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Sam looked out of the plane window. It had all gone by so fast: seemingly aeons of preparation and high-altitude camps and team meetings, a few weeks of acclimatisation in Japan, and then he blinked and found himself sat on the plane home, wondering where the time had gone. Maybe it was the numbing effect of the final making his mind avoid thinking about the last couple of months, casting everything into a dreary black and white, draining it of its true, vivid colours.

Tom let out a snore on the seat next to him, and Sam’s heart warmed with fondness. Even the drool on his shoulder added to the endearing image. He couldn’t say that he went into World Cup prep with the end goal of getting a boyfriend, but he could add it to his list of aims after the fact and tick it off, just to make the time appear better spent. Tom probably hadn’t seen this coming either, Sam reflected – from where they were at the start of the tournament to where they were now, it was the kind of transformation that Eddie promised could only happen with thirty consecutive days of waking up before dawn.

Smiling softly at the younger man, Sam pulled out his phone. There were still four hours left of the flight, and Eddie couldn’t shout at him for excessive phone usage for the next twelve weeks. He clicked the photos app, scrolling back to the very first meetings and training sessions in June. Hopefully this would prove that the whole experience had been better than he was remembering at the moment; that he’d actually enjoyed himself, right up until the last eighty minutes and the following eight days.

The first few shots were disappointingly generic, at least from Sam’s point of view. They were the sort of thing that could very easily be posted to the England twitter account without anyone noticing, a run of picturesque landscapes from Pennyhill Park to the beach in Brighton. The rest of the photos from those first few weeks were just group pictures, mostly of the forwards but a few of just the back row together – Sam, Mark Wilson, Lewis Ludlam, Courtney, and – of course – Tom, looking shy and nervous but growing more certain of his place as the days passed.

Sam zoomed in, a small smile forming on his face as he noticed the way Tom was pressed up close to him, arm latched around him while the other gripped Courtney only loosely in comparison. He remembered the photo being taken, now he thought about it: Jonny had grabbed someone’s phone and commanded them to pose together, and Sam had been surprised by the warmth of Tom’s touch as they grinned for the camera. Of course they’d played each other before, and been in England camps, but they’d never really spoken off the field before that day.

He let his mind wander back to the Argentina tour in 2017, the first time either of them had been called up in the absence of the Lions. It was funny now, how reluctant they had been to talk to each other, viewing the other as a rival who could not be allowed close. Sam spent the majority of his time with Mark, while Tom was understandably holed up with his twin. After the ruthlessly competitive attitude they’d cultivated over those six weeks, Sam was surprised when Tom pulled him into a friendly hug after the next match between Bath and Sale. He’d assumed that their professional distance would be maintained, but Tom clearly had other ideas.

He swiped through a few more photos, noting with amusement how Tom always seemed to be next to him. At the time he hadn’t realised how often the younger man sought out his company, but in hindsight it was glaringly obvious. His boyfriend could be stealthy when he wanted to be, Sam thought with a grin. It was strange, though, how he’d essentially allowed Tom to dictate the terms of their relationship; when Tom decided they should start being more friendly to each other at the beginning of the World Cup campaign, Sam acquiesced immediately. Maybe he had been more eager to talk to Tom than he knew at the time…

The next photo brought back a flood of memories. About three weeks into summer training, the squad moved to Italy for a mercifully short and cruelly hot camp. Eddie had still been on his ‘random roommates to make them get to know each other’ kick, like some secondary school teacher forcing his students to bond (on second thoughts, that comparison was probably correct). Sam was with Ellis, which he didn’t mind, although he could do with less loud music and more undisturbed time to sleep. Tom had been paired with Dan Cole – the beginnings of a beautiful friendship, Sam thought, snorting – which is why he was so surprised when Tom cornered him after a gruelling early-morning gym session.

“Can I talk to you, later?” the young flanker had asked, eyes darting around nervously.
“Sure,” Sam replied easily, resting a hand on his shoulder as if calming a spooked horse. “You can come to my room after dinner, if that works with you?”
Tom nodded gratefully, scrubbing a hand through his hair. “Will Ellis be there?” he said quietly. “Just – it’s private.”

“I can kick him out for a few hours, don’t worry,” Sam said, surprising both of them when he pulled him in for a brief hug. “And – whatever it is, it’ll be okay. Don’t stress about it.” Tom flashed him a warm smile and retreated back to his own locker. Sam shook his head. He had no idea what he wanted to say to him, or why Tom would confide in him of all people. Admittedly he was two years older, but there were guys with way more life experience than him in the team.

Sam pushed his questions out of his mind for the rest of the day, focusing on the drills and the important task of actually managing to breathe on the tenth sprint interval. It all came back to him, however, when he heard a knock on the door that night. “Shit,” he hissed, rolling off his bed. “I’m really sorry, Ellis, but could you go somewhere else for a bit? Tom wants to talk and he said it was private.”
The prop looked at him hard and shrugged. “I’ll get out of your hair, mate. Will two hours be enough?”
“Probably? I’ll text you when we’re done.”

As Ellis ambled out, clutching his phone, laptop, and headphones to his chest, Sam beckoned Tom inside. “Hey,” he said, trying to project warm support and enthusiasm through his tone. “You can take the desk chair, or sit on my bed – wherever’s comfortable for you.” Tom opted for the chair, sitting down with one leg folded under him, the other drawn up to his chest. Sam frowned at the defensive posture but didn’t say anything. Whatever Tom needed to do was fine by him. They had a long way to go, after all.

“What did you want to talk about?” he prompted, when it became clear that Tom wasn’t going to say anything. He was alarmed to see tears gathering in his friend’s eyes, and instinctively he moved to wrap an arm around his shoulders. “Hey, it’s okay,” he murmured, running a hand up and down Tom’s shaking arm. “Whatever it is, you don’t have to talk about it. But it might help to get it off your chest, hmm?”

Tom dropped his head forward to rest on his knee, and Sam felt his shuddering breaths where they were touching. “I promise everything’s fine,” Tom said, tears rolling down his face. “No, don’t look at me like that. Really, it’s just me making a big deal out of nothing. I mean – look at you, you’re fine.”
Sam looked down at himself in confusion. Then it dawned on him. “If this is about your tackling…”

The younger man laughed wetly. “I wish.” He exhaled heavily before speaking again. Sam could see the effort each word was taking him in the tension of his forearms, each muscle rigid and strained. “You’re bi, right?” Sam nodded wordlessly, realising where the conversation was going at last. “Well, uh – me too.” With the last whispered words, Tom burst into heaving sobs, each wave of tears wracking his body.

“Mate,” Sam said softly, cuddling him as close as he could manage. “I’m so proud of you. Thank you for telling me.” He kissed the top of Tom’s head, ignoring the wetness of his shirt. “Come on – sit down properly on my bed, I’ll make you a cup of tea, and you can tell me what the real issue is here.” Sniffling, Tom stood up on shaky legs and made his way over to the bed, for once looking just as young as his Wikipedia page said he was.

Sam made the drinks slowly, giving Tom time to recover while his back was turned. He knew he’d want some privacy himself in that situation, so he was doing his best to help his friend. When he finally turned around, Tom’s eyes were red but a weak smile was on his face. Sam took that as a win.

“There you go,” he said, carefully handing the tea over before settling down on the bed next to Tom, back resting against the wall. He waited for the younger man to speak, knowing that the main battle was past and he would (hopefully!) be more willing to share now.
“Thanks,” Tom said, voice calm but hands still trembling.

