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History for Sale

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Salvi stormed into the dugout, nearly colliding with Ginny before Hulk smashing the cooler. Gatorade, paper cups, and assorted equipment skittered across the bench.

 

Blip got physically in between the angry player and his next round of gratuitous destruction, forcefully coaching, “Calm down, calm down. Just take a breath.”

 

“Salvi, what are you doin’ man, use your head,” Mike interjected.

 

Salvi thundered back, “Save it, Mike!” stopping just short of bodying up to him.

 

“I got this,” Blip spewed at their captain, using one hand to keep Mike a distance away from the Salvi show. 

 

I got this,” Mike countered, brows furrowed and indignant. He threw one hand into Salvi’s face, pointing furiously as he continued, “ You can’t act like a jackass on national TV, especially now -”

 

But Blip and Salvi cut him off together, bellowing in tandem, “Back off, Mike!“

 

Mike took a step forward and raised one eyebrow, questioning, “I’m sorry?”

 

Salvi got into Mike’s face, taunting, “That’d be a first.”

 

The veteran catcher screwed his face into an even angrier mask, disdain pouring off of every feature.

 

“I don’t give a shit what your problem is right now, but you need to sit down before you really piss me off.”

 

Salvi’s eyes flashed, and he spewed back, “Or what, Grandpa?” as he deliberately bumped his chest into Mike.

 

Then several things happened all at once:

  1. Mike didn’t budge an inch, causing Salvi to rebound backward off of him.
  2. Blip kicked the cooler out of his way, and right into Salvi’s path.
  3. Salvi stumbled on the cooler, careening backward.
  4. Blip, still angry, pushed Salvi right back toward Mike, who had stepped just far enough aside for Salvi to go flying, batting helmet first, into the bench. Right where Ginny sat. 

Ginny had been distracted by the dugout phone ringing. So she didn’t look in the right direction until it was almost too late. Encumbered by her half-on, almost fully-zipped jacket, she managed to keep her pitching arm out of the way as Salvi crashed into her lap. 

 

If the dugout was loud before, now it was deafening. Al and Butch yelled at everyone to calm down. Ginny made several snarky comments about children needing babysitters as she tried to get the giant out of her lap. 

 

Mike and Blip, both enraged at the scuffle coming far too close to their favorite pitcher, roughly hauled Salvi away from Ginny.

 

And then time froze.

 

With Salvi’s giant body no longer blocking Ginny from view, Mike and Blip could see her catching arm.

 

“Take a picture, old man. It’ll last longer,” she chided. 

 

Suddenly waking up, Mike leapt into action. “Blip - go get a trainer now!” He knocked all the other guys out of the way like bowling pins.

 

Ginny and Mike spoke over each other.

 

“Everybody else, sit the fuck down. I don’t want to hear a word from any one of you!” His words came out an angry growl more than anything else. 

 

“What on earth are you - “

 

And then she looked where everyone else seemed to be looking. Her sleeve had a new rip, the edges of which were rimmed in bright red blood. Suddenly Ginny felt the warm flow of her own blood trickling down her arm.

 

Mike immediately pressed a clean towel over the opening, bracketing it against her skin with one large hand on either side of her bicep. Her eyes swam by the time he met her gaze, but he saw her wall go up almost immediately. No one else would see the hurt and uncertainty swirling in her mind - that’d be a moment just for them. 

 

Perched on the bench right beside her, Mike tried to reassure her.

 

“It’s probably nothing, Rook. I bet you’re just a bleeder. We’ll have you back in the game just as soon as that trainer gets here with your Disney-themed bandaids.”

 

She smirked at him, in spite of the dull ache emanating from her arm and responded, “You’re just jealous there are no Disney characters remotely close to you. I basically am Judy Hopps.”

 

He cocked one eyebrow up and smacked his gum loudly.

 

“I don’t know who Judy Hopps is, but I do know that every Disney hero is me, Rookie. Come on.”

 

She threw her head back, exhaling her disbelief.

 

“Tall, dark, handsome, charming, talented - “

 

He winked at her.

 

“ - rescuing damsels in distress.”

 

She shook her head and rolled her eyes, trying desperately not to think about anything except how annoyingly smug he is. He was probably right. Her arm really didn’t hurt that bad, though she hadn’t even looked at the source of the blood yet. Maybe it really was superficial. 

 

“I’m not even gonna acknowledge that. But if you don’t shut up about yourself, I might be begging the trainer to just let me bleed to death right here.”

 

Right on cue, two trainers appeared with a tacklebox of medical supplies. A pair of gloved hands appeared, pushing Mike’s out of the way.

 

Mike made sure the guys blocked all the cameras as the trainers cut the sleeve off of Ginny’s jersey. The dugout went stone silent as the now crimson towel came off, revealing a 4 inch gash.

 

Ginny raised her eyebrows and sucked air in through pursed lips, looking up at Mike as she declared, “I don’t think a Zootopia bandaid is gonna do it today.”

 

She was clearly making a joke, but in that moment Mike saw a lost kid. It made his heart stutter and his years feel expansive. But more than that, and he wouldn’t have been able to articulate it in the moment, it made him feel claimed. Like he belonged to something bigger than himself, and owed her an anchor to stop the drift, like he might hang up his cleats if it’d make her feel grounded. He told his brain to move on so he wouldn’t have to examine it any further.

 

The trainers agreed with Ginny’s assessment, pressing a sterile bandage over her arm and informing Al that she’d have to go to the hospital for stitches. 

 

Several of the guys offered to head to the hospital with her, but Ginny told them all to stay. It was just stitches, nothing she couldn’t handle on her own. Plus, she could feel reality threatening to break the dam of resolve currently holding back her tears. She didn’t want an audience if she broke down even a little. 

 

They shuffled her out of the dugout, into the bowels of the stadium, and just like that, her first season as a major leaguer was over. 

 

-*-

 

Ginny looked up at a TV screen as the trainers escorted her through the clubhouse and frowned. Given the number of bodies involved in the scuffle, it would have been easiest to figure out which of her teammates weren’t currently brawling. But she could make out the number 36, right in the middle of the chaos. 

 

Later, Blip would give her his summary of what the media called The Baker Brawl. Some would say Mike started it, others would blame Salvi and Livan. Nobody would dispute the fact that Mike’s angry commentary at least got things moving in that direction. 

 

“You just made history, Salvi. I hope you’re goddamn happy going down as the moron who ended Ginny Baker’s first season in the MLB.” His bellowing words were directed at the dugout floor, but they were loud enough that it didn’t matter. Even the camera guys in the stands heard him.

 

At the time, Mike was seething with a fury that threatened to burn right through his skin. They didn’t have many games left, he knew the suits were already planning to shut Ginny down, and he was scared. Scared that something could happen in those few games to turn this into his last season in the MLB. 

 

And then, he would never get to crouch across from her as she cemented herself in the history books as the first Padre ever to throw a no-hitter. That would mean he had already caught his last Ginny Baker pitch. All because Salvi needed to throw a fucking tantrum and steal his last couple of innings with her. 

 

Salvi had spit back some jab about it being Mike’s fault for shitting the bed as prodigal Team Captain. To Mike’s credit, he hadn’t responded. Just chewed his gum with enough force to guarantee early-onset TMJ.

 

When Mike didn’t take the bait, Salvi kept running his mouth. Al was halfway to chastising him like a child when Livan decked Salvi out of nowhere. And then all hell broke loose. The rookie catcher hadn’t gone out of his way to make friends, so several of the veterans went after him. 

 

Meanwhile Robles and Tommy seemed to have agreed with whatever Livan shouted, because they were both going after Salvi and his crew. The dugout was a cacophony of fists, elbows, and colliding giants. 

 

Mike and Blip tried gamely to separate the two factions, but it was Buck and a magically appearing airhorn that finally got things under control. Salvi had a black eye, Robles’ cheek was split, and Livan looked like he just stepped out of a photoshoot, not a scratch on him. 

 

Which is probably at least part of what motivated Al to kick him out of the game. That little shit even had the nerve to look happy, flashing his dimples back at Mike as he left the dugout. To be fair though, if Mike had been headed where Livan was in that moment, he’d have been happy, too.

Chapter Text

Mercifully, no one at the hospital forced Ginny to change into a gown, nor did they make her put away her phone. Her security guys had insisted she be placed in a private room where they could ensure her safety. Which is where Eliot finally found her. 

 

She glanced at him briefly before narrowing her eyes, shaking her head, and looking at the ground.

 

“Don’t tell me we’re trending, Eliot. Don’t tell me about the fight, and definitely don’t ask about any of it. You can talk about literally anything except what just went down in the dugout - before and after I left.”

 

He paused, considering his words carefully.

 

“Oh kaaay. Well I can’t find Amelia - “

 

She cut him off immediately.

 

“Nope, not talking about Amelia either. What else ya’ got?”

 

Eliot’s eyes tracked toward the ceiling, the gears in his mind audibly turning as he considered his next move. Rather than speak, he reached into his jacket pocket, retrieving an unopened container of Shock Tarts. 

 

He held the stack of foil-wrapped candies out to her as he questioned.

 

“Is there anything I can get you? Should I call someone? Evelyn? Cara?”

 

Ginny took the candies, unwrapping them roughly despite her temporarily bandaged arm. She shoved one in her mouth and puckered her face like a kid.

 

“Umm, I think I’m good Eliot - “

 

She paused, considering.

 

“ - actually, can you do me a favor and do some research on sports agents. Can you figure out who handles Serena, Venus, and Simone, please?”

 

Eliot raised his eyebrows but agreed to the task.

 

“And obviously don’t talk to Amelia about it. It’s not her business anymore.”

 

“Kinda figured,” he mumbled as he took a seat in the back corner of the room. 

 

Ginny’s phone buzzed on the bedside table - Evelyn wanted to know if she needed anything. She typed out a quick message, telling Ev to please keep everyone away. Ginny would call her when she got released. In the meantime, she’d rather not deal with a parade of people traipsing through her hospital room. Where she was still bleeding through the temporary bandages. 

 

How long did it take to get somebody capable of a few stitches in here?

 

Finally, a tall woman with long black hair and perfect olive skin breezed in the room.

 

“Hello - sorry to keep you waiting. I’m Dr. Mags, but you can call me Niki.”

 

Ginny smiled her public smile, “I’m Ginny - “

 

“- Baker.”

 

The doctor smiled sweetly as she finished the sentence.

 

“I’d have to live in some secret underground compound, utterly deprived of media to not know who you are.”

 

Ginny pursed her lips, exhaling through her nose, and nodding once in agreement. 

 

“Not to worry Ms. Baker. I’m the best plastic surgeon around. I’ve had spy-level training in making cuts completely disappear. So we’ll have you fixed up in no time.”

 

As Dr. Mags set to work, Ginny tried to zone out. She needed to focus on anything but the great unknown opening up before her. 

 

With the season abruptly over (for her), she suddenly had free time for the first time in her life. Sure, Amelia had been planning all kinds of things. Things which, to be honest, Ginny had been dreading. 

 

But wide open nothing was worse than having too much to do. Ginny started to think about it, just for a second, and she could feel her chest tightening in response. If she was going to have a panic attack, a hospital seemed like at least a safe place for it. But once again, she didn’t want her health becoming front page news, let alone something as inflammatory as panic attacks. 

 

Just as she was about to spiral into a panic attack about panic attacks, Livan’s voice rang through the doorway. 

 

“MamÍ, you decent in there?”

 

She answered back, voice tinged with anxiety and fatigue, “Yeah, papÍ. Come on in, but only if you’re not gonna faint at the sight of a little blood.”

 

Livan hadn’t really found a groove with the rest of the team yet, but he and Ginny had bonded over being rookies. With Mike’s help, they had developed a fairly easy rapport as batterymates. And much to Mike’s chagrin (no he didn’t know why, and he didn’t need to), that relationship had carried off the field as well. 

 

She felt grateful for the distraction of his presence.

 

“I used to catch gallos for my abuela, mamÍ. This rasguñito won’t bother me.”

 

Livan swaggered in, immediately checking out the (hot) doctor. (his words!)

 

“Livan, this is Dr. Mags. Dr. Mags, this is my friend Livan Duarte.” Ginny gestured between the two with her pitching hand. 

 

“Oye. If they made doctors like this in Cuba I might not have had to leave.”

 

Ginny rolled her eyes and motioned for him to sit down in the chair next to her bed. She offered him a Shock Tart, but he waved her off.

 

“Ms. Baker, are you sure you want company for this next part? From what I hear, I’ll need to give you at least 20 stitches, but it may be up to 40.”

 

Ginner smirked, stopping short of rolling her eyes. She simultaneously flipped her pitching hand over in a “who cares” gesture.

 

“No matter what, Livan’s already seen worse with the gallos. Right, papÍ?”

 

Livan shook his head in agreement and winked at the doctor for good measure, not knowing that his tolerance for blood was about to be severely tested. It turned out, Ginny really was a bleeder.

 

When Dr. Mags pulled the temporary bandages off, it opened up the wound all over again. So it took several minutes for her to get the bleeding under control enough to even start stitching. 

 

Livan chose to distract Ginny with stories of his childhood escapades. He made her laugh once in the middle of a stitch, prompting Ginny to demand that he only tell her very serious things until her stitches were done. 

 

“Last onnnnnnnnnne - and, done.”

 

Dr. Mags continued, “ - with stitches. Sit tight while I get this bandaged, and then I’ll get one of the nurses working on your discharge paperwork.”

 

Livan took the opportunity to tell several funny stories about his childhood. Apparently, he had gotten in a lot of trouble for cutting up at school. And his mom was going to spank him. So Livan had put on a pair of baggy sweats, thrown some knee pads into his briefs, and then put a metal pan in between the briefs and the knee pads.

 

“A metal pan? What on earth, Livan.”

 

He held up a hand to cut her off. 

 

“Quedate, mamÍ. It gets better.”

 

Livan then explained that every spank made a sharp pinging sound when the belt collided with the metal pan. His mom had been so confused at first that she just kept going. By the time she realized what he’d done, she was already laughing.

 

Simultaneously:

 

Mike had the unfortunate experience of rounding the hall corner just as an orderly rolled out a tray full of bloody gauze. The sheer volume of it planted a seed of panic in his belly. There was just too much of it. No way that much blood came from something superficial. They probably had to stitch muscle back together. And oh fuck, he was gonna throw up.

 

To make matters worse, when Mike got closer, he heard Livan’s voice coming from the open door to Ginny’s room. Then waves of horsey laughter washed over him. He didn’t know exactly why (didn’t really want to examine it that closely - they weren’t talking about it), but something about it made him mad all over again. 

 

He stomped into the room, fists clenched and brow furrowed in anticipation of the bad news. But he found Ginny, ostensibly flirting - with Livan - as a pretty doctor set up pieces of tape and gauze on a metal tray. 

 

“Livan, did the doctor tell you Ginny’d heal faster if you annoyed her to death with your incessant chatter?”

 

Ginny whipped her head back, cocking an eyebrow at the disgruntled catcher, but her retort was cut off by Dr. Mags.

 

“Mr. Duarte has been doing an admirable job of distracting my patient while I put 40, yes four zero, 40 stitches in Ms. Baker’s arm here.”

 

Jesus, fuck - 40 stitches?!

 

Mike tried to keep his face neutral, but Dr. Mags saw a flash of that thing both he and Ginny were trying desperately not to see. Livan did, too. 

 

Mike trudged through the room, right up to the chair Livan currently occupied. He motioned aggressively for Livan to vacate his seat.

 

“Move it poppy. Team Captain in the house, who actually finished the ball game you were too busy misbehaving to stick around for. I get the best seat, and I need to hear what’s going on with my pitcher. Anda-lay!”

 

Livan rolled his eyes, but he got out of the chair just the same.

 

Meanwhile, Mike’s commentary brought Ginny back to reality. She was injured. Her season was over. She had probably fired her agent - 

 

A gentle pressure on the neat row of stitches broke Ginny’s thoughts long enough for her to snark, “Who peed in your Cheerios this morning? Didn’t we win the game? What are you so cranky about?”

 

Dr. Mags finished applying an antibacterial ointment to Ginny’s wound as Mike grumbled back.

 

“Just gettin’ real tired of babysitting all these children in the dugout, Rook. That’s all.”

 

He glared at Livan, pointedly, as he spoke. 

 

“Uuuh - “ Eliot interrupted from his far corner.

 

“ - I think you may want to see this, Ginny.”

 

Everyone in the room turned to look at Eliot, except Ginny, who closed her eyes, raised her eyebrows and sighed.

 

“Is it about the things I don’t want to talk about?”

 

“Ummm, yes?”

 

“Is it something I can do anything about right now?”

 

“Probably not.”

 

She waved her free hand at him.

 

“Then I’ll deal with it later. Better yet, why don’t you deal with it, k? I’m giving you permission and authority, Eliot. You handle it.”

 

Their exchange left Livan and Mike both looking confused.

 

Pressing her fingers along the last strip of tape on Ginny’s arm, Dr. Mags cautioned, “Alright, that takes care of that. I’ll send a nurse in with your discharge paperwork and instructions.”

 

She met Ginny’s gaze and definitely did not gush, “It was lovely to meet you Ms. Baker.” Then motioning to the rest of the room, “ - and of course, you gentlemen as well. Take care.”

 

Mike and Livan both watched as she swept out of the room, but it was the veteran catcher who turned back first.

 

Mike wiped his hand up and down his grizzly face.

 

“What’s the word, Rook? That cart full of bloody gauze made it look like you bled like a stuck pig? They have to amputate somethin’ or what?”

 

As he spoke, Mike trained his eyes on Ginny’s face. He was looking for - well, he wasn’t quite sure what he was looking for. Anxiety, uncertainty maybe. Whatever it was, he was searching for it on her face.

 

Ginny tossed her head a little and smirked.

 

“Don’t worry, old man. It’s not that bad. Dr. Mags said I didn’t need internal stitches, so it didn’t hit any muscle. Just everything else.”

 

Mike raised his eyebrows and nodded his head a couple of times.

 

“Well that’s good, Rook. At least now I don’t have to throttle the entire team - “

 

He narrowed his eyes, cocked his head to one side and glared at her pointedly.

 

“- and don’t even start the speech about me freaking out just because you’re a girl. It’s not because you’re a girl. It’s because you’re our teammate, and you were throwing a fucking perfect game, and these assholes - “

 

A petite nurse interrupted Mike’s increasingly angry tirade.

 

“Hello, Ms. Baker - and guests. I’m Jenna, and I’ll be going over your discharge instructions with you.”

 

Looking around the room, Jenna continued, “Would you like some privacy before we discuss homecare and follow-up?”

 

Ginny answered in a deflated drawl.

 

“No, they’re fine. Let’s just do this.”

 

Jenna went over some very basic instructions. Don’t get the wound wet for at least 3 days. Change the dressing every day. Monitor for signs of infection.

 

“Do you have someone who can help you with the dressing changes?”

 

Ginny’s face went entirely blank. She kind of didn’t have anyone, but then she realized.

 

“I can probably stay with Blip and Ev for a few days. They can help me out.”

 

Mike frowned as he countered, “I’m not so sure about that, Rook. I think there’s trouble over in Sanders paradise. What about Amelia - can’t she manage a couple of dressing changes on the salary you pay her?”

 

She answered with almost zero emotion, in her voice or on her face.

 

“Nope. Amelia won’t be helping me with anything for the foreseeable future.”

 

Ginny exhaled, blowing an errant curl out of her eyes. She really needed this to be over faster, because she could feel the breakdown creeping up despite the very effective distractions currently occupying her hospital room.

 

“I can just do it myself. It’s not a big deal. My hands work just fine.”

 

Jenna tilted her head to the side, compassion marking her features.

 

“I wouldn’t recommend that, Ms. Baker. We can make some follow-up appointments with one of the nurse practitioners. They can handle a few dressing changes so you don’t have to fumble around with it while you’re healing.”

 

Ugh. Ginny did not want to come back to the hospital just for a stupid dressing change. That she shouldn’t even need, because she should be at a press conference right now, fielding questions about being the first Padre ever to throw a no-hitter.

 

“Nah. She doesn’t need to come back here - “

 

“I got you, MamÍ. I can just come downstairs and help you out.”

 

Riiight, Livan was also staying at the Omni.  Mike just bet Livan would love to “help her out.” He scrunched one brow down and grimaced.

 

“Like hell you will, poppy. She can come into the clubhouse like she does every single day, and the trainers will help her out. Alright, Gin? You don’t have to come back here or count on this joker.”

 

Livan and Ginny both raised their eyebrows at the use of her first name, but neither commented. Livan because he didn’t want to get mixed up in whatever that was - aside from tweaking Mike every chance he got. And Ginny because she was so overwhelmed with relief at not needing to come back to the hospital. 

 

“Phew, good. I like that plan much better. Thanks, old man.”

 

“Well, now that we’ve got that all straightened out - “

 

Jenna closed a folder and offered it to Ginny.

 

“ - here are your complete discharge instructions. Now if you can just sign right here, we’ll be done, and you can get on outta here.”

 

Ginny signed the paperwork then looked up at Mike with a heavy sigh before turning to Eliot. 

 

“What’s the paparazzi situation like at the Omni?”

 

Eliot’s face looked pained, which led Ginny to frown. 

 

“Awesome. Alright well - “ she gestured to Livan and Mike, “ - thanks for stopping by. I really appreciate it, but now I’ve gotta go play dodge the cameras to get back to my place. El, you can give me a ride, right?”

 

Neither Mike nor Livan gave any sign of leaving, prompting Ginny to push them.

 

“Go celebrate with the team - get on outta here. I don’t need you two blaming me for dragging you down when you could be out getting your groupie on.”

 

Livan put on a ridiculously self-satisfied smirk, and Mike spoke. 

 

“Nuh uh. Listen, I’ve got a pool house. Why don’t you come crash there for the night?”

 

Ginny chewed her lip, considering. It would be nice to just not deal with the paps. And she really didn’t want to talk to anyone about the game, the injury, or anything else. 

 

“Eliot can go grab your stuff from the Omni, and you can just skip the whole circus for now, alright?”

 

It was his pool house. It’s not like he would hear her if she broke down and cried in a completely separate structure from his house. She wouldn’t be raining on his groupie parade. And they weren’t talking about the moment that wasn’t really a moment. She could trust Mike. Yes, she could. Ginny knew that. Whatever happened between them, she definitely could trust him.

 

“You’re sure I won’t cramp your style? I don’t want to be blamed for scaring off any groupies, Mike.”

 

Livan laughed like Ginny just told the funniest joke in the world. Mike spared a moment to glare at him before turning back to Ginny.

 

“I’m sure, Rook. Taking a break from groupies for a while, anyway.”

 

Once again, the junior catcher doubled over in laughter. Mike just rolled his eyes.

 

“Ok, yes. That actually sounds a lot better. Thanks, Mike.”

Chapter Text

Ginny’s phone buzzed, interrupting Mike’s tirade about Katy Perry. Ginny pantomimed an entirely sarcastic apology as she answered the phone.

 

“Hey Noah!”

 

Mike reached for the radio dial, changing the station to classic rock, then did his level best to seem utterly uninterested in Ginny’s conversation.

 

“Oh - that’s so sweet!”

 

“No, actually I’m good - I’ve got everything I need - “

 

“Yeeeeapp, Eliot said it’s a madhouse, so I’m going to stay with a friend tonight to avoid all that.”

 

“Uh huh - yeah, sorry about that -  

 

Ginny laughed and shrugged.

 

“No, really. I am sorry. But if you had called me, I could have warned you!”

 

Her voice lost most of its enthusiasm.

 

“Umm, that sounds really nice, but I’m not sure - “

 

“Actually, Noah. I’m in the car right now. Do you mind if I give you a call back later?”

 

“Ok, awesome. Yep - talk to you later.”

 

Ginny flipped the radio back to her pop station from earlier.

 

“Hey! You can’t make me listen to this sugary bubblegum crap after forcing me to listen to that mush-fest with your boyfriend . It’s cruel.”

 

They both picked up on the way he emphasized the word boyfriend. Ginny told herself she imagined it, while Mike tried to avoid asking himself why exactly he had leaned so hard into that particular word. 

 

Ginny deadpanned, glaring at him, though he did his very best not to see. 

 

“He’s not my boyfriend. And there was nothing mushy about that conversation.”

 

She threw herself back against the seat with a huff.

 

“Is it completely ridiculous to tell an old man to grow up? Because I think I need to.”

 

Mike’s lips broke into an obnoxiously arrogant smirk.

 

“So you admit I’m not really old, finally.”

 

He turned to look at her just long enough to wink, his beard scrunching up the apples of his cheeks.

 

“I knew you’d come around.”

 

Pffft. Ginny exhaled through pursed lips, choosing to non-verbally express her disagreement. 

 

Her arm chose that moment to remind her of its mild throb and the sticky edges of tape bordering the dressing. She wanted to scratch it, but she held off, choosing instead to direct her attention to a different itch.

 

Noah had asked to bring her dinner, but she wasn’t sure how things would look if he brought her dinner at Mike’s place. Not that anything was going on. Obviously nothing was going on, because there was nothing to talk about. And they definitely weren’t talking about nothing. 

 

He was just a teammate helping another teammate avoid the paparazzi at a difficult time. There was nothing wrong with that.

 

Still, Ginny worried that Noah might get the wrong idea. So maybe it was better just to ask him for a raincheck? He had been pretty adorable that morning, bounding off the bed to get her coffee with barely enough clothes on to qualify as decent. 

 

But then he had also asked her to literally travel the globe with him. After two dates. He came off utterly genuine and sweet, but it was still a lot, right? How long would that even take? Would she need to do any rehab? How would she make sure to stay in fighting shape and be ready for spring training? Hadn’t Amelia already signed her up for something about memoirs?

 

Suddenly Ginny felt hot all over. Her chest felt too small for her lungs, and the cabin of Mike’s sports car felt like a coffin. 

 

Wondering why she hadn’t hit him with an answering quip, Mike looked back at His Rookie. Despite the bronze hue of her skin, she managed to look green, and there was a sheen of sweat on the tiny sliver of visible collarbone. 

 

“Hey - ‘d I ever tell you about the time I won a cowboy hat in a dance-off on 6th Street?”

 

Ginny raised her eyebrows and looked at him, surprised. So surprised that she completely forgot the train of thought that just seconds ago threatened to overheat every cell in her brain. Her face settled into a stony smirk. 

 

“I may be injured, but I’m not drugged up enough to believe any other human in the world is a bad enough dancer to lose to you.”

 

Mike busied himself turning the AC down a notch while she spoke. 

 

“Listen, Rook. I want you to pay attention, because this is an important life lesson - “

 

He glanced quickly at her to make sure he had her attention, which he did. Though she’d fixed him with a sardonic glare. 

 

“Good. So here it is. You don’t always have to dance to win a dance-off.”

 

Ginny raised her eyebrows, jutted her head forward and smirked, her face awash in disbelief. 

 

“What does that even mean, old man?”

 

He flipped his right hand in the air, consciously avoiding proximity to her bandaged arm.

 

“It means that sometimes a creative solution is the best way to achieve your goals.”

 

His words rang truer than he could know, because Ginny’s dad had said something along those exact lines when he first started teaching her the screwball. As Mike pulled into his garage, she made a conscious effort to move away from the dead dad thoughts. Luckily, Her Captain would probably facilitate that without even knowing.

 

Stepping out of the car, Ginny prompted, “Wait - so what was your incredibly creative, dare I say heroic and history making solution for the dance-off?”

 

Mike bobbed his head and shoulders arrogantly as he motioned her through the door and into the house.

 

“I took off my shirt. The judges couldn’t resist these guns.”

 

Ginny rolled her eyes as aggressively as she could manage. It was a wonder Mike could fit his ego through any door ever.

 

“Wooooow, old man. Your epic solution was stripping - “

 

Her response slowed as she took in the expanses of glass and hard angles in the house.

 

“ - I’ll be sure to remember that next time I’m in a tough spot.”

 

The house, if you could even call it that, featured at least 20 foot ceilings. Every surface had a sheen: glass, metal, plastic. Except the white leather couch. Later, Ginny would learn that it was actually a very comfortable couch, but from her current vantage point she imagined it’d be about as plush as a cement bench. 

 

Ginny was admiring the pool view when Mike interrupted her thoughts, gesturing wide with his arms.

 

“I know, I know. It’s a lot to take in. Standing in the real life home of your idol.”

 

He motioned to a barstool at the kitchen counter.

 

“Maybe take a seat before you pass out from all the excitement, Rook. Wouldn’t want to have to take you right back to the hospital for the vapors.”

 

Ginny’s eyes widened, and her mouth pressed into a genuinely confused, almost scowl.

 

“Do you sit around watching black and white movies all the time, or do you actually remember a time when (she made air quotes) the vapors were a thing???”

 

Mike bobbed his head a little, quirking up one side of his mouth, looking every bit the narcissistic playboy. 

 

“I just have a healthy appreciation for the History channel, Rook. You should try it sometime. Then maybe you’d know who people like Wally Pipp and Babe Ruth are.”

 

Ginny threw her head back, rolling her eyes and neck dramatically. 

 

“Yeah, I’ll definitely do that. I’m sure it’ll make me way more fun at parties.”

 

Mike’s head twitched to the side like a parrot as he chirped back at her.

 

“I am a riot at parties.”

 

Ginny didn’t need to speak, because her disbelieving face said it all, but she did anyway.

 

“Oh yeah. Everyone really loves when you grumble about other people dancing and then leave early - “

 

She bobbed her head and shoulders and continued in a lilting, sing-song voice, “ ’cause the party don’t start ‘til Mike walks - out.” 

 

Ginny’s hands came up, gesturing broadly to emphasize that last word. 

 

Mike exhaled a breath of frustration as he walked toward the back door, motioning for her to follow.

 

“Let’s get you settled in the poolhouse so I don’t have to keep correcting all your youthful misconceptions. I’ve gotta save some energy for the game tomorrow.”

 

Ginny’s sneakers squeaked as she trailed behind him, drawling, “Oh yeah, cap. I wouldn’t want to keep you from your afternoon nap. I know how important they are for people of your age.”

 

-*-

 

Mike’s “poolhouse” was about the size of Ginny’s childhood home. 2 bedrooms, 3 full bathrooms, and what she assumed was a chef’s kitchen (she didn’t really cook, so she wouldn’t know for sure) with an unobstructed view of the living room and the pool. 

 

Mike set her up with an access code for the front door, then showed her the intercom system right next to the light switches. 

 

“I know you’re used to people taking care of your every whim, but the intercom is for emergencies only, alright? I mean, kitchen on fire, nuclear war, rain of blood, etc.”

 

Ginny suppressed a smile, imagining the mischief she could get into with an intercom system in Mike’s house. How loud would it be in his room if she blasted Ke$ha through it first thing in the morning?

 

“Mmmhmmm. Got it. Don’t use the intercom unless I’m actually dying.”

 

Genuinely not wanting to tire her out, Mike made his exit back to the main house, leaving Ginny alone with her thoughts for the first time in hours. 

 

She checked her phone to see where Eliot was with her stuff. Her mangled game uniform was dirty and smelled vaguely of antiseptic and despair. It’d be really nice to get out of it as soon as possible. His last text said he’d be there in about 20 minutes. 

 

Ginny sat down gingerly on the couch then flopped herself into the back cushions. She should probably call Noah back at some point, but she wasn’t ready to talk about the global trip he’d proposed. 

 

In fact, she wasn’t ready to talk or think about much of anything. Because if she did start thinking, she’d have to consider what to do now that she’d cut Amelia loose. She’d need to figure out which projects her former agent had already committed her to.

 

And she’d have to figure out what to do with this whole restaurant thing with Will. Ugh, and he had involved Blip and Ev, too. What a mess.

 

When had her brother turned into a con-artist? Had this always been there and she just didn’t see it before? Did it have something to do with her finally making it big? Was it her fault? 

 

No, wait. Will wasn’t a con-artist. He definitely made some mistakes, but it’s not like he had set out to steal money from her. He just needed help and felt ashamed to ask for it. Probably. Right?

 

Ginny let out a huff of frustration then flopped all the way down onto her back, stretching out lengthwise on the couch. She threw her pitching arm across her forehead and stared at the ceiling. 

 

Maybe Amelia had been right to keep this from her. If she weren’t injured and over her pitch count, she would be at least thinking about tomorrow’s game. But it would be really hard to focus with all this bumping around on her back burner. 

 

Ok, so the whole thing wasn’t as black and white as it had felt when she was lashing out at Amelia in her dressing room. Fine. Maybe they had both said some things that were at least partially due to the heat of the moment and nothing more.

 

And maybe it was the right choice for Amelia to keep something like this from Ginny for - hours, or a day - long enough for her to focus on whatever game needed her attention. But she couldn’t keep it from her entirely, especially not something involving her brother. 

 

Ugh. She needed to talk to Amelia. 

 

Just then, Mike’s grumpy voice bellowed from the pool, “Baker! Your delivery boy is here - heads up!”

 

Grateful for the interruption (from her own thoughts), Ginny got up and padded over to the door, opening it just as Eliot got there. 

 

“Thank you so much, Eliot. I feel like I’m going to crawl out of my skin soon if I can’t get out of this uniform.”

 

He deposited a pristine Nike duffle bag on the kitchen counter, only to have Ginny immediately dump its contents onto the cold marble. She rifled through, settling on the first leggings, shirt, sports bra, and panties she found.

 

And no, she didn’t care that Eliot had gone through her underwear. He was probably the most discrete, trustworthy person she’d ever met. 

 

“I’m just going to change real fast, and then I need to talk to you about something. Can you stick around for a few?”

 

He raised his eyebrows but nodded, “uh - sure, yeah. No problem.”

 

She disappeared into one of the bedrooms and couldn’t hear him continue.

 

“ - I’ll just sit here and scroll through the number one trend in sports social media: #BakerBrawl.”

 

It took her longer than normal to change, because her arm was actually pretty painful. And getting her compression sports bra off proved difficult. The bottom band caught on her dressing tape, almost removing it as she peeled the bra off. 

 

She ended up not putting the fresh one on just to avoid the hassle again. She’d have Eliot call the Nike rep and see if they could send over a few sports bras with front closures.

 

She sailed back into the living area and leaned on the counter, chewing the inside of her cheek before jumping into business. 

 

“Can I ask your honest opinion on something?”

 

Eliot looked up from his phone, reticence apparent on his face.

 

“Uuuum. Sure?”

 

Ginny bobbed her head once as she spoke, “Oh kay. But you have to promise to be completely honest, alright?”

 

If anyone could give her a relevant, informed opinion on this, it was Eliot. And he actually had more experience with Amelia than Ginny. 

 

Plus, it was Eliot. She could count the people she genuinely trusted on one hand, and he was one of them. 

 

His eyes traced all the way to the right as if checking the room for another person.

 

“Yeah, sure.”

 

Ginny propped her crossed arms on the counter, then immediately adjusted her position, the discomfort in her arm a clear but unpleasant surprise. She trained her eyes on the shiny surface. 

 

“Do you think it was a mistake to fire Amelia?”

 

Eliot opened his mouth as if to answer, but paused.

 

“Well, wait. First, do you know what happened with Amelia and my brother? And this restaurant situation?”

 

He flattened his mouth into a thin line then, casting his own eyes on the marble countertop. 

 

“You do know. Ok, Um - everything?”

 

He scrunched up one eye, forming a left-leaning grimace. He leaned his whole body to that side as he inquired, “mm… define (air quotes) everything.”

 

Ginny exhaled through pursed lips, flicking her eyes up to the ceiling.

 

“Uh, let’s see. He borrowed money from me for this restaurant thing, involved Ev and Blip, then took 40 thousand of it to pay off - I dunno - a bookie?”

 

Eliot raised his eyebrows and screwed up his face into a half scowl, waiting for her to continue.

 

“You knew that, El?”

 

His head jutted forward as he forced himself to speak.

 

“And…”

 

Ginny stood up to her full height, crossing her arms carefully but somehow still angrily across her chest.

 

“And what? There’s more?”

 

The look on Eliot’s face stated plainly that he absolutely did not want to provide additional information. But he knew Ginny deserved to know. She probably needed to know for her own sanity as well.

 

Eliot clasped his hands together, rested his forearms on the counter and stared intently at his interlaced fingers as he spoke. 

 

“Um, there was… another thing with your brother. A few months back… uh, I guess he actually showed up in town for your second start?”

 

Ginny’s eyes went wide, and she bobbed her head backward, astonished. 

 

“I don’t know all the details of that one, uh - but - sounds like he maybe had a black eye or - ”

 

She could hear more than see the pained expression on Eliot’s face.

 

“Uh - he just, looked… um, pretty beat up. I guess he owed people some money, and he was going to ask you about it - “

 

He exhaled forcefully.

 

“But Amelia thought it would distract you from your start and throw you off your game. Um, so she wrote him a check on the condition that he not see you looking - uh… you know, the way he did.”

 

Neither Will nor Amelia had seen fit to tell her this. Her brother owed people enough money that somebody knocked him around over it. Months ago.

 

Oh my god. How much money had Amelia given him back then? How much money had he lost? How many other times had this happened that she didn’t know about?

 

Ginny wiped her face with her pitching hand, resting her chin in it as she exhaled a loud, loaded sigh.

 

“Is that everything?”

 

Eliot cast his eyes toward the ceiling, considering.

 

“Um, yeah? Yes, yep. That’s - uh - that’s everything I know about anyway.”

 

As upsetting as she found this news, Ginny still needed the answer to her original question. She took a step back, standing up again.

 

“So, do you think it was a mistake to fire Amelia?”

 

Eliot’s eyebrows scrunched together and his entire face telegraphed discomfort. 

 

“Um, I think that depends on your definition of a mistake.”

 

“Ugh, you know what I mean.”

 

“Uh, maybe I do?”

 

Ginny deadpanned, glaring pointedly at him. Then she motioned for him to continue.

 

“Right. Um, I don’t think firing her was a mistake… but I do think you need to re-hire her.”

 

Ginny furrowed her brow. What the hell?

 

“Why would I need to re-hire her if firing her wasn’t a mistake?”

 

The corners of Eliot’s mouth dragged ever so slightly downward as his head leaned backward.

