Never Finish Last: Part Four
Art by renzyboy
The sun blazes on the local sports arena. It is much, much smaller than the grand behemoth sitting in Altador—the land, after all, invented the sport—but the small stadium feels right at home with its bright colors and its open field. Rumor says it has the largest concession stand in the whole of Neopia. Go figure.
On the rubberized oval surrounding the Yooyuball field the team circles it at different intervals. Fenny, the first to lay her tracks on the gravel, keeps at her pace, straightforward and vigilant, avoiding any company. High above is Clutch, hovering over the arena. He strengthens his greatest assets, his wings, by bringing the heavy duty wing guards and strapping them on for his usual jogs. His wings need to block the hardiest passes and scoring shots, so they need every chance of exercise they can get. Trailing behind is Lilo and Jair. Besides other things, being the center and right forwards they talk strategy almost constantly.
Last is Tressif. Despite a little wake-up from his morning jog, the week he gave himself off is sure taking its toll. He follows the four others steadily yet sluggishly.
Tressif's footsteps bunch up from behind him. The extra weight he gained slows down his already dodgy pace. The uniform isn't helping either. Despite the short sleeves and the comfortable sandals, he still pants in his garb. His pants sag all over the place. They flap and they lop and they wrap over his robust legs. The sash presses over his shirt, which tightens his chest, making it hard for his abdomen to properly ventilate its muggy self. His least favorite is the bells. Oooooh, the bells. They make a jingle with every inch he makes. If it makes this much noise now, how much more when I'm tackling a behemoth Xweetok or a mountain of a Grundo? And the colors—my Fyora. He feels like a retina-searing Raindorf in this outfit.
The two in front of him are whispering, their heads swaying to and fro from each other. Lilo occasionally glances at the Lupe, certain to make a move of some sort. Jair frequently raises the tone of her speech and waves her arms, uninhibited throughout the course of their communication. Lilo tries to subdue her erratic reactions, but it seems the two are butting heads until someone keels.
The humidity is not helping the Lupe cope with the awful uniform. But this uniform is better than no uniform. He never really had a backup plan after his exodus from Brightvale. He figured that after the conference he would shut himself inside a dark cottage for days to cope and recuperate. Caspar would still take a visit or two every day he stayed inside, making sure he hadn't done anything stupid—or dangerous—to himself.
Squeaky admits: he misses them. They aren't the most perfect team, and there are still some things he would like to change. But they had come to the point in time where they felt almost like family: a bickering, cheating, crazy family. He admires the never-say-die spirit from goalkeeper Orie Lidelle, a rough-and-tumble girl from a tiny village outside Brightvale. He enjoys the company of center forward Reb Weemelott. He amuses right defender Kayn Hireck with his persistence and his aura. He even thinks Montecito, that scrapper of a center defender, would make a great leader. But out of all his teammates, his "family", he missed Mr. Caspar Opportun the most.
He looks up at the Rooligan skies. Not a cloud in sight.
Coming in sight, at least in full closeup, however, is Jair Tollet. It seems as if the two forwards fizzled their feud during his mid-jog reflection. Either that or she wanted to talk to someone with a much smaller head.
"Hi, newcomer," the Eyrie greets her fellow forward. He responds with a chipper handshake and an eyebrow wagging. "Hello."
"So, Lilo told me I had to make you comfortable because, as the new addition to the team, we have to at least make you feel comfortable. At least for a few days." Wow. This Eyrie is as blunt as a defender on a bad day after a monstrous tackle. She fidgets her fingers and sways that long braid of hers. It's so thick and long it looks like an extra limb.
"Not, not that I'm discouraging you. This team's as friendly as a bunch of Mallards." That was not reassuring. Has she gotten near a Mallard? Tressif thinks. He hides his discomfort with a toothy grin; the grins of the same caliber as Lilo's.
"Way to go, Tollet," she whispers to herself. Jair takes a breather, looks away from her tall companion and restarts her approach. "Hi, I'm Jair. Welcome to Roo Island!" She extends her hand again, but Tressif remains static for a few seconds. Discouraged, Jair lowers her outstretched arm. Having seen her dispirited face, he catches on and retracts his dejection. Jair feels a hand shake hers. "Nice to meet you, Jair. I'm Tressif."