“I suppose being bi isn’t what’s causing all this stress, right?” Sam murmured, looking at his own tea. “Like, you seemed to come out with it pretty quickly.”
Tom shook his head, weighing every word before he spoke. “It’s just – I’m fine with it, within myself, if that makes sense? I’m fine with liking guys in a vacuum, it’s just having what’s in my head come into contact with reality.” He took a long drink, then continued, even quieter now. “Ben doesn’t know.” He stopped, wiped his eyes. “We tell each other everything, but I’m scared to tell him this in case it messes everything up.”

“He’s your twin,” Sam said, squeezing Tom’s shoulder. “He has to love you, no matter what.”
“What if he decides that this is the end, though?” Tom asked brokenly. “It sounds stupid, but I don’t know what I’d do without him.”
Sam carefully shuffled closer, not wanting to catch him off guard. “I know what you two are like, and I really can’t imagine him rejecting you like that.” Tom was already protesting. “Hey, listen. Even if he does – you’re your own person, you know? You can do things without him; look at you now! Of course Ben’s opinion matters, but there are other people in the world too, and you’re the most important of all of them. If you’re fine with it, then that’s all you can ask for.”

Leaning over to put his empty cup on the bedside table, Tom curled into Sam’s side. “You’re right. I’m sorry for being so dramatic.” Sam made a warning noise at the back of his throat. “You know what I mean – you’re so with it and confident about being bi, even with some homophobic guys in the team. I can’t ever see myself getting to that stage.”

Sam sighed, slumping into the other flanker. “Give it time. You definitely wouldn’t think that if you saw my bi breakdown.”
Tom hummed. “Will it make me feel better?”
Sam laughed. “Put it this way – I was nineteen and at uni, so there was a lot more alcohol involved. It was messy and pretty much everyone noticed, which is why I had to learn to own it.”
Tom shifted onto his side, wriggling until his head was resting on Sam’s legs. “Sounds like you made it work for you.”
Sam petted his hair, suddenly a lot more comfortable with his younger teammate’s honesty. “Looking back on it, maybe. Basically, the lesson from that is to give it time. You tell one person, who might be outside your usual social circles, and then you get to be okay with that, and then you move on to telling the people who actually matter.”

Tom twisted to look up at him, frowning. “You matter to me, Sam. Don’t be so down on yourself.”
Sam smiled, despite himself. “Alright, grasshopper. I guess we’re friends now.”
“That’s what a sexuality crisis does for you,” Tom said darkly. “Great bonding experience.”
Sam snorted. “Don’t let Eddie hear you saying that, mate. I don’t know what he’d do, but it would be bloody uncomfortable.”

They sat in silence for a while, Sam running his fingers through Tom’s hair while Tom traced patterns on the side of Sam’s shirt. Suddenly, Sam’s phone buzzed in his pocket. “Who is it?” Tom asked, sounding sleepy after the earlier emotional overload.
“Just Ellis asking if he can come back in a few minutes, or if we need longer. What do you think?” Sam looked at him, expression open. “I’m fine with whatever, but curfew’s coming up soon.”
Tom shrugged. “Give it five more minutes? I like it here, with you. This is the calmest I’ve felt in weeks.”

Sam patted his head, heart swelling. It was good to know that Tom was benefiting from their cuddle session as much as he was, and that his makeshift tea-and-a-chat method had actually calmed him down. “I’ll tell him ten.” He slowly typed out the text to his roommate with one hand, not wanting to stop touching Tom for a second.

Finally, reluctantly, Tom dragged himself upright. “Thank you for this,” he said, an expansive hand gesture encompassing all that had passed between them. “I really appreciate it.”
“It’s alright, mate,” Sam said, ruffling his hair one last time before forcing himself to sit back. “Any time. And I’ll see you tomorrow, yeah?” Tom left the room with a smile, and Sam wrapped his arms around himself. He was glad the younger man had initiated the conversation – it seemed like they’d both needed it more than they’d expected.

Sam zoned back in, jolted from his memories by another loud snore from his boyfriend. Tugging the blanket back up over his shoulders, his gaze returned to the phone screen. The photo was of the sunrise the next morning from Sam’s hotel room, which painted the sky in pink, purple, and blue stripes. He’d immediately sent it to Tom, trusting his friend would understand the reference. Sure enough, Tom soon texted back three heart emojis in the same colours.

It was somehow fitting that those were the first messages they ever sent each other, Sam reflected, given what transpired just a week later. The next photo was taken in their room at one of the training camp locations – Italy? Bristol? Portugal? All the hotel rooms had blurred into one at this stage, Sam had to admit. Tom was asleep on the floor, fully dressed, where he had sat down to take his shoes off after training. He’d fallen asleep against the wall at first, but slid down until he was lying facedown and fully stretched out in the middle of the room. Sam couldn’t resist taking the photo, if not for blackmail then for the fuzzy feeling it caused in his chest.

After half an hour, Sam had taken pity on his friend and tugged him into bed, where Tom immediately flopped down on him and refused to move, asleep again almost instantly. It wasn’t the being in bed together that was unusual, after the last seven days. In the high-pressure environment of the England camp, it was more like weeks of friendship than a matter of days. No, the thing that made that afternoon stick in his mind was when Sam decided he needed to get up.

He pushed gently at Tom’s side, expecting him to roll off without waking so he could escape and use the bathroom. But the younger man resisted, clamping on like a limpet. Hoping against hope that Tom wouldn’t wake up, Sam wrapped his arms around his waist, in a move reminiscent of the jackaling they had been doing that morning, and started to shift them slowly over until he was on top of the other man. Manoeuvre completed, he prised Tom’s arms off his back and sneaked off to the toilet.

When he came back, Tom had sprawled out to cover the whole bed (not difficult for a rugby player of their size to do in a single bed). Sam hovered awkwardly, wondering whether he should leave and come back later, or attempt to move Tom back over until there was enough space for him as well. The dilemma was solved for him when Tom wrapped a hand around his wrist, seemingly still mostly asleep, and tugged him towards the bed.

Sam was making himself comfortable and finding the right page in his book when Tom turned over, rolling himself onto Sam’s chest. He let out a surprised sigh, feeling his friend’s breathing gusting over his skin. “You alright?” he asked gently, trying to alleviate his own awkwardness. Tom clearly wasn’t feeling uncomfortable; he was bloody asleep.
“Missed you, Sammy,” Tom mumbled, moving forwards and kissing him lightly.

Sam stiffened, holding his breath so Tom wouldn’t wake up and realise what he’d just done. His luck didn’t hold. Tom’s eyes snapped open and he scrambled up to a sitting position, hands over his mouth. “Fuck, I’m sorry,” he said, angling his body away from Sam.
“It’s okay,” Sam said, surprising himself with just how okay he had found it. He laid a hand on Tom’s knee. “I didn’t mind, honestly.”
“Still…” Tom sounded pained. “I shouldn’t have done that.”
“You were asleep,” Sam said, trying to act calm. “It’s all good.”

Tom dragged his hands down his face, frustration evident in the quivering tension of his body. “No, it isn’t,” he said through gritted teeth. “I kissed you without your permission. That’s not okay.”
Not able to think of any other way to bring an end to Tom’s anguish, Sam surged up and kissed him, hands cradling his face. He pulled back, breathing heavily. “There you go,” he said. “Now we’re even. Anyway, I don’t think it’s bad if I wanted you to do it.”

Tom frowned, avoiding Sam’s gaze. “I don’t – what do you mean, you wanted me to?”
Sam didn’t know if he was glad they were having this conversation or not. It was like pulling teeth. “Well, I didn’t know before you did it, but I liked you kissing me. I enjoyed it.” None of his other relationships had ever involved this much talking. Maybe that was the problem with them.

