in your FACE space coyote! (candle_beck) wrote,
in your FACE space coyote!
candle_beck

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hope the stars don't even come out tonight



It is not A's fic, except in that all the main characters were once so affiliated. It is National League fic, because that is what we have been left.



Take Two
By Candle Beck


Tucson Diamondbacks at Scottsdale Giants, 3 March 2009

After the game, Danny Haren came down into the Giants' clubhouse and spent a few minutes shooting the shit with Lowry before coming over to where Zito was frozen on the couch, staring sightlessly at the magazine he held. Zito worked to keep his face blank, glancing up at him.

Haren grinned, kicked at Zito's feet. He said, "Thunderbird and North Scottsdale," and didn't even wait for Zito to acknowledge it, thwapping him upside the head and calling him a cocksucker in a friendly tone, loud enough for all to hear.

Zito could feel his face flushing but he refused to recognize it, glaring at Haren's back as he left. He wanted it to be clear to the world that he only barely tolerated Haren, only because they'd had the misfortune of being teammates at some point in the rapidly fading past. It wasn't anything personal.

It was effectively rush hour by the time he got out, and it took him forty minutes to get to the intersection of Thunderbird and North Scottsdale, where Danny's black Escalade was parked at the side of the road and the man himself was leaning on the side with his arms crossed over his chest and his sunglasses on. His face broke open in a smile when Zito pulled in behind him, like he'd half-expected Zito not to show, and it tugged at the hole in Zito's heart, pulled to make it a little bigger.

They left Zito's car in the anonymity of a shopping center parking lot, and then Haren drove them north, quickly out of town and into land not yet developed, dry and flat and the paler dirt color of a pitcher's mound, really very clearly a desert that would kill you without hesitation or mercy, in no way intended for human habitation, but Danny, at least, fit the scenery. He'd always been unnaturally self-contained, devastating to outsiders.

Zito thumbed his own kneecap, staring out the window. Just a couple weeks ago, pitchers and catchers had reported and it marked four years to the day since Zito first met Dan Haren. He never dreamed they'd make it this far.

Haren got off the highway at a truck stop that looked like the last outpost of the civilized world. The small cluster of buildings was dirty, grimed with filth as if they had been recently excavated, dug up and put on display under the borderless blue sky. Haren pulled around back, where there were a couple massive semi-trucks hunched like dinosaurs at rest, their drivers asleep in the bunks.

"C'mon," Haren said, flashing Zito a smile that Zito couldn't return, feeling uneasy and overly hot, tight under his skin.

He and Danny went around to the back of the car, glanced around quickly to ensure the coast was clear and then crawled in the cargo hold. Haren hauled the hatch closed, slamming the sunlight out like a curtain, the tinted windows transforming the perfect day into a thick overcast, a terrible storm.

They stayed back there for almost three hours, the sun going down so slowly Zito didn't notice until he realized he was squinting to see Haren's face, long since having lost sight of the blue of his eyes, which were one of Zito's favorite things about him physically, one of Zito's fatal weaknesses.

They hadn't seen each other in a couple of weeks, not since Valentine's Day when Zito had driven into town and called Haren from the 10 as downtown Phoenix swooped by to his right, free hand gripped so tight on the steering wheel that his knuckles shone pale. Haren had met up with him at his hotel and let Zito blow him like Zito'd been dying for all goddamn winter, then fucked him across the bed with his hands locked on Zito's hips, Zito's face skidding and biting against sheets.

That had only been about a half an hour, though, and Danny could barely even swing that, invented some elaborate traffic story for the wife as he struggled into his clothes afterwards, one-handed while he talked on the phone. Zito watched him from the bed, smirking as he hopped awkwardly about, weird stony feeling in the pit of his stomach.

Danny didn't change season to season, the same dimensions as last year and the year before, same touch in his fingertips and unwieldy strength through his shoulders and arms. He grinned sideways at Zito the exact same, rolled his eyes as his alibi grew more baroque. He dragged a hand through his hair and the gesture still made him look about fifteen years old. Danny hadn't been married when Zito had met him, hadn't had a son, hadn't played for the Diamondbacks.

Zito had fallen for this very specific twenty-four year old kid, and it was still the only thing he could see when he looked at Danny Haren.

That had just been his welcome-back, a skin-pop to jump-start Zito's addiction for another season, and then they'd both been busy, settling in and searching for their release points, the black at the edge of the plate. When Zito called him, Haren always picked up, always said, "What's up, brother," always had some good reason for why he couldn't meet up with him. Zito became discouraged, worn down and chewing on the insides of his cheeks, his lips chapped bad enough to bleed because he kept losing his Carmex.

