theladyscribe: Etta Place and Butch Cassidy laughing. (brothers)
a subtle sort of brilliance ([personal profile] theladyscribe) wrote in [community profile] avandell2009-04-30 01:00 pm
Entry tags:

Glory Days (part one)

Title: Glory Days
Author: [personal profile] theladyscribe
Pairing: Jared/Jensen, brief Jensen/OFC
Rating: R, for language and some sex
Word Count: ~15,400
Short Summary: Have some faith. This is baseball; anything can happen.
Notes: Written for the [profile] j2_everafter challenge. Loosely based on Angels in the Outfield. Also a part of the Bruce Springsteen Fic Challenge. Disclaimer, betas, and full summary in the Master Post. More detailed notes can be found at the end of the story.

Master Post | Part One | Part Two

Glory Days

It is designed to break your heart. The game begins in spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall alone. --A. Bartlett Giamatti, "The Green Fields of the Mind"

Minneapolis Metrodome, Eight Years Ago

It happens so fast that Jensen doesn't even realize he's on the ground until the medic and the manager are standing over him. There's blinding pain shooting up from his left knee, but what's worse is the deathly silence that envelopes the stadium. Silence like that in a domed stadium can only mean one thing: there's a man down who may not get up. He's dazed; the room is spinning, or maybe the Metrodome really is a spaceship and they're flying to the moon. He shuts his eyes, hoping they'll land soon. He never did like rollercoasters.

"Ackles? You with us?" The steady voice of Coach Manuel forces Jensen's eyes open again. Coach is looming over him, his beer gut more prominent than usual. Jensen is vaguely aware that Jared's hovering nearby, and he sends a silent prayer that the idiot won't bean the next batter in revenge.

"Yeah," he grits out after a moment. He lost his face mask somewhere along the way, but his helmet is still with him, the hard plastic digging into the back of his skull. "Hurts."

"Do you think you can stand?" asks Ryan, the medic.

Jensen forces himself into a sitting position and tries to get his right leg underneath himself before browning out for a moment. "Don't think so," he gasps. "It's my left knee, Coach. Could feel it – I think I popped it out of place."

Coach's face is tight. "We'll get you a stretcher, son."

Jensen nods and then remembers. "Mientkiewicz? Did I get him?"

Coach hesitates. "Don't worry, they're only up by one. We'll take care of it."

By then, the stretcher's arrived, and two pairs of strong arms are pulling him onto it. The crowd claps for him, but other than giving a half-hearted wave, Jensen doesn't really care.

His assessment was right; when they get into the clubhouse, the medics start taking his gear off his left leg. The pain has him clutching the sides of the gurney, his fingers turning white, and he chances a look at his knee. The sight nearly makes him pass out; the cap is too far to the left, an oddity visible even through his pants.

"Gonna have to cut the leg off," the Twins' medic says.


"Your pant leg," Ryan clarifies for him. "Need to get a good look at it, though you're probably in for some surgery, judging by the position of your patella. Tough break, huh?"

"Yeah," he answers quietly.

They give him some painkillers and take him to the hospital, but he's stuck in holding behind victims from a wreck on the highway, and because irony's a bitch, the game is on the TV. He watches as his teammates continually flub the ball – Looks like losing Ackles has taken its toll on Cleveland tonight, Bob – and lose the game 5-4, knocking them out of contention for the Wild Card race once and for all.

They've just announced Mientkiewicz as the player of the game and are about to go to the post-game interview when he's finally, blessedly, called into the ER.

Jared visits in the morning, a welcome sight after a night of doctors and needles and morphine. "Mientkiewicz sends his apologies," he states without preamble. "I punched him in the face for you."

"You shouldn't have done that."

Jared shrugs, unrepentant. "They slapped me with a thousand-dollar fine, told me I have to apologize publicly, and suspended me for three games. Not that it matters any more, since we're out of the play-off race."

The reminder that he and his knee were the cause of last night's loss stings, but Jensen tries not to show it. Instead he says, "Doctors tell you anything?"

"Nope. I'm not a legitimate family member, so they don't have to tell me anything." Jared grins evilly. "You'll be glad to know I resisted telling them what we did in the hotel room our first night in town."

Jensen can feel the blush creeping up his face. They've been together since spring training – even the club's PR has picked up on their closeness, touting them as the J-Squared Dream Team, though so far they've been able to keep the romantic side of their relationship a secret – but Jared still has the ability to make him feel like a thirteen-year-old with his first hard-on.

"It's the knee-cap," he says after a moment. "Wrenched it completely out of place and tore up the meniscus and ACL. Doctor Singer said I may not be able to play again." It's the first time he's said the words out loud, and the horrified look on Jared's face doesn't help.

"You're gonna play again," Jared insists. "The league'll put you through rehab; they have to. And you'll get better and play next year. Probably win a Golden Glove and MVP, to boot."

Jensen smiles grimly at his optimism. "I hope so, Jay. I hope so."

♦ ♦ ♦

Angels Stadium, Present Day

It is just when you are stepping high and confident that Fate waits behind the door with a stuffed eelskin. --Bert Blyleven, two-time All-Star and World Series Champion

"Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to the 2009 baseball season. I'm Chad Murray--"

"--And I'm Kristen Bell--"

"--and you're listening to Angel Radio KLAA. It's opening day here at Angel Stadium, and your Anaheim Angels are hosting the Oakland A's. Today also marks the Angels' first game with their new manager, former All-Star Jensen Ackles. At the age of thirty-four, Ackles is the youngest manager in the major leagues."

"That's right, Chad. Of course, Ackles would probably be playing today rather than coaching if it hadn't been for that tragic career-ending inj--"

Jensen turns off the radio, not needing or wanting the color commentary on his life. Besides, he has more important things to focus on -- like the news on the trade the Angels GM just finalized with the Phillies.

