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The Place of that Desire

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They go to London, and they win medals (fewer than last time) and party (harder than last time, possibly related) and get laid (in Michael's case, at least – and probably in Ryan's, who unlike last time doesn't have a girlfriend), all the things you’re supposed to do at the Olympics, and then it’s over, and it’s weird as shit. After Beijing, even when he was starting to throw around the word “retirement,” Michael knew he had Worlds in a year and, really, knew that he wouldn’t actually be able to stay away. But this time, he’s fucking 27, man. They both are. And, at least for him, it’s over for real.

Michael flies home and does a whirlwind month or two of appearances, not as crazy as last time because, unsurprisingly, “Greatest Olympian of All Time” doesn’t have the same ring to it when you’re hearing it about the same dude for the second time in four years. It’s still pretty great though, the perks and the sponsors who are starting to pick him back up—fuck that Head and Shoulders shit while Lochte got to swim across the Atlantic for AT&T, seriously—and it’s overwhelming enough that he doesn’t notice until that Ryan’s pretty much stopped responding to his texts until a few days of radio silence.

When he doesn’t get anything back after he sends Just saw Drake, told him he’s your go-to jo soundtrack, he gets worried for real and looks back through their conversation on his phone, notices that it’s been three weeks exactly. Ryan’s last text to him says lol haha!!!!!!! g2g allies comng jeah :)

It’s impressive that Ryan somehow manages to misspell every single word on an iPhone, really, when you think about it. Michael has no idea who Allie is, but seeing as Ryan tends to stay on pretty good—read: fuckbuddies—terms with most of his ex-hookups, he figures that’s what this is.

He makes a mental list. Possibility number one is that this girl Allie has been fucking Ryan into oblivion for three weeks: impressive if true, but unlikely. Possibility number two is that Allie has murdered Ryan and dumped his body in the woods: terrifying if true, and maybe slightly more likely, because Ryan can be an oblivious, annoying shit a lot of the time.

“I gotta go to Gainesville,” he tells one of the people who always seem to be surrounding him these days, and before he knows it he’s on a plane and then a bus and then a truly undersized rental car.

He’s been to Ryan’s house once before, right after Beijing when they were high on gold medals and post-village camaraderie. Three days of blazing, video games, and Ryan trying to bully him onto a skateboard, and they’d made a no-swimming pact but caught each other sneaking out to Ryan’s too-small backyard pool in the middle of the night on the second day. He hasn’t been back since—laziness, maybe, too much reliance on their easy pattern of texts.

Now, the air in southern Florida hits him with a disconcertingly tangible wall of moisture. He’s drenched just walking to the door of Ryan’s ridiculously shitty condo, and showing up here was probably stupid. Ryan’ll be fine, with this girl, probably, and Michael will have to turn around and walk back into this insane humidity and the rest of his life. Whatever that is, now. Carter barks at him from the yard as he walks up the path, looking just as unhappy to be stuck outside as Michael is.

Unlike Carter, though, he doesn’t have too long to stand there sweating to death. The door opens a few seconds after he rings the bell and Ryan’s there—remarkably quick reaction time for a guy whose second-favorite hobby is basically getting too stoned to move—looking pissed, actually, then shocked.

“What the fuck, bro?” Ryan asks, blinking, and then he’s pulling Michael inside and shutting the door with a worried look on his face. Michael wonders briefly if Ryan’s lack of communication is something more along the lines of witness protection than girl trouble, because he's kind of acting crazy, and he’s just starting to ask for clarification when Ryan slaps a hand over his mouth.

“Quiet,” he hisses, looking a little wild around the eyes. “He’ll hear you, dude.”

He's making it sound like it really is something as ridiculous as gangsters—a drug deal gone wrong? Even Ryan can’t be that dumb. Last time Michael was here Ryan was buying from some guy in his old frat, ounces at most, but his obsession with the hustler lifestyle has admittedly always been a little worrying.

“Who?” he asks, when Ryan finally, slowly, takes his hand away from Michael’s face. Ryan narrows his eyes at the noise and Michael lowers his voice to a comic whisper.

“Who’ll hear me, Ryan?”

Maybe he’s had a psychotic break, Michael thinks. It’s not impossible: the stress of competition, the sudden lack of direction, Ryan’s already-worrying mental capacity warping in the unfamiliar post-career environment.

Ryan’s rubbing a hand over his face like he can’t figure out what to say, and Michael notices that his eyes are bloodshot—but he’s kind of wired and twitchy, not slow and stoned. It’s like he hasn’t gotten real sleep in days.

“I can’t—shit, dude,” Ryan whispers in a voice slightly more nervous than his usual one-word-per-minute drawl. “I guess I didn’t really think about this part, you know? I was just like, fuck, and then—jeah.”

“Not helpful,” Michael whispers back. “What the fuck are you talking about? Nouns, Ryan. Person, place, thing.”

“I—fuck it. I gotta show you this, dude,” Ryan says, and then he’s dragging Michael down the hall. It’s the same way he acts when he’s showing off one of his new sneaker prototypes, so maybe he’s just been too busy… being really into how he looks in them or something… to sleep. Maybe.

Then Ryan pushes the door to his bedroom open, and Michael thinks for a second that he’s got some kind of fancy cage for Carter, has he, like, moved on to dog accessories now? And then his brain catches the fuck up and translates “cage” to “crib” and that’s a fucking baby, holy shit.

“That’s a baby,” he says to Ryan, in a moment of Bob Costas-level stating the obvious, but like. What? Did he steal it?

“A baby,” Michael says again. “But how—what—I don’t.” He hasn’t been this out of answers since he dropped the 200 fly to Le Clos. Except, not even. That was the turns. This cannot be explained by Ryan fucking up his turns.

Ryan doesn’t seem as concerned as Michael is about the baby sitting—sleeping, really, on its back with one arm flung up next to its head like it’s about to pump a fist in the air—in the middle of his totally gross, frat-star bedroom covered in a 50/50 split of swimming posters and pictures of disgustingly expensive cars. In fact, he’s looking at the baby with the kind of expression you usually only see on guys’ faces when they’re standing on the podium watching their own flag lifted toward the ceiling of the arena.

“Isn’t he fuckin’ awesome?” Ryan asks, still whispering. “He’s the fucking best, dude, you don’t even know. He’s a ton of work and shit, and, like, he shits a lot, too, but. Dude.”

“I—what?” says Michael. This is making less sense by the second. Maybe it’s actually him who’s having the mental breakdown. He has the sudden urge to call Bob and ask him to make sense of this in, like, split times or something.

Ryan looks at him like he’s just remembering that Michael’s in there.

“I—“ Michael starts again, and boom, Ryan’s got that oversized palm clapped on his mouth again and is dragging him bodily back out the door. Behind them, the baby makes a tiny noise, and Ryan goes white and freezes. The noise starts again, quiets, stops, and Michael feels Ryan start to breathe.

“Shit, yo. He just fell asleep for the first time in, like, three days. Or something. A long fucking—a longass time.”

Michael still thinks he might be hallucinating, and he has the overwhelming urge to grab Ryan by the shoulders and shake him until the illusion breaks or he gets an explanation for the fucking baby in Ryan’s house , or both. But Ryan’s eyes are bloodshot in a way that Michael suddenly realizes probably isn’t from weed, and he's twitching a little bit. The usual cloud of smoke is missing from the house, too, and Ryan has week-old stubble on his face. Ryan never forgets to shave, because facial hair takes focus away from his grill.

“Shit,” says Michael. “So when was the last time you slept?”

“Dunno,” Ryan says vaguely. “Two days? Or, like, an hour, last—some time. I got—shit. Maybe?”

“Fuck,” says Michael. “Okay, fuck, Ryan. Go to sleep, you moron.”

“But cash,” says Ryan, nonsensically. “I can’t—baby.”

“I have a niece myself, you know,” says Michael, pushing Ryan over to the couch. “I’ll make sure it doesn’t die.”

“No die,” says Ryan, collapsing onto the couch. “No. Bro.”

“No,” Michael agrees. Ryan’s eyes are already slipping shut. “When you wake up, I want a complete explanation in the longest sentences you’ve ever managed in your life, you fucking—just. Go the fuck to sleep. I will watch the fucking baby, dude.”

My baby,” says Ryan, shoving his face into the arm of the couch, and Michael can feel the kind of look that must be on his face. There goes the slim chance that Ryan’s sister had suddenly popped out another one without anyone finding out and, like, left Ryan alone to babysit it for days. Oh, god. If there’s a baby in Ryan’s house, then at least it belonging to him is a better alternative than him having, like, stolen it as a prank. Not by much, though. And also—what the fuck?

Ryan’s snoring obnoxiously now, so Michael lets himself collapse into a chair and fucking—process this shit. He’s in Gainesville, because of the humidity. He’s in Ryan’s house, because Carter was in the yard, and also there are three skateboards and two broken PS3s within his direct sightline. That was definitely Ryan’s bedroom, because of the posters and how Ryan was in there with him. And the baby—is apparently Ryan’s. Okay. Wow.

There’s nothing else he can do to figure it out while Ryan’s blacked out on the couch, so Michael focuses on the short-term goal: keeping it alive until Ryan wakes up again. There’s a white egg-shaped thing on the coffee table that he vaguely recognizes from Taylor’s babyhood, and he picks it up and turns a knob until it crackles on. Through the static, he hears soft, rapid breathing. So far, so good.

In the kitchen, he finds three boxes of baby formula and very detailed, Ryan-proof instructions in handwriting that he recognizes from Mrs. Lochte's Christmas cards. He’s just trying to figure out how to fit the nozzle on the little bottle—really? Ryan does this himself?—when the monitor starts whining and then crying at him, not the shrieking cries of a raging toddler but a pathetic, desperate sobbing.

“Shit,” he says, giving up on the bottle, and runs for the bedroom before Ryan wakes up.

The thing—the baby, the actual what-the-fuck baby—is redfaced and shaking with how hard he’s crying, and Michael picks him up, a little awkwardly, with a growing nervousness. He’d promised Ryan he could do this, and he can—he’s held babies before, fed them, changed a diaper or two even—but Taylor’s like 8 now, and he wasn’t exactly the superb uncle he is today until she got old enough to, like, talk and play video games. He’s not sure where to start fixing the pathetic crying that’s going on right now. How do you know when a baby’s hungry or when he’s sitting in his own shit or when he’s in serious pain?

It occurs to him that the second of those, at least, is a simple enough yes or no, and he lifts the still-crying baby up and, like, smells it, feeling incredibly silly as he does. It smells like powder and warm skin, but not shit. Maybe the problem is pee, but he feels vaguely like babies don’t mind pee enough to wake themselves up shrieking about it?

He tries the bottle next, once he figures out how to fit the damn thing together. The baby lets Michael stick the rubber nipple part in his mouth and purses his lips like he’s thinking about it, then opens wide and starts sobbing again. As if that wasn’t bad enough, Michael hears rustling from the couch. There’s no way Ryan’s sleeping through this, and in two seconds he’ll get up and come in here and—what are the long-term health effects of getting absolutely no sleep? Ryan already seems to be functioning at like 75% of his normal brain capacity, and that’s kind of horrifying. It occurs to Michael that it’s impressive that the house is still standing, not to mention that the baby in Michael’s arms is clearly very alive.

It’s still crying, though, and Ryan is still maybe waking up in the next room over, so Michael shifts to crisis mode. Grabbing the baby monitor so Ryan can’t hear it, he shuts himself in the bathroom with the baby and pulls out his iPhone.

Bob answers on the second ring.

“Michael? What’s going on?”

“Uh—" It occurs to Michael that maybe his mom would be a better solution for this particular crisis would be his mom, not his coach. Former coach, now, technically.

"Nothing, it's just," and he may as well go for it. Bob knows a lot of random shit. "If a baby's crying but like, not hungry or dirty, is it dying?"

There's silence on the other end of the line and the baby lets out another wail. Michael winces.

"Do I need to ask?" Bob asks, voice halfway from 'friend' to 'I am your very strict coach.'

"No," says Michael, "No, definitely not, nothing to ask about. Just, you know. Jeopardy question."

"Uh-huh," says Bob. "Listen, Mike. If you're in trouble you can tell me, but I'm not gonna push it. I don't know shit about babies, though. Call your mom."

I'm not in trouble! Michael wants to say, like he's afraid Bob will give him laps or something for fucking up. Ryan's the one who's in trouble! Mysterious, baby-related trouble. But Bob can't do anything about it in Baltimore, and neither can Michael until Ryan recovers most of his functional ability and explains his shit.

"Thanks," Michael says, and he's just about to hang up when Bob clears his throat.

"I don't know shit about babies, again, but. You never calmed down when you were a kid until you were in motion. Maybe it—"

"Jeopardy," says Michael, and he can hear Bob roll his eyes through the phone.

"—It's just as much of an ADHD shit as you were."

It's not a bad idea. He remembers Whitney complaining about how Taylor wouldn't fall asleep sometimes unless they drove her around in the car for an hour, and the baby did quiet down a little as he was rushing it out of Ryan's earshot and towards the bathroom.

"Michael." Bob's voice comes back, more serious now. "You aren't—is everything okay?"

"I'm fine," says Michael, which isn't exactly an answer, but Bob takes it, gives him a gruff goodbye and hangs up. Michael's left with a baby, still crying, and the claustrophic, acoustic-enhancing tiled walls of Ryan's bathroom.

"Okay, mystery baby," he tells it, "Let's do some laps." Awkwardly, he tries rocking it a little, then gets up and paces in circles around the bathroom, swaying from side to side like an idiot. The baby looks up at him and screams a few more times, then coughs a little and considers him with wide eyes.

"That's right, no complaining till you finish your workout," he tells it, and keeps going. Slowly, slowly, its eyes start to close, and the red drains out of its cheeks. Relaxed, its face is round and chubby-cheeked, with a wisp or two of light brown hair. All babies pretty much look the same to Michael, and this is no exception. Hilary or Whitney would be in the throws of cute-baby ecstasy right now, though. He can tell that much.

Slowly, holding his breath, he opens the bathroom door and heads for the bedroom. He puts the baby back down in the crib the way he found it and tiptoes back out, pumping his fist silently in the air when he gets the door closed behind him. And then he looks up and sees Ryan standing there, leaning against the living room doorway and yawning.

