This Is Our Year
Watching little Garren take a Clockwork Yooyu in the face was hardly the highlight of my day.
It was late in the season of the Junior Yooyuball League I run with Ilsa. He was convinced the kids were ready for it, and while I had my doubts, I’ve always trusted his judgement. I guess that happens when you grow up with someone. The only problem is, Ilsa turned out to be very wrong. Not only had we lost a Fire Yooyu, which is probably still running around the poor farmers’ fields in Meri Acres, but one of the kids got stuck in a tree after being carried away by a Faerie Yooyu, and Garren’s ears were singed in the Clockwork Yooyu’s explosion.
“And this,” I said to Ilsa while I bandaged up Garren’s ears, “is why we should stick to regular Yooyus in the Junior Leagues.”
Garren, on the other hand, seemed to disagree. Despite the explosion, he’d done a fine job as Goalkeeper that day, and had either bravely or foolishly decided to take the ball full in the face rather than surrendering his goal. As such, he’d easily become the most popular player on the team, and boy was he soaking it up.
“The boy’s fine, Fi,” Ilsa said, giving the small Lupe a pat on the back. “Granted, I hadn’t accounted for the Yooyu to blow up quite so quickly, but it ended up alright in the end.”
I sighed, deciding I would deal with Ilsa’s ill discretion later, and gave Garren an encouraging smile. “You played better than I’ve ever seen today, Garren,” I told him. “I wouldn’t be surprised if you’re recruited for Team Meridell someday.”
At this, the little Lupe’s eyes grew wide. “Do you really think so?” he asked, his excitement made all the more amusing by his heavily bandaged ears. “Do you really think that I could play for Meridell?”
Ilsa laughed his deep, booming laugh that I always thought fit his large stature perfectly. “Fiorina doesn’t give out compliments that she doesn’t mean, kiddo. I’d say you’ve got a fighting chance. Just keep up the good work, and…” Ilsa winked slyly, “try to keep out of the way of those Clockwork Yooyus.”
Garren blushed bright enough to see through his red fur and offered his awkward thanks before rejoining his friends, who were already reenacting his marvelous save. I couldn’t help but grin after him, and then I heard Ilsa laughing.
“What’s so funny?” I asked, beginning to gather up the gear we’d brought.
Ilsa grabbed an equipment bag from the thick grass and began loading it before replying. “I’m not saying you play favorites, Fi.” He raised his red eyebrows and smirked. “But you’ve taken quite a liking to that kid. Play for Meridell someday, will he?”
“Well, he certainly has the potential,” I said. “And I suppose… he reminds me a bit of you.”
“Fi, you’ve been to all the team practices… I’m certain you know I’m not a Goalkeeper.”
I shook my head. “That’s not what I mean. He’s stubborn. Determined. Like you.”
Ilsa shrugged the bag he had finished loading onto one of his large shoulders and stood up straight. Though I’d known him all my life, his height never ceased to amaze me. The tips of my ears went only barely past his elbow. “Hopefully that stubbornness comes in handy this year,” he said as we walked off of the field, and then he paused and whistled. “Ten years,” he said. “Can you believe this will be our tenth cup?”
I laughed, perhaps with an edge of sarcasm. “Ten years and nothing to show for it. Ten years of being so frustratingly close.”
Ilsa only smiled, ever the optimist. “This is our year, Fi,” he said. “It’s Altador Cup X. This is the big one.”
One thing I’d learned about myself after ten years of this is that the nerves never really go away, at least not for me. I tried to ignore the knotted feeling in my stomach as Ilsa’s words echoed in my head.
This is the big one.
Pre-tournament Press is never as fun as you might think. Sure, the interviewers mean well, but it’s more than a little unsettling to respond to the endless arrays of, “So, Fiorina, what do you say to the predictions that Meridell will finish around the middle of the pack yet again?” and “Fiorina, what can you tell you tell us about Meridell’s strategy this year?” and the all-time favorite “Fiorina, why do you think that, after all of these years, Meridell still can’t seem to manage to snag that big win?”
I don’t know why they bother asking me these questions every year, because it’s never me they quote. Most of the time it’s Windelle, but this year it’s Ilsa. “There is a strategy in place that will over time help us reach the top.” Vague. To the point. Modestly confident. Very Ilsa. As his answer is recorded for the press and the Neopian Times, I sit just outside of the horde of interviewers, in full uniform, staring down at my boots and contemplating the Junior League game yesterday and the last ten years. Despite the lack of victory, I wouldn’t trade it for all of Neopia, which is pretty much what I tell the interviewers every year. Maybe that’s why they pay very little attention to me now. It matters little to me. I’d much rather be practicing.
