Narrowing my eyes against the bright sapphire sky, I can just barely make out Siyana’s slender frame floating among the clouds, letting light drape itself over Altador’s landscape. I stroll down the avenue, past the Archives, past the Hall of Heroes, down to the Colosseum.
I pause at the arch that marks the entrance to the Colosseum, gazing up at the massive, ancient structure and putting a hand against the age-bleached stone, which is cool to the touch. Here I linger for a hesitant moment, casting around to ensure that I am alone. Colorful memories beckon from the Colosseum’s shadowy depths, and I follow their orders at last, stepping lightly over the threshold.
The Colosseum is quiet. No, not quiet—silent. I navigate the corridors and staircases and climb up the steps to sit in the stands. Years of Altador Cups and other tournaments have stained the seats with sweat and splats of slushie. The painted lines on the field below me have faded somewhat since the last time I was here. The field itself is just as dusty as ever.
I look around. Where was I sitting during the awards ceremony? Hmm. Ah, yes. Down there.
I thread my way through the sun-baked benches to the wall separating the bleachers from the field, right at the midfield line. Yes, I had the best seat last year. I don’t care what those people who sat up at the top of the Colosseum have to say: I sat where I could see my team and where my team could see me, where they could hear me shout encouragements and criticisms, where I could be close to the action that I missed—miss—so much. This was my station every day during the fifth annual Altador Cup, and during the awards ceremony after the fact.
I lean forward against the stone wall, folding my arms and resting my chin on them. The glare of the sun on the bleachers across the field bothers my eyes, and I feel another mysterious black-out episode coming on; I squeeze my eyes shut, the way the physician next door to my picturesque estate back home told me to, and the feeling, thankfully, passes. I open my eyes again and focus on the field. I can almost hear the chaotic sounds of the crowd in the bleachers, the referee’s whistle, the announcer’s booming voice, the panted orders from the captains to their teams, the pounding of the players’ feet on the field. I could swear I see the spots where countless Yooyus have bounced over time.
More intimate memories draw me out of the stadium and into the cool dark of the corridors. I remember the way to the suite I shared with my team, and I follow that route until I reach the door.
Team Meridell has had the same facilities since long before I was captain. I hesitate for just a moment, listening for any disgruntled janitors, and push the door open.
The banners are still strung up on the walls, draped over hooks, and curled red and blue ribbons decorate the backs of the old wooden chairs and pile on top of the table in the center of the lounge.
I peek into the girls’ bedroom: the same old bunk bed, the same nightstand, the same dresser. On the opposite wall hangs a poster of the original Team Meridell: Ilsa, Wizard, and Vitri in the foreground, and then Fiorina and me in the back, all of us in our typical poses. The colors have faded somewhat, and the edge of the poster has yellowed somewhat, but the picture is unchanged. Fiorina’s old reading desk still sits in the far corner of the room; above it hangs a portrait of all of us—Ilsa, Fiorina, Vitri, Gregorio, Yoris, and me—with our arms around each other, the five current players in their jerseys, Vitri and me in regular civilian clothes. We’re all laughing or smiling, and the players are dusty and bloody and dripping with sweat.
I wander out of the girls’ room and into the boys’.
The old bunk bed has been replaced with two separate beds, each with a miniature stepladder for their tiny occupants to be able to climb into bed easily. Other than that, the room is pretty much the same as I remember it. I return to the lounge.
The captains of the Altador Cup teams have the privilege of being assigned their own quarters; I enter the room marked with a sign that reads, “Captain.”
Wizard has kept this room close to the way I left it, but with a few changes. There are old pictures on the walls, pictures from when we all first met as a team, pictures of awards ceremonies, and one of the posters that came out shortly after I announced my retirement: a picture of me, diving to catch a Yooyu, with the caption, “Freidl Forever.” I sit down on the stripped bed below the poster and notice something else. On the nightstand, there’s a small framed picture of Fiorina. Just her, in a red dress, at the Altador Cup II after-party.
I exit the room and plop down on the sofa in the lounge, my head in my hands.
I can hear the past...
“I just can’t believe it.”
“Can’t believe what?” I asked, tossing the copy of the Neopian Times I had been reading onto the dining table and flopping onto the sofa beside Wizard.
“I can’t believe you’re retiring,” Wizard said, slumping unhappily. “And this was your last game.”
“I know,” I sighed.
“And I can’t believe we lost,” Gregorio added, punching his pillow.
“Your last game, and we lost,” Ilsa said glumly.
“I know. I can’t believe it either,” I said.
Fiorina, sitting on my other side, leaned against me and rested her chin on my shoulder. “We’re sorry, Polly.”
