Still thwarting Sloth's mind control... Circulation: 178,230,078 Issue: 407 | 28th day of Hiding, Y11
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Underdogs: Part One


by nut862

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Art by nut862

Squinting against the early summer sunlight, the Pink Kiko waited, tense, as a couple of her peers scuffled on the brink of the line drawn in the sand. Their bouncing across the field had smeared the borders they'd scraped into the ground with a stick, but no one was going to complain about that at a deciding moment like this. The ball was live.

     "Yours, Meela!"

     The Yooyuball went spinning through the air. Meela Kitah stared straight up into the sun as the ball's silhouette came flying towards her, raising her fin to catch the pass.

     The ball grazed the edge of the net strapped to her fin and bounced off. It rolled towards Cellers, and Kitah yelled automatically, "Poke!"

     The Brown Kiko was already on it, capturing the undefended ball as their opponents came bearing down towards her. She held the ball up high as if to throw it over their heads, then turned and sent a low pass back to Kitah. This time the Pink Kiko caught it and streaked off down the field. Opposing attackers were already moving towards her; Kitah spun and threw to Helmo Timm. The Brown Peophin darted a few steps forward, giving the attackers just enough time to close in on her tail. Then with a deft swipe of her tailfin, the brown Yooyuball was sent flying through the dust, shooting over the patch of land where a wide rectangle had been marked off as the goal.

     Moni Vyshan threw up her fins and cheered, a grin overtaking her face. The Island Kiko held up a fin for a high-five as Ditan Colb came ambling towards her with his usual lazy half-smile. "We're doing good, squirt," he said as he slapped her palm.

     “We’re not doing well enough,” a terse voice broke into their moment of victory. Cellers came bouncing towards them, her face hardened into its usual scowl. A cut in the calloused brown skin above her shoulder glistened red in the sunlight where someone must have bumped her during play; she ignored it as she waved her fin towards the beach around them. At the opposite end of the makeshift field, the scraggly group of Kikos that were their opponents were milling about. They were one of a mere few local teams that had competed for the chance to represent Kiko Lake in the upcoming Altador Cup. Of course, they’d lost; there was no doubt that Cellers was the only captain around with the drive to get a team in shape for the big leagues. There were no hard feelings between the teams, and they were now doing all they could to help Cellers’ team practice for the real thing. But that wasn’t good enough, Cellers reflected as she watched the motley band of Kikos regrouping on the other side of the field.

     Vyshan’s usual bubbly expression faded a bit. She and Cellers had been at odds since the Island Kiko had been accepted onto the team; the team captain found her constant enthusiasm annoying. Her other teammates, however, sought relief in Vyshan’s cheeriness; though they all appreciated “Poke” Cellers, her gruff manner was grating over time. Ditan Colb threw a quick glance between the two, and then smirked carelessly at his captain. “We’re doing fine by my book, for a warm-up,” the Disco Kiko said. “Wait till we get into the real thing; I can feel the adrenaline. I’m already jazzed for this year’s Altador Cup.”

     “You better be,” Cellers said, critically scanning the team that had gathered around her. “You all better play your fins off this year, and if anyone doesn’t I’ll see to it that he gets used as a Yooyuball in our next practice match.”

     The Disco Kiko raised his drooping eyelids and grinned. “You threatening me, Poke?” Colb had a reputation for missing saves out of pure carelessness, and Cellers never let him forget it.

     “You better believe I’m threatening you. And you know we don’t treat Yooyuballs gently. Get over your laziness or I’ll get a new goalkeeper next year.” Cellers turned her back and faced the rest of the team. “Don’t get cocky, any of you. We’ve got to play harder than this in the Altador Cup. Look at you all, grinning like fools, pleased with yourselves for beating a bunch of Kikos. You’re not even sweating hard. When we play in the Cup, you’ll be working so hard that you can go swimming in the stuff. You’re going to show you’re not just the best Kiko, but the best in the Cup. You’re going to bounce till you pop and you aren’t going to be afraid of the explosion. You’re going to do all that, do you hear, you bunch of girls?”

     “Ahem,” Colb said.

     “Sorry, bunch of girls and one Yooyuball.”

     “A male Yooyuball. That makes all the difference.”

     “I swear, if you mess up again, I’ll strap a Ghostkerbomb to your back and make you a Clockwork Yooyu.”

     “I’ll make every second count,” Colb said cheerfully.

     Kitah had been hanging on to every word of her captain’s speech, and now faced her with a determined expression. “I won’t disappoint you, Poke,” she said. She was fired up and ready to play her hardest for the sake of her career. This team was her last chance; after Kiko Lake’s miserable finish in the first two years of the Altador Cup, she was well aware she’d never find work anywhere else.

