pounding at the door awakened Jecht from what would have been an otherwise
peaceful sleep if not for the splitting headache.
He groaned as he sat up in his makeshift bed on the couch. An empty bottle clattered to the floor at his feet. He leaned forward onto his knees, pressing the heels of his hands into his eyes. Someone pounded at the door again. “Jecht? You in there?”
“Yeah,” he muttered back. “What do you want?”
“Are you decent?”
“Course I’m decent! What do you want?”
The door opened and in came his teammate, Sonnie. At the sight of Jecht looking worse for wear and out of uniform, Sonnie sighed. “Come on, man,” he said, collecting the bottles at Jecht’s feet and tossing them in the trash. “The game starts in an hour. On top of that, you missed practice!”
“I’m the captain. I can miss as much practice as I want.”
“Well, it’s the last game before the finals. And as hungover as you are, you could use the extra time.”
“Well, look who’s acting all high and mighty,” Jecht snorted.
Sonnie scowled at him. “Your wife has been looking for you, you know. She said you never came home last night.”
Jecht waved him off and staggered to his feet. “She knows we have a game tonight.”
“You should’ve at least let her know where you were.”
“You buttin’ into my life now?”
“All I’m saying is she was worried, Jecht—and rightfully so.”
Jecht fished through the refrigerator in the small kitchen and found a fresh bottle of unopened alcohol. He took a swig and shot Sonnie a warning glare. “You just worry about catching the ball. I will worry about everything else—including my wife.”
Sonnie shook his head, dismissing Jecht’s arrogance. “Let’s go. Everyone is waiting for you.”
Jecht finished off the small bottle and tossed it into the trash. He and Sonnie left the break room, making their way through the empty halls of the Zanarkand Dome Underground. The music aboveground was so loud that it rattled the walls around them. Sonnie was right—everyone was waiting for Jecht.
“So what happened to you after practice last night?” Sonnie asked. “Last we saw, you were heading home. Did you make a few stops on the way back?”
“Maybe I did,” Jecht replied. “What’s it to you?”
Sonnie rolled his eyes. “Do you always have to be so confrontational?”
“I just don’t know why you’re so concerned with my business.”
“Because we’re all worried about…never mind.”
“And, yeah. Maybe I did go out last night. It soothes me, all right? Helps me prepare my mind for the game.”
“So you’re nervous?”
“Ha! I’m never nervous. What’s there to be nervous about?”
Sonnie glanced at him. “You should know there’s been talk, Jecht.”
“Oh, yeah? About what?”
“That you plan to retire.”
Jecht stopped walking. “Who’s been saying that?”
“I’ve heard a little here and there.”
“Everyone.” He narrowed his eyes, studying Jecht. “Is it true?”
“Course not! And if I find anyone saying otherwise, I’ll pop him square in the jaw. Blitzball is my life, Sonnie. You know that.”
“I know that. But when you hear rumors, you have to wonder.”
“Until you hear it from my mouth, it means nothing.” He picked up the pace again and Sonnie followed. Jecht wanted to act like it meant nothing, but it did. He couldn’t just brush it off. The only reasons a blitzer would retire were for injury, old age, or a career slump. He wasn’t injured, and he wasn’t old. He didn’t think he was in any kind of a slump, but that didn’t mean his fans agreed. All it took was one disbeliever.
He would brush it off for now, at least until after the game. He and Sonnie reached the locker room and found the rest of the team waiting for them. A collective sigh of relief went up as they entered. “What?” Jecht asked. “Everyone miss me or something?”
“We were worried you wouldn’t show, Captain,” Tokkan said.
“I always show. Never missed a game in my life.”
“You’ve also never cut it this close either,” Sonnie added.
“It’s the last game before finals. I’m here now, ain’t I? So let’s get upstairs and meet our adoring fans!”
He turned to leave but stopped when he realized no one was following. His teammates stared at him with sad, droopy eyes. “Is it true, Captain?” Aladan asked. “Are you going to…to retire?”
Jecht crossed his arms. “No. It’s absolutely not true.”
“Apparently,” Sonnie said, “those are just rumors. Right, Captain?”
“That’s right. I ain’t going nowhere.”
“They say that…well, because of your drinking…you aren’t as good as you used to be,” Tokkan added. “That’s why you plan to quit.”
