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State Champs

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It had rained the previous night. The field was slick, allowing the bright stadium lights to bounce and create a beautiful wet paradise. Even though the grass was fake, the effect was the same, the crisply painted lines of the field popping out in the night.

Jason inhaled. This field was his second home. It was everything to him.

"Alright, alright," He called out, silencing the rowdy bunch. It took a moment until someone yelled out and the club was silenced. The buzzing of cicadas filled the air, along with the rustling of soccer bags settling in. "Congrats on making the team this year."

"AW YUP!" Percy hollered, setting off a round of whistling and shouts.

Jason laughed, raising his hands to quiet them again. "Thanks, for that Percy-"

"No prob!"

"-but I just wanted to say," Jason's eyes went to all of his teammates. "That we're going to kill it at state this year."

"State!" Someone called out. "State, state, state!"

"And this year, because I'm team captain, we're going to train harder than before." Under his foot, Jason rolled around a black and red Nike ball. "Play hard, win hard. Got that?"

"Sir, yes, sir!" Connor howled with a salute.

"Alright," Jason waved his hand to make them all stand. "We're going to do a scrimmage-"

COAAAAAACH!” A loud whine came from across the field. Jason couldn't see too well without his glasses, but he could see the black and white blur barreling towards him. The unmistakable thwack of a foot hitting a ball appeared every few seconds. "COAAAACCCCCH SO SORRY-"

Thwack. Someone called out to the running teammate. Jason squinted, across the field, then went back to the team. Thwack. Headcount. Thwack. He had all of his players right? He wished Gwen was here- the team manager had yet to come back from her family vacation.

Thwack. Jason turned to see a neon yellow ball flying to his face. Luckily, he sidestepped, but his foot got caught up in someone's sports bag. Jason slipped across the wet grass, tumbling to the ground. He twisted his body, narrowly avoiding his sleeping defense, forgetting his foot was tied up when- SNAP.

Jason gasped out in pain, his face in the dirt.

"Shit," Someone stood over Jason, but all he could see was white. "Are you okay?"

"Ow," Jason was sat up. He blinked away tears, his team surrounding him. It was Octavian who tried to unwrap the strap from around his ankle. Jason yanked away, shouting from the pain. Octavian instantly pulled away, his face filled with concern.

Percy stuck his face in front of Jason. He had a frown, and Jason heard the jingling of a keychain. "I'm gonna drive you to the hospital, man. Think you can stand?"

"Maybe," Jason was helped up by two other teammates. He tried putting his left foot down. It was some of the most intense pain he felt. Jason leaned on the person on his right side, hearing a soft oof, and they struggled to maintain balance.

"Alright," Percy was at his other side, sliding Jason's arm around his shoulder. "Let's get you to the ER."

Jason nodded, too in shock to speak. This wasn't how he wanted their first practice to go. Hobbling towards the stadium gates, he was surrounded by the terrified faces of his teammates. This wasn't how he wanted their first practice to go.

Across the field stood the black and white blob, neon yellow circle at its feet. Jason closed his eyes. Damn it.


 

A few days later, on the first day of school, Jason came late and in crutches. He was given an elevator pass and an office aid offered to carry his books, but Jason politely declined. Jason instead trudged through the halls, getting used to the sound of the rubber end of each crutch hitting freshly waxed linoleum floors.

When he walked into his history class, the room grew silent. The teacher smiled at him and sat him at the desk closest to the door for accessibility.

The moment Jason's crutches touched the wall, someone tapped his shoulder. He turned, taking his notebook out of his bag. "Yeah?"

"Heeeeeey, Jason." Leo Valdez grinned sheepishly down at him. He was darker from his summer vacation, and his hair had been buzzed down along the sides. Leo didn't have anything on his desk, but a pencil with a chewed up eraser. "How's your foot?"

"Okay." Jason zipped up his bag. "You missed practice on Friday."

"Yeah, about that-"

"Take one, pass it down," The teacher handed Jason a pile of worksheets. Jason slid the collection back to Leo, who leaned forward.

"Jason-"

"It wasn't mandatory, so it's fine," Jason threw him a thumbs-up. "We have practice again today, so just don't miss that. It's mostly drills."

"Um-" Jason turned forward to finish his work. There was no way he was going to slack on school. His father had painfully reminded him in the morning: Jason's ankle was broken, not his brain. And if there was one thing Jason could do besides kicking a ball, it was answering basic questions.


 

At around lunchtime, Percy came over to help with Jason's schoolbag. He sloppily sat his lunch tray on top of Jason's new textbooks for the year and followed like a friendly watchdog. He was all smiles rather than barks, haphazard high-fives instead of growls, but hovered close.

"How long 'til you're good?" Percy said when they finally sat down at a cafeteria table. He popped open Jason's milk carton like his hands were the broken parts of him. "Tell me before champs."

"Six weeks, more or less," Jason said.

"Huh," Percy's eyebrows rose, and he nodded. "October?"

"That's the plan."

"And-" Percy's mouth opened to embrace a spoonful of pudding, "-what did Coach say?"

Jason wasn't feeling hungry, so he pushed his own lunch towards Percy. "I'm still captain. Just… from the side now."

"Oh cool," Percy murmured. He scrapped the edges of his pudding container and stuck the spoon in between his lips. "Cool." His fist was held up in the air, wavering slightly.

Jason shrugged, knocking knuckles against his.


 

"Around the cones, Octavian, around!" Jason rolled his eyes at his teammate. Octavian, as short-tempered and aloof as ever, stuck up his middle finger and barreled and straight through the neon cones. "You're gonna be the one to pick those up."

