So, necromancy: not exactly Mike’s strong suit. The general impression that he’s getting is that it’s not a lot of people’s strong suit, because nobody knows what’s going to happen. It’s kind of unheard of.
When Mike hears about it, he asks Allison about it. She blows him off, so he waits a couple days and asks her again. And then, after she blows him off the second time, waits a couple more days just to be safe. So, predictably, the third time he asks, she says “God, Townsend, haven’t you figured it out yet?”
“Nope,” Mike says cheerfully. It’s a good thing he doesn’t mind waiting for information. “What’s the whole necromancy thing?”
“It’s the idols, and the-” she waves a hand in the air, and he ducks out of the way of a particularly spiky ring, a well-practiced motion. “You know, the whole blessing.”
“Well, yeah,” Mike says. “I know that part. I was just hoping you could tell me… how?”
Allison stares. “What?”
“How she’s coming back.”
“It’s a blessing, she’s just coming back.”
“I know,” he says quickly. “And I’m as happy as anyone, it’s just-”
“It’s just what?”
He’s not sure whether he should smile or frown, so he does neither. “It’s just that these things, these blessings, don’t always go how people think they’re going to.”
Allison narrows her eyes at him. “What do you think is going to happen, Townsend?” she asks, in a dangerous tone of voice that says that he shouldn’t answer.
Mike’s not scared of Allison, though. He’s been playing with her for six straight seasons. He knows her.
“I think something’s going to happen,” he says honestly. “And I think the problem is that you’re not willing to imagine anything happening.”
For a second, Allison looks apoplectic, then dials it down to incensed, and then it goes another tiny baby step down into being furious. “She’s going to come back, and she’s going to come back to a good team,” she snaps, and that’s the end of the conversation. Mike knows when not to push it.
He wonders, though. He still wonders.
There are a couple days between the main season and the playoffs. Mike’s brimming with nervous energy - who in the Garages isn’t, honestly? - so he starts baking, because it’s the only thing that makes sense. It’s nice and methodical. Blessings change, bundt cakes don’t. One less thing to worry about.
The team does all sorts of bonding things, trying to keep spirits up before the postseason starts. He picks and chooses carefully which ones he goes to, which ones he shows up to with baked goods. It’s a calculus that he’s getting good at. His teammates love him, but they love him the way that he loves cardamom: there’s a time and a place.
But he’s there for jam sessions and karaoke nights. He brings sourdough bread, sourdough donuts, chocolate donuts, chocolate cake. He sits with Tot and Luis and listens to them tell old stories, and he listens to Ron and Malik talk about where they’re from, and it’s - good. It’s good.
The pitchers end up going out for drinks two days before the playoffs start. Mike brings a lot of cookies. He knows what everyone likes. In theory, it’s going to be a really good time.
In practice, it goes like this: Marshallow doesn’t show up, because he doesn’t drink, because he’s a marshmallow. Huerta doesn’t show up, because… well, because it’s Huerta. Tot shows up, but he leaves early to go out with Luis, and he takes Huerta and Marshallow’s cookies for good measure.
“You wanna find some place with music?” Ron says.
Mike knew Ron would. Mike knows every band that’s playing in a two mile radius of the bar they’re at. Mike knows which direction they should start wandering in aimlessly.
“Sure,” he says.
It’s a quiet night. Ron was never a man of many words before the alternate reality, but now he’s practically silent. He’s also touchy. He doesn’t like to be pushed. He has a lot of strong opinions about things - things like the blaseball gods.
But because self preservation has never been Mike’s strong suit, he says, “Can I ask you something?”
Ron looks at him. “What do you want, Townsend?” he says, but it’s a nice, normal question. Not angry. Just Ron.
“What do you think is going to happen with the… idol thing?”
“You mean beyond the peanuts?”
“Yeah, I mean-” Mike glances away, finally cowed. “Number fourteen,” he says, for lack of anything better to say.
Ron makes a disgusted noise. “Shouldn’t mess with these things.”
“Gods, death, necromancy, name it.”
“You think there’s going to be a cost?”