It had been difficult being in the same metropolitan area as Haren and not seeing him. Difficult thinking of all the people that Haren did make time for, his teammates and better friends and perfect family, everyone else prioritized above and Zito couldn't stand that.

He knew he was in a bad way when he'd met up with Rich Harden for drinks one night and Rich took one look and asked him, sounding only slightly off, "Still getting jerked around by young Daniel, are we?"

Zito didn't bother to deny it, leaning forward on his elbows and hunching his shoulders, bowing his head, sighing. He turned his eyes away, feeling heat crawl up his neck, glanced back to see Harden rubbing a tired hand over his face, looking vaguely distraught, vaguely furious, and Zito had seen enough of that look a half a decade ago; he didn't want to deal with it now.

He and Harden hadn't talked about it anymore. It was a sore subject, understandably so given the history, the way Zito kept falling into the same goddamn traps. And now here he was again, in the back of Dan's car with his shirt off and spread out under his shoulders, getting jerked around and lying right back for it.

They fucked around for hours, did a little bit of everything. In between they sprawled against each other and caught up, told their stories of winter and their impressions of the new year. Haren's sweaty head on his shoulder made Zito's whole arm fall asleep. Zito rolled a jay for them, hotboxing the car like they were in tenth grade again, and Haren went into the truck stop store to buy some chocolate and Doritos. His fingers left orange powdered prints on Zito's stomach, and they both got to giggling about that.

The last time was slow and hallucinatory, Danny pressing him back and leaning over him, his features obscured in the deepening murk of the evening, the dispersing haze of smoke, and Zito arched up and back, feeling drugged and dragged astray, thick-minded and pliable. Danny did this to him every time.

They lay side by side on their backs, catching their breath, and Zito was feeling good, better than he had in half a year, loving the punctured exhaustion in his left arm, the weakness in his legs. Baseball wasn't wearing him down yet, only sanding his edges smooth, planishing the uneven grades of his mind. He had Haren here with him again, and it made Zito foolhardy, capable of anything, wanting to load the bases just so he could wriggle out of it.

"You should come home with me tonight."

Haren yawned, voice all stretched out. "Can't. Sleeping in Tucson tonight, you know we're playing Mexico tomorrow."

Zito spoke without thinking, "I could come back with you."

"What?"

Zito closed one hand into a fist, hidden by his body, not liking how Haren had half-laughed, scoffing at the very idea.

"I got nothing to do tomorrow, just gotta be there by game time." And your family doesn't live in Tucson, Zito didn't say. "I don't mind the drive."

Haren was quiet for a minute, and Zito got a bad feeling in his stomach, tensing up as the air between them soured. Zito was just messed up, heavily stoned and tired and fucked out, and his brain was misfiring, his mouth moving rebelliously on its own.

"Dude," Haren said, and just his tone, kinda low and flat and disappointed, cored through Zito. "Just fucking around here, right?"

Zito squeezed his eyes shut, bent his lips in a smile. It wasn't Danny's fault; he'd never been anything but honest with Zito, crystal clear on what he wanted and what he was willing to give, and it wasn't his fault that Zito still made wishes on falling stars, still believed his life might turn out okay after all. Zito and Haren had never been doing anything other than just fucking around, and it was good of Danny to remind him of that from time to time, when Zito wandered too far off the plot.

"I know," Zito said, happy that his voice sounded cool, regular. "It was just a stupid thought, I didn't mean anything by it."

Another pause, and then Haren said, "Yeah," not believing Zito but that was fair: Zito was not telling the truth.

*

Arizona Diamondbacks at San Francisco Giants, 17-19 April 2009

Zito went up to the roof of his apartment building the night the Diamondbacks were due in, watching the airplanes sink through the fog, falling short of the diamond-lit skyline. He wasn't thinking about Danny Haren any more than he usually did, and he wasn't up there to watch the planes. He just wanted some fresh air.

Zito felt off-kilter that night and kinda sick to his stomach upon waking, and there was a long time to kill before he could go to the ballpark. He walked down to the Marina, and then along the water until he got too close to the touristic mayhem of Fisherman's Wharf, detoured inland to North Beach. He kept his hands in his pockets and his hood up, headphones secure and the cord tucked inside his hoodie. Fierce wind came stinging off the bay and numbed his face, and he was trying to develop a guileless and unmarred state of mind, nurture the kind of calm that pitched a shutout.

He wasn't pitching tonight, wouldn't face Arizona at all this series, and usually Zito saved this kind of thing for his start days, but he could be forgiven. He'd been bugged since the season began, out of sync and on edge. Didn't start great but it had still been lightyears better than last year, and Zito had allowed himself to think that maybe he'd finally hit bottom. Only one direction to go from here, and it made him want to fucking scream, the things that served as his silver linings these days.

