Final Fantasy X: For Love of the Game
by Mayumi_H

Disclaimer: Final Fantasy and Final Fantasy X belong to Squaresoft. The world of Spira and all associated characters belong to Squaresoft. This story is written and published without permission or consent of Squaresoft. This is a fictional story made for purely entertainment purposes. The author of this story does not claim to own the world of Final Fantasy, or any characters or likenesses. Any relation to events or persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

Author's Note: The Al Bhed in this story are speaking Al Bhed, unless otherwise noted. While they have a language all of their own, all prose and dialogue will be in English (or Yevonite, if you prefer), with a few notable exceptions.

Part 1: The Tournament Calls

Nimrook stopped and stared.

A temporary dais had been constructed in the city square, specifically for the annual Blitzball Tournament. A huge dial provided the frame, and on each of its six rotating concentric rings there glowed a stylized emblem for each of the tournament's teams. It didn't surprise him that the most spectacular of these belonged to Luca's local team, the Goers, but it gave him a little surge of pride to see the sigil of his own Al Bhed Psyches up there. Each emblem drifted lazily on its own axis around the centerpiece, which seemed to give off a light all of its own. For mounted there, in all its glory, was the Championship Cup.

The Psyches hadn't won the Cup in too long. In his five years as goalie (the last two of which he'd been captain of the team), the closest they had ever come was third place. Luca had taken the Cup for most of those years, interrupted only briefly when the Kilika Beasts had played particularly well four tournaments ago. This year, Nimrook was determined to break the Goers' winning streak once again.

Subconsciously, he cracked his knuckles beneath his goalie gloves, which he had taken to wearing nearly every waking moment since he'd been named captain. Like seeing the Psyches' emblem up there on the dial, the gloves were a source of pride. They had been a gift from the departing captain, Rin, who was leaving the game to devote his time to his flourishing travel agency business. His teammates had called him superstitious, but Nimrook liked to think that his abilities had as much to do with the gloves than his own proficiency. As it was, he was arguably the best goalie in the league.

He smiled at the trophy as if it were a long-lost friend, and, for a moment, he'd found his peace.

A commotion off toward the docks distracted him. Even this far away, he could hear the telltale cheers of blitzball fans echoing off of Luca's buildings. He looked up past the trophy platform, at the large viewscreen suspended over the road. Presented on the sphere was the transmission of the arriving Kilika team. Vuroja, their captain, led the way down the steps, and the assorted members of the Beasts waved and smiled to their fans.

Despite himself, Nimrook sighed. No Al Bhed, not even the Psyches, would ever be welcomed in such a fashion in a Yevonite city. Though there was relative equality and tolerance between the teams - with the exception of some of the cheeky bnelgc on the Goers team - the fans were a different species altogether. Most of the locals ignored the Psyches, at best; at their worst, situations could get very ugly.

This year, the Psyches had arrived in Luca with little fanfare; only a few Al Bhed who happened to be in the area had come out for their arrival. Even that was infinitely preferable to last year's debacle, when Nimrook himself had nearly gotten a face full of rotten fruit. He had shrugged it off at the time, because he was captain and he had to set a strong example, but later that day, he had locked himself in the locker washroom and cursed every Yevonite until his voice hurt from the strain.

The voices of the tournament announcers blared over the city square's loudspeakers, and Nimrook knew enough Yevonite to recognize that they were just announcing the Beasts. The sphere transmission shifted, to another boat, where the Guado Glories were stepping down into the crowd.

The Glories were greeted with barely more excitement than the Psyches. There weren't many Guado who lived outside of Guadosalam, but there were a few loyal human fans who cheered them on anyway.

The announcers laughed at something, and Nimrook squinted at the screen. The sphere had shifted yet again, and this time it focused on another group of humans in pale, manila clothing.

"The Aurochs," someone next to him chuckled. He looked to his side, where Berrik stood with his arms crossed.

Berrik was the Psyches' mid-forward, a tall, lean Al Bhed with blond hair that stuck up on either side of his goggle harness. He had been on the team as long as Nimrook, and they had worked their way up from second string together. Like Nimrook, Berrik was one of the old guard, from the days when Rin was captain.

Shifting his attention back to the screen, Nimrook watched as the captain of the Aurochs, a large, burly fellow with a shock of flaming red hair that stood straight up in front, stepped down onto the dock. The man seemed oblivious to the laughter around him, as if he didn't know, or care, that most everyone was mocking his team. Instead, he waved, and then he and his team disappeared into the crowd.

"Who do they think they're kidding?" Berrik asked with a snort.

Nimrook shrugged and smiled. "It takes all kinds."

Berrik smiled back, the corners of his eyes crinkling around his goggles. He held up a hand and affected a heavy accent. "The blitzball does not discriminate."

