A chance at the Olympics has been everything Auden has always wanted, but now that it’s within his grasp, he finds himself slipping further away. Does he really want to be an Olympic gymnast when there’s so much more to life? To make things worse, he has both a major crush on his friends-with-benefits teammate, Trayce, and free-spirited musician named Shane. With Olympics trials looming on the horizon, Auden has to decide what he really wants and how much he’s willing to give up to get it. (M/M)

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Chapter 3: Changing Elements

Auden felt the strain in his arms as he lifted the ten pound weights, a repetition of twenty and then a short rest period. Warm-ups always seemed to take the most time. Auden watched some of the younger kids tumbling on the other side as Dorian looked on, arms crossed and a serious expression on his face. If it hadn’t been for Jules, Auden would have thought that Dorian only had one expression.

As he watched, Jules stepped up behind Dorian, poking him in the back and making him jump. Auden smiled to himself, watching them from across the gym. Dorian and Jules were the stuff of legend—if not from their days in the Olympics then from their relationship that seemed to fluctuate like a suspension bridge in the wind.

“Disgusting isn’t it? Love,” Trayce said from behind Auden. “Don’t know why people put themselves through it.”

Auden turned away from Dorian and Jules as Trayce grabbed a weight. “Not everyone is emotionally stunted.”

Trayce laughed. “Everyone is emotionally stunted. Some people just show it less. How was the show last night?”

“It was fine,” Auden muttered. He’d put the napkin with Shane’s number on it on his nightstand but hadn’t called yet. He wanted to, really wanted to, but what would he say? He’d never been on a real date. What he and Trayce did could barely be considered a relationship. They were friends only because they were on the same team and Trayce was the only one who understood the rules of the Masters of the X video game. Whenever Auden tried to play with Anya, she said shooting people and looking for a secret chest was too boring. No matter that finding the chest meant winning and completing a twenty-level game. Auden had been stuck at level seven for the past month—the next level had to be secret. That was why he couldn’t find it.

“I thought you liked shitty punk bands.” Trayce grinned at Auden’s unimpressed look.

Punk wasn’t just screaming into microphones and jumping into crowds. It was an escape. He didn’t have to think about it. He could just listen and pretend he was in the middle of a mosh pit where nothing mattered except the push and shove of the music.

Trayce might not have understood, but it was a release for Auden. He didn’t need to understand all the words or learn to play the chords on a guitar. It wasn’t like gymnastics—there was less structure, more freedom. He could close his eyes and get lost in the music. Everything else just melted away.

“It isn’t shitty.”

“It’s no Beatles.”

Auden rolled his eyes. “Forgive me if I don’t trust a Canadian’s judgment of music.”

“Fucker,” Trayce said good-naturedly. “I may be Canadian by birth, but I haven’t lived there since I was thirteen.”

“Seven years isn’t enough to wipe out a lifetime of bad music. What is Nickleback on, their twentieth album, and they still suck?” He glanced at Trayce as he did his reps of weights. If he called Shane, what would that mean for him and Trayce? He was perfectly aware of Trayce’s stance on love, but as much as Auden tried to tell himself that what he and Trayce did didn’t matter, he knew he was just lying to himself. He looked forward to their moments alone, when Trayce would invite him to his dorm after practice. Shane would change that. He paused. “At the trials, are you going to be trying out for the US team or the Canadian team?”

He hadn’t really thought about what Trayce would do. He knew he sometimes got a lot of shit for coming down here to train instead of staying in Canada. Trayce maintained that the US had better coaches and better facilities. Auden thought he liked the weather better too.

“I was thinking I’d just wait a couple years and try out for the hockey team instead. Much more Canadian,” Trayce replied, deadpan. “Shit, Auden. I applied for citizenship last year. You really think I’m going to abandon my team?”

“Well, you are from Canada.”

“And Danell Leyva was from Cuba, but he competed on the US team.”

He had a point, and Auden would admit to feeling relieved. The possibility of Trayce ditching him for Canada gave him an unexpected lurch in his stomach. Not that it mattered what Trayce did, Auden told himself. In the trials, they would be on their own. No more teams. That’s what all the work was for.

