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Kick Me While I'm Down

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They keep making Phil play catcher.

It’s because it’s one of the easiest positions to play, Phil learns. They had him in the outfield at first, but he doesn’t have the depth perception. Balls would constantly sail through his fingers or over his head. He has to wear his contacts when he plays sports and he can never quite see as well with those. 

He simply couldn’t play first or second or third. There are too many rules in this fucking sport, and he can’t keep straight when he only needs to tag the base, and when he needs to tag the runner, and when he should run for the ball and when he should let others throw it to him. He should’ve picked a different sports club but football seemed too intense and he doesn’t trust ultimate frisbee. He’s not sure what’s so ultimate about it, and he’s never thrown a frisbee straight in his entire life. He’s thrown them gay and they never meet their target. He took so long making up his mind that kickball was one of the only leagues with spots left.

So - catcher. He has to throw the ball back to the pitcher after every missed pitch, but it’s kickball, so there aren’t too many of those. Most people (Phil aside) can kick a giant ball. He occasionally has to tag people out at home, but overall he doesn’t have to leave his bubble behind the plate very often. He can chat up the guy playing umpire if he wants. Today it is a man in a plain white t-shirt who grunts out the count and doesn’t laugh at Phil’s jokes, doesn’t even crack a smile at his “I can’t throw straight I can only throw gay” line. But that’s okay. Phil will keep trying anyway.

 

-----

 

“You kicking this inning?” PJ asks him.

PJ is one of the few people he likes on this team. PJ is tall like him, but their hair is brown and curly instead of black and straight, and they wear glasses that manage to not fall off their face when they run. Most importantly, they give off good vibes, seem like someone who will laugh at Phil’s jokes for the right reasons.

That was the point of all of this really - to make friends. Phil doesn’t know if he is any better at the “making friends” part than he is at the kickball, but he has a good feeling about PJ. PJ sips on their beer, watching Hazel, a thin, blonde woman about their age, take her stance behind the plate. Hazel is pretty, Phil thinks, if you’re into that sort of thing. Phil isn’t but he appreciates her kickball skills just the same.

“Nah,” Phil answers. He doesn’t have a beer in his hand. He would but he really needs to keep his wits about him while playing kickball. Otherwise he’d trip over his feet. Sometimes he does that anyway. “I went last inning.”

PJ shrugs. “Might get to you again, if we go on a run.”

Hazel kicks the ball soft and slow, right towards the other team’s third baseman. He has to run for it. He scoops it up in his arms and throws it to first just a second too late. PJ and Phil let out a loud whoop. Hazel is much better than the both of them.

 

Phil does get to kick again that inning. He kicks it foul twice and then the third time straight to the pitcher. He hadn’t meant to do that. It’s an automatic out and the end of the inning, but they already scored a few runs, so no one seems too angry at him this time.

 

____________

 

“Who’s going out for drinks?” 

Phil knows who asked without even looking up. It’s Braden, one of the younger ones on the team. He is quite a bit shorter than Phil and likes to compensate by being loud all the time, shouting at Phil and the others to move here or run there or cover that base or simply “hustle.” Braden is American so he thinks he knows the rules of kickball better than everyone else. He’s right, but he doesn’t need to be so obnoxious about it. Phil wonders if he’s the one who came up with the team name “Deez Balls.” Phil just signed up as a single player and let the league assign him a team. 

Going out for drinks when most of them have already been drinking in the dugout seems excessive to Phil, but he’s learned that this is apparently an integral part of recreational kickball. It’s a social league, sponsored by a pub that is too far away from their field to really be convenient, but they do get discounts on drinks if they wear their kickball shirts.

Phil looks to PJ and Sophie, PJ’s girlfriend? friend? He hasn’t quite figured it out yet. All he knows is that Sophie doesn’t have any issues with depth perception, judging by her superior outfielding skills. As far as Phil knows, the two of them didn’t know anyone else on the team either when they signed up, besides each other. 

“Ah, we have work tomorrow,” Sophie replies. She pulls the hair tie out of her dirty-blonde hair, but when the tie is removed her hair stays pulled back from her face, remembering the shape it had been in all night.

“But we have to celebrate our victory,” Braden protests.

Sophie is unmoved. She doesn’t answer, she just shakes out her hair so that it falls around her face.  

PJ claps his hand on Braden’s shoulder as he walks past him to leave. “You’ll understand when you’re older. Those hangovers will get you.”

Braden scrunches up his face. It looks kind of funny, like he’s a little angry bulldog.

“What about you, Phil?”

Phil looks at PJ and Sophie’s shrinking forms. If they were coming it would be a definite yes.

“Come on, it’ll be team building.” Braden crosses his arms, and the veins in his forearms bulge out. It does not look attractive. 

Phil should try. Braden is a bit abrasive but maybe he just needs to be given a chance. After all, isn’t that what Phil is looking for, someone to take a chance on him?

“Okay, I’ll be there.”

The team cheers, louder than they had for anything Phil has ever done on the kickball field.

 

---------



Phil hates the pub. It’s loud - too loud. Phil can barely hear himself think let alone try and hold a conversation. And sticky - the whole place is sticky, even the air. The rain that had been threatening to fall all day never kept its promise, but it makes the humid air clog Phil’s lungs.

He and the rest of the team are gathered on the little lawn outside the pub, standing  around some picnic tables. Competition on the field was not enough for these sports fiends, apparently, because now they’ve roped Phil into playing flip cup, a game Phil is even worse at than kick ball. You line up in teams and chug a cup of beer, then place your plastic cup on the table so that it just hangs over the edge, then try to flip it over so that it lands perfectly upside down, dripping its beer remnants all over the table. The next person in line can’t start until you get it right.

