Prompt: Ace in the Hole
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?
Several sweaty hours (and six baseballs) later, they were sprawled in a tangle of limbs.
“You know this didn’t actually work, right?” Rodney asked suddenly. “Sex doesn’t actually cure neuroses like this like that.”
“Like this like that?” John echoed with a goofy grin.
“Whatever. This was … well, awesome, and I will never be able to play again without a hard cup, cause, hello, memories, but it’s not going to deal with the problem.”
“I’ll bet it helped.” John rolled onto his stomach to gaze at Rodney levelly. “But I do have another idea. It only bothers you when you hit, right?”
“Have you ever considered switch hitting?”
“I thought I just did,” Rodney grinned at him lustily. John hit him with a pillow.
“What I meant was…” John waited for Rodney to toss the pillow back out of the way before giving him a conspiratorial smile. “Ever tried hitting lefty?”
They tried it the next night, waiting until everyone had left the park. Rodney was worried about looking like an idiot, flailing away uselessly.
John, on the other hand, just wanted the privacy. To have the time alone, sure. But also, he was pretty damned sure this was going to work, and he didn’t want the other teams knowing about it. Nope. Rodney’s hitting was going to be their secret weapon. Assuming it worked, of course.
He handed Rodney the bat, walked to the mound.
“Uh.” Rodney put on his left-handed batting helmet nervously. Twilight was making the light dim, but they were an hour away from dark, yet. “Aren’t we going to use the automatic pitcher?”
“No,” John said firmly, setting his jaw stubbornly. Rodney opened his mouth as though to argue. “You’re not the only one with something to work out, Rodney,” he said.
Rodney shut his mouth with a snap and nodded curtly, tapping his bat twice against the plate and swinging it in a circle before swinging it back over his shoulder. He looked… comfortable.
“You sure you’ve never hit left before?”
“Never.” Rodney’s eyes were hard and focussed on the ball in his hand, waiting patiently. John rolled his shoulders to loosen them, swung his arm a little, wound up, and pitched.
The ball was a half-speed fastball; the only fastball John could throw without pain. It hung out there over the plate, perfectly in Rodney’s bread basket. John saw the telltale little flick of Rodney’s fingers as he tightened on the bat, the flex of muscular thighs as he swung. There was no hesitation, no flinch… just contact. Pure, full, crushing contact.
Rodney hit the living shit out of it.
It soared out into the rapidly darkening sky, a clear home run. Rodney watched it with awe, John with glee.
“How the hell? How did I do that?” Rodney stammered. “Not that I care, really I don’t, not as long as I can do it again, and oh my God did you see that thing go?”
“You’re built to hit.” John jogged back to home plate and hugged him. “And you’re ambidextrous. I noticed last night.”
Rodney grinned slowly. “Tonight,” he said, “you won’t be able to keep track.”
Their last three games were all at home, so John was able to work with Rodney every evening (and stay with him every night). They told Elizabeth, but agreed that leaving Rodney on the injured list would give them time to practice, time to cement his returning confidence, and invisibility from the scouts the Wraith had scouring practice tapes. Two wins and a loss, and the Atlanteans were in the first ever ILOB Championship game, against the Wraith.
John couldn’t remember ever being so jazzed before a game.
Lorne had the start. Since the Wraith had the higher number of wins on the season, they were ceded home field advantage; the Atlanteans would bat first.
The Wraith team had a field with a proper bullpen, so John’s view of the game was mostly blocked by the large wooden fence that separated the field from the reserve pitchers. Elizabeth had elected to go with only five pitchers on her roster for the game, in order to give herself more options for hitting if necessary. The Wraith pitchers were fearsomely good, and it was more useful for this one game to have a better selection of hitters. So, instead of the usual ten or so pitchers for company and heckling, he had three pitchers and a bunch of fielders pretending to be pitchers.
Zelenka was perched on the top of the wall, watching the action and commentating for them. Unfortunately most of his muttering was in Czech. John paced back and forth underneath him, growing more and more impatient until finally he gestured Stackhouse (one of the real pitchers) over, kicked off his shoes, and climbed to stand on his shoulders so he could see. After about thirty seconds, Stackhouse started bitching so John shrugged and climbed up onto the wall, hanging onto Zelenka for balance until he got settled.
