Prompt: Ace in the Hole
Length: ~13K words
Posted to: mcshep_match
Summary: When John Sheppard leaves the Flyboys to pitch for the Atlanteans in the new International League of Baseball, he’s leaving behind a reputation he’d rather forget and carrying with him the aftermath of an injury that should have ended his career. Can a brilliant, smart-mouthed catcher help him become more than he ever expected, in ways he would never have predicted?
John looked around the locker room and fought back a sigh. It was a mixed bunch, some of the strangest characters he’d seen yet.
And if there was one thing baseball had, it was plenty of characters.
Watching a huge guy with dreadlocks halfway down his back doing some kind of funky fighting moves on the floor mats, John was equally impressed and depressed. If this guy was the kind of player he was going to be seeing in the new International League of Baseball, (I LOB for short), then he was out of his depth. He straightened his shoulders. Good thing he’d learned how to swim early, then. He strode into the room and tossed his duffle on a bench.
“Hello.” A young woman glided in front of him when he would have continued deeper into the room. “I am Teyla. May I help you?”
“John Sheppard, pitcher.” he offered firmly. “I was invited.”
“Of course!” A smile spread over her face like the sunrise, turning her from merely gorgeous to flat out heartbreaking. “We have been expecting you. You pitched for the Flyboys in the United States, correct?”
John nodded, not trusting his voice. He’d thought the injury to his shoulder had ended his career, an opinion shared by his team doctor. He’d been just about ready to pack up and head for the beach permanently when he got the call.
“It is lovely to meet you. As I said, I am Teyla Emmagan, first base, and prior to joining this team I played for the Vancouver Athosians.” She nodded at him gracefully, then gestured to the dreadlocked giant. “Ronon Dex, centre field, previously of the Honolulu Satedans.” John’s stomach clenched in sympathy as Ronon glanced at him and gave an abrupt nod of acknowledgement. Pretty much the entire Satedan team had been wiped out in a plane crash. John had lost friends before, but he couldn’t even imagine how something like that must feel. For him, his team was … well. Everything.
“Yeah, uh, nice to meet you too.” He gave her his most charming smile. She smiled back easily.
“You will find your uniform there.” She pointed to a cubbie with ‘Sheppard’ written over it, black marker on tape. Easy to change, if he didn’t make the cut. “The rest of the team is on the field, warming up.”
He nodded, shifted his duffle the few feet to his assigned spot. She touched his arm gently, getting his attention. “It does not matter to us where you come from, John, or what has happened there. We are all Atlanteans, now.”
She and Ronon left, and John sank onto the bench, cradling his head in his hands.
What the hell had he been thinking?
Dimly he heard the loud thwack of a bat hitting a ball.
Oh, right. That’s what.
John sighed and started shucking out of his clothes.
When he walked on the field, practice was in full swing. Coach Weir, the person who had talked him into joining the new league, trotted up to him with her usual charming smile firmly in place. “John! I’m so glad to see you. I was beginning to get worried that you had reconsidered my offer.”
John nodded, smiled back at her uncomfortably. “Yeah, well. I did. Several times. Finally flipped a coin.”
“Really?” One eyebrow rose and John wished desperately for escape.
“Elizabeth! Come on already! Some of us are actually trying to get some work done, here.” A loud voice cut across the low burble of noise that was a practice. “If that’s the new pitcher, get him over here. I could use someone to at least get warm ups done.”
Weir’s smile froze at the edges then she shrugged ruefully. “That is Rodney McKay. He will be your catcher.” She spun on her heel, inviting John to join her with a tilt of her head. “Assuming you don’t kill him first, of course.”
“Elizabeth! Let’s move it! I haven’t got all day.”
Weir lifted her voice. “Yes, you do Rodney. Your time is mine, remember?”
The man subsided with a grumble, glaring at them from the plate. John was glad he’d worn his sunglasses; the sun was hot enough without the hostility rolling off his catcher. The man was built like a catcher too, heavy through the shoulders and back (good for throwing to second), sturdy through the hips and legs (good for the thousands of squats that made up a workweek). In his gear he looked downright imposing. And… was that? It was. A Canadian flag was sewn carefully onto the left shoulder of his uniform. John snorted. And people said Americans were showy about being patriotic.
After a moment, the man flipped his mask back on his head and John almost stumbled.
Ok. Maybe it wasn’t the gear. He had the feeling this guy would be imposing stark naked.
And he needed to get that thought out of his head, right. Now.
He pulled off his sunglasses.
Slate blue eyes stared at him unwaveringly over a straight nose and crooked mouth. He was sweaty, tiny trickles sliding down the sides of his face. After a moment he blinked and squinted at John strangely. The man glanced at Weir. “Didn’t you say he was American? You promised me he was smart. I’m wondering already.”
John looked down, realised Rodney had been holding his hand out to be shaken while John had disappeared into his own head. “Oh. Yeah. Sorry.” He took Rodney’s hand, shook it firmly. He was impressed by the strength and comfortable feeling of the man’s grip. “John Sheppard, pitcher.”
Rodney’s mouth twisted into something approaching a smile. “Sure you are. Let’s just find out, shall we?” He gestured to the pitching mound. “Show me what you’ve got.”
John looked at Weir, who gave him a crooked smile of her own and waved at the mound. “Please, John. Go ahead.”
“Well,” John said with a meaningful sideways glare at Rodney. “Since you said ‘please’.”
Rodney just rocked back on his heels and waited. John rolled his eyes and walked to the mound.
