An essay by Ekaterina Serafimevna Poponova, as provided by Blake Jessop
Art by America Jones
Week 3: Vĕdma Magiyatogorsk VS Schwarzwald Werwölfe
“Cut inside her, Ilona!” I scream, and no one listens. My teammate soars around the oval track in a flat arc, visible only from the waist up in the giant clay mortar that all Russian witches use to fly. Her coarse witch’s cloak billows like a sail before the wind as she leans into the turn. I glance up at the scoreboard. Down by fifteen.
Ilona is a great witch, but she isn’t really built for speed. If I were in charge, she’d be a blocker, not the pivot. I would be the pivot.
Ilona flies her mortar with grim determination, trying to find a way past the howling pack of German werewolves. Schwarzwald Werwölfe has the most disciplined blockers in the entire Champions League, and there’s no way they’re going to let Ilona slip past. The rules of the sport I have devoted my life to are simple; if my scorer circles the track more often than yours, I win. You use your blockers to try to stop me, and my pivot calls the plays. Add every style of magic on Earth to the cauldron, however, and the recipe gets complicated.
The Germans lope around the huge oval with the confidence of supreme hunters. The giant wolves shift amongst each other to stop the rest of my coven from breaking through. The traditional clay mortar is fast, but about as aerodynamic as a giant tea-cup. Most of the rest of Russian magic involves curses and bad luck, so Ilona is out of options.
“We’re never getting off the bench, “I say, slumping back as the Germans finish another lap in the lead. Ivan Maximov, our coach, is stretching the seams of his expensive American suit and screaming at the referee for failing to punish some penalty that exists only in his mind.
“You never know, Katya,” Anton says. My brother is an incurable optimist, and he’s had to be. He is the first man to ever earn promotion to Magiyatogorsk’s senior team. People look at him the way they look at boys who prefer dance class to ice hockey. No one likes to see a man doing women’s work, and in Russia, magic has always been a definitively female profession.
Ilona finally breaks through the leaping, yowling blockers and banks her mortar toward the German scorer, who has just finished putting points on the board in three consecutive laps. The rest of our girls couldn’t stop her, but Ilona has almost caught up.
“The German bitch is going to call a jam, and that moron Maximov won’t see it coming,” I say. The German’s name is Anna Reinhardt, and she’s smaller and quicker than most of her pack. She is very talented, but there’s gray showing between her pointed ears and at the tip of her furiously wagging tail. Flight magic is much easier on the body than running, even with the unearthly endurance of a lycanthrope, but that’s not the problem. Ilona is much younger than Reinhardt, and neither is that the advantage it ought to be.
Just as Ilona threatens to cross the pivot line first and take back the position of scorer, the German shifts back into her human shape in a furry blur and taps her hands to her hips. The referee, a Japanese girl in a sailor suit flying around with a magic wand, blows her whistle and makes a series of cute hand gestures. As the teams line back up to start again, the only person cursing louder than Ilona is Maximov, the useless bastard.
“Good guess,” Anton says.
“No guess. It was obvious. She won the scoring title five or six years ago; she’d never forget how to control the clock.”
Reinhardt shifts back into werewolf form, still panting heavily, and lopes easily back toward the pivot line. The rest of her pack howls joyously.
“You and I could have come up with something, “I say, loudly enough for Maximov to hear. “We’re only three games into the round robin and everything is already going to shit.”
Maximov ignores me. I hate being ignored.
“We will get our chance, Katya,” Anton says.
I try to think of some cutting remark, but all that comes to mind are the dirty names the crowds back home call him. Goluboi, which I won’t even translate, or altar boy. I keep my lip buttoned. For a moment, anyway.
“And what, Anton Serafimovich,” I say disconsolately, “could possibly stop Maximov from sticking with the same starting five until we crash out of the Champion’s League in complete disgrace?”
The two-minute warning buzzer sounds, and the stadium fills with a rhythmic German chant which I’m pretty sure is Auf Wiedersehen.
“I think you could,” he says, with a calm I find surprising.
Week 5: Bye Week, Media Commitments, Closed Captions on
ESPN2 TITLE SCROLL / Magical Champions League promo animation
Bob: Hi everyone, I’m Bob Jones with E:60, and I’m here with Ekaterina Serafim–Ekaterina Serafimevna Popova from Vĕdma Magiyatogorsk.
Ekaterina (heavily accented): It’s Poponova, and just Katya is fine.
