Chapter 19
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Then: He's not as bad as you think

I knocked on Marianne's door. The door swung open to reveal her in her pajamas. Her face fell when she saw me. Maybe she'd been expecting someone else?

I thought she might close the door on me, but she didn't. She stood there, her hand still on the hinge.

"I'm sorry," I said. Even before the weight of this confession fell in the space between us, I could tell it wasn’t enough.

She did not say that aloud though. She said, "It's okay."

As if it could be. I wanted to take her at face value, and agree that it really was okay. But I knew that if I did, it wouldn't be.

"I shouldn't have said what I did. It was wrong to try to tell you who you can and can't be friends with," I said.

She rubbed one arm with the other, her gaze still cast away from me. "…are you trying to say what I want to hear? That’s almost exactly what I said earlier.”

She was right, of course. I had thought that the words sounded familiar, in that painful, bittersweet way of a half-forgotten regret. I hadn’t thought that they were hers.

“No! I mean—I know what it sounds like. It’s… I’m sorry about that too. I really mean it, though.”

She allowed herself to look at me, her gaze searching. For what, I couldn’t say. I could only keep my face still and hope that she found it. “I believe that,” she said after what felt like a long time. “I believe you’re sorry too. I’m sorry for questioning it. It’s just—I didn't think you'd talk like that. I need a moment to reconcile what you said with who I think you are.”

“It was stupid.”

"I've got three older brothers, and my whole life they've always tried to control who I can be around and what I can do. I don’t think that’s what you’re like, RinRin, but the way you acted like today was like that, and that’s not something I can deal with in a friend."

I should've understood this earlier. I knew a little of what that was like. I'd seen my brother go through it. I'd gone through it myself, though it was before I was old enough to feel the constriction of it, before my parents stopped caring.

"It was stupid," I said again, because I stupidly couldn't think of what else to say. "And wrong. I'm really, really sorry. I don’t think I’m like that, or at least I don’t want to be, and I can’t say I’ll never say anything dumb again, but I don’t want to, I’ll try my best not to."

She was quiet for a while, but at the end she lifted her hand, her pinky curved into a hook. "Promise? That you’ll try?"

I reached out with my own pinky and curled it around hers. "Promise. Cross my heart and hope to die." It was a child-like motion and a child-like promise, but the way her pinky locked around mine felt heavier than an adult’s oath. But maybe that’s the way it always is. Maybe we only forget our promises when we are adults. "I didn't mean it, what I said before."

Her mouth quirked a little then. "I think you meant some of it."

“Not most of it. Not the parts that…” matter? Had to do with you?

Before I could think of something better, she added, "I'm not blind. I know you don't like Aidri much.”

I grimaced. "He's not my favorite,” I muttered.

"I'm not asking you to be friends with him." I didn't think that was possible, even if she had asked, so how fortunate for me that she didn’t. "And I won't make all of us hang out together or anything. But I hope you don't judge him too harshly. Or me, for being his friend. He's not as bad as you think."

But you don’t hear how he talks to me. I wanted to tell her everything he’d said and see how she felt about that, but maybe this wasn’t the smartest time for it. And maybe… a nasty bubble of thought floated up in my head. Maybe she did hear, and she was okay with it. "It's not that," I said.

"Then what is it?"

"He's Aidri. He's—you know.”

“You know?”

“He’s so good at all of this.” And he knew it, and he acted like he knew it too, the bastard. “He’s got all his shit together. I might’ve been a little… a little scared that with friends like him you’d stop spending time with me." That wasn’t the whole truth. This might have been when I stopped telling Marianne the whole truth.

Her mouth popped open. She looked surprised, then a little sorry. She knew she'd been spending less time with us lately, and I'd like to say I didn't begrudge that, but I'm not so selfless. "I wouldn't do that," she said. "Never."

 


 

Now: It's soft, kind, the way she has always been

Usually an agent and their player would discuss their player’s performance after a practice match, but Aidri's busy arguing with Nikolai. Not that I expect there’s much he’d like to discuss with me anyway.

I listen to some of it over the in-ear, since they’ve conveniently forgotten to remove their mikes. Anyone still on the channel can get a free show.

"That went well, didn't it," Nikolai says.

"We won," Aidri says.

"Winning? Against them, winning is a given. It's how you win that's important."

Nikolai knows that if the other team had been fighters, it could’ve been a rout. Aidri knows that too.

"Maybe you should stop playing like you're at a company that can buy up all the star players they want. I understand that they may not have taught you much about teamwork there, but maybe you should start learning." This is patently untrue, and Nikolai knows that as much as the rest of them. He watches all the matches of the top teams. SI teams work like machines. All the parts fit in right.

It makes Aidri laugh. "Rearranging the team to compensate for your weaknesses isn’t teamwork. You ever think about why you're not a star player?"

I turn down the volume of the in-ear, let it fade into background noise. Is it better when they talk and fight, or when they don't speak to each other? Does it matter to me anymore?

I'm standing by myself in the stands, leaning against the rail, when April finds me. I should stop lingering in these visible places.

