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The first time Dottie leaves the league, she and Bob drive as far as Yellowstone.  The second time: they don't even hit the state line.

Dottie's hands close over her Rockford pennant.  She says, slowly, like she's just now considering it: "You know, there are dairy farms in Illinois, too."

Bob grins, a good one, true and fond.  Dottie wants to bury her face in his neck and hold on, never let him out of her sight again.  She doesn't have to play.  The World Series, the hit she took.  Watching Kit hoisted high on her teammates shoulders, the hero of the game, of the league.  Just being close, just being in Illinois, just being able to watch Kit pitch, Kit hit, Kit stand on her own, proud and sure.  That'll be enough.

She just needs to be there.

Bob turns the car around.

"You're full of shit, Dottie," Jimmy tells her, two weeks later, tinny connection and phone clutched tight up to her ear.  "Ball players, coming back to not play ball."

He gives her till spring training to come to her senses.

She lasts until December.  Leaves a six pack of root beer on his front stoop and a ten page handwritten note with thoughts on the coming year's lineup, along with it. Pictures his face, incredulous, as he flips through, three-day old stubble and the corners of his mouth, curved into a frown. PS, she’d written at the end. Let’s not screw it up this year. Then, impulsively: Glad you didn’t take that job in Wichita.

Dottie loves Bob.  She does.

At night, she dreams of singles down the line, of doubleheaders, the thwack of the ball in her mitt. The sun in her eyes and salt in her mouth. Kit barreling down at her from third base and Dottie frozen over the plate, her heart in her throat and sweat down her spine. She wakes up gasping.

Dottie buys a calendar. Circles opening day in red.

The weather turns, and the league expands; they announce two new teams, and hold another round of tryouts to fill them. Dottie meets Jimmy at Harvey Park, and they scout for pitchers, for hitters, for the girls they’ve lost to injuries, and husbands, and grief. She closes her eyes and sees Bob’s face, returned to her, improbably. Her knuckles brush Jimmy’s when she points out a player with a wicked line drive. She flinches.

(Jimmy opens and closes his hands.)

They beat Milwaukee at home, and lose in the ninth to Kenosha on the road. Dottie collapses into the seat next to Jimmy’s on the bus ride back, exhausted and scowling. “Not your fault, tall girl,” Jimmy mumbles, and hands her his flask.

The driver flicks off the lights, and a hush falls over the bus, peaceful, solemn. Dottie stares out the window. “I thought it wouldn’t matter to me so much,” she confesses. She thinks of church pews and catechisms, of praying, down on her knees. “The second time around.” It’s why she left, if she’s honest. That first year, in all its dusty, grimy brilliance, slogging through innings and infighting and the lingering pain of a bad slide into second. She did it all once, with Kit, mostly, so what was the point of doing it again, without her?

Jimmy looks at her with something like pity. “It always matters. If anything, it matters more.” He clears his throat, his voice turns gruff. “Anyway, pull yourself together. We have Racine in a week.”

Dottie closes her eyes. When she opens them, her head’s on Jimmy’s shoulder, and the lights of Rockford flicker dimly, way up ahead. Dottie wants to stand in the sun with her mitt and her mask, fighting dust and dirt and Alice's wandering sliders, end of the ninth full body fatigue. She wants two straight months of road games. She wants—she wants to not go home.

They lose to Racine, again, in a twelve inning battle. Kit hugs her, afterwards, glowing in technicolor brilliance, and elbows her, gently. "I'm glad you're here, Dottie.” Last time she told her that, she was twelve, and, if memory serves, lying. Dottie’s whole body aches.

(Four weeks later, they beat Racine on the road. Doris pulls three bottles of champagne out of her suitcase; they lock Miss Cuthbert in her room and pass the bubbly back and forth, crowded into the musty, lace-covered hotel lobby. Dottie stretches her ankles out in front of her, and catches Jimmy’s eye from across the room. His gaze lingers.

Dottie’s chest feels warm and loose. She looks away.)

“You need to vary up your call signs,” Jimmy tells her, the week after that, elbow to elbow in a dugout in South Bend.

Dottie narrows her eyes, glares at him sideways. “I’m varying them up fine.”

Marla hits a screamer into left field. Mae grounds out down the line. Dottie looks at the spin on the fast ball and the hole in right field and strides up to the plate, brings Marla home. Jimmy hands her her mask and her chest protector at the close of the inning. “You were saying?” Dottie asks.

“Forget it,” he answers, and spits. “You can do whatever you want when we’re up by five.”

Dottie straps on her leg guards. Varies the call signs, just slightly. They get the outs: one, two, three. “Told ya,” Jimmy murmurs, gloating, when Dottie drops down next to him on the bench, and pats her forearm, fleetingly. Dottie watches Jimmy’s hands move over his tobacco tin. She swallows.