"Man, you suck at that," says Ryan. "It was pretty funny watching you sneak around, though, haha. And the bottle! Dude, it screws on. It's not that hard."

"You were asleep!" says Michael. "I was taking care of it so you could sleep, and I did an awesome job, so fuck you, dude."

"Bro, I woke up the second he started crying," says Ryan, yawning again. "I was making sure you didn't kill him on accident. Like, when you went in the bathroom I got kinda nervous, 'cause there's lots of tile in there and his head and bones are all extra-breakable right now and shit. But I heard you talk to Bob, so like. I knew you were worried too and stuff."

Ryan woke up the second the baby started crying? Ryan can barely get out of bed for Olympic races.

"I was doing fine," Michael says, a little put out. "And you should be asleep, Ryan, seriously. You look like shit, dude."
"He'll sleep for a while now, probably, so like. I can too. We're on a schedule and shit. I mean, I'm trying to make him be on a schedule and –" but Ryan's already yawning again, a big one that makes him stumble in the doorway, and Michael rolls his eyes.

"Why do you have a baby in your house, Ryan?" he asks, because, like, this can't wait any longer. And Ryan's always more talkative when he's a little out of it.

But it's already too late, Ryan's eyes sliding closed as he collapses back onto the couch.

"Told you, he's mine," he says, then in a half-mumble, "'s mine an' 's th' best, Mike, he's…" and then he's gone.

This Michael even drifts off—the travel time from New York to Gainesburg is not insignificant. When he wakes up, it's to the soft cry of a baby. When he wrenches his eyes open there's sun shining in the windows and the couch is empty, the sound coming from the kitchen.

Wandering in, he sees Ryan with the baby tucked deftly under one arm like a particularly precious football, filling a bottle one-handed. He squeezes some of the formula onto his wrist and wrinkles his nose, holds the bottle under the cold faucet for a moment, then pops it into the baby's mouth and smiles down at him.

"That's right, buddy. Milk, dude. Milk is so great. Well, like, this is formula, but dude, I totally tried it. It's not bad. I might steal some of yours, man, so watch it. That's right, drink up before I come for your breakfast. I'm starving too, dude, just saying, it's not all about you around here, even if you think you're king of the castle and shit, just 'cause you're like the cutest fucking baby in the world, aren't you –"

It's exactly the kind of narrative that Michael always imagines is running non-stop in Ryan's head whenever he lapses into those long silences of his, and he smiles despite the fact that none of this clarifies anything at all.

He feels a little out of place, all of a sudden, watching Ryan carry on his one-sided conversation with the baby; at meets and stuff, when Ryan gets nervous—which is more often than people might think—he starts talking more, and Michael's usually the one on the receiving end of that. But now it's like he's forgotten Michael's even in his house, which, why is Michael even still here? Ryan's obviously okay, if a little sleep-deprived. Peter's probably called him a hundred times by now, he definitely has a few things left to do in New York, and—

Just then, Ryan turns around, notices him, and grins ear to ear in that disgustingly genuine way of his.

"Dude! You woke the fuck up at long last. C'mere, you wanna turn feeding the lil'dude?"

What Michael really wants is an explanation, but going along with Ryan is usually the best way to get what you want out of him in the end, so he shrugs and crosses to the other side of kitchen island.

Ryan settles the baby in Michael's arms, adjusting a little here and there, and gives him the bottle. The baby lets out another brief cry at the sudden disruption in his routine and Ryan laughs softly, in a way that's somehow different than his big dumb Ryan-laugh.

"Gotta feed him, man, or he'll come for you! This dude is a total gangsta already, I can tell."

Trust Ryan to make that sound like he's calling the baby the next Einstein. Michael shakes his head and urges the bottle into the baby's mouth, pleased despite himself when it stops crying and starts drinking with quick little swallows.

"So," he says when the baby seems like he's fully calmed down, "explain, Ryan. Seriously."

Ryan shrugs and grins again, but it's a little abashed, like he knows Michael's not gonna be as easy to win over as an infant is.

"So like, Allie called me and wanted to hang, and I was like, sure—"

"Allie?" Michael asks, because he remembers the name from the text but not from Ryan talking about her. Ryan hasn't had a serious girlfriend in years, not since after Beijing, really, and definitely not one named Allie.

"We hooked up, it wasn't a real thing. A while ago. Well, nine and a half months, I guess."

Shit, shit, shit. Shit. Michael knew it, it's always been the only possible explanation, but—he really didn't think Ryan was that big a dumbass. Somehow. He's always been surprisingly responsible about sex, actually, from what Michael can tell—some of the guys go out and party hard, hell, he used to do it in college, but Ryan's always been a little quieter about his shit, despite his aggressive and otherwise-earned fratstar persona. Michael thought "quieter" meant "smarter," but maybe not.

"It's not," Ryan says, like he can see what Michael's thinking. "We used a condom, bro, I swear. It just—broke. Like. And then I thought, that Plan B stuff, and like, she totally took it, and then I texted her and I was like checking up and stuff. And she was fine! And then training started for real."

The baby finishes drinking and pouts a little, turning his head away from the bottle, and Ryan reaches over and plucks him gently out of Michael's arms. He tosses him over a wide shoulder and starts patting his back rhythmically, still talking.

"So like, I didn't hear anything, you know? I swear, she didn't tell me. But I guess the Plan B didn't work, like, I guess that can happen, 'cause like, it happened. And dude, if she'd told me—I mean, I fully support a woman's right to choose because her body is a temple and privacy is in the Constitution, y'know? But like, Allie isn't into that, which is also, like, totally cool, because again, the Constitution and stuff. So she was gonna have this little dude and put him in for adoption."

"But he's here," Michael says, can't help stating the obvious even if he sounds like Ryan at the worst of his press conferences. I like swimming because racing! The baby's not adopted because you are holding the baby!

"Yeah," says Ryan, "he's here, aren't you, buddy—" and then the baby throws up all down his back and Ryan grins even bigger and hands him to Michael, talking the whole time as he strips off his t-shirt and balls it up, throws it in an already-revolting corner of the kitchen.

"Aww, bro! You did way better yesterday, man. Yesterday's puke was totally epic. Grade-A puke explosion. Mike, you shoulda seen it, it was insane. I was so proud."

Michael wants to puke a little at the way Ryan's cooing over the baby's fucking spit-up, of all things, but it's just so Ryan. This is what he would be proud of—this and every other thing this baby ever does or will do. It's kind of great; it's amazing, actually. Michael would have killed for that, at one point.

But thinking about his dad is never a great path to go down, so Michael interrupts Ryan's stream of puke-praise.

"Dude. So what then?"

"Oh," says Ryan, looking up from where he's focused on the squirming package in Michael's arms. He's still shirtless and Michael notices that hair's starting to grow back a little, since London, but he hasn't put on much post-Olympics weight.

"So like the adoptive parents totally flaked! On this guy, can you even…fuckers. Idiots." His voice gets louder on the last word and the baby goes red.

"Sorry, little bro," Ryan says, abashed. "But like, wow. Anyway, those dudes' loss, you know? So like, Allie called, and I had no idea. And she was like, trying to find new parents cause he was gonna be born in no time, you know? And I was just like, I want him. Like, I knew it."

Ryan's always been impulsive, irresponsible, but this is something else altogether, and Michael's suddenly irrationally annoyed about it.

"What about your career?" he asks. "What about racing, and just—how do you decide something like that so fast?"

Ryan looks at him like he doesn't even get it. "He's my son, dude. He's my kid, and Allie couldn't take care of him, and I fuckin' loved him so much from like, the first second I knew he even existed. He can chill at the pool and stuff, it'll be cool. We'll be great, won't we, little bro? We already are."

He's talking to the baby instead of Michael again.

"You're just gonna raise him on your own?" Michael asks, voice going tight. "Here? Does your mom even know? What—have you even named him or is his name 'little bro'?"

Ryan shrugs. "I guess, dude. Like, my mom actually just left, she was here for two weeks and it was great but like, she's still my mom, and I was like, yo. It's time for me and the little bro to figure shit out on our own, y'know? Bachelor pad status. And duh, he has a name."

He picks up the baby's tiny fist and fits it between Michael's thumb and forefinger, grins. "Mike, meet Cash. Cash, this is Mike, aka the Greatest Olympian of All Time, aka my favorite dumbass ever."

"Cash?" Michael has to be hearing that wrong.

"Carter was totally taken 'cause like, you can't name a baby after a dog. And Wayne is definitely a grandpa name, no offense to the man himself. But Cash is elegant, man! It says so much and pays homage to the greatest musical group of our day."

It's impressive that they let him out of the hospital with the baby—Cash—in his custody after he gave him a name like that, but maybe Ryan didn't treat the nurses to his whole justification. It's not even surprising; again, it's just Ryan, and he's so happy about it that probably no one even thought twice. Cash shifts in Michael's arms like he agrees.

"But Ryan," Michael says, because he has to try once more to—he doesn't even know. Make things normal. Make Ryan realize that this is sweet and shit but it's just not gonna work, it doesn't make any sense. It's not logical.

"Ryan, he could have—there are open adoptions, and stuff. It's not like you had to do this."

For the first time, Ryan looks mad. He reaches for Cash and, when Michael hands him over, cradles him in his big hands like he's protecting him from what Michael just said.

"Look. I'm not like … blaming parents who give their kids away. Allie couldn't do it, that was legit. But I can, and the real thing is, like, I want to. I want to be his dad. You know I never knew shit about what I was gonna do after swimming besides that I was gonna have kids. You know that. And like, he's my kid, Michael. Maybe the only one I'll ever have, but that's not even fuckin'…relevant. He's mine, I love him, we're good. If you have a problem you can go, bro. No one's stopping you."

"But you could be a dad in like ten years, when you're married, and give your kids a real family," Michael bursts out, and he's being an asshole. He knows that. But there's something about Ryan's blind faith in the idea that his devotion to this fucking kid is enough, that all he wants in life is to, like, raise it—instead of swimming, from the guy who's claiming he's gonna be at Rio when he's thirty-fucking-two. Or even partying or traveling or fucking skateboarding. It's making something tight and angry claw its way into Michael's throat and stay there.

"Fuck you," Ryan says, and he's angry for real now but he's still talking quietly so he won't wake the baby and that just makes the thing in Michael's throat dig in harder. "You're missing the fucking point, assfuck. Whatever."

He hesitates then, swallows, and bursts out without looking at Michael, "Plus, I can't be a dad in ten years because I'm not getting married because chicks aren't really a thing for me anymore lately."

"Because girls aren't really into dudes with babies strapped to their chests," Michael says, snide, "you should have thought of that maybe," and Ryan presses Cash to his chest like he's tucking him away from their fight and spits out, "Because I'm not into girls because I'm gay, you fucking—oblivious shit."

Michael's so stunned that for a second all he can focus on is the fact that Ryan knows the word "oblivious" and used it correctly, and then his brain catches up and he's gaping. Mouth open, "4" next to his name at the Olympics-gaping.

Ryan's not gay because he would have known. "No you aren't," he says, and Ryan just glares at him. He's not even a very good glarer—his face was made for wide-open smiles and guilelessness, and it just comes off as a mean squint, but it's enough just that he's not smiling, really.

"Strictly dickly, dude," Ryan says, and then adds a defiant, "Jeah." And it's so ridiculous—so Ryan—that Michael snorts out a laugh, he can't help it, and Ryan looks confused for like two seconds and then he's laughing too, loud and unselfconscious. And then Cash is crying and in the noise and confusion and shock the thing in Michael's throat retreats enough that he can breathe again.

Ryan gets Cash to settle down, holding him over a shoulder again with one hand spread out over the entire width of his back in its little Gators shirt, and he sits down on a stool and the island and puts on his "serious" face, or as close as Ryan Lochte can ever really get.

"It's not even a big deal, it's just like, I guess I'd been so focused on swimming and the girls were just around and I never, like, thought that hard about anything else. And then, like, I dunno. I started thinking about like other stuff. And like, guys. Or like. I had thought about guys before but like. It never occurred to me that, like, it was really a thing. The thing. For me. But—"

"It is." Michael finishes, helping him out. Ryan does not explain well extemporaneously.

Ryan smiles at him gratefully. "Yeah, bro."

"Cool," Michael says, because it's still a huge fucking surprise—how did he not notice? Ryan never brought girls back to the room but neither did he, and he knew Ryan hooked up. There aren't a lot of secrets on a swim team. Whatever, he'll figure it out later. Right now he needs to make sure Ryan doesn't think he's a bigger douche than he actually is. He smiles at Ryan, for real, and Ryan smiles back with just a hint of relief.

"So this means you're officially the best wingman ever," Michael says, "Cause you're way hotter than me and that was always a worry before," and Ryan laughs.

"Dude, thank you for admitting that shit! I am fucking beautiful. Can't no woman resist this."

Or man, Michael wants to say, but maybe that's weird now. Is it? Has Ryan, like, been with a dude? Probably, right—that's how people figure this stuff out. Another swimmer? He would know. Unless, like, at the Olympics, someone in the village—a diver? No way, Ryan would never hook up with a diver. Would he? Ryan's looking at him weird and Michael pushes the questions away. They've had enough weird, heavy conversation for one morning.

"So does the little bro know how to swim yet?" he asks, and it's kind of awkward but they'll both take it. Ryan laughs again and shrugs.

"I heard that babies know how to float automatically? Like, if you push them it, they don't drown. But no way am I testing that shit out. Until the dude can do a solid kick we're sticking to Madden training."

And that's exactly what they do for the next few mindless days. It's bizarrely like the last time Michael stayed here—Carter drooling on his leg while he and Ryan play hours and hours of video games and pizza boxes pile up around them. This time, though, Cash is doing his fair share of the drooling—onto Ryan's bare chest, then Michael's shirt, then Ryan's shoulder again—and they have to take breaks to change Cash and the volume is down pretty low on the TV.

Ryan swears he plays better when he's holding the baby, so they make him into a possibly slightly fucked-up trophy: winner gets to hold the baby for the next game. And maybe Ryan's right, because Michael does play better when he's trying not to wake a lump of sleeping flesh draped on top of him, more tight and focused, and he finds himself playing harder just to get that soft weight back.

There's a warm, slow feeling in the room despite the speed of the games, and when Ryan gets up and stretches and says, "Time for your dinner, broseph," Michael realizes it's been four hours.

