Not the Prettiest Game
by Synchronik

III. May-June 2011: San Francisco, California

Chris sits in the dark and stares at the glowing screen of his phone. He's been called up. San Francisco.


He hits the speed dial. Ryan answers on the third ring, his voice sounding staticky and distant.


"It's me," Chris says. "I just got called up."

"--no, I haven't seen him--" Ryan says. "Hang on." The sound is muffled, suddenly. Chris waits.

"Sorry, man," Ryan says, a minute later. "Things are fucking insane around here. What's up?"

"Me!" Chris says. "I got called up."

"Wow," Ryan says. "I didn't think of that."

Chris flinches, hurt. "That's a little harsh."

"No, because--don't you know what happened? Weren't you watching the game?"

"I was playing," Chris says.

"Buster's down," Ryan whispers. "They think his leg is broken."


"He got hit at the plate," Ryan says. His voice is low and breathless at the same time. "Slammed. His leg, man. It was awful."

Chris closes his eyes. Posey. Posey. Of course. It's not because he's been putting up such stellar numbers in Fresno that they need him at the big house. It's because they need a warm body.

"When do you get here?" Ryan asks.

"In the morning," Chris says. He glances at the clock. Just after midnight. In less than twelve hours.

"Stay with me," Ryan says. It's not a question, but it sort of is.

"If that's okay," Chris says.

"Please," Ryan says. Then things get muffled again, and Chris hears Ryan's voice. "-- there in a second, okay? I gotta go," he says, talking to Chris again. "I'm up tomorrow."

"I'll see you," Chris says. "Call me if you get a chance."

"Okay. Love you," Ryan says, and hangs up before Chris can think, let alone say anything.

The highway is dark when he starts, just the flashing stripes of the lane change lines blinking in Chris's headlights. He lets the road hypnotize him and tries not to anticipate what is about to happen, not with the club and not with Ryan.

He didn't mean it, Chris thinks. It was just words, a habit, accidental. Chris doesn't know how an accident like that happens, but he's pretty sure that he's right, Ryan didn't mean it. Or didn't mean to say it. Either way, it doesn't matter.

A green highway sign flashes by him and Chris blinks, forcing the thought of Ryan out of his mind. Ryan is important, but more important right now is what's going to happen in the clubhouse.

The first person Chris sees when he gets in is Lincecum. Timmy's been bulking up this year, and on tv he looks short and almost pudgy, the flesh of his face round and well- fed. But right now, in loose jeans, dark circles hanging under his eyes, he looks like a kid again, his hair stringy in his face, his hands shoved into the pockets of his too-large sweatshirt.

"Tim, hey," he says.

"Stew, hey," Tim says. He's stopped in front of Chris like he was going to say something, but he just blinks slowly and shakes his head.

"Timmy," Chris says and hugs him. Tim feels slight in his arms, vibrating with some frantic energy the way Chris's son shook when he had fever chills as a toddler. Tim's arms around his waist are tight and somehow desperate; Chris almost doesn't want to let him go when he pulls back. "You okay?"

Lincecum nods. "Yeah, I. Good to see you, man."

"What are you doing here?" Chris asks. It the real world, it's a little after eight, time for regular people to be at work. But in the baseball world, where the workday ends at eleven at night, eight is practically dawn.

Tim looks around, distracted, running both hands through his hair. "I'm meeting Crawford," he says. "He's coming in."

"Crawford?" Chris blinks.

"Yeah. I don't--" Tim stops, shrugs. His sentence doesn't seem to have an ending.

In shock, Chris thinks. "I gotta go let them know I'm here," Chris says, fighting the urge to hug Tim again. Tim is smaller that most of the other guys, and goofy, and sweet, and he hates it when people treat him like a kid brother, but Chris can't help it. He settles for patting Lincecum's shoulder. "Catch you later?"

"Yep." Tim nods. "Yep."

Chris squeezes his arm. "All right, man."

Besides Lincecum, the clubhouse is mostly empty. Sandoval waves from the treadmill in the weight room, and Matt Cain looks up from his paper and slaps his hand, but other than that there's only staff, and fairly few of them. He checks in with Murph and gets his number--37--and his locker, a lone cubicle in the middle of the row. (For some reason Chris has never been able to understand, all players, including himself, prefer the ends of the row.) Buster's pressed home jersey hangs facing out into the room, the flag of a lost country.

By the time he's taken care of everything, it's just after nine; he's got four hours before call time, so he leaves after he's dropped off his gear, putting the address of Ryan's apartment building into the GPS of his phone as he pulls out. It's not far away, less than two miles, but he's got to make about a thousand turns before he gets there. He couldn't find his way back to the ballpark if he tried. There's only one parking spot in the driveway, but Ryan's car is pulled forward, close up to the garage, so Chris pulls in behind it. Ryan won't bitch about being blocked in, so maybe he won't get a ticket.

The building is a set of townhomes stuck together so that they all look narrow and compressed, but they each have their own doors, not a central entryway. Chris double checks the number and goes to the last one on the left. Before he presses the bell, he hesitates, then tries the knob.


