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     On New York City’s most famous baseball field, Derek Hale discovered how to stop time. It was easy—all you had to do was rack up an error in the ninth inning in a tie game against the Boston Red Sox, and suddenly the space-time continuum was fucked seven ways to Sunday. He could see the headlines now: YANKEE SHORTSTOP BLOWS GROUND BALL; VIOLATES LAWS OF PHYSICS.

     At first the flub seemed less catastrophic than it actually was, barely pinging Derek’s radar insofar as he fought back the instinctive swoosh of nausea through his system; an audible wave of dismay rolled through Yankee Stadium, a collective gasp that shook the air like thunder, but Derek refused to acknowledge it. Good ballplayers, after all, developed the ability to compartmentalize over time, blocking out everything except the game going on around them, slipping into a kind of autopilot ruled by reflex, muscle memory, trust in one’s teammates, and an all-encompassing hunger for victory. This was a skill that bordered on a sixth sense, an eerie awareness of the play about to happen before anything showed on the monitors upstairs. Bright lights, the continuous murmur of the crowd like the hum of a machine, the odd cheer or heckler standing out from the din—all of it faded into background static as anticipation and the drive to win crackled the air like electricity.

     It was an almost sexual need, Derek thought, delayed gratification translated into nine ball players, whomever else happened to be hovering between first and third, and the batter currently stationed on home plate. That batter had the attention of fifty-odd thousand people in the stadium and millions more watching from home. He was the whole universe narrowed down to a pair of squinting brown eyes beneath a red visor and two leather gloves tightening around the handle of the bat a second before the tension exploded in a crack of wood against cowhide, deadly impact at ninety-eight miles per hour. Derek knew he wasn’t the only one holding his breath. His only mistake was that, for the barest instant, his focus snagged on the perfect, clean swing of the batter’s arms, the graceful twist of his torso; the batter, and not the ball that shot toward Derek in a blur, a red-and-white comet headed straight for his glove.

     Except that ball never made it.

     One could only assume the game progressed after that. The Yankees must’ve knocked a third player out and switched sides. Derek only fuzzily remembered running off the field, going up to bat, and getting retired when the pitcher—Stilinski, the same guy who’d been at bat when Derek made the E6—caught the ball in flight. But it was like Derek didn’t snap back to reality until the final out was called some time later, feeling a vague, lingering fogginess about his senses like he’d emerged from an extended fugue state. If asked, he couldn’t have recited what’d taken place in the game’s last few innings. Meanwhile spectators were filing out of the venue, sullen and mostly silent except for the Boston fans deliriously cawing their victory to everyone within earshot. Quite possibly, fights broke out in the stands that they would later hear about on the evening news.

     Numb to it all, Derek stumbled off the field with his hat between his hands, feeling, for all intents and purposes, like both the soldier who’d been tasked with delivering bad news about a fallen comrade to his family, and the fallen soldier himself. It was to be Derek’s funeral and no one else’s. Several teammates clapped him reassuringly on the back or tried to offer words of consolation, sympathy for the meeting with the GM that was surely to follow, but Derek didn’t register any of it. He kept replaying the moment where, so caught up in the explosion of pumping arms and furiously sprinting legs from home plate, he’d simply forgotten to catch the ball.

     The atmosphere in the locker room was, in a word, somber—worlds away from the boisterousness that might have followed a win, the whoops and hollers of a team reaffirmed in their superiority over their most historic and legendary rivals. Instead Derek half-listened to see if he could hear the sound of a pin drop, but even that would’ve been loud in the deafening silence of the clubhouse.

     His teammates avoided all but the barest of small talk in the showers, and his cubby neighbours on either side, Lahey and Whittemore, were conspicuously involved in conversations elsewhere, still dripping from their showers and with towels clutched around their waists. No one made eye contact with Derek. They all knew what was coming, he supposed, and as such nobody bothered to voice the questions they were all thinking: What the fuck planet were you on? or What the hell happened out there, Hale? There’d have been no point. Not even Derek had those answers.

     He knew they were pissed off, disappointed, betrayed. And why shouldn’t they be? Derek would’ve felt the same way were the shoe on the other foot. The frustration in the air was palpable. Whether it was because his teammates didn’t want to be caught in the crossfire or because they knew there wasn’t anyone alive more capable of beating Derek up for his E6 than himself, he wasn’t sure. Nevertheless, the unspoken accusations seemed to crowd his back as he proceeded strip out of his uniform, then eased his aching feet free of their cleats, followed by socks that were as good as garbage after nine innings’ worth of hard ball play; silent questions weighed down the steam-heavy air around him as he showered, though Derek ducked out from under the spray before he could choke on yet another teammate’s perplexed looks.

     Things only got quieter from there. He took his time getting dressed as the other players changed, gathered their things, and began to file out, not bothering to make any excuses for the hasty retreat. Derek watched them leave one by one, since he took longer than anyone else to leave the stadium after a game, win or lose. Not because he had a particularly complex grooming routine, but because he liked to take his time to decompress, let the past four hours bleed out of his system and get washed down the drain with his sweat. Finally alone, Derek paused to stare at himself in the mirror, dark stubble standing out all the more starkly against his face’s grim pallor. Five years ago, he might’ve thrown a chair or punched the wall, but Derek was getting too damn old for theatrics. Finding no answers in his reflection either, he sighed and continued to dress.

     He was working on the button fly of his jeans when a trembling assistant from the GM’s office crept into the locker room to corner him, however meek and apologetic, in front of his cubby.

     “Mr. Argent wants a word with you,” he told Derek with a look that screamed don’t shoot the messenger. “Please.”

     “He didn’t say please,” Derek shot back, not bothering to hide his bitterness so that his tone would sound less harsh.

     The assistant shrugged, one corner of his mouth lifting. His name was Jeff or Jim, Derek could never remember, but he was a good kid and far too sweet-natured to be running around doing Chris Argent’s dirty work. Still, having expected this development, Derek was surprised it’d taken this long to be summoned. He tugged a T-shirt on over his damp skin and followed the kid up the back stairs to the quiet office at the end of the hall.

     Inside, all the blinds were drawn, and Argent greeted him with a barked “Shut the door.”

     The door had barely clicked closed behind him before Derek found a finger and a glare pointed his way, a terse set to the older man’s mouth. It felt like a tomb in here, dimly lit and stuffy with books and baseball memorabilia lining the walls. Framed photographs of baseball greats from the 1920s and 30s stared back at Derek with accusation in every expression.

     “Mind sharing with me why you thought the series against Boston was a good time to take your head out of the game?” Chris demanded by way of opening. Gingerly, Derek started to lower himself into one of the chairs that faced the desk, only to straighten back up again when those pale eyes fired a warning that this meeting wouldn’t last nearly long enough for him to get comfortable. It said something about how well Chris knew his players, though, having accurately predicted that Derek would still be hanging around the locker room long after everyone else.

     Bristling, Derek snorted and tried to remember he ought to be more demure under the circumstances. “My head was not ‘out of the game’, sir,” he retorted weakly. “For fuck’s sake, I blew a ground ball. It’s not like I would have nailed Stilinski anyway, that guy is a fucking speeding bullet. Everyone knows it—hell, he knows it, and he’s got more plays up his sleeve than anyone else in the league. No one on this team would have done differently under the circumstances.”

     "Except maybe they'd have also caught the damn ball."

     Although he rolled his eyes, Chris’s expression softened, blue eyes losing their appearance of sharp-cut glass for a second. He was a gruff man by nature, not known for a soft touch with his players, and he and Derek had butted heads more than a few times when Derek first joined the team. Chris was fair and reasonable, however, and there was no denying he knew the game backwards and forwards. Most days, Chris was the closest thing Derek had to a role model out here on the East Coast. The lectures still irked him, but he knew when to shut up and pay attention. This was one of those times.

     “I’m not just talking about the error, Derek,” said Chris with something approaching gentleness. “You’ve been distracted since the second you stepped into the batting cage this afternoon, and we both know it.”

     Derek didn’t mean to, but he chose that moment to try to glance surreptitiously at his watch, it suddenly occurring to him that he should be more worried about the time. His wrist, for all the trouble the tic would cause him, was bare.

     Argent, of course, noticed. “See what I mean? It’s like you’re on another planet tonight. I know the Red Sox are an intimidating bunch of assholes, but you represent the biggest baseball club in the country, for Chrissakes. I expect to see you acting like it tomorrow, do I make myself clear? No more excuses; I need your eye on the ball. And stop hiding from your fans—they’ve come all this way to see you, the least you can do is get out there and sign a few baseballs, not hide yourself in the locker room like a damn agoraphobic.”

     The dismissal came with Chris lowering his glasses back down his nose, a classic gesture, but it came so abruptly that Derek thought to hesitate, expecting more outrage and threats of being traded to Canada. Argent never let people off this easy, especially not when they’d cost him a game. Stricken, Derek waffled on the spot for a good five seconds, sure his mouth was hanging open and making him look as thick as cattle.

     Chris glanced up. A funny expression crossed his face a moment before his eyes narrowed. “You expecting me to jerk you off next, sunshine?” he asked with a grunt. “Do us both a favor and get the fuck out of here. Go home and get a good night’s sleep, and don’t let me catch you slipping tomorrow.”

     No way would he miss his second cue. Derek indicated his assent with a single, sharp nod and slunk back to the locker room to pack up the rest of his things. It was properly deserted now, or so he thought. All he could hear was the hum of the soda machines and voices from somewhere else in the stadium, the whir of a floor polisher starting up early. There was something eerie about an empty clubhouse that made Derek want to stick around for the thrill of the quiet, but it was getting on late. A single glance at his watch proved he was indeed running behind schedule and, unwilling to delay himself further or dwell any longer on that evening’s cock up, he threw his uniform into the laundry bin and then bent to finish lacing up his boots.

     There was a rap against the locker room door as Derek was pulling on his leather jacket. He turned to see a familiar figure standing there, who ducked his head to fit his entire six-foot-seven-tall frame in the doorway: Vernon Boyd IV, who was intimidating as fuck but to Derek somehow managed to look far more timid than one of the League’s biggest pitchers had any right to be. As Boyd’s good friend and roommate, Derek never ceased to wonder at his ability to take just about anything in his stride, never losing his cool and providing a solid shoulder to lean on whenever he thought one of his friends needed it. He was like a Rottweiler—fierce and downright fucking scary when he needed to be, but composed and regal the rest of the time. Derek didn’t think Boyd had spoken a single word in his life he hadn’t spent five minutes considering beforehand.

