Word Count: 4,375
Notes: This was supposed to be a throw-away ficlet inspired by the Soccer 6 tournament - what can I say? It grew a little :)
Summary: Bradley didn't tell anybody about the football tournament, but he most particularly didn't tell Colin.
The sun was blazing down from a cloudless blue sky, and Colin thought that it was just typical. Of course, it meant that he could see the pitch perfectly, and the various teams’ shirts blazed with colour, making it nice and easy to pick out which team was which, but it also meant that he was sweltering in his hoodie and dark glasses, even where he was, in shadow up at the very top of the stands. He thought about taking his hoodie off, or at least found himself wishing that he'd brought a baseball cap instead, but let's face it, he hadn't planned this. He hadn't even known about this until yesterday, and wasn't that just typical too?
Bradley James, unable to talk about anything that mattered, even if his life depended on it. Although, and here Colin was reaching a bit, he wasn’t entirely sure why it mattered, but it must do, or Bradley would have mentioned it. Wouldn’t he? Admittedly, Katie and Angel teased him about it afterwards in the green room at Expo, but he’d just looked down his nose and declared that they obviously understood nothing about the Beautiful Game, and that he wouldn’t demean himself, but he still hadn’t said a word to Colin. And that must matter, right?
And that was why he was here, in the blue plastic stands of Stamford Bridge, tucked away, hopefully a smudged unrecognisable blob from the distance of the pitch, with his hoodie pulled up over his head on the hottest day of the year so far. He felt stupid, no question, but it still felt like something he had to do.
Of course, there was a problem, because there always was - with him being so far away he couldn’t exactly see that well himself. Everyone looked like coloured ants down there, and no-one was dressed in the blue and burgundy of Telstar, the team Bradley was supposedly playing for. Then suddenly, arrested, Colin noticed a distinctive… gait? Shape of the head? Even at this distance he was sure that was Bradley in green and black, and the longer he watched, the more certain he became. They must have moved people around, into different teams, fair enough. Then as Colin stared, squinting a bit into the light, he became aware that Bradley was hugging a fellow team-mate, like he was an old friend. Colin looked down at his programme, wondering if Bradley was mates with anyone in the cast of ‘The In-Betweeners’?
That wasn’t what made him suddenly hold his breath, his chest expanding painfully. Ah. That might be why Bradley hadn’t mentioned this football thing. Next to Bradley’s name in the programme, supposedly also playing for Telstar, which is probably why he hadn’t spotted it before, Santiago Cabrera. And that would be Santiago that Bradley was hugging then. Right.
Maybe he was being paranoid. His Mum always said he thought too much for his own good. Bradley had got into the habit of cuffing him affectionately around the head when he thought he was too many miles away. Colin appreciated that, he really did. But right now… He didn’t think he was wrong. Why the bloody hell had Bradley conveniently forgotten to mention a whole football tournament, just because Santiago was playing too?
Colin swallowed. This really was a stupid idea, and he was regretting it already, but he was here now. He was stuck. It was really easy to ignore the little voice in his head pointing out that he could just leave, that Bradley would be none the wiser, but Colin wasn’t that kind of masochist, he was the other kind, the sort that couldn’t stop picking at a scab. It drove make-up insane.
But, leaving aside his own neuroses, it was a surprisingly enjoyable afternoon. Colin realised he must have got emotionally invested at some point, because suddenly he was on his feet shouting about the horrible foul that had just been perpetrated upon Bradley’s person, causing them to lose the ball and a corner kick, no less. What was the referee thinking?
He sat back on the seat, and left his hoodie down. It was ridiculous anyway, and it wasn’t as though lots of other people weren’t shouting just as loudly. He still felt a tiny bit of a fool, shouting at strangers like that. On his own, no less. If Bradley knew he was here, he’d laugh his arse off. And just as easily as that, Colin was back to feeling miserably embarrassed, and just as perplexed as ever.
It didn’t help that there was lots of time between matches to watch as Bradley and Santiago bent and stretched at each other. Of course, that probably wasn’t it, cramp had to be stretched out somehow, but really. Then there was all the lying around on the ground at each other’s feet, for all the world as though they were sunning themselves like seals. Colin couldn’t be sure, but he thought Bradley was getting sunburnt, and reckoned he wasn’t the only one make-up was going to kill, come Monday morning. Colin hoped it would bloody well sting.
