The seminar hall was dark to begin with. If one put out all the numerous energy savers, they’d be left with next to no natural light. During the day, if it was sunny enough outside, just a trickle would filter in from the other side of the building, opposite the only entrance.
It was raining, meaning they were going to be deprived of what little diffused sunshine they usually got. Almost as if to make up for setting the virtual football tournament on a day like this, Debby felt, they kept the lights in the hallway outside turned on. The lights inside were on too, but just as long as the match didn’t start. Inside the seminar hall, the field space for the match was bordered with white masking tape. Bleachers were lined along the outside of these boundary lines. At the very front of the huge hall, where they usually set up the backstage for shows was where Debby stood; arms crossed, leaning against the wall, watching Max strap himself up for the biggest virtual reality game in his life.
She walked up to him when he struggled with a particular elbow patch. “Nervous?” she asked, taking over the patch from his fumbling hands.
He chuckled uneasily. “A bit.” He watched her as she ensured the connections to the central Console. This was only the second public game after all. “I’m sorry for dragging you into this, Deb,” he said earnestly. “I know you hate it when it rains. Especially in here.”
“Nonsense,” she retorted looking up from the panel. “I’d be wherever you are. And you know that.”
“Max,” she paused for effect, and then said, “drop it.”
Sighing, Max gestured towards the bleachers. The wireless connections to all the patches were a blessing, because he could move around any way he wanted. Debby sat down beside him. They were the first to show up. With the rain there would probably be less people showing up for the tournament than was otherwise expected. She snuggled into Max’s warmth. The quiet coolness of rain always made her drowsy. If only she could sleep.
“Who’s your partner?” she asked instead.
“Some girl from Mantur High, as far as I know,” he said quietly.
They sat in companionable silence after that.
It was the sound of Jinora calling, “Heyya, lovebirds!” that woke Debby. She hadn’t even realized when she had dozed off. Jinora walked up to them, gave them both a high-five, and together they set off for a cup of coffee. The audience began to trickle in slowly.
The prelims had been players running the whole virtual reality football teams by themselves in an online network. The semifinals and finals had been planned out so that there would be two individual champions. Eight people had made it to the semifinals, and played in teams of two. This left four people for the finals. To spice things up, for every team-up round, the players had to work with someone they had never played collaboratively with before. The other participants were easy to single out, they arrived with their own fan clubs trailing behind.
Satisfied with their dose of caffeine, Max led the other two into the field. Debby and Jinora found some front seats on the bleachers while Max went on to socialize with all the other players.
A girl approached them. Debby recognized her from the semifinals a week ago. Melanie. “Hey!” she greeted them enthusiastically. “I remember you from the semis,” she told Debby.
“Cool,” she replied. “I remember you too, Melanie.”
“Aww, isn’t that sweet of you.” She primed her wavy black hair at the back absently, or rather, tried to make it look like she was doing it absently. “You’re with Max aren’t you? I just love your friendship, you know? You’re so supportive!”
Next to her, Jinora stiffened. Debby smiled while poking her in the back, hidden from Melanie’s eyes. “Really? I don’t hear that often,” she said, putting in an effort to not sound harsh. And succeeding. After all, almost no one knew about her and Max’s relationship. They used to be best friends, which made the perfect cover. To top things off, they both enjoyed seeing the other being chased by other parties.
“WHAT?!” Melanie exclaimed incredulously. “What are you talking about?! People ought to really open their eyes and look at your beautiful friendship and take lessons. Honestly.”
Debby watched, laughing internally, as Melanie primed and puffed her hair again. She’d noticed the first minute into the semifinals how Melanie kept making eyes at Max. Unfazed, and very amused, she went on to find out exactly what she was like. Turned out, hers and Melanie’s birthdays were on the same day. They were practically twins. Their complexion was almost the same. Their hair was the same length and, she could guess, the same wavy texture. But the differences were astounding.
“Tell you what,” Melanie said when she was done priming her looks. “I’m paired with Max today!” She added a squeal at the end.
“Oh, really?” Debby said feigning ignorance.
“Yeah! And we’re going to win this thing.” She added with an air of superiority.
“I sure hope you do,” Jinora said, sarcasm overflowing. “Nothing better than good old Maxie winning with a hot lady by his side.”
Debby almost laughed out loud, but managed to hold herself while Melanie took the comment as a compliment.