"You traded Moreno for prospects? How the hell am I supposed to win games without our star slugger?"

"Look, the Phillies are trying to stave off the sophomore slump. They just won their second World Series ever and want to keep their mojo. If that means they desperately need our 'star slugger' and are willing to trade both prospects and a veteran pitcher for him, I'd be crazy to say no. Hell, if it plays out the way I think it will, this trade'll be better than the Pierzynski trade was for the Twins."

Jensen only latches on to one part of Jim's speech. "Prospects and a vet? Who?" he asks, even though he's dreading the answer.

He can practically hear the shrug in Jim's voice. "Jared Padalecki."

"You have got to be fucking kidding me. Jim, I can't -- I can't work with him."

"Too bad. Deal with it, kid. I don't care about whatever little catfight you two had when you got busted up, and neither does anyone else. This deal was all or nothing, and the all was too sweet to pass up, deadbeat pitcher or not." He pauses, letting Jensen know it's about to get even worse. "And if you can't deal with it, you might want to look for another job."

There's a knock on Jensen's office door, and Mike sticks his head in. "Hey, Jen, you got twenty minutes. Better suit up."

Jensen nods his thanks and says into the phone, "Jim, I gotta go. Forty minutes to game time and the natives are restless."

"We'll talk more later, then."

"I'm sure we will."

"Don't get smart with me, boy," Jim mutters. "And good luck today."

"Thanks," he answers flatly. Jensen resists the urge to slam the phone down, deciding it's safest not to blow out the GM's eardrums. Instead, he settles for dropping his head to the desk.

"Bad news?" Mike asks, stepping into the office with Jensen's jersey.

"You have no idea." His voice is muffled by the desk calendar. He sits up and pushes away from the desk.

"The Padalecki trade, right?"

Jensen blinks at him in surprise as he takes the jersey from him. "How'd you know?"

"Dude, it's been all over ESPN for days now. The only question was whether Beaver'd agree to it, given your mutual hatred." He stops, but Jensen can tell there's something else bubbling under the surface.

"What else?"

"It's nothing," Mike says quietly as Jensen pulls the jersey over his head and tucks it into his pants. "But… ESPN's not the only place full of trade talks. Moreno's been waiting for this for weeks now, been talking it up during training and in the clubhouse. And you were oblivious? That doesn't look very good, Jen."

He's right, Jensen knows, but it doesn't make his words rankle less. "Had a lot on my mind recently," he answers defensively.

"Still, you need to get to know your team."

"I know some of them! Well, I know Chris." It's true; they met during spring training in 2002, when Chris was playing with the Braves and Jensen was still hopeful about rehabbing his knee, bonded over catching and music, and kept in touch even after he officially retired.

"And that's a great start, Jen, but you need to do more than be friends with the catcher you've known for years. After all, with any luck, you're gonna be stuck with these guys for a while." When Jensen doesn't answer, Mike continues. "Unless, of course, you don't want to be. I mean, your contract doesn't go into full effect until next season. If you wanted to bow out now, you could. It'd piss off the front office to no end, but you could. Your record's good enough that we could probably still get you a position somewhere in the minors or in college ball."

Jensen shakes his head. "No. I want this. I just wasn't expecting Jared." Really, he never expected Jared, not even all those years ago.

"Well," Mike says cheerfully, "at least it'll make the season entertaining."

"Maybe for you."

"Don't you know? I'm the only one that matters."

"Wait," says Jensen. "I thought agents were supposed to keep their clients happy, not the other way around."

Mike blinks comically. "Really? That's news to me. Now come on, you've got a game to win."

They walk together through the now-empty clubhouse to the door into the dugout. Mike claps Jensen on the shoulder. "You want me to wish you good luck?"

Jensen snorts. "No."

"Well then. Good luck," Mike laughs, turning down the hallway to the stadium exit.

Jensen pushes through the door in front of him, coming into the dugout. To say he is nervous about the game would be an understatement. Not only is he terrified that he's going to royally fuck everything up tonight, he is privately freaking out about the fact that in just a couple days, he'll be in the same place as Jared Padalecki for the first time in years. The thought does nothing to sooth the first-game jitters.

Coach Geren is already walking toward homeplate to meet with the umpires, so Jensen takes a deep breath and steps out of the dugout. He glances up to the stands. The stadium is packed, and all eyes are on him. Then he notices the cameras, which, oh fuck. He'd forgotten that every movement on the field was filmed from every possible angle. There's bile in his throat and he almost walks back into the dugout before shaking his head and taking another deep breath. He can do this; he has done it all before.

He walks quickly, head down, to the homeplate meeting. Geren's laughing with the umps about something, but when he sees Jensen, he stops.

"You alright?" he asks.

Jensen smiles tightly. "Yeah. Just a bit--" he shrugs "--you know."

"Don't sweat it, kid, I vomited up my lunch first game I managed in the majors. Scariest day of my life." He smiles broadly, and that, more than anything, helps to sooth Jensen's nerves.

They shake hands, chat with the umpires, and exchange lineups and rosters. The next thing Jensen knows, the team takes the field, he stands for the anthem, and the homeplate umpire calls, "Play ball!"

The rookie pitcher Dustin Nguyen gets off to a shaky start, giving up a base hit to the first batter, and Jensen starts questioning his decision to give the kid the first game. He thought that Nguyen could handle it -- the guy was certainly the strongest of their starters during spring training -- but now he thinks he should have listened to Lehne and put Boreanaz at the top of the rotation. True, Dave's not got the range that Nguyen has but sometimes a vet who knows what he's doing is better than a rookie with a full arsenal. It's just that Nguyen reminds him of another young pitcher, and he wants to see if his instincts are right.