“So, uh, can I…”
Sam had never been this awkward, he was sure. Then again, he was normally drunk when the initial advances were made. “Yes, Tom. You can. Please.”

Infinitesimally slowly, Tom moved towards him. His hand was shaking as he reached out to cup Sam’s jaw, but his eyes showed his utter calm. “I really like you, you know,” he breathed into the space between their lips. “I don’t know what we’re going to do about this, especially now, but I want to kiss you at least once more.” Finally, he closed the gap between their mouths, and Sam was able to relax.

Maybe Tom wasn’t the most skilled of all the people he’d kissed, but he put his heart and soul into it. Sam held on to Tom’s shoulders, trying to deepen the kiss, when Tom pulled away. “What’s wrong?” he asked, worried. They’d talked about it, established that they both wanted the kiss, and now Tom was breaking it off before they’d really got started.

Tom rubbed at his face, sighing. “I’m sorry,” he began, staring at his lap. “I know I’m acting like a kid who doesn’t know what they’re doing, and I’m sorry. You deserve better.” He bit his lip. “The issue is, we’re in training camp for the literal World Cup. We can’t just – do this. We have to be more careful.” Seeing that Sam was about to argue, he kept going. “I don’t mean about being outed, although that would be bad. I mean, if we screw this up now, in the first month, then the whole team will be thrown off, and that’s not fair.”

Sam nodded, taking Tom’s hand. “I understand.” He paused. “I didn’t want this to be just a one-time thing anyway, but, hearing that, I think we should take it slow – be more careful. Like, I would love to kiss you and date you and maybe even fuck you-”
“Only on a day off,” Tom interrupted with a small smile, which Sam returned gratefully.
“You know what I’m trying to say, Tom. We should give this a shot, but responsibly, and slowly.”

“Sounds good to me,” Tom said, more settled. “Fancy a bit more slow, responsible kissing?” Sam tried to bite back his laugh but failed, snorting in an undignified way. “Oi,” Tom said indignantly, swatting at his shoulder. “I’m working with the conclusion of our discussion, support me.”
“Sorry, dear,” Sam said, straightening his face. “I’ll try and be a better boyfriend next time.”

The breath was knocked out of him as Tom kissed him fiercely. “You’d better,” he muttered in between kisses. “Eddie would have words if he heard you weren’t treating me properly.”
“Eddie would have words anyway,” Sam smiled back. “The man never shuts up. Don’t worry, though, baby. I’ll treat you right.”

Sam had to stop himself from shuddering at the memory of his cringeworthy line. It had worked on Tom though, so he counted it as a success. The only nagging doubt he’d had throughout the few months of their relationship so far was that it was a result of the stressful situation they were in, a product of the tournament bubble and nothing more. They were so close to landing back in England – was that going to be the end of their fledgling relationship? They’d promised each other in the early mornings and late evenings that they were both committed to making this work.

But Sam couldn’t help worrying. Tom lived hours away from him and couldn’t even drive: not exactly a good start to a long-distance relationship. And was Tom only with him because there was no other option in the pressure cooker of England camp? He was twenty-one years old, a minor celebrity in his hometown. There would be guys and girls and everyone in between falling over themselves to get with him, while Sam was hundreds of miles away. He flicked on to the next photo, trying to distract himself.

He squinted at the screen. It showed what looked like a screenshot of the Ireland match, but the quality was awful and someone had clearly messed up the lighting. Why would he want to remember a video review session? Then it hit him: that was the game when his pass put Tom in for a try, and Tom had been ecstatic for hours afterwards. That still didn’t explain the strange lighting though…

He looked at the timestamp, seeing if that would give him any clues. It was at 9:30pm – a bit late, even by Eddie’s standards. Surely he would have been in bed by that point, given it was the evening after a big match?

Finally, he remembered. He’d jokily told Tom in the locker room after the game that they would rewatch it that evening with some tea, making it as much of a date as they could while imprisoned in Pennyhill Park. Tom had gone off to do his media duties buzzing with the win, and come back from filming the O2 Inside Line on the verge of tears.

“What’s wrong, Tom?” Sam had asked, gathering him into a hug and shepherding him into their room. Behind closed doors, he could try and comfort his boyfriend properly.
Tom shrugged, angrily wiping at his eyes. “Nothing, really. I’m just overreacting.”
“Hey, no,” Sam said. He guided Tom to the bed, cuddling him close. “It must have been something important if you’re crying.”

Tom shook his head again. “It really wasn’t.”
Sam sighed. “Tell me anyway? Maybe it’ll help.” He held Tom’s hand between his own, feeling it shaking.
Tom turned and hid his face in Sam’s shoulder. “It’s so stupid. Basically, the presenter guy asked me how we review tape, and I said that we were going to watch it together, in bed, with a cup of tea.”
“That’s alright, isn’t it? I mean, it doesn’t sound like anyone took it too seriously.” Sam couldn’t tell where the distress was coming from.

“That’s basically the problem,” Tom muttered. “Obviously I said it as a joke, and everyone took it as a joke, but – shouldn’t it be okay if we were doing it seriously? Like, I’m not explaining this very well.” He paused for a minute to order his thoughts. “Just – the fact that two guys could be in bed together isn’t funny, and that’s what they were laughing at.”
Sam hummed, pressing a kiss to the top of his boyfriend’s head. “I get what you mean. You did set it up as a joke, and maybe that’s what they were responding to, but then laughing because they thought we would spend time in bed together is – yeah, it’s not great.”

Tom nodded slowly. “I still want to watch the match like you said we would, though. Not just to get back at all of them, but because I want to.”
Sam smiled. “That’s good. We can start it after dinner.” He brought Tom’s hand up to his mouth and gently kissed his knuckles, surprising a laugh out of Tom.

The evening was spent cuddling in bed, as Tom had told the unappreciative O2 Inside Line audience, with cups of tea. Sam couldn’t tear his eyes away from the tiny figure of Tom on the screen. He’d always known that the younger man worked as hard on the pitch as he did during training, but he’d never focused entirely on his play for a whole match before.

He grinned in admiration at one particularly fine turnover, and Tom knocked their heads together. “What are you laughing about?” he asked curiously.
Sam shrugged, not sure how to vocalise his feelings. “That was a bloody good turnover,” he said eventually. “But also – you’re always so good, and especially today, and I’m struggling to work out how I can look up to you.” Seeing Tom pout, he hastily corrected himself. “You’re two years younger and two centimetres shorter than me – I should be setting an example for you, not the other way around.”

Tom paused the match and turned to look at him properly. “You do set an example for me, Sammy. Your tackling on the Argentina tour, for starters, but then you’re also really dedicated and emotionally mature, which is something I want to be but I’m not.”
“Yet,” Sam interjected with a fond smile.

“Yes, dear,” Tom said, mock-irritated. “Don’t interrupt our mutual admiration session, please.” He pretended to rearrange himself before continuing. “Anyway, you’re pretty much how I want to be – aggressive in rugby, and thoughtful and caring in life, and confident all the time. So, yeah,” he concluded, kissing Sam’s forehead. “You are my role model.”

On the plane, Sam looked over at his sleeping boyfriend. It was strange how the confines of the bedroom brought out all the things they never would have said otherwise; somehow the privacy of those four walls gave them the space they needed for real honesty. Sure, his previous girlfriends and boyfriends had complimented him on occasion, mainly focusing on his body, but there was none of the brave honesty which Tom had shown in that moment. His chest felt warm. He was so lucky to have Tom, and he was so hopeful that the separation once they arrived in England wouldn’t prove too much for their relationship to overcome.