He loved it here, this perch above the field. Here, he was in charge. The game? The game revolved around him. Games were won or lost on the skill and determination of the pitcher, and even in the best games or the worst the tide could turn on a dime. A single perfect pitch could change everything in a heartbeat. John spent his life in pursuit of that pitch.
He dug his toe into the dirt in front of the rubber, scraping a good foothold. The rosin bag was next, and John made sure he took his time getting his hands dry. He thought he could hear Rodney’s teeth grinding at the delay, and just when he was sure the man was about to yell at him again he lifted his glove casually, pointing at the plate and waiting for the ball. A moment later it thwacked into place, and John had to grin at the accuracy of the throw as well as the slight sting as Rodney put a snap on it. He looked up, but Rodney had already slid his mask back into place and was bouncing into the low crouch used by catchers everywhere.
Rodney signalled a fastball.
John winced, rubbed his chin briefly. His injury the previous year made throwing a fastball painful, possibly even dangerous. On the other hand, this was his first day… hell, his first pitch. He needed to make an impression. On the third hand, he also needed to be able to throw more than one.
He shook the sign off.
Even from just under sixty feet away he could see the blue eyes narrow in irritation. Rodney signalled the fastball again, more insistently. John shook him off stubbornly. Rodney crossed his wrists and looked down, clearly annoyed. After a long moment he shrugged, spread his hands, and waggled his fingers. The gesture was unmistakeable.
Serve it up.
John nodded, felt his lips pull into a smile as he went into his windup. His leg kicked high, the step… and then he was torquing his whole body around his centre. Hips first, then ribs, shoulders and arm, propelling the ball into flight with a motion so pure it made his whole body sing. Follow through damn near flattened him as usual. The ball struck home in Rodney’s glove with a satisfying thud, and then Rodney was on his feet, shouting for Weir.
“Elizabeth! Elizabeth, get over here! Zelenka, you too. Right now!” He was trotting out to the mound like a man on a mission, and John took an automatic step back. What the hell?
Weir and a short wild-haired man who John took to be Zelenka both arrived at the mound at the same time as Rodney, who was feverishly stripping off his catching gear and handing it over. “Get suited, I need you to catch,” was Rodney’s rapid fire order. Zelenka rolled his eyes but obligingly started gearing up, wandering back towards the plate. Weir stood with her arms crossed, clearly waiting for Rodney to explain. As Rodney’s laser-like gaze fell on him again, John fought the desire to stand behind her.
“Rodney. What is it?”
“Did you see him throw? Did you?”
John flushed. His form wasn’t exactly perfect, especially since his not-quite career ending injury, but it wasn’t reason to spotlight him like this either. He could work on it, damn it. He’d been perfect once.
“No, Rodney I didn’t. Would you care to share with the class?”
“Even better. I’ll show you.” He grabbed John’s forearm and slapped the ball into his glove, taking a couple of steps back. “Throw it again,” he said, practically bouncing in place. John glared, rotated his shoulder a couple of times, then checked that Zelenka was ready. He was.
John wound up, and threw.
Even before he heard the ball hit Zelenka’s glove, Rodney was shouting.
“No no no no no no NO!” He snapped his fingers and Zelenka tossed him the ball. Weir was looking more confused by the second. “Not like a real pitcher. Not that you aren’t… never mind. Throw it again like you did the first pitch. And put some heat on it.” Rodney’s eyes were bright and John suddenly realised he wasn’t up here to point out the flaw in his throw. He was actually excited about something.
Well, ok then. Pitching UNlike a real pitcher, coming right up.
“There! There! Did you see it?” Rodney was almost dancing with excitement. Zelenka had stood almost before the pitch reached him, his head nodding vigorously. Weir still looked bemused.
“I saw it, Rodney. This is excellent news!” Zelenka spoke up from the plate.
“What is?” Weir asked calmly. John was impressed by her poise; his own heart was racing and he didn’t even know what was going on.
“The hitch in his throw, just at the maximum torque. The drop in his shoulder, right here,” Rodney poked John in the shoulder, hard, “that keeps him from going straight over the top.” He frowned. “I’ll bet fastballs hurt like a son of a bitch.”
“Smart waving me off then.”
“Rodney!” Weir’s voice whip cracked, clearly at the end of her patience.
“He can throw the pitch. MY pitch.” She still looked unconvinced. “Look, Elizabeth. Radek and I have been working on this pitch a really long time, but it takes a really unique throw to make it work. So far, we’ve been able to get it working with maybe one or two people. Hell, up til now, Beckett’s been our best , and he only manages to get it across the plate maybe once a week. But, Elizabeth, this pitch? It has an absolutely ungodly double break, and with this guy? I think we can get it working right. This pitch? This pitch makes us unbeatable.”
John exchanged glances with … oh, hell. He might as well call her Elizabeth, since everyone else seemed to be already. She was smiling slightly at Rodney’s enthusiasm. “Ok,” she said simply, “show me.”
Rodney hummed with glee, gestured for Radek to throw him the ball. He placed it in John’s hand, turning the seams into position for a regular breaking ball. John tried to scratch his neck with his other hand, scepticism rising. He almost poked his eye out with his glove.
Rodney snorted in his ear. “I know what you’re thinking,” he said rapidly, breath fanning across John’s neck as he invaded pretty much all the personal space John had left. “And you’re right. This would be a breaking ball.” John tried not to think of how good the warm draft felt on the sweat-stiffened hairs of his neck. Baseball uniforms were not built to hide erections, cup or no cup. Rodney made a minute adjustment, turning the ball in his hand about twenty degrees and slipping his ring finger so his knuckle rested against a seam. “I want you to try it half power first, cause it can be pretty unpredictable.” John nodded, desperate to reclaim some physical room before he embarrassed himself.