Nimrook laughed softly. That had been one of Rin's sayings. He would say that at every tryout, and at every practice. Nimrook guessed that it had been Rin's way of making any player feel welcome, no matter his strengths or weaknesses. Rin had been a good captain that way.

Nimrook pointed at the Championship Cup. "Let's hope that doesn't discriminate, either."

Berrik nodded, then put a hand on his shoulder. "Come on. Maybe we can get in some practice before dinner."

Nimrook favored the Cup with one last, longing glance, and then he followed Berrik back toward the arena. Maybe this year, they'd bring the Cup Home. Maybe this year, he'd make everyone proud.

Part 2: One of the Boys

Judda swam forward, her shoulder angled toward Eigaar's chest. She connected with enough momentum to dizzy him, but he didn't let go of the ball. She threw a backward glance at him and cursed silently to herself. The guy had some luck. She watched as he took an open shot on their "goal" (which was, in actuality, just a portion of the hull of their transport ship), and she found herself wondering where her other defenseman was.

Nimrook arched up to grab the ball. He managed to get a hand on it, and it ricocheted toward the opposite side.

Judda took a moment to smile, but only for a moment. The ball was going toward Blappa's side, and Blappa was notorious for his volley shooting ability. Sure enough, the right forward twisted his body and gave the coming ball a hard smack with his foot. It flew back toward the goal area, and, though Nimrook tried to block it, the ball bounced off of the ship's hull with a muted thud. Score one for the forwards.

Judda was already swimming for the surface before Nimrook claimed the ball again. She took a gulp of air and wiped a hand through her short blonde hair. "Tysh," she swore.

Lakkam, the other defenseman and only other female on the Psyches, surfaced next to her. "Sorry," she murmured.

Judda scowled at her. "You need to pay less attention to Blappa and more attention to the game." Ever since Lakkam had signed on to the Psyches, Judda had noticed the girl giving the forward adoring looks and tentative smiles.

Lakkam lowered her chin below the water. "I thought he was too far away for a volley."

Judda shook her head. "Blappa'll do anything to show off," she said sourly. She should know; he had put his grandstanding moves on her two years ago, when he'd first joined the team. One rebuff and a particularly rough tackle later, Blappa had started looking for someone else. He hadn't really found anyone, until Lakkam had been recruited earlier this season.

The younger girl turned her head away. "I said I was sorry," she muttered again.

Judda smiled and splashed the girl good-naturedly. "Don't make that face," she chided.

A few meters away, the four men surfaced together. Nimrook started swimming toward the ship's ladder, and Berrik followed him. Blappa and Eigaar swam over to the two women.

"Not bad, eh?" Blappa said, nudging Lakkam with his elbow. If he hadn't been wearing his goggles, Judda would have sworn he'd winked at her. "We shouldn't have problems winning the Cup if the Ronsos play that well."

"Shut up," Judda sneered.

Eigaar rubbed his chest. "You make it sound like it was easy." He gave Judda a meaningful smile. "I'm surprised I held onto the ball there."

Judda laughed. "So am I!"

"Hey, muja-cfyhc!" Nimrook called from the bow of the ship. Beside him, Berrik snickered as he shook the water from his arms.

"He's joking, right?" Eigaar asked in a low voice, and Judda laughed again. The thought of them as a couple of love-swans seemed rather silly.

"Out of the water!" Nimrook ordered. "I don't want anyone worn out for tomorrow."

Blappa waved back, and then extended his hand, palm up, toward the two women. "Ladies first," he said with a smile.

Lakkam returned the smile, and Judda splashed him in the face as she swam by. Against her better judgment, though, she found herself amused by Blappa's antics; he could be pretty charming when he wanted to be.

As she climbed the ladder behind Lakkam, she was surprised to realize that she was actually a little jealous of the younger girl. Lakkam was the baby of the team, and so naturally everyone tended to watch out for her, both in the arena and out of it. But, more than that, a lot of Al Bhed men found her attractive, and they didn't bother to hide it. Of course, Judda had had her share of admirers (even one brief tryst with Cid's son, but nothing else ever came out of that one), but she'd spent most of her time watching celebrations and courtships from the sidelines.

She was one of the best blitzball players around, which was what had earned her the right to call herself a Psyche, but that always seemed to make people forget that she was also a woman. A damn attractive woman, at that. But men didn't seem to notice anymore. So, whenever Nimrook or Berrik would tease her about romance, she laughed it off as ridiculous, but secretly she longed for a life like that.

She lingered on the bow of the ship, dragging her feet as the rest of the team started below decks. She hissed a breath through her teeth as a chilling wind drifted across the deck, and rubbed her arms. As she looked up, the twilight sky was slowly fading into night, coaxing stars into view.

She thought about Aniki, who had held her under the desert moon that one night, and she wished she could go back. They had grown apart since that time - she was always too busy with practice, and keeping his little sister out of trouble was almost a full-time occupation for him - but it had been nice while it lasted. Perhaps what she needed was someone more like her, someone as devoted to the game as she was.

