on the shoulder and a “Don’t let it get to your head.”
After the 4x100 free relay, Ryan’s father waits until after the metal ceremony to drag him into the locker room. All Ryan wants is a warm shower and a long sleep before his races tomorrow, but he stands still and obedient, shoulders back and eyes not moving from his father’s, taking in his words quietly.
“This,” Steven steps forward to pick up the silver medal, then lets it go to thump painfully back against Ryan’s chest, “is your fault. You had the lead. You lost it.”
“I know,” Ryan admits, his voice low.
“You know?” Steven’s face is red, from embarrassment of his son or anger at him, Ryan doesn’t know. “You’re an idiot, Ryan. You better start swimming better, ‘cause you’re no use at anything else.”
Ryan drops his eyes for a moment, staring at his neon green sneakers. “I’m sorry. I’ll be better.”
Steven jabs his finger at Ryan’s chest, forcing him to look up again. “It’s one thing to lose to Phelps, but to be worse than these other guys? It’s embarrassing.”
“I know. I’m sorry.” Ryan’s chest tightens and he fights past the lump in his throat. “I didn’t mean to embarrass you. I’ll be better. Tomorrow,” he promises.
Steven nods, a warning, and then he pivots on his heel and exits the locker room without another look back. Ryan watches until he’s out of sight, then gives in to the desperate shaking of his knees and sinks to the floor. He hugs his arms around his body, willing himself to stop shivering.
“Ryan, hey, Ryan?” His name echoes through the locker room as Mike calls for him, glancing around and stopping when he sees Ryan on the floor. “Hey, I’ve been looking for you. You okay?”
“Yeah, yeah.” Ryan stands up, brushing Mike’s hand away when he holds it out to help. “Just a bit tired.”
“Team’s heading to the mess for a snack to celebrate. Wanna come?”
“Celebrate?” The word feels like chalk in Ryan’s mouth. His throat goes dry, and he swallows, hard. “I’m sorry, Mike. I lost you another Gold. My fault.”
“What?” Mike’s voice is light, confused. “We were a relay, man. All of us. And, hey,” he holds up his own Silver medal, “silver’s more expensive than gold, right?”
Ryan wants to laugh, but his father’s words are still running through his head, and he’s sure his confusion just makes him look constipated. Mike takes another step forward and clasps Ryan’s shoulder, his hand warm and heavy even through Ryan’s team jacket.
“Come on, let’s get some food.”
“Yeah, um, I need another shower. Chlorine, you know?” He offers, waving towards the showers. “I’ll meet you.”
“Yeah, cool.” Ryan watches Mike walk away, his motions so similar to Steven’s, but so different, and, when he’s out of sight, Ryan lets himself collapse for a whole different reason.
Ryan comes in fourth in the 200 free. He’s not on the podium, doesn’t have to look nice for the cameras, so he doesn’t have the dignity of changing out of his suit before his father is storming into the locker room.
Steven is furious, face mottled and red, the top button of his shirt unbuttoned, his hair enough askew that Ryan knows exactly how mad he is. It makes Ryan feel vulnerable, and, ridiculously, he drops his hands between his legs to cover what is clearly visible through the tight fabric.
Steven sneers, stepping forward and crowding Ryan until he can’t step back any further. Steven’s fingers grab for Ryan’s head, but they slip through Ryan’s short hair as Steven tries to find purchase. Ryan’s pathetically grateful that he decided to cut it before London, for this exact purpose. Steven just grunts, though, and uses Ryan’s left ear to push his head, hard, back into the lockers.
Ryan grunts, turning his head as Steven holds him still, leaning forward to whisper harshly in Ryan’s ear. “Listen to me.”
“I am,” Ryan whimpers, petulantly, and his eyes go dark for a moment when Steven forces his head back, again. “I have to swim tomorrow,” Ryan whispers, softly, begging.
“Don’t need your head for that.” Steven’s breath is hot in Ryan’s ear and Ryan tries not to squirm as his whole body shakes in fear. Steven must notice, because he releases Ryan quickly, letting him fall to the floor and stepping back with a satisfied smirk. “Don’t worry, I won’t leave a mark. I just need you to pay attention.”
“I am,” Ryan promises, not bothering to try and stand again.
“You’re not. Give me your phone.”
The abrupt shift confuses Ryan for a moment, but then he’s digging through his bag and handing it over. Steven glances at it as it beeps with hundreds of new Twitter messages.
“You need to stop fucking around and start focusing on your job. This,” he holds up the phone, “is an unneeded distraction. It’s making you cocky. You have a big enough opinion of yourself as it is.”
“I know,” Ryan says gently, his eyes not moving from his phone in his father’s hand.
