Heads hung and feet shuffled as the San Diego Padres trudged back into the clubhouse after yet another crushing defeat. Captain Mike Lawson brought up the rear.
The team was enjoying a miserable start to the regular season and morale was at an all time low.
Mike would have to be an idiot not to know he was partially (mostly) responsible for the latter and that the latter had definitely affected the former. While he was definitely an idiot about many things, baseball typically wasn’t one of them.
He’d been at a loss when they first started down this losing streak and, seven games later, still couldn’t quite figure out what to say to pull the team out of its funk. Not when he was in such a rut of his own and had been since the end of Spring Training.
In retrospect, it was something of a miracle that they’d had an okay run in Arizona, coming out of the Cactus League with more wins than losses and a solid 25-man roster.
Well, 24-man-and-1-woman roster.
Which was his whole problem, wasn’t it? Or at least the lion’s share of it.
(Not that a woman was involved, just which particular woman it was.)
He would’ve killed, or at least done some morally objectionable things, for the chance to lick his wounds in private and not be confronted with Baker’s wounded/confused face everywhere he turned, but Mike’d missed out on making it as an assassin a long time ago. So, he just had to stew in this seething mire of disappointment and jealousy and anger that he knew was entirely irrational. All while having to share a clubhouse and a dugout and what felt like his entire goddamn life with the woman.
(Mike was well aware that it was only his bruised pride that made him wish, even for a moment, that Oscar and Al had decided to send her back down until her arm was back at 100%. But that hadn’t stopped him from thinking it.
He’d always known he was an asshole, but that thought killed any hope of being the kind of asshole people liked in spite of themselves.)
“We’ll get ‘em next time,” he said, half-hearted.
Only a few guys nodded back, the rest moodily starting to undress so they could hit the showers.
Instinctively, he glanced around, hoping someone would look at him, give him a nod that said, “I got your back.” If he was being honest, he even knew who he wanted that person to be, in spite of everything.
Ginny’d already disappeared into her changing room.
It wasn’t another fucking punch to the gut.
Not at all.
Later, shivering in his ice bath, he came to terms with a few things.
1) This was his last season of professional baseball. He’d announced it to the team in Arizona, but hadn’t yet let his agent make a statement to the press. It still didn’t always feel real.
2) It didn’t matter what fucking shakeups the Front Office went through, Mike was leaving the game a Padre. He would die in this uniform if it came to that.
3) He didn’t want to go out on a low note. Which was going to be something of an uphill battle the way his season was going. It may have been years since he tasted late October air on the field, but he had also never played a first month as bad as this one.
4) Christ. He was going to have to do something, wasn’t he? For at least the next five months, he was still captain of the Padres. Which meant it was his responsibility to pull his head out of his ass, stop being such a moody son of a bitch, and get the team back on track.
Mike would love to say that he was being a moody asshole for reasons that had nothing to do with his favorite pitcher, but that would be a god damn lie.
(And, Christ. Yes, he had a fucking favorite, okay?)
Even if very little remained of what’d made her his favorite in the first place. Ginny didn’t tease or prod or joke, hardly even made eye contact anymore. When he caught for her—only once of her three regular season starts so far—she followed his calls without fail, remained silent any time he decided to make a visit to the mound, her eyes cast to the ground. Mike could feel her cringe away any time he stepped too close and every single fucking time, it made his heart sink into the pit of his stomach.
Not that he didn’t deserve it because— Honestly, he still couldn’t believe it sometimes.
He’d kissed her.
Drunk and bitter about Rachel leaving him again, he’d kissed her. Probably more than a little bitter about the smiles Ginny was offering to other guys, he’d kissed her.
Guys she didn’t even know. Who didn’t deserve one shred of her attention. (Not that Mike could relate to that. At all.)
So he’d started needling her because if there was one thing Ginny Baker couldn’t do, it was resist taking the bait.
The whole process of getting from Ginny stomping up to him in the bar, fire in her eyes, to having her sandwiched between the building and his body was still a little fuzzy, even weeks later. Why wouldn’t it be when he couldn’t get the hitch of her breath into his mouth out of his head? Or the way she’d been pressed so sweetly against him, her warmth seeking his?
Mike wanted to live in those few minutes he’d had her in his arms.
Right up until Ginny flat out told him kissing him was a mistake.
Which shouldn’t have come as such a fucking shock. Honestly, what else had he expected? That she’d be thrilled to make out with some has-been who’d been nothing but awful to her the past few weeks?
It didn’t matter what he’d thought as she sighed into his mouth: that the silver lining of being told it’d take a miracle for him to walk—not crawl or be carried—off the field if he tried for more than this last season had been Ginny and her perfect fucking smile and the way she made him feel. Had been the idea that they could maybe get over the bullshit he’d thrown in their way because that was what he did best. Had been the thought that they might actually make each other happy for all they were viciously effective at the opposite.
It didn’t matter because Ginny didn’t want that.
She didn’t want him.
And that was fine. It had to be fine, even when the sudden memory of that fact sometimes made his knees want to give out more than any stress or strain from playing ever had.
Mike could be the grown up here, not that he’d done much to prove it lately. If it meant going out as a respected and valued member of his team and not the morale-killer he currently was, he could do a lot. Even if that meant locking up the mangled heart that was left to him and pretending he was doing just fine.
That didn’t mean it wasn’t going to hurt like a motherfucker, though.
So, sitting in a metal tub, freezing his balls off as chunks of ice slowly melted around him, Mike Lawson came to terms with a few things. He came to terms with them and groaned out the one word that adequately encapsulated his situation.