 

“Um… I think she needed to be fired to understand how wrong it was for her to keep this from you, and how serious you are about that. But… I think you need her. So I think you need to re-hire her, but use this opportunity to redraw some boundaries and, you know, maybe make her contractually bound to be transparent with you about anything regarding your family.”

 

He pressed his lips together and slowly raised his eyes to meet her face. 

 

Everything he said made sense to Ginny, it did. But she still needed more information. So she kept discussing things with him until she felt at least content with her next course(s) of action.

 

They both agreed that, if things with her family were going to distract her from a big game, it made sense to leave them until after the game. But Amelia needed a formal time limit on how long she would be allowed to withhold information.

 

Ginny honestly felt relieved at the prospect of Amelia handling any money questions when it came to her family. She hoped it wouldn’t come up again. 

 

Well, it probably wouldn’t, really. Will didn’t seem very positively inclined toward her when he stormed off. And truthfully Ginny wanted to talk to her therapist, probably a lot, about all of this stuff before she tried to talk to him again. 

 

Overall, she knew she needed to get these boundaries down on paper, then work with a lawyer to put together a strong contract. That would take time, so she’d need to engage Amelia and get her at least warmed up to the idea in the interim. 

 

And Eliot needed a raise. She could afford it now that the Nike paychecks were starting to come in. And he was going to be the linchpin for this whole thing. 

 

The two of them decided that the best way for Ginny to truly trust the situation was for him to be her backup. If Amelia broke the rules or tried to keep anything from her, Eliot would tell Ginny instead. 

 

Ginny felt like she could breathe a little better by the time Eliot left. She could depend on him to do the right thing, even if it was pretty iffy for Amelia. 

 

Since she was only staying the night, Ginny left the contents of her bag on the kitchen counter. She’d get to them in the morning when she went back to the Omni. For now, she probably needed to call Noah back. 

 

First, she fired off a quick text to Amelia asking to schedule a call with her first thing in the morning. So that wouldn’t be hanging over her head while she tried to figure out what to do with Noah. 

 

Then, she paced around the kitchen, trying to gather her thoughts before calling Noah back. She felt certain he would ask about the trip again. Or dinner. Probably both.

 

Ginny couldn’t deny that she had enjoyed her time with Noah. Sure, there weren’t exactly fireworks last night, but that could change as they learned each other better. 

 

He was genuinely adorable if a little… less athletic than her typical taste. And truly, the best part about him was that he wasn’t remotely involved in baseball. She couldn’t generate a scandal with him if she tried. And he was perfectly age-appropriate. 

 

Not that she was or had been interested in anyone not age-appropriate. They weren’t talking about it. There was nothing to talk about it, and there really wasn’t any they to speak of. 

 

Ginny let out a sigh of frustration. 

 

Maybe it wouldn’t be such a bad thing to go on a trip with Noah. 

 

But around the world? She couldn’t possibly be gone that long. Ginny hadn’t taken more than three days off from pitching since she first picked up a ball. 

 

Maybe she could just talk to Noah about this and they could come up with a solution together. 

 

Ginny swiped a few times on her phone, bringing it up to her ear as the ringing started. She half expected him to send her to voicemail after the fiasco he apparently faced at the Omni earlier. Instead, he answered on the first ring. 

 

“Hey gorgeous! Bali or Cyprus?”

 

She shook her head briefly, smiling as she responded.

 

“Hey Noah (stunted giggle) - um, what?”

 

“Should we start our trip in Bali or Cyprus?”

 

She found it both endearing and a little terrifying that he was so confident about this trip. 51% endearing, 49% terrifying to be exact. 

 

But she found it 100% unpleasant that she needed to rain on his parade. He sounded so… hopeful. 

 

Ginny brought her thumb and pointer finger up to her mouth, swiping it nervously.

 

“Oh, um - “

 

She looked up at the ceiling, as if maybe God would write the perfect solution on the sprawling white surface. 

 

“We should probably talk about that.”

 

“Yeah, I was afraid you would say something like that.”

 

Noah sounded both disappointed and resigned. 

 

“Well, so here’s the thing. I haven’t seen any trainers since I got all these stitches, and I don’t know what my PT schedule is gonna be.”

 

“Mmm. Ok. So maybe we can wait to make any plans until you’ve been back to the park?”

 

Ginny could hear the way his eyes and mouth had probably lifted as he spoke. 

 

“Um, maybe. But there’s something else, too - “

 

She blew a stray curl out of her face before continuing.

 

“It’s just - I’ve never actually had any time off of baseball before. Never. And whether I have a strict PT schedule or not, I’ll need to pitch and bat at least once a week, preferably twice a week. And I have to keep up with my regular workouts. I just don’t know how to do that on a vacation, because I’ve never had one before.”

 

Ginny stopped her pacing, waiting for some sort of response from Noah. She was surprised to hear an audible sigh of relief, followed by words obviously spoken through a smile.

 

“Oh, is that all? (chuckle) Here and I thought you were on the verge of giving me the ‘ol ‘it’s not you, it’s me’ speech. But workouts, pitching, batting? Easy. No problem. We can have a bullpen, batting cages, pitching machine, basically anything you need literally anywhere we go.”

 

She squinted one eye, staring at the huge glass walls in the living room.

 

“Just like that? Seriously?”

 

“Absolutely. Are you kidding? How else am I going to come through on my promise to scare you by coming on way too strong?”

 

Ginny belted out a single round of genuine laughter, which Mike happened to see from his pristine white couch. It filled him with a sense of relief and something else he didn’t want to name. Whatever it was, it sat like a rock in the very bottom of his stomach, unmoving and insistent. 

 

While Mike made a conscious decision to stare at a game of 2048 on his phone, Ginny and Noah made plans to make plans. 

 

Once the trainers assessed the arm situation, Ginny and Noah would set a date for the start of their two-week vacation. Wherever they went, there would be adequate facilities for the no-longer-rookie pitcher to get in all the practice she needed. 

 

With the shorter time frame, Ginny started to feel almost excited about the prospect of traveling with Noah. Sure, there was the anxiety of traveling with someone she really didn’t know that well. But he seemed so down to earth and earnest. 

 

Ginny convinced herself that she’d probably have a fantastic time. And if she didn’t, she had enough money now to get herself home if things went nuclear for some reason. 

 

Noah had also offered to take her out to dinner tonight, but she begged off. It might have been nice to see him, but it just felt weird having him come out to Mike’s place. And eating out in public seemed like a great way to face questions and cameras she really wanted to avoid. 

 

So she’d stick around here and get something delivered. They could grab dinner later in the week when the story had died down a bit.

 

Plus, then she could go to bed early. As Ginny was just beginning to realize, she was utterly exhausted and in desperate need of sleep. But first, food.

 

She quickly added a zippered hoodie to her outfit, then walked across the patio to the main house and tapped on the glass wall to get Mike’s attention. 

 

“I’m going to order dinner. You want anything?”

 

Just then, the doorbell rang. Mike motioned for Ginny to come inside before disappearing to the front of the house to answer the door. 

 

He carried three large brown paper bags into the kitchen, then smirked at Ginny as he started unloading the contents.

 

“I knew you couldn’t go that long without eating, Rook. I figured I’d better feed you before you had a hypoglycemic attack.”

 

Ginny collapsed into a barstool, her eyes glued to the containers rapidly appearing on the counter. 

 

“That’s a pretty big word for someone in such an advanced stage of mental decline, old man.”

 

She laughed at her own joke, assaulting Mike with bouncing curls, gleaming teeth, and the undeniable exuberance of youth. 

 

“Boy, they really don’t teach manners anymore - “

 

Mike continued pulling containers out of bags as he jabbed back.

 

“Is that any way to treat the man (he winked), the hero, who just got you shrimp tacos, cilantro-free guacamole, chips, queso and sopapillas from the best taco truck in San Diego?”

 

Ginny jutted her head backward and wrinkled her brow in confusion. He remembered her cilantro thing? Maybe she really did talk about it too much. But also, sopapillas sounded amazing right now.

 

“Did Eliot tell you what to order?”

 

Mike squinted one eye at her and responded, “No, why would you think that? Don’t even answer, let me guess - I’m too old to order good Mexican food in San Diego, right?”. 

 

“Oh no, that’s not what I meant at all.”

 

She leveled him with a stony look, the kind parents use when telling their kids about an impending divorce.

 

“No, I just meant I’m really surprised you remembered my order with all the memory problems you’ve been having.”

 

The right corner of her mouth tugged up, showcasing her dimple as she raised her eyebrow, challenging him to hit her back.

 

“Hilarious, Baker. Really, I’m not joking. You should turn this into a stand-up routine and give up baseball entirely.”

 

He pushed a couple of containers toward her, not noticing the way her face fell. He thought he imagined the shift in atmosphere until he realized he’d spent at least 30 seconds hearing nothing but the sound of himself opening to-go containers. 

 

Mike cleared his throat, glancing briefly at Ginny before turning to grab silverware from a drawer.

 

“Did your pain pills just hit? Or have we finally reached the end of your old man jokes?”

 

Ginny shook her head back and forth a couple of times, physically trying to shake herself from the unwelcome thoughts that had started running rampant in her mind. It didn’t work. 

 

Her brain still wanted to obsess over Will’s behavior, her role in it, whether Amelia made it better or worse, what her life (and Will’s) might be like if she’d never picked up a baseball. But these tacos did smell good.

 

“Never. I will literally never run out of old man jokes, just like I will never love the beard.”

 

“Now you’re just lashing out due to hanger. Eat one of those tacos already before you turn violent.”

 

Mike turned around and rummaged in the fridge, coming back out with a can of her favorite grape soda and a water for himself.

 

“Wait a second. You’ve been giving me shit about grape soda, for months, and you keep a stock of it in your own fridge?! Hypocrite.”

 

He actually didn’t keep his fridge stocked with grape soda until recently. He had dropped in Whole Foods a few weeks ago, one of the rare times he actually went into a grocery store, and found himself standing in the soda aisle staring at the grape soda. 

 

At the time he told himself he didn’t know why he bought it, but today he knew with certainty. He bought in just in case this exact situation ever came up, which is a normal thing to do for a friend and teammate, right? He kept craft beer around for the guys. This was the exact same thing. 

 

“Alright, alright, you got me. I’m a hypocrite.”

 

Ginny threw her head back and laughed triumphantly, and Mike consciously ignored that fluttery thing in his chest. It was nothing (and everything).

Chapter Text

After dinner, Mike convinced Ginny to start watching some Ken Burns. It was a great opportunity for her to “learn about the greats, side-by-side with one of the greats.” According to the humble veteran catcher at least. 

Ginny found it genuinely interesting, but fatigue had insinuated itself into every part of her. And, the imposing white leather couch actually felt like a much-(much)-needed hug. 

Mike couldn’t be certain exactly when she fell asleep, but he figured it out about a half hour into the first episode. He made a sarcastic comment about one of the pitchers being prettier than her but still not as pretty as DiCaprio, only to be met with silence from the far corner of the couch. 

He found her dead to the world, curled on her side in the corner nook of the couch. He leaned forward, forearms resting on his knees, and spent longer than he should have taking in the sight. It was so he could appreciate a rare moment in which she wasn’t chattering obnoxiously about something. 

It definitely wasn’t so that he could commit every aspect of her sleeping face to memory. It had nothing to do with wondering how often her lashes collided with her eyebrows, or how many times a day she had to brush a wayward curl out of her face. Or how she carried the weight of the world without losing her sense of humor.

God, she had had a tough day today. If pummeling any one of the guys would give her that no-hitter, he’d do it in a heartbeat. But it wouldn’t, and even if it would have, she’d never forgive him for it. 

So he’d fed her tacos, and now he’d get her a blanket and let her crash wherever she wanted to. 

Mike silently thanked whatever powers brought his housekeeper Maria into his life. She had slowly made a number of changes around the house, all of which dramatically improved the comfort level. 

It may have looked like a bachelor pad, but thanks to Maria, it had a lot of homey amenities, including the white leather couch. And the stash of throw blankets hidden in the coffee table. 

Mike pulled out the softest, lightest blanket from the coffee table. A dark grey thing that looked like velvet but felt infinitely softer. He draped it over Ginny’s sleeping form, then brushed a wild curl away from her forehead. 

Mike took a step back from the couch and shook his head in much the way you would shake an Etch-A-Sketch to erase an image. Why had he done that? That was… not exactly a platonic thing to do, right? Or could it be? Maybe friends brushed curls out of each other’s sleeping faces. 

Sure, let’s go with that.

Mike went to the kitchen and started cleaning up the remnants of dinner. He chuckled quietly to himself as he collected the nearly empty containers that once held Ginny’s food. She could really eat, and she had no shame about it, which was truly a beautiful thing. 

Rachel had almost always been on some sort of diet, never to lose weight, but it might as well have been. If she had been his guest tonight, he’d have had to get her a salad with basically nothing on it. And she’d have chided him for ordering the sopapillas, which Ginny just inhaled.

Speaking of Rachel, she had been in his seats at the game. Even after their discussion this morning, in which she more than implied that it was a one night thing. What did that mean? 

Maybe she just wanted the seats. They were better than the press seats, that’s for sure. 

It couldn’t mean she changed her mind, right? And if she did, was that even a good thing? It made him feel a little panicky to think about how fast and frequently her mind had changed in the last few weeks. 

Was it kind of comforting to find her in his arms again? Yes, definitely. But it also left him feeling hollow, even before the one night only declaration (if you could call it that). 

He knew what he had wanted to feel in that moment. Instead he felt what he could only rationalize as the burned out frame of a house that used to be a home. The frame was still there, the footprint of all the rooms suggested, but all the heart and life were missing. 

Yep, it was better that it was a one night thing. They had both been looking for some creature comforts, and you could probably argue that they got exactly that. But Rachel was right. It would be a bad idea for it to go anywhere beyond that. 

The seats definitely meant nothing.

Mike dumped a pile of empty containers into the trash can as quietly as possible, then flipped all the lights off. He made his way back to the couch and settled back in. Maybe if he kept watching Ken Burns, Ginny could learn in her sleep. 

He glanced back at her as he reached for the remote. Something about the even rise and fall of her chest quieted his mind. He relaxed back into the couch and pushed play, feeling more settled than he probably had in years. 

An episode and a half later, the doorbell woke them both. Ginny was slowly pulling herself into a sitting position, sleep rumpled curls cascading all around her face. 

Mike stood quickly, wanting to preserve as much of her rest as possible.

“Just listen to the nice man on TV and go back to sleep, Rook. I’ll take care of this.”

Ginny blinked as slowly as she nodded her head, then collapsed back into the couch, pulling the soft throw back up to her shoulders. 

Mike smiled like an idiot, shaking his head as he padded to the front door. 

Rachel? He opened the door, confusion running rampant across his features. 

“Uh, Rachel - “

She smiled at him, like that. All strawberry skin and sparkling green eyes. God, she was gorgeous. She would always be the most beautiful woman in most rooms.

“ - uh, what are you doin’ here?”

His solid body blocked the half-opened doorway. 

Rachel cocked her head to the side as she reached out one small hand, placing it on his forearm.

“Well, I called and texted, but you didn’t answer - “

Her light emerald eyes trekked back and forth, searching for answers in his amber brown irises. She found none and shrugged lightly before continuing. 

“I thought we should talk about last night. Well, I wanted to talk about last night… and this morning.”

Mike crossed his arms, not remotely thinking about unblocking the door. He scrunched up one eyebrow and pulled his mouth into a lopsided grimace. 

“Uh, I thought you were pretty clear this morning. One time thing, no need to drag it out, right? We both just wanted something comfortable for the night.”

He nodded his head for emphasis on that last sentence. 

“Wait - but this morning - “

Rachel suddenly realized Mike hadn’t asked her in and in fact seemed to be deliberately blocking even her view of the house’s interior. Anger and disbelief scrunched her face into a grimace.

“Do you have someone here, Mike?!”

He instantly gestured with his hands for her to keep it down, checking behind him to see if the short outburst had disturbed Ginny.

“Oh my god, you do!”

Mike stepped forward, forcing Rachel backward on the stoop, closing the door almost completely behind him. He wanted to minimize the noise reaching the living room, and the door closing all the way would be too loud (probably). 

He spoke in a low, commanding tone, “Keep your voice down, please - “

She screeched back at him, hands gesturing furiously, “What?! So your latest conquest doesn’t have to face the fact that you slept with your ex-wife of over a decade less than 24 hours ago?!”

Mike widened his eyes and pursed his lips, before speaking with what was rapidly becoming a cold fury. 

“No, Rach. I’d like you to keep your voice down so you don’t wake up the rookie currently sleeping on my couch.”

Her brows inched down and her head bobbed backward like she had done a spit-take.

“Since when do you give a shit about some mid-season callup?!”

Her volume still grated on his ears and made him worry about waking Ginny, if she even had a chance to fall back to sleep. He was hopeful, since she seemed to have gone down so hard earlier. But Rachel was definitely approaching ear-splitting levels. 

Mike sighed heavily, his face looking every bit like a parent answering the door only to find a teenager being hand-delivered by the cops. 

“You of all people know I don’t like to broadcast my dirty marriage laundry in front of the team.”

Rachel’s entire body scoffed with her as she spat back, “Right. But it’s fine to broadcast your fling with Jessica Alba before the divorce was even finalized!”

Mike uncrossed his arms, then clenched and released his fists, internally telling himself to calm down even though she was pushing every single one of his buttons. She had no right to freak out on him like this, no matter what happened last night. He didn’t owe her anything. 

They didn’t renew their vows or pledge undying love last night, and she made it clear this morning that it wasn’t happening again. Even though he had still been a little mired in the afterglow and feeling like maybe Rachel and Mike 2.0 wasn’t the worst idea ever. 

He recrossed his arms heavily, consciously trying to speak in an even tone, but his words still came out through gritted teeth.

“That was after you were already with David, and you know it.”

At the time, he had been so broken and lost that he hadn’t cared how many photogs caught him with Jessica or literally anyone else. What did it matter if OK! had him on the cover with Alba, Simpson, or Biel? The love of his life was shacking up with someone else, and he just wanted anything or anyone to make him forget that. 

Before the affair, Mike had doggedly shielded their relationship from the media. Even after he learned the truth, he never told anyone, just in case she ever decided to come back. He didn’t want people to judge her or their potential judgment to keep her from coming back. He didn’t want her own affair to hurt her.

What a fucking joke. 

“What? No sharpened dagger to throw at me for keeping your affair a secret and letting the entire world think I screwed around on you?”

Rachel’s eyes flashed, and he knew he shouldn’t have said it. He just couldn’t bring himself to regret it. Until she fairly well screamed back at him, “I never would have cheated if you hadn’t been married to baseball long before me, and you know it!”

And just like that, Mike was done with Rachel. She didn’t leave or anything. That was just the moment when he finally disconnected. She would always blame him for her affair, and he would always carry a torch for her. 

But he didn’t need to keep reliving every fight they’d ever had. And he didn’t need to keep trying to twist himself into something she didn’t look down on. This was it for them. They would always be two people desperately hoping each other became a slightly different person. And that was a terminal situation, just absolutely nothing for it.

Mike took a step forward and placed his hands gingerly on Rachel’s arms.

“Rach, listen, let’s take a breath, ok?”

She nodded her head but didn’t respond otherwise.

“Last night was good, right? I hope it was good for both of us, yeah?”

Another silent head nod.

“Ok, so let’s just leave it there.”

She looked up, meeting his gaze as he continued, “I will always care about you. Maybe you’ll always care about me. But we both know we don’t work. So let’s just call the game now and accept that last night was just that.”

Rachel stepped back, sighing heavily and conceding, “You’re right. And, technically I was right this morning.”

She shook her head and tucked her hair behind her ear, taking a step back away from his warm hands.

“I think it just got me, you know? The nostalgia - waking up with you, picking up your tickets like I did when we were dating, you calling me out before batting. But we can’t go back now.”

Mike exhaled heavily through pursed lips. 

“We good, then?”

“Yeah, we’re good.”

They stood awkwardly staring at each other for a beat before Rachel spoke again, “Um, I’ll just get a car and get out of your hair.” 

She let a stifled giggle escape and briefly tugged on his beard before pulling out her phone. Mike didn’t want to be a jerk and just leave her out there, but he also didn’t really want to bring her inside to wait. Hopefully there’d be a car close enough to prevent that from happening.

“Eight minutes, then I’m out of here.”

Well, dammit.

“Want to come inside and wait? But only if you promise to be quiet. I’m not trying to do this rookie bedtime routine all over again.”

Rachel rolled her eyes, “I’m sure Robles isn’t near the infant you’re making him out to be.”

Yeah, Mike wasn’t touching that. It was just easier not to. He didn’t need Rachel sniffing around Ginny after the day she’d had.

Mike tiptoed in the most comically exaggerated way as he led Rachel into the kitchen. He grabbed them a couple of waters from the fridge before turning the volume up a few ticks on the TV.

“Of course you have him watching Ken Burns,” Rachel whispered, not unaffectionately. 

Mike waggled his eyebrows and whispered back, “Gotta educate these newbies. The minors just don’t train ‘em up the way they used to, you know?”

Rachel rolled her eyes, not willing to let him have it, “You can’t pull that bullshit with me. I knew you back when you didn’t know who Wally Pipp was, remember?”

He did. That felt like a lifetime ago, and maybe like the person living that part of his life wasn’t even him. 

Rachel’s car arrived a few minutes later. He felt a physical weight come off his shoulders as he ushered her out the door without ever giving away the fact that it was Ginny on his couch, not Robles. 

Mike made his way back into the living room, planning to settle in and watch a few more minutes of Ken Burns alone. But when he got there, he found Ginny sitting up cross-legged in her spot, the blanket draped across her lap, a look he couldn’t quite classify on her face. 

He sat down on the edge of the couch, leaning forward as she asked, “You ok?”

Mike raised his eyebrows but kept his eyes trained on the floor as he exhaled heavily.

“How much did you hear?”

Ginny rearranged the blanket idly and responded, “However much or little you wanted me to hear, Mike. It’s your house. You have a right to privacy. I’m the one invading your space… so you tell me how much I heard.”

After a very brief silence, Mike looked up, finding Ginny’s head cocked slightly to the side, like a puppy listening intently to its owner. But this time he knew what was written all over her face: compassion and empathy.

Exhaling heavily again, Mike decided, “Then I think you probably heard everything, because your face says you heard it all, and I just don’t have the energy or inclination to pretend you didn’t.”

Ginny leaned forward, resting her arms on her crossed legs, her face the living embodiment of sincerity as she spoke, “Yeah, but if it bothers you, I can forget it. I forget things all the time. Every day I forget that people have seen me naked, in pictures I did and did not intend the public to see. I forget that I was stupid enough to date Trevor. I forget that reporters ask  literally every day if I’m the reason the team isn’t doing better… “

She bobbed her eyebrows and smirked mid-sentence, continuing, “... you of all people should know how easy it is to forget stuff, old man.”

Ginny knew all too well how it felt to have private chapters read aloud for the class. Yes, she could survive it, and so could he. But if she could spare him that stark moment of being laid bare when you least expect it, of sharing your deepest wounds with people you never meant to, she definitely would. 

He shook his head, chuckling lightly. She amazed him in ways that he should probably expect at this point, and yet he was surprised in this moment.

“That’s alright. Of all the people who could accidentally learn the truth about my disaster of a marriage, you’re probably the one I mind the least - “

Mike looked her dead in the eye and winked.

“ - ‘cause at least with you I know I have leverage to keep you quiet.”

Ginny frown-smirked at him and pinched her brows together.

“How do you figure? The entire world already has naked pictures of me. What could you possibly think would be worse than that?”

Mike leaned back and reached for a pillow, which he fidgeted with as he replied, “Oh, I dunno, maybe the truth about your lollipop fastball? Or the fact that you paid me to say all those nice things about you on TV?”

Ginny looked hilariously outraged, though she was genuinely relieved at the comical turn of conversation. Hopefully that meant Mike was in fact ok, and the resignation she heard in his voice earlier was just that and not a smokescreen for a broken heart. 

Before she could come up with a witty retort, Mike launched the pillow at her and added, “Or the fact that you have the worst reflexes of any rookie I’ve ever met!”

Just as Ginny batted the pillow right back at him, a voice floated into the living room from the entry hall.

“Just grabbing my phone! I don’t know how I managed to leave it on the counter, but - “

Rachel stopped in her tracks, face momentarily blank as she took in the scene. Mike and Ginny had both been laughing, and in the middle of a pillow fight from the looks of it.

“Uh… sorry. I forgot my phone, you didn’t answer, and the door was unlocked.”

Rachel shifted her weight, her whole body broadcasting confusion and maybe frustration.

Mike dropped the pillow he had just caught, moving swiftly toward the kitchen counter, deftly seizing the phone and walking it to the stymied redhead. Maybe if he just played it cool, this wouldn’t be a thing.

He handed the phone to her, trying to exude as much nonchalance as possible as he declared, “No worries, Rach. Good thing you remembered before you got home, huh?”

The three of them stood there, seemingly frozen for what seemed like an eternity. In reality, it was closer to three seconds. 

Then Rachel put one hand on her hip and pointed at Ginny with her phone in hand, “You said Robles was here.”

Mike flipped both hands toward the ceiling, pantomiming “you can’t blame me” and replied, “No, Rach. You said Robles was here. I just didn’t correct you.”

Rachel jutted her head forward as if to say “are you kidding me?”

“Why would you try to keep that from me, though? Why let me believe it was Robles? Unless -”

Mike saw the dogged journalist activated and interrupted her before she could get too far (he hoped).

“Unless nothing, Rach. Baker’s had a long day, and she came here to avoid journalists like you. Your mistake just helped me help her do that. That’s all.”

Rachel shook her head, obviously not accepting his explanation. She looked back and forth between the two ballplayers before snarking, “Mmmmm, I bet that’s all. And I’m sure running around your house without a bra on helps her avoid all the press, too.”

Ginny and Mike’s eyes both went wide. Ginny had forgotten that she didn’t have a bra on and also hadn’t realized that she had somehow removed (in her sleep maybe?) the zip-up hoodie that she had worn earlier for the express purpose of not advertising her lack of undergarment.

Mike made a concerted effort not to look even remotely close to the direction of Ginny’s spot on the couch. But Rachel had a perfect view of the rookie pitcher’s immediate move to retrieve and reinstall the missing hoodie. 

Ginny cleared her throat roughly and rose to her feet before entering the fray.

“I’m sure you know I have a bunch of stitches in my arm. And I’m also sure you know how difficult it can be to get a good sports bra on and off - “

Ginny was making unwavering, direct, searing eye contact with Rachel throughout every word she spoke. Rachel had the decency to look at least marginally uncomfortable under the laser beam of Ginny’s undivided attention. 

“When I changed out of my game clothes, my bra nearly ripped off the dressing. So I didn’t put one back on.”

She was using her press voice, poise, and mannerisms. Mike knew it, though Rachel probably did not.

“I don’t know what you’re implying exactly, but whatever it is, it’s wrong. Mike’s just letting me hide from people like you, and I’m just trying not to rip out my stitches.”

Ginny took a step back, half-sitting on the arm of the couch as she added, “And from the look on old man Lawson’s face, I’d guess he hadn’t even noticed until you said something, unless he just happened to choose that exact moment to do his very best impression of a teenage boy who just found his little sister’s thong in the laundry.”

Mike snorted quietly and made a valiant but ultimately futile effort to hide his smug grin. Leave it to His Rookie to take a Rachel-made disaster and turn it right back around on the flustered redhead. 

Rachel made a series of frustrated sounds. She felt overwhelmingly embarrassed. And the jealousy spreading across her scalp made her want to launch into another screaming tirade. But, Ginny’s explanation was perfectly reasonable, so she couldn’t do that without being the literal crazy ex-girlfriend in the room. 

And she wasn’t even sure why she was jealous. They had already agreed that it was a one night thing, and they really didn’t work. Much later she would recognize the creeping uneasiness of this moment as the departure of her most dependable backup plan. 

The Mike in her head would always be the scorned husband so in love with her that he stood in her hotel room and offered to leave her tickets at will-call even after she basically told him no. And left him for another man. 

He’d still be the guy looking at her like she was the only light in the room even after she cheated on him. No matter what she did, her Mike would still be there whenever she came back.

But something about Ginny, here, in his house, sleeping on his couch without a bra, made that man feel like a character from a closed chapter. 

The petite journalist bit her bottom lip and rocked forward on her feet before conceding, “I’m - ah - I’m sorry. I don’t know why I jumped to that conclusion, but I’m sorry.”

Mike stifled a chuckle, because now wasn’t the time to bitterly note how easily his ex-wife just apologized to His Rookie when she had never once apologized for cheating on him.

Ginny’s answer was flat but definitive, “Apology accepted.”

Mike took a step forward, raising one finger in protest. “No, apology not accepted - “

Rachel’s face went from marginally placid and contrite to blank with a tinge of horror.

“ - unless you promise Ginny’s current location, status, hair color, choice of clothing, horrible jokes, and any other piece of information you just collected stays off of your show and out of the media entirely.”

He stared her down, daring her to respond with anything other than acceptance.

Rachel waved a hand that might as well have been a white flag.

“Fine, Mike. Ginny, I never saw you here, and in fact, in my book, I was never here at all. Ok?”

Mike looked to Ginny, waiting for her to answer.

Ginny gave a brief nod, which Mike translated, “Alright. Apology accepted… Now, can I get ten minutes of peace to enjoy some classic American baseball already?”

Rachel’s car was waiting for her outside, so she apologized again, then made her way to the door. Mike followed, placing one arm on her elbow just as she reached the door and whispering coldly in her ear, “I’m not fucking around with this Rachel. She does not need you or anyone else publishing anything about this day, her stitches, or whatever you think you walked in on. Understand me when I say this, I will go full nuclear if you breathe a word of any of this to anyone. If anything from tonight ends up in any form of media, I will blame you, and I will go public with information you do not want public.”

He kissed her cheek lightly then ushered her out the door, refusing her any chance to react, satisfied that he’d made a clear enough threat to keep her in check. 

Mike took his time trudging back to the couch, not entirely sure what he’d find when he got there. He hoped Ginny wouldn’t be overly worried about Rachel’s surprise appearance or wholly unnecessary comments about clothing choices. 

His Rookie had certainly done a better job of rolling with the punches since the whole Nike-incident-mandated therapy thing. So maybe her mostly sunny disposition would still classify this as a win. One journalist sworn to silence over, what - her clothes? - was better than a hundred nagging her about the injury, the subsequent brawl, and everything in between, right?

He found Ginny in the same position he’d left her, balanced on the arm of the couch, hoodie now in place and zipped up as far as it went. She pulled the drawstring back and forth slowly, looking completely lost in thought, which she was.

The pitcher found herself replaying the day’s events, wondering how she had gone from throwing an almost no-hitter to finding herself on the receiving end of Rachel’s accusation.  From everything Ginny heard, and the little she witnessed, it was clear that Rachel liked the idea of having Mike on the back burner. He might even be some sort of security blanket for her. 

Because her accusation wasn’t motivated by journalistic integrity or spidey senses. No, Ginny saw naked jealousy in her face, and that was much more dangerous than a reporter sniffing out a story. Especially considering how long their marriage had lasted. Rachel still thought he belonged to her, even as she actively rejected him. 

It honestly made Ginny angry. The entire world thought Mike had screwed around on Rachel, and he just let them. Even though, as Ginny now knew, he had been faithful their entire marriage up to the point at which he learned she was leaving him for someone else. And Rachel played the victim every chance she got, actively encouraging people to blame Mike for the things she did.  

And yet somehow, he had treated her with what Ginny considered a superhuman level of kindness today. He must still love her. No wonder he was so cranky all the time. 

The sound of Mike throwing himself into the opposite end of the couch broke Ginny from her thoughts. 

“Baker, you can stop plotting her murder now. She’s not gonna say anything,” he rumbled.

Ginny raised her eyes and noted that the grumpy catcher seemed… amused? She waved her hand absently as she responded, “Oh yeah. I’m sure you’re right.”

Ginny rearranged herself, still perched on the arm of the couch, then spoke softly, “Hey - I’m sorry about that. You’re doing me a favor, and that’s causing problems with Rachel - “

Mike held up one hand and frowned as he interrupted, “You aren’t causing problems with Rachel, Rook. You couldn’t cause any problems we didn’t already have. Besides, we’re already divorced. Any shit storm that happens now is just extra innings in a game we already lost.”

Ginny shrugged, emphasizing her guilt as she countered, “Yeah, but y’all sounded pretty friendly before Rachel saw me. You didn’t need that extra drama.“

“Pfffft,” Mike waved a dismissive hand at her.

“To borrow a phrase from my ex-wife, that was me dragging everyone into my garbage. There wouldn’t have been any level of drama at all if I’d just - “

The corners of his mouth tugged down as he cleared his throat and shook his head.

“ - been better and not taken the easy way out.”

Even though he wasn’t looking at her, Mike could feel the waves of… something coming from Ginny. She slid down the arm of the couch, back into the corner spot, her Nike leggings sighing softly against the leather couch. She folded her legs criss-cross applesauce, then leaned forward, resting lightly on her knees.

“Listen - whatever “way out” you took or drama you may or may not have is your business, and you’re not gonna talk me out of apologizing for contributing to it. Because I did, and I’m sorry about it. But I’m also going to exercise my right as the annoying duckling to say, based only on what I heard tonight, that you shouldn’t repeat Rachel’s bullshit about you and your garbage or whatever she said. Not to me or any other person, but certainly not to yourself.”

A few seconds passed without either of them responding, during which time Ginny processed what she’d said and decided to make an addendum. She looked over at Mike, seeing only the top of his wavy brown hair as he counted specks of dust on the floor. 

“This is really none of my business, which is why I’m only gonna say this once, because those are the rules. But Mike - and I mean no disrespect to you when I say this - fuck. that. bitch. Genuinely. For letting the entire world believe you cheated when it was her? Fuck. Her.”

Mike’s laughter shook his entire body. Then he mumbled something into the floor (“Pretty sure that was the problem”) before slapping his hands on his knees and pushing his torso into the back of the couch. He crossed his arms and looked at Ginny, all earnest outrage and kinship. 

How had this even happened? Ginny Baker, here in his house, after her own injury, the end of her season, trying to make him feel better about his cheating ex-wife. 

How indeed. 

“Alright, Baker. Listen, thanks. Appreciate the solidarity or whatever. But can we stop talking about my ex-wife and get back to the greatest American pastime?”

Ginny rolled her eyes as she stood.

“You go ahead and watch all these black and white movies about your rookie season. I’m exhausted. So I’m gonna get some sleep, hopefully I’ll wake up in the morning and realize all these stitches were just a bad dream caused by your face Brillo irritating me on the bus.”

“Alright, Rook. Go get your beauty sleep, but you’re missing out! And you love the beard!”

She exaggeratedly mouthed “nope” as she bounce-walked backward toward the door. Then Mike watched her trek across the patio to the poolhouse. In her leggings and hoodie, hands stuffed in her pockets, wavy locks dancing in the wind, she looked like a teenager leaving varsity practice after school. God she was young. 

But she carried so many heavy responsibilities and managed to make even her breakdowns look poised and graceful. He remembered when he saw the video of her in that red ball gown, flying through the air like a goddess, and dunking that basketball like she was born for it. She was a force of nature, wild, destructive, and captivating. Mike shook his head and restarted the second episode of Baseball. 

When he fell asleep later, his last conscious thought was how bittersweet it’d be to watch Ginny’s episode when someone decided to make it in a few years. He hoped the next year or two would allow them to share a slew of documentary-worthy achievements. Hell, he hoped they’d earn an entire episode to themselves. 

Chapter Text

Back in the poolhouse, Ginny leaned against the island and checked her phone. Still nothing from Amelia. Well that worried her more than a little. It was kind of late, so she typed out a text asking Eliot if he’d heard anything, then set it to send at 7 am.

She still felt pretty gross, because she hadn’t showered. But she couldn’t shower, because she was supposed to keep her arm dry. She could take a bath though, and that would probably help her brain start winding down again after the whole Rachel fiasco.

She grabbed another set of clean clothes from the scattered pile on the counter and headed for the bathroom. Thank Jesus, one of the ensuites had a garden tub. Ginny plugged the drain and started running water as hot as she could stand. She put on her Ron Pope station before carefully stripping off her clothes and stepping into the tub.

Her stitched arm fit perfectly on the edge of the tub, allowing her to recline fully without getting the bandage wet. Phew.

Ginny lay in the scalding water, closed her eyes, and tried to let the music scrub her brain of every thought. It didn’t work. She couldn’t stop thinking about Amelia. Why hadn’t she called or texted back yet? Would she actually have to find a new agent? 

God, finding a new agent was almost as bad as talking to a therapist. Because at some point, any agent of Ginny’s would have to learn all her darkest days and weakest moments. They’d have to rehash everything about her father’s death and her friend’s dad being the cause of it.

She’d have to tell a stranger everything about her mistake relationship with Trevor and the selfies that came with it. How she doesn’t get along great with her mom, whose boyfriend is actually the man she had cheated with for over a decade. 

And now she had a new, and potentially endless supply of drama to add to the mix. Because Will clearly had long-term problems with massive debt, potentially from really dangerous sources. And he had dragged Blip and Ev into it.

Oh God, and now whatever this was with Rachel. And Amelia wasn’t responding.  

Fuck. Fuck. Fuck.

Abruptly, the steam coming off the bathtub felt like it was snapping her lungs shut. Ginny quickly washed up, careful not to make things worse by getting water on her dressing. She threw on her fresh clothes and leaned heavily on the counter. 

Yep, it was boiling in there, and her lungs were going to shut down entirely. Ginny scrabbled on the vanity for her phone, shoved it in her pocket, then made her way back out to the living room.

Maybe, maybe the cool night air would help. 

She stepped out onto the patio, feeling a modicum of relief at the cool breeze and ambient evening sounds. And yet, Ginny could feel her heart rate climbing, each beat increasing in force, rattling her ribs and making her breathing increasingly shaky.

She sat down on the nearest lounger and tried to remember what her therapist had taught her about managing panic attacks. But how was she supposed to take deep even breaths when her heart was trying to break out of her chest?

Ginny looked down at her phone, remembering that Amelia wasn’t an option. There was no one and nothing to help. She was alone, she couldn’t get it together, and her heart was absolutely going to explode. 

