Written by FadedForest
A heavy wave of heat washed over Leon with his first step off the bus, reminding the cougar just how much he had grown accustomed to Bangor’s cool weather over the last season. He could not help but curse under his breath at the circumstances that brought him back to Huntsville. Bangor had failed to close out the series at home and now had to travel for game six, finding themselves back in enemy territory. Despite the heat, which so perfectly mirrored the hostile environment his team would find itself in tomorrow, chills ran under his fur.
He had— no, they had failed twice now to finish out the series after finding themselves up 3-0. Huntsville had momentum, and they had the home court advantage, but all the expectations lay on the top-seeded Bangor, and if they failed...the idea made his fur stand on end.
The sharp clank of metal striking metal hushed his thoughts. Turning to his left, Leon noticed the hotel staff had swung open the undercarriage luggage compartment and were already helping unload the stored luggage. The sight almost made him sigh in relief as the chill faded. It was a common hazing practice to make the rookies carry the bags for the team's veterans on road trips, but once playoffs had started, that practice was put to an end, as it was no longer just fun and games.
He was not too distracted in his musings to catch a flash of white in his peripheral before he felt an arm wrap around his shoulder. He didn’t even have to take a look to know it was his roommate for the trip, Randy. “Hey Leon wanna head over to—”
"Leon.” Whatever Randulf had been asking was cut off by an abrupt interjection by an all-too-familiar voice. The cougar’s ears twitched at the sound of his name. Spinning free of Randulf’s arm, he met the eyes of the Tides coach, Erik Devlin. “I’d like to talk to you for a few minutes.”
“I’ll catch up later,” Leon said over his shoulder to the rat. Randulf looked concerned for only a moment before shrugging and heading off to catch up with another one of the other Tides players as they entered the hotel. Turning back with a questioning gaze, Leon tried to figure out why he had been stopped. The fact that Devlin seemed to be waiting until the rest of the Tides’ players were out of earshot caused his fur to stand up on end again.
“I want you to answer me honestly, Leon. What has been wrong these past two games?” the kangaroo asked.
Leon’s brows furrowed, and he squinted as he replayed the question in his head before he replied, “I'm not sure I follow, coach.”
“You know what I'm talking about.” The roo frowned even deeper as he crossed his arms, “You aren't playing like yourself these past games. Deviating from the plays called, passing on open lanes.”
Leon’s eyes grew wide at the accusation, although he quickly tried to hide his reaction by closing them and shrugged with his response. “MacQuilkin’s tough, dude’s a literal wall. Have to go with the flow.”
Apparently that was the wrong answer, as the kangaroo scowled, “You and I both know that’s not how you play. Someone’s in your way? You blow past them or over them. Not retreat.” Erik rested a paw on the taller cougar’s shoulders, causing the cougar to look down at his coach, whose scowl had receded to a look of concern. “I don’t know what’s gotten into your head, but if you need to talk I’m always open, or if you need to talk to someone else I can get you in contact with someone you might be more comfortable talking with.”
Leon looked at the kangaroo. He opened his muzzle to reply but it felt dry and unable to produce any words. It snapped shut gain; the cougar was unable to bring himself to say what he wanted. Instead, he shrugged Devlin’s paw off his shoulder.
“Thanks, I will keep that in mind. But really, it’s nothing.” He could see the look of disappointment on Devlin’s face. Though it dissolved in an instant, the kangaroo before him brushed off his sleeves and adjusted his tie, before looking up to the young cougar with a cold, professional stare.
“It is unfortunate, seeing someone so talented deceive themselves,” he said. “I’m sorry, but Pura will be starting the next game.”
“Huh...” Leon said, dumbfounded, before the realization hit him like a bus. “What the hell!?” Now his voice was raised, and out of the corner of his eye he could see the hotel staff had stopped working out of curiosity. Yelling at his coach was a big “no-no,” let alone in public, lest FMZ was to get a juicy drama story to run within the middle of the playoffs, but the bombshell Devlin had just dropped threw all of the cougar’s caution out the window.