“Listen,” Jecht said. “The next time you hear someone talking all this nonsense, I want you to send him my way. I’m not retiring and that’s that!” He headed for the door once more. “Now are we gonna win a game of blitzball or not?”
Beyond the doors, they chanted his name.
Jecht stood just outside the door to the sphere globe with his teammates lined up behind him. In the crook of his elbow, he held a red and orange blitzball. His heart thundered away in his chest and his blood rushed with adrenaline. There really was no better moment than waiting for the doors of the globe to open.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” a voice boomed from the speakers, “please welcome THE ZANARKAND AAAAAAABES!”
The door before them retracted into the ground. Jecht, leading the way, marched through the doorway and onto the platform of the blitzball globe. A catwalk stretched around the center perimeter of the globe, where the players could line up and wave to their adoring fans. The applause was so loud, the walls of the Dome shook.
Jecht, of course, soaked it all up. He strolled along the catwalk with his chest puffed out, waving to the crowds. The stadium was at full capacity tonight, which would make any average person nervous, but not Jecht. It just meant more people were there to watch him win.
One by one, the announcer introduced the Abes. They would wave, then dive into the half-filled globe and start warming up. Jecht, the captain and the star player, received the warmest welcome. The spotlight shined down on him for all to see. He waved. He bowed. He flexed. He absorbed every second of his fame before diving into the water with his teammates.
The opponents, a lesser-known team from Zanarkand called the Duggles, were booed during their introductions, in typical fashion. They joined the Abes in the sphere globe, reluctantly sharing the space and exchanging dirty looks with their opponents.
An attendant swam out after about ten minutes to collect the practice balls while water filled the rest of the globe. Jecht shook hands with the opposing team’s captain, making sure to squeeze extra hard. Once formalities were exchanged, the attendant left the globe and the players assumed their positions.
A countdown from thirty appeared on the scoreboard. Jecht glanced back at Sonnie, who gave him a thumbs-up. When game-time came, everyone was on the same page. They forgot about their problems completely. All that matter was how they played.
At the three-second mark, the game ball ejected from a metal compartment at the bottom of the globe, and the announcer cried, “BLITZ!”
Jecht swam hard, snatching the ball from the opponent. The rest of his teammates swam toward the goal, opening themselves for the pass. The Duggle captain tackled Jecht but could not get the ball. Jecht threw a hard pass halfway across the globe toward Tokkan, who promptly caught the ball. The team advanced on the goal, scoring their first point in less than two minutes.
The game went on in similar fashion for the rest of the first half, with the Abes taking the lead 4-3. By the intermission, everyone was feeling pumped. The locker room was ablaze with energy, and no one could keep quiet.
“We aren’t out of the woods yet,” Sonnie said, quieting them down. “We have to keep our eye on the prize.”
“Oh, take it easy, Sonnie,” Jecht said stepping up on the bench. “We’re doing damn good so far.”
“Yes, but they’re doing just as well.”
“Everyone just keep playing the same,” Jecht ordered, “and we’ll be sure to take home the cup tonight.”
“Jecht,” Sonnie said in a warning voice. “Don’t get ahead of yourself.”
“I’m sorry, co-Captain,” Jecht snorted, “but I give the orders around here. So cool it.”
“We win this game,” Tokkan said, “and we’re in the finals!”
The team whooped and cheered.
“Where are you taking us to celebrate, Captain?” Aladan asked. The others laughed.
“All right, all right,” Jecht said. “We win this match and drinks are on me!”
“Don’t be yanking our legs now,” Aladan warned.
A voice over the speaker announced that it was time to return to the globe. The team filed out, but Jecht lingered behind. He fished out the half bottle of whiskey from the fridge and polished it off. Nothing amped him up for a game like a fresh buzz.
But by the time the second half of the game started, he was beyond buzzed. He caught the first ball but lost his grip when a Duggle tackled him and stole it. Across the way, he heard Sonnie curse. He would get it back. He wasn’t worried at all. Jecht picked up the pace and swam after the ball, but the Duggles scored again. The score was now 4-4.
Back and forth they went until only five minutes remained, and neither team had broken the tie. The Duggles had brought their A-game for the second round, and hadn’t let up since. Jecht’s teammates swam his way after Sonnie called a timeout. “What’s the plan, Cap’n?” Tokkan asked.
“Pass the ball to me,” Jecht replied. “We’ve got five minutes left to score.”
“Are you sure that’s wise?” Sonnie asked, raising an eyebrow.
