Team Terror Mountain captain Prytariel stepped into the locker room. She was greeted by her team's colors glittering in the magnificent light, and the welcoming blast of frigid air tailored specially to the cold-loving team's preferences. However, neither distracted her from the sight of her team, too disheartened to remove their shiny Yooyuball gear, or do more than look up wearily at the sound of their captain's entrance.
Outside, the cheers and screaming of team Lost Desert and its supporters permeated the blue and silver walls and burned Prytariel's ears. She could hear reporters shouting impulsively into microphones and the booming voice of the two impertinent announcers: "...overmatched... got to give credit... in the face of near certain defeat".
Near certain defeat. Prytariel watched her team wilt at the words. She opened her mouth to recite a random pep talk memorized from years of captaining the less-than-top-tier team, but the words froze in her mouth as if she had choked on the more-than-top-notch air conditioning. Her usual brand of easy-going cheer evaporated with a painful finality, and despair snatched her in its grasp like Elon Hughlis with a Yooyuball. Without further ado, she left the locker room, slamming the door behind her. Only then did her teammates snap out of their miserable bubble to gaze with surprise at its shaking hinges
I've had enough.
Prytariel strode past flashing lights and cameras, clinging on to whatever dignity a team captain could have after losing six games by the seventh day - thankfully, not in a row. They had narrowly bested Maraqua 6-5 on the third day, an incident the media quickly dismissed as a fluke. Although she tried not to admit it, Prytariel was inclined to agree with them.
It's always the same year after year. High hopes dashed to the ground. Not a second in the spotlight, unless it's the spotlight of Neopia-wide mockery. Middling forever.
Past screaming fans clad in blue and yellow. Where were the mountaineers?
Face it. We let them down too many times.
Down the shimmering streets of the golden city. Back to the hotel. Without her team.
Maybe they need a new leader. Stronger. Wiser. Someone with the magic solution to getting us out our seven-year rut toiling unseen on the lower half of the standings.
Prytariel found her way to the practice Yooyuball pitch provided especially for her team, clad, just like the locker room, in blue and silver. Ironic it was that the best cure for Yooyuball-related distress was Yooyuball – a pure love of the sport that never changed whether Terror Mountain won or lost...
Being an underdog. They say it gets easier, but it never does...
It was Evrem Guilako who found the cloud Aisha crouched on the practice pitch, absentmindedly stroking a relaxed snow Yooyu as it mewed contentedly under her touch. Clumped near the goal was the practice team, five jelly Chias bouncing around jovially without a care in the world, waiting for their next contender, oblivious to the heartbroken team captain crumbled on the other side of the field. Evrem resisted the urge to kick a particularly spiky mutant Yooyu at them.
Although she heard him approaching, Prytariel did not look up, but continued scrutinizing her Yooyu as if it held the solution to all her team's problems.
"Captain?" the Scorchio asked tentatively.
"You regret it, don't you." It was a statement, not a question, and his captain's voice was as icy as her homeland.
"You regret leaving Tyrannia, the dark horse that skyrocketed up the ranks to flabbergast even their most hopeful supporters. You regret leaving them for us; a team previously ranked beside them but is now left behind in the dust once again. A team the powerhouses brush aside as a pushover and a joke. That can't even fight back after the results are out, because the red L's tell the whole story." The snow Yooyu in her lap curled up closer to her, sensing the Aisha's distress.
Evrem hesitated for a fraction of a second.
"Captain, you know that's not true."
"Come on, Evrem. How could it not be? Would you rather prefer taunts and insincere sympathies to surprise and amazement and glory and honor?"
"No. I prefer to stick by my choices and more importantly, my team." Evrem's words sounded set in the stones of Tyrannia, and for the first time, Prytariel looked up.
"My allegiances changed with my colors, Prytariel, and I've had three years to make them firm and permanent. I will always be a Tyrannian at heart, but Terror Mountain is my team, and you are my captain, ever since the moment I signed my name on that contract to be traded for Elbin Kroe. Team Tyrannia is nothing but fond old friends on the sidelines, and an opposing team on the playing field. Tyrannia's victories are no longer mine, and will never be, unless, by the off chance, I return to that team."
"But do you regret your choice?" Prytariel persisted.
Evrem smiled. "Of course not, captain. Look at your team. They've stuck with Terror Mountain from almost the very beginning. For you, Rinok, and Minae, this is the eighth year donning blue and silver. For Osielle, it's still an impressive seventh. I'm the newcomer, and I still have three years of play on the record. Years and years of sticking with this team through endless hardship. This isn't the kind of dedication you can find in any random group of Yooyuball players, Prytariel. Terror Mountain has stayed strong from within, thanks, in no part, to you, our captain."
"I suppose that's another way to look at it," Prytariel murmured. "Not years of failure, but years of tenacity and loyalty and team spirit."
"I'm not going anywhere, captain." Evrem assured her. "No one's going anywhere unless you trade us in for someone better. We trust you and your decisions, and we will stand by you until we get the victory we deserve. Until we become the next Tyrannia. The next Altador. All the underdogs have their day. It'll be our turn soon enough."