It was the top of the fourth inning already. Teyla was up, stepping lithely to the plate and cocking the bat over her shoulder as she stared calmly at the Wraith pitcher. John had to admit these guys looked fierce. They’d all grown out their hair and dyed it white in a show of team solidarity that John had to admire, even as he thought they looked like absolute freaks. They also fielded with a level of co-ordination that was practically telepathy, as they proved when Teyla hit on and then Simpson bunted. Pickup – one – two, and it was one of the sweetest double plays John had ever seen.
Bottom of the fourth.
The Wraith hitters looked huge at the plate beside Rodney’s crouch and set against Lorne’s short stature. Neither of them seemed to care though, staring down the Wraith batters with the same half-annoyed glare that they gave every opposing team. The first Wraith struck out, the second popped into an easy out, and the third hit a long drive to centre field that had Ronon leaping into the air. John was thankful yet again for his team mate’s height when the ball thudded comfortably into his glove instead of knocking Zelenka off the wall.
The next inning was equally closely contested, neither team giving an inch. Three up three down for the Wraith pitcher, three up three down for Lorne. Rodney pumped his fist in the air as he walked back to the dugout, high-fiving Elizabeth on the steps, slipping off the catching gear.
Then, he slid on his helmet and headed for the plate.
With the very first pitch, John knew the Wraith had watched the tapes of Rodney’s last few active games as closely as John head. The pitcher whistled the ball four inches past the end of Rodney’s nose, a rising fastball clearly designed to rattle him. Rodney jerked back, stepped out of the batters box as the umpire called Ball One. John whooped.
His face was flushed, and John could see his lips moving in what was undoubtedly a litany of complaints as he took his stance. The Wraith catcher snarled at him, but John saw the umpire’s teeth flash in an amused grin before they all settled again for the pitch.
The second pitch was high and inside, again intended to brush Rodney back off the plate. This time Rodney jumped back out of the way, the Wraith catcher having to dive to the side to catch it. Rodney’s teeth bared in fury and John could just imagine what was being said. The umpire’s smile was gone and he was talking to the catcher, mouth close to his ear. The catcher nodded, annoyed, and returned to his crouch. Ball Two. John and Zelenka whistled and clapped. Stackhouse, not wanting to be left out, kicked the wall under them to make noise and almost shook John loose.
Rodney whirled the bat, rotating his wrists to loosen them, wriggled his fingers against the wood, stepped into place.
The Wraith pitcher wound up and threw.
Rodney pounced on the pitch, a hanging curve ball, and hit it back up the middle. It bounced between first and second and rolled into right field. Rodney trotted into first base with lots of time and a huge grin on his face. Zelenka and John went wild, shouting and clapping. It was too much for Stackhouse, who demanded a boost from Bates and joined them on the wall.
It was the start of a good inning for the Atlanteans. Kavanaugh doubled, sending Rodney around to third and putting himself on second. Then it was Ronon’s turn, and on the second pitch he got his knee down and his shoulders around and cranked the ball over the midfield fence. A few minutes later Grodin popped out to end the inning, but the damage was done. 3-0, Atlanteans.
The bottom of the sixth went by in a flash. Lorne and Rodney had really hit a groove, setting them up and knocking them down. There was a single hit, and then it was back up to bat.
Lorne led off with a hit, then Kusanagi walked. After some more intimidation throws that had John tensing on the wall, Rodney hit a short fly that turned into a double play, bringing Lorne in to score. Kavanaugh struck out. 4-0, Atlanteans.
In the bottom of the seventh, the tide started to turn for the Wraith. Lorne got into trouble early, walking the first batter and promptly giving up a pair of singles that loaded the bases. Elizabeth called to the bullpen, and it was time for John to give up playing spectator and start warming up. Zelenka muttered as he gingerly climbed down to catch. Stackhouse laughed at them and kept up a running monologue of commentary. At the end of the inning, John was getting loose and the score was almost tied.
John missed the top of the eighth, still throwing to stay warm, but Stackhouse cheered Ronon’s line drive back at the pitcher, knocking him out and gaining him a base hit. Unfortunately, Parrish was unable to capitalise, striking out in three. Teyla got handcuffed by an inside curve, popping straight up into the air. Ronon made it to second on the play. Simpson hit a single up the middle that put her on first, and Grodin hit a bouncer up the third base line that loaded the bases. Everyone in the bullpen were gathered under Stackhouse, hanging on every word as Lorne stepped up to the plate and swung at a fastball. He connected, hard.