“I think it’s going to be so much of a cost that we won’t want her back.”
“Ron,” Mike says, not quite admonishing, not quite horrified, but something like that anyways. “It’s-”
“I know what it is,” Ron says. “I’ve studied these things, Townsend. Even if it’s not the specific blaseball gods, I know what kind of gods will let you do this.”
He heaves a sigh. “And what is there to say? We get her back and we lose something. We don’t get her back and we’ve already lost. I wish nobody had ever asked the question to begin with.”
“But they have,” Mike says. It’s a little futile to say, but it feels important to say.
Ron stops walking and looks at him for a long moment. Mike looks back at him, a moment in stasis in the sidewalk. It feels too weighted for something so small.
“Yeah,” Ron says finally. “I guess they have. So we get to find out what the answer is. Lucky us.”
“Lucky us,” Mike agrees. They start walking again. “Do you think everyone’ll want muffins tomorrow?”
“I think if you make muffins, they’ll get eaten.”
“Do people like my baking?”
“Shut up,” Ron says amiably.
Mike grins. People like his baking.
The last thing Jaylen ever said was, “We just gotta make it to the playoffs.”
But that was the last thing Jaylen ever said to the whole team. All of them have different last words. Mike’s heard Teddy tell his story a couple times, but he never listened to it too closely. It always seemed disrespectful.
Jaylen was always at her best before a game. She was one of those people who had a resting heart rate of, like, forty beats a minute or something, but in the lead-up to a game she was excited enough that it’d double. It was a joke in the locker room: someone would ask, and she’d call out her pulse rate.
Mike, on the other hand… it’s a little harsh to say he’s at his worst before games, but he’s certainly not at his Jaylen best. He’s not even really at his normal Mike best. He gets nervous. He shows up with baskets of baked goods, most of which just sit in the locker room to be eaten as either a celebration or a consolation.
And he’s not proud of it, but it used to drive him crazy. Jaylen Hotdogfingers, four star pitcher, doesn’t have anything to worry about. It was a joke how excited she got. It was a joke how nervous Mike got. It just didn’t seem fair.
It’s funny, how stupid that seems now. Of course she was excited. She loved playing the game so much.
But it bothered him. He never said anything, because he’s not horrible, but he still thought some horrible things. And then in their last game, watching the team lose, knowing they were last in the division, Jaylen plopped down next to him in the dugout and said, “Hey.”
“Hi,” Mike said. “Rough night.”
“Rough night,” she agreed. “But, hey, it’s only one season, right?”
“Lighten up, Townsend, we’ve got more games to play.”
“Not right now.”
“Oh my god,” Jaylen said, with an appropriately dramatic eye-roll. “I’m not talking about right now, I’m talking about- look, don’t you like what we do?”
“I like it alright,” he hedged.
She shook her head. “I love it,” she said, and there was something in her voice that made Mike sit up a little. “I don’t feel like I’m fully alive, like I’m fully present in the world around me, unless I’m playing. Everything is like- it’s like when you shine a light into a diamond and it comes out a rainbow. I feel like I’m the diamond. Everything moves through me and it gets bigger and clearer and brighter.”
Mike just looked at her. There’s nothing to say to that.
“You don’t feel the same,” Jaylen said. It wasn’t a judgment.
“No,” he agreed, and it felt like a relief to get it off his chest. “It’s- like, it’s fun to play, I like playing with you all, but I’ve never felt like that.”
“Not in the band either.”
“The music was never the point of the band for me.”
“So what was the point?” she said, even though she looked like she already knew the answer.
Mike looked at her. “The team,” he said simply. “Everything I do is for the team. You guys are my best friends.”
Her face split into a grin, and she nudged him again, a little lighter. “There you go,” she said warmly. “You looked like you needed a reminder.”
He opened his mouth to say something quippy or zippy, but instead he found… nothing. She was right. “Thanks,” he said, surprised. “Thanks, Jaylen.”
“You want some advice, Townsend?”
“I think I’m about to get some no matter what.”
Jaylen laughed. “For me, the point of playing the game is playing the game. Don’t let that be the point for you. Let your point be yours.”