Add to this the airplane that had brought the Arizona Diamondbacks to California last night, and it left him in a bad way. Zito didn't know how things were gonna go with Danny this time and he didn't want to think about it anymore.

He screwed around in North Beach for awhile: getting a slice at Golden Boy, sitting on the grass in the square until the sun disappeared behind the clouds and it got cold, weighing the outlandish claims of the various strip clubs against each other. Zito kept eyeing the skyscrapers of downtown, clustered tight and high, and then he realized he was looking for the Renaissance Parc, the team hotel, and he hailed the next cab he saw, fled back into the Heights.

Zito was disgusted with himself, and he kicked over a chair in the kitchen, hurled some books at the couch. He didn't know what to do with this stupid jittery feeling in his stomach, anxiety like a playoff game, tinged with dread because he didn't have the feel of the curve.

Last time he'd seen Haren had been in Arizona almost a month ago, the second spring training game the Giants and Diamondbacks had played, this time down in Tucson, where for the spring Haren lived in a hotel two hours from the house he owned.

Zito had been looking forward to it all month, jonesing and erratic, annoying his teammates more than usual, and then two days before Danny called to let him know that his wife was with him for the week because her sister was in town to watch the kid, and like a house of cards something collapsed in Zito's chest. He knew what it meant. Danny could only be faithful to his wife when they were within the same city limits.

Zito hadn't had a shot in hell, but he was crazy for it, had been desperate since that truck stop north of Scottsdale, dreaming up insane rationalizations. There were no safe paths to take, and nothing about this would end well, and he should at least be able to say that he'd tried. Regret the things that you'd done, not those that you didn't. Never go quietly.

So he'd gone over to the Diamondbacks side of the field when Danny had separated himself from his teammates, wandering the track stretching his arm out with a loop of rubber hose. Zito had felt drawn more than moving under his own power, the perfect grass sliding him closer, his heart light and jolting, unsteady.

Zito grinned moronically at Haren, made some dumb small talk and then couldn't help himself, interrupted Haren to say quick, "You sure you don't wanna meet up tonight?"

And Danny, pretty eyes sky-blue and wide, had laughed right in his face.

He hadn't meant anything by it, really. He'd apologized when he saw how badly it had stung Zito, that jerky flinch, but it had been half-exasperated, only for form's sake. Haren had told him, trying to be kind and mostly succeeding, "Dude, you know I can't. I told you. You should, you gotta quit taking everything so seriously all the time."

Zito had nodded, manufactured a smile and a shrug. He'd turned his back on Haren, spent the whole long walk back across the grass with his teeth buried in the inside of his lip, hands wrenched in fists, physically holding himself together.

So that hadn't been the best impression to leave, and Zito had dwelled over it plenty in the intervening weeks, every stupid thing he'd said, every idiotic twitch he'd let betray him. Dwelling was this terrible habit Zito had; it was why he wasn't a very good pitcher anymore.

They hadn't spoken since then, but that wasn't strange. No need to call a guy who played in your division. It was good, healthy, gave Zito some space and Haren some time to forget how irritating Zito could be, remember why he liked him again. They'd see each other tonight on a major league field and it'd be like old times, even if neither of them was wearing the right colors.

Zito packed up his stuff for the ballpark even though it was still too early. He left his bag by the front door, paced back and forth across the living room a few times, and climbed out the window onto the fire escape, calling Rich Harden.

It was colder than balls and Harden's phone rang through almost all the way to the message before he picked up, breathless.

"'lo?"

"Hey Richie." Zito hunched against the wind, his free hand shoved up under his sweatshirt. His hood wouldn't stay up, no matter which direction he faced it blew right back. "You okay?"

"Yeah, I, I had this thing but it's all right. What's up? Where are you?" Rich sounded distracted, and Zito couldn't tell if the rushing background noise was on his end or the other.

"Home. Playing. Um. The Diamondbacks tonight."

"Jesus Christ, of course you are."

Zito squinted his eyes shut. "Don't be like that, man."

"How should I be? Lemme know, by all means."

But Harden was just bitching for the sake of it, weary and resigned, and Zito knew the sound of it pretty well. It pricked his guilt, which was pretty immense to begin with when it came to Rich Harden, but he couldn't help it; Richie was the only one who could talk him down anymore.

And he always picked up when Zito called; he was still there every single time Zito checked.

"Just," Zito said, facing the bay with its colored sails and island prison and epic bridges, not seeing any of it. "Distract me, will ya?"

Harden sighed out, rustling into Zito's ear. "We just beat the Cards."

"Yeah?"

