The Hardships of Xana DiLanche
"I think I'm going to vomit."
Xana DiLanche was huddled up in the corner of the locker room, clutching her stomach and biting her lip. It was team Shenkuu's first game of the year, and the team had just finished their pep talk.
"Xana," said the team captain, Mirsha, crossing over to her. "You've got to keep your head clear, alright?" She crouched down and clasped both of Xana's paws, speaking with her usual firm kindness. "Remember what we talked about. We've been over this. Think of this as a practice game, okay? Some people are just coming to watch. All you have to do is think about the Yooyu."
Xana took a deep, shuddering breath, and nodded.
"You good?" Mirsha stood up again and tucked a flyaway strand of her glossy brown hair behind one ear.
But Xana wasn't good. She could hear the roar of the crowds outside and her heart was thumping as loud as anybody outside, so it seemed. She remembered how nervous she'd been before her first-ever yooyuball game. She'd been years younger than any of the other rookies--so young people had debated about letting her play. She'd been proud when she was finally chosen, but it definitely added pressure. Before her first game, she'd actually thrown up. She hoped it wouldn't come to that this time. She ran a paw over her Team Shenkuu uniform, so familiarly smooth and silky, with its comfortable black belt resting around her waist. She closed her eyes. Breath in, breath out. She could do this.
She felt a light, friendly punch on her arm and opened her eyes.
"Oh," she said. "Hey, Timu."
"You know I almost broke your record," said Timu, the newest addition to the Shenkuu team, with a cheerful half-smile.
Xana sat up and cocked her head.
"Your record," Timu explained, "for youngest player."
"Oh, right, that. It's a silly record."
"Not so silly."
"Well, being very young doesn't necessarily mean you're very talented."
Xana adjusted her shoulder-pads and checked the clock. There were still a few more minutes before the game would begin. Her stomach twisted.
"Nope, as you can see from me. Everybody was always going on about your goalkeeping talent, and I was flopping about with no idea what I was doing."
"Come on, Timu, you're a famous defender! They call you "the paint brush", for goodness' sake. And you're never nervous before a game, you know--you always charge out like a rampaging Noil."
Timu laughed, a hard, genuine laugh, and shook her head.
"What did you hear about me before I joined Shenkuu, DiLanche?" she asked, straightening her headband.
Xana considered. She honestly couldn't remember.
"We-ell," she said slowly. "I really don't know."
"That's just it," said Timu matter-of-factly. "I was just that skinny little defender who got picked on the most. It was like that for a while. I was less self-confident than--than a baby Altachuck." She laughed. "But then our coach stepped in. She was great, Coach Aberi. She taught me how to pick up my confidence, and slowly-but-surely, it worked."
"Huh." Xana was rather puzzled. Was it really that easy to overcome nerves. "Do you think... do you think maybe you could help me?"
Timu rolled her eyes.
"I am helping you, silly," she said. "The easiest way for me to get over my nerves are distractions. Maybe not for you, but it sure seems to be helping."
She nodded towards Mirsha, and sure enough, the captain called out, "Thirty seconds to game time! All ready?"
Xana picked up the rest of her gear and hurried it on.
"Thanks, Timu," she said. Her stomach was still rather quivery, but to her surprise, she was beginning to feel better.
"And before we go out there, one more thing," said Timu. "Smile. Act confident. It's easy to actually be confident if you act that way from the start. Go block some goals!"
Ten seconds later, Team Shenkuu charged out for their first game of the season. Xana took a deep breath when she positioned herself in front of the net, and for a moment, she closed her eyes, remembering to act confident. She opened them up. It was time to begin.
In the stands, Damiel Winskey was trying to resist ordering her favorite--an extra large bucket of popcorn. She remembered her coach's strict words about diet, and she bit her lip. She was on a prestigious Youth Yooyuball team, and if she was ever going to make it here, to the Altador Cup, she would have to make some sacrifices. She turned to her little brother, Danson.
"Danny," she said, "who's your favorite player for Shenkuu?"
They had decided, on the way to the game, that they were rooting for Shenkuu rather than Meridell.
"The white Grundo," he said unsurprisingly.
"Larcy? With the mustache?" Damiel cocked her head. "Hmm. I like the goalkeeper, Xana. Oh, look! A diving play!"
She watched with wide eyes as the pink Lutari stood up after her gut-wrenching dive, proudly holding the yooyu.
"I think," said Damiel to herself, "that I'll support Shenkuu as well as Terror Mountain from now on."
And when Shenkuu won, the brown Eyrie made up her mind to do something she'd never done for any team besides her homeland of Terror Mountain before: go autograph collecting.
Xana felt like she'd was wet towel that had been wrung out a few times too many, but she was used to feeling that way after games. And her nerves had melted away. She joined the team hugs and congratulations as delighted as anybody.
"We won!" Timu kept repeating. "Our first game! Huzzah!"
Altadorian expressions, though Xana. She'd never heard anyone say 'huzzah' before she went to Altador. Finally, the team headed over to the area by their locker room, where there would inevitably be fans clamoring for their autographs. This was the part Xana liked the least. It wasn't because she disliked the fans--it was because the fans, well, they didn't dislike her, but they were never crazy about her.
