Fate and true love notwithstanding, Dan knew better than to enter the tournament without any training whatsoever. And so he spent the next two weeks making his own training montage, kicking the ball at an empty net, jogging around the pond in the park while listening to drum and bass music on his phone, and juggling the ball in his bedroom every evening (he got all the way up to 11 hits without dropping it one night).
Meanwhile, he was busy wearing Jessica down.
He winked at Jessica as he ordered his daily Frappuccino. She rolled her eyes at him and completed the order without making any further eye contact. Dan was on to her game, and that game was called Hard To Get. She was an expert player, and if Dan were a bit less savvy in the ways of feminine wiles, he might even have been persuaded that she was genuinely uninterested in him – but he knew better. He had done his homework, and he knew how the game was played. It was just a ploy, just a filtering mechanism to deter the ones who weren’t strong enough to endure.
He’d wear her down like Leonard wore down Penny on The Big Bang Theory. And he wasn’t even as big of a nerd as that character, so he had an advantage already.
He took his order and left her a big tip, for which he was rewarded with a curt “thank you, sir”, then took his time getting his change into his wallet and putting his wallet into his pocket and gathering up his cup. He had to time this perfectly. He knew Ryan’s schedule, and he knew Ryan’s habits. Out of the corner of his eye, he watched as Ryan approached from behind him. He was coming to say hello to Jessica and give her one of those stupid European-style cheek kisses, like he always did. Dan took a deep breath, then turned and walked straight into him.
His scalding hot Frappuccino was smashed open and splashed all down the front of Ryan’s shirt. He calculated his strike to send stupid handsome Ryan off-balance, and he tumbled to the floor in a sticky mess of caffeine and irritation.
As predicted, Jessica came running around the counter to help him up. “Oh my god, Ryan, are you okay?”
Ryan easily got back up and brushed the worst of the mess off his clothes with the napkins so thoughtfully provided by Jessica. “Yeah, I’m fine. It’s no big deal. These things happen.” Then he smiled at Dan.
He wasn’t upset or antagonistic at all. This was going to be more difficult than expected. Dan had to go off-script. “What the hell is your problem, man? You just ruined my Frappuccino. And you bumped my shoulder. That hurt. Why don’t you watch where the hell you’re going next time, idiot?”
Ryan, his honor insulted by a fellow man, immediately challenged Dan to a fight. Or at least, that was what he was supposed to do. In reality, he smiled placatingly and said, “you’re probably right. That was my bad. Here, I’ll buy you another drink.” Before Dan could gather his wits and think of a way to save the situation, Jessica was pressing another fresh Frappuccino into his hand and waving him out the door, while Ryan stayed to chat with his “friend”.
At least it wasn’t a complete disaster. He had established himself as kind of a jerk, providing the appropriate contrast to the good-hearted guy she would eventually discover had been inside all along. However, his rivalry with Ryan hadn’t been formally initiated yet. At the last moment, he remembered his goal. Striding back into the cafe, he roughly jabbed at Ryan, interrupting his conversation with his true love.
“You. Ryan. You’re a soccer player, right?”
“Dude, how do you know my name?”
“Never mind that. There’s a tournament next weekend and I want a rematch out there, on the field.”
“Rematch?” Crap. He’d forgotten to change the script.
“I mean, let’s settle this on the field.” He slammed down a flyer for the tournament on the counter. “What do you say? Are you in? Or are you chicken?”
The look on Ryan’s face told him he was on the right track. He was caught off guard. In fact, he almost looked frightened. So did Jessica.
“Uh… Well, yeah, I mean, I was planning on being in the tournament, so…”
“That’s what I thought. I’ll see you there, loser.”
He turned and strode back out the door without looking back. He was dying to see the looks on their faces, but that wouldn’t fit the script.
The next step was inviting Jessica to watch his team practice. When she saw how pathetic they were, they’d get sympathy points. Then it would be all the more impressive when, fueled by her love and support, he blew everyone away and won the whole game (and his lady’s heart) by himself.
“No, thanks.” Dan gripped his Frappuccino in surprise. He hadn’t planned for this.
