Unlikely Allies: Part Six
Delma didn't know that time could pass so quickly. Nobody said anything about the first scrimmage; when she returned from the spa, Ciona seemed to be in good spirits. She felt loose and fully relaxed, knowing that the tension had been eased not only from her muscles but also her mind. For the first night in weeks she slept well, and woke anticipating the end of the week. She knew that there'd be another scrimmage and practice to get through before having a day off to do some training alone, but she had begun to think of the opportunity to work with Darigan as an opportunity to grow. It was only a bonus that they'd be getting extra practice against them; while it was true that Darigan beat them consistently, at least if they learned to adapt even slightly to their playing style, then they had an improved chance of losing less severely.
Delma attended the scrimmage and played her hardest, allowing the match to pass without a word about sportsmanship. She did notice that Team Darigan seemed to be acting more politely-- or to her mind, anyway.
Once practice was over, she invited Ciona for a swim, reminding her that there were still four days left until the opening ceremony. As they arrived at the pool, Ciona waved brightly. "Hi, Reshar! How's the water?"
Delma offered Reshar a friendly smile as she dangled her legs in the water and slid her goggles on. Her perspective had changed; she was now enjoying the exercise for the sake of the work, and not feeling like she was fighting a fruitless battle every time she hit the gym or field. Even so, she couldn't wait to start, so she offered the two a jaunty wave before dropping into the water and immediately beginning a lap.
"Good match today," Reshar offered Ciona as the Kyrii approached the pool. "The Cup will be here soon."
"I know," Ciona replied with a wistful smile. "I hope that it's a good one this year. I always enjoy visiting Altador."
"It's sure different from the citadel," Reshar agreed. "Have a good swim." He returned to his laps with the proficiency he'd been born with. Jetsams really looked as graceful in the water, Ciona thought to herself, before dropping into Delma's lane and beginning her laps.
Delma struck out and reveled in the smooth feel of the water. Swimming really helped to clear the mind, and their managers often assigned them so many laps a week for the extra exercise. Delma wasn't necessarily sure if she preferred it to running or drills, but there was something about the briskness whenever her head broke the water that she found she could really take delight in. The scrimmage today had been the second; they would have one more, and Kakoni had given them a day to do some individual training. Delma was a private person; she had friends, but she liked her alone time as well. She was very close with her teammates, and enjoyed spending time with them, but at the same she enjoyed practicing alone. Competing with others was her career, but she liked individualized challenges as well.
She saw Reshar in the adjoining lane and marveled at the Jetsam’s athleticism. He glided through the water effortlessly, and with a speed and accuracy she couldn’t quite compare to anybody she’d seen. Jetsams were made for the water; it was incredible that he was so talented both in the pool and on the field.
As she executed a neat flip turn, she passed Ciona, who was not far behind her. Delma took a moment as her arms continued their precise and mechanical motions to think about her teammate and friend. She’d been gratified to have another girl on the team, someone she could share a locker room and suite with, but Ciona had become more than just a teammate. She was, in all actuality, one of Delma’s closest friends. The Zafara knew that she could count on Ciona for anything, and they shared a sublime sense of understanding not only in-game but also during the off season. She’d had some friends but once Faerieland had drafted her she’d found it hard to tell people who wanted to be her friend from those who were looking for a share in the limelight. She’d always heard about popularity related to fame, but she’d doubted that the risks would be related to her own career. She’d always been a tad shy, but couldn’t imagine anybody approaching her just for the sake of fame or popularity. The words had come true, though, and Delma had learned to be cautious of acquaintances. It made her true friends all the more precious to her, and Delma valued Ciona very highly. Though she was the newest member of the team, Delma couldn’t imagine going to practice every day without her.
Delma glanced at the clock as she came to the wall and grimaced, aware that she’d let the time get away from her once again. Reshar was nowhere to be seen, and she suspected that he’d finished his workout and left already. She pulled herself out of the pool and glanced back to see Ciona finishing up her lap.
