They didn't let it affect their playing, for the most part. Jensen kept calling good games, performing unevenly at the plate, and stalking out to the mound to call Jared out when he did something stupid. Near the beginning of September, Jared threw seven hitless innings against the Mets, only issuing a couple of walks, and he could feel everyone holding their breath, thinking maybe, maybe, before he spoiled it by giving up a double. But Jensen congratulated him along with everyone else afterwards, giving Jared his real smile and patting him on the back, saying, "You're young, you'll get plenty more chances to fuck up no-hitters, don't worry." Jensen being decent about it somehow made Jared feel sadder than ever.
Jared thought about bringing everything up again, but wasn't sure how. Jensen seemed okay with letting things go on as they were. He wondered if maybe he should leave it up to Jensen. All he could do was keep apologizing, and he wasn't going to do that if Jensen didn't want to hear it. He figured that, if Jensen wanted them to make it up somehow, he'd let Jared know.
And a couple of weeks later, he did. At least, Jared was pretty sure that was what he was trying to say.
They'd played the Padres roughly a thousand time this season, through one of those strokes of MLB scheduling brilliance. Both teams were about as sick of seeing each other as they could possibly be. Violence hasn't actually broken out again since their first series earlier in the year, but there had been a couple of close calls, and both benches had cleared once after one of their batters had gotten hit in the shoulder in July. Jared thought that had probably just been poor pitching on their part, rather than anything deliberate, but he wasn't sure.
All they wanted, at this point, was to win their final series and do it without anyone getting hurt. They came down to it near the middle of September. It was a home series, and the Cougars won the first game without much of a struggle, then lost their eighth-inning lead in the second game after a bad outing from nearly everyone in the bullpen, Jared excepted, since he was scheduled to start the third game.
In one sense, neither of the teams had much at stake. Either the Rockies or the Dodgers would make the playoffs from the NL West; it certainly wouldn't be either of them. All they were vying for was a distant third place. But then again, third place did sound more satisfying than fourth, and it had been a long time since the Cougars were anything but second to last. So when he and Jensen threw the ball around before the third game, Jared was a little more invested than usual.
Jensen didn't say much while they played catch. He seemed thoughtful, maybe a little unfocused, which was unusual enough that Jared asked, "Hey, are you all right?" Jensen snapped, "What? I'm fine. Just concentrate on throwing the ball," which was more like it.
Jensen stayed pretty subdued during the game, which was even more unusual. He was usually mouthier than ever with any of their division rivals. When San Diego's shortstop came up to bat, Jared saw him say something that made Jensen's head jerk up, but then he shook his head and waved him off, like he'd decided that the guy wasn't worth it.
The first time wasn't intentional at all, just that same old control problem coming back to plague him. Jared waited a beat too long as Jensen ran through his signals, then released the pitch just as the shortstop was straightening up out of his batting stance. It went high, of course, and didn't actually clock the guy but came pretty close. He gestured over at Jared, not looking too happy, and yelled out a string of obscenities in Spanish and English. Jared raised his hands defensively and called over, "Hey, man, it was an accident." The umpire shook his head, frowning; he was old and tough and Jared figured he probably wouldn't get many more chances before he got warned. Jensen had stood up and was saying something Jared couldn't hear, and that batter scowled and looked ready to deck Jensen for a minute. Great, Jared thought, just what I need, and he called Jensen over.
"Dude, don't try to negotiate for me, all right?" he said, when Jensen reached the plate. "We'll have the whole team out here in thirty seconds if you do, 'cause if you provoke him, he's going to come out here and punch me. Then I'll have to deal with it, even if you're the one who deserves to get punched. I don't know if anyone's ever mentioned this, but you're not a great diplomat."
Jensen shrugged. "I'm just trying to talk him down. I don't know why he got all offended when I mentioned you could smash his head like a grape if he pissed you off."
"You know, I never know when you're joking." Jensen looked impassive. Jared sighed. "Get back out there and call some pitches, will you?" Jensen trotted back behind the plate, and Jared struck the guy out with two sliders and a fastball. The whole visitors' dugout glared at Jared as the next batter came up, but things went smoothly enough for the next few innings. Now Jared was annoyed and a little nervous, though, which made his control shakier than ever, even as he noticed that it was still better than it had been when the season started. He had a feeling it was only a matter of time before the game got out of hand. He couldn't quite settle into his usual groove, feeling a little itchy and restless, even though he'd only given up one run so far and struck out four.
