Summary: Mike thought things between him and Don and Chavo would always be the same as they were in high school, except maybe he never really understood how things really were.
Thanks: Lyra really didn't have to read this one and beta it -- in fact, she's got real issues with the idea of the sweaty footbally men of Friday Night Lights (ALL OF WHICH I CAN REFUTE, DO NOT LET HER CONVINCE YOU), and yet she did. So, basically. She rocks. Like always.
Title from The Black Key's song of the same name.
Turns out Mike doesn’t like football after all. Well, that’s not entirely true – he likes football fine. It’s just that he doesn’t like playing unless he’s playing with the right people, and he left them when he left Odessa.
So Mike makes it slowly through his first semester at Baylor, playing because he has to, not because he wants to, and they win some games and they lose some, but it turns out Mike doesn’t give a shit when they lose.
It’s not like high school, when he’d look across the room at Don, and see Don clenching his jaw, trying hard not to cry, on account of what his daddy’d do when he got home. It’s not like when he felt like he had to make Coach Gaines believe that he was up to the responsibility of being quarterback.
At Baylor, football is just football. Mike throws good passes, and calls safe plays, and the best it gets is when he sometimes gets caught up in the game enough that he thinks he’s throwing the ball to Don. He’s always surprised when he meets someone else’s eyes.
It makes the games feel like they don’t count. Not much of anything feels like it counts anymore – feels like the stakes are so low that Mike could just as well not show up. Not show up to class, to practice, to parties, to anything.
He feels like maybe the only things he’s ever done that will matter are the things he did when he was eighteen. He feels like maybe the rest of his life is going to be just like everybody in Odessa said – he’s going to die remembering his senior year of high school as the best time of his life, and shit, if that doesn’t make Mike wonder what the hell point there is in anything.
The summer before they all left, Mike and Don and Chavo spent most of the time they weren’t working hanging out by the oil rig. Don would bring beer, and Chavo would help him drink it, and even Mike would have one every now and then.
“My old man says you’ve only got that one year,” Don said once, squinting at the sun. “That’s the only time that matters.”
Chavo shook his head. “Bullshit. We’re only eighteen; it’s gotta get better than this.”
For Chavo, Mike thinks, it probably is better. After all, Chavo’s got a hell of a lot more than football going for him. For Mike and Don, it’s different.
They write each other a couple of letters – Don’s got a girl, and Mike doesn’t. Don’s dad’s marrying Flippy maybe, and Mike’s brother is moving back to Odessa to stay with their ma for a little while.
After that, Mike gets busy with work and school and football. He goes out every now and then, when his roommate drags him out by the collar, like Don used to do.
Don stops writing, too, but it’s all right. Don’s always busy with something or the other. He’s not playing, but if Mike knows Don, then he’s out every night until the sun comes up. Don and his parties – Mike used to feel like he let Don down every time he went to one. He never liked them, never even liked drinking that much.
Not like Don, who always was the first and last person at the keg. Mike thinks maybe Don liked to be drunk so much because then he could forget, and Mike can see the attraction in that, for certain. But Mike hasn’t ever been too keen on the way being drunk makes it hard for him to make decisions, makes it hard for him to stay in control. Don liked that, too, though.
He’d get mad, and break things, and one time he took a swing at Mike as Mike was helping him home, and a lot of the time he’d just laugh until Mike would worry. Mike drove Don home more often than not, because Mike knew the best ways to get into and out of Don’s house without waking up Don’s dad.
They didn’t talk about it, beyond every now and then Don saying, “Hey, thanks for the lift, man” and Mike saying, “No problem” and that was that.
Don cried a lot, during those drives home. He didn’t say anything – or if he did, Mike didn’t understand it, anyway – just curled up by the window and cried into his hands.
A couple of times, Don cried so loud and so long that Mike just pulled the car over, and put his arms around Don’s shoulders, and pulled Don to him, and let Don cry until he was asleep. Don held on so tight, and Mike’s shirt was wet from tears and warm from Don’s face being pressed up against it. Mike would rub his back a little, and every now and then whisper something like, “Shh, Donny, s’gonna be alright, I promise.”
