illustrated by cloven
It’s a beautiful August day–sunny, warm, and lively–and Tory is stuck inside.
He’s been stuck inside all morning, moving into his new dorm room and unpacking, but now it’s two in the afternoon, and he’s going stir-crazy. Voices and music from the Student Activities Fair on the front lawn have been filtering in for hours, and Tory’s stayed strong–but the warm breeze that tickles at his shoulders when he walks past the window is the last damn straw.
Tory throws the last of his crew socks into the first available drawer he sees and turns to his roommate, who’s standing on the edge of the desk next to his bed, slapping tape onto the corner of a poster advertising some band Tory doesn’t recognize. Hoping he doesn’t startle him by accident, Tory clears his throat and says, “Yuki. You wanna go to that activities fair thing with me?”
Yuki hops down and backs up until he’s standing next to Tory to survey the crooked arrangement of posters hanging up above his haphazardly made bed. After a moment—wherein Tory decides that the combination of hunter-green comforter and yellow, red, and purple pillows is truly unfortunate—he nods and says, “Yeah, sure. Let’s go.”
Keys: check. Phone: check. Student ID: check. Tory gives his room one last glance before turning off the light and following Yuki out the door.
The emerald sprawl of the front lawn is lined with rows of tables all draped in banners bearing club names in bright colors. Out under the late August sun, the shiny plastic of them is almost blinding; Tory has to cover his eyes with one hand and squint to read the handout pushed on him by an upperclassman.
Yuki peers at the map over Tory’s shoulder. “Ooh, grilling club. I wonder if they’re doing free burgers for orientation week. You wanna go there first?”
“The volleyball table is the other way. Get in line and I’ll meet you when I’m done signing up?”
“Sounds good.” Yuki gives Tory a companionable (albeit slightly painful) slap to the back and drifts off in the general direction of what Tory hopes is the grilling club table, following the faint scent of smoke and hamburgers.
Tory winces and veers off to the left, scanning the seemingly endless row of banners. Germanic society, debate team, indoor rock climbing; a girl at the art club table waves when she catches Tory squinting at the banner, and Tory flashes her a quick, apologetic smile before squeezing between two boys too nervous to be anything but freshmen and ducking away. From there, it’s a little like a game of cat-and-mouse: he ducks fliers and waves off invitations, returns less interested versions of inviting smiles from upperclassmen and skirts eager, enthusiastic underclassmen as they congregate near tables advertising school spirit and the campus newspaper and the honor society. It’s busy and hectic, but it’s got the same atmosphere Tory had so loved in his old campus; the spiritedness of it makes Tory smile as he sets his sights on his destination.
The volleyball club table is stowed away under the generous branches of an oak, just barely within reach of the sun. Tory is glad to be able to stop squinting, half because it doesn’t quite make for a good first impression, and half because he can hear his mother’s voice in his head, chiding him for straining his eyes. He can also imagine her telling him to be on his best behavior—can’t have you getting kicked off the team again, can we?—so with a sigh, Tory straightens up to his full height, squares his shoulders, schools his face into his most presentable smile, and approaches the table.
There are three boys within the general vicinity of the table: one—a middle, if Tory had to guess—lanky and blond, is perched on the table’s edge, making a valiant but unsuccessful attempt to spin a ball on one finger; another, shorter and slimmer and smilier, sits behind the table, laughing at something the blond is saying out of the corner of his mouth. And the third—
The third is dark-haired, dark-eyed, and boring a hole into the side of Tory’s head with his stare.
He doesn’t look away when Tory looks at him either, which is odd; most people, Tory thinks, have the decency to at least pretend they haven’t been staring when they’re caught at it. This guy just gives Tory a very purposeful once-over, like he’s sizing Tory up against something and has found him wanting, before tilting his head toward the table and walking off.
“Hi,” Tory says, approaching the table. The guy at the table looks up at him, and Tory flashes him a perfunctory smile that fades as he catches sight of Tall, Dark, and Pissed-Off a few feet away. “Uh. Volleyball, right?”
The guy’s smile wavers as Tory’s does; he quirks an eyebrow, twisting in his chair to follow Tory’s line of sight, and says, so exasperated that it seemed like he hadn’t just been beaming seconds ago: “Oh my God.”
Tory opens his mouth to ask what the hell is going on, takes a breath, and closes his mouth again. Instead of asking—he’s not entirely sure he wants to know—he watches as the guy in the chair whips around, prods the middle hitter in the side, and says, “Rocky, is he gonna do this to every recruit that comes over, and if so, can you make him stop?”
Rocky palms the volleyball and gives both Tory and the guy at the table the same spacey look of surprise, like he’d forgotten either of them were there, or just hadn’t noticed in the first place. “Huh? What’s up?”
“Oh my God,” the guy says again. He pinches the bridge of his nose with one hand and waves the other behind him, in the general direction of—dear God, he’s still staring, what the hell? “J is doing his weird intimidation thing again. Can you go pepper with him and get someone else to come help over here?”
“Ah, hell.” Rocky hops up off the table, ball tucked under his arm, and extends his hand for a quick, firm shake. “Sorry ’bout that, man. Hope he didn’t weird you out too much.”
“It’s fine,” Tory says, even though he is indeed weirded out. He’d have added a ‘nice to meet you’ or an ‘I’m glad you seem slightly less weird’, but Rocky is already gone.
The guy at the table heaves a weighty sigh before snapping the smile back onto his face and offering his hand. “Sorry, hi. I’m Ash. Senior, vice-captain, libero. I’m hoping you still want to sign up?”
“Yeah.” Tory glances toward the sunny patch of grass just beyond the tree. Three boys in matching tank tops, all bearing what Tory assumes is an inappropriate volleyball-related pun, are whooping as they pass the ball back and forth; some few feet away, Rocky is bouncing the volleyball on his fist as he talks to Tall, Dark, and Thankfully-Not-Glaring-Anymore. “If that’s okay, I guess?”
“Wha—oh! Of course, yeah. You’re more than welcome to sign up. Jaime’s just a little…” Ash purses his lips, waves a thin, expressive hand. “Intense. He’s great once you get to know him. Good player, too.”
“Oh, really? What’s he play?”
“Setter,” Ash says, and gives a commiserating nod when Tory makes a face. “Yeah, I know—but he’s got better hands than anyone I’ve ever played with, so he gets a little slack for his attitude. What are you?”
Ah. “I’m a libero too, actually.”
Tory braces himself for the brief moment of awkward silence that usually comes with realizing someone else on your team is going to be fighting for your spot on the court, but it doesn’t come; without missing a beat, Ash smiles and says, “Oh, awesome! We’re a little short on defense since we graduated, like, three DSes last year. Did you play club in high school?”
“Yeah, for JJVA out of Florida.”
“Awesome!” Ash says again, with the kind of enthusiasm that would seem fake if not for the fact that Ash’s smile reaches all the way to his eyes. “I’m looking forward to seeing you at tryouts, then. If you fill out this little sign-up sheet we’ll—or I will, actually, since I’m in charge of administrative stuff—send you an email with tryout times and everything.”
Tory takes the paper and pen Ash slides across the table. As neatly as possible, he prints: Tory Adeyemi, sophomore, libero.
“Okay, then!” Ash beams. Tory wonders if his cheeks ever get tired. “Tryouts will probably be sometime within the next two weeks, once we’ve gotten everything sorted out as far as practice times. You should get that email before then.”
Tory resists the compulsion to say awesome, says, “Thanks,” instead, and waves as he walks off.
Tory gets the email on the last day of syllabus week. It’s a brief message, straight to the point: club volleyball tryouts are Monday night at 9PM, and anyone trying out need not bring anything more than a decent pair of shoes and a good attitude. Though the email is signed by both Jaime and Ash, the number of exclamation points–Jaime hadn’t seemed like the type, somehow–and the liberal use of the word ‘awesome’ makes it fairly clear who’d written it.
At the time, Monday seems impossibly far off, but in reality time passes much more quickly than Tory would’ve expected. An end-of-syllabus-week dinner for transfer students, the first predictive stream of reading assignments, and a long Sunday night spent curled up on a common room couch talking with his new floormates pull Tory into the swing of things, socially, and the evening of tryouts is breathing down Tory’s neck before he realizes.
It’s just after 8 when Tory gives up on pretending to productive and starts getting ready for tryouts.
Tory gets to the gym with twenty minutes to spare. He’s not the only one who’d wanted to make a good first impression, though; at least four other boys are there when he arrives, tugging their kneepads up into place and checking laces on shoes and ankle braces.
He recognizes a few of the upperclassmen: two of the boys he’d seen peppering are now standing shoulder to shoulder on one side of the circle; Rocky–who, Tory notes, is much taller than he’d seemed when they first met–is just now arriving, drifting over to the benches to dig his court shoes out of his bag; and Ash, smiling, is saying something very pointed to someone beside him. Who, when Tory glances over to the side, turns out to be–
He spots the frown first, and feels his own mouth shape into something tight and defensive in response. Jaime, Tory recalls, though he recognizes him more by the faint yet distinct air of displeasure than by name. He isn’t glaring, but Tory has a feeling that’s probably because they haven’t made eye contact yet.
Once the number of boys gathered in the impromptu circle seems to have plateaued, Ash claps his hands together and waits for the low-pitched murmur to quiet. When all eyes are on him, he smiles–though Tory isn’t quite sure he wasn’t smiling to begin with–and says, “Hey, everyone. I imagine you’ve all had enough tryouts before to know how this goes, so I won’t talk for too long. Real quick, before we get started, the team is gonna introduce themselves–the ones that are here, anyway. So–” he dials his smile up a notch “–hi, I’m Ash, vice-captain, currently playing libero.”
Not counting Ash, there are five team members running tryouts tonight, and they all introduce themselves by year and position: Rocky, a senior and a middle; Jaden, a sophomore outside; a junior outside whom Rocky insists is named Chase, despite any protest to the contrary; a junior right side named Alex, who is probably one of the tallest human beings Tory has ever seen; and Jaime, who ditches the frown when Ash elbows him in the side and introduces himself as a senior, a setter, and the captain.
Of course, Tory thinks. Of fucking course.
“Feel free to ask us if you have questions,” Ash says. “But if nobody has anything they need to say right now, start off with a couple of laps around the gym and then find a partner and warm up.”
No one says anything, but no one moves, either. Tory himself pauses, torn between the innate desire not to be the odd one out in acting–but in that moment of hesitation, the part of Tory’s brain responsible for the urge to excel says get moving, loser. Reason catches up just afterwards–Tory’s shorter than half the guys here by at least a head, which means that unless he wants to look like he’s much slower than he actually is, he needs to be in the front of the group–and adrenaline gives him the final kick he needs to squeeze his way out of the huddle and jog to the edge of the court. He doesn’t look back, but the immediate squeak of sneakers that follow him is enough to bolster Tory’s confidence; he takes off at a brisk clip, just fast enough to look industrious, and keeps his eyes on the stretch of court in front of him. If Jaime is looking at him, he doesn’t want to know, purely for the sake of keeping himself focused during warmups.
Then again, Tory thinks, it shouldn’t be bothering him this much, anyway. Hell, it probably wouldn’t if only he knew why exactly he’d gotten the death glare from the get-go. Tory’s used to not getting along with his teammates; it’s just that he usually gives them a reason not to like him first. Not getting a fair shake is what really gets under his skin.
Though he won’t make a good impression at all–let alone make the team–if he doesn’t show out well, now, will he?
Tory blows a sharp breath out through his teeth. It doesn’t matter what literally one person thinks of him, in the grand scheme of things; Tory’s going to kick tryouts in the ass, and then no one’s shitty attitude will matter.
Focus, he tells himself, and does his best to clear his head as he rounds the corner into the second lap.
Tory had pretty much known he would make the team by the end of tryouts. It’s not that his competition had been bad by any stretch–it’s just that Tory believes in giving full and accurate credit where credit is due, and due credit says he’s a pretty damn good player. He’d felt good at tryouts too, confident and sure, so he’s not surprised when he gets an email at the end of the week that congratulates him on making the team.
