Written by TriangleDelta
I was surprised by how long it took to drive to Catherine's place. It was mostly a quiet drive. The wolf and I barely even spoke the entire time. He had given me a short, terse greeting when he'd picked me up, and then nothing more for the rest of the drive.
I found myself wishing I'd brought a book, or maybe even some homework. I just wound up looking out the window, watching the gradually shrinking buildings roll by.
The rest of the week had gone more or less the same after Catherine talked to me. School was hard, basketball was boring, and home was home. I still wasn't really talking to anybody at the court. I kept mostly to myself during practices, and I left as soon as we finished playing. The others might have noticed that I wasn't trying very hard anymore. I didn't really care, though. At this point, going to those games after school was just an excuse to not go home and worry my parents. I guess the practices were still helping me keep my skills sharp, but it just felt odd. What was I even keeping my skills sharp for?
After close to an hour, Laurence turned the car into a driveway. We had long since left Vancouver proper, and were now more on the outskirts of the city. We had left behind the tight and densely packed city and reached an area where the houses were more spread apart. I hadn't been paying too much attention to where we were actually going, so I can't really tell you where we were. All I can tell you is that it was, well... Frick.
I'd been expecting it to be the nicest house I'd ever seen. The biggest too, probably. That said, vaguely assuming something's going to be nice and big is very different from actually seeing it.
The house was a bloody mansion. It was bigger than some of the smaller apartment complexes in downtown Vancouver. At the time, that was all I could've told you: it was big. It was nice. It was... strange. I didn't have the experience to really tell you anything more than that. Looking back now, having lived more, I can tell you a bit more. Really, the house had had exactly the impression on me that the designer had intended. It was modern in an awkward way. It wasn't the sort of modern architecture that used smooth curves and interesting lines to surprise and delight the viewer; it was the sort of modern that was meant to bombard and confuse in order to show off. It wanted to look like the modern penthouse of some multi-millionaire from California while seeming to forget that it was in the foothills of the Rockies in British Columbia. Looking back, though, I think the oddest part was this: it was putting in so much effort to look new and expensive, really to show off. However, it was hidden away far outside of the main city, cut off from view.
As I said, though, I didn't know any of this at the time. I just stared out the window of the car and watched the mansion come closer. My fingers found the button on the console that Catherine had used the week before. For the first time in a while, I found myself speaking.
"How many people live here?"
Without looking back, Laurence answered. "Well, there is the DeMille family, and then the serving staff which includes myself, Harriett, and Jocelyn."
I felt a bit stupid asking the next question, but I needed to know. "How big is the DeMille family?"
"There are three of them. Mr James DeMille, Mrs Florence DeMille, and the young Ms Catherine DeMille."
I didn't pay much attention to the names he listed off. I was too busy staring out at that house again, processing it in my head. "You're saying that six people live here?"
"That depends." We finally pulled up to the house. There was a small roundabout around a painfully modern-designed fountain. Laurence went on as we pulled up to the front door. "Mr and Mrs DeMille are frequently away for business or travel. As well, Harriett, Jocelyn and I occasionally get vacations. Currently, it is only young Ms DeMille, myself, and Harriett in the house."
The car rolled to a stop, and Laurence hopped out. I was too stunned to move until he came around and opened the door for me. I stumbled out quickly, having not expected it. The air was clean here; much cleaner than the downtown Vancouver air I was used to. There were tall trees bordering the edges of the large estate, providing added privacy. I followed Laurence up to the door, not entirely sure what to expect.
He held the door open for me, and I stepped inside. The interior threw me off for a few moments. Years later, I would come to realize that the designer had been trying to replicate the open concept interiors popular in some parts of California. To me, it just looked like a jumble of walls and sets of steps up to different half-floors.
Laurence, however, was not at all put off by the strange layout. He walked in casually, and called out, "Ms DeMille, young Mr Matsuura is here."
I had just had enough time to come back to my senses and wonder how Catherine had learned my last name when the palm cockatoo in question appeared. She came around a corner, and down one of the small sets of steps from another half floor. She was already wearing work out gear, and her sharp eyes had a hint of impatience to them.
"Are you ready? Come on."
She turned, and I stumbled after her. My head was spinning by this point. I was totally out of my comfort zone. I was still reeling from the size of the place, and how few people lived here. Now she was leading me down a wide hallway with well-varnished hardwood flooring, acting as though living somewhere with this much wealth, this much space was... normal.