I should've expected her. April hadn’t said much the day I told her she was changing hands, even if I didn’t realize it then. Her few words had felt like so much.

April takes time to gather her thoughts. Even after she’s done she often keeps them to herself, but we’d spent enough time together that she stopped hesitating to tell me her truths. I should feel lucky that maybe for the last time, she'll still try.

"How does it feel to leave me behind?" she says.

I should give her the PR answer. XX was a better fit for you, he'll give you guidance I couldn’t. I was thinking of you.

But I am sick with nerves, and maybe too used to being honest with her too. "April, I—"

She touches my arm. It is soft, kind, the way she has always been to me. "Don't look all guilty. I'm joking. I'm happy for you, really. I just want to know...I just want to know how it happened. When did you start thinking about changing players? Did you reach out to him, or?"

She is so good at this. Her voice is steady, like she’s talking about someone else. I only know it’s hard for her because she gets quieter at the end. I wish it wasn’t.

I want so badly to tell her it wasn't my choice.

"I can’t reveal the details, but it’s what the company wanted me to do," I say, which is as close to the truth as I can come, but I feel more like shit when her face smooths over with understanding and she nods. April forgives too easily. That's why they walk all over her in the team, and in the press.

"I miss you," I say, because that is true. Because I want her to feel better. And because even if she doesn't, it'll make me feel better.

She gives me a wan smile. "I wasn't going to say it, but me too. Just a little though. Don’t get a big head.”

“You know I won’t.”

“If you say so.”

“What’s that mean?”

“Hmm, I wonder.” She looks across the floor at nothing in particular, the faintest smile still lingering on her lips. “Is it bad that I feel good knowing you're not that close with him? It makes me feel like I’m better at something, somehow, though I haven’t quite figured out what that something is." So even she can see it.

"You are better than him," I say.

She runs her hand along the rail. "You don't have to lie about it," she says.

I cringe inwardly. I want to tell her I would've chosen her over him. That would be a lie too though, wouldn't it?

"I like you better," I amend.

She huffs a laugh. "Okay, I'll take that. I would say the same, but…”

“Hey,” I say, but it’s soft. I can’t muster up even the joking kind of indignation.

“He’s famous, so…” this is soft, too. “Anyway, what I really wanted to say is congratulations, and good luck with the season.”

“You too.”

“It was good seeing you," she says. She pushes herself off of the rail, stretches her arms over her head, and turns to leave.

All of a sudden I feel like some door is closing on me, and even though we're at the same company there's a strange, horrible finality.

"Wait," I say. I reach in her direction, but stop before I touch her arm.

She turns back around, and I feel stupid. I haven't thought of anything to say. I just didn't want her to go.

"Can we still talk?" I ask.

"Yes, of course. We can talk anytime. I’ve always appreciated our conversations, whether or not you’re my agent," she says. It sounds like the type of answer I should give, the PR answer. Like when you tell that acquaintance you meet on the street that you should get a meal together sometime and never do.

I want to say something else, to stop us from becoming like this, to make what’s left into something real. She waits, so I know I haven't lost her completely, but the silence draws out. I can't come up with the words that will give me that magic.

"I—"

Then Aidri's there on the steps, coming up behind her.

"We have to go," he says.

April startles. That little connection disappears, and with it the words I was going to say. I'm confused because we don't have any other schedules planned for the day.

"Good game," he says to her.

"Yes?" she squeaks. Then winces at the sound of her voice. “I mean—oh, hello. Yes. You too.”

"How do you know RinRin?" Because of course he wouldn't care to know the person he replaced.

"RinRin...?" she says, then blinks a couple times as she understands that's what he calls me, and is confused why I get a nickname when I’m not all that close to him. "He was my agent, before."

Aidri dips his head in mock sympathy, surprising a laugh out of her. "I feel for you."

April waves her hands, as usual not wanting to upset anyone. "No, no, he was fine."

"Then I’m not sorry I took him off your hands. You deserve better than fine." He speaks playfully, but I know him well enough to hear something else there. Something close to annoyance.

Wherever he wants to go, he must want to go now.

April doesn't know him that well, and she brightens at being told she deserves something. Which makes Aidri right. With a better agent maybe she wouldn’t be in a place where a scrap of acknowledgment makes her glow.

It’s annoying.

She waves her hands again. “That’s not what I meant. I think Rin was—”

“I get it. I was joking.” He leans down to stage-whisper in her ear. “But you can tell me what you really think later.”

It’s annoying that for my sake, she tries not to smile.

He regards me over her shoulder. In his normal voice, he says, “No offense taken, right, Rin?”

I stare impassively back. “None at all.”

He reaches around her to pull me away. I wave a hand, which should be code for I’ll follow you, don’t touch me. It doesn’t seem to compute. His hand closes around my wrist, and he starts tugging me after him toward the exit, and it’s twice as much effort to keep pace with him as it is to walk on my own.

"Um," April says.

A spark of hope flares inside me that she has something left to say to me. She runs the fingers of one hand between the other, then nods decisively to herself. "Can I get your autograph?"

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