The next batch of photos – Tom in front of various views (beaches and temples featured heavily, for some reason) – failed to distract him from that lingering worry. Tom had promised several times that they would find ways to visit each other, Sam driving up to Sale and Tom getting the train down to Bath. A smile tugged at the corner of Sam’s mouth as he recalled one of Tom’s more ostentatious promises.

“I’m actually going to try and pass my driving test when we get back,” he murmured into Sam’s ear, clinging on to his boyfriend’s back like a particularly friendly koala during a swimming pool recovery session.
“I thought you hated driving,” Sam whispered back, eyes still fixed on the water polo match going on in front of them.
“I do,” Tom said, ‘accidentally’ trailing his hands across Sam’s chest. “But if that’s the fastest way to get to you, I’ll do it.”

“Can’t Ben just drive you?” Sam asked, catching Tom’s hands and pressing them to his heart. “Tell him we’re friends and it should be fine.”
Tom shifted unhappily, wrapping his legs around Sam’s waist under the water. “He’s got a girlfriend so he’ll be busy, and I don’t want to lie to him.” He hooked his head over his boyfriend’s shoulder. “I’ll need to learn to drive properly at some point, so this will just be useful motivation.”
Sam laughed quietly, trying not to draw the attention of the other players. “Anything that helps you, babe.”

Tom had also confessed, on their way back from another of the endless training sessions, that he was working harder for Sam. The older man had squirmed uncomfortably, believing that he surely had better reasons for training hard – his career, his family, representing his country. “Obviously those things matter to me as well,” Tom had said dismissively, “but what’s most important to me now is you. Every day I train harder so we win another match and I can stay out here for another week with you.” Overcome with the simple truth of his words, Sam had brushed their hands together as they walked, aware they were still in full view of the rest of the team. There was no way to reply to such honesty.

Skipping over a few snaps of Tom in a raincoat with a brush sweeping up water – must have been the day of the cancelled France game – Sam stopped on a screenshot of a playlist. It was called ‘England HYPE 🌹’, and he recognised it as the music they played in the locker room before and after training. This was clearly the version before his conversation with Tom, though.

He was coming back to their room after training, having been held up with the coaches for some reason. Tom was already in there, which is why he wasn’t surprised to hear music playing. He was more intrigued by the genre, however. He slowly pushed open the door, hoping not to disturb Tom’s singing.

After about ten seconds in which Sam confirmed that yes, his ears were not deceiving him, he blurted out, “Is that Mika?”
Tom stopped singing immediately, grabbing his phone and turning off the music with reddening ears. “It might be,” he mumbled, turning away from his boyfriend.
“Don’t look so embarrassed about it,” Sam said, coming closer but still leaving space. “Mika’s good. Not sure I’ve got the range for it, but his music is very…” He paused, knowing the word he wanted to use but not sure if it would offend Tom.

“Gay?” Tom suggested with a raised eyebrow. Sam nodded awkwardly, but Tom took pity on him. “I mean, that’s basically why I like it. Baby closeted me plus Mika plus Lady Gaga plus ABBA equals feeling slightly less alone.”
Sam softened at his words. “Oh, mate.” He kissed his cheek, the image of a younger Tom dancing to gay anthems alone in his room filling his mind. It was so different from his own experiences of gay clubbing as a student in Cardiff. Not having that sense of community around him as he grew to realise who he was – he didn’t know how he would have managed it. He’d had his uni friends around him who were going through the same process of self-discovery, but Tom had been doing it alone for so long. It sparked an idea in his head…

The next day before training, Sam had amended the locker room playlist (perks of being the sole member of the music committee). He just hoped Tom would like the new additions. He plugged his phone into the speakers and waited, ready to switch the songs as his boyfriend entered the room. He heard Tom’s bubbling laughter in the corridor outside, accompanied by the gravel tones of Marler and Cole. His finger hovered over the button.

As Tom stepped inside, Sam pressed play on the latest section of the playlist, which he had mentally titled ‘Subtly Gay’. His personal favourite, ‘It’s Raining Men’, had been subject to a veto at the last second: he wanted to help Tom feel accepted, not scare him about being outed. Instead, he’d opted for the dulcet tones of Pink as a first step in building up to the more obvious gay songs.

He watched with a smile that was equal parts satisfied and loving as Tom’s head jerked round to stare at him. He apologised quickly to Joe and Dan, walking over to Sam wide-eyed. “You put-” he gestured towards the speakers- “on the playlist? Sammy.” Sam could barely keep himself from kissing the thrilled expression off Tom’s face. He wanted to keep this feeling in a bottle forever.

“I just…” he started, voice cracking, “I was thinking about you listening to this music all by yourself, and how I could help bring it into the open, at least in a small way.”
“Baby,” Tom said, equally emotional. “Thank you.”
“It’s not a big deal, don’t worry-”
“No, it is, for me. I really appreciate it.”
Sam reached out to caress Tom’s cheek, hoping nobody was looking but for once almost not caring. “I’m glad I could help. Anyway, you’re my underdog.”

Tom had blushed, later loudly blaming it on the humidity of that part of Japan. As ‘Raise Your Glass’ blurred into ‘I Will Survive’, Sam pushed his leg against Tom’s, revelling in the little touches they could share in public. He was also grateful that they would always be sat next to each other as six and seven. The game had brought them together, but it was always threatening to break them apart.

Another few photos later and he came across a post-match picture of him, Tom, and David Pocock in the England locker room. Even before they’d won, Tom had been talking dreamily of swapping shirts with Pocock, to the point where Sam was considering getting his hands on the opposition flanker’s shirt first just to annoy him.

Then England had won 40-16, and Tom had grabbed Sam’s hands on the pitch and yelled over the roar of the crowd, “I’m going to do it! We did it, so I’m going to do it!” Sam gave him a quick hug before moving along the handshake line to commiserate with another beaten Australian. There was a buzz under his skin from the exhilaration of the victory, and each glance around the stadium amped his adrenaline up even more.

The locker room was jubilant when the team filed in, the rest of the squad whooping and cheering and slapping them all on the back. Sam quickly started the playlist, grinning even wider when he heard the opening bars of ‘Born This Way’ blasted over the sound system. He looked around for Tom, expecting to see another knowing smile on his boyfriend’s face. He couldn’t see him for a second – hadn’t Tom been right behind him?

After a few seconds, however, Tom sidled through the door and Sam could breathe easily again. Then he realised what was around his neck. “You got Player of the Match?” he yelled, barely believing what he was seeing.
“Yeah!” Tom shouted back, bouncing over and yanking Sam into a crushing hug. “This day literally cannot get better!”
Sam pressed a quick kiss into the side of Tom’s neck and murmured into his ear, “I’m so proud of you, baby. You’re incredible.”

Tom squeezed him even harder. “I asked Pocock for his shirt when we were shaking hands as well, and he said yes! I can’t believe David Pocock wants to swap shirts with me!” Sam grinned. Unfiltered joy was a good look on his boyfriend, he decided. His wide eyes and beaming grin were so endearing, while the flex of his arms around him was maddeningly distracting.

“Look behind you,” Sam said, releasing Tom and spinning him around. He heard his sharp inhale and laughed. Tom was acting like an absolute fanboy, apparently forgetting that they’d been knocking the stuffing out of each other for eighty minutes and that he had indisputably played better than his hero.