“What’d you say?” Jecht demanded. “You pass the ball to me and we’ll be sure to win. Just who do you think you’re talking to?”
“All right, all right,” Sonnie said, raising his hands defensively. “It’s just…you seem…”
“Never mind.” He looked at the others. “Get the ball to Captain. We’ll take it home after that.”
They broke the huddle and swam to their positions. The game ball reset, and the Abes swam with everything they had. Jecht advanced on the enemy’s goal while Tokkan intercepted a pass from one Duggle to the next. He swam forward far enough to get a clear shot across the globe, then passed to Aladan. All the while, Jecht continued to swim for the goal line, feeling dizzier than he cared to admit. He’d had a preparatory drink before and during every match he played in, but lately he found he couldn’t hold it together.
Maybe you are nervous, a voice in his head said. Maybe those rumors are getting to you. You’re not washed up, are you?
Jecht shook his head. “I’m the great Jecht. Nothin’ gets by me,” he muttered to himself.
“Captain!” Sonnie screamed across the pool. “Look alive!”
Jecht jerked his head up just in time to see the ball coming his way. His heart skipped a beat, and he lunged for the ball, missing it.
But he was fast. He caught it before it could fumble, and before his opponent could steal it. With a hard, sloppy tackle, he pushed his way past the Duggle blocking his path. Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough. The enemy had foreseen their plan, and all of the team had ganged up on him.
“You have to pass!” Tokkan cried.
“Pass, Captain!” Aladan added.
But there was no way he’d let them take this victory. This was his moment. He would take them to the finals with this winning pass.
Sonnie must’ve sensed his indecision. As Jecht drew his arm back, Sonnie screamed, “Captain, no!”
But it was too late. He pushed himself up over his opponents’ heads and launched the ball toward the goal. It sailed through the water, speeding toward the goal line. His breathing slowed as he waited for the buzzer to sound his victory, but it didn’t come. The goalie caught the ball.
For a moment, all Jecht could do was stare, floating in the water while the enemy took the ball across the pool toward their goal. He had missed. He never missed. What was going on?
You’re a has-been! the voice in his head laughed. You’re getting old, Jecht. Maybe it’s time to quit.
He ignored the voice and swam after the others. In the back of his mind, he heard the announcer’s disappointment. “What’s this, folks? It looks like Jecht missed the game-winning shot!”
With ten seconds left on the clock, there wasn’t much left to do. He kept swimming, but his limbs felt like jelly. He slowed down when he realized it was hopeless. The most sickening sound he’d ever heard was of the buzzer signaling the Duggles’ victory—and the Abes’ loss. They wouldn’t see the final matches next month. They’d go home tonight, and that would be it for the rest of the season.
“The Zanarkand Duggles have won the match, decimating the Abes’ win-streak of six straight games!” the announcer cried.
The same crowd that had cheered for them less than an hour ago now cheered for the Duggles. The enemy captain swam past Jecht, clapping him on the back. “Good game,” he sneered.
In a fit of anger and disappointment, Jecht lunged at the captain and drew his fist back, preparing to strike. The only thing that stopped him was his teammates yanking him back. “No need to be a sore loser,” the captain laughed. “You’ll get us next year—maybe.”
He and his players swam off, while the Abes remained afloat in the globe. No one said anything. Jecht didn’t dare make eye contact with any of them. He could feel their anger and resentment from where he was.
“Let’s go,” Sonnie said. “We’ve gotta clear out the Dome.”
The others followed him, Jecht being the last. How had he missed that pass? He never missed anything. Even in practice, he was amazing. It wasn’t because of the drinking, he knew that much. Maybe it was just bad luck?
Tell yourself that, said the familiar voice. Make yourself feel better for costing the team the finals.
Things were a lot different in the locker room than they had been the last time. No one said a word. Everyone collected their things in silence, never meeting Jecht’s eye. As captain—and as the one who’d ruined things—he felt he had to say something. “Listen, guys,” he sighed. “I, uh…I don’t know what to say.”
“How about, ‘I’m a lousy captain’?” Sonnie said.
“It’s not always about you, Jecht. It’s about all of us. We’re a team. But your head is so high up in the clouds, you can’t see straight. And you’re a damn alcoholic on top of it.”
“I can quit drinkin’ anytime I want,” Jecht insisted.
Sonnie shook his head. “You just don’t get it, do you?”
“That’s just one person’s opinion.”
