Story:Combinatorics (Part 2)

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Combinatorics (Part 2)
Written by KitCoon

Combinatorics, Part 2

Day 2: Speed, Strength and Tail Slaps

Zack yawned and stretched as music from an old, rather immature, but well-beloved video game came on in place of the expected series of buzzes and beeps. He smiled and hummed to himself and he climbed out of the bed, “when all alone in my chair, I just go about wishing...”, the beaver smiled and let the song play as he stretched and worked the kinks out of his neck. He glanced at the time and the day's schedule: physical exams in the morning with drills interspersed between, then speed trials right after lunch, then strength trials. Followed by a financial planning seminar, the thought of which elicited a wry grin. Furs barely out of high school walking away with multi-million dollar contracts? An hour might not really be sufficient, there.

He took a quick shower and glanced at the notification that had popped up on his phone: “Beaver. You owe me a tail slap shot. See you at the Garden in 20.”, followed by a grinning kangaroo emoji. Zack chuckled, and tossed his swim shorts back in the drawer, instead changing into simple athletic clothes - a grey tee, dark blue shorts, and green hoodie - before heading downstairs, grabbing a large hazelnut coffee, and hopping in the car to head over to the arena. The Agouti interface was startlingly inutitive, and seemed to practically predict his destination with bare minimum prompting from Zack. He quickly drove over and followed the signs into one of the practice courts where he found the tall grey roo, looking far better rested, focused on his practice shots.

Zack stood back and watched; all the traces of the exhausted kangaroo from the previous night seemed to have vanished, and here was the calm, focused, graceful player he remembered from the FCAA tournament. Zack watched a few more shots and stepped a little closer to the kangaroo, “Y’know, I thought the deal here was trick shots, and I just see you using your hand paws.”

The beaver grinned at the kangaroo as he whirled around, the braid of red hair whiling just behind him, looking shocked for a second until he recognized the voice or the voice’s owner, or both simultaneously. “Zack!”, the roo huffed out, his own relaxed smile falling quickly back into place, as he added with a curt nod, “Sneaking up on kangaroos is against the rules.”

The beaver looked a bit chagrined, “I wasn’t intentionally sneaking. Just didn’t want to interrupt; you seemed pretty focused.”

“I was merely waiting for the proper moment”, the kangaroo grinned and surveyed the court which was, given the early hour, still sparsely populated, “and the moment has come.” Berty took another ball from the rack and strode up to the free-throw line, casually dribbling and eying the basket. After some few moments, he caught the ball, leaned back on his tail, and bracing against the floor with a free hand. With his left, he tossed the ball up, core tense as he watched the ball arc back down...carefully timing the motion....holding his position...and then suddenly pistoning both legs forward!

Only to be met by empty air. The motion threw the roo off balance and he landed on the court floor with an amused yelp. His ball landed nearby, bouncing once and then landing smack on the kangaroo’s stomach, careening off and away down the court. Playing into the drama of the moment, Berty splayed all the wake out, still chuckling with amused embarrassment.

“Ok, I tried!”

Zack chuckled and offered a paw to help the ‘roo back up to his paws, but the roo chuckled and waved it off, “It was fun. And all the better to get some nerves out.”

Berty gestured to Zack - a playful mock-bow all the more ridiculous since he was still lying on the floor. Zack stepped up to the line grinning casually as he tossed the ball up, pivoted around, back to the basket, and peered over his shoulder. He let the ball bounce and finished twisting so the rebound came under his large tail. He dribbled once, twice, and slammed his tail, along with the ball, leaning forward as the ball bounced hard and arced towards the basket...off the backboard...teetered on the rim...and tipped itself out.

He grinned and shrugged, “Well, something like that.”

The performance still drew applause from the still-prone roo, “Jeeze, that was close. You think anybody else has some totally ridiculous tricks they'd be willing to show off?”

Zack looked around, more of the other candidates starting to filter in, with all the expected stretching, nervous grins, and practice shots, Zack remarked “I think our window on that’s closing.”

Anika had wandered past and looked down at the roo, frowning. “Bertie, what are you doing on the floor? You alright?” “The floor is very comfortable and a great place for me to store my wounded pri- oof!", the roo spasmed as an errant ball from someone’s shooting practice rebounded directly into his stomach, "Okay, time to get up..."