Bob: Thank you, Katie. Your team recently fired Coach Ivan Maximov under mysterious circumstances. Many would see that as a big risk. What precipitated the change?
Ekaterina: Maximov was appointed to Magiyatogorsk by the national association after we won the Russian Cup and qualified for this year’s Champion’s League. No one expected us to win, and they thought Baba Yaga’s coaching style was too antiquated to succeed on the world stage, so they fired her and sent us a politician. That was a mistake: it ruined our chemistry.
Bob: You took over as a player-coach. A bold and potentially disruptive move. Were there any hard feelings with Coach Maximov?
Ekaterina: No, we stripped Ivan of all his flesh and used his bones for a giant pot of borscht, so it’s not an issue with him.
Bob (laughing): Well, I can see that team spirits are already rising if you can joke about a coaching change half-way through the competition.
Ekaterina: Yes, a joke. We Russians are well known for our sense of humor.
Bob: Have you made any other changes?
Ekaterina: Some alterations to training and diet. A lot more meat protein; we need staying power if we are to beat top teams like Regent’s Academy or the Washington Heroes. The biggest change will be in the lineup: no more discrimination. We are not a fancy British university where some golden-haired duchess can pick and choose who she likes best. We will adopt the old Soviet style: whoever has a hot hand on the pestle will play.
Bob: Does that mean your younger brother will get a chance at scorer? Won’t that be seen as favoritism?
Ekaterina: Anton can play. He’s a great witch. It drives me crazy to see him sit on the bench. When he is leading the league in scoring in a few weeks, no one will ask questions.
Bob: Scoring does seem to be a problem. You lost badly to Chronus SC in Greece in week four.
Ekaterina (slightly agitated): It wasn’t that bad. I am still finding my feet as a manager. Give me a break, okay?
Bob: The score was 77,000 to 12.
Ekaterina (agitated): Blyat! Those [BLEEP]ing chronomancers will get what’s coming to them soon enough. We will show them the power of Russian magic. The sun will not dare rise on a world where–
Bob: I like that enthusiasm. As you can see, a big change in direction for Magiyatogorsk half-way through the Champion’s League. Can they make the knock-out stage after such a slow start? Back to Mo’nae in the studio.
Week 6: Vĕdma Magiyatogorsk VS The Regent’s Academy for Wizards
I hate losing. I hate flying home in disgrace. I hate flying in anything that is not a mortar and pestle, and the Magiyatogorsk team plane is a Tupolev that’s so old it was probably riveted by Leon Trotsky. It shakes and rattles like a dingy on a choppy sea.
Outside my scuffed Perspex window, the sky is clear and the clouds fluffy. I hate nice weather and wish it would rain, except that might finally knock this terrible old plane out of the sky. I had to do an interview last week, and it put me in an awful mood. I hate interviews. What else do I hate?
I hate losing so much, especially to Western teams. The Americans aren’t so bad; all their superheroes are idiots, but at least they mean well. I hate losing to the British. They have everything I don’t: lavish funding, regal birth, beautiful golden hair, and a graceful figure. Fucking Gwendolyn Courtland and her fancy wizarding school. At least Anton is starting to take magazine covers away from her.
We look pretty similar, but only Anton will ever end up with a post-witching career as a fashion model. We both have our father’s strong cheekbones and our mother’s pointed chin. These features make Anton look aquiline, and his boyishness has that faint feminine edge unique to the most handsome Russian men. The same hard lines just make me look surly and mean. His blue eyes are in the middle of selling so many magazines that we aren’t going to need any government assistance next year, so no more Maximovs, which is one thing I do not hate. The only people who have approached me about endorsements were my old Red Army recruiter and a sleazy Hungarian pierogi company. Anton’s face is on the cover of International Sport Magic Monthly. I am secretly proud, so I always have a copy to hand and razz him about it mercilessly.
“Everything looks better on you, Anton.”
“I am very handsome, it’s true,” he says. “Come on, Katya. All that matters is that we sell some posters and make the playoffs. Who cares how I look? Who cares how you look? You can pivot and I can score.”
I sigh. “We’re going to have to win every single match we have left just to make the knock-out stage. I’m too tired to think about it. Trade me your copy of the Player’s Tribune for a while and then I’ll sleep. I’m tired of looking at your face on this thing.”
“Better not, it’s more important to rest,” Anton says with a nervous laugh. “You took a pretty good beating from those British wizards.”