I don’t have to wait long for my wish. Soon, Windelle is ushering the team away from the journalists. We arrived in Altador just this morning, fully prepared to be the first team in the Coliseum to practice, only to be cut off by the press. I’d spent the whole journey to Altador wondering how the Junior League team was doing in their final game. They’d managed to make it to the top of their tournament, and I’m hoping that’s a good omen for us.
“Fiorina!” Windelle calls in my direction and waves his arm toward the Coliseum. “Let’s get going! Krawk Island is eyeing the arena!”
I’m off the stool in seconds, eager to begin. The nerves are still present, but I know that as soon as I step into that Coliseum, the rush of adrenaline will far outweigh the nerves. I try and fail to keep the smile off of my face as I run after my team, so I decide not to fight it, and give the press my most winning and confident smile.
I’m right about the Coliseum. Though the seats are empty, my arms, legs, wings, and even my tail are buzzing with excitement. By the time Windelle releases the first Yooyu, I’m nearly bouncing in place.
And then, I run.***
When we were younger, Ilsa and I probably frightened our mothers to bits. Yooyus weren’t exactly accessible in Meri Acres, so we made do with whatever we could find. We spent sunny afternoons beside my family’s Juppie fields, throwing balls back and forth in gear poorly made of sticks and old potato sacks, laughing as our attempt to build a ball similar to a Clockwork Yooyu literally blew up in our faces, panicking then as we noticed the small fire in the Juppie field.
To this day, I don’t think I’ve ever seen Ilsa run faster. He was to the stream and back within seconds, putting out the fire and soaking me to the bone in one swift swing of a bucket. As luck would have it, none of the Juppies were actually harmed, and we laughed until tears streamed down our faces. Those were the best days of my life.
Those are the days I try to think about when it all becomes too much, when the pressure of the Cup overwhelms me. Those were the days when we didn’t keep score. They were the days before stats or tournaments or fancy leather boots or Coliseums. They were the days when I was just a young Eyrie, barely bigger than a Yooyu myself, struggling to keep up with Ilsa’s huge strides, not even knowing how much better that would make me.
In those days, every game felt like a win.***
Our practice game is interrupted by a persistent Weewoo, who seems to be trying to nest on Yoris Obbles’ head. “Will someone please get this thing off of me?” the JubJub yelled, bouncing from one foot to the other in an unsuccessful attempt to unbalance the bird. Though I’m on the other side of the Coliseum, I can hear Ilsa laughing. Windelle seems to be using the distraction as a break, and is sitting on the ground, grinning. Practice has been good so far.
I begin a steady jog toward Yoris, to see if I can help, but it’s unnecessary. The Weewoo is already resting on Ilsa’s huge left palm, and he appears to be reading something. As I reach Ilsa’s side, the Weewoo flies away.
“What is it, Ilsa?” I ask. I try standing on my tiptoes to read over his shoulder before I remember that there’s no way that’s going to happen, and then I flap my wings softly to hover a few inches off of the ground. However, I barely read a word before Ilsa is whooping and bouncing around like a child. “The kids won their tournament!” he shouted.
I’m so happy that I let out a “Whoop!” as well, and take off into the air to do some flips. As I do, whatever nerves were left disappear into the clouds. I return to the Coliseum after a moment of celebration, and I can tell that the news has come not only as an encouragement to me and Ilsa, but to the whole team. Windelle is carrying out a Fire Yooyu, my favorite kind, and directing us back into the proper formation. I watch the Yooyu crackle and burn and ready myself to run. Windelle blows a whistle, signaling us to start.
If the defenders on the practice team are trying to deter me, I don’t notice them. I scoop up the Fire Yooyu in seconds, paying no attention to its heat. I pass down the middle to Windelle, who is smiling hugely, and cut around a defender. Ilsa keeps him away from me, and I catch Windelle’s pass back to me at the perfect moment, then I swing myself around and let the Yooyu fly straight through the goal, leaving the net in smoking tatters.
Whether we win or lose, this is our year. This year is special. This year is different. I can feel it.
Altador Cup X. This is the big one.