     True to form, a hesitant “Derek?” floated over to him on the tail of the inquiring lift of Boyd’s eyebrows.

     “Hey,” answered Derek with rueful, if genuine, smile. Boyd was one of the few people out there who got to see it. “What’re you still doing here?” He made sure it was clear, from his expression, that he wasn’t too anxious or mad about the game to welcome his friend’s company, and that was all Boyd needed to come further into the room, setting his duffle bag down on the nearest table. Seeing as how he was dressed and ready to go, Derek figured Boyd must have been waiting around for him this whole time, simultaneously giving him space and the offer of a listening ear if he needed it. They sure didn’t make ’em much like Boyd anymore, Derek thought. Forget Rottweiler—the man was a giant pussycat who just happened to throw a baseball at almost 100 MPH.

     Boyd shrugged, the movement pushing out his NY windbreaker from where he’d stuffed his fists into the pockets. “Just wanted to make sure you weren’t still beating yourself up about that E6,” he said. “Plus the guys are going out for drinks, so I thought I’d pass along the invite. I know you’ve got that rule about Boston and all, but then again, we usually win.”

     He had a point. Still, Boston was Boston, and as far as Derek was concerned, those series were off limits to practically everyone, even Derek’s family and teammates. That’s just how it was, though Derek had to admit Argent was right to pick up on his air of distraction. A game never passed that Boyd didn’t extend the offer for Derek to join the rest of the boys for beers, and usually Derek was the first one to accept. It bothered him to watch Boyd catch himself at the last second when he remembered the Boston Rule. Derek’s mother hadn’t raised him to be rude, and common sense suggested it was folly to snub the same folks who wrote the checks. He ought to be with his teammates tonight. But there was no way that would happen, and both he and Boyd knew it. Not that Boyd was the type to needle anyone, but no amount of peer pressure could convince Derek to explain where he disappeared to after Red Sox games, be it at home or away; it was how it had to be, both for Derek’s sanity and everyone else’s. Much as it killed him to keep his friend at arm’s length, there were some things even Boyd might have a hard time trying to understand. This was, as Derek told himself time and again, for the best.

     “No can do, man,” Derek replied with real regret. “I gotta hit the road. Been dragging my ass too long already.”

     “Did Argent rip you a new one?” Boyd wondered. His voice was free of malicious intent, the question innocent. Derek was still relatively new to the team, and Boyd—as well as the other players—all knew how sharp Chris Argent’s temper could be when he was in a rage about something. Derek blithely considered that Boyd might have waited around only to make sure no one needed to call an ambulance after.

     Derek huffed a laugh. “Surprisingly enough, no. He isn’t thrilled, but he isn’t calling for my head on a pike, either.”

     “Lucky.”

     “Yeah, I guess that’s one word for it.”

 

+

 

     Derek left the locker room and exited through a back door significantly further away from his car than the players’ entrance. Although there were no photographers or journalists around this late after a game, lured away by confirmed interviews or looming deadlines, he nevertheless breathed a sigh of relief and took off with his head down and the collar of his jacket pulled up almost to his ears, hands shoved deep into his pockets. Sunglasses on, hat low. He knew these things didn’t fool anyone; his coal-black hair and broad shoulders were distinct and easily recognizable to both fans and the press, but it made him feel more secure to take these extra measures. The area around the stadium was never really deserted, after all, still teeming with fans reluctant to leave and regular Bronx pedestrian traffic, and Derek knew he’d be mobbed within seconds if he exited the building with his head high and preening like an asshole. Not his style, anyway, known to fans and teammates alike as “The Quiet Yankee” despite his West Coast roots. Either way, he didn’t want to talk to anyone right now. New York had lost, a fact he was sure not to forget, and tonight he had places to be.

     It wasn’t that he had a problem meeting with the press or his fans—he was a private person, yeah, but he couldn’t think of a better feeling than walking out on the field to the sound of people chanting his name. He loved seeing how excited it made little kids to meet their baseball hero. Derek remembered the feeling all too well; he’d almost fainted the time he threw the first pitch at a Dodgers game as a ten-year-old and, over a decade later, had spent the better part of the evening vomiting into a toilet before his first game as New York’s new shortstop. Baseball was a religion to people, himself included, and he knew better than to fuck with that over his pride or fierce need for privacy. As had been pointed out to him early on, his person was practically public property now, and sneaking out of games incognito was frowned upon.

     His car, a relatively un-ostentatious 2011 Camaro—at least compared to the Beemers, Mercs, and Maseratis that typically lined the players' lot—still managed to attract a fair amount of attention as he rumbled out of the stadium. Even with his face obscured by the tinted windows, the majority of die-hard fans knew what Derek’s car looked like; he was the only team member who drove an American vehicle. He returned a couple waves as he passed, determined not to be a dick to the fans still milling about with their signs and jerseys and faces painted up with the classic white-and-blue “NY.”

     Within minutes, he was roaring down Harlem River Drive from the Bronx, making his way into Midtown towards famed Waldorf-Astoria. The smell of the river hung heavy in the air. He and Boyd lived in a spacious loft in the Meatpacking District, which was technically on the way, but Derek doubted he’d make it home tonight. Erica, Boyd’s girlfriend, would probably be visiting, offering support and conciliatory sex for the most recent loss to their archrivals. That wasn’t the kind of company Derek was looking for tonight. As Boyd knew, he made it a habit to avoid people whenever his team played the Red Sox, here or in Boston. All but one person, anyway.

     Much as it pained him to do so, Derek left his car in a secure lot a couple blocks away from the hotel, making the rest of the way in on foot. Parking at the Waldorf was perfectly adequate, but it ran an even greater risk of being seen, especially with the more obsessive baseball fans on the lookout for their heroes around the city. It was customary for New York’s Finest to augment regular security on game days, but Derek knew there were message boards online where people discussed the whereabouts of each team’s hotel for away games; autograph-seekers frequently haunted hotel elevators, hallways, and parking garages on the off-chance they might catch a familiar face or, better yet, the whole team. Most of the time the cops did a good job of keeping non-guests out of the hotel, but Derek wasn’t about to take his chances, making discretion and anonymity his goals.

     Using the keycard he’d picked up from the front desk the day before, he let himself in through one of the back entrances and hit the stairs, grateful he only had to go to the eleventh floor. Tired and miserable from the game, the familiar aches and pains seemed to announce themselves before he was halfway there, his knee throbbing a little reminder that a hot tub visit was in order. Twenty-eight was a bit young to be complaining about these things, but such was the life of a professional ball player—he got paid to abuse his body with hard running and throwing and sliding in the dirt like a barbarian. He wasn’t worried, however; his room came complete with one of the Waldorf’s famed Jacuzzi tubs, which he’d become well acquainted with in recent years. The whole point of this evening was to blow off some steam and relax.

     The eleventh floor was mostly quiet—good. Derek had picked it for a reason, knowing Boston’s team was staying a good ten or so floors above him, and there was nary a police officer or baseball fan in sight. Still, he’d reserved the room closest to the stairs just to be on the safe side, and as soon as he exited the stairwell he barely paused to catch his breath as he pocketed his sunglasses and sidled over to room 1115. Looking up and down the hallway in a bout of paranoia, he slid the keycard into the lock and waited for the light to flash green. Derek stepped inside and let the snick of the door closing behind him obscure his sigh of relief.

     The room was decent, not decadent by Waldorf standards, but inviting. A comfortable living area beckoned; the soft lighting deepened the plush red-and-gold trademark of the carpet and upholstery to shades of burgundy and bronze. The first thing Derek noticed was the flat-screen television tuned to the Toronto game at Oakland, barely into its fourth inning. Seeing that Toronto was already up four runs, Oakland still at nothing, Derek grimaced and muted the sound. He peered around the rest of the suite, sparing a glance at the ho-hum view that overlooked more buildings. He wasn’t here for the sights, he reminded himself, and with that in mind stepped into the bedroom, noting the discarded clothing on the chair.

     “Hello?” he called. The shower wasn’t running, but living in the pockets of the rest of his team had taught Derek not to go barging into bathrooms that might be occupied, assuming anyone was still in the room and hadn’t stepped out for a minute. He was running late, after all, and hadn’t bothered to call ahead.

     Before he could reach for his cell phone and dial, however, the bathroom door opened, releasing a small tidal wave of steam that momentarily obscured the figure that emerged from the mist like an apparition. Stiles always did have a bit of an otherworldly quality to him, though Derek smirked at the thought that Stiles accused him of liking to make an entrance. Noticing Derek’s small smile, Stiles lifted his eyebrows and flashed an answering grin. He scrubbed at his hair with the towel around his neck, decked out in a fluffy bathrobe and looking precisely as relaxed as Derek wanted to be.

     He greeted Stiles with a quietly affectionate, “Hey,” wanting to come forward and enfold him in an embrace or... or something. He never quite knew what to do with himself in these situations, being far less predisposed to Stiles’s brand of easy physical affection. Derek had found the readiness with which Stiles doled out hugs unnerving at first, but quickly got used to it as something Stiles just did. In the midst of his waffling, Derek found himself stuffing his hands into his pockets instead. This was exactly the type of socially awkward bullshit he thought he’d left behind in adolescence; Derek’s sister Laura frequently loved to tease him for being “people-retarded.” By all rights Siles wasn’t just people, and he’d reminded Derek enough times that no engraved invitation was necessary to touch him, but Derek couldn’t help the way his cheeks went warm and red with embarrassment at his hesitation, which only made him scowl.

     The small display of uncertainty made Stiles’s smile widen as he came round the bed and stopped a couple feet in front of Derek. “I was about to send out a search party, dude,” he deadpanned, hands hanging off the towel at either end. Stiles was so at ease that Derek began to feel both ridiculous and justified in his ineptness, never quite knowing how to act around the guy he’d been seeing in secret. And not just recently, either: they’d been involved for the better part of a year.

     Not that there wasn’t good cause for discretion—Stiles Stilinski was none other than Boston’s hotshot young pitcher, and under no circumstances should Derek be here with him. Period. He often considered what a good pair they’d make playing together on the same team, but as it stood he couldn’t have picked a more inappropriate individual for an affair. God, they’d hated each other at first, absolutely hated each other, but over a year later things had done almost a complete 180. Sadly, it could never be—America wasn’t ready to find out its baseball heroes were pitching it to each other beneath the sheets. They’d be kicked out of the league, disgraced, with no happy rom-com movie ending in sight. It was a damn shame, because sometimes Derek let himself think about what a good couple he and Stiles might make off the field, too.

