I slept well that night, had a liquid breakfast, stretched, and got to the court an hour early to warm up and meet the team. Kim wasn't here; I assumed she was drilling elsewhere.
My three teammates were males, and they eyed me when I showed up. I ignored it. I stretched out, and then I examined the net tension, examined the ball, paced off the court to the backline, and then suddenly lofted and served straight into the net. The ball sprang back off and fell.
I was there before it hit the sand, though not by much. I tapped it up and went up after it, and slammed it into the other court.
"You're all Masters," I said aloud. "You're all used to being in control of everything, and I bet that includes the ball. But on this court, for this game, my goddess status outranks your Master status. Any attempt to save me from the ball, any attempt to overreach and be the hero, and I swear on my mother's grave I'll kick you where it hurts, and take my punishment afterwards. Let's drill. I have to know what you guys can do."
They introduced themselves as Kevin, Damien and Goshawk. We ran two on two for a time, playing with sets and spikes. Kevin tried to make me swallow the ball, and got it back in the teeth for his trouble.
"You were two inches north on the ball, stud. You think I can't see it coming? And I don't want to see a closed fist strike again, except on a serve. It's not the lack of control I don't like, it's that you don't get your hand open in time afterwards, and have no effective blocking."
None of them sucked, I decided. Kevin was a cannon, the sort of player who is all about slamming and speed. The cute blond, Damien, had more finesse, owned his space, and set like a champ - he could have made single A ranking. He got the ball past me a couple times, but with two on a side that was expected. Goshawk showed unexpected skill in dives and recoveries. Combine them all into one player, I decided, and you had a solid double A skill set. As it was... if Kim was as good as she said, I was in for a rough game. She'd simply drill at Kevin and hope he screwed up.
After thirty minutes I called a halt, and discussed technique with Kevin. He wasn't a quick learner, and I gave it up quickly. I ran a couple serving drills. Kevin's serve was pretty damn hot, Damien's was solid and Goshawk's was going to get us hurt. I arranged the rotation so I'd be in front when he served, because the ball would be coming back fast and cheap. Damien's sets were better to his right than his left, so that cinched the order.
Kim showed up, with her three guys. A master I didn't know flipped a coin for first serve, and flipped two more for initial server. The serve went to Kim's side, and to Kim. At least, I thought philosophically, I'd find out right up front what she had.
I smiled at her. "Just so you know, babe -- I've never missed a return in competition. Maybe you'll be the first to make it happen... but I doubt it."
She took the ball, and smiled. We took the court and planted, and the fun started.
She served it closed fist, which basically meant she didn't want to give away her technique until she saw ours. The ball cleared the net by a millimeter, burning straight for my left shoulder, and I had to admit I was impressed. I sent the ball to Kevin, who blasted it straight down. The other side handled it well, but a red-headed guy stepped out of position for a moment, and I nearly breathed a sigh of relief right there. The weakest link on the court was on the other side.
Damien set the ball to me beautifully, and I fired an acidic shot at Kim's feet, in that nasty zone where there's no real good recovery.
I'd never seen anything like her response. She spun to the side and kicked the ball, and it floated into perfect position for her front line cannon to smash it at Kevin. Kevin handled that poorly, and Goshawk made an amazing save, but the ball was positioned badly for the slam, and Damien made the best of a bad placement, sending it at Kim. She set it beautifully, and I went up to block, but her cannon tapped it sideways instead, and the other front man brought it down at Damien's feet. He got it back up, but it hit the net and there was no possible recovery. First point, theirs. Kim grinned at me.
But she made the mistake of serving it at me again, and instead of the set, I counter-slammed, catching her red-headed guy unawares and in the nuts. The look on his face was priceless, and the serve came to my side.
Goshawk served, and it didn't suck, but they tapped, set to the cannon, and he fired at Kevin again. Kevin seemed to have learned something, and he got the ball to Damien, who set it perfectly for me. I did a nuke on their cannon, hoping he'd be big and slow and screw it up. His recovery was in fact slow, and the ball went into the net.
Somehow Kim had seen that coming, because she dove in from midcourt and recovered the ball. Having nowhere else to send it, she fed it back to her cannon, who blasted it at me - with an overhand fist. He got it back in the teeth, and it went off court. Serve ours.
He pointed at me, and nodded. Yeah, you and which army, I thought. You're slow on the recovery and I'm going to make you eat sand.
Goshawk's next serve was pathetic, and we paid for that immediately. Serve theirs. Red-head took the ball.
His serve was decent, but he sent it to me, and I set it to Damien. Bless his heart, he faked and set it back to me. I likewise faked a slam, and instead just edged it over the net. Cheap trick, but it works a surprising amount of the time.
Kim did this amazing dive and got her ankle under it, kicking it high. She was back in position when it was tapped to her again. I had to admit she was freaking scary, with her kung-fu game and her speed. She leapt high and tried to slam Damien, who very calmly tapped it to me. I passed it back, and he smashed it at an angle, wisely avoiding Kim.
To my shock, Kim went for it anyway. Ohhhh, I thought. You're a greedy girl.
She tapped it to Red, who set it perfectly for her running jump shot. She smashed it into Kevin, who, predictably, screwed it up. Point theirs.