And Don would just hold on tighter, crying into Mike’s shoulder, his mouth open against Mike’s neck, and they’d both fall asleep like that on the gravel shoulder beside route 385.
What Mike thinks about most now that he’s out of Odessa is those mornings, waking up with Don half in his lap, snoring on his chest. That wasn’t about football. That wasn’t about winning. That wasn’t about anything except taking care of Don, and Mike didn’t realize before how good that made him feel.
It wasn’t like taking care of his ma – it didn’t make Mike feel heavier, like there was something else he had to worry about. It just made Mike feel *right*, in a way that he didn’t ever feel except when he was calling plays and watching his boys run them out.
Mike wants that feeling back. He wants to feel like something matters.
Waco’s not that different from Odessa. It’s just bigger, but there’s still sand and grit everywhere. By the highways at home, there’s grass that grows up past Mike’s knees, and dust seems to just shake off the stalks the more they sway in the wind.
Mike remembers one morning out on 385, when he left the window open and woke up with grime all over his face, dust in his teeth. Don ruffled his hair, and his hand came away dirty. It made Don laugh, though, which made it fine enough.
‘Cuz if Don could laugh, even though his dad was probably going to tear into him for one thing or another when he got home, then maybe things weren’t half as bad as they seemed. Or, at least that’s what Mike always used to think.
Two weeks before the end of the semester, Mike gets a postcard from Don that says, “Have fun in Odessa, and Merry Christmas, shithead.” It’s shaped like a football, and Mike keeps it on his desk, propped up against his lamp. Every now and then as he sits there studying, he reaches out and touches it, traces Don’s handwriting a little, and smiles.
When he finishes his exams, Mike’s not sure if he’s relieved to be going home, or if he’d rather get in his car and drive north, and just keep driving. He goes home, though, because he has to, and because his ma is waiting for him, because it wouldn’t be fair to his brother.
During winter break, Mike spends most of his time with Chavo, who’s brought home his girlfriend and his books, and spends most of his time talking about how great it is at Harvard. Chavo’s pale, and his clothes are different, and his girlfriend’s from Connecticut and keeps calling Odessa “sweet”. Sometimes when Mike’s talking, he can see her grinning at his accent, like maybe she’s making fun of him.
Don’s in Kentucky, visiting his mom. Boobie’s around, but Mike can’t look at him without feeling like he should apologize, so Mike has a beer with him once, and doesn’t see him again.
He drives through Odessa at night. He drives past the stadium, past Don’s house where he can see the lights flickering from the television in the living room, which probably means Don’s dad’s awake. He drives out to 385, and he parks the car, and he wonders what the hell he’s doing.
He’s never felt like he fit in Odessa. He sure as hell doesn’t fit at Baylor. He used to have a team, he used to have friends, he used to have Chavo and Don. Except, now, Chavo’s like a stranger and Don is – well. Don’s gone.
Mike never even thought that was possible. Don was the last person from Odessa he saw before he left – Don helped him cram his car full, and then he threw footballs at the back of Mike’s car until he was too far down the road, and then Don just stood there, one hand in his pocket, waving. Mike watched in his rearview mirror until Don disappeared.
Mike thought things between him and Don and Chavo would always be the same as they were in high school, except maybe he never really understood how things really were. Maybe Mike never really understood himself, and as he sits by the black tarmac and stares at the little circle of light his headlights put out, he realizes that he’s scared shitless.
He realizes that maybe he’s been scared shitless his whole life, except when he was around Don.
Because, as much as Mike didn’t like to think about it, Don took care of him, too. It wasn’t just Mike holding Don up; Don was plenty strong, too.
Don knew Mike. He knew Mike like nobody else ever could, or would, and maybe that’s just because they’d been playing ball together since they were eight, but Mike thinks it’s because Don’s like him. Only, Don’s braver. Because Don can still laugh, and smile, and let himself lose control.
Don trusts; Mike can’t. He doesn’t know how.
All Mike knows how to do is keep going. He doesn’t know anything about being happy, not really. He hasn’t had too much experience with it.