     They were good at keeping things simple, though, never forcing expectations or labels; just the understanding that these meetings must be kept absolutely under wraps. Why ruin a good thing? Each time New York played a series against Boston, Stiles and Derek arranged to meet at a hotel or somebody’s house. Plus they were both from Northern California originally, so Christmas and Thanksgiving usually fell in their favor, or at least in the favour of a nondescript Motel 6 off the highway. No muss, no fuss, and so far it’d worked out that neither of them found a reason to put a stop to these little trysts. There was chemistry and fondness between them, personalities that strangely complemented each other, and just enough risk to keep things interesting. While Derek told himself it wasn’t anything deliberate on his part, he hadn’t made much effort to look for other romantic prospects since he’d first started hooking up with Stiles.

     Not that there was any shortage of attractive celebrities who would date Derek in a second, but he wasn’t interested. Mostly he liked Stiles who, ironically, was equally happy pitching as catching in bed. He was also the only person out there who could appreciate the extent to which this arrangement suited Derek just fine, and be trusted not to blab it to the press.

     “I would have been on time,” Derek drawled, feigning exasperation in just the way he knew made Stiles crazy, “but I got held up on account of that damn E6. You know, the one that fucked us over at the bottom of the ninth.” He freed a hand from his pocket to reach out and trace the edge of the lapel of Stiles’s bathrobe, neatly trimmed fingernails catching on the pills of thick terrycloth. “I tried to convince Argent it wouldn’t have mattered anyway, but he wasn’t siding with me or the scorer on that one.”

     Chuckling, Stiles chewed his lip and inched closer. At the still-tender age of twenty-two, his voice wasn’t particularly deep or gruff, but he knew how to manipulate its cadence and timbre for the express purpose of making Derek’s blood pool below the waist in a light-headed rush. “If you’re insinuating I cost you the game,” he murmured, “then I absolutely plead guilty. But it was only by one point.”

     They didn’t normally discuss their games in deference to the sanctity of their respective teams and the ancient Yankees/Red Sox rivalry, but Derek had to admit it was nice to combine shoptalk and pillow talk with someone who understood. Still, Stiles was the enemy, even if Derek did spend an awful lot of time consorting with him. If by consorting you meant fucking him into the mattress. Game strategy and gossip had no place in the bedroom, a fact they’d agreed upon right away. Besides, these meetings were hardly about talking, not with time already of the essence.

     Stiles smirked and pushed himself closer, tipping his head back with a sigh when Derek’s hands abandoned their play and slid up his chest, toned and well-defined from rigorous baseball training. Next they traveled to the open vee of the robe, slipping inside to touch Stiles’s steam-slick skin, curling around the back of his neck where the hair twined damp and clingy like seaweed. Stiles hummed a little in pleasure and anticipation, that plump, epic mouth opening as he absently licked his lips, a tic that titillated Derek to no end. He’d once accused Stiles of doing it on purpose, but had quickly come to realize Stiles’s oral fixation was as unconscious as his tendency to stroke, tap, or otherwise fidget his long, graceful pitcher’s fingers across every available surface. Derek was more than happy to indulge him either habit, and the sight of Stiles’s pink tongue emerging to swipe, slick and glistening, at the impossibly soft skin of his lips made Derek shiver. His thumbs teased the sensitive skin in front of Stiles’s ears when his hands finished the journey, and ended cupping the younger man’s warm, flushed face.

     “That doesn’t make me feel better,” Derek murmured. Drifting lower to play with the belt of the robe, he wrapped it around his fingers enough to entice, but not enough to loosen the knot. “In fact, I might need a lot of consoling before tomorrow night’s game.” Old sports superstitions had no place here, unlike some athletes who wouldn’t have sex before midnight on game day. “You’ve got your work cut out for you, Stiles.”

     “The night’s still young,” Stiles retorted, voice hoarse of a sudden. The playful look in his eyes was curiously gone, his gaze turning warm and rich as honey as he looked up at Derek through his eyelashes.

     Derek was all too happy to abandon the pretense of having come here for anything but what Stiles promised in that look. It was the only fitting culmination to months of coy glances and lascivious smiles from across the playing green, late nights of breathless phone sex and quiet conversations from the road. There’d be time to catch up later, after, when they were lying sprawled in bed, too exhausted for anything but talk; right now he just wanted to savor the way Stiles tugged their bodies together, a fist in Derek’s shirt, head tilted at the perfect angle to beg for a kiss. His mouth was wet and plush and everything Derek remembered and had imagined since their last meeting, all he’d craved like a drunk too long off the bottle.

     The way Stiles kissed was the opposite of how he played baseball. On the field he was a startling juxtaposition of hyperactivity and clever strategy, and with his gangly limbs and manic energy there was something undeniably clownish about him. But Stiles knew a thing or two about playing to people’s expectations of him. He liked to run the game far enough beneath everyone’s radar that the other team rarely realized the danger until it was too late, and they fell for it time and time again, ignoring the skinny Red Sox rookie until suddenly the ninth inning was closing at a loss. Stiles had the air of a much older ball player that way, and was just bashful enough to get away with it. While his kisses were no less cunning, tongue sly and skillful, here Stiles didn’t bother to hide his competitiveness or drive to win, attacking Derek’s mouth in such a way that there was little else to do but give in. Sometimes it was interesting to make him work for it, rile him up with a challenge, but with so much of Stiles’s goofy, sarcastic demeanor a practiced act, Derek knew it meant something important that Stiles didn’t bother to hide himself or his desires when they were alone.

     Derek, by comparison, was a contact hitter, reliable and strong: he took care of the team first and himself last. Though he never wanted for attention with Stiles, who seemed to delight in taking Derek apart piece by piece, Derek’s whole bearing wasn’t to take the offensive or gain the upper hand in anything, but rather to protect himself. He’d been a little bit guarded his whole life, friendly but remote, partial to defensive plays and careful observation on the field and off. Having been screwed over too many times, not to mention growing up surrounded by explicit disapproval of a homosexual lifestyle, he couldn’t help but play his cards close to the chest.

     Letting Stiles in like this was a freefall. Although Derek’s preference for men had always been secondary to his desire to connect with someone he trusted, Stiles was the first person to make him less afraid of either, accepting Derek’s needs as carefully as he protected his own. That was why Derek went through such trouble to meet like this, despite the risks.

     Stiles savaged Derek’s mouth with unapologetic hunger, breaths harsh and desperate, and he broke away only long enough to knock the ball cap from Derek’s head and push the leather jacket from his shoulders. He got rid of Derek’s sweater a moment later, tossing somewhere on the floor beside the bed, and then Stiles’s mouth was on his again, tongue coaxing the seam of Derek’s lips open so he could lick his way inside. Stiles smelled like hotel soap and tasted like mint; the fabric of his robe was softly abrasive against the sensitive skin of Derek’s chest. Derek groaned at that, feeling hot beneath the strokes of Stiles’s long hands that seemed to land everywhere, nails dragging down Derek’s back one moment, fingers plucking his nipples to hardness the next. The best he felt he could do with Stiles, sometimes, was grab on to those slim hips and hang on for the ride, because Stiles sure as shit wouldn’t let Derek go until he was ready.

     “What we need are more naked sports,” Stiles said of a sudden, finding it in him to joke even with his cheeks flushed red, pupils swollen with want. His voice was decisive but Derek caught the tease in his expression, the twitch of a smile on his lips. Derek snorted in response, but just as quickly, Stiles’s fingers slid down the back of his jeans to grab tight handfuls of his ass, wrenching a surprised gasp from Derek’s throat and a needy buck of his hips. Feigning obliviousness, Stiles continued, “I’m so damn tired of wanting to rip those God-awful stripes off you each game. Do you know what your ass looks like in whites, Derek? The socks? Do you? It’s a fucking crime. Nude baseball would solve so many problems.”

     Enough was enough. Fighting off a grunt of irritation, Derek yanked at the sash of Stiles’s robe until the knot loosened and he was able to pull the belt free, flinging it to the floor with a muted thwack. Immediately his hands were there to slide inside, skimming warm flesh until his arms were wrapped securely around Stiles’s back and all he could feel was skin. Or he would, as soon as they got rid of rest of Derek’s clothing and Stiles’s stupid bathrobe. Impatient, he kissed and bit his way along Stiles’s jaw until he found an ear, then dragged his teeth over the lobe and blew cool air into the inner whorls until he could feel Stiles shudder against him, knees wobbling.

     “We’d sure know who all the fags are in the league, if we did that,” Derek murmured with an edge of dark humor. “I’d lose every fucking game, pop a boner each time you went round the bases. The papers would have way too much fun writing puns about bats and balls.”

     Fingers started in at Derek’s belt and the button of his jeans; Derek let Stiles feel the eager roll of his pelvis against his own naked groin. “I could deal with a few bad puns in favor of getting you out of your uniform,” quipped Stiles, “starting now.”

     The leather belt whipped free. Unnecessary theatrics; that was Stiles in a nutshell. The clatter of the buckle against a nearby surface made them both jump, and then Stiles’s hands were lowering the zipper of Derek’s jeans, slowly and with enough pressure that he felt each tooth against his erection through his briefs, made him lose all interest in anything that wasn’t getting naked or Stiles’s hands on his cock.

     But. They pretty much had to let go of each other in order for that to happen, and Stiles facilitated the process by stepping away and flashing a leer that was half reluctance, half challenge. With it, he treated Derek to a lingering glimpse of the long, pale strip of skin visible between the lapels of the robe, the espresso-dark hair around his sex and the fucking beautiful cock that arced there, hard already and wet at the tip. Derek swallowed, because—“Fuck,” he whispered.

     One of Stiles’s hands wrapped around the flushed length of his erection, eyes laughing into Derek’s as a smile curled dangerously at his lips. He gave a slow stroke and moved to sit on the edge of the bed, leaning back on one elbow in as cunning an invitation as Derek had ever seen. Stiles’s legs splayed wide so that the robe draped appealingly over his slender thighs but didn’t inhibit the view of what lay between them, nor the practiced, self-assured way he jacked himself beneath Derek’s gaze, gently squeezing the head of his cock on each upstroke. Although he more than had Derek’s attention already, Stiles propped one foot up on the bed so that not a single part of him was left to the imagination, and it was obvious how very much enjoyed seeing Derek drink him in.