Chris shakes his head. Only Ryan would leave his door unlocked in the fucking Marina. He slips in, shutting the door firmly behind him and turning the deadbolt. The townhome is nice in that bland upscale way, everything beige and cream, a mediocre painting of the San Francisco skyline on the wall above the couch. Corporate comfort. Chris pulls off his shoes, dropping them on the shoe mountain already heaped there, and heads up the stairs.

The first door on the left is a bathroom that looks untouched, the towels hung neatly, the fancy soaps dry and a little dusty in their bowl. Chris pisses and washes his hands, intentionally leaving the towel on the counter.

The second door is an empty room. The third is the bedroom. With the blinds and drapes shut against the morning light and the sound of Ryan's light breathing, it's like the cave of a friendly bear. Chris strips out of his jeans and button down and pads across the room, feeling carefully for anything that might trip him up.

Ryan sighs and rolls over when Chris lifts the sheet. In the half-light, Chris can see that he's not wearing a shirt--he's all warm skin and muscle. "You're here," Ryan mumbles.

"You left the door unlocked," Chris says, getting in.

Ryan winds around him, sliding his hands under Chris's shirt, wrapping his legs around Chris's thigh, like an affectionate boa constrictor. "I'm glad you're here," he murmurs into the skin of Chris's throat.

"Me, too," Chris says, and closes his eyes.

Chris wakes up curled against Ryan's chest, in a cocoon of warmth and bare skin. Ryan's phone alarm is some country song that Chris can never remember the name of, something slow and romantic. It twangs from the bedside table and Ryan reaches over Chris to shut it off, then collapses on top of him, burying his face in Chris's neck.

"mmmm," he says.

Chris strokes his hands up Ryan's spine then down into the back of Ryan's boxers over the curve of his ass and feels Ryan's smile. His dick is instantly hard. He can't believe he ever made it this long without seeing Ryan, without touching him. He can't imagine ever going this long again.

Ryan sucks on his neck, pressing his hips against Chris's. "I missed you," he murmurs, pushing Chris's shirt up, pulling it over his head.

"Yeah," Chris says, thinking of Ryan's voice on the phone. Ryan looms over him, trapping his arms above his head in Chris's t-shirt, stroking his free hand over Chris's chest. Chris arches his back. Ryan's hand is warm and slow and delicious on Chris's stomach.

"Fuck," Ryan murmurs. His fingers inch into the waistband of Chris's shorts. "We're gonna be late."

"No," Chris sighs, spreading his legs. "We're not."

Buster's absence is a hole, not just in the middle of the line-up but in the middle of the team, a sucking absence right in the center. Where the heart would be, Chris thinks, glancing around at the clubhouse.

He sees Crawford at the end of the couch, fiddling with his hat and looking lost, and sits down next to him. "Hey," he says. "How you doing?"

Crawford shifts over a little, shrugging. "I'm not even sure why I'm here," he says. He stares at Chris, his eyes big. Crawford has blue eyes, gorgeous eyes, and a perfect mouth, and his desperate expression makes Chris want to pull him close and comfort him. And maybe stick his tongue down his throat, but only if it will make Crawford feel better. "Do they think I can hit for Buster? Because, man--"

"They don't," Chris says, hooking an arm around Crawford's shoulders. "They think I can."

Crawford's laugh is sudden and too loud. Some of the other guys turn around, and Crawford blushes. "Sorry," he mutters.

Chris squeezes him. "You're gonna be okay, dude. Just do what you do. And try not to punch anyone."

Crawford chuckles a little at that. "Nah," he says. "He's still rehabbing."

"You don't mind my asking what that was about, do you?" Chris says. "Because, no offense, but you don't seem like a fighter."

Crawford smiles into his lap, a smile so pretty that it makes Chris wonder what it's like to go through life looking like that. "Obviously, I'm not," Crawford says, flexing his hand.

"So..." Chris waits.

Crawford glances at him, then around the room. "It's just...some people deserve better, you know? Like, not to be jerked around. made me angry to see it."

"Sure." Chris nods, remembering Lincecum's voice on the phone. "That makes sense. And..." he hesitates, wondering how to put this. "How are you feeling now?"

Crawford's smile goes from a hundred watts to a thousand, so bright that Chris can't help smiling in return. "Good," he says. "Really good."

"So you're not going to punch anyone?"

Crawford laughs a little. "Not at the moment, no," he says.

"Alright." He gives Crawford another squeeze. "That's good."

"Yeah." Crawford nods. "Yeah. I gotta, um. Have you seen Tim?"

"Nah. He's around here somewhere," he says, and watches as Crawford wanders off.

"How's he?" Ryan asks, folding his arms over the back of the couch. Chris fights the impulse to tip his head to the side so that Ryan can kiss his throat, which is what he does at home when Ryan comes up behind him.

"At least I know why I was called up," Chris says.

The game is heartbreaking. Chris is suited up, but he knows he's not going in, not unless Eli goes down, too, so there's nothing to do but ride the bench and watch the game slip away. Ryan pitches a gem, allowing a single run in eight innings, but it's not enough. The offense is absent. Chris does actually get in as a pinch runner for Burrell, whose foot is acting up, but then Torres hits into a double play. He catches the ninth for Ramirez, and for a second, he's got a flash of hope, that maybe this--his first major league game since last October--will be one of those miracle walkoffs that the Giants can sometimes summon.

