Fox & Wolf

Chapter 13

Standing Ground

Ami stood there in a daze, watching Yuki scamper after the soccer balls like a dog chasing squirrels. What—just—happened—? She looked at her hands, as if a clue to her inexplicable behavior might be found there.

She caught the sheen of brass out of the corner of her eyes. Focusing past her hands, there on the ground was the key Hoshino Sensei had given her. She picked it up, brushed off the dirt, and unlocked the doors.

The sports equipment room was located at the back of the auditorium, with a set of double doors that opened onto the field. A pair of bare fluorescent fixtures in the ceiling cast blue-white shadows across the cinderblock walls. The room was pleasantly cool and dry, giving it the feel of an underground grotto.

Ami was stacking the cones in the corner when a swarm of soccer balls flew through the doors, turning the equipment room into a life-sized pachinko machine. The balls ricocheted off the walls and racks and cupboards, ringing the row of aluminum softball bats like wind chimes.

“Hey!” Ami raised her arms to fend them off. “Stop that!”

Yuki booted the last ball across the room. Ami caught it and tossed it into the ball bin. “Listen,” she fumed, “I don’t need you to protect me.”

From the look on her face, the non sequitur caught Yuki off guard. But by the time Ami heard the words coming out of her mouth, it was too late to call them back or explain. She wasn’t speaking her mind. She was giving voice to her emotions, something she was absolutely no good at.

Yuki connected the dots soon enough. “More like I was watching your back.” She grinned. “I know the feeling. But you don’t want to waste skills like yours on the likes of them.”

“You’re hardly one to talk.”

Yuki shrugged. “So I know what I’m talking about. I’m not saying you don’t have the right idea. Except there’s a difference between standing your ground and taking it to the mattresses.”

“That’s what I was doing,” Ami insisted. She meant the former. She wasn’t sure what the latter meant.

Yuki picked up one of the soccer balls rolling around on the steel table. “Say you’re a goalie facing a penalty kick. You can duck and cover. Or you can run out and deck the kicker. That used to be me. Or you stay in the box and play your best game on your terms, Foxy. Not theirs.”

She dribbled the soccer ball toward Ami like a basketball, weaving from side to side. Ami stepped out of the way and folded her arms.

Yuki stopped and said with exaggerated exasperation, “See, this is what I’m talking about! You can’t win if you don’t play.”

“It’s not a game!” Ami shouted. “It’s high school! It’ll be over in another year and a half! And good riddance!” Her heart raced. A strange and angry being was taking over her senses and she couldn’t stop it.

“Then you’d better learn how to dial it back when the game’s over. Look, I used to be the one turning every slight into a showdown. Knowing when enough’s enough will make your life a lot easier in the long run.”

“Maybe yours. My life would be easier if everybody left me alone!”

Ami shoved Yuki with both hands. She only meant to push her out of the way. A burst of raw energy poured through her limbs. At first she really believed Yuki saw it coming and beat a fast retreat ahead of the blow.

Then the hard shock traveled down her arms. Yuki flew backwards through the air, slid across the table, and crashed into a vaulting horse.

The din slowly faded away. The only sound in the equipment room was the soft boing, boing, boing of the soccer ball.

“Oh, no—” Ami gasped.

The second thing her mother had warned her about since she was a young child: “You’re so much stronger than the rest of the children, Ami. You have to be careful.

She had been careful. Her mother never explained why Ami was so strong. It was simply one of those facts of life, like the father she only saw in passing and the relatives who preferred to never lay eyes on her. Ami was good at accepting things the way they were. The only fairness she expected from the world came from how she lived it.

That way her life wasn’t half bad most of the time. Then Yuki Yamakawa came along and upended all her fine logic.

What Yuki did next scared Ami out of what was left of her wits, let alone her logic. Yuki bounded across the room in a single leap, fit as a fiddle. “Woo hoo!” she whooped, a broad grin on her face. “That’s more like it! I’m the best opponent you’ve got!”

Ami didn’t have time to be relieved. Only to react. She seized Yuki’s right arm by the wrist and elbow, spinning left while bending her knees and arching her back, redirecting Yuki’s forward momentum over her right shoulder.

Unlike a conventional shoulder throw, the force Ami unleashed as she straightened her legs pitched Yuki horizontally against the wall instead of down onto the ground.

A split second before slamming into the cinderblocks, Yuki tucked her feet under her and sprang off. Diving over Ami’s head, she reached down as Ami reached up.

Their right hands locked together.

The facts of how they were fighting filtered through Ami’s enflamed senses. She and Yuki had nothing in common and yet were somehow the same. That’s what she felt the first day Yuki showed up at Sumiyoshi Girls Preparatory Academy.

Ami couldn’t think it through any further. Her body wouldn’t let her. It reacted only to the challenge before her. Based on size alone, Yuki was stronger. Louder than reason, the warnings screamed out of ancient lore and primeval instincts—

Foxes should never fight with wolves.

Yuki turned and shifted left as she landed, lifting Ami off her feet. At the top of the throw, Ami bent at the waist and drew her legs together, the same as a gymnast doing a round-off dismount.

They faced each other like two judo wrestlers. Ami moved first, ducking down and twisting sideways into Yuki’s midsection. Her only hope was to use her size to get under Yuki’s center of gravity.

But Yuki had her feet planted and her weight centered. She spun Ami around and clamped her forearm under her chin. “C’mon, little fox. Time to come out and play.”

The upper half of her body immobilized in a headlock, Ami was reduced to kicking with her legs. Yuki leaned backwards and tightened her hold, leaving Ami to flail uselessly.

A spasm shot through her muscles and bones, coursed down her spine and radiated into her limbs. Short of outright pain, suffused with hints of perplexing pleasure, these stabbing impulses arose from the core of her being, from the very language of her genes, begging for release.

No—not this—not here—not now—please—

The first thing her mother had warned her about since she was very young: “Sometimes you’ll feel a force inside you, Ami, like a chick trying to peck its way out of its shell.

No, not her mother. She was sitting on her father’s lap when he taught her those lessons. She remembered the sadness in his eyes, the sorrow in his voice that he tried so hard to hide. “Focus your mind and don’t let it. It’s that simple. I know you can do it.

It was that simple. Resisting had become such a natural part of her that she hardly had to think about it. Until Yuki Yamakawa wrenched from her the one thing she had never doubted about herself—

The last vestiges of her self-control.

Ami slipped through Yuki’s hold and slumped to the ground. Her tears dissolved the world into a muddy blur.

She would have preferred to see Yuki standing there gloating and triumphant. But the hands gentle on her shoulders trembled with alarm. Yuki looked down at her, eyes wide, face pale. Stunned. Horrified.

This was the worst possible outcome. Ami couldn’t process it. “I—I don’t know how—how you—how I can do what I do.” She gulped for air between gasping sobs. “And I don’t care.

Yuki blinked at the declaration. “You don’t know—what—?”

Ami got to her feet, like climbing a rock wall. Her body creaked and ached. She made her way to the doors.

“Ami—” Yuki said pleadingly. Ami didn’t stop, didn’t acknowledge her presence. Yuki wrapped her arms around her, stilling her movements. “It’s all right,” she murmured, burying her head against Ami’s shoulder. “It’s all right. There’s nothing wrong with you. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I didn’t know.

The shock and sorrow in her voice—her father’s sorrow—plunged like a dagger into Ami’s heart. Such comfort, such caring, such understanding was worse than all the physical pain in the world.

“Let me go,” Ami said, with no more force or emotion than asking the time of day.

Yuki let her go.

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