Unlikely Allies: Part Five
Kakoni didn’t usually use that tone of voice with her. Grimly, she looked up from her breakfast. She’d said she’d meet at the gym at the assigned time; what had she done wrong?
“Have you seen the paper?” The Bruce laid the Altador National News down on the table, front page up. Delma glanced, half-interested, and then stared in shock.
“Teams Darigan And Faerieland Unlikely Allies,” she read aloud, dragging her eyes away from the picture of her, Ciona, Kep, and Tandrak laughing. “But we went incognito—we didn’t do anything to call attention to ourselves—”
Kakoni exhaled in frustration. “It’s not a big deal. Meridell was on the front page yesterday.” He sighed. “The article is more gossip and rumors, but if you start getting harassed, we’re going to have to increase security.”
“Any news is good news,” Delma replied calmly. “We get little enough attention that some publicity should be healthy for us. I’m sorry that somebody from the paparazzi recognized us, but there’s nothing we can do about it now. We were just shopping, anyway.” She shrugged, trying not to feel defensive.
Kakoni sighed and picked up the newspaper. “Just be extra careful,” he finally said. “I’ll see you in the gym later.”
Delma sighed and shook her head after he left. Was it really so much to ask, to have friends without the press speculating about it?
“I hope you enjoyed your day off. There’s only a week left until the Opening Ceremony, so we’re going to switch our training regiment up a little bit.” Kakoni smiled humorlessly at his team. “This is the last day we will do any strength or endurance training as a team. For the next week, you’ll have to go on your own. When I was talking to Layton yesterday, we decided that it would be beneficial for both teams if we interspersed our regular practices with some scrimmages.”
Delma stared at Kakoni and then slowly looked around the group. Babolino looked pleased. Ciona looked shocked. Valtonous looked carefully neutral as he spoke. “So we’re supposed to practice against them? Even though they trounced us last year?”
Kakoni shrugged. “It’s just some friendly minor games. Even if we lose, any practice is good practice. There’s only so much experience we get from drills against each other. Playing against Darigan will enable us to get experience against other teams. We haven’t done many scrimmages in the past, so it might be a good experience.” His firm look indicated that there was no room left for argument.
Delma sighed as she pulled out her gym card and he gave them their daily routines. She didn’t mind the gym, and the facilities were nice here, but she preferred field practice, where she could smell the grass and feel the sun. All the windows in the world couldn’t disguise the rhythmic creaking of machines, and a treadmill was a poor replacement for the changing scenery of running laps. As Delma quietly labored against a high-resistance machine, her mind flew forward to the upcoming scrimmages.
Darigan had a fantastic history against Faerieland. Every year that they’d played, Faerieland had been badly beaten. Whether it was superior plays, or more cohesive teamwork overall, Delma couldn’t say. Something inside her rebelled against her thinking of her own team as bad. They were a professional team; they each had strengths and weaknesses which built the overall picture. But she knew that she couldn’t blame their consistent poor record on poor luck alone. It didn’t make any sense to the Zafara. She knew that they were not unskilled. Perhaps it was a mentality: they performed significantly better during practices or during the regular season than during the tournament? Perhaps it was just that most of the other teams had one special quality that they lacked, or exploited one weakness against them. It wasn’t like they lost every single match every single year, but she knew that most years they had very few wins. After all, it wasn’t like they were the only team getting better every year. Delma didn’t know why they performed badly, but she knew with fair certainty that any scrimmage they played against Darigan would result in a definitive loss.
Delma climbed onto one of the treadmills and set it at a fast pace. She knew that she’d been pushing herself lately, striving to become even better, but it wouldn’t make a difference. Somehow, Faerieland would probably come in last again. That thought was painful to acknowledge, and it made her hard work seem futile. What was she pushing herself for if nothing good would come of it? There was only a week left until the Cup started, and a week was much less than enough time to make any significant improvements. It was why they trained for months beforehand, and why they practiced in the off-season. As professional athletes, it was their job to stay fit and keep up their work. And, to an extent, their job was nothing more than a game. But it was still hard work; and it was still hard to think that there was nothing they could do to prevent their typical abysmal season...
Kakoni's loud whistle brought her out of her thoughts and she looked up in surprise. She hadn't realized that the practice had gone by so quickly. As the treadmill shuddered to a halt beneath her feat, she grabbed her water bottle and hopped off, heading for the small rally.
"Good job. I want you to all do some endurance training on your own later today, and review your playbooks as well. We're having three scrimmages with Darigan in the next week: Tomorrow, Monday, and Wednesday. Don't stress out, but keep working hard." Kakoni gave them all a nod. Valtonous turned to go, and Babolino glanced at Delma before shrugging and following their goalkeeper.