The roo rolled back onto his shoulders, and in the same movement braced his tail against the ground. Instead of a sharp kick up to his feet, he simply rolls forward using his tail as a pivot. Zack watched, admiring the gracefulness of the motion, even if he found it mildly annoying. Anika, perhaps, agreed, judging by her smirk, "Uh-huh... nice use of the tail though. I would've kipped up but..." She grabbed her own fossa tail, so unlike the kangaroos’, and then let it fall, "Had a good night's sleep finally?"

Bery smiled back, “Oh god yes. I feel like a new person. Care for a bit of one-on-one practice before things get started? The scrimmages will probably be kicking off soon.”

Anika’s smirk reappeared, “Certainly,” as he casually dribbled her ball through her legs a few times and then bounce-passed the ball to the roo, “So what got you here? Thousands of college players with our own same dreams to the FBA, and here you and I are.”

Berty grinned and returned the pass, “Yes, well, you and I are quite pretty, and clearly that was the defining trait for us, to say nothing of skill, talent, or modesty.”

Anika huffed, “Oh you-!”, before starting to try and dribble around the kangaroo.

That seemed to be the way of things for the morning. One-on-one and small group games abounded. Aldritch surprised most of the young players with a full-on tea and pastry cart, much to the delight of the boisterous English hare, Adge. The beaver tried the same brand...Yorkshire Gold, figuring it would still beat camp coffee in the pinch. It was certainly strong, and well, still kind of bitter. Not unpleasant - Zack smiled, “Thank you again Aldrich. I really do appreciate it”

Roots Garden became a whirlwind shortly after the interlude. Trainers pulled the players to be weighed and carefully, officially, measured. The casual one on one games morphed into carefully observed 3 on 3 exhibitions. And of course, there were drills - the name of the game for the first day was strength and speed, which was enough to make nearly every player frustrated; those good at one would likely not be good at the other.

Zack himself was excited by the speed trials; he benefited from the stereotype of beavers being methodical but plodding; he was not. Today he managed a 3.128, not his best time ever, but a more than passable showing. 12 reps at the bench press, again, good for him, but he probably knew not a competitive performance.

Overall, though, he felt good. It was nice to be doing after all the buildup to this week. After the drills and such were over, he headed back to the hotel to shower and clean up for the financial talk. He didn’t expect any revelations there and indeed he found it not dissimilar from a hundred other small talks in hotel conference rooms. It’s not that the information was bad, just...not unfamiliar. Between his parents and Scouting, the idea of being responsible and living within your means had been drilled into him from a young age.

And what kind of means these would be? He couldn’t help to think to himself in wonder. 4 to 10 million dollar contracts on the table. Little wonder the league worried folks might lose their head a little; That was his grad school education in a couple of months of paychecks. He looked around, figuring to grab dinner with Berty or Callum. He was stopped in his tracks by his phone buzzing a phone call. He headed away from the crowd, recognizing the caller ID - why was he calling out of the blue? Once he found a quiet hall near the elevator, he settled in on a bench and picked up.

“Professor MacIntyre? What’s going on?”

“Mr. Cooper!”, the older dog sounded irritated, and the effect was amplified by the formal name, “The grant committee called about our most recent submission. They seemed positive, but they were concerned when I mentioned your little...hiatus.”

Zack sighed, this again, “I don’t even know if it is a hiatus yet, Professor. It’s just me exploring options for now. I love the interface design work but this next round needs a project lead with a strong background in psychology. Or organizational Development, or learning strategies. None of these are my area of expertise.”

“I have access to your transcript Mr. Cooper. You did quite well in your social science classes.”

Zack rolled his eyes, his tone getting testy “Acing two entry-level psych classes does not make me an expert on group dynamics, learning processes, or any specialized form of I/O psych!”

“You’d manage, the committee has a lot of faith in this project”

“So do I! That doesn’t change that you should have an expert team lead who has the right skills! It doesn’t change the fact that I have an opportunity here. Maybe even one to go beyond just the devlab...you know that Lance Wild-”

“-fyre got to go to space. Yes. We’ve talked about it.”, the old dog sigh-grumbled, disappointment clear in his tone.

“He invited me to lunch, actually”, Zack responded, tone turning a bit cold, this wasn’t the grant committee, this was the Professor rehashing an old argument, “Just before the Combine. Before he went to play in the Olympics! He can appreciate the situation better than most. He’s retiring from basketball and going into the space program. He had some good advice about it all.”

“And what did the great Lance Wildfyre tell you?”, responded the professor, his tone bordering on mocking.

