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Love Alters Not

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1.

He's on the Tube, head bobbing drowsily from jet lag, when he spots Thomás's face on a tabloid newspaper across the compartment. The photo is one of many in a tiled and crowded spread which covers half the page, but Francisco has loved his brother's face for twenty-three years, and it wakes him like a dash of cold water.

After a moment, his tired brain spins the English headline into something he can understand: Olympic Hotties: Twelve sexy athletes to watch for!

There are several copies of the same tabloid lying around the compartment; Francisco grabs one and flips it open. The article is not much to speak of, but what it says about Thomás makes him smile:

"This golden-curled distance swimmer broke hearts in and outside of his native Brazil at the World Championships last year, when he revealed he's very much off the market. He's a private one, though, keeping the spouse who wears the twin to his wedding ring well out of the public eye."

Plenty of papers back home have fawned over Thomás's looks since his debut at Worlds -- it had been the subject of much teasing during Thomás's last visit home over Christmas -- but Francisco had no idea he'd attracted international attention. Chuckling, he folds up the paper and tucks it under his arm for later ammunition.

The Olympic Park is at the last stop on the line, far out in eastern London, and it takes another twenty minutes to walk to the Village where all the athletes are residing. He texts Thomás as he makes his way through the Park: selections from their old favorites Shakespeare and Hilst, and a suggestively lewd composition of his own. Thomás texts back: Where are you??? Does it really take that long for your old bones to move?

The Park is huge and glittering and impressive, full of tourists, staff, athletes and coaches from all around the globe. Francisco can hear dozens of languages being spoken, and every voice seems animated and excited. It gets under his skin as well; back home he's one of many ambivalent taxpayers bitching at dinner parties and work about the snarled infrastructure and wasted funds credited to Rio 2016, but he has to admit now there's magic in the air. He picks up the pace, seeing the Village apartment buildings just ahead.

And then, suddenly, there is Thomás -- not in newsprint, but flesh and blood, his smile brilliant, his arms wrapped tightly around Francisco's shoulders and waist. They press their cheeks together, both of them scratchy with stubble. For a few breaths Francisco can't speak; he simply stands there stroking Thomás's neck and breathing in his scent: pool chlorine and shampoo and soap.

Finally, he leans back a bit. "Six months, Tom Tom -- six long months since the holidays. Let me look at you." He runs his fingers through those internationally renowned golden curls, smoothing his thumbs over Thomás's eyebrows, his full lower lip. That week encompassing Christmas and New Year's, when Thomás's training schedule had allowed him out of Russia for a visit, had gone by so quickly, a brief flash of heat and light in a long gray winter. All the time since then has felt just as gray and depressed. He can hardly believe it's over.

"You should have just let me meet you at the airport," Thomás says. "I was checking online and your plane landed hours ago."

"You know I didn't want to interrupt your training. I've had enough lecturing from Ivan and Coach Kulik about distracting you."

"Those Russian bears -- they never want me to have any fun."

Francisco beams at him. "Anyway, it took me a while to get into the city and check into my hotel."

"Hmmph." Thomás loops a lanyard around Francisco's neck with a plastic ID pass card and steers him toward the Village entrance with a strong hand at his spine. "My brother Francisco," he says in English to the security guard who scans them through, "flew all the way from Rio de Janeiro today."

"You've gotten better at speaking," Francisco observes.

"I've been practicing since Worlds, but really stepped it up the past few months. All those reporters in Shanghai, with all those different accents! I thought I would do okay with what I learned in school, but Senhora da Silva wasn't a native speaker. I realized I barely knew anything."

"Yes, I've been reading about your Shanghai conquests." Grinning, Francisco hands him the tabloid.

"Such bullshit," Thomás laughs, after skimming it. He rolls up the paper and thwaps Francisco's ass, then tosses it into a rubbish bin. "Don't read this nonsense."

"How can it be nonsense when they're talking about how gorgeous you are?"

"The only bit of truth in it is that I'm very much taken." And the hand at the small of Francisco's back stretches further to squeeze his hip. "Come on, this is my building."

Thomás leads Francisco into a lift, and as soon as the doors shut he stops the chatter and backs Francisco against the wall. Their kiss is all hot, frantic, open-mouthed urgency, hands exploring each other, hips thrusting. Those six empty months sizzle and evaporate at the feel of Thomás's weight pressing against him.