“What a day,” she commented to the Kyrii as she wrapped herself in her towel. “I’m beat. I think I’m going to take a nap when we get back to the room.”
“Alright,” Ciona said as she grabbed her own towel. “We’re meeting Kep for dinner, though, don’t forget...”
Delma could have hit herself for forgetting.
Her face must have shown it because Ciona smiled reassuringly. “I’ll wake you up if you oversleep.”
Delma pulled on her jacket. “Thanks.”
“Sure,” her friend replied, as they left the pool room.
“I can’t believe this,” Ciona grumbled into a mouthful of cereal.
“What? What now?” Delma reached for the daily paper and grimaced as she saw the cover picture, showing Kep stealing the ball from Babolino. “Faerieland and Darigan Continue Unusual Association,” she read aloud, frowning at the paper. “Hey, wait—“ Her eyes scanned the article quickly before she handed the paper back, staring at Ciona in disbelief. “Did that really say what I think it said?”
“Sounds like it,” Ciona replied grimly, taking a long gulp of orange juice.
“How can the press be displeased with scrimmages?” She frowned, thinking. “How did the press even get pictures?”
Ciona shrugged gloomily. “I dunno...”
Delma only grunted in response. “The press can be surprised. We’re not doing anything wrong.”
Ciona finished her cereal and stood up. “I wonder if everybody will see it that way, though.”
“So, you probably saw the paper this morning,” Kakoni said calmly as Delma and Ciona, fresh from a long bike ride, traipsed into the boys’ suite and sat on the floor near the couch. “I personally don’t care what the press has to say about us and other teams. Gossip and rumors are only petty attempts to garner attention. When we decided to extent the hand of friendship to Darigan, we didn’t do it for publicity. We wanted to break the cycle of suspicion and stereotypes and instead begin one of friendship. I know you’ve all been careful, but I wanted to remind you all that your safety is the primary importance. Clearly, the press doesn’t think highly of our decision, or at least has decided to question it. I stand by our original decision: We are not a team known for our aloofness, nor will we make a new reputation for ourselves.”
Delma drank from her water bottle as she listened. Kakoni rarely gave speeches for too long unless he felt passionate. Well, it was a fair point. Delma was tired of being antagonized for her decisions regarding private friendship.
Kakoni then faced them with a grim smile and held out a large sack. “It’s mail time, folks. I have collected all the mail since our last session, before we touched down in Altador. Enjoy some writer’s cramp.”
Delma grumbled good-naturedly with Valtonous as Kakoni handed out stacks of neomail printouts and letters. Delma always liked to hear from the fans; knowing that they still had support was what kept her going some days.
The Zafara paged through the earliest printouts, forming answers in her head. It was funny, but some of the fans only seemed to become more ardent once replies were written, as if they doubted that the team would receive the letters at all and heartened to have proof.
It was when she was reading a letter from only a few days ago that she had to suppress a groan. There’s pictures of you and Ciona with Kep B. and Tandrak S. from Team Darigan all over the papers and in exclusive Neovision clips. Are you sure that you want to spend so much time with Darigan? I appreciated the last letter you wrote to me, but I have to question your judgement in spending so much time with people like them...
Not only the press, but the fans, too, were questioning them? Delma felt vaguely like beating her head against the wall.
“Kakoni...” Ciona sounded worried.
Their captain looked up from the couch. “What is it?”
Ciona was sprawled across the floor, lying on her stomach with her legs in the air. She twisted to look at the Bruce. “This person sounds mutinous because he saw some pictures in the press of us and Darigan together... I mean, really unhappy about it. Violent...”
Kakoni mumbled something that Delma couldn’t make out. “Does anybody else have a letter about this?”
She, Valt, and Babs all nodded reluctantly.
Kakoni sighed. “Nothing we can do about it. But tell me, would you prefer to establish a rivalry between them at this point?”
