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[Nepeta Leijon, of the Executrix Blues, leaps for a catch on the cover of Sports Decimated. The article is titled "PREDATOR: Why Nepeta Leijon Is The Player We've All Been Waiting For. Featuring two in-depth discussions of particularly clutch catches, a brief and dismissive inquiry into whether 'clutch' is even a thing, more detail than anyone could ever require about Leijon's daily habits and preferred breakfast cereal, one heartwarming tale of survival and crushing the skulls of the empire's enemies under her heels, and two pages of what is legally denoted 'softcore pale porn' between Leijon and her moirail, Equius Zahhak, as well as an extensive section trying to analyze the source of her skill but..."]

It's been stuck to your locker with about six different kinds of magnets, and in one corner, a "YOU CAN DO IT" sticker from Aradia. Aradia has modified this with marker to read YOU DID IT! and it's bled on the corner of the magazine cover. This is the kind of thing you are noticing right now because if you start noticing anything else you are gonna go into shock right here in the locker room, an hour before you have to play the Reds, and it's going to be positively awful for everyone.

It's real, it's real, it's real! You hadn't imagined the whole thing. You were pretty sure that was the case when Equius sent you an inter-ship message in the middle of the day that said, D--> Do you think I appeared t00 informal in that sh001?, but that wasn't conclusive, not until this. For one thing, you had wasted about twenty minutes that night trying to figure out what a "shool" was.

You yank open the locker hard and the cholerbear inside it is caught off guard, so confused by the sudden intrusion of light that you have it in a headlock before people can even start laughing at you. Ha ha! Shows them right! Pick a better prank for a PREDATOR next time, particularly one that We've All Been Waiting For! You're careful not to say any of this out loud because one of your key life ambitions is not to be a douche. Nevertheless it rings internally with the same kind of certainty as your walk-up music and the phrase danananana-na, CHARGE. You bite the head off the cholerbear, and everyone groans. Tonight is going to be good.

*

Put up any set of numbers you want and Nepeta Leijon will look good in them. Even the heretical and reviled sabermeretricians of old would probably have given her their stamp of approval. "Her slash line is ridiculous," says Executrix Blues third baseman Feferi Peixes, and rattles it off without effort: .270/.340/.477. "We've got a bet that she'll count as three of me by the end of the year. But really we keep her around because she can jump six feet."

This isn't the exaggeration that it might seem. In a game at the start of the sixth perigee, Leijon took a running leap for a ball that was clearing the outfield wall by a good three feet. She smashed her chin into the top of the wall--and made the catch.

"I'm light on my feet," she says, with a self-deprecating wave of a hand. "That's why they call me the Cat."

Her moirail lifts an eyebrow at her, and she laughs and says, "Well, not the whole reason."

*

The Reds put up negative fight in the first inning, or the second, but when they slink out of the top of the third still looking like they're hoping to get out of the game without ever scoring a run you get mad. When you fetch up on second base, you tell Pyrope about it. You guys used to play together back in triple-A, and when you say, "Terezi, this game sucks," she doesn't take it personally.

"It kind of does," she admits. "No one's head is in the game. You didn't hear? Serket's getting traded."

Serket, over at shortstop, yells, "Hey! Fuck you!"

Pyrope adds, "Obviously we are devastated."

Equius toes out the batter's box with determination, and you face him fully so he feels supported and loved. You can hear the gentle murmur of the crowd taking the opportunity to get hot dogs. The thing is, his stance is great, really great, as great as you could make it, and he's got a killer eye. It's just as soon as he actually swings the bat he forgets that you're supposed to be loose and find the sweet spot. As far as Equius Zahhak has ever been concerned, bats are made out of a series of splinters and it is his job to either protect them entirely or return them to their natural form. He goes through five bats, and five fouls, and you bend over to touch your toes.