I smell treachery. It smells like freshly ground pepper, and it’s hard not to sneeze. I sneeze.
“What are you hiding from me, Antosha?” I say with deadly sweetness.
“Okay, okay.” He passes the paper over. “But you shouldn’t read what people say about you. Would I still be playing if I cared every time someone called me dirty names?”
I snatch the Tribune and read. Anton goes to sleep, the Tupolev drones along, and I get so angry it feels like a thousand bees are buzzing around inside my skull.
Academy Captain Critical of Russians After Win
Courtland says Magiyatogorsk need to “get serious.”
Sir Terrance Smythe, MCL
After a comfortable 54-48 win marred by an appalling spate of Russian penalties, Regent’s Academy captain Gwendolyn Courtland sharply criticized the on-track demeanor of Magiyatogorsk pivot Ekaterina Poponova. “It’s not so much the illegal checking I mind,” she commented, giving the pesky Russian the what-for, “it’s the baggy uniforms. They dress their witches in grain sacks. I like to think our profession has moved on since the eighteenth century, but tastes are not to be discussed.” When asked whether she was worried by the seeming ease with which new Russian scorer Anton Poponov put up points in the second half, Courtland was sanguine; “fair play to him for a fine showing, but too little, too late. A clay pestle can hardly beat a heart of oak …”
I hate being insulted. I thump my fist against the window and get momentarily paranoid that I will knock the glass out of its frame and vanish into the sky.
Anton wakes with a sudden snort. “What is it?”
“Nothing, Anton Serafimovich, I’m sorry I woke you.”
He props his chin back on his chest and I tug listlessly at my witch’s robe. It is made of simple peasant wool, and is comfortably worn in. It’s a rag, of course, but it’s the same rag Russian witches have been wearing for five hundred years. Fantastic. Now I hate it, too.
Week 8: Sponsorship
The clubhouse is quiet. We have a match against Frolunda MK from Sweden and, for once, everyone actually thinks we can beat them. I don’t know if we became confident or just angry, but we are on a one-match winning streak. It’s a start.
We should be practicing to deal with the magical stags that the Swedes ride around the oval, but one problem remains. I am in no doubt about my solution, but I am also a talented liar. I doubt.
“I’m tired of showing up to matches in rags,” I tell everyone, “so I hunted around for sponsors. We have new uniforms. Wait here and I will show you.”
“Go on,” Ilona says. Anton nods eagerly. The room is quiet and smells pleasantly of brimstone and witch hazel.
I retreat to the showers to change. Everything is comfortable. I look in the mirror and try to imagine myself facing off against a goddess with golden hair. I’m not even close.
“Come on!” Anton yells.
I appear to be blushing. I square my shoulders and walk back out.
“This is what I arranged,” I say, walking back into the room. My teammates sit quietly in their stalls and stare. I feel absurdly self-conscious, and would shrink myself to the size of a flea if I didn’t have to save my strength for the match.
“Well, what do you think?” I say angrily. “Don’t just gape!”
My new robe is matte black, open and comfortable at the front, with three shining white lines down each sleeve. It hugs my hips and swishes when I walk. On the back is a faintly embossed three-leaf logo with the word adidas in a firm, serifed lower case. The outfit is completed with a tight black t-shirt made of something wonderfully lightweight, track pants, and subtly branded sneakers.
“I figured we wouldn’t be real Slavs without some white stripes,” I say, defensively.
“That is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever see,” Anton says. “Bozhe moi, is that a pocket for cigarettes?”
“Where is mine?” Ilona screeches, overcome with joy, and they all start tearing open the boxes.
Week 10: Vĕdma Magiyatogorsk VS Temple of Hanuman
One match to go. If we win this, we go to the playoffs. I imagined this as the hardest week of my career. Instead, I have pulled myself out in the last five minutes to focus on coaching and get some of our bench witches more playing time. We’re that far ahead. I call a time out.
“We can still lose this thing if we lose our focus. Ilona, you’ve been great, but you have to stop staring at their blockers.”
“They are … perfect,” Ilona says. “I’m not sure I can concentrate.”
“It’s amazing they play so well,” Anton says. “None of them are even magicians. They just pray to a Hindu god for strength. That’s why they’re all so oily and muscular.”
“I don’t care how they do it,” Ilona says, her gaze straying. “Bozhe moi, I thought that much beef was illegal in India.”
“Ilona,” I grip her shoulders. “Stay. Focused.”
