by Okamoto Shin (岡本辛)
“What is he doing here?”
The speaker barely raised his voice, his harsh tone cutting through the group of students milling about.
Nate was tempted to look over in the direction of the voice, but Nate reminded himself that he wanted to keep his head down. No drama. Nate concentrated harder on the group of people surrounding him on the field, where everyone had collected and now talked to each other in small groups.
One of the freshmen woman jumpers next to Nate continued to make polite conversation with him. They stood amongst the other freshmen, all of whom were easily identifiable by their faint air of anxiety, as if they expected to be kicked off the track team at any moment.
The jumper next to Nate smiled at him excitedly. “This is a dream come true—one of the jumping spots opened up at the end of May, so it worked out perfectly. What about you?” she asked.
Before Nate could respond, the speaker spoke again, his voice rising loudly and quieting the students.
“How the fuck did Nate Ashton get on this team?” the speaker asked, his voice practically hissing with venom. Nate instantly twisted around, his eyes catching on a lanky freshman next to the coaching staff. Nate froze as he made eye contact with a familiar pair of deep blue eyes, half-hidden by bangs: Jasper van der Meer.
The previous year, Nate had been given the biggest opportunity of his life when he’d tried out for the US national team for the Pan American Junior Athletic Championships. Unbelievably, Nate had made it all the way to the final time trials.
When the gun had gone off for his heat, Nate’s muscles had kicked into high gear, pushing off the block and propelling him forward. Nate had instantly gone into the lead and he’d stayed that way down the stretch. Nate had known with certainty as he crossed the finish line that he must have qualified for the final heat. Every movement had been perfectly in sync. This was Nate’s moment to shine.
Only when Nate had come to a stop, his lungs filling up with deep breaths, did he see the results placing him in ninth place, just out of the final heat. There had been a moment of blind numbness while Nate tried to process the information. Then, disappointment like a straight kick to the stomach. A full year of training, dreaming and praying, gone. Nate had been certain that nothing could be worse than that moment.
But as Nate stood on the field staring at Jasper van der Meer’s enraged face, he realized that he couldn’t have been more wrong.
All of the other athletes had stopped talking. Jasper opened his mouth to say something, but before he could get anything out, Coach Winters, a well-built man in his mid-fifties, placed an arm around Jasper and gently steered him away from the group.
A stunned silence remained in Jasper and Coach Winters’ wake and eighty pairs of eyes looked over in Nate’s direction, curiosity written openly. Nate gave his best neutral smile to the group even while his stomach dropped even further as his hopes of being another anonymous freshman on the team dissipated.
Nate wanted to defend himself right there and explain away Jasper’s behavior, but he held his tongue. Fresh starts and new chances were rare, especially because when it had come down to it, Nate’s choices for college track teams had suddenly and permanently become very narrow. He had no desire to self-sabotage this one.
Eventually, Coach Winters led Jasper back to the group. Jasper set his jaw and made his way to the opposite side of the students, making sure to keep as much space as possible between himself and Nate. Fine by Nate.
“Alright, everyone,” Coach Winters started, “welcome to track and field pre-season. I am Coach Winters, as everyone should know, and I am the general director of the track and field team. I will mainly be working on sprints, relays and multis. On my right, we have Coach Khouri, who will work with the sprinters and hurdlers, and Coach Hayworth, who will work with the mid-distance and distance runners.” Coach Winters gestured at a lanky young woman and a slightly older man who both waved cheerfully.
As Coach Winters continued introducing the coaching staff, Nate snuck a look over at Jasper. Jasper hadn’t changed much in the last few months—he looked a little taller, although he still had the classic runner’s frame. More apparent, Jasper had put in time for conditioning this summer, bulking up before the pre-season.
Jasper also had the same arrogance that Nate remembered as well. He already fit into the group of athletes around him, as if he’d been a member of the team for years, instead of a lowly freshman. It set Nate’s teeth on edge.
Once introductions finished, Coach Winters sent everyone on warm-up laps. After the first lap, Nate heard someone gaining on him, so he moved over to the right to allow them to pass. But when Nate looked over to his left, he saw Jasper slowing down to keep pace with Nate.
Nate gritted his teeth.
“What are you doing here?” Jasper asked. He appeared to have regained his composure because his voice now held only its normal sense of disdain.
Nate wanted to ask him the same thing. Surely there was a group of preppy and impressionable freshmen that Jasper could be bothering instead of Nate. But Nate ignored him and sped up slightly. Jasper immediately caught up.
“Running,” Nate replied.
Jasper glared at him. “Wow, a cheater and he’s got a sense of humor too.”
“I didn’t—” Nate started, a knee-jerk reaction. “Go fuck yourself, van der Meer.”
Jasper began to respond, but they were approaching another group of students, so he kept his mouth closed, instead opting to send looks of hatred in Nate’s direction. Although it was the cowardly way out, Nate slowed down to keep pace with the group.
Jasper rolled his eyes and surged ahead.
Thankfully, Jasper and Nate had little opportunity to interact during the practice. Khouri took over once stretching had ended, running the sprinters’ drills. She had them doing acceleration ladder drills in conjunction with some new mobility drills, a sprint training circuit and a medical ball circuit.
By the time that practice ended, Nate feeling every step of the acceleration ladder drills, all that Nate wanted to do was shower, grab lunch and then take a nap before they did it all over again during their afternoon practice.
However, before Nate could head up the stairs to the locker room, Coach Winters motioned Nate aside. He looked serious and Nate found himself tensing up in anticipation.
“Ashton,” Coach Winters started, once they’d walked a ways from the rest of the team still cooling down.
“Yes, sir?” Nate asked.
“I apologize for not anticipating van der Meer’s reaction earlier,” he said. Nate felt more than a little surprised by the apology. “I should have let him know and addressed his concerns earlier. However, I take it that you will be able to behave and treat each other as teammates going forward.”
Coach Winters paused and looked meaningfully at Nate. “Yes,” Nate said, getting the message. “It will not be a problem.”
It was unlikely to not be a problem, based on what Nate knew about Jasper, but there was no way in hell that Nate would tell his coach that.
Coach Winters nodded, looking relieved. “Alright, I’m glad that you understand. See you this afternoon.”
Nate made his way slowly back to the locker room, trying to give himself some time to absorb the situation. Jasper van der Meer was here, at college, with Nate. They were on the same track team. They were likely to continue being on the same track team for the foreseeable future. Unless something happened to one of them.
Nate stopped that line of thinking. Jasper was his teammate now and Nate never wished ill upon his teammates. Even more than that, Nate had learned his lesson about thinking negative thoughts.
As Nate pushed open the door to the locker room, he arrived at a conclusion. The only way to deal with this issue was for Nate to be the best sprinter that he could be. That was what he came here to do and that was what he would focus on. As for everything else, the chips would fall where they may.
With that decided, Nate headed over to the showers, a weight off his mind.
When Nate got out of the showers, most of the team had already finished changing and left to go to the dining hall. Nate didn’t blame them: they probably wanted to get there before football practice got out.
Nate hurried as well, focusing on changing quickly so that he could leave since even the last of the stragglers had already departed. Before Nate could grab his bag and head out, Jasper appeared around a corner and grabbed Nate’s arm. Nate was so surprised that he let Jasper drag him all the way to the back, in a secluded row, before Nate wrenched his arm free.
“Jesus Christ, van der Meer,” Nate said, trying to calm down his skyrocketing heartbeat. “What the fuck do you think you’re doing?”
“I can ask the same thing of you,” Jasper said, stepping directly into Nate’s space. “Did you come here to make my life miserable all again? For a repeat of last year?”
“Yes, because I thought of all the schools in the country, I wanted to be at the school and on the same team as the person that I hate the most in the entire world. You really know how to read me,” Nate said.
Jasper ignored Nate. “I don’t know how you managed to convince Coach Winters to let a delinquent such as yourself onto the team—”
“Look here, van der Meer, it’s called ‘the panel found that I took no part’—” Nate interjected as he felt his body flush with that long-since-familiar feeling of shame and anger.
“We both know that’s a bunch of bullshit,” Jasper said, stepping so close that the two of them were practically breathing the same air. “You don’t even deserve to be in the same state as me.”
“I don’t have to defend myself to you. You can believe whatever you want to believe,” Nate said, his fists starting to ball with anger. A part of Nate hoped that maybe this was finally it—they could have the fight that they had both been itching to have for years. Nate could almost taste the sweet satisfaction of laying one straight into Jasper’s face.
“You and your little minions ruined the season for my entire team, you asshole,” Jasper said, his face flushing as well. He visibly restrained himself for a second, taking a deep breath. “You. Are. An. Asshole,” he reiterated. “But we’re now on the same team. So even though I hate your rotting, immoral and unethical guts, we are teammates. I will be the bigger person here and treat you professionally during team practices. But you better stay the hell away from me or I will come after you faster than you can possibly imagine.”
“Oh, I better stay away from you?” Nate said, laughing almost hysterically. The alternative was punching the locker next to Jasper’s face. “You better stay away from me. Otherwise, if you want to start anything, it would make my day.”
Jasper made a sound in his throat and Nate couldn’t help but notice that both of them were breathing hard, ready for the imminent fight. Finally Jasper, quick as lightning, pushed Nate back, causing him to trip over the bench and onto the floor. Jasper turned and walked away before Nate could even react.