Not being surprised doesn’t mean he isn’t elated, though. Making the team feels a little like fitting a puzzle piece into place, like Tory is one step closer to being able to call this school his home. It’s a good first step, Tory thinks, and he’s happier for it.
It only takes a few weeks for Tory to fall into a routine; between classes and volleyball practice, he’s kept comfortably busy, and he spends the rest of his time either studying or socializing. Most of the friends he makes belong to one of two distinct groups: the kids who live in his dorm building, and the volleyball team. The two don’t overlap much–the exception being Seph, a sophomore middle who lives on Tory’s floor and seems understandably cowed by his exuberance–and that’s fine with Tory; he likes being able to escape the confines of his dorm and get a change of both people and scenery, and the same goes for volleyball–although as the semester goes on, he wants less and less to get away from it. The team is good, better than the one he’d been on last year, and Jaime makes it overwhelmingly clear that he values talent over seniority. Tory likes his teammates–especially Ash, who seems to have taken a shine to him–and, by mid-September, he finds he’s spending more time with them than he is without.
Tory still doesn’t see much of Jaime, though he’s not entirely sure that’s a bad thing. He’d thought making the team would somehow mean Jaime would quit glaring at him during practice, but it doesn’t. Jaime is just as critical as he’d been at tryouts, if not more so now that Tory is officially on the team; if Tory had to guess, he’d bet Jaime corrects him on some miniscule error or says something rude at least three times per practice. Tory is perfectly aware that it shouldn’t bother him–he can’t win ’em all, can he?–but it does; Jaime’s frown is virtually perpetual, and to Tory–who is a machine made to do things others don’t want him to do, fueled by a winning combination of charm, energy, pride, and a little bit of spite–that seems like a challenge.
But volleyball is a team sport, and there’s no room for conflict. Tory and Jaime would have had to have talked it out sooner or later–it just figures that it would be sooner, after only a few weeks of practice, and it just fucking figures that Ash would be there to make it happen.
It happens on a Sunday evening. Ash had been hanging out in the student center all afternoon, but hadn’t actually started doing any work until after dinner, and he’d texted and asked Tory to come keep him company in ‘this gloomy concrete hellhole of a place’. Ash’s words, not Tory’s, though Tory doesn’t disagree.
True to form, they’d spent more time talking than working. The table Ash had chosen was in a common area some twenty feet from one of the on-campus coffeeshops, and that means noise and distractions are abundant. Tory’s seen at least five people he recognizes already, but Ash has talked to what feels like three times that many; it isn’t surprising to learn that Ash is one of those people who knows everyone and attracts people like a magnet.
Unsurprising, but not always a good thing, Tory finds, when Ash breaks off in the middle of explaining why none of the campus coffeeshops sell the same orders and says, “Sorry, sorry, hold on–hey, J!”
It could be any J. There are probably an infinite number of people whose names start with J on this campus.
Tory sneaks a glance over his shoulder, thinks, oh, God, and braces himself for impact.
“Hey,” says Jaime. He’s in athletic shorts and a t-shirt and crew socks, like he expects to play volleyball at any moment; he’s also looking directly at Ash like he’s the only person at the table.
There’s a pause, during which Ash’s eyebrows creep higher and higher toward his brow. When Jaime adds nothing else, Ash shakes his head and says, “Jaime Laurent, you are honestly ridiculous.”
As though that’s a completely unfounded accusation, Jaime sputters, “What? Why?”
“Tory is right here. You can’t just pretend he isn’t.”
“Actually,” Tory says, in a tone that implies just the opposite, and Jaime stops himself in the middle of a protest to give him a look.
“Y’all.” Already exasperated, Ash smacks the palm of his hand down flat on the table to interrupt. It works wonders: Jaime, looking sour, crosses his arms and quits glaring, and Tory turns to Ash with a frown.
Once he has their attention, Ash slips into the mediator voice that Tory can already recognize since he, along with the rest of the team, has already borne witness to several arguments between unlikely friends Jaime and Rocky, and says, “You know this weird tension isn’t good for the team, right?”
He’s looking between Jaime and Tory as though they’d both had equal parts in creating said weird tension, and Tory bristles at the unspoken implication. “That’s not my fault.”
“I didn’t say it was,” Ash says, mild. “I just said it’s not good for the team, and that maybe y’all should consider talking it out–sit down, J, you’re making me nervous hovering like that.”
Jaime huffs about it, but acquiesces and lets Ash tug him down into the seat across the table from Tory. Tory gives him a look, flat and unimpressed, and Jaime returns it in kind.
Ash graciously ignores the glaring and continues. “Tory. Has Jaime ever actually told you what his problem with you is?”
“No,” Tory says, vehement, “and that’s my problem with him.”
Jaime has the decency to look abashed, at least, but before he can say anything in his defense, Ash steamrolls him.
“He knows one of the guys on the team at your old school,” Ash says conversationally. Tory turns to Ash, and so does Jaime, looking betrayed. “They said you were good, but difficult. Jaime is inclined to agree, even though I told him it takes one to know one.”
“You can say that again,” Tory snorts, right as Jaime says, “Ash, seriously?”
Ash just shrugs and says, “It was bound to come out eventually. And that doesn’t mean you two can’t get over it.”
For Tory, things like that are all matters of water and bridges. He’d earned whatever shit the guys on his old team had said about him for telling them where exactly they could shove their seniority, and he’s made his peace with that. And yeah, sure, it pisses him off to know that Jaime had made a snap judgment about him based solely off of that, but if Jaime’s willing to give him a fair chance, Tory’s willing to forgive.
“You two are too much alike not to get along,” Ash says, waving his hand at the space between them. “But Jaime doesn’t like being wrong about this kind of thing, so he can’t actually tell you that. Or he won’t, anyway.”
“Well, it’s pointless now, isn’t it,” Jaime grumbles, looking put-out and irritated.
Next to him, smiling and optimistic, Ash looks like a paragon of good nature. The contrast is enough to lighten Tory’s mood, just a little–so, even if only for Ash’s sake, he says, “Not really.”
Jaime raises one dark eyebrow, and Ash finally begins to look a little wary. Tory takes a moment to appreciate their reactions before he says, “You could tell me that anyway. Not like I’m gonna turn down an apology.”
“Sorry,” Jaime says, and the ease of it makes Tory startle. He doesn’t look like the type to apologize without a fight–but then again, Tory supposes, assumptions are what got them here in the first place, aren’t they? “I was a dick. You’re…”
It’s Tory’s turn to raise an eyebrow now. “C’mon, J,” Ash prods, elbowing Jaime in the side. “You can do it. Use your words.”
“Fuck off,” Jaime mutters, much to Ash’s delight. He turns back to Tory, sighs, and says, “You’re a good player. And you’re…not bad in, like, other ways. I guess.”
“What,” Tory says, nonplussed.
Jaime makes a frustrated noise, and Ash interprets: “Basically, he likes you. Believe me, this is much better than he used to be; I think he just kinda mumbled at me for a solid minute when we first got to know each other.”
“Fuck off,” Jaime repeats, though he sounds more fondly exasperated than actually irritated, and Ash laughs.
If Jaime can manage to get someone like Ash to vouch for him, he can’t be all that bad; the apology and subsequent compliment, awkward as it was, didn’t hurt his case either. And even if he is an asshole and this does turn out to be a terrible decision, Tory decides, he will delight in making Jaime acknowledge him despite any efforts otherwise.
Tory extends his hand across the table.
Jaime looks at it askance, like Tory’s offering him something weird or possibly illegal. “What are you doing?”
“Re-introducing myself,” Tory says, rolling his eyes. “Getting a fresh start. C’mon, dude.”
After a moment of consideration, Jaime takes Tory’s hand. “Hi,” he deadpans. “I’m Jaime. My interests are volleyball, sunsets, and long rallies on the beach.”
Tory laughs, and the corner of Jaime’s mouth quirks upward in response. “Nice to meet you,” he says, and smiles. “I’m Tory.”
Things are better after that.
Ash invites Jaime to hang out with them more often after that, and–much to Tory’s surprise–it doesn’t go too badly. At first Jaime seems a little worn out by Tory’s constant energy, but he acclimates to it over time, and Tory does the same for him with other things–Jaime’s sense of humor, for instance. It’s odd, but he always seems to make Tory laugh more than he’d meant to and then looks surprised that Tory laughed at all, which is a sequence that never fails to amuse Ash.
Practice is better, too, even though Tory still feels the urge to prove himself. He’s not sure if it’s for the sake of his own pride or just to show Jaime that he really is better than what he’d first heard, but either way it works out in Tory’s favor: he’s in better shape than he was during the summer, and he’s improved skill-wise, too, since he spends all two and a half hours of practice showing off either because he’s prideful or because he’s competing with Ash for the libero jersey.
Jaime once actually manages goes a whole week without really pissing Tory off–which is saying something, because even now that they’re on good terms they still clash. It’s not animosity anymore, though; it’s just that Tory is proud as all hell, and Jaime is so driven Tory thinks he might one day run himself into the ground, and both of them are too goddamn stubborn to coexist without bickering. But even that’s easier to get through now; Tory’s starting to get a handle on what Jaime really means when he says things, despite the fact that he’s almost always pissy-looking when he says them, and Jaime has started giving Tory more leeway at practice now that he’s proved himself to be more than passably competent.
That doesn’t mean it’s all smooth sailing, though, as Tory finds out during one particularly eventful Monday practice.
The A team and B team are scrimmaging, and Tory’s playing libero for the B team instead of subbing in and out for the A team. The B team isn’t bad by any means, but this is a team that has placed in the gold bracket at nationals for the past seven years, and the score reflects that fact.
Tory can’t quite complain, because it’s great practice for him, considering that about seventy percent of balls from the other side are either going around or through the block. He’s gotten more touches on the ball during this practice game than he has in entire practices in the past, and he loves it.
Okay, Tory loves it up until he’s running on fumes and his block isn’t even close to being closed as Chase, the A team’s go-to hitter, approaches right into the space between the two blockers.
Tory reacts on autopilot: he throws himself into the split, moving low, lines himself up with the angle of Chase’s shoulders, finds the ball, finds Chase again–and watches as Chase’s elbow drops.
It’s a short tip over the block, which means one of the wings should crash in to get it–but neither of them are moving, so Tory makes a sharp turn and throws himself after the ball.
Rather, he tries to throw himself after the ball–but his legs are a little shaky from being run ragged and his ankle gives out halfway through the attempted change in direction, and Tory lands hard on his side with a yelp.
Someone swears, and the play grinds to a halt. Tory swears too, crude and loud, and rolls over onto his back to straighten out his leg. His ankle aches with that suddenly overstretched feeling, and it hurts when he flexes it as he sits up; but Tory’s had sprains before, and this doesn’t feel nearly so bad. He must’ve just rolled it, which is a relief.
He doesn’t feel very relieved as he watches Jaime and Ash duck under the net and jog over to him, but that’s probably because it’s more like Ash, mildly concerned, is jogging to keep pace with Jaime, who looks more stormy than anything as he stomps his way across the court.
Ash speeds up a little to get to Tory first; he crouches down at Tory’s feet and asks, “How does it feel?”
“It’s not too bad,” Tory says honestly. “Just hurts a little. It’ll be fine, I think.”
Ash squints down at Tory’s ankle. “Hmm. Did it–”
“What the hell happened?” Jaime snaps.
Tory and Ash give Jaime matching what the fuck, dude? looks, but Jaime doesn’t seem at all fazed; he just jams his hands onto his hips and waits for an answer.
“I rolled my ankle,” Tory tells him, gesturing down the length of his leg. “That’s all. I tried to turn too fast and just fell.”
Jaime opens his mouth to say something else, but Ash cuts him off this time, asking, “Did you hear anything pop?”
“Okay, then. It’s not really swelling, so as far as I can tell, you’re going to be okay. Rest up and ice it when you get home,” he says, and gives Tory’s knee a companionable smack. “I’m only premed, though, so if it starts to get worse, go to student health.”
“Ow,” Tory say, and waves his hands at Ash before he can smack Tory again to make up for it. “Okay, thanks.”
