One day in practice, not long after that game against the Pirates, they learned how to fall better. Jared showed up that day to find what looked like a water slide set up in the middle of the field, a big black vinyl thing, but without any water. "What's this all about?" he asked no one in particular.
Jensen, standing nearby, rolled his eyes. "That," he said, "is so they can remind us how to slide."
"You're kidding," Jared said. They want to remind us how to run and then fall on our faces? I've been doing that since I was a kid."
"Yeah, how to do it the right way so we won't hurt ourselves," Jensen said. "Mostly you pitchers and your delicate elbows, in case you have to get dirty out there with the rest of us. Of course it's especially the idiot pitchers from the AL, who couldn't tell their asses from their elbows in the first place."
"Ackles," Valdez said, sighing, "you know we're doing this because we don't want you crashing into any more people like you did that poor fool in Pittsburgh, and maybe breaking your face. If you're going to act crazy, at least figure out how to do it without hurting yourself. And quit blaming others."
"You heard the man, Jensen," Jared said. "Quit blaming others."
O'Meara, their pitching coach, explained again what they were doing and why it made sense and that they needed to quit rolling their eyes because they were all about to look equally ridiculous. And they did. One by one, they ran and then flung themselves down on their stomachs while the coaches yelled about holding their arms at the safest possible angle and their teammates laughed. A couple of guys found their cell phones and started taking pictures. The pitchers went first and mostly accepted the ribbing with good humor.
Jared was tall enough that he was sure he'd look extra ridiculous when he took his turn, and he felt nervous for a moment. What if he really did hurt his elbow? That was a natural fear, but it was even worse thinking about getting sidelined by a ridiculous injury that he'd obtained on a Slip'n'Slide. That would probably make Jensen's month. But he did it anyway, went ahead and flung himself forward, arms tucked safely against his body as O'Meara had told them, then dusted himself off theatrically and gave Jensen a thumbs-up. Jensen did a slow clap in return. "You've got style, all right," he said, smiling a little, and Jared said, "Everyone's a critic. Let's see you try it and look cool."
"That's fair," said O'Meara, "since Ackles showed us last week that he's an expert in sliding. Let's have the infield take a turn."
Jensen sighed, put-upon, as everyone laughed. Valdez elbowed him in the ribs until he said, "Okay, okay," and got into position, looking grim. Then he sprinted a few feet and belly-flopped onto the slide, obviously careful of his bad elbow in a way that he hadn't been when he'd crashed into the other catcher last week. He ended up near the edge of the slide, rolled over, and stood up a little gingerly. People hooted and clapped, and O'Meara said, "All right, that was a little off-center, but it'll still get you to your base without killing anyone."
"That was adorable, Ackles," Kaminski called over, and Jensen gave him the finger half-heartedly.
"That was fun, actually," Jared said, and Jensen looked at him in amazement. "Of course," he said. "That's exactly what I pictured you doing for fun on your off days." Jared grinned and, without really meaning to, said, "You come over on our next off day and I'll show you exactly what I do for fun. Even better than the Slip'n'Slide." To his delight, Jensen blushed bright red instantly. A few of their teammates in earshot wolf-whistled. Jensen said, "Don't make me hurt you. I don't want to know anything about your sex life."
He stormed away to the accompaniment of several off-color comments before Jared could say anything else, which was fine, since Jared was pretty sure he'd won that round. But he thought of how quick Jensen had been to blush, even his ears turning hot and red, and how he'd scowled but wouldn't meet Jared's eyes, and he wondered.
A heat wave started up all over near the middle of June, and it made them all a little crazy, even Jared, who was used to hot weather. He watched Jensen get ejected from a home game, all of them already sweaty and irritated and not needing the additional problem of losing their catcher. But he couldn't even hassle Jensen about it too much later, because Jensen was right, it had been a terrible call. Sure, Jensen was responsible for losing his temper, but Jared thought he might have done the same. It had been a bad game for Jensen, too, which hadn't helped. He'd dropped a couple of balls, gone 0-for-4 at the plate, and gotten on the umpire's bad side from the beginning. It seemed like a pretty good indication of how the rest of the month was going to go.