Ryan scratches at his stubble and Michael remembers why he was so worried the night he got here; he'd seemed exhausted, overwhelmed, totally un-Ryan-like. But in the light of day he's just grubby and tired, and the baby's happy. Michael realizes that somehow, improbably, Ryan has this shit under control. He's, like, doing a good job of taking care of another human being.

He's still looking gross as fuck, though, so Michael says, "I'll feed the Cashman, dude. Take a shower before I have to declare the area around you a biohazard zone."

"Thanks, man," Ryan says, smiling gratefully, and hands him the squirming bundle of baby. "Remember to test out the formula so he doesn't burn his tongue. Don't want him to grow up with a lisp like his Uncle Mike," he says, and laughs his way down the hall and into the bathroom.

Michael heads into the kitchen with a strange, unsettled feeling. It's not the jab about his lisp—fuck, he and Ryan routinely tease each other about stuff a lot worse than that. But it's something in what Ryan said; the "Uncle Mike," he realizes, a title that he knows is generously given but feels like it's the wrong size. He's already an uncle, and Ryan's not his brother, he's his—buddy? Best friend? Something.

"Yeah, I know, head in the game," he says as Cash starts to screw his face up with hunger and impatience. "Man, your bottles are not easy to figure out. How's your dad doing this on his own, huh?"

Cash is sucking contentedly, eyes drifting closed and popping back open again in a lazy rhythm, and Michael keeps talking, soft and low, because the baby seems to like it.

"That was a joke, though, okay? Your dad's not dumb, he's just kinda—relaxed about most stuff. It's a good quality to have in a friend. Or a dad, I guess. You're a lucky dude."

The thing in his throat flexes its claws a little at that thought, but Cash is looking up at him with heavy eyes and Michael can feel it consider, give up, retreat.

"Yeah," he says, just to keep the sound of his voice going. "Yeah, definitely. Good job, okay? Get that milk," and soon enough Cash's eyes slip closed and stay that way, the bottle falling away from his lips.

Michael yawns himself and stands up, Cash still settled in his arms. Ryan's standing in the doorway with his hair wet and a towel slung around his hips, just looking.

He's smiling, but it's soft and unconscious, and it doesn't match the intensity in his eyes as he looks at Michael and Cash. Michael feels something in his throat again, but it's different this time, heavy and hot and pounding and not entirely unpleasant.

"He asleep?" Ryan asks, and his drawl is even slower than usual, raspy like maybe he's got a throat thing going on too.

"Yeah, just now," Michael says, trying to shake off the weird haze that's settled over the room. "You want him?"

"Naw, he might wake up. Let's just try to get him to bed," Ryan answers, and they're quiet as they head down the hallway. Ryan's room is still gross and dirty and the crib still looks mostly out of place, but now Michael notices the shelf of tiny, obnoxious sneakers, the changing table in the corner, that half the trash on the floor is actually baby toys that look like they're waiting around for Cash to gain some motor skills. It makes a strange kind of sense; this is Ryan as a father.

Cash whimpers when Michael lowers him into the crib, and they both tense up, but he takes two deep breaths in quick succession and he's out again.

"Jeah!" Ryan mouths silently, eyes crinkling up at the corners, and Michael does a pantomime of his patented race-winning scream. They beat a quick retreat into the living room, where Ryan flops face-first on the couch and groans.

"Thank you so much, dude. I needed that shower like whoah. I was growin' a beard even uglier than yours," and Michael notices that his face is clean-shaven again, smooth.

"It's been awesome with you here," Ryan says, "like super easier, and you're not like my mom and shit. You don't, like, tell me video games will rot his brain." He pauses.

"Will they? I mean, my brain's, like, a lost cause. But Allie's smart and shit, the little dude's got a chance."

He's quiet again, and Michael's just about to make a joke when Ryan picks back up, sounding unusually hesitant.

"I dunno, dude. I worry about that shit. I had my shit together about swimming but, like, that was it. I don't want—like, if the little bro is super into math or spelling bees or whatever, how am I gonna coach him?"

Ryan's dad was his first coach; Michael gets it, too, the way it can seem like the only way to relate to someone is by being the best at what they care about the most. That's what he had with Bob, at first, even if it's been more than that for so long. Still, he's never thought of Bob as his dad really, officially. He gets that it's not the same.

"You just buy him a dictionary and show up to all his bees, I think," Michael says. "And find him the best spelling coach and drive him to spelling practice, or whatever."

"Yeah," says Ryan, "I guess that makes sense. I could, like—help him practice. With what's it called. Flashcards."

"Watch out Twitter, Ryan Lochte's gonna learn how to spell," Michael says, and Ryan shoots him the finger happily.

Michael can imagine it, though, is the thing. Ryan painstakingly writing out flashcards, cheering from a folding chair in a dingy auditorium as a kid-sized Cash stands at the podium, number pinned to his shirt. Taking him out for pizza afterwards. Waking him up the morning to send him to school, having food fights with him over dinner. It's a whole lifetime, waiting for him in the tiny body of the baby one room over.

Michael has eighteen gold medals that contain the shape of his past, but his future is kind of a huge blank right now. He's told the press for weeks now how excited he is about that, and it's not a lie. But all of a sudden, in the face of Ryan's eagerness to make flashcards, it feels like a weak kind of truth.

"You're thinking too hard, dude," Ryan mumbles from the couch. "I can always tell. You go all, like, deep and shit. Into, your psycho."

"Psyche," Michael corrects automatically.

"Whatever," says Ryan. "Before I black out like a total pussy, you up for a swim?"

He's made enough promises about never touching a pool again to make Rowdy Gaines cry himself to sleep at night, but those were about competition. Ryan's pool barely even qualifies as short-course; it's tiny and the shallow end is like two feet deep. It's as far from Sydney and Beijing and London as a pool could be, and Michael wants to swim in it.

He borrows a pair of Ryan's shorts and follows him out into the thick night air, baby monitor in hand. The crickets are crazy loud and half of Ryan's pool lights are broken. The water's twenty degrees too warm but Michael does slow, silent laps until he feels like his mind is mostly clear of all the too-deep thinking he's been doing at Ryan's house, of all the fucking places. No more worrying about his future or Ryan's future or whether Ryan's hooked up with a diver; just the uncomfortable warmth of the water and the familiar beginnings of ache in his muscles.

He's just settling into that perfect zone when something grabs his ankle and yanks him downward.

"Fuck, Ryan!" Michael shouts, spluttering and kicking, and Ryan pops up next to him, grinning so wide his teeth shine in the gathering dark.

"Gators around here, man! Check yourself before you wreck yourself!"

"You're right, you totally are a swamp creature," Michael says, rolling his eyes, and Ryan dunks him again in response. When Michael struggles back up he's sandwiched between Ryan and the side of the pool, and Ryan's hair is dripping and he's laughing, loud and unselfconscious, and Michael wants to taste the place where his jaw dips sharply into his neck.

The shock of that want takes his breath away and he coughs, choking on water that's not in his lungs, and Ryan hears him and steps back, looks at him to make sure he's okay. All of a sudden, a silence opens up between them, as thick as the air it fills, and Michael sees the same thing he saw in Ryan's eyes in the kitchen that afternoon, but changed, sharper and more dangerous.

And then Ryan kicks his legs out from under him and shouts "Gators!" again and flips backward, swims away, and Michael just stands there breathing. The fuck was that?

That was Ryan pussying out, a voice inside his head says, but if Ryan was the one who pussied out of—something—then Michael would have done it. Whatever it was. Maybe. Fuck. He dives again, tries to swim away from this latest problem, but it clings to him like Ryan's hand on his ankle. Fucking Gators. Fucking Ryan and his pranks and his laugh. Fuck, fuck, fuck.

It's not weird as they dry off and head back into the house, because "weird" is not in Ryan Lochte's vocabulary. He'll eat scorpions in Shanghai and hang out with the French relay team like it's no big deal and wear a grill to the podium without even a hint of self-consciousness. This, whatever it is, is no different. It's Ryan clapping his arm around Michael and telling him how much his turns have fallen off, hanging him a beer and cueing up Madden and falling asleep in his recliner in the middle of the second game.

No, Ryan's being normal. It's Michael who can't stop thinking about that moment in the pool and that moment in the kitchen and can't stop thinking about how he can't stop thinking about them. He lays on the couch wide awake all night, getting up three times to feed Cash before Ryan can so much as grumble in his sleep.

It's not until after the third time, when the room is starting to brighten and the crickets have died down completely, that his brain finally gives up its endless, awful laps and lets him pass out for a few hours.

When he wakes up the first thing he sees is Ryan, sitting with Cash tucked against his stomach, leaning over to whisper in his ear and drop messy raspberries against the baby's fingers, nose, cheek.

He's as happy as Michael's ever seen him, a happiness that's worlds away from Michael's standards of podiums and anthems and gold. Michael can't remember the last time he felt the way Ryan looks. He feels suddenly, profoundly out of place, and the clawing, angry thing in his throat is back with a vengeance. He can't be here anymore; he doesn't know why he's hung around for three days. He has obligations and appearances and his own stuff, his own life to get back to.

"Rise and shine morning worm," Ryan says, noticing that he's awake. "You're such a bum, dude! Also I forgot how bad you snore when you're on your back like that, dude, seriously. The Cashman was frightened, I'm telling you, his eyes went all wide and shit."

"Pretty sure that was awe of my impressive lungpower," Michael says, but even while Ryan laughs he's thinking about calling his agent, getting a flight out of there. He has breakfast and then he does, tells Ryan he has to get back to shoot an ad, he's had a great time, Ryan's insane but as far as babies go he ended up with a pretty kickass one. And then he's on a plane and the heat and stickiness and aching confusion of Gainesville are far below.

Nothing changes, except that now a solid 30% of Ryan's texts are about Cash's puking abilities: bro all over ketchin wall lol like puke art or five time today world record!!!!!!! Cashman goes 4 gold. The rest are still about his dog or some shit he saw on TV or the sunglasses he just bought, though. They're dumb and funny and sometimes totally incomprehensible, but they're totally Ryan. Totally normal.

What's not normal is that Michael can't stop thinking about the pool, the kitchen, Ryan saying "strickly dickly, jeah!" and cracking up about it. He just doesn't get how he couldn't have known, after partying with Ryan for more than eight years now and living with him for a few days at every damn meet they went to. He goes over it again and again in his head and finally gives up and calls Cullen, dances around the subject awkwardly until Cullen gets it and laughs at him.

"Oh, Ryan? Man, you're so late on that one. I knew he'd have to straight-up tell you."

"You knew?" Michael asks.

"I noticed, dude, there's a difference. You didn't notice, 'cause until now when you've been around Ryan you've been around pools, competition. And when you're in that zone, Mike, not a lot gets through."

"I hang out!" Michael says, affronted.

"Yeah, sure, you like play cards with us and chill. But your mind's somewhere else, and we all get it. It's what makes you you. I always thought that's why you worked so well with Lochte, 'cause he's never really on this planet to begin with."

"But you knew," Michael says, still stuck on that part, and Cullen laughs again.

"It's not a big deal. I always wondered, because Ryan could definitely get all the ass he wanted, he just never seemed to want it that bad. And then a few months ago I saw him kissing some guy—"

Michael chokes a little, but Cullen doesn't seem to notice.

"—No idea who, just, like, in a club. But anyway, it all kind of clicked and I just let him know it was cool with me."

"What did he look like?" Michael asks, and immediately grimaces with—regret, embarrassment. Something.

"Uh, into it? Kind of drunk?"

"Shit," says Michael, "no, like—the other guy."

"Um," says Cullen, thinking. "Nondescript? Dude, I didn't spend that much time staring, I thought that might be weird. He was a guy. He was kind of tall. Maybe skinny. Had jeans on and a shirt of some kind. Also there was hair on his head and he seemed to have all his limbs attached."

Not for long if I find him, Michael thinks, terrifyingly.

"Why?" Cullen asks.

"Nothing, just—nothing. Thanks, dude."

Cullen snorts in disbelief but hangs up without pushing it, and Michael's free to spend the next two weeks going through the motions of his press conferences and photoshoots and failing to push away the image of Ryan and a tall guy who keeps appearing in his mind's eye with Le Clos's triumphant face (that race was Michael's, ever since Athens, fuck), sucking face in the dingy corner of some club.

He wakes up at 3 am two months after his visit to Ryan and realizes it's not going to go away, none of it is. Not the pictures he can't stop imagining or the way Ryan's body felt against his in the pool or how hard he is right now, thinking about both of them. He hasn't jerked off to the thought of a guy since he was 14 and his hormones were stronger than any goals he could write down on a list; he'd gotten a little older, started to get girls, and tucked those few jerk-off sessions—like most other things in his life—into a "too complicated: potential distraction" category in the back of his mind.

But now there's no water in front of him to hold back all that stuff; it started with all the shit about his dad, when he saw Ryan with Cash, then the shit about his future, now the shit about how his low-key and passively appreciative interest in guys might not stay as passive as it has so far.

The way Ryan talked about it, it was a big thing, inevitable, for sure. Michael doesn't think that's where he's at—the image of the guys in the club, that could disappear back into the "too complicated" category pretty easily. If he wanted. If one of the guys wasn't Ryan. If thinking about it didn't feel like something was being stolen from him by one-one hundredth of a second.

"Fuck," he says, and jerks off to the thought of Ryan's neck under his lips, Ryan's body pressed against him, and as the imaginary beat goes on he dives deep into the feeling and stays there.

When he wakes up he has a whole goal list: Fly to Gainesville. Get Ryan drunk. Followed by sex. It's not the most mathematical list he's ever made, but it seems pretty solid, and he's feeling really good about it—all that nervous adrenaline making him invincible, inevitable—and then he looks at his phone.

Ryan's texted him a picture of Cash with his new "Lochtenator: Part II" shirt on and baby-sized Kanye sunglasses, captioned with "JEAHHHHH!!!!!!!"

There's a familiar pang of "fuck, he's getting so big," and then Michael remembers why he ran out of there in the first place. Ryan's life is real and complete and it doesn't include Michael, and Michael's not going to be oblivious and overly goal-oriented and just ignore another super important part of Ryan's life.

