The crack of a ball against a wooden bat makes Greg Sanders nostalgic for a childhood that he never had. As he and his partner make their way to the batting cages, he pauses for a moment to rest against the railing and watch the children scattered about on the infield. They are in the middle of a play – the ball soars into the sky and one pony-tailed girl is waiting confidently beneath it with her glove at the ready. It hits her palm with a resounding smack, and her team-mates whoop as they run in to congratulate her. A smile tugs on Greg’s lips, and he turns when he feels a hand against the small of his back.
Nick Stokes is looking at him quizzically. “What are you thinking about, G?”
Greg shrugs. “Do you know the closest I ever came to a baseball game when I was a kid was if I read a Peanuts strip or caught a rerun of The Bad News Bears?”
Nick smiles, and his dimples are on full display. It is not a mocking smile however, just one of commiseration and concern. “Well, your mother was overprotective. Maybe when we’re parents we’ll understand that a little more.”
They begin walking again. Nick is wearing a faded replica of a Rangers team jersey, and a sports bag is flung over his shoulder. Greg can’t help but be a little turned-on by the jock beside him, a slight fetish that always seem to arise in him whenever his partner is dressed in such a fashion.
“Yeah, but Jillian wasn’t like that with the Stokes brigade,” Greg replies, thinking of Jillian’s wall of shame back at the ranch, where the Stokes are represented in every year of their life. The quantity of older photos that were dedicated to all the siblings in various sporting uniforms would have made anyone believe they could have started their own professional league. He can’t help but grin at the thought of a little miniature version of himself or Nick following them out on to the field in the future, dragging a bat behind them in the dirt. He hopes that their kid will be like the girl he watched earlier, fearless and elated, even though their fathers have seen so much pain and violence in the world they will no doubt be trying to shield their child from every facet of it.
“Maybe she should have been,” Nick laughs. “The number of times we were in the emergency room between the seven of us, I’m surprised Child Services were never called.”
Greg can’t help but laugh at the thought of someone reporting Jillian and Bill Stokes, and the chaos that would have ensued.
They reach the batting cages, and take one at the far end of the row. Nick crouches to unzip the bag, and takes out the equipment he bought for them only a few weeks before. Greg had been complaining about Nick’s fascination with sport, and Nick had countered that Greg just might appreciate baseball more if he actually experienced hitting a ball. And that occasionally dribbling a basketball with a few friends in college wasn’t the real thing.
When Nick came back from the sportsmart laden with purchases, Greg was sceptical. But there was something about slipping on the leather of the mitt for the first time, feeling its strange heaviness upon his palm.
“Smell it,” Nick had instructed him.
Greg had raised an eyebrow, but obeyed. He couldn’t quite figure out the emotion in the rush that came over him at the smell of the leather combined with softening oil, but there was something almost visceral in his response. “It smells like… summer.”
Nick had given him one of his blinding smiles, and a quick kiss to the top of his head. “Let’s test that baby out.”
Over the next couple of weeks they played catch as if they were kids, throwing the ball back and forth in their back yard. Greg astounded Nick with the speed at which he could throw the ball, although his aim was far from perfect. Their elderly next door neighbour, Mrs Blenkinsop, had grown tired of them knocking on her door and asking for their ball back, so she gave them permission to leap the fence and get it whenever it sailed over. She secretly liked having two such nice young ‘lawmen’ living beside her, and if the intrusion of a stray baseball every now and again was the only trouble they caused her, she had nothing to complain about.
Which leads them to the batting cages. Greg has grown tired of merely playing catch; it is time to introduce him to the bat. Nick taps his slugger against the tip of his sneaker as Greg runs down to activate the ball machine. The pneumatic whoosh warns of the impending launch of the ball, and Nick expertly sends the ball back to the opposite side of the cage with a crack of the bat. Greg jumps aside automatically, even though the ball goes nowhere near him.
“And it’s a homer for Nick!” he calls encouragingly.
Nick shoots him a grin, then holds the bat at the ready again.
Greg sits with the fence at his back, watching his partner work up a sweat, the slight sheen highlighting the movement of sinew in his forearms. Once the machine has emptied itself, Nick jogs down and restocks it. Greg jumps to his feet, and picks up the bat Nick chose for him. It is metallic, yet lightweight, and a bright red that Nick knew Greg would appreciate. He approaches the line in the dirt and tries to stand as he remembers baseballers did in movies he has seen and games he has watched with Nick.
Nick hides his smile as Greg takes up an awkward stance, like he is about to try and defend himself from a mugger rather than hit a ball. He moves behind him, and Greg instinctively leans into the familiar weight. “What am I doing wrong, boss?” he smirks.
“Nothing, if you don’t want to hit a ball,” Nick teases. One hand comes to rest on Greg’s hip, and his foot snakes between his legs to push them further apart. Greg allows himself to be manipulated into what feels like a strange position, but Nick knows what he’s doing. “Keep your feet parallel to the plate.”
Greg looks down at the strip in the dirt. “There’s no plate.”
“That line is your plate,” Nick says patiently.
“It’s a funny-lookin’ plate, that’s all I’m saying.”
Nick ignores him, and moves his hand from Greg’s hip to his stomach. Greg can’t help but take a sharp intake of breath at the intimacy of Nick’s hand pressing him in until he can feel the warmth of Nick against his back. “I never thought baseball would be this fun.”
“Only in training,” Nick responds.
“Later, babe,” Nick mutters, with a grin meant only for Greg. “Just keep leaning back slightly so that your weight is more over your back foot.” Nick’s hands are pulling on Greg’s hips and he rocks them slightly. “Try and keep your hips level with your shoulders, and tuck your chin in a bit to your shoulder. That’s it.” His hands travel up again and move Greg’s hands slightly apart on the bat, but remain over them, steadying them. “Now, swing.”