“No, it’s everyone’s opinion. They just don’t have the gall to tell it to your face. I, on the other hand, do.”
Jecht looked at the others, feeling a little sick inside. “Is that true?”
Aladan shrugged. “Well…if you’d passed to one of us…we might’ve won.”
“Tokkan?” Jecht said, looking at him.
Tokkan busied himself with packing up his bag. “It’s just…well…we think your drinking is interfering with your playing.”
“That’s bull,” Jecht said, crossing his arms. “I’ve played plenty of games after a few drinks and won each of ‘em.”
“Then…I don’t know,” Tokkan sighed with a shrug. “Maybe…maybe it is time.”
“Time for what?”
“To take a break,” Sonnie finished.
“You mean retire.”
Jecht snatched up his bag and hiked it over his shoulder. “I don’t believe this. We lose one game and suddenly everyone’s got mutiny on the mind. Well, guess what? I ain’t goin’ nowhere.”
“It wasn’t just any game, Jecht,” Sonnie replied heatedly. “It was the last game before the finals.”
“You think I don’t know that?”
“Well, you don’t seem to care.”
“I don’t care? This is my life, you know!”
“Then something’s gotta give,” Sonnie said. “Because this wasn’t the first time this kind of thing has happened. It’s just the first time we’ve decided not to let it slip by. Get it together or…or you can’t play on the team anymore.”
Jecht laughed. “You can’t kick me off. I’m the captain.”
“Official league rules state that if the entire team supports the expulsion of any one member—even the captain—that member must be removed.”
Jecht yanked the door open and stepped outside. “You get rid of me and this team will crash into the ground. You hear me?” He slammed the door shut behind him and marched through the hall of the Dome.
“Where are you going?” Sonnie cried, chasing after him. “To a bar?”
“None of your business.”
“Don’t you ever learn, Jecht?”
Jecht wheeled around to face him, his eyes filled with fire and his blood boiling. “Take one more step toward me, Sonnie, and I swear, it’s the last thing you’ll do.”
Wide-eyed, Sonnie backed away. “We’re just…worried about you.”
Jecht shook his head and turned around, continuing down the hall.
And yes, he was going to a bar. He would need a whole lot of drinks to calm his nerves after this evening.
Jecht stumbled in through the door of his house somewhere around midnight. Every light was off except for the one in the kitchen. He made his way inside and collapsed into an empty chair. His arms and legs ached and his head hadn’t stopped pounding since Sonnie had woken him.
But worse than the physical pain was the embarrassment of losing the match—and everything that his teammates had said afterwards. He replayed that final pass over and over again in his mind. He had missed the goal by inches—something that had never happened before during a game.
The hallway light came on and he looked up to find his wife standing in the doorway, a robe pulled tightly around her for warmth. A sad, forced smile came to her lips. “You’re home,” she said.
“Elena,” he replied. “I…I’m sorry. I know I’ve worried you. I should’ve called…or something…”
She took a seat beside him and placed her hand over his. “It’s all right. You’re home now—and safe.” She leaned into him and nestled herself in his arms. “I’ve missed you.”
Holding her, Jecht was immediately flooded with guilt. “And I’ve missed you. I’ll never put you through that again. I promise.”
She pulled away from him and smiled. Sometimes he wished she would be angrier with him. After all, this wasn’t the first time he’d done this to her. But it wasn’t in her nature to hold onto such anger. He really would have to try harder—if not for himself, then for her.
“So,” Jecht said, “where’s the kid?”
“Asleep,” Elena replied. “He was really tired.”
“Did, uh…did he watch the match?”
She looked down. “No. He’s still angry with you about yesterday. About what you said.”
Good, Jecht thought. I wouldn’t want him to see his old man looking like a fool. ”It was all in good fun,” Jecht said. “Of course he’s got what it takes—he’s my son, after all. He’ll become the next blitzing legend once I’m done.”
Elena smiled. “Someday,” she said. “He didn’t watch, but I did.”
“Of course. I always do.”
“I wish this time you wouldn’t have.”
“Why?” she asked. “Just because you lost? It happens to the best of them, dear.”
“No,” Jecht said. “Because I…I humiliated myself.”
She placed a hand against his cheek. “I don’t think so. But if you really feel so bad about it, maybe you ought to take some extra time to practice? It can’t hurt.”
Extra time to practice? He never needed extra time to practice. It just came naturally to him.