He stayed strong through most of six innings, grounded by Jensen's presence behind the plate. Then their shortstop came up to bat again, and again Jared saw him say something in Jensen's direction, which Jensen seemed to ignore. Jared's next pitch was a low inside fastball that whacked the batter on the outside of his thigh with a solid thud.
Jared spent a lot of time thinking about it later, wondering about his motivations. He hadn't done it on purpose, and he certainly hadn't done it out of some misguided chivalry towards Jensen. He was almost sure about that. What he knew for sure was that he hadn't spent time thinking about it in the moment; he'd just released the ball. Instinct.
He didn't have time to think about it right afterward, either, because the batter charged the mound a second later. He was moving awfully fast for a guy who'd just gotten hit in the leg. Jared sighed a little, inwardly, and got ready to throw some punches.
But all of a sudden, Jensen was on the mound too. Jared, filled with adrenaline, hadn't even seen him take off running. He forced himself between the two of them, not even looking at Jared, ignoring his "Jensen, get the fuck out of the way."
"You don't need to be out here, man," Jensen said to the other guy. Jared was only vaguely aware of the yelling and jeers from the crowd, or even the sudden presence of his teammates on the field, or the other team backing up their player. The moment seemed to have narrowed down to the three of them out there, under the lights, bright and hot, and Jared couldn't have focused on anything but Jensen. Jensen, who then went ahead and shoved their new friend in the chest and said "Don't worry about him," jerking his head towards Jared. "I told him to throw it. His control's not that great, so I was hoping maybe it would break a little inside and to the right, you know what I mean?"
"Hey," Jared said, shocked. And before he could say anything else or even move, the other guy snarled, "I've been wanting to do this since you played for us," and decked Jensen - not with the usual sissy-looking punch typical of baseball fights, but with a real haymaker.
Jensen went down hard, and then everything seemed to explode. The next few minutes were a blur of white and gold and red and gray. As soon as Jensen was on the ground, he disappeared under a pile of about forty angry people. Jared did some pushing and shoving and hitting of his own, but the focus of the fight seemed to have shifted away from him. He couldn't get to Jensen, or even see him. His elbow, Jared thought, horrified. He could really get hurt - no one ever really gets hurt in baseball fights, though, do they?
Things started to subside a little bit, to the usual level of angry guys jostling each other, but it seemed like Jensen was still down there somewhere, getting pounded. Then Jared saw him, crawling out from under everyone, back through the umpire's legs. He was holding his arm as the ump helped him stand up, and Jared's heart sank. Then Jensen looked over at him, his face exhilarated and flushed. Jared held his eyes. Jensen grinned and, completely against his will, Jared found himself starting to smile back.
Their stories contradicted, of course. Jared told the truth as he remembered it: Jensen hadn't called for him to hit anybody, it was just a bad pitch that had gotten away from him - but apparently Jensen was more convincing. Jared never got to hear what he said, but he was pretty sure that Jensen's version of "convincing" had consisted of insulting the umpires, all MLB employees, Bud Selig, and everyone's respective family and friends. Whatever method he'd used, and whatever story he'd told them, by the end of the day, he was suspended for six games. The other shortstop was out for three games, along with various players on both sides who'd acquitted themselves especially well in the fight, and Jared for only two.
"Six games," Kripke said to Jared later, shaking his head in amazement. "What do you think he said in there?"
This seemed to be a rhetorical question, so Jared stayed silent. Kripke went on, "Well, you'll miss your next two starts. I wouldn't appeal it if I were you. And considering your history, if you'd been the one suspended for six games, you know you'd be on your way out of here." Jared nodded. "But I don't actually think you did much of anything wrong. I'm not sure Ackles did either. And somehow, you didn't really end up in the middle of the fighting, Jared. Why do you think that is?"
And maybe it was just the post-adrenaline comedown, the exhaustion, the bruised shoulder he'd gotten in the fight, or some combination of all of them, but Jared suddenly felt halfway ready to cry. "You know why," he managed.