Babs shook his head. “I prefer a cautious alliance, to be honest.”
Delma felt herself nodding as she thought of Tandrak and Kep. She was glad for their friendship, however rushed, cautious, or forced it was. She’d genuinely enjoyed their company.
Kakoni sighed and shook his head. “I’ll let you reply on your own. I’m going to go talk to Layton about this, and see if he’s been having any problems.” He stood and left the room.
Cautiously Delma stood and gathered all of her mail into a neat pile, which she held closely. “I’ll see you guys at dinner.” As Ciona stood to follow her to her room, she held the door open. It was going to be a long and tedious afternoon of letter-writing, she suspected.
"Hey, Delma." Kakoni took a seat in the chair next to her. Delma stared moodily at the muffin on her plate. "Did you sleep well?"
"Yes," Delma replied, then took a long drink of water. "Why... Why can't we just make our own decisions?" She'd been up late writing responses to her letters, and as the evening wore on she'd grown increasingly annoyed with what her fans had to say about the publicity she'd gotten recently in Darigan's company.
Kakoni gave her a grim smile. "So, you had a few unfriendly letters?"
Delma rolled her eyes. "Most people were curious, like I owed them an explanation. One of the letters actually seemed violently angry... I don't understand. It's not like Darigan was ever our sworn enemies. We've never even really interacted before outside of games. There's never been any confrontations or anything." She poked her muffin sadly before taking a bite of it.
Kakoni nodded sympathetically. "I understand. I don't have an explanation, though." He shrugged. "Like I said, there's not a lot I can do about it. Just remember ultimately that while pleasing fans is important, your decisions are your own to make."
Delma wiped her hands briskly and stood, nodding once to her captain. "Practice isn't until after lunch, isn't that right?"
"Yes. And don't forget that it's a scrimmage again. The last one." Kakoni returned to his pancakes with zeal.
Delma stared at Ciona curiously. The Kyrii was standing on her head, leaning against the wall for support, when she came in. "Ciona, what are you doing?"
"Practicing my dexterity," Ciona replied casually.
Delma moved around her to sit on the couch, reviewing her playbook and occasionally glancing up to watch her friend. However, the minute she lifted her hands from the floor, she began to wobble dangerously, and so had to regain her balance.
Delma was tracing the path of one of the little dots on the field pictured in her playbook when a huge crash startled her. She whirled around to find Ciona sitting upright and a bookshelf lying facedown on the floor.
"Ciona..." Delma didn't know if she should be amused or exasperated.
Ciona stood, grinning sheepishly, and glanced at the time. "Umm... sorry about that. But anyway, Delma! Have you picked out what you'll be wearing at the Opening Ceremony yet?"
Delma sighed and shook her head with a rueful grin.
Ciona beamed and leapt up from the sofa. "Let's go pick out our outfits then!"
Delma allowed her friend to pull her across the room to their bedroom, grinning at Ciona's cheerfulness.
"So are you ready for the Cup?" the Zafara said calmly as Ciona opened the large wardrobe grandly and began pawing through dresses.
"Oh, I think so," Ciona replied with a smirk. "We've been working hard. There's not much more we can to with two days left. Whatever happens, happens."
Delma smiled and came to stand next to her. "That one is pretty," she commented as Ciona pulled out a teal dress with burgundy accents.
Ciona held it up against herself, considering, before putting it back on the rack. "Too hot... I want one with shorter sleeves."
Delma smiled at Ciona and began looking through the few dresses that had accompanied her on the trip. It did not take her long to pick the one she wanted, a pastel-hued dress in precious pink with a full skirt. She held it up to herself and then smiled at her reflection.
"Delma, do you think this one looks good?" Ciona held up another dress as Delma slid hers back into the closet.
Delma looked up. It was a blue dress that had some sort of gauzy skirt.
"I want to wear my necklace with it," Ciona clarified, spinning around the room and stopping at the bathroom. "I'm going to put it on. Don't go anywhere!"
