The whistle blows, and the basketball smacks the ground. I yawn involuntarily. Apparently that lasted only ten minutes, but I feel like this first quarter lasted at least an hour. My limbs already ache from standing up so long, and there's a dizziness hovering by my head that tells me to sit down. But I can't sit down in muddy, dirty, soggy grass that'll seep through my trousers and make it look like I've peed myself.
I kind of feel like crying.
Alistair is on the pitch looking sporty, and Six keeps offering me side-long glances, and I can't see three and the Coach's head is bobbing up and down looking this way and that way, and it's so, so annoying.
They're all so annoying. I hate them all. I hate them. I want to go home.
I need to shower, and I swear I might kill for a hot drink, because the cold is carving into my bones. All the players are jogging over, bright smiles on their stupid faces, like maybe they could be enjoying themselves. Their eyes all sparkle, and there's a gleam of sweat on their foreheads even though it's so cold. It kind of disgusts me.
"Hira?" Alistair has a wide grin on his face. "What do you think?"
I look at him. "Why are you smiling? You looked stupid," I say.
Alistair rolls his eyes, but he doesn't seem as upset as I wanted him to be. "Didn't you see me spin, stupid?"
"I saw you lose the ball," I offer, stepping away from him because he stinks of sweat and rain and more sweat. "And don't breathe in my face."
"I'm not breathing in your face. I'm talking to you."
"Then don't talk to me."
Alistair stares at me in wonder, like he can't quite believe the words coming out of my mouth. "Your mood swings are insane, you know that?"
"I think you've possibly broken every promise you made me, you stupid idiotic- Idiotic imbecile."
"Idiotic imbecile?" Alistair bursts into a spurt of laughter, and then his face grows serious again. "Not every promise. You haven't played basketball."
"I might as well be!" I pick up the bottom of my shirt and spread it out for Alistair to see. "I'm soaking wet. I'm cold. I'm tired. I'm irritated and I'm humiliated and I'm missing school. I like history. I wish I was doing work right now."
"It's just a few hours. We'll be back at school soon."
"Yeah, yeah, okay," Alistair squeezes the excess water out of his shirt hem. "I think you'd make a good basketball player, you know? Intimidating. That's you."
I turn away from him, and head over to the Coach, only to find he's staring up at Mr Grey with an adoring expression on his face. They're in conversation, but Coach is listening and Mr Grey speaking, and I seriously doubt their roles are going to be reversed. The players from the other team are milling around with our team, and I vaguely wonder if this is what is supposed to happen. Consulting with the enemy? Do any of them even take this seriously?
I stand a little way until Mr Grey looks like he's going to move on. It feels embarrassing standing by myself, but I do it anyway. Maybe I should ask Mr Grey if I can go to the toilet - or perhaps that I feel sick? Dizzy? Like I'm dying of hypothermia?
It takes me a few seconds to realise I'm being looked at. The feeling is kind of just instinct: a pair of eyes scalding the back of my neck and digging right through me. I look up quickly.
Mr Grey has grey eyes: that's the first thing I notice. Second, he's seizing me up with one quick glance, and there's a smirk - the kind you see on a school jock's face - balancing on the corners of his lips.
He narrows his eyes, and then addresses me. "You're new, aren't you?" he says, his voice silky. "You're quite tall, and you're healthy - you'd make a good player."
"Cat got your tongue?" He's properly smiling now, and it's ugly. A distortion. "Will you be playing with us today, Number Seven?" he asks me, and I freeze up, because I know there's only one answer he expects me to give- Shit. Are my hands shaking, or is it just the cold?
"Not today," I reply tightly, the words sticking in my throat like gum.
He hums, and even the sound is dizzying itself. "We'll see, Seven."
My head snaps up, "I'm sorry, I don't quite know what you're saying-"
"You'll catch a cold just standing there," Grey says softly. "And we wouldn't want your team hiding anything from us. Who knows? Maybe you're a star player."
He shrugs. "I said we'd see, didn't I?"
Then he's moving away to talk to some of his players, and his head isn't facing me, but I can still feel his eyes burning through me. He's so relaxed, like he always spends his days bullying pupils, whilst my back is straight like someone just shoved a rod down my shirt. My breathe hitches, and I realise I'm subconsciously looking for someone to help me.
Alistair is chatting, joking, laughing with his head thrown back in the air some way off, and the Coach despises me, quite obviously - both of them, not just one. I turn to Raf, who is gulping down a huge bottle of water and fanning himself with a jumper, even though it's freezing. I quickly move over to him.
