In May, Roy Halladay is on pace to win 28 games this year. It's not going to happen, AJ knows. Roy's luck was never good enough for that. There's always something that gets in the way, but it is going to be at least 20, AJ thinks after Roy beats him during that first game in Toronto. Probably 21 or even 22. A career season, Hall of Fame material, for sure.
He loves Roy, and he isn't shy about showing it in the interviews that he knows Roy won't watch until after the game is played and done. He didn't have to give any, or none that AJ could find, anyway. And it's not just because of New York's overheated press. If Roy Halladay doesn't want to give an interview he doesn't fucking give an interview.
At least it isn't a shutout, but it's bad enough. AJ's not good at giving up just one run, not unless they're already ahead. One usually starts an avalanche of other mistakes that add up to a lot more, and he can't figure out what the heck his arm is doing differently than it was two minute before, except the balls stop breaking and he starts to feel like shit.
He doesn't know if it would be better or worse if the Yankees were hitting this spring. At least now he has company in his misery.
It gets to be more effort to try not to follow Roy's stats, Roy's games than to follow them. On days when he knows Roy's pitching, he sits there in the dugout, imagining, planning his little news blackout.
Eventually he gives in, lets Josey show him how to get the constant updates on his iPhone. Some RadioShack type from a high-end electronics store sets up his home TV with the feed of the games from the internet, so he can watch Roy's games, the slightly jerky motion fed over the wires. Roy's better than these videos make him out to be.
He doesn't know if this is better or worse. Even with the not-quite-perfect streaming video, Roy is a masterpiece. Mostly, AJ's glad they're not on the same team anymore, when he watches that. Who wants the other slots in the rotation when one of them is filled by a fucking masterpiece?
Yet, Tallet's stepping it up too, they all are, like Tex batting before Alex, elevated by the company.
AJ dodged Roy's calls for the first couple weeks after his loss in Toronto, until he had another win under his belt, until the Yankees were doing so well that he could feel a little cocky when Roy called.
"Didn't think you'd pick up," says Roy.
AJ cradles the phone under his chin while he finds the volume on his remote and turns down the TV. He leans his head back on the couch and it's like he's back lying next to Roy in a hotel room on the road, TV and words that don't mean much slipping by. But no touching—and when he finds himself moving his hands on himself, he ends the conversation, because that's where it has to end. If they're gonna have phone sex, Roy's gotta be into it too.
AJ's bad temper doesn't clear quickly. He's not what Nick expected after reading about his tantrums, and hissy fits in the news. He's not even what Nick expected after being on the team with him for a few months. The AJ Nick knows has quicksilver moods, this one is friendly as before, making the stupid jokes they all do in the locker room, but his heart isn't in it.
He doesn't come out of it until he finally gets a win in May. Nick's stats are starting to slip after an insane spring that he can't really believe, so he hip checks AJ in the locker room after a night game. "I'm going out tonight. You should come with me."
AJ's hair is still damp, and he's got a towel around his neck. He hangs onto it with both hands. A crazy, winning grin is plastered all over his face. "I got plans," he says. AJ's got a low voice that surprises Nick each time he hears it. He looks at AJ and wants him to talk like the whiny, overgrown teenager he looks like, and then he rumbles out something, and Nick has to take another look.
"Invite me along, then," says Nick, aiming a few mock punches at him.
AJ rolls his eyes, but he really can't keep from grinning, and Nick smiles right along with him.
"Where are we going?" Nick asks as they ride in AJ's car.
"Some club this chick invited me to," says AJ.
The club is in the Flatiron District. Nick recognizes most of the Giants offensive line among the attendees. He loses AJ in the crowd five minutes after they enter.
Five minutes after that, Nick's got a couple girls interested in him. New York is a baseball town, and even a newcomer who probably saw his best month of the year already is aces.
He catches a glimpse of AJ later in the night, pressed up against a woman in the corner, the line of neck picked up by a dim halogen light.
Nick can't say why he ends up going out with AJ again. AJ doesn't talk much, and he parties with the kind of single minded intensity that Nick leaves the ball club to get away from, but he ends up talking AJ into another night out after a loss. It wasn't AJ's loss, so he doesn't seem to be too broken up about it, just quiet.
Today was a day game that finished early, but the heat got over 100. Nick came over, dressed in his going out clothes—button down Kenneth Cole shirt over jeans; he doesn't quite feel comfortable in the graphic tees the rest of the guys wear—and then Caddyshack was on TV, and AJ had beer in his fridge, and they settled on AJ's couch.
AJ lives in one of the high rises on the river, with the view of the Palisades out a huge picture window. He's got long light-dampening curtains in all the rooms, though, so he can shut out even afternoon sun if he chooses to sleep so long.
The bar's granite, and well-stocked. The kitchen cabinets, when Nick goes hunting for a water glass, have the heft of hardwood when he opens them.
AJ looks smug. "What were you expecting, a trailer?"
"Well, you do talk like a hick," says Nick.
They watch for a while, trading stories, except during the good parts, but AJ kind of trails off after a while.
"What? What, what, what, what?" Nick asks after the tenth time AJ sighs.
"Huh?" AJ asks back.
"Dude, you're sighing like a fucking freight train over there. It's Caddyshack, not Schindler's List."
AJ looks at him for a couple seconds. It's disconcerting. AJ's got blue eyes, but calling them that doesn't do them justice. They're like the sky on the most perfect day of spring baseball, cold and warm all at once. "Roy got another win," he says. His Arkansas accent gets more pronounced if he's had even one beer, and now they're each down three.
"Halladay?" Nick asks.
