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Kick Me While I'm Down

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Dan is staring.

It’s been two weeks since Phil has seen him. He managed to avoid him last week, but he’s not so lucky today. Dan is standing behind the chain-link fence framing home plate, his fingers curling in the metal, his eyes tilted vaguely in Phil’s direction.

He’s probably not staring at Phil, at least Phil hopes not. Phil forgot to wash his gym shorts and the only pair he had clean were a little shorter than he would normally wear in public, show little bit too much thigh. It’s not that Phil thinks he looks bad - he doesn’t. It’s just that he looks like he’s trying too hard. He looks like he wants people to look, but he doesn’t, especially not Dan. Phil has seen Dan in tight shorts and knows that he can’t compare.

Dan’s probably not staring at Phil, because he has no reason to, because Phil is nothing special. He’s probably just watching the game because it’s the semi-finals and Deez balls have somehow, miraculously managed to be one of the top four teams in the league. The miracle in question was that they never had to forfeit due to missing too many players, and that helped push their record up past teams that were clearly superior at kickball-playing. 

Through an even greater miracle, Deez Balls are winning the semi-final, and Phil has actually played pretty well. Phil thinks he is maybe getting the hand of this catcher thing. Braden threw him a dart to get someone out at home and Phil had actually caught it. With his face, but still. The ball bounced into his hands after that and Phil made the play.

If they hold on and win, they will have to play Great Balls of Fire right after this. Dan’s team has already won their game. The rest of his team is busy gathering around their beer cooler, but Dan is watching, studying. Dan is figuring out a way to win, at least that’s what Phil thinks.

Hazel bumps her shoulder into Phil’s arm. He hadn’t noticed her standing next to him. “What do you think he’s doing?”

Phil doesn’t need to ask who she means. “Probably scoping out the competition.”

Hazel snorts. “You’re probably right.”  She kicks at the grass in front of her. “You must be pretty big competition then.”

Phil turns to face her. “What do you mean?”

“Well, he’s been staring at you, hasn’t he?”

“No,” Phil says, but when he turns back to face the game, he sees Dan looking in his direction. Dan glances away the second he is caught.

Hazel bumps him in the arm again.

“I don’t think he’s staring at me,” Phil repeats.

“Too bad he’s an asshole. He’s kind of cute, you know.”

Now it’s Phil’s turn to snort. Kind of is an understatement. “What, do you fancy him?” he asks.

“No,” Hazel insists. “But I thought maybe you did.”

Phil feels a blush creep into his cheeks. “Why would you think that?”

“I saw you two sitting pretty close at the pub. Thought maybe you were consorting with the enemy.” She wiggles her eyebrows at him. Phil isn’t sure they are at the “teasing” stage of friendship yet. He isn’t sure if they are friends at all, but he thinks that maybe they could be. Phil doesn’t mind being teased when it’s accompanied by a toothy grin. Maybe she can grab dinner with Sophie, PJ, and him the next time they go.

“He’s not my type,” Phil says. 

Hazel nudges him in the arm a third time. She keeps doing that. “What is your type then?”

“Non-assholes.”

 

--------

 

Phil steps up to the plate for his first at-bat and the air feels charged around him. Dan is staring at him and Phil knows it, can feel Dan’s eyes piercing into his. He can’t pretend that it’s anything else this time. Phil’s world shrinks down to the little line between the pitcher’s mound and home plate.

Dan twirls the ball in his fingers. He looks like he wants to say something, but Phil can’t imagine what. Phil waits. When the pitch finally comes, it is surprisingly straight and steady. Not too fast either, though Phil nearly misses it anyway due to his shock. He catches it with the tip of his toe and it launches in the air. 

Phil doesn’t wait to see where it lands. He takes off for first base, arms pumping and chest heaving. He doesn’t slow down until he feels his foot land on the plate. When Phil turns around, he sees Dan twirling the ball in his hands again. Dan is looking at Phil. Dan is staring. Phil can’t read his eyes.

Phil is out. Dan caught the ball before it hit the ground. All that running was for nothing. Dan is still staring, and Phil doesn’t know what it means.



-------



It’s the sixth inning and they are only down one run. Phil’s heart is pounding inside his chest and it’s not even his turn to kick yet. He hadn’t expected the game to be close, and now that is is, he can’t help but think that maybe if he were just a little bit better, they could be winning,

“If Sophie gets on base here, you should try to advance the runner.”

Braden has one hand on Phil’s shoulder. He is shorter than Phil so the angle is awkward. Phil almost feels like he has a little koala hanging off his arm.