So he texts back "way too cute to be yours sorry bro" and tries to shove a whole bunch of shit back into the box it came out of. Only it's grown, or something, and it doesn't really work, and his spank bank starts to fill up with Ryan: Ryan walking out of the bathroom with a towel wrapped around his hips, Ryan yawning and stretching in the morning, muscles stretching and twisting just under his skin, even Ryan popping up out of the water and shaking his still-short curls out like some kind of awful slo-mo soft porn.

But whatever fucked-up shit he thinks about while he jerks off wouldn't be a big deal, really. He's still texting Ryan normal shit every day, talking to him when he gets the chance, and if something aches low in his chest at the sound of Ryan's slow, careless drawl it's not anything he can't successfully ignore.

"When're you making a return trip to the G-Spot, though?" Ryan asks a lot. "The Cashman misses you."

"He doesn't even remember me," Michael says. "He was like, three weeks old."

"Kid's a genius, I'm telling you," Ryan says. "I swear, we went to the zoo the other day and he cried when he realized the apes weren't you."

"Fuck you," Michael says, and Ryan says, "For serious, though, one of your stupid dandruff commercials came on and Cash smiled for real, not cause he was farting again. Come visit, bro."

But Michael can't, and not just because of his own stupid inner reasons, he for real can't. He's doing SNL again and stuff's picking back up with his foundation, and his schedule's immovable for the next month at least.

He's so busy that he just gives up on trying to figure out what he's doing on a given day, just goes where they tell him and says the same stuff every time someone sticks a mic in his face: no, not going back to swimming. Golf game is going well, or it will be when he gets a chance to get on a course. Looking forward to cage-diving. Looking forward to traveling. Not coming back for Rio. Really.

At night when he comes home he's usually too tired to do anything but eat, jerk off and fall asleep. Which is probably why it takes him a solid minute to realize that on this particular night, there's someone else in his apartment. He's just closing the fridge when he hears a bang and muffled swear in the bathroom, and he jumps up and reaches for his phone (he can see the headlines already: Michael Phelps murdered in home by crazed fan/bitter French relayer/mother for not calling often enough) when Ryan wanders out of the bathroom, toweling off his hair like every one of the stupid fantasies Michael hasn't been able to let go of for weeks.

"What—you—" he sputters elegantly, and Ryan just grins at him. He's wearing the grill. If that makes this whole thing come one step closer to one of Michael's more shameful fantasies, he's definitely not going to admit it.

"Mike! I thought about it. And I was like, if Mohammad won't swim to the mountain, time to bring the molehill home! You know what I mean?"

"Not really," Michael says, dazed. Ryan really should put a shirt on or something, this isn't the pool. It's inappropriate.

"I. Am. Visiting. You." Ryan says, extra-slow. He peers at Michael curiously. "Cause you're the laziest motherfucker I ever knew. Yo, Mike? You okay, bro? You look a little out of it."

"Tired," Michael says, but he grins wide because fuck it, Ryan's here and no matter what complex maneuvers his dick is trying to talk his brain into, that's always just an awesome thing. He pulls Ryan in for back-slapping, hair-ruffling hug.

"But where's the little dude?" he asks as they grab beers and head for the couch.

"On vacation with Grandma," says Ryan, "probably being put on, like, the totally wrong sleeping schedule. Day is for napping; night's for gaming. I just taught him that and she'll fuck it up."

"Pretty sure you'll move past it," Michael says dryly, and tries not to be weirdly disappointed that this visit doesn't include a shitting, crying baby.

"Aw, dude, I missed your ass. Cash's awesome but the little bro hasn't learned to talk yet, you know? Things get kinda quiet 'cause I don't get out as much."

"Frat-star days are over for real, then?" Michael asks. "Retiring at 28, man, that's kind of weak."

"I haven't gotten laid in 6 months," Ryan says, groaning, and Michael knows he's supposed to laugh, make fun, but something's twisting in his chest and his brain's doing lightning-fast calculations. Where was Ryan six months ago? Who was he with? Does "laid" mean "laid-laid" or just "hooked up"?

"You okay, bro?" Ryan asks.

Michael tries to think of a quick joke to make, shake it off, but he can't. In front of him, Ryan's face is soft and quizzical, bathed in a familiar amused confusion, and Michael sees the hated, imagined guy from the club touching that face, kissing it, and it happens instinctually—he grits his teeth and reaches hard for the wall, head down and eyes open as he presses his mouth to Ryan's.

"Mmph!" Ryan says, and Michael says, "Shut up, shut up, you idiot," and bites at Ryan's lips angrily, too hard, but Ryan just takes it, pushes back and sucks messily at Michael's lower lip, grabs his head and angles it back, getting at his chin, neck, mouthing back up to his mouth.

Ryan's pressing him back into the couch and it feels good but it feels like giving it at the same time, too much, so Michael pushes back, reaches for Ryan's hair and grabs it, yanks, gets a knee up and wrestles until he's leaning down over Ryan's wide-open eyes and heaving chest.

"No one's gonna give you a gold for this, you—" Ryan starts, but Michael shuts him up by sucking at that place on his neck he's been thinking about for a month now, maybe longer only he never realized it, and it tastes like sweat and dried chlorine, like Ryan's been back in the pool lately, like Ryan's training for Rio and Ryan's not done and Ryan gasps like he wants it, like he's not even worried about this.

"Fuck you," Michael gasps out, "fuck you," and Ryan just laughs and bites out, "whoa, dude, one step at a time." But when Michael tugs down his basketball shorts and goes for it, closes his hand around Ryan's hard, hot dick, Ryan stops talking and starts breathing fast and desperate, twitching his hips in little bursts.

Michael's so hard his jeans might actually be cutting off some kind of crucial circulation, but when he wrenches them open his dick rubs against Ryan's and it's worse, maybe, like his whole lower body's in shock.

"Jeah, shit," Ryan grits out, and Michael can't help it, all the anger and tension in his chest just kind of bursts and he laughs out loud.

"I always wondered," he starts to say, and Ryan lets his head fall back and says, gasping, "make fun of me later, dude, just—please," and rolls his hips against Michael's. Just like that, the tension's back, but it's warm and desperate rather than sharp and angry, and Michael bends his face to Ryan's neck, sucks a bruise into his collarbone, wraps a hand around both of them and half-jerks, half-rocks against him, faster and faster like he's doing a whole lap underwater. He only lets himself up to breathe when Ryan comes with a strangled swear and a burst of wet heat against Michael's lower stomach.

"Dude," Ryan says, "wow," and he winks lazily, flashing that damn grill as he closes his hand around Michael and jerks him off fast and easy, and Michael comes to the sound of Ryan's bright laugh.

"And I just took a shower, you shit," Ryan grumbles before rolling over and falling asleep, just like that, what the fuck. Michael's left leaning over him, still a little short of breath, wondering what he's supposed to do now.

He's still wondering that the next morning when he wanders out of his bedroom to see Ryan standing in his kitchen eating out of a stainless steel mixing bowl Michael didn't even know he had, surrounded by five boxes of cereal.

"Dude, how come you only have, like, Cheerios?" Ryan asks through a very large mouthful of chewed Cheerios and milk. "Where's the Coco Crisp, bro? Where's the love?"

"Sorry that I don't plan my shopping trips around your unannounced visits," Michael says, shaking his head. So they're not talking about it, then. Fine.

"Well, you should," Ryan says, flashing him another gross mouthful. "Now what's the plan for today? Press conference? Photo shoot? Do I get to pour water all over your naked torso while a guy named Antoine takes pictures?"

"What?" says Michael, trying to ignore how interested his dick is in the idea of Ryan and him and nudity.

"Where do you get this stuff? I have, like, a thing for the foundation. Wanna come hang out with kids who can talk?"

"Aw, yeah!" Ryan says. "It'll be like, practice. Practice at a pool! Hahaha!"

"Right," says Michael. "Good one. Wait, dude—did you seriously eat all my Cheerios?"

They make an emergency stop at a diner on the way to the pool, where Ryan beats him by eating seven eggs to his five, even after his kiddie pool-sized bowl of cereal.

"Some of us are still Olympians," Ryan smirks at him. Michael thinks about going to watch Ryan swim in Rio, how he'll get to actually see Ryan's individual races, maybe. Cheer for him somewhere Ryan can see him when he gets out of the pool, not just from the ready room.

At the pool, Michael gives his usual spiel about trying hard and setting goals and water safety, play-races some of the older kids and helps teach a particularly brave 3-year-old to kick. Two lanes over, he sees Ryan picking kids up and tossing them into the water as they laugh and scream and cling to him. One boy goes up and pushes hard on Ryan's leg, trying his hardest to budge 200 pounds of solid muscle, and Ryan finally notices, looks down with his eyes comically wide, and topples over the into the pool. The boy throws his arms up in a gesture of triumph Michael recognizes all too well, and he grins. In the middle of the pool, four kids have clambered onto Ryan's back and Michael knows they're about thirty seconds away from hearing grumbles about pool safety and setting a good example, but he doesn't care. Instead, he invites a few kids of his own to clamber on, and then he and Ryan are racing breaststroke down the pool with kids screaming with excitement on their backs.

Later, in the car, Ryan won't stop talking about how he totally won.

"Dude," says Michael, "you had, like, two four years olds and the smallest eight year old I've never seen. Mine were definitely all over ten."

Ryan just shakes his head, laughing. "No way! Yours were like some Chinese gymnast shit, there is no way they were ten. And one of mine was unusually hefty for his age, just saying. I won with a dis, disability, and I think you owe me a beer."

"You know, you were great with those kids," Michael says once they're settles at the gross, deserted bar where Michael feels like he's probably not in much danger of getting recognized. "You don't need much practice."

"Neither do you," Ryan says, unusually serious for a second. "You always front like you wouldn't be a good coach, and maybe not, but that's cause you're an ADD little shit, not because you can't handle kids."

"I don't want—" Michael starts, but Ryan interrupts him.

"Not the point, man. No one's saying you have to coach. Just, like, you don't give yourself enough credit. For being a good dude, I mean. It's like you bought into the hype and you think you're a fish with the soul of a robot or something. But you like, care about people and shit."

Michael knows that. He cares about his mom and his sisters and his sisters' kids. And Ryan, too, and Bob. He's not sure what Ryan's trying to get at.

"Whatever," he shrugs, and Ryan lets it go. They watch the Orioles crush the Red Sox on the bar's shitty TV, and when the game's over Ryan laughs.

"I bet every city gets, like, a limited amount of sports good-ness or something. And like, you're done swimming, so that's why the Orioles don't suck anymore."

"That's totally ridiculous," Michael says. "First of all, fuck the Orioles, I would totally have given it to the Ravens—"

"You can't choose that shit!" Ryan says, offended. "It just works out the way God wants it to, man. Jeez, it's like you don't even get it."

"Oh my god, you made this whole thing up two seconds ago," says Michael, and Ryan says, "No I did not, this is a, like, theo—a theoretic—I've had it for years, like, it started when I got suspended from swimming in ninth grade and my football team won the state championship," and he's so serious about it, intent and a little drunk in the dark bar, and Michael glances around to make sure the elderly bartender is looking away and then darts forward, quick, and kisses him hard.

When he pulls away Ryan's pink and wide-eyed.

"You're so easy," he mumbles, trying to keep his voice down, "All I gotta do is say you have athletic superpowers? Oh, Mike, your turns make me weak in my knees—"

"Money's on the table," Michael shouts to the bartender, and then he's pulling Ryan out of the bar and into his car, and trying to drive while Ryan sticks his tongue in Michael's ear and laughs uproariously every time the car swerves.

"Your face!" he's still gasping as they get to Michael's door, and Michael says, "We could have died, you are the most irresponsible fucking—"

"Not my fault you can't resist all this jelly," says Ryan, doing some kind of awful shimmy as he walks backward into Michael's bedroom, and Michael shoves him hard onto the bed just to make him stop.

"Told you," Ryan says from beneath him, and then Ryan's lips are opening beneath his, hot and tasting like beer and greasy fries. It should be gross and it is, kind of, except that Michael just wants more of it, sucks the taste off Ryan's bottom lip and chases it deeper into the wet heat of his mouth.

When Michael moves down to scrape his teeth along Ryan's neck and under his ear Ryan groans softly, then elbows him hard in the stomach.

"What the fuck—" Michael starts, but Ryan just grins at him and slides down to the end of the bed, starts undoing Michael's jeans.

"Sorry, I get, uh," he pauses, "impatient. Don't move," and then he's pulling Michael's jeans down and tracing the Olympic rings with his tongue.

"Fuck," says Michael out loud, and he tries to lift his head to see what Ryan looks like doing that, because that's an image he really needs to lock down, but Ryan moves his tongue lower and sucks a bruise into Michael's inner thigh and all Michael's highly-trained, perfected muscles give out on him and he goes limp on the bed, gasping.

"Aw shit, this is gonna be easy," Ryan says, and then his mouth is hot around Michael's dick, sucking slow and steady. His thumbs are rubbing over Michael's hip bones, lingering on his tattoos, and Michael squirms and swears and pants until Ryan moves his right hand down to Michael's shaft, jerking him in time with the easy rhythm of his mouth.

Michael pulls himself together enough to push up onto his elbows, look down, and that's what does him in—the image of Ryan, hair just starting to lengthen back into its unruly curls, looking up at him with a grin in his light eyes, mouth stretched around Michael's dick like the dirtiest kind of porn.

"Shit," Michael says, "shit shitshitshit," and he's coming hard before he can even warn Ryan.

Ryan climbs back up onto the bed smiling, though, and he leans down like he's about to kiss Michael, then goes for his ear instead and whispers, "he's so sweet that I wanna lick the rapper," low and dirty, and Michael bursts out laughing, Ryan right behind him.

"Oh god," Michael says, covering his face and groaning, and Ryan pokes him in the stomach.

"Bro, a little help here?"

"Fuck," says Michael, "right, yeah," and Ryan rolls over easy this time when Michael pushes at him, lays him out on the bed and peels off his t-shirt and shorts and boxers until he's all glowing skin and muscles, and Michael can't believe he ever fit this shit in a box and forgot about it. He straddles Ryan's thighs and jerks him off slowly, watching the way his hand moves on Ryan's thick, hard dick, and then he gets curious and moves down the bed, licks at the crease in his thigh, the V of his muscle just above his hips.