Judda didn't even notice Berrik coming up to stand beside her, until he put a hand on her back, between her shoulder blades.

"Are you all right?" A frown creased his brow, causing Judda to smile. Berrik had always been a mother hen.

She shrugged him off. "Don't worry about me."

He nodded toward the ship's entrance. "Let's go before it gets cold."

Judda waved. "In a minute," she said softly. "It's quiet out here."

"Not too long," Berrik warned. He added with a grin, "Otherwise there might not be any food left for you."

She laughed, and waved him away again. "Go on. I'll be down in a bit."

He looked puzzled for a moment, as if in doubt. But then he stepped away from her, and gave her her space. "If you say so," he called, before disappearing inside the ship with the others.

Judda watched him go, then turned around to look out over the water. Across that sea lay Home, the only home she'd known. She had been to some other lands in Spira, but no place ever welcomed her like Home. When she was younger, she would sit in her room and watch the desert horizon, waiting for her man to come running up over the dunes. It was a childish dream, but it was one she always remembered fondly.

Perhaps, somewhere else, not so far away, there was someone watching the horizon for her, and he was only waiting to be found.

With a little smile, she turned back to the entrance. It opened for her, and she stepped into the darkness, and then into the light, where her friends were waiting for her.

Part 3: All My Dreams

Lakkam crept up onto the bow of the ship, fully expecting to have the place to herself.

Sleep was out of the question tonight; there was so much excitement in the air, all revolving around tomorrow's tournament. She wanted so badly to do a good job; she had worked hard to make the team, and she wanted to do them proud. Plus, it would make for a good story for her friends back in Home. So, after lights-out, she had snuck out of her bunk and wandered about the ship, eventually making her way up to the promenade.

She was surprised to find that she was not alone. Berrik was up here, his long legs dangling off the side of the ship.

"Can I sit here?" Lakkam asked tentatively, from a few paces away.

Berrik looked up, a little bit startled. But then he smiled and nodded. "There's always room for one more."

She slid down next to him and mimicked his posture, letting her heels bounce against the hull. She held on to one of the railbars and looked out over her knees, into the dark water below.

"Couldn't sleep?" Berrik ventured.

Lakkam shook her head. "No." She grinned, almost giddy. "I'm too excited!" She looked out at the city, all lit up along the dockline, with its glowing towers and domes. "I've never played in a game this important, and I've never been to Luca before."

Berrik shrugged, a little sadly. "It's all right." He turned his head to her. "This is my fifth tournament here," he said in explanation.

She smiled sheepishly. "Ugh. I must sound like a little girl." She looked around the deck, up at the sky, anywhere but at him. She hadn't wanted to sound so naive; the other Psyches had played games and tournaments all over Spira, and the last thing any of them probably wanted was some girl gushing about the big city lights.

But Berrik assured her: "No harm in that."

Lakkam turned back to him, all of her shame forgotten. "What about you? What are you doing up here?" He always seemed very contemplative, very professional. Maybe there was some sort of Luca nightlife that was worth observing from the deck of the ship.

Berrik pursed his lips. "Nimrook snores," he said pointedly. "I can't sleep through that noise."

Lakkam chuckled, then covered her mouth with one hand to be a little more polite. "I'm surprised anyone could sleep tonight," she offered.

As if to confirm her sentiment, the main hatch made a lurching sound as it opened again. Both of them turned around, to see Blappa step out onto the deck.

There was a moment of silence, and then Berrik rubbed his palms on his thighs and took a deep breath. "Well. I think maybe I'll look for some kuyd's milk, and try to get some rest." He disentangled himself from the railbars and stood up. He patted her gently on the top of the head, the way that her brothers sometimes did. "See you in the morning."

"Kuut hekrd," she said, offering a smile. She craned her neck around, and watched Berrik walk away. When he passed Blappa, he gave the younger man a punch in the shoulder.

"Kuut hekrd," Blappa called after him, repeating Lakkam's good night well-wishes. He came over to her and bent low at the waist. "Mind if I join you?"

Lakkam shrugged her arms up. "Sure," she squeaked. She squeezed her eyes shut behind her goggles and made a face, embarrassed again.

Blappa didn't seem to notice. He sat down next to her, in the same position, leaning one shoulder against a bar. "So, how does it feel to be in your first tournament?" He asked suddenly.

She gave a little shudder. "Exciting! I didn't think I'd ever get to be here." She looked out over the water again, at the city spread before her.

He gave her a gentle push with his fingertips, sending a tiny, invisible wave of anxiety through her. "Of course you're here," he grinned. "You're one of the Psyches now."

