Two days after receiving the mysterious icy injection, Jalen was fully immersed in the Beals Space Exploration Program. This was their third full day on the campus, and each one had been busy practically from sunup to sunset. He'd been tested in group projects where he and his team members had to successfully navigate different survival scenarios in simulated alien terrain. He'd spent hours in classes learning the star maps of Galaxy BMS 4425 - the location of planet Zareen, and the specifics of the highly advanced beacon space navigation system. And most interesting so far - other than the flight simulator - practicing with the neural translator.
The translator allowed the wearer to understand almost any language spoken to them. The technology was impressive; sleek, light, and smaller than his sister's cochlear implant. The Beals tech running that training session admitted it was one of the few items they'd taken wholesale from the Zareenians. Tevoris was there as well, and he'd smiled smugly at the tech's admission. The translators they'd used in the training were temporary, as the permanent models required specific adjustments for each wearer. As a result, there'd been a slight lag between Tevoris speaking in his native language and Jalen understanding him.
Jalen had been fascinated by it, as languages were an area of interest for him. He spoke English of course, but also Spanish, and serviceable Russian since that had long been a requirement for astronauts. He also knew enough not to be an annoying tourist in French-speaking countries and was fluent in American Sign Language. His immediate family had all dedicated time learning to sign after one of the twins was diagnosed with congenital hearing loss.
Now, Jalen stood at the starting line on the indoor running track. He and everyone else in the program were undergoing another physical assessment. This time Beals was looking at their VO2 Max, general lung capacity and probably a host of other things. Each recruit on the track wore a small, digital VO2 mask, while Coach Staggs stood in front of the group, a clipboard in his hand, and a silver whistle around his neck.
"I want to remind you all this isn't a race. It's simply for our department to get a reading on your physical abilities. Your goal isn't to beat the guy next to you. Your goal is to give us the most accurate read out of the way your lungs convert oxygen during exertion."
Everyone agreed, but a few of the people lined up laughed. Jalen smirked as well. He hated running for the sake of running, he preferred a pigskin tucked close to his chest, a crowd cheering him on and an end goal in sight, but once the bell went off his drive to win wouldn't let him languish at an easy speed. He'd be at the front of the pack aiming for the fastest time.
The coach shook his head, apparently realizing his reminder was falling on deaf ears. He stepped off the track, conferring one last time with his assistants before they got started.
As he waited, Jalen lifted his foot, grabbing his toes behind him to stretch his quad. He looked off to the side, where the next groups to be tested waited on the sidelines. Jalen's eyes went directly to Shane. That was a new development, but it seemed to be happening a lot lately. He didn't know whether to blame it on the fact that they were thrown together after so long apart or that he didn't know anyone else there. But over the past two days, Shane had constantly been on his mind.
That wasn't the only new development. Somehow, Shane looked even bigger than when he'd arrived. Jalen wasn't sure how that could be true, they weren't exactly working on bulking up in the recruitment program. And at twenty-seven, Shane should definitely be finishing growing in height. But... Jalen ran his eyes down the length of his friend's tall, mountain man-esque build, his eyes catching on the thick thighs straining the fabric of his shorts. He really did look bigger.
Jalen dragged his gaze back up from those powerful thighs and saw that Shane was watching him. Heat skittered over Jalen's skin and he quickly looked away, embarrassed to be caught staring.
What was wrong with him? Jalen switched to stretching the other quad, then released his foot to jog in place. He hadn't come here with the goal in mind of hooking up with anyone - least of all his old friend. So why was he ogling Shane like the man was an all you can eat buffet and Jalen had just walked in the door double-fisting forks?
"Runners, affix your masks and take your marks."
Jalen snapped out of his internal dialogue and got ready to run. He tugged the Beals Tech digital VO2 mask securely over his mouth and nose and shook his legs out one last time. Once everyone was in place - some partially kneeling in a traditional sprinter's stance, some in a more relaxed, upright pose like Jalen - the coach blew the whistle. The pack took off, Jalen near the head of it.