But that path of thinking is dangerous, especially after the news from Jim, so Jensen forces himself to focus back on the game. To his surprise, the top of the inning is over, and Krushnic and Hodge are heading toward the batter's box. A surreptitious glance to the scoreboard reveals no runs and only the one hit. Nguyen did good.

Unfortunately, Oakland's pitcher is just as good as Nguyen and strikes out the side. As Nguyen gets up to leave the dugout, Jensen stops him. "Good work, kid, keep it up."

Nguyen raises his eyebrows. "Uh, thanks, Coach." He ducks his head and lopes out toward the mound.

Nguyen continues the good work, keeping the game tied at zero, until the top of the fifth, when he gives up a homerun to Matt Holliday. The homer seems to give him the shakes, and when he loads the bases with one out, Jensen is forced to walk to the mound.

"You've done good," he says when he sees Nguyen's dejected look. "Most new guys don't last into the fifth inning on their first big start." He startles himself by saying, "Hell, not even Jared Padalecki made it past the fourth inning his first night out." Jensen gently takes the ball from Nguyen's hand and slaps him on the back. "Go put some ice on that arm of yours. Can't have it seizing up on us."

He watches Nguyen walk to where the team trainer, Samantha Smith, is waiting to take him into cool-down, and damn, that kid makes him think of Jared so much it almost aches. He pushes the thought away, focuses on the arrival of Ventimiglia, the middle reliever. Jensen tries to smile at him, but judging by the look on the guy's face, it's more like a grimace. Chris Kane joins them on the mound, catcher's mask in hand.

"Cust's coming up to bat," he says. "You played against him back in the day, right? You got any suggestions?"

Jensen laughs a little. He's about to point out that Chris was playing then, too, but remembers that he'd been in the National League at the time. "Chris, the guy was a September call-up my last season. I was on the disabled list by the time he was on the team." He scratches his chin. "Judging by his earlier at-bat, though, I'd say he's scared of sliders." He hands the ball to Ventimiglia, saying, "Give 'em hell."

Ventimiglia gets them out of the tight spot with only one more run, knocking them to a 2-0 deficit. They hold the score there for a couple of dull innings until, finally, in the bottom of the seventh, the bats seem to kick into gear.

Aldis Hodge leads off with a double, and Welling bats him in with a sac fly to right field. Jensen makes a mental note that Hodge is fast on his feet; he'll talk to Morgan later about making more opportunities for steals. Whitfield strikes out, but Chris hits a single. Moreno comes up to bat and slams the ball over the centerfield wall, giving the Angels a 3-2 lead. Jensen is really going to miss Moreno. Bufanda hits a pathetic grounder straight to the second baseman to end the inning.

Jensen sends Ventimiglia back out for a second inning but tells Fred to have Manns warming up for the ninth. With any luck, they'll get a couple insurance runs and won't need him, but Jensen doesn't trust his luck these days. Ventimiglia strikes out the side, to the crowd's delight.

Jensen wishes that he could skip Capra and Klattenhoff and send the top of the order out to bat, but he can only chew on his lip and hope the two of them walk. Capra, unsurprisingly, strikes out, but Klattenhoff manages a sweet little bunt that gets him to first base. Jensen loves small-ball.

Next up is Misha Krushnic at the top of the order. He's a Rule V draftee, and Jensen can only hope that Jim knew what he was doing when he chose the tiny Dutch second baseman. He showed some promise during Spring Training, despite the language barrier (his English is almost non-existent). Tonight, he's a disappointment, grounding into a double-play to retire the side.

As the players prepare to take the field for the top of the ninth, Jensen nods at Fred. "Send Manns out, tell him to strike out the side."

Fred cracks a grin. "Will do."

Manns does just what Jensen orders, and the first game of the season ends with a win. It's not a huge win, so there's no rushing the field, but Jensen makes an effort to congratulate his team, taking care to talk to each player in turn. It's a good feeling, having the first game -- and the first win -- of the season behind him. It gives him hope that things will work out. They've got things to work on, both in the offense and the defense. Hodge and Moreno are easily the best hitters, which makes the loss of Moreno that much harder. Defensively, there are a couple holes, but no one completely worthless. Even with the news about Jared, Jensen can't help but feel that this season will be a good one.

♦ ♦ ♦

It never ceases to amaze me how many of baseball's wounds are self-inflicted. --Bill Veeck, The Hustler's Handbook

Jensen's elation is short-lived. The second night, the A's pummel the Angels in a bitter and nasty match. Oakland's starter beans Bufanda in the third inning, and Jensen has to restrain his third baseman from rushing the mound. They were up one to nothing at that point, but they wind up losing ten to three.

It's a disappointing loss, not simply because it's the second game of the season. A loss like this one doesn't bode well for the season at large; blow-outs mean working on pitching, close games on hitting. Lopsided losses can mean anything from an off night to a bad lineup.

It's the one thing Jensen hates about baseball; it's so unpredictable. He remembers nights where he felt unstoppable, and then there were the nights where nothing went right. Tonight, sadly, was one of the latter.

The entire team is subdued after the game, everyone sullen and silent as they shower and change clothes. Jensen knows he should probably call some extra batting practice for tomorrow, but he doesn't have the heart.

"Go home, get some rest. Tomorrow's a new day," he says instead, feeling like he's giving a speech to the A-ballers he managed back in '03.

Jensen takes his own advice and leaves the park earlier than usual. Getting home early, though, only means he has that much more time to think about what tomorrow actually means. Tomorrow morning, Javier Moreno leaves for Philly. Tomorrow afternoon, Jared Padalecki arrives in L.A. Tomorrow evening, Jensen will see Jared for the first time in almost eight years.