Phil has never played this game before and it shows. He thinks it’s an American import - only Americans could mess up drinking in this way. What kind of pisspoor alcohol do they have over there if they need to invent games to force themselves to drink it. Can’t they just drink their feelings like a normal person without making it a competition. Beer pong is their fault, too. Phil always stunk at that.

Phil looks at the crushed cans of discount £1 beer on the table and wonders if the Americans maybe have a point. He’s only played three rounds and he’s halfway to sloshed already. He’s already dug his team into a deep hole in their battle against Great Balls Of Fire, a team they haven’t played on the field yet but is first in the Recreational Kickball League Standings. Unfortunately for Deez Balls, Phil can’t chug beer to save his life. He can barely drink water without spilling some on himself. His teammates keep telling him to open up his throat, but he can’t. He should be good at that, considering. But he isn’t and he’s been wiping beer drizzle off his chin all night.

He had just wanted to hang around the pub and chat - get to know his teammates a little better. Why was it so hard to make friends as an adult, anyway? It was easier when he was at school and everyone was his age and everyone liked Mario Kart and going to the cinema every week. Phil had friends his whole life until he didn’t - until he moved to London and left everyone he knew behind. He’s tried apps and he’s tried smiling at strangers and now he’s trying an adult kickball sports club. None of these attempts have gone as well as he had hoped.

Phil’s beginning to wonder if maybe he is an acquired taste, one that no one is willing to learn to appreciate. He’s too odd, too eager, he keeps accidentally saying the wrong things. Maybe he never really had friends in Manchester at all - just people who were near him. People who were too polite to say no. Maybe he was a habit they hadn’t bothered to break, and now they were all free.

He should probably call them.

“Best of seven,” Braden begs after Deez Balls is handed yet another loss.

Their captain is just as relentless as Braden, so he agrees. And just as muscular. Seriously, Phil thinks there might be some chemical help involved; it is simply not natural. Phil isn’t quite sure what his name is, but he thinks it’s either Branden or Brendon or Brandon. Must be a rule that all assholes must have similar names, just to confuse him.

“If you do another round, it’s going to have to be without me,” a woman from Great Balls of Fire says. “I’ve got to get going.”

Finally, someone in this pub has some brains. The stereotype about blondes really is not true.

“I’ll sit this one out then.” Phil volunteers, “so we can keep the numbers even.”

“I can take her place.”

Phil wants to curse the voice that says this. First of all, it is incredibly posh and Phil has learned not to trust voices like that. Phil tries not to stereotype but it does sound like the type of person who would cheat off his tests in uni and then have his father threaten to sue the school when they try to fail him, not that Phil has any experience in that specific thing. Secondly, Phil was looking forward to no longer embarrassing himself at this embarrassing game. Phil just wants to be put out of his misery but this stranger is keeping him in it.

Phil wants to curse the voice, until he gets a good look at the person the voice is attached to. He is quite possibly the most beautiful person Phil has ever seen, isn’t that just his luck. Tall - taller than Phil, which almost never happens. A sharp nose and a wide mouth and eyes that almost look black in this lighting. Curls that Phil wants to run his fingers through spilling off the right side of his head. To make matters worse, he is dressed head-to-toe in black, and Phil is stuck in this stupid bright blue kick ball shirt. He could never compete with literal Mr. Tall Dark And Mysterious, at flip cup or anything else. But he wants to. He wants to be worthy of those eyes that have suddenly met his, the ones that will surely look away once they figure out what Phil’s about.

Phil wouldn’t say that he has a type. But if he did, he wouldn’t expect it to be that. He wouldn’t expect it to be dark clothes and dark eyes and a smooth voice. But there’s something about him that curls in Phils stomach and reaches up to catch his heart.

“So you’ve finally decided to grace us with your presence,”  Branden/Brendon says to the stranger. Phil doesn’t like his tone of voice. Surely this man is too beautiful to have enemies.

Mystery man shrugs. “Just being a team player.”

Braden fumes from Phil’s side of the table. With Phil out of the way, they might have stood a chance. If he still has to play, they’re doomed. “Only kickball players can join.”

“He’s on our team,” Brandon/Brenden explains. “He’s just not wearing the shirt.”

“It’s not my colour,” Mystery Man interjects. His eyes have met Phil’s again, and Phil gets that feeling in his stomach again. Or maybe that’s just the alcohol. 

Mystery Man lines up right across from Phil, and Phil hates it. He can feel those eyes boring into him, and he’s definitely going to fuck it up now, like more than normal. Plus, if Mystery Man had an earlier turn, Phil would be able to watch him drink. He’d like to see that long neck tilted upward, Adam's apple bobbing with each swallow. If they’re drinking at the same time, Phil won’t get to look.

As it turns out, Phil does get to watch Mystery Man chug. Hazel keeps trying to flip her cup over but it just flops over onto its side, clanking against the table. Great Balls of Fire pulls ahead. Mystery Man swallows his drink in one quick motion. It is incredibly sexy. He struggles more with the cup flipping, but his hands are - distracting. Phil feels his mouth go dry - truly an accomplishment in this humid air. Phil is so engrossed in Mystery Man’s actions that he doesn’t even notice it is his turn until he hears Braden screaming at him.

Phil panics. He pours the drink into his mouth - takes one swallow before he chokes and spills the rest down his chin and onto his shirt. Phil can feel it soaking straight through to his chest.

“Flip it, flip it, flip it,” Braden shouts beside him. 

Phil has the presence of mind between coughs to place the cup down on the table, and he somehow flips it on the first try. It’s the first bit of kindness the beer game gods have granted him tonight. 

