A Very Maraquan Christmas
Maraqua, as an underwater nation, has always been isolated from many activities of the surface world, even before its destruction that continues even after its rediscovery.
Gadgadsbogen just isn't as fun when you can't eat the fruit - it didn't keep well under water. Same with the Chocolate Ball. Fyora Day wasn't particularly festive, and Jhudora Day wasn't particularly scary.
There were two things that this had never applied to and probably never would: Yooyuball, and the Day of Giving.
If anything, Maraqua's isolation before its rediscovery made Yooyuball more popular there than anywhere else. Most of the worlds competing in the Altador Cup had had smaller, more local inter-world skirmishes and matches. Maraqua obviously had had no one else to play with, so they had the largest intra-world Yooyuball league outside of Altador.
Once the Altador Cup was reinstated, King Kelpbeard realized that while Maraqua had a lot of Yooyuball being played, it was all being played under water, which made transitioning to surface conditions difficult.
His solution: build a stadium capable of being completely drained of water so that teams could have a chance to practice in surface like conditions.
The result was a massive, hulking structure on the ocean floor. The outside was made of maractite and loomed; the inside was a maze of corridors and doorways. The maze inside was so bad that anyone within their first few months of using the stadium was required to have a buddy system.
But that wasn't a problem for the Maraquan Altador Cup team - they used the stadium exclusively, unlike the intra-Maraqua league teams who only used it for large matches.
However they tended to stick together anyway.
"C'mon Elon," Barit was complaining. "Christmas is in a few days. We can skip one day of practice, right?"
"Barit, for the last time," Elon said, exasperated. "We're having practice. We haven't had two days of practice in a row since before the Cup. And you know we're going to start up with more practices and some small matches with some of the circuit teams -"
"All the more reason to take time off now!" Barit said, undeterred.
"What's wrong, Barit?" Tonie said with a grin. "Got somewhere else to be?"
"Not trying to bail on the gift exchange are you?" Lamelle asked.
Barit muttered something about stamps.
"What was that?" Elon asked.
"There's a stamp convention in town," Barit muttered. "You know, they don't come around too often down here, and I've been mailing this one guy about one of those holographic Lost Desert ones. . ."
"Sorry Barit," Elon said, unapologetically. "It's our last day of practice before the holidays. We're going to need it."
"C'mon, Lamelle agrees with me, right?" Barit said, jostling the Kiko with his shoulder.
"Uh - honestly I don't really care," Lamelle said with a shrug. "I'm not going back home either way, so." Everyone stopped walking and turned to look at him; Lamelle quickly found himself going red. "Not that - I particularly want to but - you know, holidays always make you a bit nostalgic for home and I - yeah," he finished quietly.
"I keep forgetting you're not actually from here," Tonie said, starting to move again, the rest of the group following him. "You always seemed so comfortable here."
"Well, I like it here," Lamelle said. "It's certainly my favorite place I've been."
"Are you from the Lost Desert originally, or. . . ?" Barit trailed off.
"No, Kiko Lake. The desert was not fun to get used to after that. I liked the transition to here much better. Actually, I just like it here better in general."
"Thank Kelpbeard that you do. I was getting really tired of looking for new defenders and when Dorina left so quick I pretty much called in all of my favors to get you."
"I appreciate the effort," Lamelle said dryly.
"Speaking of Dorina," Oten said, "Is she coming?"
"Maybe. Probably not. She's in Altador at the moment."
"What?!" Barit exclaimed. "They called her up so close to Christmas?"
"Yeah," Elon grumbled. "They forget not everybody lives in Altador and can just pop in whenever they get the whim -"
"I will never understand why she decided to work with the Cup council," Barit said. "Of all the -"
"She thought maybe having actual players from the Cup would make it easier to find a system that actually worked," Tonie said. "Dasher did it for the same reason."
"Don't tell me they dragged Dasher up there too," Lamelle said, aghast. "I know he's pretty sprightly for his age but still, that's a lot of ground and ocean to cover."
"Well, that's unfortunate," Barit responded. "And I'm assuming Jair and Filo said no, as usual?"
