The Van Cortlandt cross country course is precisely 3.1 miles long, and she knows it better than she does her own body. Its twists and turns.
Its roots and rocks.
Its humps and hollows.
She skips and skates through autumn leaves, ponytail swinging behind her with every step. Her cheeks flush red, and sweat pools in the dip of her collarbone; it glistens on the nape of her neck, releasing only to race all the way down her spine, till she can feel it sucking her shorts tight against her perfect ass.
That’s what he calls it, anyway. Perfect. He calls her the Hill Queen, and she burns with pride whenever she hears it. I’m the fucking Hill Queen, she thinks, teeth gritted into a feral snarl. She is not weighed down by self-doubt. She is 22 and she is indestructible.
He knows that all of us can be broken. He stands at the start line each day, stopwatch in hand, and stares as her perfect ass bounces off into the distance. He closes his eyes and tallies the seconds up into minutes. She is a sylph, a shimmering blur, but he remains completely still. As he waits, his feet sink slowly into the squelching mud.
Her only competition is the clock he cradles against his palm. In her head, she hears it tick over to the rhythm of her pumping thighs. She needs no other music. Its beat is implacable, relentless – a worthy enemy, and a hypnotic, seductive friend.
The final climb sets fire to her calf muscles, and sends the flame up to lick her lungs. She endures this fleeting reminder of her own mortality only because she knows it will pass. The Hill Queen may bend; she never, ever breaks.
She sprints the last 200 yards, knees high, and passes him for the first time. Despite herself, she glances across for the reassurance she already knows he won’t give. He is old enough to appreciate the value of well-timed cruelty.
Flicking her eyes back to the trail, she presses on. She runs laps, even though they no longer count.
Even though they hurt.
Sometimes, if she’s honest, she runs them because they hurt.
He watches her go, a frown fixed on his face.
The uncertainty gnaws away at her, sapping the strength from her legs. It is always close – a few seconds either way – and this precision, more than anything, tells her all she needs to know about him. About them. Her body is an instrument that only he can tune; when he lays his hand on her cheek in the morning she vibrates against him with barely-suppressed need. She sees his face go blank, as if he has to shut down part of his brain in order to understand what her hot, humming skin is trying to say. What her legs – her heart – are capable of giving him that day.
His eyes zero in on hers again only once the target has been set. She shivers and nods. It is the same course as it was yesterday, she tells herself, chin tilting up at him. I am strong and I can do this. I am the Hill Queen.
When she is almost bent double with exhaustion, she stops. Her skin is waxy and her muscles shake from the lack of glycogen. This brutal beast of a course has emptied her from the inside out, and it is up to him to fill her back up. She makes her way back towards the finish line, cunt wet with anticipation, even as the rest of her body is shutting down.
Before his blurred outline has fully coalesced into the broad, solid shape she knows so well, her brain is already screaming words that will never pass her mouth.
Have I done it?
Have I fucking done it, you fucking asshole?
She never hates him as much as she does in those final few metres, when she still doesn’t know, and the only thing keeping her upright is the fear that maybe today she’s failed.
That maybe today he won’t fuck her.
She looks at his long, thick fingers curled around the stopwatch, and the thought of not feeling them inside her that night, stretching her open, is almost enough to make her physically ill.
Because sometimes she does – fail, that is. Sometimes her legs and her heart aren’t quite strong enough to carry her home. She is not always indestructible.
He tells her gently, but it doesn’t stop angry tears gathering in her eyes. There will be more of them later, when the bedsheet is soaked through with the sweat from her hot, restless body, and the ache in her cunt is deep enough to push a sob of pain up through her throat.
Failure comes with a bitter price, but if it didn’t she wouldn’t want to win so badly. She needs his rules and his targets even more than she needs his cock. Killing herself each day on the back of that brutal beast takes hunger that can’t coexist with a simple, sated happiness. They both understand that suffering is the only whetstone capable of keeping her sharp.
Whenever she wakes up like that, unfucked, the insides of her thighs sticky with her own need, it feels like the sunlight pouring through her window is just a little bit brighter. She springs out of bed as if she is already streaking away from the start line, muscles bunched and eager.
The course is precisely 3.1 miles long, and it doesn’t change. It was the same yesterday as it will be tomorrow, and all the tomorrows still to come. But today…today, she is the fucking Hill Queen, and she will win.