But it's not.

It's not.

The team files back to the clubhouse in silence. On the way to the showers, Huff punches a wall.

"Good game," Chris says, when he and Ryan are in the car and no one else will hear them.

"Yeah." Ryan looks out the passenger-side window.

"You can't--" Chris starts.

"No." Ryan sighs. He seems to mean it, that he's not taking blame for something that wasn't his fault, but that doesn't change the mood in the car. Chris pulls into the driveway behind Ryan's truck.

"How was it," he asks, softly, pulling on the parking break. "When it happened?"

"It sucked." Ryan shakes his head. "One second, I thought we were going to win, then..." He shrugs, meeting Chris's gaze and the expression on his face is the same expression that all the guys had in the clubhouse, vacant and, Chris thought, a little scared. "It sucked." He laughs a sad little laugh. "Welcome to the show."

Chris leans in, his hand on Ryan's throat, and kisses Ryan softly once, twice.

It's harder being together than Ryan thought it would be, not because of Chris, who is just as awesome as Ryan remembered all those pathetic nights in the hotel with his hand on his own dick. It's hard because Chris is there, right there, but they still have to keep their distance. They board the charter for Milwaukee and Ryan's first thought is to sit next to Chris about halfway down the aisle, but Wilson sees him and and stands up in the aisle, knocking Romo backwards into a seat. "Vogey!" he calls. "Get your fine Pennsylvania ass back here!"

Ryan tries not to sigh. The pitchers sit together, usually, a team within a team, unless there's someone else a guy has to talk to, and he can't think of anything he needs to say to Chris (besides "I really fucking missed you") that would pass muster with Wilson and the other guys, so Ryan heads to the back. On the way past Chris's seat, he glances down and catches Chris's wink.

"Right here, baby," Wilson says, patting the seat next to him. "Right here."

Ryan sits down and Wilson snuggles in to him. Wilson does this from time to time, latches on to one guy or another and demands his attention. There's nothing that you can do about it except endure it--fighting it just makes it last longer. "What's up, man?" he asks.

"Just need a little right-handed love. These jokers don't appreciate me."

"Hey!" Lincecum says from his seat a row up, adjusting his headphones over his ears. "What'd'you have in there?"

"Purdy James," Wilson says, tapping the headphones that hang around his neck. He and Lincecum have an obscure music thing.

"Cool," Lincecum says. "I'm going more hardcore. Bitch in Black."

Wilson whistles. "Nice. First EP?"

His attention is shifted and, for a second, Ryan wonders if he can sneak away and go and sit next to Chris anyways. The cabin doors haven't shut yet--it's possible--except that Wilson is blocking him in and will want to know where he's going and why.

Ryan sighs. In his pocket his phone buzzes. He pulls it out. Chris.

>>Meet U @ the hotel.

Ryan glances over, but Wilson is shoving his iPod at Lincecum, saying something about balance.

>>Deal, he types and turns off the phone before Wilson notices.

Through the gaps in the seats, he can see Chris's shoulder, just a small sliver of it, in the most typical and boring blue dress shirt ever, the kind that Chris always wears. He stares at it, wishing he could touch the plain cotton.

Torres stops in the aisle by Chris, wanting the window seat, and Chris stands up to let him in, showing Ryan his whole back. Chris is narrow for a catcher, slim, and in travel clothes he looks even thinner for some reason, his khakis showing no hint of his powerful thighs. He glances over his shoulder while Torres slides into the seat and catches Ryan's eye. He doesn't wink again, or smile, or wave, but somehow his posture changes, straightens, and Ryan's fingers ache to touch him. Having Chris around without being able to touch him is almost worse than not having him around at all.

But being able to touch him isn't foolproof either. They're making out in Ryan's room, Ryan's shirt off, Chris's hand on the fly of his pants, mouth on Ryan's throat. They hadn't meant to--they'd talked about it not twenty minutes ago, the stupidity of fucking in the team hotel when anyone could be staying in the room next door or walking down the hallway--but then they were sprawled on the bed watching some bad fantasy movie on HBO and Chris had put his hand on Ryan's stomach and leaned over him for the room service menu and then they were kissing and then Ryan's shirt was on the floor. Now, Ryan's dying for Chris to unzip him--he's about ten seconds from yanking Chris's hand away and opening his pants himself--when someone bangs on the door.

"VOGEY!" someone yells. Wilson? Lopez? Affeldt?

"Fuck," Chris mutters against his neck.

"Go away!" Ryan yells. In the minors, the guys had put socks on the doorknobs or left pizza boxes outside to indicate when they were fucking around, but even if Ryan could have gotten away with that without everyone and his brother wondering who he was banging, it didn't seem right at a four star hotel with Art Deco architecture. This wasn't a fucking Holiday Inn in Des Moines. Still, Ryan sort of wishes he'd done it anyway.