Then calmly he took a step back, inside his own head, and examined his own reactions. He was used to doing that, for every part he’d ever had, and it was a good technique. He didn’t use it with real life very often, but this wasn’t real life, was it? This was Colin Morgan becoming a mooning girl and causing himself to make an arse of himself. It only seemed fair that he thought about it.
Fact - it was true that Colin might like Bradley. A bit. More than a bit, if he let himself think about it, which he didn’t very often. That way lying madness etc, etc. Fact - Johnny had all but outed him at the panel yesterday, with his comment about a bucket and a sponge, which had caused his accent to get thicker from embarrassment, Colin was sure. Thank god Bradley had been at the other end of the table, and that Colin had been forced to hold his shit together in front of an enthusiastic audience. He always did manage to do that, it was second nature. Fact - he was pretty sure Bradley knew about his little crush anyway, and he didn’t seem to mind. At least, Colin had never noticed any difference in the way Bradley treated him - as some kind of idiot kid brother seemed to sum it up. Sometimes Colin didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.
And the last fact - Bradley had been unwilling to let him know about a football tournament he was playing in despite the fact that he was cool about Colin’s crush. It made his throat thick, and Colin swallowed once, twice. Maybe he was wrong about Bradley, it wasn’t like it would be the first time. He’d even taken a punch or two, here and there, when he’d managed to cock things up, really cock things up, when he was learning what life was really all about. Which was grist for the acting mill, so. Not a waste of a time. But he really didn’t want to have been wrong.
As the afternoon wore on there were less people in the stands, as their favourite teams were knocked out, and people left. Colin looked at all the blue expanse of plastic seating and thought, no-one would notice. If he crept down. No-one would know or care. He still felt ridiculously exposed as he left his seat and made his way down the steps. The fact that his new seat made it easier to see Bradley was… probably the point. But he refused to think of it as spying, he was a paying audience member, after all, giving something back to charity. Oh, who was he kidding.
This was sad, he reckoned, he’d turned into the saddest bloke in the whole world, anorak-wearing types watching trains were cooler than he was. He hunched his shoulders. This was stupid. And then promptly forgot all about it because Bradley’s team was about to play the semi-final, and he was on his feet cheering and screaming with all the rest. They lost on penalties. Bastard penalties! Colin didn’t know that much about football, but he remembered from school that penalties were about the worst way to lose. Hardly anything to do with skill, more often luck, it left even the winning team with a bit of a funny taste in their mouth.
Colin watched as Bradley got his audience to politely clap the winners, instead of the frenzied displeasure they seemed more intent upon, and he smiled. That was so like Bradley. And then he had a horrible moment when he thought Bradley had actually caught sight of him. Bradley had hesitated as he ran down the pitch, just for a second, but it was so fleeting that Colin couldn’t be sure. His stomach knotted painfully, and chills ran up and down his back in an unpleasantly clammy way. What was his explanation, if Bradley had seen him? Did he even have one? Or was he just being an insane, stalkery twat?
He sat around listlessly as the final began, and dithered. The sun was hot on the back of his neck, and that would be the last straw, if he came back with some betraying colour on his skin. Colin felt sick. This had been a completely pointless exercise, he wasn’t supporting his castmate, he was perving on him. He was, in fact, checking up on him. As if he had any right at all. It was a betrayal, in fact, if it was anything, and no amount of fancy justifications could get around that. Sometimes Colin wished he didn’t automatically analyse everything to death, but he couldn’t help that. The facts remained.
Bugger. It had mattered, after all, that Bradley hadn’t mentioned the football match, but not in the way that Colin had thought. It wasn’t a test, of course not - Colin didn’t think Bradley would have planned anything like that, because that wasn’t Bradley’s nature, he hardly planned anything at all. But if it had been a test? Well. Colin had failed it, hadn’t he? Spectacularly.
He didn’t wait for the final to finish, he pushed off home. And mentally kicked himself all the way to the tube.
Filming on Tuesday was a bit of an anti-climax. Colin had spent most of the bank holiday alternately worrying about it all, and telling himself not be so melodramatic. The world did not revolve around him and his crazy existential crises, and although he was a bit indulgent and read some Proust, he couldn’t say it helped, more gave him a headache.
