"By the mane, you two have been cooped up in this car for too long," declared Violar, laughing. "I thought I was the one with claustrophobia!"
Squealing like teenage girls, Marie and Kitty tumbled out of the car and ran into the bare winter trees surrounding the campus of Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Connecticut. They dashed back and forth, shrieking, and Marie even risked taking off her glove and darting at Kitty. Laughing, Kitty phased right through Marie's hand.
"My power's better than yours!" Kitty taunted playfully, sticking out her tongue at Marie. Marie hollered something unintelligible in response, and they were off again.
Violar stood by the car, shaking her head as Bobby came around to join her. She glanced at the blond young man, who stared after the girls with a wistful smile.
"Thanks so much for bringing me to Connecticut, Bobby."
Violar's heartfelt remark brought Iceman's attention back to the centaur. "Oh, no problem. Thanks for joining the expedition. The flu bug wiped out most of my fanbase."
Violar had to chuckle even as her expression flooded with sympathy. "I hated to leave the children. Gabriel and Julian were hit hard, and I think Jenna was just starting to come down with it. I gave them herbs and put them to bed."
Bobby gave her a sideways look. "They won't stay in bed, you know – no matter how sick they are."
Violar shrugged, but there was no containing the grin that suddenly spread over her face. "Yes they will," she said smugly. When Bobby raised an eyebrow, Violar explained. "I promised that all the children who are well by the time I return get to ride on my back."
Bobby burst out laughing. He moved to the back of the car, shaking his head. "Nicely done, Violar."
"Elementary, my dear Watson," returned the centaur with a flick of her fingers, imitating the famous detective. She ducked into the car and came up with a green tea SOBE, and she booted the door shut as she joined Bobby at the car's hatch. "I'm trying my best not to catch the flu myself. Would you mind?" She held out the glass bottle with a big smile.
Bobby made a face, glanced around to make sure no one was watching, then touched Violar's drink. Immediately it frosted over.
"Thank you," said Violar archly with a dazzling smile. "You know, that's one perk I have thoroughly enjoyed about my first-ever road trip: Ice cold drinks the whole way."
Bobby shot her a look. "Anything for a fan," he retorted. "Want to carry my stick?"
Laughing, Violar took it. "What's this? Your centaur fans get to play packhorses?"
Bobby smirked. "Consider it fair payment for the cold drinks service."
"My goodness, I thought we were leaving the real world and all its cares and responsibilities behind when we left Xavier's 90 miles ago," declared the centaur, laughing. "Or so some of us said."
"That's what happens when you hang out with boringly sane people like me." He jerked his chin meaningfully at the girls just as Kitty phased through a thick hedge, leaving Marie outside hollering. Then Kitty slowly materialized on Marie's opposite side, crept around her, and tagged her back. She dashed away, shrieking and laughing as Marie gave chase.
Violar looked squarely at Bobby, and her expression became completely serious. "You're not sane, you're nervous."
"Darn you and your Danger Sense," Bobby grumbled as he hefted a large duffel bag onto his shoulder and slammed the hatch. Then he raised his voice and called out, "Anyone up for a hockey tournament?"
The girls started back, but instead of taking a direct route, they chased each other in figure eights through the trees. Violar stared speculatively at Bobby until he rolled his eyes and looked down at her.
"What's what?" asked Violar, smiling.
"Stop that. Are you doing that… whatever you call it… peer-into-people's-souls thing with your Danger Sense?"
Violar had to laugh. "Not exactly, no. I can't… see quite that deep. But now that you mention it, why are you so nervous?"
"Um…" Bobby grimaced and waved his hand, his gaze drifting over the university grounds. "It's been awhile since I've played competitive hockey." He nodded to her, and they started off through the crowded parking lot toward the TD Bank Sports Center arena, leaving Kitty and Marie to catch up. "I wouldn't even be here right now if it weren't for my old youth hockey coach – and this nasty flu bug that's been hammering all of New England. Coach lost a good portion of his roster before the regional tournament and called me up."
Violar nodded, though her gaze had drifted to a banner hanging over the arena entrance: QUINNIPIAC UNIVERSITY WELCOMES THE NEW YORK/NEW ENGLAND 18U REGIONAL HOCKEY TOURNAMENT. She studied the big cat logo beside the words.
"What did you say they call this team again?"
Bobby sucked air through his teeth. "Uh, that would be the Flying Tigers."
That sent Violar into a fit of laughter. "Flying Tigers, indeed! The things people come up with in this world. We have some flying animals in Narnia, like flying horses. But no flying tigers."
The Iceman hid a grin behind his hand and shifted the heavy pack more fully onto his shoulder. "Creative Earthlings in many ancient civilizations got bored with birds and took to dreaming up such creatures. But it wasn't that difficult, really. All they had to do was look around, pick an animal, stick wings on it, and viola: Flying Moose. Flying Rabbits. Flying Armadillos. Whatever."
"Flying armadillos!" Violar squealed, laughing.
Bobby rubbed his ear. "What possessed me to bring three girls on this trip? I won't be able to hear a thing my coach says."
Violar shook her head and skipped a step. "Well, as they say in this world, go get 'em, Flying Tiger. The hockey should come right back to you," she added encouragingly. "It's just like… riding a bicycle."