Like she was likely to, Delma thought fondly.
Ciona emerged from the bathroom looking beautiful in a dress suited for a princess. She walked over to her desk and located the necklace she had gotten while they were shopping in Altador, fastened it loosely about her neck, and turned to look at Delma hopefully. "Is it a good match?"
"You look ready for the Cup to begin," Delma said with a smile, rocking back on her bed.
Ciona twirled once before examining herself in the mirror. "I'll have to do something about my hair," she finally decided, "for the ceremony. But I think it's really good. The necklace matches quite well." She was looking over her shoulder at Delma when she gasped. "Sweet Fyora! Delma, we're going to be late for practice!"
Delma turned around at looked at the clock on the wall before groaning. "Perfect."
Ciona smiled at her. "Well, why don't you go, and I'll catch up to you. It's not your fault that I decided to try it on, but changing out of this dress will only take longer..."
"I'll wait," Delma said with a shrug.
"I don't want you to get in trouble because you were late. Just tell Kakoni that I'm on my way." She patted Delma's hand and rushed into the bathroom.
Delma stared at the closed door for a while before shrugging and grabbing her water bottle. She left the room at a jog and arrived on the practice field not a moment too soon; Babolino was just tugging his shoelaces tighter, and Darigan was breaking a huddle.
"Ciona lost track of time," Delma told Kakoni. "She's on her way, though."
Kakoni nodded but said nothing. As professional athletes, punctuality was one of their greatest assets, and having a team that was always late was a poor omen. It was the first time Ciona had been late to a practice, though, so he let it slide.
"Hey, Kakoni," Layton called. "Where's your fifth?"
Kakoni waved him off. "She's on her way. Let's just get started, five-on-four."
Layton looked dubious but assented nevertheless.
"You'll have to go double," Kakoni said to Delma. "We'll try an impromptu formation based on the one-three so that Babs is forward and you and I are back. I'll switch as needed."
Delma nodded as she stepped a few paces to the side, hoping that Ciona would arrive soon. Changing out of a dress didn't take that long.
As the first match began, Delma felt suddenly that they had a hard enough time keeping up with Darigan when they had five players, and would be sure to perform abysmally without her.
Layton reached the first Yooyu and dodged past Babolino. Delma forced herself to focus and not let her mind wander. The ball swung gracefully into the net and Delma knew she was shaking her head. It had really begun now.
Layton scored more than Tandrak but both of them were clearly extremely effective in exploiting Faerieland’s lack of defender. Kakoni was not as skilled as Ciona and it showed, despite his best efforts. Faerieland’s possession of the ball was cut clearly.
After a third round on not scoring once, Babolino threw his hands up in frustration. “Delma, where is she?”
Delma huffed a long sigh. “I’m not her keeper. She said she’d right behind me.”
Kakoni tilted his head toward Layton. “Do you guys mind waiting while Delma goes to check on her?” His tone of voice conveyed how disappointed he was in Ciona.
The Darigan team mumbled agreement and Delma jogged off the field, wondering why she had to be picked to run back and forth.
“Ciona, what are you doing?” Delma demanded as she opened the door to her suite.
It was oddly silent, and Delma frowned, moving into the bathroom. There was no sign of Ciona. A breeze blew through a window that Delma knew she hadn’t left open, and she whirled, a sudden and intense feeling of unease gnawing through her stomach and making her dizzy and sick with worry.
Delma stumbled over to the window and fell to her knees, glancing around for a clue, a note perhaps. Why would Ciona run away, days before the tournament began? Runaways usually left tearful notes, right? Delma didn’t see anything but as she lifted herself high enough to look out the window, something hard pressed into her knee.
With a mixture of curiosity and desperation, Delma bent to see what it was. Delicately she picked up the necklace sparkling with shades of blue and green, and looked back out the window helplessly.
To be continued...