Even though he was focused on making sure he won this not a race, he couldn't help but notice that his stride felt smoother, his lungs easily pulling in air to fuel his blood and muscles as he sprinted around the track. Jalen lowered his chin, his eyes intense as he brought up a sudden burst of speed. The people near him were nothing but a blur of flesh tones and the gray of their PT uniforms, their running feet an indistinct thunder of noise in his ear. Soon all of that receded even further as he pulled away from the pack. He might be smaller than nearly everyone else on the track with him, but he was fast. Faster than them. And he proved it by crossing the finish line first.
Jalen ran it out a few extra steps, gradually easing to a stop. As instructed before the race, he left the VO2 mask on, but his grin behind it was huge as he left the track with a significant amount of swagger to his step. He made his way over to one of the staff members. She recorded his volume of oxygen, as well as a dozen other details. Coach Staggs walked past just as Jalen unbuckled the mask from the back of his head.
"I said that wasn't a race, Captain Morgan." Staggs paused, then smiled a bit. "But you have great form and speed. Could have used you in the St. Louis games eight years ago."
"Thank you, sir," Jalen said as he nodded his acceptance of the compliment. It was high praise coming from an actual former Olympics track coach. The coach nodded back and moved on down the line of recruits. Still full of adrenaline, Jalen lightly jogged over to meet Shane on the sideline.
"You looked good out there."
He accepted the bottle of water Shane handed him. "Thanks. That was my best time ever. Guess having a crowd of people at my back was a big motivator."
"Maybe you should have run cross country instead of playing football."
Jalen pulled a face. "No way. Cross country is entirely too much running. And they have to get up way too early in the morning."
Shane threw back his head, a deep laugh rumbling from his chest. "I swear, I don't know how you ended up as a running back with as much as you hate running."
Jalen grinned himself. "The shorts bursts I can handle. Anything more than that is ridiculous." He eyed his friend as Shane continued to laugh. "You seem bigger," he said once Shane quieted.
Shane looked down at himself. "No, my clothes are just smaller. Had to send in for new uniforms since they shrank in the wash, but I didn't bother with my PT gear. Figured I'd let the tight t-shirts show off my muscles."
Jalen looked Shane over again, not accepting the smaller clothes theory. "My uniform didn't shrink."
"Maybe the person in charge of my floor's laundry used the wrong setting." Shane shrugged, clearly unconcerned.
"Hmmm... maybe." That explanation was as good as any, but Jalen still felt like they lined up differently than they had before. He started to say as much, but just then, a tall blond recruit walked past. The man looked at Jalen, giving him the type of smile that was usually followed by an offer to buy him a drink. Jalen wrinkled his nose and took a step back in a near visceral rejection. The man didn't stink, so Jalen didn't know why he'd reacted that way. Shane took a step to the left, effectively putting his body between Jalen and the other man. It was done so quickly and naturally that Jalen didn't know whether Shane had done it on purpose or not.
It didn't matter. The man was gone, while Shane was still there looking down at him. He didn't say anything, but something, crackled in the air between them. A charge so electric that when Jalen drew in a breath, he expected to smell the petrichor of a coming storm. He didn't. Instead he inhaled a heady scent that was hot and powerful, and made arousal pool low in his belly. Jalen abruptly took another step back, out of the shadow of Shane's bulk, and away from that big body that seemed to be radiating heat.
"They're calling the next group to the track," he said to cover for his reaction.
Shane stared at him for what felt like an endlessly long moment, both of them unnaturally still while everyone around them moved and talked and laughed. Then, with unspoken questions in his green eyes, he nodded before going to take his place at the starting line. Jalen watched him go, a warm flush spreading across his skin as he once again noted his friend's powerful build. Deciding to head back to the residence hall and beat the lunch rush, Jalen left the track. He'd originally planned to stay to watch Shane's assessment and eat with him afterward. But after that exchange, he thought it would be in his best interest if he put a little distance between the two of them.
