Four cabalvision goblins spring a trap as I make my way out of the locker room. The stinging glare of the blue lights and feedback from the interview wand stabs through my hangover to refresh me on a few basic mundane details, like: what was happening today, why I’d gotten so drunk last night, and who I was. “Aw, shit,” I say on general principle as a goblin harmonizes with a flatulent bleep.
“Mister coach,” says the lead cretin, “your boys are going up against the Pinkfoot Panthers in twenty minutes. What would you like to say to the other coach?”
“He’s the one who also coaches a team of halflings?”
“That’s the one.”
“I don’t have to say anything. He knows. We’re the only ones who understand.”
That’s that. Without skipping a beat they parade down the hall to go interview my flustered assistant coaches. So now I have to deal with cabalvision reporters, huh? I guess my life is the same basic genre as a bunch of monsters ripping each other apart according to loosely-defined rules; there’s an inarguable demographic overlap.
Two teams of halflings spread out there on the field, mine all dressed in funeral blacks, his all dressed in can’t-quite-get-the-blood-out pinks. I wouldn’t call it a Clash of Titans. “Clash of Tits,” I mutter under my breath, and one of my assistants looks confused and the other starts sweating under his collar.
The gobbo with the coin comes by. Heads I call, heads it is. Fate had granted me the honor of receiving the kickoff and was presumably putting this, along with everything else, on my bill. Now to keep it occupied fetching bread rolls until I got a clear run for the door. Halflings, I say to myself for the hundredth time that morning. I could deal with this. If I lost, that would be okay. And if I won, that would be…okay.
The star of the Pinkfoot Panthers is a buttery little bastard society had deemed fit to call Presley Pipesmoker. He’s got the louche, pompadoured grace of a stripper lounge singer hired to perform a showbiz wedding, and the crowd doesn’t know what to think about him. As someone who is both a halfling and the most likely source of halfling suffering on the field, the crowd has a mailcart worth of bagging riding on his preternaturally broad shoulders. He’ll be managing the kickoff this fine afternoon.
He steps back from the ballâ€"takes a running startâ€"and sends that ball rocketing faster than a halfling towards an all-you-can-eat squid buffet. And just like a halfling at a squid buffet, it goes incredibly wide. The ball rolls right off the sidelines, a complete disaster of a punt. So that’s what this feels like.
So I get to hand the ball off to whomever I chooseâ€"and Gods help me, I choose Pervince. While my treeman readies the usual fling, Pervince and his companions brace for the horde of blitzing opponents, which is–
A work in progress? To my astonishment, none of my players are currently being murdered. Pinkfoots are huffing and wheezing and falling in the general direction of my offense, but if they don’t pick it up all they’ll find when they get there is a depression on the pitch and a lingering odor of fear. My treeman is fortunately too stupid to be taken off guard by the lack of resistance and fires Pervince, who has against his stunted survival instincts grown accustomed to this move. He lands and hustles. Touchdown.
As my boys are squealing like hogs at a county fair, happy to be given ribbons and oblivious to the implications, I wade out with a sick but not altogether bad feeling in my stomach. “Listen up,” I call out. “We’re not out of this yet. I want several layers of fat on the field hereâ€"I want to be ready if he’s stupid enough to throw his man or if he’s stupid enough to run the ball. I want him to size up his options and realize that he has no chance, not one single fucking chance of getting out of here with a goal or his dignity. I want him to realize every direction he can move on this field is death. You got that?”
“That’s…harsh, coach,” says Polo.
“He’s used to it. Trust me.”
Do they get it? I think they do. A look is crossing my players’ faces–I wouldn’t say, exactly, that they’ve realized they can win. I’m not sure anybody’s sat them down and explained the concept to most of them yet. It’s not about winning for them: it’s that they’ve realized something humbler, more personal, is within reach. Something they’ve yearned for and never realized they needed.
Revenge. It was finally time to pick on someone their own size.
“One more thing,” I said. “I order one pizza for every player of his that ends up on the injury list.”
The whistle blows, the kick goes up, and before his Panthers have figured out where the punt’s going my Skeeters are on him like a grease fire. His boy Presley dives for the ball and starts booking for the treemenâ€"so it’s a fling he has in mind, is it? Bene.
I’m not some cocky, guileless elven fuckboy who lives in a metropolis without needing to shovel cow shit, leads a post-industrial existence without having to burn a stick, and wins his games without lowering himself to notice his opponents. I have had to grind for my most meager and hollow victories and if you think I’m going to leave you a nice breezy open path to the end zone, you and your soon-to-be-dead buddy Presley are about to learn a lesson.