I think... well. Before then, I'd known that she was rich, and I'd known that my family wasn't. Hell, she'd ground it into my face more times than I cared to think about. But in that moment, seeing her there, so in her element and so casual amidst it, not even trying to show off... Yeah. That was the moment that I truly understood how big of a gap there was between Catherine and I.
Maybe that's the moment when everything really started. Maybe that's when I should have started telling the story. But no, that would be wrong. Garet's too important to leave out. The others, too. And that court... yeah. The first court where the two of us played together. The court where we learned to balance on water and slush, to dribble with numb fingers, to read each other like an open book.
That court was important. I wish I could say that I was thinking of it when she opened a door in the hallway, and led me into her personal court.
She hit the lights, and the dark space lit up. If I'd thought that I couldn't be any more stunned by the excess she lived in, I'd been wrong. Before me was an entire indoor basketball court. It was about the size of the court at my high school, but that was where the similarities ended. It had waxed, shining hardwood floors, with all the lines painted across it. The nets were both beautiful and well cared for.
I couldn't have come further from that asphalt court unless I'd stepped onto an actual FBA court then and there.
"You have an entire bloody court in your house." As I frequently did when stunned, I resorted to stating the obvious.
"A gift from my parents for my twelfth birthday. Are you ready to get started?" I finally looked over to her. She had fetched a ball from a small rack of them on the wall. She held it impatiently, her eyes still looking me up and down. "Come on. I haven't had a real challenge in weeks."
I shrugged down my backpack and took off my coat. I got out my basketball shoes, switched them out, then turned to face her. I was nervous. I had every reason to be. Any of the power that I'd had over her at the court downtown was gone. We were in her territory now.
Wordlessly, the two of us stepped to centre court and squared off. She dribbled the ball lazily once or twice, the sound of the bounces echoing back at us.
She passed the ball to me. I passed it back.
The sound of shoes squeaking on hardwood and the bouncing of the ball filled the room.
It was like we'd never taken a break. The two of us were at each other, constantly one step ahead of where the other wanted to go. In no time, both of us were panting hard, and I could feel sweat building up in my feathers. My muscles ached after the long car ride, but I didn't have the time to regret not stretching. I was too focused; too intent on the game.
We didn't keep track of points. Every time one of us scored or stole the ball, we transferred seamlessly over and changed roles, neither of us commenting on the other's playing. The night before, I'd come up with a general plan in my head for things we would practice, for specific two-person drills we would run through. All of those fled my mind for those first few hours.
Partway through the day, a knock came at the door, and a very timid-looking housecat came in carrying a tray with sandwiches and water. The two of us paused just long enough to eat and drink. I think I might have tried speaking with the cat once or twice, but I don't remember if she responded. Afterwards, we went right back to playing.
Towards the end of the day, the two of us finally started tiring. We must've been playing for almost a solid six hours by then, just constantly going back and forth in our one-on-ones. We were slowing down, though, and both of us knew it. Catherine's footwork wasn't anywhere near as precise as it normally was, and I kept misjudging her movements.
Finally, after a play where I actually dropped the ball while I was trying to step around her, I stopped and held up my hands.
"Alright. I fold. Let's take a break."
I noticed a bit of a smirk on her beak, but I could tell that it was more for appearance's sake than anything else. She needed to stop just as badly as I did.
She put away the ball we'd been using, and I grabbed up my things. We stepped out of the... what would I even call it? The courtroom? The stadium? The basketball room? Who knows. We stepped back into the main part of the house, though. Laurence was already standing there waiting for us. He had two white towels draped over his arm, as though he'd been expecting us. I was surprised, but Catherine took one of the offered towels without looking at him, and started walking away, dabbing her forehead. I hesitated, but eventually took the remaining towel, nodding my thanks to Laurence. He inclined his head slightly, but otherwise gave no reaction.
I followed Catherine down the wide corridor, wiping as much sweat out of my feathers as I could. Her big crest of feathers was pushed back, and she looked... relaxed. I guess whenever she was normally around me, she was trying to be aggressive. Seeing her somewhere that she was comfortable was a bit odd.
We eventually reached the same open area where I'd entered the house. She turned to face me, and started talking. "So, how was that?"