They all realised how hard when Stackhouse abruptly tumbled backwards off the wall onto them. The Wraith left fielder’s arm and glove appeared briefly over the top of the fence, just enough for them to see the ball cradled in its webbing. End of the rally, and time to bring the Wraith back up to bat. John helped Stackhouse back to his feet and patted the dirt off him briskly. Zelenka grabbed his arm and pointed at the bullpen door.
Oh, right! He was pitching now.
The Wraith looked even scarier up close. For baseball players they were extremely pale, and John caught himself wondering if they maybe wore makeup or just practiced really late at night. Rodney came out to meet him at the mound, and John had to clench his hands to keep from reaching for him. Rodney’s face was dirty and sweat-streaked, making his eyes even lighter. He was grinning. John found himself grinning back. “Having fun?” he asked.
“Did you see me hit?” Rodney demanded, practically dancing with glee. “I’m great!”
John laughed. “Now show me how great you are at catching. We’re still six outs away from a win.” Rodney clapped him on the shoulder with his glove, headed back for the plate and the increasingly impatient umpire waiting for him.
The Wraith were eager to hit, and Rodney had John take full advantage, calling off-speed after breaker after slider. The Wraith players went after them, only to find the ball slipping just under, just over. John threw strike after strike, totally in the zone, and was actually surprised when the inning was over and it was time to go back to the dugout.
Kusanagi was up first. The frustration the Wraith team were feeling was leaking into their game, and the new pitcher was even more aggressive about brushing back the batters than their starter had been. With any other team John would have keeping track of their names, but the fact was they all looked so similar with the hair and the uniforms that he couldn’t be bothered. The pitcher threw an inside curve and actually sent the ball close enough to her to riffle her jersey as it passed. The close call drew an ugly growl from the team, and John realised that they’d been even closer than they’d appeared from the outfield wall. He frowned.
Miko hit the next pitch into the midfield, made it to first, and it was Rodney’s turn at bat. He slid his helmet onto his head, and John saw his hand tremble just a little as Chuck handed him the bat. He stopped Rodney on his way up the steps, raising a silent but questioning eyebrow.
“They’re pitching me close,” Rodney said evenly, not bothering to try and hide his irritated nervousness. “And high. Really high.” He shook loose John’s hand. “Don’t worry about it. Any new neuroses can be fixed later. “ He leaned into John so the others couldn’t hear. “Though we may have to graduate to basketballs.”
The rest of the team gathered at the base of the dugout steps, watching the proceedings darkly. Ronon’s face was stone. “Sheppard,” he acknowledged John, but his eyes never left the Wraith pitcher.
“How close have they been pitching?”
“I wish my razor shaved so close,” Grodin said bitterly.
Grodin nodded at the field in answer. John turned to watch, aware of Elizabeth standing mutely angry beside him.
Rodney tapped the top of his helmet to make sure it was secure, then whirled the bat up into position. As a lefty, his back was to the dugout as he waited, and John couldn’t help but admire the view. He admired it so closely, in fact, that he completely missed the pitch. He could not possibly have missed the aftermath, though.
Rodney went down, straight down, and with a roar Ronon was over the side of the dugout and charging the mound full steam. Elizabeth was only a couple of steps behind him, and John heard a shout of Czech outrage from the outfield even as the rest of both teams boiled up onto the field and started tearing into each other. John thought some truly murderous thoughts at the pitcher but Ronon seemed to be expressing his rage adequately by pounding him into the dirt, so instead he headed for home plate where Rodney was slowly picking himself up off the ground.
“Hey! Slow down. You ok?”
“I’m fine,” Rodney replied curtly, then flashing him a quick apologetic look. The plate umpire stood with them, holding Rodney’s shirt as if keeping him from running to the fracas. John was pretty sure it was just an excuse to keep him from having to go help break it up. Rodney took a deep breath, tapped John’s shoulder. “He barely winged me. Knocked my helmet a bit, missed all the important stuff.”
