Written by FinneganOtter and IllaRouge
Winter came on calmly in Pittsburgh. Forecasters assumed that a big winter storm was on the horizon, even if it was somewhat exaggerated. By the middle of December, there was enough snow to at least cover up some of the grays and browns of what had colloquially come to be known as the Rust City.
Margo saw it in no such light, or lack of light. Despite her discomfort with the city setting, she found ways to seek out its beauty. Texas had come to town for their next game. Margo found herself on the bench, where she figured she'd be so early in her career, but she found herself frustrated with her early stats. Ever one for improvement, she couldn't help but hear the jeers at times. But today, she sought out something more pleasant, an evening retreat to one of her favorite places in the city: the Conservatory and Botanical Gardens, and with a friend of sorts on the opposing team.
Hudson didn't really 'get' the Botanical Gardens. Sure, they were pretty (not to mention temperature-controlled, certainly a blessing in the typical cold of a Pittsburgh winter), but Hudson had never been much of the type to just look at things. He was a doer, a hands-on learner. Still, he did his best to appreciate the beauty of the gardens, and more than anything he relished the opportunity to reconnect with Margo.
The two of them, both bench fixtures at this early stage in their careers, had struck up a sort of friendship during the pre-Draft combine events, Hudson's frustrations with his own performance spilling out into a bit of an emotional monologue and Margo serving as a ready listener and sounding board. The schedules of their respective teams had kept them apart since then, giving this the feeling of a reunion that had been a long time coming.
The sun was just starting to go down on the city; their game would be slightly later, but the winter sunset gave them an opportunity to explore the gardens in relative darkness. She had a good reason for waiting a little later in the day. The beanpole of a jackrabbit eventually spotted the squirrel. She waved, amidst a steady bout of shivering.
Margo's frame, well above seven feet, made her difficult to miss even in a large crowd, and Hudson spotted her quickly. He pushed his way through a couple larger groups - families, probably the types who were oblivious to anyone else once they found something to gawk at - and eventually made his way over to where she stood.
"Long time, no see," he offered, sticking his hands into the pocket of his hoodie. "This place is, uh, pretty nice."
Having almost two feet on the squirrel, she had first spotted him by his tail. She smiled as he approached. "Hey there, brother," reaching out for a firm handshake. Her buck teeth gritted at the cold, something she was still not fully used to, not with snow. "Still learning about the city. I only just found out about this place."
"Hard to explore the city that much when you're always at practice or a game, I guess. Probably a lot of Austin I haven't seen yet." He looked around, taking in just a few of the garden's many floral arrangements. "So, uh, how've things been? Keystones treating you okay?"
She nodded. "Just wish I was treating them better, ya hear?" She laughed. Her time had been full of misses and underwhelming scores. "You and Texas?"
"Can't complain too much, all things considered," he said, absentmindedly kicking at the ground. "Nobody's been, like, an asshole or anything yet. Outside of the arena security guard who wouldn't let me in the players' entrance because he didn't believe I was really on the roster. Other than that, though, of course I wish I was getting more minutes, but hopefully that'll come, you know?"
"Didn't think you were on the roster? What, because--?" She paused but couldn't help but chuckle a little. "Personally, I don't think I'm ready for more minutes yet. Need to up my skills." She looked over her shoulder at the emerging lights, the displays kicking on with the twilight. "Wanna get in on this action?"
"Sure, why not? That's why we're here, right?" He took a couple steps in the direction of the displays. "For the pretty stuff."
The jackrabbit agreed. They walked into the entrance, and Margo paid for them both. She offered one final shiver as she shook off the remaining cold. They were soon in the first room of plants, the temperature enough that she was compelled to remove her jacket. "Oh man, actual warmth."
"Yeah, that's one thing I'm really growing to like about Austin." The squirrel laughed, craning his neck to see over the small group before focusing on a display to his right. "This is all pretty cool, cooler than I expected when you told me the name, honestly. How'd you find this place?"
She shrugged. "I like botanical gardens. You're down in Texas now. Oklahoma ain't much different, so there isn't much foliage." She stopped to admire one of the orchids that were on display. "I did ecology in school because I like plants." She laughed. "But honestly, I'm kind of a tourist and found it on ChirpAdvisor."
"Ah, yeah, makes sense. Haven't been here long enough to really know it all that well." The squirrel paused to check something on his phone. "We ended up in Pittsburgh a couple times when I was on the streetball tour. Never saw much of it though. Mostly just the college gym where we played, the crappy chain hotel where we stayed, and whatever we drove past on the bus. Not exactly the highest-class operation, ya know."