Obligingly Rodney moved back beside Elizabeth. He was practically vibrating with impatience. John went through his routine, barely stopping himself from automatically rotating the ball into a more familiar position. He was curious about this pitch, though he doubted it could possibly live up to Rodney’s build up.
The ball broke the first time twenty feet from the plate, then abruptly twisted back towards Zelenka like it was being guided by mind control or something. It crossed the plate perfectly within the strike zone, hitting the glove with a loud thud. John stared, amazed, as Zelenka stood and cheered and behind him Rodney started to laugh. Elizabeth’s mouth was open in shock as she looked at the board showing the pitch speed. Ninety six miles per hour.
Rodney clapped him on the shoulder. “Did I mention,” he grinned, “that it actually speeds up on the way?”
“Oh my god,” John said earnestly, seeing his future writ in the wide blue eyes and generous mouth. “Oh my god, you’re a genius.”
Rodney nodded vigorously. “I really am.”
“I think I love you.” John stopped fighting the grin, felt it spread over his whole face. “Let’s do it again.”
For the next hour, John threw Rodney’s pitch. It felt good; he felt strong. Stronger than he had ever felt. This pitch, it just worked with his body. He wanted to laugh out loud. He wanted to grab Rodney and kiss him.
He wanted to celebrate.
“Hey, Rodney,” he called out of the shower, scrubbing both hands through shampoo lathered hair. “I wanna celebrate. Where’s good to eat around here?”
Rodney stuck his head around the corner, hair sticking up where he’d rubbed it with his towel. “There’s a Chinese food place I hear has great lemon chicken. Haven’t tried it though.” He pointed at himself. “Allergic to citrus. Deathly, deathly allergic.”
John sighed and started to rinse. “How about somewhere we could eat together?” He blinked water out of his eyes, tilted his head to see Rodney better. “Seems only right I get to know you better, since we’re going to be partners.”
He saw the flush spread up Rodney’s neck to cover his face, and blessed the fact that his own skin was dark enough to hide his answering blush, and that he was turned away enough that Rodney couldn’t see the way his body responded. Then again, he could turn, and maybe Rodney would come in, and maybe there would be soap and water and slick, hot flesh…
“Excellent idea! I shall come as well,” Zelenka announced, head popping up over Rodney’s. John twisted away a little further and grinned despite his imminent embarrassment. The equipment manager must be standing on the bench to get the height.
Rodney sighed and moved in a way that meant Zelenka had just gotten a shove. “Might as well make it a team event then. Go round ‘em up, and call the restaurant.” He gave a last, long searching look at John and left.
John buried his head in his arms and let the hot water pelt over his shoulders and back.
He was so utterly, gloriously, screwed.
Like most celebrations in baseball, this one involved copious amounts of beer and other alcohol, and very quickly devolved into ‘sloppy drunk’ and ‘tomorrow’s gonna hurt’ status. Ronon was listening to Weir animatedly discussing the natural beauty of a hitter’s stance with an indulgent smile, Teyla was on the receiving end of a lecture from Zelenka on the correct method of tuning a bat with much the same expression on her face, Stackhouse, Bates, and three other members of the pitching staff that John hadn’t memorised yet were holding court on the sublime graces of the breaking curve. The infield (Kusanagi, Simpson, and Grodin) were singing something John was willing to bet his admittedly tarnished reputation was 'Take Me Out to the Ball Game'. Rodney was…
Rodney was sitting braced in the corner, a savvy move considering the amount he’d had to drink, John had to admit. He was watching the revelry with a complicated expression on his face. It was equal parts pleasure, depression, happiness and longing. His eyes shifted to meet John’s and the look changed in an instant into something John couldn’t… quite… read. Rodney leaned forward conspiratorially and gestured for John to join him. Somewhat unsteadily, John did.
The chairs in the corner were much more comfortable than those to the sides, and John mentally patted Rodney on the back for choosing them. He leaned close, his head wobbling a little unsteadily. John decided to blame it on the uneven table. “Yeah?”
“I can’t hit.” Rodney said softly, as though imparting a grave secret. “So I spend my time making up pitches no one else can hit either.”
John snorted. Rodney was built for catching, but even more he was built to hit. Those thick hips were perfect for torque, those heavy shoulders and powerful torso would be able to crank around and absolutely hit the living shit out of a baseball. John was sure of it.
“It’s why I’m here, instead of back home in the big money.” Rodney hiccupped sadly. “Million dollar brain, two cent bat.”
John thought about it fuzzily. “Yeah, right.” he said. “Until today, I thought I couldn’t really pitch anymore, and you showed me differently. I’ll bet you can. I bet you just never had the right teacher.” He found himself practically using Rodney’s shoulder as a pillow and pushed himself back upright. “You just need the right teacher.” His eyes fixed on Rodney’s generous, unhappy mouth, inches away and pouting invitingly. “To teach you.” Rodney licked his lips and John’s gaze followed helplessly. “Bat work.”
“Bat work.” Rodney repeated slowly. “You think?”
John nodded idiotically.
“Then you’ll teach me?”
“Oh, yeah,” John all but groaned, watching that mouth stretch into a smile. Almost immediately it faded.
“But you’re a pitcher. You prob’ly dunno how to hit.”