Greg feels Nick rocking against him as they swing forward, and he feels a little heat racing through his body.
“How does that feel?” Nick asks.
“Good,” he squeaks in reply.
“Then we’re ready.”
Greg tenses while waiting for the ball machine to kick in, but Nick is still behind him, helping him ease into the first few swings. “We’re just going to tap the first few,” he instructs, and Greg nods. There is the sound of the pneumatic launcher, and Greg barely has time to register exactly when to hit the ball as all he sees is a blur of white. But Nick is at the ready and guiding him, and Greg feels himself swivelling at the hips, and hears the crack of the ball connecting with the bat.
“I did it!” he whoops.
“You sure did, babe,” Nick’s breath is warm against his ear.
They remain glued together for about ten balls, and then Greg feels Nick leave him. He is on his own now, and of course, he misses the first ball and it flies past him.
“Don’t stress out,” Nick calls from behind him. “Relax.”
It’s easy for him to say, but Greg does as he suggests. The next ball glances off his bat, but it is more of a dull thud than a sharp crack. Nick continues to cry out encouraging advice, and Greg’s confidence grows although he still misses the occasional ball.
He manages to hit the next one, but it bounces off the bat at an awkward angle and spins off behind him. Nick yelps in pain and Greg turns in time to see him go down without an ounce of grace.
“Nick!” Greg yells, dropping his bat and running to him.
“You beaned me pretty good, Greggo,” Nick groans.
“I’m so sorry!” Greg has to duck because he hears the sound of the ball machine launching again, and without anybody there to deflect the ball they are both directly in the firing range.
“It’s okay,” Nick rubs at the right side of his head gingerly. “These things happen in sport. You know you haven’t been giving your best if you don’t end up in an emergency ward.”
“You want to go to hospital?” Greg asks, worried and contrite, ducking as another ball flies perilously close to his head.
“No,” Nick laughs, then winces. “But we should at least move out of the cage while the machine is still going.”
Greg waits for the next ball to launch, knowing they will have about forty seconds grace to get out of the line of fire. He helps a woozy Nick to his feet and guides him out of the cage to a nearby bench. “Lie down,” he instructs. “I’m going back in.”
Nick does so as Greg races back to the cage. A ball thumps against the back fence, and he runs in, grabbing the fallen equipment and the bag Nick had carried in earlier. He escapes just as another ball lets fly. Nick is lying on the bench with a hand shielding his eyes from the sun.
“How are you feeling?” Greg asks as he begins rummaging in the bag.
“I’ll survive, G,” Nick says amiably. “I’ve had worse.”
Greg tries not to think too hard about that as he unzips the cooler bag tucked away with the equipment. Nick has thoughtfully included a six pack, and there are two blue refreezable icebags keeping the drinks cool. He pulls one out, and tenderly lifts Nick’s head as he slides in beneath him and repositions his partner’s head in his lap.
“My favourite pillow,” Nick quips.
“Down boy,” Greg smiles as he rests the bag against the area along Nick’s neck which is beginning to swell. Nick winces at the sudden cold, but Greg lightly strokes his hair. “Just go with it for a while.”
Nick could almost fall asleep here. The coolness against his head, the comfort of Greg’s lap, and the heat of the sun upon his body are having a remarkably drowsy effect upon him even if the ‘bed’ beneath him is not built for slumber.
“Were you expecting me to injure you today?” Greg murmurs.
“Those batting cages are death traps,” Nick says softly. “I’m surprised there aren’t more fatalities in them each year.”
“You mean to say you’ve been called to a fatality in a batting cage?”
Nick thinks back. “Once.”
“Really? A killer ball machine?”
“Nah. A guy knifed his best friend for bringing the wrong beer.”
“Well, that was really what I was trying to do to you. I’d noticed you brought Miller.”
Nick wheezes. “Don’t make me laugh. It hurts.”
“Maybe we should get you checked out. I don’t want you having a concussion.”
“I wasn’t hit in the head. It was more the neck.”
“I can think of ways you can make it up to me.”
“Oh?” Greg smiles wistfully.
“Yeah, you can rub my feet and bring me snacks during the Birds of Prey marathon on Discovery.”
“You make that sound like a punishment!”
Nick reaches behind him and whacks Greg lightly on the shoulder. “What did I tell you about making me laugh?”
“To never stop?”
Nick strokes his shoulder, although he is in an awkward position to do so. “That’d be right.”
“Come on, let’s get you home.”
Greg is true to his word and mollycoddles Nick for the rest of the night. When they wake up in the morning the swelling has reduced significantly.
“I hope you haven’t been scared off the game,” Nick says.
Greg shakes his head. “I can only get better, right?”
“God, I hope you can’t get worse!” Nick wrinkles his nose, and Greg whacks him. “Of course you will!” he finally gets out between fits of laughter.
Greg climbs on top of him. “You better make sure you pick me first to be on your team, Nick Stokes. I’m not reliving high school all over again.”
Nick’s kisses are gentle against his skin. “Of course you’ll be first pick, you’re always first.”
So it is with a triumphant smile when he gets a spare minute at work that night, Greg posts the notice in the break room calling for participants in a lab softball team. When he passes again an hour later there are a healthy amount of signatures added to the sign-up sheet. The first name is ‘Nick Stokes’, and then added below it in the same handwriting is ‘Greg Sanders’. Greg traces the pattern of ink slowly, and feels a strange warmth course throughout him.
At the time he had never known what he was missing out on, but he has all the time in the world to discover it now. And when he opens his locker at the end of shift and discovers the baseball jersey Nick had hidden in there for him, he knows that the look on his face is the same as the girl he had watched catch the flyball the day before. Elated and fearless, and ready to take on the world.