"Oh yeah. Big dramatic go-ahead home run in the eighth. Soriano, naturally, after he'd done nothing but strike out all game, also naturally. Sell-out crowd, as you'd expect, right, arch rivals and all. They almost brought the place down, and I'm not using that as a cliché, Barry, I mean they literally stomped Wrigley Field so hard it almost broke."

Zito was grinning, helpless. "It's bound to happen one of these days."

"You think you're kidding, but you're not. I try to avoid going anywhere near the right field stands, you know. You can, like, hear the termites going to work."

"Talk about dramatic. People swarm on a foul ball and a whole section collapses like a sink hole."

"Dude, this is only funny because it's true," Harden insisted, snickering a little bit. "Playing in a death trap, over here."

"Yeah, real friendly, those confines."

Zito's shoulders had fallen, his tension headache worn away because he wasn't anxiously biting his teeth together anymore. Rich had always been pretty good for him, and that caused a sharper bolt of guilt, spiking up from its standard background hum loud enough to make Zito flinch.

"You can talk. Earthquake tomorrow, and you're pitching underwater," Harden said. "How's your sinker, Bar? Har de har."

Zito had a hard grin stretched on his face, almost painful. He missed Rich Harden so much all of a sudden that it made him dizzy, swaying in the dragging wind. He clutched the metal of the fire escape and it was like dry ice, seared and scarred his hand.

"I wanna see you," Zito said impulsively, taking a stab and thinking that maybe he could get this motherfucker back on track. "I don't want to see him, I'm terrified of seeing him, and I wish you were here instead."

Harden sucked in a breath, sharp and tense. Then he hung up.

Zito didn't blame him at all. He said terrible things to Harden sometimes.

Zito went downtown to the ballpark and hid out in the recesses of his clubhouse, the old video room that no one used since they'd pimped out the new one. Danny usually came down into the Giants clubhouse to say hi to Noah Lowry but Noah wasn't here today, he was back in Phoenix with Dr. Lew getting his arm looked at again, and Danny should know that, if he was Lowry's so-called best friend. Zito didn't want to risk it, though, tucked away down in the bowels of the stadium and safe from any bombs that might fall.

Haren pitched, and Zito could only watch about two innings of it, never able to keep his wits about him when Danny had that good split going. He got a poker game going downstairs in front of the TV showing the game, but took the seat that left his back to the screen. It was him and Velez and Schierholtz and Steve Holm, complemented by whomever of the other bench guys and pitchers wanted to drop by. Randy Johnson sat in for a minute, scared the hell out of all of them in that manner he could effortlessly affect, and left six hundred dollars richer.

Zito did very poorly. Ever since signing that contract, he had been godawful at every kind of gambling there was. It was probably psychological, but Zito had rather more pressing mental issues to deal with first.

The guys made happy noises with their eyes trained past Zito, shouted exhortations at the television and kept Zito up to date on every play, so he knew that it was a good game, close and well-fought. Danny took the loss and Zito wasn't a hundred percent sure how he was supposed to feel about that.

He got a text message from Haren while he was eating a sandwich from the spread on the couch, knee to knee with Tim Lincecum and Jonathan Sanchez, who had an ice pack strapped to his shoulder and was just fucking glowing, two hits allowed and a slim-lead shutout that had held through the middle relief for once. Zito planted his elbow on Tim's shoulder, levered up to get his buzzing phone out of his back pocket.

All it said was: address?

Lincecum shoved him off, and Zito lost his sandwich, the individual elements flapping apart in air and scattering on the rug. Sanchez shouted in surprise, and Zito threw Lincecum into a headlock without even thinking about it, skinny squirming shoulders twisting against his chest. His mind departed for the moment, on a sojourn into the future an hour or so.

He made the kid clean up his sandwich but Zito at least helped, and then he made his excuses and got out of there, drove back up the hills with his throat obstructed, the altitude playing hell on his equilibrium. He should be used to this by now, San Francisco and the bittersweet toll it could take on you, ridden up and down all day long.

Zito was still hungry, rushed and jumping at shadows, and he ate standing in front of the refrigerator, cold Chinese, some swiss and some cheddar right off the block, a misshapen shiny red apple the size of his fist, and then he brushed his teeth, changed his shirt twice and turned on Baseball Tonight.

He felt weirdly young, thirteen years old and convinced that all his future joy hinged on one thing, a game he had to win, test he had to pass, girl he had to talk into going to a dance with him so he wouldn't get beat up for being queer so much anymore. Zito lost his sense of proportion around Danny in that adolescent way, obsessing over the possible consequences of the night when it wasn't anything so monumental as that, never had been.

Haren showed up looking tired, kinda pissed off, and he grabbed the back of Zito's head, kissed him hard in the doorway.