     “I’d really appreciate it if you got a fucking move on with those clothes,” he said, voice even but tight. Stiles could be a bossy little prick sometimes, loved to control the actions of others almost as much as Derek loved to control himself—but in no way was he complaining. Exciting things happened when Stiles was on edge, impatient, and Derek was pretty damn good at inching him towards that precipice. Sometimes a sarcastic remark would do, but in this case a subtle smirk was enough to send a quick flash of fire through Stiles’s eyes that Derek recognized right away. Someone had just forfeited his right not to be walking funny by tomorrow morning. While Derek was itching to get Stiles under him first, maybe there’d be time later to reverse their roles; the thought hit him with a thrill of anticipation and want.

     He cocked an eyebrow and, smirking, purposely dragged out the process of lowering his jeans while Stiles looked on. There was no denying Derek had a bit of an exhibitionist streak, especially for such a rapt audience, and Stiles’s Adam’s apple bobbed satisfyingly as Derek dropped trou to midthigh, then put the show on hold while he kicked off his boots and removed his socks.

     When Derek glanced up again, ready to strip the rest off, he found Stiles had crawled back across the bed to the headboard, where he sat like the picture of utter decadence in his open robe and kiss-swollen mouth, a hand still gliding over his jutting cock. At this point Derek was obligated to hold eye contact as he slid his jeans all the way down, then did the same with his underwear. His dick was so hard that even the cool hotel air made him hiss with sensitivity, and it all but gave a happy twitch when Derek knelt on the edge of the mattress, then crawled the rest of rest of the way to Stiles on his hands and knees.

     He stopped just a smidge short of Stiles’s face, poised over the smaller man on all fours. Derek smiled when those dark eyes swept first down the length of his body and the muscles straining in his arms, then back up to Derek’s face.

     “Gonna ride me in that bathrobe?” Derek asked in a bored tone, eyebrow arched.

     At this, Stiles crowed in laughter, mouth flying open in delighted surprise. He gazed at Derek with his head tilted back, but his fast, warm breath gave away his excitement. “Don’t give me ideas,” he advised. “As it is, you’re already going to have a hard time remembering which position you play by the time I’m done with you.”

     Derek drawled, “Which position is that, again?” and Stiles grunted.

     “Shut the fuck up, Hale.”

     Not waiting for agreement, Stiles snaked his hand out to snag Derek around the waist, simultaneously managing to shimmy his shoulders out of the robe and bring Derek down on top of his body. Their cocks met in the middle and rubbed together with scarily perfect friction, and Derek moaned in stubborn disobedience to Stiles’s order. The next time Stiles released him, it was to free his arms of the robe altogether, and then he was twining his limbs around Derek’s body to tumble them onto their sides.

     Hot kisses rained down on Derek’s mouth and along the column of his throat, traveling to his chest with a hint of teeth as delicious as the scrape of dirt against skin after a home-plate slide. Stiles’s clever fingers combed through Derek’s chest hair with something approaching reverence. As the other man’s teeth closed around the fleshy peak of one nipple, Derek groaned and arched into the touch like a feline, like he hadn’t always considered himself the one with all the composure. With each nip and suck and flicker of tongue, Stiles cracked him open and rearranged the parts like a Picasso painting, all jagged edges and half-seeing eyes. Worst of it was, that’s just how Derek liked it. He liked the hands, strong and calloused from baseball, that closed firm around the bracket of his hips and held him there, kept him steady so Stiles’s clever mouth could find the tip of Derek’s bobbing cock as he slid down the bed, catching it on the flat of his tongue and easing his lips around the wet crown.

     “Christ,” hissed Derek, trying not to snap his hips into Stiles’s face in the most un-gentlemanly way possible. He was a well-endowed man, but Stiles had an uncanny, mobile mouth that could accommodate Derek’s length easily—when he chose to. Usually, like now, he elected to prolong the torture a little bit, playfully swirling his tongue around the shaft and using just enough teeth against his foreskin that Derek wanted to scream profanity to make a professional heckler blush.

     Instead of succumbing, he flopped onto his back and wrestled Stiles’s sideways-sprawled body toward the top of the bed, until Stiles got the hint and settled his knees on either side of Derek’s head. Derek didn’t miss the saucy look Stiles’s eyes flashed his way before he reattached himself to Derek’s dick, chasing after it greedily. Derek didn’t know what was worse: the change of angle or the sudden outrageous expanse of Stiles’s ass in front of his face. The sight made Derek’s entire body tingle from scalp to toes. He moaned a little to himself, overcome by the seemingly contradictory emotions of greed and the desire to make Stiles lose his ever-loving mind.

     Pausing just long enough to thank the gods of baseball and Clint Eastwood for such an embarrassment of riches, Derek dove in, wrapping one arm around Stiles’s waist to keep him flush against his ravenous mouth like otherwise he might escape, like he might vanish from between Derek’s fingers like a puff of smoke or a ball slipping off the edge of his glove. His other hand found Stiles’s shaft, already slick with leaking come, and Derek wrapped his fist around the base so he could guide the rest between his lips. He was at precisely the perfect angle for going deep—Stiles slid into Derek’s throat like gag reflexes were the stuff of memory, resulting in a buck of hips and a mangled curse from the mouth currently occupied between Derek’s legs.

     He couldn’t help but dig his free hand into the flesh of Stiles’s ass as he sucked, spreading him open to reveal his pretty hole and the dusting of dark hairs that surrounded it; Stiles was a surprisingly hairy guy for someone so fair-skinned, but the sight made Derek’s dick throb even more. And despite his slender frame, Stiles had a gorgeous, muscular ass, so tight and perfect Derek wanted to compose sonnets about it in his weaker moments. Stiles could say what he wanted about the figure Derek cut in baseball whites, but he wasn’t the one whose lithe frame looked positively, irresistibly serpentine in his tight uniform.

     The thought must’ve distracted him a little from his task. Stiles surprised him by working a long, blunt finger into his asshole, aided only by spit, and Derek’s whole body jerked helplessly. He released Stiles’s cock in retaliation and bit down, hard, into the flesh of one cheek, startling a gasp out of the other man.

     Stiles blurted out, “Oh, fuck you,” and wiggled his hips back a little as Derek kissed his way to the crease and trailed the point of his tongue in a slow line up the tender flesh of Stiles’s taint, smelling musk and warmth and traces of soap from the shower. He wanted to wrap himself in it like a cloud and never let go.

     Instead Derek wrapped both arms around Stiles’s middle, one hand still pumping the straining flesh of his cock, and let his face ride Stiles’s crease, tongue flicking and circling and alternating open-mouthed kisses against the hole with deep presses inside, feeling the muscle flutter and gently loosen. Occasionally he stopped to shift lower and tease at the darker skin of Stiles’s sac, sucking each ball into his mouth before returning to his intended target. He could do this all fucking night.

     Derek felt Stiles stop what he was doing between his legs to moan and shiver and jerk, distractedly working Derek’s cock while his finger abortively twitched inside him, but Derek could care less that Stiles was paying him slightly less attention right then, since he’d have happily spent from now until eternity eating that gorgeous ass out. It wasn’t unusual for Derek to be the one on the receiving end of a truly outstanding rim-job from Stiles’s phenomenally talented mouth, and it was easy to forget, sometimes, how much Derek also loved doing this, loved the sweat and spice of Stiles’s skin, the way Stiles loved it so much that he simply forgot to talk.

     For a little while, anyway. “Gotta fuck me, Derek,” he panted, voice hitching slightly on a whine. He started to pull away, and for a moment Derek thought about stubbornly holding him back, about thrusting his tongue so far into Stiles’s ass that coherence became a thing of the past. He wanted to hear Stiles scream. But while he might have been generous, he wasn’t that unselfish. Besides, Derek might’ve been a little addicted to the promise and need plain in Stiles’s words, wanted to feel, hear, see the slap of skin together as sharp as the first crack of wood off a split-finger pitch. Smiling to himself, Derek let Stiles go.

     As he hadn’t when he first arrived in the hotel room, Derek noticed Stiles had placed a bottle of lube and a tidy pile of condoms on the bedside table. Rather than feeling put-upon by expectation, he grabbed one of the foil packets. He was oddly comforted by the lack of pretension, the simple understanding of what they were about. Trusting that Stiles would always welcome him inside was freeing, humbling; Derek left his fears at the door when he knew Stiles was on the other side of it. Maybe afterwards they’d chat about tomorrow’s game until they fell asleep, and in the morning Stiles would get increasingly frenetic and aloof as the time drew near for Derek to take off, one of the other man’s strange quirks that hid a lot less than Stiles seemed to think; but right now Derek wasn’t worried about Stiles pushing him away or trying to hide how much he wanted Derek’s body against his own. In fact, he knew Stiles could be counted upon to make him feel even better than running out on the field to tens of thousands of fans screaming his name. The world got awfully quiet when Stiles looked at him sometimes, and in those moments Derek remembered why they kept meeting like this.

     “How do you want it?” Stiles asked. He turned to look over his shoulder at Derek, who handed him the rubber and lube.

     “Don’t care, just want you,” Derek harshed out. It was rare that he could ever decide how to take Stiles beforehand—he always wanted everything at once. Stiles, meanwhile, never failed to have something up his sleeve, as though he spent the days and hours between one meeting and the next obsessively planning what he wanted to do. That suited Derek just fine; Stiles never lacked for imagination.

     Smirking, Stiles knee-walked himself forward a bit and then sat up, and as he ripped open the condom Derek entertained himself with running his hands over the ivory skin of Stiles’s broad shoulders and the gorgeous way his torso narrowed to his waist, so slender that Derek always expected to be able to fit his hands around it. He travelled lower and got a little distracted rubbing his fingertips over the entrance to Stiles’s body, teasing with light touches that just barely pushed past the muscle.

     Derek’s leg jerked when Stiles slicked him up with a few efficient strokes, then rolled the condom over his cock before adding more lube to the outside. Attention to the small details like that was one of the things Derek loved about Stiles. Crawling farther down the bed, Stiles settled himself on his hands and knees between Derek’s thighs, still facing the other way. It wasn’t quite a reverse cowgirl—probably “cowboy” was more accurate—and Derek was curious what Stiles was going to do. Dumbfounded, he watched as Stiles levered himself upright on one hand and positioned Derek at his entrance with the other.

