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the last coke in the desert

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It wasn't that Livan didn't want to leave and go back to his rental house or—more likely—one of the townie bars to see about finding a little company before heading back to the house, he just didn't want to freeze his ass off to do it. Wasn't this supposed to be the desert? There were plenty of cactuses and more sand than God knew what to do with, but it was supposed to be hot in the desert, too, no? Why else would everyone—all right all the groupies that he entertained back in San Diego, well, the ones who bothered to make conversation first, anyway—tell him he'd have to watch out for the heat whenever he mentioned he was leaving for Spring Training in Arizona?

There sure as hell wasn't any heat to speak of tonight. 

He could handle the days just fine. Playing out on fields that burst bright green against the dusty, dull landscape was the only place Livan felt even a little at ease. Whether it was the sun shining or the familiar warmth of work, he wasn't sure, but perhaps it wasn't so surprising that the one place he felt at home was a baseball diamond. At home, or something close to it. Even if his so-called teammates weren't all that thrilled by him.

Well, the feeling was mutual. 

Livan didn't understand them. He didn't really want to understand them, either. He got where he was by playing the game, not politics. Friends were pointless when baseball was all that mattered.

If that loneliness meant he had more energy to put in a little more effort than everyone else, a little more time, it wasn't because he really worried about making the roster. Livan could catch curveballs and hit homers in his sleep if he wanted. He'd always been able to, and didn't see the point in pretending otherwise. Even when he remembered the bitter way his teammates used to mutter about him: "Él cree la ultima coca-cola nel desierto." So what if he did? He was better than them.

Couldn't hurt his feelings with the truth.

Anyway, it wasn't that hard to run circles around Lawson or Bessner or any of the untested kids from El Paso and San Antonio. Livan would be a Padre once April rolled around, whether or not he put in the work.

That certainty wouldn't be true, though, if he froze into a human icicle well before the team ever migrated back to San Diego. 

Seriously, what comemierda thought it was a good idea to play spring ball in a place where, as soon as the sun went down, it felt like the whole state had plunged back into the Ice Age?

It was just one of many reasons to hate Arizona, but it wasn't the worst of them. 

The worst was the Spanish.

So many people spoke his language, but none of it sounded right coming out of their mouths. So many native Spanish speakers in the desert, but the vowels were all wrong, the figures of speech unfamiliar. Every time he expected an "¿Acere, qué bolá?" he got a "¿Güey, qué onda?" instead. He'd nearly choked the first time he saw the word papaya in public, at some fancy juice place Baker liked. He missed the sight of los camellos and couldn't understand why it was a camión here. 

It was like walking into his childhood home to find someone else had moved in and replaced all the furniture. The walls were all the same, the rooms laid out in a familiar pattern, but he kept stubbing his toe on things that shouldn't be there. 

Each time, it felt like the bottom of his stomach dropped through his feet and disappeared into the earth.

It wasn't like he didn't notice the slight, but steadily grating, differences in San Diego, too. Just, San Diego also had bars and clubs that stayed open past 11. It was much easier to forgive things when he had a steady supply of alcohol and people to drink with him.

Essentially: Livan couldn't wait for Spring Training to end. Just one more month and then he could bury himself in the constant motion of the game. The unending pursuit of greatness.

Good fucking thing he hadn't signed with Arizona. Not that the Diamondbacks could have afforded the signing bonus he was sure his agent had angled for. 

Then again, the Padres couldn't afford it, either. Yet here Livan was, signed to a five year contract with San Diego, who'd finished last season only ahead of the Giants while the Yankees nearly made it to the World Series. 

Maybe he should have signed with New York. If he was going to be a little miserable, he might as well do it with piles of money in his bank account. Plus, the Yankees trained in Florida. He could probably get some passable ropa vieja down there. Maybe it would be worse, though. So close to home and barred from ever going back.

God, he missed Cuba.

The irony didn't escape him. 

How many years of his life had he and his parents spent getting off that fucking island? And here Livan was, living the dreams of his entire family, and he'd give almost anything to be back.

So, he lingered at the players' entrance of the Peoria Sports Complex, ignoring the other Padres and Mariners filing out around him and trying to brace himself for the cold breeze he was sure awaited him just beyond the door.

"Oh, good. You're still here."

The low, musical notes of Ginny Baker's voice wasn't a surprise, but they weren't exactly expected, either. She was probably the only Padre he was always on good terms with, even if she gave him more shit than he'd usually put up with from a woman. Or a teammate, for that matter. If anyone was going to say it was good he was anywhere, it was her. At the same time, he had a sinking suspicion she was about to rope him into something he had no interest in. The fact that Lawson, in that leather jacket that looked as old as he was, loomed behind her shoulder, didn't make Livan feel any better. 

"Just leaving," he tried, pushing against the door in spite of the way he wasn't prepared for the cold. The first blast of chill made him regret that decision, though, letting it fall shut again and loitering reluctantly.

"Great, you can follow Mike."

"Why would I follow Lawson anywhere?" he demanded, rocking back from the pair, as if staying too close would signal his acceptance. His captain looked like he wanted to ask the same thing, but he kept his mouth shut. That, Livan could grudgingly admit, was probably wise.

"We're having family dinner," Baker said, like that explained anything.