“Huh,” Mike said, and he was about to say something else when a cheer erupted from the crowd. “What’s happening?”
“Don’t know,” Jaylen said, and stood up. She didn’t offer a hand to Mike, but he stood up too anyways. “Let’s find out.”
The Garages win their first ever playoffs game. It’s amazing.
And then they win the next one. And then they win the next one, and the next thing Mike knows, they’re in the semifinals.
The morning that the semifinals start, Teddy calls a team meeting - and by meeting, he means jam session, and they all know it. They show up in various states of uniform. Allison has her nail bat and her keyboard. Mike brings an electric banjo, not because he wants to but because he thinks it would be fun, and also a lot of donuts because he’s trying out new recipes.
None of them actually say anything for the first hour or two. There’s some singing, and plenty of humming. Mike actually gets into a little dueling banjos thing with Cedric for a little while, which gets them some hoots and hollers from the rest of the band. He’s in high spirits when the session comes to a natural end, everyone beaming.
“Listen up,” Teddy says, as soon as the last reverberation dies out. “We’re playing the Tigers today. You know what that means?”
“We’re gonna get eaten,” Allison deadpans. Lang hits a rimshot, which earns a couple snorts.
“Yeah,” Teddy says. “And we’re gonna give ‘em indigestion, Abbott, because we’re gonna tame those Tigers. We’ve come so far this season, with the new divisions, with everything changing, and we’re killing it so far. So let’s kill it a few more times. For-”
He stops. The air in the room goes still. It’s like nobody wants to say it.
“For Jaylen,” Mike says, because, well, they already kind of hate him anyways and he might as well. She’s still the fourteenth most-idolized player in the league. Mike has never asked if the gods are more powerful than death, and he’s not exactly itching to find out, but there’s a real chance that they’re going to. It’s time that everyone faces up to that. “It’s for Jaylen.”
It feels like everyone makes a derisive noise all at once. Ron fully turns his back towards Mike, and he’s not the only one. Nobody will meet his eye.
Nobody except Teddy, who nods at him. “Yeah,” he says, and a corner of his mouth quirks up into a smile. “Thanks, Townsend.”
“Everyone eat donuts before we head over to the field,” Mike says. He’s not sure what else there is to say. Nobody says anything, but they all reach for donuts. That’s good enough for him.
They beat the Tigers.
Wait, no, say it again but slower:
The Seattle Garages, in their first ever playoffs season, sweep the Hades Tigers. Mike feels like he’s about to explode with joy.
He actually almost forgets his the secret mission until they’re all shaking hands after the game. The Tigers don’t seem upset; if anything they seem impressed.
They’re at the end of the handshake line when Mike reaches Hiroto Wilcox. “Hey.”
“Hey,” she says, and gives him a warm handshake. Pitcher’s code, Tot always calls it: you treat them like they’re your best friend, especially anyone else who’s stuck around from the beginning. We’ve all been through enough. “You guys did great.”
“Thanks,” Mike answers, and squeezes her hand. “Hey, I have a question for you. A hell question.”
“Hell question,” she repeats. The rest of their teammates are heading back to locker rooms, so they’re the last two left. She lets go of his hand, but gives him a curious look. “Why me?”
“Because I think you’re going to be honest with me.”
“What’s the question?”
Mike leans in, just a little. “I want to know what it’s going to take to make this Jaylen thing real,” he says. Hiroto’s eyes widen. “Everyone’s talking about sacrifices, or about how obvious it is that there won’t be any, but nobody knows, and I just- nobody else is willing to ask questions.”
“You’re willing to do what it takes?”
“I need to know what it takes first.”
“Mike,” Hiroto says cautiously. “You’re not going to like the answers.”
He shrugs. “I don’t think I like the question. But if it brings her back, I want to find out how.”
Yazmin calls out to Hiroto, and she glances back at her team. “I have to go,” she says regretfully. “But I’ll look into it. But if I find anything out, you’re the first person I call. Deal?”
“Thank you,” Mike breathes. Hiroto smiles at him and then goes back with her team.