"Fuck it," says Nick. "Let's go out."
"It's hot as balls out there." AJ reaches forward for another beer. "You go."
He glances over again, and Nick looks back. "No," he says. "I'll stay."
In June Roy injures his groin and gets put on the DL. AJ calls him, but makes sure it's when he's gonna be out. He and Roy got each other through a lot of injuries when they were in Toronto together, but now AJ's got this weird superstition, like he's gotten away from his bad luck there, and if he calls Roy, he'll catch it again. It was never Roy the press called "fragile."
Funny, AJ thought the weirdness would be when they were on the same team. Then he was always watching himself carefully, studiously looking away when Roy was changing, in case his eyes lingered too long and his expression gave something. Those same thoughts didn't seem to worry Roy much. Roy looked where he wanted to, and didn't look where he didn't want to, and he was so much king of the pitching staff that he could do whatever he wanted.
AJ remembers months of sitting next to Roy, thinking that if Roy didn't touch him, just then, that if he couldn't just lay his knee to rest against Roy's, he might die. But he never did. He got up and pitched, through a fog of longing and pain from injuries that never quite healed before a new one took could form.
He didn't mean to, the first time. After a loss, the only thing different about Roy was that the white-toothed grin wasn't there, just his game face, the concentrated frown as if he were a surgeon stitching up a difficult gash, or at least that's what AJ thought of when he looked at him.
He leaned his leg against Roy's like he'd been daring himself to do for a year and half, and said, "Come over."
That was all it took. Roy was up for it—more than up for it. It turned into a thing where he'd grin and fuck AJ stupid, and they'd go back to the ball park the next day and AJ didn't have to worry about leaning his leg against Roy's when they waited for their turn. Roy wanted it.
The pitching staff was a slippery balance, him, Towers, Lilly, Roy. AJ played his jokes and pulled his pranks. He threw great games, games he could walk away from with a grin and no backward glance, at least not until it was time to look at tape and scouting reports again and see how, exactly, he'd gotten this guy or that guy out. But every time he made a move, everyone looked to Roy to see how they should react. Towers gave interviews, talking about how much he looked up to Roy Halladay. AJ thought about maybe someday having someone talk about him like that.
He never got used to wanting something he couldn't have, not in Florida, begging out loud and in his head for the management to do something, shake that shit up and keep shaking until he could get some goddamn run support, and a bullpen that didn't give away his leads. He didn't get what he wanted but he got what was, at least in retrospect, the next best thing.
You need to forget him, he tells himself the next time he goes out with Nick. Nick is adorable and easy and no kind of competition—everything Roy is not.
In July the Yankees start winning almost every game. They go on bewildering streaks, and Nick feels like he's the only one who can't get a break.
Except there's also AJ, pitching awesomely, and still racking up no decisions. It's not fair, but AJ's making the best of it, throwing pies in the faces of walk off winners, making everyone love him. Including Nick. He's not sure when this turned from "hey, you're hot" into a full blown crush. Because AJ can still be a total dick if you get in his way on the wrong day.
But it gets so they're going out together almost every night. Sometimes it's a big group, sometimes it's just the two of them.
Here's how it almost happens. They're squeezed in tight in a meatpacking district bar, girls everywhere. Girls who start to notice just who it is they're rubbing against. Nick's ready to take all comers, but AJ starts to look a little trapped. It surprises Nick, who never thought that AJ had a mood between cheery and slyly joking, and pissed off and hitting things, but AJ's uncomfortable, and it isn't until they get out on the street that it looks like AJ can breathe again.
"Goddamn," he says when they're out on the cobblestone streets again, and AJ relaxes back into that swaybacked slouch. It doesn't bring him down to Nick's height, but it does take a couple inches off. "New York, jeez," he says, rubbing his fingers across his forehead.
It's never bothered Nick for a moment, but he puts his hand on AJ's back. "Yeah, that was crowded."
"Sometimes I just wish I could get in my car, and drive for a while, but, fuck, it takes an hour just to get it out of the garage."
Nick's truck is in a garage somewhere, but he hasn't even thought about it since he showed up here. "You should," says Nick. "I'll go with you if you want."
They walk back to Nick's apartment, because it's closer, and watch the boats passing on the Hudson. AJ starts talking, about pitches and baseball, and the cars he likes. Nick sits facing him, leaning on the arm of his couch, facing toward AJ, while AJ looks out the window.
His toes are about an inch from AJ's denim-covered thigh. "Dude, your feet stink," says AJ, shoving them away from him. Nick puts them back, and AJ shoves him off again. AJ rough-houses with him all the time when they're in the club house, pushing Nick face down into the couches, trying to drown him in the pool, but he seems a little reticent here.
Nick pokes at AJ with his feet again, and then AJ starts tickling him, and gets him in a headlock and pushes him down into the couch cushions, and Nick's beating back against him, laughing breathlessly, not caring what parts of AJ's body his hands make contact with, when he manages to flip around and his face is just a breath away from AJ's. They don't stay that way longer than it takes to blink, and then AJ says, voice deep enough that Nick can feel it as much as hear it, "You gonna keep your feet to yourself?"
"I'll think about it," says Nick, not adding not if you keep doing that, I won't.
AJ finds an excuse to leave soon after. It's 2am; they have a day game the next day.
That time Nick was pretty sure AJ just didn't quite believe what Nick was offering, and didn't quite know how to take him up on it. It's a little hard for Nick to understand—if a guy wants to fuck around with other guys in the major league, it's pretty easy, plus, AJ doesn't seem like the sort to deny himself—but you never know. Some guys have religion. Some guys have macho. Some guys just have a vision of themselves that doesn't include getting off with other guys.