Phil doesn’t know if his efforts were enough to win his team the game because he quickly takes off from the table so he can go hide in shame. Nor does he care if they won. Phil will feel like a loser anyway. He always makes a fool of himself in front of hot guys, and Mystery Man definitely qualifies as one of those. He might just be the hottest guy Phil has ever seen.

Once Phil makes it safely inside the loo without knocking into anyone and causing a chain reaction that makes every single person in the pub fall over like a set of dominos, Phil looks at himself in the mirror. The wet patch across his shirt is causing the fabric to cling to his chest, to hug the dip between his pectoral muscles. And the beer had been cold - Phil can feel his nipples start to poke through his shirt. How fucking embarrassing. Why has he picked such a small shirt size, anyway? He wanted to look good, that’s why, stupid. Phil grabs some paper towels to try to sop up the beer but it doesn’t do much; he still looks just as ridiculous as before. 

“Are you all right?” a familiar posh voice asks him. 

Really, it’s silly that Phil recognizes it. He’s only heard him say about two sentences, and his voice had to compete with the bar chatter around him. Here his voice echoes off the grimy tiles. 

“I’m fine.” Phil turns to face him, which takes an awful lot of bravery on his part, he thinks. “Just a little wet.”

Mystery Man is just as handsome close up. Without the table between them, Phil can see that his lips are chapped, skin peeling from where he had obviously been biting them. It doesn’t make him any less appealing. Phil wonders what they would feel like, if they would bleed if he got a little rough. 

Phil is concentrating so hard on Mystery Man’s lips that he almost doesn’t notice where the man’s eyes had been - trained on the spill at the center of Phil’s chest. God, he’s such a mess, and now Mystery Man knows it.

“I’m Phil.” He stretches his hand out in front of him. He can’t keep calling him ‘Mystery Man’ in his head. That’s just making everything worse. That’s just making him seem even more out of his league than he already is. Even though technically they play in the same league. The kickball league, that is.

“Dan,” he says. He begins to hold his hand out before retracting it, jerking it back like he’s just touched fire. “Shit, my hand’s still sticky from the game.”

He turns to wash his hands. “It’s a vile game,” Phil supplies.

“Absolutely dreadful.”

“You seemed pretty good at it, though.”

“The chugging, maybe.” He turns off the faucet and shakes the water off his hands. “Took me a dozen tries to flip that damn cup.”

“Ah, I didn’t notice. Was too busy pouring beer all over myself.”

Phil’s comment earns him one chortle from Mystery Man - Dan - and Phil thinks that is maybe worth all the humiliation. Almost. At least Dan thinks he’s funny. He’d been striking out all night with the umpire and had been beginning to wonder.

Dan looks around the room for something to dry his hands on, sees the paper towel roll is empty, and settles on wiping his hands on his jeans. The water leaves wet fingerprints on his thighs. Then he can finally shake Phil’s hand.

“If kickball isn’t enough competition for them, I wish they would just let us play that old Street Fighter game in the corner,” Phil tells him. “That at least isn’t quite as sticky.”

“Are you good at Street Fighter?” Their hands are still clasped together. Phil should probably let go.

“Not to brag, but I once held the high score at our local arcade for a whole week.”

“That sounds an awful lot like bragging,” Dan teases. He squeezes Phil’s hand once, then lets go. “Why don’t we see if you can back it up?”

 

________

 

“You can’t possibly be that bad at kickball.”

Dan is sitting next to Phil, hand clasped loosely around something dark and strong.

They didn’t get to play Street Fighter. That game and the Pac-Man next to it have been commandeered by a group of teens Phil doesn’t quite believe are of legal age yet. Either way, no one seems to have taught them the unwritten rule that once you run out of lives you’re supposed to let someone else have a go before putting more coins in the machine.

Phil doesn’t mind. They’ve found a table in the corner, and they have to sit very closely together to be heard. When Dan leans in to talk, Phil can smell Dan’s cologne. He doesn’t smell like sweat at all, even though he had supposedly been playing kickball earlier. If Phil can smell Dan, this also means that Dan can probably smell the alcohol plastered on Phil’s shirt, but Phil tries not to think about that.

It turns out that talking about who would win Street Fighter is better than playing Street Fighter, anyway. A game of Street Fighter only lasts a few minutes. A conversation can last almost forever. They can talk about their favourite characters and strategy, debate who would have the advantage. And they did, until they exhausted every angle, and then they moved on to talking about kickball.

Phil takes another sip of his cheap discount beer. It’s gotten warm during their conversation and is now even more disgusting. “I am,” Phil assures Dan. “I’m really bad at it.”

“That can’t be true. You’re pretty tall. Should give you some sort of advantage.”

Dan is almost right about that. If Phil manages to kick the ball into an open spot, he can sometimes get on base. His long stride makes him a little faster than the others. But it’s not enough to make up for his overwhelming clumsiness.

“No. I've got two left feet.” Phil explains, “It’s actually worse than that. I’ve got three left feet.”

Dan leans back to peak under the table. “I don’t see a third foot. Unless…”

Phil can’t let him finish that sentence. It seems awfully close to flirting, and that couldn’t possibly be true. Phil can’t possibly be flirting with a hot guy while covered in beer, while drinking embarrassing discount beer that actually tastes like piss.

“Plus,” Phil continues, “I never know where I'm supposed to go. Kickball is fun but you have to admit the rules are pretty dumb.”

“They’re based on baseball, so that explains it,” Dan agrees.

“Who let the Americans invent sports. Look at what they call football. It’s a disgrace.”

“You’re right.” Dan chuckles, and oh no - he has dimples. That is going to be a problem for Phil. Phil is having all kinds of problems tonight.