"The score's 10-3," he says, his forehead creasing up like paper. "We need to do something."
"Cael's too slow," I offer vaguely, and Raf meets my eyes. There's something like surprise in them.
He nods. "You're right. But we don't have anyone faster," he looks me up and down, and there's nothing friendly in his face like I first thought there was. "You just picked that up, didn't you? You're clever, so I'm not surprised. But do you think you can do a better job?"
"No-" I gasp out. "Why does everything think this is such a joke? Is everyone intent on making today the worst day of my entire life?"
Raf grins, "Not at all. You're just easy to tease, Hira."
"Right," I throw Raf my dirtiest look, to no avail. "Thank you."
"Relax. Deep breathes. The rain will be stopping soon, and then you can watch the game better."
I nod my head curtly. "Good luck."
"We need it," Raf says quietly. "I'm afraid today is going to be a bit of a disappointment."
It already is, is what I'm thinking, but I keep my mouth shut. Raf will only think of something worse to say back, and, after all, I have the most to lose right now. This is awful, but it could get so much worse. I don't even want to think about how I would feel standing on that pitch, with grass sinking beneath my feet because it's so heavy with the rain, and the sky clapping above me - mocking. People running, whizzing past, a confusion. Whistles and shoulders jabbing in to me, backs bumping passed me and people shouting that I need to move. I know how sports works: I've been in enough PE lessons to know that if you're not the best, it isn't any fun. Losing hurts more than a winner can know.
"Hira-" Alistair is all of a sudden right in my face, his silvery-gold hair brushing right passed me. "Can I just talk to you for a moment-"
I roll my eyes, and it feels natural. "What? Are you coming to apologize?" Just as I am finishing my sentence, someone charges right into my back like we're in some kind of wrestling match. I trip forwards, and simultaneously shove the person leaning against me backwards as hard as I can - which is pathetic, because I'm falling so quickly that my touch has barely any strength in it at all. Alistair grabs my arm and steadies me, his pale face going even paler.
He mutters to me, "Shit- are you okay?"
And I'm fine. It doesn't hurt. I straighten myself up to my full height (which I now know for definite is taller than Alistair) and turn around very slowly to meet the small crowd from the other team facing me. They're standing in a crescent circle, some of them guffawing with laughter behind their hands, but most of them just grinning wickedly. I'm not afraid: they're just the same. You see those type of people everywhere: the ones who gel their hair so thick it's like they got a bowl of wax tipped over their heads (though their hair doesn't look that waxy right now, probably because of the rain). They're all tall, but I'm just as tall.
I sneer at the one who's still picking himself up, and then grab his collar tightly. I think he thinks I might be trying to push him over further, but instead I pull him to his feet. I'm not stupid. He shouldn't have fallen onto me, but he didn't trip by himself. He was pushed, just like I keep being shoved around by slaps on the back and friendly shoulder barges.
The boy behind him is looking right at me, his eyes fixated on mine and his lips ripped back into a feral grin. His eyes are so dark they look like holes, and there's something cruel about the flick of his jaw and the way his forehead slashes into a frown made of scars.
I'm not quite sure what I want to say. 'Stupid' doesn't quite fit, but I'm not going to stoop so low as to swear at him. I have manners. Instead, I flatten my expression out. "You shouldn't push people around," I say. "It's rude."
He grins wider.
"You should apologise," I continue, using my right hand to move the other boy out of my view, because his sniveling expression is grating on my nerves.
He moves closer, smooth steps like he's cutting through the air itself. "I'm sorry," he says softly. "I wouldn't have pushed him if I'd known he'd bump in to you."
I shiver, but I don't think anyone notices. We're about the same height, I think, but i worry - if he steps any closer - I might have to look up at him.
"It doesn't matter who you bump into. It's rude."
"You've got pretty eyes. They're like stars."
I can't help myself. My jaw goes slack. "That's cliched," I snap. And I almost tell him he has very ugly eyes, but I don't. Because it isn't true.
"You should learn some manners," I finish, stepping away. "Then your pick-up lines might work a bit better."
Alistair is whispering something in my ear, and I'm tempted to push him away. He's so annoyingly close.
"Number three," Alistair says, and then coughs right after so his words are half disguised. I tighten my jaw, and look at the boy's shirt. Sure enough, there's a large THREE in bold typing, and sure enough, this is the boy Alistair is chasing after. I don't think I'll ever understand human nature.