"I don't, actually," Kripke said. "I know Jensen went to the mat for you, so to speak. Why he did it is a mystery to me, and I'm okay with it staying that way. But it sounds to me like you're doing the job we're paying you for. So congratulations. Serve your suspension, and if you start anything else, I promise you'll be back in triple A. Consider yourself lucky."
Jared drove to Jensen's house that night, instead of back to his own apartment. He wasn't sure if Jensen would be there or want to talk to him, but he answered the door, looking a little bruised up but not too bad, considering.
"Hi," he said, and Jared said, "Hi. Are you going to let me in?"
"All right," Jensen said, and walked with Jared into his living room. Jared had been surprised to learn that he lived in the city, not out in the suburbs, and not even too far from the ballpark. Jared said, "I always wondered why you live here. Don't you hate everybody? Shouldn't you be out in the desert or on a ranch in Wyoming somewhere?"
"I do hate everybody," Jensen said, "and that sounds really nice, but I'm also lazy and I like being able to get to work fast. Any other questions?"
"Or maybe you don't hate everybody," Jared said.
"I do, though," Jensen said. "I really, really do. Quit trying to psychoanalyze me." But he was starting to smile again, a little bit.
"Well," Jared said, after a moment, "what happened out there today?"
Jensen looked like he was going to say something hostile, but Jared just watched him, his gaze level. Jensen sighed and went to sit down on the couch. Jared sat next to him, not too close, figuring Jensen wasn't in a touchy-feely mood.
"I'm not really sure," Jensen admitted. "I think maybe I just wanted to surprise you." He laughed. "The look on your face when I came out there was fucking awesome."
"Come on, be serious," Jared said, and Jensen said, "Well, what do you want me to say? I'm not going to confess my love for you or something ridiculous like that, if that's what you're thinking. It just..." he paused for a minute, considering, and said, "It just seemed like the right thing to do. I didn't plan it ahead of time. He thought you did it on purpose, and if you'd punched him, your ass would already have been out of here. He needed a distraction. So I distracted him. You've got to admit I'm good at that."
"And what," Jared asked, "did you tell them that got you suspended for six games and me for two?"
"I told them you slipped up, didn't mean to hit him."
"Uh huh," said Jared. "And?"
"And I might have let them think that I called for that particular pitch for a reason. And that I pushed him first. Which is true."
"And did you plan that ahead of time?" said Jared.
"Well, actually," said Jensen, "not really. It just - "
"Seemed like the right thing to do?"
"Are we done talking about this?" Jensen said. "We are, right?"
"No," Jared said. "Clear this up for me. Why would you torment me all season and then do this? Since when do you care about doing the right thing? What's wrong with you?"
"What's wrong with me, you fucking idiot," Jensen snarled, suddenly furious, "is that I don't want you to leave. Haven't you figured that out yet?"
"I guess I haven't," Jared said, trying to understand. "Even though you know what I did, you still want me around?"
"Yeah, I'm over that," Jensen said, casually enough. "Let's move on. You were right - it wasn't that unreasonable. I mean, it was still fucked up, but I did plenty of fucked-up stuff to you this season, too."
"Yeah, maybe," Jared said. "But - "
"Hey!" Jensen interrupted. "This conversation is terrible. We need to be done with it now. Right now."
"Okay, all right," Jared said. He wondered if maybe Jensen had wanted to prove himself, to prove that Jared had been wrong about him, if today had been about that too. But even if it had been, he knew Jensen would never say it. And maybe it didn't matter. Jensen liked having him around and wanted to keep him around, had forgiven him, and that mattered. He was sure about that.
"I can tell you're still thinking about emotions and stuff," Jensen said. "I'm embarrassed for you. Have you eaten yet?"
"No, actually," Jared said, grateful for the segue. "Long day, right? I guess I'm obligated to buy you dinner."
"You're damn right," Jensen said, much more happily. "I want pizza."
"Fine," said Jared, "but don't order any weird stuff on it," and suddenly they were in a totally different place than they had been yesterday, or even a few hours ago, a place where it seemed like things might turn out all right.
They saw their first snow of the year one day in the middle of September. The weather in Colorado had been unpredictable on all of Jared's trips there, although this one was more spectacular than usual. It was a cold, crisp day, very windy, with pale gray clouds. As he waited in the visitors' dugout, Jared felt a few little pinpoints of cold against his face and looked up, startled, not realizing for a moment that they were flurries. About a second later, it was snowing hard enough that they couldn't see the scoreboard.
