warnings: None, really.
summary: A story in which Alfred and Ivan play football and Alfred may have jealousy problems.
It’s easy for them to be rivals. The football field encourages competition—encourages people to clash and fight, to bear teeth and dig their heels into the ground, to push with all their might. It’s the expression of primitivism in a culture long since civilized, the jarring hits and tumbles and furious running, the goal, ever ahead. It’s Rome’s ancient Coliseum rebuilt for a modern society.
Or that’s what some glorify it as, pretty words to cover the truth of it.
Football is dirt and sweat and pain and for Alfred, it’s his life.
He started playing football as a child, obsessed with the heroes he watched on television. And maybe he never grew out of that phase, the same hero-worship of youth dogging his steps every time he sat down to watch a game. Alfred loved football in a way that was intimate and familiar, like the way he loved a brother.
Football meant grass stains and mud, and pushing until all his muscles burned, until he sagged with fatigue.
Simply put, football made Alfred happy.
But it wasn’t just the game play of football. Alfred is a science nerd, he likes physics and equations, trajectory paths and distance formulas. He likes calculators and calculations and quantum mechanics and things that boggle the mind.
No one gets it when Alfred explains with a smile the connection between football and physics. To them it’s just throwing a ball. To Alfred, it’s the mechanics of the spin, the quick mental math to estimate how much force is needed to get from point A to point B (factoring in wind resistance and the friction that naturally slows down all objects in motion).
So he wears his letter jacket with his football patch but there’s also a physics one and a mathleets one and an academic league one. And he never feels ashamed of the fact when people look confused by his patches (he also adds a fifty to the back, and that feels right too).
His teammates slap him on the back and say “AJ, come to the party,” and “AJ, come out this weekend,” Alfred waves them off in favor of studying, because there’s a competition the next day he needs to be there on time, and he needs to know this and that, until they finally get annoyed and leave.
So Alfred studies and he plays football and that’s his life. It’s a life he’s happy with too.
What can go wrong, will go wrong. That’s what Murphy’s Law states. Alfred doesn’t really buy it—he’s an optimist by nature, he likes the silver lining in the clouds and not the grey.
When Ivan Braginsky transfers, Alfred greets him as he would any other student coming into a new place. He extends a hand and a big smile and he says, “I’m Alfred F. Jones, nice to meet you,” and it is, he’s excited to make a new friend, friendly by nature. An overgrown puppy, Matthew likes to say sometimes, and it’s a comparison Alfred can’t find fault with so he just shrugs and nods his head in agreement.
Ivan squeezes his hand and is smile is tight but Alfred sees something behind it, something warm. It’s something he wants to grasp at the edges and peel the layers away too, and Alfred hasn’t loved something this hard or this instantly since the first football game he went to. It takes his breath away.
Alfred is a creature of few obsessions but the ones he does have, he pursues. Football for one and science for another. Math, too, in a way.
Who notices Alfred’s jacket--and it’s interesting, Ivan is the only one to call Alfred that, by his full name. To everyone else he’s AJ but to Ivan it’s Alfred, curled letters in a low voice and it sends shivers up his spine, but Alfred never lets people know that, that’s his little secret—and asks, “Where is it that I be finding jacket like that?”
So Alfred mentions football and Ivan frowns and asks for an explanation. It’s all sorts of adorable, but Alfred doesn’t say that, so he just explains it best as he can. And Ivan understands, and that’s new too, someone who can listen to Alfred talk science jargon and nod along like it makes perfect sense.
Usually they just zone him out, but Ivan’s listening and he asks questions and his English is broken and he clearly thinks about the words he chooses and with every encouraging smile Alfred gives, he smiles a little too.
It’s hard for Alfred not to ask if Ivan wants to come to a practice (and he pointedly ignores the guys on the team who do that with girls to impress them; this is different, because he wants to be Ivan’s friend and nothing else, doesn’t want other things, things that he’s seen late at night, wide eyed on the internet).
Ivan says yes and Alfred probably looks crazy with the way he smiles, but he can’t help it.
He’s never considered himself gay. The team would laugh and call some kids fags and make some rude comments involving boobs, but Alfred had considered himself almost asexual.
He liked girls, he was sure. They were soft and pretty and they smelled nice. But that also applied to Feliks so Alfred was pretty sure it wasn’t just girls he was attracted to.
It just never seemed important. He had football and his studies and relationships just seemed like extra time he didn’t have.
And in his heart, Alfred was a romantic. He wanted love at first sight. Anything less than that nigh-impossible thing and he wouldn’t take it.
So Alfred accepts his attraction to Ivan with ease and moves on. There’s no point in worrying about it or fretting over it. He likes who he likes and at the end of the day that doesn’t change who he is.
Ivan takes to football like a fish to water. A transplanted Russian fish, but a fish none the less. He watches it intently and he smiles when he does so. He asks Alfred questions in his halting, hesitant English, asks Alfred to explain running back and tight end. Asks about quarterbacks, and oh, that is being what you play? I am liking that best. That makes Alfred blush, turns his cheeks red behind his glasses and makes him duck his head with a nervous laugh.