"Still... Luca," she muttered dreamily. How many times had she laid in her bed in Home, longing for the day when she would see Spira's great cities? Her brother Keyakku had teased her more than once about her far-flung fantasies, but she knew deep in her heart that there was no other life for her. Sitting on the deck, watching the sparkling lights of the city, she realized that she had found her place. Bevelle be cursed - it was Luca that held the key to so many of her dreams.

"It's so beautiful," Lakkam whispered.

Blappa made a low noise in his throat, almost a humming sound, and nodded. Without warning, he reached between them and fingered the band of her goggles above her ear.

Lakkam felt the tiny hairs at the nape of her neck stand up at his touch, but she stayed her ground.

He reached toward her opposite ear with his other hand, and he took hold of her goggle harness. "Can I?" He asked in a quiet voice.

She nodded, almost imperceptibly, and closed her eyes. She felt him slip her goggles off and rest them on the top of her head. Her eyelids felt cool; she had become so accustomed to wearing her goggles that it made her feel exposed without them in their normal place. She opened her eyes very slowly, as if there might be something there that her uncovered eyes weren't ready for. But there was only Blappa, smiling fondly at her.

He laid the back of his hand against her cheek, and she pressed her face against his skin. When he drew his hand away, she looked up at him, almost in a panic, and then saw that he was only starting to take his own goggles off.

Without saying a word, she grabbed his hands and put them in his lap, laying her palms down on them. Then, she reached up to his face and pulled on his goggles, as he had done. She slipped them off his head and gently placed the band on his hands.

He opened his eyes, and Lakkam suddenly realized how long it had been since she had looked at another Al Bhed, eye to eye. His green spiraled irises, common to all their kin, had never seemed more beautiful to her before.

She touched his face, her pale fingers stroking his skin. And as he gazed at her with his naked eyes, she leaned toward him, inviting him closer. She thought in a blur that this couldn't be happening, that he had made some sort of mistake, that this was just a game to him while for her it was her whole heart. But as their lips touched, she understood that he was both everything she wanted, and nothing she had expected.

For the moment, he was only a kiss.

Part 4: The Other Half

Eigaar stared up at the darkened ceiling over his bunk, tracing the lines of the metal plates with his eyes. He'd spent a long time looking at this ceiling, at the same grey, rectangular plates that sheltered him for weeks at a time.

Since Al Bhed weren't exactly welcome in most towns, the Psyches had gotten into the routine of staying on the transport ship rather than renting rooms from the local establishments. It was certainly cheaper that way, and more reliable, but it also made trips a lot more boring. What was the point of travelling if he never got to see anything except for these four walls?

There was only one time that he could remember staying the night off-ship. The Psyches had taken part in an exhibition match against the Fangs, near the Ronso's home of Mount Gagazet, and they had been told in no uncertain terms that it would be very impolite to refuse Ronso hospitality. To everyone's surprise, the Ronsos were pretty good hosts. Judda had ended up getting sick from the cold, and Blappa had ended up getting sick from the wine, but Eigaar had enjoyed his time with the Fangs immensely.

The Ronsos seemed to understand his plight more than any other race did. Inherently different because of the way that they looked and sounded, the Ronsos shared a special, unspoken kinship with the Al Bhed. Not to mention the fact that they had a great blitzball team. In the two years that Eigaar had been on the Psyches, he learned that the Fangs were the only team that could consistently give the Goers a run for their money. He remembered asking Gazna about it one night. (Gazna understood Al Bhed about as well as Eigaar understood Ronso, but they somehow managed to communicate well enough.)

"Goers not strong," Gazna had told him in stilted Al Bhed. "Fast, not strong." He had clapped Eigaar on the back, making him sputter his drink. "Like little Psyche." He had laughed then, a booming, basso guffaw.

Eigaar remembered wiping his face and chuckling. "Psyches stronger than Goers," he had said, his throat rumbling over the unfamiliar Ronso words. Where Al Bhed was spoken mostly from the tongue and roof of the mouth, he had found that most Ronso words had to be spoken from the belly.

Gazna's eyes had widened in surprise, and then he had laughed again, so loudly that everyone in the room had turned to them. "Ah! We see tomorrow!" He had poked the table, leaving a little dent where his claw broke the wood.

The game, as it turned out, was a short one. Exhibition matches didn't mean anything for league standing - since they were little more than exercises, winners really didn't matter - but almost everyone had come away having learned something new. That had been the first time Eigaar had seen anyone do a spin ball before, and all of the Psyches forwards had begged the Ronso shooters to show them how to do it. Eigaar still hadn't gotten the hang of that spin ball.

Thinking about Gazna made him laugh to himself. He was actually looking forward to seeing the Ronso captain again. Maybe he even had some new tricks up his sleeve....

The door to the room slid open, and Blappa slipped in, being careful not to make too much noise.

"Do you have any idea what time it is?" Eigaar asked, leaning over the side of the mattress as his roommate sat down on the bottom bunk.

