Unlikely Allies: Part Three
The hall’s staff had truly gone all out when it came to preparing for this dinner party. Delma knew she hadn’t intimidated anybody when she’d asked, but they’d responded as effectively as if they had been threatened. Streamers adorned the room, in Faerieland and Darigan colors, and everywhere she looked, pinks and pale blues were mixing with purples and blacks, from the tablecloths to the plate colors. There was even soft, neutral music filtering through what Delma suspected were concealed speakers.
Delma tugged at her skirt self-consciously; being on a professional Altador Cup team meant that she usually wore clothing she could move around easily in, like shorts and a T-shirt. The only time she wore dresses was during ceremonies, when she wouldn’t be playing. And while she wasn’t quite wearing a dress tonight, a skirt wasn’t exactly shorts.
Babolino patted her good-naturedly. “Calm down, Delma. You’re as fidgety as a Kadoatie tonight.”
Delma tried her best to smile. “Well, I suppose I’m just nervous.”
“It’s not like we’re confronting them,” the Kacheek insisted. “Nothing more than a friendly gathering...”
The creaking of one of the doors opening broke the awkward silence, and Delma turned to stare as the five Darigan pets filed in, led by their captain, Layton Vickles. Delma couldn't shake the feeling of nervousness as they approached. Kakoni stepped forward, smiling tightly; Layton Vickles extended a hand, and the two shook.
Babolino piped up. "Great to see you, guys! There's a ton of food, so make yourselves at home!"
Delma didn't have to look to know that Valtonous was scowling or trying very hard not to. Tormo Frein, Darigan's right defender, was sizing them all up with a surly glance, but the other four Darigan pets all wore expressions ranging from cautious to forcedly pleasant. Delma cleared her throat and moved over to the punch bowl, and the tension in the room broke.
Ciona moved to the cracker plate and exchanged a glance with Delma as Reshar Collifey, the Darigan goalkeeper, headed for the sandwich tray. Babolino shot the two girls a bright smile before moving over to the sandwiches as well. Delma distinctively heard the Kacheek's bright voice and Reshar's deeper one. She detected no hostility from the Jetsam, and relaxed slightly. At least Babolino would have a good time, she thought.
Ciona moved away to chat with Layton and Kakoni, from the look of it, so Delma poured herself a cup of punch. A cool voice asked from somewhere behind her, "Would you mind pouring me a cup as well?"
Delma jumped and turned around to see Kep Bonnefie observing her with a neutral expression. Delma offered what she hoped was a friendly smile. "Sure. Sorry, you startled me." She lifted another cup and filled it with some punch before handing it to the Buzz.
Kep smiled with an expression that Delma was not entirely certain was humor. "You know," she said slyly after taking a sip from her cup, "you and I are both left defenders."
Delma nodded. "So, how is it, being the only girl on the team?"
Kep chuckled and Delma felt that this time, it was more genuine. "Well, sometimes it's hard because I don't have anybody I can be a girl with. All of them, they're like my older brothers, and I'd never trade any of them for the world." Kep sighed wistfully as her glowing red eyes gained a far-off look. "Sometimes, I do miss my sisters from back home, though," she confessed.
Delma nodded enthusiastically. "I know! Before they replaced Elbin with Ciona, I was the only girl on my team as well. They're all great, but... sometimes, I like having another girl to talk to." Delma took a long sip from her cup, thinking back. The first year there'd been another girl, Palia, but Delma hadn't been close to her at all.
Kep was looking at Delma, so she pulled herself back to the present. "So, were you the one to come up with this idea?" The Buzz spread her hands as if to indicate the great hall and modest feast laid out by the Altadorian staff.
Delma laughed at the prospect. "Sweet Fyora! Of course not! This is Babolino's fault. I'm nowhere near as resourceful as him." Nor, she admitted to herself, as eager to make friends with suspected enemies.
Kep turned her head until she was looking at Babolino. The faerie Kacheek was chatting up Reshar still. "Tell me about Babolino," she said casually. "You two seem to be pretty close, but I've only heard rumors from the press, and we both know how reliable they are." She turned back to Delma with a smile.
Delma nodded. "Well, he's always been our main scorer, but the funny thing is, he doesn't let it go to his head. I know that some of the other teams have really big stars, but Kakoni never minds sharing the ball or the limelight. He's not a big attention hog," Delma clarified. "He's really friendly. When I got promoted from the minor league, he was the most welcoming to me. He's always eager to make friends."