The crack takes you totally by surprise. You scramble into a run and end up sliding into third so hard you're lucky Nitram has metal legs. "Are you all right?" he says, helping you gently to your feet. "That looked, uh…"

"Awesome," you say, with conviction, though your stomach is not going to thank you for any of this. You turn back to Serket, who's trudging back from halfway to first, and beam at her, sunny and real.

Her eyes narrow.

"Oh wow," says Nitram, faintly. "I think we're going to have to kick your ass."

*

Leijon is a baseball exemption. "No red quadrant," she explains without a blush. "Still no red quadrant, actually. It's hard to get it going when you're on the road so much. So I was slated for culling, but then there was a tryout, and…"

What she's trailing off on is the image on her rookie posters, an effortless catch that made the Executrix ring with cheers so loud it caused structural instability to the engines. The poster shows her in mid-leap, fingers grazing the top of the ball, with her face already wreathed in a grin. If the catch hadn't gotten her the exemption, her throw home would have. The Blues beat the Imperator Clawdads three-two. Leijon celebrated by eating three decapodians whole with about half a pound of butter.

There are those who say that baseball exemptions are a threat to the sanctity of the empire. It just takes one look at a game Leijon's in to remember that, really, displays of awesome and brutal athleticism are what the empire's all about.

*

In the fourth, Vantas just pops up dreamily to your glove, but Nitram singles. You're way too far away to get a glimpse of his face, but you are not too far to see him give the two fingers of I am watching first to Equius, and then, meaningfully, to you. Oh, what are you going to do from the outfield? You roll your eyes at him, and then, in case he misses it, stick out your tongue.

Serket's up, and the crowd scoots to the edge of their seats. Behind her in the bleachers someone yells, "MAKE HER BLEED," which is technically treason. There's a rolling laugh.

You toe the grass in deep center, feeling your way to the stance you need: wide, lazy-looking, low. She could go anywhere with this swing. She bats like she's got a personal grudge against the ball.

Strike one. You scratch an itch on the underside of your knee, and wonder if you want the Blues to be the ones hustling for her. The only answer you can think of is "maybe". It'd be nice to have a little power. On the other hand, one time she got into a brawl with the umpire and made him bite his own knee off.

Strike two. Also, you think, she has no patience. The Blues have gotten where they are on contact. You think wistfully of Aradia's long, beautiful, torturous at-bats, the ones that made Miklas Mailes cry after the twentieth foul. Maybe you shouldn't be throwing stones here. Sometimes you get up to the plate and you just want to sink your fangs into something, you know?

You can tell even before the signal that Equius is setting up for a breaking ball. There's been a little fuzz on these lately, and you take a long deep breath. Loose, you whisper to yourself. The mighty PREDATOR stalks her prey.

It goes deep.

You're sprinting before you even know what you're doing, left, left, left, no, slow down, and you're not going to make it under in time to set up but Sollux is a mile away so you yell out a "Got it!" and commit to the dive. The ball hits your bare fingers and you're rolling, so fast you can't tell if you kept it, until you're upright and digging it out of your glove. You have time to think, Nitram's slow, clear as crystal, before you throw to first. You lose your balance on it again, and thud back into the grass, so it's the crowd that tells you the throw was good. The left-field bleachers are screaming like it's an imperial revue.

You get to your feet, beaming, and turn around, and the Jumboterron is flashing PREDATOR.

"The game isn't over yet," Sollux says, at your expression.

"I know," you say. You raise a hand to the crowd in a shameless and horrible display of showboating. "That's the best part."

*

So what's next for Nepeta Leijon? Batting titles? Gold Glaives?

"Well, tonight I'm planning to cloud for a FLARP campaign," she says, and giggles. "Big plans. No, I don't know. It's all about playing for tomorrow. This time last year I thought I'd be executed at the start of the season. Now we're talking about a Series run. It's hard to believe."

Zahhak murmurs something, and she says, "Oh! Yeah. I think probably my long-term goal is to become the best player who ever lived.

"And that Series," she adds. "We're hungry for it."

Now that's something she can get her teeth into.