“You better watch yourself, Ashton,” Jasper said as he headed towards the front of the locker room. “And let me be clear. I will beat every single one of your fucking records this year, since it’s your fault that I couldn’t do it last year.”
By the time Nate stood up and composed a response in his head, the locker door room slammed shut. Nate let out a frustrated sound and punched the locker opposite him, wishing he had hit Jasper while he’d had the chance.
As pre-season continued throughout August, Nate found that for the most part, Jasper kept his word. He was a professional during the team’s twice-daily practices. He and Nate held to an unspoken agreement to keep away from each other, both during practices and during the team bonding time outside of practice. Although Jasper made it clear at every turn just how beneath him he thought Nate was: snide whispered comments whenever their paths crossed outside of practice, subtle power plays when the team ate together or ostracizing Nate during team hang-outs at night.
Nate gritted teeth and told himself that it didn’t matter. Jasper and Nate had competed for most of their high school careers. Nate had long ago learned that Jasper’s self-righteousness was best dealt with by proving Jasper wrong. After all, Nate was here to be the best sprinter that he could be. If Nate let Jasper get to him, that was one more thing standing in Nate’s path to being the best.
The pre-season hell weeks ended two weeks later not with a whimper, but the bang of school starting. Along with the influx of 25,000 other students returning to campus and filling up the dorms and the start of classes, the track team underwent their own exciting transition as they changed from two-a-day practices to one practice a day.
“I should be less tired now that I only have one practice a day. I’ve had one practice a day for a full week now,” Nate complained to his roommate, Jesse. Jesse was an athlete as well, but he was on the soccer team rather than track. The lucky bastard. “But instead of being less tired, I am way more tired.”
“It’s the homework,” Jesse said as they headed out of their room to go to the dining hall, “and the socializing. You going to the Pike party tonight?”
Nate opened his mouth to respond just as Jasper walked out of his room down the hall with his roommate.
“Well, if it isn’t the boy who cheated his way to the top,” Jasper said loudly. Jesse winced next to Nate. Nate felt something indefinable snap inside of him.
“Tell me,” Nate said, “how is going to feel when you’ve had every chance and I still beat you? I wonder if you’ll actually start crying there on the track.”
Jasper looked like he was going to pounce which, at this point, Nate frankly felt eager for. But Jesse grabbed Nate’s arm. “Come on, man. Breakfast.” He practically dragged Nate away as Nate couldn’t stop staring back at Jasper, his lips pulled in a taut red line.
The first semester felt like a giant game of hurry up and wait. Nate desperately wanted the chance to prove himself—show Coach Winters and the rest of the team that he had what it took to be there. But the first track meet wasn’t until the very end of the semester. So the first few months felt like a slow quagmire of homework, practices and being dragged out to socialize by Jesse.
But then, November hit and brought a final round of mid-terms, frantic studying for finals and the knowledge that the start of the indoor track season was actually right around the corner. And then time, which had been in huge abundance, disappeared completely when reading period hit and Nate realized he knew nothing and was probably going to fail all of his finals unless he spent every single waking moment (outside of practice) studying in the library.
Nate wasn’t sure how, but he made it through his first three finals alive. Or at least alive enough to show up at the athletic center at the ungodly hour of 5:30 a.m. to load the bus for the first official meet. He almost felt giddy as he helped carry out the various track equipment to the bus, but he made sure to keep his face schooled neutrally.
Thankfully, this invitational meet was only a one-day event, so everyone only had day bags—none of the more serious luggage that everyone would bring for all of the later track meets which would be over two days and involve a full weekend commitment. Nate was excited for those to come, but a full weekend devoted to track would probably kill his remaining two finals, so he told himself to be thankful for the one-day event.
Once everyone had boarded, Coach Winters did a quick head count on the bus and then gave a nod to the bus driver. When the bus pulled out away from the school, Nate’s heart began beating a little faster.
The bus ride felt like a twilight zone. Most of the students slept as everyone had spent the last two weeks in a perpetual state of sleep deprivation, but Nate couldn’t. Even though he didn’t feel fully awake, there was a sense of excitement just beneath his skin. This was his first college track meet. His chance to go out there and show everyone that he was worth the gamble. That he had what it took.
He watched the sun rise from the window of the bus with Annette, one of his fellow freshmen sprinters asleep on his shoulder, and felt almost perfectly peaceful.
The meet actually went well—almost better than Nate expected. Nate hadn’t been quite sure what a college track meet would be like. He’d envisioned it as some herculean task with Nate competing against the seven most recent gold medal winners, so it was a complete surprise when Nate qualified in the preliminary heats for the 60-meter final. Although, somewhat to Nate’s annoyance, Jasper also qualified for the 60-meter final.
When he and Jasper lined up, they were a runner apart, but Nate saw Jasper watching him as they took their places. Nate settled into the starting blocks, flexing his feet against the blocks. He felt the adrenaline starting to race in his blood and Nate took a moment to visualize the gun going off, Nate pushing off the blocks and then sprinting down the stretch.
Nate flicked a quick look over at Jasper. Jasper had settled into his starting blocks as well, hands and feet waiting for the official to announce that the runners need to take their starting position. Jasper had a look of complete disdain on his face.
Oh, it’s on, Nate thought to himself. He was going to beat Jasper if it killed him.
“On your marks!” came the announcement. Nate took the set position. “Set.” Nate tensed his whole body, prepping for the starter’s gun.
When the gun went off, despite his having heard it a hundred times before, it still startled Nate. But, his body conditioned to the starter’s gun, immediately took off. And then it was just his body and the track, feet pushing off the ground, arms pumping in sync and legs working as fast as they could. Out of the corner of his eye, Nate saw Jasper keeping even, so Nate gritted his teeth and pushed as hard as he could.
And then, before Nate could even think it, the mass of the runners were crossing the line—everyone drawing in deep breaths. Nate looked up to see his time and felt the familiar sense of disappointment when he saw that he’d placed fourth. However, a quick look over at Jasper, who scowled up at the times, revealed that Jasper had placed seventh.
Jasper got his own back later in the day when he placed fourth to edge out Nate’s fifth in the 200-meter finals. But Nate had survived his first college track meet. Well, Nate thought as the meet came to a close later that night and everyone made their way back to the bus, a reassuring ache in his muscles, he’d done better than survived. He had achieved personal records in both of the events, even getting a congratulations from Coach Winters on his PRs. A most satisfactory day indeed.
When he got back to his dorm room, Jesse kept laughing at the goofy look on Nate’s face.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen you look this relaxed,” Jesse said that night, as they grabbed beer at one of the football team’s parties.
Nate shrugged, more than a little embarrassed. “It was just a good day. A good way to end the semester,” he mumbled. “Well, the almost end of the semester,” Nate amended. He still had to pass two more finals.
Jesse laughed again and wrapped an arm around Nate. “I’m just giving you a hard time,” he said. “I can’t not hassle my track star roommate.”
“Ugh,” Nate said, rolling his eyes. Something caught Nate’s eye and he turned his head in time to see a familiar blond head go by the kitchen. Nate groaned and instantly felt himself stiffen up with tension, any smile on his face now gone.
“See,” Jesse said, oblivious, “that’s more of what I’ve come to expect from you.” Nate refused to respond.
When Nate slipped out of the kitchen to go to the bathroom later, he passed by Jasper chatting with a girl with dark brown hair, but Jasper excused himself when he saw Nate.
“I’m shocked—I half expected to be incapacitated today,” Jasper said, smirking. “Or is that only for special occasions? Are you saving up for when to ruin my career for a second time?”
“Go to hell,” Nate said viciously and pushed past Jasper.
Jasper wasn’t exactly wrong. He wasn’t exactly right either, but he wasn’t wrong and it bothered Nate, more than Nate would have liked.
From the first moment that Jasper had entered Nate’s awareness, he’d made an impact. And it hadn’t been a positive one.
Although both had done track during their freshman and sophomore years of high school, Nate and Jasper had rarely interacted. Each of the two boys had been decently performing sprinters, but neither of them had made it to the final heat all that often, especially when their teams had been at the same meet. When they were in the same heats, Jasper’s presence was a non-event, his face just one amongst the six other changing ones.
Everything changed during their junior year. Nate grew seven inches, starting in the summer before junior year and continuing well throughout the year. Jasper’s growth spurt started slightly later but he made up for it, quickly arriving at a hair shy of six feet.
Nate still remembered taking the blocks at the Campbell-Jennings invitational, a small local track meet held at the beginning of season. Nate had done well in the early season training and had easily made the final heat. As he’d mentally prepared himself for the race, Nate’s blood strumming with excitement and the thought of potentially winning his first race, Jasper had walked up to the starting blocks.
Something about the way that Jasper held himself had set Nate off. Maybe it was the confidence that Jasper exuded or the way that he’d looked over at Nate, as if Nate were barely even worthy of being his opponent.
Either way, Nate had been dying to put Jasper in his place, to wipe that smirk right off his face. But when the gun went off, Jasper had jumped to the lead and stayed there for the entire 100-meters. After he’d won, Jasper practically started crowing his victory right there after the finish line.