     “Stiles, wait,” Derek said, coming out of his daze, and tightened his grip on Stiles’s hip. He struggled into a half-sitting position, propped on one elbow, so he could prevent Stiles from simply easing back onto him. “We didn’t—you can’t be ready.” Rimming helped but it wasn’t enough, not really. Normally they needed to work up to at least three fingers before Derek could even get the tip of his cock inside.

     Stiles looked back at him again with an exasperated expression. With his boyish, tousled hair, swollen mouth, and flushed cheeks, brown eyes heavy and drugged-looking, Derek had to admit the coyness of those over-the-shoulder glances were starting to fuck with his head a bit. They made him want to bury himself inside the other man’s body despite the foggy concern for Stiles’s comfort. But that would be pretty rude, Derek reminded himself, and forced himself to hold off. From one professional to another, the thought of Stiles playing a full game of baseball tomorrow with a sore asshole made him cringe. If the Yankees won because of that, Derek wouldn’t feel good about it. Well, maybe a little bit.

     “Dude, I’ve been dying to sit on your cock for weeks,” Stiles said, a little breathless but somehow still managing to sound deadpan and affectionate at the same time. He blinked like it was killing him to put up with how slow Derek was being. “If you think I wasn’t fucking myself on four fingers before you got here, you have another think coming. Just shut the hell up and bone me.”

     Bossy Stiles could be incredibly endearing when he wanted to be, but there was nothing precious about the way he forewent waiting for Derek’s response—it was just a groan of frustrated lust anyway, Stiles wasn’t missing much—and lined them back up, a low moan escaping as he pushed back against the head of Derek’s cock until it popped inside. However expected, the sudden heat and tightness still surprised Derek enough that he slumped back against the mattress. His hands remained clamped on either side of Stiles’s hips, occasionally drifting up to trace the star map of moles that dotted his back and shoulders, and through it all Stiles continued to sit backwards until he’d taken almost all of Derek’s length, panting harshly and braced against the bed on all fours. The intensity on his face rivaled that of throwing an opening pitch.

     “Oh fuck,” Stiles slurred. He gave a small wiggle that brought his ass flush against the cradle of Derek’s pelvis, and they both moaned. “I always think I know just how fucking good you’ll feel until you’re actually inside me,” he panted, “and then I remember it’s always way better than what I imagined.”

     “I know the feeling,” gasped Derek, fighting to stop his eyes from rolling back in his head. As much as he hated the long periods between when they got to hook up, there was no denying how amazing it was that Stiles felt practically virginal again when they finally did. He wanted to say how much he’d been craving this, too, how often he dreamed about it on the road and every other waking moment away from Stiles, but it was redundant since Stiles called him up whenever he felt horny anyway—every night, basically—and Derek was sure the other man could taste the I missed you in each of his kisses.

     Stiles wasted no time. Biting his lip and craning his head around so he could watch every minute of it, he began rocking back and forth on his knees, fucking himself—vocally, always so vocally—on Derek’s cock and giving Derek a front-row seat to what had to be the most obscene show on earth. It was almost impossible not to fixate on the sight of his shaft disappearing inside Stiles’s body again and again, the bounce of his small, perfect ass.

     It was overwhelming enough to make Derek want to go brainless and limp every time Stiles pushed his hips down, but instead of giving in to the urge, he lifted his head and shoulders up to get a better view, locking his abs to keep himself upright and bracing his hands around Stiles’s waist for leverage. He began to thrust back against him in counterpoint, pushing his cock deeper as he and Stiles met in the middle, all but slamming themselves into each other. Within moments Stiles had gone a bit red in the face with effort, sweat springing up in beads at his temples and across his upper lip, and Derek could see the muscles trembling in his thighs. Instead of slowing down, however, Stiles just threw his head back and moaned, working them both harder. Like this was some kind of competition. Never had Derek met anyone so greedy for pleasure as Stiles, but the day he complained about that was the day he went into the ground.

     Derek gave one particularly hard shove that had Stiles barking out a yell and going stiff all over. He started to curse, “Fuck you and your fucking—horse-hung—” and Derek just laughed in spite of himself, feeling gleeful in a way he hadn’t since the last time he’d been able to stare Stiles down from across a baseball field.

     “Get up here and say that to my face,” he challenged, and Stiles wrenched himself off Derek’s dick with a furious grunt. Before Derek quite knew what was happening, though that was probably Stiles’s intention, he was being slammed back against the mattress by a palm against his sternum as Stiles all but leapt on top of him, straddling Derek’s hips the right way forward this time. Whatever bravado Derek had demonstrated a second ago deserted him when Stiles unceremoniously sat down on his cock, getting it inside himself without any help from his hands. The glint of Stiles’s grin was pure evil, leaving no doubt he’d done it on purpose.

     “You were saying?” he panted, crowing a little bit. “Sit on your face? What? Maybe later, Derek. I’m kinda busy right now.”

     However much Derek liked to roll his eyes and make a show of protesting Stiles’s ego, it was well-earned; the kid knew just how to drive Derek insane, and maybe himself in the process, too, alternating between long, slow undulations of his hips and sharp, flesh-slapping bounces upon Derek’s cock, using his strong runner’s legs to lift himself up and down. He was such a sight to behold that Derek frequently didn’t know what to do with himself in times like these, didn’t know how to parse the absolute gorgeousness of that lithe body and the lovely flush that spread down from Stiles’s face and neck to his chest, the sheen of sweat that glistened on his skin and the small, almost adolescent patch of chest hair nestled between his pecs.

     There was no doubt the appreciation was mutual from the way Stiles gazed down at him from half-lidded eyes, constantly running his hands up Derek’s torso, touching his arms, shoulders, cheekbones, the slightly delirious whimpers of “How are you real, Jesus Christ—”

     “Come here and kiss me,” gasped Derek, fingertips digging into the hard lines of Stiles’s hipbones, dragging down to clutch at his hardworking thighs. He was getting surprisingly close to climax already, and he’d be fucked if he was going to get off without having barely kissed Stiles because the stubborn asshole felt like making a point. What was it, even? That he made Derek crazy, made him lose all semblance of control? Shit—Derek would’ve given him that one for free.

     But Stiles wasn’t Stiles unless he was being difficult, and it didn’t come as much of a shock to Derek that his retort was a petulant “You come up here,” a pout creeping into the open, downward curve of Stiles’s mouth as he let out a low moan and his fingers curled against Derek’s ribs.

     Enough was enough. Planting his feet flat on the bed, Derek let out something close to a growl and threw his arms around Stiles’s waist, pushing up once with hips so that Stiles was jolted off-balance. He flipped them easily, sending Stiles’s shoulders crashing into the mattress with a small “oof” from them both, but then Stiles’s long legs were wrapping tight around Derek’s back and his arms were already around his neck, clinging as though channeling octopus limbs was second nature to him.

     “You’re such a fucking animal,” he hissed against Derek’s cheek and gave a determined shove of his hips, purposely goading him on, the more savage of the two of them by far despite what he happened to think of Derek’s moves in bed. Still, Derek was all too happy to indulge him with a teasing curl of his lip as he dug his hands into Stiles’s hair and yanked his head back, bruising Stiles’s mouth with his own as he started to fuck him in earnest, rocking them against the headboard and filling the room with the sound of slapping flesh. Gamely, Stiles kissed him back, wrestling his tongue past Derek’s lips and yelling unintelligibly at each thrust of Derek’s hips, trying to muffle his cries between them.

     Stiles sometimes did a weird thing in bed where he tried to run away and simultaneously pull himself closer to the source of his pleasure, and as soon as he started acting like he wanted to move in two different directions at once, Derek knew he was getting close to the edge. He understood all too well what it was like to want something desperately and be terrified of it at the same time; that was baseball in a nutshell, that was watching the perfect curveball race towards you in a slow-motion arc, a suspended moment where you could taste the crack of the bat and the sound of empty air whooshing by all at the same time. In much the same way, Stiles still scared the shit out of Derek sometimes—most all the time, being honest—but he also so very much didn’t. When Stiles wrenched his head back to pant brokenly, suddenly devoid of clever commentary and looking up at Derek with wide, startled eyes, he felt like every known and unknown variable in one.

     “Gonna come just like this?” Derek asked, meaning it as less of a taunt than it sounded but nevertheless enjoying the frustrated, determined cry Stiles gave in response. A return quip might’ve been expected, but instead Stiles jerked his arms away and crossed his wrists above his head on the pillow, which Derek obligingly closed his hands around, lacing their fingers together. The bed slammed the wall with the force of each of his thrusts, but Stiles just hitched his legs up higher until his heels were drumming Derek’s spine in a steady tattoo. He could feel the sticky wetness of Stiles’s cock rubbing between their bellies, precome leaking out of him just enough to keep his skin from chafing.

     He’d be mortified about this later, but somehow Derek wound up eating his own words when his orgasm hit, not out of nowhere but much more quickly than he could’ve anticipated, overwhelming him before he had a chance to slow down and pace himself out, get Stiles off first like the gentleman he supposedly was. But it felt too good and Stiles was too damn gorgeous beneath him, singing Derek to shipwreck with grunts and shouts of his name, commands to go faster and insistent babbling about how close he was to coming, how much he loved Derek pounding him into the mattress, the feel of Derek’s cock inside him. It was all too much to take, in the end, and Derek cried out with the unexpectedness of it as the pleasure crested and left him shaking uncontrollably. He barely managed to gasp out, “Oh fuck, Stiles—” before he gave a full-body jerk and emptied himself into the condom, fingers clenching around Stiles’s hands until his knuckles ached.

     The final few times Derek shoved into Stiles’s body wrenched a series of plaintive, keening noises from the other man, quickly turning into a frantic whine when Derek’s coordination all but deserted him. “Oh God, what are you doing, don’t stop,” Stiles gasped out, squirming furiously and hammering Derek with his heels for good measure, like he was little better than a mechanical horse who’d run out of quarters. “You fucker, I still need—”

     Rather than apologize, because he knew that’d only make Stiles more anxious, Derek pushed himself up and pulled out as gently as possible, grasping the base of his dick to keep the condom from sliding off. “I know what you need,” he said with an edge of impatience, directed more at himself than Stiles, and wriggled himself halfway down the bed until he was at crotch level and could haul Stiles’s legs over his shoulders, yanking him forward with a bit more force than was necessary. Stiles squeaked gratifyingly, then made a much more embarrassing noise when Derek shoved three fingers into his ass without warning, sinking them in up to the third knuckle. Derek was unable to contain his moan at how easily they slipped inside, how Stiles’s loosened, wet hole wrapped around his digits in a way that was frankly obscene, soft and slick as warm butter.