She forms a small curve with her mouth, but then shifts her eyes, bites her lip and sweats profusely. This girl is not comfortable. It's probably the uniform, the Lupe assumes.
"So, uh," she coughs, "what exactly is your first name? It isn't exactly 'Squeaky'. Is it?" She wipes the sweat off her brow with her free hand.
"Well, I don't exactly go into first names. I don't like my first name. I think it's dorky." He lets go of her small, delicate hand. "And no, it is not 'Squeaky'." He eases his eyes on her; trying not to look menacing. He needs to save those for the opponents on the field, not his teammates.
She takes a breath. "So, uhm, if it's not 'Squeaky', then why do people call you that?" Their pace seems to slow down from jogging to a fast walk.
"Well, Jair, it's all about what you do outside as well as inside the field. It's about presence. Have you ever wondered why the Lost Desert powerhouse 'Dirty' Navers got his name?"
"You mean that Desert Ruki defending right field a few years ago? He retired during the third year, right?"
"Uh... yes, but that isn't important. You see, he wasn't much of a fair player. He was gruff; maybe a little cutthroat. And he used any move imaginable to block and tackle. He thought his end justified his means."
"What does that mean?"
"It means—it means he thought that whatever the consequences, if he got your face outside his right field when you plan to score, he's golden. He was known for playing the dirtiest game some coaches have ever seen. It doesn't also help that he's about as sloppy as a warm day on the Rubbish Dump."
"Is that why he's 'Dirty'?"
"To be short and sweet, yes. I don't know about his case, though, but for me, I pretty much have a boring first name. Usually managers and coaches try to market you off to earn money—it's a fairly complicated explanation, but the end result is that they want you to be likable to the crowds. Or, in the very least, polarizing. That's why they give you a nickname: they want you to be memorable."
"So, er, Tressif. You haven't exactly answered my questions. What—"
"No, I will not tell you my secret first name. It's... secret."
"So why do they call you..." She taps her chin and bunches her eyebrows. Hmmm. She runs her index finger over his arm. The Lupe, completely caught off guard, loses his footing and trips over his sandal straps.
"Are you okay over there?" the manager shouts all the way from the benches.
Jair picks him up and checks on him. Only a few scratches. Nothing broken. She signals Keila with two thumbs up.
The dazzled Lupe spits out a few blades of grass caught between his teeth.
"I am so sorry. I guess that's why they don't call you 'Squeaky'. You don't make much of a noise." He scoffs. With a smirk, he responds. "No, Jair. That isn't why."
After a few rounds on the oval, the team huddles around Keila for some water and resumes training. Most of the training in Yooyuball involves sprints, runs and hurdles. This is to address one thing needed in the games: stamina. You may have the biggest sling attached to the world's biggest bicep, but if you can't move as much as you want to as fast as you want to, you're history. Tressif doesn't want the team to think he is over-competitive, so he does the best he can on the hurdles and sprints, but not too much so as not to pull a muscle.
Before the passing practice, Varoix sits all five of them down and gets them settled with the ground rules. Afterwards, she has Clutch pick up the pylons from the storage room while she herself gets the practice Yooyus. Squeaky wrinkles his forehead. He hears laughter; faint but recognizable laughter. The team giggles behind him. They better not pull a fast one on me, he thinks. Back in Brightvale Squeaky had always been the astringent one, and as the stick in the mud it was his teammates' dutiful responsibility to give him a hard time. He was the receiving end of the team's practical jokes. There was a week when his bags were filled conspicuously with books from the castle library after practice; he would always struggle carrying his knapsacks. Sometimes they would stuff his locker with Lightmytes, so when he opened it... eh, usually nobody got hurt.
Keila escorts the team to the field. Aside from being manager (and due to the current lack of an official coach) Keila finds time and grit to fill in for the team's trainer. She asks Clutch to distribute the pylons, so he swoops down and scatters the cones. The late afternoon comes in pretty dark; the skies of Roo Island a mural of pink and purple shadows. Lilo stations Tressif on the left side of the offense, while Fenny and Clutch occupy the defense field on the opposite side. They all take position.