Ash bounces out of his squat and extends both hands to pull Tory to his feet. Tory’s ankle protests a little, but it’s nothing he can’t manage; a little bit of ice and rest and he’ll be fine–though you wouldn’t guess that from looking at Jaime’s face.
“Hi,” Tory says. He should probably be warier when Jaime’s scowling like that, but he just doesn’t have it in him to be appropriately cowed today. Or ever, really. “What’s up?”
Jaime’s mouth tightens. “You’re one of our best defenders,” he says, like it’s nothing big, like it’s just a fact–but before Tory has time to feel anything besides an odd flutter in his ribcage, Jaime adds, “I’m not going to screw the team over because you don’t feel like preventative measures should apply to you. Take a seat, put your foot up, and get a pair of ankle braces before next practice.”
The last person to scold him like that was his mother. Anger and embarrassment both well up in the back of his throat, bitter and hot, but it’s anger alone that fuels all five of the increasingly rude responses that spring to Tory’s mind.
Jaime’s gaze is hard and unforgiving, like he doesn’t expect Tory to do anything but swallow his pride and go sit down, and that makes the anger worse. His pride stabs at him, demanding he say something to defend himself–or, better yet, tell Jaime to fuck off–but, beneath the anger and the instinctive urge not to do what he was told, is the lone shard of reason within him, saying: don’t get kicked off the team, dumbass.
Tory closes his eyes, thinks of the cardinal red of the libero jersey he’s only ever seen in pictures, and takes a deep breath.
“Fine,” he says when he’s ready, though the evenness of his tone doesn’t stamp out any of the ire. Jaime’s eyes go a little wide. “Just. Fine. Gotcha.”
His ankle twinges a little, but Tory refuses to let that show; he half-stomps over to the side of the court and drops down onto the ground behind the pole, leaning back on his elbows. Then, as impudently as he can manage–he refuses to be completely docile–he crooks his leg into the air high enough to be flippant and lets it hang there.
Jaime scowls, but he doesn’t comment; instead he points at Damian, a freshman DS, jerks his thumb over his shoulder, and says, “D, take Tory’s place. C’mon, we’ve only got half an hour left, let’s get moving.”
The drill starts up again with only minimal hesitation, and Tory weighs potential satisfaction against the childishness of foregoing the alphabet and spelling out swear words with his toes instead. He decides against it only because he doesn’t need to indulge himself in his anger any more than he already has–his thigh is starting to burn from holding his leg up for so long–and instead sits up with his legs splayed in front of him, tugging his kneepads down to his ankles.
Beside him, a freshman right side whose name Tory can’t quite remember turns to give him an unenthused smile and says, “Welcome to the cheering squad.”
There are at least two sports equipment stores within walking distance of campus. Tory has a light class load tomorrow; he can run out to get a pair of ankle braces before he settles in to do any real studying.
“Thanks,” he says, and he thinks: just you fucking wait, Jaime Laurent.
It turns out that Jaime Laurent is not just fucking waiting. In fact, he seems to be doing something that may turn out to be the exact opposite, because Tory gets a text from him at 2:30 the very next day that only says: where are you?
Tory’s surprised Jaime ends his sentences with anything other than periods. He’s also a little surprised he uses his phone at all, somehow. just got out of class. near the quad. why?
what are you doing right now? is the response, and Tory rolls his eyes. It figures Jaime’d be the type to answer a question with a question–and an evasive one at that.
i literally just got out of class so nothing. and then, after a moment: why??
what are you wearing?
“What the fuck,” Tory says aloud to no one in particular, stopping to stare at his phone. The dots that would mean Jaime were attempting to explain himself don’t show up, even after Tory spends a solid minute begging them to, which means that–
Tory isn’t quite sure what that means, actually. Is Jaime sexting him in some poor attempt to apologize for being an ass yesterday? Because if he is–well. Tory also isn’t quite sure if that would work. Jaime is attractive in that he’s hot but he’s kind of a jerk sort of way, sure, but he’s also kind of a jerk, and Tory can’t say he’s into that.
He also can’t say he isn’t into that, now that he thinks about it. Huh.
Better safe than sorry, though, he reasons, and texts back, shorts and a shirt. are you going to tell me why now
“Oh my God,” Tory mutters. He’s contemplating telling Jaime there’s a thing or two he could learn about the rules of conversation, but instead he says, running shoes, types out, if you’re flirting you’re doing a terrible job of it, erases it, and says answer the question, laurent.
meet me at the gym in ten, Jaime texts. And then, right afterwards, he adds, that’s your answer.
The building Tory had just come out of is on a bit of a hill; from here he can see the campus gym rising bleak and stony behind the football practice field. It figures a place like that would be one of Jaime’s haunts.
He sighs, sends back a thumbs-up emoji, shoves his phone into his backpack–out of sight, out of mind, right?–and sets off for the gym.
It only takes Tory eight minutes to get there, but Jaime must’ve been there already, because he’s waiting just past the front desk when Tory swipes in. He isn’t breathing hard, but the front of his t-shirt is dark with sweat and his cheeks and ears are pink with exertion. Not a bad look, Tory thinks–and immediately shoves that renegade thought down into the depths of his subconscious where it belongs. Jaime’s pseudo-sexting must’ve primed him for weird thoughts, he figures, and he greets Jaime with a scowl for it.
Jaime doesn’t seem fazed by it. He just looks Tory over from head to toe, nods, and says, “C’mon. You need to warm up quick, I’ve got class in an hour.”
Tory lifts an eyebrow. “You’re making me work out.”
The look Jaime gives him is so flat a pen could roll off of it. “You’ll be less likely to hurt yourself if you’re in shape,” he says, matter-of-fact. “I–we can’t afford you getting hurt before the tournament. Did you get the braces yet?”
“No,” Tory says, frowning. “I was going to, but…”
“But you, and </i>this,</i>” Tory finishes, exasperated, and waves his hand at their general surroundings. “I was going to go after class.”
“Oh.” Jaime considers that for a moment, and then shrugs. “You can go after we’re done.”
He turns and heads towards the gym proper, leaving Tory to follow like some sort of dog–which Tory does, but only after muttering “why, thank you, how gracious of you” under his breath, just loud enough that Jaime turns around once to ask him what he’d said.
Tory drops his bag by the track when Jaime leads him there. Jaime oh-so-kindly waits for him to finish dry stretching, allowing him a few moments to bounce in place to get the blood flowing before he says, “All right, take a lap.”
Tory stops. “You want me to take a lap.”
“Did you not hear me?”
“No, no, I heard you.” Tory cocks his hip and gives Jaime a look that he sincerely hopes reads as you’ve gotta be kidding me. “You’re running it with me, right?”
Jaime raises an eyebrow. “I’ve already warmed up.”
That is absolutely not going to fly. “You did not drag me out here to watch me work out,” Tory tells him. Jaime’s other eyebrow goes up as if to say oh, really?, and Tory lifts his chin. “I don’t know how you thought this was gonna work, but you’re doing this shit with me. That’s how it’s going to happen.”
Jaime looks caught between displeasure and amusement, and Tory realizes belatedly that he may have overstepped the boundaries of politeness just a little. It’s much too late to take that back, though, so he gestures at the track and says, “So are you coming, or am I leaving?”
Another silent moment of deliberation passes–and then Jaime’s snorting, shaking his head, and saying, “Fine,” as he steps onto the track.
Tory can’t pretend he isn’t relieved, but he can hide it. “Good,” he says, smiling like he hadn’t just been slightly worried, and breaks into a jog.
He’s proud of having gotten Jaime to participate instead of spectating, but he’d forgotten to factor in one important detail of working out with Jaime: size. Or, more specifically, his legs, which–apart from being admittedly very well-muscled–are probably nearly twice the length of Tory’s. Tory’s always game for a good challenge, but keeping up with Jaime Laurent seems less challenging and more daunting.
Once he manages to match his pace to Jaime’s, Tory says, “Thought you said we were jogging.”
Jaime looks down at him and says, “We are jogging.”
Oblivious, as usual. Tory isn’t surprised. “You’re jogging. I’m about to break into a sprint. Slow down.”
Jaime makes a very put-upon noise, but slows his pace enough that Tory doesn’t have to bust his ass to keep up. They take two laps around the track, and then Jaime directs Tory off to the side to stretch.
“So,” Tory says, balancing on one leg as he kicks his foot up behind him to stretch his quads, “do you lurk around here for fun? Or do you actually work out as much as you look like you do?”
Jaime could probably hold an entire conversation with just eyebrows alone. Right now, his expression is saying what’s that supposed to mean? but soon enough it turns to I don’t want to know, and then he says aloud, “I lift three times a week. I don’t know what I look like, though.”
“Looks about right, yeah,” Tory says, eyeing the swell of muscle in Jaime’s shoulders. Luckily for him, Jaime doesn’t notice; he’s already heading toward a squat rack that looks unoccupied. He hefts a forty-five pound weight–looks at Tory’s legs for just long enough for Tory to begin to feel scrutinized–and then puts it down again, opting for the twenty-five instead. Tory hasn’t lifted in years, so Jaime was right to pick a lighter weight, but he feels offended anyway.
“Okay,” Tory says, crossing his arms and making sure his tone carries the full weight of his irritation, “why even bring me out here if I’m not up to your perfectly in-shape standards?”
“I wouldn’t have needed to bring you out here if you hadn’t rolled your damn ankle at practice,” Jaime tells him, flat and accusatory.
“Oh, right.” Tory rolls his eyes so hard he thinks he might strain a muscle. “I don’t even have a spot on the lineup yet. I’m still playing for the B team at practice–why do you care so much if I get hurt?”
“How do you expect to play if you sprain your ankle?”
You’re derailing, Tory wants to say, but instead regroups and says, “I don’t, which is why I’m going to buy the ankle braces you told me to get. So answer the damn question, Laurent. Why do you care?”
Jaime’s mouth goes tight, and he turns away, busying himself with rearranging the weights on the bar. The muscles in his back shift smoothly under his shirt, straining against the material of it as he bends to pick up a twenty-five and slots it into place on the bar. Tory lets himself look, but snaps his eyes back upwards when Jaime faces him again, makes a rough noise in his throat, and says, “You won’t have a spot on the lineup if you get hurt, either.”
“Yeah?” Tory says, though it sounds more like and?
Jaime’s gaze ricochets away from Tory’s. It bounces off the floor, the ceiling, and any number of different objects before settling on a point somewhere over Tory’s shoulder, pointed but lacking the conviction Tory hadn’t realized was normally so present in his eyes. After a moment of gathering himself, Jaime grits out, “You could, if you keep it up. The guys think you’re a good fit. Ash likes you, too.”
He’d known the team liked him, but to hear it from Jaime is something else entirely. Pride and burgeoning satisfaction make his chest swell, and he smiles so hard it makes his cheeks hurt; Jaime sneaks a glance at him and promptly looks away, pursing his lips.
“Don’t look so smug,” he says. “You’ve still got four weeks to prove them wrong.”
Them, he’d said–but that’s not what Tory’s interested in.
He bites back his smile and shifts to his left, putting himself in Jaime’s field of vision. Jaime starts, but doesn’t look away again; this time he lets Tory catch his eye, lets him draw in his attention and hold it steady. Tory can’t help the smile that spreads across his lips again–this time softer, more private–as he says, “What about you?”
Jaime blinks. “What about me?”
“You said the guys think I’m a good fit, but–” Tory tilts his head to the side a little, curious, and puts on his most clever smile “–what about you?”
“I,” Jaime starts, wide-eyed, and then cuts himself off immediately, like he’d started to answer purely out of reflex and now finds himself lost for words. His mouth tightens, and he takes a short breath, says, “Uh,” stops again, and unfolds his arms to curl one hand over his mouth. Tory does his best not to look like a smug little shit, but that’s difficult when Jaime is so clearly flustered.
“I can wait,” Tory says, because he can’t help himself, and leans against the rack as casually as possible.
Apparently that’s all the chance Jaime needed, though, because he jabs a finger across the gym and says, scowling, “Take a lap.”
A laugh jumps free of Tory’s throat. Jaime refuses to look at him anymore, even when Tory shifts to the side again to try and catch his eye, grinning wide. “Are you serious? Seriously?”