Kep nodded. "It makes sense that he'd have a dinner party," she said with a quiet laugh.
A shadow fell over them and Delma looked up, surprised to see Tandrak, the Darigan Gelert. Kep smiled at him and offered a polite salute. "Want to try the punch? It's delicious. I think I'm going to go get one of those sandwiches." She smiled and turned away. Delma found herself alone with Tandrak and hoping desperately that there wouldn't be an uncomfortable silence.
"Good evening," Tandrak intoned carefully, watching Delma. Delma felt vaguely like she was under a microscope.
Delma hesitated, before raising her cup. "Want to try the punch? It's quite good."
Tandrak poured himself a drink while speaking. "I'm not sure we got off on the right foot. I just wanted to thank you for the invitation..."
"Oh, I just hope you have a good time," Delma said quickly, attempting to smile.
Tandrak leaned against the wall, observing Delma carefully. "So, Delma Harrence. How's the year been for you?"
Delma felt slightly stupid as her mind raced. "Uh... I guess it hasn't been all that bad. Faerieland is nice year-round, so we don't have a lot of weather problems..."
"What do you do for fun?" The deep red Gelert was watching her closely, and Delma felt a little bit uncomfortable.
"Well, when we're not practicing, we usually watch other people doing things... Poogle Racing and Faerie Cloud Racers, we sometimes go as a team to cheer on others, or we might have events to attend, and I like shopping in Faerie City a lot, too." Delma knew she was babbling but couldn't think of anything intelligent to say. Not for the first time, she wondered why Darigan was so intimidating and why she felt the urge to impress them. "I guess if we're not playing sports, we're watching other sports," she said with a half-smile. "What about you?"
Tandrak looked taken aback. "Well, to be honest, I spend a lot of time practicing or in physical therapy. Exercise is good, though, so I don't mind."
Delma raised her eyebrows. "That doesn't sound good at all!" She knew that the Gelert was injury-prone but she'd never seen him appear hurt while playing. "Did you have any bad injuries this season?"
Tandrak shrugged. "The worst was a collision, but nothing too bad. It's just good to be healthy for the tournament."
"Yeah." Delma smiled wanly. Much as she wanted to hope her team had improved, she knew that the other teams were improving as well, and the "Faerieland Last" tradition had little chance of being broken. "Think you've got a good chance for the Cup this year?"
"We're always contenders," Tandrak said before taking a long sip from his cup. Delma shifted. Faerieland had never been a very strong team.
"I think I'd like a sandwich," Tandrak said. "Would you like to join me?"
Delma attempted to smile at the offer. "Sounds good." As they left the punch bowl, Delma glanced around the room to size up the situation. Kep was talking to Valtonous, and Ciona and Kakoni were deep in discussion with Reshar and Tormo. Babolino appeared to be enjoying some crackers with Layton. The Kacheek, as always, looked like he was genuinely enjoying himself. Finally, Delma forced herself to relax. Maybe it really just was a dinner party. Kep had been surprisingly friendly. Tandrak wasn't being too unfriendly, either. Delma realized that her prejudices against Darigan were slowly being worn away.
Delma continued chatting with Tandrak about relatively insignificant things, comparing life in the Citadel to life in the clouds. She learned that the Citadel had managed to grow some grass and flowers since she'd been to visit last, which hadn't been for a few years by her count. Tandrak told her that the last time he'd been to visit Faerieland it was to visit the Fountain Faerie with a younger sister. Delma lost track of time and only once thought to herself that she was actually enjoying this party.
Kakoni moved away from Kep, who he'd been talking to, and tapped on Delma's shoulder. Delma had been telling the story about the first time she'd found the Hidden Tower, and turned to Kakoni, startled. "Hi. Did you have a sandwich? They're really good."
Kakoni nodded. "I did. Well, it's just, it's getting late, so we're going to wrap it up..."
Delma looked at her watch and was surprised to see that it was after midnight. She gave Tandrak a rueful smile. "Well, I will be practicing tomorrow, and I'm sure you'll have things to do as well..."
Tandrak nodded. "It was a pleasure talking with you this evening." The Gelert nodded politely at Kakoni and then returned to Layton's side. The Hissi gave them all one last wave before the entire team left through one of the doors.