“Leon, keep it down,” Devlin scolded, waiting until Leon’s maw snapped shut to explain. “Your role is important to the team’s success. If you aren’t leveraging your size and speed to get to the post, then the defense is going to back off. That just allows them to provide help defense without risking easy baskets from you. Even if you aren’t shooting great, you are enough of a threat to act as a decoy for the team. But right now your head isn’t in the game. So I’m going to put in the one that gives Bangor the best chance to succeed.”
Yeah well, Leon thought, Maybe I could go to Romero about this, get him to overtu—
“Just so you know, Mr. Romero and I are in agreement on this matter.” Devlin said, reading Leon’s train of thought and cutting it off before he could even truly consider how to enact his plan.
The cougar tried to formulate some kind of reply, any argument to get the coach to listen. But each time his maw opened, the hard stare of Devlin caused the words to died in his throat. Eventually he gave up, clenching his teeth as he managed to choke out a reply, “Alright.” Not wanting to hear anymore, he spun on his heel towards the hotel and started to walk off.
“Leon,” Devlin called out to the retreating cougar, who stuttered stepped to a stop, though he did not turn back to face his coach. “I don’t like this either.” Even without looking Leon could tell Devlin was frowning. “Prove to me your head’s in the game.”
Leon offered no acknowledgment, instead he balled his fist and continued walking to the hotel’s entrance. All he wanted to do was make it to his room and decompress, but the universe seemed to be out to get him. Waiting for him at the elevator was Lance Wildfyre.
To say thay Leon hated the rabbit would be an exaggeration. Lance was probably, actually, a nice guy, if Leon had allowed himself to see the rabbit from a different perspective. But as a rookie whose dream it was to lead his team from the Point Guard spot? The 5’7” rabbit might as well have been a twenty foot wall separating him from his dream, and he was not willing to play buddy-buddy with someone standing between him and that dream.
However, that did not stop Lance from trying.
“Leon! There you are!” The rabbit greeted him with a goofy grin. “Hurry up and go get changed into something casual. The team is heading out for dinner, my treat!”
Leon scowled down at the rabbit, moving around him to hit the elevator button before replying. “No tha—”
"No, Leon. No 'buts,;” Lance interrupted, stepping between Leon and the elevator door. “I want the whole team there, and you are very much a part of that team.”
The two engaged in a staring contest until Lance heard the ding of the arriving elevator. He sighed and stepped out of the way as it opened to let the furs in off. Leon brushed past him into the elevator, but before the door could shut the rabbit’s paw stopped the door.
“I don’t like pulling this card, but you and I both know the season isn’t over yet. Don’t forget about that little bet you lost.” For the first time in the conversation, Lance spoke evenly, his face conveying an unusual seriousness for the usually happy-go-lucky lapine.
Not for the first time, Leon regretted making bet with Lance during training camp. If the cougar had won, he doubted Lance would have followed through and conceded the Point Guard spot to him. But there was no way of knowing for sure, as he had lost, and now he had to follow any request from the rabbit. His pride would not allow him to back out of the bet, even if it constantly caused him more grief than it was worth. So he clicked his teeth and forced out a reply.
Only then did Lance retracted his paw and give the cougar a wide grin, returning to his normal tone as he spoke, “Great, you’ll enjoy it. Promise!”
Okay, so maybe Leon did hate him after all.
No sooner had the door shut, Leon rested his head against the cool metal. He was glad no one else had stepped on the elevator with him, only the walls faced the wrath of his angered roar.
Leon glanced down at his phone as the curfew reminder went off. He noted the low battery life, surely a consequence of his constant checking of the time at the restaurant. The minutes seemed to drag on, especially after some of his teammate furs started to trickle out an hour ago, yet the rabbit had asked him to remain. If it had not been for that lost bet, he would have shrugged the rabbit off, but all he could do was hold his tongue and try blocking out the dribble going on around him.
He could not have escaped any faster once Lance realized the time. Having told everyone to wrap it up and get back to the hotel, before anyone unfortunate enough to be caught breaking curfew would earn a sit down with Romero.
Hearing the door lock release, Leon took back his keycard and entered the hotel room. He could see Randulf who had left with a group of teammates half-an-hour before Leon could leave, had splayed himself onto his bed. He had claimed the queen bed closest to the bathroom, as was the norm for the rat who tended to spend too long primping his hair in the morning.
