It's strange being back, even though it's been less than a month since he was here last. It feels like a year.
But that feeling fades quickly.
It only takes fifteen seconds, maybe thirty, before guys are gathered around his scooter, slapping his shoulders and the top of his head. "Nice ride," Rowand says, turning the handlebars. "Can you pop a wheelie?"
"I'll pop one up your ass," Buster says, and feels a weight lift off his chest. Since the accident (that's how Buster's decided to think about it--the accident--so that he doesn't get all het up about it), everything has been so serious and grim. Doctors, prognoses, pain. It's a joy to be kidding around again, trading insults, laughing. Being with his team is almost better than the drugs.
Buster tools around on the scooter for them a little (he feels like a tool on the thing, really, but it's worth it, to not have to use the crutches all the damn time), and when the novelty of having him around wears off and people drift away, he pulls Crawford aside in a quiet corner. They played together for a few months last year, long enough for Buster to know that (a) if Crawford solves his swing, he's going to be in the bigs for a long time and (b) that Crawford is a genuine guy. Buster's wife calls Crawford "a real doll."
"You okay?" Crawford asks immediately. It's the first thing they all say to him when they get him alone.
Buster shakes his head. "No. Are you okay?"
Crawford blinks, looks away. "Yeah," he says. "Of course. You know, it's a big opportunity, and I'm just happy--"
"I'm not Amy," Buster says.
Crawford drops his face into his hands and sighs heavily. "Dude, this sucks," he says. "This isn't how I wanted this, you know? And I can't hit a fuckin' thing, and people keep asking me about you."
"Sure." Buster pats Crawford on the knee. He doesn't have any advice or anything-- sometimes there's just nothing to say to a guy--but Crawford shouldn't feel bad for how he made it; he didn't take out a hit on Buster. They sit there in silence for a minute. Then Buster leans over and bumps his shoulder against Crawford's. "You're still my favorite player. I loved you on Glee."
Crawford snorts, and then he's laughing and Buster's laughing, and everything's fine.
His next stop is Stewart, another beneficiary of the accident. Stewart is a journeyman, though, not a rookie like Crawford, and Buster knows Stewart won't feel guilty about how he got the call.
"Hey, Buster, how are you?" Stewart asks, standing when he sees Buster approaching. "I was sorry to hear."
"Good," Buster says. "I'm good. Can I talk to you?"
"Sure, man, of course." Stewart sits back down on the bench, elbows on his knees.
"Lincecum been throwin' to you?"
Stewart nods. "A little. We got a couple days."
Stewart pauses, looking at the carpeting. "I don't know, man. You and him..."
"Hey," Buster says. "Between us."
He sees Stewart hesitating, and he respects it. But they need to be able to talk honestly. "Between us," he repeats.
Stewart sighs. "He's in his head," he says. "It's, like, I can see him walking through the steps. I can feel him counting them off. He's going through the motions instead of dancing, you know?"
Buster bobs his head. "I figured. You a yeller?"
Stewart shrugs. "Do I need to be?"
"No. No yelling with him. Sanchez sometimes, and Madison, but never Lincecum. Let the coaches do the yelling if it needs to be done. You're on his side."
"Okay." Stewart leans forward, so intent it looks like he's taking notes with his eyes. "What else?"
"You got a good arm, so that's good; he needs it. He can release fast, but it's usually a distraction and impacts his control, so all the speed's gonna have to come from you."
"That's no problem," Stewart says.
"And never let a ball by--"
"No, of course--"
"No." Buster cuts him off. "Never let one of his pitches by you if you can help it, even if no one's on. He's not wild, but he's unpredictable. You're not always gonna to know where it's going. You're gonna miss. Keep it in front of you and you'll earn his trust."
"Okay." Another nod.
"Also, get in his face. Crowd him on the mound, especially when he's shaking you off."
Stewart's forehead wrinkles. "Yeah?"
Buster nods. "He likes it. You're his big brother out there, so act like it. Push him around a little."
"So no yelling, but a little bullying," Stewart says, nodding, and Buster thinks this may work.
Buster's standing at his locker, leaning heavily on one crutch, wondering what he should take home and what he should leave, when someone taps him on the shoulder.
Before he can even turn completely around, his arms are full of Lincecum and he staggers, hopping backwards, thinking not the foot in the split second before his back hits the locker partition and he's stable again, the crutch clattering to the floor.
Tim's arms are tight around his neck, his face pressed against Buster's neck. Buster squeezes him.
They stay like that for a long minute, just standing there, chest to chest, breathing together. No back slaps, no pounding, no distance.
Then Tim sighs and loosens his arms. Buster releases him.
Tim steps back, running his hand through his hair. "It's good to see you," he says. When he meets Buster's gaze, his eyes are suspiciously wet. "Shit, man, you don't even know."
But Buster has a television and he's seen what's happened to Lincecum since the accident. "You'll get it back," he tells Tim.
"Yeah, yeah." Tim ducks his head. "How're you?"
How is he? He's tired of answering this question. He's awful. His season is over. He's trapped in the house most of the day. He's driving his wife crazy.
But he's also fine. He's healing. His meds have finally been sorted out. And he can be here, with his team, his boys, again.
"All right," he says. "You know."
"Cool." Tim shuffles his feet. "They're gonna try me out with Stewart."
"I talked to him. He'll be good."
Tim glances over his shoulder, but the room is pretty deserted. "He's not you," he mumbles.
Buster grins. "No one is," he says. "I'm irreplaceable."
It's a joke, he's kidding, but Tim doesn't smile. He lurches forward and Buster is immensely grateful that he's still braced against the partition so that he doesn't have to worry about falling over as Tim grabs him again. Tim's shoulders shudder under his hand. "I miss you," Tim says against his throat, so low that Buster can hardly hear him.
He slides his hand under Tim's hair and holds him close. "I miss you, too," he says. It's true in so many ways that Buster can hardly breathe. They stay like that until Buster's leg starts to ache and he pulls back to sit down.
"Sorry," Tim murmurs, his hair hanging his face. He looks so miserable that Buster almost hugs him again.
"I'll be around, though, now. I'll be here."
"Tim!" It's Cain, who's been to Buster's house four or five times in the last week, bringing food and flowers from his wife and helping Buster's wife unpack from the recent move. Unlike most professional athletes, Cain isn't afraid of injury, his own or anyone else's. As far as Buster can tell, Cain isn't afraid of anything. "Oh, hey Posey. You all right? Righetti needs him."
" 'Sup, Daddy." Buster nods at him.
"Yeah, one sec." Tim waves, and Matt moves on. "So, I'll see you?"
Buster nods. "You'll be sick of me."
Tim smiles then, a real smile, goofy and broad. "Not possible." He slaps Buster on the shoulder. "Later."
Buster watches him go. No one's in the locker room right now, but he can hear someone singing in the showers (Spanish and a decent voice, so probably Torres), and a couple of clubbies walk by the hallway windows laughing. His uniform is still hanging in his locker, along with a couple pairs of cleats and his backup glove. The room smells pleasantly of sweat and fresh laundry and at least four different colognes. It's good to be back.