Hours later, Jalen sat up in bed. It was late, and he'd been actively busy from sunup to sunset learning Beals flight technology, taking physical tests, and sitting for math assessments, but he wasn't even remotely tired. On the contrary, he was restless in a way he'd never been before. His skin tingled, hyper sensitive to the chill air stirring in the room, and he was unusually aware of the clothes on his body. It seemed as though he could smell everything: people, food from the cafeteria on the ground floor, the roses outside. And his thoughts kept returning to Shane, over and over, wondering where he was, what he was doing.
They'd always been close, but this sudden laser focus on his friend was driving him mad. And the more Jalen thought of him, the more his blood hummed. He needed to burn off some of this energy. They'd worked out that day in addition to the VO2 Max test, but more exercise might help him settle down to sleep.
At the thought of finding peace through physical exertion, Jalen got up from the bed. He was already dressed in sweats and a t-shirt so he pulled on socks and tennis shoes, grabbed a bottle of water from the small fridge and left his room.
Other recruits milled around the halls, and he said hello to the faces he recognized as he made his way to the smallest of the gyms on the campus. It was on the ground floor of the residence tower at the far end of the building from the cafeteria. Once inside he looked around, trying to determine what he wanted to do. Running wasn't his favorite thing, so the treadmill was out. He started to head toward the free weights but changed his mind when he spied the speed bag. That's what he needed to burn up this strange energy. Some fast footwork while he pounded away at something.
He quickly yet carefully taped his wrists, then stretched after jogging in place for a few moments. Once he'd warmed up, he started working the speed bag. He quickly fell into a groove, his fists landing on the leather with a satisfying thud, feet moving as he ducked under the bag, and popped up on the other side for more strikes. It felt good to be active, letting the physical exertion clear his head.
The first drops of sweat were beading on his forehead and trickling down his spine when the sound of the door opening drew his attention. Jalen stopped for a second, prepared to be polite and greet whomever was entering before getting back to his workout. But it was Shane there. Jalen sucked in a quick breath, his budding peace instantly gone.
Shane looked almost confused to see him, before his face eased into a familiar smile.
"Hey, how are you?" he asked as he crossed the room.
Jalen shrugged, deciding not to share the full extent of his issue with his friend. "Felt a little restless so decided to get in another workout."
Shane huffed a laugh. "Same. What do you think about giving that poor speed bag a rest and sparring instead?"
Jalen arched a brow. "Against you?"
Shane arched his own brow. "There's no one else in here."
"You're on." Jalen couldn't resist that cocky challenge. He went back to the supply cabinet and drew on a pair of sparring gloves, took off his socks and shoes, then waited while Shane got gloved and stretched. When he was ready, he joined Jalen on the mat.
After a quick handshake, they squared off, lightly bouncing on the balls of their feet while sizing each other up. They hadn't sparred together since military school. Shane had always won their earliest rounds using his greater bulk and reach. However, once Jalen got tired of losing, he'd learned a few tricks, as well as a style that used his smaller size to his advantage. After that, they were more evenly matched. And Jalen had greatly increased his skill since their school days.
Shane aimed a quick jab at Jalen's jaw, but he easily ducked the blow. "You're not pulling your punches, are you?" he teasingly asked as he danced away from Shane's long reach.
"Against you?" Shane parroted the words back. "Never."
Jalen rolled his eyes because Shane was definitely pulling his punches. Technically they both were, since they were only sparring. Regardless, they got a little more serious, each looking for weaknesses in the other to exploit. Jalen tried a middle round kick and was blocked. Shane tried to grab him in a double tie so he could catch him with a knee, but Jalen countered and escaped just in time.
The action sped up, and it became more difficult to evade the moves Shane came at him with. So, Jalen focused on a favorite strategy: faking his opponent out. Shane was too smart to fall for obvious tells, like looking where he planned to strike or concentrating on a specific body part. Which meant he needed to be subtler. Every fighter had a side they favored. Most led with their right and their opponents defended themselves accordingly.
However, Jalen was a southpaw, and Shane knew that. He'd set his stance to defend against Jalen's left-handed moves and Jalen played into it. Then without warning, Jalen switched it up. He started striking with a right lead that had just as much power as his left. Shane frowned, shifting as he adjusted his defense. So, Jalen switched back to a left lead, forcing Shane to adjust again, looking visibly frustrated and off balance.