"We know you're in there, Vogelsong!" someone yells, and that's definitely Romo. "We're going for brats, man!"

Ryan glances over at the clock next to the bed. It's almost three in the morning, Milwaukee time. He's pretty sure no one serves brats at three in the morning. Not even in Milwaukee. "Fuck off!" he shouts.

Chris is laughing against his neck, quietly, his breath hot and steamy.

"Vogelsong, come out and play!" Wilson yells, banging on the door with what sounds like four fists. "COME OUT!"

Chris claps his hand over his mouth, his body trembling with laughter. Ryan feels the hot splash of a tear on his collarbone.

"Fuck you," he mutters, shoving Chris off of him and going for the door.

"Oh shit!" Chris gasps, trying to keep his voice down. "You wouldn't!"

"How funny is it now, motherfucker?" Ryan whispers, his hand on the door handle. The safety bar is still on, but Chris probably can't see that.

"Fuck you!" Chris says and bolts for the bathroom.

Ryan adjusts himself and opens the door. "What the fuck do you assholes want?" he asks. It's Wilson, Romo, and Crawford, all drunk. Wilson has on a shirt that makes him look like he's wearing a woman's bikini, and a cloque hat, and he's got Crawford in a headlock under one arm.

"Brats!" Romo hisses. "We're getting brats!"

"Brats!" Crawford murmurs into Wilson's ribs.

"Go to bed you drunk fucks," Vogelsong says.

"Can we come in?" Crawford mumbles. "I have to pee."

"No!" Ryan fights the urge to slam the door in their faces. It's one thing for him to be hanging out by himself with no shirt on, but hanging out with Stewart with no shirt on is suspicious. Like, why wouldn't you have a shirt on in your climate-controlled room when you're hanging out with your buddy Chris? What could be the rationale there, unless you want your buddy Chris to maybe play with your nipples, maybe even bite them a little? Ryan shivers. "I'm going to call security on your asses if you don't get out of here."

"Oooh!" Wilson wiggles his fingers in front of Ryan's face. "You're scaring me!"

Ryan slaps his hand away. "Jesus. Go to bed."

"Fine!" Romo makes an exaggerated pouty face. "You can't have any brats, Vogelsong! No brats!" He points angrily in Ryan's face. "NONE!"

"Okay." Ryan starts easing the door closed.

"None," Crawford murmurs into Wilson's ribs just before Ryan gets the door completely shut. He locks it with the deadbolt and slips the bar back in place. Drunk fucks.

"They leave?" Chris whispers, coming out of the bathroom, staring at the door.

He must have really been nervous, Ryan thinks, before he realizes that Chris was so nervous that he took off his pants. "I think so," he says, turning off the light by the door. The only illumination now is the television, on which a girl in a leather bikini is fighting a badly CGI-ed dragon. In the flickering light, Chris looks like a ghost, a figment of Ryan's imagination. He reaches out to touch the hem of Chris's button down. Real. "You probably shouldn't stay."

Chris nods. "Yeah. Probably not. Bad idea."

"'s really late, so probably no one else is going to knock."

"True." Chris nods again.

"And what are you going to tell those drunk assholes if you run into them in the hall?"

Chris steps forward, resting his warm hands on Ryan's hips, just above his belt loops. He's got his head down, and Ryan can feel the hot exhale of Chris's breath on his collarbone. "Booty call," Chris says, leaning into Ryan's space. The fabric of his shirt brushes against Ryan's chest. "I would tell them I was banging one of the other guests in the hotel."

"On the team floor?" Ryan asks, but his head is already tipping back, his hands coming up to grip Chris's biceps.

"Wherever you want, baby," Chris murmurs.

They're warming up in the echoing cavern of Miller Field, when Chris realizes what's wrong with the team: they're scared. Not of losing--even last year, when the Giants were touched by the finger of God, they did their fair share of losing--but that someone else will get hurt. Eli, maybe. Or Chris himself. It's strange feeling, the eyes of his teammates crawling over him desperately. The only thing he can do is pretend he doesn't notice. Any acknowledgement will just make it worse.

In the first game against Milwaukee, the dugout stands up and cheers when Prince Fielder charges home plate and Eli knocks all 300-plus pounds of him back on his ass, shoulders squared like a bull's. They haven't talked about it, he and Eli, but Eli glances at him when he comes back in after the hit and Chris lifts his chin, understanding. They don't need to talk about it: the job of the Giants' catchers is to protect the team, with or without Buster. Even from themselves.

The only bright spot in the whole awful mess is Crawford's grand slam, an epic shot that Chris hears before he sees. He's sitting down at the end of the dugout with the starters, next to Bumgarner, whose presence is relaxing on games he doesn't pitch, calm and solid, like the cows he raises. They aren't talking, just sitting next to each other, spitting sunflower seeds onto the cement. Ryan is down at the end of the bench, leaning forward, his chin in his hand, and Chris's mind has wandered to Ryan's fingers, how the rough callused tips and long nails feel as they sweep over his spine. He's thinking about pitchers and how they're so particular about their--

Then there's a POP, somehow loud and muffled in the stale damp air, and Torres is standing up, then the other guys, their eyes wide, their mouths open, and it's gone, it's gone, over the fence. Crawford's done it.