He needs a drink. Or fifty. He'll probably regret it in the morning, but right now he doesn't really care. Jared's coming tomorrow, and he is so not ready for this.

There are several bars between the park and his house, most of them designed to attract the post-game crowd and the tourists looking to escape the saccharine magic of DisneyLand. There are a couple local dives, though, and he finally pulls into a place called Argo's.

What he needs is to forget Jared, but that's going to take a lot more alcohol than three shots of tequila and a bottle of Budweiser.

Goddamn Jared. Why the hell couldn't he have refused the trade? That's what really rankles Jensen. Sure, the guy's no longer a hot commodity -- his pitching ability dropped off after he blew out his arm in '03, and he went on the DL for a while again last year -- but he could have at least tried to be traded somewhere else. He had to have known that Jensen would be in L.A.; it was all the sports announcers talked about during the off-season, how Jensen was the youngest manager in the majors since 1985, even younger than Eric Wedge when he started managing.

Jensen slams back a shot angrily. The ass never did have any sense. It really was a wonder he stayed healthy as long as he did. Jensen privately thinks he was the one who kept the idiot from hurting himself those first couple of years, but he refuses to let himself feel guilty that Jared got injured just a year after they split up. It was his own stupid fault for overworking, and it probably would have happened no matter what Jensen had done.

He downs a second shot, signalling for more before finishing off the third.

Debbie returns with a second round of shots. She leans in a little too close, puts her hand on his arm, and says, "I've got a break in a few minutes. I could help take your mind off whatever's bothering you."

Jensen doesn't move for a moment, weighing his options. He's not attracted to women, doesn't find them appealing or enticing, but he's wired and itchy, too much energy and emotion crammed into too small a space. Besides, it's always good to have alibis, in case questions about his love life ever come up. He covers her hand with his own, turns, and kisses her, shutting his eyes and trying to ignore the foreign taste and waxy feel of her lipstick. Her breasts press against him soft and round instead of the solid muscle--he banishes that thought before it can go any further.

Debbie pulls away after a moment and says, "There's a back door just past the bathrooms." She slips back out of the booth and sashays away, unaware that her feminine curves do nothing for him.

Five minutes later, Jensen's leaning against the brick wall of the building, and Debbie is crouched in front of him. He stares up at the night sky, one hand pressed against the wall, the other tangled in her hair. He tries to ignore how her long acrylic fingernails press into his thighs, how her hair is too coarse and curly, how she doesn't know which spots to hit. He's so wrapped up in his thoughts that it's almost a shock when he comes.

Debbie pulls away, spitting on the ground next to a small pile of cigarette butts. She stands and leans into him, whispering in his ear, "I get off at one," as she tucks him back into his pants.

"I bet you do." He watches her sashay her way back into the bar, and after taking a few slow breaths of the California air, he follows. There's a beer waiting for him at his table; he takes a long draught, sets it back down, digs out his wallet, and leaves enough money to pay his tab and a reasonable tip. He walks out without so much as a backward glance. All he wants now is some sleep.

Sleep doesn't come easily, though, too much running through his head. Jensen thinks about having some whiskey, but decides against it. He's going to have a hangover tomorrow already, and he'd like it not to be unbearable. He kicks at the bedcovers and turns over again, willing himself to sleep at last.

Morning comes in typical California fashion: too-bright sunshine streaming through the window right into his eyes. His head aches dully, but not unmanageably. He pops a couple of aspirin, downs a mug of coffee, and heads to the ballpark.

Moreno's there, packing away the last of his gear. Samantha's waiting to take him to the airport; she gives Jensen a sunny smile when he passes them in the clubhouse. "I'll pick up Padalecki this afternoon, okay?" she calls after him.

"Yeah, thanks," he answers absentmindedly as he walks into his office. He's glad that job is delegated to the trainer; it gives him time to prepare for something that has the potential to kill the entire season.

In need of a distraction, he settles into his daily routine, checking phone messages and making sure Jim hasn't sent him another nasty surprise, like trading Manns for Derek fucking Jeter. That would be the perfect kick in the ass to start the day. Luckily, there are no such surprises, and by the time Jensen is through with the last of the messages, other people have started arriving at the park.

Chris strides into Jensen's office without knocking, shutting the door and sitting down. "You gonna survive?" he says without preamble. Chris is one of the few people outside of immediate family who knows the truth about Jensen and Jared's relationship. Well, on Jensen's end, at least. He has no idea how many people Jared told, but it can't have been that many, since no one's ever come after him with pitchforks or anything.

"Yeah," he says in answer to Chris's question.

"Liar. You probably sat up all night thinking about it."

Jensen hates it when Chris is right. "Trying not to think about it too much, really."

Chris chews on a fingernail and stares at him.


Chris shrugs. "Nothin'. Just thinking."

"Do you have something you want to say, or are we done? Because I'm not in the mood for you to sit there and analyze me."

The catcher shrugs again. "Just thought you might want some company, distract you from thinking about the douchebag."

"He's not a douchebag," Jensen answers somewhat defensively.

"That's just your problem, Jen. You're never gonna get over his sorry ass if you can't even call him a douchebag."

They've had this argument many times over the past seven years. Chris has never been satisfied with the way Jensen dealt -- or rather, didn't deal -- with the break-up. Jensen used to rebut that you can't be a douchebag for wanting to come out of the closet, but that defense never seems to work with Chris the way it did with his sister. It usually devolves into a grumbling match that puts both of them into a mood. Jensen really doesn't have time for that today.

"Chris, leave it. Please."

Chris sighs. "I'm just worried for you, Jen. You haven't seen him in person in how many years?"

"Chris," he says flatly.

"Yeah, yeah." Chris stands and heads for the door, stopping just before opening it. "You know I've got your back, Jen."

