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Once, when Lester was a very small child, he had looked directly into the sun. It was partly because his mother had told him not to, and partly because Riley Carlson, the coolest boy in Lester's class, had dared him to do it, and moreover implied that Lester would prove himself a booger-nosed coward if he didn't. Lester was used to being called all sorts of things, but he definitely wasn't any kind of coward, booger-nosed or otherwise, and he wasn't going to have stupid Riley Carlson telling the other kids that he was.

He'd seen spots all over for hours afterwards, plus he had had a headache right at the top of his nose that he couldn't tell his mom about because he knew she'd just yell at him for looking in the first place. But for the few seconds he'd been able to stand it, he had seen the sun as it truly was, not as the watery diluted disk he sometimes saw through the clouds, and not at all like the smiley-faced spiky thing all the girls drew in their pictures during art class.

What he had seen was a white-gold saucer, so brilliant, so obviously powerful that he could hardly understand how something that amazing just hung there in the sky every day with nobody looking at it. It was a perfect circle, a lot more perfect than the moon, which wasn't even a real circle most of the time and had all those blotches on it anyways. It was so bright that it made the rest of the sky almost look black, so bright that just directing his eyes towards it made his whole brain hurt. It seemed like the purest white imaginable, the most radiant gold shimmering at its edges, and everything else for the rest of the day looked pale and washed out in comparison to it.

The first time he saw Josh Beckett, it was a lot like that.

----

When he came up, he was expected. There was a locker waiting for him with his name on it, white jerseys hanging inside with no name at all except for the one on the front. They had spare pairs of his favorite Nike pitching spikes and a bottle of the particular brand of neetsfoot oil he'd been using to break in his gloves since Little League. Clubhouse attendants and middle relievers looked at him sideways and muttered, Is that the kid? just loud enough for him to hear. The coaches all knew that he liked to be called Jon, not Jonathan or Jonny or Jay.

Every second or third person who walked by was some kind of future Hall of Fame contender. There was Curt Schilling, who had pitched historic World Series baseball on an ankle held together with stitches and willpower; there was David Wells, who had once thrown a perfect game while drunk just because he could; there was Manny Ramirez, who was, well, Manny Ramirez. And all of them paused to say hello to him, or to nod in a friendly way, or (in the case of Jason Varitek) to actually sit down and talk. All of them except for Manny, but he did a kind of doubletake when he saw Lester sitting there, which Varitek assured him was as good a greeting as anyone could hope for, because it usually took Manny at least a week to even realize there was someone new on the roster.

It should have been overwhelming, but everyone was working so hard to make sure he wasn't overwhelmed. It wasn't standard procedure-- much later on he'd see rookies come through the usual way, guys called up because of necessity and not because the team actually thought they had a future-- but the coaches acted so naturally that at the time he barely registered it.

They were coaches like none Lester had ever seen before, smooth around the edges like riverbed rocks worn down by flowing water, perfectly formed for channeling nervous young prospects down the path to Major League success. He knew, in a vague, intellectual way, that the stakes were near-infinitely higher at this level. He knew that if a prospect made it this far with his burgeoning potential intact there was an enormous profit to be made should he take that last step from potential to realization. He knew that if a prospect made it this far, there had been so much time and money invested in him that to screw him up-- or to let him screw himself up-- would be an almost criminal waste of resources.

The calculated professional ease with which the coaches handled him was still surprising, though, and he was in a kind of dazed, fugue state when Beckett stomped in from the weight room, caught sight of him, stopped dead, and said, "What the hell is this? We're suitin' up orphan children now?"

"This is Jon Lester," Terry Francona said, appearing as if out of thin air at Beckett's elbow. "He's just up from Pawtucket."

"Aw, this's the lefty everyone's been bangin' on about?" Beckett had been staring at Lester before, but now his gaze sharpened and focused.

Lester stared helplessly back. Beckett seemed huge, with a long easy torso leading into rangy legs in rumpled uniform pants. His hair was thick and black and stuck up all over his head like a cross between high style and plant life, its tendency towards the vertical at startling odds with the roundness of his face. He had a scruffy goatee and a sort of miniature goatee patch right under his lower lip, which, Lester would later learn, he often stroked with a callused fingertip when he was thinking. His eyes were big and bright brown and absolutely impossible for Lester to ignore.

Beckett grunted, blinked once, slowly, and shifted into an aggressively casual stance, thumbs hooked in his beltloops, hips cocked. "Hiya, lefty. What'd y'say the name was-- Lister? Jonny?"

Lester swallowed once, then swallowed again, because it wasn't quite enough the first time around. "Lester. Jon. Jon Lester. Hi."

"Yeah, OK, right, Jonny," Beckett said. For the first time in his entire adult life Lester didn't automatically offer a correction. Beckett was the coolest person he had ever seen, one of the top five or six hottest, easily; he had been in Beckett's presence for all of one minute, and was already trying to come up with ways to ingratiate himself. If Beckett wanted to call him Jonny, then Jonny he would be.

"Hey there, new kid," Mike Lowell said, drifting by. Lester nodded vaguely, and only barely heard him.

----

Beckett had quickly learned that he could derail any argument Lester was making simply by reaching up with one big hand and scruffing it through Lester's hair. Beckett's fingers would leave tingling trails of sensation all along Lester's scalp and he would find his concentration utterly destroyed, the thread of whatever it was that he'd been saying completely lost. The brilliantly self-satisfied smile Beckett got every time he did this was not helpful either.

The first time it happened they had been sitting in the dugout, watching a Schilling start and arguing about secondary pitches. Beckett declared that the only secondary pitch worth having was a good curveball, because its speed and action were so different from the fastball that hitters would have no idea what to do with it. Lester insisted that a slider was best, because hitters would expect it to act like a fastball and be caught totally off guard when it broke.

"A slider is a curveball for people who're too chickenshit to throw a real curveball," Beckett said, punctuating this with a sharp twist of his wrist in midair, holding an orphaned ball, too scuffed and dirty to remain in play, in his curveball grip.

"A curveball is just a slider for people who don't have any subtlety." Lester swiped at Beckett's hand, trying to knock the ball out, but Beckett tucked it jealously up against his chest and scoffed loudly.

"Bullshit, Jonny, pure bullshit. Who's been feedin' you these lies?" He extended his free arm, the one not protecting the ball, and vigorously ruffled Lester's hair.

Lester, who had been about to snark brilliantly back about how he didn't need anyone to think about his pitches for him, was left red-faced and gaping instead. In the few weeks that he'd known Beckett, he had become a dedicated hoarder of slight touches, incidental contacts, casual brushes, the feather-light graze of Beckett's fingertips whenever Beckett handed him something. Each one gave him a dangerous, illicitly swooping thrill in the pit of his stomach, making him reckless and cautious in equal measure. He tried to be around Beckett as much as he could, to increase the likelihood of getting to touch him, but he was terrified of initiating contact himself, lest Beckett (or anyone else) somehow catch on to him.

Here was Beckett not just barely touching Lester, but putting his whole hand on Lester's head, of his own free will. Lester got a solid shock of arousal from Beckett brushing up against him in the locker room; this made his cock spring up into hardness so fast that he felt light-headed, like all the blood had drained out of his upper body at once.

Beckett laughed out loud at the unexpected silent shock on Lester's face, and manhandled the top of Lester's head again. Lester hunched up minutely at the waist and thanked God every way he could think of for the long, loose sweatshirts they were allowed to wear on days they weren't pitching.

----

The Fenway dugout wasn't luxurious or shiny or new, but it was his home dugout, and it was also the best view in the ballpark, free to him for every home game that he didn't pitch. Rookies, he knew, generally had to fight for good rail space, but he never did-- not, in this case, because the coaches had decided he was The Future, but instead because Schilling loved having someone young and impressionable who would listen to him, and usually saved him a spot. The endlessly long lectures on pitching technique and politics and the State of Baseball Today were a reasonable price to pay for a small stretch of padded rail.

Often, if he wasn't pitching either, Beckett would join them. At first Lester didn't think anything of it, because Schilling would set up court in nothing less than the best spot, and of course Beckett would also want the choicest of rail real estate, so ending up sandwiched between the two was just a natural consequence of location. Beckett would stare stoically into the middle distance and never responded to anything Schilling said with more than a noncommittal grunt, except when Schilling would say something particularly absurd (Did I ever tell you about how I was instrumental in ending the '94 strike? I was a big deal in the union even back then, you know...), at which point Beckett would somewhat indiscreetly dig his elbow into Lester's side. It was only when he was sitting in David Wells' apartment, half blasted out of his mind on the expensive whiskey that Wells poured out like the cheap stuff, that he realized it might be something more.

Francona was forever encouraging Wells to do things with Lester, because Wells was nearly as veteran as it was possible to be, and a lefty, which in the ancient infallible baseball tradition meant that they were both at least little weird and that they had something fundamental in common. After he'd been badgered for a certain length of time Wells would grab Lester by the collar and, instead of taking him off somewhere to practice pitches, would simply shove him into the apartment, ready to impart what he considered the much more important lesson: how to deal with lots and lots of alcohol. Lester, who had never gone to college, hadn't even spent an entire season at triple-A, and certainly had never gotten significantly drunk off of anything other than cheap beer or wine before, did indeed learn a lot, although perhaps not quite what Francona had intended.

Or maybe that was precisely what Francona had intended. Lester was never entirely sure, with him.

"I see you made friends outta the friendless pitcher," Wells said, in the middle of rather carelessly sloshing whiskey into his glass. He had a habit of dropping statements like that into completely unrelated situations and conversations; Lester suspected that Wells got a kick out of watching him struggle to react to them.

This time he had to spend a minute forcing his brain into reluctant slow motion to see if he was missing something obvious. When he couldn't come up with anything he eyed Wells warily. "The... who? What? What? The... friendless pitcher?"

Wells in turn watched him closely, eyes clearly focused under his beetling brows despite the alcohol he was rapidly and efficiently putting away. "Yuh huh. Little friendless Joshie Beckett, sure seems to've taken a liking to you, ain't he?"

Lester sat back, taking this like a hammer to the front of his soggy brain. Of course Beckett was not little, and Lester thought that he had plenty of friends-- he was close enough to Lowell, anyways, and had some weird pushy big-brother-little-brother thing going on with Papelbon-- but he had a sharply antagonistic relationship with Wells. Wells obviously (and loudly, in the clubhouse) thought that Beckett was an uppity punk while Beckett obviously (and loudly, in the clubhouse) thought that Wells was a disgusting has-been. Wells calling him this or that didn't necessarily mean that he actually was. But it was a weird statement for even Wells to make if there was nothing but his usual Beckett-directed belligerent animosity behind it.

"He doesn't... I mean, he doesn't like me any more'n he likes anyone," Lester said, faltering just a little under Wells' gaze. There was no way Wells knew about Lester's crush (a horrible way of putting it, but there was really no other word for that type of desperate, hopeful obsession), no way anyone did, but he could feel a hot blush crawling up the back of his neck just the same.

Wells stared at him for a bit, swishing whiskey around in his mouth. It was disturbingly like having an older relative, an uncle or something, stare him down after accusing him of breaking a window with a baseball. With his substantial paunch and his bald head and his graying goatee, Wells was something out of a completely different generation, an entirely different type of ballplayer. They had exercise routines these days, trainer-approved diets; there were big guys, but not big like Wells, not anymore.

A deeply concerned trainer had once given Wells a diet chart, back when he was with the Yankees, and ordered him to follow it closely. The story, as related to Lester by Lowell, was that Wells returned the chart three days later, covered in stains of unnameable provenance, with everything sloppily crossed out and the words chips and booze scrawled across the top. The trainer, allegedly, had vowed to never work with baseball players again and had gone to consult for Olympic wrestlers, who would actually pay attention to nutritional regimens.

"You got any idea how much he hates Schilling?"

Lester blinked, slotting Beckett into he, and shook his head. Wells nodded with a kind of grim relish. "Hates him a fuck of a lot. Schill treats him like he's still a rook, see, and little Joshie's convinced he's seen and done it all. Hates it. Useta be you couldn't pay him to spend ten minutes near that blowhard." Wells didn't think too highly of Schilling either. "But when you," Wells pointed a blunt forefinger at Lester, "when you play eager beaver greenhorn, half the time little Joshie's right up there too, puttin' his own ass right in the line of fire. How come? It sure ain't 'cause he alla sudden wants to hear what Schill's sayin'."