Phil can’t dwell on the dimples, for his own survival. He has to keep talking. “And I don't get the baseball rules about the pitcher.” Phil had watched a couple baseball games on TV when visiting Florida, and that never made any sense to him. “The pitcher doesn’t have to bat, because he’s bad at it? Sounds like he should simply get better at hitting the tiny ball with the stick.”

Dan lets out a loud howl that cuts through the noise around them. This pub is too loud but that’s the first sound Phil has liked. “Oh, it’s even stupider than that,” Dan tells him.

“How?”

“On half the teams over there the pitcher still has to bat. On the other half someone else does it for them.”

Phil shakes his head. “They can’t even agree on their own rules but we’re supposed to copy them.”

Dan leans in even closer. “You know those comics where an alien explains a human thing and you realize how fucking weird it is?”

“Yeah,” Phil replies, because he does. Dan smiles back at him like he has just aced a test Phil didn’t know he was taking.

“If you explain baseball to an alien it wouldn’t make any sense,” Dan rants. “A foul ball is a strike, except when you already have two strikes. Then you can hit as many foul balls as you want. UNLESS you just get the tip of the ball and the catcher catches it. Then it’s called a foul tip and it’s a strike and you’re out.”

Phil’s brain practically short-circuits while listening to him. It was already about halfway there before Dan started talking, on the account of how pretty Dan is, but now it is properly malfunctioning. “What the fuck.”

“I know.”

“Is that the same as our kickball rules?”

“Kickball treats fouls a little differently.”

“Thank God,” Phil sighs. “I think I am an alien because I didn't understand any of that.”

“Totally mental sport,” Dan agrees.

“Really.”

“Should’ve signed up for cricket instead.”

“I don’t know,” Phil says. “I got whacked in the shins playing cricket in primary school and I've been traumatized ever since.”

“Hopefully no one kicks you in the shins here. Then you could never come back, and I wouldn’t get to see you.”

Dan gets a particular glint in his eye when he says it. Phil must be drunker than he thinks, or the kickball talk has ruined his brain permanently, because surely he must have imagined it.

“How do you know all these baseball facts anyway?” Phil asks. “Big baseball fan?”

Dan shakes his head. “No. I did some research when I joined kickball so I could learn the rules better and got kind of carried away.”

Phil feels his stomach sink. Oh no, Dan is GOOD good. Dan is going to see how utter trash Phil is at kickball, and stop flirting with him. If that is in fact what is going on right now, Phil still isn’t quite sure.

Phil gulps a big sip of his discount beer, chokes a little, then wipes his mouth with the back of his hand. “What position do you play usually?”

“Pitcher.”

Phil grunts on the inside. He should’ve known. Of course Dan is the pitcher. The pitcher has the hardest, most important job; they need to pitch the ball accurately and field the ball correctly. A lot of the play happens in the infield and the pitcher always needs to know where to throw the ball to get the runners out, when to cover first base if the first baseman steps off. It’s a choreographed dance that Phil doesn’t understand. And Dan’s team is good, so Dan must be good at it. Of course. Of course Dan would play the sexiest position.

Phil really should not have thought that, because now he is thinking of Dan in other sexy positions. Dan’s shirt is thin and Phil can see the shape of his shoulders underneath it. Dan is tall and if he laid on top of Phil Dan could probably cover Phil’s body completely. Phil takes a drink to distract himself. It only makes his head spin more.

“I think they need bigger balls.”

Dan spits a little of his drink back into his glass. Ha, at least Phil is not the only one making a fool of himself tonight. “What?”

“I just think bigger balls would be better,” Phil clarifies.

“Mate.” Dan clinks his glass down onto the table and catches Phil in the eyes, and Phil finally realizes he is not making sense.

“In baseball. They should make the balls bigger and then the pitcher can hit.”

“You’re right.” Dan is smiling again. Phil doesn’t know how he is able to keep making him do that. It’s never been this easy. Even when Phil says the wrong thing, it is quickly smoothed over, turned into the right thing. They’ve been talking for so long without realizing it. The pub has begun to clear out. Phil looks around and realizes he doesn’t see anyone else from kickball anymore.

“I should probably get going,” Phil says, even though he doesn’t want to. He wants to stay; he’s afraid that the magic they’ve crafted here will wear off in the daylight. But he does have to work tomorrow. They probably both do.

Dan nods back at him. “Me too. But we play your team next week, right? So I’ll see you then?”

Right, next week. Phil had forgotten what it was like for there to be a next time. Now he has something to look forward to.

Phil nods back at Dan. He fixes him with a smile he hopes is not weird, one where his tongue isn’t peaking out at odd angles, but it’s hard to control his face when he is as excited and inebriated like this. The look on Dan’s face suggests that he succeeded.

Phil goes home. He plops himself into bed and wakes up too early. His feels like death all day as he reads his emails, but his heart beats under his skin with the promise of next time.

Chapter Text

Dan, it turns out, is kind of a jerk.

Dan has somehow figured out how to throw curve balls, something that Phil would’ve sworn was not possible before today. The rest of his team seems equally surprised, judging by the way they mutter under their breaths and wring their hands as they march back from home plate after each failed attempt to get on base. 

Phil doesn’t get to kick until the third inning, so he should be prepared for the way the ball turns and changes trajectory right before it hits the plate. But he isn’t, so on the first pitch, he kicks the air. It doesn’t matter that Phil spent the first two innings staring at Dan’s giant fucking hands -  God, they cover up half the ball - and studying the way he spins the ball as he throws; knowing how Dan throws curve balls and being able to kick the curve ball are two separate things. The second pitch Phil swears is going wide and will be ruled a ball, but it bounces across the plate at the last second, so that is another strike. 