     Vyshan and Timm were now chatting with the opposing team, ever the cheerful faces of sportsmanship. The other Kikos were congratulating them on their performance. “Good luck in the Cup,” they were saying. “You really have what it takes to do it this year. We’re all on your side.”

     Those Kikos would be on their side for as long as they stayed in Kiko Lake, but in Altador they’d be alone. Cellers turned away, bouncing off the court. Beside a nearby tree, a blue Kiko was resting in the shade, having watched the whole game from under the shadow of the leaves. Cellers collapsed beside him, staring up at the sky.

     “It’s like this every year, Holbie,” she said. “They get excited from winning games in Kiko Lake all year long, and then when we get to the Altador Cup and play against other pets--real pets, different pets, not just Kikos--we get crushed. Then we go home in defeat, vow to change things next year, and repeat the cycle.”

     Holbie Pinnock nodded, staring straight ahead. Cellers followed his gaze to where her teammates were smiling and congratulating each other. She sighed.

     “What does it take? We think we’re trying our best, but it’s never good enough. We’re Kikos. How are we ever going to be good enough? We’ve got Helmo Timm, but she’s only one player. All the other teams are built of pets that are bigger, faster, and stronger. Nobody on our team even has legs.”

     “If you haven’t got something, don’t bother wishing for it and just work with what you’re given,” Pinnock said. “Anyway, I never understood the fuss about legs. Although once in a while I do get a phantom feeling that makes me wonder if I was ever a JubJub.”

     “Forgot how much morphing potion you drank that night, did you?”

     “I never touch the stuff,” Pinnock said indignantly. “It’s nasty and smells like liquid Neopet.”

     “I never had any either. Buy me a mug of it sometime.”

     “You seem to think I could afford it, despite not being on your payroll anymore. It may be news to you, but I don’t get money for limping around in a bandage.”

     She gave him a look of genuine concern. “I’m sorry about what happened in that practice session. Isn’t that injury getting any better yet? I can’t wait for the day that you’ll be back on the team and playing alongside us.”

     Pinnock wiggled his fin gingerly. “It’s better now. I’ll be able to play again soon. I’ll be back next year for sure, Poke.”

     “You better be.”

     * * * * *

     “Oh, I’m exhausted. But it does feel so good after playing so hard.” Vyshan gulped down water as she stripped off her pads in the equipment room. “We’ll all have to try to get a good night’s sleep tonight so that we’re not too tired on the way to Altador tomorrow.”

     “That’s right,” Helmo Timm said. The Brown Peophin shook the sweat out of her mane. “We’ve got to take the Cup by storm this year.”

     “It’s the third Altador Cup,” Colb said with a lazy grin. “And they say three’s the charm.”

     The door to the equipment room swung open, and everyone turned to look at the bright blue Kiko that came in. “Holbie!” cried Vyshan, her face lighting up in a smile. “How are you feeling these days?”

     “My fin’s healing, slowly but surely,” Pinnock replied. “I came to wish all you guys luck. I believe that no better representatives for Kiko Lake could’ve been chosen. You’ll do this place proud, I know it.”

     “Oh, thank you!” The little Island Kiko beamed. “I love how you’re always saying such optimistic things. I do wish you could play with us, though. I hope your fin heals soon.”

     “Next year,” Pinnock said with a dismissive wave of his good fin. “Anyway, don’t let Poke get you down. She’s worked up because of the Cup being so close. Just remember that when she says she wants to kill you, it means she’s really grateful for everything you’re doing.”

     Vyshan giggled. “Oh, we all know she has a dear heart under it all.”

     Kitah looked around at the discarded equipment scattered over the benches in the room. “Speaking of which, where is she?”

     * * * * *

     Cellers pushed open the door to a round red building on the shore of Kiko Lake, still dressed in her Yooyuball pads. The shopkeeper looked up as he was setting a few Candy Kiko Apples in a display stand, adjusting them so that each Kiko-shaped treat stood straight upright. Cellers looked at them wryly, thinking how much better suited the shape of their bodies were to sitting on sticks like lollipops than racing around a Yooyuball field. No wonder nobody in the Altador Cup took them seriously.

     The shopkeeper smiled, unfazed by Cellers’ scowl. “Welcome! What can I get for you?”

     “I’m looking for something to drink,” she said.

     “You’re in luck! I’ve just poured some Cranberry Kiko Drink, and you get a free molded plastic bottle with each serving. Or if that’s not your flavor, I have some lemon--”

     “No,” Cellers broke in gruffly. “I’m wondering where I can get morphing potions.”

To be continued...

 
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