“Don’t let your adoring fans make you feel special. You’re not. You’re stupid. And ordinary. You’ll never amount to anything more than a pretty boy in a Speedo.”
Ryan hangs his head. “I know.”
“You won’t be needing this anymore.” Steven throws the phone against the lockers across from them, the sound echoing through the empty room as it shatters. Ryan flinches, and Steven crouches in front of him, grasping Ryan’s chin in his hands. “Do you think I want to be here? Do you think I want to do this?”
Ryan shakes his head.
“I have to sit in the stands and look like an idiot on national television because you can’t get your ass in gear. I do it for you and you do nothing for me. It’s unacceptable.”
“Don’t apologize.” Ryan pulls his chin back as Steven’s voice rises again. “Haven’t I given up enough for you? I just think about the time and the money. My marriage.”
Ryan swallows. He knows it’s his fault – has since his the morning, a year ago, when his parents sat him down at the kitchen table and told him that the pressure of raising an Olympic athlete was just too much – but it doesn’t make the reminder hurt any less. The corners of Ryan’s eyes burn and he closes them.
“I won’t go through this again. You hear me?”
“Yes, sir,” Ryan whispers, nodding. He waits for Steven to leave before he gives into the tears.
Steven doesn’t have the chance to touch him after the 4x200 free relay. Michael is ecstatic with his record-breaking nineteenth medal, and he pulls the team to the mess hall for a Vodka and ice cream celebration before Steven can steer Ryan into a private place.
It’s a good celebration. Not too much Vodka and not too much ice cream, because most of them still have to race the next day, but just enough to take the edge off. When Michael gives him the last bites of his own ice cream, Ryan even feels happy. Adrian lets Ryan borrow his phone so that Ryan can take a close-up of himself grinning, grill firmly in place. He Tweets it from Adrian’s account, hoping that his father is obsessive enough to be keeping an eye on the accounts of everyone on the team.
Despite what the media seem to think, Ryan isn’t dumb enough to delude himself into thinking that he’s a star because of his bright, bubbly personality. It’s a defensive move, all of it – the grill, the over-the-top persona, the misspelled tweets and well-placed rumors about one-night stands. It’s a game he plays, for the press, for the team, for himself. Armor he has to wear, because otherwise he’d never race again and the only time he ever, ever feels right is when he’s in the water.
And when he’s with Michael, not like he’d ever admit that to anyone. Even Michael. Sitting in the mess, eating ice cream off of Michael’s spoon and leaning slightly against Michael’s shoulder, Ryan feels good and comfortable and normal. He doesn’t ever want it to end. But it has to. It’s too dangerous. His father doesn’t need to add “fag” to the long list of Ryan’s faults.
Ryan should have known that the feeling wouldn’t last. One night of normalcy in London, and then it goes back to the way it’s always been. The way it was in Athens. And Beijing. The way it’s been so far in London.
Ryan wins the Bronze in the 200 Back. Then, only a short while later, a Silver in the 200 IM. It’s two medals, two medal ceremonies, but still two losses. He’s off the 4x100 IM relay. Clary is taking his place and Ryan’s happy for him, he is, but a part of him is blaming Clary, just a little, when Steven’s hand wraps around Ryan’s bicep and pulls him into the locker room.
The last medal ceremony is over, the Aquatics Centre is empty, and Ryan has no more races to swim. No reason why his father has to be careful to not leave marks and bruises. Before, Ryan was shaky and worried. He’s man enough to admit that, right now, he’s scared.
Steven pulls him into the locker room roughly, ignoring the yelp Ryan lets out as his shoulder collides with the edge of a locker. Steven doesn’t say anything. He just watches, hands in his pockets, posture radiating fury and disappointment as Ryan gingerly touches his stinging shoulder, checking for blood.
“You lost.” It’s low, almost gentle, but Ryan knows it’s a pretense for anger.
“I won a Silver. And a Bronze.”
“Those aren’t wins,” Steven spits.
Ryan shrugs, wincing as his shoulder smarts. “Best I could do. I swam hard, Dad.”
It was the wrong thing to say. Steven is on him, shoving him against the wall and slapping him hard enough to leave a large, wet welt across his left cheek. “You’re a lazy asshole,” Steven spits. “You’re an embarrassment to me. To your mother. Your brothers.” Steven’s hand is curled in Ryan’s jacket, and Ryan’s back is aching where the cold metal is digging into his shoulder blades. “Your sisters can’t even look at you.”
Ryan looks down, guilt swirling in the pit of his stomach. “I let them down. Tell Kris and Meg that I’m sorry. Please.”
“They’re hiding. From you. Because of that TMZ report, the whole world knows that our house has been foreclosed. It’s humiliating. You’ve humiliated them.”
“I didn’t mean-” Ryan swallows. “I know it’s my fault.”