Braden seems just as tense as Phil feels. He’s been pacing around all game, giving out tips that are sometimes helpful and sometimes overbearing. He hasn’t even been drinking anything stronger than water.

Sophie kicks the ball foul.

“I don’t know what you mean,” Phil says. “You have to dumb it down for me.”

“We don’t have any outs yet,” Braden explains, gesturing with his free hand as he talks. “If you kick the ball towards first they’ll get you out but Sophie can run to second.”

Phil swallows, but it feels like something is caught in his throat. “You’re saying that like I have any control over where the ball goes.”

“You can do this.”

“I can’t.”

“You can try.”

Sophie watches a ball roll past her, just wide of the plate. Ball two.

“Braden,” Phil chokes out. “I’m just not very good at this. You’re going to have to save your kickball strategy for someone else.”

“You’re good at it.”

Phil turns so that he can give Braden a look, shaking Braden’s arm off his shoulder in the process.

“Okay, you’re not very good at it,” Braden concedes. “But you always show up, and you always try. Other teams had to forfeit and we never did.”

Sophie kicks the ball. It rolls towards their shortstop. The throw to first is just a little too low, and the first baseman drops it. Phil wonders if this has something to do with all the cans of beer they drank before the game. Regardless, Sophie is safe.

Phil takes a deep breath. “Okay, I’ll try.”

So Phil tries. Whatever spell had fallen over Dan earlier has worn off, and he throws Phil another curveball. Phil let’s it slide past him as he gets his bearings. On the next pitch he pounces, angling his body towards first base as he kicks the ball as straight as he can. Which turns out to be not straight at all - the ball catches the wrong part of his foot and bounces in the complete opposite way he intended. But Sophie got off to a good start, and by the time the third baseman gets to the ball, she’s nearly on base, and they have to settle for getting Phil out at first.

Braden is smiling at him when he heads back to the dugout. “I knew you could do it.”

Phil smiles back. “No, you didn’t.”

“You’re right, I didn’t,” he admits. “But I’m happy to be wrong.”

 

—————



They are tied in the ninth inning and Phil is behind home plate waiting for a pitch. They have two outs. Of course it was going to come down to him; it always does because that’s just Phil’s luck. It was always going to be him and Dan, stuck in a game of psychological warfare. Braden is already on second base so if Phil could just kick it they could maybe win it right here. They could win it and Phil won’t need to endure Dan looking at him anymore. He won’t have to wonder what he is thinking. He won’t have to think about him at all.

Dan is turned slightly to the side, body tilted for the perfect throwing angle. Phil can picture him calculating the possible trajectories in his head, evaluating the best way to take Phil down. In reality, he doesn’t need to think this hard. Phil will make it easy for him.

The first pitch is a little wild, bounces a little too much. When Phil tries to kick it, it hits him on the top of his foot. The ball bounces up and out of play. Foul ball one.

“Be patient,” Braden shouts to him from second base.

Phil lets the next pitch roll by him. He can’t tell if it’ll be a ball or strike until it is right in front of him, and even then he’s not sure. But according to the umpire it was close enough to the plate to count. Strike one.

Dan lifts the corner of his mouth, but it is not quite a smile. Still, Dan looks good standing on the pitcher’s mound. Phil had tried not to notice. He had tried not to notice that when Dan exerts himself, just the bottom left corner of his cheek will get red. Thinking about that rosy patch won’t do Phil any good.

The next pitch is well off the plate. No one’s perfect, not even Dan. Phil stands still as the ball drifts off to the right. Ball one.

“That’s right, wait for your pitch,” Braden calls to him. Phil is not entirely sure what that means, but it sounds like he did something right.

The next two pitches are too close to call. He can’t tell if they will be strikes or not, so he kicks them off to the side on purpose. Foul ball two. Foul ball three.

He can’t get any more fouls or he’s out. But the next pitch is too fast; he’s never going to be able to kick it fair. He let’s it go. As the ball drifts past his foot, he hears a commotion in the distance. Braden is running. Braden is stealing third.

The catcher behind Phil curses. She throws the ball to third but it’s too late. Braden is diving, sliding to the base on his stomach. It looks like it hurts.

Strike two. Phil is both closer and further away from winning. He has no more strikes or fouls to give. He has to put the ball in play or he’s out. But Braden is so close. It won’t take much to kick him home.

Dan is on the pitcher’s mound, holding the ball with less confidence than before. He bites his lip. Phil wonders if that’s why they are always so dry.

Phil is going to try to kick the next pitch. He’s not going to wait and see if it’s a ball or not, see if he can force a walk. That always leaves him second-guessing himself, and besides, Dan’s been throwing too well. And if Phil goes down, he’d rather go down swinging - er, kicking.