She had basked in short-lived fame her first year, as the youngest ever competitor in the Altador Cup, but it had dwindled off when fans started to get tired of her nerves. Since her first year, she had signed very few autographs that weren't for people asking for all the players' autographs. It was always rather awkward for her, the autograph signings.
Today, she went and stood beside Timu, watching as two adorable twin girls, Team Altador fans, got the Lupe to sign their matching team jerseys. She removed her shoulder pads with a slight sigh, but then, she was used to all this--and they'd won the game. It wasn't going to put a damper on their victory.
And then a girl, about thirteen or fourteen, actually walked up to Xana. She was a tall brown Eyrie wearing a Team Terror Mountain outfit and carrying a dark blue yooyuball sling. She also held a black permanent marker.
"Hi Xana," she said hesitantly. "I'm Damiel, er, Damiel Winskey. You played really well today."
Was this an actual fan? Xana smiled, her pale pink eyes wide with disbelief.
"Hi Damiel," she said, shaking the Eyrie's paw. "Nice to meet you. And--thanks. Meridell's a tough team, especially Fiorina. She and I were friends when we were little, believe it or not--still are, to some extent. We don't talk much during the cup."
"That sounds a bit awkward," she said. "My favorite player has a famous rivalry with her. I'm from Terror Mountain, but my family comes her for Yooyuball season. So... how is it that you aren't nervous when you start playing? Every time I start playing a game, I'm a nervous wreck. As it goes on, I tend to get better, but every pro player I see just charges out with no problem!"
Xana's eyes widened again.
"Me? Not nervous?" She giggled. "You can't be serious. Before every game, I start feeling like... do you know that feeling when you're falling really fast through the air, and your stomach feels all funny? I feel like that, only it never stops. A lot of other pro players just get used to it all, I guess, but I haven't been able to. But my friend Timu over there helped me today, so that's why it was easier for me this time. And some days, it's really bad, and I don't do very well. But I'm working on it."
Xana talked to the Eyrie for a good ten minutes, and they discussed everything from nerves to yooyus.
"I own a yooyu," said Damiel. "Her names Tari, after Prytariel, you know, on Terror Mountain?"
"Oh, that's great! Is she painted or unpainted?"
"Painted," said Damiel, "but painted blue, not one of the Yooyuball colors."
"Awesome! I used to have a Yooyu, too--until quite recently."
"Uh-oh." Damiel checked her watch. "I have to go! I wish I could stay, though. I'll catch all of your games that I can during the cup, though. And I'll be cheering you on--well, except for--"
"When we play Terror Mountain." Xana smiled knowingly.
"Yeah. But, uh, would you mind if we talked some more after some of the games coming up?"
"I'd be happy to talk more! This was great."
"Oh--I almost forgot--will you sign my Yooyu sling?"
Xana nodded and quickly scribbled the best signature she could onto it.
"Goodbye, Damiel! I hope we can talk again soon."
Xana walked off to the locker room, feeling triumphant. Today had been a definite win, all around.
Year 15: Late Spring
Xana's stroll around Altador landed her in front of Exquisite Ambrosia. She always took a walk like this, when the team arrived in the city, to clear her head and prepare herself for the upcoming event. Normally, she was a real bundle of nerves. But this year, she was less nervous than she'd ever been. In fact, she felt rather calm. All year, with coaching help and Timu's advice, she'd been working on her nerves, and she really felt better. She stepped inside the bustling store, with all the noisy, clamoring customers, and headed for the counter.
"What'll it be?" said a short, no-nonsense blue Yurble at the counter. She nearly had to yell it, because there were so many people there.
Xana observed the counters, supported by pillars, that displayed the food.
"The Spaghetti with Altadorian Sauce, please," she said, "the Altadorian Nectar, and a small slice of Lemon Sun Cake." She might as well make a meal of it.
The Yurble quickly and expertly prepared her food (though it was already cooked) and after paying, Xana took her food outside onto the beautiful terrace. She set it on a pretty little table off to the side, and then she saw a flash of feathers off to the side. It was a brown Eyrie--wait--was that--
"Damiel!" Xana greeted her friend and penpal with surprise.
"Xana!" Damiel nearly dropped her plate of food. A Stuffed Fig rolled dangerously close to the edge, but eventually wobbled to a stop. "It's so great to see you! I didn't think I'd run into you until your first game."
"So how is it, living here?" Xana made space for Damiel at the table. "You've only been here a couple months, right?"
"Right. And it's wonderful," said Damiel brightly. "Mom loves her new job."
"She works with the yooyus for the games, right?"
"Yep. She's very busy right around now, but we have prime tickets for this season!"
They settled down to their meal. Ever since they'd met the last year, the two girls, though five years apart, had been corresponding via letter. Damiel, in the meantime, had moved from chilly Terror Mountain to the heart of Altador, bringing her Yooyu with her, and joining one of the best youth Yooyuball teams in the land.
"I'm working at the slushie shop this season, but not during any of the games I care about," said Damiel. "To think, you'd started playing for Shenkuu at 15--my age! So anyways, how do you think this season is going to go, for your team?"
Xana considered a moment as she chewed a bite of Lemon Sun Cake.
"I think," she said, "that it's going to be our best season yet."