“Yes,” Jaime says, sounding both vehement and, beneath that, relieved. “Go, take a lap, hurry up.”
Tory takes a step backwards, shaking his head. He’ll acquiesce this time, but only because Jaime looks like he needs a minute or two to get his tongue untied. “Fine–but one of these days you’re gonna answer my questions for real, I hope you know that.”
“Get moving unless you want to make it two.”
Tory satisfies the impulse to stick his tongue out with a jaunty, dismissive wave thrown over his shoulder and jogs over to the track. He allows himself a glance back, though, purely for his own amusement, and has to tamp down a smile when he sees Jaime standing in front of the rack with his hands in his hair, face turned upwards, rather like he’s asking some higher deity what, exactly, he had done in a past life to deserve being saddled with someone as difficult as Tory. The idea of it is amusing, and not at all ungratifying; Tory likes to think he’s worth the stress he sometimes induces.
His heart is already beating a tick too fast as he hits the track; he feels like he’s catching the tail end of a wave of adrenaline whose peak has already surged past him, its caps all happiness and surging gratification. Alone, with only the uneven stutter of his own breathing and the footsteps he keeps even to try and steady himself for company, Tory lets himself be privately delighted: he fits in with the team, he could join the starting lineup, he isn’t fucking up–thank God–and Jaime–
Jaime, with his much-begrudged approval and his semi-permanent frown, his judgment and his critical stare. There’s nothing Tory loves more than proving people wrong, than rising to a good challenge–but something about getting Jaime to praise him is more satisfying than it should be. Maybe it’s just because Jaime’s so goddamn contrary, or because his reactions are uniquely amusing; maybe it’s because the concession of one of Jaime’s smiles, even the smallest–especially the smallest, because those are the ones it’s hardest to get Jaime to give up–feels like a prize hard-won.
Tory doesn’t realize he’s slowed down until he comes to a stop halfway around the track. His heart is doing something fluttery and odd that has less to do with exertion and more to do with Jaime and his stubbornness and his smiles.
Huh. That’s interesting, Tory thinks, and throws himself back into running.
In the end, he sprints two laps and totters back to Jaime on shaky legs, heaving deep breaths and forcing a smile that feels so fake he’s sure Jaime will notice. If Jaime does, he doesn’t say anything, though; he merely lifts a dark eyebrow and says, “I didn’t actually say you had to run two.”
Tory makes a face, waves his hands, and immediately feels stupid for it. “What are you gonna do, make me run more laps for running more laps?”
He’s blustering now, and that Jaime does notice; Tory can tell, because he does that thing he does when he’s trying to think of how to word something properly–lips pursed, brows furrowed, nose scrunched up like tact is something disdainful–and then opens his mouth, probably to say something Tory isn’t prepared to hear.
“No, you’re not,” Tory blurts out, heading him off. He gestures broadly to the rack and says, “C’mon, don’t you have class in half an hour now or something? Let’s get to work.”
Jaime fixes him with a look–a steady one, much more knowing than anything Tory would ever expect from him–but after a long, silent moment, he shrugs and says, “Fine. It’ll have to be quick, so we’ll do a short workout today and a full one on Thursday.”
“Thursday?” When Jaime nods, Tory makes a disbelieving sound. “What, is this gonna be a thing now? Do you not see enough of me at practice?”
Jaime snorts, and Tory briefly regrets feeling anything at all for someone for whom even answering a simple question is sometimes damn near impossible. “Get on the rack. Give me five sets of three, and stop if your ankle hurts at all.”
The set of Jaime’s mouth–amused but firm–tells Tory that’s all the more headway he’s going to make today. He shakes his head and steps into the rack, ducking under the bar to rest it on his shoulders. “One day,” he tells Jaime’s reflection, grinning, and feels an unanticipated flutter in his chest when Jaime cracks a smile, too.
“One day, yeah,” he says, and gestures at the rack. “C’mon, let’s go. You’re gonna make me late for class.”
“Asshole,” Tory mumbles, but he catches Jaime shaking his head, still smiling as he turns away, and he thinks that might not be so true after all.
At Wednesday practice, with just three weeks to go until the ranking tournament, Jaime pulls Tory out of a drill to talk.
Tory yanks the collar of his shirt up over his face to wipe his sweat away before blinking up at Jaime. He’s been playing well lately, well enough to make it obvious he’s A team material, so he doesn’t think Jaime’s going to say anything bad; but his stomach flips a little anyway, just because being singled out has historically not turned out well for him. “What’s up?”
“What’s your jersey number?”
Tory blinks. “Uh. I don’t have one? We never talked about jerseys.”
Jaime shakes his head. “No, I mean what jersey number do you want? The highest number we have is like, 37, so be reasonable about it.”
“Wait, are you serious?” Practicality tells him not to get his hopes up, that Jaime could be asking for any number of reasons, but his overzealous heart thuds into his throat nonetheless. “Am I gonna play?”
“I don’t know about that,” Jaime says, with a wry twist to his mouth that Tory thinks looks almost teasing, “but I’m gonna give you a jersey just in case.”
Tory resists the urge to call Jaime an asshole, but only because it’ll carry no weight if he says it while smiling. “The hell, man. Am I playing or not?”
Though his mouth is still set in an obstinate line, Jaime’s eyes are bright; he makes a keep going motion at Ash and then nods towards the end of the court, and Tory follows him there with more goodwill than he’s ever exhibited in response to any order. Once they’re a good distance from the court, Jaime ducks his head a little and says, “They wanted me to tell you myself. I–we, the guys and I–want you on the A team.”
Tory rocks up onto the balls of his feet, grinning. “Seriously?”
“That is,” Jaime continues, now looking over Tory’s head like he’s deep in thought, “if you want to move up. You seem to be doing pretty well on the B team–”
He’s definitely teasing now. Tory’s nerves, already piqued, hum a little with the realization of it. “Shut up. You’re gonna ruin it.”
“I’d hate to do that,” Jaime says, in a tone that implies just the opposite.
Tory snorts. “Sure you would. Got anything you wanna say before you ruin it like I’m pretty sure you’re about to do?”
Jaime huffs out a little laugh that could easily be mistaken for an uneven breath. He ducks his head a little more, as if to say something private, and confesses, “The guys told me I should congratulate you.”
“That’s usually what you do in this kind of situation.”
“I know.” Jaime looks skyward for a moment, and then gives Tory the full benefit of his attention.
It feels a little like a blow to the head to have Jaime look at him like that: dark lashes lowered, strong jaw relaxed, mouth curving into the beginnings of a smile forged purely for Tory’s sake. Experienced this close, Jaime’s smile is a potent and powerful thing; Tory has to shake his gaze away from it, pasting on an expression that he hopes looks more excited than deer-in-the-headlights.
Jaime’s eyes go a little warm–it just figures he’d pick up on that, Tory thinks, and curses both Jaime and his own luck–and he says, “That’s not what I was going to say, though.”
“Oh?” Tory’s voice comes out differently from what he’d intended: softer, lower, infinitely more embarrassing. “What were you going to say?”
“Congratulations,” Jaime says. Tory blinks, confused, and Jaime grins. “But you can do better. This just means you have just over three weeks to show me why I should give you a red jersey instead of a black one.”
Tory’s breath catches in his throat. This is what he’s been working towards since the very first practice weeks ago, what he’d spent hours daydreaming about–this is it.
“You’re gonna be begging to give me that jersey by the time the tournament comes around,” Tory says, unable to filter out the breathless earnestness that seeps into his voice over the bravado. He lifts his chin and gives Jaime his smile in full. “Bet on it.”
There’s a brief pause, during which Jaime’s eyes drop to Tory’s mouth and Tory thinks, among other things, interesting–and then Jaime says, sincere, “I’m looking forward to it.”
Testing the waters with Jaime Laurent is not something Tory would have ever expected to be fun. If you’d asked him in September right after they’d first met, he wouldn’t have even said he thought it possible, considering that, more often than not, Jaime exhibits all the tact of a brick thrown through a window.
But here Tory is, on a Saturday morning in mid-October: in the middle of an aisle on the third floor of the campus library, staring at the back of Jaime’s head and wondering if it’s midterms week stress that’s filling him with the urge to drape himself over Jaime’s shoulders just to see how he’d react.
It’s mostly the stress, Tory decides, but also because Jaime’s shoulders are broad and sturdy and very much aesthetically pleasing, even when Jaime’s slouching over the table. Since he can’t actually flop on Jaime like that, though, he settles for the next best thing, and taps Jaime on the shoulder as he rounds the table.
“Hey,” Tory says. “You by yourself?”
It takes a moment for Jaime to register that Tory is there, and then another moment to register that he’d said something–and then, apparently, another moment to register that that something had been a question. After a solid five seconds of blinking, Jaime nods and says, “Uh–hey. Yeah, I am.”
“Cool,” Tory says, and drops into the seat on the other side of the table. When Jaime raises an eyebrow, he unzips his backpack, shakes his laptop free, and says, “You looked like you could use the company.”
Jaime watches Tory set his laptop down with no small amount of poorly disguised surprise. “You study?”
Tory makes a face at him. “What? Of course I study. I go to school here. What kind of question is that?”
Jaime pauses for a second, considering, and then shrugs. “I didn’t know you did anything besides volleyball,” he says, and Tory would think it a terrible excuse if he didn’t feel the same way about Jaime.
“I could say the same for you,” he tells him, and peers over the table to look at the book Jaime’s got open in front of him. “Never thought I’d see you read anything that wasn’t a rule handbook. What’s that?”
Jaime flips his book shut and shows Tory the cover. Tory had opted to take French in high school, but the words are familiar enough that he can guess the title: House of the Spirits. “Spanish lit,” Jaime says, shrugging. “I’ve got a paper due in like, five days, but I haven’t actually started it yet. Busy working on practice plans and lineups.”
“Not surprised,” Tory says. “You know we still have like three weeks to go, right? Is it really gonna take you that long to figure out the lineup?”
“I just…” Jaime blows out a frustrated breath, swears, rubs at his temples. “Gotta figure out how to put everyone together. We’re a good team; if we fuck up because I can’t figure out how to work team chemistry, that’s on me, y’know?”
Tory levels Jaime with a long look over the table. He looks tired, stressed, run thin; Tory wonders how much of the volleyball club runs purely because of Jaime’s effort. Probably too much, knowing Jaime. He’s a great captain and an excellent player, but he seems like the type who’d put Atlas to shame in terms of weight on the shoulders if he could.
“You stress too much,” Tory decides after a moment. There’s a smudge on the trackpad of his laptop; he squints at it and tries to rub it off with his thumb. “Just let us play against the B team at practice and see how we do. If it works it works, and if it doesn’t–” he shrugs, licks his thumb, scrubs a little harder “–we’ll make it work. We’re too good not to. Have a little faith.”
He doesn’t get a response, but that probably just means Jaime’s thinking. Tory doesn’t think much of it; he gets rid of the smudge and, satisfied, looks up–and then does a double-take, because Jaime is looking at him. Really looking at him. His eyes are focused beneath the slight furrow of his brow, and his mouth his doing something complicated that makes his expression kind of hard for Tory to place. If he leans back in his chair it looks almost like–like disbelief, maybe, or even something close to wonder, but that’s only if he squints.
He can’t tell if it’s a good or bad reaction, so he forges ahead. “Don’t worry. If you can’t come up with a lineup for real, I’ll help you out. I’ve been watching film in my spare time, so I can probably put together something badass.” For good measure, Tory cocks his head, grins, and says, “I got your back.”
Jaime blinks. His eyes go wide. His head tilts to the side.
What the fuck, Tory thinks. Aloud, he says, “Hey, Laurent. You alive in there?”
Jaime doesn’t say anything. Tory is starting to worry that this might be one of those weird scifi type situations, where Jaime’s been programmed with a keyword that would shut him down whenever he heard it. Now that he thinks about it, though, it does make a little bit of sense for Jaime to be some sort of volleyball robot; it’s just that his goal is a good seed at nationals instead of world domination or something.