“I guess,” Auden agreed finally, and Trayce smiled. It was the kind of smile that made Auden want to throw away Shane’s number and convince himself that Trayce felt something more than friendship for him.

“I’m not gonna abandon you just like that,” Trayce said, grabbing him by the neck and giving him a slight shake. “I need you to make the team.”

Auden stared at him for a second, wondering what exactly he meant. A balloon began to expand in his chest, pressing against his heart as he thought of how much trials meant to everyone else. Trayce wanted this so badly he’d do anything to get it. And he wanted Auden to get it too.

“Yeah?” Auden asked, his skin tingling where Trayce’s hand still rested.

Trayce grinned after a second. “I gotta at least have some competition.”

Auden rolled his eyes as Trayce dropped his hand, the hopeful bubble bursting. “I’m sure everyone who makes the team will be good enough.”

Trayce smirked. “Maybe, but it’s also in France this year. That means all that romantic stuff you love.”

“Right,” Auden scoffed. “Because you’d definitely—”

“Auden!” Dorian interrupted him. He’d left the younger kids and gestured at Auden. “Let’s go to my office and work out your routines.”

Auden left Trayce without another word and followed Dorian out of the gym. They walked down the hallways plastered with photographs of past winners—championship winners, Olympic team members. The last photo they passed was of him, his World Champion gold medal on the pommel horse. That moment seemed so long ago even though it had barely been a few months. That had been the moment everything had become real.

Dorian led the way into his office. Auden had only been in it once before, though he remembered little of the visit. It had merely been a formality after deciding to come to train at the Center, just his parents signing papers since he hadn’t been eighteen yet. Now, at twenty, it seemed like a whole lifetime had passed since then.

Dorian’s office was scattered with papers, and filing cabinets stood against the wall. Photographs hung up here as well—photos of Dorian’s Olympics, gold and silver medals, even a picture of Jules receiving his gold medal in the all-around in 2012. Dorian took his seat and waited for Auden to do the same.

Whatever changes Dorian suggested, Auden would make them. He wasn’t a quitter—he couldn’t be.

Dorian leaned back in his chair and smiled at Auden. It was a rare thing to see. “I’ve been coaching for more than ten years now, and of all the people I’ve seen come through here, I don’t think I’ve seen anyone with as much potential as you.”

An invisible boulder settled on Auden’s chest as he sat there, heavy and suffocating.

“When you won gold in World’s, I knew then we’d have to work harder than ever. The Olympics are not just going to be handed to you. You have to want it, and you have to be talented enough to get it. There are hundreds of other gymnasts out there who have dreamed of the moment they’ll be chosen for an Olympic team. Hell, there are gymnasts in that gym back there who are thinking the same thing right at this very moment. Most of them won’t ever make it. You have a chance that they’ll only dream of. If you want to win, you have to be willing to sacrifice everything else for the next two months. You have to push harder, want it more, be better.” Dorian paused, leaning back in his chair.

Auden knew all of this—he’d heard it before, but somehow, it all seemed so much more serious now, as if one mistake could jeopardize everything. He was going to get through it, for Dorian, for Anya.

Dorian smiled then, surprising Auden, not reassuring him at all though it was supposed to.

“So let’s talk about your routines. I think all we need are just a few new elements here and there and you’ll be Olympics material.”

Gathering himself together, Auden took a deep breath around the invisible hand squeezing his throat and sat up straighter. He wasn’t going to quit. He wouldn’t just throw it away for the sinking feeling in his stomach. Instead, he tried his best to listen to what Dorian said and promised to work hard on incorporating the new elements into his routine. He’d do whatever it took.

Chain Link

Dinner was three ounces of chicken, a salad, and an orange. Auden slid into the seat next to Anya, setting his plate down on the table. Anya barely glanced at him, too intent on watching someone on the other side of the room.

“Do you think Liam is straight?”

“Probably.” Auden didn’t know, but he could guess. Most of his conversations with Liam tended to be about leverage and upper body strength. Then again, that was how most of his conversations went with the other guys at EGC. The only one he ever talked to about anything else was…

Trayce plopped down in the chair on the opposite side of the table, rattling Auden’s plate as he sat down.

