Their home uniforms weren't especially ugly, just impractical. For one thing, they were white. They only stayed white for about twelve seconds per game, of course, before getting coated with a fine layer of grime or, if you had to slide, outright filth. Their other color was gold, which was hardly more practical; the players (like Jensen) who wore their pants high wore cheerful yellow socks. The whole effect was pretty ridiculous and, combined with their unfortunate team name, subjected them to a lot of "pussy" jokes and other implications about their manliness from other teams.
It was hard to blame them, really. Almost no one on their team was man enough to look tough in the white-and-gold ensemble, even their few grizzled veterans. The worst part was the C in "Cougars," which was formed out of the open, roaring mouth of a cat-like beast. This was embarrassing. Jensen complained about it regularly.
Jared was discovering a lot of interesting things about Jensen. It would be hard not to, considering how much time they spent in the same space. For example, when the sky looked cloudy, Jensen would check the weather about 40 times a day, frowning and looking ominous. He didn't just check the Weather Channel, either; he had to lok at AccuWeather, the National Weather Service, and the local paper of whatever town they were playing in. Jared watched this with interest, noticing Jensen's grim expressions whenever the sky promised rain, his special hatred of the Midwest, and how he looked around nervously when a camera flash went off, especially if it was already raining. After observing this for a while, Jared said casually in the dugout one day, "Was that thunder?"
Jensen actually turned pale. He whipped his head up to stare at the sky, which looked innocently blue, then looked suspiciously off to the west. "What? I didn't hear it. Are you sure?"
"Well, no, not really," Jared said. "Maybe it was a plane. Looks pretty clear up there." Jensen looked deeply relieved, some of the tension going out of his shoulders. Before he could say anything derisive, Jared added, "Are you afraid of thunderstorms, Jensen?"
Jensen scowled, shoulders hunching again. "Of course not. That's ridiculous."
"I think it's a totally natural phobia, actually. Lightning kills a lot of people every year, you know? Especially people out in the middle of open fields." Jared pretended to consider this. "Hey, like us!"
"It's not a phobia," Jensen muttered, but he looked unhappy, staring off to the west again. "Did you really hear something?"
During a night game in San Diego, Kyle Darrish, their second baseman, got into a shouting match with some reliever from the Padres' bullpen during his at-bat in the eighth. Darrish was normally a cheerful guy, despite being 5'9 in a world of much taller men, but having a string of inside fastballs rocket right past his head was apparently too much even for him. Jared watched with interest from the bullpen. He'd been in quite a few fights on his old team - actually, he'd started almost all of them - but that had been a long time ago. San Diego's catcher stepped between the two angry men and patted his pitcher on the chest, gesturing at both of them and saying something to Darrish. For a minute or two it seemed like he might be able to calm them both down, and Jared thought how nice it must be to have someone in that position who could actually mediate. "Could you imagine Ackles trying to stop two guys from fighting?" he said to Medina, the pitcher who Jensen had been terrorizing on Jared's first day, and Medina just laughed. Jared, still watching the field, said, "Even this is probably his fault somehow."
He stood up, noticing most of the guys in the visitors' dugout doing the same. Things looked tense again, despite the umpire and most of the infield gathering around. Then the pitcher gave Darrish a shove, Darrish shoved back, and Jared was up with everybody else, running onto the field. He felt some excitement, but not the joyful adrenaline rush this would have provoked in him five years ago; now, he was mostly worried about getting a suspension. He still ran out, though, because he was part of this team now, even if this team was kind of ridiculous. That meant, among other things, that you didn't hide in the dugout when someone started shoving your teammates around, especially since they'd gotten into it with this team before.
Since he'd been in the bullpen with the other relievers, the fight was already in progress by the time they'd jumped over the railing and made it out to the field. The other pitcher had thrown a punch at Darrish when things got started, but now, like most baseball fights Jared had seen or participated in, it was mostly shoving and a couple of soft punches that wouldn't do much damage. There was also, as usual, more hair-pulling and scratching than you might expect from a lot of professional athletes. The white-and-gold uniforms were useful in this case, helping him make sure he didn't hit any of his own teammates. It was cool and dry after the heat of the day, the crowd was up and yelling, and Jared was feeling pretty good as he knocked into some guy in a red-and-white jersey.
