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'of course i care, you're family'

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They’re arguing when Owen says it, George being a brat - he’s mature enough to admit it, even if he can’t stop it - frustrated by his failure to progress from the bench.

“Why would you care?” George demands, finally, glad that their teammates have already gone in, it’s just him and Owen left on the training pitch at Pennyhill Park. “If I make it off the bench you get moved, to 12 or worse - why are you still trying to help me?”

That’s the core of it, what he can’t understand.

Owen looks as annoyed as George feels, at that. “Of course I care!” he insists. “You’re family.”

And that’s the last straw. That is it, just what George can’t take.

“Great,” he says, stooping to pick up the ball at his feet. “That’s great, Owen,” he marches off to the bag they’d hauled onto the pitch hours ago, George exaggerating the weight to make Owen laugh, bring out the crinkles by Owen’s eyes that he loves so much.

Because they’re not family, not to George. He’s had a thing for Owen since they were teenagers together, since Owen was older and that automatically meant cooler. It hasn’t faded, as they’ve grown up, much as George has often wished it would. He doesn’t think Owen’s cool, anymore, and with more time in England camp even the awe of his experience has pretty much faded. George doesn’t think they’ve gone a week without speaking since their first under 16s match together, and despite copious exposure to Owen being overly obsessive about the game, his bad temper after losses, the times junior camp turned him into a complete dork - George’s attraction hasn’t faded. Sometimes he thinks he’s been fighting it his whole life.

George can see why, to Owen, the way they’ve grown up would make them like brothers. It’s just that he’s never felt like that, his emotions have always been a step to the left, the idea making him uncomfortable. Owen’s not even the first to say it, George having heard the term in media his first time in camp. He’d pulled a face then, thinks he’d left the journalist with the impression that they didn’t get on half as well as they were pretending.

George drops his ball back in the bag, looks around at the training pitch, scattered with evidence of their kicking attempts.

“Fuck it,” he mutters. He’s not having this conversation with Owen - if he leaves him to tidy up it might actually stop Owen chasing him.

George turns on heel, marching to the dressing room, ignoring Owen yelling behind him.

Owen’s getting more and more wound up - it’s a character flaw, that need for attention, but no matter how much George dwells on it it’s not enough to push him away.

“Fine!” Owen yells, eventually. “I didn’t know you hated me so much, but fine!”

“Hate you?!” George spins on his heel, feeling the tears, the words, rise in his throat. It’s a terrible idea, to have this conversation. Especially here - no one’s around, for now, but there’s no reason the coaches couldn’t turn up. There’s Owen’s reaction to consider, of course - but it’s not like they’re playing 10 and 12, not like they need that relationship. And George knows Owen, at the heart of it. He knows Owen wouldn’t tell anyone, however appalled and uncomfortable he might be. So long as it’s just the two of them, George can only ruin their relationship. If anyone else turns up, it’s his England chances shot too.

George swallows.

“That’s not the problem, Owen,” he says, quieter now Owen has stalked closer to him.

“Then what is it?” Owen demands - and he hasn’t lowered his tone at all, is still furious. “What, exactly, is the problem? We can argue about kicking all day, but you turn away when I tell you I care?”

Once again, that’s just what George can’t take. The sincerity in Owen’s expression, the passion in his voice - fuelled by anger or not - it’s too much, for George. He ducks his head, tries to regain control of himself.

“Fordy?” Owen has gentled his tone now, reaching out to touch George’s arm.

George can’t help the way he flinches away, instinctive. He should have thought it through more - if they have this conversation that might be the last time Owen ever tries to touch him.

“What’s wrong, George?” Owen asks, concern clear.

“It’s - oh, fuck,” George closes his eyes, shakes his head. He doesn’t know how to get out of this, doesn’t even know if he should. His feelings have been building for years, it’s probably about time to get them out in the open - maybe that’ll finally be what cuts them off. It’ll be good for him, he tells himself. “I don’t hate you,” he tells Owen, miserable. He risks a quick look up, has to look away from the worry in Owen’s eyes.

“Glad to hear it,” Owen jokes, when George stalls. “Gotta say I wasn’t convinced for a second there - you don’t think we’re family, Fordy?”

George winces, can’t help it, knows Owen saw as his attempt at banter, George’s last chance to get out of this, stops dead.

When Owen carries on his voice is low. “We grew up together,” he goes on. “We’re - I care about you, whether you want it or not.”

“Oh, I want it,” George laughs. “That’s - oh, god, please don’t hate me - that’s the problem.”

That’s it. It’s out there now, Owen more than intelligent enough to put two and two together. George has half wondered if he doesn’t know, sometimes - he’s certainly pitched in on turning the conversation away from George’s nonexistent dating efforts often enough.

“You - that’s. That’s not a problem, George,” Owen tells him.

His voice is slow, deliberate - he sounds certain, but George doesn’t think he can be, doesn’t think he gets it. He really doesn’t want to spell this out, but -

“Not - not as a brother, Owen,” George says, unable to stop himself from pulling a face even now. “I want - I’d want to date you. If you felt the same, which you obviously don’t. It’s fine,” he goes on, as Owen says nothing. He can’t make himself look up, see Owen’s reaction, but he can at least fill the dead air until Owen gets a hold of himself. “It’s fine, I know, I just - that’s why I don’t feel like we’re brothers, however it is you feel. I’ve fancied you the whole time we were growing up together - it’s not the same, for me, not at all. Sorry,” he says, finally. “I just thought - I thought it had to come out sometime, hey?”

George steels himself, and looks up.

Owen is - smiling.

George blinks.

Owen is still smiling, grinning even.

George feels himself return the expression before he even understands it. “What?” he asks, not daring to trust the hope rising in his chest. Maybe Owen’s been betting on this, he thinks wildly, trying to calm himself down. He’s always wondered if Owen knows, maybe he does, maybe he’s won something, maybe that’s why he looks so happy.

“I don’t care about you like a brother,” Owen tells him, stepping closer. “Not even a little bit, George.”

“What?” George repeats, stepping back. There’s still the coaches to consider, after all, even if all his dreams do seem to be coming true.

“My roommate’s got a stomach bug, been quarantined,” Owen mirrors George’s step back, voice suddenly businesslike.

George isn’t sure he’s ever been more confused in his life.

“Why don’t we clear up here, go to mine - and I’ll explain?” Owen holds eye contact, smirks suggestively - for just a moment, before the wide grin returns to take its place.

And now George isn’t confused at all. He’s not sure he believes it, is sure both of them will be asking plenty of questions when they finally get some privacy - but he’s not confused, not unsure - not anymore. “Yeah,” he feels his smile widen, lets it, lets himself show Owen just how keen he is on the idea. “Yeah, that sounds great.