Never Finish Last: Part Five
Art by renzyboy
After practice, as a token of gratitude, "Squeaky" Tressif offers the team (including the manager) a night out for dinner. They deliberate for Shenkuu cuisine (Shenkuusine by some,) and find the perfect niche on the boardwalk of Blumaria.
The restaurant, the Paper Lantern, has been in business for a small number of decades, and is run by an equally small Shenkuuvian clan settled quietly in the borders of Roo Island. It's had its fair share of slow nights, but tonight, it's going to be the talk of the town when Team Roo Island enters its doors.
At least, it would be, if the team trudged in through the door in full uniform signing autographs for aspiring Neopets. But that draws too much attention. One call from the likes of the Times and they'll have to exit through the kitchen doors. Exiting through anybody's kitchen doors is always a bad thing. As a manager, Keila Varoix is always prepared for situations like this. Before they left the apartment that morning, Keila took Squeaky's hunter jacket and a good pair of shorts and slid it under her shirt. She keeps a top and a pair of pants of every player so that when the times call for a walk in the park or a night out like this, they would look, in the least, presentable. Not bobbing around in jogging pants and sweatshirts.
As the crew enters, they do their best to not raise suspicion. Keila picks up some menus from the entrance and passes them to her team, who quickly raise it near their heads and faces. Lilo and Squeaky pop their collars up, while Fenny and Jair prop up their hoods. Even Clutch takes precaution; hiding in his sunglasses, which is quite suspicious itself, considering that they are out for dinner.
A Chomby in Shenkuuvian garb approaches them with a sort of elegant pleasantry. She pops into the hall with a grace and finesse; her curvy body sways with the paper lanterns that hang from the ceiling beams, her tail moves with expertise and glamour—equal that of a statue in the Royal Gardens of Faerieland. She comes up to Varoix—or rather, her head comes close to Varoix's, who smiles tauntingly and lifts the menu above her mouth. The Chomby bats her eyelashes and speaks in an audible yet personal tone.
"Hello, Miss Varoix and the Roo Island Team. Table for six?"
Boom. Their cover is blown. Hide! Because the crowd will... the crowd... is doing nothing. Maybe they didn't hear her...
Regardless, the team gangs up behind their manager; covering their faces further with the sleeves of their jackets. Varoix gulps a loud gulp, repeats her jeering grin and clenches her teeth.
"Yes, MISS—" She darts her eyes for the name tag "—Kelshin?" The Chomby nods. "A table of six would be... lovely. Thank you. And by the way; it's pronounced va-roo."
"Okay, Miss Va-rooo. Would you like to acquire one of our private dining rooms?"
A sigh of relief breathes into the hall. They agree to the proposal. Somehow playing for Neopia's biggest game for a good six years and counting in front for the entire world to see dents their chips for privacy. Yooyuball is a worldwide game, even reaching the expanses of Kreludor and the Virtupets Space Station, and it's near perfect that everybody knows their face and their continuing legacy—maybe it shouldn't be the case, as they are, after all, just regular pets wearing a uniform—but it's a miracle nobody recognized them except the server.
"Would you like to avail the Quilin Room? It seats twenty-five people, in case you want to invite more people over; it has a large aquarium and it is right next to the chef's kitchen. I think it would suit your standards."
Without jumping a beat, she tells the waitress with composure: "No thank you. We won't be expecting anybody else. Just give us a room that accommodates the six of us."
The Chomby, still and serene as a leaf in the Healing Springs, dips her head in accordance. She swoops her tail behind the six dinner guests and gently guides them to the Naleap Room. When she opens the doors with her two front legs, the octagonal table comes in full view. With its chairs arranged along its sides, it can certainly entertain a group of six with room to spare. Two dividers spread across the room: one for the hallway double doors, the other for the restroom.
The waitress leads her customers inside the room. Lilo seats Keila down first, with Clutch guiding Jair beside him. Clutch leaves the middle seat open for Tressif, but Fenny inadvertently occupies it before Clutch could say a word. To avoid any disagreement, he looks at Jair and signals her to switch chairs. Unhesitating, she moves beside Fenny, while Clutch nudges Tressif to sit beside him and Jair.
Miss Kelshin fixes her black bobbed hair, picks up a menu and gives it to Keila. The others hold up their menus and soon after, order their steaks, noodles and soups. Tressif is not used to a gathering this small and this quiet. The banquets in Brightvale are grand and self-respecting; the food as rich as the goblets and platters they were served on. The small porcelain bowls, the individual portions, the lack of noisy horn accompaniment: this is all very new to Tressif, and all he ever did to adjust is relax in his chair, take a few sips of chai tea and converse with his new team members.
The group starts off self-invested in their topics and their hot soups. Clutch takes hold of Tressif's attention, the Lupe sipping on his cold buckwheat noodles. Clutch catches Jair in their conversation, and from there the Eyrie leads the reigns of their friendly babble.