Phil glares at Dan standing on the pitcher’s mound. Dan looks so good in red. He said it wasn’t his colour but he’s wrong - it brings out the flush in his cheeks after he runs. Part of Phil had hoped that maybe Dan would go easy on him and throw him something easy, but that’s silly. They barely know each other. Part of Phil had thought that Dan was flirting with him, but these pitches are clearly some heterosexual nonsense. They are supposed to be here to make friends and have fun, not to make everyone miserable by throwing impossible-to-hit pitches. 

Phil quickly learns what the special kickball league rules are about foul balls. He doesn’t need to consult his crystal ball or the position of the moon to determine if a foul is a strike or not. In kickball fouls don’t count as strikes at all; they get their own count and if you get four of them you are out. After the first two pitches, Phil knows he can’t afford to get another strike, so he puts his body in front of the ball every time. But he can’t seem to steer it where he wants to, no matter how hard he tries. Four fouls, he’s out. He doesn’t even feel bad about it, because no one else had been able to kick it, either.

 

---------



“What is this guy’s problem?” Hazel says as she returns from another failed attempt to get on base. She walks up to where PJ, Sophie, and Phil have congregated and pulls a fresh beer out of the cooler, downs it like she needs it.

“He’s something else,” Sophie agrees. “Was he not held enough as a child?”

Phil’s ears buzz. He feels a little weird listening to people criticize Dan. But then he wonders why he cares. It was only one conversation, after all. One conversation where he wasn’t even sure if Dan was flirting. He must not have been, Phil decides.

“He looks like he’s trying to be kickball world champion, but no one told him that isn’t a thing,” Phil adds.

Hazel snorts. “He looks like he’s compensating for his small penis.”

Phil tries to hide his blush. It doesn’t look to him that Dan has a small penis. Not that Phil’s been looking. On purpose, anyway. It’s just that Dan's shorts are a little tight and maybe Phil has been distracted by the way Dan's muscles move as he runs.

“He must’ve practiced a lot to figure out how to do that,” Phil comments.

Suddenly Phil is picturing Dan in a park all by himself, throwing the ball over and over, trying to figure out the way to position his hands, how much to spin he needs to get it to curve just before the plate. All for what? So that the rest of the league could hate him? It doesn’t seem like his teammates like him either, judging by his cold reception at the pub last week and how little they have encouraged him throughout the game.

“Aw, that's kind of sad,” PJ says. 

“Someone should tell him kickball isn’t that serious,” Hazel notes.

Sophie leans forward, then looks over her shoulder. “Someone should tell Braden that.”

Phil hides his chuckle behind his hand. Phil doesn’t like to lose but at least they can joke about it. When the next kicker steps up to the plate, they turn their attention back to the game, settling into a silence that for once wraps around Phil like a gentle breeze instead of a harsh wind.

 

-----------

 

Phil is taking a different approach for his second at-bat, he’s decided. There’s no point in him trying to kick at Dan’s wild pitches if he’s not going to be able to kick them straight anyway. During his first go at it, he kept catching the ball with his shin instead of his foot, and his leg is still red and angry because of it. If he strikes out - so be it.

Dan’s first throw looks good, heading right towards the plate, and Phil is tempted. But it’s just the first pitch. Phil needs time to settle in. Phil lets the ball roll towards him. It swerves to the right at the last second.

“Ball one.”

Dan stares at the umpire in incredulity. Phil looks back at her. Today the umpire is a short, stocky woman with black hair pulled back into a tight bun. Phil likes her. She had at least smiled at Phil’s jokes. And best of all, she stands her ground against Dan. “It was wide,” she says.

Dan tries the same pitch again, with the same result. Phil stands still. The umpire calls out, “Ball two.”

Dan runs his fingers through his hair. Phil tries to ignore how his curls look. “He could’ve hit that,” Dan protests.

Dan has a point. Phil probably could have caught a piece of the ball, if he tried. That’s why balls rarely get called in kickball. Most people just try to kick them anyway, regardless of how close they are to the plate. 

But Phil feels like being a little bit difficult. Phil isn’t going to make it easy for Dan. After all, Dan hadn’t gone easy on him.

“Ball two,” the umpire repeats. “It’s gotta catch a part of the plate.”

Dan tries a different tact for his next pitch. It starts out to the left of the plate, then turns, bouncing over the right side of the plate as it passes Phil. Strike one. It’s not a big deal though; Phil has a few more strikes left to go.

Before Phil can gather himself, the next pitch crosses the plate, and he is given a second strike. Now things are personal - well, more personal. Phil hadn’t expected to get on base at all when he stepped up to kick, but now that he’s managed to get under Dan’s skin a little bit, he wants it. He wants to show Dan who’s boss. He’s not sure exactly where the desire came from.

Phil fouls off the next two pitches. The balls came at him fast, and he knew he would never be able to kick them far enough to get on base, so he shoved them off to the side.

“He’s not even trying to put them in play,” Dan complained to the umpire after the second foul ball.

The umpire shrugged at him. Up close, Phil could see the small smile on her lips. Phil should probably learn her name, and then maybe her address so that he could send her a fruit basket. “Let him foul out, then,” she called out to Dan.

Dan’s next pitch also starts out straight, but Phil knows better. He saw the movement Dan made when he threw the ball; he knows it’s going to curve. The question is how far. If it still touches the base, Phil will be out.

Phil watches the ball roll past him.

“Ball three.”

Dan rolls the ball in his hands, considering. If he throws another ball, Phil will get on base. The curve balls are harder to kick but Phil imagines they are also harder to throw accurately.

Dan throws the ball. It heads towards the plate, fast but not too fast. Straight, and Phil knows it’s going to stay that way because he had been watching Dan’s fucking giant hands when he threw. He decided to play it safe and not spin the ball.

