Preparing Neopia for the Meepits Circulation: 197,723,333 Issue: 999 | 12th day of Sleeping, Y26
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Off-Season's Greetings

by azurryn


Kep asks the question right after their last practice, just as Layton's getting ready to dismiss the team.

     "So… what's everyone planning to do over the Winter Starlight break?"

     Unusual silence falls over the Darigan Yooyuball team in the wake of the question, a stark contrast from their usual rowdiness. Reshar frowns thoughtfully; Tormo huffs and sighs; Layton occupies himself by looking around at his team. Eventually, it's Tandrak who breaks it with a laugh, shrug and swish of his tail as he gets to his feet.

     "Practise, of course," he answers. "Gotta keep sharp, right? The Yooyuball's not gonna — "

     "You're still banned until your wrist recovers," Layton cuts in, glaring at Tandrak. He may be notoriously bad at following instructions, but even he doesn't go as far as to defy a direct order from the captain… usually. Tandrak fixes him with a defiant stare that Layton meets with easy impassivity, long used to his most stubborn team member's obstinacy.

     After another long minute of unbroken silence, Tandrak huffs in annoyance and looks back at the rest of the team instead. "Fine. I guess I have no plans then, since Vicky's just banned me from practising."

     "That's Vickles to you," Layton says, more for show than anything else since the nickname has long since taken root. It's not like he doesn't know what his team calls him the moment he turns around; Tandrak's just the only one who dares to call him that to his face. "It's for your own good. Knowing you, you'll incur another injury that will take you out of the running for the next season." He narrows his eyes at Tandrak. "Or should I start looking for your substitute now?"

     "Harsh. You wound me, Captain." Despite his words, Tandrak is evidently unruffled by the threat — he does hear it several times every season. "So I don't have plans, but what about everyone else? Terror? You have plans?"

     "Not really," Tormo grumbles, crossing his arms. "My family's taking a stand against Winter Starlight this year. Something about everyone expecting every Bruce to celebrate, so they refuse. So I guess I'll just make lots of Neggnog to tide me over until practice starts up again."

     "My family's on vacation in Maraqua," Reshar says, sounding offended. It sounds like he still hasn't forgiven Hughlis for the three goals he scored last Cup. "I'm not going. So I'll be at home by myself."

     "Captain?" Kep asks, glancing over. Layton just shakes his head. He's been with his team long enough that they know he doesn't have much family to speak of beyond the members gathered on the pitch right now.

     Sure enough, Kep doesn't look surprised, her mouth curling up into a fanged smile as she glances around at the others. "Sounds like it's no plans all around this year, huh, team? Same here. It's looking like a long, boring Winter Starlight for me, so I'm braced to pretend that the Month of Sleeping came a little early." Kep laughs. "But here I thought you'd all have more to do than me!"

     "Don't rub it in," Tormo groans.

     Reshar announces, "You won't catch me in Maraqua until I've had my revenge on the pitch!"

     "I'd offer to practise with you, but…"

     "Don't even try, Shaye, Captain's glaring at me already. Anyway, your shots are — "

     "I have an idea!" Tandrak announces, drowning out whatever Reshar was going to say about his shooting. Not that Layton doesn't already have an excellent guess for that. "Since we're all free anyway, and it doesn't look like anyone of us actively doesn't want to celebrate… except maybe Vicky…"

     "I don't actually have any objections to Winter Starlight," Vickles says, his tone dry and crisp. "As long as the unbanned members put in their practice time and banned members don't touch a Yooyuball."

     "Yeah, well, anyway. As I was saying…" Tandrak crosses his arms, smirking in a way that always makes his fan club squeal in the stands. Layton is so used to being deafened that the answering silence is actually stranger. "Since we're all free, why do we have to be free alone? There's five of us, right?"

     "…What are you suggesting?" Tormo asks suspiciously. "If you're going to bring up Yooyuball Cliffhanger again — "

     "No! Why are you so suspicious? That was one time! And nobody broke a limb except me, anyway. Plus we can't play it because I'm banned from touching a Yooyuball, remember?" Tandrak slides a meaningful look in Layton's direction as he speaks, which Layton ignores. As ever, that still doesn't put Tandrak out; he continues talking without missing a beat. "I'm saying we should meet up. Have some fun together. Team bonding over Winter Starlight? You get my drift?"

     "Hmm…" Kep frowns, looking around at them. "I don't know. We see each other all year already, you know? I usually use Winter Starlight as a break from seeing the lot of you for a while. No offence, we're a great team, but sometimes you all stink. Off the pitch, I mean."