"Quit cutting your hair so short," Haren said over his shoulder as he went down the hallway.

Zito closed the door, dazed and flickering with adrenaline, not even checking the hall to make sure none of his neighbors had seen that little indiscretion. He followed Haren into the kitchen, took the beer that Haren offered him as if he were the one who lived here. Zito was trying to get a handle on his face, trying not to let that imbecilic lovestruck glaze settle over his features.

Haren leaned back against the kitchen counter, sighing and rubbing at his right shoulder. He looked over at Zito, crooked half-smile on his face that always just killed him, and asked:

"Where were you during the game?"

Zito shrugged, looking down at his feet. "I saw some of it. Had to lose a bunch of money at poker, you know how it is."

Haren snorted. "Some friend you are."

That made Zito snap his gaze up sharply, immediately defensive. Danny knew why Zito hadn't watched him pitch; Danny knew exactly what he did to Zito. It wasn't right, throwing that back at him even as a joke, and Danny seemed to realize it himself, looking away and kinda clearing his throat and laughing at the same time, brushing it off.

They finished their beers in silence, not quite strained but close. Zito thought briefly about telling Rich Harden that he hadn't wanted to see Haren, and he didn't know why he had lied like that, it wasn't fair to Richie or Danny or his own damn self. It had been true in the moment, maybe, but now all Zito could do was scheme for ways to make Danny stay the night.

Zito scratched at his forearms, staring at Haren's huge hand dwarfing the bottle, his long legs crossed in front of him. Zito was sure everything showed on his face, but Haren was basically a good guy at heart and he pretended he didn't notice.

Haren was sore and starting to stiffen up from the game, and he let Zito strip him bare and do all the work, which was how Zito would have had it if given a choice. Zito just wanted Danny Haren laid out in his bed, free access for his hands and mouth and body and Danny murmuring happily under him, breathing slow and ragged, hands laced on the back of Zito's neck.

Haren had told him that Zito was the only guy he'd ever had sex with more than once. Zito was the only guy Haren had had sex with since getting married too, and Zito knew that Haren might be lying about both those things, seeing how badly Zito needed to believe it, but he didn't care. This was what he could do for Haren. This was why Haren was going to remember him, no matter how many other teams they played for or how far apart they ended up.

Zito had a few hours, as blissful and content as he got these days, but after he'd gotten off twice he started to nod and blink heavily, hauled down towards sleep. He fought it, his face against Danny's stomach and his arm over his waist. He knew as soon as he fell asleep Haren would leave, and Zito didn't feel up to that just yet.

It was no good. Haren smoothed his fingers absently down the back of Zito's head, pressed solid against the nape of his neck over and over and Zito didn't even have the wherewithal to roll away; he was so calm and okay right now, so untroubled by the world. Pretty soon he was out like a light.

He woke up at dawn, the curtains having been left open and the light pummeling over him, and he was alone, as expected. Zito lay around feeling sorry for himself, sick bitter taste in his mouth, like he'd been badly beaten but nowhere that showed and no one would believe him or cut him any slack. He cursed Danny Haren but that didn't work--it just wasn't his fault. It was so entirely Zito's problem.

The Diamondbacks were in for another two games but Danny didn't come back to Zito's place again. Zito waited up until three in the morning the first night, and then the second, his mind feeling overexposed and bruised from sleep deprivation, he blacked out around two-thirty and woke up on his kitchen floor sometime near daybreak. He had a split lip, swollen and scratchy.

It was lying there on the linoleum, gingerly feeling his head and arms for contusions and licking blood off his mouth, that Zito took a gigantic metaphorical step back, a deeper breath. He realized he was miserable. For the first time in a long time, it didn't have anything to do with baseball.

*

San Francisco Giants at Arizona Diamondbacks, 24-26 April 2009

Zito actually pitched really well the last game of the homestand, seven innings without a run and even more amazing by general acclamation: no walks. It felt weird, unfamiliar, and then that thought almost bothered Zito out of his good mood, but he let the boys get him drunk that night and it was the right move. Things crystallized, reached an ideal balance sometime after one a.m., the liquor and sugar and low-level painkillers he'd taken leveling out into a sweetly coherent fog, colored by neon.

He didn't get the win, but he knew that wins meant nothing, worst stat ever made and a better gauge of luck that anything else; there were so many more important things. He'd had the curve and the change-up both at the same time, a fastball that died around the shoetops, and it was like armor, like up until last night he'd been standing in the middle of a war with his whole body unprotected.

The next day was an off-day, travel day, and Zito's killer hangover kept him occupied, off the mark. His body was aching in sympathy, his brain trying to spare him the knowledge that they were going to Phoenix, but Zito could never really forget all the way.