The roar of her own blood thundered so loud in her ears that she didn’t hear Mike approach. Ginny wasn’t aware that she had slammed the poolhouse door loudly enough to wake him up after he had once again passed out on the couch. 

He had come outside, fully intending to turn the grumpy all the way up and tease her about getting off his lawn. But when Mike approached, he saw her shoulders heaving with hummingbird-fast breaths, a light sheen of sweat on her usually luminous skin despite the cool air.

Jesus, she just couldn’t catch a break today.

He moved slowly toward her, like a trainer might approach a wild horse, keeping a wide berth until he knew he was in her field of vision. He had done a significant amount of research on panic attacks since the incident with Amelia, worried she might have one on a trip. He knew not to surprise her or touch her without permission. A hug or a hand on hers could make it worse.

And yes, he would have done that research for any other teammate. He needed to be able to help His Rookie for the good of the team. (Sure, let’s go with that.)

“Gin,” he spoke low and even, as he crouched down in front of her, trying to make eye contact without forcing her to move.

He tilted his head to the side, wanting so badly to be a calming presence in the midst of her storm, all his snark and bluster gone, “Is it ok if I sit here with you and try to help you breathe?”

Ginny met his gaze, not even trying to hide the pain twisting her face. She took longer than normal to process his words and presence, the panic and swirling thoughts in her mind dragging her down like the undertow of a sinking ship. 

Finally, she nodded. 

“Ok, I’m going to sit down right here in front of you,” he pulled the adjacent lounger up behind him, then sat down, his own knees just grazing hers. Her breathing was starting to sound like an asthma attack, and his own anxiety was ratcheting up.

On the bus, she was a heavy sleeper, and that led to a substantial amount of physical contact, their legs often kissing from hip to knee. No matter why it happened (who has time to analyze why these days???), it was a normal thing for them. And Mike read that normal, usual, routine interactions could help people struggling with panic attacks. 

He also read that it helped some people if they could focus on another person’s breathing: the regular movement of their chest, the sound of their breath. Anything that gave them some sensation to focus on and try to emulate. Maybe that would help Ginny. 

“Is it ok if I put your hand on my chest - “

He patted his breastbone to show her, “ - to help you focus on my breathing so you can make yours match?” After another agonizing pause, she nodded her head again, breath still coming alarmingly faster than he would like. 

Mike took seconds, maybe even a full moment to make sure he knew which hand was her pitching and which was her catching hand. He didn’t want to move the hand attached to all those stitches. He then took her pitching hand and slowly brought it to his chest, holding it there with his own oversized mitt. 

“Ok, that’s good, Gin, Now, you can feel me breathing. Can you try to focus on my breath, and breathe with me?”

She met his eyes, but didn’t respond otherwise. The moonlight refracting through the beads of sweat dotting her skin made her look otherworldly, but Mike was too worried to notice. 

“Ginny, just breathe with me, ok? Can you try to breathe with me?”

She nodded, thank God.

Mike put all his energy into breathing slowly, evenly, and with great exaggeration. You know how parents will do the craziest, most embarrassing things to make babies smile because they love them more than anything in the world? That’s completely unrelated to the way Mike would do literally anything to erase Ginny’s pain in this moment. Probably.

Ginny fought through the chorus of voices in her head, using the pressure of Mike’s hand as an anchor line to help her rise. The white noise of her own circulation started to die down the closer she matched her breathing to his. 

She didn’t pick up on it immediately, but he was deliberately modulating his breaths to bring them closer and closer to square breathing. By the time her brain cleared enough to realize it, Mike had led her through ten full rounds. Her heart rate had settled, her breath steadied, and the panic lighting up her veins had all but disappeared. 

Mike took his hand off of hers, which made her instantly miss its warmth. And the stability it radiated. He scooted the lounger back a tick, creating a breezeway between their knees. 

Ginny closed her eyes and took a deep breath, conscious of the ever-growing weight of silence between them. 

“Fuck, Mike. I’m sorry - “

The edges of Mike’s mouth tugged downward as he cut her off, “Nope. We’re not doing that again.”

Ginny opened her mouth to disagree, but he held up a hand to silence her.

“You have nothing to apologize for. You’ve had a fucking tough day. We’re not adding to that by letting you feel guilty for something you have absolutely no control over.”

She exhaled loudly, shook her head, then shivered. The light film of sweat on her skin was finally doing its job. 

“Ok, um. Well thank you for talking me down - or whatever.”

Mike stood as he answered, “Anytime, Rook. What else is a mother duck for anyway?”

Ginny laughed. It wasn’t full or hearty. It lacked the sunshine and vibrance of her usual laughter. But it was a step in the right direction. 

Mike offered her a hand, “Come on, Baker. Let’s go get you some hot chocolate to wash this away.”

She accepted his hand, letting him pull her up to standing. 

If there had been an audience, or a photog with a telescoping lens, they might have seen a very near recreation of the incident from two nights ago. But Ginny and Mike didn’t notice, because there was no electricity or fire this time. She was more focused on expressing her skepticism about his suggestion. And he just wanted to get her as far away from that awful experience as possible. 

“I don’t believe for a second that you have hot chocolate in this house, Mike.”

He raised his eyebrows, walking toward the main house, “Oh yeah? Why’s that?”

She followed him through the door, grateful for the still, slightly warmer air inside. 

“Because everything about this place screams MAJOR LEAGUE BASEBALL PLAYBOY BACHELOR PAD. And hot chocolate doesn’t exactly say ladykiller.”

Ginny grabbed the blanket from the couch then sat down at one of the barstools, while Mike busied himself rummaging through cabinets.

“I’ll have you know that I am more than the dashing, charismatic ladies man you used to have on your wall, Rook.”

A stifled chortle escaped Ginny’s lips, “Yes, old man. But we’re not talking about that rat’s nest you call a beard.”

Mike sighed dramatically, but her jiving laughter doused him with a sense of relief he didn't know he needed. 

“It must be really exhausting for you to continue lying to yourself and me about how much you love the beard. I really feel for ya, Rook.”

The blustering catcher spooned chocolate powder into two huge mugs, then added a splash of water from the hot water dispenser on the coffee maker. 

“Wow, you really do have hot chocolate, but you don’t know how to make it,” she nodded her head side to side, “I guess that tracks. Sort of.”

Without interrupting his vigorous stirring, Mike volleyed back, “Oh, you’re one of those, huh? Fill the cup up with water and then fight to get the powder dissolved while spilling powder and water everywhere? Not even considering topping space?”

Ginny exhaled a clear nonverbal sound of disagreement and/or doubt.

“Just one more thing I have to teach you, I guess.”

Mike turned around, bringing one mug over in front of her. He tilted it toward her as he stirred, revealing a dark, perfectly mixed sludge. He explained that, unlike whatever inferior method she used, this one dissolved all the chocolatey goodness before filling the mug. When he added the rest of the water, they were left with two perfectly mixed mugs of hot chocolate with just enough room left over for marshmallows. 

Wait, marshmallows?

“Ok, seriously. Hot cocoa with marshmallows like a summer camp jamboree? Who are you, and what have you done with Mike Lawson?”

Mike picked up his own mug and winked obnoxiously as he spoke, “Layers, Baker. There’s more to me than you can learn from the rookie card that’s probably in your back pocket right now.”

Ginny’s mouth scrunched into a lopsided smirk as she ribbed back, “Riiiiight. I’m sure THE Mike Lawson has been secretly moonlighting as a summer counselor at Camp Hope during the offseason.”

Mike motioned for her to follow him back to the couch as he answered, “Close, Rook. But not quite right.”

They settled back into their respective corners of the couch, and Mike started flipping through… were those Harry Potter movies?

“I know this will shock you, but I actually have a couple of fantastic god children.”

Ginny almost spit out her hot chocolate. Which, now that we’re on the subject, was actually quite good. Whatever mix Mike had used made a really creamy, deeply chocolate toddy. It tasted homey and comforting, and Ginny could feel it warming her from the inside out. 

“Wait, wait, wait. What human decided to make you a godparent?”

Ginny raised her eyebrows and one finger as she continued, “And, a follow-up, are you acquainted with any non-humans? Because that would explain this whole situation pretty quickly.”

Mike’s eyes briefly turned skyward, and he channeled his inner curmudgeon. (It wasn’t difficult for him.)

“No really, don’t feel like you need to spare my feelings or anything, Rook. Tell me how you really feel.”

Ginny just stared at him pointedly. 

“I actually have some very good friends - “

He paused, obviously considering his words after they left his mouth.

“ - well, actually. I guess we were probably a lot closer before the divorce… Anyway, I have some very good friends who happen to have two fantastic kids. They taught me all about the healing properties of all forms of chocolate, by forcing me to watch Harry Potter and the Prisoner of … something.”

Ginny found herself a little dumbfounded for a number of reasons. First, Mike’s taunting about her seeing him one-dimensionally was starting to feel like it wasn’t all that far off base. She had already rearranged her thoughts about him several times since being called up. Now she would need to do it again.

Because - second, Mike Lawson had godchildren, and he had spent enough time with them to learn about using chocolate as a remedy for sadness. As taught by the Harry Potter universe. 

Plus, she couldn’t ignore the way his face brightened when he talked about them. He loved these kids. Mike Lawson loved his friends’ children. Had Mike ever wanted children?

Well there was a question she’d never ask. That’d be as bad as someone asking if she had loved Trevor. So she’d just lock that away and never let herself wonder about it again. Because, God - what if he had wanted children?

What if Mike had dreamed of his and Rachel’s kids growing up with these godchildren? Imagined himself teaching them how to ride a bike and play ball together? What if that dream had felt like it had the tiniest sliver of a chance last night? Only to be crushed again.

What a fucking sucker punch.

She really hoped he hadn’t, that kids weren’t a dimension of the heartbreak he worked so hard to hide. That he didn’t find himself aching for something he never had. 

And also, fuck that stupid, ethereal, beautiful bitch. To Ginny, Rachel would probably always be the living embodiment of that “make it pretty but train it to kill” meme.

“Ok, alright. So you have godchildren - what are they like? Do they love baseball and groupies, too? Or are they normal?”

Mike scoffed, “Of course they’re normal, Baker. Well, maybe not normal normal… They’re too awesome to call them normal.”

Ginny kept asking him questions while the first Harry Potter movie played in the background. Apparently it was the one Barry and Felicity , who she now knew were his godchildren, requested most frequently. 

Mike told her all about how Barry was a quiet genius who loved video games and computers more than baseball or any sport. And definitely more than Mike. Felicity was a spitfire who looked just like her mom and never ran out of energy.

The often gruff ballplayer was anything but as he animatedly told stories about Barry and Felicity. 

Ginny sat her mug on the coffee table at some point and slid down into a near-fetal position. But, she continued prompting Mike with questions. She liked listening to his stories and his voice. 

The low, smooth rumble of his words eventually ushered her into a deep slumber. Mike had watched her fighting to keep her eyes open. But he kept talking, providing a Dickensian level of detail, dragging out his anecdote, hoping he could distract her into getting some rest.

It worked. 

Mike quietly stood from the couch, collecting both their mugs, placing them nearly silently into the sink. He turned off the kitchen lights, then moved to the panel that controlled all the patio and pool lights. They were pretty bright, and he didn’t want them to keep Ginny from sleeping through the night.

He finished extinguishing every source of light that might have disturbed her. Mike stopped short of covering the stove and microwave clocks, but he did wonder for a moment why he’d never invested in whatever that blackout glass technology was. Because what if the nearly full moon broke through the clouds and shone right on her face?

What a patently ridiculous thought. He laughed internally at himself, wondering why His Rookie’s sleep was suddenly so much more important to him than his own. 

Because he was the mother duck, obviously. (Sure, let’s go with that.)

He made his way upstairs, closing his bedroom door without making a sound. Despite the closed door, Mike continued his campaign of silence all the way through his bedtime routine. Brushing his teeth. Taking a very long, hot shower. Throwing on a pair of boxers even though he always slept naked. 

He climbed into bed, thinking he’d fall asleep quickly, but he didn’t. Instead his mind replayed the day’s events, and he figured out pretty fast why he couldn’t sleep. 

Ginny had been robbed, and it couldn’t be undone. Sure, she’d have another chance next season. But her no-hitter should have happened today. It should have happened with him. They should be celebrating right now. She shouldn’t be hiding from the press, nursing 40 fucking stitches, and having panic attacks.

He’d be mad about this until the day he died, or the day she got her no-hitter, whichever came first.

Chapter Text

Ginny woke up to flashes of dim morning light and the kind of confusion usually reserved for children whose parents moved them to a different bed in the middle of the night. She slept so hard that her brain truly didn’t remember where she was at first. 

Right, Mike’s house, not his poolhouse like they’d planned, but his couch. In his actual house. Because she had a panic attack that her batterymate not only witnessed but somehow talked her down from. And then he’d made her hot chocolate like a den mother and talked her to sleep.

Part of her felt the tiniest bit embarrassed. She had never intended to share this part of her life with him, and Ginny had been justifiably upset when Amelia shared it for her. But Mike’s papa bear routine was pretty endearing. So maybe she could focus on the silver lining of seeing this well-hidden side of Mike instead of being embarrassed about the whole thing. Fair trade or something like that.

Still, she’d have to give him shit for it later. Not publicly, of course. If he didn’t share this part of himself on his own, she sure wasn’t going to do it for him. That’d make her the worst kind of hypocrite. But she could get some decent mileage out of it in private. 

In the meantime, her teeth felt disgusting, and she needed to brush them aggressively and immediately. Ginny checked her phone - still nothing from Amelia, but Eliot had texted her back. He hadn’t heard anything but wanted to know what she had said to her former agent. 

Ginny screen capped the text and fired it off to Eliot. Then she folded the blanket, which she now officially loved, into a neat rectangle before heading back to the pool house. 

She went about her usual morning routine while she mentally prepared for the day. They were playing the Dodgers again. Of course she wasn’t in the lineup. Which meant she’d have all the time in the world to sit around and obsess over the vast chasm of nothing opening up before her. 

Well that wasn’t a productive line of thinking. And, as her therapist had reminded her, Ginny actually did very well focusing on how things could go right instead of how they could go wrong. It was a helpful survival skill, and there was no sense abandoning it now. 

Even if she had to be the architect of her own offseason, without help from Amelia, she could handle it. And nothing had to be determined right this moment. They had another six weeks of games, minimum. She could just keep up her usual training schedule plus whatever the trainers decided when she saw them today. And she’d figure out the rest later, with or without Amelia.

“Hey Baker - breakfast’s up if you want any!” Mike’s voice bellowed from the intercom by the door. 

And now she’d need to rearrange things in her head again. Mike Lawson juggled panic attacks, godchildren, hot chocolate, Harry Potter movies and he cooked his own breakfast. And hers apparently. Well… maybe he ordered it, right?

Ginny put on a stretchy spaghetti strap top that she could step into rather than going over her head and arms. Then she layered an additional one on top, just for good measure. Hopefully Eliot would meet her at Petco and bring over some of those front closing sports bras later today. 

In the meantime, she was happy to take advantage of Mike’s domestic side, even if it was yet another in a long line of surprises from him. 

Ginny zipped up her hoodie and headed over for breakfast. She was wholly unprepared for what she found when she got there.

Eggs, scrambled and fluffy. An entire plate of bacon. Avocado toast on Texas toast. Coffee that smelled like it should, not like the acrid sludge her hotel coffee maker vomited out. Hot sauce, the right kind. Cantaloupe and strawberries.

Seriously, who is this guy?

“Wow. Um, this looks amazing - “ she pinched her brows together, tilted her head to the side and looked him in the eye, “Did you actually make all this? Tell me you didn’t. You had it delivered, right?”

From the self-satisfied grin on his face, you’d think Livan just bowed down and declared him king of all catchers in perpetuity. 

“Baker, when are you gonna accept that I’m a man of many talents? It’s not just baseball and women, it’s everything. I am good at everything .”

Mouth half full of bacon, Ginny rolled her eyes, head, and pretty much everything above her collarbone, just for good measure.

“I was,” she held her hands very close together, one still clutching a piece of bacon, “this close to saying a real, genuine nice thing about you. This close. But your ego beat me to it, so thank you.”

Mike sat down one barstool away from her in front of a plate of egg whites and another plate of Texas avocado toast. He turned his head and smirked at her, fork hovering over the egg plate.

“Rookie, I know you, and you’re gonna have to go ahead and say whatever you were gonna say. Because you’re a nice person. And you give credit where credit’s due. And I’ve been literally the best host the entire time you’ve been here at Chez Lawson. I earned whatever you were gonna say. You won’t be able to live with yourself if you don’t go ahead and say it.”

Ginny pointed a piece of bacon at him as she replied, “Alright, first of all, I’m not a nice person. I am a normal person. You’re just a grumpy S-O-B on the outside, trying to hide that internal cuddly teddy bear - “

She loudly chomped a bite of bacon, entirely missing the mocking scowl on Mike’s face. 

“ - but. You’re right about one thing. I do give credit where credit’s due. And you’ve been really decent, Mike. Thank you for letting me hide here, for dinner, for breakfast, for being some sort of panic attack whisperer…”

The air in the room had gone a little staticky, because the normally glib tone of her banter had morphed into sincerity. Ginny hadn’t really felt taken care of or safe since her dad’s death. 

But that was exactly what she felt last night, curled on the couch listening to Mike talk about Felicity knocking out her brother’s tooth. She felt sheltered and consequential. Not as Ginny Baker, the first female MLB pitcher, but as a human who mattered enough for Mike to let her problems uproot his life. Temporarily, sure, but it still meant a helluva lot.

When she turned and looked at him, something about the intense gratitude she projected made him feel paralyzed and naked. Like she saw something in him that he didn’t see in himself. Like someday in the future he’d disappoint her by showing her it wasn’t real. 

“I really appreciate it, old man.”

A weighty silence hung for a couple of heartbeats before it was interrupted by another loud crunch of bacon. 

“Where’d you learn how to do that anyway? They have a masterclass on panic attacks at the lumberjack academy, or what?”

How on earth did she manage to go from a Hallmark commercial to making jokes about panic attacks? This girl - nope, this woman absolutely floored him.

Mike cleared his throat, then answered, his empty fork punctuating his words.

“Uh, alright. I’ll answer that if you promise not to get mad at me - and - if you promise you’re gonna talk to your therapist about whatever brought that on. Deal?”

Ginny pretended to consider, making little humming sounds as she shook her head left to right.

“Alright, mother duck. I won’t get mad,” her eyes twinkled as she continued, “And I already have an appointment scheduled with Dr. Barton today - hah!”

Mike’s eyes tracked briefly ceilingward. Of course she already had an appointment scheduled. 

“Alright, Rook. Remember, you’re not getting mad, right?”

Ginny turned enough to fix him with a withering of course I’m not going to get mad but I might get mad if you tell me not to get mad one more time stare.

“Alright, alright - “

Mike turned to look at his swiftly cooling egg whites.

“... I was worried about you. Well, I dunno if worried about you is right. I was worried for you? I know Amelia is your person in that situation or whatever, but she’s not the most… comforting person I’ve ever met.”

Boy, he wasn’t wrong about that. Amelia was a shark in every part of her life. There was no arena in which her blonde warrior mentality manifested anything close to warm and cuddly. Her approach to Ginny’s panic attacks always included cold hard facts. She would have X amount of money. She could buy her way out of problems. She could pay people to take care of whatever was wrong. 

In fact, now that Ginny thought about it, Amelia might have made her panic attacks a lot worse. Always focusing on how many little girls Ginny represented. How she couldn’t let them down, how she had to blaze this trail for them.

“My mom was - uh - different. She had these episodes every once in a while, and she just needed someone to take care of her. I know your panic attacks aren’t the same, but I figured I could educate myself on them and probably do a better job than Amelia if it ever came up on a trip.”

Mike picked up a piece of gargantuan avocado toast and gestured with it as he finished.

“So I used this thing - I don’t know if you’re familiar with it - the internet (he shot a sideways grin at her). And I read a bunch of stuff about panic attacks, what helps and what doesn’t. I just tried the stuff that seemed more your style.”

Interesting. Maybe he really was a mother duck. Or a mother hen.

Whatever he was, Ginny wanted to know more about his mom. She’d never heard him talk about her before. Or his dad. In fact, he never really talked about his family or his past at all. Maybe that was normal given they’d only known each other a few months. 

Sure, he had learned a lot about her family in that time, but maybe his family just wasn’t as big a mess as hers. 

Ginny shook her head and finished chewing a piece of (now) bacon-topped avocado toast.

“Well don’t tell Amelia I said this, but you did a way better job than she ever did. So thank you.”

She took a sip of coffee, hummed appreciatively, and added, “Also, congratulations on your first successful Google search, old man! If I had a trophy handy, I’d have it engraved to commemorate this monumental achievement!”

Eyes still fixed on his plate, Mike fired back, “Oh yeah? Well don’t forget your own trophy for making it through the morning without having another panic attack over lacing your shoes.”

He turned ever so slightly, just catching the mock horror on her face as he quickly tacked on, “Too soon?”

Ginny swatted his arm hard enough to sting and squeaked back, “Yes too soon, Mike! Obviously too soon!”

Her feigned outrage did nothing to dampen his snickering. At his own bad joke.

“Ok, ok. So, what - after breakfast? No panic attack jokes on a half-empty stomach?”

Ginny rolled her eyes and kept eating, choosing not to dignify his question with a response. But Mike could see her smiling out of the corner of his eye. So he figured the joke had gone the way he hoped. 

With a herculean effort, Mike kept himself to only two more panic attack jokes as they finished eating. And Ginny held all her questions about his family, because they kind of needed to eat and hit the road. 

As Ginny headed back to the poolhouse, Mike half-yelled at her. 

“Hey Rook, don’t worry about packing your stuff up. I don’t want to be late because you took forever to fold your entire wardrobe of yoga pants. Just grab whatever you need for the day, and let’s get outta here. I can send a clubbie for the rest of your stuff later.”

She turned, gave him her fakest smile with two thumbs up, and bounced out the door.

Chapter Text

As they stepped through the clubhouse doors, Ginny felt a pang of regret over forgetting to prank Mike with the intercom system. Oh well, there’d be plenty of opportunities for shenanigans during spring training. As long as she was included in spring training, that is.

They both headed straight for the trainers. Kiki was supposed to be helping Mike with some back stuff, and Ginny needed to figure out what they wanted her to do for rehab, or if rehab or anything like it would be necessary. 

Moments later, Mike was all but asleep on the table, a tens unit covered with a heating pad on his lower back. Kiki turned his attention to Ginny.

“Well, the good news is it’s superficial. The bad news is it’s as deep a cut as you can get without involving muscle.”

Ginny nodded her head, having already heard this from Dr. Mags.

“What does that mean for my practice schedule though? Since it’s not my pitching arm, can I still pitch as long as I don’t try to catch anything?”

Kiki chuckled lightly, while a muffled grumble came from Mike’s general direction.

“My instructions from management are to move you into off-season conditioning immediately. You’re over your pitch count. Even without the stitches, we need to rest your pitching arm a bit. We’re going to cut your bullpen time by 75% for at least a month and focus on conditioning arms, legs and core, but really focused on conditioning this pitching arm.”

Ginny nodded again, processing. She’d never really had an offseason, so all this was new. 

“Wait, so how soon do I get to pitch again?”

The seemingly unmoving form on the table across from her grumbled out, “Rookie. You’re gonna take a break whether you like it or not, alright? Take the damn break.”

“Though I may disagree with the delivery, the captain here is right. You need to take a break. We need to give those stitches at least two weeks to heal. Without pitching.”

Ginny’s face fell. Blip happened to be passing by. Seeing her face, he popped his head in the door, questioning.

“‘D’y’all just tell Ginny she’s done pitching forever? Or’d somebody run over her favorite puppy?”

Mike waved one hand without picking up his head, grousing back, “Don’t worry about it, Blip. She’s just taking a tiny break from pitching so that canyon Salvi opened up on her arm can heal. And she’s bein’ a real pain in the ass about it.”

Ginny balled up some of the tape that had just come off her arm and threw it at Mike. 

“You whined more about being scratched from a single game than I have about this whole thing, old man. And that was actually your fault!”

Blip smirked, agreeing with her. 

“She’s not wrong Mike. You did sound a lot like a tween who didn’t get asked to the school dance.”

Mike let out a long, deliberately exaggerated sigh.

“Nobody asked for your opinion, Blip. Kiki, can you please get these children outta here already? I need my pre-game nap.”

Kiki had just finished putting the new dressing on Ginny’s arm.

“That’s fine by me. I don’t want to hang out here with Captain Grumpy Pants, anyway.”

Kiki said Ginny could come by later to pick up her training plan. So she and Blip left Mike to his pre-game ritual, aka sleeping like a housecat. A grumpy housecat.

“Y’all still having a lover’s quarrel?” Ginny asked as they headed into the locker room. 

Blip turned to her, wide eyed and worried, “Why? What’d Ev say to you?”

Ginny scrunched up her brows, utterly confused.

“I was talking about Captain Crabby back there, not Ev. What’s going on with Ev?”

Blip flopped down into a chair, sighing heavily.

“Nothing, nothing.”

Ginny just looked at him, clearly unconvinced.

“Alright, something. We got in a fight. It’s not a big deal.”

She crossed her arms, and nodded slowly.

“Sure, sure. That’s why you immediately thought I was talking about Ev when everyone else in the world knew I was talking about your spat with Captain Crotchety.”

Blip’s head lolled back to one side, his eyes stopping on a random ceiling tile. 

“Fine, Ginny. Obviously we had a fight, but I’m obviously not gonna talk to you about it. We both know Ev would kill me. Then you. Then me again.”

Ginny couldn’t keep one muffled giggle from escaping, but she stopped it there.

“Well you’re damn right about that.”

The phone in her jacket pocket buzzed. Hopefully it was Eliot with those sports bras. 

Ginny put a consoling hand on Blip’s shoulder as she passed.

“Just go home and make it right, Blip, whatever it is. You know that woman is a saint who has literally moved heaven and earth for you. And she’s scary, too.”

She checked her phone, and thanked God. It was Eliot, and he did have the sports bras. She met him in her cubby then shoved him out the door, talking at him as she changed.

“Thank you thank you thank you for bringing these, El. You’re a lifesaver.”

“Uh, yeah. No problem.”

“Have you heard anything from Amelia.”

“Nope. But I have some ideas about that.”

Ginny swiped the door open, relieved to feel properly dressed at last. 

“Ok, good. Whatcha got?”

No one could look quite as genuinely uncomfortable as Eliot, and he was doing a great job of it at this moment. 

“Um, maybe we should talk somewhere a little more private.”

Ginny frowned at him.

“Why?”

He stared intently at his shoes.

“Uh, because maybe my ideas involve some uncomfortable truths.”

Ginny rolled her eyes, leaning back into her little cubby chair.

“It’s fine, El. Half these guys have seen naked pictures of me that weren’t taken by a professional photographer. Just close the door and tell me what ya got.”

Eliot started babbling about some class he took in business school. Something about human resources and managing people. 

“Have you ever thanked Amelia? Or told her she did a good job?”

Ginny was a little horrified. “Amelia? You want to know if I’ve ever given the ice queen a pat on the back?”

He grimaced and nodded, yes.

Clearly confused, Ginny pressed on.

“No, Eliot. I don’t think I have, but she’s not really that type. She’s all hard angles and woman power, right?”

Several tells played across Eliot’s face. Uneasiness. The kind of compassion and wisdom you see in a therapist explaining the concept of boundaries to an unknowing patient. 

“Healthy organizations celebrate success, Ginny. Every employee - and Amelia is your employee - every employee needs recognition of a job well done.”

The stubborn pitcher furrowed her brow, processing Eliot’s words.

“I don’t know El. I don’t really see it. She’s such a hard person.”

“Sometimes I think your problems are all caused by being too much alike, because that’s almost exactly what she said to me a couple of days ago.”

Ginny whipped her head around. Her, like Amelia? No way.

“Yeah, I don’t see it, El. What happened a couple of days ago though?”

“I told her to try being nice about something instead of doing her usual wrecking ball thing. She didn’t listen to me, and things did not work out well. When she finally listened to me, people were more receptive. And she did successfully channel something closer to nice and further from ice queen.”

Ginny chuckled. Amelia. Nice. That’d be the day.

“Look, you don’t have to listen to me, obviously. I work for you . I’m just saying, all the studies say that every employee needs recognition. You and Amelia, in my humble opinion, are pretty hard on each other. Maybe if you tried it my way, like I finally convinced her to do, you’d have better results.”

She did that very Ginny thing where she nervously swiped her thumb and pointer finger across her lips. 

“What exactly are you telling me to do?”

Eliot blew out a heavy breath.

“I think you need to make nice with her. Give her credit for the value she’s provided. You can still lay down the boundaries you need moving forward, but I think you’re going to have to throw her a bone to get her back to the table… Saying thank you is probably the easiest - and most effective - way to do that. I think.”

Eliot was right about one thing. They were definitely hard on each other. And Ginny really hadn’t ever thanked Amelia. For anything, now that she thought about it.

In the past couple of years, Amelia had been on the receiving end of some of Ginny’s angriest moments. Had she deserved them? Probably. But did Ginny let her anger about one thing spill over into just about every interaction with her agent? Absolutely. 

The fling with Mike would always grate on her, because Amelia knew it would be a thing. And she did it anyway, and she kept it from Ginny. Sure, they both kept it from her, but Amelia was the only one on Ginny’s payroll. So that made her worse.

But. But, but, but. Amelia had handled the leaked photos masterfully. Going on the offense with the body issue campaign was pretty close to genius. It felt like shades of season one Olivia Pope. 

Ginny thanked all the guys for backing her up on that shoot, but she never thanked Amelia for getting them there in the first place. 

Would Will have been able to wrangle that? She couldn’t imagine a world in which he could have. 

Maybe Eliot was right. Maybe she wasn’t really fair to Amelia. Ugh, and Mike had made a crack about her giving credit where credit’s due literally this morning.

Stupid, bearded idiot.

Ginny blew out a heavy breath, conceding, “Ok, El. You’re probably right. I guess I’ll call her and thank her for… everything. See if I can get her to at least discuss coming back.”

Eliot held up a hand, “Well, calling might be difficult. I’m pretty sure she went out to that Tahoe cabin of hers where she likes to disconnect from technology - “

“Ugh. So how am I supposed to apologize then? Are you saying I need to actually go up there?”

He interrupted, explaining that Ginny did not need to go up there. Eliot knew several delivery services capable of delivering to her remote cabin. 

Together, they put together a note to go along with a delivery of Amelia’s favorite, frou frou green juice. Ginny thanked her once-and-hopefully-future agent for:

  • Coming to TX and taking a chance on her.
  • Coming to every single ballgame since her first day.
  • Spinning the selfie crisis.
  • Fixing her bobblehead.
  • Negotiating a great deal with Nike.
  • Coming back to the team to continue blazing this trail for Ginny and every other aspiring athlete fighting against horrible odds.
  • Helping her with panic attacks. (even though she maybe didn’t help all that much, she did try, right?)

Once Ginny approved the note, Eliot headed out to place the order and make sure everything was delivered correctly. As he was heading out the door, he mumbled, “Green juice better be enough. Freaking Baker Brawl.”

“Did you just say Baker Brawl?”

Eliot froze.

“Uh… no?”

“Eliot.”

He looked like a kid who just tasted their first yellow-flavored cough syrup. 

“Um… yes. That’s what I mentioned yesterday.”

“The thing I told you to handle?”

“Yep”

“Did you handle it?”

He shifted his weight uncomfortably from left to right.

“Um… well, it’s kind of hard to handle a trending hashtag. And you skipped all the press. So there really wasn’t much anybody could do anyway.”

Ginny tilted her head to the side, “Mmmmmkay. Well why don’t you go ahead and tell me what’s going on with that? Management wants me to sit in on the conference after the game today. So I should probably at least know what people are saying.”

It turned out the sports world was currently obsessed with what had gone down in the Padres dugout the day before. Nobody cared about the scuffle that injured Ginny. But they all wanted to analyze what happened after she left, aka the #BakerBrawl.

Apparently someone on Instagram suggested the entire thing was Ginny’s fault. Because a girl in the dugout caused problems. She was too delicate to play with boys, and she incited disagreements that turned physical between her teammates. Ginny Baker was destroying the Padres (despite the fact that they were still in the wild-card hunt).

It was basic misogynistic drivel, but most of the shows were covering it. Some did it to denounce those criticizing the pitcher. Others did it to pile on the criticism. Either way, it was a seemingly endless cycle that Ginny couldn’t help visualizing as her career circling the drain.

Eliot had spoken to Oscar about it, and management’s position was that they weren’t commenting. That was it.

Amelia would never have accepted that. But Ginny wouldn’t either, whether Amelia was there or not. 

Ginny thanked Eliot for explaining, then released him to deal with the Amelia stuff.

“But keep me informed if anything crazy happens before the press conference, ok? I don’t want to be blindsided later.”

-*-

Later that day, Ginny got to watch her team stumble into a narrow victory over the Dodgers. There were some errors early on, and things looked pretty bleak by the 7th inning. But Mike and Salvi managed to bring in five runs between them in the top of the ninth, giving them a one run lead.

Tommy caught one batter looking, then allowed a single base hit. But they pulled off a double play on the next batter, and that was that.

Armed with Kiki’s post-season, post-stitches workout plan and messaging from Oscar, Ginny felt prepared for the cameras and reporters. She had always paid close attention to Amelia’s instructions and rationale when it came to public statements. So it didn’t bother her that the blonde dynamo was still missing in action. 

She took her usual spot next to Mike and hoped the cabal in front of them would choose not to focus entirely on her. 

The first couple of reporters asked Mike and Al about the team’s performance in the game. What caused the errors early on? Did the team feel any kind of confidence boost after getting one game closer to the wild card?

The third reporter directed his question at Ginny, something fairly innocuous about her stitches, recovery timeline, etc. She gave the canned response from Oscar and hoped they’d move on to the rest of the team.

“Ginny, a follow-up. Any comment on the photo essay published on Barstool today?”

She wrinkled her brow and glanced over at Mike, who shrugged his shoulders, obviously as confused as she was.

“We were pretty busy with a game the last few hours, so I haven’t seen whatever you’re referencing. Sorry.”

“Barstool claims Livan Duarte started the Baker Brawl yesterday because the two of you are an item. They backed it up with a photo gallery. You look pretty cozy with him. Is there any truth to the story?”

Ginny’s face went completely blank. But her eyes widened slightly as she fought the urge to turn to Mike and make a “can you believe this bullshit?” face. Then her eyes narrowed, and the shutters went up. 

“Next question.”

Every reporter in the room shouted a follow-up about her and Livan. 

Keeping her face neutral, Ginny turned back to look at Oscar, who somehow shrugged with his eyes. She took it as permission.

“Alright, listen up. I’m here in this clubhouse to play ball. That’s it. If you have a question about baseball, ask it. If you have questions about my personal life, direct them to my agent.”

That shut them down. There were a few more questions. Did Mike plan to play more first base? Was Salvi confident about breaking his batting slump? Did they really think they still had a shot at the wildcard?

As soon as she could break away, Ginny stole back to the locker room, claiming one of the plush black rolling chairs. She texted Eliot, hoping to get an update on the Amelia situation, and then she pulled up Barstool. 

If she didn’t know better, she’d think she and Livan were an item, too. One picture showed them in a club. Ginny knew the angle had been purposely chosen for the way it made them look like they were connected from chest to pelvis. But they hadn’t actually been touching at all. Another one made it look like they were holding hands as they walked into the Omni. 

Oh shit. There was a gif of them walking into Livan’s hotel room. They were just going over batters, but who would believe that? And it was followed by an entire series of the two of them just smiling and laughing at each other. They looked happy. 

Obviously, Ginny knew none of it was true, but damn if it wasn’t convincing. Especially since Livan did throw the first punch. 

Mike threw himself into the next chair and peered over her shoulder. 

“That one’ll make a great Christmas card, Rook.”

Ginny rolled her eyes and turned to glare at him.

“It’s not funny, Mike. People are going to believe this bullshit.”

He grabbed her phone and swiped through a few pictures. Ginny missed the shadow that crossed his face when he got to the mutual smiling series. She was too busy thinking about how she needed an agent to spin this, if for no other reason than she simply didn’t have the time or energy to do it herself. 

“Nah. Not with TMZ’s pictures of you and the billionaire already out there.”

Ginny scoffed, “Yeah. So they’ll just call me a slut and say I’m messing around with a billionaire and a teammate. That’s much better, thanks Mike.”

Blip strolled into the room and clapped a hand onto Ginny’s shoulder.

“Ginny, it’ll blow over. Besides, this is nothing. You shoulda seen the circus when Mike got caught with Jessica Alba.”

Sonny and a couple of the guys added their agreement with Blip’s statement. If not for the consorting-with-a-teammate rumor, it’d have been a nice moment, all the guys rallying behind her. Like her own deep-voiced version of the rabid friend groups she’d seen in teen movies but never personally experienced. 

“I sure hope you’re right, Blip.”

He shot her a knowing look, which shouldn’t have made her feel much better, but it did.

“I’ll tell you one more thing, Ginny. If they don’t drop the story fast, you can just sic Ev on ‘em. I already got 7 angry texts from her about it, and that’s just since the press conference. She’s ready to hunt down the folks at Barstool and fit ‘em for concrete shoes.”

Ginny and Mike laughed, but Blip just sat there looking genuinely worried for the Barstool guys.

A few minutes later, while gathering things from her locker, Ginny picked up a call from Eliot. Amelia’s message/package hadn’t been delivered yet but should be there first thing in the morning.

And in more exciting news, Eliot’s friend at the Omni said the place was crawling with reporters. Actually, the term he used was infested, but neither sounded very good to Ginny. 

She leaned her head back against the wall in her tiny personal locker room/storage closet. God, did she not want to wade through all those jostling reporters with their flock of boom mics and likely sexist and racist questions. But maybe she could sneak in the service entrance and avoid all that. 

Well, no better time to face it than now. Ginny wound her way through PETCO’s tunnels and hallways until she came to the visiting team exit. She hated how ridiculous it was to order a car for what should be a two block walk. But without the cover of a vehicle, there’d be nothing stopping reporters and fans from interrogating her.