Next, time, though, he's pretty sure that's not it. It's after a game when he had a home run and a double, so he's feeling pretty good. AJ started a couple days ago. Midway through the rotation he's got this nice, slack attitude, far enough away from his previous start not to be thinking about it too much, and not too close to his next one to be getting into his head about it.
He high-fives Nick at the locker room entrance, and as soon as his back is turned, Nick leaps on AJ's back and AJ's legs start to buckle but then he's carrying him around the locker room like Nick's on a pony ride. Nick makes a kind of whipping motion, and AJ goes for a run and dumps him into the hot tub, full uniform on and everything. Fucker.
He stands over Nick, looking winded and pleased with himself, until Nick starts windmilling his arms at AJ, throwing hot water at him, and AJ jumps back like a scalded cat. CC's walking by, and he shoves AJ into the hot tub, looking so very casual that Nick has to laugh. AJ comes to the surface with an enormous splash, sputters and pushes his hair back. He starts stalking toward Nick, an unholy grin on his face.
Nick doesn't notice that they're alone in the room until AJ backs him into the corner of the tub. It's really fucking hot. AJ's face is all red, and Nick doesn't know what he has in mind, so he starts splashing. AJ grabs his wrists and has him pinned. He says, "You're gonna pay for that," in a low, low voice that Nick really wants to read something into. He feels something against his leg. AJ's hard, that fucker, and not worried if Nick knows it. This time it's Nick's turn to shimmy away.
"Yeah, well, I won't hold my breath," he says.
He catches AJ giving him a curious look when he's putting on his jacket to leave the stadium.
After another night out in New York, this time at this swanky club that weirdly also had all these colorful Japanese video games, ones that require dancing and punching, and have a weird cuteness mixed in with their violence, there's another corner, another weird, smug grin from AJ, and it falls into place. AJ's teasing him. That's weird, even given the sizeable amount of fucking around that goes on between baseball guys. You don't turn it down when it's offered, not when you clearly want it. And he's not hesitating because they're team—not with that knowing smile before he tipped his head back and took a sip of his beer.
They do go for that drive on the next off day. It's a night game, Monday off, but they have to fly that night to make it in for a day game on Tuesday, so AJ gets his car out of the garage, and picks up Nick at his apartment. They fight through the Lincoln tunnel, and then out onto 80, and keep driving until they're half way across Pennsylvania.
They don't talk much. AJ puts Nick in charge of music with the growled command, "No country," and since he's working from AJ's iPod, he can't even sneak something in there. The sun gets high in the sky but they're driving through forested hills that almost remind Nick of West Virginia.
They stop for hash browns and eggs at a diner. AJ steals an extra piece of bacon from Nick's plate. "You're from Arkansas. How can you not like country?" Nick finally asks.
"I'm from Arkansas," says AJ, deadpan. "I've heard all the country I ever need to."
There are a bunch of tourist brochures in the entrance of the diner. AJ picks up one for white water rafting, and puts it into Nick's hands. "We should do this," he says. It's still early, and breakfast is sitting heavily in Nick's stomach, but he's here for what AJ wants today. AJ looks like he can finally breathe. He's fine at the stadium, fine when they're traveling, but sometimes New York seems to grind him down. He needs room to stretch out that six and a half foot arm span.
Nick's sure, even as they drive toward the rafting shop that he won't have to actually get in a raft. They'll be booked up, all the trips will last too long to make it back to catch tonight's flight, something, but when they get there a trip leaves a noon, it's only half full, and they'll be back on the road by three. They planned to get back late.
"Class 4 rapids," says Nick, skimming through the lengthy hold harmless agreement.
AJ grins crazily. "Isn't it great?"
"That's not waterfalls and shit, is it?"
"Nah, that's class 5. Don't worry about it."
"This isn't against our contracts, is it?"
AJ shrugs. One of the store employees hands him a life vest and he puts it on, but doesn't zip it up. It's ridiculously short on his long torso, and Nick grins at him. "It's not against my contract. Mine just had stuff about getting a single room on the road, and how I should be aware that when we play NL teams I might have to hit." He executes this full body shudder that's only half a put on.
"Some people hit and throw," says Nick, as he signs the waiver. AJ's given him an out, but there's no way he's not going now. He'll wear the helmet they provide. It's gonna be fine.
"Not everyone can be CC," AJ allows.
"Or me," says Nick, puffing up his chest.
"Or you. Thank God for that."
It's hot out on the river. AJ and Nick sit in front. There's a family with twin twelve year old boys in the back who don't seem to recognize Nick or AJ. Nick's a little disappointed about that, but AJ looks like he hasn't given it any thought. He's smiling a lot, wide and friendly, shaking hands, but he gives Nick a grin of pure evil when he slings his leg over the boat's pontoon. They're supposed to sit like this and row—it doesn't seem like the most way to get his oar in the water, but they don't have to do much for the first half hour, just watch the sun-dappled trees go by.
They stop at the top of a course of rapids. "Are those class 4?" Nick asks. He's been asking every time they go over a rock or the water gets even a little white. "Bragging rights," he says in explanation when the guide hesitates for a moment.
"They're like 3.5," he says. "There's a nice deep channel right there you can float down in your life vest if you want."
He goes first and demonstrates, toes pointed downstream, bouncing around hummocks in the water, and eddying in a shady pool at the bottom. AJ goes next, and not as gracefully, the water keeps wanting to turn him into the rocks, but he comes out in the same place, whooping when he goes over the last rapid. He brushes his hair out of his face so it stands up, spiky and unruly. The cold water makes his tattoos stand out starkly against his pale skin.
