The bus is making a sort of low, relentless moaning noise that makes Dave think of zombies, and he can't sleep.
"Neal," he whispers across the aisle. Neal shows no sign of having heard him, slumped down in his seat with his eyes fixed on the iPad screen in front of him. The rest of the bus is sacked out and snoring; everywhere Dave looks, he sees open mouths and closed eyes.
"Tiemann," Dave says, and contorts his arm so he can reach behind his own seat, slide one of Andy's socks out of his bag, and wave it in Neal's direction.
Neal's head snaps up. "Dude!" he hisses. "Get that shit away from me."
"It's clean!" Dave protests, laughing as he tucks the sock back in place. "I think." The whispering is grating on his throat, so he gets to his feet, swaying with the motion of the bus.
Neal looks up at him, expressionless. "Can I help you?"
Dave rolls his eyes. "Move over, asshole, I don't want to wake everybody else up."
"So it's just me who doesn't get to sleep, I get it," Neal says dryly, but he slides across the cracked pleather, until he's silhouetted against the window.
"You don't sleep anyway," Dave points out as he sits down. Neal is warm against his side, smelling vaguely like leather and pine tar, and Dave feels better already. He peers down at Neal's iPad screen. "So what's so fascinating that you don't have time for your ace, huh?"
"Tape," Neal says shortly, the amusement fading from his face. On the paused screen, Dave can see Jamey Ice at bat, and James on the mound. Jamey's eyes are the size of dinner plates, probably because he's about to send James' pitch--which is heading low and inside, nowhere near where Neal's set up on the far side of the plate--about nine hundred miles for a three-run walkoff homer.
Dave winces. It's been less than twelve hours since the game ended, which is still in the tender mourning period; he never lets himself look at tape until it's been at least twenty-four hours. Then again, he has the luxury of four games between starts.
"We'll get 'em tomorrow," he says, but he feels snakes coiling in his stomach as he says it, because after dropping two out of three on the road, their wheezing bus is carrying them back to Tulsa for their home opener. Which is also, coincidentally, Dave's first start.
But his insomnia is definitely because of the zombie noise.
"We shoulda had 'em today," Neal mutters. "We gave that one away."
Dave sighs. He can't argue--Green River is good, but half their regular starting rotation is on the DL, and this was supposed to be an easy series, start off the season with a few Ws. But it had just been one of those games, where every ground ball Green River had hit had seemed to snake its way between Andy and Kyle for a single or worse, and every sharp liner the Kings hit had seemed to head straight for someone's glove. Devin had made two errors before the third inning, one of which had led to a run, and Neal had gone 0-for-4 on the day with two strikeouts. Even Andrew had almost gotten into a fight with Green River's mascot. It had been, as Monty had succinctly put it afterward, a complete fucking clusterfuck, and Dave had watched the whole thing from the top step of the dugout, unable to do anything to help.
Yeah, his insomnia is totally due to the zombie noise. Totally.
While he's still trying to think of a response that's not "Yep, we completely screwed the pooch today" and isn't total bullshit, either, the bus slows and angles, tipping him against Neal as they pull off the highway. Dave glances up front to try to pick their driver out of the darkness; Ernie wants coffee, he figures. They grind to a halt, and the bus shudders hard enough to rattle Dave's bones and then goes still, leaving him with nothing but the sound of his teammates' snoring, Ernie's knees cracking as he stands and stretches, and Neal's glum silence.
Dave can't take it. "C'mon," he says, slapping Neal on the thigh. "Let's get some fresh air."
"I'm fucking busy, Cook," Neal says, but there's no force behind it, like he's too tired to even be annoyed. Which is pretty fucking dire, and Dave punches him on the shoulder this time.
"C'mon," he says again. "I'll buy you smokes at the next gas station we stop at."
"Yeah?" Neal asks, raising an eyebrow. The smoking thing is a long-standing point of contention between them, with Dave arguing that it's asinine for an athlete to fill his lungs with carcinogens on a regular basis, and Neal countering with his on-base percentage, which is pretty undeniable--he's got a fucking ridiculous eye at the plate, and he's as patient as a medieval monk, which makes his two Ks today even more bizarre.
Still, Dave wants Neal to be glaring pissily at tape well into his old age, so, "No," he admits. "But I'll buy you beer?"
Neal sighs in the same put-upon way that he does when someone changes the locker-room stereo to a pop station, but he sets his iPad on the seat next to him. "Fine. But I want a twelve-pack."
Dave considers, then figures he's probably going to end up drinking half of it himself anyway. "Sure," he says cheerfully, and uses Neal's thigh as leverage to stand. "Up and at 'em, Doc." Neal's vague grumbling follows him all the way to the front door of the bus.
It's been an unseasonably warm spring, enough to seduce the trees into blooming even in early April; as soon as Dave steps outside, the smell hits him, night air and fresh-cut grass and the hint of sweetness. He stretches his arms as high as he can, working out the kinks of hours on a bus, and when he tips his head back, the sky above him is scattered with stars, the gravel on some cosmic warning track.
There's something to be said for a life where you can wake up and find your last loss literally hundreds of miles away.
A thought pops into his head, and he turns back to the bus without giving himself time to second-guess. "Hold on."