When Ginny’s plain black car arrived at the Omni’s service entrance, she breathed a huge sigh of relief. No sign of reporters or media anywhere. She snuck in the unmarked doors and used the staff elevator to get to her floor.

As she reached in her pocket to retrieve her card key, a voice rang down the hall, “Ginny! Are you staying here to be close to Livan?”

Without looking toward the voice, she moved faster, hoping to get in the room and call security before they got close enough for a picture. But the reporter was fast, and his voice swiftly got louder and closer.

“Ginny! Is Livan in your room right now?”

The lock finally lit up green, allowing her to yank the door open and disappear behind it, setting all of the security locks as quickly as possible. The reporter was still outside yelling questions. 

Oh my god. He asked if she was pregnant. Was she pregnant with Livan’s baby, and were the stitches just a way to get her off the field without letting people know?

FUCK.

She gathered her thoughts enough to call security. She had made friends with Bob, the head of security, months ago. He was very apologetic and said he’d send someone up immediately. 

Ginny asked him what the lobby was like, but his protracted pause before answering was telling enough. She was trapped in her room for the moment. 

After thanking Bob profusely and promising to call down if anything else happened, she collapsed on the couch and picked up her phone. No update from Eliot, which was expected since the apology juice wouldn’t arrive til morning. 

Still, she craved the peace of knowing someone else would handle what was sure to become a pregnancy rumor. She and Amelia had never discussed what to do in case someone started a rumor about one of her teammate’s becoming her baby daddy. 

Ginny tried using the techniques her therapist taught her, but she couldn’t get her brain to stop replaying the reporter’s words. 

“Are the stitches just covering your pregnancy? Was Livan happy when you told him?”

So she decided to try the one other thing that worked. She called Mike, who picked up on the second ring.

“Miss me already, Rook?”

She huffed a short, mirthless laugh, responding, “Heh, um, sort of.”

Which set off warning bells in Mike’s head. It wasn’t like her not to respond with some biting comment, especially when he gave her a perfect opening to knock him for being so conceited.

“What’s wrong?”

She bit her lip and made a low, anxious humming sound.

“Um, nothing much. But can you do me a favor and distract me with one of those stupid stories about the dark ages?”

Something was definitely wrong.

“Alright, first of all, I don’t tell stories about the dark ages. I tell stories about the golden age of baseball, aka any time I played.”

Ginny let out another one of those strangled chuckles.

“And second, of course I can entertain you with stories of the good old days, Rook. It’s the least I can do after getting you hooked on them, right?”

She could hear the reporter responding to someone outside, probably security. So she didn’t respond audibly to Mike’s quip, which ratcheted up his level of concern. Again. But maybe he could help. Ginny loved any chance to poke fun at him.

“Let me tell you about the time I met Nolan Ryan.”

That got her attention. Nolan Ryan was a legend. Seven no-hitters and something close to 6,000 strikeouts. 

“Oh no. What’d you do? Tell him he’d have had ten no-hitters if you’d been his catcher?”

Mike chuckled lightly, “No, Rookie. Even I’m not that arrogant.”

Ginny snickered, quipping, “Wow. I didn’t think there was a limit, but I guess there is. Wait, has hell frozen over? Does this mean the world is ending?”

Mike sighed dramatically.

“No, Baker. Are you gonna let me tell this story or not?”

She waved her hand as she conceded, “Fine, fine, yes. Tell the story, please.”

“Alright, so we’re at this charity thing in Dallas, and I’m in kind of a bad mood.”

“Of course you are.”

“Telling a story here, Rook.”

She rolled her eyes as she walked toward the door, peering through the peephole to see if the hall had cleared.

“Yeah, yeah. Go on.”

“So I’m in line at the bar, waiting way too long for a drink, and I say to the pretty lady in front of me - I know they say everything’s bigger and better in Texas, but I didn’t think that applied to the line at the bar as well. You’d really think they could plan a little better for an event this big -“

From her vantage point at the peephole, Ginny saw the last security guard walk up and down the hallway before disappearing from view in the direction of the elevator. 

“Well this voice comes from behind me and says, ‘It’s a good thing it applies to manners as well, otherwise that pretty lady’d have to pop you in the mouth for insulting the host to her face.’”

Ginny’s mouth hung open in shock. 

“Wait, you complained about the party to - “

“Yep. Columba Bush, Jeb Bush’s wife, a member of the Bush political dynasty, and the gracious host of that particular charity event.”

“Wooooooooooow. That’s impressive even for you, Mike.”

He responded just as a knock sounded at her door, “Yeah. Nolan was not impressed, but you can’t say I didn’t make an impression!”

Ginny half laughed as she looked through the peephole again. It was security, though not one of the guys she knew. 

“Ms. Baker, Bob sent me up to make sure you’re ok after that incident.”

She’d given her personal security guys the day off yesterday and hadn’t called them back yet. But she was sure it was fine. He was wearing the hotel uniform, and he obviously knew Bob had spoken with her.

“Hey Mike, hang on one sec. I need to just answer the door.”

She pressed the phone against her shoulder as she undid all the security locks and pressed down on the door handle. When she opened the door, the security guard stood calmly, his hands behind his back. But rather than look at Ginny, he peered past her into the room.

“Miss Baker, I do apologize for the commotion. We’ve apprehended the trespasser and will be banning him from the hotel.”

Ginny nodded her head slowly. This guy seemed so uncomfortable, but maybe it was because they’d never met before and he was just weird about her celebrity. 

“I do have one quick question though. It’ll help us prevent this sort of thing from happening again.”

“Yeah, sure. Ask away.”

“Does Mr. Duarte spend a lot of time down here on your floor, ma’am?”

She furrowed her brow, confused.

“What? No. What does that have to do with security?”

Then, the security guard whipped one hand out from behind his back, producing a massive camera. He took a step forward, bodying Ginny back into her room, then shoving her roughly to step across the threshold.

She stumbled back into the bathroom door and dropped the phone.

Chapter Text

The security guard pointed the camera all over her room, the shutter clicking continuously as Ginny struggled to make sense of the situation.

“Livan! Come out and help your girl!”

The man was now standing in her sad little living room, and the door was closing behind him. Trying to think quickly, Ginny yelled, loudly enough for Mike to hear (she hoped), “Get out of my room! My friend is on the phone and he’s calling security right now!”

The interloper had stepped further into her room, seemingly searching for Livan. She swung the door and propped it open with a door stopper. Ginny didn’t know it, but Mike had quickly found and dialed the hotel, conferencing them into the call.

“Livan’s not here! You need to leave now,” Ginny picked up her phone as she continued speaking forcefully, “I just snapped a picture of your face, and I’m going to have you fired if you don’t get out of my room right now!”

The maybe security guard stepped backwards toward the door, then turned angrily, facing her briefly as he stomped out the door.

“You couldn’t get me fired if you wanted to, bitch,” he sneered as he walked past her, deliberately colliding with her shoulder as he stomped out the door.

Ginny slammed the door shut, re-locking all the security locks, then sinking to the ground right in front of the door. It took her a minute to realize Mike was shouting at her from the phone she held in her lap.

“Ginny!”

It took her years to put the phone back up to her ear, the adrenaline and stress dragging each second into an eternity. 

“Ginny! Are you ok??”

Mike could hear her breathing hard, but her voice finally answered back, “Yeah, Mike. He’s gone. I locked the door. I’m ok. It’s ok.”

“Miss Baker, Bob went upstairs himself to make sure your floor and room are secure. He should be there any second. This is Phil. I’m going to stay on the line with you until I hear Bob on the other end, ok?”

Part of her felt like now would be the absolute most inconvenient time to have a panic attack, because Ginny was clearly worked up. Her whole body felt like it was vibrating with adrenaline, and she was once again alone. But she was still too shocked, apparently.

So Ginny sat there mumbling words of agreement here and there as Phil gave Mike a play by play of what he thought happened. 

After a few minutes, or hours, Bob knocked very lightly on her door.

“Miss Baker, it’s Bob. You don’t need to open the door for me. I just wanted to let you know that we grabbed the guy coming outta the stairwell on the first floor. He won’t bother you again, and I’m very very sorry for the fright he caused.”

She pulled herself up to standing, checked the peephole three times, then opened the door. Poor Bob looked absolutely stricken. 

Ginny placed a trembling hand on Bob’s arm as she said, “It’s ok, Bob. It’s not your circus, it’s mine. Thank you for coming up to check on me. I’m ok now.”

He pointed to her face, concerned, “Did he hurt you Miss Baker?”

Had she accidentally used regular mascara this morning? Maybe it was smeared from the altercation at her door.

“No, sir. I’m just a little shaken, that’s all.”

Bob gave her a look that betrayed his years as a devoted father. 

“I can’t say enough how sorry I am Miss Baker. Now I can’t undo what’s already happened, but is there anything I can send up for you? A cup of tea? Hot cocoa? Shot of whiskey?”

She graced him with a thin smile as she spoke, “No, thank you though. I’ll be alright, Bob. You wanna tell Phil he can go back to his regularly scheduled desk job?”

Bob took the phone from her and gave Phil the green light to disconnect, before handing it back to Ginny saying the gentleman on the phone wanted to speak with her. 

She put the phone to her ear as she thanked Bob again and closed the door under his watchful eye. She saw through the peephole that he waited until he heard every security lock engage before turning and heading back toward the elevator lobby.

“Rook, you still with me?”

Ginny sank back to the floor, too numb to do much else.

“Yeah, Mike. I’m here.”

The cranky catcher exhaled heavily.

“Alright, good, good.”

Ginny could hear car noises on the other end of the line, but she didn’t really process what they meant until Mike spoke again,

“Ok, so I’m going to be there in about ten minutes. I know you’d rather stay with Blip and Ev, but there’s troubled waters over there. And you still have plenty of stuff in my pool house. So I’m gonna pick you up, and you’re gonna stay with me until you can figure out a safer place of your own, alright?”

Ginny had been staring at the hotel carpet, wondering how anyone ever made something with so many ugly shades of blue and green. She hummed her agreement every once in a while but genuinely wasn’t listening to anything Mike said. She was aware of the rising and falling intonation of his voice, of the way it steadied her, and not much else. 

Mike could tell her brain wasn’t exactly firing on all cylinders, so he kept talking, just like he had last night. He started making up ridiculous house rules. No finger paints near the white couch. No watching Teletubbies ever. 

“I’m not a religious man, but I know better than to invite those demons into my life.”

No bouncy castles in the pool. No Legos ever. No touching his favorite coffee cup for any reason. No drawing mustaches on his posters. No running or horseplay near the pool. No stealing his cars. No puppies or kittens or pets of any kind. No flowery smelling candles, not because of the smell, but because Ginny might catch the whole place on fire.

Which brought Mike to a whole other point. No hair straighteners without auto-off safety features. No trying to make blow torches out of hairspray and lighters. No burning pictures of her ex in the sink. 

Truthfully, he was a little torn on that one. But making the joke about fire safety was more important to him in that moment than encouraging her to hate Trevor.

No covering his couch or any part of the main house in any of her girly smelling things. No making s’mores without him. S’mores were fine, they just had to be shared. And supervised by Mike. Because he was kind of a s’more savant thanks to Felicity and Barry.

“Hey Baker, you gonna let me in?”

Mike’s words jolted her enough to realize she heard him both in her ear and on the other side of the door. She stood up, looked through the peephole, and sure enough, there he was.

Ginny undid all the security locks and opened the door. Mike furrowed his brow a little before stepping into the room. He motioned for her to sit down on the couch while he disappeared into the bathroom.

“Hey Gin, on a scale of 1 to 10, how much do you love the beard?”

He reappeared, washcloth and a box of tissues in hand.

“Huh?”

Mike pulled the rolling chair over and sat down right in front of her.

“On a scale of 1 to 10, how much do you love the beard?”

She shook her head lightly, mumbling, “I don’t. I don’t like the beard.”

“There she is. Good. Now, can you lean forward just a little?”

She did, and Mike picked up the warm washcloth, bringing it almost to her face before cursing softly.

“Goddamit. I don’t want to do this, but I think we need to. I’m just gonna take a couple of pictures of you, ok? Just in case you need them later.”

Why would she need pictures of herself for later?

Oh well. It didn’t matter. If Mike said she might need pictures later, he was probably right.

She nodded her head, and then he snapped a few pictures from various angles before swapping the phone for the washcloth. 

“Ok, can you lean forward again?”

She did. And Mike brought the warm washcloth up to her face. He put one big hand on the side of her face to hold her still while he gently scrubbed the other side.

As he cleaned what Ginny didn’t realize was blood from her face, her captain prattled on about the time he’d tried to avoid the press in New York by wearing a disguise. He described an outfit that sounded a lot like Inspector Gadget’s wardrobe rejects, but Ginny wasn’t herself enough to appreciate how funny it was. 

After getting the streaks of blood off her face, he turned to her hands. Her catching hand was perfect, but her pitching hand had streaks of blood on it. He ran the washcloth lightly over the angry red blotches until they were gone. 

Then Mike checked her over carefully, trying to make sure there wasn’t actually a source of blood on her face. Ginny’s eyes followed his as they executed a methodical canvas of her face, forgetting momentarily that he was looking for blood. She felt something warm and effervescent bloom in her chest then spread outward from its epicenter. 

Then Mike’s eyes, gold-flecked and worried, locked with her own. They held each other there just a beat too long, momentarily losing the battle to pretend there was nothing between them but a friendly, professional relationship. 

Coming back to himself, Mike cleared his throat, and Ginny directed her eyes at a weird spot on the ceiling. He had no business staring meaningfully into His Rookie’s eyes in the first place, but certainly not right now, when she was clearly in shock and barely functioning. Goddamn, what was wrong with him?

He found no injury on her face, so he pushed one curl back off her forehead and turned his attention to the actual source of blood: her stitches.

He had done his best not to react to the crimson streaks earlier. From her blank expression when she opened the door, he knew she hadn’t noticed 1) that her stitches had ripped open, and 2) that she had somehow trailed blood all over her face. He didn’t want to alarm her, but clearly something had to be done with her stitches. Blood had soaked through the dressing and was trailing down her bare arm. 

“Well, I’m not entirely qualified to handle this, but I can call someone who is and have them meet us at my place. In the meantime, I’m just gonna clean this gushing river of blood off your arm so you don’t bleed all over my car. ‘S that alright?”

Ginny frowned and looked at her arm. She noted the blood with curiosity more than alarm and responded, “Sure. Anything for your car, Mike.”

He squinted at her without halting his actions, then chided, “Did you just make a joke, Rook? You finally coming back to the land of the living?”

She rolled her eyes and jabbed, “You oughta know a thing or two about that, old man. This is pretty much what happens to you every time you take one of those full body ice baths, huh?”

Mike leaned back into his chair, having cleaned up her arm as best he could under the circumstances. He pointed an obnoxious finger at her as he admonished, “Don’t you know it’s rude to tease the guy who voluntarily showed up to babysit you after yet another one of your teenage dramedy episodes?”

She smirked at him, almost fully back to herself.

“Nobody made you come here. I’m honestly surprised you did. Isn’t this right about mid-afternoon naptime for folks like you?”

He stood from the chair, taking his cleaning materials with him to the bathroom.

“It IS my naptime, Rook. You’re right. And you should be grateful I’m selfless enough to give up my nap just for you and your constant knack for getting in trouble.”

“Oh, come on, old man. You didn’t come here out of selflessness. You were worried about me!”

Ginny’s voice had taken on a teasing tone, but Mike didn’t match it when he poked his head back out of the bathroom. The look on his face leveled her a little, because it wasn’t sarcastic. There was no smirk, no squint, no arrogant eyebrow waggle. Just candor.

“I was worried about you. And I would keep worrying about you if you stayed here. That’s true.”

She pouted a little as she answered back, “Well there you go ruining my attempt at using humor as a coping mechanism. Thanks, old man.”

He rolled his eyes, shooting back, “I think you’ll live. Now, can we get outta here already? This place is making me kind of twitchy, and I’m hungry. Which means you’re probably on the verge of a hypoglycemic rage episode.”

“Oh shit. I’m sorry - I need to pack first. I should’ve done that while you were driving here.”

Mike shook his head and huffed a single laugh.

“One of these days I’m gonna break you of this apologizing-for-being-human habit. But for now, just grab whatever you need right this minute, and let’s get outta here. You can send Eliot to pack up the rest of your stuff later, yeah?”

She stood slowly, “Yeah, um - yeah. You’re right. And my stuff is still at your place?”

“Yeah, Rook. I was a little busy with a game and then cleaning up all your blood. Didn’t get a chance to send anyone for it.”

(Sure, let’s go with that.)

“Normally I worry about these early signs of dementia, but today I’m grateful for it.”

She smirked at him as she collected her phone, charger, wallet, and hoodie.

Mike called down to the valet as they walked toward the stairwell and instructed them to bring his car around to the service entrance. When they got there, Bob was manning the door. He told them the coast was clear, and they escaped into the safety of Mike’s most inconspicuous sports car. 

They sighed heavily at the exact same moment, just as the doors closed and the locks clicked. Then Ginny started laughing. She couldn’t help it. She’d been ambushed by two photogs in one day, possibly partners, and they’d accused her of carrying Livan’s baby. And one of them had posed as a hotel security guard. You just couldn’t make this shit up.

And then Mike, the grumpiest guy in the clubhouse, had shown up, unprompted, to clean her up and get her out of the hotel. She’d probably be pregnant with his baby by tomorrow if the media had anything to do with it. Or maybe they’d all speculate about how soon a paternity test would tell the world who the father of her fake baby really was. 

It was all too ridiculous not to laugh. Ginny mumbled things incoherently here and there, aware that Mike probably thought she was completely unhinged. But he just glanced at her sideways, half a smile on his face, and kept driving. 

Chapter Text

Mike had “ordered a nurse” from some fancy concierge medical service. So Ginny’s stitches were all fixed up by the time dinner arrived. She still hadn’t exactly processed what happened in the hotel room, but she had texted Eliot a quick rundown of the incident. She needed someone in her corner on social media right now , even if it wasn’t Amelia. 

“Here’s that special vintage you like so much,” Mike joked as he slid a can of grape soda across the counter to her. She rolled her eyes, but greedily accepted the drink. 

“You want the soft spring rolls or the crunchy ones?”

Ginny reached for the container in his right hand.

“Crunchy all the way, old man.”

She munched noisily on her spring rolls as Mike finished divvying up their containers of pad thai and various sauces.

He gave her a disapproving look, complaining, “Geez, Rook. Couldn’t even say a blessing first? I thought I was raised by wolves.”

She scrunched up her face in disbelief.

“You don’t say grace, and don’t even pretend like you do. I haven’t known you that long, but I know you don’t pray over your food.”

Mike pointed at her with a spring roll.

“‘D’you learn that from Tiger Beat back in the day?”

Doing an uncanny impression of him, she shot back, “Har har, old man. First of all, like you would ever have made Tiger Beat. And second, I don’t need a magazine to tell me what I can see with my own two eyes. I’ve traveled and shared meals with you for months, old man. You do not say grace.”

“I really thought you of all people would have learned from the mistakes of my past, but I can see my story about Nolan Ryan and Columba Bush did not teach you to be nice to your host. Guess I was wrong about your ability to learn from others’ mistakes.”

He took a bite of pad thai.

“And I could, too, make the pages of Tiger Beat.”

“But you just ate without saying grace - BOOM - I was right!”

She smiled triumphantly, then did a dramatic mic drop with her fork. Unfortunately, Mike seemed unfazed if not slightly more smug.

“So you admit I absolutely could make Tiger Beat.”

Ginny groaned and rolled her eyes.

“You should probably talk to a therapist at some point about your constant need for external validation despite the fact that you’re a hall-of-fame-bound major league baseball player.”

“Sure thing, Rook. I’ll do that as soon as you talk to a medical professional about your biological addiction to grape soda… And don’t jinx my hall of fame spot like that!”

She opened her mouth to stun him with another witty retort, but then her phone buzzed loudly on the counter.

“Hey Noah!” Ginny stood up and made her way to the patio as she spoke. 

Mike chewed slowly, staring hard at his noodles, trying not to over-examine the contradictory feelings that consumed him. The lightness in her voice stood in sharp contrast to the images he’d never be able to scrub from his brain. Ginny, blank-faced and numb, blood streaked across her face and trailing down her arm. 

He told himself he was grateful for the distraction Noah posed. Grateful something could make her sound bubbly and light after the way he found her just a couple of hours ago. After the panic attack last night, the stitches, the hospital, the impossible weight she carried every day. But there was also something gnawing and insistent, deep in the pit of his stomach. Something that twisted and warped when her laughter rang across the patio.

Thing is, he was self-aware enough to know that he loved the sound of her laughter and craved it like a junkie. It was like main-lining sunshine, riding Space Mountain, eating a warm brownie with melting vanilla ice cream for the first time. 

So in the very back of his mind, where he buried uncomfortable truths, Mike knew the face of his emotional gremlin: jealousy. 

But he very deliberately avoided even thinking the word, because he wasn’t ready to deal with any of it. Plus, a very petty, small voice whispered that she had already ditched Noah once for Mike. She was in Mike’s house. Her bare feet padded across Mike’s patio. She had called Mike when she wanted a distraction this afternoon. Not Noah.

Ginny flopped back into the barstool next to Mike.

“Have you ever been to Tulum?”

“Is that a new club or something? Fancy restaurant tech boy wants to take you to?”

“Ugh, no, old man. I guess it’s some place in Mexico. Noah says it’s quiet, not full of tourists, and there are interesting places to hike nearby.”

Mike pursed his lips, nodding his head.

“Huh. I would’ve figured him more a French Riviera than a Mexican jungle hike kind of guy… was that your idea?”

Truth be told, it kind of was, but not exactly. Noah had suggested they use her no-pitching weeks to head to Santorini, which did sound fun. Ginny had never really traveled other than road trips for games. The only reason she had a passport was the occasional Vancouver game. And she’d probably really enjoy ambling around a Greek island with iconic white villages and gorgeous beaches.

But Ginny worried about the jet lag. She knew from the occasional cross-country trip that she didn’t adjust quickly to even three hour time-zone differences. An eight-hour difference would probably mess her up for weeks. 

So Noah had suggested Tulum. He said it was a great vacation spot and technically in the eastern time zone. So it wouldn’t be that big an adjustment for her coming back to San Diego. 

“No, it was his idea. After I shot down Santorini on account of the jet lag.”

Mike turned to look at her, disappointment evident on his face.

“So you’re just going to abandon your team, then? Leave us to fend for ourselves against the A’s?”

Ginny’s brows pinched together as she replied, slowly, “No… wait, what? Management said it was fine if I took a quick trip. You really think it’s abandoning the team?”

The man of the house broke into a grin.

“Nah, rook. I’m just givin’ you a hard time. I bet a vacation will do you some good. Maybe teach you how to relax like a normal person.”

She swatted his arm.

“You jerk! I felt really bad there for a second. And I am a normal person.”

Mike picked up his fork and twirled some noodles, glancing sideways at her as he responded.

“I’ve never heard anyone but you refer to themself as a robot in cleats. That’s all I’m saying. A vacation might be just what you need.”

She hated to admit it, but maybe Mike had a point. Maybe she really did need a real vacation for once in her life. 

“And you’re not just saying that to get me out of your house? Make more room in the fridge for those nasty Porters you love so much?”

Mike chuckled, “Are you kidding, Rook? You’re at least 50% less trouble under my roof than you are anywhere else. At least here I don’t have to worry about people successfully breaking into your place just to get a picture of you and your dimpled baby daddy.”

Something sharp sprung up right in the center of Ginny’s chest. Despite their obvious camaraderie, it wouldn’t be crazy for Mike to think of all this as babysitting. Like she was the little sister he never had. And what would be so bad about that? Middle school Ginny would sure be thrilled. So why did her breastbone suddenly feel like a red hot poker?

Mike noticed her face blank, but he thought she was still shaken from the whole thing. And why wouldn’t she be? He sure was. He hadn’t slept on it yet, but he’d bet money on future nightmares filled with images of His Rookie’s bloody face. In fact, if he did get some sleep tonight, it would only be on account of her being safe and sound under his roof.

He reached out and put a hand on her forearm.

“Shit, Baker. I’m sorry. You know I never know when to quit with the inappropriately timed jokes, right?”

Ginny pursed her lips and nodded slowly.

“You should be sorry. I hadn’t thought about the baby daddy thing in 60 whole seconds, and now it’s entirely your fault that it’s running through my head again.”

She glanced sideways at him, waiting.

“You’re just messing with me.”

“Mmmhmmm.”

“And you’re not all stressed out about this baby daddy thing?”

She made little humming sounds as she swallowed a bit of spring roll.

“Listen, I’m not excited about it. There’s probably another photo essay on Barstool right now. Months worth of pictures of my pants, with 40x zoom trying to prove I’m letting my belt out over time.”

Ginny stabbed a bell pepper with her fork, waving it in the air as she continued.

“Does that worry me? Am I concerned Nike will come back and tell me they’re pulling all my sportswear because I’m not a good role model for aspiring female athletes anymore? Is that going to keep me up at night?”

As her stream of consciousness continued, she felt her heart rate picking up the pace. She became conscious of the fact that she was worried about all these things. She was more than worried.

Mike put a hand on her forearm.

“Hey Rook. Take a breath. None of that stuff is going to happen.”

“Of course it will. First woman pitching in major league baseball, remember? Everyone’s chomping at the bit to turn me into a flash in the pan. So I’m just an answer to some obscure trivia question.”

Mike nodded his head, rubbing his thumb back and forth on her arm. 

“That may be true. But none of the stuff you just imagined is going to happen right now. I called my agent while you were in the pool house waiting for dinner. He knows some people who know some people. There aren’t going to be any pregnancy rumors floating around anytime soon. At least not from that guy.”

Ginny wrinkled her brow, simultaneously relieved and slightly offended. She didn’t like playing the damsel in distress. 

“You didn’t have to do that, Mike - “

He opened his mouth to interrupt, but she held up a hand to stop him.

“Thank you. I - I appreciate the help, I do. But you didn’t have to do that. I’m not some helpless little girl.”

Mike exhaled loudly, exasperation evident on his features.

“Nobody said you were, Rook.”

“You kind of did, though. You handled something for me without talking to me about it, which more than implies that you believed I couldn't take care of it myself.”

Mike crossed his arms and leaned back in the barstool.

“Alright, I’ll concede that point - even though that’s not why I did it - but answer me this. If I had talked to you about it, would you have said that you didn’t want me to keep that asshole from publishing whatever story he thinks he has?”

Ginny scrunched up her face in frustration.

“No, of course not. Of course I don’t want him to publish that story. But I could have taken care of it myself.”

“I know you could have, I know that. I just had the means and opportunity to help you. So I did. I understand how anyone could believe that means I thought you couldn’t handle it yourself. But it’s not that. It’s that I could handle it, I’m your friend, and I thought it’d make your life a little less stressful. And that’s something friends do sometimes, isn’t it?”

Ginny furrowed her brows and grumbled quietly.

“I should have talked to you about it. I’m sorry about that. But I’m not sorry I did something to help you. It’s ok to get help from friends. Help from friends doesn’t mean you’re not an independent feminista powerhouse. It just means you’re human.”

She pointed her fork at him as she jabbed back, “Ugh. Fine. But you should have talked to me about it.”

“Mmhmm,” Mike replied as he took another bite.

“I’m glad you’re my friend, Mike.” She was, too. She was also annoyed that he had gone behind her back to handle something for her. But she believed him when he said he knew she could handle it.

He rolled his eyes.

“Yeah, yeah. Just don’t let it go to your head, Rook.”

-*-

After dinner, Ginny skipped the Ink Masters marathon Mike was watching and headed back to the pool house. She had Eliot arrange for her stuff to be picked up from the Omni. Then she Facetimed with Evelyn. 

The tension in the Sanders household was palpable, even through the phone. Guess Blip hadn’t fixed whatever it was yet. That didn’t stop Ev from squealing like a kid at Disneyland when Ginny told her about the trip to Tulum. 

“Girl, you better come back and bring me all those juicy details. Don’t get me wrong, me and Blip know how to keep it spicy in the bedroom, but I still want to hear all about your nasty little billionaire. Mmmhmmm, I bet he knows some things. And I want to know ‘em, too!”

Ginny rolled her eyes. Evelyn’s unhealthy interest in her personal life was no surprise, and certainly nothing new. But Ginny still wasn’t comfortable doing that whole Sex and the City, spare no detail, spill-it-all-over-brunch thing.

Truth was, Ginny wasn’t all that experienced romantically. In fact, Trevor had been her only real relationship. You don’t get to be the first female pitcher in the MLB by focusing on boyfriends and dances as a teenager.

Now, the stakes for everything seemed so high. And it seemed so abnormal to even tell anyone.

“Oh hey, Noah. You’re only the fourth guy I’ve slept with. So don’t expect me to know a bunch of tricks or anything just because I’m a professional athlete.”

It felt like honesty would land her on the tabloid pages. Either that or prevent her from ever getting a date. Thus, her strategy with Noah: fake it til you make it. 

Evelyn snapped her fingers in front of the camera impatiently.

“Hello! Earth to Ginny. Are you packing skimpy lingerie? Oooh, or teeny tiny bikinis?”

“Ummm, I dunno. I guess I should?”

Ev scrunched up her face and shook her head.

“YES, girl. You clearly need my help. Let’s go shopping tomorrow, kay? I’ll make sure you’re prepared for maximum sexy funtimes.”

Ginny had more than a little anxiety about whatever Evelyn thought would be appropriate for this trip. But maybe shopping would give her some ideas about what Ginny actually wanted to bring on this trip, what clothes/lingerie/swimsuits would make Ginny feel more comfortable and excited about this trip. 

“Sounds good, Ev. Thanks.”

Just then, a crash came from somewhere behind Evelyn, followed by a chorus of “MOM!”

“Gotta go, Gin. I’ll pick you up at the park tomorrow, as long as I don’t have to murder my own children in the next ten minutes. See ya!”

Ginny took a few minutes to respond to Noah’s texts about Tulum, then headed back to the main house. She wasn’t really in the mood to sit alone with her thoughts, and Mike’s running commentary sounded like the perfect distraction. 

It was a clear night, with only the tiniest sliver of moon visible in the sky. Ginny barely cast a shadow as she crossed the patio, which is why Mike didn’t notice her until she was opening the door. He had exactly zero time to switch shows and pretend he wasn’t watching The Great British Bake Off.

Ginny smirked as her eyebrows bobbed, amusement apparent as she teased, “Ink Masters marathon must’ve been canceled, huh?”

Mike cleared his throat and grumbled back, “Yeah, yep.”

She flopped down in her spot, and glanced back at Mike briefly.

“I think Mat’s going to take it this season.”

Mike’s face twisted as he responded, without missing a beat, “No freaking way. Did you see that snake Nadiya baked? And the complete bicycle Tamal made? Mat doesn’t stand a chance.”

“I knew it! You’re a closet-Great British Bake Off fan - admit it, old man!”

Mike glared at her, refusing to answer.

“Come on now, how many seasons have you watched?”

He pursed his lips, exhaled heavily, then answered, “Just this one. I happened to see it while I was flipping through channels one day, and I like cooking.”

“Uh huh. So then you don’t think Luis was robbed?”

“What?! Who would even say that? Nancy was the clear winner, no question.”

His glare intensified as Ginny worked her way through a fit of giggles.

“Fine. I watch it. I love it. I’ve seen every episode on PBS. Are you happy now?”

Ginny smiled, wide and honest, chuckled, and answered, “Yes. I really am.”

-*-

The next day found baseball’s most famous pitcher staring at her best friend in horror.

“Ev, that’s just strings. That’s the artist formerly known as lingerie before it was shredded by the family cat. No way, no freaking way.”

Evelyn channeled her best puppy dog eyes as she pleaded, “Come on, Ginny, pleeeease! Just try it on!”

Ginny glared as she flipped over the tag on the random collection of strings, “It’s literally from the Fifty Shades of Grey collection.”

Ev tilted her head to the side, “But it’s the most modest piece in the whole collection.”

“Still not sending a message I want to send, Ev.”

“What? That you’re smokin’ hot? That no man can handle you? That you will incinerate him without ever even touching him?”

Ginny widened her eyes and stared at her friend.

“Yeah, Ev. That all sounds more like the plot of a superhero movie - one I’d probably watch, to be honest. But I’m not trying to make him think I’m into all kinds of kinky stuff. I wouldn’t even know what to do. I’ve never even had sex in the shower before!”

Evelyn shook her head enthusiastically, furrowing her brows as she responded, “Girl, what?! You should have talked to me more when you were with Trevor. Can’t believe that man was a Ferrari in the streets and a Toyota Corolla in the sheets.”

Ev put back the collection of strings and grabbed a more traditional piece from the rack.

“All the more reason for you to take my advice and own your hotness on this trip though! But we can start you off with something a little more your speed. How ‘bout this?”

She held up a much more run-of-the-mill set. Lacy boy shorts with a matching satin and lace bra in Padres blue. The lace detail on the bra was the sort that’d peek out of a low cut tank top. 

That’d be kind of hot though, right? Ginny could wear it under a normal, bland outfit, but if she moved the right way, or reached across the counter for her cup of coffee, the blue lace would peak out from her shirt. 

Ginny wondered if Mike would be into that.

Wait, what? No, she didn’t. She was shopping for her trip with Noah. Noah was the only person who might see this stuff, not Mike. Definitely not Mike. Because there was nothing to talk about. Nothing to worry about, nothing to think about, certainly nothing involving lacy blue underwear and a grumpy catcher. And how the grumpy would entirely disappear when Mike saw her in it.

Ginny looked around nervously, half worried Ev could read her thoughts and would call her on them. She really needed to go on this vacation already and let Noah scrub her brain of all this Mike-related bullshit. 

“Um, yeah, I like that one. Are there other colors? Red maybe?”

“Ooooh, that’s the spirit. Every man likes red lingerie!”

Evelyn basically squealed non-stop the rest of their shopping trip. Ginny ended up bringing home seven new matching sets of boy shorts + bras.

She sat down her shopping bags so she could drop the dinner bags on the kitchen counter.

“Hey, Rook - you didn’t forget dinner, did you? ‘Cause I think you might have infected me with your empty stomach rages.”

Mike came down the stairs as she replied, “Of course not, old man. I’m not the one with short-term memory problems, remember?”

“Oh, right. Of course you don’t.”

She laughed at her own joke while Mike grumbled something unintelligible. He came around the island to help her unpack dinner, but he kicked over the shopping bags he didn’t notice, dumping their contents all over the shiny concrete floors.

Ginny’s eyes went wide, and she jumped to stop him.

“It’s ok, Mike - I got it. You get dinner unpacked, and I’ll get this stuff outta the way so you don’t break a hip.”

Maybe he didn’t notice. Maybe he just saw a pile of stuff on the ground, not a pile of lacy underwear. Maybe? She continued lying to herself as she hastily crammed all that shiny new lingerie into a bag. 

It was fortunate in this moment (or maybe not) that neither of them were psychic. Because Mike hadn’t noticed any specific garments. His brain was too busy screaming, “LACE. TRIANON BAGS. LACE. GINNY. LACE. LACE. GINNY. LACE.”

Rachel used to shop at Trianon. He was well acquainted with their product lines. He needed something, anything to get that mass of lace out of his head, immediately. Yesterday. Right the fuck now.

The snick of the back door closing snapped Mike out of the black hole that was GINNY CARRYING A BAG OF LACY UNDERWEAR long enough to go back to consciously unpacking dinner.

He talked himself through the things he needed to do right this moment to keep his mind away from that . Open the bag. Pull out the containers. Count the folded brown boxes with brisket, smoked chicken, cole slaw, potato salad, and peach cobbler. Get out some utensils. Put on some music. Music!

Ginny reappeared just as Mike sat down her grape soda. They spent dinner attempting to ignore the blue lacy elephant in the room. If you were just judging by the audio version of the conversation, you might think they’d succeeded. But you’d be very wrong.

Chapter Text

Ginny was buoyed by the kind of happiness you can only experience at that fleeting twilight between adolescence and adulthood. When you have just enough agency to feel empowered and capable of steering your life. When you finally carry the full weight of your own hard work and accomplishments, but you’re still relatively unburdened by the ugliness of the world. And you know, bone deep, that even the sky cannot contain you.

Ginny could feel the near-certain ascendance of her star and the grit and grime of AA as if they had already made it. It wasn’t a done deal yet, but something in the universe spoke to her, barely a whisper, that it was. She was headed to AA and beyond. 

She looked over at her best friend, belting out his most enthusiastic rendition of Firework. Her dad sat on her other side, beaming with his signature reticent, subdued, almost imperceptible pride. 

When they got home, he’d remind her that they “ain’t done nothing yet.” But in this moment, his drill sergeant aesthetic allowed the tiniest, most insignificant fracture. And the minute hint of joy and pride Ginny saw there was an oasis to a man dying of thirst. 

She lived for these moments when he broke and showed that he loved her. Sure, they often came on the heels of monumental achievements, when people might think his love was conditional, that he only rewarded her with affection when she performed. But that wasn’t it at all. 

Bill Baker knew his daughter. She was an act of god, gale-force winds, ball lightning. She was never something to be controlled. All he could do was channel all that talent and drive. He had to project this hard facade to keep her moving in the right direction, because her chosen path was not for the faint of heart. But in these moments, these little, earth-shattering, incremental wins, it took every ounce of his self-control to keep from screaming it from the mountaintops. Ginny Baker was history in the making. She was going to change the world, blaze trails, make straight paths for those who came after her.

With each mountain his daughter scaled, Bill Baker felt the joy of seeing his child follow her path, live her truth, use her incredible talent and skill to achieve the goals she set for herself. He loved watching her become herself. 

And when she achieved something so utterly Ginny Baker, he couldn’t hold that perfect stoic facade, and a vanishing glimpse of the beaming man who couldn’t believe he got to be this little human’s dad always escaped. If any casual observer happened to be watching for the exact fraction of a second in which Bill Baker’s shields failed, they’d see a father absolutely smitten and ready to take on the entire world (including himself) to give his daughter whatever she needed, no matter the cost. 