Octavian ignored him and dribbled farther down the field to avoid listening to him.

"Is there anything I can do to help?" The team manager, Gwen, stepped to Jason's side. Her hands reached upward, pulling her hair to tighten a high ponytail. Held tightly between her thighs were a clipboard and water bottle.

"Attendance?"

Gwen tapped her clipboard. "All here."

"How many people? It feels small." Jason's eyes scanned the field. Octavian and Percy were shooting against their goalie, Frank. A group of four actually listened to Jason's instructions and dribbled around the cones zig-zagging the field. Someone else was juggling- counting aloud every time the ball hit his knee and came back down again.

"Alabaster has a chess meeting that should end in about…," Gwen tapped her phone, "Ten minutes."

"And the rest?"

"Uh," She used her pen, pointing behind her with wide circles. "On the bleachers."

"You're joking." Jason turned around to find that yes three of his teammates were lazing around on the bleachers. Hand up to shield his eyes from the sun, Jason squinted at the offenders. He should've known. "How long have they been there?"

Gwen's cheeks pinkened. "Since we started."

"Of course they have," Jason said.

"Should I tell them to go or-"

"Nah, I'll do it." Jason pushed his crutches forward. "I'm in charge of the team until Coach H gets back from vacation. Do you have last year's stats? Maybe you can check on the new guys for mile times and such."

"Got it," Gwen beamed and hurried off to do that. She had a lot of energy today- the summer heat must be giving her strength.

Jason trudged up the stairs and stood in front of the group of three lounging. The one who was laying across the bleacher squinted at Jason then groaned. He grabbed his bag mumbling, nap time's over already? and dragged his feet to the field with heavy sighs. Jason shook his head. He was used to Clovis and his laziness. If it weren't for the fact that the guy was one of the best defenses Jason's known, Clovis probably wouldn't be on the team. It was strange- such a relaxed and passive person easily fit in a group with the more spirited and enthusiastic Percy and irritable yet driven Octavian.

The second person needed more convincing. Jason sat down next to him, letting his crutches fall with a clang. Dakota opened his eyes and gave a soft smile. "Heeeeey."

"Hey," Jason said, good-naturally. "Mind telling me what you're doing here?"

"Enjoying the sun." Dakota inhaled. "Feels really good. You should sit here and enjoy it with me, man."

"Aw, I don't think I can," Jason tilted his head back, feeling the sun rays hit his skin. It did feel amazing. "You see, we have practice going on, and we're supposed to be doing drills."

"Oh wow," Dakota gazed across the field. "Look at that, you're right. Wow."

"I think you're one of those people. See Gwen running around down there?" Jason nodded to the bobbing ponytail and teal shirt streaking the grass. "Check up with her and see what you can do."

"Maaaaaan, you're so right," Dakota took his time to get up. "I like Gwen."

"You sure do," Jason waited for Dakota to float over to their manager. Two to go and one left-"

"Oh my god," Leo was the last one left, and he was cracking up on the bleacher behind Jason. "He is so high right now, I can't believe that worked."

"What are you doing here?" Jason turned to look at him, elbow resting on the burning hot metal behind him. "Shouldn't you be down there with everyone else?"

"Nah," Leo wiped a stray tear from his eye. "I'm always up here. Practice isn't my thing."

"Well you have to," Jason said. "Our team is a working machine, and a missing screw will ruin everything."

Leo leaned forward and patted Jason's arm. "Stick to the muscles and not the metaphors, buddy."

Jason ignored that. "If Coach H was here-"

"She would sit down right next to me and pick daisies," Leo collapsed back on the bleacher. He knit his fingers together and rested them over his eyes. "I love Coach H. Hope she went somewhere nice because she deserves it."

Jason got to his feet. "So, you're just going to lay here?"

"You're still here?" One of Leo's hand's lifted momentarily, eye being very judgmental. His shirt rode up, exposing a dark concave stomach that Jason resisted the urge to "accidentally" jab his crutch into. "I'm an alternate, so it doesn't even matter."

Jason knew Leo was an alternate. He's never seen Leo play in a game actually- Jason's personally never felt the need to step out the game and neither did his overachieving teammates. Coach H was too meek to pull someone out, so Jason supposed the maybe Leo's never actually played before.

"How long have you been on the team?"

"Joined last year, why?"

"We had a lot of players then," Jason grinned, remembering the team. It was a shame that so many seniors had left over the summer, but it opened up the captain's spot for his taking. "Things are different now."

Leo moved his hands, intrigued. "Whattya mean?"

"I'm injured so I can't play this season," Jason headed down the stairs. He hopped to the grass and tossed over his shoulder: "Marinate on that for a bit since you like being in the sun!"

Smack! A ball headed flew across the grass and bounced off Jason's good foot. A smaller teen jogged up to him, sweaty black hair in his eyes lined with black circles. Jason used his left crutch and kept his left foot in the air to roll the ball away from the kid. He gave Jason a dirty look and tried to kick the ball away, but Jason had already pulled it back.

"SHIT!" Echoed behind Jason. The sound of cleats slapping against metal came next, and Leo caught his breath when he landed in the grass. At that moment, the kid finally snagged the soccer ball and went running towards the goal post where Octavian was accusing Percy of cheating, and Frank was trying to negotiate.

"Heal faster," Leo muttered, dropping his bag on the ground between them.

Jason grinned at him. "Welcome to the team, Leo."