John reared back indignantly. “First of all, I was in the National League. Real pitchers? Hit. Secondly, if there is anything I know how to do,” he pushed his chin forward, getting right into Rodney’s face, “it is,” he nudged closer, until Rodney was all but cross-eyed looking at him, “bat work.”
Rodney stared at him uncertainly, then a slow grin broke across his face and he slung an arm around John’s shoulders. He had a moment to enjoy the heavy heat before Rodney was pushing him away desperately and racing unsteadily for the bathroom, presumably to rid himself of some of the beer one way or another. He watched Rodney’s ass the whole way, shaking his head at himself. The guy was utterly oblivious. Evidently John was pathetic.
John closed his eyes, pillowed his head on his arms, and let himself pass out.
He spent the next day in an agony of anticipation. Afternoon fielding practice followed morning workout, which Elizabeth at least kept light in consideration for their (and her, John was sure) aching heads. Then it was time for the pitching practice, and for the first time all day John was calm and in the zone. It was like being taken from a noisy train into a garden run by zen monks or something. He felt the relief right down to his bones.
John pitched for two hours, practising the signs with Rodney while Zelenka filmed his form. Each pitch flowed through him like water through a spillway, smooth and forceful and things of beauty. Elizabeth came to watch for a while, leaving with a pleased smile on her face and a grin at Rodney. Curve, breaking ball, forkball, slider. Knuckleball, sinker. It was poetry. It was also a hell of a lot slower than he was used to, but it kept the strain off his shoulder and kept his form pure.
“Ok, time to throw for real for a bit. You ready, Sheppard?”
John nodded. He’d awakened that morning with a vicious hangover, no idea how he’d gotten to the hotel he was calling home, and Rodney calling him Sheppard like they were old military buddies or something. He wasn’t sure what it meant, but decided to leave the whole thing alone as much as possible until he figured it out.
Of course, by ‘as much as possible’ he meant ‘not at all’, it seemed.
Rodney started him with a full-speed curveball, then a couple of sliders that stretched John’s shoulder enough to make it twinge but not enough to make it hurt. He could tell from the concentration on Rodney’s face that he was analysing every movement so that he’d be able to recognise them in a game, so he could tell just by looking how John was feeling. It made him feel warm inside to have all that laser-like attention focussed so exclusively on him.
“Good, good,” Rodney shouted to him. “Very nice. Now, let’s try the pitch.” He waggled his fingers briefly, then snapped twice and fell into a two-fingered ‘ok’ sign. “We’ll use this as the primary sign for it, ok?”
“Rodney,” Zelenka interrupted. “We can not keep calling it ‘the pitch’. Is stupid name. What are we going to actually call it?”
“The zig-zag?” Ronon paused on his way to pick up his backup glove, left behind at third base.
“The bolt?” This from Chuck, the bat boy who was watching them practise avidly.
“You people are killing me,” Rodney said.
“The Puddle Jumper,” said John firmly.
“The what?” Rodney sounded outraged. He flipped his mask up so that he could glare properly. Chuck stepped back, looking scared. Zelenka looked intrigued.
“Because it is like skipping stone, I see.” He cocked an eyebrow.
“No. We are not naming my pitch the Puddle Jumper.” Rodney declared flatly, crossing his arms across his chest protector as best he could. It would have worked better without the gear.
“Does that mean you have to make the Gilligan next?”
Rodney thrust out his chin. “I am calling it the Boogaloo,” he shouted over the flurry of suggestions.
John felt his mouth drop open. “The what?” He demanded, sounding almost identical to how Rodney had moments ago.
“My pitch, my name,” Rodney said smugly as he pulled his mask back into place, but John could see the gleam of teeth as he grinned.
“Fine,” John gritted. “The Boogaloo.” He was pitching a pitch called the Boogaloo, and it was going to save his career. He closed his eyes and shook his head. How had it come to this?
John sighed and served it up.
Another hour of practice later his arm was pleasantly tired, but not stressed. Rodney had watched him closely and ensured he’d backed off when necessary. Still, a rubdown would feel fantastic. Just one more thing to do, the thing he’d been looking forward to all day.
Rodney looked back over his shoulder, heading for the clubhouse. “What?”
“Come on,” John picked up a couple of bats from the drum serving as their bat caddy and gestured towards the cages. “Time for batting practice. I know you didn’t get any in yesterday or today, what with helping me so much.”
Rodney’s mouth set in a mulish line. John hurried to continue.
“I need the practice too, and to help keep the shoulder limber. Plus, I promised.”
Rodney heaved a sigh and turned for the batting cages with a heavy tread. “I’m a terrible hitter,” he said irritably.
“Pfft,” John made a rude noise. “You’re built to hit, Rodney. Your body just doesn’t know it yet.” He opened the door to the cage, ushered Rodney inside. “Ok,” he said, “show me your stance.”
Grudgingly Rodney took one of the bats and swung it experimentally before stepping up to the board and pulling it into position. He waggled the tip of the bat as though readying for a pitch, settled himself more firmly on his feet, held there.
“Ok,” John swallowed around his suddenly tight throat. “Let me look. One second.”
Rodney rolled his eyes but held still as John circled him.
“All right,” John said after studying him from all angles, some of them twice. Some of them… even more. Especially the back. He coughed. “I can see some areas for improvement," he said, then amended despite himself, "for your stance, anyway. Widen your legs.” Rodney obliged. “Shoulders back a bit. Cock your wrists and loosen your hands a little.” Rodney shook himself a little, adjusted as John suggested. John frowned. There was still …
“Rodney,” he said firmly. “You need to relax.”