“What can I do? Please, Dad, tell me what I can do to make this up to everyone.”
“Nothing. You’re a failure, Ryan. Don’t you get that?”
“Yes,” Ryan says, his voice low and choked. “I’ll do better in Rio. I’ll get Golds in Rio. Seven of them. Eight of them.”
“Stop whining.” Steven raises his hand to slap Ryan again, but the slap never comes. There’s another hand, a familiar hand, wrapped tightly around Steven’s wrist, holding it back. Steven’s other hand lets go of Ryan and Ryan struggles to stay standing, pressing against the lockers and watching in shock as Michael turns Steven around to face him. Michael looks angrier, scarier, much more dangerous than Steven has ever looked.
“Don’t,” Michael speaks, low and slow, enunciating every word. “Lay another hand on him.”
“Phelps.” Steven nods, trying to pull his wrist out of Michael’s grip, but Michael doesn’t let go. “This is between me and my son.”
“You have no right to call him that.”
“Stay out of this.”
“This is none of your business.”
“Ryan is my business.” Michael’s eyes are gleaming as he looks up, over Steven’s shoulder, to lock eyes with Ryan. “Ryan is always my business.”
Steven scoffs. “He’s not worth it. I promise you. Leave us alone, and no one will ever know this happened.”
Michael turns his eyes back to Steven, burning in rage, his fingers tightening hard enough around Steven’s wrist that Ryan can see the flinch in Steven’s rigid shoulders. “I’m the one making ultimatums here. Go ahead, tell the media that I’m here. Tell the world what I just walked in on and tell them that I stopped it.”
Steven raises an eyebrow. “You have just as much to lose as I do. You don’t want to be tied to him,” Steven glances back over his shoulder, scowling at Ryan, “any more than I do.”
“That’s where you’re wrong. Go, tell the media. Let them know it was me that stopped you, and let them know that it will always be me. Me and Ryan, together, for a long time.”
“You don’t know what you’re getting yourself into. He’s an idiot, a lazy fuck-up who-”
“Quiet.” Michael twists Steven’s wrist and Ryan flinches in sympathetic pain for his father. “Don’t ever talk about him like that again. Ryan’s funny and friendly, he’s the soul of this team. I owe every one of my medals to him and, sir, now that I know you, I know that he is the strongest man I’ve ever met.” Steven scoffs louder and Michael steps back, letting go of Steven’s wrist and turning his attention to Ryan. “Your son is amazing, and if you don’t realize that, well, then it’s your loss.”
“You’re going to regret this.” He turns to Ryan. “When this all goes wrong, don’t come crying to me. I won’t be there to help you anymore.”
Ryan can’t speak. He doesn’t really know what’s happening right now, except that if he wasn’t already in love with Michael, he’d be falling, now, hard and fast and overwhelmingly.
Michael must be able to see how lost Ryan is, because he turns to Steven coldly. “You should leave now. I don’t want you to ever come near Ryan again.”
“Don’t worry.” Steven spits, his eyes roaming from Michael to Ryan. “I’ll never think about you again. Fags.”
Michael looks like he wants to hit Steven for the word, but then Steven is gone, taking with him everything that was holding Ryan together, and Ryan doesn’t think that he can hold himself up anymore. But then Michael is there, in front of him, wrapping his arms around Ryan’s waist. Ryan resists for only a moment, before his arms automatically come up to wrap around Michael’s shoulders and Ryan whispers a low, “ow,” as his shoulder protests.
“I can’t believe you let him talk to you like that.” Michael sounds furious, and Ryan stiffens, but Michael’s arms hold him tighter and Ryan reminds himself that this is Michael, Michael’s safe, and he drops his head into the crook of Michael’s neck.
“He’s right. I’ve let them down.”
This time, Michael’s body stiffens, his voice hard as he bites out. “He’s not. You haven’t. Fuck, Ryan, he’s an asshole.”
“He’s my father.”
“Doesn’t mean he knows anything about you.” Michael’s hands are drawing slow, soothing circles in the small of Ryan’s back. “I know you. You’re my best friend. And I know that you’re the most amazing, fascinating- Jesus, Ryan, you get that, don’t you?”
Reluctantly, Ryan pulls back, resting his back slowly against the lockers so as not to aggravate any of his bruises. “I’m not, Michael. I’m worthless. I’ve let my family down. They’ve given so much, for me to follow this stupid dream, and I’ve failed.”
“Oh god.” Michael’s face falls, and he makes to take a step forward, but Ryan flinches and he stops. “Those are his words, Ryan. They aren’t true. Your father’s angry. He’s jealous of you and what you’ve accomplished and he wants to take you down with him. You’re none of those things.”