Tory’s been watching too many scifi movies, and midterms stress isn’t helping; he shakes his head clear and, conscious of the fact that they probably look weird as hell to the passing observer, reaches across the table to wiggle his fingers in front of Jaime’s face. “Seriously, dude–”
It happens so fast Tory doesn’t have time to react: one second Jaime is so stock-still Tory’s beginning to think he might’ve turned into a statue, and the next he’s startling out of it, grabbing Tory’s hand, and pressing it down into the table, thick dark eyelashes fluttering like blinking is going out of style.
Jaime looks surprised enough for both of them, so Tory goes the ‘stunned into calmness’ route; he meets Jaime’s wide-eyed stare for a moment and then moves on, downward, following the tense lines of Jaime’s arm to where his hand wraps around Tory’s wrist. Seeing it only makes him more aware of the reality of Jaime’s touch: the weight of his hand, the warmth of it, the way his thumb fits into the center of Tory’s palm. His hand is so much bigger, too, all smooth skin and broad knuckles and long fingers wrapped around Tory’s own, his index brushing the ridge of bone in Tory’s wrist.
Here comes that feeling again: the fluttery one, that soft-edged and directionlessly, ambitiously wanting one, the one that makes Tory want to call Jaime an asshole just to get him to do anything besides looking at him like that because it makes Tory feel like doing something stupid. It swells up in his chest, climbs up into his throat, perches on the tip of his tongue, begs to be given room to breathe. Why is it, Tory wonders, briefly and vaguely, that the most difficult person he knows makes him feel the most difficult things?
“Hey,” Tory says again once his tongue is fully his own again, voice low and careful. He uncurls his hand–and, when Jaime doesn’t pull away, he brushes his knuckles against the inside of Jaime’s wrist. “You okay?”
Jaime shakes his head, nods, takes a deep breath that seems to reach someplace inside him that badly needed it. After a moment, he blows it out and says, “Yeah, I….yeah.”
“Okay,” Tory says.
He’d sounded cautious–because he’d felt cautious, like a butterfly had alighted on his fingertip or a like wary stray cat had finally come close to be petted–and Jaime must’ve heard it; a little self-deprecatingly, he says, “That was weird, wasn’t it. God.” He squeezes his eyes shut, shakes his head again, pastes on a placeholder smile. “Shit.”
“Yeah,” Tory agrees, but he’s laughing, because this–him, Jaime, this thing, this whole interaction–is ridiculous. “Yeah, glad you noticed.”
Jaime scratches at the shaved side of his head with his free hand. His ears are red; Tory finds that oddly endearing. “I, uh. Sorry. I guess I got…distracted.”
“That’s what you’re gonna call it?” Tory asks, skeptical. Jaime gives him the flat look Tory knows means his questions will go unanswered, and Tory rolls his eyes. “Okay, fine. We can go with that. ‘Distracted’.”
“Take it or leave it,” Jaime tells him.
Tory’s already considering how to get him to recreate that odd little reaction again. He’ll settle for distracted for now. “I’ll take it,” he says, and–partially because he’s feeling risky in the wake of that fluttering daring feeling, partially because he can’t leave well enough alone–angles his hand so he can trace the faint prominence of one of the veins on the underside of Jaime’s wrist with the tip of his forefinger.
It’s like Jaime had forgotten he still had Tory’s hand caught in his; Tory can feel the flex in his wrist when his fingers tighten, watches the way Jaime’s eyes dart from the tangle of their fingers to Tory’s deliberately innocent smile and then back again.
“‘Distracted’,” Tory repeats. He thinks of that look on Jaime’s face, of the pressure of Jaime’s finger on the bone of his wrist, of the way he looks at Jaime’s mouth and the way Jaime had looked at his mouth when he’d congratulated him on earning a jersey, and wonders how much of that falls under the heading of distraction.
In a motion so quick as to be barely noticeable, Jaime squeezes Tory’s hand–once, brief, a fleeting pressure that makes Tory’s heart skip a beat nonetheless–and then pulls away, calloused fingers skimming the length of Tory’s own with awkward but careful purposefulness. “That’s what I said,” Jaime says, and cracks his book open again. “Now either study or work on a lineup. I have work to do.”
His tone is gruff, but nowhere close to stern; Tory grins, murmurs, “Yes, captain,” and pretends he doesn’t see it when Jaime smiles into his book.
Things change a little, after that, like that odd, laid-bare moment had strengthened something between them. They text now–or rather Tory sends Jaime links to videos of ridiculous plays from FIVB world league games and Jaime sends pictures of lineups covered in question marks and scribbles and the occasional frowny face. On more than one occasion, Jaime’s called at 6AM, when he knows Tory’s asleep, and left voicemails about the weirdest things–facts from National Geographic, strange trivia questions, whether or not it would be sensible to move to Europe to play pro ball. Tory listens to each of them and texts him responses in the morning, because they all feel like little pieces to the puzzle that makes up Jaime Laurent, and he’s finding himself more and more invested in putting those pieces together.
Jaime’s different at practice, too, but that change isn’t as pleasant as the rest. Tory doesn’t know if it’s the looming tournament date or whatever’s going on between them, but Jaime’s giving everyone something close to whiplash; he alternates between praise and nitpicking and changes practice plans at least twice per practice, which is making the team at large very flexible but also very confused. Tory has been labelled a distraction at least three times–including once for pulling his shirt up over his face to wipe away sweat, which, what the hell–and even Ash, who usually escapes Jaime’s wrath, has been on the receiving end of a pointed comment or two.
Things come to a head with a week left to go before the ranking tournament.
Ash scrubs at his face with the hem of his shirt, sucks in a breath, and crosses the court to stand next to Jaime. “C’mon, J. We just have to watch hands. I don’t think changing the lineup again is going to help.”
“We’re not picking up tips,” Jaime snaps. He gestures at the empty space in the center of the court just behind the ten foot line. “And now we’re getting burned on deep balls because we can’t commit. What the hell are we supposed to do about that?”
Ash makes a frustrated noise and pulls the collar of his shirt up to his nose. “I don’t know, but we’ll figure it out–”
“‘I don’t know’ isn’t gonna cut it, Ash. We’ve got a week until the tournament–we can’t not fix this.”
“All right, guys, chill out.” Rocky steps between them, big hands spread wide. “We’ll think of something, J. Just relax for a second.”
Jaime’s jaw goes tense for a moment; then he turns, arms spread, to look at both sides of the court. He raises his voice and calls out, “Ideas, anyone?”
No one responds, probably because Jaime sounds like he might take the head off of anyone who comes up with a less-than-perfect solution. It’s understandable, really; to everyone else, this probably seems like yet another random flareup, like Jaime’s temper has boiled over and now he’s just letting off steam. But to Tory, who’s been getting abstract and weirdly worded questions about lineups and player utility and communication dynamics at one and two in the morning for the past week and a half, this has been a long time coming. He’s actually sort of surprised Jaime hasn’t had a freakout sooner.
He’s also a little disappointed in himself for not having come up with at least a quick fix. Most of Tory’s time has been devoted to figuring out how to improve his game as quickly as possible; combine that with figuring out how to stand out while not looking like an overachieving, selfish asshole, and all Tory’s got in mind is some last-ditch play he’d seen in a clip of the Russia-Brazil match in the 2012 Olympics.
After a quiet minute, Jaime swears and says, “If we can’t figure this out, we’re going to run for the rest of practice, I swear–”
“Ash can go in for me instead of Chase,” Jaden interrupts, and backs off the court. “Chase plays better defense than me anyway, so that works, right?”
Obliging, Ash moves to take Jaden’s spot in middle back. The logic makes sense, Tory thinks, but…
As one, the team turns to look at the vacant spot in left back.
“Well, that’s not gonna work,” Jaime says, mouth turned down in a hard frown. “You can’t be everywhere, Ash.”
Hands on his hips, Ash shrugs. “I’ll go wherever you need me.”
That’s not the answer Jaime was looking for, apparently, because he sucks his teeth and says, “I know that, but you can’t–”
Tory thinks of that red jersey, of adrenaline, of the unique and irreplicable thrill of the game.
He takes a deep breath and says, “Ash, can you come here for a second?”
Ash trades a look with Jaime, who shrugs, and then jogs over to meet Tory at the sideline. “What’s up?”
All eyes are on the two of them now. Tory shakes out his legs, bounces in place, and hopes to God he doesn’t embarrass himself.
“Race me to half-court,” Tory says, pointing. “Like, full speed sprint.”
Ash gives him a blank look. “Okay…?”
“Just trust me.”
“Okay,” Ash repeats, sounding a little more sure. He looks over at Jaime, who’s backed out of the way and is now standing by the net, looking supremely skeptical. “J, you wanna count us down?”
“What the hell–sure, why not.” Jaime makes an exasperated gesture, resigning himself to whatever it is Tory has planned. “On three. One, two–”
They take off.
Tory is off the line first. His first three steps are explosive, and that gives him the advantage–but Ash, with his longer stride, is faster overall, and beats Tory to the half-court mark by a second.
Once they slow to a halt, Jaime speaks up, nonplussed. “What am I looking at, exactly?”
Tory jabs a finger in his direction and says, “One more time.”
“One more–Jesus, fine. Go!”
The results are the same: Tory reacts first, but Ash finishes the sprint a few steps ahead of him. Perfect, Tory thinks, and meets Jaime’s irritated stride halfway, in the center of the court.
“You mind telling me what your bright idea is?” Jaime snaps. He’s drawn himself up to full height; though he’s always looked down on Tory in terms of pure physical stature, this time feels personal, and it makes Tory bristle.
Tory puffs himself up too: he straightens up to full height, lifts his chin, and snaps right back. “If you wait a damn second, I’ll tell you.”
The muscles in Jaime’s jaw work like he wants badly to say no, just because he’s already irritated, but he doesn’t; he takes a step back and gestures at the court to give Tory the floor. “Go ahead.”
“Thank you,” Tory says, not without a bit of attitude. Jaime looks skyward, muttering something under his breath, and Tory talks over him. “Look. Ash is faster than me, but I’m quicker off the start. Put me in left back. I’ll cover tips and shots to the middle, and Ash can handle the deep balls. I’ll get everything up to like…fifteen feet.”
Jaime trades a look with Ash, who shrugs and backs up to stand at the endline. “He’s right,” Ash says. “It could work.”
“It will work,” Tory corrects, almost immediately–and then grimaces. “Sorry, dude. But it’ll work. We’ll make it work.”
He knows Jaime by now–probably better than Jaime probably thinks, and definitely better than Tory himself had first thought–and he knows that because beneath the veneer of pissiness Jaime wears like a shield, he can see something else. Frustration, ambition, nerves–Tory can feel it rolling off of Jaime in waves. Part of him wonders when exactly he became a barometer for Hurricane Jaime; part of him is filled with an odd, private sort of satisfaction, because it feels like he’s finally starting to figure Jaime out.
“We’ll make it work,” Tory repeats, softer this time, and reaches out in slow motion to bump his knuckles against Jaime’s chest.
Jaime closes his eyes. He heaves in a breath. He blows it out.
Tory tilts his head. “Whatcha say, Laurent?”
After a moment, Jaime rakes his hand through his hair and fixes Tory with a sharp look. Lowly, he starts, “You are so lucky I–” and then cuts himself off with a grunt and redirects. “All right, everyone back to base. Ash, you’re middle back. Tory…do your thing.”
The grin that bursts to life on Tory’s face is irrepressible; Jaime snorts at him and goes back to his position in right back, calling out directions as he does. “Three before five, let’s go.”
Ash is planted on the endline, hands on his knees, head up and eyes keen. When Tory looks back at him, he grins, claps twice, and calls out, “O-kay, everybody! Heads up on defense.” Then, lower, he says, “Talk to your hitters, Tory.”
Tory nods and settles into a defensive crouch, grinning ear to ear.
This is it.
The finalization of their lineup turns out to be a temporary balm, and Jaime is an absolute nightmare for the rest of the week.