“Well, Mike,” Oscar said doubtfully, already reaching for the phone in his pocket, “if you’re sure that’s what you want.”
“It is,” he affirmed with a frown.
Oscar just sighed and excused himself. No doubt to cancel some event in Mike’s honor he’d already put into motion. Mike didn’t even feel that bad. It wasn’t like the GM had asked him beforehand. Then again, Oscar’s track record with actually asking things of Mike wasn’t too hot, either.
Both Mike and Al watched the man go, but while Mike’s attention remained on the door and clubhouse beyond, the older man’s shifted. Having played for the man for so long, Mike didn’t need to look to confirm Al’s speculative frown.
And if he didn’t see it, maybe he didn’t have to acknowledge it either.
Roughly, he shoved to his feet. “We done here?”
He kept his body angled towards the door, though the heavy sigh that preceded Al’s words painted a picture all on its own. Mike may have gotten used to being a disappointment, but it never stopped stinging.
“I suppose so, Mike.”
Without a backwards glance, he walked out of Skip’s office, shoulders tense. He was probably undoing all the work Kiki’d already put into his back today, but he didn’t give a shit.
He’d just had the worst conversation of his life, and his wife had once told him in excruciating detail exactly why she was leaving him for the pediatric heart surgeon, so he knew bad conversations when he had them.
Suffice it to say, Mike should’ve known going in just how bad it would get. Especially since it was called at the President of Baseball Operation’s request.
Charlie Graham could go fuck himself. Mike didn’t owe that guy a thing, especially when he didn’t even bother to show up to the meeting he’d wanted in the first place. Al, and even Oscar, though, he owed it to them to try and work out a game plan, an exit strategy, even if he was against 95% of what it entailed.
Mike Lawson’s Goodbye Season. Tickets on sale now.
He snorted, derisive.
He may be retiring at the end of the year, but he didn’t want to make a big deal out of it. He didn’t want the farewell tour or the tributes or the weird fucking gifts from teams he’d spent his career trying to grind into the dirt. All Mike wanted was to play his last season and then disappear into the sunset. Or maybe something marginally less dramatic, but it wasn’t like he fucking knew what he wanted.
(Well, of the things he could have, he didn’t know what he wanted.)
Like the universe heard him and hated him, a bright, distinctive laugh rang through the clubhouse.
Almost instinctually, Mike turned towards it. A few bad months weren’t enough to erase his reaction to that sound.
Standing in the opening to the round locker room, Mike had a clear view of the whole team. Most everyone was dressed already. With only forty-five minutes to game time, they’d better be.
But where some guys were hunched in their chairs, headphones on, trying to get into game mode, others took a more laid back approach.
And though Mike never thought he’d live to see the day, Ginny Baker was one of the latter.
She lolled in one of the chairs, leg hooked over the armrest, other foot idly spinning the seat back and forth. True, she wasn’t pitching today, and true, she’d already put in her work with her trainers, but it was still strange to see her so relaxed in the clubhouse. Mike tried to rack his memory, recall if he’d ever seen her quite so boneless and content, even when they were at their best, but he came up empty.
Adding insult to injury was who exactly had her so relaxed.
Sprawled on one of the couches nearby, Blip grinned, face lit up with what must have been a good joke. Not that Mike had heard many of Blip’s jokes lately.
While he’d made good inroads with most of the team, bankrolling post-game celebrations and even letting that pack of animals throw a party at his house, there were still some holdouts.
Blip was the one who hurt the most.
It sucked that Salvi and Voorhies still weren’t completely sold on Mike’s new attitude—like it didn’t matter that the Padres had clawed their way up from the bottom of the National League in the past few weeks, settling in for a slog to the top if Mike had anything to say about it—but Mike would get over it. They weren’t his best friends.
That was Blip.
(That had been Ginny.)
So, looking at the man who’d been his closest friend for the past four years joking around with Ginny, that stung.
Not as much as it stung that the third member of their little club was the guy who’d been signed to replace him, though.
Mike couldn’t care less that Livan was still a little shit who delighted in needling his captain, lording every start over his head like it was another nail in Mike Lawson’s coffin. On a certain level, Mike couldn’t fault him.
On almost every other level, though...
Bitter barbs of jealousy roiled in his gut. That and the knowledge that he was going to give up the one thing in the world he was good at in the not too distant future. He hadn’t been good at being married or being a son. He’d never done well in school, and his phase two was a bust before he’d even gotten to it. The one thing that Mike had ever loved and managed to keep in his life was baseball and every day/hour/minute/second that ticked by, he could feel it slipping from his grasp.
All while that fucker was just getting started.
(To make matters worse, he was just getting started with Ginny.)
Mike would give it up and Livan would take his place. Had already taken his place from the looks of it.
But where a month or even a few weeks ago Mike would have let all that vitriol spew forth, today he kept it in check. He didn’t interrupt the meeting of the new Best Friends Club, no matter how much he might like to. He stepped into the room, and though he didn’t do anything to temper the thunderous frown on his face, he kept quiet. He didn’t need to look to know that Ginny’s eyes followed him, wary, or that her shoulders crept closer to her ears, waiting for whatever bullshit he was going to throw her way.
And it was bullshit.
Mike had known that the minute he started needling her back in Arizona. He was jealous, even though he had Rachel and wanted so desperately to be happy with her. At the beginning, the first day of training, he hadn’t even let himself look at Ginny, too afraid that one glimpse of her would remind him why he found it so hard to just want the woman he’d married.