"I thought you'd be asleep," Blappa muttered.

"Where were you anyway?" Not that Eigaar didn't know, but he wanted to hear it straight from the chocobo's mouth.

Blappa pulled off his boots and spoke into his chest. "Up on deck," he said, as if it were perfectly natural. "Keeping Lakkam company."

Eigaar rolled his eyes behind his goggles. "You're not going to start that again, are you?" He pulled himself farther off the bunk as Blappa laid down, hands linked behind his head. "She's just a kid."

Blappa shook his head. "She's not a kid," he said emphatically.

"She's the same age as Aniki's little sister," Eigaar reasoned. "That's a kid."

Blappa kicked at the top bunk. "Why don't you mind your own business?"

Eigaar rolled over onto his back again. But he wanted to have the parting shot, so he said, "Just remember what Nimrook said about not being worn out for the game."

Blappa sighed. "I'll be fine."

After a silent pause, Eigaar felt his bunk rattle. "Stop it," he told Blappa.

"Then shut up and go to sleep," Blappa countered.

Eigaar blew a long breath, then settled into the mattress. "Fine."

He pulled his goggles off and tossed them over the bedpole, as he usually did, and rolled over onto his side. As he closed his eyes, he thought about how, even though being a Psyche was what he'd always wanted, he wouldn't mind seeing how the other half lived. Maybe a trader, like Rin, who was accepted all over Spira. Or someone like Cid, who was a great leader respected by all. At the moment, anything seemed better than being a blitzball player waiting for a game.

Suddenly, his bunk rattled again. He leaned over the edge of his mattress and looked hard at Blappa. "I said, quit it."

Blappa's face was paler than usual. "That wasn't me," he murmured.

A second later, there was a clamor from the hall, and he heard someone - probably one of the crew - shouting: "Fiends! Fiends on the deck! Get the guns!"

Eigaar jumped from his bunk, and he and Blappa, still barefoot, raced into the hall.

"What is it?" Eigaar asked, as Berrik came running up.

Berrik shoved a rifle into his hands, and pointed toward the main deck. "There's a fiend out there - a big one. Take this and help the others hold it off." He grabbed Blappa by the arm. "Come on; Ropp needs our help with the crane."

Eigaar gripped the rifle hard, feeling nervous sweat collect between his fingers as he ran off in one direction, and Berrik and Blappa ran off in another. Tysh, what was he in for now?

He followed the distinctive clatter of gunfire out to the main deck, and as he cleared the main hatch, he stopped in his tracks, his arm falling to his side.

He'd seen fiends before, in the desert surrounding Home, but somehow those hadn't looked quite so terrifying. This one - a large, Zuu-like creature with massive black wings and a cragged beak - bore down on the Al Bhed crew with its large claws, sending crewmen every which way. How did something so huge get all the way here, to the Luca docks? Was some Crusader asleep on the job? Or did the Crusaders just turn their backs when something happened to an Al Bhed?

Someone screamed at him to start firing, and he shook the shock from his brain. He raised the butt of the rifle against his shoulder and pulled the trigger, and the shots went wildly off-mark. He was a blitzball player, for rot's sake - he wasn't used to this.

The fiend came around for another pass, and he crouched beside the hatch, taking more careful aim this time. Everyone on deck with a gun seemed to have the same idea, because a short cluster of shots hit the fiend in its monstrous breast. How many of them were shooting - six, seven? The fiend fell to the deck, its neck swinging crazily. Was it enough?

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Judda, backed up against the crane, her rifle tight in her hands. She opened her mouth to scream as the fiend swung its head in her direction. She fell flat to the deck, the beak missing her by less than a meter, and Eigaar felt his heart jump into his throat.

Another gunman fired into the back of the fiend's head, as if to draw its attention. Eigaar realized it was Nimrook, who then shouted: "Get her!"

Eigaar didn't wait. He sprinted forward, his arms pumping for speed and the adrenaline coursing through him more than it ever had during any game. He scooped Judda up beneath her arms and dragged her behind the crane, which was starting to choke itself to life.

The fiend took a swing with its beak at Nimrook and two other firing crewmen, who dove out of the way, and then it turned back to Eigaar and Judda. With a sickening awareness, Eigaar realized that he had thrown his rifle to the ground when he'd made his mad dash. He angled himself in front of Judda and shut his eyes tight.

"Duck!" Someone yelled, and he instinctively dropped, covering Judda with his larger frame.

There was a whoosh of displaced air as the crane's arm swerved over the deck, hitting the fiend square in the neck. It shrieked, long and loud, and he felt the deck shudder as it fell.

For a long moment, there was eerie silence, until he felt a hand on his back. He looked up from where he was still lying over Judda, to find Nimrook standing over him.

"Are you two all right?" Nimrook asked, still a little breathless.