“Do you want to try out?” Alfred asks Ivan, and tries to ignore the thought of him under the showers. He thinks instead of the camaraderie of football and that’s a pleasant thought too, in some ways more pleasant than the immediately gratifying ones (that doesn’t stop him from bunking up at night with extra tissues and lotion, however).
So Ivan does. And he’s good. And it makes Alfred happy to see Ivan happy, to look like he’s finally gotten his bearings about him. He’s less like a cultural transplant and that brings him obvious ease. He smiles when Alfred teases him about his accent and about his height, when Alfred shrugs an arm around him and asks if he’s knocked his head on any clouds, recently. He makes friends with the team and takes the Russian jokes with ease, even joins in, calls everyone comrade and makes his accent heavier, even accepts the hammer and sickle patch that they insist on his jacket when he finally gets it.
He asks Alfred questions and he’s cute and foreign, and he’s never had a hamburger, so Alfred takes him to get one. And it’s like a date, sort of, in a roundabout way that means it’s just a friendly outing, but Alfred can pretend. Ivan even puts an arm around him on the walk home and that feels like a date too, but it’s probably just him mimicking Alfred, who’s too tactile for his own good at times.
It degrades gradually.
There is not a specific instance that Alfred can look back on and point to and say, here, this is where it went wrong, this is where I started to hate him.
It probably starts because Ivan is good at football. Really good. Alfred appreciates it at first, but then there’s a spark of jealousy. He stops getting asked to go places with the team, the offers for parties that he always refuses dwindling and dwindling until they just stop coming all together one day.
It turns out Ivan’s good at science too, and that’s another thing where he matches Alfred (Ivan poking curious fingers at his patches, asking where this was from and that one, and Alfred’s consistent answer of, do you want to join?).
And suddenly, Alfred is the fading star. Ivan’s bright and new and shines with luster, and Alfred is the collapsing red giant, sucking itself inwards and turning to a rock.
That’s when Ivan announces he would like to play quarterback.
It is not that he tears through his room, even if that’s what Matthew describes it as later. He just tears down the posters, the ones with grass and goal posts. He tears down the pictures of himself in uniform through the years, peewee and junior varsity, and then the recent ones, him as captain in his varsity uniform.
The process leaves his room completely bare, and that’s probably why Matthew describes it the way he does.
For a little boy obsessed with football and superheroes, the quarterback was the hero of the team. He was the one that everyone loved, that everyone watched. The other players were crucial too, Alfred knew this from experience, but everyone loved the quarterback.
So that’s what he wanted to be. Athletics didn’t come as naturally to him as he would have liked but he worked hard and that was probably better in the long run, all things considered. He trained and trained and practiced and did math—he used any and all means to make himself a better player.
That’s why it hurt to watch Ivan take to it so easily. He trained yes, but never to the extent that Alfred did. It was like he simply decided to do things and then he was great at it. It was frustrating and more than a little aggravating. But Alfred was nice and he bore through it with a grimaced smile until one day the silver lining on the clouds went away and the grimace was just a grimace.
Ivan looks confused when Alfred stops joining him for lunch. He looks concerned when Alfred ignores him in the hall. He looks downright panicked when Alfred growls at him on the field.
After that, Ivan simply stops smiling at him.
That’s when the rivalry begins.
Alfred grits his teeth and tosses his whole being into football. His grades slip. He quits academic league. They are losses, but acceptable losses. He’s fighting a battle wounded and he must do triage or be forced to lose it all.
And all the while, Ivan hounds at his steps, the back of his mind, a constant reminder of what will await him should he fail.
His head hits the back of the locker with a thunk and Alfred can’t help the groan that escapes him. He hardly has time to think before Ivan’s on him again, a large hand clutching at his throat.
Ivan’s saying something but Alfred only hears the pounding of blood in his ears as he struggles for breath.
Above him, Ivan smells of vodka and something warm and wet hits Alfred’s cheek. It tastes salty when it hits his lips and he tries to ignore that they may be tears.
Alfred has awoken a dragon. Russian bear is not so scary, Ivan assures in a distant past. The memory laughs and has a little dimple when it does so.
Alfred turns the thought over in his mind and then he tightens his fist around it until it crumbles beneath the pressure and is carried off in the wind.
That is not to suggest that their feud lasts for long.
One day all the bluster goes out of Ivan, all the bravado and the confidence and he curls up in on himself. He tears the patches off his jacket, leaves broken strings in its wake. He quits club after club after club, stops attending football practice.
People warm back up to Alfred. He’s AJ again, AJ and popular and peculiar.
There is a letter in his locker.
And it feels so overly dramatic and clichéd so Alfred tears it up and puts it in the trash and goes off to find Ivan.
“I met a silly boy when I came to America,” Ivan tells him. “He is very loud and talks much about many stupid things. He is also clever, this boy. Smart. A strong worker.
I am admiring him greatly and wishing to be friends with this boy, so I join the things the boy likes. He is very passionate about his likings. I wish for him to be the same about me.”
Oh feels inadequate to Alfred. He feels lesser now, diminished. Petty.
He takes Ivan’s hand in his and kisses him. It feels inadequate too, but Ivan takes it all the same.
Ivan sews the patch back on and Alfred takes up his old clubs.
It’s not like it erases anything, but it’s a start.
(It also helps that Ivan makes a better offensive lineman.)