“This is relaxed.”
“If you were a rubber band you’d be snapping right now.” John stepped forward and took Rodney’s shoulders in his hands, giving them a firm squeeze to try and force them to release a bit. They shifted under his fingers. “Ok, better.” He moved into a position behind Rodney, reached around him with both arms and placed his hands over Rodney’s on the bat.
Rodney squeaked but didn’t pull away.
“You need to keep your wrists strong and your hands snug but loose,” John instructed as he muscled Rodney into the right position. “Feet square to the plate, hips square to your feet. Shoulder width apart. Legs bent, just a little, balanced on the balls of your feet.” He pulled a little, until Rodney was leaning just a tiny bit against his chest. The sensation of having him pressed against the entire front of his body was exquisite. And frustrating. “Shoulders aligned, head turned to the pitcher.” In unison they looked at the ball thrower. “Bat up, wrists straight.” John stepped back reluctantly, feeling as though he were leaving something of himself behind. He reached for the remote. “Keep your eye on the ball.”
He pressed the button, and the pitching machine sang out as it shot the ball towards them at eighty plus miles an hour. “Swing,” John said under his breath and as if in reply Rodney swung, connecting solidly with the ball and sending it soaring into the rapidly darkening sky. Rodney turned to him with wide eyes, looking at him like he’d hung the moon. Looking at him… much the same way as John had been looking at Rodney yesterday. Like he’d given Rodney the best gift of all time.
“Home run,” John said.
Their first game was a week later.
The entire team was wound tight, tension lining every face. Elizabeth tried to loosen them up more than once, but her own nervousness made it fall flat. In a new league with only a small number of teams and a limited number of games, every game counted. Also, for much of the team, this was their redemption chance. Their opportunity to show the rest of the baseball world what it had missed out on.
Lorne was slated as starting pitcher, with John pulling bullpen duty. Rodney called the game for the first eight innings like a maestro, something John hadn’t been sure was going to happen. He and Lorne tended to strike sparks off one another, something that had originally had John seeing green but that he’d ultimately realised weren’t quite of that nature. In fact, the addition of John to the mix had seemed to improve Rodney’s relationships with almost everyone, including the number two pitcher. Rodney was up to bat twice, one strike out, one walk. John watched him closely, seeing the improvements in his stance and confidence. He was, in fact, watching him so closely even on the bench that he completely missed Elizabeth gesturing for him to warm up until Zelenka prodded him in the side. He’d be going in for the final inning.
He’d thrown six or seven pitches when Rodney came up for his third at bat. John caught his eye just before he took his stance, and gave him a nod and a little rolling shrug. Relax!
Rodney’s lips twitched into a smirk, but he obediently rolled his shoulders and took a deep breath as he relaxed into his stance. His bat swung back, wrists cocked and tight, hands loose. His eyes narrowed as he focussed his attention on the pitcher, who went into his pitch with little fanfare.
The first pitch was a fastball, dead in the centre of the plate.
Rodney’s lips curved into an outright grin, and his fingers flexed on the bat in a rapid stretch and grab as he turned his body into the swing. John held his breath.
He hit it fully, the ball rocketing off the bat in a straight line four feet over the pitcher’s head. It exploded past the second baseman, falling perfectly into the sweet spot. Rodney clapped his hands and took off down the baseline, almost skipping. John clapped and whistled along with the rest of the team, and by the time he hit first base Rodney’s ears were bright pink. Lorne hit a double, then Teyla singled to bring him home. John clapped with the crowd and went back to his warm up. Zelenka was beaming just as widely as he was as he caught. Then, the inning was over.
John strode up to the mound, restlessly tossing the ball into his glove, his leg jittering as he waited for the rest of the team to take their places. The start of inning warm-up and around the horn throws went smoothly, and all too soon the first batter was at the plate, glaring at John malevolently and muttering under his breath. John smiled at him brightly, watching the batter redden and glare even harder. A flash of white was Rodney grinning back at him through the catcher’s cage. Rodney shrugged his shoulders in a deliberate call back to John’s gesture earlier, and John nodded. Right. Relax. Rodney called a curveball, John served it up. The batter popped it into the air for an easy catch by Teyla to make John’s first out in the new league.
Damn, it felt good.
Next batter, an American minor league veteran who made his living eating curveballs. Rodney called a forkball, a slider that John put in the dirt (but the batter swung at anyway), and a half-speed breaking ball that the hitter tapped directly to Kusanagi at first base. Two away.
Their next batter was a power hitter of considerable reputation. Ellis had been leading team Apollo for a short time, but he was a hard man to pitch. If the glare he gave Rodney was any indication, there was definitely no love lost there, either. Inter-team rivalries were pretty common of course, but this was their very first game. Normally these things took a little time to fester.
John shook himself loose, gave the rosin bag a squeeze, and dug in at the rubber.
Rodney called for the slider. John wound up and pitched… Ellis hit the hell out of it but hooked it just barely foul. Strike one.
John beat back the surge of adrenaline the long drive had pulsed through him, shaking it off. Rodney was smirking, and John drew strength from that smug look. He checked the sign; another slider. He cocked his eyebrow and Rodney repeated the sign insistently. John nodded, kicked into the pitch.
Ellis swung and hit, popped the ball straight back over his head into the netting. Foul ball, strike two.