He saw most of his teammates in the dogpile, but didn't notice Jensen. Jared was curious to see what he'd do. He thought Jensen would probably be the hair-pulling type. Then Jared saw him. He shouldn't have been surprised, but he had to stop and stare for a moment: Jensen was strolling out to the field from the dugout, looking bored. Once he got there, he stood around on the edge of the yelling, angry group, not even trying to hide the fact that he wasn't doing anything.
"What an asshole," Jared muttered under his breath as the fight started to break up. He was sure Jensen wasn't worried about getting hurt, since hardly anyone ever did in a baseball fight. He just didn't care.
"Did I miss anything?" Jensen asked, all mock-innocent, appearing next to him, and Jared gave him the most withering look he could manage.
"I had to run from the fucking bullpen and I was out here before you," he said, loudly enough that a few other people turned and looked. Jensen rolled his eyes.
"I've got better things to do with my time," he said, and Jared shook his head, disgusted. Valdez, their captain, a tall, quiet guy who played a few different positions in the infield, came and stood next to Jared as Jensen walked away. "What did you expect?" he said, and Jared said, "I don't know. Better than that, I guess. But next time, I won't."
Jared started off by throwing a couple of innings in games that didn't matter, when they were clearly either about to lose or way ahead. His speed stayed high, but his control still wasn't where it needed to be most of the time. He got nervous every time he stepped out on the mound, which was a change from his first time around. Back then, it had made all the sense in the world for him to be out there, facing down some batter with the sun going down behind him. Of course he was out there; how could the MLB have gone on without him? He shook his head, amazed, when he thought about the arrogant kid he'd been.
He noticed things now, too, that he hadn't before, like how often a number of the seats were occupied by the grim-faced old men that appeared in every park he'd ever played in, whether it was Wrigley Field or some new monstrosity like this one. Where did they come from? Especially in a town like this, where hardly anyone had known or cared about baseball for a good many years, it was hard to say, yet there they were. He noticed the details, now, and loved being out there to notice them. He couldn't take any of it for granted anymore, and now he sometimes felt a little lightheaded when he walked out onto the field, which made the ball spin in wild directions that he hadn't planned. Despite the control problem, though, he was actually pitching pretty well. It just wasn't the top of his game.
He had to give Jensen credit for the fact that he was pitching decently at all, much as it pained him to admit it. He wasn't a calming presence behind the plate, but he was there, and focusing just on the signs he was flashing helped Jared settle down a little. Besides, Jensen's instincts were very good, and whatever pitch he called for was usually just what the batter least wanted to see, if Jared could deliver it. But the most helpful part of Jensen's presence was that Jared could usually redirect his nervous energy into remembering how much he hated Jensen's face. This was relaxing and helped the ball go where it needed to be.
In Jared's first game, after he hit a batter in only his second inning of work on his new home field, Jensen stalked out to the plate, pulling his mask up. "What the fuck are you thinking about?" he said, and shoved Jared in the chest, hard. Jared grabbed his wrist.
"You know what?" he said. "I'm going to get sick of that real fast. Try it again and I'll knock you on your ass, I promise." He imagined a video of this showing up on ESPN that night, which irritated him even more.
Jensen jerked his arm free. "You know we're taking a chance by letting you out here," he said. "Quit fucking it up and making me look bad. You know what you need to do, now do it, unless you want everybody to start wondering what we're paying you all that money for."
He yanked the mask back down and returned to his place, and Jared, too focused on driving the ball towards Jensen's head to think about anything else, struck out the next two batters with a series of fastballs.
One day, a couple of weeks into May, Jensen approached him and said casually, "You know they're planning to start you this week, right?"
Jared felt a nervous thrill, tried to ignore it. Maybe it was true, maybe it wasn't. "I didn't, actually," he said, "but thanks for filling me in. I know you have my best interests at heart."
"I do, absolutely," Jensen said. "You're not nervous, are you? I wouldn't be nervous. You won't look like that much of an idiot if you fuck up in front of thousands of people, right? And everybody watching on TV. Or, wait. Maybe you will. So don't fuck up."
That was horrible, but fairly accurate. The pitching coach, O'Meara, told Jared on Tuesday. On Wednesday, he and Jensen went out to the field early for practice. It was going to be a home game, so at least the stadium was familiar, but Jared felt even more nervous about pitching in front of the Cougars' faithful followers than he would have in front of a hostile crowd of opposing fans.