When she closes her eyes at night, she sees Jimmy’s eyes, Jimmy’s tongue. The silhouette of his face in the fading light of the late afternoon Midwest sun. She wakes up, frowning. It’s just baseball, Dottie tells herself. It’s just her coach in her ear, the reminder, you’re the best in the league.

The Peaches beat Milwaukee, Kenosha, Racine. Drop one to South Bend. Dottie looks at the standings and looks at their schedule and realizes: they’re only three wins away from locking in the playoffs. She reaches for the phone to call Jimmy. She wants it so badly she can’t breathe.

“Let’s make a baby,” Bob says to her, after breakfast on a Tuesday, early. Dottie goes absolutely still. It’s what she wants, and what she’s always wanted, and what makes her now, in this moment, want to run, far, and screaming, and free.

“After this season,” she blurts out, without thinking. Bob beams.

Dottie exhales, and tries to shape her face into a smile. She owes Bob her world, living in a state he doesn’t know and working at a job that’s far worse than the one that could be waiting for him back in Oregon. She doesn’t owe Jimmy Dugan a goddamned thing.

Dottie drives to the ballpark, dresses for her game. She pulls her uniform on, urgent and jittery. Tunes out the chattering around her, girls in various states of undress, and follows Jimmy out the long tunnel leading to the dugout, alone. “I need to talk to you,” Dottie says. He turns to glance at her, questioning.

I might be leaving next year, she means to say. Or, I’m not a quitter. Instead, Dottie looks at his mouth and his shoulders and his wide open face, and kisses him, the morning’s panic returned and ringing, wildly, in her ears. She slides her hands along his neck and feels his heartbeat underneath her thumbs, tripping rabbit-fast. She pulls him closer and angles her head, and wants more, more, more. Jimmy tugs her into a corner and hums against her mouth, cups her ass, bites her lip. He tastes like chewing tobacco and toothpaste and kisses back like it’s something he’s thought about before.

Dottie hears noise in the distance and jumps. Pushes him away. Evelyn and Ellen Sue walk through, chatting, and dragging the team equipment bags clunking behind them. She watches them pass.

“Dottie,” Jimmy says, helpless, like a question. Like an offering.

“I don’t want to retire.” She feels strung out and feral, a wild animal caught on the side of a highway, bright eyes in the headlights, darting left and right, looking for her way. “Bob wants a baby.”

“You want that too, last time I checked.” He takes a step closer. Shields her, fully, from view. Smooths down her uniform skirt.

Dottie’s breath catches in her throat. “I did, or, no—I do, but. I thought I had more time.”

They win the game, easy. Dottie plays with everything she has; she bombs a triple into left center and a double into right. She glares at Shirley and snaps at Helen, and her unforced error in the third. Throws a runner out at second and eases Ellen Sue through the top of the lineup, again, and again. “What’s got into you?” Doris mutters, and there’s adrenaline sparking through Dottie’s veins and a burning fire in her belly. Dottie sighs, and squints at the scoreboard. They’re up by nine.

“Sorry,” she mutters. “I want to win this one.” She sits down. Watches as Jimmy, delicately, asks Alice to suit up.

He sinks down next to Dottie. “Are you okay now? Got that all out of your system?”

“Some of it.” Dottie sighs, and leans forward. Shouts something encouraging at Marla. Tilts her head, and glances at him out of the corner of her eye. “I’m not sorry.”

She waits for Jimmy in the locker room, after the game. Lets him kiss her, properly, his mouth moving on hers soft and wet and his hands roving over her body like he can find the answer to every secret she has written in the silk covering her skin. Loses herself in the feeling, the scrape of his stubble, how he moves with his entire body, with purpose, and intent, his hips arcing towards her, pressing close. Dottie wraps an elbow round his neck and touches his back, his waist, his stomach. Rests her hand on his chest and thinks of how very different her life could be if she were less certain of Bob’s heart, of Bob’s trust, of Bob’s unwavering goodness. She feels Jimmy’s cock against her thigh.

Dottie pushes him gently away. ”Are we alright?” Her voice shakes. She looks at her hands and his shoes and the clock on the wall. Can hear the faint hum of the girls waiting for them on the bus, chanting their victory song. Jimmy doesn’t answer but Dottie can feel the heat of him, still standing close to her, and hear his labored breathing.

She straightens herself out the best she can, trembling and, touches up her lipstick.  Reaches up to comb her hair out of her eyes, fasten it back low and smooth against her neck.

Jimmy stares at her, mouth slack. “Is this it?” He waves his hands between them, gesturing, helpless. “Is that all you wanted?”

“Yes,” Dottie lies. Slings her bag over her shoulder, and turns towards the door. She can still feel exactly where he touched her. She already misses his hands.