“So,” Melanie continued with her voice dropping to the whisper of a conspirator. “We’re going to win this. And you guys have to make sure that Max and I get some alone time afterwards. Because I just know that he’ll kiss me!”
Jinora and Debby shared a quick look while Melanie swooned, and then gasped together.
“REALLY?!” Jinora said
“You guys have gone THAT far in such a short time?!” Debby said.
“This is SO cute,” they said simultaneously and proceeded to swoon in a mock resemblance to Melanie.
They would’ve continued to swoon together if Melanie hadn’t caught her reflection in something behind the other two. “Oh, no,” she said, horrified. “I have to fix my make-up!” She ran off toward her prep team, who ran lipstick over her already painted lips, and began to put her in connection with the Console.
The lights in the hall dimmed, indicating that the game would begin soon. The commentator took up to introducing the players to the audience and providing other info about the match. The players took their positions. Max and Melanie took the side nearer to the door. They were given their headsets, which would render the audience invisible. Max made Melanie stand at the back, which meant she would be defending and goal keeping.
The game began.
The ball was visible to the spectators as a ball of light traversing the field between the players.
Max and Melanie were taking time to get used to each other’s maneuvers. Once, when Melanie was supposed to swerve to Max, in her infatuation with his moves, she ended up swerving to the front player of the other team. Max was just barely able to keep the guy from scoring a goal. Finally, Debby thought, you do something to piss me off. My Max can’t lose because of you.
As if on cue, Max shot Melanie a cold, calculating stare. Their team progressed smoothly after that.
The other team, though, the team consisting of two boys, one of whom had been Max’s partner for the semifinals and the other Melanie’s, seemed to be completely in sync with each other from the very beginning.
By the end of the first half Max and Melanie were at zero, while Ralph and Jack were at two goals.
Debby and Jinora went to grab cups of coffee for themselves as well as Max. He was too beat to walk more than a few paces.
“Melanie is annoying with her distractions,” Max said after taking a refreshingly long swig from the paper cup. “She’d do a cool off-the-hook kick, and then she’d just stop and pose. And because she poses all the five players in her wing pose. I swear she’s trying to shame me for the rest of my life.”
Jinora gave Debby an amused look. And all three glanced at Melanie across the room.
“Welp,” Debby said. “She is trying to make a move on you, after all.”
Max choked on his coffee. “WHAT?”
“Pfft!” Debby snorted, and with that she and Jinora burst into a fit of uncontrolled laughter.
“Honestly- HAHAHA!” Jinora said between her intermittent bursts, “Honestly, Maxie- AHAHA- You are so– HAHAH- so clueless!”
The next half of the game was going the same way as before for Max and Melanie. Ralph and Jack scored another goal, and Max and Melanie’s supporters were losing heart. And then, Ralph shot a foul. Max went for the shot and scored one goal.
After that, they went and scored two more goals. The game was in its last ten minutes, and both teams were giving it their all to win. All they had to do was score one more goal. Just one more…
One of Max’s players did an impressive swerve, but it knocked one of Jack’s players down. It got Max a yellow card. Debby grimaced. Why do you have to be so careless, Max?!
Her eyes flicked to the entrance. And she couldn’t take her eyes off the person standing there, waving at her.
It was Aleck. Her cousin’s fiancé. He was gesturing her to go out and meet her.
Her cousin was a something stereotypical out of the history books. Plump and happy-go-lucky. She radiated happiness wherever she went. She did not think in riddles, or in complicated “family politics”, as many people called it. Nora believed in the age old notion that women were meant for rearing children and running the household, and while everyone in the present era agreed with her on that (because, honestly, how can you blame a woman for wanting to be a full-time mother?) they were always telling her to think out of the box and get herself a passion other than child rearing.
When she introduced Aleck to the family everyone was overjoyed. He was an understanding person, and very generous.
The sad thing, though, was that Nora, who loved children the most in the entire family of over half a hundred people, could not have kids ever in her whole life.
Aleck seemed to be okay with it, though. He knew about Nora’s situation, and when she said it was no problem, they’d adopt someone, he was the first person to back it. Debby always felt a swell of pride when she thought about them. Nora deserved someone awesome like that, the awesome person that she was. They were going to get married in about a week.
Outside the Seminar Hall, Aleck looked a little impatient. Debby quickly took note of the situation of the game. The two teams were almost on par in terms of performance at this point, but she knew Max was losing his willingness to play like a rookie. It showed in his posture. The tides would turn soon, and she hoped it would be in Max’s favor.