"Are you kidding? I don't think we even bothered inviting either of them this year."
"Well, after five straight years of "no" I think that's fair," Tonie said, pulling on a jacket as they got close to the exit of the stadium.
"Kelpbeard's beard, Tonie, what happened to your jacket?" Lamelle asked, pointing to several patches on the arms where they had been worn through.
"Hm? Oh, yeah. I need to find a new one, but, you know, hard to find anything in my size," Tonie said absentmindedly.
"Good news is that Elon could probably use it as a blanket when you're done with it," Barit joked. Elon rolled his eyes. The Maraquan Acara was unfortunately tiny when compared to Tonie. Or any other member of the team, really. Except possible Lamelle.
"Oh yes, Barit, because the size jokes never get old," he muttered sardonically. "And I'm taller than Lamelle!"
"That's not saying a whole lot," Lamelle remarked.
"Oten, do you have this problem?" Tonie asked.
"I don't wear jackets often," Oten said with a shrug.
"Don't you go Underwater Fishing?" Lamelle asked. "Doesn't it get cold up there?"
Oten merely shrugged again. By then they had reached the exit of the large building.
"You go underwater fishing?" Tonie asked with surprise. "I didn't know that -"
"Well, this has been a great day for team bonding!" Barit exclaimed. "We're learning things about each other; isn't this fantastic -"
"We're still having practice," Elon interrupted, also pulling on a jacket. Barit broke off into more grumbling. "And I'll see you all there. I've got to get going."
"Where are you going?" Tonie asked. "You're in a hurry."
"Christmas shopping," Elon grumbled. "You people are hard to shop for, you know that?"
Everyone else groaned.
"Oh, now are you trying to bail on the gift exchange?" Lamelle accused.
"No," Elon said, offended. "When have I ever tried to bail on the gift exchange?"
"Last year?" Lamelle suggested.
"The year before that," Barit said bluntly.
"Every year, if we're being honest," Tonie said with a shrug.
"Well, I'm not," Elon said. "But I may have left it to the last minute."
"As usual," Barit said.
Elon narrowed his eyes at Barit.
"You used to be so quiet when you first came here," he remarked. "What happened?"
"Oh, I realized you weren't nearly as scary as you like to think you are. Or at least as standoffish as interviews would like to believe."
"I'm not scary?"
"Elon, I don't even think you come up to my shoulder and I've seen you run from Darigan yooyus. No, you're not scary."
"Maybe I should get you all coal," Elon muttered.
Despite grumblings and complaints, all members of the team were present at the team's last practice before the holidays. Elon had decided to keep it a fairly low key practice, but the team had surprised him and kept intensifying the practice. Barit was especially fierce, and Elon didn't think to mention anything until he was pealing the third uncurled yooyu from his face. He called a break.
"Everything all right, Barit?" he asked, rubbing his jaw where the yooyu had hit. "Because while I appreciate the effort, I do need my head on occasion."
"What?" Barit said distractedly. "Oh, sorry about that. Yeah, it's just -" He sighed heavily. "The guy I was talking about, with this one stamp, sold it already. So that was frustrating."
"Ah," Elon said awkwardly, not really knowing what to say. "Well, uh, maybe another time?"
Barit sent him a withering look and Elon, deciding that he had had enough yooyus to the face for the day, make the wise to decision to leave him alone.
Barit wasn't the only one who was having a bad day. Lamelle was playing just as fierce, but it didn't show up until they started doing longer play runs.
Normally how it would work, most of the time, is that the team would form a sort of conveyor belt system out of the players. Someone would stand in the goal as goalie, toss it to whoever was playing defender and on to the next person until it hit the other goal and the whole process would repeat, although everyone would move one position over so that the person playing goalie would be playing defender, one defender would switch to goalie, and so on and so forth.
Currently the team was playing a lower key version, where Tonie stayed in the goal, Elon stayed on forward, and the only ones switching up were Barit, Lamelle, and Oten, and even they were only switching when the position was getting stale.