Not just a regular nightmare in the way that Jaime sometimes–mostly–is, which usually just entails him being judgmental and short-tempered and a little rude, but a real nightmare. He’s moody–which Tory knows because not even the scrappiest of plays satisfies him at practice–and he’s pissy–which Tory knows because literally everyone is getting snapped at, even during warmups–and he’s distant, which Tory knows because he’s hardly spoken to Jaime at all outside of practice. The last of those is hard to do; Tory refuses to send any more texts for Jaime to ignore, and Jaime makes himself scarce outside of practice. He’s too tetchy to approach during practice, either, and that means Tory watches the number of days left until the tournament tick down by himself, wondering if and when and how he should try to talk to Jaime, to see if he’s okay.
In the end, though, he doesn’t have to worry about that, because Jaime comes to him.
It’s just past eleven o’clock on the night before the team is scheduled to leave for the ranking tournament, and Tory is in the middle of checking the contents of his volleyball backpack for what feels like the third time when he hears a knock on the door of his dorm room.
He zips his backpack, straightens up, and trades matches confused glances with Yuki, who’s sitting at his desk studying in weak lamplight. “You expecting anyone?”
“Nah. Are you?”
Tory shakes his head and moves to answer the door. Over his shoulder, he says, “Maybe it’s the RA? I don’t think there was anything going on tonight, th–oh.”
“Hi,” says Jaime.
The soft yellow hallway light frames him where he stands, just outside Tory’s doorway, shoulders up near his ears and hands–fists, actually, judging by the way the fabric bulges–shoved into the pockets of last year’s team hoodie. Jaime’s eyes are bright, wild and wide, and he’s chewing at the inside of his cheek like he’s trying to keep himself silent. He looks wound tight as a spring and ready to pop, and Tory feels something in his chest clench at the sight of him.
“Hey,” Tory says, lowering his voice a notch. “Do you want to come in?”
Jaime makes a jerky movement that comes out half nod, half shrug, and Tory backs up to give him space to decide. After a moment of thought, Jaime follows, and Tory tells him to stay put for a minute before crossing the room to where Yuki sits, trying not to watch them.
“I think I need the room,” Tory mutters. “For the night, probably.”
“Oh?” Yuki says. He glances over his shoulder at Jaime, who’s brooding near Tory’s bed, and then back to Tory. “Oh. Is that–?”
“Yeah, that’s Jaime. Do you mind?”
“Oh–uh, no, just let me–” Yuki throws Jaime another look and winces. “Actually, you’re leaving early tomorrow, right? I’ll come back in the morning. Good luck with…that.”
He nods towards the near-tangible stormcloud that is Jaime Laurent, and Tory sighs, because he thinks he’s going to need all the luck he can get. “Thanks, dude. I’ll see you Sunday.”
“Yeah, sure,” Yuki says, and pushes himself out of his chair after grabbing his wallet and room key. “Good luck with that too. Kick ass.”
“Yeah, for sure.”
Tory follows him out, grimacing his way through the awkward moment that happens when Yuki mumbles a ‘hello’ to Jaime and gets just a noncommittal grunt back, and shuts the door quietly behind him. He takes a moment to brace himself–deep breath, eyes closed, head bowed–and then turns back to Jaime.
Rather, he turns back to where Jaime had been, and finds the spot by his bed empty. Jaime is at the other end of the room, fingertips splayed across the wood of Tory’s desk–and now he’s coming back, fingers flexing, head down, practically stomping as he does.
Tory thought people only paced in movies or books or overly dramatized music videos, but it figures Jaime would be that ridiculous. He really does look like he needs to work off some steam, though, so Tory moves out of the way and hops up on his bed to watch.
Jaime isn’t looking anywhere other than the floor, so Tory takes the opportunity to look at him. He eyes the strung-tight bow of his shoulders and wonders what’s on Jaime’s mind that he looks like that, wonders what it means that Jaime came to him for–for this, whatever it is. Maybe Tory was just closest to wherever Jaime had been before he stopped by; maybe he’d meant to tell Tory something and just hasn’t gotten to it yet.
Or maybe Jaime needed something from Tory–needs something, and does still.
When Jaime makes his next circuit of the room, Tory leans forward on his bed, making just enough noise to catch Jaime’s attention. He succeeds: Jaime pauses midstep, thrown off balance, and looks at him.
He keeps walking after that brief moment of hesitation, though, and Tory heaves a sigh. Obstinate as usual. It’s not like Tory doesn’t find it endearing by now, but it will never not be frustrating.
The too-bright screen of Tory’s phone reads 11:33PM when he jabs at the home button; Jaime’s been pacing for eight minutes tops, maybe, but to Tory it feels like it’s been much longer. He’s never been particularly good with waiting; it seems like some weird sort of cosmic irony that Jaime would require so much patience.
Tory can’t wait forever, though, no matter how hard he tries–and even if he could, he can’t help Jaime just by sitting here.
Prickly bastard, Tory thinks, and clears his throat. “Hey, Laurent.”
Tory tries again. “At least quit stomping around. You’re on the seventh floor, remember?”
Again, no answer, though Jaime does go from stomping to what looks rather like an aggressive shuffle. It’s not much, but it’s something, and that means they’re getting somewhere.
This is the last time, Tory tells himself; he’ll try one last time, and then he’ll go to bed, regardless of whether or not Jaime is still pacing.
Tory scoots forward to the edge of his bed, leans forward, and says, “Jaime.”
It works like a kick to the back of the knees: Jaime stutter-steps to a halt and turns to look at Tory, jaw tight. His eyes are narrowed like he’s trying to be angry, like he wants to be angry, but there’s no true fire in them; what Tory sees is aimless, reaching frustration searching for some sort of outlet. He knows that feeling well; he’s felt it often enough. But what works for Tory–picking fights, acting out of spite, generally being a little shit–probably won’t work for Jaime, and Tory knows that. Hopefully Jaime will tell him what he needs in time.
Not on his own time, though. No, he’s going to tell Tory what he needs on Tory’s time, because it’s late and the combination of worry and vague irritation, both Jaime-induced, is doing wonders–not good ones–for Tory’s nerves. So, in the spirit of productivity and going to bed before two in the morning, Tory slides off his bed and puts himself right in Jaime’s path.
Clearly Jaime isn’t done pacing, because he scowls and moves to the right, frowning harder when Tory moves in front of him. He moves the other way, and Tory heads him off again. “I can do this all night,” Tory says. It’s not a lie; it would piss him off to two-step with Jaime all night, but Tory’s just as stubborn as he is, and he will if he has to. “You saw me nail those ladder drills last practice. You know I can.”
This time when Jaime takes a step forward, Tory doesn’t budge.
Tennis shoes make Jaime nearly an inch taller than what he really is, and in his bare feet, weight sat back on one cocked hip and head tilted back to meet Jaime’s eyes, Tory hardly comes up to his shoulder. This close it’s obvious how well-built Jaime is, how broad and how warm; Tory is acutely aware of the rise-and-fall of Jaime’s chest as he breathes, the movement in his throat as he swallows, the way his biceps curl beneath his hoodie as he takes his hands out of his pockets. Jaime is solid, attractive in an overwhelmingly physical way, and desire eats Tory up the way flame would a flimsy slip of paper.
On instinct, on hope, Tory reaches out. “Hey,” he says, soft, and lays his hand against Jaime’s chest. “What’s up?”
Jaime makes a frustrated noise low in his throat, and Tory recognizes it as a cousin to the noise he makes during practice when they can’t finish a drill, when he puts up a trap set, when everything is running less-than-smoothly and Jaime can’t seem to fix it. That’s all the confirmation he needs as to whether or not Jaime came here for a reason; now, Tory thinks, all that’s left is to see if Jaime will tell him why.
“C’mon, big guy.” Tory inches a little closer, lets his toes bump against the toes of Jaime’s sneakers. “Tell me what’s going on.”
“Big guy,” Jaime repeats. It’s the first thing he’s said in what must be half an hour now; his voice is a little raspy, and Tory bites at the inside of his lip in unthinking response. “Your nicknames aren’t so great, you know that?”
Daring, Tory moves his hand to Jaime’s arm and squeezes his biceps. “It suits you,” he says, flashing Jaime a half-smile.
Jaime snorts, shakes his head. “If you say so.”
“I do say so.” Jaime seems receptive, at the very least, so Tory, confidence bolstered and heart high with hope, comes a little closer. “You said one day you’d answer my questions, right? I’m cashing in on that now.”
“You never let anything go, huh,” Jaime muses, a little wry, a little bitter.
Tory shakes his head. “Nope. Now spit it out. What’s your problem?”
Jaime heaves a sigh that makes him seem at once very study and very weary; it has the same feeling to it as the plaintive, tired creaking of an old wood-and-metal bridge. “I…I don’t know. You, I guess.”
Tory’s heart does something complicated that feels both like a jump and a drop. The look on Jaime’s face is damn near inscrutable, and Tory kind of wants to punch him for it, just a little. “Me.”
“Yeah, you.” Jaime sighs again, and the motion of it somehow brings him closer to Tory, like Jaime is fitting himself to the space Tory occupies. “You’re…distracting.”
There’s that word again. Distracting. Tory thinks of the way Jaime had looked at him that day in the library, like he’d been blindsided; he thinks of all the times Jaime’s called him distracting during practice; he thinks of the way Jaime himself is distracting, and how much time he’s spent thinking about him over the past week, and then he thinks he gets it.
“I don’t know if I should apologize or not,” Tory confesses.
“It’s a good thing, I think,” Jaime says. He’s looking at Tory like he’s a hairsbreadth away from unraveling a revelation, brows knitted and eyes fierce, and Tory stills under the weight of it. “Maybe. I don’t know. I don’t know if I came here for a distraction, or….”
Tory feels like a moon caught in Jaime’s orbit. He doesn’t move, doesn’t blink; he only breathes, “Or?”
Jaime’s gaze flickers from Tory’s eyes to his mouth and rests there, heavy and thoughtless, before trailing back up. After a moment, he closes his own eyes and says, “Focus.”
This, Tory thinks, must be the way Christmas trees feel when their long twisting strands of lights are plugged in for the first time: bright, sparkling, connected, full to the brim of the feeling of finally.
“Okay,” Tory says, because between that feeling and the dramatics and the way Jaime’s looking at him, he thinks he might understand. But because he can never let well enough alone, because he likes his victories in full, because he’s Tory, he presses: “What does that mean?”
The look Jaime gives him is practically indulgent as far as Jaime goes; it’s half fondness, half why are you the way you are, and wholly Tory-approved. “I don’t know exactly,” Jaime tells him, and leans down close enough that Tory could lean up to meet him if he so desired. It’s a calculated move, and Tory gives him credit for it; if he wants something to happen, he’ll have to make it happen. “Do we have to talk about it?”
“We should,” Tory says, and pushes himself up on the balls of his feet, bracing himself with his fingers hooked in the collar of Jaime’s hoodie. “Only ’cause I know you don’t want to.”
Jaime breathes out a laugh as he lifts slow, careful hands to settle on Tory’s waist. Knowing what’s coming doesn’t make this any less thrilling; Tory sucks in a breath and arches toward him, unable to help himself. “Let me guess: you want me to answer questions.”
“You say that like it’s unreasonable,” Tory says, laughing a little. “I’m not a mind reader, Laurent. You gotta talk to me.”
Jaime gives Tory a dry look that says Tory’s sarcasm is wasted on him. “I’ve always liked ‘show’ better than ‘tell’.”
“Difficult since you were in fucking kindergarten, who would’ve guessed–”
“Okay, okay, Jesus.” Tory, unable to resist the unique pleasure of getting on Jaime’s nerves, swallows a laugh; and then, quick as a flash, he bounces up on his toes so his nose brushes against Jaime’s. He knows what to say, what to do, when to close his eyes–but he wants this last part to be all Jaime.
“So show me,” Tory murmurs, and lets his eyes slip shut.
The moment stretches thin, and wrapped up in it is a wealth of sensation: the miniscule tightening of Jaime’s hands on Tory’s waist, the sharp breath Jaime takes to steady himself, the creeping warmth of Jaime’s body heat as he presses closer.
Jaime kisses him then, and Tory thinks: finally.
His mouth is soft–much softer than Tory would have ever expected from someone who spends most of his time frowning–and he smells like sweat and cinnamon and clinging remnants of night air, and he kisses with all the careful, aching precision Tory has never heard him put into words. So slow as to be infuriating, but perfect in its execution, and completely worth the wait.
