This has been rewritten about 5 times. It’s not my favorite. I am so sorry.
my main masterlist and other parts to this fic can be found here
For the Love of the Game Part 3--
We are live at the pre-game conference for Game One of the NBA finals. Duke Perrington’s words echoed in Aelin’s head as she slipped into the conference room. One of the biggest rivalries among the league and we’ll see how it unravels tonight.
How Aelin was able to sneak in, she didn’t know. She’d expected Havilliard to take her name off of any lists to grant her access. But here she was with a full-functioning keycard. Miracle or oversight?
We’re hoping to have the same energy we’ve seen throughout the regular season, but hoping for some good ol’ fashioned basketball to be played. Over that several games of season we’ve seen the Wyverns come out strong in the first quarter before shutting down after the second quarter and after half-time. The Ruhks have proved to be strong in endurance and speed which will hopefully add to the way the game is played.
Aelin wondered if the man practiced this crap in front of the mirror or just let it spew in random bouts. After what happened the previous week, Aelin knew she shouldn’t weasel her way to the front. She certainly knew she could--the pariahs of her fellow journalists and reports would be eager to see what would happen. But actually, doing it would certainly cost her job.
Instead, she contented herself by remaining near the back. Nox at some point came to stand beside her. He raised a single eyebrow in comment on her mellow nature. Aelin returned the look. He knew as well as she did why she remained silent.
Grinning Nox bumped her shoulder. It took all Aelin’s efforts not to stick her tongue out or do something even more inappropriate.
Instead, she tried to focus on the questions being asked and responses given. And really it was all very interesting. Learning about pre-game rituals and things like that.
Aelin however, found it very hard to focus as soon as she latched on to a pair of pine green eyes sitting on the rostrum.
And she remembered the bar. And getting a bit tipsy. And thinking how she would have very much enjoyed having his hands on her skin. Drunk. She’d definitely been drunk. She’d blame it on that. She had thrown a drink at Archer Finn so obviously her wits hadn’t been about her.
Rowan Whitethorn continued watching her with a steady gaze while the interviews continued. Seated beside him was Connall Moonbeam, one of the more level headed of the team. Not surprising after the last press-conference. Really, whoever had let Lorcan sit in on a post-game conference had been on something.
She was grateful that it had been Lorcan who’d been replaced and not Rowan. Especially considering that it gave something to look at. Not that Connall wasn’t attractive too, but there was something about Rowan rougher hewn and wild.
“You’re staring,” Nox muttered. His voice was so quiet, Aelin almost missed it. If not for the knowing smirk on his mouth.
“Shouldn’t you be paying attention?” Aelin asked.
“Shouldn’t you?” he retorted.
Sometimes Aelin wondered how and why she and Nox were friends.
She honestly had no idea why she’d latched on to Rowan she had. Because truly she wanted to hate the arrogant ass. She wanted him to get drunk and see all his insecurities come out in the open. She did not want to be compelled towards him.
Rowan only looked away when a question was directed toward him.
“How do you expect the game to go tonight?”
It took a moment, a brief pause where Rowan’s gaze flicked away to the reporter. He gave the reporter a respectful look that he was listening, considering.
And yet All Aelin could hear were words he’d said to her the other night. Not just trust in your fellow players but trust in your coaches too. She didn’t know why exactly the words came to mind just then, but they rang through her ears and took root.
“It will go the way we practise,” Rowan said simply. “And the way we’ve prepared. I trust my teammates and that’s all that matters.”
The palpable energy of the night clung to Aelin like a stiff drink. Satisfying and heady she could feel the way her muscles thrummed and her heartbeat with force enough to keep her moving. Moving through the throngs of people surrounding the entrances to the main seating areas, Aelin let everything wash over her. She never could get enough of the anticipation of a game. And tonight wasn’t just any game.
The city was loyal to sports. Basketball had the highest turnout of fans, the biggest media connection, and the most money made.
As Aelin made her way down the main concourse of Wyvern Stadium she made sure she kept her head high, her back straight, and smile in place. She was far too familiar with the Stadium. Even before her college career. She could remember traveling to Wendlyn full of excitement and anticipation and watching a game--the Wyverns against the Ruhks. Her father had taken her and Aedion out to every game right up until he died.
Ever since, watching a game had become a religious experience for her. Until she met Arobyn Hammel.
There was still nearly an hour before the game was slated to begin. Still, fans were congregating. Desperate for the action and energy that was sure to be presented tonight.
Aelin entered the seating area of the stadium, flashing her badge to security. She headed down to the reserved seating for reporters and other members of the press. Aelin preferred having time to herself before the game. Time to watch the teams warm up was how she determined strengths and weaknesses for the game. Of course, there were other factors to determine those things, but it allowed one to make pretty strong conclusions about the player.