Nate’s blood had boiled.
But it had made victory sweet when they’d met again at the southern divisional prelims and Nate had edged Jasper out for first place in the 100-meter race and then taken third place to Jasper’s fourth in the 200-meter race. It had been even sweeter when at the state championships, Nate beat Jasper again to take second place in the 100-meter.
Jasper’s face had been priceless when he’d stood on the podium, holding his bronze medal like it was a piece of radioactive slime, clearly wishing that he could kill Nate through the power of his mind alone. The memory still brought warmth to Nate’s heart.
All of that was to say that when Nate had first found out what happened to Jasper and his team prior to the championships last year, Nate had thought it was a total riot. It served all those West Lincoln assholes right.
A small part of Nate had been a little disappointed—both Jasper and Nate had been in contention for the top spot in the 100- and 200-meter races all year. It would have been nice to roundly prove to the critics that Nate was the better sprinter. But Nate hadn’t planned to lose sleep over it. He had to races and a relay to win. That didn’t change if Jasper was or wasn’t competing.
It was only later, when the whispers started about tampering and pranks gone wrong that it became unfunny.
When Nate had realized that it had been deliberate, that someone had intentionally done it, prank or not, his stomach had turned. And when Nate had found out that it had been members of his own team, the guilt had hit, a solid punch in the stomach, the build-up of lactic acid after kicking in a losing race.
Coming back to campus for training after New Year’s felt bittersweet. Nate would have liked to stay home and bask in the delicious warmth of his parents’ home-cooked meals and the joys of having a whole room to himself but with another invitational during the second weekend in January, everyone was expected to be back immediately following the new year. Plus, as much as Nate would have loved to be home, eating to his heart’s content, every day that he didn’t keep up his training was a day that Jasper potentially gained on him. That alone was enough to motivate Nate back to school.
“Ashton,” Coach Honda started. Coach Winters had mandated a conditioning day for everyone already back on campus before training officially started up on Monday. That meant that the sprinters were in the weight room early on Saturday morning and not sleeping in. Instead of focusing on the fact that 90% of the campus was still at home enjoying their nice, relaxing winter vacation, Nate kept his attention on making sure that every leg lift had the proper form.
“Yes, Coach Honda?” Nate asked.
“Your form has been looking good lately,” Coach Honda said, watching Nate’s legs appraisingly. “Let’s up your weight.”
Nate felt the heady rush of self-satisfaction. A few machines down from Nate, Jasper snorted where he was working on his quads.
Coach Honda looked over at the noise. “You’ve been doing good as well, Van der Meer,” Coach Honda said. “We’ll also up your conditioning.”
Jasper looked over at Nate and gave him a self-satisfied smirk. Nate rolled his eyes.
The first January track meet, a thirteen-team invitational, did not go well. Not going well was a gross understatement. It went horribly. Nate’s time trials had been looking successfully better—he’d PR-ed in practice the previous week at 6.59 in the 60-meter and at 21.76 for the 200-meter.
But when he’d went to take the starting blocks for the 60-meter qualifiers, his muscles felt sluggish and unresponsive. When the gun went off, Nate’s whole body lagged half a second behind his brain, almost as if Nate was moving through syrup. He placed third in the heat at 7.04, slower than even his high school times. Jasper easily made it into the final heat, placing third overall, making sure to smirk at Nate across the tent after the race.
For the 200-meter, Nate did well enough to make it to the final heat, and he and Jasper were placed next to each other on the starting blocks. Jasper looked over and smiled as they lined up.
“Ready to see what a true winner looks like?” he asked, smiling sunnily. Nate held himself off from flipping Jasper the bird.
“Shouldn’t you already know what one looks like? You do see me every day,” he said instead.
Jasper just laughed. “Weak, Ashton, weak.”
And then everyone started getting ready, prepping into the start positions. The gun went off, almost distantly, and even though Nate’s body knew the motions, it was uninspired at best. Jasper ran across the finish line a full half-second before Nate. To really hammer in the moment, Jasper shot some finger guns at Nate as Nate headed straight to the tent, resisting the urge to punch Jasper’s stupid face.
Jasper made fun of Nate’s “performance anxiety” on the entire bus ride back.
Nate did better at the track meet the following weekend at the Aggie invitational, placing in third at the 60-meter and fourth in the 200-meter, but Jasper did just as well, all but negating Nate’s jubilation.
At the last meet in January, Nate PR-ed in the 60-meter, shaving off .08 seconds, to come in first in the 60-meter. But, of course, Jasper was right behind him, and took first in the 200-meter, setting a personal best as well. Wherever Nate went, Jasper appeared to be right behind him, dogging every step forward that Nate took.
Practice was just as frustrating. Sometimes, when Nate was resting in between sets, he watched Jasper. Nate couldn’t help it. There was something about the way that Jasper ran, conditioned, moved that was almost perfect, all of Jasper’s muscles working in sync. Jasper was truly meant to be a sprinter, all effortless long limbs and confidence. Nate felt scrawny, awkward and unsure next to him, and it drove Nate crazy. But no matter how Nate told himself to stop, that there was no point in comparing himself and Jasper, that only their results mattered, Nate couldn’t stop looking.
The Monday following the last January meet, Winters gathered all of the sprinters together after warm-ups while everyone stretched. “Listen up, team,” Winters started. All of the sprinters stopped talking.
“I know that we’re still firmly in the middle of the indoor track season, but we’re going to start preparing our four by one hundred relay team.” Nate’s heart jumped into his throat. He snuck a look over at Jasper, who sat at perfect attention.
The likelihood of a freshmen making the relay team was slim, but Nate knew that both his and Jasper’s times put them in at least a decent contention to be on the team.
If there is a God, Nate thought, please let me make the relay team. And please let Jasper not.
“We will be tinkering with the four by one hundred team over the month or so leading up to the official start of the outdoor season. You can get replaced if we feel that the groups are not meshing for whatever reason. There is a good chance that the four by one hundred team will change, as the 4×400 relay team can tell you.”
Coach Winters looked around, making eye contact with Nate. Nate forced himself to take even, steady breaths.
“Alright, 4×1 Men’s is Silva, Rockford, Van der Meer and Ashton. Alternates are Patel and Gregson. 4×1 Women’s is –” Coach Winters kept speaking, but Nate immediately looked over to where he knew Jasper sat.
Jasper sat stiffly, his back ramrod-straight. After a second, he turned, his gaze stopping on Nate. Jasper’s jaw worked once, twice as twin spots of faint red appeared on his cheek.
Neither of them broke eye contact until Nate found someone pulling at his shirt. Nate turned to find George trying to pull him up.
“Congrats,” George said. “Now, let’s go. Jumps time.”
“Yep, coming,” Nate said, pushing himself up and following George. He shot a quick look over at Jasper, but he’d already joined the group of sprinters up ahead as everyone got ready to start the drill.
Jasper broke his self-imposed rule of silence during practice when he lined up behind Nate for acceleration drills. “Winters has to be joking about the relay,” Jasper said.
“You should go and ask him,” Nate said.
Jasper glared. “What, you’re going to pretend that you actually want to be on the same relay team as me?”
“So, you’re going to tell Winters that you’d rather not be on the team, works well for me,” Nate said.
“Over my dead body,” Jasper hissed, and that was the last thing either one of them said for the rest of the session.
“The one small miracle about the whole situation,” Nate told Jesse later, “is that Jasper and I are on opposite legs. So since he’s leading off as the first runner and I’m the fourth runner, we never have to practice together.”
“Wouldn’t the miracle be that you got on the relay team?” Jesse asked, idly throwing a soccer ball up from his bed. “You said it yourself: freshmen rarely make the team.”
Nate glared at Jesse. “Okay, fine, that’s the miracle. But there’s no way we would function well having to practice together.”
“Mhmm,” Jesse said non-committedly.
At the last meet before the Big Ten championship meet, Nate PR-ed again, coming in third in both the 60-meter and the 200-meter. But it was a hollow victory as Jasper came in second for both events and looked jubilant, his blond hair forming a golden crown on his head. Nate felt sick.
Nate was in such a bad mood that it almost felt appropriate to be pulled out by Coach Winters along with Jasper aside after they arrived back on campus. Absolutely perfect.
After two days away from campus, all Nate wanted to do was go back to his room and sleep off the bad meet. Maybe Coach Winters would tell Nate now that he wasn’t cutting it on the relay team in practice and was going to be relegated to alternate or maybe even off the relay squad. In front of Jasper.
Instead Coach Winters brought them over to a girl standing a small distance from the bus.
“Ashton, Van der Meer, this is Jenny Lee.” Coach Winters gestured at a girl standing next to him. “She’s a writer for the school’s newspaper. She asked to interview you two.”
Nate smiled politely, unsure of why the two of them were being singled out. Jasper smiled as well, much more warmly than Nate could have done, causing Jenny to smile right back. Nate internally rolled his eyes.
“Well, I’ll leave you to it,” Winters said, immediately heading back over to where the rest of the students were unloading the track equipment.
“As Coach Winters said, I’m Jenny Lee,” Jenny said, sticking out her hand for Jasper and Nate to shake. “I asked to interview you two because we’re interested in doing a piece on the talent in the freshmen track class this year. It’s rare to have two freshmen perform so well. Coach Winters also said that you two have been placed on the four by one hundred meter relay team for the outdoor season, which is really impressive. Do you mind if I ask you some questions?”