"I.... uh." Lester hunched forward over the table, thinking hard. He took a big drink of whiskey just to give his hands and mouth something to do while his mind congealed around this information, then continued to clutch the glass, certain that if he put it down, Wells would immediately refill it.

From then on he paid much more careful attention to Beckett's position on the rail. It was true that Beckett normally stayed as far away from Schilling as possible, the only exceptions being those days when Lester found himself the half-willing recipient of Schilling's lectures. It could have been anything-- it could have been something as vaguely ignominious as Beckett taking pity on him-- but he still couldn't stop himself from blushing and smiling and being deeply thankful that Wells, on the mound, wasn't watching the rail the next time Beckett eased up casually beside him.

----

He did not think he had ever experienced a series more grueling than the August Yankee series: five games in four days, all of them in front of the fractious Boston crowd, all of them losses. Lester pitched the second game, the night half of a rare Friday double-header, and didn't even make it out of the fourth inning. He had never felt so bad on a baseball field before, not even during the high school game he had pitched while sick with what later turned out to be food poisoning. Neither the equally short outing of the Yankee starter nor the raucous boos that came when Johnny Damon hit a home run off of him were of any consolation.

The very next day Beckett was rocked for nine runs in less than six innings. A gloomy pall was settling over all of them, and even Schilling was quiet on the rail as they watched Beckett grind his teeth and rub the ball like he was trying to take the hide right off of it. When Beckett sat down in the dugout between innings he draped a towel over his head and refused to talk to anyone, including Varitek, who ended up sitting next to him, uselessly muttering about pitch selection to himself.

After the game, Beckett cornered Lester just outside the showers. Beckett's face was terrifyingly blank and his voice, when he informed Lester that they were going out to get drunk later that night, was flat and devoid of emotion. Lester was pretty sure that he had never had a more inappropriate erection, but Beckett was clad only in old, Marlins-teal sandals and a towel carelessly folded around his hips, doing nothing at all to conceal the trail of wiry hair that led downwards from his bellybutton. The hair on his chest was still dotted with stray drops of water.

Lester nervously clutched at his own towel and nodded rapidly at everything Beckett said. He would be fine, completely fine, just as soon as he could get some pants between Beckett and himself.

They took a cab from the ballpark to the bar Beckett had chosen, far away from downtown Boston. They might even have been outside the city altogether; the cabbie drove for a long time, and Lester wasn't familiar enough with the area to know where he was during the day, let alone at night. Beckett didn't say anything at all, staring out the window with his hands clenched into fists in his lap. Lester spent the entire ride trying to work up the courage to reach over and gently touch his arm, never quite getting there.

The bar was a crowded, dark, club-dive hybrid with pounding loud music spilling out into the street and a straggling line out front, which Beckett bypassed effortlessly. Lester hurried to stay within his wake, resisting the automatic urge to show his ID to the bouncer at the door. He was still getting used to being in places like this legally, but if they were waving you in ahead of the line they probably didn't give a shit how old you were.

The noise was a little bit disappointing. Lester wanted to talk to Beckett, wanted Beckett to talk to him. It wasn't that he thought it would lead anywhere-- although he was usually an optimist, even for him some ideas were just too preposterous-- but it would be nice, just the two of them. Teammates, fellow starting pitchers; maybe, if Lester was thinking really optimistically, friends. So it was disappointing: there would be no talking in this kind of din.

Beckett didn't stop at the bar, though, instead pressing forward through the crowd of sweaty people with a single-minded determination until suddenly they were at the back wall, moving along it until they came to a door with another bouncer. This bouncer actually remained unmoved until Beckett pulled out an ID-- not his driver's license, Lester noticed, but the official Red Sox ID that got him into stadiums all around the league, just in case some guard in, say, Kansas City didn't recognize him. Lester reached for his own, but Beckett said something to the bouncer, who waved Lester through with a bored expression on his face.

He's with me, Lester realized. That was what Beckett had said.

The room inside was much quieter once the door had shut behind them. There were tables set into deep booths along the walls, some with curtains pulled across them. Beckett sat down as far away from the door as possible and Lester slid in across from him, his ears still cottonballed from the volume in the main room. A waiter sidled up much more obsequiously than Lester would have expected in a place like this. Better dressed, too. He understood, belatedly, that this was some kind of VIP room.

"Rum'n'coke," Beckett mumbled. "Better make it a biggun." Lester opened his mouth to order a beer, but Beckett tipped his tired face up to the waiter, said, "Him too," and Lester found that he did not have the heart to argue.

They sat in silence for a while, waiting for their drinks, and they sat in silence for a while longer once the drinks got there, Lester sipping and Beckett drinking in big gulps like it was water. It really, really wasn't: the rum-to-coke ratio was definitely skewed in favor of the rum, searing and spicy on the back of Lester's tongue.

The silence eventually started to be oppressive. Lester could hear the muted thump thump of the music out by the main bar, and Beckett still didn't have any kind of expression on his face, just that grayed-out deadness. It was sort of like being trapped in an Edgar Allen Poe story, the telltale heart mixed up with one of those ghost plots that Lester had never quite gotten straight in high school.

"So," he said, tentative, "the Yankees really do suck, like everyone says. Uh, out here." Beckett slowly raised his eyes up from the surface of the table. "They... I. I guess I didn't really get that. Um. Before now."

Beckett blinked at him once, those big brown eyes almost wholly obscured by the black of his pupils in the low light. "My ERA in the 2003 World Series was 1.10," he said.

"I.... what?"

"My Eeee Arrr Aay," Beckett repeated, more slowly, "in two thousand and three. In the World Series. Was one point one oh."

"Oh," Lester said. "Um. OK?"

In 2003 he had been the youngest player on the single-A Augusta GreenJackets, nineteen years old on a team whose oldest player had been twenty-five. They had all watched the World Series in the Denny's closest to the ballpark, bullshitting each other about how they would have executed this play or that differently, almost as far removed from the actual action as the bored waitresses who served them mozzarella sticks and did not hesitate to smack them across the backs of their heads if they smeared sauce on the tables.

In 2003 Beckett had been the World Series MVP, pitching a complete game shut-out on short rest. He had been the one to make the tag for the series-winning final out, the winning pitcher who helped rocket the cheap Little Florida Team that Could to victory over the Big Bad (heavily favored) Yankees.

Lester and the other GreenJackets had watched him pitch on TV while they had argued over who had ordered cherry Coke and who had ordered the regular kind.

"The Yankees only suck," Beckett said, "if you let 'em get to you."

"They're a different team. From 2003," Lester said, feeling his way cautiously.

Beckett scowled down into his drink. "We're lettin' 'em get to us," he muttered darkly. "We-- I'm lettin' 'em get to me. It shouldn't be any different, Marlins or Sox, I should know better. I do know better, but it fuckin' is different."

Lester nodded eagerly; finally something on which he could safely agree. "The rivalry. Yeah. That's what I meant, it's. It's real, it's big, it's."

"Shouldn't let it get to me. Us," Beckett grumbled.

"It's everyone, though. Not just you. It's... these games, they're long and messy on both sides and they're winning 'cause of... of shitty luck, on us, I guess. It's not just you," Lester said, feeling weirdly insistent about it. It wasn't just Beckett. He had pitched like shit too, and so had Jason Johnson, and so had the bullpen.

Beckett shook his head, slow and ponderous. "Yeah, but it is, though. I'm lettin' it psych me out. Playing here.... useta be wouldn't hardly anyone show up to watch us, right? In Florida. Some days we'd get like a thousand asses in the seats, max, and some o'those were comin' to watch the other team. Ain't like that here. They give a shit 'bout baseball, here, and, and--"

"And they give a shit about the Yankees," Lester finished. "Out here. Yeah."

"I been lettin' it get me up here," Beckett said, jabbing a finger at the side of his head. "Stupid shit."

Lester looked down into his rum and coke, mostly full while Beckett's was mostly empty. He dropped one of hands under the table like he was going to wipe his palm on his jeans, and crossed his fingers where no one could see. "Maybe. Maybe you should do something to, to help get your mind off it. Y'know. Like go out and. Go out, get some girls, y'know, or, or something. Clear your head."

"I'm clearin' my head right now." Beckett's face was inscrutable in the low light, but he didn't look quite as flat, as lackluster as he had before. "That's what we're doin'."

"OK," Lester said. Pitchers dealt with bad outings in lots of different ways; what worked for one guy might not work at all for another. It didn't mean anything. It didn't mean anything. It didn't-- no matter how much he might want it to.

----

West coast trips were not particularly fun at any time, but a long trip right after five straight losses to the Yankees was practically intolerable. They made it through a series in Anaheim, then spectacularly bombed what should have been a relatively easy trip to Safeco. Lester was supposed to start the first game in Oakland, but on the flight in from Seattle his back started to hurt.

He had been in a little car accident earlier that month-- a stupid nothing of an incident, some typical asshole Boston driver rear-ending him on his way to the park-- so it was just residual muscle ache, soreness from the accident exacerbated by the stress of a bad series and the reliable annoyance of airplane seating. He got a heat pack from the trainer when they got to the hotel and lay on the hotel bed on his stomach for a while, waiting for it to feel better.

It didn't. In the morning it was worse; sharp, jagged pain overlaying a feeling like a bone-deep full-body bruise. His neck was stiff and sore to the point where he could barely turn his head. Francona took one look at him when they got to the ballpark and immediately called Theo Epstein, the general manager, to say that Lester was going on the DL.

"But I have to make my start!"

"If your back is still fucked up from that crash--"

"Minor fender-bender," Lester insisted.

Francona rolled his eyes. "If your back is still fucked up from that minor fender-bender, that's a risk we're absolutely not willing to take. You know what you're worth to this team, Jonny. We're not putting that in jeopardy. And, to be quite honest, you look like horseshit. Even if it's just a bug y'look like you could use the rest."

"Well, thanks, that's just great," Lester muttered. Everyone had known to call him Jon when he first came up; after a few months of Beckett shouting Hey, Jonny! at him from across the locker room, they had all started doing it.

They flew him right back to Boston and sent him straight to Mass General Hospital in a team car with tint-darkened windows, not even giving him time to drop his bag off at his apartment. He had to lie still under the MRI machine, which made him feel frantic even though he wasn't normally claustrophobic at all, and then he had to get his back and neck palpated, which hurt like hell, and then they had to draw a million different samples of blood, "because it's standard procedure".

He was sitting up in his hospital bed, grumpy because the nurse had taken away his bag so that he couldn't change back into his street clothes the second she left the room like he'd been threatening to do. His hospital gown was flimsy and awful. He was gritty-eyed and exhausted from the flight and he had no idea what time it was anymore, his body running on what felt like five different timezones at once.

One of the doctors walked in, looking solemn.

Oh, fuck, Lester thought. If the doctor's face was anything to go by, he had really done a number on his back. He could only hope that it wasn't some kind of deep muscle thing, or, God forbid, a slipped disk, something for which he'd need surgery. Maybe he would be lucky and the 15-day DL would be long enough to heal up whatever this was. Whatever it was, Francona was probably going to be near-insufferably smug about being right.

"The first thing you should understand is that this is almost certainly treatable," the doctor said, his fingers fiddling nervously around the edges of his clipboard, which was not reassuring. "We've caught it very early. We'll run a few more tests to make sure, and to determine the type, but. Well. I'm sorry, son, there's no easy way to say this." He took a deep breath and waited until Lester looked him in the eye. "You have cancer. A lymphoma, it looks like, from the preliminary tests."

Lester stared at him. "Are you... I'm in here for a back injury. Is this, is this some kind of joke?"

The doctor blinked in open surprise. "Um. This is a hospital, son. We don't generally joke about that kind of thing."

"I'm in here for a back injury," Lester repeated, plaintively. "I'm not. Did you mix up my chart with someone else's? I don't have cancer."

"It showed up-- I'm sorry, son, truly I am, it did show up in your blood tests. Your lymph nodes are enlarged, which is a common symptom. Your white blood cell count... it's a good thing you came in when you did, this early we really have every shot in the world at beating this thing. Every shot in the world." Lester stared at him some more. "I'm sorry," the doctor said, very gently.

"You don't understand. I. I just got called up. I don't--"

"Of course," the doctor said. "I do understand." He looked down at the clipboard, hefted it meaningfully. "Look, would you... would you like to see the test results? It helps some people, to see it laid out, to know... I have the papers here. I can explain the notations and charts to you, and then, if there's anyone you'd like to call... I understand this is all very sudden and unexpected, son, but I think it's also important that we talk about treatment options as soon as possible..."