Too soon, though, it wasn’t about Rachel at all. It was all about Ginny. Ginny’s laugh and Ginny’s smile. Ginny teasing Livan the way she’d used to tease Mike.
He’d reacted like a child, jealous of a new sibling getting more attention and desperate to get some back. Mike knew that now and wasn’t proud of it.
Not that it made much of a difference.
So, determined to show that he was trying to be better—for the team and the fans and even Ginny herself—Mike breathed through the ugly feelings clawing up his throat. He shoved them down into the pit of his stomach where he stored all the shit he didn’t like dealing with—his mom, his dad, his imminent retirement, Rachel, Ginny, the likelihood that he would spend the rest of his life alone...
The list went on.
What was one more item?
Blowing out a controlled breath, Mike let go of it all. Everything but baseball and the game he wanted, needed, to win was gone.
Was it healthy? Fuck no. He wasn’t even sure it was sustainable, but Mike was going to hold onto the one thing left to him while he still had it.
Everything else was gone already.
Without thinking about it, Mike’s gear bag was slung over his shoulder and he was headed for the dugout, walking away from his friend, his replacement, and his pitcher without a word.
It was too much to ask that no one had noticed the gaping chasm between captain Mike Lawson and not-rookie Ginny Baker. But where that kind of distance could maybe be explained away during Spring Training with all the extra players in the mix, during the regular season, it was glaringly obvious. And not just to over-invested fans with a blog and a Twitter account.
No, this was now being discussed on the Whip Around and SportsCenter. Discussed and analyzed, though thankfully no one managed to hit on the underlying cause of it.
(Bad enough that his team, fans, and sports journalists were all speculating about the apparent feud with his pitcher, it would be fucking mortifying if they knew it was all because he’d been such an asshole that he made the mistake of kissing her; of being deluded enough to think she wanted him to kiss her.)
If he’d bothered to ask, well, anyone, Mike would’ve learned that the consensus was that a blow up was long overdue.
Of course, Mike didn’t bother to ask questions he didn’t want the answer to. Particularly when he was privy to information that would definitely affect that consensus. Namely, that there’d already been a blow up.
But maybe a second one was past due.
Because while Mike had managed to keep his goddamn mouth shut every time some asshole comment wanted to break free, things between him and Ginny hadn’t improved. Ginny still shied away from any interaction with Mike and Mike still went stony and reticent whenever someone brought her up. Arguably, it was an improvement over where they’d been in the middle of spring training, but that wasn’t saying much.
They needed to clear the air.
Unfortunately, all Mike knew about clearing the air was throwing dynamite at the problem, ducking for cover, and waiting for the dust to settle. Hence the second blow up.
Was it so wrong, though, that he didn’t want to do that again? Not that he’d approach this one anything other than 100% sober and 80% apologetic. No encroaching on personal space or saying things that he hadn’t gone over at least twice in his head first. Not that any of that meant all that much considering how easily Ginny’s mere presence seemed to eat away at his self control.
Mike told himself that it wasn’t like Ginny was entirely innocent. She’d thrown too many barbs of her own back in Arizona to claim that.
Somehow, it never made him feel better.
Still, it didn’t really matter how he felt, not when the bullshit between him and Baker was now officially a distraction to the team. (He hadn’t missed the muttering or the too-quick channel changes on clubhouse TVs any time he entered the room. He also hadn’t missed the fact that they’d lost three of their last five games. Games where they should’ve at least put up a decent showing rather than doing their best Bad News Bears impressions—before Matthau whipped them all into shape. They were on a slippery slope back to where they’d been at the beginning of the season.)
Which was why Mike cornered Ginny in the trainer’s room.
Usually, she came in, got her arm wrap, and went back to her cubby to ice in peace. Not today, though.
Mike jerked his head at the intern on duty, who was slower to get out than anyone would’ve been last season. The wary glance between pitcher and catcher told Mike exactly why. Still, the kid left without saying anything, pulling the door closed behind him.
Ginny just shifted her weight between her feet, the only tell as to how uncomfortable she was right now. Otherwise, she was inscrutable. She stared at him with that carefully blank face, the Baker Bot out in full force.
Mike fucking hated it. She couldn’t do him the decency of giving him something? Anger or hurt or sadness? Hell, he’d even take hatred at this point, even though he knew the sight of Ginny Baker’s unadulterated loathing directed at him would probably shred his heart.
Whatever was left of it, anyway.
“I—” He shook his head and cleared his throat. “I wanted to apologize.”
“For what,” she returned, flat.
Clearly, it wasn’t a brush off of his apology. She wanted specifics.
“For the way I’ve treated you. In Arizona. And before that even. There was a lot of other shit going on”—he and Rachel trying and mostly failing to make it work, the three separate sports therapists he’d seen in an effort to get one to tell him he wasn’t falling apart at the seams, not to mention the feelings that he allowed to implode—”and I took my frustration with that out on you, which wasn’t fair.”
She snorted and Mike had to remind himself that she was well within her right to be pissed. She was well within her right to tell him to fuck off and go straight to Deadspin about what a misogynistic asshole Mike Lawson was.
“Not fair? You think that’s the problem here?” she scoffed, cradling her right arm against her stomach like it was still too weak to hang on its own. It didn’t seem to cut her anger any, though. Ginny barreled on, letting loose some of her frustrations. They’d clearly been bottled up. “If I waited around for fair, I’d still be stuck in Tarboro, wishing someone would give me a chance. Don’t tell me you’re sorry because you weren’t being fair.”