Just like Jaime, Tory thinks, and kisses him back.
It’s not a particularly long kiss–just long enough to make a statement, really–and when they part Jaime pulls back to put a breath of space between them. Eyes low and intent, lips parted, Jaime starts, “Is that–”
“Jaime,” Tory interrupts, and puts his hands on Jaime’s face, because why is Jaime talking when he could–and should, rightly–be kissing him instead? “You won’t hear me say this often, so listen carefully, all right?”
Jaime gives him a look. “What?”
“Shut the hell up,” Tory tells him, and leans up to kiss him again.
They’re both smiling when their mouths meet, so for a moment it’s all slick teeth too soon and the impending urge to laugh–but then Jaime quits smiling long enough to catch Tory’s bottom lip between his, and Tory’s amusement is swept away by want crashing through him like a flash flood. Tory lets go of Jaime’s face in favor of wrapping his arms around his neck, both to balance himself and to keep Jaime in place, and Jaime slides his hands down to Tory’s hips, tugs him closer, kisses him again–more demanding, this time, open-mouthed and wanting, like he’d been waiting to do this for some time and felt like he should prove a point with it. Tory wonders how long Jaime’s thought about this, if he’d considered whether kissing would be a better form of communication than actually answering any of Tory’s questions, if this is what he’d thought about every time he looked at Tory’s mouth–
Then Jaime presses his tongue against Tory’s, and Tory stops thinking completely.
Kissing Jaime, it turns out, is no small affair. Each of Tory’s senses is attuned to Jaime, to the taste and feel and sound of him, and it feels a little like all processes not devoted to keeping Tory alive and kissing Jaime have been shut down so Tory can focus on the feeling of Jaime’s mouth against his. Balance seems to be one of them; in an attempt to get somehow closer, Tory moves forward, forgetting he and Jaime were already basically stepping on each other’s feet, and then actually steps on Jaime’s foot. He wobbles a little, breaking away to curse–but Jaime drops his grip to Tory’s hips, anchors him upright in an impressive display of both strength and reaction time, and kisses Tory again before he can take his next breath.
The focus with which Jaime kisses him is overwhelming in the best way. It’s thrilling to be the center of Jaime’s attention, and the realization that he is makes Tory groan, low and breathy. The sound of that, in turn, makes Jaime bite out a curse, bite Tory’s bottom lip, and straighten up, pulling Tory against him, breathing hard enough that Tory can feel the rise and fall of his chest, can hear the flutter-beat of Jaime’s heart under his ear.
Pressed this close and with both of them in sweatpants, it’s painfully obvious that Jaime is already hard; he presses against Tory’s belly, and Tory goes wholly breathless with wanting him, mouth dry and nerves all firing in sync with his heavy, demanding pulse. That must’ve been why Jaime stopped, Tory figures–but, just to be sure, he pats Jaime’s side and asks, “You good?”
Jaime laughs, ragged and uneven. “Yeah,” he says. His voice is husky, and that makes everything worse, because–well, fuck, Tory’s hard too, it’s not like he’s immune to that kind of thing. “Just…shit, it’s late, and I don’t want to–”
He cuts himself off with an indistinct noise that Tory interprets as frustration, though this time more sexual than general. “Move too fast,” Tory supplies.
Jaime grunts in the affirmative. “Yeah, that. Which means I should probably go.”
Tory rolls his eyes and pulls away, levelling Jaime with a look that he means to be flat but probably doesn’t even come close. He knows Jaime doesn’t like to talk, and he can’t do much about that–but he can keep him from running away. “Just stay here,” Tory says, and tilts his head toward his bed. “I don’t take up too much space, and you can make sure I get up on time since you kept me up all night.”
There’s no denying that he wants Jaime–and badly–and that’s all the more reason for Tory to hop up into his bed still dressed in sweats and a t-shirt instead of stripping down. Tory has never been good with delayed gratification, has never had the patience–but they have to get up in roughly five hours to get ready to leave for the tournament, and that’s enough motivation to keep his pants on for now.
Jaime seems to be on the same wavelength, because he watches Tory settle himself beneath the covers with no small amount of regret before shaking himself out of it, toeing off his shoes, and following. He rolls over onto his side, faces Tory, presses his sock feet against Tory’s bare ones, and says, “It hasn’t been all night.”
Of course that’s what he’d get stuck on. Tory rolls his eyes and says, “I know that, asshole. It’s a figure of speech.”
“Your nicknames really are shitty,” Jaime tells him, and leans in for a kiss that he probably means to be quick, but ends up lingering and soft anyway. That’s his fault for fucking it up, Tory figures, so it’s not his own fault for wriggling forward a little to chase after it, kissing Jaime again before tugging at his bottom lip with his teeth.
“You’re shitty,” Tory mutters against Jaime’s chin once he’s managed to convince himself that he does actually need to sleep sometime before tomorrow morning. “Who keeps someone else up half the night before a tournament?”
He feels Jaime sigh more than he hears it. Jaime’s chest moves again as he takes a breath–lets it go, takes another one–and then, into Tory’s hair, he says, “We’ll make it work.”
He doesn’t add right? at the end, but Tory hears it nonetheless. This must be what drove Jaime to Tory’s dorm in the middle of the night, Tory realizes. This must be what he needs.
“We’ll make it work,” Tory says, all breezy confidence, because they’ve worked too hard for things not to work. Him, Jaime, the team; they’ll make it work. Tory’s sure of it.
Jaime laughs and wraps his arm around Tory’s waist. “It always sounds better when you say it,” he confesses. “Cooler, kind of.”
If Tory’s honest, that’s probably one of the most satisfying things he’s ever heard in his life. “I hope you know I’m never gonna let you forget you said–fuck–” he cuts himself off in a yawn, shakes his head, continues “–never gonna let you forget you said that. But. Tomorrow. I’ll make fun of you for it tomorrow.”
“Fair enough,” Jaime rumbles.
“So fuckin’ weird,” Tory murmurs, and falls asleep more content than he has been in weeks.
Things register slowly: warmth at Tory’s back, even breath on his ear, the realization that he’s crammed into the corner of his own bed. Confused and tired enough not to care that his nose is pressed into the wall, Tory burrows back into his blankets and attempts to go back to sleep.
Attempt is the key word; he’s foiled by a hand curling over his hip, thumb just barely beneath the hem of his shirt, and a murmur in his ear. “Tory. Get up.”
That’s enough to make Tory cross the line into wakefulness; he sucks in a sharp breath and pitches himself over onto his other side, banging his knees into Jaime’s in the process.
“Ow,” says Jaime, who’s propped up on one elbow, both unfairly handsome and unreasonably awake for whatever hour of the morning this may be. Fucking figures. “Good morning. You need to get ready to go.”
“What,” Tory says, bleary, too focused on the heat of Jaime’s hand on his hip and the shadow of stubble on Jaime’s jaw to focus properly, “what, what. Fuck. Go where?”
Jaime cracks an early-morning smile, raises an eyebrow, says, “Tournament, remember?”
“Oh,” Tory grumbles, and presses his face into Jaime’s chest.
A laugh rumbles up in Jaime’s chest. Tory can feel it against his forehead, and scowls at it. What the hell is so funny at God-only-knows o’clock? All Jaime had said was ‘tournament’, and that’s–
Tournament. Traveling, teammates, volleyball, sweat adrenaline ache thrill–
“Oh, fuck,” Tory breathes.
Somewhere above him, Jaime says, “Yeah.”
Tory’s heart slams into overdrive, and, after some creative wiggling, Tory extricates himself from the tangle of sheets and covers and Jaime and throws himself out of bed. Light hasn’t yet begun to filter through the flimsy blinds of his dorm room, and his phone is somewhere across the room, so he can’t tell what time it is and therefore cannot freak out accordingly. “J, what time is it?”
Jaime, sitting on the edge of Tory’s bed and looking like he’s collected all the calm Tory hasn’t yet managed to find, says, “You’ve got time, don’t worry. We just have to stop by my house on the way to the van.”
Tory nods and slips into the tiny bathroom attached to his room. Jaime fits into that weird intersection of teammate and I’ve made out with you before and plan to do so again, where Tory would still be fine changing in front of Jaime but isn’t sure that wouldn’t end up with at least one of them popping a boner, so he shuts the door behind himself to brush his teeth, wash his face, and piss in relative privacy.
When he’s done, he pauses in front of the mirror–presumably to preen, but also to wonder if he looks like he spent half the night entangled in increasingly intimate positions with Jaime Laurent. The reminder of it is thrilling, and the subsequent uptick in pulse wakes Tory up a little more. He runs a hand through his curls, because that’s the best he can do to make them any neater, gives himself a warmup smile in the mirror, goes to leave the bathroom–and runs nose-first into Jaime, who’d apparently been right outside the bathroom door.
To his credit, Jaime only laughs a little as he steadies Tory with a hand on his waist. “Good morning to you too,” he says, smiling, and leans down to press his mouth to Tory’s cheek.
That’s the best good morning Tory’s had in ages, and as he collects his bags and follows Jaime out the door, he can’t help but feel that today is going to be a very good day.
They stop by Jaime’s apartment, which is right across the street from where they’re supposed to meet the team, and Jaime forces Tory to eat two slices of toast and an apple before he leaves. They kiss against the front door, Jaime’s hands soft in Tory’s hair, mouth soft on his, and walk across the street with matching too-big smiles. Jaime manages to turn his into a very odd sort of grimace just in time for Ash and Chase and Jaden to show up, but Tory doesn’t even try; he grins like a fool all throughout headcount, grins as he squeezes into the third row of the rented school van, grins all the way up until, lulled by the steady murmur of Ash and Jaime talking strategy in the front seat, he falls asleep.
Jaime gets them to the gym on time, and the morning goes exactly the way they expect it to. Tory’s team is seeded first in their pool, so they beat two small-name schools handily and play a second set to 28 with some school out of the Midwest. They finish pool play at noon, and Jaime comes back from the crowd of tournament officials and players huddled around the bracket taped up on the wall of the gym with a smile on his face.
“We’re good on point differential,” Jaime says, chewing on the soft plastic nozzle of his water bottle. He squeezes it and blows mist into his face, which Tory finds gross but endearing. “We get a by for the first round and then play in the semifinals.”
The team shouts their approval, Tory included, because they could all do with a half hour to rest after playing all morning. There’s an empty spot in the far corner of the gym, and they head there, chattering and drinking and pulling food from their backpacks.
Jaime’s bringing up the rear, and Tory lags behind to walk next to him, bumping their elbows together as they walk. “You’re looking pretty good today,” Tory remarks, grinning, because that’s a massive understatement.
Jaime snorts, because he knows, and says, “You’re not looking too bad yourself. How’re you feeling?”
Tory’s running on five hours of sleep. He’s got a floor burn on his left leg, soon-to-be-bruises on both knees and hips, and a ragged nail from stepping on his own finger.
“Fucking fantastic,” Tory says, and he means it: he’s never felt better.
“Good,” Jaime says. “We’re gonna need you.”
Tory looks down at the red of his jersey and grins. He’s more than up for the challenge.
The semifinal game goes to three. Tory’s team drops the first game to a huge team from Minnesota, but they rally to win the second game and then the third, 14-16. They’re tired, but they’re riding a wave of momentum that hasn’t yet peaked, and it carries them into the final game with ease.
Later, when he looks back on it, Tory won’t remember exactly how the game went. What he’ll remember is this: being so breathless after pulling the first set out 27-29 that he couldn’t even celebrate winning it, laughing when he and Ash dive for the same ball and it bounces perfectly off of Ash’s shoulder, the one play where Jaime went to his knees and put up a perfect set to Alex. He’ll remember snapshots, feelings and bruises and rushes.
He won’t remember the whole game–but he’ll sure as hell remember the last point.
It’s 24-25, and Jaime has just slammed a jump topspin serve deep into the back court. The libero manages to cushion the pass and keep it off the net, but that means the setter is all out of options.
The ball goes outside. Tory takes sharp angle. Rocky closes perfectly to Jaime’s side, and they both go up in perfect sync.