"You can't ride a bicycle," retorted Bobby with a sideways grin.
"That's beside the point!"
Violar was still laughing as they crossed a congested roadway leading to the broad sidewalk at the arena's entrance. There was a large bus parked off to one side, and a number of young people were disembarking and milling about with large duffel bags and hockey sticks. Laughter and meaningless chatter filled the air, and Violar glanced up at the overcast sky, feeling the years melt away from her.
"Bobby?" A lean young man with an athletic build, a round face and conservatively combed brown hair stared at Bobby, his brow furrowed. "Bobby Drake?"
Bobby gave him a curious look, and Violar turned, searching for the source of the voice. Bobby took a couple steps closer to the young man. Recognition blazed on his face. "Oh my God. Jimmy? Jimmy O'Bannon? Is that you?"
Jimmy O'Bannon smiled. "You better believe it is. How are you doin', man?"
They shook hands, then slapped one another on the shoulders so soundly that Violar's eyes widened in shock. When the newcomer, Jimmy, made a fist and punched Bobby's shoulder, Violar started forward in alarm. The ruffian! She'd never stand for that kind of unprovoked attack on one of her friends!
But instead of turning him into a human ice cube, Bobby punched him back with remarkably good-natured humor. His warm, boyish laughter brought the centaur to an abrupt halt.
"Man, I haven't seen you in years." Jimmy beamed at the Iceman. "What the heck are you up to these days?"
"I'm going to a private school in New York," Bobby hedged neatly. "You?"
Jimmy hesitated for a moment. "Oh, I'm at boarding school, too. A little place north of Boston."
Violar arched an eyebrow. Something in his body language, along with the mild prickling in her Danger Sense, told her that Jimmy O'Bannon was keeping a secret. And somewhere in the middle of what he wasn't sharing was the school he attended.
"So Coach Mahay roped you into this tournament too, huh?" Jimmy was saying.
Bobby nodded and shifted his weight. Despite his heavy duffel bag, he seemed content to stand there and chat. "Yeah. He told me half the team is down with the flu."
"Heh! Seems like half of Boston's got the flu. My mom got nailed with it yesterday. It's staying away from me, thank God. Oh well, much as it sucks for everyone who has it, it worked out well for us. We're back on the ice again."
"I know." Bobby smiled. "I have to admit, I'm a little nervous. It's been a while since I played in a real game."
Jimmy gave him a dismissive wave. "Ah, don't worry. Soon as you hit the ice, it'll all come back to you."
"Yeah, you're probably right." A wicked grin crossed Bobby's lips. "Besides, sometimes being on the ice just feels natural."
Violar suppressed a laugh. Bobby was keeping secrets and dropping hints all at the same time, and the centaur couldn't help but appreciate the hidden wit.
But her laughter drew their attention to her as she stood there in her cream trench coat, holding a hockey stick in one hand and a frosted green tea SOBE in the other.
"Who's your friend?" Jimmy nodded to Violar. She noticed Jimmy give her a quick, appraising glance, and she was abruptly aware that she'd been staring intently at him. She lowered her eyes with a little smile.
"Her name's Violar," replied Bobby, pivoting to include the centaur. "She goes to my school. Violar, Jimmy O'Bannon."
Violar stepped forward and shifted her drink and stick to free one hand for a warm handshake. "Pleased to make your acquaintance, Master O'Bannon," she said with genuine politeness. Despite her initial misgivings, Jimmy had a friendly and cheerful demeanor that put her immediately at ease – aside from the nagging feeling at the back of her mind. Jimmy was definitely hiding something.
"'Master O'Bannon?'" Jimmy drew his head back in surprise. "You don't have to be so formal. It's just Jimmy."
Violar grinned, a little embarrassed. "Master" was a perfectly acceptable greeting in Narnia – a show of respect, especially when first meeting someone. Humans, as she'd learned in the past few months, seemed to think such formalities not worth the effort.
"My apologies. Jimmy it is, then. So you and Bobby know each other?"
"Yeah. We played on the same youth hockey team when we were kids. Never forget this one time when we were playing . . . oh man, who was it? The team with that stupid name. Oh yeah! The Snow Clams."
Violar burst into startled laughter. "That's even more ridiculous than the Flying Tigers," she remarked to Bobby. She glanced back just in time to catch another admiring glance from Jimmy, and her cheeks warmed as she lowered her head slightly and retreated a step. But she didn't excuse herself from the interaction completely, and Jimmy went on.
"Anyway, they had this guy who was an absolute bruiser, just towered over Bobby and me. Spent most of the game knocking us both around. Finally, this kid gets Bobby in a corner and starts pushing him against the boards. So Bobby had enough of that crap. He turns around and pow! Nails the kid right in the mouth. Blood comes pouring out of his mouth, and the kid, this big, tough kid, starts crying! It was something, man."
Violar gasped, horrified and amused all at once. She narrowed her eyes at Jimmy.
Bobby didn't seem to notice her reaction. "Do you also remember I got suspended two games for that?"
"Yeah." Jimmy shrugged. "But the kid was a jerk, so it was worth it, right?"