Zack sighed, tenser now than he had been in the trials this morning, and more tired too, which wasn’t doing much for his tone or emotional balance, “What he told me is my business, professor. If the committee is concerned, they have my number and they can reach out to me directly. For now, I have three more days to see where this takes me. Maybe you’re right and the FBA won’t want me and I’ll be back at Templeton in a few weeks.”

“I hope so, Mr. Cooper. You belong here, but if you need to have a few more days to prove it, I’m sure I can stall the Committee.” MacIntyre’s tone was verging on mocking.

There was a soft ping as the hotel video screens updated with the day's results. Zack figured with the whole building being rented that the FBA could easily borrow the screens. Results and the current standings rolled by, but Zack found his name quickly on the first screen. He felt a bit light-headed as he looked, letting out a muffled gasp.

MacIntyre’s tone softened slightly, “And what was that, Mr. Cooper?”

Zack blinked and sighed, “Oh, the results...the standings for the first day are up.”

The beaver could almost picture the old dog’s feral grin, usually reserved for scientific success, interpreting Zack’s surprise as chagrin at poor performance, “And how did you do, Mr. Cooper?”

Zack looked at the monitor again, just to be sure he wasn’t seeing things, he responded softly, nearly in a daze, “I’m ranked third overall. Goodnight Professor.”

Zack cut the call before the grumbly old dog could egg him on further. Zack made a beeline for the elevator and was grateful to find an empty car up to the 5th floor. He padded back to his room, sat down, and sighed deeply. Congratulatory messages were pinging his phone, texts, and tweets. The scouts. Todd, of course, some of his fellow draft candidates. He smiled and realized his eye fur was matted - the conversation with the Professor had gotten to him for sure, but the old dog, brilliant as he was, lacked social skills.

Zack set his phone down and went to wash up, deciding that maybe peace and quiet was the way to go tonight. He did some quick research before finding some decently reviewed Italian on the outskirts of town. He pulled on a nicer shirt and jeans, and added a vest, left open. The place looked a little upscale, and that too would hopefully keep crowds and interruption to a minimum. He slipped out of the hotel and drove away, his brain echoing the question he’d asked himself for the last six months. Did he really want this? Because more and more, it seemed like he’d be able to hold his own in the FBA, after all.

Day 3: Jumps, Highs, and Lows

Zack awoke to his alarm as usual, though the few steps across the room were a slog. The meal had been, as he’d hoped, quiet and isolated, but even good food and some time to clear his head had not kept the beaver from a very poor night’s sleep. He yawned and stretched; there was nothing for it but to plow through the day. After a quick review of the messages on his phone, none from Professor MacIntyre, thankfully, Zack headed first to shower and then to find some much needed caffeine. Simple athletic clothes again, a tech tee, loose shorts, and a hoodie for the morning chill. Checking the time as he hit the lobby, he decided that walking to Roots Garden was the way to go, some exercise to help him wake; he was sure there were coffee shops to be found on the way.

Just a couple blocks, maybe a half-mile, from the hotel, Zack did indeed find a simple but well-kept shop and he ducked in, ordering a hazelnut coffee with several additional shots of espresso; definitely that kind of morning. While he was nursing the coffee he spotted a familiar grey roo seeming with similar ideas regarding morning caffeination, though Berty had a spring in his step and was humming to himself, "Jump test day is a day for kangarooooos..."

Zack caught the roo’s eye as he walked in, raising his cup in greeting, “Good morning!”

Berty waved and padded over after putting in his own order, “How are you feeling about today?”

Zack smiled back over the coffee, certain Berty recognized how strong it was, “More tired than I’d like to be. Ready to surprise people with how high a beaver can jump”, he grinned ruefully at the roo, “won’t be tops, of course, but I hope to show well all the same. How about you?”

As Berty responded, Kyler Inari settled in with the two of them, "I'm excited for the jumping competitions, or whatever we're calling them. I don't know how well some of the rest of the skills competitions will go for me, aside from maybe agility? The whole thing's still a bit surreal for me. How are you feeling about today, Kyler?"

Berty stood and retrieved his coffee, clearly more engaged in the conversation than the act, though he took a moment to sincerely thank the barista, more than a perfunctory ‘thanks’. Kyler seemed at ease “Pretty good truth be told.” Zack smiled back at the fox “I’m glad. Know you’ll be awesome today, Berty. Jump day is a day for kangaroos, I hear.” Berty smirked back, “So it isssss...”

