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Off The Pitch

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No one moves like Baz Pitch.

When he strides off the pitch after a loss, he’s hard lines and head high, and I know that it’s going to mean bruising kisses and soft hands everywhere as he tries to prove to himself he’s good enough.

According to him, it’ll have been my fault he lost, of course. “You didn’t kiss me before I played,” he’ll whine as I rock into him. Hours or sometimes even days later he’ll still be thinking about it, even as he’s lying beneath me. “You have to kiss me next time.”

When he wins, he comes flying off the green and he’s all anxious energy and tentative smiles and I know that it will mean being held from behind as I try to make dinner and whispered comments and sly dancing in the kitchen. As always, he’ll say they won because of me.

“You’re my good luck charm,” he’ll whisper, his voice soft and bashful as he advances and backs me against the wall. “You always have to kiss me.”

We don’t say I love you. We say things like that instead.

I wish I could be on the pitch with him to celebrate his wins and mourn his losses though.

I hate that he has to come home first before he can let his emotions out. It never used to be that way; it was always him and me, together, winning or losing and pulling each other into crushing embraces and walking off the pitch arm in arm.

No one cared back then because we were teammates. But we’re not teammates now. And a lot of people would care if I rushed the field and picked his gangly ass up and spun him like I used to. Exuberant celebrations with the team are expected. Exuberant celebrations with your flatmate are gay.

And Baz can’t be seen as gay.

It’s just one of a couple ways that we each have to be alone, even though we’re now together.

It’s like eighth year of Watford; Baz got scouted for a League One team, but I didn’t. I wasn’t jealous. We always knew he was a step above, that he was meant for something else. So he went off to play pro and I went back to Watford alone. I moved back into our room alone and took up his captaincy and tried to stumble my way through a position he held with such ease.

I was awful at it. I tried my best, and on the field I did alright. I could bark orders and slap backs and tell people to hustle. But I couldn’t fill his role off the pitch. I couldn’t give the rousing speeches or stand on tables and shout with a fiery, drunken passion. When I tried, it just came out pathetic.

“It’s been a long summer, lads,” I’d said at that first party of eighth year. It hadn’t been. It has been too short, and I’d spent all of it in Hampshire with Baz’s family. It had been the best summer of my life. “We took a loss, but we’re not one man, we’re a team.” I’d gotten some cheers; it was a good start. “We can do it without him. We can...” I’d trailed off, stared into my red cup, and then smiled back at my teammates. They were all feeling his loss.

But not like me. They could do it without him. I wasn’t sure if I could, though.

“We can win!” I’d finished lamely. Then I’d emptied my drink, climbed off the table, and gone home to my dorm alone. I watched Escape To Victory on my laptop because it was his favourite movie, and avoided looking at the empty bed across from me. I didn’t text him, because he had practise early. I went to bed wishing I’d told him I missed him.

Most of my football parties ended up like that.

He came to the last one of eighth year, fresh off his own first season, all long limbs and long hair and suntanned skin. The other boys looked at him in awe when he stepped onto the pitch after our game. (We’d lost.) There were whispers and nudges and everyone was too scared to talk to him, even though it was Baz. He was our captain. He was our friend.

I wasn’t scared of him though. He was my best friend.

I’d pushed through the boys and hit him full on, just like he had that first night of us, wrapping my arms around his middle and taking him down hard. It broke the spell; in a flash there were five other boys on top of us, Dev’s elbow digging into my ribs, Gareth’s hair tickling my neck. Baz’s eyes were closed beneath me as he laughed and struggled for air and finally pushed us off, shouting slurs and demanding vodka.

I didn’t go home alone after that party. And I haven’t really been alone since. Not physically, at least. We got a house in London with two bedrooms and we only use one of them, and we host the old team on weekends sometimes, and I roused up friends from school to go to his games. We set about putting our lives together and we told his parents and I started planning to open a football camp and now, years out of Watford, we’re always together, and nearly always happy.

But sometimes there’s a distance.

And it seems like it’s getting bigger.

