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winning rights

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Ryan doesn’t mean to do it, not after worlds where he could have and didn’t call it, couldn’t get to that place after so long. But as soon as his hand curls around the back of Michael’s neck on the way to shower, (adrenaline still coursing through him that a few seconds in front of the cameras couldn’t dissipate, each droplet of water still sluicing over his skin, making him feel like he’s still surrounded by water, walking through a rush of it to match Michael’s strides, pace ), he says it.

“Rules are rules,” he says. Every nerve in his body is pulsing, static, and the tips of his fingers where they’re pressed into the thin layer of skin before muscle on Michael’s neck jump and squeeze when the entire length of Michael’s spine straightens and stiffens for the barest of seconds before he continues walking.

The words come out light enough, around a laugh that wants to bubble up out of Ryan’s throat -- he won and Michael didn’t even place and there is part of him that can’t handle that thought now, with everyone else -- and as soon as he says them he knows it’s the right thing to say. It’s tradition.

Michael shrugs off his hand and keeps walking when they turn into the buzz of activity and Ryan follows, walking until they’ve passed almost everyone and ducking congratulations with a grin, focused on following instead. Automatic, by now. Years of practice, years of everyone else just thinking they like the solitude after a race, that it’s not a place for catching their breath only to make whispered promises. Promises, negotiations -- it’s leaned more toward negotiations for years now, anyway, as soon as they both shook the flash of youth off their shoulders and gasping around laughs, high on the rush of racing and nothing else, making bets and winning or losing and just --

(Ryan sometimes felt a little like he won outside of the pool, back then, at least until 09 Worlds, where winning and winning were suddenly vastly different.)

“You’re not serious,” Michael says, beats later when they’ve stopped by their bags and have started stripping down.

“Completely,” Ryan says. His whole body shrugs with it and to anyone else it might look like he doesn’t care, doesn’t have a stake in this. Maybe they could go without doing this. Maybe he wouldn’t care, but he doesn’t particularly want to find out right now.

“We don’t do that anymore,” Michael says, laughing low around it in a way that almost sounds mean, takes Ryan a second to decipher, and god it’s not mean at all, it’s shocked, maybe anxious, but in what direction Ryan isn’t sure. (The thought of Michael having this in the back of his mind, maybe all the way back to when Ryan won last year and didn’t take what by all rights should have finally, finally been his, maybe being disappointed by it. It sits like a fucking fantastic psychological gem he can’t believe he didn’t think of before, and even though it could just as easily go the other way around, dread, whatever, the thought is there and is the only option Ryan can consider a win.)

“Worlds?” Michael says, “you could’ve.”

“Maybe I was giving you a break after almost three years of -- whatever,” Ryan says. He doesn’t mean to pause first, towel sliding over his head and muffling words, but.

“Maybe you were too chicken shit,” Michael says, with a companionable shoulder bump that doesn’t feel companionable at all, races down Ryan’s side and spine instead.

Ryan ignores that. (He might have spent too long after worlds and into training thinking about it, why he didn’t take what he won, what Michael had been taking from him for six years, but this is different, now.) “Afternoon or evening, your pick.”

Michael rolls his shoulders back and slings his bag over an arm, towel around his waist and hoodie half-zipped.

“Come on, man, it’s not like --”

Ryan blocks Michael’s path with a sidestep and a hand squeezing just above his waist. “I won,” he says, out loud for the first time to his face, for the first time at these games, as powerful as the grip he has. “It’s my turn. I’m calling it.”

Michael’s nostrils flare before he nods and it almost, almost feels better than winning in the pool. “If you want it so badly, maybe you should plan on losing the next one.”

Ryan laughs and the shit-eating grin that Michael flashes him makes him want to lean back against the wall because it’s been so long, and it’s a little backwards now, but they can still do this. God, can they do this.

The massage tables are tense with looks that aren’t being given, but that’s fine. Ryan relaxes incrementally into his thoughts, even skips ahead to what he has to focus on next and loses it enough to groan when his masseuse tackles a particularly hard knot in his lower back that he didn’t even know what keeping him from fully relaxing. He catches the narrow-eyed heavy-lidded glance that gets thrown his way from the table next to him, Michael catching his noise over the bass in his earbuds, and it’s all Ryan can do to not let his grin pop his jaw.