He thinks sleepily that maybe someday he should get Don to teach him. He thinks maybe Don’s the only person who could.
The second semester is better. Mike doesn’t have to worry about football, and so he’s got a little more time on his hands.
He writes Don every now and then, and Don writes back. It’s not enough to really let Mike know what’s going on with Don, or enough for Mike to tell Don how much Mike misses him, but it’s enough. Mike keeps the postcard Don sent him on his desk, and it starts to get a little worn from being held so often.
In late February, he’s standing by the wall at a party.
“Not your scene?” a low voice murmurs in his ear, and he turns to find a guy next to him, smirking. He’s a little taller than Mike, and his hair’s shaggy and blond and for half a second, Mike thinks it’s Don.
It’s not, though. The lips are fuller, the nose all wrong, and besides, Don’s nowhere near Baylor. Still, he looks a hell of a lot like Don. Enough to make Mike stare.
The guy cocks an eyebrow, and steps closer, and the fabric over his chest brushes against Mike’s arm.
“I said,” the guy repeats, leaning in so that his mouth is almost moving on Mike’s ear, “you don’t look like you’re enjoying yourself.”
Mike shrugs, gestures at the people on the dance floor and says, “Can’t really dance.”
“My name’s Tim,” he says, and holds out a bottle. “Want a beer?”
Mike takes it, nods his thanks, introduces himself, and for some reason he can’t help but think of that girl, Melissa.
“You gay?” she’d asked, and Mike can hear her voice in his head, over and over again.
The guy – Tim – puts an arm up on the wall beside Mike’s head, and Mike can feel Tim pressed all along his body. “I know who you are,” he tells Mike, smiling. “I saw you play.”
Mike shrugs, doesn’t say anything, doesn’t look over and he starts to feel restless. He starts to feel that itch on the back of his neck that usually means he’s about to get tackled.
“When you were at Permian, I mean,” Tim says, pressing tighter. Mike fidgets back toward the wall, but Tim follows, and Mike’s starting to have trouble breathing.
“You gay?” Melissa asks in his head. “You gay? You gay? You gay?”
Tim takes a swig of his beer, and Mike watches his throat move with the swallow, and God, he looks like Donny.
Tim meets his eyes, smiles slowly and says, “Go Mojo.”
“Where’d you go to school?” Mike makes himself ask, and his voice almost catches in his throat.
Tim keeps watching his lips, and licks over the rim of the bottle, says, “Midland.”
And Mike suddenly gets that if he doesn’t say something, or do something fast, that Tim is going to kiss him. This stranger – this strange guy, with Don’s face – is going to kiss him, and Mike feels a little dizzy. Maybe a little bit like he’s drunk, and now all he can hear in his head is, “Do it, just do it, do it already.”
And then it’s like he *gets it*, gets it. This isn’t a new feeling, this “kiss me already” feeling. This jittery nervousness isn’t something that’s just happening now, and oh, God, Mike thinks,is this what I wanted? Is this what I really always wanted?
He looks at Tim, who’s talking about something, and whose eyes are so familiar, and he knows it’s too much. Tim finishes a joke, laughs at it, and looks at Mike when Mike doesn’t laugh. Mike doesn’t know what he sees, but he starts to lower his head toward Mike’s – and Mike’s seen that play, seen Chavo do it, seen Don do it. Tim’s eyes close, and Mike panics. He pushes Tim hard, and the guy stumbles back against the wall. Mike doesn’t listen when Tim calls out after him, calls him an asshole.
Mike just pushes his way out of the party without saying anything, and he goes home.
He picks up Don’s postcard, and sits down on his bed. He closes his eyes, and he thinks about the sleeping weight of Donny against his chest while the both of them sat in his car. He thinks about how Don’s hair felt under his cheek, how Don’s back felt under his hands. Mike closes his eyes, and thinks about Don’s lips.
He’s kissed girls before. He’s even fucked a couple, but he always did it just to *do it*, not because he wanted to, really. He did it because Don would say, “Tonight we’re getting you laid,” and he did it because the morning after, Don would sling his arm around Mike’s shoulder in the hallway and crow, “Way to go!” loudly.