Tom had gone up to Pocock with a stumbling stride, pulling off his shirt as he went. Sam watched from his locker as they talked, observing the two fine specimens of manhood before him. Even in that room, they stood out. He blinked as Pocock looked over at him with a smile, then waved awkwardly as the Australian moved towards him, Tom in tow.

For all his smugness about Tom’s overexcitement, Sam was actually in awe of the man in front of them too – he just thought he could hide it better. Luckily more of the Wallabies had entered the locker room, so the rest of the team were distracted from his uneven breathing. “Good game, mate,” Pocock said, extending a hand to shake. Sam forced himself to accept the handshake, the intensity of Pocock’s focus reducing him to a bright red and embarrassed sack of nerves.
“You too,” he eventually got out.

“Eh,” Pocock said with a well-muscled shrug. “Could have been better.” His smile became more genuine as he tipped his head towards Tom. “I think we can both agree that this kid played a blinder, though.”
Sam grinned at Tom, who looked like he was about to vibrate out of his skin at the praise. “Yeah, he’s alright, I guess.”

“D’you want me to take a photo?” Joe Marler asked suddenly, seemingly popping up out of nowhere. “To commemorate baby’s first international player of the match?” Tom nodded enthusiastically while Pocock and Sam just smiled their acquiescence. Sam repressed a shudder as he looped his arm around Pocock’s (shirtless!) waist. They’d been much closer together in the actual match, but – wow. Tom looked like he was about to combust, him and his idol pressed together, half-naked.

Finally, the torture ended, Pocock stepped away, and Sam could breathe again. That would be one to write home about, he knew. “Hey, uh, mate,” Tom asked quietly, “could I talk to you outside for a second?” Pocock shrugged and followed the other flanker. Sam got in one last pat on the shoulder before the Australian left. If he could get away with not washing that hand for more than a few days, he would be a very happy man.

His boyfriend reappeared a minute later, apparently having shed his opposite number. “You alright?” Sam asked, keeping his eyes straight ahead. He knew how the bro code worked – too much staring at another player and you would be under immediate suspicion.
Tom sat down next to him, throwing an arm around his shoulders. He seemed to have no compunctions about violating the bro code. “I just came out to David Pocock,” he whispered, elation clear in his voice. “I just – oh my God!”

Sam twisted to look at him, trying to hide his shock. “You – what? Why?”
Tom rubbed a hand over his face, careful to keep his voice down. “I don’t know. Like, he was there, and he’s so cool, and he’s really supportive of LGBT stuff… I think it was the adrenaline or something. I just had a rush of courage and decided to do it.”
“I’m proud of you, baby. That’s awesome. David Pocock!” He shook his head disbelievingly. “You don’t do things by halves, do you, mate?”

Tom sighed happily. “And that photo – so cool. It’s definitely going up on my Instagram later. Honestly, this is the best day of my life.”
“What’s the caption going to be?” Sam asked, tugging off his socks. They couldn’t stay here all day, no matter how happy Tom was.
“Dream threesome?” Tom muttered into his ear, sarcasm bleeding through. Sam couldn’t stop himself from hacking out a spluttering cough. “No, I’m joking. I’ll just put something saying thanks for the support – that way David will know what I’m talking about, but it’ll be subtle.”

“David, huh?” Sam said, raising an eyebrow. “We are on friendly terms now.”
Tom punched him lightly. “Oi. I think we’ve been through a bonding experience. You’re just jealous, anyway.”
Sam knocked their shoulders together. “Look, if you were to actually arrange that threesome with us and your best mate David, I’d stop being jealous.”

Tom’s face turned dreamy again. “Imagine… He was about half of my gay awakening. I think I’d actually die.”
Sam risked a quick kiss to Tom’s cheek. “He can be your celebrity exception then. You’d just have to tell me all about it afterwards.”
Tom sniggered. “Don’t worry – I’d write all about it in my diary, and you’d be the first to read it.”

Dragging himself back to the present, Sam willed himself to stop thinking about that hypothetical threesome. Obviously it would never happen, but by God was it hot to imagine. With Tom stirring next to him, he forced his breathing to slow down. The flight had hours left to go, and there was no way Tom would be up for a quickie in the toilet. After a few minutes of careful inhales and exhales, Sam felt ready to move on to the next photo.

Thankfully, it was wholesome enough to distract him from all thoughts of two incredibly attractive and athletic flankers. Tom had been whining about wanting to go to a cat café since before the team had even set foot in Japan, and then complaining when nobody wanted to visit a cat shrine in Miyazaki. He even started talking about it in one of the pre-Australia press conferences.

Personally, Sam couldn’t see the appeal of cats, but he had an obligation as a boyfriend to indulge Tom’s quirks. That was how they found themselves wandering through the back streets of Tokyo during one of their precious days off, Tom waving his phone around and promising that the café was always just around the next corner. Having run out of patience, Sam got out his own phone and navigated them to the right place within five minutes.

“Look at it!” Tom whispered, grin spread across his face. “Isn’t that the coolest thing you’ve ever seen?” Sam nodded obediently, but privately he thought that Tom’s gleeful expression was better. Tugging Sam along by the hand, Tom entered with an enthusiastic ‘Konnichiwa!’. At least all those language lessons hadn’t been wasted, Sam thought.

He settled down across the table from Tom, watching him fondly as he muddled his way through ordering drinks for them both. The younger man was almost bursting out of his skin with excitement as a cat wandered over to him. He scooped up the black cat and peered at its collar. “She’s called Mai,” he said, looking over at Sam with a beatific smile. “Isn’t she perfect?”

Sam couldn’t resist taking a photo, Tom pressing his face against the cat’s fur while it snuggled into his arms. “I want a cat so bad,” Tom muttered. “Bet Ben wouldn’t let us have one, though. He’d probably say we’re away too much.” Sam made a non-committal noise at the back of his throat, opening his chat with Mark Wilson.

He couldn’t ask Ben himself; they’d never actually spoken off the pitch, and it might create an awkward situation for Tom if his twin asked about it. Instead, he opted for the indirect route and texted Mark. Checking to make sure Tom was still focused on the cat, he typed:

Hey Mark – at cat café with Tom (yeah I know), could you ask Ben C if he is actually opposed to having a cat? Tom seems to really want one

Mark pinged back a message almost immediately.

Sure. Can’t you ask him yourself though?

Might be weird – please? Will owe you one

Fine, I’ll text him now

I’ll update you when he replies

Thank you!!!

Satisfied, he tucked his phone away in his pocket and leaned back to watch his boyfriend. Somehow, during the minute he’d been distracted, Tom had attracted another three cats to him. They were all climbing over his lap and pawing at him. This wasn’t so bad. Tom was enjoying himself with the cats, Sam was enjoying seeing Tom having fun – the rest of the team were missing out, really.

The next week, when Tom woke him up by jumping on the bed and screaming, “Ben got cats!”, Sam pretended to be surprised. His beaming boyfriend shoved his phone into his face. “They’re called Rosa and Lily, and they’re adorable. I mean, look at them! I can tell you love them already from the look on your face.” Maybe it wasn’t the cats making Sam feel all fond and warm inside, but Tom was happy either way.

Before the New Zealand match, they’d had yet more press duties. Tom had all the necessary enthusiasm, but the higher-ups had decreed that it was best for Sam to do most of the talking because he was older and more experienced (or some equally twisted logic). The photo provoking this memory was of Tom posing in front of the World Cup logo before they had to face the media, a bright smile on his face. Sam hadn’t done much to keep it there during the actual press conference, unfortunately.