Jasper, that smooth asshole, smiled right back at Jenny. “No, of course not. I’m happy to answer any questions. Nate?”
Nate shrugged awkwardly. “Of course. Please, fire away.”
Jenny pulled out a pad and her phone. “How did you guys feel about being named to the relay team?”
“I was ecstatic,” Nate said honestly. “There’s a lot of competition for the team and I felt confident that they would choose more experienced sprinters. So when Coach Winters picked me for the team, I couldn’t even believe it. It has been my dream because I love getting to compete in the relay.”
“Yeah?” Jenny asked. “What do you love about it?”
“Even though the track team is very much a team in the sense that we support each other and make each other better, at the end of the day, it’s generally very solitary. But when you compete in the relay, it’s really a team event. For a moment in time, you and your teammates are working as hard as you can together. I love that.”
“Jasper?” Jenny said.
“I feel pretty much the same,” Jasper said. “There’s something about the feeling that you get when you’re in a relay, having memorized someone else’s running pattern down to the breath. When you do it right, everyone is completely in sync with each other.”
Jenny looked slightly mesmerized by Jasper’s words. She took a second to smile again at Jasper and then looked down at her notes. “You guys competed head to head last year at rival schools,” she started. Nate threw Jasper a wary look. “But now you guys are here on the same team. On the same relay team even. How do you put your past rivalry behind you?”
Nate paused, unsure of where to go. How did one say that they hadn’t put their past rivalry behind them? They, in fact, hated each other’s guts, and the likelihood of it not messing up the relay team dynamic were small to nil. But before Nate could muster a bland statement, Jasper started laughing so loudly, startling Nate so badly that he completely froze up.
Jasper swung an arm around Nate. Nate’s brain shorted in utter confusion. “Sprinters have a natural rivalry—we’re all very competitive. But our rivalry last year was pretty exaggerated. We really just pushed each other to be better.”
Nate wanted to say something, but he couldn’t stop focusing on the warm weight of Jasper curled around him. Why on earth was Jasper playing up their supposed friendship? Nate tried subtly pulling away from Jasper.
“In fact,” Jasper said, throwing a contemplative look at Nate and then bringing him in closely, tight enough that Nate wouldn’t be able to get away without attracting attention to it, “when I found out that Nate and I were going to be on the same team, I couldn’t even contain my emotion about it. It’s been a fantastic journey together. We’ve really bonded on these weekend track meet trips.”
Jenny nodded as she frantically took notes. Nate shot Jasper a glare, but Jasper held Nate firmly. “Coach Winters has provided us with amazing guidance and coaching, so I know that we’re going to do great things with this team.”
The worst part was that Jasper sounded so genuine about it. As if he really did think that he and Nate were two friends who pushed each other to be better teammates. Anything that Nate would say now to the contrary would make him look like the asshole.
So Nate smiled winning and pretended to be utterly calm while Jasper told beautifully crafted lie after lie about their experiences on and off the team together.
By the time that Jenny finished interviewing them, the rest of the track team had long since unloaded the bus and scattered to the four winds. Nate and Jasper both thanked Jenny as she headed back to campus. As soon as Jenny was out of sight, Nate pulled out from under Jasper’s arm. His skin felt too tight and warm, as if he were being slowly suffocated.
“What the fuck was that?” Nate demanded.
Jasper’s charming demeanor instantly reverted back to his usual self. He started heading in the direction of the locker rooms. “It’s called good press, Ashton. Although I wouldn’t expect you to know anything about that.”
“And good press is lying about the fact that we’re apparently best friends? I must have missed the sleepover and hair-braiding invitations in between you threatening me and trying to make my life miserable on the team!” Jasper kept walking, so Nate took off jogging to catch up.
Jasper ignored Nate and opened up the locker room door. “What it’s okay to make my life a living hell, but god forbid anyone else know that you’re an asshole?” Nate asked, following Jasper in. When it became clear that Jasper wasn’t going to deign to answer, something inside Nate snapped.
“Don’t you ever pull that again,” Nate said, pushing Jasper against the lockers. Nate leaned forward until he and Jasper were practically nose to nose. “You understand me, Van der Meer?”
Jasper’s nostrils flared. “Don’t tell me what to do.” He punctuated each word with a push against Nate’s shoulders.
Nate instinctively took a step in. Later, he couldn’t have said if he intended to push Jasper or maybe just get up in Jasper’s space, but at that moment, it didn’t matter. When Nate stepped close to Jasper, Nate’s legs spaced in between Jasper’s, Nate immediately felt that Jasper wasn’t angry.
Well, he wasn’t just angry.
Nate was so surprised that he barely registered Jasper grabbing the front of Nate’s shirt. Jasper pushed Nate back against the lockers. Jasper opened his mouth, maybe to attempt to threaten Nate, maybe just to take a deep breath, but nothing came out as he pressed against Nate, realizing what Nate had already known: that Nate was just as hard as Jasper.
Two things happened at once: Nate leaned the two millimeters separating Jasper’s lips and his own, and Jasper stuck his hand down Nate’s pants.
Nate gasped into Jasper’s mouth and then they were kissing, a biting, messy clash of tongues and teeth, but all that Nate could think about was the slide of Jasper’s thumb along the bottom of Nate’s dick and the slick, sweet friction of Jasper’s hand enclosing Nate’s cock.
After a second, Jasper pulled back and glared at Nate. A moment of confusion paused while Nate attempted to figure out if Jasper had come to his senses and planned to take a swing at Nate. When Jasper lifted his eyebrows expectantly, Nate got the drift and felt himself turn red (well, redder) and stuck his hand down Jasper’s running shorts.
There didn’t seem to be much finesse to a furtive hand job in the locker room, so Nate just went for it, gripping Jasper’s cock firmly and stroking it, making sure to swipe the head of Jasper’s cock every few seconds to keep the friction from being too painful for Jasper, although the jackass probably deserved it.
Nate’s hips began making little thrusts of their own volition as he got close. He muttered out a brief warning that Jasper ignored and then Nate came, hard, biting down on Jasper’s lip. Jasper gave a little grunt of surprise and then came as well, spilling over Nate’s hand.
For a second, Nate heard rushing in his ears only to be replaced by the harsh panting from both of them. Jasper’s eyes kept darting down to Nate’s lips which, at this point, felt like they’d lost a battle against a shark.
“Jasper…” Nate started to say, unsure of where to begin, or even if he could begin at all. Apparently it was the wrong thing to say, because Jasper’s face hardened.
“Listen Ashton, you breathe a word of this—” Jasper started and Nate bristled, finally pulling his hand out of Jasper’s shorts.
“What makes you think I’d even want to tell anyone about this?” Nate asked, trying to project complete and utter disdain into his voice. Without waiting for an answer, he wiped his hand on Jasper’s shirt and headed toward the locker room door.
When Nate made it back to his dorm, he had no recollection of how he’d gotten there.
“How was the track meet?” Jesse asked, watching something on his bed.
“Uh…” It took a small eternity to remember back to the track meet. “Good. Yes, it was good.”
Jesse paused whatever he was watching and looked over at Nate, a skeptical look on his face. “What’s going on?” he asked.
“Uh, nothing,” Nate answered quickly.
Jesse looked even more suspicious. “Nothing at all? That’s all you have to say about the track meet?”
Nate grabbed his towel and toiletries. “Yup. Going to shower now.” He bolted.
And if Nate spent an extra fifteen minutes in the shower just relieving Jasper’s hand job, it was no one’s business but his own.
The one good thing about the locker room incident, as Nate had taken to calling it, was that in the weeks following it, Jasper now refused to make eye contact with Nate and his usual harassment almost stopped completely. Whenever they were in the same area together, Jasper would flush, a faint blush high on his cheeks, and find any excuse to be somewhere else. It was almost nice.
But, like all good things, it came with a price. Nate found himself getting unexpectedly semi-hard during practices. And there was absolutely no hiding an erection in track shorts. Which meant that Nate was constantly willing himself to think of the least sexy things that he could think of. A short while ago, it would have been a no-brainer: spending time with Jasper. But now, thinking about Jasper led to thinking about thinking about Jasper’s hands in Nate’s pants, and that was not a path Nate wanted to go down.
Thankfully, the Big Ten Championships were just around the corner, forcing Nate to think about being prepared for that. He and Jasper were both on the cusp of qualifying for the 60-meter and the 200-meter NCAA Indoor Championships, but neither one had cracked the top sixteen, which was needed to qualify, in either the 60-meter or the 200-meter.
The team loaded up after morning classes on Friday at the end of February for the Big Ten Championships. Nate helped out after throwing his bag onto the bus, although his stomach was tied in knots. Even Jasper was uncharacteristically quiet, staring out the window on the bus the entire ride there.
The 60-meter and 200-meter prelims were like a dream. Nate placed second in his heat for the 60-meter, automatically qualifying. He also placed fourth in his heat for the 200-meter, his time just falling behind the eighth fastest time. Jasper qualified through his heats and Nate pushed down on the sense of disappointment in his stomach.
