Kid's game was off.
At age seventeen, he had played since he was old enough to walk and hold a miniature, plastic bat. And while he hadn't always been good, he had never been off. Never sunk below his level of talent, whatever level that might have been at the time.
But Kid's game was seriously off.
He struck out four out of four times at bat, he missed a ball to allow a stolen base, and his aim and arm strength for throwing seemed to have disappeared.
They lost the game, and it was on a run scored by the player who'd stolen second base when Kid fumbled. His teammates were not thrilled, but his coach was furious. And then he had to look up and see his parents and grandfather watching, saw how disappointed they were.
He didn't mind having Jack yell at him, though, or having the coach come as close to cursing him out as he could come without being accused of abuse that could lose him his job. Kid deserved it because he'd messed up.
He deserved it because right then, he was pretty sure he deserved all the abuse anyone wanted to give him. He was even almost tempted to see out Snoddy and provoke him, because Kid was pretty sure getting beaten up would at least give him an excuse to feel so shitty. It certainly couldn't make him feel any worse.
Michael hadn't shown up for school until after history had ended, and Kid was pretty sure that was just so Michael could avoid him. Michael had certainly gone out of his way to avoid him in the halls, and when Kid had finally caught sight of him, Michael was very pointedly looking away.
Kid even tried to say hello to him, but Michael had ignored him and walked away.
It was just focusing on baseball that kept Kid from breaking down. But that wasn't working so well either, because his game was off.
He wasn't a genius by any stretch of the imagination, but even Kid realized that Michael avoiding him and his game being off were probably related.
It was only his grandfather who seemed to let it go. "Everyone has off days," he said with a shrug. "You're overdue for one, by now."
"Yeah, I guess."
"Don't beat yourself up. You work harder than any boy out there. The scouts will notice that."
"Yeah." Kid didn't really want to talk.
Apparently, his grandfather noticed, and gave him a pat on the back. "Well, you'll do better next time. Work hard in practice tomorrow. Get your focus back."
Kid just nodded, and watched as his grandfather walked off, leaning heavily on his cane. He wondered if his grandfather had any regrets about his life.
A week later, Kid was officially in a slump. His aim and his arm came back, mostly, but it was like his reflexes had slowed down. The ball went where he put it, but almost never in time.
And he still had yet to hit anything.
Michael had yet to look at him, let alone speak to him.
Kid had never been one for extreme emotions; he usually kept on an fairly even, happy-go-lucky keel. He had been angry when he'd been outed at school and asked to leave the baseball team, and occasionally vaguely upset when he'd lost a game or missed an easy catch.
But now he was depressed.
He'd never been depressed before, really.
It was after a week when his grandfather finally took him aside to talk again. Kid still didn't want to talk, but he didn't mind being reminded of how badly he was doing. He was almost reveling in being told he sucked, being reprimanded. The coach had threatened to take away his spot as a starter if he didn't shape up.
And Kid knew he deserved it, so he didn't even care.
But that wasn't what his grandfather had in mind, as they sat down in the living room for a late-night chat, right before Kid was heading off to bed.
"Kid..." he sighed. "You haven't been playing so well, the last few games."
"Yeah. I know."
"Everything okay? Or are you just... off your stride?"
"Do you want to talk about it?"
"Talk about what? I know I need to focus, keep my head in the game. It'll pass, you keep saying."
"Talk about what's bothering you. You're not acting like yourself, Kiddo."
Kid swallowed hard. His grandfather hadn't called him Kiddo in years, it had been a childhood nickname. He wondered why his grandfather was using it now.
"I... I'm fine, Gramps. Really."
"Uh huh." His grandfather didn't sound convinced. "Now I may be old, Kiddo, but I'm not stupid and it's not just that you haven't been playing well. You seem upset about something all the time lately."
"You're a baseball player, not an actor, Kiddo. Talk to me."
Kid heard the word 'actor' and his mind immediately turned to Michael, how Michael wanted to be on Broadway... and how Michael wasn't speaking to him. How Kid couldn't blame him.
He took a deep breath.
"There's this boy."
"Oh, one of those slumps."
"Uh... Yeah." Kid didn't say anything else, and waited for the disapproval. Waited to be told about how he should put it out of his mind and focus on playing, improving, his upcoming career...
"Well, tell me about him," his grandfather finally prompted.
Kid hadn't expected that.
"Well, uh, he's... He's real nice. I... I like him a lot. I mean, I think... I like him more than I ever..." He looked helplessly at his grandfather, who nodded a little, understanding. "He, uh. He likes me too."
"Does he know...?"
"Yeah. I... I didn't mean to tell him, I wouldn't have, but we... I mean, we weren't at the mall together, but we were both there, and some guys from... From the old school saw me, started... Well, he helped me out and they told him."
"I see." The word were calm, measured, but not judgmental.