Except for tonight, of course. Maybe Elena was right—maybe he needed to do some reevaluating, of both himself and his form. Like she said, it couldn’t hurt. He just couldn’t let anyone know what he was up to. What would they think of the great Jecht then, if he’d gotten so sloppy that he needed extra training?
“Maybe you’re right,” he said, rising to his feet. He approached the window and stared out at the sea. The stars twinkled in the black night sky above. “Maybe I just need some time away to get my head on straight.”
“You might feel better,” Elena said.
“Yeah. I might.” He watched the waves lap at the edge of the dock and remembered how much he loved being out in the ocean with open space all around—not trapped inside of a giant fish bowl. At sea was where his love for blitzball began. “You know, maybe I ought to go out for a day at sea. That always seems to clear my mind.”
Elena approached his side and gazed into the night with him. “You always seem to come back happier after a day at sea. Maybe you should.”
“Yeah. Yeah!” He faced her and took her hands. “I think I will. I’ll leave in the morning, come back in time for dinner. What do you think?”
She smiled. “I think it would be great.”
He took her into his arms and kissed her. The prospect of a day at sea flipped his mood completely, even if he was a little drunk. He would leave before sunrise, train for eight hours nonstop, and come back in time for dinner with his wife and kid. And when he did come back, he would be in better shape, ready for another match—one that he wouldn’t lose.
“You should get some sleep if you plan to get up early,” Elena said.
“Yeah, I will,” Jecht replied. “I’m just gonna get some air for a bit first. I’ll be to bed soon.”
“Don’t be too long.” She gave him one last kiss and headed for the bedroom, shutting off the light behind her.
Jecht made his way outside and leaned against the railing. The gentle breeze soothed him and put him at ease. It helped him push all thoughts of the match behind him. He had a plan to fix things, and it would work. It always worked. He couldn’t shame his wife and kid with his shortcomings. He had to fix things.
He started at the sound of the door opening behind him, but relaxed when he realized it was only Tidus, standing there in his pajamas. His blonde hair was a mess and his eyes were only half-open. “Oh. It’s you,” Jecht said. “Your mother said you were asleep.”
Tidus rubbed his eyes, scowling. “I was. But you woke me up.”
“So, what? Did you come out here to yell at me for it?”
Tidus gave him one last glare before turning to leave. He stopped at the door with his hand on the knob. “Mommy said you lost the match.”
Jecht didn’t turn around. He didn’t want to look at him, didn’t want to face whatever Tidus felt toward him. “Yeah. What about it?”
“They say you don’t practice anymore. That you’re gonna retire.”
Jecht’s jaw almost dropped. Even his own son had heard the rumors? “Let ‘em talk,” he said, trying to keep his cool. “I’m still the best.”
“They say you’re no good ‘cause you drink all the time.”
“I can quit drinking anytime I want.”
Tidus looked down at the ground. “Then do it now,” he muttered.
Jecht wheeled around to face him. “What did you say?”
His eyes widened. “Y-You just said you can!”
Jecht studied him through narrowed eyes before letting him off the hook. “Heh. Tomorrow, maybe.”
Tidus faced him. “Why not today?”
“Why do today what you can leave for tomorrow?”
Tidus just sighed and shook his head. Jecht would never tell him, but he hated seeing that disappointment in his son’s eyes—especially when it was disappointment toward him.
“Hey, wait,” Jecht said as Tidus began to head inside. “I’m going out to sea tomorrow for some training.”
Tidus blinked. “Oh, yeah?”
“Yeah. I’ll be gone before you wake up and won’t be back until dinner. So you be good for your mother, got it?”
“And no crying. You always cry.” Tidus’s classic glare returned, which made Jecht grin. “Yeah. That’s what I thought. Now go to bed.”
“I hate you,” he muttered on the way in.
Jecht had heard it a thousand times before. It no longer fazed him. He wished Tidus would toughen up, but maybe it just took time. He was only seven years old, after all.
Jecht gazed out at the sea once more. Yes, he would definitely set things right. He had to set an example for his son if he ever wanted that runt to follow in his footsteps. Of course, the best way for Tidus to improve was with some old-fashioned constructive criticism, which Jecht readily handed out. Every time he criticized him, Tidus only tried harder. As far as Jecht was concerned, it worked.
With one last look at the water, Jecht turned back to go inside. Elena was right. He needed his rest if he was going to get up early.