Next to my beside table, a dozen fresh red rosesâ€"broken at the base of the stems. Thinking of you. Love, the guys. Beneath that is the name of every loan shark on the seaboard and the card of a local apothecary.
Just when you start to think no-one cares.
My trousers are only half-on when my hand, operating on its own sound judgment and muscle memory, finds a bottleneck. But my brain cell is still in charge–and it votes to leave the liquor be and go up there to face this incredibly unfortunate day sober. After all, my team is counting on me. I haven’t been able to fix that yet.
It’s a long climb up the stairs to the locker room, where my team has been having a last-minute pregame clambake. Wide, moist eyes look up from an improvised and building-code-violating ersatz coalpit. Did I have a speech prepared? I did? Well, screw that. This was not a morning for last night’s speeches. If I was going to face this sober, so were they.
“Remember when I told you this team had a destiny?” I said.
They all nodded.
“I lied. The other team has a destiny. They’ve also got money, fans, equipment, the right people, performance-enhancing potions, and a sponsor contract I’d kill for. But do you know what we’ve got?” I hold up my satchel. “Performance-enhancing potions. Pervince, catch…actually, how about I hand it to you very carefully. Both strapsâ€"there you go. Good…handoff, we just did.”
“You mean this potion’s a performance enhancer? Gosh. What’ll this little thing do?”
“The theory is, it’ll make you more agile. Or maybe it’s some sugar water. Maybe the real agility was inside your stubby little legs all along.”
“No, seriously, I think I might have gotten burned. Let me know after. But you know what my point is?” Did I know what my point was? Suddenly, I thought I did. Okay. Here was the last speech I’d ever give on intact legs.
“You know something, boys…you’re pathetic. Everyone knows it. You’re fat little runts who can’t run for shit or catch a cold. No matter how hard any of you train, or try, you will never, ever be able to dance the ball through the eye of the storm like those elves can. Ever.” I shake my head. They’re all waiting for the “but” to come. And then–I give it to them.
“But you can run anyway.” I look each one of them in the eye. “You will never be able to break a man in half like an orc, none of you. But you can charge just as recklessly and brutally and mercilessly. You can’t bite like a lizardman, but you’ve got jaws and you’ve got the taste of blood and I don’t think that referee’s had his prescriptions checked lately. You’ll never have the versatile gamesmanship of a human, but you can throw yourself into whatever lunatic melee crops up on that pitch and you can bash your head against the wall until it breaks or you do. You might not win like Blood Bowl champs, but dammit, you stupid suicidal little bastards, you can play like them. They’re gonna take the cup? Make them earn it. Make them pay for their cheap win in teeth and sweat. Shame them with what you could do if you had their perfect fucking elf body.“
And exactly on that note, I run to the bathroom and throw up. And that’s my pregame ritual taken care of.
“Call it,” says the ref some trackless minutes later.
“Heads,” I say.
“Heads it is.”
I’m delighted to find myself standing alone with the elf coach while the gobbo goes off to inform the sportswriters that I’ll be receiving first kickoff. A sly look comes over what I had assumed was his sly look. I’m going to hate this conversation.
“How much are you in the hole with your sharks?” he says.
“In the…oh, this is embarrassing. You’re referring to my identical twin brother. He’s exactly like me, but drunk, dead, and unreachable by post.”
“I trust you joke to make light of a very painful situation. Well, if you’d like to turn your fortunes around, there’s always the possibility of a friendly wager. I bet a hundred thousand gold…”
“…that you win.”
His smile hasn’t lost a drop of that all-natural elven warmthâ€"the kind that makes you feel like you’re slathering sun-soaked honey all over your naked chest. But now there was something more to it, like the feeling you get when you look down during a honey bath and realize, wait, this is gross.
“You heard me, I’m sure,” he says. “If you win, you pay me a hundred thousand gold. If I win…I pay you a hundred thousand gold. You might call this an exceptionally friendly wager.”