Ginny kept these moments in a little box inside her heart, and today she added another one to the collection: this perfect moment in the truck with her best friend and her dad, the sound of the universe prophesying quietly of conquests yet to come harmonizing with the broken notes of Katy Perry and the reassuring rumble of the engine. 

Suddenly, a wave of foreboding and despair crested and broke over her shining moment. High beams washed out Ginny’s vision, leaving her completely blind to everything but the stark outline of the truck window and Bill Baker’s perfect profile. She felt her father’s arm pressing her back into the seat just as she heard the screeching, warping, rending sound of metal colliding with metal. The world toppled over, glass erupted like confetti from a party popper, and Ginny knew he was gone. Again.

She was sobbing on the curb when she felt a gentle hand on her arm accompanied by a panicked voice.

“Ginny - hey - wake up! You gotta wake up now.”

Her eyes flew open, tears already streaming down well-worn tracks. She knew it had been a dream, but she could still taste the charred firework-smelling airbag powder and feel the sticky creep of blood in her hairline. She also felt the gaping, endless chasm in her chest where her father’s larger than life presence used to live. It was like a physical wound whose ragged edges might one day come back together but could never again be anything more than a thickened rope of ugly scar tissue, obscenely shiny and unwilling to fade. 

Mike had perched himself on the very edge of the couch, in front of her torso. He left the hand on her arm as he fumbled mentally, begging his brain to come up with something he could do to stop the sobs still racking His Rookie’s body, even though she was undoubtedly awake now. 

When her thrashing woke him up just a few minutes ago, there were no verbal cues as to the nature of the nightmare. But he knew it was bad, because there was something transcendently excruciating in the bawling cries that punctuated her sobs. If he had to guess, he’d say she was reliving her father’s death. That was the only loss he was aware of that could possibly explain this level of acute grief. 

He gently squeezed the hand on her arm, speaking softly, “Can I do anything? This isn’t a panic attack, so I don’t know how to help. But I’m here, and I’ll help if I can.”

Ginny hated this. She hated being so exposed, so out of control and untethered, but she was. Utterly. It felt like she just lived it again, and her body was dead set on sobbing. Still, she ought to try to give Mike some context. Poor thing looked stricken and helpless. 

So Ginny sat up and blubbered out enough words to let Mike know that it was her dad, dead, again. When he leaned in and offered a literal shoulder to cry on, she took it without hesitation. As the violence of her sobbing began to wane, she hiccuped her way through requesting a story about Felicity and Barry. Mike obliged by sharing the tale of their recent trip to Disney. 

That was how she found herself in a tear-soaked tank at 2 am, pressed into her catcher’s side, his arm snaked around her shoulders, hiccup-snort-laughing at the image of THE Mike Lawson puking into a trashcan while Felicity taunted him with his own words from the sidelines. 

Once again, Mike marveled at the myriad of emotions caused by her laughter. Right now he felt relief that His Rookie was momentarily free of the intense pain he heard just moments earlier. He also felt pride that he had played any part in distancing her from the hellscape she had dreamed. 

And then, of course, there was the shame. Because she was going on vacation with the billionaire soon, as well she should. On paper he seemed almost impressive enough to date her. Definitely more impressive than Mike.

So the billionaire would be the one rousing her from a nightmare, trying to distract her long enough to outrun the sobs, wrapping his arms around her when nothing else helped. 

And Mike was now well past pretending he didn’t want to be that person. They’d fallen asleep rewatching older episodes of Great British Baking Show. Maybe something changed while they slept. Or maybe he just couldn’t deny it anymore when he felt the tether connecting her anguished sobs directly to his heart. 

Whatever happened, Mike knew he didn’t want anyone else being this person for Ginny. He wanted these responsibilities. He wanted the privilege of being her soft landing place and her biggest fan, and he had exactly zero business wanting that. He was a dinosaur on the way to extinction, and she was a rising star with galaxies worth of promise and possibility. He shouldn’t want any of it, but he did. He wanted all of it, everything. But he still had enough decency to be ashamed of it.

“Hey Mike,” her voice hummed lightly against his shoulder, “thank you.”

He ran a hand across her arm, “For what? Puking in front of elementary schoolers?”

He felt her silent chuckle as she replied, “No. For being nice. For being a good friend. For letting me cry and not getting weird about it.”

“Anytime, Gin - “ he cleared his throat roughly, then mustered the courage to finish, “and listen. You don’t have to talk about it, but - if talking would help, I’m no stranger to traumatic parental issues. I’m here if you ever want to talk about it.”

Ginny exhaled, long and deliberate. When she breathed in, she was conscious of the comforting, clean, citrusy, woodsy scent that was uniquely and undeniably Mike.

“I know I should talk about it, I know that. And I have… sort of talked to my therapist about it. But I’m not sure I’ve ever told anyone all of it. I’m not sure anyone but my mom and brother know.”

She paused, reconsidering.

“Well, I guess technically the cops and Jordan know, too.”

“Who’s Jordan?”

Ginny explained that Jordan had become her de facto best friend in a past life where friendships were a distraction, and nobody really wanted to hang out with the girl who played baseball anyway. She held it together as she confessed to being in the truck with her dad that night and recounted his last conscious act on this earth: throwing an arm out to protect her. Her voice faltered occasionally, and tears streamed silently down her cheeks as she named her father’s killer, her best friend’s dad. 

“Jesus Christ, Gin. I’m so sorry.”

“‘S not your fault.”

Mike rested a cheek on her head and pulled her into his side a little tighter, “No, but I can still be sorry it happened to you. I can be damn sorry about that.”

Something about his sincerity and warmth, literal and figurative, flipped the tears back on. Ginny sniffled, quickly trying to stem the tide.

“Shit - I’m sorry. Fuck, I - ”

Ginny giggled.

“You didn’t do anything. ::sniff:: It just feels good to say it out loud. I feel a little lighter, and I guess a little snifflier, too.”

Mike chuckled quietly, and she felt his body noticeably relax.

“Hey, um. I’m trying to do this thing my therapist has been working with me on where I ask for help when I need it. And try to accept it.”

Mike glanced at her sideways, attempting to determine if now was still a bad time for sarcasm.

“Huh - I feel like I remember someone wise saying something about accepting help from friends recently. Yeah - wise, handsome, hilarious, impressively attractive beard…”

Ginny wrinkled her brow.

“Doesn’t ring a bell. Anyway, my therapist has me working on this. So I’m asking. Want to sit here and watch Harry Potter with me?”

Mike did his best to sound appropriately magnanimous, “Well, if your therapist thinks it’s a good idea...”

Ginny fell asleep sometime around Ollivander’s, but Mike wasn’t about to wake her by moving or even breathing too noticeably. Plus he figured if he stayed there and she had another nightmare, he could wake her up before it got too bad.

He laid awake for a few more minutes listening to the even sound of her breathing and the background noise of the Sorting Ceremony, the spectre of the Trianon bag so utterly forgotten that it may as well have never happened.

As his thoughts wound closer to sleep, he found himself wondering if he’d ever known a stronger person than the warrior curled into his side. He couldn’t imagine the immeasurable courage it must have taken for her to step onto the pitch that first game without the one person who’d walked almost every step of the journey with her. With the whole world watching and more than half of them rooting for her to fail spectacularly.

He had absolutely never met a more impressive person in his life. 

That night, Mike dreamed the Padres won the World Series on a Ginny Baker no-hitter. When he realized he was in the stands, he felt a deep pang of regret. But then he saw her face, and it didn’t matter at all where he was standing.

-*-

Undulating flashes of light illuminated blotchy red spots on the back of Ginny’s eyelids. She felt warm, safe, held.

Wait, she was held. 

She opened her eyes and confirmed what she already knew. She hadn’t really needed to see Mike’s big arms around her to know it was him, because she remembered falling asleep with him. But part of her still had a hard time believing this was real life. She was in the MLB. Mike Lawson was her friend, with cuddle benefits, apparently. 

“You awake, Rook?”

She snapped her eyes shut and pulled the blanket up over her face.

“Nope.”

Mike’s rumbling chuckle filled her with something she didn’t want to name. Instead, she put it in that lockbox where she kept her favorite memories: mottled flashes of morning light refracting across the patio, Mike's clean, woodsy warmth, velveteen fabric covering her bare feet, and the feel of Mike's laughter jostling her awake.

“Alright, well. Some of us have a game to play today. So maybe you can muster the energy to wake up in the next few minutes.”

Ginny burrowed further under her favorite throw blanket and grumbled her disagreement.

“I’ll make bacon.”

She threw off the blanket and sat up.

“Great - I’m gonna go take a shower. I’ll be back when I smell bacon!”

She was scampering across the patio before Mike even sat up. He found himself grinning like an idiot as he laid out strips of bacon on a cookie sheet. He hastily shoved it in the oven, then rushed to get upstairs and shower, all because he was definitely not trying to get through his morning routine with enough time to make real breakfast for the bottomless pit currently occupying his pool house. 

When Ginny reappeared, Mike had thrown together a sundried tomato and feta frittata. Apparently he really did love cooking, and maybe he was good at everything.

Ginny accepted the plate he handed her and settled into what she now called her barstool. She took a bite of her frittata then exclaimed, “This is really good!”

“You don’t have to sound so surprised, Rook, geez.”

“All cooking surprises me, Mike, because I have no idea how to do it. That’s why I love Great British Baking Show so much - it’s like watching magic tricks!”

Mike laughed, then cleared his throat.

“Hey, uh - we don’t need to talk about that, do we?” He nodded in the direction of the living room.

“Nah, old man. I mean, I should probably thank you again for not doing the stereotypical dude thing. But I’m good if you’re good.”

She considered briefly what Trevor might have done, or Blip. Trevor would have tried to tell her not to feel - “You’re ok now, remember? It’s over. You’re awake. It was just a nightmare.” And then he’d have tried to sleep with her. Blip would have let her cry for a minute and then probably called Ev for reinforcements. 

He tipped his coffee cup at her and smiled, “I’m good, Rook.”

“Ok, good. Then we’re good.”

-*-

Ginny was supposed to head to dinner with Noah after the game that night, but something came up at work, and he had to cancel. Truth be told, she was relieved. The team was heading out to celebrate winning the series, and she wanted to go. But she felt bad about ditching Noah the past few days and wouldn’t have been able to muster the selfishness to cancel.

Livan had convinced several of the other guys to back his vote for Omnia. It didn’t really sound like Ginny’s scene, but she knew they’d probably get a VIP room. Plus it shouldn’t be that crowded on a Sunday night. So she wouldn’t necessarily be mobbed, and she really did feel like dancing. Plus - they won the series! And she had almost thrown a no-hitter. There was plenty of cause for celebration. 

She changed into skinny jeans, chucks, and a silken, billowy button-down top with sleeves long enough to cover her bandaged arm. On her way out, she caught Mike hunched in a rolling chair, scowling at his phone.

“You coming, old man?”

His brows pinched together, confused.

“I thought you were headed out with boy wonder. He have important computers to hang out with instead?”

Ginny gave an almost bitter side nod, conveying a level of disappointment she absolutely did not feel. 

“Yeah. Somethin’ like that.”

Mike mumbled, too low for her to be sure, but it sounded like, “Idiot.”

“What?”

He looked up at her, “What?”

Ginny rolled her eyes and re-settled her bag.

“Come on grumpy pants. If we don’t hurry up Livan’ll get all the good groupies, and then you’ll be even grumpier.”

Mike sighed dramatically but stood, wincing slightly when every one of his joints popped and crackled in complaint. Omnia wasn’t really his scene either, but he’d certainly been dragged to worse places. And he genuinely hated it less when Ginny came out. The guys acted a little less obnoxious - well, except for Livan. God, he was the worst. Those stupid dimples were always pointing at His Rookie. 

“Alright, Rook, fine. But I’m not dancing.”

Ginny threw her head back and laughed, the sound of her levity echoing down the cavernous halls of Petco.

“Don’t worry Walter Matthau, nobody thinks they woke up in a parallel universe where you’re gonna do anything but sulk in a corner until it’s late enough for you to leave early without damaging your playboy cred.”

Afterward, Mike would analyze what happened next and know that this was the moment he lost all control over his behavior. He took a bounding step forward, turned to face Ginny so that he had to walk backwards a few steps, narrowed his eyes, put one big hand over his heart, playboy smirked, winked at His Rookie and teased, “You say the sweetest things to me.”

Ginny’s heart nearly stopped. Mike Lawson had just flirted with her, wearing those dark wash jeans and her favorite gunmetal grey button down. (Yes, she had a favorite button down on him. She was a living, breathing heterosexual woman, wasn’t she?)  And damn if he didn’t age like a fine wine. Luckily, she was young and healthy, so she recovered quickly.

She coughed once before declaring, “One of these days I’m going to get you to dance, old man.”

Mike fell back into step with her.

“Sure you will.”

Ginny stepped forward, leaning slightly to her right, deliberately colliding with Mike’s shoulder.

“I know it’s hard for you to remember stuff like this, but doing things people said were impossible is kinda my thing.”

Mike raised one eyebrow and glanced sideways at her, amusement drawing his mouth into a lopsided smirk. He could think of a few impossible things he’d like to happen.

“D’you convince Captain Cranky to come out tonight?” came Blip’s familiar drawl.

Ginny smiled, bobbed her shoulders up and down, dancelike, then clapped her captain on the back, hard.

“Sure did. And he’s gonna dance, too!”

-*- 

An hour later, Mike had had enough. The moment they got inside, Livan had shoved a shot in Ginny’s face, laced his fingers through her pitching hand and dragged her to the dance floor. 

“Come on, mamí! I know you love this song!”

Mike thought Livan’s choice of hand was a coincidence, but that’s because he grossly underestimated the Cuban catcher’s genuine affection for Ginny. Livan knew exactly which hand and which arm were safe to touch. He also monitored the entire dance floor, gracefully dance-shoving people away when they looked like they might get too close to her bandaged arm. The two catchers were far more alike than they were different.

But Mike didn’t know that. So he desperately wanted to grab the younger man by his shirt and remind him that Ginny’s stitches had been bleeding down her arm just 24 hours ago. But she was a big girl, and he knew she could take care of herself. And she’d be beyond pissed if he did anything that made her seem like she needed rescuing. So he made his way to the booth and nursed a Shiner Bock, pretending to listen to Sonny’s story about some escapade with his girlfriend.

He thought he was doing an admirable job of mostly not watching Ginny.

“... and that was when I decided we should just buy a new house on the moon. Thattaway the twins can’t set anything on fire on account of there being no oxygen up there. And Ev can’t yell at me for the same reason.”

Blip widened his eyes and stared at his friend.

“Yo, earth to Mike Lawson. If you don’t look somewhere else soon people are gonna start to think you’re the one in a secret relationship with Duarte.”

Mike blinked hard and wiped a hand across his face. 

“Huh? Sorry, man.”

Blip nodded, “What’s going on? I know you’re not stupid enough to be into Ginny, even though I also know she’s staying at your house.”

Mike deadpanned.

“The whole team knows she’s staying at my house. Nobody’s trying to keep it a secret, because I’m just doing a favor for a friend.”

Blip Sanders looked every bit as unconvinced as he was.

“Uhhh huh. Then you better come up with a good explanation for stalking the two of them all night, ‘cause I’m not sure you’ve even blinked in the last 30 minutes. And you sure as hell haven’t been listening to any of the guys back here.”

Mike exhaled through pursed lips.

“I’m just worried about her arm, man. Did Ev tell you what happened at the Omni?”

“What happened at the Omni?”

Mike had just enough time to horrify Blip with the tale of the perpetrating, burgling, privacy-invading, security-guard masquerading photog before Ginny breezed into the booth, breathless and vibrant. She threw herself into the seat next to Mike, forcing him to scoot over and deal with the scorching electricity of her leg colliding with his.

The stalking catcher glared hard at Ginny’s oldest friend, effectively communicating that he was not to bring up the assaulting photographer. Or the baby daddy thing. 

Now that Mike thought about it, he probably shouldn’t have told Blip at all without checking to make sure Ginny didn’t mind. Of course, Ev probably knew. Which meant Blip should know by default. But Mike knew all too well how it felt to have your trust violated. He never wanted Ginny to feel that way (again), and he certainly didn’t want to be the cause of it. 

“You boys enjoying watching the paint dry back here? Also, where’s Ev?”

Blip closed his eyes and grumbled.

“You guys are still fighting?! Get it together, Blip, come on. Why are you even here?”

Blip shook his head slowly, “We’re not fighting. Ev wanted some peace and quiet to get some work done. The boys are at a scout thing. She’s doing something on the computer with a bunch of spreadsheets.”

Ginny nodded her head, forcing waves of citrusy floral perfume into Mike’s face. 

“Alright, alright. Just wanted to make sure my favorite couple didn’t need a swift kick in the butt.”

Out of the corner of his eye, Mike noticed Livan dancing back to the booth with a tray of shots.

“Look, mamí - they gave us free shots to celebrate your almost no-hitter!”

If he’d been in his right mind, Mike would’ve found a way to avoid taking that shot. He knew better than to get even close to drunk around Ginny, especially after literally sleeping with her pressed up against him last night. That’s why he’d planned to enjoy a long, drawn out relationship with - at the most - two beers.

But this shot was for Ginny’s almost no-hitter. So he raised his hand to Livan’s incredibly dumb toast and threw it back, trying not to notice Ginny’s leg glued to his.

Three shots later, Mike Lawson needed adult supervision. He laughed and told jokes with Blip while cataloguing every time Duarte’s hand touched any part of Ginny below her ribs. He seethed noticeably when the Cuban asshole turned to face him and winked as he ran a hand down her side. 

Ginny noticed though, and she wasn’t about to leave it alone.

“Why do you have to tweak him like that? You know you’d be much better off with him as a friend than an enemy.”

Livan cocked one eyebrow up and countered, “Why should me dancing with you bother him? Besides him being old and washed up.”

Ginny glared at him.

“I don’t know why it bothers him. But I know you’re doing it on purpose, and it’s stupid.”

He tilted his chin as he replied, “Mamí, you seriously want to tell me you don’t know why it bothers him?”

She stopped dancing to emphasize the stink eye she gave him, “Yeah, papí.”

Livan held up his hands as he conceded, “Alright, alright. You don’t have to give me the ojos like that. You don’t want to admit it, that’s fine with me.”

“Ugh, I need a break. Freaking men always acting like children out here.”

She headed to the bar, flagged a bartender, and waited for her water. A snide voice appeared beside her.

“Trouble in paradise?”

She turned and came face-to-face with the man responsible for her vacating the Omni. She immediately whirled around, walking swiftly in the direction of the booth. She wondered how he even got into the VIP area. He shouldn’t have been there at all. 

“Come on, don’t be like that. You’re gonna want some of these pictures for the family album.”

She saw a security guard posted up at the very end of the long bar and made a beeline for him. Once she alerted the guard to the identity/occupation of the man trailing behind her, it was seconds before the offending photog was thrown out of the VIP area and eventually dumped onto the street.

When Ginny turned to head back to the table, she immediately collided with a solid mass. Mike put a light hand on her pitching arm to steady her.

“Oof - sorry, Rook. You alright? Who was that guy?”

“The photographer.”

Mike leaned in a little closer.

“Wait - THE photographer? The one who pushed you down and made you bleed everywhere?”

“Yup.”

Even in the dim light of the club, Ginny could see his face turning purple.

“It’s fine, Mike. They threw him out. Let’s just get back to the guys.”

He didn’t move immediately, so she put her hands on his arms, turned him around, then bodily steered him back to the booth. In all honesty, Mike wasn’t that resistant to heading back to the booth. But he was just drunk enough to consciously crave the pressure of her fingertips on his arms and the warmth of her torso pressed into his back. And he wasn’t at all opposed to the little puffs of breath trailing across the back of his neck. Mike Lawson had a big problem.

When they got back to the booth, Mike motioned for Ginny to sit down first, because he had a plan underway. And it required her being a little stuck in the booth for the moment.

“Oh crap - I didn’t get my water. Scooch, old man, so I can go back and get one.”

He didn’t budge an inch, but he did laugh when she leaned all her weight into an unsuccessful attempt to force him out of the booth. Deliberately not paying attention to her struggle, Mike kicked the man across from him and delegated, “Go get her a water, papí.

Livan scoffed at Mike, but turned and smiled sweetly at Ginny, “I can do that for you, mamí.”

Ginny stopped struggling against Mike, but she was annoyed.

“What is wrong with you? I can get my own damn water, Mike.”

That infuriating right eyebrow popped up as he replied, “Nobody said you couldn’t get your own water, Rookie.”

He turned to face her completely, inadvertently trapping himself in her gaze.

“I’m just comfortable, and I don’t want to get up. Besides, Livan needs to pay some dues, drop down a couple thousand pegs or so.”

And now their eyes were locked... like they had been that night. That time, that thing they didn’t talk about, that Mike regretted saying they didn’t need to talk about. 

“Oh yeah? He’s the one that needs to get knocked down a few pegs, is he? Not the guy who struts around his house yelling about how he’s good at everything?”

“I didn’t hear you complaining this morning.”

They both heard it, and neither made any attempt to explain or qualify it to the people helplessly fading into the background around them. 

Ginny leaned the tiniest bit closer and tilted her head to the side. She bit off each word like a tough piece of jerky.

“Breakfast was good, but I don’t think they give out Nobel prizes for making one ingredient recipes, Mike.”

Mike started to lean even closer, but then the music changed. In a very unexpected way (to Ginny, anyway). He waggled his eyebrows, and leveled her with an off-kilter, but very affecting smirk. 

“Come on, Rook. Let’s dance.”

Ginny scrunched up her face in confusion and tipped her head, trying to listen more closely to the music. It seemed countryish, but for some reason she hated it less than most country she’d heard.

“Old man, this is not dance music. You go knock yourself out, though.”

Mike held out his hand and taunted, “I thought doing impossible things was kinda your thing.”

She threw her head back, then flipped her hand into his.

“Ugh, fine. But if you try to do some weird dancing with the stars crap, I’m bailing.”

As she stood up, Blip stepped into Mike’s personal space and spoke through gritted teeth, “Mike. Whaddya doin’ man?”

The veteran catcher lifted Ginny’s hand as she stepped out of the booth, twirled her in place, then made eye contact with Blip. 

“I gotta teach this Rookie a few things about dancing.”

Blip stood there and shook his head, wide-eyed and resigned to the slow-motion train wreck he was confident this would turn into. 

Meanwhile, Mike twirled Ginny away from the booth and then right into his solid chest just as they reached the middle of the floor. The collision coincided with a breathless giggle and a wave of citrus floral air that made him wonder why he hadn’t done this earlier. (so so many reasons, y’all)

He looked ever so slightly downward and held her gaze. 

“Alright, Rook. I’m gonna teach you how to have some real fun.”

He looped her left arm around so her hand rested on his shoulder blade and grabbed her right hand.

She frowned and admonished him, “I told you no weird stuff!”

Mike rolled his eyes and bobbed his head dramatically, “This isn’t weird stuff. It’s about to be the most fun you’ve ever had dancing. And no, this isn’t dancing with the stars bullshit.”

He very briefly showed Ginny the cadence of a basic one-step. It took her a few stumbles, but she caught on pretty fast. It still wasn’t her kind of dancing, but she figured this was about the best she could expect from a man with so little rhythm. And it wasn’t the worst thing in the world having such a great excuse for all this contact. 

As soon as she got comfortable, Mike moved on from the basic step to a series of twirls and spins. And that was actually a freaking blast for Ginny. Almost every time he spun her, she giggled through that megawatt smile and occasionally slammed back into him at full force, all lighthearted and sparkling. 

This wasn’t  the first time it happened, but this was one of many moments in which Mike Lawson knew he was well and truly fucked. For the rest of his life he’d remember the press of her fingers in his hand, the way her hand dragged across his back when they turned - leaving glittering trails of heat in its wake, and the black hole of mental capacity masquerading as a dimple in her perfect cheek. 

Ginny wasn’t fully paying attention to the music, but she caught snippets of the lyrics here and there. Several of them stuck in her brain, but years later, she’d remember one lyric and the moment surrounding it with perfect clarity. Because the song was winding down, and she’d made a crack about how easy it was getting Mike to dance. He’d lifted their arms, crossed them in the air, spun her into him so that her back was pressed tight into his chest as he leaned in and whispered in her ear, “Doesn’t count if I’m the one who got you to dance, Gin.”

He’d immediately pushed her shoulder, spinning her away to prevent whatever witty retort she had, and he kept the world spinning as the final lyrics played:

𝅘𝅥𝅮𝅘𝅥𝅮𝅘𝅥𝅮 Time together was time well spent 𝅘𝅥𝅮𝅘𝅥𝅮𝅘𝅥𝅮

𝅘𝅥𝅮𝅘𝅥𝅮𝅘𝅥𝅮 In my heart you pay no rent 𝅘𝅥𝅮𝅘𝅥𝅮𝅘𝅥𝅮

Before the DJ went back to the club’s regularly scheduled programming, Mike spun her one last time, pulling her back into his arms just as the song faded into silence. Completely oblivious to the people around them, they beamed at each other like absolute fools for the space of one single breath. 

Suddenly aware of their audience, Mike took a step back and dropped his eyes briefly to the floor before motioning for them to head back to the booth. He reluctantly dropped her hand, immediately aware of the monumental loss he felt at being disconnected from her. 

“Come on, Rook. Admit that you had fun.”

She flopped down into a seat next to Blip, who looked like a dad who just found out his daughter was dating the local drug dealer. 

“I did have fun. Can’t believe you’ve been holdin’ out on us all this time.”

Ginny poked Blip and chided, “You never told me Mike could dance.”

Blip glared at Mike, hard, as he responded, “Must be one of those hidden talents of his. I just hope he has enough sense to keep the rest of ‘em to himself.”

Their favorite pitcher opened her mouth and let out one of those horsey laughs, “What? You think maybe he’s secretly good at yodeling, too?”

Blip just crossed his arms harder and grumbled a little more.

Sonny tipped a beer in the catcher’s direction, “Lawson, I think that dance just brought you back from the dead in here.” He nodded his head in the direction of a group of women, all in matching bandage dresses, clearly staring at and discussing Mike.

Livan breezed by, taunting, “Better go talk to the ladies now, grandpa, while you can still walk without a cane.”

Ginny dissolved into a fit of laughter, because old man jokes were her absolute favorite jokes. Plus, she was a little drunk, and not entirely from the shots. 

Mike leaned back, leaning one arm across the top of the booth as he declared, “I know it’s cruel to deprive them of all this, but I’m good where I’m at.”

Blip prodded, “What’s wrong, Mike? There some reason you’re suddenly uninterested in premium groupies?” 

The bearded, unbothered man waved one hand in the air, smirking at Ginny as he spoke, “I’m just gonna give you this one for free - ” He motioned toward the gaggle of women and turned his attention back to his married friend, “I’m too old for that shit, Blip. I’m too old.”

-*-

Twenty minutes later, Mike, Blip, Ginny and Livan stepped onto the sidewalk together. 

Mike pointed at the man destined to replace him, “Ey - papí! Wrap it up, mac daddy. I don’t want you bringing the clap into our showers on Tuesday!”

Ginny smacked him on the arm.

“Ugh, Mike. Don’t be gross.”

He bobbed his eyebrows and smirked at her, “That’s what I’m tryin’ to get him to do!” As he spoke, Ginny saw something pass over Mike’s face, but it was gone so fast she wasn’t sure she’d seen anything at all. 

Mike took a couple of steps toward Blip, making a joke of pushing Ginny behind him, then spoke to his friend quietly enough that neither Ginny nor Livan (and his lady friends) heard him. She could tell from Blip’s face that he was mad, but she couldn’t imagine what Mike could have said to make that happen. Then things escalated very quickly.

Blip bowed up and into Mike, stepping forward and forcing the two men to switch places. Ginny faced Blip’s back and had a perfect view of Mike’s now furious face. 

“We’ve been friends a long time, grandpa, but don’t go talkin’ about shit you don’t know.” Ginny had never heard Blip growl through words like this before.

Mike shifted the gum in his mouth to one side and smirked arrogantly, “I know it’s hard to accept, but - as with most things - I think you know I’m right about this.”

Blip took a step toward Mike, forcing him backward, spewing his words through gritted teeth, “I know it’s hard for you to hear, so I’m gonna speak real slow. You need to stop talking, now old man.”

Ginny knew things had been tense between them, but she never thought they’d come even close to blows over it.

“Oh yeah,” Ginny would have heard the smirk and taunt in Mike’s voice even if her eyes had been closed, “What are you gonna do when I don’t, huh?”

The two men stared angrily at each other for a second, and Ginny turned quickly to see if Livan was close enough to step in if they needed to be separated.

THWACK

Ginny whirled around just quickly enough to catch Blip's fist colliding with Mike’s face.

Chapter Text

One minute earlier:

Grateful they’d taken time to bury the hatchet while the girls shopped the other day, Mike spoke quietly to Blip. 

“Hey man, I need your help. Make a face like I’m pissing you off right now. The photog from the Omni is behind you, hiding behind that column. I need you to pick a fight with me so I can stumble backward and put an elbow in his face with some plausible deniability, alright?”

Blip answered with a tiny nod. He had a bone to pick with that asshole, too. So he bowed up into his friend, knocking shoulders and swapping their positions on the sidewalk. After a short, manufactured disagreement, he took a swing at Mike, hoping the catcher would take a dive just in time to save them both from any real injuries.

Mike took a step back just as his cheek met Blip’s fist, then stumbled and flopped backward like a seasoned San Antonio Spur. He spun on one foot giving himself a chance to clock the photog’s exact position. Yahtzee. The asshole was pointing the camera right at their little show, as planned.

Mike certainly could have caught himself, but he let the stumble continue, picking up speed as he got closer to his target. He deliberately tripped, throwing himself at the asshole behind the column, putting a hand up, ostensibly to catch himself. But instead, he used that hand to shove the camera into the photog’s face with all the force and momentum of his careening body. 

Everyone on the street could hear the sickening crunch of cartilage as the camera crushed the photographer’s nose.

“Oh shit - goddammit, Blip! Look what you made me do.”

Mike made a move as if to help the cameraman up, but he “stumbled again” and sent the photog painfully back into the sidewalk. Blip had put up a hand to prevent Ginny from advancing when he felt her move in that direction, speaking out of the side of his mouth, “Let the man clean up his own mess, Ginny.”

“Shit, man - I’m so sorry. Let me help you up,” Mike offered a steady hand and pulled the man up to standing. “Guess it’s true what they say about the dangers of wildlife photography, huh?”

Rather than release the man’s hand, he pulled him into one of those one handed, clap on the back, bro hugs. He spoke quietly enough that only the bloodied man could hear his venom-laced words.

“If I ever catch you taking a picture of her. ever. again. I don’t care if it’s in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, and you’re snapping shots from your own goddamn living room - I will use every tool and dollar at my disposal to make sure the only place you ever get published again is Instagram. And if I see so much as a cropped photo of her pinky finger from tonight, I will sic so many lawyers on you, you’ll be tied up in court til we colonize Mars. You hear me? ”

The man nodded silently.

Mike clapped him on the back again, making sure the asshole knew Mike’s smile was genuine and derived entirely from the satisfaction of seeing the jerk’s broken, bloodied face as he whispered, “Now get the fuck outta here before I decide I don’t care about the legal fees.”

Mike took a step backward, toward the Padres group, holding his hands up in front of him as he fake apologized. 

“So sorry about that, man. My friend Blip here just gets a little overexcited sometimes, and I’m massively uncoordinated off the field, just a complete klutz. It’s a whole thing,” he mouthed the words get-the-fuck-outta-here just for good measure. The photographer muttered something about it being fine before turning to scamper away.

Mike turned back to his friends, completely unashamed of the deeply satisfied, shitty grin plastered across his face. He saw amusement on Blip’s face, but Ginny was a totally different story. Arms crossed, brows furrowed, lips pressed into a thin line, she was furious.

“Um, what the fuck was that, Mike?!”

He shrugged and held up his hands.

“Don’t give me that bullshit. You did that on purpose.”

Mike scrunched up his face, momentarily feigning confusion before deciding he didn’t want to lie to her. Ever. 

He exhaled heavily, glanced at Blip, then back at Ginny before responding quietly, “Fine, I did it on purpose. But can you wait to yell at me til we’re back at the house? I don’t want anyone using the audio to take me to court, alright?”

Ginny scoffed, rolled her eyes, and spewed her response like it tasted bad in her mouth, “Fine.”

Blip shoved his hands in his pockets and glanced at the warring batterymates, “Well, y’all - I’m gonna head out so I can tell Ev about this mess before she hears it from Ginny.”

The pitcher turned, smiled, and hugged her friend good night. Then Blip turned to Mike, held a hand in the air, and muttered quietly as they high-fived, “Don’t forget what I said about keeping the rest of your talents secret, man. Don’t be stupid, especially not with her.” Mike gave a small nod before his friend turned to leave. 

“Tell Ev I missed her tonight!” Ginny yelled at his retreating figure. 

Then it was Livan’s turn to announce his departure. He made a point of picking Ginny up when she hugged him, but she was a little too buzzed to admonish him for deliberately tweaking Mike again. Instead, she threw her head back and laughed as he spun her around before depositing her back on the sidewalk. 

As he walked off in the direction of the Omni, Ginny cupped her hands around her mouth and called after him, “Make safe choices, papí!”

Mike snickered behind her, but his amusement quickly dissipated when she turned back to him, stone faced and annoyed. Luckily for him, their car arrived. He opened the door and motioned for her to get in, but she went around to the other side instead. 

He sighed loudly before getting in the car himself, just in time to catch the citrus floral breeze coming off her hair as she flopped into the seat. 

Ginny was prepared to nag him into putting his seatbelt on, especially given the tension hanging in the air. She figured he’d pretend to forget just to provoke her. But he’d clicked his seatbelt into place before she even found hers. 

For some reason, that little action made her feel warm and effervescent inside, but she couldn’t let him know that. So she crossed her arms and schooled her face into a placid mask. Ginny was always conscious of her behavior in a hired car, because you never knew if they had a dash cam pointed at the backseat. And she didn’t ever want to go viral for something caught on a dash cam. She’d been featured on TMZ enough already. 

She spent the first few minutes of the ride wondering if Mike’s antics with the photographer would make things worse. He and Blip had certainly put on a believable show. Even if there were security cameras on the street, she was pretty sure the whole thing would look like an accident. Ginny would have believed the fight and the stumble were real if only she hadn’t seen and recognized the photographer. 

At some point she became aware of Mike’s anxious, evenly timed glances in her direction. Good , she thought. He should be anxious . All the machismo bullshit tonight really threw her for a loop, so it was only fair if he had to sweat it for a while. She couldn’t reconcile the man who just broke someone’s nose with the one who woke her gently and let her cry it out after a bad nightmare less than 24 hours ago, and it made her brain hurt to try. 

Ginny wondered how he would explain his actions when they got back to the house. She’d go nuclear if he said or implied anything close to “no one touches you” or any other permutation of “you’re my sister/friend/lady/damsel in distress/property and no one is allowed to hurt you because you are mine.” That line of thinking was so antiquated, small, and ugly. She didn’t want to think any of those things about Mike.

Actually, she wouldn’t just go nuclear. Now that she thought about it, it might break her heart. She and Mike were close before, but to say their intimacy had skyrocketed in the last few days would be like saying Wolf Blitzer kind of likes electoral maps. 

Ginny realized she was starting to trust Mike in a way she had rarely ever trusted anyone. In fact, Evelyn might be the only one... 

Oh no, this was bad. It was really bad. Because she realized something else. Mike had somehow become a literal and metaphorical refuge, and she desperately didn’t want to lose that. In fact, the idea that anything, even Mike, could threaten it, made her feel like a caged animal. How had this happened so quickly? 

Suddenly she didn’t want to yell at Mike or talk to him at all about the “fight.” She wanted to ignore it, bury it, pretend it never happened. Let it fade away like the memory of a time when she believed her life would be ordinary. She didn’t want to give him, or anything, or anyone, the opportunity to ruin the first true shelter she’d ever experienced. 

Dammit. She had had such a good night until that moment on the sidewalk. 

They pulled to a stop outside the gate, and the batterymates exited the car wordlessly. Mike tested the waters as he punched in the code, “You gonna let me have it now that the audience is gone?”

“Nope.”

Mike’s brows drew together, and his mouth melted into a slight frown. That’s not like her at all. He had been prepared to let her tear into him. He had steeled his patience, reminding himself that she had good reason to yell at him, or at least give him the what’s what at an elevated volume. He wanted to make sure he gave her space for that. Shutting down was… unexpected. 

Ginny didn’t look at him, but she could feel his eyes on her as he held the door and ushered her into the house. She wanted to change into pajamas and ask him to watch Harry Potter, Ken Burns or GBBS with her. She wanted to hide under her favorite blanket and feel the comforting warmth of his body next to hers. But she couldn’t bring herself to voice any of that when she knew they were about two sentences away from burning down her little pillow fort of safety. 

Mike made his way to the kitchen and retrieved two bottles from the fridge. 

“Water?” 

She accepted the bottle with a tip of her head, then turned away, mumbling quickly, “Heading to bed. G’night.”

Mike shook his head briefly.

“Woah, woah, woah. What just happened, Rook?”

She turned back, chin jutting out stubbornly, face every bit as sullen as her thoughts. 

“Nothing. I’m just tired - want to get some sleep.”

Mike frowned, “Uh uh, no dice. Talk to me here. I know you’re mad. Or that you have some sort of feelings about what happened back there. Just let me have it.”

She crossed her arms and directed a lukewarm glare at him.

“I’m not your mom, Mike. It’s not my business, not my place. You don’t answer to me.”

Obviously he did not see her as a motherly figure in his life, good lord. But what the hell?

“That’s not what you said back on that sidewalk. What changed between then and now? Or is this some kind of silent treatment punishment?”

He couldn’t be certain why, but something about her avoidance scared him. It felt… lethal. Like if he let her walk away right now, this near-silent treatment would continue and likely get much worse. His mind went on a wild flight, visualizing her packing her stuff and walking out the door without a word, leaving the house quiet, his evenings bereft of her running commentary and horsey laugh. He hadn’t even had time to really get used to her being here, but he knew he didn’t want to get used to her absence. 