He and Jensen played catch for a while, and he threw okay, but a little erratically, most of the balls coming in just off the mark. Jensen, for once, didn't comment much, just kept signaling for different pitches, trying to find what worked. Finally, he shrugged and said, "I don't know what to tell you, Padalecki. You need to fix that, or you're just going to keep walking everybody. And - "
" - look like an idiot, yeah, I know. Do you have anything helpful to add?" Jared asked.
"What, you want a pep talk?" Jensen said. "Okay, how about this?" He paused. Jared waited, already regretting having asked. "Try to throw strikes," Jensen said after a moment, with what was probably supposed to be a thoughtful expression. "And win the game. And don't make me come out to the plate. I hate that." Jared rolled his eyes, starting to walk away. Jensen called after him, "And I have a special signal that means, 'I hope you die before the seventh.' You want to see it?" Jared turned around in time to see Jensen slowly extending both middle fingers, adding, "Don't make me use it." Jared faked a yawn and said, "Don't get predictable, Jenny. I live for the excitement you bring to every game."
And Jared did walk the first batter that night. He followed that up promptly by giving up a home run to the second batter. He watched it go out, trying to pull it back in just by the power of his mind, and thought: this is it. It's all over. I'm being punished for acting like such a fucking idiot the first time around.
But then, even though Jensen didn't come out to the plate, he and Jared started communicating. Jensen just made eye contact, and somehow Jared could feel the horrible glare even through his mask. And Jared was almost positive he was receiving a telepathic message from Jensen: I don't have much respect for you anyway, but if this is how you perform in your first start for us, I won't have any. With plenty more profanity involved, of course, but Jared was pretty sure that was the gist of it. If he couldn't even control the ball, he wouldn't be able to control Jensen. And if he couldn't do either of those things, then he was headed back to the minors.
And then, somehow, he started to recover. He just kept watching Jensen, not trusting him, but remembering that if nothing else, he could call a good game out of sheer orneriness. And he did. Jared started to relax, let the rest of the world fade out for a while, and watched Jensen's signals. And then he started to throw strikes.
It went by faster than he thought. He was mostly in control, throwing strikes, making a few batters ground out and a few others hit high pop flies, caught easily by the outfielders. He also let a couple more guys get on base, but no one else scored after those first two runs. He started to feel it in the sixth, and Kripke came out to the plate and took the ball after the last batter hit a triple off Jared. But he also thumped Jared on the shoulder, and he got more handshakes and pats on the chest in the dugout. Jensen gave him a grudging little nod, and that was all, but it was enough.
Jared had gotten wins before, but none of them had felt as good as this, not even his first one. This was different. He recognized it as a second chance, and he was grateful.
"Huh," Jared said one day, as they got ready in their hotel room before a game.
"What?" Jensen said, annoyed, shoving things into a duffel bag.
"What? Oh. Nothing. I was just thinking." He stopped there, watching happily as Jensen zipped his bag and turned to stare at Jared with obvious disgust, snarling, "Well, what?"
"Oh, just that you're kind of...hmmm." He paused just until Jensen was clearly about to cross the room and kill him, then went on. "You look more like a typical catcher than I thought you did. When I first came here. You know."
This was followed by a very long pause. Jared kept his expression polite and neutral, he hoped. Jensen stared, a muscle twitching in his jaw. Then he said, "Are you calling me fat?"
Jared shrugged. "Is that what I said? I just said you looked like a -"
"You know that's the worst fucking thing you could have said to me! I should push you out that window." Jared contemplated pointing out that they were only on the second floor, then decided against it. "What do you mean, typical?"
"Well, you know," Jared said thoughtfully. "I saw your rookie card the other day, and you just looked, um, different." This part was true. He'd gotten together with some of the guys at Brock's house a few days earlier, and they'd started investigating everyone's rookie card after a couple of beers. Jensen's had been probably the most hilarious - he'd been a skinny kid, looking all innocent and hopeful and teen-model pretty. Jared had decided to mention it to Jensen at the nearest opportune moment, figuring he might be self-conscious about it. He wasn't exactly telling the truth about everything, though; Jensen was solid enough, especially compared to his nineteen-year-old self, but he was still pretty much on the lean side for a catcher. Besides, he looked much better now that he'd filled out some, although Jared wasn't about to mention that. Jensen seemed to have bought it anyway, judging by his wrathful expression. "You look a little bit like -"
"Don't even compare me to anyone," Jensen said.
"I'm just saying," Jared said. "Hey, aren't you still listed at 175? Because I think you were on your rookie card, too, and that was, what, thirteen years ago?" He pretended to count. "I don't know if that's still..."