“Townsend!” Allison shouts. “Quit fraternizing, come on, we need to celebrate!”
“There’s cake in the fridge,” he yells back, and a scattered cheer comes up from his team. “I’ll be right there.”
He’s the last one standing on the field. Not even the umpires are left.
“Jaylen,” Mike says. It feels strange speaking to nobody, but he has to try. “I know everyone else remembers you, but I’m hoping that remembering you out loud is going to help. I’m going to make sure you make it back in one piece, okay? This is going to go off without a hitch.”
Nothing happens. He goes to the locker room. The cake is half gone already, which is pretty exciting. He’s going to have to remember this recipe.
He was standing next to her when it happened.
It’s the kind of thing that gets lost in the retelling, because it doesn’t actually matter on the macro level. But they were gathered on the field before the blessing, and all the pitchers were standing together. The original five. Ron’s an alternate now, which means that the only three left standing are Mike, Tot, and Arturo. He hates to think about that for too long.
They were standing together, but Jaylen was a step or two in front when the decree got announced. She was talking to Teddy, but in the way that really meant she was talking to all of them. She was good at that, making everyone feel included.
“We’re going to get a few of these blessings, hopefully,” she said, and Teddy nodded. “And- look, everyone talks about winning, and that would be great, but it’s not the be-all end-all, right?”
“Definitely,” Teddy agreed. A voice in the sky said, THE FORBIDDEN BOOK HAS BEEN OPENED. Teddy ignored it. “Like, I’d be happy with the quarterfinals, you know?”
“Exactly!” Jaylen laughed. “We just have to make it to the playoffs.”
And then she was gone.
It took Mike a minute to process what had even happened, and the fact that the umpire in front of him wasn’t - well, the umpire barely was. Nothing was right anymore. Jaylen was gone. The space on his left side felt hot.
He wonders, sometimes, if it was because she was talking, or she was standing too far forward. He wonders, sometimes, if the umpire was aiming for him.
But he didn’t have the time at that moment to wonder. All he could do was say, quiet and quavering, “Jaylen?”
The whole stadium was silent. Mike didn’t know what to do. Mike still doesn’t know what to do.
So the Crabs win the series.
Actually, okay, if the Garages get all the fanfare, so do the Crabs: they sweep the finals against the Garages. It’s over in three games. It feels like all Mike does is pitch hits and home runs. But nobody can be mad at him, because - look, the Crabs are basically a machine, it’s fine, they were always going to win. The Garages made it to the playoffs, and that’s enough.
They just had to make it to the playoffs.
There’s a giant party that night at the Big Garage. Mike doesn’t bake anything this time, just brings a ton of pizzas. It takes him a while to get them all, because everyone’s a little weird about where they’ll eat pizza from - Allison won’t eat Luce, Cedric will only eat Luce, it’s a whole thing - so by the time he shows up the party is in full swing.
“Townsend!” Tot shouts when he sees Mike. “Oh, dude, Townsend brought pizza!”
A cheer goes around the party. Mike beams. It’s not just the Garages there: he recognizes Tigers, Sunbeams, Lovers, even a couple of Crabs. There’s karaoke going. Teddy and Ron are playing guitar and bass together, wailing and warbling things too quiet to hear over all the noise.
It’s a pleasant blur of a night. There are conversations with friends and with strangers. A bunch of the pitchers play beer pong. Greer tells Mike, very seriously, that he’s a champ for taking care of the pizza thing.
There’s something important about this night. Mike can feel it simmering in the back of his mind, some kind of tension or momentum or fear that he should be paying attention to. But he figures that maybe it’s enough to know it’s there. Maybe it’s enough to be ready.
The only clear memory he has is getting on stage and singing Ballroom Blitz, shouting and making a fool of himself. He remembers Allison whooping, Teddy alternating between shouting “you suck” and “this rules,” Ron standing in a corner grinning, Kichiro clapping her hands. He remembers everyone bursting into cheers.
He remembers looking into the back of the crowd and meeting Hiroto Wilcox’s eye. He remembers that she looks sad.