It's fall when they go back to Toronto. AJ's been getting quieter as the days until his start grow fewer. He does his shoulder exercises and high-fives guys in the dugout, but instead of talking to Wang or CC or one of the bullpen guys when he's sitting there, he just watches the game, turning over a spare ball in his hand.
His start is against Roy. He's never mentioned if he's glad or not to be facing Roy again, to get another chance. The boos are quieter this time, although there are still some signs. Canadians don't hold grudges like Americans do, it looks like. Nick watches while AJ gives an interview in the YES booth, mumbling out his answers. He's not totally silent on the days he has a start like Nick's heard Halladay is—sometimes he clowns around in the club house, engages in music wars with Nick—but today he speaks in a barely audible monotone, and few words at that.
He pitches seven innings of one run ball, retiring batter after batter, ten strike outs, and some surely Wang-inspired ground outs, but Roy pitches nine of no-run ball, and AJ gets the loss. Nick smacks him on the back and AJ comes back into the dugout after handing the game ball over to Joe. He doesn't even react. He stays out enough to confirm that the bullpen isn't going to turn this into a no-decision for him, but disappears before Nick's back in the visitors' clubhouse.
Nick has dinner with Damon and CC, but no one wants to go out, and so he falls asleep watching SportsCenter in his hotel room, curled up in a wad of blankets. Usually he sleeps deeply enough that it takes some noise to wake him, but he's awake at 2am for no reason he can think of. He never closed the blinds, but Toronto doesn't stay as bright as New York. He yawns and gets up to close them and turn off the lowly flickering TV, which has turned to shouty infomercials, when he hears the light knock on the door.
He peers out. It's AJ, made distorted and small by the strange reverse telescope of the peep hole. He opens the door.
AJ walks in. He's wearing a threadbare gray Property of Toronto Blue Jays t-shirt, touchably soft and worn thin enough that Nick can see the dark circles of his nipples through the fabric, the dip of his belly button.
AJ runs his hands through hair already mussed and spiky. "Sorry, man, I . . ." Nick puts a hand on his arm and beckons him in.
AJ glances at the TV and slumps down on the floor on the foot of the bed. His knees are draw up and he's resting his elbows on them, as if he wants to rest his head on them too, curl up into a little ball of sadness. The fine gold hairs on his arms are standing up, the flesh goose-bumped. Nick pulls one of the blankets off his bed and puts it around AJ's shoulders. He lies down on his stomach facing the TV so his head is near AJ's.
"You pitched a really good game tonight."
"Not good enough," says AJ, no self-recrimination in his voice, just the plain fact. "If I'd gone nine . . ."
Nick's seen this with CC, a pitcher taking every moment of the game onto himself. It's easy to do, standing out there, alone and elevated, the TV cameras recording every twitch and grimace. Then AJ smiles up at Nick. "Some run support would have killed you?"
Nick hits him on the shoulder. The shirt is as soft as it looks. Nick plucks at it, for an excuse to keep touching it and him. "You know, the Yankees have enough money to buy you your own equipment."
AJ looks down on it, and Nick sees a number that's not AJ's 34 written in permanent marker on the hem. That's 32, Roy Halladay's number. The rumors, and whispers, and AJ's odd behavior fall suddenly into place. "A special souvenir, huh?" Nick asks quietly, his fingers still looped into the fine gray fabric. "What's wrong? You can tell me."
AJ never tells him anything, though. He seems more revealing than the other pitchers, because he doesn't hide his emotions under a smile like CC, or under a language barrier like Wanger, but he never talks about much besides pitching and girls, cars and AV equipment.
"Yeah," says AJ, with a short laugh. Nick's fingers are still there on his bicep, toying with the edge of his shirt. That's already over whatever tenuous line is drawn between them. AJ's free to ignore the gesture, but Nick doesn't imagine he reads it for anything other than it is: an offer of whatever kind of comfort AJ needs.
Then AJ reaches up and pulls Nick's face to him, for an awkward over the edge of the bed kiss. There's tongue and enough heat that Nick feels his face flush. Maybe AJ's doing this just 'cause it's easier for AJ than talking, but Nick'll take it.
They break for just long enough for AJ to make it onto the bed.
Then AJ is rubbing up against him, and Nick's got his tongue in AJ's mouth and his hand down his shorts, and AJ's rubbing him over his shorts. The friction of the smooth, sweat-wicking cloth under AJ's huge, hard fingers is enough to get him off just a second after AJ does.
"Why'd you wait so long?" Nick asks. Refreshingly, AJ doesn't seem like he plans on freaking out. He lies close enough to Nick that their arms are touching and his leg is looped lazily around Nick's. "It's not like you couldn't tell I was up for it?" It's not like I couldn't tell you were too.
AJ doesn't answer but leans over and starts running his tongue over Nick's nipple, so Nick leaves off thinking too much, and files that question in with all the other questions that AJ brought with him tonight, woven into the fabric of a shirt that wasn't his, that he took off carefully before Nick could peel it off of him and risk damaging it.
AJ only remembers his dreams occasionally, and he certainly doesn't dream about pitching. Other aspects of baseball yes, the interviews, the travel. Before high leverage games these dreams take on an anxious edge, he's missing a plane, he's telling secrets in an interview, calling someone an asshole in the media—that one has a historical savor that means he wakes up remembering the dream all mixed in with the truth of him being asked to leave the Marlins and never come back.
He wakes next to Nick in the earliest hour of sunrise, with the horizon just purpling outside the hotel window. Nick snores gently, sleeping too heavily to worry about things like blackout curtains. AJ gets up to close them.