So, he had only qualified in one event. Nate would make sure that this event counted.
The next morning after having breakfast with the team, Nate found that he couldn’t sit still, so he left George to go walk around the area to shake off some of the nervous energy. Some of the team was going to walk around the town, but Nate had passed on that. Geneva, Ohio wasn’t exactly the pinnacle of exciting cities. He passed Jasper talking with Coach Khouri in the lobby of the hotel.
“I think I’m going to just hang around the hotel,” Nate overhead Jasper say. Nate turned back around and texted George that he’d be going with the team.
The finals weren’t until the evening, so by the time that the meet started and everything got underway, Nate felt like his stomach might explode with butterflies.
When it came time for the men’s 60-meter finals, Nate and Jasper headed over towards the staging area. Although Jasper looked confident, Nate could tell that Jasper was nervous by the mere fact that he didn’t make any cutting comments or throw it in Nate’s face that Jasper had qualified for two events, rather than one.
Instead, they both took their positions and waited for the women’s 400-meter to finish. They watched as their teammate, Jenna, took third, but any excitement that Nate may have felt was quickly subsumed by his nerves.
When the gun went off, Nate felt everything click into place. Everything became one message of push, push, push, get to the finish line, and then Nate was over the line, a feeling of pure triumph in his chest.
Nate couldn’t stop himself from smiling widely as he realized that he had done it—he’d come in first. But when the scoreboard flashed the times, his heart sank. Nate had PR-ed. He’d hit 6.67. But that wouldn’t be enough to make the NCAA championships.
Nate wanted to root for Jasper to fail, but when he joined the rest of the team after his cool-down to watch the men’s 200-meter, he found that he couldn’t help but want Jasper to win. After all, they were teammates, at the end of the day. When Jasper took fourth, also missing to get a time fast enough to qualify for the championships, Nate hoped that it would make him feel better, but it did nothing to stop the feeling of not good enough beating deep in his chest.
Jesse took one look at Nate’s face when they got back on Sunday afternoon and announced that they were going out that night.
“It’s Sunday,” Nate told Jesse. “It’s Sunday, I failed to qualify for the NCAA championships and I have a chemistry set due tomorrow. Leave me alone to die.”
Jesse rolled his eyes. “Some of the soccer seniors are doing a low-key party tonight. You have like a month off before you have you start your track meet madness again. We are going to take advantage of this and get you drunk tonight.”
Nate faceplanted into his bed. “No.”
Jesse ignored him. “And maybe we’ll also get you laid because you need to relax. I know it’s a crazy idea, but I think it just might work.”
Nate flashed to the familiar memory of Jasper in the locker room and then to Jasper next to him on the starting blocks on Saturday night. Even with his face down on his comforter, Nate felt himself blush. Get a grip, he told himself.
“Fine,” Nate said lifting his head, “as long as it’s not a party party. Nothing too crazy, because I am exhausted.”
Jesse’s grin lit up his face. “Yes, definitely, nothing crazy. After all, it’s Sunday night.”
The party was crazy. For no real reason that Nate could discern, what felt like half of the school’s athletes had turned up at the house of a few of the seniors on the men’s soccer team on a Sunday night for free beer. After two successful rounds of beer pong, Nate decided to retire at the top of his game and headed to the backyard to get some more beer from the keg.
Unfortunately, it looked like Jasper was doing the same thing.
“Seriously?” Nate asked the universe.
Jasper glared. “Like I want to be around you either? What, you want to rub it in that you took first yesterday?”
“What, like you want to rub it in that you qualified for both the 60 and the 200?” Nate asked.
Jasper set his mouth. “Like you weren’t ecstatic at the fact that I failed to also place in the 200?”
“Look,” Nate started, “as hard as it is to believe. I wasn’t actually rooting against you yesterday. I actually wanted you to do well in the 200. We are on the same team and everything.”
Jasper stepped in closer. Suddenly, Nate was very aware of their proximity and the fact that Jasper looked really good in his hipster t-shirt and tight jeans. Uncomfortably aware, given the fact that Nate’s jeans weren’t all that loose either.
They stared at each other for a second and then Nate leaned in. Jasper met him halfway, bringing his arms up behind Nate’s back and hauling him in.
Jasper was just as forceful as the last time that they had done this, his arms gripping Nate tightly. Although Jasper took time to draw out each kiss, his lips felt just as demanding and each kiss left a faint buzz of electricity in its wake. Nate brought up his hand to cup Jasper’s face and pulled on Jasper’s lower lip with his own.
Jasper made a faint keening noise and then stepped back, panting softly. “Your place or mine?” he asked.
Nate stared at him. “We live in the same place, Jasper. Literally just down the hall from each other.”
Jasper glared at him and then leaned in for a kiss that quickly became Jasper kissing his way down Nate’s neck and leaving what Nate was positive would be a hickey there as punishment. Nate tilted his head back and tried not to groan loudly.
“Okay, yes, I get your point. My room,” he said. Jasper bit the spot between Nate’s neck and shoulder. Nate was almost painfully hard. “Now.”
Without waiting for an answer, Nate grabbed Jasper’s arm and began dragging him back inside. No one paid them much attention as they headed to the front door.
The walk back to the dorms felt twice as long as it normally did, probably aided by the incredibly awkward silence. Nate tried striking up conversation a few times, but each time that he did, Jasper threw him a look that shut Nate up immediately. Eventually, Nate pulled out his phone to let Jesse know that he should probably stay over at the soccer house. Better to be safe than sorry.
After they swiped through the dorm entrance, Nate headed to his room, Jasper following in unspoken agreement. Thankfully the floor was empty for once—there weren’t even the usual doors open and the loud chatter. All of the reasonable people were in bed or close to it, preparing for the start of the week.
When they reached Nate’s room, Jasper followed Nate in, closing the door firmly behind him. Jasper stared at Nate, as if he expected Nate to take the lead. But Nate couldn’t overcome the feeling of awkwardness, of having Jasper van der Meer here in his dorm room, even though the two of them could barely hold a basic civil conversation.
Nate unconsciously brought his hand up and rubbed the back of his neck while he tried to figure out where to go from here.
“Oh for god’s sake,” Jasper said finally, and he pushed Nate up against his wall and began kissing him.
Instantly, the awkwardness disappeared and Nate found himself kissing back eagerly, trying to match Jasper nip for nip, bite for bite.
They kissed for so long against the wall, Nate’s hands firmly placed underneath Jasper’s shirt, that Nate’s mouth felt over sensitized and buzzed. Jasper looked no better, his mouth slightly swollen and faint bruising already showing in several places on his neck.
“Jasper,” Nate started, although it turned into a faint moan when Jasper began to press small bites at the juncture of Nate’s head and neck. Nate tried again, but got no better response, so he started pushing Jasper in the direction of his bed.
Jasper looked up once he realized that he was slowly being moved. “What…” he said slowly. He looked slightly outraged at having been interrupted. Nate, god help him, found even that attractive.
“Bed,” Nate said. When Jasper still looked confused. Only when Nate gestured at the actual bed did Jasper get the message. Jasper smiled a shark-like grin and then pushed Nate on top of the bed.
Before Nate could protest, Jasper started pulling at Nate’s shirt, which Nate quickly assisted with and then helped Jasper take off his. For a moment, Nate could only look at Jasper’s chest—the broad expanse of skin, pale against Nate’s hands. Nate leaned and began to press kisses against Jasper’s collarbone and then started making his way down.
“Pants off,” Jasper said distantly. Nate made a noise of assent. Jasper tried to say something but it turned into a loud moan when Nate finally hit Jasper’s nipples. Jasper’s head tipped back and Nate couldn’t help but lean up to kiss Jasper again, feeling completely drunk on the moment.
After a minute, Jasper pushed Nate back onto the bed and scooted down in order to start unbuttoning Nate’s pants. Nate’s pants and boxers were quickly shucked and Jasper’s weren’t far behind.
Jasper gave Nate an unreadable look and then took Nate’s cock in hand. He gripped the base of it firmly and began to tentatively suck the head. Nate couldn’t help the loud groan out of his mouth as all other thought of anything outside of the wet heat of Jasper’s mouth completely left Nate’s mind.
Jasper began taking Nate’s cock deeper into his mouth and using his hand to rub up and down along the base of Nate’s cock. It felt so good, Nate’s hips inadvertently began pushing up of their own accord, accidentally causing Jasper to choke.
Jasper pulled off completely and glared at Nate, which Nate found, somehow, stupidly hot, causing Nate’s cock to get even harder, if that was at all possible.
“Sorry, sorry,” Nate apologized. Satisfied, Jasper went back to going down on Nate and Nate forced himself to lay steady as Jasper kept moving.
“I’m going to—” Nate said after another minute, so Jasper pulled off and leaned up to kiss Nate again, keeping one hand moving up and down on Nate’s cock. It only took a few seconds before Nate was coming all over Jasper’s hand.
When Nate was finished, Jasper grabbed Nate’s shirt and wiped his hand off Nate’s shirt. Nate would probably have been more annoyed if he hadn’t been floating in a cloud of pure contentment.
Nate pulled Jasper in close and reached down to enclose his hand around Jasper’s cock. Jasper’s cock was curved up, hitting Jasper’s belly and Nate couldn’t stop staring at it as he spread Jasper’s pre-come around to ease the friction. Jasper groaned and pulled Nate in, kissing him harshly.