She folded her coat over her arm. She passed her glances between the plants and her companion. "What was that like? I only ever did the college thing, but a streetball tour? That sounds awesome."
"Eh, it was a way bigger thing, like, fifteen or twenty years ago. The first tape that I watched that got me into it was from, like, 2000 or something." He tugged at one of the strings on his hoodie. "Nowadays it's mostly a bunch of guys who aren't good enough to play real basketball, but they know how to do cool dunks and stuff. Not a lot of people make an upward move after leaving the tour."
"'A bunch o' guys who aren't good enough to play real ball?'" She reached down and rested her big hand on his head, not rustling his fur but performing a similar gesture. "Bit silly to say that now, innit?"
He chuckled a bit. "Yeah, I guess. The whole inferiority-complex thing kinda tends to stick, though, you know? I still spend way too much time wondering if I'm really good enough to be here. That didn't stop after the combine."
Margo paused in both her movements and words for a moment. "No, I don't imagine it did." She took a deep breath. "But it doesn't sting because you're not as good as everyone else. You know that?" She rounded a corner, and a fern brushed her arm.
"Yeah, I guess." He pretended to focus on a light display for a few seconds. "Thanks. For this, for the Combine, all that. Sometimes...sometimes I feel like I just need to hear someone else remind me that I'm probably in a better place than I think. And you're good at that kind of thing." He forced another laugh. "Sorry. This is all kinda coming out as a mess. Ugh."
She put a hand on his shoulder. "Hey, everyone's a mess. Being able to hide it doesn't make anyone better than you, right?" She turned to face a particularly leafy plant, a hosta. "Plants in places like this get shit for being all for show, but everything serves a purpose." She took a deep breath to illustrate her point. "If you weren't needed for something, you wouldn't be here, ya hear?" She smiled a big toothy smile. "And I get my best material from my moms and grandmas, so don't read too much into my ability to give advice."
He smiled. "Yeah. Yeah, you're right. Thanks." He examined the plant Margo had pointed out for a second. "Besides, I've got time. We've all got time. I just gotta keep going out there and playing my game. Something good's bound to happen eventually."
They followed the winding path through several areas, filled with green and vibrant colors, the air loaded with scents and humidity. It had a slowing effect to their movement, forcing them to observe the flora amidst the touristy fauna passing by them. Margo had the urge to touch the plants, but she enjoyed the pleasure of looking. She loved that her breaths were loaded with something other than the air of the city. Or maybe it was part of the city itself in a way.
"Something good will happen if you make it happen." She led them on through some automatic doors to another area, the growing displays of lights signaling they were soon to go back outside. "How many big personalities you see on Tweeter complimenting themselves at how good they are? They're not worth living up to. Being the best player you can be? That'll drive you harder than if you already think you're the best."
"Right, yeah. And you know what else'll motivate you?" he asked, laughing. "A couple dozen people a day making some comment about how you're not big enough, or you look like a kid, or they thought you were the waterboy. Would you believe I got that last one from a fan after taking off my warmups during a game?"
"I can believe it, yeah." She still kept a smile, stopping to wait before they went back out. She put on her coat while she kept talking, "And I get my own fair share of shitty comments, most of them having nothing to do with my playing." She fought off looking disgruntled. "But ultimately, they don't matter. I'm on my own journey, same as you, yeah? We're not famous yet. We're going to get overlooked at first."
"Well then, y'know what?" Hudson smiled. "We're gonna keep working, and we're gonna keep getting better, and then we're gonna give 'em hell."
"Fuck yeah, brother." She reached up for a solid high five from the squirrel. She nodded for them to step outside.
Once there, they were treated to a barrage of enormous light displays, all for the holidays. From intricate weavings to almost haphazard placement among the many evergreens present, whether twinkling or stationary, colored or bright white, there shown so many lights that the two were left momentarily speechless.
The light displays were beautiful - certainly more than Hudson had expected going in. Patterns flashing in time with one another, garish colors bouncing, intricate shapes spiraling every which way. The squirrel was spellbound, forgetting both the bite of the winter air and the worries of the day as he lost himself in the lights, only Margo's hand on his shoulder keeping him anchored to the earth.
The jackrabbit surveyed the scene. She felt calmer than when they arrived. Her smile betrayed her nerves, but she believed in positivity. She thought to her grandma back home. She has to get better, she thought. She laughed, and with no context, maybe she looked crazy. Her grandma would say they were on Indian time. 'We get things done when we get things done, but we always keep our promises.' Margo kept her eyes on one of the arrangements in the shape of a star. "I promise to get better." She looked down at Hudson. "Merry Christmas, brother."