At the airport, Zito latched on to Brian Wilson immediately, moaning about how his head hurt and he was all stuffed up and his sinuses would probably implode from the altitudinous pressure. Wilson called him a whiner but got him coffee with lots of various kinds of syrup, and lent him a beanie because Zito felt like burrowing, slumping and hiding and wearing his sunglasses indoors. Zito and Wilson got along real well because Zito's life was never quite right and Wilson enjoyed nothing so much as tinkering, fixing things so that they would run smooth, if only for a day or two.

He got to Arizona in one piece, but as soon as they were installed in the hotel Zito started itching, wanting to switch rooms because his faced north and Haren's house was somewhere in that direction. It made him want to go buy a telescope or something.

It hadn't even been a week since Zito had passed out on his kitchen floor waiting to see if Haren would show up. He could still feel the cut on his lip even if the little sliver of scab had fallen off and you couldn't see it anymore.

Zito begged off going for dinner with the guys, walked four blocks away from the hotel before hailing a cab, so that no one would see and ask him where he'd gone later. It was a really lame diversionary tactic, wouldn't throw off a cadet in spy school, and it was too hot to be taking strolls through downtown Phoenix, the sun setting but heat still banked in all the concrete and metal. Zito felt dulled, slow.

His shirt was pasted to his back by the time he got in and told the cabbie Danny's neighborhood, where Danny's house and Danny's wife and Danny's son all were. Zito rolled down the window for the breeze, stuck his head out like a dog. He was sick and wrung-out from his hangover, the post-start heaviness in his arm slowly consolidating into an bone-deep ache.

Something hit him in the head.

Some piece of flying debris skipped up and cracked off Zito's forehead, making him cry out and jerk his head back inside the cab.

The cabbie, an older fella with white-streaked gray hair, looked at him in the rearview, thick eyebrows up. "You all right?"

Zito rubbed his forehead, checked for blood and there was nothing, but the spot was hot and throbbing, bruise forming. "Yeah."

"Pretty stupid of you to stick your head out the window, wasn't it?"

Zito glared at him, motherfucking smartass cabbie. "Whyn't you say something before I got dinged?"

"Because I live on tips, chief. I don't call a fare stupid unless there's no debating it."

Against his will, Zito snorted. He carefully wiped the sweat off his forehead and hairline with the sleeve of his shirt, patting around the bruise. "I already knew I was stupid, anyway."

"Well, son, admitting it's the first step."

"Stupid," Zito muttered, staring out at the highway traffic blowing past. "Whole thing's so goddamn stupid."

He pressed on the sore spot, wincing but bearing it, absorbing the pain and forcing it down. Second injury he'd given himself in a week, or at least, second that would show on the outside. He was being very slowly pummeled. He didn't know what he was doing, going to see Danny when he knew Danny didn't want to see him, wouldn't see him. He knew this was gonna make Danny like him a lot less, maybe all the way down to nothing, and he'd look at Zito like a stranger, never acknowledge him again except occasionally on camera.

All that was inevitable, because everything Zito touched got ruined, but he thought suddenly, not today. Not right now.

"Stop," he said, his voice choked off and the cabbie didn't hear him. Zito coughed. "Stop."

The cabbie glanced over his shoulder at him. "Your head?"

"No, no, I just, I'm sorry, I changed my mind. You can just, just take this exit, okay? Sorry. Just let me out wherever."

The cabbie wheeled into a gas station and turned to look at Zito through the dirty thick plastic divider as Zito counted out the money. "You get dizzy or sick to your stomach, you mind it, go get it checked out."

Zito half-smiled, inclined his head slightly to the side. "Thanks man, I surely will."

He tipped him very well, mostly for the reminder that there were more good people than wicked in the world, something Zito forgot from time to time.

Zito sat down on a parking block, cradling his sore head in one hand and squinting at his surroundings. He'd never been to this part of town before, railroad cars rusting on decommissioned spurs, big mysterious pieces of metalwork hundreds of yards out in the desert, the traffic signals mounted on pipes thicker than two men. Zito was shaking a little bit, recognizing nothing.

He called Rich Harden. It rang through to voicemail and Zito hung up without leaving a message, a sharp band constricting around his heart. He sat there flayed by the wind, panicking slowly but with gathering force. He didn't know where he was, didn't know where to go from here. He couldn't remember the name of the hotel they were staying at; the only thing he could think of was Danny Haren's address.

Then his phone rang. Zito saw Harden's name on the display and he lowered his head onto his bent knees, burying his face in the bent pocket of his arm. Everything was pitch black in there, so much easier to deal with.

"Hey Richie."