"Good." That was all I could say at first. When she raised an eyebrow, I rushed on, tripping over my own words. "I mean, it felt good. Fun. Nice to have a challenge again."
She nodded slowly, stiffly, and crossed her arms over her chest. "Well. You're rusty."
I held in my sigh. "I didn't play much for a bit there. I've been holding back for most of the time I have been playing."
"Miss DeMille?" a soft voice asked. I turned, and saw that the housecat from earlier was standing just at the top of the steps leading down to house's entryway. "Will Mr Matsuura be eating with us this evening?"
Catherine glanced over to me. I hesitated, but shook my head. I never missed dinner on work days. It would draw too many questions.
"I'll get Laurence to drive you home, then," Catherine replied.
I nodded, and was about to reply and tell her about some of my plans for drills for the next day, but she'd already turned away from me, and was following the housecat up the stairs. I wasn't quite sure how to react at first, and so I just stood there staring after the two of them.
Had I... did she just dismiss me?
I didn't have much time to reflect on that before Laurence stepped down to the entryway. The wolf looked me up and down, and after a moment's silence, he asked, "Are you ready to go, sir?"
"Yes. Yes I am."
The wolf nodded, then turned and led me out the door.
It was getting late into the next day when Catherine's parents came back. The two of us were busy running drills; I had finally convinced her to practice some simple passing drills, just to see how she was doing. I'll be honest; I didn't expect them to last terribly long. Catherine just wasn't that great at passing. Accepting passes? Sure. She loved doing that. It was almost like sending passes to other people caused her physical pain, though.
The frustration was clear on her face, too. We were just taking turns passing to each other from the three-point line and doing layups. At first, she seemed pleased that she was getting more baskets than me. After a few minutes of me fumbling the ball and having to run and grab it, though, she finally snapped.
"Can't you just catch it once in a while!?"
I really should have just explained. But who knows, maybe that wouldn't have worked as well. Regardless, I was getting frustrated, too, and so instead I just passed the ball to her. Badly.
Her feathers puffed out a bit in surprise, and then she stooped and leaned out to the side, just managing to get her fingers on the ball. On reflex, she turned, and tried to get the layup. She was off-balance, though. Before she even jumped, I knew that the ball wasn't going to go anywhere near the net.
As it bounced away across the court, echoing through the room, I spoke, trying my best to keep the annoyance out of my voice. "Stop sending me passes like that, and I just might be able to land a couple baskets. Until then, though, you're going to have to wait for me to chase down the ball before you get your turn to shoot."
She glared at me, but she went and grabbed the ball. We kept going. She didn't get better. Of course not; she wasn't going to immediately get better because I'd spoken to her. That said, I could tell she was trying harder. Whenever I missed, she still looked annoyed, but I think the frustration was starting to turn on herself instead of just me.
After a while, things started improving slightly. I don't know if I was getting better at reaching for awkward passes, or if her passes were getting better. Maybe a bit of both. Regardless, we didn't get too much longer to practice. I had just passed the ball to Catherine, and she took a few steps forward, throwing a lazy layup. As the ball hit the ground, I heard an odd sound echoing in the space. I stood up straighter, a bit surprised. Clapping?
I turned, and almost fell over when I saw a massive palm cockatoo behind me. I could only stare for a few seconds; he was easily one of the biggest birds I'd ever seen. Even Catherine, who was quite tall for somebody her age, was at least a good half-foot shorter than him, and that was with his crest slicked back.
It wasn't the height that really impressed me, though. He was the type of broad in the torso that only came from a hard but comfortable lifestyle. The buttons on his shirt strained to hold in his impressive stomach and powerful shoulders.
I took all of this in over the course of a few seconds. All the while, he was clapping, a smile on his hooked beak. We must've been playing too hard to hear him coming in.
"Great work, great work." His voice matched his body; imposing and loud. "Glad to see that the training's going well."
"You're home early." I had forgotten momentarily that Catherine was even there. I started, then turned to look back at her. Her head was tilted, and her face had an odd look on it. It seemed like she couldn't decide whether she was happy or nervous.
"Yes, well, business finished up earlier than expected."
"I thought you said..." She hesitated, then stopped. After a second, she just said, "It's good to have you back."
Mr DeMille nodded at that, a pleasant grin still on his face. Finally, he turned to look at me, and said, "And you must be Hiro!"