It’s 2 a.m. and I fell asleep with my cheek pressed into Baz’s shoulder like usual, but now I’m being woken up by a sharp prodding in my side and Baz’s cool, firm body is gone. In his place are a pair of neon green football boots. I’m not sure why they’re in bed with me, but they’re digging into my side. I blink into the darkness of the room and can see various other bits of gear spread around. Every football related item he has is out, but he’s not here.

I pull myself out of bed with a groan and make my way downstairs toward the kitchen. Our little house is cosy but well proportioned, and only possible because of Baz’s League One contract. Soon we’ll be able to buy an even bigger one, but I don’t think we will yet. We like it here. And I pitched in on the payment. I couldn’t do that in a new place; especially not since I just poured all my money into the pipe dream of opening a football academy.

That’s another thing we’re together in—Baz is the name and money behind it, and I’m the one running it, doing the day in work with kids who are just like I used to be: kids who’ve got nothing except the ability to kick a ball.

Sometimes it hits me heavily that without football I’d be nothing. I’d have nothing. I’d be completely alone.

The kitchen stove light is on but the room is empty, the yellow light washing the counters in a dim, eerie glow. I switch off the light and prepare to check the den when I hear the ping of metal and a soft grunting noise from outside.

I slide the glass door open and step out into our little garden. It’s all grass; completely cleared with a small goal post at one end. Baz never does his actual practise here, but we play together sometimes, when we’re particularly boisterous or drunk, or when the Watford lads are over. That’s where Baz is now; methodically lining up six balls at the end of the garden and sizing them up, preparing to kick. He’s not even wearing boots. He’s barefoot.

“You should be asleep,” I call, closing the door behind me and shoving my hands into the pockets of my new Spurs sweatshirt. There’s a chill coming off of the dewy grass. Baz looks up, his face glinting for a moment in the dim sliver of moonlight, and then kicks the first ball in. It hits the metal rung in the middle of the goal post.

Ping.

“You’ve your first game tomorrow,” I tell him, sitting down on the edge of our brick patio. “You need to sleep.”

Ping.

“You’re going to break your foot, and then your fancy new Premier League contract will be useless to me.”

Ping.

I hate when he’s quiet like this. It’s a special level of silence, different from his normal, natural quietude. He’s never a chatty guy. He never emotes. He’s sharp answers and small smiles and long, silent, suffering looks. But these are heavy silences, ones that seem to bend the air around us and wrap in on themselves, taking Baz with them as they displace light and sound and air.

He’s been quiet like this for awhile.

I miss him.

I miss his sharp energy, his fierce strides, his cocky grins and arched eyebrows. I want to tackle him like we did in school and hold him down and make him laugh. I want to be with him, in his head, wherever he is, instead of just settling for being around him.

Ping.

“Love, what’s wrong?” I ask. My voice is hoarse from lack of sleep and there’s a strong hint of frustration in it. I’ve barely slept the past few months, what with opening the academy and getting it running and then Baz’s preparations, and now this. The game. The League. I know it’s what he’s thinking of. I know it’s what he’s scared of, or dreading, or anxious about. He’s a Spur now. Tomorrow he’s playing at Wembley. He should be sleeping, or relaxing, or at least letting me hold him and play with his hair while he freaks out.

But instead he’s alone in our garden, kicking barefoot. If he breaks his foot, I could lose my business.

Ping.

I sigh. Maybe I should leave him to it. I’m not positive he wants company.

I brace my hands on my knees and stand, and watch him for a moment. He grew taller since school, if that’s possible, and he’s more lithe than ever. His hair is longer now too—always pulled up in a tidy bun, always out of his face. He has it down now, like he usually does for bed. He huffs it out of his face as he approaches the next ball.

“Here,” I say, reaching into my sweatpants and pulling out one of the hair ties that litter our house. I hold it out to him. “Tie up your hair.”

He looks up at me then, and pauses.

“I think I’m going to cut it off,” he says. “Before the game tomorrow.”

My heart sinks.

“Why? I love your hair.”

I feel stupid saying it. It’s his hair. He can do what he wants with it. But it’s so him . It’s part of his image. It’s what I think of when I think of him—running down the pitch at Watford, black strands falling out of his bun, mussed hair getting in his eyes as he bites his lip and squares his shoulders and goes in for the kill.