Varoix blows the whistle. The team eases up from their stances, confused. "Guys, didn't I say you'd be passing for today? I think it's too soon to play an 'official' game," Varoix exclaims, complete with air quotations from her pudgy little fingers. Lilo cinches his hands together and hangs himself beside the manager, who is not too happy with this charade he concocted.
"Keila, Keila. Please. At least let him know our tactics."
"Yeah. By talking about it. Not by putting him in the middle of a field like a bumper in a pinball game."
"Keila, he's a big boy. He's been playing this game for as long as we have. Well, except Jair, but she's had her number of years as well. Promise. We won't play dirty."
She pierces a look so sharp it could cut through a large marrow. "So help me if I even suspect you could potentially scare him off this field I will personally Neomail Fyora, have her reveal her Invisible Tower to you, and I myself will push you off it. Deal, banana lips?"
"Fine, fine. We'll play nice. But it's custom—"
"I KNOW." She points him to his place and parks herself in the middle of the field. "Tressif," she yells, "this is a test on *sigh* passing to your teammates." She then addresses all the forwards. "When I blow this whistle I will launch the Yooyu into the air and you will need to score. Otherwise, you take home today's laundry. You got that?" They all nod.
"Prepare and keep concentrated." She hunches over. The whistle screeches a loud "PRRRRRRRRRRRTTT!!!" and the Yooyu comes flying. As Keila hightails it, Squeaky gives chase. While he is running, he notices Lilo and Jair standing in place, still in position, but withstanding any effort to actually move. He looks up and tries to catch the Yooyu. He situates it at the end of his colorful sling and he runs for it. Fenny comes into view, sporting the same mean expression she wore in the locker room. Squeaky spots Lilo taking a sprint down the field behind her. Without a beat, Squeaky yells for his fellow forward to fetch the Yooyu, and heaves his sling in Lilo's direction. Squeaky thinks he would pant for a while, having passed the ball. But Fenny's still after him. Lilo's still sprinting. His sling feels weighted.
Tressif ends up as the first receiving end to Vail's tackle. She grabs his kneecaps and he takes a dive. They tumble and make a loud, discernable thud. Tressif is lucky he didn't land on his face; that would have been terrible. Thankfully, his fall is cushioned by his neck landing on Fenny's outstretched sling.
"This is why bad things happen when you're in charge," Keila scolds Blumario and smacks him on the head with her clipboard. Clutch bandages Tressif at the sidelines while the other players give Varoix a hundred pushups.
"How'sit feelin' fer ya, lad?" Clutch asks. Squeaky smiles awkwardly. Clutch speaks in such a brogue that the Lupe cannot understand whatever sounds come out of his face. He coughs and hoarsely replies with a blind answer. "Oh-kay." He holds his stomach.
"Well, t'tell ya th' truth, I wasn't a pah-rt' that loll'gaggin' nonsense. I guess I tooo fahrgot our land's finest secret..." He let out a ribbon of bandage and twirled it around the Lupe's neck.
"Not exactly the finest, but..." Squeaky holds the Yooyu with his right hand. "...but gummy Yooyuballs are definitely things to look out for in Roo Island."
There was a silent break in their conversation. Clutch padded some ointment on Squeaky's slight injury.
"So," the Pteri reenters conversation, "how's yer stay on Rooo Isl'nd? Prob'bly not as breezy as yer Brightvale now, is it?"
The Lupe reaches to scratch his neck. Clutch holds Squeaky's wrist and lays it down. "Well, it definitely is humid around these parts. I'm even sweating in places I never knew would sweat before."
The goalkeeper belts a chuckle. "Ahhh. A sense'a 'umor. I like that. Yer g'nna b' fine." He secures the multiple wrappings of bandages with a teeny bandage.
"So... Gummy Yooyus," Tressif exclaims; his eyebrows shoot straight up. "Uhm... What in Fyora's name conjured the King to come up with such a feat?"