Leon walked by without acknowledging the rat, and collapsed onto his own bed. The day’s events finally caught up with him, crashing over him like a rising tide. He replayed Devlin’s conversation over and over, unable to get it out of his mind. Ever since he was a cub, he had envisioned himself as a point guard like Lucas Dupre or Buck Hopper, leading his team to victory. He had been so happy to be drafted, especially at the number one spot, but then Lance’s stupid, smiling face flashed in his mind.
Imagining that face caused him to bare his claws, them digging into the sheets beneath him. It was only after a few days after draft night that the excitement had waned long enough for him to realize just what all the draft night trading had done for the league rosters. Leon was not being drafted to lead the team as the point guard as he had dreamed.
No. That is why they brought in Lance, he thought; through a trade that had overshadowed the draft itself. Even before he had been drafted, the small rabbit had cast a large shadow. That did not stop him from wanting Lance’s job. Heck, he had even tried to wager for it, but had instead suffered an embarrassing loss, forcing him to merely be content in Bangor’s new system built around Lance. Though he had jeopardized even that, now that he was benched.
Oh, how happy Lance must be to see me fail again, he thought with a snarl, his pupils contracted as anger-fueled adrenaline flooded his system. He reached out, grabbing for the first solid object he could find, in this case the TV remote. Once his paw wrapped around the remote, he sat up and launched it hard against the wall, watching it shattering into a dozen pieces on impact. He saw Randulf jolt up out of the corner of his eye, but Leon did not care. All he saw was red. He stood and reached for the flat screen TV on the dresser opposite their beds. But before he could lay a claw on it he felt himself tackled.
“Whoa, hey! What the hell is your problem, Leon?!”
Snarling, he looked up at the rat that now pinned him to his bed. He tried to struggle but Randulf outweighed him: despite being slightly shorter the rat had more muscle on his frame.
“Calm down! We don’t need you getting arrested for trashing a hotel room.”
Leon tried twice more to force the rat off, but finally gave up. His body sunk into the bed as if in quicksand. With the adrenaline fading, the anger subsided, leaving only a despondent feeling as tears started to build in the corner of his eyes.
No longer feeling thrashing from the cougar beneath him, Randulf asked, “Are you calm?” All that Leon could do was to nod back, not trusting his voice as he fought back his tears.
Leon felt the weight let up, but he didn’t sit up, even as he heard the Randulf’s bed creak under the rat’s weight. Silence embraced the two as Leon laid there, broken only momentarily when Leon heard Randulf sigh softly and move over to the phone. He tuned out whatever Randulf was saying though, his mind a maelstrom still.
“So, you just going to lie there, or are you going to tell me what the remote did to deserve death by catapult?” Randulf asked lightheartedly after hanging up the phone.
It started with a chuckle, before Leon broke out laughing. “That’s such a shitty pun,” he managed to choke out between the laughs, rolling over he looked at the confused rat. He was able to watch as realization clicked in the rat's head.
“Oh...yeah, that wasn’t meant to be a pun.” Randulf replied, letting out a little chuckle as he watched the cougar’s laughs fade.
“Coach is pulling me from the starting lineup.” Leon said, his voice sounding defeated.
“Oh…” Randulf whispered. ”Why’d Coach say he was benching you?”
The cougar sighed and sat up, spinning his legs off the bed to face Randulf. He shrugged and answered. “Said I’m hesitating, not playing how I normally do.”
“Well, he’s right.” Without hesitation, Randulf had also called him out.
Leon offered a half-hearted glare at the wistar rat, who just shrugged it off. The cougar let out an exasperated sigh and continued. “And then Lance drags me along to that ‘team meeting.’ Had to stare at his smug face all night. I know Coach had to have passed the info by him and what do we go and do? Celebrate.” He could feel his blood start pump again as he spoke.
“I’m just, argh, I failed okay!” He dragged his paws across his face. “The pressure here, it’s nothing like the regular season where you can shrug off a loss. I just didn’t want to be the reason we lost. It’s been my dream, for so long…and now I messed up and its yanked away.”
“You should stop being so melodramatic.” That earned the rat a growl along with a heated glare, although that did not stop him from continuing. “I’m jealous as hell of you, you know that? First overall pick and a starter since day one. I spent two years riding the bench before I earned my starting spot. You have so many chances to prove yourself, you're still eighteen. Besides, you seriously think you are the only one who’s terrified they’ll fail, that they are replaceable?” He asked rhetorically, the cougar’s scowl faded as he listened to the melancholy rat.