Bobby smiled. "Yeah, it was."
The two slapped high-fives, and Violar gave her head a little bewildered shake. Just when she started feeling more comfortable with this world, another solid dose of their culture whipped her senses into a tailspin.
"Friend of yours?"
Violar looked up at the new voice. A girl about 5'7 with a trim figure, smooth, tan features and black, shoulder-length curly hair strode up to them. Jimmy introduced her as a friend from his boarding school named Rosa Infante.
Bobby, ever the charmer, stepped up and shook Rosa's hand. Violar noticed how Rosa's eyes roamed up and down Bobby as they shook hands, and she blinked again at what would have been considered a breech of etiquette in Narnia. When it was her turn to shake Rosa's hand, the centaur was immediately struck by the intensity in her dark eyes – the kind of intensity Violar had only seen in the eyes of warriors. Rosa seemed friendly enough, but there was something more about her – something deeper.
And she was Jimmy O'Bannon's schoolmate.
"Delighted," Violar said, smiling and searching Rosa's dark eyes – and her Danger Sense – at the same time. But there were walls closed off to her, and the centaur felt that she had much more to find out about Rosa Infante.
At that moment, they were joined by the two mutant girls, Kitty and Marie. Violar let Bobby handle the introductions as her eyes strayed longingly to the arena entrance.
As if she'd sensed Violar's thoughts, Kitty spoke up. "So are we going to loiter around here and freeze our butts off, or can we go inside and get started? Bobby, you probably have to go warm up or something. The rest of us have a date with the concessions stand."
Violar's stomach growled, and she shot a pleading look between Kitty and Bobby. "Oh, please, yes. I'm starving." She included Jimmy in her glance and explained, "Bobby doesn't like to stop for anything, so we haven't eaten since breakfast."
"An' he's got'a lead foot," Marie chimed in with her thick Southern accent. "Ah felt like Ah was sittin' in on a Nascar race."
Grinning and shaking his head, Bobby snatched his stick from Violar and headed off to join the rest of the Flying Tigers, flanked by Jimmy and Rosa. Violar, Kitty and Marie passed through the glass entrance, and Violar looked around the huge foyer in awestruck wonder while Kitty paid for their tickets. A custodian wearing an official yellow jacket eyed Violar.
"You're gonna need to either drink that or get rid of it, miss." He nodded at her SOBE, which Violar had all but forgotten.
"Oh! Certainly, sir. A moment, please." She unscrewed the lid and drank the entire glass bottle dry while the girls goggled at her and the custodian stared.
Violar lowered the bottle, became abruptly aware that she was the center of attention, and blushed. "I hope I didn't make anyone jealous," she offered with a little smile. "But it was delicious."
The girls giggled, and the custodian shook his head as he handed Kitty the tickets. They moved deeper into the foyer. A vendor was selling T-shirts commemorating the tournament at one table, and at another, a group of several young adults holding clipboards eyed the passing hockey fans with unnervingly speculative glances. The sign on their yellow tablecloth read: Sign up for information about Quinnipiac University!
A young woman in a business suit stepped up to Violar. "Would you like to learn more about the courses Quinnipiac University has to offer?" she asked in a voice as coolly polite as her smile. "You can sign up for our email newsletter."
Caught up in the energized atmosphere of the TD Bank Sports Center, Violar spared her a glance and shook her head. "Thank you, no. I don't have email."
The woman gave Violar a miffed look – clearly not believing a word Violar had said –and drifted back to her table, already searching out her next victim. Violar swept an eager gaze over banners and team photos for Quinnipiac's basketball and hockey teams, trying to imagine the height of the ladder they'd needed to situate anything that high on the walls.
"I would be… a little afraid to take any of you to Narnia's sporting arenas," said Violar softly to her companions. "You'd be sadly disappointed. Once upon a time, I had been amazed at the impressive architecture that went into the Sted Cair arena."
"Who cares about the architecture!" bubbled Kitty, seizing the centaur's hand and dragging her toward the concession counter. "The food is where it's at, girl."
The powerful aromas of hot dogs, nachos and jalapeno-laced cheddar cheese, French fries, buttered popcorn, soft pretzels, hamburgers, and too many other kinds of food for Violar to properly take in nearly sent her into a swoon. Seeing Violar's predicament, Marie wrapped a supportive arm around the centaur's back.
"Easy, tiger," she drawled, grinning. "Ah've seen that light in your eyes – right before ya demolish half a lasagna or somethin'."
Violar gulped and blinked, staring hungrily at the counter. "I could eat two whole lasagnas right now, so if we could please hurry…"
She yelped as Kitty, still attached to her hand, jolted forward and swung them into the back of a maddeningly long line. Violar whimpered.
"I've endured tortures less painful," she remarked. "At least the Sted Cair arena doesn't put Narnian spectators through any of this."
Marie patted the centaur's back with a gloved hand and adjusted her gray hoodie. The color worked well with her striking black hair, framed by twin locks of pure white on either side of her face.
"So what'cha think'a Jimmy?" wondered the Southern girl slyly.
Violar rolled her eyes. "You make me feel so much younger than 46 years old."