People started to run into the already-crowded dugout as the inning conveniently ended. Jared found it pretty compelling evidence of God's existence and sense of humor that Jensen had been out there at the right moment to catch a faceful of snow. He watched happily as Jensen appeared, spitting snow and cursing with great vigor. He pulled his mask off and shook the snow from it onto Jared's head. "Hey, that's cold," Jared protested, but he didn't mind much.
"What the hell is this?" Jensen gestured angrily, waving his arms in a way that seemed to include the whole city of Denver in his indictment. "It doesn't snow in September."
"It's snowing in September right now," Jared pointed out, just to be contrary. It seemed pretty ridiculous to him too.
Jensen ignored him. "Colorado," he went on in a dire tone. "Why is it even part of the United States? What a terrible fuckin' place. I mean, look at this." He shouldered his way in between Jared and Valdez, shivering a little, scowling. He reminded Jared of one of those puffed-out, angry-looking birds you saw around in the winter, feathers fluffed up, glaring with their angry little bird faces. Valdez looked at Jensen, then at Jared. He shook his head. "Man, you can't take him anywhere," he said solemnly, and smiled a little.
"You've got that right," Jared said, and remembered that maybe he wasn't the only one on the team who was fond of Jensen from time to time. It seemed impossible to explain, but there it was.
"Sometimes it snows in June here," Darrish added from down the row, sounding depressed about it. "I've seen it."
"See what I mean?" Jensen said, shaking his head with even more disgust.
"At least there's no lightning," Jared said, as he and Jensen moved towards the back of the dugout, trying to warm up. Jensen sighed in a long-suffering way and said, "Haven't you ever heard of thundersnow?"
"Not really," Jared said. "I'm pretty sure you just came up with that off the top of your head."
Jensen glared. "I can't believe you're even still alive," he said. "You don't have any self-preservation instincts at all. It's a very dangerous..." he started to wind down as he realized that Jared was laughing at him. "You won't be laughing when you're dead, I can promise you that."
"No," Jared said, "I'm sure I won't. That would be pretty creepy."
Jensen ignored this. "Next time I get traded," he said, watching the snow, "I hope it's somewhere warm."
Jared looked at the snow for a minute too, trying to ignore a sudden pang of sadness. "It wouldn't do you much good. You'd still have to travel," he said, then added, "Who says you're getting traded?"
Jensen rolled his eyes. "Do you know how long it's been since I've stayed on a team for more than three years? Actually, these days, do you know anyone else who's stayed on a team for more than three years?"
"Not too many," Jared admitted. "But I know they want to keep you." He stopped, because his next thought had been, they have to keep you.
"Was that part of your deal?" Jensen said, as though he'd read Jared's mind. It wouldn't have surprised him much if Jensen could, by this point.
"If I'd known I'd want to keep you around," Jared said, more quietly, "I would have been more explicit about that part of it. But, no. That was mostly just about them keeping me around."
Jensen nodded. "So," he finished, "like I said. Next time? I'm hoping for someplace warm."
Their season ended unceremoniously near the end of September. Their playoff hopes had ended long before that, to the extent that they'd existed in the first place. But the official season ended on a cool evening at home, a late game against the Diamondbacks, the score 6-2. It didn't feel like summer at all today; they'd worn long sleeves and been glad for them.
Jensen stayed on the field for a while after most of the team had left, watching fans file out of the bleachers. "I guess we'll watch it on TV with everyone else," he said to Jared and looked off at the middle distance, frowning a little, like he was seeing October there.
Jensen could have meant the whole team, and maybe he did, but the "we" made Jared glad. "Just wait," he said. "Next year's going to be our comeback season."
Jensen snorted. "Don't you have to have gotten somewhere before you can have a comeback?" Then his eyes got more serious, and he said, "You don't need a comeback next season. You did all right for yourself this year," and Jared thought he almost sounded proud.
"Thanks," he said, and Jensen nodded, curt, already looking embarrassed, and went to get changed. Jared looked around at the dark sky and the ugly field in the bright lights, and felt nearly at peace.