“Nothing. I just realized I don’t have any say over your behavior. You want to punch some guy on the street? You’re a grown ass man - or at least you should be. You can do what you want.”

He frowned and stepped around the island, closing some of the distance between them. 

“Like you don’t have any say over Blip’s behavior? Like how Blip can do what he wants and not have you say anything about it? Or Livan can walk away with groupies without you yelling instructions after him? Except that you do. You do say things to Blip, and you do yell stuff at Livan. Why is this different? Why am I suddenly not your friend?”

On that last question, her face softened briefly, but then the mask went back up. Ginny sighed heavily, then spoke, resignation evident in her voice, “I don’t know why it’s different, Mike. It just is. Now - I’m exhausted, and I’m gonna go to bed. Let’s just talk about this in the morning if you still want to by then, alright?”

He took another step forward and stormed, “No, not alright! We have the day off tomorrow - it doesn’t matter if we lose a little sleep. And there’s something wrong . I can see it in your eyes. I don’t know why you’re lying right now, or just not telling me something, but I don’t accept it. So I’m gonna stand here, or out there, or in the pool house, or wherever I have to until you tell me what’s going on, dammit!”

He knew he probably sounded angry, and maybe he was a little. But more than that, he was terrified. He was scared shitless that he had done something tonight to make her shut down, that if he didn’t fix it right the fuck now, they’d spend forever in some horrible “professional” relationship where she only spoke to him at the park. He couldn’t survive that. He could survive just being friends, never confessing this thing he now absolutely knew but couldn't speak. But he’d wither and die without the sunshine of her laughter, without the ability to draw it out. 

Owing to the monolithic nature of his fear, Mike knew his voice and physical reactions would make him seem angry, which made him hypervigilant about the rest of his body language. Growing up, he’d seen enough “good boyfriends” take out their anger in physically violent ways to know that he never wanted any woman in his life to fear that kind of behavior from him. So he was careful to keep his arms crossed, never giving his hands the freedom to clench into angry fists at his sides. And even though he kind of felt like yelling in Ginny’s face right now, he wouldn’t. Because he was bigger than her, and she didn’t ever need to feel like he was using his size to intimidate. 

Ooooooh, shit. Had someone in her life been abusive? Fuck. And he just broke someone’s nose in front of her and fucking smiled about it like it was his favorite ride at Coney Island. Goddammit. 

“What do you want me to say, Mike?! You want me to tell you that was stupid? You want me to give you a gold star for coming to my rescue?!” Her voice came out harsh and louder than she meant, but she wasn’t done.

“Or do you want me to tell you that you scared the shit outta me?!”

There it was. Goddammit, Lawson.

Mike took a step back and hung his head as he re-entered the fray.

“I’m sorry. I’m so fucking sorry. I didn’t mean to scare you.”

He mumbled something that sounded like “stupid fuckup piece of shit,” but Ginny wasn’t positive that was what he said.

He brought his eyes up and saw the fire still flashing in Ginny’s mahogany irises. 

“Fuck, I know this probably doesn’t matter now - or seem believable - but outside of on-field scuffles, I’ve only been in two fistfights in my life. This isn’t something I do.”

He hazarded a glance at Ginny, who looked less angry and more confused now. 

“That asshole was lurking on the street, trying to take advantage of you, to make money off you, again. And my brain went right to your face , covered in blood, blood running down your arm. I figured I had an opportunity to make sure that guy never gets anywhere close to you again, so I took it without really thinking about it. I never would have done it if I knew it’d scare you. I’m so sorry, Gin.” 

Oh thank god. He was trying to prevent a repeat performance, not punching someone’s lights out for daring to touch his property. She still didn’t love it, but at least she could empathize with the motivation.

When he finished explaining, Mike had thrown his eyes back down to the floor, unwilling or unable to watch whatever reaction played across her face.

“Mike?” Ginny took a step toward him, placed a hand on his arm, then ran it lightly up and down, as if trying to warm him up, as she spoke.

“It’s ok. I understand now. You can stop beating yourself up.”

He lifted his head just enough to catch her gaze from underneath lowered, sheepish brows. 

“You’re not scared of me?”

Not in the sense that she worried he would physically hurt her, or anyone really, except that photog. Now that she knew the incident hadn’t been motivated by some cromagnon sense of retribution, Ginny was left with the uncomfortable truth she’d realized in the car: she was scared, but not of him. She was scared of losing this safe Mike and Ginny bubble that was rapidly becoming her favorite place in the world. 

She let out some cross between a laugh and a sigh of relief as she answered, “Come on now, cap. I’ve followed every minute of your career, remember? I know you’re not a violent person. Plus, I could take you if it came down to it.”

The sound of her almost-laugh coincided with the return of oxygen to Mike’s lungs. Now that he could breathe again, he suddenly noticed how close Ginny was. He could feel the heat pouring off her body and smell the sweet peachy scent of her lip gloss. (He knew that particular aromatic came from her lip gloss, because it was tattooed into his brain on that night they didn’t discuss.)

Mike finally brought his eyes back to hers, and Ginny saw a flash of the kid whose dad never wanted him, the teen whose mom was more concerned with grifting than his obvious talent, and the husband who knew he deserved to lose his wife, though Ginny didn’t know all that at the time. She just knew she saw something raw and insecure, something most people would never see or even suspect he had in him. It made her heart hurt, she hated it for him, and she wanted it to stop.

So she went with her first impulse, threw her arms around his neck, and hugged him hard. He wrapped his arms around her immediately, and let out a short, deep laugh that rumbled through his chest and into hers. That’s better .

Relief tripped through his body like dominoes, making him feel almost euphoric. Between that and his lingering buzz, Mike couldn’t stop himself from burying his head in her neck, inhaling the sweet perfume of her shampoo and filling his every sense with her intoxicating nearness. 

They stayed that way, wrapped up in each other, for longer than anyone would have been comfortable witnessing. (Noah, for one, would have been wildly uncomfortable if he had seen it.) 

Ginny was the first to break the silence, speaking low and clear, her voice trilling through Mike’s chest.

“You really needed a hug, huh? You big softie.”

Mike laughed again, running a hand across her back as he conceded, “I guess I did.”

He loosened his arms, and she did the same. Her cheek grazed his beard as she pulled away, and suddenly they were right back on that sidewalk, lips so close a strong breeze would’ve changed their relationship entirely. Ginny stared at the gold flecks in Mike’s eyes as he lost himself momentarily in her midnight pools. As if coordinated in advance, they dropped their eyes to each other’s mouths in unison. Ginny licked her lips, tilted her head, and leaned ever so slightly forward. 

“Don’t be stupid, especially not with her,” Blips words of caution suddenly rang through Mike’s head, unbidden and unwelcome. 

Mike released her, cleared his throat, leaned away and stared at the floor. Ginny took a step back, her arms hanging lifelessly at her sides as if she forgot what to do with them. She looked at Mike, who was still busy cataloguing specks of dust on the ground. She felt like someone opened the door and let in an arctic breeze. And she felt so fucking stupid. Why had she done that? It was like her body moved without her permission, and now she was the idiot who misread the situation, and she wanted to crawl under a very large rock and die. 

Mike ran a hand up the back of his neck before lifting his eyes back to hers, ready to make some sort of apology. Because this was undoubtedly his fault. Even though he couldn’t speak it out loud, he knew how he felt, how his fingers leaned toward hers as if drawn by a strong magnetic force, how he itched to throw an arm around her shoulders or a hand on the small of her back every time they walked side-by-side. He definitely engineered this situation.

He held her gaze just long enough to see the shame and hurt in her eyes before she buried them with her words, “It’s late. I’m gonna get some sleep.” 

She whirled around, mumbling some form of “goodnight” and disappearing into the safety of the darkness outside. He stood there, dumbstruck, watching her hustle across the patio and into the pool house. He knew he’d hurt her, and every cell in his body screamed at him to go after her and fix it right the hell now. But how could he? Wouldn’t that just make it worse? How do you apologize for not kissing someone you’re not supposed to kiss, someone you can’t ever kiss, without admitting you wanted to kiss them, want to kiss them, were/are/probably always will be one functioning brain cell away from doing it?

So Mike turned off all the lights and trudged upstairs, hoping the void of sleep would be kind and let him dream of anything other than the one person he dreamed about, waking or sleeping, every day lately.

Meanwhile, Ginny shut herself in the bathroom, sat on the fluffy bath mat and cried. She had been so worried about Mike ruining her newfound sense of safety that she hadn’t even considered her own ability to wreck it. But the hurt, shame, and regret, the feelings of stone-cold stupidity washing over her in repeating tidal waves served as confirmation that she could in fact destroy the Ginny and Mike bubble all on her own. 

In the morning she would sit down and make a plan for how to avoid anything remotely like this moving forward. But for the moment, she let all those ugly feelings run down her face and rack her body. 

Chapter Text

MIKE:

Mike had drawn his shades the night before, knowing he didn’t want to wake with the sun, but he set his alarm for 7:45. After the shit he put Ginny through last night, the least he could do was make sure she had a good breakfast. He figured he’d head downstairs, then wait to see lights flip on in the pool house before he started cooking. 

He ended up waking up at 7:15 in spite of his best efforts at going back to sleep, but that was fine. Ginny was typically an early riser, so this gave him a better shot at beating her to the kitchen. 

Despite the anxiety he carried from last night, he was looking forward to breakfast. He planned to make migas, which he bet Ginny hadn’t had since San Antonio. Considering his knowledge of her typical taste in Mexican food, he felt pretty confident she’d be excited about good migas.

He quickly showered and headed downstairs, noting with relief that all the lights were still off in the pool house. Good, that gave him a chance to make pico de gallo and guacamole (cilantro free of course). 

Two hours and three cups of coffee later, the pool house sat dark and silent, much like its owner. Had she been unable to sleep last night? Did he do that? Had she left? 

He couldn’t barge in there to check, because what if she was still asleep and he showed up to creep on her like that asshole photographer? He also couldn’t just do nothing. His mind was beginning to take him to bad places. What if she had an asthma attack and couldn’t find her inhaler? What if she’d just packed her stuff up in the middle of the night and disappeared? What if she went on an early morning run and never came back?

Finally unable to deny the insistent pit in his stomach, Mike made his way to the intercom. He tried to speak in a sing-song, lighthearted way, but he suspected his words came out forced and wrong.

“Rise and shine, Rook! It’s time for all the good baseball players to wake up and get breakfast before it’s gone!”

Silence. Nothing but stark, hollow, convicting silence. 

“Hey Baker, I’m heading over there to check on you. If you don’t want my ugly mug in your space, you better come to the intercom and wave me off in the next 30 seconds.”

More silence.

He knew before he got there that she was gone, that her Nike bag with its rainbow colored array of leggings would be as absent as the toiletries that must smell like an orange grove in bloom. And he deserved it. He deserved for her to escape him and his endless capacity for fuckups. 

That look she gave him last night flashed across his mind and settled on his conscience like a millstone. He thought about how young she was, how shitty some things in her life had been and how raw that must make her feel when a thing like last night happened. 

That was one thing he didn’t miss about youth - the double edged razor of intensity. The highs were great, the feeling of invincibility better than any drug he’d ever heard of, but the lows were endless, the cuts so often to the bone. And he had done that to her, he had made her feel like that last night. All because he was too fucking stupid to throw shots over his shoulder. And too fucking drunk on every little thing about her.

He couldn’t have just been a good friend. Couldn’t have kept an appropriate amount of distance, provided support when she needed it and managed to keep his stupid mid-life crisis, post-divorce, just-slept-with-my-ex-wife, hurricane of disaster out of her life.

“Stupid, fuckup loser.” That’s the mantra he chanted over and over as he walked toward the pool house to confirm what he already knew. 

He hoped she was somewhere with that billionaire, and he hoped that stupid tech nerd was doing a better job than Mike at deserving to be anywhere near her. At least that guy had a shot in hell at it.

Mike punched in the code on the pool house door, pushed down on the handle, and walked into a space he’d mentally labeled “Ginny’s.” The living room stood empty, as expected. Wait, no it didn’t. A white Nike hoodie had blended into the white cotton couch. Maybe she missed it?

But he found more evidence in the kitchen: a used coffee mug in the sink and a lone piece of Omni stationery with a list entitled “How to Avoid That Ever Again.” It held a single entry: “therapy, immediately.”

Maybe she just had an early morning therapy session. 

Both bedroom doors were open. He didn’t go in, but he glanced down the hall and saw the best, most haphazard, stupidly large pile of leggings he’d ever seen in his life.

Alright. At least the “disappeared into the night, leaving no trace, never to be seen or heard from again” option was off the table. Probably. 

Shit. She could be back any minute. Mike quickly checked the kitchen to make sure he hadn’t disturbed the jacket or “list,” then ran out of his own pool house like it was on fire. 

After putting away the pico and guac, he tortured himself with answerless questions for about 20 minutes:

Was it a mistake not to go after her last night?
Would it have been a bigger mistake if he had gone after her?
Would she put together all the pieces and realize she wasn’t the only one who leaned in?
Had she leaned because she cared? Or was she just buzzed, and tired, and high on adrenaline?
Was he taking advantage of the fact that she’d been a fan most of her life? 
Was he the biggest piece of shit ever to walk the earth? 
Was he drawn to her just because she represented everything he was about to lose, and more?
Was this just the dumbest, most destructive mid-life crisis ever?

Finally, Mike decided to make his brain stop, by returning to one of his all-time favorite hobbies: classic pinball. He took the scenic route, parked at PETCO, then walked to Coin-Op , since it didn’t open until 11. 

He stepped through the doors almost right at 11 and immediately took up residence at the Cactus Canyon machine. The miniature train never failed to amuse him, and he loved the pop-up bad guy targets. Cactus Canyon was the perfect distraction.

40 minutes and one personal high score later, he sat at the bar waiting for a burger. The woman two chairs over was having an odd phone conversation, which was another great distraction.

“Yes, Jefe. I’ll just switch my flight and head straight to Houston - “

“You know the only sports I follow are gymnastics and Steve Nash, and one of those doesn’t require much following anymore.”

“There is absolutely zero chance I’m going to have any kind of fangirl issue covering a case for an Astro. Remember that case with the NBA guy whose hand was bigger than my face? I don’t even remember his name anymore.”

“Yep. Can you just have Rob give me a call? I need to know exactly how much I need to teach this doc. Can’t have a professional athlete telling people stem cells don’t work just because the surgeon had bad aspiration technique.”

The phone woman sat in front of a laptop and a cheeseburger whose bun she had discarded. She ran a hand through her long brown hair, flipping it from one side to the other as she turned to the woman next to her and smirked.

“Keith wanted to make sure I knew how important this VIP athlete case is to him. And he tried to tell me how to teach aspiration technique.”

The other woman, who sat in front of another laptop munching the fries that looked like her entire lunch, rolled her eyes and responded, “Leave it to Keitho to mansplain the thing you’ve been teaching your whole life.”

The second woman picked up a french fry and gestured with it as she continued.

“My favorite part of that is how he called you literally this morning because he couldn’t remember the password for his own computer.”

The first woman chuckled, answering, “Oh Sabby, you know it’s not a day in my life if he’s not yelling at me for something insane and simultaneously depending on me to help him literally tie his shoes and remember his own name. That’s the entire basis of my job security.”

“Mmmm, true enough, girl.”

The second woman turned to rummage in her purse. After pulling out a tube of chapstick and applying some to her lips, she looked up and caught Mike staring.

She smiled right at him, her face awash in amusement, and he immediately liked her. She held his eyes as she spoke to her companion, “Katia, I don’t want to freak you out, but I think we just spent ten minutes bitching about work in front of Mike Lawson, San Diego’s favorite pitcher.”

Katia looked up from her laptop and turned to face him. She smirked, and her eyes danced as she looked at him but spoke to the other woman.

“Well isn’t that just like us - always oblivious in the presence of greatness?”

The non-Katia woman hopped off her barstool, and Mike was struck by her diminutive stature. In three inch heels, she was 5’ 3” at the most, but she projected a level of confidence he’d expect to see on a 6’ 2” model.

She held out a hand and spoke, “Hi there. I’m Sabrina, and this is my friend Dr. Katrina. We’re pleased to meet you and very sorry for boring you to death with our dysfunctional work chatter.”

Mike shook her hand and chuckled, “Not at all. I’m the one eavesdropping like a creeper over here.”

As Mike shook Dr. Katrina’s hand, she widened her eyes and bobbed her eyebrows, “Oh, you’re gonna have to try much harder than that to qualify as a creeper. Our bar is set shockingly high.”

“Huh. I would’ve thought the opposite, you being a doctor and all.”

She smiled as she spoke, “I really wish you were right, but that has not been our experience. At least we get some funny stories out of it, right Sabby?”

Sabrina nodded.

“Well, Dr. Katrina and Sabrina,” Mike said as he took the barstool next to them, “I’m actually trying to distract myself right now, and at some point I’ll have a burger to eat. So if you have some funny stories to tell, I’d love to hear them.”

“First of all, please call me Katrina. I’m not even the good kind of doctor - I don’t want anyone around here thinking I can help in case of a heart attack or emergency baby delivery. Second, we’re happy to bore you to tears with our hilarious stories of medical device shenanigans, but only if you promise to tell us one funny story from your world for every one we tell you.”

Sabrina’s face lit up as she chimed in, “Ooooh, good call Katia. My husband will kill me if I come home and tell him I met Mike Lawson, and all I did was complain about medical devices the whole time.”

Katrina looked him in the eye, tilted her head to the side and smiled, “Deal?”

Mike waggled his eyebrows.

“Deal.”

Over the next hour, he learned the two women were in town for a medical conference. Katrina had a PhD in biomedical engineering and taught doctors how to use adult stem cells. Sabrina was the director of marketing for the company where they both worked. The camaraderie between the two reminded him of his friendship with Blip.

“So you’re not really into sports?”

Sabrina had taken a call and walked away, leaving him to chat with Katrina. Her lips pulled into a left-sided smirk, and she gave a soft, closed mouth chuckle. 

“Don’t take it personally. I just grew up in gymnastics, and never really got the bug for anything else. Except science.”

Mike tilted his head and raised his eyebrows, “And Steve Nash.”

She widened her eyes and jutted her head forward, “Oh come on. You can’t not be mesmerized by him. He uses his eyes to distract you, passes the ball in a completely different direction than where he’s looking, and then his teammate suddenly has the ball in his hands and looks freaking surprised by it. He’s basically a magician!”

Mike laughed, almost involuntarily.

“I guess I can’t argue when you put it like that.”

She pursed her lips, and lifted one eyebrow, smug.

“I know. It’s science.”

Mike leaned back in his barstool and crossed his arms. He was legitimately enjoying himself.

“So wait, how come you didn’t use stem cells to fix Steve’s back, then?’

Katrina shook her head and looked genuinely sad.

“Ooof. Well, other than not knowing him or having any way to contact him at all, I was in grad school back then. Still hadn’t even stood in my first surgery. By the time I had the means to help, he was already retired and using all his time to help other people. Why mess with a good thing at that point, you know?”

Mike furrowed his brows, “But if the timing had been different, you think you could have helped him? Maybe given him a couple more years?” 

She nodded her head immediately, “Yep, it’s very likely we could have. Adult stem cells have come a long way in the last ten years.”

“You have any miracle cures for nearly expired knees?”

Mild surprise colored her features before she responded, her manner and posture suddenly every bit what he’d expect of a scientist, “No, we don’t have miracle cures, unfortunately. But we can give your body the tools it needs to heal in a more youthful way, for a time at least.”

She paused, choosing her words carefully.

“Knees actually respond better and more predictably than any other joint our doctors treat, but. But. There are no guarantees. Every medical procedure comes with a failure rate.”

Mike looked at his knees, draped on opposite sides of his barstool.

“You’re asking for yourself I assume?”

He looked up, nodding his head.

“Heh, yeah. Don’t tell anyone, but I’ve been in this game for a long time, and it’s not exactly a walk in the park for these knees.”

“Hah, I get it. Nothing teaches you the cruel brutality of sports like aging out of your favorite one at 18. It’s far too late for me, but not for you. There’s more than a 50% chance that our technology can give you more time.”

“Huh.” It felt too good to be true. 

“I see the best doctors in the country. How come none of them has ever told me about this?”

She exhaled through pursed lips.

“How much time you got?”

Mike leaned an arm across the bar.

“As much as you need.” If there was any shot at sticking around for a couple more years, anything that might give him more time, he wanted to know about it.

She nodded her head.

“Alright. I’m gonna run through this pretty fast, because we have to get back to the conference soon. But we can probably help you. And it’s pretty much my favorite thing in the world to help people get back to what they love, or in your case, just keep doing what they love.”

She pulled a black business card out of her backpack and laid it on the bar. Katrina Andalucais, PhD - Director of Training and Education for BioLife Technologies.

“I’m also going to give you this. That’s my actual phone number and email address. If you have questions after today, feel free to use either to get in touch.”

She paused.

“And if you’re worried about me having your contact info, I get it. There are plenty of cloaking apps you can use to hide your real # from me. But do text me and tell me who you are before you try to call, if you try to call. Because my company gives these out like candy at conferences, and I do not answer numbers I don’t know.”

Damn, she was efficient. And this cloaking app thing sure would’ve been helpful back in his groupie days. You know, a few months ago.

“Alright superstar, ready for a crash course in stem cells and why your doctors haven’t told you about them yet?”

Mike tipped his head, “Hit me.”

Katrina explained that all people have adult stem cells throughout their bodies. The reason joints break down over time is that there aren’t enough cells in the right places to repair the damage. Her company’s technology allows doctors to grab adult stem cells from a location where there are plenty (bone marrow) and then move them directly to the location in need of repair (his knees).

“But here’s why you don’t hear about it. 1 - corporate money. And 2, which applies to you and other professional athletes specifically and exclusively, physician money.”

Mike scrunched up his brow, marginally confused at the idea of stem cells somehow posing a financial problem, but he let her continue uninterrupted.

“Our technology isn’t protectable. It’s the best on the market, yes. But at the end of the day, the most powerful part of what I do involves each patient’s cells. They’re your cells. The big med device companies can’t make money on your cells. But you know what they can make money on?”

Mike frowned slightly and nodded his head no.

“Joint replacements. Med device companies take home between $40k and $80k per joint replacement. Do you know what we charge for our technology? $2000 - $6000. Now, there’s actually a study underway that shows patients get similar pain relief but fewer side effects from our procedure versus joint replacement. Can you imagine what a threat that is to med device companies? If physicians adopt our technology widely, med device companies stand to lose about $2 billion yearly on knee replacements alone.”

He widened his eyes. $2 billion a year was money people would kill over.

“Jesus, alright. So nobody wants to help you popularize this stuff. But what about my doctors? Why wouldn’t they at least offer this if it’s as good as you say?”

Her lips pulled into a sarcastic grin, and her chuckle held a bitter edge.

“Well, this one is about physician money. And athlete personalities. The physicians who treat you exist on a different echelon than the average orthopedic surgeon that I work with. Their reputations took years to build and provide them more money and privilege than they likely ever thought they could achieve. You know what happens if they mess up one patient? If you’re not happy with a procedure they administered? You can sink their entire ship. You, Mike Lawson, can go into the locker room, complain about it to your buddies, and nuke their entire client base, and essentially their life, over a normal, predictable occurrence in regular medicine.”

Huh. Mike had never thought about that aspect of his doctors’ lives, but it was certainly plausible.

“So they don’t ever want to offer you anything that they’re not almost 100% sure will work. And that they’re not almost 100% sure will be basically painless, unless they absolutely have to.”

Mike scrunched up his face.

“That’s crazy though. How can good medical treatment be basically painless?”

She raised one eyebrow.

“When was the last time a physician or trainer offered you anything more painful or invasive than a cortisone shot?”

He thought about it, went back over the last few seasons in his mind.

“I honestly can’t remember.”

She smiled, because she knew she was right. 

“Because your doctors think you’re a big baby who will cry about anything beyond a very quick needle stick, which will then tank their medical practice. Which really sucks for you, because every time they give you a cortisone shot, it actually speeds up the breakdown of your knees. But I bet you get… between 4 and 6 cortisone shots per season?”

“What the fuck? Cortisone shots are damaging my knees?!” His doctors and trainers had been actively shortening his career. 

She nodded her head.

“I know. It’s infuriating. But I’ve actually heard a team doctor spell this out almost verbatim. He said male professional athletes have no tolerance for pain, and he didn’t want to be blamed for them being on the DL. Therefore he, in an attempt to protect his own reputation and status, only offers the most dependable, most painless treatment options. Like cortisone.”

Sabrina walked back over, packing her things up as she chimed in, “Even though something that might be just a tiny bit painful, for just a few minutes, has about a 70% chance of success and won’t hurt you even if it doesn’t work. And it could legitimately extend the life of your joints.”

Katrina held up a hand, which Sabrina immediately high-fived. The two had clearly had this conversation before.

“Well, kids. I’m sorry to interrupt what is probably the strangest conversation Mike has ever had, but we have to get back to the booth. Afternoon conference rush starts in 20 minutes, and the corner offices will get mad if Katia isn’t there to spread the good news.”

Mike had more questions, but it’s not like he could keep them from their jobs.

“Oh yeah, no problem at all. Sounds like you’ve both got your work cut out for you.”

Katrina shrugged, “We do - gotta go convince doctors to help people more effectively!”

“We may not get to every starfish,” Sabrina started, “But we can still make a difference one starfish at a time,” Katrina finished. 

The biomedical engineer held out her hand, “It was a pleasure to meet you, Mke Lawson, San Diego’s favorite pitcher. You give me a call, or text me, if you want to see about those knees.”

He hadn’t really noticed when they shook hands earlier, but her hand was lightly calloused. That certainly didn’t come from her job, which made him wonder what hobby might be responsible for a scientist educator having tough, working hands. Maybe she still did some gymnastics.

“Same here. ‘Preciate all the education!”

Sabrina was already waiting by the door, a large brown purse draped over one shoulder. As Katrina marched toward her, Sabrina yelled across the bar at Mike, “You should call her. She really can help with your knees. Plus she’s single, and kind and smart and so so funny!”

Katrina shoved her friend out the door mumbling something disgruntled sounding, then turned around, somehow walking backward out the door in heels, “Please ignore all of that except the part about your knees!”

She turned back around, threw a hand up in the air and called over her shoulder just before the door closed, “Catch ya’ later Mike Lawson!”

Mike watched them walk away through the windows at the front of the bar. From their body language, he guessed Katrina was annoyed, but fondly, at Sabrina for the crack about her being single. And Sabrina’s gestures told him she regretted absolutely nothing. They were an interesting pair, and Katrina’s information was making him think. 

As he drove home, he wondered - could he get two full years with Ginny? Or one really good one? Could he increase the odds of him catching her no-hitter? He knew it was a gamble, especially with management already signaling their preference for Livan as her batterymate. But if his knees felt better, and he moved better, maybe one of the other catchers could be the one to suffer for Livan’s stage time. Maybe he didn’t have to think about this being his last season. 

He needed to talk to Katrina, but he’d feel better about it if they talked in person. These were his knees after all. And they were his shot at spending precious time with Ginny.

 

 

 

 

 

This is Mike from the bar earlier.
You have dinner plans tonight?

Mike who, and which bar?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mike Lawson, remember?
San Diego’s favorite pitcher?
Bum knees, great beard?

 

Oh, right. Starting to ring a bell.
We actually do have dinner plans
(I assume you’re asking about both 
of us bc we’re a package deal for
safety reasons) but we could
probably get out of them if the right
opportunity presented itself.



Does dinner with an MLB catcher
who wants to learn about stem cells
count as the right opportunity?



Hah. Probably. Management would
be way more excited about you than
the serial harassing doctor we’re 
currently supposed to “entertain for
a few hours.” 



I’m taking that as a yes.
7 o’clock work?

Sure thing. Where should we meet you?


Nine-Ten in La Jolla.

 

Sweet - we’ll see you there at 7!

 

Cool if I bring a friend?

 

Yes, of course bring your friend! 
I love subjecting unsuspecting 
strangers to education over dinner!

 

Lol, perfect. She’ll be thrilled.

 

Mike just hoped Ginny would come with him. He had a really good feeling about Katrina and Sabrina. They seemed genuine, and their mutual respect and friendship made him feel like they were good people. He wanted to believe Katrina, wanted to hope there was a way to ensure he got more time with Ginny. But he’d feel better about his inclination to trust them if Ginny shared it and helped him vet whatever information they had.

He walked into the living room, excited to tell Ginny all about Katrina and Sabrina. Then he’d ask, beg or guilt His Rookie into coming to dinner with him. 

In the private room at Nine-Ten, nobody would recognize either of them. Ginny’d be able to get a good sense of Sabrina/Katrina as people, and maybe she’d agree with his current assessment of the stem cell women. And maybe that would mean getting a new lease on his knees, and therefore a better shot at that GinnyNMike episode of Baseball. 

He let himself think about where this dinner could take him, imagined how satisfying it’d be to catch a Ginny Baker no-hitter against the Red Sox. How fun it’d be to watch her take the throne as May Queen of Boston and then utterly destroy them from 60 feet, 6 inches away. 

Yes, he was really looking forward to this dinner. 

He threw open the back door and swaggered toward the pool house, his voice boyish and booming.

“Roooookieeeee! Get out here - it’s storytime!”

He rapped his knuckles on the poolhouse door. Tap tap ta tap tap, tap tap.

“Baker, come on!”

He performed the same series of knocks and waited again. No way she was asleep. He paced back and forth in front of the poolhouse for a full minute before deciding to head in and confirm she was still gone. 

When he opened the door, he immediately noticed the empty spot on the couch where the hoodie used to be. The mug from the sink had been washed and put away, the list crumpled and thrown in the trash. 

Maybe she just came home and cleaned up?

He walked toward the bedrooms, whose doors were once again open, but he stopped halfway there. Right in front of the doorway stood a gaping hole where Ginny’s rainbow of leggings used to live. The void left behind in their absence mirrored the hollow taking residence in his stomach. 

He didn’t need to go any further. Clearly she’d left, and clearly she didn’t want to talk to him, even to say goodbye. It felt a little out of character for her, but then again, it was always difficult to predict behavior under the influence of pain. 

He slept with his ex-wife, who did him every kind of wrong, just because he couldn’t have Ginny, nor could he run away from her. And then he momentarily entertained the idea of getting back with Rachel. 

Obviously he’d thought better of it pretty quickly, but still. People didn’t stay within the range of normal behavior when they hurt, and Mike had definitely hurt His Rookie. So maybe this was just how Ginny worked through things.

No matter what her motivations were, Mike knew it was better that she left, better that they created some distance between them. Right? 

Because he’d crossed the line, or nearly crossed the line several times, and that needed to stop. He couldn’t let his weakness, his mess, his waning career, his wavering sense of self affect her. 

He hoped this cold treatment wouldn’t fulfill the prophecy panic had breathed into his mind last night. If it did, he’d have to find a way to function as a full-blown zombie: mechanically alive but dead for all other intents and purposes. 

He could do that though, for her, because that cold, all-professional relationship could still help her be everything she should be without the risk of getting caught in his undertow. And it was selfish of him to want anything else just because life without her braying laughter seemed monochromatic and empty. That was a Mike problem, not a Ginny problem. 

-*-

Unsurprisingly, Katrina and Sabrina turned out to be fantastic dinner company. Sabrina had been a cheerleader at UT, so she was well-versed in most popular sports, including baseball. She picked his brain for a full 20 minutes about his experiences with other professional athletes. Oddly, she didn’t ask any questions about Ginny. 

Ginny was relatively new on the scene though. So maybe Sabrina was just trying to hit the athletes most likely to interest her husband, and those were the established ones?

After Sabrina had her fill of sports minutiae, Katrina patiently answered Mike’s questions. As she did, he noticed the way her face lit up when she talked about the patient who’d been on disability for two years and messaged her a few months after his procedure, excited to say he went back to work. He could tell she loved her job, and she genuinely loved helping people. 

More importantly though, she was utterly convincing. She didn’t promise him a cure, didn’t even say it wouldn't hurt. She told him most men found the stem cell extraction procedure quite painful, but that it only lasted for a few seconds. 

Her brother had done the procedure twice in five years for his back. She knew a Karav Maga instructor who came in for injections to shoulders, knees and hips like clockwork every 18 months. “He was on the verge of retirement before he found one of our doctors. Now he just does his regular maintenance and keeps living his very active life.”

She also told him not to believe stories like that.

“You can always find one or two patients who do really well, no matter how unsuccessful the intervention is. When I started working here, that was all we had - just a handful of one-off stories, nothing written down, nothing I’d call evidence. But now, we have mountains of studies.”

She handed him several. American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons, International Journal of Orthopedics, American Journal of Sports Medicine. These seemed like legitimate publications. He’d Google them later, but 1000:1 he believed they’d hold up. Katrina was the real deal.

“If this had been available when I lost 40% of my ankle cartilage at 16, I’d have done it in a heartbeat just for the chance at continuing the thing I loved. My whole life would be different now, and I might not be talking to you, but I’d have done college gymnastics and loved every minute of it.”

Mike narrowed his eyes slightly.

“Seems like you found something else to love anyway.”

She smiled and nodded, “That I did, that I did. Still miss the smell of chalk and sweat. And the reassuring pain of smashing my thumb into the beam, but stem cells are a pretty good replacement. I’ll take it.”

“Katia hides it well, but she’s a masochist at heart, otherwise she wouldn’t do this job.”

They all laughed.

“So how does a Texas girl end up a stem cell scientist educator person like you?”

She smiled a little sardonically and waved a hand in the air.

“Oh, you know - the same way comics end up funny, or single moms invent world-altering technologies: a perfect mixture of trauma and survival instincts.”

Mike laughed. It was dark, but it was still funny.

“Oh, I’m well-acquainted with that recipe.”

“Oh yeah?”

Mike nodded, “Definitely, but that’s a story for another time.”

Katrina nodded her head, “I get it. I mean, we get it, right Sabby?”

“Sure do. Some traumas you talk about, and some you just suppress til they make you famous or super successful. I’m working on the latter.”

Just then, Sabrina’s clutch started buzzing. She pulled her phone out, announcing, “Oop - it’s the hubs. Gotta go talk to this sweet man while I can, y’all. Talk amongst yourselves!”

As she disappeared beyond the door to the private dining room, Katrina snarked, “You’d never guess she used to teach Pre-K and majored in early childhood education, huh?”

Mike chuckled, “Oh, is that it? And now she’s the director of marketing for a stem cell company. How does that work?”

“Hah, it’s actually shocking how well her background prepared her for this job. She jokes all the time about the similarities in dealing with toddlers and all these middle-aged, white male salesmen and doctors. And, I mean, she’s a hustler. Toddlers or marketing, there’s nothing she can’t do.”

Mike had to laugh again. He knew enough middle-aged white men, including himself, to see her point.

“Hey - so what happened to your friend? You decide it was inhumane to subject her to this torture?”

“Ha, no, not at all. She’s just popular, so she already had plans.”

A flash of light lit up the room momentarily. From the wonder on Katrina’s face, you’d think she just saw Disney for the first time. 

She stood from her chair and moved toward the window as she spoke, phone in hand, “Sorry - I can’t not try to capture this. I’m a sucker for lightning, dramatic clouds, sunrises, sunsets, anything involving light and sky. And I think there’s a good lightning storm just off the shore over there.”

Mike smirked, very entertained. 

“No, honestly I’m just relieved it wasn’t paparazzi.”

She scrunched up her face but kept her attention on the storm as she quipped, “Oh don’t worry. My natural, God-given invisibility as a middle child has at least a 20-foot radius. Stick with me, and you’ll never be in a tabloid again!”

Mike moved over to the window to get a better look at her storm.

“So is Ginny Baker your friend?”

He shook his head, confused.

“Huh?”

“Your friend who you wanted to come out with us tonight - was it Ginny Baker?”

He tilted his head to the side and narrowed his eyes.

“Why would you think that?”

She glanced at him sideways, “Oh sorry - I did not mean for that to be intrusive. Please feel free to tell me to shut up. It’s just - I’m a middle child between two boys, and I saw that interview you did a few weeks ago. I just got the impression the two of you were pretty simpatico, and not just for the cameras.”

We were. Until last night, anyway.

Katrina watched him, her light green/brown eyes intent on his face. He didn’t know what tell she found there, but he saw realization plain on her features. 

“Oooh.”

He took a step forward.

“Oh what?”

She pursed her lips, bobbed her eyebrows.

“Nothing. Oh nothing. Lightning! That’s what. Did you know you can actually make lightning in a bottle?”

Oh, this nervous scientist changing the subject bit was kind of cute.

“Nice try, but not good enough. What was that?”

She tilted her head and squinted one eye.

“You’re gonna have to be more specific - there are so many that’s you could be referring to right now.”

He rolled his eyes.

“‘D’you spend some time in law school learning how to evade questions in between that PhD and this job?”

She laughed.

“Nope,” she popped the final p decisively, “But my grandpa did always say I should be a lawyer on account of being an argumentative savant. Well, technically he said “argumentative little shit” but I know what he really meant.”

“What did you mean when you were looking at me, not the storm, and you said OH and then immediately started executing evasive conversational maneuvers?”

She sighed heavily.

“I really didn’t mean anything. I just thought I saw something… But it’s absolutely none of my business, and I’m really sorry. I thought I was asking an innocuous question. I didn’t realize…”

He stared at her harder.

“You didn’t realize what?”

“I didn’t realize it wasn’t innocuous to ask you about Ginny Baker. But I can see that now. And I’m sorry I asked. Truly, from the bottom of my heart, I am sorry. It could not be less of my business.”

What the fuck did she think she saw?

“Oh my god. And now you’re worried I might say something. But I can’t say anything, because I don’t know anything. And also, I would never. Life is hard enough without some stranger showing up and forcing you to confront shit you maybe haven’t even admitted to yourself yet. And then worrying they might talk to a tabloid about it. I swear I’m too busy for that kind of bullshit, in addition to just not being that shitty of a person.”

Fuck.

Katrina took a step forward and put a hand on his arm.

“Mike Lawson, San Diego’s favorite pitcher, stop internally melting down and look me in the eye.”

