Chapter 15
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Now: She still cares

Wednesday’s supposed to be the first team practice with Nikolai, since he walked out on Monday. We wait to see if he'll show. Daniel and a couple trainers are in the stadium, so the chances are higher than I thought.

Monday practice without him was strange.

Most teams these days center around one or two attackers. This is in large part due to teams like SI's, that started the trend of stacking heavily on offense. They’ve proven that their way works, and it works well. Two decades ago, most games focused on defense, but nowadays you’ll hardly ever see a defense-centric team. Now the game mostly revolves around offensive strategies that culminate in team battles.

As usual, the Crowns can’t stay on trend. They center around Nikolai, though he's not an attacker. He won't point that out to new members until they figure it out, which rubs some attacker types the wrong way. Attackers are territorial like that, which is why teams with two attackers need to make sure both the players and spirits have good synergy. But more important than synergy between attackers is synergy between an attacker and a provider. Nikolai's a provider, and I don’t think he understands the definition of the word. His idea of synergy has always been having the attacker under his thumb.

It's a lesson he likes to teach the hard way when new attackers join the team. I've seen him pose as an attacker to drive a newcomer up the wall, until they fall into the trap of challenging him to a fight. I've seen him when he wins. He puts his boot on the newcomer's chest, sometimes with the backdrop of dark miasma steaming off cuts in their spirit. Laughs, saying, "You understand your position here now?"

And the final twist in the knife, that one that makes them crumple with humiliation, "I'm a provider."

I'm sure he already knew that this wouldn’t work on Aidri. From the moment Aidri dropped the casual, "You're not an attacker type, are you?"

He still had to try, Monday happened, and now I’m sure he’s pissy about it.

I rub my temples. This feels like déjà vu. I can already envision the headache that's going to build up over the season. This time I'm not going in blind, but that doesn't mean I'm prepped to read into the double meanings in the team's conversations, or the complexities of their relationships that I'll need to keep track of like the back of my hand.

I miss my lower div player already. Her team may not be strong, but they do well enough for what they are. They don't play these ego games.

I remind myself that it’s not like Aidri needs much of my help in navigating these waters, foreign as they are. Like Nikolai, Aidri's used to being on top, but unlike him, Aidri's used to fighting for it.

Even so, I can’t deny that the team is kind of lost without Nikolai around. They try to match Aidri, but Aidri wants to practice team fights. Scarlet can make a decent showing of it, but Devon and Dana are sparrow spirit binders. They're not much for fighting.

Aidri hasn't found his pace yet either, even if he won't say it aloud. He's used to team members who know the role they're supposed to play to back him up. He's used to team practices where they run matches close to real games. Where they can switch between play styles simply by changing the combinations of backups and starters on the floor.

We don’t even have enough players for a full 5 vs 5. We can run three vs two. We can get the full set if we supplement with a couple of the trainers, but that is not the same. Unlike SI, the trainers here aren't retirees from a top team. If they're former players, they don't come from top teams. If they're not, they're game strategists, people who've made a life's work out of studying the game and know all about it on paper, but have never played in a match. At SI, they'd call them game enthusiasts, not trainers.

Nikolai shows up when we’re running a two vs two, sipping coffee from the local cafe.

He arrives in time to see Aidri's jackals take Scarlet's snake down for the fourth time. The strain is getting to her—sweat runs down the sides of her face, between the strands of dark hair that have already fallen out of the bun she's tried to pull it into. She doesn't ask for a break though. She sends a pulse of power to heal the scratches on her viper, and faces Aidri again.

"They're not fighters," Nikolai says off the bat. That's clear for Devon and Dana, who've spent most of the two vs two fluttering around until Aidri snarls at them to stop being useless. Then for a couple minutes, they give a half-hearted try at pecking each other’s eyes out.

Everyone turns. Dana's relief at seeing Nikolai is obvious. She allows herself to relax, and her sparrow drops back onto her shoulder. I think Devon would be relieved too, if his pride didn't ensure that his default expression when facing Nikolai is a sneer. They're both tired.