Security had spilled onto the field and were attempting to separate the struggling players. The umpire took Rodney and John each by an arm and pulled them back to the dugout. “Stay here,” he ordered in a deep voice, gravelly from a lifetime of shouting.
It took about fifteen minutes to clear the field. Both managers were ejected, along with Zelenka and Chuck and the Wraith bat girl. Three of the Atlantean meagre pitching staff were sent off. During that time, John set Rodney on the dugout bench, checked him over thoroughly, and then sat down beside him, pressed against him from hip to knee. One conversation about the possibilities for other types of ball sex later, John was excruciatingly grateful that he wasn’t needed to pitch right away and Rodney was glaring at him accusingly, catcher’s mitt strategically covering his lap as Security escorted the team back.
The umpire came to the top of the steps. “MCKAY! Take your base.”
The rest of the inning was anticlimactic. Kavanaugh struck out (which could have been due to the rapidly darkening bruise under his eye), and then Ronon drilled a pitch directly back at the pitcher who caught it in self-defence. Ronon growled at the guy and looked like he was considering tossing his bat at the pitcher too when Parrish gently tapped him on the shoulder and sent him back to the rest of the team. Parrish hit a short fly ball for an easy out, and just like that they were headed back into the field.
It was the bottom of the ninth, with the Wraith down by one. They were three outs away from the Championship.
The first Wraith batter entered the box. He was sporting some bruises, too, which made John grin at him happily. The Wraith glared and pulled into his stance. One breaking ball and one pop fly later, they had only two outs to go.
The second batter was distinctive enough for John to remember, simply by the fact that he was a good three inches taller than Ronon and built just as heavily. Rodney called for a curve, but John shook him off. If he missed the throw and hung it over the plate, this batter (Steve, if he remembered right) would take it so deep they’d be digging it out of the parking lot. He went for a wicked forkball instead, and caught Steve swinging. It was a long, long hit that John was starting to worry would fall on the fair side of the foul line when it finally hooked out of play. Strike one.
Rodney thought for a second, then called a slider. John agreed, threw it low. The Wraith caught just enough of it to pop it into the air, and Teyla manoeuvred under it with liquid grace and complete confidence. Two out.
The third Wraith batter was their pitcher, the one who had hit Rodney and started the brawl. John’s eyes narrowed. He did not like this guy, at all.
Rodney’s lips were moving behind his mask, and John could see the Wraith getting more and more irritated. He waited, waited… and threw the pitch just as the Wraith started to turn to give Rodney a piece of his mind. The fastball sailed straight across the centre of the plate… and hot pain flared through John’s shoulder.
Rodney was on his feet immediately, headed for the mound as the umpire called time. John was standing very, very still in the hopes that the throbbing in his shoulder would just forget about being there and move on. He looked over at the bench. Lorne had been pulled out, the other three pitchers were hurt. There was no one else to put in to pitch.
Well, this was annoying.
“How bad?” Rodney asked as he got close enough to not be overheard.
“I’m done,” John replied flatly. Rodney looked over at the bench and John could see him make the same realisation as John had.
John reached for his catcher’s cage, pulled it off his head, then turned him and started to unbuckle the vest.
“John?” It was a squeak of protest.
“You need to pitch, Rodney. I can’t. You can.”
“No, I can’t! I never said I could pitch! I’m not built to pitch!” He was almost shouting, but his voice had gone so high it was hard to tell.
“You know how to, and that’s about as good as it gets right now. So quit bitching!” John struggled awkwardly into the chest protector, knelt and started stripping off the shin guards. Rodney looked down at him.
“God, that’s hot,” he said wonderingly, then shook himself. “Hot or not, I am not going to pitch this!”
“Sure you are,” John said, snapping the last clasp into place.
Rodney’s lips compressed. “Fine!” He snapped, crossing his arms uncomfortably. John slapped his glove into Rodney’s chest. “But if I’m pitching, you’re catching. Do it right, too.” His mouth twisted. “Call the ball.”
John stood, pulled Rodney’s helmet off his head and replaced it with his own cap. “Will do, buddy,” he flashed him a big grin before heading towards the plate at a jog. Each step jarred his shoulder into fresh sparks of pain, but he shook it off. He took the catcher’s place behind the plate and dropped into the crouch he’d been on the other side of so many times. He held up his glove, pulled down the mask, and glared at Rodney challengingly.