"My roommates went off to be tourists for the day," Thomás breathes in his ear. "We have the flat to ourselves."

"Then let's not waste any time."

He lets Thomás walk him backwards through the flat, not even breaking the kiss to look where they're going. Thomás has his jeans unbuttoned and his fingers curled around Francisco's erection for five glorious seconds before Francisco finds himself falling flat on a bed, and then he's stroking his hand through Thomás's curls again as Thomás's mouth completely engulfs his cock.

"Mmm, your mouth, your fucking mouth, I've missed it so fucking much," Francisco moans. His jeans are only halfway down his legs, his shoes and shirt are still on, and it takes an embarrassingly short time before he's shooting off, incoherent with the crazy pleasure of it.

Thomás pants hot breaths into the sensitive skin where Francisco's thigh meets his groin. "My God, I missed all of you."

After a little while, Francisco collects his wits enough to make up for the lack of control by flipping them over to return the favor. Thomás's mouth tastes salty and slick from his come; it reminds him, suddenly, of their first time, left alone in the house by Rosa and Alexandre after their mother's death. They had spent hours learning all the tastes and scents of each other's bodies, in ways Francisco had never allowed them to before. The love and the longing had been a lifelong ache between them, but until that day he had never quite trusted himself to give in to it. He was, after all, the older brother; it was his job to take care of Thomás.

Now he undresses Thomás slowly, like a precious gift, pausing to admire the changes in his body since the holidays. Thomás has been in top shape for years, but this last training push for the Olympics seems to have added inches to the breadth of his shoulders, further defined the lines of his arm muscles and abs. "That article wasn't nonsense," Francisco murmurs. "You're even more beautiful than ever."

Thomás arches his back, rubbing tantalizingly against Francisco's thigh. "Are you going to write them an update or actually do something about it?"

Francisco laughs. "Don't be impatient. Slow and steady wins the race, mmm?" He reaches down to fist Thomás, remembering exactly how to make him catch his breath, that delightful tremble just on the edge of a whimper.

"And what do you call your fast finish?" Thomás gasps.

"Doesn't matter. For you I want this to be a marathon, not a sprint."

"Don't torture me, Francisco. Please -- it's been too long."

"Shh -- of course I won't. Don't I always take care of you, Tom Tom?"

And he does. He makes it last, licking up the entire length from Thomás's balls to the tip of his cock, over and over before finally sinking his mouth down around him, loving the sound of Thomás's breathless curses, the familiar tang of him, the way his entire body shifts and strains for release.

After a while, he realizes he's hard again. His lips pop off of Thomás's cock with a sucking sound, and he whispers, "I want to fuck you. Right now. Do you have anything?"

"Oh, fuck." Thomás scrabbles around in a bedside drawer and passes him a bottle of lube. "Hurry. Hurry."

Francisco slicks up, positions himself, and then pushes into Thomás's tight heat, both of them hissing from the sensation. They're face to face, the way he likes it best, the crooks of his arms cradling Thomás's thighs. He can lean down easily to kiss Thomás, thrusting his tongue in and out of his mouth with the same rhythm as his cock.

It's all a white blaze after that, like the sun glaring off of beach sand. What breaks through is Thomás's shout when he comes, Francisco's hand clumsy on him, and finally the wave crashes over Francisco as well.

"I think," he says, when he can speak again, "you should lock your roommates out so they can't come back in."

Thomás kisses his neck at that. He wipes off his belly with a tissue, then stretches out onto his front and slings an arm across Francisco. "I should just move to your hotel room."

"You need to stay here in the Park -- you've got all these state of the art facilities, not to mention you should be breaking in that racing pool."

"Oh, was there something else I was here for? That requires us to leave this flat? Whoever came up with that plan was clearly delusional."

"Delusional it may be, but I flew all the way from Rio de Janeiro to see you race. And I'm sure Alexandre was looking forward to that as well -- he arrives tomorrow, remember? Not to mention you wouldn't want to disappoint your adoring fans all around the world, just waiting to get a glimpse of your Adonis-like curls."

He cuts off whatever Thomás's retort would have been by tickling him, the same sneaky tactic he's been using for years. The flat fills with his brother's laughter, and that one joyous noise is everything he has been waiting half a year to hear.

*

2.