     Urged on by Stiles’s hoarse pleas, Derek started to fuck into him with firm, relentless strokes, pushing up with the pads of his fingers so he was rubbing constantly against Stiles’s prostate, practically milking it. Even before he bent his head to take Stiles’s cock into his mouth he felt the younger man’s legs start to spasm, hips jerking upwards in graceless, rhythmless thrusts. Then Derek had his lips wrapped around Stiles’s dick, sinking down until his nose was pressed hard against the pubic bone and he was sucking and sucking and sucking, wanting Stiles to come, not just hard, but explosively. He wanted to hear Stiles scream so fucking loud the entire floor would be phoning the front desk to complain, until Stiles couldn’t make a single smartassed comment that didn’t come out wrecked. Derek wanted the whole goddamned world to know he belonged to someone who could make him come so hard he blacked out, even if no one was allowed to know Derek was the one who’d got him there.

     It didn’t take long. Maybe two minutes passed before Stiles started yanking on Derek’s hair and bucking against his face, writhing on the bed like he was possessed or in the worst pain imaginable, back bowed until only his shoulders and the top of his head touched the mattress. Derek was practically at the point of choking himself on Stiles’s dick and he didn’t even care, letting his throat flutter and contract around the shaft, swallowing compulsively so Stiles would feel like the head of his cock was gripped a vice, all while Derek’s fingers worked and jabbed and rubbed him on the inside, breaking him down to the point of incoherence. Much to Derek’s approval, Stiles was in the process of emitting a stream of hoarse, dying-man shouts when he finally came. He gave several sharp tugs to Derek’s hair, trying to wrench him off his cock, but Derek just gripped Stiles to him more tightly and refused to budge, letting Stiles spend himself down his throat until he was flailing and making noises about oversensitivity, feet kicking.

     With a grunt of acknowledgement, Derek let him go, sucking in lungfuls of air as soon as his mouth was free. Tears had forced themselves out of the corners of his eyes from holding his breath so long, and Derek was red-faced and sweaty from exertion. It was worth it, though, to see Stiles reduced to a weak puddle on the bed, twitching with aftershocks and mewling so pathetically that Derek couldn’t hide his smile. Dropping Stiles’s legs down to the mattress, Derek crawled back up towards the headboard and pulled Stiles against him. With nothing more than a wheeze of protest, which he probably didn’t really mean anyway, Stiles let himself be gathered up into Derek’s arms and submitted to the exhausted kiss Derek pressed against his damp forehead, brushing the sweat-soaked brown hair out of the way at the same time. Now that the endorphins had worn off, Derek was amazed at how wrung-out and boneless he felt. He wanted to pass the fuck out and sleep for the next decade, which, given that they seemed to have turned the entire bed into one giant wet spot, could be problematic. Not to mention the fact that they had a game the following day.

     “That was intense,” Stiles forced out after a not-inconsiderable pause punctuated only by the sounds of heavy breathing and the occasional whimper as sore muscles and a multitude of scratches, bites, and probably even bruises made themselves known. He fell silent again for a few minutes, uncharacteristically motionless except for the idle patterns he traced across Derek’s pecs and stomach, fingernails scraping through his chest hair. Then he added, with a forced casualness Derek immediately saw through, “So you kind of just swallowed my load there, huh?”

     A tiny shudder ran through Derek at the words, though it wasn’t one of delight. He tried to hide it behind a cough. “Uh, yeah.”

     “That’s... new. Can’t say I was expecting that.”

     To anyone else that might’ve sounded like gratitude or perhaps even surprised pleasure, but Derek knew better. Derek’s unprecedented break from their routine had pinged Stiles's radar, because this? Well, there was no denying he and Stiles were pretty damn intimate both inside the bedroom and out, but they also weren’t in an established monogamous relationship. Safe sex wasn’t and should it ever be a fleeting concern, not for them. Stiles knew it and Derek knew it, and Stiles had every right to bust him on it.

     That didn’t mean Derek was possessed of the good grace to not bristle at the gentle prodding.That was further proof of Boyd’s theory, which was that the only reason Derek tolerated the mantle of the “Quiet Yankee” was because he recognized the value of silence over having nothing nice to say. And Derek didn’t often have anything nice to say, except to a small handful of people. One of them happened to be in this room, but even Stiles pushed the wrong buttons sometimes. Or often. On purpose. Derek had just gotten good at knowing how to shut him up.

     “I got carried away,” he grumbled, resisting the urge to turn his body away and further incriminate himself. “It’s not like you’d catch anything from me swallowing. If I put anyone at risk, it’s myself, so just... let’s drop it, okay?”

     “That’s not really why I mentioned it,” Stiles answered, frowning. “It was just... unexpected, is all.”

     “Yeah, you said that already.”

     Wanting very badly to dodge this conversation, Derek gently disentangled himself from around Stiles and sat up on the bed, raking a hand through his hair and debating how much of a pussy it would make him if he fled to the shower right now. Okay, yeah, so he’d acted a bit out of the norm, gotten carried away in the heat moment or whatever, but shit happened, people forgot themselves during sex all the time. Did things—said things—they didn’t mean to. At least he hadn’t come out with a marriage proposal or a messy “I love you.” No, all he’d done was swallow his lover’s jizz when one of them maybe wasn’t prepared for it. That hardly warranted a discussion, and the last thing Derek wanted was to analyze his blatant, if casual, disregard for where either of them might’ve been in the weeks leading up to this reunion, the multiple other partners they’d undoubtedly been with. Except in Derek’s case, because there were none, and the only place he’d been in the last year was wrapped firmly around Stiles’s little finger, whether or not Stiles knew it. A part of Derek kind of wanted him to, and another, larger part very much didn’t.

     Stiles’s frown was still in place as he sat up after Derek, reaching out to place a hand on his arm. Derek didn’t look at him directly, not wanting to see the concern on his face. “You’re kind of freaking out right now and I can’t figure out why.”

     As it turned out, Derek really was that much of a pussy. “I’m going to go shower,” he said, then rolled off the bed and padded in the direction of the bathroom.

     “Der—”

     He let the closing door make his apologies for him.

 

+

 

     Stiles was still naked when Derek finished his shower and returned to the bedroom with a towel around his waist, though he’d wrapped himself in the sheets and thrown the duvet, now more in need of a good wash than ever, to the floor. He was doing something on his phone and looked up when Derek sat down on the edge of the bed and stared at his hands. Enough time must’ve gone by to convince Stiles it was safe to prod again at Derek even despite the snit he was in, because there was a rustle of bedclothes and a warm cheek pressed against the back of Derek’s shoulder, followed by a gentle kiss. His arms crept around Derek’s waist and threatened to tighten should Derek choose to run away again.

     “So I can’t pretend to understand what goes through your head when you get all broody like this,” said Stiles after a moment, speaking against Derek’s skin, “but if I were to go out on a limb and guess...” He let the silence fall again, albeit for a second only, huffing out a long sigh. “You weren’t putting yourself at risk either,” he finished at last. “I mean, you were, because there’s no way you could've known, but if you’d bothered to ask me about it instead of storming off... Well, I would’ve told you there’s nothing to worry about.”

     Derek turned his head to glance at Stiles, taking him in out of the corner of his eye, and Stiles peered up at him even with his face half-hidden against Derek’s shoulder. “I wasn’t worried, Stiles,” he said reluctantly, refusing to let himself read into Stiles’s words. “I just wasn’t thinking. But I figured you would’ve given me a heads-up before now if you didn’t have a clean bill of health.” It wasn’t the responsibility of a baseball club to vet their players for STDs, but like all professional athletes, Derek and Stiles underwent regular screening and weren’t ones to avoid the doctor. Something would’ve shown up pretty quickly if either Derek or Stiles had cause for concern.

     “That’s not what I’m saying, dude.”

     Stiles pulled away and shifted around so he was sitting beside Derek rather than behind him, and drew one leg up so he could wrap his arms around his knee and rest his cheek on top of it. At first he did nothing more than watch Derek intently, but then he continued, “We’ve never really laid any ground rules what goes on when we aren’t together, Der,” he said. “Okay, yeah, we agreed this had to stay a secret and baseball comes first and everything, but I don’t think either of us ever expected to still be meeting like this a year later. Or at least I didn’t; I figured you’d get tired of me after a couple months, tops.”

     With a noise of derision, Derek lifted his eyebrows. “You’re an idiot.”

     “Well, d’you blame me?” Stiles gestured wildly with his free hand, lifting his head up. “This ain’t exactly the makings of the greatest love story ever told, man. Some dumb kid from the middle of nowhere who can kinda throw a ball pretty good, and one of the greatest shortstops in the history of the Yankees. Not to mention the hottest; Jeter can go fuck himself.”

     When this failed to earn a smile from Derek, Stiles sighed. It always made Derek uncomfortable when Stiles spoke about himself like he somehow didn’t deserve someone who cared about him, or like Derek wasn’t the one who’d been counting down the days until Stiles got tired of his moods and his arrogance and his inability to talk about things like an adult. “Stiles—”

     “I know, I know, I’m just saying. I never mentioned it ’cause it seemed it might open up a whole ’nother can of worms or something, force us to start trying to come up with labels for what we are and stuff. And I get why that could be bad, because of the way things are with the league and having to sneak around all the time. But despite all that, I just... haven’t. Been fucking around, I mean.” Licking his lips, Stiles let his eyes drift away from Derek’s face to stare at some point off in the middle distance, but just for a second. His gaze, when it returned, was steady. All in all, he had no compunctions about looking Derek in the eye like a man, even if Derek himself was reluctant to do so. “I thought if I asked you, I might not like the answer I got, and it seemed stupid to tell you I’d made the choice to stop seeing other people in case you hadn’t done the same. But now I think I probably could’ve spoken up a long time ago and we would’ve been on the same page there.”

     Embarrassment dampened the note of relief in Stiles’s voice, and seeing the younger man’s cheeks flushed red, Derek decided there was no reason not to give in to his natural instinct to reach out comfort him, curling a hand around the back of Stiles’s neck so he could play with the short hair at his nape.