"L-l-l-lollipop," Ryan half-sings, and Michael shoots him the finger but takes his dick into his mouth anyway, breathing carefully and getting used to the hot weight on his tongue.

Ryan's stopped clowning around, now, and is making these quiet moans, holding onto the bedspread like he's trying not to fuck Michael's mouth. The thought of it makes something heavy uncurl in Michael's gut, but he decides that might be a little ambitious for his first time in the pool. Write it on the goal list, he thinks, and sucks a little harder, jerking Ryan at the same time. He pulls off to breathe and bite and Ryan's thigh, and just as he's licking over the mark he made Ryan gasps out, "Mike, fuck, I'mma—" and Michael just has time to pull away and jerk Ryan through it, come spreading hot through his fingers and across Ryan's stomach.

Michael's expecting questions at some point, maybe, or at least some acknowledgment that he just, like, sucked Ryan's dick after ten years of apparently totally platonic friendship. But Ryan seems content to lie there and pant and wipe his hand over his stomach and then rub him come on Michael with an obnoxious cackle, so, like, maybe it's just not a thing for Ryan. Whatever. Michael's definitely not gonna be the one to make it weird if Ryan doesn't want to go there, so whatever.

He falls asleep like that, Ryan half-splayed across him and too hot, and when he wakes up Ryan's getting dressed and there's sun streaming in the window.

"Hey, morning worm," Ryan says, and crosses the room to kiss him. Oh, Michael thinks, just as Ryan wrinkles up his nose.

"You gotta deal with the morning breath, bro. Work on that." He goes back in for another kiss, though, which takes some of the sting out of his words, and Michael's brain and dick are just getting fully on board when Ryan pulls away.

"Flight's in an hour," he says, pulling a shirt over his head, "I gotta get back to the C-man before my mom finishes rupturing him—"

"Corrupting him," Michael corrects instinctively, but he can't see Ryan rolling his eyes under the shirt, which is still halfway over his head.

"Anyway, I gotta jet. But look, man," he says, finally emerging from the shirt with an earnest expression, "you need to get your lazy, retired ass to the G-Spot before Cash is walking and shit. Like, take a vacation."

"Yeah," says Michael, distractedly. "You're leaving right now?"

"Longest I've ever been away from the little bro already," Ryan says, and right. Michael forgot, for a second, what it is that Ryan's going back to. Why he was never going to be able to stay for long.

They say goodbye in an airport full of people and cameras, and quick one-armed hug, and Michael drives home more confused about everything than he was before Ryan got here.

They hooked up, so that should mean something, right? Unless it was just, like, a casual thing. Friends with benefits, because Ryan's gay and he's—something. An inevitable progression.

It wasn't anything, Michael tells himself, again and again. It was casual. It doesn't matter. But he can't stop thinking about it and he's sinking into a fog of single-minded preoccupation again, like he was in before Ryan arrived. His sleepwalks through his commitments and only really looks forward to hanging out with the kids at the pool, but even that seems flatter without Ryan a few lanes away, setting as bad of an example as possible.

He goes out for dinner one night with Allison and she stops halfway through her steak and sets her elbows down on the table, looks at him hard.

"So who is it?" she asks, setting down her beer.

"What?" Michael asks.

She rolls her eyes at him like she used to do when he'd complain about getting in the weight room or training with the parachute.

"The person that's got you all post-Beijing Michael again. Who's making you sad, Michael? I wanna beat them up."

She's smiling at him but it's a little bit sad.

"You don't have to beat anyone up," Michael says. "It's not a big deal, it's just—me, I'm just confused about some stuff."

"Try me," says Allison, and Michael thinks, fuck it, why not? He tells her most of it, starting with Cash and ending with Ryan leaving without ever once discussing anything that happened.

"Well," says Allison, who's done an admirable job of not interrupting even though her eyes keep getting huge and she's covered her mouth with her hand a few times, "Okay then. First of all, I want all the baby pictures you have by tomorrow, because oh my god. Second, Mike, you sweet dumb superhuman. What did you expect? You really thought Ryan Lochte would sit down with you and provide you with a whole 60 Minutes feature on his inner emotional life, totally of his own volition?"

When she puts it like that, okay, no.

"Ryan told an interviewer that he likes swimming because racing," Allison says gleefully. "Ryan once did an interview where all he said was 'jeah!' and then they subtitled it. One time I caught Ryan hiding under the bed because he didn't want to go to a press conference, I swear to god. Michael. He's not winning any medals in communication. You have to talk to him."

"I don't know what to say," Michael says honestly, and Allison sighs.

"And here I was thinking that you'd had pretty good media training, Mike. It's not that hard. Pretend you're Andrea or something and you're talking about a race. 'So, Ryan, you just had sex with Michael Phelpsthegreatestolympianofalltime! How did that feel for you?' 'So, here we are with Ryan Lochte. Ryan, you've just won a blowjob, but according to your schedule you'll be flying back to Gainesville tomorrow! Can you tell us more about the strategy behind that decision?'"

"Andrea has never asked a question that complex in her life," Michael complains, but okay, he gets it.

"Thanks, Schmitty," he says, as they're paying the check. "For, like, pushing my ass back into the pool again. In a metaphorical sense."

"Yeah, yeah, shut up," she grumbles. "Humble doesn't look natural on you, you know. But I appreciate it. Now get your ass to Gainesville, but if you step onto that plane before I have an inbox full of baby pictures so help me god I will tell Good Morning America that you've decided you're going for the world's first Olympic four-peat at Rio."

"You wouldn't," Michael says, but she just shrugs evilly. He sends her the pictures right there at the table, just because there's not a lot of things he would put past her.

And then it's happening again, the same kind of déjà-vu he gets from Olympics to Olympics, where everything is so different but so much is still the same: the cancelled appearances, the frustratingly long travel time to Gainesville, the thick, soupy heat of the air and the uncertainly in his stomach as he walks up Ryan's front path, pausing to scratch Carter behind the ears once he's inside the gate.

He told Ryan he was coming this time, at least, and knocks quietly instead of ringing the bell in case Cash is asleep. But when Ryan comes to the door he's got a wide-awake Cash in his arms, and Michael isn't sure if he should hug him or stand back or what. He feels out of place, like he shouldn't have come, but it's too late now.

Ryan doesn't seem to notice Michael's awkwardness. He just grins hugely at him and hands over Cash without even asking.

"Broski, look! It's Mike, I told you he was gonna get his ass to the G-Spot one of these days. Yeah, I know, that thing he's growing on his face is butt-ugly. Don't let it scare you, buddy."

"Stop turning your son against me," Michael grumbles, but he smiles and mugs for Cash, who's so much heavier than he remembered. His face has changed some too; it looks older and more like a distinct person than something that can just be filed under "cute baby," with fine brown curls and Ryan's light blue eyes. Cash watches the faces he makes with wide eyes, tracking his movements and making gargling baby noises.

"Little bro's getting big," Michael says, and Ryan was right, he's growing so fast.

"Champion eater," Ryan says as they head into the living room. "Like, all I do anymore is make formula. I wish I had boobs, dude. It would be way easy and also, like, I'd have boobs!"

"I thought you weren't into that so much," Michael says, and immediately wants to take it back. This was not how he planned on starting this conversation.

But Ryan is reliably Ryan about it and doesn't even seem to notice the potential innuendo. He just laughs and says, "Bro, boobs are awesome and that will always be true. It's, like, a…law. Of boobs."

Ryan's got this far-away expression on his face now, the one he gets when he's thinking extra hard, and sure enough the next thing he says is, "I wonder if, like, we love boobs because we got nursed and shit. And Cash never did, wow. Do you think, like, he'll be into rubber… nipples and shit?"

"Uh," says Michael, "I never really thought about it."

"If you are, bro," Ryan says, talking to Cash now, "that's totally cool and shit. Just so you know."

Michael gets a sudden flash of Ryan giving Cash the world's most supportive-yet-confusing sex talk. The thought alone is hilarious; he'd give a lot to actually witness it. Maybe he'll remember in 13 years and ask Ryan to tape it, or something.

They get Michael's stuff into the house and then Ryan remembers that he has to walk Carter, so they set off with Cash strapped to Michael's chest in a contraption that he's sure is just as embarrassing for Cash as it is for him.

"Don't you have a stroller?" he asks, but Ryan just shrugs.

"Somewhere? I dunno, I lost a lot of shit at the beginning. I was super tired."

Michael can remember.

"And like, I think the little bro is used to that thing. I think he's insecure about being so short, even though like that's totally not his fault. I keep telling him."

They sweat their way around the neighborhood for 15 minutes, Cash looking around like he really does enjoy being at an adult (gymnast) eyelevel and kicking his legs out in little bursts against Michael's stomach whenever he gets really excited about whatever it is he's seeing. It's a nice feeling.

Back at the house, they feed Cash and Cash pukes—"Fuck yeah!" Ryan says, "told you his aim was getting better"—and then they feed themselves, three big pizzas and a few beers each. Michael's feeling relaxed and full and good, Cash settling in to sleep on his shoulder after one impressive crying fit that had them switching off walking him around the house, and he's thinking that maybe they'll put the baby to bed and then talk. Or hook up. Either one.

But when he carries Cash into the bedroom and lays him in the crib, Ryan yawns and stretches and looks at him apologetically. "Can you wait till tomorrow for gaming, bro? I'm fucking exhausted. The little dude knocked me out today."

"Sure," says Michael, even though he's not really sure, he's even more unsure than when he first showed up. But Ryan's smiling gratefully at him and closing the door, so he goes and lies down on the couch even though it's only 11 and he's not close to tired. He plays Xbox by himself for four hours before he finally falls asleep.

The next week follows the same pattern, and Michael can't bring himself to bring stuff up and he can't bring himself to leave. He stays there in a weird limbo, waking up at ungodly hours to feed Cash with Ryan making coffee blearily on the other side of the kitchen, playing video games where people explode bloodily all over the screen while Cash's tiny, solidly alive form breathes in a shallow even rhythm on his chest. Ryan orders pizza for dinner and puts together feeding trough-sized bowls of cereal for breakfast and Michael figures out trash day and clears away the empty boxes as they pile up. The only time he falters is when Ryan heads out for his nightly swim.

"I'll put the little dude to bed," he says, and tries not to think about how he's chickening out of another moment like the one all those short months ago; how if it didn't happen again, that would be final, somehow, a definite no, and he doesn't want to face that. He'd rather change Cash's shitty diaper, lie on the couch and listen to him cry himself to sleep, be able to watch Ryan as he wanders back inside glistening and dripping all over the wall-to-wall carpet.

Mrs. Lochte comes a week after Michael gets there and, disconcertingly, barely even comments on his presence other than to offer him a quick hug and kiss on the cheek. Ryan had handed him to Michael when he saw who was at the door and started cleaning the kitchen, futilely, muttering "shit shit shit" the whole time, and Ike removes Cash from Michael's arms with the practiced ease of a grandmother, laughing under her breath.

"Ry," she yells to Ryan, who's still in the kitchen, "get out of here before you make that worse. In fact, both of you, go on. Give me some time alone with my grandson. And get some air, you look pale, Michael, honey. Have you boys just been playing video games and eating pizza?"

Ryan opens his mouth like he's about to deny it, and Ike just shakes her head. "Why do I even ask? Get out, now, go."

So they do, Ryan grabbing his skateboard at the last second, shrugging when Ike lifts her eyebrows at him disapprovingly. They head out into a mugginess that seems heavier than usual, and Ryan looks up at the sky and wrinkles his nose.

"Bout to rain, shit." He looks at his skateboard and back at Michael.

"Race you?"

"Where?" Michael asks, but then Ryan's gone and he's sprinting helplessly after him.

"Where are we going, fucktard? Ryan! Ryan!"

Moving his body quickly on dry land has always been frustrating for Michael, and the humidity makes hit torture—he's panting and dripping by the time he catches up to Ryan, who's leaning against the wall of what looks like a fucking sushi restaurant, of all things. He's grinning with guileless excitement and Michael is literally soaked with sweat, and fuck Ryan, anyways. Fuck this whole idiotic adventure. He should call someone and get on a plane and just go home.

"All you can eat, dude, I've been wanting to take you here for like ever," Ryan's saying, interrupting Michael's increasingly self-loathing inner dialogue. "Dude. Did you hear me? All you can eat. Sushi."

Michael had thought that maybe he'd just heard wrong, or Ryan had been, well, interpreting words wrong, but no—this place actually lets you pay twenty bucks and then order as many tiny pieces of raw fish and rice as you want, and they're stuffing themselves full of tuna and shrimp and spicy sauce by the time the sky out the window opens up and empties itself onto the streets of Gainesville.

"I was so happy when I found this place, man," Ryan's saying as they order more sushi for the fourth time. The waiter looks a little apprehensive but doesn't stop them, which is encouraging, since Michael is no where near even his non-training limit yet. "They're, like, used to people eating a shit ton I guess. Football guys come here a lot. And frats make pledges do, like, eating contests and shit."

Ryan's eyes shine with excitement at that, like the idea of a bunch of 18 year old idiots barfing fish everywhere is the most hilarious thing in the world, and Michael's about to say something when he remembers that Ryan was one of those 18 year old idiots. Kind of still is.

"So if I challenged you…" he says, mostly joking, and Ryan lights up.

"Aw, man, don't even try. I'd eat you under the table – you talk a big game to reporters and shit but you're so weak right now, man!"

"I keep telling people I never actually ate that much," Michael mutters, and Ryan laughs.

"I was always so jealous, dude! Like, that was most of your fame, or whatever. It would be like, 'Michael Phelps? Did you know he eats twelve thousand calories a day?'"

"You pee in the pool," says Michael.

"And I can eat more sushi than you," Ryan says, triumphant, then looks sad for a second.

"I would totally prove it if we wouldn't both end up barfing everywhere. Not fair to the Cash-man, both of us getting sick and him having to stay with my mom for like, days. He gets so bored, man."

Having seen Ike with Cash, however briefly, Michael's starting to get the sense that Cash's boredom is more a symptom of Ryan's loneliness without him than any grandmotherly lack of Ryan's mom's part, but he doesn't say anything. It's not like he wants to puke, either. Plus, tomorrow is trash day again. If he's too sick to do it, there's no way Ryan'll remember.