Nikolai shoots a cursory glance at his agent. Then one at me. I don't expect it. I almost, almost look away, but I hold his gaze because I'm not going to let him think I'm the same person I was when I was Scarlet's agent. There's nothing he can gain from me this time anyway, but it's the principle of it. It isn't for long. He soon looks over toward the floor.

Nikolai only has eyes for one person on the floor.

Aidri scans him back, and takes in what I've already noticed. Nikolai's in his training gear, but he hasn't taken off his jacket or put down his coffee.

"I can be a fighter," Scarlet challenges, before either of them speak.

"With a snake," Nikolai says, without looking in her direction.

"A viper," she says.

"I'm sure that's working out well for you right now."

Scarlet's ebony skin can hide a blush, but I don't think she's embarrassed. The corners of her eyes tighten. "At least I'm learning something new that could help us win."

"Yes, because you play-acting like a fighter is our key to victory."

"Maybe. Maybe not. At least it's something, Nikolai. That's more than you've offered for the past year."

That draws Nikolai's attention away from Aidri. "More than I've offered? I've come up with every single strategy we ran the whole season."

"Yeah, and look where that got us."

Nikolai's fingers crush indents into his coffee cup. It's not like him to show his anger like this, and for a second I can imagine it: the late nights he must have stayed up trying to figure out how to save the team, and sleepless ones he must've had when it didn't work. "Don't blame me for—"

"I'm not blaming you, Nikolai," Scarlet says, imploring now even though that tightness around her eyes tells me she's as angry as he is. "I'm just saying we can't keep doing the same old things. It doesn't work."

"Why don't you be the strategist then, if you know what works and what doesn't."

"Nikolai! God, why do you—" she stops herself and takes a breath. "I want the same thing as you. I want to win." She waves at Aidri. "So does he."

Bad move. She realizes it herself as the last three words pop out of her mouth, almost like a curse. If she'd stopped at wanting to win, she might’ve found some common ground with Nikolai. Now it sounds like she's taking sides.

Nikolai rolls his tongue in his mouth, like he’s found something in his teeth he wants to spit out, like it’s funny that it got lodged in there. "So then, Aidri, do you think she can be a fighter?" he asks.

Scarlet bristles. "Nikolai, really? Are you going to talk like I'm not here?"

Aidri tilts his head at Nikolai. "Are you a fighter?" he asks. Curious, almost playful.

"I can be."

"Really. Because I don't think you are. I think it was easy to beat your ass." Aidri doesn't sound playful anymore. "I think you're a provider."

Nikolai doesn't miss a beat. "So what if I am?"

"Then do your job and start acting like one."

"I am."

"So your job is to walk out of practice or show up 30 minutes late? And make small talk about your poor strategy skills instead of supporting an attacker?"

I cover my face with one hand. I could've told Aidri that the number one rule when interacting with Nikolai is not to insult his ability to strategize. In fact I think I did tell him, and he's made a deliberate choice to ignore it.

It's not the right trait to insult, anyway. Nikolai's not half bad at team strategy for someone with as little to work with as he has, and it's what's kept the team afloat for the past five years.

If it was me, I'd go for Nikolai's lack of a conscience.

"Well." Nikolai holds up his coffee cup as if he's offering a toast. "Like you said, I'm a provider. There's not much for me to do if there's no proper attacker to support."

Aidri's lips start to curl back from his teeth. One of his jackals prowls up to his side. Nikolai's wildcat stretches her back, and I think, not this again. I force myself to start walking down the steps of the stands, even though it’s a kind of play-acting. I’m too far to intervene, and I’m not sure I know how to.

"Hey, hey, guys, no need to get worked up about this," Daniel calls over. Stepping in too late as usual, and saying nothing useful. I notice that he doesn't move from his safe spot by the wall. Toni’s next to him, whispering something in his ear. Julius is nowhere to be seen.