"Yeah, I know."

"BP at two?"


They're in the middle of batting practice when Samantha arrives with Jared in tow. Jensen tries not to stare, but he can't help it. It's been five years -- Jensen last saw him during Spring Training in 2004. Jared was finishing up rehab after his TJ surgery, and Jensen was managing the Kinston team. They didn't speak to each other, but Jensen could hear Jared laughing halfway across the complex.

Five years and Jared hasn't changed a bit. His hair still sticks out from beneath his cap, he still stands like he's pretending he isn't actually six-foot-five, and his eyes still seem to pierce right through Jensen.

"Sorry we're late," Samantha says. "Traffic from the airport was a bitch."

Jensen waves it off. "You're fine. No one's tried dying on us yet." She laughs and excuses herself to check a couple of the guys who're working through minor injuries. He turns to Jared. "You'll join us for warm-ups."

"Good to see you, too, Jensen," he answers evenly.

"It's Coach Ackles, Padalecki."

Jared's eyes narrow ever so slightly. "Allow me to change into my warm-ups then, Coach Ackles."

"I expect you to be back in five to meet with Coach Lehne."

"As you wish. If you'll excuse me." Jared turns sharply on his heel and walks stiffly away. Jensen exhales, telling himself that wasn't so bad.

Jared returns, and Jensen walks with him to find Fred Lehne. The silence stretches between them, cloying and uncomfortable. Jensen offers up a silent prayer of thanks when they reach rightfield, where the pitching coach is surveying the rest of the squad.

Fred greets them warmly as ever, grinning up at Jared. "So this is our fresh meat?"

"I don't know how fresh he is."

Fred raises his eyebrows. "We'll see." He turns away. "Komanecky!" He calls the bullpen catcher over to them. "I wanna see what Padalecki's got." He nods at Jared, who rolls his shoulders.

Fred and Jensen watch him pitch. His form is as good as it ever was, though he no longer has the speed he once did. His slider has faltered, but his change-up is still pretty wicked. Jensen feels a twinge of nostalgia when he notices the tiny flick of Jared's fingers after he throws a curve ball. It's the Alan Ackles special: a superstition Jensen's dad passed to him. He later passed it to Jared, who could actually use it in a game. He isn't sure whether he should be proud or angry that Jared still uses it.

"What are you thinking?"

Fred's voice startles him from his thoughts. "I'm thinking bullpen," Jensen says slowly.

"Really? He's got some of the best form in the league, and sure he's older, but he's not much older than Boreanaz."

"He's not as strong as he used to be, and while he's doing fine here, there's no telling how he'll perform under real pressure."

Fred stares at him for a moment before nodding his head. "Bullpen it is, then. At least, for now."

Jared is, to say the least, not happy when he finds out that Jensen's put him in the bullpen. He corners Jensen in the clubhouse after practice. "The bullpen? As a middle reliever?"

"Our pitching staff was set weeks ago. It was the only place we had room for you," Jensen answers reasonably. "After all, you were kind of an unexpected addition."

"You can't be serious."

Jensen is vaguely aware that the team is watching their exchange with interest, so he keeps his voice as even as possible.

"Perfectly serious. You've been injured twice, and it's obvious your pitching isn't what it used to be. Trying to play through injuries like that just gets you traded as a bonus with a package of prospects." It's a low blow and an unwarranted one, but Jensen's not feeling all that generous today.

He starts to walk away when Jared says, "Yeah, well, at least I had the guts to try to play again, unlike some people I know."

Jensen turns back and growls, "I did the smart thing. And I've kept my career intact, made a name for myself. Might even make it to the Hall of Fame. Where are you gonna be in ten years, Jared? Sitting on your ass, wishing you'd had the brains to quit while you were ahead."

"You'd know all about quitting while getting ahead, wouldn't you?" The innuendo is obvious to Jensen; he can only pray that it's not to the others.

"Do you really want to go there, Padalecki? Because I can tell you now, it won't win you any favors."

Jensen watches as Jared inhales and exhales slowly, his jaw tight. "Whatever you say, Coach," he says. The last word is a slap in the face Jensen deserves.

Jared turns on his heel and slams through the clubhouse. Jensen stands still for a moment before realizing that the rest of the team is staring at him. "What?" he snaps, and they quickly make themselves look busy.

<♦> <♦> <♦>

This is baseball. There is winning. There is losing. There is playing so well you think you'll never lose another game. And there is sucking so much you're thinking about just forfeiting the upcoming series against Tampa Bay because you just can't bear to watch. --SaraZ, a baseball fan

"So I hear you and Jared had a lover's spat in the middle of the clubhouse yesterday," Mike says when he walks into Jensen's office the next morning.

"It wasn't a lover's spat," Jensen states irritably. "It was a disagreement about his placement."

"Tomayto, tomahto," Mike shrugs as he drapes himself over one of the office chairs. "Better be careful, Jenny, or I might get jealous." It's framed as a joke, but Mike's words carry a serious warning. Jensen cannot afford to get worked up about Jared, not simply because of the potential problems it could cause in the clubhouse.

He's spent over a decade hiding the fact that he's gay from the masses so he could play ball, and later, coach. He's been careful, never taking men home, only hooking up during the off-season, and--with the exception of Jared--never, ever, getting involved with anyone in the game. It's meant a rather lonely existence, but better to be working and alone than to be unemployed and ostracized. Jared could bring all that careful, cautious work down with a five-minute interview if he wanted.

"Don't call me Jenny," he retorts with no heat. "Anyway, what are you doing here this early?"

"I could ask you the same thing. I tried calling your house, but when I got no answer, I figured you were being your usual anal-retentive self, so I came on here. And look! I was right. You do know your contract doesn't have a clause requiring you to be here at nine AM every morning, right?"