None of it ever meant anything. Mike can barely even remember any of their names, and only bits and pieces of their faces. There was one girl with long blonde hair, another with a long straight nose, another who had round, blue eyes.
When Mike tries to remember them, the face he sees ends up looking a hell of a lot like Don’s.
Is that what I want? he asks himself again, his eyes screwed tightly shut. He sees Don’s face, Don’s body, Don’s eyes, and he thinks about his hands touching Don. He thinks about running his fingers over the sweep of Don’s back, down Don’s thigh, over Don’s shoulders, his chest.
He thinks of Don’s face, red and flushed, and Don’s eyes half closed, and Don’s mouth, and Mike knows it’s all he’s ever really wanted
Going back to Odessa doesn’t get easier, and the whole way he’s driving there for spring break, Mike keeps thinking about turning the car around and flooring it. It only makes it up to about sixty, but he’d be driving away from Odessa, and that’s really all that matters.
Still, he keeps driving toward Odessa until he pulls onto the gravel drive in front of the house he grew up in.
His ma’s happy to see him, but his brother may be happier. The minute Mike gets back, his brother is out the door. It’s all right; Mike knows how hard it gets to look after her. So he cooks her dinner his first night home, and makes sure she takes her medicine, puts her in bed and sits out in the living room, just listening to make sure she keeps breathing, like he used to do in high school.
He’s been home three days when he opens the front door to find Don standing in front of him.
The first thing Mike can think is that he cut his hair. It’s trimmed short and clean now – not as short as Mike’s, not quite, but short. He’s grinning and scratching the back of his neck, which is white, and Mike can’t tear his eyes off it, now that he knows he wants to touch it. Maybe even to kiss it.
And that’s got no place here. That’s got no place between him and Don, and sure as hell no place in Odessa.
“You going to say hello, or you just gonna stare at me, jackass?” Don asks, grinning even wider.
“Hey,” he says quietly, giving Don a quick hard hug.
Don claps him hard on the back and hangs on to his shoulder. He looks Mike over, and nods, as though satisfied. “You look good.”
Mike doesn’t look at Don’s lips, doesn’t touch Don’s neck, even though he wants to do both. Instead he just says, “I like your hair.”
Don laughs and punches Mike’s shoulder hard, and says, “C’mon, let’s go for a ride.”
They end up at the stadium. Mike stands by the goal posts, and stares out at all the grass. Don squats down by his feet and picks a handful of it, rubs it between his palms.
“Smells the same,” he says, with a half-smile. He stands and holds his green stained hands to Mike’s face, his fingers long, and smelling sweet from the grass.
Mike clears his throat, and nods. “Yeah, it does.”
“Think about how many times we ended up with our faces pressed into that stuff,” Don says, shaking his head and tossing the handful of crushed stems back onto the field. He turns to Mike, half-smile growing. “I wound up at the bottom of the pile, underneath you enough times you should have left a mark.” He laughs, low.
Mike feels himself flushing, looks away, rubs his hands on his jeans. He opens his mouth, but he can’t think of anything to say so he closes it again, and when he looks over, Don’s laughing at him.
“Boy, you sure are just as talkative as ever,” Don teases, and Mike gets even redder.
“You want to get tackled again?” he threatens.
Don ignores him, stares back at the field. “Feels like it was a long time ago, already,” he says quietly.
Mike just stares at Don’s profile in the half-dark, and he thinks it feels like lifetimes ago. Don turns to him, and smiles, and there it is, that “just do it, just do it” feeling, pounding through his veins, and he wants to put his hand right there, on Don’s clean neck, and –
Don’s eyes catch his, and Mike can’t breathe.
Just do it, just do it, just do it.
And maybe he’s about to. He starts to lean in, and Don’s head snaps away.
Don looks down at the grass, and then back up and his smile is brilliant, and Mike can’t see anything else.
“Enough of this sentimental shit,” Don says. “Let’s go get drunk and laid.”
Mike sits at the bar, and beside him Don argues with the bartender loudly about something. He isn’t really paying attention, just staring at the way his hands look around the long neck bottle.
