Story:The Reunion - Part 1
The Reunion - Part 1
Written by TriangleDelta
"That's about it. Just remember, the Howlers may have an almost completely new lineup, but they're still every bit as much of a threat as they were in past seasons. Not to mention, those fans are going to be out for blood. Keep your heads cool, don't let them get to you, and we'll have this one in the bag." Bud glanced down at his watch before looking back up at his players. "Everybody take a quick break. I'll see you all on the court for drills in twenty."
As the bison stepped out of the Dakota Bikers' strategy and planning room, there was a general, quiet relaxing. The fifteen furs arranged around the table all leaned back in their seats, or headed to grab some coffee from the small refreshment table they kept in the strategy room. There was some muttered talk as they all digested the information that Bud had just fed them about their opponents for the game a week from that day. It was the way Bud normally did things; he gave the team their briefing on their opponents the week before, just to give them time to process it before game day. Of course, they had several games to play before they faced the Howlers, but it was helpful to have the information in the back of their heads.
The only player that didn't seem to have relaxed was Catherine DeMille. The palm cockatoo's sharp eyes were still trained on the projector screen, and she was tense as she tapped her fingers on the table. At length, she pushed herself back from the table, then stood up and walked out of the room. Her pace was steady and purposeful as she headed down corridor. As soon as she rounded a corner, and had put some distance between herself and her teammates, she slowed. She kept going for a short while, and then finally came to a stop, her head lowered.
She'd heard the scouting reports and the rumours. She'd seen some of his playing stats. She'd been deliberately avoiding watching any playing footage, though. It had been stupid, she'd known; there was no way she could avoid him forever. That said—
"Take it from someone who knows; it isn't healthy to obsess so much about someone."
Catherine actually jumped at the voice, and whirled around to glare at its source. Dylan Redfield was standing down the corridor from her, his arms crossed over his chest. Catherine mentally cursed herself. She'd been so wrapped up in her own thoughts that she hadn't even heard his bare hoof-feet on the tile behind her.
She gathered herself quickly, though, and forced her face to take on its usual cool expression. "Who, Brine? I'm not concerned about him. Between Ryan, Dat and I, we should have no trouble shutting him down."
The red deer snorted and rolled his eyes. "Please. I'm not talking about Brine. I'm talking about Hiroyuki Matsuura."
To her credit, Catherine didn't visibly react to Dylan's words. She gave a slow shrug, keeping her voice dismissive. "Hiro? I don't have much reason to worry about him. He's Cassidy and Simon's concern." Cassidy Whitlatch and Simon Thal were the Bikers' starting centre and power forward; out of everybody on the Bikers, they were the most likely to wind up tangling with Hiro. As a point guard, Catherine was mostly going to be keeping to the edges, and staying far away from the key where a centre like Hiro would be.
Dylan didn't appear to be impressed by her deflection. He raised an eyebrow, keeping his arms crossed. "So you're saying that you aren't worried about Hiro?"
"Not in the slightest."
"Right. So you refusing to watch the combine and the draft was just lack of interest?"
"And that time you tweeted a comparison of your and his first game stats?"
Catherine hesitated at that one. No, she couldn't just explain that away, particularly not on the spot. So instead, she narrowed her eyes at Dylan. "It's nothing. It certainly isn't going to affect my playing ability, if that's your concern."
"It's not just your performance I'm worried about." The deer's hands slipped down into the pockets of his shorts. He slumped his shoulders forward, and his tail narrowed flat. "You seem really tightly-wound."
It was Catherine's turn to snort. To Dylan's questioning look, she just shrugged. "I'm always tightly-wound. It's probably one of the reasons management thought I'd make such a great addition to the Bikers. I mean, with all those glaring contests you and Ryan keep getting into…"
The deer stiffened visibly and his arms crossed again. "That's different."
"Of course it is. I mean, obviously he should listen to every word you say now that you're making all that money…"
Dylan glared for a moment, then shook his head. "Fine, know what? Go have fun pretending you aren't bothered. It'll sure show me for trying to help."