He dreamed of Roy, tossing in the bullpen next to him at Spring Training, before the games even started. That was it, just throwing at seventy percent velocity. In the dream Zaun was catching both of them. It shouldn't have been a bad dream. It shouldn't have made him wake, feeling like he'd been flattened by one of those pitches at full strength. He doesn't want to dream about Roy.
He used to know where to find Roy after a start. Used to be Roy'd fall asleep early then AJ would crawl in next to him and wake him up with a blowjob. Used to be they'd have some of their best sex in that sleepy dark. In the quiet early morning hours they didn't talk or feel the need to. He remembered them both kneeling on the bed, facing each other, just breathing the same air for a moment, the muscles in Roy's stomach fluttering against AJ's hand.
Roy wasn't home when AJ knocked after the game, and he wasn't sleeping either, because AJ wasn't too proud to call the apartment phone and listen to it ring ten times before it went to voicemail.
He should leave now, leave Nick sleeping and sneak back to his own room before anyone else wakes up. The sneaking back is the danger time. He used to leave it too long with Roy, lying half-asleep next to him listening to him breathe. Roy frowned in his sleep a lot, but he never talked about what he dreamed.
If he goes back to his own room, he won't sleep, he'll watch the sunrise and then order room service the moment the kitchen opens and watch ESPN until it's time to go back to the ballpark. Nick looks warm and comfortable. His hair is growing back in from that ridiculous faux-hawk haircut, still longer on top, but the edges brush over the tops of his ears.
Nick makes a nest of the blankets when he sleeps, but this nest has a cutout for AJ. He's still gonna leave, because that's what you do when you just hooked up with a teammate because you're upset about former hookups with a former teammate (not that AJ has done anything much like this before, but it seems right) when Nick says, very clearly, "Come back to bed."
Nick doesn't remember waking up the next day when AJ mentions it.
Nick hits home runs from both sides of the plate the next day. He's in the visitors' locker room standing next to AJ, because they always claim lockers near each other, and he says, "You know what this means, don't you?"
AJ actually blushes, and says, "Yeah, well, that's not so bad, is it?" his voice an octave lower than usual.
AJ does give Nick a blowjob again the next night, fingers pressing into spots he's usually too shy to tell people he likes, long pitchers' fingers working as much magic as his tongue. He only goes one for three the next day, but a hit is a hit, and Nick's happy to call it a streak if it means that AJ will keep coming back to his room.
The only thing that changes besides their nights hanging out together ending in sex rather than frustration is AJ stops tackling him in the clubhouse, giving him noogies when he has a good game, and generally acting like an annoying older brother.
"You two fighting or something?" CC asks when Nick's sitting next to him after striking out.
"What?" Nick's still replaying the pitches in head. This is something CC does, works through everything in his head so it makes perfect sense and then comes out with a total non sequitor to someone who hasn't been in on the conversation. Which is everyone. Nick explains this to him in great detail. "It's good, though, you know, because I say every fucking thing that comes into my head. If you did also, we couldn't be friends."
"So you're not?"
"Fighting with Burnett. It's been like a week since you pantsed him right before the reporters came into the locker room."
That was AJ's fault for leaving his belt and fly undone, the waistband of his khakis hanging off his narrow hips like an invitation. "Nah, we're not fighting." It was something else entirely. Spending every night together for a week was not fighting. It was wonderful and hot and habit-forming, but not fighting.
CC looks at him curiously and Nick pretends to be studying the video of the Seattle pitcher's pick-off move very carefully.
So this is what it's like. Winning the AL fucking DS. As soon as the theatrics on the field are done they're charging into the locker room, and then it's more champagne than AJ's ever seen in one place before. Mountains of cases. The reporters crowd in too, but there's an agreement that they won't print anything too nasty.
AJ sat on the bench, questioning his decision to stay here and see if they could win it in three, rather than going right away to his father's hospital room. Leaving tonight he'd still see his dad before the surgery. Bypasses are pretty routine these days, his mom told him. His dad wanted him to stay, which is what he told all the reporters, so they wouldn't think he was a heel either.
And they did make it in three. Melky's got a pair of goggles on already. He sticks out his tongue at Nick between his fingers, and Nick returns the salute. The organization brought in guys to open the champagne but of course that lasts for all of two seconds before the players plunge in and start taking. Nick's the first to shake one up, and he sprays it CC, who grins up at the ceiling, champagne dripping off his hair.
"Yo, AJ," says Nick, and he tosses him a bottle.
"Flyin' out tonight," says AJ.
"What?" Nick yells. He sprays AJ with the champagne. "You can take a shower before you go. You're not gonna sleep anyway." It doesn't sound like he means anything by it, but he glances at AJ, and suddenly it seems like a really good idea to make it mean something more. Nick passes him one bottle and toasts it with another. "Come on man, we won the ALDS."
"You've won the ALDS before," says AJ.
Nick brushes that off, although AJ's sure he would have been just as enthusiastic then "Yeah, but you haven't," he says.
AJ takes a swig and Nick throws his head back and laughs.
It's not long before AJ's soaked head to toe. He keeps Nick always in his peripheral vision as he talks to reporters and hugs the guys. A-Rod hugs him long and hard, and even Jorge gives him a friendly shoulder grab, but AJ keeps looking at his watch. His car's coming in less than an hour, and the party isn't showing any signs of dying down.
Nick's there again, with a reporter in tow. "Come on, give it to me, Burnett," he says, grabbing AJ's arm.
"What?" Wanting to say not here, dude.
Nick tips his head back and opens his mouth.