A grand slam. A fucking grand slam in his first big league game.

They mob the kid when he gets back to the dugout, shouting and clapping him on the back, the head, the ass. Crawford looks like he's been socked in the head with a fungo bat, but in a good way. After the mayhem has calmed down a bit, Crawford's sitting next to him, hands in his lap.

"Can't hit like Buster, huh?" Chris murmurs, when no one else is around to hear. Brandon's smile is big and dazed and beautiful. This is why he plays, Chris thinks, for moments like this. "You just won this game, you motherfucker."

"No." Brandon shakes his head. "You're gonna fucking curse it."

Chris nudges Brandon with his shoulder. "Fucking rookie luck."

Brandon grins into his hand.

"You believe that shit?" he says to Ryan while they're eating dinner shoulder to shoulder in the clubhouse. The catering in Milwaukee is fucking fantastic, heaps of things involving potatoes and cheese (and brats, Chris notes with amusement). Most of the guys stick around and eat instead of going back to the hotel or going out, hunched over plates like an indoor picnic. "A grand slam."

Ryan swallows. "Right? Little fucker. Where is he?"

Chris cranes his neck. He doesn't see Crawford. "Dunno."

"Huffy," Ryan calls to the other side of the room. "Where's Crawford?"

"Craw-baby!" Huff yells, hardly looking up from his plate. "Where the fuck are you?"

Crawford's voice comes from the showers, annoyed, but Chris can't make out what he says. A minute later, Crawford comes in, his hair damp and curling at the base of his neck. "Can't a guy take a piss around here?" he mutters, looking embarrassed.

"A rook's life is nothing but pain," Chris mutters. Ryan snickers, bumping his shoulder affectionately.

"C'mere, baby." Huff pats his knee. "Come and sit on my lap and tell me all about it."

Crawford rolls his eyes and goes to the buffet. Chris goes back to his plate. He's been in up in the majors at least once a year since 2007, but he's never hit a home run; Crawford's been up for a day and he's got a grand slam. He'd be pissed, if Crawford weren't such a good kid. He's thinking about what that must feel like, to be so favored by the baseball gods, when movement catches his eye.

It's the sway of Lincecum's hair. He's coming in from the showers, hair dampening the shoulders of his grey t-shirt, hand rubbing over his mouth.

Chris nudges Ryan's shoulder.

"Hmm?" Ryan looks up. Chris tips his head to Lincecum, who's standing next to Crawford at the buffet, smiling at a plate of shrimp. "Heh."

"Lucky little shit," Chris says.

"Dunno," Ryan says, around a mouthful of macaroni salad. "It seems like a lot of drama."

"You don't like drama?" Chris asks, "'cause I might, if it looked like Crawford."

"No," Ryan says, standing up. "I don't like drama. I need something to drink."

And that's when Chris realizes he's made a mistake.

"Hey, Vogey," Chris says, when they're in the narrow halls of the Pfister Hotel. Some of the other guys are getting off the elevator on the same floor, so he has to be careful. Ryan doesn't stop walking, like he doesn't hear, even though Chris practically shouted. He slips his card into the door slot and goes into his room without looking back.

"Fuck," Chris mutters.

"Trouble in paradise?" Cain asks.

Chris flinches. Cain's standing behind him, his own room key out. "Huh?" Chris asks.

"You and Vogey," Cain says. His expression is mildly interested, unsurprised.

"What?" Chris tries to figure out what the appropriate response is. "I, um..."

Cain rolls his eyes. "Whatever, man," he says, and goes into his own room.

Chris heads to his door at the other end of the hallway. He fiddles with his key a bit, but some of the guys are standing in their own doorways chatting about whether it's worth it to check out the Milwaukee nightlife, a deliberation that could go on for hours. Chris heads into his room, dialing his phone.

Ryan picks up, but doesn't say anything.

"Ryan," Chris says. "Come on. I didn't mean anything by it."


"Ryan. Fuck."

"What are you going to do to make it up to me?"

Chris sighs, shoulders sagging in relief. "Whatever you want, man. Anything."

"You better take another shower."

He lets himself into Chris's room with the spare key, easing the door shut so that Chris can't hear it over the noise of the shower. It can't be healthy, the gut twisting jealousy that he feels when Chris talks about other guys on the team. He wishes he didn't feel it. He wishes he were in control of this whole...thing. But he's not in control, and he hasn't been for a long time.

Chris is a blur of naked skin behind the shower curtain, his hands in his hair, his eyes closed. Ryan pulls off his clothes quickly, silently, and slides back the curtain.

"Hey!" Chris says, surprised and pleased. Ryan surges forward, pushing Chris against the back corner of the shower. Chris is slippery in his arms and Ryan squeezes him tight around the waist, so that he can't get away. Chris smiles at him, his arms over Ryan's shoulders, water dripping off his nose. "You're early."

"I couldn't wait," Ryan admits, and kisses him.