“They’re so beautiful; I don’t want to stay focused. It would be a shame to beat them.”
She does, though, and we do.
We celebrate our ascension to the knock-out round in our locker room, and barely notice the television crews filming the spectacle. They don’t notice much either, because eventually we insist that they celebrate with us. Russians do not sip vodka; we drink it all at once, as the devil intended. The party is an enjoyable catastrophe.
Drunk and wandering around the Magiyatogorsk clubhouse when things calm down, I sit in the manager’s office and gaze dully at the scouting report I wrote about the Regent’s Academy for Wizards. I should have written about Washington DC Heroes United, who we face in the semi-finals, but I can’t get Gwendolyn Courtland out of my head.
Just thinking about her drives me out of my mind. I can’t stand her. The stuck-up British cow. She didn’t stop saying mean things about me in the media after we lost to her in week six. How dare she call us third-rate, and single me out for scorn? I start composing a response so I can send it to the Player’s Tribune. It’s time the world heard my side of the story.
Gwendolyn Courtland is no Duchess, there is no such thing. Blood means nothing; all that matters is skill and speed and a firm connection to the font that supplies all things. She may have all three, but that is no excuse for slandering Russian witches. Just because her hair is as blond as a river of gold …
I keep at it, stopping and then starting again every time I think of something new about the British wizardess that irks me.
And how dare she criticize the way we look? Should we not be more refined than that? Her uniform is a plaid skirt and stockings and a tweed coat! How do the stockings even stay attached when she is riding a broom?
The words flow easily, but as they do my thoughts grow more and more turbulent.
Can she not see how her scorn harms other women in her profession, how it harms me? We should be supporting each other, holding each other, as closely as possible.
It is only when I re-read the last few sentences that I realize what I’ve written. It doesn’t sound like a denunciation at all. It sounds like a love letter. I slam my laptop shut and storm off to take a shower.
Much purifying water later, I towel off and luxuriate in the feeling of the Adidas track pants. So comfortable. I weave my way back to the office and find Anton at my computer, scrolling through my match notes with his feet propped on the desk.
“Anton,” I say, with a sinking feeling, “what are you doing?”
“You did a great job scouting the British Academy. These notes are very complete. I have a few ideas about how to handle them, if we can beat the Americans and make it to the finals.”
I breathe a sigh of relief. I really need to get him to teach me how to put a password on that thing. I lean over his shoulder and look at the bracket. He taps a finger on the screen.
“I hope you planned well, Katya. Captain Marvelous is basically invincible.”
“So they’re superheroes, so what? I have an idea about that, and if it fails, at least we don’t have to lose to the blond British bitch again.”
“You’re assuming she’ll make it past those Mexican Brujas.>” As Anton speaks, I quietly hope she doesn’t. I have a feeling it would save me a lot of trouble. Anton doesn’t notice my disquietude. “Even killing them won’t stop a line rush, and the Calavera Catrina is the best manager in the league, apart from you, of course. Nobody outcoaches the Lady of Bones.”
I sigh. “It doesn’t matter how smart she is if her players won’t listen to her. Listen, Anton, Academy will beat them. The Brujas are great, but they’re too disorganized. You’ll see. You can’t improvise against Academy.”
“Maybe not. I guess I should just worry about the Yankees.” Anton stretches languorously and closes the laptop. Crisis averted.
“Oh, and I read that response you wrote to the British captain after she insulted you. It was great. You really stood up for yourself.”
A feeling between anxiety and mind-splitting horror takes up residence in my soul.
“Anton,” I hiss. He raises his hands defensively.
“I’m not teasing you! I really liked it. Anyway, I noticed you addressed it to the Player’s Tribune, and I thought it was so good I sent it off. You shouldn’t be so shy about your writing.”
I tip him violently out of the chair and tear the laptop open. Words leak unbidden from between my lips.
“Oh God, no.”
There it is, on the front page of the website. It’s been there for an hour. I look at the page view statistics. 22,349,012 views, 11,523 comments.
Week 12: The Opening Ceremony
We’re all terribly nervous before the opening ceremony. As returning champions, the Regent’s Academy for Wizards plays host. We get a tour of the ancient school, and a taste of the legendary disdain the British call politeness.