"Right," Lester said, dazed. Cancer. Cancer. He was 22 years old, he had just been called up to the Majors. Cancer. It didn't sound real, not like something that applied to his life, to him. "I should. I should call my parents. My coach." The doctor nodded, put his clipboard down-- the numbers and graphs that Lester really did not want to see-- and came around to show him how to get the bedside phone to dial out.

----

The team came back home to Boston a few days later. Lester was still in the hospital, although it wasn't as though he was going to drop dead at any moment; it wasn't that kind of cancer. It was just the Red Sox being paranoid about their property. The doctors ran a few tests per day and mostly left him alone with his thoughts, which was almost exactly where he least wanted to be.

"Heya, kiddo," Francona said. Lester looked up from the old Baseball America he'd been reading, filled with articles about Southern college players and where they were projected to go in the 2002 draft. He had been amusing himself by trying to find names he actually recognized. So far he had Khalil Greene (Clemson) and Lance Cormier (Alabama, gratifyingly drafted several rounds after Lester had been taken).

"Hey. Um. Shouldn't you be at the park?" He glanced up at the clock on the wall. The team-- the team minus him-- had a game against the Blue Jays in just a few hours. Roy Halladay was starting. It wasn't going to be an easy game to win.

Francona shrugged. "Yeah, probably. Just wanted to check in. See how you were holdin' up."

"I'm OK. I mean." Lester rubbed at the bandaid on the inside of his right elbow. He'd asked them to do as many of the blood drawings as they could on his right arm; he wasn't going to be allowed to go out and pitch with cancer, but... just in case. "I'm not, like... dying, um, yet, I guess. I don't feel too bad."

Francona sat down in the little particleboard chair next to Lester's bed. He was wearing his red game sweatshirt and the almost-tapered jeans that made Lester think of Little League dads. His eyes, behind his glasses, were tired.

"I know there isn't exactly much I can do for you, Jonny," he said, tentatively resting a hand on the sheet; not on top of Lester's hand, but near it. "If there's anything at all, though, that'll be a help, I just want you to know that I'll do it, whatever I can, and that goes for the rest of us too."

"Does... does the rest of the team know?"

Francona shook his head. "Me, Theo, I guess the owners know by now. The media doesn't know yet. None of the players do."

"Would you." Lester looked down at the white sheets, his fingers pale on top of them. "Could you. Tell the guys for me?"

"Of course. I. Yes, of course, Jon," Francona said, nudging his hand over so that his fingers could wrap around Lester's. Lester made a tiny noise, a sharply cut-off hiccup, involuntarily wrenched from his throat. Francona immediately got up and wrapped his arms carefully around Lester's shoulders, like he was afraid Lester would break apart if he squeezed too hard. Lester buried his face in the front of Francona's sweatshirt, held on with both hands to the back of it, and mortifyingly soaked right through the fabric with his crying.

----

"What's it like?" Wells asked, dirty shoes up on the side of Lester's bed, the chair straining valiantly under his bulk. Lester was stuck in the hospital for the start of his chemotherapy course, although the doctors kept promising that he might be able to get it as an outpatient procedure later. He suspected that the Red Sox were leaning on them to keep him close at hand.

"What-- having cancer? It's like... it's like having cancer, jeez, what the hell'm I supposed to say to that?"

"I meant what's it like tryin' to fuck little Joshie," Wells said, smiling in complacent triumph when Lester spit out the water he had been drinking.

"I am not trying to... to... to do anything with Josh Beckett," he said, after he had stopped coughing and had fought down the wave of nausea that had engendered.

Wells tipped the chair back on two legs, making it creak ominously. "Liar, liar, pants on fire."

"I'm not even wearing any pants," Lester protested. It was true. There was no point in wearing anything other than the stupid hospital gown if he was just going to lie around under the sheets and feel sick all day.

"Didn't really wanna know that, rook." Wells was the only one on the team who had never gotten into the habit of calling Lester Jonny, but he often called him rook or rookie, which was really just as bad. "And whatever, liar, liar, paper dress on fire."

"It's fabric." Lester sighed, leaning back against the propped-up pillows, suddenly too tired to fight it any more. "What. How did you know?"

Wells just stared at him, an even, considering gaze. 2006 was either his 19th or 20th season, Lester couldn't remember. He had been on the Yankees in two separate eras, and there had been rumors about that team even back when Lester was in middle school. Wells had been around long enough to see plenty.

"OK, OK, OK." Lester flushed, a rush of light-headedness accompanying it. "I don't, it's not going to turn into anything. It's just stupid. He doesn't even like." He turned away to look out the window, which had an inspiring view of another part of the hospital complex. "He doesn't even like guys."

"I don't think he really likes anyone," Wells said thoughtfully.

Lester threw a pillow at him in tolerant annoyance. "You can't even give it a rest for five seconds, can you? He likes plenty of people, he gets along, he has friends--"

Wells caught the pillow and settled it behind his shoulders. "I mean sexually." Lester winced. Wells using the word sexually was like hearing his Dad use it. Wells rolled his eyes. "Seriously. I'm bein' serious. You ever seen him take a groupie out back o'the bar?"

"It's not like I'm with him all the time, I'm sure he--"

"You ask Mikey, he ain't seen it either." Lowell had been on the Yankees with Wells, a rookie while Wells was an eleven-year vet; then he'd been on the Marlins for a number of years with Beckett, winning the World Series together. He was one of the few people on the Red Sox, aside from Lester and Varitek, who was able to be friends with both. And Varitek didn't really count, because he was a catcher even when he wasn't in uniform and there wasn't a pitcher on the team who would ever be able to tell if he didn't like them.

"So, what, he's careful. There's nothing wrong with careful. The coaches are always practically begging us to be careful."

Wells shook his head. "It's more'n that."

"What are you saying?" Lester asked. "He dates. He dates women, I've seen. I mean, the papers."

"Yeah, he gets himself photographed with some country music blondie or whatever, he gets himself seen with the sorority chicks, but I don't think he fucks none of 'em."

"What?" Lester laughed out loud. It hurt his back, and on both sides of his neck under his jaw, but the idea was so ridiculous. "You're kiddin' me, right? I mean... Josh Beckett!"

"I've seen the guys who fuck the girls," Wells insisted. "I've seen the guys who fuck the guys. And I'm tellin' you Joshie ain't fuckin' none of 'em."

Lester rolled his eyes up to the ceiling. "OK. Let's just... let's assume just for a second that you're right. Then... what the fuck, I can't even do that! Why would he not... he's Josh Beckett." Wells raised an eyebrow, which Lester ignored. So he happened to personally find Beckett's stupid botanical hair distractingly hot; it didn't change the fact that Beckett was objectively hot too, and, even if he hadn't been, he was still an All Star pitcher in a city that had torrid collective love affairs with even its crappy players. "Why wouldn't he go out and get laid at least sometimes? I mean, c'mon. David. That's crazy."

"I don't know what goes on in his fucked-up brains," Wells said with an air of injured dignity. "That's how I've seen it and that's how it is." Lester shook his head, smiling down at the sheet. Wells huffed and folded his hands precisely, resting them on his own stomach like a mobster parody. "Believe what you want, rook. I'm tellin' you, that little weirdo ain't fuckin' nothin'."

----

Lester looked hard at Beckett when he came to visit (after Wells, twice, and Varitek, and Papelbon, and Theo, and Ortiz, and Francona three times, but before Lowell and Schilling got around to it). He was just the same as he ever was, maybe a little more quiet and hesitant than usual-- Lester thought that Beckett probably did not handle hospitals very well.

It wasn't that Lester had expected Wells to rat him out, but Wells might have thought it would be fun to tell Beckett about Lester's... whatever, his stupid crush, just so that he could watch Beckett squirm. He was kind of touched to realize that Wells was placing Lester's mostly unspoken confidence above The Beckett Feud.

"Uh. I didn't bring you nothin', I guess. Sorry," Beckett said. The table next to Lester's bed was overwhelmed with flowers: a little pot of violets from Francona and his wife; a bizarre cactus that looked like a brain from Theo; a vaguely inappropriate bunch of red roses brought by Papelbon, who had shiftily claimed that his girlfriend made him bring them; and one enormous, overwhelming bouquet of multi-colored daisies from Ortiz, who had unashamedly announced that he had picked them out himself. There was also a teddy bear in a Red Sox jersey clutching a card, courtesy of Wells. Lester had taped the card shut so that the nurses wouldn't be accidentally scandalized.

"It's OK," he said. "It's fine, really, I have plentya this stuff already. Uh, as you can see."

Beckett sat down gingerly, perching on the end of the chair like he was afraid to lean back and take up even the semblance of comfort. He eyed the flowers. "You, uh, really like daisies?"

Lester lifted one shoulder minutely in a weak parody of a shrug, the best he could manage at the moment. "What'm I gonna do, say, 'No, take 'em back'?" Beckett smirked crookedly. The truth was that Lester actually kind of did like the daisies; they brightened up the hospital room and he tended to smile a little easier when he could see them. It was a bit like having Ortiz grinning at his bedside, which was... well, it was nice. It sounded stupid even in his own head and definitely was not something he was going to explain to Beckett.

They sat quietly for a while, Lester trying to breath slowly and deeply to stave off the nausea that was becoming a stupidly oppressive constant, Beckett teetering awkwardly on the chair.

"Look--" Lester finally said, at the exact same time that Beckett started to say, "Hey, I--" They both stopped and grinned sheepishly at each other. Lester waggled his fingers at Beckett, telling him to go ahead. Beckett looked like he wanted to argue, even opened his mouth to say something contrary, but stopped himself. Maybe he could tell how tired Lester was.

"I just wanted t'say, um." Beckett looked at his knees, then at the edge of the bed, then the windowsill, his gaze finally coming to rest, somewhat reluctantly, on the daisies. "The season. Uh, y'know, without you, um, around, it's. It kinda ain't as fun. That's. That's just. Y'know. I just wanted to say."

"Oh," Lester said, because he could not think of anything else to say.

Beckett nodded at the daisies, turning red only at the very tips of his ears. "You, uh, you better come back. Y'know, next season. Or, whenever you beat this shit. Y'know, even if it takes, um, a while. You just, uh, you better come back to... to the team."

"I. I'm planning on it," Lester said. His face felt hot and his throat felt tight, his stomach jumping in some new way unrelated to the chemo.

Beckett nodded some more. His eyes were darting between the daisies and Lester's hands, which were lying on top of the sheets, slack and immobile because he had so very little energy at all these days. "OK. OK. Good. Um, also, you, uh." He took a big breath, then let it all out in a whoosh, the words rushing out with it in a speedy jumble. "You ain't come out to my ranch yet neither an' you gotta do that 'cause it's a good time an' you ain't done it yet and. You gotta."

Lester nodded, his face absolutely burning. He didn't trust himself to speak; he was sure that his voice would crack, he would burst into tears, he would say something irredeemably embarrassing like I know I don't even know you that well but I think I'm in love with you.

Beckett shifted, standing up, moving closer to the bed. His hand was halfway up before Lester recognized the motion; it was Beckett reaching out to ruffle Lester's hair, like always. He just barely managed to get his own hand up in time, palm out in a universal stop gesture. Beckett froze, his face going blank so fast that it was like a steel cleat spike to the center of Lester's chest.

"It's not," he said, not you, and I wish you could, it's not you. "I, my hair, it's been. It's starting to fall out, kinda, little pieces. You, you don't wanna."

Something complicated happened to Beckett's face. He lowered his hand and balled it up into a fist at his side. He stared at the wall for a minute, his jaw tightly clenched, a muscle on the side of it jumping.

"Fuck," he finally hissed. "Fuck this. Fuck cancer. Fuck it right in its cunt-suckin' face."

Lester laughed; a weak, wavering laugh, startled out of him. "Yeah. Uh, no shit, man."

Beckett sat back down, but on the edge of Lester's bed this time, near Lester's feet. He took a deep breath and closed his eyes for a moment. When he opened them again, he looked right at Lester, his expression easier than it had been. "So. OK. Did I tellya 'bout the Fenway Battle of the Wells we jus' had?" Lester shook his head. "Toronto was in town, y'know, Vernon Wells. So he comes up to the plate, and Wells-- OK, it was Fat Wells and Black Wells, that's how I'll call 'em-- anyway Fat Wells is talkin' all this shit, just every kinda shit you can think of, yellin' it off the mound, total bush league shit. He mighta been drunk up there, 'Tek couldn't do nothin' to make him get movin'. Who knows, with him? Black Wells is standing there waitin' for the pitch just gettin' madder'n madder. So eventually he yells, 'Hey, mothafucka, they payin' you to play ball or they payin' you to flap your mouth hole?' and Fat Wells says..."