The three continued to chat casually for a few minutes, before taking their drinks and heading to Roots Garden, no one wanting to be late for the day's events. Zack was glad for the company and the mundane conversation to take his mind off the previous nights’ events. He was also glad for strong coffee and felt about as well as he figured he could expect by the time the three of them arrived.

He dove into the scrimmages and found himself a bit more at ease. The familiar motions, decisions, the sounds of basketballs echoing through the courts, even the smell of adrenaline and sweat was comforting in its familiarity. No calculations, dribble, no grant committee, step-step-pause-pivot-jump-release, and especially no interfering egotistical professors, clunk-swish. Zack smiled as his team finished up 10 points in the scrimmage round, patting Neo and Benjamin on the back, grinning and celebrating the moment’s triumph.

It was a good moment, and one of the better ones to come out of the day. The drills went, as drills do, rather simply. Zack certainly felt like he did fine there. But the highlight of the day, that afternoon, was the jumping tests.

While he was no slouch, Zack definitely preferred to take his shots from range; he rarely made his way to the post, and even most rarely went for a dunk. By the afternoon he was feeling the exhaustion of the first day, the travels, and the downtime seemed to draw his brain back to the conversation with Professor MacIntyre. He recognized the old dog was probably acting out what he imagined was Zack’s best interest; the project was going well and attracting attention, but Zack was right, too: the next phase needed someone else to lead it, even if this was a flop and he went back to Templeton. The professor had always been adamant that Zack stay on though.

He stumbled through the jump trials, lost in his thoughts. A 28” vertical in the no-step. Decent, he thought, though he usually could manage another inch and a half. 33” later that afternoon in the Max jump...again, he didn’t think much of it, lost in his thoughts. It wasn’t until later that afternoon after he stepped out of a quick shower that he saw a single line text message popped up on his phone from the Professor’s number. It simply read ‘24’.

Zack sighed and tossed the phone on the bed in frustration. A quick review of the results confirmed his guess: after the days showing he was ranked 24th overall. Logically, he knew, not actually a bad place to be, but a precipitous drop all the same. He shook his head and sighed again, he knew he wasn’t up for much more that night, but there was still the social media seminar, and he would have to sort some dinner after. He pulled on simpler clothes, comfortable jeans, a plain green tee, and loose plaid overshirt, left open, looking every bit the college student, he thought. He took the stairs down to the conference level and settled near the back of the room, watching the chatter with a soft smile.

So many hopes crammed into one ballroom: it really was a sight to see. He wondered how many hours of practice and training must have gone into that one room. Zack glanced at the slides that were handed out, realized there was nothing here he hadn’t heard dozens of times as a Scout leader, especially when one has teenagers following your social media. As the speaker started droning Zack tuned the talking out, running the numbers in his head, tabulating his own hours of practice, from the time he was in grade school, then extrapolating to all the other players. The number was...large.

After the seminar he caught up with Berty and Callum - after the day he was feeling a little frayed and either in the mood for familiar company, or else he was retreating to his room with delivery. He walked up right as Berty caught sight of his wallaby friend, “Callum!” hollered the kangaroo, “You feeling ready to go viral?”

The perpetually smiling wallaby returned the grin, and Zack couldn’t help but smile; the two macropods were quite a pair together, and their enthusiasm was infectious. Callum reached the group and looked up at Berty, “Hey! There he is, the superstar jumper. Man, you killed it out there today. And I’m already viral, don’t you know?”, he responded with a cheeky grin Zack was starting to consider a sort of wallaby trademark.

Berty laughed and slapped Callum’s back, “Thanks! I was nervous, after yesterday but, uh..”, he punctuated the pause with a dramatic tap to his thigh, “The old jumpers still have it, I guess. I’ll try to enjoy my lead until you get to do the shooting trials.”

Callum smirked back “Well, I had to let you get at least one day on top. Say, why don’t we get some grub to celebrate, my treat? My Olympic stipend just came in, so I’m feeling flush. What do you say?”

Zack took a hesitant step back. That was right, he recalled, Callum was Australian and had played in the Olympics. Another reminder of the level of talent here; it was enough to overwhelm the beaver; though had he looked more closely at the standings, he might have realized he was literally only one place behind the wallaby.

Berty’s smile faltered as he swept into a leggy, dramatic bow, “How polite of you. And oh, no, sorry. Mackie and I were going to go get dinner and some drinks.”