Jalen took advantage of his opponent's momentary confusion on where his next strike would come from and darted in close. Gripping Shane's arm, he jumped up and wrapped his legs around Shane's neck in a scissors hold. He swung down and around, using his momentum to flip Shane to the ground. They fell to the mat, Shane on his back and Jalen landing on top of him. Jalen locked his legs around Shane's thighs to hold him in place and braced a forearm over the bigger man's throat.
"I won," he said with a smug grin.
Shane didn't answer for several heartbeats. "Yes, you did," he finally said.
Shane's response made Jalen pause. The timber to his voice was... off. Jalen slightly tilted his head to the side, his brows drawing together in a frown as he tried to figure it out. They were both still, Shane quietly staring up at Jalen and Jalen staring right back. Suddenly, Shane drew in a deep breath, his chest rising, and nostrils flaring.
The tension and electricity between them returned, dancing over Jalen's sensitive skin, making the hair on his arms stand up. He ran his tongue over his lip, and Shane's eyes dropped to watch. When they rose to meet Jalen's again, they caught the light in an odd way that made them shine silver for a moment. Jalen became excruciatingly aware that he was straddling Shane's lap, their groins just shy of pressing together. Before he could move however, Shane gently grasped Jalen's arm, sliding it away from his throat. Then, their gazes still locked, Shane pulled him down. He went slowly, while Jalen's heartbeats sped up with every breath of space that closed between them.
When there was no space left, their lips met. Jalen gasped in surprise, and Shane seized the advantage to stroke his tongue between Jalen's parted lips. He placed a hand at the small of Jalen's back, then smoothed it down, cupping his ass, holding him in place as he rolled his hips up. Caught up in the unexpected swirl of arousal, Jalen's eyes slid shut and he instinctively pressed his own hips down, moving in tandem with Shane to rub their hardening shafts together. It felt... good. So good that Jalen softly moaned into their kiss, wanting to touch Shane, wanting to feel Shane's hands all over his body claiming him.
The odd thought broke him out of the sensual haze he drifted in. He jerked backwards, ending the kiss and tumbling off his friend to land on the mat. They stared at each other in silence once more. Except this time, Shane's green eyes were wide, mirroring the shock that had Jalen's heart pounding.
"I'm sorry," Shane apologized as he slowly sat up. "I... I don't know what came over me."
Jalen didn't have a clue how to respond to that. He didn't know what had come over him either. Didn't know why they'd kissed, didn't know why it felt so right, and didn't know why he'd had that odd thought about being claimed. Since he didn't have any answers, Jalen pushed himself to his feet, grabbed his shoes and walked off, leaving both the gym and Shane behind without looking back.
* * *
When Shane woke the next morning, his first thoughts were of Jalen and the kiss they'd shared. He really didn't know what had come over him. Shane had long been attracted to his friend. That he admitted, if only to himself. However, he hadn't planned to act on it. Certainly not now, when they were in the middle of a rigorous selection process to get into a space exploration program. But with Jalen on top of him, he'd drawn in a breath and realized that gorgeous scent that he wanted to pull deep into his lungs was coming from the man straddling his lap. Maybe it was a cologne that was enhanced by the other man's exertion. Shane didn't know. He did know that Jalen's arousal had been real. As had his shock and abrupt departure.
"Damnit." He softly swore at the memory of Jalen running away from him. He needed to apologize with a little more clarity and assurance today.
With that goal in mind, Shane got up to shower and dress. When he went down to breakfast, he filled his tray, then looked around for Jalen. He found him at a table in the center of the room, already eating. Balancing his tray on one hand, Shane went over to him.
"Is it okay if I sit down?"
His expression wary, Jalen nodded.
Thankful Jalen hadn't told him to get lost, Shane sat and placed his tray on the table. "I want to apologize for last night. Like I said, I don't know what came over me, but that's no excuse. It was completely out of line." Jalen took a bite of toast while Shane apologized. He watched as a smear of butter touched Jalen's bottom lip, making the soft, plump skin glisten. Shane paused, waiting for Jalen to notice and wipe it away, while thinking how much he'd love to suck that butter off himself.