A knock on the door broke the trance on the room, snapping the downbeat rat back to his normal demeanor. Leon leaned over, watching the Randulf practically bounce to the door. After a minute he returned, carrying a metal tray with two drinks on it.
“Here!” Randulf said with a cheerful exclamation, shoving a glass into Leon’s paws. Looking down to his paw he saw a glass of ice and a brown liquid. He stared inquisitively at the glass, then he caught a whiff of the drink.
Alcohol. That realization made his head jerk up and exclaim, “What the hell Randy?!”
“Aww, it’s alright, just don’t tell anyone okay?” He gave a cheeky wink to the cougar. “You know I like to relax with a glass when I’m stressed, just consider this an honor to share in my good luck routine!” The rat replied with a wide grin, before raising his glass in a toast. “To Bangor’s success.” He said, before taking a swish of his liquor.
Leon parroted the rat, raising his glass before taking a small sip, only to cough as he felt a burning sensation as it trickled down his throat. That reaction earned him a chuckle from Randulf. “Don’t worry, the taste grows on ya. Just stay away from the cheap stuff, will feel like you’re drinking gas!” Randulf joked.
That just earned him an eye roll as Leon relaxed, leaning back on a paw as the cougar took a second sip. This time he avoided a coughing fit, expecting the bitter taste and slight burning sensation on the back of his throat.
The two Tides’ players found themselves in a calm, comfortable silence as they nursed their drinks, far from the tense atmosphere of earlier. But both of their minds did not mirror their exteriors, both churning over the day and what was to come tomorrow.
Leon awoke to the sound of the alarm clock blaring. When he tried to move, his neck screamed in protest; only then did he realize he had fallen asleep on the floor, back propped up against the bed. He heard Randy groan and the bed creaked as he roll over to silence the alarm.
Despite the soreness in his neck, Leon pulled himself up off the floor. Standing to his full height, he stretched his arms upward, enjoying the vertebrae cracking and his muscles releasing their tension, relaxing from their constricted state.
Catching a whiff of his own breath as he sighed caused Leon to crinkle his nose in disgust. A glance to Randulf confirmed he was still half asleep. Nonetheless, he hurried to the bathroom to shower and brush his teeth before Randulf could claim it for his long morning primping.
The sudden bright light illuminating the small bathroom forced him to wince and hold his eyes closed as he undressed. By the time they adjusted enough to open he had made it halfway into the shower. But then he saw a shock of blue in the mirror out of his peripheral vision, causing him to stop dead in his tracks. Slowly turning towards the mirror, he gazed at his reflection.
“What the—...RANDULF!” he yelled, grabbing a towel to wrap around his waist as he stormed out of the bathroom. He heard a soft thud and was greeted with the sight of Randulf wrapped up in his blanket on the floor as he turned the corner.
“Geez I’m up I swear.” Randulf said, rubbing his eyes. When he opened them again he was met face to face with an angry Leon pulling down a lock of his hair to show the rat. What was once fully brown hair now had its tips dyed a deep blue.
“Heh, it turned out pretty good!” The rat grinned, admiring his handiwork. That was, until he saw the death glare he was receiving from the cougar. All he could do was nervously laugh and attempt to explain himself.
“Well, you kinda conked sitting on the floor after you finished your drink, didn’t expect one little drink to hit ya like that.” He chuckled nervously as he watched Leon scowl. “I just kept thinking about what you had said. I mean, so you failed, but we are a team, and I thought you need a reminder of that fact. So for now whenever you look in the mirror you’ll see your hair and be reminded of the team.” He wrapped his arm around Leon’s shoulders, knocking him down to the floor as well. “And your team has your back! You fail, and we’ll help pull you back up..” He said with a goofy smile.
Leon let out a drained sigh as he let the anger fade. “You’re such a dork.” He jested, removing Randulf’s arm to stand. “I’ll keep it ‘til the playoffs are over.” He glanced down to the rat, who was beaming at Leon.