“Press and then yours,” Michael says when they walk out of the pool entirely post-massage, acknowledging that it’s happening for sure, that Ryan gets his winning rights for the first time and it’s happening now.


Michael’s casual lounge on Ryan’s bed is almost comical, the size and span of his shoulders, his eyes half-closed, watching Ryan watching him, waiting. It feels familiar, this way, like prey stalking it’s catch, and Ryan can’t listen to press make that metaphor without wanting to curl his nails into his palm because he’s spent so many years using that himself to think about his and Michael’s post-pool set up.

But Ryan’s in control here, and if Michael’s waiting on him he’s going to take his fucking time about it. Or, he means to, but Michael’s low, rumbling laugh at Ryan’s perceived indecision only makes Ryan raise one eyebrow and shrug out of his hoodie and sweats with a measured slowness. Let him watch.

“You sure you can do this?” Michael says, teasing with an edge when Ryan straightens up to face him completely naked.

Ryan just steps forward to the edge of the bed and flicks Michael’s earbuds out. “Says the guy who has to get in the zone for sex. Can you do this without mood music?”

Michael rolls his eyes and shrugs off his hoodie without really sitting up, shimmies out of his pants and takes his time, only moving fast to flip over when Ryan runs blunt nails over the exposed rings on his bare hip.

“Pre-planned?” Michael says, half into the pillow when Ryan leans off the bed to dig in his bag for lube.

It gives him pause because he wasn’t really planning for this, not consciously, not after he didn’t take advantage of what he should have at worlds, but now that Michael’s pointed it out he doesn’t want to tell him either way. Instead, he rolls between Michael’s knees and presses on the inside of his thighs to spread them further.

It’s been so long, and this is not where Ryan is used to being at this point, and he doesn’t mind, but it’s striking this time around, not only the difference in position and the years between this time and last but how different everything is, the tension palpable in the room. He slicks up his fingers while he rubs a dry thumb down the line from Michael’s spine to behind his balls with his other hand, pausing mid-drag to just press and hear the low breath that Michael sucks out, the only noise in the room even though Ryan’s thoughts are in overdrive at the difference.

(Which is not to say it’s Michael’s first time on this side of things. Post-competition was always different, and Ryan remembers, years ago, the first time after the arrangement became a thing, right after Athens and Melbourne, waking up late and racing each other in the tiny backyard pool, losing on purpose just to have Michael drag him inside by the waist of his swim shorts, and the last night of it all, Michael losing a thirty minute lap spree and letting Ryan inside for the first time and twice after, the last time right by the side of the pool, groaning and open and hungry for it, swallowing Ryan up in power and a little jealousy and the last of youth.

It was the last time they did this outside of competition or pre-Olympic training wins.

And Ryan still remembers the little rough “fuck, man,” pressed into his neck during a too-tight, too-long hug when he left for the airport the next morning, and how silent his phone was for two months after. How it was never the same, and Beijing felt everything like an end and a test.)

Falling into the rhythm is easy enough, and Ryan is conscious of the races to still go, conscious of all the times during the last games Michael was doing this to him, taking his time to be careful, to waylay any adverse effects soreness might have by going slow even when everything was rushed with adrenaline and Michael was talking nonsense into his shoulder, the power behind his wrist hard on each pass but the stretch barely there between fingers, and Ryan wants to do the same.

Except two fingers in and Michael is making it hard for Ryan to respect their mostly unspoken ritual, rocking back against Ryan’s fingers with little half-aborted noises, hips rotating in quick motions until his skin is making noises as it slaps against Ryan’s slick knuckles when his fingers bottom out.

“Stop it,” Ryan says, reaching out stilling Michael’s hips with a grip that’s harder than he wants to use. He’s rushing and they don’t rush during competition, not unless it’s mutual and high off a win and for a second Ryan aches thinking about how easy this used to be the other way around, and he doesn’t mean to stop all together at the thought but he does, fingers stilling inside.

He leans down, forehead pressed against Michael’s back in the middle of his spine and sighs, not audible but he knows Michael can feel the exhale.

“Look, we don’t have to,” Ryan says in a low rush, lifting his head to watch the side of Michael’s.

