Chapter 8
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Now: A meeting of agents

A meeting of agents is like pulling teeth. It shouldn't have to be, and maybe at other companies it isn't, but at Carat it is.

Especially when I know these agents, when I've previously been demoted out of their ranks, and when now I'm back like my previous failures meant nothing. They think it's so easy for me. They know that it wouldn't have been as easy for them.

What can I say? I'm sorry that I know Aidri?

I am sorry that I know him.

"What's that smell?" is the first thing Daniel says. He's the head agent of the Carat Crowns. Not that there should be head agents—the pretty little slogans tell us we're all equals, no matter who we represent, but let's be honest with ourselves. He's in charge of Nikolai, and the other players defer to Nikolai no matter how much they don't want to, so their agents defer to him.

Toni—who started with me, who used to be my friend—says, like I expect him to, "It reeks of nepotism in here." He's Toni with an I, not a Y, like he used to like to remind me back when we talked. Like that makes him special. He's Daniel's little yes-man now. That's why Daniel keeps him around, and when I'm feeling sorry for myself I remind myself that at least I'm not sucking up to someone who doesn't even respect me.

"Come on, guys," says Julius. "It's his first day back. Don't be like that." Like I don't know what he says about me behind my back. But at least he's fair. He talks behind everyone's back, including Dana's, and he's supposed to represent her. If we're talking about nepotism though, he has a bone to chew on there. He's the son of the head of the finance department, and that's why though he's the most useless agent among the lot he won't be fired.

I smile at him. Thinly. I do get useful information from him from time to time, so I don’t cut him off entirely. Or I try not to, when he doesn't make me angry by acting like we're all buddy-buddy just because we both got in by virtue of our last names.

"Yes, I'd rather not waste all of our time. Keep your personal conversations to your own time, will you?" Circe says, crossing one leg over the other. She's new, been-here-less-than-a-year new, and kind of terrifying. I suppose she has to be to do well here. I don't know her much at all, but I heard that she's been making waves, and that Daniel doesn't like it.

None of them like me, but they don't like each other much either. Except Toni, who might like Daniel. Though kissing someone's ass isn't the same as liking them, so far as I'm concerned.

"What's the team schedule now?" I ask.

"Tsk tsk," Toni says, and I almost scoff in his face. Who says that out loud? (Toni does, that's who.) "Shouldn't you know that already?"

I should. I've requested it multiple times the past week. The reason I don't have it is because Daniel hasn't given it to me, and now I have to ask like this in front of them, when pre-season training starts next week.

"Team practices are Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at 2 in the afternoon. The gym is reserved for us from 9 to 11 in the morning every morning but it's up to you if and how you use it. Individual and face off training sessions are scheduled for Tuesdays and Thursdays for the whole day, and any additional needed individual training is up to the discretion of the player. We have practice games on Saturdays."

Daniel doesn't even have the good grace to give me a printout of the schedule.

"Who are the practice games against?"

"Our lower division teams sometimes. We've scheduled a couple friendly practices against some other companies."

He does not offer further information, so I have to say, "When? Against who?"

He rattles the names and dates off, and I recite them in my head to try to memorize them. I know he won't repeat them.

I leave once I've gotten what I need. I'll have to see the other agents at least once a week now, probably more often if they come to monitor the practices. Just another bullet point in a growing list to blame Aidri for.

 


 

Then: Like you understand

My roommate turned up late into the second day. The first thing he said to me, while still standing in the doorway, was, "Is it just me, or does everyone here think they're hot shit?"

"I wish it was just you," I said.

He leaned forward and grabbed my shoulders with such fervor that I wanted to ask if he was okay. And tell him to get his hands off of me. But both sounded rude, and I didn't want to make a bad first impression.

"Thank God, you're normal," he said. Then he released my shoulders to grab my hand and shake it enthusiastically. "I'm Drew. And before you ask, no it's not short for Andrew, and no you can't call me Andy."

"Ringo. But call me Rin."

I shuffled back to let him in the room, and he breezed in, throwing his duffel bag on the ground and flopping onto the unclaimed bed. "On my way up some girl asked me if I'd ever bound a spirit, and when I said nope, she was like, well let me tell you about this one time I almost called a spirit when I was just 10 years old. Like uh, okay, but you didn't though? And if I had bound a spirit, do you think I'd need to go through a training program? Come on. And once I got rid of her, this other guy tells me who his dad is, when I didn’t even ask, and acts like I’m supposed to give a shit. He goes on and on, and his dad’s not even a player, he's some trainer on a lower division team, so who cares? Then he asks me, what does your dad do? What does your mom do? I was like, does no one here know how to have a normal conversation? If I'd known that I might not have come."

I didn't believe him—no one would give up the SI trainee program so easily. But it was a breath of fresh air to hear him say that at all, and I gulped it in greedily.

After a few days I gathered that he wasn’t someone I’d usually hang out with—he was loud, outgoing, overly familiar. To my mild concern, he was a self-proclaimed extrovert, and claimed he’d wither away and die if he didn’t see other people for more than a week. Yet somehow this didn’t seem important, even though it would’ve mattered so much to me just a few months ago, back in high school.

I say this like I could have afforded to be choosy about who I hung out with. If I'm honest, I didn’t care much who he was. That he was funny, friendly, and willing to say most of whatever came to the top his head—that was damn lucky, but it didn’t really matter.