Oh, champagne. AJ pours some onto Nick's waiting tongue. "Your such a fuck up," he says after the reporter gets his picture.
Nick pulls him in close for a champagne soaked hug. "What did you think I meant?" he asks.
"I have to go soon," says AJ, a little desperately.
AJ's not quite himself during the celebrating, even when Nick dumps a beer over him. "When do you have to go?"
AJ glances at his watch. "Half-hour, maybe."
"That's just enough time," Nick says. He grins. He's buzzing nicely, and even if AJ continues to blow him off, it's been a good night. Someone's gonna be up for something tonight, and he's never pretended he and AJ are exclusive.
AJ looks off balance and hesitant, the way he has all night, the way he does after a great start that wasn't his. Nick thinks that's why he loves the pie in the face thing so much—it lets him celebrate.
A slow smile grows over AJ's face. "Okay, yeah."
There are reporters everywhere, and some guys actually using the trainers' rooms, so they rush along, with AJ palming Nick's ass surreptitiously until they find an empty office. AJ locks and wedges the door. "I think it's a scout's," says Nick as he pulls AJ's face down to his.
"I'm so glad you decided not to be a dick tonight," says Nick, because he can't stop talking, ever, and right now he's going to talk himself out of some ass. Or would, except that this is AJ, and he's pretty single-minded once he's decided to get laid.
"What?" says AJ, and it comes out low, in what Nick thinks of as his sex voice. He licks a drop of champagne off Nick's neck. "I'm always a dick."
It's not fair that AJ's mush-mouthed drawl makes Nick so hard, but at least now he's here to take care of it. He undoes Nick's belt and leans Nick up against the desk. Then he sinks to his knees and kind of leans in, the short soft hair of his buzz cut tickling across Nick's stomach.
Nick really thought he'd bring AJ back here and take care of him, but with AJ's mouth on him it's not gonna take too long, and it really doesn't before AJ's lips and mouth and the maddening scrape of stubble along Nick's thigh and he's grabbing for some purchase on the slippery surface of AJ's hair while he comes.
AJ stands and grabs the champagne bottle from the desk and takes a swig before kissing him again. "I thought you weren't celebrating," says Nick.
"I am now." He looks at his watch again, regretfully. "I gotta go."
"Don't you want—?"
AJ flaps his hands. "Something to look forward to, right?"
Nick laughs. "You want to be thinking of this when you're in this hospital?"
AJ makes a face that makes Nick laugh even more. "Um, I think I will be either way."
"Well, then." He pushes his hand against the front of AJ's uniform pants and AJ rubs against him.
"Okay, quickly though."
But they still end up on the floor because AJ has some constitutional inability to remain upright while receiving a blowjob. He should look ridiculous lying on the cheap carpet with his shirt hiked up and his pants around his knees, exposing his white, muscled thighs, but he's so totally gone, so totally in Nick's hands that it's at least as hot as it is funny. He makes noises when Nick slides his tongue over his dick that come from the same place in his throat that his voice comes from.
Nick's mostly hard again when AJ finishes. AJ stands up and fishes his pants up from around his ankles. "Uh, thanks," he says, running his hand over the back of his head, same thing he does between innings of a bad start.
"Your Dad's gonna be fine," says Nick.
"I know." AJ looks at his feet for a sec, and Nick wonders if he's about to apologize for ignoring Nick for a month. "Uh, I'll see you later."
"Sure will, buddy," says Nick as AJ walks away.
AJ's Dad was fine, but his World Series starts aren't. It's worse than awful. It is the worst fucking day of his life. Game 5. Chances are even that the World Series is blown and he's the one who blew it. In the club house he shrugs off any attempt to comfort him.
He goes home and drinks a whole bottle of shitty whiskey, a housewarming present from some hanger on who couldn't care less. He passes out on his couch.
He wakes up sometime after just before dawn when the sky outside his window has the faintest blue cast over the New Jersey skyline. He's still more than half drunk, and his mouth tastes like someone's used jock has been sitting in it all night. Before he can stop to think, he picks up his iPhone from the bedside table and dials. His fingers don't hesitate over the numbers—he's called Roy in worse straits than this.
Roy won't thank him for waking him this time of day, but he answers on two rings, voice calm, and if not friendly, at least not angry either. "I wondered when you'd call," he says mildly, after AJ kind of whines out his name.
"You won't call me after good starts, Roy continues, "but a bad one—you just have to make yourself feel worse, don't you?"
"I wish you were here," says AJ. They used to fuck after good starts, bad starts, any starts. Fuck to celebrate and fuck to forget. Forget a team that never made it far enough, forget any sentiment that leaked out when it shouldn't, forget winning, forget losing.
"I know," says Roy. "Just like I know you'd hate me if you had to see me right now."
That's more than Roy's ever admitted to understanding about AJ before, and AJ wonders if he's drunk too, if he started drinking when AJ started losing and waited up all night for his call.
There's nothing more to say. Roy's not here, and AJ's not there, and even if they were together, it wouldn't matter. The year apart, the miles, the choices AJ's made and Roy made differently won't let them cross between.
Plus there's Nick. He's crazy and silly and winning and impossible to pin down. AJ doesn't wake up in the morning thinking about him like he did, does with Roy, but when he does he smiles. In fact, he almost smiles now, the loss gone for just a moment.
"Sleep," says Roy as it descends upon him again. "Set an alarm. Don't forget to go to the ball park." He doesn't add: look sad. Grimace and nod when the other guys say it's okay, but AJ knows how to do that already. He doesn't have to be told to wear it.
"Yeah," he says, resting his cheek against the cool glass surface of the phone. "Yeah."