When he did, he tried to put up as many walls as possible, because clearly he’d failed at that in a catastrophic way already. The least he could do was try not to repeat that performance.

“First of all, I don’t know anything . Second, I am not gonna say boo about whatever you’re worried about to anyone, not even Sabrina. I’ll even sign an NDA right now if that’ll make you feel better. I can customize it on my phone and get it docusigned in less than five minutes.”

Mike cleared his throat.

“Yep. Let’s do that.”

Five minutes later, they sat side-by-side at the table.

“Now that you’re legally bound to silence outside this room, can you put me out of my misery and tell me what you think you saw?”

Kartina exhaled noisily.

“I guess it’s only fair.”

She paused, nodding her head slowly. She looked at the door then back at him. Her voice was just above a whisper when she spoke. 

“All that stuff you said about her was genuine.”

He pinched his eyebrows together, “Of course it was. I’m not a liar.”

“No, but there was more there… you respect her. You hold her in very high esteem.”

Katrina looked down at her clasped hands on the table, then glanced back at him sideways.

“What I saw… I think you’re smitten. But in a serious way. It’s not some petty infatuation. You spend a lot of time with her, enough time for the shine to wear off the apple. But it’s gone the other direction for you. Your respect, your esteem, your regard for her is serious like a heart attack. I think you’d lay down in traffic for Ginny Baker.”

He tipped his head and sighed heavily. Then rather than say anything, he picked up his phone and murmured, “You have Snapchat?”

Katrina wrinkled her brow, confused.

“Um, yeah. KatandaluzTX.”

She opened the app on her phone and accepted his friend request.

| Don’t want to respond to that out 
| loud since we’re in public, and who
| knows if the waitstaff can hear 
| through the walls or vents.

 

 

 

 

He cleared his throat before speaking clearly, “We’re batterymates. People often mistake that relationship for something more. But it’s not. Just the normal respect you find between pitcher and catcher.”

 

 

 

 

|You’re probably more right than wrong 
| though. Just caught me off guard someone
| seeing it like that. You always been this 
|weirdly perceptive?

 

Hah. Another fun byproduct of trauma |
 and survival instinct. Apparently I’m|
empathetic to a fault and always|
 trying to gauge other people’s|
 moods/feelings/perspectives to avoid|
 conflict. Sometimes that’s good, |
sometimes it’s bad. And I guess |
there’s whatever you want to call |
this, too. |

 

I am genuinely sorry. |
It really is none of my business. |

 

|No, it’s fine. Not your fault I 
| can’t keep cards close enough 
|to my chest. Gotta work on that.

 

The handle clicked, and the door swung open.

“Whooo, boy. I tell you what. I love that man, but his head might actually fall off his shoulders without me,” Sabrina declared, not even looking at the two adults looking very much like children caught watching an R-rated movie.

“Why are y’all so quiet?”

Sabrina looked back and forth between Mike and Katrina, then zeroed in on her colleague.

“Did you mention that thing I told you not to mention?”

“No! I definitely did not mention that.

Sabrina frowned. 

“What are y’all doing then?”

“I was just showing him that creepy place I grew up, ‘cause Mike doesn’t believe in boundaries and he kept asking about all the childhood traumas behind my current level of brilliance and success.”

Sabrina narrowed her eyes at her friend.

“Uh huh, uh huh. Well that place is creepy…”

She clearly wasn’t convinced, so Mike jumped in, “Dessert? They have a great creme brulee here.”

“Oooh, I love creme brulee, but Katia hates it.”

“Yeah,” Katrina interrupted, “we should probably get the check and head out. It’s getting late, and we have to be at the booth at 6:30 am sharp.”

“Ah, I’ve trained you so well… but can we get the creme brulee to go?”

Katrina laughed, “Anything for you, Sabby. But you might have to go flag down our waiter. I haven’t seen anyone in a full 30 minutes.”

“On it,” and like a flash, Sabrina was back out the door.

With her gone, Mike went back to Snapchat.

 

 

 

 

 

|you in town long?

one more day and night |
 then we fly out in the morning |



|Well, shit. Now that we’re NDA buddies,
| I was gonna see if you wanted to come 
|over for tacos and trauma talk

 

Oof, that much alliteration sounds|
 like a church-based activity |

Mike chuckled.

 

 

 

 

 

 

|Nope. Just a very lame way to ask if you 
| want to be friends. You seem like a cool
| person, and not just because I want you 
| to fix my knees. 
|I feel like we should be friends. 

 

Oh, well that’s easy.|
Friendship is automatically granted |
 anytime my personal neuroses become |
 intrusive and cause trouble for a stranger |
 Let’s be friends! |



“Hey - I’m putting you in touch with my favorite knee guy, right?”

 

Mike looked up from his phone, “Yes, definitely.”

 

“Awesome. You’re gonna love this guy. He actually used to play AA, but now he’s the best orthopedist I know. Actually, I wonder if you know each other. Seems like you’d have been coming up around the same time.”

 

Mike frowned.

 

“Let’s hope not. I wasn’t always the pristine, finished product you see before you today.”

 

Katrina laughed as she responded, “Oh, I’m sure you weren’t that bad. Besides, I bet he wasn’t exactly who he is today back then either. We all grow and change, and we can all make the world a little kinder by allowing each other the grace to move past our worst moments and greatest flaws. Right?”

 

What an interesting person.

 

He nodded his head once, “I’d like to think you’re right. Though I think you might believe in people a little more than I do.”

 

Her eyebrows popped up briefly, “That’s cool. I can believe in people enough for the both of us.”

 

-*-

An hour later, Mike walked back into his kitchen not entirely sure what to do with himself. Today had been a lot. But they had a game to play tomorrow, and the flight left early. So he walked toward the stairs, prepared to go through his pre-away series routine and let himself think through the day’s events later. 

“Old man, I’ve been looking for you all day! I thought maybe you were kidnapped by an old folks home.”

Mike turned, and there she was, flopped like a rag doll on his couch in a simple black dress, heels discarded in a trail leading to the couch, hair obviously recently let down from a ponytail. God, she was gorgeous.

He couldn’t help the way his face came to life at the sight of her, the way he rejoiced internally at the sound of her lilting jab, and the way that emotion seeped through his every pore. He also couldn’t help but notice how she seemed to react similarly, like maybe she had been waiting to see him all day.

But that wasn’t possible, right? Maybe it was though, because the way she was looking at him… was different. Some wall had come down, but why?

Wait, who cares?

They spoke at the same time.

“I have to tell you something!”

They both laughed, and Mike made his way to the couch. God, this felt so much better than last night.

“Alright, Rook,” he drawled, “whatcha got?”

She started to put her phone down on the couch, but it buzzed in her hand. She swiped at it, and then confusion, shock, and something else trekked across her features. When she looked back up, he felt like he walked face-first into a brick wall.

She bit her lower lip, then spoke, making a very weak effort to hide the enthusiasm that had drained from her voice, “Um, good news! You don’t have to worry about all my youthful misconceptions cramping your style anymore.”

She was looking at him, but she wasn’t.

“Eliot found me a great condo, and he actually got it set up and furnished today. I was just hanging out here til you got home so I could say thanks, grab the rest of my stuff and get outta your hair.”

Chapter Text

GINNY:

The sound of her 6:00 alarm made Ginny immediately regret scheduling a 7:30 am session with Dr. Barton. But she needed some help processing the last few days, and Dr. Barton was the only sound option for that. She made coffee in the fancy machine with the teeny tiny pods and drank it as flickering bands of light made their way over the house and into the patio. 

She was both anxious about and for therapy. There was so much to discuss, she’d probably end up needing a two hour session. Which meant she better hurry up and get out the door to make sure she had time to pick up breakfast tacos, with extra for Dr. Barton, of course. 

45 minutes into her session, Ginny was grateful she’d gotten the tacos. It had taken this long just to scratch the surface of the injury, the end of her first MLB season, the uncertainty of another season, the mess with Will, the disappearance and reappearance of her agent, the potential trip with Noah, and the assault at the Omni. 

They hadn’t really solved any of that or come up with action items. It just took that long for Ginny to set the scene, get all the pieces onto the board. Now, she needed to work up the courage to talk about this thing with Mike, the one she and Mike weren’t discussing. Because it was the biggest rock in her shoe at the moment. It affected every aspect of her life. 

She started with the facts, because it was always easier to just recount events if they were bullets on a timeline. Mike offered to let her stay at his place until she found a place of her own with better security.

“And you felt staying at Mike’s place offered better physical security than the Omni?”

Ginny did. Especially given how helpful he was when she had her panic attack.

“When and how did Mike help you through a panic attack?”

Apparently she wasn’t listing the facts in chronological order.

“I see, so Mike had offered his pool house the night before, and you had already taken him up on it.”

Yes.

“Have any of your other friends ever helped you through a panic attack like that?”

No, not really.

“Mike is the team captain, though. He does this mother duck thing with all the rookies,” Ginny explained.

“Uh huh. There’s another rookie on the team, right? I guess Mike puts the same amount of effort into being a ‘mother duck’ for him as well?”

Ginny wrinkled her brow. Not really. “It’s different though, because we’re batterymates. We have to be more in sync than other players on the team.”

“Right. And you are? More in sync with Mike than with other players on the team?”

Definitely. 

“It’s not weird though. Well, it’s a little weird, but in a baseball way. Not a weird weird way.”

Dr. Barton’s face remained impassive and professional, but she cocked her head to the side and asked, “What do you mean weird in a baseball way?”

Ginny unfolded and refolded her legs on the couch. “I mean, it’s been easier with Mike than any other catcher I’ve ever worked with. And faster. The learning curve working with him hasn’t been near as bad as my past batterymates.”

“I see. And do you feel like that - being in sync - played into his ability to help you through the panic attack?”

Ginny thought quietly for a moment.

“Probably. And that’s probably also why I feel safe with him. Well, felt safe with him.”

The doctor narrowed her eyes and tipped her head to the side again.

“Why felt? Why the switch to past tense?”

Ginny leaned forward and stared intently at her criss-crossed legs.

“Because I messed it up. I messed us up.”

“How? What makes you think that?”

So she spilled it all. The night of the trade, Mike’s complete dismissal of the need to talk about it, almost immediately followed by her injury, then hiding out at his place. Mike coming to clean her up at the Omni, the nightmare, the cuddles, that one time he definitely flirted with her. Punching the photog, her realization in the car, the fight in the kitchen, the hug, the fuckup, and now.

“Ok, there’s a lot to unpack here. I want to start somewhere that seems relatively simple, and might be, but I want to acknowledge that it may not be simple. And you may not be ready to go here yet, in which case we’ll switch directions.”

Ginny nodded her head, not looking up.

“Who is Mike Lawson to you, Ginny Baker?”

-*-

As Ginny punched in the code for Mike’s front door, she felt a frustrating mixture of relief and anxiety. Relief, because Eliot had already found a condo she liked, and the owner was letting her rent for a month before buying it (the owner was a fan). Eliot was supposed to be filling it with non-hotel-style furniture at that exact moment. (Boy, those Nike checks sure made a big difference, huh?)

But she also felt anxious, because she had to talk to Mike. And though her mind was made up about several things, and she felt confident she was doing the right thing, she worried about his reaction. 

She didn’t want to see that lost boy look on his face again. But given last night’s events, and today’s therapy, she wasn’t sure if it was her place to do anything about it if she did. That had already gotten her in trouble once, and she was, after all, doing her best to avoid a repeat of that situation.

“Lawson! Get outta bed already, lazy!” It was 11:30. Even Mike wasn’t old enough to justify still being in bed at this time of day. 

She walked around the kitchen island and over to the stairs, craning her head as if the angle would make it easier to hear if he was bumping around upstairs. But the house remained oddly, perhaps eerily quiet. Eh, he probably went in for an extra session with Kiki. They did have an away game tomorrow, and the plane seats always aggravated Mike’s back. 

Ginny headed back to the pool house and started packing up her stuff, more than a little excited about moving the few things she had into a place of her own. 

She was looking forward to coffee on the balcony, and not living out of a suitcase. She’d be able to pick her laundry detergent, and she wouldn’t live in fear of a fan (or the opposite) staying in the room next door. And she’d have outdoor space of her own, where she could enjoy fresh air without worrying about a creep with a telescoping lens putting her back on TMZ or Barstool.

She would have her own safe, fortified, comfortable home base. Ev could come over for girls nights! Yes, this was indeed the right, healthy choice.

Speaking of, she needed to iron out a few things with Noah, but it’d be better in person. He’d be less likely to misunderstand or second guess her motivations.

Ginny pulled out her phone to text Noah, only to have it light up with a text from Eliot. Furniture delivery would take five days. If she really wanted to be in by this evening, he offered to head to Ikea and pick up just the essentials - bed, mattress, barstools, and a big comfy chair for the living room. Otherwise, she’d have to wait it out at Mike’s place.

Since Mike didn’t even know she’d found a place and had said she could stay as long as she needed, Ginny knew staying wouldn’t technically be a problem. And, after their talk tonight, it might be 100% fine and comfortable and good. But the possibility of things going sideways still loomed. 

The safest option was to give herself options. So she texted El and told him to do both. The temp Ikea furniture could be given away if she didn’t love it, otherwise she could just use it in the guest bedroom. 

With that settled, she called Noah, who answered on the first ring.

“Hey gorgeous! I was just about to call you.”

Ginny smiled. It was nice knowing exactly where she stood with him. to hear the excitement so clear in his voice the moment he answered the phone.

“Oh yeah?”

“Absolutely. Listen, I’m sorry about last night. I would rather do literally anything with you than argue with Rackspace all night.”

She put him on speaker and continued packing up and tidying the place.

“Anything - wow. That’s a pretty bold statement. I’m not sure you can really back that up.”

He laughed, responding, “I definitely can. Attending a Nickelback concert with you, or arguing with Rackspace all night? No contest, I’d rather be at that show.”

“Oooh, I know how much you hate Nickelback. So that’s almost convincing. What about… going back to high school?”

“Hmmmm… do you still like me in this scenario?”

“Of course.”

“No contest then. I’d gladly suffer through high school with you rather than argue with Rackspace all night.

Ginny laughed, “Alright, I believe you.”

“Phew, good. Does that mean you’ll go to dinner with me tonight? Let me make up for canceling last night?”

Considering the difficult conversation they needed to have, Ginny felt like she was the one who needed to make up for something. So she told him he didn’t have anything to make up for and agreed to dinner at 7:00. She wanted to get home in time for earlyish bed since they were heading to Oakland tomorrow. 

Worried she’d jump the gun if the conversation continued, she made an excuse to get off the phone, then finished packing all but her clothes and toiletries for tomorrow. After all, they were headed out in the morning. Either tonight was her last night here, or last night had been. 

She left her Oakland bag just inside the bedroom door, her clothes for tomorrow folded neatly on top. Then she worked her way through the rest of her stuff, 80% of which was just leggings in every color, material and style. 

Finally, Ginny went around the kitchen and living room, making sure she didn’t leave anything out of place. She washed, dried and put away her coffee mug, crumpled her list of ways to avoid *that* situation again and tossed it in the trash, then grabbed the stray hoodie from the couch. 

She checked her phone. Eliot would be at the new condo in 30 minutes with the Ikea furniture. It was 12:30. If she stopped by the drugstore on the way, she’d get there right about the same time as him. And then she could help him put together furniture. 

She’d never done that before - put together her own furniture, for her own space. Her belly filled slowly with that intangible, fluttery sense of tectonic movement, as the planets in her system began bobbling into a deeply consequential new orbit. 

And then something piercing struck her chest.

I wish I could tell my dad about this.

She’d been through this enough times to know this wouldn’t be the last time. At least now she almost never picked up the phone to call him. 

Ginny gave herself a moment to miss him, then she ordered a car, grabbed her big suitcase and duffel bag, and headed back to the main house. She hoped Mike would be around, but something told her he wouldn’t, like she could feel the absence of him in her bones. 

-*-

Standing in line at the cash register, hoodie pulled up over her head, stupidly large sunglasses obscuring most of her face, Ginny pulled out her phone to text Mike. Maybe he’d want to come over and help put together Ginny’s First Ikea Furniture™. And maybe that’d make it easier for her to have that conversation she’d decided to have with him after therapy. 

 

 

Hey lazy - wake up already.
I have news! And could use
your help if it’s not too much
trouble  for you to get out of 
that old man bed before the 
sun sets again

It was her turn at the register, so she locked her phone and shoved it in her pocket before lining up her purchases on the counter. Dish soap, dish scrubber, two bottles of hand soap, shampoo, conditioner, her favorite hair oil, shaving cream, deodorant, duplicates of her sparse cosmetics and day/night lotions, a couple of utilitarian looking hand towels, Scrubbing Bubbles, a bottle of Meyer’s geranium scented cleaner, 8 small bottles of grape soda, milk, Cinnamon Toast Crunch, and two bags of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos: the essentials according to Ginny Baker. 

15 minutes later, the light jangle of keys coming out of her hoodie pocket created another one of those indelible moments. She turned the key in the lock and listened to the soft mechanical slide as she pressed down on the handle and opened the door to a brand new phase of life. 

She sat her bags on the kitchen counter then took her first in-person tour of the condo . It wasn’t some massive, palatial monstrosity. Just two bedrooms, two bathrooms, and one gorgeous balcony with views of both sunrise and sunset. 

She stepped out onto the balcony and let the afternoon breeze muss her hair, grateful for the privacy afforded by the 36th floor vantage point. She imagined the comfy outdoor furniture that should arrive any minute now with Eliot, the sunrise coffees she’d be able to enjoy without fear of being photographed or harassed.

Her place. A safe haven of her own design, utterly of her own making and dependent on no one but her. Well, sort of. Eliot and Amelia (yes, Amelia had accepted the apology juice and new constraints on their working relationship) had helped tremendously with finding the condo and setting up the short-term lease as a prequel to buying. But the point was, this was hers.

And, credit to Dr. Barton, who predicted that a place of her own, a home base she controlled, would give Ginny a sense of security independent of the fluctuations in her relationships with every other person in her life. Because she could already feel her nerves settling, and she was still just walking around an empty condo.

Oh damn. An empty condo with two balconies! The master bedroom had an eastern-facing balcony almost as big as the one off the living room. This was going to be awesome.

A light knock, followed by the snick of the door opening ended Ginny’s short tour.

“Uh - hey Ginny? Are you here?”

She padded back to the main living area, calling out as she moved, “Over here, El! You need help?”

He definitely did. He carried four blue Ikea bags, filled to the brim with household essentials, and of course the van he’d rented was full of furniture in the garage. Ginny had him drop the bags on the kitchen counter, then the two of them began the time-consuming task of carrying up the flat pack boxes that held her bed and outdoor furniture. 

On their last trip up, they carried the second of two pieces of assembled furniture she’d allowed herself from Ikea: a grey armchair. 

“You know, part of me is relieved we can use the freight elevator, because 36 floors is a lot of stairs. But I’m also a little disappointed neither of us can yell PIVOT as we carry this up a staircase.”

Ginny laughed and almost lost her grip on the chair, but it was relatively light and partially balanced on the elevator handrail. 

“Hah - don’t make me laugh, El! I can’t have additional injuries just from moving a few pieces of furniture!”

He tipped his head at her as the doors opened, “Ten-four, boss. Sorry about that. It’s just so hard for me to pass up a good Friends joke. That’s one of the few times people actually think I’m funny.”

Ginny scrunched up her face as the two trudged carefully toward her door.

“That’s not true. I thought it was hilarious the other day when you said Amelia was like the lovechild of Elsa and the Grinch before his heart grew ten sizes - hah! Still funny. See?”

Eliot rolled his eyes.

“That one doesn’t count. Everyone knows it’s easy to dunk on the ice queen.”

As they squeezed through the door, he winced and added, “Not to change the subject, but - how’s that going? You know, your new arrangement with the ice queen?”

They carried the chair the last few steps into the living room and sat it down as she answered, “Um, fine I guess? You know it hasn’t been that long. But at least in the last day or so I haven’t heard any backstabby, betrayal-filled stories about her messing around in my personal life. And she did help you get this place sorted, right?”

Eliot flopped down in the other grey chair looking mildly pained, whether it was from the effort of moving all her stuff or the topic, she couldn’t be sure. 

“Wait - she didn’t help you get this place sorted?”

He waved a hand.

“No, no - she definitely did. She handled all the business/contract details and stuff, for sure. It just took an act of god on my part to make her stop pushing for some beachside compound with 20 foot walls and a six car garage.”

He kept going, managing a mediocre but still entertaining impression of Amelia.

“Ginny is the most important woman in the world now. Her home is a part of her brand, her image. She has Nike’s best-selling lines of sportswear ever. She needs a house that adds to that image, not one that hides her away from everyone and everything that could build her empire.”

Back to himself, he explained, “I had to remind her how much you hate driving. And how much easier your life would be if you were close to the park and the airport with dependable security and privacy.”

He winced, “And how much more time you’d have to write your memoir if you weren’t dodging paps all the time.”

Ginny laughed.

“Haha, it’s fine, El. It’s not like I didn’t know the memoirs were on deck. And Amelia is supposed to hire a ghostwriter for me anyway. Besides, I can’t take issue with your methods. This place is awesome, and you made it happen so fast!”

He raised his eyebrows.

“Yeah, about that. I kind of promised the owner an autographed baseball for helping us get this done so fast.”

He pulled a ball and a sharpie out of one of the bags on the kitchen counter.

“Do you mind making this out to Felicity? Apparently she’s the owner’s kid, and she’s your biggest fan.”

Ginny cocked her head to the side, pulling her lips into a lopsided not quite grimace.

“Not Felicity Richards, right?”

“Actually, yes. How did you know that?”

Ginny wasn’t pausing for Eliot’s questions, because her brain was already running away.

“Wait, so the owner of this place is Steven Richards? Or Steven and Amy Richards?”

Eliot stood there looking utterly perplexed.

“Yes? I’m not sure what’s going on right now. I can’t tell if you’re surprised, horrified, or upset… or maybe all three. Do you know them?”

Of course it was a coincidence, but it sure felt like more. It felt like the subtle but certain tug of destiny. What that destiny was, Ginny couldn’t be sure. Maybe Felicity was the next female pitcher destined for the MLB, or maybe she was just the price of admission for Ginny to see Mike in his native godparent habitat. 

No matter what ended up coming from this, it felt like it would be a good thing. 

“Um, no. I don’t know them. I guess I know of them? I think they’re Mike’s friends, and Felicity is his goddaughter.”

“Huh. Weird. You’d think they’d have asked Mike for your autograph sooner.”

Ginny thought about it.

“Yeah. Maybe they’re not as close anymore since the divorce?”

Or maybe she and Mike weren’t as close as she thought. Surely not though. How many people even knew about Felicity and Barry and how much the Padre’s grumpiest catcher loved them? And Mike had said something about not realizing they hadn’t talked as much since the divorce. 

Speaking of, she walked over to the other end of the island and pressed the power button on her phone. The absence of any text notifications meant Mike hadn’t texted back. It also meant the probability calculations in her brain suddenly made it more probable that she and Mike weren’t really close. He really was just being a good captain, and she was the idiot who misunderstood things.

They had discussed this in therapy though. The calculations in her brain didn’t mean anything, because they were based on her anxiety-filled perspective, alone. No matter what, life would be easier if she didn’t have to make them anymore. And the only way to get there was to talk to Mike.

“Hey - so I think I have time to help you put together the bed frame, but then I need to jet. I have to get the van back to the rental service by 5.”

She looked up from her phone, obviously having heard nothing Eliot said.

“Huh? Sorry. Just got distracted by a meme.”

El waved a hand, “Happens to me all the time. I was just asking if you want to put together your bed frame real fast while I can help, because I have to head out and return the van soon.”

“Oh - yeah. Sure. Do you need me to sign the baseball first?”

“Yes - yep. That would be good. I can drop it off tomorrow morning that way.”

So Ginny signed the baseball while Eliot waddle-dragged the boxes for the bed into the guest bedroom. Ginny also wrote a short note to Felicity and instructed Eliot to make sure she got it. 

It took about 45 minutes for the two of them to put the bed together, mostly because they attached one side upside down and then had to undo and redo it all. Once they felt fairly certain the frame was structurally sound, they dumped the mattress on top, then took turns testing their handiwork by jumping on it.

“Are you sure you’ll be ok with the rest of this stuff on your own? I can come back after I return the van if you need help,” Eliot wheezed, out of breath from jumping on the bed.

Ginny nodded her head no.

“It’s fine, El. I’d be getting ready for dinner by the time you got back anyway. And I’m not about to make you try to guess where I want to put stuff while I go off to dinner with Noah.”

Eliot bobbed his eyebrows.

“Dinner with Noah. Are you going to finalize all those trip details? Amelia was beside herself about potential endorsement deals you could get with fancy hotel chains and travel websites.”

Ginny rolled her eyes.

“Well, she’s gonna be disappointed, then. Because I’m going to dinner to tell him I’m not going on that trip.”

“Oh yeah? Not feeling it anymore?”

Feeling super confused was more like it, but that wasn’t why she had decided not to go on the trip.

“Um, no - nothing like that. It’s the team. We’re still in the wildcard hunt. I know management said it was fine for me to go, but I think Amelia might have blackmailed Oscar into that. I just don’t feel right taking a vacation when I should be in the dugout supporting my team. And, I think it would look like special treatment.”

Eliot nodded his head, “Yeah, actually. Now that you say it, I can’t think of a time when one of the guys did something like that. And - Mike could barely walk that one time a few years ago, but he was still in the dugout every game.”

Ginny frowned then smiled, “Yeah. That stubborn idiot should have been in traction, but he’s nothing if not dedicated.”

Eliot glanced sideways at her, a knowing look passing briefly across his face.

“Well, if you’re sure you’ll be ok without help, I better get this van back before they charge us for a second day.”

Ginny nodded and followed him out to the main living area.

“Thanks for the help, El. I really appreciate it!”

“Anytime, boss! Have fun on your date tonight!” he yelled as he stepped through the threshold.

Ginny closed and locked the door behind him. Fun wasn’t exactly what she was predicting for the date tonight. But you never know, right?

She spent the next 45 minutes or so unpacking and putting away all the random household supplies: dishes, utensils, toiletries, towels, bath mats, cleaning supplies, her selected pantry staples. Then she moved on to unpacking and putting away her clothes, because she needed to pick something to wear tonight, and it couldn’t be a leggings-based outfit. 

After half-heartedly organizing her clothes, Ginny suddenly wished she and Evelyn had spent some time looking for normal, non-island appropriate clothes the other day. She only had four dresses. Four! How was that possible?

She wasn’t trying to pull out all the stops tonight. It’s just that she had so many important conversations planned, and for some reason her outfit needed to strike the right note for all of them. She pulled out her phone and used a lifeline.

“Ev! I’m having a clothing emergency!” she bleated at the phone as her friend’s face filled the screen.

Evelyn nodded her head knowingly, “I am not surprised at all, but you’ve come to the right place. First, tell me what the clothes are for and why you haven’t mentioned whatever it is before now.”

“Ugh,” she whined, “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you, but I don’t have time to apologize and grovel right now. So can you please help me figure out what to wear on a date with Noah where I need to break the news that I’m not going on the trip - “

Evelyn’s sharp intake of breath and wide-eyed expression indicated imminent commentary, but she stopped herself.

“- with him but not because of anything he did or anything about him? And I only own four dresses!”

Well, it was partially about him and her inability to decide if it was unfair to him for her to be secretly grappling with this… confusion about Mike. But Ev didn’t need to know that part yet.

“Whew, girl. We are gonna talk about this later, but I know you’re in a rush. So show me what we’re working with in terms of dresses… aaaaaand show me all your jackets.”

Ginny petulantly pulled four dresses from the closet - the black one she’d worn on her first ill-fated date with Noah, the purple/magenta one she’d worn to dinner with her mom, a simple black bodycon dress that nearly bored her to tears, and a white sundress with cornflower blue flowers dotting its surface. 

Evelyn grimaced, “Well, that’s not much to work with, but show me the jackets.”

At least Ginny had jackets. She flipped through them while Ev passed judgment on each one.

“No, no, definitely not. I don’t even know why you own that atrocity, no, no - wait, stop. Pull that one out and let me get a better look.”

Ginny pulled the jacket out as instructed and held it up against the bare wall.

“Yes! That’ll work.”

Ginny narrowed her eyes and frowned, “Are you sure, Ev? An army green jean jacket with a black cocktail dress?”

“Are you just meeting me? Do you not implicitly trust my fashion sense? Or at least fear me enough not to doubt me?”

Ginny flopped onto the bed, holding the phone above her face.

“Ugh, you know I do. I’m just nervous about tonight, and I wish I’d planned it a little better.”

“You really like this boy, don’t you?”

“I guess I do.” It didn’t matter that one of them meant Noah and the other meant more than just Noah. Probably.

“Well you better go get dressed then. I can tell you don’t have a lick of mascara on, and you better at least put on that gel eyeliner I spent so long teaching you how to use!”

Ginny sighed heavily, “Fine. I’m going. Thanks for the help, Ev. I’d never make it without you.”

“Damn right you wouldn’t. Now be sure to write down all the details as you go tonight. Momma needs to hear about some action tomorrow!”

Ginny groaned, “Bye, Ev!”

After ending the call, her phone lit up with several text messages from Evelyn.

 

 

Don’t think I didn’t notice
the new digs. You have got
a lot of explaining to do 
Ginny Irene Baker.

 

And don’t sass me about
Irene not being your middle
name. You keep stuff from
me, I give you a middle name
of my choosing. Those are 
the rules!

 

We are having brunch when you
get back from Oakland, and you
are going to spill EVERYTHING.

Ginny laughed and started to lock the phone when she noticed an uncleared text notification. From Mike, from 2 hours ago.

 

 

Rookie - got an important dinner
tonight, and I could use your 
youthfully imbalanced perspective.
You free to help me judge some 
people over dinner at 7?

He wanted her to come to dinner with him! And some people he needed to judge for some reason - whatever. The point was, he wanted her to come to dinner! Maybe he wasn’t avoiding her, or maybe last night wasn’t as intense and affecting as it felt at the time. Either way, this was good. Well, it was better. They could have that conversation after all.

Crap. Except she couldn’t cancel on Noah, no matter how badly every cell in her body was screaming at her to do just that. Oh. That was a problem.

Much like her realization in the car last night, Ginny collided head first with another uncomfortable truth. With the option to go to a random dinner with unknown people and Mike on the table, there was no part of her that wanted to go to dinner with Noah. The only thing keeping her from canceling was a sense of duty and desire not to be a complete dick to a nice guy.

She headed into the bathroom as she typed out a reply to Mike, briefly noticing that she never actually sent the text she typed out at the drugstore. Whoops. But also, yay! That meant he hadn’t been ignoring her, because she hadn’t given him anything to ignore.

 

 

Sorry, Cap. As much as I’d
love to encourage your worst
tendencies tonight, I 
already have dinner plans. 

Catch you at the house later
though?

She didn’t have time to wait on a response, so she put on a playlist and scrambled to get ready for dinner. She’d see him later tonight, and they could have their talk. She could do this.

Ginny quickly finished the very light makeup she preferred, threw her hair into a high ponytail, and headed back into the bedroom to get dressed. She stripped off her leggings and top, then stood in front of a haphazard mass of clothing for longer than necessary. 

Her dresser would arrive sometime while she was in Oakland, so her underwear and bras were dumped in a pile in the corner of the master bedroom. The seven matching sets from Triannon appeared lit up, as if by neon lights. 

Ginny grabbed the crimson set, because it made her feel pretty and feminine, and maybe a little daring. Which was exactly what she would need after dinner to help her find the guts to talk about this thing they weren’t talking about and address it bluntly enough to stop all the confusion, one way or another.

She threw on the matching bra and boy shorts, the dress, the heels and the jacket, which thankfully was just loose enough on her arms to not irritate her dressing and stitches. Then she walked back to the bathroom to check her reflection in the only mirror available. 

Ginny adjusted the collar on her jacket, then tested a few of her normal sitting positions to see how they affected her arm and any lace peeking out of her dress. The lace was for her tonight, mostly. And for some reason she wanted to make sure it didn't show unless she wanted it to.

Satisfied that her outfit did only what she wanted, Ginny ordered an Uber, noting the glaring lack of any text notifications. It probably just took Mike forever to respond with those bear paws he called hands.

-*-

Once again, Noah had completely outdone himself in setting up a near-perfect date. He’d cleared out a brick oven-style Italian restaurant, knowing that Ginny loved almost every kind of pizza. The way he’d obviously paid attention to every word she’d ever said to him made the struggle to break the news even more difficult.

But she had to do it at some point, and the lull after ordering the fried ravioli appetizer seemed as good an opening as any.

Ginny leaned forward, resting both forearms on the table.

“Hey Noah?”

“Uh oh. I know that ‘hey Noah’ - it’s the one my COO uses to tell me one of our best managers is leaving. It’s also the one my head of IT uses to tell me we got hacked. Wait - did you get hacked?”

Ginny laughed, a little bitterly, “Um, no. Not again, that I know of at least. No, I just -”

Noah frowned, then popped his eyebrows up and smiled.

“Need to tell me you’re allergic to pasta and will have to skip the ravioli?”

“Hah, no. I don’t think I could survive if I were allergic to pasta.”

He nodded, “Yeah, that did seem unlikely. Alright, go ahead and break whatever bad news you have. I’ll stop interrupting you with my wishful thinking.”

Ginny sighed.

“Um, I can’t go on this trip. It’s just - we’re still in it for the wildcard, and I really need the team to see me as one of the guys, and - “

Noah laughed.

“Wait - why are you laughing?”

“When you said you’d go on the trip, I thought I basically won the lottery. You barely know me, you’re one of the busiest humans on the planet, you’re literally making history every day… There are a million things that could reasonably keep you from going, and you don’t have to explain a single one to me.”

“Really?”

He looked her in the eyes, reminding her of the many things she liked about him, one of which being the kindness that seemed to animate his features at all times. 

“Of course. Are you kidding? I know we haven’t talked about everything, but I do read the papers. You’ve had a hell of a ride the last few months. Honestly, I don’t know how you’re functioning right now. Shouldn’t you need a nap? Or a 24/7 on-call therapist?”

Ginny nodded her head, “Hah, yeah. 24/7 therapist is probably a great idea now that you mention it… Anyway, I’m sorry I have to cancel on the trip. I was really looking forward to it. I just can’t do it and still be considered just one of the guys on the team.”

Noah lifted one eyebrow.

“I honestly don’t see how anyone could look at you and think of you as just one of the guys, but I understand what you’re saying, and it’s fine. We can go on a trip sometime in the off-season if you don’t get tired of me before then.”

Ginny dropped her eyes to the table, then brought them back up to Noah, a closed lip smile on her face.

“You’re, um - you’re a really nice guy, Noah.”

He frowned, narrowing his eyes as he responded, “I’m not sure what part of me treating you like a living breathing human makes me nice, but I think we should get you out more so you stop thinking common decency is nice.”

Ginny furrowed her brows.

“Wait -are you saying the world is bigger than major league baseball? That there are other kinds of people than baseball players?”

“Hah, yeah. I know it’s a shock, but there are actually a lot of really good people in the world outside of PETCO Park.”

Ginny leaned back and crossed her arms.

“Huh. I guess I’ll have to check that out one of these days.”

Just then, the waiter brought out the fried ravioli. Noah motioned for her to dig in first, so she speared one on her fork before bringing it safely to her plate.

“Hey, so - just real quick, while your mouth is completely full of ravioli so I can earn maximum date bonus points - not going on the trip is just about the team, yeah? You’re not just saying that as a way to get around saying something like ‘it’s not you, it’s me’ or ‘I just don’t like guys who believe we should do something about climate change’, right?”

Ginny covered her mouth so she wouldn’t spew half-chewed ravioli all over him. It rankled her soul that he was so likable, because if Mike weren’t floating around, Noah would be such a catch. And there would be no ifs, ands, or buts about it. She’d just be excited to have met this great guy with a good heart who made her feel special and important and valued. 

But Mike was there, and though he wasn’t the reason she was canceling the trip, Noah deserved at least some level of honesty about her conflicted, divided feelings.

“Haha, how many bonus points would it have been if I’d spit ravioli all over you?”

He smirked through his answer, “At least 50,000.”

Ginny laughed.

“Um, not going on the trip really is just about the team, and I actually find it very attractive that you care about climate change.”

Noah crossed his arms, tipped his head to the side and pulled his lips into an off-kilter smirk.

“Huh. My high school self would never believe this moment. On a related note, I should tell you that I ride my bike to work at least twice a week to cut down on my carbon footprint.”

Ginny blew out a breath, and fanned herself dramatically.

“Geez, Noah. We’re in public. Tone down the dirty talk at least til we’re alone.”

He chuckled lightly and conceded, “Yes, ma’am.”

She did not want to ruin this moment, but she had to. Ginny cleared her throat, prepared to unleash a deluge on their hilarious parade.

“Um, I do need to tell you something though.”

“Well, dammit. I really thought we made it past the dangerous part of this dinner.”

Ginny winced, hating herself even as she spoke.

“It’s not - um, it might not be dangerous? I just think you need to know something before this goes any further.”

“Uh huh. Listen, if it’s something that’s been in the news, you don’t need to tell me about it.”

She blanched, letting her mouth hang open.

“Oh no - no, no, no. I haven’t seen any of it, ok? I didn’t look. I just mean, if you’re about to explain anything that’s been in the news, I’m aware that it exists, and it’s your business. And I’m sorry that it’s been in the news. None of that is fair to you.”

Ginny nodded her head back and forth, several emotions playing across her face.

“Um - heh, damn. - “ she pursed her lips, frustrated and suddenly a little mad. Not at Noah, at the fact that she had to confront this again. And likely would have to many more times in her life, which she didn’t need. This conversation was hard enough without Trevor’s lying ass making things worse.

“Um, listen. Thank you for that, but unfortunately, that wasn’t what I was referencing.”

“Ah.”

“Listen, Noah - I really like you. I enjoy spending time with you, and I think you might be one of the best humans I’ve ever met. But I’m kind of hung up on someone from my past. Nothing’s going on. We’re not seeing each other, we won’t be. Nothing’s gonna happen, but… it distracts me. It makes me at least partially unavailable, and at least partially incapable of giving you what you deserve.”