Mike has a lot of good things to remember. He knows this is his last… well, it’s his last something before something else happens. So he’s going to live in it for as long as he can.
There are a couple quiet weeks. Mike spends some time in Miami visiting Avila, most of his time in Seattle. He writes some songs. He sends congratulatory gift baskets to all the pitchers on the Crabs, and a few cookies for Tillman and Axel because they used to be pitchers.
It’s good. Everything’s fine.
Mike also checks the leaderboard three times a day. It’s a self-imposed limitation, something he had to work his way down to. He checks when he wakes up. He checks at lunch. He checks before bed. Jaylen’s always at number fourteen. If someone knocks her out of the way - Randall or Francisco or even Mike himself - she’s back before long.
Practice starts up again and nobody really… talks about it. A couple people make songs that feature the number fourteen but nobody says her name. Teddy has a secret binder with strategy guides that include things for Jaylen, something that Mike only sees by accident. But nobody asks about her coming back. Nobody asks about what it means.
So what Mike thinks, despite every effort not to, is: if Jaylen’s back, they’re going to have six pitchers. And that’s not allowed.
A week before the election comes through, Mike is in the middle of making a lot of black forest cake when he gets a phone call. He answers and puts it on speaker. “You’ve got Townsend.”
“Townsend, hey, it’s Hiroto.” She pauses. “Wilcox. Tigers Hiroto.”
“Tigers Hiroto! What’s your favorite kind of cake?”
“Nothing too sweet. I like matcha. You gonna make me a cake?”
“I’ve been making a lot of cake lately,” Mike says gamely. “I’ve never done matcha before, but I’ll give it a shot. What can I do for you?”
“Actually, this is about… hold on.” There’s a shuffle, and then the clear sound of a door closing. “What you asked about Jaylen.”
“Great,” Mike says, even though something curls in the pit of his stomach. “What do I need to know?”
“Mike, I need to ask you a question. You don’t have to tell me the answer, but I need you to think about it.”
Hiroto says, “What are you willing to do to bring her back?”
Mike mulls that over for a minute, stirring cake batter and thinking. This team needs Jaylen. And if there’s even a chance of getting her back, of her getting to play again-
“There’s not much I wouldn’t do,” he says honestly. “I know what line I won’t cross. Tell me what lines you’re asking me to cross.”
“Yeah, I’m sure.”
“Okay,” Hiroto says, and she tells him.
The next day he overnights her a massive care package of matcha-flavored cake and cookies, and some dark chocolates that he’s had sitting in his pantry for a while just for kicks. The way he sees it, it’s the closest he’ll get to being able to thank her in person.
He doesn’t tell anyone that he asked Hiroto for help. It’s so taboo that he wonders if anyone else would’ve asked - but then, he doesn’t think they would. The only one who would is Teddy, and he’s not a pitcher, so he can’t do what needs to be done.
On election day they all end up in the Big Garage together, waiting. It’s tense and quiet. Allison instituted a very aggressive “no checking the idols list” rule, so Mike can’t look, but he knows. They’ve come too far for anyone to interfere. It’s going to be Jaylen. At this point, the question is whether or not they get her.
The gods announce the decree. They announce items, and boons to the crabs, and Mike can’t look anyone in the eye. If he does they’re going to know. He’s not sure what scares him more: the idea of telling them and having them say not to save Jaylen, or the idea of telling them and having them not care.
LOTTERY PICK, a voice says. THE SEATTLE GARAGES.
Everyone exhales in a rush. Allison curses loudly and joyfully, and Tot starts shouting something at Luis in a language Mike doesn’t recognize. Teddy goes boneless with relief.
“I love you guys,” Mike says. “I love you all so much.”
Nobody hears him - or maybe nobody answers. That’s okay. They know he left muffins in the other room. They know that the muffins mean the same thing.
Mike turns and walks outside. The egg is already outside the hangar, exactly where Hiroto predicted it would be. Jaylen is inside the egg.
He swallows. “Let’s find out what happens,” he says, and touches the shell of the egg.