He blew out a breath through his nose, arms coming up to cross over his chest. “Well, why don’t you tell me what I should be apologizing for, then.”
As soon as the words were out of his mouth, Mike remembered the last time he said something similar. Probably a good idea not to think about his wife leaving him right now, though.
Ginny just stared at him. Like she couldn’t quite believe what had just come out of his mouth. Mike stared back. Her mouth hardened, jaw clenching.
“Fine. You should just apologize for being a dick. Not for being unfair. Because while it was and I still have no idea what the hell was wrong with you all of spring training, I’m used to unfair. I wasn’t used to you being such a fucking bully.”
He winced at the past tense. She hadn’t been used to it, but now she was.
At the same time, she didn’t ask for an apology for the kiss. Mike wasn’t sure if she just wanted to forget it even happened or didn’t want to push her luck.
“I am sorry, Baker,” he said, looking her right in the eyes. Christ, he couldn’t even remember the last time they’d had this kind of eye contact. One of them was always looking away. Usually Ginny. “For all of it. You didn’t deserve any of my bullshit and the fact that you’re still willing to play on the same field as me, let alone for the same team, is a fucking miracle.”
He watched her lips quiver, like she wanted to smile, but wouldn’t let herself.
Mike pushed on. “I don’t need you to forgive me right away. I know it’s gonna take time, but I don’t have that much left. Not with the team, anyway. And the team needs to present a united front if we wanna make a run at a pennant this year. We need to be on the same side.”
Ginny’s eyes dropped from his, uncertainty clouding her face.
Shit! He’d been so close. Mike scrambled for something, anything, to set her mind at ease, but Ginny deflated, nearly curling in on herself protectively. Doing her best to keep him out of her space.
Jesus, how hadn’t he figured?
“‘M not gonna kiss you again,” he murmured, voice low to keep the busybodies no doubt eavesdropping in the hall from overhearing. What was it about a closed door that invited such curiosity from a bunch of grown men? He didn’t mind them hearing everything else, but this was between him and her. Ginny’s gaze cut straight back to his, surprise etched over her features. He guessed it was something of a surprise that he could still read her so well. “So can we just go back to being teammates?”
Of course, that assumed they’d ever been just teammates, but Mike couldn’t take walking around with this pit of bile swirling inside him anymore; it was eating away at him. And he definitely couldn’t take ESPN talking about it like it was news worth sharing.
“You’re not?” she asked, brow wrinkled in what had to be suspicion, lips tugged into a contemplative frown.
“No,” he replied, even though it killed him that he’d never know what it was like to kiss her when she actually wanted him to. “Learned my lesson.”
Ginny was still frowning as she nodded, slow and more than a little unsure. “Teammates,” she finally agreed, her tone guarded.
Mike didn’t care.
It was better than what he’d had to start the day.
It was no surprise that Ginny was selected to her second All Star squad in her second season. Even though the Padres had toiled to pull themselves out of the hole they’d dug at the beginning of the season, Ginny’d had mostly solid starts from the beginning, her ERA significantly lower than what it’d been this time last year.
What was the surprise, though, was the fact that Mike was also selected. To both the squad and the Home Run Derby team.
(What could he say? Facing down retirement and the antipathy if not outright hostility of his teammates had lit a fire under his ass.)
Upon hearing the news, Mike texted Ginny: Congrats, All Star. Drinks? I’m buying.
When his phone started buzzing in his hand, before he even got a chance to slide it back into his pocket, Mike took a second to stare at the “Ginny Baker” displayed on the screen.
The past month, he had put a lot of effort into being teammates and friends—just friends—with Ginny. He was constantly aware of the need to check himself, keep from falling even deeper into his feelings for her. If he was also aware of how different this all was from last season, Mike figured that was the difference between knowing he’d caught feelings and being blindsided by them.
But he wanted her friendship, the easy camaraderie they’d once had, almost more than he wanted to kiss her again. And Mike fucking dreamed about kissing Ginny again. He knew that wasn’t happening, though.
Friends it was.
So, they’d chatted a few times on the phone, about easy things, like Mike coming in late to the clubhouse or the new and unique Ginnsanity posters he’d managed to pick out during a game. Nothing like their late night talks from last season, though, where conversation flowed so easily, a natural extension of their rapport on the field. (If he lived in hope that some day they’d make it back there, Mike played that pretty close to the chest.)
He accepted the call.
“What’s on your mind, Baker?” he drawled, spinning his keyring around his finger as he walked out the door. If she didn’t want to get drinks, she would’ve just texted him that. There was something else weighing on her.
“Drinks are good,” she started, only a little hesitant. Still, Mike could practically picture her pacing her room, tugging on her lip the way she did when she considered a problem. But then the reason for that hesitance became clear when she asked, “Just us?”
Every so often, they ran up against the slowly healing wounds of their past and things got a little awkward. Neither was all that eager to verbalize any more of their feelings, which made those awkward patches even harder to navigate.
"There another All Star on the team I’m unaware of?”
The silence before she replied, “No,” was longer than the question probably deserved.
Mike sighed. “Listen. Why don’t you save whatever’s eating at you for when I can look you in the eye and tell you you’re overthinking this, okay?”
Ginny huffed but didn’t disagree. “I pick the place, though,” she bargained, needing to win something in this conversation.
“Yeah, fine. Send me the address.”