     “It’s nothing I planned,” he said quietly, still feeling the need to defend himself and his actions, or lack thereof. And it was the truth, really. A year ago, he'd risked venturing to a hole-in-the-wall gay bar in Boston where no one would know his face, though he hadn’t counted on a keen pair of brown eyes watching him from across the room for most of the night. Derek had known Stiles on sight, too—impossible not to recognize the Red Sox’s heavily profiled first draft pick, the kid with the stupid hair and a curveball that’d sparked whisperings that he was the next Koufax—but before Derek could flee the bar, Stiles had approached him and, wearing the coyest smile Derek had ever seen, asked him to autograph his napkin as his hand dared to settle on Derek’s knee. Derek hadn’t looked back since.

     One of Stiles’s shoulders lifted, a bit of an awkward shrug given how he was sitting. He turned his head so that Derek’s palm fell against his face instead, and Stiles left a soft kiss against the swell of flesh below his thumb. “Me either. But I don’t, like... regret it. Even when you’re being emotionally retarded and I want to beat you over the head with my cleats.”

     “I don’t think beating someone over the head with a pair of cleats is the way to make them less retarded,” Derek deadpanned.

     Stiles smirked evilly. “Almost anything would be an improvement in your case,” he returned.

     “You know, this conversation is really making me glad I’ve taken myself off the market for you.”

     Eyebrows lifting, Stiles made a surprised sound he quickly covered up with a snort, and then suddenly Derek was being mauled to the bed, Stiles's long limbs pinning him down in an uncannily perfect wrestling hold. His towel got lost in the tangle of sheets as Stiles perched proudly on top and pinned Derek’s wrists to the mattress.

     “It sounds so official when you say it like that,” he said, smile victorious and taunting. “You gonna give me your class ring next and tell everyone we’re going steady? Let the world know you’re hitting this fine piece of ass?”

     “Your face is the only thing I feel like hitting right now,” answered Derek, feeling, for all his sarcasm, pretty content to let Stiles sit on him if that’s what made him happy. Usually good things followed.

     Sure enough, Stiles leaned in close and puffed a hot, excited breath in Derek’s ear, wriggling his hips like an overeager puppy despite the unlikelihood he’d be ready to get it up again this soon. Derek himself wouldn’t mind sleeping for a few hundred years, then waking up for round two and maybe some shower sex after, followed by room service. But when Stiles’s lips brushed the stubble along his jaw, followed by a teasing scrape of teeth, Derek couldn’t help but tilt his head back further to receive more, nor or the way his dick gave a feeble twitch that threatened to make a liar of him. What he really needed was a whole weekend—like, Thanksgiving weekend maybe, so they could cash in on all those stat holidays—to spend in bed with Stiles without having to worry about baseball or the MLB’s ridiculous double standard about homosexuality or the media or anything else. Just one fucking weekend, and then they’d see how many jokes Stiles would crack when he was too fucked-out to move.

     “Sounds dangerous,” Stiles murmured, eyes glinting in a way that said he’d definitely noticed Derek’s cock attempting to take interest in his train of thought. He stretched in a way that was decidedly catlike, his whole body going taut one moment as he arched his spine, then fluid and supple the next. The movement rubbed their cocks together and they both shivered. “I always knew you were a kinky motherfucker, Derek Hale.”

     By then Stiles’s mouth had travelled down to the base of Derek’s throat and was meandering lower, in no hurry that Derek could tell, but even the lazy pressure of lips, tongue, and teeth didn’t stop Derek from rolling his eyes hard enough that he hoped Stiles could feel it. It’d been this way right from the beginning, Stiles skirting the line between irresistible and utterly annoying; the difference was that these days Derek had a better idea of how to shut the kid up. “I kinda wish I had a gag right now, Stiles, I’m not gonna lie.”

     A slow, teasing bite to his nipple came in response, and Derek shuddered, gasping in spite of himself. Stiles worried at his flesh for a few seconds, sucking and nibbling it up into a hard, blissfully oversensitive point, only to pull away when Derek’s cock said fuck it and decided to get back in the game for real. Of course that was when Stiles chose to pull away, but the way his cheeks had flushed bright pink with satisfaction kind of made Derek’s frustration worthwhile. “You like my mouth too much to gag me,” he said truthfully, chewing on his own reddened lips.

     Derek snorted. “Not if I’m gagging you with—”

     “Nngh, okay, okay, I get your point.”

     “—food. How do you feel about room service? I could eat.”

     Derek didn’t know why people accused him of not having a sense of humour or not smiling enough, because the grin he flashed in answer to Stiles’s pained groan was fucking radiant, even if the gag was awful and they both knew it.

     “Derek,” Stiles whined, dragging out the last syllable of his name for several beats too long. He gave Derek’s wrists a final squeeze before releasing them and sliding down his body, spooning himself in against Derek’s side so he could bury his laugh in Derek’s armpit. Enjoying the closeness, even if he’d never dare call this the C-word, Derek tucked his arm in around Stiles’s waist and bundled him in tight, letting their legs slot and tangle together. In afterthought, Derek fished around for one of the blankets that wasn’t too hopelessly caught up beneath them and pulled it over their bodies, even as Stiles continued to bitch, moaning, “That was truly fucking terrible, even for you.”

     It was nothing to ruffle Stiles's hair and pepper his face with kisses until he broke off with a hilarious splutter and a series of choking noises, like a toddler trying to escape the cheek pinches of an overly affectionate aunt. “That’s what you get for being an obnoxious brat,” Derek taunted, but then let Stiles off the hook with a gentle nuzzle of lips against his temple. Stiles sighed in a way that was probably meant to sound exasperated but landed more in the vicinity of content, and burrowed closer. His stomach growled.

     “Maybe food isn’t a terrible idea,” he admitted, “but I also kind of want to nap until the end of time.”

     “So nap,” Derek said.

     “And food after?” The hopefulness in Stiles’s voice made Derek’s lips quirk. “Not room service, though. This is fucking New York, so we’re going to get a fucking New York-style pizza. The kind where the box is almost too big to fit through the door. ’Kay?”

     They went through this song and dance every time Stiles was in New York City. Nevermind that you could get perfectly good pizza in Boston or that he’d complain about indigestion and grease poisoning for literally hours afterwards, but Stiles considered it a travesty not to have pizza at every meal in this city. Still, Derek said, “Okay,” and then hesitated a second after, arriving at a decision in his mind. “I know a guy who owns a place in the West Village,” he ventured. “I used to work there when my sister and I first moved to New York.”

     Interest visibly piqued, Stiles shifted around until he was able to brace his forearms against Derek’s chest, staring down into his face. “What, like as a waiter? I can’t picture you providing service with a smile.”

     “Wasn’t that kind of place,” Derek answered ruefully. To this day, he suspected he got hired more on the basis of his scowl than his sparkling personality or talent as a server, and since hardly anyone ever ate there he’d barely made enough in tips to help with the rent. “It’s a complete dive, but I’ve never had better, and Franco will make sure no one bothers us. I don’t even think he ever told anyone I used to work there. Probably afraid it’d get him actual business.”

     “Sounds like a mafia front.”

     “I always had my suspicions, to tell you the truth.”

     Still, there was a picture of him on the wall from a million years ago, hardly recognizable in the dorky checkered apron, Franco’s floppy chef’s hat perched ironically on his head. Plus Derek had been a scrawny kid in his teens. Except maybe for his eyebrows and the buckteeth, you’d never know you were staring at the future Yankees shortstop unless you were looking for it. Laura had been trying to buy that picture off Franco for years, unsuccessfully. However much he didn’t like to brag about having given Derek Hale his first job, Franco guarded that photo jealously. “We can go there if you want. My treat.” He didn’t mention there was no way in hell Franco would ever take Derek’s money, but he was trying to get his meaning across without having to actually come out and say it.

     “You mean like on a date?” he asked, and Derek didn’t even roll his eyes at how hopeful Stiles’s voice was, his gaze bright and unabashedly happy. He sounded younger than Derek had ever heard him, every inch a twenty-two-year-old kid getting excited to go out in public with his maybe-boyfriend. Perhaps it’d come back to bite them in the ass later and perhaps it wouldn’t, but the smile on Stiles’s face alone was worth it, the force of it making his cheekbones stand out in sharp relief. Sometime in the last year he’d managed to turn Derek into an incurable romantic without either of them realizing it.

     “Yeah, like on a date,” he agreed. They’d still be hiding in plain sight but it was a start.

     Stiles ducked in to press a fast, hard kiss to Derek’s mouth, his grin even more infectious against Derek’s lips. He could tell how much Stiles was resisting the urge to start bouncing around like a kid on Christmas morning. “I’m going to fuck you so hard after this, you don’t even know.” Well, maybe not so much like a kid on Christmas morning.

     The simple honesty nevertheless made goosebumps slither up the length of Derek’s arms, across his shoulders and down his spine, and there was no way Stiles didn’t feel the tremor that ran through him. Attempting to hide it, he challenged, “Promise?”

     A wry smirk lifted the corner of Stiles’s mouth and he punched Derek’s shoulder. “Hey, I might play for the Yankees’ sworn enemy, but I always keep my promises.”

     Of that there was no doubt, and Derek let the warmth of anticipation linger in his smile as he craned his neck up to kiss Stiles again. “You better.”

 

+

 

Seven months later

 

     Chris Argent called a surprise players’ meeting two weeks after New Year’s, and for some reason Derek decided to take the train into the Bronx from where he’d been visiting Laura in Clinton Hill, snaking his way through the New York underground and avoiding all lingering stares by pulling his hat—a grey newsboy cap Stiles had gotten him for Christmas—down low and keeping his nose buried in his borrowed copy of Fortress of Solitude. Ironically, he overheard someone announce that Ryan Gosling was in the next car over, which left Derek comfortably anonymous for the entire trip.

     Maybe he thought being surrounded by strangers on a smelly subway train would help jostle him out of the bad mood he’d been in for the past few days, a mix of what was probably Seasonal Affective Disorder and something that presented suspiciously like Needy Boyfriend Syndrome. You’d think living in different states would mitigate the symptoms, but Stiles hadn’t answered his phone in almost a week, which was unlike him to say the least, and the lack of contact had made Derek irritable.

     According to his Laura, who was never one to mince words, he was acting like a sullen little bitch. Even though Stiles and Derek had spent almost a month together in California over the holidays, which included breaking the news of their relationship to their respective families (well, mostly just Stiles’s dad and best friend, since Laura already knew and was the only surviving family Derek had), there was no denying the resulting mix of concern and unease had left something of a sour taste in Derek’s mouth.