However, Barit and Lamelle were both obviously trying to let off steam through playing, and it was starting to get rough. It got to the point where everyone else was merely guiding each yooyu's aim, while all the speed and strength was coming from Barit and Lamelle. A yooyu from either of them would barely touch the sling of the next person before being airborne once again, direction slightly changed but otherwise unaffected.
Eventually, practice was over. Elon may have called it off a little bit early, but he was honestly a little afraid of Barit and Lamelle. Impeccable aim and fire yooyus don't mix well with frustration or anger. Barit and Lamelle went ahead of everyone into the locker room.
As they headed to the locker room, Elon couldn't help but mutter under his breath "jeez, and you call me the grumpy one".
Elon stayed with Tonie and Oten as they headed back to the locker room. Everyone was quiet and almost sullen, a far cry from the cheery and playful teasing of yesterday. However, that all changed when they got to the locker room.
"WHAT is THIS?" they heard Barit exclaim loudly. They all exchanged looks before rushing to see what was going on.
Barit was holding a neatly wrapped present and waving it around like it had personally offended him.
"Barit, that is a present," Tonie said patiently. "Probably a Day of Giving present."
"But what was it doing in my locker?" Barit asked.
"Don't know. But maybe you should open it and see." He turned to Lamelle. "Was there one in yours, too?"
"Yeah, there was," the Kiko said, holding up a rectangular package thoughtfully.
Elon exchanged glances with Tonie and Oten, and then they all hurriedly checked their lockers.
The locker room that had been gloomy and dark just moments before was now, if not quite cheerful, then at the very least lively. Presents were being opened and Elon gazed around at his team happily before he went to open his own locker.
And started in surprise as he noticed a small gift bag resting on top of his things inside the locker.
"What on earth is this?" he wondered out loud to himself, not noticing that Tonie had overheard him. Tonie grinned while admiring the jacket he had just unwrapped.
"Don't any of you know what a present looks like?" he said.
"Tonie, you should leave the joking around to Barit," Elon muttered, curiosity getting the better of him as he pulled apart the wrappings.
"HOW DID THIS HAPPEN?" exclaimed Barit, who looked torn between waving around the stamp he'd just found wrapped in his own locker and holding it close and carefully so nothing happened to it. "I was going to buy this stamp today and then it was already bought and it's the only one of these within a decent distance of here!"
"How did someone get into our lockers is a better question," Tonie muttered, pulling on the jacket he had unwrapped. "And knows my size." Oten, holding his new Lesser Spotted Fish and Cubefish Plushies to his chest, nodded.
"This is nice," Lamelle murmured, turning the waterproofed pages with pictures of Kiko Lake. "This is. . . really nice."
"No kidding," Elon said, looking at the tickets for a trip to Shenkuu. "Okay, how did this happen?"
"Well, someone had to put these here, obviously," Tonie said.
"Someone who knows I was after this stamp," Barit said, holding it up to the light to admire it.
"Someone who knows what size jacket I wear," Tonie said.
"And knows I was feeling kind of. . . homesick," Lamelle added.
"And who can navigate this maze of a stadium," Barit mentioned.
"And who wouldn't give us these at the gift exchange," Tonie reminded them.
Everyone swiveled their gaze towards Elon.
"What?" he said. "You think I put these here? I got something too," he exclaimed while waving the tickets frantically. "Would I buy myself a gift and put it in my locker to hide that I put those in yours?"
"Yes," everyone else answered in unison.
"I would not - " Elon began to defend himself. Barit faked a cough. Elon glared. "Okay, so I would, but I didn't!"
"Well, if you didn't, then who did?" Tonie asked sensibly.
Elon threw up his hands, exasperated.
"I don't know! Isn't that the million dollar question?"
"Not when we already have an answer," Lamelle retorted, smirking.
"Whatever," Elon grumbled. "Everyone go home. I'll see you all later tonight."
Later that night, broken out of their earlier un-holiday like spirit, the team was gathered in Elon's house, and they pleasantly discussed the holidays.
Well. Mostly pleasantly.