He puts too much wasabi on his next piece of sushi in hopes that the burn will help him forget that he's memorized trash day in Gainesville and still doesn't know it in Baltimore, and while he's coughing Ryan looks at his plate thoughtfully.

"Man, I haven't had real food like this in a while. Pizza is the awesomest, but maybe some other stuff would be good to have sometimes. And like, for when Cash can eat real people food, he should probably eat the pyramids or whatever and not just pizza."

"The food pyramid," Michael says after a second. "You know, that's more of like a guideline, it's not just something you can eat…"

"That's my point, dude!" Ryan says. "We should, like, learn the guidebook and stuff. I should take cooking classes or just start watching more Food Network or something. That one chick on Top Chef is hot, anyway."

Michael's pretty sure that Ryan's perpetual, ingrained frattiness trumps any kind of realizations about his sexuality when it comes to talking about "hot chicks," but that's not even the issue. The issue is—the issue is that Ryan said "we" and then he said "I," and the issue is that Ryan wants them to learn the "guidebook" but only him to take fucking cooking classes, and the issue is that Michael's got a piece of sashimi frozen halfway to his mouth because his brain is apparently too taken up with analyzing Ryan's goddamn pronouns to eat. The issue is that Ryan was talking about Cash's future and he said "we."

The issue is that Ryan hasn't fucked him yet and Michael's been here for over a week, and the issue is that Michael needs to ask Ryan what his issue is.

He doesn't, though, because he's the World's Most Decorated Olympic Coward. Instead, they eat two more boats of sushi and walk down the street in the slightly cooler post-rainstorm air, Ryan carrying his skateboard under his arm. They don't head back to the house, though. Ryan makes him walk forever to this pond, and the sun is starting to set, and Ryan says, "watch, this is really cool."

They watch and nothing happens and Michael's just about to say something when all of a sudden a cloud of dark, winged shapes whirls up from the other side of the lake and starts doing circles in the air.

"Bats," Ryan says next to him. "They all come out at night and eat the insects and shit. It's really cool, I like to pretend I'm Batman and they're, like, my minions."

"Batman didn't have bat minions," Michael says automatically, but he can't take his eyes off the whirling shapes.

"I would if I was Batman," Ryan says, completely sure. Michael imagines him telling Cash bedtime stories about Batman and his armies of bat minions; he hopes -- someone, a self-preserving override in his brain inserts firmly – is there to give Cash the correct, comic book-nerd approved side of the story.

"You should take Cash here some time," he says, override instinct nodding approvingly, and Ryan shrugs.

"I dunno if he would get what a bat is," he says, and Michael knocks Ryan in the shoulder.

"He'd get the shapes, he'd watch them. He'd love it, Ryan," he says.

Ryan looks at him and his face is questioning, searching maybe, but Michael doesn't know what he's looking for or how to answer him.

"Yeah," Ryan says, finally, but there's still a question in it. "He totally would."

He smiles at Michael but there's a weird tension it, and it doesn't dissipate during the long walk home.

It's not until they're almost all the way home, at Ryan's gate, in fact, that the source of it hits Michael—Ryan just took him to, like, his favorite restaurant and his favorite scenic thing. Romantic place, whatever. That was totally a date.

The shock of realization is what finally breaks down his thickening walls of cowardice, and almost before he knows it he's stopped dead in his tracks on the street and blurted out, "Shit, Ryan, that was a date."

He half expects Ryan to laugh at him, or at least to look confused, but instead Ryan's looking down at the sidewalk and fucking blushing.

"I dunno," he says. "I mean, like, we split the bill—"

"Oh my god, you totally asked your mom to babysit," Michael says.

"Naw, man!" Ryan says. "She just, like, showed up. She ambushes me to prove I'm not cleaning up enough. I just, like, took advantage of the situation."

"Were you going to tell me?" Michael asks, and Ryan shrugs, still bright red. Ryan doesn't get embarrassed, ever. This is completely fascinating.

"It was just stuff I wanted to do with you," Ryan says.

"Well, you kind of have to decide," Michael says.

Ryan looks confused.

"Because," Michael helps him out, "if it was a date then we can make out now but if it was just a bro chill or whatever, I'll respect your boundaries and shit."

"Just like when you jumped my bones in your living room after half a beer, I guess that was a date too—" Ryan's saying, but then Michael isn't listening anymore because he's kissing him. He feels like maybe he should be gentle, like he would be usually at the end of a first date, but this is Ryan and he's been waiting, and fuck it. The force of it knocks Ryan back up against his fence, and their teeth bump together audibly, and Ryan's mouth kind of tastes like chewed fish and beer. But his mouth is hot and easy he kisses back hungrily and his hands are on Michael's hips, belt, ass.

Michael grabs at Ryan's face blindly, tries to hold him there so he can get a better angle on his mouth, keep him there while he goes for his jaw, neck, back to his lips. Ryan's panting by the time he finishes, grinding unconsciously against Michael's thigh, and it's not until the gathering heat at the base of Michael's spine prompts him to reach for Ryan's belt that he snaps out of his haze and realizes they're out in the open, practically in the middle of the street.

"Inside," he says, "c'mon," and Ryan catches up, opens his eyes, moves back.

The space that opens up between them feels colder than in should in the hot air, but that'll be erased as soon as they get inside. Michael has big plans—or, they feel big, even if most of them just consist of half-developed snapshots of Ryan's mouth, trembling stomach, sweaty skin.

Except that when they open the door Ike's there, and Ryan pulls back from Michael subtly, slowly, definitively.

"Your son is asleep," she says to Ryan, kissing him on the cheek and smiling at Michael with almost too little suspicion. "I did your laundry. How you live like this—but I won't say a word, except that you're my son and so I love you even if you do live in squalor and filth."

And then she's gone and Ryan's saying goodnight and closing the door of his bedroom before Michael can get a word out, and it's like the first night he got here all over again, only worse. This time he has the couch and the xbox and the ambitious beginnings of a hard-on, and it feels wrong to jerk off on Ryan's couch—especially to thoughts of Ryan. He does it anyway, though, can't help but imagine what he thought the night would end with: the way his mouth felt stretched around Ryan's dick, the heavy taste of it, the way Ryan's thighs shuddered under his hands, his slow smile afterwards, the hot press of his mouth against Michael's neck, chest, stomach, lower.

He comes before imaginary-Ryan even reaches his dick, wipes his stomach and hand off on his t-shirt and turns over, exhausted. He can't fall asleep, though. The crickets are raging outside and it's only 10, fuck Ryan and his sexless early bedtimes. His fake dates and his terribly real mouth.

Talk to him, dumb fuck, a voice in Michael's head that sounds terrifyingly like Allison yells at him. She won't shut up, either; Talk to him. Dumb fuck. Talk to him. Talk to him. Michael finally drifts off to the monotonous rhythm, the crickets playing backup.

When Ryan comes into the kitchen the next morning, miraculously already dressed, Michael takes the first opportunity to shut the Allison-voice up.

"So," he says, "I get that ignoring shit is like your thing, with us, but you can't just—"

But Ryan's barely even listening to him.

"Sorry to dump this guy on you, bro," he says, rummaging around for something that turns out to be his car keys (in the cutlery drawer, which is mostly full of disposal chopsticks), "but I have this press thing that I forgot about, and my mom's working all day—anyway, I'll be back at like 6. You can watch him, right?"

"What?" says Michael. "I mean, yeah, sure, but Ryan—"

"Great," says Ryan, handing him a squalling Cash. "You da best, man. See you later, little bro."

He leans down to give Cash a kiss on the forehead and then he's out the door.

"Your dad is really good at avoiding shit," Michael tells Cash, who screams at him in response.

"Mine's better, though," Michael says, making him a bottle. Cash doesn't want to hear about Michael's issues, though. He doesn't really want the bottle, either—he tries to spit out the rubber nipple through his screams.

"Oh, really?" Michael says. "Not good enough for you, all of a sudden? Dude, you know you're hungry. I know you're hungry. Just give it up and drink your fake breast milk," but Cash is still a little young for logic.

"Fine," Michael says, and settles Cash's tiny body—bigger than his handspan, now, but still not by that much—over his shoulder. They walk up and down Ryan's tiny hall for half an hour, but Cash is still whimpering at the end of it, and he starts screaming again whenever Michael takes him down and tries to feed him.

His diaper's dry and that makes Michael start to worry, a little, but he checks and Cash isn't feverish, and his screams aren't pained so much as frustrated.

"Yeah, little bro," Michael tells him, "I'm frustrated, too. It sucks that you can't tell me what's wrong. Talking is pretty awesome, actually. You should probably get on that, but I guess you can wait until you grow a few teeth."

He pretends Cash's next few screams are screams of agreement, and then he calls him mom.

"Sometimes babies just cry," she says, unhelpfully. "He's a little young to realize Ryan's gone, but it could be that. Or he's tired or hungry and just won't admit it to himself."

"He's never done this before, though," Michael says.

"He's fine," Debbie says. "Just keep walking with him, he'll be fine."

"Did you hear that, C-man?" Michael asks. "You're fine, okay? I'm not even worried."

But he is, a little bit, enough that he pulls Cash's pediatrician's card off the fridge and calls the number. When they found out he already took Cash's temperature they tell him not to worry. It could be early teething. Or he's just crying.

"Helpful," Michael says.

Cash screams.

"Alright," Michael admits, "I suck at this, little dude. I don't know what I'm doing. Fatherhood is not in the Phelps genes. Want me to show you the only thing that is?"

Cash screams, but Michael pretends again that it's a scream of agreement.

"Yeah, here we go," he says, setting Cash down on his changing table and slipping him into one of the new diapers Ryan's got stacked way in the back of the pile.

"Stay there for a sec, bro," he says, watching Cash carefully while he does some quick changing of his own.

"So here we go," he says, as he carries Cash down the back steps. "Man, that diaper's too big for you, isn't it? Well, we'll do our best. These shorts are getting a little tight on me, so we're even."

For once he's glad that Ryan's shitty mass-produced pool has a shallow end; he can walk down the steps carrying Cash, edge his way out until the water's deep enough for him to stand comfortably with it just above his waist and dangle Cash's toes in carefully. When that doesn't elicit any more screaming than usual, Michael settles him in up to his thighs, then his stomach.

"Bah," says Cash, looking surprised, and stops screaming.

The sudden silence is like breaking the surface of an empty pool, and Michael takes a deep, grateful breath.

"Okay," he says. "More?"

Carefully, supporting Cash's head, he lays him out in the pool. Cash gurgles and moves his fists and kicks his legs in the water, and Michael's face starts to hurt from how big he's smiling.

"Backstroke!" he says, and Cash grunts and kicks some more, and it's awesome. It's the coolest thing Michael's ever seen, maybe, Cash's chubby flailing limbs and his pleased noises and he gives up on self-preservation and lets himself think it: he wants to be here for the rest of this. He wants to teach Ryan's son to swim in this pool, he wants to be there for his spelling bees, he wants to watch Cash grow up. Right here, not over picture messages in Baltimore.

Cash smiles up at him and beats the water with a tiny fist like an exclamation point.

"Yup," says Michael. "I'm so gone, bro. Busted."

He crouches down in the water so he's eyelevel with Cash, walks around like that, letting the easy buoyancy of the water do half the work of holding up Cash's eighteen pounds. After ten or fifteen minutes Cash's flailing has calmed down a little and he seems happy but subdued, relaxed.

"You good? Ready to get some food in you?" Michael asks, tucking Cash against his waist and standing up to head back over to the steps.

That's when he sees Ryan, standing halfway down the back steps like he's frozen there. His eyes are big and he looks a little out of it, not quite there, and Michael says "Yo, Ryan. You okay?"

"I—" says Ryan, unfreezing and walking towards the pool. "I'm fine, I—"

He doesn't finish the sentence, just lets it hang there.

"Uh," says Michael, "shit—did you not want Cash in the pool yet? I just, he wouldn't stop crying so I was kinda going crazy, I wasn't thinking, but I think he likes it—"

"Shut up," says Ryan. He's at the edge of the pool now but he doesn't stop, just keeps walking down the steps, fully dressed. He's wearing a fucking suit and he just walks into the water, walks right up to Michael.

"Don't talk," says Ryan, and then he's reaching out and running his wet thumb over Michael's cheek, cupping his jaw, "don't move," and he's leaning in, and Michael can't move because he's holding Cash, can't grab Ryan to pull him in or push him away, "just stay right there, just stay," and Ryan's lips are hot and intent against his, and he kisses Michael long and aching and stays there, up to his waist in water, forehead pressed against Michael's, breathing hard.

"I got home early," says Ryan, then stops to kiss Michael some more, pressing him back up against the edge of the pool. Cash makes a protesting noise and Michael settles him higher on his hip but Ryan only pauses to talk again.

"And I saw you two, just hanging out," and his kiss is harder this time, biting Michael's lower lip as he pulls away, "just chilling in the pool," and he presses his forehead into Michael's neck, this time, says it to his collarbone, "and I thought, fuck, I wanna come home to this," and Michael wants to know what Ryan's about to say so bad that he almost pulls away from the next kiss, but this one is deep and slow and sure, "every single day," and Michael can't grab Ryan and slam him against the pool like he wants to, so he just clutches Cash and nods against Ryan's forehead, eyes open, yes.

Michael keeps trying to kiss Ryan while he's making Cash's formula for him, and Ryan spills it everywhere and burns himself and Cash starts screaming again, but this time when Ryan finally gets him the bottle he settles down to suck contentedly and Michael forces himself to step back, leans against the kitchen counter and just watches.

"Tell me it's not fucked up that I think you're so hot right now," he says to Ryan, who's stripped out of his wet suit and is in his boxers, short hair just starting to dry, looking down at the fussy baby in his arms like it's the coolest thing in the world and talking lazy nonsense to it.

Ryan looks up and winks. "My brother in law always says babies are better than dogs for picking up chicks. Not that he does that. Or I'd kill him."

"Not that I'm a chick," says Michael.

"Oh, most definitely not," Ryan smirks. "Me neither. Which you're cool with. Right?"

"Oh shit, you've got a dick?" Michael asks. "This has all been a huge mistake. No homo!"

"Just, like, checking," says Ryan. "Cause like, in your apartment that time, that was, like, non-expected. I mean, good, though, but. Yeah."