Randulf missed the evil smirk playing on the cougar’s muzzle as Leon walked away. “Though I hope you don’t mind being late to practice, I think I’m going to need twice as long as you take to get my hair looking right.” He said, shutting the bathroom door, leaving Randulf on the floor with only one thought.
That’s all Randulf felt right now, both mentally and physically past his limit he collapsed onto his couch. The past week had been a rollercoaster of epic proportions and all he wanted to do was pour himself a drink and relax.
That’s how many it took to finish out a supposedly “gimmie” opponent. Worst of all, they had let a three game lead vanish. Each failure had pushed his anxiety further and further. It took every ounce of mental fortitude to shake it off for that final game. Of course they did it. In fact, it was almost anticlimactic. The final game decided by fourteen points after the drama of Game 6 was not as satisfying as he had hoped, but they were moving on to the next series.
Randulf got up and moved over to the oak hutch which held all his liquor, but just as his paw touched the cool glass of the whiskey bottle his phone rang. He sighed and closed the cabinet, leaving the bottle that practically called his name behind to fetch his phone. Glancing down at the screen he was surprised to see Wesley Romero, his General Manager, phone number on display.
“Good evening, Mr. Mackenbach,” Romero spoke smoothly, “I want to congratulate you on your performance tonight. You were invaluable to us this series.”
“Oh, thanks Mr. Romero.” Randulf replied. “I didn’t do it alone though, team fought hard.”
“Very true indeed, it was an excellent performance from the team as a whole. But nonetheless, your contribution was significant.” Romero paused, clearing his throat before continuing, “Which is why I am concerned about something the accounting department brought to me today. After reviewing the expenditures from the last road trip, they came across an unexpected charge of room service to your room the day before the game.”
“Sorry about that.” he laughed nervously, “Had some nerves, and couldn’t sleep before the game, so tried to calm them down. I meant to tell them to put it on my card but forgot.” Randulf explained; unconsciously his free arm grabbed hold of his other arm, trying to keep it from shaking.
“Very nervous, I’d wager, as it says here you ordered two drinks to your room.” There was a pregnant pause following the weasel’s statement.
“Uh—” Randulf started to speak, lost as to what he should say, before being saved by Romero cutting him off.
“Relax, Randulf. I’m not upset or anything. As long as we do not have a repeat of that incident from your rookie year and keep it restrained, I don’t mind you have the occasional drink with whom you please that is over the legal drinking age.” He practically underlined the last condition with the way he enunciated the two simple syllables. All Randulf could do was mutter an affirmation that he understood.
“By the way, Randulf. Accounting informs me that drinks aren’t covered expenses on our trips. They’re expecting a check for the cost of the drinks. That is, unless you would prefer they take it out of your paycheck?” Romero asked.
“Oh, yeah that’s fine.”
“Alright then, I’ll let them know,” the sound of pen scratching paper could be heard as Romero paused. “One more thing,” Romero added, not quite finished with the rat. Though this time his voice had returned to a more relaxed tone. “I have a suspicion that you played a part in helping Leon return to form. Whatever it was, thank you.”
“It was nothing! Was glad I could help him out."
“I expect great things from Bangor, and from you Randulf. Don’t let my belief in you down.”
Randulf unconsciously gulped, before croaking out a reply, “I won’t.”
“I’ll let you get back to your evening then. Goodnight, Randulf.”
The line disconnected, and like a puppet with its strings cut, Randulf collapsed back onto the couch. He groaned as his paws rubbed his face; the stress of the call had only added another loop to the rollercoaster of this week. His eyes locked onto the open liquor cabinet, his frown evident as he looked at the culprit of his current woes.
Lifting himself off the couch, grunting at the surprising effort it took, he marched over to the cabinet and pushed it shut. He gave the cabinet a longing stare, before shaking his head and pivoting on his heel. Content with taking a shower and collapsing into bed he went to leave the room.
The cabinet sat still, watching the rat leave it behind. The bottles basked in the glow of the recessed lighting, illuminating the vast variety of liquor that graced the cabinet’s shelves. However, they might as well have been alone, and the beautiful glow going unappreciated.
...until a familiar white-furred paw pulled the handle, opening the door once more. The bottles rattled on the shelf as it swung open, as if calling out to greet a close, dear friend.