Jared was getting better from working with Jensen. He hated knowing that; he would have preferred for nothing good to come out of their alliance, ever. He was glad about the improvements and worked hard to keep them going, but it killed him to give Jensen any credit. Jensen knew what he was doing, but he was so abrasive that the whole pitching staff wanted to do the opposite of what he said just to spite him, even when he was right. He hassled Jared about being a one-pitch pitcher - Jared wasn't very happy about that himself; he had a slider, but it wasn't very reliable, and his curveball was good but not good enough to satisfy him - he told Medina and Carmichael, who were more versatile, that he'd been able to throw a faster fastball when he was back in Little League and had just sprained his wrist, and of course he told Jared and Tanaka, their only other lefty, in great detail about his special vendetta against left-handed pitchers. His evidence for the awfulness of all left-handers was scarce, but he more than made up for it with his depth of feeling. Jensen was also constantly convinced that whoever was on second base was stealing his signs, so changed them a lot and yelled at everybody for forgetting them. "Somebody tipped him off to my signs," he would mutter frequently, staring at whoever had batted well in the last inning, "and I'm going over there to find out who" (so far this had remained an empty threat). Jared wanted to hit him with a bat.
The last day in June, Jared started a home game against Milwaukee. It was freakishly hot, like August, and Jensen had spent most of the day complaining about it. As Jared rested in the dugout between innings, he saw the next three months stretching endlessly in front of him, and not in a good way, as he had in the beginning of the season. He was getting tired of Jensen, tired of him not getting any better on any level, tired of his brattiness and meanness. He was starting to think that a lot of it was deliberate, just to bother him. He knew this didn't entirely make sense, because Jensen had been awful before Jared came anywhere near the team, but he was pretty sure that Jensen was fine-tuning his dreadful behavior, directing it towards whatever would irritate Jared the most.
But he'd also noticed that Jensen was getting twitchy and red-faced and nervous around him more often, which he then covered up by acting even angrier. Jared was pretty sure he knew what that meant, and although he tried not to consider how much guilt was reasonable for him to have in anything regarding Jensen, he felt genuinely guilty about this, at least a little bit. But it wasn't as though he'd set out to seduce Jensen, and he was pretty sure that if Jensen was getting laid regularly, they wouldn't see the kind of displays that had happened yesterday in Chicago, when Jensen had "accidentally" slugged one of his former teammates in the mouth while sliding into third. Jared couldn't even figure out the logistics of that, and they'd barely kept the benches from clearing. And, of course, the impulse to put Jensen up against a wall wasn't exactly keeping Jared's head in the game. Going through with it would be good for both of them. He just had to plan out the best way to approach it, one that would give Jensen as little opportunity to mouth off as possible.
Even as Jared was thinking all of this, Jensen continued to act up. Jared pitched for six innings, allowing two runs in the first five, trying to ignore the glaring sun. In the sixth, he gave up another run and then let two of the Brewers get on base, at first and third, at which point Kripke took him out and put Medina in. Jensen caught a decent game but continued swinging at bad pitches at the plate, stomping into the dugout after his last unsuccessful at-bat and shoving at a Gatorade cooler. Jared tried to ignore him and focus on the game, but Jensen was hard to ignore sometimes. He stood next to Jared and kept up a running commentary on the awfulness of their bullpen, which immediately fulfilled itself as the Cougars gave up three more runs in the next three innings.
They'd scored two runs in the first inning, and Jared had bunted to let Valdez get home after a triple, but now it was 6-3, Milwaukee, and they were about to go into the bottom of the ninth. The stands were starting to empty out, and Jared could hardly blame the fans for leaving. Jensen opened his mouth to say something, and Jared realized he would probably kill Jensen if he had to hear another word. "You know," he said, "if you'd go out there and actually hit something instead of just whining, maybe we'd have a chance."