“Hey, Jin,” she said giving Jinora a nudge, “I’m going to go catch up with Aleck for a bit, okay? Fill me in when I get back.”
Jinora turned abruptly. “Aleck? Nora’s fiancé?” she asked.
“What’s he doing here?” There was an air of distrust in the tone of her voice.
Debby sighed. She never did understand Jin’s distrust of Aleck. “That’s what I have to go find out-“
“I’m coming with you.” Jinora began to rise, but Debby stopped her.
“No, Jinny,” she said, even as an unsettling feeling began to gnaw at her. She mastered herself and continued, “You have to stay here and fill me in when I come back.”
The blond girl eyed her suspiciously. “You sure you’ll be okay?”
“Gosh, Jin! He’s technically my cousin. What on earth are you afraid of?”
Jinora gave in, albeit reluctantly. “If you say so,” she said almost inaudibly, “but you better be back before the end of the game.”
The uncomfortable feeling returned to the bottom of Debby’s stomach. She pushed it away again.
What are you thinking?! Aleck was probably just passing through town and thought he’d stop by. So what if he’s never visited me alone before? And how do I know he is alone? Maybe Nora’s just hiding in the corner, waiting to surprise me.
As she stepped out of the dimly lit room, though, Aleck was the only person in the hallway. They smiled at each other and hugged.
“Hey, Deb,” he said in his deep rumbling voice, “long time, no see!”
“Yeah!” she replied. Debby felt that weird feeling growing, spreading inside her from the bottom of her stomach. Something was off. “W-what brings you here all of a sudden?”
“I felt like I owed you a lengthy visit,” he replied.
His smile… there was something different about it. He never smiled at her like that. Debby tried to shake the thought off. “Lengthy?” she said, looking back into the game through the glass doors uncertainly. She spotted Max just as he scored a hard earned goal. “Then I guess you want to come in. It’s the finals.” She had wanted to sound as excited as she’d felt that morning, but was painfully aware of how weak the attempt sounded.
She turned around just in time to catch him whisking his eyes away from… somewhere he should not have been looking.
“No, Deborah,” he said in a voice she’s only ever heard him use with Nora, while almost closing the distance between them. “I said, a lengthy visit to you. Not to your friends.”
Outside, thunder rumbled.
There were five minutes left of the game. Five minutes. Both the teams were at a draw again. And it looked to Jinora like it would end that way, and there would have to be the tie breaker.
Where was Debby?
She kept her eyes on the screen that showed the VR version of the game, watching as Melanie made a stupid move that almost cost them a goal. She wondered if this Melanie somehow actually knew about Max and Debby, and had connections with that Bastard Aleck. Conspiracy theories did take you a long way.
Where was Debby?
Jinora wondered if she should go look for her. She’d silently watched as this so called most generous cousin-in-law of Debby’s had zeroed in on her, and then disappeared downstairs with her in tow. What was downstairs? Classrooms. Empty classrooms. Dark, empty classrooms.
She never liked the look he gave Debby, especially after finding out about Nora’s situation. She, of all people, knew that look on a guy’s face when she saw it.
Just one more minute remained of the game, and in the last few moments Max managed to scramble the ball into the goal post.
Too late to go look for her herself now.
Where the hell was Debby?
As the trumpets blared out in the VR screen, the sound filled the whole auditorium. Max and Melanie had won. Max pulled off his head gear and looked happily to where Debby was supposed to be seated, and the sight seemed to paralyze him.
“Damn that Aleck!” Jinora cursed under her breath.
Max shot her a questioning glance before he was surrounded by his more fanatic fans. Whatever Aleck was up to, and she knew it couldn’t be anything good, she’d catch him red-handed with Max in tow.
Debby vaulted into the first room she found open. She didn’t have the time to set a diversion. Aleck was practically on her heels. Her mind was on overdrive. The only thing she could think about was how to get away. Crouching behind the big cupboard in the room, she held her breath with her hand. Blood was still pounding in her ears. Aleck’s touch still lingered on her.
She tried to calm down. Panic would not save her. Panic never saved anyone. So she took as deep breaths as she could through the tight cover her hand made.
Aleck just… tried to… make a pass at me?