"I mean, I, I told him the truth. Not then, but he got... Beaten up after school last week, and I kind of helped him out, even though I didn't really do anything. I told him the truth after, though."
"I told him how much I like him." Kid wrapped his arms around himself, feeling self-conscious. His family knew he was gay, but after the initial decision that he shouldn't tell anyone, they had never really discussed it. Except for when the letters and the phone calls from school started... But even then, it wasn't like they talked to Kid about his crush. It wasn't like the reassured him that it was really okay that he was gay.
"How did he take it?"
"He took that real well. It was just when I told him I couldn't... When I told him I wasn't willing to be with him that he got upset. Kind of pissed off, I think. He won't talk to me."
"And that's when—"
"He kissed me." Kid clenched his ribcage tight, felt all of his fingers through the t-shirt he was wearing to bed. "I just... I know I can't be with him, I know I have to think about my, my future and all. But I just wish..." He cleared his throat. "Don't worry, I'm keeping... Keeping as focused as I can. It'll pass. Like you said."
"Do you want it to?"
His father looked at him seriously. "Kid, you're seventeen years old. You have a crush and your crush likes you back. You really just want it to go away?"
"It would make things easier."
"But is it what you want?"
"I can't have... I can't have what I want. I can't have it both ways." He let his arms drop, nearly drooped in his seat. "And I want to play."
"And we all want you to," his grandfather said. "But this boy... What's his name?"
His grandfather nodded, not looking surprised. "Michael seems to mean a lot to you."
"So?" Kid asked, kind of bitterly.
"Kid, there's no... If you could be with Michael, would you?"
"And baseball is all that's stopping you?"
"Kid..." His grandfather sighed. "No matter what you do, it won't be easy. You know that. You know how hard you have to work to get what you want."
"I know. I'm not going to let go of... Of everything I've worked for. I'm not."
"Okay, then." Kid's grandfather nodded, seemingly satisfied, but added as an afterthought, "If that's what you want to do."
"What else could I do?"
"Kiddo... You're seventeen years old."
"So any other guy in high school would just ask the boy out. That's what you could do."
"But I can't."
"Who said you can't?"
Kid stared at him. "I... We decided, as a family. I had to change schools."
"And who said it would be easy, Kiddo?"
"I could get... I could get kicked off the team. I want to play." He even ignored how badly he was playing lately. It was still what he wanted to do. Michael's smile couldn't change that... The kiss nearly had, but... Kid shook his head, tried to shake those thoughts out of it. Tried to focus.
But focusing was so hard lately...
"Then you'd better make sure that wouldn't happen."
"It's..." Kid shook his head. "I mean, I'd like... There's no point in talking about it, Gramps. It's impossible."
"Nothing is impossible. Kiddo, do you remember what I told you when you were in... Oh, maybe second grade? Your teacher told you you'd never be able to play baseball, with one blind eye."
Kid shook his head no, but thought. He sort of remembered... he remembered his teacher telling him that. He remembered he started crying on the playground, upset because he just wanted to play like the other kids. And the teachers couldn't get him calmed down, they'd called his home...
"We talked for a long time," his grandfather said. "And I told you the truth. It would be harder for you, being half-blind; it wasn't fair. Life isn't fair, but you can still make the most of what you've got. If you're smart about it, if you work hard, you can still do whatever you want to. But you've got to work hard."
"I did," Kid said, remembering. "After that, I worked hard. I got... I got good."
"And you're still working hard," his grandfather noted. "And I know you won't let anything get in your way. So if you want something else too, then you've got to be—"
"Smart," Kid said. "You have to be smart and work hard.... But... How can I... I mean, how can what I do change how people... How they act?"
"Well, to do that, Kiddo, you need a gameplan."
Sticking with a plan that would take a month to put into effect was hard, Kid realized. Which seemed stupid—after all, he'd been working with a life-long plan before, and a month was nothing next to that. But there were just too many things that could go wrong, and even if he did it perfectly, he had no real guarantee it would work.
Maybe Michael would be over him by then. Maybe Snoddy would find out and kick his ass, too. Maybe he'd get kicked off the baseball team.
But maybe not. And remembering the feeling of Michael's lips against his made him resolute.
Kid had always been focused, had always worked hard. But as he snapped out of his slump he did it so hard people's heads were left spinning. He went from focused to intense to obsessed. Every ball had to be caught, every throw had to be perfect, and every at-bat had to put the ball in play, place it just where Kid wanted it to. And his usual good natured attitude became darker; he never cursed out his teammates when they didn't match his intensity, but god forbid he strike out or miss a throw, because he got downright scary.
But he also got results, so if his teammates noticed his attitude change, they didn't mind it any. He became an example; his coach kept telling players that they should all work so hard, be so dedicated.
The team kept winning, and Kid kept pushing himself.
He had a timeframe to stick to, after all.