     Derek wasn’t an insecure guy, except for when he was, and he couldn’t help but wonder if they’d done the right thing by letting the cat out of the bag. Sure, they’d been together for the better part of two years by that point, and he had nothing but fond memories of the series during which they’d decided to turn their affair into something more official; he had even fonder memories of the morning after, Stiles waking him up with a tongue in Derek’s ass to follow through on the promise he’d made the previous night. They’d only gotten better since then, or so Derek thought, and of the few people who knew, everyone was mostly supportive of their coming out. That is, if you didn’t count Stiles’s father’s general air of wariness over how they expected to keep a thing like this secret indefinitely, but Derek had worried the elder Stilinski’s hesitation might scare Stiles off a little bit, make him see the folly of what they were doing. Derek knew how much Stiles needed his dad's, not that Derek blamed him. It just... rankled, especially because Derek didn’t disagree with John Stilinski’s concerns. To his credit, Stiles had sworn up and down his feelings hadn’t changed, that he was still in this to the bitter end, and had offered reassurance in the form of hard kisses and possessing hands. But that still didn’t explain where he’d disappeared to since returning to the east coast.

     Being bundled up in a hat, scarf, coat, and gloves didn’t prevent Derek from getting covered with snow on the short walk from the subway station into Yankee Stadium, and it dripped unpleasantly down the back of his neck from his hair as it started to melt. He was still dusting himself off as he met Boyd and Lahey coming in through the staff entrance to the Yankees’ front offices, and offered them a small, if sodden, smile. Lahey—Isaac—wasn’t one for hugs, not with Derek anyway, but Boyd quickly wrapped him up in a one-armed embrace that ended with a solid thump to Derek’s shoulder.

     “You still in a pissy mood?” he asked in greeting as they meandered towards the elevators. Derek had almost torn his head off that morning for drinking the last of the pulp-free orange juice, a new low even for him.

     Derek grunted. “Depends on whether you restocked the fridge while I was at Laura’s.”

     The look Boyd shot him was distinctly unimpressed, though it was hard to miss the glint of amusement in his eyes, something Derek only recognized after two years living together. “This is why I’m moving out, man,” Boys said flatly. “You’re too high maintenance.”

     “No, you’re moving out because Erica threatened to break up with you unless you bought her a ring and a nice house out in Jersey.”

     “I thought Erica was the one who proposed,” said Isaac, brow furrowed as he glanced between them.

     This earned a genuine smile from Derek. “She did. She threatened to dump Boyd if he didn’t propose, and then proposed to him herself.”

     Boyd grinned broadly. “Hey, the woman knows what she wants.”

     The elevator ride up to the big conference room was mostly silent, and when they stepped out at the fourth floor there were already a number of familiar faces present, members of the Yankees’ twenty-five-man roster catching up with one another after the holidays. No one bothered to speculate on the point of this meeting, and nor was Derek particularly concerned or curious; as frequently happened at this time of year, the Yankees had probably shuffled the team around during the December baseball meetings, and this gathering would be to announce the new trades before the information went public, a small courtesy Argent liked to show to his first-line players instead of letting them be surprised at spring training. Every player welcomed to the twenty-five-man roster between seasons had been introduced this way, provided they were in New York at the time.

     Having already wrapped up his fifth season with the Yankees and his tenth as a major-league player, Derek’s investment in player trades was at something of an all-time low. He liked all his teammates just fine, but there wasn’t anyone beyond Boyd and Isaac he’d be torn up over losing, and he was pretty sure he’d have heard something by now if one of them had been placed on waivers or had their contracts bought out by another club. Frankly, they’d neither of them be here if that’d happened, and Boyd certainly wouldn’t be looking at real estate in Jersey with his new fiancée.

     The assistant GM appeared about fifteen minutes before the meeting’s 1:00 PM start to usher everyone inside, and even in a conference room of this size the seating was limited, twenty-odd baseball players and the associated club staff taking up every inch of space. Derek, Boyd, and Isaac, as if by silent agreement, elected to stand in a corner at the back rather than fight for a spot around the table, and Derek mostly ignored the quiet conversations going on around him as he waited for the rest of the team and Chris Argent to arrive. He took note of the familiar faces who turned up and the ones that didn’t. He couldn’t help but notice Whittemore wasn’t present.

     When the man himself finally did sweep into the room, he wasted no time getting started, gesturing for silence and waiting with his arms folded until all eyes were on him. “Happy New Year, gentlemen. I’m glad you were able to make it here in this weather, and I’m sure you’re impatient to get home to your families and continue enjoying the break, so I’ll cut straight to the point. As you know, contract deadlines were up in December, and we’ve made a few important changes to the Yankees’ roster in the ensuing few weeks. Obviously there will be more additions and subtractions leading up to the new season, but as most of you know by now, I like my team to hear it from me first instead of the six o’clock news.”

     Someone dimmed the lights and then a projection screen lowered from the ceiling so that Chris could begin running through the recent trades, bringing up player stats and headshots as he went. Confirming Derek’s suspicion, Jackson Whittemore had been traded to St. Louis, which he was sure Whittemore wouldn’t be thrilled about, but whatever. Many of the other trades concerned players off the 40-man roster and a couple still to be named, which meant they could expect a few guys from the minor leagues to be joining them in the next little while.

     Derek caught himself zoning out, lost watching the gentle snowfall onto the diamond of Yankee Stadium just outside the conference room window, but then Chris cleared his throat and the overhead lights were turned back on. Wondering if they’d reached the end of the meeting without his realizing it, Derek checked his watch and was surprised to see forty-five minutes had already flown by.

     “We’re at the end of the round-up,” said Chris, “but I wanted to finish off by introducing you personally to a new trade who was able to be here today in the flesh. We were lucky to sign him as result of some truly idiotic decisions made on the behalf of his former club, and couple years ago, we’d have paid through the nose for this kind of Type A free agent. But in this case even our losses are very much our gain, to say nothing of the other guys.” There were a few quiet chuckles from some of the veteran players who knew almost no price was too high for the Yankees once they set their sights on someone, but Derek could tell Chris had the interested attention of everyone in the room. “I won’t bother recapping all the relevant stats for you here, since you probably know him best as the thorn in our side these last few seasons. But be civil, because this kid will probably end up saving most of your asses out there at some point in the next couple years.”

     Even before Chris nodded at the AGM to open the conference door, Derek’s mouth had gone completely dry at the speech. Somehow Argent had managed to stir up completely contradictory feelings in Derek, emotions waffling between sudden, gut-wrenching hope and the certainty that he was only making connections where none existed, that just because Stiles’s contract had expired this year didn’t mean the Red Sox hadn’t fought tooth and nail to get him back for another term. The last Derek had heard, arbitration had fallen in Stiles’s favour, especially after his recent win of the Cy Young Award in November, but he’d been confident the Boston would come back with a more competitive offer before the second week of December. There was no way a wealthy club like that would let such an up-and-comer slip through their fingers. Call it moneyball or sabermetrics or good old-fashioned intuition—call it whatever the fuck you wanted—Stiles had it all, both on paper and in person. No, he was going to be playing his fourth season, and probably the fifth and sixth, with the club who’d first drafted him out of school.

     “Has Argent ever considered a career as a used car salesman?” muttered Boyd under his breath. “It’s like he’s stayed up all night writing that pitch.” The comment surprised a snorted laugh out of Isaac, but Derek kept his eyes on the door, heart pounding in his throat.

     Though he gave no outward sign of having overheard Boyd’s remark, Argent smiled ruefully and clapped his hands together, saying, “But that’s enough out of me,” and that had to have been the signal because the door opened with perfect, almost rehearsed, dramatic effect, and Derek suddenly regretted his decision not to grab a chair so he could sit down. “I’d like to officially welcome to the Yankees our new pitcher, Mr. Stiles Stilinski, formerly of the Boston Red Sox.”

     Stiles, actual New York fucking Yankee Stiles Stilinski, stepped into the room with broad, nervous smile on his face, and scratched behind his ear in such a tellingly insecure way that Derek would’ve chuckled affectionately if he hadn’t been so busy feeling his stomach drop to his feet, not with dread, but something equally overwhelming.

     There was a sudden pressure on Derek’s arm, and he didn’t realize it was Isaac gripping his bicep until the younger player said, “Holy shit, it’s your sworn fucking enemy,” and earned an answering grunt from Boyd.

     “Hey everyone,” greeted the man in question, waving once and sidling up next to Chris Argent at the head of the conference table. His eyes swept around the room but ultimately settled on Derek, finding him as unerringly as ever. Derek might’ve been struck dumb, unable to stop a million thoughts from reeling through his brain at once, but he wasn’t so gone that he couldn’t meet his lover’s glinting, clever gaze and hold it. One corner of Stiles’s mouth quirked up before he bit down on his lip, glancing up from under his eyelashes in a way that could only mean I’m sorry, I know I’m a dickhead, I’ll explain everything later but please don’t kill me before then.

     Out loud, he said, “I’m Stiles, and I’m really glad—like, really, unbelievably glad—to be in New York. So thanks for having me.” An errant dimple appeared in one cheek as he grinned, and that sheepish, unguarded expression alone would be enough to have the entire team eating from the palm of his hand before this meeting was adjourned. It was practiced, that grin, and there was no doubt Stiles knew exactly the effect it had, but it was clear the moment he went off-script, face flushing in undeniable pleasure when Derek finally found his balls again and offered a tentative smile in return.

     “Your initiation is gonna suck,” someone called out, initiating a round of laughter, and Stiles just nodded ruefully.

     “Right,” answered Stiles good-naturedly. “I’ll just mark that down on my to-do list after figuring out your fucked-up subway system and finding a place to live that doesn’t cost me $3 million a month in rent.”

     “Looking for a roomate?” asked Boyd. Derek glanced over in surprise and found the other man’s posture completely relaxed, smiling indulgently at Stiles before he glanced at Derek. “Hale here is on the market for a new tenant as long as you don’t mind dealing with his angry eyebrows all the time.”

     Derek, once upon a time, had told Stiles about his soon-to-be former roommate’s deadpan sense of humour, and Stiles knew Boyd was moving out to live with his fiancée, but the comment still seemed to startle a laugh out of Stiles, whose entire face seemed to open up wide with delight. “I think I could learn to live with that,” he said coyly, and Derek’s whole body went hot with answering joy.

     “Come find me after the meeting and we’ll talk,” he told Stiles, nonchalant, except he had to stuff his hands into the pockets of his coat to hide how badly his fingers had started to tremble. “Welcome to New York.”

 

Fin