"Where am I gonna go?" Neal's voice drifts dryly after him as he ducks back inside the bus and grabs his glove and Neal's from their respective bags. The case by the bus door nets him a bat and a bag of balls, and he emerges grinning.
Neal takes one look at him, though, and his habitual David Cook Special facial expression--some custom blend of bemusement, curiosity, vague suspicion, and affection--fades beneath a wince. "Dave, I caught all nine the past few days--I'm fucking tired, man."
"I know." It's almost enough to talk Dave out of it, but he pushes forward anyway, like swinging at a pitch that's either a fastball or a splitter--no way to know for sure until the bat's off his shoulder. "C'mon, the bus is killing my rotator cuff," he adds, grabbing his arm and grimacing.
It isn't a lie, but it is calculated, and it's also effective: a few more seconds of token resistance, and Neal gives Dave's shoulder a quick glance, then holds his hand out for the bat.
Dave very politely waits until Neal has turned his back before he gives in to a shit-eating grin.
He jogs away, bumping Neal's shoulder as he passes him; there's a decent-sized patch of grass stretching out next to the rest stop bathrooms, and Dave finds his way toward the center, toes the dirt to dig a groove for himself. By the time he looks up again, Neal's taking practice swings from the right side, short, sharp arcs that scream tension.
Dave sighs, but goes into an exaggerated windup, pausing at the top to wiggle his toe around like a cartoon character.
Neal snorts. "Professional," he calls.
"Fuck yeah," Dave answers, then rears back and lets loose.
The flat ground fucks with follow-through a little bit, but it doesn't matter--it's a batting-practice pitch, nice and easy. Neal takes a hefty cut and misses, then proceeds to let out a string of curse words that goes on for quite a while after the ball has bounced off the outside bathroom wall and rolled to a stop in the grass. Dave is simultaneously impressed and surprised that Neal isn't scorching the ground in front of him with the sheer heat of profanity.
It's on the tip of Dave's tongue to take the blame--the pitch was probably outside--but he knows that will just piss Neal off more, so he just waits till Neal trails off into incoherent muttering, then grabs another ball out of the bag, rubs a wrinkle into it, winds up, and releases.
Neal connects with the distinctive crack of a piece of leather about to go for a hell of a ride. And normally Dave hears that sound in his nightmares, but here, it sends a giddy spiral of happiness through him, which spins back on itself and brightens when he sees Neal's satisfied grin.
"Got all of that one," Dave tells him, grinning back.
"Fuck yeah." Neal digs in, and it looks more like he's baring his teeth now, challenging. "Gimme another one. And no more of this bush-league shit, I want the real stuff."
"You're the captain," Dave says, "though I'm not sure what to throw, usually my catcher makes these decisions for me--"
"Just throw the fucking ball, Cook," Neal growls.
Dave snickers. "Yes, sir."
He's still a little stiff from the bus, so he goes for a changeup. Neal's way out in front of it, which gives rise to another wave of swearing, but this time Neal's chuckling through it. "I said no bush-league shit. What was that, 60 miles an hour?"
"What that was, was strike two," Dave points out smugly.
Neal throws back his head and laughs.
They go a few more rounds--Neal barely catches a piece of a fastball, then Dave hangs a curve and watches Neal send it winging off into the darkness for what's probably at least a double, even with Neal's intense hatred of running. The rhythm is familiar and seductive: wind up, release, wind up, release, inhale and exhale, and Neal's sweet swing and feral grin on the other end, completing the circuit. Each pitch seems to take a little of the day's frustration with it, and Dave's not sure how many he throws before Kyle's sleep-rough voice jogs him out of the zone.
"What the fuck are you guys doing?"
"We're playing this game--it's called baseball, you might have heard of it?" Dave answers.
Kyle stands motionless in the doorway of the bus for a few more seconds, then scratches his head. "I wanna play."
Neal cracks up, the head of his bat thunking to the ground as he loses his stance; Dave laughs, too, and takes a deep breath of the night air. God, he loves his team. "So get your gear, rookie."
When Kyle comes back outside, he's not alone. He's trailed by Andy, Devin, Nick, and Monty, all dragging bats and gloves and looking sleepy but excited, like kids waking up in the middle of a slumber party. Devin hunts up rocks for bases--they've got actual bases in the equipment bags somewhere, but no one suggests using them--and they all take their positions, trash-talking and doing the occasional random lunge as they go, which are equally important parts of the preparation. And Dave didn't know any of these guys when they were kids, but he sees them all now in the faint glow of the rest-stop lights: seven-year-old Andy practicing his Jeter jump-throw, nine-year-old Devin kicking divots into the grass at third, six-year-old Monty trying to swing three bats at once before he tosses them away and tugs his glove on at first.
When the rest of their mini-team is ready behind him, Dave brings his hands up to his face, considering his next move. He looks out at Neal, who's got his game-face about halfway on, so he still looks pretty much like he wants to take a piece out of somebody. But at least it's somebody else now, and not himself, which is exactly what Dave was hoping for.
"Ready?" Dave asks him, and the mask drops for a second, long enough for Neal to give him a look that's warm with affection and sharp with the promise of what he's going to do to Dave later. Dave gets a quick jolt of anticipation in his stomach.
Neal digs in again and grins, as if to say, See? I can throw a curve, too. But all he says out loud is "Play ball," so Dave does.