So when he rolled into the make-up trailer before the location shooting – where were they today anyway, Abergavenny? Caerphilly again? He was sufficiently uncaffeinated that he was only able to offer a grunt of hello to Annie his make-up girl, Tony, and then Bradley himself, before sitting down with his heart suddenly thumping. He kept his eyes half-lidded though, his muscles consciously relaxed, he was a bloody actor, right?
When he looked up through his lashes Bradley was staring at him, but possibly no more than usual. It was hard to tell, Colin had never had the need to consider it before. He took a mighty mouthful of his newly acquired coffee and nearly exploded, as it disappeared down the wrong way. Yeah, there we go, Morgan, very smooth.
And that was how it continued all day really. Merlin was meant to be a bit clumsy, but Colin was raising it into an art form, and every time he looked up Bradley was watching him. Which so didn’t help. There wasn’t even any banter, which was weird, and made his palms sweat, and his pulse thump, until he was getting steadily more twitchy under the patina of Merlin’s assumed calm.
And that was why he leapt near a foot in the air, when Bradley appeared behind his chair, hooking his elbow around his neck in a loose headlock, and said, “All right, what’s up, Colin?”
As it happened, Colin nearly giving Bradley a black eye, appeared to be most of what was up, as he flailed in an undignified fashion in the canvas chair. They nearly both went over, but Bradley was able to brace them, and keep the chair from tipping. It meant he had to lean into Colin’s space even more, and Colin could smell after-sun lotion, and make-up, and sweat, and grass. Lovely. Dammit.
“Bit jumpy, aren’t you?” said Bradley, still far too close, his voice rumbling into Colin’s ear, the studs on his suede coat digging into his cheek. Colin swallowed.
“Only when bastards surprise me from behind.” Fuck. He did not just say that.
Bradley might have been smirking but it was impossible for Colin to tell, he was too close. In fact, Colin wondered why Bradley hadn’t moved back, hadn’t let go. He took a deep breath. Let it out.
“What if I told you that I know exactly what your little problem is. What guilty secret you’re hiding,” said Bradley, his voice dark and laced with amusement.
It grounded Colin, surprisingly. If Bradley wanted to take the teasing to the next level, then Colin was all right about that. It meant his worst fears - that he’d lost Bradley’s trust, that the odd kind of friendship they’d developed had been spoilt and ruined – were unfounded. That Bradley still didn’t mind Colin’s little crush. Thank fuck for that.
"Get off, you idiot, you'll crumple something, and wardrobe will kill you."
"I'll crumple you," Bradley said, but let him go. Because it wasn't like Colin was wrong. He tried not to miss the warm huff of Bradley's breath against his skin.
"And I'm sorry, all right?" Colin said, at last, unwilling to dance about the stupid thing, any more. "I went to the match, and you were brilliant, and I'm sorry."
He can't keep a secret, not one like this, small and venal and banal.
"What?" Bradley moved around to his side, pulled up a chair of his own. His red suede jacket was bright even on such a gloomy day, and Colin blinked. Bradley's face was full of confusion, his lip pouting slightly, a groove between his brows. Colin wanted to reach out and smooth it with his fingers.
"The match? On Sunday? That you didn't want anyone to go to? I went, and I'm sorry."
God, there were times Colin would swear they're channelling their characters, because exactly how clear does he have to be? Grovelling on the floor? He won't, that's all.
And then a marvellous thing happened, a startling thing, that began high on Bradley's cheekbones and then spread fast across his cheeks, down the strong column of his neck. For all the teasing, Bradley was nearly as pale as Colin, and a furious blush could show up just as clearly. He looked away. Colin marvelled, watching Bradley's hands clench in his lap. The tide of colour ebbed at last, leaving Bradley pale enough that his make-up showed, waxen against his face.
He wanted to be gentle, he did, and he didn't even know why. "What is it?" asked Colin, "I don't…"
"Shut up," said Bradley, his head hanging down, staring at his knees. Then immediately, "Sorry."
Colin fidgeted, pulling at a loose thread on the cuff of Merlin's shirt.