"It also doesn't say anything about endless paperwork, yet somehow there are always forms to fill out."

"But they don't have to be done right this minute! Come on, Jenny, I'm taking you to brunch."

Mike drags him to some Cracker Barrel knock-off between the park and DisneyLand. It's nowhere near his mother's homecooking, but it's as close as he's gonna get in this godforsaken state, so Jensen tries to enjoy it.

As they wait on their food, Mike says, "So. You gonna be okay with Jared around for the season?"

Jensen huffs. "Everybody keeps asking me that."

"It's a valid question. Especially after last time."

He doesn't have to ask what Mike means by "last time." He knows perfectly well it means the week-long bender complete with a full crate of Jack and a male hooker named Rubé. It was not one of Jensen's finer moments. He glares at Mike for even daring to bring it up.

"I'm fine, Mike, really," he lies. "It'll take some getting used to--having him around again--but I can handle it."

His way of "handling it" is to avoid it, of course. He's mostly successful, making sure to be around the bullpen as little as possible. He also makes an effort not to dally at the mound when switching pitchers. It's not like Jared needs guidance on the mound anyway, so there's no need for Jensen to stay longer than cursory. If anyone notices, no one comments.

And it works. It works for a full month, by which time the starting rotation has a collective ERA of 8.69. Nguyen has proven his worth -- his 2.35 average is what's keeping them below 10 -- but Jensen would not be opposed to personally strangling the rest of them, especially after they had done marginally well in the Spring Training games.

Of course, it's not just the pitching that's taken a turn for the worse. The offense has been practically nonexistent since that fateful second game against Oakland. Sure, Aldis Hodge has been making waves in the three-spot, but without any support from the rest of the lineup, he's perpetually stranded at second base.

It's that volatile one-two punch of a floundering starting rotation and an ineffectual lineup that all managers fear. They shuffle along, like a shambling team of baseball-playing zombies. They look like Little Leaguers going up against an All-Time All-Star team, and that's when they're playing the fucking Blue Jays.

After yet another humiliating loss -- to the goddamn Rangers no less -- Jensen finds Jared waiting for him in his office. "What do you want?" he snaps, in no mood to deal with Jared.

"I want a spot on the starting rotation."


Jared smirks. "It's not like I could do any more damage than what's already been done."

He has a point, but Jensen isn't about to admit that. "No."

"Why the hell not, Jen?"

"Coach Ackles," he grits out.

"Why the hell not, Coach Ackles? My numbers have been solid, my ERA is low -- lower, at least, than a couple of the starters -- and I've got experience as a starter. Why not let me give it a go?"

"I said no, Jay."

"If this is about us, I swear to God..." He trails off, his eyes flashing. "Goddammit, Jensen, this is about us." He shakes his head. "And here I thought you were better than that, that you'd be man enough to put the good of the team over our past. Before I signed for the trade, they told me I'd be lucky to play for you, that I'd be playing for someone who had the potential to be the best manager in baseball. Charlie was really excited for me, for us -- he thought it was great that we'd be working together again. They talked you up so much, and I couldn't wait. It was gonna be just like old times, with you knowing exactly which shots to call and when. I couldn't wait.

"And then I got here, and I've never been so disappointed in my life. And it's not because the team is mediocre or the food sucks or the girls aren't pretty. It's you, Jensen. You can't even be bothered to give me the time of day, let alone even consider my request. And why? Because once upon a time, we knew each other. I wish I'd known then just how petty you could be."

Jared is livid -- Jensen can see it in the tightening of his jaw -- but the punch in the face he probably deserves never comes. "I want a chance to join the rotation," Jared says calmly. "You have nothing to lose but your own stupid pride." He doesn't allow Jensen time to respond, stepping out of the office and disappearing into the clubhouse.

♦ ♦ ♦

A team is defined by how they respond to failure. --Adam Warren, pitcher

They lose again and again and again. Sixteen games out of twenty, and Jensen dies a little more with each loss. He has a constant migraine and his right eye has begun to twitch. He's thinking very seriously about quitting baseball and becoming a deep-sea fisherman in Alaska.

He isn't even sure which is the worst part: the losing itself or the fact that he knows they should be winning. He knows they're capable of it, has seen the hustle and the wits winning requires. But they just can't seem to catch a break.

They're down to the last week before the All-Star game, and Jensen has never been more thankful for the mid-season break. He'll still have to be at the park -- he's constantly doing paperwork -- but he won't be seeing any of his team (with the possible exception of Chris, who will probably go drinking with him) for three blissful days. He shouldn't feel so gleeful about it, but there it is.

He gets a call in the office on the day of the Homerun Derby; it's Jim.

"What can I do for you, Jim?"

"The season's not going too well, Ackles. Kripke asked me to let you know that if it doesn't improve, you may want to start looking for other employment."

Jensen's stomach drops out at his words. "Really, Jim? You know what I said about this team at the very beginning. They were never gonna be league champs. I told you guys that this was a .500 team, if even that."

"And you're the coach who's supposed to be able to take teams like that and turn them around."

Jensen closes his eyes and sighs. "What do you want me to do?"

"Whatever it takes. I'll talk to you again in a few days. Enjoy the break."

Jensen hangs up and slams a fist on his desk before getting up and grabbing his jacket. He's not going to get any more work done today, and all he really wants is a cold beer and maybe a smoke.

Goddammit. He knows he was expected to have a winning season, even with the mediocre team he's been given. And he's tried, God knows he's tried. It's not his damn fault that Kripke's too much of a tight-ass to spend any money on anything besides washed-up pitchers and the fucking prospects they won't see until next year (if ever). They didn't even make any deals in time for the All-Star break. It doesn't help that he can't figure out what's up with his team. Usually there's something easy, like a problem player who sets everyone else on edge, but this year. He just can't figure it out.