About ten minutes into the session, Sam could feel his focus slipping. There was only so much waffling he could do to fill the time slot in response to the inane questions of the journalists. One of them asked if he and Tom were really friends. Instinctively he tried to dodge the question; he might be comfortable in his sexuality, but Tom wasn’t at the same stage – and Eddie would probably have them shot at dawn if they came out by accident in the week of the semi-final.

“We’re colleagues,” Sam said, instantly regretting his words. He felt Tom flinch beside him, the omnipresent smile sliding off his face for the briefest of moments. He started trying to walk it back – they were friends, they spent lots of time together, Tom had basically been adopted by Dan and Joe – but Tom was still looking at him uncertainly.

As the journalist nodded in satisfaction and they moved on to the next idiotic line of interrogation, Sam carefully put his hand on Tom’s knee under the table and squeezed. It was trying to convey I’m sorry and you know that’s not true and you mean so much to me. Maybe Tom wasn’t getting his exact meaning, but his back was straighter and his shoulders were more relaxed for the remainder of the press conference.

As soon as they were in the corridor outside afterwards, Sam pulled Tom into a tight hug. “I’m so fucking sorry, Tom. I didn’t know what else to say.”
Tom brought his hands up to rest on Sam’s back. “No, it’s okay. It was a shitty question. You couldn’t have answered it in any other way – I was just surprised, that’s all.”

Sam tucked his head into Tom’s neck. “I promise, you’re my favourite. The others – they’re colleagues, for sure, but you?” He stuttered to a halt. There was no way of finishing that sentence other than I love you. While it was undoubtedly true, he didn’t want to pressure Tom by saying it only a few months into their relationship. “You’re everything for me here,” he concluded lamely.

He could feel Tom nodding. “I love you too, Sammy,” he said softly. Sam felt his heart skip a beat. “It’s not fair that we have to hide this, but I don’t want to hide how I feel from you. Maybe it’s early, but I love you.”
Sam hugged Tom impossibly tighter. If only he had a fraction of his boyfriend’s courage, he wouldn’t have made that stupid joke earlier. “I love you, Tom. In Japan, in Pennyhill Park, in Sale, in Bath – I love you.”

Sam thought back on them, clinging together in some dimly-lit corridor in a building he couldn’t remember. He didn’t regret what he’d said anymore. He’d hurt Tom in that moment, but he liked to think that it led to greater honesty between them. He could’ve kept the truth about his feelings for his boyfriend inside for weeks or months. Now, at least, he could feel more secure in the relationship. Love might be enough to keep them together in the face of all the obstacles awaiting them back in England.

The next image wasn’t even a photo; it was a Boomerang. Clearly that was the point at which Tom’s youth had started to have a decided effect on him – he hadn’t known what it was less than six months ago. It was after the New Zealand match, and the very thought of that win sent shivers down his spine. He almost regretted not celebrating the victory more.

Of course Eddie had wanted them to focus on the actual final, but it was hard not to be excited about vanquishing the All Blacks. Manu’s try, and the slow accumulation of points as Fordy nailed his kicks… There was no bitterness left about his own disallowed try – the team had done it, and that was what mattered. He couldn’t put into words the excitement he’d felt as the clock ticked into the red and the bench ran onto the pitch, yelling their heads off.

The locker room afterwards was similarly excited, although Eddie was keen to impress that they wouldn’t go overboard. Tom and Sam sat together as the coach gave his post-match speech. Tom’s leg was jumping up and down next to his own, and Sam laid a steadying hand on his knee. He couldn’t do much more to help control his boyfriend’s adrenaline while Eddie kept talking.

As soon as the Australian had finished, Tom grabbed Sam in a hug, mirroring their earlier one on the pitch. “I’m sorry about your try,” he shouted into Sam’s ear over the music. “I didn’t mean to block the defender.”
“It’s okay,” Sam replied, throat starting to hurt after all the yelling he’d been doing. “I know you wouldn’t have done it on purpose.”

Tom grinned, relief clear in his eyes, and leaned forward to dig his phone out of his bag. “Come on,” he said, handing it over to his boyfriend. “Selfie to commemorate the occasion!” Sam obediently opened up the camera, but Tom was shaking his head. “Let’s do a Boomerang instead – captures the moment better.” Confused, he gave it back to Tom, who opened up the app with a smirk. “I forget how old you are sometimes, Sammy.”

Sam pouted but pressed the button. He jerked back in surprise when Tom kissed his forehead exuberantly. “What was that for?” he asked, frowning. “You’ll be all blurry.”
Tom snickered. “You’re supposed to move, mate. It’s a loop. Go on, look at it. I bet it’s good.” Sam checked the photo/video/thing. He had to conclude it was quite sweet. His eyes widened comically when Tom moved towards him, but the soft look on his face beforehand made up for it.

Two weeks later on the plane, Sam started the loop again, smiling at the blissful expressions on both their faces. That day had been almost perfect – if he wiped from his memory the disallowed try and his early substitution, it was probably the happiest day of his life. Other things had happened back in their hotel room, too adult to be recorded on camera.

He could remember what they’d done that night with perfect clarity, although he was sure Tom would be happy to remind him if he asked. Tom’s initial awkwardness soon transitioned into gasping desperation, clutching at Sam’s shoulders and panting against his neck as they moved together. Sam was happy to lie still and trace his hands over his boyfriend’s back, feeling every shift and flex of his muscles as Tom took what he needed. Maybe not as PG as a visit to a cat café or watching game tape with a cup of tea, but just as important a milestone in their relationship.

The next few photos almost seemed to match the ones from the beginning of the tournament, with beautiful vistas and open skies dominating the following days. The key difference was the presence of Tom in every single picture, sometimes grinning for the camera with his thumbs up, and sometimes staring out into the distance, unaware of Sam documenting the moment.

It had become natural by that point, to record the changing days and locations and moods through photos of Tom. Just as the younger man had become the focal point in his photography, he had grown to be the centre of everything in his life.

The next photo brought a smile to Sam’s face. It was Tom and his twin Ben hugging each other desperately in the lobby of whichever hotel they had happened to be in that day. Tom had been complaining to Sam almost non-stop about missing his brother – they’d never been apart for so long, and the last few weeks had been starting to grate. Because of the effect the separation was having on the baby of the team, everyone breathed a sigh of relief when Sale’s #getbentojapan challenge was successful.

Sam was happy for Tom, he really was. But he was also nervous. The barrier between their relationship and real life would start to break down with Ben’s arrival. He’d met the Sale player before, even toured with him to Argentina, but they’d never really spoken. And how would Tom want to introduce him? Best friend, friend, teammate, colleague (as he’d joked the week before)? Boyfriend was presumably out of the question, given Tom’s projection of heterosexuality to all but Sam and David Pocock. That thought brought a small smile to his face; what a privileged group he was part of.

The afternoon of Ben’s arrival, Tom had been bouncing around the room like a toddler who’d eaten too many sweets. Even Eddie had given up on trying to channel his energy into something productive and had allowed him to leave the meeting early to wait for Ben in the lobby. However, because of traffic, the meeting finished before the Curry reunion took place. Sam went to check on his boyfriend, rubbing soothing circles on his back to ease the jitters. That meant he had a front-row seat to the entry of one Ben Curry and Tom’s instantaneous reaction.

The twins ran towards each other, and Ben picked Tom up with a grunt of effort. Sam couldn’t hear what they were murmuring – knowing them, likely something incomprehensible to an outside observer. He snapped a quick photo to preserve the moment. He wanted to go over and say hi to Ben, but the rest of the team had arrived as the brothers were hugging and he didn’t want to act weird in front of them.