It only took a few strokes and then Jasper was coming too, heavy spurts on Nate’s stomach, before he slumped back into Nate’s pillow. Figuring that he had to wash his shirt anyways, Nate wiped Jasper and himself off with it and then threw it onto the ground.
They both lay there for a few minutes, Nate conscious of everywhere that their bodies overlapped. Eventually, when Jasper’s breathing started evening out, Nate asked, “Do you want to get under the covers?”
Jasper made a noise of assent and Nate pulled the comforter back and lifted it over them. Jasper curled in slightly towards Nate and Nate felt, for the first time in a while, almost at peace.
Nate woke up when the light was just beginning to change outside of his window. He looked around in confusion, not sure what had woke him. Then Nate saw Jasper quietly putting on his clothes.
“You leaving?” Nate asked.
“Yeah—have to…” Jasper gestured towards the door. “Don’t think that this means anything,” he said. “We’re still enemies. We just are enemies who um…” Jasper paused again, “sometimes get along.” Nate resisted the urge to laugh after Jasper left, just shaking his head and going back to sleep.
When Jesse got back to the room later that morning, he gave Nate a bunch of good-natured shit about sexiling him. “So who was the lucky girl or guy?” He asked.
“Come on, you have to give me more than that.” Jesse complained as settled on to his bed with some homework.
Nate closed his eyes and thought of Jasper, bright and shining, commanding as he pushed Nate against the wall, the same seriousness as when Jasper readied himself on the starting blocks. Nate couldn’t help smiling.
“That good, huh?” Jesse’s voice came from the other side of the room.
“I guess so,” Nate responded.
Jasper avoided him in practice that day, which Nate wasn’t all that surprised by. Although, on more than one occasion, Nate caught Jasper peeking over at Nate, when he thought that Nate was otherwise engaged. Each time that it happened, Nate felt a little frisson of excitement in his stomach.
Later that week, on Friday morning, Nate swiped into the dorm ready for a nap after his ridiculous 9 a.m. biology lab. Really ready for a nap. So ready for a nap. He was half tempted to just lie down on the carpeted floor and go for one right there instead of going the extra twenty feet to his room. People could just walk around him. No one would care. It wasn’t like it hadn’t been done before.
But when Nate passed Jasper’s room, the door wide-open, he couldn’t resist peeking in to see what Jasper was up to. They hadn’t really talked since Monday morning, but Jasper had stopped ignoring him in practice, although their conversation had been minimal at best.
Jasper sat at his desk, his back to the door, watching something on his computer. It looked like an old track meet, although clearly older than any of Jasper’s or Nate’s. Nate watched as an outgoing runner took off too late, causing the incoming runner to run right into him. They both fell over. Nate winced.
The footage then switched to some Olympic qualifiers where Nate watched a US women’s runner fail to get the baton into the outgoing runner’s hand, sending the baton straight onto the ground. Ouch.
“Are you watching failed baton handoffs?” Nate asked, genuinely curious.
Jasper spun around, a guilty look on his face. “Uh…” He started while he clearly tried to think of something to explain. “I just can’t help it,” he said in a rush. “It’s just so mesmerizing.” Jasper grimaced, probably in anticipation what Nate would say.
Nate’s eyebrows rose. This was prime mocking material. “You’re watching it because—” Nate’s attention was diverted back to the video. “Wait, did that guy just try to toss the baton?”
Jasper looked at Nate warily but turned around in his chair, and then backtracked the video and pushed play. They both in horrified silence as the outgoing runner took off too soon meaning that the incoming runner was unable to close the gap, electing to instead toss the baton. It was mesmerizing.
“Wow…” Nate said slowly.
“You think that’s bad?” Jasper asked. “Wait until you see this video made up entirely of Olympic relay handoff fails. It’s amazing.”
He opened another tab and pulled up the video, so Nate took a seat on Jasper’s bed where he could still see the monitor. They sat through the four minute video, grimacing in second-hand pain, but unable to look away.
“It’s like watching a car crash,” Nate said when the video finished.
“I know, right?” Jasper said. “It’s horrible and yet, I can’t stop watching it. Want to watch another one?”
Nate thought about it for a second. Was he really sitting here on Jasper’s bed having an actual conversation? It was probably a bad idea to sit here, and not just because watching someone else’s relay failures wasn’t great for strong visualization. But, this was the first real conversation that Nate and Jasper had ever had. Plus, Jasper looked like he actually wanted Nate to be there. He couldn’t find it in himself to say no.
“Sure?” Nate asked, letting his backpack drop on the floor. He leaned back against the wall to get more comfortable as Jasper started yet another one of the videos. Where on earth had Jasper even found these?
An indeterminable amount of time later, Nate woke up with his face mashed into a pillow in a bed that was not his bed. When he opened his eyes blearily, he saw Jasper sitting about three feet away at his desk, typing on his computer. That explained the bed.
Nate didn’t move, just blinked a few more times, trying to wake his brain up. Jasper was entirely focused on his work so Nate let himself just watch Jasper for a few minutes. It was rare to just get to watch Jasper while he wasn’t moving. Nate took a moment to appreciate how Jasper’s blond hair curled ever so slightly to fall into his eyes. His arm and leg muscles showed the hard work he’d put into training and conditioning. When Jasper wasn’t glaring at Nate or making Nate’s life miserable, he was actually pretty attractive.
Jasper reached up and angrily shoved a piece of hair out of his eyes. All right, Nate told himself, even when being a jerk, Jasper was attractive. Objectively speaking, Jasper was an attractive guy. But, Nate reminded himself, Jasper had also worked as hard as he could to make Nate’s life miserable during the first semester.
Unfortunately, staring at Jasper while in Jasper’s bed which smelled like Jasper (and how weird was it that Nate now knew that) immediately started leading to certain expected anatomical responses. So Nate quickly sat up and grabbed his backpack in order to hightail it to his room before things got worse.
Jasper whirled around in his chair.
“I’m just going to—” Nate started. Jasper looked at him intently. Nate wasn’t sure how to interpret it. Maybe intense was Jasper’s default. Maybe it wasn’t. Nate wasn’t really in a position to know.
“Yes…” Jasper said and then trailed off.
“Yeah, I’m just going to, uh, go,” Nate said and started walking backwards towards the door. Jasper watched him leave, his face still inscrutable.
“Thanks for letting me sleep in your bed,” Nate called as he turned around.
A group of three girls watching The Bachelorette started giggling at him and Nate felt his face turn bright red. Real smooth, Ashton, he told himself. Real smooth.
The next morning at practice, Jasper came up to Nate after their warm-up laps. “What are you working on today?” Jasper asked, as if they didn’t have the same schedule.
“Today, I’m doing VO2 max drills,” Nate said, a little confused. “And I’ve got hand-offs at 80%.”
Jasper didn’t move. “Want me to hold your feet?” he asked. Nate stared at him in confusion. Jasper looked a little nervous, his chin jutted out and a challenge written on his face. But he seemed sincere.
After a few seconds, Nate mentally shook himself. “Yeah,” he said.
Neither Nate nor Jasper talked during the warm-ups, Nate acutely aware of Jasper’s hands anchoring Nate’s ankles. When it came turn for Nate to hold Jasper’s ankles, Nate paused for a second. He’d anchored dozens of guys before, but something about putting his hands around Jasper’s ankles felt strangely intimate.
Jasper lifted up his head and glared at Nate, so Nate quickly sat down and grabbed Jasper’s ankles, trying to will away his blush.
After they finished and started walking over to Coach Khouri, Jasper started speaking nonchalantly. “Oh, by the way, my roommate is out tonight, if you want to come by.”
Before Nate could respond, they were flanked by the other sprinters, so Nate closed his mouth and tried to tamp down on the excitement in his stomach.
Nate and Jasper hooked up several more times throughout March, much to Nate’s extreme surprise. Jasper had even taken to talking to Nate of his own free will. It was almost alarming.
“Ashton,” Jasper said, sliding into the seat across from Nate during Nate’s Wednesday lunch break. Nate had a book out in front of him that he was studying from since he had a test that Friday before school let out for spring break.
Nate had looked up from where he was demolishing a chicken sandwich. “What?” he asked.
Jasper wrinkled his nose. “Come on, at least finish chewing before you answer.”
Nate shrugged and then swallowed. “What’s… going on?” he asked, assuming that there was a reason for Jasper joining him.
“Not much,” Jasper said, starting to eat his own chicken sandwich, interspersing it with bites of salad. Nate watched him for a few more seconds, but Jasper didn’t make any attempt to move, so Nate went back to eating and reading his book, figuring that whatever Jasper wanted would come out in its own time.
After a minute or two, Jasper stopped mid-sandwich and took a few bites of his salad. “So, Jack will be gone tonight. Want to come by?”
“Um, yes?” Nate said. He felt a little uncomfortable scheduling a booty call in the dining hall, but Jasper clearly felt no compunction. Jasper nodded. Nate expected him to pick up his tray and head off now that his business had been concluded, but instead he kept on eating the salad.
“Ugh,” Jasper said after a bit. “I have postmodern American literature next and I definitely did not finish all of the reading.”