It’s the biggest goddamn block Tory’s ever seen in his life. Rocky is 6’5″ easy, and even though Jaime is an inch or two shorter, he’s got the jump to make up for it and perfect blocking form to boot. The other outside, a heavy hitter, isn’t backing down; his elbow is cocked–too late to drop it now–and Tory, on his toes, braces himself for the ball to break through the block.
The sound of hand hitting ball and ball hitting block are instantaneous, but the thud of the ball hitting the floor on the other side of the net drowns them both out.
There’s a moment of silence–and then the bench explodes into movement and sound, and the rest of their team is flooding the court. To his right, Ash collapses on his ass, waving an exhausted hand in victory, but exhaustion has nothing on the way Tory feels right now. He’s fucking bouncing, tuck jumps that lift him at least a full foot off the ground, and he’s yelling so hard he’s seeing stars, and–
One moment Jaime is buried under at least three teammates, and then next he’s squirming free, heading for Tory, catching him midjump like it’s no big deal. Tory clamps his knees tight to Jaime’s waist, grinning like an idiot, and pumps both fists over his head.
“I fucking told you,” he says, hoarse as hell. Jaime’s eyes are bright when he meets them, and he’s smiling, and Tory wants to kiss him more than anything. “I told you it would work.”
“We made it work,” Jaime says, proud, and Tory’s cheering Jaime’s name as they go down in a tangle of sweat and limbs and victory.
The drive back feels like it takes mere minutes; it’s loud as hell, Rocky is passing out fake medals, and everyone is clamoring to be heard, recounting favorite moments and mimicking shitty calls and making plans to get blasted later that night. When they get back to campus, Ash volunteers his house for a celebration at ten o’clock to a round of applause, and Jaime throws the van into park, calling, “You’re all too damn loud. I’m out.”
The boys spill out of the van, sweaty and loud and exhilarated, and mill around the back to get their bags out of the trunk. Tory’s just gotten his own when Jaime sidles up next to him, casual as can be, and says, “You wanna come over?”
“What,” Tory starts–but he looks at Jaime, sees the gleam of teeth in his smile and the question in his eyes, and swallows against a wave of want. “Like, right now?”
“Yeah, right now,” Jaime says, and tugs on the strap of Tory’s bag until he steps away from the van. He bends down, mouth close to Tory’s ear, and says, “I could use a distraction.”
He’s grinning now, and Tory turns faintly pink. “Okay,” he says, nodding, and follows when Jaime heads off across the street.
Still across the street, locking the van, Ash calls out, “Took y’all long enough,” and returns the gesture with a smile when Jaime pauses in finding his keys to flip him off.
“If we don’t go inside right now I’m going to go back to my room,” Tory says, resisting the urge to cover his face with his hands. “I am not getting publicly ridiculed today. Not happening.”
“It’s a little too late for that, isn’t it,” Jaime says, laughing, and ushers Tory inside.
Jaime’s apartment is nice, clean and more organized than Tory would have expected from any place housing six boys in their twenties. Tory doesn’t have the chance to see much more than that, though, because Jaime is tugging him up a rickety flight of stairs and into his bedroom, shutting the door–and then they’re on each other.
This should probably be gross, because they’re both sweaty and gritty and exhausted, but it feels nothing short of perfect; Tory lets Jaime crowd him up against the door and kiss him, insistent and demanding.
He’s bruised and aching, but his body seems to forget those things as Jaime touches him; adrenaline and pleasure flood Tory in turns, soothing scrapes and making him forget tired muscles, and within minutes he’s panting and arching into Jaime’s touch, eager for more. Jaime seems to be on the same wavelength, because his hands are already up under Tory’s shirt, tracing the curve of his ribcage, following the line of his spine and then coming around to thumb at one of Tory’s nipples. The sensation thrills through him; Tory shudders and, without thinking, breathes, “Do that again.”
Jaime groans low in his throat and does as he’s told, and Tory lets his head fall back against the door, clutching at the fabric of Jaime’s t-shirt as Jaime presses kisses to Tory’s jaw, to his neck, to his collarbone. He rucks up Tory’s shirt and presses a kiss to Tory’s sternum, soft enough to be almost sweet–and then he takes Tory’s nipple between his teeth, and Tory forgets all about soft and sweet.
“Fuck,” Tory says, high in his throat, because Jaime keeps fucking doing that and it makes Tory feel like his temperature is spiking something crazy, like he might vibrate right out of his skin. He drops one hand from Jaime’s back to tug at his own shirt first–and then, when Jaime doesn’t notice, he tugs at Jaime’s hair and demands, “Take your shirt off.”
It takes Jaime a moment to comply, but when he does, it’s quick; he leans back just enough to help Tory out of his shirt, and then reaches back to pull his own over his head. He tosses it to the side, and–God, he’s built, all smooth muscle and broad chest and olive skin, and Tory wants to put his hands all over him, wants to feel him, wants to do a hundred different filthy things to him.
But they’ve got time for creativity and novelty; right now, all Tory can think of is the trail of dark hair right above the waistband of Jaime’s shorts and the bulge beneath them and how goddamn badly he wants to touch Jaime and be touched in return.
Tory reaches for Jaime, winds his arms around Jaime’s neck and tugs him down to kiss him again, opens his mouth so Jaime can stroke Tory’s tongue with his own. Jaime does so gladly, settling his hands on Tory’s hips and tugging him close–and then Jaime grinds his hips against Tory’s and Tory gasps.
The sound of it is enough to get Jaime’s attention, apparently, because he pulls away again, brows furrows above hazy eyes, and says, “You okay?”
“Yes,” Tory answers without hesitation. He presses his hips forward again, but Jaime keeps him in place, looking determined despite the flush on his cheeks and the gleam of his mouth.
“Is this okay?”
Tory wants to laugh, but he’s afraid all that would come out is something close to a whine, so he clears his throat to answer. “You held my hand before we talked about this at all. I literally woke up to you spooning me yesterday.”
Jaime presses his forehead to Tory’s, breathing even and deep. “What’s your point?”
“And you look like you work out three times a week, like, really–fuck, J, you really expect me to talk to you when you’re doing that?”
Jaime, who’s moved on to nipping at Tory’s earlobe, says, “Yes.”
Tory sucks in a breath through his teeth. “Well fuck you, first of all, and second of all, will you stop asking questions and just fuckin’ touch me?”
“If you insist,” Jaime says, and slips his fingers beneath the waistband of Tory’s shorts.
Now, Tory’s had his fair share of encounters, but somehow nothing he’s done seems to measure up to this: Jaime’s fingers, capable and calloused, curl around Tory’s cock, and Tory thrills like a wire gone live. He bucks into Jaime’s hand, gasping, and Jaime lets out a long, low stream of curses before he pulls his hand away.
“What,” says Tory, opening his eyes to level Jaime with a stare he hopes is as irritated as he feels, “the fuck are you doing.”
Jaime looks at Tory like he’s something small and ferocious but ultimately unthreatening, gets a grip on the backs of Tory’s thighs, and lifts him up off the ground. Tory makes a noise that’s half warn me next time and half pure arousal, and wraps his legs around Jaime’s waist.
“Work with me,” Jaime murmurs, nipping at Tory’s neck, and walks him toward what must be his bed. He deposits Tory neatly on the rumpled covers–and then, instead of crawling into bed with him, he stands back to look.
Tory, impatient and feeling coy, takes the opportunity to lift his feet into the air and wriggle out of his shorts–and, because he’s running on a heady combination of desire and shamelessness, he kicks off his boxers too, for good measure.
Jaime sucks in a breath. Grinning, Tory lets his gaze trail obvious and heavy from Jaime’s mouth and downwards, taking in chest and stomach and happy trail, until he’s eyeing the outline of Jaime’s cock, and then bites his lip.
“Fuck,” Jaime breathes, and bangs his ankle on the bedframe in his haste to get to Tory.
Tory laughs and lets his knees fall open so Jaime can fit between them, bulky and warm, and Jaime settles between them eagerly, hips pressing into the backs of Tory’s thighs as he leans up to mouth at Tory’s neck. Tory arches into him, pressing himself flush against Jaime, and is reminded of how much more naked he is when he feels the waistband of Jaime’s sweatpants against the skin of his thighs.
It’s hard to make himself sound commanding when every other sound he makes is a moan, but Tory tries anyway: he digs his nails into Jaime’s shoulders to get his attention, and says, “Why are you still wearing pants?”
Jaime laughs, husky and low, and begins kissing his way down Tory’s chest. “It’s embarrassing,” he admits, pausing briefly to adjust himself, “but I probably wouldn’t last long, otherwise.”
Knowing Jaime, that could mean any number of things; but also, because Tory knows Jaime, he knows that this is honesty, plain and bare. The knowledge that he’s the one to put Jaime so on edge is heady as hell, and Tory laughs with it as he moves his hand downwards to play with the drawstrings on Jaime’s pants.
“Knew I shouldn’t have told you,” Jaime admonishes, sounding vaguely put-upon, but he huffs out a laugh and kisses the peak of Tory’s hipbone. “Just…let me get you off first, alright?”
“Not gonna stop you,” Tory breathes. He watches Jaime mouth at the contour of muscle just inside his hip, watches him kiss his thigh, watches Jaime shudder all over as Tory’s cock pushes up against his cheek.
“Can I,” Jaime says, hoarse, and cuts himself off to swallow, pressing another kiss to Tory’s thigh before he tries again. “Do you want me to–”
“Yes,” Tory breathes, immediate, because he’s spent so long thinking about the shape and possibilities of Jaime’s mouth that having it on him seems like something close to a dream come true. “Fuck, please–”
He doesn’t have to say any more than that–which is good, because Jaime takes Tory’s cock into his mouth, and then Tory can’t say anything at all. The warmth of his mouth makes Tory’s head go blank, strips him of everything that isn’t pure feeling; Tory clutches at Jaime’s hair, throws his head back, and loses himself in it.
This is better than anything Tory had ever idly imagined when contemplating the plushness of Jaime’s mouth. Jaime is–fuck, he’s good, but more than that, he’s attentive: it takes him two tries to discover that the underside of Tory’s cock is sensitive as hell, and another two to notice how Tory’s toes curl when Jaime pulls off just to suck at his cockhead, but only one to figure out that tonguing at Tory’s slit will make him writhe–and then Jaime’s got one hand rough and sure on the base of him, and his other hand firm on Tory’s hip, keeping him in place while he does those things again and again and again. It’s too much, so much, and Tory’s tripping over his words because he can’t say Jaime’s name fast or loud or reverently enough, and then–
And then Jaime combines a stroke of his tongue with a low hum, and Tory curls in on himself as he comes, breathless and overwhelmed, nails biting into the muscle of Jaime’s shoulders and back.
Jaime pulls off, making a face like he’s both contemplative and also a little grossed out; after a moment of thought he pushes himself up off the bed and goes to spit in the trash can. Between shallow, shaky breaths, Tory calls out, “That’s gross.”
“You were the one who came in my mouth,” Jaime deadpans, and nudges Tory out of the middle of the bed to make room for himself. He settles down on his back, brushes damp curls from Tory’s face, and says, “You’re gross.”
Tory sticks his tongue out. When Jaime mimics the gesture, Tory darts in and licks his tongue, and then leans over the edge of the bed to rifle through their clothes while Jaime makes distressed noises. He knows they both had them on when they came into the room, so where are they…
Tory spots a glimmer of plastic and, grinning, pulls it free of his shirt. He does the same for Jaime’s, and then wriggles his way back onto the bed, where Jaime is waiting for him with one skeptical eyebrow raised.
“What was that?” Jaime asks.
Instead of answering, Tory holds up the plastic gold medals Rocky had given them in the van on the way home. Jaime laughs, bemused, but lifts his head obligingly so Tory can loop one around his neck.
“You were the real MVP tonight, Laurent,” Tory says, fake-official, and feels his heart flutter when Jaime laughs.
The second one still dangles from Tory’s left hand, and Jaime reaches out to flick it, glancing from its pendulum arc to Tory’s face. “What about this one?” he asks.
“Don’t give it to me just yet.” Tory grins, wicked and eager, and fits his hand to the bulge in Jaime’s sweatpants. “I’m gonna earn it.”