Lester pretended to resettle himself in the bed, using the motion to shift his foot up against the side of Beckett's thigh. Beckett didn't move, kept right on talking, and Lester relaxed, about as content as he possibly could be, given the circumstances.

----

Two doctors, one young and one old, gave him a big list when he was (provisionally) discharged from inpatient care. If he developed uncontrollable nosebleeds, he had to call the hospital. If he was unable to keep down even the blandest, most inert foods, he had to call the hospital. If he had dizzy spells bad enough to make him actually fall over, he had to call the hospital. If his lymph nodes enlarged any further, he had to call the hospital. If he got a bruise that kept getting bigger instead of fading, or if he started bruising much easier than usual, he had to call the hospital.

He was under no circumstances allowed to drive himself to the hospital for his chemotherapy sessions. If he was unable to reach a friend or family member, he had to call the hospital, which would send a driver to pick him up. If he felt even the least bit disoriented, he should call the hospital and then lock his car keys in a drawer. If he felt like he was coming down with a cold, no matter how mild, he had to call the hospital. If he was at any point in time upset, curious, depressed, not sure what he should do or just overly bored, he had to call the hospital.

"Man," he said, flipping through the thick stack of pages, "how much money do the Red Sox give this hospital?"

The older doctor frowned disapprovingly. The younger one shrugged and said, "A whole lot."

----

September was a bad month to be a part of a struggling baseball team; it was exponentially worse for a player who could not even sit in the dugout. Lester had been out of the hospital for most of the latter half of the month, but the chemo had thoroughly compromised his immune system. The clubhouse was such an effective incubator of easily-passed-around diseases, the stomach bugs and flu-like nothings that were a fact of life for a ballplayer in the fall-- they were something much more sinister, now, to Lester, and he didn't dare go to the ballpark even to just sit on the bench. The team doctor had explained it in big words to Francona, who had explained it in smaller words to the team.

Lester appreciated it. Of course he did. He didn't want to contract a stupid infection that at the best might set back his chemo schedule and at the worst had the potential to be deadly, but the simple fact of it was that it drastically reduced the number of visits he got, and it wasn't as though he could go out. He was so listless, so quick to tire, and the number of public places that were breeding grounds for bacteria was startling once he actually had to stop and think about it. The Boston subway system would have killed him in an hour. The Fenway stands would have struck him down before the end of a clean-pitched game.

Francona called every few days, Lester's main lifeline to the real world, a world not boxed into a narrow hall of pain and pain management, injections to heal him that made him feel even sicker. Lester usually didn't have much to say, but that never seemed to bother Francona at all. Lowell called, and Varitek, and Ortiz had a habit of calling at odd hours when the team was on the road, leaving rambling messages that Lester could understand only half of the time.

The only one to actually venture over, though, was Wells, who showed up wearing a surgical mask and rubber gloves and (for some reason) a clear plastic shower cap with translucent flowers printed on it stretched over his bald head. He changed into an enormous set of pale green scrubs right there in the hall outside of Lester's apartment, stuffing his regular clothes into a duffel bag.

"They're sterile," he explained, when Lester, completely baffled, let him in. "Leastaways they were before I put 'em on in your nasty fuckin' hall. Get your landlord to break out a paintbrush now'n then, huh?"

"Ummm. I have a bathroom?"

Wells shot him an exasperated look over the top of the surgical mask and heaved the duffel into a corner. "The point is to not contaminate your place with my biohazard street duds, rook. D'you even know what I ate for lunch today? I got it offa cart. On the street. It came on a stick. It got all over my shirt."

At first he thought that Wells was making fun of him, somehow, or that the whole thing was some kind of elaborate joke at his expense. But the hours passed and Wells stuck around, bullshitting, putting his feet up on all of Lester's furniture (sneakers off, fresh sterile socks on). He gradually realized that it wasn't a joke, that Wells wanted to spend time with him and was sincerely trying to avoid making him any sicker than he already was. The fact that his attempt resulted in something so over-the-top and ridiculous was just, he supposed, essentially David Wells.

After Wells had gone over all the late season gossip and the more ridiculous bits of idle speculation about the postseason, he got up and, with no sort of preamble at all, started to clean up Lester's apartment. It was pretty bad; Lester was just too tired, most of the time, to put things away, to stack things neatly, to clean things or throw them out. But Wells, he knew, was not one to talk: Wells would be living happily in a pile of his own empty alcohol containers and take-out boxes if he didn't pay for a cleaning service.

"What're you doing?" Lester asked, vaguely horrified. "You don't have to... you're not my mom."

"Shut the fuck up, rook," Wells said, bright and cheery and muffled behind his mask, turning an empty pizza box around in his hands with a kind of professional curiosity before breaking it up and stuffing it into a trash bag. He picked up a fast food bag and hmmed in quiet approval.

Lester wanted to argue. Wanted to tell Wells that he didn't need someone to take care of him, didn't need someone to clean up his mess, was doing just fine-- for some relative value of fine-- on his own. Because, maybe contrary to all appearances and expectations, he was. He was keeping himself alive, anyhow, in the ways that mattered. But he was so, so tired, and arguing about it seemed like such a chore when he did, after all, have the option of keeping his mouth shut and just sinking back into the cushions of his couch, letting his eyes track Wells around the room, in and out of doorways, until his eyelids grew too heavy to hold up any longer.

----

When he woke up, Wells was sitting on the couch next to him, watching a Dodgers/Padres game on ESPN and drinking from a can of beer, the surgical mask dangling loosely around his neck. The apartment did not exactly look like a bunch of magical fairies had whisked away all the evidence of dirt and grime and sickness, but at least it looked marginally cleaner, with the surfaces mostly clear (if not dusted) and the window shades open to let in the last of the pale Boston daylight.

"Isn't that flat?" he asked, looking sidelong at Wells. He hadn't even remembered that he had beer in the apartment.

Wells shrugged, not taking his eyes off of the TV. "Fuck do I care?"

They watched the Dodgers beat up on Jake Peavy for a while. People were wearing t-shirts and tank tops in the stands, and Peavy kept pausing to wipe the sweat out from under his hat. It was kind of amazing to Lester that it was still warm and summery somewhere in the world; Boston was already sliding inexorably towards the icy grip of winter.

"Garciaparra," Wells said, practically spitting. "Fuck that guy."

Lester blinked. Nomar Garciaparra was indeed on the screen, innocently doing his obsessive little pre-at-bat glove adjustments. "What? You never even played with him."

"I was on the Yankees somea the time he was in Boston," Wells rumbled. "Trust me. He's a wuss-ass pansy fucker." He glanced over at Lester. "No offense to pansies, 'course." While Lester was sputtering over that, Wells took a long swig of his flat beer, swallowed, and glanced over again. "Speakin' of. Joshie stop by yet?"

Lester's mouth opened and closed silently. He was fully aware that he looked like some kind of bony fish and he was wholly unable to do anything about it. Wells snorted softly. "No worries. I'll talk to him."

"David. No. Uh, no." Lester might not know everything there was to know about team dynamics just yet, but he knew that Wells talking to Beckett about... about whatever it was Wells intended to talk about would be a very, very, very bad idea.

Wells smirked and finished off his beer, crumpling the can up in his fist. "Arright, so I'll have Mikey talk to him."

"How about we have nobody talk to him--"

"Look, I think he's a slack piece o'shit," Wells said, talking right over Lester. "Not even. He's the piece o'corn stuck in the middle of a piece o'shit. I wouldn't mind one bit if I never hadda think 'bout him again. But you like him--" Lester made a weak noise of protest, which Wells waved off, "--you like him however it is you like him, and he, despite usually havin' more hair than brains, likes you however it is he likes you. And I'm not gonna have you sittin' 'round all sad from not talking to him just 'cause he's too goddamn horsefuckin' cowardly to deal with someone he likes bein' sick."

Lester shook his head, but it was mostly for show: he had spent enough time with Wells, by now, to recognize when Wells was going to dig his heels in about something. "Just, don't. Don't be too..."

"No worries," Wells repeated. He had a little smile twitching at the sides of his goatee, like he already had an idea and was just thinking about the best way to implement it.

Lester sighed and scrunched down further into the cushions, trying (and failing) to find a position that wouldn't make his back and his neck hurt. He listened to Wells make fun of the National League relief pitchers (Can you believe this? This freak woulda been pulled two batters ago in the real league) and gaped in amazement with Wells at the late slugging Dodger comeback and rolled his eyes as Wells raged over Garciaparra's walk-off tenth inning homer.

"Wish we could get some'a that," Wells grumbled, the Dodgers jumping all over each other in a blissfully happy pile of white and blue at home plate. Lester, who would have settled for being a poorly-regarded middle reliever on the losing team so long as it meant he was on the field, closed his eyes and nodded.

----

The sicker Lester got, the more Beckett existed around the edges of Lester's consciousness, a ghost whose presence was always felt but never seen.

After Wells talked to him-- or berated him, or got Lowell to talk to him, or whatever it was that Wells did; Lester was too terrified to ever ask for details-- Beckett called infrequently, saying hey, Jonny with a kind of desperate cheerfulness, talking for a short time, letting his end of the conversation lag more and more as the phone call wore on until, invariably, something would come up all of a sudden and he would have to dash off. After a while he stopped calling at all.

"Josh was asking how you were doing," Lowell would say, casually mentioned like it was just the natural course of the conversation. Lowell had an idea of what Lester was going through, having gone through some of it himself, years ago, and he called to talk more often than his incidental, mostly second-hand friendship with Lester might have otherwise suggested.

"He could always call and hear for himself," Lester would say, trying and failing to keep the hurt out of his voice.

"Hmmm," Lowell would say in response, and the conversation would move on to other things.

----

The last game of the season was a joke, no other word for it: five innings, cut short by the cold Boston rain, just about as lame a denouement as anyone could imagine. Lester watched it masochistically from his couch, every TV camera shot of the guys lined up on the dugout rail wrenching at something deep inside his chest. Boston won, although it hardly mattered. It was only against Baltimore, they weren't going to the postseason, and Lester didn't even know the kid they had starting. Beckett had been referring to him as Hackeysack since he'd been called up, and Lester had learned that before he ever learned the kid's real name. Devvy Handsack, or something.

Normally this time of year he'd be heading back home to Washington, if he wasn't playing winter ball, but there was no better place for treatment than Boston, especially with the team-influenced doctors taking such careful care of him. The breaks between chemo cycles were not long enough to let him travel anyways; not even if he'd had the energy, which he didn't.

Everything else slowly fell away. Wells' offseason home was in California, and without his occasional visits Lester's human interaction was basically reduced to the nurses and doctors at the hospital, other tired and unwell people in hospital waiting rooms, and whomever the hospital sent to pick him up for his chemo sessions and checkups. The sight of their scrubs never cheered him like the sight of Wells' had, and he felt an absurd disappointment each time he went to the hospital and failed to see anyone wearing a flowered shower cap.

He was never hungry and he was often nauseous, so eating became a chore. He couldn't bear to look at or smell most food, let alone put it in his mouth, chew it up, and swallow it. He knew-- the doctors all told him-- that losing so much weight would only make it harder to come back when (if) he got back on the pitcher's mound, but maintaining his playing weight was an impossibility. He had been exercising every single day, putting a pro pitcher's strain on his body once every five days, and eating like a horse to make up for it all. He could barely remember what that kind of normal ballplayer's existence was like.

His summer tan had long since faded, the browned lines his jersey sleeves marked on his biceps and the curve his jersey collar drew across the back of his neck having faded into near-chalky white. He had been playing baseball as long as he could remember; he had never spent this many weeks and months indoors, not even as a kid at the height of the Pacific Northwest rainy season, and he didn't think that he had ever been this pale before. The backs of his own hands were foreign to him, the skin flimsy-feeling and translucent over the blue veins, bruises splotched livid from where the peripheral IV lines went in and out every week. What the central IV lines had done to his chest didn't even bear thinking about.

His hair thinned and weakened. It receded along his hairline and grew patchier and patchier until he finally gave up and shaved it all off, because that was easier than watching it fall out bit by bit. Even his eyebrows thinned out. He was exhausted all of the time, but sleep mostly eluded him, the grayed bags under his eyes darkening almost by the day. His body hurt too much to move but at the same time the constant grating pain forced him up, so that he paced with exhausted shuffling steps in slow circuits around the inside his apartment, sticking close to the walls for balance, breathing deeply and consciously to ward off the nausea. He had lurid technicolor waking dreams about a Beckett who wasn't there stroking the hair that no longer existed, and he felt the tingle along his scalp even though he knew it was something approximating a wishful hallucination.