I look at my mob of fat little chickens, gamboling fresh out of the locker room with greasy fingers and steely eyes. Not one person in the stands is applauding, or even paying attention. Not one.
“I may not win games like a Blood Bowl coach,” I said. “But I can play like a Blood Bowl coach.”
“Not for me it’s not.”
The elves kick off. It lands in the center of my half of the field–Fosco Forkson races up from his postings and takes the hit, namely, picking up the ball.
Elf blitzers rip out like clockwork to feyhandle him, but by the time they’re ready to really ruin his day he’s already handed the ball off to Halfred Tallfellow, and he is now traveling at about sixty thousand times the speed evolution designed halflings for towards the end zone. Halfred lands, tumbles into a sprint, and falls–no, nearly falls–and crosses the goal line.
That’s one. That’s the one point we needed to come out of this with a teaspoon of dignity. That’s what I think right up until my boys try to kick off and I revise my invoice considerably. The misused ball wobbles mutionously off-side from my kicker’s shortlegged punt; he has the privilege of handing it right to his thrower. Exactly where the ball shouldn’t go.
Perhaps I should have mentioned that he has a treeman and a wardancer who’s killed more people in this league than my sponsor’s chicken salad sandwiches. Assuming their paychecks are bucketfulls of halfling blood and spit, they are currently collecting their paychecks–the Big Book of Elven Bullshit demands a clear channel for the elven pain train, and they are delivering with unguised enthusiasm. My whole right flank bites the pitch, and his catchers pour through the cracks in my line like rats boarding a really stable ship…
And that’s when a beautiful plan goes all wrong. First his catcher on the opposite side is running at last into his position; then, his position becomes fetal as one of my boys scythes his skinny legs out from under him. His pals are so startled they don’t close the gap behind themselves, and this is a bad time for him to leave his shipping lanes open.
The same hole on the right side of the field that his catchers poured out of–that’s where my halflings pour in, right toward his poxy thrower. His big mean wardancer plants her heels as my boys tumble headlong into her kicks–under her kicks–and suddenly my lads are splashing all over the thrower like relish on a rancid chicken salad sandwich. He bucks clear and makes eye contact with a catcher who has a wide-open run to my end zone, and with his eye on the prize, he lobs…
Milo Cotton roars in his face and snatches the ball right out of the air.
Every spectator’s neck twinges at the same time as they’re forced to arrest their gazes, which had been traveling down the length of the pitch, at one inconvenient halfling. It takes everyone–I’d like to say even Milo–a few eventful, character-building moments to realize what has happened. The spell is broken by a treeman, who seizes the opportunity to cheerfully concuss the nearest elf to the newly-stripped ball.
Milo ducks under his blocking wardancer’s sudden hook and bolts the absurd distance towards the end zone. There’s nobody out there to stop him…except himself. Something–anything–everything in his halfling knees gives way midway through the suicide charge, and he’s just deep enough out there that there’s a bunch of elves waiting to pick up the pieces and zero halflings. Nobody had gotten out in time to help or cover Milo, and the elf thrower takes next dibs at the pigskin, takes aim at the by now impatient pain train, and fires a ball that is intercepted by Sancho Greenbottle.
The stands squawk like a pilloried duck. Down on the field, Sancho has no time to be smug or even surprised by his sudden attack of playing Blood Bowl. His man Perv Broccoli slugs the nearest startled elf, and wasting none of this distraction, Sancho roughs it to the shelter of the treemen. Right up until an elf kick to the back of his head sends the ball rumbling, tumbling, into the hands of its rightful owner.
Pervince is surrounded by elves in an instant. And then the elves are surrounding an empty patch of grass, and Pervince is rocketing through the air toward Terror Firma. He lands it. I don’t just mean he hits the ground, which was inevitable–I mean he lands it. It’s graceful.
So…seriously. Was that the potion, or…? But the point is academic. That’s a technical term for “we just scored a second touchdown.”