When Mike walked into the shitty dive bar all the fucking way in El Cajon—which, he really did not want to know who’d been bringing Ginny Baker to shitty dives in El Cajon—he realized he maybe should have questioned why she wanted to meet here before this.
Because it was pretty clear from the number of empties surrounding her, Ginny’d been here awhile. Since before he’d even sent her the message, probably.
Still, Mike made his way over to her seat at the bar, the soles of his boots sticking unpleasantly to the floor, and sat beside her. Ginny didn’t look up from where she was glowering ferociously at her mostly empty bottle of beer.
“Who pissed in your corn flakes?” Mike asked, signaling the bartender for another round. He wasn’t starting tomorrow and neither was she, so he didn’t see the harm. Besides, it was rare enough to see Ginny so visibly and obviously bent out of shape. She deserved a little indulgence when it happened.
“That seems avoidable,” he observed easily. It wasn’t that he thought he could cajole her out of her bad mood, but it wasn’t like it’d hurt to try.
Ginny turned to face him, eyes remarkably clear for the amount of beer she’d put away. Then again, there was also probably a Double-Double and fries in her stomach, soaking up most of the alcohol. The woman couldn’t resist her burgers.
“I’m a fraud,” she said plainly.
Equally plain, and vividly recalling the last time he had this conversation with her, he replied, “You’re not a fraud.”
“I feel like one.”
“Well, I feel like I’ve got another two years left in my knees, but that doesn’t make it true.”
Ginny’s lips pursed in a little pout, so Mike looked away. Thankfully, the bartender chose that moment to return with their drinks, so it even seemed natural.
“I shouldn’t be an All Star,” she tried again. “I’ve got the worst ERA in the lineup—”
“You’re like a run and a half off—”
“—and there’s no way this isn’t just another publicity stunt by the league. I wonder what hashtag they used this year.”
Mike wasn’t used to Ginny sounding quite so bitter. That was his thing. Even when they’d been at each other’s throats, she’d mostly reacted, lashing out because he pushed and prodded until she had to. Well, if she’d learned it from him, she couldn’t ask for a better teacher.
Still, it wasn’t a good look on her.
Turning on his stool, Mike did his best to reassure her. “That’s not—”
“Please,” she spat, cutting him off. “I know I’m just Eddie Gaedel around here.”
Well, at least she’s given up the martyr routine.
Mike didn’t wince at the thought, but he was glad he’d managed to keep it stuffed behind his teeth. That was the kind of shit that got him here in the first place. Those jabs were coming less frequently, now, as they navigated their way slowly towards a tentative friendship, but Mike was all too aware that one poorly timed joke or backhanded compliment could unravel the fragile truce they’d built.
He did wince wondering if she’d somehow heard what he’d said about her that first start, more than a year ago. He doubted anyone’d blabbed to her, but it was so specific. Pushing down the guilt, he eyed her, wondering if this self-doubt was always simmering beneath the surface of Ginny Baker. She was so good at hiding it most of the time.
“You’ve made it an entire year, Baker. You know how hard that is? And you came back from an injury. You’re the real deal, not just some publicity stunt to sell more tickets.”
She made a disbelieving sound in the back of her throat and picked discontentedly at the label on her beer.
“Maybe, but it’s not like anyone takes me seriously.”
“You made this squad on your own merit, not ‘cause MLB pulled some strings. How much more seriously do you want people to take you? You’re a fucking All Star for Christ’s sake.”
“I won the popular vote because people know my name, not because I actually deserve to be an All Star.”
“You know I won the popular vote like three times, right?”
An acidic smile tugged at her mouth and it turned Mike’s stomach. Christ, he hated seeing her unhappy.
“Yeah. Just no one ever told you that you’d be a better asset to your team waiting in the locker room on your knees, mouth open,” she muttered, hunching sullenly over her drink.
Mike burned. Burned with shame that anything he’d ever said or done made Ginny think he came even close to thinking that of her. And burned with rage that some shithead had the nerve to tell her that and still managed to walk away with the use of all four limbs.
“Who the fuck said that to you?” he demanded, ready to shove off his stool, out of the bar, and into the early evening to track down the son of a bitch.
Ginny just shook her head. “It doesn’t matter.”
“Of course it fucking matters! Who the fuck thought they had the right to spew that kind of bullshit at you?”
She looked at him out of the corner of her eye, one brow raised, and Mike wilted a little. He tried to tell himself that his bullshit had been different. Clearly, it hadn’t been different enough.
“It doesn’t matter,” she repeated, taking a slug from her beer and wrinkling her nose. Mike knew why she drank it, despite hating the taste, but he wished she didn’t feel like she had to. “It’s not like I believe it, but it’s hard to shake off the fact that other people do.”
“The people who matter don’t.”
Ginny finally turned to look at him full in the face. There was too much doubt in her wide, dark eyes.
“They don’t,” he pressed, leaning an elbow on the bar to keep from leaning into her space. That wasn’t what she needed. Or wanted. “Blip and Ev don’t. The rest of the team doesn’t. Neither does Al or the coaching staff. Or Oscar and the front office.”
“And what about you?”
Mike tried to shake off the way her husky murmur made his heart begin to pound and tried to focus on the fact that his opinion mattered again. That was the win. Especially since nothing was ever going to happen about the way almost everything about Ginny made his heart pound.
He thought about brushing it off, responding with a joke, like this didn’t mean the fucking world to him. But the uncertainty and hesitance on Ginny’s face convinced him otherwise.
“I don’t think that either.”
She sniffed, neither unimpressed nor looking like tears were imminent. Sometimes a sniff was just a sniff.