Rodney closed his eyes and shook his head, but started moving around to loosen up for a pitch. The Wraith looked confused and annoyed and generally hostile, but since that was kind of their default setting John ignored it. The umpire settled in behind John without a comment. John put down his knee, and called a fastball.
Rodney refused the sign. John sighed, thought a minute. Something less dependent on speed, then. He called a curve, and Rodney nodded, sliding into the most awkward windup John had ever seen. Somehow he managed to untangle himself and throw the ball at the plate. The Wraith was so confused by the bizarre presentation that he let the pitch go. Unfortunately, the ball was low.
One ball, one strike.
John signalled a slider. Todd the Wraith swung, connected… and flipped the ball back over their heads into the screen.
One – two.
Rodney managed to deliver another slider into the dirt three feet in front of the plate.
Two balls, two strikes.
John called a curve. Rodney threw it… about two feet outside.
Three – Two; a full count.
John dropped onto one knee. This was it; he could feel it. If they walked this guy, they’d lose. If he hit, they’d lose. They needed a strike. John flipped the mask back, scrubbed a hand over his face, and looked up into Rodney’s wide blue eyes from sixty feet away. He saw all the things he’d just decided reflected there, and slowly moved back to the crouch. The umpire called time in, Todd stepped into the batter’s box. Rodney waited for the signal.
John spread his hands, waggled his fingers. Serve it up.
Rodney grinned at him, sudden and fierce and joyous, contorted himself into what passed for a windup. Todd tensed, John tensed, and Rodney unfurled into the pitch.
The ball went left, then rose, then dipped to the left. John had never been on the receiving side of a boogaloo before and he had about half a second to feel genuine sympathy for Kavanaugh’s inability to catch it before the ball seemed to speed up and explode into their faces… right down the centre of the plate.
Rodney threw John’s glove in the air, then ripped off his jersey and threw that too. The entire team boiled out of the dugout, screaming and waving their arms madly, throwing themselves on each other in a frenzy. John raced straight for the mound, ignoring everyone but Rodney’s maniacally grinning face.
“We won!” he screamed as the team descended on them. “Rodney, we won!”
Rodney hugged him wordlessly in reply. Over his shoulder, John saw Ronon head for the stands, lifting Elizabeth down onto the field. Kavanaugh kissed Kusanagi enthusiastically, lifting her right off the ground to reach. Zelenka and the players relegated to the bullpen spilled from it, jumping around like madmen before racing pell-mell for the mound and the milling team. Even the injured players limped and staggered their way to the celebration. Rodney released him, and for a second John stepped out of his head, away from all the noise and insanity, and just mentally drank it all in. Time stood still, as if he had an eternity to just look around him and take mental snapshots of the moment.
Elizabeth, reaching for Rodney and beaming at them both with blinding joy.
Ronon, lifting Teyla into the air, their hair flying and faces exultant.
Zelenka, glasses gone, grinning widely enough that it had to hurt, trying... and failing... to high-five Chuck, who was trying to shake his hand.
Lorne, mid backflip in the infield, with Bates and Stackhouse clapping and cheering wildly.
And Rodney, sweaty, dirty, dusty, red-faced, bare-chested. Rodney, a whole arsenal of secret weapons packed into one explosive package, who had one hand fisted tightly in the straps of John's borrowed chest protector. Who was looking at him like he could see his future in John's face.
John had always known that baseball was poetry. What he'd never realised before, not until just now, was that the poetry wasn't written by the motion of throw and catch, hit and run. No, the poetry of baseball was written by the people who played it. If he loved baseball for the poetry, he loved the people writing it even more.
The moment ended and the world exploded back into sound and motion. Elizabeth jostled his arm and he winced, prompting Rodney to pull him close again to protect his damaged shoulder with his body. John leaned into him, mouth right against his ear.
"Just think," he said, blood surging at the thought. "Next time we have kinky baseball sex, there'll be a trophy involved."
Rodney's whole body jerked and his fingers tightened on the straps, pulling them painfully snug around John's back. It felt great. "Jesus," Rodney shouted at him over the sound of the cheering, then laughed. "I'll bring the rosin!" He grabbed John's face between his hands and kissed him like he was going to crawl inside.