Ryan shakes his head. “No, I am, I-”
“Fuck, Ryan.” Michael looks frustrated, his hands running through his hair as he peers down at Ryan through his half-closed eyelids. “You trust me, yeah?” Ryan nods. “Then listen to me. You are none of those things. You are strong and smart and hot as hell.”
“I wouldn’t love anyone who wasn’t.”
Ryan stops. His whole world is spinning and he holds out a hand to keep himself steady. Michael is there, instantly, grabbing his hand and bringing it to his lips, kissing the center of his palm with so much tenderness that Ryan can’t find the words to argue.
“Yeah,” Michael smiles. “I love you. I have, for a very long time.”
“You can’t.” Ryan shakes his head. “You’re wonderful and I’m- I’m not. I’m not worth it.”
Michael gives him a sad little smile. “You’re worth it, Ry. You’re worth everything, and it’s killing me that you don’t see that.” He takes Ryan in his arms again and Ryan goes, half-willingly and half because he’s too confused to fight it. “I can’t believe I never saw it before,” Michael whispers, shaking his head against Ryan’s. “I’m sorry I didn’t stop this before now. I’m sorry.”
Michael’s voice is low, choked, and it hurts Ryan to hear him like this. He doesn’t know what to do, but he needs to stop this, so he does the only thing he can think of. He pulls back, just far enough to press his lips against Michael’s, gentle and close-mouthed.
Michael moans, parting his lips and urging Ryan to open his. Michael moans again, the sound pooling in Ryan’s stomach. Ryan wants to protest, wants to argue, but Michael is too much, too big, too everything, all around him, surrounding him, until Ryan can’t think about anything but Michael. He feels good, strong, hard against Ryan’s thigh and it’s all too overwhelming. All of the emotion of the last week shivers through Ryan’s body, clenching in Ryan’s balls, and he wraps his arms around Michael’s back and pulls him flush against his body.
Michael falls forward, loosening a hand from Ryan’s shoulder to press against the locker next to Ryan’s head, holding his weight and giving him leverage to thrust against Ryan’s hip. Ryan slips his hands under Michael’s t-shirt, pressing against the warmth and sweat that’s pooling in the small of Michael’s lower back, urging him forwards.
Michael is grunting, moaning, his lips moving against Ryan’s in the same motion as his hips are arching into Ryan’s. And then he’s shaking apart in Ryan’s arms, his lips parted against Ryan’s, his eyes closed and Ryan has never seen anything more amazing. Because he did this. Michael is falling apart for him, because of him, and the whole thing is too much.
His own hips thrust forward and Michael gets with the picture, his hands falling to Ryan’s hips, urging him on. It doesn’t take more than a couple of thrusts, then Michael’s lips are on his again and Ryan is coming, harder than he ever has, glad that Michael’s arms are there because he’s not sure that his knees are strong enough right now to hold his weight.
“God, fuck, Ryan,” Michael whispers, his lips moving gently against Ryan’s neck, pressing light, desperate kisses against his bare skin. “That was- Jesus, please, say we can do that again.”
“I-” Ryan pauses. He’s coming down from his orgasm and everything is looking a littler clearer now that his arousal has receded. “My father disowned me.”
Michael’s lips still, and he pulls back just far enough so that he can look at Ryan. “Yeah. Probably. I think I outed us.”
“There wasn’t anything to out,” Ryan protests, and Michael’s face shutters closed. Ryan panics, reaching out to hold Michael tight against him before he can pull away. “I mean, there wasn’t. Before. I hope, now, I mean-”
Michael shakes his head fondly, pressing a quick kiss to Ryan’s mouth. “Come home with me. To Baltimore. Train with me. I want to show you how important you are. To me. To everyone. Please? Let me?”
It’s too much. Ryan doesn’t even really know what it means, but he knows he can’t go home, and he knows that there’s nowhere else he’d rather be than with Michael, so he nods, slowly. Michael whoops, kissing Ryan hard and fast and, just like that, Ryan’s hard again, pressing desperately against Michael’s stomach.
Michael pulls back, laughing, and grabs Ryan’s hand. “Come on. We need a bed.”
“Yeah.” Ryan bites his lips. “Yeah, um, yeah, okay.”
He follows Michael out of the locker room. He tries to let go of Michael’s hand, but Michael won’t let him. The Aquatics Center is empty, and Ryan stills, looking at the pool, so quite and calm now that everyone is gone. He tugs on Michael’s hand gently, and they walk around the pool, slowly. Michael stops him, behind the starting blocks, and pulls Ryan close.
“Beijing will always be important to me, but I’ll never forget London. I promise.”
It feels like Michael is promising something else, something that Ryan can’t quite handle yet, so he reaches up, wrapping his hand around Michael’s neck, and pulls him down for a kiss.