He wakes up several hours later, just in time to get up, shower, chug a red bull, and drag himself up to the ball park for the day's practices. No game today, but they still have to show up and pretend.
AJ watches Andy pitch game 6 and feels every one of his pitches as if the ball is coming out of his hand. They've gotta win this—if they do, AJ's bad start will just be an embarrassing footnote. If they don't, AJ's gonna be the one who ruined the Yankees' chances, because that's how the New York press is.
Andy's doing well, and the guys are scoring runs—Nick in his high socks and tight pants molding to the compact body that AJ's started to feel a certain proprietary something for—so AJ can just keep a handle on his nervousness. And then they're winning it all, proof positive, detractors will say, that you can buy a championship. AJ doesn't mind being for sale if it feels like this, higher than anything, hugging all the guys, pouring champagne over each other with enough practice this time that they've learned how to aim the sprays and soak one another on the first try.
Nick shakes the champagne out of his hair like a dog shaking off a rainstorm. He's been hitting home runs and doubles like the pressure means nothing, chugging Red Bull until he can't stop talking, and he's doing it now, shouting out something—AJ can only hear one word in three, and half of those are "awesome"—but AJ's hugging and shouting along with him.
He cups his ear and mouths, "I can't hear you," for cover, if anyone is watching and not so caught up in their own celebration that they'd care, then grabs Nick by the upper arm to steer him out into one of the private spaces. The trainers' rooms aren't in use, and just to be sure, AJ locks the door and shoves a doorstop under it, in case someone comes by with a key.
He shoves Nick up against the trainer's table so he's half sitting on it, bringing him almost up to AJ's height. Then he licks the champagne off Nick's lips and pulls him out so he can jack him off, and Nick's hands are busy too, and they're there rubbing against each other when AJ's iPhone vibrates in his pocket. He's sure it's Roy, doing the good guy thing and calling with congratulations.
It doesn't stop him but it does feel like suddenly Roy's in the room, watching them, clothes half on, half off, drunk on success and shaking with adrenaline. When Nick comes he always sort of loses himself in it, so AJ's by himself for a moment, rubbing his dick into the crease where Nick's thigh meets his hip. Then Nick comes back enough to say, "We did it, we did it," against AJ's mouth as he strokes him off.
He's still breathing hard, hands tacky on Nick's skin with the drying champagne when Nick says, "When I get that ring, I'm never taking it off. Hope you don't mind bein' jacked off with a little metal."
"Sounds hot," says AJ. He sucks a bruise into the hollow of Nick's shoulder, where his shirt will hide it.
The transition from November baseball into the off-season is always a jarring one. Sure, it's better to be in the playoffs than watching other men get to play the baseball you still wish you were playing, even though by October every ache and pain has come home to roost, but unlike when he's sat October out, there's not transition for AJ between playing and not. It's high stakes and high drama, cold fingers and overheated parties, and then it's over. A chilly parade down the streets of New York, feeling underdressed, even in a suit, and then everyone parts ways, see ya in February.
As soon as AJ gets back to Florida he calls Roy back, and this time he's still high enough on the win to feel magnanimous about what did or didn't happen in Toronto this time.
"Hey," says Roy when AJ gets through to him. They talk about the World Series for a little bit. Roy wants to talk about the other Yankee pitchers, and AJ's happy enough just to feel like they're on the same side for a moment that he goes with it for a few minutes anyway.
"Hey, we don't play for the same team anymore," he has to say when Roy makes some very specific observation about Pettitte's curveball.
There's a pause while AJ wonders if that's true in more ways than one. Then Roy makes one of his disbelieving noises. "You know I don't talk to the position players," says Roy.
It's an old joke between them, when AJ came up from Florida and for three months couldn't remember anyone's name who wasn't mentioned regularly on SportsCenter. He's not proud of that.
"I'm gonna be down in your part of Florida to see some folks," Roy tells him. "I could come by."
But somehow they keep putting it off, and when Nick calls and invites AJ up to see him, AJ jumps at the chance.
"Seriously?" says AJ when he steps out of his car. Nick looks at the sleek red thing, and peers under the chasse to see if anything's been torn out. It's dirt roads for the last twenty miles of the trip here. AJ has a lot of cars that would have been better suited to this, a high suspension Land Rover, for instance, that Nick would have loved to take off-roading.
Maybe that's why AJ brought this one. No danger of Nick asking to drive it along a muddy creek bed. No danger either of anyone mistaking AJ for someone who belongs on a farm.
"If I ask for a drink, m'I gonna get a beer, or some moonshine?"
Nick smiles and hugs him, a good guy bear hug, nothing extra in it. "Depends. What do you want? The 'shine's all headed for Kentucky at 4am, so if you want some, speak up?" He's put an exaggerated twang into his voice and he's waiting to see if AJ pulls back or gets into it too. They didn't start that far apart; at some point the Smoky Mountains bleed into the Ozarks, and it's all the same spine of the continent, wooded and country.
The weather stays gloomy all day so they stay inside, watching movie after movie on Nick's big screen. They're going skiing that weekend, but they're both experienced enough at surviving off seasons to know you have to take it slow.
Storms take a while to develop here in the mountains, circling around the valleys as threatening clouds all day before they decide if they're going to be something. This one is something, that rare and magical snowstorm with lightning. The thunder clatters like falling bricks and Nick says, "My grandmother had a story 'bout God playing ninepins."
AJ doesn't say anything, but neither does he give Nick that sharp look of I can't believe I'm here, putting up with this shit. He just takes another pull on his beer, and spills it when the thunder crashes again, and he jumps. The storm boiled up in the afternoon, and now the flakes are falling thick and hard. The snow softens everything, dulls sound, and cuts Nick's house off from his family's, ranged all around the valley.