Circe is far above them, in the upper rows of the stands. She won’t get involved unless Scarlet’s in trouble, and even then most of the time she’ll stay out of it. She understands that Scarlet likes to handle her own problems. I’m surprised she’s here. She spends most of her time on the PR side, not at practices. Maybe she also wants to observe how Aidri affects the mix.

Aidri's mouth settles into the usual half-smile, and I allow myself a breath of relief. I stop by the railing of the stands. I don’t continue down the steps to ground-level, but I don’t go back up to where I was sitting before either. It’s a thin smile. "It's hilarious that you think you have what it takes to support me."

Nikolai matches the half-smile with a smile of his own. "I thought someone like you wouldn't need a provider."

"I don't, but I thought I'd offer you the chance to shine, since you haven't managed it on your own."

"Guys, please, since we're all here can we try to be adults and run one practice set together?" Scarlet says.

"If by practice set you mean a 3 on 3, I don't think so," Nikolai says.

"Won't you at least give it a damn try, Niko? What's the harm?" Scarlet asks.

"It's a waste of time."

"He's scared he won't be able to keep up with you," Aidri says.

It must have been a long time since Scarlet got anything close to a compliment. She fails to hide a small smile. Though it's fleeting, Nikolai sees it.

"Have fun then, running your useless 2 on 2s. Let me know when you want to do some real practice," he says, and walks off the floor.

I want to rub my temples again. Whatever Aidri and Nikolai say, for the team to play at a competitive level, Aidri needs a provider to support him, and Nikolai needs an attacker to support. So far preseason is going great.

I do rub my temples when I see Nikolai heading toward me. He undoes the latch of the door to the bleachers, walks up the steps, and within less than a minute is leaning on the railing next to me. "So how'd you get saddled with this sack of horse shit?"

This is actually not too far from how I would have described Aidri once—but how I'd describe Nikolai is worse.

"He was assigned to me. What do you want, Nikolai?"

"You don’t have to be so formal. You can still call me Niko, if you want." I wonder how it is that Nikolai always knows the right buttons to push. Is he speaking honestly? He can't be, but he sounds honest. That bothers me.

I watch the team, so that it doesn’t show. "I don’t."

Whether that bothers Nikolai or not, I can’t tell. He laughs. “Okay, okay,” he says.

I recall a time when we leaned over a railing, and I pointed at the ground and laughed when he said, Don't lean over so far.

But why should I worry when you’re there to catch me?

I don't remember what his laughter used to sound like. I don't want to.

He doesn't laugh like that anymore, not really.

"They assigned him to you? Isn't that a weird choice?"

I shrug. "Sure."

"You really don't trust me at all."

"Maybe not."

I am too aware of his dark eyes boring into the side of my face. I know he has turned from watching the team to watch me, one elbow against the rail. He was always good at giving people the feeling of having his undivided attention. "Rin. Will you look at me?"

I don't want to, so I don't. Even though that's probably more telling. "Why?"

His voice is quiet. "So I can tell you I'm sorry."

I know this is another one of his tricks, but it still feels like someone punched the air out of my lungs. "You've got nothing to be sorry for," I say.

"You know that's not—"

"You've made that pretty clear," I say. I push back from the railing before my breath sticks in my throat, before the fragile in-out of air stops altogether, and walk away from him. I've said too much. I’m walking too fast, but I don’t stop, following the railing to the side off the stands, to a way out of the stadium.

"Rin!" Nikolai calls after me. Aidri must hear him. He lifts his head in time to see me exit the stadium.

I lean against the wall outside and exhale slowly.

Take a deep breath and count down from 10. I know that's what they have children do, but it works for me, usually. It doesn't today.

I fumble inside my coat for the packet I keep in the inner breast pocket. Drew made fun of me when I got this coat. He thinks I'm trying to upgrade my style, and the more I tell him I'm not, the more he doesn't believe me. Just because I usually only wear hoodies or track jackets shouldn’t make one coat a big deal, but that’s Drew for you.