Delma caught Ciona's eye and they both left together, waiting until they reached their room to begin speaking.
"Scrimmages? With Darigan? What is he thinking?" Delma fumed, pacing the floor impatiently. "I don't care if it'll give us more experience, it'll only give them more opportunities to wipe the court with our faces..."
"Well, we haven't played them since last year," Ciona said diplomatically. "It's possible that there'll be surprises on the court..."
"Ciona," Delma replied grimly, turning to face her friend, "we're a professional team. We're not bad at what we do. It's just that we're not as good as some other people. And after so many years, I think that it's clear that miracles aren't going to happen. I'm surprised that I haven't yet been replaced. I try hard, but I don't know what the managers will want. Maybe they'll think that our poor record is because we're unskilled. Maybe they'll start recruiting elsewhere. But what will practicing against Darigan really accomplish? It won't prepare us for the Cup at all."
Ciona shrugged as she sat on the couch. "I'm not sure. But at least it'll be better than the same old boring drills and practices." The Kyrii paused, then smiled. "Let's go over our playbooks together."
Delma sighed, and went to retrieve her playbook.
Delma strapped on her shinguards, tightening the straps carefully. Sure, she and her teammates were celebrities. They got fanmail. But what, she thought to herself, was so glamorous about a famous sports player? They weren't paid to look good, like some of the divas from Neovision. They were paid to get sweaty and smelly, not to act glamorous. Delma couldn't understand what quality of her life was so enviable except that she got to do something she loved.
Delma took a swig from her water bottle before tossing it to the sidelines and glancing across the field. Team Darigan stood in a messy formation, lacing up shoes and patting themselves with chalky hands. She turned back to her own team; Kakoni was tugging on his protective goggles as she approached him.
"We're going to do a few rounds, but treat it like a regular game. Think of it as an opportunity to see how other teams react to our plays, and to mentally prepare yourselves for the Tournament. The experience is more important than winning or losing." Delma thought that even Kakoni looked slightly nervous; only Babolino looked fully relaxed and ready to go. "Alright, let's go.” Delma moved into position as Kakoni programmed the field and took his place as well. Tandrak and Layton stood facing them in relaxed but active stances. Behind them, Tormo and Kep stood loosely, watching.
The first Yooyu to emerge from the chamber was normal. Babolino rushed forward but Layton was faster, snatching it up in his gauntlet and jerking past him with one smooth step. Ciona moved to intercept him and Delma moved to stand between him and Tandrak, should he decide to pass the ball. She knew that otherwise, if Ciona couldn't get to him and unless Babolino ran to intercept him, only Valtonous stood between Layton and the goal.
Layton shot the ball as Ciona drew even with him, but Valtonous caught it with what appeared to be little effort on his part, and wasted no time in shooting it straight at Babolino. The Kacheek caught the well-aimed pass but hadn't gone very far when Tormo intercepted him, stealing the ball with motions too quick for Delma's eyes to follow. She glanced over her shoulder and moved around Tandrak, keeping him at bay despite his efforts to step around her, but her efforts were to no avail as Tormo passed the ball to Layton, who slid around Ciona and tucked the ball neatly away into the corner of the goal.
As they returned to their positions, Delma frowned. She glanced over at Ciona, wondering if her friend wanted to switch with her, but Ciona waved her off. Delma nodded grimly. Whether it was an issue of pride or simply not wanting to make a big deal out of it wasn't clear, but it didn't bother Delma. She just wished that her reflexes were fast enough to rely on alone.
The second Yooyu was released and this time, it was Fire. Babolino caught it and moved past both the forwards and the defenders. Delma thought that his form was very nice, but Reshar caught the ball and returned it to Layton in the blink of an eye. Delma moved to intercept him as he ran up the field and dodged Kakoni, but he evaded her far too easily for her liking before he sent it flying into the net faster than Valtonous could react.
Delma was breathing hard as the timer buzzed, and she immediately jogged over to the sidelines to refresh herself with a long drink of water. Her team crowded around and she didn't have to look to know that the Darigan team had done the same.
"Good match," Kakoni told them all breathlessly. "We're going to run our second set of plays this time."
"We didn't even score," Valtonous said grumpily.
"It's not important. As long as we improve from round to round, I'll be happy." He paused to take a long drink from his water bottle before continuing. "Keep it up. Let's get back out there."