It's different somehow. Chris can't put his finger on it, but something about Ryan is different. He's still way too noisy for a hotel, even with his face buried in Chris's neck, and he's still so easy, his body responding to the lightest brush of Chris's fingers, but there's something strange about him, like he's holding back, even when he comes, panting against Chris's shoulder, collapsing onto Chris's back. Chris feels like there are words hidden in Ryan's harsh breath.

Ryan rolls away, onto his back, an arm over his face. Chris slides an arm around Ryan's waist and kisses his shoulder. He wants to ask, to say something, but he doesn't know exactly what. Ryan had been annoyed by his comments about Crawford, but that wasn't anything; they both knew that. Should he apologize?

He strokes the damp hair away from Ryan's temple, who closes his eyes. Yeah, there's something. Ryan's a horrible liar and not a great secret keeper (except for this one, Chris thinks) and something is definitely wrong.

"Ryan," he says.

Ryan turns and looks at him. Those beautiful eyes, brown with just a hint of green, pierce into Chris's chest, stab into his heart.

"I love you," Chris says, before he even knows he's going to say it. "I love you."

Ryan doesn't smile. For a second, he doesn't seem to breath at all. Then his closes his eyes and exhales, his hand closing over Chris's wrist, squeezing so hard that Chris will have finger-shaped bruises there tomorrow. "I love you, too," he says.

He's scheduled to catch for the first time in the last game against Milwaukee, six days after getting called up. Cain, which is a relief. Cain is the most predictable of all of the staff, the one with the best control. Still, Chris has butterflies. His first game back. His first game back. The team has come around a little bit, seemed to regain its footing, and he doesn't want to do anything that would upset the precarious balance they've found. He just doesn't want to fuck it up.

Mota comes up to him after the National Anthem, his big hands twisting in the pockets of his hoodie. "You be okay, okay?" he says, nodding.

He was on the mound when it happened, Chris realizes, suddenly.

"Yeah, man." He slaps Mota on the arm. "Of course."

"Okay," Mota says. He looks like he wants to say something else, but doesn't know how. "Okay," he says again, finally, and walks away.

The Brewers have Rickie Weeks hitting lead off. Chris has nothing against Weeks, who seems like a decent enough guy, but he stands up as Weeks approaches the plate, lifting his mask off his face. Weeks, who's maybe 5'10", 5'11", looks up at him.

"Tell your boys," Chris says, rubbing his eye like he's fishing for dirt, "that anyone who charges the plate like Fielder did Friday is gonna get his face broke."

"Hey, man--" Weeks says, but Chris just pulls down his mask and gets into the crouch.

"Any problems, boys?" the ump asks.

"No, sir," Chris says. His back is to the ump, so he dares Weeks to say otherwise with a lifted eyebrow. Weeks looks at him for a long moment.

"No sir," Weeks says, and gets into the box.

The Brewers thump them, 6-0, and Cain heads back into the dugout after each inning barking at himself, but Chris doesn't fuck anything up and no one charges the plate. It's a win, of sorts.

They lose two games in Milwaukee, their bats dampened by the claustrophobic air inside Miller Park, but then they're out of there and on to St. Louis and the team starts to settle in to life without Buster. They win some. They lose some. The season goes on.

And so do Chris and Ryan.

The rest of the team finally notices, in the way that they notice all of the pairs of friends that happen naturally on a team: Huff and Burrell, Cain and Bumgarner, Rowand and Ross, Crawford and Lincecum. Vogey and Stew become another set of names on that list, another Mutt and Jeff, and when someone is looking for one of them, the first place they check is with the other one.

"Hey, Stew, where's Vogey?" Righetti asks in early June, leaning into the locker room.

Chris is checking his gear, making sure he doesn't need to have Murph replace anything. With all the increased playing time he's been seeing lately, he doesn't want to have something crack during a game: a game's the worst time to break in new gear. "Dunno," he says.

"Well, go get him and come to my office," Righetti says.

Ryan's in the weight room, doing flys in a sleeveless tanktop. His arms are seriously impressive, and Chris remembers why he and Ryan don't work out at the same time anymore. He doesn't need to have a boner while he's trying to get his reps in. "Rags wants to see us," he calls when he catches Ryan's eye.

"Yeah, okay." Ryan follows him. "Any ideas?" he asks when they get into the hallway.

Chris does have an idea, actually, and it makes his heart flutter like little birds in his chest, but he doesn't want to say anything in case he jinxes it.

"Vogey, you been doin' great," Rags says when they're both sitting in the cramped confines of his office. Chris tries to cross his legs and bumps his knee on the back of Righetti's desk.

"Thanks," Ryan says, nodding.

"How would you feel about mixing it up a little, throwing to Stew in your next up?"

Ryan glances over at Chris. "I think that'd be great."

"All right then," Rags says. "Two days. Get some sessions in beforehand."

"Absolutely." Ryan bobs his head obediently.

"Stew, stay back would you?" Rags says as they both stand.

Ryan glances at him as he leaves the room.

"How you feelin'?" Righetti asks.

Chris nods. "Good. I feel good."

"And you're comfortable with Vogey?"