John let out his breath in a whoosh, dug his toe in the dirt beside the rubber to buy time to regain his composure. Holy shit Ellis was a dangerous hitter, a tough assignment for his first outing. His heart drummed in his chest, and he hoped like hell Rodney wasn’t planning on calling that slider again. They were up, damn it. This was the last out needed to win the damned game. The last thing he wanted to do was open the damned door for team Apollo to waltz back through.
Mental rant done, John lifted his head for the call.
Rodney was holding perfectly still in his crouch, his fist tight against his thigh to hide his fingers from the Apollo spotters in the crowd. When he saw John looking, he quickly flashed two fingers and thumb in a circle, outside two fingers straight out in a modified OK sign.
John felt his lips twitch, hurriedly schooled his expression into calm. Even through the catcher’s cage, even sixty feet away he could see the white of Rodney’s slightly manic grin as he solemnly nodded his acceptance of the sign.
John spun the ball in his hand as he cupped it in his glove, getting into the position for the pitch. He curled into his wind up, unable to stop the smile breaking free as he released.
The ball jigged left, darted right, dropped… and crossed dead centre of the strike zone.
Rodney held still, glove centre, until he finally reached down and punched the umpire in the foot.
The crowd went wild and Ellis went ballistic. “What was that? What was that? How could that be a strike?” He was shouting at the umpire, who was shaking Rodney’s hand and patting his shoulder appreciatively. John jogged to the plate, slung an arm over Rodney’s shoulder in a one handed hug. Rodney patted his butt in return. They both ignored Ellis’ increasingly indignant protestations. The umpire wandered away, and Ellis got right up in Rodney’s cage. “What the hell was that, McKay? Treating the ball is illegal in this league too, you know.”
“I don’t need to throw spit balls,” John interrupted just as the first journalists trotted up, recorders in hand. “I have the Boogaloo.”
The press loved it. They loved the name, they loved John, they loved talking to him. For eight weeks they hounded him cheerfully, begging for more sound bites. Rodney continued to call games brilliantly and hit damned well, with a very respectable .315 batting average. Rumours of scouts sniffing around for the leagues back in the US started to rumble. The team won a lot more than they lost, and all in all the season was shaping up damned well. Even better, John had managed to dial back his obsession with Rodney’s ass to an only slightly embarrassing level. And if he accomplished this by spending every moment he could with his catcher, well, so be it.
The twelfth game of the season started like the previous eleven. Lorne’s fourth start went well, Rodney calling the pitches well into Lorne’s comfort zone, and Lorne responding to Rodney’s expert management like a pro. Five innings of easy up, easy down, then disaster struck.
Lorne went back for a pop fly, an easy out, and tripped on the rubber. He managed to keep hold of the ball for the out, but when Rodney came out to the mound to talk he shook his head immediately holding his knee and grimacing. Rodney called for a stretcher, and Elizabeth gestured to her arm from the dugout.
Zelenka tapped John on the shoulder. Time to warm up.
He got the time it took to cart Lorne off and eight pitches from the mound to warm up. He was on his sixth pitch, and Rodney called for the forkball. John nodded, drew back into his windup, and kicked powerfully into the pitch. His fingers slipped.
He had an eternity to watch the ball race malevolently towards the plate, to see the umpire’s eyes widen dramatically as he saw the pitch rise, to count every god damned stitch in the leather as the ball rolled in the air. Rodney desperately tried to get his hands up on it, but some trick of physics made it one of the hardest pitches John had accomplished ever, and it thwacked solidly into Rodney’s head above his right eye, just where the mesh and the padding met on the catchers mask.
Rodney went down like a puppet with its strings cut, sprawling in a boneless heap over the plate. John didn’t remember the sixty foot trip from the mound to the plate, no… He was suddenly just there, rolling Rodney onto his back and frantically pulling off the catcher’s mask (dented, holy shit, it was dented and how was that even possible these things were fucking indestructible) and checking for breathing and a pulse. “Nononomo…”
The medics arrived at a run, shoving him forcibly out of the way. Ronon caught him when he would have pushed back.
“Let them work, Sheppard.”
John bit his lip until it bled and watched them take Rodney away.
It was a solid three hours before Rodney woke.
“Oh, thank God,” John breathed when he saw the sliver of blue between slitted lids. Rodney groaned, lifted the hand John wasn’t holding to his head.
“Did we win?”
John bit his lip to keep from smiling, winced as he hit the small cut. “Yeah, we won. I pitched three and a half innings, no hits. Teyla’s pissed Elizabeth made her catch. The umpire kept watching her ass instead of calling the ball. Ronon says she shouldn’t care, cause he does it all the time.”
Rodney gave a soft huff of laughter then frowned. “What happened?”
John gulped. “I did.” Rodney glared at him, silently demanding more information. The man even did silent loudly. “I … uh. I hit you with the ball.”
Rodney’s lips twitched.
“In the head,” John admitted reluctantly.
“I’m glad to know the marching band currently playing Nine Inch Nails behind my eyes isn’t just there for my amusement.” Rodney reached for the cup of water beside his bed, took a sip. John noticed he didn’t ask for his hand back, though. “Oh, stop looking so tragic. So you tried to kill me. Around here, that’s par for the course.” He waved his arm broadly. “So, uh, yeah. Welcome to the family.”
“The family. Every one of them has tried to kill me at least once. First, my mom.” Rodney counted on his fingers as he spoke. “She fed me lemon cake for my tenth birthday. Then, my dad decided we needed some male bonding slash survival training, and had us dropped in the wilderness for what was supposed to be a week long camping trip, but ended up with me in the hospital in hypoglycaemic shock. Then, Jeannie got me. I had a cold and her teacher told her that the best thing to soothe a sore throat is tea with honey and a touch of lemon.” He leaned back against his pillows. “She used the ‘artificial flavour’ version. And, of course, Zelenka’s come close at least twice. Though I have the feeling that his aren’t entirely classifiable as ‘accidents’.”