"Team dinner," Lawson interjected, making his first contribution to this conversation. He rolled his eyes when he caught Livan's skeptical glance

Before Livan could even open his mouth to sneer something back, Baker cut him off.  "Family, team, whatever," she dismissed, flapping a hand like it really was all the same to her. "Al's hosting Sunday Night dinners while we're all in Peoria. I know he invited you last week."

True, he had. But Livan had had better things to do than hang out with his manager and a team full of guys who weren't his biggest fans (and one woman who didn't mind him).

"Okay," he replied, drawing out the word as he waited for the significance to settle in. It didn't. "Have a good time?"

"We will," she replied, her jaw setting in a stubborn line that meant nothing good for Livan's (lack of) plans tonight, "and so will you."

"No."

"Livan," Ginny pouted. Her dark eyes, however, flashed dangerously "You have to come. It's family—"

"Team," inserted Lawson dryly.

"—dinner! You're coming," Ginny finished, like her word was law and crossing her arms over her chest to prove it. 

Over her shoulder, Lawson scowled and turned away, but he didn't bother objecting.

"Mami," he hedged, and okay, maybe he enjoyed the way Lawson's jaw clenched a little too much, and he probably should stop doing it every chance he got. When it stopped being so entertaining, he would. Anyway, Livan didn't really want to tell her that he didn't need a new family or whatever it was she was trying to accomplish with this invitation. Not just because he wasn't sure that was strictly true. Everyone he knew and loved was more than 2,000 miles away. Maybe he could afford to put down a few roots. For now, at least. So, with a sigh, he caved. He could always leave if he wanted. "All right."

Ginny's face lit up in a dimpled grin and she bounced on her toes like she couldn't quite contain her excitement. Behind her, Lawson rolled his eyes again, but there was no hiding the fond set of his mouth, even behind the beard. 

"Great!" she enthused. "Let's go, then. I don't want to get there and find out Stubbs ate all the garlic bread again."

In the whirlwind energy of Baker's desire for food, they all pushed out of the Complex. Livan had actually forgotten about chill and nearly cursed when the cold wind bit through his thin zip up. Why hadn't anyone told him to bring a coat to Arizona?

Ginny dashed off to her car—her stomach clearly leading the way—shouting over her shoulder that she better see them both at Al's and the directions were already in Livan's phone.

Lawson, though, walked slower, either his jacket keeping him from the chill or his knees forcing the issue. Livan didn't mean to fall into step with him, but before he could peel away and jog for his own car, the older catcher addressed him for the first time of the night.

"Too good for a coat?" 

Livan shivered, but didn't bother dignifying him with a response. Shit, why hadn't he made a break for it when he had the chance?

"Y'know," Lawson drawled, sounding friendly enough, which was Livan's biggest tip off that he was feeling anything but, "you might've been hot shit in Cuba—"

"I was hot shit in Cuba. Just like I'm hot shit here," he sniped.

"—but the game's about the team, not personal glory."

Like Mike Lawson, and the rest of the Padres, didn't try to shove that lesson down his throat every time he flipped his bat or celebrated on the base path. 

"Y'know," Livan mimicked, leaning hard on Lawson's funny drawl and fighting the way the words felt like marbles in his mouth, before giving it up, "you might've been hot shit back in the day, but that doesn't give you the right to lecture me."

Mike huffed out a laugh, but it didn't sound nearly as amused as the way he'd chuckled at Baker. Still, it was better than what Livan usually got out of him. "No, being captain is what gives me that right. You've got talent, but it's no good if none of the team trusts you."

"Ginny trusts me."

"Well," Lawson groused, looking thoroughly put out that he couldn't dispute the claim. "Baker's a maniac. There's no reasoning with her. Anyway, you can't make it with just her in your corner, even if she'd fight like hell for you if she thought she should."

And Livan couldn't argue with that. Ginny would do anything and everything in her power for someone she called a friend, and it wasn't in her nature to stop for her own sake. It wouldn't be fair to put her in that position, and he'd never want to.

"I know," he admitted, softer than was strictly comfortable for his ego.

Lawson grunted and fished in his pocket for his keys. Ahead, the lights to a huge truck—of fucking course—lit up. "Good. Don't put her in that position. Make some other fucking friends on the team."

"I'm coming to dinner. Gonna play nice there," Livan pointed out. He had to resist the urge to scowl petulantly. "Happy?"

A smile, more genuine than Livan was used to getting, crossed Lawson's face as he opened his door and swung himself into the cab. "Nah," he replied, wrinkling his nose. "But it's, y'know. A start."

With that, he slammed his door in Livan's face and pulled away.

Livan kind of figured he should be grateful he didn't run over his toes as he went. 

Another set of shivers racked through him and now Livan really did make a mad dash for his car. It wasn't until he was tapping the address for Al's rental house into the GPS that he realized he wasn't dreading his evening in the way he had the past two weeks. If anything, and in spite of the resistance he'd put up for Ginny and Lawson, he was actually looking forward to Sunday dinner. Maybe even dinners.

The San Diego Padres weren't, by any stretch of the imagination, his family. But they could be. It wasn't like he was exactly spoiled for choices at the moment.

Anyway, he thought as he started the car and began to follow the direction's to his manager's place, he was pretty sure he could do much, much worse.