And that's when he notices the locker room. People have been trading lockers in the clubhouse -- the Venezuelans, Bufanda and Capra, are side by side now, with Vargas and Lorenzo across the aisle. The entire outfield has its own little corner, while the bullpen (always a fairly insular group) has a row of lockers. Only a couple of the true veterans -- Chris and Whitfield -- haven't moved around.

And it all shifts into place, like a puzzle with a piece missing. He doesn't have a team. He has cliques. Cliques will destroy a team, make it impossible for them to ever be a true team. The best teams he's been with -- the '05 team in Kinston and the guys in Gwinnett -- were also the friendliest and closest-knit. The usual lines between languages, cultures, and positions didn't apply.

It's something he didn't even notice -- and that's on him, certainly -- but he's surprised that no one else has brought it up. Neither of the other coaches have ever mentioned it; not even Chris has said anything. He remembers, then, that Mike said something at the very beginning of the season, and Jensen ignored him, too caught up in Jared's arrival to care.

This mess is his fault, after all. The good thing is, once he's identified the problem, he can find a way to fix it.

Jensen sets his plan in motion almost immediately. He talks to the other coaches, and they think he's nuts but desperate times call for desperate measures. So he spends all day Wednesday getting everything ready for Thursday.

Chris is the first to arrive that morning. He walks to his locker, opens it, and does a double-take. He turns to Jensen, who grins at the look on his friend's face.

"Jensen, there is an outfielder's glove in my locker."

"That's not your locker. You're down on the end next to Krushnic." He points to the locker emblazoned with 'Kane' in sparkly pink letters. "See?"

Chris walks to that locker, opens it, and turns back to glare at Jensen. He holds up the pair of angel wings that were hanging in the locker. "Why?"

"You'll find out when everybody else gets here."

Chris gives him a long look before sighing and putting the wings back in the locker. "Did you do drugs over the break or something? Maybe get kidnapped and brainwashed by aliens?"

"Nope. Just did some thinking. I've found a way out of our slump."

"Slump? We're last in the league. I think it goes beyond a slump."

"Have some faith, Chris. This is baseball; anything can happen. Besides, desperate times call for desperate measures."

The rest of the team trickles in slowly, and they're all at least as confused as Chris was. When he sees people starting to trade back lockers, Jensen stands on one of the benches and yells, "First person to switch lockers gets a $200 fine."

There's some grumbling, but Boreanaz and Capra stop in their tracks.

"What is this?" Smith holds up the wings and halo from his locker.

"Your new practice uniform," Jensen informs them.

There's some nervous laughter and a little muttered cursing, and Jared pipes up with a resounding, "What the fuck?"

"I should have done this weeks ago, but I didn't," Jensen starts. "We've had a rough start to the season, and I'm looking to fix it."

"Newsflash, Coach, we're already the laughing-stock of the league."

"Which is why a little more humiliation isn't going to kill you, Venti." Jensen glares down at his team, who stare back with a mixture of amusement, awe, and doubt. "I've been in baseball as a spectator, as a player, and as a coach for over twenty-five years now. I've seen a lot of teams. Some were closer than blood relatives while others barely knew each others' names. The worst, though, are the teams that form cliques. They end up looking like a junior high cafeteria, with the preps in one corner and the outcasts in another. Now, I can't make you like each other, but I can make you talk to each other. So suit up and meet me in right field in ten minutes. Anyone not wearing their wings will be running twenty laps around the block in full uniform. And yes, that includes the halo."

Fifteen minutes later, the entire team stand in right field with wings and halos. Jensen smiles.

"I want you to stand next to whoever has the lockers beside you. You have one minute to find them. Go."

There's more cursing and muttering as the team shifts around.

"Now what we're going to do today in lieu of batting practice is work on some team-building exercises," Jensen starts. "First of all, is there anyone here who can tell me the names of everyone else's significant others?" He eyes the line, and unsurprisingly, not a single person raises his hand. "That's what I thought. You have twenty minutes to learn them. Go."

At the end of the twenty minutes, he asks the question again. Nguyen raises his hand sheepishly. "Can you recite them?" Jensen asks.

"Yeah. You want me to?"

He shakes his head. "No need. I believe you." He pauses. "Next question: how many of you know how to juggle? Find somebody who didn't raise his hand and teach him. You have twenty minutes. Go."

Jensen stands with the other coaches and watches as the jugglers struggle to teach the non-jugglers what to do. Some (like Welling and Komanecky) are better teachers than others (like Chuck and Bufanda). He catches Jared teaching Nguyen and Harris how to finger what he calls a "slimeball" instead of teaching juggling, but he doesn't say anything.

Despite the earlier grumbling, there's genuine laughter on the field -- something that hasn't been heard in weeks. Maybe it helps that they all look ridiculous, like a strange circus act of juggling angels. Jensen is almost sad when he has to call time on the juggling session.

"Your final task before we scrimmage is a game I like to call twenty questions," he intones. "Find a teammate you barely know, and ask him twenty questions as you pass a ball between you. Don't think about your answers, just say the first thing that comes to you. Go."

It's funny to watch the team scramble to find people they don't know. Capra and Aycox strike up a conversation about classic movies, arguing over the merits of Casablanca and Citizen Kane. He hears Cohen tell Krushnic to repeat the words "Hey there, sexy lady" and makes a note to keep Misha away from the teenagers who work concessions. When he moves past Boreanaz and Hodge, he catches words like "proposal" and "her parents."