Hiroto told him that there were three stages: breaching the shell, getting himself in, and getting Jaylen out. She also said that the shell was going to be the worst part. It was going to hurt. So he’s ready for it to hurt.
What Hiroto did not say was this:
Mike touches the shell of the egg, and something tells him that this is a waste of time because it won’t make his team love him.
He pulls back, startled, and then immediately plants his hand on the shell again. The same feeling informs him, very matter of fact, that eating his cookies is not the same as caring about him, and this is not going to change what they think of him, so there’s not much point of doing it.
“Okay,” Mike says, and tries to sink his fingertips into the shell. It doesn’t hurt physically, but the shell takes the opportunity to remind him that his entire team made a song about how much they hate him. He puts his other hand against it, digging in, and the shell asks him if the fans are going to hate him more once they find out that he gave up on Jaylen or if they already hate him as much as possible.
“Jaylen,” Mike says, and the shell becomes a little softer, more malleable. He keeps pushing. “I’m not doing this for me. I’m doing this because Jaylen loves this game more than I love some of my cousins. I’m doing this for her.”
He pushes. His left pinky breaches the shell.
“Jaylen,” he says again. It sounds like he’s crying. He thinks maybe he is crying - probably because he’s weak, the shell informs him helpfully - but he can barely feel it. All he knows is that one of his fingers is kind of in another dimension, and that means this is working. “Jaylen, if you can hear me I need you to help me here, I can’t do this on my own-”
“Why are you trying to do this on your own?” Jaylen says. It’s much quieter than the shell itself, which tries to tell Mike that she hates him, but it’s still clearly her. “Couldn’t you get help?”
“It’s an eye for an eye,” Mike says. All of the fingertips on his left hand sink through the shell, inside the shell. “It always had to be like this.”
“No it didn’t, Mike,” Jaylen says. He’s making Jaylen sad. He doesn’t need the shell to tell him that. “Come on, you know that.”
“Things have changed a lot since you were gone.”
“Is this the whole disappointment thing? You shouldn’t take that personally.”
“It’s kind of hard not to take it personally,” Mike points out. His left palm pushes through the shell. “Can you see me?”
“Not yet. Keep talking.”
“There’s a box of macarons in the fridge for you. I copied Allison’s handwriting so nobody else would touch them.”
Jaylen laughs. “Townsend, why do you keep taking care of us?”
“Why wouldn’t I?”
“You don’t have to.”
“It was never about the game for me,” Mike says, and suddenly his left arm is up to his elbow, and his right hand is up to his wrist. “It was always about the people playing, you know that. If I can make you all happy, if I can distract everyone from the whole literal impending doom thing-”
“Who’s distracting you?”
“I’m distracting me. It’s a pretty effective system. And everyone gets to make fun of me in the process.”
“Townsend,” Jaylen says exasperatedly. “Everyone makes fun of everyone. You’re just an easy target because they all know it would never actually upset you.”
“It kind of did,” Mike admits. It’s Jaylen, she won’t care. “It got old eventually.”
“Yeah, and then they dialed it back.”
“They still need you more than they need me.”
“None of these people have had to buy breakfast before a game for the last six seasons,” Jaylen says, and Mike lets out an abrupt laugh. “They don’t even know what they’re gonna be missing.”
“Jaylen,” Mike says, because it’s important to ask. “Do you actually want to come back?”
“Yes,” she says decisively. “I want to try. But Mike, I don’t want it to take you.”
“I don’t know if there’s a way for it to be both of us at the same time. There are already a lot of risks for you, even if we do everything right.”
“You’re going to die if you do this.”
“You’re already dead.”
“I didn’t do that on purpose.”
Mike sighs. “Do you have another plan in mind?”
“Yes,” Jaylen says, and her fingers close around his wrists. He grabs her forearms blindly. There are tears streaming down his cheeks. The shell is screaming inside his head, static so loud that the only things he knows are that and him and her. “Mike, it’s going to work. Just pull me out.”
Mike squeezes her forearms. Mike closes his eyes. Mike thinks: if only one of us makes it out of this in one piece, don’t let it be me. And Mike pulls.