All that actually mattered was that he liked me. That he didn't care how I'd gotten into the program, or who my family was, or who I knew.

Back then, there was no way I’d give that up. Not even if he turned out to be an asshole.

That first week was almost a dream. The program hadn't started yet, so I spent most of the time relaxing in my room, or hanging out with Marianne and Drew when they weren't out with the others. No parents on my back, no relatives or friends of theirs to make snide comments, no pressure. I missed my friends, but other than that, it wasn't bad.

I should've known it wouldn't last.

The trainee program started on a January morning, with all of us rushed out to stand in rows in the parking lot in front of the company. I remember the bite in the air, and thinking longingly of the jacket I'd left in my room as gooseflesh prickled on my upper arms.

Seeing the boy from the cafeteria standing to the front, talking with a couple others. What happened to I'm not here to make friends?

Listening to Marianne tell us that she'd bought dye with the money her parents wired her, and she was going to trade out the blonde for the ashy silver that was more popular these days—because that color could be written off as fashion, rather than an attempt to downplay lighter eyes. She mused wistfully that she didn’t remember what a full head of her natural hair color looked like anymore. I thought I should tell her she could have any hair color, and I would think the same of her. But then, what did it matter what I thought? Maybe it was wrong to think that my words could change the way she thought, as if she needed saving, as if I could save her.

And then Drew said, “I hope you’re not dyeing your hair because you think there’s something wrong with your eyes. Are you?”

Marianne breathed out, a shuttered, “Well…”

“If you like that color, great, but if you don’t… Look, my eyes aren’t all that dark either.” It was true. They were darker than Marianne’s, but not by much, a soft caramel kind of brown. I suddenly wished my eyes were lighter too. I didn’t have that melting-into-the-iris kind of darkness, but my eyes were a deep enough brown that once there’d been higher expectations for me. “I don’t think most people care about having dark eyes these days. Right, Rin?” I nodded, though I knew people who did care. “Anyone who still does is an idiot, and we’ll prove that when we show them up.”

Marianne had ducked her head, as if embarrassed, but her voice was warm when she said, “Thanks, Drew.” I thought, why didn't I say that? I was, as usual, slow on the uptake.

I don't know why I remember all these insignificant details. Or are they significant, because I remember them?

The point is, it was the first day of the trainee program. The CEO went up to the front and said some words about you are the future, make us proud, blah blah. I'm making that up. I don't actually remember.

The director of the trainee program talked for a longer time, before bringing out the trainers that would be working with us for the next three years. They all had their own introductions too, some long, some short, all accomplished, and all a blur to me even though there weren't many of them. I would come to know them much better later on.

Then, they said the first trainee's name. And the number: 50.

I startled, my head jerking up. It was jarring to hear one of us called, instead of Trainer this Trainer that.

I turned to see if anyone else had reacted like I had, but I couldn’t tell. They were certainly paying attention now, if they hadn’t been earlier, but they weren’t surprised. Not even Marianne, or Drew. This was the part they had been waiting for.

To find out where they stood. And if it wasn’t where they wanted to be, to find out who to beat to get there.

I should’ve expected this; I'd been brought up around this life. But there’s a lot to be said for the brain’s ability to push away the truths we don’t want to face. I wanted to think of Drew and Marianne as friends. I didn’t want to see them still and sharpen, under that pale morning sun. It was cold already.

They called the trainee to stand, and gave him his uniform. He received it in his shaking fingers, and stared at the number 50 emblazoned across the back like a death sentence.

50 was the number they started at every time. 50 trainees, like every year. Somehow, that jarred me too. I didn’t think that I’d taken someone else’s spot.

Who had gotten that phone call? Who had to listen to a voice across the line say, remember that program you got into, the one you've been dreaming of your whole life? Sorry, that was a mistake.

Name, number. Name, number. I waited for mine, and unease trickled into my gut as the numbers went down.

They reached the top 15. Neither Marianne nor Drew had been called yet. The cafeteria boy too. Why I noticed him then, I don't know. Drew grinned at us, Marianne managed a small, terse smile back, and I avoided both their eyes. I started to feel sick.

Drew got called at 12. 11. 10. 9. Marianne, 8.

The floor mates who’d ignored her before suddenly seemed to realize she existed. 8 was worth recognition, and more so when 8 was a small, quiet girl who hunched in her shoulders from a little attention.

"Aidri. 3," the trainers said, and the cafeteria boy stood up. He didn't look happy, but I doubted he'd look happy if he won the lottery.

They got to the final name on the list. Drew gave me a thumbs up. Marianne beamed.

"Ringo," they said.

I stood. I was sure the others could see me shaking where I stood, like the place 50 boy.

"Unknown. You joined under special circumstances, so we don't have a placement for you yet. But we expect great things from you, Dario's brother."

I felt their eyes on my body, on my face. The ah, he does look like his mother. The Dario's brother? No way. I heard he had a brother, but...

I knew I was shaking now, and the cold didn’t help. I knew they saw the differences between my brother and me. They would mark me.

There's my brother's voice, from not long ago. Be yourself, Ringo. That's all you need to do.

Me spitting back. Like you understand.

Him: I want to.

Me: No you don't.

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