"That's the idea, girl!" Marie jabbed her in the ribs with an elbow, and Violar let out a startled little cry and stared at her, astonished. Marie broke up in laughter. "Oh mah Gawd, ya don't get out enough, Vi! Now no more procrastinatin' an' sidesteppin', Ah wanna know what'cha think of Jimmy!"
Straightening up into a dignified pose, Violar smoothed her hand over her bruised ribs and the rumples in her cream trench coat. "I think he is a very nice young man, friendly and well-spoken – and very dedicated to the sport of hockey. He is incredibly protective of those he considers his friends and he hates injustice. He has an intensity about him that you don't see in most people – especially most people his age. He has… secrets. All in all," Violar tilted her head thoughtfully, staring over Marie's head, "a very intriguing fellow."
Kitty broke up in giggles. "You make him sound like a foreign dignitary, the way you described him!"
"That isn't what Ah was talkin' about," Marie joined in, grinning. "Ah think he's cute."
Violar blushed and lowered her gaze to the floor. "Oh my, there's a statement I've rarely heard from you before. I think only, oh, around two or three hundred young men have qualified for such high praise from you."
That earned Violar a second elbow in the ribs. "He's good-lookin'. Admit it!"
The centaur laughed, feeling overwhelmingly foolish. "Alright, he is… cute, too. Aslan makes many good-looking men."
Kitty shook her head and folded her arms over her pink sweater. "You're impossible, Violar Wildfire. You never let yourself get cornered! You always have to leave, like, this back door or something."
Violar rubbed her forehead, her shoulders shaking with repressed mirth. "By the mane, I cannot believe I am actually having this conversation with you teenagers."
"You're a teenager in centaur years," retorted Marie with a wicked gleam in her eyes. "Ya said so yaself!"
Violar quirked an eyebrow and grinned back. "Twenty-one, if you want to get technical. But young centaurs don't engage in such shallow talk."
"What, teenage girl centaurs can't see how cute the boy centaurs are?" Kitty stared challengingly at Violar.
Instinctively Violar glanced around at the noisy lines of people. "Will you keep your voice down?"
Marie scoffed at that. "Changin' the subject, are ya?"
"I am not!" Violar burst out, laughing incredulously. She cast about quickly for something else to say. "What about Rosa? Did you two even see her?"
Marie cuffed her in the shoulder. "There ya go changin' the subject again!"
"You're no fun," pouted Kitty.
Violar felt her brain turning to putty. "I'm really serious, ladies. Rosa…" Violar abruptly grew thoughtful, frowning a little as she pondered those dark eyes. "It's like she's a centaur in a teenage girl's body. She's even… built like a warrior. In fact, there's… something mysterious about them both… something that isn't quite…" She tilted her head. "Normal."
"Oh, good. They'll fit right in with us," piped up Kitty. "You know, I've half a mind to not let you eat anything until you tell us what you really think of Jimmy."
"Kitty!" cried Violar, staring at her with wide eyes.
Kitty just laughed, and Marie stifled her giggles in one glove. "I'll take the whole tray of food and phase out until you speak your mind," Kitty threatened wickedly.
Violar's color rose, and she gulped, her hungry eyes roving past Kitty to the concessions counter. "You wouldn't dare."
"I would too."
"You're a very bad girl."
Kitty giggled. "I know I am, but I want to know what you think of Jimmy!"
"I told you!" cried Violar, exasperated. "Anyway, never mind. I have my own money, thank you, and I shall make some good choices and, er, educated guesses. What in the world are funnel cakes?"
Marie grinned. "Try one an' see," she invited.
They spent a small fortune on snacks and pushed their way through the crowd migrating into the arena. The indoor air was remarkably cold – so cold that the centaur's breaths came in puffs of steam around her face – and her wide eyes swept from the ice rink in the center of the building to the large yellow bars that spanned the high ceiling. Steep cement steps led down to rows of blue folded chairs. Violar was so captivated by the sight of hockey players already gliding around the arena that she nearly forgot to watch her step. She stumbled, and Marie reached out and saved her from a terrible fall.
"Sorry," apologized the bewildered centaur, but she could hardly keep from staring around at the large crowd milling through the stands, half of whom were already seated in anticipation of the game. The feeling of being only one centaur in such a massive building filled with several hundred people was breathtaking – even though the arena was mostly empty.
"These are our seats," said Kitty abruptly. She turned aside to allow Violar to enter the skinny row first.
At once the centaur's wonderstruck face clouded. "Uh oh, that's not good."
"What's wrong?" asked Marie, coming up behind her.
Violar shot her a startled glance. "Can't you see? Our chairs are… collapsed or perhaps broken or something." At Marie's continued bewilderment, Violar's eyebrows jumped in astonishment as she nodded with her chin. "The seats, er, lack seats."
Both girls laughed so hard that Violar was obliged to rescue their snacks by taking the food away from them. "It's not funny. Does this mean we should find other seats, or seek a refund? Because…"
Violar trailed off as she studied the rows of seats more closely for the first time. Every unoccupied seat in the arena was folded in the same impossible way.
She tilted her head, turning a puzzled gaze to Kitty and Marie. "Are we supposed to stand the whole time?"