Delma was gratified to see that the first Yooyuball of the second match was Faerie. They were exceptionally skilled with the Faerie Yooyu, perhaps because it would be an embarrassment otherwise. Babolino let Layton snatch it up and intercepted the pass to Tandrak easily. Kakoni ran with him the length of the court; as Tormo reached him, however, he passed it in a sweeping arc that Kakoni caught before it reached Kep. The Bruce aimed and missed his mark entirely but Babs, who had passed Tormo, caught the Yooyu and ran straight at Reshar before making a straight shot. The Yooyu curved gracefully into the net and Babs and Kakoni slapped palms as they ran back across the field.
Delma flashed Babs a thumbs-up before returning to the game. Tormo was looking grumpy, but Layton looked unruffled. The Hissi snatched up the next Yooyu to appear, Ice, and wove between their ranks easily. His shot entered the goal a fraction of an inch beyond Valtonous's reach.
Delma smiled grimly. One successful play wouldn't win the game. They were showing improvement, as Kakoni had said, but she still felt strikingly insufficient as Darigan managed to score goal after goal. Babolino scored a fraction of what Layton managed to put in the goal; Kakoni rarely made it to the net. Delma and Ciona had enough steals to make her feel like they were doing their job, but Kep or Tormo would steal it back and return it to Tandrak or Layton fast enough to make her head spin.
Kep passed the ball to Layton; Delma moved to stand between Tandrak as he approached alongside the Hissi. She sensed the pass before she saw it, and so she intercepted it with relative ease. She acted mostly on instinct, what all of the training she had struggled with had beaten into her brain, and ran. She'd never been very fast but she could dodge well enough. She'd crossed the half-court line when Babolino came out from behind Kep, and she passed him the ball with enough force to cause a painful twinge in her throwing arm.
She stood frozen, staring as Babolino turned and aimed in one fluid motion before releasing the ball and it slid into the net beyond Reshar's grasp. She was grinning as she rushed back to resume her position; it might have only been one goal, but the fact that they could still score goals against other teams-- even if it wasn't enough to win-- made her feel very satisfied.
Tandrak took the ball first the next round, but passed it before she could intercept him. Layton headed straight for the net and Ciona swerved, cutting in front of him to steal the ball. The Hissi, taken by surprise, stumbled away and nearly lost the ball. He juggled it and took a quick shot, which Valtonous caught easily. Kakoni received the rebound but Tandrak stole it and scored before she or Ciona could steal it back.
As the Darigan team re-formed, Delma thought that there was entirely too much celebrating in the fist-pumping and high-fiving for a simple scrimmage. She felt her eyes narrow and her lips grow thin, but instead of saying something, she just waited for the next Yooyu to hit the field.
Layton retrieved the ball and ran straight for the spot on the side of court opposite Delma; she felt a twinge of irritation and dashed to intercept him just as Ciona moved to block him. She wasn't entirely sure what happened next but she saw a bundle of limbs and heard Ciona cry out in pain, muffled by the mess of limbs. As the buzzer sounded, signaling an end to another round, Delma growled and threw herself on top of Layton, adrenaline making up for the difference in body weight, pulling him off of Ciona and pinning him to the ground. "Leave her alone," she growled menacingly. "Stop picking on her!"
It struck her as Ciona pulled herself to her feet that for all of Team Darigan's forced friendliness over the past week, they were showing terrible sportsmanship. She rolled off of their team captain and stood, brushing herself off and glaring at them each-- Kep averted her eyes and Tandrak took a step toward her-- before storming off the field.
Kakoni watched her go awkwardly and said, "Well, the match was done anyway. Sorry about that; I'll talk to her. Um, thanks for playing with us..."
"No problem. It was fun." Kep was the first to step forward and offer her hand, and then, with varying levels of reluctance or enthusiasm, the other seven players met in the middle of the field to shake hands before they parted for the day.
Delma knew she should cool off but equal parts adrenaline and hot, righteous anger flooded her and beat like a tattoo in her eardrums to the rhythm of her pulse. She glanced down at herself and decided that her practice clothes were fine to work off some steam in, and left for the gym, which was blessedly empty. She couldn't figure out Team Darigan after a week of talking to them. Tandrak and Kep had been very friendly with her-- she'd begun to think of them as friends more than just acquaintances. She got a very unfriendly vibe from Tormo, but Kakoni had spent time with him (maybe it was a Bruce thing) and he hadn't had any complaints. Ciona said that Reshar was friendly as well. Layton Vickles intimidated Delma, though, and she wasn't sure she'd describe him as friendly, especially not after the scrimmage.