"Don't finish that sentence," Jensen said. "Really. Don't finish it. Then I'd have to kill you for sure. I'm gonna use your face for batting practice today." He stomped off into the bathroom, still glaring at Jared, maintaining eye contact until the last possible second, then slammed the door. With great pleasure, Jared imagined Jensen examining himself in the mirror, frowning.
Practice that day was awesome.
It started with Valdez, coughing and sneezing one day during practice. By the end of the week, everybody except the bullpen had it. By the end of the month, they'd been infected too. It was some especially disgusting flu/cold hybrid, with all the leaking fluids of a cold and additional dizziness and chills. Their playing did not improve.
Jared felt a tickle in his throat one morning, went into the bathroom, and coughed heartily on Jensen's toothbrush. A few days later, he realized that this had been a major tactical error. He should have done everything possible to prevent Jensen from getting sick, at least while he was still sick himself. He had thought maybe Jensen would be subdued by the illness, but this had been a terrible mistake. He thought about begging Kripke to let him room with someone else, but he knew that wouldn't be very impressive.
On this particular morning, Jensen had wrapped himself in all the blankets on the bed and was refusing to come out. "We have practice in fifteen minutes," Jared explained once again. "You can't just not show up. And I can't show up without you, because they'll think I killed you after you kept bitching about how cold you were and making me bring you three different pairs of socks. And they might not be wrong."
Jensen's head emerged from the blankets, slowly. His hair was fluffed out in all directions, his face flushed. "Why," he asked, "are you trying to reason with me? I can't go to practice. My legs don't fucking work."
Jared shrugged. "I guess I'll have to carry you, then."
"Don't come anywhere near me," Jensen said. "Don't make me sneeze in your face."
"Well, that's disgusting," Jared said, "but not that scary, since I already have what you have." He grabbed the edges of the blanket bundle, ignoring Jensen's flailing. "I'm throwing you on the floor in three...two..."
"FINE," Jensen snarled, and unwound himself, glaring at Jared. He wandered off to the bathroom, then emerged, blowing his nose as loudly as possible. Jared packed his stuff and tried to ignore Jensen. "You ready?" he asked after a moment, turning around when he didn't get a response. Jensen was curled up on the couch, fast asleep again, still looking angry.
Jared sighed. He walked over to shake Jensen awake, noticing that Jensen's hair was still ridiculous. He felt a faint stirring of something that wasn't hatred, and that made him pause and frown. A second later, it went away, and he was relieved. He would think about it more later, when he could tell what was real and what was mild fever. For now, they had a game to play.
Sometimes Jensen's meanness came in handy, especially now that it was more pronounced, thanks to Jared. Jared figured that if Jensen was acting like a raging bitch towards everyone on the team, they'd might as well benefit from it on the field. He'd noticed that Jensen usually played better against teams he'd spent some time on before. He must have felt like he had something to prove, since Jensen seemed to have left all of his former teams with a grudge against half the players and all the coaches. Jared was sure none of those people had any tender feelings towards Jensen either.
Today they were playing in Pittsburgh. "Ackles is always angrier than usual in Pittsburgh," someone else from the bullpen had said on the way there, with sad inevitability. "He spent a couple years there a while back, and now he hates it. They hate him, too." This seemed to be true. Jensen had been especially antsy through most of the game, fidgeting and wandering around the visitors' dugout. "Dude, will you settle down?" Jared finally said, exasperated, after Jensen stalked by him for about the eighth time to stare out at the field with obvious malice.
He turned his angry glare on Jared. "I'll settle down when I want to," he said, but it was half-hearted at best. "I hate that fucker," he added, indicating the other team's catcher. "He thinks he's amazing. But then when you stop and think about it, you realize that he has to live in this disgusting town and be a fucking Pirate. I should feel sorry for him, really."
"That's touching," Jared said, although he didn't exactly disagree with Jensen about either the team or the town. Vancouver looked pretty shiny next to Pittsburgh. "Have you been on any team that you didn't hate?"
"No," Jensen said immediately, then added, "I was in Chicago a long time ago. That was all right, sometimes, except for the weather. The fans are like animals, though."
Jared, surprised at the little kernel of human emotion there, hesitated, then said, "Well, don't pick a fight with their catcher. You'll probably get suspended. It'd be nice to have you out of my hair for a while, though, so on second thought, go ahead if you feel like it."
"We'll see," Jensen said, as Kaminski struck out and the Pirates started to run off the field. "This game is boring. A fight would liven it up a little."