Both girls lost it. They laughed and fell against each other, brushing at the tears that streamed down their cheeks. Violar had the sinking feeling that she'd committed yet another blunder in the world of New York, and her cheeks colored with embarrassment while she waited for the girls to snap out of it.
It was Marie who found her voice first. "Mah Gawd, Vi – ya liven up any ole situation, an' ya manage to joke when ya ain't jokin'. That's real talent. Now watch closely…"
With that, the mutant girl disentangled herself from Kitty, pushed down on the lower section of the chair, and sat down on it.
Violar lifted her eyebrows, impressed. "Very nice trick there, Marie. Maybe these seats will work after all. I think I'll just sit here and, while you two are laughing your fool heads off at me, I'll get started with the food."
That remark brought a whole new element of purpose into their lives, and in moments they were seated and munching companionably on hot dogs and nachos. It took Violar only one sniff of a plate-sized funnel cake to decide that she ought to save the odd-looking coils for dessert. While she ate, Violar took the time to read each and every billboard advertisement for the local businesses sponsoring Quinnipiac's sports program.
The people around her drew Violar's attention next. Her location, eight rows behind the benches, gave her an excellent vantage point of the game – and the spectators. There were silent couples sitting together, their eyes riveted on the ice – and the players. The lines in their face spoke of their anxiety, and Violar guessed they were probably parents of the tournament participants.
The other somber, serious-faced folks Violar noticed were men with notebooks, who were watching the players intently. Once in a while, they scribbled in their notebooks, frowning and flipping back and forth through the pages in between glances at the ice. Violar tilted her head slightly, wondering why they didn't appear to be having a good time – although, she granted, they were all business.
Other people showed up in various hockey jerseys and shifted in their seats or on their feet, clearly anxious for the game to get underway. A group of energetic young men laughed hysterically and shoved each other, and Violar's eyes narrowed: They were going to be noisy and rowdy, and with all that pushing and shoving, and a few foamy golden beers in their midst, a fight was bound to break out at any moment. Violar felt that she'd have to keep an eye on them and make sure they didn't get out of hand.
And that was before they suddenly shucked their jackets and pulled off their shirts. Violar stared in shock and almost dropped her hot dog.
"They're insane. What do they think they're doing?" cried Violar in alarm. "They'll catch their death of cold in here!"
Kitty snorted. "They'll be fine," she said carelessly around a mouthful of French fries. "They're boys."
Violar looked at her, puzzled. "What does that have to do with anything?"
Kitty just laughed and continued eating, and Violar reluctantly subsided with one last worried glance in their direction. Boys indeed. Now she knew she'd really have to keep an eye on them.
Marie spoke up from behind her bucket of popcorn. "Looks like our boys have the second game of the day," she remarked, her head bent over a program booklet. "Mm…" She scrunched down a popcorn kernel as she read. "They play a team from Kingston, New York, called the Monarchs."
Violar suddenly gulped as nervous butterflies scattered through her stomach. She blinked at the sensation and pressed a hand over her midsection, then set aside the last half of her hot dog and her empty nacho tray. All of a sudden, she wasn't hungry.
"By the mane, we have a long time to wait," she murmured, finding her breath in short supply. She pressed a hand to her forehead, checking to see if she could find any symptoms of illness.
"You okay?" Kitty was looking at her in concern.
Violar nodded uneasily. "I think so. I just felt a little feverish all of a sudden."
"You're probably just excited," offered Kitty.
"You may be right. Even now, the feeling is subsiding a little."
"Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the first game of the New York/New England Eighteen and Under Regional Hockey Tournament," an energetic voice boomed from the large overhead speakers, "sponsored by Radcliffe Ford, TD Bank, Home Depot, SOBE and our host, Quinnipiac University."
Even though her butterflies returned in full force, Violar couldn't help but smile, knowing her favorite beverage was sponsoring this event.
The announcer asked them all to stand for the National Anthem. At the other end of the ice, two members of the arena staff rolled out a small red carpet near the entrance to the locker rooms. A lithe redheaded girl stepped onto the carpet, held up a wireless microphone, and started singing.
Violar drew a breath and held it. Tingles rippled through her body. Such a powerful, melodious voice. This girl was truly gifted. And the words to this National Anthem: So stirring and vivid. She felt as if the ancient battle for America's independence were happening right before her eyes.
While she may not have been an American by birth, Violar nonetheless felt compelled to stand straighter, holding her chin high and staring at the American flag – the Stars and Stripes. A surge of pride welled inside of her, and she suddenly wished that Narnia had a national anthem.
The girl's voice rose to a crescendo as she sang the final line: "O'er the land of the free, and the home of the brave!"
Violar's features twitched, and she hardened her jaw as tears pricked her eyes. She swallowed hard and joined in the appreciative applause.
"Ah wish Ah had a voice like that," whispered Marie to Violar as the final powerful note faded away.
Violar smiled softly as the clapping died away. "That makes two of us."
The announcer's voice again echoed through the arena. "And now, please welcome to ice, from Pawtucket, Rhode Island, the Pride! And from Amityville, New York, the Ghosts!"
Violar quirked an eyebrow and studied the two teams that poured onto the ice. "I don't see any ghosts out there. But ghosts are supposed to be invisible, right?"