"I'm comfortable with everyone," Chris says. It's a little bit of bullshit--he's still not entirely on top of Sanchez or Lincecum--but there's no reason to point out his shortcomings.

Righetti rocks back in his chair. "Quit blowing smoke up my ass, Stew, and tell me the truth. You comfortable with Vogey?"

"One hundred percent," Chris says. "I caught him in Fresno."

"He's having a good year," Righetti says. "Four-and-one."

"Yes, sir."

"And you're gonna keep that going for him, right?"

Chris nods. "Absolutely. Yes, sir."

"Let's hope so." Rags sets his chair back on all four legs. "All right, get outta here."

"He wanted to know if I was comfortable with you," Chris says. He's got his feet up on the coffee table and the television tuned to ESPN.

Ryan opens two beers and hands one over the back of the couch. "And?"

"And I said yes."

"Good answer." Ryan takes a swallow. "You are, right?"

Chris gives him a look like he's wondering where Ryan got the good drugs. "You're kidding, right?"

Ryan shrugs. "I don't mean here. I mean there. At the park."

Chris rolls his eyes. "I know what you mean. I caught you for fucking months in Arizona and Fresno. I'm comfortable. Are you comfortable?"

"All right." Ryan takes another sip of his beer. "Just making sure."

"Jesus," Chris mutters. "Pitchers. You're all fucking psychos."

"Yeah, and you fucking love it," Ryan says, leaning over the back of couch and kissing Chris on the cheek. Chris scowls at the television screen, but he's faking being mad: Ryan can see the smile hiding just under the surface of his skin. "Don't you?" he asks, kissing him again. "Admit it."

"Bite me, you headcase," Chris says.

Ryan leans in, nibbling on Chris's ear. "Admit it," he whispers. "You love pitchers and our crazy bullshit. You can't help it."

Chris relents, hooking an arm around Ryan's neck and dragging him down over the back of the couch, until Ryan is across his lap and they're both splashed with beer. "I admit nothing," he says, in between kisses. "You can't make me."

"I bet I can," Ryan says. It's a bet he wins.

It's Orange Friday, and there's something about the unexpectedness of the color that makes Chris think about how hot Ryan is when that's the last thing he should be thinking. He can't help it--something about the orange sets off Ryan's eyes and reminds Chris of how he looks when he just wakes up--bright and flushed.

"You good?" Lincecum asks during the team stretch.


Tim smiles. "You seem a little out there," he says, twirling his finger by his ear. "You okay?"

"Oh, yeah. Yeah, I'm okay."

"Good." Tim looks down at his shoes. He's got the soles of his feet pressed together, his heels almost to his groin. It's fucking crazy how flexible Lincecum is. Chris tries not to think about it: he's already got enough on his mind. "I'm good, too," Tim says, and there's something in his voice that makes Chris glance up. "In case you were wondering."

"You sure, Timmy?" he says.

Tim tosses his hair back. "Oh yeah." He makes a face. "Fucking great. Buster's down, Zeet's down. This year's going great."

Chris watches Lincecum for a long minute, waiting to see if Lincecum smiles, but he doesn't. He's not kidding. "Tim," he says, carefully. He's not sure he wants to do this--he doesn't know Tim really well--but it seems like someone should and he's the catcher. "Can I say something?"


"Don't get pissed, okay, but I think you're full of shit."

Tim's eyes narrow, and Chris feels a twinge of fear. Lincecum's an easy-going guy, until he's not, and Chris is pretty sure Tim's on the verge of not. "Really."

"Yeah." Chris swallows. "You're comparing this year to last year, and no offense, man, but this isn't last year."

"You think I don't know that? You think I don't--"

His voice is getting higher and louder. Some of the other guys are glancing over, nervous.

"No," Chris interrupts. "I don't think you do. You won the World Series last year, in what, your fifth year? You've won two Cy Youngs. You've been to the All Star game three times."

"I know what I--"

Chris puts his hand on Tim's knee. "No," he says. "You know what you've done. And it's awesome. You're fucking awesome. But you can't keep comparing now to what happened last week or last month or last year, or you'll never be happy."

Tim's looking at his feet again, his body still. Chris isn't sure whether that's a good sign or a bad sign, but he's already started. He might as well finish.

"You gotta look at what you have now, Tim. What you got going for you now, whether that's a fastball over the plate or a good taco or a good...friend." He tries not to cut his eyes away at the last part, to check and see if someone's listening, because the most important thing isn't that someone else might hear, but that Tim might hear. "You gotta appreciate it, Tim, because take it from me--you're not going to win the World Series every year, you know?" Chris leans in until he's almost lying on the grass and can see under the curtain of Tim's hair. Tim's eyes are shadowed. "You know?"

Tim doesn't say anything, doesn't meet Chris's eyes, and finally Chris has to lean back.

"Sorry, man," he says, slapping Lincecum on the knee. "Didn't mean to bring you down."

"You didn't," Tim says. He flops backwards onto the grass, hands above his head, hair spread out around him like a fan. He closes his eyes for a second, sighs, then sticks out his hand. Chris takes it, and Lincecum pulls himself to his feet in one smooth motion. Chris releases his grip, but Lincecum doesn't, not right away, squeezing Chris's hand in his. "Kick some ass out there today, okay?"