"Well, there was when th' practice Yooyus never arrived from shipm'nt. I b'lieve it was Y9. There was a mixup in th' addresses, so th' package never came. Th' King ran outta patience and took matt'rs int' his own hands. He hired th' best candy pull'rs an' pastry chefs to mold one of Rooo Isl'nd's largest exports, gummy candy, int' practice Yooyus. He even called up th' Chocolate Factahry t' inv'nt explod'n' gummy Yooyu, like th'm clockw'rks back at th' Coliseum."
"That's actually pretty interesting." Squeaky leans over Clutch, the gummy Yooyu sitting idly beside them.
"So, uhhh, are these Gummy Yooyus actually edible?" Tressif scratches his nape, confused.
"Well now, why don't ya find out fer yerself?" The Pteri scoops one of his wings and passes the Yooyu to Tressif.
In all respects, the Gummy Yooyus King Roo funded, commissioned and designed are near perfect. They mimic the weight, trajectory and the sweetness of Yooyus. Despite their tendency to stick on the slings of players during practices, and the mess they leave behind, Gummy Yooyus are the par solution during a Yooyu-less dilemma. The Gummy Yooyu the two are handling has been on the field even before their practice that day; probably an extra during last year's batch. It is king in the sticky department, and has picked up more than experience in the arena. There are tufts of grass and gravel in its nooks and crannies, covered in a subtle layer of grime. It looks like the culinary masterpiece of a five-year-old left in the Neogarden to play.
Squeaky grabs it, his gloves digging into the crevices of the Yooyu. He gives it a good squeeze. Clutch glares in anticipation as his companion draws the ball closer to his mouth. He pulls a face, but ultimately closes his eyes, takes a deep breath, and steals a bite.
His eyes shoot open, his mouth in desperate need for water. The Lupe spits the wad of unsanitary gummy candy and dries his tongue with his sleeve. The sound of Billaban's laughter cuts some players' pushup streaks. After it dies down, the Pteri fetches a plastic cup of water and gives it to the disgusted Lupe.
"I was hopin' you'd tear it open like a berry, not bite it like a parasite!"
Clearly, I'm not thinking as straight as I should be, Tressif thought. Lucky for him, Billaban plays it mature. "Ah, don't worry, lad. Nobody will know our little mishap back ther'."
"Thank you for that," says Squeaky. "I really need to cut a break with you guys. It's just that I'm stuck in a rut..." He runs his sentence off into silence and lets it escape from his breath. "I'm sorry you have to hear all this... I'm not usually this scatterbrained."
"Yeah, I can see that," Clutch says. "Yer so put togeth'r on an' off th' field. But lad, ye gotta relax. Let thin's happen. They usually do so fer a reas'n. An' stop bein' so uptight. Yer like a Clockwerk Grundo that needs t' go t' th' bathroom real quick. It's makin' me feel uncomfortable seein' ye move t'day. You run like a stick is tied between yer legs."
Tressif holds the Yooyu in his hands and gazes at it. His breaths get longer and quieter, and his muscles loosen their tension. He's right. I probably just need to work out of this rut and forget making a good first impression.
The Pteri propels his eyebrows. "I'm sorry again—pard'n?"
"Thanks for the advice."
"Ahh." Clutch clenches his pinions into a fist and knocks Tressif with a friendly punch. Friendly, though not painless; as Tressif rubs the spot. "Don't mention it." The two gaze at the open field; tinted by the twilight sky.
"No, seriously; don't mention it. I don't want them thinkin' I'm a softie or anythin'."
Squeaky concludes. "Ah, but you are."
Clutch looks at the newbie with grand disapproval; his slow head turn revealing an "oh no ye din't" plastered all over his face. He gives another friendly punch.
After a moment of concealed writhing pain from one of the parties, Clutch grabs the Yooyu with his claw. Tressif looks on as the goalkeeper scores the middle with one of his sharp talons. Then with a slow, precise slide of his right wing, he cuts the Gummy open. He gives Tressif a nod of approval. The Lupe digs his claws into the open gummy; not dusty or grimy or potentially disease-ridden, but clear, sticky, gummy candy goodness. He gives Clutch a sample and nibbles the chunk in his hands.
To be continued...