He turned on his heel, and then walked away. Catherine grinned at his back, then turned and started heading for the women's locker room. True, she probably shouldn't have pushed Dylan quite so hard. It was easy to do, though, and it made her feel better.
Her good mood didn't last long, though. She was fine all the way down to the locker room, still grinning at how easy it had been to wind Dylan up. Her grin fell away as she pulled her phone out of her pocket. She checked it reflexively before putting it in her locker, and paused, staring at the screen. There was a missed call from her mother. Catherine had long since muted all calls from her parents. When she'd first cut them out of her life, they'd called her several times per day. That number had slowly dropped, though, until now, when she heard from them once every few days. Catherine kept staring at the screen for a few seconds, her eyebrows knit together. At last, she shoved the phone into her locker, and started getting changed.
She was already in her practice clothes by the time Elisa Lawless, one of the other two female players on the Bikers, walked in. The ocelot shot Catherine a quick nod, then gave her a double-take.
"You aren't still hung up on that stupid shrike, are you?"
Catherine blinked in surprise. She'd been about to leave, but she stopped in her tracks and glanced over at Elisa. Catherine hesitated. No, she hadn't been thinking about Hiro at all. Still, he was hanging around in the back of her mind, and he was a safer topic than her parents. "'Hung up,' isn't the right word."
"Then what is? Obsessed?"
"Bullshit." Elisa actually grinned at her, showing all her fangs. "You couldn't stop staring at him while Bud was showing us all those clips. So what is it? What's your damage?"
Again, Catherine waited before she replied. She actually had to think about her response, because she still wasn't entirely sure how she felt. At length she crossed her arms over her chest and spoke. "The last time I saw him, I was better than him. Yeah, he was getting taller than me, but I was still just… better. Last year I guess I finally had to accept that there were people that are just better than me at this. I'm starting to be alright with that." She stopped at that, thinking of how much it still bothered her watching Dat Mongoste, the Bikers' other main point guard, sink shots from the woods with ease. She was getting better at accepting that she wasn't the best; she still wasn't great with it. She shook her head and went on. "It's different with Hiro. I can accept that some random FBA player is better than me. Hiro's somebody from my world, though. I see him on those replays; how big he is, how well he moves and shoots, how bloody majestic he looks when he's in the air… He can't be better than me. He can't."
Catherine wasn't sure how she expected Elisa to respond. To be honest, she'd half-forgotten that the brash ocelot was even there. She was so surprised that she almost jumped when Elisa snorted.
"Well that's dumb."
"It's dumb. 'Oh no, some shrike's better than me!' Come on."
Catherine glared over at the ocelot for a second, stammering for a response. At last, she just clenched her beak. "I didn't expect you to understand."
"Oh, no, I get it." Elisa shrugged. She was almost finished getting changed into her own workout gear. "He's getting all this attention, people think he's better than you, and you're angry. Makes perfect sense. The dumb part is how you're reacting."
"How do you mean?"
Elisa sighed and rolled her eyes, and when she spoke, her voice sounded like she was speaking to a young child. "People think he's better than you. We're playing his team next week. So… rip him a new one."
"I don't think it's quite that easy."
"Isn't it?" Elisa shrugged. "Catherine, you're fucking terrifying on the court. Not like Fenruss with all his growling and shit. You've got this crazy ice queen thing you do. It doesn't happen all the time, but when you're focused, you can rip a team apart. Like last week, against the Typhoons? Fuck, you were scary. How do you do that?"
The two of them headed out of the locker room and started towards the court. Catherine was moving slowly, though; thinking. "I guess I just… I get angry, but I don't let myself feel it? I push it all down and away somewhere. I used to be able to do it all the time in university; I don't know why I have so much trouble with it here."
"You used to be able to do it when you played with Hiro, right?"
Catherine nodded slowly at that. "All the time."
"Perfect. So just turn it on while we're playing him next week." Elisa shrugged as though it was the easiest thing in the world. "There's your solution."
