Too Hot to Handle
"It'll just be a quick interview, very general questions, no curveballs today." The primly-dressed news reporter Shoyru grinned, exposing every single one of her pearly, camera-ready teeth. "Aldric? Are you listening? Does that work?"
Her clicking pen snapped the Kougra snapped out of his nerves-induced daze. Every year, every Altador Cup player is interviewed before the tournament begins so that all of Neopia can become reacquainted with the tournament's competitors. For most teams, this is the least of their worries—the real nerves come before the actual yooyuball games. But for some reason, Aldric Beign, captain of Moltara's Altador Cup team, was ridiculously nervous for his interview.
"Yes, sorry, Donna. I'm ready." The magma Kougra coughed nervously and adjusted the neck of his uniform. The Moltara team locker room seemed unseasonably warm to him. "Interviews have always made me nervous for some reason."
The reporter laughed airily. "Then let's get this over with!" She motioned for the cameraman to begin recording. "Hello, yooyuball fans across Neopia! I'm here today to interview Aldric Beign, star forward and captain of Moltara's Altador Cup team." She paused, allowing the camera to focus on the magma Kougra's face. Aldric grinned. "Aldric, how do you think Moltara will do in the tournament this year?"
"Well Donna, I think we'll do pretty well. Hopefully we will place higher than... um... 14th?" Aldric scratched his ear with his paw thoughtfully. "Wait no... we placed 15th last year! Sorry. Hopefully we will... um... do better." He ended with a grin.
The Shoyru batted her eyelashes for the camera. "I'm sure you will, do you think your team is well-prepared? How has training been?"
"It's... uh... gone well. We practice a lot of... passing. And shooting." The Kougra began to feel even warmer than he usually did, considering he was practically made of magma. Despite realizing that his answers were completely lacking, his nerves allowed him to do nothing about it. He cursed himself for not making up an excuse to get out of this interview.
The reporter nodded as if Aldric's responses were fascinating to listen to. "Wow, Great! It sounds like your team has done a lot of preparing! So, Aldric. What do you do in your off time? You can't possibly practice 24 hours a day!" she asked enthusiastically.
Aldric hated personal questions. "I like to sleep, I guess. Uhh... and I really like baking. I mean, no, that's not what I mea—"
"Baking? Wow, I never would have guessed! Folks, it looks like the captain of Moltara is a baker! What's your favorite thing to bake? I personally love making cookies." The Shoyru grinned widely, finally having found an exciting talking point.
"I... I..." Aldric felt himself sweating from the panic. He slicked his paws against his uniform nervously. Why had he said that? Only his mother knew of his hobby! Growing up, if any of his friends or teammates had known he spent his free time baking cakes, he would have been made fun of mercilessly. And here he was, accidentally spewing his deepest, darkest secret in front of all of Neopia. "I don't do it that often, actually." He apprehensively eyed the clock on the wall of the locker room in a futile attempt to signal that he wanted the interview to be over. Now.
Thankfully, Donna caught his glance. "Aw, Aldric! All the girls will be swooning over you even more now, knowing your secret hobby! But, sadly, we're all out of time. Thanks for letting me stop by your practice facility, Aldric, and good luck to your team this year!"
The molten Kougra managed to squeak a 'thanks' before the blinking red light of the camera turned off, signaling that the interview, and his social life, were effectively over.
Thump. Another yooyuball careened into the wall of Team Moltara's training facility, missing the goal by nearly the length of a Grarrl's tail. Aldric Beign growled with displeasure, his fiery tail twitching.
"What is up with your shooting today, man?" Aldric's teammate Vere questioned the Kougra as she picked up the brown yooyuball from it's resting position on the floor of the practice arena.
A chuckle came from across the practice field, belonging to Aldric's other teammate, new goalie Harlis Neyhbol. "Al, you'd think your shooting would be in top condition... considering the Altador Cup starts next week. You've had an entire year to perfect that shot." The rest of the team groaned in unison with the mention of the Altador Cup. Moltara wasn't exactly a favorite to win this year—or any year, for that matter. Nonetheless, as their team captain, Aldric was unusually off in his shooting today.
The magma Kougra scratched an ear with his paw, sighing. "Sorry, everyone. Maybe it's my nerves or something, with the tournament so close." The team audibly groaned again. Inside, Aldric began to feel uncomfortably hot—a feat in itself, considering he was practically made of magma. He knew his game wasn't off because of nerves. "So, uh. I guess maybe we should end practice for toda—?"
"Al. Stop with the excuses. We know you're embarrassed because everyone knows about your 'super secret' hobby." Tulah Kisner, the other forward on the team, interrupted his attempt at providing an excuse. She emphasized the words 'super secret' sarcastically, rolling her eyes. "Frankly, we don't care that you like to go home and decorate cakes. As long as you're our captain, and you focus on playing yooyuball while you're here, I couldn't care less if you roll around in pink glitter frosting when you're home."
The rest of the team erupted into hooting laughter, picturing their captain decorated in frosting, while Aldric stormed off the field.