“Hey,” Anya greeted him, still gazing over at Liam a few tables over. Auden rolled his eyes at her and poked at his salad instead.

“Hey,” Trayce replied, nodding at Auden. “So how many elements did Dorian add?”

“Just two and changed two others.” Dorian had been right about the routine. Playing it safe was for rookies, and he’d been at this long enough to know his limits and where to push them. The difficulty didn’t bother him; he could do the new elements fairly easily. They hadn’t been anything crazy like new dismounts.

“Ugh, I’m so jealous,” Anya huffed, pushing the salad around her plate. “Paris. You get to go to Paris.”

“I haven’t made the team,” Auden reminded her.

“Please,” she scoffed, waving an inconsequential hand, “you will, and then you’ll be going off to Paris without me.” She sighed, sounding forlorn. “Do you think I’d fit in your suitcase? I’m small and flexible!”

Thinking about Paris wasn’t nearly as exciting as it should have been, and Auden shrugged at her question. “Sure. You can keep me company as I watch from the sidelines.”

Trayce shot him a look over his water bottle. “Dorian’s already picked out your seat on the plane.”

If Auden didn’t know Trayce any better, he would have said Trayce was jealous over Dorian’s treatment. Glancing up, he caught Trayce’s eyes, grey with flecks of blue. He looked away from Trayce licking his lips slowly.

“He’s got yours picked out too.”

“You’ve always been his favorite,” Trayce went on, nudging Auden’s ankle under the table.

“Can we just talk about something else?” he said instead. Sometimes, it felt like there was nothing else to talk about.

For his question, he received an arched eyebrow from Trayce. Anya was busy staring across the cafeteria, trying to get a good look at Liam where he sat with the rest of their teammates.

“If you’re worried you’re not gonna make it,” Trayce said, lowering his voice slightly and leaning over the table towards Auden, something more sincere than Auden had seen before in his eyes.

“No,” he interrupted Trayce. “I mean. I just want to talk about something else.”

Trayce didn’t reply, leaning back and watching Auden instead. His gaze made Auden uncomfortable in a different kind of way, like he could see right through his fake confidence.

“Trayce, do you think Liam’s straight?” Anya asked instead, thankfully changing the subject, although not to one Auden was particularly interested in either.

“As an arrow,” Trayce replied with such certainty that it made Auden glance at him. Trayce smirked back and stabbed his salad.

Chain Link

Back in his dorm, Auden flopped down on the entirely too small twin bed that came standard in the Center and sighed at the ceiling. Just once he’d like to get through a meal without someone bringing up trials or training or competition stats. Glancing around his walls, it just made his stomach sink. The walls were covered with pictures of old Olympic medalists. Each one had a medal hanging around his neck and grinned at the camera as though it was the best day of his life. He hadn’t changed his walls in the past couple years since coming to the Center, and when he’d put those up, he’d been so sure he’d be one of them soon. Now, looking at them just made him feel sick to his stomach.

Groaning, Auden threw an arm over his face. Why couldn’t things go back to how they had been before the World Championships? The Olympics had been so far off at that point. They had been an untouchable dream, something that might never come to pass. Now, they were real, tangible, less than two months away, and he’d endured nothing but endless confidence from everyone he knew that he would make the team. It was enough to make him hate the idea of going. What if he didn’t make it?

There hadn’t been so much pressure then. There hadn’t been this pit of dread in his stomach. There had to be something to make it go away, something to distract him from the impending competition, the fate of his career as a gymnast.

As he lay there, Dorian’s words came back to him, as they so often had since the World Championships; “A medal at World’s paves the way to the Olympics… I expect to see you on that team come July.” He’d played them over and over. When he’d said it, back in December, Auden hadn’t thought anything of it. It had been exactly what he wanted, but it had sunk into his consciousness over the past few months. It had become a huge expectation, one he was required to live up to.

He didn’t even know when the excitement had turned to lead in his stomach. Everything had gotten more serious, more focused, and he felt like he hadn’t fallen in line somehow. Everyone had upped their expectations and somehow, things had changed.