The two of them stepped out onto the court. A few of the others were already out there, stretching and getting ready. Catherine and Elisa started their own stretches, and Catherine muttered, "I don't know if I can just 'turn it on' anymore."
"You said it was about getting angry, right? So what makes you angriest right now?"
Catherine's thoughts immediately went to the phone in her locker. She quickly pushed that idea away, though. That wasn't anger. That was something different.
Instead, she thought about Hiro. Somehow getting ranked first, somehow getting all of those sports writers clamouring to speak with him, somehow doing all the things that Catherine had always been meant to do. That had been her dream, not his. Who was he to just walk out of her life like that, then come back without warning to disrupt everything?
She kept glaring forward, not speaking for a short while as she stretched. When Bud called the team over to start their drills, Catherine glanced over at Elisa.
"Yeah, I think I've got this."
The night of the game against Montana came, and the actual game flew by in a blur. Sure, the Howlers' team was mostly unrecognizable from a few years previous, but the fans didn't seem to care. The rivalry between the Bikers and the Howlers was as strong as it ever had been, and Sofawolf Stadium was packed to the rafters with fans in black or blue. Catherine normally didn't pay much attention to anything other than the game in progress when she played. Chanting or jeering meant very little to her.
It seemed like she was going to have to make an exception for games against the Howlers, though.
Both teams were on fire that night. The aggression in the air was palpable, and it showed in everybody's playing. Much of what Joey Cox had taught Catherine last year, about being fast and light on her feet so she wouldn't have to tangle with other players, flew out the window. She found herself shouldering against Howlers again and again, throwing what little weight she had into all of her movements. On more than one occasion, she wound up on the ground, but she was back up and into the action just as quickly.
It was a different style of play than what she was used to, but there was a thrill to it. The speed left her with little or no time to think; all of her movements were driven by reflex more than anything else. The rest of her teammates moved much the same. Dylan's pure physicality let him push through the Howlers' bulky starting line and get into position again and again. Aesop Tecumseh, the pike that was filling in for the Bikers' usual starting shooting guard Ryan Malone, kept mostly back on the perimeter, complimenting Catherine's position and keeping himself open for plays further out. On more than one occasion, Catherine found herself mentally thanking Cassidy Whitlatch, the Bikers' border collie power forward, for shielding her from or opening passing lanes around towering Howlers. Catherine knew exactly where Simon Thal was at all times; even when she wasn't looking in the right direction to see the bull's horns poking above the other players' heads, she could hear the centre's powerful hooves clacking against the court as he used brute force to get in close to the net.
Yes, the Bikers all played up to their impressive reputations that night. Catherine barely noticed, though. Shortly after that first tip-off, she'd focused on the anger that Elisa had helped her find the week before. During each practice leading up to this game, Catherine and Elisa had spoken, and Catherine had fallen further and further into that roiling, festering anger, letting it build up.
From the moment Catherine first touched the ball that night, she was a different person entirely. She moved with cold precision, her eyes scanning the court on each play. Every one of her passes connected, and they almost all resulted in points for the Bikers. When she couldn't find a passing lane open, she would rush into the fray without hesitation, dodging around bigger opponents and finding a shot. It wasn't always the best strategy; many of her shots missed, and she would have been in trouble on several occasions if the others hadn't been there to cover for her. Still, her constant intensity set her apart from everybody else on the court that night.
She barely spoke during halftime, or during her short breaks on the bench. Elisa and Dat Mongoste, the two Bikers that were doing most of the point guard duties whenever Catherine was off the court, gave her quick words of either encouragement or concern whenever she stepped over to the bench. Elisa, of course, was egging her on, pushing her harder. Dat seemed to have noticed that her intensity was a bit too heavy, a bit too driven.
Catherine ignored both of them, though, and just about everybody else that wasn't directly involved in any plays she was handling at the time. All of her attention was saved for one person, and that person was Hiroyuki Matsuura.
She didn't recognize him when he first stepped onto the court. The last time that Catherine had seen him in person, he'd been a skinny, gangly teenager, still awkward with his tall body and growing flight feathers. Whenever he hadn't been on the court, he'd looked like he wanted to crawl out of his skin and hide away where nobody could see him.
