Never Finish Last: Part Three
Art by renzyboy
The clasping of gear echoes through the empty halls of the local stadium. They come from the locker room, which is occupied by the Neopets who make the Rooligans on the bleachers scream with fury; who make their temples pulse with dedication and adrenaline. This is their first time playing since the championships—or rather, for the second bracket. The team, since the very start, fights promisingly; shocking even (and that's just the uniforms). The Rooligans bagged the fourth place trophy on the very first Cup and it was going up from there. By the third Cup, the ramshackle team of misfits from the small island won first place. But as the trend goes, the winners were knocked out of their pedestals and placed in the shoes of the jesters. They were pushed as far as ninth place on the fourth Cup. Rooligans everywhere were devastated.
But like a tireless factory worker on the surface of Kreludor, the muck did not stop them from defying gravity. The team won fourth on the fifth playoff, surprising even themselves. Sadly, the peak wouldn't be followed by an ascent, but rather another crushing cliff drop, ending with the ninth place ribbon again.
Hopefully, with the shakeup, things would be different this year. The individual players pumped their moxie during the off season. They practiced, sometimes occupying the field all by themselves. They seized the gold cup, and they opt to do it again.
The entire team, minus one left forward, takes out their colorful uniforms once again. They hang them out like the proud banners around the King's castle; a sartorial emblem of Roo Island. The sole defender, a Red Usul, straps her sandals with an eager pat. She then helps the "outsider" now ally, the center forward, with her long luscious braid. The player needs her snowy white hair out of her view if she were to avoid the meanest tackles on the field. The Usul tightens the locks and ties it, then gears up her own sling into her right paw. She taps the edge of it on the largest locker inside the room; its owner now expelled into another team. She takes in a deep breathe, sighs, and then fetches her gloves.
The goalkeeper, the lone Pteri representative so far in the Games, adjusts his guards. Being that diminutive and of that, er, maturity, he is going to need every advantage legal in the book. He brushes the green feathers on his head with his strong pinions, and swings his tail for balance. He cracks his toe knuckles and goes to the sinks for a wash up.
Out of them, the strongest, most devoted player, the right forward, stretches his robust tail for warm-up. He straps on his elbow guards like the golden cuffs of a king; secure and stable. He taps them for assurance (and luck, because he wants it just in case) and twists his pudgy body, relieving his pelvis and spine. He smiles uninhibitedly, for the former leader of team Brightvale is now a rookie in theirs. An asset, an all-around good player: he is what they needed for a switch-up. Keila is on the ship one hundred percent. What they need is to win again, and maybe with their cards right they might actually taste the gold once more. He hears prodding footsteps from the hallway. Confidence surges in his body. In comes a champion.
Enter Keila Varoix, coddling on her shoulder a dizzy Red Lupe. Wrapped with a cotton bandage over his head, he walks with an understated but painful limp, the hurt painted subtly all over his face. Not a good first impression by all means; most especially to his new teammates.
"Ngggh. Varoix, I'm fine." She sits him down on one of the benches. The other teammates look and glance, but return to their equipment. Keila kneels in front of him, checks for signs of sickness, and gives him a friendly pat on the cheek.
"You'll live. That kid back there got some spunk," she says. "He actually threw his camera at you." She lets out a short but healthy chuckle.
"Yeah. It even fell on my toe. I can still play with this, though," whispers Squeaky, faintly pointing at his swollen big toe. He didn't want to further undermine his reputation coming inside the locker room all busted up. Keila gets up, holds Tressif's strong shoulder and stands up on the stadium bench. She cups her hands and clears her throat. Tressif raises an eyebrow at what's unfolding.
"Guys and gals," the team manager shouts, "this is Tressif. You all know him as 'Squeaky', Brightvale's former captain and left defender." The entire team leans over and briefly stop what they were doing. Clutch and Jair wave a wing and an arm as welcome and resume their gearing up. Fenny returns to strapping her sling, not bother a 'hello', while Lilo swiftly slams his locker door and approaches the newcomer. As the Blumaroo approaches, Squeaky swallows some of his nerves and towers against his new (short) leader. They briefly shake hands.