I started, then nodded a bit faster than I would have liked. "Yes sir."
"Please, please, call me James. Catherine has told me all about you."
"She has. That said, dinner's just about ready. I'll have Laurence come and fetch you when it's time to eat."
"That's alright, sir," I said quickly. My voice sounded strangely thin compared to his booming baritone. "I don't have to stay."
"But I insist!"
"My parents will worry if I'm not back for dinner, Mr DeMille."
"It's James, and, well, give them a call! I'm sure they'll understand."
I looked back and forth between him and Catherine. She had her eyes on me, and I couldn't read her. She was waiting for my response; waiting to see what I would do. I was still having trouble pairing her up with this giant of a man next to me. He was as different to her as anybody could possibly be; cheerful and welcoming. I don't know what I was expecting from her parents, but it certainly wasn't this. I wanted to say no, but something about his overpowering voice and personality made it difficult.
After what felt like forever, I heard myself say, "Alright, I guess I could do that."
I sat down at the table carefully, like the chair would break under me if I wasn't careful. I know that my feathers were puffing up again. I'd tried forcing them back down while I was on the phone with my mom. The entire time, though, I couldn't stop thinking about what I was doing. I always had trouble keeping secrets from my parents. Even the distance that a phone provided wasn't enough to dull the feelings.
I mean, I wasn't lying, technically speaking. I'd told my mom that I was eating at a friend's house after work, which was entirely true. I still felt like I was lying, though.
I didn't have time to think about that, though. I glanced around the table, trying to act casual. Everything felt so... I don't know. Off. I couldn't place anything that was wrong, but I couldn't beat the feeling.
Maybe it was the dining room itself. It had clearly been meant to hold a lot more than just four people. The table felt like it stretched on for miles on either side of me, leading to Mr and Mrs DeMille on either end.
Mrs DeMille was slightly shorter than her husband, but that still left her a good head and a half taller than me. She was slender, and her black feathers were immaculately well-cared for. Being around her made me feel self-conscious about my dull grey plumage. She had this odd, singsong way of talking that immediately put me on edge. I hated when people were indirect with me, and something about that voice just made me feel like she was trying to put me off-guard.
Both Mr and Mrs DeMille were dressed well, but Catherine sat down at the table in just her practice clothes. It made me feel a bit less out of place, even with the fine table and expensive plates and cutlery. We were quiet as Harriett, the housecat I'd met the day before, came out with the meal. I was stunned as a steak larger than any single cut of meat I'd seen in my life was laid out in front of me. A healthy helping of potatoes and steamed vegetables was set down next to it, and then the three palm cockatoos set about to eating.
I just stared down at my plate for a moment, unsure how to begin. Finally, I picked up the fork and knife, and set about to chopping up the enormous piece of meat. I didn't really understand it. Sure, shrikes could eat meat. My family and I often had small meat dishes with our meals. So much meat at once, though, and such rich meat was completely unheard of. I wasn't sure if I'd even be able to digest all of it.
I did my best, though. The difficulty of eating the food kept me distracted for the first part of the meal. I had to chop it into tiny pieces, and even then I had to awkwardly chew at it with the edge of my beak. The DeMilles didn't seem to be having much trouble with it; they'd clearly learned how to chew up the tough meat with their hooked beaks. It was all bizarre to me.
We'd been eating in complete silence for some time when Mr DeMille spoke.
"So, Hiro. You must be quite the talented player if Catherine trusts you to teach her."
I could feel Catherine on the other side of the table, her glare flicking back and forth between her father and me.
"I don't know about that."
"Please. False modesty doesn't complement anybody. Who taught you to play?"
"My dad." I was having trouble keeping up with the conversation. Despite how pleasant Mr DeMille was being, I still felt like it was an interrogation.
"Ah, your father. So tell me, Hiro, what do your parents do?"
"My mom works at a grocery." I hesitated after that, deciding what to say about dad. I knew what I wanted to tell them; he was a civil engineer, that he'd graduated at the top of his class. They would start asking questions, then. Questions I didn't want to answer. So... "He's a cab driver."
"I see." Mr DeMille's voice was cheerful and soft as he kept cutting up his steak.
"Sorry, I don't mean to pry," Mrs DeMille was speaking in her singsong voice, delicately as though she might blow me over, "but Matsuura. That's a Japanese name, yes?"