The Wyverns for example--Fenrys Moonbeam was quick on his feet. He may not have been the best shooter, but he made up for it by hauling ass down court to defense. Vaughan Czerny often disappeared on the court but his percentage from the free-throw was higher than any other member of the team.
And of course Rowan Whitethorn.
Aelin watched him as he banked three-pointer after three-pointer. It was incredible. She’d never seen such fluidity of motion, the easy release of the ball from his hands. Back when she still played, Aelin had been point guard too. One of the best. Along with Nehemia.
Running a hand through her hair, Aelin watched as Rowan sunk another three-pointer. His muscles were hidden by the warm-up uniform, but she knew, she’d seen, just how capable he was.
“Enjoying the view?”
A large, bulky frame sat down in the padded seat next no Aelin. She looked over just in time to see her cousin. With his blonde, shoulder length hair combined with his inherited blue and gold rimmed eyes made for someone far too handsome for his own good. Aedion Ashryver was often the first and only body to be noticed in a room.
“Not anymore,” Aelin replied. She was pleased that she managed to keep her features composed as she turned to her cousin. He liked teasing her to no end about anything and everything.
As a sports medicine therapist, Aedion spent his time working with athletes on injuries and helping find the best way to work their bodies. He was working with the Wyverns, thus putting him in direct contact with his birth father, Gavriel. A man Aedion was still uncertain about. Not that Aelin could blame him.
Aedon just grinned and rested an arm over the back of her seat. “Been a while.”
“Not my fault,” she said. Looking at Aedion, Aelin could see the circles under his eyes, the tired pull on his body from stress, lack of sleep. There was a lot she didn’t know about her cousin and a lot he didn’t know about her--but they never lied to each other. Even after what happened in her last year at Adarlan University.
Immediately at her words, Aelin knew she made a mistake. No matter how stoic and hard Aedion appeared to be, he had a good heart. Sometimes. He was trying to have a good heart.
“Sorry,” she said, “it is good to see you.”
“After the stunt you pulled last week, I’m surprised to see you here,” Aedion said. His grin returned full force.
“Oh, hell. You heard about that too?” She groaned and hid her head in her hands.
“I would fully support you in throwing the first punch.” Aedion was having far too much fun with her.
“You’re an ass, Aedion,” Aelin said.
“Considering how much time I spend on glutes and legs in a week, I would hope so.”
She punched him on the shoulder.
Cackling, Aedion sat back, not at all bothered. “C’mon Aelin. Seriously. How did Havilliard not fire you?”
“He’s an ass,” Aelin muttered. She ran her hands through her hair and watched as both teams returned to their designated locker rooms.
Aedion stood and leaned down to press a kiss to the top of her head. They’d grown up so close to each other that Aelin looked to Aedion as more of a brother than anything.
“I’ll find you after the press conferences,” Aedion promised.
Aelin waved him off grateful that he’d taken the time to find her.
Adrenaline poured through Rowan’s veins. The feeling was one he chased from game to game. One that was better than any drug high or alcohol burn. Energy pure and full.
And when the buzzer sounded for the start of the game--Rowan only knew the game.
The first game of the NBA finals is off and we’re seeing how two of the best teams of the leagues come together to provide a game worth watching. Whitethorn and Salvaterre may not get along off the court but once on they are unstoppable. Just look at the pass. Without even looking, Whitethorn tosses the ball down the passing lane and Salvaterre is there. Easy lay-up. Unstoppable with Salvaterre bulk. He makes a powerhouse down below the basket it’ll take more than Sartaq’s size to put an end to that tonight.
The first quarter passed in a daze of passes and baskets. Full court presses and tear away lay-ups. Not even the voice of Duke Perrington can distract Rowan from what’s before him. All it is, is the game.
Barely half-way into the first quarter and Salvaterre has his first two fouls. He’s benched probably until the second half given how close the score is already. The Wyverns can’t be going into one-and-one this early. You, know at some point you’ve gotta wonder if Salvaterre is doing more harm than good with his brutish force on the court.
During the two-minute break between the quarters Rowan accepted a water bottle from an assistant and listened as Cairn listed off how they were supposed to go into the second quarter. A list of plays and the general instruction to not suck. Sometimes Rowan wondered how the hell Cairn managed to keep his job.
The second quarter was spent making up for Lorcan who was benched until after half-time. Rowan played the entire time and fed assist after assist to Connall, Fenrys, Vaughan. At least he tried to. The Ruhks were a bit too skilled at steals. And then Rowan would get fouled by Sartaq and then return the favor. It was a mess that did not equate to a good game played.