"Hey man, what's going on? Hang on."

Harden was someplace loud, half-shouting to be heard over the crowd, and Zito could hear him moving, saying "'scuse me, 'scuse me," as he shouldered through. Zito waited, and after a few seconds the noise abruptly cut off as Harden got outside of wherever he was. Zito took a deep breath.

"I'm done with him," Zito said. It felt like each word had physical heft and he was that much lighter with them gone. His head reeled slightly.

"What? Who?"

"Danny. I just decided. Just now. He's no good for me."

"Uh, the rest of us knew that four years ago, but what the hell? The fuck happened?"

"Nothing." Zito kinda laughed. "Nothing at all. I was going over to his house and now I, I, I'm just not gonna."

"Barry-" and then Harden stopped, sucked in a breath that Zito could hear. "Are you okay?"

Zito shook his head, but Harden couldn't see that, and he said, "It just occurred to me, you know? The only reason it's still going on is because I don't want it to stop. It's all me, everything is 'cause I started it, I pushed him. He doesn't care. He wanted to quit a hundred times, you remember? He asked Jessica to marry him, and he said we shouldn't anymore. Got traded and said we couldn't. Every time, I talked him back into it, so it's all on me, you get that? And if I'm fucked up and depressed and can't pitch on account of it, that's 'cause of me too and I just. I'm gonna fix it. It's completely within my control."

Harden was quiet, making sure Zito was done, and then he exhaled a rough laughing sound, astonished and doubtful.

"You've always known all of that stuff."

"Yeah. Yeah. It's like I don't care either. Didn't care."

"It's always been hopeless, and you're a romantic," Harden explained to him, sounding tired. Zito kinda wished he was here, in that background way that he always wanted Harden with him, just as a smartmouthed barrier against the world.

"I'm growing out of it, Richie. It's past time."

"Are you-" and Harden cut himself off, breathed out against the receiver, shushing in Zito's ear. "You're gonna see him tomorrow. He'll come to San Francisco again, he might. Expect you."

"Well." Zito rubbed his face on his sleeve, head still buried in his arm. He was all curled up around his knees, the dying sunlight seeping through his cracks and fissures. "Your guess is as good as mine, really. Doesn't mean much if I can't withstand temptation, does it?"

"That's. Never been your strong point."

"Helpful."

"You'll be all right."

Harden didn't sound too sure of that, kinda reedy and trailing off at the end. Harden used to be reassuring Zito constantly, you're okay, it's cool, we're fine. He used to push his hand through Zito's hair when Zito's hair was long enough to do that, hold him still and swear it to him, and usually Zito could be persuaded to believe him.

Zito lifted his head, kept his free hand bracketed over his eyes. His head beat in a painful rhythm, something thick wedged in Zito's throat.

"I shoulda just stuck with you," he said in a whisper, half-hoping that Harden wouldn't hear.

But he did, sighed out rustily and told Zito, "I know, man. I tried to tell you."

"Yeah." Zito passed his fingers over the bruise on his forehead, found a tender knot pressing up. He thought about Harden's poor circulation and how his hands were always pale and ran a few degrees colder than normal, how he used to leave numbed tingly places on Zito's body, better than lidocaine. "I'm sorry again."

"God. I asked you to quit saying that."

"Yeah." Zito couldn't help it. "Sorry."

And Harden groaned, rapped the phone against something hard. Zito felt an odd forced grin stretch across his face, his heart swollen and precarious. Harden had told him four years ago, philosophically saddened by his brand-new broken heart: the trouble is I'm never gonna get over you. Zito kept wanting to ask if that had turned out to be true, but he thought it might injure Harden and he didn't want that.

"All right, well," Harden said. "I oughta get back."

"Yeah. Um. Thanks, Rich."

"Shut up. I'll see you, when was it?"

"Like, ten days," Zito told him. "Just ten short days."

"Holding my breath, babe," and Harden sounded strained, hung up immediately after.

Zito listened to the nothingness of the empty connection for awhile, trying to figure out how he could have fallen for Danny Haren when he had someone like Rich already gone on him. It didn't seem fair in any way.

He had to call another cab to take him back to the hotel. He killed a night messing around on the internet, music on his headphones turned up so loud the deep notes fuzzed at the edges and his ears rang between songs, his mind cavernous and echoing. He only got drunk so he could sleep, so he wouldn't remember dreaming about Haren.

Neither of them pitched in the three-game set, and Zito weathered the first two games cloistered deep in the visitors' clubhouse. He hid out from everybody because it was somehow easier than just hiding out from Danny.