She couldn’t believe it, yet there it was. The burning sensation of his hand where he had touched her. Not somewhere a cousin would. And the look in his eyes. She gulped. Why was he doing this?
The sound of the door creaking open put her back on alert. Sure enough, Aleck was the one who walked in stealthily.
How long had she been hiding? One minute? Five?
“Deb?” He whispered into the darkness of the room. “You in here, sweetheart?”
She cringed at the endearment. His shadow moved on the floor, and from where she could see, his silhouette was making its way toward the other side of the room.
“Come on, Deborah. We all want something like this at some point,” he coaxed. “It’s not like I’m going to hurt you, you know?“
Debby wanted to throw up at the notion of what he was suggesting. She felt tears pricking the corners of her eyes. How could he? Nora trusted him. She trusted him. How could he betray them both like that?
A sob must’ve escaped her throat, because she was all too aware of him turning abruptly toward the cupboard. He was standing in the middle of the room now. His eyes gleamed. He would figure out she was there sooner or later. By the looks of his advance, it would probably be sooner.
Who knows about this? That was the next question that came to her mind. No one. Except Jinora. She was the only one who knew where Debby was. Or, more like who she was with. The game would be over by now. She’d track them down eventually, what with her distrust for Aleck. But who knew how long that would take. Who knew?
She’d been looking straight into his eyes. She wasn’t afraid. No, she couldn’t afford to be.
He’d finally concluded that she really was behind that cupboard, because he grabbed at her wrist. At the same moment, she threw a leg out to kick one of his feet from under him. He began to fall with a grunt, but braced himself. She prepared to kick a second time when the lights in the room flickered on. And there stood Jinora, who looked like she could murder Aleck, and Max, who stared at them wide eyed. His eyes flicked from Debby to Aleck to the wrist he obviously held with pressure, in confusion.
Aleck stared at them too, unsure of how exactly to cover up for an instant. Then, he let Debby’s hand go as casually as he could. “Would you look at that? I told you they’d just find it childish,” he said to Debby. “Playing hide and seek at this age,” he added as an afterthought.
“Oh, really?” Jinora said with all the grace of an interrogating officer. “How would you explain those tear tracks, then? And that shoe print on you jeans? She’s obviously kicked you. Hard too, ‘cause your leg’s tense.”
Aleck eyed her angrily, his nostrils flared.
By then Debby had hurried to Jinora’s side, and Max had finally snapped out of his daze. Where Aleck had grabbed her, a bruise was beginning to form. She was clutching it, but the blackness of the skin didn’t escape Max’s eyes.
Some people from the tournament had followed Max and Jinora; maybe because they sensed tension building in the presence, maybe because they just wanted to be in the presence of one of the champions. Melanie was among them, and a lot of her fan-girls/boys as well. Many of Max’s fans had also followed the track their hero left. Everyone had gathered behind the trio of friends, and Aleck was definitely seeing the opportunity this crowd would grant him.
“Hey, kids. You aren’t seriously going to harass an older person based on a fleeting moment’s view, are you?” he said, spread his hands in a defensive motion. “The situation isn’t the way it looks, trust me.”
He did sound genuine to some of them, and they began to murmur.
Melanie came up to Max’s side. Placing a hand on his shoulder, she said, “I’m pretty sure there’s been a misunderstanding here—“
“And how exactly would you know that, Melanie?” Jinora challenged.
In response, Melanie stiffened and squared her shoulders to face off Jinora instead. “I don’t think I was talking to you, Jinora.” She stopped short when Max moved away from her and toward Debby.
He pried her hand away from her wrist. When he touched the bruised skin she grimaced. Almost instantly, whatever doubt he had faded, and his jaw went rigid. “Where else did he hurt you?” he said in an almost inaudible growl, obviously laced with rage.
“That bruise was an accident—“
“No one asked you anything, Aleck,” Max interjected rather rudely, turning to him abruptly with bloody murder in his eyes.
Debby, standing in the protective arch that Max’s arms made around her, suddenly felt uncomfortable. Max and Aleck were down glaring at each other with so much venom that, if looks could kill, they would both be dead and possibly in very bad shape in the afterlife as well. But, on the side of her where Jinora wasn’t covering her, she could feel the stares of almost the entire audience of the match on her. None of them were friendly. Especially not of one particular raven-head.