"Yeah, well," Michael says. "For me too, a little bit. Sort of. Mostly you just made it—relevant."

"That's you saying I'm hot shit, right?" Ryan asks, after looking confused for a second.

"Basically," Michael admits, then winces. "Don't say jeah."

"Jeahhhhhhhhh!" Ryan says, and sticks his tongue out. Then he looks down at Cash.

"Bro, you'll be talking in like, a year or some shit. We gotta get to work to make sure your first word is the right word. Jeahh, little buddy. Jeahhhh. Jeah. Milk! Jeah."

Michael wants to say, good thing I'll be around to put a stop to stuff like this, but he doesn't, because—well, it sounded kind of like Ryan was offering, but that's a lot to put out there. He'll just think it, for now, and let the warm feeling of the possibility settle in his stomach and stay there.

Cash passes out right after his bottle, and they put him to bed together. Ryan's bed sits big and obvious in the corner of the room, but Cash is right there sleeping and Michael follows when Ryan grabs his arm and tugs him out into the living room.

The intense thing from the pool is back, but it's less desperate now, quieter. They laugh a little as they settle awkwardly on the couch, Michael on his back with Ryan over him like a makeout session straight out of high school, and that's what it turns out to be, kind of, but in an awesome way. Ryan holds himself up with the muscles standing out in his arms and leans his head down to kiss Michael easy and slow, and Michael tips his head back, bares his throat, lets Ryan explore him without feeling the need to flip them over, get on top, tear into Ryan before he can realize what he's doing.

Ryan's mouth is lazy and hot on his neck, the dip of Michael's collarbone, and when he shifts onto his elbow and reaches a hand up to scratch at Michael's head Michael practically groans with pleasure. Cash is probably too deep asleep for them to wake him up easily, now, but they're quiet anyway, even when Ryan sticks his tongue in Michael's ear and Michael knees him in the stomach in response.

"Do you have a weird ear thing, dude?" Michael half-whispers. "Cause, like, I guess I could be down with that, but I should probably start cleaning them."

"They're just so big," Ryan says in a mock-sex voice. "I can't resist them, Mike."

"Fuck you," says Michael, and knees Ryan again, and Ryan blows a raspberry into his other ear and then kisses Michael breathless before he can retaliate.

They've never just made out for this long before. The rasp of Ryan's stubble is starting to burn against Michael's cheeks and neck and lips and he can tell his mouth is starting to taste weird, maybe, but it's still so good—the solid weight of Ryan half-resting against him, the hard line of Ryan's dick where he can feel it against his hip, the slick press of their mouths and the way Ryan catches Michael's lower lip between his teeth a little every time he pulls away to breathe, like he doesn't want to let go all the way.

Michael cups Ryan's jaw and hold him there the next time it happens, presses his thumb against the corner of Ryan's mouth to feel the way his lips part when he pulls away. Ryan opens his mouth a little and Michael's thumb slips in, and then Ryan's running his tongue over it, sucking at the pad and scraping his teeth along the knuckle.

The slow, quiet burn of Michael's arousal flares up like Ryan's poured gasoline on the grill—which Michael has watched him do, once, on a dare—and he gasps and rocks up against Ryan helplessly.

"Fuck, dude, ah—" he says, and Ryan does it again, watching him with heavy eyes.

"Can you just—that's good, but, like, do it to my dick—"

But Ryan just leers at him and leans down to kiss him, Michael's thumb still curled over his bottom lip. He reaches down and fights briefly with the waistband of Michael's swim trunks, and then his hand's on Michael's dick and kind of feels his way over it then stops, frustratingly.

"Just, hang on," Ryan says when Michael groans in disapproval.

He grabs the hand that Michael's still got half-hanging out of Ryan's mouth and pulls it away, examines it critically, then licks messily over Michael's palm and runs his tongue teasingly over each of his fingers in turn.

"What are you—" Michael starts, but he can't finish because Ryan's fucking half-shoved his hand into Michael's mouth, now, slipping two of his fingers past Michael's lips. Michael runs his tongue over them exploratorily, then slower, to give Ryan a taste of his own medicine.

"Yeah, dude," Ryan says, and bites briefly at Michael's jaw until he pulls his hand away, fingers trailing wetness over Michael's stubble.

He grabs Michael's hand with his and brings both of them down to Michael's dick, tangling their slick fingers together around the shaft.

This time when he moves his hand Michael moves with him and it's wet and easy, and Ryan mutters, "way better, yeah," and smiles lazily against Michael's mouth.

When he moves his lips down Michael's chest Michael hopes that maybe things are heading blowjob-wards, but instead Ryan just licks at his nipple curiously and then sucks at it, teasing it with his tongue.

"I'm not a chick," Michael says, "and that's not my dick," but then Ryan scrapes his teeth over it and fuck, okay, maybe that's not so bad.

"I know," Ryan mutters, "my hand is on your dick, asshole," and then he moves over to the other nipple and does it again, harder, and Michael bites back his gasp.

"Haha, shit, you totally like it," Ryan says.

"No," says Michael, but Ryan's at it again and his voice shivers on the denial, giving him away. Ryan rolls his eyes and jerks their hands together a little faster, bites down on Michael's chest and sucks at him until Michael's sure there's some kind of direct pipeline from there to his dick, and when he confirms that by coming all over both their hands Ryan sits back and laughs in triumph.

"I thought I was totally gonna miss tits, cause of the dudes thing," he says, "but damn, Mike, you apparently have tits."

"I have pecs, okay," says Michael, and twists a come-covered hand into Ryan's hair, tugs him down at sucks at that joint above his jaw that makes him shudder and shut up.

He feels like maybe he should jerk Ryan off in return, but instead he just kisses Ryan messily and watches while he pushes down his boxers and drags his dick through the mess all over Michael's stomach.

"Gross," Michael says, and Ryan twists his nipple—fuck, wow—in retaliation and lines himself up again, pushes against Michael's abs a little faster. He's really hard and every thrust is kind of punishing, like maybe Michael'll have bruises in the morning, but the thought doesn't bother him as much as maybe it should. He likes it, maybe—bites at Ryan's neck and runs his hands down his back to urge him on, down until he reaches the flexing muscles of Ryan's ass, which occupy his attention for a little while.

Ryan's thrusts are jerkier, now, and he's breathing heavily against Michael's stomach, and Michael lets his hands slip closer together until his fingers are brushing together.

"Fuck," Ryan spits out which Michael lets a finger skim over his hole, and when he presses a little harder, not going anywhere, just kind of feeling things out, Ryan shudders and comes hot against his stomach.

"Oh look," Michael says, "if I have tits, you totally have a—" and Ryan slaps a hand over his mouth before he can say it.

"No," Ryan says when they've both got their breath back a little bit and are lying as close to side-by-side as the narrow couch will allow, "but that was, like, kind of awesome."

"Apparently," Michael says, lifting his head up to look at the mess on his stomach and then dropping it right back down, because ew.

"No, yeah, all of it, but also, like, the ass part," Ryan says.

"The—" Michael says. "Ass part."

"Yeah, dude, the ass part! When you went for it I was kind like 'what'? But then I was like, 'oh, shit.'"

The guy in the club that had started all of this by putting his hands all over Ryan shrinks a few inches in Michael's imagination.

"So you've never, like." Michael pauses, thinks fuck it, goes for it. "Done the ass part."

Ryan shifts against him, flopping an arm over Michael's stomach and probably staining the couch forever in the process.

"Naw, yo. I just like, did the dick part, which was awesome, and I was like, cool, the hypotenuse has been found."

"What?" asks Michael. "Hypothetical—never mind. Never mind. You never, like."

"My ass is so pure right now," Ryan says. "Except like, maybe we should un-purify it. Some time."

Michael's brain is weeping, like it tries to do a lot when Ryan talks, but his dick is trying valiantly to demonstrate interest in the idea. It's too late, though, and he's too gross and Ryan is passing out all over him and that'll just—wait. Not forever, though. His brain and his dick can agree on that one.

"Maybe," Ryan says, yawning, and Michael kicks at him.

"No falling asleep on me, dude. Get up, lemme shower. Go to bed."

Ryan groans and rolls off of him, and when Michael steps out of the bathroom Ryan's not passed out on the couch but he's not in the bedroom either. He's just leaning against the wall, waiting.

"C'mon, dude," he says, and opens the door to his bedroom, and Michael stands there because he's been sleeping on the couch for over a week, now, and—

"You coming?" Ryan asks, yawning, and Michael nods automatically and follows him into the messy bedroom where Cash is breathing soft and rapid in his crib in the middle of the floor.

"It's so nice that he mostly doesn't wake up at night now," Ryan whispers, and rolls over across the bed so he's tucked up against the wall.

Okay, Michael thinks, and gets in next to him. Ryan grumbles and tosses for a second and then he's snoring gently, and Michael slides into the tangled sheets and stretches an arm out across Ryan's back, tentatively, and before he can figure out whether or not he should leave it there he's fast asleep.

When he wakes up in the morning there's a something warm and solid under his arm, still, and all along his side, and he cracks his eyes open to see Ryan's long torso, stretched out on top of the sheets and golden in the morning sun.

Cash is babbling to himself in the crib but he's not crying, miraculously, and Michael smiles and rolls over and tucks his face into Ryan's sweaty, sleepy neck.

"Wake up, bro," he mumbles against Ryan's shoulder.

"Nnn," Ryan says grumpily, digging his face into the pillow.

"Fine," says Michael, and heaves himself out of the bed, grabbing Cash on his way out of the room. He makes formula for Cash and thinks about making bacon and eggs for himself and Ryan, then considers the logistics of a baby and a stove and a lot of hot grease.

"Yeah," he says to Cash, "maybe your dad kind of makes sense with his whole breakfast-tub of cold cereal thing."

Cash opens his eyes wide and alert, like he's really listening to Michael's voice, like he recognizes it. Michael rubs his fingers against Cash's warm back and lets the feeling of that spread over him, a new kind of pride.

He settles Cash on his hip once his bottle's empty and eats without really tasting the sugary mess and thinks about how there's a good chance Ryan wake up and walk into the kitchen and not even talk about yesterday, or last night, and they'll be right back where they were—the point being that Michael had never even gotten a chance to figure out where that was.

He can imagine it perfectly: Ryan'll come in here and smile at him and kiss Cash good morning and they'll spend the whole day playing video games and walking Carter and Ryan won't talk about it and Michael won't ask about it, and at night Ryan'll go to bed at like 10 and be weird or they'll hook up and fall asleep and not talk about it, and how can Ryan not think about stuff like this?

Michael is a list person. He likes things to be in order—not his house, maybe, but the bigger things. His life. He likes numbers, and when he can't have numbers he at least needs to have bullet points and short, definitive phrases. "I'm retiring." "Yes, really." "Golf." That's the list he goes to when interviewers are being annoyingly persistent. There's always a list.

Except with Ryan. With Ryan, the list is just things like "you avoided me" crossed out all messily and over it "we hooked up again" and "POOL" scribbled and surrounded by a lot of question marks. The only thing that's clear is "Cash," at the top and underlined.

When Ryan walks in, Michael's in the middle of actually searching Ryan's kitchen drawers for paper and a pen—potentially hidden somewhere in with the two thousand bottle caps, coupons for pool toys, and one inexplicable flip flop—in order to write out a tangible list that he can fold up and put in his pocket.

"That's the fork drawer," Ryan says behind him. "Spoons are in the closet, I told you before."

"I'm looking for a pen, and there are no forks in here whatsoever," Michael says, without turning around, "and I've asked you this before, but who the fuck keeps spoons in a closet, that doesn't even make sense, and why is that drawer full of socks and canned tuna, Ryan, seriously, nothing is in order--"

"Whoah, dude," Ryan says, slowly. He comes up behind Michael and leans into him, reaching around to ruffle Cash's hair where he's settled against Michael's hip.

"You're kind of freaking out. You know about the spoon closet, come on."

"This isn't about the spoon closet!" Michael says. "This is about how we haven't talked about—this, what we're doing, like, what's the—plan," he finishes, lamely, because he won't let himself say "goal."

"Uh," says Ryan, and bites at his shoulder. "Like, I thought we already talked and stuff?"

"What?" Michael asks. He turns around, frustrated, but Ryan's moved away to rummage through the cereal boxes and isn't looking at him. "We haven't talked about anything. I came here to talk about what we—the stuff in Baltimore, and you like shut yourself in your room and took me to see bats."

"I told you yesterday," Ryan says. He's pouring himself cereal, back still turned. "I, like, want this shit, permanently."

He moves away from the counter and faces Michael, eating.

"Th's," he says indistinctly, spoon still in his mouth. When Michael doesn't say anything Ryan points to Michael, to Cash, to himself, gestures around the kitchen.

"THSS," he says. The spoon's dangling unattended from his mouth, he's wearing bright orange basketball shorts that say "JEAH" on them in acid-green letters, and there's a bright red line across his left cheek from where he slept with his face smashed against the pillow. Michael's never wanted anything more in his life.

"Fuck," Michael breathes, "yeah, okay," and he wants to drop to his knees and blow Ryan right there but he settles for half-tossing Cash up in the air, burying his helpless, overwhelming grin against Cash's stomach until he squeals in protest.

When he settles Cash back in his arms Ryan's looking at him again, like he did months ago in the same kitchen, like he did the day before, in the backyard. All that intensity is there but his expression is happier, somehow, still so thick Michael can feel it in the air but missing the sharp edge of something like desperation. He walks over to Ryan and lifts Cash into his arms so he can lean his head against Ryan's and feel Cash's milky, kind of gross breath against his cheek, and just have this. This.

The rest of the day is no different than every other day, at least on the surface. They play Madden and walk Carter and go out for burgers at a restaurant that seems used to crying babies, but underneath all of that there's the way Michael lets his fingers linger on Ryan's lower back when he leans down past him to buckle Carter's collar, the quick, messy press of Ryan's lips against his as he hands Michael the xbox controller. The way the thing in Michael's throat is back, mostly when he looks at Cash, and it's thick and pressing but its claws are gone and it doesn't sting, it aches like healing, like the promise of muscles growing.

Cash falls asleep on Ryan's stomach while they watch reruns of Family Guy, and when the episode ends Ryan stretches and works his fingers gently under Cash, manages to slide both of them off the couch without waking him. Instead of heading into the bedroom, though, he hands him carefully to Michael.