Looking to release some of her frustration, Delma decided to practice shots. She wasn't a forward but it was an exercise that she knew would exhaust her, both physically and mentally. She stepped into the chamber and heard the door click shut behind her before getting into position. A mechanical goalie stood framed by a large net. As she watched, a rubber ball meant to imitate a yooyu rolled down a narrow chute, and she kicked it, hard, at the corner of the net.
But one goal still wasn't enough to set her at ease. When exercising, she could allow her mind some time to sort through the more worrisome of problems, and today was no exception. She lost count of the goals, instead submersing herself in the strain of muscles after a few hard matches of Yooyuball. She knew she'd need to stretch and soak later but found that she didn't care. Was it so much to ask for, a little respect? Her team worked hard. Just because they lost didn't mean that they were lazy, and it didn't mean that other teams could act with little decorum towards them. It irritated her that some of Team Darigan would act polite off the field and then rude during a game. It wasn't that she wanted to be played down to; she didn't have a problem with being competitors in-game and friends out. She just disliked a double standard, acting friendly outside of games and then acting supercilious in.
"That was totally unnecessary," Reshar commented as Layton fell into the couch and began stretching gingerly. He was fairly sure that he hadn't pulled anything when he'd tripped but he wasn't entirely certain.
"She was probably mad that she lost so badly," Tormo said in a tone that conveyed his annoyance. He was stretching on the floor. "Just looking for more attention."
"They were doing pretty well, actually," Kep said quietly from the sink, where she was holding a cup of water.
Tormo dismissed her. "That's why most girls shouldn't play Yooyuball."
Kep spun around. "Excuse me?"
"No no, Kep, you're fine. It's the ones who turn the game into an excuse for dramatics. It just takes away from the game." Tormo looked up with a slight nod.
"Actually, she doesn't even like attention," said Tandrak as he came out of the adjoining bedroom. He had changed out of his sweaty practice clothing. "I'm going to go cool down and stretch some on my own," he said unnecessarily as he walked out the door.
Tormo rolled his eyes. "Now he's getting soft too..."
"That's enough, Tormo," Layton said calmly as he flexed his wings slowly. "Have you ever spent any time with them? We're supposed to be getting along."
"Kakoni," Tormo responded sulkily. "It was fine."
"We'll work on getting along, then," he said firmly as he extended his arms. Kep stared at Layton and Layton looked over at her. The two stared for a long moment, neither wearing readable expressions, before Kep retreated to her room.
Delma wasn't sure how long it had been but she ached all over and her chest hurt when she panted for breath. The next ball waited in the chute but she slumped against the wall, too tired to take the next shot. Finally she gathered herself and left the chamber with some semblance of dignity.
As if the machines would care.
Tandrak was waiting for her as she exited the chamber. Feeling mutinous, she was half-ready to turn back in and keep practicing despite her soreness and exhaustion, but a hand on her shoulder stopped her.
Fuming inwardly, instead she walked past him and headed for the hallway. He kept pace with her shorter strides easily.
"Stop following." She knew she sounded snappish but she didn't care.
"Delma, I want to apologize, alright?" She didn't turn around and Tandrak withheld an exasperated sigh. "Sometimes we get really competitive when we play... it's part of our training, to get in the right mindset... but we didn't actually mean to take it that far. We weren't intentionally picking on Ciona. I've had a really fun time with you and her, and so did Kep..." He sighed wearily. "We just like winning."
"Winning isn't everything, you know," Delma replied calmly. "Faerieland isn't in it to win every year, but we still have fun, and grow closer as a team, and try to make friends." She stopped walking and turned around to glare at him.
Tandrak raised his hands defensively. "Yes, winning isn't everything, you're right," he said cautiously. Whenever his sisters at home were mad at him, he could usually talk them down. Delma had seemed fairly even-keeled since they'd begun talking, though, so he wasn't sure how to react to her anger. "You guys have been nice enough to prove that to us. It's just, old habits die hard..."
Delma suddenly felt used and weary. "Is that all? I'm tired and want to go rest."
"I'm going to cool down and relax at the spa. You should come, too. You pushed yourself and didn't give yourself enough time to cool off." Tandrak stared at her, face neutral. He understood why she was upset, but they were trying.
Delma threw her hands up in defeat. "Fine. I'll come with you."
"And not be upset," he prompted as they headed for the door.
Delma waved a hand in his direction. "I'll forgive you guys if you apologize to Ciona."
Tandrak smiled at the back of her head. "I have a feeling that someone will have done that by the time we get back."
To be continued...