There are a few complaints when he calls time, but they've only got another hour of practice left before they get on the plane to Oakland. "Sorry guys, but we have one more thing to do before you hit the showers. We're scrimmaging an inning. Captains are Bufanda and Klattenhoff. The lineup for Team Bufanda is as follows: catching, Manns; pitching, Krushnic--" Jensen smirks at the murmurs of surprise and continues with the lineup, changing everyone's positions. He does the same with Team Klattenhoff, grinning cheekily at the groans when he announces that Jared is the shortstop.

"I'm the home plate umpire, Fred and Jeff are on the bases. Go ahead and warm up, and then we'll play ball."

The scrimmage is full more of laughter than of skill. The players' wings get in the way more than once, and watching the outfielders leap into the air with their wings flapping behind them is hilarious.

By the end of practice, the team is in high spirits -- a far cry from where they were even a couple hours ago. Whether this new camaraderie will translate into a revived season remains to be seen, of course, but Jensen has hope for his hare-brained schemes.

He has one last card up his sleeve, and he plays it as the team heads to the showers. He catches Jared at his locker. "I've given your request some thought," he says slowly, almost shyly, "and I've come to a decision."

Jared doesn't say anything, gesturing for him to continue. "I want you to start tonight."

The smile Jared gives him is brighter than the sun.

<♦> <♦> <♦>

This isn’t life. It’s baseball. And the thing about baseball is, the momentum can shift so quickly, so improbably, so inexplicably that it cannot be anything but the work of forces beyond our comprehension. --Carmen, a baseball fan

After an unproductive top of the first (a single, a strike-out, and a double-play), Jensen is sure that his bravado and scheming have failed and that the team will continue to be mired in mediocrity. He knows he should give it time, that these things can't possibly happen overnight, but he was so desperately hopeful.

He watches the team go through the between-innings warm-up, hyper-aware of Jared as he walks out to the mound. Time passes slowly, every motion going at a snail's pace. It's strange, seeing Jared pitch without being on the receiving end. Sure, it's been eight years, but no one ever forgets the way the pitchers look when you're waiting for the ball to hit your glove. Jensen closes his eyes against the sudden flashes of memories, and that's when time remembers to speed back up.

Fred nudges him and says, "You seeing this?"

Jensen blinks and looks out at the field, taking in the scoreboard (3-0 count), the gun (clocking 80 MPH), and Jared (with a little smirk) all at once. Jensen smiles. He recognizes the set-up; it's a headtrip that Jared liked to use on the lead-off back when they played together.

"He's got him right where he wants him." As if to prove Jensen's words, the batter swings at the next three pitches, the last a wicked curve that lands in Chris's glove with a solid thwap.

Jared goes three-up, three-down with a pop-out and another strike-out.

The game turns into an unexpected pitchers' duel between Jared and Duchscherer. Inning after scoreless inning, the pitchers duke it out, delivering hard and fast. Both teams are on top of their game, defense tight and offense working hard but to no avail. The very air seems to crackle with the energy and intensity of the game. The stadium alternates between wild cheers as the innings tick away and near silence when a team comes close to scoring.

Jensen has Fred keeping tabs on Jared's pitch count, but going into the bottom of the sixth, it's still low enough to send him out again. When he walks the second batter in a row, Jensen makes the call, heading toward the mound.

Jared hangs his head. "I was wondering when you'd make an appearance," he says, voice betraying no emotion.

"You didn't really think you'd get a complete game in your first start, did you?"

Jared looks straight at him, cracking a smile. "I could always hope."

Jensen snorts. "Keep dreaming, Jay."

"Yessir," he fires back with a jaunty salute. His eyes flick over Jensen's shoulder. "Looks like the cavalry's on its way. Guess that's my cue to go into cool-down. See ya, Jen." Jared starts walking away, to the cheers of the few Angels fans in the crowd. He turns back briefly to say, "Tell Harris to aim for that low inside corner just below the strike zone. I think it's the ump's blind spot."

Jensen relays the message to Harris, tells him good luck, and returns to the dugout to watch. Harris paints the inside corner, just like Jared said, and gets them out of the sticky situation without any runs.

The game stays stagnant, neither team giving an inch. Hits are turned into force-outs, steals are picked off easily, and walks are few and far between. Nothing changes until Duchscherer is replaced by Ziegler in the top of the eighth.

Aldis Hodge is the lead-off for the inning. He's been the hottest offensive player for the Angels tonight, and Jensen is well aware that what Hodge does now will determine whether they go into extra innings.

Ziegler drives him to a full count, with Hodge repeatedly tipping foul. Finally, Ziegler throws him a low curveball, and Jensen prepares for the thud of the ball in the catcher's glove and the umpire's call. Hodge swings, and the bat makes contact with a unexpected but satisfying crack. It's the kind of sound that leaves no questions asked.

The entire stadium seems to be suspended in time. Jensen straightens to watch as the ball sails silently through the purple-black night. Both Sweeney and Holliday are sprinting toward the fence, but their running is futile -- that baby is gone.

Jensen glances toward the bases, only to realize that Hodge is still standing at homeplate, staring at his own handiwork. "Hodge!" he calls, jumpstarting the first baseman into running. He runs quickly, smart enough not to waste his time gloating.

Welling flies out, ending the top of the inning. Jensen sends Manns to pitch, hoping the closer can get them through the last two innings unscathed.

Manns does exactly what he's supposed to do, and the Angels declare victory in their tightest game since the season opener.

They win both the four-game series against the A's and the three-game series against the Twins, and Jensen gets another idea in his head. In the clubhouse after the game, he proposes, "If we win the rest of the series between now and our next off-day, I will host a Texas-style barbecue for all of you and your families. Deal?"

The team agrees to it, though most of them still scoff at the idea of actually winning the next three series.

♦ ♦ ♦

Part Two