It’s a little depressing to think that still, after three seasons on Roo Island, the new champions of the Altador Cup, I’m still known as the forward who couldn’t stand my team captain so much that I quit. Yeah? This story sound familiar? Just admit it, that’s exactly how you who I, Jair Tollet, am.
Losing in the first round of ACIV to them was bad enough. The whole Roo Island Team, myself included, had put it down to sheer luck. Even Maraqua could get lucky every now and then.
The second game was worse.
We had known that it was going to be a difficult match, as Maraqua hadn’t lost a game of yooyuball since beating us in the first round. I especially had kept a close eye on their steady upward climb, and had looked forward to the match with a mix of apprehension and nervous excitement.
That game was the worst I personally had had since playing with Maraqua two years ago.
I got to the ball first. I sprinted for the goal where I could see Tonie Plessix -Tonie, who had always been good for a laugh, at Elon, at himself, at anyone- waiting for me to throw the red hot yooyu at him.
Suddenly I felt the looming presence of my replacement in front of me. Before I could pass to a team mate the yooyu was gone, and I could do nothing but watch as it was handed to Barit Jowes -Barit, who had always put up with anything Elon did, simply because this was the only chance he had at playing at all- who ran before tossing the ball to a wide open Dorina Hals.
I had heard that Filo’s replacement was usually a kind, calm person, but apparently that didn’t stretch to yooyuball, because I watched with the rest of the stadium as the flaming ball of petpet flew from her hand into Elon’s as if shot from a perfectly aimed cannon. It didn’t make me feel better to see it go over the length of about a quarter of the field, either.
Of course, Elon caught it, ran in the hole created by our defenders, and chucked the ball right into the net with a solid thump.
It went downhill from there.
What felt like years later, although it had only been the length of one yooyuball match plus an hour, I was sitting in a room containing a table, some chairs, a Neovision set, and the Roo Island Team.
We were currently watching playbacks from the day’s games. Of course, they showed our defeat at the hands of Maraqua, and we were all forced to watch yet again as Maraqua worked to score goal after goal, and continued to watch in slow motion fluid passes and interceptions by their opponents while we had struggled simply to get the ball in our possession.
We all watched the playbacks with varied intensities of fake indifference. I finally decided it was enough and slammed the chair I was sitting in backwards, and stalked out of the room.
It didn’t take long for someone to stop me halfway down the hall. Someone caught my shoulder. I wheeled around to see Lilo standing with a frown on his face and his eyebrows knitted together.
“Jair, what’s wrong?” he asked worriedly.
I sighed and leaned against the wall.
“It’s not right, Lilo,” I said finally. “Here we are, former champions, who worked our butts off to get where we were last Cup, and then there’s Maraqua, with Elon, who can’t captain his way out of a paper bag, who couldn’t be a decent captain if a manual hit him in the face! They haven’t placed above ninth, ever; now they're well on their way to the top of the second tier!”
“Well,” Lilo said. “They could have gotten lucky.”
“We lost twenty five to one! That’s awfully lucky, Lilo. Not to mention all the other teams they’ve steamrolled over. They beat Shenkuu, who’s one of the favorites to win this year for good reason, they drew with Lost Desert, and that’s not easy. They haven’t lost a game of yooyuball since the first round! That’s more than luck.”
“Yeah, it sucks,” Lilo said, resigned.
“Yeah!” I said angrily. “I love playing for this team, even when we’re losing, so many millions of times more than I ever enjoyed playing for Maraqua, even when we won, which definitely wasn’t often, but-“
I trailed off.
“But what?” Lilo asked, not sure if he wanted the answer.
“I don’t know,” I said finally, not sure how to put what I was thinking into words. “It- It just seems so unfair.” I paused for a minute. “Sorry about this. I guess after playing with this team I just forgot what it’s like to lose.”
“I know what you mean,” Lilo said, “and I know everyone was looking forward to breaking this stupid ‘Winner’s Curse’.”
“Yeah,” I sighed. “I’m going to bed.”
Lilo glanced at the clock. “It’s only seven thirty, Jair.”
“I know. I’m going to bed.” And that’s what I did.
Several days later, we were watching the Cup on the large screen in the team room as they showed the final matches. Being in a low level tier, we had played early that morning, but it wasn’t worth going back to the stadium. It was easier to see the plays this way and possibly give us an edge next year.
It was there that I saw the one thing I thought I would never see. This was less likely than Faerieland facing Altador in the finals for first place in the Altador Cup.
Elon “The Black Hole” Hughlis passed the ball.
Granted, he was in a sandwich made out of yooyuball players, but still. It was impressive.