I mean, I do like the coat. The reason I bought it, though, is for the pockets. I can keep everything in here.

I find the packet, pull out one of the small orange pills inside, and put it between my lips. I swallow it dry, I'm that impatient.

It doesn't go down well, so I end up running to the water fountain anyway. Julius passes by and sees me, and doesn't think that I see him or his glee in catching me there. I can already picture him sidling up to Toni or Circe or anyone who'll give him the time of day: I saw him drinking out of the fountain. You know the one by the toilets? Ew, right? I don't think they clean those. He thinks everything is worth talking about.

I swallow the water. It tastes a little of metal, but it does the job. It pushes the pill down the rest of the way.

Then I wait, check my phone. The ten minutes I need pass too slow, but afterward my chest loosens and I can head back into the stadium.

Nikolai's still at the same spot on the railing, watching the rest of the team below him. He sees me, and if I didn't know better I would say he looks hurt. That’s funny, because he's never cared much about apologizing before.

Either way it doesn't bother me. I can breathe just fine. I feel nothing.

Eventually Nikolai goes back down to the floor, though he doesn't join the others.

After they're done, Scarlet talks to him. I'm not sure how much things have changed between them by now. She used to avoid him if she didn't have to talk to him, but now she talks to him like anyone else, if with more exasperation. There’s an eye roll in there somewhere. She gestures toward the floor, he shakes his head, she throws up her hands, he says something.

"Fine," she says, loud enough that even I hear.

Next she goes to Aidri. It's weird that Scarlet's the one going between them, if that's what she's doing. Dana used to be the peacekeeper when it was needed, to keep the peace between Nikolai and Scarlet. Now I guess it's Dana and Scarlet who aren't on speaking terms.

Aidri and Scarlet talk. Aidri rubs his chin, thoughtful. He says something. She laughs and slaps him against the chest. The casual touch shocks me. Shocks Dana too, from how her eyes narrow. Dana’s fast enough to revert her gaze, but I can tell she's no longer paying attention to whatever Devon's saying to her.

Aidri laughs too. Rubs his chest, pretends it hurts. Since when has he been such a charmer? Back then he had some charms, if you could get over the whole, you know, I'm better than you bit. And his generally shit personality.

I might be biased. According to certain sources that I do not corroborate, even back then he could be civil, could be nice, could even be likable. I encourage you to toss anyone who tells you this out of your life—clearly they don’t have your best interests in mind if they’re telling you trash propaganda. And even they will tell you, that was if he liked you. That's a big if. It disgusted me that the difference between how he treated people could be night and day.

This disgusts me now, though the exact reason why is harder for me to pinpoint. Scarlet grins, he grins, and someone watching might be convinced that they're friends.

That should be a good thing, right?

I can’t help myself. After practice ends, after we get into the car, I say, "This isn't going to play out like back then, right?"

"Back then? What are you—ahh." Aidri reaches across from the passenger seat to pat the side of my arm, a patronizing touch. "You still hung up about that? Course not."

Because of Nikolai earlier, I'm a little on edge. The pill's supposed to last five hours, but I'm on the tail end of it. I almost snap back, Don't touch me, but I am able to keep the words from leaving my lips. I'm not able to stop a small flinch, more like a tremor, an aftershock that hits years after a quake that has nothing to do with Aidri.

Aidri notices. Of course he does.

I expect him to think that's funny, like he does every time he gets under my skin. Instead, his eyes cut toward me, and his finger taps against the dashboard like he's annoyed. "I'm not trying to get in her pants, if that's what you think."

The thought may have crossed my mind.

"She still cares about this team. I can respect that."

For a moment I believe him. Then I remember that he plans to leave in a year, probably after restructuring the team the way he wants, as much as Nikolai will let him. That’s what his respect is worth.

I wonder what Aidri cares about.

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