"Okay, Barit, the question has to be asked," Tonie said. "Where in Neopia did you find that horrendous sweater?"
Barit, clad in a kelp green sweater adorned with different bobbles of stamps alternated with various Maraquan petpets, all arranged in a geometric pattern, was immediately offended.
"Hey, this sweater is amazing and it's not my fault if you don't know true fashion when you see it -" Barit began hotly, but was interrupted by the doorbell. Tonie frowned and counted everyone silently, trying to figure out who they were missing.
"Who could that be?" Lamelle asked, mimicking Tonie and making sure the team was accounted for.
"I think I have an idea," Elon said as he placed his mug of borovan down on the coffee table and got up to answer the door. "Dorina!" they heard him call once the door had been opened. "You did make it back."
"Dorina!" the rest of the team chorused.
"Hey," she said, taking off her old team jacket to hang it at the door. "Sorry I'm late. I didn't miss the gift exchange, did I?"
"Nope," Tonie said. "How did you manage to convince the council to let you leave?"
"I didn't, Dasher did," Dorina answered. "He gave a very heartrending speech about wanting everyone to spend the holidays with their loved ones. Sly old coot."
Just a few minutes later they were all in a circle again, and passing around gifts. Elon, true to his word, gave everyone coal. Barit rolled his eyes when he opened it, but he wasn't alone.
"Because of course we didn't get our actual gifts earlier today, right Elon?" Lamelle said.
"I'm sure I have no idea what you're talking about," Elon replied, opening Barit's gift next. Barit had gotten everyone personalized sweaters to match his own. Elon's had a Darigan Yooyu wearing a Santa hat that lit up; Barit and Lamelle tried to convince him, along with some goading from Tonie and Dorina, to put it on. Whether it was the holiday atmosphere or the fact that it was just as cold as you'd expect for Maraqua in the winter, he did eventually put it on, which had Lamelle and Barit howling with laughter and leaning on each for support as they laughed.
Dorina gave them all various thoughtful gifts.
"I'm sorry," she said to Barit, who had gotten a waterproofed stamp album. "I tried to get that one stamp I know you've been after, but someone had already gotten it before I got back."
"That's okay," Barit said, still chuckling occasionally and wiping away tears of laughter. "Elon in that sweater is my gift for the whole year. Oh, and I already got the stamp. It showed up as a gift in my locker."
"Oh, we didn't tell you, did we?" Lamelle said. "We all had mysterious gifts show up in our locker today after practice."
"Yes, very mysterious," Barit said, staring pointedly at Elon, who sighed.
"I'm telling you, it wasn't me," Elon said. "But speaking of which, do I not get a present this year, Dorina?"
"Oh, you already got yours," Dorina said, waving her hand nonchalantly. Elon stared in confusion for a few moments, but then -
"It was YOU!" he exclaimed. "You put that present in my locker -"
"Wait, wait," Barit said. "Dorina put the presents in the lockers? Which means - Wow, Elon, you actually got us coal? I'm hurt -"
"Oh, no," Dorina said. "I just put Elon's present in his locker."
"If you didn't put the presents in the lockers, then, who did?" Tonie asked.
"Oh, Elon, of course." Barit shouted loudly and pointed at Elon accusingly. "I was going to put all of yours in there and surprise you, but Elon beat me to it, so I just put his in his locker to confuse him. It was pretty fun, actually."
"So you did put the presents in the lockers?" Barit asked Elon, pointing a finger so close to his face Elon had to go cross eyed to see it. He frowned and pushed Barit's hand out of the way.
"Yes, yes, you caught me, I'm guilty as charged."
"Speaking of guilty," Dorina said, rounding on Barit. "Barit, how did you manage to find history's ugliest sweaters and put them all in the same room? It should be a crime."
"It really should be," Elon agreed, looking down at his sweater-adorned self.
With Barit's cries of outrage, Lamelle and Tonie's laughter at Barit's expense, Elon and Dorina's attempts at peacekeeping, and many more cups of borovan, it was a very Maraquan Christmas, indeed.