His reaction was not what she expected. He shook his head, looking pleasantly surprised.

“You’re incredible.”

Ginny raised an eyebrow, “What?”

“You’re an extraordinary person.”

“Wow - um, that was not the reaction I was expecting.”

“I’m going to refer back to my earlier comment about needing to get you out of PETCO more often,” he leaned forward and put a hand over her hand.

“First of all, I don’t know who this person is, but it is very difficult for me to imagine a man stupid enough to have you, lose you and not come after you if there were a snowball’s chance in hell that he might succeed.”

Ginny could feel warmth nucleating in her stomach and slowly reaching tendrils out to her entire body. It didn’t hold a candle to how she felt when she was with Mike, but what did that matter? Nothing was or could go on with Mike, other than a very difficult conversation.

“Second, I appreciate you giving me the opportunity to say I don’t give one single shit. If there’s nothing going on, and you like me, and there’s even the tiniest shot that this continues, I’m in. But also, I think that was one of the bravest, most mature things I’ve ever seen in my life.”

He shook his head back and forth, then brought his eyes, overflowing with sincerity, back to hers.

“You amaze me, Ginny Baker. And I’d love to continue trying to do the same for you.”

She smiled and nodded. She didn’t have anything else going on right now, and Noah knew everything but names at this point. When Mike inevitably told her later that night that he was just being a good captain, she’d be glad that she left this door open. She’d also be incredibly grateful to have her own place to go and hide from both of them. 

-*-

Ginny hugged Noah goodnight before throwing herself into the backseat of the car she ordered. 1.5 difficult conversations down, one more to go.

As the car wound toward La Jolla, she went back over the plan in her mind. She would ask if they could talk about something as friends, not batterymates. She’d say his friendship had become very important to her, one of the most important in her life, in such a short time. She’d say this was hard for her to talk about, because it scared her. She feared damaging their friendship, or god forbid losing it. She didn’t want to imagine her life without him.

But, she would say, they did need to talk about that night. Because it was confusing her and muddying the water of their friendship, and it didn’t need to. They were good enough friends, important enough to each other, that they could just be honest, talk it out, and move on. 

She would ask what would have happened if Oscar hadn’t called, because her bravery only went so far tonight. And that was easier than asking, “Do you ever see me as more than your friend?” or “Would you have kissed me?”

But, she would be brave enough to be honest if he didn’t shut it down. If he left the door open or admitted that he would’ve kissed her, she’d admit it, too. And then they’d figure out what that meant, together. 

On the other hand, if Mike made an excuse or brushed it off, then at least she’d know. And knowing would be better than this thing they’d been doing. 

The car pulled up to the place Ev hilariously named the “Glass Box of Emotions,” and Ginny got out, grateful for the chilly night air. 

She could tell from the complete lack of light that Mike wasn’t home yet. So she made her way to the couch, stepping out of her heels and taking her hair down as she went. 

Ginny stood directly in front of her spot on the couch, then trust-fell backwards into the welcoming nook. She laid there bathing in the soothing scent of MikesPlace™ for a mere five minutes before she heard the door to the garage creaking open. 

Her stomach filled with butterflies, the 70% nervous, 30% excited kind, but she waited until she heard him in the main living area before calling out.

“Old man, I’ve been looking for you all day! I thought maybe you were kidnapped by an old folks home.”

Mike turned, and she saw several emotions dance across his features: surprise, relief, utter joy, and genuine affection. It filled her with such certainty, she knew what he would say when she asked about that night. 

She beamed back at him, the butterflies suddenly 70% excited, 30% nervous. She couldn’t help it. When he walked in the room, it felt like coming home. His stupid beard, and that stupid eyebrow, his obnoxious swagger. Mike Lawson was not just her batterymate, and they were about to finally admit it to each other.

They spoke at the same time.

“I have to tell you something!”

They both laughed, and Ginny watched, feeling possessed by an otherworldly glow, as Mike walked around and took his spot on the couch. This was going to be so good. They were already on the same page, and all they had to do was say it out loud.

“Alright, Rook,” he drawled, “whatcha got?”

She smiled, reaching out to put her phone down on the couch, but it buzzed. She swiped to clear it, but instead she came face to face with another Barstool photo essay that looked hand-crafted to blow up her life. Mike stood in the window of some fancy restaurant, clearly absorbed in deep conversation with a petite brunette, whose hand rested very familiarly on his arm. He looked utterly smitten. 

He had wanted Ginny to meet this woman the way you saw in movies, when the main character needs the side characters to say the new boyfriend or girlfriend seems great. Goddammit. Why did she have to be this stupid? Of fucking course he was just being a good captain all this time. She tried to swallow the pain and hurt, but it climbed right back up her throat, scorching and adamant. 

She bit her lower lip, then spoke, trying her damndest to fake enthusiasm, “Um, good news! You don’t have to worry about all my youthful misconceptions cramping your style anymore.”

She couldn’t look at him, so she focused hard on the bridge of his nose and blocked out everything else but that tiny patch of skin. 

“Eliot found me a great condo, and he actually got it set up and furnished today. I was just hanging out here til you got home so I could say thanks, grab the rest of my stuff and get outta your hair.”

Chapter Text

Everything in Mike’s body shifted as soon as the words were out of her mouth. He pushed himself back on the couch, leaned into the cushions, crossed his arms, and flexed his jaw, like he’d forgotten he didn’t have gum in his mouth but needed that familiar tic. Forcing himself to respond half normally despite her looking right through him like he was nothing more than a wisp of smoke tested the furthest limits of his will. 

He widened his eyes and fought the frown threatening to dominate his expression as he responded, “Hey - that’s great, Baker! Glad to see you so enthusiastic about adulting.”

She nodded, and pursed her lips.

“Yeah, thanks. I, uh - I just figured I better clear out before the groupies find out you’re single again and try to reclaim their natural habitat.”

“Hah, funny.”

Ginny frowned. It wasn’t like him not to riff off of that or make some comment about what a curse it was to be so irresistible to women. She tipped her head to the side and really looked at him for the first time since she’d seen the picture. His eyes were focused on his knees, clad in those dark wash jeans he wore so well. 

“You feelin’ alright, old man?”

He looked up and met her eyes, surprised to find her looking at him again and not through him. Ginny saw the surprise but she also saw… deflation? Was he disappointed that she was leaving? Surely not, that would be crazy, especially given his new lady friend. 

Mike sighed heavily and made a face that telegraphed displeasure and resignation.

“To tell you the truth, I think I’m feeling a little selfish right now, maybe even a little disappointed in myself.”

She opened her mouth to respond, because this felt like little lost boy territory, but he cut her off with a wave of his hand.

“I know what you’re gonna say - how could I be disappointed in myself when myself is all this?” He gestured vaguely to his body and the house.

There he is.

“What can I say? I got used to the idea of you being here... I’m a little disappointed that you won’t be anymore.” He squinted his eyes, and smirked, continuing, “And I know it’s selfish, because you’re a big deal - not as big a deal as me, obviously - but you deserve to enjoy all that Nike money. So it’s selfish of me to wish you would stay, but then, I’m a selfish guy. So… ”

He was disappointed. What the hell did that mean?

Ginny stood up from the couch, straightening her dress as she took the couple of steps necessary to reach him. Mike couldn’t tear his eyes off her, and though the journey took seconds, he felt like he spent an eternity watching baseball’s one and only siren draw him ever closer to what could only be death. 

She draped herself over the arm of the couch next to him and placed a calloused hand on his forehead, one impossibly perfect leg brushing lightly against his arm. 

“Huh. You don’t feel feverish… Maybe it’s a stroke! You’re old enough for those, right?”

Mike rolled his eyes emphatically, but at least banter provided a convenient smokescreen for her disappointment and confusion. 

“You know what, Rook? I take it back. The sooner you leave, the better.” 

Ginny shoved him hard with her pitching hand, laughing as she jabbed, “Oh shut up, you big fat liar.”

Mike glanced sideways at her, actively avoiding the tractor beam known as direct eye contact with Ginny Baker, and parried back, “Hey now! Didn’t anyone ever teach you words hurt? You’re gonna give me a complex! What if I stop eating and waste away just because some upstart Rookie couldn’t stop making comments about my body?”

“Fat chance - hah!” She laughed so hard at her own joke that she slid down the arm of the couch and nearly into Mike’s lap. Lucky for him (or not), he had the presence of mind to scoot over just enough to make space for her before he found himself with a lap full of Ginny Baker. 

“See? This is exactly why I should be happy to see you go. You come into my house, fill my fridge with purple soda, steal my favorite blanket, take the best spot on my couch, and then tease me mercilessly about my weight when you know I’m sensitive about it. You’re a vicious woman, Ginny Baker.”

When Ginny turned to face him, he’d dialed the puppy dog eyes up to an 11. It would have worked on most women, but not her. She bobbled her head around and deadpanned. 

“Mmmm, not my first day anymore, Mike. You and I both know I’d never make any comment remotely close to body shaming, because that crap is not ok. Besides, I know for a fact you have a 12 foot poster of your favorite body issue shot hanging in the hall upstairs. You’re just trying to change the subject ‘cause you said something real and now you feel weird about it.”

She crossed her arms, unconsciously (but, was it really?) putting a small but noticeable amount of crimson lace on display. Mike had already directed his eyes at the coffee table though, conscious of his unreliable self control.

He leaned into her arm, playfully pushing her over and sighing heavily, “Alright, alright, you got me. I’m happy for you, really. I’m just gonna miss all your youthful nonsense around here, that’s all.”

He paused, then added, “You oughta know by now I use my fantastic sense of humor and well-earned arrogance as a smokescreen.”

Mike Lawson, closet teddy bear. Why did he have to let her see this side of him? Sure, Mike Lawson, MLB hotshot, ladies man extraordinaire was a legend in his own right, and occasionally a blast to hang out with. But Mike Lawson, living, breathing human - proud, doting godfather - genuinely attached, protective friend - was something else entirely. 

Ginny leaned back into him, mirroring the gentle nudge he’d just given her. This was definitely a bad idea for her, but he looked and sounded so sincere. Whatever else was or wasn’t between them, they were friends, and even if it hurt like hell, she’d do her damndest to protect that, and him.

“Tell you what, Cap. Since I know what a shock could do to a system as fragile as yours, I won’t make you drop all this,” she widened her eyes and smirked mockingly as she spoke her next words, “youthful nonsense cold turkey, ok?”

Without turning his head, Mike side-eyed her, pulling his mouth into some cross between a grimace and smirk.

“What exactly do you propose, Rookie?”

She furrowed her brow, incredulous and pulled both legs up to the couch, tucking her feet almost underneath her, turning completely sideways to face him. 

“Great British Baking Show nights, obviously. You cook, I’ll show up with my sparkling personality and hilarious comments, and we can watch the new episode together every week.”

Mike pulled one leg up to the couch as he turned to face her, his shin skimming her knees as his brain suddenly lost every thought other than, “Ginny. Red lace bra. Red lace bra grazing warm soft Ginny skin. Red lace bra. Ginny.”

Jesus Christ. She was gonna kill him.

He cleared his throat, then spoke, his voice shockingly unstable, “And this is you doing me a favor? Coming to my house, eating my food, hogging my couch?”

She smiled wide, her dimple popping as she nodded her head emphatically.

“Definitely.”

The petite brunette suddenly appeared in her mind again, causing her smile to fade as she added, “Unless you need to leave your schedule open for groupie BBQs or, you know, other better, more important people than me.”

He’d have to be some special kind of dense not to have noticed the genuine doubt in her voice, the naked insecurity on her face, the way her entire body subtly moved away from him as she spoke. 

On one hand, it seemed impossible for her to not know how important she was to him. But on the other hand, she’d had a pretty bad run when it came to trusting people who were supposed to care about her. God, why couldn’t he be 7 years younger and about 1000x less of a mess?

His hand reached out of its own accord, covering the hand she had resting on her knee. She fought the urge to close her eyes and bask in the warmth climbing up her arm and spreading through her body. 

“Gin?”

Why did it sound so private when he called her that? Gin. The nickname itself wasn’t elegant or unusual, but the way he said it was. His voice made it sound like she was something precious and rare, something so important he’d barely even whisper it in private for fear someone else might hear and try to take this treasure away from him.

She mustered the courage to look him in the eye, despite knowing it was a terrible idea. There was no humor on his face, no trace of mocking or sarcasm - just big, gold-flecked eyes, laser-focused on her.

“You remember the night of my almost-trade?”

Ginny looked around, as if to ask the nonexistent audience if they heard the same thing she just heard. She’d agonized over how to bring this up, what she would say about it, how she would handle the various ways he might respond to her line of inquiry. And now he just goes there like it’s nothing?

She pursed her lips and nodded her head, “Um, yep - sure do.” 

“You remember I said I was gonna miss the hell outta you?”

She nodded again, unable to respond verbally due to the razor’s edge of anxiety currently supporting her entire psyche. 

“Well I wasn’t exaggerating, and I wouldn’t miss the hell outta someone who’s not important to me, alright? So I will grudgingly accept this arrangement where I let you come eat my food and steal the best place on my couch, because - and if you tell anyone this, I’ll deny it - I kinda like you better than most people...”

Ginny squinted one eye, motioning for him to keep going with one hand, “People on the team? People in San Diego?”

Mike’s entire face spoke for him, but he added, “Nope, just people. Period.”

She knew his words, the way he wouldn’t take his eyes off her, the light pressure of his thumb dragging back and forth across her hand should make her feel at least relieved that he wanted and valued her friendship. But instead she was suddenly furious and exhausted all at once, because he walked up to the line, touched it with a single toe, then backed away, acting like he didn’t know there was a line at all. 

And, ok, maybe he didn’t know there was a line, or the edge of a cliff. Maybe it didn’t matter or affect him at all, and he really did just enjoy her friendship. And sure, if so, he was being a really good friend right now, potentially award worthy, in fact. 

Yes, fine, maybe that night was just a difficult goodbye between close friends for him. And of course he was allowed to value her friendship and not want anything else, you know, in the grand scheme of things. But right now in this moment, she couldn’t take it, and she needed to get away from him right the hell now.

She pulled her hand out from underneath his and brought it up to her mouth, swiping nervously at her bottom lip once before responding.

“Ok, then it’s settled. You’ll cook, and I’ll annoy you less than other people on Tuesday nights.”

As soon as she’d reclaimed her hand, Mike reluctantly pulled his back as well, afraid close contact with her bare skin would have the same effect as truth serum in a Russian spy movie.

Then, Ginny slapped both hands on her knees and pursed her lips as she stood, declaring, “Speaking of, I better get on outta here before you change your mind,” she took a step toward the back door, “Just gonna grab the rest of my stuff real quick, k?”

She didn’t wait for a response, leaving Mike alone and confused. He didn’t understand her sudden rush, and he genuinely thought he’d conveyed her importance without veering into dangerous territory. Her expression had seemed, at least momentarily, like he’d succeeded in banishing the insecure loner from her thoughts. But if he had, why the sudden need to leave, accompanied by the paper thin excuse?

In the poolhouse, Ginny crammed her tomorrow clothes and remaining toiletries angrily into the little roller bag she’d left here for Oakland. As she packed, she chewed on her anger like an old piece of gum, rolling it around, working it back and forth to eke out every last ounce of negativity and self-flagellation. 

She was mad at Mike for caring enough to take care of her, over and over, in progressively less platonic, more thoughtful ways, but not enough to want her. She was mad at herself for ever looking at his stupid smug face and really believing he could want her, and that even as the worst idea in the world, it could actually be earth-shatteringly great. 

And she was mad at the world, the universe, every atom of creation for conspiring to bring her to this point in her life without real parents or anyone she could talk to who was just rabidly, unquestioningly on her side. (Ev would be, but she’d be conflicted because of the effects on the team. So she doesn’t count here.) And then she was back to Mike again, because something about the way his stupid cheeks scrunched up under that ratty beard, the way his eyes crinkled a little differently when he smiled at her, that wink in the PETCO hallway, and the way he changed her name just for himself had made some small part of her believe he might be that person.

But none of it was true, and she was fucking furious at everyone and everything, including herself, about it. At least she wouldn’t have to try to keep her anger in check in her own place, though. At least she could get out of here, hold it together through the car ride, and then yell or cry or do whatever she wanted to in her own place.

She stomped through the hallway, bag in tow, quickly glancing around to make sure she didn’t forget anything. Then she made a concerted effort to normalize her gait and posture as she opened the door and crossed the patio back to the main house. 

Mike was posted up at the kitchen island when she came back in, still wearing the hell out of those jeans and a crisp looking navy button down. She glanced at him, then directed her attention to her phone to order the Uber she should have called before heading to the pool house.

As she stepped back into her heels, Mike’s voice sounded behind her, “Want me to give you a ride, Rook? Won’t have to wait for an Uber, and - bonus - you’d get to spend more time with your favorite ballplayer.”

Ginny stood up to her full, heeled height and turned to face him, committed body and soul to escaping him as soon as humanly possible. It was the closest he’d ever come to seeing a Valkyrie in real life. 

“No, thanks. I think you’ve done enough babysitting. Besides, my car will be here by the time I get out to the street anyway.”

She grabbed her roller bag, phone and clutch and began the short but interminable walk to the front door, pausing only briefly as she passed the island (and her catcher) to say, “Thanks for letting me crash, old man. See ya tomorrow sometime.”

Mike’s eyebrow dropped down in consternation as he stepped around in front of her.

“Come on, Rook. Cancel the car, let me drive you. It’ll help me sleep at night.”

He had to be fucking joking. Or doing this on purpose. But of course he wasn’t. Of course his eyes bled sincerity and gold-leafed concern. Mike Lawson must have been some kind of tailor-made punishment for being a baby seal clubber in a past life. There was no other explanation for this bullshit.

“No! Thank you.” 

No human alive could miss the edge in her voice, certainly not the one who’d spent at least one memorable dream cataloguing the different vocal qualities that accompanied her kaleidoscope of moods. But even he didn’t realize the frayed edge he was about to worry ended in a stick of dynamite. 

“Did I do something to make you mad, Rook?”

Did he do something? Did he fucking do something?

She released the hand on her rolly bag, her hands and arms needing space to punctuate the destruction of her breaking dam.

“No, Mike. You didn’t do anything, ok? Except somehow become the best friend I’ve ever had other than Ev. And make me laugh all the time and feel safe and important and cared for.”

Something took flight in Mike’s chest, but her voice was escalating, taking on a harshness that clashed with her words.

“And then talk about that night at Boardner’s like the only thing that happened was a conversation at the bar, like there wasn’t this epic, charged moment that we definitely did need to talk about! That you said was nothing. And - ,” her voice broke a little, which only stoked her anger, “I get it, maybe it was nothing to you. Fine! I just thought we were good enough friends to at least confront it honestly and move on. I thought I mattered enough for that, but that was my mistake. Just one of those youthful misconceptions I guess.”

Her anger was no longer searing enough to look him in the eye, so she dropped her eyes and held up her phone, hoping for a swift exit.

“It wasn’t nothing.”

She kept her eyes on the phone and shot back, “Whatever. Honestly, fuck off. I can’t take this I’m-being-a-good-captain-taking-care-of-my-rookie routine. We can both pretend this never happened tomorrow, but I don’t have the energy or patience to play this game with you right now.”

And then, Mike did something so stupid, even he couldn’t believe he did it.

Mike Lawson laughed. 

Because, god, look at her. Riotous curls framing her goddess-like face. Jaw clenched in fury, so alive and vital and incapable of backing down. She was a walking, talking, caring, hard-working, brilliant, funny, bright, talented, killer force of nature. She would own the entire world someday, and Mike was just an ant with a first row seat to the building of the Roman Empire.

He couldn’t do anything but laugh, because she could punch him in the face, and the only thought in his brain would be, “Fuck. I’m in love with Ginny Baker.”

Ginny looked up from her phone, eyes wide and dangerous, unsure if she actually heard him laugh or if that was just her anxiety and anger ratcheted all the way up to the incredibly-painful-but-lifelike-hallucination level.

“Did you just laugh , Mike?”

His face blanked, and he did his best impression of that idiot from Jurassic Park who tries to hold still enough that the dinosaurs won’t see him. He couldn’t exactly explain why he laughed. No way in the world he could make the trip from “you said it was nothing” to “actually, I’m in love with you” without running her off entirely.

Ginny exhaled with finality, 10,000% done with this horrible not-conversation. She grabbed her bag and took a step toward the front door, but Mike caught her arm.

“Baker, wait. It wasn’t nothing. You said you wanted to talk, let’s talk.”

Baker, not Gin.

She turned and gave him the same look he’d seen on the mound that day he’d stupidly asked if she was having a panic attack. He hated that look, especially since he’d deserved it every time he saw it. 

“Too late, too bad. I can’t even look at you right now.”

She shook his hand off her arm and continued to the door. She paused but didn’t turn around as she mumbled, “I’m gonna forget this ever happened. You should do the same, and then we’ll be fine…”

“See ya tomorrow maybe...”

As the door closed, Mike mumbled weakly, “Bye, Gin.”

Though normally he’d love the idea of falling asleep to the sound of her voice, tonight, the repeating chorus of “too late, too bad, I can’t even look at you” lulled him into a fitful sleep, rife with nightmares of a mute Ginny throwing perfect games right into his glove without ever speaking a word to him.

Chapter Text

Their flight to Oakland took off at 10:30, so Ginny had plenty of time to literally work out her frustrations before heading to the airport. She threw her hair in a sloppy ponytail, brushed her teeth and grabbed a water bottle from the fridge, all the while trying to convince herself that she could do exactly what she said last night - pretend Boardner’s never happened, that she hadn’t absolutely lost it and yelled at him about it all, that they could go back to whatever it was they had before.

The mild nausea swirling in her belly told her that she wasn’t convinced, but she’d feel better with a few miles between herself and this moment. So she stepped out the front door just before 6 am, relieved to have a fairly private, well-equipped gym that Mike Lawson couldn’t haunt. 

That relief quickly morphed into surprise, anxiety, annoyance and mild anger as she found herself face to face with the very man she was trying to avoid. He sat facing her door, looking a little worse for wear, ass on the concrete floor, legs extended in front of him as if on the verge of a pike stretch with his back arrow straight against the wall. 

And, the idiot had the nerve to look not only happy, but… enamored? beguiled? when she appeared in his field of vision. In the face of her irritation, he had the audacity to look like that. Was he drunk?

She crossed her arms and scowled at him, but that just made him smile even bigger. He’d woken up from one of those silent Ginny nightmares at 3 am, completely convicted by her words and driven to action.

They were good enough friends. She did matter that much - she was almost all that mattered. It wasn’t fair for him to make her feel like she imagined it or wasn’t important enough, or like he didn’t trust her enough to talk it out. Leaving her alone in this was the real garbage behavior, not giving her the opportunity to choose how to deal with it. 

After all that, Mike was physically incapable of leaving things the way they were last night. So he’d woken Eliot up out of a dead sleep, told him several lies that may or may not have made any sense, and then showed up here, determined to catch her the minute she woke up.

“Hey.”

She poured even more ire into her facial expression and snapped back, “Don’t hey me. What are you doing? And how long have you been sitting out here?”

“And how did you even know where I was?” 

Mike held up one finger, then took several long seconds to stand, his joints making sounds that pained Ginny, despite her youth and exasperation. By the time he got to his feet, she’d opened the door, motioning him inside if for no other reason than to get this circus out of the hallway and away from the neighbors she hadn’t even met yet. 

“Well. Spit it out - what do you want, Lawson?”

Ginny deliberately put the island in between them, leaning up against the counter furthest away from him while he paced on the other side. 

“Mike!”

He stopped pacing and turned to face her, both hating and loving the way she’d put space and probably a ton of granite in between them. 

“I’m sorry.”

She raised her eyebrows, chewed her bottom lip and bit back, “Ok, great. That it? We done here?”

Mike swallowed back something between a sigh and a growl of frustration, because that was on him, he earned that response.

“I’m sorry for laughing last night - you didn’t deserve that.”

Was he fucking serious?! He posted up outside her door just so he could wake her up with the mother duck routine. Was he some kind of closet sadist?

“No. Uh uh. I’m not doing this, Mike. Go on home, take a nap. We can have this conversation any other time, any other place. I’m not doing this here or now. Just go.” 

She stared him down, hard, pointing to the door.

His voice wasn’t loud or harsh, but there was no questioning the resolve in his response, “No. You don’t even know what this conversation is yet - just hear me out. If you want me to go after that, I’ll go.”

She refolded her arms, frowned, and bobbed her eyebrows, daring him to find a way around her anger.

“Well. Go on then.”

God, this would have been so much easier last night, her knees resting amiably against his shin, the air lightly perfumed with her signature citrus floral scent. 

But it didn’t matter how hard this was. It was hard coming here at 4:30 am. It was hard sitting on that floor for an hour and a half. It’d be excruciating to live in a world where he hurt her and ruined everything they had just because he was too scared or too stupid to talk to her. He had to make this work.

He cleared his throat and jumped in, praying for help from any deity who’d listen, “I’m sorry I said that night was nothing… that was a lie. It was a misguided, stupid, chicken shit, bald-faced lie.”

He paused and looked at her, silently begging for any indication that she wasn’t going to completely shut him down. If he didn’t know her as well as he did, he’d think she was still every bit as closed off as when he’d walked in the door. But he’d made himself the world’s leading scholar of every fluid movement, curve and subtle tell in her face, and her eyes had softened just enough to encourage him to keep going.

He sighed heavily and continued, “I didn’t think it was fair. I’m an almost washed out has-been, and you’re the literal future of this sport. Shit, Gin - you could be the goddamn president if you wanted. Even I’m not selfish enough to look at you and me and think it makes any kind of sense for you. Not to mention all the shit people would say. All the stupid, sexist, bullshit people would say, not one word of which you’d deserve. But every word would take away from the hard work you put in day in and day out. You belong here. You’ve fought tooth and nail for everything you have, and you deserve every ounce of it.”

Ginny’d never heard him talk about himself this way without making a joke or undoing it with an arrogant smirk. Her face took on an expression that was more captivated than annoyed. 

Mike looked her in the eye, then dropped his gaze to the countertop, as he forced himself to go on.

“Not to mention you have this rule, which - I get it, you know? I get it. I’d sure as shit have a rule if I were you, especially after… everything.”

He sighed again, inwardly telling himself to just spit out the rest so he could face the music. He leaned on the counter, and let himself look at his favorite face in the world while he finished digging, out or in, it was too soon to tell.

“None of that really matters, except it all said whatever that night meant to me wasn’t your garbage to deal with. It didn’t need to be one more thing for you to handle. So I thought… something dumb. I thought something so incrediby stupid, that I was doing us both a favor by lying and saying it was nothing when it wasn’t. It was definitely something, Gin. And you do matter, so much. Enough for me to sit my crotchety ass on a concrete floor at 4:30 in the morning so I could tell you this.”

He paused, not breaking eye contact as he walked around to her side of the island, stopping an arm’s distance away.

“I’m sorry I lied to you,” his hands itched to reach out, take a hand, touch an arm, run a thumb across her cheek, but he wasn’t about to repeat last night’s colossal laughter mistake. 

She didn’t make any kind of move, despite Mike closing most of the distance between them. All this time Ginny thought he’d avoided it because it didn’t matter, because he saw her as a toddling duckling, because she just wasn’t enough to capture his attention outside of his responsibilities as team captain. This was so much easier to reconcile with the grumbling man who’d become her best friend. 

“I’m sorry I hurt you. I’d never hurt you on purpose, Gin… I’ll talk about anything you want,” he dropped his eyes to the floor, “if you still want to talk about anything with me .”

As soon as he stopped talking, Ginny took one step forward and threw her arms around him, because she hated that look on his face, and because she craved the warmth of his arms around her, the reassuring pressure of his hands splayed across her back. 

She felt his heavy sigh of relief as he wrapped her up immediately, mumbling into her ear, ”Jesus Christ, I’m so sorry. I’m so goddamn sorry.” He felt a single shaky breath rattle her lungs as she tightened her arms and replied, “Just don’t lie to me ever again, Mike. I can’t take that from you.”

He tightened the arm at her waist and ran his other thumb across the soft skin at the back of her neck as he answered, “Never. Never again.” 

At his words, Ginny felt a sense of expansion and floating, like her entire being suddenly existed on two planes at once, one of which perceived a colossal, irreversible shift in her universe. She took that feeling, wrapped it up with the scratch of Mike’s beard against her cheek, the heat of his hand on the back of her neck, and that dopey look he’d worn when she first saw him in the hallway, and she locked it all away in her box of sparkling forever moments. 

Finally, she loosened her arms, determined to ask the question she’d been planning to ask for what felt like an eternity now. Mike reluctantly released her, but neither one created any real distance between them. One of his hands rested lightly at her hip, his arm held captive by the hand she slid down his shoulder but refused to pull away from his bicep.

She dragged her eyes across his face, stopping at his light brown irises, unable to look away as she spoke, low and clear, “What would’ve happened that night? If Oscar hadn’t called?”

Mike tilted his head to the side and tipped his chin slightly, a bit like he was trying to adjust an uncomfortable collar, but his eyes remained deadlocked on hers. 

“You sure you want to know? I’ll tell you anything, Gin - just gotta be sure you’re sure. We can’t walk this back once it’s out there.”

“I want to know, Mike. What would’ve happened?”

His eyes immediately dropped to her lips, and the arm at her hip slid around her back, pulling her into him. The space between them disappeared, he rested his forehead against hers, relishing the slide of her hand back up his arm to his shoulder as he breathed, “This.”

Mike inhaled, taking his last breath of life-before-Ginny Baker, then pressed his lips gently, almost carefully to hers. It was the equivalent of placing a single smoking ember on a pile of bone dry, kerosene soaked kindling. The universe shrunk to the two of them, her soft, welcoming lips, the light tickle of his beard on her face, the unyielding forces pressing their bodies together, and the undeniable need for more.

Mike dropped both hands to her hips and boosted her onto the countertop, Ginny making space for him to stand in the lee of her legs, immediately conscious of the rightness of his hands on her thighs, his torso pressed up against every inch of hers. They let starvation rule for a moment, Mike sliding his hands underneath her tank, toying with the band of her sports bra, Ginny running her tongue along his upper lip, her hand raking through his hair, needing the drag of his lips across hers more than oxygen.

Then Mike slid his hands from underneath her tank, pulling the hem back into place and smoothing the fabric over her stomach. Ginny relaxed her arms, pressing a slow, closed-mouth kiss to his lips. As they separated, he chased her mouth, pressing impetuous pop-kisses to each corner of her Cupid’s bow, suddenly wanting to live in an empty cavern filled with nothing but the sound of her laughter.

She left her arms draped around his shoulders, and he slid his hands down to her waist, watching her lick her lips and catch her breath, conscious of the labor of his own breathing as well.

He blinked lazily, those stupid long eyelashes momentarily obscuring blown pupils adorned with Ginny’s favorite precious metal. 

“Feel like I’ve been waiting my whole life to do that.”

He watched her gorgeous mouth spread into a heartstopping smile as she quipped, “Oh yeah? That’s a pretty long time, old man.”

Mike rolled his eyes but couldn’t do anything about the return of his dopiest grin. He brought his eyes back to her smiling face, and replied, “You know what? It was a pretty goddamn long time, but I’d do it again.”

Ginny immediately surged forward and kissed him breathless, because what else could she do in the face of those words and those eyes?

By the time they separated, Ginny’s legs were locked around his waist, his button down had disappeared, and her tank had found a new home in the sink. Their ragged breathing echoed through the empty space of her condo as Mike pressed their foreheads together and spoke, with some difficulty.

“Yeah, I think we’re gonna need some ground rules before we can walk out in public again.”

Ginny chuckled and ran her hands up his bare arms, imagining briefly what their lives would be like if they could be together like normal people. How she’d push the arm rest out of the way, lace their fingers together and fall asleep on his shoulder on the plane. How they’d go to dinner, just the two of them, and not worry about paps or fans getting the wrong idea (or the right idea).

Aaaaand there was that petite brunette again. Ginny dropped her hands into her lap and stared at them. 

“Um… ,” she blew out a defeated breath, then asked, “You’re not with anyone right now, right? You’re not seeing anyone that I don’t know about?”

After Amelia, Mike certainly understood the question. He’d given her plenty of reason to doubt even what she’d seen with her own two eyes.

He brought a hand up to her face, tipping her chin so he could look into her deep brown eyes, brimming with an uncertainty he cursed himself for planting there. 

“No, Gin. I haven’t been able to even look at anyone but you for a while now. Remember? I like you better than most people... Actually, now that the cat’s outta the bag I can just say it. I like you better than all people.” 

Ginny smiled slow and genuine, then leaned forward and pressed a soft, thorough kiss to his lips. As she leaned back, she furrowed her brow.

“Wait - then who was the brunette you were with last night?”

Mike didn’t even need to ask how she knew, he was so accustomed to the Barstool photographers popping up in his neighborhood and anywhere near the park. And his brain suddenly connected her question to the stonewall he’d encountered last night. No wonder she’d shut down.

He shook his head, “That’s nothing. Well - it’s not nothing. Technically it’s Dr. Katrina, who I wanted you to meet last night so you could tell me what you think of her and her technology,” Mike squeezed her waist gently, “that might give me some shiny newER knees in the offseason.”

Ginny’s face lit up and she bounced a little as she exclaimed, “What?! Why didn’t you tell me?!” Her face blanked, “Oh, right. Because I was yelling at you.” Her face brightened again as she nearly squealed, “That’s so great though! I wanna hear all about it!”

He smiled wide, slid a hand down her side, lightly patting the side of her leg as he chuckled and said, “Glad to hear it, ‘cause I’m having her over for tacos in a few weeks, and I was hoping you’d be my date.”

“I guess I could do that.”

Mike smiled, unable to stop his hands from aimlessly roving her legs and the bare skin of her back. Then he frowned.

“Wait, what about tech boy? Weren’t you out with him last night? Planning that big trip?”

Ginny groaned, collapsing into him, nestling herself into the crook of his neck.

“Ugh, don’t remind me. I already canceled the trip, and now I have to go back and break it off entirely right after I did that!.”

Mike ran a hand up her back and murmured, his words ghosting across her ear, “Oh? Someone you’d rather spend your time with?”

She smacked his arm lightly, sitting back up and frowning.

“Don’t be smug, Mike! He’s a nice guy, and I’m a crappy person for doing this to him.”

Her light tone undersold her very real guilt, and he knew it. He smirked at her, affection broadcasting from his eyes as he responded.  

“I’m gonna tone it down for now, just so you hear me loud and clear when I say this.”

He ran a hand up her pitching arm, then back down, grabbing her hand at the bottom, bringing her palm to his lips and pressing a slow kiss in the center. The warmth of his mouth spread from her hand and ascended her arm before cascading down her torso, scattering sparks and heat throughout her belly.

Then he looped her arms back around his shoulders, tilted his head to the side and waited until he was sure he had her full attention before continuing.

“No matter how great he is, you are not a crappy person for breaking it off. You didn’t lie to him, right?”

She jutted out her lower lip before answering.

“No.”

“Didn’t lead him on knowing I’d lose all self control and throw myself at you this morning, right?”

She laughed as she replied, “No, I definitely did not know that was gonna happen.”

“Well then,” he stared at her, all sincerity and earnestness, “It seems to me like you didn’t do anything wrong, so you can’t possibly be a crappy person.”

She sighed, looking down at his hands aimlessly traversing her legs, and conceded, “I know you’re right. I’m just not looking forward to it. He’s so sweet. And I know exactly how bad it feels to think you finally found someone real and then have it snatched away.”

Mike punctuated every few words with kisses, peppered across every part of her face. 

“I’m not gonna minimize the shittiness of losing you, but I don’t think you need to feel too bad for this guy. He was already a billionaire before 30, right? How lucky can one guy get? Did he really think he could beat ALL the odds like that? He’d have to be the luckiest guy in the history of existence to be that successful and get to keep you .”

By the time he finished, Ginny was a giggling, squirming mess, because his beard tickled her face, but she was kind of (definitely) into it. Mike finally pulled back, adding, “Besides, I’ve got my own thoughts on who should be the luckiest guy in existence.”

Ginny bobbed her eyebrows, tugging her lips into a closed-lip half-grin that made her dimple pop and did something funny to his heart.

“Oh yeah? Anyone I know?”

Mike smirked back at her, “Maybe. Talented, handsome, great beard.”

“Oh, so not anyone I know.”

He leaned forward, pressed his lips to hers, then kissed a trail from the corner of her mouth to her neck as he chided, “You love the beard. Just admit it.”

She laughed like a kid as she repeatedly countered, “I do not love the beard,” after every kiss.

When they were both sufficiently delirious - her from the feel of his lips trailing all over her neck and face, him from the sound of her laughter, her velvety skin, and the thrill of her in his arms - Mike pressed his forehead back to hers and stared at her mouth as he asked, “So... we’re doing this?”

He leaned back, realizing maybe it was presumptuous to think the best makeout of his life meant there would be more. This was a potential disaster for her. 

“Nobody can know, not even Ev or Blip. Especially not Amelia.”

She watched the smile lift the apples of his cheeks before he pulled her into his chest and breathed, “I’d find a way to keep it from Maria if it meant I still get to do this,” he pressed his lips to her neck, “or this,” he kissed his way down her bare shoulder, “when we’re alone.”

She beamed at him, her dimple popping as she spoke. 

“Good. Now I’m gonna need you to put that shirt back on and stand at least six feet away from me so we can talk about ground rules.”

Her brain was having a very hard time thinking responsible thoughts with the heat of his bare skin diffusing into her arms, begging her to run her hands over every inch of it.

Mike nodded his head slightly and winked as he pulled her flush against him, “Oh yeah?” He leaned in and kissed the corner of her mouth, slow and teasing as he ran one hand up her back, the other down her leg, then kissed the other side of her mouth. 

“Something over here distracting you?”

She put her hands on either side of his neck and pulled him in for a scorching, insistent, thorough kiss before pushing him away, holding him at arm’s length and speaking.

“Yep. So hurry up and put that shirt on, so we can set some rules.”

Now it was her turn to stop his heart with a wink.

“And if you get real lucky, maybe I’ll help you take it off again.”