Eigaar looked at Judda, who nodded weakly. He turned back to Nimrook and managed to stammer: "I th- I think so." He pushed himself up, to give his teammate some room, and air. She was definitely shaken, and blanched.

Nimrook knelt down next to them and rubbed his hand across her back. "It's done, now," he whispered.

Eigaar sat back, his arms propped up on his knees, and sighed. He didn't want to think about what would have happened if they hadn't gotten that crane working in time. He and Judda could have been hurt, or worse. Was that what Crusaders, or Summoner Guardians, went through? Did they have to do it on a daily basis?

Eigaar shook his head. For the first time in a long time, he was glad he was just a blitzball player.

Part 5: Replacements

Even in the muting water, the stomping and shouting of the tournament crowd could be heard after every play. Or maybe Blappa's ears were just better attuned to them. Whether Al Bhed, Guado, Ronso, or Yevonite, a great blitzer was just that, and he wasn't about to disappoint the crowd.

Ninety seconds left in the game, and Berrik signaled to both forwards - they were going for a crunch play, the same one that had won them the quarter-finals game against the Fangs. Berrik threw the ball to Eigaar, who somersaulted in place to take the momentum. He swam for the goal, and the Glories' defensemen, Auda and Pah, angled in on him. Auda rushed him first, but Eigaar slipped out of her grip. Then it was Pah's turn, and she managed to connect with a clothesline tackle. But Eigaar shook her off, too, and sent a quick pass to Blappa.

Less than a minute to go, and Blappa lined himself up for a clear shot on goal. He dropped the ball into position and kicked it hard, and it spun toward the goal.

Noy, the Glories' goalie, strained his long body to catch the ball. Though he couldn't catch it, he did manage to get a hand on it, and it fell back into play. Blappa couldn't believe it; those big Guado hands were just too good at blocking shots.

Auda grabbed the ball and made a long pass to Giera, who was deep in the Psyches' territory. Blappa, Eigaar, and Berrik all swam like crazy for him. The Psyches still led by one, but even in thirty seconds, Giera could tie the score, making the game essentially worthless.

The Psyches forwards were coming from behind, and Judda was swimming over to him, so Giera took his chance while he was still relatively clear. He fired off a venom shot, just to give the ball some extra strength.

Lakkam rose up and got a hand on the ball, but it still careened toward Nimrook. The goalie stayed in position, his body swaying back-and-forth in a steady motion. The ball came at him and hit him square in the chest, then fell into play once again.

Ten seconds left, and Judda picked up the ball. She threw a long pass to Berrik, just waiting for the clock to run out. Only a few more seconds, and the game was theirs.

The buzzer rang, the players dropped formation, and the crowd started cheering. Sometimes, it seemed as though it never mattered to the fans who won, as long as they saw a good game.

As the announcers started rattling off statistics, the players broke. The Glories swam back to their goal-line, and the Psyches did the same.

Nimrook was first out of the sphere, and he helped Judda and Lakkam onto the exit platform. Blappa jumped onto the tiny deck behind them.

"Nice try out there," Judda said, tossing a towel at him.

"I hate shooting against Noy," Blappa told her as he flung the towel over his shoulder.

"Yeah," Eigaar agreed. "He's got the longest reach in the league."

Nimrook led the way down the steps to the lockers, which had been built deep under the stadium. "He's a good goalie," he admitted, rubbing a hand over his short-cropped hair.

Berrik snickered. "Not as good as you, though." He cocked his head and squeegeed some water from his ear.

Nimrook shrugged. "That goes without saying."

As the rest of the Psyches laughed, Blappa dropped back to pace Lakkam, who was bringing up the rear. She was looking at her hand, flexing and relaxing the fingers.

"You okay?" Blappa asked in a low voice. Up ahead, the others were talking about strategy, or performance, or something. At the moment, he wasn't as interested in anything as he was in the girl beside him.

Lakkam smiled bravely. "Still stings," she offered softly, showing him her fingers.

Blappa stopped and took her hand, turning it over in his larger one. The tips of her fingers looked red, as if burned. He rubbed a thumb across them. "That should go away in a few minutes," he assured her. He favored her with a long look. "You did good out there."

Lakkam dropped her head and tucked an unruly strand of hair behind her ear. "He still got through."

Blappa put an arm around her and started to lead her after the rest of the team, who had stopped by the locker room entrance. He leaned his head close to hers and told her: "Sometimes you block them, and sometimes they get through." He hugged her shoulders for emphasis. "The game's the only thing that matters."

She chuckled, and he laughed with her, enjoying the sound of her voice and the pretty way that she smiled. He was still laughing when they stopped in front of the locker room, and he looked up to see that the Psyches had a visitor.

"Linna," Blappa managed to choke out. He dropped both his smile and the arm that was around Lakkam's shoulders.