There is a moment, or maybe a year or an infinity or a day, where Mike Townsend is nowhere.
Mike Townsend says into the void, “I had to do this.”
The void doesn’t really say anything, what with being a void.
Mike Townsend says, “Did I do enough?”
The void says, MORE OR LESS.
Mike blinks. “What?”
I HOPE YOU LIKE SHADOWS, the void says helpfully.
“What?” he says again, and-
Jaylen stands up and stares at her hands. “Oh,” she breathes, and flexes her fingers. “Oh, my god.”
“Oh my god,” Mike echos. He’s standing behind her, the angle just a little awkward. “We have to go inside.”
“We have to go inside,” Jaylen repeats. She strides forward with a lot of confidence, considering that she didn’t have a fully corporeal form until a few seconds ago, and flings the door open.
This is how Mike realizes that he only halfway exists:
There are a lot of lights on in the Big Garage. It’s not very well-lit, that’s a different beast entirely, but there are lots of dim light bulbs. Not a lot of shadows. So Jaylen throws the door open, and light floods her from all sides, and her shadow is gone.
And suddenly Mike is across the room.
“Jaylen?” he says, hoping to get her attention. Unfortunately it has the opposite effect, because instead of Jaylen looking at him, everyone turns to gape at Jaylen. He wonders if they even noticed that he left.
“Oh my god,” Teddy says, and then everyone’s rushing forward to dogpile Jaylen. Which sucks, because the shadows get thrown around the room, which means that Mike is behind Cedric and then next to Ollie and then finally settles in the back corner by the kitchen. It’s a dim spot. He always liked it.
“Guys,” Jaylen is sobbing, “I’m- you did it-”
Mike wants to be in the middle of this. More than anything, he wants to be able to hold Jaylen’s hand and stand with her. He tries to will himself into the shadow in between her arms, but he can’t. He wonders if it’s because he can’t be seen.
“Jaylen,” he says one more time. This time it works: her head shoots up, and she scans the room, but her eyes skate right past him. “Oh, no.”
“Townsend?” Allison says. She turns and looks exactly where he is, but all that does is move him into the shadows behind Ron. “Where-”
“These things need sacrifices,” Ron rumbles. “Don’t they?”
Jaylen cranes her neck. “I don’t understand, he was just-”
“I want to try something,” Mike says. Ron doesn’t startle, but everyone turns to him sharply. Luckily Ron’s big enough that none of them can actually lay eyes on Mike. “Allison, don’t freak out.”
“Why would I freak out?” Allison says suspiciously.
Mike takes a step forward and appears behind her. “Don’t freak out,” he says again. She jumps pretty badly, but she doesn’t try to turn around. “Nobody look at me, I think that- I think that’s it.”
“Why you can’t see me. I think-” he takes a deep breath. “I think I’m kind of stuck in the shadows right now.”
Jaylen claps a hand over her mouth. “Is this because-”
“I knew what I was doing,” Mike says. It’s only half a lie; he did talk to Hiroto, after all, even if he didn’t see this coming. “And clearly I’m still around. We don’t need to worry about it.”
“You can’t play,” Teddy says. He’s staring at a point over Allison’s shoulder. If he lowered his gaze even an inch, he’d be looking at Mike. “You did this?”
“Of course I did.”
“Should’ve talked to us, Townsend,” Ron says. It’s not angry, and it’s not unkind. “We would’ve helped.”
“I tried to talk to you,” Mike points out. “Most of you, I tried to ask about this. And nobody wanted to talk. But it’s okay. I might not be in the band, and I might not be able to go to parties anymore, but I can still drop off breakfast in the mornings. I think this shadow thing might really cut down on my commute.”