AJ stands up and goes to the kitchen to find a rag to clean up. There's something nervous about him today. Nick thinks about cats and storms—his are all hiding under the porch, probably—and AJ has that same restless, nervous energy.
AJ can feel the storm coming before it does, boiling up out of the wooded hills, dark green with their pine fur, but sparser than they'd be in the summer. The tension in the air makes the hairs on his arms stand up. Hurricane season in Florida, at least the tail end he catches when he goes home, is nothing like this.
Nick feels lit too, AJ can tell in the way he changes from cheery to anticipatory, like he's got an at bat coming up and he knows the ball is going to come toward him like a grapefruit on a conveyer belt at the grocery, slow and easy and impossible to miss.
To AJ it's more like being the pitcher facing that kind of batter, the trouble waiting no matter what moves he makes.
The storm breaks, thunder and lightning all around, and flakes of snow that turn to hailstones the size of gravel.
He paces in front of the huge picture window that looks out over the valley. Before the storm came up, he could see the road stretching into town, sandy red, the convenience store on the outskirts, its red sign advertising Coke and half price Skoal.
"What?" Nick finally asks. He's been talking about storms before this, getting caught out in his dad's truck that he wasn't supposed to be borrowing and hailstones the size of shooter marbles coming down.
AJ sits back down next to him, resting his elbows on his knees. "I don't know," he says. He's not thinking about Roy, he's not, but he is too, even though there's nothing here that should remind him, and that's why he came in the first place. "Just jumpy, I guess."
Nick, of course, has a good way to deal with that, and he climbs on top of AJ on the couch. "I lost my virginity in a storm like this," he says, which AJ takes as a sign.
"You could fuck me," he offers. Even with the thunder and the clatter of hail, there's a moment of silence while that hangs out there.
"Yeah," says Nick. "I mean, yeah, I wasn't sure if—whatever. Sure, definitely."
AJ laughs of that, but of course he wasn't sure. It was stupid to deny himself for so long, but since—well, it was stupid.
"Do you have . . .?" Nick asks.
Nick's a talkative fuck, but of course AJ knew that. There's a lot of is this okay? How about that? Yeah. And then less coherent once they're going at it. AJ has to spread his legs wide to get low enough for Nick's shorter ones. "Next time I'll stand on a phone book or something," he says, laughing, talking loud over the wind and the storm. "You're too damn tall."
"Never had any complaints before," AJ growls.
AJ fucks his hand against the mattress, head resting on his other forearm, nothing but this, Nick's sounds barely audible over the storm, and his own only audible in his head.
"Hold on," AJ commands. "Think about baseball or something."
He's too far gone to really laugh, but he still wheezes something out and stops moving long enough for AJ to catch up, and then speed past him, shoving his hips back on Nick so he has to come.
"You know that doesn't work for me," he says a little breathlessly after, when he's still inside, leaving sloppy, half-finished kisses on AJ's shoulders. "Never did."
"Yeah, I know, me neither."
When the storm clears, the sun hasn't even set yet. Nick had some venison steaks defrosting all day from the previous fall's hunting, and he grills them up, slipping over the tiny hail ball bearings to bring the food back in. AJ grates some potatoes and onions and makes hash browns and they eat the meat with A1 steak sauce and catsup and more beers until the sun sets for real.
AJ sees Roy when they play Toronto during spring training. He's throwing like it's hurting him, and AJ can hardly bear to see it. It's not age, AJ knows. AJ's arm isn't up to full strength yet, but it has that dancing spring promise, muscles springy and happy to be used after a long rest.
Roy drove to the game so he and AJ could go out, but AJ corrals Nick and CC into coming along as well. He glances as Nick to see if he minds, but Nick's grinning at him, happy as a clam with all these pitchers around. They're his weakness, worse than chocolate or little girls with big eyes, or yet another charity calling, and AJ's learned not to mind.
Tampa has some swanky restaurants, but it's Florida, and north Florida at that, so loafers and flat front khakis, button down short sleeve shirts or polos with just the right logo are all they need to get in. They're not just baseball players, a dime a dozen this time of year, but stars. They eat at a steakhouse that sticks its back deck out into a manmade lake, where they can watch the highway and the cherry cars that drive along it. It's just perfect for AJ. He watches the cars, and Roy sits across from him and watches the sunset through his Oakleys, face giving nothing away, eyes hidden, but Nick's sitting next to him, knee pressed into AJ's.
"Shoulder's barking," Roy admits. "Think I wrenched it playing golf this winter in some charity thing."
"Shouldn't do that," says AJ. "Swish here grows his hair for charity."
Nick grins, ever willing to play along. "Unless someone pulls it while you're running 'round the base paths. I know a lot of little girls who'd love the red."
"So that's the great Doc Halladay," says AJ after they go back to AJ's apartment in the housing complex.
"He's hot," says Nick. "He's a helluva pitcher too. Tempting." He waggles his eyebrows at AJ.
AJ's been peeling off his shirt and now he throws it at Nick so it hits him in the face. "Ah, fuck you," he says with some real heat.
"Now? Really?" Nick asks.
AJ makes a face at him, but it seems to defuse the mood.
"He'll get it back," Nick says, because that's his job, saying what AJ can't. "You'll be able to hate him for being so awesome again."
"Fuck you," AJ says again, with a grin this time instead of the anger.
Nick bites his lower lip. "Don't tease me."
AJ looks him up and down, then says in a voice Nick can feel in his toes, "I'm not."