When we all parade into the University’s great hall, I feel terribly self-conscious in front of both the cameras and the British fans. Without the soothing Slavic power of the Adidas performance robe, I’m not sure I could face them at all. As the speeches drone on, I scan the British team for its captain. They all wear dour slacks or prim plaid skirts, but she stands out like the only flame in a row of unlit candles.
Gwendolyn Courtland glances at me and bites her lip. I look behind me. There’s a fan in the gallery with a picture of her face and an arrow that points down toward me with block lettering that says NOW KISS. I look away, but just end up staring at her. How in the name of god does she keep the tights up? Don’t they chafe on the broom?
Week 14: Vĕdma Magiyatogorsk VS Washington DC Heroes United
I shouldn’t have looked past the American Superheroes. It turns out it’s us who should be worrying about making the finals, not Gwendolyn. We’re down by almost forty at half time, and the converted American Football stadium where Heroes United host playoff games is packed to the brim with eighty thousand drunk, screaming fans.
The American captain stops by our sideline as the timer counts down to the second half. He looks about nine feet tall and has muscles that put the Indian strongmen to shame. His lantern jaw is chiseled, and his eyes are as blue as a Montana sky. He is every inch a hero.
“Good luck in the second half,” Captain Marvelous booms, “I’m sure you’ll do fine.”
“Thank you,” I say, barely audible over the roar of the crowd.
“Didn’t get the Tzarcasm, huh?” he says, walking off with an enormous smile. Fucking Americans.
“We’re down 39,” Anton says. Even he is having a hard time keeping his optimism in place. “I could barely make that up if I just rode in a circle with no one stopping me for the whole second half.”
“How can we possibly pull that off?” Ilona moans. “They all have five or six superpowers; what am I supposed to do about a blocker who has a healing factor and the strength of five different wild animals?”
“Don’t worry about Rhinocigirl,” I say. “I had hoped to beat them fair and square, but I have a backup plan.”
“I’m all ears,” Anton says.
“Well, no matter what happens or what kind of human monstrosity tries to stop you, just keep flying for points.”
“Don’t be cruel,” Anton says, glancing over at the American blocker. She has muscles so hard they look like brown marble. “We are better than that, and besides, she is quite beautiful.”
“What? Anton, she must weigh 300 kilos. She has a tusk.”
“Da, she is ripped.”
“She would roll over and crush you, little brother.”
“Don’t be a hypocrite; we aren’t degrading each other, remember? Besides, you don’t know what I’m into.”
“Okay,” I say, and Anton stares at me. “I am sorry Antosha, and you are right. Can we move on? Look over there. I know we can’t beat superheroes, but there is someone who can.”
“Who?” Ilona says.
There’s a titanic crash at the tunnel entrance to the field. An insane looking cowboy rides onto the field on a bucking, steam-powered bronco. He brandishes a pair of enormous pistols that glow with eldritch light.
“A super villain,” I say.
“I’m Tex Arcana,” the lunatic screams, “and I’m here to bust up this little rodeo!”
At first the crowd thinks it’s part of the half-time show, until the demonic cowboy starts shooting at the pillars that support the upper deck. The gunshots are as thunderous as lightning bolts, and each silver bullet cuts deep into the concrete.
The crowd above lurches and sways. Before the entire structure can collapse, Rhinocigirl charges like … well, like a rhinoceros, and grabs hold of one of the pillars. The muscles across her back bulge and threaten to rip right out of her combat leotard.
“Cyka blyat,” Anton says, “look at her.”
“Help them!” I yell. “Ilona, fly up there and make sure everyone gets off the tiers!”
Pandemonium erupts all over the stadium. The buzzer rings to start the second half as Captain Marvelous exchanges continental crust-shattering uppercuts with Tex Arcana. The crowd that isn’t in imminent danger of crushing death cheers deliriously.
So we work to save everyone. Of course we do. I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t. What goddamn beautiful Gwendolyn Courtland said really did hurt. We’re not just eighteenth-century witches. Russian magic is something that can be as good and true as the people who use it.
We fly our mortars in sweeping arcs and pluck dangling spectators from the chaos. Captain Marvelous finally lays the crazy gunslinger low after a jaw-crushingly heroic fist fight. The final punch sends Tex Arcana flailing off his horse and into the penalty box.
“Two minutes,” Captain Marvelous says, “for evil.”
Rhinocigirl puts the wreckage down with a satisfied crash and Captain Marvelous strides proudly over to shake my hand.
“Nice to see that even a goddamn Commie can see when it’s time to help people in need.”