"Look," said Bradley, before the silence stretched, "I didn't tell anyone because… Well, it could have been awful, maybe, and I was going to play at Stamford Bridge, you know? My Dad's been going on and on about it, and what if I'd cocked it up? What if it was stupid, and rubbish, and I'd been going on about it? And then Santiago was going to come, and I hadn't told anyone, and then what if people found out that I'd known for weeks, and hadn't mentioned it, and then, of course, that stupid question - it did come out and. Well. I just didn't want you to know."
Colin felt baffled. He was far from the last person to condemn an odd train of logic, but this was death-defying even for him. Especially so for Bradley. It made no sense, at all. Colin reached out a hand to grab Bradley's shoulder, and he jerked under Colin's touch, before Bradley shot him a sheepish smile, the kind that meant Colin didn't feel the need to call the men in white coats quite yet, anyway.
"I wouldn't have gone if I'd known you’d hate it this much," said Colin, trying to put into it as much feeling as he could, given they were both manly types who couldn’t be bothered with soul searching. Although that was a lie, really, as Proust could attest to. Bradley was that manly though. Probably. Colin merely felt out of his depth.
There was a pause, and Colin wanted to let go, but he felt awkward about that too. Eventually, Bradley looked up, “It was brilliant though.”
“Yeah,” said Colin, a weight lifting from him, “Yeah, it was.”
Bradley smirked in earnest then, and Colin felt his own smile lifting the corners of his mouth. Whatever it was, they were ok now. “You were robbed in the semis.”
Bradley shrugged, Colin feeling the muscles shifting under his fingers. He withdrew his hand then, safely back to his own lap, and was it his imagination, or did Bradley look disappointed for a split second?
“My Dad was happy I’d sunk a goal past Neville Southall, so it wasn’t all bad. And we did our best.”
“Course you did,” said Colin, and they fell into trading some easy anecdotes about the matches, back and forth, winding down the tension, until Colin felt almost normal again. Now it was out in the open, Bradley seemed to want to talk, and Colin was happy to let him. Things were sorted, and that was the main thing.
As Bradley gestured, and jumped up and down to better illustrate some clever bit of footwork, or a particularly obscene tackle, Colin realised they were still sitting too close, that Bradley hadn’t moved his chair away. His shoulder brushed against Colin’s every time he sat down again. Sometimes Bradley’s thigh would lie flush against his own. It was weird, Colin had never noticed how close they sat before, how close they often sat – he’d just… assumed. That it was normal.
His heart-rate was picking up again, as he thought about the cracks and edges in their conversation. So why had it really mattered to Bradley, that Colin shouldn’t know about this stupid tournament? They were all right now, so maybe Colin could ask again? And sometimes, with Bradley, direct was better.
“So, are you going to tell me the real reason why you didn’t want me there?” he said, abruptly, reaching a bit, assuming a lot.
Bradley stilled, but he didn’t look away this time, which was something. “You’re not going to let this go, are you?”
Colin thought about it. He stuffed a finger in his mouth to help him. Then, out of the corner of his eye, he watched Bradley blush again, just a little, high on his face.
“No,” said Colin, making a decision. “Tell me.”
Bradley ducked his head, as though he were embarrassed, and muttered something. Colin pushed himself closer, Bradley’s warmth comforting all down his side, nudging into his ribs with his elbow. “What?”
“I said… I thought you might be…. I thought you’d think that… me and Santiago… I didn’t want you to get the wrong idea.”
And now Bradley was squirming, and Colin had to think some more. Damn, if this wasn’t some perfect twisted-up Bradley-logic, getting all scrambled from his brain to his mouth. He rested his chin on Bradley’s shoulder while he considered it, twisting and turning it, looking at it from odd angles. Working it out.
“Do you mean,” he asked slowly, “That you deliberately didn’t tell me about some stupid football tournament, just because Santiago was in it. Because you thought I’d… what? Be jealous?”
There was a deafening silence, but Bradley didn’t move away. There was a certain stillness to him, a heaviness, as though he was bracing himself for something. Like in the penalty shoot-out line, waiting his turn, arms around his team-mates.
“You did! You thought…” Colin stopped, continued to think it through. He had a feeling that this was something he shouldn’t just jump on, that he had made considered choices in the paths he took with his character, that he had a reputation for deep thinking, that he should think carefully about this too. That it was important. There was a certain momentousness somehow, like a storm looming, or an ominous phrase of music to frame a shot, it was…
Colin froze, as he realised. He wanted to bang his head on a table, on a wall. He was a bloody idiot, that’s all. There were politicians with massive expenses claims who were less idiotic than he was. There were probably whole continents of people looking at him pityingly right now. He realised he couldn’t feel Bradley moving a single muscle next to him, he didn’t even seem to be breathing, and decided that maybe a theory needed to be tested, right buggering now.