Don’s not drunk, not yet, but Mike steals glances out of the corner of his eye and he can see that Don’s getting there. There aren’t any women, here, though, and Mike’s not unhappy about that.
It’s just Don, and Mike, and the bartender and a couple in a booth somewhere in the back. Don’s face is pink, and he’s smiling, and Mike keeps his hands clamped around the longneck to keep from touching him too much.
“I love all y’all,” he told Don and the rest of the team back when they were playing Carter. “I love all y’all,” he’d said, but he’d been holding Don’s hand.
Mike wishes they were playing football together again, so he could touch Don, but they’re not, so he can’t until they’re leaving and Don’s hanging off him to keep from falling.
“Shit, man, drive me somewhere,” Don says as Mike pushes him into the passenger seat. His words slur together as he runs a hand over his face, and he closes his eyes. Mike buckles his seat belt, and when Don talks again, his mouth is right by Mike’s ear. Mike can feel Don’s hot breath against his skin.
“I don’t wanna go home. Drive me somewhere. Let’s go out to the oil rig, like we used to.”
While Mike drives, Don just stares out the windshield. Neither of them says anything, and their hands brush against one another on the arm-rest between the seats. Don doesn’t pull away.
In the dark, the old drill looks like a huge ostrich in the middle of a desert. Mike parks next to it, and looks over at Don, eyebrows raised.
“We’re here,” he says after a minute, and Don nods, still staring at nothing, out the front of the car.
Mike watches Don. It’s almost hard to see him in the dark, but Mike knows his face so well that Mike can just imagine what his expression is. He can imagine the way his jaw is set, how his brows are drawing together.
“You okay, man?” he asks, real quiet, and Don nods once, sharply.
Then he barks out a bitter laugh and shakes his head, and rubs his eye with his hand, and says, “It didn’t last forever, Mike.”
“What?” Mike turns to face him more, but Don looks out the window so that Mike can’t see his expression.
All Mike can see is the pale skin on the back of his neck, and it looks so naked, so vulnerable that Mike wants to cover it with his hand. He wants to tell Don to grow back his hair, to keep growing it until it hits his shoulders, so that no one else will see him like this.
“You remember how it felt when we were playing Carter? How good it felt? You remember what that was like? So right, so *easy*, like there wasn’t anything else in the world. Just us and the ball,” Don looks over his shoulder at Mike, and Mike nods, frowning. “Gaines said it would last forever – it didn’t.”
Don scrubs at his face with his hand again. “Nothing does, and so what the fuck are we supposed to do, Mike? It doesn’t mean anything anymore, not any of it, does it? It’s over, it’s done, and what the hell are we supposed to do now?”
“It still means something,” Mike says, talking before he realizes he is. “It’ll always mean something.”
Don turns to face him, and the moonlight turns his tanned skin white, makes his eyes look so dark. Don grips hard onto Mike’s hand, and stares down at their fingers, and Mike’s eyes widen.
“I miss you, more than I should,” Don says, in a small voice. “Maybe I miss you most. More than the game.”
Mike should be nervous. He’s going to kiss Don Billingsley in the front seat of his car; he knows that he is with an absolute certainty that he only has ever felt before on the football field. He should be nervous, but he’s not. Not even a little bit.
Maybe it’s because Don’s hand is holding on to his so tightly, and maybe it’s because Donny’s eyes are on his mouth, and maybe it’s just because it’s *Donny*, who knows him. Who misses him.
Donny, who he loves.
“Don,” he calls, and Donny looks up at his eyes, and Mike smiles at him. “It’s gonna be all right. I promise.”
Don nods, and leans toward Mike, and Mike meets him halfway between the driver’s seat and the passenger’s seat. It’s sweet, and it’s sloppy, and it’s awkward, and it’s the best damned kiss of Mike Winchell’s life.
“Is this what you want?” Don asks him, after, nuzzling at his neck, hands starting to reach for the hem of his shirt. “Shit, Mike, you have to tell me – you have to – because I want this, I’ve wanted this – ”
Mike smiles in the dark, and kisses Don again and says, “Yeah, Donny. It is.”