Phil kicks the ball as hard as he can. He doesn’t think too much about placement, (that’s too much thinking for him) just tries to get some air on the ball. It sails over the short stop’s fingers.

Phil doesn’t run at first. He stands still, paralyzed by the shock. But then he hears the cries from his dugout, and he takes off towards first, letting his teammate’s shouts carry him.

“Go for two!” Braden screams at him as he approaches first, but Phil doesn’t listen. Phil can’t be expected to turn while running full speed without falling over. But as Phil stands on first base, his team is still clapping for him, even Braden.

Phil doesn’t want to feel proud. It’s stupid - it’s just kickball. But he does. He’s finally done something right and his heart wants to burst with it.

The inning is over after the next kicker. PJ pops it up and their second baseman catches it. But they’ve learned something this round, and Phil feels a little more hopeful than before.

 

-----------

 

They aren’t going to win; of course they aren’t. They’ve done a little better now that they know to be more patient at the plate, but they dug themselves too deep a hole, and Great Balls of Fire are too good. They are too good at pitching and fielding and kicking. They are a well-oiled machine, and Deez Balls - well, they have Phil on their team. They are a bunch of disparate parts shoved together, making it work the best they can. Getting better each week but not quite there yet.

It’s 6-1 by the time they get to the ninth inning; just a few more outs and they are done, and they can try to do better next week. 

Dan has one more chance to kick; it’s just their luck that they have to face the top of the Great Balls of Fire order. He walks up to the plate, fixes Phil with a small that Phil can’t decipher. Things have been weird between them all night. Phil’s not sure if he should smile back or acknowledge what happened at the bar last week. He’s mostly certain that the magic did in fact wear off, that spark they created has fizzled out in the open air. Phil’s not sure if he should be friendly to him right now. He doesn’t feel much like smiling back.

There is no back fence to the kickball field, so they don’t really have home runs. But sometimes if someone kicks the ball hard enough, they can make it around the bases before the other team can throw the ball in. Dan had one of these “home runs” earlier in the game. He kicks it that far again, flying far over Sophie’s head and into the outfield. 

Phil’s arms flop to his sides. It was truly unfair that Dan manages to be hot and good at pitching and kicking. Sophie has to turn around and run for the ball. It’s truly unfair that Dan is making them work this hard in the ninth inning when his team is up five runs. But the thing that is most unfair of all is that Phil still wants him, still even after all this.

Phil is perhaps paying too much attention to Dan running around the bases, watching his legs move and his arms pump, because Phil is only vaguely aware that Sophie has retrieved the ball and thrown it in to Braden. Dan is rounding third, fringe pushed back from his face, and suddenly Braden is yelling. Braden is yelling at Phil to get his foot on the base - Phil is still standing behind it, entranced. 

Phil steps forward. The ball sails toward him. Phil is about to catch it-

Phil is on the ground, with Dan on top of him. The ball bounces off to his side.

“What the fuck,” Braden huffs, running toward them. “What the fuck, get off him.”

Braden grabs Dan by the back of his shirt and lifts Dan off. It’s a shame. Phil had been wanting to get Dan on top of him, just not like this. Still, he hadn’t even been able to enjoy it once the shock wore off.

Phil sits up and dusts the grass off his elbows. Braden is fuming, chest puffed out like a roast chicken. It’s kind of cute how he wants to defend Phil’s honor. Phil wasn’t sure that Braden liked him at all.

Dan puts his hands up, takes a step back. “I’m sorry, it was an accident.”

“What the fuck is wrong with you?” Hazel calls out from first base.

“He was standing in front of the base.”

“And you were up by a million points!” Hazel has made her way over from first base. She stands across from Dan with her arms crossed, foot tapping. Phil is still sat on the ground. He feels a little silly, so he picks himself up, straightens his shirt. The tension seems thicker now, like Phil hadn’t been feeling the full force of it when he was sitting down.

“Everybody calm down,” the umpire says, stepping in between the rest of Phil’s team and Dan.

She points at Dan. “You, apologize.”

“I already-”

Her chilling look silences him. Phil will have to upgrade the imaginary fruit basket to a chocolate cake.

“I’m sorry.” Dan pauses to look Phil in the eyes. “I shouldn’t have run into you like that.”

Phil shrugs. He is not sure if he should accept Dan’s apology but he also hates confrontation.

“And you.” The umpire turns to point at Phil, but her tone is softer than the one she had used with Dan. “You really were standing in front of the base. You’re not supposed to do that. He shouldn’t have leveled you like that, but try not to do that next time.”

“Understood,” Phil says, and then he salutes her, and then he regrets doing so, God, why does he always have to be so weird.

“Everyone back to your positions,” she calls, and that is that. Dan heads back to his dugout, and Phil doesn’t watch him go. He is going to lock all of those feelings up in a tiny box. Nothing good can come of them.

“Are you good to keep playing?” Braden asks him. 

“I’ll be fine,” Phil tells him. They don’t really have any extra players tonight, so if he sits they’ll have to pull someone from the outfield. Phil just wants this game to be over. He can’t wait for it to be over.

 

--------

 

Phil isn’t sure why he’s here at the pub. He had the perfect excuse - his shoulder still smarts from where it collided with the ground - and they lost, so there should be nothing to celebrate. But Braden had clapped his hand on Phil’s shoulder when he asked him to come to the pub. Earlier he had offered Phil a sip of the truly vile mixed drink he brings to every game, and Phil had said no (because gross), but it was the thought that counted. Phil feels like the team has really taken a step forward in the comradery department, even though they’ve taken a step backward in the “actually being good at kickball” department. They are now united by a common enemy, and that enemy is Dan. PJ and Sophie are still no shows, but Hazel is here and she is really grown on him.