Delma looked around in surprise. One of the maids had appeared and began cleaning up the party. Babolino moved over to Delma with a bright smile as they all left the ballroom as well. "Well? What'd I tell you? Didn't you have a good time?"
"Surprisingly, I did," Delma agreed with a small smile.
"Hey Delma, want to come with me to the gym?" Ciona was wearing loose sweats in Faerieland colors, and holding a water bottle and towel loosely in one hand.
"Oh, sure," Delma replied as she looked up from her playbook. "Just give me a minute to change."
Not long after, the two teammates were walking down the hallway to their residence hall's facilities, when Ciona smiled at Delma. "So, did you have a good time at the dinner party?"
"Yeah, I guess I did," said Delma with a small nod. "I talked to Kep and Tandrak... They were both actually... surprisingly nice."
"It was a fun evening," Ciona replied wistfully as she pulled the door open. "At least, once the awkwardness left..."
Delma grinned. "Yeah. I think that none of us knew what to expect. Darigan looks mean and intimidating, and I bet they thought that we'd all be floaty and empty-headed."
Ciona climbed onto a treadmill as Delma sat in one of the weight machines. "I bet you're right," she said with a smile. "I did talk to Tandrak, and Reshar. They were both friendly. I was really surprised."
"I don't think it means they'll go easy on us, though," Delma added ruefully, sending her Kyrii friend a last grin before beginning her workout.
Delma's arms were tired when she heard the door creak open. She and Ciona both looked up. Layton Vickes was standing in the doorway with Tandrak. The deep red Gelert gave Delma a friendly smile and asked, "Mind if we join you?"
"Not at all," Delma replied as she stood and stretched her arms. She wouldn't be a professional Yooyuball player if she didn't love athletics, but even so, conditioning was certainly not her favorite part of the routine. She took a long swig of Krawkade before moving over to a machine that would exercise her leg muscles. She was only half-surprised when Tandrak sat down in the machine next to her.
"How have your practices been going?" he asked conversationally as he braced himself against the machine.
"Oh, well enough. We've been at it for a while... We've really been hitting it hard," she finished breathlessly.
"Staying fit is the most important thing a Yooyuball player can do," Tandrak replied. "But you shouldn't overwork yourself."
"We like to be fit," Delma replied with a slight frown. They definitely had been practicing hard, but the Zafara hadn't thought it was too hard.
"Practice is vital," Tandrak said with a half-shrug, "but sometimes you have to give yourself breaks. It's just as important to train the body and the mind."
Delma smiled tightly, feeling again like she was being babied. She decided to change the topic. "So tell me about your family back home. What are your sisters doing now?"
"Well, they've all got tickets for the Cup," Tandrak said matter-of-factly. "I think they're all planning on making the trip this year."
"That'll be nice. Do you often get to see them?"
"When I'm home, not as much. Actually, I think I'll probably have more time to spend with them during the Cup itself." Tandrak offered a half-smile and glanced across the room at Layton, who was lifting some weights.
Delma paused to take another swallow of Krawkade before speaking again. Her legs were beginning to tire, and she thought she might switch machines again soon. "What about Kep? Surely you get to see her often enough. Is she not like a sister?"
Tandrak looked at her in surprise. "Kep? She's... she's different. I didn't grow up with her or anything. And anyway, she's a defender, so we don't interact as much on the field..."
"I'm a defender," Delma reminded him.
"Well... I meant that Kep is a wonderful friend, and perhaps I do see her as a sister in many ways, but we're not the closest. I mean, as a team, sure, we're all pretty close. But Kep seems to spend more time with Layton and Reshar than either me or Tormo. I couldn't say I don't know her well, but I probably don't know her as well as I know my real sisters." Tandrak shrugged again.
Delma was silent. She was an only child growing up; the closest things she had to siblings were her teammates. It was true that she was close to all of them, but Delma wasn't sure if there was one person on the team she didn't know well and spend a lot of time with. She enjoyed the company of not only Ciona, but also Kakoni, Babolino, and Valtonous. She'd wanted a little sister when she'd been younger, but now that she'd grown up, she'd accepted that she'd probably never understand those kinds of family bonds. She was more than content with her close relationships with her teammates.