A month felt like an eternity, but he had to make the most of every minute. Because if he didn't make himself absolutely indispensable to the team...
He didn't think about that. He just focused on playing.
The poster for Damn Yankees had a picture of Michael wearing a baseball uniform. Kid felt no guilt whatsoever about glancing down the hall to make sure no one was around, peeling the tape off, folding it carefully and putting it in his bag. Michael wearing a baseball uniform was just unfair.
He hung it up in his room next to his mirror and even though his parents thought that was a bit odd, he ignored them.
Besides, Michael had put up another copy of it the next day, so Kid figured no one cared that he'd stolen it.
It was three weeks before he finally managed to get Michael to speak to him again. Michael had given up on avoiding him, as Kid went out of his way to make that impossible, but had managed to avoid having any real contact with him. But the teacher rearranged their seating chart in history, and by some stroke of luck, they were next to each other.
Michael didn't look too happy about it, and spent most of the period staring out the window. But then the teacher had to answer the phone and walked out into the hallway with it, so everyone slacked off and started messing around, and Kid turned to Michael.
"Hey," he said.
"Hi," Michael said flatly.
"Uh... How's your show going? Rehearsals, I mean."
Kid cleared his throat awkwardly. "It goes up next weekend, right? I, uh, saw the poster."
"I... I'd like to see it."
"Don't bother." Michael glared at him for a second then added, "Besides, are you sure you can take so much time away from your game?"
"I can do what I want."
"Yeah, whatever." But then the angry look on Michael's face softened. "I heard a few guys at the theater talking about you. They said you're playing really well, that the team is amazing this year."
"Yeah, we do okay."
And then the bell rang, so that was the end of the conversation. But at least it was something.
Focusing was actually kind of harder, the few days before Kid's plan hit its critical stage. He was nervous and jumpy, which wasn't exactly conducive to playing well, but Kid just plain refused to play badly. And anyway, baseball calmed him down and nerves slid away as soon as he stepped on to the field.
They won their game on Friday. Saturday, they had a morning practice, and Saturday evening, Damn Yankees opened. Kid showered after practice, made sure he looked presentable and not like he'd been sliding around in the mud—which he had—and fastened his necklace in place.
He had time to kill. A few hours.
Lunch didn't keep him occupied long, because he wasn't hungry. He was too nervous to be hungry. He got the month's issue of Sports Illustrated at the local grocery store and read through it in his car, trying to calm himself down. Then he chucked it into the backseat, headed back into the grocery store, and bought a bouquet of a dozen roses, set them gently in the passenger seat, and dialed Jack on the cell phone his parents made him carry, since he had such a long drive every day.
"Yo," Jack said, and Kid could hear the TV in the background. "Blink, what's up?"
"Can you do me a favor?"
"Uh... Yeah, sure, I guess. What do you need?"
"I need you to go to a show with me tonight."
"I need you to go to a show with me tonight." He coughed. "Not in a gay way, shut up."
Jack laughed. Kid shrugged off the feeling that 'not in a gay way' was kind of a lie. "Uh... What show?"
"Damn Yankees. It's at the Firehouse in, like, an hour."
"Why do you want—"
"There's something after I want to show you. Okay?"
"Uh..." He knew Jack well enough to know Jack was making a face, trying to think of a good excuse. "This is some stupid musical, isn't it?"
"Jack, come on. It's a couple hours. I'll pay."
"Well... Fine. But you owe me. Musical theater is not exactly my idea of a good time."
"Thanks, Jack. I'll meet you there, okay?"
"Yeah, sure. Ya weirdo."
Jack hung up. Kid sank back in the driver's seat of his car, a little relieved, but now even more nervous.
He was actually going through with it.
Oh dear god.
The show was cheesy, Kid decided. It wasn't really the fault of the cast, who were mostly excellent, but really, musical theater wasn't Kid's thing anymore than it was Jack's. But Michael was captivating—as Kid had expected—and since this clearly was Michael's thing, Kid didn't mind any.
The show ended, the curtains closed, then reopened for a curtain call. The applause echoed off the walls of the tiny theater and Michael positively beamed as he came out for his bow. Kid applauded loudly and as the cast shuffled back off the stage, reached for the bouquet under his seat.
Jack gave him a skeptical look. "Please tell me that's for the hot singing chick," he said. "If you just needed moral support to ask her out, buddy..."
Kid cleared his breath. "Not quite."
"Uh, well... Then can we get going?"
"Not quiet yet."
"Kid, this is real weird. What's going on?"
"Just wait a minute, okay?"
Jack grumbled and slumped in his seat, and they waited for the cast to make its way back out into the theater. Kid watched Michael's family greet him, saw Michael grin and beam and bounce on his feet, looking hyper. Kid stood up, holding the flowers tightly. "Come on."