“I was thinking of making it shorter. Getting your cut, maybe.”

Ping.

He replaces the balls in a neat line and I stare at him, my hand coming up unbidden to pat at my own hair. I shave all but the top, because it’s the only way to keep my curls in check. It’s a haircut of necessity, not fashion. It’s not him.

“Why? Your hair is iconic,” I say. “It’s part of the Pitch brand. When you debut, the birds are going to love it.”

“I don’t care if women love it,” he says quietly.

“You should,” I argue. “Why would you want my cut? You hate it.”

Baz huffs and stares at the line of balls.

“It could be a change.”

“But why?” I press. This is a weird one. Baz loves his hair.

“Because then I could take a bit of you with me,” he snarls. Ping.

Oh.

“I hate that I don’t play with you anymore.” Ping. “I hate that I have to introduce you as my best mate and business partner. Not as my boyfriend,” ping “or my fiancé,” ping “or my husband,” ping “because I don’t get that. In League One, maybe. It was a possibility. But not now. Not with Tottenham. I get to have football or have you. I can’t have both.”

Ping.

There it is. This same old argument. I feel like he’s been kicking the balls at me.

“Why not?”

He stops and stares at me and blinks slowly.

“I can’t be gay,” he says, like I’m an idiot. “No one is out. I can play, but I can’t marry you.”

I squint at him.

“I don’t recall asking you to,” I respond, trying to infuse some humour into this. Baz sits on the grass in a huff and stares down at the blades through the dark.

“As long as I’m in the Premier League, this,” he waves his hand at me, “is all we’ll be. This undefined thing. In limbo.”

“We are defined,” I answer, tilting my head. “We’re boyfriends. We own a home together. We share a Netflix account.”

“I’ll be in the closet until I retire,” he argues.

“If you keep kicking barefoot, you’ll be retired by 30.”

“What if I get outed? The boys know. Our friends know. Some of the neighbours know. We haven’t been subtle,” he says, his tone sharp, his eyes darting. I sigh and push up and head over to him, taking a seat in the grass close by, but not touching. The dewy lawn immediately soaks through my fleece sweatpants.

“The lads won’t tell,” I say. “And besides, you’re overestimating how interesting you are. You’re a new player. You’re not Ronaldo.”

“Not yet,” he says, and something tight in my chest uncoils a bit. “But what if I get interesting? What if I’m outed and it’s awful? People can find where we live.”

“Then you quit Premier and we go to America and join the rich has-beens,” I say with a shrug. “You’re pretty enough to hang with Posh.”

“But it’s not fair to you,” he says, the same thing he’s said a million times. “To have to wait around for me to retire. To never have... security or confirmation.”

“Are you going to break up with me?” I ask, and he stills.

This was a big fear of mine, back when we started to get serious and Baz was starting to get attention. He’s still a fucking mystery to me, but some things have become clear over time, like how he’s a self-sacrificing bastard. I used to panic that he was going to break up with me for my own good.

He didn’t though.

He knows we’re a team.

I just hope he can remember that.

The silence after my question stretches long and heavy through the night, and the old panic squeezes back at me until he exhales and drops back on the grass.

“Of course not,” he says finally. “You know that.”

“Then shut up. I know what I’m getting into. It’s you and me, Pitch, remember? I’ve known you my whole life. I don’t need some piece of paper to tell me I’ll know you for the rest of it.”

He huffs, and I take his hand.

“You’ll resent me.”

“I already resent you for loads of shit,” I say with a shrug. “Since when has that been an issue?”

“I’ll be in the closet my entire career,” he snaps. “I’m not sure you get what that means.”

I lose my temper then, and pull at a tuft of grass near me.

“You act like being in the closet is some kind of torture, like it means we can’t ever be happy, like I’ll just be fucking miserable because the entire world doesn’t know I’m gay,” I growl. “That’s bullshit. I’m happy. You’re happy. It’s not some dirty secret. Your family knows, our friends know… sure, it’s not super public, but it’s not like everything would be sunshine and daisies if we were out. Get over it. I love you, I’m in this, okay?”