The joke falls flat. Jaylen is crying again, but it’s not the joyful, overwhelmed sobs from earlier. She just looks sad. “I shouldn’t have tried to save us both,” she whispers. “I should’ve-”
“Jaylen,” Mike says, as kindly as possible, “we don’t know that you came back in one piece. We need to focus on that. We-”
“Townsend,” Teddy says sharply. “This isn’t a ‘we’ situation. I’m going to call Sandoval on the Beams. Ron, you see if you can call Hades. Someone call Houston, they had another pitcher show up today. Gwiffin, you should-”
“Don’t we need to get Jaylen settled?” Mike says. It’s futile, he knows it. “We aren’t going to be able to fix this right now, I don’t see why-”
“It’s not about right now, idiot,” Allison snaps. “Of course we can’t fix it right now. It’s about making sure other teams know what’s coming, and it’s about making sure that you and Jaylen both don’t disappear when you’re not looking.”
“I disappear when you are looking,” Mike tries, but nobody laughs. “Jaylen?”
She takes a deep breath. “You said there were macarons in the fridge for me?”
“And muffins for everyone.”
“Right,” Teddy says. “Awesome. Baked goods break, strategy meeting, whatever. Ron, make sure there’s a dark corner in the kitchen so Townsend can sit there if he wants to. Let’s try and… get to the kitchen without spatially displacing him too much.”
It’s almost funny, watching the whole team try to get around without looking at him. Jaylen looks in Allison’s general direction and says, “I feel fine.”
“I hope that doesn’t change,” Mike says sincerely. She nods and goes on her way.
Allison is the only one who doesn’t move. Mike frowns. “You good?”
She makes a frustrated noise. “Shut up,” she says. “I’m thinking.”
“Okay,” Mike says peacefully. “Take your time.”
“I’m-” her jaw clicks shut. “You tried to warn me about this. Way at the beginning. And I blew you off.”
“Everyone blew me off.”
“Believe it or not, that doesn’t exactly help to hear.”
Mike shrugs. “It’s not personal. I get it.”
“I’m sorry this happened,” Allison says, and that pulls him up short. “You shouldn’t - dude, I know we give you all sorts of crap, but we all know what you do for the team. Did for the team?”
“Oh, I’m still on the team. You’re not getting rid of me that easily.”
“Fine,” she says, and he can hear the smile in her voice. “What you do for the team. You’re easy to make fun of specifically because we know you’re not gonna turn your back on us. And I’m sorry that we ended up turning our backs on you.”
“I literally have to turn my back to you in order to talk to you.”
“Will you just-”
“I accept the apology,” Mike says, and Allison lets out a breath. “I’m sorry I didn’t warn you guys.”
Allison shrugs. And then, slowly, she reaches one of her hands behind her, fingers spread out. Mike takes her hand, and she laces her fingers through his. “Just don’t pull any more disappearing acts if you can help it.”
“Deal,” Mike says. Allison laughs and turns her head, just slightly. “Can you see me?”
“Almost,” she says. “It’s enough for now.”
“Yeah,” Mike agrees. Not because it’s actually enough. Just because it has to be.
Mike gets in the habit of bringing food to the hangar early in the morning. He still bakes, because… honestly, because he doesn’t have a lot else to do with his time. Malik suggests that he open an online baking business, so he does. The name recognition helps. But he still makes the most food for his teammates.
On the morning that season seven is supposed to start, Mike is making his drop-off when he hears footsteps. “Careful if you come into the kitchen,” he calls. “Gimme a second.”
“I’m just here to pick my order up,” a voice shouts back, and Mike beams. “That matcha cake was so good, how did you do that?”
“Lots of practice. Don’t look at the kitchen for a second.”
Mike sets the cake box for Hiroto outside the door to the kitchen. And then stacks the muffins on top. “Alright, you’re good to go. I threw in a team breakfast for you. My treat.”
“Dude,” Hiroto says. She sounds sad. “You didn’t have to do that. I couldn’t even stop you from getting shadowed.”
“I chose it,” Mike points out. He hasn’t regretted it once. It’s not easy, certainly, but it’s worth it. “Besides, you were the only reason that I made it as far as I did. I owe you one.”
“I think we all owe you more than one.”
“Don’t say that. Just listen to our music and give us hell on the field.”
“I will,” Hiroto promises. “We all will. Good luck baking, Townsend.”
“Thanks,” Mike says, and listens to Hiroto leave.
He misses playing. But he’s grateful beyond measure that he doesn’t have to miss the players, too.