"'Squeaky', I used to be the newbie in this team, so whatever you're undergoing right now in this transition; I've been there. The first time I handled a Gummy Yooyu I had to replace my gloves five times. And that all happened in the span of a week!" She picks up her bowl to take a sip. Clutch and Tressif lean in to listen. "Man, I miss Gordo. He used to lick the slings clean from the Gummy gunk after practice. Though that's highly inappropriate and not to mention unhygienic, I kind of miss that. I miss the big lug."
The three notice a silence from slurping. It wasn't Keila or Lilo; the two were eating pan-fried dumplings. They dart their eyes left and right. Then they see Fenny. She's looking at them, intense and focused, and when she focuses, seeing them look at her, she quickly resumes her noodle-slurping.
Squeaky drops his chopsticks into his bowl and scowls, his head supported by his left hand. "Guys, I know I'm shooting over the head with this, but what exactly is her problem?" Clutch and Jair lean on the backrests of their chairs.
"She wasn't like this b'fore Gunnels left the post. Well, he din't actually leave; he was taken out by Blumario and Varoix; them sayin' he wasn't participatin' much in th' practices anymore. An' he wasn't; he became very preoccupied with somethin' else. It isn't my bus'ness t' go snoopin' around oth'r people's bus'nesses, so I won't go int' special details. I rememb'r playin' as if we were one memb'r short. Did ye?" Clutch asks, head turned to Jair, which she answers with a forceful nod. "Th' moment you were open season, th' manag'r dropped Gunnels like a bad Fishin' Hole bargain an', w'th negotiat'ns from yer captain Caspar, sh' signed ye in fer Rooo Isl'nd."
Jair continues where Clutch went off with a slight chomp on her artichoke dumpling. "Fenny and Gordo are very close. Gordo didn't have much to say about the reassignment, which upset all of us, but most of all, it upset them both. They're like brother and sister. I guess she's probably taking her grief out on you."
Tressif reverts to his natural defense mechanism, which is to slump. He slumps on his chair like a woolen sweater on a wire hanger. Clutch returns to his steaming hot udon noodles while Jair takes some time off talking and lets her soup cool.
Suddenly, Clutch reaches for the teapot and advertently knocks it over to Jair's direction. The hot tea scrambles over the black tabletop like an armada; taking over Jair's blouse for its pillage. The Eyrie lifts herself from the table, and shoots Clutch an angry look.
"Oh, so sorry, lass. I'll help clean ye up." As Clutch and Jair move towards the restroom, Clutch winks at Lilo. He gives some head gestures before leaving through the restroom door. Lilo looks at Tressif, deep in discontent and miso soup, and Fenny, who returns to eating her bowl of rice. He holds his chin and receives Clutch's subliminal message.
"Excuse us. We need to talk about, erm, something private. Accounting. Things."
"What are you t-" Lilo nudges Keila at the elbow. "I-I mean, yes. Accounting things. Right." They exit through the door and close it gently, leaving behind the Lupe and the Usul at the dining table.
A great silence encompasses the dining room; a silence that could rival the aftermath of the Destruction of Maraqua. Chopstick clinks and dish clangs only pepper the air. Glances are exchanged, but never met. Unknown to the ones left at the table, the two separate parties lurch towards the doors with ears stuck on them, eager to hear an exchange.
At last, Tressif straightens his posture and confronts the Usul, trying and failing to pick up a Belonthiss roll with her chopsticks.
"Fenny. Why do I get the feeling that you do not like me?"
Appropriate enough, the center defender is taken aback, and safeguards herself with a reply question.
"Well, why shouldn't I like you?" She shoots her nose up and looks at him condescendingly.
She sips her tea swiftly and strikes her teacup into her saucer, chipping it in the process.
"I mean; you are so special, in fact that you're in the team now. Isn't that great news? Isn't that why we're here in the first place?" She clenches her lips tight and brings her eyebrows together.
The Lupe swivels his ears straight up. He senses her dispiritedness like the steam wafting from the hot pots and cups. He sets his tone as low-key and as gentle as he possibly can.
"Look, are you upset? Are you upset because I'm here?"
"Or is it because Gordo isn't?"
Tressif raises his head from his plate of Negg buns. She lost her look of irritability and replaced it with a somber yearning, breathing heavily through her tense mouth. She sits motionless, staring at her empty porcelain cup. Her mouth scowls, and her eyes tear up.
Like her teacup, she cracked.
Fenny slowly bunches up her little arms and conceals her grieving. She draws her hood up and slowly loosens her reigns, and bawls in her palms. It is a quiet release of every little nuisance that built up inside her. Tressif panics a bit before the rest of the team dashes inside. Jair and Keila comfort Fenny, embracing the little doll into their arms. Tressif lurches over his plate, guilty, while Clutch and Lilo assure his good spirits.
To be continued...