Aldric had left the field somewhat frustrated with his teammates, but mostly frustrated with himself for allowing his nerves to be so easily shaken. Why did he get so nervous for interviews? Why had he mentioned baking? Why did he care that everyone knew his hobby? Why did it matter if he liked baking in the fist place!?! His interview had attracted attention all over Neopia, with sports announcers and competitors mocking his hobby (and interviewing skills), and legions of fans pledging their support to Moltara no matter what the players did off the field. The whole ordeal was making it difficult for Aldric to focus on playing yooyuball, and it was clearly affecting his playing.
To make matters worse, the walk home from the practice facility was torturously long, thanks to every single passerby mentioning the incident.
"Hey Aldric, got any good pie recipes?" One elderly Aisha snickered at him.
"Maybe you should focus less on baking and more on playing!" a particularly grungy, outspoken Gelert admonished.
"I'm having a bake sale next week if you want to help out!" His former yooyuball coach laughed and winked at him.
When the star player of Moltara finally returned home, his mother greeted him with the same reassuring smile she always did. "How was practice?" She placed a big plate of molten lasagne on the table, motioning for him to sit down.
Aldric dropped his bag containing his uniform and slumped into the chair, sighing deeply. "Imagine being dropped from the top of Terror Mountain, singed in lava, and then drowned in Kiko Lake. Now multiply that by 200, and you have an accurate representation of how I feel after practice today."
His mother stifled a giggle. "Sounds like it went well, then!" Just as Aldric began eating dinner, his younger brother came in, cackling.
"Al, everyone's response to this whole baking thing is HILARIOUS." He slapped his brother on the back, causing Aldric to choke on his bite of lasagne. "The headlines today were the best. 'Aldric's Secret: Too Hot to Handle?' and 'Burning Desire: Moltara Captain Prefers Baking to Playing Yooyuball' were my personal favorites. Everyone at school was talking about it." His brother continued chatting incessantly, but Aldric tuned him out. He had been planning on trying out a new cookie recipe tonight so that he could bring homemade cookies with him to Altador, but he was definitely not in the mood—especially after his own brother was giving him a hard time.
Two days later, Aldric's focus had improved—slightly. His shooting wasn't on par with his usual performance, but it wasn't noticeably terrible anymore. Still, Aldric couldn't help but feel like everyone shouldn't be making such a big deal out of this. Why did anyone care that he liked baking?
All teams had to report to Altador before the competition officially began, which meant his team had to catch the boat to Altador today. Friends, family, and fans of the team usually lined the streets to send off the team, wishing them luck and getting any last-minute autographs. Aldric was seriously not looking forward to this, and could only imagine the things he would hear today. He lined up with his teammates, receiving an official send-off from the mayor of Moltara, while the crowds clapped and chanted "MOL-TAR-A! MOL-TAR-A!" in unison.
Then the team began the long walk to the ship, which awaited them aboveground. A small, wide-eyed Kougra cub caught Aldric's eye on the side of the path. He clutched a poster of Aldric scoring, and seemed genuinely awestruck to see the yooyuball player. The magma Kougra grinned for the first time today and walked over to the cub. "Hey there! Want me to autograph your poster?" He bent down to sign the poster.
"Wowza! Sure thing, Aldric! You're my favorite player!" The Kougra cub stared in awe as Aldric signed the poster. "I think you're just the coolest ever. I even think you're the coolest because you like to bake. My friends started making fun of you, when you said that, but y'know what? I think it's cool. I told my mama that I wanted to try baking too. Not just because of you, but because I think it sounds cool." The young Kougra defiantly stuck his chin out and looked up at the 'cool' magma Kougra standing in front of him.
"Aldric, come on! You're gonna miss the boat!" His teammate, Harlis, called after him.
Aldric momentarily ignored his teammate. He patted the younger Kougra on the head. "Hey, thanks, kid. Do whatever you think is cool, don't listen to your friends, okay?" He handed back the poster and reached into his uniform's pocket, taking out the single cookie he had brought with him. He handed the cookie to the young fan. "Now, promise me you'll cheer for Moltara no matter what?"
The Kougra cub jumped up and down, clutching the poster and cookie as if his life depended on it. "You betcha I will! Thanks, Aldric! You're even cooler than I thought you were!"
Aldric ran to catch up with his teammates. "Sorry, guys! I just met the best fan ever. He made me feel a lot better about... you know... the whole baking thing. I realized it doesn't matter what anyone thinks about my hobbies. In fact, I think I want to talk more about it—maybe it'll help others realize they should do whatever they want, too!"
His teammate Tulah smiled knowingly. "Al, that's great you finally realized that! But, one thing." She paused, composing her face for a moment. "I don't know if ANYONE is a bigger or better fan than your own mother." She pointed to the edge of the crowd, where his mother stood, holding huge sign that read: 'If you can't stand the HEAT, stay out of Aldric's KITCHEN.' With that, the whole team (including Aldric) roared with laughter, boarding the ship to Altador with a renewed sense of support and happiness.