Phil still hates flip cup, even if he is not quite as bad as he was last week. He still struggles with the drinking but he’s getting the hang of the cup flipping. He’s managed to be only a slight detriment to his team and not a complete disaster. They’re actually tied 2-2 with Go Ballistic. But it’s only a matter of time before Phil has another drinking accident. He thinks his throat was just truly not meant for fast liquid consumption, something about the way it is shaped.

He feels a hand tug at his shirt sleeve. “I need to talk to you.” 

Dan is still in his Great Balls of Fire shirt. Phil does not particularly want to talk to him.

Phil gestures to the beer and cups on the table in front of him. “I’m a little busy here.”

“It’s okay if you need to take a break,” a man from the other team supplies. He is rail thin with dark skin and an accent Phil can’t quite place. The panicked look in his eyes, however, is very familiar. “I can sit a few rounds out.”

Phil still does not want to talk to Dan, but he does want to take pity on this stranger who has clearly had enough of flipping cups. So Phil gets up from the table and leaves.

Dan guides him to the same table they sat in last week. Phil doesn’t want to think about this being their spot, like they might be developing a routine.

Dan leans down on the table. “Can I buy you a drink?”

Phil shrugs. “If you have to.”

After several minutes, Dan returns with something bright and colourful for Phil and something dark and terribly for himself. Phil takes a drink - he likes it, of course he does. Phil doesn’t want to think about how Dan knows how he takes his drinks, how easy Phil is to read. Dan is not the same - Phil had read him all wrong the first time.

“I didn’t mean to knock you over like that.”

Phil sighs. “I know that, Dan.”

“Well good,” Dan says. His shoulders are hunched forward, elbows leaned on the table. “I thought you were still mad at me.”

“I am mad at you, Dan.”

Dan looks up at Phil. Phil honestly doesn't know why he looks so surprised.

“It’s not because you hit me. I mean, it is, but it’s not just that,” Phil explains. “I don’t know why you were running that hard on the last inning when you already knew you were going to win.”

Dan’s shoulders inch up towards his ears. “It’s hard to turn it off. I just try my best every time, no matter the score.”

“But do you need to try that hard though.”

Dan looks up. His shoulders hunch back down. “What do you mean.”

Phil sighs and leans back in his chair. “Do you really need to throw whatever the heck you were throwing? It’s ruining it for everyone else.”

“I thought the point is to win.”

“The point of the league is to have fun,” Phil insists.

“Winning is fun.”

“Winning isn’t everything, though. Is it worth fucking up my shoulder?”

“I’m sorry about that,” Dan says, and he really seems sincere this time.

Phil pinches the bridge of his nose. “It’s fine,” Phil grunts through his teeth.

“Can I make it up to you?” 

“How?”

Dan stands up and walks around the table to stand behind Phil. He has to ask a large, burly man to get out of his way to do so.

“Your right shoulder, right?” Dan asks.

Phil nods. It’s still a bit tender. His ass hurts too, but he’s not about to ask Dan to do anything about that.

Dan places one of his giant hands on Phil’s back and begins rubbing circles along his shoulder. The touch is light - any harder and it might hurt. Phil doesn’t know exactly what it’s supposed to be doing, but it feels nice. Maybe it’s simulating blood flow? He thinks he’s read something about that somewhere. Maybe Dan is some sort of doctor or something. It occurs to Phil that he doesn’t actually know what Dan does for a living.

“Is that helping?” Phil asks him.

“I don’t know, is it?” Dan responds, which Phil must admit is not the most reassuring answer.

Dan moves his hands from Phil’s injured shoulder to the back of Phil’s neck. Then he starts pressing harder, digging his thumbs into the knots Phil has there. Phil hadn’t realized how sore he had been there until he felt his muscles release.

“You shouldn’t be so tense all the time,” Dan tells him.

“Are you some sort of doctor or something?”

Dan’s thumbs keep rubbing along Phil’s spine. “No, I’m a lawyer.”

“Then what the heck is this.”

Dan chuckles, but he stops. He walks back around the table to return to his seat. “Just trying to help. You liked it, right?”

Phil’s lips pull into a tight line. “Maybe,” he says, but they both know maybe means yes.

“What do you do?” Dan is sitting back in his chair now. His posture is more open than it was before.

“I’m a copy editor,” Phil answers. “I correct other people’s shit, mostly.”

“That sounds like fun.”

“No it’s not. The rules of grammar are even more convoluted than the rules of kickball.”

Dan smiles, and oh no, they are talking now. They are having a proper conversation again. Phil hadn’t meant for that to happen. He was intent on staying mad. But he finds his lips moving of their own accord.

“I’m surprised you studied law,” Phil says. “Usually the jocks don’t pick something that difficult.”

“Aw, you thought I was some dumb jock?” Dan teases.

“Noooo,” Phil whines, dragging out the word. He’s pretty sure that Dan is not dumb. He’d have to be pretty smart to figure out...whatever it is he does with the balls when he pitches. “It’s just that usually the sports types don’t have the time. And you seem like a sports type.”

“I didn’t play in uni,” Dan answers. “But I did before then. I used to get bullied a lot in school, until I found out I was good at football. Everyone left me alone after that.”

Football - that makes sense. That explains the kicking. The bullying might explain some other things.

“But did you like it?” Phil asks.

Dan smiles. His eyes focus on a place on the table, a dark knot in the wood. “Yeah, I did. I learned to really love it after a while.”

“But not enough to play in uni?”

Dan’s fingers draw a circle around the rim of his glass. “It seemed kind of silly to continue? I was never going to be a pro. But after a while I really missed playing sports, so here I am.”