Every time he caught sight of himself in the bathroom mirror he twitched a little in surprise. He did not automatically recognize the gaunt, sunken-eyed ghost staring back.

----

Boredom was, in some ways, nearly as dangerous as the host of physical symptoms and side effects that assailed him. They had warned him about it at the hospital, and Lowell had hinted at it, mentioning several times how his own convalescence would have been nearly intolerable without the presence of his wife and children.

On some days it hardly mattered, because on some days the only things Lester could think about were pain and sickness and weariness, and the insistent foregrounded presence of his body would wholly overwhelm anything that might have happened in his mind. On some other days, though-- not necessarily good days, but days that were at least less bad-- he was just aware enough to be bored crazy. He couldn't really go anywhere, he was too goddamn weak and tired to do anything, but if he had to watch one more soap opera or mid-afternoon game show he was going to give cancer a lesson or two in killing.

It was Varitek, listening to Lester's increasingly frenzied rantings about the crushing tedium, who suggested that he ask the team for some video. "All you'd have to do is sit there and watch it," Varitek had explained, "and it's all cut up so much, you wouldn't have to concentrate too hard. No vacuum cleaner prizes or secret incest babies. Hey, if you're gonna be sitting around anyhow, you may as well get something out of it for when you come back."

Lester did not ask how Varitek knew about the secret incest babies. He had to watch the soap operas because there was nothing else for him to do; the thought of a perfectly healthy ballplayer voluntarily watching them was almost more than he could bear. And Varitek was always saying things like for when you come back, as though it was a given, which was encouraging only some of the time.

He wasn't sure what number he should use (did the video guys have their own extension?), so he just called the front office player line, which patched him through to Francona, who assured him that the team video guys would be more than happy to burn some DVDs, and that he'd drop them off himself. When Francona came over to deliver the videos (and an enormous container of chicken soup that his wife had made), he started so sharply at the sight of Lester that his glasses jumped on the bridge of his nose. Lester, who was well aware of what he looked like, ignored it, and to his credit Francona recovered from his surprise in a matter of seconds, giving Lester a careful but heartfelt hug, then holding him by his shoulders at arm's length and looking at him hard.

"I think the bald looks better on me than on you, buddy," he finally said. Lester ducked his head and smiled, oddly touched.

The videos, when he got around to looking at them a few days later, were almost entirely filled with pitchers. The batters and fielders had been cut away, the game edited and trimmed down to a series of interchangeable figures falling every which way off a number of dirt mounds, differing very slightly from city to city. Someone had gone through and labeled all of the DVDs in Sharpie, each one a different pitcher: all of the Red Sox, and most of the left-handed starters on other teams around the league. He turned the Johan Santana DVD over in his hands, watching the rainbow oil slick of colors warp across its surface before giving in to the inevitable and putting on the Josh Beckett DVD.

He was surprised when the footage started: the man on his TV screen-- the boy, really-- was not the Beckett he knew. This pitcher was skinnier, for one thing, with arms and legs that looked overlong for the body to which they were attached. His cheeks were softly rounded, undeniably babyfaced, although there was something about the expression on his face when he was pitching that made it clear what his reaction would have been if anyone had dared to call him that. There was no thick unruly hair peeking out from under his hat and his jersey sleeves looked too short, like his uniform had originally been made for someone else. The fabric was home field white, but pinstriped.

It was Beckett as a Marlin, probably 2002 or 2003, back when he was Lester's age and had, apparently, kept his hair cropped short and his pant legs cut tight. His motion was different, too: the sweep of his arms not quite as big, his stride not quite as powerful. It was fascinating to watch after having seen his Red Sox-era pitching up close and in person, and Lester watched the DVD the entire way through twice before putting in any of the others.

He would never want to emulate Beckett's motion himself-- if nothing else, Beckett's right-handedness would always set them apart-- but he could not get enough of it. There was a confidence to Beckett's pitching, when he was in a groove, that was a simple joy to watch. His arms came up from his shoulders with the strength of a hawk folding back its wings to scream through the air after its prey; his push-off leg swung up off the ground after his release so sharply that Lester could almost hear the packed dirt of the mound surface tearing open as the toe of his cleat dragged across it.

He resolved to ask for more video of Beckett the next time he talked to Francona. If anyone bothered to wonder why he would want or need that much footage of someone who did not even throw with the same hand, he could say that he saw some things in Beckett's pitching motion that he wanted to look at more closely, universals that crossed the handedness divide. It was, after all, the truth, or at least a part of it.

----

Mid-December the hospital called with the latest batch of test results to tell him that his blood work had come back clean. He listened carefully, almost detached, noting down all the relevant information so that he could tell Francona later. He thanked the doctor on the other end of the line and hung up. Then he sat back, slowly, and stared at the wall.

The thing was, he didn't feel cured. The stiffness and soreness around his lymph nodes had been lessening and was mostly gone, but that had been replaced by the stiffness and soreness of an athletic body quickly gone to wrack and ruin. His head was still bare, his stomach still unquiet and unsettled. He still felt faded and exhausted and he was still almost dangerously underweight. The muscles in his thighs and back were whittled down to the bare minimum, and some of his ribs were visible up and down his sides, something that hadn't been true since he'd been a scrawny four year old.

Still. Not even a year since the diagnosis, and he was officially cancer-free. That was something.

When Lester called to give him the news, Francona made a series of incoherent happy noises, then declared that he wanted to take Lester out to a bar and buy him a drink to celebrate. Lester had to stall him by telling him that it would take a little while yet for his immune system to build itself back up-- another reminder that 'cured' only meant so much.

"But you're OK," Francona said. "You're gonna be OK?"

"Yeah. I. Yeah. I'm gonna be OK now." The words felt funny in Lester's mouth; it had been so long since he had dared to truly imagine it that even just saying it felt weird, like his tongue couldn't quite believe it had permission to form those sounds.

He called his parents, who cried, and Wells, who swore a lot, and might have sniffled a little bit while trying to muffle the mouthpiece of his phone. He called Theo, who sounded so relieved that Lester was startled. He had always known what he was worth to the front office as a pitching prospect, but he hadn't really known that a GM would care personally.

It was somehow not until he called Beckett that he began to really understand that the cancer was gone, that he was, in at least some ways, now free. He hadn't even wanted to call in the first place-- by that time he hadn't heard from Beckett in months-- but Wells' voice piped up inside his head, telling him to step the fuck up and be a man even if Beckett had some kind of pathetic inability to deal with sickness. With someone he liked being sick, that was what Wells had said, and the phrase rattled around in Lester's brain until it actually seemed like a plausible explanation.

Beckett's voice, when he picked up and said hello, was his usual sarcastic, faintly disbelieving gruff tone, tempered with something else. Fear, maybe, Lester thought, and he couldn't figure that out until several minutes into the conversation, when he realized that Beckett assumed he was calling only to say that he had reached some sort of terminal cancerous stage.

"Oh no, no, um, the opposite, actually," he said. "I got the tests back, I'm finally done with the chemo, it's gone, for now it's gone."

There was silence on the line, a silence that was only just beginning to stretch on when Beckett, voice wavering slightly, said, "So you're comin' back, right? This means you're comin' back, to, to the team, right?"

"Yeah," Lester said, realizing as he said it that it was true. He could come back. There was a lot of work left, of course, many things that the cancer had done to him that needed to be undone or redone; there was an awful lot of intensive rehab in his future. But there was a future. For him, in baseball.

----

Beckett's ranch was quite possibly the sunniest place Lester had ever seen. The main lodge was a tidy, two-story edifice of whitewashed brick walls and massive weathered wooden beams as thick around as Schilling's torso, surrounded by low scrubby brush in that particular shade of desaturated green that plants took on as they fought to survive in arid land. At noon the sun struck all of the walls at once and positively drowned the place in light. Lester, who had spent the past few months of his life in the attenuated pale gray light of a cloudy Boston winter, felt like his eyes were always blinking exaggeratedly, wanting to open wider to take in all the colors, then squinting shut against the glare.

Despite his accent and his predilection for cowboy hats, Beckett had never really seemed like much of a big country Texas guy to Lester. During the season he seemed more the frat boy type, the kind of guy who would have gone to Cancun with religious regularity every spring break during college, forever wearing shirts with pop-able collars and puka shell necklaces and wide leather cuffs on one wrist only. He was a dedicated night owl who knew the locations and hours of all the higher-end clubs in the greater Boston area. "After all," he had once told Lester, "when you're startin' you only gotta stay in one night outta every five, and don't let the coaches guilt you inta thinkin' otherwise."

He had known that Beckett owned a ranch, in an abstractly factual way, but had supposed it was just a place for Beckett to sit around and drink and have people bust their asses to serve him because he directly employed them, not a place he owned because he was a ranch guy. He had assumed that Beckett owned a hunting ranch and lodge in much the same way that some rich people owned the very latest computers with every feature, only using them for e-mail, owning them just to say that they had them.

It was surprising, then, that Beckett was up at five in the morning on Lester's first day at the ranch, bright and eager and ready to take Lester out on a hunt. Lester was nominally there as part of a Francona-ordered program for rehab of his body, but, knowing Francona, it was probably more for the rehab of something less concrete: his spirit, if he believed in things like that, which he didn't really. They were staying in the private building that Beckett maintained on the grounds for himself and his personal guests, separate from the main lodge, which housed the paying guests and some of the staff. The private building was not a humble, unassuming thing: it was rustic, but rustic in an ostentatious 'hunter with more money and animal skins than he knows what to do with' sort of way, so even though it turned out that Beckett was kind of a ranch guy, at least he still wasn't much of a log cabin, roughing-it-in-the-wild kind of guy.

Lester awoke that first day, bleary, to the sound of Beckett whistling, all mixed up with a gentle crackling that turned out to be frying eggs. After listening for a while he levered himself out of the guest room bed and stumbled into the kitchen, rubbing at his eyes, holding up his sweatpants with one hand because they threatened to slide down his much-reduced hips no matter how tightly he tied them. Beckett was jabbing at a frying pan on the stove with a black spatula, lips pursing and twitching as he whistled something vaguely recognizable; Dirty Water, Lester realized. Beckett was wearing a plain white t-shirt and faded jeans that hugged his thighs, a stringy hole over one hairy knee. His forearms flexed as he wielded the spatula and jiggled the handle of the pan. The brilliant early morning Texas sunlight poured in through the windows and limned all of Beckett's edges in clean white. His hair was sticking up all over the place, still damp from his early shower.

Lester sat down at the table, hard. He had almost forgotten how it was, what Beckett did to him.

"Mornin'," Beckett said, not bothering to turn around, probably reacting to the scrape of the chair.

Lester automatically returned the greeting. He could see the taut, tantalizing play of muscles in Beckett's shoulders and back through the thin t-shirt, and was trying desperately to stop staring. The simple truth of the matter was that he had spent a very long time seeing almost no one aside from Wells and the people who populated a cancer ward. He'd been practically starving for the sight of a strong, healthy body, and now that one was right in front of him, he found that he could not even begin to modulate the desire to devour it, with his eyes if not his hands and lips.

"What'll you take f'r breakfast?" Beckett asked, turning around, spatula still held aloft. The easy, contented look on his face froze, and his eyes widened with shock. Lester was momentarily taken aback before he realized, with a sudden horrible lurch, what his own face must have looked like. Despite his efforts he had been staring at Beckett, all that hunger plainly written in his expression. And Beckett had seen it, there was no doubt of that-- the shock was quickly turning into something very like panic, Beckett's eyes darting around the kitchen as though desperately searching for something else that Lester could have been looking at that way.

"I, I'm sorry, Josh, I, um," Lester stammered, struggling to swallow around the growing lump of constrictive terror in his throat. "I'm, really, I'm really sorry, I'll--"

"No, I, uh. Uh. Sit." Beckett gestured with the spatula when Lester tried to get up. He shook his head like he was trying to clear it through brute force. "I, um. I didn't know you, uh. I mean. You... do you...?"

And that right there was his out, if only he could bring himself to take it. Lester could deny everything, pretend he didn't know what Beckett was talking about. They would both know better, of course, but the thin veneer of mutually-agreed-upon deniability would give them an excuse to set it aside, put it behind them. Things would be weird for a little bit, probably, but eventually they would go back to normal. Beckett would ruffle Lester's hair to distract him during arguments and Lester would accidentally-on-purpose brush up against Beckett on the rail and they would be friends again. Maybe not quite the same as they had been, but good enough. It was all right there, laid out in front of Lester, clear as the path from home to first.