"Sure," Chris says. From this angle, his hair blowing against the blue sky, Lincecum looks like some kind of hero. "I will."

"All right." Tim squeezes again, then releases, holding out his hand for a high five. Chris gives it.

"You're alright," Chris says, coming out to the mound in the middle of the third. Ryan kicks at the dirt. He's not all right. He just walked Votto on four straight pitches. The strike zone has vanished and nothing, not his slider, not his fastball, can make it over the plate.

And now Chris is coming out here. Already. In the third.

"Hey," Chris says, hooking his arm around Ryan's waist. "You're alright."

"I don't, the fucking ball--"

"We'll get you a new ball," Chris says, "no problem. You'll get the next guy."

Ryan knows he's the same height as Chris, knows it from months and months of hooking his arms over Chris's shoulders and kissing him right on the mouth without even tilting his head, but out here, on the mound, Chris's arm around him, it feels like Chris is bigger. "Okay," he says, leaning into Chris's arm. "Okay. What do you want?"

"First fastball," Chris says.

"I dunno." Ryan shakes his head. "I'm not finding the zone."

"Don't worry about it, baby." Chris slaps him on the hip. "Just gimme the heat and we'll get him with offspeed stuff, okay?"

He wants to say no. His fastball's gone. It's the third inning and his fastball is nowhere and the ump is coming out and Chris steps back, standing in front of him, hands on his hips, eyes calm. "Okay," Ryan says. "Yeah, okay."

"There you go," Chris says, tapping him on the arm with his glove. "That's my boy."

True to his word, Chris gets a new ball from the ump and tosses it out. He makes the devil horns to the outfield--two outs--then points at Ryan. Ryan nods, squeezing the ball in his hands. The fastball is outside, but Bruce pops up on the changeup and Rowand puts it away. Inning over.

The rest of the game is a struggle--he walks another guy in the fourth who ends up scoring, and allows another run in the fifth, and Freddy Sanchez gets pulled out of the game with a dislocated shoulder diving for a ground ball. But he also strikes out six, and despite his no-decision, they end up winning when Schierholtz singles with two outs in the ninth. It's not the prettiest game he's even been involved with, but it's a win, which is what he says to Chris on the way back to the condo.

Chris grins. "Yep."

"I didn't feel like I had it tonight, though," he says.

"You did fine," Chris says, flicking on the turn signal and taking the corner.

"I just couldn't hit my spots consistently," Ryan says. "I couldn't predict where it was going to go."

"No, but I could. It worked out." Chris speeds up to make it through a light, then takes a right onto their street.

"I guess," Ryan says. "But--"

"Two runs," Chris says. "I know you struggled a little out there, Ry, but two runs. A lot of guys would kill to have an off night like that."


Chris pulls into the driveway and yanks on the parking brake. "You think too much, you know?"

"Is that how you are with everyone?" Ryan asks, blurting out what he's been thinking since he got pulled in the sixth, and watched Chris call pitches for Affeldt, for Romo, for Wilson. "When you go out there?"

Chris squints at him. "Ry--"

"I'm just wondering," Ryan says.

"No," Chris says. "It depends."

"On what?" Ryan asks.

"On what you need," Chris says.

"I don't under--"

"Different guys need different things," Chris says. His voice is sharp, clipped, like he can't believe he has to explain this. "Wilson needs to be yelled at. Timmy needs to be brought into focus. Sanchez needs to be calmed down, Bumgarner needs to be stirred up. You're all crazy in different ways," Chris says, smiling to soften his words, "so you all need different things."

"What do I need?" Ryan asks, slowly, a little worried about the answer.

Chris strokes his fingers through the hair at Ryan's temples. "To know that you've still got it," he says. Ryan's a little shocked by how accurately Chris has sized him up. He wonders if it's something all catchers can do, or just the ones who've sucked his dick.

"So you're saying I'm a pain in the ass," Ryan says.

Chris laughs. "No more than any of the rest of them," he says. "Plus, you have an advantage." His hand curls around Ryan's neck. "You can make it up to me."

"I just want it to be easy," Ryan says.

"Nothing's ever easy," Chris answers, then leans over and kisses Ryan as if to prove himself wrong.

They don't know it at the time, but the Giants' season ends that day in June with the loss of Freddy Sanchez. They'll cling to first place for another six weeks or so, then fall away, and miss the playoffs by five games. Ryan will finish the season 13-7, winning his last game against Colorado by pitching seven shut out innings. Chris will finish with the second lowest stolen base percentage in the entire league (after Kelly Shoppach) and three brand new home runs to his name. They will watch the World Series on television at Ryan's parents' cabin in Pennsylvania. Chris will laugh when the Rangers lose for the second time in two years, and Ryan, dozing, his cheek resting in the small of Chris's naked back, his hand curved around Chris's thigh, will lift his head and see the Cardinals jumping up and down on the field, and smile. Next year, he'll think, rubbing his face against the gentle ridges of Chris's spine. Next year.

The End

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