Fuck, fuck, fuck. Shane cursed to himself while a flush crawled up the back of his neck. He shouldn't be sitting there fantasizing about kissing Jalen again while he was apologizing for kissing him the first time. Clearing his throat, he continued. "It won't happen again." He thought he was finished talking, but then Jalen made direct eye contact with him as he slowly ran his tongue over his lip, catching up that glistening smear of butter. The next words popped out before Shane could stop them. "Unless you want it to."
Jalen's eyes widened in surprise. But he didn't look disgusted, or even shocked as he had last night. His cheeks flushed and Shane swore he glimpsed interest and desire in those dark eyes before Jalen lowered his lashes to look down at his plate. Shane's fingers tightened on the fork he held. If they weren't in a room full of people he would-
"How are you two doing?"
Shane snapped his head up at the interruption. Dr. Oliver stood there, smiling down at them. It was the first time he'd been directly addressed by the head of the medical team, so his sudden appearance while Shane had a plate full of rapidly cooling eggs in front of him was unexpected.
"I'm doing great, sir."
"Same here," Jalen answered.
"Still excited about the program?"
"Yes, definitely," Shane said with a nod. "A little more excited each day actually."
"Excellent, excellent." Dr. Oliver continued staring at them, his large, blue eyes bright and unblinking. "Have either of you experienced any changes in mood or otherwise?"
Shane frowned slightly. "This seems like a question that should be asked during an exam."
The doctor finally blinked as he laughed. "Ah, yes. Privacy factors and all that. I assure you I only asked out of informal curiosity. But I understand your reluctance to answer over breakfast in front of others, so forget I brought it up. However, I would like to say that if you're experiencing any... tensions, just relax and let what happens happen."
He paused and expectantly stared at them with that odd, unblinking gaze, but neither Shane or Jalen said anything to fill the silence.
"I've noticed you two together a lot," he eventually said.
Shane and Jalen glanced at each other. Shane wondered if that was something that would disqualify them, and no doubt Jalen was thinking the same.
"We went to military school together, but that's all. And we disclosed that in our applications." Jalen said. "We're just sticking with a familiar face."
"That's fine. Personal relationships are encouraged actually. We want to make sure those who are selected for the Beals Space Exploration Program get along, as you'll be on a ship together for quite some time."
"That makes sense." It grew awkwardly quiet again. Shane looked at the doctor, noticing how black his wild mess of curls was. It was obviously colored, he'd be able to tell that even if he couldn't smell the chemicals on it. Shane figured it must be freshly dyed for him to have picked that out with all the food smells around them.
The doctor smiled. "Well, I'll leave you to your meals."
He strolled away, but Shane was no longer interested in his cold eggs. "That was odd."
"Yeah. I wonder what made him come over here?"
"Probably checking to see if we've started turning into space Banes."
They laughed with some of their usual familiarity but it quickly faded as the tension from before returned. That luscious scent, which he now knew without a doubt came from Jalen, teased Shane's nose again. He had to know what it was but tried to play it cool. "What cologne are you wearing?" he asked before calmly taking a sip of his orange juice.
A frown creased Jalen's forehead. "I'm not wearing anything. Just my anti-perspirant." He raised an arm and sniffed his armpit. "Why, do I stink?"
Shane choked on the juice he'd just swallowed, ruining the nonchalant effect he was going for. "No. Not at all. You smell nice, actually." So nice that Shane's body was reacting to it, while in his head he pictured pressing his face to Jalen's skin, and breathing in his scent. Blood started heading south to a very specific location, so Shane abruptly stood up from the table.
"I have to go," he said stiffly. Then, without eating a single thing on his plate, Shane dumped his tray on the collection carousel and hurriedly left.
Author Note: Ah, the good ole 'Kiss then Fight' trope. I'm a fan. That was one of the first scenes I had in my head when planning this story. And that doctor is a tad creepy.
Will our boys kiss again? Find out next Sunday!
Thank you for reading and let me know what you think in the comments. =)
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