Jensen scowled and didn't respond. Milwaukee had put in some relief pitcher last inning, a young guy who had seemed promising at first but was now clearly about to implode. He gave up a single, walked the next batter, and then gave up another single, wiping sweat from his eyes and looking miserable. The crowd, what remained of it, stirred, and everyone waiting in the dugout sat up straighter, even Jensen.
Considering their track record, it didn't seem likely that they could make up a three-run deficit in one inning, and their hopes shriveled a little more as the pitcher rallied to strike out their next two batters easily. Jensen was up next. "What a shock, right?" he said as he got up. "Bunch of fucking clowns on this team, I swear-"
And Jared thought that was officially more than enough for one day. He snapped, "Then why don't you retire, Jensen? Give your job over to somebody else who'd appreciate it. And maybe hit the ball sometimes." Even as he said it, he wished he'd picked somewhere a little more private for them to have a confrontation. A few of their teammates laughed. Somebody muttered, "Good fucking question."
Jensen glared, angry enough that he didn't say anything back. Jared was sure Jensen would have punched him if he hadn't been next in the lineup. As it was, he just picked up his bat and stalked towards the plate. "There goes our last out," Brock sighed.
"At least we can go home early," Jared said, watching Jensen. The pitcher was defiant, despite his bad inning; he smirked at Jensen and took his time with the pitch. Jared felt a faint twinge of hope as he saw the angry, determined set of Jensen's shoulders. There were two outs, but three men on base, and it was still 6-3. If Jensen could force in a run, maybe they could stay alive for at least a little while.
The pitcher finished some silly-looking windup, scuffed vigorously at the dust, and let the ball go. Jared heard the healthy smack of the bat connecting, and then -
It took Jared a moment to understand what had happened; it took the crowd a moment too. He could tell because there was about half a second of silence - well, that was how he remembered it later. He was sure it hadn't really happened that way, since a ballpark even on its half-empty days was too boisterous a place for any real hush to fall. What he was really remembering, probably, was the feeling of reverence as the startled crowd watched the ball travel straight back over the pitcher's head and just keep going, one of those shots so true and beautiful that it could bring tears to your eyes, almost.
Jensen didn't watch it, though; he just ran. Well, first he flipped his bat in the direction of the visitors' dugout, but then he took off for first base, tugging his cap down further over his eyes, his expression serious, almost thoughtful, like he was trying to remember the answer to a question someone had suddenly asked. Pandemonium had broken out in the crowd by that time, of course, as they realized that their salvation had somehow just taken place, and that Jensen was responsible. And that, really, was what Jared loved about baseball. There was no other sport like this: you started getting ready to go home, sad over the loss of yet another game - and then you realized with astonishment that you had, in fact, won.
They all met Jensen at home plate, as if the nasty words from two minutes ago, not to mention the past few seasons, had already been forgotten. Jared saw that Jensen was smiling helplessly now as he ran up to meet them, as though he would have liked to hold on to the resentment, but couldn't. Jared thumped him heartily on the back along with everyone else, thinking that Jensen looked years younger, as though his usual meanness had been yanked off like a Band-Aid. Jensen held Jared's eyes for a second, looking oddly shy, and then someone else grabbed his arm and he looked away.
"You'll last a good few years," Jensen said, hours later. He'd gone missing from the back room of the bar where they'd all ended up, and Jared had found him on the balcony. He was probably drunk, but wasn't showing it much, looking out over the balcony at the skyline, his gaze and voice steady. "Maybe you'll blow your arm out before you're thirty, but if you try to be more careful, that'll take away a lot of what makes you good. And you'll have to stop throwing your slider even before that, because it's going to mess up your elbow. So I don't know if you'll be around for that long. But people will remember you."
This didn't sound like Jensen. Maybe it was because he wasn't being nasty, just honest. Or it could have been the beer. Jared felt a little light-headed himself, though he hadn't had much to drink. "Thanks, I guess," he said. "I think you're probably right. You know I didn't do so well the last time around, so I wouldn't mind going out in a blaze of glory."