Lester looked down at the table. "I'm sorry," he repeated, very softly. "I... sorry."

Beckett took a step towards the table, then seemed to remember that he was still holding the spatula and turned to take the eggs off the burner, dropping the spatula into the sink. He wiped his palms down the fronts of his thighs (Lester's stomach tightening uncomfortably at that) and stepped forward again, uncertain and twitchy, so unlike his usual self-assured motions.

He sat down opposite Lester, hesitantly pulling out a chair and failing to shift it back up to the table, like he was thinking about the necessity of leaving himself an easy escape route. He might have been trying to catch Lester's eye, but Lester (one night in Texas and already fucked it all to hell) refused to look up from the table and be caught. After a moment Beckett made a short frustrated noise, then sighed quietly.

"I. Jonny. I'm sorry, but I ain't... I don't, uh, think o' you that same way."

Lester almost smiled; the hesitancy was, in a way, sweet. "I know. I mean... I know. What were the odds anyhow, right?" Beckett shifted uncomfortably. "It's OK, really, it's not... I don't expect anything, I never did, I promise. I wouldn't ever've done anything you didn't... I mean, it's not like people say, I wasn't waiting to, to jump you in the showers or whatever, I'm not some kinda... whatever, predator, just 'cause I--"

"Shit, Jonny, I know that." Beckett's voice was amusedly horrified, and Lester found himself looking up almost against his will. Beckett was, incredibly, smiling at him, a familiar mixture of fondness and mocking and exasperation. It was the very same expression that used to settle onto his face when Lester was saying something that he thought was very worldly and clever but would turn out to be something that just made it clear how much of a raw, kid rookie he was.

It was probably this evidence of irrepressible affection that tipped him over the edge, drove reason clean out of Lester's mind. Before he could rationally talk himself out of it he was standing up and rounding the table, grabbing Beckett's face-- expression turning to shock once more-- with both hands.

"I'm sorry," he repeated, a bit redundantly, right before he bent down and kissed Beckett on the lips.

Insofar as he had consciously intended anything, he had intended on a small kiss, as close to a mere gesture as possible, but the reality of Beckett threw him off tremendously. Beckett's cheeks were warm under his fingers, and a little roughened, like Beckett had been spending a lot of time outside in the wind and sun. Beckett's lips were slightly chapped and his lower lip was bordered with the stiff fringiness of the goatee that abutted it. Lester lost himself in the sensations, unrestrainedly pressed his mouth to Beckett's, clutching urgently at Beckett's face. His tongue chased into Beckett's mouth when Beckett slightly opened it in surprise or an instinctive attempt to breathe more freely.

Beckett's tongue pushed against his. Lester groaned deep in his throat and sat down on Beckett's lap, at which point he remembered that he was meant to be apologizing for his inappropriate feelings and that Beckett wasn't gay.

He pulled his mouth away, very reluctantly, not quite able to make himself get up or let go of Beckett's face. "Um," he said, and then stopped, at a loss for anything else to say.

"It's OK. Uh, it's OK. Christ, you don't hardly weigh nothin'," Beckett added, a little nonsensically. His hands settled hesitantly around Lester's waist. Lester looked away, shame creeping up on him again. "Mean it," Beckett said, petting Lester's sides gently. "We can't... I can't be, uh, that. But I ain't mad, I couldn't... you'll be OK."

Lester put one of his own hands on top of Beckett's, a soft touch that froze Beckett's hand. The curve of Lester's hipbone, made prominent by his still-fresh weight loss, fit snugly under the arched bridge of Beckett's long fingers. "Are you sure?" he asked. "That you... that you can't?" He curled his fingers hopefully around Beckett's, and Beckett did not knock his hand away.

"I can't be what you, um, want," Beckett said, "but I..." He trailed off, his eyes sliding sideways away from Lester.

"Nothing hasta be fast. I can, I know you're not used to... to guys, but I don't need, I mean, I can take things slow as you need, or want, or, or whatever."

Beckett shook his head. "You don't understand. It ain't that. I can't just... it ain't that I don't like you, Jonny, y'know that I..." He reached up with his free hand and very, very carefully cupped it around the side of Lester's face, like he was palming the paper-thin eggshell of some improbably enormous but delicate bird. Lester trembled, unaccountably feeling like every molecule in his body was threatening to turn volatile, vaporized, the places where Beckett was touching his cheek on one side and his hip on the other the only things holding him together.

"It ain't that I don't care 'bout you," Beckett said. "When they explained... when they told us what kinda sick you were, when Mikey explained how it wasn't the kinda cancer they could, y'know, cut out and just get rid of, when they said what that chemo shit was doin' to you..."

"I've been in those wards, y'know? I've done my fair share o' charity gigs, visitin' sick kids, and I couldn't stop thinkin' 'bout how they were, those kids, all shrunk down and bald and hooked up to all them machines'n shit, all helpless, and I thoughta you like that... it scared the crap outta me." He tightened his grip on Lester's fingers, took a deep breath. "It freaked me out so bad I almost went nuts. I couldn't even come see you, it scared me so bad. Seein' you like that... hearin' you with your voice all goin' weak... it was like watchin' you get to dyin' in slow fuckin' motion and I wanted to... I want to see you in my head how you look when you're pitchin'. All concentratin' and tough'n a little fierce, all movin' easy and throwin' strong up there on that mound like the most alive thing in the park."

He stroked his thumb across the corner of Lester's lips. "It ain't that I don't care 'bout you. For you," he added, simple and matter-of-fact even though Lester could feel the effort it was costing him to say it, could feel Beckett's entire body tense and shaking underneath him. "I just can't do it the way you deserve to have it done."

Lester squeezed Beckett's fingers. "I don't care. You... you think I care?"

"You don't get it," Beckett said, sounding resigned.

"You don't get it," Lester shot back. "I almost... I thought I was gonna die. I thought, for months I thought I was dying. I almost lost everything. I'm not gonna lose... you say that you, you, you care 'bout me, I'm not giving that up when there's a chance at it."

Beckett sighed. "I don't... t'say it plain, I ain't gonna wanna fuck you, Jonny. Not ever."

"That's OK. That's fine," Lester said, although disappointment and fear were creeping in on icy little tendrils. He would regain his muscle mass; his hair should, eventually, grow back to its original fullness, as opposed to the short, light brown fuzz on which it seemed to have stalled. Surely he wasn't that bad. Surely, with time, Beckett might grow to think sex with another guy wasn't so bad.

"No. It ain't OK, 'cause I mean it, I won't. An' you deserve someone who will." Beckett looked down. He might have been looking at the place where his fingers were interlaced with Lester's. "Jonny. I don't... I don't really do the whole, um, fuckin' thing. At all."

Lester shifted his fingers along Beckett's, waiting for an explanation, but Beckett had gone pale and did not seem inclined to elaborate. He did not really understand what Beckett meant-- what he could possibly mean by that-- but, he supposed, he could work it out later. He was sitting on Beckett's lap, their hands intertwined, and Beckett was not objecting to any of it; for now, that was enough. That was plenty.

Until something occurred to him, the memory coming sudden and unbidden into his mind. "Oh my God," he blurted, without thinking, "you mean Wells was right?"

"What?" Beckett yelped, almost comical panic rounding his eyes. Lester burst into a nervous, hysterical bout of laughter.

----

Later, Lester would look back on that month at Beckett's ranch as one of the best times of his life, although with all the frustration and confusion, there was hardly any reason why it should have been.

He could understand Beckett not being attracted to men. Guys not wanting to have sex with men was, obviously, something he ran into a lot in baseball and in life, and there were no surprises there. But he did not understand how Beckett could fail to want any kind of sex at all, and every other day or so he would find himself pressing up against Beckett in the kitchen, or positioning himself so that Beckett's hand would brush across his hips, or once, in the stables, dropping to his knees at Beckett's feet and looking up hopefully, because it felt like precisely the right moment and, in his experience, even the most dedicatedly straight guys had a hard time turning down a freely offered blow job.

Beckett bore it all with a great deal of firm patience. He would gently push Lester aside or remove his hand without comment. He hauled Lester to his feet by the collar of his shirt and reminded him exactly what sorts of substances ended up on the floor of an active stable. Later-- much later-- he would come to realize how distressing this was for Beckett, but at the time he was only aware of his own vexing inability to reconcile, at a visceral level, Beckett's by-now-obvious affection with his apparent lack of a need for sexual contact beyond the occasional slow, lazy, dizzying kiss.

Lester became familiar with all the places around the ranch where he could hide for the length of time it took to get himself off-- which was not that long, if he'd been spending time around Beckett. It was the clubhouse multiplied by a thousand: he was with Beckett all the time at the ranch, and there were a million reasons to touch Beckett. To get his attention, a hand on his arm (the bunched muscles there delicious under his palm). To thank him for a good meal, a hug (the warmth of Beckett's chest against his a perpetual wonder). To move him out of the way in the close confines of a narrow hall, a firm hand on the small of his back (he almost passed out the first time he dared). He took to stuffing packets of tissues into the pockets of all his pants and shorts.

Once, when they were out on the grounds stalking one of the newly released bucks, Beckett caught him at it. Lester had been leaning against a tree, blissfully ignoring the rough bark on his ass, stroking himself slowly, savoring the little shivers caused by the fresh air blowing in little curling eddies across the damp head of his cock. Beckett was supposed to be working towards the deer from another direction, but he hadn't been able to get a good angle and had, Lester later learned, decided to come see if Lester was having better luck.

Lester was thinking about the way Beckett had looked the previous night, after a full day of hunting, checking over the rifle laid across his camo-clad thighs with an innocently intense methodical care. Lester had had an awfully hard time seeing it as innocent, though; the way Beckett's big hands played up and down the length of the gun's barrel, the way his fingertips probed into and behind the trigger guard, the way he braced the the well-worn butt of the gun in the crease at the top of his thigh, the way the gun oil gleamed, like every dirty thought involving lubrication Lester had ever had. He would have thought Beckett was just fucking with him if not for the quietly focused concentration of Beckett's gaze. Lester had his eyes closed, hand working, when he heard the minute but unmistakable sound of a dry twig snapping under some considerable mammalian weight.

He opened his eyes, hand still moving on autopilot, expecting to see a deer, or maybe a fox; instead he saw Beckett, leaning against a nearby tree, watching him with one eyebrow raised and his expression otherwise inscrutable, his rifle slung easily over a shoulder.

There was no one else out hunting with them. Lester shifted, spread his legs as wide as he could with his pants around his ankles, and forced himself to slow down, dragging his fist up to just under the head of his cock, twisting it. He did it again, a little faster, looking at Beckett, whose eyebrow had risen even higher. He sped up even more, angling his hips to give Beckett a better view. An image came unbidden into his mind: the barrel of the gun, and Beckett's hands were on him, wiping him clean and oiling him up at the same time, those steady competent strokes that hinted at years of experience, he could perfectly imagine how it would feel, those fingers with their tactile expertise and an understanding of how to apply just the right amount of pressure.

He came with a hard jerk and a shout that almost certainly ruined any chance they had at catching a deer that day. He slumped against the tree, panting hard, his hands and knees shaking. The bark of the tree was definitely starting to make its presence felt, and he realized with some dismay that he was going to have scratches all up and down his backside. Beckett straightened, stretched languidly, and used the toe of his boot to conscientiously scrape dirt over the spatter of Lester's come on the ground, presumably because it wouldn't do to have the animals put off by too much human scent.

"So it's watchin' that turns you on, huh?" Lester asked, voice pitched teasingly low, after he'd pulled himself and his clothing mostly back together and they'd started walking back towards the lodge. He was shaky and exhausted; he was still nowhere near the kind of shape he'd once been in, still woefully unprepared for physical activity that significantly raised his heart rate.

"You make a cute face when you get off," Beckett said. He chucked Lester on the shoulder affectionately. "Kinda gross, though." Lester looked away, not wanting Beckett to see how crestfallen he was; he had been so sure that if he just put on a good enough show, found the precise combination of buttons to push, Beckett would come around. So to speak.

When he stumbled in a divot in the hard dirt (deer tracks, he noted absently, even through the rising haze of his exhaustion), Beckett caught him by the elbow, right in step, then slung an arm around his waist and let Lester rest, most of his weight held up by Beckett. He was pressed all along Beckett's side, and if Beckett felt awkward about it, if he was at all freaked out or disgusted by the idea of Lester so close to him right after jerking off with Beckett obviously in mind, he was hiding it awfully well.