“Postmodern American literature?” Nate asked, somewhat dubiously as he closed his book. Apparently there was going to be an actual conversation. “That sounds intense.”
“You have no idea,” Jasper said darkly. “I think that the professor must be going through an acrimonious divorce.”
“That’s the only reason that I can think of for why she’s being so fucking brutal. She’s taking out her horrible love life on us.”
Nate couldn’t stop his lips from twitching in amusement, but he kept his focus on his sandwich. “Sorry. Sounds like a bitch of a class.”
“It definitely is,” Jasper looked up, glaring slightly. “Not that I can’t handle it.”
Nate wanted to laugh at Jasper’s challenging tone, but he just raised a hand in placation. “Didn’t say otherwise.” Now that Nate thought about it, he had no idea what Jasper was studying, aside from postmodern American literature. “So are you an English major?”
“No, definitely not,” Jasper said. “I’m actually a business major, but that’s my freshman seminar. What’s yours?”
“Major or freshman seminar?”
Jasper shrugged. “Both?”
“Biology. But my freshman seminar is a history class—Religion and the Roman Empire.”
Jasper nodded appraisingly and began asking questions in that familiar, commanding voice of his about Nate’s schedule. It was an odd but pleasant lunch.
In fact, after the rest of the campus disappeared during spring break, whatever they were doing progressed to full on semi-regular hooking up. With Jasper’s roommate gone and the soccer team away at a big soccer tournament, Jasper took to just staying over every night in Nate’s room. He always seemed to know exactly when Nate was about to get back.
Nate was not complaining.
The first outdoor track meet was being held at the Lenny Lyles/Clark Wood Invitational in Louisville, Kentucky. As had now become extremely familiar, the team met at the athletic center at noon on Friday to begin loading up the equipment. By 12:30 p.m., everyone had loaded the equipment and their bags and boarded the bus.
Nate and Annette, Nate’s usual seat partner, took seats near the middle of the bus, Nate getting the window seat. Nate settled in, prepared to take his usual bus nap, when he felt someone poking at the back of his head. Nate turned around to find that Jasper and Ramon sitting behind him.
Nate raised his eyebrows.
“Your hair is getting all over my view,” Jasper said matter-of-factly.
Nate forced himself not to smile. “Is it now? I guess I’ll try to be more careful in the future.”
Nate settled into his seat for the second time, a nice warmth in his stomach. It felt like it was going to be a good meet.
After the bus arrived at the meet location, everyone slowly getting off the bus after a long drive, Nate and the other short-distance sprinters headed over to go change. The 100-meter would be one of the earlier events, so they would have to start warming up pretty soon.
Once everyone had changed, the short-distance sprinters headed down to the warm-up area to begin warming up. Mike Patel began leading everyone in the beginning exercises, allowing everyone to stretch out any tightness in their muscles.
Nate felt more than a little jumpy with anticipating and so he tried to focus extra hard once they switched to jogging and then their normal slower-paced sprint drills. In fact, Nate was so focused once they began doing full stretches that he didn’t notice when two other runners came up while they were stretching.
It was only when they began doing their technical drills and speed running that Nate realized that a few of the guys hanging around were oddly familiar. It took Nate a moment, but when Jasper’s face lit up and he jogged over to give them hugs, it clicked. Former teammates.
Nate immediately felt his body tense and he forced himself to relax, not wanting to undo the last thirty minutes of warm-up. But even so, he couldn’t stop himself from eavesdropping.
“Jasper!” one of the guys said excitedly. “I didn’t know that you guys were coming here!”
“Ray! Brent!” Jasper said, sounding happy. “I didn’t know that Vanderbilt was coming here.”
They exchanged the usual pleasantries, with lots of hugging and backslapping. Nate felt a little paranoid that one of them would recognize him or something along those lines, maybe have a reaction like Jasper 2.0. But the two guys didn’t even take a second look in the rest of the team’s direction before Mike yelled at Jasper to finish and the two guys headed off to their own team to finish their warm-ups.
The 60-meter and 200-meter on an indoor track may have been fine to get through Nate through the winter months, but there was nothing like sprinting outdoors. When Nate lined up for the 100-meter in heat three, he felt a straight line of excitement. It translated into the perfect burst of energy once the gun went off and Nate finished first in his heat to qualify for the finals, which would be the following day.
Jasper qualified as well, finishing first in his heat, and he felt good enough about it that he even deigned to high-five Nate when they walked back to the tent.
The two of them were in the same heat for the 200-meter, so after their warm-up, they lined up together in the waiting area.
“I bet I can beat you,” Jasper said as they waited to be called.
“Do you now? Sounds like a challenge,” Nate said.
When they took the starting blocks, Nate and Jasper were at opposite ends, so Jasper was staggered farther ahead than Nate, but Nate felt the familiar rush of knowing that Jasper was there as well. When the gun went off, Nate took off, using his desire to beat Jasper to push him to catch up.
The 200-meter allowed for more time to settle into their stride. For a brief moment in time, there was just Nate, the track and Jasper just up ahead. Nate pushed himself through the last twenty meters, his whole body straining, but Jasper breezed through a few hundredths of a second ahead of Nate, to come in first.
Nate swallowed down on the ball of frustration in the pit of his stomach. Nate had PR-ed at least and hopefully his time would be enough to qualify for the finals, but he wouldn’t know until the heats had finished. Taking a deep breath, he walked over to high-five Jasper.
Jasper brought Nate in for a hug and then swung a sweaty arm around Nate’s shoulders as they walked away to go start cooling down. “Told you,” Jasper said triumphantly. Nate rolled his eyes.
“I’m going to kick your ass at it tomorrow,” Nate said in response.
Jasper just smirked. “Haters gonna hate.”
Jasper was in the midst of trash-talking Nate on their way over to the warm-up/cool down area when someone called out. “Yo Jasper, great job!”
Jasper turned, a broad smile on his face that immediately fell when both Nate and Jasper saw that it was one of the guys from earlier. Presumably Ray or Brent. Jasper immediately pulled his arm away from Nate as if he’d been burned.
“Uh, Ray…” Jasper started.
Ray’s face comically went from looking happy to a sort of blank confusion.
“Hey, you’re… from South,” he said slowly.
“Um,” Nate said succinctly.
“You’re the fucking captain from South,” Ray said definitively, outrage now beginning to sound.
Nate wished that he could disappear.
“You—what the fuck are you even doing here?” Ray started again. “Are you—are you guys on the same team? Jasper?” He turned and looked at Jasper, clearly hoping that Jasper was going to provide some kind of clarification, explain that it was all a mistake.
Jasper opened his mouth, looking, for the first time that Nate had ever seen, actually lost. “It’s just—”
“You’re on the same team as this fuckface?” Ray started yelling.
“Ray…” Jasper started, holding out his hands, placating.
“USC. USC was looking at me. And Georgia,” Ray said. “And then his team got me so sick that I couldn’t even compete at state last year. They fucking poisoned our food. Or do you not remember? And you’re just palling around with this asshole like it didn’t even happen.”
Jasper had gone completely white.
“Jesus fucking Christ,” Ray said and then turned and stomped away.
Jasper stood frozen for a second, not looking at Nate at all. After a second, he sprang to life. “Wait, Ray!” he called and ran after the other runner.
Jasper didn’t return by the time that Nate, later joined by Mike and James, finished his cool down. Presumably Jasper did a cool down, he was too much of a serious competitor to not, but Nate found himself concerned all the same.
When Jasper eventually did make it back to the team meeting area, his face was studiously blank. He didn’t look once at Nate, instead keeping his eyes in the other direction.
The relay team headed over to the warm-up area half an hour before their race. Everyone on the relay team had already competed in two races, so Mike led them on an abbreviated warm-up: some light jogging and stretching before build-up.
This was their first relay as a group, so it was to be expected that they would have collective nerves. And while Mike and Iggy looked intently focused in the way that Nate often felt prior to a race, Jasper looked almost angry.
The group headed over to the staging area to prepare for their heat and then, once the previous race was cleared, to their assigned lanes for the handoffs. Nate tried making eye contact with Jasper where Jasper was lining up in the fourth lane as their first runner, but Jasper just turned his head away. Nate ignored the heavy pit in his stomach and walked over to his starting spot, making sure to be on the right side of the lane.
When the starting gun went off, Jasper immediately took off, arms pumping as he went straight down the stretch. Mike was next and he took off, just as they had practiced, accelerating just as Jasper caught up to him for a perfect hand-off.
Mike took off around the bed, gaining on the runner in front of him and keeping a good amount of distance between the runners coming up on the inside. Iggy took off, accelerating perfectly with Mike’s timing to hand off the baton. Then Iggy kept speeding up, round the bend.
Nate prepared himself and counted off the seconds, watching Iggy get closer. When Iggy reached the start of Nate’s imaginary trigger zone, Nate took off, no longer looking behind him. After four strides, Nate put his hand back. Half a second later, the baton was firmly pressed into Nate’s hand. Nate grabbed it and continued accelerating.
Nate didn’t look at any of the other runners, only focusing on the finish line up ahead. Nate’s stomach felt its usual rollercoaster, up-in-the-air, fear before Nate crossed the finish line, just behind the first runner.