“We are as human as you are, tovarich. Thank you, Rhinocigirl. To hold up the stands all alone while we saved the fans. Incredible.”
Captain Marvelous interrupts before the big American girl can say anything. She looks annoyed, which is terrifying.
“Well you Putin a solid effort, too,” the American captain says, and stares at me expectantly. “Get it?”
“Yes.” I frown.
“What? This not your week to have a share of the sense of humor? Anyway, well done. Shame we couldn’t finish the match. We’ll have to book a replay.”
The buzzer sounds. Time has run out while we were saving the spectators.
“Oh no,” I say, “that won’t be a problem.”
I jerk a thumb over my shoulder. The entire time we were busy stopping Tex Arcana from destroying the stadium, Anton has been diligently flying his mortar around the track.
“Play never officially stopped,” I say. “Bad luck, USA.”
“Wait … you planned this? You sneaky socialist bitch.”
“I did, and I am.”
“And Tex Arcana?”
“I found him on Facebook and sent him a press pass. I get to go to the finals, and you get to arrest your arch nemesis. We all win, nyet?”
In spite of himself, Captain Marvelous laughs.
“Well, when life gives you a Lenin, you make Leninade.”
Week 16: Vĕdma Magiyatogorsk VS The Regent’s Academy for Wizards
We almost mount the comeback of the century. Almost. We do tie the game, recouping seven points on one of the year’s great scoring runs by Anton. He’s obviously running out of gas, though, so I nail my hands to my hips and declare. We can win it in overtime, I just have to stop them for ninety seconds. That’s the kind of choice I have learned to make.
Courtland grabs control back instantly after the restart, dodging around Anton and making him eat the bristles of her broom. I drop back and get ready. No need to play for position. All I have to do is get in the way. For two astonishing laps, I do. Then she breaks out and I chase. We round the last corner with less than ten seconds left. I crash my mortar into her, grinding her down. So close I can smell her sweat and the brimstone trailing from her broom.
With the subtlest, sweetest feint, she gets me to juke into her a little too hard. She rolls over like a fighter jet and zips past me. We surge across the line together, she clearly in the lead, and me about to fly off the track.
Her form is perfect. She leans into the line and the arena flashes with cameras as if a bomb has gone off. I’m going to be in this picture with her forever. The perfect, beautiful wizardess beating the witch with a stupid expression on her face to secure a third consecutive championship. I careen toward the inner safety barrier, out of control.
Not dying is one of my best feats of the season. I keep the mortar upright and bail out at the last second to crash into the stacks of golden hay that line the wall. I fall to the ground in a heap and barely hear a mortar landing nearby over the ringing in my ears.
“Katya! Are you okay?” Anton yells.
“I’m fine,” I say, struggling to sit up. “Cyka blyat! Goddamn stuck-up British bitch! How could she?”
“She’s fine,” Anton says, waving off the first aid druids. I hang my head and hope no one can see my crying in ultra-high definition. Anton squats beside me and puts a hand on my shoulder. The Academy wizards pass by on their victory lap and I look up to meet Gwendolyn’s eyes. They send me some message, and then she turns back to wave at the crowd. Anton lights a cigarette, draws in a lungful, and passes it to me. The rest of the team is trailing back to our bench. The girls are all despondent.
“Hey,” Ilona says, “we’re going to start drinking. Get back here.”
“In a minute,” I wave them away weakly. It’s amazing what happens when you lose. I don’t need to be self-conscious; no one is paying any attention to me. Every camera is focused on the winning team. Like we were never here at all. It feels like I’m back in the mountains with Anton, alone, just trying to get off the ground as a couple of kids.
“There’s always next year,” Anton says, and he’s right. I’m surprised I believe it; it feels like I’ve been carrying something heavy and finally let it drop. It’s not the end of the world. We did better than anyone thought we could, and I have no regrets … but somewhere deep down it still isn’t enough. I don’t know what is in my heart, but it isn’t relief. It’s more like being hungry and staring at a banquet that’s just out of reach. Anton helps me up, and the crowd gives a respectful round of applause. I remember where I am and give a desultory thumbs up.
“Oh no,” Anton says, “what does she want?”
I realize they might not even be cheering for me. Gwendolyn Courtland is sailing over on her broom with a wave of cheers following her. The look she gives me is triumph, but not just that. A kind of general happiness, a glow of satisfaction that melts even her icy reserve. It’s revoltingly beautiful.