Kitty giggled. "Oh, Violar. Ghosts aren't real."
Marie abruptly turned to them both, her eyes serious. "Yes they are. Ah saw one."
Shaking her head, Kitty scoffed, "You did not."
"Did too! Ah was hidin' in this old broken-down house when Ah rounded the corner an' saw him walk right outta the wall. Ah think Ah startled him as badly as he startled me. He was all frosty-lookin' an' glowy an' kinda transparent. When Ah reached out to touch him, he scrambled backwards an' vanished into the wall."
Kitty poked out her tongue. "A likely story!"
"Ah'm tellin' the truth!"
Violar gazed fixedly at the mutant girl known as Rogue, her silvery eyes searching deep. She was convinced that Marie meant every word.
"In Narnia, there are neevils called specters who fit that description," she said quietly. "They're very evil, and they occasionally drift through our lands to spy for Maeta. You should avoid them whenever possible, Marie. And don't try to touch them."
"Actually, Ah don't think he was evil," said Marie. "He was kinda good-lookin'."
Violar shook her head with an incredulous smile. "Oh please, don't start that again!"
Kitty sat down in a huff and folded her arms. "I don't even know you guys," she said.
Violar glanced over her shoulder with a frown at Kitty's choice of slang, but before she could comment, a loud buzzer brought her attention back to the frozen rink before her. The players wearing red and white jerseys had their team name prominently displayed on the front: The Pawtucket Pride. The other team in silver and black were labeled the Amityville Ghosts.
Violar lifted her eyebrows. The black and silver brigade looked truly imposing, and a little furrow appeared in her brow.
"I will give my support to the Pawtucket Pride," she decided. "The others – the Ghosts – they remind me of some forces of Ettinsmoor I've had to face."
Kitty rolled her eyes. "You mean you're going to 'root' for the Pride," she corrected, bringing another little frown from the centaur. "And the Ghosts aren't the bad guys."
"I never said…" Violar rubbed her forehead, and Marie laughed. Violar switched tactics and suddenly chuckled. "Alright, I'm just rooting for the, er, the good guys," she declared, grinning mischievously at Kitty. "You can root for the bad guys if you want."
Marie collapsed in her chair, laughing, and she gripped the belt of Violar's trench coat.
"Sit down, ya hear? It's gonna be a long game, and it ain't started yet. An' have somethin' else to eat."
Violar stiffly sat down and shook her head. "I'm not hungry."
Kitty blinked and pretended to drill wax out of her ear. "I'm sorry, I don't think I heard you right. One more time for the folks at home: What did you say?"
But Violar wasn't listening. She was watching the players glide around the arena, their metal blades scratching into the ice and the sharp crack of the stick against the pucks. They moved with remarkable speed, the centaur thought as her gaze drifted to the thin skates upon which they balanced precariously. After all the trouble Violar had had in transitioning between four legs and two, she wondered if she would ever be able to take her progress a step further. It looked dangerous, standing on the thin blades, but the players made it seem easy to skate over the frozen surface.
Violar was suddenly possessed by a deep desire to try it for herself.
The buzzer sounded again, and an official in black and white stripes glided to the center of the arena. A tension gathered over the building as he held up the puck. And then, he dropped it.
The smooth, relaxed flow of the players instantly changed into something much more dramatic and fierce as they fought for possession of the puck. The Ghosts controlled it first, and Violar was on her feet before she realized it as everyone raced toward the goal. A lone Pride team member awaited them, heavily padded and wearing a barred helmet and mask. The Ghost players arranged themselves in a neat formation. There was a quick, precise pass, and then a lightning-quick shot that bounced off the goalie's armpad.
"Yes!" cried Violar fiercely as a wave of approval rippled over half the crowd. Her eyes glittered as the hockey players dashed in the opposite direction. Two of them suddenly veered sideways and crashed into the plexiglass boards.
Violar yelped. "Foul! Foul! Or… or something! Did you see what he did?" She whirled on Marie. "He – the Ghost fellow – he did it on purpose!"
That had Marie laughing. "Mah Gawd, this is hockey, Vi! Siddown!" Gripping the centaur's trench coat, she pulled Violar into the seat. "They're supposed to be rough!"
Violar blinked. "Football is rough enough, and that would have been a personal foul and a fifteen-yard penalty in football."
Kitty giggled. "The rules are different on the ice, girl. But ooo –" She suddenly cringed as two more players smashed into the wall. "That was a nasty hit. And there goes the puck the other way."
Violar couldn't help being caught up in the emotion of the game, though much of the time – it seemed to Violar – the puck was being stolen and driven in the opposite direction. Suddenly one of the referees blew his whistle and sent a Ghost into the penalty box to sit and rethink his life for two minutes.
Violar turned to her companions, bewildered. "I don't understand. How was what he did any worse than the conduct the officials have been allowing already?"
"It's hockey," said the girls in unison, and they laughed.
Violar shook her head. "This isn't a game," she breathed, her eyes glittering. "This is more like… a war."
Two minutes into the first period, one of the Pride players reared back with the stick and launched the puck past the heavily-padded goalie and into the top part of the net. Violar shot out of her seat and cheered wildly with the rest of the Pride fans.