The silence stretches between us, and then he taps at my knee three times and lets out a long puff of air.

“I hate it when you’re more intelligent than me,” he mutters. The hard knot in my throat eases, and I feel like I can breathe again.

“Stop getting hit then,” I say, leaning over to flick hair out of his eyes. “You’re losing all your brains.”

He kicks at me lightly, and I grab his foot. It’s freezing as I roll it under my thumbs, and he sighs a little.

“Please come back to bed,” I say. I’m tired and frozen but I feel more relaxed than I have in weeks. It feels good to have snapped at him, to let out some of this anxiety. It’s more natural; we’ve spent our lives fighting. And now I just want to fall into his arms. “You’ve a big day.”

“I do plan to make an impressive debut,” he says, shoving his other foot into my lap. I rub it between my hands obligingly.

“You and your bun will make a splash,” I tell him, and he snorts, then sits up.

“Very well, Snow. Take me to bed, in an entirely heterosexual, business partner way.”

I grin at him and accept his hand and pull him and out of the wet garden.

I make sure to kiss him before he leaves the next morning, pulling him back down into the bed and mussing at his hair. When he tries to escape I scrunch my face up and grab his in my hands, cupping his cheeks and forcing him to look at me. His sharp grey eyes look amused. Soft. He’s so rarely like this.

If we were another couple, I’d tell him I love him. I’d kiss him again and tell him I’m proud of him and that I know our life is going to change but I’m there for every step. I’d tell him he’s beautiful and ruthless and the most amazing player I’ve ever seen and he has nothing to worry about.

I’d tell him that if he fails he’s still perfect, because he’s Baz Pitch, and there’s no one like him.

“No flopping today,” I say instead. He already knows all the other things. We’ve been reading each other’s minds since we were 15.

“I never flop,” he says with a sniff of disdain. “Liverpool flops. They’re full of floppers. It should be a full show today.”

“Remember, love,” I say with a yawn. “You’ll Never Walk Alone.

He presses my pillow over my face and stalks out of the room.

When the Watford lads and I get to Wembley, the crowd is in full force. We’ve got brilliant seats, and we’re all together. The entire old team showed up for this. The lads are all decked out in navy and white, all sporting Hotspur gear, and Dev has painted his face and looks ridiculous, but they blend into the crowd. I don’t, though. I stand out in my hideous purple and green shirt, the one that’s just a bit too tight for my shoulders, because it was made for a 16 year old boy and not a 22 year old man. But I wore it because it stands out in the crowd and makes me easy to find. And because it says PITCH on the back.

“Fucking Wembley,” Dev mutters beside me as Niall screams on my other side and waves his Spurs scarf. “He had to start at Wembley.”

“Baz doesn’t do things by halves,” I respond, bouncing on my toes anxiously as I wait for the players to take the pitch. It feels like years, but finally, there they are, running out, stretching, pushing each other and waving to the crowd, standing through the national anthem and kicking off the game.

Baz doesn’t start. I didn’t expect him to. It’s his first game, he’s just been brought up, and he’s a substitute player for now. But twenty minutes in, Liverpool is up by 2 and Tottenham is flagging.

Baz gets substituted in.

Dev is screaming himself hoarse and Niall looks ready to cry, but I’m silent as I watch him, his hair pulled back, his shorts riding high. His head whips around, his shoulders tense, and I can tell where he’s going before he moves, can cut his direction even before he takes off across the field, steals the ball, and drives it toward the goal.

He’s brilliant. He’s terrifying, and ruthless, and graceful. Tonight will be a night of soft kisses and dancing in the kitchen and chattering insults, because he’s dominating the field and evening the score. He’s unstoppable.

He drives the ball up the field, passes it, and his teammate comes in from nowhere, as if reading his mind, and secures Tottenham’s first goal.

The stadium erupts and Baz gets crushed between bodies and so do I, old teammates crowding me on either side and screaming in my ear, but I’m still watching Baz. He’s in the other side of the field, away from our seats, but he still turns, scans the crowd, and finds me.

He points and me and smiles, then flips his hair out of his face and is off, running back down the field.

I've never seen anyone move like he does.