The first half of the game is not over yet–not even close–and it’s my kick again. This time the punt lands exactly where I instructed my players to put it, which is to say, near enough for my line-halflings to cough on. Like clockwork his thrower snatches up the ball and watches for the catchers to penetrate my lines. Maybe he should have been watching the three halflings who, it turns out, are just within tackling range of his bony underfed specialist ass. The ball squirts away from his tumbling bleeding sprawl–an elf lineman saves it, readies a pass, and pounds the ball through my line to his pain train, who carry it tenderly over the end zone. Well, that figured.
Hang on. I actually stopped paying attention when he threw the pass–why haven’t any of his players moved? Why did the halftime whistle blow early?
Oh. My treeman intercepted.
“This is a weird fucking dream,” I mutter.
My players assemble to hear the usual speech. I’d sort of figured out a rhythm for these so that I could perform them while having a deep existential (or at least continued-existential) panic attack. There was no good reason for it to be failing me now.
“Yeah, but we’ll probably lose next half,” I say.
I mean, think.
No. Shit. I did say it.
“Or to put it another way…we will probably not lose next half,” I add, and if my sagacity and zen grasp of sports philosophy was not already legendary among my doe-eyed players, then, uh, they probably aren’t going to buy that. But it was all I had time for before the whistle blew again and the panic started to come back. Hope, just get in or get out already.
Our turn to kick again, and we knock out a punt right to his wardancer. Directly behind the ball’s arc are four, count ’em, four screaming halflings, and I can see the look on his wardancer’s gorgeous bloodspattered face: don’t we have people for this sort of thing? She slips the tackles and puts the ball in the hands of the thrower, and like a nightmare you haven’t had for so long it’s almost become nostalgia, the fix is in: the ball zips around the field on wings of elf horseshit and he’s scored his very first touchdown of the game.
Now he kicks the ball, and where should it land but near the innocent hands of that gentlest of souls, Pervince Potatoe. He’s on that shit with an enthusiasm his ancestors religiously reserved for cheesey bacon spuds. And then he’s running. He’s running well.
You know…if you didn’t know better, you’d think my opening speeches weren’t total bullshit.
Now my lunchbox is closed by the treemen and his wardancer’s punching the ball-carrier-menacing tunnel. Now, this is a big problem–the halfling fling is a breathtakingly stupid tactic under the most clement of circumstances, and nothing involving wardancers, from their hairstyle to their preferred form of pop gnomish vocalist, could be described as clement. Normally I had only two solutions for an entrenched wardancer tackler: treat it the same way I treated every problem in Blood Bowl, which was to throw a lot of halflings at it and hope for the best, or treat it like I treated every non-Blood Bowl problem, which was to ignore it and hope for the best.
But I’d been making some tweaks to the lunchbox and my strategy that their team didn’t know about yet. When the wardancer saw some of the halflings juking out of position, she probably assumed the worst of their morale and discipline. And while she might not have been far off, she was still about to get hit with a mind-opening experience.
Ever see a tree remove a splinter?
The treeman blitz eradicates my wardancer problem, another treeman lobs Pervince safely, and…touchdown? I mean, it’s not weird that it worked.
No, it’s weird.
We kick off again. His thrower is on the ball, and like a man on a sinking lifeboat–still paddling at the oars–he sends his catchers past my lines right as I send my halflings past his. I don’t know what it’s like to be attacked by three halflings, but I do know what it sounds like, and it sounds like a terrible way to spend such a lovely afternoon.
The ball flips up into an elf lineman’s hands and then flips right back out of them, and this is the point where I wonder if I’ve made some kind of fundamental alteration to the low-level mechanics of the universe.
It’s like some beautiful elven illusion has been abandoned by a sickened halfling-hating god. It’s getting worse. Indignity of indignities, my boys are running the ball up the field.
It’s literally unbelievable. He manages to tackle a self-sacrificing halfling but the prize, clutched in Perv Broccoli’s eager hands, crosses that line for the fourth time. Fourth.
There wasn’t enough time for it to all go wrong anymore. And it didn’t.
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