"OK?" Beckett asked.

Lester closed his eyes. He took a deep breath. He could smell Beckett, the light spice of his shampoo, the sharper tang of his sweat, the soft blood-like metallic scent he took on from handling guns so much in the offseason. He let the muscles of his neck relax, dropping his head onto Beckett's shoulder, which was a little too hard to be perfectly comfortable.

"Tired," he admitted. "Fuckin'... always tired these days. Fucking hate it."

"Could sweep you off your feet and carry you back to the lodge like a real lady, if y'want," Beckett said, completely ruining the moment. Lester straightened up and glared at him. Beckett gave him a slanted, cocksure grin that made Lester want to punch him in the kidneys, then softly nuzzled the top of Lester's head, completely defusing him. "C'mon." Beckett hitched his arm higher on Lester's waist, almost up to his ribs, and started back towards the lodge again, much more slowly this time.

It was a profound relief to walk along with someone else taking some of his weight off his legs. "You're gonna drive me outta my goddamn mind," Lester muttered.

"Got it all turned 'round," Beckett said. "I'm drivin' you back into it."

----

Beckett knew how to build a campfire by himself, another thing that Lester never would have expected. Of course he wasn't building it entirely from scratch; there was a shallow rock-lined firepit already dug into the expanse of dead and dying grass that served as the backyard of Beckett's private building. But Beckett still knew how to gather sticks of various sizes, bending them or chipping at them to check their dryness, and he knew how to clump and scatter the little bits of tinder, lighting them first, slowly adding the small sticks of kindling, not adding the bigger fuel logs until the fire was already blazing merrily away.

Years of childhood camping trips had prepared Lester just as thoroughly, and he poked at the logs with a stick when they threatened to fall in such a way as to block off the flow of oxygen. Beckett used a long pair of tongs to rotate ears of corn on the wood at the edge of the fire, pulling his hand back just far enough every time a shower of needle-thin orange sparks erupted into the air.

The air at their backs was cold: the deep black Texas night did not do much to retain the heat. The air coming off the fire in front of them was dry and hot, though, smelling strongly of wood and grass and that particular intense, ashy, roasting scent that always accompanied a tame fire. Beckett tipped his cowboy hat back a little to wipe a hand across his forehead. He left behind a streak of black, carbon dust from a burnt corn husk, and when he tipped his hat forwards again the black smeared just under the rim of it like an extension of his hair.

When it was ready Lester peeled back the husk of his corn, tips of his fingers dancing around to avoid the heat, and bit into it, sweetness exploding in his mouth as the kernels burst juicily, seared on their surfaces, just hot enough to stop short of burning his tongue. He barely even registered Beckett's hand on his shoulder until Beckett slid it down, cupping around his tricep, curling over his elbow and then along his forearm before dropping away. Lester was left frozen, corn halfway to his mouth, eyes going huge.

The firelight was orange and mobile, dancing across the rounded surfaces of Beckett's face and making his features look almost supernatural. Not really elfin-- that goatee was not going to be associated with elves in any universe-- more like a Shakespearean sprite of some sort, drunk on mischief and plot devices.

"Puttin' somea your weight back on," Beckett said. He gestured towards Lester's body with a slight flicker of his fingers. "Your arms're startin' to get a little bulk back. Don't look so much like a dead tree no more."

"Bein' able to eat and not throw up right after is a help," Lester admitted, after a moment.

Beckett flinched; it was a movement so tiny that probably no one else would have caught it. He put his hand back on Lester's arm, just at the elbow, maybe reassuring himself of Lester's presence and relative health. Lester shuffled unsubtly over, edging closer until he was pressed up against Beckett's side.

"This ain't too smart," Beckett said, quiet, almost drowned out by the crackling of the fire as it ate through the tinder.

"Yeah," Lester said. "Probably." He was warm now in two directions: where he faced the fire, and where his body contacted Beckett's.

----

Lester's glove had suffered a little through neglect while he was undergoing chemotherapy, but at the ranch he had made a habit of working it every night before he went to bed. He massaged oil into its surface, rubbing carefully around the laces, then slid his right hand under the worn heel and popped a baseball into it with his left, over and over again, reaccustoming the pocket to the ball and his palm to the soft whump of the impact.

When his cellphone rang he was caught off-guard, the vibration startling him as it skittered across the bedside table. He tried fruitlessly to shake his glove hand free, his other hand inconveniently slick with oil. He only just managed to fumble the phone open and up to his ear before the final ring, holding it in place with his shoulder and trying to scrub the oil off with a towel.

"Hey, rook, where you stayin' these days?" the voice on the other end asked.

"....David?"

"Uh huh, uh huh," Wells said. "You in Washington?"

Lester tilted his palm from side to side, trying to catch a stray gleam of light reflecting in a stubborn spot of oil. "No-o-o-o, not really. Um. I was there for Christmas, but I'm back in Texas now."

"Texas. Texas? Oh, wait, no, don't tell me. Little Joshie's got a place down there, don't he?"

Lester shrugged the phone into a better position against his shoulder, feeling reckless. "Yes, he does, and it's a very nice ranch. Lotsa class. Good hunting. Full bar. More'n one, actually. You'd like it."

Wells made a rude, resonant sputtery noise. "You leavin' anytime soon?"

"I was thinking I might stay through 'til Spring Training," Lester said, keeping his tone as light and casual as he could. "How come?"

There was a brief pause, and when Wells spoke again, it sounded like he was forcing his tone into the realm of the light and casual. "Traded. San Diego. National bullshit League, y'know, I ain't gonna see you hardly none durin' the season, thought I'd liketa see you before it starts up."

"Wait. What?" Lester had a brief, dizzying moment of disorientation, the automatic fear that accompanied the word traded. At first he thought that he was the one being traded, and it took him another minute to realize it was Wells who was being sent across the country.

Wells was mostly philosophical about it -- Got a house down that way anyhow, and you seen the weather, it's like a permanent fuckin' vacation mosta the year, and I ain't gettin' no younger. Lester was only a little surprised to realize that he was actually quite upset. His big league experience was still barely enough to justify a Wikipedia article, but what little experience he did have was dominated by Wells' loud, oversized presence just as much as it had been framed by his constant awareness of Beckett, by the hours of hard study with Varitek, by the friendly guiding hand of Francona.

He was trying to make plans to meet up with Wells somewhere before they had to report to their respective Spring Training camps when a swipe of fingers across the top of his head completely derailed his train of thought. He looked up from his seat on the bed, glove still in his lap, to see Beckett standing there, looking down at him with an expression on his face like he'd just swallowed an entire lemon and was trying to pretend it tasted good.

"You could." Beckett visibly grit his teeth. "You could invite him down."

"Um. Really?"

Beckett grimaced. "I know that he's... real important t'you."

Lester stared. This was more-- a lot more-- than he would have expected from Beckett. So far as he had been able to tell, Beckett was only barely able to stomach the fact that Lester and Wells were friends at all; inviting Wells down to his ranch, just for Lester's sake, was.... well.

Lester reached out and grabbed Beckett's nearest hand, rubbing his thumb over the rough knobs of Beckett's knuckles. "Look, David, whyn't you come down here? Josh's cool with it."

"The fuck he is," Wells said, all amused disbelief, his voice over the little speaker loud enough in the quiet bedroom for Beckett to overhear.

There was an aggrieved sigh from over Lester's head. Beckett's other hand descended, extracting the phone easily from Lester's still slightly-oily grip. "This is a one-time-only offer, fucker, so you better take advantage."

Lester pressed the back of Beckett's hand to his own lips and smiled against it. Even with the phone up against Beckett's ear, he could hear Wells' sputtering.

----

Several days later there was a loud commotion out on the driveway, where it wound around to the guest unloading area in front of the main lodge. Car doors slammed, gravel crunched and scattered under numerous feet. A stentorian voice rose above the worried, quieter patter of other voices. Beckett and Lester, idly watching one of Lester's lefty DVDs on Beckett's enormous TV, looked at one another, then rose in silent agreement and hurried out the door.

"Where's the goddamn hookers?" Wells shouted. He was standing next to an unnecessarily flashy bright silver rental car, waving something that looked disturbingly like a fungo bat.

A variety of Beckett ranch employees were hovering at a respectful distance, saying things like Sir, please, and If you'd just calm down a moment, sir, and I'm sorry sir, this is a hunting lodge, not a brothel.

"No hookers? And you call this a proper ranch."

"Sir, this is a family-friendly establishment."

"What, you let the kids play with guns, but you won't let 'em see a pair o' tits?" Wells was really hitting his stride, waving the bat-- it was a red fungo bat-- around lustily, like he was just waiting for the chance to crack someone's head open.

"Fuck, he's a mess," Beckett muttered as they hurried towards the scene. Lester was delighted, and was having some difficulty keeping the grin off of his face.

"I ain't stayin' nowhere that's anti-titties," Wells bellowed, and then he caught sight of them. "Rookie! How you doin'?" He ambled over, completely ignoring Beckett, and grabbed Lester before he could answer, crushing him in a powerful hug. Wells hung on until he had had enough, then stepped away a pace to look Beckett up and down disapprovingly while Beckett did the same right back at him.

The ranch employees, wisely sensing that this was as good a distraction as they were likely to get, swarmed over Wells' luggage and car and set about spiriting them all away to their proper locations. Wells was wearing an old Blue Jays shirt, stretched tight across his stomach, and he was still gripping the red fungo in his left hand, although it was, for the time being, pointing down at the ground. Beckett was barefoot, dry reddish dust settling onto his long toes. The harsh Texan sunlight bounced off the top of Wells' head and the starchy planes of Beckett's white t-shirt. The sight of the two of them together-- even though they were busy vibrating menacingly at one another-- was starting to make Lester's cheeks hurt, because he could not stop grinning. He had an insane urge to jump up and down and clap his hands in delight, but manfully suppressed it.

Lester deliberately left his blinds open that night, so that the morning light would wake him as the varied, musical calls of the mockingbirds first began to sound. Putting guns in both Wells' and Beckett's hands at the same time was probably a bad idea, but in the grand scheme of bad ideas he'd gone ahead with anyways at this ranch, it was pretty low down on the list, and if they got a hunt started early enough they would be back in time to start drinking at a decent hour.

Just outside the kitchen he paused, tiles cool through the bottoms of his socks, hearing not one but two voices, both in more or less conversational tones. No yelling. It was Beckett and Wells; it had to be, no one else was staying in the building.

"--better be keepin' an eye out," Wells was saying, "'cause I won't be around none to do it."

"I know how it is," Beckett said. He sounded disgruntled and petulant. Lester leaned against the wall and settled in to listen, not feeling the least bit guilty. If it was worth setting The Feud aside for a mostly-civil conversation, it must be well worth a little eavesdropping.

"No, you don't fuckin' know. It ain't the same thing." There was a deep, protesting creak, like Wells had leaned his full weight against some solid cabinetry. "If it got out... if people knew what you are, they'd just say, oh, that Joshie Beckett, what a weirdo, he's so fuckin' weird. With him... there's folks who'd be plenty happy t'see him dead if they knew what he was, you know there are, even on the Sox there are. It ain't the same."

What he was. Lester knew, of course. He tried very hard to not think about it on a day-to-day basis. He tried to never, ever think about what Schilling would say if he knew; he tried to never let himself think about the razor-sharp edges, the lines that open knowledge of what he was would draw across the team.

"Bullshit," Beckett said. "You think it's easy all the time for me?"

Another creak. "Whatever, maybe it ain't at that. I don't really give a shit." Even without seeing it Lester could clearly picture Wells' dismissive gesture, his thick hand flicking through the air with a curveball pitcher's delicacy, something that never ceased to be surprising. "Point is, not wantin' it-- that's weird, people are gonna think that's fucked up, but that ain't somethin' gonna make a ballplayer hate you. What he is... how he is... You know how folks'd get if it got known." Wells paused, and Lester shifted a little closer to the doorway, still hidden by the shadows. "It ain't the same. And there won't be no one runnin' interference, there won't be no one protectin' him from those damn jackals. He's gonna need protection, 'cause I seen how he looks at you, he ain't gonna be able to hide that none in the clubhouse, guys are gonna see..."