Now… well, now. He'd only grown taller in the past five years, but the rest of his body had had a chance to catch up some. He was still quite skinny compared to many centres, and he looked like a twig whenever he stood next to Simon. Still, there was some serious muscle to back up his height now, particularly around his back and shoulders. His movements were comfortable and precise; almost graceful. And whenever he was in the air… well. Catherine had seen a lot of players use the one flap rule. She'd rarely seen anybody use it quite as effectively or magnificently as Hiro did. Whenever his wings swept down, it was like the air itself was holding him up, lifting him higher.
Catherine noticed all of this with an odd, angry detachment, though. She identified all of these qualities in the first few plays of the game. From there, her brutally cool mind told her something very simple: he was a threat. He had to be isolated.
She did her best to completely shut him out of the game. She passed to teammates in ways that would keep the big shrike far from the action. Whenever she went on the attack herself, she chose routes that would take her far from Hiro. It left him far out of the way, and without the muscle to push his way through, Hiro wound up having very little impact on the game.
When the final buzzer sounded, Catherine finally let herself come out of her trance. She wasn't surprised at all to see that the Bikers had won, and by a healthy margin of 20 points. She didn't feel the giddy excitement she sometimes got nowadays after a good performance. Even after the announcement went out that she'd been awarded player of the game honours, and the crowd erupted with applause, she remained cool and detached. No reason to act pleased or happy. It only made sense that they'd won, and that they were celebrating her role. She'd earned it.
She gave detached, noncommittal nods to her teammates' compliments and congratulations. She attended the short post-game press conference, and answered a few questions for the reporters before excusing herself.
At first she wasn't sure where she was going. She ducked back into Sofawolf Stadium's inner passages, where only team and stadium staff were allowed to enter. Catherine wandered along, unaware of where her feet were taking her. It wasn't until she was almost to the visiting team's locker rooms that she realized where she was going, and what she wanted to do.
She casually waited outside the team's exit to the locker room, leaning against the wall. She was still wearing her jersey from the game, her sweat plastering the white and black clothes against her feathers. Catherine didn't mind the heat all that much; she was busy going through all the things she wanted to say in her head.
She hadn't spoken with Hiro in years. Who knew how much he'd changed in that time? How did she even want to greet him? There was a smug voice in the back of her head telling her to just play it as she had when they'd first met, when she was fourteen and he was fifteen. Cool, condescending. Showing him his place. It would be perfect. The ultimate way to show him that nothing had changed since they'd last met. She was still in control. They were the same people, when it came right down to it. She was better than him, and there was nothing he could do to cha—
Catherine blinked at the familiar male voice, and then glanced over. She just stared for a long second; she'd been so wrapped up in her thoughts that she hadn't been paying attention. She cleared her throat, then opened her beak. "Hey, Corey."
The big mutt's face broke into a grin, and he walked the rest of the way down the hallways towards her. He had already changed back into his street clothes, and only now did Catherine feel odd about still being in her jersey. If Corey noticed, though, he didn't comment. As he drew closer to Catherine, he went to hold out a hand, then hesitated, and leaned in slightly as though going for a hug, before pulling back awkwardly. He just stood there, looking a bit lost for a second.
Catherine stared back at him for a moment, then hurriedly held out her own hand for him. "It's good to see you."
He got a smile back onto his muzzle, then took her hand, shaking it. "Nice to see a familiar face." She didn't miss the slight tremor in his grip. Catherine was honestly impressed. She and everybody else on the Spirits the year before had known about Corey's post-game jitters. He normally wouldn't speak to anybody after a game until he got some time alone to catch his breath.
Seeing him was a surprise, though. Catherine had forgotten that Corey, like herself, was no longer playing for the Spirits. He'd been signed to the Howlers a short while before she got traded to the Bikers. She'd completely missed him on the court, too; she must have been too focused to really pick out details like that. Realizing that she hadn't even noticed one of her former teammates sent a small pang of guilt through her chest, but she pushed it away for now.