John just sat there with his mouth open. He had no idea what to say. “I have no idea what to say to that,” he said.
“Oh, don’t worry. I’ll make you pay. Big time.” He shrugged, eyes closing tiredly. “But, hey, at least for you it was an accident.” One glassy blue eye opened abruptly, pinning him with a suspicious stare. “It was an accident, right?”
“Of course it was! You know I wouldn’t …” John’s splutter died as he saw the smirk cross Rodney’s face. “See? Now I wish I’d hit you harder. Go back to sleep.”
He held Rodney’s hand until the nurse forced him out four hours later.
The six games on the road while Rodney recuperated at home were some of the worst times John had ever had playing baseball. Which was to say, still damned fun, but without the sparkle that had coloured the start of the season. They were now half way through, and near the top of the standings.
The league was split into two divisions, with the top team in each playing in the championship game. The Atlanteans had started in the MWAY division but had moved to the Pegasus division about six games in, only to be moved back to MWAY with the addition of an unexpected expansion team, the Ascendants. John still wasn’t sure who they’d blown to be let into the league so late, but the rumour mill said they’d been expected to play all along and had simply been delayed by a labour dispute.
In Pegasus the Genii and the Ascendants had a nice rivalry building, but the unmistakeable masters of the division at the moment were the Wraith. In MWAY it was a pitched battle between team Apollo (and why the hell couldn’t they add an S to their name like normal baseballers?), the Priors, and the Atlanteans for supremacy. There were another ten games to play before the championship, and John was eager as hell to get his regular catcher back.
Not that there was anything wrong with Kavanaugh, per se… more that he simply didn’t have Rodney’s flair, his brilliance, or his most excellent ass. He was perfectly competent. John kind of hated him.
And he couldn’t catch the Boogaloo, no matter how many times he tried.
Rodney rejoined them in time for their third game against the Priors, and for the next seven games John was in baseball heaven. His conditioning improved thanks to workouts with Ronon, his flexibility improved thanks to workouts with Teyla, and his mood improved thanks to the dedicated time with Rodney. He started a game, pitched relief in another, pointedly ignored the baseball with a strikethrough someone had painted on Rodney’s helmet just above the dent in the catcher’s mask. He’d never felt so good on the mound. Life was good.
Life was awesome.
He didn’t even realise there was something wrong until Elizabeth called him into her office.
“Shut the door, John.”
That was never, ever a good sign.
“What is it?” he asked evenly, desperately trying to remember what he might have done to rate a closed door. He’d been pretty good here, actually; no cars on roofs. No magical ‘rain delays’. Nothing that could really explain…
“I’m worried about Rodney,” Elizabeth announced flatly. John blinked, his brain tumbling with the rapid change of mental topic.
“Uh,” he said.
“Since he’s been back from being hurt, his catching has been as good as ever. But his hitting…” Elizabeth sighed and ran a hand through her hair. It was a measure of how distressed she was, because John couldn’t remember ever seeing her even touch her hair before. Ever. “His hitting is abysmal, John. He’s oh for thirty eight. When we had that absolute blowout against the Tarannians? We batted around three times, John. Rodney was all three outs that inning.”
John opened and closed his mouth a couple of times, finally went with, “Why are you telling me this?”
“Because I know you’ve worked with him on his swing before. I want to know what you see. What’s wrong? He’s never been a spectacular hitter, but if this keeps up… I’ll have to bench him. We’re so close to the championship. I need people out there who can deliver.”
John was feeling outright hunted. “He does deliver, every single game.”
Elizabeth’s eyes hardened. “I mean hits, John, not just signs.’
John subsided, quietly furious.
“I’m putting him on the DL for the next three games. I want you to work with him, John. Help him over whatever issue he has.”
“Three games! That’s all that’s left in the regular season,” John protested loudly.
Elizabeth nodded. “I know, and I want him back. We’ll need him, John, to win the championship. But we need him at one hundred percent.” She paused, then nodded to the door in dismissal.
John stomped out.
Rodney took the news about as well as John expected; with much red-faced shouting and arm-waving, and finally a stony silence that was worse than any outbursts he’d made. He walked past John and Zelenka without a word, heading for the parking lot. Zelenka handed John his digital camcorder wordlessly, patting him on the arm.
John went to the A/V room, hooked up the camcorder, and started watching the tapes of Rodney’s swing.
It was so subtle he almost missed it.
A barely perceptible hitch in the swing, a miniscule twist of the hips, an even smaller hunch of the shoulders as the pitch approached. So small, so fucking tiny that John doubted anyone not versed in Rodney’s every motion would catch it without hours of watching. Tiny, but absolutely unmistakeable once seen. As the ball approached, Rodney would flinch; an unforgivable sin in a hitter. It was a total fucking catastrophe.
Rodney was afraid of the ball.
John closed his eyes and tried to push down the icy feeling in his chest.
It was his fault.
He turned off the television, disconnected the camcorder, and methodically wiped every one of the files on the machine.
Then he went to find Rodney.
He found him, predictably, at the batting cages.
“Hey, buddy,” he said softly. Rodney started wildly at the unexpected voice, then flinched away violently when the pitching machine shot the ball past him. John stabbed the off switch immediately. Rodney huffed out a breath, turned his back to John and threaded his fingers through the wire fencing surrounding the batters area. He leaned his forehead against the diamond mesh.