“Really? We can change the practice times, if you have to work or something.” He tried to smile roguishly, but he wasn’t sure if he’d quite managed it.
It didn’t seem to matter, anyway: Jessica wasn’t looking. “No, that’s not necessary. Good luck.” She smiled pointedly at the next person in line behind him. “What can I get for you today?”
Dan stepped slightly to the side and stood where Ryan normally did when they stood around chatting. “Aw, come on, now. We could really use your support. I’m afraid my team isn’t very good, and we’re having some real problems with motivation.”
He was so focused on his sales pitch that he missed the exchange of looks in secret girl code between Jessica and her supervisor, who had been observing the conversation from the coffee grinder. Now she called out, “Hey, Jessica, sorry, but you can’t have personal visitors during your shift.” She looked at Dan. “Sorry, sir, but you’ll have to move along for now.”
That supervisor was his worst enemy sometimes, but he was staying positive. He had caught the important phrases there: during your shift and for now. He smiled understandingly at Jessica, who was flashing her supervisor a strangely relieved-looking glance. (Surely another manipulative trick.) “No problem. I understand. So when do you have your break?”
But Jessica was already ignoring him, taking the next customer’s order. He shrugged and headed for the door, but not before adding one final, “Remember, six thirty in the park! I’ll be watching for you!”
Jessica didn’t show up at practice that day. Dan kept glancing around, waiting for her to stroll into view, overcome with curiosity and a secret attraction to him that she just couldn’t resist anymore. He missed almost every pass and didn’t score a single goal during their scrimmage, but that wasn’t important. What was the point in doing well when she wasn’t there to see it?
Surely she’d come by another day. He just needed to keep at her. Pity was an acceptable route to his final destination. And so every day he stopped at Starbucks during her shift (he knew her schedule, of course) to brood and wait for her to ask what was wrong, so he could say it was nothing, and then, when she pressed him for more information, confess that his team wasn’t doing well and he didn’t think they’d make it without a little support.
She didn’t ask. And on the third day, when he walked in, Jessica’s supervisor took over the register and sent her in the back for something. On the fourth day, she was nowhere to be found. And the supervisor was entirely unhelpful.
The final practice came and went. So this was it. If she didn’t come to the tournament, he was screwed. She had to see his victory, or all his plans would come to nothing.
It was the morning of the big tournament, and Dan was very depressed. He’d left several flyers with Jessica’s supervisor, who promised to pass them along to her, but he wasn’t really convinced. This wasn’t how it was supposed to go at all. She was his soul mate, he was sure of it – by this point, she should be starting to realize what a great guy he was deep down inside, and starting to fall for him. At the very least, she should be moved by pity to come and see him and his awful team play. Instead, he was going to a tournament for a sport he didn’t care about with a group of idiots who couldn’t play, and for what?
Still, something miraculous could still happen. In fact, as soon as he thought of it, he realized that that was certainly the case. She was, right this moment, sitting at home, maybe lying in bed in some sexy pajamas or sitting at the kitchen table with a cup of hot coffee, wrestling with her conscience, slowly starting to realize that she really did want to see him play, to support him. After all, he’d done everything right, followed all the scripts perfectly. She loved those films, so this must be what she wanted. There was no other logical explanation.
Excitedly, he got dressed and grabbed his bag. He jogged onto the field in high spirits, a strong contrast to the lethargy of his teammates. He delivered a pep talk to rival the ones he’d seen in a few sports films (and even made sure to play inspiring music on his phone speaker while he talked), which was met with rolled eyes and a few yawns, and they took to the field.
His team was still garbage, but luckily for them, so were their opponents. Dan said a silent prayer to whatever gods had made soccer a popular game in every country but America, and when one of his teammates managed to score on a penalty kick, they won the first round of the tournament.
After a short break for orange slices and sports drinks and complaints about sore muscles and lost asthma inhalers before moving to the second field for the final match of the day (there being only four teams available for the tournament). It was his group of rag-tag underdogs versus Ryan and his well-trained army of soccer players. Dan risked a glance at the crowd – or, rather, line – of people on the sidelines. Lo and behold, there was Jessica, smiling and waving— at Ryan.