Mike, Iggy and Jasper met Nate over at the finish line and Iggy and Mike had huge smiles on their face.
“Great job, team!” Mike said jubilantly as he pulled everyone in for a hug. Nate couldn’t help smiling, but Jasper instantly pulled back from where Nate had put his arm around him. Nate tried to quell the feeling of disappointment running through him. They had just qualified for the finals tomorrow, he reminded himself, and that was the only thing that mattered. It didn’t do much to assuage the sting.
The next day was a shit show. Jasper continued to ignore Nate as if there was an invisible wall sectioning Nate off so that he couldn’t hear or see him. Nate didn’t do badly in the 100-meter, coming in fourth. He’d also made the 200-meter, although he came in seventh there. Nothing to feel great about, though.
The worst was when the relay though. Everything about it felt off and the team came in at a disappointing sixth place, only finishing that high because the other teams disqualified by dropping the baton, DNF-ing.
On the bus ride back the next morning, Nate tried to focus on the positives from the weekend. He’d PR-ed in the 100-meter and 200-meter. They’d had a good first try as a relay team. But Nate couldn’t stop thinking about Jasper and the way that Jasper had looked when Ray had yelled at Jasper.
It wasn’t even his fault, Nate thought. A part of him wanted to go over and shake Jasper and tell him to listen to reason. That he was being unfair. Yet Nate of all people knew that fairness played no part in it.
“How did the meet go?” Jesse asked when Nate got back to his room.
“It was okay,” Nate said. “Good meet. PR-ed. Good.”
“So why do you look like it didn’t go well?” Jesse asked.
Nate looked away from Jesse over at his bed. “I don’t want to talk about it,” Nate said.
Jesse sighed. “I’m going to go grab lunch, want to come?”
“Sure,” Nate said, dumping his bag on the ground, grateful that Jesse was letting it drop.
“So we’ve decided to do a little bit more tinkering,” Khouri said the next day at the start of practice. She had pulled aside Nate, Mike, Jasper and Iggy. “Iggy, you’re moving back to first leg. Jasper’s going to be moving to the third leg.”
So Jasper would be passing off the baton to Nate. “Those are… big changes,” Nate said finally.
“Yeah, I know,” Khouri said. “But Coach Winters and I talked about it extensively after the meet on Saturday and we feel like this is how we would like to try the relay from this point. Iggy and Mike, I want you guys to practice hand-offs today. Jasper and Nate, your hand-offs as well.”
Nate risked a look over at Jasper, whose jaw was set in its familiar, angry way. Nate internally groaned.
“You need to hold out your hand earlier,” Jasper said. “I’m catching up to you and your hand isn’t even extended,” Jasper said, his voice getting increasingly loud.
Nate sighed. They’d already been through this almost half a dozen times. “Jasper,” he said, “I am putting out my hand and holding it out there and you are not putting the baton in it.”
Jasper’s jaw clenched, although Jasper was still refusing to actually make eye-contact with Nate. Instead, he stared just over Nate’s shoulder. “Can you not even manage this basic task? Are you that completely deficient?”
Nate felt something inside of him snap. He idly wiped a stray piece of grass off of his shirt. “It wouldn’t be a problem if you actually managed to run fast enough.”
Jasper tried to say something, but Nate lost it in Jasper’s snarl.
“I’m sorry. What was that?” Nate asked.
“You have no fucking clue what you’re doing out there. You couldn’t get this exchange down if we did it as a walk.” Jasper said, finally (finally) making eye contact with Nate. That was it, Nate was done with this shit.
“Don’t blame me for the fact that you’re just upset because your buddy from high school is angry that you weren’t holding a death-till-the-end grudge against me,” Nate said.
“Don’t talk to me about my friend. You know nothing about the situation!” Jasper yelled.
“I can tell you’re all bent out of shape because he thinks that you’ve been consorting with the enemy. All you care about is what your friends think, rather than the actual truth!”
Jasper’s breath hitched once and that was all the warning that Nate had before Jasper tackled Nate, pushing Nate to the ground.
Nate instinctively lashed out, trying to hit anything solid that he could connect with. Jasper’s fist connected once with Nate’s mouth. There was the brief impression of pain before the metallic taste of blood filled Nate’s mouth.
Nate thrashed wildly, hitting something soft that elicited a grunt from Jasper and then someone was grabbing him from behind, pulling the two of them apart as Jasper yelled, “You fucked over my entire track team! You ruined everything!”
Then Jasper fell silent as they both realized that Coach Winters stood there, watching everything. Nate stopped fighting against the hold of James.
“My office. Now,” Winters said.
Neither Jasper nor Nate needed to be told twice.
“What the hell did you two think that you were doing?” Coach Winters demanded once they stepped inside the office. Nate tucked his arms behind him and looked just to the left of Coach Winters’ face, trying not to swallow.
“I ought to suspend you both from the team right now,” Coach Winters said.
“Yes, sir,” Nate said, Jasper echoing half a second behind.
“This is a college organization. You are adults. You’re not some five-year-old children in a sandbox. We expect you to act your goddamn age, do you understand?”
Nate nodded, all too aware of the cut on his lip and the grass stains covering his shirt. “Yes, sir.”
“If you can’t put aside your differences to get along on the field, then neither of you deserve to be here.” Coach Winters closed his mouth, his jaw moving angrily as he stared at the two of them. “You boys had better think long and hard about where you want to be. Because right now, it sure as hell isn’t here.”
There was silence and Nate swallowed, his hands jerking behind his back.
“Now get out of my sight,” Coach Winters said.
Instead of heading to the locker rooms, which would be flooded shortly by the rest of the team, Nate headed around the building to the far end, sitting down on a bench overlooking staff parking. He closed his eyes and took a couple deep breaths.
He hated Jasper. Jasper ruined everything. Nate sighed as he mentally revised. He didn’t hate Jasper. Nate wished that he hated Jasper. It would be a lot easier if he did. It would probably also stop the horrible sense of emptiness that had been rapidly expanding since Friday.
The bench moved slightly as someone else sat down. Nate opened one eye. “Please just go away,” he said softly.
Jasper didn’t move.
Nate gently put his face in his hands. “You want to make my life miserable, I will let you do it any time you want. But just not right now. Please.”
Jasper didn’t move.
“Texas A&M recruited me,” Jasper said suddenly. “Until… you know, the championships.”
Nate wanted to laugh at the irony. They would have still ended up together. But the laugh caught in his throat.
“I hated you,” Jasper continued. “I really hated you. You took away what could have been my greatest opportunity.”
Nate put his hands down and turned towards Jasper. “I’m only going to say this once: I had nothing to do with what happened. I feel terrible that a couple of guys on my team got your team sick. To this day, I still don’t know what those guys thought—maybe they really did think it would be hilarious to lace your drinks with diuretics. Maybe they did it for worse reasons. I don’t know. Yes, I was the captain and my team was my responsibility. But that doesn’t mean that I did it.”
“I know,” Jasper said quietly, staring down at his hands.
There were rapidly darkening colors near Jasper’s eye that would soon be a complete bruise. Jasper’s mouth was set and he sat stiffly, but he was beautiful, so beautiful. Nate couldn’t look away.
Jasper turned to face Nate. Jasper unclenched one of his hands from his shirt and lifted it up in an abortive measure towards Nate. Nate leaned forward and kissed Jasper, drawing him closer. Jasper opened up beneath Nate, deepening the kiss. The cut on Nate’s lip reopened, but the sting of grounded Nate into the moment.
After a minute, Nate pulled back, panting slightly. Jasper just watched Nate as he brought his hand up and gently ran his thumb over the bruise on Jasper’s face. “I really like you,” Nate said quietly. “But if we’re going to keep running through this over and over again…”
Jasper tensed up and then he got that look on his face when he was steeling himself for a race. “Me too.”
“What?” Nate said.
“Me too. I really like you as well, Ashton. And I know…” Jasper said, starting to flush. Nate felt himself blushing as well. “I know that it wasn’t you. I just—those guys were my team too. I forgot that now you’re on my team as well.”
They both didn’t move for a second, Nate slowly beginning to smile. “You’re admitting that I’m right?” Nate asked.
“Maybe—but you still need to put your hand back sooner in the transition zone,” Jasper said, although he was smiling as well. Nate reached in, cupping Jasper’s face.
“Or you could just look and see that it’s already back there,” Nate said, leaning in to press a light kiss against Jasper’s lips. Jasper followed Nate when they broke apart, initiating another one.
“You never listen, you’re so stubborn,” Jasper said, in between kisses.
“You’re one to talk,” Nate said, or tried to say, but Jasper’s mouth seemed to be in the way and Nate couldn’t find it in himself to care.
“You guys ready for this?” Mike asked as they waited in the staging area. Nate felt like he had a million butterflies wreaking havoc inside him every single time he thought about the fact that they had actually made it all the way to the NCAA championships after almost three grueling months. You have this, he reminded himself, picturing a quiet, calm river.
“I’m ready,” Nate said. He threw a look over towards Jasper. Jasper had his usual game-day face on. The one that dared anyone to come challenge him. But he reached down and squeezed Nate’s hand.
“All right, let’s go,” Iggy said, and they followed the other teams in their heat heading out onto the track.