“M-Max,” she said quietly. This terrified her. All this attention, and for the wrong reason. The way Max’s muscles bunched under her hands felt so unreal, unfamiliar. She didn’t want this. No, not after she’d just been betrayed by the person who was the closest to a big brother. She couldn’t take it. “Max,” she said, stronger this time. “Please. This isn’t worth it.”
“Oh, damn well it is,” he replied. “No one gets away with hurting you, Debby. Doesn’t matter how you used to think of him. I know exactly what he wanted.”
There were some more murmurs in the crowd gathered behind them, and it kept growing until Aleck finally retorted.
“Tch. Aren’t you all high and mighty, kid. You really want to pick a fight with me? Really awesome impression you’ll have with her parents, huh?”
Debby’s eyes widened. How stupid had she been? Jinora had told her again and again how she didn’t like the looks Aleck was giving her after she first saw him. How she’d found him more than once whisking his eyes away from an inappropriate location, came back to her. She hadn’t thought much of it. So what? He was a guy. And a lot of guys were like that. That was what she’d thought. She’d trusted him with some of her deepest secrets.
And now he was turning those against her.
Max huffed. “My impression hardly matters at this point, brother, even though you don’t deserve to be called that anymore.”
“Wait a minute,” Melanie interrupted once again. “Impression? Brother? What are you guys talking about?” she said looking from Max to Aleck, and finally landing on Debby, she said, “What did he really do to you, Debby?”
For once, Debby thought Melanie looked genuinely uncomfortable and curious at the same time. She wanted to say it, because maybe it would make it easier for her to understand. But when she tried to put the words together, she choked on a sob.
Aleck sighed, a hand going up to massage the ridge of his nose. “This is stupid, Deb. You’re making an unnecessary scene here—“
“Oh, right. She’s making a scene,” Jinora scoffed.
“If you would let me finish speaking, Jinny,” Aleck said, glaring once again. “This is all just a misunderstanding. I’m sure we can sort this out by talking it over privately.”
Max could feel the anger in him growing with every tremor Debby’s sobs sent through his body. He couldn’t hold her and sustain that anger, so he brought his hands down from around her and clenched his fists. Almost as if afraid of the outcome, Debby snatched his arms, the tear tracks on her cheeks adding to the terrified look in her eyes.
“No!” She breathed. “Please, Max.” He refused to meet her eyes, and she understood why. She brought him to face her after some struggle. ”Don’t do anything stupid, please.”
The hard line of his jaw softened slightly, but only slightly, at her words.
“You shouldn’t be defending this guy, Deb,” Jinora whispered.
“She’s not defending him.” Melanie said, causing all three of them to look at her. “No. She’s just making sure she doesn’t regret it afterward.”
“What are you kids conspiring about back there?” Aleck said, arms crossed. “Whatever we talk about should be between Deborah, Max and I. The rest here are outsiders.”
“I’m not talking to you about anything, Aleck,” Max said.
Aleck stared at the crowd in disbelief. “What? You think I’m the sort of person who would do whatever she’s implying?” His hands had come apart from where they were crossed against his chest and waved around in gestures that spoke incredulousness and frustration. “How do you think it’s okay to trust her completely, anyway? She’s the one who came out in the middle of your all-important finale to greet me!” By now he was huffing uncontrollably, and probably didn’t even know what he was saying. “If anyone’s to blame here it’s her!”
She only momentarily felt his muscles bunch under her touch before Debby saw Max’s form blur in front of her. The next moment, there was a sickening crunch, and Aleck was groaning and moaning with his hand over his face. Blood dripped onto the floor at his feet, and Max stood in front, his feet still braced for the impact of the punch he’d just dealt.
Jinora punched her own palm. “That ought to teach him a lesson.”
Debby all but crumpled to the ground in shock. It was Melanie who caught her, Jinora rubbing circles on her back.
“That,” Max started in quiet anger, “was for implying you being a sick bastard is her fault.” Before Aleck could gather himself up again completely, Max struck again, jarring his jaw this time. “And that is for betraying everyone so far.”
The older man sat slumped next to the wall near which Debby was hiding only a few minutes before. He was clearly dazed, perhaps the blood from the concussion going to his head. Max turned to Jinora, and before he could say anything she began to shoo away the audience.
“Alright people, party’s over,” she said, and the crowd began to thin, reluctantly at first, but once the majority of them were gone, it took only another few moments.
“Jin,” Max said, “Call up Nora’s parents. Debby isn’t living in the same family as this pedophile.”