     "Hey!" Reshar protests.

     "C'mon, Kep, don't be a spoilsport," Tandrak presses. "I'll even make sure Reshar takes a shower, never mind that he's rejecting all things water right now. You'd think he was Team Lost Desert."

     "Don't you gang up on me," Reshar growls. "I could crush all of Team Lost Desert with my tail."

     "Wait, so you're suggesting a party?" Tormo interrupts, grabbing Reshar's fin before he can advance, which Layton is thankful for. Despite his nickname, Tormo is long used to sorting out these little tiffs. "And who's hosting?"

     "Well…" Tandrak turns towards Layton again, and this time, the rest of the team follows suit. Layton narrows his gaze as he feels four pairs of expectant eyes on him, flicking his tongue in exasperation.

     "I would've expected you to volunteer, what with this being your idea," Layton says bluntly, looking straight at Tandrak. Unfortunately, Tandrak's too shameless to perturb.

     "Your place is bigger," Tandrak answers.

     "I didn't agree to this," Layton counters.

     "Would you really turn us down now?" Tandrak smirks. "It's the holidays. No festive spirit, Captain?"

     "No, wait!" Reshar exclaims before Layton can reply. "Why do you know how big Cap's place is? Have you been? I want to see!"

     "I guess it doesn't sound terrible," Tormo says thoughtfully. "Beats drinking Neggnog at home all week."

     "Well, if we're all going…" Kep shrugs. "I don't mind. I've had to do worse."

     "C'mon, Vicky," Tandrak purrs in a terribly un-Gelert-like way. "Don't let us down."

     …In all honesty, Layton is tempted to say no just to needle Tandrak for his presumptuous suggestion, but he's already made up his mind. At its heart, the suggestion really isn't a bad one. After all, they're all free. Why not spend a little time together?

     Even if his home was just volunteered against his will.

     "Fine," Layton relents, and adds before the cheering can break out, "but we're making it a potluck. If you don't come with food or drinks, I won't let you in."

     "Oh. Well." Tandrak shrugs. "I'm sure I can find something."

     "I'll order some pizzas," Kep mutters.

     "Popcorn?" Reshar asks.

     "I hope you all like Neggnog," Tormo finishes helpfully.

     - - -

     "First one here!" Tandrak proclaims triumphantly. "Fork over the Neopoints, Bonnefie."

     "You cheated!" Kep shoots back. "Don't think I didn't see you take the shortcut! Also, you're not carrying pizzas!"

     "I'm carrying cookies, and I have a handicap." Tandrak shakes his bandaged arm. "You're just a sore loser."

     "Say that again," Kep threatens. Neither of them seem to have noticed Layton waiting at the door, waiting for them to come in. Of course, his team is racing like children all over the Citadel. They're the pride of Darigan and all.

     Rolling his eyes, Layton ushers them indoors before they can make even more of a scene. The last thing he hears as Kep and Tandrak wander into his living room is this glowing gem of an exchange:

     "I bet all your cookies are broken."

     "Wanna bet? I'll wager ten thousand."


     Tormo's arrival is comparatively calm. He comes with a whole trolley piled high with Neggs and cooking equipment that Layton has never seen anywhere but in the windows of stores he doesn't go into. "I figured I'd bring over all the stuff," Tormo says. "No offence, Captain, but you don't look like the cooking type."

     He's quite right, so Layton can hardly take offence.

     By the time Reshar arrives, bringing with him a Cellblock board and enough popcorn and snacks to feed two Yooyuball teams, the others have already made themselves at home. Kep and Tandrak keep wandering into Layton's under-used kitchen to see Tormo at work, at least until they get chased out by a certain whisk-wielding local Terror. The cookie jars are open, the pizza boxes are laid out on the living room table, and with Reshar's snacks now added to the mix they have more than enough food to last a day and a night.

     "Let's put on a movie," Tandrak says. "We have popcorn and all the good stuff. And it's the perfect time of the year for one of those cheesy holiday flicks. How about White Winter Starlight?"

     "No!" Tormo yells from the kitchen. "Put on A Winter Starlight Story!"

     "Why are you assuming I just have these movies ready to go?" Layton mutters.

     "I'm assuming you'll find a way to get them going even if you don't. I believe in you, Captain."

     And with that, Tandrak returns to the kitchen to once again get yelled at for sampling Neggnog in progress. Layton rolls his eyes.