Jared watched him jog out to the plate to talk to Carmichael. He really didn't want another fight to start, but Jensen was right; they could use some of his aggression out there. The game was dragging. It was the seventh inning and they were ahead 3-2, most of the runs scored early in the game, and a lot of men stranded on base since then. It was a day game, hot for May, and the fans seemed half-asleep. Most of the players weren't far off, either.
It struck Jared how much time he'd spent lately watching Jensen. It was a big part of his job, of course, but he didn't just watch him behind the plate: he watched him batting, running onto the field, in their hotels rooms, a little more surreptitiously. Jared wished this would bring him to some realization about how Jensen wasn't as bad as he'd first thought, but he was pretty sure that Jensen was exactly as bad as he'd first thought. All that was happening was that Jared was getting to know him better, to gauge his moods - well, Jensen was always in a bad mood, but there was a little bit of a spectrum, at least.
He'd gotten to know Jensen better in other ways, too, considering how much of the time they spent together involved them being half-dressed. He noticed how oddly modest Jensen was in the locker room, covering up quick while most guys wandered around naked or close to it, how he scowled while getting rubbed down after a game. There was something appealing about it, something that made Jared wonder how Jensen would react to being touched in other ways, even as Jensen twitched and bucked him off whenever Jared brushed up against him. Jared liked watching Jensen stretch before and after games, not especially self-conscious until he caught Jared staring and glared back. He was starting to feel a little like a stalker, but he couldn't help it. Jensen was compelling.
Jared had figured that his first, started reaction to Jensen's prettiness would wear off fast, but now he thought it might be getting worse. He'd been with a couple of guys before, casually, and was basically okay with that. He was starting to feel a weird itchiness about Jensen, though, thinking about him too much in a way that wasn't normal for him. Usually, if Jared wanted someone, he'd be straightforward about it and they'd hook up or move on. This situation was strange, though, since he'd never been forced to spend as much time with anyone else as he did with Jensen.
If they could get together a few times and get it out of his system, he thought he'd be all right. He tried not to dwell on that too much, though. It wasn't the gay thing, just that Jensen was probably too mean to have sex with anyone. Jared could live with that, as long as he remembered what a bastard Jensen was. He'd watch himself for any sign that he was starting to like Jensen as a person, though, which seemed impossible at the moment but would be a good signal that he was in trouble after all.
The inning ended without progress on either side. Jensen batted first in the eighth, and Jared thought he saw him exchange words with the other catcher beforehand, but nobody threw a punch. Jensen let the first pitch go by, looking at it with distaste, and then hit a solid single that turned into a double while the right fielder fumbled with the ball. The crowd stirred slightly. Carmichael went up next and bunted, something he'd been trying to pull off successfully for most of the season. He did all right with it this time, looking a little surprised at himself, and Jensen ran to third. With his long legs, he could probably have made it home, but he stopped when the third-base coach flagged him down.
He doesn't like many of his coaches, Jared thought, but he listens to them. Seems to listen to his agent, too. Considering how young he'd started in the majors, he'd probably spent a long time doing what other people told him. Jared had gotten the rebellion out of his system early, and even though it had been in the stupidest way imaginable, it had been kind of satisfying at the time. He wondered if Jensen had had any youthful rebellion; it seemed like he never had, for all his hostility. Jared could see how that might be part of his problem.
Darrish went up to bat and then went back down just as fast. Jensen hopped around at third, agitated, obviously ready to run, and Garcia came up and obliged him with a single. It was a little shaky, though, and the pitcher chased after it, grabbed it, and flung it gracelessly towards home as Jensen tried to beat it there.
Jared stood up along with everyone else as he saw how fast Jensen was running, not swerving at all, and he said, "Oh, Jesus," as he realized what was going to happen. As the other catcher grabbed for the ball, Jensen flung himself forward and bowled him straight over, sliding into him so hard that Jared cringed. He could hear the impact from the dugout.
Jared watched the two of them disentangle, crawling apart, and winced as Jensen touched his bad elbow. But then he stood up, shaking it off already and starting to talk to the angry umpire, and Jared thought he must be all right. "That took some balls," Medina said, with real admiration.
"Knocked him right over," Jared agreed, "and he was safe, too. That'll be on YouTube tonight, for sure." He laughed, feeling some grudging admiration, and wondered if he would have risked his arm in a play like that. Jared didn't like Jensen, but on occasion, he almost had to respect him.