He hung back with the crowd, allowing the group of cooing rugby players to envelop him into near anonymity. It wasn’t his place to force the situation; Tom deserved some time with his twin, and they hadn’t explicitly discussed how Tom wanted to handle their relationship with regard to Ben. He’d give them a few hours alone in the room, and see what happened after that.

Tom was absent from dinner that night, having been excused to spend more time with Ben, leaving Sam alone and at the mercy of Joe and Dan. The pair seemed to have decided that tonight of all nights was the moment to question Sam’s intentions towards their friend.

“What are you doing with him, really?” Joe asked, arching an eyebrow.
“We don’t want you messing with his head and hurting the team,” Dan chimed in. Sam shoved in a mouthful of broccoli to buy himself some time. Tom wasn’t out to the older men, Sam knew that much, but he couldn’t dodge their line of attack forever.

“I mean – we’re friends?” he said, raising his hands in a non-threatening position. “I could never hurt him. Not intentionally, anyway.”
Joe shared a sceptical look with Dan. “Look, mate-” Sam had never felt so intimidated by that word before- “Tom is young. I know you are as well, but he’s only ever had rugby, and he hasn’t had the life experiences you had at uni, okay? Whatever you’re doing with him, maybe ease off for a bit. It can only hurt you two more when you’re split up after the tournament finishes.”

The omnipresent doubt in Sam’s head made itself known again, more forcefully than ever. “I don’t want to hurt him,” he repeated, looking between the two props desperately. “We’re really close. If I upset him, I’d only be upsetting myself as well.”
Dan rested his chin on his hands. “Be that as it may… It’d do you good to remember that you both have lives outside of this squad. It’s insular, yes, but once you get home there will be more stress on both of you when you rediscover your other friends and love interests.”

Sam’s breath hitched inadvertently. Dan wasn’t implying – was he? How could he possibly know? They’d been so careful-

“All we’re trying to say, mate,” Joe picked up the thread of conversation again, “is you should be prepared to drift apart a bit. It’s not like he’s your boyfriend or anything – although if he was, you might be okay.” Sam returned his smile weakly, heart pounding. He had confirmation that Joe and Dan didn’t suspect anything unusual about their relationship, and some reassurance that they wouldn’t slowly disappear from each other’s lives.

Sensing they were expecting a response, he said with a shrug, “We’ve talked about it, and we’re going to keep in touch, whatever that looks like. Don’t worry, though: I really value him and our relationship, so I wouldn’t dare hurt him.” Finally satisfied, the two props clapped him on the shoulder and left him to his meal at an empty table.

After a fruitless hour and a half pottering around in the team’s main meeting room, he finally received the text he’d been waiting for.

You can come up to the room, love

I came out to him and he’s chill about it

Come and meet him as my boyfriend? Xxx

Congrats! Bet that’s a relief, proud of you xxx

Be there in a minute x

Sam jogged up the stairs to their floor, nervous energy suddenly too much to allow him to wait for the lift. It would be fine, he told himself sternly. He’d played with Ben before, albeit briefly, and he was already apparently fine with his twin being in a relationship with another player. All he could do was be his usual charming self, and it would be fine. Crossing his fingers, he knocked on the door.

One of the twins opened it, and he had to take a second to work out which one it was. “Hey, Ben,” he said eventually, extending a hand. “Long time no see.”
Ben took it, looking round at Tom in surprise. “Wow. I’m actually so surprised you could tell us apart that fast.”
Sam shrugged self-consciously. “I mean, it’s kind of obvious. You’re taller and narrower than he is, plus the fringe is different.”

He walked over to Tom, perching next to him on the bed. He wanted to take his boyfriend’s hand to calm the nerves running under his skin, but he didn’t know how much Tom had told his twin.
“So – you two are dating, then?” Ben said, looking at the two of them appraisingly. On reflection, maybe Sam shouldn’t have sat down right next Tom as he usually did in their room.
“Uh, yeah,” Sam replied, pushing his calf against Tom’s in a silent gesture of I’ve got you. It’s okay.

“Not for long, though?” Ben said, eyeing Sam with less friendliness than before. “You didn’t make him hide anything?”
Tom cut in. “Don’t be ridiculous. Sam’s always been out to the team. It was me who kept everything quiet and on the downlow.” Knowing his boyfriend needed the support, Sam linked their fingers together and shot a defiant glare at Ben. Open hostility probably wasn’t the best attitude to be conveying to his boyfriend’s twin. He deserved it, though.

Ben seemed to back down in response to Tom’s words and Sam’s body language. “Okay. I’m sorry.” He made eye contact with Sam, not flinching. “I was only asking because you’re the first – partner, I guess, of Tom’s that I’ve ever met.” He ran a hand through his hair. “It means you’re more important than any of them were, so I need to check you’re treating him right.”

Sam looked at Tom, trying to read the emotions on his face. “I think I am,” he said quietly. “Or, at least, I’m trying my best.”
Tom squeezed his hand. “He’s been great, Ben. I don’t know how I would have got through all this without him. He’s been there for me the whole time – from when I first came out to him to when I came out to David Pocock to now.” He kissed Sam’s shoulder quickly, then continued, voice cracking. “And you’re right. He is more important than all the others. I love him.”
Taken aback by the simple honesty of Tom’s words, Sam guided his face up and kissed him softly. “I love you too, babe,” he murmured.

Ben looked equally moved. “Okay, you’re cute,” he conceded. “Proud of you, Tommy. You seem good together.” Tom held out his arms to his brother, and Ben hugged him. “Come here,” he grinned at Sam, beckoning him into the hug. “You’re forgiven.”

When they eventually broke apart, each ignoring the others’ red-rimmed eyes, Tom lay down on his bed and pulled Sam to lie next to him. Ben took a seat on the unused bed, back straight against the wall. “Do you know what I’ve just remembered?” he asked with sudden glee. Tom looked back at him with trepidation. “Meeting the boyfriend is prime time for embarrassing you! Oh, Sam, you’re going to love the stories I’ve got about this one.” Sam shifted so Ben could see him nodding enthusiastically, still with an arm around Tom’s shoulders. “So, the best story is probably about when we went to this training session in U16s, and…”

As Sam looked back on that first meeting with Ben, he was glad that he had been so accepting of their relationship (after the initial scepticism, it had to be said). After the fear Tom had admitted to of coming out to his family, it was good that he had one person to rely on – and that his twin hadn’t rejected him. That whole evening had been a cycle of nerves and relief, first with Joe and Dan, and then with Ben. Maybe Sam himself would have been resilient enough to withstand a rejection from any of those men, but there was no way he wanted to pick up the pieces if his boyfriend had been let down like that.

He looked down at his phone, realising there were no photos for the last week of the time in Japan. It was probably apt, given the bleakness of the final’s aftermath. He didn’t even want to think about the match itself, feeling the papered-over cracks in his heart threatening to split open again. The days after weren’t much better.

The next morning, he’d woken up in Tom’s arms with the sun shining through the window, warm and comfortable. He shifted slightly to increase the blood flow to his legs, and winced as a sharp ache made itself known. Then it all came flooding back to him.

The final. They’d lost.

All that hard work for nothing.

But then Tom squirmed in his arms, rolling over in sleep, and he forced himself to reassess. They’d lost the World Cup final, but they were still second in the world – they’d beaten the All Blacks a week ago! Rugby wasn’t everything, either. As he gently pressed a kiss to Tom’s forehead, he knew that to be true. Sure, he’d lost the final. But he was sure that his relationship with Tom was a far greater reward than he could ever have hoped for. Despite the pain in his heart, he knew that he could carry on.