     He does start a movie going, but out of spite, he puts on It's a Wonderful Neopian Life instead. Nobody seems to mind by the time they're settled in with snacks, though; they've all had to watch the movie at one point or another, so nobody actually pays attention to it. Layton ends up refereeing a popcorn-flinging fight instead… when he's not participating, anyway. He's not above that.

     The real highlight of the day rolls around when Tormo checks on the Neggnog and declares it chilled enough to drink. The team's cheers when Layton helps Tormo bring in the first batch could rival a full stadium, and Layton is more than familiar with that level of noise. It's a good thing Tormo made plenty with how fast the team guzzles it — and Layton has to admit, it is very, very good Neggnog.

     "Hey, Terror, never knew you were any good in the kitchen." Kep is starting to look and sound a little buzzed… and Tandrak is definitely rubbing off on him if he's starting to make stupid puns like that. "This is better than your defence game."

     "I'm going to take that as a compliment and not you insulting how good I am on the pitch," Tormo answers haughtily, but he can't keep the pleased smile off his face. "Seconds?"

     It's more like fifths at this point, but nobody turns it down.

     The sun has long since set by the time the noise starts winding down, but not a single one of the team has stirred out of Layton's living room. In fact, they've all managed to make little dens for themselves. Layton had set out extra bean bags, cushions and blankets in anticipation of today; he may not have volunteered his home, but he'd had no intentions of being a bad host. But now he's thinking he may have made it too comfortable, because before he realises what's going on, half his team is snoozing in various spots around his living room.

     "I agreed to a party, not a sleepover," he says.

     "Eh," Tandrak mumbles lazily from beneath his blanket fort. Layton can only see a single ear and a few tufts of red fur poking out from underneath the pile. "Party, sleepover, what's the difference?"

     "The number of Neopians asleep on my floor," Layton snaps back, but makes sure to keep his voice down. Reshar's already asleep and he doesn't want to wake him up.

     "Just get on the floor and join us, Cap." Tandrak rolls over, somehow managing to free an arm to pat the spot next to him in invitation.

     Layton sighs, but doesn't bother raising a protest. Instead, he slides off the couch and pulls up a blanket on the ground next to Tandrak.

     Maybe it's a bit silly when has a perfectly good bed upstairs, but it just… feels about right.

     - - -

     The next morning dawns to complaints of cricks in necks and squashed tails, which Layton isn't surprised by, considering the sleeping postures of some of his team members. But everyone still heads out like clockwork for their drills — Winter Starlight or not, they all know to keep in shape. Layton will admit he's proud of them for that, and they deserve to hear it. Reshar is hardly their newbie after all these years, but even so, he still lights up like a Christmas tree at the praise. Very seasonal of him.

     Layton expects the party to break up after they're done with the drills, but when everyone files back into his living room, Tormo instead brings out another batch of Neggnog (Layton has no idea how they didn't finish it the evening before, or if Tormo somehow found the time to make a new batch sometime between then and now). And that settles it.

     Well, there's still enough food left for lunch, anyway.

     Taking two mugs of Neggnog, Layton joins Tandrak on his couch. Tandrak accepts the offered mug with a word of thanks; there's a rare moment of peace as they both sip at their drinks without speaking. At least, until Tandrak decides as usual that he can no longer keep his mouth shut.

     "So?" Tandrak asks, smirking.

     "So what?" Layton shoots back, though he already knows where this conversation is going.

     Tandrak laughs, reclining on Layton's couch like it's his own. His tail waves lazily in the air. "My idea was a good one, wasn't it?"

     "Hmph." Layton looks around the room at the rest of his team. Kep has started a game of Cellblock with Reshar; they're playing with cookies instead of the actual pieces, and seem to have forgotten whose colours were whose based on the arguing (while they continue playing anyway). Tormo is hovering next to them and commentating between serving up more Neggnog and cookies, as if they needed more ammunition.

     There are crumbs everywhere, his living room is an unrecognisable mess, and he doesn't even want to think of the clean-up that'll have to be done after this — though, of course, he fully intends it to be a team effort. And yet, even so…

     Well, Layton can't really find it in himself to be annoyed.

     Shaking his head, Layton takes a sip of the Neggnog that Tormo was complaining he'd have to make for himself, although it isn't even a drink he particularly likes. He won't say it out loud — these just aren't words that Layton Vickles would speak into existence — but he can't deny that it does stoke a warmth in him.

     "It's not bad," he concedes.

     Maybe next year, he'll have to get the team together again for Winter Starlight. Team bonding is important, after all.

     The End.

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