The next morning, changing her shoes in the front lobby, Ami couldn’t avoid running into Yuki. From the side, her left eye looked like a raccoon’s. The shiner must be the result of her collision with the vaulting horse.
Yuki turned her head and saw her. A little smile, a little wave. I’m okay, the gesture meant. Ami numbly did the same.
True to her nature, Yuki harbored no recriminations that Ami could tell. “Oh, I wasn’t watching where I was going” was her aw shucks excuse when asked about her eye.
They didn’t eat lunch together. There was no forcing the thing back together after it’d come apart. This was the kind of relationship Ami thought she wanted with the world—marginally involved, parallel lives, nobody getting too close and nobody getting hurt.
Except that it hurt like hell.
After the last period, Ami skipped out on the cleaning chores and headed down to the front lobby. She wasn’t being lazy. Yuki being nice to her was simply too discomfiting. She didn’t know what to say, how to make things right. At that moment she really would prefer the kind of normal bitchiness that Keiko dished out without a second thought.
The shoe lockers at Sumiyoshi Girls Preparatory Academy consisted of four rows of back-to-back cubbyholes, like a set of misplaced library bookshelves. A few fellow shirkers had gotten there ahead of her, making her feel all the more guilty. So she hastily pulled on her shoes and darted out the door—
—and practically collided with Tama, who’d paused to tap the toe of her left shoe.
“Sorry,” they said simultaneously, each taking a step back.
Tama looked down at Ami the way she had so many times before. But for the first time, a flicker of uncertainty, even apprehension, showed in her eyes. For the first time, Ami felt absolutely none.
Before Tama could retreat further, Ami reached out and touched her on the arm. “Tama-chan. Sorry. About yesterday. Things got out of hand. Yuki didn’t mean it either. That’s just the way she is.”
Tama blinked. “Oh. Yeah. Um. Sure.”
A long moment of uncomfortable silence followed. At a loss of how to keep the conversation going, Ami said, “Tama-chan, do you ever get the feeling there’s a better way to live your life? That you took a detour a ways back and it’s not going where you need to go? Because I sure feel like that sometimes.”
Tama stared at her, nodded slowly, and hurried away, shaking her head like she’d been accosted by some crazy leafleter on the street.
When Ami left school Friday afternoon, Keiko Namiya was waiting for her, slouched like a real yankii against the cinderblock wall across from the Yamato Technical baseball field. None of her Yamato Technical fanboys were with her. Neither were Tama and Ma-chan.
Ami gave her a sidelong glance and a polite nod but didn’t stop. Taking whatever a bully could dish out wasn’t the same as simply choosing not to care about the bully as much as the bully cared about her. Yuki giving Ami the thrashing of her life taught her that while she wasn’t as strong as she thought, she was tougher than she knew.
The problem with wanting things to go back to normal was that Ami wasn’t normal anymore.
When Keiko strode up beside her, Ami simply said, “Good afternoon.”
That prompted a double-take. It took Keiko a moment to summon up her original bravado. “What did you do to Tama?”
“Do? I didn’t—” do anything, Ami was going to say, except she had. She took a breath and said, “Do what?”
“Tama’s trying to get back on the volleyball team,” Keiko answered with undisguised disgust.
Ami gaped at her. Keiko must have found her astonishment convincing, for she only scowled in return, turned her back in an obvious snub and walked on ahead of her.
Instead of trailing behind Keiko to the train station, Ami doubled back, made her way to the Sumiyoshi Prep gym, and peeked in. Tama was indeed working out with the volleyball team. Laughing, clapping her hands, swapping high fives with her teammates—there was nothing of the yankii left in her.
Ami furrowed her brows. People didn’t change their minds because of well-meaning advice or the world would have turned into a Utopia a long time ago. Unless—unless all this time Tama had been leaning so far away from her true nature that a nudge from Ami was enough to snap her back onto her original course.
Ami returned to the shoe lockers. What was her true nature?
Yuki could tell her. She and Yuki hadn’t exchanged email addresses or cell phone numbers, another oversight. That left the shoe lockers, the Pony Express of the secondary school communication network. Because nobody went home without their shoes.
Ami placed a hastily-written note in Yuki’s shoe locker with directions and a meeting place in Tenmabashi.
Yuki’s shoes were still there. The message would get delivered.