"Take broski for a second," he says, "I wanna find something."

Fifteen minutes and three terrifying crashes later, Ryan emerges from the hallway with something that looks like a camping tent, still packed in its bag.

"Playpen!" he says, and then sits down and looks at the instructions with an expression that Michael recognizes from interviews where people ask Ryan questions about things other than swimming, fashion, or swimming.

"I'll do it," Michael says, handing Cash to a relieved Ryan. "But, like, is this really something we need to do right now? I thought this was for when they could crawl and eat electrical cords and stuff."

"Naw, dude," Ryan drawls while Michael starts fitting legs and joints and fabric together, "'cause, like, this way he can sleep out here."

"But," Michael starts, and then he gets it.

"Oh, shit," he says, working faster.

Ryan grins wickedly. "Yeah, dude. The bed is fuckin' ours."

Three short and fumbling minutes later, Cash is fast asleep in his brand-new playpen, baby monitor nestled next to him, and Ryan's rummaging around in his bedside table.

"Where the fuck," he's muttering, tossing takeout menus, two speedos, and a flashlight over his shoulder, and then he straightens triumphantly and throws a trial-sized body of Pjur Woman Bodyglide onto the bed.

"The ass part!" Ryan says. "I mean—this stuff'll still work, right? I, like, had it already."

"Clearly," Michael says, trying to keep his voice sarcastic. But, like, okay. If Ryan hasn't done this stuff, then Michael definitely hasn't, and he doesn't know what he's exactly supposed to be doing here. He should have watched more porn instead of just fantasizing about Ryan blowing him with the grill in. Shit.

"Dude," Ryan says. "You're freaking out again. I always know. You get, like, all tight like when you're trying to figure out why your times are slower than they should be or whatever."

"I just," Michael says, and goes for it before the Allison-voice in his head can intrude into sex and thoroughly freak him out, "I guess, like—you should tell me what you want. And stuff."

"Sweet," Ryan says. "First, I want us to be naked."

Okay, Michael can do that. He strips quickly and emerges from his shirt to find Ryan kicking off his boxers, and takes a moment to stare. There's a lot of skin and muscle and dick on display right now, way more than he ever got to see when they were fumbling around on couches. Ryan's stockier than him, more muscular, and Michael wants to see if he can span Ryan's waist with his freakishly large hands, then remembers that he can try.

He slides his hands over Ryan's hips and pulls him close, kissing him slowly and letting the soft hum of tension build little by little, edging into the small space between them.

"Awesome," Ryan says against his mouth, "I was gonna say, I wanted this next."

"Yeah?" Michael asks, making his way to that spot under Ryan's jaw that he can't ever leave alone. "What else?"

Ryan tenses and lets out a breath when Michael slips his hands lower, letting his fingers spread out over Ryan's ass.

"Right track, dude," he says, and Michael tugs him forward and kisses him again, lets his rapidly hardening dick rub against Ryan's hip.

"Gotta be specific," Michael says. "I don't wanna fuck it up," and Ryan shivers a little and swallows and when he speaks again his voice is heavier, rough and slow.

"I want, like," he says, fully hard now and starting to grind against Michael in tiny jerks, like he doesn't even know he's doing it, "your fingers in my ass, dude," and Michael thought he would give in to nerves and Ryan's phrasing and laugh out loud but the rasp of want in Ryan's voice makes it seriously hot, and okay. Michael can do that.

"Yeah," he says against Ryan's neck, "yeah. You want me to like—suck you first? Or just go for it?"

"No, that would be awesome," Ryan says, "fuck," and Michael kneels, leaving his hands on Ryan's ass and resting his mouth just above Ryan's hip, sucking a bruise there while he gets his bearings.

"Mike, shit," Ryan half-pleads, and Michael obeys, licking up the shaft and sucking the head into his mouth, rubbing the underside with his tongue. He doesn't try to get much fancier than that, just sets up a steady rhythm and leaves his hands where they are, tightening his fingers on Ryan's ass every now and then just to feel the muscles in his legs twitch hard.

His jaw's not really up to an entire hands-free blowjob, though, so Michael moves one hand to Ryan's shaft and starts to stroke, speed things along, but before he can really get into Ryan grabs his wrist.

"Wait, dude," he says, and he sounds like he's been doing sprints, halfway to breathless, "can you, like—can you do it, now, I'm ready, I want it, shit."

"Sure," Michael says, pulling off, "shit, yeah," and he straightens up and lets himself get lost in Ryan's mouth for a second before he re-focuses.

"How do you wanna, like—on the bed, I guess?" he asks.

"Yeah," Ryan says, "I can, like, just lie down, right, here—" and he stretches out on his stomach, all shifting muscles and unselfconscious display, and Michael's fucking aching with how much he wants him.

Ryan shifts again when Michael kneels awkwardly on the bed, lifts his knee higher and turns his head as much as he can, looking over his shoulder at Michael and—that's good, that Michael can see his face.

"Lube's over there, dude," Ryan says, "c'mon," and does an encore of his terrible shimmy thing, this time focused on his ass.

"God," Michael says, "seriously, don't do that, I've never seen anything less sexy, just hang on," and he finds in the messy folds of the sheets, spreads some over his fingers and rubs them together awkwardly, feeling like he's supposed to warm it up, or something.

"Alright," he says, "I'm doing this, Ryan, warning," and he rubs the pad of one finger over Ryan's hole, listens to the way Ryan's breath catches and leaves on a quiet moan, and feels heat flush through him.

"Come on," Ryan says, and Michael presses in, slowly, not really sure what else he's supposed to be doing.

"Is that okay?" he asks, feeling like he should check, and Ryan cranes to look at him again. His cheeks are pink and flushed but he's glaring.

"Move it, dude! Come on, just, like, pretend I'm a chick for half a second, I dunno."

"Hang on," Michael says, frustrated, and pushes in a little more firmly, finds a gentle rhythm.

"Shit," Ryan breathes out, "that's better, yeah, fuck," and Michael leans down to bite at the dip of his back, rubs a second finger around his rim and drinks in Ryan's quiet whine.

"Yeah," Ryan lifts his head to say, "don't pussy out now," and Michael pulls out and returns with two fingers, working them in in slow presses. Under him, Ryan fidgets and presses his hips back like he's trying to get more of something, of Michael.

Then Michael rubs over something that makes Ryan full-on shudder and swear, and he crooks his fingers experimentally, searching, and fuck—it's there again, Ryan's voice breaking on a moan.

"Ah, shit, fuck, fuck," he gets out, and Michael's dick fucking twitches in response.

"Another?" he asks, and Ryan can only nod in response, face pressed into the mattress. The third finger makes him shake and moan openly and Michael feels sweat trickle between his shoulder blades, the air close and thick around them. The stretch feels real, now, at least from Michael's side, and all of a sudden he wants to see what it looks like, Ryan open around him.

"Hang on," he says, and Ryan groans when he slides his fingers out, but then Michael's kneeling at the edge of the bed and pushing them back in, with more lube this time, and Ryan tenses and then relaxes into, pushes back, and Michael bites at the spot where his ass dips to meet his thighs, because fuck.

Ryan's not talking at all now, just letting out these quiet, shuddering noises from somewhere deep in his throat, and when Michael stretches his fingers inside him, watching the flex and press, he shakes and tightens around Michael, hips working into the mattress hard before shuddering to a halt, and shit, shit.

"You just came," Michael says, wonderingly, "holy shit, Ryan," and he kisses the sweep of Ryan's ass, which is the only thing he can reach right now, and feels the muscles still trembling under his lips, under the skin.

"That's like, the point," Ryan says, but his voice is wrecked and it makes Michael flash even hotter, breathe out against Ryan's ass and run fingers over his own dick, catching a drop of precome that's sliding down the shaft.

He still hasn't taken his fingers out of Ryan's ass and when he starts to move them Ryan bites back a noise, tightens around him.

"Nnng, n'yet" he says, eloquently, but Michael's too fascinated by the way he can keep making Ryan do that, fall apart again on command, to stop now anyway. Ryan's slick with lube and the stretch of him around Michael's long, flexing fingers is so weirdly fascinating, improbably hot, that before he can really think about what he's doing Michael says, "tell me if you're not into this, okay, but," and mouths at the place where his fingers meet Ryan's hole.

"Fuck," Ryan says, and then he says it again, and Michael keeps going, pressing his tongue in in counterpoint to the rhythm his fingers are picking back up and then Ryan can't stop saying it, fuckfuckfuckfuckMikefuuckk, and when Michael finally eases his fingers out, moves them back to grip at Ryan's thighs and hold him there and just, like—eats him out, tentative and inexpert and messy but kind of fucking amazing, all the same—Ryan's "fuck"s shatter into broken noises and then nothing at all, just the helpless motion of his hips and his fingers, white and twisted in the sheets.

Michael slides a hand around Ryan's thigh and up and he's hard again, or still hard, sticky and hot and it only takes a handful of strokes before he's coming again, a single wet pulse over Michael's palm, and Michael pulls away and catches his breath and looks at him, spread out and slick and glistening with sweat. Ryan moves a little, enough to turn his head and look at Michael, and he looks high as fuck, eyes blown out and round and lips red from where he must have bitten them.

"Ryan, god," Michael says, and spreads himself out along Ryan, wanting to touch him fucking everywhere, settling for pressing himself against his back and hissing as his dick drags over Ryan's ass, spreading precome and some of the lube that ended up everywhere. He grinds into him helplessly and feels Ryan push back, pants into the back of his neck and mouths inelegantly at his jaw and before he even really has time to get an even movement going with his hips he's coming hard, biting down on Ryan's shoulder and feeling like it's punched out of him, leaving him wrung out, helpless.

"Ugh," Ryan says an indeterminate time later, indistinctly and from somewhere under Michael, "I'm, like, covered in jizz, dude, are we always gonna be this fucking messy?"

Michael rolls off of him, tucking the "always" away on a new list he's writing.

"Shut up," he says, but he can't keep the warmth out of his voice. "I just fucking blew your mind."

"You blew my ass, actually," Ryan says, but it's a lazy drawl, his voice still totally fucked, rasping along Michael's sensitized nerves.

"Whatever," says Michael, "you just don't wanna admit I'm the best at sex, ever. God, the noises you were making—shit, Ryan. Don't even deny it."

Ryan shifts and yawns and stands up, making a face at the feeling of it, and fuck, Michael likes that.

"Yeah, whatever, bro," he says. "Not gonna front like that wasn't a total win on the ass part question, but just wait."

He moves towards the bathroom and says, not even looking back, "When I fuck you I bet I can make you cry, it'll be so good," and that's a new thought but not entirely a bad one. Michael closes his eyes and breathes out and okay, yeah, it's kind of a good one, Ryan over him, intent and focused like he gets when there's a goal and he's close to it. Michael as the goal, for once. Okay.

He should totally brush his teeth but before he can pull himself together to move Ryan's back, carrying a towel and Listerine.

"I wanna kiss you, like, really bad," Ryan says, "but you just made out with my ass, so deal with that," and throws it to him. The towel he just spreads over the wet spot, and shit, Michael hopes Mrs. Lochte is not the one who ends up doing the laundry this week.

Ryan's mouth is against his as soon as Michael's done, but it's unhurried, easy.

"Thanks, dude," Ryan says, pulling away for a second, "that was—whatever, get over yourself, you know it was totally awesome," and his voice is still a little blown, hair sweaty and lids falling heavy over his light eyes, and Michael can't believe this, that he's here, that he'll wake up to this in the morning.

They fall asleep tangled together and when the baby monitor goes off at 5 am Michael almost has to roll them both out of bed just to get up. He scrambles into boxers and trips into the living room to pick up Cash, who's not doing his hungry-cry or his I'm-sitting-in-shit-cry, just the sort of quiet, confused sobs he does when he wakes up and doesn't know how to get himself back to sleep.

"Alright, bro," Michael says, and tosses Ryan a pair of shorts when he walks into the bedroom. "Get decent for your son," he says, and settles back on the bed as Ryan pulls them on sleepily, laying Cash between them and rubbing his back until he starts to quiet.

"This is why I, like, tried to bail," Ryan says quietly, and Michael looks up at him. Ryan's on his side watching them, Cash clinging with a tiny fist to one of his fingers.

"I didn't, like—I didn't want to force this shit on you, y'know? This dude. It's a lot, it's not, like, the most hot thing ever, and you have a whole life and shit, too. But I couldn't, like. Be with someone who wasn't gonna want all of it, and stuff. For his sake, like, because mad people have already tried to, like, not be there for him, and—"

Ryan extricates himself from Cash's sleepy grasp, spreads his fingers carefully over Cash's back. They're touching Michael's, just a little, resting there.

"And when you—Mike, like, I wanted it so bad, when you showed up at my door I wanted to bone you right there, but. Especially with you, it had to be, like, for real, it had to be all of it, 'cause, fuck. For me too, not just him."

Michael tangles his fingers with Ryan's. Beneath their hands, Cash's back rises and falls, rises and falls.

"Then I saw you in the pool with him, and shit, Mike, you love him so much, y'know? Like, I don't know if you even let yourself know that yet, but you totally do. I was like, what the fuck am I waiting for, shit. Like, Mike's it, you know? You're kinda it, dude. For me, and stuff."

Michael has gotten everything he's ever wanted in life, so far, but he's had to fight and hurt and wake up at 5 am to go the pool on Christmas to do it, and now Ryan's just, like, handing him a prize he didn't even know existed, cause if he had it would have been on every goals list he ever made, and all he can do is look at Ryan and say, yeah, dude, yes. Me too.

***

In the morning Carter pees on the new playpen and Cash throws up in Michael's hair and Ryan runs out of cereal and they all have to load into the truck and find a diner, and Michael has a lot of his life still in Baltimore and Ryan has to start training for Rio, soon, six hours a day at the pool, but Michael feeds Cash while Ryan hoses down the playpen and Ryan walks Carter while Michael showers and the diner has seven kinds of omelets, and all the big stuff works out kind of the same way; Michael flies to Baltimore all the time but he's in Gainesville more, and he takes Cash to meetings and conference calls and to the golf course while Ryan swims, and they figure it out.

Michael does the spelling bees; Ryan does the skate parks. They both go to the swim meets.