Lester squeezed his eyes shut, although all he had been looking at was the shadowed length of the hall, the lurking mounted deer heads farther down. He had not thought that far ahead. It hadn't occurred to him that there was anything that needed thinking about-- he wasn't doing anything with Beckett, Beckett didn't want to do anything--

"-- ain't like we're doin' nothin'," Beckett said, and, eyes closed, Lester smiled, because trust Beckett to be working along the same lines at the same time.

"Kids." Wells managed to imbue the word with eight different kinds of irritation. Beckett started to protest, able to say ain't as young as you think before Wells steamrolled right over him. "You think just 'cause you ain't fuckin', you ain't together?" Beckett's protesting sputters stopped, and Lester's eyes popped open. "Sometimes," Wells added, deeply disgusted, "I don't know how none o' you survive to adulthood, you're so fuckin' retarded. You don't know nothin' 'bout nothin'."

"I don't... we... we're not. I mean. We ain't discussed... I mean." Beckett was floundering, and Lester could picture the redness of his face, the way his hair always looked extra wild when he was struggling for the right thing to say.

"Sometimes I think if you kids didn't have baseball to tell you what t'do you'd end up dead in a ditch somewhere from sheer stupid," Wells said, in the smug voice of a pitcher who knows when he's got the runner picked off.

----

The nights were still cold, and sometimes the fire dried out Lester's nose and made him sneeze, or sparks shot out and burned little black pinpricks in the tops of his sneakers, but he still loved sitting by it, poking it with a long stick, watching the flames dart around responding to the wind and their own whims like living creatures.

"You happy, rook?" Wells asked. Beckett was inside, searching for a bag of marshmallows.

"Yeah," Lester said. He did not have to think about it.

Wells nodded once, curt approval of his prompt response. They both watched the fire for a little while, listening to the muffled sounds of Beckett banging cabinet doors around inside. "You happy with him?"

"Yeah," Lester said, more softly, but just as immediate. "But it's not... you were right when you said that he doesn't... he doesn't. So it's not a, a, a thing where it's a relationship, we couldn't say it was that, 'cause he doesn't... so we can't... not really, I mean."

Wells rolled his eyes, the whites catching the firelight and glowing momentarily with it. "Like it matters what word you use on it? You can spell it R-E-L-A-T-I-O-N-ship, you can spell it two-G-E-T-H-E-R, you can spell it A-S-S-H-O-L-E-I-L-I-K-E-for-no-goddamn-good-reason. Same fuckin' thing." He raised a finger solemnly. "A wise coach once told me, he said, David, always remember, a designated hitter by any other name is still a little bitch."

"Wasn't that Shakespeare?" Beckett asked, returning to his spot on Lester's other side with a mostly full bag of oversized marshmallows. "An' I'm pretty sure he didn't say nothin' 'bout little bitches."

Wells shook his head in amazement. "Who gives a fuck 'bout Shakespeare? He didn't know shit 'bout baseball."

----

When the bags of dirt and clay began showing up at Beckett's front door, Lester did not think anything of it. Sometimes they ran out of space over at the main lodge and the ranch employees would, with permission, use Beckett's building for extra storage. He assumed they were working on some landscaping project and just didn't have anywhere else to put their supplies.

When Beckett asked him if he would mind talking to the on-site taxidermist about their latest trophy, Lester did not think anything of it. He tended to have better ideas than Beckett when it came to trophy presentation: Beckett, for all his creativity as a pitcher, was not particularly creative when it came to taxidermy, and usually asked for the same old stuff over and over again. Lester had a knack for thinking up appropriately heroic poses for dead herbivores and was generally able to communicate them well to the taxidermist. He found it was kind of pathetically nice to have Beckett recognize that.

It was a sizable deer, and there were many new options for eyes, and a bunch of different shellac options for the horny parts, and the base had to be decided on, and the pose was a complex one which involved lots of imprecise stick figure sketching back and forth. The better part of a day had gone by before things were settled enough for Lester to think about leaving.

The building was quiet when he came back, neither Beckett nor Wells in immediate evidence, but he followed the gentle familiar sounds of swearing and arguing around to the back. He stepped out of the door and stopped dead, blinking in the last of the day's sunlight as the screen banged shut behind him.

Beckett and Wells had built up a large, smooth hemisphere of dirt, right there in the middle of the field. They were standing on either side of it, Beckett with a tape measure and bright yellow gardening gloves on his hands, Wells holding his fungo bat, which he was using to jab at a narrow white rectangle of rubber set into the top of the dirt pile. They appeared to be arguing about measurements.

"Uh. Guys? What's this?" Lester asked, not really expecting an answer beyond the two brief annoyed glances he got. He didn't need an answer anyways; it was pretty obvious that he was looking at a pitching mound, equally obvious that they had built it for him.

----

Wells took on the role of pitching coach, which left Beckett to catch. He complained often and bitterly, sitting on the ground instead of crouching, claiming that his knees were in no way up to the task, but Wells had the unbeatable argument on his side. Lester was a lefty; Wells was a lefty. Beckett, with his boring typical dominant right hand, had no say in the matter. Lester supposed that they could have asked a ranch employee to catch, but for whatever reason Beckett preferred to do it himself, with a healthy amount of griping.

They did not have a radar gun, for which Lester was thankful. He didn't need it to know that his velocity was still significantly lower than it should have been, but knowing the actual numbers, seeing them in stark digital digits on the back of the gun, would have been too much. "Strength'll come when it comes," Wells said. "You're gonna hafta just work back on up to that. But you can get your motion back in rhythm, that's all outta whack just 'cause you ain't thrown proper in so long."

All three of them headed out to the mound right after breakfast, armed with gloves and a big plastic bucket of baseballs, the sun turning the eastern horizon buttery gold before bleaching it out again, a good reminder to look towards Boston. Beckett paced off something approximating sixty feet and six inches, putting down a big light gray paving stone that he had appropriated from one of the front gardens to stand in for home plate.

It wasn't as though they had some kind of formal rehab plan. Lester did whatever drills Wells felt like running on any particular day, tried whatever adjustments to his motion Beckett could think up. Some days they stopped at lunchtime, leaving baseballs lurking in the grass like huge abandoned snail shells, and on some days they did not stop until the sun sank so low in the sky that everything became tenebrous and untruthworthy, and Lester got disoriented, putting his foot down in the wrong place and almost falling off the side of the mound. The whole thing was haphazard and sometimes contradictory, Wells insisting that Lester throw one way on Tuesday, insisting he throw the opposite way on Wednesday.

Nothing was going to cut into the rehab time he would need when he rejoined the team, but after a couple of weeks Lester began to think that it wasn't ever about that anyways. Beckett insulted his slider, Wells critiqued his follow-through. Home plate was sometimes closer, sometimes farther away, because none of them ever bothered to actually measure out and mark the proper distance. The mound was a little too hard-packed to be big league standard, and nobody bothered to groom the front of it all that often, so that dark, hardened impact clods peppered its surface until they became an overwhelming hazard and someone had to clear them out of the way.

Lester once made the mistake of stripping off his shirt when it grew too hot, resulting in a violent sunburn. The back of his neck and the entire breadth of his shoulders turned bright red, even brighter than their uniform socks. Beckett rolled his eyes and muttered unflattering things about idiot northerners and rubbed aloe into the worst spots every night. It was soothing and stinging in equal measure, and Beckett used so much aloe that the glutinously fresh smell of it stayed with Lester all night long. When the sunburn faded, Lester found that he had lost the worst of his paleness and was starting to return to a color that he recognized, although the back of his neck was to remain darker than the front for a long time.

The bruises on the backs of his hands smoothed themselves away, and he could count seams in his sleep again, the surfaces of his fingers remembering the feel of the pitches in his hand. Beckett and Wells had the veteran's habit of talking about time in reference to the markers of the big league season-- after the All Star Break; before interleague play; by the time the ALDS starts-- and Lester got back into the habit of it himself.

"So I was thinking about getting a new car, maybe after September call-ups," he said, and Wells snorted, you'll be back up long before then, rook. The places that sickness had left echoing and empty inside of him were filled back up with baseball; it was a kind of rehab that he hadn't even realized he needed, and maybe a kind of rehab he could not have gotten anywhere else.

----

Even without Wells around, Spring Training was not a quiet affair, but the cacophony had a new quality to it, more small voices working together instead of one big one booming over them all. It was hard for Lester to tell if anyone else noticed the difference. Certainly everyone noticed him: all the reporters wanted to talk to him, all the coaches wanted to give him a hug. Julian Tavarez touched him on his left shoulder every time they crossed paths. He claimed it was for luck, but Tavarez was the one filling Lester's spot in the rotation while he recovered, so Lester was not quite sure about that.

"You're a big story now, kid," Beckett said, arm casually draped across Lester's shoulders in the locker room. Lester shrugged, but not strongly enough to shift Beckett's arm.

It was in general a spring utterly without drama. Lester became weirdly self-conscious about his eyebrows, not yet filled in all the way, but that was just about the worst of it. With all the major and minor leaguers mixed up together on the same fields, in the same clubhouses, under the eyes of the same relative few coaches, it was too crowded for anyone to notice if Lester was spending more time than he should have with Beckett, and any incriminating lingering looks were lost in the general chaos. Lester knew that he was not going to start the season with the big squad; it was just a matter of waiting to see which minor league team would get him first, and so there was a certain lack of stressful dramatics that way too.

They assigned him to single-A, it turned out, for a short stop in Greenville, the new equivalent of his old Augusta squad, which had switched affiliations and now belonged to some National League team. He was there just long enough to realize that everyone seemed impossibly young, even though many of them were right around his age and a few of them were older; he could not really tell if it was big league service or cancer or Beckett that made him feel each one of his years more keenly. The coaches decided that he was farther along in his rehab than expected (thank you, Josh, thank you, David, Lester thought), and before the month was out they sent him all the way up to triple-A.

McCoy Stadium was one of the few minor league parks that really did look like a big league park in miniature. The beams that held up the roof over the stands were real Fenway-style, 100% guaranteed to obstruct someone's view. Lester liked it, and he liked the big crowds, always sold out. It was better than single-A, and it sure beat the hell out of his apartment in the middle of winter.

He was throwing before a game, just messing around, something he was able to do because he never had any trouble finding someone willing to catch for him. It was like all these triple-A catchers knew that he was destined for greater things. Or maybe it was just that they knew he was heading back to the majors as soon as he was ready. There were so few pitchers, even at this level, for whom that was a given.

Fastball, fastball, fastball, until finally the catcher came up on his heels and said, "Dude, mix it up a little." Lester grinned sheepishly and threw a slider. The catcher flapped his glove after he threw the ball back, mock-annoyed, and said, "C'mon, man, quit it with the same old shit, I said to mix it up."

Lester made a snatched-back motion with his hand, ooo, burn, and the catcher laughed. Lester was thinking about Beckett, the tensile implied strength in his thighs as he crouched in the underbrush while waiting for a deer, the cross-eyed faces he would make behind Wells' back over lunch, the way he would kiss just the corner of Lester's mouth, casual and light, just because he felt like it. Idle minds, and Lester threw a pitch quickly, before the catcher could notice that his attention had been wandering.

"Woah!" the catcher whistled, impressed. "Gimme that one again!" Lester looked down at his left hand in surprise; distracted, he had thrown something halfway between his fastball and his slider, something that moved faster than a slider and danced more than fastball.

He threw it again, and again, until he could mimic his own motions well enough to throw it whenever he wanted. "Didn't know you threw a cutter, kid," the coach said after Lester had thrown it a bunch of times in a game, giving the triple-A batters fits. The Pawtucket coach was the kind of old baseball man who always had a wad of something gummy packed between his teeth and his cheek (although whether it was tobacco or gum or some other substance, no one could say-- nobody ever saw him putting it into his mouth), obscuring half his speech, and it took Lester a moment to realize what he had said. He hadn't been thinking of the pitch as a cutter, but now that the coach had said it, he could see that it fit.

Lester stopped throwing the slider. It was, in the end, just a curveball for people who were too chickenshit to throw a real curveball, and he had never possessed a particularly great curve himself; certainly nothing like Beckett's slow sloping pitch, or Wells' famously enormous one, which dropped in like the first big dive on a rollercoaster. He replaced it almost entirely with his cutter.

The cutter was by its very nature a little mixed up, a mongrel sort of pitch, and it wasn't at all the kind of pitch his high school self would have imagined using successfully at a serious level. It was a pitch that sometimes seemed to wobble in midair, not clean like a powerful fastball or pretty like a sweeping curve. But that was OK. The important thing was that it would get him back to Boston quicker. The important thing was that it worked.