When Rowan was knocked to the ground to do a charge from Sam Courtland--he knew it was time to make a change in the game.
“Just get rougher. Toss some bodies,” Cairn ordered. “I don’t have you boys spending time in the gym for nothing.”
Half time had them seated in the locker room staring at the playboard as Cairn yelled. Typical of every other game.
Rowan rolled his shoulders as Cairn continued with his speech. Beside him Aedion Ashryver approached and settled an icepack over his shoulder.
“The last fall you took was pretty hard,” Aedion said softly. “It’ll be better to ice it immediately.”
Rowan grunted but reached a hand up to hold the ice in place. It was surprising to see the resemblance between Aedion and Gavriel--the bone structure, the build, even the mannerisms. They both barely spoke to the other, but that was to be expected.
“Used to it,” Rowan finally said.
“Shouldn’t be,” Aedion muttered. “This isn’t the game of basketball that I grew up watching.”
Before Rowan had the chance to respond, the warning was given for the end of half-time.
And it began again.
The first game of the finals comes to an end with a score of 97-90 in favor of the Ruhks. After the rocky start of the third quarter the Wyverns just weren’t able to get themselves together. I guess we’re starting to see who really belongs here.
Perrington’s voice rang through Rowan’s head as he leaned against the back of the ice bath he’d yet to get out of. And even though his muscles were burning and he was certain he was going to give himself frostbite--he remained.
Rowan drank his water, desperately wishing for something stronger, but neither he nor any of his teammates were stupid enough to be drinking in the midst of the finals. Even if the next game would be two nights away.
And it wasn’t worth word getting back to Cairn.
It seems that Whitethorn wasn’t able to lead the team tonight. We’ve been seeing a lot of his distracted nature throughout this season, making some question his future on the team.
Rowan shook his head to banish Perrington’s words. He would not let the bastard get to him. Cold water dripped down the side of his face, the only part of his body not frozen.
He tried to think of what had gone wrong. Tried to remember each second of the game. Each missed shot, each violation, each intercepted pass. It was almost too much to relieve his stupidity.
The shout finally drew Rowan from his self-loathing thoughts. He cracked his eyes open just as he was thinking he would submit to the too cold icy water he lounged in.
Aedion Ashryver stood at the door to the shower and medical area of the locker room. The man was probably only a year younger than Rowan but, in that moment,, he looked just as fierce and pissed off as his father.
“Get the hell out of that water,” Aedion demanded.
It’d only been about two hours since the end of the game. But everyone else had left. Even the rest of the coaching staff who went over post-game records. The solitude had been what Rowan craved though. What he wanted more than anything.
Rowan scowled at the disturbance.
“It’s not good for you, now get out,” Aedion continued. He stalked across the floor and tossed a towel onto the chair next to Rowan.
Unfortunately, Rowan knew that Aedion was right. That didn’t mean he had to like it.
Cursing, Rowan got out of the bath and grabbed the towel. As he dried himself off, Aedion had moved off to the office to grab a few things.
Rowan dressed quickly. Sticking around the stadium wasn’t in his nature. Even after games worse than this.
Some are even questioning his future on the team.
Rowan kicked his locker closed and swung his bag on his shoulder. He glanced up just in time to see Aedion locking up the office door.
“C’mon, the guys are waiting.” Aedion slapped a hand good-naturedly on Rowan’s shoulder and guided him out of the locker room.
Rowan didn’t see the point in arguing with Aedion. He could just slip away and head back to his apartment at any point in the night. Because as much as he trusted his teammates, his brothers, there was guilt eating away at him. More than he’d ever experienced over a game before. And having these thoughts was more destructive than skipping a practice.
When Aedion led the way out of the stadium and outside, Rowan did at least find himself grateful for the fresh night air. It was cool and light and refreshing. Far better than the stiff, sweaty air of the gym. It was almost enough to clear his head.
Because the streets were still busy. Despite it nearing midnight crowds were still bustled together wearing the Wyvern colors and some in the Rhuk’s.
Rowan was almost ready to start running just to get the hell away from all the eyes. Behind them though, Rowan noticed the presence of a few other people. Glancing back, Rowan saw the familiar faces of a few bodyguards hired by Cairn. Just a precaution. But Rowan had never been more grateful for them. If only to keep the fans at bay, just a bit.
As Aedion moved down the block to the practice gym that was right next door to the main stadium, Rowan nearly stopped dead in his tracks. Going to the gym to hit the court for a late-night shooting or scrimmage was not what he needed.