Jensen nodded. "And people like you," he said, without much bitterness. "That's important, too. When you leave here, you'll probably charm fans into watching whatever team you go to. Maybe even an AL team."
"Maybe I'll stay," Jared said. He wasn't sure why he said it, except that this night was beautiful and had cooled off considerably, and he was a little buzzed, and it was good to be out with his teammates. It was good to be with Jensen, even, without his customary meanness.
Jensen shrugged. "Sure," he said, "maybe for a while."
"That was one of the most clutch home runs I've ever seen, today," Jared said. "You won't be remembered so badly yourself." He meant it to lighten the mood, and was surprised to see real sadness pass over Jensen's face. Jensen looked over at him, face half in shadow, the other half lit by the lights from inside, flickering rhythmically brighter and darker. Jared felt, again, the impulse to touch Jensen, stronger than before. He wished he could connect with him somehow now, while his guard seemed to be down.
"Jared," Jensen said, "let me tell you something. You might not notice it sometimes, but I love this game. I'll never love anything else like that. I've never been as good at it as I wanted to be. And now, well, now I'm not even as good as I used to be." He said this calmly, still sad but matter-of-fact about it. "Today was a fluke."
Jared felt suddenly miserable at being in his own company. "Jensen," he said, and stopped. He'd been about to say, "I'm sorry." Instead he said, "Do you know why I'm here?"
"To throw strikes, I hope," Jensen said.
"Don't ever doubt it," Jared said. "But, I mean, do you know why I'm here? Instead of on a real team?"
Jensen shook his head, looking over at Jared and then away, a quick flicker of interest.
"On my old team," Jared said, "I did a lot of really stupid things. You know - breaking curfew, all that kind of stuff. We had some pretty crazy nights. And I picked up a lot of girls."
"Hmmm," Jensen said, noncommital.
"Then," Jared said, "one night I took this girl back to my hotel room. She asked me to keep my jersey on the whole time, so I did. And of course, there ended up being a video."
"Wow, you really were a moron," Jensen said happily.
"You haven't heard the half of it," Jared said, not sure why he was telling anyone this, let alone Jensen, but too far along to stop now. "She told me she was eighteen." Jensen waited. "She was fifteen."
Jensen whistled, shook his head slowly. "And you had your name and number written across your back the whole time."
"Yep," Jared said. "Her parents wanted my head on a platter. Somehow management figured out a way to stop them from killing me, but combined with everything else I'd already pulled off that year, that was it. I got suspended altogether for two years, then knocked down to triple-A for another three. And that's where I've been until now."
"Well," Jensen said, "that must have sucked. Especially knowing that you deserved it. I mean, if you'd been injured or something, that would be one thing, but knowing it was just you being a total fuckup..."
"I got it, thanks," Jared said. "I was too angry for a while to really process it. I convinced myself that I didn't deserve any of it, but you're right. After I'd been suspended for a while with nothing to do but think about it, I realized exactly how much the whole thing was my fault. And that just about killed me."
"Man," Jensen said, intent, "how are you so fucking perky most of the time? Aren't you bitter?"
Jared shrugged. "It is what it is. I can't change where I am, at least not for now. Might as well have fun and not try to make myself miserable," he added pointedly, "or everyone else."
Jensen looked at him for a long moment, then smirked. "We've all got different definitions of fun, right?" But it seemed hollow. He looked thoughtful.
"Hey," Jared said, and then stopped. Jensen raised an eyebrow. I'm sorry, he almost said again, not entirely sure what he wanted to apologize for. That the Cougars were only keeping Jensen around until they could replace him? That was how baseball worked. Jensen had been in Vancouver longer than he'd been anywhere else, and if he had a home, it was here, with his fanclub of teenage girls and middle-aged ladies, so it would probably be hard for him to leave. He'd been in baseball for a long time, though, so he must have known it was possible he'd get cut or traded. Was it because Jared was there to subdue him? Jensen sure acted like a diva who needed a handler, but Jared couldn't shake feeling uncomfortable about it, like he was somehow being dishonest. He knew he wouldn't want to tell Jensen the truth about that part of his deal, knew that it would wound Jensen's pride, even though that would probably do him some good, and he disliked the feeling. Not to mention that he wanted, right now, to smooth down a rebellious spike of hair near Jensen's ear and then kiss him, or that he was almost sure Jensen wouldn't object. "Nothing," he said, "never mind. You want to go in? I'll buy you a beer."