Zito found an equipment room that looked forgotten, lost already to the brief history of the ballpark. Cases of scuffed-up baseballs for the machines, bats splintered but unshattered, a catcher's mask that had been mangled, twisted into a cage, and Zito settled in. There was one corner of the room where he got incredibly delicate reception on his cell phone, and each time he called Rich Harden they lost each other after just a couple of minutes. Zito called him over and over again, saying into the mothball quiet, "Rich? Richie?"

Two games he spent down there, Rich's voice crackling and distant, telling him digressive stories and ragging on the National League in the idle way they all had. Zito felt detached, stranded on Pluto with only a radio for company, and he was trying not to think about it.

The Giants took those first two, and Zito got reamed because they'd looked for him and couldn't find him and assumed he'd left the ballpark. Zito let them believe it, less embarrassing than the truth, and sat sullenly on the bench for all twelve innings of the third game. He ran song lyrics in his head, kept his eyes off the Arizona dugout.

Just a few more hours in this place, however long this goddamn game would last. They were going home after; it was one of those weird one-city road trips on the schedule, a little hitch like a missed breath. Zito wondered if that was why he was having so much trouble, just the out-of-place nature of these few days in Phoenix.

The Diamondbacks tied it up in the ninth, salvaged the game in extras, and Zito sat with his teammates watching them spill out onto the field all red and white and whooping, tackling Conor Jackson on the fair side of the first base line. The Giants came in vaguely dejected but not so bad--they'd taken the series, after all, and now they could go home.

Zito spotted Danny in the raucous boil of his team, his shoulders unmistakable, his huge walk-off grin bright as the sky, and Zito flinched back against the bench. He stared, couldn't help himself. He was giving this up, those blue eyes, those hands. That beautiful split, that change-up like a stopped heart, maybe at the end of the day one of the best pitchers of his generation and Zito was turning his back, walking away. None of this made any goddamn sense.

Zito watched, and he saw Haren peel himself off from his teammates, come over to the Giants' side. He was frozen, thinking that he couldn't be seeing it right, but Haren came right over to him, cleats clattering down the stone steps. Danny slung one arm up on the roof of the dugout, grinned at him.

"Hiya."

Zito smiled back, hating himself. "Hello."

"Good game, huh?" Haren had a swipe of dirt on his cheek from the mini-dogpile. He looked fantastic.

"I liked the other two better," Zito said, and Haren rolled his eyes.

"Whatever. You guys got lucky, that's all." Haren paused, and Zito saw his eyes flicking to the other side of the dugout, where the team was dispersing, trickling down into the tunnel. Haren lowered his voice, made it go faintly deeper. "I was gonna say, if you wanna go for a drink tonight, we can."

Zito stared up at him, gone perfectly still under his skin. He wondered where they'd go, the back of Danny's Escalade again or maybe Zito would insist on getting a hotel room and they'd fuck around until they passed out and when Zito woke up, he would probably confuse the moment with a thousand others, believe for at least a couple of seconds that they both still played for Oakland.

Zito looked at Danny, really looked, tried to fuse him into memory just like that, hand hooked on the roof of the dugout, encouraging grin tugging at his mouth, eyes almost completely hidden by his cap brim. Zito tried not to think about how he did love Danny, with everything and all he had, and that was supposed to be enough. He'd always been told that that would be enough.

"Nah, man," Zito said, sounding pretty cool. "That's okay."

Haren looked surprised for a second, his eyebrows ticking up, but then he shrugged, looked back over at his own dugout. His face was scruffy and unshaven, his tone easy as he answered, "Whatever. Don't get into any trouble, whatever you end up doing."

Zito bent his mouth up in a smile. "'kay."

Haren reached his fist out for Zito to knock, kinda smirking, studying Zito like trying to figure out what was different about him. Zito wanted to tell him, flat-out and clear, we're done, just so Haren would never come over and obliquely ask him to get a drink again, but it would sound stupid, blind to the obvious fact: there was nothing here to end.

"I'll see ya," Haren said. Zito nodded, rubbing at his own knuckles.

"June," he told him. "We're coming back in June."

"June, then. And you, um. Safe trip, Barry."

Haren flashed him one more smile, and then turned and vanished into the glare of the sunlight again. Zito sat on the bench for awhile longer, feeling like he had lead shot in his joints, keeping him pinned in place. He kept replaying that last bit, half-nervous smile on Danny's face, the moment of uncertainty in his voice. Zito knew he was blowing it out of proportion. He knew he couldn't shout Danny's name and chase him across the field, take it all back in full view of the emptying stadium; he couldn't do that.

After a long few minutes watching the people melt away, Wilson came looking for him. He saw the look on Zito's face and sighed heavily, shaking his head in resignation and offering Zito his hand.

*
second

Tags: mlb fic, zito/harden, zito/haren
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