"Kid..." Jack shook his head. "Tell me you're not..."
"Just... Stand there and watch and chill out, okay?"
"Yeah, but this is..."
Kid shot him a quick glare and Jack shut up and stood quietly, while Kid made his way through the crowd of people congratulating Michael, careful not to let the flowers get crushed. And then the last person stepped out of his way, and he and Michael were face to face.
"Hi," Kid said.
"Hi," Michael answered.
Kid held out the flowers. "For you. You're real good."
"...Thanks," Michael said, then, "Look, Kid, I appreciate it and all, but you don't have to—"
"Michael, would you like to go out for dinner with me tomorrow night?"
Michael stared at him. Stared.
"This is a joke, right?" Michael said slowly.
Kid shook his head. "I really like you, Michael."
And then Jack was there, and he was kind of gaping too. "Blink, I coulda sworn I just heard you... Did you just ask him out?"
Jack stared. Kid turned his attention to Michael. "So, uh... Would you? Go out with me?"
"I..." He looked at Kid, then looked at Jack. "You're serious about this? You mean you're actually..." He cleared his throat. "You're actually gay?"
"Yes," Kid said again.
"Holy..." Jack shook his head. "Blink, man, this is—"
"This is what?" Kid interrupted. "My arm is still as good as it was yesterday, Jack. My batting average hasn't dropped any. So is there a problem?"
Kid stared at Jack. Michael stared at Jack. Jack shifted uncomfortably. "It's real weird, Kid."
"Not really," Kid said.
Jack stared at them, then shrugged. "You're a real good catcher, though. But a few people won't like it much."
Kid smiled. "I know, but you can help me, right? That's why I wanted you to know first. People listen to you, they respect you."
Jack shrugged, and the modesty was pretty clearly fake. "I dunno... It'll be hard."
"Jack, come on, please?" Kid asked. "I... I just want to play."
Jack nodded. "I know. I'll, uh, talk to some people."
Kid smiled, relieved. "Thanks, Jack."
"Yeah, well... You're a real good catcher," Jack said again. "I'm, uh... Gonna get out of here. 'Night."
"Bye," Michael added.
Jack looked over at him, like he'd forgotten Michael was there. Then nodded a little. "Yeah, 'night, Mush... Michael."
Jack hurried out.
Michael turned to face Kid. "I can't believe you just did that!"
"Neither can I." Kid felt jittery now, a little hyper himself, though Michael seemed to have calmed considerably. "Oh my god. I can't believe I did that." He blinked a few times. "I can't believe it worked." Then, "You never answered my question."
"I know," Michael said impishly. "I'm thinking about it."
"Kid, you... I mean, did you just do that for me? Really?"
"What happened to your gameplan?"
"After seventeen years..." Kid shrugged. "Sometimes plans change. And I'd have seriously regretted it if I hadn't at least asked you out."
"What about your family? Won't they be...?"
"My grandfather... He said he'd handle my parents. So..." Kid took a deep breath. "Will you? Go out with me?"
"Oh, hell yes." Then Michael's eyes went wide. "Oh my god. Oh my god, Kid." Michael's hyperness was back, and he impulsively threw his arms around Kid's waist. "Oh my... I... Can I kiss you?"
But he didn't have to, because Kid snaked his hands around Michael's shoulders, leaned in and kissed him, instead. He could feel the flower stems poking into his back but didn't care, because he also felt Michael's lips on his, Michael's body pressed against his, crushing his necklace against his shirt between them. Felt one of Michael's hands snake down his back and come to rest in his back pocket.
When they finally broke apart, Michael's hand stayed in place, and Kid felt himself blushing. But he didn't try to hide it. He looked over at Michael's family, and saw his mother smile, saw his father hold up an old Polaroid camera. Before Kid knew what was happening, Michael had pulled him close and the flash went off. And then there was a picture pressed into his hand, because one of Michael's was still resting lightly against Kid, and the other held the bouquet, and Kid felt Michael leaning against him as they watched the picture develop.
Kid reached a hand back around Michael's back as they waited, almost oblivious to the rest of the world.
They were standing close together, smiling. Michael still had his stage makeup on, Kid was blushing, and his necklace had fallen out from under his shirt, where the flash glinted off it. They looked good together, and natural. Kid smiled.
It was clear in the picture that they were together, that they were gay. Anyone in the theater could see it.
But he was still a baseball player.
As he turned to kiss Michael again, he had never felt so free.
[Aaand, we're done. Thanks for all the feedback on this one, I was experimenting a bit with being less dialogue-y, and some alternate characterizations for Blink and Mush, so I wasn't too confident in it. But I'm really glad people liked it.]
[Many thanks to Saturday, Shimmerwings, Harmony, Geometrygal, Parkranger, V-channy-chan, Thistle, Emme3, Aura, Erin Go Bragh, and TSB for reviewing.]