The five Pride players on the ice converged, throwing their arms around each another in a group hug. Violar's hands stilled, a little surprised by this display. One thing she had learned about New York society was that it was considered unseemly for men to hug. Yet here were five boys, playing a rough and tumble game, hugging one another without a second thought after a goal.
The centaur smiled and sat down in her chair. It was good to see that some parts of this culture still enjoyed this kind of abandoned, unselfconscious celebration. In Narnia, it was only natural – and after a victorious battle, Violar had been in the middle of a few exuberant group hugs herself.
"That was a pretty piece of work," declared Kitty. "Bobby had a term for that kind of shot – you know, the kind that goes into the top part of the net. Marie?"
"Top shelf," Marie replied without hesitation. "Ah remember because Bobby quoted some hockey announcer who said, 'Right where Mommy hides the cookies!'"
Violar laughed, but the mention of cookies made her think of those huge chocolate chip cookies they sold at the concession stand. She'd carried shields into battle nearly the size of one of those cookies. Violar mentally slapped herself for forgetting to buy one.
I guess I'll just have to make another trip there.
Once the Pride led the scoreboard 1-0, Violar relaxed a little, more content to sit and enjoy the game – and munch. She found the funnel cake so incredibly delicious that her eyes widened, and she attacked it with relish.
Violar was still finishing the crumbs when suddenly a slender woman with coiffed brown hair two rows below the trio shot to her feet and screamed, "That was a trip, ref! What the hell is wrong with you!?"
The plate flipped and spilled the last bits of the funnel cake as Violar's head whipped upright and she stared in shock. What in the world?!
The woman didn't stop, and Violar grew more and more appalled. Every minute, it seemed, the woman jumped to her feet and yelled derisive things at the black and white striped officials.
"That was not a penalty, ref! Don't you know the rules!?"
"That's offsides! Offsides! Call it, for God's sake!"
"What's wrong with you!? Don't you know anything about this game!?"
Violar sobered. All of a sudden, she wasn't having as much fun. She glanced at her companions: Kitty pursed her lips and shook her head, then looked away to ignore the woman and watch the game. Marie sighed and picked out another snack to eat.
The woman, however, wasn't the only one screaming her lungs out. A heavyset man in the next row hollered, "Take the damn shot already! What are you waiting for!?"
Another portly man with curled gray hair and a mustache next to Violar bellowed, "Will you put Gary in already!?" He turned to the homely, dark-haired woman sitting beside him. "This is crap! All the money we're paying to have him on this team and the idiot coach keeps him on the bench most games."
"Willie, calm down," urged the woman, probably his wife.
He gave her a sharp, dismissive wave. Then, to Violar's surprise, turned to her. "Do you know my son made First-Team All-County last year? All-County! You wanna explain to me how any coach can keep a kid like that on the bench?"
Violar blinked at him, startled. She hardly knew what to say.
And the man wanted an answer.
Had this been in Bloomingdale's, and had this Willie been an angry customer, Violar would have automatically agreed with him. But since this wasn't Bloomingdale's, and he wasn't a customer, she could be honest with him.
Drawing herself up with centaurian poise, Violar gazed directly into the heat of his glare. "Ah, well, sir, I don't know your son, so I can't say. But if he is not getting the sort of playing time he wants, then perhaps he ought to practice more – if for nothing else than to prove his work ethic to the coach. I hear that helps."
Willie's eyes widened. His face turned deep crimson. Surprise flickered through Violar, and she bit her lip as her brows crinkled. You'd think I'd just disparaged his son's honor. The fellow glared at her with a sneer, and Violar instinctively tensed, wondering if this man would strike her. Violar held his gaze, searching for the telltale signs that he was about to make his move. That would have been a grave mistake on his part.
"Didn't you hear what I said about Gary?" Willie bared his teeth. He spoke his next words deliberately. "First Team, All-County. That means he's really, really good." He growled and turned away from Violar without waiting for an answer, staring at the knot of serious-looking men writing in their notebooks a couple sections away. "Look at that. All those scouts here with college scholarships or maybe a pro contract to offer. How can Gary get any of that stuff if they don't see him play!?"
Violar followed his gaze to the men Gary's father had referred to as scouts, slowly comprehending their role. As she looked around her, Violar suddenly saw the tournament as much more than a game. For some people, this tournament could change their lives.
The centaur drew in a little breath, then allowed her gaze to travel over the benches full of teenagers in pads and jerseys. She wondered who Gary was, and – despite the behavior of his father – she felt a twinge of pity for him. If he had so much potential, what was he doing on the bench? Granted, proud fathers tended to exaggerate – especially when their personal pride depended on the success of their child. But what if Gary deserved to be out there, in the spotlight and on display for the scouts?
Kitty noticed the way the distressed centaur was biting her lip, and she leaned over to her.
"Just ignore the moron," she advised in a whisper. "Some parents. You get a few nuts like that in every sport, it seems like."
Violar huffed incredulously. "You mean this is a common occurrence?" she whispered back.
"I know," Kitty replied with a sigh. "It's ridiculous. I went through the same thing when I was little."
Violar blinked in surprise. "Really?"