Tom moved again after a few minutes, yawning and eventually opening his eyes. ”Morning, love,” Sam said with a smile. “How’re you feeling?” He watched, helpless, as Tom went through the same process of dawning realisation. His face crumpled and he started to cry, hiding his face and sobbing into the pillow.

“Hey, baby,” Sam said soothingly, tightening his arms around Tom’s waist. “It’s okay. Life goes on.”
His boyfriend shook his head, sniffing between each word. “It’s not fair. This is all I wanted, and I – we all – tried so hard.” He broke off, wiping his nose on his sleeve. “I wanted to win,” he finished, barely audible.

“I know you did, Tom, but sometimes that isn’t enough, and that’s fine. They were just better than us. I love you, and your family and all your friends love you, and the outcome of this one match doesn’t change that.” Tears were still running down Tom’s face, and Sam kissed his forehead gently. “Come on, babe. It’s not the end of the world. Maybe it feels like it right now, but the sun will still come up tomorrow, I promise.” He waited for a minute. Tom’s tears finally seemed to be drying up. “What can I do to help you?” Sam asked, trying to make eye contact with his boyfriend.

Tom lifted a shoulder, avoiding his gaze. “I don’t know,” he said bleakly. “Invent a time travel machine and win the match?”
Sam was welling up himself at his empty tone. “Right here, right now, what would be useful?”
The other man sighed, rolling on to his stomach. “Massage my back? Left shoulder in particular stings. Please.”

Sam sat up immediately, pushing back the covers so he could reach all of Tom’s back. He started near his hips, murmuring nonsense and pressing kisses to each new area as he moved up. The younger man seemed to melt into the mattress as he worked, as if the tension was physically draining from his body.

“Is that better, Tommy?” he asked, slowly lowering himself down next to him.
“A bit. Thanks, love.”
“Not a problem.” Sam leaned in for a kiss, glad he could ease the physical pain he was feeling.

The rest of the morning followed the same pattern: the squad congregated for some rehab exercises, everyone determined to put a good face on their suffering. It was in the quiet moments that the blank stares emerged, when they forgot the act of strength and sank back into their individual misery.

In the present, only a few days later, Sam shuddered. He wasn’t keen to relive those memories. By comparison, everyone was sleeping soundly around him, undisturbed by unpleasant memories. Sam looked around quickly before taking Tom’s hand under the blanket covering the sleeping man. He didn’t want to deal with the questions now, so soon to arriving home, but he needed the physical comfort of his boyfriend to stave off the gathering shadows.

As the time to destination crept below an hour, then less than forty-five minutes, then suddenly half an hour, Sam’s chest tightened. He wasn’t ready to go back into the real world after so long cocooned in red rose emblems and RFU logistics. He wanted to stay with Tom in this moment forever, away from the uncertainty of their previously separate lives and their conflicting professional interests. He wanted to rest, not fight for their relationship every day across distance and closets and scheduling clashes. He wanted Tom with him, in England as in Japan.

When the seatbelt light finally flicked on, Sam shook his boyfriend’s shoulder with his free hand. “Wake up, Tom,” he whispered. “We’re landing.”
Tom’s eyes blinked open, a moment of confusion before he realised what was happening. His face dropped. “Okay,” he said softly. “Thanks for telling me.” Sam was reassured that he wasn’t the only one scared of what the future would hold.

The plane landed, jolting along the runway and carrying its passengers back to normality. Sam pulled his and Tom’s bags from the overhead locker, no longer caring what the others thought. They had a maximum of an hour left together before they would part, for weeks if not months. He stayed close behind Tom as they shuffled along the aisle and collected the rest of their luggage.

There would be media waiting for them in arrivals, Eddie had warned them. None of the excited crowds who had waved them off on their odyssey, but a herd of headline-hungry journalists ready to pounce on every facial expression. Sam contorted his face into a neutral expression, bumping against Tom with a reassuring smile. Beyond the cameras, their families would be waiting, so composure was necessary for more than just avoiding front-page notoriety.

They proceeded through the gauntlet, heads held high, and into the arms of their families. Sam hugged his parents and sisters close. They’d been out for the pool stages in Japan, but the turmoil of the last few weeks had left him craving the stability of home. Although Tom was well on the way to providing that for him, it wasn’t quite the same.

Thinking of his boyfriend, he turned around to look for him. Seeing him with his own parents, he walked over awkwardly. “Uh, hey,” he said with a small wave. “I’m really sorry, but could I steal Tom for a minute?” Mr and Mrs Curry nodded with a hint of confusion, and Sam tugged Tom away, making a beeline for the bathroom.

“You okay, babe?” Tom asked, tipping their heads together as they walked.
“Yeah, I just – no,” Sam admitted, checking nobody was watching as they entered the toilets together. “Come here.” He backed Tom into a cubicle, locking the door before taking his boyfriend’s face into his hands.

He stared into his eyes for a long moment. “I’m going to miss you so fucking much,” he said, embarrassed by his cracking voice. “I love you. God, I love you, Tom.” He dropped his head against Tom’s shoulder, hiding his wet eyes.
“I love you too, Sammy,” Tom said evenly. He pulled Sam’s head up and brought their foreheads together. “But it’s not the end, remember? We promised. I’m going to look up train times, and you’re going to call me every day, and it will work out.” Sam nodded, not trusting his voice. “And don’t forget that I love you. If anything in that big brain of yours starts telling you otherwise-” his voice wobbled for the first time- “then you call me straight away and I’ll prove it wrong, okay?”

Sam squeezed him tightly, trying to eliminate all the spaces between them and memorise Tom’s body one last time. “I love you,” he repeated hoarsely.
Tom kissed him, an air of finality settling around them. “Let’s go back out, yeah?” He took Sam’s hand. “I’m sure your family missed you, and I don’t want to be greedy.”

At the last second, Sam grabbed Tom’s face in a kiss, desperately clinging to him. Tom allowed him to take what he needed for a long moment before he drew back. “Come on, baby. We can do this, trust me.” A note of fake cheer entered his voice. “If nothing else, it’s not that long until the Six Nations.” Sam clutched at his boyfriend’s fingers and then stepped away, pushing open the door. He couldn’t look back, or he might never leave.

Later, as Sam sat in the back seat of his parents’ car on the long drive back to Bath, England kit piled high around him, his phone pinged. Repressing a sigh of mental and physical exhaustion, he swiped it open. Tom had texted him two screenshots. The first was of the Premiership fixtures. Bath were playing Sale at the Rec on 28 December, and Tom had captioned it Time to use my exception??? 😉❤️

Sam grinned despite himself. The other photo was a screenshot of a website. He zoomed in on the address. 16-25 railcard? Why did Tom need to tell him about that? Then it dawned on him, chest warm.

I love you

That was bloody quick, though

I do have some technical abilities, thank you very much

Not just a pretty face x

Hmm

Hidden depths

Some might even say

Undercurrents 😉

Yes that’s our ship name now I don’t make the rules

If you insist

Better than bloody Cunderhill or whatever the media were trying to push

Call later to work out when we can do trips?

Absolutely – will text when I get home

Love you xxx

Love you too xxx

Pocketing his phone, Sam smiled. He hadn’t gone into this World Cup cycle as a professional rugby player, and somehow he’d ended up playing in the World Cup final and bagging himself an incredible boyfriend at the same time.

He looked out the window, strangely at peace with the world. Who knew what would happen by 2023?