Finally, Delma eased the machine back into the starting position. "I'm going to go work on a treadmill," she told Tandrak calmly, before she stood and left him. He gave her a casual wave as she approached Ciona.
The Kyrii was sweating but keeping up a steady pace that was slightly faster than a jog. Delma turned on her treadmill and gave Ciona a cheerful smile. "Is it going well?"
"Well enough," Ciona panted out between breaths. Delma began jogging as her mind thought ahead to the next few weeks. Just who would they be playing first, anyway? She grimaced slightly. Hopefully not Darigan. They'd get it out of the way, at least, but they wouldn't have had much time to get into the rhythm of the Altador Cup. They'd be trounced for sure...
Delma knew it wasn't necessarily smart to go into matches assuming that they would lose. But the fact of the matter was, her team was consistently in last place, every year. It wasn't like they weren't good; it was just that the other teams were all so much better. She knew she should have more faith, but at the same time, thought that perhaps a bit of realism would be just as useful.
At least they still had fans.
"Hey Babs, do you know where the girls went?" Kakoni stuck his head into the bedroom. "I checked next door but neither of them were there..."
"Sure," Babolino said as he looked up from his playbook. "They're working out in the gym."
Kakoni frowned and sat on the bed. "I don't mind sharing a hall with Darigan," he began in a frazzled tone of voice, "and I don't mind being friendly with them, but they're still a team we'll be competing against..."
Babolino smiled. "Oh, I wouldn't worry about the girls. I think they're still prepared to play their hardest, even when we go against Darigan. I'm glad that everybody was friendly, though, during the party. Did you have a good time?"
"More or less," sad Kakoni grimly. "Once I talked to Layton it occurred to me that the only reason they were there was to see if they could get any information out of us."
Babolino blinked in surprise. "Do you really think so? I didn't get that impression at all."
Kakoni shrugged. "A few well-placed questions, some subtle chatting..."
"I think that they were being friendly," said Babolino insistently. "I had a very neutral conversation with Kep Bonnefie and Tormo Frein about shopping locales near Altador Main Square. I admit that there was some tension, but everybody seemed to relax after the first few minutes..."
Kakoni looked unconvinced, but he sighed in resignation. "Fair enough. I guess I better not talk to them..."
"Well, it's no use ruining any harmony that they have between any of the members of Darigan. You are the captain, so you can do what you see fit, but I really don't think that it is necessary. The girls have still been training hard, and I don't think they're any more likely to play weak against Darigan because of a friendship than they are to go easy on each other during practice for the same reason."
Kakoni looked thoughtful, and then nodded to himself. "Fair enough. If they're in the gym I'd better let them be. I'm going to go practice some scoring drills with Valtonous."
"Have a good time," said Babolino as he returned to his playbook.
Delma knew that after a long day of practice and exercise, she had every right to take the night off, but as she glanced at the calendar and felt the impression of impending doom as the hours until the opening ceremony of the tournament slowly counted down, she couldn't help but feel like two evenings off in a row were pushing it.
"I'm going for a swim, Ciona," Delma said tersely as she marched out of the bathroom. She'd pulled her lavender-hued hair back and thrown on her pink set of warm-ups over her bathing suit.
As she reached for a towel out of the cabinet, Ciona looked up at her. "Aren't you tired? We had another long practice, and then you and I hit the gym..."
"I've been feeling very active today," Delma replied over her shoulder. "If you want to take a soak, though, I won't be back for at least an hour." Waking up with sore muscles was a horrible prospect when a day of grueling practice loomed later in the day.
"Thanks. Don't push yourself too hard, though. Kakoni is going to have us do a ton of running drills tomorrow."
Delma nodded and left the room, privately wondering if she'd done enough exercise in the day. She didn't want to be a disappointment during the finals, and though Darigan seemed to laud the theory of interspersing breaks with exercise, Delma felt useless when she was resting.
The Zafara was only slightly surprised to see one of the lanes already in use when she opened the door to the large pool. Kep was swimming laps, her deep purple form cutting through the water with remarkable accuracy. As Delma set her towel on an empty chair and began to remove her warm-ups, Kep came to the edge of the pool, treading water. "Evening, Delma."
"Hey there, Kep." Delma smiled at the Buzz as she grabbed her goggles and slid into the water, which was pleasantly warm. "Had a good day?"