Colin had assumed all the invasions of his personal space were some sort of buddy thing, a kind of spill-over from Bradley, like he might rough-house with a dog, or a footie mate. Then there was the general luvviness that they all had to a greater or lesser extent, being in the business. So he hadn’t thought anything of it. He hadn’t… got it. Him and his worrying about his little crush, and all the time… Stupid. He was terminally stupid.
And wasteful. He wasn’t going to be that any more. He dug the point of his chin into Bradley’s shoulder a little more deeply and felt the echoing shudder through his bones. His stomach was doing flip-flops, and his hands were tingling, but nothing was going to stop him, not now. Not now that Bradley had tried to hide a whole football tournament from him, just on the off-chance, no more, that Colin might be jealous. It was mad, it was insane. It was fantastic.
He pushed himself back, but without letting go. He wasn’t about to let Bradley think he was going to get away with this. Then he was manhandling Bradley back in the canvas director’s chair, and leaning forward from his, over the arm, a bit bloody awkward, but he worked with what he had, and then… Then he half-shoved himself into Bradley’s lap, a mad scramble, all bony legs folded up, and hands around his neck. If he was wrong then this was the time, this was the dangerous bit, but Colin didn’t think he’d got it wrong. Not this time.
Bradley caught him. And then they were staring into each other’s eyes. Colin looking hopeful and a bit insane, he suspected, and then there was Bradley, still with that pinch between his brows, and a startled look, like a rabbit in headlights, dazed but with the beginnings of a cautious kind of joy.
“That’s better,” said Colin, and leaned forward.
It wasn't the greatest kiss in the history of the world, Colin had to admit, there were too many nerves on both sides, and too much eagerness. But the second one was something to write home about, and the third was doing strange things to his belly, and shorting out his brain. He dragged his lips away from Bradley's, just so he could mouth down his throat, tasting salt and leather, desperately needing to get his breath back, but even more desperate to continue his oh-so-interesting journey. He panted inelegantly next to Bradley's ear, and was rewarded with a throttled groan and the twitch of hips that ground an even more interesting state of affairs into his arse and thigh.
"Fuck," Bradley said, "Fuck, Colin…"
Colin hoped so. Sometime. Soon, by preference. But he was beyond wanting to answer, and he had a horrible feeling that one of them was due on set soon, and that there was no time…
He dragged himself back from the enticing skin behind Bradley's ear, before he left a mark that would get him murdered, and leant his forehead against Bradley's. Bradley's fingers were cupping his arse, squeezing it rhythmically, and Colin bit his lip, before he did something they and wardrobe would both regret. His heart was pounding like he'd run a race.
"Look. Later, yeah?" Colin leaned back until he could see Bradley's face, wondered if he looked just as pink and flushed. Or anywhere near as edible. He grinned. "Extra time. That's what we deserve. Should have had that before penalties, right?"
Bradley smirked back, but Colin could tell he was just as scattered, as bowled over, as Colin was. Maybe as fucking ridiculously happy too. "Right," said Bradley, and then his smirk turned purely evil. Colin had time for one sharp gasping breath, before Bradley parted his knees and dumped him on the ground.
Colin stared up at him, his elbow stinging, shocked into silence.
"That's for keeping secrets, and sneaking around - just to look at my legs," said Bradley, at his most Arthur, waving a finger, and looking down his nose.
And then something in each other's faces must have set them both off, Colin felt his cheek twitch, and then Bradley's eyes crinkled, and then they were both laughing, couldn't stop, not until they had tears in their eyes. Colin reached out and tried to kick Bradley in the shin, but he dodged.
"You bastard, I've been worrying all day, and you knew all along," said Colin, at last, as he smiled up into the sky. "What was all that 'I know exactly what guilty secret you’re hiding' business about then?"
Bradley stared down at him, and his gaze was pitying, but fond.
"That, Colin, is a line in our next scene."
Colin was already on the ground. Was it too much to ask for it to swallow him?