“The score is tied at five to five with fifteen seconds left and - Oh, and it looks like two of Mystery Island’s forwards have tangled with the Maraqua forward! Was that an intentional play? It’s certainly created quite a pileup.”
It certainly did. From the angle the camera was at, it appeared that Volgoth, the Mystery Island Captain, was sitting on top of the Black Hole and his teammate, Bertie Shultz, was currently at the bottom of the unintended dog pile.
He wasn’t called the Black Hole for nothing. I noted he still had a grip on the flaming ball of yooyu in front of him. He seemed to just realize this, too, along with the fact that with the rush of yooyuball players and dust, there hadn’t been a whistle blown by the referee.
Obviously, after a pileup like that, his team mates had run over to make sure he was okay. And Dorina Hals was out in front, easily being the fastest member on the team. And suddenly it clicked for both Elon and me.
There were seven seconds left on the clock.
“Oh, Fyora, he’s going to-”
The ball was tossed from Elon’s hands to Dorina’s; the pass hadn’t been a very good one, but it still got to its destination and was easily caught with the instincts of someone who has been playing their position for a long time. She stood there for a second, slightly surprised to find she had a fire yooyu in her hands.
There were six seconds left.
Elon appeared to shout something and comprehension dawned on Dorina’s face at the same time as she turned around.
“Oh, and what was that? The Black Hole appears to have passed to Dorina Hals, who is headed for the goal!”
There were five seconds left.
The crowd seemed to have caught on and was starting a cheer that grew into an unstoppable wave.
The only remaining forward of Mystery Island tried to stop her as she flew towards the goal. He made a vague grab for the yooyu but Dorina was faster than he was and easily evaded him.
The poor lone defender of Mystery Island tried to stop her but Dorina knew every trick in the book, having used them herself, and easily resumed her journey toward the goal.
“And it looks like defender Dorina Hals is looking to make a shot at the goal after evading two of the remaining upright players on Team Mystery Island!”
Dorina ran the remaining distance of about ten feet before the goal before cocking her arm back.
The crowd was suddenly silent.
I’ve seen fire yooyus fly at insanely high speeds before; it’s in their nature to fly as fast as possible. They have a tendency to become flaming missiles when in the hands of someone who knows what they’re doing. It was still more than a little bit surprising to see coming from the hands of someone who had, as far as I knew, never seriously shot at a goal in her life.
I didn’t know whether or not she wanted to see the yooyu hit the net or the goalie’s hand; neither seemed good right then.
The yooyu blurred towards the corner of the net. The goalie made a valiant attempt to stop it on its journey towards the back of the goal, but it would have been nearly impossible. I guess I’ve never played goalie so I would never know, but it looked impossible to stop.
“She shoots and-”
The yooyu hit the net.
The clock stopped at one second.
The whistle was blown and the game ended.
The crowd roared back up into full volume.
“Goal for Maraqua! And they slide into fifth place after a nail biting game!”
Dorina Hals stared at the uncurling yooyu for several long moments before smiling and running over to give Barit Jowes a high five, who currently was jumping up and down in the air like some kind of Techo bouncy ball.
“Maraqua beats Mystery Island six to five! And that game will go down in history!”
It probably would, but at first I wondered if would be for being the first match to put the captain of the victorious team out of action.
Volgoth was already standing and helping Bertie to her feet by the time Elon struggled to his feet, coated head to tentacle in the sandy covering of the floor, and gingerly made his way over to where the rest of Team Maraqua was making their way over like some kind of victorious tidal wave. By the way he was moving, I’d bet money he had broken at least one rib.
That’s when I left the room, and this time, no one tried to stop me.
Several days later, I wasn’t surprised to see a neomail delivered by faerie yooyu to her at Roo Island’s stadium. I took the letter and thanked the yooyu, who gave a small bow before rolling up and flying away.
It had been three seasons, after all. That’s all I had been signed for.
As you are aware, your contract with the Roo Island Yooyuball Team is up. If you wish to reapply, it must be brought to the attention of your captain within two weeks.
The Altador Cup Management
Now came the hard part. Deciding what to do. It had been easy those three seasons ago, after another horrible argument on the practice field, to throw down my equipment and go elsewhere.
This time, if I left, I would be leaving a team I actually enjoyed playing with, even if we had a bad year. I would be called a traitor, and I would feel like one, too.
I didn’t even know why I felt so strongly about Maraqua being placed higher than we were, but there was just something about it that deeply bothered me.