"So how long has your family - excuse me if this is a sensitive question - lived in Canada?"
No, not a sensitive question, though the false concern over my feelings was annoying. "I'm first generation. We moved over when I was 4, though, so I don't remember much. My brother and sister were both born after we moved."
She nodded politely, and we all lapsed into silence again. I kept my eyes down on my plate, unsure of where to look. I wasn't sure which I dreaded more; for the uncomfortable questions about my life to continue, or for them to stop and force me to keep eating the steak.
Finally, I glanced up. If the trio was uncomfortable, they didn't show it. They all wore perfectly mild expressions, and seemed totally content with their food. The silence was killing me, though. I was used to loud, hectic dinners at home with my sister and brother. I hesitated another few seconds before working up the nerve to speak.
"So where were the two of you the past few days?"
Across from me, Catherine's cheek spots coloured almost imperceptibly, and Mrs DeMille's eyes flicked over to her husband. If the two of them hadn't been so motionless up until then, I might not have noticed. As it was though, I was left confused and wondering how my innocent question could've offended them after all their personal questions about me.
Mr DeMille looked unfazed. He took another bite of his steak, and chewed it thoughtfully. Finally he spoke. "We were just on one of our regular visits to check on my investments in Alberta." Catherine and her mother were waiting for something. "Then, we decided to visit some friends in Nevada."
Everything was quiet again after that, but this time with a sense of finality. The pressure lessened, though didn't dissipate. I wasn't sure how, but I'd managed to bring up something that made the entire family uncomfortable. I kept my head down for the rest of the meal, picking at the steak and letting the blanket of silence smother us.
When the meal finally ended, Mr DeMille offered to have Laurence drive me home. I agreed, all too eager to be away from the place. Mr and Mrs DeMille both shook my hand and told me what a pleasure it had been to meet me, and then Catherine and I stepped outside, waiting for Laurence to bring the car around.
We were quiet in the failing light, neither of us really looking at each other. I think Catherine was as lost in her thoughts as I was in mine. I wanted to ask her what I'd done wrong, but I knew better than to try that with her. If nothing else, I understood enough to know that she had let me into her comfort zone, and her father had dragged me even further into it by having me for dinner. Maybe she didn't know how to react to the situation, either. Some of that shell of mystery around her had been cracked, and now neither of us knew how to handle it.
The car pulled up, and Laurence got out to open the door for me. I made to get in, then hesitated. I glanced over my shoulder, and saw that Catherine was already heading for the door.
"Hey, Catherine." She stopped and looked back at me. "You know that if you really want to get better, we'll need to practice with more than just two people."
"That's what my team practices at school are for."
"You want me to be your personal trainer?" She nodded stiffly, and I barreled onward. "If you want to go pro, you need to work on your passing."
"I seem to be doing just fine so far."
"How tall are your parents?"
That set her back. When she didn't respond, I went on. "Six two? Six three? If that's how tall you're going to be, then you'll be playing point guard. Shooting guard at best. You can't just be 'alright' at passing. You have to be excellent."
There was silence again. I was starting to feel cold in the cool air, but I refused to let it show. At length, Catherine spoke.
"Is that all?"
"Alright. See you next week, Hiro."
She stepped into the house, and I hurried into the car. Much of the ride back was silent, but as we pulled into downtown Vancouver proper, Laurence's voice came back through the speaker.
"It's good to see that Lady Catherine has a friend."
I was too surprised by his voice to respond at first. When I'd recovered, though, I pressed the button on the console to speak with him, and responded. "Friend? What makes you think I'm her friend?"
"Lady Catherine has had other personal trainers before, Mister Matsuura. Many of them have made the suggestion that she needed to work on passing drills with other players, or hinted that she might not grow to be tall enough to be a forward." The wolf was quiet for a few moments, then added, "Generally, said trainers weren't asked back after making such suggestions."
I blinked at that. I started thinking about it, then sighed and lowered my head. I rubbed at the feathers on my forehead, muttering to myself. Too much thinking today. Too much weirdness. I hit the button, and just replied, "Thanks, Laurence."
"Of course, Mister Matsuura."
The rest of the ride home was quiet, and I was thankful. The two days of hard training were catching up to me, and I wanted to just lay back and relax without thinking. Besides, I had to come up with some sort of an excuse for my parents when I got home.
When had basketball gotten so complicated?