“Now that your pity party’s over—” Ginny laughed at that, taken aback but not mad. “—can we get outta here?”
“Yeah, old man. It’s getting close to your bedtime isn’t it?” she teased and Mike struggled not to light up. Fuck he’d missed this.
“You’d need the energy too if you had to drive all the way to El Cajon to give your pitcher a pep talk.”
Her smile this time was a little softer, but it hit him just as hard.
“Thanks for coming,” she said, fishing her phone out of her pocket. “You can go, I’ll just wait for my car to get here.”
“Nah, c’mon. I’ll take you.”
Someday soon—he fucking hoped—she’d stop looking quite so wary when he offered up these meaningless favors: a piece of gum, running hitters, a spot to sit, a bit of advice. She’d stop looking at him like she expected him to spit at her, not that he didn’t deserve the wary caution. He understood that reforming their friendship would be harder, more work than falling into it in the first place had been, but he would wait her out if it meant getting back to what they had been before he fucked it all up. He could be patient.
For Ginny, he was coming to realize, he could do a lot of things.
“Lawson,” Ginny called from across the clubhouse, “you coming out with us?”
On the one hand, the team had just surged ahead in the standings, steadily clawing their way up to a Wild Card spot. If anything deserved a celebration, it was this.
And, personally, he was tempted to agree because he finally felt like his teammates actually wanted him to come. The Padres had come back around on Mike Lawson, a development that certainly didn’t hinder their newfound success on the field.
He should’ve known that Ginny’d be the key to winning back the rest of the team. Once they seemed satisfied that pitcher and catcher had buried the hatchet, Mike found that he was no longer the least popular guy in the clubhouse. It’d take time to fully rebuild some of those friendships, especially with Blip, but finally, Mike was sure that he actually could.
On the other hand, and more pressingly, Mike wasn’t sure it was a good idea to spend the evening with a Ginny Baker flushed with victory and riding a post-win high. Even if they’d spend that evening surrounded by the rest of their teammates. It seemed like a dangerous combination, and one he’d been trying to keep away from lately.
It was hard enough to remember that Ginny didn’t want him when they were fighting. When they were actually getting along? Forget about it.
Mike would love to deny that he was still hoping for Ginny to change her mind. Deny that his continued good behavior was at least partially inspired by the possibility that he could convince her to want him the way he still wanted her. Deny that he wanted the new ease to their friendship to be an indicator that the latent attraction Ginny’d felt for him last year was deepening into something more. He wanted to deny it all because there was no way any of that would come to pass.
These days, though, he was trying to keep his lies less potentially destructive.
At his pause, her eyes narrowed and her chin lifted stubbornly. “You’re coming,” she decreed. “Captain has to come out with the team, right guys?”
The agreement that went around the room was less half-hearted than it would’ve been at the beginning of the season, which was something.
Still, though, Mike hesitated.
Ginny’s jaw set, and before she could tear into him, he caved.
“Fine, Baker!” he huffed, snatching his bag off his chair. “You don’t have to beg!”
“I don’t beg!”
She looked so scandalized, mouth agape but still somehow grinning, Mike couldn’t help but snort and shake his head. The rest of the team started to shuffle out into the bowels of Petco Park, but Ginny waited for him, her fingers curled around the strap of her backpack.
“I’m sorry,” he drawled as he drew even with her, itching to throw an arm around her shoulders the way he would’ve this time last year. She fell into step with him anyway, which would have to be good enough. “What was that big-eyed puppy impression you were doing the other day when I wouldn’t give you my lunch? Seemed an awful lot like begging...”
Ginny scoffed. “Did you just compare me to a dog?”
Mike thought it over and decided to go with it. “I haven’t seen something so pathetic since Jedi used to beg for dinner scraps.”
“You did not just compare me to your dead dog!” she laughed, elbowing him hard in the ribs.
“Jesus, Baker! Watch where you put those things!”
“You deserved it!”
“Yeah, yeah,” he agreed, privately thinking that a few cheap shots were well worth Ginny laughing with him again.
They managed an easy back and forth all the way to the player’s lot, where Mike headed for his truck, figuring he’d just follow the line of Padres to whatever club or bar was hosting tonight’s outing and Ginny would ride with Blip or, God forbid, Livan. Either way, he could take the time in the car to remind himself that he and Ginny were just friends, and he was fucking lucky to have that. He wouldn’t contemplate heading home instead, knowing she and the rest of the team would end up giving him shit all night, blowing up his phone to the point where he might as well just be with them.
He slung himself up into the driver’s seat and loosed a long breath, closing his eyes. In the quiet, he told himself, Just get through this.
That peace was shattered by someone insistently pulling at the passenger’s side door, apparently annoyed at being locked out.
Before he even opened his eyes to see who it was, Mike was reaching to unlock the door. His head lolled to the side and he forced himself to face reality just in time for Ginny to jerk open the door and climb inside.
“Were you planning on leaving me here?” she asked, suspicious but not serious.
“I thought about it,” he replied, not mentioning that he hadn’t even considered she’d want to ride with him. Not when she could have her pick of chauffeurs.
“Rude, Lawson. You’re rude.”
“And yet you’re still friends with me.”
She tossed him a quick smile, no hesitation and Mike wondered if he’d ever stop sagging in relief when she did that: didn’t question their friendship.