For a moment, he contemplated walking down to Trayce’s dorm. Trayce would be there—the only other thing to do on a Wednesday night was hang out in the lounge and watch TV. He knew how it would go; he and Trayce would start out playing Masters of the X but they wouldn’t make it past one round before they’d end up tangled in Trayce’s bed. They both knew the video game was just a pretense. It wouldn’t help him at all.

That was one option, Auden thought as he lay on his bed, listening to the thud of music coming through the walls from a neighboring room. He’d done it before, but there was always something missing. No matter what he told Anya, he was well-aware of his unrealistic crush on Trayce, Trayce, who didn’t feel remotely the same.

What else was there to do but sit there and worry himself with thoughts of Olympic trials, though? Sitting up, Auden resolved that even if it wasn’t anything to Trayce, it was still something to do. He reached for his dorm key on his bedside table, but his eyes fell on the crumpled napkin with Shane’s phone number on it. It had been a few days since the show, and Auden had never been very good at taking the first step with guys, but what did he really have to lose?

Grabbing his cell out of his pocket, he tapped in Shane’s number and waited.

“Shane’s phone,” came the answer a moment later.

“Hi,” Auden said, grimacing at the word, so plain. “It’s Auden, from the Barefoot Matador show?” He wasn’t sure why he said it like a question, but maybe Shane wouldn’t remember him. Maybe he gave his number to lots of guys at bars.

“The gymnast,” Shane supplied a second later, a grin in his voice. “Was beginning to think you wouldn’t call.”

Auden swung his legs off the side of his bed and scooted to the edge. “I told you I didn’t have time for anything but training.”

“Usually that’s a polite brush-off,” Shane said. “Didn’t know you were serious.” There was a slight pause. “So if you’re so busy, what made you change your mind?”

“I didn’t change my mind.” Auden shifted, glancing up at the photograph of the 2008 Olympics with both Dorian and Jules in the middle of the team photo. He didn’t even remember watching that year—he’d only been four years old—but he’d watched it enough times afterward to remember every detail. His mother liked to say that it had been the beginning of the end. “I was just thinking that it’d be nice to get out.”

“Out?” Shane repeated curiously.

Auden wasn’t sure how to put it. He just needed to be somewhere other than the gym all the time. He needed to be around someone who didn’t constantly talk about body mass and muscle strength.

“I train more than thirty hours a week. It’s almost a full-time job these days. It can get… tiring, and if you were still interested, I thought maybe we could hang out.” He wasn’t sure he was quite getting his point across. He wasn’t sure he could just come out and say that Shane was very good-looking and would he want to climb a mountain and make out at the top? “You said you hiked?”

There was another pause in which something knotted up inside Auden’s chest and he was reminded why he didn’t try this with anyone other than Trayce who would agree with the simple promise of getting inside Auden’s pants.

“I do,” Shane agreed at length. “In fact, I was planning on going this weekend. You sure you want to try, though? It’s a bit rougher than jumping around on a mat.”

Auden laughed. “You have no idea how many times I’ve been injured on a mat. I’m sure I can handle hiking.”

“Okay,” Shane agreed after a second, the smile back in his voice, and it made Auden excited just to hear it. “How about you meet me at the Echo Canyon trailhead at Camelback Mountain Saturday morning, bright and early.”

Auden couldn’t believe he was doing this. He’d have to skip practice, and Dorian was super strict about any outside sports, but this could be his only chance—Dorian would kill him if he found out. “Yeah.” Besides, his heart fluttered stupidly when Shane laughed on the other end of the phone.

“I’ll see you then, gymnast.”

Auden hung up, a grin spreading across his face. He’d just made a date with someone outside of the Center. That was definitely a first.

He tried not to think of what Dorian would say when he missed practice, but it was only a supplementary practice. Surely, it wasn’t that big of a deal? Though he thought it, he knew it wasn’t true. He wasn’t going to let apprehension about training get in the way of the elation filling him as he sat there. Flopping back on his bed, he realized he was actually looking forward to tomorrow because tomorrow was one day closer to Saturday.

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