Sensing his hesitation, Aedion threw an arm over Rowan’s shoulder.
“The boys made me promise to bring you by,” the blonde said, “I’ve got a hundred bucks on the line. They didn’t think I could drag your ass out of the lockers. I’ll give you half.”
Rowan snorted humorlessly. The night air buoyed him enough that Rowan decided, fine, he would go to the gym. But only because being around his mates would help enough to drive the game out of his head.
The small practice gym was dark as they entered the main building. Only a few emergency lights lite the way through the long, dark halls. But the distinct sound of music blaring through the stadium speakers accompanied by the occasional sound of a ball bouncing or indistinguishable shouts told Rowan they weren’t alone.
The actual court was a little smaller than the NBA lines, closer to the size of a college court. That, combined with the lack of seating, the lower ceilings, and dim lights gave the impression of a different world entirely.
He and Aedion entered the gym but they went unnoticed. Lorcan and Vaughan were on the opposite side of the gym and Connall was leaned up against a wall--either asleep or looking at his phone, Rowan wasn’t sure. All he could really take in was the sight of the woman at the three-point line sinking basket after basket as she was fed rebound after rebound by Fenrys who was stationed beneath the basket.
Aelin Galathynius was a sight to behold. Her tennis shoes squeaked lightly when she jumped back into position after releasing the ball. The loose-fitting t-shirt she wore swayed with her movements and gave hints of the skin beneath. Yet none of that compared to the look of determination on her face. Her gold-rimmed eyes were utterly focused on the basket, her blonde hair in a messy bun that had congregated at the nape of her neck. And her mouth. That snide, sharp mouth, was held in the ghost of a smile. Barely there. And for that--damn Rowan would be thinking about her for nights to come.
“You should have seen her before,” Aedion muttered beside him. The man wore an unadulterated smile. “She was fire back then. Back when it was all about the game.”
Rowan realized then the similarities between Aelin and Aedion. They had the same golden blonde hair, the same eyes, even the same desire to cause chaos. He wondered if they were siblings. And he decided to ask as much.
“You’ve known each other a while then?” Rowan asked.
“Cousins,” Aedion said. “I was practically raised with her. Rhoe, her dad, took us to all the Wyvern games growing up. Taught us both to play. Back before I knew I even had a dad in the world, Aeline was really the only family I ever had.”
Aedion said it so passively, so honestly. Rowan was almost confused. Almost, awed by the idea.
“What do you mean, back before? Did something happen?”
The other man paused, a shadow passing over his face. “It’s not really my place...not really my story.”
Rowan looked back to where Aelin was still shooting. She’d moved from the top of the key to a shot from the angle. With her back still to Rowan and Aedion, it was easy to remain unnoticed.
For just a moment longer.
“Oh Captain, my captain!”
Fenrys’ shout didn't break Aelin’s concentration, but it certainly broke Rowans. He realized that he was probably staring a bit too intently at Aelin Galathynius. A woman that he should probably hate and avoid at all costs. Especially after the other night. The night where he’d been so tempted to do more than just walk her home. Do more than offer some vague notation of what it was really like to be subject to Cairn.
Rowan flipped his mate off and tried not to notice when Aelin glanced his way. She accepted a pass from Fenrys but kept the ball nestled at her hip. There was no expression on her bright face. Only a light sheen of sweat clung to her skin and her cheeks were a dusty shade of pink.
“We thought you were drowning yourself,” Fenrys said. He grinned cheekily and ran a hand through the messy tail that held his hair back.
“Looks like he did.” Across the gym tossing lazy, yet perfectly executed under the basket lay-ins, Lorcan paused briefly. He still had an ice pack strapped to his shoulder.
“The hell are you still doing awake,” Rowan called to Lorcan. He tossed his bag to the ground and almost followed after, if not for the pass that Fenrys shot his way. “It’s way past your bedtime old man.”
Lorcan called back a rude response and flipped the ball to Vaughan who stood nearby.
“Ashryver,” the post called out, “get this ice off my shoulder.”
“You do know the fact that you worked out with it on made the whole process redundant right?” Aedion yelled back. One look from Lorcan however had the other man running across the court.
Rowan snorted out a bit of laughter. It had been so long since it had just been the five of them. He, Lorcan, Vaughan, Fenrys, and Connall. What would have been more remarkable was if Gavriel had been present, but Rowan supposed this would suffice. What he didn’t understand was what Aelin Galathynius was doing there.
Not that she was out of place. Quite the opposite in fact. Because as soon as Fenry left his position beneath the basket to go and ruffle his twin’s hair, Aelin took a few dribbles from the three-point line and in two bounding steps had made it to the basket and made a lay-in. Soft and sweet the ball caressed the backboard before floating into the net.