It takes Michael entirely too long to answer. “No,” he says, rocking back against Ryan’s fingers in the absence of Ryan’s focused grip on his hip. “We do. You won, you’ve been winning.”

“That’s not --”

“Come on,” Michael says. “We’ll go do food and laps after.”

“I don’t want to be a dick here, okay,” Ryan says, but he starts a lazy slide of his fingers again. “Even if I earned this by the rules.”

Michael twists his head to the side of Ryan can see more of his face and makes a face at him. “If you’re the dick finally, then I’m the ass right now and I’m fine with that.” He rocks his hips back again. “Obviously.”

Ryan snorts, stretches forward to briefly press their foreheads together before he leans back. “Jesus, Phelps, good to know your jokes remain the same. And by same I mean awful.”

“Hey, I don’t remember you being Comedy Central worthy with two -- three, fuck -- of my fingers up your ass.”

And like that it’s better, the palpable tension gone, the bits that used to make them Ryan-and-Michael outside of competitions (and the bits that made them Michael-and--also-Ryan during competition) filtering back into place.

He ducks his head back down to graze his teeth a little over Michael’s spine before he reaches over with the lube to slick the slide of his fingers even more. He always wanted to feel it more, but it’s only the beginning and they’ve got days to go, more like this if Ryan gets his way, and this is how they do it.

Michael starts rocking back again after a few minutes, low hums of noise through his throat egging Ryan on until he leans back and can’t wait anymore, rolls a condom on and lines up, pausing at the first press of his cock to absorb the broken groan Michael makes.

“Fuck you,” Michael says, voice all grit that makes Ryan want to roll his shoulders back into the way it travels down his spine, pleased. “Move.”

If this was what it felt like for Michael during the other games, Ryan suddenly understands all the record breaking. Pressed balls deep in feels both like he’s being broken from the inside out and sliding out against slick resistence like he could win any race set before him for the next year and be set, with his eyes closed picturing the smooth ripple of the lean muscles in Michael’s back with every little grunt he lets out as Ryan works him even looser from the inside.

It’s good, so good, a fingertip brush making a tenth of a second win good, and Ryan loses himself in it a little, can’t catch his breath as he gets closer and closer to orgasm and the burn in his lungs is chlorine-tinged and he’d be embarrassed by how good it feels to be winded by this if Michael’s usually-measured breaths didn’t nearly match his own.

He comes when Michael’s short groans cut off because he’s biting his noises into Ryan’s pillowcase, holding himself back, and the image is too good, too much. He bites his moan into the tendon standing out on Michael’s neck and goes with it when Michael aches and rolls them over, back against the wall as he jerks himself off, back slick with sweat against Ryan’s chest.

Ryan reaches down when his brain reboots enough and catches the curve of Michael’s knuckles, squeezing his own hand around and hooking his chin over Michael’s shoulder to watch when he groans out a low, “fuck, Ryan,” and comes over their clasped hands and his stomach.

It takes them both a minute to shake it off, Ryan’s head all white-noise and no thoughts, blissed. Michael rolls off first, leaning over his thighs on the edge of the bed and shaking his head, letting out a low almost-laugh that Ryan completely understands. Michael stands after a second with another noise, this one more content, and Ryan watches the way his muscles move under the wide plane of his skin with appreciation.

“It’s my turn if we medal in relay tomorrow,” Michael says as he stretches, shooting Ryan a goofy grin he hasn’t seen in a while.

“That’s not how it works,” Ryan says, turning toward the end of the bed to watch Michael slide back into his sweats.

“I’m adding a new rule, go with it,” Michael says.

“That doesn’t even make sense, because we’re definitely going to medal,” Ryan says. When they’re together, how could they not? “And no one loses, the whole team wins.”

“What, are you suggesting an orgy instead?”

There’s a beat and Michael laughs, throwing his head back. “Your face, jesus, I’m kidding.”

“It still doesn’t work that way,” Ryan says, and the agreement goes unsaid. Michael shrugs and Ryan rolls of the bed, standing into a long stretch. “But it might be the only time you get your turn this year, so I’ll allow it,” he adds, bumping their shoulders together.

When the leave for food, Michael shoves him through the doorway with a laugh and a hipcheck, his hand squeezing the side of Ryan’s neck, finger-marks staying hot on his skin the entire walk to the village’s cafeteria.