Phil watches the ball roll off Dan’s fingers. It’s going to curve to the right; he just knows it. Phil takes a few steps so he can get a running start. His foot collides with the ball, and for once, it hits him in the toe of his shoe like he wanted. For once, it takes off into the air. It floats for so long.

Phil runs. He can hear Braden’s heavy footsteps to the left of him. The ball begins to fall.

Phil is halfway to the base. The ball is falling. The player in center field is running. Phil is a few steps away.

The player in center field catches the ball. Phil’s foot slams into the base but it doesn’t matter. His lungs are heaving but it doesn’t matter. He tried his best but it didn’t matter.

 

---------

 

The pub is loud. Too loud, but the air doesn’t suffocate him. It wraps its arms around his shoulder. It tells him he is welcome here.

They are inside today. It is not quite Autumn yet, but at night it feels like Winter is right around the corner. Inside it is warm - too warm but Phil doesn’t mind. There is no flip cup tonight either, no discount beer. Phil is sipping an expensive martini. It’s sour and the alcohol stings the back of his teeth.

The drink was free. That was the reward for winning the kickball league. They won it in extra innings after Great Balls of Fire made some truly egregious fielding errors. The martini probably cost only half of what his registration fee was, but Phil’s not complaining. 

“I couldn’t have done it without all of you.”

Braden is standing on a chair, cradling their cheap plastic trophy in his arms like it is a small child. The whole thing seems kind of unsafe and very against the rules, but no one is paying them any mind.

Well, no one except a dark figure in the corner. Phil is trying to ignore that.

“It was a great team win,” Braden continues. Phil honestly thinks that he might cry, and Phil can’t even blame him, because he feels that happy, too. 

Braden beams down at his new born baby trophy. “Everyone contributed. Even Phil.”

“Hey!” Phil protests, but he isn’t angry. He doesn’t mind being teased when he is among friends.

And he is among friends, he really believes that. PJ and Sophie are here celebrating their victory. Even Braden has grown on him. He’s gotten the numbers of several of his teammates, and when they said they should keep in touch, he thinks they actually mean it.

“Hey, Street Fighter’s open.” PJ points out, nudging him with their elbow. “Let’s go before those teens hog it again.”

Phil makes it halfway to the arcade games when he feels a hand on his arm. The drink he is holding sloshes around in his glass but doesn’t spill.

“Can I talk to you for a second?”

Phil knows who it is without looking. He knew who it was before Dan even said a word; he could sense Dan’s eyes on him from the way the skin at the back of his neck prickled.

He could say no. Tell him to fuck off and crash someone else’s victory party. 

He doesn’t want to.

“You two go on without me,” he tells PJ and Sophie. They both turn to look back at him and see Dan behind him. PJ eyes him warily.

“Let us know if you need anything.”

Phil downs the rest of his drink and follows Dan through the crowd.



-----

 

It’s quieter outside, empty save for a handful of people gathered around a table by the street. Phil and Dan walk to the back corner, where no one will notice them. Phil can hear chatter, drinks clinking down upon tables but it seems so far away from him.

The chill in the air bites at Phil’s skin. He crosses his arms around his chest in an attempt to keep all his body heat to himself. Dan notices.

“Do you want my sweatshirt?” he asks.

Dan is dressed in a black hoodie, because he must be the sort of person who comes prepared to places.

Phil shakes his head. “Then you’ll be cold.”

“I deserve to be cold.”

Phil digs his arms further into his chest but doesn’t answer.

“I’m the one who wanted to come out here to talk, anyway,” Dan insists.

Phil shrugs his shoulders. It draws his arms up with them. “I’ll be fine. It’s not that cold,” Phil says, because it isn’t, and the sooner they get on with the conversation the sooner he can get back inside and see if he can beat PJ at Street Fighter. 

Dan bites his lip. Phil has seen him do this before but never up close. He tries not to let it affect him.

“Congratulations on the win,” Dan says.

“Is that what you wanted to tell me?”

“No.”

Dan stares down at his shoes. His hands are pulled into his sleeves so that only his finger tips are showing. He still looks good, even in the dim light. The lamp mounted to the wall only catches half of Dan’s face, throwing the rest of it in shadow. Phil can pick out shapes there he hasn’t seen before. He hadn’t been able to fully appreciate the bend in Dan’s nose before now.

“I wanted to apologize to you for what I said last week.”

“Dan, you really don’t have to-”

“Yes, I do.” 

Dan is looking up at Phil now, and his eyes look black and endless. Phil can’t help but stare into them.