“I’ve watched the tapes.”
Rodney grunted noncommittally, but John saw his fingers tighten to white.
“Is it a problem when you catch?”
Rodney reduced to one word answers made John very nervous. Somehow he kept it out of his voice. “So just when you hit?”
“Just when I’m not wearing the cage.”
“Huh.” John reached down, picked up one of the baseballs nestled against the bottom of the mesh, rolled it between his fingers. The scuffed leather felt good, felt familiar. It felt… safe. He tried to imagine it being something to fear, and failed. Baseballs were one of his first memories; his father dropping one into his three year old hand and nodding approvingly; the only time John could remember getting a smile from the old man. Suddenly he realised he’d spent the rest of his life with a baseball in his hand, waving it around trying futilely to get that smile again. His grip tightened and he waited for the realisation to taint his enjoyment.
It didn’t. The ball still felt just as good, just as familiar, and just as safe. The only time it had ever felt like the enemy was that endless moment when it hurtled out of his control at his best friend’s head.
Evidently Rodney needed to get the good feelings back.
“Rodney,” John asked softly, his voice gravel in his throat. This would either work or it would destroy their friendship forever. “Do you trust me?”
Rodney pushed upright, the wire squeaking protest under his weight. He turned to face John, his face the picture of surprise. “Of course I do.” There was no hesitation, no evasion in his face. John bit his lip and nodded.
“Then take me home,” he said. “I have an idea.”
Rodney’s place was an actual house, small but well kept. “I pay my neighbours’ kids to keep it up,” he explained when he saw John’s surprise. He opened the front door with his key, pushed it open with a flourish. “Home, sweet home,” he said flatly.
A pale streak of fur shot from the darkness of what John took to be the living room and launched itself into Rodney’s arms. It resolved itself into a small cat, roughly the colour of a Siamese but with much longer, thicker hair. Rodney was already rubbing it under the chin and being rewarded with a rumbling purr. He turned with what John only now realised was the first genuine smile on his face in weeks. “This is Callisto,” he said fondly. “She’s a Himalayan.” He rubbed his cheek over her head and in another first for John, he was jealous of a cat.
“She’s gorgeous,” he admitted. “Callisto… after the goddess? Jupiter’s moon?”
Rodney snorted. “Evidently you never watched ‘Xena’,” he said. John smirked.
Now that they were here, he was having trouble figuring out how to start. Rodney, as usual, helped by getting straight to the point.
“So, what do you have in mind?” He put Callisto on the ground, stood uncertainly in the hallway. He looked braced for something unpleasant, and John’s stomach clenched at the idea this might not work.
“Ok, look,” he said desperately. “You’ve got some really, really bad associations right now with baseballs coming at you, and it’s fucking up your swing. And, it’s my fault.” He kept talking when Rodney would have interrupted, steamrolling right over him in a way he recognized as having learned from Rodney himself. “So I want to help you and remake those associations in a good way, but I’ll need you to trust me. Completely.”
He shut up and waited.
Rodney looked at him slack jawed for what had to be the second-longest moment of John’s life. He started to talk, choked a little, then rubbed a hand across his eyes and tried again. “I’m … uh. Going to skip right over the your fault part of that, cause, well, stupidity should not even be acknowledged if possible, plus I think… I just can’t believe… I think…” He swallowed hard, his eyes impossibly wide. “Are you suggesting kinky sex with baseballs?”
John shrugged his shoulders uncomfortably. “I don’t know that I would put it exactly that way,” he began, only for Rodney to steamroller him.
“You are! You’re suggesting kinky baseball sex!” He blinked rapidly, his fingers rubbing together, then kicked off his shoes and shed his jacket in a whirlwind of motion that had John stepping back in self-defence. “What a great idea!” He took off down the hall toward the back of the house, throwing over his shoulder, “Just let me get my glove!”
Helplessly John started to laugh.
“Come on, Flyboy,” Rodney shouted from the depths of the dark hallway. “Bedroom’s this way!”
When he got to the bedroom, Rodney was standing beside his bed, looking suddenly uncertain again and John knew it was time to take back control of the situation. He dropped his backpack onto the floor beside the bed, stepped up into Rodney’s personal space and gave him a gentle shove until he was sitting on its edge. “I didn’t misread, did I?” Rodney asked tentatively. John deliberately leaned down and rolled the bottom of Rodney’s jersey up, getting a good grip and starting to very slowly slide in up his torso.
“No, Rodney,” John murmured into his ear. “You didn’t misread.”
“Wait, wait.” Rodney’s arms clamped to his sides, trapping John’s hands. He pulled back until he could look directly into John’s eyes. “Why are you doing this?”
John frowned at him. “Because I want you to be able to hit,” he started. Rodney’s face tightened. “Because I’m responsible for hurting you,” he continued a bit more hesitantly as Rodney’s eyebrows drew together and disappointment gathered behind his eyes, “… and because I’ve wanted to for a really, really long time,” he finished slowly.
The smile that broke across Rodney’s face was absolutely blinding, and he reached forward and brushed his lips across John’s in a whisper-soft contact. John closed his eyes in relief and started to tug on the jersey. “Oh, no you don’t,” Rodney declared, stubbornly keeping his arms down. “Kinky baseball sex, remember?” He pushed John back a step, reached under the bed and triumphantly came up with a catcher’s mitt. “No glove, no love!”
John smothered his laugh against Rodney’s mouth and bore him back to the bed.