Evrem pulled his captain to her feet. She dropped the snow Yooyu in the bin, where it curled up dreamily and closed its eyes.
"I've had second thoughts about letting Elbin Kroe go, but I can confidently say that Terror Mountain is lucky to have you, Evrem. I'm lucky to have you," said the captain thoughtfully.
"The team's wondering where you are, captain, and Donny just shipped in a huge crate of Chia pops."
Evrem led Prytariel up the stairs to Rinok Fitel's room, where the team was congregated. She saw not a sign of consternation or resentment at her rude departure after the game, but sighs of relief that their captain was safe and intact.
"Just wait until the day when everything's worth it, because it will come," said Evrem, handing Prytariel a Tigersquash Chia Pop. "Every underdog has its day, and we are no exception."
Prytariel stepped into the locker room. She was greeted by her blue and silver glittering in the magnificent light, and the welcoming blast of cold mountain air tailored specially to the cold-loving team's preferences. However, neither distracted her from the sight of her team's screams and cheers as they shouted their delight, too excited to remove their Yooyuball gear. Maybe it was just the adrenaline, but the team colors seemed extra bright. The moment her teammates sensed her arrival, they piled on top of her in a frantic group hug.
"We beat Kreludor!" shrieked Minae Mitora.
"We're leading the Alabriss bracket!" screeched Osielle Lidel.
"Our streak of Yooyuball wins is officially twelve in a row," smiled the team's manager, calculating absentmindedly on his clipboard. "We're peaking this year, that's for sure."
"Oof! Stop it, you're strangling me!" laughed the captain as she struggled free. Come on guys, grab your stuff. We have the media to answer to."
As the team strode into the sea of lights and cameras, the announcers' magically magnified voices rang in their eardrums, gifting the team with their grudging approval.
The sun had set, and the team was piled in a local Altadorian restaurant, reliving the sweetness of victory as they feasted on cheese, olives, and cheese-stuffed olives.
"I swear, I'm going to spontaneously burst into flames if one more reporter asks me how I feel," cracked Prytariel. "And when I'm from Terror Mountain, that's a much bigger deal."
"Admit it," remarked Rinok, "We'll never be in the full limelight this year with Tyrannia and Altador dropping the jaws everyone in Neopia - "
" –but we are setting records," interrupted Prytariel. "Individually. As a team. It would take a fool to say that eight years of hanging on haven't paid off."
"After years of struggling, it looks as though Terror Mountain's players are close to turning the corner and making this into a successful squad. You can't help but feel happy for them," parroted Osielle squeakily, to general hilarity.
"We could never have done it without you, captain," said Evrem affectionately.
"Even after I ran off when Lost Desert destroyed us?"
"Come on, Pry. Give yourself a break. We know you have a hard job, leading an underdog year after year," Minae chirped.
"Except that you're not underdogs anymore."
Prytariel spun around. "Elbin?!"
The former team member, clad in Faerieland uniform, was all smiles as he hugged her. "You guys are doing awesome this year. Congratulations are in order."
"Oh, Elbin. It'll be Faerieland's turn soon enough."
"Not so fast, Prytariel. I think a couple more familiar faces want to congratulate you too."
Prytariel's astonishment escalated. Tico? Selwick? She hardly had a moment to react before they slapped her on the back with their old slings with enough force to knock the wind out of her.
"Ouch! What was that for?"
"Swept ol' Darigan Citadel straight off the field!"
"Top of the Alabriss bracket!"
"A launching pad to the top of the standings!"
"I kind of wish I were back on the team again!"
When the hoopla settled down, Prytariel looked fondly at the JubJub and the Tuskaninny, dressed in their old Terror Mountain gear.
"When we saw your comeback, we caught the first ship to Altador to congratulate you guys in person," said Selwick, finally settling down.
"The team hasn't gotten together in years," added Tico. "It's long overdue."
"A toast," announced Evrem, raising his glass of Altadorian nectar. "To victory, to team Terror Mountain, and above all, to our captain, who put up with us for eight straight years and carried an unimaginable burden on her shoulders."
Prytariel blushed, but she felt a warm feeling of happiness spread through her body, less intense than the feeling of sweeping an strong opponent off the field, but stronger, more tangible, more lasting. She was surrounded by her team from the past and the present, her extended family, savoring the way it felt to win. Four dedicated players who gave her more trust than she felt she deserved. Who had stuck with her as she made good choices and bad ones, as she endured onslaughts of vitriol from the media and tried to block out less-than-optimistic predictions. None of them lost their faith or jumped ship, and now they were reaping the rewards. What more could she ask for?
How could it be that a week ago I was doubting my team and myself, even thinking about leaving for good? Our record this year might be a disappointment to a powerhouse, but for us, it's... an unprecedented boost in confidence. A boost I needed most of all.
She leaned over to the small Scorchio.
He told me what I needed to hear. All I needed was a little encouragement. A little patience.
"Thanks, Evrem," she murmured. "For giving me the power to hold on until our day."