"Quite good," the Buzz said calmly. "Just doing laps?"
"Yes," Delma replied, glancing up at the clock on the wall. She was not the fastest swimmer, but she liked to beat her own personal best when she could.
"Tandrak and Layton said they saw you in the gym earlier," Kep commented as Delma began to tread water.
"I did some working out with Ciona," Delma explained. "The Cup is almost here and I want to be in tip-top shape when it arrives."
"Fair enough," Kep replied. "Well, enjoy your swim."
Delma offered the Buzz a final smile as she returned to her laps. She was a fast and precise swimmer. Delma had always preferred flying, but swimming was also good for improving stamina. She took a deep breath before pushing off from the wall and beginning a lap.
The thing about swimming, Delma reflected as she cut through the water, was that it didn't have to be a team sport the way Yooyuball was. With your head in the water, you couldn't really see or hear others. You were left to battle against yourself only, striving to beat each tick of the clock. It could be peaceful, time alone with your thoughts and the relative silence of the underwater. Delma had enjoyed talking with Kep and Tandrak, and she was starting to enjoy their company as well, but she wasn't sure what she thought of the entire Darigan team anymore. She hadn't spent much time talking to Reshar, Layton, or Tormo. Ciona claimed to like Reshar, so she'd give him the benefit of the doubt. But Layton Vickles still unnerved her, to an extent. She supposed it was his natural intimidation factor—after all, he was a team captain—but she wasn't sure.
Her muscles screamed for oxygen and she broke the surface of the water, breathing harshly. She wasn't sure how long she'd been swimming but Kep was still there. Taking a deep breath, Delma returned to the watery world, now imagining that she was the last defender standing behind a faceless player and Valtonous. Valtonous was a good goalie, but by Fyora, it was her job to make sure that the opposite team didn't make it to him! She knew acutely the feeling of disappointment that came with letting your whole team down—with letting that forward slip past you. She'd improved, but she wanted to get even better. She wanted to be the defender that nobody got past.
Delma's arms and legs were tired but she couldn't let herself stop yet. She had to push herself, had to become stronger so that her team could rely on her. She loved Yooyuball, and she loved the feeling of victory, made all the sweeter because it was so rare for them. But more than winning, she loved knowing that she'd done her best, and that there was nothing else that she could have done.
The Zafara came up for air and paused, looking at the clock and surprised to see how much time had passed. It was an hour and a half since she'd started. As she finished with a leisurely paddle back to the edge of the pool, she saw Kep emerge from the steps not far away.
Delma grabbed her towel and wrapped it around her dripping form as Kep approached. "Finished your swim?"
"I did," Delma answered with a smile. "It was lovely. The facilities here really are quite nice."
Kep returned her smile, if a bit more wistfully. "It is a nice hall. Would you like to stretch with me?"
Delma knew that stretching would help ensure that she was not sore tomorrow after a long day of exercise, so she agreed and went to sit on the dry part of the deck with Kep.
"I was watching your practice earlier," Kep confessed. "I was cycling and I happened to drive by the pitch. You guys were working hard."
"Thanks," said Delma in surprise. "Did you have practice, too?"
"Not today," the Buzz answered. "Layton usually gives us every other day to do training on our own. I was doing endurance training today."
"Sounds good," Delma agreed as she extended her arms above her head and felt her spine lengthen in response.
"Say, Delma. Layton gave us Friday off. I have to go into town to do some shopping—probably Main Square, or somewhere near there. Want to come with me?" Delma wasn't sure if the Buzz was offering a friendly smile or not, but nevertheless, Delma felt honored that she'd offer something like that. Clearly, the Darigan team was also making an effort to be friendly.
"I'll have to ask Kakoni," Delma began cautiously. "I don't know what he has planned for us. But I would love to come. I'll invite Ciona, too, if practice doesn't go for too long. You should ask your team if anybody else wants to take a walk. I hear that the weather on Friday is supposed to be great."
Kep reached for her toes. "That sounds good. But you should take a day off. It'd be good to rejuvenate after such a long week of practice."
Delma nodded as she stood up. "Yeah, I'll talk to Kakoni about it. Thanks for the company," she said as she tugged on her warm-ups and grabbed her towel and goggles.
"I'll see you on Friday, hopefully," Kep said as Delma walked out the door.
To be continued...