“I didn’t mean to act like you could never make friends. I just meant-” Dan purses his lips together as he regathers his thoughts. “People in this kickball league suck. I didn’t think there was anyone here you’d want to make friends with.”

Phil shakes his head. “You’re wrong about that. There’s good people here. I already made friends with some of them.”

“I know,” Dan says, eyes flashing with an emotion Phil can’t pick out. “I know. I know you have plenty of friends now.”

“Well, I forgive you,” Phil tells him. Because he does. He can believe that Dan never meant to hurt him.

“Right,” Dan says, but he makes no move to go back inside.

“Is that all?” Phil asks.

“No.”

Dan looks away from Phil, eyes settling at something on the wall behind him. Dan is a giant but he looks small and vulnerable standing in front of Phil with his sleeves swallowing up his hands.

“I  want us to be friends,” Dan says, meeting Phil’s eyes once again. “You were right about the whole thing. I don't need to be this competitive dick all the time. I didn't used to be that way, you know. I was a gentle child,” he rambles. “I used to really love Winnie the Pooh-”

Phil stops him with a hand tapped on his arm. “You don’t need to explain yourself to me Dan. It’s fine.”

“I do though,” Dan insists.

Phil hugs his arms around his chest again, for comfort as much as for warmth. He runs his hands up and down his upper arms. “I don’t know why you care about me so much. If you hate everyone else in this league you won’t like me much either. I’m not different from anyone else.”

“You are though.”

Phil shakes his head. He can’t look Dan in the eyes anymore, so he drops his gaze. His eyes land on Dan’s lips, chapped as always, and that’s even worse. His mouth is so big.

“Do you know why I came to talk to you that first time?” Dan asks him.

“Because I spilled beer all over myself like an idiot and you were concerned.”

“No. I was watching you, at the end of your game. I don’t think you saw me.”

Phil hadn’t. He’s been too concerned with trying not to fuck up at kicking and throwing balls.

“You were joking around with the umpire.” Dan laughs a little. “Well, you were telling jokes and he was ignoring you. But you were so funny and so…” Dan pulls his eyebrows together as he searches for the right word. “Confident. Secure in yourself.”

“I’m not confident at all,” Phil says, because he isn’t. He is bad at kickball and he’s clumsy and he always talks too much or too little and never the right amount.

“You’re more confident in yourself than I am.”

Dan seems closer to him now, even though he hasn’t moved. Phil can see that an eyelash has fallen into his cheeks.

“So, friends?” Dan asks. He extends a hand towards Phil, like they should shake on it. Phil grabs it even though he is not sure that’s what friends normally do.

Phil is about to say yes, but Dan’s hand is big and it covers all of his. He is about to say yes but that pesky eyelash is still sticking to Dan’s face, a black curve against pale, smooth skin. 

Phil is about to say yes, but he has learned to ask for the things that he really wants. In a way, he learned that from Dan.

Phil’s hand is still in Dan’s. It’s just like the first handshake they ever shared. Phil thinks back to that night and thinks that maybe Dan was flirting after all. Phil thinks about everything Dan has told him about himself and Phil thinks he can read between the lines. He thinks he might know why Dan was bullied, why he would enjoy Phil’s “I can’t throw straight” jokes so much.

“No,” Phil says.

“No?” Dan questions, jerking his hand out of Phil’s. Phil sees the hurt flash briefly in Dan’s eyes, followed by acceptance, as if he doesn’t believe he deserves Phil’s kindness after all.

“No, I mean-“ Phil stammers. “I mean, I don’t want to be just friends with you.”

Dan freezes, eyes wide. The light from the bar puts a glint in just one of them.

“Look, I don’t know if this is going to work out,” Phil says. “We’ve only had a few conversations and half of them were awful. But I really get something with you, and I’d like to try.”

Dan is so quiet. Phil’s said too much again and he’s fucked it up. Of course Dan wouldn’t like him like that, not when Dan is so….him and Phil just looks like Phil.

“It’s okay if you just want to be friends though,” Phil backtracks. “We can try that, too. I know I’m nothing special.”

Dan puts a hand on Phil’s bare arm, digging his thumb into the muscle. 

“Phil, you are something special.” 

Dan’s eyes dart from Phil’s eyes to his mouth, and then Phil finally sees it: Dan wants to kiss him. And Phil wants to be kissed. He wants to be pressed up against the dirty pub wall until there is no space between them. He wants Dan’s giant hands in his hair and on the back of his neck. He wants-

“Do you want to go get ice cream?” Phil asks.

Dan blinks, emerging as if from a trance. “What?”

