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Between Eighteenth and First Place


by ma_trojas

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Earmuffs, earmuffs, earmuffs, where are you? Prytariel murmured to herself as she walked through the locker room, peering down each row and scanning the bench for them. She had almost finished putting away her gear for the day when Minae said their team was needed for (yet another) press conference, so Prytariel was trying to collect the scattered pieces of her uniform.

     She didn’t exactly need to keep her ears warm in order to explain to the reporter that yes Terror Mountain had lost again today, of course, she’s still proud of all her teammates and fans, and no they don’t plan on succumbing to the winner’s curse, but it was important to her that they looked the part of the champion team. We should try to keep what dignity we have left, she internally grumbled to herself. It was common knowledge that champions had a difficult time in the year directly after a win, but even considering the unofficial “winner’s curse”, losing three out of three days was a particularly bad start.

     Well, for the first day at least we won two of the games – shame that one of them wasn’t the main event, though. At least we’ve avoided being completely swept (yet). Yet being the keyword... Kiko Lake is pretty strong, and their fans are pretty passionate, so – wait, stop, I’m a yooyuball player, that’s what I should focus on, the other games are –

     “Careful there!”

     The aisha was so absorbed in her thoughts that she nearly tripped over a green yooyuball racket that was protruding into the aisle. Just in time, she stumbled around it and steadied herself on a bench.

     “Sorry, didn’t think anyone would still be here so I sorta spread out my stuff.” A faerie zafara picked up the racket and tucked it into a large green bag, where it slotted in neatly next to magenta gloves.

     Delma Harrence, left defender for Team Faerieland, Prytariel’s brain reminded her. Weeks of strategizing for appearances both on and off the court had imprinted every player profile into her mind, and now she couldn’t help but think of her peers with their full name and team position.

     “No worries, I’m only here to grab something I forgot.” Prytariel would have been happy to leave it at that, but Delma Harrence seemed to want to chat. Ugh.

     “Yeah, I saw your members outside hiding from the reporters. Everyone wants a piece of the number one team, huh?”

     The rational part of Prytariel’s brain knew that this was typical meaningless small-talk, something she navigated about a thousand times a day during Altador Cup season. The tired part of her brain registered this as a taunt from a consistently low-ranking team, relishing the precipitous fall of the former champions into their tier.

     It had been a long three days.

     Hoping that she didn’t sound as strained as she felt, Prytariel forced out, “Well, there hasn’t been anything else newsworthy so far, so can’t go wrong with a soundbite from the previous winners.”

     Was there a way to subtly exit the conversation? Stress, disappointment, frustration – the dismal start to this season had allowed something poisonous to fester within her, and Prytariel wasn’t sure how much longer she could keep it from bubbling over, especially with the chatty zafara intent on whittling away her last defences.

     “But they realize that we don’t have much to say besides what they already know from the results, right?” the Faerieland member mused. “No new players, no transfers, no major upsets –“

     “Aside from last year’s winners being tied for last place,” Prytariel cut across bluntly. Shoot. She said that out loud. Fortunately, the zafara seemed to take it in stride.

     “Aside from Terror Mountain being a bit low in the rankings, yeah,” she conceded. “But you guys have plenty of time to climb your way back up, and, uh, everyone loves an underdog story?”

     “Is that what Faerieland tells itself every year?” Yes, perfect, nice one Prytariel, she fumed to herself. Why ignore the elephante in the room when you can run over and high-five it? Here they were, first and eighteenth place in the previous Cup, but now tied for dead last. Whatever excuses she made (it’s barely the first week, it’s the winner’s curse, our team’s just getting acclimated), it was an embarrassing reality that made it difficult to meet the eyes of her fans this year.

     But that shame didn’t give her a pass to act like a jerk to Team Faerieland.

     Prytariel quickly tried to correct herself. “Ugh, wait, sorry, that came out wrong, I didn’t mean –“

     “It’s okay.” Delma Harrence’s expression had less of her lightheartedness now, more of something earnest and unreadable. “Everyone knows we’re not exactly top contenders each year. But, ah, how should I say it? We still take it seriously. It’s still important to us.”

     For a moment Prytariel recalled the games she played against Team Faerieland, all the times she had to evade Delma Harrence, left defender, to get to the opposing side’s goal. There was the same intensity burning in her cyan eyes when she was guarding her team’s goal and protecting her team’s reputation. A defender.

     Prytariel looked away. The moment stretched on as she studied the chipped paint of the lockers.

     “Elbin still talks about you sometimes, y’know.”

     This surprised Prytariel enough that she turned back around to stare wide-eyed at the zafara. Elbin hadn’t been a part of Terror Mountain since the fourth year of the Cup, after which he left for Tyrannia and subsequently Faerieland.

     “Really? Ah, erm, how’s he doing? How’s he liking your team?” Was that appropriate, to ask an opponent about their team? Was the question too weird after so much time? Prytariel had rehearsed media responses for most players whom she’d had notable contact with, but something about discussing a mutual teammate with an opponent caught her off guard – or maybe it was just Delma who caught her off guard.

     “Well, this is the longest he’s stayed on a team so I can only assume he’s fine where he is. Can’t shake off those foul play allegations, but I think those are just haters who are trying to get him to transfer again.”

     Prytariel hummed in acknowledgement. Maybe she should be checking up on her old teammates more. But where was Delma going with this? Why were they still talking, anyway?

     Like she had read her mind, Delma continued, “Anyway, I just wanted to bring up El because sometimes he’ll pull off these crazy, risky, genius moves when we think it’s over for us, and he credits it to his old captain who always came in clutch no matter what shape her team was in.”

     Delma paused, then said a bit more slowly, “What I’m saying is, there’s a lot more to win in Altador Cup than whatever number you get at the end of the season.”

     Before Prytariel could start to unpack the meaning of that, or the meaning of Delma feeling the need to say that, a voice rang out through the locker room.

     “Hey, captain! Did you find them? Everyone’s getting real antsy out there!”

     “That’s Minae,” Prytariel startled. “I should really get going, they’ve been waiting for me for a while now.”

     “Of course! Sorry for keeping you so long. Are these what you’re looking for?” Delma picked up a pair of earmuffs that had fallen behind her bag.

     “Yes, thanks, I was looking –“ Before Prytariel could finish, Delma reached over and put the earmuffs on snugly over the aisha’s hood.

     “Look forward to playin’ you soon, captain~” With one final adjustment to the earmuffs, Delma picked up her bag and walked out of the locker room. Instead of following her out immediately, Prytariel gave herself a few seconds to take some deep breaths and prepare for a brief interview. Somehow, the negativity that clouded her mind earlier was easier to shake off now.

     As she walked out into the mild summer night, she knew she didn’t need the extra warmth from her earmuffs, but it was a comfort nonetheless.

     The End.

 
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