Bag settled in the footwell, where Ginny’s pristine Nikes were meant to go, she propped her feet on the dashboard instead, making herself at home. Mike cut her a quick glance out of the side of his eyes as he pulled out of the spot and followed Salvamini onto the San Diego streets, but Ginny ignored him. Instead, she picked up their conversation where they’d left it: Desert Island Movies.
Mike was laughing at Ginny’s latest pick (while he’d never seen the Josie and the Pussycats movie, he felt confident in saying it wasn’t Desert Island material) when the turn he took blew him straight into a bout of déjà vu.
A rumbling sense of intuitive dread crept into his stomach at the next.
“Where’d you say we’re going?”
She shrugged, fiddling with the radio. “I don’t know. I didn’t pick. Livan said he knew somewhere.”
Mike nodded, but as they neared their destination, the pit in his stomach opened up, ready to swallow the ease he’d fought and scrapped for with Ginny whole.
He pulled into a spot on the street behind Salvi’s minivan, threw the car into park, and couldn’t quite hold in his disbelieving scoff of laughter.
“I didn’t pick it,” Ginny repeated, staring hollowly with Mike at the familiar building.
Mike bit back his sigh. “I know.”
“You don’t think they...”
She didn’t have to finish the thought for Mike to know what she meant.
“No. I don’t think they know.”
A slightly manic spurt of laughter burbled out of Ginny’s mouth. “So this is just some coincidence?”
“It can’t be,” she argued, voice going a little high as she let panic creep in. “It means something. It was this time last year—”
“Hey,” he murmured, reaching out without thinking to hold her hand. It was so rare that he let himself touch her, Mike wanted to revel in the feel of her warm, dry skin against his, but he focused on the matter before them. “You said you didn’t want to talk about it, and we don’t have to. It’s your call, I’ll follow it.”
She looked at him, chest heaving a little as she struggled to wrangle her breathing into its regular rhythm. When it settled, she asked, “You’ll follow my call?”
“That’s all I’m trying to do.”
For a second, a flicker of confusion passed over her face, but it was gone by the time Mike blinked. In its place was frowning comprehension.
That she hadn’t realized he’d tried to be better for her and not just the sake of team dynamics was pretty fucking gutting, but better late than never. Mike offered her a half-hearted grin which she returned, equally unsure.
“You ready to go in?”
Ginny looked back to the bar and blew out a long breath, exhaling her discomfort and the memories of last year. Finally, she shook out her shoulders, settling them straight and even over her spine. “Yeah, let’s go.”
Mike’s grin brightened. How couldn’t it in the face of Ginny’s strength and composure?
When she didn’t move to open the car door, though, he let himself tease her, just a little.
“All right, then. I’d hate to leave your adoring fans waiting.”
She threw him an exasperated glance, but at last climbed out of the SUV and headed for bar (her biggest fan right on her heels).
As was becoming habit lately, Mike was the last one left in the Padres clubhouse at the end of the night. Tomorrow, they’d play their last game of the regular season. Two days later, they’d go into the first Wild Card game for the Padres in more than five years.
He was doing his best to soak everything in, commit it all to memory. Even the slightly stale scent of sweat and dirty socks.
“Did you fall asleep again?”
Mike cracked open an eye to see Ginny staring down at him in her post-game uniform of leggings and a workout jacket, fond smile on her face.
“You find me sleeping one time,” he muttered, leaning forward and scrubbing a hand over his face to keep himself from staring.
“It was way more than once,” she responded, flopping into Blip’s empty chair and spinning idly. Mike could feel her studying him, but couldn’t bring himself to acknowledge it. Gently, she asked, “You ready for tomorrow?”
“Yeah,” he sighed. “I guess there’s not too much I can fuck up with one day left.”
“Not as long as they keep Salvi out at first.”
Mike ignored the joke, feeling too close to nostalgic and weepy to appreciate it. “It’s a goddamn miracle I made it this far.”
Ginny hummed and nodded. “Your knees?”
He shook his head, though she wasn’t wrong. “I’m not good at just having. There’s something about me that makes it impossible to just let things be good.”
“That’s bullshit,” she returned, entirely and suddenly unsympathetic.
“Real nice, Baker.”
“It is!” she defended, leaning forward in her chair, so close their knees nearly touched. Mike sat back, arms crossed over his chest like he was annoyed, but really just needing space.
Once he was retired, he’d have all the space he wanted.
It wasn’t a comforting thought.
“You’ve had sixteen years in the majors without imploding, Mike. You’re the captain of this team and have the respect of everyone who’s ever played with you. What’s that if not letting things be good?”
“Right,” he huffed, pushing to his feet to pace. “Those same sixteen years where I let my personal life go to shit more times than I can count? Including my wife leaving me twice and blowing that respect you say I’ve got out of the water when I tried to abandon my team over—”
He shut the hell up.
“Over what?” Ginny murmured, though the undercurrent of steel was nothing to laugh at. It wasn’t something he could easily lie to, either.
“Over something I let get to me and affect the team too long.”
“Is that what we’re calling it now?”
“What else should we call it?” he demanded roughly, looking away.
“Maybe the worst six weeks of my entire life?”
“You got over it just fine,” he said, exhausted and wishing he hadn’t walked straight into this.
“I got over it?” she repeated, disbelief coloring each word. Mike didn’t have anything to say to that. Ginny did, though, standing up, too. “Do you know how fucking heartbroken I was in Arizona? It was like you hated me, Mike, and I had no idea what I’d done!”
“You didn’t do anything and I definitely didn’t hate you,” he sighed, pained that she thought that, but also unwilling to dig deeper.
“It felt like it!”