"All right," Jensen said, looking a little wary. "If you tell anyone what I said, I'll make your life hell."
"What," Jared said, "that you actually care about something? Your secret's safe with me."
"No one would believe you anyway," Jensen said, more comfortably, and they walked back into the bar together.
They stumbled back to their hotel room a couple of hours later, Jared's arm around Jensen's shoulders, trying to keep them both upright. Jensen tripped on the way out of the elevator, almost falling, and Jared tugged him up. "Put him to bed, Padalecki," Valdez said, as they rest of their teammates found their way back to their rooms as loudly as a herd of horses, probably waking people up and down the hallway. "Don't let him hurt himself." There was some laughter and what sounded like an obscene suggestion, of which Jared only caught a few words. "I'm going to ignore that," Jared said, prompting more laughter. "See you all tomorrow. Bright and early, right?" He closed the door on a chorus of unhappy noises, arm still around Jensen, who'd been oddly quiet for a while, maybe just concentrating on walking without falling down.
Jensen sat down hard on the nearest bed and looked up at Jared. "Did you hear what he said?"
Jared looked at him in surprise. He hadn't thought Jensen was still coherent, but that had been clear enough. "Who?"
"I think it was Kelly," Jensen said. "Right now, in the hallway. He said, 'You should fuck the mean out of him.'"
"He doesn't like me very much," Jensen said. "I don't know if you figured that out yet. But sometimes he has some pretty smart ideas."
Jared went to him, sat down on the bed too, but didn't touch him. "I want to," he whispered. It was dark, only a strip of light coming from the hallway under the door. He could hardly see Jensen. It felt like a confession. "God, I want to so bad."
He put his hand on Jensen's arm, up above the elbow, and stroked, thumb rubbing gently up and down the inside of his arm. Jensen was shaking a little. "I want you to," Jensen said. He sounded angry about it. "Why'd you do this to me? You're ruining my fucking life, I was fine before you came here -"
"I'm sorry," Jared said. "I didn't know. I didn't even like you, I still don't like you most of the time, but - oh, just come here, would you?"
Jensen made a frustrated noise and crawled up the bed, pulling Jared with him. The room seemed to spin a little, and Jared remembered how much they'd both had to drink, but he grabbed Jensen and kissed him anyway.
Jensen gasped softly, like Jared had given him an electric shock instead of a kiss. It almost felt that way, so startling, rough and a little angry, but so good, the best kiss Jared could remember. Jared put a lot into it, all the times he'd wanted to punch Jensen, all the moments he'd hated him, but the reluctant lust for him too, and the weird tenderness of late. The kiss felt crowded. He didn't know what Jensen was putting into it.
Jensen said, "No," when Jared pulled back, keeping one hand on Jensen's back, the other one on his hip. He sounded a little sad, and Jared didn't want that, so he stroked him more, petting, soothing. "You're drunk," he said, remembering.
"So are you," Jensen said. "That makes it okay. Come on."
"No, wait," Jared said. "Let's do this right. In the morning, okay? Otherwise I'll probably puke on you."
"Be still, my heart," Jensen said, and Jared laughed. "All right. All right." He sighed, sounding restless, and Jared tugged him closer. "No," Jensen said again, but came anyway, settling in close. Jared kept his hands where they were, rubbed circles on Jensen's hip, and Jensen swatted weakly at him. "That's girl stuff," he said, and yawned. "Oh. Maybe you were right. I'm going to fall asleep."
"Go ahead," Jared said, smiling. "See you tomorrow."
"Bright and early," Jensen murmured. Jared felt him close his eyes, lashes brushing Jared's neck. His breathing turned deep and hard after a moment, like a little kid's.
Jared fell asleep.