The next day I found myself swimming towards a large stadium made out of maractite. I hadn’t been back since I quit, and I’d forgotten how much the stadium seemed to loom and create a huge shadow across the seafloor.
I sincerely hoped that was all that I’d forgotten. If I remembered correctly, inside the stadium was a maze of corridors and hallways that were there for practically no reason. It got to the point where everyone was required to spend their first month at the stadium using the “buddy system”; we had gotten sick of having to go look for people lost in the hallways.
I couldn’t help but smile a little bit as I remembered the little oddities that came with playing with any team. Every team had its bad times, but every team had good ones, too, no matter how few.
It wasn’t long before I was inside the stadium and realized that I really didn’t have a clue where I was going. I needed to talk to Elon, and who knows where he could be. Even if I did know where he was, that didn’t mean I knew how to get there.
Soon I was really and truly lost. Luckily, I heard voices coming from the hallway ahead of me. Not really wanting a full team confrontation, I ducked into what turned out to be a storage closet.
I didn’t pay much attention to what they were saying, but I did pay close attention to where they went. Specifically Elon. They turned into a different corridor than he did.
I quickly followed him into until he went into yet another room. I waited a second before pushing the door open. I recognized the room immediately.
It was the Office (capitalization absolutely necessary). It basically a catch all for any newspapers, neglected paperwork, pictures and pretty much everything else that didn’t have a spot somewhere else. Considering that we were underwater, many of the newspapers and such from the surface disintegrated, leaving a large soggy mess. There used to be a desk and chairs in there, but now it just looked like there were several desk- and chair-shaped piles of paper. I know in the days before Old Maraqua was destroyed we would have simply brought in a few Utility Fish to come in here and get rid of everything but Utility Fish were few and far between nowadays.
I walked in and Elon stared, slightly mournfully I thought, at a chair shaped pile of paper. I sighed. Elon comically whipped his head around in surprise.
“Jair?” he said, sounding twice as surprised as he looked.
“Need a little help, Elon?” I asked. I swam over to the chair, grabbed what I hoped was the back of it, and dumped the papers on the floor. It took about thirty seconds or so for all the papers to stop waterfall-ing off. “Here, sit.”
He sank down into the chair while I sat carefully on what turned out to be a steady stack of books. They must have been waterproofed.
“So how many ribs did you break?” I asked casually.
“Only one,” he protested, “and it’s just a small fracture, really.”
“Sure it is,” I said disbelievingly. He glared at me.
“I know you’re here for a reason. You wouldn’t show up after three years without a reason.”
See, Elon and I had never really got along. Both of us were too competitive in everything, and both fairly good at what we do, which happened to be the same thing. Scoring. It was all around a bad combination. All of this was seriously making me rethink why I had gone there.
“Yeah, about that. . .”
“See, I was wondering, if maybe I could play for Maraqua again?” I asked carefully.
“What, you’re leaving Roo Island?” he asked in disbelief.
“I’m thinking about it. It depends if there was somewhere else that would take me.” I waited for a response. Elon just sat there, thinking. I had a feeling he wasn’t thinking about what to tell me, just how to tell me.
“Well- See, there’s just no room on the team,” he stuttered slightly.
He threw his tentacles up in the air in a gesture of exasperation. “Who am I going to get rid of? I’m not getting rid of Oten, even if he had no skill whatsoever. He simply gets in the way of forwards. When you add that onto the fact that he’s good at finding out exactly how to get the yooyu away from the other team and passing it on to the people on our team, he’s indispensable. I absolutely refuse to get rid of either Barit or Dorina; they work well together, and you’ve seen some of the running plays they can do. Their styles complement each other, so I’d effectively be losing both of them even if I only got rid of one. I’m not firing Tonie, period; even if I would, I don’t think you’re interested in playing goalie. I think you already know this, but I’m not firing myself, either. And we can work together without killing each other. So, Jair, I just don’t know how it would work out. I just don’t.”
“I see,” I said quietly. I didn’t really expect anything else, but I had to try. “I’ll be going.” I rose from my makeshift chair.
“I’m sorry, Jair,” Elon said, “I really am.”
“Yeah, well, bye,” I said. I swam out into the hallway and realized I had a problem.
I had no idea how to get out of this place.
I wasn’t going back in to ask Elon for directions. I had my pride.
I figured I wasn’t going to get anywhere by just standing there, so I picked a hallway at random and swam into it.
About ten minutes later I decided that wasn’t the best plan. Now I had no idea how to get where I was going and no idea of where I was. Fabulous.
I wandered around for another fifteen minutes before almost running someone over. I had turned around a corner and almost ran into a blue sea Aisha wearing a Twisted Roses T-shirt.