I turned to Damien. "Set lower," I mouthed. He blinked, but nodded.
The ball went to Kevin, who sent it to Goshawk, who set Damien. He got it perfectly between two guys, who both promptly went into testosterone mode and tried to handle it. Double hit, and Kim's only option was to dive and kick again. She barely got it over the net, and Damien handled it and set it to me -- low, as requested.
Hitting a ball with the back of the hand is unusual in volleyball. It's dangerous because it's too easy to leave the hand in contact with the ball for too long, and control is generally horrible. But it was my trick shot. The ball skittered along the net, just on their side, looking like a tempting target. Their cannon tried to hammer it straight over, and found out that a ball spinning that fast while touching the net was not predictable. The ball careened off the net's edge and skipped upwards, and that was the sort of thing Kevin lived for. The smash he did was a thing of violent beauty. Serve ours. Mine, specifically.
Kim waved at me. I ignored her. People talk about being in the zone. I was. Everything was sharp and clear and bright, and I was in perfect, perfect control of myself. I did what may have been the finest serve of my life, and Red put his hand where he honestly thought it was going. Kim saw it coming, and cursed. Red's finger touched the ball, Kim scrambled to recover, but the set she did was weak. The return came to me and I blasted it to where Red should have been, and wasn't, because he'd gotten out of Kim's way. Point ours.
Even score. The sides, I thought, were pretty balanced, overall. Kim's game was eerie and the ball went where she told it to, even when she used the wrong limbs. I had more power and I thought more precision. But that alone wouldn't win the game. She'd made that one greedy technical mistake... she was used to running after balls she thought or knew her teammates would screw up. With her skill and speed, it usually worked -- but it wouldn't always.
I served, blasting at their cannon. He handled it well, tapping to Red, who set to their third guy. The ball came over to me with as much spin as I'd ever seen on a ball. Apparently he had a trick shot, too. I bumped the ball with two arms, and the spin put it way high in the air. Goshawk recovered elegantly and fed it to Kevin. Kevin smashed, but the ball came right back at him and he let it go. I scrambled and got a decent set to Damien, who saw the same thing I did -- too much space between Kim and Red. He leapt like an angel and punched it straight in, over their cannon's head. Kim and Red both went for it. Kim called it, but Red couldn't hit the brakes in time -- and Kim had opted to kick the ball again.
She caught Red behind the knee with her foot. He went down like he'd been pickaxed, and if it had been a wooden floor, he would have been out of the game. The ball went straight into the sand. Lead ours.
It wasn't sporting, but I fired right to Red's right side. I saw what I'd hoped to see -- being kicked in the leg had slowed him up slightly. He handled the ball fine, though, and set the cannon, who blasted it at Kevin, who blasted it in return, but Kim handled that easily, and set Mr. Spin. The ball came over spinning hard again, and Goshawk got it wrong. Serve theirs.
Kim called time, and talked to Red. He shook his head. She got emphatic, and he shook his head again. He wasn't leaving, and he pointed to Master Kenneth.
They got back into play, and for fifteen minutes we swapped serves without any points. Then Kevin got the serve and blasted one over at Red. Kim ran to take it, got it and set nicely, but when the ball came over, I slammed it back at Red, and Kim did the exact same move. And she was good at it, I granted her that. She could run, recover and then get back in position in a blink. But it meant she'd be doing an awful lot of running, and I could do this all day. But just to change it up, when the ball came to me I faked a blast at Red, and just rolled it over the net instead. Kim had already been on her way over to Red, and the positions fell apart as people scrambled. When the ball got to Goshawk, there was a corner of their side empty... they all watched it thump to the sand there.
I was up two. I called time, and walked over to Kim.
"Swap him out, Kim. You aren't going to let him play, and even if you did, you can see he's got no speed to his right."
"No. The bet was no exchanges. I appreciate the concern, but we're going on."
"No exchanges? What are the stakes, other than us?"
"No idea. Big, apparently."
I shook my head, walking back. Kim nodded, and Kevin served, but screwed it up and sent it out of bounds.
They battled back, scoring two points in fast succession. But Kim's territory was too big and she was on the run all the time now. And then it was our serve, and Damien and I were back at the net. I nodded to him. He nodded back.
The recipe became simple. We blasted Red's right side. Kim recovered. We fired to Kim's corner. She got back and recovered. We sent her back and forth, and then I faked again, firing it to Kim's corner when she thought I was going for Red. She whirled like lightning, but still couldn't recover. Our point.
The next time she ran to cover Red, he hip checked her aside, and handled the ball himself, tapping it to Mr. Spin. Spin set it for a running slam from Kim, but Kim got there a fraction of a second late, her slam fizzled, and she landed badly. I recovered and whipped it to Damien, who slammed the ball into Kim's legs as she repositioned. She went down. Our point. I could see her cheeks burning.
She fought like hell, but we got the next three points. She was winded. I wasn't.
Master John walked over to Master Kenneth, and Kenneth handed him a leash. Kim stared in horror, tears forming in her eyes. Master John pointed to the ground at his feet. Game called, I though, on account of you getting your greedy ass kicked, Kim.
Shaking tears aside, she walked off the court and knelt at Master John's feet.