The two stood in the hallway for a moment, an awkward silence opening up between them. Much to Catherine's surprise, it was Corey that broke it.
"That was a fantastic game tonight. I mean, you're always focused, but tonight you were just… you were like a machine."
"Thanks." Catherine forced her voice to sound appreciative, but it took a lot of effort. For some reason, the compliment wasn't sitting well with her. She realized that the silence was starting to stretch again, and hurried to speak. "So how's Montana treating you?"
"It's good! I mean, I don't get quite as much playing time, but… it's kind of nice?" Corey shrugged. "I mean, I loved playing for Baltimore, but the city got to me sometimes, you know? Billings is a bit… less big, I guess?" Corey licked his lips, and his eyes darted around briefly. "So… were you coming to try to see Hiro?"
Catherine actually had to think about that before she replied. Her voice was uncertain when she finally said, "Yeah, I was."
"Ach, sorry, he already left."
Catherine nodded slowly, processing that. At length, she asked, trying to sound casual, "Has he mentioned me at all?"
It was Corey's turn to hesitate. She could see his tail stop its slight bobbing behind him as he thought. His voice was unsure when he replied. "No, not really. I mean, everybody kinda knows you two, uh, knew each other, so a few people have asked, but he's never said anything."
Catherine let out a tense breath she hadn't known she'd been holding. She held in her surprise at that, and instead said, "Right. How is he?"
Corey shrugged, and looked relieved that the topic had changed a bit. "Hiro? He's a nice enough guy. Kinda quiet. We were actually on the same team at Underwood for a couple years, but we never really talked. I can see how you could've been friends with him, though."
Catherine nodded, but didn't trust herself to speak for a few seconds. Instead, the palm cockatoo made a show of gesturing down at her jersey. "Right, right. Well, it was nice seeing you and playing with you again. I, uh… I should probably go get changed at some point, though."
"Yeah, of course! Should I tell Hiro that you said 'hi'?"
"No thanks, Corey. That's alright." Catherine turned to go, then hesitated. She considered for a few seconds, then glanced over her shoulder. "Next time we play each other, we should go get drinks or something. Would be nice to spend time with another former Spirit."
Corey blinked in surprise. Catherine hadn't started going out with her teammates on the Spirits until late into the previous season, and even then it was infrequent. The dog recovered quickly, though, and he bobbed his head. "Yeah, that would be great!"
With that, she walked away, keeping her head down as she made her way back over towards the Bikers' locker rooms. By the time she got there, the women's locker room was empty. Catherine made her way over to her locker gingerly, the strain of the night's game finally starting to catch up to her. She tugged the locker open, and started pulling out her clothes. Eventually, though, she stopped, and just stared ahead into her locker.
So Hiro had just left. Catherine had been a bit too focused to notice such things, but she didn't think he'd even acknowledged her on the court as anything more than another player. He hadn't so much as mentioned her to his teammates, or anybody else. In a way, Catherine was thankful. After her mind had finally pieced together that Hiro and Corey were on the same team, she'd felt a very odd sense of dread. Just a fear at the chance that Hiro had told people about her, had told one of her former teammates stories about her as a teenager.
Would that be so bad, though? Wasn't that what Catherine had been trying to channel tonight? Hadn't she been trying to recall that cold, dismissive demeanour she used to keep up all the time? She'd been amazing tonight, and she knew that trying to act like her old self had been a major part of that.
Maybe that was the problem. Maybe she just wasn't that same person anymore. The past year had changed her. She shot a look at her phone, sitting in the back her locker. Yes, the past year had definitely changed things.
Catherine sighed, finished getting changed, and grabbed her phone. She checked it, and found that there was a missed call from her dad. Catherine flicked through her phone's screens, and was surprised to see that her father had actually left a message for her. It was rare that they did that anymore.
The palm cockatoo stared at the screen, trying to think. At length, though, she just shook her head and deleted the message without listening to it. She'd already spent over five months not talking to them. She wasn't going to break that now just because Hiro had turned up and complicated things.