“There’s a place I’ve been wanting to try nearby. Well, not really nearby, but close enough. It’s got dairy free options as well, if that’s what you like. I think if we leave now it’ll still be open-”

“I’d love to get ice cream with you.” 

Dan gives him a full smile, and Phil gets to see how the shadows gather in his dimples in the dim light.

 

Phil texts PJ and Sophie that he is leaving. A few minutes later, while he is walking arm-in-arm with Dan, he gets texts from “Hazel Kickball” saying “I knew it” and “if he’s mean to you we will beat him up.”

 

Dan’s sweatshirt is warm and soft against his skin. It smells like wood and citrus and a thousand other things that he can’t name. Later, when he gets to taste Dan’s lips, he finds they are softer than he expects. Sweet, and not just from the lingering hint of vanilla.




 

One Year Later

Dan is standing on the pitcher’s mound, ball between his hands.

“What do you think I should throw?”

Phil looks at the player coming up to kick and pretends to think for a moment.. “Curve balls for sure.”

“Well, fuck you guys,” Braden says, but he isn’t angry. Phil knows how to read him now.

“No, you can’t fuck us,” Dan shouts across the field. “Phil and I don’t have that sort of relationship.”

“Jesus Christ,” Braden curses as he lines up behind the plate.

Dan’s first pitch is perfectly placed in that it really looks like it is going to be well wide of the plate, until it curves and rolls across the corner at the last second.

“Strike one.”

“Are you sure?” Braden asks.

“Positive.” It’s Phil’s favourite umpire today. He’s learned that her name is Rosario and her oldest son is studying linguistics in university like he did. He’s trying to coax her away from umpiring and back to playing kickball, but she hasn’t agreed to join their team yet. Phil thinks he can convince her by next season.

Braden tries to kick Dan’s next pitch but it skids off his foot and goes foul. He curses under his breath.

“You wouldn’t have to be facing these pitches if you would’ve just joined our team,” Phil says.

“Fuck off, I have my own team.” Braden bounces behind home plate, ready for the next pitch. “I should be mad at you for stealing half my team away,” he adds.

“You like the competition,” Phil fires back. “Plus, can you blame me for making a new team? The view here is much better.”

Phil winks at Dan. Or tries to. He still has trouble closing just one of his eyes at once.

Dan should not try to pitch while he’s laughing, because this pitch doesn’t have any teeth on it. It bounces towards the plate slowly enough for Braden to wind his foot up and launch it across the field.

Dan shrugs as he watches the ball fly over his head. The runner that was on second crosses home. The game is tied now.

Braden rounds the bases. PJ throws the ball towards home plate. Phil steps forward, makes sure he isn’t blocking the base so that there are no mishaps this time. 

Phil watches the ball come towards him. He reaches out his arms, prepared to make the catch. 

Braden slows as he rounds third base, waiting to see what Phil will do. If Phil makes the catch, the smart thing to do would be to stay on third base.

Phil doesn’t make the catch. The ball bounces off his chest and through his arms. Braden takes off running. He crosses the base before Phil can recover the ball.

“WALK OFF HOME RUN BABY” Braden shouts, jumping up and down as he heads back to join  his team.

“Oh, whatever,” Dan says, rolling his eyes.

Phil meets Dan on the pitcher’s mound. “I’m sorry we lost because of me,” Phil says.

“It was my fault.  I threw the bad pitch.”

“Yeah, but only because I distracted you.”

“Nope, false,” Dan says, wrapping himself around Phil’s side. Phil has learned that Dan is a clingy person, and he doesn’t mind it. 

“I wasn’t distracted by you,” Dan says. “I have never laughed at anything you’ve ever said.”  

Dan leans in and places a kiss on Phil’s cheek. Phil sucks a breath of air in through his teeth.

“Ugh, your lips are so dry. I keep telling you to use chapstick.”

Phil digs his chapstick out of his shorts pocket, the chapstick he keeps on hand just for Dan. Dan smears it on his lips, then goes in for another kiss to Phil’s cheek.

“Gross!” Phil tries to pull away, but Dan’s arms are wrapped tightly around him. “You’re supposed to let it dry first.”

“You don’t mind,” Dan says. “I heard what you told Braden. You think I’m a good view.”

“Do not,” Phil protests.

“You do. You think I have a hot body.”

“I did not say that.”

Dan nuzzles his nose into Phil’s neck. “You have a crush on me.”

“I do not, you can’t prove it.”

Dan pulls away slightly, but only so he can reposition himself right in front of Phil and press a quick kiss to his lips. “I think that I can.”