But Presley’s got other worries. His run to the treeman is about to be full of incident I’ve snuck a few of my own through his line during the initial blitz. My boy Halfred jukes around a defender, runs to intercept him…
Just from the sound of crunching bones and pitch of the yowlp I instantly know: the wrong halfling got crunched. Presley keeps running as Halfred, checked by a defender, goes flyingâ€"half his body spinning one way, half spinning the other. I scramble to the field to help drag his limp, sweaty, passionately complaining body to my waiting and lightly swaying apothecary.
“Not bad,” says the apothecary before I say a word. “Broken collarbone. I can fix.” He bends. I hear a few clamps tighten and suddenly Halfred is letting loose the scream that ends the world.
“No problem,” adds the apothecary. “See? Pinched nerve. Be healed in a few days.”
“You said it was–“
“Be healed in a few days.“
I have to hand it to that pomade-soaked puke Presley, but he can run a ball with the best of the worst of themâ€"he’s made it to the treeman at maximum halfling speed. He steals his breath back as some of my boys close inâ€"his treeman bends, scoops, and hurls…
Well butter my fist and call it a muffin, I guess that stylish quiff isn’t aerodynamic, because he hits a nasty yaw and ploughs the field like a discus made of dough. Milo Cotton dives over the fallen prep and snatches up the ball, but he’s not out of the woods yetâ€"and he’s alone out there with a lot of angry Panthers looking to avenge their fallen figurehead. Milo gets his feet under him and slips by inches ahead of a score of sausage-fingered tackles. His bare feet pound the bloody pitch and he stumbles into the reach of one of the treemen, trying to get his breath back for the big throw, and he’s barely rapped out the signal on the trunk when a half-dozen angry pink turkeys surge from every possible angleâ€"then disappear in a blur from his vision as his brother treeman picks him up and sends him rocketing at eye-watering speed…
And it’s good.
We scored during his play.
It would be wrong to say that for the rest of the matchâ€"an elaborate game of murderous keep-away punctuated by as many bouts of cheeky violence as I can affordâ€"I’m looking on with any enthusiasm. The rush of scoring goals sits oddly in my stomach, given the surreal and outright perverse circumstances. It’s like a serial killer getting the job of hangman. It’s wrong to call it justice and it really shouldn’t feel goodâ€"but it’ll do. One last diversion from the real world of facing real teams, owing real debts, losing real bones, while we trounce an unprepared and no-account team of losers. You know, just like…
The crowd is really going wild, huh.
“What did you tell me last night?” I say suddenly to my assistant coach.
“Uh, ‘please don’t vomit on my socks, those are my only pair.'”
“I think it was ‘please don’t vomit on my pants, they’re–‘”
“What did you say about the Panthers?”
“They were just like us, except they had fans, victories…”
I yank a dog-eared copy of the win/loss records out of my coaches’ bag. Like all the information I’ve accumulated there I can’t actually understand it. But gradually–dimly–steadily–like a complete moron, I am beginning to make a connection.
“We’re playing the Pinkfoot Panthers again tomorrow,” I say. “Tomorrow is the playoffs. They are in the playoffs?”
“Right, along with the wood elves and…”
“They’ve been winning matches,” I say. “They’re a real team after all. And we just defeated them.”
That dim spark buried under the high of fading booze and cheap fast food–somewhere behind the grinding, gnashing jaws of anxiety and doom–was back. It was hope. Hope had come back.
One last speech for the team, short as I could make it. They have a long night of digesting pizza ahead of them. Besides, some of them were beginning to grasp what had happened. I’d let them find their moment.
I was finding mine.
“The day after tomorrow,” I say, “we will play the Wood Elves for the cup. They will win.” I suck in my breath, push my fist against my forehead. “I mean…probably. I can’t see it going any other way. I really can’t. But…I’m an idiot. So what the fuck do I know about anything.”
A dozen wide eyes watch me.
“My point is, tomorrow, you’re going to play the Panthers again. You’re going to win. You’re going to win a lot. And while you’re winning so quickly and easily the other team learns to hate you by name, all of you are going to train. You know how you’re going to do that?”
“Yeah,” says Pervince.
“Really? And how is that, Potatoe?”
“You’re going to have us beat them up, aren’t you?”
“I prefer to call it the School of Lard Knocks. But yeah, that’s it. Tomorrow you are going to play rough–ruthless–unclean–vicious. Consider it a warm-up.”
I drop the boxes of pizza.
“I could tell you it’s not about whether you win or lose. For the elf coach, it is. For me? I don’t know. But I’m starting to realize that if you can’t win, the least you can do is bet on yourself. The least you can do is stick up for yourself–even if you’re a loser. Just because you’re the butt of the joke doesn’t mean you can’t spread your misery. Maybe I walk out of the stadium this weekend with a limp and maybe that smug elven prick walks out with the Clean Cup. Or, maybe…just maybe…he walks out with the Clean Cup and a limp.”
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