“Don’t be.” Gently shrugging her off, I rose and stood in front of my team, my fists on my hips. “I’m proud of you. All of you. We’re Team Meridell—we made it to eighth place. We’re not in last place, like Team Virtupets. Eight out of sixteen is nothing to sneeze at, no matter what Team Darigan says. We’ve got a great team here; we’ve played hard, we’ve worked long hours, practiced, practiced, practiced, and I’m proud of all of your faith and dedication—especially you, Gregorio. You’ve really come a long way compared to when you first got here.” I turned back to the team as a whole. “I’m proud to have been your captain. It’s been a good couple of years, no matter what the statistics say. And better days are coming—better years, better games, better tactics. I won’t be here to play, but I will be here. I’ll be in those bleachers watching and cheering because I couldn’t have asked for a better team than you guys.” I looked fondly at each of them. “And I’ll tell you the best part. We’re all from different places, different walks of life—well, Fio and I were both the children of farmers right next door to each other, so we knew each other; but as a whole, we were all strangers in the beginning. But we grew close, and we’re a family now.” I gave them a wide, encouraging smile. “We are a family. And I’ll always be proud of you, and—in my heart, at least—I’ll always be your captain. I think we’re probably the luckiest team in the whole Cup; I know I’m the luckiest captain in the whole Cup.
“So don’t be sorry that you lost this time. Statistics don’t matter to me. Not this time.” I opened my arms, and my players—my family—wrapped themselves around me in a final team hug.
Oh, how I miss those days.
I meander out of the team quarters and head toward the old locker room, where I plop down onto one of the old rickety wooden benches. The same old posters hang around the room, and the team has turned one wall into a giant collage: pictures—of me, of the team, of Meridell itself, of various Yooyus and Meridellian celebrities—plaster it; but there are still some clear spots where they’re saving room for more. Most of the pictures of the team and me are action shots: Fiorina scoring a goal, Yoris leaping to keep a Yooyu away from the net (very impressive for a JubJub), Gregorio running through a Haunted Woods player’s legs (his trademark maneuver), Ilsa tackling a Mystery Island forward, Wizard receiving a pass from Fiorina, and me preparing to throw the Yooyuball back to the field.
Oh, how I miss those days. The days before these weird fainting spells announced themselves, the days I would wake up early to get the team roused and raring to go play some Yooyuball, and then at the end of the day we’d all come back to the locker room exhausted. I miss being able to get out there on the field. I miss hanging out with the other captains after the tournament was over, talking about our victories and defeats on and off the field, and receiving and giving advice. (I especially enjoyed talking to Dasher “Ol’ Dash” Soley; he always had good advice and a great sense of humor; the cantankerous old codger always used to joke about his eventual retirement.) But mostly, I miss all the action. Retirement did bring its benefits: when I leave Altador, I’ll be going home to a nice estate near my family’s farm, with servants and just about every luxury afforded Meridellian lords (the fact that I served as a bugler for the Meridell Army when I was a teenager doesn’t hurt either); and when I come to Altador, I can stay at a fancy guesthouse owned by a hospitable Altadorian noblewoman, near the Colosseum.
But none of the indulgence granted me can compare to the feeling of strapping on goalie gear and pulling on a jersey and getting psyched up for a good match. Looking at these pictures, I can’t help but think, That was me. That was really me. My heyday. The good old days, the glory days. I’m not going back to that.
Stepping closer to the massive collage, I see little notes that the team has written here and there. I know their handwriting styles well. Fiorina’s neat print. Wizard’s bold quill strokes. Gregorio’s hasty scrawl. Ilsa’s clumsy scribble (having been a servant in Meridell Castle, Ilsa never had much chance to learn to write before she met Fiorina, who has always been a patient teacher). Yoris’s cautious scratches. They’ve written things like, “We miss you, Freidl!” and “Hail King Skarl I!” and “Meridell forever!”
I smile at these remnants of spoken words, and pull a slip of parchment out of my pocket, and pin it to the wall, right in the center.
I step back to look at the collage, and then I turn and walk out of the room, out of the corridors, out of the Colosseum, pausing to glance back at the massive structure.
Maybe I’ll be back someday. Back in action. But for now, I’ll just watch my team grow, win, lose, draw, celebrate, commiserate, play, work, laugh, cry, make me proud.
I turn back to the road and plod toward the docks, where I’ll sit a while and listen to the returning whispers of the Altador Cup.
Dear Team Meridell,
Keep your eyes up, on that trophy. Keep your minds open to new tactics and new opportunities. Keep the dream alive. Glory can be yours, if you have the guts to chase it. Lead on, Wizard; you’re doing a great job, no matter what the standings say.
And remember, all of you: I’m still proud of you.
Sir Pollonaire Freidl