“Sorry,” I muttered.
“No problem,” she said.
“I’m Jair Tollet,” I said.
“Yeah, I guessed that,” she said. “I’m Dorina-“
“Hals,” I finished. “Please tell me you can tell me how to get out of this place,” I asked desperately.
Dorina smiled a little bit. “Yeah. Go back down that corridor, turn left at the second door, then swim down the hallway on your right and go through the fifth door on your left-“ She paused. “I’ll just show you.”
“Thanks,” I said, and followed her as she swam down the hallway I had just come from. I caught up to her and swam beside her. “I’m sorry, I have to ask. You’ve played as a forward before, haven’t you?”
She looked at me in surprise.
“I did watch you guys play Mystery Island. You didn’t just get lucky,” I guessed.
“Nope,” she confirmed, “I used to play forward when I played yooyuball with my brothers. Somehow I always ended up as a forward, and my brother Andy was a great goalkeeper, so I got in a lot of practice. I really hate playing forward, though. I told Elon the next time he decided to get himself stuck in a pileup like that he could find someone else to score.”
“And I’m guessing Elon broke more than one rib and is lying to me, right?” I asked.
“No, actually, only one rib.” She paused. “But he got lucky. We’re lucky he has such a hard head. No concussion, nothing.”
“Huh,” I said.
“Yeah. If you don’t mind, can I ask why you’re here?” she asked politely.
“I came to ask Elon if I could play here next year.” I heard her suck in a breath. If I had been given a position, hers could have been in jeopardy.
“Don’t worry,” I continued, “he said no. He didn’t want to get rid of anyone else on the team.” She relaxed.
“Sorry,” she said.
I shrugged. “I didn’t really expect much else, but my contract with Roo Island is up and I just wanted to know what my options are.”
“I can understand that.”
“So how did you pull off fifth?”
Dorina hesitated. “Really, I’m not sure. We didn’t exactly have the best start. But we started winning, and then we just didn’t stop. It was weird. We just actually focused for once, I guess, then before we knew it, we were in the second tier.”
I stopped swimming for a minute. “You’re trying to tell me that you people accidently came in fifth?”
“I guess. Well, no, it wasn’t like we didn’t work for it. We did. Practice actually became practice, people stopped screaming at each other every other minute, and it just kind of happened.”
“Are we almost out of here yet?” This was getting weird.
“Almost.” Good. This place was bringing back memories that I didn’t like thinking about.
“Anyway, it was good meeting you,” I said. We had reached the exit.
“Yeah, it was.”
Of course, I didn’t get beyond the doors, because that would have been too easy.
“JAIR! Wait a second!” I sighed and turned around at the sound of my name. I should have expected this.
Both Barit and Tonie stopped at the door.
“You didn’t really think you were going to get away without saying hi, did you?” Barit said.
I couldn’t help smiling. I may not have liked Elon at all, but it was impossible not to like Tonie and Barit.
“I was starting to think I was.”
“You know we’d never let you,” said Tonie.
“Yeah, I know.”
“Why didn’t you find us?” Barit asked.
“Because I couldn’t even find the way out of that place on my own.”
“Why are you here, anyway?”
“I wanted to talk to Elon about playing here next year. It’s not going to happen, though, he didn’t want to make room.”
“Seriously? You’re leaving Roo Island?” Tonie asked. “I thought you liked it there.”
“I do.” I sighed. “Just wanted to see what other options were there.”
“So what are going to do now?” Tonie asked.
“I guess I go back to Roo Island and tell Lilo I want to come back for another season.”
“Oh,” Barit said.
“I’ve got to go.” I squinted at where the sky normally was. That’s one thing I had always hated about being underwater: It was nearly impossible to tell what time it was without a clock. “I want to get back to Roo Island today.”
“Well, then, good luck, Jair,” Tonie said kindly, “wherever you end up.”
I swam off, thinking about what had happened that day.
Well, I’d been rejected, for starters, but I had expected that, and even if I had been accepted back on the team, it wouldn’t have worked out. The reasons I left hadn’t changed at all; I would still be playing second fiddle to someone who now had been playing as a lone forward for three years. I had always known that I wouldn’t leave Roo Island, not at the moment. It was my home now, where I actually belonged. We would have to work hard to recover after this year, but as Maraqua had shown, it could be done.
Team Maraqua had changed plenty since I had played there, for the better it appeared, but I had changed too. Maybe it would take time to think of Maraqua as serious opponents, simply because I had seen them at their worst, but I would get used to it eventually.
Or we could simply beat them into the ground from now on. That worked too.