“Why not football then?” Phil is doing that thing again where he asks too many questions. But Dan keeps answering them.

Dan shrugs. “I tried that for a couple of seasons - didn’t like it.”

There seems to be more to the story, but Phil decides he shouldn’t press. They’ve only had 2.5 conversations at best, and Phil has already unlocked at least part of Dan’s tragic backstory. He doesn’t need to go fishing for more, even though he wants to. That’s probably part of the reason why people don’t like him.

Dan breaks the silence instead. “So what about you?” 

“Did I play sports?”

“No. I know that you didn’t.”

Phil slaps a hand on the table. He would slap Dan if he were closer. “Shut up! Maybe I played competitive archery. That’s a sport you know.”

“If you did, you’d have better aim.”

“Hey!” Dan is too far, but Phil swipes at him anyway. He only catches the air, but he makes his point.

“I mean why are you playing kickball,” Dan clarifies.

“Oh. Just wanted to make some friends, I guess.”

Dan snorts. “And how’s that working out for you.”

Phil doesn’t like Dan’s tone. It seemed mocking, dismissive, and Phil feels...silly. Silly for trying to find friends in a kickball league, playing a sport he is bad at. Silly for talking to Dan and expecting him to be kind. Silly for throwing himself out there and getting thrown back, every single time.

Silly for thinking that someone like Dan could ever look at Phil and see something worth keeping. He was probably just talking to Phil out of pity, or guilt. Phil had thought - he didn’t know what he was thinking.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Phil accuses.

A crease forms between Dan’s eyebrows. “Oh, I didn’t-”

“Is the concept of me making friends so ridiculous to you? Because I’ll have you know I had plenty back in Manchester.”

Dan’s face grows more panicked by the second. “Phil, I didn’t mean it like that-”

Phil stands up. “How did you mean it?”

Phil can see Dan’s jaw moving, teeth clenching and unclenching in his mouth, but Dan doesn’t say anything. Maybe Dan didn’t mean it the way Phil took it, but he sure wasn’t supplying Phil with any alternatives. He sure hadn’t given Phil many reasons to give him the benefit of the doubt, not after knocking him to the ground earlier and insisting it was Phil’s fault for standing on the plate. Either way, what he said struck the exact nerve Phil was the most sensitive about. It hit him right where it hurt, pain radiating deeper than ache in his shoulder had.

“I don’t know why I’m talking to you,” Phil sighs. “What is your problem?”

Phil turns around. He thinks he hears Dan say “a lot of things” as he walks away, but he may have imagined it.

 

---------

 

Phil shouldn’t be nervous.

He’s seen PJ and Sophie week after week and he knows they won’t bite. Unless Phil asks them to, which he wouldn’t, because they don’t have that type of relationship. They especially won’t bite today because they’ve just won their game and everyone is in a good mood.

Everyone is in a good mood, and that’s why Phil shouldn’t spoil it by being weird. He should just go home. Or tag along to the pub and play drinking games he hates but that everyone else seems to love. He shouldn’t bother PJ and Sophie with his dumb needs and feelings.

But Phil had been thinking about what Dan said. The worst part about it was that Dan was kind of right. Phil is failing at making friends here. He shows up and he plays kickball and he talks and he has a good time or he doesn’t. And then he goes home to his sparsely furnished apartment and watches TV alone and doesn’t talk to any of them for a week. He doesn’t even know how. He only has Braden’s number and he only texts him to tell him whether or not he’s showing up each week.

And that’s on Phil. Phil needs to throw himself out there, again. Even if he crashes right on the grass, just like he had earlier after he slipped on first base.

Sophie and PJ are walking across the field towards the gate. Phil has to jog to catch up to them.

“Hey,” Phil shouts. His sounds more out-of-breath than is justified for the short distance he just ran, but he can’t help it.

PJ and Sophie turn to face him. They look the same as they always do, but Phil’s heart pounds in his chest.

“What’s up?” PJ asks him.

They’re not going to bite, Phil reminds himself. The worst they can do is say no.

Phil takes a deep breath.

“I know you two never want to go to the pub after kickball, and I get it, because I don’t really like to drink on weekdays either, so I was wondering if maybe you wanted to get ice cream? There’s a place nearby that I’ve been wanting to try. Well, it’s not that nearby but it’s not that far either and it sounds really cool.”

God, he’s talking so much. He’s talking so much and so quickly and he’s not even sure if the two of them can understand him but he can’t stop.

“And they have dairy-free and gluten free options, too, if you need them. I don’t think ice cream usually has gluten, but just in case. Maybe it’s the cones-”

“Phil.” PJ taps Phil on the arm. “We’d love to get ice cream with you. But we were actually just going to grab dinner. We didn’t get to eat beforehand”

“Oh.” Phil feels a little deflated. It might be from disappointment or it might be from all the air he expelled babbling about ice cream.

“You could come with us,” Sophie suggests.

“Oh, I already ate.” 

“Maybe, another time then,” she says.

Phil doesn’t want it to be another time though. That will give him another chance to chicken out.

PJ and Sophie begin to turn away, but Phil interrupts them.

“Hey, this restaurant you’re going to, do they have dessert?”

PJ smiles at him. “Yeah, they have a pretty good chocolate cake.”

“Maybe I could tag along and grab dessert then.”

“We’d love that,” Sophie answers for the two of them.

Phil walks with PJ and Sophie toward the gate. As they cross the threshold, PJ throws one arm over Phil’s shoulder and one of Sophie’s. 

“So Phil,” PJ asks. “What are your opinions on Mario Kart? Because Sophie says I am too competitive and no fun to play with.”



Chapter Text

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.”