Lilo rubs an itch on his face then hangs over Varoix's shoulder, who tries to escape his pry. "It is a privilege to have you on the team. Don't worry too much about them; we're just a little under-stretched and tired, just like you."
"They'll ease up to you," Keila assures. "Eventually."
Squeaky gives a couple of short nods. "So... what will we be doing today... uh, Captain?" He smiles nervously.
Lilo lets Keila out of his vice-like grapple and points a finger at Tressif playfully. "Hah! I guess you're going to have to get used to that, Captain." The Blumaroo teases with a large toothy smile. Tressif blows it off and swats the air floppily. Adjust accordingly, just like one of those self-help books said. I just hope a book doesn't have all its say on this.
All chit-chat dies down as a loud thud approaches. The stadium resonates with a large set of footsteps, getting louder and louder as it advances through the hallway. The door opens in a half-blink. In full view is a Blue Grarrl, wrapped neatly in a crisp navy blue suit, duffel bag in hand.
"Gordo!" Fenny exclaims, ecstatic to see her friend after a long while. The last time she saw him he was rugged and upset, trudging around the locker room burning a fuse a few weeks ago. The wall of muscle opens his arms and embraces her. After he sets her down, he approaches Varoix. His smile disappears.
Keila puts her hand over her face, squeezes the bridge of her nose and looks right through his piercing eyes. "Gordo, how many times have I told you that you have to inform me before you march right in here?"
"Relax, Boss Lady," he replies undaunted, "I'm just here for the uniform. My uniform." He shoots Tressif the stink eye but Tressif remains unfazed. Gordo scans the Lupe head to toe. So. This is my replacement. A bit scrawny. He looks limp. He won't do any good. Gunnels covers his face with a plastic snarl. He heads over to his locker, cracks the lock, and swings the door open. He sighs, looking at the blue jersey facing right at him. Some of the best years of his life lay hanging on a wire hanger, never to be worn again. He would have never thought this uniform, nominated Most Unattractive Uniform several years ago, would sum up the most glorious time of his career, and this uniform is now being stuffed in a bag, to be placed in the closet drawer, left for the Skidgets to crawl all over. He jangles one of the bells a last time and packs it.
He digs through the dozen practice shirts at the bottom of the locker to find his gloves; a little brown from wear and tear but still the same fern green from when he first played for the team. He scours the pile and holds his breath as he felt a metal spike. It's his helmet, the red headgear with the yellow spike, his customized addition to the team's regular uniform. It is his standout item, and now he'll have to blend in the green, gold and white of Brightvale. He pulls the helmet and the gloves from the pile, clutching it in his hands.
Fenny approaches him with another hug. He crouches for her to reach him, and in his arms she braces the cuddle. Gordo hears a click at the bottom of his chin; he finds Fenny buckling the helmet on her colleague's head. They exchange grins. "Good luck out there, big guy," Fenny bids and unlocks the embrace. Gordo tells Varoix he'll clean up his locker some other time and exits the door. Silence.
Tressif fiddles with his thumbs. "Still bitter about the let-go?"
"Yeah," says Blumario. "He hadn't been pulling his weight since we won the championships. Figured we'd trim the fat before we lose any more games."
A thick locker door slam blows through the room. It came from Fenny's locker. The Usul sports a mean expression: eyebrows angled, mouth scowling, a generous wrinkling around her face. "He is not dead weight!" She grabs her knee guards and walks out of the room, her sandals making the most noise sandals could make on a greasy tile floor.
The three at the bench stand silent. Clutch and Jair remain wordless. "So..." Lilo tries to cut the tension, waving his hand as if there was a stench in the air. "Phew. Some drama. Why don't we—"
"Why don't we go jog for some rounds? Go--Go Team Roo Island!" He pats Tressif on the back and shoots his arms up in the air, heading towards the oval. A strong silence follows.
Billaban peeks from the changing room doors.
"Gunnels is not THAT fat."
To be continued...