The blonde Al Bhed woman in front of him nodded coolly. "Blappa." She turned her head to Lakkam. "Who's this?"

Berrik, ever cordial, made a polite if hasty introduction. "Linna, this is Lakkam. She's our right defenseman."

Linna smiled. "Ah! My old position." She looked back and forth between Blappa and the girl.

Lakkam extended her hand. "It's nice to meet you."

Blappa reached out and put her hand down, but his gaze never left Linna's. "Not that nice," he said.

Eigaar forced himself between Blappa and the newcomer, while making a show of laughing. "Well, you two obviously have a lot to catch up on." He grabbed Lakkam and shoved her toward the door. "Come on, let's go watch the next game."

In similar fashion, Berrik hustled Nimrook and Judda inside the locker room. He threw over his shoulder, "Good seeing you again, Linna," before the door closed behind him.

In the silence of the hall, Blappa crossed his arms in front of his chest and waited to see what she was going to do. Even in the blitzball sphere, he always wanted to know what his opponent had in mind before opening himself up for any strategic opportunities.

Linna clasped her hands in front of her. "Good game," she said, making conversation. "You played well."

Blappa wrinkled his nose. "You came all the way from Macalania just to tell me that?"

She seemed taken aback by his confrontational attitude. She opened her mouth to say something, then closed it again, without a word. After a long moment, she said, "I'm sorry."

"For what?" Blappa asked, his tone even.

Linna pulled a strand of hair behind her ear, much the same way Lakkam had done before. But it wasn't Lakkam who told him: "I never wanted to hurt you. I just couldn't find it in myself to stay." Her shoulders sagged. "Macalania seemed the best place for me."

"Can't get any colder than you," he said, grinning at his own joke.

She threw up her hands in disgust. "Fine! Make jokes!" She stabbed a finger into his chest. "But it's not endearing to me anymore."

Blappa shook his head, a little sadly. "I'm not looking for your approval, Linna. I stopped doing that a long time ago." He glanced down at his feet, then looked back to her. "The day you left, in fact."

Linna's face softened, and she moved closer to him, reaching a hand toward his face. "Can't it be like it was before?"

He thought carefully about her words.

She had left him in tears the day after he'd been assigned as the new right forward of the Psyches. He had wanted to celebrate with her - no more sitting on the sidelines, waiting like a scavenger for someone to slip up; now they would be on the same team in more than just name - and had come home to find a message scrawled on his door. She had to get out, get away from Home, from the game, from him. She didn't know when she'd be back. She had even asked him to tell Nimrook for her. And that was all. No apologies; no goodbyes.

There had been days when he pined for her and nights when he cursed her name, wishing for all the world that she would both leave him forever and come running back to him. The memory of her had hurt less as time wore on, though, due in no small part to Eigaar's cajoling and Judda's unforgiving teasing. Eventually, he found himself getting close to another woman who wasn't like Linna at all - a girl who loved the game like he did, a girl whose laughter sounded like music and whose kisses tasted like honey.

Blappa sidled away, out of the range of her fingers. "No," he told her. "It can't."

The expression on Linna's face was more hurt than angry. "I guess you found a replacement for me, more than just on the team." She straightened up, forcing her shoulders back. "Well. I guess I should be going, then." She smiled at him. "Maybe we'll meet again someday."

He nodded. "Maybe." But he doubted it.

Linna turned around and headed for the exit, walking slowly. At the stairs, she turned, and gave a little wave. "Goodbye," she said simply, and then she was gone.

In her wake, Blappa gave a long sigh. He hadn't thought himself capable of any of that.

He walked into the locker room, where the rest of the team was watching a remote sphere of the second semi-final game. He asked of no one in particular: "Who's winning?"

Judda turned to him briefly. "The Beasts, if you can believe it."

"It's only the first half," Nimrook said. "Anything can happen."

Blappa put his foot up on the bench, angling himself between Eigaar and Lakkam. He put his chin on his fist and stared up at the sphere.

Beside him, Eigaar whispered, "What did Linna have to say?"

Blappa turned his head to his friend and thought for a moment. "Goodbye," he said finally. Then he glanced at Lakkam, who was completely intent on the game in front of her, and he smiled.

Part 6: A Touch of Wisdom

Berrik set his drink down on the table, and a splash of mead oozed down the side of the glass and over his thumb. He brought his hand up and sucked the liquid between his lips. For Lucan mead, it didn't taste that bad. He was about to comment on it when he noticed the sullen faces all around the table.

The other Psyches were looking up at the remote sphere, watching Bickson, the captain of the Luca Goers, accept the Tournament Cup from the judges.

"What a travesty," Judda said, shaking her head.

Eigaar sat back in his chair and gestured toward the sphere. "That should be us up there."

Berrik stifled a smile behind his drink.