“What do you want me to say?” he bit out, struggling not to raise his voice, but frustrated beyond hell.
The only reason he’d managed not to lose it all season was by burying the truth of his feelings, their breadth and startling depth, way down deep. He couldn’t believe Ginny wanted the truth now, with one game left in the regular season. They’d made it this far. Why ruin everything they’d gotten back now?
“Start with the truth!”
“Why?” she demanded, shaking with her anger.
“Because I already know how this is gonna play out, and forgive me if I’m not that eager to go back to not talking to you.”
“Oh, you know how this is gonna play out?” Ginny mimicked with a sneer.
“I’ve got a pretty good fucking idea,” he spat back. “You made yourself very clear.”
“How could I have made myself clear when I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about?”
Mike snorted, which she did not seem to appreciate. At all.
“What the fuck was that? I don’t know what you’re talking about. Mike—”
“You said it was a mistake,” he cut her off, and she fell silent at his words. “When I— When I kissed you, you said it was a mistake.”
Ginny stared at him, for once at a loss for words.
Mike, on the other hand, couldn’t keep the words down any longer.
“It was a fucking mistake. I was drunk and pissed and I never should’ve kissed you. Not because I was out of my mind with jealousy—had been ever since I found out about your date with the billionaire—and desperate to deny the fact that I’d already ruined everything there was between us. I shouldn’t’ve kissed you. Not like that.”
Ginny swallowed, digesting his words. Just when he was about to turn away, leave this conversation on a higher note than he was sure it would go if he continued, her voice stopped him.
She stared up at him, lips slightly parted and looking so perfectly kissable that it was Mike’s turn to be at a loss. Which seemed to suit Ginny fine.
“How should you have kissed me, Mike?" She took a step toward him, eyes trained on his face. “If you shouldn’t’ve been drunk or jealous or desperate, tell me how you should’ve kissed me.”
Ginny was so close. It would be so easy to reach out and tuck that stray curl behind her ear. So easy to set his hands on her waist and wait for hers to find their own holds on him. So easy to duck down and press the kiss she seemed to be asking for against her waiting mouth.
But a mistake.
“I should’ve waited,” he answered. The way Ginny rocked away from him told Mike that she hadn’t been expecting that. “I should’ve waited until we weren’t teammates. Until I wasn’t in the game. Anything else would’ve been unfair to you.”
When Ginny finally managed to come up with a response, she seemed torn between a frown and a smile. Her lips turned down, but her dimples still dotted her cheeks. “I told you I don’t care about fair.”
“You might not, but I do.”
Her eyes closed at that, a rueful smile overtaking the frown. “You know, I thought you were such an asshole when we first met.”
Mike startled back at that, a shocked laugh leaving his lips. Ginny shook her head, gazing up at him, head tilted to the side like she was puzzling him out.
“And you are. You definitely can be an asshole when you feel like it, but you’re something else, too. You’re sweet and strong and entirely too hard on yourself. I do forgive you. Because I know that even though I don’t understand, not all the way at least, what made you act like that in Arizona, I can see how hard you’re trying to put things right.”
“I am,” he breathed, hardly capable of believing that Ginny was really going to forgive him.
She nodded and Mike nearly sagged at how the simple gesture put him at ease. It was suddenly so much easier to breathe, a weight lifted from his shoulders that he’d gotten too accustomed to.
“I don’t know if I agree that any kiss you give me before you’re retired would be a mistake,” she said, which Mike still couldn’t get over. He’d spent so much time these past few months convincing himself that Ginny hadn’t ever wanted him at all. Finding out she did, she does, was maybe more than he could process at the moment. “But I can see your point. You said you’d follow my calls, but—”
As she backed away from him, heading for the clubhouse entrance, Ginny grinned.
“Maybe it’s time I start following yours.”
Mike had never been one to believe that wanting something the most meant he was going to get it. There had been so many things in his life that he’d wanted—a regular family, a career for the history books, a happy marriage—a hell of a lot more than most people, but he hadn’t necessarily gotten them.
No, wanting was only as good as the effort he was willing to put in to get it.
But goddamn if he didn’t want this.
It wasn’t the crowd screaming out his name or how inherently right he felt standing at the plate, bat in hand.
It wasn’t that this was the biggest game in baseball and he was finally playing it.
It wasn’t that this was the last game of his career and suddenly everything meant so much more. The last time he tarred his bat, the last time he got into it with an umpire; the last, the last, the last.
It wasn’t even the pleasant pool of anticipation in his gut—such a change from the pit that’d been there all season—every time he caught sight of Ginny.
Or maybe it was. Maybe it was all of it swirled together to make for the most exhilarating nine innings of his life.
Nine perfect innings. Even if it wasn’t Ginny on the mound. And it wasn’t his foot to last touch home. There wasn’t a single pitch, hit, or play that Mike would change or trade.
Not when it led to him mobbed in a crush of his teammates, voices hoarse as they shouted and screamed out their newest title: World Series Champions.
In the melee, somehow Mike found his way to Ginny’s side. Or maybe she found him or they found their way to each other. It didn’t matter that she hadn’t thrown a single pitch today, not when she threw her arms around his neck and laughed out her joy. Mike couldn’t help but echo it back, his own arms wrapping around her waist in a way that felt all too natural.
There was no kiss. Not yet, at least. But one would come soon. And then another and hopefully a million more. A lifetime of kissing Ginny Baker lay before him.
Because even though his career had come to a close, that didn’t mean the rest of his life had, too.
For once, he even believed it.