“I’m off the clock you know.” Aelin’s voice carried over to him easily and before Rowan really knew what he was doing, he’d walked over to where she was shooting short jumpshots.
As soon as he was close enough, she passed him the ball with a quick snap of her wrist. Rowan caught it and quirked a brow.
“I thought you didn’t play anymore,” he said and passed the ball back.
She spun the ball through her fingers idly, her gaze growing distant.
“I don’t.” The ball arched up into the basket not touching the backboard, not touching the rim. Perfect net.
Aelin only took two more easy shots before turning to him fully now. Her mouth pulled to one side and Rowan was certain she was going to bring up the game. Was going to mention Perrington’s commentary, the fact he wasn’t at the post-game press conference.
She remained quiet. Only rolling her shoulders back as if they pained her before returning to shoot hoops.
It was strange--with this late hour and the gentle stillness of the gym--strange to be near her. In this setting uninhibited by alcohol and distant from the world outside that moment--it was strange.
Aelin moved to make a hook shot with her left arm. Fully extended and held away from her body, she had her arm in position to raise above her head, to simply flick her wrist and let the ball fly. Except she didn’t.
She cursed and the ball fell from her fingers, bouncing and bouncing until Rowan stepped forward to grab the ball. As he looked up to Aelin he found that face was construed in pain. She shook out her arm, her shoulder but the look remained.
Her eyes met his.
“Muscle spasm,” she muttered.
Rowan wasn’t sure how he knew, but he knew. She was lying.
They remained there, locked in a staring contest. And Rowan didn’t know what the stakes were.
“I should go,” Aelin said.
The words jolted Rowan and he blinked, coming back to the gym with its scent of was and hardwood. With the faint hint of lingering sweat. With the distant sound of the others at the other side of the gym.
“Are you alright?” Rowan asked. He stepped toward her, concerned.
Aelin slipped around him easily. When she turned around to face him, Rowan caught sight of the woman from that night at the press-conference last week. Intent. Cold. Powerful. And he knew that he wouldn’t get a direct answer out of her.
“I could ask you the same question,” she said. She offered him a slow coy smile, one that screamed trouble. “Hell of a game Whitethorn.”
He passed her the ball with a little too much force.
“Aren’t you off the clock?” he asked, again with a little too much force.
“I’ll answer your question if you answer one of mine,” she said dryly. Her smile slowly drew across her mouth. It was the kind of smile that wasn’t amused. Rather the kind that was bitter. Like she knew he wouldn’t play that little game with her.
Aelin rolled the ball between her fingers. The leather singing so softly against her hands. Rowan found himself wondering if she had callouses like he did. If she’d jammed her fingers enough times that the joints were perpetually off kilter. He wondered so many things. None of which had to do with whether or not she was going to use any of this for her next article.
“You’re not like the rest of them,” Rowan said. The words were out before he could pull them back in. May as well go with it. “You care about the game more than the politics.”
“That’s why I played in the first place,” Aelin replied. She bounced the ball back to him. “The nature of the game. The whys and hows. It’s more than just the money and assholes behind the sidelines. It should be anyways.”
There was no mistake in the bitterness of her words. And once again Rowan found himself wanting to know more. What had made her stop playing? She was the best in the college league with opportunities to go pro. But she’d just disappeared.
Rowan held the basketball in both his hands and watched as she again stretched her shoulders. It was a nervous habit, he realized. That she wouldn’t, couldn’t, stop moving.
And he had to know.
“And is that why you stopped playing?” he asked. “Because you wanted to get back to the root of the game?”
She walked toward him, her sneakers squeaking lightly on the well-cleaned floor. Glancing up at him through thick lashes, Aelin gave him one last once over.
“You know,” she said lightly, “I almost punched you last week at the conference. I restrained myself of course, but now I’m really thinking I should.”
“I’m ready when you are,” Rowan replied.
Aelin merely licked her lips, smirked, and snatched the ball from his hands.
She stalked away and called out a farewell down the court. “G’night Aedion!”
Rowan had nearly forgotten they’d not been alone in the gym. He looked down the court to see that Aedion, perfect athletic trainer that he was, guided Lorcan through some shoulder stretches while simultaneously getting Fenrys to do more than just lounge around on his ass.
“Text me when you get home,” Aedion shouted after.
Aelin merely waved over her shoulder. But right when she got to the door, athletic bag in hand, she turned. And meeting Rowan’s gaze--she smirked.
Hell, Rowan, realized. It would take him ages to figure out that woman.
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