Kitty nodded. "Oh yeah. I used to play on this soccer team with pretty much seven and eight-year-olds. There'd be parents in the stands screaming at the officials, the coaches – even us."
Overhearing the conversation, Marie leaned over. "No kiddin'. Ah was on this lil' volleyball team when Ah was ten, an' parents was screamin' an' yellin' like we were in the Olympics with gold medals at stake. That really turned me off, an' Ah quit, an' it's a good thing Ah did because if Ah'd kept playin' past the time mah mutation kicked in…"
"The soccer team was just the beginning of it," said Kitty, not to be outdone. Violar glanced between the girls, feeling like a spectator at a cartoon tennis match. "When I was a little older, I had a softball team with a coach who was–"
"Oh Gawd, don't get me started on coaches," Marie interrupted with a roll of her eyes. "Some'a them are insane!"
Violar's mind was spinning, and she could barely keep up mentally. Suddenly she grinned and jumped in.
"Well, when I was a foal, the problem was that there were no officials. So the young centaurs who kicked the hardest won."
Both girls stared at her, and Violar sat back in her seat with a smug grin. Kitty ventured a tentative laugh.
"Mhmm! Centaurs start training to be warriors right away, because we have a lot of coordination to develop before we even start with fancy hoofwork and formations. There are plenty of sparring matches. And I won my fair share," she went on confidently. "I'd still have the scars to prove it if it weren't for Persica the peach tree dryad. She did a nice job on my coat, I'll have to say."
There was silence over the group for a moment as Kitty and Marie gaped at her. Suddenly the Pride scored again, and Violar shot out of her chair to yell out her approval.
Then things took a turn for the worse early in the second period when a fight broke out on the ice, landing one of the Pride players in the penalty box. The Ghosts took advantage of the Power Play to score their first goal of the game.
"No!" Violar cried, clasping her hands near her face as the Ghosts celebrated.
The Pride lost their cool again soon after, and a second fight left them short another player. Once more, three Ghosts attacked the goal and slammed the puck home over the goalie's armpad.
"No, no!" cried Violar, glancing at the scoreboard. It was tied at two apiece, and the second period ended shortly after that.
Violar sighed and sat back, then frowned. "They look like they're going to keep playing."
"There's a third period," Marie explained.
"Look at the difference in demeanor between the benches," Kitty remarked.
Violar frowned. The Pride didn't look very proud at all, some hanging their heads. The Ghosts, on the other hand, looked enthusiastic and full of energy.
"Oh dear," murmured the centaur with a grimace.
And she was right. The Pride never recovered the deficit, giving up two more goals. On a late run, the Pride managed to poke home another goal, but it was too little too late. The final buzzer sounded, and Violar pursed her lips as the two teams lined up to shake hands.
Willie got up with a murderous snarl, grumbling as he and his wife headed for the aisle. "If they'd put Gary out there a whole heck of a lot sooner…"
Violar ignored him. She picked up a pretzel and steadily munched her way through it, somewhat glazed as if she were grazing in centaur-fashion. Marie reached over and patted her shoulder sympathetically.
"Can't win 'em all, Vi," she said. "But you gotta win the ones that count. Ah hope ya got plenty'a voice left, 'cause here they come!"
Sure enough, the Flying Tigers filed into the arena and took over the bench the Pride had just vacated. Bobby, Jimmy, and Rosa were among them. Violar gulped down a bite of her pretzel and waved down to them, and the girls beside her bounced up and down and squealed and hollered until Violar was cringing.
"Ow ow ow, ladies, my ears, please," she begged, chuckling. "I'm a centaur, remember. Take it easy."
The players spilled onto the ice to begin their warm-ups, and Violar's stomach knotted up again – worse than before. She found her teeth embedded in her lower lip as she studied the Monarchs intently – as was her habit. As a centaur, she always tried to gauge her opponent's strengths and weaknesses, but she had two strikes against her: For one, hockey was an unfamiliar game.
For two, Violar didn't even know what the strengths and weaknesses of the Flying Tigers were.
With a gulp, she brought her eyes back to the friendly side of the ice, watching Bobby, Jimmy, and Rosa in particular. When Bobby glanced up at her, she tried to smile – for his sake.
Aside to the girls, she whispered, "Is it against the rules to use your mutation in the middle of a hockey game?"
They both laughed. "Not sure how it would help there, Violar," said Kitty. "But that's good, thinking on your feet like that. Was your faith shaken when your last team lost?"
Violar shrugged. "Maybe a little," she admitted.
"Bobby's good out there," chimed in Marie. "Ya needn't worry ya lil' head over him too much. An' Ah did hear some'a the old stories about him an' Jimmy in their old hockey days, so Ah'm kinda lookin' forward to this."
Violar swallowed hard and clenched her clammy palms, taking a deep breath and releasing it slowly. She wasn't sure she was looking forward to this. It was one thing to be a warrior in the midst of a great battle; it was another to be a warrior sidelined and helpless to do anything but watch.
She pressed a hand to her stomach, which was jammed full of nervous butterflies. "By the mane… I don't know if I can do this."
The raspy buzzer echoed through the arena, and a shudder ran down Violar's spine. The game was about to begin.