I try to smooth out my Adidas cape and put my hands on my hips. Maybe I look tough and indomitable. I know I don’t feel that way. She raises her eyebrows for a moment and gets an unsettled look. Good. She dismounts a few paces away.
“I read what you wrote in the Tribune.”
I pray I am not blushing.
“Yes. I made a bit of an ass of myself that time, didn’t I?”
“Well,” she says, shuffling her feet, “no harm done.”
I wonder if I’m missing a signal. She puts her hand out for a shake. I give it a firm, dry squeeze. Our hands drop to our sides. Am I missing a signal? I give the formal curtsey of the Romanov court. She laughs, and my stomach turns over on itself. Goddamn it; that was a love note.
“Cyka. That is the traditional court gesture of respect among Imperial witches,” I bluster. “Don’t be so rude. Is the greeting among British wizardesses not a kiss on the cheek? Were our efforts so pathetic that you will not show me even that respect?” I turn my cheek up and point at it. Her eyes widen.
“I’m so sorry, you’re entirely right,” she says, and leans in to plant a kiss. At the last possible instant, I turn my face to hers. Her peck lands cleanly on my lips. My whole body tingles. I am unable to tell if I just did that.
“Why did you do that?” she says. I can’t tell what her look means, but I definitely did do it. She bites her lip and I find I don’t really have to think about it. I know why. I gesture helplessly at the stadium. The fans, the coaches, the track, all my friends, and shrug.
“For the same reason I did any of this; I never would have forgiven myself if I hadn’t tried.”
“I understand,” she says. “You did beautifully.”
“Hah, save it. That’s a normal British thing. You always turn the enemies you defeat into heroes.”
“Well,” she says, taking my hands and tugging me close to her. “Second place isn’t that bad.”
She leans down again. Wait. Is this real? I reach under her robes to hold her waist and she wraps her arms around me. The kiss shrinks the world down to a tiny space that contains only two people. Her lips are firm and a little salty. Sweat. This is bliss.
I let one hand drop from her waist to her backside. I can’t help myself. It is unbelievable. Sneaking a hand under her pleated skirt for a squeeze, I find out how she keeps the stockings up. She’s wearing a garter belt. Bozhe moi. This is now the greatest moment of my life.
The kiss lasts as long as it would take to draw in one very deep breath and let it out. Long enough for the world to end and start anew.
She disentangles herself from me with as much dignity as she can muster, which is quite a lot, apart from two spots on her cheekbones that are as red as cherries.
“Congratulations again,” she says in a rush, “well fought.”
“I found that surprisingly easy.”
“I meant the match,” she says, and then, more softly, “we should … train during the offseason. Once the celebrations are over. As a gesture of sororal good will.”
For once I don’t blow it. “It is my honor as team captain to accept your offer of companionable competition.”
She walks away, ignoring the roaring of the crowd. I turn to face the stands. Thousands of faces stare at me expectantly. I wink at the cameras. That’s nice. A little mysterious. I’ll leave it at that.
Bob: Poponova and Courtland are, ah, celebrating a great match here.
Mo’nae: They’re making out, Bob. You can say that on television.
Bob: Courtland returns to her teammates to accept the LeFay trophy. Poponova waves to the crowd.
Poponova gestures as though she’s squeezing a grapefruit to see how ripe it is.
Mo’nae: She’s not waving, Bob.
Bob: Thank you, Mo’nae. Back to the studio for analysis.
Ekaterina Serafimevna Poponova (b. July, 1990) is a Russian witch who plays pivot for the Vĕdma Magiyatogorsk professional wizarding team. She is the elder sister of 2019 MCL rookie of the year Anton Poponov, and a finalist for the Marie Laveau coach of the year award. Known for her crafty and innovative style of play, Poponova is sponsored by Adidas, the Red Army, and Uncle Vlado’s Top Notch Pierogis.
Blake Jessop (b. September, 1980) is a Canadian author of science fiction, fantasy and horror stories with a master’s degree in creative writing from the University of Adelaide. He has covered the International Sport Magic circuit as a journalist for many years, and you can keep up with all of the latest inside scoops on Twitter @everydayjisei.
America is an illustrator and comic artist with a passion for neon colors and queer culture. Catch them being antisocial on social media @thehauntedboy.
“The 2019 Magiyatogorsk Champions League Scrapbook: Selected Excerpts” is © 2019 Blake Jessop
Art accompanying story is © 2019 America Jones