Alexandre's flight is scheduled to arrive at Heathrow at 8 pm the next day, well after practice ends, so Thomás and Francisco meet him there. When Thomás sees his father walk out of the customs gate, he feels a bloom of love and rightness in his chest. Save Rosa, his entire family is with him now; he can feel properly content again.

And yet, at the same time, his eyes can't help but measure the additional gray in his father's hair, the slightly sharper stoop to his shoulders: hallmarks of time passing and inflicting its changes.

The past three years have made this truth of nature undeniable, but it has taken the full three years to realize it. Even after his mother died, even after he and Francisco altered their relationship forever, he had still considered his family as unwavering and unchanging as the earth. He had left for Russia with an almost blind faith in their constancy: Francisco and his father would be the same people no matter the time or distance that separated them. He had to believe it, or he never would have left.

What he hadn't realized at the time was that change happens nevertheless -- small things as well as big things, accumulating and building on themselves, the process suspended only for a phone call or a chat session, re-starting at the termination of the connection. And all of it outside of his knowledge, an ocean and a continent away. It's happened to himself as well, he must admit: for all his days are mostly filled with the mundanities of swimming, and training, and trying to stay warm in a completely alien climate, his three years away have bent him in particular, different directions. He is not quite the same Thomás who left Rio three years ago.

He should have been familiar with the concept of unavoidable change. The first year after Pedro died, Francisco had been a different boy, seemingly spun from glass, smothered by a hushed aura. There was no more teasing, no more tickling, no more rough-housing. Their mother had spoken to Francisco always with the gentlest of voices, and had often dissuaded or distracted Thomás from his usual attempts to play. Thomás, just six years old at the time, had been utterly bewildered at the change wrought in Francisco -- in all of them -- from that singular event.

And then, of course, fifteen years later, when it was their mother's turn, it was also Thomás's turn to become that spun-glass boy himself.

He misses their home, suddenly. He misses its huge windows letting in every angled ray of sunlight, the furniture and decorations carefully chosen by his parents, the pillows on Francisco's bed, their dog Basta. He misses swimming in the warm, clear, unbounded waters of the ocean. He would be happy if the Olympics could be finished already, the Closing Ceremony concluded instead of the Opening Ceremony yet to be conducted tomorrow, and the reason for their presence at the airport a flight back to Brazil.

Alexandre is staying at the same hotel as Francisco, a modern-ish boutique on the eastern side of central London. They pop out for sushi nearby in a tiny, wood-paneled restaurant, Alexandre and Francisco indulging in Sapporos and sake while Thomás sticks to sparkling water, under the strict orders of Ivan and Coach Kulik.

"It's good to see you boys together," his father says, raising his glass in a toast. "It's good to be together."

Thomás's ring clinks against his water glass as he raises it in return. It's something his father has never remarked on -- these rings he and Francisco wear -- and they certainly have never sought his explicit commentary. Probably for the better: sometimes it's easier to love and accept what you don't understand, when you are allowed to peacefully go on not understanding it.

They talk about Rosa, enjoying life as an au pair for a family in Sao Paolo, and Lucrecia, who Francisco still keeps in touch with, happily remarried in Buenos Aires. For the first time Thomás thinks perhaps he and Francisco are quite lucky, to have been surrounded all their lives by adults who still believe in love even when people change and relationships fall apart. He has never felt anything but confident that he and Francisco are forever -- they had, after all, already loved each other for longer than many marriages by the time they took that last step -- and he has always half-consciously attributed this to his own strong will. But perhaps the examples all around them, people who never stopped actively pursuing happiness, also played their part.

At the end of the meal, his father snatches up the bill and won't hear a word of protest from either of them -- "You're still my children and I can still try to feed you once in a while!" The three of them walk leisurely back to the hotel, where Alexandre exits the lift on the second floor, kissing them both on each cheek. "Good night, boys. Tomorrow will be the first of many good days to cheer for Brazil." His smile is tilted and haphazard from drink; he smells like beer and rice. "Your mother would be so very proud."

When the mirrored doors to the lift close behind him, Thomás meets Francisco's reflected gaze and knows he's feeling the same hollow ache.

Francisco's room is the next floor up. It's fancier than any place Thomás has stayed recently, decorated in a music theme with posters of old jazz and rock musicians on the walls. He makes a beeline for the sound system, prompting a snort from Francisco: "You want to subject me to your wild taste in music when I'm too tipsy to argue. Very cruel."