There was a bit of a pause between the two, and indeed the rest of the gathered draftees; Zack felt a bit of a pit in his stomach as he watched the both of them, Callum especially, process what was being said. Berty started rushing to cover the moment, “I mean, uh, you could probably come along, I guess. I would need to check with Mackie, but...uh...”

Zack wasn’t great with social cues; being an academic and student-athlete had left him with few opportunities to pursue a relationship, though there’s been no shortage of interest, from both sides of the gender spectrum. He saw the wallaby’s smile falter, saw him blink, suspected he saw a hint of a tear there, though it could also have been a trick of the light, as Callum responded, “...Oh, um...yeah, sure. No problem. You...ah...you boys have fun.”

Zack stepped back up, still feeling a deep nervous welling in his stomach, “Uh..erm...you don't’ have to treat, Callum, but, we...erm, champions, I guess, of yester...well, yesterday? We could go celebrate. Or commiserate”, he offered a weak smile.

Zack caught Berty starting to respond but then choosing not to. Callum looked up at the beaver, and Zack couldn’t quite make out the expression; the perpetual smile was back, but...not quite right, all the same. The wallaby casually took Zack’s arm, “sure, that sounds great. Where do you wanna go?”

They walked away, Zack blushing slightly, Callum rattling off suggestions for local cuisine. Zack managed to twist enough to offer a shrug to Berty, not certain if it was an apology for his awkwardness, or for interrupting, or a gesture of solidarity, or a wish for good luck.

The beaver turned back to Callum, “Well, my spies tell me you like...everything”, he offered, recalling the wallaby’s behavior at the opening dinner. “Bet we could find some decent sushi around here.”

Zack, quite mistakenly, thought he was talking to Callum alone, but as soon as the s-work slipped from his mouth, it seemed a half dozen other young adults were inviting themselves along.

Callum looked around, “Sushi run for everyone. I bet there’s some great fish here on the coast.”

Zack, looked down, embarrassed, then over at Callum, “That was smooth.”

The wallaby shrugged, his playfulness seeming to return as he navigated the social situation, “You’re the one who mentioned sushi, dude. They were gonna follow us anyway.”

Zack nodded, chagrinned, “So they were. Guess I’m used to running in a different crowd.”

Callum nodded, raising up on tip-paw and whispering at the beaver “Yeah, but now we can sit at our own table and chat still if you’d like to have a little privacy, instead of having more and more tables pulled together.” Callum grinned that same old cheeky grin, “Reverse psychology.”

Zack did, in fact, want privacy. Or more accurately, he wanted minimal stimulus. Crowds of eager, nervously energetic athletes were more than he was ready to deal with tonight after the Professor’s message. Fortunately, as Zack expected, Callum was a gifted conversationalist about nearly every subject one could imagine. They talked about Zack’s time in Scouts; Callum had moved around too much, he said, to ever really connect with a group like that.

They talked about musicals, which made Zack grin, Callum certainly leaned a bit into the flamingly gay stereotype, but even at Templeton, he’d rarely had many folks to talk to regarding musicals, not in any depth. They agreed to go see something when time and space allowed in New York. It led to discussions of the teams they hoped they might be drafted by.

Zack was hesitant to speculate at first; after his drop off from the first day and everything else going on, he wasn’t sure what his chances looked like. Callum seemed unperturbed though, talking about teams across the country, though his heart was set on Hawaii, it seemed, or possibly Santa Ana; somewhere with sun and fun, at the least.

After a significant amount of goading, Zack started offering a few thoughts. The Howlers, for their proximity to home, Lorrain for their history of community service, Edmonton for the uniform and aesthetic; it reminded him a bit of Scouting.

The conversation lulled a bit after that, both boys digging into healthy portions of sushi, sharing silly anecdotes from the week so far, and simply being easy in each other’s company. Zack tried to pay, but Callum insisted, “I offered upfront, and you’re not luring me back to your room just by paying for dinner!”

Zack blushed bright and was so flummoxed by the statement that Callum was able to snag the check before giving Zack a cheeky grin. “I know you weren’t actually trying that. You're too much of a gentleman to take advantage of me like that; it was a great distraction though.”

He winked.

Zack laughed, still blushing, “Fine...fine! You win this one. Thank you for dinner, Callum, I needed this.” The wallaby grinned back, and the two made small talk before they retired, Zack to his room, and Callum back to flirting with the hotel bartender.


Featured Characters

Zackary Cooper Berty Lavoie-Williams Callum Williamson Jean-Ferdinand Giroux-Krier

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