They were like this every time they got to the final rounds and then lost a decisive game. They didn't always lose the big game - last year, they'd taken the titles for the fourth, fifth, and seventh leagues - but when they did lose, they were like a bunch of children.

As for himself, Berrik just liked to play. Winning was nice, of course, and it was always a good morale booster, but he enjoyed the thrill of the game itself over any of the competitions. Still, it was disheartening even to him to come so far and then lose.

The finals game was actually very close. Eigaar and Blappa had each gotten a good shot on goal, and Judda and Lakkam had played a good defensive game. As always, Nimrook was a stellar goalie, but the Goers still managed to sneak two goals past him. The two teams had been tied for most of the second half, and the Psyches thought they had the game when Blappa managed a breakaway into the Goers' territory. He took his shot, and Berrik was sure it would have been good, if only the buzzer hadn't gone off a second before the ball reached the goal.

Since the tournament couldn't be called in a tie, the game went into overtime. For most of those two minutes, the Goers controlled the ball, and Bickson squeaked off a goal past Nimrook right before time was called. So, once again, the first tournament championship of the season went to Luca.

Lakkam sat up across from him. "We played a good game, though." She looked around at everyone at the table and smiled, though it faltered.

Blappa stopped chewing on his toothpick long enough to mutter, "Not good enough."

Berrik gave him a stern look. "No, she's right. It was a close game...and second place isn't so bad." He punched Nimrook in the bicep. "We beat everyone else in this room."

The Psyches looked around the bar, where the four other blitz teams - Besaid's Aurochs, the Kilika Beasts, the Guado Glories, and the Ronso Fangs - were watching the remote sphere. All of them had the same disappointed looks that they themselves wore.

Nimrook gave a little smile. "I guess you're right."

Berrik nodded, then looked up to the sphere as the crowd started cheering. The judges were making some sort of speech, probably about sportsmanship or something, so there wasn't much else to see.

Around the bar, the teams started to disperse. The Aurochs and the Beasts, chatting in Yevonite, filtered out into the Luca twilight. Noy went up to the bar and ordered another round for the Glories. Most of the Fangs clustered near the exit, waiting for their captain, who approached the Psyches' table.

Gazna slammed a large, brimming pitcher down in the middle of the table. The liquid splattered the table, and each of the Psyches got some of it on them. "For good game," he rumbled. "Drink for Fangs."

Berrik pushed the container back at the Ronso. "That's all right."

Gazna stopped Berrik's arm and leaned in to him. "Luca mead too weak for Ronsos," he said, then smiled, an almost frightening sight.

Berrik chuckled, and accepted the pitcher with a nod.

Gazna fixed Nimrook with a mock-serious stare. "Rest well - Fangs take first league this year."

Nimrook smiled. "We'll see about that."

The Ronso captain clapped a hand on Nimrook's back and bellowed with laughter, causing the Glories to look at him. But Gazna dismissed them - Berrik suspected that he liked teasing the Psyches a lot more than he enjoyed dealing with the Glories.

"Enjoy," Gazna said, indicating the pitcher. "Game is good. But life is better." Then he started away, leaving the Psyches speechless in his wake.

Berrik sat back, touched by the Ronso's seemingly effortless profundity. The Ronsos were one of the oldest races on Spira, and he suddenly began to understand why. While the younger races, like the Yevonites and the Al Bhed, were always clamoring for first place, the Ronsos accepted life for what it was: not unlike a game, but to be lived, not merely played.

Berrik turned around in his seat and waved to the departing Ronsos. "Thank you," he called, for both the gift and the tidbit of wisdom.

Gazna shooed him with his burly arm. "Go home - make little Psyches!" He laughed again, and then pointed at them collectively. "Just be ready!"

Berrik waved again, then turned back to the table.

Blappa was already pouring the free round into everyone's glasses, regardless of how empty or full they had been, while Judda and Nimrook argued playfully over whether or not Lakkam should be drinking at all. Eigaar settled the subject by putting a glass down in front of the youngest Psyche, and he lifted his own spilling drink for a toast.

Berrik picked up his glass, mimicking Eigaar's gesture. He waited for his friend to speak.

"To Gazna," Eigaar said, then growled some Ronso words. He cleared his throat and added, "For being such a good sport."

"I'll drink to that," Berrik murmured, and tipped his glass back, as did everyone else at the table.

Lakkam took a long swig, then made a face and reached quickly for her water, while Judda rubbed her back and Blappa and Eigaar laughed spiritedly. As for Nimrook, he sat still and quiet, shaking his glass back and forth, watching the liquid ride up the sides. Then he downed the glass in one toss, and stood up from the table. Berrik watched as a slow smile spread across his captain's face.

"Let's go," Nimrook told them. "We've got a lot of games to win." In response, the Psyches shouted raucously, all sorrow forgotten.

Berrik had a feeling it would be a good year.