Thomás just smiles at him before choosing the Beatles' Abbey Road. It seems "appropriate," being in the UK. They stretch out on the king-sized bed -- a real luxury compared to the tiny bed he and Francisco shared in his flat the day before -- draping arms and legs lazily over each other, and simply listen to the music without speaking.

Finally, Francisco breaks the silence. "Are you excited for everything to begin tomorrow?"

Thomás shrugs. "Yes. I suppose I'll be more nervous in a couple of days for the qualifying heats."

"You'll be fine. You did so well at Worlds."

He had bronze-medaled -- a real achievement for his first competition on an international level. He had surprised even himself; it had been the real start of him thinking, Perhaps I can do this after all, and his entire training regimen had gone from intense to insane after that.

Francisco's strong arms shift a bit to embrace him more fully. His body is more of the swimmer shape: taller than Thomás, torso wide at the shoulders and narrow at the waist, limbs long and flexible, all of him sleek as a seal.

"Does it ever seem strange to you?" Thomás asks. "That when we were kids, you were the competitive swimmer and I wanted to be the doctor? How did we end up deciding to switch roles?"

"Did we ever decide?" Francisco's voice, and his hand caressing Thomás's hair, seems distant, absentminded.

"I suppose not. I just remember my only goal was to swim as well as you. But when you stopped competing and went off to medical school, I stopped following behind you."

"Ah, well, you followed your own path. As you should have."

"I followed my own path thousands of miles away and left my entire family behind to pursue my dreams. Sometimes I don't know if it was worth it. I could flame out here; I could get injured; all of that training could have been for nothing."

Francisco sits up straight, alert now. "Of course it wasn't for nothing. Regardless of how you perform, to simply be here is a great achievement. You did what I could never do; I liked competing, but I never really had your determination. Alexandre was right -- Mother would be so proud of you."

Somewhat mollified, Thomás gives him a pointed look. "He meant she would be proud of both of us. And not because of material successes," he says, thinking of his meditations during dinner. "But because we're happy. Despite everything we've been through, we're not afraid to be happy."

Francisco leans down to brush their lips together, and there is no further need to talk.

It was Francisco who had held him together after their mother died, who had finally decided it was safe to give in to the desires they had tried for years to suppress. At the time Thomás had thought perhaps Francisco only wished to make him happy, as he always did. But he has come to understand that Francisco, having lost a father and a mother, must also have needed every single thing he gave.

Early the next morning, he kisses his snoozing brother goodbye and takes the Tube back to the Olympic Park. It's now three times as crowded in all the frenzy of preparation for the Opening Ceremony. Suddenly, he can't wait to be in Rio when it undergoes the same transformation in four years -- he hasn't been thinking of it at all, trying to stay focused only on London, but now the path to that future, the path back home, seems illuminated in so much brightness.

He finds Ivan in the lobby of their apartment building, chatting with a few other Brazilian coaches. "Thomás!" Ivan says. "Coach Kulik has been looking for you. He wants to do some laps and drills before lunch."

"Yes, I'll go get changed. But Ivan, can I talk to you for a moment?"

"Sure." Ivan draws him away toward a secluded corner. "What's up?"

"I want to talk about training for Rio."

Ivan nods slowly. "I'm not surprised -- I know it's been difficult for you being away from your family the past three years."

"I don't regret it," Thomás says. "I would never have gotten to this point if you and Francisco hadn't pushed me to train in Russia -- and I know it will pay off here. But it's time for me to come home. It's a bit early yet to plan, but I think it makes sense to train back in Brazil. My father was just telling me last night that support for swimming has really taken off the past few years."

Ivan claps him on the back. "Which your own performance at Worlds contributed to. But I think it makes sense, too. Rio is your hometown; it's only right that you prepare for 2016 there."

"So we can make it happen?"

"We'll make it happen."

Thomás can't help the sunburst of a smile that breaks out on his face. Home! He'll be going home. "Thank you."

"Don't thank me. You've worked hard the past three years. Now, I'll let you break the news to Coach Kulik that he'll have to move to paradise if he wants to keep training you."

Laughing, Thomás waves as he heads to the lift, pulling his phone from his pocket. "I will. But first I'm going to break the news to Francisco."